Big Ten: Lance Kendricks

When you think Big Ten football, what usually comes to mind is big, corn-fed Midwestern players and bruising offenses. The kind of place that would be perfect for a tight end.

But the 2011 season was a little lackluster for that position in the league, at least as far as the passing game goes. Sure, Northwestern's Drake Dunsmore and Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen were Mackey Award semifinalists, but those two and Michigan State's Brian Linthicum were the only two tight ends in the conference to record more than 25 catches. Some guys we expected to have big years, like Nebraska's Kyler Reed, Minnesota's Eric Lair and Indiana's Ted Bolser, were nearly invisible on the stat sheet. And there was certainly no one who rose the level of recent Big Ten stars like Dallas Clark, Matt Spaeth, Travis Beckum, Lance Kendricks or Dustin Keller.

[+] EnlargeJacob Pedersen
AP Photo/Matt SaylesJacob Pedersen led the Big Ten's tight ends with eight touchdown catches last season.
Dunsmore, who won the league's inaugural Kwalick-Clark tight end of the year award, and Linthicum have both graduated. Yet 2012 is shaping up as a potentially big season for tight ends across the league.

Some of it has to do with changing offenses and playcallers who love utilizing the tight end. Urban Meyer made a star out of Aaron Hernandez at Florida and could do the same with Jake Stoneburner, who started off blazing hot last year before the Ohio State offense forgot about him. With the Buckeyes searching for playmakers, expect Stoneburner to be utilized heavily in 2012.

"Seeing Hernandez make all those plays makes someone like me pretty happy," Stoneburner told Adam Rittenberg last month. "It's something I've been waiting for since I graduated high school, being able to go out there knowing you're going to get the opportunity to get the ball more than once or twice a game. "

Bill O'Brien coached Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski as offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, which featured the tight end as much as anybody in football. Now O'Brien is at Penn State, where tight ends have mostly been an afterthought. That will change quickly.

"That’s a very important part of what we’re going to do offensively,” O’Brien told reporters in March. “Obviously, the last two years in New England taught me a lot about the use of a tight end, multiple tight ends.”

At Iowa, new offensive coordinator Greg Davis is raving about sophomore C.J. Fiedorowicz, a 6-foot-7, 265-pounder who began to emerge late last season as a weapon. With an uncertain running game and an excellent passer in quarterback James Vandenberg, Fiedorowicz could follow in the footsteps of Clark and Tony Moeaki as breakout Hawkeyes tight ends. Coincidentally, Iowa's new offensive line coach is Brian Ferentz, who coached the tight ends with the Patriots last year.

“You’ll see the tight ends playing outside sometimes,” Davis told the Des Moines Register during spring practice. “Used to seeing them in motion, but there will be motion in wide receiver sets in some situations because they’re tough match-ups.”

Wisconsin returns one of the best tight ends in the country in Pedersen, who had led Big Ten tight ends with eight touchdown catches a year ago. Bret Bielema is also excited about the depth at the position, with veterans Brian Wozniak and Sam Arneson, redshirt freshmen Austin Traylor and Austin Maly and Pittsburgh transfer Brock DeCicco. Given the inexperience at receiver outside of Jared Abbrederis, the Badgers could look to throw to their tight ends even more this season.

Indiana's Bolser had only 14 catches last year, but he was one of the stars of the spring for the Hoosiers. An improved passing game should help him become more of a factor. Purdue likes the depth it has at tight end, led by Gabe Holmes and Crosby Wright.

“A year ago it was one of the leanest positions on our football team," Boilers coach Danny Hope told reporters in the spring, "and now I think going into the season that the tight end position is going to be one of our strengths.”

Reed's numbers dropped last year, but he still led Nebraska with an average of 17.1 yards per catch. He and fellow senior Ben Cotton form a nice tandem of targets for Taylor Martinez. Michigan State must replace Linthicum but is optimistic about 6-foot-5, 280-pound Dion Sims, who practiced this spring with a cast on his hand. Sims could provide a safety valve for new quarterback Andrew Maxwell early on as the Spartans break in some green receivers.

Minnesota's Moses Alipate will at least be a curiosity as a former quarterback who grew to 290 pounds. Michigan needs Brandon Moore or someone else to step in for Kevin Koger, while Illinois' Jon Davis could have a different role in the team's new spread offense after a promising freshman campaign. Whoever replaces Dunsmore for Northwestern should get a lot of touches.

Tight ends could play an important part of many Big Ten teams' attacks this fall. Just as it should be.
MADISON, Wis. -- Just thinking about all the talent Wisconsin has lost in the past two years can be a little daunting.

The Badgers saw four first- or second-team All-Americans leave after the 2010 season (Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt, Lance Kendricks and J.J. Watt) and two more depart after last season (Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler), along with their NCAA record-breaking transfer quarterback (Russell Wilson). Many programs would expect a dip after having so much star power leave town, but Bret Bielema is feeling fine.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Jeff Gross/Getty Images"Of the last 66 kids we signed, 64 of them are still on campus ... " Bielema said.
"I used to freak out when we lost players, too," Bielema said. "But we do a good job of just developing. We always talk about being a developmental program, and I think it truly is that type of program now."

Wisconsin's ability to keep reloading will be put to the test in 2012. The team returns just 11 starters from last year's Big Ten champions, and six assistant coaches -- including almost all of the offensive brain trust -- left for other jobs in the offseason. Yet many still predict the Badgers will repeat as Leaders Division champs.

They will need new starters to emerge at receiver, on the right side of the offensive line, on the defensive line, in the secondary and of course at quarterback, where Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien could plug the hole. But O'Brien is the exception, as Wisconsin usually just brings along the next man on the depth chart.

"There are All-Americans sitting behind All-Americans, especially at spots like offensive line and running back," linebacker Chris Borland said. "Like last year, having lost Moffitt and Carimi, and then our line was arguably better. I think it speaks more to the development than it does to the players."

Madison might well be the world's leading producer of offensive linemen, and the running back tradition is just as strong. But other positions are becoming known for their string of successes as well, including tight end and safety. In each of the past two years, Wisconsin has lost an all-conference safety -- Jay Valai in 2010 and Aaron Henry in 2011. But Bielema says this year's pair of starters, Dezmen Southward and Shelton Johnson, might be his best duo yet.

