Big Ten: Elliott Mealer

Michigan season preview

August, 19, 2013
8/19/13
10:30
AM ET
Can Michigan make the jump from the cusp to an actual Big Ten championship game? A look at the 2013 Wolverines:

MICHIGAN WOLVERINES

Coach: Brady Hoke (66-57, 19-7)

2012 record: 8-5

Key losses: QB/RB Denard Robinson; WR Roy Roundtree; RG Patrick Omameh; C Elliott Mealer; DE Craig Roh; DT Will Campbell; MLB Kenny Demens; CB J.T. Floyd; S Jordan Kovacs

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comCould running back Derrick Green be the key to Michigan's season? The touted freshman is expected to compete for the starting job right away.
Key returnees: QB Devin Gardner; RB Fitzgerald Toussaint; WR Jeremy Gallon; TE Devin Funchess; LT Taylor Lewan; RT Michael Schofield; DT Quinton Washington; DE Frank Clark; LB Jake Ryan (injured); LB Desmond Morgan; CB Blake Countess; CB Raymon Taylor; S Thomas Gordon

Newcomer to watch: There are a couple of freshmen who could see major snaps for Michigan, but the most notable is running back Derrick Green. He will push Toussaint for the starting job immediately and could end up as the featured back by the end of the season. The other two freshmen who could see major time are early enrollees: defensive back Dymonte Thomas and tight end Jake Butt. Neither will likely start, but both will be key reserves or used in subpackages.

Biggest games in 2013: Michigan had all of its key games on the road last season. This year, the Wolverines will have their two toughest games at home: Notre Dame on Sept. 7, and Ohio State on Nov. 30 in the regular-season closer. The Buckeyes, though, cap a difficult month for the Wolverines, who have trips to Michigan State on Nov. 2 and Northwestern on Nov. 16.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Who will run the ball? As the Wolverines complete their transition to a pro-style offense, they need a capable running back lining up behind quarterback Gardner. Considering the importance of play-action in what they will try to do offensively, they will need a back to gain yards to keep the whole offense balanced and a defense confused. The main candidates are Toussaint and Green, with freshman De'Veon Smith, redshirt freshman Drake Johnson and junior Thomas Rawls also pushing for time.

Forecast: Good. Like most teams that are near the end of a rebuilding phase, depth at certain positions is questionable, which means anything written here would be for naught if Gardner, Gallon or Lewan were injured for any length of time. Provided those three offensive stalwarts stay healthy, the Wolverines have a strong shot at making a run to the Big Ten championship game.

Michigan’s season could come down to whether it can beat Michigan State and Northwestern on the road. It is entirely possible that by the time the Wolverines and Buckeyes play in the regular-season finale that both will have wrapped up divisional titles and Big Ten title game trips. The best news for Michigan in all of this is how the schedule breaks down. After Notre Dame in Week 2, the Wolverines have only one real challenge -- at Penn State -- until November. This will allow a young offensive line to gain confidence and chemistry, and a young defensive line a chance to figure out how to beat Big Ten linemen.

A road win at any of those three places could lift Michigan into a different level, because one of the major issues with coach Brady Hoke has been his inability to win a game of any significance away from Michigan Stadium, where he has yet to lose.
The super early start for preseason award hype continues today as the Rimington Trophy released its spring watch list. The Rimington Trophy, named for former Nebraska star Dave Rimington, goes to the nation's top college center.

Four Big Ten centers make this year's spring watch list.

They are:
All four players started portions of the 2012 season, although Pensick only transitioned to center late in the year. Northwestern's Vitabile is the most experienced of the bunch after starting the first 26 games of his college career.

The Big Ten loses a sizable group of good centers from 2012, headlined by Wisconsin's Travis Frederick, a first-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in last month's NFL draft. Other key departures include Penn State's Matt Stankiewitch, Iowa's James Ferentz, Nebraska's Justin Jackson, Illinois' Graham Pocic, Michigan's Elliott Mealer, Indiana's Will Matte and Purdue's Rick Schmeig.

Penn State's Stankiewitch was a finalist for last year's award. Michigan's David Molk is the last Big Ten recipient of the Rimington Trophy, taking home the hardware in 2011.
2012 record: 8-5

2012 conference record: 6-2

Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 3

Top returners:

QB Devin Gardner, WR Jeremy Gallon, TE Devin Funchess, LT Taylor Lewan, RT Michael Schofield, DT Quinton Washington, LB Desmond Morgan, LB Jake Ryan, CB Raymon Taylor, S Thomas Gordon

Key losses

QB Denard Robinson, WR Roy Roundtree, OG Patrick Omameh, C Elliott Mealer, DE Craig Roh, DT William Campbell, LB Kenny Demens, CB J.T. Floyd, S Jordan Kovacs

