Big Ten: Justin DuVernois

Season report card: Illinois

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
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There's an empty spot on refrigerators -- or trash cans -- in football offices around the Big Ten. Coaches can't wait to display, or dispose of, their season report cards. So let's get in on with it.

This week, we're grading each Big Ten team in the following areas: offense, defense, special teams, coaching and overall. Our red pens are ready, and the Illinois Fighting Illini are up first.

Offense: B

Spurred by a pass attack ranked second in the Big Ten, the offense again carried Illinois for much of the season. Quarterback Wes Lunt shined early and Reilly O'Toole came up big late. Despite a spotty run game, Josh Ferguson had another productive season and wideout Mikey Dudek emerged as a budding star during Big Ten play.

Defense: D-plus

Yes, D-plus is a real grade, and it applies to an Illini defense that struggled for most of the season but came up big in a home upset of Minnesota, forcing three turnovers, including V'Angelo Bentley's scoop and score in the fourth quarter. Still, the run defense suffered as Illinois allowed nearly 240 rushing yards per game for the second straight season. Significant improvement is needed here.

Special teams: C-minus

It was a year of extremes for the Illini in the kicking game. Punter Justin DuVernois averaged 44 yards per punt, with 20 punts of 50 yards or longer. Bentley averaged 10.2 yards on punt returns. But kickers Taylor Zalewski and David Reisner struggled and the coverage teams had some issues. The overall performance cost special-teams coach Tim Salem his job.

Coaching: C

As an opposing Big Ten assistant recently told me, offensive coordinator Bill Cubit is keeping Illinois' afloat. The veteran play-caller did a good job managing the offense this season. Coach Tim Beckman also deserves some credit for Illinois' late surge. Illinois won three of its final five games to make a bowl game.

Overall: C-

Illinois' victory total increased for the second consecutive season, and reaching a bowl game likely saved Beckman's job. It was a struggle to reach six wins, though, and the Illini struggled to compete against the better teams they faced. A good finish to the regular season and some returning offensive firepower provides hope for the future, but defense and special teams remain concerns.

Offseason to-do list: Illinois

January, 19, 2015
Jan 19
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The seemingly endless offseason is sadly upon us, so it's time for each Big Ten team to see what needs to be upgraded (yes, even you, Ohio State). During the next week or so we'll examine three items on each Big Ten team's to-do list before the 2015 season kicks off in September.

Illinois leads things off.

1. Establish a vision on defense: Tim Beckman's background is on defense, but his team has struggled to consistently stop anyone during his Illini tenure. Illinois has finished last in the Big Ten in rush defense in each of the past two seasons, allowing nearly 240 rush yards per game in both years. Beckman could hire a co-defensive coordinator to assist Tim Banks, who has been the sole coordinator since 2012. Whatever Beckman decides, his defense needs to have a clear vision and identity. There is some talent and experience there with players like Mason Monheim, Jihad Ward and V'Angelo Bentley, but a unit that can't stop the run in the Big Ten has no chance.

2. Get Wes Lunt healthy and on track: Lunt had 1,569 pass yards and 11 touchdowns in his first five games with the Illini, but he wasn't the same after returning from a broken leg. The sophomore quarterback had just one touchdown pass, struggled with his accuracy, and couldn't stretch the field in his final three appearances. It's important that Lunt gets back to 100 percent and re-establishes the rhythm he had in September. He's still the team's best quarterback option. Illinois' offense will be its strength with weapons like Mikey Dudek, Josh Ferguson, Geronimo Allison, and Malik Turner back in the fold. If Lunt recaptures his early form, the Illini will be tough to stop this fall.

3. Make special teams a strength: Beckman said the special teams units he inherited at Illinois were "as bad as there was in this country, probably." The improvement hasn't been sufficient, as he fired special teams coach Tim Salem after the season. Illinois needs to identify a reliable kicker -- David Reisner and Taylor Zalewski combined to go 9-for-17 on field-goal attempts in 2014 -- and replace standout punter Justin DuVernois. The Illini boast one of the Big Ten's top returners in Bentley, but coverage teams need to be upgraded. Illinois simply isn't good enough elsewhere to have the kicking game hold it back.

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 12

November, 19, 2014
11/19/14
3:00
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In just a couple of weeks, the Big Ten will announce its individual award winners for 2014. We've been giving you the scoop on those races all season long, and it's time again to see who leads for the top offensive and defensive honors. Plus, this week we look at the chase for the punter of the year award. Hey, punters need love, too!

Here we go:

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon (six first-place votes): Well, yeah. After his 408-yard performance last week, Gordon has solidified his grip here. He's on pace to do things that only one or two FBS running backs have ever done, like finish with 2,000 yards and 30 TDs.

2. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: He's coming on strong and is a bona fide Heisman contender now. In another year, Barrett would be running away with this award. If Gordon falters in the next two weeks, maybe he can sneak in.

3. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: Speaking of "in any other year ..." Coleman is No. 2 nationally in rushing yards (1,678) and put up 307 at nearly the same time Gordon was doing his thing. Phenomenal player on a crummy team.

4. Minnesota RB David Cobb: If you still had any doubts about Cobb, he answered them with a 145-yard, three-touchdown performance against Ohio State. He should break Minnesota's single-season rushing record.

5. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: We hate to see Abdullah finish this way. He clearly wasn't himself against Wisconsin, running for just 69 yards on 18 carries. Hopefully he'll get healthier and end his illustrious career on a high note.

