Big Ten: Illinois Fighting Illini

Big Ten lunchtime links

December, 19, 2013
Six shopping days left.
Defensively, for Nebraska this season, two categories exist in surrendering chunks of yardage: There are simply big plays, and there are big plays with catastrophic results.

In the Huskers’ Big Ten opener last week against Illinois, a 39-19 Nebraska victory, the Blackshirts progressed little in limiting the big play. But, the frequency of disastrous plays diminished significantly.

Nebraska continues to rank in the bottom 8 percent among FBS schools in allowing gains of 10 yards or more. Illinois accumulated 17 -- just two fewer than the Huskers’ defensive average through four games -- to bring the total for the season to 96. That’s 114th nationally.

[+] EnlargeCiante Evans
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesCiante Evans and the Blackshirts made some timely plays to keep Illinois in check.
What you didn’t see last week at Memorial Stadium, though, was the domino effect so prevalent in non-conference play, in particular on Sept. 14 against UCLA, when the Huskers collapsed in allowing the final 38 points of the game. Against Wyoming and South Dakota State, too, problems snowballed for the defense.

“It’s small, baby steps to give these guys some confidence,” defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said.

Coaches asked their players in the two weeks that followed the Huskers’ 59-20 win over South Dakota State to let go of the bad thoughts.

If you make a mistake on the field, forget about it. If the offense makes a mistake, let it go.

“Don’t look at the JumboTron,” Kaczenski said. “Don’t worry about it. We can’t ride the highs and lows of the offense. We’ve got to concentrate on what we’re doing.

“We signed up for this gig, too. Go put the fire out.”

The Huskers did just that on defense against the Illini, which averaged 478.5 yards before the trip to Lincoln. Nebraska held it to 372.

But it’s not necessarily the yardage that matters; it’s how the Illini got its yards. And when.

Notably, Nebraska held Illinois when it needed stops. Here are three examples from the first half:

  • The Illini drove inside the Huskers’ 25 late in the first quarter after Nebraska jumped on top 14-0. On third-and-7, defensive end Jason Ankrah sacked Nathan Scheelhaase for a 4-yard loss. Next play, Scheelhaase fired a strike to Steve Hull, who was met over the middle by Stanley Jean-Baptiste, whose hit jarred the ball loose to end a scoring threat.
  • Early in the second quarter after the Huskers made it 17-0, Illinois marched from its 8 to the Nebraska 6. It faced just one third down, on which Scheelhaase needed 12 yards and scrambled for 17. But on first-and-goal, cornerback Ciante Evans hit Donovonn Young for a 3-yard loss. Evans sacked the quarterback for an 11-yard loss on third down to force a field goal.
  • Leading 23-3, Nebraska endured a brain cramp in the shadow of its goal line, utilizing Imani Cross on a wide run. Illinois linebacker Houston Bates nailed Cross for a safety, and suddenly Illinois had momentum with less than two minutes to play before halftime. The Illini started near midfield but went nowhere as Nebraska linebacker David Santos made an open-field tackle of Josh Ferguson then pressured Scheelhaase into a third-down incompletion.

“Sometimes, in the course of a game, plays get lost in the shuffle,” Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “I thought we did a nice job kind of standing up when they got in the red zone, not breaking at that point.”

The defensive stops prevented Illinois from chopping into Nebraska’s lead. Once the Huskers drove 75 yards in four plays to score on the opening possession of the third quarter, the game was out of reach.

“I think we played a lot more confident, a lot more loose out there on defense,” linebacker Michael Rose said. “We gave up a lot of plays to (South Dakota State) that were head scratchers. There comes a time when enough is enough. Someone’s got to step up and make a play. That’s the attitude we took.”

Coach Bo Pelini said he credits some of the improvement at key moments to better communication.

“We got to the point where we, as a staff, got fed up with it,” Pelini said. “We demanded that we expect to see 11 guys talking on every single play. Eleven guys. And if you’re not talking, you’re coming out. I said, ‘Try it for a day.’ I think they found out what a difference it makes.”

Still, the Huskers rank 98th nationally in total defense (445.4 yards per game), 102nd in yards allowed per play (6.15), 118th in first down per game (25.4) and 90th in yards per pass attempt (7.92).

But they were looking for some sign of improvement. Against Illinois, they got it by avoiding disasters. As Pelini said on Monday, “it shouldn’t get to that point” where the Huskers sit on the brink. That’s a challenge for this week as Nebraska prepares for its trip to Purdue.

“When it was time to bow up, they did,” Kaczenski said. “That’s good. That’s the stuff you preach. You’ve got to walk the walk. These are steppingstones, and you take small strides.”

Get ready for QB drama in Lincoln

October, 5, 2013
LINCOLN, Neb. -- An uncomfortable situation is brewing at quarterback for Nebraska.

Right now, it’s all roses. Redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. started and starred in his second straight game on Saturday, a 39-19 Cornhusker victory over Illinois in the Big Ten opener for both teams. Record-setting senior Taylor Martinez remains out with turf toe, but his return is looming.

