Big Ten: Jeff Duckworth

Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.

Big Ten lunchtime links

September, 19, 2013
9/19/13
12:00
PM ET
Unlike in Cleveland, there are no white flags waving here in September.
  • Given the choice between two of Michigan's rivals, Brady Hoke knows who he is cheering for when Michigan State takes on Notre Dame. The Wolverines are looking to "redeem themselves" with a primetime audience watching on Saturday night.
  • Connor Cook is getting the majority of the work leading Michigan State's offense at quarterback, but there are still four guys in the mix at the position. The Spartans have struggled defensively over the last couple games with Notre Dame.
  • Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson's injured hamstring hasn't fully healed yet, so Mitch Leidner is in line for more work on Saturday against San Jose State. The Gophers will have their hands full defensively against David Fales, one of the most efficient passers in the nation.
  • Stephen Houston is making the most of life as a backup running back for the Hoosiers. A run of injuries on the offensive line is testing Indiana's depth (subscription required).
  • Taylor Richards is grading out well with the coaches and earning praise from him teammates, and Purdue can certainly use his playmaking ability on defense. The Boilermakers have played some "Jump Around" at practice and are working on their communication to prepare for the noise at Wisconsin.
  • Freshman cornerback Matt Harris is turning heads on the practice field for Northwestern, and he's making a bid for more playing time, perhaps even a starting role. The secondary is still making some plays either way, and safety Ibraheim Campbell has an impressive streak going.
  • Tim Beckman has broken the season into quarters, and the first one was a measured success for Illinois. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is taking some of the blame for sack issues early in the season.
  • Big plays from receiver Jeff Duckworth have earned him a legendary nickname from Wisconsin. The Badgers are seeing quarterback Joel Stave improving every game, even though he only put up average passing numbers last weekend.
  • The Nebraska administration, with an assist from Tom Osborne, has helped the program avoid a potentially nasty turn in the Bo Pelini saga, writes Steven M. Sipple. On the field, Huskers assistants are still trying to make adjustments on both sides of the ball.
  • Cornerback Jordan Lucas and the Penn State defense have something to prove coming off a rocky outing against Central Florida. Like growing long hair, allowing an offensive line to come together takes time, according to right tackle Adam Gress.
  • Forget about the nickel and dime, Ohio State's "penny" defense is its answer for spread offenses thanks to depth in the secondary. Braxton Miller was on the practice field on Wednesday and is likely to play a limited role against Florida A&M, but defensive end Adolphus Washington will miss a second consecutive game with a groin injury.
  • Mark Weisman is carrying the football at a record pace for Iowa, and his body is handling the workload just fine. The Hawkeyes are gearing up for a big test in the secondary from Western Michigan.
Now that spring practice is over, we’re taking a look at the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team.

By indispensable, we don’t necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/bitten by a Komodo dragon, etc. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.

We’ll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense but not always. Up next: the Wisconsin Badgers.

Jared Abbrederis, WR

Abbrederis led the Badgers with 49 catches for 837 yards and five touchdowns last year. The next top receiver on the team was Jordan Frederick, who had just 17 receptions for 196 yards and one score. Only one other wide receiver, Jeff Duckworth, caught a touchdown. Nowhere on the team is there such a large difference between the best player at his position and the No. 2 guy. That was amplified last year when Abbrederis was banged up and the team struggled to get much going in the passing game. New receivers coach Chris Beatty is trying to develop some complementary players to go with Abbrederis this offseason, but so far it seems to be going slowly. That's why he's so important to the Badgers' hopes in 2013.

Dezmen Southward, S

You could argue that Chris Borland belongs on this list, and you'd have a strong case, especially with Wisconsin using more 3-4 looks on defense this season. But at least the Badgers have some experience at linebacker besides Borland. That's not the case in the secondary, where Southward is the lone returning starter. Redshirt freshman Reggie Mitchell is a possible starter at the other safety spot, and there's precious little experience behind Southward. Gary Andersen is bringing in two juco defensive backs for a reason. Southward developed into a very solid player last year, and Wisconsin needs him both for his ability and his leadership.

More indispensable:

Michigan

Weekend rewind: Big Ten Week 13

November, 26, 2012
11/26/12
10:00
AM ET
For one last (regular-season) time, let's do the rewind:

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesOhio State's Ryan Shazier ran his season sack total to five with this takedown of Michigan's Devin Gardner.
Team of the week: Ohio State, naturally. The Buckeyes finished a perfect 12-0 season by beating their archrival, Michigan, at home. That's a pretty good week. Lots of people want to knock Ohio State for its schedule, and understandably. According to the NCAA, the Buckeyes have played only the 65th-toughest schedule in the country. That's not far off from Georgia (No. 60), which is getting an awful lot of love from some pollsters.

Game of the week: It was an emotional day at Penn State, as the school honored the seniors and the season by putting a 2012 sign on Beaver Stadium and paid tribute to injured linebacker Michael Mauti by placing his No. 42 on the team's helmets. We figured Wisconsin might have a hard time matching the Nittany Lions' energy level, but instead the Badgers took a 14-7 halftime lead. Penn State rallied, but Wisconsin tied the game with 18 seconds left in regulation on a Curt Phillips pass to Jeff Duckworth. But the Nittany Lions prevailed in overtime, giving this special team a final celebration that it definitely earned.

Biggest play: Nebraska led Iowa 13-7 in the fourth quarter with the Legends Division title on the line, and the Hawkeyes had just pinned the Huskers inside their own 1 on a punt. Luckily for Big Red, Superman Returns is not just a mediocre movie. After a quarterback sneak for one yard, senior Rex Burkhead -- playing for the first time in a month -- took an inside-zone handoff and somehow muscled his way through a pile of would-be tacklers for an improbable nine yards. That first down got Nebraska out of trouble and helped the Huskers hold on for the win and a spot in Saturday's Big Ten title game.

Gutsiest play: After throwing one of the weirdest, most-pinball-like interceptions you'll ever see, Purdue's quarterback found himself as the last line of defense against Indiana's Greg Heban. Marve, despite playing on a torn ACL, ran more than 60 yards to chase down Heban and make a touchdown-saving tackle. "It was kind of like one of those we're-going-to-see-where-my-body's-at-very-quickly kind of things," Marve said. "It was a funny play. My dad played some linebacker for a whole bunch of years, so he was proud of me." Marve's refusal to give up on the play despite only having one good knee is indicative of how the Boilermakers hung tough to win their final three games and make a bowl.

Best call: Penn State couldn't have played its finale without one more fourth-down gamble by Bill O'Brien. And this was one of his best. Early in the fourth quarter, O'Brien went for it on fourth-and-6 from the Wisconsin 41. Quarterback Matt McGloin scrambled and found tight end Jesse James for a touchdown, giving the Nittany Lions their first lead of the game. Penn State finished the season 19-of-34 on fourth-down conversion attempts. Air Force and Army, which both run the option offense, are the only two FBS teams that have gone for it on fourth down more than the Lions.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell nearly tripled Minnesota's total yardage all by himself. The junior running back shredded the Gophers for career-high 266 yards and a touchdown on 35 carries for his third 200-yard game of the season. Bell leads the Big Ten in rushing and ranks third nationally at 1,648 yards. His 350 carries (that's an average of 29 per game, folks) are more than any other FBS player.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill (12 tackles, three TFLs, two sacks) was absolutely dominant and helped make up for the loss of Mauti. The senior's final college performance probably earned him some extra NFL money.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Nebraska's Brett Maher made a pair of crucial field goals in the Huskers' 13-7 win, including a 52-yarder on a windy day. He also had a 61-yard punt that was downed inside the Iowa 5.