2012 statistical leaders

Rushing: Denard Robinson (1,266 yards)

Passing: Denard Robinson (1,319 yards)

Receiving: Jeremy Gallon* (829 yards)

Tackles: Jake Ryan* (88)

Sacks: Jake Ryan* (4.0)

Interceptions: Thomas Gordon* and Raymon Taylor* (2)

Spring answers

1. Defensive line fine: Michigan had to replace a four-year starter in Craig Roh as well as defensive tackle Will Campbell up front. It doesn’t seem like it will be an issue. Michigan has a potential star in Frank Clark at rush end as well as depth at the position with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. Keith Heitzman, for now, seems to have locked up a spot at strong side end, but there is a lot of talent there, too. The Wolverines have depth at all four spots and while competitions will continue into the fall, Michigan should be able to rotate at defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s leisure.

2. Devin Gardner’s progression: After the way he played toward the end of last season, there was not much doubt about Gardner as the starter, but Michigan’s coaches appear happy with his growth throughout the offseason. He has developed as a quarterback the way the coaching staff has liked, and this is even more critical because he is the only healthy scholarship quarterback until Shane Morris arrives next month. Gardner's teammates believe in him and he is setting up for a big year.

3. Tight end weapons: Michigan still doesn’t have great depth at tight end, but what the Wolverines do have is a young group of guys who will become big targets for Gardner as the position evolves into a more featured role. Devin Funchess could have a breakout sophomore season and Jake Butt has a similar skill set. A.J. Williams slimmed down as well, perhaps turning him into more than just an extra blocker.

Fall questions

1. Who runs the ball: Michigan was never going to be able to answer this question in the spring with Fitzgerald Toussaint coming off a broken leg and freshmen Derrick Green and Deveon Smith still not on campus. But none of the running backs who participated in spring made a lasting impression on the coaches, meaning if he is healthy, Toussaint will likely receive the first chance at winning the job in the fall.

2. Can Jake Ryan be replaced: Michigan seems confident with its grouping of Brennen Beyer and Cam Gordon at strongside linebacker, but part of what made Ryan Michigan’s best defender was his ability to instinctively be around the ball. Whether or not Beyer or Gordon can do that in games remains to be seen. If the combination of those two can approximate that, Michigan’s defense should be fine.

3. Can the interior of the line hold up: Michigan is replacing both of its guards and its center. While the combination of redshirt sophomore Jack Miller at center and redshirt freshmen Ben Braden and Kyle Kalis at guard has a ton of talent, none have taken a meaningful snap in a game before. How they mesh with returning tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, along with how they connect with each other on combination blocks on the inside, could determine not only Michigan’s running success this fall, but also how many games the Wolverines win in Brady Hoke’s third season.
Only 22 Big Ten players heard their names called during the 2013 NFL draft, the league's lowest total in nearly two decades (it had 21 draftees in 1994).

But as soon as the draft ended Saturday, the free-agent signings began. And there were plenty around the Big Ten from all 12 squads.

Here's our first look list of free-agent signings or team tryouts from the conference. As a reminder, this is not a final list, and we'll have updates later on either here on the blog or on Twitter.

Here we go ...

ILLINOIS

C Graham Pocic, Houston Texans
DE Justin Staples, Cleveland Browns
DE Glenn Foster, New Orleans Saints

INDIANA

C Will Matte, Kansas City Chiefs (tryout)
DE Larry Black Jr., Cincinnati Bengals
DT Adam Replogle, Atlanta Falcons

IOWA

WR Keenan Davis, Cleveland Browns
OL Matt Tobin, Philadelphia Eagles
QB James Vandenberg, Minnesota Vikings

MICHIGAN

WR Roy Roundtree, Cincinnati Bengals
S Jordan Kovacs, Miami Dolphins
LB Kenny Demens, Arizona Cardinals
DE Craig Roh, Carolina Panthers
OL Elliott Mealer, New Orleans Saints
OL Patrick Omameh, San Francisco 49ers
OL Ricky Barnum, Washington Redskins
LB Brandin Hawthorne, St. Louis Rams
(WR Darryl Stonum, dismissed before the 2012 season, signed with the Kansas City Chiefs)

MICHIGAN STATE

CB Johnny Adams, Houston Texans
DT Anthony Rashad White, Pittsburgh Steelers
OL Chris McDonald, New England Patriots

MINNESOTA

CB Troy Stoudermire, Cincinnati Bengals
TE MarQueis Gray, San Francisco 49ers
CB Michael Carter, Minnesota Vikings

NEBRASKA

DE Eric Martin, New Orleans Saints
LB Will Compton, Washington Redskins
TE Ben Cotton, San Diego Chargers
TE/FB Kyler Reed, Jacksonville Jaguars
K Brett Maher, New York Jets
DE Cameron Meredith, Oakland Raiders

