Big Ten: Paul Petrino

The Big Ten is rich and getting richer in the coming years. So how is the investment translating with football programs?

Not surprisingly, recruiting expenses are on the rise throughout the league. The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette's Scott Dochterman recently outlined Big Ten recruiting costs for the last three fiscal years, which shows that the league's 11 publics schools spent $6.47 million in recruiting in FY 2013, up from $4.1 million in FY 2011. Northwestern, a private institution, does not have to publicly report its expenses.

What stands out about these numbers?
  • Nebraska has spent more on recruiting than any Big Ten team in the past two seasons: $818,509 in 2013 and $752,681 in 2012. Bo Pelini's program is trying to boost its presence in Big Ten territory, maintain a presence in Texas and California, and scoop up prospects from the fertile Southeast. That costs money, and Nebraska's geography doesn't help.
  • Illinois is second in recruiting expenses for the second consecutive year, devoting $791,972 in FY 2013. I'll say this for Illinois: It invests enough in football. The program shelled out for former coordinators Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning. Tim Beckman shouldn't complain about his recruiting budget. But the investment needs to start showing returns very soon.
  • If asked which Big Ten school spends the least on recruiting, few folks likely would select Wisconsin. Like Nebraska, Wisconsin faces geographical challenges in recruiting and, under former coach Bret Bielema, ramped up its efforts in Florida for players such as James White and Aaron Henry. But these numbers show Wisconsin spent by far the least on recruiting in FY 2013 ($256,967) and, unlike other Big Ten programs, hasn't had dramatic increases the past two years. Assistant salaries were an issue for Bielema, who lost quite a few top aides in his final two seasons. I wonder how the recruiting budget impacted his decision to leave for Arkansas, and how the investment could change for coach Gary Andersen.
  • Penn State has had the biggest increases in recruiting investment, going from $258,800 in FY 2011 -- the second-lowest total in the league -- to $443,022 in FY 2012 and then to $736,739 in FY 2013, the third-highest total in the league. The program spent much more under Bill O'Brien than it did during the end of the Joe Paterno era, and the investment should continue to increase under James Franklin, one of the more aggressive recruiters in the country.
  • Although Ohio State spent about $200,000 more on recruiting in FY 2013 than FY 2012, the Buckeyes are in the bottom half of the league in expenses. Geography is a big reason, as they don't have to travel nearly as far as other league programs to scout some of the top players in the Big Ten region.
  • It's interesting that Michigan's recruiting costs actually went down from FY 2011 to FY 2012 before going up to $664,492 in FY 2013. The Wolverines signed top-10 recruiting classes in 2012 and 2013.

A lot of interesting numbers here. Recruiting costs will continue to rise around the FBS, and it will be interesting to see which Big Ten teams invest more in non-coaching, recruiting-specific staff. Programs in other leagues -- cough, SEC, cough -- have been on hiring sprees, causing a lot of national discussion about limiting staff size.
Assistant coach salaries are on the rise throughout college football, and the Big Ten is no exception. If you're interested in how much coin Big Ten assistants are making, be sure and bookmark this excellent list put together by Joe Rexrode of the Lansing State Journal. Rexrode compiled assistant salary information from 10 of the league's 12 programs (Northwestern and Penn State don't disclose assistant coach salaries).

Most of this information has been publicized in team-by-team form, but it's interesting to examine from a league-wide perspective. Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell and Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison are the league's highest-paid assistants, both earning $750,000. Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges ($550,000) is next, followed by Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi ($500,000), who recently received a raise that more than doubled his previous salary ($233,000).

Several of the Big Ten's highest-paid assistants from 2011 -- Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning -- since have left the league for other jobs.

Here are the totals paid for assistants among the 10 schools reporting salaries:

1. Ohio State -- $3.22 million
2. Michigan -- $2.755 million
3. Illinois -- $2.314 million
4. Michigan State -- $2.18 million
5. Iowa -- $2.16 million
6. Nebraska -- $2.13 million
7. Wisconsin -- $1.973 million
8. Indiana -- $1.96 million
9. Minnesota -- $1.745 million
10. Purdue -- $1.61 million

When factoring in the head coach salaries, the rankings look like this:

1. Ohio State -- $7.22 million
2. Iowa -- $6.035 million
3. Michigan -- $6.009 million
4. Nebraska -- $4.905 million
5. Wisconsin -- $4.571 million
6. Michigan State -- $4.098 million
7. Illinois -- $3.914 million
8. Minnesota -- $3.445 million
9. Indiana -- $3.22 million
10. Purdue -- $2.535 million

The Big Ten had 40 overall coaching changes during the past offseason (head coach and assistant). Here are the highest-paid new assistants among the programs reporting salaries (not including assistants promoted internally).

1. Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers -- $450,000
2. Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman -- $420,000
T-3. Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks -- $400,000
T-3. Illinois co-offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales -- $400,000
T-3. Illinois co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty -- $400,000
6. Ohio State co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Ed Warinner -- $350,000
7. Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis -- $300,000
8. Wisconsin offensive coordinator Matt Canada -- $265,000
T-9. Purdue defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar -- $250,000
T-9. Indiana offensive coordinator Seth Littrell -- $250,000

