Big Ten: Gary Bush
We're taking a page from our friends at the ACC blog and examining whether certain Big Ten teams will be contenders or pretenders in the 2013 season. The series does not include Ohio State, Michigan or Nebraska -- three teams that, in our view, have earned the "contender" label entering the fall. For each team, we'll make a case for why they're contenders and pretenders and provide our final verdict. We invite you to vote on whether a team is a contender or a pretender or send us your thoughts for mailbags here and here.
Next on our list: the Purdue Boilermakers.Akeem Hunt had a standout spring and no longer looks like just a track star. The Boilers have some nice options at the skill position with him and guys like Raheem Mostert, Gary Bush and Dolapo Macarthy at receiver. Kawann Short is gone, but Bruce Gaston and Ryan Russell are still strong anchors for the defensive line. If healthy, both can be among the best at their position in the Big Ten. And Purdue should be very good in the secondary, led by cornerback Ricardo Allen. A lot will have to go right, but maybe this is the year the Boilermakers actually fulfill that sleeper status.
Why they're pretenders: Purdue looked completely out of its league last year against Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State, and it lost some of its top players in Short, cornerback Josh Johnson, quarterback Robert Marve and receiver Antavian Edison. The quarterback situation is unclear right now, as it appears to be a two-man race between Rob Henry and Danny Etling. Henry is experienced but has never shown a great throwing arm, while Etling is a true freshman. The Boilers once again look to have some major issues at linebacker, a position that Hazell will have to shore up through recruiting. There is also bound to be an adjustment period for a new coaching staff. The biggest obstacle to Purdue contending, though, might be the schedule: three tough nonconference games (at Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Northern Illinois) combine with a Big Ten slate that sees the Boilers open conference play at Wisconsin, vs. Nebraska, at Michigan State and vs. Ohio State. An 0-4 start in Big Ten play is a real possibility.
Verdict: We liked the Hazell hiring and think he will do good things in West Lafayette. But with the coaching transition, the potential of a freshman starter at quarterback and a challenging schedule, we just don't think that will happen this year. Getting back to a bowl should be the goal in 2013. Purdue is a pretender.
Purdue kicks off the series with ...
Dolapo Macarthy, WR, junior, 6-foot-5, 220 pounds
Purdue's mystery-filled quarterback competition will take center stage this spring, but the signal-callers also need some reliable targets in the passing game. The Boilers lose Antavian Edison to graduation, and O.J. Ross was indefinitely suspended last month. Macarthy likely would have moved into a bigger role regardless of Ross' status, but his responsibility now increases.
He finished fourth on the team with 28 receptions in 2012, racking up 252 receiving yards and a touchdown. Macarthy's size certainly jumps out, and he could be a bigger threat as an outside receiver in Purdue's new offense after averaging just 9 yards per catch as a sophomore. Macarthy came to Purdue as a walk-on quarterback after spending time at a prep school and a junior college. He moved from quarterback to receiver and seems to have found a home there.
Purdue kicks off spring ball March 18, and it will be interesting to see how coach Darrell Hazell and new offensive coordinator John Shoop use Macarthy alongside probable No. 1 receiver Gary Bush.
As a reminder, these rankings are based solely on performance during the 2012 season and factor in both star power and depth. Here's a look at our preseason rundown.
There's clear separation with the top three groups, while the bottom four could be rearranged just about any way you want (if you enjoy that sort of thing).
Now let's get started ...
2. Nebraska (Preseason ranking: 2): The Huskers' multitude of big-play threats nearly put them in the top spot, as they helped Nebraska finish with the Big Ten's top offense (460.8 ypg). Wideout Kenny Bell led the way with 863 receiving yards and eight touchdowns on 50 receptions (17.3-yard average). Receiver Jamal Turner and tight ends Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton all averaged at least 13 yards per reception. Quincy Enunwa became a nice No. 2 target with 42 receptions for 470 yards.
3. Penn State (Preseason ranking: 7): Few saw this coming before the season, and our preseason capsule about the Nittany Lions began with, "Justin Brown gives the Nittany Lions a solid top option." Whoops. Even though Brown transferred in the wake of the NCAA sanctions, Penn State found surprise stars in wide receiver Allen Robinson and tight end Kyle Carter. Robinson won the Big Ten's Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year Award after leading the league in receptions (77), receiving yards (1,013) and touchdown catches (11). Carter (36 catches for 453 yards) might have been the league's top tight end, a position where Penn State had unparalleled depth. Players like wideout Brandon Moseby-Felder and tight end Matt Lehman emerged later in the season.
4. Purdue (Preseason ranking: 5): There's definitely a drop-off after the top three groups, but Purdue had a nice crop of receivers who likely would have put up bigger numbers if quarterback Robert Marve had stayed healthy all season. Wideouts O.J. Ross (56 receptions, 454 yards) and Antavian Edison (58 receptions, 682 yards) both finished in the league's top five in receptions, while Gary Bush also eclipsed the 40-catch mark. Young wideout Dolapo Macarthy showed promise, and tight ends Gabe Holmes and Crosby Wright combined for 47 receptions.