NORTHWESTERN

OL Patrick Ward, Miami Dolphins
DL Brian Arnfelt, Pittsburgh Steelers
LB David Nwabuisi, Carolina Panthers (tryout)
WR Demetrius Fields, Chicago Bears (tryout)

OHIO STATE

CB Travis Howard, Houston Texans
S Orhian Johnson, Houston Texans
FB Zach Boren, Houston Texans
TE Jake Stoneburner, Green Bay Packers
DE Nathan Williams, Minnesota Vikings
DL Garrett Goebel, St. Louis Rams
LB Etienne Sabino, New York Giants

PENN STATE

OL Mike Farrell, Pittsburgh Steelers
CB Stephon Morris, New England Patriots
OL Matt Stankiewitch, New England Patriots
FB Michael Zordich, Carolina Panthers

PURDUE

CB Josh Johnson, San Diego Chargers
QB Robert Marve, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
RB Akeem Shavers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

WISCONSIN

CB Marcus Cromartie, San Diego Chargers
CB Devin Smith, Dallas Cowboys
S Shelton Johnson, Oakland Raiders

WolverineNation links: Exit Interviews 

March, 1, 2013
3/01/13
11:00
AM ET
WolverineNation beat writer Michael Rothstein invites each departing Michigan player to sit down with him for one final interview about his career and future plans. Here's a list of the more interesting ones compiled so far:

Roy Roundtree Insider: The wide receiver discusses the statistical decline of his final two seasons, and his two biggest catches.

Elliott Mealer Insider: The guard opens up about a star-crossed career that saw him arrive at Michigan in the wake of an auto accident that killed his father and his girlfriend and left one of his brothers paralyzed.
The rosters are practically set for two postseason all-star games, and it's time to find out which Big Ten players will be on the field later this month at the Senior Bowl (Jan. 26 in Mobile, Ala.) and the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl (Saturday in Carson, Calif.).

Here are the Big Ten contingents (positions are assigned by each game):

SENIOR BOWL
Notes: Six of the nine Big Ten invitees are linemen and a seventh, Simon, played both defensive line positions at Ohio State. Robinson played mostly quarterback and a bit of running back at Michigan but will be used as a receiver during Senior Bowl week. The Big Ten sent 24 players to the Senior Bowl last year.

NFLPA COLLEGIATE BOWL

National
American

Notes: Mealer played center in college, while Stanley lined up at defensive end for Penn State. Mealer will be on the same team as former Michigan teammate Sam McGuffie, who transferred to Rice. McGuffie played running back at Michigan but is listed as a wide receiver for the game. The game features two other former Big Ten players in Louisiana Tech WR Myles White (Michigan State) and Illinois State DE Nate Palmer (Illinois).

Big Ten lunchtime links

December, 26, 2012
12/26/12
12:00
PM ET
Hope everyone had a holly, jolly Christmas.

Michigan's Lewan gears up for Clowney

December, 10, 2012
12/10/12
11:10
AM ET
Hours before Michigan's game at Nebraska, Wolverines offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and two of his linemates killed some time in the hotel by watching South Carolina take on Tennessee.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
Patrick Green/Icon SMIMichigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan has been studying South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney in preparation for their Jan. 1 bowl game.
Not surprisingly, Lewan soon noticed No. 7 in maroon for the Gamecocks. Sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is hard to miss.

"You know what," Lewan told teammates Elliott Mealer and Jack Miller, "that guy's a good player."

Lewan had no idea at the time that he'd be spending most of December watching Clowney. Michigan faces South Carolina on Jan. 1 at the Outback Bowl, and no individual matchup in the game brings more intrigue than Lewan vs. Clowney.

Both men have appeared on All-America teams and earned conference recognition, as Lewan won the Big Ten's Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year award and was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten pick. Clowney claimed the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award from the league's coaches and unanimous All-SEC honors. Clowney recorded 13 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss this season.

"I can't say enough about him," Lewan said. "He's a great player, and I'm excited about the opportunity to go against him. Big, physical player, gets his hands off, swings a lot."

Lewan hasn't faced a defensive end quite like the 6-6, 256-pound, freakishly athletic Clowney in the Big Ten this season. He said the closest comparisons are Ohio State's John Simon -- the 2012 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year -- and former Purdue star Ryan Kerrigan, who won 2010 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors before becoming a first-round pick of the Washington Redskins.

Lewan has been projected as a potential first-round draft pick if he chooses to forgo his senior season. Clowney can't enter the draft until after the 2013 season, but he's the most draft-ready true sophomore in college football. Lewan says he's not thinking about his draft decision, or whether a matchup against Clowney gives him a gauge of what he could do at the next level.