Also receiving votes: Michigan State WR Tony Lippett

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa (six first-place votes): Ho hum, just 1.5 sacks against Minnesota. He's got 11.5 sacks in 10 games, or more than any Big Ten player managed in either of the past two full seasons.

2. Penn State LB Mike Hull: The Nittany Lions rank third nationally in total defense, and Hull -- the Big Ten's top tackler -- is a big reason why.

3. Penn State DT Anthony Zettel: Did we mention how good Penn State's D has been? Zettel has been the anchor up front all year long. He's got 11 tackles for loss, which is a big number for an interior lineman.

T-4: Michigan LB Jake Ryan: There haven't been many bright spots for Michigan all season, but Ryan (90 tackles, 13 for loss) has been a beacon of hope.

T-4: Wisconsin LB Vince Biegel: It's hard to pick just one of the Badgers' outstanding quartet of linebackers. But Biegel might be the most versatile, and he's second in the league in TFLs with 14.

Also receiving votes: Iowa DE Drew Ott

Eddleman-Fields Punter of the Year

1. Minnesota's Peter Mortell (six first-place votes): Mortell was brilliant against Ohio State, consistently flipping field position. He leads the league with a 45.4-yard average.

2. Illinois' Justin DuVernois: He's right behind Mortell with a 44.9-yard average, including a league-best 74-yarder. Illinois also leads the Big Ten in net punting

Also receiving votes: Ohio State's Cam Johnston

ESPN's midseason All-Big Ten team

October, 14, 2014
10/14/14
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The regular season is at its halfway point, so we're presenting our selections for the midseason All-Big Ten team.

Offense

QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
RB: Tevin Coleman, Indiana
WR: Tony Lippett, Michigan State
WR: DaeSean Hamilton, Penn State
OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OT: Jack Conklin, Michigan State
C: Jack Allen, Michigan State
G: Zac Epping, Minnesota
G: Pat Elflein, Ohio State

Defense

DE: Joey Bosa, Ohio State
DE: Marcus Rush, Michigan State
DT: Anthony Zettel, Penn State
DT: Carl Davis, Iowa
LB: Mike Hull, Penn State
LB: Damien Wilson, Minnesota
LB: Derek Landisch, Wisconsin
CB: Desmond King, Iowa
CB: Eric Murray, Minnesota
S: Frankie Williams, Purdue
S: Michael Caputo, Wisconsin

Special teams
PK: Brad Craddock, Maryland
P: Justin DuVernois, Illinois
KR: Stefon Diggs, Maryland
PR: De'Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska

Thoughts: The first thing you probably notice is an unconventional offense featuring three running backs and no tight ends. Sure, it's a little bit of a cheat, but how do you leave any of those three tailbacks off? Coleman, Gordon and Abdullah rank 1, 2 and 4 nationally in rushing yards. Though there are some excellent tight ends in the league -- Minnesota's Maxx Williams and Penn State's Jesse James come to mind -- we would rather reward the outstanding tailbacks. Heck, we probably could have gone four or five deep at that position, given how loaded it is right now. ... The toughest call came at cornerback, where you might be surprised by our choices. We love King's shutdown ability for the Hawkeyes, and Murray gets the slight nod over teammate Briean Boddy-Calhoun for the Gophers' excellent secondary. Michigan State's Trae Waynes might be the best player at the position in the league, but he has given up some big plays this season. Same goes for Maryland's Will Likely, who has been explosive at times and torched (see: West Virginia and Ohio State) at others. It's only midseason, remember; these choices could change by the end of the season. ... Speaking of surprised, the steady Rush makes the team over more heralded position mate Shilique Calhoun. It's a close call, but Rush has been consistently terrific so far this season. ... Some pretty fresh names at linebacker, especially after so many stars at the position departed after last season. Michigan's Jake Ryan just missed there. ... Two freshmen made the team in Hamilton and Pierson-El. Ohio State's J.T. Barrett is also pushing Cook for No. 1 status at quarterback.

The breakdown by team:

Michigan State: 5
Iowa: 3
Minnesota: 3
Penn State: 3
Wisconsin: 3
Maryland: 2
Nebraska: 2
Ohio State: 2
Illinois: 1
Indiana: 1
Purdue: 1
Michigan: 0
Northwestern: 0
Rutgers: 0
We've been previewing each position group in the Big Ten, and we've gone through every level of the offense and defense. But that's only two-thirds of the game. Don't forget special teams.

It can be hard to judge some of the new guys in the kicking game, as they often practice alone on separate fields and respond differently to pressure. So we'll give more weight to those who have already proved themselves in the league. Here's how we see the specialists shaping up:

Best of the best: Michigan State

Punter Mike Sadler is like an extension of the defense, so brilliant is he at pinning opponents near their own goal line (and he must be accounted for on trick plays). The vastly improved place-kicking game was a hidden reason for Michigan State's turnaround last year, and credit belongs to Michael Geiger, who missed only one field goal in 16 tries as a freshman. Macgarrett Kings Jr., who was suspended this spring, finished third in the Big Ten in punt returns a year ago. The kickoff return game needs work, but all in all, the Spartans are in great shape whenever ball meets foot.

Next up: Maryland

Only four returning FBS players made more field goals last year than Brad Craddock, who went 21-for-25. William Likely was one of the ACC's best kickoff and punt returners as a freshman. Nathan Renfro had some shaky moments at punter but is entering his third year as a starter. The Terps enter the Big Ten armed with strong special teams. Ohio State should also be very, very good if an adequate replacement for placekicker Drew Basil is found.