"A guy might not be good enough to play right away, but a lot of times he'll develop for a year and come on the scene when a guy leaves or gets injured," said Jared Abbrederis, who's gone from former walk-on to one of the league's best wideouts. "That's kind of how it goes around here."

What's most impressive about the Badgers' recent run is that they've done it without many high-profile recruits. Bielema mostly signs three-star types and rarely brings in the true blue-chipper that gets scouting services drooling. Even though the program's exposure has increased of late, he still has little interest in trying to recruit much outside of a few key areas.

"We do what we can with what we've got," Bielema said. "I don't think we want more national recruits. A lot of times, those guys come with some issues you don't want to deal with. I take a lot of pride with the way our guys go about their business and handle themselves."

Player development is going to be key for Wisconsin's immediate future, because a cavalry of help isn't coming. The team signed only 12 players in February and expects to bring in an even smaller class next year. The reason? So few players have left before their eligibility ended.

"A lot of places sign 24 or 25 kids every year, so something is happening to those kids," Bielema said. "Of the last 66 kids we signed, 64 of them are still on campus, which is an unheard of number."

Last year's Rose Bowl team had only 24 juniors and seniors, and the rest were underclassmen. If those youngsters develop the way their predecessors have, then the Badgers will have a deep and experienced team soon. In fact, when O'Brien -- who has two years of eligibility remaining -- came on his visit, Bielema told him, "I think we'll be really good this year. But next year, on paper, might be the best team I've ever had."

That's a big statement, given how much talent -- both players and coaches -- has exited Madison in the past two years. But Wisconsin is confident in its ability to reload from within.

"We realize we're a developmental program," athletic director Barry Alvarez said. "We don't have the access to a lot of five-star guys. We might have a Joe Thomas coming out of the state or get a Ron Dayne because of his ties to the area. But for the most part, we develop players. And I think we have the right formula."

Fresh faces: Wisconsin

August, 3, 2011
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Our look at three fresh faces to watch for each Big Ten team this season continues with the Wisconsin Badgers. Wisconsin has produced the past two Big Ten Freshmen of the Year (RB James White in 2010, LB Chris Borland in 2009).

These players are freshmen, redshirt freshmen, transfers or upperclassmen ready to move into much bigger roles this season.

OFFENSE: Manasseh Garner, TE/WR, sophomore, 6-2, 210

Wisconsin needs more pass-catching options to help its new starting quarterback, and Garner should see an increased role this fall. The Badgers love to feature their tight ends as receivers, and Garner has the speed and athleticism to get open in the middle of the field. He played mostly on special teams as a true freshman but had a nice spring and fits the tight end-wide receiver hybrid mold, much like former All-Big Ten standout Lance Kendricks. Garner had four receptions for 57 yards in the spring game.

DEFENSE: Marcus Trotter, LB, redshirt freshman, 6-0, 235

Injuries to top middle linebackers Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong allowed Trotter to play with the first-team defense this spring. Trotter capitalized on the opportunity, impressing the coaches with his play and increasing his chances of seeing the field this season. He had five tackles and a forced fumble in the spring game and boasts a knack for being around the ball. Trotter provides some insurance in case Borland's shoulder issues crop up again.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Kenzel Doe, WR, freshman, 5-8, 170

Wisconsin hopes Doe can step in following the departure of longtime return man David Gilreath. Doe enrolled early and had an impressive spring, drawing comparisons to Gilreath and showing good leaping ability to counter his size. The coaches will give him immediate opportunities on returns as Wisconsin tries to remain among the Big Ten leaders.

More Fresh Faces
Earlier today, Brian ranked the groups of wide receivers and tight ends in the Big Ten. Now it's time to look at the individuals. We'll break these into two sections: wide receivers are below, and tight ends will be posted Thursday.

The Big Ten is loaded with No. 1 receivers, so sorting them out for this list wasn't easy. Unlike the running backs or quarterbacks, there isn't a huge gap between No. 1 and No. 10 in the wide receiver rankings. And since many of the league's top wideouts have strong track records, these rankings lean heavily on past performance and also consider potential for 2011.

There are quite a few good receivers who don't appear on this list.

Here are the top 10:

[+] EnlargeJeremy Ebert
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastJeremy Ebert is Dan Persa's favorite target; Ebert caught three TD passes last week in Persa's return to the lineup.
1. Jeremy Ebert, Northwestern, senior: Ebert is as solid as they come, having earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media in 2010. He led the league in receiving yards (953) as a junior and showed the ability to stretch the field, averaging 15.4 yards a catch. Ebert hauled in eight touchdowns as quarterback Dan Persa's top target. He headlines one of the league's deepest receiver groups this fall.

2. Derek Moye, Penn State, senior: It took a while for Penn State's offense to get on track last season, but Moye made the most of somewhat limited opportunities. He had 53 receptions but averaged 16.7 yards per catch with eight touchdowns and 68.1 receiving yards per game. The 6-foot-5 Moye can stretch the field and out-jump opposing defenders. If Penn State's quarterbacks indeed take the next step in their development, Moye will have a very big senior season.

3. Marvin McNutt, Iowa, senior: After starting his college career as a quarterback, McNutt has found his natural position at receiver. He averaged 16.2 yards per reception and scored eight touchdowns in 2010, and he could have an even bigger year as Iowa's clear-cut No. 1 option in the passing game. Boasting size, speed and athleticism, McNutt is on the NFL radar and could emerge as the league's top pro prospect and receiver following the 2011 season.

4. Roy Roundtree, Michigan, junior: Roundtree definitely has the potential to move up this list if he can build on a solid 2010 season (72 catches, 935 receiving yards, seven TDs). His big challenge is eliminating drops that plagued him at times last fall. Michigan's new offensive scheme could mean even bigger things for the receivers, and if Darryl Stonum remains suspended, Roundtree might take on a bigger role in the offense. He boasts big-play ability and ended the 2010 season with several good performances.

