Big Ten: Juice Williams

Big Ten's lunch links

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
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I'll make a deal with you, Warren Buffett. You cut me a check for $10 million right now, and I'll spare you the embarrassment of acing your little challenge.

Big Ten Week 11: Did you know?

November, 8, 2013
11/08/13
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The league has three teams taking a breather on Saturday before resuming their regular-season closing stretch run. But there is still plenty of action around the conference, and these facts and figures will help set the scene for a critical weekend for a few Big Ten squads.
  • Indiana might not play a lot of defense, but it definitely balances that out with an offense that is playing at the highest level in school history. The Hoosiers have scored at least 28 points in nine consecutive games dating back to last season, the longest stretch ever for the program. Much of that success under coach Kevin Wilson has come to the upgrades he's made in the passing game, which has thrown for 300 yards in a game six times already this season.
  • Badly in need of a win to keep its hopes in the division alive, the venue would seem to indicate Michigan has a great chance of getting one this weekend. The Wolverines own the longest active home winning streak among BCS conference teams, rattling off 19 consecutive victories in the Big House. They've still got a long way to go to match the school record of 50, set way back from 1901 to '07, but simply getting to 20 against Nebraska would surely be good enough in the meantime.
  • The Huskers may have needed what amounted to a miracle win last week against Northwestern, but with or without a Hail Mary, they've shown remarkable resiliency when trailing in games over the past two seasons. The latest come-from-behind victory marked the fifth time in the past two seasons Nebraska has rallied from a double-digit deficit to win.
  • After climbing up another rung on the all-time total offense list at Illinois last week, there's only one guy Nathan Scheelhaase needs to catch as his prolific career winds down. Heading into the final four weeks of the regular season, the senior quarterback needs to average 357 yards per game to track down Juice Williams and his school-record 10,594 yards. Scheelhaase jumped ahead of Kurt Kittner last week with a total that was just one yard short of the average he needs to post for the rest of the season.
  • Iowa's formula for success is about as straightforward as it could be this season: Win the turnover battle, win the game. The Hawkeyes are unbeaten in five outings when they have more takeaways than giveaways, and they haven't won a game when the margin is reversed. Coincidentally, Iowa has forced exactly one more turnover than it has given away -- and is one game over .500 for the season as well.
  • As if the Purdue offense hasn't struggled enough, it has to overcome some bad historical mojo this weekend as well. The Boilermakers have been shut out in both of their past two outings, and in program history, they've put up a goose egg four times when playing on Nov. 9. Iowa is looking to add to that misery for a team that has only scored one touchdown since September.
  • Prefer rushing attacks to the pass-happy offenses spreading around the nation? Wisconsin and BYU will be must-see television then. The only two teams in the country with a pair of rushers averaging more than 100 yards per game face off at Camp Randall Stadium in a game that will thrill any fan of ground-based football. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon (134.3 yards per game) and James White (100.5) will take turns with BYU's Taysom Hill (105.1) and Jamaal Williams (104.7) in a matchup that might hardly need any passing attempts to entertain.
  • There may be many more to come, but Christian Hackenberg is already etching his name in the record books at Penn State in his first season of leading the offense. The quarterback has thrown for at least 200 yards six times in 2013, the most of any freshman in program history. Hackenberg knocked the 2001 season by Zack Mills out of top spot by tossing for 240 yards in the win over Illinois last week, and he's got four more chances to extend that mark.
  • Playing at home hasn't been much of an advantage for Minnesota since it opened TCF Bank Stadium, but the venue is starting to become more friendly lately. The Gophers are a modest 11-8 in front of their fans since Jerry Kill took over the program, but one more win would get the team back to a .500 all-time record in the five-year-old facility. Minnesota is currently 16-17, but a victory over Penn State would even up its home mark for the first time since Sept. 2010.
Football and marketing both rely on timing, and Illinois hopes its surprising on-field success in the first two games fuels a different type of blitz this weekend in Chicago.

For the first time in nearly two decades, Illinois will host a football game in the city it covets but rarely has captured, at least in recent years. Already at their victory total from last season, the Illini on Saturday take on No. 17 Washington at Soldier Field, making their first appearance on the lakefront since 1994 and just their second ever.

Billed as Illinois' Chicago Homecoming, the game caps off a weekend of events, including a luncheon with Dick Butkus, a Chicago native who launched his legend at Illinois and cemented it with the Chicago Bears. Butkus, a two-time All-American linebacker and Big Ten MVP who led the Illini to a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl win against Washington 50 years ago, also will toss the coin before the game.

"We need to do something for the Chicago area because so many kids are leaving the state," Butkus told ESPN.com. "I just feel Illinois, with the largest number of alumni in the city of any school, we should be able to do a better job of recruiting kids out of here. We've got guys going to LSU, USC, the Michigans, Ohio States and Notre Dames, and even Northwestern.

"We've got to get back to getting our own kids to go to our own school."

The school's promotional video for the game is appropriately set to Diddy's "Coming Home," in which Skylar Grey sings:

I'm coming home, I'm coming home
Tell the world I'm coming home
Let the rain wash away
All the pain of yesterday
I know my kingdom awaits
And they've forgiven my mistakes
I'm coming home, I'm coming home
.

It will take more than rain to wash away the pain from the 2012 season, when Illinois went 2-10 and failed to win a Big Ten game, or forgive the program's inability to capitalize on a Rose Bowl run in 2007 and a series of elite players who became high NFL draft picks. But for the first time in more than a year, the sun shone on the Illini, whose 45-17 victory against a good Cincinnati team last Saturday couldn't have come at a better time.

"It was important, especially beating a very good football team," Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas told ESPN.com. "I know there's buzz around the program. You would think there would be an impact moving forward with the game this weekend."

While Grey sings of kingdoms, Thomas in August 2011 famously proclaimed that he wanted Illinois to become "king of Chicago." He had recently become Illinois' AD, and his ambitious approach made sense for a school with a huge alumni/fan presence in the market but one that had largely disappeared from the sporting radar, at least in football.

Illinois moved the needle to start the 2011 season, recording its first 6-0 start in 60 years. The Illini proceeded to make history of a different sort, dropping the rest of their regular-season games to become the first FBS team to start 6-0 and finish 6-6. The collapse cost coach Ron Zook his job, and Thomas' hiring of Tim Beckman -- after being rebuffed by Kevin Sumlin and others -- didn't inspire much excitement in Chicago and around the state.

And then the 2012 season happened, when nothing went right for Beckman and his team. The clunky campaign ended with a 50-14 loss at rival Northwestern, which had combined consistent on-field success with an effective marketing campaign ("Chicago's Big Ten team) to make a dent in Chicago's saturated sports market.

