Big Ten: Greg Paulus

We're plodding our way through the best case/worst case scenarios for each Big Ten team (promise to finish up before the season). Up next: Northwestern.

As a reminder, these pieces are not in any way predictions. They are meant to illustrate the realistic potential highs and lows for a team's season, and any game-by-game breakdowns are more of a means to an end than anything else. And we're trying to have some fun here.

Let's check out the potential highs and lows for the Purple and White.

Best case

The win total begins to climb again as Northwestern makes a serious push for the Legends division title. Kain Colter dazzles, the defense shows a pulse and a pop, attendance soars and the school's trustees wise up and grant coach Pat Fitzgerald his dream lakefront football facility.

It begins with an impressive road win at Syracuse as Northwestern improves to 7-0 in openers under Fitzgerald. Colter passes for two touchdowns and runs for two more, and the defense forces a pair of turnovers in a 31-17 triumph. All Syracuse alumni working at ESPN are forced to wear purple to work.

Northwestern returns home to face Vanderbilt and affirms itself as the better brainier program. After the game, four Vanderbilt recruits switch their commitments to Northwestern. 'Dores coach James Franklin walks past the Northwestern family section, spots some wives of Wildcats assistants and tries to recruit four of Fitzgerald's aides. They all turn him down.

Easy wins follow against Boston College, South Dakota and Indiana.

The squad stays perfect in its Big Ten road opener at Penn State, as USC transfer Kyle Prater hauls in two touchdowns and the defense smothers Wildcat-killer Matt McGloin. Northwestern improves to 7-0 by beating Minnesota, and enters the Top 25.

Chicago is buzzing about Northwestern as the team returns home, while Illinois drops to 1-6 under new coach Tim Beckman. Nebraska comes to town with its enormous traveling party, but Northwestern fans flood the turnstiles and make it a 50-50 split in the the stands. Colter torments the Huskers yet again, and Northwestern stuffs Taylor Martinez at the goal line to prevail 28-24. Chicagoans start to greet one another with, "Go Cats."

Any thought of a letdown the following the week disappears as recent nemesis Iowa visits Evanston. PETA members throw animal blood on James Vandenberg as he gets off the team bus, shattering his confidence. Vandenberg throws three interceptions, and Northwestern cuts through a soft Hawkeyes defense for a 10-point win. In the closing seconds, Wildcats fans unfold a banner reading, "Order restored: just another win against justIowa."

After the game, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel gives Fitzgerald the key to the city. The Illinois' "Our State. Our Team" billboards contain spelling and grammatical errors.

Northwestern's run ends with a road loss at Michigan, followed by another at Michigan State. But the Wildcats take out their anger out on Illinois, thumping the Illini by 35. Beckman weeps in the closing seconds. The Northwestern band plays the entire score from "Chicago" during the second half.

Colter earns Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors, while Fitzgerald takes home Coach of the Year and then signs a lifetime contract. Northwestern beats South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl for its first postseason win since 1949. Illinois finishes 2-10, just below Iowa (3-9). The Northwestern trustees approve an on-campus football complex and stadium upgrades.

Worst case

The win total continues to drop and the streak of bowl appearances comes to a crashing halt. The offense stalls, the defense crumbles, the facilities campaign fizzles and Illinois rules the town -- and the state.

The season begins ominously as Syracuse football retires Greg Paulus' number before the opener, thanking him for beating Northwestern in 2009. Syracuse then goes on to a 25-point win, dissecting Northwestern's secondary for 350 yards. Northwestern alums Mike Wilbon and Darren Rovell are forced to sing Syracuse's fight song on ESPN. Vogue magazine declares the Wildcats new uniforms uglier than Maryland's 2011 threads.

Vanderbilt continues the misery the following week with a 10-point in Evanston, leading to numerous stories about how Stanford and Vanderbilt are showing how academically focused schools can still win big in football. Franklin walks past the Wildcats family section and shakes his head. Fitzgerald stews.

The Wildcats win their next three but backslide in State College, as McGloin lights them up for 400 yards and four touchdowns. Fitzgerald spends the second half searching for Rob Bolden. Illinois enters the Top 25.

A heartbreaking loss follows at TCF Bank Stadium, as a Colter fumble in the closing minutes leads to Minnesota's game-winning touchdown. Opposing fans take over Ryan Field the following two weeks as Northwestern is pummeled by Nebraska and then Iowa. Herky puts a Hawkeye helmet on the Wildcat statue in the fourth quarter.