But he does plan to see plenty of the South Carolina star in Tampa.

"He lines up across from the left tackle every time, from what I've seen," Lewan said. "I'm not sure what their game plan is, but I'm sure we'll be going against each other a lot."

Lewan acknowledges that Michigan's offensive line has had its ups and downs this season. The Wolverines eclipsed 400 yards of offense six times and were held to fewer than 300 yards four times, including in a Nov. 24 loss to rival Ohio State in the regular-season finale.

Although "one game won't define us as an offensive line," Lewan knows there's a lot at stake against Clowney and a South Carolina defense that ranks in the top 20 nationally in total defense (12th) scoring defense (13th), rushing defense (15th), sacks (fifth) and tackles for loss (19th).

"There's three seniors on the starting offensive line right now (guards Patrick Omameh and Ricky Barnum and Mealer), and I want them to go out with a bang," Lewan said. "There'd be nothing better than going out with an Outback win."

Stakes for U-M, OSU enhance The Game

November, 19, 2012
11/19/12
2:10
PM ET
There may never be another Ohio State-Michigan clash as important as the 2006 version, when the teams entered The Game ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively.

The circumstances outside of the rivalry itself became less and less important during the Rich Rodriguez era at Michigan, as the Wolverines floundered around the .500 mark or below. Last year's game had significance for Michigan, aiming to end The Streak in The Game -- and help its cause for a BCS at-large berth. But Ohio State fell into the Michigan 2008-10 role -- a mediocre team finishing up a mediocre season.

When Ohio State hired Urban Meyer last November, the 2012 version of The Game suddenly became a lot more interesting. Both Ohio State and Michigan were projected to be strong, and the meeting could have bearing on the Rose Bowl race and, just maybe, the national title race.

Weeks later, Ohio State received a postseason ban for 2012. After Michigan started this season 2-2 -- Ohio State wasn't overly impressive in nonleague play, either -- The Game suddenly looked a lot less appetizing, aside from the whole bitter rivals thing.

Nearly two months later, the matchup couldn't be much more delicious.

Ohio State is 11-0, one win away from securing only the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history. And it has to beat Michigan to get there in what is guaranteed to be Ohio State's final game.

[+] EnlargeBradley Roby
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarOhio State will be counting on CB Bradley Roby to make more big plays on Saturday against Michigan.
Michigan remains alive for the Legends Division title and a chance to play for a spot in the Rose Bowl. The Wolverines need some help to get there, but they have to win at Ohio Stadium for the first time since 2000 to have any chance. Michigan also needs a signature win to keep alive its hopes for a BCS at-large berth.

And there is the whole ruining perfection thing.

"It makes the game even bigger," Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby said. "That team is going to definitely play harder, and they're going to play to ruin our season. What better would it be for them to give us the only loss we've had all year? ...

"We're going to be ready. It's going to be a showdown."

Michigan players had a slightly different view of the "Ohio" game. To them, it can never get bigger.

"It's the biggest rivalry in sports," Wolverines defensive tackle Will Campbell told ESPN.com. "If they were 0-11 and we weren't going for the Big Ten championship, it would still be huge."

Added Michigan center Elliott Mealer: "It's the game, it's a huge rivalry. I don't think there's any way to raise or lower the bar on the standards of this game. It's always important."

Campbell did acknowledge that winning in Columbus would be sweeter than last year's triumph at the Big House. Ohio State also is motivated by the 2011 outcome.

"Last year, we played horrible," Roby said. "We were 6-7, a lot of things were going wrong. We just wanted to come out this year and redeem ourselves. That's exactly what we're doing. We haven't lost a game yet."

Michigan will know by the time it takes the field Saturday whether or not it remains in the running for a Big Ten title. Nebraska can punch its ticket to the championship game by beating Iowa on Friday in Iowa City.

If the Huskers lose, Michigan can represent the Legends Division in Indianapolis. But don't expect the Wolverines to be huddled around a TV on Friday.

"From now until four or five o'clock Saturday, Ohio is the only thing on my mind," Campbell said. "Nothing else really matters."

Ohio State's Meyer had tried to downplay talk of an undefeated season before last Saturday's 21-14 overtime win against Wisconsin. But he gave the green light afterward, saying, "We can talk about it now."

Meyer also talked a bit about Michigan.

"This is all I knew growing up," he told ESPN.com. "Eight of my nine [assistant] coaches are from the state of Ohio. Our players understand this rivalry. It's the greatest rivalry in all of sports. We're honored to be part of it.

"We've got to find a way to go win it."

If they do, the Buckeyes will be 12-0. They'll reestablish their control in the series. And after taking down Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin, they'll leave no doubt about which team rules the Big Ten, even if they won't be playing in Indy or Pasadena.