Illinois entered this season as a near-consensus last-place pick, and its homecoming game at Soldier Field -- scheduled before the 2012 season -- looked like a tough sell, if not an impossible one, to a fan base that, despite its size, puts basketball first and seems quick to dismiss the football program, even in better times.

That's why the Cincinnati win could be so important. It allowed Illinois fans, including those in the Chicago area, to feel good about their program for the first time in a while.

"It gives us a sense of an identity," said senior wide receiver Miles Osei, who grew up near Chicago in Mount Prospect, Ill. "People in the Chicago area and people that follow Illinois football can sense that. Maybe in the past they haven't had that much of an identity, but we're definitely establishing it."

When Butkus grew up on Chicago's South Side, Illinois had a much stronger presence in the city. He remembers facing future Illini teammates such as Jim Grabowski and Gregg Schumacher in city playoff games.

Illinois coach Pete Elliott and his staff relentlessly recruited city players. Bill Taylor lured Butkus out of Vocational High School. But the slush-fund scandal in 1966 led to Elliott's resignation, followed by 13 losing seasons in the next 14 years.

Butkus recalls that most of Elliott's assistants went to work for Levi Strauss in sales after things fell apart in Champaign.

"Dammit, those guys knew how to sell," Butkus said. "They were a young group, just great guys. You wanted to play for 'em. We had talented guys. I just do not understand why we have a tough time recruiting out of here. I guess playing at Soldier Field, we're trying to get the presence going, but you've got to work the high schools."

Beckman and his assistants are trying to do just that. They held three camps in the area this summer and a spring scrimmage at Gately Stadium on the city's South Side.

Zook made local recruiting splashes with players such as Martez Wilson and Juice Williams, both Chicago natives (Williams also attended Vocational High). The pipeline to elite prospects since has dried up a bit, although Aaron Bailey, a four-star quarterback from Chicago suburb Bolingbrook, headlined the 2013 class.

"It's huge," Beckman said. "It's not like three guys are up there and they recruit Chicago. Every coach on this staff has a piece of Chicago, so that everybody in that city gets to meet our coaching staff, from quarterback coach to DB coach.

"We're not to where we want to be, but we’ve definitely made strides."

[+] EnlargeDick Butkus
AP PhotoDick Butkus (50) made 145 tackles and caused 10 fumbles in 1963, leading the Illini to a Big Ten title.
Asked why Chicago has posed such a challenge for Illinois, Butkus replied, "If I knew that answer, I'd be a goddamn genius."

"That's been baffling me for 48 years," he said. "I don't understand it."

He hopes the Chicago homecoming can be a starting point, and the mood around the game and the events undoubtedly will be better after the Cincinnati win. The hope is that the good feelings will translate into more butts in seats on Saturday.

As of Tuesday, Illinois was approaching 40,000 tickets sold, according to Jason Heggemeyer, the school's associate athletic director for ticketing and sales. Thomas said 50,000 "might be a little bit ambitious" but added that the school's Chicago-based fans often wait to buy tickets for events like Illinois' annual basketball game at the United Center. The walk-up crowd also could be good.

"You’d hope Saturday's win would resonate with a good number of people," Thomas said. "We haven't played up there since the early 90s."

The weekend will be a test run of sorts, as Thomas is interested in playing more football games in Chicago. After launching the "Illinois. Our State. Our Team" marketing campaign in August 2012 and forming a Chicago athletics advisory board in February, Thomas is looking for different and more aggressive ways to brand Illinois in the area.

"You can't take a day off," Thomas said. "Year in and year out, you've got to have a real presence up there, and I don't think in the past that's been the case."

Thomas is right about the recent past, but there was a time when Illinois football truly resonated in the Midwest's largest market. Butkus lived through it, and he wants to bring it back.

"Shoot, we'd all like to play in the BCS championship, but that's not where we're at right now," he said. "At least give the team some support. If they know of anybody or their own kids looking to play, why wouldn't you go to Illinois? It's a great school.

"We've just got to spread the word and get people more excited about it."

Looking back on B1G freshman QB starters

September, 2, 2013
9/02/13
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It's rare for a true freshman like Christian Hackenberg to earn the starting quarterback job -- but it's not unheard of in the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/Getty ImagesChristian Hackenberg started his Penn State career with a win over Syracuse on Saturday.
We took a look at the Big Ten true freshmen who came before the Penn State signal-caller to see how they fared. We looked at quarterbacks from the past 10 years who started at least six games that first year and offered a rundown of those true freshman seasons, along with how their careers played out.

There's no telling right now where the four-star Hackenberg (Scout grade: 88) might end up. But here's what Big Ten history has to say:

Minnesota, 2012
Philip Nelson, Scout grade: 74

Freshman stats: 75-of-152 (49.3 percent) for 873 yards, eight TDs, eight INTs; 69 carries for 184 yards

Record as freshman starter: 2-5

Freshman synopsis: Nelson was expected to redshirt but, between injuries and inconsistent QB play, his number was called earlier. He started the last seven games and had limited success. But he showed some potential such as the Purdue win, where he completed 68 percent of his passes and threw three touchdowns.

College career & beyond: He started Week 1 and helped lead Minnesota to a 51-23 win over UNLV. He could be in line to become a four-year starter, and all eyes will be on whether he can guide Minnesota to back-to-back bowls.

Penn State, 2010
Rob Bolden, Scout grade: 81

Freshman stats: 112-of-193 (58 percent) for 1,360 yards, five TDs, seven INTs; 30 carries for minus-11 yards, one TD, one fumble lost

Record as freshman starter: 5-3

Freshman synopsis: Bolden became the first true freshman to start a PSU opener in 100 years. He impressed in Week 1 by dominating Youngstown State with 239 passing yards, two TDs and a pick -- but his season would falter afterward. He seemed to regress, and a quarterback battle with Matt McGloin lasted all season. (Actually, for two seasons.) PSU finished 7-6 and lost to Florida in the Outback Bowl. Bolden didn't play in the postseason.

College career & beyond: Bolden transferred to LSU last year but has yet to attempt a pass. He's not poised for any playing time, and rumors have continued to circulate that he's considering another transfer.

Michigan, 2009
Tate Forcier, Scout grade: 81

Freshman stats: 165-of-281 (58.7 percent) for 2,050 yards, 13 TDs, 10 INTs; 118 carries for 240 yards, three TDs, four fumbles lost

Record as freshman starter: 5-7

Freshman synopsis: He got off to a solid 4-0 start and made his mark by throwing a last-second, game-winning TD against Notre Dame. ESPN analyst Matt Millen, echoing a shared sentiment of Forcier's bright future, called him the best QB in the B1G. But his career took a nosedive in Week 5. The Wolverines lost to Michigan State, 26-20, and Forcier would win just one more game -- against Delaware State -- the rest of the season. His early performance still helped him earn a spot on ESPN's All-Big Ten freshman team.

