Big Ten: Jeravin Matthews
1. Protect Persa: One thing the Aggies do as well as anyone is get to the quarterback. They tied for the national lead in sacks per game this season, paced by junior linebacker Sean Porter. Northwestern's offensive line, which allowed 34 sacks this year, needs to hold the fort for quarterback Dan Persa. If he has time, he should be able to exploit a very shaky Texas A&M pass defense. Several quarterbacks had huge days against the Aggies in 2011, including Arkansas' Tyler Wilson (a school-record 510 passing yards), Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden (a school-record 438 passing yards), Baylor's Robert Griffin III (a school-record 430 passing yards) and Kansas State's Collin Klein (281 passing yards and 103 rushing yards). A fully healthy Persa and his favorite target, Jeremy Ebert, can put up similar big numbers if Persa is not running for cover.
2. Pass coverage: Good luck trying to get pressure on Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill, as his offensive line allowed only eight sacks all season. That's tied for fewest in the nation. So the Wildcats' defense is going to have to excel in pass coverage, which won't be easy without injured starting cornerback Jordan Mabin. Northwestern allowed way too many big plays in the passing game all season even with Mabin, and freshman Daniel Jones got torched when he was pressed into service in the season finale against Michigan State. That puts more pressure on players like corner Jeravin Matthews and safety Brian Peters. The Aggies have a balanced offense that's one of the most explosive in the country, and the Wildcats will have to figure out how to take something away.
3. Just hang around: One way to beat Texas A&M is just to weather the early storm and wait for an Aggies collapse. They led Oklahoma State by 17 points in the first half and lost. They led Arkansas by 18 points and lost. They led Missouri by 11 points and lost. And they led Kansas State by 10 points with six minutes left and lost. If Northwestern can keep this game close in the second half, then you have to wonder about the Aggies' psyche, especially as they're playing for an interim coach. The Wildcats have come up just short in their past couple of bowl games. This time, they just might have the advantage if the game goes down to the wire.
Few FBS programs find themselves in more close games than Northwestern. Few FBS programs win more close games than the Wildcats. It has been their M.O. for years and years.
"Close games where it's necessary to be clutch and make plays and win going down to the final seconds, that's something we take pride in," senior safety Brian Peters told ESPN.com.
Northwestern entered the season with a 28-9 record in its previous 37 games decided by seven points or fewer. Of its 13 Big Ten victories between 2008-10, 11 came by seven points or fewer. It began the season with, what else, a 7-point victory against Boston College.
The Wildcats simply don't know any other way to win.
But a troubling trend has emerged in the past season and a half -- and it actually stretches back much longer with this program. Northwestern has built big leads, only to watch them evaporate, often at warp speed.
The Wildcats have squandered leads of 17 points or more in three of their past five Big Ten losses (and all three games that star QB Dan Persa played):
- Built 17-0 first-half lead on undefeated Michigan State last year in Evanston; lost 35-27
- Built 21-0 first-half lead on Penn State last year in State College; lost 35-21
- Built 28-10 third-quarter lead on Illinois last Saturday in Champaign; lost 38-35
Northwestern also squandered a fourth-quarter lead in last year's home loss to Purdue, although it was only four points.
Still, it's fair to ask: Has Northwestern has lost its crunch-time mojo?
"It's a little bit law of the averages," said coach Pat Fitzgerald, who is 19-10 at Northwestern in games decided by seven points or fewer. "At the end of the day, we've won a ton of football games that way. When you come off losing one that way, the sky's falling and I should change my socks and not eat steak anymore and eat chicken like Jobu and all that stuff."
Jobu needs a refill, and so does Northwestern after the Illinois game, where it squandered the 18-point lead, only to regain a 35-31 edge with 1:15 left before allowing the game-winning touchdown.
Fitzgerald and Peters chalk up last Saturday's collapse to poor execution, particularly against Illinois' passing attack. The Illini repeatedly used play-action passes to A.J. Jenkins, who racked up a team-record 268 receiving yards on 12 catches.
"We gave up two touchdowns on three plays," Fitzgerald said, referring to Jenkins' touchdown catches of 50 and 33 yards. "You lose momentum on the road in the Big Ten, it's tough, it's real tough. We made it real hard on ourselves."