"If we beat the best teams in the league, we have to be the best," Roby said. "We're going to take this game serious, study even harder, practice even harder and be ready Saturday."

Halloween in the Big Ten

October, 31, 2012
10/31/12
1:00
PM ET
It's Halloween, Big Ten fans, so we have a special treat (not trick) for you today.

The Big Ten blog has designed its very own haunted house of horrors for you to tour. So step right in and face your fears -- if you dare!

(Cue spooky organ music).

[+] EnlargeJoseph Fauria
Richard Mackson/US PresswireUCLA soaring past Nebraska in September was surely a frightening sight for the Big Ten.
There's no easing into this haunted house, as our very first room will make you shudder. Why, yes, it's the Big Ten's nonconference season! Our video screens are showing constant highlights of the league's 14 losses outside of league play. There is Central Michigan beating Iowa at home. UCLA running all over Nebraska. Oregon State holding Wisconsin to one touchdown. Ball State and Navy beating Indiana. Virginia topping Penn State, as you watch a constant loop of Nittany Lions missed field goals. Louisiana Tech blowing out Illinois. And now jumping out at you is ... the Notre Dame leprechaun! He is cackling hysterically about his 3-0 record against Big Ten teams this year. Vomit bags are provided on your right.

Let's move on to our next room, one guaranteed to make you break out in a cold sweat: the offensive passing offenses at Iowa, Michigan State and Michigan! See the Spartans drop passes, the Hawkeyes throw for six yards on third-and-8 and the Wolverines give away one of their league-worst 14 interceptions. We know it's frightening in here, but do not be alarmed: we guarantee you those teams cannot hit you with the footballs they're throwing.

Proceed now into our spooky third room, the one coated in orange and blue. That's right, it's Illinois' season! Just try not to avert your eyes as the Illini's six-game losing streak to FBS teams -- by an average of 27 points per defeat -- unfolds before us. That skeletal figure you see in the corner is first-year coach Tim Beckman, who said he has lost 22 pounds during this trying fall. (The smiling spirit on the ceiling? We call him Zooker the Friendly Ghost).

Let's detour now into our haunted house's graveyard and check out the tombstones. "Here lies the Big Ten/Pac-12 scheduling alliance. Born December 2011. Died July 2012." "R.I.P., Big Ten BCS at-large streak. Taken too soon at age 7." "In Memoriam: Penn State and Ohio State bowl hopes." "Gone But Not Forgotten: Minnesota's future nonconference strength of schedule." "You Are Missed: Northwestern's fourth-quarter leads over Penn State and Nebraska."

We are getting close to the end now, but not before you check out this next blood-curdling chamber. Who's that nervous looking man sitting on a chair that's dangling over burning coals? Why, it's Purdue coach Danny Hope! The temperatures under his seat are rising to blazing levels after the Boilermakers' 0-4 start in Big Ten play, including last week's blowout loss at Minnesota. Those are Purdue fans in the back, offering the executioner's hood to AD Morgan Burke.

Our final rooms are still under construction but are nonetheless horrifying. The first is a replica of Lucas Oil Stadium, which offers a glimpse of a potential Big Ten championship game featuring a 6-6 Wisconsin or a 5-7 Indiana. Goose bumps! The other is a preview of New Year's Day for the league and some terrifying possible postseason matchups. Those green flashes you see are not from a strobe light. That's the Oregon Ducks, who are averaging 53 points per game and could cause nightmares for the Big Ten champ in Pasadena. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Before we leave, let's lighten things up a little bit so your pulse can slow down. Grab some free drinks and appetizers at our Big Ten costume party in the ballroom. Michigan coach Brady Hoke is getting into the spirit of political season by going as New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Hoke's center, Elliott Mealer, is Paul Bunyan. There's elusive Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller as Neo from "The Matrix." Penn State linebacker/warrior Michael Mauti is Braveheart, while his coach, Bill O'Brien, is Bruce Willis. That's Iowa running back Mark Weisman as Vin Diesel, while Hawkeyes quarterback and big-game hunter James Vandenberg is Elmer Fudd. Nebraska's defenders, coming back strong from some bad performances, are the zombies from "The Walking Dead," and Huskers receiver and Mr. Afro Thunder himself, Kenny Bell, is Roots drummer Questlove. Minnesota coach Jerry Kill shows off his school pride by dressing as Goldy Gopher. Michigan State's leaping Le'Veon Bell is a ballerina. And, of course, Adam Rittenberg is Woody Allen.

We hope you had a scary good time at our haunted house and ... wait, what's that loud buzzing sound? Oh, no, it's Urban Meyer coming at us with a chainsaw! He's already 9-0 at Ohio State, and he's just getting started in carving his way through the Big Ten. Run!