Two more ugly losses follow, and Illinois completes the torture with a 30-point win in the regular-season finale. Beckman and the Illini celebrate a Leaders division title and are greeted after the game by President Obama, Mike Ditka and Oprah.

Miffed by a 3-9 season, the trustees decide to nix the facilities plan. They divert the funds to build a second nano fabrication lab. Illinois and Iowa play for the Big Ten championship. The winner meets Stanford in the national title game.

More Best Case/Worst Case:

Illinois
Indiana
Iowa
Michigan
Michigan State
Minnesota
Nebraska
The best case-worst case rewind marches on with ... Northwestern.

In case you missed it: Northwestern's best case-worst case.

Best-case synopsis: The Wildcats reload at the offensive skill positions and actually increase their production on that side of the ball. Led by pass rusher Corey Wootton, the defense improves in Year 2 under coordinator Mike Hankwitz and NU surges out to an 8-0 start. Northwestern wins its third straight game against Iowa and finishes with a 10-2 regular-season record. The Wildcats advance to the Outback Bowl and beat Arkansas for their first postseason victory since the 1949 Rose Bowl.

Worst-case synopsis: The offense takes a major step back as new players struggle in premier roles. Quarterback Mike Kafka can't avoid interceptions and never gets comfortable as a passer. The defense struggles with injuries and poor production, making 2008 look like the exception rather than the rule. Northwestern notches no impressive victories and drops its final four games to miss the postseason. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald strongly considers leaving for Notre Dame, raising doubts about his future in Evanston.

You can't handle the truth: (quotes from the original post) "The Capital One Bowl predictably passes over Northwestern, but the Outback Bowl, which snubbed the team last year, selects the Wildcats." ... "The defense keeps pace." ... "Northwestern heads back to the postseason." ... "Wootton and several other contributors go down with injuries." ... "Northwestern heads to Syracuse and performs much like it did at Duke last year, except with a worse result." ... "A week later, Minnesota avenges back-to-back heartbreaking losses to Northwestern." ... "The Wildcats rebound against Purdue and Miami (Ohio)." ... "Attendance struggles again at Ryan Field."

Lies, lies, lies: "Northwestern gets through a season without special teams costing it a game." ... "Surprisingly good crowds turn up at Ryan Field to watch Northwestern crush Towson and Eastern Michigan. The team heads to Syracuse and thumps the Orange for the second straight year, as Corey Wootton sacks Greg Paulus four times. Northwestern then delivers more heartbreak to Minnesota." ... "The Wildcats start 6-0 by trouncing Miami (Ohio)." ... Northwestern wins its first bowl since the 1949 Rose and winds up 11-2." ... "Northwestern finalizes a 2011 game at Wrigley Field and sees home attendance increase by 25 percent." ... "Once again, Northwestern takes a major step back on offense with a new quarterback." ... "Northwestern drops its final four games, including a heartbreaker to Wisconsin at home, to miss the postseason despite a cushy schedule."

Reality check: Northwestern ended up somewhere in the middle record-wise, but a 3-0 November (two wins vs. ranked teams) and a surprising invitation to the Outback Bowl created a best-case feel around the program. Kafka, known more for his legs than his arms before the season, blossomed into an All-Big Ten quarterback and led an offense with other surprise stars like wideout Zeke Marskhausen. He didn't get much help from the run game, which had been a strong point in past years. An injury plagued defense struggled early but got it together down the stretch, as Wootton, quiet for most of the fall, made the biggest play of the season at Iowa. The Wildcats couldn't complete a furious rally in the Outback Bowl, as their kicking game let them down again.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 4

September, 21, 2009
9/21/09
9:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Ohio State answered the bell and finally dominated a team, while the Big Ten's upper crust has separated itself. The top five look pretty solid, while the bottom six are a muddled mess.

1. Penn State (3-0) -- The exhibition season is over for Penn State, which looked better on offense and just as stingy against Temple. The Lions finally established a decent running game, and not a moment too soon with Iowa visiting Happy Valley this week. Linebacker Sean Lee has been fabulous in his return to the field, and Penn State's defense is setting the tone. But things are about to get much tougher.

2. Ohio State (2-1) -- I probably punished the Buckeyes a little too much last week, but I needed to see them deliver a convincing performance against an inferior opponent. Terrelle Pryor and the much-maligned offense clicked against Toledo, and the defensive line was merciless against Aaron Opelt and the Rockets. The Buckeyes defense has things rolling right now as Juice Williams returns to Columbus this week.