Maybe it’s next Saturday at Purdue. If not, he ought to be ready for Nebraska’s Oct. 26 trip to Minnesota.

And then what?

“Taylor’s earned it over a long period of time [so] when he’s ready to go,” coach Bo Pelini said Saturday, “he’ll be the starting quarterback.”

Sounds simple. But it never is.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesTommy Armstrong Jr. is putting on a show while Taylor Martinez recovers from an injury.
What happens when the offense sputters against Northwestern on Nov. 2, or more likely against Michigan State on Nov. 16? You know what will happen.

A groundswell of support for Armstrong has already begun to form. So far, there’s no decision for the coaches to make. At least, not a real decision.

Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck insist that Martinez, who was clearly bothered by the injury to his left foot through portions of September, must return to 100-percent health before he gets back on the field. Interestingly, that’s never been the standard previously with Martinez, a tough guy who has played through injuries for the better part of his three-plus years as the Nebraska starter.

Asked last week to pinpoint Martinez’s proximity to 100-percent health in the Huskers’ 20-point loss to UCLA on Sept. 21, Beck couldn’t do it.

This is not Braxton Miller, returning on a white horse to reclaim his spot. Despite his statistical genius, Martinez is rough around the edges. He has not led the Huskers to a conference championship. A faction of Nebraska fans question whether he could do it this year.

To compound matters, Armstrong has been pretty darn spectacular. He took to the Big Ten on Saturday like it was no big deal, completing 8 of 13 throws for 135 yards and two touchdowns. In two starts, he’s 20 of 28 for 304 yards, three TDs and no interceptions. His Total QBR index is 94.8, a figure that ranked second nationally this season through the early set of games on Saturday.

“He just went out there and did his job and did it well,” said receiver Quincy Enunwa, who caught a first-quarter TD from Armstrong.

The kid is enjoying it, no doubt. He said with a smile that people around Lincoln have started to recognize him. He chooses mainly, though, to stay at home with roommates Jordan Westerkamp and Imani Cross.

Armstrong’s voice drops a bit as he talks about the inevitable, that Martinez is going to retake the position.

“He’s the guy for this offense,” Armstrong said of Martinez. “I’m going to be patient. If it’s next week, if it’s in two weeks, three weeks, I’m just going to prepare myself the right way.

“I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing. It’s going to be my time. My number’s going to be called every game next year. I’m just preparing the right way.”

Armstrong threw off his back foot in the first half as he tried to navigate balls through a 25 mph wind. The offense got sloppy in the second half. He misfired a few throws, including on the spectacular, one-handed, leaping grab by Kenny Bell that went for a 37-yard touchdown in the third quarter.

“I told him thanks for saving my butt,” Armstrong said.

Mostly, Tommy just clicks.

He and receivers Bell and Enunwa have developed a nice chemistry. Same with I-back Ameer Abdullah, who ran for a career-best 225 yards against the Illini. The O-line, too, has appeared to mesh with the freshman QB.

As for the fans, well, know this: Armstrong is a savant when it comes to running the option. He froze a defender in the second half Saturday with a pitch fake 5 yards past the line of scrimmage, harkening memories of Tommie Frazier.

There’s no path more immediate into the hearts of Husker fans than by running a smooth option play.

Yes, the time is coming, like two trains on a collision path under the night-time sky.

It’s going to get uncomfortable.

LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska coaches continue to plan for the absence on Saturday of Taylor Martinez.

The senior quarterback again did not practice on Tuesday as the Huskers resumed preparations for Illinois after an off day on Monday. The school’s career leader in total offense whose streak of 32 consecutive starts ended two weeks ago, Martinez is out with a turf-toe injury.

Offensive coordinator Tim Beck reiterated the Monday comments of coach Bo Pelini that Martinez must reach “100 percent” to get back in the lineup.

“He’s got to be healthy,” Beck said. “He’s got to say he’s healthy. He’s got to compete like he’s healthy. He’s got to play like he’s healthy.”

Redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong and senior Ron Kellogg III split reps on Tuesday. Beck said the dual-quarterback system, which worked well on Sept. 21 in the Huskers’ 59-20 win over South Dakota State, remains a good option.

“If it helps us win games,” Beck said. “I think those guys are very compatible with each other. They do a good job, and I think it doesn’t really affect our team.”

Martinez likely must practice Wednesday or Thursday in order to play this week. He was not available Tuesday for interviews.

“We’re just getting him ready mentally right now,” Beck said, “making sure he understands the game plan. He’s played a lot of football around here. If there’s a guy who can miss a couple practices, it’s probably him.”

Armstrong completed 12 of 15 passes for 169 yards and one touchdown in his starting debut against South Dakota State. He said on Tuesday that Martinez has stayed supportive of the other quarterbacks.

“Mentally, he seems like he’s ready,” Armstrong said.

And the freshman?

“I’m going to prepare like I’m going to play every game,” he said. “I’m going to stay mentally focused and whenever my number’s called, that’s when I’m going to be ready.”

LINCOLN, Neb. – Taylor Martinez is coming back. It’ll happen.

