Big Ten: Lawrence Barnett
Star power matters, but depth is also important. The secondary wasn't a particularly standout group for the Big Ten in 2012, though there were some elite players in the back end of the league's defenses. You can see how we ranked the DB groups in the preseason here. And here's how we see it now:
1. Michigan State (Preseason ranking: 1): So maybe Johnny Adams didn't have quite the season we expected out of him, but he was still easily one of the best cornerbacks in the league. And Darqueze Dennard reached an elite level, arguably turning in a better year than Adams at the other cornerback spot. Isaiah Lewis remained one of the top safeties in the league. The Spartans finished third nationally in pass efficiency defense, and their secondary was also stout in run support and on the occasional blitz.
2. Ohio State (Preseason: 2): Teams could pass on the Buckeyes, especially early, as they ended up ranked just 11th in the league in passing yards allowed. But Bradley Roby had an All-American year at cornerback, and Travis Howard grabbed four interceptions while improving over the course of the fall. While Ohio State's safeties sometimes went for the big hit instead of making the safe play, this group had star power and played great when it mattered.
3. Nebraska (Preseason: 4): The numbers would suggest a higher ranking, as the Cornhuskers finished fourth nationally in passing yards allowed and ninth in pass efficiency defense. Yet we can't forget some of the secondary's problems in open-field tackling and helping against the run in big games, or how Aaron Murray and Georgia dissected it in the Capital One Bowl. Still, this group -- led by P.J. Smith, Daimion Stafford and Ciante Evans -- was deep and clearly comprised the strength of Nebraska's defense.
5. Michigan (Preseason: 3): The Wolverines lost Blake Countess in the first half of the opener and didn't have anyone make first- or second-team All-Big Ten from its secondary. Still, this group had two sturdy seniors in safety Jordan Kovacs and cornerback J.T. Floyd and finished second in the league in pass defense. Those numbers may be a bit skewed by the fact that Michigan didn't face many high-powered passing teams, but this group held its own.
6. Wisconsin (Preseason: 7): The late-game breakdowns by the secondary in 2011 were a distant memory as the Badgers were solid all the way around at defensive back in 2012. They finished third in the league in pass efficiency defense. Getting Devin Smith back at corner really helped, as did the marked improvement of Marcus Cromartie. Safeties Dezmen Southward and Shelton Johnson also had good years. The bad news for Wisconsin is that only Southward returns from that veteran group.
7. Penn State (Preseason: 9): The defensive backfield was the big question mark on the Nittany Lions' defense heading into the season with four new starters. But despite a lack of experienced depth, the starting group of Stephon Morris, Adrian Amos, Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong prevented Penn State from experiencing a drop-off at DB, allowing just 15 touchdown passes in 12 games.
8. Purdue (Preseason: 5): A secondary with two cornerbacks as talented as Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson should not be ranked this low. But the Boilermakers simply got burned too much in big games to be ranked much higher than this. They did tie for the league lead with 14 interceptions, paced by Landon Feichter's four picks.
9. Northwestern (Preseason: 11): The Wildcats' secondary was much, much better when cornerback Nick VanHoose was healthy, and Ibraheim Campbell had a terrific year at safety. This group showed its potential early in the season and in the bowl win over Mississippi State. But the late-game breakdowns, particularly against Michigan (the Roy Roundtree catch) and Nebraska, prevent a higher ranking.
10. Iowa (Preseason: 8): Micah Hyde was named the Big Ten defensive back of the year. This really happened. I looked it up again to make sure. Not that Hyde had a bad season. He just didn't really stand out nearly as much as guys like Dennard, Carter or Roby. Hyde and fellow cornerback B.J. Lowery formed a good tandem, but safety play was shaky for the Hawkeyes and offenses torched them down the stretch. Iowa allowed opponents a league-worst 63.5 completion percentage.
11. Illinois (Preseason: 6): Terry Hawthorne remained an underrated cornerback who should hear his name called in the April NFL draft. Outside of that, it's hard to find many positives for the Illini secondary, as the team finished last in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense and didn't have much else to hang its hat on.
