Big Ten: Rashard Mendenhall

Big Ten lunch links

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
12:00
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How 'bout Nebrasketball? Impressed with what's happening in Lincoln.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

June, 8, 2012
6/08/12
4:30
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Hoping everyone has a great weekend. I'll be hanging out by the Michigan-Canadian border, eh.

Marcus Aurelius writes: Interesting that your list of potential reps on a playoff selection committee with Big 10 ties does not feature anyone with SEC connections (and other than Delaney-UNC, not many southern ties that I noticed). Is this indicative of the lack of movement North-South prior to Nick Saban (and Urban Meyer)? Seems very strange to me...

Adam Rittenberg: Former Iowa coach Hayden Fry is a Texas native who spent a lot of time in the Southwest Conference, but for the most part you're right. There's not a ton of transition between the North and South. Urban Meyer obviously has made the move recently, and other Big Ten coaches like Nebraska's Bo Pelini have spent time in the SEC, but along with Saban, they're all current coaches. As far as prominent former Big Ten coaches, most have been Midwest-based in their careers. That's an interesting trend you picked up.


Yooper from Minneapolis writes: Howdy Adam. Say, do the Badgers actually have a speed issue on the defense compared to the rest of the league, or is it just perception. Seems to me it's mostly perception and chatter based mainly on the RB against a team in Oregon that would've made many teams look slow. I didn't notice a speed problem the rest of the year, when one loss was due to a fortunate bounce, and one was due to a scrambling QB (tough for DBs to contain all day long). Anyway, wondering if you know if any stats back up the speed "issue"?

Adam Rittenberg: Yooper, I was just thinking about this. The games that raised issues about Wisconsin's speed on defense were the Rose Bowl and the two contests against Michigan State. Watching Wisconsin struggle against Keshawn Martin and others in the Big Ten title game, you had to be concerned about how they'd fare against Oregon, which has like 46 Keshawn Martins. I don't think you can dismiss the speed issue with Wisconsin, and the Badgers should continue to look for speed in all three areas of their defense. Now it'd also help to identify a premier pass-rusher like O'Brien Schofield and J.J. Watt. Pressuring the quarterback more will take pressure off of the secondary.


Jeff from St. Cloud, Minn., writes: Having lived out west, the talk about these 16 team super conferences is pretty hilarious. While in no way are the dollars even remotely similar, the WAC thought it was a great idea in the 90s....until the most notable members of the original WAC decided to hold a secret meeting at the Denver airport and agreed it was ridiculous that BYU and Utah should have to share revenue with Rice and San Jose State as well as travel all these great distances for conference games. The exact same thing is going to happen when Texas and Oklahoma are sharing a 16-team split with TCU and Iowa State. The powers-that-be in each of these "super conferences" are going to find an airport and in the span of an afternoon, we'll probably be back to the Southwest Conference and the Big 8. It is 100 percent inevitable. Hopefully the Big Ten doesn't get sucked in and in a perfect world, gets back to being TEN.

Adam Rittenberg writes: Jeff, thanks for sharing your perspective on this. The revenue-sharing component is fascinating when you're talking about potential superconferences. It's one of several reasons I think the Big Ten wants to stay at 12 -- not sure about ever going from 12 to 10. That said, the Big Ten has long made equal revenue-sharing a core pillar. Nebraska eventually will receive an equal share, and the Big Ten in my view will always keep this philosophy in place because it prevents the discord we saw recently in the Big 12. When Ohio State agrees to take the same cut as Northwestern, it says something about the league. It's the "all ships will rise" theory Ohio State AD Gene Smith talks about a lot. So even if the Big Ten became 16, I think it would do so with the idea all members would eventually get an equal cut of the pie.


Ed from Dallas writes: Hey Adam,Grew up in Illinois and all my childhood all's I wanted to do was be an Illini (unfortanely 5'11" guy that couldn't run or bench press my weight)so my dream was unreasonable...but it does lead me to my question...why can't The Illini recruit the top players from Illinois? They never have..whether it was Mike White, Ron Turner, Ron Zook or the current staff. I just saw the ESPN 150 and Illinois' top players are going to USC, LSU, Michigan, ND...everywhere but the Illini. Why is there no pride in Illinois HS football players in their state university? If the Illini just recruited their own state like Texas does they'd be a powerhouse.