College career & beyond: He was briefly listed as the third-string QB at the start of the next season and saw limited time behind Denard Robinson. He hoped to transfer to Miami (Fla.) after a sophomore slump but ended up at San Jose State. He then withdrew from that school in January, 2012 because of poor academic standing.

Ohio State, 2008
Terrelle Pryor, Scout grade: 93

Freshman stats: 100-for-165 (60.6 percent) for 1,311 yards, 12 TDs, four INTs; 139 carries for 631 yards, six TDs, one fumble lost

Record as freshman starter: 8-1

Freshman synopsis: He came in as a consensus top-five national recruit, and he lived up to expectations. By Week 4, the dual-threat rookie supplanted Todd Boeckman -- a quarterback who took the Buckeyes to the national title game a year before -- and started the rest of the regular season. OSU finished 10-3 and lost the Fiesta Bowl to Texas. He was named Big Ten freshman of the year.

College career & beyond: He helped OSU earn three straight BCS berths before declaring early for the NFL's 2011 supplemental draft when it looked as if he'd be suspended. Oakland gave up a third-round pick for him, and he currently looks to be the backup. He has thrown for 155 yards so far in his NFL career.

Illinois, 2006
Juice Williams, Scout grade: 82

Freshman stats: 103-for-261 (39.5 percent) for 1,489 yards, nine TDs, nine INTs; 154 carries for 576 yards, two TDs, six fumbles lost

Record as freshman starter: 1-8

Freshman synopsis: Williams got the nod in Week 4 and shocked the nation one week later at Michigan State. Coming in as huge underdogs -- about four touchdowns -- Illinois' Williams threw for 122 yards and rushed for 103 to upset the Spartans 23-20. Illinois dropped the last seven games and finished 2-10, but four losses were decided by one score. He was an honorable mention on The Sporting News' freshman All-American team.

College career & beyond: Williams' sophomore campaign was a memorable one, as he beat No. 1 Ohio State -- the Illini's first win over the top-ranked team in a little over a half-century -- and finished 9-4 with a season-ending loss in the Rose Bowl. That was the highlight of his career, however, as he won just eight games over the next two seasons.

Michigan, 2004
Chad Henne, Scout grade: N/A

Freshman stats: 240-of-399 (60.2 percent) for 2,743 yards, 25 TDs, 12 INTs; 55 carries for minus-137 yards, two TDs, two fumbles lost

Record as freshman starter: 9-3

Freshman synopsis: The Pennsylvania native started Week 1 when a sore arm hindered Matt Gutierrez, and Henne never looked back. He picked up national headlines in October after back-to-back 300-yard games. Said Minnesota coach Glenn Mason: "If you didn't know he was a freshman, you wouldn't know he was a freshman." He tied Elvis Grbac's season record for touchdown passes with 25 and, unsurprisingly, made the All-American freshman team. He also led Michigan to the Rose Bowl, in which it lost to Texas, 38-37.

College career & beyond: Henne's college career saw its ups and downs, but he's still at -- or near -- the top of most Michigan passing records. He went 0-4 against Ohio State, but UM still finished in the top 25 in three of his four seasons. Miami selected him the second round of the 2008 NFL draft, and he's now the backup QB on Jacksonville.
After recording just two victories on the field in 2012, Illinois tallied a big one off of it earlier this month when quarterback Wes Lunt announced he would transfer to the school. Lunt, who opened the 2012 season as Oklahoma State's starting quarterback as a true freshman, picked Illinois ahead of Sugar Bowl champion Louisville. The Rochester, Ill., native, will sit out the 2013 season in compliance with NCAA transfer rules and have three seasons of eligibility remaining. He'll arrive at Illinois' campus by July 8 at the latest.

ESPN.com caught up with Lunt earlier this week to talk about his transfer choice and his journey to the Illini.

You've had some time to digest the decision. How do you feel about it now?

[+] EnlargeWes Lunt
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiWes Lunt is at Illinois just months after participating in Oklahoma State spring practices.
West Lunt: I feel the same, really excited and ready to get over there and start classes and start working out with the team.

What was the toughest or the most challenging part about the process you went through before making the decision?

WL: The hardest thing with every process and this process is you have to tell somebody no. I developed a great relationship with both coaching staffs. Shawn Watson at Louisville and Charlie Strong had been so good to me throughout the process, and it was really hard to tell them no.

You chose between a program coming off of a Sugar Bowl championship and one that went 2-10 last year. How much for you was about the future than the present?

WL: Obviously, the programs are in different spots right now. I've always wanted to play for Illinois. Just staying close to home and helping your state school out, there's something to be said about that. I'm excited to try to help them and move them in a lot better direction if I can. To be honest, I didn't follow them at all last year, I didn't know how their season went.

How did Illinois come onto your radar when you were looking to transfer?

WL: My high school head coach [Derek Leonard] said they were interested if I decided to transfer, and after I got the release, Coach [Tim] Beckman called. It all started from there.

There was a lot made about the restrictions Oklahoma State placed on you (and later lifted). What was it like to deal with that as you weighed your options?

WL: It was more of a frustration Day 1, and after you find out, you've just got to go with it and accept what was given to me. More than enough schools were available. I had like 37 blocked or something, but the ones I didn't have blocked were great schools.

When some of the restrictions were lifted, did you feel like you were too far into the search?

WL: Yeah. I couldn't have talked to anybody. I just picked those first five schools because I had previous contact with them before I chose OSU coming out of high school. I knew the coaching staffs at those schools. Once they were blocked, I had two really good options. There were a lot of other schools that were interested, but those two schools [Illinois and Louisville] were great options.

What does Illinois offer you?

WL: They offer me a lot. They offer a world-class education. I'm really looking forward to getting on campus and pursuing academics. The coaches created a great relationship. No matter how long they're going to be there, we're always going to have a relationship. I'm excited to get started and get working with the team. I've always wanted to play at Illinois, so I'm really excited about it.

What did you know about Coach [Tim] Beckman and also [offensive coordinator Bill] Cubit before the search started?

WL: I knew Coach Cubit through Western Michigan because they offered me early out of high school [Cubit served as Western Michigan's head coach from 2005-12]. I never developed a huge relationship with him, just knew him a little bit. And then Coach Beckman, I didn't really know him at all. I was at OSU when that staff was hired and got on campus at Illinois. I knew he was the D-coordinator at OSU in '07 and '08. But once I got the release, they both contacted me, and throughout this month, I really talked to them a lot and built a relationship.

What about the offense Coach Cubit runs suits what you do as a quarterback?

WL: I know his previous quarterbacks at Western Michigan have thrown for a ton of yards and had a lot of success with it. They get the ball out quick. It's a fast-paced offense, so it's exciting. I'm looking forward to it.

What were your conversations like with Coach Beckman or [Illinois athletic director] Mike Thomas about coming to Illinois and playing for this staff in 2014? Do you feel confident these coaches you committed to will still be there?