12. Indiana (Preseason: 12): The Hoosiers had hopes of making strides in the secondary with returning starters Lawrence Barnett, Greg Heban and Mark Murphy. But Indiana gave up more touchdown passes (23) than any other league team while only intercepting seven passes. While not all of the pass defense problems can be blamed on the secondary, of course, it's clear this team still lacks high-impact players in the back end.
This qualifies as newsworthy for two teams which combined to go 4-20 last year, which included 0-2 starts for each. Simply getting the season off to the right kind of start is a big deal for each club.
Now, the fact that the Hoosiers and Gophers struggled to get those victories over subpar competition shows that both still have a lot to work on. But both teams feel a lot better about doing that after a victory.
Minnesota's 30-27 triple-overtime win at UNLV was the team's second straight victory, going back to last year's finale against Illinois. Head coach Jerry Kill saw a lot of positives in the opener. He called the play of the defensive line the best he's seen in his 13 games as Gophers coach. Kill praised junior defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and senior end D.L. Wilhite in particular, saying Wilhite had the best game of his career.
The defense came up with three interceptions, and the running game produced 209 yards, led by Donnell Kirkwood's 81 yards.
"That was a pleasant surprise," Kill said of the running game. "Donnell was a totally different player than he was a year ago."
Of course, UNLV has only won four games since 2009, and the Gophers had a chance to pull away early. Quarterback MarQueis Gray completed 17 of 30 passes for 269 yards but missed several open receivers for big gains.
"I think his adrenaline was going, and he was excited about playing," Kill said. "But he's got to be able to put it on people."
Gray bounced back and threw two touchdown passes in the overtime periods. And that's what Kill liked best about his team: its resiliency.
"Some things didn't go our way, and we just hung in there," he said. "We had some guys step up and make a play, which we haven't done since I've been here. It was good to see us make a play to go win the game."
Indiana's Kevin Wilson had seen almost none of that in Bloomington after his team went just 1-11 last year. So even though the Hoosiers weren't wildly impressive in beating FCS Indiana State 24-17 at home, a win is a win for a team that hadn't experienced one since Sept. 17 of last year.
It wasn't easy, though. Indiana State had four possessions in the fourth quarter where it could have tied the score, but the Hoosiers' defense held on.
"Even though it was close, I don't think our kids panicked any," Wilson said. "We've always kind of folded when things didn't go our way. ... To get a 'W'' where it wasn't easy was good and a growing step for us, I believe."
One of Wilson's priorities this offseason was increasing the offensive efficiency and turning yards into points. Indiana didn't succeed at that as well he would like in Week 1, as it rolled up 451 yards and no turnovers, but came away with just 24 points. The effort included two missed field-goal attempts and a failed fourth-down conversion attempt in Sycamores' territory.
Wilson admitted that he and his staff called a conservative game because the team had so many young starters, especially on the offensive line. The Hoosiers will get some experience back this week when veteran receiver Kofi Hughes and senior defensive back Lawrence Barnett return from one-game suspensions. And while Wilson said his team has had trouble handling any kind of success, he thought the first two practices this week were the best IU has had during his tenure.
"We're a team everyone doesn't have a lot of respect for, and we know that," he said. "We're just trying to not talk about it but earn it with our play."
Minnesota hosts FCS New Hampshire and should be heavily favored. The Gophers are trying to improve the atmosphere at TCF Bank Stadium, so winning this game is paramount for building fan support. Indiana goes to UMass, which will be playing its first home game as an FBS member (if you consider Gillette Stadium, which is more than 90 miles from the Minutemen's campus, as a true home). UMass lost 37-0 to UConn last week.
Nothing is guaranteed with either team. But if the Gophers and Hoosiers continue to make strides after their openers, they could both be 2-0 at the same time for the first time since 2009.
As a reminder, we're basing these mostly on last year's performance and who returns, along with potential for the 2012 season.
The top four groups could be very good, while the next five have question marks but potential. Even the bottom three groups have realistic opportunities to make strides this fall.