5. Michigan (Preseason ranking: 6): No offense to Denard Robinson, but Michigan's receiving corps truly got its chance to shine once Devin Gardner took control at quarterback. Michigan became a much more pass-oriented offense and stretched the field with several players. Jeremy Gallon turned in a very solid junior season with 49 receptions for 829 yards and four touchdowns (16.9-yard average). Roy Roundtree came on strong late in the season and made the catch of the year in the league against Northwestern to force overtime. Michigan received nice contributions from wideout Drew Dileo and young tight end Devin Funchess (five touchdowns), and Gardner himself made some plays early on before switching permanently to QB.
6. Ohio State (Preseason ranking: 9): Coach Urban Meyer is looking for much more from Ohio State's perimeter players, but in a pass-challenged league like the Big Ten, Ohio State's receivers and tight ends finish in the middle of the pack. Corey Brown quietly produced a 60-catch season, finishing fourth in the league in receptions (5 rpg). Devin Smith had half as many receptions as Brown but finished with nearly the same yardage total (669-618) as he became Braxton Miller's top deep threat. Jake Stoneburner had four touchdown catches, while sophomore tight end Jeff Heuerman showed some promise.
7. Northwestern (Preseason ranking: 1): Thanks to the emergence of Venric Mark, Northwestern became a much more run-driven offense than we anticipated before the season, although the receiving corps underachieved a bit. The Wildcats had no true stars, although they boasted some nice balance as four players recorded at least 29 receptions. The big bright spot late in the season came from freshman tight end Dan Vitale, who recorded 28 receptions for 288 yards and two touchdowns. USC transfer Kyle Prater wasn't much of a factor (10 catches, 54 yards). Quarterback Kain Colter might have provided the best performance from a Northwestern receiver when he moved there against Indiana and recorded career highs for both receptions (9) and receiving yards (131).
8. Michigan State (Preseason ranking: 11): It says something about the Big Ten when Michigan State's receivers, who received heavy criticism for much of the season, finish in the top two-thirds of the rankings. But the Spartans simply produced a lot more than the groups below them. They had arguably the league's top tight end in Dion Sims, who recorded 36 receptions for 475 yards before opting to skip his senior year and enter the NFL draft. Freshman Aaron Burbridge emerged at receiver during Big Ten play (29 receptions, 364), and the Spartans had three receivers record at least 36 receptions and two -- Keith Mumphery and Bennie Fowler -- with more than 500 receiving yards.
9. Wisconsin (Preseason ranking: 3): Wisconsin had a major shortage of depth, which hurt during a season where three different players started at quarterback. The Badgers had one of the league's best wide receivers in Jared Abbrederis (49 receptions, 837 yards, 5 TDs), and Jacob Pedersen won the Big Ten's Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year award, albeit in surprising fashion. But no other players recorded 20 receptions and Wisconsin ended up finishing last in the Big Ten and 111th nationally in passing.
10. Iowa (Preseason rank: 4): The Hawkeyes struggled to consistently pass the ball, and getting into the end zone proved to be nearly impossible as they finished with just seven receiving touchdowns. Kevonte Martin-Manley, the group's bright spot with 52 catches for 571 yards, was the lone Hawkeye with multiple scoring receptions in 2012. Keenan Davis fell short of expectations and while C.J. Fiedorowicz put up nice numbers for a tight end (45 receptions, 433 yards), many expected more from him as well. Like several Big Ten squads, Iowa struggled with depth at receiver.
11. Illinois (Preseason ranking: 10): We had concerns about Illinois' skill-position talent and depth before the season, and it proved true. Although the Illini had four players record at least 25 receptions, two of them -- receptions leader Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson -- play running back. Ryan Lankford was the team's top wideout with 469 receiving yards and five touchdowns, while Darius Millines once again struggled to stay healthy. Spencer Harris contributed 21 catches for 252 yards and two scores, but Illinois needed much more to spark the league's worst offense.
12. Minnesota (Preseason ranking: 12): Like many of their Big Ten brethren, the Gophers lacked playmakers on the edge to provide balance on offense. Their best threat, A.J. Barker, left the program in not-so-quiet fashion after a spat with head coach Jerry Kill. Barker appeared in only eight games but still had 11 more receptions than any other Minnesota player. Receivers like Isaac Fruechte, Derrick Engel and Devin Crawford-Tufts showed flashes, and tight end John Rabe had four touchdown grabs, but Minnesota needs a lot more from this group going forward.
The 5-foot-10 Ross is the Boilermakers' leading returning receiver. He had 56 catches for 454 yards last season, second only to departed senior Antavian Edison in both categories. Ross also caught two touchdown passes.
Purdue is light in experience at receiver. Aside from Ross, the only returning players at the position with more than two catches last year are senior Gary Bush (41 catches for 360 yards and seven touchdowns) and sophomore Dolapo Macarthy (28 for 252 and 1).
Ross was also suspended for the 2011 Little Caesars Bowl because of academics, which briefly cost him his scholarship. He was reinstated the following spring.
The good news, if there is some, for Ross is that this suspension comes early in the offseason. He has plenty of time to work himself back into the team's good graces if new coach Darrell Hazell allows it.