WL: You can't predict the future. I know in college football, coaches are always going to bigger, better jobs, or getting fired. But I've committed to Illinois and to Coach Beckman, and I expect to play for him as long as I'm there. That's the mind-set you've got to have. I'm really happy about being coached by Coach Beckman and Coach Cubit, so I have the mind-set they'll be there as long as I am.

Did you have any conversations with Mike Thomas about Coach Beckman's future?

WL: I didn't. I talked to Mike Thomas a lot, but nothing about that.

Have you had a chance to get to know any guys on the team or anyone Illinois is recruiting?

WL: When I went on my second visit there, I met the O-line, and they told me what it was like to play for Coach Beckman. I know Malik Turner just committed, he's from SHG [Sacred Heart-Griffin High School] down in Springfield. I don't really know anybody, but I know of a lot of people, so I'm looking forward to building relationships.

What are your top priorities for this season, when you won't be playing in games?

WL: Just getting better in all aspects of my game: in the weight room, in the film room and on the practice field just throwing. I'll play scout for the defense, just trying to make them be the best defense they can. It'll be a lot of getting better and learning the offense.

What do you think you've learned about yourself in the last nine months, going from a freshman starter at Oklahoma State to now a transfer for Illinois?

WL: I've learned patience. There's a lot of things you can't control. And just getting closer with my family throughout. I have someone to lean on when life gets tough. It's a fun, bumpy ride, but I loved OSU and it was a great time and it was sad to leave.

I read that you didn't really want to leave. Is it bittersweet now that you've moved on?

WL: It's definitely bittersweet. I wish the players and the coaches there the best. I'm not playing this year, so I'll follow them and see how they do.

Illinois hasn't had a lot go its way lately. Do you sense the excitement among fans about you coming to play for the Illini?

WL: Yeah, it's exciting. I grew up when Juice Williams was playing, and everyone was really excited about Illinois football. I don't know if it's that extent now, but people are excited, and I think we'll drastically improve this year, hearing from Coach Beckman and the players. I'm just excited that Illinois is getting excited about its state school.

The Big Ten's historically bad teams

November, 28, 2012
11/28/12
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ESPN.com is taking a look at historically bad teams today, and unfortunately for the Big Ten, it hasn't been immune from them.

We're not talking about what Illinois did this season or what Indiana did last season or even what Northwestern did season after season in the late '70s and '80s. From time to time, good programs, even great programs, have a season that makes you go, "Huh?" Nearly every college football blue blood has had one of these seasons in the past 20 years, and we'll look back at two in the Big Ten.

Michigan, 2008

Rich Rodriguez's arrival as coach represented a new era of Michigan football, but the program sunk to historic depths in his first season and never truly recovered, leading to his dismissal after Year 3.

Michigan's streak of 33 consecutive bowl appearances ended, and the Wolverines suffered their first losing season since 1967. The team dropped nine games, the most it ever had in a single season, and finished the season with a team-record fifth consecutive loss to archrival Ohio State.

The season had several potential low points, but a Week 6 loss to Toledo, Michigan's first to a Mid-American Conference team in 25 appearances, likely earns the label. Michigan finished 109th nationally in total offense, 108th in passing and 104th in turnover margin. While Rodriguez's offense sputtered with the wrong types of players, the defense wasn't much better. Michigan surrendered 45 points in a home loss to Illinois -- the most it had allowed at the Big House since 1991 -- while Illini quarterback Juice Williams set a Michigan Stadium record with 431 yards of offense. Purdue later racked up 48 points and 522 yards against the Wolverines.

"Hopefully [we will] remember it as a blip on the screen, a one-time happening," Rodriguez said of the season.

It's one Michigan fans would just as soon forget.

Penn State, 2003

The Nittany Lions had lost momentum since the middle of the 1999 season, enduring back-to-back losing campaigns in 2000 and 2001 before rebounding behind star running back Larry Johnson in 2002. But things took a sour turn again in 2003, as Penn State tumbled to a 3-9 record (wins were later vacated as part of NCAA sanctions).

After losing Larry Johnson, star receiver Bryant Johnson and most of the starting offensive line, Penn State struggled to produce, finishing 103rd nationally in total offense -- last in the Big Ten -- and 99th in scoring. Perhaps more surprisingly, Penn State couldn't stop the run on defense, finishing 104th nationally.

Penn State had never lost nine games in a season before 2003 and hadn't won fewer than four games since 1931. Coach Joe Paterno had endured only three other losing seasons in his 38 seasons at the helm.

The Lions had a six-game losing streak to begin Big Ten play, their longest slide with Paterno on staff as either an assistant or a head coach. The season ended with a 41-10 loss at Michigan State. Paterno had to fend off repeated retirement questions and replaced longtime offensive coordinator Fran Ganter following the season.

"A season like this -- you can't forget this," quarterback Michael Robinson said after the Michigan State loss. "I'm exhausted -- physically, mentally and emotionally."

Fortunately for Robinson and Penn State, there would be better days ahead in 2005.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

June, 8, 2012
6/08/12
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Hoping everyone has a great weekend. I'll be hanging out by the Michigan-Canadian border, eh.

Marcus Aurelius writes: Interesting that your list of potential reps on a playoff selection committee with Big 10 ties does not feature anyone with SEC connections (and other than Delaney-UNC, not many southern ties that I noticed). Is this indicative of the lack of movement North-South prior to Nick Saban (and Urban Meyer)? Seems very strange to me...

Adam Rittenberg: Former Iowa coach Hayden Fry is a Texas native who spent a lot of time in the Southwest Conference, but for the most part you're right. There's not a ton of transition between the North and South. Urban Meyer obviously has made the move recently, and other Big Ten coaches like Nebraska's Bo Pelini have spent time in the SEC, but along with Saban, they're all current coaches. As far as prominent former Big Ten coaches, most have been Midwest-based in their careers. That's an interesting trend you picked up.


Yooper from Minneapolis writes: Howdy Adam. Say, do the Badgers actually have a speed issue on the defense compared to the rest of the league, or is it just perception. Seems to me it's mostly perception and chatter based mainly on the RB against a team in Oregon that would've made many teams look slow. I didn't notice a speed problem the rest of the year, when one loss was due to a fortunate bounce, and one was due to a scrambling QB (tough for DBs to contain all day long). Anyway, wondering if you know if any stats back up the speed "issue"?

Adam Rittenberg: Yooper, I was just thinking about this. The games that raised issues about Wisconsin's speed on defense were the Rose Bowl and the two contests against Michigan State. Watching Wisconsin struggle against Keshawn Martin and others in the Big Ten title game, you had to be concerned about how they'd fare against Oregon, which has like 46 Keshawn Martins. I don't think you can dismiss the speed issue with Wisconsin, and the Badgers should continue to look for speed in all three areas of their defense. Now it'd also help to identify a premier pass-rusher like O'Brien Schofield and J.J. Watt. Pressuring the quarterback more will take pressure off of the secondary.