Happy Halloween, everybody.

Michigan, Nebraska on title hunt

October, 25, 2012
10/25/12
11:10
AM ET
Michigan's players celebrated on the field after snapping a four-game losing streak to Michigan State last week, and they staged a rousing reunion with the Paul Bunyan Trophy inside the locker room.

But the party didn't last long.

"You come to Michigan to win the Big Ten championship," Wolverines center Elliott Mealer said. "As a recruit, that's what your goal is. So for us, it was fun getting to beat Michigan State and getting Paul Bunyan back. But the celebration ends pretty quickly because you realize next week is another championship week, and you've got to win it if you want to reach that ultimate goal."

The Wolverines are hungry to hang another Big Ten banner after an unacceptably long -- for them -- title drought. Their opponent this week, Nebraska, feels the same way.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWhen asked whether Michigan's title drought bothered him, Brady Hoke said "there's no question about it. That's part of the legacy and tradition of this program."
The two schools have combined to claim 85 conference titles in their illustrious histories -- 43 by the Huskers, 42 by Michigan. Yet kids in junior high right now might have trouble believing that, given how long it's been since either program won its last one.

The winner of Saturday's game in Lincoln will take a giant step toward rectifying that. With a victory, Michigan (3-0 Big Ten) would have a two-game lead over everyone in the Legends Division except Iowa with four games to play, and it would own head-to-head tiebreakers against Nebraska and Michigan State. The Wolverines could afford to lose a game down the stretch, as long as either it beat Iowa or the Hawkeyes lost somewhere else, and still make the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis.

The Cornhuskers (2-1), would still have more work to do even if they beat Michigan, with games left at Michigan State and Iowa and versus Penn State. But head coach Bo Pelini told his team it needed to win out after losing to Ohio State on Oct. 6; a loss this week would leave Nebraska needing a lot of help to win the Big Ten.

"That's definitely been our goal since early January and offseason lifting, and it's been in the back of our minds since then," running back Ameer Abdullah said. "We don't want anybody standing in our way, and right now Michigan is standing in our way. So we've got to take care of it."

Michigan owns more Big Ten titles than anybody but hasn't brought one to Ann Arbor since 2004, when it was co-champion with Iowa and went to the Rose Bowl. That's two full presidential cycles, and it makes Bo Schembechler's famous, "Those who stay will be champions" creed ring hollow.

The program's current seven-year drought is its longest since it went from 1951-63 without hanging a Big Ten banner. I asked second-year head coach Brady Hoke this week if the title drought bothered him.

"Oh, sure, there's no question about it," he said. "That's part of the legacy and tradition of this program.

"Let's face it: besides graduating and honoring your name and your university, the expectations are to win Big Ten championships, especially at Michigan. We embrace it. We're not going to shy away from it, and we're going to be very honest about it."

Hoke has made no secret that winning the Big Ten is the ultimate goal as long as he's in charge of the Maize and Blue. He famously called last year's 11-2, Sugar Bowl championship season "a failure" because the team did not win the conference.

That's not just his public posturing, either. Mealer said Hoke reminds the team about the Big Ten championship in some form every single day. Players see a picture of the Big Ten trophy as they enter the football facility.

"We've been brainwashed to want nothing but the Big Ten trophy and the Rose Bowl," Mealer said. "Maybe for outsiders and reporters and things like that, maybe it gets a little tiring to hear about. But as players, it keeps us focused and keeps us motivated."

Nebraska is in a similar situation. The program's last conference championship came in the last century, when it won the 1999 Big 12 title. (The Huskers did win the Big 12 North division in 2001, '06, '08 and '09). Prior to 1999, Nebraska hadn't gone more than two years without a conference title since the barren years between 1941 and 1963.

Players know all about the drought and are reminded of it by fans. Abdullah, a sophomore from Alabama, was able to recall the last year the program won a conference title without prompting in a recent interview. The Huskers talked a lot in the preseason about needing to bring a championship home to Lincoln. But Pelini, who likes to focus on day-to-day progress during the season, says he doesn't use the carrot of a conference crown as motivation too often.

"Our players understand what's out there and what the challenges are," he said. "Every now and then we talk about it, but I don't have to talk about it a lot because they have a great understanding of what's at stake."

What's at stake is nothing less than the very nature of what these two blue-blooded programs are supposed to be.

"When I came to Nebraska, I felt this was a good team that could have success and win championships," Abdullah said. "So it would mean a lot for me and for this coaching staff."

Winning Saturday hardly guarantees a Big Ten title. The victor still must navigate the rest of the season and then face off with the Leaders representative in Indianapolis. But this is a giant step toward ending a long championship drought. And the team that does that can really celebrate.