HEART OF DALLAS BOWL
Purdue (6-6) vs. Oklahoma State (7-5)
Where: Cotton Bowl, Dallas
When: Noon ET, 11 a.m. CT
About Purdue: The Boilers returned more starters (18) than any other Big Ten team, and fourth-year coach Danny Hope told anyone who listened that he'd have his best squad in West Lafayette. Purdue looked decent through the first four games, but things felt apart once Big Ten play kicked off. Blowout home losses against Michigan (44-13) and Wisconsin (38-13) led to a five-game losing streak to begin Big Ten play. Purdue lost an overtime heartbreaker to Ohio State in a game it controlled most of the way. To the Boilers' credit, they didn't quit and won their final three games to become bowl eligible. Hard-luck quarterback Robert Marve played despite a torn ACL and revived the offense down the stretch. A 6-6 record wasn't enough to save Hope, however, and Purdue dismissed the coach on Nov. 25. Wide receivers coach Patrick Higgins will led Purdue in the bowl game.
About Oklahoma State: It's a surprise to see Oklahoma State in this game as the Pokes figured to end up a little higher on the Big 12's bowl pecking order. Still, Mike Gundy's team dropped its final two games and three of its final five to finish 7-5. Despite losing quarterback Brandon Weeden and wide receiver Justin Blackmon from the 2011 team, Oklahoma State displayed its typical offensive prowess, finishing fourth nationally in scoring (44.7 ppg), fifth in total offense (548.9 ypg) and seventh in passing (333.4 ypg). The Cowboys scored fewer than 30 points in just one game and eclipsed 50 points four times. Quarterback J.W. Walsh and receiver Josh Stewart spark the passing game, but Oklahoma State also can run the ball with Joseph Randle. The Cowboys struggle against the pass (112th nationally) and generated only 17 takeaways this season.
Key players, Purdue: Marve has been fairly effective even with the ACL injury, firing 13 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. He has several weapons to attack Oklahoma State's secondary in veteran receivers Antavian Edison, O.J. Ross and Gary Bush. Akeem Shavers is the Boilers' featured back, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. Purdue's best player is senior defensive tackle Kawann Short, a potential first-round draft pick who recorded 14.5 tackles for loss, six sacks and four blocked kicks this season. The Boilers also boast playmakers at cornerback in Josh Johnson and Ricardo Allen.
Key players, Oklahoma State: The Pokes have no shortage of playmakers on offense, and it all starts with Walsh, who ranks fifth nationally in pass efficiency (165.7 rating). Stewart ranks seventh nationally in receptions (8 rpg) and 17th in receiving yards average (96.2 ypg). Randle led the Big 12 in rush yards (1,351) and ranks 18th nationally in rushing average (112.6 ypg). Senior linebacker Alex Elkins leads the team in tackles. Oklahoma State boasts an All-America kicker/punter in Quinn Sharp.
Did you know: The teams have met just once before in the 1997 Alamo Bowl, a 33-20 Purdue victory under first-year coach Joe Tiller. Purdue quarterback Billy Dicken passed for 325 yards as Purdue overcame a 13-10 deficit by scoring three touchdowns in the third quarter to secure the win. ... Purdue will play in back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 2006 and 2007. ... Oklahoma State appears in a record seventh consecutive bowl game under Gundy, who has a 4-2 record in the postseason.
It started on a steady incline in nonconference play, with a small dip during a respectable loss at Notre Dame Stadium. The Boilers then went into a free-fall, dropping their first five Big Ten contests, four in blowout fashion (three at home). But the ride wasn't over. Purdue wasn't finished.
The Boilers needed to win their final three games to become bowl eligible, and, after some predictable bumps, they got there. Even Saturday's 56-35 triumph against Indiana in the Bucket game had some crazy twists and turns, but in the end, Purdue prevailed.
The game featured three lead changes and a 14-point, third-quarter Purdue lead squandered in a matter of minutes. But in the end the Boilers (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten) received enough from senior running back Akeem Shavers and a host of playmakers on defense to retain the Old Oaken Bucket for the second straight season.
Shavers was brilliant from the start and recorded 126 rush yards, 99 receiving yards and three touchdowns (1 rush, 2 receiving). Quarterback Robert Marve completed 20 of 29 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns on senior day, while Crosby Wright, O.J. Ross, Antavian Edison and Gary Bush all contributed big plays for the Purdue offense.
Both teams had momentum-turning interceptions. A Marve pass late in the first half pinballed to Indiana's Greg Heban, who had a long return to set up the go-ahead score. Early in the third quarter with the game tied 21-21, Purdue's Frankie Williams went all Willie Mays and corralled an interception near the Boilers goal line. Purdue scored two plays later. But the biggest pick came with Purdue up 42-35, as senior safety Max Charlot squeezed a deflected pass from Coffman. Marve connected with Shavers five plays later and the Boilers never looked back.
Indiana (4-8, 2-6) received a huge first-half performance from running back Stephen Houston (123 rush yards, 3 TDs), but Coffman's three picks proved costly. Then again, Indiana's defense was so bad that it didn't matter. Purdue racked up 558 yards and routinely carried Hoosiers defenders down the field.