Biggest hangover: You can justify Michigan's 8-4 record by noting the Wolverines have lost to teams ranked No. 1 (Notre Dame), No. 2 (Alabama), No. 4 (Ohio State -- in the AP Top 25) and No. 12 (Nebraska). But this is Michigan, fergawdsake. The Maize and Blue are supposed to win big games, and instead they fell flat in every one, ending with some bizarre offensive playcalling in the second half at Ohio State. The Wolverines again ended up without a Big Ten title, and unless they can beat what will probably be a very good SEC opponent in a bowl, they'll finish a year that began with a top-10 ranking as a five-loss disappointment.

Strangest moment: What else could possibly go wrong for Illinois coach Tim Beckman?

During Saturday's 50-14 loss to Northwestern, Beckman was penalized for sideline interference twice in the first quarter. On the second one, he was run over by an official after a Wildcats' interception. Northwestern scored one play later after the 15-yard flag.

“The first one was on me," Beckman said. "I was running out there getting involved in the game. The second time I was behind the ball, as I always am because usually you’re behind the ball and the officials are all in front. Interception and they were running the other way. I’ll take the blame. That’s my fault. Not good on my part.”

There has been a whole lot of not good in Champaign this year.
Hours after naming Danny O'Brien as its starting quarterback for the season opener, Wisconsin revealed its complete preseason depth chart.

Senior Curt Phillips and redshirt freshman Joel Stave are listed as co-backups behind O'Brien.

Oh, in case there was any doubt, Montee Ball is listed as the team's starting running back despite suffering a concussion last month.

Some notes and thoughts on the Badgers' two-deep.
  • Jordan Fredrick translated a strong camp into a starting wide receiver spot opposite standout Jared Abbrederis. Fredrick, who redshirted in 2011, is listed ahead of both Chase Hammond and Manasseh Garner. Kenzel Doe also nabbed a starting receiver spot ahead of veteran Jeff Duckworth. At 5-8 and 170 pounds, Doe is one of the smallest players in the Big Ten but makes up for his size with speed. It will be interesting to see how Wisconsin rotates its receivers around Abbrederis, clearly the team's No. 1 target.
  • Sophomore Kyle Costigan won the starting right guard spot ahead of Robert Burge. Wisconsin's other four starting linemen were fairly set. The right side of the line is young with Costigan and sophomore tackle Rob Havenstein.
  • Junior Pat Muldoon is listed as a starter at both defensive end spots, alongside David Gilbert and Brendan Kelly. Both Gilbert and Kelly have dealt with injury issues, so you can expect more of a rotation at end as Wisconsin tries to identify a difference-making pass rusher.
  • Wisconsin often uses two tight ends, and junior Brian Wozniak tops the depth chart alongside Jacob Pedersen. Wozniak got the nod ahead of Brock DeCicco, a transfer from Pittsburgh who has done some good things in preseason camp.
  • Despite missing spring practice and undergoing four surgeries in the past year and a half, Ethan Armstrong secured a starting outside linebacker spot alongside All-Big Ten 'backers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor. Armstrong started two game last season and is listed ahead of Conor O'Neill.
  • Special teams is a major area of interest for Wisconsin, and the Badgers have new starting specialists at both kicker (freshman Jack Russell) and punter (sophomore Drew Meyer). Sophomore Kyle French, the backup kicker, will handle kickoffs. Abbrederis, the team's top punt returner, also will handle kickoff returns with backup running back James White.
  • Jordan Kohout's career-ending injury thins the depth a bit at defensive tackle. Sophomores Warren Herring and Bryce Gilbert are listed as the backups behind Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer. Kohout likely would have been in a No. 2 role.

Thoughts on the Badgers' depth chart?

Big Ten Friday mailblog

August, 10, 2012
8/10/12
4:30
PM ET
Thanks for your emails and Twitter questions (we'll keep using Twitter for mailblog questions going forward).

Brian will be driving the blog bus next week, so my next mailblog comes your way Aug. 21.

Let's do it ...

Justin from NYC writes: Hi Adam, Hope all is well in the Midwest, or wherever it is you're based out of, my question is 2 parts. First, Going off a question that was asked in yesterday's mailbag, do you think we will ever see Jim Delany reconsider his stance on a 9-game conference schedule? It seems absurd to me that teams will have to wait 4 years to play an out of division non-protected game with teams in their own conference. Secondly, If we were to move to a 9-game conference schedule, how do you think this would effect bye weeks and overall schedule timing? As a Buckeyes fan I feel that playing the Michigan game on Thanksgiving weekend is terrible for the students who have to travel back and forth from home and hurts the pre-game week festivities.

Adam Rittenberg: Things are great here in Chicago, Justin. Regarding the nine-game conference schedule, it's not Delany's call. It's the athletic directors who make that decision. Delany supported the move to nine games last August, and he has often talked about the importance of conference teams playing one another more, not less. But in the past year, momentum has slowed among the ADs to go to a nine-game league schedule. While some ADs like Michigan State's Mark Hollis never supported the idea, others also joined the movement to stay at eight. The league's coaches, not surprisingly, want to keep the eight-game league slate. Although the longer lulls between two Big Ten teams playing each other are an issue, the bigger concern among ADs was having unbalanced schedules (five Big Ten home games, four Big Ten road games) and the problems that creates when deciding a league champion. The eight-game schedule also helps the Big Ten's chances of reaching the national title game.

Regarding your second question, unless the season started earlier across college football, the Ohio State-Michigan game would remain on the Saturday after Thanksgiving to accommodate championship Saturday the following week. It doesn't have to do with bye weeks or number of league games, but when the season actually starts.


Brian from Atlanta writes: Adam, I'd like to propose a follow-up to your players poll. Without revealing any personal info, did you notice any interesting correlations to the answers? Were skill position players more likely to answer the same way than teammates, etc. Did linemen and skill players see eye to eye, etc.

Adam Rittenberg: Brian, I didn't see too many huge differences between skill players and linemen for most of the questions. The linemen seemed more willing to identify dirty players, and typically named linemen on the other side of the ball. At least one of the "would leave Penn State" votes came from a star player with legitimate NFL skills. I think if we'd surveyed more freshmen and sophomores, we would have gotten more saying they'd leave Penn State. But overall, there weren't too many strong correlations.


@DoWorkLaRoy (via Twitter) writes: what highly ranked team are we most likely to look back on in December and say, "Wow, we really screwed that one up..."?

Adam Rittenberg: Michigan and Wisconsin are the likeliest candidates. While I understand why Michigan is the Big Ten's highest-ranked team entering the season, the Wolverines schedule is among the nation's toughest. As I've stated many times, the Wolverines easily could be a better team than 2011 with an inferior record (i.e. 9-3) this season. It's just very hard to get through a slate featuring Alabama (neutral), Notre Dame (road), Nebraska (road), Michigan State (home) and Ohio State (road), especially when the team has question marks on both lines. Wisconsin also could take a step back this fall. Danny O'Brien isn't Russell Wilson, and the offense likely won't maintain its incredible pace from the past two seasons. The more I look at Wisconsin's defense from 2011, I see a very average unit with good numbers because it wasn't on the field that much. If the Badgers don't find an elite pass-rusher and improve in the secondary, they'll have some problems.


Buckingham U. Badger from Madison, Wis., writes: It seems as though the Badgers haven't had someone really step-up and take hold of the second receiver slot. Obviously [Jared] Abbrederis and [Jacob] Pederson will be the top targets, but two targets is hardly enough. Can you envision a scenario in which the Badgers move James White into that slot role, sort of like Percy Harvin did at Florida? Especially given that Montee [Ball] will receive the majority of the carries and Melvin Gordon seems poised to take over as the feature back.