Big Ten lunch links

October, 23, 2012
10/23/12
12:00
PM ET
These links are sponsored by Matthew Stafford's face mask. Thanks for playing.
Brady HokeRobin Alam/Icon SMIBrady Hoke's drive to win the Big Ten title appears to be influencing his Michigan players.
Brady Hoke called Michigan's 2011 season a failure -- never mind the 11 wins and the Sugar Bowl championship -- because it did not result in a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance.

When national titles are brought up around Hoke, he typically shifts the focus back to the Big Ten race.

Whether Hoke's singular focus excites you or disappoints you, it certainly rubs off on his players. Although they weren't happy about a 2-2 start to the season, they had no trouble turning the page to the Big Ten slate last week at Purdue. And if the Wolverines' performance in West Lafayette -- a 44-13 win -- is any indication, the Big Ten will bring out the best in them this fall.

"With the nonconference season, we had one of the toughest in the nation," Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan told ESPN.com, referring to games against No. 1 Alabama and No. 7 Notre Dame. "We took those games very seriously, but the goal's always a Big Ten championship. There's a little more fire in this team.

"We're excited about it, and every game is a Big Ten championship game."

Stifling defense and powerful offensive line play sparked Michigan in 2011, and the Wolverines appear to be reclaiming both hallmarks for the 2012 conference campaign. After struggling in just about every area against Alabama and seeing continued problems against Air Force, Michigan took a big step on defense against Notre Dame and also received better play from the offensive line as the game in South Bend went on.

Although turnovers doomed the Wolverines against the Irish, they made progress in both areas at Purdue. Michigan held a Boilers team averaging 51 points on its home field to 13 points, 213 total yards and 56 rushing yards (2.2 yards per attempt). It also controlled the line of scrimmage from the onset, holding the ball for 12:11 of the first quarter and opening the game with the program's sixth-longest drive (8:48) since 1978, a methodical 78-yard march that required 17 plays and 19 players.

Michigan's defense has surrendered only 13 points in each of its past three games, and opponents' yardage totals have dropped (259 to 239 to 213). The unit seemed to turn the corner at the same time last season, when it blanked Minnesota 58-0 in Week 5, allowing only 177 total yards. The Wolverines held six of their next seven Big Ten foes to fewer than 335 yards.

"What you're seeing is the younger guys who have been in the program for a second year, you would expect them to play up to their talent level, and that's what's happening," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison told ESPN.com. "Some of our talented young guys are starting to now become older, and play like older players."

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
Sandra Dukes/US PresswireMichigan LB Jake Ryan continued to wow his coaches with his performance against Purdue last Saturday.
Although Mattison and his staff installed a new scheme in 2011, they had the luxury of leaning on three senior defensive linemen -- Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger -- while working several young players into major roles. The difference this fall, according to Mattison: Seniors with a ton of starting experience are in short supply, so some of the unit's more seasoned players -- Jake Ryan, Desmond Morgan, Thomas Gordon -- are also young.

"We're getting a lot better communication," Mattison said. "... When you're young, at an early part of the season, you're just kind of fending for yourself. You're just trying to get yourself to play. And when you get a little older in the season, whether you're a sophomore or a senior, you start feeling more comfortable. Therefore, you can do the things that are expected of you, and that is to communicate and get everybody set.

"These are guys that are now starting to feel like veterans."

Hoke singled out the linebackers as the group that has made the most strides in recent weeks. Ryan, who started 11 games last season as a redshirt freshman, has been particularly noticeable. "You can feel him on the field," Hoke said.

Ryan recorded five tackles and a pass breakup against Notre Dame and followed it with six tackles, including two for loss and a sack, against Purdue.

"The sky's the limit for Jake," Mattison said. "He has God-given talent, and he also has showed that it's very, very important to him. He's become a very good student of the game."

After Week 3, Lewan challenged the offensive line to "play angry, play nasty." While the group isn't quite there, in Lewan's estimation, there has been progress.

Michigan averaged 5.6 yards per rush against a talented Purdue defensive front, which failed to record a sack or a quarterback hurry against Denard Robinson (235 rush yards, 105 pass yards). The Wolverines' rushing attempts also are on the rise, from 30 per game in the first two weeks to 46 per game the past three weeks.

"In the Notre Dame game, it was somewhat of a change," Lewan said. "We saw we can move the line of scrimmage. We found out we have the capability to do that. It really came together at Purdue, but we have to be a better team this week than we were last week. Every week from now on is championship week because our goal is the Big Ten championship."

Lewan, who will make his 21st consecutive start Saturday against Illinois, welcomes a leadership role on the line. He shares the responsibility with fifth-year senior guard Patrick Omameh and fifth-year senior Elliott Mealer, a first-year starter at center.