Adam Rittenberg: Ed, while your concern has some validity, you can't say Ron Zook didn't recruit top players from Illinois. You remember Martez Wilson and Juice Williams? They were highly-touted guys coming out of Chicago. Other decorated in-state prospects included Rashard Mendenhall (Skokie), Josh Brent (Bloomington) and Graham Pocic (Lemont). Zook also landed recruits like wide receiver Chris James and defensive tackle Lendell Buckner who had hype coming out of high school but didn't really pan out in Champaign. I understand your frustration, especially with Illinois being the biggest school in the state. But Illinois hasn't been a traditional power like Ohio State, Michigan, Florida, Texas, LSU and Alabama. The team has to start winning more consistently to motivate top recruits to choose Illinois, especially since everyone in the Big Ten recruits the Chicago area. In-state recruiting has to be a big focal point for Tim Beckman and his staff, and they made a splash with quarterback Aaron Bailey out of Bolingbrook. But it's unrealistic to think Illinois will get every top player from within its borders.


Sam from New York writes: Hi Adam,Staying with the topic of Top Individual Seasons, why was Ron Dayne left out of the main list? I believe he should even be part of the national list, not just the Big Ten. He led UW to 2 straight Rose Bowls, capped off by sweeping all the major awards his senior year, and also broke Ricky Williams' career rushing yards record - which is still Dayne's to this day.

Adam Rittenberg: Sam, I think you're making the mistake of viewing this as a career achievement award rather than a list of exceptional seasons. Dayne certainly had two terrific seasons (1996 and 1999) that were under consideration for our top five, but ultimately he fell just a bit short of the top five. And honestly, if we were to include another running back's season in the top five, we would have gone with Larry Johnson in 2002, who averaged nearly 8 yards per carry. We had a similar situation with Dayne when we considered Purdue quarterback Drew Brees. We saw Brees as a once-in-a-generation player, and a Big Ten icon in recent years. But when you looked at his individual seasons and compared them with others in the past 50 years, they didn't quite stack up. Again, five seasons is not a big list, and this wasn't a career achievement rundown. We kept several Heisman Trophy winners off of the top five list.


Jason from Kansas City, Mo., writes: Adam,FYI-Nebraska fans aren't bitter about Michigan in 1997. That doesn't even make any sense. There's nothing to be bitter about as both teams can claim they won a national championship that year (unlike Penn St in 94). I really enjoy reading your blogs but comments like these tell me you still don't have a good feeling for the Nebraska fanbase. Please do some research next time before making assumptions about how Nebraska's fans feel.

Adam Rittenberg: Jason, maybe I overstated that a bit, but I did receive several emails from both Nebraska fans and Michigan fans before the teams met last season that suggested neither side was too pleased with a split national title. It might be more from the Michigan fans, some of whom feel the Wolverines should have been outright champions in '97. But you're not speaking for the entire Nebraska fan base when you say no one is better about the split title. My inbox says otherwise.


Nate from Clemson, S.C., writes: How would the conferences react to a modification of their own championship games? Would they be open to a requirement that would match up the 2 highest rated teams at the end of the season regardless of division? This would have had Alabama vs. LSU in the conference championship game and would have certainly knocked the loser out of contention for the championship game or perhaps a playoff. It seems that this would help bolster the B1G argument for the value of winning the conference championship.

Adam Rittenberg: Nate, this is an interesting point that several others have brought up. One problem with any playoff model that requires conference champions is what happens if there's a wave of upsets in the league title games. This also would favor a league like the Big 12, which as of the moment doesn't have a league championship game. Your plan obviously would help guarantee more exciting championship games and, in many cases, worthier league champions. I still think leagues would be hesitant to get rid of the division model, which would be the only way to do this (if you have divisions, you have to use their champions in the title game). But it's important for leagues to continue to re-evaluate divisions, make changes if necessary and consider the possibility of getting rid of the divisions altogether. No one wants to see Oregon-UCLA in the title game, and LSU-Georgia didn't really move the needle, either.

Fresh faces: Illinois

August, 24, 2011
8/24/11
1:00
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The fresh faces series resumes with the Illinois Fighting Illini. Here's a look at three true freshmen, redshirt freshmen, transfers or returning players likely to step into bigger roles this season.

OFFENSE: Donovonn Young, RB, freshman, 6-0, 215

Young and classmate Josh Ferguson have generated plenty of buzz during preseason practice. Not only have they pushed No. 1 back Jason Ford, but they've put themselves in position to rack up carries this fall. Young could be the total package of size, speed and power. Coach Ron Zook joked that it's too early to start the Heisman campaign, but Young impressed everyone who watched the recent workouts in Rantoul, Ill. The Illini will use multiple backs and he'll spell Ford at times this fall. Need another reason to like Young? His jersey number -- 5. The last two Illini players to wear it: star running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Mikel Leshoure.