Let's get rolling ...
2. Ohio State: The defensive line has bigger names and more hype, but the secondary might turn out to be Ohio State's best unit in 2012. The Buckeyes bring back all four starters, including arguably the league's top cornerback tandem in Bradley Roby and Travis Howard. Expect Roby to take another big step as a sophomore. Hard-hitting safeties C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant return, and Ohio State can go two- or three-deep at most positions.
3. Michigan: This group has come a very long way from the Rich Rodriguez era and should be the strength of Michigan's defense in 2012. Safety Jordan Kovacs is an excellent leader who blossomed in Greg Mattison's system last fall. The Wolverines also boast a promising cornerback tandem in J.T. Floyd and Blake Countess, and have good overall depth at both corner and safety.
4. Nebraska: While the Huskers lose the Big Ten's top defensive back in Alfonzo Dennard, they should have greater overall depth and the potential for new stars to emerge. Hard-hitting safety Daimion Stafford leads the group, and P.J. Smith provides a veteran presence at the other safety spot. Nebraska is loaded with options at cornerback, including the improved Andrew Green and juco arrival Mohamed Seisay. New assistant Terry Joseph should get a lot out of this group.
5. Purdue: The rankings already have mentioned some good cornerback tandems, and Purdue adds another in Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson. They've combined for 48 career starts, and Allen has led the team with three interceptions in each of the past two seasons. Max Charlot returns at safety after recording 41 tackles in 2011, but there are some question marks around him.
6. Illinois: Terry Hawthorne rarely gets mentioned as one of the Big Ten's top defensive backs, but he should. The senior has been a natural playmaker throughout his career and will lead Illinois' secondary in 2012. Senior Justin Green brings experience to the other corner spot. Although the Illini return both of their starting safeties -- Steve Hull and Supo Sanni -- they need more consistency from that position this fall.
7. Wisconsin: The Badgers lose a key player at both cornerback (Antonio Fenelus) and safety (Aaron Henry), but they have a chance to improve upon last year's performance and rise up these rankings. They'll undoubtedly benefit from the return of cornerback Devin Smith from injury. Head coach Bret Bielema doesn't downplay what Smith's absence meant last season. The Badgers need more consistency out of projected starters Dezmen Southward and Marcus Cromartie.
8. Iowa: The Hawkeyes have a nice piece to build around in playmaking senior cornerback Micah Hyde, but they'll need more after a so-so season in 2011. Tanner Miller returns as a starter at safety, and hopes are high for junior B.J. Lowery at the other corner spot. Iowa's depth looks better at corner than it does at safety.
9. Penn State: Most see the secondary as Penn State's weak link, to which Malcolm Willis and Stephon Morris say, "Bring it on." Still, the Lions have questions to address after losing all four starters from the 2011 team. Morris, Willis and sophomore Adrian Amos all have been in the fire a bit, but Penn State needs them to take steps and remain on the field. Depth is a significant concern after the offseason departures of Curtis Drake and Derrick Thomas.
10. Minnesota: This is a bit of a projection pick, but I like Minnesota's potential to take a step forward in the secondary this fall. The biggest reason for optimism is cornerback Troy Stoudermire, who returns for a fifth year after missing most of last season with a foot injury. Stoudermire was on track for a big year before the injury. Cornerback Michael Carter had a strong spring and could finally reach his potential. The bigger concerns here come at the safety spots.
11. Northwestern: Three starters depart from a secondary that struggled to stop anyone and endured major communication breakdowns far too often in 2011. Northwestern is younger in the back four, but it also could be more talented this season. Sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell comes off of a 100-tackle season, and cornerback Nick VanHoose impressed during the spring. A few veterans return, but the coaches can't be afraid to go with the youth movement here.
12. Indiana: The Hoosiers finished eighth in the Big Ten in pass defense last fall, but only because teams had their way with IU on the ground. Indiana surrendered a league-high 26 pass touchdowns and only recorded five interceptions. There's hope, though, as the Hoosiers return three starters, including top cover man Lawrence Barnett. If Mark Murphy and Greg Heban make strides, and some newcomers help right away, Indiana could be decent in the back four.