5. Damarlo Belcher, Indiana, senior: Some folks might forget that Belcher led the Big Ten in receptions (78), recording six or more catches in eight of 12 games. He needs to find the end zone more after scoring only four touchdowns in 2010, but he's one of the league's most experienced receivers on a team loaded with talent at the position. Belcher slimmed down a bit this winter, which should help his speed and durability. Look for Indiana's new quarterback to look for No. 88 a lot this fall.

6. Da'Jon McKnight, Minnesota, senior: Like several players on this list, McKnight has a chance to put himself on the NFL draft radar with a strong senior season. He finished tied for second in the Big Ten in touchdown receptions with 10 last season and averaged 15.6 yards per catch. After splitting catches with MarQueis Gray in 2010, McKnight now will be receiving passes from Gray, the Gophers' projected starter at quarterback. Minnesota lacks much proven depth at receiver, so Gray will be looking for McKnight quite a bit.

7. B.J. Cunningham, Michigan State, senior: Cunningham has been somewhat overlooked during his career, but things should change this fall. Expect the senior to build on his 2010 performance (50 receptions, 611 receiving yards, nine TDs) as he moves into a No. 1 role following Mark Dell's departure. Cunningham has good size (6-2, 223) and will be entering his fourth season as the starter. He's got plenty of help at receiver with Keshawn Martin, Keith Nichol and Bennie Fowler.

8. DeVier Posey, Ohio State, senior: Of the four Ohio State players suspended for the first five games, Posey might be missed the most. He has started the past two seasons and represents the only proven wide receiver on the 2011 roster. Although Posey didn't turn in a breakout year in 2010 like many had expected, he still put up some good numbers (53 catches, 848 receiving yards, eight TDs). The pro potential is there, and he can help himself with a more consistent year. His early-season absence creates opportunities for other receivers to emerge, but he'll almost certainly reclaim the No. 1 receiver spot upon his return.

9. Nick Toon, Wisconsin, senior: Toon had a bit of a disappointing season in 2010, as he dealt with injuries and some inconsistent play. But I expect him to bounce back and reclaim the form he showed in 2009, when he had 54 receptions and 805 receiving yards. As Lance Kendricks departs, Toon becomes the No. 1 option in Wisconsin's passing game. He could play a big role in easing the transition for the Badgers' new starting quarterback.

10. A.J. Jenkins, Illinois, senior: After nearly leaving the program in December 2009, Jenkins reaffirmed his commitment to the Illini and turned in a solid junior season. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is making strides as a passer and Jenkins should benefit after recording 56 receptions for 746 yards and seven touchdowns in 2010. Illinois is looking for greater depth at receiver, but Jenkins provides a good No. 1 option.

Others to watch: Nebraska's Brandon Kinnie, Michigan State's Keshawn Martin, Purdue's Justin Siller and Antavian Edison, Michigan's Junior Hemingway and Darryl Stonum (if suspension lifted), Indiana's Duwyce Wilson and Kofi Hughes.

Big Ten NFL draft wrap-up

May, 2, 2011
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The 2011 NFL draft is in the books, and it's time to take a look back at how the Big Ten fared in the selections. In case you missed it, check out my breakdown of the six Big Ten players who heard their names called in the first round.

All in all, 29 Big Ten players were drafted this year. New Big Ten member Nebraska had seven selections.

Let's start off with a rundown of the picks. I'll have some quick thoughts after each round.

[+] EnlargeJ.J. Watt
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireWisconsin defensive lineman J.J. Watt was the first Big Ten player selected in the NFL draft this year.
First round

Quick thoughts: The Big Ten had its largest first-round output since 2007, and several players look like good fits for their teams. Chicago had to be thrilled Carimi was still available, and San Diego felt the same about Liuget, projected by many as a top-15 pick. Kerrigan likely needs to contribute immediately for the Redskins, while Clayborn and Heyward enter situations where they can ease into the transition.

Second round

Quick thoughts: Mouton's selection was a surprise for many folks, but it's a testament to a good player who impressed the scouts despite playing for a lousy defense in 2010. Wisniewski enters a good fit in Oakland, where his uncle, Steve, is an assistant offensive line coach. I really like Leshoure in Detroit, where he'll enter a competitive situation at running back.

Third round

Quick thoughts: Wilson, who entered the draft after his junior season, might have been a bit disappointed to fall to the third round. But he enters a good situation in New Orleans and should have some time to develop.

Fourth round
Quick thoughts: Ballard reportedly tested positive for marijuana use and likely paid a price as he dropped down at least a round. Still, the Iowa standout should help the Vikings early in his career. I really like the Doss fit in Baltimore, which can use more playmakers at receiver. It'll be interesting to see how quickly Chekwa sees the field in Oakland.

Fifth round
Quick thoughts: What a round for the Iowa Hawkeyes. Although Stanzi waited a little longer than expected, he joins a team in Kansas City that has a lot of connections to the New England Patriots, the squad many thought would draft the Iowa quarterback. Klug is a solid player who can play either line position. I'll be interested to see how he fares with the Titans.

Sixth round

  • Penn State RB Evan Royster, Washington, No. 177 overall
  • Michigan State LB Greg Jones, New York Giants, No. 185 overall
  • Michigan State CB Chris L. Rucker, Indianapolis, No. 188 overall
  • Ohio State LB Brian Rolle, Philadelphia, No. 193 overall
  • Iowa S Tyler Sash, New York Giants, No. 198 overall
  • Ohio State LB Ross Homan, Minnesota, No. 200 overall
  • Michigan G Stephen Schilling, San Diego, No. 201 overall
Quick thoughts: This marked the Big Ten's biggest round as seven players heard their names called. Jones, the former Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, went a little later than expected, and Sash also dropped down a bit after entering the draft after his junior season. Homan, who missed some time last season with a foot injury, could end up being an excellent addition for the Vikings. Really like that pick.

Seventh round

  • Illinois LB Nate Bussey, New Orleans, No. 243 overall
  • Wisconsin G/C Bill Nagy, Dallas, No. 252 overall
Quick thoughts: While I was surprised several other Big Ten players didn't get drafted, both Bussey and Nagy are deserving. Both players played integral roles in their teams' success last fall, and both were overshadowed by other draftees (Liuget and Wilson for Bussey, Carimi and Moffitt for Nagy).