Sleeper: Illinois

It wasn't that long ago that the Illini special teams were embarrassingly bad. But things are improving. V'Angelo Bentley led the league with a 15.8-yard average on punt returns last year. Place-kicker Taylor Zalewski has battled with inconsistency but did make a 54-yarder last year; he'll face some competition from Navy transfer David Reisner and Ryan Frain this summer. Veteran punter Justin DuVernois has been solid.

Problem for a contender: Wisconsin

The Badgers have had major issues on field goals the past couple of seasons. Jack Russell needs to provide more than just easy opportunities for my dog puns, or else he could be on a short leash (ahem). Drew Meyer returns at punter, but Wisconsin finished ninth in the Big Ten in net punting average last season. The good news is that Kenzel Doe is a top-flight return man. But if the overall kicking game doesn't improve, it could cost the team a win or two.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. The series wraps up with the specialists.

Illinois:The Illini might not be exceptional in the kicking game, but they're in better shape than they were when coach Tim Beckman arrived. Punter Justin DuVernois returns after a solid junior season, while Taylor Zalewski looks for a bit more consistency in his second full season as the placekicker. Zalewski made 12 of 17 field-goal attempts last fall. The return game is the real plus, as V'Angelo Bentley provides a major threat, especially on punt returns.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana brings back a dynamic returner in Shane Wynn, who averaged 14 yards on punt run-backs despite limited work. Punter Erich Toth also is back for his third season as the starter. Toth placed 18 of 52 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. IU suffers a big loss at kicker as Mitch Ewald, the team's career field goals and field-goal percentage leader, departs. Aaron Del Grosso and Griffin Oakes will compete at kicker, and Jake Shake (shake and bake!) could enter the mix this summer.

Iowa: Here's another Big Ten team that looks very strong on returns, as Iowa boasts the Big Ten's most dynamic tandem in Kevonte Martin-Manley (punts) and Jordan Cotton (kickoffs). Martin-Manley had two punt-return touchdowns in 2013. Punter Connor Kornbrath ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in average, but placed 27 of 65 attempts inside the opponent's 20. Iowa loses kicker Mike Meyer, a four-year starter. Junior Marshall Koehn seems likely to step up, but could be pushed by incoming freshman Mick Ellis and others.

Maryland: Notice a theme so far? Most Big Ten teams are strong in the return game, and Maryland is no exception. If Stefon Diggs returns at full strength from his leg injury, he'll be a dangerous man with punts and kickoffs in his hands. Will Likely performed extremely well in Diggs' spot, averaging 26 yards on kickoff returns and 12.8 yards on punt returns. Maryland brings back an excellent kicker in Brad Craddock (21-for-25 on field goals last year), and punter Nathan Renfro enters his third season as the starter.

Michigan: Matt Wile has done a bit of everything for Michigan, but could settle into the starting placekicker role this fall. Wile handled kicking duties late last season and also served as Michigan's punter after Will Hagerup was suspended for the season. Hagerup, the Big Ten's punter of the year in 2012, will reclaim the role if he can avoid off-field problems that have surfaced throughout his career. Wile then could focus on kicking, as Kenny Allen is the only other option there. Michigan is still waiting for big things from kick returner Dennis Norfleet and must find someone to handle punts. Top recruit Jabrill Peppers could help.

Michigan State: Special teams once again should be a strength for MSU, which returns All-Big Ten punter Mike Sadler, a Ray Guy award semifinalist who will contend for All-America honors in 2014. Kicker Michael Geiger also is back after connecting on 15 of 16 field-goal attempts as a true freshman. Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Andre Sims Jr. both put up good numbers on punt returns. Michigan State had by far the fewest kick returns (18) in the Big Ten last year and will look for a boost from R.J. Shelton and others.

Minnesota: After an above-average year on special teams in 2013, Minnesota again should be good in the third phase. Punter Peter Mortell didn't get as many accolades as Sadler or Purdue's Cody Webster, but he had an excellent sophomore season, averaging 43.3 yards per attempt with 15 of 50 yards or longer. Marcus Jones is a major threat on returns after bringing back both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last fall. Redshirt freshman kickers Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte will compete as the Gophers lose Chris Hawthorne.

Nebraska: The Huskers are looking for some upgrades on special teams, particularly on punt returns, as Nebraska ranked 123rd in the FBS last fall. Primary returner Jordan Westerkamp is back, but he'll face some competition. Nebraska brings back punter Sam Foltz, who had a solid freshman season, averaging 41.6 yards per boot. Mauro Bondi is set to step in at kicker as Pat Smith departs. If Bondi struggles, incoming freshman Kris Brown could get a look this summer. Kenny Bell, who led the Big Ten in kick return average (26.5 yards per return), is back.

Northwestern: The Wildcats lose a huge piece in Jeff Budzien, named the Big Ten's top kicker in each of his final two seasons. Hunter Niswander can handle both kickoffs and punts but seems likely to slide into Budzien's spot. Northwestern's punting was a mess in 2013, ranking 118th nationally in net average (33.2 ypp). Brandon Williams departs and Chris Gradone or Niswander will take over. The big news is Northwestern brings back Venric Mark , an All-America punt returner in 2012. Primary kick returner Matt Harris is back after a solid freshman season.

Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie. Indeed, the Aussie is back at punter as Cameron Johnston returns after an excellent debut season (I refuse to call a 21-year-old a freshman). Ohio State hopes for similar results from another first-year specialist in kicker Sean Nuernberger, an early enrollee expected to step in for the departing Drew Basil. Sophomore Dontre Wilson will continue to have a big role on returns after handling kickoffs last year. Ohio State must replace Corey Brown on punt returns and could look to redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall or true freshmen Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon.

Penn State: The kicking game continues to be an area of concern.Sam Ficken owns the team record for consecutive field goals (15) and started strong last season but ended with just 15 of 23 conversions, including four misses inside 40 yards. Penn State needs a new punter after losing Alex Butterworth, and will turn to Chris Gulla. Jesse Della Valle did a good job on punt returns, but Penn State needs a boost on kickoffs after finishing last in the league (19.1 yards per return). The Lions could stick with Geno Lewis or look for a newcomer such as De'Andre Thompkins to emerge. PSU also must shore up its coverage units.

Purdue: As if the Boilers didn't have enough to address on offense and defense, the kicking game needs attention. Punter Cody Webster finished his spectacular career with All-America honors, and the Boilers finished second nationally in net punting (41.7 yards per punt). Incoming freshman Austin McGehee will take over for Webster. Paul Griggs and Thomas Meadows continue to work at kicker, as Griggs made only 50 percent of his attempts (6 of 12) last season. The kick return game is strong with Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, but Purdue must replace punt returner Ricardo Allen. B.J. Knauf could be a good fit there.

Rutgers: The kicking game historically is a strength for Rutgers, which has a knack for blocking kicks and pulling off fakes. Rutgers loses a productive piece in punter Nick Marsh, who also handled kickoffs. The Scarlet Knights will turn to Joseph Roth as their replacement. Kicker Kyle Federico finished the season well, particularly in the Pinstripe Bowl, and returns for his junior season. Rutgers has a major weapon on returns in Janarion Grant, who brought back both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown during his freshman season.

Wisconsin: The kicking game has held back Wisconsin in the past, so it's definitely an area to watch during the offseason. Kicker Jack Russell converted 9 of 13 field-goal attempts after taking over for Kyle French. He'll try to hold off incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone. Andrew Endicott, who handled kickoffs last fall, also returns. Wisconsin is looking for more from punter Drew Meyer, who averaged just 38.6 yards per attempt in 2013. Top returner Kenzel Doe is back and should handle both punts and kickoffs, although Wisconsin could look to others for help, such as newcomers Serge Trezy and Natrell Jamerson.

More position breakdowns

Season report card: Illinois

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
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We're handing out grades to each Big Ten team for its regular-season performance on offense, defense, special teams and overall play. For Illinois (4-8, 1-7) this serves as a final grade, as there's no bowl game in sight. But at least the marks are higher than they were last year in Champaign.

Here you go, Illini:

Offense: B-plus

There's a reason Bill Cubit just got a two-year contract extension and a nice raise. In one year, he transformed what had been a moribund unit into a legitimate scoring attack.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
Michael Hickey/Getty ImagesNathan Scheelhaase led the Big Ten in passing yards in 2013.
Cubit engineered a spread offense that averaged 29.7 points and over 426 yards per game. The Illini finished second in the league in passing yardage, and revived quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase led the Big Ten in passing yards by a wide margin with 3,272, to go along with 21 touchdowns. After injuries threatened to decimate the receiving corps, senior Steve Hull emerged late in the year to post huge stats in his final few games. The spread and quick passing game also covered some of the deficiencies of the offensive line, which did a much better job protecting Scheelhaase this season.

The running game was less successful, as Illinois finished just 10th in the league in rushing. But Josh Ferguson showed some big-time playmaking skills on his way to 779 yards and five touchdowns. For the most part, Illinois fielded a better-than-respectable offense for the majority of the season.

Defense: F

Thank goodness for Indiana. If not for the Hoosiers, Illinois would have had the worst defense in the Big Ten. It was still awful, yielding 481 yards and 35.4 points per game. The Illini had the worst rushing defense of any FBS AQ team in the country, giving up more than 238 yards per game on the ground. So, yeah, it was bad, especially in games like the 56-32 loss to Wisconsin, the 60-35 loss to Ohio State and the 52-35 loss to Indiana.

Linebacker Jonathan Brown was one of the few defensive standouts, with 119 total tackles and 15 tackles for loss. But Illinois just wasn't strong enough up front and couldn't slow down opposing passing games. Head coach Tim Beckman plans to keep the defensive staff intact, including coordinator Tim Banks, in hopes that a still very young unit will improve as it matures. He'd better be right about that.

Special teams: C

The kicking game was mostly a disaster in Beckman's first year, so it's notable that special teams improved to a mediocre level in 2013. V'Angelo Bentley helped solve some of the kick return woes that plagued the team the past couple of seasons. Justin DuVernois was solid at punter. Taylor Zalewski went 12-of-17 on field goals, though he did have a 54-yarder in the desperately-needed win over Purdue.

Overall: D-plus

Illinois definitely showed minor improvement in the second season under Beckman. The Illini doubled their win total, notched their first Big Ten victory after an embarrassing 20-game losing streak and at least fielded a competent, at times explosive, offense. But the defense actually got worse, and after a 3-1 start that included an upset of Cincinnati, Illinois finished 1-7. If the team makes one more play at Penn State and against Northwestern in the finale, the season not only looks much different but we're talking about a bowl game for Illinois. But the program just isn't there yet.