Northwestern's problems last Saturday aren't hard to diagnose. Fitzgerald called it "some young players making some young mistakes," and while he didn't name names, safety Ibraheim Campbell and cornerback Jeravin Matthews, both first-year starters, made their share.
Peters, a three-year starter, said part of the learning process as a defensive back is getting beat a few times and finding ways to bounce back.
But is there a bigger issue here? Why has Northwestern been so good in close games and so uncomfortable with big leads? In 2006, Fitzgerald's first season, the Wildcats were on the wrong end of the biggest comeback in NCAA history, as their 38-3 lead turned into a 41-38 loss to Michigan State. The previous December, at the Sun Bowl, Northwestern stormed out to a 22-0 lead against UCLA but saw it completely vanish by halftime.
"I'd like to be able to explain it and give you a simple solution," Peters said. "We're effective in those high-pressure situations, but we have to grow as a team and learn how to play with a lead and learn how to, no matter what the score is, play with our backs against the wall and know that every down and every series is for the game.
"We're taking control as leaders and coaches, and we're looking to fix it."
Saturday night would be a good time to do it. Northwestern hosts No. 12 Michigan in the first of three night games. Denard Robinson and his teammates are likely salivating to face a Wildcats defense that allowed 381 rush yards in a loss to Army and 391 pass yards in the loss to Illinois.
But Northwestern has a penchant for knocking off ranked teams, almost always in dramatic fashion.
"I'm sure the Cardiac Cats will strike again," Peters said. "We're going to try to get a win this Saturday, and if it has to be in dramatic fashion, that's our style anyway, so why not?"
The Big Ten preseason position rankings have reached the home stretch as we take a look at the defensive secondaries. Although individual positions like center and defensive tackle could boast more star power, the Big Ten's overall strength in the secondary jumps out.
There's a lot to like about the Big Ten cornerbacks as nearly every team boasts experience and/or exciting young players. The Big Ten loses All-Conference safeties Tyler Sash and Jermale Hines but brings back quite a few solid contributors.
There's definite separation after the top four groups, while Nos. 5-9 are extremely close.
Here's the rundown (coming soon: cornerbacks and safeties rankings) ...
1. Penn State: The Lions' linebackers seem to be generating more preseason buzz, but I really like what Penn State brings back in the defensive backfield. There's plenty of experience with safeties Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay, and cornerbacks D'Anton Lynn and Stephon Morris. Penn State needs Sukay to regain the form he showed in the first half of 2010 before a torn pectoral muscle ended his season. Lynn is a bona fide All-Big Ten candidate. If Malcolm Willis, Chaz Powell and others solidify depth here, Penn State should have an elite secondary.
2. Ohio State: This is a group the Buckeyes rarely have to worry about, even after losing three starters. The good news is several key players return from injuries, including safeties Tyler Moeller, C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant. Moeller should provide a major boost at the "star" position. The cornerback spots should be fun to watch as Travis Howard and Dominic Clarke fend off some challengers for the starting jobs.
3. Nebraska: Like Ohio State, Nebraska can rely on having an elite pass defense under the Pelini brothers, even after losing several standout players. All-American corner Prince Amukamara will be missed, but Alfonzo Dennard is ready for a starring role. Nebraska needs Ciante Evans to follow what Dennard did in 2010. The Huskers likely will use more linebackers this year, but they'll need to fill holes at safety as Austin Cassidy, Courtney Osborne and others are in the mix.
4. Wisconsin: The Badgers' secondary took a major step forward in Chris Ash's first season on the staff. The key is continued progress, continued playmaking and becoming a truly elite group like Ohio State and Nebraska. Wisconsin seems to have the pieces in place with veteran Aaron Henry at safety, as well as All-Big Ten selection Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith at cornerback. The Badgers must fill the other safety spot, and speedster Shelton Johnson could fill in there.
5. Michigan State: The secondary triggered Michigan State's 2010 turnaround, improving from 112th nationally in pass defense in 2009 to 60th last season. After recording 17 interceptions last year, the Spartans must stick to their MAP motto -- Make A Play -- as they aim for a repeat championship this fall. Safety Trenton Robinson is among the league's most experienced defensive backs, and hopes are high for cornerback Johnny Adams, who had an excellent spring. The unit could hinge on young players like Darqueze Dennard, Isaiah Lewis and Tony Lippett.