Adam Rittenberg: While I think White can be used in different ways this season, I don't see him as a No. 2 receiver. He can be a nice change-of-pace guy, but Wisconsin would really benefit if someone else stepped forward during camp. Jeff Duckworth made some big plays in the Big Ten title game, and Manasseh Garner, Marquis Mason and Chase Hammond are three intriguing players, all with good size. If one or two of those guys takes a step during camp and can complement Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin's offense will be that much better. I agree that White needs to have a more expanded role, but he just doesn't strike me as a No. 2 receiver.


Jay from Colorado writes: "At some point, it stops becoming about restoring legacies or wins or blasting the NCAA or the university president or the board of trustees. At some point, the focus and energy needs to shift toward what's happening now and what will happen in the future. "Why don't you let the PSU community do that without providing a judgmental timeline...determined by the media. Despite what you may think, you don't know what kind of effect this has had on the community. Graduating from PSU for meteorology was a life goal and source of pride for me. Cheering for an icon was a privilege. Just because the reporters are not there anymore, espousing their narrative, does not mean the pain has healed and that we need to move on because you think we have to. On the contrary, the PSU community has repeatedly been dealt blow after blow. We are trying to assess and assimilate all that has happened in less than a year. Nobody knew, outside of the select few, anything about what was happening. So it is an understatement to say PSU was rocked by this. And if you expect us to work through it in the speed of the twitter-verse that we now live in, it is you that has lost touch.We are dealing with it...and 'it' has a lot of layers (child abuse and victims, failing of our leaders, media bombardment, failing of the BoT, firing Paterno, a riot, Paterno's death, the Sandusky trial, the Freeh report, and seeming blind acceptance of the Freeh report despite not interviewing key witnesses. So sorry if we are reeling...and would like due process and objectivity...even though that doesn't meet your or ESPN's timeline for how things should go. Stick to the football side of this...please don't moralize about our reaction as this ongoing saga continuously unfolds before our eyes.

Adam Rittenberg: I never wrote Penn Staters didn't deserve time to process all that has happened. React how you want to react. My comment is directed more toward those who clearly aren't helping the situation. What's the point of appealing the NCAA sanctions, which aren't subject to appeal? To show that you're not weak? To show that you're standing up to evil? I understand those folks are hurt by what happened, but they're not making the situation any easier, especially for Bill O'Brien and the current team. Of course, Penn State has been rocked by this, and it will take a very long time to get through what has gone on there. But to keep blaming the media or the Freeh report investigators or the board or whatever, doesn't seem to serve a purpose at this stage. Neither does throwing out the term "due process" without understanding that the NCAA viewed the Freeh report as a self-report from Penn State. There's little need for an infractions hearing at that point.

Some very bad things happened in State College. No one can refute that. The perception of the school has been harmed, and is further harmed by these appeals. Doesn't it matter how this looks to the outside world? Again, quietly processing all that has happened is completely fine. Doing so while supporting O'Brien and the current team seems like the best approach.


@AdoubleD (via Twitter) writes: What are your impressions of MSU's defense that stands out above all others?

Adam Rittenberg: Michigan State's defense has the best combination of talent and depth in the Big Ten. There's no obvious weakness on the unit, and even the defensive tackle position should be fine with Anthony Rashad White, Tyler Hoover and others. I love the way the Spartans have recruited on the defensive side, bringing in a lot of top-shelf athletes to East Lansing. They're not overly reliant on one or two stars, and they can go two or three deep at almost every position. Barring a wave of injuries, Michigan State should have a top 5 defense this season.


Patrick from Alexandria, Va., writes: Two comments on the "poll" results you have been posting. First, I think this is a terrible idea. Seriously, you are asking a bunch of kids which coach on other teams they'd least like to play for? Which opposing players are "dirty"? I know you guys like to get a little "edgy" but this is insulting. Second, you can't really ask for "anonymous" answers face-to-face; that's one reason why so many players did not respond to the negative questions. If you wanted to assure them of anonymity you should have used a simple on-line polling software (e.g., PollMonkey). That also would have allowed you to take a representative sample of players, giving you more valid and reliable results, rather than answers from a small, non-random group of interviewees. If you don't want to take the time how to do this right, then just stick to reporting and stay away from polling.

Adam Rittenberg: Patrick, some fair points here. It was our first go-round, and we certainly can improve our polling methods going forward. Maybe we'll poll Big Ten blog readers to get better questions next time, although I thought they worked out pretty well for the most part. Still, I don't know why you're "insulted" by a poll question, and as far as the edginess, deal with it. It's a blog. It's going to be opinionated and edgy. If you want to read about the loveliest things about each team and each program, all the rainbows and unicorns of the Big Ten, this isn't the place for that. I've made that clear a few thousand times. There are plenty of fanboy blogs out there for you to feel warm and fuzzy. But we'll make a better effort on the methods for polling next time around. We'll need cooperation from the schools, which isn't always easy, but we'll definitely give it a shot.

Home run summer: Wisconsin

June, 19, 2012
6/19/12
3:10
PM ET
Our series continues looking at a player or a group of players from each Big Ten team who needs a home run type of summer before preseason camp begins. Who needs to hit it out of the park in preparation for the season?

For previous entries, click here.

In the batter's box: Wisconsin

Who needs to step it up: Receivers not named Jared Abbrederis

One of the most memorable moments of my spring trip to Wisconsin came after several dropped passes by Badgers wideouts during a scrimmage. An obviously frustrated Bret Bielema yelled out, "Somebody step up at receiver. You'll play!" While that seemed to light a fire under some of the receivers during the rest of that practice, spring definitely was an up-and-down time for players at the position with leading pass-catcher Abbrederis sitting out drills because of an injured foot. Abbrederis should be full go by August, but he'll need some help to keep defenses honest, because he is not the type of player who can impose his physical will on defensive backs. Wisconsin has some intriguing options in the passing game, including rangy receivers like Marquis Mason and Chase Hammond. Isaiah Williams and 5-foot-8 jitterbug Kenzel Doe bring different things to the table, and Big Ten championship game hero Jeff Duckworth will look to put together a full season of productivity. The wideouts will need to develop more consistency this summer while building chemistry with presumed starting quarterback and recent Madison arrival Danny O'Brien. The Badgers are pretty well set at just about every other position. Can Wisconsin win a lot of games without excellent play from receivers beyond Abbrederis? For sure, because of its outstanding running game. But to win another Big Ten title and chase greatness, the team likely will need those players to have a home run summer.

Big Ten mailblog

April, 3, 2012
4/03/12
3:00
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Husker Country today, Hawkeye Country tomorrow. Wonder if I'll get stopped at customs.

Nate from Easley, S.C., writes: I really like the idea of a spring scrimmage but, other than injuries, I have one major concern. The current system is slanted towards benefitting those with a good pre-season ranking, so, if voters took the results of a glorified scrimmage into account, wouldn't it further skew the pre-season rankings? (Granted, voters pre-season ranking are already perception-based and not entirely accurate.) Said another way, do you think a scrimmage "Win" would take on more value than player development? Would two highly perceived teams want to to scrimmage if it hurt their stock going into the season?

Adam Rittenberg: Nate, this is a good question. Let me first say I despise preseason rankings. As much fun as is it to see where teams that haven't played games for nine months are subjectively rated in August, it really hurts a sport where there's such limited access to the national title game. My solution is to release the first polls about Oct. 15, but I don't know if it'll ever happen. That said, my hope is that spring scrimmages wouldn't have an overly significant impact on perception. Most teams aren't going to scrimmage their top players for very long, or risk injury to their starting quarterbacks. You can glean a few things about depth, potential breakout players, etc., but how a team performs in these scrimmages wouldn't be a great indicator of how good they'd be in the fall. So my hope is that the perception factor wouldn't be there, and it wouldn't affect whether teams scrimmage or how the polls turn out.