More report cards

Indiana
Northwestern
Ohio State
Nebraska
Penn State

Michigan
Minnesota
The preseason watch list roll-out extravaganza continues today with two awards that are sure to get your heart pumping: the kicker and punter trophies!

OK, so it's not that exciting, but the specialists deserve their day in the sun, too. And there are some good ones in the Big Ten.

Four league players made the list of 30 preseason nominees for the Lou Groza Award, given to the nation's top placekicker, and three Big Ten punters made the list for the Ray Guy Award. Here they are:

Lou Groza
Ray Guy Award

Budzien was 19-of-20 on field goals last season, and Gibbons hit some clutch kicks through the uprights. Meyer went 17-for-21, and Ewald is set to break several career records for the Hoosiers.

On the punting side, the three players listed are the top three returning statistical leaders in yards per attempt with Michigan's Will Hagerup suspended for the season.

Expect some other names to emerge as top-flight specialists this year in the Big Ten, but these lists highlight most of the top returning performers.
The rosters are set for Illinois' Orange and Blue Spring Game, which will kick off at 8 p.m. CT Friday at Memorial Stadium.

Illinois' seniors on Tuesday night drafted the two teams, which you can see here. Because of depth issues, eight players -- Robbie Bain, Abe Cajuste, Tim Clary, Chase Haslett, Samuel Ogunkoya, David Reisner, Cameron Tucker and Sean White -- will play for both squads.

Not surprisingly, top quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase (blue) and Reilly O'Toole (orange) will match up in the game. The two have competed for the starting job throughout the spring and will continue to do so in fall camp.

At first blush, the Blue squad looks much, much stronger. Scheelhaase is joined by top running backs Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young and veteran receivers Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford. The Orange also has the team's top two healthy linebackers in Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina -- Jonathan Brown (shoulder) will miss the game -- as well as Tim Kynard, the only returning starter on the defensive line.

The Orange team needs a big night from players like wide receiver Martize Barr, a junior-college transfer practicing with the first-team offense, and Miles Osei, a former quarterback now playing exclusively at receiver. Tight end Evan Wilson also will play for the Orange. The defense includes linebacker Houston Bates, linemen Teko Powell and Vontrell Williams, and cornerback Darius Mosely, a true freshman who enrolled early and has made an impact this spring. The Orange squad also has top specialists Justin DuVernois and Taylor Zalewski.

Several players will miss the game, including Brown and wide receiver Steve Hull, who was having a good spring before being slowed by a hamstring injury.

The game will feature a normal clock for the first three quarters and a running clock in the fourth quarter aside from the final two minutes. There will be no kickoffs or returns (kickoff or punt), and quarterbacks won't be live.
The Big Ten postseason position/unit rankings wrap up with the specialists. This list considers kickers, punters and returners, as well as coverage teams.

Here's how the Big Ten stacked up before the season. If you missed any of our postseason position/unit rankings, check 'em out.

Let's get started ...

[+] EnlargeJeff Budzien
Jerry Lai/US PresswireJeff Bundzien made 95 percent of his field goals and converted all 50 of his extra point attempts in 2012.
1. Northwestern (preseason ranking: 10): Northwestern fans never thought they'd see this day, but the program has improved markedly in the kicking game in recent years. Jeff Budzien was the Big Ten's most consistent kicker in 2012, connecting on 19 of 20 field-goal attempts (lone miss was a 53-yarder) and all 50 of his extra-point tries. Northwestern also led the league in punt return average (16.5) thanks to All-American returner Venric Mark, who had two runbacks for touchdowns. Northwestern ranked 19th nationally in punt coverage.

2. Nebraska (preseason ranking: 1): Brett Maher had a few hiccups but still made 20 of 27 field-goal tries and all 59 of his PATs, and averaged 41.8 yards per punt. He and Budzien shared the Bakken-Andersen Kicker of the Year honors in the Big Ten. Ameer Abdullah had an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown, and Nebraska had three solid options on kick returns (Abdullah, Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner).

3. Michigan (preseason ranking: 7): Here's another team that has made major strides in the kicking game in recent years. Kicker Brendan Gibbons was Captain Clutch, converting 16 of 18 field-goal attempts, including the game-winner against Michigan State, as well as all 45 PATs. Dennis Norfleet provided a boost on kick returns, and Will Hagerup led the league in punting average (45 ypp) despite limited attempts (33).

4. Michigan State (preseason ranking: 4): The Spartans' sputtering offense gave Mike Sadler plenty of work and he delivered, averaging 43.3 yards on 79 punts. MSU finished second in the league in net punting. Dan Conroy led the Big Ten in both field goals made (23) and field goals missed (9), but he hit the game-winner against TCU in the bowl game. Michigan State struggled on kick returns, but both Nick Hill and Andre Sims averaged more than eight yards on punt returns.

5. Iowa (preseason ranking: 9): Mike Meyer improved on his 2012 performance, connecting on 17 of 21 field-goal tries and all 25 of his extra-point attempts. Iowa also performed well on returns, as Jordan Cotton led the league in kick returns (28.2 ypr) and Micah Hyde averaged 7.4 yards on 16 punt returns. Punting was a weak spot as Connor Kornbrath averaged only 37.9 yards per boot.