"[Offensive coordinator Al] Borges put pressure on us, so did Coach Hoke, but at the end of the day, we need to put pressure on ourselves also," Lewan said. "Coach Hoke talks about it all the time. There's a standard you play at Michigan. I can throw cliché lines at you and every program says the same thing over and over, but the fact is we have the tradition to back it up. There's a tradition at Michigan, and there's a way you play."

Especially in the Big Ten season. There are still areas to improve -- Michigan needs to spark running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (169 rushing yards, 3.3 yards per carry) and its pass rush (five sacks in as many games, 104th nationally) -- but the team's identity is taking shape.

"You don't want to say the games leading up to the Big Ten don't count," Mattison said, "but when you come to Michigan, you come to win a championship. Now, it's on the line. Every game is on the line."

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

September, 17, 2012
9/17/12
10:00
AM ET
Run it back ...

Team of the week: Penn State. No matter what you might think about the school and the football program after the Jerry Sandusky scandal, it was hard not to root for the current Nittany Lions players to finally get a win after so many obstacles. Penn State busted out with an easy, feel-good 34-7 win over Navy. The Midshipmen are hard to root against as well, but this one time was OK.

Game of the week: You might have missed it, because it ended late and was on at the same time as much bigger games. And, OK, it was Indiana. But the Hoosiers' game against Ball State was the most exciting Big Ten contest of the weekend. The teams traded touchdowns in the first half, with Ball State leading 25-24 at the break. Indiana looked done when it trailed 38-25 late in the fourth quarter and starting quarterback Cameron Coffman went out with a hip pointer. But freshman Nate Sudfeld threw a 70-yard touchdown pass and then led the team on another scoring drive with 49 seconds left. Ah, but the Hoosiers made the PlayStation mistake of scoring too fast. Ball State completed a controversial, hard-to-believe pass to the IU 25 with one second left, and Steven Schott booted the game-winner as time expired. It was a tough, tough loss for Kevin Wilson's team, but a fun game to watch.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Greg Bartram/US PresswireBuckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller tries to evade California linebacker Nathan Broussard on Saturday.
Biggest play: If it's late in a close game, the last thing a defense wants to see is Braxton Miller scrambling. The Ohio State quarterback burned Wisconsin with a long touchdown throw after things broke down last year, and he did so against Cal on Saturday with a 72-yard strike to an unbelievably open Devin Smith for the game with 3:26 left. Safeties have to respect Miller's explosive running ability, but they get can burned when they leave their receivers. That's why the Miller scramble is becoming one of the most dangerous late-game plays to defend.

Best call: Wisconsin was supposed to be in punt safe mode in the third quarter against Utah State, and its returners would usually call for a fair catch in the situation Kenzel Doe found himself in. But Doe, who was only returning punts because Jared Abbrederis was injured, saw a small opening on the sideline and decided to go for it. He was in the end zone 82 yards later, finally giving the Badgers the spark they needed to eventually beat the Aggies 16-14. Doe? More like Woo-Hoo!

Big Men on Campus (Offense): How about some love for the backups this week? Minnesota's Max Shortell stepped in for the injured MarQueis Gray and threw for 188 yards and three touchdowns, helping the Gophers fend off Western Michigan for a 3-0 start. And as Iowa's running back curse reached new, ludicrous heights, walk-on Mark Weisman came out of nowhere to run for 113 yards and three touchdowns as part of the Hawkeyes' much-needed win over Northern Iowa.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Minnesota cornerback Michael Carter had an 18-yard interception return to set up a touchdown early. He also broke up Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder's pass late to help preserve the 28-23 victory.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): It's hard to run 99 offensive plays before scoring your first touchdown, but that's what Northwestern did against Boston College. Luckily, they had kicker Jeff Budzien, who made all five of his field goal attempts to give the Wildcats all the points they'd need in a 22-13 victory.

Worst hangover: Michigan State, by a mile. The Spartans were carrying the banner for the Big Ten for one week before they tripped, broke the pole and set the flag on fire against Notre Dame. Although Michigan State bounced back from a bad loss to the Irish last year, Saturday's offensive showing was so inept that it makes you wonder if this team can overcome those limitations going forward. Just a bad, bad performance on a national stage.

Strangest moment: Playing UMass is good for your offense, and just about everyone got involved in Michigan's 63-13 win. That included left tackle Taylor Lewan, who got to live out an offensive lineman's dream by recovering a Denard Robinson fumble for a touchdown. Or did he? At least one teammate claimed that center Elliott Mealer actually recovered the ball. And Robinson said Lewan was mad about his score because the play broke down and he didn't get to complete his block. But the box score says it was a Lewan touchdown, and that's something we probably won't see again.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 22, 2012
8/22/12
12:00
PM ET
T-minus eight days ...

SPONSORED HEADLINES