A.J. from Madison, Wis., writes: I agree that Wisconsin needs someone to step up on the defensive line, as well as more speed in general on defense, but I'm not sure I understand the criticism of the lack of receivers. Last year, did the Badgers have anybody we knew about other than Nick Toon? The fact is they almost never run formations with more than two receivers, and I don't think it will be hard to find one player to fill that role between Jeff Duckworth, Kenzel Doe, A.J. Jordan, or anybody else that could potentially step up.

Adam Rittenberg: A.J., I agree that Toon was the big name entering 2011, but Jared Abbrederis also had shown promise after recording 20 receptions in 2010. Wisconsin felt pretty good about Abby, and while some might not have expected him to match Toon's production, he and Toon looked like a solid 1-2 punch. You're right that Wisconsin rarely uses more than three wideouts at once, and with tight end Jacob Pedersen back, along with Abbrederis, the Badgers should be OK. But if either guy gets hurt, I'd be very concerned. Duckworth made a great catch in the Big Ten title game, and he could be that next man in. Yet he and the others have a lot to prove. Mannaseh Garner is another intriguing player. Ideally, Wisconsin wants to be able to go four or five deep at receiver, so it'll have insurance if there are injuries.


Ryan from Lincoln, Neb., writes: In every practice update I read the players talk about the attitude or "swag" this team is carrying with them this spring. Is that something you can sense with them? Also, how big do you think the strides Taylor Martinez has taken actually are? Thanks Adam!

Adam Rittenberg: Definitely, Ryan. I felt Nebraska was a confident team last spring, particularly on defense, but the Huskers' swagger seems to be reaching another level this year. They feel they have greater chemistry and camaraderie now, and it can't hurt that Bo Pelini and his staff have recruited everyone in the program. They also feel they'll be able to execute their schemes a lot better on both sides of the ball. Nebraska talked a lot last season about how different its two-gap defense is from what we see in the Big Ten. But for various reasons, including the first go-round through a new league, the advantages within the scheme didn't surface as often as most folks thought. There's a much greater comfort level on offense, as Nebraska is not only in Year 2 as a Big Ten member, but Year 2 of coordinator Tim Beck's scheme. Spring is always a time to be hopeful and optimistic, and you should want your team to have high expectations. Will Nebraska be projected as a national title contender outside Lincoln? No. But the players and coaches are shooting for that goal, and if a few things fall right, you never know.


Jon from Murfreesboro, Tenn., writes: I'm not an Iowa fan, but if I was, I would be expecting more from the program. With the amount of money Ferentz is getting paid and the minimal success he has had there, I just don't get it. Is there a coach in the Big Ten who is getting paid so handsomely for doing less than Ferentz? In 13 years in Iowa City he's had 4 ten win seasons and 2 conference titles, not exactly killing it. Outsider looking in, it sure seems like Iowa is just throwing cash at him and accept his mediocrity in the hopes that he stays and doesn't bolt for one of NFL jobs his name gets rumored about every year.

Adam Rittenberg: Jon, this is one of the topics I want to address when I'm in Iowa City this week. The thing that jumps out to everyone nationally about Iowa is Ferentz's salary. People acknowledge the wins totals, which are pretty respectable, but wonder why Iowa can't get more despite paying its coach top-10 money. With Iowa, you have to look at the bigger picture. There are some inherent disadvantages there, namely location for recruiting, that will always make it tough to be consistently elite. Iowa has some tradition, but it doesn't have the national allure of Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska. What Ferentz can sell is the ability to get players to the NFL. The pro personnel evaluators love Iowa, and if you're a good recruit with the potential to get a lot better in college, Iowa isn't a bad place to go. But it's certainly fair to expect more from Ferentz, especially at a time when Wisconsin, a comparable program, has reached back-to-back Rose Bowls. As for the constant NFL buzz, it has worked in Ferentz's favor with the school. But Iowa also doesn't want to become a North Carolina or a Washington State, programs that backslide after losing successful coaches (Mack Brown, Mike Price).


Andrew from Harrisonville, Mo., writes: I love the blog Adam, especially your coverage of the Huskers. And when I was watching your video with Ben Cotton, I noticed how much bigger he was then you. Do you feel small when your in a room full of football players?

Adam Rittenberg: No doubt, Andrew. Clearly bad genetics. It's especially tough with offensive linemen, defensive linemen, tight ends and wide receivers. It's why I'll miss guys like Edwin Baker and Jay Valai -- I was at eye-level with them. If your team has a lineman or a tight end who looks about my height on the videos, you might want to get worried.


Chris from Chicago writes: Given the relative depth/speed at linebacker and the trouble developing a consistent pass-rush with the D-line, did you get any indication during your visits to Evanston that Northwestern might be shifting to a 3-4? Seems like it might be well employed there....

Adam Rittenberg: Chris, it's interesting. When Pat Fitzgerald first became head coach, he mentioned several times on record that the 3-4 was the team's future on defense. But the plans have changed, and I don't see the 3-4 on the horizon in Evanston. Although the coaches feel they've upgraded the athleticism at the linebacker spot, there aren't many proven players aside from the three returning starters (David Nwabuisi, Damien Proby and Collin Ellis). Although the defensive line has some major question marks after recording a league-low 17 sacks in 2011, I get the sense the coaches like their depth there and expect better things this fall. The fact is Northwestern's linebacker play has dropped off a bit after a nice run in the first part of the last decade. I don't know if this is the time to make a switch to the 3-4.


Goldy Gopher from the Frozen Four writes: Do you see Optimus Prime (Rasheed Hageman) having a breakout season making the Gopher run defense respectable?

Adam Rittenberg: Ah, Ra'Shede Hageman. How long have we been hearing he's on the verge of stardom? I remember former Minnesota coach Tim Brewster raving about Hageman a few years ago. Perhaps this is the year he turns the corner, and Minnesota could really use a dominant pass-rusher to emerge. He's a specimen at 6-foot-6, 300 pounds, and he delivered a big hit at a recent practice, but he has only 18 career tackles in 20 career games. So he's still very much unproven in my eyes. But he's only a redshirt junior, so he has time to make strides, and should be better off in the second year under coordinator Tracy Claeys. Minnesota should be OK at linebacker, but it needs several players to make big strides up front and in the secondary. Hageman could be a building block for the Gophers.


Zac from Ann Arbor, Mich., writes: Adam, when will ESPN choose the B1G night games?

Adam Rittenberg: It varies each season, Zac, but the primetime schedule usually comes out in late April or early May. Last year, it came out on May 19, a little later than usual. But there's a larger demand for night games now, and the Big Ten is dealing with ABC/ESPN and the Big Ten Network making picks. I'll bug my pal Mark Rudner in the Big Ten office and see if I can get him moving. So many great choices this year!


Bryan from Michigan writes: Adam,What are the odds of Michigan beating Alabama the first game on the year and then going undefeated for the next 11 games and then wining the big ten championship game and then playing for the national title.

Adam Rittenberg: The Alabama game provides an excellent barometer for Michigan. Are the Wolverines on the cusp of being elite again, or were they a good team with a great record in 2011? We should find out a lot at JerryWorld. People can talk all day about the players Alabama has lost, but any time you beat the Crimson Tide under Nick Saban, it's a signature win in my book. I regard Saban as by far the best coach in the nation, and the Alabama program as a notch above the rest. Looking for an elite program in a competitive environment? Look at the Tide. So if Michigan can beat Alabama, the sky's the limit, although the Wolverines' road doesn't get easier with trips to Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State. It'll be tough to go undefeated with this schedule.

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

March, 29, 2012
3/29/12
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We're 48 hours from Armageddon in my hometown. I'll be on my roof with a shotgun, protecting the house from rioters.

In the meantime, let's get to your emails:

The Roaming Badger from On a T-Bell Run: Now before all of the Badger fans get so excited about our shiny new toy at QB that we crown ourselves B1G champs, can we stop and look at the talent surrounding Danny O'Brien? I'm not sure he has enough targets to thrive and I'm not convinced the defense can be elite. Basically, I'm not sure that O'Brien takes this team from division champ to conference champ, much less national champ. Please tell me I'm wrong.

