Big Ten: Louis Trinca-Pasat

Spring game recap: Iowa

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
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Optimism is building around an Iowa program with a very realistic chance to win the Big Ten West Division this season. On Saturday, the Hawkeyes wrapped up a fairly uneventful (in a good way) spring with their annual scrimmage at Kinnick Stadium. The offense beat the defense 46-31 before an announced crowd of 20,400 on a sunny afternoon. There were no official stats from the scrimmage, but our friends at The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette have you covered.

Check out more coverage here and here and here.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsKirk Ferentz saw some impressive performances from his offensive players in Iowa's spring game.
Star of the game: Redshirt freshman Derrick Willies capped a strong spring by dazzling the crowd with 142 receiving yards on five catches (unofficially), including a 42-yard touchdown from C.J. Beathard. The 6-foot-4 Willies, who had similar numbers in an earlier spring scrimmage, provides the explosive threat on the outside Iowa has lacked in recent seasons. Although the Hawkeyes return some experience at wideout, it's hard not to put Willies in the top rotation. "Today was his best day," coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Now we have to try and corral him because he will be the spring game sensation, but he really did some good things."

How it went down: Iowa is determined to have a faster, more diverse and more explosive offense in Greg Davis' third season as coordinator. The spring scrimmage provided a preview of potentially what's to come for the Hawkeyes. Jake Rudock is still the team's top quarterback and senior Kevonte Martin-Manley is the most experienced receiver, but Willies and Beathard, who completed 21 of 39 passes for 349 yards and a touchdown, should be part of the plan.

Ferentz traditionally likes to stick with one quarterback, but it will be tough to keep Beathard off the field after some of the things he did this spring. Davis told ESPN.com earlier this spring that a package of plays is possible for Beathard, which Ferentz called "very realistic" on Saturday. The pass-heavy scrimmage didn't reveal much about the run game, but Iowa has plenty of options with Mark Weisman and Jordan Canzeri leading the way. Canzeri had a 16-yard touchdown in the scrimmage.

The secondary remains a work in progress, as Jordan Lomax is transitioning from cornerback to safety, and Iowa is evaluating cornerback options opposite Desmond King, who picked off Rudock in the scrimmage. The linebackers are also worth watching, although Quinton Alston has established himself as a strong leader in the middle. Iowa's defensive line should be the team's strongest group, as tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat recorded two "sacks" in the scrimmage.

"I think a lot of our positions right now won't get decided until well into August camp," Ferentz said of the defense.

Iowa exits the spring as a very solid team capable of taking another positive step this season. The quarterback situation is one to watch -- it's not a competition, but a something, as Marc Morehouse writes -- and several key starting spots will be at stake in camp.
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IOWA CITY, Iowa -- No Big Ten coach takes the temperature of his team in spring practice quite like Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. No Big Ten coach has lived in as many different climates.

The dean of the league's coaches knows the sunniness that surrounds teams after redemptive seasons such as the ones the Hawkeyes had in 2001, 2008 or last fall, when Iowa improved its wins total by four. He also knows the polar vortex that exists, at least outside Iowa's football complex, after poor performances like the ones the team delivered in 2007 and 2012.

Ferentz also understands how quickly the weather changes, like it often does on spring afternoons in the Midwest.

So at a recent team meeting, Ferentz detoured from the typical spring minutia -- replacing seniors, creating depth, finding leaders, building identities -- and addressed a macro item: the preseason polls.

"He said we might be ranked," running back Jordan Canzeri told ESPN.com, "and even if we are, no one is to keep that in their head. There were several teams that were ranked and didn't get to go to a bowl game this past year. You never want to be cocky. Even if the stats show you're good, you still want to prepare as you would with any other team, so you don't get satisfied and complacent."

Iowa likely will be ranked when the preseason polls come out. The Hawkeyes appear in some way-too early versions. They return eight offensive starters, including left tackle Brandon Scherff, a preseason All-America candidate, along with three of four starting defensive linemen from a team that flipped its regular-season record in 2013.

The quarterback uncertainty that hovered over the program last spring, when no signal-caller had taken a snap in a game, is no longer there, as junior Jake Rudock has established himself. An unprecedented stretch of running back maladies has subsided as Iowa returns three veteran options (Mark Weisman, Canzeri and Damon Bullock) and two promising young players (LeShun Daniels Jr. and Barkley Hill). There's more explosiveness at wide receiver, and the defensive line, led by senior tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, looks more like the elite units Iowa produced for most of Ferentz's tenure.

[+] EnlargeCarl Davis
David Purdy/The Des Moines Register via USA TODAY SportsWith Carl Davis and others back, Iowa's defensive line should be the team's strongest unit.
"We are a more experienced unit, probably the most experienced unit on the team," defensive line coach Reese Morgan said.

There are enough internal reasons to indicate Iowa will take another step this season, but the biggest factors in the Hawkeyes favor are external. Their new division, the Big Ten West, lacks a clear-cut favorite or a flawless team. And their schedule is undoubtedly the most favorable in the league.

Not only does Iowa miss Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State from the East Division, but it hosts both Wisconsin and Nebraska. The Hawkeyes' toughest league road game should be a Nov. 8 visit to Minnesota.

"It's a pretty favorable schedule for us," wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley said, "but every week is going to be a challenge. Nothing that happened last year really matters."

Davis looks forward to visiting Big Ten newcomer Maryland, but he had hoped to play more of the league's traditional powers. The only way Iowa sees Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan is in the Big Ten championship game.

"When the Big Ten started, those are the teams that dominated," Davis said. "You want to be able to play those teams and beat those teams. I really look forward to it.

"I definitely feel we're in contention for a Big Ten championship. Every team says it, but we're hungry."

Ferentz has seen Iowa go from good to great in 2002 and again in 2009. He also has seen the program fall short of expectations, as it did in 2006 and 2010.

The first step to building upon success, Ferentz said, is not taking it for granted. Take Iowa's group of linebackers, which loses three multiyear starters from last year's squad: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens.

"If we're waiting for Morris, Kirksey and Hitchens to give us 300 tackles, that ain't gonna happen," Ferentz said. "Two years ago, we had a disappointing season. Last year was a new year and this year was the flip record-wise, but it's a new year again. This team has to form its own identity, and it starts with our experienced players. We're going to need them to play their absolute best, which is what those seniors did last year."

Iowa's linebacker reset has been a top spring storyline. Quinton Alston has stepped into the lead role, earning high marks from teammates and coaches. Travis Perry and Reggie Spearman, who played as a 17-year-old freshman last fall and doesn't turn 18 until August, are likely starters alongside Alston.

The biggest challenge could be replacing Kirksey, a converted safety who brought defensive back speed to outside linebacker.

"Chris had a different skill set than the guys we have out there now," defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. "It's been a long time since we had a guy who could run that fast and still have the power and explosion to play in the box, too, or at least on the tight end. We have three or four guys we're trying to look at with that position."

