Big Ten: Jadeveon Clowney

LSU-Wisconsin primer

August, 27, 2014
8/27/14
12:00
PM ET
For more than a decade, no FBS programs have experienced more success in out-of-conference games during the regular season than LSU and Wisconsin -- programs that open the season against one another on Saturday in Houston.

LSU has not lost a nonconference game in the regular season since falling to Virginia Tech on Sept. 7, 2002. Since then it has won 45 straight, while Wisconsin’s record in that same time period is 43-3, the nation’s second-best winning percentage (.935).

Obviously one of them is going to lose on Saturday, though, so let’s take a look at some of the key factors in the LSU-Wisconsin game and what a win might mean for their respective conferences.

Key to victory for Wisconsin: Dominate the line of scrimmage. That’s always the motto for the Badgers, who showed they could fare just fine against an SEC defense when they ran for 293 yards against South Carolina (and Jadeveon Clowney) in the Jan. 1 Capital One Bowl. Controlling the game on the ground with Melvin Gordon, Corey Clement and a talented offensive line becomes an even higher priority given Wisconsin’s inexperience at receiver and quarterback, where Tanner McEvoy makes his first FBS start. And the Badgers’ 3-4 defense has to win battles up front and make LSU beat it through the air.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsLSU may need Anthony Jennings (10) and Brandon Harris (6) to have success against Wisconsin.
Key to victory for LSU: With a talented backfield and experienced offensive line, the Tigers figure to run the ball effectively against a retooled Wisconsin defensive front. But it will be up to LSU quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris to do just enough with the pass to prevent the Badgers from crowding the box to defend the run. Regardless of which quarterback is on the field, he will have either little or no college experience. If the Tigers throw the ball as ineffectively as Jennings did in his lone start -- LSU’s 21-14 Outback Bowl win over Iowa, where he was 7-for-19 for 82 yards, no touchdowns and one interception -- it might become difficult to move the ball even against an inexperienced Wisconsin defense.

Keep an eye on: Wisconsin linebacker Vince Biegel. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound sophomore could give the Badgers the pass-rushing and playmaking presence they desperately need from their completely revamped defensive front seven. Biegel will be critical in both helping against the run and creating havoc in the LSU backfield from his outside linebacker spot. Like many players at his position for Wisconsin, he has been nicked up in fall practice. But after a breakout spring, Biegel could be a guy who announces himself as an up-and-coming star on this national stage.

Keep an eye on: LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander. One of the Tigers’ top playmakers at linebacker last season, Alexander has shifted from strongside linebacker to Lamin Barrow's old spot on the weak side, which should allow him to be even more active on defense. His sideline-to-sideline speed and tackling ability should make him a great fit for the new role. Alexander and the LSU defense will have their hands full with a powerful Wisconsin running game that features Heisman Trophy contender Gordon. But if Alexander lives up to the reputation he’s already started building at his new position, he’s in line for a huge season, starting Saturday.

What win will mean for Big Ten: Marquee nonconference wins have been in short supply for the Big Ten in recent years, and there would be no better way to build instant credibility than by gaining a win over an established SEC power. Wisconsin would become an immediate playoff contender, as the rest of its schedule is extremely favorable. Other league teams would also get a boost in terms of conference perception. The doom-and-gloom outlook for the Big Ten since Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller's season-ending shoulder injury would fade away quickly with a Badgers victory in Houston.

What win will mean for SEC: LSU has been the SEC’s standard bearer in the past decade when it comes to these marquee nonconference openers. LSU's aforementioned 45 straight nonconference wins in the regular season is the nation’s longest streak. That includes wins in 11 straight openers, against such opponents as TCU, Oregon, North Carolina, Washington, Oregon State and Arizona State. LSU beating Wisconsin would be another feather in the SEC’s cap, solidifying its status as the nation’s best conference.

Capital One Bowl preview

January, 1, 2014
1/01/14
9:00
AM ET
Wisconsin is hoping to change the Big Ten's fortunes with a win in the Capital One Bowl, while South Carolina is on the verge of clinching a program-best third straight season with a bowl win.

The two teams will face each other at 1 p.m. ET on Wednesday (ABC). Here's a quick preview:

Who to watch: South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney and Wisconsin LB Chris Borland. This will be the last college game for both players, and you can bet they'll want to end their respective careers on a high note. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will almost certainly call Clowney's name within the first five picks of the draft, and Borland was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Clowney has dealt with injuries and more double-teams this season, so his stats are down -- but, when he's on, he's one of the most exciting players in college to watch. Borland led his team with 102 tackles -- 40 more stops than the No. 2 tackler -- and has been the heartbeat of Wisconsin's defense. Both of these defensive players have the uncanny ability to take control of a game.

What to watch: Wisconsin's run game. It's no secret that if the Badgers are going to win, then they're going to have to run the ball. That's been the staple of their offense. Wisconsin is the only team in the FBS with two running backs, James White and Melvin Gordon, who both average more than 100 rushing yards a game. And the Badgers are second in the FBS by averaging 6.61 yards per carry. On the flip side, South Carolina's defensive line will be a huge test for this rushing attack. DT Kelcy Quarles has been compared to Warren Sapp and currently has 13.5 tackles for loss to go along with 9.5 sacks. Then, of course, there's Clowney. Wisconsin's success rushing the ball could march hand in hand with its overall success in this game.

Why to watch: This game features some of the best defensive players either conference has to offer, three all-conference tailbacks will be showcased, and then there's South Carolina QB Connor Shaw (21 TDs, 1 INT) and Wisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis (73 catches, 1,051 yards). What's not to love? Outside of that, this is the first-ever matchup of these two teams, and the Badgers are trying to rebound from an upset to Penn State. Both teams weren't that far off from BCS bowls, so this is a strong matchup for the Capital One Bowl.

Prediction: South Carolina 28, Wisconsin 24.
Gary Andersen has helped compile extensive scouting reports for both defenses appearing in Wednesday's Capital One Bowl.

In the summer of 2012, Andersen, then Utah State's coach, examined a Wisconsin team that his Aggies would face in Week 3. South Carolina's defense has been on the top of his mind the past three weeks, as Andersen prepares Wisconsin to face the Gamecocks.

[+] EnlargeChris Borland
Dan Sanger/Icon SMIFour-year Wisconsin starter Chris Borland is set to close out his college career on Wednesday.
Not surprisingly, the South Carolina report is filled with mentions of Jadeveon Clowney, just like the Wisconsin report was with Chris Borland a year and a half ago.

"If you're playing Wisconsin, you're going to want to know where Chris is, and the same thing with Clowney as you're getting ready to play South Carolina," Andersen told ESPN.com. "They deserve that; they're that good. They're very similar players in those areas."

Similar might not be the first term used to link Clowney, South Carolina's junior defensive end, and Borland, Wisconsin's senior middle linebacker. Clowney is 6-foot-6 and 274 pounds, a rare physical specimen who came into college as the nation's No. 1 recruit and could exit as the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. Clowney recorded a team-record 13.5 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss as a sophomore, earned unanimous All-America honors and finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting, leading many to wonder if he should even play this season before jumping to the NFL. He suited up for South Carolina and, despite some speed bumps, still earned first-team All-SEC honors.

Borland is short at 5-foot-11. His recruiting profile next to Clowney's is laughable. He played soccer and other sports growing up, didn't participate in organized football until high school and appeared headed for a Division III school until wowing Wisconsin at a summer camp before his senior season. Of the 17 players in Wisconsin's 2009 recruiting class graded by ESPN recruiting, Borland received the second lowest.

He'll finish his career Wednesday as one of the best defensive players in team history, a four-year starter with multiple All-America honors who earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors this season. His NFL draft forecast isn't as promising as Clowney's -- most mocks have him in the second or third round -- but few defensive players have more accomplished college careers.

"He's as good as advertised," Andersen said, "just like I'm sure the Clowney kid is."

Clowney was the first player Andersen and Wisconsin's offensive coaches discussed when crafting Wednesday's game plan. But the strength of South Carolina's overall front seven, which includes first-team All-SEC tackle Kelcy Quarles and second-team All-SEC linebacker Sharrod Golightly, prevents the Badgers from constantly doubling, chipping or avoiding No. 7.

"Is he consciously in our game plan? Yes. But is every play designed to run away from him? Absolutely not," Andersen said. "We've got to get in there and do what we do. Our goal is to block him and put him a spot where he can't make plays."