Kevin Wilson's team improved in Year 2 and should have a chance to go bowling next year with eight home games. But the defense still isn't at a Big Ten level. Not even close. Talent remains the biggest issue, but Wilson might need to look at his coaching staff as well after the way this season ended.
Speaking of coaching changes, will Purdue make one in the coming days? Danny Hope still wants more time to implement his master plan, but most Boiler fans want him out and attendance Saturday remained disappointing. Then again, Purdue beat the teams it was supposed to this season and nearly stunned Ohio State in Columbus.
Athletic director Morgan Burke, it's your move.
After recording the first perfect week of picks in Week 8 (6-0), I didn't just take a step back with the Week 9 predictions. I fell flat on my tuchus. It's hard to go below-.500 in picks, but I managed to do it, finishing 2-4. Brian Bennett didn't do much better, going 4-2, but he had the right selection on both games where we differed. My faith in Purdue cost me yet again, while Michigan State and Ohio State made both of us look like fools.
As a result, we have a race heading into the final month of the season. My lead in the season standings is down to three games. Maybe Bennett will get out of buying dinner after all.
WEEK 9/SEASON RECORDS
Adam Rittenberg: 2-4, 56-18 (.757)
Brian Bennett: 4-2, 53-21 (.716)
As the condemned says to the executioner, let's get this over with ...
Iowa at Northwestern
- Bennett's pick: Northwestern 23, Iowa 17
- Rittenberg's pick: Northwestern 24, Iowa 20
- Actual score: Northwestern 28, Iowa 17
- 20-20 hindsight: Both score predictions came close, and Bennett actually nailed Iowa's score. We both correctly forecast Northwestern's rushing surge, especially from QB Kain Colter, who accounted for all four Wildcats touchdowns (3 rush, 1 pass). Iowa never took the lead, as I had predicted, and it was Damon Bullock, not Mark Weisman, who eclipsed 100 rush yards for the Hawkeyes.
- Bennett's pick: Indiana 28, Illinois 27
- Rittenberg's pick: Indiana 31, Illinois 27
- Actual score: Indiana 31, Illinois 17
- 20-20 hindsight: I nailed Indiana's score, but of the three Hoosiers receivers I expected to catch touchdowns, only Shane Wynn did. RB Stephen Houston, meanwhile found the end zone three times. Bennett had one of his best predictions in pegging backup QB Nate Sudfeld to come off the bench and provide a lift. Sudfeld fired one second-half touchdown, not two, as Indiana recorded its first Big Ten win since 2010.
- Bennett's pick: Wisconsin 17, Michigan State 14
- Rittenberg's pick: Wisconsin 20, Michigan State 13
- Actual score: Michigan State 16, Wisconsin 13 (OT)
- 20-20 hindsight: We both came close on the score predictions, but neither of us expected Michigan State to end Wisconsin's 21-game home win streak. As Bennett predicted, Wisconsin QB Joel Stave played very well and found Jacob Pedersen for a touchdown. Had he stayed healthy, he likely would have led the Badgers to victory. Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell had 77 rush yards, 43 shy of my prediction.
- Bennett's pick: Minnesota 20, Purdue 19
- Rittenberg's pick: Purdue 23, Minnesota 17
- Actual score: Minnesota 44, Purdue 28
- 20-20 hindsight: Bennett had the right winner and correctly pegged Gophers QB Philip Nelson to elevate his game after a week to prepare. Nelson fired three touchdown passes, but none to MarQueis Gray, as Bennett had predicted. The only thing I had right was the line, "I've been burned before," and Purdue burned me again. WR Antavian Edison had a touchdown for the Boilers, but neither he nor Gary Bush did much in this one.
- Bennett's pick: Penn State 28, Ohio State 21
- Rittenberg's pick: Penn State 27, Ohio State 24
- Actual score: Ohio State 35, Penn State 23
- 20-20 hindsight: A big swing and a miss for both of us here. Although Penn State QB Matthew McGloin fired two touchdown passes (Bennett had him for three) and Lions TE Kyle Carter made me look smart with a team-high six receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown, we both underestimated Ohio State's defense and QB Braxton Miller, who looked fine after the neck injury and led the Buckeyes to victory. Penn State RB Bill Belton, who I pegged for 115 rush yards and two touchdowns, had just 26 yards and no scores.
- Bennett's pick: Nebraska 28, Michigan 23
- Rittenberg's pick: Michigan 26, Nebraska 24
- Actual score: Nebraska 23, Michigan 9
- 20-20 hindsight: My prediction might have come true had Denard Robinson remained healthy, but Michigan had no chance after No. 16 went down late in the first half. Taylor Martinez wasn't as brilliant as Bennett thought he'd be, but the Nebraska QB played a solid game and provided a rushing threat to complement Ameer Abdullah. Nebraska lost only one fumble, not the two I had predicted.
These might be our most challenging picks of the season, which could be a good thing for Brian Bennett, who trails Adam Rittenberg by a whopping five games in the season standings.