6. Iowa: The bad news is Iowa loses veteran safeties Sash and Brett Greenwood from a defense that slipped to 84th nationally against the pass in 2010. The good news is All-Big Ten cornerback Shaun Prater returns along with playmaking junior Micah Hyde. Prater could be a shut-down corner this fall, and Hyde, whose pick-six won the Insight Bowl, could play either corner or safety. Iowa must build depth around them with Jordan Bernstine, Greg Castillo, Tanner Miller and others.
7. Purdue: One of the Boilers' big question marks entering 2010 turned out to be a pleasant surprise, and the secondary could be a big strength this fall. Here's a group that could make a move up these rankings by November. Cornerback Ricardo Allen is a budding superstar who recorded two pick-sixes last year. Safety Logan Link is always around the football, and Josh Johnson could take a significant step as he complements Allen.
8. Illinois: I'm tempted to rank Illinois a few notches higher, and if the Illini address several questions in the secondary, I'll gladly do so after the season. If safety Supo Sanni returns to form and both he and cornerback Terry Hawthorne stay healthy, this could be an excellent group. Tavon Wilson returns to his preferred position of cornerback and could have a big year, while Trulon Henry brings experience to the safety spot.
9. Northwestern: Given the question marks in the front seven, Northwestern needs its veteran secondary to step up. Players like cornerback Jordan Mabin and safety Brian Peters should answer the bell this fall. Both multiyear starters can make plays on the football and change games. There's good competition between David Arnold and Ibraheim Campbell at the other safety spot, while Jeravin Matthews emerged this spring to win the starting corner job opposite Mabin.
10. Michigan: I'll probably take some heat from Wolverines fans, who will point to the return of cornerbacks Troy Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd, the emergence of young players like Carvin Johnson and a defensive makeover under Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison. All of that could lead to better results, but Michigan still has fewer certainties in the secondary than do most teams on this list. This unit has been a disaster the past few years, and it'll take a lot of things to go right to get things back on track.
11. Minnesota: Linebacker looks like a strength for the Gophers' defense, but there are questions both up front and in the secondary. The secondary will need more help from a line that generated no pass rush in 2010, but the defensive backs must help themselves, too. Cornerback Troy Stoudermire had a good spring and adds a big hitter to the group. Minnesota really needs big things from safety Kim Royston, who wants to lead the way after receiving a sixth year of eligibility. Building depth around Stoudermire and Royston will be vital in preseason camp.
12. Indiana: Fixing this group is arguably the biggest challenge for new coach Kevin Wilson and co-defensive coordinators Mike Ekeler and Doug Mallory. Indiana simply hasn't had enough Big Ten-caliber defensive backs in recent years, and the results have been ugly. The Hoosiers surrendered a league-worst 27 touchdown passes in 2010 and finished 114th nationally in pass defense efficiency. Sophomore safety Greg Heban is a nice piece, but Indiana will need a boost from Lawrence Barnett, Lenyatta Kiles and others.
2010 overall record: 7-6
2010 conference record: 3-5 (T-7th)
Offense: 9; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 1
QB Dan Persa, WR Jeremy Ebert, LT Al Netter, C Ben Burkett, TE Drake Dunsmore, DE Vince Browne, CB Jordan Mabin, S Brian Peters, DT Jack DiNardo
LB Quentin Davie, LB Nate Williams, DT Corbin Bryant, WR Sidney Stewart, G Keegan Grant, K Stefan Demos
2010 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Mike Trumpy* (530 yards)
Passing: Dan Persa* (2,581 yards)
Receiving: Jeremy Ebert* (953 yards)
Tackles: Brian Peters* (107)
Sacks: Vince Browne* (7)
Interceptions: Brian Peters* and Quentin Davie (3)
1. Trump(y) card: The run game has been Northwestern's biggest weakness during Pat Fitzgerald's tenure, but the staff feels it has a good No. 1 option in sophomore Mike Trumpy. After showing some good signs toward the end of the 2010 season, Trumpy continued to make strides this spring and ended up as the lone starter listed on the post-spring depth chart. Coordinator Mick McCall said Trumpy become a tougher and more complete back this spring. Northwestern needs him to be a consistent run threat in the fall.