3. Michigan (3-0) -- This has more to do with Ohio State's overdue performance than anything Michigan did against Eastern Michigan. Wolverines freshman quarterback Tate Forcier looked his age at times Saturday, but Carlos Brown and the rushing attack picked him up nicely. A young Michigan defense still has some things to shore up against the run as it opens Big Ten play against Indiana.

4. Iowa (3-0) -- No Big Ten team has looked more impressive the last two weeks than the Hawkeyes, though national respect is still hard to come by. The good news? Iowa can gain a ton of cred by upsetting No. 5 Penn State on Saturday night in the Whiteout at Beaver Stadium. The defense must maintain its edge and quarterback Ricky Stanzi needs to limit his first-half mistakes in Happy Valley.

5. Wisconsin (3-0) -- The Badgers took care of business against FCS Wofford and continued to get steady play from junior quarterback Scott Tolzien. The schedule really favors Wisconsin this year, with four consecutive home games to begin the season, and Bret Bielema's team has capitalized. Michigan State will be a desperate team Saturday, but Wisconsin gets the Spartans and Camp Randall Stadium.

6. Minnesota (2-1) -- After a rough start, Minnesota rallied against Cal and made the nation's eighth-ranked team work for a victory at TCF Bank Stadium. Kevin Cosgrove and Ron Lee have the defense playing extremely hard, especially in the front seven. Eric Decker is a stud, but the offense remains far too one-dimensional. The Gophers will struggle in the Big Ten if they can't run the ball.

7. Indiana (3-0) -- Surprised to see the Hoosiers here? Well, they deserve it after their second 3-0 start in the last three seasons. Akron clearly missed suspended quarterback Chris Jacquemain, but Indiana took advantage of the situation and intercepted backup Matt Rodgers four times. The competition gets much harder this week at Michigan, but kudos to Bill Lynch and Indiana for the hot start.

T-8. Northwestern (2-1) -- The Wildcats resume looks pretty weak right now, with a blowout win against Towson and a close call against Eastern Michigan followed by a loss at Syracuse. A banged-up defense let Greg Paulus and Mike Williams pile up yards and points Saturday, leading some to believe that last year's improvement was a fluke. Quarterback Mike Kafka's play was very encouraging, but if the defense reverts to pre-2008 form, Northwestern will struggle in the Big Ten.

T-8. Michigan State (1-2) -- Credit the Spartans for playing extremely hard in South Bend, but they still came out with a tough loss. Listening to quarterback Kirk Cousins, who handled a difficult situation well, you'd think these Spartans won't go the way of their predecessors. A trip to Madison this week has to be classified as a must win before arch-rival Michigan visits East Lansing on Oct. 3.

10. Illinois (1-1) -- The Illini didn't play on Saturday, but they lost a huge piece of their defense last week as middle linebacker Martez Wilson (neck) will miss the rest of the season. Wilson will be missed, and linebackers Ian Thomas and Russell Ellington must pick up the slack. The biggest boost must come from Juice Williams, Arrelious Benn and the offense. Illinois season could be decided in the next three games (Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State).

11. Purdue (1-2) -- A home loss to Northern Illinois carries a price, even though the Huskies are an improved team. NIU loaded up against the run and held Ralph Bolden in check, and Purdue couldn't get its downfield passing game going. It's hard to know what to make of Purdue, which should have beaten Oregon on the road but really struggled against NIU. The Boilers can strike back this Saturday night against Notre Dame (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET).
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Football can be a cruel game, as Mike Kafka found out Saturday night at the Carrier Dome.

Northwestern deserved to lose to Syracuse. The Wildcats were uncharacteristically undisciplined, committing a flurry of penalties. Their banged-up defense had no answer for Greg Paulus or Mike Williams. And their special teams once again struggled.

Kafka was the only reason Northwestern stayed in the game, and yet his mistake is the one people will remember. The senior quarterback had a career night, completing 35 of 42 passes for 390 yards and three touchdowns. He completed his first 16 passes and went 18-for-19 in the first half.

But his 42nd attempt, a terrible decision that resulted in an interception, led to the Wildcats' demise. Northwestern had the ball in plus territory with the game tied, but a critical drop by Andrew Brewer and Kafka's interception gave Syracuse one final chance, and the Orange cashed in.

The defense lost this game for Northwestern, and while injured cornerback Sherrick McManis would have made a huge difference against Williams, the performance was inexcusable. Twice Northwestern had leads, and twice the defense let Syracuse answer easily. Leading 34-27 in the fourth quarter, Northwestern failed to stay with Williams and allowed an easy touchdown.