Without further ado, let's get to the picks ...
IOWA at NORTHWESTERN
Brian Bennett: Both teams are searching for some answers on defense, but the Wildcats are much healthier than the Hawkeyes, who are banged up at offensive line and running back. I think we'll see Northwestern get back to running the ball more with Kain Colter and Venric Mark this week, which works well enough to hold back an Iowa team whose quarterback is under fire. ... Northwestern 23, Iowa 17
Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern does have some injury issues of its own at cornerback, but James Vandenberg hasn't been able to take advantage of much this season. I like this matchup for Northwestern, even though the Wildcats have an identity crisis on offense right now. Iowa takes the early lead, but Northwestern finally puts the ball in Colter's hands, and he rushes for two second-half touchdowns. Mark Weisman bullies his way to 100 rush yards, but Northwestern gets it done on Homecoming. ... Northwestern 24, Iowa 20
INDIANA at ILLINOIS
Adam Rittenberg: I really think Illinois will be better following the open week -- the Illini can't get much worse -- and should capitalize on Indiana's defensive woes. But Indiana's spread offense matches up very well against an Illinois defense that, while talented, struggles mightily against spread teams. Hoosiers receivers Shane Wynn, Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes each catch touchdowns and Indiana finally finds a way to hold on for its first Big Ten win under Kevin Wilson. ... Indiana 31, Illinois 27
Brian Bennett: I guess I can't pick both to lose this week, huh? The Hoosiers have been much more competitive for the past several weeks than Illinois has, and their offense is better than any unit the Illini can put out there right now. Expect some new wrinkles from Tim Beckman after the bye week, but Indiana's passing game is too much as Nate Sudfeld comes off the bench for a pair of second-half touchdown passes. ... Indiana 28, Illinois 27
PURDUE at MINNESOTA
Brian Bennett: One of these teams has to get itself off the mat, and I think it's going to be Minnesota. Purdue has to be feeling a bit of a hangover from last week's heartbreaking loss to Ohio State, and another week of experience will do wonders for Gophers freshman quarterback Philip Nelson. He throws a key touchdown pass to MarQueis Gray, and a late field goal wins it. ... Minnesota 20, Purdue 19
Adam Rittenberg: This game is all about Purdue's demeanor after last week's heartbreaker. If we see the team that showed up in Columbus, the Boilers will win. If not, Nelson and the Gophers will get it done. I've been burned before, but I don't think Purdue is finished just yet. The Boilers' defense pressures Nelson, forces some takeaways and limits a low-scoring Gophers offense to 17 points. Purdue hits on some big plays to Gary Bush and Antavian Edison and gets a win it absolutely has to have. ... Purdue 23, Minnesota 17
MICHIGAN STATE at No. 25 WISCONSIN
Adam Rittenberg: I nearly went with the Spartans here, as I just can't believe Mark Dantonio's squad is on the verge of falling below .500. Then again, Wisconsin doesn't lose at Camp Randall Stadium, especially to teams that have no offense. This game follows a familiar script for Michigan State, which hangs around for a while behind its defense but allows a late score. Le'Veon Bell has 120 rush yards, but both Montee Ball and James White score in the second half as Wisconsin prevails. ... Wisconsin 20, Michigan State 13
Brian Bennett: Pretty simple here: Michigan State can't score, and I don't see how that changes this week against an underrated Wisconsin defense that's playing well. Ball & Co. won't find as much running room as normal against this Spartans defense, so quarterback Joel Stave will have to play well. He does well enough to get the win, hitting big passes to Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pedersen to set up scores in a close one. ... Wisconsin 17, Michigan State 14
OHIO STATE at PENN STATE
Brian Bennett: I learned my lesson in picking against Penn State last week. Ohio State is getting thinned by injuries, and quarterback Braxton Miller might not be at full strength after last week's brief hospitalization.
Adam Rittenberg: The Buckeyes' slow starts, Miller's injury issues and Ohio State's lack of depth at linebacker are real concerns here. Penn State tight ends Kyle Carter and Jesse James find enough gaps in Ohio State's defense, and Bill Belton racks up 115 rush yards and two scores. Miller plays and keeps his team in the game, but Penn State has too much offense and a huge edge with the Beaver Stadium crowd. Buckeyes go down for the first time. ... Penn State 27, Ohio State 24
No. 22 MICHIGAN at NEBRASKA
Adam Rittenberg: I know Nebraska plays much better at home, and quarterback Taylor Martinez has made obvious improvement this season. But Michigan is the steadier team right now, and the better defensive squad. The Wolverines got over the hump last week against rival Michigan State, and they'll find a way to record a signature road win. Linebacker Jake Ryan recovers two Nebraska fumbles and Denard Robinson breaks off a long touchdown run in the fourth quarter as the Wolverines silence the Sea of Red. ... Michigan 26, Nebraska 24
Brian Bennett: The Legends Division race could get pretty boring if Michigan wins in Lincoln. One thing this league has not been this year is predictable. The Wolverines' recent conservative ways on offense will play into the hands of a Huskers defense that plays better when it knows what to expect. Martinez will pick on Michigan cornerbacks and turn in one of the finest moments of his career as Nebraska roars back from an early double-digit deficit to win. ... Nebraska 28, Michigan 23
Adam Rittenberg: 54-14 (.794)
Brian Bennett: 49-19 (.721)
Illinois (2-3, 0-1 Big Ten) at Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1), 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC regional/ESPN2 mirror: Both of these teams already have reached a critical juncture in their seasons after shaky starts. Things certainly are more dire for Illinois, which has been blown out in three of its past four games by a combined score of 132-45. The Illini rank last in the Big Ten in points allowed (27.8 ppg) after ranking 15th nationally in scoring defense (15.8 ppg) in 2011. Next to Illinois' defense, Wisconsin's offense has been the league's biggest surprise from a production standpoint, as the Badgers still rank last in the league in yards per game (309.2 ypg). Wisconsin showed some improvement last week at Nebraska and once again will turn to redshirt freshman Joel Stave at quarterback. The Badgers are getting healthy and will get defensive ends Brendan Kelly (hamstring) and Pat Muldoon (thumb) back for the game. Illinois defensive end Michael Buchanan will play, while linebacker Jonathan Brown (leg) is a game-time decision. The Illini haven't won in Madison since 2002.