Brian Bennett: You make some good points. Wisconsin doesn't exactly look loaded at the receiver spots. I love Jared Abbrederis, but with Nick Toon gone the Badgers are going to have to find some secondary receivers. Maybe Jeff Duckworth will build upon his big performance in the Big Ten championship game. The defense probably won't be elite, but it wasn't exactly dominating the past two years either as Wisconsin went to the Rose Bowl. O'Brien patches the biggest hole on the team, and with the offensive line and running game expected to be so good, the Badgers have to be considered the favorites in the Leaders Division. Can they do more than that? Right now, I think they're a notch below the best Legends teams. But it's only the spring.


Ty L. from ■ @WordsthegreatTy writes: With Danny O'Brien going to Wisconsin now, who starts at QB for Penn State and who finishes the year as the starter?

Brian Bennett: I continue to believe Matt McGloin will win that job again. He clearly outplayed Rob Bolden last year and there's no reason to believe at this point anything will be different. Paul Jones has talent but hasn't been able to stay academically eligible and gain any experience. For Penn State fas fretting about not getting O'Brien, consider these 2011 numbers:

O'Brien: 1,648 yards passing, 56.4 percent completion rate, seven touchdowns, 10 interceptions
McGloin: 1,548 yards passing, 54.1 percent completion rate, eight touchdowns, five interceptions

I don't believe the difference between the two is all that great, and the addition of a different O'Brien -- new head coach Bill O'Brien -- will bring major improvement to what was a very stale Nittany Lions passing game.


Dayne 2.0 from Madison writes: It goes without saying that Montee Ball was more than improved in the 2011 season; he was a completely different back. I'm curious to know what factors you think were most vital to his success? Was it the weight loss? Was it the addition of Tom Hammock? Obviously he put in a TON of work in the offseason. Also, how will his plan for putting on weight (which confuses me after what being 30 pounds lighter did to him) and another year with Hammock affect him this coming year? I think it's pretty clear he'll be working just as hard as the last offseason to improve his draft stock and hopefully win Wisconsin's second Heisman award.

Brian Bennett: It was obvious in preseason practice last year that Ball was very driven to have a huge season. The loss of 30 pounds not only made him quicker but helped his stamina. It is a little strange to hear him talk about putting weight back on, but that's more about adding some strength to get ready for the next level. Adding O'Brien at quarterback just helped Ball's Heisman chances because teams won't be able to load up against the run as much.


Corey from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, writes: Hey Brian, first time questioner/long time reader. Nice having you aboard here on the B1G blog. It seems to me that big name transfers have been choosing the Big Ten lately. With the increase in transfers coming to B1G schools, do you think it will eventually equate to better recruiting, especially in the talent-rich South?

Brian Bennett: In addition to O'Brien, some of the high-profile transfers this offseason have included highly-recruited receivers Kyle Prater (from USC to Northwestern) and DeAnthony Arnett (from Tennessee to Michigan State). But Prater is from Illinois and Arnett is from Michigan, so I don't know why this would have a big effect on recruiting in the South. Maybe if skill position players see top-flight receivers and backs having great success in the Big Ten, that can change some perceptions about the conference being a slow, defensive-minded league. But players generally like to stay close to home.


Paul from Philadelphia writes: Although I wouldn't have been upset if Danny O'Brien had come to Happy Valley, it still wouldn't have sat well with me in terms of fairness to Matt McGloin, Rob Bolden, or Paul Jones. And, I have to say, it doesn't seem fair to any recruit who was hoping to work for the starting role in Madison this fall. Do you think this graduate transfer rule that allows for immediate eligibility is fair? Is it the rule across all athletic conferences in the U.S.? Or, am I too focused on fairness and not focused enough on the merit of whoever is the best player for the position regardless of longevity in the program?

Brian Bennett: First of all, it is an NCAA rule that allows graduate transfers to become immediately eligible, but schools and conferences don't have to abide by it. The SEC, for instance, passed its own rule banning such transfers who have only one year of eligibility left (O'Brien has two). As for fairness, well, sports is like life. It's not always fair, and competition is good. I don't see the transfer rule being much different than a coach recruiting a better player at the same position or bringing in a transfer who has to sit out a year. No one should ever assume they will get playing time or a starting job just by staying in the program.

The one legitimate concern, especially for Wisconsin after bringing in two such transfers in consecutive years, is that will send a bad signal in recruiting that the team can't develop its own quarterbacks. But the pros far outweigh the cons in this instance.


Luis from Philadelphia writes: Where would you rank the stability of the B1G conference after the many coaching changes?

Brian Bennett: The conference as a whole is incredibly stable, thanks to strong leadership, smart expansion and the lucrative TV contracts. No worries there. There have been many coaching changes, but if you look at the individual programs that made those changes, there's little reason to worry. Brady Hoke looks like he'll be at Michigan a long, long time. While we don't know how long Urban Meyer will want to stay in coaching, he doesn't seem likely to bolt for another job. Penn State made a coaching change, but that was after nearly a half-century with the same head coach.


Trevor from Chicago writes: You wrote how cool it is the Kentucky and Louisville are playing each other in a playoff and you are right, it is a sweet story line. Many combinations of BIG teams would be amazing to see. However, you miss the other side. How irrelevant was their regular season matchup? Other than the hardcore fans, no one cared. It's what happens in playoff sports, "just wake me up when the playoffs get here" mentality sets in. I hope you see the long term implications of a playoff system. Not even to mention is getting bigger as the powers that be see the $$$ in adding teams over time.

Brian Bennett: Trevor, if you've ever spent time in Kentucky, you know there is never such a thing as an irrelevant Kentucky-Louisville game. It's huge every year. While that game might not attract a ton of national interest, the truth is little outside of the NCAA tournament does when it comes to college basketball. College football is a much, much different story. People are always going to care about the Michigan-Ohio State game no matter the records or situation, and the same is true for many other schools and their fan bases. I don't think a four-team playoff will adversely affect the regular season, and if home-field advantage is at stake, it could even make the regular season more important in some ways.


Lorenzo from Sierra Vista, Ariz., writes: With Urban Meyer basically saying that Ohio State has Zero Offensive playmakers on the current roster, doesn't that speak volumes of how well Jim Tressel did while there? Doesn't it also highlight that Jim Tressel was deserving of Big Ten COTY at LEAST twice (2002, 2007)?

Brian Bennett: I don't really follow your logic. First of all, Meyer's concerns are about the receiver position. He seems to like the running back and quarterback spots just fine. Jim Tressel had some fine receivers during his tenure -- Santonio Holmes, Ted Ginn, Anthony Gonzalez, DeVier Posey, just to name a few. Tressel and Meyer also have wildly different offensive philosophies, as Meyer puts a big emphasis on super-fast, versatile players. But I'll agree with your last part, that Tressel should have taken home an armful of coach of the year honors.


Erik B. ■from @HuskerInsanity writes: What do Pelini & Beck think of Martinez having a QB coach in CA? Aren't they getting paid to provide teaching & instruction?

Brian Bennett: If you missed the story earlier this week, Taylor Martinez spent his spring break working with California-based quarterbacks instructor Steve Calhoun. While there is some concern about having too many voices in your quarterback's head, I haven't heard any indication that Bo Pelini or Tim Beck is upset about this. In fact, at a time when plenty of college football players use their break to relax on a beach somewhere, Martinez continued to work on his game and his mechanics. That says a lot about his dedication to getting better, and that's excellent news for the Huskers. Also, two other college quarterbacks -- Washington's Keith Price and Nevada's Cody Fajardo -- did the same thing on their breaks.