DEFENSE: Ralph Cooper, LB, freshman, 6-1, 230

There's an opportunity for young linebackers like Cooper, as Illinois must replace two players -- Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey -- selected in April's NFL draft. Ian Thomas will be the starter at middle linebacker, but Cooper has looked good during camp and will be part of the rotation in the defensive midsection. He boasts good size and speed and should help Illinois stuff the run. The Illini had the Big Ten's No. 4 rushing defense in 2010, but must replace three NFL draft picks.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Justin Duvernois, P, freshman, 6-1, 190

Illinois loses first-team All-Big Ten selection Anthony Santella and will turn to Duvernois, who has a big leg and hails from one of the nation's top high school programs (St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida). Duvernois became the top option after Matt Eller left the team. Consistency will be a focal point for Duvernois, but he has the ability to be successful at this level.

More Fresh Faces

Big Ten lunch links

May, 6, 2011
5/06/11
12:00
PM ET
Did you guys get your public forum gift bag? There's an iPod Touch in here.
The Big Ten improves to 2-0 in the bowl season and 2-0 against the pesky Big 12 as Illinois held off Baylor in Houston.

Here's a look back at Illinois' 38-14 victory in the Texas Bowl.

How the game was won: Nathan Scheelhaase's precision passing complemented a typically dominant rushing attack as Illinois steamrolled Baylor's overmatched defense for much of the game. The Illini came out firing and overcame a few defensive hiccups midway through the second half to hold off Robert Griffin III and the Bears. Running back Mikel Leshoure (29 carries, 184 rush yards, 3 TDs) was brilliant in what could be his final college game, and the Illini defensive line made enough big plays to contain Griffin. Illinois' specialists also stepped up nicely.

Player of the game: Scheelhaase. The redshirt freshman showed impressive growth between the end of the regular season and the bowl game, completing his first 13 pass attempts and finished the game 18-for-23 for 241 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. He wasn't a huge factor in the rushing game but he didn't need to be on this night, as he set a season high for completions. Honorable mentions go to Leshoure and Liuget, who commanded double and triple teams.

Turning point I: Baylor seemed to be rolling on the game's opening drive before Illinois' Travon Bellamy scooped up a backward pass by Griffin and raced 44 yards, setting up a field goal. The Illini defense played brilliantly the rest of the half and Illinois surged out to a 24-0 lead.

Turning point II: After the Bears had closed to within 24-14 early in the fourth quarter, Illinois' defense forced a three-and-out, stuffing Griffin on third-and-1. The Illini run game then took over, as Leshoure and teammate Jason Ford bowled over Baylor on a 7-play, 66-yard touchdown drive.

Stat of the game: Scheelhaase completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes in each of his final three regular-season games (21-for-50 combined) but connected on his first 13 attempts Wednesday night. The redshirt freshman had completed more than 13 passes in only five regular-season games.

Record performance: Leshoure set Illinois' single-season rushing record with 1,696 yards. He broke Rashard Mendenhall's mark of 1,681 yards set in 2007 with a fourth-quarter scamper.

What it means: Illinois can brand the 2010 season as both a success and a potential turning point for coach Ron Zook and his program. The Illini needed a winning season and a good finish after dropping three of their final four regular-season contests. Talent has never been the problem for Zook's crew, but the team made strides in all three phases after the 3-9 disaster in 2009. It'll be interesting to see what happens with NFL prospects Leshoure, Liuget and linebacker Martez Wilson. While it's unrealistic to think all three juniors will return, Illinois could be a factor in the Leaders division next fall if it can reload.

video
Illinois is back in the postseason for the first time since the 2008 Rose Bowl. Baylor? The Bears play in the first bowl game since the 1994 Alamo Bowl.

Here's a quick preview of the Illini-Baylor matchup in the Texas Bowl.

WHO TO WATCH: Illinois defenders Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson. The game plan is pretty simple for the Illini, who must contain Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III. Both Liuget and Wilson are All-Big Ten defenders who could be heading to the NFL draft after the bowl game. They need to penetrate the backfield, harass Griffin as often as possible and tackle the Bears star in the open field.

WHAT TO WATCH: Illinois' rushing attack. When the Illini have their ground game going, it's a thing of beauty. Junior running back Mikel Leshoure, another candidate to enter the NFL draft, needs 169 rush yards in the bowl game to break Rashard Mendenhall's single-season team record set in 2007. Baylor finished ninth in the Big 12 against the run, allowing 160.2 yards per game, so Illinois will have opportunities to spring Leshoure, backup Jason Ford and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.

WHY TO WATCH: You never know which Illinois team will show up. If it's the one that crushed Penn State and Northwestern and gave Ohio State and Michigan State good tests, Baylor could be in trouble. If it's the one that looked lifeless for stretches against Fresno State and Minnesota, the Bears could run away with this one. Illinois boasts plenty of talent on both sides of the ball, but can coach Ron Zook's crew put it all together to cement a winning season?