South Carolina will take a similar approach against Borland, just like Andersen did with Utah State in 2012. It won't be easy, largely because of the position Borland plays.

Utah State tried to take Borland out of the box with formations to make him play more in space.

"A defensive end is on the left side or the right side," Andersen said. "Chris starts every play usually right in the middle of the defense, so it's harder to scheme if you want to run the ball between the tackles."

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Jim Dedmon/Icon SMIThe Badgers will need to know where South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney is at all times.
Andersen has never seen a college player quite like Clowney. Wisconsin guard Ryan Groy called the South Carolina star "a breed of his own" and admits there's no one that truly prepare you for his size-strength-speed combination.

Clowney also is an effective gambler, taking chances with inside moves both against the run and the pass. Defensive ends risk losing contain by doing this, but Clowney still usually covers the edge.

"You would never allow a young man who can't recover if he's making those inside moves, but it's also part of their scheme," Andersen said. "They have a backer that overhangs him and pre-snap, it's very difficult to sit there and understand that's what you’re going to get. He does a nice job of not giving it away when he's going to make those moves, and maybe it's just him reacting. Maybe he's that gifted that he feels like you're reaching a little bit and he can come underneath that block, or if you get a little bit on your heels in a pass set, he's either going to right through you or he’s going to come on an inside move.

"They probably don't even look at it as taking chances. They probably look at it as, 'This is our defensive scheme.'"

Clowney has one year of eligibility remaining, but Wednesday marks his final game with South Carolina. He participated in senior day ceremonies Nov. 30.

"He'll be an instant pro when the game is over," Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said Tuesday.

It will be a shock if Clowney isn't one of the first five names called at April's NFL draft. Borland still can boost his stock at the Senior Bowl and other pre-draft events.

His height will come up, but Andersen has received positive feedback from NFL scouts, who liken Borland to two other shorter linebackers, Sam Mills and Zach Thomas, who had 12 Pro Bowl appearances and 11 All-Pro selections in their careers.

"Somebody better take him early because if somebody takes him late, Chris is going to make a whole lot of people look bad," Andersen said. "He’s going to be a great player in that league for many, many years, not just because he's so talented, but because he's such a great preparer and his care factor is as good or anybody that I've ever been around."
The Big Ten is off to a rocky start in the postseason. Our predictions are faring slightly better, but there are five games to go.

We made our picks for the first two Big Ten bowls last week and both went 1-1. The overall season race remains all square.

New Year's Day will feature Nebraska in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Iowa in the Outback Bowl, Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl and Michigan State in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO. Ohio State wraps up the Big Ten bowl slate Friday in the Discover Orange Bowl.

Let's get started.

TAXSLAYER.COM GATOR BOWL
Nebraska vs. Georgia; 11 a.m. ET Wednesday; Jacksonville, Fla.

Brian Bennett's pick: Nebraska should be as healthy as it has been since midseason, and I expect the Huskers to put together a pretty good showing. Ameer Abdullah will enjoy coming back to the south with 130 rushing yards and two scores. Ultimately, though, the Nebraska defense has no answer for Todd Gurley, who churns out 175 yards and three scores, and a late Tommy Armstrong Jr. interception seals it for the Dawgs for the second straight year. … Georgia 31, Nebraska 23

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Motivation could be a factor in this one as both teams had much higher aspirations this season. Neither has its starting quarterback, although Nebraska has played without Taylor Martinez a lot longer than Georgia has without Aaron Murray. But the Bulldogs remain explosive on offense with running back Gurley, who gashes Nebraska for 140 yards and two touchdowns. The Huskers lead early and get another big game from Abdullah, but they commit two costly second-half turnovers and Georgia rallies behind Gurley and Hutson Mason. … Georgia 34, Nebraska 27

OUTBACK BOWL
Iowa vs. LSU; 1 p.m. ET Wednesday; Tampa


Rittenberg's pick: LSU has more speed and overall talent, but I really like Iowa's chances as the Hawkeyes typically play well in bowls and have walked a very similar path to the 2008 season, which ended with an Outback Bowl win against an SEC foe (South Carolina). The Iowa defense does enough against an LSU team that no longer has star quarterback Zach Mettenberger. LSU leads early thanks to Odell Beckham Jr. and its return game, but Iowa keeps things close and has a big fourth quarter on offense. Jake Rudock fires the winning touchdown to C.J. Fiedorowicz in the final minute. … Iowa 20, LSU 17

Bennett's pick: Iowa brings some momentum into this game and a defense that's really playing well against a new LSU quarterback. So don't count the Hawkeyes out. I even think Iowa will be the more motivated team and will jump on the Tigers early with a couple of nice scoring drives. But I'm just not sure the Hawkeyes have the speed and athleticism to counter Les Miles' team. LSU pulls off the late win this time, with Jeremy Hill scoring the go-ahead touchdown in the final minute … LSU 24, Iowa 20

CAPITAL ONE BOWL
Wisconsin vs. South Carolina: 1 p.m. ET Wednesday; Orlando, Fla.


Bennett's pick: Do we see the Wisconsin that was so good during most of the season, or the Badgers who went out with a whimper on Senior Day? I think it will be the former, as a large senior class is highly motivated to make up for that loss to Penn State and to get over the bowl hump. The running game led by James White and Melvin Gordon will help neutralize South Carolina's pass rush, and neither have to worry about being decapitated by Jadeveon Clowney, who spends the second half dreaming of sports cars. Chris Borland forces a Connor Shaw fumble on the Gamecocks' final drive to go out on top. … Wisconsin 20, South Carolina 17

Rittenberg's pick: The Badgers aren't a good team when playing from behind and relying heavily on quarterback Joel Stave to make big plays. Fortunately, Wisconsin jumps ahead early in this one behind Gordon, who breaks off some big runs in the first half. It will be close throughout but the Badgers hold a 2-1 edge in turnover margin, and respond well after the Senior Day debacle against Penn State. Clowney has a ho-hum ending to his college career, while Borland and a decorated senior class finally get a bowl win. Gordon's second touchdown in the final minutes proves to be the difference. … Wisconsin 24, South Carolina 21

ROSE BOWL GAME PRESENTED BY VIZIO
Michigan State vs. Stanford; 5 p.m. ET Saturday; Pasadena, Calif.

Rittenberg's pick: By far the toughest game to call, I've gone back and forth all week on my pick. I went with Michigan State in the Big Ten championship because it had more experience on that stage than Ohio State did. Once again, I'm going with the team more accustomed to this particular spotlight. I love this MSU team, but Stanford is playing in its fourth consecutive BCS bowl game. The Spartans aren't simply happy to be here, but they'll make a few costly mistakes against a sound Cardinal team. Max Bullough's absence isn't too significant, but Stanford capitalizes on strong field position from Ty Montgomery and picks off two Connor Cook passes, the second in the closing minute as Michigan State drives for the winning score. … Stanford 21, Michigan State 17

Bennett's pick: The loss of Bullough is huge for the Spartans. But I think the Spartans defense can still hold up well enough. The real key will be whether Cook can play nearly as well as he did in the Big Ten title game, because there likely won't be much running room for Jeremy Langford. Cook won't throw for 300 yards again, but he will do just enough damage and toss two touchdowns. There's every reason to pick Stanford after the Bullough suspension, but Michigan State just seems like a team of destiny to me. … Michigan State 17, Stanford 16

DISCOVER ORANGE BOWL
Ohio State vs. Clemson; 8:30 p.m. ET Friday; Miami Gardens, Fla.


Bennett's pick: The potential loss of Bradley Roby and Noah Spence is devastating news for a Buckeyes' defense that was already going to be under the gun in this game. The Big Ten just can't prepare you for the type of speed and playmaking ability Clemson has at receiver, and Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins will end their Tigers career in a big way while connecting for three scores. Ohio State finds lots of success running the ball with Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde, getting a combined 250 yards and four touchdowns out of them, but the Buckeyes just can't match Clemson score for score. … Clemson 38, Ohio State 35

Rittenberg's pick: Another tough one to call, as I don't like Ohio State's injury situation, especially against Clemson's big-play receivers. How motivated are these Buckeyes? Often times teams that fall just shy of the national title game don't bring it in their bowl. Still, I've seen too many ACC teams fall flat on their faces when the lights are brightest, and Ohio State has been strong in BCS bowls over the years. Ohio State has the edge at both head coach and quarterback in this game, as I expect Miller to perform well both with his arm and his legs. Both offenses show up, but I'll take the running team with Urban Meyer at the helm. Hyde turns in a big fourth quarter as Ohio State rallies late. … Ohio State 41, Clemson 38

SEASON RECORDS

Bennett: 81-18

Rittenberg: 81-18
Ryan Groy and his Wisconsin classmates aren't in a reflective mode, and might not be for a while.