6. Purdue (preseason ranking: 2): The Boilers definitely missed Carson Wiggs, as their kickers connected on only 9 of 14 field-goal tries this season and missed five extra-point attempts. But there were bright spots elsewhere like punter Cody Webster, who averaged 42.3 yards per punt. Purdue led the Big Ten in kickoff returns, thanks to Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert.

7. Ohio State (preseason ranking: 3): It was a mixed bag of big plays and big breakdowns for Ohio State on special teams in 2013. The Buckeyes had a league-high three punt returns for touchdowns but also had three punts blocked and surrendered a kick return for a touchdown against Purdue. Kicker Drew Basil was used sparingly (8 of 11 on field-goal attempts), while Ben Buchanan averaged 41 yards per punt. New special teams chief Kerry Coombs has some things to sort out.

8. Wisconsin (preseason ranking: 5): The kicking game continues to be a little inconsistent for the Badgers. Punter Drew Meyer had a solid season, averaging 41.5 yards on a league-high 80 punts. But Wisconsin kickers Kyle French and Jack Russell combined to convert only 10 of 18 field-goal attempts. Kenzel Doe led Wisconsin's multi-pronged kick return attack, which ranked third in the Big Ten, while Jared Abbrederis was decent on punt returns.

9. Indiana (preseason ranking: 11): The Hoosiers had a so-so season in the kicking game. Kicker Mitch Ewald connected on 15 of 20 field-goal attempts and missed only 1 of 43 PAT tries. Tevin Coleman tied for second in the league in kick returns, while Shane Wynn provided another option there. IU's punters didn't wow with their numbers, but the Hoosiers finished fifth in net punting.

10. Illinois (preseason ranking: 12): You know it's a rough season when you hang your hat on net punting, a statistic where Illinois led the Big Ten (39.2-yard net average). Sophomore Justin DuVernois had a heavy workload and still finished fourth in the league in punting average (41.9 ypp). Illini kickers connected on 8 of 12 field-goal tries, but the return game once again struggled mightily (118th nationally in punt returns, 107th in kick returns).

11. Minnesota (preseason ranking: 6): Troy Stoudermire became the NCAA's all-time kick return yards king and Jordan Wettstein connected for the game-winning field goal in the opener against UNLV, but the Gophers had few other special teams highlights. Wettstein finished the year just 14 of 22 on field goals, and Minnesota ranked last in the league in net punting (34.4 ypp). The return game was mediocre but Minnesota fared OK in kickoff and punt coverage.

12. Penn State (preseason ranking: 8) Sam Ficken's finish nearly kept Penn State out of the basement. Ficken connected on his final 10 field-goal tries, including the game-winner in overtime against Wisconsin. The Virginia game still stings, though, as he finished 14-for-21 for the season. Penn State struggled with its punting (11th in league in net average) and finished last in the league in kick returns (18.1 ypr). There were coverage breakdowns and muffed punts. The lack of depth following the NCAA sanctions seemed to hurt Penn State the most in the kicking game, especially early in the season.

Season report card: Illinois

December, 18, 2012
12/18/12
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Before players can take part in bowls -- or go home if their team is not in the postseason -- they must first finish their final exams. Here on the blog, we're passing out final grades for the regular season for each Big Ten team -- offense, defense, special teams and overall -- before the league kicks off its bowl season later this month.

First up, the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Offense: F

Illinois finished second-to-last in the FBS in total offense and in scoring at 16.7 points per game, a number that seems high when compared to the team's output in Big Ten play: a putrid 11.8 points per contest. The offensive line was a disaster, and neither quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase nor Reilly O'Toole could consistently move the chains. Moving to a spread system under new coach Tim Beckman, the Illini had nothing to hang their hats on with a weak running and weak passing game. The team was held to seven points or fewer in three Big Ten games. The leading rusher was Donovonn Young with 571 yards in 12 games, while Ryan Lankford's 469 receiving yards were most on the squad. Illinois also had more interceptions and lost fumbles than it did offensive touchdowns. Just a near total failure here.

Defense: D-minus

There were some top-flight playmakers on this side of the ball with guys like Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Jonathan Brown. Unfortunately, it didn't translate into results, as the Illini surrendered more than 32 points per game, fielded the worst pass efficiency defense in the Big Ten and yielded more than 190 rushing yards per contest. Injuries depleted the unit during the course of the season, and there were embarrassing performances like the 45-14 loss to Arizona State, the 52-24 defeat to Louisiana Tech and the 50-14 season-ending setback at rival Northwestern. At least true freshmen linebackers Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina showed promise.

Special teams: D-plus

The absence of Ron Zook didn't end the Illinois problems on special teams. The Illini were once again one of the worst punt- and kickoff-return units in the country. They made only eight of their 12 field goal tries. On the plus side, they did lead the Big Ten in punting, as Justin DuVernois had a solid year (and was asked to punt a lot). Still, a team that struggled to move the ball on offense didn't do many things to help itself with field position.

Overall: F

Sorry to be harsh with the grades, but there just wasn't much of anything to like about Beckman's first year in Champaign. Illinois beat just one FBS team -- Western Michigan, which later fired its coach. After that season opening win, the Illini went 1-10 with the only victory over an FCS opponent (Charleston Southern). Only one of those losses came by fewer than two touchdowns (20-17 against Purdue). Attendance plummeted and many fans have already lost faith in Beckman, who said at one point that he had lost 22 pounds during the trying season. Beckman is seeking some immediate help by signing several junior-college transfers. He has to upgrade just about every facet of this team, and there likely will be a staff shakeup. He and Illinois fans everywhere will have to hope the 2012 season represented rock bottom for the program.