Jeff from St. Cloud, Minn., writes: Having lived out west, the talk about these 16 team super conferences is pretty hilarious. While in no way are the dollars even remotely similar, the WAC thought it was a great idea in the 90s....until the most notable members of the original WAC decided to hold a secret meeting at the Denver airport and agreed it was ridiculous that BYU and Utah should have to share revenue with Rice and San Jose State as well as travel all these great distances for conference games. The exact same thing is going to happen when Texas and Oklahoma are sharing a 16-team split with TCU and Iowa State. The powers-that-be in each of these "super conferences" are going to find an airport and in the span of an afternoon, we'll probably be back to the Southwest Conference and the Big 8. It is 100 percent inevitable. Hopefully the Big Ten doesn't get sucked in and in a perfect world, gets back to being TEN.

Adam Rittenberg writes: Jeff, thanks for sharing your perspective on this. The revenue-sharing component is fascinating when you're talking about potential superconferences. It's one of several reasons I think the Big Ten wants to stay at 12 -- not sure about ever going from 12 to 10. That said, the Big Ten has long made equal revenue-sharing a core pillar. Nebraska eventually will receive an equal share, and the Big Ten in my view will always keep this philosophy in place because it prevents the discord we saw recently in the Big 12. When Ohio State agrees to take the same cut as Northwestern, it says something about the league. It's the "all ships will rise" theory Ohio State AD Gene Smith talks about a lot. So even if the Big Ten became 16, I think it would do so with the idea all members would eventually get an equal cut of the pie.


Ed from Dallas writes: Hey Adam,Grew up in Illinois and all my childhood all's I wanted to do was be an Illini (unfortanely 5'11" guy that couldn't run or bench press my weight)so my dream was unreasonable...but it does lead me to my question...why can't The Illini recruit the top players from Illinois? They never have..whether it was Mike White, Ron Turner, Ron Zook or the current staff. I just saw the ESPN 150 and Illinois' top players are going to USC, LSU, Michigan, ND...everywhere but the Illini. Why is there no pride in Illinois HS football players in their state university? If the Illini just recruited their own state like Texas does they'd be a powerhouse.

Adam Rittenberg: Ed, while your concern has some validity, you can't say Ron Zook didn't recruit top players from Illinois. You remember Martez Wilson and Juice Williams? They were highly-touted guys coming out of Chicago. Other decorated in-state prospects included Rashard Mendenhall (Skokie), Josh Brent (Bloomington) and Graham Pocic (Lemont). Zook also landed recruits like wide receiver Chris James and defensive tackle Lendell Buckner who had hype coming out of high school but didn't really pan out in Champaign. I understand your frustration, especially with Illinois being the biggest school in the state. But Illinois hasn't been a traditional power like Ohio State, Michigan, Florida, Texas, LSU and Alabama. The team has to start winning more consistently to motivate top recruits to choose Illinois, especially since everyone in the Big Ten recruits the Chicago area. In-state recruiting has to be a big focal point for Tim Beckman and his staff, and they made a splash with quarterback Aaron Bailey out of Bolingbrook. But it's unrealistic to think Illinois will get every top player from within its borders.


Sam from New York writes: Hi Adam,Staying with the topic of Top Individual Seasons, why was Ron Dayne left out of the main list? I believe he should even be part of the national list, not just the Big Ten. He led UW to 2 straight Rose Bowls, capped off by sweeping all the major awards his senior year, and also broke Ricky Williams' career rushing yards record - which is still Dayne's to this day.

Adam Rittenberg: Sam, I think you're making the mistake of viewing this as a career achievement award rather than a list of exceptional seasons. Dayne certainly had two terrific seasons (1996 and 1999) that were under consideration for our top five, but ultimately he fell just a bit short of the top five. And honestly, if we were to include another running back's season in the top five, we would have gone with Larry Johnson in 2002, who averaged nearly 8 yards per carry. We had a similar situation with Dayne when we considered Purdue quarterback Drew Brees. We saw Brees as a once-in-a-generation player, and a Big Ten icon in recent years. But when you looked at his individual seasons and compared them with others in the past 50 years, they didn't quite stack up. Again, five seasons is not a big list, and this wasn't a career achievement rundown. We kept several Heisman Trophy winners off of the top five list.


Jason from Kansas City, Mo., writes: Adam,FYI-Nebraska fans aren't bitter about Michigan in 1997. That doesn't even make any sense. There's nothing to be bitter about as both teams can claim they won a national championship that year (unlike Penn St in 94). I really enjoy reading your blogs but comments like these tell me you still don't have a good feeling for the Nebraska fanbase. Please do some research next time before making assumptions about how Nebraska's fans feel.

Adam Rittenberg: Jason, maybe I overstated that a bit, but I did receive several emails from both Nebraska fans and Michigan fans before the teams met last season that suggested neither side was too pleased with a split national title. It might be more from the Michigan fans, some of whom feel the Wolverines should have been outright champions in '97. But you're not speaking for the entire Nebraska fan base when you say no one is better about the split title. My inbox says otherwise.


Nate from Clemson, S.C., writes: How would the conferences react to a modification of their own championship games? Would they be open to a requirement that would match up the 2 highest rated teams at the end of the season regardless of division? This would have had Alabama vs. LSU in the conference championship game and would have certainly knocked the loser out of contention for the championship game or perhaps a playoff. It seems that this would help bolster the B1G argument for the value of winning the conference championship.

Adam Rittenberg: Nate, this is an interesting point that several others have brought up. One problem with any playoff model that requires conference champions is what happens if there's a wave of upsets in the league title games. This also would favor a league like the Big 12, which as of the moment doesn't have a league championship game. Your plan obviously would help guarantee more exciting championship games and, in many cases, worthier league champions. I still think leagues would be hesitant to get rid of the division model, which would be the only way to do this (if you have divisions, you have to use their champions in the title game). But it's important for leagues to continue to re-evaluate divisions, make changes if necessary and consider the possibility of getting rid of the divisions altogether. No one wants to see Oregon-UCLA in the title game, and LSU-Georgia didn't really move the needle, either.

Big Ten chat wrap: Dec. 21

December, 21, 2011
12/21/11
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It was Big Ten chat day, and we had a good discussion earlier this afternoon.

In case you missed it, here's the full wrap-up.