When you're in your early twenties, you tend to live in the moment. The Badgers' seniors know what's behind them, the Big Ten championships and Rose Bowl appearances, the coaching changes, the milestones and the adversity. But they're savoring their final days of game prep together, and looking forward to their final game, which carries plenty of meaning.

"It'll cap off our legacy," said Groy, Wisconsin's left guard. "It's very important. Obviously, it's the last game of our senior career. We're focusing on that."

[+] EnlargeJames White
Dan Sanger/Icon SMIFor all the success he's had over his career, Wisconsin RB James White has come up short in bowl games. He's hoping to change that when the Badgers play South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl.
A win against South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl would give the seniors 40 victories since the start of the 2010 team, tying them with the 2012 and 2007 Wisconsin seniors for the most in a four-year span. But other than linebacker Chris Borland, none of the seniors have been part of a bowl win.

Borland played as a true freshman in 2009, earning Big Ten freshman of the year honors and starting at outside linebacker in the Champs Sports Bowl, as Wisconsin beat Miami 20-14 (he redshirted the 2010 season after a shoulder injury). The Badgers reached greater heights the next three seasons with Rose Bowl appearances, but lost all three games by single digits.

"It really feels a lot better to end the season on a high note," Borland said. "We've had a few conversations in smaller circles and it's not a bad idea to talk to the whole team, but I think our guys are hungry to win regardless.

"They've been preparing the right way so far."

The Rose Bowl setbacks are in the seniors' minds as they prepare for their final postseason appearance. Running back James White, who has 3,908 career rush yards and 45 touchdowns, had three forgettable outings in Pasadena: eight carries for 23 yards against TCU, eight carries for 30 yards against Oregon and six carries for four yards against Stanford, including a fourth-and-goal stall on the Stanford 1-yard line and dropped pass on a well-designed screen on third-and-10.

"I haven't had much of an impact in the bowl games," White said, "so I definitely want to go out here my last season and have an impactful game and get a win."

Win or lose, Wisconsin's seniors will be remembered as one of the more accomplished groups in program history. Arguably their most significant achievement is the way they handled coaching changes, especially the surprising departure of head coach Bret Bielema after the 2012 Big Ten championship game.

The team hit surprisingly few speed bumps during the transition to Gary Andersen, surging to a 9-2 record before a surprising loss to Penn State on Senior Day at Camp Randall Stadium.

"We just stuck together and were tight-knit during all those times of adversity and change," nose tackle Beau Allen said. "We really bought into this program and did everything that we could to make sure we handled that right.

"It paid off in the end."

Allen admits that the Capital One Bowl "might not be the same stage or setting as Pasadena," but Wisconsin's opponent matches up with the ones it faced in the Rose Bowl. South Carolina began the season ranked No. 6 nationally and has been in the top 15 in all but one week, rising to No. 9 in the final BCS standings.

Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is the headliner, but quarterback Connor Shaw and running back Mike Davis form a dangerous backfield combination. Borland sees similarities between South Carolina and Ohio State, one of few offenses to move the ball effectively against the nation's No. 6 defense.

As it turned out, Wisconsin's loss to Penn State didn't cost the team a BCS at-large berth after Michigan State upset Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. But there's still a sense of unfinished business for the Badgers, especially those taking the field for the last time.

"We're incredibly motivated," Allen said. "I don't think there's anything else that we want more. We haven't won a game in the postseason, so those three Rose Bowl losses, that's not something you take lightly. We're just going to do everything in our power to prepare right for this game and make sure that we come out on top."

B1G bowl opponent primer: South Carolina

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
3:30
PM ET
This week, we’re taking a closer look at each of the Big Ten’s bowl opponents. Up next: the South Carolina Gamecocks, who will face Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl.

Let's begin ...

CAPITAL ONE BOWL
No. 9 South Carolina (10-2) vs. No. 19 Wisconsin (9-3)
Orlando, Fla., 1 p.m. ET, Jan. 1, ABC


South Carolina Gamecocks

Coach: Steve Spurrier (76-39, ninth year with South Carolina; 218-79-2 overall)
Combined FBS opponents' record: 74-59 (seven bowl-bound teams)
Common opponents: None
Best wins: Central Florida, Clemson, Missouri
Worst loss: Tennessee
Record vs. Wisconsin: Never before met
Top passer: Connor Shaw (2,135 yards, 21 TDs, 1 INT)
Top rusher: Mike Davis (1,134 yards, 11 TDs)
Top defenders: Jadeveon Clowney (10.5 tackles-for-loss, 3 sacks, 8 QB hurries), Kelcy Quarles (13.5 tackles-for-loss, 9.5 sacks), Sharrod Golightly (44 tackles, 6 tackles-for-loss, 2 fumble recoveries), Victor Hampton (45 tackles, 3 INTs, 9 pass breakups)

What to know: The Gamecocks outlasted Missouri, 27-24, in double overtime -- and they were one more Mizzou loss away from a spot in the SEC title game. Spurrier is also now just one bowl win away from his third straight 11-win season so it's pretty clear this team doesn't have a lot of weaknesses. It runs a balanced offense, doesn't turn the ball over often (turnover margin: +11) and boasts the No. 18 defense in total yards allowed. It's above average in nearly every statistical category, and it very nearly won the SEC East. Tennessee upset South Carolina, 23-21, in a game that featured an injury to Shaw with about five minutes left and a last-second game-winning field goal. If South Carolina had won that game, it might be looking at a BCS bowl right now. The Gamecocks don't make a lot of mistakes and, in their past four games, haven't committed a single turnover. It's difficult to find an Achilles' heel on this team.

Key matchups: The battle in the trenches should be critical in this game. Clowney and Quarles have combined for 24 stops in the backfield and, when the defensive line plays well, South Carolina is difficult to stop. Wisconsin loves to bounce outside the tackles and averages an FBS-high 8.3 yards per carry on such runs so the ends' ability to contain those plays will be a top priority. On the flip side, Shaw performs at his best when he's given time in the pocket so Wisconsin's front seven needs to get pressure on him. Heading into the Clemson game, Shaw was completing 67.4 percent of his passes -- with 14 TDs and no INTs -- on passes inside the pocket. When he's forced to throw outside? Try 39.1 percent with six TDs and one pick. Whichever team gets the better push up front likely has the better chance to end its season with a win.

The Big Ten's bowl lineup is now official. Both participants from the league championship game are headed to BCS bowls, while five others will play postseason games in Florida, Arizona and Texas. The overall lineup doesn't seem quite as daunting as last season's, when the Big Ten had zero top-10 teams and played three top-10 opponents in the postseason.

We'll be breaking down these games for the next few weeks, but we wanted to share our first impressions of the lineup:

Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO, Jan. 1: Michigan State vs. Stanford
Discover Orange Bowl, Jan. 3: Ohio State vs. Clemson
Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1: Wisconsin vs. South Carolina
Outback Bowl, Jan. 1: Iowa vs. LSU
Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Dec. 28: Michigan vs. Kansas State
TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Jan. 1: Nebraska vs. Georgia
Texas Bowl, Dec. 27: Minnesota vs. Syracuse

Let's begin ...

Adam Rittenberg's first impressions

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesMark Dantonio's Spartans enter the Rose Bowl on a nine-game win streak.
Best game: Rose. The most tradition-rich bowl will celebrate its 100th edition with a matchup of teams with traditional offenses based around the power-run and aggressive, hard-hitting defenses. Michigan State recorded the signature win of the Mark Dantonio-era against Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game and enters the Rose Bowl on a nine-game win streak, winning each contest by at least 10 points. Both teams have standout defenders (MSU's Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Shilique Calhoun and Denicos Allen; Stanford's Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Jordan Richards), underrated quarterbacks in Connor Cook and Kevin Hogan and impressive running backs in Jeremy Langford and Tyler Gaffney. Good times.

Worst game: Gator. I'm probably not as upset about this one as Brian (or most Nebraska fans), but a rematch of last season's Capital One Bowl featuring two teams playing without their starting quarterbacks doesn't move the needle. At least running backs Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska) and Todd Gurley (Georgia) are fun to watch.

