Big Ten: Jason Ford

Several Big Ten players who didn't hear their names called in New York during the weekend still received some good news about their football futures. As soon as the NFL draft concluded, the undrafted free agent scramble began.

Here's an initial list of Big Ten UFA signings. Every Big Ten squad except Indiana had a player signed through free agency. We'll be sure to post more as they become official.

ILLINOIS
IOWA
MICHIGAN
MICHIGAN STATE
MINNESOTA
NEBRASKA
NORTHWESTERN
OHIO STATE
PENN STATE
PURDUE
WISCONSIN

Several players seem to be in good situations, whether it's playing for their hometown team (Kinnie, Netter) or near a family member (Lynn, whose dad, Anthony, coaches running backs for the Jets). It's still shocking to see Brewster on this list rather than the draft one. I'm also surprised Moye, Wiggs, Linthicum and Dimke didn't get drafted.

Other Big Ten players have tryouts with NFL squads, such as Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa (Tampa Bay), Minnesota wide receiver Da'Jon McKnight (Minnesota Vikings), Indiana offensive lineman Chris McDonald (Miami, Green Bay) and Minnesota safety Kim Royston (Minnesota Vikings).
Michigan State receiver B.J. Cunningham and Penn State safety Nick Sukay were among the stars at Saturday's East-West Shrine Game, a showcase for potential NFL draft prospects.

Sukay won defensive MVP honors after grabbing an interception in the end zone with 5:51 to keep the score tied, though his East team lost 24-17 to the West squad. Cunningham, who had a strong week of practices leading up to the game, had a 17-yard touchdown catch and another nine-yard reception.

Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa was 1-of-3 passing for 10 yards, while Illinois receiver A.J. Jenkins was held without a catch. Jenkins rushed one time for no gain. But the Sporting News said Jenkins and Iowa cornerback Shaun Prater were among the players who helped their draft stock the most during the week in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Here are some more notes on Big Ten players from the game by our ESPN Scouts Inc. staff:
  • Penn State's Nick Sukay did a good job of tracking the ball and making the play on an interception, though Northern Illinois QB Chandler Harnish put too much air on the ball and made it a much easier play. Sukay is a former strong safety now playing outside linebacker, and at only 211 pounds he needs to add 15-20 pounds. Still, he showed coverage range and ball skills on the pick.
  • Wisconsin DS Aaron Henry laid out Massachusetts H-back Emil Igwenagu and got flagged for unnecessary roughness, but at least he led with his shoulder and not his helmet.
  • Northwestern QB Dan Persa's lack of size is coming into play, but he's moving around well and creating passing windows. He overthrew South Dakota State WR Dale Moss on a fade down the left side, and Alabama WR Darius Hanks down the right side two plays later. He later rolled to his right and took a sack when he couldn't find anyone, but Persa has to throw the ball out of bounds to avoid unnecessary contact in addition to not losing yards in that situation
  • Iowa DC Shaun Prater got to Mayo a split second early and was flagged for pass interference near the goal line, nullifying SS Duke Ihenacho's interception. Prater also got away with holding Mayo on another play.

The East-West Shrine Game wasn't the only all-star showcase on Saturday. The inaugural NFLPA Collegiate Bowl was held in Carson, Calif., and some Big Ten players stood out there, too.

Minnesota's Da'Jon McKnight led all receivers with four catches for 49 yards. Michigan State Hail Mary hero Keith Nicol had one catch for 37 yards. Illinois' Jason Ford, who was suspended for the team's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl win, paced the American team with five rushes for 27 yards. Indiana's DaMarlo Belcher, who was dismissed from the team mideason, had two catches for 27 yards.
Let's take a look at three keys for Illinois heading into Saturday's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl matchup against UCLA.

1. Establish the run early: Top running back Jason Ford is out (academics), but Illinois still can establish the ground game against a UCLA defense ranked 95th nationally against the rush. The Bruins have surrendered more than 200 rush yards in seven games, including 352 in the Pac-12 championship against Oregon. Illinois freshman Donovonn Young has impressed in stretches and gets an opportunity to establish himself as the team's back of the future after missing the regular-season finale with an ankle injury. With fullback Jay Prosch also out (staph infection), Illinois really needs its offensive line to show up from the get-go. The line was supposed to be a strength for Illinois but has fallen short of expectations. If the Illini can get the ground game going early behind Young, Troy Pollard and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, they'll open up the pass attack with A.J. Jenkins.