Maybe not this week, though. And don’t be shocked if he sits for a good portion of October.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez, Gerald Hodges
Bruce Thorson/US PRESSWIREQuarterback Taylor Martinez is questionable for the Cornhuskers' Big Ten opener Saturday against Illinois.
Reading between the lines of Bo Pelini’s comments on Monday, the Nebraska coach appears ready to err on the side of caution in determining the right time for the return on his senior quarterback from a turf-toe injury.

On Sept. 21, Martinez, who has more than 10,000 yards of total offense to his credit among dozens of school records, missed his first game since 2010 as freshman Tommy Armstrong and senior Ron Kellogg III filled in nicely to direct a 59-20 win over South Dakota State.

Since then, Martinez has not practiced. He’s getting closer to 100 percent, Pelini said.

“It’s still to be determined,” Pelini said Monday of the starting assignment against the Illini Saturday (noon ET, ESPNU).

That’s coachspeak.

This from Pelini is not: “I would assume Taylor wants to play. But at the same time, I deal with doctors and trainers. Taylor knows. We’ve talked to him. We’re not putting him out there until I know he’s going to feel 100 percent and can execute our offense at 100 percent.”

Pelini’s thinking represents something of a change from early in the season, when Martinez played at less than 100 percent. His rushing figures decreased each week, from 80 yards against Wyoming to 34 on just six carries against Southern Miss to minus-13 against UCLA.

Martinez is the second-leading active rusher among FBS players with 2,959 career yards, trailing only James White of Wisconsin. When Martinez presents little or no threat to run, his entire game suffers.

You saw it in the second half against UCLA, and it’s why you might not see him in uniform at Memorial Stadium this week.

“You’ve got to be able to put your foot in the ground and go,” Pelini said. “That’s a big part of our offense.”

Martinez won’t return, Pelini said, “until he shows us that he’s ready, willing and able to do that.”

Likely, there’s more at work here. Nebraska is excited about the prospects of Armstrong, the heir apparent to Martinez, who looked ready, willing and able to do it all in his first start, albeit against the FCS-level Jackrabbits. And Kellogg provides a stabilizing, veteran presence.

As a duo, they work.

Additionally, look at the schedule. After upstart Illinois, the Huskers travel to 1-4 Purdue before another bye week. The Huskers need a healthy Martinez for the stretch run that starts Oct. 26 with Minnesota and includes Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Iowa.

Pelini said he feels better about Armstrong and Kellogg than he did before they directed Nebraska to its first-ever 300-yard rushing, 300-yard passing game against SDSU.

“I have a lot of confidence in those guys,” Pelini said. “I think they are both good players. I know we’ll play well around them, too, whatever gives us the best chance to win the football game. We’ll have somebody who is physically and mentally ready to roll at that position.”

Offensive guard Spencer Long said he knew from their practice reps that Armstrong and Kellogg could handle the job.

“It’s really just a matter of doing it in front of 92,000 people,” Long said. “They showed that they could.”

For his part, Kellogg said he’s preparing to start, though Pelini said if Martinez can’t go, Armstrong would probably remain as the first to play.

As for Martinez, he has handled the waiting time of past two weeks, according to Kellogg, “like an adult.”

Don’t be surprised if the wait continues.

Take 2: B1G vs. Pac-12

July, 12, 2013
Your B1G and Pac-12 bloggers have been grinding away on their respective leagues' nonconference primer series. Here's the Big Ten series, and here's the Pac-12 series. Part of the fun is learning about other teams in other conferences and what they bring to the table. The Pac-12 and Big Ten face each other five times during the regular season. The Pac-12 got the better of the matchups last year. Will this year be different? Brian Bennett and Kevin Gemmell decided to talk it over.

Brian Bennett: The first thing I look at for Big Ten-Pac-12 matchups in any given season is where the games are staged. Big Ten teams don’t seem to think the West Coast is the Best Coast; they are just 5-20 in true road games against the Pac-12 since 2000, and that includes an 0-3 mark on the road versus the Pac-12 last year. (The league also has just one win in its past 10 Rose Bowls, but not all of those games came against the Pac-12.)

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
AP Photo/David StlukaNew coach Gary Andersen and the Badgers will have their hands full at ASU this season.
So it’s not good news for the league that I cover that three of these five matchups are located far left of the Midwest. If there’s any reason for optimism, it’s that the Big Ten teams should be substantial favorites in two of the road games -- Northwestern at Cal in the opener and Ohio State against those same Bears in Week 3. Cal is intriguing because of new coach Sonny Dykes, but Northwestern and Ohio State are both legitimate Top 20 teams with conference-title aspirations; if they can shake off the jet lag and contain the Bears’ passing attack, they should take care of business.

The two most interesting games -- and what look like virtual toss-ups -- are Wisconsin at Arizona State, and UCLA at Nebraska. The Badgers have a lot of returning talent, but a new head coach and different schemes on both sides of the ball. It’s also going to be a clash of styles, with the Badgers’ power running game going up against Arizona State’s spread offense. Will Gary Andersen’s team have its new systems figured out by then, and is Wisconsin’s defense -- particularly its inexperienced secondary -- fast enough to handle the Sun Devils?