NEBRASKA'S DRAFTEES

Husker fans, I didn't forget you or your team. Nebraska actually had more draft picks (7) than any Big Ten team, and here they are.

  • CB Prince Amukamara, New York Giants, No. 19 overall (first round)
  • RB Roy Helu Jr., Washington, No. 104 overall (fourth round)
  • K Alex Henery, Philadelphia, No. 120 overall (fourth round)
  • DB Dejon Gomes, Washington, No. 146 overall (fifth round)
  • WR Niles Paul, Washington, No. 155 overall (fifth round)
  • OT Keith Williams, Pittsburgh, No. 196 overall (sixth round)
  • DB Eric Hagg, Cleveland, No. 248 overall (seventh round)
Quick thoughts: Think there might be a few "Husker Power!" chants at Redskins games this season? The Mike Shanahan-Bo Pelini connection likely played a role in the three Nebraska players heading to the nation's capital. Henery soon will succeed David Akers in Philadelphia, and the Giants had to thrilled that Amukamara still was on the board at No. 19.

Big Ten picks by team

  • Nebraska: 7 (players competed in the Big 12)
  • Iowa: 6
  • Ohio State: 5
  • Wisconsin: 5 (four picks in first three rounds)
  • Illinois: 4
  • Michigan State: 2
  • Indiana: 2
  • Michigan: 2
  • Penn State: 2
  • Purdue: 1
  • Northwestern: 0
  • Minnesota: 0
By position (excluding Nebraska)

  • DL: 7
  • OL: 7
  • LB: 6
  • DB: 4
  • RB: 2
  • WR: 1
  • TE: 1
  • QB: 1

Nebraska had three defensive backs, a running back, an offensive lineman, a wide receiver and a kicker drafted.

Draft snubs

Quite a few Big Ten players didn't hear their names called during the weekend, and they'll enter the shaky world of free agency. I was absolutely stunned no one drafted Ohio State's Dane Sanzenbacher. He was the Big Ten's top receiver last fall and brings a combination of football IQ and toughness that should appeal to football people not overly obsessed with measurables.

Wisconsin running back John Clay was the Big Ten's only non-senior who entered the draft but didn't get selected. Clay struggles with weight and his ankle problems might have contributed to him slipping through the draft.

Other Big Ten draft snubs include: Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien, Ohio State guard Justin Boren, Iowa tight end Allen Reisner and Purdue receiver Keith Smith. Nebraska's Pierre Allen and Ricky Henry also will go the free-agent route.
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin loves to describe its program as "not sexy," but the label is becoming less and less accurate.

After the Badgers made their first Rose Bowl appearance in 11 seasons, nine members of coach Bret Bielema's staff received inquiries from other teams. Defensive coordinator Dave Doeren landed the head-coaching job at Northern Illinois. Two assistants, John Settle and Greg Jackson, left for posts in the NFL. Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst turned down a lucrative coordinator offer from Texas to remain with his alma mater.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireCoach Bret Bielema leads a Wisconsin program that has churned out a lot of elite players in recent seasons.
The inquiries also are coming Wisconsin's way, as decorated recruits from "coast to coast" -- particularly running backs and offensive linemen, two position groups where the Badgers have flourished -- express interest in the program.

"They're getting recruited by heavy, heavy people in their area," Bielema said. "We haven't had that number of people respond from outside our area."

Wisconsin is pushing for a $76.8 million athletic performance center that would include new locker rooms and training facilities and an upgrade for the McClain Center, the team's indoor practice facility. Although Wisconsin has remained in the top half of the Big Ten on the field, it needs a boost with its facilities.

So, is Wisconsin bringing sexy back? Perhaps on the surface, but the program hasn't changed at its core.

"The only reason we're at the level we're at is because we maximize what we are," Bielema said. "Our staff, our players and our administration recognizes why we've had this success and not to deviate from that plan just because there might be better things out there.

"We're going to build this new facility, but bigger isn't always better. It's about the components and how functional it is and what it stands for."

The Wisconsin Way will be put to the test in 2011 as the Badgers lose more standout components than any other Big Ten squad. Gone are four All-Americans -- defensive end J.J. Watt, tight end Lance Kendricks and offensive linemen Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt -- the 2010 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm award winner in quarterback Scott Tolzien, the 2009 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in running back John Clay, and other key contributors.

Other than Ohio State, every Big Ten team has struggled to reload in recent years. Can the Badgers buck the trend in 2011?

"Here, we really have to develop our players where they're really good their last 2-3 years," co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said. "We feel like this is a developmental program, and we're proud of that."

No position group better demonstrates the philosophy than the defensive ends Partridge coaches.

In 2009, O'Brien Schofield went from anonymous to first-team All-Big Ten, finishing second nationally in tackles for loss (24.5) and tied for sixth in sacks. Watt began his career as a tight end at Central Michigan and finished it as one of the nation's best defenders. He's projected as a first-round pick in this week's NFL draft and could be the first Big Ten player selected.

There are other examples of Badger reloading. Wisconsin has produced at least one 1,000-yard rusher in each of the past six seasons. Carimi and his predecessor at left tackle, Joe Thomas, both won the Outland Trophy as seniors.

"People from the outside looking in, they've never heard of these names so they assume they're not any good," Bielema said. "We try to have people waiting in the wings. I remember when no one knew who Lance Kendricks was, or Gabe Carimi, or John Moffitt or Scott Tolzien or J.J. Watt. We were able to develop those guys, bring them through and the results were what you saw last year.

"It's our desire to have a championship every season, but sometimes you're not going to have the personnel to accomplish that. What you want to do is remain competitive, stay in the top level of our conference."

Bielema thinks Wisconsin has a chance to be just as good on defense.

Although Watt leaves a major void, the Badgers boast unprecedented depth at defensive tackle and more overall depth along the line. The secondary returns All-Big Ten cornerback Antonio Fenelus, playmaking safety Aaron Henry and others with experience. If linebacker Chris Borland stays healthy after missing most of 2010 with shoulder injuries, the midsection will be solid.

Leadership shouldn't be an issue as both Henry and defensive tackle Patrick Butrym are stepping forward.