Some thoughts:
  • It's no surprise Ohio State paid top dollar for head coach Urban Meyer, but the school also has increased its commitment for assistant coaches. Former coach Jim Tressel had a fairly anonymous staff for a big-time program, and while there were good coaches on it, you knew the overall financial commitment would need to be increased. The Buckeyes have three assistants making more than $400,000. Interestingly enough, Illinois is the only other Big Ten squad listed here with three aides at the $400,000 mark.
  • As Rexrode points out in his post, Michigan State's staff was a major bargain before the recent raise. The Spartans paid approximately $1.6 million for a staff that helped them to 21 wins in the past two seasons. The pay increases put Michigan State fourth in the Big Ten in assistant coach pay, which sounds about right.
  • Illinois' athletic director transition from Ron Guenther to Mike Thomas didn't change the school's approach toward rewarding assistants. Guenther allowed former coach Ron Zook to open the coffers after a disappointing 2009 season and land high-priced coordinators (Petrino and Koenning). While new Illini head coach Tim Beckman ranks eighth in the league in salary, he was allowed to spend a lot for his staff, which includes just one holdover (D-line coach Keith Gilmore, who earns $200,000). It's why Illinois ranks third in the league in assistant coach pay.
  • Wisconsin's staff turnover after the Rose Bowl resulted in lower overall compensation, which isn't a huge shock because of Chryst's departure. It's a bit surprising that Badgers coordinators Chris Ash (holdover from staff) and Matt Canada (new addition) are near the bottom of the league in coordinator pay. Wisconsin did spent a good amount for new offensive line coach Mike Markuson ($255,000).
  • Some Nebraska fans I've heard from complain that Bo Pelini's staff lacks prestige, given the program's tradition and resources. The Huskers have a mostly young staff that ranks in the middle of the league in compensation. Pelini lured new secondary coach Terry Joseph for $230,000, while new defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski made the move from Iowa and will earn $195,000. Kaczenski is a bargain in my view.
  • Anyone else find it odd that Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker, promoted during the winter from secondary coach, makes $1,000 more than new offensive coordinator Greg Davis? While it's nice for Iowa to reward Parker's loyalty as a position coach, the $1,000 difference seems a little trivial, especially since Davis has been a coordinator for decades.
  • Purdue pays less for assistant coaches than the nine other Big Ten schools reporting information here. Penn State obviously doesn't rank at the bottom in paying assistants, and I've been told Northwestern doesn't, either. Factoring in head coach Danny Hope's salary, and Purdue's overall coach compensation is significantly lower than others, including its arch-rival Indiana. Boilers fans, how do you feel about this?
When Illinois decided to retain head coach Ron Zook after a miserable 2009 season, it gave him a nice allowance to hire new coordinators.

Paul Petrino, who Zook hired to run Illinois' offense, became the Big Ten's highest-paid assistant in 2010 at $475,000. No other Big Ten aide earned more than $400,000 that year. Petrino's salary increased to $525,000 in 2011.

Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning earned a little more than $325,000 in 2010, making him the league's third highest-paid assistant. He received a $17,000 raise last fall.

Both Petrino and Koenning are gone after Illinois' coaching transition, but the school remains willing to pay competitive salaries for its coordinators.

According to The (Champaign) News-Gazette, Illinois will pay a total of $1.2 million in 2012 for its three coordinators: Tim Banks (defense), Billy Gonzales (co-offense) and Chris Beatty (co-offense). Each coach will earn $400,000.

Assistant coach salaries are on the rise nationally, and the Big Ten had been lagging behind other leagues in paying its top assistants. Michigan changed the game a bit in hiring defensive coordinator Greg Mattison for $750,000. Urban Meyer's new staff at Ohio State is making nearly $1 million more than the previous staff, and Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who nearly left for the same post at Texas A&M, has a sizable raise coming his way.

Illinois fans should be encouraged that their program remains willing to pay up for assistants. More Big Ten programs need to take this approach to remain competitive.

It's a bit surprising, though, that both Gonzales and Beatty are earning so much as first-time coordinators. Banks has been a defensive coordinator since 2007.

Here are the salaries for Tim Beckman's assistants at Illinois:
  • Billy Gonzales, co-offensive coordinator/receivers: $400,000
  • Chris Beatty, co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks $400,000
  • Tim Banks, defensive coordinator/safeties $400,000
  • Luke Butkus, offensive line $200,000
  • Mike Ward, linebackers $200,000
  • Keith Gilmore, defensive line: $200,000
  • Tim Salem, special teams coordinator/running backs: $200,000
  • Alex Golesh, tight ends/specialists/recruiting coordinator: $150,000
  • Steve Clinkscale, cornerbacks: $150,000
One team lost its final six games and fired its coach. The other team finished with a losing record and fired its coach. Still, they're both going to play a bowl game in San Francisco, and one team has to win it. Let's take a look at the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl essentials:

WHO TO WATCH: Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus. The junior leads the nation with 14.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles. He showed up on everybody's All-America team and will almost certainly head to the NFL after this game. So he may be primed to go out with a bang against a UCLA offensive line that is decent but not overpowering. Bruins tackle Jeff Baca may need some help containing the explosive Mercilus off the edge.

WHAT TO WATCH: The Illini defense has been strong all season, but can the offense generate anything? After starting the season well, Illinois averaged just 11 points per game in its six straight losses to end the year. The offensive line was a mess, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase appeared to lose his confidence -- not surprising, considering how little time he was given to throw. Leading rusher Jason Ford is academically ineligible for the bowl, and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino bolted for Arkansas, leaving quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm in charge of the playcalling. If Scheelhaase can get some protection, he has one of the top receiving threats in the country in A.J. Jenkins. But that's a big if.

WHY TO WATCH: Well, you need something to do while getting ready to go out for New Year's Eve, right? We can't pretend this isn't one of the least appealing bowl matchups, given the complete lack of momentum or enthusiasm on either side. But, hey, it's still a Pac-12 vs. Big Ten meeting in California, even if this is about as far away from the Rose Bowl as you can get. Both teams have talent and tradition, and both will be looking to impress their new incoming head coaches.