Sneaky good game: Capital One Bowl. Not sure how sneaky this one is, but both teams are talented on both sides of the ball and easily could have better records. The game features the nation's most talented defender in South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney against one of the nation's most accomplished defenders in Wisconsin's Chris Borland. The Badgers' seniors want to go out on a good note after a stunning home loss to Penn State, not to mention three consecutive losses in the Rose Bowl.

The bowl season will be a success if: The Big Ten records a winning record with at least one BCS bowl win. This season's lineup is slightly more favorable, and four wins certainly isn't out of the question. Ohio State and Minnesota both should win their games, and Michigan State, while less experienced than Stanford in BCS games, is playing its best football. Wisconsin needs to rebound, Iowa has a tough draw and both Michigan and Nebraska have been enigmatic, but the Big Ten should expect a little more in its final season of its self-created meat-grinder bowl lineup.

Brian Bennett's first impressions

Best game: The Rose Bowl is tremendous and looks to be the second-best game outside of the BCS title game. But let me also put in a plug for a possible underrated Orange matchup between Ohio State and Clemson. I saw Clemson earlier this season, and while the Tigers stumbled badly against Florida State and South Carolina, they are loaded with athletes. Put Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde all on the same field, and you're guaranteed some fireworks. Both teams score more than 40 points per game so we could have an entertaining shootout with some intriguing back stories (the Woody Hayes punch, Urban Meyer's return to the state of Florida).

Worst game: Minnesota had a great season and has a legitimately good defense and solid running game led by David Cobb. So I was hoping to see the Gophers get a chance to prove themselves against a decent opponent. Unfortunately, they drew a 6-6 Syracuse squad that beat absolutely no one and has an even lower-scoring offense than Minnesota. A bowl win is probably all that matters to Jerry Kill and his players, but I think they deserved a better showcase opportunity.

Sneaky good game: Outback. Iowa will have to make up for a talent gap with LSU -- as most teams do when they play the Tigers. But the Hawkeyes really hit their stride in the season finale at Nebraska, and they have only lost to teams ranked in the top 20. LSU, meanwhile, will be without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who tore his ACL in the season finale, and this was not a vintage Tigers' defense. Both teams like to run the ball a lot, and Iowa linebackers James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey must continue to lead the way for Phil Parker's defense. Maybe if we're lucky, we'll get an ending half as good as the 2005 Capital One Bowl.

The bowl season will be a success if: At least one BCS win is a necessity, especially with opponents who are similar in style in both games. Winning at least one of the games against the SEC on New Year's Day is also important; that holiday has been unkind to the Big Ten of late, and Georgia and LSU look more vulnerable than usual. An overall winning record is possible and could start to change the conference's image. Another sign of success will be if Wisconsin can avoid adding to Clowney's postseason highlight reel.
Ra'Shede HagemanCourtesy of Eric HagemanRa'Shede bounced around foster homes before being adopted by Jill Coyle and Eric Hageman.

They keep coming back to that one word: structure. Those who best know Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman say it's the thing he needs most to reach his prodigious potential.

Which is hard to believe when you look at him.

Few Big Ten football players have bodies more structurally sound than Hageman's. Most defensive tackles are boxy in build; Hageman is long and lean at 6-foot-6 and 311 pounds. Muscles bulge from his No. 99 jersey, seemingly the only Gophers garment that can contain his freakish frame.

He runs a 4.9 in the 40 and has a vertical leap between 36-40 inches. He led his high school basketball team to a state title and showed off his blocking skills last week at Northwestern, knocking down three third-down passes to stifle drives (he also had an interception). At 7, Hageman did backflips on demand, making his adoptive father wonder what a kid who had never participated in organized athletics could do on a ball field.

Ra'shede Hageman
Courtesy of Eric Hageman As a basketball player and tight end in high school, Hageman showed off his immense athleticism.
"Talent's no issue," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill told ESPN.com this summer. "He can 360 dunk. Athleticism's not an issue. It's just having structure and buying into structure, the growing up part of it.

"Catching the mind up with the body, so to speak."

Hageman has had to catch up because he began so far behind. That he's even in the race is a testament to him and to the many around him who provided the structure he needed along the way.

Born Ra'Shede Knox, he and his younger brother, Xavier, spent much of their early years living in foster homes or with their mother, who battled drug and alcohol abuse. Ra'Shede never knew his father.

The brothers bounced between a dozen foster homes before being adopted by Eric Hageman and Jill Coyle, two attorneys living in Minneapolis. While in law school, Coyle had worked for an organization that dealt with hard-to-place adoption candidates, and she and Eric decided to adopt before having their own kids.

"We were young and idealistic," Eric Hageman recalled. "We adopted Ra’Shede and Xavier when they were 7 and 6 years old. We were ready to meet that kind of challenge. At least we thought we were."

They provided the foundation that Ra'Shede needed. Eric, noticing Ra'Shede's size and athletic ability, immediately introduced sports -- football, basketball, baseball, even golf -- where he quickly blossomed.

Ra'Shede calls Eric and Jill his "No. 1 supporters since Day 1," but his transition to living with them didn't come without challenges.

"You had the normal issues all parents deal with, and then you layer on top of that the adoption issue, and also the racial identity issue," Eric Hageman said. "It was not always easy for Ra'Shede in particular to be a young, black kid with white lawyers for parents. I remember many times when he was younger where we'd be walking somewhere and he'd walk ahead or behind us, just to show he was not identified with us or something."

Like any teenager, Ra'Shede rebelled. As Eric puts it, "He sought out a rougher crowd to establish his bona fides." When Giovan Jenkins first met Ra'Shede, he saw an incredibly gifted eighth grader who could play varsity football or basketball as soon as he set foot at Washburn High School.

But he also saw a boy in a man's body, struggling to find himself.

"He was still dealing with the neighborhood pressures, the fact he looked different than his parents and things like that," said Jenkins, the football coach at Washburn. "So we caught him at a very volatile period of maturity and growth."

Talent's no issue. He can 360 dunk. Athleticism's not an issue. It's just having structure and buying into structure, the growing up part of it. Catching the mind up with the body, so to speak.

-- Minnesota coach Jerry Kill
on Ra'Shede Hageman
An admitted "knucklehead" in high school, Ra'Shede enjoyed chasing girls, hanging out with the boys and playing sports. Classes didn't fit into his itinerary.

He needed someone to provide structure.

"Coach G just took me under his wing and made me understand I have opportunities that are different from other people," Ra’Shede said.

As a tight end for Washburn, Hageman had 12 touchdown catches as a junior and 11 as a senior. The scholarship offers flowed in from schools like Ohio State, Oklahoma, Florida, Nebraska and Wisconsin, but Hageman opted to stay home and play at Minnesota.

After redshirting in 2009, Hageman reached another crossroads the following season. Minnesota had fired coach Tim Brewster in mid-October. In early November, interim coach Jeff Horton suspended Hageman for the rest of the season for academic reasons. Hageman was hardly alone. When Kill arrived as coach in December, he inherited more than 25 players on academic probation.

"I was a procrastinator," Hageman said. "It wasn’t that I didn’t like school. At that time, it wasn’t exciting. I was just lazy. I used to hate going to study hall because it took away from my nap time."

Kill provided a wake-up call for Hageman the day before a final exam. After Hageman didn't show up for a study session, Kill frantically called Eric Hageman and stayed on the line as he marched across campus to Ra'Shede's dorm room.

He banged on the door, only to find Ra'Shede asleep.

"He basically dragged him back to the football office and had one of the coaches do flash cards with him for four or five hours to get him ready," Eric Hageman said.

Added Ra'Shede: "Coach Kill was like, 'Obviously, you’re a better person than you are right now. Focus on your school and football, rather than focusing on the college party life and all that. You only get one shot at this.' He was real blunt that day. Ever since then, I’ve had my head on straight.”

Hageman left the "old Ra'Shede" behind. He's now in good academic standing, taking his final class for a degree in youth studies. His education continues on the field, too, as he goes through his fourth season at defensive tackle after switching from offense.

[+] EnlargeRa'Shede Leeb
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsNow a senior, Hageman could eventually become an early round NFL draft pick.
His production spiked from his sophomore to junior year, when he recorded six sacks and a forced fumble. The growth is continuing this fall, as Hageman already has 6.5 tackles for loss, two blocked kicks, an interception and six pass breakups.