UCLA-Nebraska is probably not getting enough attention as a must-watch game this year. Last year’s shootout in Pasadena, Calif., featured nonstop pingpong action, and both teams figure to have topflight offenses again. The Cornhuskers have a perilously young defense, but Bo Pelini’s teams usually defend much better at home than on the road. Quarterback Taylor Martinez -- who grew up a Bruins fan but was recruited by them as a defensive back -- will be highly motivated to beat UCLA his senior year. This is Nebraska’s only major test in the first seven games, and it’s one I think the Huskers have to find a way to win.

Finally, there’s Washington at Illinois. The Illini get the benefit of home turf, sort of, as the game will be played at Soldier Field in Chicago. We’ll see if Tim Beckman’s crew will inspire enough fans to show up by Week 3. While Washington has been mediocre for what seems like forever, I can’t confidently pick Illinois to beat any half-decent power conference opponent at this point.

In the end, I say the Big Ten manages a winning record this time around against the Pac-12, taking the two games in Berkeley, Calif., and the one in Lincoln, Neb. A 3-2 mark sounds about right, though if Wisconsin can pull off the win in the desert, that could be a good sign for both the Badgers and the league as a whole.

Kevin Gemmell: I'm going 3-2 also, but in favor of the Pac-12. After all, if we were in total agreement, it would make for a pretty boring Take 2. So I'll play the contrarian when it comes to UCLA-Nebraska.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
William Mancebo/Getty ImagesCoach Jim Mora and UCLA allowed just six points in the second half of last year's win against Nebraska.
We agree on the Cal games versus Northwestern and Ohio State -- though I think Cal is going to give both of those teams a better run than they are banking on. I like what Andy Buh is doing with a defense that could be sneaky good. And the Bears have some explosive depth at wide receiver. But ultimately it's a rookie quarterback -- whomever Dykes chooses among Zach Kline, Jared Goff and Austin Hinder -- and a team that will still have some growing pains as new systems are installed on both sides of the ball. Like you with Illinois, I'm not ready to give the Bears the green light yet. However, last year's game in Columbus, a 35-28 win for Ohio State, should serve as a reminder not to take Cal lightly. No doubt, the Buckeyes will remember Brendan Bigelow and his four carries, 160 yards and two touchdowns.

Both halves of the Pac-12 blog have been saying we believe Washington is going to get over that seven-win hump this year after three straight seasons of mediocrity. The Huskies have a lot of pieces in place with a returning quarterback, a 1,400-yard rusher, good receivers, a good line and the top tight end in the country. Their defense made huge strides last season in the first year under Justin Wilcox, and we're expecting another leap forward in 2013. What scares me is Washington's inconsistent play on the road the past few seasons. During the Huskies' trio of 7-6 seasons, they are 14-5 in Seattle (last year they played at CenturyLink Field) and 6-11 on the road. The past two years they are 11-2 at home and 3-8 on the road (0-2 in their bowl games at neutral sites). If the Huskies want to have a breakout year, they are going to have to win away from home. Steve Sarkisian actually talked about this in a Q&A we did back in April. But they certainly have the talent to win this game.

The ASU-Wisconsin game is really a critical one for the Sun Devils. It kicks off a four-game stretch (with no bye weeks) that also includes Stanford, USC and Notre Dame. ASU is another team looking for some national credibility, and this is its first opportunity to get some. You're right to talk about the ASU offense, but that defense -- which ranked first nationally in tackles for a loss and second in sacks last season -- is going to be crazy good with Will Sutton and Carl Bradford leading the attack. I'm banking on a good game, but ultimately one ASU wins at home.

That brings us to UCLA-Nebraska, a game I'm also surprised more people aren't geeked up about outside of the respective fan bases. This should be a fantastic showcase for both leagues. Brett Hundley impressed in his freshman campaign, and I think this game is going to be a spotlight for two of the country's most athletic quarterbacks. I was in Pasadena for the game last season, and what actually stood out to me was UCLA's defense -- particularly in the second half. The Bruins allowed only six points, and kept Martinez to 11 yards rushing and the Huskers to 106 total yards in the final 30 minutes. They should be improved in Year 2 under Jim Mora and Lou Spanos. If the Bruins pull this one off, it's going to be because of what they can do defensively.

Video: College Football Conference Call

March, 28, 2013

A 2-10 season for Illinois and Tim Beckham has put the first year coach on the hot seat.

Has something seemed odd to you about the BCS bowls this year? Does it seem like ... oh wait, West Virginia just scored again.

Does it seem like ... wait, there goes De'Anthony Thomas. Don't think he'll get caught from behind.

Does it seem like ... wait, would somebody please tackle Justin Blackmon?

Does it seem like there have been a lot of points this bowl season?

It's not just you. There have been a lot of points. More points than ever before. And by huge quantities.