Kafka's performance and the team's rally from a 17-0 deficit are positive signs, but if the defense doesn't get healthier and a lot better, it'll be a very long season for Pat Fitzgerald's crew. These are the games that prevent Northwestern from getting much respect around the Big Ten, and the loss will test the team's resolve.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

A very entertaining game between Northwestern and Syracuse so far. The teams have combined for 45 points and a ton of big plays.

Northwestern looked sloppy early on, falling behind 17-0. But the Wildcats scored 21 unanswered points to take the lead as quarterback Mike Kafka completed his first 16 pass attempts and 18 of 19 in the half for 242 yards and two scores. Syracuse answered to go ahead, 24-21.

The Wildcats are extremely banged up on defense, and Greg Paulus has taken advantage. Northwestern is playing without starting middle linebacker Nate Williams, starting corner Sherrick McManis and backup corner Justan Vaughn. Syracuse's Mike Williams is having a field day against the secondary.

Northwestern is also without running backs Stephen Simmpons and Jeravin Matthews, but Kafka has kept the offense afloat.

The team that makes the best halftime adjustments wins this one.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Two weeks ago, the mere mention of Nate Triplett's name would have drawn blank stares around the Big Ten and even among some Minnesota fans.

Triplett had been around for a while at Minnesota, appearing in 26 games for the Gophers with one start at linebacker before this season. He was a special-teams stud, but few ever remember special-teams studs.

 
 AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt
 Nate Triplett collected an astounding 17 tackles against Air Force, which earned him National Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Some undoubtedly asked, 'Who was that guy?' after Triplett intercepted Syracuse's Greg Paulus in overtime at the Carrier Dome, setting up Minnesota's game-winning field goal in the opener. Then last Saturday, Triplett exploded for a career-high 17 tackles against Air Force and broke open a tie game with a 52-yard fumble return for a touchdown as Minnesota won 20-13.

No defender in the Big Ten and perhaps none in the country has played more instrumental roles in two victories than Triplett, who was named Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts against Air Force.

"It’s my last season, senior year," Triplett said, "and I set the bar high coming in, saying, ‘You know what? I’m not going to hold anything back.’ I just give it everything I got every snap, every practice, every day."

For his first three seasons, those snaps were limited. Triplett played on coverage teams but couldn't crack the starting lineup at linebacker.

"He’s been the best special-teams player in the Big Ten the past two years," Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster said. "He just did an amazing job covering kicks."

Like any competitor, Triplett thought he should be playing more. But he didn't complain.

Instead, he embraced special teams and made his mark whenever he could.

"That was my role," he said. "We had a lot of good players playing linebacker then, so I accepted that and worked and played my hardest on special teams. That really carried over. I played fast on special teams, and that’s carrying over to linebacker. Made plays on special teams and I’m doing my best to make plays on defense right now."

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What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 3

September, 17, 2009
9/17/09
8:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Week 3 doesn't match its predecessor in terms of national prestige, but it still means a lot to the Big Ten. Wins over teams like Cal, Arizona and even Notre Dame would help the league's national reputation.

Here are 10 things you don't want to miss.

Spartans go for lucky seven -- The House that Rockne Built has turned into Spartan Stadium South, as Michigan State has claimed six consecutive games in South Bend. A seventh straight is crucial, especially after the Spartans lost their focus last week against Central Michigan. Notre Dame also comes in wounded and desperate for a victory, which could take some pressure off head coach Charlie Weis. Michigan State's secondary needs a much better effort against Notre Dame deep threats Golden Tate, Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph. Kirk Cousins could cement himself as the Spartans' starting quarterback with a big day.

Minnesota linebackers take on Cal's Best -- Led by reigning National Defensive Player of the Week Nate Triplett, the Gophers' linebacking corps has led an improved defense in two victories. But things get much harder this weekend as Heisman Trophy candidate Jahvid Best visits TCF Bank Stadium with eighth-ranked California. Minnesota gets a chance to show off its new stadium to the country against a top 10 team, but Best and backup Shane Vereen could make it a long day.

Iowa homecoming for Stoops -- Arizona head coach Mike Stoops returns to his alma mater with a pretty decent Wildcats team. The Iowa faithful undoubtedly will welcome the former All-Big Ten safety, but Stoops hopes to ruin their afternoon. Wildcats running back Nic Grigsby, the nation's second leading rusher, will match up against a Hawkeyes defense coming off a very impressive performance against Iowa State.