Other uncertainties include the cornerback spot opposite dynamic sophomore Desmond King, free safety and the second-string offensive line, which coordinator Greg Davis lists as the unit's biggest concern.

Iowa players understand that their margin for error remains slim.

"The determining factor is going to be winning those close games," Martin-Manley said.

Iowa won several such contests in 2009, its last truly special season. The 2014 team also could reach rarefied air, but Hawkeyes won't get caught with their heads in the clouds.

"That's what we do here; we work hard," Davis said. "That's something you get used to the longer you're in this program. The grind becomes normal, and I feel like all our hard work will be able to pay off."
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive lines.

Illinois: This is a significant concern for the Illini, especially after the recent departure of Houston Bates, who started last season at the Leo (defensive end/outside linebacker) spot. Illinois also loses its other starting defensive end, Tim Kynard. The team will rely heavily on junior-college players such as Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu, but it also needs holdovers like Dawuane Smoot and Paul James III to step up on the perimeter. Illinois returns more experience inside with Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell, but there should be plenty of competition, especially with the juco arrivals, after finishing 116th nationally against the run.

Indiana: The anticipated move to a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Brian Knorr creates a different dynamic for the line this spring. Indiana must identify options at the all-important nose tackle spot, and possibilities include sophomores Ralphael Green and Darius Latham, both of whom are big bodies. Nick Mangieri had a nice sophomore season and should be in the mix for a starting job on the perimeter (end or outside linebacker), while David Kenney could be a good fit as a 3-4 end. Defensive end Ryan Phillis is the team's most experienced lineman, and Zack Shaw also has some starting experience.

Iowa: This group should be the strength of the defense as Iowa returns three full-time starters -- tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and end Drew Ott -- as well as Mike Hardy, who started the second half of the season opposite Ott. End Dominic Alvis departs, but Iowa brings back almost everyone else from a line that allowed only eight rushing touchdowns in 2013. Junior Darian Cooper could have a bigger role and push for more playing time inside, and Nate Meier provides some depth on the perimeter after recording two sacks in 2013. Iowa is in good shape here.

Maryland: The Terrapins employ a 3-4 scheme and appear to be in good shape up front, as reserve Zeke Riser is the only rotation player to depart. Andre Monroe leads the way at defensive end after an excellent junior season in which he led Maryland in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17). Quinton Jefferson started at defensive end last season and recorded three sacks. There should be some good competition this spring at nose tackle between Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo, both of whom had more than 30 tackles last season. The challenge is building greater depth with players such as end Roman Braglio.

Michigan: If the Wolverines intend to make a big step in 2014, they'll need more from the front four, which didn't impact games nearly enough last fall. Michigan's strength appears to be on the edges as veteran Frank Clark returns after starting every game in 2013 and recording a team-high 12 tackles for loss. Brennen Beyer, who started the second half of last season, is back at the other end spot, and Michigan has depth with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. There are more questions inside as Willie Henry, Chris Wormley and others compete for the starting job. Young tackles such as Henry Poggi and Maurice Hurst Jr. also are in the mix, and Ondre Pipkins should be a factor when he recovers from ACL surgery.

Michigan State: The Spartans return the best defensive end tandem in the league as Shilique Calhoun, a second-team All-American in 2013, returns alongside Marcus Rush, one of the Big Ten's most experienced defenders. Joel Heath, Brandon Clemons and others provide some depth on the perimeter. It's a different story inside as MSU loses both starters (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover), as well as reserve Mark Scarpinato. Damon Knox, James Kittredge and Lawrence Thomas, who has played on both sides of the ball, are among those who will compete for the starting tackle spots. If Malik McDowell signs with MSU, he could work his way into the rotation.

Minnesota: Defensive tackles like Ra'Shede Hageman don't come around every year, and he leaves a big void in the middle of Minnesota's line. The Gophers will look to several players to replace Hageman's production, including senior Cameron Botticelli, who started opposite Hageman last season. Other options at tackle include Scott Ekpe and Harold Legania, a big body at 308 pounds. Minnesota is in much better shape at end with Theiren Cockran, arguably the Big Ten's most underrated defensive lineman. Cockran and Michael Amaefula both started every game last season, and Alex Keith provides another solid option after recording five tackles for loss in 2013.

Nebraska: Other than MSU's Calhoun, Nebraska returns the most dynamic defensive lineman in the league in Randy Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in his first FBS season. If the Huskers can build around Gregory, they should be very stout up front this fall. Nebraska won't have Avery Moss, suspended for the 2014 season, and players such as Greg McMullen and junior-college transfer Joe Keels will compete to start opposite Gregory. The competition inside should be fascinating as junior Aaron Curry and sophomore Vincent Valentine both have starting experience, but Maliek Collins came on strong at the end of his first season and will push for a top job.

Northwestern: It will be tough to get a clear picture of this group in the spring because of several postseason surgeries, but Northwestern should be fine at defensive end despite the loss of Tyler Scott. Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson all have significant experience and the ability to pressure quarterbacks. Odenigbo, who had 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, could become a star. The bigger questions are inside as Northwestern must build depth. Sean McEvilly is a solid option but must stay healthy. Chance Carter and Max Chapman are among those competing for starting jobs at tackle.

Ohio State: A total mystery last spring, the defensive line should be one of Ohio State's strengths in 2014. Noah Spence and Joey Bosa could become the Big Ten's top pass-rushing tandem, and the Buckeyes have depth there with Jamal Marcus, Adolphus Washington and others. Returning starter Michael Bennett is back at defensive tackle, and while Joel Hale might move to offense, there should be enough depth inside with Tommy Schutt, Chris Carter and Washington, who could slide inside. Nose tackle is the only question mark, but new line coach Larry Johnson inherits a lot of talent.

Penn State: Like the rest of the Lions defense, the line struggled at times last season and now much replace its top player in tackle DaQuan Jones. The new coaching staff has some potentially good pieces, namely defensive end Deion Barnes, who won 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors but slumped as a sophomore. Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan could form a dangerous pass-rushing tandem, but they'll need support on the inside, where there should be plenty of competition. Austin Johnson will be in the mix for a starting tackle spot, and early enrollees Tarow Barney and Antoine White also should push for time. Anthony Zettel provides some depth on the perimeter.

Purdue: The line endured a tough 2013 campaign and loses two full-time starters (tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. and end Greg Latta), and a part-time starter (end Ryan Isaac). Competition should be ramped up at all four spots this spring. Senior end Ryan Russell is the most experienced member of the group must take a step this offseason. Evan Panfil and Jalani Phillips will push for time at the end spots, along with Kentucky transfer Langston Newton. The group at tackle includes Ryan Watson and Michael Rouse III, both of whom started games in 2013.