"I'm sure a lot of people out there are counting us out," Henry said. "I could care less about flying under the radar. I just want guys to go out there every week and leave a statement, that we are Wisconsin football, we do play hard-nosed football and we're going to play every snap like its our last."

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireRunning back Montee Ball, 28, returns to a talented Wisconsin backfield along with speedy James White.
The bigger questions come on offense, starting with the most important position on the field. Jon Budmayr understudied for Tolzien in 2010 and, barring a major surprise, will move into the starting role. Budmayr, who had his ups and downs this spring, must not only display efficiency but remain healthy as there's no proven depth behind him.

Wisconsin once again will lean on a run game expected to be among the nation's best as backs Montee Ball and James White, the 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, both return. Although three starting linemen depart, the coaches are excited about who will fill the gaps.

"There's questions for any team, what they can and cannot do," Ball said. "That's why we keep grinding every day so we can show everybody what we're capable of doing."

At Wisconsin, there's no other way. The Badgers aren't a team that can simply show up and win, a fact reinforced last season.

"The thing we did best was we practiced so well during the week," Butrym said. "The one time we didn't practice well was [before the Michigan State game]. It was a Thursday and it was very sloppy and the end result of that was a loss."

Butrym admits the poor practice made him "a little paranoid" about sniffing out signs of complacency. So far, the attitude is good.

"We definitely have to earn it," Henry said. "Ohio State's still in the conference, we added Nebraska, Iowa's still in the conference. Guys know nothing's going to be handed to us."

Checking in on the Badgers ...

April, 19, 2011
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MADISON, Wis. -- Greetings from Madtown, where it feels more like late fall than late April. Snow and freezing rain are falling. Badger weather.

I'll be spending the day with coach Bret Bielema and the Badgers, who come off of their first Big Ten title and first Rose Bowl appearance in 11 seasons. Wisconsin came up short in Pasadena, a loss that likely still stings around here, but it's time to turn the page.

We'll find out a lot about the Wisconsin program this coming season. No Big Ten team loses more star players than the Badgers, who say goodbye to five All-Americans -- defensive end J.J. Watt, tight end Lance Kendricks, tackle Gabe Carimi, guard John Moffitt and running back John Clay -- in addition to quarterback Scott Tolzien and other standouts. While Wisconsin has proved it can mass-produce running backs and offensive linemen, the team must show it can continue making strides despite the lost production. Bielema and his staff have recruited well as of late, and their player development skills will be put to the test.

Here are some of the items I'll be tracking today:
  • Quarterback Jon Budmayr's spring progress. After backing up Tolzien last season, Budmayr seems to have the inside track for the starting job. Curt Phillips is coming off a second ACL surgery, and Joe Brennan has no game experience. Is Budmayr separating himself? If not, what does he need to improve?
  • Wisconsin wasn't a lock-down defense in 2010, but the Badgers became a big-play unit and no one made more plays than Watt. Chris Ash takes over as coordinator after upgrading the secondary in his first season with the Badgers. He's looking for contributors this spring. Wisconsin should be solid in the secondary with Aaron Henry, Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith, but it needs to replace two starting linebackers and Watt, of course. I've heard a lot about the Trotter twins (Michael and Marcus) this spring. How do they factor in the mix and who else is stepping up?
  • Like most teams, the Badgers have been at their best when they boast strong leaders. They lose quite a few from the 2010 team, and it'll be interesting to see who is answering the bell along both lines, at linebacker and at the quarterback spot.
  • Despite losing Clay and three starting offensive linemen, Wisconsin's run game should once again be scary good this fall. No Big Ten player improved more throughout the season than Montee Ball, and Wisconsin also returns reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year James White. Fifth-year senior Zach Brown also has re-entered the mix. It'll be good to check in with the backs and see how they're doing this spring.

More to come from Badger country. Stay tuned.
There's little doubt that the first Big Ten player drafted in April will be a defensive lineman.

(Not including Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara, who played his entire career in the Big 12.)

Who will hear his name called first? Wisconsin's J.J. Watt? Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan? Illinois' Corey Liuget? Iowa's Adrian Clayborn? Ohio State's Cameron Heyward?

I'll have more on the hopefuls as we get closer to draft night, but colleagues Todd McShay and Mel Kiper are always dissecting the draft and have come out with their latest three-round mock selections.

Here's McShay's mock draft and where the Big Ten players fall:

First round
  • Illinois DT Corey Liuget, No. 14 overall to St. Louis
  • Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan, No. 16 overall to Jacksonville
  • Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt, No. 17 overall to New England
  • Wisconsin T Gabe Carimi, No. 21 overall to Kansas City
  • Iowa DE Adrian Clayborn, No. 24 overall to New Orleans
  • Ohio State DE Cameron Heyward, No. 32 overall to Green Bay
Second round
Third round

Here's a look at Kiper's mock draft and where the Big Ten prospects fall:

First round
  • Watt, No. 10 overall to Washington
  • Liuget, No. 14 overall to St. Louis
  • Kerrigan, No. 20 overall to Tampa Bay
  • Carimi, No. 23 overall to Philadelphia
  • Clayborn, No. 27 overall to Atlanta
  • Heyward, No. 30 overall to New York Jets
Second round
  • Wilson, No. 34 overall to Buffalo
  • Leshoure, No. 53 overall to Indianapolis
  • Doss, No. 64 overall to Green Bay
Third round
  • Ballard, No. 67 overall to Denver
  • Kendricks, No. 68 overall to Buffalo
  • Moffitt, No. 77 overall to Tennessee
  • Ohio State CB Chimdi Chekwa, No. 81 overall to Oakland
  • Ohio State LB Ross Homan, No. 85 overall to Philadelphia
  • Penn State G Stefen Wisniewski, No. 93 to Chicago

Some interesting stuff here. Both McShay and Kiper think the Colts' Big Ten pipeline will continue, and both also like Buffalo to draft Big Ten players. Kiper includes three players McShay leaves out -- Chekwa, Homan and Wisniewski -- while McShay includes one player (Brewer) who Kiper leaves out. It also stands out how teams like Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin have more high-level draft prospects this year than Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska.