2. Defensive depth emerges: Northwestern was a pretty bad defense toward the end of 2010, and depth played a large role in the unit's struggles. The team exited the spring feeling better about its depth and the athleticism it will have on the field this fall. Players like defensive end Tyler Scott, defensive tackle Niko Mafuli and safety Ibraheim Campbell put themselves in position to challenge projected starters in fall camp and log significant playing time this season.
3. Matthews corners market: Jeravin Matthews has been a bit of a journeyman for the Wildcats, a superb athlete without a position. But after starring on special teams in 2010, Matthews seems to have found his calling at cornerback. He quickly locked up the starting job opposite veteran Jordan Mabin. The 5-11, 175-pound Matthews looked more comfortable at the corner spot and gives the secondary a chance to be a strength for Northwestern this fall.
1. Backup quarterback: As Dan Persa continued his recovery from a ruptured Achilles', Northwestern's other quarterbacks took all the reps this spring in what Fitzgerald called a competition for the "No. 1" spot. Persa obviously will be the starter, but none of the other signal callers really separated himself as the backup. The Wildcats fell apart after Persa went down last November, so they'll need improvement from Kain Colter, Evan Watkins and Trevor Siemian before Sept. 3.
2. Linebacker: The spring featured plenty of competition, and it should only continue in August as Roderick Goodlow gets healthy and he and others push the projected starters. Seniors Bryce McNaul and Ben Johnson and junior David Nwabuisi enter the summer as the first-team linebackers, but there are quite a few sophomores and redshirt freshmen behind them. The coaches have tried to upgrade the athleticism at linebacker, a group that struggled for stretches last fall.
3. Kickin' it: Stefan Demos endured his ups and downs in Evanston, but he leaves as one of the more productive specialists in team history. Jeff Budzien and Steve Flaherty competed throughout the spring to replace Demos, and neither emerged as the clear-cut starter. Fitzgerald said the kicker race could continue up until game week. Special teams could finally be a strength for Northwestern in 2011, but it needs to be able to count on a kicker.
A few notes and observations:
- Sophomore Mike Trumpy is listed as the starting running back, a position where Northwestern needs much more production in 2011. Coordinator Mick McCall wanted a No. 1 back to emerge this spring, and Trumpy really seems like the best option. He played better as the 2010 season went along before fracturing his wrist against Illinois. Senior Jacob Schmidt and sophomore Adonis Smith are listed as co-backups. I'm a little surprised not to see Tyris Jones' name on the two-deep.
- Although the reserve quarterbacks took all the reps this spring, there's still no answer about who will back up Dan Persa this fall. Kain Colter, Trevor Siemian and Evan Watkins all are listed as co-backups. Colter would be my choice, but he still has to prove more to the staff.
- Receivers Charles Brown and Mike Jensen both helped their cause this spring. Brown is listed as a starter with Jensen as his backup. Sophomore Rashad Lawrence, the most impressive of the three true freshmen wideouts who played in 2010, also is listed as a starter.
- Guard Doug Bartels, who missed spring ball following shoulder surgery, will compete with Neal Deiters for a starting job this summer. Bartels started every game in 2009 and the first three last fall.
- Defensive linemen Tyler Scott and Niko Mafuli both drew praise from the coaches this spring, and both players now are listed as co-starters at their respective positions. Scott will compete with returning starter Kevin Watt, while Mafuli and Brian Arnfelt will compete to fill a vacancy.
- As expected, Jervain Matthews is listed as a starting cornerback, a job he secured this spring. Redshirt freshman Ibraheim Campbell moved into a backup role after impressing the staff in practice.
- The competition at kicker will continue into the fall -- and possibly all the way until game week -- as Jeff Budzien and Steve Flaherty are listed as co-starters.
Northwestern also announced its Sept. 17 game at Army will kick off at 3:30 p.m. ET and be televised by CBS Sports Network.
Here are some notes and observations:
- The defense definitely carried the day, although to be fair, the unit faced only reserve quarterbacks as Dan Persa is still rehabbing his torn Achilles. Safety Brian Peters recorded two interceptions, linebacker Tim Riley and safety Ibraheim Campbell both broke up passes and the line did a nice job stopping the run.