Rutgers: Keep a close eye on this group in the spring as Rutgers begins the transition to the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lose two starters in end Marcus Thompson and tackle Isaac Holmes, as well as contributor Jamil Merrell at tackle. Darius Hamilton provides a building block on the inside after recording 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013, and end Djwany Mera is back after starting throughout last season. David Milewski played tackle last year, but both he and Hamilton likely need to add weight for their new league. Rutgers has some talent in the younger classes and needs players such as Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay and Julian Pinnix-Odrick to emerge.

Wisconsin: Linebacker Chris Borland is the biggest single departure for the Badgers' defense, but the no position group loses more than the line. Wisconsin must replace several mainstays, most notably nose tackle Beau Allen, who performed well in the first year of the 3-4 set under coordinator Dave Aranda. Senior Warren Herring will step in for Allen after three years as a reserve. Konrad Zagzebski is a good bet to fill one of the end spots, but there will be plenty of competition with players such as Jake Keefer, James Adeyanju, Arthur Goldberg and Chikwe Obasih.
Tags:

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, C.J. Olaniyan, Ryan Phillis, Louis Trinca-Pasat, DaQuan Jones, Konrad Zagzebski, Tyler Hoover, Larry Johnson, Micajah Reynolds, Warren Herring, Aaron Curry, Ra\'Shede Hageman, Harold Legania, Beau Allen, Austin Teitsma, Ryan Russell, Marcus Rush, Sean McEvilly, Lawrence Thomas, Dominic Alvis, Deion Barnes, Chance Carter, Max Chapman, Zack Shaw, Bruce Gaston Jr., Shilique Calhoun, Deonte Gibson, Michael Amaefula, Damon Knox, Darian Cooper, Jalani Phillips, Joel Hale, Jake Keefer, Anthony Zettel, Houston Bates, Tyler Scott, Carl Davis, Noah Spence, Nick Mangieri, Greg McMullen, Arthur Goldberg, Randy Gregory, Ryan Isaac, Tommy Schutt, Adolphus Washington, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Vincent Valentine, Jamal Marcus, Teko Powell, Greg Latta, Ryan Watson, James Kittredge, Tim Kynard, Mark Scarpinato, Chris Carter, Ralphael Green, Chikwe Obasih, Malik McDowell, David Kenney, Dawuane Smoot, Darius Latham, Nate Meier, Dean Lowry, Joey Bosa, Dave Aranda, Evan Panfil, Cameron Botticelli, Theiren Cockran, Avery Moss, Michael Rouse III, Drew Ott, Scott Ekpe, Antoine White, Alex Keith, Paul James, Joe Keels, Tarow Barney, Jihad Ward, Maliek Collins, Langston Newton, Joe Fotu, Andre Monroe, B1G spring positions 14, Quinton Jefferson, Keith Bowers, Darius Kilgo, Roman Braglio, Marcus Thompson, Isaac Holmes, Jamil Merrell, Djwany Mera, David Milewski, Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay, Julian Pinnix-Odrick, James Adeyanju

The Week 11 power rankings begin with a mea culpa.

Upon further review, we botched last week's rankings, when we had Minnesota behind both Michigan and Nebraska, largely because of the Gophers' loss to Michigan on Oct. 5. We should have had Minnesota in the No. 4 spot and Nebraska at No. 5. That's where we have the Gophers and Huskers after the Week 11 results. Both teams recorded big wins, but Minnesota's head-to-head win against Nebraska on Oct. 26 gives the Gophers the edge.

So, Nebraska fans, don't freak out when you see Big Red one spot below last week's rankings. That's on us. Both teams basically retain their positions.

Michigan, meanwhile, drops down the list, while both Iowa and Indiana move up. Penn State and Indiana trade places after the Hoosiers' come-from-behind win against Illinois.

Here's one final look at the Week 10 rankings.

Now for the new rundown ...

1. Ohio State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): The Buckeyes had the week off and watched their national championship stock improve a bit with Oregon's loss to Stanford. Style points should come into play from here on out, so the Buckeyes need to continue their dominant play this week at Illinois. Quarterback Braxton Miller attempted only four passes in his last game in Champaign. Just a hunch he'll have a few more this time.

2. Wisconsin (7-2, 4-1; last week: 2): Spurred by running back James White and a salty defense, the Badgers continue to impress as they angle for a potential BCS at-large berth. Wisconsin had a surprisingly easy time with BYU to complete non-league play at 3-1*, as White finished with 194 all-purpose yards (147 rush, 47 receiving) and three touchdowns. The defense held Taysom Hill and the Cougars in check for most of the game. Wisconsin remains at home this week as Indiana visits Camp Randall Stadium.

3. Michigan State (8-1, 5-0; last week: 3): Mark Dantonio's squad had an extra week to glow after a dominant performance against rival Michigan. The Spartans remain in the driver's seat in the Legends Division but face a Nebraska team that has beaten them each of the past two seasons. Running back Jeremy Langford, a big part of the Spartans' Big Ten surge, takes aim at a Huskers defense that has tightened up lately. A win in Lincoln moves Michigan State much closer to Indianapolis.

4. Minnesota (8-2, 4-2; last week: 6): What looked like a lost season for Minnesota in early October has turned into a special one. The Gophers have won four consecutive Big Ten games for the first time in 40 years. David Cobb continues to spark the power run game, and the defense limited Penn State to 10 points on Saturday. This isn't just a team using its coach's health situation for motivation. Minnesota is legit and could be a serious factor in the Legends race.

5. Nebraska (7-2, 4-1; last week: 4): Again, we had this wrong in last week's rankings, so we're not trying to punish a Huskers team that has revived its season the past two weeks. Nebraska's young defense is blossoming right now after recording season highs in both sacks (seven) and tackles for loss (15) in Saturday's dramatic win at Michigan. Running back Ameer Abdullah continues to sizzle, and defensive end Randy Gregory is a force. The Legends Division title could come down to this week's game in Lincoln, as Michigan State comes to town.

6. Iowa (6-4, 3-3; last week: 7): After a one-year hiatus, the Hawkeyes will go bowling again this season after a businesslike performance against Purdue in which they racked up 318 rushing yards, including 165 by Jordan Canzeri. Defense linemen Mike Hardy, Drew Ott and Louis Trinca-Pasat triggered a stout defensive effort as Iowa reached the six-win threshold. The Hawkeyes now have an opportunity to turn a decent season into a good one. They're off this week before hosting struggling Michigan on Nov. 23.

7. Michigan (6-3, 2-3; last week: 5): Two weeks ago, Michigan looked like the shakiest 6-1 team in the country. Now the Wolverines simply look shaken. They've endured the worst two-week stretch of rushing offense for any FBS team in the past decade, and quarterback Devin Gardner, who looked so confident after the Notre Dame win, has backslid. Whether it's growing pains with a young offensive line or a group not playing anywhere near its talent level, Michigan has some major issues right now. Fortunately for the Wolverines, their upcoming opponent Northwestern might be more of a mess.