Buckeyes, Rockets clash in Cleveland -- What looked like a total mismatch before the season has spawned some more intriguing plotlines. Ohio State comes off a crushing loss to USC and needs to spark Terrelle Pryor and the offense against a Toledo team that has allowed 90 points in two games. If the Buckeyes can't score against this team, start to get concerned. Toledo, meanwhile, is riding high after thumping Colorado and boasts a dangerous quarterback in Aaron Opelt. Plus, head coaches Jim Tressel and Tim Beckman grew up together. And the game will be played at Cleveland Browns Stadium. I'm actually excited for this one.

Penn State ready to run -- The run game has been grounded so far in Happy Valley, and Penn State needs to get things corrected against Temple. Penn State boasts the Big Ten's best all-around back in Evan Royster, but the new faces on the offensive line have struggled a bit. The Lions can't afford to be one-dimensional when Iowa comes to town Sept. 26, so they need to spark Royster, Stephfon Green and the ground game right away.

Wildcats aim for Syracuse sweep -- The Big Ten is 2-0 against Syracuse this season, though the Orange have been a tougher opponent than many had expected. Northwestern barely squeaked by Eastern Michigan last week and needs a better performance from its defense against Greg Paulus and the Cuse. It's a critical game for the Wildcats, who need quarterback Mike Kafka to be a playmaker and defensive end Corey Wootton to return to the form he showed in 2008.

Wolverines reunite with English -- Michigan's veteran defenders face their former coordinator Ron English, who brings his Eastern Michigan team to the Big House. Players like safety Troy Woolfolk haven't forgotten English's intense style, and they'll look to impress him on Saturday. Michigan must guard against a letdown after an impressive start. Eastern Michigan showed last week that it doesn't quit, and the Wolverines need to maintain their focus to match their wins total from 2008.

Purdue's Bolden rolls along -- If you haven't watched Purdue running back Ralph Bolden yet, tune in to Saturday's game against Northern Illinois. The nation's leading rusher has been spectacular so far, averaging 7.1 yards per carry. Purdue has been a surprise team so far in the Big Ten, and the Boilers aim for a 2-1 start against a pretty decent Huskies team that gave Wisconsin all it could handle two weeks ago.

Indiana's defense hits the road -- Make no mistake. Indiana's trip to Akron is huge for Bill Lynch and the Hoosiers. IU hasn't been dominating so far, but it has found ways to win thanks to a veteran-laden defense. The Hoosiers need defensive ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton to apply pressure on Akron quarterback Chris Jacquemain, who has already thrown four touchdown passes to Deryn Bowser this year. If Indiana wants to make any sort of run in 2009, Akron is a must win.

Clay in the starting blocks -- Wisconsin's matchup against Wofford doesn't exactly get the blood flowing, but it's worth watching sophomore running back John Clay make his first career start for the Badgers. Clay has the tools to become a superstar, but he didn't claim the starting job in preseason camp and has struggled with his weight in the past. He comes off a very impressive performance against Fresno State and might establish himself as Wisconsin's top back with a strong showing against Wofford.

A quick look at Week 3 in the Big Ten

September, 14, 2009
9/14/09
11:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


After a Saturday showcase in which the nation's two most significant games involved Big Ten teams, the Week 3 slate is a bit of a letdown. Still, there are several interesting matchups and games that can help the league improve its national reputation.

Here's a quick snapshot.

Eastern Michigan (0-2) at Michigan (2-0), Big Ten Network, noon ET

Back in the national rankings and the national spotlight, Michigan tries to keep the momentum going against Eastern Michigan. Several veteran Wolverines defenders will be reunited with former coordinator Ron English, who's in his first year at the helm of the Eagles. Eastern Michigan gave Northwestern all it could handle and looks improved on offense behind quarterback Andy Schmitt. The Wolverines' defense aims for a better showing after struggling to contain Notre Dame's receiving threats.

Temple (0-1) at Penn State (2-0), Big Ten Network, noon ET

The Lions will have no trouble winning this game, but they want to be nearing their peak before Iowa visits Happy Valley on Sept. 26. That means better play from the offensive line and more consistent production from Evan Royster and the running backs. Penn State's defense should shut down a Temple team that lost to Villanova in Week 1, but the Lions' offense needs to diversify before Big Ten play kicks off. Linebacker Navorro Bowman (groin) could miss his second straight game.

(Read full post)

Thoughts on the early Big Ten games

September, 12, 2009
9/12/09
3:54
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


It has been a very shaky start to a defining day for the Big Ten, except in Ames and State College, where both Iowa and Penn State handled their business. Iowa really made a nice statement with its win against Iowa State, but the Big Ten hasn't changed its perception one bit. Michigan State took a huge hit with the loss to Central Michigan.