2. Maintain motivation and composure: Both Illinois and UCLA are dealing with coaching transitions, suspensions and other turmoil. UCLA players recently skipped a practice. Many question how motivated the teams will be to play a minor bowl game before moving forward with new leading men (Tim Beckman and Jim Mora Jr., respectively). Illinois players say practice has gone well, and they will be playing for interim coach Vic Koenning, fired coach Ron Zook and themselves on Saturday. The Illini didn't handle adversity well down the stretch of the regular season and must keep their composure if things don't go well Saturday. Illinois must continue to limit penalties after tying for 22nd nationally in penalties per game (4.83). UCLA hasn't been nearly as disciplined, ranking 91st in penalties per game (6.85).

3. Contain UCLA's ground game: Illinois' defense will be the best unit on the field Saturday in San Francisco, but the Illini need a strong effort against the run. UCLA's rushing attack is the strength of its team, ranking 29th nationally (190.7 ypg). The Bruins have three players with more than 450 rushing yards, including quarterback Kevin Prince, who had 163 yards in a win against Cal earlier this season. Illinois struggled against the run down the stretch and needs a strong performance from a talented line featuring Whitney Mercilus, Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence. Defensive tackle Corey Liuget had a huge performance against Baylor in last year's bowl victory. It will be interesting to see if Spence can do the same against UCLA.
One team lost its final six games and fired its coach. The other team finished with a losing record and fired its coach. Still, they're both going to play a bowl game in San Francisco, and one team has to win it. Let's take a look at the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl essentials:

WHO TO WATCH: Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus. The junior leads the nation with 14.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles. He showed up on everybody's All-America team and will almost certainly head to the NFL after this game. So he may be primed to go out with a bang against a UCLA offensive line that is decent but not overpowering. Bruins tackle Jeff Baca may need some help containing the explosive Mercilus off the edge.

WHAT TO WATCH: The Illini defense has been strong all season, but can the offense generate anything? After starting the season well, Illinois averaged just 11 points per game in its six straight losses to end the year. The offensive line was a mess, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase appeared to lose his confidence -- not surprising, considering how little time he was given to throw. Leading rusher Jason Ford is academically ineligible for the bowl, and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino bolted for Arkansas, leaving quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm in charge of the playcalling. If Scheelhaase can get some protection, he has one of the top receiving threats in the country in A.J. Jenkins. But that's a big if.

WHY TO WATCH: Well, you need something to do while getting ready to go out for New Year's Eve, right? We can't pretend this isn't one of the least appealing bowl matchups, given the complete lack of momentum or enthusiasm on either side. But, hey, it's still a Pac-12 vs. Big Ten meeting in California, even if this is about as far away from the Rose Bowl as you can get. Both teams have talent and tradition, and both will be looking to impress their new incoming head coaches.

PREDICTION: Illinois 17, UCLA 9. I have little confidence in the Illini's ability to do much offensively. But the Illinois defense will be the best unit on the field and should be motivated to play for Vic Koenning, the defensive coordinator/interim head coach who is leaving after the game. It probably won't be pretty -- except for the background shots of San Francisco.
Maybe they should call it the Kraft Fight Through Adversity Bowl.

Earlier this week, UCLA announced it was suspending four players for the Dec. 31 game against Illinois, including backup quarterback Richard Brehaut. Today (in a classic example of PR 101, dropping the news late on Friday before Christmas), the Illini announced that two of their players are academically ineligible, including leading rusher Jason Ford.

That's a career-ender for Ford, a senior who had 600 rushing yards and seven touchdowns this season. That leaves Illinois thin in the backfield for the game, as fullback Jay Prosch was hospitalized this week for a staph infection and may not be able to play.

Senior Troy Pollard (462 yards this season) and freshman Donovonn Young (406) will likely have to carry the load in the bowl game. It wasn't like the running game or the Illinois offense in general was producing much of anything during the final six weeks of the season, but every little bit hurts even more. I believe this game will come down to whether Illinois' offensive line can rebound after an awful performance down the stretch and whether quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase can regain his confidence and form.

Neither team will be at full strength for this bowl game. But neither team was all that strong to begin with, either.

Final: Michigan 31, Illinois 14

November, 12, 2011
11/12/11
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Most expected Michigan's defense to improve this season, but few believed the unit would carry the team.

That's exactly what has happened as Michigan trudges through the second half of its season. Greg Mattison's defense continues to make significant strides, cover up the offense's mistakes and give the offense enough time to get things on track.