8. Indiana (4-5, 2-3; last week: 9): The formula for success hasn't changed at Indiana, which can strike quickly and often on offense and win shootouts with just about anyone. Wide receiver Cody Latimer (11 receptions, 189 yards, three touchdowns) and running backs Tevin Coleman (215 rushing yards, two TDs) and Stephen Houston (150 rushing yards, two TDs) sparked Indiana to its highest points total (52) against a Big Ten opponent at Memorial Stadium and tying the school record for total yards (650). Who needs defense with an offense like IU's? But the Hoosiers still need a major upset on the road to become bowl-eligible and visit Wisconsin this week.

9. Penn State (5-4, 2-3; last week: 8): The grittiness Bill O'Brien's team has shown on its home field simply isn't there when Penn State leaves the comforts of Happy Valley. Things started poorly in Minneapolis with a Bill Belton fumble and didn't get much better, as Penn State couldn't contain Minnesota's offense or generate much from its own. Christian Hackenberg looked like a freshman at TCF Bank Stadium, completing just 14 of 25 passes with a fumble at the Minnesota 1-yard line. The Lions are fortunate to have any Big Ten wins at this point. They should get another this week as slumping Purdue comes to Beaver Stadium.

10. Northwestern (4-5, 0-5; last week: 10): The off week came at a good time for Northwestern, and not just because of its five-game slide. Coach Pat Fitzgerald listed 13 key players that would have been out if the team played on Saturday. Northwestern should be a little healthier when Michigan comes to town this week. The Wildcats are still trying to get their offense on track, as they must win two of their final three to become bowl-eligible.

11. Illinois (3-6, 0-5; last week: 11): For the second consecutive week, Illinois appeared on the brink of its first Big Ten win since 2011. And once again the Illini fell short, this time in a fourth-quarter collapse as Indiana scored the final 17 points to pull away. Illinois wasted huge performances from wide receiver Steve Hull (224 receiving yards, two touchdowns) and Nathan Scheelhaase (450 pass yards) as the defense couldn't stop Indiana when it counted. The losing streak likely will last another week as Illinois hosts Ohio State on Saturday.

12. Purdue (1-8, 0-5; last week: 12): First, the positives: Purdue scored a touchdown for the first time since Oct. 12 and ended a 200-play drought of no plays in the opposing red zone against Iowa. But the Boilers' offense didn't do much else, as the line continues its season-long struggles and the run game did nothing against a stout Iowa defense. Purdue couldn't stop Iowa's ground game, which piled up 318 yards. Darrell Hazell's crew visits Penn State this week.

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 3, 2013
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RIP, Country Mac.
  • The team-first approach is working wonders for Northwestern as it prepares for the biggest game on its campus in years. Wildcats receiver Tony Jones is ready to measure himself against All-American cornerback Bradley Roby.
  • Ohio State is putting on an aerial show early in the season, and the spread offense is well ahead of pace to shatter school records. History seems to be repeating itself as the Buckeyes try to manage their depth at running back, keeping both Carlos Hyde and Jordan Hall involved in the attack.
  • The ground game could help take pressure off Devin Gardner, and Michigan is ready to get Derrick Green involved to help do it. As for Gardner, he understands the public criticism that comes with the position and is just ready to play another game.
  • Positive reviews are rolling in for the Michigan State offensive line, which might be playing its best football in years just as it's needed most in time for a physical battle with Iowa. The chance to play defense helped Jamal Lyles pick between the Spartans and the Hawkeyes, but now he's embracing a role at tight end.
  • Jerry Kill isn't keeping his plan at quarterback a secret, but it's at least a possibility that Minnesota might play two of them at Michigan. Ra'Shede Hageman is finding other ways to evaluate his performance beyond just making sacks for the Gophers.
  • Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat have faced some adversity at Iowa, but the defense is better off with the defensive tackles around doing some heavy lifting in the trenches. The Hawkeyes have cut down on their penalties, becoming the more disciplined team they had set out to be.
  • Both father and son are grinders, though Donovonn Young gets to do his work on the football field carrying the football for Illinois. Working with one coordinator this season appears to be paying off for Nathan Scheelhaase.
  • Both Penn State and Indiana can put the pedal to the metal offensively, and the Nittany Lions know how critical shoring up their tackling will be this weekend. Controversial cut blocks are catching the attention of DaQuan Jones as he watches film of the Hoosiers.
  • Robby Howard wonders when "we don't leave" will be true for Indiana football fans. Cornerback Michael Hunter flashed on the scene then disappeared, but now he's back bigger and stronger for the Hoosiers (subscription required).
  • Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck goes way back with the coordinator calling the plays for Illinois this week, with mutual respect with Bill Cubit forged under hard-nosed coach Lou Saban. Randy Gregory is still waiting for a black shirt to show up in his locker.
  • Danny Etling is now the guy for Purdue at quarterback, and he's got one goal with his name on top of the depth chart. The two arrested Boilermakers are facing suspensions from coach Darrell Hazell.
  • Just midway through his junior season in high school, Wisconsin commitment Austin Kafentzis is already drawing comparisons to Johnny Manziel and Russell Wilson.
Big Ten spring football is finally in full swing as Iowa on Wednesday became the 12th and final league team to hit the practice field. The return to the gridiron can't come a moment too soon for the Hawkeyes, who went 4-8 in 2012, their worst record since coach Kirk Ferentz's second season at the helm (2000). It has been another offseason of transition for Iowa as Ferentz welcomes three new full-time assistants (Chris White, Bobby Kennedy and Jim Reid) for a second consecutive year. Finding a quarterback tops Iowa's spring agenda, and the team also needs to identify a center and more playmakers on both sides of the ball.

ESPN.com caught up with Ferentz on Wednesday to discuss the spring.

What are the main objectives for you guys this spring?

Kirk Ferentz: Like any spring, you've got a lot of players on a lot of different levels. You've got experienced players, and we're certainly counting on them improving and developing into leaders. You've got younger guys who have played, and you're hoping they're ready to play more proficiently. And then you've got other guys who, in some cases, are special-teams guys who have a chance to become offensive and defensive role players, or guys who haven't been on the field yet. So you have a lot of layers of players at different levels. The biggest thing is trying to gauge where they're at, and at the same time, you're trying to find out what they can do and pull a team together. It's always a fun period and a really interesting period.

How has the transition on the staff this year gone so far, especially in relation to last year? You had quite a long period without any changes on your staff.

KF: Last year was probably a little more dramatic with two new coordinators. Norm [Parker] and Ken [O'Keefe] were here 13 years, so they were big departures. We've got Phil [Parker] and Greg [Davis] both in their second years, and they're both tremendous coaches. What's unusual is how long we were all together at one time. Usually staffs don't stay in one place for 13, 14 years. Normally they move to the next channel and you have a new group of folks coming in. So it's a natural series of transitions. The way I look at it, we've had six new members join the staff in the last two years, and it's a matter of pulling everything together. But I'm really excited about all the guys who have joined. They're outstanding coaches, and it looks like they're all going to be great fits here at Iowa. At the same time, I'm very appreciative of the guys who had been here and helped us move things.