Top 10 moments of the Big Ten season

January, 12, 2012
1/12/12
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Now that the season is over, it's time to take a look back at our Top 10 moments of the year in Big Ten football, on and off the field:

No. 1

"Rocket" men (Oct. 22)


[+] EnlargeMichigan State Spartans wide receiver Keith Nichol
Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIREMichigan State Spartans wide receiver Keith Nichols' (right) catch to defeat the Wisconsin Badgers was the top play of the 2011 Big Ten season.
Michigan State's 44-yard Hail Mary pass from Kirk Cousins to Keith Nichol (via B.J. Cunningham's facemask) stands as the most memorable play of the Big Ten season and, we would argue, the top play of the college football year. The Spartans' 37-31 win over Wisconsin derailed the Badgers' national title hopes and helped propel Michigan State to a Legends Division title. And that set up another fantastic moment ...

No. 2

Badgers get revenge (Dec. 3)

The first Big Ten championship game couldn't have asked for much more drama, as Wisconsin and Michigan State staged a highly-anticipated rematch of their earlier classic. This one played out in almost the same fashion, with each team trading huge plays in a thrilling game. This time, the Badgers completed a desperation heave, as Russell Wilson found Jeff Duckworth on a long pass in the fourth quarter to set up the go-ahead touchdown. A running-into-the-punter penalty ended the Spartans' chances of winning in the final minute again. Wisconsin clinched a second straight Rose Bowl appearance with its 42-39 victory, and another Spartans-Badgers epic duel made the inaugural title game a smashing success.

No. 3

Michigan's miracle (Sept. 10)

If not for those Michigan State-Wisconsin games, Michigan's 35-31 win over Notre Dame would likely be remembered as the most exciting game of the Big Ten season. The Wolverines trailed 24-7 after three quarters and couldn't get much going offensively. But then Denard Robinson took over. The two teams scored three touchdowns in the final 1:12, until Robinson ended matters with a 16-yard scoring strike to Roy Roundtree with two seconds left. That kind of magic would stay with Michigan all season long, right through its equally improbable Allstate Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech.

No. 4

Braxton's bomb (Oct. 29)

A week after losing on that Hail Mary in East Lansing, Wisconsin had its guts ripped out all over again in Columbus. Precocious Ohio State freshman quarterback Braxton Miller scrambled and nearly crossed the line of scrimmage before firing a 40-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Devin Smith with 20 seconds left as the Buckeyes won 33-29. Little did we know then that it would be Ohio State's last great moment of the season, or that the Badgers would somehow regroup to still win the league championship.

No. 5

The fall of an icon (Nov. 9)

No story in the Big Ten, or in all of sports, was bigger than the child sex abuse scandal that erupted at Penn State in November. The rape allegations against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, as well as charges that school administrators failed to stop him and/or lied under oath, became international news. And on Nov. 9, that scandal led to the firing of legendary head coach Joe Paterno, who won 409 games while leading the program since 1966. Everything about that week in State College, from students rallying on Paterno's front lawn to the bizarre, circus-like atmosphere at the Board of Trustees news conference announcing his dismissal, was and remains surreal.

No. 6

A time for healing (Nov. 12)

After all the events and controversy leading up to Penn State's home game against Nebraska, which included student riots in the streets of downtown a few days earlier, there was serious concern about what would happen at Beaver Stadium that Saturday. Security was on high alert. But the Nittany Lions and Huskers players helped diffuse the tension by meeting at midfield just before kickoff for a moving prayer. Nebraska won the game and won some admirers for how it handled the difficult situation.

No. 7

Urban renewal (Nov. 28)

Most of Ohio State's season, which featured a 6-7 record and a 2012 NCAA bowl ban handed down in December, was something its fans would like to forget. But Buckeyes fans can't wait for the future after the school hired Ohio native Urban Meyer as its next head coach. Meyer's first season will be hampered by the postseason ban. Still, for Ohio State to go through the mess it faced during 2011 and still end up with a coach of Meyer's stature and pedigree has to be considered a victory.

No. 8

Gophers go hog wild (Oct. 29)

Minnesota barely looked like an FBS team, much less a Big Ten one, during its 1-6 start. The Gophers had lost to North Dakota State and were outscored 144-31 in their first three league contests. But the rivalry game against Iowa brought out the best in them. Minnesota scored two touchdowns in the final 8:22 and pulled off a daring onside kick to stun the Hawkeyes 22-21 in the upset of the Big Ten season. The Gophers kept the Floyd of Rosedale trophy in Minneapolis for a second straight season.

No. 9



Huskers' historic comeback (Oct. 8)

Nebraska's first Big Ten home game was one to remember. The Huskers trailed Ohio State by 21 points in the second half before rallying for the biggest comeback victory in program history. Taylor Martinez, Rex Burkhead and Lavonte David all had huge nights as the team scored 28 straight points for a 34-27 victory. And by beating the league's reigning blue-chip program, Nebraska proved it belonged in the Big Ten.

No. 10

The Streak ends (Nov. 26)

Brady Hoke promised to "Beat Ohio" when he took the Michigan job. And he delivered with an exciting 40-34 victory that snapped an infuriating seven-game losing streak to the hated Buckeyes. Robinson accounted for five touchdowns as the Wolverines held off a big performance from Ohio State's Miller. With Hoke and Meyer now battling it out every year, The Game could resume its place as college football's top rivalry.

Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

Today's Take Two topic is inspired by user Lucas from NYC, who asked during Wednesday's Big Ten chat: Which is the more promising budding rivalry: Iowa-Nebraska or Wisconsin-Michigan State?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

[+] EnlargeKeith Nichol
AP Photo/Al GoldisBoth Michigan State-Wisconsin games this season were classics, the first of which was decided on a Hail Mary pass caught by MSU's Keith Nichol.
Before the season, I would have said Iowa-Nebraska for sure. And it still might turn out to be the more heated rivalry in the long term. The schools are from bordering states, the teams are in the same division and the fan bases have a natural distaste for one another. But after seeing the way the season played out, I'm going with Wisconsin-Michigan State. The teams played two epic matchups, first in East Lansing and then in Indianapolis at the inaugural Big Ten championship game. The first Iowa-Nebraska game was pretty much a snoozer, although things will get spicier in the coming years. Both MSU-Wisconsin games featured wild swings and unforgettable plays, from the game-winning Hail Mary from Kirk Cousins to Keith Nichol, to Russell Wilson's desperation heave to Jeff Duckworth on fourth down. Not surprisingly, the two fan bases saw the game-deciding punt penalty on Michigan State's Isaiah Lewis in Indy a bit differently. Wisconsin fans can't stand their team repeatedly losing in East Lansing. Michigan State fans aren't too fond of Bret Bielema and remain steamed about the way the title game ended. Most important, both programs are on the rise in the Big Ten and becoming new powers in the league. Need more evidence? I present the Mitten State debate. It all adds up to an excellent budding rivalry between Michigan State and Wisconsin.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

Absolutely in the short term, Michigan State and Wisconsin is the more promising rivalry. The two teams have played six really good games since 2007, capped of course by the two thrillers this season. I'm already looking forward to next Oct. 27, when the Spartans and Badgers hook up again in Madison. Wisconsin looks like the overwhelming 2012 Leaders Division favorite, while Michigan State will certainly contend in the Legends and could repeat if it adequately replaces Cousins. So another Big Ten title game match next year is not out of the question. But here's the problem with getting too smitten by the Mitten Game: the two teams are not permanent cross-division rivals, so they're not guaranteed to play every year. A true rivalry needs annual repetition. Iowa-Nebraska has that, not to mention a fixed date on the calendar in Black Friday. The Hawkeyes have yet to turn this into an interesting series, but the apparent defection of Iowa defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski to the same position with the Cornhuskers could add a little hot sauce into the mix. Eventually, the neighboring state battle will become the bigger of the two. But for the near future, Michigan State-Wisconsin has the juice.