Amukamara is the only Nebraska player included in both mock drafts. Both McShay and Kiper have Amukamara going 13th overall to Detroit, where he'll reunite with former Huskers' teammate Ndamukong Suh.
The spring superlatives series, which examines the strongest and weakest positions for each Big Ten team this spring, continues with the Wisconsin Badgers.

Strongest position: Running back
  • Key returnees: Montee Ball (163 carries, 996 rush yards, 18 TDs, 16 receptions, 128 receiving yards); James White (156 carries, 1,052 rush yards, 14 TDs, 11 receptions, 88 receiving yards)
  • Key losses: John Clay (187 carries, 1,012 rush yards, 14 TDs)
  • The skinny: It's a close call between running back and offensive line, which will remain very good despite the losses of two All-Americans (Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt). But the Badgers have two running backs who would start for any Big Ten team, a luxury that should help as they go through a transition at quarterback in 2011. White provided a new element to Wisconsin's rushing attack and should only get better as he gets older and stronger. Few players in the country had a stronger second half in 2010 than Ball, who slimmed down in the offseason and should be dynamic this season. Clay's power will be missed at times, but Ball and White are more than capable of carrying the load in 2011.
Weakest position: Pass catcher (WR or TE)

  • Key returnees: WR Nick Toon (36 catches, 459 yards, 3 TDs); WR Jared Abbrederis (20 catches, 289 yards, 3 TDs); TE Jacob Pedersen (8 catches, 132 yards, 2 TDs)
  • Key losses: TE Lance Kendricks (43 catches, 663 yards, 5 TDs); WR Isaac Anderson (24 catches, 233 yards); WR David Gilreath (23 catches, 370 yards, 1 TD)
  • The skinny: Wisconsin really needs a big senior season from Toon, who had injury issues and saw his numbers drop in 2010. If Toon doesn't surge, the Badgers could have some problems in the passing game as a new starting quarterback takes over. Abbrederis is a nice player who should see his role increase, but the Badgers likely will need another receiver or two to emerge this spring or in the fall. They can't assume Pedersen will become the next Kendricks, a major threat to defenses as a pass-catching tight end. Unlike spread teams, Wisconsin doesn't need five or six options in the pass game, just two or three good ones. While there's potential here, this group has a lot to prove.

Big Ten lunch links

March, 17, 2011
3/17/11
12:00
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Happy St. Patrick's Day (and start of NCAA tournament day)! It's great to be back at work.

Big Ten weekend combine recap

February, 28, 2011
2/28/11
9:00
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All eyes were on Indianapolis this weekend as dozens of NFL prospects, including a large contingent from the Big Ten, went through the scouting combine.

My ESPN colleagues are all over the happenings in Naptown, so check out the combine blog and the latest Scouts Inc. combine notebook.

There's more testing and timing Monday with the defensive linemen and linebackers, but some results are in, so let's take a look. I'm breaking these down into top performers by position. I'll put together an overall top performers post once the combine is finished.

Wide receivers

  • Nebraska's Niles Paul finished second in bench-press reps (225 pounds) with 24
  • Paul tied for 14th in the 40-yard dash at 4.51 seconds
  • Indiana's Terrance Turner tied for second in vertical jump at 41 inches
  • Turner finished seventh in broad jump at 10 feet, 8 inches
  • Ohio State's Dane Sanzenbacher finished second in 3-cone drill at 6.46 seconds; Turner tied for 14th at 6.77 seconds
  • Sanzenbacher finished third in the 20-yard shuttle at 3.97 seconds; Paul finished 12th at 4.14 seconds; Turner finished tied for 13th at 4.15 seconds
  • Sanzenbacher finished second in the 60-yard shuttle at 10.94 seconds; Turner tied for ninth at 11.21 seconds
Quarterbacks
  • Iowa's Ricky Stanzi and Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien tied for 13th in the 40-yard dash at 4.93 seconds
  • Stanzi finished ninth in the vertical jump at 32.5 inches; Tolzien tied for 12th at 29.5 inches
  • Tolzien tied for seventh in the broad jump at 9 feet, 8 inches; Stanzi finished 12th at 9 feet, 2 inches
  • Tolzien tied for third in the 3-cone drill at 6.84 seconds; Stanzi finished 12th at 6.95 seconds
Running backs
  • Nebraska's Roy Helu Jr. finished sixth in the 40-yard dash at 4.42 seconds; Ohio State's Brandon Saine finished seventh at 4.43 seconds;
  • Illinois' Mikel Leshoure tied for third in the vertical jump at 38 inches; Helu tied for eighth at 36.5 inches
  • Leshoure tied for fourth in the broad jump at 10 feet, 2 inches; Helu finished 10th at 9 feet, 11 inches
  • Helu finished second in the 3-cone drill at 6.67 seconds; Leshoure finished sixth at 6.82 seconds
  • Helu finished first in the 20-yard shuttle at 4.01 seconds; Penn State's Evan Royster tied for eighth at 4.18 seconds
  • Helu finished first in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.07 seconds
Tight ends
  • Wisconsin's Lance Kendricks finished eighth in the 40-yard dash at 4.75 seconds; Michigan State's Charlie Gantt finished 11th at 4.93 seconds; Iowa's Allen Reisner finished 12th at 4.95 seconds
  • Gantt tied for first in bench-press reps with 27; Kendricks tied for third with 25
  • Kendricks finished sixth in vertical jump at 34.5 inches; Gantt finished 13th at 30.5 inches
  • Kendricks finished second in broad jump at 10 feet, 2 inches; Gantt finished ninth at 9 feet, 4 inches; Reisner tied for 12th at 9 feet
  • Kendricks finished sixth in the 3-cone drill at 6.94 seconds; Gantt finished 11th at 7.15 seconds
  • Kendricks tied for second in 20-yard shuttle at 4.15 seconds; Gantt tied for eighth at 4.4 seconds
  • Kendricks tied for sixth in 60-yard shuttle at 11.9 seconds; Gantt and Reisner tied for 11th at 12.12 seconds
Defensive linemen
  • Wisconsin's J.J. Watt tied for fourth in bench-press reps with 34; Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan tied for sixth with 31
Linebackers
  • Ohio State linebacker Ross Homan finished first in bench-press reps with 32; Ohio State's Brian Rolle finished fourth with 28; Illinois' Martez Wilson tied for ninth with 23
Offensive linemen
  • Iowa's Julian Vandervelde tied for 10th in the 40-yard dash at 5.21 seconds; Indiana's James Brewer and Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi tied for 14th at 5.27 seconds
  • Michigan's Stephen Schilling and Penn State's Stefen Wisniewski tied for sixth in bench-press reps with 30; Carimi tied for ninth with 29; Ohio State's Justin Boren tied for 14th with 28
  • Carimi finished fifth in vertical jump at 31.5 inches; Vandervelde tied for sixth at 31 inches; Wisconsin's John Moffitt tied for eighth at 30.5 inches
  • Carimi finished fifth in broad jump at 9 feet, 1 inch; Vandervelde finished tied for 13th at 8 feet, 8 inches
  • Vandervelde finished seventh in 3-cone drill at 7.46 seconds; Wisniewski finished eighth at 7.51 seconds; Boren finished 11th at 7.57 seconds
  • Moffitt finished sixth in 20-yard shuttle at 4.53 seconds; Vandervelde tied for seventh at 4.59 seconds; Schilling tied for ninth at 4.62 seconds;