Michigan thumped hapless Illinois 31-14 on Saturday, and the margin should have been much bigger. The Wolverines outgained Illinois 249-30 in the opening half but led by only 14 points because of repeated mistakes by the offense. Denard Robinson fumbled twice in the half and Michigan couldn't fully take advantage of 134 first-half rush yards from Fitz Toussaint.

But all the Wolverines' errors didn't matter because their defense stifled Illinois, which has something seriously wrong on offense. The Illini failed to score in the first half for the FOURTH consecutive game, a recipe for disaster against a Michigan team that improves as games go on. Michigan held Illinois to 37 rush yards on 33 carries.

Wolverines senior defensive tackle Mike Martin continued to wreak havoc, helping to stuff Illinois' rushing attack. Michigan also received a huge interception from J.T. Floyd early in the fourth quarter.

The concern for Michigan going forward is the offense and specifically the quarterback position. Robinson looks a bit lost right now and completed just 6 of 10 passes before leaving the game in the fourth quarter. He appeared to get banged up late in the game. Devin Gardner led Michigan's final two scoring drives and fired a 27-yard touchdown pass to Martavious Odoms.

Offensive coordinator Al Borges has some decisions to make before next week's game against Nebraska, both with personnel and with his scheme. Although Toussaint was fabulous with 192 rush yards and a touchdown, the Wolverines can't expect to keep making so many mistakes and win.

Illinois has much bigger problems to worry about. Ron Zook's squad dropped its fourth consecutive game and seemed to backslide on both sides of the ball. The run game simply isn't there and Jason Ford, one of few offensive bright spots the past three contests, had just 26 rush yards and a lost fumble. I really expected more from Illinois' offensive line, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has backslid after a blistering start.

The Illini defense is doing what it can, but the unit clearly needs more help. Illinois also suffered yet another mishap on a punt return.

After recording its best start since 1951 (6-0), Illinois finds itself in serious trouble entering the final two weeks. The calls for Zook's job likely will intensify, particularly if the Illini lose out to finish a once-unfathomable 6-6.
Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino entered the season brimming with confidence, and for good reason.

His unit had set team records for scoring (423 points) and points per game (32.5) in 2010 and returned most of its key pieces, namely quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Most of the questions about Illinois rested with a defense that had lost three players to the NFL draft, including first-round pick Corey Liuget.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
Jerry Lai/US PresswireQB Nathan Scheelhaase, 2, and the Illinois offense have struggled the past three games.
"We're always going to set our expectations high," Petrino told ESPN.com in August. "We set the school record last year, and we're going to break it this year."

Petrino looked prophetic through the first six games, as Illinois averaged 34.7 points and 447.7 yards. The Illini recorded 32 plays of 20 yards or longer. Scheelhaase and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins formed the Big Ten's most dangerous passing connection, as Jenkins soared to the top of the national receiving chart with 815 yards and seven touchdowns.

A surprisingly effective defense complemented the offense, and Illinois swept its first six games to get off to its best start since 1951.

But the Illini since have backslid, dropping three straight games. While the defense continues to perform well, the offense has disappeared.

Illinois has scored only 28 points during the losing streak, including none in the first half and only seven before the fourth quarter. Amazingly, the Illini had more yards and more first downs than any of its past three opponents -- Ohio State, Purdue and Penn State -- and dropped all three contests.

What's wrong with the Illini offense? It's not complicated, according to Petrino.

"Blocking, protecting, throwing and catching -- the basics," Petrino told ESPN.com. "You've got to block people. You've got to hit people when they're open. You've got to catch the ball. And then you've got to run through some tackles. Just the basic stuff we've got to do better. We've kind of hurt ourselves from that standpoint in the last three games.

"We've got to do it better."

They need to start Saturday against No. 24 Michigan at Memorial Stadium. Illinois' once-promising season could go down the drain if the offense doesn't resurface.

A potential turnaround for the Illini starts with the offensive line, considered one of the Big Ten's best before the season. Illinois boasts experience up front and continuity, as there has been only one change in the starting lineup all season.

But Illinois' front five has struggled against some of the Big Ten's best defensive linemen, allowing too many negative-yardage plays. Opposing teams have recorded 24 tackles for loss and eight sacks during Illinois' losing streak.

"A lot of times we've been getting beat up front," Petrino said. "That doesn't necessarily mean it's always the O-line. Sometimes it's the tight end or the back, [and the] quarterback a couple times needed to get the ball out of his hands quicker."