Season report card: Illinois

December, 27, 2011
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The season report card series wraps up with the Illinois Fighting Illini. Time to pass out grades.

OFFENSE: D-

The unit was an utter failure in the final six games, not scoring a point in a half of each contest. The downward spiral began with a near shutout loss at home against an Ohio State team that completed just one pass, and Illinois never recovered following a 17-7 defeat. There was a time when Illinois moved the ball well, when quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins formed the Big Ten's most dangerous passing connection. Illinois scored 33 points or more in four of its first six games. But there were troubling signs, like an inconsistent run game, and once defenses figured out how to fluster Scheelhaase and contain Jenkins, the unit fell off of the map. Illinois' offensive line underperformed and the team didn't get enough from its running backs. It will be interesting to see where the unit goes under the new coaching staff.

DEFENSE: B+

The amazing thing about Illinois' collapse is the defense had very little to do with it. The unit struggled for a half against Purdue, Michigan and Wisconsin, but Illinois would have had chances to win if the offense had shown a pulse. Illinois' defense fueled a Sept. 17 win against Arizona State and finished the season ranked in the top 10 nationally in yards allowed, pass yards allowed, sacks and tackles for loss. Junior Whitney Mercilus earned All-America honors and the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end, and the defense also received strong performances from linebacker Jonathan Brown, Michael Buchanan and others. The run-stopping effort wasn't great, especially down the stretch, but Illinois shouldn't put the blame for its disappointing season on coordinator Vic Koenning and the defense.

SPECIAL TEAMS: D

Illinois had a rough year in the kicking game. The punt return team was painful to watch, and Illinois ranked last in the Big Ten in both punt returns and kick returns despite boasting some talented athletes. The coverage teams weren't great, either, and freshman punter Justin DuVernois endured some predictable growing pains. While kicker Derek Dimke had another nice year in limited work, his only missed field-goal attempt proved costly against Penn State, a game where Illinois' special-teams woes stuck out.

OVERALL: D+

Illinois had a golden opportunity for a breakthrough season and seemed well on its way to taking advantage of the situation with a 6-0 start, its best since 1951. The Illini had a playmaking defense led by a superstar in Mercilus and an offense with the potential to rack up big chunks of yards. It's stunning how dramatically things fell apart. As Mercilus recently told me, "A lot of guys were like, 'Wow, can't believe this really happened.'" The collapse meant the end for coach Ron Zook, and Illinois will try to bounce back under new boss Tim Beckman following the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

Other report cards

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

November, 21, 2011
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Saw you so much clearer, once you were in my rear-view mirror.

Team of the week: Michigan. The Wolverines flexed their muscles and blew out Nebraska 45-17 in their best performance and arguably biggest win of the season. Michigan is now the Big Ten's best hope for an at-large BCS bid. Michigan State sure liked what happened in Ann Arbor this week, too.

Game of the week: Penn State 20, Ohio State 14. Ultimately, this game had no bearing on the Big Ten title race, but try telling these two teams that. In a week without many thrillers, the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes played an old-school, physical game that featured no second-half points but plenty of hold-your-breath moments. Given the backdrop of what Penn State had been dealing with back home, it was far from meaningless.

[+] EnlargeJustin DuVernois
Bradley Leeb/US PresswireIllini punter Justin DuVernois is tackled by Wisconsin's Conor O'Neill after a game-changing fumbled snap Saturday.
Biggest play: Illinois led Wisconsin 14-0 in the second quarter when punter Justin Duvernois dropped the ball after catching the snap. The Badgers' Conor O'Neill tackled him at the 2-yard line to set up a Montee Ball touchdown run and finally give Wisconsin some momentum. Who knows how the game would have unfolded differently had the Illini taken a 17-0 lead into half instead of 17-7. And for a team that had special-teams breakdowns in losses to Michigan State and Ohio State, it was good for Wisconsin to get one back in the kicking game.

Best call: Lions turning into Wildcats. Interim coach Tom Bradley and his staff decided to use Curtis Drake and Bill Belton in the Wildcat formation against Ohio State, something Penn State hadn't shown much of all season. By the time the Buckeyes adjusted to it, Penn State had piled up 254 yards and 20 points in the first half. The defense did the rest in the second half. Question: Would the Nittany Lions have used that kind of creativity if Joe Paterno was still the head coach?

Toughest call: Robert Marve's touchdown-no-fumble near the end of the Purdue-Iowa game. The Boilers quarterback scrambled and dived for the end zone with 1:27 left in the game, losing the ball just as he hit the pylon. The officials on the field ruled it a touchdown, which would have cut the lead to 31-27 with an extra point giving Purdue a chance to get within a field goal. But after a review, the play was ruled a lost fumble in the end zone, which gave the ball to Iowa and basically ended the game.

Boilermakers coach Danny Hope brought a still picture of the play to his Sunday media briefing, saying it showed Marve's hand hitting the pylon and the ball out of bounds. Other angles and replays seemed to validate the replay officials' ruling. You can watch the video of it here at the 1:40 mark. Either way, Purdue simply made too many mistakes in the game to be whining about one call, no matter how crucial it was.