PREDICTION: Baylor 31, Illinois 24. It's never easy to forecast what happens with Illinois, and this one certainly could go either way. But Griffin is the most dynamic player on the field, and Illinois' defense declined late in the regular season. Illinois doesn't have enough in the pass game to balance out Leshoure and the ground attack. Baylor will feel right at home in Houston, and the Bears will prevail.
There's only one Big Ten team in action this weekend, but I have five reasons why you should pay attention. So pay attention!

1. Mikel Leshoure: If you haven't watched the Big Ten's best running back this season, stay up late Friday night and tune into ESPN2 as Leshoure and Illinois visit Fresno State (10:15 p.m. ET kickoff). Leshoure comes off of a team-record 330-yard rushing performance at Wrigley Field and has racked up 664 all-purpose yards and nine touchdowns in his past three games. The Illini junior, who will weigh his NFL options after the season, needs 311 yards to break the team's single-season rushing record held by Rashard Mendenhall.

[+] EnlargeMikel Leshoure
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesMikel Leshoure is coming off a career game against Northwestern: 33 carries for 330 yards and two touchdowns.
2. Games that can impact the BCS standings: The final BCS standings on Sunday night will determine which team earns the Big Ten's automatic BCS berth. Wisconsin pretty much has a trip to the Rose Bowl locked up, but a few games this weekend could impact the standings. Keep an eye on Illinois-Fresno State, Arizona State-Arizona, Oregon-Oregon State and Auburn-South Carolina. Both Ohio State and Michigan State beat Illinois, while Wisconsin didn't play the Illini but beat Arizona State on Sept. 20.

3. Nebraska in the Big 12 title game: The Cornhuskers play their final Big 12 game, and it's a big one. Nebraska renews one of the great rivalries in college sports as it takes on Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game at JerryWorld. Although Nebraska's performance the rest of the way will be credited to the Big 12, the Big Ten would love to have a reigning league champion and a BCS bowl champion entering its league in 2011. Big Ten fans scouting the Huskers should keep a close eye on the quarterback position, as Taylor Martinez and Cody Green both could play.

4. Illinois defense aims for redemption: The Illini defense reached its low point last fall against Fresno State, which racked up 53 points and 233 rush yards in a win at Memorial Stadium. Vic Koenning's defense performed better against Northwestern at Wrigley Field but is still trying to recapture its midseason form. Fresno State provides a good test Friday with Robbie Rouse, the nation's No. 13 rusher, as well as veteran quarterback Ryan Colburn.

5. The bowl selections: Michigan State this week launched a full-blown campaign to get in the discussion for a BCS at-large berth. Will it work? Probably not, but you never know if there will be a surprise on Selection Sunday. The real drama likely will come with the Outback and Gator Bowls, who have more options than usual, albeit lukewarm ones. Will Penn State, Iowa, Michigan or Illinois head to the Outback? What will the Gator do? It should be very interesting to watch.
Nathan Scheelhaase might have come to Illinois to play for a different offensive coordinator, but it is clear he fits in perfectly with Paul Petrino's plan.

Scheelhaase has thrived in his freshman season, passing for 1,522 yards and 16 touchdowns and adding 684 yards and three more touchdowns on the ground. The redshirt freshman has improved as the season has gone on, passing for 12 touchdowns and only one interception and adding 396 rush yards and a touchdown in his past five games.

"For a thinking quarterback, a quarterback who likes to think and likes to make checks and do different things like that, this offense is perfect," Scheelhaase said. "It puts some pressure on the quarterback, but that's something I like. It's an advantage for us when I know what the defense is in, know their looks and I know what our plays are for.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
Mike DiNovo/US PresswireFreshman Nathan Scheelhaase has scored 19 touchdowns and has more than 2,200 yards of total offense this season.
"That's when we're playing better as an offense."

Illinois has been playing much better as an offense since a 26-6 loss to Michigan State on Oct. 16.

In the past five games, Illinois is averaging 46.8 points and 442 yards per game. The Illini averaged only 21.3 points and 320 yards in their first five games.

Illinois has cut down its turnovers (only five since Oct. 16) and maintained its effectiveness in the red zone (43 scores in 46 trips, No. 3 nationally).

"We've known from Day 1 what coach Petrino brought to the table and the successes he's had," Scheelhaase said. "You're as familiar as you can be when you're going through spring practice or fall camp, but it's a whole different thing when you get in the games. As the year has gone on, we get more of a game feel for [Petrino], he gets more of a game feel for us. That's the biggest thing."

The run has been the focal point for Petrino's offense, and Illinois has kicked things into high gear during Big Ten play.