Petrino also is looking for more big plays. Jenkins and Scheelhaase provided a bunch of them early in the season, but defenses have done better at limiting Jenkins' effectiveness the past three games.

Illinois has recorded just three plays of 20 yards or longer in the past three games -- all passes from Scheelhaase to Jenkins.

"Some of the other guys have got to do it, too," Petrino said. "Darius Millines did it early in the year and he was hurt for a while, but I think he's getting back, being closer to being 100 percent, so that will help. Jon Davis, our freshman tight end, has made some plays for us. Ryan Lankford has got to start making some plays.

"And then in the running game, we've got to bust through the holes and get some long runs, also."

Senior running back Jason Ford has been a bright spot, recording 183 rush yards on 34 carries in the past two games. But Ford's longest run this season is just 18 yards.

"Bottom line, defenses are too good this day and age if you go three, four yards the whole time," Petrino said. "You've got to get some big plays."

Illinois also needs to start games better, especially against a Michigan team that has improved as games go along. The Illini averaged 17.5 points in the first half through the first six games, but they've since limped out of the gate.

"We haven't played worth a darn in the first quarter of the last three games," Petrino said. "It's something we take pride in. We script our opening plays and we work on them all week.

"So we've got to go out and play fast and definitely get going early."

Saturday would be a good time for a better start.

Halftime: Penn State 0, Illinois 0

October, 29, 2011
10/29/11
5:15
PM ET
U-G-L-Y.

That pretty much sums up the first half in State College, where it's snowing and neither offense has shown up. Will this be first to 10? First to score?

Illinois appeared ready to make the scoreboard operator finally do his job late in the first half as Derek Dimke lined up for a 26-yard field-goal try. Dimke has been perfect on seven attempts this season. But the Illini botched the snap and then threw an interception to Penn State's Sean Stanley, who turned in a nice half.

Illinois might have botched the game winner at the rate this contest is going.

The teams combined for nine first downs, two third down conversions on 17 attempts, four turnovers and 176 total yards. While both teams boast solid defenses, the two offenses have been downright painful to watch.

Both teams have played two quarterbacks, although Illinois looks much more justified to do so than Penn State. Joe Paterno and his staff continue to trot out Rob Bolden, who clearly hasn't developed the way anyone had hopes. While Matthew McGloin made his second start and struggled, Bolden failed to complete a pass on four attempts and twice fumbled. Fans seemed to boo the sophomore late in the half.

Nittany Lions sophomore RB Silas Redd has been solid as usual (14 rushes, 74 yards), but the lack of production at quarterback is infuriating. Will McGloin be the guy in the second half like he has the past few games? You never know with this staff.

Illinois' Reilly O'Toole completed 3 of 4 passes in relief of Nathan Scheelhaase, who has struggled mightily for the third consecutive game. The Illini can't abandon their run game with Jason Ford, especially in a contest where few points will be scored.

Here's hoping for some excitement in the final 30 minutes. Strange, strange day in the Big Ten.

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 26, 2011
10/26/11
12:00
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Squirrel up!

Big Ten lunch links

October, 18, 2011
10/18/11
12:00
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You gooder than me no make difference.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Braxton Miller has yet to complete a pass for Ohio State, but the Buckeyes have a two-score lead. That's the kind of day it has been at Memorial Stadium.

A few thoughts at the end of three quarters, as Ohio State leads No. 16 Illinois 10-0.
  • Ohio State's defense has been absolutely brilliant today. Linemen Johnathan Hankins and John Simon are consistently beating Illinois’ veteran offensive line. The back seven also has stepped up, and freshman CB Bradley Roby provided the biggest play of the game, intercepting a Nathan Scheelhaase pass and returning the ball to the Illini 12-yard line. Ohio State scored on the next play. Coach Luke Fickell has to love what he's seeing from the defense.
  • While the Buckeyes offense hasn't been pretty, Dan Herron continues to provide a huge boost in his return from suspension. The senior already has eclipsed 100 yards rushing and scored the touchdown on a 12-yard scamper. He has run with both speed and power and looks very much like a guy with fresh legs.
  • Illinois started to pass the ball better in the third quarter but can't hit on the big play. Scheelhaase has looked jittery at times, fumbling several snaps, although he made a big throw to A.J. Jenkins for a third-and-15 conversion at the end of the quarter.
  • Illini RB Jason Ford left the game with a left shoulder injury early in the quarter. It looked pretty bad at first but Ford trotted to the locker room for further evaluation. His return is uncertain.