PREDICTION: Illinois 17, UCLA 9. I have little confidence in the Illini's ability to do much offensively. But the Illinois defense will be the best unit on the field and should be motivated to play for Vic Koenning, the defensive coordinator/interim head coach who is leaving after the game. It probably won't be pretty -- except for the background shots of San Francisco.
Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase views the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl as the start of a new season.

It's hard to blame him. The Illini offense needs a fresh start after flat-lining in its final six games. According to Scheelhaase, the unit will look a bit different against UCLA on Saturday in San Francisco.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanConsistency will be a major focus for Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase next season.
Quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm has taken over the play-calling duties for offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, who earlier this month left for the same position at Arkansas. Brohm has spent the past few weeks installing some new elements for a unit that averaged just 11 points and 268.7 yards during the second-half slide.

"It's a little bit like preparing for your first game," Scheelhaase told ESPN.com this week. "Every team has stuff that they ran from last year, and for us, we had stuff that we ran from the season. But there's a lot of new things that we've installed, a lot of new stuff we're running going into this game that should put the defense on their heels a little bit.

"I think it will be a big benefit for us."

Brohm's knowledge of the personnel helped him implement some new wrinkles with the offense, and Scheelhaase said the amount of install didn't overwhelm him and his fellow teammates.

It's critical for Illinois to put Scheelhaase in favorable positions in the bowl game. The sophomore recorded fewer than 100 pass yards in three of his final four games and split time with freshman Reilly O'Toole. Scheelhaase also struggled down the stretch last year but made significant strides against Baylor in the Texas Bowl, completing 18-of-23 attempts for 242 yards in a 38-14 Illini win.

"My confidence really doesn't waver," Scheelhaase said. "That's due to preparation and due to just a strong work ethic. That part doesn't change. You've just got to make sure the rest of the guys around you are keeping their confidence.

"We've still got the players, we've still got the talent and it helps that we're doing some new things right now."

Illinois can't escape the disappointment from the way the regular season ended, but the team can still make a bit of history Saturday afternoon at AT&T Park. The Illini have a chance to win back-to-back bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time.

A victory would be a nice springboard for Scheelhaase and the other players set to return and play for new coach Tim Beckman in 2012.

"To win back-to-back bowl games, no other quarterback that's come through this school has done that," Scheelhaase said. "To do that in the first two years would be a heck of an accomplishment. And the guys around me have the same thing in mind, to be a part of something special."

Season recap: Illinois

December, 7, 2011
12/07/11
11:30
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ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI

Record: 6-6 (2-6 Big Ten)

Even the most cynical observers and Ron Zook disbelievers couldn't fathom Illinois being in its current predicament back on Oct. 14. The team was off to a 6-0 start, its best since 1951. Illinois boasted one of the nation's top passing combinations in quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and receiver A.J. Jenkins, and defensive end Whitney Mercilus was living up to his surname. The consistency that had eluded Illinois for the better part of the past two decades finally seemed to be in place.

And then it all disappeared. Illinois dropped its final six games, becoming the first FBS team to start 6-0 and finish the regular season at 6-6. A once-potent offense flat-lined, failing to score in a half of each of the final six contests. It spelled the end for Zook, the team's seventh-year coach, who was fired Nov. 27, a day after his team's uninspiring performance against 3-8 Minnesota.

Things began to go downhill during an Oct. 15 home game against struggling Ohio State, which won 17-7 despite completing just one pass and attempting four. Illinois' offensive backslide came as a surprise to just about everyone. Scheelhaase struggled and lost snaps to backup Reilly O'Toole, while the offensive line took significant steps back and opposing defenses began taking Jenkins out of the equation.

Illinois' defense continued to play well, particularly in an agonizing loss at Penn State, and Mercilus and others put up impressive numbers. Yet it wasn't enough to save Zook or a once-promising season.

Offensive MVP: Jenkins. The senior had a blistering start, racking up 815 receiving yards and seven touchdowns on 46 receptions through the first six games. Jenkins' yards production declined after defenses realized he was Illinois' only consistent offensive weapon, but he still had six or more receptions in four of the final six regular-season contests. Jenkins was the Big Ten's only semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award.

Defensive MVP: Mercilus. Like Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan in 2010 and Michigan's Brandon Graham in 2008, Mercilus' individual production was somewhat overshadowed by his team's subpar record. The junior had one of the more dominant seasons of any defender in college football, leading the nation in both sacks (14.5) and forced fumbles (9), the latter mark setting a new Big Ten record. Mercilus led the Big Ten and tied for fifth nationally in tackles for loss (19.5). Linebacker Jonathan Brown (102 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, six sacks) also merits a mention.

Turning point: The Ohio State game. Illinois came in at 6-0 and was expected to handle the slumping Buckeyes at Memorial Stadium. Instead, Ohio State held Illinois scoreless for more than 53 minutes and prevailed 17-7 despite completing just one pass. It began a troubling trend for Illinois, which failed to score in a half of each of its final six games, all losses.

What's next: First-year athletic director Mike Thomas is looking for a head coach, which he hopes to name soon. The Illini will head to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco later this month to face UCLA, which also fired its head coach (Rick Neuheisel). Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has been tabbed to serve as head coach in the bowl, although offensive coordinator Paul Petrino already has left the team and other assistants could follow. The new coach probably can't arrive soon enough.
Illinois will be without another major piece of its coaching staff for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against UCLA.