Junior Mikel Leshoure established himself as the Big Ten's top running back, leading the league in rushing yards during conference play with 121.6 yards per game, edging Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson (119.4 ypg). Leshoure, who came on strong toward the end of 2009, is once again finishing with a flourish. He has racked up 664 all-purpose yards and nine touchdowns in his past three games and rushed for a team-record 330 yards Nov. 20 at Wrigley Field against Northwestern.

Leshoure needs 311 yards in his final two games to break the single-season team rushing record held by the last man to wear the No. 5 jersey for Illinois, 2007 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Rashard Mendenhall.

"It really fires you up watching him take on two or three guys at a time, falling forward every time," Illini center Graham Pocic said of Leshoure. "When you see him out there pushing guys, we're going to go out there pushing. He's the type of back you want to block for."

Illinois' offensive line imposed its will against Northwestern, blowing Wildcats defenders off of the line of scrimmage. Rather than assigning linemen to one side or the other, Petrino flips the line to create a strong side and a weak side, looking to exploit better matchups for the run game.

It seems to be working. Illinois had 519 rush yards at Wrigley.

"Running for 500 yards is a pretty cool deal," Pocic said.

The line's effort isn't lost on Leshoure. Rather than take the linemen out to dinner, Leshoure, a Champaign native, invites them to his home.

"His mom has had us over for dinner," Pocic said. "Great cook. Catfish sandwiches and ribs, macaroni and cheese, everything you could ask for in a dinner."

Illinois' final course before the bowl season comes Friday at Fresno State.

Last year, the teams played one of the wildest games of the season. Fresno State prevailed 53-52 after one of its offensive linemen, Devan Cunningham, caught a deflected pass on a two-point conversion attempt and rumbled into the end zone.

"It was one of the craziest college football games I had seen," said Scheelhaase, who watched from the sideline as a redshirt. "But we're a whole different team from what we were last year.

"I feel confident walking into this game. We all do."

Big Ten mailblog

January, 19, 2010
1/19/10
5:00
PM ET
Hope you're enjoying flog-the-blogger week, er, I mean decade recap week.

Tell me how you really feel.

Kyle from Kingston, Ontario, writes: Adam, love your post dude! I have to make a comment though. How do you not give any love to Dallas Clark. 01 and 02 he made numerous plays to Iowa on the map. I am not saying he was a top 10 player, but to not even be considered?

Adam Rittenberg: That was an oversight on my part, Kyle. Clark should have been mentioned in the "also considered," a category I now regret even putting up there. But to be honest, he really wasn't close to making the top 10. Same goes for great kickers like Mike Nugent and Nate Kaeding. It's not to say they weren't great players, but they're not going to make a top 10 list for best in the decade.



K.J. from Arlington writes: Funny how you use the term infamous regarding the 2002 championship game but failed to use the term when Michigan was infamously given 2 free seconds which game football absolutely proved should not have been put on the clock by the oh so biased Ann Arbor crew in the 2005 game helping to give Michigan unearned wins in three of the previous five meetings with Penn State? Why is that? Oh wait, because you are an idiot and you hate Penn State, that's why.

Adam Rittenberg: There was some controversy in several of the games I listed, K.J., including Penn State-Michigan in 2005. The clock certainly played a role there in the end. And while I won't argue with you about the idiot part, the me hating Penn State argument is pretty lame and tired. Like I've said before, fans love me when their team is in the top 10 and think I'm a hater when they start to slip a bit. I have nothing against Penn State, which is featured prominently throughout the decade recap this week.


Justin from Plainfield, Ill., writes: Adam,Since you based it on players that generally had mulitple season, I understand (and in general agree) with your list of Big Ten players of the decade. I'd like to see your take on that same list without that caveat (of multiple seasons). To me, Michael Robinson would have to be on that list. You often hear "so and so led his team to victory" get thrown around. MRob truly led his team in 2005.Also, I was glad you gave Randal El some love. That dude was the only reason Indiana football even had a chance for those 4 years.

Adam Rittenberg: This is a good suggestion, Justin, and while I probably won't do a second post with one-year stars, here are a few who really stood out: Brad Banks, Michael Robinson, Larry Johnson, Devin Thomas, Shonn Greene, Chris Perry, Rashard Mendenhall, James Hardy.