Rebuilding a program like Indiana's requires baby steps.
That's why second-year coach Kevin Wilson kept things basic this offseason. His motto for the Hoosiers was simply, "Team." That word hovered on the stadium video boards during spring practice and was plastered on every player's locker.
The goal was to build cohesion and chemistry for a team that went 1-11 last season and played more freshmen than any school in the country. The "Team" slogan was accompanied by values such as "Loyal" and "Honest." It may sound obvious, but Indiana is starting from square one.
"If we go by those rules, we should be a pretty good team," defensive back Lawrence Barnett said.
Top wide receiver Kofi Hughes and cornerback Lawrence Barnett, along with reserve safety Forisse Hardin, will miss one game because of an undisclosed violation of team rules. Indiana hasn't specified which game they'll sit out.
Hughes and Barnett are both significant pieces. Hughes led the Hoosiers with 35 catches for 536 yards and three touchdowns in 2011. Barnett made nine starts last season and recorded 46 tackles, six pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovered and returned for a touchdown.
Hardin started two games last season and had 17 tackles and an interception.
It'll be interesting to see which game they miss. The opener with Indiana State seems like a decent bet.
Some other Hoosiers' roster notes:
- Running back Matt Perez (back), tight end Paul Phillips (ankle), linebacker Ishmael Thomas (shoulder) and tight end Jordan Jackson (knee) will miss preseason camp because of injuries. Perez, who has battled injuries for much of his career, had 58 carries for 195 yards and four touchdowns last season. "We look forward to getting these men back on the field as soon as possible," coach Kevin Wilson said in a news release.
- Incoming defensive line recruit Adam Kranda didn't report to camp because of a personal issue. "It is our intention to work with him to have him here in the near future," Wilson said. "Adam has a bright future and will be a valuable piece on our defensive line."
- Wide receiver Jay McCants has been dismissed from the team for an unspecified rules violation, while safety Shaquille Jefferson and wide receiver Logan Young have left the program and will seek transfers. McCants had six receptions for 54 yards last season, while Jefferson played in five games last season, mostly on special teams.
- Indiana added 18 walk-ons to the program Thursday.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- When Lawrence Barnett suffered a season-ending broken ankle the first game of his senior year of high school in 2008, teammate and lifelong friend Kenny Mullen was there to offer support.
Mullen visited Barnett in the hospital after the game and made a vow. "One way or another," he said, "we'll play together again."
That was far from guaranteed, as Mullen was two years behind Barnett in school. But after Barnett spent two seasons at Indiana and the Hoosiers came to Fort Wayne to recruit Mullen, he had his chance to make good.
"When IU offered me, I committed without a doubt," Mullen said. "Because I had made that promise."
Similar success has yet to follow in college. Their first major taste of Big Ten playing time came during a dismal 1-11 season for the Hoosiers, who had one of the worst defenses in the country. Particularly galling to Barnett and Mullen is the fact that IU ranked 116th out of 120 FBS teams in pass-efficiency defense. They admit that they were a little lost last year in trying both to adjust to top-level competition and learn co-defensive coordinator Doug Mallory's system.
"The system we were playing in before [Mallory arrived] was a lot of Cover 2 and Cover 4," Barnett said. "Last year, we played a lot of man and a lot of disguised zone coverages. We weren't really ready for it."
An extra year of experience and a full offseason of doing things Mallory's way should help things improve in 2012. Mullen was one of 32 redshirt or true freshmen that head coach Kevin Wilson threw into the fire last season, many of them on defense.
"We didn't know how to approach the games or how to play the schemes the correct way," Mullen said. "But we look at last year as a learning experience. We've come out this year playing a lot faster and more aggressively. We know our keys, and we know the soft spots in our own defense."
They're hoping the secondary won't again be one of those soft spots. The good thing about playing so many youngsters last year is now a lot of experience returns. Wilson also brought in two junior college defensive backs for immediate help. And if chemistry is key to good secondary play, you won't find a much better connection than the one Mullen and Barnett share.