The school fired head coach Ron Zook one day after a season-ending loss at Minnesota. Now, offensive coordinator Paul Petrino is jumping ship and reportedly heading back to Arkansas to coach for his brother, Bobby. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning is the Illini's interim head coach, but he said Sunday night that there's no guarantee he wouldn't leave before the bowl game if he found the right opportunity elsewhere.

Losing Petrino causes more uncertainty for the players, but perhaps this offense could use a shakeup right now.

Like his brother, Paul Petrino is an excellent playcaller, and Illinois averaged 32.5 points per game during his first season as coordinator last year. The offense was scoring at a similar clip in the first half of this year, but it suddenly ground to a halt over the last six games, all losses. The Illini averaged just 11 points per game in the final six and put up at least one scoreless half in each of those games. You can't blame that all on Petrino, but it was odd how the offensive line got worse as the year went along and how quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase's production and confidence dipped after a strong freshman campaign.

One of the main reasons Petrino left Arkansas was because he wanted to become a head coach, and he felt he needed to get out of his brother's shadow to do so. When Koenning was named interim coach, it became clear that Petrino wasn't going to succeed Zook. Now he heads back to Fayetteville to replace Garrick McGee, who was named head coach at UAB.

Quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm reportedly will serve as Illinois' offensive coordinator for the bowl game. Brohm has experience as a playcaller, having served as offensive coordinator at Louisville under Steve Kragthorpe. He also was an assistant under Bobby Petrino at Louisville and helped tutor his brother, Brian, at quarterback. His knowledge of the Petrino-style offense should make this as smooth a transition as possible, and Brohm deserves a shot at being a coordinator again after getting a raw deal in his one year under the embattled Kragthorpe.

Ultimately, the Illinois coaching situation won't start to settle until athletic director Mike Thomas hires a new head coach.

First take: Big Ten bowl lineup

December, 5, 2011
12/05/11
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We've had some time to digest the bowl selections and examine the Big Ten's bowl lineup for this season.

Here are some thoughts after looking over the bowl landscape:
  • As usual, the Big Ten's bowl lineup will be challenging, but not as daunting as it was last year. Having two teams in BCS bowls every year makes things tougher for the squads in non-BCS bowls, especially given the locations of the games. It's vital for the Big Ten to get at least a split in the BCS bowls. Although Oregon is a tough draw, Wisconsin can put up points and control possession time. Michigan State exposed Wisconsin's lack of speed on defense, and Oregon will try and do the same. Wisconsin will need a bunch of eight-minute scoring drives to win this game.
  • Michigan will be a popular pick against Virginia Tech, which has been miserable in BCS bowls, but those thinking the Wolverines will roll the Hokies should tone it down a bit. If Denard Robinson limits mistakes, he'll be a tough matchup for Virginia Tech.
  • The SEC-Big Ten matchups look more favorable after the Big Ten embarrassed itself against its rival conference in last year's bowls. Nebraska's offense will be challenged by South Carolina's ferocious defense, but the fact the Huskers are so run-oriented should help them against a team that is good but not great against the run. Michigan State and Georgia are evenly matched, and while the Spartans are disappointed after their Big Ten title game loss, they should be motivated to get their first bowl win under Mark Dantonio. As Dantonio said last week, the Spartans showed in the 2011 Capital One Bowl that they weren't BCS-worthy. They have another chance to change perception against Aaron Murray and Georgia, and they must take advantage. Ohio State and Florida both are mediocre, but I like this matchup for the Buckeyes, who should benefit from bowl practice. Buckeyes linebacker Andrew Sweat (concussion) should be back, and he'll provide a big boost against an anemic Gators offense.
  • The Big 12-Big Ten matchups are by far the toughest on paper, and it's tough to see the Big Ten doing any better than a 1-1 split. Iowa and Northwestern both are sizable underdogs against Oklahoma and Texas A&M, respectively. Although Oklahoma has been the most overrated team in America for much of the season, the Sooners boast a lot of talent. Iowa has been fabulous in bowls under Kirk Ferentz, but the Insight Bowl will be a major test. Texas A&M's motivation could be an issue for the Aggies, who saw their coach fired last week. This would play into Northwestern's favor, as the Wildcats will be geared up to get their first bowl win since the 1949 Rose. But Northwestern's defense has been pretty awful for most of the season, and without top cornerback Jordan Mabin, the Wildcats could struggle against a dangerous A&M offense.
  • Speaking of motivation, it will be the key factor for Penn State in the TicketCity Bowl. The Lions deserved a better bowl after going 9-3, and the players were unfairly punished for a situation they had no part in creating. As you can see here and here, Penn State players weren't too thrilled about their bowl placement. If Penn State shows up to play, the Lions have a great chance to beat Houston, which showed itself to be a fraud in the Conference USA title game. The Cougars can't stop the run, and Penn State's Silas Redd should have a huge day in Dallas. But if the Lions don't care, Case Keenum could shred them.
  • Ricardo Allen and Purdue's secondary will be tested by Western Michigan's passing attack, led by quarterback Alex Carder and receiver Jordan White. It's another good opportunity for Allen to showcase his skills against an elite wideout. The Boilers will miss top running back Ralph Bolden (knee), but they have other backfield options and face the nation's No. 107 rushing defense. Pretty even matchup in Detroit.
  • It's hard to know what to expect from Illinois or UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco. Both teams had their coaches fired, and both had disappointing finishes to the season. Will Illinois coordinators Vic Koenning and Paul Petrino, both in the mix for other jobs, still be around to coach the game? Illinois' defense should be able to contain a UCLA offense that averages just 23.8 points per game. But if the Illini offense doesn't figure things out and show life for the first time since early October, it likely won't matter.
  • Remember that a .500 record typically qualifies as a strong bowl performance from the Big Ten, which faces the nation's toughest lineup almost every year. It's crucial the Big Ten wins at least one of its BCS games and performs better against the SEC. If the Big Ten can get 5-6 wins with one BCS victory and a 2-1 mark against the SEC, the bowl season should be deemed a success. But there aren't many gimmes in the lineup and could be another rough year for the league.