"It's still a new position," said Hageman, who bypassed the draft after last season to complete his degree and improve at his position. "Jadeveon Clowney and other defensive players, they've been playing their whole life. I'm still learning so many new things about the position every day.

"My better days are still ahead of me."

Hageman wants to be a combination of Ndamukong Suh and J.J. Watt, which is fitting as one plays 4-3 tackle and the other 3-4 end, two positions Hageman could play at the next level. Minnesota acting head coach and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys thinks the NFL will benefit Hageman, who will face fewer exotic blocking schemes (mostly zone), taller offensive lineman (right now, his pad level is often too high against smaller players) and fewer double teams, at least initially.

"At the next level, he'll continue to get even better," Claeys said. "There's no guarantees, but once he gets to the combine, they'll see how good he is. He's just an extremely powerful kid, and he continues to mature. The structure part of it, whoever he plays for, if they put a pretty decent structure in place, Ra'Shede will continue to grow and be fine."

Kill likens Hageman to Brandon Jacobs, his former player at Southern Illinois who left school with rawness and promise. The New York Giants provided the structure Jacobs needed, and he played a key role on two Super Bowl-winning teams.

So many have provided structure for Hageman, from his parents to Jenkins to Kill to his academic advisor, Jacki Lienesch, to his older brother, Lazal. Now he's ready to stand on his own two massive feet.

"It doesn't matter where you start out," Eric Hageman said. "It's where you end up."

At times, Hageman reflects on his unique path. This summer, he shared his story with kids around Minneapolis.

Jenkins, who often has Hageman talk to his players, calls Hageman "an example for everybody, everywhere."

"Not everybody comes from a silver spoon," Hageman said. "If you really want something, you have to work hard for it, no matter what type of person you are. I'm definitely a product of that. Having my trials of me being adopted and me being in different situations, I just stayed focused on my prize and kept working toward it."

He'll continue working. But he's already won.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

July, 26, 2013
7/26/13
4:30
PM ET
Wishing you a great weekend. Be sure to follow us on Twitter.

To the inbox ...

PCINBVUE from Omaha writes: Hey Adam, not so much a B1G question, but it has to do with the new and controversial "targeting" rule. I do appreciate the reasoning behind it, but I question its effectiveness when called, especially when they say the "Clowney Hit" would be deemed an ejectionable offense. Is it possible that, after a season of potential disagreement and subjectivity, the rule could be nullified?

Adam Rittenberg: I think there has been some confusion about the Clowney hit against Michigan's Vincent Smith, mainly because of comments made by ACC coordinator of football officials Doug Rhoads. I spoke with Big Ten coordinator of football officials Bill Carollo this week, and he said Clowney's hit was legal and didn't merit a penalty, much less a targeting ejection. Carollo said national officials coordinator Rogers Redding is in agreement. Don't be surprised if Rhoads backs off of his comments. The Clowney hit on Smith isn't what the officials are trying to eliminate from the game. It looked a lot worse than it was from a safety standpoint, which is the impetus for the penalty and punishment.



Dan from Des Moines, Iowa, writes: Hey, thought I'd write in from over at the Big 12 blog today. Jim Delany made the statement, "We'll stand behind you, so when you're ready to get serious, or when you have the time, we'll support your college education degree for your lifetime." He isn't implying that it is O.K. for "student athletes" to not be "serious" about their education while they're in school as long as they're focusing on football, is he? That'd clearly go against his points about academic focus.

Adam Rittenberg: No, that's not what he was implying. His point is that colleges should support student-athletes throughout their degree process even if it's interrupted along the way. Under Delany's plan, if an athlete turns pro or drops out of school for various reasons, he or she would have the opportunity to return and finish the degree on scholarship. There are a lot of reasons why student-athletes struggle academically, but his point is that when colleges bring them on board to play sports, they should support their educational pursuits to the end, no matter how long it takes.



Brett from Williston Park, N.Y., writes: Purdue hired a new head coach (Darrell Hazell). How will he turn around the program and what do you expect of the Boilermakers who could have just as easily been 8-4 rather then 6-6 last year? They lost to Notre Dame on a time-expiring kick and to Ohio State in OT. Can they make some noise in the BIGTEN this year even with their strength of schedule?

Adam Rittenberg: Are you sure this isn't Danny Hope writing in? Kidding, kidding. Yes, Purdue was a few plays away from beating the only two FBS teams to go through the regular season undefeated. Weird season for Hope's crew. I have high expectations for Hazell's tenure at Purdue, although the job certainly brings some challenges. He has some dynamic young assistants on his staff who should boost recruiting. This year could be tough, however, as Purdue has arguably the Big Ten's most challenging schedule. The Boilers play two BCS bowl teams (Notre Dame and Northern Illinois) plus 10-win Cincinnati in non-league play, and must take on Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State in the Leaders Division, plus Nebraska and Michigan State in crossover games. It could be a rough first season for Hazell as the depth simply isn't there, but things should get better beginning in 2014.



Matt from Ypsilanti, Mich., writes: Before the season starts there is always a lot of teams that are hyped up to be better than they really are. To me, this is the 2nd year in a row that Michigan State is not going to be as good as advertised. Yes they lost 5 games by less than 4 points last year. But they also won 4 games by less than 4 points so it evens out. With 7-6 record last year with less talent on the roster this year (mainly because Bell was a beast) how can people say that MSU will be a contender?

Adam Rittenberg: Matt, you bring up a fair point about all of those close games evening out for Michigan State in the standings. The Spartans have had some seasons where they win all the close ones and others where they seem to split them or lose more. The case for Michigan State to contend in 2013 is based around a defense that has been nationally elite in each of the past two seasons and should be once again this fall. The defense should keep MSU in every game. The offense certainly loses a big piece in Le'Veon Bell, but it wasn't that productive with him and can't be much worse. Even marginal improvement by the offense could lead to 3-4 more wins for Mark Dantonio's crew. There certainly are some challenges on that side of the ball, but last year's unit set the bar very low, even with Bell.



Matt from Phoenix writes: Adam, Jim Delany's comments regarding change and the "at-risk" student-athlete sound an awful lot like the partial qualifiers that Nebraska utilized back in the old Big 8 days. Is my assumption correct? Most Husker fans refer to a change in partial qualifier policy as one of their initial grievances against the new Big Texas...I mean Big XII conference. Could you explain the "at-risk" student scenario? And are Delaney's comments in reference to the Big Ten? The NCAA? Or the rumored power conference alliance?

Adam Rittenberg: Matt, I was thinking the same thing about partial qualifiers when Delany outlined his reform plan. His plan is to give at-risk student-athletes a year to acclimate academically without losing a year of eligibility. So these students would take an academic redshirt of sorts and still have four more years left to play their sport. My understanding is all of his proposals would apply at the national level, probably for the so-called "Division 4" group of major revenue-generating institutions.



Brian from Atlanta writes: Adam, What is the point of rotating between a bowl in Dallas and a bowl in Ft. Worth? The Cotton Bowl is historic and TCU's stadium is brand new. They are only a few miles apart. Why not pick one and stick with it?

Adam Rittenberg: You bring up a good point, Brian, as the other Big Ten bowl rotation -- Gator and Music City -- takes place in two different states and different markets (Jacksonville and Nashville). I haven't seen the opponent conferences for the Heart of Dallas Bowl and Armed Forces Bowl, so that could have something to do with the need for a rotation. We know the Big Ten wants flexibility with this process, which any rotation provides. The Big Ten needed to keep a Texas presence in the postseason, and the Texas Bowl, Alamo Bowl and Sun Bowl didn't seem like realistic possibilities this time around.