Andy from Chicago writes: Adam - Love the blog and appreciate the Hawkeye pub during the season. I have a few follow-up questions/comments regarding your players of the decade list. 1. I know that Jake Long and Joe Thomas are better pros than Robert Gallery, but RG definitely should be on your list. He was the best OL in the conference two years in a row and paved the way for a B10 championship and undefeated conference season. Additionally, when he came out, Peter King said he was "the best lineman to enter the draft in years." Perhaps an oversight on your part, but wanted to get your opinion. 2. If this was about longevity in the league, then I understand your putting Mike Hart on the list. Otherwise, what Greene accomplished in one season is better than anything Hart did in four (or seemingly ten) seasons in Ann Arbor. 3. How many B10 players this decade went undefeated in conference, won a conference title, and finished second in the Heisman voting in the same season? One. Similar to Greene, Banks definitely should have made the cut. 4. Dallas Clark needs to at least make Honorable Mention. That is all. Thanks,

Adam Rittenberg: I really struggled with both Gallery and Long. Any top-10 list is going to leave off some deserving players, and you can certainly make a convincing case for those two. I really tried to identify the MVP for each program during the decade, and I think most Iowa fans would put Bob Sanders in that role. Wisconsin fans would say the same for Joe Thomas. Gallery was a tremendous player, as was Long, and trust me, they weren't far away from making the list. As for Shonn Greene and Brad Banks, lack of longevity was the main reason they didn't make it. The running back position was interesting because you had several one-year standouts in the Big Ten. I didn't want to have a top-10 list without a running back, and Hart really accomplished a lot in four years. As for Dallas Clark, see above.


Mike from Wausau, Wis., writes: Hi Adam:I enjoy your work. When might we expect to hear what the NCAA will do regarding the potential violations by RichRod? I thought a decision was expected by the end of 2009. To me, the lackof public notice to date indicates there is somethingon the way, and perhaps the U of M and the NCAA are "working-out" the terms of the penalty. Also, after two years, do you really think RichRod is the right person for the job? Thanks!

Adam Rittenberg: The Dec. 31 date wasn't a fixed deadline for a decision on the Michigan investigation, but I'd expect we'll hear something soon. The NCAA holds many of its meetings at this time of year, so that could be slowing the process a bit. I don't think the delay necessarily means huge penalties are coming. As for Rodriguez, I think he's still a heck of a coach, but he's operating in a very different environment than he did at West Virginia. If he can get the players he wants throughout the admissions office and have several young defenders emerge, Michigan should be decent in 2010. But I continue to be concerned with what's happening on defense in Ann Arbor.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 14

December, 6, 2009
12/06/09
10:00
AM ET
Final round of these before the bowls.

  • Wisconsin RB John Clay: The Big Ten's offensive player of the year rebounded nicely following his late fumble against Northwestern, bulldozing Hawaii for 172 rush yards and three touchdowns in a 51-10 victory. He finished the regular season with five consecutive 100-yard rushing performances.
  • Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt: Watt led a ferocious Badgers defensive line with three tackles for loss, including two sacks, as Wisconsin's defense held Hawaii to only 214 yards.
  • Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien: The junior was the model of efficiency in Honolulu, completing 16 of 20 pass attempts for 253 yards in the blowout win. He spread the ball to seven different receivers.
  • Wisconsin WR David Gilreath: It hasn't been an easy year for Gilreath, but he's finishing strong. He contributed Saturday with an 8-yard rushing touchdown and a 45-yard reception to set up a touchdown. His kickoff returns of 43 and 51 yards marked the team's longest this season.
  • Illinois RB Mikel LeShoure: The sophomore stated his case to be the starter in 2010, rushing for a career-high 184 yards and two touchdowns on only 11 carries against Fresno State. LeShoure had the most rushing yards for an Illinois player since Rashard Mendenhall put up 201 against Minnesota in 2007.
Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark, Wisconsin running back John Clay and Michigan defensive end Brandon Graham have been named finalists for the Chicago Tribune's Silver Football award, given annually to the Big Ten's top player.

The winner will be announced Tuesday (Big Ten Network, 11 p.m. ET). Big Ten coaches vote on the award, which went to Iowa running back Shonn Greene last season.

Of these three candidates, I'd definitely vote for Graham. Though Clark and Clay both had good seasons, the Big Ten unquestionably was a defense-oriented league this fall. While I'm a bit surprised not to see Michigan State's Greg Jones or Penn State's Jared Odrick -- the Big Ten's co-Defensive Players of the Year -- named as finalists, Graham would be a very deserving recipient after leading the nation with 26 tackles for loss.

Here's a list of Silver Football winners this decade (note: a defensive player hasn't won since Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson, the Heisman Trophy recipient, in 1997).

2008: Iowa RB Shonn Greene
2007: Illinois RB Rashard Mendenhall
2006: Ohio State QB Troy Smith
2005: Penn State QB Michael Robinson
2004: Michigan WR Braylon Edwards
2003: Michigan RB Chris Perry
2002: Iowa QB Brad Banks
2001: Indiana QB Antwaan Randle El
2000: Purdue QB Drew Brees

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Minutes after bulldozing cornerback Patrick Nixon-Youman for a first down during an Illinois practice this spring, Mikel LeShoure recited a line all young running backs should remember.