- Rising sophomore Kain Colter, who provided a spark in the TicketCity Bowl, had the best day among the quarterbacks. He showed good accuracy on short passes but needs a bit more zip on his intermediate and deep throws. Colter's mobility fits in well with the offense, and if he can strengthen his passing game just a bit, he could win the backup job.
- Quarterback Evan Watkins had a rough day. The rising junior overthrew several receivers, was picked off by Riley and nearly threw an interception to sophomore defensive end Anthony Battle. Watkins has a strong arm, but in this offense, you need to have a lot more accuracy than he showed today.
- Jeravin Matthews has emerged as Northwestern's second starting cornerback opposite multiyear starter Jordan Mabin. Matthews, a strong special-teams player who has struggled to find a position, displays a lot of aggressiveness -- sometimes too much -- in coverage but boasts good speed and athleticism.
- David Arnold is working opposite Peters at safety. Although Fitzgerald told me he's pleased with the play of several safeties, including Campbell, I'd pencil in Arnold as a starter right now.
- Wide receiver is Northwestern's deepest position and it could be getting better for the 2011 season. Mike Jensen, a converted defensive back, looked impressive in practice and has caught Fitzgerald's eye along with Charles Brown, a senior who has battled through some injury issues.
- Offensive coordinator Mick McCall got after the unit after a bad sequence, at one point yelling, "Do stuff right!"
- Redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Siemian moves well in the pocket and has some touch on his passes, although consistency remains an issue. Peters picked off one of his passes.
- Several key players were held out, including wide receiver Jeremy Ebert, who expects to return soon after tweaking his hamstring.
More to come from Evanston, so stay tuned.
But when Northwestern hits the practice field Monday for the first of 15 spring workouts, Fitzgerald might remind the players about their most recent performances. Needless to say, no one was pleased with the way the Wildcats wrapped up the 2010 season.
"The way we finished was completely and totally unacceptable, and that’s on all of us," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com on Monday. "If we’re going to fix it, we have to be the catalysts to do that."
Northwestern dropped its final three games by a combined score of 163-88. Quarterback Dan Persa missed the closing stretch after rupturing his Achilles' tendon in a Nov. 13 win against Iowa. Persa's injury seemed to rattle the Wildcats, who also were banged up on defense.
Was there an explanation for the late collapse?
"Nothing other than excuses," Fitzgerald said. "We’ve got to play better, we’ve got to coach better, we’ve got to play with a better attitude. We play team football here and we didn’t do a very good job of that. When we turned it over, we didn’t get off the field. When we did go down and score, we didn’t get a big stop we needed. And when we got a big stop, maybe we went three-and-out.
"We've got to pick each other up."
You always hear about competition in spring ball, but Northwestern's poor finish underscores the need to open up pretty much every job.
Fitzgerald notes the Wildcats' two-deep is loaded with players who have logged ample time in games. Several projected starters will miss part of all of spring ball -- Persa, linebacker Bryce McNaul, defensive tackle Jack DiNardo, guard Doug Bartels -- so there's opportunities everywhere.
A few positions to watch:
- Defensive back: Northwestern needs a second starter to join Jordan Mabin, not to mention some safety help. Jeravin Matthews, a special teams standout who has struggled to find a permanent position, will compete for time at cornerback. "He’s always been spectacular in the kicking game for us, and he sees an opportunity," Fitzgerald said.
- Running back: Mike Trumpy is expected to participate in all of spring ball after missing the final two games of last season with a fractured wrist. He'll wear a cast on the wrist for the spring and compete alongside rising sophomore Adonis Smith.
- Linebacker: The Wildcats must replace two starters and the third, McNaul, will miss the spring following offseason surgery. Hopes are high for Roderick Goodlow, who missed all of last season with a knee injury but has been going through winter workouts. Goodlow was one of just three true freshmen to see the field in 2009. "It’s a heck of a free-agent pickup," Fitzgerald said.
- Backup quarterback: With Persa limited, the coaching staff will turn its attention to Evan Watkins, Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian as they compete for the backup job this spring. Watkins boasts the most experience but Colter provided a spark in the bowl game.