Big Men on Campus (Offense): Wisconsin's Ball and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. Ball had career highs in rushes (38) and yards (224) and scored three more touchdowns, becoming just the fifth player in FBS history to reach 30 touchdowns in a season. Robinson bounced back from a couple of rough outings to account for four touchdowns and 263 total yards of offense against Nebraska. He has now won six Big Ten player of the week honors, third-most in league history.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland. The sophomore made a career-high 16 tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles against Illinois. His second forced fumble gave the Badgers a short field to set up their second touchdown, and he helped lead a defensive effort that shut out the Illini in the second half and forced four turnovers. A special shout out also goes to Northwestern's Brian Peters, who forced and recovered a fumble and made an interception despite wearing a cast on one arm against Minnesota.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Penn State's Anthony Fera. He made a 43-yard field goal and a 46-yarder at the end of the first half to account for the margin of victory in the Nittany Lions' 20-14 win against Ohio State. He also had three punts downed inside the 20-yard line, including one on the 3-yard line. How good has Fera been this season? This is third Big Ten weekly honor of the season.

Strangest moment: It's not often you see an offensive guard taking a handoff and running a sweep. But Michigan State's Joel Foreman did just that on Saturday in a nice gesture from Mark Dantonio.

The Spartans were up 48-3 on Indiana when Foreman lined up at tight end and came around the left side for a three-yard gain. Dantonio said he thought of the idea in practice Thursday as a way to honor Foreman, a fifth-year senior who has started 46 career games at left guard.

"That was for every big guy out there who ever wanted to run the ball," Foreman told reporters. "I'm averaging three yards a carry, broken tackle. I think that's more than [quarterback] Kirk [Cousins] has, so I'm doing all right."

It was a particularly appropriate way to end the home season for Foreman, who let cancer survivor Arthur Ray Jr. begin the game in his place in the season opener despite his consecutive starts streak. After Foreman's run, he jogged to midfield with the ball under his arm, saluted and then came out of the game. Ray was one of the first players to greet him.

"He got the game ball for that," Dantonio said of Foreman. "He took it, as a matter of fact."

Halftime: Illinois 17, Wisconsin 7

November, 19, 2011
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Illinois is playing inspired football, and Penn State is loving every minute of it.

An Illinois upset of Wisconsin in Champaign would give Penn State the chance to clinch the Leaders division later today against Ohio State in Columbus. The Illini are halfway there after an impressive first 30 minutes. Embattled Illinois coach Ron Zook promised changes, and his team has looked different today.

After failing to score a single point in the first half of its past four games, all losses, the Illini twice reached the end zone behind a resurgent offense. Coordinator Paul Petrino moved from the press box to the field, and he's pulling the right strings as Illinois racked up 224 yards and 15 first downs in the half to just five for Wisconsin. Petrino has used two quarterbacks (Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole), and both have had tremendous success, combining to complete 17 of 19 passes for 113 yards. Freshman Donovonn Young has two touchdown runs for the Illini.

Illinois could have had more points late in the half but an offensive pass interference penalty negated a touchdown.

Wisconsin knows a thing or two about special teams miscues in big games, but the Badgers benefited from one late in the first half after stuffing Illinois deep in its own territory. Punter Justin DuVernois fumbled a snap, essentially handing Wisconsin a touchdown, which Montee Ball converted from 1-yard out. Ball's score gives the Badgers a bit of a boost heading into the break, while Illinois' kicking-game struggles continue.

For the most part, Wisconsin looked like a different team. Russell Wilson committed an uncharacteristic turnover in Illinois and the Badgers haven't established any sort of rhythm on offense. They have only five first downs, 99 total yards and have converted just 1 of 4 third-down opportunities. Wisconsin has held the ball for just 12:14 and hasn't generated any consistent run game. Whether they miss center Peter Konz or simply can't crank it up on the road like they do at home, it has been ugly for Bret Bielema's crew.

Fresh faces: Illinois

August, 24, 2011
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The fresh faces series resumes with the Illinois Fighting Illini. Here's a look at three true freshmen, redshirt freshmen, transfers or returning players likely to step into bigger roles this season.

OFFENSE: Donovonn Young, RB, freshman, 6-0, 215

Young and classmate Josh Ferguson have generated plenty of buzz during preseason practice. Not only have they pushed No. 1 back Jason Ford, but they've put themselves in position to rack up carries this fall. Young could be the total package of size, speed and power. Coach Ron Zook joked that it's too early to start the Heisman campaign, but Young impressed everyone who watched the recent workouts in Rantoul, Ill. The Illini will use multiple backs and he'll spell Ford at times this fall. Need another reason to like Young? His jersey number -- 5. The last two Illini players to wear it: star running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Mikel Leshoure.

DEFENSE: Ralph Cooper, LB, freshman, 6-1, 230

There's an opportunity for young linebackers like Cooper, as Illinois must replace two players -- Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey -- selected in April's NFL draft. Ian Thomas will be the starter at middle linebacker, but Cooper has looked good during camp and will be part of the rotation in the defensive midsection. He boasts good size and speed and should help Illinois stuff the run. The Illini had the Big Ten's No. 4 rushing defense in 2010, but must replace three NFL draft picks.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Justin Duvernois, P, freshman, 6-1, 190

Illinois loses first-team All-Big Ten selection Anthony Santella and will turn to Duvernois, who has a big leg and hails from one of the nation's top high school programs (St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida). Duvernois became the top option after Matt Eller left the team. Consistency will be a focal point for Duvernois, but he has the ability to be successful at this level.

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