"Coaches always want us to communicate with each other," Barnett said, "and when me and Kenny are out there, we already know what the other is going to do. Sometimes I won't even say anything to him and he won't even say anything to me. It makes it a lot easier."
That closeness means the two pick each other up and push one another in offseason workouts. Mullen still lives in the dorms as an underclassmen, but he might as well pay rent on Barnett's apartment for as much as he is over there playing Madden and NBA 2K12 on XBox.
Both loved IU basketball growing up -- Barnett was a star point guard whom the Hoosiers briefly recruited for hoops -- but have become part of the building block for the school's football future. They're following in a recent line of productive Indiana players from Fort Wayne, which include Damarlo Belcher, Dre Muhammad and James Hardy.
Mullen and Barnett are happy they're teammates again. But they're hoping their college experience results in something more than just a great friendship.
"First and foremost, we want to handle our business this season and make a bowl game," Barnett said. "And then hopefully another one. We just want to turn this program around and be known as a bowl team."
2011 conference record: 0-8 (sixth, Leaders Division)
Returning starters: offense: 7; defense: 8; kicker/punter: 1
QB Tre Roberson, RB Stephen Houston, WR Kofi Hughes, CB Lawrence Barnett, DT Larry Black, DT Adam Replogle, S Mark Murphy
OL Andrew McDonald, LB Jeff Thomas, LB Leon Beckum, WR Dre Muhammad
2011 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Stephen Houston* (802 yards)
Passing: Ed Wright-Baker (1,029 yards)
Receiving: Kofi Hughes* (536 yards)
Tackles: Jeff Thomas (80)
Sacks: Adam Replogle* (4)
Interceptions: Greg Heban* (2)
1. Improved defense: The Hoosiers had nowhere to go but up after fielding one of the worst defenses in the country last year. Some junior college transfers, especially linebackers David Cooper and Jacarri Alexander, injected some much-needed talent and energy into the unit this spring. The defense showed much better execution and fundamentals overall, thanks in large part to some young players getting baptized by fire last fall. This is still not a dominating group by any stretch, but with some solid players up front such as Larry Black and Adam Replogle and in the back end such as Mark Murphy and Lawrence Barnett, the Hoosiers hope to have far fewer major breakdowns this season.
2. Depth at running back: Stephen Houston led the team in rushing last season despite showing up a little out of shape in the summer from junior college. That spoke both to his skills and the lack of competition around him. That's not the case now, as Indiana has a much healthier stable of backs to work with, including a healthy Matt Perez and transfer Isaiah Roundtree, who had a big spring game. Add in mobile quarterback Tre Roberson, and the Hoosiers could have an effective ground attack in 2012.
3. Better off Ted: Tight end Ted Bolser had a promising freshman year with 27 catches for 407 yards and five touchdowns, but those numbers dipped to just 14 catches for 165 yards last year. Some of that was probably due to a largely ineffective passing game. Bolser had a strong spring, capped by a six-catch performance in the spring game, and was targeted often in the offense. The 6-foot-6, 255-pounder could become a go-to guy for new offensive coordinator Seth Littrell.
1. Quarterback competition: Roberson seized the starting job midway through last season and showed so much promise that two other young quarterbacks -- Ed Wright-Baker and Dusty Kiel -- transferred. He has a strong presence and the potential to be a star. But the coaching staff insisted that junior college transfer Cameron Coffman was right in the thick of the race to be the starter this season after a nice spring. Coffman is a better pure passer than Roberson, who needs to work on that aspect of his game.
2. Bringing the heat: Indiana had just 18 total sacks last season and often had trouble generating much of a pass rush, which was part of the reason it gave up so many big plays. While Black and Replogle make a nice tandem at tackle, the search is still on for playmakers who can get to the quarterback. Ryan Phillis showed some things late in his freshman year, including a big game in the finale against Purdue, and Bobby Richardson made a nice transition from tackle to end as a freshman. Maybe the linebackers can help in the pass rush as well. But the Hoosiers need to make other teams uncomfortable in the passing game without blitzing to improve on defense.