Some highlights:
Curt from Des Moines, Iowa: Adam - With the Buckeyes suspended from the BIG championship next year, do you like the Badger's chances of a 3 peat in Pasadena? Who could be a sleeper team in the Leaders division?
Adam Rittenberg: Curt, Ohio State's ban makes Wisconsin the clear-cut favorite in the Leaders division. It's hard to size up Penn State's chances without seeing the new coach, but the Lions will face some obstacles for sure. Could Purdue be a sleeper team? Perhaps. But the Boilers need to upgrade several areas and be much more consistent in 2012.
Myles from Ohio: Hi Adam, how do you think the Big 10 will do this year in bowl games? Particularly Iowa against a hugely talented Oklahoma team and Wisconsin against the 'speedy' Ducks. And what will the Big 10/SEC record be when all is done?
Adam Rittenberg: Myles, this has the potential to be another rough bowl season for the Big Ten. It's imperative the league gets at least a 1-1 split in the BCS games. The Big Ten-SEC matchups look more favorable than they did a year ago, and the Big Ten should win 1-2 of these games. The Big Ten-Big 12 matchups, however, look extremely tough. Would expect the Big Ten to go 0-2.
Illini Zach from Highland Park: Hi Adam, sitting in class with a professor with your same last name. You're a bit more fun though. Why is it that a team near a city like Chicago is struggling to find good recruits and coaches while the Michigans and Ohio States of the world seem to get whoever they please?
Adam Rittenberg: Really? Wonder if it's a long-lost relative? As far as Illinois goes, the Illini had some recruiting success in the Chicago area during Ron Zook's tenure, luring players like Juice Williams and Martez Wilson to Champaign. A lot of it has to do with winning and having tradition. Illinois actually has a great football history, but recent years have brought struggles and inconsistency. If Tim Beckman can win at a reasonable rate, he should be able to recruit well in the Chicago area. Will Illinois beat out Ohio State and Michigan for top recruits? It can happen, but not too often.
Greg from Louisville: As a life long Hawkeye fan and alumni, do you think it's crazy if i'm starting to think Ferentz's time should be up at Iowa? I'm not expecting national championships by any means but for a guy who is getting paid almost $3.7mm, it sure seems like they should be better than they are consistently compete in the top 15 in the nation?
Adam Rittenberg: Greg, while I don't think you should want Ferentz out, you have every right to expect more from a coach making what he makes. The program has backslid since the Orange Bowl, and the Big Ten has become more competitive with the arrival of Nebraska and Wisconsin's surge the past two years. Iowa can get a lot of coaches who can go 7-5 and be paid much less. It's fair to expect Ferentz's teams to win 9-10 games, beginning in 2012.

Mike from Madison: keep hearing from people that oh time of possession means nothing for the Ducks because thata??s how their system operates. But it actually is a huge deal considering it plays right into the hands and strength of this Wisconsin team because the Ducka??s have not yet faced an opponent that is as potent, as efficient, and as consistent on offense as Wisconsin. Looking at the stats, I think that if the Badgers hold onto the ball for 36+ mins they hands down win, 35 mins they have the advantage, 34-35 mins ita??s a close and even match, and anything less than 34 mins the Ducks win. Your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Mike, Wisconsin will have an edge in time of possession, but Oregon can score on almost every play it runs. I don't think the game necessarily comes down to how long Wisconsin holds the ball. Wisconsin needs to tackle well in space, certainly better than it did against Michigan State in the Big Ten title game. Ball control is important, but Oregon will have chances to score in this game. Wisconsin needs to get the Ducks off of the field.

Thanks again for the questions, and my apologies to those whose questions weren't answered (they come at me rapid-fire!).

Let's do it again soon.

Big Ten lunch links

May, 25, 2011
5/25/11
12:00
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Happy hump day.
Here's the second half of my interview with Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.

Also check out Part I.

What was your reaction when you found out Mikel [Leshoure], Martez [Wilson] and Corey [Liuget] all were entering the draft?

Nathan Scheelhaase: I was happy for those guys. Obviously, when you deal with that decision, it's a good thing. Not everybody gets that opportunity, and those guys definitely deserve it. It's definitely a blessing for those guys, and all those guys are ready to take that next step and show what they can do at the highest level. All of us are happy for them. We got to see them all when they came back for the banquet. Everybody was excited that their dreams are coming true.

All those guys have dreamed since they were little kids that they wanted to be in the NFL. Now they get that chance. They're moving full thrust. That's why you recruit, why you go out and try to get good players each and every year. You're always going to be losing guys, and guys need to replace them. When you lose somebody, then it becomes an opportunity to step up, and we have a lot of guys who are looking forward to filling those shoes.

We wish them all the best. They're some great players, did a ton of great things for us here. It's just a blast being here in the locker room with those guys. That's the thing people don't see. All three of those guys were huge in our locker room and really fun to be around. That's probably the part we'll all miss the most.

Who do you see stepping up to fill Mikel's role?

NS: It's everybody. That's for sure. Jason Ford is definitely going to be a breakout player this year, probably will be one of the breakout players in the Big Ten Conference this year. And Mikel will tell you as well as anybody, we have one of the best offensive lines in the country. They can match up with any defensive line they go against. Mikel enjoyed running behind those guys and Jason Ford will as well. I really look forward to him having a great season. Even as much as I did in the running game this year, there's a whole lot more I can do, and there's a lot I can get better at as far as the running game goes.

And then we have guys like Troy Pollard. When Mikel went down in the Michigan game in the first half, Troy was able to come in there. Troy had a big game against Penn State, almost rushed for 100 yards. I look forward to him having a big year and playing more of a role. And we have some guys coming in with this recruiting class.

Is that the biggest challenge for you guys, filling the voids?

NS: That's what it's all about, getting that opportunity. It kind of was the same for me. After we lost Juice [Williams] last year, I got the opportunity to play and was able to do some good things for us. Whenever you get your opportunity in college football, it's your turn to step up. You've got to put that on your shoulders and see what you can do with it. I think we've got guys that are hungry and guys that are ready to go and step in.
Time will tell whether the Great Experiment of Champaign works or not, but one big piece of the puzzle seems to fit.

First-year coordinator Vic Koenning is having a positive effect on the Illinois defense.

[+] EnlargeRon Zook
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanCoach Ron Zook has seen results after taking steps to improve the Illinois defense.
Yes, it's still very early, but the Fighting Illini defense is showing promising signs after two games. Illinois limited Missouri to 23 points in the opener -- the Tigers' had averaged 43 points in its previous three games with the Illini -- and kept Southern Illinois out of the end zone last Saturday in Champaign. Despite losing three projected starters in recent weeks -- defensive backs Supo Sanni and Terry Hawthorne to injury, defensive end/linebacker Michael Buchanan to suspension -- the Illini are receiving production from a variety of sources.

Again, there's long way to go, but so far, so good.

"We're playing so much harder, we're tackling better, we're chasing the football better and we're not giving up the big plays," coach Ron Zook said. "That was the biggest problem we were having last year, the big plays. They're playing as a group, they're playing as a unit, they're flying around.