Michigan (2-2) at Purdue (3-1), 4 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network: Although Nebraska-Ohio State and maybe even Northwestern-Penn State are getting more attention, the Michigan-Purdue game could be the most intriguing of the Big Ten's Week 6 slate. Michigan returns to the field for the first time since its turnover train derailment at Notre Dame. Purdue begins its defining stretch of the season -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State -- with a game some Boiler fans think is the team's biggest since the 2004 clash with Wisconsin at Ross-Ade Stadium. Speaking of Ross-Ade, the Boilers have been a juggernaut on their home field, averaging 51 points through the first three games. Michigan's defense appeared to turn a corner at Notre Dame but must contend with Purdue weapons like Antavian Edison, Gary Bush, O.J. Ross, Akeem Shavers and Akeem Hunt. On the other side, Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson goes up against a talented Purdue defense led by Kawann Short, although the unit struggled to contain Marshall last week. Purdue has won 12 of its past 15 Big Ten openers.
This week's selection: Purdue quarterback Caleb TerBush
Saturday assignment: vs. Michigan (4 p.m., Big Ten Network)
Saturday's clash is crucial for both the Wolverines and Boilermakers in their quest to win division titles. Michigan can't afford a loss with road games still looming at Nebraska and Ohio State, while Purdue begins its defining stretch of the year.
The Boilers are going to need a great game from TerBush in this one. Robert Marve might play, but we wouldn't expect him to do too much less than a month after an ACL tear, so this Purdue offense is all TerBush's. He threw for 294 yards and four touchdowns last week against a shaky Marshall defense. The challenge goes up several notches this week against a Michigan defense that has made steady strides since the season began and has had two weeks to prepare for this one.
TerBush won the starting job because of his decision-making, and he must take care of the ball this week. The Boilers can't have another showing like he had against Notre Dame, when he tossed two interceptions in a 20-17 loss. TerBush has lots of weapons around him, like Antavian Edison, Gary Bush, O.J. Ross and the two Akeems (Shavers and Hunt). If he can distribute the ball efficiently and avoid costly mistakes, Purdue will have a chance for an important win.
Rakeem Cato and Marshall's high-powered passing attack gave the Boilers' defense all it could handle Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium, challenging a unit that had looked good through the first four games. Fortunately for Purdue, it had a bit more offense of its own and held off Marshall 51-41 to improve to 3-1.
Quarterback Caleb TerBush, who has received some criticism from Boiler fans early this season, bounced back from a so-so performance last week to tear apart a woeful Marshall defense. TerBush was nearly flawless in the first half (11-for-16 passing, 181 yards, 3 TDs) and finished with 290 pass yards, four touchdowns and an interception. Purdue really needed its pass game Saturday as it surprisingly struggled to rush the ball against the nation's 112th-rated rush defense.
After the the teams combined for four touchdowns in the first 16 minutes, Purdue took control thanks to its defense, as cornerbacks Ricardo "pick-six" Allen and Josh Johnson both had interception returns for touchdowns against the Herd's Rakeem Cato. Allen's scoring return marked the fourth of his career and set a new team record. What's really scary: he's only a junior.
Purdue, which led 42-14 at halftime, won't see a pass offense like Marshall's the rest of the season, so Saturday provided a very tough test for Allen, Johnson, Evan Feichter and the rest of the Boilers' secondary. Marshall sophomore receiver Tommy Shuler (team-record 17 catches, 197 yards) is pretty special, and the Boilers will have plenty to work on when they review the game film. Cato passed for 445 yards and five touchdowns, and Marshall piled up 546 yards against the Boilers.
Offensively, Purdue has to feel good entering Big Ten play. The Boilers have scored 105 points the past two weeks. TerBush is playing with confidence, wide receiver Antavian Edison (6 catches, 99 yards, 1 TD) has been terrific and Gary Bush (7 catches, 82 yards, 3 TDs) is emerging as another nice target in the pass game.