 
  AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
  Jason Ford led the Illini with eight rushing touchdowns a season ago.

"Sometimes you've got to dish the hits before you can take them," he said.

Last year, LeShoure and Fighting Illini teammate Jason Ford weren't fully equipped to absorb the punishment or make opposing defenders pay. Both backs played as true freshmen and enjoyed some success, as Ford led the team with eight rushing touchdowns and LeShoure added 126 rush yards and a touchdown in nine games.

But like many freshmen, both Ford and LeShoure didn't have Big Ten bodies. They were the right size -- Ford at 6-foot, 220 pounds; LeShoure at 6-foot, 240 pounds -- but the wrong shape.

"I came in out of shape," Ford said. "I really didn't lift weights in high school because we didn't really have a weight program, so everything was kind of new to me."

A winter in the weight room has paid off for both Ford and LeShoure, who, along with senior Daniel Dufrene and sophomore Troy Pollard, are in the mix for Illinois' starting running back spot in 2009.

Ford and LeShoure got most of the work in Illinois' spring game Saturday, combining for 93 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries (5.5 yards per carry).

Ford remains around the same weight as he played at last season -- he played this spring at 222 pounds, with the hope of getting down to 220 -- but he reduced his body fat from 8.9 percent last fall to 5.9 percent in the spring. Now sturdier than stockier, Ford's size comes in handy in the red zone, where he does most of his damage.

"I feel a lot stronger, a lot quicker, a lot faster," he said. "I'm in better shape than I was last year. Last year, I got kind of winded sometimes, but this year, I feel pretty good."

 
  University of Illinois/Getty Images
  Mikel LeShoure has lost 13 or 14 pounds and 3 to 4 percent of his body fat since last summer.

LeShoure has lost 13 or 14 pounds and 3 to 4 percent of his body fat since last summer. Part of the weight loss came after he sustained a broken jaw in early November after an altercation with a teammate, reported to be wide receiver Jeff Cumberland.

With his jaw wired shut for six weeks, LeShoure couldn't eat normally and dropped in weight. And even after his jaw healed, he worked to keep the weight off. LeShoure now checks in between 220 to 225 pounds.

"When I got back, I didn't want to just rush and add food and stuff," he said. "I just kept my body the way it was, and it paid off. I feel a lot quicker on my feet, knees feel a little higher."

LeShoure feels comfortable with his current size, while Ford is "pretty close" to his goal weight.

"The weight room doesn't just happen," Illinois head coach Ron Zook explained. "It takes time for your body to change."

Illinois slipped to fifth in the Big Ten in rushing offense last fall after leading the league in each of the past two seasons. Expectations have been boosted for the backs this fall, and LeShoure doesn't shy away from pressure.

For starters, he wears No. 5 for the Illini, the same jersey donned by former Illini star running back Rashard Mendenhall in 2007. LeShoure decided to keep his high school number despite Mendenhall's recent success.

"You can think of it like [pressure], but also it's a challenge, too," he said. "It pushes you to get better."

Both LeShoure and Ford accepted the challenge in the offseason.

"We feel like what we did last year was not our potential," LeShoure said. "We're going to set the bar higher."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Illinois held its annual pro timing day on Wednesday, and eight players participated in drills witnessed by 28 NFL scouts.

It was a good day for the Davises, Vontae and Will, both of whom improved their 40-yard dash times from the NFL combine. Cornerback Vontae Davis ran a blistering 4.35 in the 40, which could boost his draft stock, while defensive end Will Davis ran a 4.83.

Wide receiver Will Judson ran a 4.31 40 on his first attempt, and linebacker Brit Miller, a first-team All-Big Ten selection last year, twice ran a 4.56.

Complete results from pro day will be posted later today on the team's official Web site.

An interesting nugget: former Illinois running back Walter Mendenhall, who transferred to Illinois State, attended Illinois' pro timing day. Mendenhall's younger brother, Rashard, the 2007 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year at Illinois, lashed out at the program last summer, though he said it didn't have much to do with Illinois' treatment of Walter.

All-Big Ten: Who's back? Who's not?

February, 13, 2009
2/13/09
10:14
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

As spring practice approaches, it's time to review the 2008 All-Big Ten teams and see who will be back and who won't for the 2009 season. To avoid confusion, I'll stick with the media's picks for all-conference.

FIRST TEAM

 
  Paul Spinelli/Getty Images
  Daryll Clark is one of four All-Big Ten selections Penn State has coming back in 2009.