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl

December, 4, 2011
12/04/11
11:27
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Illinois Fighting Illini (6-6) vs. UCLA Bruins (6-7)

Dec. 31, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Illinois take from Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett: A bowl game is a San Francisco treat for Illinois, which lost its final six games of the season and fired head coach Ron Zook.

The Illini secured bowl eligibility on Oct. 8, beating Indiana to improve to 6-0 and move into the top 20 of the polls. From there came a stunning free fall, thanks in large part to an offense that forgot how to move the ball; Illinois scored just 66 total points in its final six games after averaging nearly 30 in the first half of the season. The offensive line is a mess, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase seems to have regressed in his sophomore year.

The one constant was the defense. Defensive end Whitney Mercilus leads the nation in sacks (14.5) and forced fumbles (nine, a Big Ten record). No wonder, then, that defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was named interim head coach when the school canned Zook. But Koenning says there's no guarantee that he and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino won't leave for other employment before the bowl game.

The Illini's finish made them so unappealing that they got shut out of the Big Ten's bowl lineup. So San Francisco is a nice landing spot, and UCLA -- a 6-7 team that also fired its head coach --- seems like the most fitting opponent.


UCLA take from Pac-12 blogger Ted Miller: UCLA is heading to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl with an interim coach and losing record. Yeah, it's been that kind of season.

Coach Rick Neuheisel began the season on the hot seat and he couldn't get off it. Only once could the Bruins win consecutive games. The offense ran the ball well but struggled to find any balance with a consistent passing game. And the defense was just terrible.

Things got off to a bad start with a loss at Houston. Neuheisel had made a big deal in the preseason of how important the game was, and the Bruins had stomped the Cougars the previous year. But the Bruins got off to a slow start and couldn't finish a comeback. Then, after a win over San Jose State, the Bruins got clubbed at home by Texas, another team they had beaten the year before.

Then they started alternating wins and losses, beating Oregon State, losing to Stanford and beating Washington State. Things cratered -- it seemed -- in a loss at Arizona, which had just fired coach Mike Stoops.

But then the Bruins beat California and Arizona State back-to-back. Both were upsets. And the combination suddenly put the Bruins in the drivers' seat of the reeling South Division. But the Bruins couldn't maintain. They lost to Utah, beat Colorado and then got crushed 50-0 against rival USC.

The UCLA coach needs to be competitive with the Trojans, and Neuheisel wasn't on Nov. 26 and hasn’t been during his tenure. So he was fired, even though the Bruins backed into the Pac-12 title game. The loss to Oregon dropped the Bruins to 6-7, but they nonetheless will play in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl after the NCAA granted it a waiver.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Multiple times during his introductory news conference Monday, new Ohio State coach Urban Meyer talked about putting together the very best staff he can.

All coaches say that, of course. But Meyer has walked the walk before, leading a very talented staff at Florida that included, among others, Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen, Louisville head coach Charlie Strong, Temple head coach Steve Addazio, Marshall head coach Doc Holliday and Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.

[+] EnlargeGene Smith and Urban Meyer
AP Photo/Terry GilliamGene Smith said Ohio State will pay for the type of staff Urban Meyer wants.
"In 2005 -- I know this is a little biased -- I think we put together the best coaching staff maybe in college football history," Meyer said. "I know that's a profound statement. But what those guys did, the recruits they brought in and the run that team went on, with the great players, the style of offense, defense and kicking game ... my goal is to find that kind of group of coaches again."

Bringing in that kind of all-star staff takes one thing above all else: money. And athletic director Gene Smith says Ohio State is willing to pony up.

"We'll put in place the resources necessary to attract the staff that Urban feels he needs," Smith said.

The Buckeyes haven't exactly been cheap in the past. Former coach Jim Tressel was making more than $3.5 million per year before his forced resignation. Meyer just signed a six-year deal with $4 million annually, plus many incentives. Offensive coordinator Jim Bollman and defensive coordinator Jim Heacock were among the top-paid assistants in the Big Ten, each making $309,000.

But Tressel's staff was often mostly anonymous. And one of the gaps between the Big Ten and other leagues, especially the SEC, has been pay for assistant coaches. According to one recent study, the Big Ten ranked only fourth in assistant football coach compensation, behind the SEC, Big 12 and ACC.

Meanwhile, pay for some assistants in the Big Ten has spiked recently. Michigan is paying Mattison $750,000 a year. Illinois gave offensive coordinator Paul Petrino $525,000, while Wisconsin raised offensive coordinator Paul Chrysts's salary to more than $400,000.

Meyer is keeping current head coach Luke Fickell on staff, likely as defensive coordinator and assistant head coach. You've got to figure that Fickell, who was making $775,000 to be the head coach, won't take much of a pay cut.

Meyer said he'll be looking for the right fit when hiring assistants and would love to have coaches with "any kind of Ohio background." However, that won't preclude him from hiring someone with no ties.

"The way I do it, if you're the best secondary coach in college football, I'm going to try to get you to come here coach at Ohio State," he said. "If you're the best offensive line coach, I'm going to do my very best to get you to come here."