So far, BCS bowl teams have averaged a total of 77 points in the Rose, Fiesta, Orange and Sugar bowls. That, folks, is nearly 26 points more than last year (51.6). And it's nearly 11 points better than the previous high of 66.3 from 2001-02.

Perhaps pairing two SEC teams in the title game has created a black hole sucking all defensive stinginess into the LSU-Alabama rematch, which you might recall went 9-6 with no touchdowns in their first meeting. West Virginia scored 10 touchdowns -- 10! -- against Clemson. Alabama gave up 12 TDs all season.

Speaking of Clemson: ACC. Well, well, well.

After the Tigers ingloriously fell 70-33 to the Mountaineers, we got our second story from the BCS bowl season: The ACC's insistence on throwing up on itself in BCS bowl games.

The conference that was once expected to challenge the SEC is now 2-13 in BCS bowl games. That's hard to do. You'd think in 15 BCS bowls the conference could get lucky at least five or six times. But no, it insists on making ACC blogger Heather Dinich, a genuinely nice person, into some sort of Grim Reaper every bowl season.

Heck, the Big East has won seven BCS bowls -- second fewest among AQ conferences -- but it's 7-7.

Of course, this all ties together, and we're here to bring out a bow, but first a warning: If you don't want to read about how good the SEC is for the 56,314th time this year, then stop reading. I'd recommend an episode of "South Park" or perhaps a John le Carré thriller as an alternative for passing the time.

We can all agree the SEC plays great defense right? Alabama and LSU will play for the title Monday with the nation's top-two defenses. Do you think perhaps that it's not a coincidence that the conference that is 16-7 in BCS bowl games plays great defense?

The only other AQ conference with a winning record in BCS bowl games is the Pac-12, which is 11-7. The Pac-12 isn't known for defense, either, but USC was when it won the conference's last national title in 2004.

The only team to win a BCS national title without an elite defense was Auburn in 2010, but the Tigers' defense seemed to find itself late in the season. Since 1999, eight national champions had a top-10 defense. Other than Auburn, the lowest-rated defense to win a BCS national title was Ohio State in 2002. It ranked 23rd in the nation in total defense.

Three of the four BCS bowl games have been thrillers. Two went to overtime. We've seen big plays all over the field in the passing game and running game. Yet, if things go according to script in the title game, we'll see none of that. We might not see more than a couple of plays that go for more than 20 yards. We might not see any.

Some might call that boring. It might seem that both offenses are so paranoid of making a mistake that they are stuck in mud, both in game plan and execution.

But, snoozefest or not, when the clock strikes zero a team from the SEC will hoist the crystal football for a sixth consecutive time.

That might say something about playing better defense.

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl

December, 4, 2011
Illinois Fighting Illini (6-6) vs. UCLA Bruins (6-7)

Dec. 31, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Illinois take from Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett: A bowl game is a San Francisco treat for Illinois, which lost its final six games of the season and fired head coach Ron Zook.

The Illini secured bowl eligibility on Oct. 8, beating Indiana to improve to 6-0 and move into the top 20 of the polls. From there came a stunning free fall, thanks in large part to an offense that forgot how to move the ball; Illinois scored just 66 total points in its final six games after averaging nearly 30 in the first half of the season. The offensive line is a mess, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase seems to have regressed in his sophomore year.

The one constant was the defense. Defensive end Whitney Mercilus leads the nation in sacks (14.5) and forced fumbles (nine, a Big Ten record). No wonder, then, that defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was named interim head coach when the school canned Zook. But Koenning says there's no guarantee that he and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino won't leave for other employment before the bowl game.

The Illini's finish made them so unappealing that they got shut out of the Big Ten's bowl lineup. So San Francisco is a nice landing spot, and UCLA -- a 6-7 team that also fired its head coach --- seems like the most fitting opponent.

UCLA take from Pac-12 blogger Ted Miller: UCLA is heading to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl with an interim coach and losing record. Yeah, it's been that kind of season.

Coach Rick Neuheisel began the season on the hot seat and he couldn't get off it. Only once could the Bruins win consecutive games. The offense ran the ball well but struggled to find any balance with a consistent passing game. And the defense was just terrible.

Things got off to a bad start with a loss at Houston. Neuheisel had made a big deal in the preseason of how important the game was, and the Bruins had stomped the Cougars the previous year. But the Bruins got off to a slow start and couldn't finish a comeback. Then, after a win over San Jose State, the Bruins got clubbed at home by Texas, another team they had beaten the year before.

Then they started alternating wins and losses, beating Oregon State, losing to Stanford and beating Washington State. Things cratered -- it seemed -- in a loss at Arizona, which had just fired coach Mike Stoops.

But then the Bruins beat California and Arizona State back-to-back. Both were upsets. And the combination suddenly put the Bruins in the drivers' seat of the reeling South Division. But the Bruins couldn't maintain. They lost to Utah, beat Colorado and then got crushed 50-0 against rival USC.