Eli from New York writes: I love beating on dead horses, as you've probably noticed from my emails. Here's a nugget I saw on CornNation, one of the Nebraska blogs: "The B1G messed this one up---they had a litany of excuses, but the Black Friday game should have been Nebraska vs. PSU. And purely for TV.---B1G could own that weekend with something like Nebraska-PSU on Friday and Michigan-OSU on Saturday.---Frankly, the difficult time to travel to a game thing always sounded weird to me. I don?t recall attendance problems for any of the previous games, no matter the opponent or the venue. I don't really remember away-team attendance being a critical factor either, except maybe the Colorado games in the waning years. Most of the possible opponents for that game would be similar in drawing mostly from the surrounding area. Other than maybe Wisconsin, none of them are really dependent on student turnout to fill up the stadium." ~--~ Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Eli, Corn Nation brings up a good point about almost any of these games hinging on home fans, most of whom live in the area, showing up and filling seats. I wonder how Penn State fans would feel about a Black Friday game every year. We know Nebraska fans love it, but not every fan base feels the same way about attending a game the day after the holiday. Penn State fans, what say you? I think if Nebraska-Iowa continues to be a dud game, the Big Ten will reevaluate having it as a Black Friday showcase or even on the final regular-season weekend entirely. Big Ten scheduling czar Mark Rudner this week mentioned Nebraska-Wisconsin as a possibility for that weekend, which Nebraska fans likely would welcome. The one drawback with Nebraska-Penn State is it's a cross-division game. Permanent crossovers were a big problem with the initial schedule setup, and the fact the future setup contains only one (Purdue-Indiana) is a good thing in my view.
CHICAGO -- After fielding questions about the NCAA's new targeting policy for two hours, Big Ten coordinator of football officials Bill Carollo nearly escaped the interview area Thursday morning when a former Ohio State safety tracked him down.

Nebraska coach Bo Pelini shook Carollo's hand and joked that he, too, was tired of talking about targeting. Pelini remains a bit peeved about the targeting penalty called on Huskers receiver Kenny Bell in last year's Big Ten championship game.

[+] EnlargeBill Carollo
Reid Compton/USA TODAY SportsBig Ten coordinator of officials Bill Carollo on the NCAA's targeting policy: "It's a severe penalty, but I don't think it's too harsh."
All this targeting talk isn't a bad thing. It's a topic that merits attention from now until the start of the 2013 season, mainly because of the new consequences when a defenseless player is targeted above the shoulders.

Starting this season, players guilty of the foul will be ejected from games. On-field officials and replay officials must both agree before a player is disqualified.

"They might want to be on 'SportsCenter' for a big hit, but you're not going to be on 'SportsCenter' when you're sitting in the locker room," Carollo told ESPN.com. "As long as that consistent message gets to the players through the coaches, I don't think the game is going to change a whole lot."

The ejection penalty, spurred by the increasing focus on head injuries in football, is a game-changer of sorts. While the targeting rule itself doesn't change entering the season, it will be a focal point when training camps kick off next month.

It was a major topic of discussion this week at Big Ten media days.

Here's a sampling of comments:
  • Nebraska's Pelini: "I don’t think it’s an easy thing to call. And in my opinion it’s going a little bit overboard right now. And some things I’ve seen on TV and different examples that they’ve shown, you know, like even as a coach watching it on TV, I haven’t quite agreed with some of the things they’ve talked about. But I understand where it’s coming from. It’s about the safety of the players, and we're all for that. We just have to make sure that we’re not messing with the integrity of the game or the sport and how it’s supposed to be played."
  • Minnesota defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman: "Me being [6-foot-6] and going full speed at a running back who's like 5-7, that's hard. And you have to understand that. I'm not trying to go head-to-head with somebody. But I feel like I have to fix my game a little bit. It's a new rule for our safety, so I can't hate on it. But it's kind of difficult when you're 6-6 and you go out at a running back or a quarterback. If I knock off somebody's helmet, now I'm going to get ejected? That's crazy."
  • Indiana safety Greg Heban: "If that's the decision they're going to make, then that's what they're going to make. It's going to be something kind of different for us, and we have to realize when we go to hit, we have to kind of think about what we're going to hit instead of just attacking."

Carollo met with the Big Ten coaches in February and showed them about a dozen potential targeting fouls from the 2012 season. He also told them the NCAA playing rules oversight panel likely would approve ejections for the most egregious offenders. Carollo spent the spring and early summer educating his officials on the rule.

The focus now turns to players as the season approaches.

"There's still a lot of work to be done," Carollo said. "We have a plan in place that we'll get to every team, whether it's myself or a head referee or senior official. The same information that we gave our officials, the same message is going to the coaching staffs, and if there's a need, we'll take it to the players ourselves and spend a couple hours showing plays."

Michigan State All-Big Ten linebacker Max Bullough said the Spartans' defense hasn't discussed the targeting policies yet as a group. He didn't know much about the increased penalties until he came to media days.

"It's not something you do on purpose," Bullough said. "If something like that happens, it's an accident, anyway, so there's nothing you can do about it. Whether they penalize you or eject you, there's nothing different you can do. It happens so fast. The rules they make are a little bit ridiculous.

"What, are you just going to stop and think? What are you going to do when a running back puts his head down? It's just too hard."

When informed of Bullough's concerns, Carollo acknowledged that it's difficult to change course or angle at full speed.

"I'm not asking you to adjust in midair," he said. "I'm asking you to adjust in June, July, August. I'm not asking you to change the way you teach players how to make tackles. I'm asking them, don't launch and lead with your head, keep your head up, move it to the side, wrap up with your arms, put a shoulder into [the opponent's] chest, hit 'em as hard as you want, but don't hit them in the head."

The much-publicized Jadeveon Clowney hit against Michigan's Vincent Smith in the 2013 Outback Bowl, while vicious, was a legal play because Clowney didn't target Smith's head, Carollo said.

Although the coaches aren't in total agreement about the rule and its heavy consequences -- Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald this week proposed a soccer-style approach with a warning (yellow card) for the first offense and an ejection (red card) for the second -- they all want to protect players. But Carollo thinks the number of targeting fouls will drop "once they start losing players."

"The good coaches will get out ahead of it," he said. "Some coaches that don't totally buy into it, if [their players] don't make changes, that's fine, but they're subject to greater risk of not playing. It might take a year. It might take our officials another year to really perfect this call.

"It's a severe penalty, but I don't think it's too harsh. The intent was to make it immediate, and raise the stakes a little bit to get attention and change players' behavior."
CHICAGO -- Jadeveon Clowney's hit on Michigan running back Vincent Smith in January’s Outback Bowl is still receiving a ton of attention. The reasoning, though, is now due to its legality.

With the NCAA focusing on potential ejection for targeting -- described as a player who “target(s) and contact(s) defenseless players above the shoulders” -- one of the premier hits of last season is now back in focus.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney and Vincent Smith
Kim Klement-USA TODAY SportsJadeveon Clowney's hit on Vincent Smith in last season's Outback Bowl could be deemed illegal in the 2013 season.
Smith told ESPN.com earlier this year he had no problem with the hit. On Wednesday, neither did Hoke, who said he did not feel it was a dirty play.

“No. And I’m a defensive coach,” Hoke said. “A guy makes a great play and a great move and Smitty hopped right back up. So it didn’t look that way to me.”

He and other Big Ten coaches, though, have some concerns about the targeting rules and the subjectiveness of what could be labeled as targeting, leading to ejections.

Both Hoke and Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz mentioned the potential of replay being used to determine ejections -- think something like what college basketball does with flagrant elbows to the head -- to make sure calls are correct.

The issue, though, is a serious one for coaches.

“The targeting issue is obviously something we have to do a great job of saving the game of football, to be honest with you,” Hoke said. “There’s some real vicious hits that have been taken and delivered.

“It’s one of those issues where replay is probably going to need to be involved. I’d hate to see a young man get alleged for targeting and he didn’t and the consequences of what happens to his season.”

Most of the league’s coaches who were asked about targeting said they stressed it during spring football as a means of educating players on what they can and cannot do. Hoke said it won’t change, though, how he teaches tackling.

However, with things happening at high speeds on the field, some of these types of hits are inevitable, which leads to the concern from coaches.

“It’s going to be pretty subjective,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “And I don’t think it’s an easy thing to call. And in my opinion it’s going a little bit overboard right now. And some things I’ve seen on TV and different examples that they’ve shown, you know, like even as a coach watching it on TV, I haven’t quite agreed with some of the things they’ve talked about.

“But I understand where it’s coming from. It’s about the safety of the players, and we’re all for that. We just have to make sure that we’re not messing with the integrity of the game or the sport and how it’s supposed to be played.”

Whether it is or not will start to show up in a month.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

March, 8, 2013
3/08/13
4:30
PM ET
Rounding out the work week every Friday around this time.

John from Phoenix writes: Hi Adam,I'm a 1971 Purdue Grad and am excited about Coach Hazell heading the Boilermaker program. Now that Gunnar Kiel has decided to transfer from ND, do you think he might connect with Purdue on what appears to be a very good fit?