Doing the very best means offering a highly-competitive salary. Ohio State is one of the richest athletic departments in the country, so it can afford to dive into this pool. And Smith says he will.

"If you look at Urban's term sheet, it's probably in the top five [among highest paid head coaches]," Smith said. "Two teams in our league have really jumped up [in assistant pay], and Michigan is one of them. So I have to change my thought process and my philosophy."

Ron Zook tenure ends at Illinois

November, 27, 2011
11/27/11
2:52
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Illinois has done the expected by firing Ron Zook after a historic collapse this season. The next step will be the hard one for first-year athletic director Mike Thomas.

Zook finishes his Illini career at 34-51, though there were some successes. He led the program to the 2008 Rose Bowl, where it was blown out by USC. Illinois is bowl eligible at 6-6 this season, and if the team is selected for the postseason, that would mark the first back-to-back bowl years since 1991-92.

But Zook also had four losing seasons out of seven and was nearly fired in 2009. Instead, he was allowed to return with two new coordinators -- Vic Koenning on defense and Paul Petrino on offense. That worked for a 7-6 record and Texas Bowl win over Baylor last year, and the Illini started this year 6-0 and ranked in the top 20.

That only set the stage, however, for an palindromic 0-6 finish in which the team often looked lost on offense and special teams, the latter of which was supposed to be Zook's area of expertise. The season ended with a 27-7 loss to Legends Division cellar-dweller Minnesota in which Illinois mustered only one first down in the entire first half.

“I assessed the entire program and felt that it was time for a change in leadership,” Thomas said in a statement. “It is imperative that our program shows some consistency and competes for championships, and I think a change in coaches can help us get there sooner."

A change was necessary, since Zook had never shown the ability to consistently compete at a high level, either in Champaign or at his previous head-coaching stop at Florida. His job status was hovering over the program and fans had long since lost faith in his ability to get the job done. It's better to do this now and get started on the coaching search. Koenning will serve as interim coach now and through a possible bowl game, and the players will somehow have to regroup after the deflating losing streak and this transition.

Meanwhile, Thomas now is under the gun to bring a winner to Illinois. And that earlier stat about the back-to-back bowl appearances illustrates just how hard it's been for anyone to consistently deliver. Thomas has already hired one big-time winner, bringing Brian Kelly aboard at Cincinnati and seeing that team make consecutive BCS bowl appearances. He hired Butch Jones to succeed Kelly, and Jones has the Bearcats on the verge of a Big East championship this year in his second season.

Thomas will try to do the same with the Illini, who don't have it easy in trying to battle Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State in the Leaders Division. The program got as far as it was going to go under Zook. Can Thomas find somebody to take it farther?

Halftime: Illinois 17, Wisconsin 7

November, 19, 2011
11/19/11
1:22
PM ET
Illinois is playing inspired football, and Penn State is loving every minute of it.

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

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

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

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

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

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 11

November, 10, 2011
11/10/11
10:15
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Ten things to watch around the Big Ten as a pivotal Week 11 slate of games kicks off on Saturday.

1. Penn State with no JoePa: For the first time since 1965, Penn State will play a game without Joe Paterno as its head coach. Paterno's firing Thursday night shook a program that had been rattled to its core throughout the week. Senior Day at Beaver Stadium will take place without the most famous senior of all. How will Penn State players respond? How will the fans respond after an outpouring of emotion Wednesday night? It's a very big game for this team and these seniors, but they'll be truly challenged to keep the focus on the task at hand.

[+] EnlargeSilas Redd
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarSilas Redd and Penn State take the field after difficult week in State College.
2. Tom Bradley: The longtime Penn State defensive coordinator steps into the uncomfortable position of acting head coach following Paterno's ouster. Bradley must keep the focus on the players and not on the firestorm outside the program. He'll need help from his fellow assistants, including former head coaches like Galen Hall and Ron Vanderlinden. While many think Penn State's assistants have coached the team for years, Saturday will mark the first time Paterno is totally out of the equation.

3. A date with destiny: Michigan State and Iowa are the only two Legends Division teams that control their own fate in the Big Ten championship race. Only one squad will walk out of Kinnick Stadium on Saturday with that label still in place. Iowa has won seven consecutive home games in the series, including a 37-6 spanking of the then-undefeated Spartans last season. Michigan State hasn't been the same team away from home and must come out with better energy, particularly on offense, after struggling in a 24-3 loss at Nebraska on Oct. 30. The Hawkeyes haven't lost at home this season, but haven't played a team as complete as Michigan State.

4. Chasing the record: Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, or "Moneyball," as we like to call him, needs two touchdowns to tie the Big Ten single-season record of 26 held by three players (Ohio State's Pete Johnson in 1975, Indiana's Anthony Thompson in 1988 and Penn State's Ki-Jana Carter in 1994). Ball has scored at least two touchdowns in every game this season and leads the nation with 24 scores in 2011. He'll try to make history as Wisconsin puts Paul Bunyan's Axe on the line at Minnesota.

5. Starting blocks in Champaign: Michigan and Illinois are trying to get back in the win column, and both teams are looking for stronger starts. The Wolverines have throttled opponents after the first quarter, but have been outscored in the first 15 minutes. The Illini have failed to score in the first half in each of their past three games, all losses. Ron Zook wants his Illinois team to play loose, while offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said it comes down to the basics. Illinois needs to show up offensively against a Michigan team that typically gets better as games go along.

