Big Ten: Pittsburgh Steelers

Although my interest in Super Bowl XLV started to evaporate around 7 p.m. Sunday night, the Big Ten still will be well represented Feb. 6 at JerryWorld.

The Big Ten is the only conference to have at least one player from every member institution participating in the Super Bowl. The league will send 18 former players to Arlington, Texas, second most behind the SEC (20) and ahead of the ACC (14), Big 12 (13), MAC (13) and Pac-10 (10).

Here's the rundown of former Big Ten players and coaches in Super Bowl XLV:


  • Dom Capers, defensive coordinator (assistant at Ohio State from 1982-83)
  • Joe Philbin, offensive coordinator (assistant at Iowa from 1999-2002)
  • Ben McAdoo, tight ends coach (assistant at Michigan State in 2001)
  • Darren Perry, safeties coach (played at Penn State from 1988-91)
  • Mike Trgovac, defensive line coach (played at Michigan from 1977-80; assistant at Michigan from 1985-86)

  • Dick LeBeau, defensive coordinator (played at Ohio State from 1956-58)
  • Randy Fichtner, quarterbacks (assistant at Purdue from 1985-86 and at Michigan from 1986-87)
  • Harold Goodwin, offensive assistant (played at Michigan from 1992-94; assistant at Michigan from 1995-96)
  • Kirby Wilson, wide receivers (played at Illinois from 1980-81)

Pretty good group overall.

If you're projecting the next Super Bowl MVP, you might want to look at this list. The Big Ten has produced the past two Super Bowl MVPs (former Purdue QB Drew Brees and former Ohio State WR Santonio Holmes) and four of the past nine winners.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Kirk Ferentz's calm and controlled demeanor is his hallmark, but the Iowa head coach has run through the full gamut of emotions in the last two years. His team endured three mediocre seasons from 2005-07 and stumbled off the field with a wave of player arrests in 2007 and the first half of 2008. With some suggesting Ferentz was on the hot seat, Iowa rebounded last fall to go 9-4 and became the lone Big Ten team to win its bowl game (Outback). The Hawkeyes regained their swagger on defense and punished teams with Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene. Ferentz restored his reputation as one of the league's top coaches, but he came under fire recently after several more player arrests, including his son, James, an offensive lineman for the Hawkeyes.

Ferentz is hoping for continued improvement on the field and much better conduct off of it in 2009. Iowa likely enters the fall as a top-20 team but must fill several holes on both sides of the ball. Here's an excerpt from our conversation last week in Iowa City (get Ferentz's thoughts on the recent arrests here).

You mentioned before the spring that the margin for error here is still small. Do you still sense a hunger among the guys even after such a strong finish in 2008?

Kirk Ferentz: If there's not, we'll have a tough time. Nobody's going to mistake us for Southern Cal. Their backups are a little different than ours, so we better have an edge and we better be trying to maximize what we have.

Do you know more about this team that you did at this point last year?

KF: We're a more experienced team. Last year at this time, we had a lot of work to do. That's the way it is every year here typically. We have more experienced players coming back, but we still have a lot of things that are unanswered, things that we need to see get resolved. Hopefully, we'll be able to replace the guys that we lost and fill some needs, and hopefully, sooner than later.

Most people look at your program and think, 'No Shonn Greene, no Shonn Greene.' But the two guys in the middle of the defensive line, [Mitch] King and [Matt] Kroul, are they almost bigger losses?

KF: I don't know if we've had anybody be a four-year starter outside of Bruce Nelson in our 10 years. That's pretty unusual, and those guys both played well in 2005 as redshirt freshmen, so it's a huge loss in terms of experience, production, also leadership. Those guys were both great leaders. So there's a loss there, but the good news there is we've got two ends who have played [Christian Ballard and Adrian Clayborn]. It's almost like the flip of last year. We were green on the outside, and now we're green on the inside. So far, the competition inside has been good. We're going to be OK.

(Read full post)

  AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
  For the second year in a row, a Big Ten receiver made the game-winning touchdown grab in the Super Bowl. This year it was former Ohio State standout Santonio Holmes.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

For the second straight year, a former Big Ten wide receiver made the winning touchdown catch in the Super Bowl with exactly 35 seconds left in regulation.

And this time, he took home MVP honors.