Is the transition harder for the players or the new coaches?

KF: There's learning on both sides. The players to have learn their coaches, certainly, and the coaches have a lot to learn about the players. That can be a healthy thing, too. It's a clean slate and a fresh beginning for everybody. For players, it's a whole new opportunity.

Offensively, it wasn't what you were hoping for last year. Is it a total reset this year with some new faces, or are there some things you can continue from last year?

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Byron Hetzler/USA TODAY SportsThough Kirk Ferentz lost his starting quarterback and center, he said he's more optimistic about Iowa's offense than he was a year ago.
KF: It may be ironic. We feel more comfortable and more optimistic right now than we did a year ago about the offense. The part that's ironic is we lost a two-year starter at quarterback [James Vandenberg]. We had James play a lot at quarterback and James Ferentz played like 38 games at center, so you have two guys right in the middle of things who aren't going to be there. But I look around at other positions and we've got a lot of guys coming back who have played in the system and who I think are more capable now of playing at a higher level than they were a year ago. That's got us excited. That being said, we've got to find replacements for both Jameses. We've got to find a replacement for Keenan Davis and Matt Tobin, to start with. But I look at the group coming back and as recent as late last August, we didn't know if Damon Bullock could play in this conference successfully, and we had no idea Mark Weisman could run the ball. So I think we're a lot further down the road than we were even eight months ago, 10 months ago.

When you and Greg looked at things, did you identify areas to target for the spring?

KF: Greg came in, this was all new to him, the players were all new to him. His knowledge of our personnel is a lot more extensive than it was a year ago at this time. And that was one of the reasons I was so attracted to Greg in the hiring process, his ability historically to work with a lot of different types of players and different types of offenses. He wasn't married to one system. There's nothing like experience, and he's got a real good grip on who our players are, what they can do and what we can do to help them be more productive.

(Read full post)

Iowa adds Chris White as RB coach

February, 22, 2013
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Iowa's extreme staff makeover continued on Friday, when the school announced that Chris White has joined the staff as running backs coach and special teams coordinator.

White spent the previous four years with the Minnesota Vikings, where he worked with special teams. Before that, he coached for nine years at Syracuse, overseeing receivers, tight ends and special teams at various times during that tenure. He was a four-year starting quarterback for Colby College in Maine. That state must hold a special place in Kirk Ferentz's heart, since his first head coaching job was at Maine.

This is White's first time coaching running backs. What's unclear is if he has any experience with exorcism or removing curses, and we hope he's ready to deal with the AIRBHG who keeps taking out vengeance on Hawkeyes ballcarriers.

White is the third new coach to join Ferentz's staff this offseason, along with new receivers coach Bobby Kennedy and Jim Reid, whom Ferentz said today would work with the linebackers along with LeVar Woods. Woods will also assist White with special teams. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker will coach the secondary.

This is the second straight year Iowa will have three new assistants, after having no staff turnover from 2008-11 and very little staff movement during Ferentz's first 13 seasons.

"We've been through a period of transition, but [we're] really enthused about the direction of things and really enthused about the group of guys that we have here," Ferentz told the media at an afternoon news conference.

As for recruiting areas, Ferentz said that Reid and offensive line coach Brian Ferentz would split up Chicago. Woods will work Kansas City and Texas, with Kennedy and offensive coordinator Greg Davis also hitting up the Lonestar State. White will recruit the East Coast, while Parker takes Ohio and Michigan.

Asked about cutting ties in recruiting Florida, Ferentz said this: "We're not going to shut the door in any area. We've four young guys out of that state right now in our program. ... We've definitely cut back our efforts down there the last six, seven years. ... But we'll keep a line open, definitely. If there is a reason to go there, we'll go there. If it looks like there is an interest on the prospects, we'll go anywhere."

Ferentz also said that defensive lineman Louis Trinca-Pasat and offensive lineman Nolan MacMillan had offseason surgeries and won't be available for spring practice. Both are expected back this summer.

Offensive linemen Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal, both of whom suffered season-ending leg injuries in the Penn State game, are recovering well, Ferentz said. Scherff is 100 percent now, he said, and Donnal will be ready when the Hawkeyes open spring practice March 27. Fullback Brad Rogers and linebacker Jim Poggi will no longer play for the team because of injuries.

Big Ten's best assistants in 2012

December, 12, 2012
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Head coaches are like quarterbacks. They get too much credit and too much blame.

Assistant coaches are like nose tackles. They don't get nearly enough credit despite playing vital roles.

Today, we'll change it up and give some recognition to Big Ten assistant coaches who did exemplary jobs with their position groups or, in some cases, units in 2012. Each of these coaches fostered improvement this season. Some took units in bad shape and made them better. Others took units in decent shape and made them very good. Some entered the season with skeptics and quieted them.

We came up with 13 assistants who deserve recognition. Yes, we realize we're leaving out some quality folks, but we had to cap it somewhere and wanted to spread the love around to the different teams.

Here's the rundown in alphabetical order:

Chris Ash, Wisconsin, defensive coordinator/secondary: All the attention on the offense's turbulent season took the spotlight away from the good things happening on the defensive side. Wisconsin finished in the top 25 nationally in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense. The Badgers held nine opponents to 21 points or fewer and gave an inconsistent offense chances to win every time out. Ash will be missed as he joins ex-Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema at Arkansas.

[+] EnlargeTim Beck, Bo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati Harnik, FileTim Beck, right, coordinated Nebraska's Big Ten-leading offense for head coach Bo Pelini.
Tim Beck, Nebraska, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks: The second-year play caller oversaw the Big Ten's top offense, which averaged 462.2 yards per game (24th nationally) and 35.1 points per game (28th nationally). Junior quarterback Taylor Martinez made significant strides under Beck's watch, and Nebraska survived the loss of star running back Rex Burkhead for most of the season thanks to contributions from Ameer Abdullah and others.

Tracy Claeys, Minnesota, defensive coordinator: An improved defense sparked Minnesota to a 4-0 start and eventually to bowl eligibility for the first time since the 2009 season. The Gophers pass rush showed life for the first time in years as senior end D.L. Wilhite and others put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Minnesota was especially good against the pass, ranking 11th nationally and 20th in pass defense efficiency. Although the offense remains a work in progress, Minnesota should be pleased with the direction on defense under Claeys.

Adam Cushing, Northwestern, offensive line: Cushing's recruiting ability always has stood out, but his coaching skills had been questioned as Northwestern struggled to convert promising line prospects into powerful blockers. The Wildcats went from a finesse offense to a power offense this season, blasting off of the line to the tune of 230.9 rush yards per game. Red zone offense went from a weakness to a strength as Northwestern tied for 17th nationally. Cushing's line paved the way for star running back Venric Mark.