How good is Purdue? We'll find out in the next three weeks, as Danny Hope's squad hosts Michigan and Wisconsin before traveling to Ohio State. A 2-1 mark or better puts the Boilers in very good shape for the Leaders division. Next week's game against Michigan is huge for both squads. Should be a fun one.
According to the Fort Myers News-Press, Edison -- who is from Fort Myers -- was arrested at 1:57 a.m. Sunday. He was later released on $1,500 bond. No other details are available, and the Boilermakers have yet to comment as they continue to gather more information about the incident.
If this arrest leads to a suspension or significant missed time for Edison, it could be a big blow to Purdue's offense. Edison, a senior, is the team's leading returning receiver after catching 44 balls for 584 yards and three touchdowns last season. He also ran 30 times for 124 yards and two scores.
The Boilers' leading pass catcher in 2011, Justin Siller, exhausted his eligibility. Their No. 3 receiver, O.J. Ross, was suspended for the Little Caesars Bowl because of academics. He practiced with the team this spring as a non-scholarship player, and his status for the fall is uncertain. The receiver position also has Gary Bush, who had 29 catches for 310 yards, and Raheem Mostert, who is making the transition to full-time receiver after leading the nation in kick return average as a freshman. Redshirt freshman Shane Mikesky could provide some help.
Depth was a concern at wideout before this Edison news. The Purdue passing game figured to improve this year because of the newfound, healthy depth at quarterback, but this development presents a potential monkey wrench. The team's offense could still be strong thanks to a good running game and several options at tight end. Still, losing your top playmaker at wide receiver would never be good news for any team.
We'll keep you updated as more information about Edison becomes available.
Never fear, though, as the rankings are back in full force today, moving on to the receivers and tight ends as we round out our offensive skill positions.
We're looking for depth and not solely star power at the top here. This is how the preseason rankings looked. Some of these groups were undoubtedly hurt by inexperienced or underachieving quarterbacks, so we had to figure out how to weigh their performances in that light. Let's see how the list shakes out after the year ended:
1. Michigan State: The Spartans had the best combo at wideout with seniors B.J. Cunningham, a physical deep threat and No. 1 receiver, and Keshawn Martin, a speedster who could do all sorts of different things in the offense. Together, they combined for 2,083 receiving yards and 16 touchdown catches. Keith Nichol provided a solid third option who made the catch of the year in the Big Ten, if not all of college football, against Wisconsin. Tight end Brian Linthicum had 364 yards receiving and played a key role in the Outback Bowl win over Georgia.
2. Wisconsin: Depth? Hardly. But the Badgers got the most out of their front-line players. Starting wideouts Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis combined for 1,859 yards yard and 18 touchdowns. Eight of tight end Jacob Pedersen's 30 catches went for touchdowns. And don't underestimate the importance of the receivers and tight ends in the Wisconsin running game.
3. Northwestern: The Wildcats' wideouts likely would have put up better numbers if Dan Persa had stayed healthy all season. As it stood, Northwestern still got another outstanding year out of Jeremy Ebert (75 catches, 1,060 yards, 11 TDs). Kain Colter, when he wasn't playing quarterback or running the ball, managed 466 receiving yards. Demetrius Fields and Christian Jones were among the other contributors. First-team All-Big Ten tight end Drake Dunsmore was the team's No. 2 pass-catcher with 455 yards and six scores.
4. Iowa: Marvin McNutt was good enough to elevate this entire group. He led the Big Ten in receiving yards, finishing with 82 catches for 1,315 yards and 12 scores. Keenan Davis contributed 50 catches for 713 yards. But Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley didn't help enough after strong starts to the season. Iowa didn't get a lot of production in the passing game out of its tight ends, either, with C.J. Fiedorowicz leading the way at 16 catches.
5. Michigan: The Wolverines didn't have any receivers finish in the top 10 in the league in the key categories, but what they had was a fairly deep group that knew how to go up and get Denard Robinson's throws. Though Roy Roundtree's numbers went way down from 2010, Junior Hemingway (699 receiving yards) emerged as a big-time playmaker. Jeremy Gallon came up with some key plays in huge spots as well. Tight end Kevin Koger gave Robinson a reliable safety valve and was a key cog in the offense.
6. Illinois: At first glance, A.J. Jenkins' tremendous numbers (90 catches, 1,276 yards, eight TDs) would make you think the Illini deserve to be ranked higher. But Jenkins did most of his work in the first half of the season; like the rest of the Illinois offense, his stats fell off a cliff in the second half. And he didn't have much assistance, as Spencer Harris and Darius Millines combined to record only half his number of catches. Jon Davis was the team's third-leading pass-catcher at tight end.
7. Purdue: It was quantity over star power for the Boilermakers, whose top four pass catchers — Justin Siller, Antavian Edison, O.J. Ross and Gary Bush — all had at least 29 receptions and 300 yards. Edison led the way with 584 yards. Tight ends Crosby Wright and Gabe Holmes combined for 29 catches. Purdue needs more playmaking ability from the tight end spot, something the team tried to address in this recruiting class.