Before I head to The Shoe here's a quick look at what has happened around the league:

Penn State 28, Syracuse 7 -- It wasn't the blowout many had expected from the Nittany Lions, and Syracuse clearly isn't the doormat it has been under Greg Robinson. For the second straight week, Penn State seemed to lose some steam after a strong start from quarterback Daryll Clark and running back Evan Royster. Clark had a pretty nice day with three touchdown passes and an interception, but Penn State has to be a bit concerned about its offensive line after generating only 79 rush yards against the Orange. The defensive front continues to look pretty solid, though Greg Paulus completed 14 of 20 passes in the loss.

Northwestern 27, Eastern Michigan 24 -- The Wildcats are still too prone to letdowns, and they nearly had a disastrous one against an Eastern Michigan team coming off of a 13-point home loss to Army. Northwestern appeared to be in the clear up 21-0, but very shaky tackling on defense and the inability to make big plays on offense let Eastern Michigan claw back into this one. Ironically, special teams saved Northwestern after leading to a costly turnover earlier, as Stefan Demos drilled a 49-yard field goal for the victory. Pat Fitzgerald's defense needs to get a lot tougher in a hurry.

Central Michigan 29, Michigan State 27 -- Mark Dantonio's defense really let him down in the fourth quarter, as decorated Chippewas quarterback Dan LeFevour finally led his team to a victory against a BCS team (he sat out last year's win against Indiana). This is a major blow for Michigan State, which appeared to be the Big Ten's third best team until today. Most troubling for the Spartans is the fact that their secondary, the deepest unit on the team, really struggled against LeFevour (328 pass yards, 3 TDs). It was also surprising to see Michigan State's miscues on special teams, particularly the offside penalty that allowed Central Michigan a second chance at the game-winning field goal. On the plus side, Kirk Cousins might have established himsef as the team's No. 1 quarterback.

Iowa 35, Iowa State 3 -- Sure, Iowa State is the inferior team, but Iowa usually struggles in Ames and came off a shaky performance against Northern Iowa. The Hawkeyes made a major statement today, especially on defense. They picked off Austen Arnaud four times and sparked Ricky Stanzi, who rebounded from two early interceptions to throw for four touchdowns. Most important, Iowa might have discovered its running back in freshman Brandon Wegher (101 rush yards, TD). Iowa State didn't help itself with six turnovers, but Iowa is back on track heading into a crucial stretch against Arizona and Penn State.

Wisconsin 34, Fresno State 31 (2OT) -- This game will be lumped in with the other Big Ten close calls, but you've got to give Wisconsin a lot of credit for rallying. The Badgers' overall defense was shaky. Their third-down defense was horrendous. But they found a way to come back against a very good non-BCS team in Fresno State. Wisconsin has found its quarterback in Scott Tolzien, and John Clay resurfaced as the team's top running back with a 143-yard performance. Team MVP? The kicker, Phillip Welch, who hit a crucial 57-yard field goal as well as the game-winner in double overtime.

Indiana 23, Western Michigan 19 -- I've been saying it all summer. The Hoosiers need to win with defense, and they stepped up today to bottle up Western Michigan's ground attack (22 yards). Perhaps more important, Indiana discovered its run game in the pistol formation and got a huge lift from Demetrius McCray (134 rush yards, TD). Indiana was in control for most of the way and came up with some big plays near its own goal line at the end to hold off the Broncos. A big win for Bill Lynch, who needs them.

Big Ten game-day links

September, 12, 2009
9/12/09
10:08
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


It's judgment day for the Big Ten. Here are a few links to get you started.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Greetings from Columbus, my home for the next two days. I got an early start on my Big Ten chatter during the flight down, as I sat next to Scott Chipman, the league's assistant commissioner for communications.

The weather is beautiful and should remain that way through the game.

I'll be heading down to USC's walk-through at Ohio Stadium later this afternoon, so check back for updates.

Big Ten picks: Week 2

September, 10, 2009
9/10/09
9:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


My forecast of Big Ten perfection in Week 1 came up a little short, thanks to a miserable performance by Illinois. Still, 10-1 isn't bad, but things will get much tougher for myself and the league this Saturday. Big Ten players and coaches agree that big nonconference victories are the only way to repair the league's national reputation, and Week 2 will go a long way toward helping or hurting the conference.

How will things shake out? Not so good for the Big Ten.