Northwestern wraps up spring ball April 16 with its spring game.
- LB Roderick Goodlow, knee (out for season)
- OL Evan Luxenburg, knee
- CB Jeravin Matthews, leg
The only new name here is Matthews, who has appeared in all five games as a reserve, mostly on special teams, and recorded nine tackles. Northwestern has no new injuries in the secondary and got safeties Jared Carpenter and David Arnold back on the field last week. Another good sign is no Drake Dunsmore, as the team's starting superback should be fine after an MRI on his hyperextended knee showed no damage. The Wildcats have to be pleased to see only three names on the report through the first five games.
Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald told me Friday that the spring game wouldn't go longer than 80 plays or so and his main goal was to keep the team healthy. Injuries really hurt the Wildcats during the first half of the 2009 season and led to inconsistent play. Northwestern went through its healthiest spring in recent memory and survived any major injuries in the spring game, so mission accomplished.
As expected, the game was a bit watered down, but it provided a few clues about the 2010 team.
The defense led the way, allowing only 253 yards on 85 plays (2.9 ypp) and only 92 rushing yards on 47 carries. Northwestern's continued inability to spark the ground game is a concern after the 2009 season, when it finished an uncharacteristic 95th nationally in rushing average (117.5 ypg). Jacob Schmidt and Scott Concannon couldn't get going, and backup quarterback Evan Watkins (7 carries, 36 yards) actually had the best day on the ground.
It's important to note that Arby Fields, the team's leading rusher last fall and the frontrunner to win the job for 2010, didn't participate in the spring game -- or any spring scrimmages for that matter -- because he was playing baseball for Northwestern. The Wildcats also have a couple of starting offensive linemen banged up, but they simply need to improve the run or it could be a long season in 2010.
Starting quarterback Dan Persa was efficient, completing 7 of 11 passes for 83 yards, but he also got picked off in the end zone by cornerback Mike Bolden. Watkins threw an interception on his first drive but rebounded to pass for 78 yards and a touchdown.
A few Wildcats nuggets:
- Defensive tackle should be a strength for Northwestern this fall. Fifth-year senior Corbin Bryant has extensive experience, and Jack DiNardo and Niko Mafuli combined for four tackles for loss and a sack in Saturday's spring game.
- A healthy Jeremy Ebert makes a big difference, and the junior should be the team's No. 1 wide receiver this fall. Ebert recorded four receptions for a game-high 49 yards on Saturday, including a 21-yard gain.
- Linebacker Quentin Davie missed most of the spring with a foot injury, but he participated in the scrimmage and recorded three tackles.
- Northwestern's secondary took a good step Saturday as it looks to replace three multiyear starters from 2009. Bolden and safety David Arnold both recorded interceptions and cornerback Justan Vaughn had a sack, while safety Davion Fleming and cornerbacks Jeravin Matthews and Ricky Weina each recorded a pass breakup.
- Kickers Stefan Demos and Jeff Budzien both connected on 3 of 4 field-goal attempts, with their only misses coming from 51 yards (Demos) and 48 yards (Budzien). Steve Flaherty went 2-for-4 on the day, while Budzien had a game-long 46-yard conversion.
- Rather than have coordinators Mick McCall and Mike Hankwitz call plays, Fitzgerald gave the duties over to his position coaches, calling it an opportunity for them to professionally grow.
- Kicker: Second-team All-Big Ten selection Stefan Demos returns after connecting on 18 of 25 field goal attempts in 2009.
- Punter: Demos also has handled the punting duties for Northwestern the last two seasons, although it's not his strong suit.
- Kick return: Primary return men Stephen Simmons and Jeravin Matthews both are back. Northwestern ranked ninth in the league last year (20.6 ypr).
- Punt return: Brendan Smith and Andrew Brewer both depart.
- Quick thoughts: Special teams have cost Northwestern key games in recent years and continue to be a priority for head coach Pat Fitzgerald. Despite Demos' Outback Bowl struggles, he remains a very solid option on field goals. Northwestern would be well served by identifying a punter to lighten Demos' load, and redshirt freshman Brandon Williams is an option. Simmons provides a good threat on kick returns when healthy, but NU must identify a few options for punt returns. Incoming freshman Venric Mark could be a factor there. The punt and kickoff coverage teams were average in 2009 and could use a boost.