Rich Fisher, Nebraska, wide receivers: Nebraska isn't known for its wide receiver play, but things are changing under Fisher's watch. Led by standout sophomore Kenny Bell, the Huskers' top three receivers combined for 1,657 yards and 11 touchdowns on 115 receptions. Just as important, the receiving corps helped Nebraska's bread-and-butter run game with effective blocking throughout the season. Fisher's hiring after the 2010 season raised some eyebrows, as he had taken a break from college coaching, returned to the high school ranks and also served as a golf instructor in Massachusetts. But he definitely looks like a great addition to Bo Pelini's staff.

Patrick Higgins, Purdue, wide receivers: Higgins played a significant role in Purdue's late-season surge, as he took over the offensive play-calling duties after coordinator Gary Nord suffered a severe back injury. Purdue won its final three games with Higgins and head coach Danny Hope handling the play calls. Higgins also did a nice job with Purdue's wide receiving corps, despite the fluctuating quarterback situation. Three veteran Boilers receivers eclipsed 40 catches and 300 receiving yards, and redshirt freshman Dolapo Macarthy showed promise.

Seth Littrell, Indiana, offensive coordinator/tight ends/fullbacks: Head coach Kevin Wilson brought in Littrell to boost Indiana's passing attack, and Littrell delivered despite losing starting quarterback Tre Roberson in Week 2. Indiana went from 80th nationally in pass offense to 19th, leading the Big Ten with 311.2 yards per game. With help from assistant offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kevin Johns, Littrell managed the quarterback situation pretty well as both Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld had success. Littrell will go largely unnoticed because of Indiana's low profile and 4-8 record, but he was one of the Big Ten's best coaching additions for 2012.

Curt Mallory, Michigan, secondary: Michigan's defensive line dominates the spotlight because that's where coordinator Greg Mattison and head coach Brady Hoke put their primary focus, but Mallory has done a really nice job with a secondary that struggled mightily under the previous regime. Despite losing promising cornerback Blake Countess to a torn ACL in the season opener, Michigan still finished second nationally (behind Nebraska) in pass defense (155.2 ypg allowed). Safety Jordan Kovacs has blossomed under Mallory's watch, and while the depth in the secondary isn't where it will be eventually, Mallory has managed things well.

[+] EnlargeBart MIller
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsBart Miller went from grad assistant to coach of a Wisconsin O-line that pummeled its way to Pasadena.
Bart Miller, Wisconsin, offensive line: Miller began the season as a graduate assistant and moved into one of the team's top assistant roles in Week 3 after the surprising dismissal of veteran line coach Mike Markuson. Although Wisconsin's line didn't have its typical dominant performances every time out, Miller fostered obvious improvement and cohesion during the course of the season. The finished product showed up in the Big Ten championship game against Nebraska, as Wisconsin bullied the Huskers to the tune of 70 points, 539 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns.

Reese Morgan, Iowa, defensive line: Iowa didn't have much to cheer about in 2012, and some of the staff changes Kirk Ferentz made led to some growing pains. Morgan faced a significant challenge in moving from offensive line to defensive line, which returned only a handful of players who had logged field time in 2011. Given the youth and inexperience along the Hawkeyes' defensive front, Morgan did a nice job in Year 1. Joe Gaglione had a nice senior season (9 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles) and young players like Louis Trinca-Pasat showed promise. The line held its own in the first half of the season before struggling late.

Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State, defensive coordinator: Many of these assistants took questionable units and improved them. Narduzzi led an elite defense that entered the season with high expectations and met them. Make no mistake: Michigan State's defense is the only reason the team found itself in every game this season. The Spartans had a few standouts, namely linebacker Max Bullough, but their overall team defense and stinginess stood out. Narduzzi is one of the nation's premier coordinators and should land a head-coaching job in the near future.

John Strollo, Penn State, tight ends: Although O'Brien's offense is a tight end's dream, Strollo did a terrific job of developing young and unproven players this season. Redshirt freshman Kyle Carter emerged into one of the Nittany Lions' top passing threats, and junior Matt Lehman and true freshman Jesse James also stepped up at times. Of Penn State's top five receiving-yards leaders this season, three players are tight ends (Carter, Lehman and James).

Ed Warinner, Ohio State, offensive line/co-offensive coordinator: Warinner took an underachieving Buckeyes offensive line with serious depth questions and turned it into quite possibly the best line in the league. The Buckeyes' front five turned a corner in Big Ten play and created lanes for Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde and the Big Ten's top scoring offense. Warinner was the Big Ten's best assistant hire of the last offseason and earns our vote as the league's top assistant in 2012.
Joe Gaglione and Matt McGloinUS PresswireJoe Gaglione and Iowa's staunch defense will try to stop Matt McGloin's surprisingly effective offense.
Image No 1: Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin dives into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter against Northwestern, his fifth rushing score in six games, as the Lions score 22 fourth-quarter points to rally for a 39-28 win. McGloin celebrates with the Aaron Rodgers championship belt move ... also known as the discount double check.

Image No. 2: After forcing two overtimes behind the strength of its defense, Iowa seals a 19-16 win against Michigan State when sophomore defensive lineman Louis Trica-Pasat deflects an Andrew Maxwell pass, and cornerback Greg Castillo comes down with it for an interception.

If you predicted either of these things happening two months ago, you might put Miss Cleo out of business. Or just hop the first plane to Vegas.

Expectations for both Penn State's offense and Iowa's defense were tempered before the season.

Penn State had the nation's 110th-ranked scoring offense in 2011 and this summer saw its top running back (Silas Redd) and top receiver (Justin Brown) transfer to other schools. Rob Bolden, the team's opening-day starting quarterback in each of the past two seasons, also transferred. The Lions' leading returning receivers were a running back (Curtis Dukes) and a fullback (Michael Zordich), who each had five catches in 2011. Their leading returning rusher, Dukes (237 yards), missed spring practice for academic reasons -- the time when new coach Bill O'Brien installed his NFL-style scheme. Penn State had zero proven offensive weapons entering the season.

Iowa's defense also featured more no-names than usual. The Hawkeyes, who had four defensive linemen selected in the NFL draft the past two years, turned to two seniors with limited production (Steve Bigach and Joe Gaglione) and another coming off of a serious knee injury (Dominic Alvis) to lead their front four. Freshman and sophomore defenders filled Iowa's preseason depth chart, particularly at the line positions. "This is our youngest team," Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said at preseason media day.

Yet midway through the season, both Penn State's offense and Iowa's defense are two of the more pleasant surprises in the Big Ten. The two units have been instrumental in Penn State's and Iowa's 2-0 starts to league play, and they'll match up against each other Saturday night when the Lions visit Kinnick Stadium.

"I'm not really surprised at all," McGloin told ESPN.com "I knew we had the talent on this team, and guys who were willing to put in the work to get the job done and learn this offense. I'm not really surprised at what I've done, or what Kyle Carter has done, or Allen Robinson or [Zach] Zwinak or [Michael] Zordich or the line."