Big Ten Senior Bowl wrap-up

January, 31, 2011
1/31/11
10:28
AM ET
The Big Ten all-stars at the Senior Bowl didn't come away with a win Saturday -- the South squad beat the North 24-10 -- but several players helped their stock for the 2011 NFL draft.

Let's take a quick look back at the game.

STATISTICS
  • Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi completed 7 of 12 passes 87 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions
  • Ohio State WR Dane Sanzenbacher, a late addition to the North roster, led the squad with five receptions for 62 yards
  • Wisconsin TE Lance Kendricks added three receptions for 39 yards
  • Michigan State LB Greg Jones recorded seven tackles (4 solo)
  • Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan had a big day with three tackles for loss, a sack and five total tackles
  • Ohio State LB Ross Homan recorded three tackles
  • Iowa DE Christian Ballard had two tackles
  • The North squad featured three Big Ten offensive linemen in starting lineup: Michigan G Stephen Schilling, Wisconsin C John Moffitt and Indiana T James Brewer. Wisconsin T Gabe Carimi missed the game after sustaining an ankle injury in Thursday's practice.

Here's what the Scouts Inc. crew had to say about the Big Ten players:

Ricky Stanzi: "He has made three great throws on a fourth-quarter drive. The first throw, to WR Vincent Brown, had great timing and accuracy. His second throw was drilled into a tight window to TE Lance Kendricks. And his third throw had excellent timing and was a very catchable ball on a seam route by Brown. He completed six of his first nine throws."

Ryan Kerrigan: "An instinctive and tough player. He shows a quick first step and a wide variety of pass rushing moves. He may not be an explosive or gifted athlete, but he sets up blockers well and brings it play in and play out. He's had a good week and is making an impact in this game."

Greg Jones: "Jones' missed tackle on Tulsa RB Charles Clay showed his limitations and the concerns we have about him in the open field. He needs to do a better job of breaking down and taking better angles. He has not had a great week."

Carimi and Kerrigan both made the list of top five players at the Senior Bowl, while both Jones and Kendricks were mentioned among those who didn't improve their draft stock during the week.

ESPN.com's 2010 All-Senior Big Ten team

January, 24, 2011
1/24/11
5:00
PM ET
As we gear up for the Senior Bowl, I wanted to piggyback off of an excellent post by colleague Chris Low from last week.

It's time to identify an All-Big Ten team comprised only of seniors. There were easy picks like Wisconsin offensive tackle Gabe Carimi and Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones, but several positions created some tough choices.

Reminder: This team includes only fourth-year or fifth-year seniors, not redshirt juniors.

Bowl performance is included in this rundown, if applicable.

In case you forgot, my All-Big Ten team included only 12 seniors, all of whom will appear below. I also selected 14 underclassmen.

Without further ado ...

OFFENSE

QB: Scott Tolzien, Wisconsin
RB: Evan Royster, Penn State
RB: Dan Dierking, Purdue
WR: Dane Sanzenbacher, Ohio State
WR: Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Iowa
TE: Lance Kendricks, Wisconsin
C: Bill Nagy, Wisconsin
T: Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin
T: D.J. Young, Michigan State
G: John Moffitt, Wisconsin
G: Stefen Wisniewski, Penn State

DEFENSE

DL: Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue
DL: Adrian Clayborn, Iowa
[+] EnlargeEric Gordon
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesEric Gordon narrowly edged out Ross Homan for a spot on the All-Senior Big Ten team.
DL: Cameron Heyward, Ohio State
DL: Karl Klug, Iowa
LB: Greg Jones, Michigan State
LB: Brian Rolle, Ohio State
LB: Eric Gordon, Michigan State
CB: Chimdi Chekwa, Ohio State
CB: Chris L. Rucker, Michigan State
S: Jermale Hines, Ohio State
S: Brett Greenwood, Iowa

SPECIALISTS

K: Collin Wagner, Penn State
P: Aaron Bates, Michigan State
Returns: David Gilreath, Wisconsin

Some thoughts:

  • I really struggled with the quarterback spot. Tolzien ultimately made fewer mistakes than Iowa's Ricky Stanzi, who had superior statistics and had fewer weapons surrounding him. You can make a good case for Stanzi or Indiana's Ben Chappell, but Tolzien gets a slight edge.
  • No disrespect to Royster or Dierking, but the Big Ten really struggled to produce many decent senior running backs this season. Perhaps that's a promising sign for the future, but typically there are more experienced ball-carrying options. Royster was the only senior ranked among the Big Ten's top 10 rushers. I thought about Ohio State's Brandon Saine, but Dierking did more as a ball carrier.
  • The No. 3 linebacker was a really tough call between Gordon and Ohio State's Ross Homan. Ultimately, Homan missing time with a foot injury and Gordon displaying remarkable consistency alongside Greg Jones made Gordo the pick.
  • Another tough call was DJK ahead of Indiana's Terrance Turner, who had 21 more receptions but fewer yards and seven fewer touchdown catches.
  • The deepest position among Big Ten seniors (by far): offensive guard. I went with Moffitt and Carimi, but players like Ohio State's Justin Boren, Michigan's Stephen Schilling, Iowa's Julian Vandervelde and Illinois' Randall Hunt all were good options.
  • Five teams didn't produce selections: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Northwestern. Is that a good omen or a bad one for 2011?
Selections by team: Wisconsin (6), Ohio State (5), Michigan State (5), Iowa (4), Penn State (3), Purdue (2)

Big Ten to send 12 to Senior Bowl

January, 18, 2011
1/18/11
1:30
PM ET
The Big Ten will once again be decently represented in the nation's premier all-star game for NFL hopefuls.