1Q update: Both defenses dominating

October, 15, 2011
10/15/11
4:07
PM ET
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- It has been all about the defenses after 15 minutes of play at Memorial Stadium. Ohio State leads No. 16 Illinois 3-0 after the first quarter.

A few notes and thoughts:
  • Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller is moving around fine, and coordinator Jim Bollman hasn't been afraid to send Miller on the move. Miller ran the option on the first play from scrimmage and leads Ohio State with six rushes. He hasn't attempted a pass, twice running on obvious passing situations, so he looks a little gun-shy so far.

  • Illinois' defense likely has something to do with it. Illini DE Whitney Mercilus continued his spectacular season with a hit on Miller that jarred the ball loose (Ohio State C Mike Brewster recovered). Fellow defensive linemen Michael Buchanan also has been impressive.
  • Ohio State's defense has rebounded nicely from its late-game flop at Nebraska. The Buckeyes are tackling well and preventing Illinois from stretching the field. Illini star WR A.J. Jenkins has only one catch for two yards.
  • Jason Ford has been the bright spot for Illinois' offense, running with good power, as he should with his frame. Ford has three carries for 21 yards and should get the ball more in the second quarter.
  • Dan Herron definitely makes a difference for Ohio State's offense. The senior racked up 27 rush yards and showed some good moves with the ball. The Buckeyes will need a big game from "Boom" today.

Midseason report: Illinois

October, 11, 2011
10/11/11
11:30
AM ET
Illinois Fighting Illini

Record: 6-0 (2-0 Big Ten)

Some teams benefit from an advantageous schedule. Still, it's up to the team to make the most of that advantage. Illinois has definitely done that. Thanks in large part to an ultra-friendly slate that kept them at home for the first five weeks before a road game at struggling Indiana, the Illini are off to their best start since the 1951 team began 7-0. But let's give Ron Zook's team some credit beyond the schedule as well. Like it was at the end of last year, the Illinois offense is a balanced, well-oiled machine, averaging almost the same amount of rushing yards (226) as passing yards (221). Sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has improved as a passer and remains a strong running threat, while senior A.J. Jenkins has blossomed into the most dangerous receiver in the Big Ten. They're augmented by a deep backfield (Jason Ford, Donovonn Young and Troy Pollard) that has made up for the loss of Mikel Leshoure. Maybe more impressively, the defense absorbed the loss of NFL draft picks Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson without much problem. Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan have harassed opposing quarterbacks from their defensive end spots, and linebacker Jonathan Brown -- when he isn't kneeing players in the groin -- comes flying at ball carriers in all directions. Illinois has also showed a fighting spirit, winning three straight games by exactly three points. Of course, it helped that those all came at home. But the Illini have maximized that assistance so far this season.

Offensive MVP: Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins. It's hard to go against Scheelhaase, who is putting together a terrific season and who has accounted for 14 touchdowns throwing and running this year. But Jenkins has been superb as Scheelhaase's favorite target. He ranks fifth nationally in receiving yards and leads the Big Ten with 46 catches for 815 yards and seven touchdowns.


Defensive MVP: Defensive end Whitney Mercilus. The junior has looked unblockable at times while leading the Big Ten in sacks (8.5), tackles for loss (10.5) and forced fumbles (four). Not bad for a guy who had started only two career games before this season.
I don't know if we'll see a wilder Big Ten game all season than the one that just took place in Champaign.

Pick a story line -- Dan Persa's return for Northwestern, Illinois' struggles in the red zone, Northwestern's defensive woes, Nathan Scheelhaase's guts, A.J. Jenkins' brilliance -- and this game had it.

Ultimately, Scheelhaase and Jenkins prevailed with an incredible second-half performance as Illinois outlasted Northwestern 35-31 at Memorial Stadium. Jenkins had a record-setting day with 12 catches, 268 receiving yards and three touchdowns. He found enormous gaps in Northwestern's secondary, which had no answer for the Illini star all afternoon.

Scheelhaase rebounded from a shaky first half to finish with 391 pass yards and three touchdowns, and he added the game-winning rushing touchdown with 13 seconds remaining. The sophomore showed tremendous poise in rallying Illinois from deficits of 28-10 and 35-31.

Illinois definitely needs to clean things up, as two turnovers led to Northwestern touchdowns, including an inexcusable fumble by Jason Ford in the final minutes. The penalties also are a problem, but Ron Zook's squad is finding ways to win games.