Adam Rittenberg: John, I wrote about this earlier today and mentioned Purdue as a possible landing spot for Kiel. The one potential issue is that Notre Dame could block a transfer to a future opponent like the Boilers. Several Purdue fans I heard from on Twitter didn't seem to want Kiel, citing the talent already on the roster like Austin Appleby and Danny Etling. And that could be the smart play. We don't know what Appleby or Etling can do at the college level, but both clearly have talent. And Kiel brings with him a lot of baggage and drama that a new coach like Darrell Hazell might not want. Ultimately, it comes down to talent and whether Kiel would be a better option than other quarterbacks on the roster. If so, Purdue absolutely should pursue him if he can transfer there.


Rich from Des Moines, Iowa, writes: Adam, I applaud the targeting rule. However, The ejection component could cause some major controversies. I know the officials spokespeople will say that the hit will have to be unquestionably a targeting penalty to result in an ejection. However, we have seen dozens of replay calls ruled the opposite way from what appears to be obvious to viewers. Moreover, I realize they like to equate targeting to fighting. However, it is very clear when a player throws a punch, unlike some of these hits that are a hair's breadth on one side or the other of targeting. Wouldn't it be more reasonable to suspend a player for one full game after a review by the league office? This eliminates the pressure of the in-game officials having to eject players on close calls. It also eliminates the possibility of Carollo's feared "5-minute production." Additionally, waiting until after the game is over to invoke what amounts to a one-game suspension removes the awkwardness of missing the 2nd half of one game and the first half of another. Plus, the way the ejection is set up now can result in some very inequitable penalties. A player penalized in the first minute would miss an entire game basically. A player penalized in the last minute of the 2nd half would miss what amounts to only half a game. Thanks.

Adam Rittenberg: A lot of good points here as always, Rich, and I agree the ejections will be controversial no matter what. Carollo noted that some of these calls will be missed and that there's a very fine line between an ejectable targeting penalty, a regular unnecessary roughness penalty and even some legal hits. The Jadeveon Clowney-Vincent Smith hit was a good example of a legal play but one that looks really bad. A lot of the responsibility rests with the replay officials. They'll ultimately judge whether to uphold an ejection on the field or overrule it. There's more pressure on them, and they need to be really, really accurate. And as Bill Carollo said, you don't want the process to drag on. I think it's critical to be as clear as possible on defining targeting so everyone -- officials, coaches, players, fans -- has a good grasp on it before the season starts. Coaches need to educate their players in practice, and players must be aware of it in games. Ultimately, I think there will be a handful of obvious ejectable targeting penalties, like the Earnest Thomas play in the Penn State game. There probably will be 2-3 debatable ejections per year, which could loom large. But the idea is to decrease the overall number of these plays -- "take the head out of the game," as Carollo puts it.


David from Warren, Mich., writes: With the apparent need of northern schools to be able to successfully recruit in the south in order to maintain a high level of football talent, do you see a possibility of the B1G opening a recruitment center(s) in cities such as Orlando, Atlanta, and/or Dallas? B1G recruitment centers located in major southern cities could feature lavishly appointed recruiting lounges which could be shared by all conference member institutions. State of the art audio/visual rooms could be incorporated into such facilities where B1G recruiters would be able to give presentations to recruits. These centers could also possibly include a mini hostel on site for usage by B1G recruiters.These recruitment centers could even feature easily changeable interior decor/logos for all B1G member institutions so that recruiters can quickly customize the facilities prior to the arrival of a recruit. I don't know if such an idea is even legal under NCAA rules, but it would seem to be an interesting way to pool resources among the members of the B1G.

Adam Rittenberg: David, you've definitely given this some thought! It reminds me of baseball teams setting up training centers in Latin America, although this would be league-sponsored rather than team-sponsored. Unfortunately, I think the NCAA would take issue with such a recruiting center. Also, there would have to be extremely clear and strict rules about usage of center so no teams could get an advantage. The center would need an enforcement staff to prevent rules violations. It would be ... interesting to say the least. I absolutely love the concept of all the Big Ten recruiters staying in the same mini hostel. They'd try to kill one another.


Darek D. from Colorado Spring, Colo., writes: I keep hearing you guys talk about Pelini needing to get over the hump. Being a Buckeye fan, I find it very similar to the John Cooper years. I remember a friend laughing at me saying, "How do you fire a coach with that kind of winning percentage?" What stood out to me was that all those wins don't mean anything if you never win the ones you REALLY want. You end the season feeling like you had a losing record. Is it the same situation for the Nebraska fans?

Adam Rittenberg: Darek, that's a really interesting comparison between Pelini and Cooper. There certainly are some similarities (two traditional powers, fans used to championships). One big difference is that Pelini doesn't have a Michigan problem like Cooper did. Nebraska doesn't have one game every year that takes precedence above all others (it used to with Oklahoma). I also think Nebraska fans are, for the most part, realistic about where the program was (mid-1990s) and where it is now. They're not expecting national titles every year, although they do and should expect conference championships, which Pelini has yet to deliver.

It is hard to cut ties with a coach who wins nine or 10 games per season. But man, do losses like Nebraska's Big Ten title game disaster really sting. It makes you wonder if Pelini can get the program to the next level. We could find out this season.


Garrett from Smithfield, Ohio, writes: Where do you think that Ohio State can improve most in the passing game? Is it more about Braxton Miller or is it mostly the lack of quality receivers? Could it also be the pass protection?

Adam Rittenberg: I hate to sound like a coach, Garrett, but it's really all of the above. Ohio State needs more depth at receiver, and not necessarily the game-breaker types, but the reliable targets who can help the high-percentage pass game. Miller has shown he can stretch the field with guys like Devin Smith, but who will be the 65- or 70-catch guy who converts third-and-6? I think Jordan Hall's return could really help Ohio State's pass game, even though he'll also play running back. Another point Meyer made after the season is that Miller, while brilliant on designed runs, wasn't a very good scrambler in 2012. He didn't take off when he should have, and ended up taking too many sacks. Ohio State surrendered 29 sacks in 2012, the third-highest total in the Big Ten. The line needs to improve in protection, but Miller is also part of the equation there. Bottom line: I think Ohio State's pass game will be better this fall. Miller returns, almost all the receivers are back and so are four starting linemen.


Steve from State College, Pa., writes: Saw this in yesterday's mailblog, and was wondering, 17.9.5.1.1 In-Season Foreign Competition. [FBS/FCS] A member institution may play one or more of its countable contests in football in one or more foreign countries on one trip during the prescribed playing season. However, except for contests played in Canada, Mexico or on a certified foreign tour 17 (see Bylaw 17.28), the institution may not engage in such in-season foreign competition more than once every four years. So with this bylaw does this mean that Navy and Notre Dame are completely out of the question for Penn State's possible Ireland game?

Adam Rittenberg: Yes, that seems to be the correct interpretation of the rule. Unless Penn State were willing to wait three more seasons -- which makes no sense since the postseason ban expires after 2015 -- neither Notre Dame nor Navy could be the opponent.


Anthony from Iowa City, Iowa, writes: March Madness is here! Any chance you're going to be at the United Center reporting on the B1G tourney for ESPN? Are you daring enough to put up your predictions after all the regular season battles are over? And can we expect you to and Brian to fill out some brackets? Just because this is the football blog and spring practices are kicking into high gear doesn't mean we can't get your guy's opinion! (even though here in Iowa City, doesn't really feel like spring with a foot of snow on the ground)

Adam Rittenberg: I will be at the United Center next week, although I'll be doing more game-watching -- and football blogging -- than basketball coverage. Check out colleagues Eamonn Brennan and Myron Medcalf for your hoops needs. But I'm really looking forward to it. It's been a great season for Big Ten hoops, although things seem to have dipped a bit in recent weeks. Brian Bennett is definitely the authority for hoops around these parts, but I'll weigh in with my bracket predictions. The Big Ten has been the nation's deepest league all season, but I wonder if there's a lot of good and not much great. It's time the Big Ten won a championship in basketball -- none since Michigan State in 2000 -- and this figures to be the year to do it.
Big Ten officials ejected only one player (Illinois safety Earnest Thomas against Penn State) for a helmet-to-helmet hit during the 2012 season.

If the new NCAA rules for targeting had been in place, that number would have swelled to seven or eight, according to Big Ten coordinator of football officials Bill Carollo. The NCAA's playing rules oversight panel on Thursday approved a new rule that requires the ejection of players flagged for targeting or contacting defenseless opponents above the shoulders. The current targeting penalty includes only a 15-yard penalty. The new policy, which goes into effect for the 2013 season, requires the penalty plus an ejection.