McGloin leads the Big Ten in passing average (249.8 ypg) and is tied for the league lead in touchdown strikes with 12, four more than he had all of last season as Penn State's primary quarterback. With 1,499 pass yards through the first six games, he needs just 73 more to eclipse his season total from 2011.

Robinson, who had a grand total of three receptions as a true freshman for Penn State last fall, leads the Big Ten in receptions per game (6.8) and touchdown receptions. Penn State's other offensive standouts include Carter, a redshirt freshman tight end with 23 catches for 279 yards; and Zwinak, who had three carries for seven yards last year and now leads the team in carries (68) and rush yards (320). Zordich, a senior fullback, is a more familiar name but someone who hasn't had much of a chance to contribute until this season (37 carries, 167 yards, 10 receptions).

"It's an NFL offense," McGloin said. "This offense definitely gives guys an opportunity to showcase their ability and gives them a lot more recognition."

O'Brien's arrival has modernized Penn State's offense. Iowa, meanwhile, hasn't gone through dramatic scheme schedules defensively, although secondary coach Phil Parker moved into the coordinator role in the offseason following Norm Parker's retirement.

The defense has been better than expected from the start, holding Northern Illinois to 12 first downs and 201 total yards in the season opener. Iowa has surrendered 17 points or fewer in five of six games and allowed fewer than 350 yards in five of six games. While Penn State's offense isn't the strongest unit on its team, Iowa's defense undoubtedly deserves the label as the Hawkeye offense is still finding its identity.

"We're making progress," Ferentz said. "We were hopeful that we could during the course of the season. Some weeks have been a lot better than others, obviously, but the group's growing."

The defensive line, a major area of concern in August, has been a strength. Gaglione boasts eight tackles for loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles, while other linemen like Trinca-Pasat (three tackles for loss, two quarterback hurries) and Bigach (one sack, one forced fumble) have contributed.

Iowa has surrendered just five rushing touchdowns in six games.

"I knew they were going to go in there and be a help to the defense," linebacker Christian Kirksey told ESPN.com. "Coach Ferentz always talks about the next man in. As soon as Joe Gaglione and Steve Bigach jumped in, they were just eager and hungry to help out the defense."

The linebackers also have done their part. Veterans James Morris and Kirksey have combined for two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, three sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. Anthony Hitchens, a converted safety in his first season as a starting linebacker, leads the nation with 13 tackles per game (78 total).

"Iowa defense is built on one thing," Kirksey said. "Way back when Bob Sanders was here, way back when Adrian Clayborn was here, it was all still the same focus. We all grew around the tradition and we just took it to the field.

"We're a new group, but Iowa teaches the same lessons throughout the years."

McGloin sees it, too, calling the young Hawkeyes "a typical Iowa defense." O'Brien's system certainly isn't a typical Penn State offense, but that has been a good thing.

Although McGloin expected the unit to perform, his contributions as a rushing threat -- he had no rushing touchdowns in 2011 and just two in his career before this season -- are a bit of a surprise.

The only bad news: the discount double check is probably a thing of the past.

"I think I'm done with that," McGloin said, laughing. "That was just a one-time thing."

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 17, 2012
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We got binders full of links ...
 

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 7

October, 15, 2012
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Upon further review ...

Team of the week: Iowa. Well, look at who's tied atop the Legends Division standings. Many people had written off the Hawkeyes after they lost at home to Central Michigan (a team which has followed up that upset in Iowa City by losing to Northern Illinois, Toledo and Navy, all by double digits). But give credit to the resiliency of Kirk Ferentz's team. On Saturday, Iowa outslugged Michigan State on the road and won in double-overtime 19-16. It wasn't a pretty game, but the Hawkeyes showed toughness and grit. Don't count them out of the Big Ten race just yet.

Best game: Hope you stayed up late to catch Ohio State's 52-49 win over Indiana, the Big Ten's version of Big 12 football. There were blocked punts, onside kicks, a 15-point Indiana rally in the final minutes, 1,059 total yards and way more tension than we usually associate with Buckeyes-Hoosiers matchups. You might have liked Iowa-Michigan State more if you enjoy, you know, actual tackling. But this kind of game is fun every once in a while, too.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Sandra Dukes/US PresswireBadgers RB Montee Ball had one of his best games of the season on Saturday against Purdue.
Biggest play: Let's go back to East Lansing and the second overtime period, when defensive lineman Louis Trinca-Pasat deflected a pass from Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell, causing the ball to sail through receiver Keith Mumphery’s hands and into the waiting embrace of an Iowa cornerback. That was a fitting end to a game that was all about defense.

Best play: The play of the day in the Big Ten happened around midnight, when Indiana's Nick Stoner leaped out of bounds to grab an onside kick and toss it back into the field of play. Stoner showed off the athleticism that allows him to star on Indiana's track team. D’Angelo Roberts recovered, and the Hoosiers went in for a score and two-point conversion for the game's final margin. Indiana's final onside kick was also brilliantly executed and conceived, but Ohio State's Corey Brown made a game-saving catch as he was all alone on his side of the field.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Wisconsin's Montee Ball has had quite a career, so when he sets a career high, that's saying something. His 247 yards (on 29 carries) versus Purdue were a personal best. His three touchdowns also gave him 72 for his career, moving him past Ron Dayne as the Big Ten's all-time leading touchdown maker. He needs seven more to break the NCAA record. If he keeps playing like he did Saturday, he'll smash it.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Michigan's Jake Ryan collected 11 tackles, including 3.5 for loss and a sack, and forced a fumble in the Wolverines' 45-0 annihilation of Illinois. We'd say he's playing like his hair is on fire, but his golden locks are so long it might take him a while to feel any follicular conflagration.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Iowa's Mike Meyer was 4-for-4 on field goals, including two in overtime and the 42-yard game winner against Michigan State. Meyer has made 14 out of 15 this year and has connected on his past 13 attempts. For a team that struggles to score, Meyer has been extra valuable.

Worst hangover: Michigan State. Adam and I are frantically going back through all our offseason blog posts and erasing the word "State" every time we picked Michigan State to win the Big Ten in 2012. At this point, the Spartans are not even guaranteed of making a bowl game, sitting at 4-3 with tough games left against Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern, plus a trip to Minnesota. How'd we miss so bad on the Spartans? Neither of us thought their offense would be this dreadful. And while their defense has been very good, it has had to be heroic to carry the entire team, and that's asking too much every week. Michigan State has somehow lost three home games this year after it had won 15 in a row at Spartan Stadium. The Notre Dame and Ohio State losses were forgivable to a degree. Losing to an Iowa team that had only 257 total yards and one touchdown? Not so much.