6. Rex vs. Silas: Still undecided about the Big Ten's best running back? You're not alone. Two of the top candidates square off Saturday in State College as Nebraska's Rex Burkhead goes up against Penn State's Silas Redd. Both men have been their teams' most consistent offensive performers this season. Redd comes off of a bye week after recording a historic performance in October, rushing for more than 100 yards in five consecutive games and leading all FBS players with 703 rush yards during the month. Burkhead, who was a bit banged up in last week's loss to Northwestern, has eclipsed 100 rush yards five times in the past seven games.

7. Cousins' chance at redemption: Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins grew up a big Iowa fan and has a few Hawkeye alums in his immediate family. But he has yet to record a win against Iowa as Michigan State's starting quarterback, losing a 15-13 heartbreaker in 2009 and struggling in last year's game, throwing three interceptions, including a pick-six. Cousins gets one final shot at Iowa on Saturday, and it's a huge game for the senior and his Spartans teammates. Iowa has been vulnerable against the pass at times this season, so Cousins and his receivers will look to stretch the field.

8. Axe to grind: Speaking of final chances, Minnesota senior safety Kim Royston gets one last crack at Wisconsin, his former team, on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. Royston began his career as a Badger before transferring to Minnesota, where he has faced some hurdles, including a broken leg that sidelined him all of last season. The NCAA granted Royston a sixth year of eligibility, and he has made the most of it as one of few bright spots for Minnesota's defense, leading the Big Ten in solo tackles (51). The Gophers have been playing much better ball as of late, and they hope to shock Wisconsin and regain the Axe on Saturday. Said Royston: "I've been having those visions [of hoisting the Axe] ever since I left there."

9. Buckeyes' boiling point: After looking flat at times last week against Indiana, Ohio State knows it can't afford a similar performance this week at Purdue. The Boilers are one of those teams, like Illinois, that seems to give Ohio State trouble. Ohio State stumbled at Purdue in 2009, putting its Big Ten title hopes in jeopardy. Another loss Saturday likely would take Ohio State out of the Leaders Division race. Buckeyes' running backs Dan Herron and Jordan Hall both are dealing with ankle injuries. Herron is expected to play and Hall could return after missing the Indiana game.

10. Bowl push continues: Northwestern (4-5) and Purdue (4-5) both need two more wins to become bowl eligible, and the quest resumes Saturday on their home fields. After a potentially season-turning win at Nebraska, Northwestern returns home to face 3-6 Rice, which has a victory over, yep, Purdue. Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said his team won't be overlooking the Owls, who can put up plenty of points. Purdue, meanwhile, returns home after consecutive blowout losses on the road against Wisconsin and Michigan. The Boilers are 2-0 in Big Ten home contests and need at least one of the next two (Ohio State, Iowa), plus the finale at Indiana to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2007.
Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino entered the season brimming with confidence, and for good reason.

His unit had set team records for scoring (423 points) and points per game (32.5) in 2010 and returned most of its key pieces, namely quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Most of the questions about Illinois rested with a defense that had lost three players to the NFL draft, including first-round pick Corey Liuget.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
Jerry Lai/US PresswireQB Nathan Scheelhaase, 2, and the Illinois offense have struggled the past three games.
"We're always going to set our expectations high," Petrino told ESPN.com in August. "We set the school record last year, and we're going to break it this year."

Petrino looked prophetic through the first six games, as Illinois averaged 34.7 points and 447.7 yards. The Illini recorded 32 plays of 20 yards or longer. Scheelhaase and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins formed the Big Ten's most dangerous passing connection, as Jenkins soared to the top of the national receiving chart with 815 yards and seven touchdowns.

A surprisingly effective defense complemented the offense, and Illinois swept its first six games to get off to its best start since 1951.

But the Illini since have backslid, dropping three straight games. While the defense continues to perform well, the offense has disappeared.

Illinois has scored only 28 points during the losing streak, including none in the first half and only seven before the fourth quarter. Amazingly, the Illini had more yards and more first downs than any of its past three opponents -- Ohio State, Purdue and Penn State -- and dropped all three contests.

What's wrong with the Illini offense? It's not complicated, according to Petrino.

"Blocking, protecting, throwing and catching -- the basics," Petrino told ESPN.com. "You've got to block people. You've got to hit people when they're open. You've got to catch the ball. And then you've got to run through some tackles. Just the basic stuff we've got to do better. We've kind of hurt ourselves from that standpoint in the last three games.

"We've got to do it better."

They need to start Saturday against No. 24 Michigan at Memorial Stadium. Illinois' once-promising season could go down the drain if the offense doesn't resurface.

A potential turnaround for the Illini starts with the offensive line, considered one of the Big Ten's best before the season. Illinois boasts experience up front and continuity, as there has been only one change in the starting lineup all season.

But Illinois' front five has struggled against some of the Big Ten's best defensive linemen, allowing too many negative-yardage plays. Opposing teams have recorded 24 tackles for loss and eight sacks during Illinois' losing streak.

"A lot of times we've been getting beat up front," Petrino said. "That doesn't necessarily mean it's always the O-line. Sometimes it's the tight end or the back, [and the] quarterback a couple times needed to get the ball out of his hands quicker."

Petrino also is looking for more big plays. Jenkins and Scheelhaase provided a bunch of them early in the season, but defenses have done better at limiting Jenkins' effectiveness the past three games.

Illinois has recorded just three plays of 20 yards or longer in the past three games -- all passes from Scheelhaase to Jenkins.

"Some of the other guys have got to do it, too," Petrino said. "Darius Millines did it early in the year and he was hurt for a while, but I think he's getting back, being closer to being 100 percent, so that will help. Jon Davis, our freshman tight end, has made some plays for us. Ryan Lankford has got to start making some plays.