8. Penn State: Evaluating the Nittany Lions receivers is tricky because the quarterback play was so inconsistent. Derek Moye was once again one of the most dangerous deep threats in the league, but a foot injury and an overall inability to get him the ball limited his production to 654 yards and only three scores. Justin Brown, who will likely be the team's go-to guy in 2012, put up good stats, while Devon Smith got a chance to flash his speed and averaged 16.1 yards per catch. The tight ends were rarely used in the passing game; expect that and a whole lot more to change under Bill O'Brien.
9. Nebraska: The Huskers must improve their overall passing game to take the next step as a program, and that includes a receivers group that had an up-and-down season in 2011. The good news is that Kenny Bell emerged as a potential star as a redshirt freshman. But Brandon Kinnie and tight end Kyler Reed failed to build on strong 2010 campaigns and were invisible for large stretches. Nebraska must hope Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner develop to go along with Bell.
10. Indiana: No one was more disappointing at this position in 2011 than the Hoosiers, whom we had pegged at No. 4 in our preseason list. DaMarlo Belcher, who led the league in receptions in '10, got himself booted off the team in midseason. Injuries hit the group hard as well. Kofi Hughes paced the group with 536 yards and found the end zone three times. Tight end Ted Bolser made only 14 receptions. We expected more from a Kevin Wilson offense.
11. Minnesota: Jerry Kill made finding playmakers at receiver a top priority in this recruiting class, and it's easy to see why. Da'Jon McKnight had a decent season (51, 760 and 4). After that, though, things dropped off quickly and the Gophers lacked players who could stretch the field. Tight end Eric Lair managed fewer than one-third the amount of catches he had in 2010.
12. Ohio State: Injuries, inexperience and suspensions combined to make this a difficult year for Buckeyes' receivers. No one had more than 14 catches all season, and no one topped 300 receiving yards. Things would have gone better if DeVier Posey hadn't been suspended for all but two regular-season games. Devin Smith showed potential as a true freshman, including his game-winning grab against Wisconsin. Tight end Jake Stoneburner scored seven times, but most of those came early in the year.
He has placed a premium on speed during the recruiting process and thinks Purdue has tripled or quadrupled its number of players who run 4.5 or better in the 40-yard dash. Another indication of Purdue's speed upgrade came this week as the school announced six football players will participate for the Boilers track team this season.
- Sophomore S Ishmael Aristide
- Sophomore WR Gary Bush
- Sophomore CB Normondo Harris
- Freshman RB Akeem Hunt
- Freshman WR Shane Mikesky
- Freshman WR Raheem Mostert
There's some serious speed in the group, namely Mostert, who led the nation in kick returns this past season (33.5 ypr). Hunt averaged 8.7 yards per carry and Bush had some long receptions.
Aristide, Hunt, Mikesky, Mostert and Bush all were sprinters in high school. Bush also was a standout long jumper, while Harris finished second in the state of Florida in the triple jump. The football players are expected to participate on sprints, the long jump and the triple jump with the track squad.
"We are excited and pleased that we are reestablishing that track/football connection that has been a benefit to the track and field program in the past," Purdue track and field coach Jack Warner said.
While many Big Ten players participated in track during their high school days, few pull off double duty at the college level. You seem to see it more in other leagues than you do in the Big Ten. Michigan had several football players run track in recent years -- quarterback Denard Robinson and cornerback Troy Woolfolk among them -- but the practice has been less and less common.
It'll be interesting to see how the Purdue players perform this winter and into the spring, when they'll be juggling both track and spring football practice.
Penn State will be called the worst 6-1 team in America.
People will continue to point to the quarterback confusion, the inability to score touchdowns in the red zone and other obvious flaws with the Nittany Lions. But the record speaks for itself, and the Lions deserve credit for continuing to find ways to win.
Penn State's defense fueled a 23-18 victory against Purdue by forcing four turnovers, and Joe Paterno's team exploited a huge edge on special teams to beat the mistake-ridden Boilers. Among the heroes were linebacker Nate Stupar, who recorded two interceptions, kicker Anthony Fera (3-for-3 on field-goal attempts) and Chaz Powell, who had a 92-yard kick return before drawing a highly questionable penalty for tossing the ball in the air in celebration.
The Lions' quarterback situation didn't get much clearer as Matthew McGloin and Rob Bolden combined to complete just 10 of 23 passes for 185 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. It's hard to imagine that the quarterback situation won't catch up with Penn State at some point, but that point hasn't arrived yet.
One major bright spot was sophomore running back Silas Redd, who had 131 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries.
Purdue has to be kicking itself -- literally -- after another loss filled with major boo-boos. Standout kicker Carson Wiggs had a tough day, missing a 44-yard attempt and clanking a potential game-tying PAT try off of the upright that proved extremely costly. Purdue also allowed Powell's return at a very bad time, right after it closed to within two points with 8:08 to play.
The Boilers are a talented team with some exciting individual players -- Ralph Bolden, Justin Siller, Antavian Edison, Gary Bush -- who showed off their skills against a very good defense today. But mistakes kill you, and Purdue continues to make far too many to win in the Big Ten.