Former Ohio State star Santonio Holmes made an electrifying grab in the back of the end zone to lift Pittsburgh past Arizona 27-23 in Super Bowl XLIII on Sunday night. Holmes, who made news earlier in the week with an admission that he sold drugs as a kid, had nine receptions for 131 yards to win the game's MVP award.

He's the first Big Ten player to win the award since former Michigan quarterback Tom Brady claimed the second of his two trophies in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Five former Big Ten players -- Brady, Holmes, Len Dawson (Purdue), Desmond Howard (Michigan) and Franco Harris (Penn State) -- have been named Super Bowl MVP.

Holmes' performance came a year after former Michigan State wide receiver Plaxico Burress caught a 13-yard touchdown to complete the Giants' comeback against Brady and the Patriots.

The Super Bowl was an impressive showcase for the Big Ten, which certainly needed a boost. The Big Ten will continue to take flak for its bowl performances, but arguably no league better prepares its players for the NFL.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Former Michigan linebacker LaMarr Woodley had the Steelers' only two sacks and forced a Kurt Warner fumble that sealed the victory with five seconds remaining.
  • Former Minnesota running back Gary Russell scored the game's first touchdown, a 1-yard run for the Steelers early in the second quarter.
  • Former Michigan wide receiver Steve Breaston had six catches for 71 yards to go along with 43 yards on kickoff and punt returns for the Cardinals.
  • Former Purdue linebacker Chike Okeafor finished second on the Cardinals in tackles with six tackles (all solo).
  • Former Minnesota tight end Matt Spaeth and former Illinois fullback Carey Davis both had a reception for six yards with the Steelers.
  • Former Illinois kicker Neil Rackers connected on all three of his extra-point attempts for the Cardinals. He did not attempt a field goal.
  • Former Penn State tackle Levi Brown started for the Cardinals and gave Warner time to rack up 377 pass yards and three touchdowns against the vaunted Steelers defense.

Big Ten's Super Bowl connections

January, 22, 2009

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

As we inch closer toward Super Bowl XLIII, it's time to look at the Big Ten connections for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals.

Michigan has the most connections with seven players on the active roster for the matchup, including Steelers starting linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Larry Foote and Cardinals reserve wideout and punt returner Steve Breaston. Penn State and Minnesota also are well represented.


  • Safety Tyrone Carter -- attended Minnesota
  • Fullback Carey Davis* -- attended Illinois
  • Guard Trai Essex -- attended Northwestern
  • Linebacker Larry Foote* -- attended Michigan
  • Wide receiver Santonio Holmes* -- attended Ohio State
  • Tight end Sean McHugh -- attended Penn State
  • Nose tackle Scott Paxson -- attended Penn State
  • Running back Gary Russell -- attended Minnesota
  • Tight end Matt Spaeth -- attended Minnesota
  • Linebacker Lamarr Woodley* -- attended Michigan
  • Linebacker Mike Humpal (injured reserve) -- attended Iowa
  • Running back Rashard Mendenhall (injured reserve) -- attended Illinois
  • Update: Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau -- attended Ohio State and played cornerback
  • Wide receivers coach Randy Fichtner -- attended Purdue and served as a graduate assistant for both the Boilermakers and Michigan
  • Running backs coach Kirby Wilson -- Played his final two seasons at Illinois


  • Defensive tackle Alan Branch -- attended Michigan
  • Wide receiver Steve Breaston -- attended Michigan
  • Tackle Levi Brown* -- attended Penn State
  • Linebacker Victor Hobson -- attended Michigan
  • Long snapper Nathan Hodel -- attended Illinois
  • Defensive end Kenny Iwebema -- attended Iowa
  • Defensive end Chike Okeafor* -- attended Purdue
  • Kicker Neil Rackers* -- attended Illinois
  • Tight end Jerame Tuman -- attended Michigan
  • Defensive tackle Gabe Watson -- attended Michigan
  • Defensive line coach Ron Aiken -- coached Iowa's defensive line from 1999-2006, earned AFCA Division I Assistant Coach of the Year honors in 2002
  • Defensive backs coach Teryl Austin -- coached defensive backs at Michigan from 1999-2002 and served as a graduate assistant at Penn State from 1991-92
  • Linebackers coach Bill Davis -- Served as a graduate assistant at Michigan State

* -- starter

Big Ten mailbag

August, 6, 2008

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg 

To quote White Sox broadcaster Ken "Hawk" Harrelson, I love e-mail. Even from you haters out there (quick tip for future correspondences: Moron is spelled with two O's, not three).