Twelve players from Big Ten teams will participate in the Under Armour Senior Bowl on Jan. 29 in Mobile, Ala. Wisconsin and Iowa both are sending three players to the game, while five other Big Ten teams will be represented.

The participants are:
  • Iowa defensive tackle Christian Ballard
  • Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn
  • Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi
  • Wisconsin offensive tackle Gabe Carimi
  • Wisconsin guard John Moffitt
  • Wisconsin tight end Lance Kendricks
  • Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones
  • Michigan State cornerback Chris L. Rucker
  • Indiana offensive tackle James Brewer
  • Michigan guard Stephen Schilling
  • Ohio State linebacker Ross Homan
  • Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan

It's interesting to see some players included who might have flown under the radar during the season but project well to the NFL. Ballard and Brewer certainly fit into this category.

Ohio State and Michigan both have only one representative, although Buckeyes cornerback Chimdi Chekwa would have made the roster if he didn't suffer a broken wrist in the Sugar Bowl.

The group includes three potential first-round picks in Kerrigan, Carimi and Clayborn.

Should be fun to see how they all perform.
PASADENA, Calif. -- Wisconsin finally got it rolling midway through the fourth quarter.

Trailing TCU 21-13 in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO, the Badger battering ram kicked into high gear.

John Clay ran for 14 yards. Then he ran for 30 more. After a nifty throw from Scott Tolzien to Lance Kendricks picked up 10 yards on third-and-6, the Badgers got back to their bread and butter.

[+] EnlargeScott Tolzien
AP Photo/Jae C. HongQuarterback Scott Tolzien and Wisconsin could not get going offensively against TCU.
Run. Run. Run. Run. Run.

Touchdown.

Had Wisconsin finally rediscovered who it is and why it got here?

"I'd like to think so," senior guard John Moffitt said. "But it wasn't who we were today. And that's all that matters."

Wisconsin's run-heavy, clock-eating drive at the end of Saturday's game was the exception rather than the rule. Too often the Badgers strayed from what had made them Big Ten champions, and it cost them in a 21-19 loss to TCU.

"We were doing some uncharacteristic things," said running back Montee Ball, who rushed for 132 yards and a touchdown. "Twenty yards going in, we score seven points. We don't get penalties, and we did today. We wasted our timeouts because we had the wrong information in there.

"We were most definitely not playing Wisconsin football, and that's how you lose football games."

There were moments and even stretches where Wisconsin appeared to establish its identity Saturday. But it never lasted.

Ball began the game with a major statement, dashing 40 yards through a huge hole on the right side of the line. But the drive stalled in the red zone on a dropped pass by Nick Toon, and Wisconsin had to settle for a field goal.

Toward the end of the first half, Wisconsin converted a fourth down on a fake punt and twice moved the chains on third-and-long to reach TCU territory. But again, they had to settle for a field goal.

And then there was the game's defining play, which followed Wisconsin's defining drive. Rather than stick with the run on the potential tying 2-point conversion attempt, the Badgers went to the air. Tight end Jacob Pedersen found space in the end zone, but TCU's Tank Carder swatted away Tolzien's pass.

"That was something we saw on film, and obviously the guy was open," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "But you've got to get the defender's hands down in that situation. Hindsight is 20/20. I felt confident with the call, [offensive coordinator Paul Chryst] felt confident, and we went with it."

Not surprisingly, Tolzien concurred and saw what he needed to see.

"It looked like a zero blitz, they were bringing everyone and just playing man," Tolzien said. "I wouldn't change a thing. We had a guy open, and their guy tipped it, plain and simple."

TCU linebacker Tanner Brock was surprised to see Tolzien line up in the shotgun after the previous drive, which featured runs on nine of 10 plays.

"A little bit [surprised]," Brock said, "because that's not really Wisconsin."

Wisconsin reached the Rose Bowl primarily because of its offense, a unit that averaged a team-record 45.2 points in Big Ten play. The Badgers racked up 201 points in their final three regular-season games and scored 31 points or more in their final seven games. Saturday, they became the first team in FBS history to produce three 1,000-yard running backs in a season.

This offense ran the ball at will, executed in the play-action pass game and reached the end zone 63 times. Most important, Wisconsin didn't beat itself, leading the nation in fewest turnovers (9) and fewest penalties per game (2.92).

Although the Badgers didn't cough up the ball, they committed a season-high six penalties. They also allowed two sacks and seven tackles for loss, above their season averages.

"There's three things we did really well this year: assignment sound, low penalties and low turnovers," left tackle Gabe Carimi said. "Those first two, we didn't do as well as we have been in the past."

Wisconsin reached TCU territory on each of its first five possessions but had only 13 points to show for it. Field position certainly played a role, and Wisconsin struggled to make big plays outside of its first and last drives.

Although the Badgers ran the ball more than twice as many times (46) as they passed it (21), they went to the air at some curious times, like on first-and-10 from their own 3-yard line late in the third quarter. Wisconsin had benefited from shaking things up at times this season; it ran four consecutive pass plays against Ohio State during a fourth-quarter scoring drive in a 31-18 win.

But TCU never consistently stopped Ball, Clay and James White between the tackles.

What the Horned Frogs did was keep Wisconsin out of the end zone.

"You realize that you only have so many opportunities," Moffitt said. "And every drive that doesn't end in the score is a missed opportunity. We missed a lot of opportunities today."

It's what made the loss so tough to take.

"The shame of it is we left opportunities on the field," Tolzien said. "You don't want to live games and you don't want to live life with regrets. We had some of those today."

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