Michigan State 37, Central Michigan 17: Central Michigan is one of those non-BCS programs that looks like it should beat the big boys. But the Chippewas rarely come through, with last week's game at Arizona serving as the latest example. Dan LeFevour makes a few more plays against the Spartans, but Michigan State has too much talent on both sides of the ball. The Spartans will get a little more clarity at quarterback, though I'm not sure who separates himself.

Western Michigan 31, Indiana 27 -- Until the Hoosiers establish a consistent rushing attack and get tougher in the secondary, they're not going to win many games. Western Michigan quarterback Tim Hiller bounces back from a subpar performance against Michigan and tosses three touchdown passes in Memorial Stadium. IU's Ben Chappell has another nice game but the Broncos score late to secure a road win.

Northwestern 38, Eastern Michigan 9 -- For the second straight week, the Wildcats should have little trouble on their home field. Eastern Michigan comes off a 13-point home loss to Army and faces a Northwestern defense that coach Pat Fitzgerald really challenged this week. NU quarterback Mike Kafka continues to build confidence and some separation occurs in the running back group, with either Stephen Simmons or Arby Fields emerging as the top man.

Penn State 41, Syracuse 10 -- Greg Paulus looked impressive in Syracuse's opener, but reality strikes for the former Duke point guard at Beaver Stadium. Penn State's defensive front takes no mercy, with or without Navorro Bowman, and Paulus should be in for a long afternoon. Nittany Lions quarterback Daryll Clark delivers another gem and running back Evan Royster eclipses 100 rush yards as Penn State rolls again.

Wisconsin 28, Fresno State 24 -- Pat Hill's team won't be intimidated at Camp Randall Stadium and could very well pull the upset Saturday. Wisconsin gets a big performance from running back John Clay, while Scott Tolzien maintains his steadiness at quarterback. The flu bug that swept through Wisconsin's team earlier this week doesn't figure to keep many key players off the field. The Badgers escape this one, but just barely.

Iowa 23, Iowa State 17 -- It won't be easy for the Hawkeyes at Jack Trice Stadium. Then again, it never is. Iowa State jumps ahead early before Hawkeyes quarterback Ricky Stanzi and tight end Tony Moeaki bring their team back with a pair of touchdown connections. Redshirt freshman Adam Robinson capitalizes on his opportunity at running back and scores the decisive touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. Iowa wins in Ames for just the second time since 1997.

Notre Dame 30, Michigan 27 -- Easily the toughest game to pick this week, and one that could go either way. Michigan will win if its defensive line consistently pressures Jimmy Clausen, but it'll be tough for the Wolverines' secondary to contain Notre Dame's offensive weapons for 60 minutes. Clausen starts slow before picking things up in the second half, while Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson make a few more mistakes in a narrow defeat.

Minnesota 27, Air Force 24 -- The first game at TCF Bank Stadium will be a memorable one, as Minnesota and Air Force pace one another for four quarters. Air Force's offense will test Minnesota's discipline on defense, and the Gophers need to find more options on offense besides star wide receiver Eric Decker. In the end, Minnesota's run game wears down the Falcons as Duane Bennett rushes for two touchdowns in an exciting victory.

Illinois 44, Illinois State 10 -- Arrelious Benn should be back on the field, which means better things for the Illinois offense. Illinois State will be without its starting quarterback, and Illini linebackers Ian Thomas and Martez Wilson take advantage. Illinois gets well against an overmatched and wounded opponent before beginning a brutal stretch to Big Ten play in two weeks.

USC 30, Ohio State 23 -- It won't be another debacle for the Buckeyes, but I can't see them winning this game without major improvement on both sides of the ball. And really, when was the last time Ohio State hit on all cylinders against a top 15 team? Was it 2006? Terrelle Pryor delivers a strong performance, but USC wins the battle at the line of scrimmage more often than not, and its stable of running backs takes advantage. Matt Barkley isn't a huge factor but makes enough plays to win.

Oregon 38, Purdue 31 -- I really want to pick Purdue here because Oregon could be on the brink of self-destruction, but I'm just not sold on the Boilers' defense after the Toledo game. Open-field tackling means everything against the spread offense, and even without LeGarrette Blount, Oregon's attack will be better. Could see the Ducks in a blowout; could see the Boilers in an upset. Oregon ends up winning a fairly tight contest, though Ralph Bolden has another big game for Purdue.

Season record: 10-1 (.909)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


A full slate of games is on tap Saturday, and the Big Ten has several excellent opportunities to improve its national reputation -- or make things worse.