The UCLA coach needs to be competitive with the Trojans, and Neuheisel wasn't on Nov. 26 and hasn’t been during his tenure. So he was fired, even though the Bruins backed into the Pac-12 title game. The loss to Oregon dropped the Bruins to 6-7, but they nonetheless will play in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl after the NCAA granted it a waiver.
Paul Chryst and Pat NarduzziGetty ImagesPat Narduzzi, left, and Paul Chryst coordinate elite units, which will lock horns in the Big Ten title game.

If your team has a head-coaching vacancy -- looking at you, Illinois fans -- you're probably hearing the names Paul Chryst and Pat Narduzzi right about now.

Chryst, the Wisconsin offensive coordinator, and Narduzzi, the Michigan State defensive coordinator, are the two hottest candidates among Big Ten assistants to become head coaches in the coming days and weeks.

Both men have been instrumental in Wisconsin and Michigan State becoming new powers in the Big Ten. Both men oversee units ranked in the top 15 nationally in several major statistical categories (scoring defense, total defense, pass defense, rush defense, scoring offense, total offense, rushing offense). And both should be fielding some calls from other programs.

If you're not familiar with Chryst and Narduzzi, there's some good news for you. They'll be coaching directly against one another Saturday night when No. 13 Michigan State takes on No. 15 Wisconsin in the inaugural Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis.

While Chryst is working on another record-setting season with Wisconsin's offense, Narduzzi's defense has taken a significant step forward this year.

The Spartans' defense moved from good -- it ranked 43rd nationally in total defense and 39th in points allowed last year -- to nationally elite. Michigan State's defense leads the Big Ten in the following categories: rushing defense (102.5 yards per game), total defense (266.7 ypg), sacks (38), interceptions (16) and third-down defense (32.9 percent conversions). Narduzzi's crew has held seven opponents to 17 points or fewer and six opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards. Michigan State has allowed only eight rushing touchdowns all year and just 30 trips inside the red zone.

"I think he's a genius," Spartans senior safety Trenton Robinson said. "With how we watch film and how he breaks everything down -- him and the GAs and the coaches -- they do such a great job. Every game we go into, even the games that we've lost, we lost on not executing. It's not like bad coaching, play calls or anything, it’s just us missing a tackle or blowing a coverage ."

Narduzzi and the other Michigan State coaches were off-limits to the media this week, but he took some time this spring with to break down the Spartans' approach to defending the power run. Check out the videos here and here. Coincidentally, the opponent in the clips is Wisconsin.

Robinson said he and his fellow defenders are never shocked by a formation or a play an opponent showcases. They've already seen it in practice.

Narduzzi also keeps his players in mind when crafting game plans.

"Nothing's really complicated for us," said Robinson, who is tied with teammate Isaiah Lewis for the Big Ten interceptions lead with four. "He makes it as simple as possible, and if the guys aren't liking something, like a certain play, coach will be like, 'You guys aren't liking this? OK, scratch it. If you're not comfortable with it, we're not doing it.' So he makes sure all of us players are comfortable with the calls that he has. It's a great thing."

Wisconsin's offense has thrived in Chryst's five-plus seasons as offensive coordinator, averaging more than 34 points per game. Last year the Badgers averaged 41.5 points, shattering the team scoring record by more than a touchdown per game. This year's unit is on pace to surpass the mark, averaging 44.8 points a game.

Under Chryst's watch Wisconsin has produced the Big Ten offensive player of the year in two of the past three seasons (running back John Clay in 2009, running back Montee Ball this year). Quarterbacks like John Stocco, Scott Tolzien and more recently Russell Wilson are among the most successful in team history.

"Paul Chryst uses players' abilities as good as any coach I've ever been around," Badgers head coach Bret Bielema said. "As a head coach, you really appreciate coordinators that understand the skill set of your players and how to use them and maximize those skills. Everybody has a weakness, and if you can hide it or minimize it, you're going to be better overall. Paul really does a good job of that."

Montee Ball
Andrew Weber/US PresswireWith Montee Ball (28) and Russell Wilson (16), coordinator Paul Chryst has made Wisconsin's offense even more prolific than in past years.
Wisconsin's offense lacks glitz or gimmicks, and the Badgers make no secret about their intention to overpower their opponents from a one-back set. Although Wisconsin recruits to its vision on offense, Chryst has shown the ability to adjust, especially this year with Wilson, whose skills are unlike what the Badgers typically have at quarterback.

"We'll do some things that will become staples of your offense or of your program," Chryst said, "but each year, you adjust to the players you have."

Chryst played a big role in attracting Wilson to Madison from North Carolina State, and Wilson describes his coach as having "a calmness to him, but a competitive edge that most people can't match."

"He always wants his players to understand the whys of football," Wilson said. "That's what I love. ... I ask a lot of questions."

Wilson admits to peppering Chryst about his past experiences working with quarterbacks like Derek Anderson at Oregon State. Chryst also spent time with Drew Brees during a one-year stint as a San Diego Chargers offensive assistant.

"The value to coaching a lot of different players is it really just reinforces how different each guy is," Chryst said. "It's your job as a coach then to know the player and then adjust. There's a lot of different ways to have success. You realize Scotty Tolzien can have success different than Russell Wilson or Derek Anderson or other guys I've been around."