3. Overall talent and depth: Head coach Kevin Wilson has his work cut out for him after failing to win a single game against FBS competition his first season in Bloomington. Wilson played 32 true and redshirt freshmen in 2011 and had many players going through spring practice for the first time this year. The extra seasoning will no doubt help them get better, but this is still a roster that doesn't look like the top Big Ten contenders. Indiana will need to stay healthy, get some breaks and see its young players mature quickly to make any noise in the league this season.
- Bob Asmussen grades the Illinois position groups on their spring-game performances. Josh Ferguson was in Ron Zook's doghouse last year but is on Tim Beckman's good side.
- Lawrence Barnett has gotten the message about Indiana's need to improve in the offseason.
- Tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz is emerging as a potential centerpiece to the Iowa offense. An optimistic and pessimistic view of Hawkeyes football.
- Thomas Rawls gives Michigan a true power back. Denard Robinson wearing the No. 1 jersey? It's possible.
- Defense won the day at Michigan State's first spring scrimmage. How much was Jerel Worthy really worth to the Spartans' defense?
- In an effort to drum up interest, Jerry Kill is the only Big Ten coach who allows fans and media to attend spring practices.
- Steven M. Sipple says that Nebraska should let fans watch an August practice after canceling the spring game. Rex Burkhead belongs in any discussion of Heisman contenders, Lee Barfknecht writes.
- Northwestern got a commitment from highly sought-after quarterback Matt Alviti, an ESPN 150 watch list prospect.
- Ohio State students enjoyed their up-close look at the team over the weekend. The Buckeyes receivers still need a lot of improvement.
- Making the case for Matt McGloin as Penn State's starting quarterback. The Nittany Lions got a commitment from a Hershey offensive lineman.
- Danny Hope was pleased with Purdue's effort this spring.
- Wisconsin's quarterbacks struggled in the team's first major spring scrimmage.
The Hoosiers got it during winter conditioning when they went through an exercise program led by former Navy SEALs. Cornerback Lawrence Barnett recalls one demanding day when the players were summoned to the pool at 4:30 a.m. to swim laps and then do movements in sync with their teammates. If anyone messed up, the team had to jump back in the pool and do more laps.
Head coach Kevin Wilson got the idea from watching IU's basketball team go through the same program in the fall. Wilson admires basketball coach Tom Crean and how he led the Hoosiers back from a few difficult seasons to a Sweet 16 berth in this year's NCAA tournament. The inspiration doesn't stop there.
"He comes out to practice every day and tells us that just like the basketball team, we can turn our program around," defensive back Kenny Mullen said. "But we have to want to do it ourselves."
In truth, it's going to take a little more than that for a team that has only been to one bowl game since 1993. The Hoosiers have a long way to go, but they're hopeful they got over the toughest part of the journey last year.
Indiana didn't beat a single FBS team in Wilson's first season as coach and finished 114th nationally in scoring defense, allowing more than 37 points per game. If the players seemed like novices at times, that's because they were; no other team in the country played more rookies than the Hoosiers, who threw 32 true and redshirt freshmen into the fire.
That's the theme of the spring in Bloomington, where the roster is still young but at least is not lacking in game experience. That's translating into fewer missed assignments and mistakes during spring practice.
"We're so much further along than we were anywhere in the fall," co-defensive coordinator Doug Mallory said. "We don't have to go back to step one as much with our teaching."
Wilson is not sure he took the right steps last spring. He admits that some of the veteran players might not have bought into his program, and team chemistry wasn't great as the youngsters started taking over all the playing time. Some of that could have been smoothed over in the preseason.
"Last year, we were trying to learn an offense and a defense, and this year we're talking more about how to build a team," Wilson said. "Maybe we did that in reverse order. In this day and age of multiplicity and justifying all the video we've got to watch, it's always scheme, scheme, scheme. Now we're trying to do a better job building team unity."