[+] EnlargeEarnest Thomas and Matt Lehman
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY Sports Under new NCAA rules, ejections for targeting a defenseless opponent above the shoulders -- Illinois' Earnest Thomas was the only Big Ten player ejected for that last season -- could become more common.
The ejection for targeting mirrors the one for fighting. Players who commit the foul in the first half miss the remainder of the game, while those who commit the foul in the second half miss the remainder of the game and the first half of the next contest.

"It's a very serious penalty," Carollo told ESPN.com on Thursday. "It's a big change. However, I think it will be a big positive point for the game. When we look back in 3-5 years, I think we're going to say this is a really big moment."

Player safety has become an increasingly bigger point of emphasis for officials in recent years, especially with increased education about the effects of concussions. The Big Ten has led the charge nationally, and while the number of unnecessary roughness penalties in the league has remained about the same, Carollo has seen a slight decrease in helmet-to-helmet targeting fouls.

The hope is that the numbers continue to drop because of the new, stricter policy.

"The impact is not that we're going to throw out a lot of guys," Carollo said. "The impact is we're going to have a lot of coaches and a lot of players adjusting to the rules. It may take a little bit of time, a few months of practice and a few weeks in August, and maybe even a couple games, but I think we'll get some positive results.

"The impact will be positive from the standpoint that players will continue to work hard to lower the target zone and to take the head out of the game."

Carollo and others in his position will spend the coming months working with officials to define targeting as clearly as possible. It can be a tedious process, as there can be helmet-to-helmet contact without obvious targeting, while intent "has nothing to do with it," Carollo said.

Officials will make mistakes -- Carollo has told Big Ten coaches that one out of every 10 high hits called on the field technically was a legal hit -- but their consistency on the field must be as strong as possible. They also have a safety net of sorts in the replay booth. The replay official will review every on-field targeting penalty that carries an ejection and will rule whether the ejection should be upheld.

"Now we're asking replay to get a little bit involved more in the judgment call," Carollo said. "They do [currently] have some judgment, a few rules where they can create penalties, but the replay person in the booth is not the eighth official. The game is being officiated by the seven men or women on the field.

"Now he'll buzz down once it’s targeting, and he'll confirm that hit. ... The targeting calls are going to stand unless there's indisputable video evidence that shows it's nowhere near above the shoulders."

Carollo supports the use of replay in these instances but doesn't want to "make a 5-minute production out of it." The onus remains with the on-field officials.

Carollo also expects to review targeting ejections -- submitted to him by coaches after games -- along with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, and, in some cases, reduce the penalty impacting the following contest.

Not surprisingly, Carollo received some "good rebuttals" from "defensive-minded" Big Ten coaches about the proposed change at their annual meeting last month. He told them the policy change was inevitable and showed them plays that may or may not be targeting, including a block by Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell against Wisconsin cornerback Devin Smith in the 2012 Big Ten championship.

Bell was flagged for a personal foul, negating a touchdown. Carollo thinks the hit merited a penalty, but not an ejection for targeting the head.

The coaches also reviewed the now-famous hit against Michigan's Vincent Smith by South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney in the Outback Bowl, which didn't draw a penalty.

"The tackler had his helmet up," Carollo said. "It was helmet-to-helmet, but it wasn't targeting. The helmets kissed, if you will, with the helmet up like that. The helmet came, the ball popped out, all at the same time. It looked vicious because [Smith's] helmet popped off, but technically, it was probably a legal play. That's in the gray area where it's close."

Carollo doesn't expect football to stop becoming fast and violent and noted that many "really vicious" hits are completely legal. But officials are going to err on the side of player safety whenever a blow to the head is involved.

The it's-just-football excuse no longer flies.

"It may be 'just football' for the last 50 years," Carollo said. "But going forward, we're trying to get that play out of the game."

In addition to another revision of the rules on low blocks, the rules committee also approved a rule requiring at least three seconds to remain on the clock in order to spike the ball to stop the clock at the end of halves. Carollo said the change stems from the 2012 Rose Bowl, where Wisconsin's Russell Wilson attempted to spike the ball for one more play with two seconds left, but the clock ran out.
Our Big Ten postseason player rankings creep closer toward the top 5. Every player left on the list is either the league's best or second best at his position, in our estimation. As a reminder, these rankings are based solely on performance during the 2012 season.

Let's keep it on the line for the next selection, who wears two "7s" across his chest for the Michigan Wolverines but checks in at ...

No. 7: Taylor Lewan, LT, Michigan, junior, 6-foot-8, 309 pounds

Preseason ranking: No. 10

2012 numbers: Started all 13 games at left tackle for the second straight season; earned the Big Ten's Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year award, first-team AP All-America honors and consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors; anchored a line that surrendered only 18 sacks (tied for 28th nationally).

Why he's here: In a season where little went as expected for Big Ten offensive lines or individual linemen, Lewan delivered the goods for Michigan. He cemented himself as one of the nation's top tackles, earning first- or second-team All-America honors from numerous outlets and being named the Big Ten's top offensive lineman. He has been a mainstay for Michigan, making his 28th consecutive start in the Outback Bowl against South Carolina.

Michigan's offense endured its ups and downs in 2012, and the line struggled with run-blocking for anyone not named Denard Robinson. But Lewan held his own against the league's top defensive linemen and limited South Carolina superhuman Jadeveon Clowney in the bowl game. He did little to hurt his draft stock as a likely first-round pick.

And that's the best part. Despite the lofty projections, Lewan surprised many by deciding to remain at Michigan for his senior season. He'll provide leadership for a line enduring some significant personnel turnover. He'll also aim to become the first Michigan player to win the Outland Trophy.

The countdown

No. 25: Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan
No. 24: Michael Carter, CB, Minnesota
No. 23: Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern
No. 22: Spencer Long, G, Nebraska
No. 21: Carlos Hyde, RB, Ohio State
No. 20: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
No. 19: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
No. 18: Mike Taylor, LB, Wisconsin
No. 17: Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
No. 16: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
No. 15: Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State
No. 14: Matt McGloin, QB, Penn State
No. 13: Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin
No. 12: Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State
No. 11: Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
No. 10: Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State
No. 9: Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern
No. 8: Jordan Hill, DT, Penn State
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Other than Katherine Webb, Johnny Manziel and, of course, Jadeveon Clowney, no person logged more airtime during college bowl season than Michigan running back Vincent Smith.

Unfortunately for Smith, his 15 minutes consisted of one play being showed on a loop with the same ending -- Smith's winged helmet flying off of his head. Midway through the fourth quarter of Michigan's highly entertaining Outback Bowl matchup with South Carolina, Clowney, the Gamecocks' star defensive end, burst through the line and dislodged Smith's helmet from his head and the football from Smith's hands. Clowney, by the way, checks in at 6-foot-6 and 256 pounds, a foot taller and 81 pounds heavier than Smith.

It was undoubtedly the top play of the bowl season, one that illustrated Clowney's superlative skills and put the South Carolina star on the radar for the 2013 Heisman Trophy. Get ready to see the play a ton in the buildup to the 2013 season and in the buildup to the 2014 NFL draft, where Clowney is already being pegged as the No. 1 overall pick.

Smith, to his credit, is taking his brush with fame very much in stride. Colleague Michael Rothstein of Wolverine Nation caught up with the Michigan running back to discuss the play.
Smith joked on the sidelines with his teammates the hit would likely be on ESPN later that day -- it was -- and after the game he received text messages asking how he was doing.

The answer? It might not have looked pretty, but Vincent Smith is doing just fine.

"You've got to get it out of your head because I'm going to bounce back and turn it into a positive," Smith said. "I was joking about it after on the sidelines. I was like, 'Yeah, he got me.'

"I saw it later on ESPN and yeah, he got me."

Smith also breaks down the play: how a change in blocking scheme gave Clowney a clear path to the backfield, how Smith recognized South Carolina's blitz before the play, and how Michigan's fullback chose to block a cornerback in the path of the run play rather than Clowney.
Smith figured he was going to be hit in the backfield and would have to break a tackle, either from the corner or someone up the middle. He didn't anticipate everything falling apart as it did just as quarterback Devin Gardner tried to give him the ball.

"I saw it coming and I couldn't do anything about it," Smith said.

The good news is that Smith didn't suffer any serious injuries and can talk and joke about the play now. No one can question the toughness of the 5-6, 175-pound Wolverine after a hit like that.

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