Chryst's name has come up before at this time of year for coaching vacancies elsewhere. Texas courted him for its offensive coordinator vacancy after the 2010 season, and Chryst was on Purdue's radar to replace Joe Tiller.

Earlier this week Chryst denied having contact with Illinois about its vacancy, and he remains focused on facing the Narduzzi-led Spartans defense on Saturday night.

"You can put yourself into a cocoon," he said. "Who cares what's being rumored about? I've got a job and that's to coach football here at Wisconsin. The best thing you can do is do your job well."

Both Chryst and Narduzzi have done their jobs very well this season, possibly setting them up for better things.

Zook's dismissal was long overdue

November, 27, 2011

Ron Zook needed to go. No one’s denying that.

But Zook’s time shouldn’t have run out on Sunday. It should have run out two years ago.

[+] EnlargeRon Zook
Kirby Lee/US PresswireRon Zook was unable to capitalize on Illinois' run to the 2008 Rose Bowl.

Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas’ move Sunday to fire Zook was like deciding to discard a carton milk that was well past its expiration date. Zook’s best days as Illinois’ coach had come and gone. Illinois’ epic collapse this season -- during which the Illini lost their final six games -- made it easier on Thomas in his first year on the job.

Firing Zook would have been the tougher but proper action following Illinois’ 2009 season. Former Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther had the opportunity to do so, but he prolonged Zook’s tenure. Guenther left the decision up to Thomas when he retired prior to this school year.

In 2009, the program was two years beyond Zook’s greatest accomplishment -- the 2007 Rose Bowl season. The evidence was strong that the Illini hadn’t benefitted from their Rose Bowl appearance, and they weren’t about to either.

Illinois went 5-7 overall and 3-5 in the Big Ten in 2008. A year later, the Illini were even worse, going 3-9 overall and 2-6 in the Big Ten.

At that point, Zook had five seasons under his belt, the standard length of time a coach is given to prove himself these days. In five years, coaches have enough time to recruit their own players and fully implement their systems.

Zook had his five years, and there wasn’t many indications the program was succeeding or improving under him. Four of those campaigns ended with a losing record -- that Rose Bowl year being the lone exception. Illinois had gone 21-39 overall and 12-28 in the Big Ten during that period.

No one would have been surprised if 2009 was Zook’s final season. Plenty of athletic directors would have ended it then and looked for someone else to get the job done. It was certainly what a number of Illinois fans were after.

Guenther disagreed.

“There's a great deal of frustration obviously with the program at the moment," Guenther told reporters at the time. “We're still going to evaluate, but I think it's really unfair to start jumping at the end of the fifth year on a guy.”

Instead, Guenther retained Zook, fired the team’s offensive and defensive coordinators and went out and paid top dollar for two new coordinators. It was his way of hitting the reset button on Zook’s tenure.

Last season, Illinois again tasted moderate success. Having experienced three winning seasons since 2000, Illini fans were ecstatic about a somewhat positive year. The Illini went 7-6 overall, 4-4 in the Big Ten and won the Texas Bowl against a Baylor team that struggled late in the season.

Still, the only way last season could have been deemed a true success if it was springboard for an even bigger 2011 season.

Of course, that wasn’t to be. After being set up with five homes games in their first six contests, in which they took care of business, they dropped their next six games. Illinois currently stands at 6-6 , hoping for a bowl invitation.

Which brings us to Sunday.

Although two years too late and under the wrong athletic director’s watch, Zook’s era was brought to a close, igniting some optimism in Champaign.

Thomas hired two successful football coaches -- Brian Kelly and Butch Jones -- during his time at Cincinnati. Thomas will now try to duplicate the feat and find himself a coach who can bring stability to an Illinois program that has never won bowl games in consecutive seasons.

Unlike his decision to let Zook go, this likely won’t be as easy.

Video: Can Illini fix their problems?

November, 15, 2011

Adam Rittenberg examines the kinds of changes the Illini must make in order to turn their season around.
Before the season Illinois senior wide receiver A.J. Jenkins predicted he was going to have a significant year. So far, he’s been dead on.

A.J. Jenkins
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesIllinois receiver A.J. Jenkins leads the nation with 815 yards receiving.
Jenkins leads the country with 815 receiving yards and is also among the nation’s best with 46 receptions and seven touchdowns while helping Illinois to a 6-0 start.

Jenkins spoke with this week about his season, the team’s year and more prior to Saturday’s match up against Ohio State.

Q: Is this the type of season you envisioned for yourself?
A:Yeah, when you put in all the hard work you have in the offseason and just prepare yourself. The whole offense is feeling good. It’s not just me. It’s [quarterback] Nate [Scheelhaase.] It’s the line. It’s coach [Paul] Petrino. Obviously, I put in a lot of work in the offseason, so I can have a good year. Hopefully, I keep doing what I’m doing.