To that end, "Team" is the simple slogan Wilson is using this spring to promote cohesion. That's also where the Navy SEALs training came in. Having suffered through losing last year, the players say they forged a bond, and it helps that many of them were going through similar experiences in seeing the field for the first time.
But the Hoosiers remain young and need leaders to emerge. Wilson has to remind himself that though many of his starters played last year, this is still their first collegiate spring ball. He has the team practice every other day so it can get much-needed strength training done on the off-days.
There are some good building blocks on hand, like promising quarterback Tre Roberson, who took the reins of the offense as a true freshman; running back Stephen Houston, who ran for more than 800 yards last year despite showing up late from junior college; safety Mark Murphy, who showed great instincts for the game while playing three positions as a true freshmen a year ago; and junior-college imports David Cooper and Jacarri Alexander, who are shoring up the linebacker spot and adding energy to the defense this spring.
Yet Indiana is still light years away from having the kind of overall depth and talent of Big Ten Leaders Division rivals Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin. At least the basketball-mad school has finally made a commitment to football, with the new north end-zone complex at Memorial Stadium and a massive weight-room facility.
IU football has long seemed like a challenge that even Navy SEALs wouldn't touch. But Wilson remains optimistic that the 1-11 record was just a bumpy start.
"I don't think I'm fighting a battle I can't win," he said. "That's why we're not moping around and why we're not feeling sorry for ourselves. We're going to see if we can take some nice steps this year and keep building."
- A pair of Illinois defensive backs could spend some time on offense this season as Tim Beckman searches for playmakers.
- Scrutiny or not, Brian Ferentz was the right hire for Iowa, Pat Harty writes. Everyone's in play for the Hawkeyes at running back.
- Dion Sims has a chance to shine at tight end for Michigan State, provided his wrist is fully healed. DeAnthony Arnett is playing a waiting game right now.
- MarQueis Gray says the next Minnesota athletic director needs to be accessible to players.
- Once a blue-chip recruit, Nebraska's Baker Steinkuhler has been a solid player, but not a superstar. He's not satisfied with that going into his final season. Will Compton played well down the stretch last season, and is drawing praise from Bo Pelini this spring.
- Jibreel Black is taking on a new role by moving inside on the Michigan defensive line.
- Defense is winning at practice as Ohio State's offense continues to learn a new system. John Simon and Zach Boren will likely serve as captains for the Buckeyes.
- Peter Konz showed off a little more strength at Wisconsin's pro day, and likely solidified his draft stock.
- Cornerback Lawrence Barnett brings some consistency to the Indiana defense.
- Danny Hope wished he hadn't redshirted Frankie Williams last season, but the defensive back is glad he waited.
- Receiver Tony Jones is back at full throttle for Northwestern.
- The learning curve is pretty steep this spring for the Penn State tight ends.
"It was really loud," Thomas said. "And it was a lot to a little."
Yep. That just about covers it.
The Indiana-Wisconsin game made national news last fall because of the final score. As Thomas said, Wisconsin had a lot (83 points), while Indiana had a little (20 points).
Indiana allowed the most points in team history and tied for the largest losing margin in team history with another 63-point defeat in 1915. Wisconsin scored the most touchdowns (11) in team history, put up the third-highest total in a Big Ten game in league history and racked up the most points in a Big Ten game since Ohio State scored 83 against Iowa in 1950.
For Thomas and his teammates, it added up to one very painful afternoon.
"It was pretty tough," Thomas said. "You never want to lose by that much. I've never really been on that side of the ball before. But there's nothing you can do about it now."
Indiana returns to Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday to face No. 4 Wisconsin. While the Hoosiers have plenty of reasons to gear up for the game, revenge isn't at the top of their list.
"The motivation we've got going right now is we're 1-5, and we want to win," Thomas said. "That's motivation we need to address more than beating a team that beat us pretty bad last year. Just wanting to get a win in the Big Ten, that's more motivation than anything."
Indiana coach Kevin Wilson wasn't in Madison last year. Wilson, then Oklahoma's offensive coordinator, spent the day enjoying a lopsided, 45-7 win against Texas Tech.