Here are 10 things you should be watching out for this weekend:

1. Terrelle's time -- He's only a sophomore making his 12th career start, but Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor faces a defining game Saturday against USC (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET). The Buckeyes need Pryor to make big plays with his feet and limit mistakes against a USC defense unlikely to miss a beat despite losing several standout players. The time has come for Ohio State to win big nonconference games again, and to do so, it needs excellence from the quarterback position.

2. Michigan's defensive line speed -- Boasting improved speed up front, Michigan generated a strong pass rush with only its down linemen last week against Western Michigan. The Wolverines need to do the same against Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who is hitting his stride and has two of the nation's top wide receivers in Golden Tate and Michael Floyd. I'm not a believer in Notre Dame's offensive line -- more experienced players doesn't automatically mean better ones -- and Michigan can find ways to turn up the heat on Clausen.

3. Outdoor football returns to the Twin Cities -- Big Ten fans are going to love TCF Bank Stadium, which finally opens its doors for a game as Minnesota takes on Air Force. It should be an electric atmosphere in Minneapolis as the football team returns to campus for the first time in 28 years. The Golden Gophers will undoubtedly be amped up, but they'll need a more polished performance than last week to beat the Falcons.

4. Purdue goes Duck hunting -- Oregon could be ripe for an upset after falling apart both during and after a loss to Boise State last week. Many forget that Purdue outplayed the Ducks for much of last year's game in West Lafayette before falling in overtime. Running back Ralph Bolden leads the Boilers after rushing for 234 yards in his first career start last week. Purdue's defense will need to be much sharper against Jeremiah Masoli and the dynamic Ducks offense.

5. Spartans QB race, Take 2 -- As long as Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol both continue to perform well, Michigan State will have a hard time playing only one quarterback. Still, my sense is that the Spartans want a clear field leader when they head to Notre Dame next week. Cousins' and Nichol's performances against Central Michigan (ESPN2, noon ET) could loom large in determining the starter and the backup for the rest of the season.

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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


The Big Ten went 10-1 in Week 1, though several teams looked unimpressive in victory and Illinois looked like a mess in defeat. The level of competition jumps up in Week 2, as the league has several chances to distinguish itself on the national stage.

Here's a quick look at what's on tap:

Syracuse (0-1) at Penn State (1-0), Big Ten Network, noon ET

Orange quarterback Greg Paulus exceeded expectations in the season opener, making several big plays against Minnesota before tossing a costly interception in overtime. He could be in for a rude awakening against Penn State, which recorded 13 tackles for loss and four sacks Saturday against Akron. The Lions' defensive front hasn't missed a beat, but Joe Paterno wants to see better play from his offensive line against Syracuse.

Eastern Michigan (0-1) at Northwestern (1-0), Big Ten Network, noon ET

Barely tested in Week 1, Northwestern should once again have little trouble this week against Eastern Michigan, which comes off a 27-14 home loss to Army. Ron English's team really struggled to defend the run, and Northwestern will try to spark its ground game with multiple backs. The competition will get much tougher for Northwestern in the coming weeks, but these games are important to build confidence and continuity on offense. Pat Fitzgerald also wants a more dominant performance from his defense, which didn't generate much of a pass rush against Towson.

Western Michigan (0-1) at Indiana (1-0), Big Ten Network, noon ET

Both teams struggled in their openers, though Indiana made enough plays on defense to escape with a win. The Hoosiers will need an even better performance from their defenders as they face veteran Broncos quarterback Tim Hiller. Hiller couldn't possibly play much worse than he did against Michigan, and it will be important for Indiana defensive ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton to provide a heavy dose of pressure, much like the Wolverines did on Saturday.

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Minnesota, Iowa in some trouble

September, 5, 2009
9/05/09
2:12
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


My prediction of a perfect Week 1 in the Big Ten seems to be in some jeopardy.

Both Minnesota and Iowa trail early in the second half of their games, and both teams have endured some struggles on offense.

Syracuse quarterback Greg Paulus has looked very impressive, especially for a guy playing his first football game in four years. Paulus has capitalized on several defensive breakdowns for the Gophers, including one that led to an easy 29-yard touchdown toss to Mike Williams. The Gophers got a gift touchdown in the opening minutes and showed some good things in the running game from Duane Bennett, but Adam Weber looks shaky in the new pro-style offense.

Iowa definitely misses Shonn Greene and Jewel Hampton, though redshirt freshman Adam Robinson is providing a spark in the the third quarter. Tight end Tony Moeaki is clearly a factor for the Hawkeyes when healthy and Marvin McNutt seems to be Ricky Stanzi's top option so far, but the FCS Panthers aren't going away. I'm surprised to see how easily UNI is passing the ball against the veteran Hawkeyes defense.

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