"It's hard to find a play where there's not at least eight guys around the football. It's team defense."

Zook's last phrase is the important one. Illinois never has lacked individual talent during Zook's tenure on both sides of the ball.

The two-deep on defense features heralded recruits like Martez Wilson, Corey Liuget and Whitney Mercilus. But since the Rose Bowl run in 2007, Illinois hadn't played well as a defensive unit, slipping to 67th in points allowed in 2008 and 96th last fall.

Although much of the criticism in 2009 was directed toward Mike Schultz and an offense that took eight weeks to get on track despite a fourth-year starter at quarterback (Juice Williams) and an All-America candidate at receiver (Arrelious Benn), the defense didn't hold up, either. Illinois allowed 102 points in its final two games, losses to Cincinnati and Fresno State.

As part of a major staff overhaul in December, Zook demoted co-defensive coordinators Dan Disch and Curt Mallory and brought in Koenning (Mallory left for Akron, while Disch remains on staff as linebackers coach). Illinois beat out Georgia for Koenning's services, and the move seems to be paying off.

Here's what cornerback Tavon Wilson told the (Decatur) Herald & Review this week.
"Coach Vic is more of an enforcer. If the [team] leaders are not taking charge, he will. He won't sit around and let practice go mediocre. He will make sure everyone is running to the football on every play. He'll run to the football with you if he has to. That's probably the biggest difference from coaches in the past. Past coaches wouldn't let it slide, but they weren't enforcing it as much as coach Vic would. He doesn't take a play off just like he expects you not to take a play off."

The Illini are receiving strong performances so far from safety Travon Bellamy (19 tackles, 3 tackles for loss), linebacker Ian Thomas (17 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery) and Martez Wilson (14 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble.

Five players already have recorded multiple tackles for loss in the first two contests.

"Everyone's involved," Zook said. "It's not just one player that's playing hard. They're all playing hard."
The Illinois-Missouri series goes on hiatus after Saturday's clash in St. Louis. For the men wearing orange helmets, it seems like the break can't come soon enough.

Illinois has opened its season against the rival Tigers five times since 2002, including each of the past three years. All five games have produced the same result for the Fighting Illini: 0-1.

[+] EnlargeRon Zook
Jason Miller/US PresswireRon Zook had a few surprisingly good recruiting classes in his first years at Illinois, but they haven't equaled wins for the Illini.
Many forecast another opening loss for Ron Zook's crew Saturday at the Edward Jones Dome. Translation: there's no better time for the Illini to step up and get some revenge.

If Illinois wants to make a statement that things are turning around, the Missouri game provides the perfect platform.

"They're all important, but this one has an awful lot of importance on it," Zook told ESPN.com. "Obviously, we haven’t had a lot of success against them."

The Missouri game has been a buzzkill for Illinois in each of the past two seasons. After a run to the Rose Bowl in 2007, preseason No. 20 Illinois entered the dome to face No. 6 Missouri in one of the more anticipated matchups of the 2008 opening weekend.

Game result: Missouri 52, Illinois 42

Illinois season result: 5-7

Optimism had been restored by the time Illinois made the trip to St. Louis last year. Quarterback Juice Williams and receiver Arrelious Benn had returned, linebacker Martez Wilson seemed on the brink of a huge season and the team had gone through a very successful preseason camp. Plus, Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin were no longer on Missouri's roster.

Game result: Missouri 37, Illinois 9

Illinois season result: 3-9

"We were healthy, we were fresh, no one was beat up, we put a big emphasis on it," Zook recalled. "And we get over there and the second play of the game, it was like somebody threw a blanket over us."

Benn and running back Jason Ford both went down with injuries. Wilson suffered a neck injury in the first quarter but remained in the game, only to learn days later that he needed season-ending surgery.

The team never fully recovered, plummeting to a 1-6 start.

As Zook prepares his team for another tough opener against Mizzou, he doesn't stiff-arm what has taken place the past few years.

“Traditionally, Missouri’s probably played if not their best, one of their best games of the year against us," Zook said. "That's the one thing we've tried to stress to our guys. You look at Missouri in the first game of the year, you look at them in the end, and they're not the same team.

"We've got to match the way they're playing."

Illinois isn't as healthy as it was a year ago, as two projected starters in the secondary, safety Supo Sanni and cornerback Terry Hawthorne, will miss the game. Missouri will play without running back Derrick Washington, but the Tigers still have quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who torched the Illini for 319 pass yards and three touchdowns last year.

Redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase makes his first career start for the Illini, who debut a new offense under coordinator Paul Petrino.

"I'm like everyone else, I want to see him play, too," Zook said. "I'm not going to say he’s going to be perfect, but he’ll learn from his mistakes and he'll do a great job."

After last year's loss, Zook and his players lamented that something happened on the bus ride from Champaign to St. Louis. No one could pinpoint the problem, but it zapped Illinois' mojo from a strong camp.

Saturday is a chance to get the momentum back.

"We all have something to prove," defensive end Clay Nurse said. "You can dwell on what your season was like last year, but I'm not one to dwell on that.

"I'm just ready to go out here and show people we can produce and be successful."

Opening camp: Illinois

August, 4, 2010
8/04/10
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Schedule: First practice takes place Thursday at Memorial Stadium. First group hits the field at 4 p.m. ET and the second group at 5:30 p.m. ET. Team practices three times in Champaign before moving to Rantoul, Ill., on Aug. 9, for 15 workouts.

What's new: Uh, like, everything. Ron Zook is still the head coach, but he has six new assistants, including coordinators Paul Petrino (offense) and Vic Koenning (defense). Illinois is breaking in new systems on both offense and defense, and redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase takes over at quarterback following the departure of four-year starter Juice Williams. The new-look staff has some familiarity, as Petrino, quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm and tight ends coach Chip Long all worked together at Louisville during the Cardinals' juggernaut days. Illinois needs a No. 1 wide receiver to emerge after Arrelious Benn's departure to the NFL.

Sidelined: Strong-side offensive tackle Corey Lewis, a projected starter this spring, sustained a torn ACL in spring ball and likely will miss the season. Illinois needs a strong camp from Ryan Palmer as he steps into a featured role.

Key battle: Illinois has two experienced defensive line pieces in Clay Nurse and Corey Liuget, but the other two spots should bring plenty of competition. Glenn Foster had a nice spring and could be the answer at the second defensive tackle spot, while several players, including Michael Buchanan and Nate Palmer, compete at the "bandit" position.

New on the scene: Although veteran Eddie McGee can shift from wide receiver to quarterback if needed, true freshman Chandler Whitmer likely is a play away from the field. Whitmer enrolled early and impressed the coaches with his knowledge this spring. He enters the fall as Scheelhaase's backup. Also keep an eye on safety Trulon Henry, a junior college transfer and Benn's older brother. He enters camp as the backup to Supo Sanni at free safety.