As part of his effort to change the culture at Indiana, Wilson hasn't spent time discussing the team's past struggles. But he has been on both sides of blowout games, and he has seen different approaches to rematches.
"Every time I’ve used the revenge word or been around coaches that did it, I don’t know if we got the [desired] outcome," Wilson said. "We're a team still trying to find our identity. … We're preaching more about how we want to keep moving forward instead of what happened a year ago."
Last year's game sparked questions of whether Wisconsin ran up the score, especially after Badgers coach Bret Bielema faced similar accusations following a game against Minnesota earlier in the season. Bielema reiterated this week that the claims about running up the score stemmed in part because of the perception Wisconsin has a team that rarely puts up such point totals.
Thomas harbors no ill will about what happened.
"It's just part of the game," he said. "They kept scoring. They obviously didn't have their starters in, so it's our job to stop them on defense. I'm not really mad about it. You keep scoring until somebody stops you."
Indiana has tried to foster a new attitude on defense this year, and while the wins haven't come, there have been some promising signs.
The defense forced four turnovers against Virginia in Week 2 and had a 54-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Lawrence Barnett. Indiana recorded two red-zone takeaways against Penn State in Week 5 and limited the Nittany Lions to 16 points.
Wisconsin poses a much greater test and many are forecasting another beat-down, but Thomas and his teammates are excited to face the Badgers.
"It's a potent offense, and it's our job to stop 'em," he said. "It's a huge opportunity."
Virginia 34, Indiana 31: The Hoosiers trailed 23-3 in the second half but then rose up and turned in a terrific stretch, scoring 28 straight points. Matt Perez ran for two scores, and Lawrence Barnett took a fumble recovery 54 yards for a touchdown. IU led 31-23 with less than seven minutes left, looking to even its record at 1-1.
But then Virginia drove down for a score and the tying two-point conversion with under two minutes left. And in truly disastrous fashion, Ed Wright-Baker was sacked and lost a fumble as IU tried to make a late drive. The Cavaliers capitalized, kicked a field goal with two seconds left and delivered yet another heart-wrenching loss into the annals of Hoosier history. Oy, vey.
Hey, at least Indiana showed some serious signs of life after laying that egg against Ball State in the opener. Wilson's rebuilding project has a long way to go, but he has something positive to work with now, if the players can somehow get over what a difficult loss this was.
Some other notes:
- Two likely starters, wide receiver Duwyce Wilson and tight end Ted Bolser, aren't listed on the depth chart. Both have been battling injuries during camp. Senior Dre Muhammad is listed as the starter in Wilson's spot ahead of freshman Shane Wynn, while senior Max Dedmond will start at tight end.
- Redshirt freshman Matt Perez, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL, is listed as the No. 1 running back ahead of Stephen Houston. Junior Darius Willis is suspended for the opener for conduct detrimental to the team.
- Redshirt freshman Ryan Phillis is listed as a starter at defensive end ahead of veteran Fred Jones. He'll play opposite Darius Johnson. Indiana seems to have some good depth at the defensive tackle position.
- Another redshirt freshman, Chase Hoobler, has secured a starting job for the opener at strong-side linebacker. He'll join senior linebackers Jeff Thomas and Leon Beckum in the starting lineup.
- No major surprises in the starting secondary as sophomores Lawrence Barnett and Greg Heban are listed as the top corners and fifth-year seniors Chris Adkins and Jarrell Drane are listed as the No. 1 safeties.
- Wynn and Perez are listed as the top kick returners, as Indiana must replace the dynamic Tandon Doss on special teams.
Some interesting stuff here. Youth will be served this season in Bloomington as 14 true freshmen or redshirt freshmen appear on the depth chart.
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
12:00 PM ET Purdue Illinois 12:00 PM ET 20 Ohio State Maryland 2:30 PM ET North Texas Indiana 3:30 PM ET 17 Wisconsin Northwestern 7:00 PM ET Michigan Rutgers 8:00 PM ET 19 Nebraska 10 Michigan State