Moving on to Persa. You have to feel for the Northwestern quarterback, who threw a career-high four touchdown passes and completed 11 of 15 attempts in his return, but then left the game. He appeared to aggravate his right Achilles'/ankle, which kept him out the first four games. We'll have to see about the extent of his injury. Northwestern looked like a different team with No. 7 on the field. The Wildcats also lost top running back Mike Trumpy to what looked like a serious knee injury.

But quarterback isn't the biggest issue for Northwestern. Pat Fitzgerald has to completely reassess his defense: the players, the scheme and the coaching. After being shredded by Army's run game, Northwestern had no answer for Jenkins and the Illinois passing attack. Illinois' second-half scoring drives were far two easy, as Northwestern put no pressure on Scheelhaase and seemed to sit back on its heels.

Illinois would have piled up more points if not for some first-half miscues in the red zone.

Fitzgerald has done a lot of good things in his tenure at Northwestern, but as a former All-America linebacker, he can't have a team that plays defense like this. And he can't have teams that consistently blow huge leads, as Northwestern has for the past year and a half.

For Illinois, the good times continue. The Illini are 5-0. While there's a lot to fix, Illinois is finding ways to win.

Big Ten stock report: Week 5

September, 28, 2011
9/28/11
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Let's pause and take stock.

Stock up

Illinois running back depth: The Illini have three backs who have rushed for at least 210 yards this season. Fifth-year senior Troy Pollard surprisingly leads the team with 260 yards -- including his first two career 100-yard days -- while averaging a whopping 10.4 yards per carry. Freshman Donovonn Young is averaging 7.9 yards per attempt. They make nice complements to Jason Ford, who has four rushing touchdowns this season.

Devin Smith: The Ohio State passing game hasn't exactly been firing on all cylinders lately. But true freshman Devin Smith looks impressive. The 6-foot-3 receiver made two touchdown grabs last week against Colorado despite playing only about 30 snaps. "Devin can make plays," head coach Luke Fickell said. "He's a guy that can get on top of you, have some speed. Obviously good balls were thrown to him and he made the plays. We need that."

Tom Nardo: It was neat to see the Iowa senior defensive lineman win Big Ten defensive player of the week honors after his 12-tackle performance against Louisiana Monroe. That's because Nardo was a walk-on his whole career until being awarded a scholarship this spring. He's tied for the team lead with three tackles for loss this season.

Rex Burkhead: The Nebraska I-back has run for 290 yards and four touchdowns his past two games, averaging nearly eight yards per carry. He now ranks third in the Big Ten in rushing, just one yard behind teammate Taylor Martinez. So much for those who doubted whether Burkhead could be a star without Roy Helu Jr.

James Vandenberg: The Iowa quarterback has been a man on fire since late in the third quarter of the Pitt game. He has thrown for 669 yards his past two games, with six touchdowns. For the season, the junior has tossed for 10 scores and just one interception, and he's on pace to throw for well over 3,000 yards. Not bad for a first-year, full-time starter.

Stock down

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireMichigan quarterback Denard Robinson is having a fantastic season on the ground, but is struggling in the passing game.
Denard's passing: Denard Robinson is a joy to watch when running the ball -- and right now often painful to watch throwing it. He was just 8 of 17 for 93 yards with two interceptions against San Diego State, and many of the misfires weren't close. That followed a 7-for-18 passing day against lowly Eastern Michigan. Brady Hoke says the passing problems aren't all Robinson's fault, but clearly this area has to improve for Michigan to compete for a division title.

The Illinois band's timing: Western Michigan was flagged for a false start on Saturday, but the head official waved it off and explained that the Marching Illini Band didn't stop playing in time for the Broncos to call out their snap count. At least he didn't criticize their rhythm.

Indiana kickoff returns: Frankly, the stock is very low on most things Hoosiers-related. But here's one glaring stat: Indiana is second-to-last nationally in kickoff return average, getting a little more than 15 yards per return. Considering the one strength IU seemingly has is some speedy skill players, this is surprisingly bad.

Minnesota's pass rush: The Gophers had one of the worst pass rushes in the country last year with only nine sacks for the season. Things aren't much better this year; in fact, Minnesota is on pace for an even worse year for getting to the quarterback. It is tied for last nationally with only one sack so far in four games (Indiana also only has one). The Gophers' secondary gets a lot of blame for the team's problems defending the pass, but that futility is a group effort.

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