- Kicker: Aaron Pettrey departs, but Devin Barclay, whose kick against Iowa sent Ohio State to the Rose Bowl, will be back.
- Punter: Jon Thoma departs after finishing 10th in the league in average (37.9 ypp) last fall. Sophomore Ben Buchanan has a big leg and will step in.
- Kick return: Primary return men Lamaar Thomas and Ray Small both depart. Ohio State ranked sixth in the league last fall (22.3 ypr).
- Punt return: Small leaves a pretty big void here after averaging 8.3 yards on a league-high 33 attempts last season.
- Quick thoughts: Jim Tressel's teams always will be strong in the kicking game, although there are some key spots to fill in 2010. Barclay did a really nice job in relief of Pettrey last fall, but whether he can provide the same long-range threat as Pettrey remains to be seen. Small is a big loss on both return teams, and it will be interesting to see who steps into his spot. Running back Brandon Saine and wideout DeVier Posey both are possibilities. Ohio State covered punts well last fall but finished a surprising 51st nationally in kickoff coverage (21.2 ypr) with a touchdown allowed against Iowa.
- Kicker: Collin Wagner is back after an excellent Capital One Bowl performance. He connected on 15 of 22 field goal attempts last fall.
- Punter: Second-team All-Big Ten selection Jeremy Boone departs after averaging 43.3 yards per punt in 2009. Ryan Breen's decision to leave the team creates some uncertainty here.
- Kick return: Chaz Powell, Devon Smith and Stephfon Green all are back for 2010. Powell averaged 23.2 yards per runback in 2009.
- Punt return: Graham Zug, Justin Brown, Evan Royster and Drew Astorino shared duties in 2009, and all are back.
- Quick thoughts: Penn State was surprisingly mediocre on special teams in 2009, and the kicking game should be a focal point this spring. Boone's graduation and Breen's departure leaves no true punter on the roster. The Lions finished 10th in the league in punt returns (5 ypr) last fall and need a true starter to emerge there. Punt coverage was a mess in 2009, as Penn State finished 117th nationally (15.4 ypr) out of 120 FBS teams. With several key personnel losses on both sides of the ball, Penn State can't afford to have the kicking game be a liability this fall.
- Kicker: Carson Wiggs has the strongest leg in the Big Ten and connected on 14 of 21 field goal attempts last fall. He's back for 2010.
- Punter: Chris Summers departs after averaging 39.5 yards per punt last fall. Wiggs had four punts in 2009, averaging 36.5 yards.
- Kick return: Al-Terek McBurse is back after averaging an impressive 24.6 yards per runback as a true freshman. Purdue must find a No. 2 option because Aaron Valentin departs.
- Punt return: Valentin was the primary return man, but wideout Waynelle Gravesande recorded 11 attempts last fall.
- Quick thoughts: Purdue made plenty of special-teams blunders in 2009, and for the Boilers to take the next step this fall, their kicking game must get better. Wiggs can boom field goals from anywhere on the field, giving Danny Hope a valuable weapon. McBurse could be a weapon on kick returns, although Purdue must address the punt return team. Kickoff coverage was miserable in 2009, as the Boilers ranked 112th nationally (24.7 ypr). The Boilers also must address their punter position.
- Kicker: Philip Welch is back after connecting on 17 of 24 field goal attempts as a sophomore.
- Punter: Brad Nortman returns after finishing fourth in the Big Ten in punting average last fall (42 ypp).
- Kick return: David Gilreath has been the man on returns for Wisconsin, and he's back. Isaac Anderson also could be an option here.
- Punt return: Gilreath averaged 5.6 yards and had a 68-yard touchdown as the primary punt returner.
- Quick thoughts: Welch and Nortman boast plenty of experience as the primary specialists. It'll be interesting to see if Wisconsin sticks with Gilreath as its top return man or opens things up to other players this spring. Bret Bielema likely will spend much more time worrying about the kickoff coverage team, which ranked 119th nationally out of 120 FBS teams last fall (26.4 ypr). Punt coverage was decent, but you can bet Wisconsin will spend a lot of time on special teams in spring ball.