Q: How much of what you’ve done is your improvement, and how much of it is Scheelhaase’s growth?
A: Honestly, we have a class together. We kind of built a bond, built a friendship now. Me and coach P’s relationship is a lot closer. Now, we trust each other. When it comes to the game of football, you got to have trust. Once Nate and I had class, we talk more, we chill out more. We got that trust thing going. On the field, he trusts me to make plays. I trust him to make the right reads. I trust him on and off the field.

Q: You’ve been at Illinois for the good and the bad. Does it make this year’s success sweeter?
A: It definitely feels like it was long ago [we struggled.] Last year, we went to our first bowl game. Honestly, we’ve got momentum going into this year. We’ve been through it. We now know how to finish and keep rolling from there. Hopefully, we keep that going on Saturday. I really don’t reflect on the bad times.

Q: You’ve said your comment earlier this season about being the Big Ten’s best wide receiver was taken out of context, but what’s wrong with saying you belong with the cream of the crop in the conference?
A: Me saying that, people took it and ran with, saying I was being disrespectful of all the better receivers in the Big Ten. I wasn’t doing that all. I don’t know if there’s anything wrong with it. I’m trying to be the best player I can be. That’s all I was trying to say.

Q: Do you feel you’re an elite receiver now?
A: I don’t know. I hope I can be one of the best receivers. I’m just out there playing. I’m just doing me. I’m not really worried about anything like that.

Q: Do you think about your NFL prospects?
A: Not at all. I’ve not even thought that far ahead. I’m starting to look ahead to O-State.

Q: Do you think Illinois has received the respect nationally it deserves at this point for being 6-0?
A: I don’t really know. I don’t know what they’re saying. I’m just preparing myself for the game. I don’t know what they’re saying. I don’t know what the media is saying. I don’t feed into all of the ESPN talk or whatever the talk is. I keep focused on what’s really important.

Q: So you don’t read anything?
A:I just don’t like reading stuff like that. If there’s bad stuff, you get sad. It kind of makes a person mad. It can mess up a team’s focus. I just don’t go online and read stuff. I don’t go searching for things. I watch ESPN, but I don’t go searching for things.

Video: Illinois coach shuffle

December, 15, 2009

Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg analyzes the recent coaching developments at Illinois.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Five lessons from the week that was in the Big Ten:

1. Iowa is foolproof in the clutch -- After a long stretch of heartbreaking losses from 2006-2008, Iowa has won its last five games decided by five points or fewer. The Hawkeyes have fallen behind in both of their Big Ten games and rallied behind tremendous special teams play, opportunistic defense and a resilient quarterback in Ricky Stanzi. Since upsetting Penn State last November, Iowa has displayed a team-wide confidence when things get close. The Hawkeyes might not be able to live on the edge much longer given their schedule, but they're a good bet when the score gets close late in games.

2. Ohio State's defense is the Big Ten's best unit -- Jim Heacock's defense once again has made the Buckeyes the team to beat in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes rank seventh nationally in points allowed and 11th in total defense, and they're forcing more turnovers than they have in past years. No Big Ten offense comes close from a talent and execution standpoint, and while Iowa's defense has been solid, Michigan exposed some weaknesses Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. Despite losing several national award winners, Ohio State's defense repeatedly makes big plays and rescues an offense that still hasn't found its rhythm. Sure, the Buckeyes allowed yards to Wisconsin, but they forced major mistakes and didn't wear down despite being on the field for 42:47.

3. Minnesota can run the football -- Tim Brewster wants to restore Minnesota as a rushing powerhouse, and the Gophers took a big step Saturday. Eight players combined for 207 rush yards and four touchdowns in Saturday's victory against Purdue. Redshirt freshman Kevin Whaley provided a spark off the bench, and quarterback Adam Weber got more involved in the run game with nine carries and a touchdown. Weber only attempted nine passes in the victory, two of which were intercepted. Wide receiver Eric Decker might be the Big Ten's best offensive player, but Minnesota knows it needs to run the ball to win Big Ten games.

4. Big Ten getting defensive -- It's very clear midway through the season that the Big Ten won't be an offensive league in 2009. While veteran quarterbacks have struggled a bit and one potential juggernaut (Illinois) has totally crumbled, the league's defenses are once again the story. Both Ohio State and Penn State boast top-20 units, and Iowa has at times been the league's most impressive defense. Minnesota's linebackers have sparked an improved defense, while both Michigan State and Northwestern are starting to see their veteran-laden units step up. Both Michigan and Wisconsin showed good things on defense despite losses, while the league's bottom three (Purdue, Indiana, Illinois) are all struggling to stop anybody.

5. Michigan not a finished product -- Credit the Wolverines for never giving up and always finding ways to hang around in games, but it's clear that head coach Rich Rodriguez is still very much in the building stage. Michigan is still too prone to defensive breakdowns, and its special-teams play, aside from all-world punter Zoltan Mesko, left much to be desired against Iowa. Despite Tate Forcier's late-game magic earlier this season, Rodriguez didn't go back to the freshman quarterback in crunch time after some earlier struggles. The talent is there and Michigan will continue to improve, but things aren't falling into place just yet.