Strangest moment: There are helmet-to-helmet hits, and then there are, apparently, shoulder-to-decal hits. That's what happened in Saturday's Northwestern-Minnesota game. Wildcats safety Ibraheim Campbell collided with Gophers tailback Donnell Kirkwood so solidly that most of the gold "M" on one side of Kirkwood's helmet came off on the play. Campbell got the worst of that hit, but Northwestern got the 21-13 road win.

The Legends Division race just got a lot more interesting.

Iowa, a team many wrote off after an inexcusable home loss to Central Michigan on Sept. 22, rallied for its third straight win, outlasting Michigan State 19-16 in two overtimes in a game offensive football forgot. After stumbling offensively for most of the game, Iowa scored the tying touchdown with 55 seconds left in regulation and secured the win when cornerback Greg Castillo picked off a deflected pass by Andrew Maxwell in the second overtime.

The Hawkeyes did it with defense at Spartan Stadium, and they did it in overtime without star running back Mark Weisman, who suffered an injury after scoring the tying touchdown. A defensive line that entered the season with major question marks once again stepped up, as Joe Gaglione played well and Louis Trinca-Pasat had the deflection that led to Castillo's pick. Kicker Mike Meyer once again was fabulous for Iowa, going 4-for-4 on field goals to make it 13 in a row.

Both offenses were hard to watch most of the game, repeatedly running pass plays short of the marker on third downs and showing little continuity. In a play that epitomized the game, Michigan State entered field goal range late in the first half and couldn't get the right personnel on the field ... to spike the football. The teams combined for just two touchdowns, 26 first downs and 12 third-down conversions on 37 attempts.

Michigan State's Maxwell, who appeared to make strides last week at Indiana, completed just 12 of 31 pass attempts. Iowa's James Vandenberg wasn't much better, averaging a meager 3.7 yards per completion. But Iowa's defense bought the offense enough time, holding Michigan State to a short field goal midway through the fourth quarter. Weisman, who had been held in check, finally came alive late and finished with 116 rush yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. Michigan State star Le'Veon Bell had 140 rush yards and a touchdown but couldn't get in the end zone in overtime.

The loss cemented Michigan State as the Big Ten's biggest disappointment of the first half and one of the biggest in the country. Picked by many, including both Big Ten bloggers, to win the league in August, the Spartans now have lost three games at Spartan Stadium, where they won every game they played in both 2010 and 2011. Michigan State lacks the quarterback and the killer instinct it had the past two seasons and now faces a brutal stretch -- Michigan (road), Wisconsin (road) and Nebraska (home). The Spartans could be out of the race by the end of October.

Kirk Ferentz's squad, meanwhile, is the only Legends Division team with two division victories as it returns home to face Penn State in prime time. Iowa still must visit Northwestern and Michigan but can make a strong push if it takes care of business as home.

Ferentz, by the way, recorded his 100th win at Iowa. It's one he'll surely savor.

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 12, 2012
10/12/12
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Let's get this one, birds on the bat.
"Improvement-driven" has been a buzzword for Iowa football under Kirk Ferentz. And no position on this year's Hawkeyes is taking that phrase more to heart than the defensive line.

The players there have heard all the criticisms: They're too young. Too inexperienced. Didn't play well enough last year. Aren't good enough for Iowa to win big this season.

So there's plenty of fuel for that drive to improve.

"We have a lot of people questioning us," junior defensive end Dominic Alvis said. "That's OK. The way we can shut them up is with our play. It starts right now, in practice each day. We're being improvement-driven, like coach says."

Alvis and Steve Bigach are the only defensive linemen with any starting experience, and that amounts to 13 games total. Alvis began last season playing at defensive tackle, even though he was only about 255 pounds. He said he felt "uncomfortable" playing inside but did so because the team needed him there.

He moved to his more natural position of defensive end by the third game and came up with a sack and a forced fumble against Pitt. He had a pair of tackles for loss against Northwestern and was playing well against Michigan until a torn ACL ended his season.

"I really thought I was kind of getting into my groove" before the injury, he said.

Now, Alvis -- who missed spring practice -- finds himself healthy and about 10 pounds heavier. But he's trying to regain the mental edge he had in the middle of last fall.

"It's amazing how those tools and skills diminish as you're sitting on the couch for six months after an injury," he said. "I'm getting back to that each day and can feel it coming along, but it's a process."

Alvis also has a new position coach in Reese Morgan, who moved over from coaching the offensive line to tackle the young defensive front. Morgan recruited Alvis out of high school, so the relationship there was good from the start. Alvis sees Morgan making a difference with the line.

"The thing he does best is, he is a teacher," Alvis said. "He can make anybody understand the most complex things in very simple terms. We're learning the defense conceptually and honing in on the smallest details needed to beat offensive linemen. Obviously, he's worked with offensive lines, so he knows their weaknesses and plays. He gives us some tips here and there, and it's great to have."

Asked which young players were standing out in camp, Alvis pointed to freshman Darian Cooper, sophomore Louis Trinca-Pasat and sophomore Carl Davis, the latter of whom is a talented player who has turned some heads at Iowa's open practices. The ability is there; it's a matter of putting it all together.

"Consistency is the hardest thing to master," Alvis saud. "Play after play, focusing on technique and being perfect at it is the hardest thing you'll ever do. You have to be able to play four quarters in Big Ten games."

The Hawkeyes are flying under the radar in the Big Ten, largely because of questions about that defensive line. All they can do is focus on improvement and hope to prove doubters wrong.

Home run summer: Iowa

June, 21, 2012
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Our series continues looking at a player or a group of players from each Big Ten team who needs a home run type of summer before preseason camp begins. Who needs to hit it out of the park in preparation for the season?

For previous entries, click here.

In the batter's box: Iowa

Who needs to step it up: The defensive linemen

After years of producing All-Big Ten players and NFL draftees, Iowa's defensive line looks dangerously inexperienced and undermanned entering the 2012 season. The Hawkeyes' spring depth chart lists two redshirt freshmen (Darian Cooper and Riley McMinn) in starting positions, alongside two seniors (Steve Bigach and Joe Gaglione) who combined for 32 tackles last season and haven't been a big part of the plan. Help is on the way as tackles Dominic Alvis and Carl Davis return from injuries, but the overall group has many more questions than answers. Iowa should be solid and potentially very good in the defensive back seven, but most defenses sink or swim with their lines. This summer is huge for Iowa's younger defensive linemen, players like Cooper and McMinn and Louis Trinca-Pasat and Melvin Spears. They're going to be thrown into the fire to varying degrees, and they're going to need to perform. It's also big for a player like Bigach to establish himself as a leader. We talked about that this spring, and Bigach understands the responsibility on his shoulders and the importance of upholding the tradition along the front four. I was a bit skeptical at first about assistant Reese Morgan moving from offensive line to defensive line with so much youth there, but Morgan's veteran expertise should help the young players. Iowa's defensive line will be a work in progress for much of the season, but a strong summer could raise the ceiling for the group this fall.

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