Gone (17)

  • RB Shonn Greene, Iowa
  • RB Javon Ringer, Michigan State
  • C A.Q. Shipley, Penn State
  • G Seth Olsen, Iowa
  • G Rich Ohrnberger, Penn State
  • T Alex Boone, Ohio State
  • T Gerald Cadogan, Penn State
  • K Kevin Kelly, Penn State
  • DT Mitch King, Iowa
  • DE Willie VanDeSteeg, Minnesota
  • DE Aaron Maybin, Penn State
  • LB Brit Miller, Illinois
  • LB James Laurinaitis, Ohio State
  • CB Vontae Davis, Illinois
  • S Otis Wiley, Michigan State
  • CB Malcolm Jenkins, Ohio State
  • CB Allen Langford, Wisconsin

Back (7)

SECOND TEAM

Gone (14)

  • RB Chris "Beanie" Wells, Ohio State
  • WR Deon Butler, Penn State
  • WR Derrick Williams, Penn State
  • C Ryan McDonald, Illinois
  • C Rob Bruggeman, Iowa
  • G Roland Martin, Michigan State
  • G Kraig Urbik, Wisconsin
  • T Xavier Fulton, Illinois
  • T Jesse Miller, Michigan State
  • TE Jack Simmons, Minnesota
  • DT Matt Kroul, Iowa
  • LB Marcus Freeman, Ohio State
  • CB Lydell Sargeant, Penn State
  • S Anthony Scirrotto, Penn State

Back (12)

  • QB Juice Williams, Illinois
  • RB Evan Royster, Penn State
  • T Kyle Calloway, Iowa
  • K Brett Swenson, Michigan State
  • DE Brandon Graham, Michigan
  • DE Corey Wootton, Northwestern
  • DT Jared Odrick, Penn State
  • LB Pat Angerer, Iowa
  • LB Greg Jones, Michigan State
  • CB Traye Simmons, Minnesota
  • S Kurt Coleman, Ohio State
  • P Aaron Bates, Michigan State

Teams most affected by All-Big Ten losses: Penn State (9), Ohio State (5), Iowa (5)

Teams returning most All-Big Ten players: Penn State (4), Michigan State (3)

Positions most affected by losses: Tackle (4), guard (4), cornerback (4), center (3), running back (3)

Positions returning most All-Big Ten selections: Quarterback (2), wide receiver (2 first-teamers), linebacker (3), punter (2)

Notes

  • Co-champ Ohio State returns only one All-Big Ten selection (Coleman). Freshman of the Year Terrelle Pryor also is back.
  • Michigan State returns both of its all-conference specialists.
  • For the second straight year, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year was a junior running back who entered the NFL draft. Iowa's Greene followed Illinois' Rashard Mendenhall in 2007.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It's always fun at this time of year to look back at preseason thoughts and predictions. In August, I outlined 25 items I wanted to see during the Big Ten season. Several of them came true, others didn't and some materialized in different ways.

Here's a look back at the list to see what worked out and what didn't. 

 
 AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
 Terrelle Pryor earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors.

1. Terrelle Pryor lead an offensive drive -- He might be a Tim Tebow-like weapon near the goal line, but I'm more interested in how the Ohio State freshman quarterback handles a real offensive series. Pryor's athleticism is undeniable, but it will be important to monitor his passing accuracy and the way he leads older teammates.

The verdict: We had plenty of opportunities to see Pryor lead drives after he was named Ohio State's starter in Week 4. Despite a few growing pains, Pryor held his own and displayed remarkable athleticism in winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. He also came up big in the clutch to lead Ohio State's game-winning touchdown drive Oct. 4 at Wisconsin. 

2. Michigan's quarterbacks -- Rich Rodriguez has ushered in a new era in Ann Arbor and will turn to unproven players like Steven Threet, Nick Sheridan and possibly Justin Feagin to lead his spread offense. There will undoubtedly be growing pains, but if one of those three takes control, the Wolverines will surge.

The verdict: Oh, there were growing pains. Big ones. Threet and Sheridan struggled to fit into Rodriguez's system, and Michigan finished the season ranked 109th nationally in total offense. Feagin likely will move to slot receiver in 2009, and incoming freshmen Shavodrick Beaver and Tate Forcier will compete for the starting quarterback spot. 

3. Jump Around at night -- Camp Randall Stadium is intimidating enough during daylight hours, but the electricity will reach new levels this fall with back-to-back night games against Ohio State and Penn State. The Badgers haven't lost at home under coach Bret Bielema, and they should have a tremendous home-field edge this fall.

The verdict: It was pretty cool to see Ohio State players jump in lockstep with the Wisconsin students on Oct. 4, but Camp Randall certainly lost its edge this fall. Wisconsin saw its home win streak fade against Ohio State and then suffered its worst home defeat since 1989 the next week against Penn State. Plus, the Badgers band was suspended from performing Oct. 4 after allegations of hazing surfaced. 

(Read full post)

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