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Senior quarterback Mike Kafka will get the start for Northwestern, though backup Dan Persa also will see plenty of playing time.
Kafka left last week's loss to Penn State with a left hamstring injury in the second quarter and did not return.
Cornerback Sherrick McManis (leg) also will get the start for NU.
Northwestern will be without running back and kickoff return man Jeravin Matthews today. Matthews traveled home to Pennsylvania this week after one of his close friends was killed in a car accident. He tried to rejoin the team in Iowa City but was unable to make it. Running back Stephen Simmons and Jacob Schmidt will handle kickoff return duties today.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald played the role of reporter at Monday's practice when he approached junior running back Stephen Simmons.
"I told him the only question I will get asked today is about you so can you give me a response so I can tell the media and our fans what you're going to do," Fitzgerald said. "He said, 'Yeah, I'm going to play.'"
That's very good news for a struggling Wildcats rushing attack, which hasn't been the same since Simmons suffered an ankle injury in Week 2 against Eastern Michigan. Simmons looked impressive in the first two games, averaging nearly five yards per carry and scoring a pair of touchdowns in limited work.
Since his injury, Northwestern has averaged just 67.7 rush yards a game, dropping to 10th in the Big Ten in rushing offense.
"We get one of our weapons back," Fitzgerald said. "I thought at the start of the season he ran the ball really well and it will be great to get him back with some fresh legs. He hasn't played in three weeks, while everyone else has been grinding through."
True freshman Arby Fields has been elevated to a starting role on the depth chart, with sophomore Jacob Schmidt serving as the backup. Fields, often compared to former Wildcats star Tyrell Sutton, has shown bursts of brilliance mixed in with some ball-security issues.
Schmidt can be effective in short-yardage situations and on screen passes, as he showed last Saturday with three receptions for 37 yards against Purdue. Jeravin Matthews also is back in the fold after battling an injury.
But Simmons provides the Wildcats with a true featured back, provided he's healthy.
- Northwestern made one other depth-chart change this week, moving linebacker David Arnold into a starting role ahead of Ben Johnson. Arnold, a converted safety who has battled injuries his first two seasons, recorded a sack and a forced fumble in the Purdue victory. "I told our coaches a few weeks back when we were having some injuries that they just had to stay the course, the cavalry's coming," Fitzgerald said. "I thought David was part of that. He's a playmaker for us."
Northwestern has released its injury report for Saturday's game against Minnesota (Big Ten Network, noon ET).
- Offensive tackle Mike Boyle, back
- Running back Alex Daniel, ankle (out for season)
- Running back Stephen Simmons, ankle
- Cornerback Justan Vaughn, leg
Cornerback Sherrick McManis and middle linebacker Nate Williams are both off the injury report, which is excellent news for a Northwestern's defense that got shredded last week at Syracuse. McManis likely will be assigned to Minnesota star wide receiver Eric Decker on Saturday, while Williams should help a linebacking corps that didn't tackle well at all against the Orange.
Simmons' absence for the second straight week will sting, as Arby Fields and Jacob Schmidt likely will share most of the carries. The big question: Do the coaches really trust Fields, who has shown playmaking ability but makes some mistakes as well? Reserve running back Jeravin Matthews also is off the injury report, which adds more speed to the offense.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Good news for Northwestern's defense as starting cornerback Sherrick McManis and starting middle linebacker Nate Williams both participated fully in Wednesday's practice, according to a team spokesman.
Reserve running back Jeravin Matthews also practiced without any restrictions Wednesday. Both McManis and Matthews have missed the last two games with injuries, while Williams was a late scratch last Saturday against Syracuse.
McManis' return looms large for the Wildcats as they face Minnesota star wide receiver Eric Decker on Saturday. Northwestern had no answer for Syracuse's Mike Williams in a 37-34 loss, and you could make a good case the Wildcats would have won the game had McManis played.
Williams also provides a boost to a defense that hasn't tackled well for much of the season.
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
12:00 PM ET Illinois Northwestern 12:00 PM ET Purdue Indiana 12:00 PM ET Michigan 6 Ohio State 3:30 PM ET 10 Michigan State Penn State 3:30 PM ET 18 Minnesota 14 Wisconsin 3:30 PM ET Rutgers Maryland