This is long overdue, and I apologize. The frequency will be much better once the season starts.

Let's get to it. 

John from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Hi Adam, Just a comment on the "longevity" aspect to rivalries. I don't feel like it should be the reason to discount the Ohio State - Illinois rivalry. The Illibuck trophy has been passed between the two for longer than any trophy in the Big Ten besides the Little Brown Jug. They even played the game as the regular season finale for a number of years at the beginning (1919-1933). I mean, you can definitely make the argument that it has been a lopsided rivalry (OSU leads the series 56-23-2), but you can't argue against its longevity.

Adam Rittenberg writes: I've gotten a lot of e-mails about the Illinois-Ohio State series, and fans are pretty divided. Some, like you, point to the long history and the trophy, arguing there's more to it than the last couple of years. Others say annual meetings like Purdue-Indiana or more competitive series like Penn State-Ohio State are bigger rivalries than Illinois-Ohio State. I can see both sides, but with the recent games and Illinois upgrading its talent, the buzz around this game should continue to grow. 

Brian from Kingston, Pa., writes: I have the best replacement for JoePa after the 2009 season. Bill Cowher, what a GREAT fit that would be. As a PSU football fan I would LOVE to see that happen. Everything about him makes him the most ideal candidate. His experience, his toughness, his knowledge of the game, his similar style of play, his ability to motivate players. Man, that would be a marriage made in heaven. I realize it will never happen, I can't see him coming back to coaching anytime soon (and certainly not at the college level) I just feel he could really turn around the mindset and the thinking that goes on @ PSU. Hiring a guy not-in-house is the best decision as well, get somebody who has no strings to the program that can come in and put their stamp on the team. Oh, by the way, I am not a Steelers fan, I just feel it's a tremendously great fit. Any opinions?

Adam Rittenberg writes: Hmmm, interesting thought, Brian. But Cowher is comfortable living his life in North Carolina, and he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in March that he has no intentions of pursuing the Penn State job, if it ever comes open. Cowher's hyped-up style could translate well to college football, particularly in recruiting, an area Penn State needs to upgrade with its next hire. But Cowher is an NFL lifer who actually seems content spending time with his family away from the game (imagine that!). So I don't see this happening. 

Justin from New Orleans writes: On your list of clutch players, I have to disagree with the inclusion of Ron Dayne, if only for the fact that he never had a big game in leading them to victory against Michigan. In fact, if my memory serves me correctly, the only year he may have gone over 100 yards was as a senior, and he barely did it with a lot of carries. You can't be a clutch player if you can't consistently beat a certain team that is always at or near the top of your league.

Adam Rittenberg writes: That's a good point, Justin. Wisconsin never beat Michigan during Dayne's tenure, and Dayne almost saw his Heisman hopes disappear in 1999 after being held to zero net rushing yards in the second half of a 21-16 loss. I still point to the Rose Bowl performances and what he did in leading the Badgers to two Big Ten titles, but you're right. Performing well against the league's other elite team is a big part of being clutch.

Adam from Bergstein, Ind., writes: How well do you shape the Hoosiers to do this year, and what is your thoughts about the quarterback controversy with Kellen Lewis supposedly needing to compete for the starting spot in fall camp? Who is more of a physical specimen between [Martez] Wilson and [Matt] Mayberry? I recently read an article about Mayberry's training with Tom Zbikowski...impressive...would love your input!

Adam Rittenberg writes: How is Bergstein this time of year? As imaginary towns go, that's a good one. Indiana's coaches had to make Lewis compete for the job again after his suspension, if only to show other players what happens if you mess up. Though Ben Chappell has improved, I see no way Lewis doesn't become the starter again. He has way too much talent and he'll be perfect running the no-huddle. I've received a ton of e-mails about Mayberry, definitely a fan favorite. He had 42 tackles as a reserve last season but looks to be on the brink of special things. Same goes for Wilson at Illinois. I'm very excited to see both of them practice in the coming days. 