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

December, 5, 2011
12/05/11
1:00
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Let's review Week 14 in the Big Ten. If you don't know what the team of the week and the game of the week were, then I can't help you.

Biggest play: Russell Wilson's 36-yard prayer was answered by Jeff Duckworth on fourth-and-six from the Michigan State 43 with about four minutes left in the Big Ten title game. Duckworth had two defenders around him but still managed to come down with the ball. Duckworth had only 12 catches in the regular season but hauled in three passes for 53 yards and a touchdown in the championship game.

Biggest call: Obviously, the 5-yard running-into-the-punter penalty on Isaiah Lewis that gave Wisconsin a first down and allowed the Badgers to go into the victory formation. Adam Rittenberg broke it all down here. What really stings for Michigan State is that Keshawn Martin returned the punt all the way inside the Wisconsin 5, though we'll never know if that return plays out the same way without Wisconsin players seeing the flag on the carpet.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireThe question of the season: Where would the Badgers be without quarterback Russell Wilson?
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said it was his call to go after the punt, a totally understandable decision given the Badgers' problems with punt protection this year. But Wisconsin was also punting from its own 26 with 1:57 left, and the Spartans had their most dangerous player ready for the return. Even if Martin doesn't get much yardage, he caught Brad Nortman's punt on his own 34. Michigan State would have needed to go about 30 yards with no timeouts left to get in position for a long field goal try. There's no guarantee of that happening, but Kirk Cousins and the offense had moved the ball well all night.

It's a play that will haunt the Spartans all offseason. And it's another reason why I'm glad I'm not a coach.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Russell Wilson. The Wisconsin quarterback capped a spectacular season by earning Big Ten championship game MVP honors. Once again, he showed great poise in a crucial spot, completing 12 of his 15 passes in the second half for 157 yards and two touchdowns. Where would the Badgers be without him?

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen. The sophomore had a career-high three sacks, four tackles for loss and nine total tackles in an impressive performance. He should enter 2012 as one of the top linebackers in the Big Ten.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Nortman. He was big in flipping field position for Wisconsin, averaging 45 yards on five punts, including a 54-yarder. And his little extra acting on the penalty sure didn't hurt.

Best bowl matchup: Wisconsin vs. Oregon. These are two teams that are talented enough to be playing for the national title and have to be considered the best two-loss teams in America. Both have ridiculous offenses, including two of the top running backs in the country in LaMichael James and Montee Ball. The news conferences with Bret Bielema and Chip Kelly alone make it worth going to Pasadena.

Best non-BCS bowl matchup: Nebraska vs. South Carolina. A sneaky good game between the 9-3 Huskers and the 10-2 Gamecocks. Both teams have flaws -- Nebraska's defense doesn't always show up, and South Carolina's offense is likewise inconsistent at best -- but both also have a lot of athletes and speed. The Cornhuskers can prove their worth to the Big Ten by beating an SEC team.

Dumbest matchup: Michigan vs. Virginia Tech. The Hokies in a BCS game? Really? They beat no one of value in the nonconference schedule and were blown out twice by the best team they played, Clemson. Virginia Tech never wins BCS games unless it can play a mediocre Big East team. The Allstate Sugar Bowl had a chance to match Michigan up with Boise State or Kansas State or Baylor to create some buzz but chose to go with a game few will care about.

Best bet-the-over game: Northwestern vs. Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. Both teams have excellent quarterbacks -- Ryan Tannehill for Texas A&M and Dan Persa for the Wildcats -- and bad defenses. Whatever the over/under will be is probably not enough.

Toughest matchup: Iowa vs. Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl. The Hawkeyes did not prove this year that they could beat top-flight competition, especially away from home. They could have a very difficult time against the Sooners, who were overrated all year but still have a ton of talent. Iowa's best hope is that Oklahoma -- which was in the mix for a BCS bowl -- isn't motivated for this one.

Luckiest bowl team: Illinois. You could make a strong case for the Illini not going to a bowl, with their six-game losing streak, disinterested fans and unsettled coaching situation. Despite not getting included in the Big Ten's bowl lineup, Illinois will go to San Francisco to play a highly-beatable, 6-7 UCLA team. While it's very questionable how many Illinois fans will make the long trip out West for this game, would you rather be in San Francisco on New Year's Eve playing a Pac-12 team or be in Detroit on Dec. 27 against Western Michigan like Purdue?

Best quote to remember: "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it." Just keep repeating Clint Eastwood's line in "Unforgiven" whenever you complain about bowls. Did Michigan deserve a BCS bid over Michigan State, who finished ahead of the Wolverines in the Legends Division and thumped their rivals by two touchdowns? No. Did a 9-3 Penn State team deserve to slide all the way down to the TicketCity Bowl? Of course not. Did 6-6 Ohio State, which lost to Penn State, deserve to go to the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl? Heck no.

Always keep in mind that the BCS is set up only to pit the No. 1 vs. No. 2 teams (and it doesn't even get that right every time). Virtually every other bowl is an exhibition game put on by a city to boost tourism. That's it. Nothing more. It's preposterous that schools allow their most valuable property -- the postseason -- to be run by some chamber of commerce in a distant city and will eagerly agree to outrageous ticket guarantees that amount to little more than blackmail.

But that's the system we have. And deserve's got nothin' to do with it.
A Big Ten champion has been crowned and the league's bowl lineup is set. There was only one game on the docket in Week 14, but what a game it turned out to be as Wisconsin and Michigan State provided great theater in Indianapolis.

The Badgers move into the top spot by virtue of their 42-39 win, but as we saw Saturday night, there's not much separating the league's top two teams.

The final 10 spots in the rankings remain the same.

Let's get to it.

1. Wisconsin (11-2, 6-2): Outplayed for long stretches in Indy, Wisconsin found a way to win as senior quarterback Russell Wilson stepped up in the fourth quarter and unlikely heroes like receiver Jeff Duckworth and, yes, punter Brad Nortman made key plays. The Badgers will need a better defensive performance in Pasadena to slow down Oregon, but they get a chance to redeem themselves at the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO.

2. Michigan State (10-3, 7-1): The Spartans looked like the Big Ten's best team for much of the championship game, holding edges in almost every key statistical category except points. But a few critical mistakes cost Michigan State and prevented the team from reaching the Rose Bowl for the first time in 24 seasons. While the disappointment will sting, the Spartans need to shake it off and beat Georgia in the Outback Bowl to secure their first postseason win under coach Mark Dantonio.

3. Michigan (10-2, 6-2): Unlike Michigan teams of recent years, Brady Hoke's crew ended the season on a roll, winning the final three games. Quarterback Denard Robinson bounced back nicely against both Nebraska and Ohio State and will need another strong performance in the Allstate Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech.

4. Nebraska (9-3, 5-3): The Huskers will play a Florida bowl game for just the second time since facing Tennessee in the 1998 Orange Bowl. They have a chance to win 10 games for the third consecutive season, which hasn't been done since 1999-2001 and build some momentum for the 2012 campaign. Taylor Martinez and the Nebraska offense will be tested against a very good South Carolina defense.

5. Penn State (9-3, 5-3): Passed over by several bowl games, the Lions have a chance to show those groups what they missed with a strong performance against high-powered Houston in the TicketCity Bowl. The defense must rebound from its worst performance of the season, and RB Silas Redd should be well rested and able to reclaim his midseason form in the bowl game. A Lions bowl win gives them 10 or more wins for third time in the past four years.

6. Iowa (7-5, 4-4): It was a rocky season for Kirk Ferentz's team, which never won more than two games in a row. Fortunately, the Hawkeyes are going bowling, where they've thrived under Ferentz, going 6-3 with wins in each of the past three contests. After a lousy performance at Nebraska, Iowa will look to finish strong against Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl.