Breaking out: Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins nearly left Illinois in the winter before deciding to stay and turn around his career. Zook and Petrino raved about Jenkins this spring, and he'll likely be Scheelhaase's top target. Running back Mikel LeShoure will carry the load after a very impressive finish to 2009. Cornerback Terry Hawthorne also could have a big year after making an impact as a freshman last fall.

Back in the fold: Illinois really missed Martez Wilson, and the middle linebacker finally gets to hit people again in camp after being fully cleared by doctors. Wilson suffered a herniated disk in his neck in the 2009 opener against Missouri and underwent season-ending surgery. The one-time, can't-miss recruit has one final chance to break out. Cornerback Miami Thomas also returns after tearing his ACL in camp last year.

Quoting: "The players, we didn't execute. People want to jump on the coaches and blame the coaches. The last time I saw coach Zook catch a pass or make a tackle, they were wearing leather helmets. It is on us now. They brought in new coaches, but at the end of the day, we're the ones playing." -- defensive end Clay Nurse
My colleague Heather Dinich had a great idea to examine offenses and defenses in the ACC that need repair and see which ones are on the fastest road to recovery. I'm totally stealing this concept for the Big Ten.

Let's start on the offensive side:

IN NEED OF REPAIR

1. Minnesota: The Gophers not only made a dramatic switch in style from the spread to the pro set last fall, but they incorporated a complex, and some would say convoluted, system of calls. The results weren't pretty, as Minnesota ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring (20.9 ppg), rushing (99.5 ypg) and total offense (306.5 ypg). Minnesota twice was shut out in league play.

2. Illinois: Despite having loads of experience at both quarterback and wide receiver, Illinois floundered on offense for more than half a season. The Illini struggled under new coordinator Mike Schultz, finishing 10th in the league in pass offense after leading the Big Ten in 2008. Quarterback Juice Williams, a four-year starter, was briefly replaced during Big Ten play as the Illini scored 17 points or fewer in six conference games.

3. Ohio State: Another Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl championship make it easy to forget how much Ohio State struggled on offense for most of 2009. Ohio State finished last in the Big Ten in passing (173.6 ypg) and seemed to be operating in no-mistakes mode for much of the fall. Terrelle Pryor and his teammates got it together in Pasadena, but Ohio State finished a middling 68th nationally in total offense for the season.

FASTEST ROAD TO RECOVERY

1. Ohio State: The Rose Bowl showed the Buckeyes' offense what it could be, and the unit took some steps forward this spring. Pryor looked a lot more comfortable both in practice and at the spring game, and while his mechanics might never be perfect, his footwork is much better. A veteran offensive line played well down the stretch last fall and should be even better in 2010, especially if Mike Adams locks down the left tackle spot.

2. Minnesota: The Gophers should be a better offense this fall for several reasons. They have experience at quarterback and a guy in Adam Weber who has succeeded earlier in his career. New coordinator Jeff Horton has simplified the system, a welcome change for players who went through information overload last fall. While the run game is a big question mark, the offensive line returns in full and drew favorable reviews from Weber and the coaches in spring ball.

3. Illinois: Talent isn't the problem at Illinois, but players still have to learn a new system under coordinator Paul Petrino and fill some big production holes at quarterback, receiver and offensive line. I really like the run game potential with Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford, and if Illinois can solidify its offensive line, the backs should take a lot of pressure off of a young quarterback like Nathan Scheelhaase. Illinois can certainly get it done on offense this fall, but there's work left to do.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase first learned about Stefan LeFors in the same way most of us did.

When LeFors blew up as Louisville's quarterback and became a household name in 2004, Scheelhaase, then a middle schooler in Kansas City, followed his story.

"His senior year, ESPN did a special on him," Scheelhaase said. "He spoke sign language because his parents were deaf. I watched that and then I watched this guy and he's a little, 5-[foot-]10 nothing, 180, 185 pounds, and I think they were the No. 1 offense in the country that year."

Scheelhaase is once again watching LeFors, but for very different reasons. Illinois' offense is now under the direction of coordinator Paul Petrino, who served as Louisville's offensive coordinator during LeFors' record-setting run.

Petrino's offense can accommodate different types of quarterbacks -- Ryan Mallett, an NFL style, rifle-armed, drop-back passer, excelled in the system last season at Arkansas -- but it's pretty easy to identify the paradigm for Scheelhaase, an elite athlete who, like LeFors, won't scare anyone with his size.

"He's a lot like Stefan," Petrino said. "Very similar players. He's faster than Stefan was, and he's a redshirt freshman. Stefan didn't play until his redshirt junior year. You just see things they do, the way [Scheelhaase] moves around on the play-action, a lot of the plays he does well were plays that Stefan does well, so a lot of that stuff really reminds you of him."

It's high praise for Scheelhaase, but Petrino has high expectations for the quarterback in 2010. Although Illinois hasn't formally named a starting quarterback -- Scheelhaase competed with Jacob Charest and Chandler Whitmer throughout spring practice -- it's fairly obvious that Scheelhaase is the man to beat entering the summer.

The 6-3, 195-pound redshirt freshman took most of the reps with the first-team offense this spring, and made several big plays with both his arm and his feet in four scrimmages.

"Nathan is a fiery guy; he's a really good leader," Petrino said. "He's just a great competitor, and he's going to do whatever it takes to win. He does a real good job running with the ball, making plays. He's worked hard to understand the passing game. He's got a nice, quick release, he knows where he's going with the ball and he's getting more accurate every day.

"If he can do that, we'll be in great shape."

Head coach Ron Zook saw the same fire from Scheelhaase (pronounced SHEEL-house) on the scout team last year, as the true freshman never backed down from the first-team defense. Senior wide receiver Jarred Fayson described Scheelhaase as "a bit before his time" in how he carries himself and his approach to the game.

"A competitive attitude is good to have every day, whether you're a fourth-year starter or you're just trying to get on the field for the first time," Scheelhaase said. "You want yourself to be perfect when you're doing things like that. You don't want to have a bad play, have a bad practice or anything because you want to compete with yourself, compete with others around you and on a bigger level, you want to be better than your opponents."

He admitted having "first-day jitters" at the start of spring ball, well aware of what was at stake following the graduation of Juice Williams, a four-year starter at quarterback. Scheelhaase knows he still must absorb more of Petrino's offense, but he built confidence throughout the spring and brings some versatility to the position.

And while he never shies away from competitive situations, he also doesn't get weighed down by Illinois' unsettled situation at quarterback.

"You're running with blinders on," he said.

And down the road, he hopes to catch up with LeFors.

"He's a fun guy to watch," Scheelhaase said. "He ran their offense well, ran it with confidence. If I can be in his ballpark, if anybody can be in his ballpark, it would be great because he was a great college quarterback."

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