John from Milwaukee writes: Michigan's team did lose some talent. But they've got 7 returners on defense, and they've had Top 10 or Top 12 recruiting classes the last two years. I think the biggest factor, which people are missing, is Mike Barwis, the new trainer. This could be the fastest, strongest and most well-conditioned team ever. The things he does are ground-breaking. Even if they lose to WI, ND, OSU and Penn State, they could still go 8-4. They've got 6 or 7 home games, too. A lot of other teams are getting undue credit by being in the Top 25, and I think a program like Michigan, being ranked No. 24, is a reflection of reality. It's not like they're ranked 5th or 10th or even 15th.

Adam Rittenberg writes: You're right about the young talent being there, especially at the skill positions. And I don't think anyone is overlooking Barwis, who gets as much publicity as Barack Obama. He has obviously done a lot to change the conditioning standards at Michigan, and it could pay off this fall, particularly with the offensive linemen. But Rich Rodriguez is a realist and so am I, and looking at this offense, there's just no way this is a Top 25 team before the season. Go out and beat a veteran Utah team with a quarterback (Brian Johnson) who has actually thrown a pass in college. Go out on the road and beat a Notre Dame team that should be a lot better on offense. Win those games, and I have no problem putting Michigan in my Top 25. But I just can't justify putting a team with so many uncertainties and so much scheme left to learn in a preseason poll. Rodriguez said Monday that Michigan probably got ranked based on reputation. I agree with him.

Jim from Marysville, Mich., writes: Can any of Michigan State's freshman receivers be expected to step in and help replace the production of Devin Thomas in the offense and on special teams?

Adam Rittenberg writes: Several of them will be in the mix. Fred Smith didn't look like a freshman to me when I saw him at Tuesday's practice. He provides more size to a receiving corps that needs it. B.J. Cunningham is a redshirt freshman, but he'll definitely be a factor out there along with Keshawn Martin, a true freshman who was under the radar in high school but put up some dominating numbers. Doubt there's another Devin Thomas there, but as a group, Michigan State's young wideouts look strong. Several of those players will get a look on returns as well. 

Derek from St. Louis writes: I think you got it wrong about IL being #4. Your arguement was that they needed a running back and more receivers. The running back is a big question mark - I agree, but please take a look
a look at our receiving core before writing the article. Arrelius Benn is going to be an all american this year and it is going to be extremely hard for teams to match up agains Jeff Cumberland (6-5, 250)... not to mention chris duvalt, briant gamble and chris james. This is an extremly deep WR core at UI. Look into it.

Adam Rittenberg writes: Rejus Benn will be one of the league's most dominating players this fall, especially since he's fully healthy. But I'm not sold on any of Illinois' other wideouts. James has some experience but he's coming off a torn ACL. Cumberland is a tremendous athlete with great size and ridiculous leaping ability, but he played mostly tight end and has only one 100-yard receiving game. Duvalt is a converted defensive back, so I'm not ready to brand him a stud wide receiver. The talent is there, which is true at a lot of positions for Illinois, but I'd rather wait and see on a lot of those guys. 

Chris from State College, Pa., writes: Looking back over the past ten years, the two quarterback system has never been successful at Penn State.For some reason, the coaching staff moves the starting QB to wideout when the running QB comes in. Is there any reason to think that more of the same won't continue? Will the coaching staff finally figure out that it is okay to take the starter off the field for a couple series to keep the defense guessing? On a similar note, watch classic PSU games on the Big 10 Network, and you'll notice that the gameplans haven't changed one bit over the last 20 years (maybe more!). The difference is that in 1994 and 2005 they had a QB who could overcome the deficiencies of the coaching staff. Do you think [Daryll] Clark or [Pat] Devlin have the ability and mental awareness to do the same?

Adam Rittenberg writes: You're right that a lot of coaches are hesitant about playing two quarterbacks and rarely know how to manage them both. Clark definitely seems like a good fit for Penn State's evolving offense, the Spread HD. But the Lions also could use Devlin's arm, particularly with an all-senior wide receiving corps.  My feeling is Clark will get the first opportunity to cement himself as the starter, but they'd be foolish not to play Devlin against Coastal Carolina. The coaching staff might need to use both against Oregon State's veteran secondary in Week 2.