7. Ohio State (6-6, 3-5): While Urban Meyer won't coach the Buckeyes in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, he'll be a central figure as Ohio State takes on his former team in Florida. It should be an interesting atmosphere to say the least. Luke Fickell tries to go out with a win as a head coach before returning to an assistant role, and it will be interesting to see how Braxton Miller performs on his first bowl stage.

8. Northwestern (6-6, 3-5): The Wildcats endured a disappointing regular season after returning a veteran-laden team, but they can still make history by winning their first bowl game since the 1949 Rose. Quarterback Dan Persa has another month to rest up before his final game. Northwestern will need a stronger effort from its defense to end its bowl losing streak against Texas A&M.

9. Purdue (6-6, 4-4): The bowl wait will end for Purdue on Dec. 27 when it faces Western Michigan in the Little Caesars Bowl. It's an important opportunity to finish with a winning record and finish the season with some momentum before what should be a pivotal 2012 season for coach Danny Hope.

10. Minnesota (3-9, 2-6): The Gophers ended a rough season on a high note for the second straight year. It's now about recruiting for Jerry Kill and his staff, and offseason development for the players, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Minnesota will be an improved team in 2012 but must build on the mini defensive surge we saw late in the season.

11. Illinois (6-6, 2-6): There was some talk early in the week that the Illini players might not want to play a bowl game after their second-half collapse, but the Orange and Blue are headed to San Francisco, where they'll face UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. It provides one final opportunity for a talented team to do something positive before beginning a new chapter under a coach yet to be named.

12. Indiana (1-11, 0-8): A vital recruiting period is under way for Kevin Wilson and his staff, who have to upgrade their talent on the defensive side of the ball. Indiana has a nice foundation in quarterback Tre Roberson and running back Stephen Houston, but the Hoosiers need to build depth and hope all the young players thrown to the fire this fall take steps in the winter months.

Badgers find uncommon route to title

December, 4, 2011
12/04/11
3:01
AM ET


INDIANAPOLIS -- Russell Wilson had barely arrived in Madison this past summer when he shared his vision for the season.

"I want to be part of something special," the NC State transfer announced upon meeting his new Wisconsin teammates. "I don't want to be common. I want to be uncommon."

Very little was common about the first Big Ten championship game. A league known for grinding it out in cold weather put on a thrilling, offensive pingpong contest at Lucas Oil Field. Michigan State and Wisconsin figured to have a hard time matching their Oct. 22 classic, but they came pretty close to repeating it note for note. And the Badgers won 42-39 despite getting outgained and outplayed most of the night before somehow finding a way to secure their second consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl.

"The adversity we faced this season helped us tonight, I believe," Wisconsin fullback Bradie Ewing said. "To be able to battle back like that is special. You remember a season like that more than you would a lot of other seasons."

A season that began with enormous expectations nearly came crashing down on consecutive October weekends, when Michigan State and Ohio State delivered last-minute, intestine-twisting, game-winning touchdowns. The Badgers had zero room for error after those two conference losses and needed help from other teams just to get to Indianapolis.

When they got here, they had to face a Spartans team that beat them in three of the previous four meetings. And the rematch began to play out in eerily similar fashion to Michigan State's 37-31 victory on Oct. 22 in East Lansing.

Just as in that game, the Badgers raced out to a two-touchdown lead in the first quarter, only to see the wheels come off. The Spartans outscored Wisconsin 23-0 in the second quarter of the first game; on Saturday, they ripped off 22 consecutive points to take a 29-21 halftime lead.

"For whatever reason, we don't play well in the second quarter against Michigan State," head coach Bret Bielema said. "So we survived it."

Russell Wilson
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesTo be able to battle back like that is special," Russell Wilson said. "You remember a season like that more than you would a lot of other seasons."
Wisconsin inched back into the game but still trailed 39-34 late in the fourth quarter and had little choice but to go for a fourth-and-6 from the 43-yard line. As he had been many times in the game, Wilson got flushed from the pocket by Michigan State's pressure. He flung a pass toward Jeff Duckworth, who had two Spartans covering him.

"I had to give him a shot," Wilson said. "It was pretty much the only thing I could do. I knew I had to throw it up and give it a chance."

Duckworth had broken his corner pattern to the inside -- "It was kind of a bad route, actually," he would say later. But the receiver who caught only 12 passes in the regular season went up and grabbed the ball for a first down at the 7. Montee Ball then did what he does best, scoring his 38th touchdown of the season, and Wilson scrambled until he could find Jacob Pedersen for the 2-point conversion.

The Duckworth pass brought back instant memories of Michigan State's Hail Mary pass to win in East Lansing on Oct. 22. That play started from 1 yard farther back on the field and also went toward the right corner of the end zone, although the degree of difficulty was higher. Karmic payback, perhaps?

"A common saying that we've been using quite a bit over the last three or four weeks is 'Those who are humbled will be exalted, and those who are exalted will be humbled,'" Bielema said. "And I thought that play right there gave justice to everything."

More weird turnarounds were at work. Special-teams breakdowns played a key role in both Badgers losses this season, as Michigan State and Ohio State each blocked a punt that was taken in for a score or directly led to a touchdown. Surely the Spartans considered that weak spot when they decided to go after a Wisconsin punt with less than two minutes left.

That proved disastrous when Isaiah Lewis was flagged for running into punter Brad Nortman, resulting in a first down and Wisconsin bringing on the victory formation. (It only adds to the irony that Lewis made headlines before the first game when he said Michigan State's defense was going to hurt Wilson.) Nortman had an excellent game, averaging 45 yards on five punts, and Wisconsin actually forced a turnover in the kicking game to score a touchdown.

"I preached special teams all week," Bielema said.

This was an uncommon way to win a championship. The Badgers were outgained 471 to 345 by the Spartans and had only 126 rushing yards to Michigan State's 190. Ball alone ran for 105 yards in the first quarter before the normally powerful ground game stalled. Michigan State took advantage of Wisconsin's lack of speed on the edge of its defense most of the night. Look at the stat sheet, and it's hard to figure out how the Badgers won. But their entire season was about not staying down.

"With the team we had, we were thinking national championship," safety Aaron Henry said. "For us to lose the way we did in those two games, it was definitely devastating. [But] our guys rallied, and it pretty much unfolded in front of your eyes."

In Wilson's case, an ear told the story. He tucked a rose over his right ear and kept it there long after the game was over, savoring his first chance to play in a BCS bowl. His vision from the summer had been fulfilled.

"We are definitely uncommon," he said.

Final: Wisconsin 42, Michigan State 39

December, 3, 2011
12/03/11
11:54
PM ET

INDIANAPOLIS -- The first Big Ten championship game was an exciting, memorable event. Especially for Wisconsin fans.

Despite getting outgained and often outplayed by Michigan State, the Badgers pulled out a 42-39 win to avenge an earlier loss this season and clinch a bid to the Rose Bowl for the second straight season.

Two key plays made the difference.

The Badgers faced a fourth and seven with 4:44 left, and quarterback Russell Wilson was under heavy pressure when he chucked it downfield to a well-covered Jeff Duckworth, just hoping something good would happen. It did, in the form of a 36-yard completion that might have been karmic payback for the Hail Mary on Oct. 22.

Montee Ball would go in for the touchdown -- his 38th on the year, one behind Barry Sanders' record -- and Wisconsin converted the two-point play as Wilson again scrambled before finding Jacob Pedersen in the end zone for an improbable 42-39 lead.

Michigan State went three and out and punted, then forced a Wisconsin punt with fewer than two minutes to go. But Isaiah Lewis was flagged for running into the punter, giving the Badgers a first down and effectively ending the game in heartbreaking fashion for the Spartans, whose Rose Bowl drought will now head into its 25th year.

Much, much more to come on this crazy game after postgame interviews ...

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