"And then in the running game, we've got to bust through the holes and get some long runs, also."

Senior running back Jason Ford has been a bright spot, recording 183 rush yards on 34 carries in the past two games. But Ford's longest run this season is just 18 yards.

"Bottom line, defenses are too good this day and age if you go three, four yards the whole time," Petrino said. "You've got to get some big plays."

Illinois also needs to start games better, especially against a Michigan team that has improved as games go along. The Illini averaged 17.5 points in the first half through the first six games, but they've since limped out of the gate.

"We haven't played worth a darn in the first quarter of the last three games," Petrino said. "It's something we take pride in. We script our opening plays and we work on them all week.

"So we've got to go out and play fast and definitely get going early."

Saturday would be a good time for a better start.

Big Ten stock report: Week 8

October, 19, 2011
10/19/11
4:05
PM ET
If my rap's soup, this post is stock.

Stock up

Dan Herron: The Ohio State running back sat out the first five games as part of the tattoo scandal, then missed a sixth game because of a summer job-related suspension. He returned last week as if he'd never been gone, rushing 23 times for 114 times and scoring his team's only offensive touchdown in a 17-7 win over Illinois. Guess he was worth the wait.

Michigan State's offensive line: The Spartans had three new starters at the beginning of the season up front, then had to replace two guys because of injury. They struggled establishing a running game the first five weeks. But last week against Michigan, the line paved the way for 167 yards rushing by Edwin Baker and generally pushed the Wolverines around. Mark Dantonio said Dan France played with the most confidence he's had all season, while Fou Fonoti and Travis Jackson also showed strong improvement. If the line keeps playing like that, with the way Michigan State's defense is performing, the Spartans will be hard to beat.

Marcus Coker: Much was expected from Coker after his huge finish to 2010, but Iowa's sophomore running back was inconsistent earlier this season and had had some fumbling problems. He had perhaps his best game last weekend against Northwestern, running 22 times for 124 yards and two touchdowns and showing the power that got people got so excited about him in the first place. "It was almost like he'd been thinking a little too much when he'd been back there," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "I thought Saturday was clearly the most decisive he's been in terms of just going with the cut. He looked a little more aggressive as a result of that. Hopefully we're on the right track."

Stephen Houston: Kevin Wilson isn't real happy with his running game, but Houston has at least given Indiana something to work with. A junior-college transfer who had signed with North Carolina and ended up in Bloomington just before fall camp, Houston ran for 135 yards on 19 carries, including a 67-yard touchdown, last week at Wisconsin. He had 138 total yards a week earlier against Illinois. "He had to kind of play himself into shape," Wilson said. "He has practiced well for three or four weeks and has some good momentum."

Nate Stupar: Michael Mauti's season-ending knee injury looked like a big blow for the Penn State defense, and no doubt the Lions would love to have their star linebacker. But Stupar has stepped in superbly and helped keep the defense air tight. He came up with the interception that sealed last week's win over Purdue. "Now our problem would be if something happened to Stupar," Joe Paterno said. "But Stupar has played well. I think there's no question about that."

Stock down

Against the Wind: Maybe the Big Ten should eliminate Chicago as a potential title game destination in the future. Based on what we saw this weekend, league quarterbacks would not enjoy the Windy City. The Purdue-Penn State, Michigan-Michigan State and Ohio State-Illinois games were all affect by severely windy conditions. The quarterbacks in those games went a combined 70-of-146 (47.9 percent accuracy). More hot dog wrappers hit Michigan receivers than Denard Robinson pass attempts. Ohio State had the best idea -- run the ball 51 out of 55 times. The Buckeyes scored as many touchdowns off an interception return as they did their own offense.

Purdue's special teams: Carson Wiggs may have the strongest leg in the league, but it's not always a precision-based tool. He missed an extra point and a 44-yard field goal try and sailed a kickoff out of bounds to aid a Penn State scoring drive as the Boilermakers lost by just five points. But it wasn't all Wiggs' fault (and the wind certainly didn't help him). Purdue's kickoff coverage team let Chaz Powell go 92 yards on a return to set up the game's final field goal. The Boilers don't have enough margin for error to give away points and so much field position on special teams.

Carlos Hyde's Twitter feed: The Ohio State running back rushed for more than 100 yards against Nebraska and then mostly stayed on the bench against Illinois as Herron returned. Hyde let out his frustration on Twitter, typing "Guess I'm not good enough. Take myself elsewhere." Hyde later deleted the tweet, but not before a flood of rumors began about him transferring. Unhappiness is understandable, but there are better forums to express it.

Illinois' rushing game: The Illini boasted a powerful ground assault earlier in the season against some lesser opponents, but against Ohio State that running game was mostly, uh, grounded. They managed just 116 yards on 35 carries, an average of only 3.3 yards per attempt. Two games earlier, Illinois had just 82 rushing yards versus a shaky Northwestern defense. Paul Petrino's offense is at its best when it is balanced, and that starts with a strong rushing game.

Eggheads: I realize strength of schedule plays a huge role and that these things will even out over time, but some of the BCS computer rankings of Wisconsin are laughable. My favorite is the Massey Ratings, which has the Badgers 17th, or one spot behind Nebraska, despite the tiny fact that Wisconsin beat the Huskers by 31 points. Massey also has Texas ranked 11th. Um, OK. Colley Matrix isn't much better with the Badgers at 14, while Peter Wolfe puts them 12th. I don't need any software to know that their wiring is all wrong.

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