Big Ten: Ross Lane
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
"Nobody knows you, Brew," Stewart told Brewer. "Who are you, dawg?"
To be clear, Stewart wasn't experiencing memory loss from taking too many hits in practice. He knows exactly who Brewer is.
But nobody else does.
Northwestern must replace three multiyear starters at wide receiver this season, and the next group in consists mainly of players unknown outside the team's football complex.
Brewer might be the most recognizable as a former starting quarterback for NU, and Stewart and sophomore Jeremy Ebert combined for 32 receptions and three touchdowns last season. But most preseason prognosticators, including yours truly, point to what Northwestern has lost at receiver. Eric Peterman, Ross Lane and Rasheed Ward combined for 1,903 receiving yards 170 receptions and 12 touchdowns.
Last week at football media day, Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald told reporters, "On offense, none of you know any of our guys' names so I'll spare it for now."
He has relayed a similar message to the players themselves.
"We're anonymous," Stewart said Monday at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, site of Northwestern's off-campus training camp. "Unknown, unseen, unheard. Just a lot of uns. We called it U-cubed. We know there's a lot of talk about last year's group of guys. They were a great group of seniors.
"We knew that we were going to be unknown, unseen and unproven. Right now, it's our turn."
Stewart makes sure to motivate himself and his fellow wideouts during practices by telling them how unheralded they are. It has helped bond the group and create "a team within a team."
"We've got to realize we're not like everybody else," Stewart said. "There's a lot of people out here who will get talked about in a positive way. And we, unfortunately, if it's not a negative light, then we're not talked about at all.
"We like to keep that in the forefront of our minds, keep striving to be the best we can be."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The preseason position rankings march on with the wide receivers and tight ends.
The Big Ten wasn't known for its air show last year, as only Illinois ranked among the top 25 nationally in pass offense. But most would agree the league boasts two of the nation's elite wide receivers in Illinois' Arrelious Benn and Minnesota's Eric Decker, as well as a good crop of tight ends led by Wisconsin's Garrett Graham. The overall landscape at wideout/tight end should improve this fall.
1. Illinois -- An easy choice for the top spot as Illinois boasts by far the league's best crop of wide receivers. Benn aims for a second consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season and hopes to increase his touchdowns total. Florida transfer Jarred Fayson enters the mix and should make a major impact along with Jeff Cumberland. Senior tight end Michael Hoomanawanui is one of the league's more underrated players.
2. Minnesota -- Decker certainly headlines the group and will finish his career as arguably the most decorated wide receiver in team history. But he's not alone. Junior college stud Hayo Carpenter arrives and will play alongside Brandon Green, Ben Kuznia, Da'Jon McKnight and Troy Stoudermire, who should play a much bigger role in the passing game after working more at receiver this spring.
3. Michigan State -- The Spartans return virtually everyone from a receiving corps that had some decent moments last fall. Blair White and Mark Dell both have All-Big Ten potential, and the team will look for more production from Keshawn Martin and B.J. Cunningham. The real story here is the depth at tight end. No Big Ten team boasts more as Charlie Gantt and Clemson transfer Brian Linthicum lead the way.
4. Wisconsin -- Much like Michigan State, Wisconsin brings back the core from a group that endured ups and downs in 2008. Graham enters the fall as the Big Ten's premier tight end and has Lance Kendricks and Mickey Turner behind him. The improvement at wide receiver should be the biggest difference for Wisconsin. Nick Toon could be a star this fall, and Kyle Jefferson, Isaac Anderson and David Gilreath all return.
5. Ohio State -- The Brians (Robiskie and Hartline) are gone, but Ohio State could be more explosive at wide receiver this season. Though Ray Small's academic situation creates some uneasiness, DeVier Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher form a nice 1-2 punch. Ohio State should be better at the tight end position with the Jakes (Ballard and Stoneburner).
6. Michigan -- This group didn't have much of a chance to shine last fall, but things should be different in 2009. The big-play potential is there with Martavious Odoms, Greg Mathews and Darryl Stonum, and redshirt freshman Roy Roundtree had a solid spring. Tight end Kevin Koger could be a very effective weapon if Michigan throws to him more.
7. Iowa -- There are some question marks here, namely Tony Moeaki's health and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos' practice performance, but it wouldn't surprise me if Iowa climbed the list. Moeaki could bring a huge spark at tight end after the loss of Brandon Myers. Johnson-Koulianos will be motivated after his depth-chart demotion, and converted quarterback Marvin McNutt has impressed the coaches.
8. Penn State -- I'm sure I'll hear it from Nittany Nation (as I usually do), but the loss of three multiyear starters takes a pretty big toll. It wouldn't shock me one bit if Derek Moye, Graham Zug, Brett Brackett and Chaz Powell don't miss a beat, but I need to see them excel in more featured roles. Tight end Andrew Quarless has tons of talent but needs to put it all together this fall.
9. Purdue -- The Boilers usually find a way to succeed at wide receiver, but they lose a lot in Greg Orton, Desmond Tardy and running back Kory Sheets, an excellent pass-catcher. Keith Smith steps into the No. 1 spot after recording 49 receptions last fall, but he'll need help from Aaron Valentin, converted cornerback Royce Adams and junior college import Keith Carlos. Purdue should be much better at tight end as Kyle Adams returns.
10. Northwestern -- The program needs to prove it can reload after losing three multiyear starters (Eric Peterman, Ross Lane, Rasheed Ward). Northwestern has had high hopes for converted quarterback Andrew Brewer, but he's struggled to stay healthy. The Wildcats will lean on Brewer, junior Sidney Stewart and sophomore Jeremy Ebert, who performed well last fall. The superback position might finally be featured as Drake Dunsmore returns from a knee injury.
11. Indiana -- Last year's leading receiver (Ray Fisher) likely will start at cornerback, while the man expected to be the No. 1 (Kellen Lewis) was dismissed after spring ball. There are some major questions here, but you've got to like Indiana's young wideouts Damarlo Belcher and Tandon Doss. Sophomore tight end Max Dedmond could be a player to watch this fall.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Biggest reason for hope -- Depth in the secondary
Not long ago, Northwestern's secondary was one of the weakest units in the Big Ten. Heading into 2009, it appears to be one of the league's strongest groups. All four starters return, led by safeties Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith, who combined for 191 tackles and five interceptions last season, including Smith's game-winning return against Minnesota. The Wildcats go two and three deep at every position and boast two aggressive corners in Sherrick McManis and Jordan Mabin. The defense as a whole should be Northwestern's strength this fall, and the secondary headlines the unit.
Biggest reason for concern -- Losses at the offensive skill positions
To truly elevate its profile in the Big Ten, Northwestern must show it can survive losses of multiyear starters at key offensive positions. This season provides a major test as the Wildcats lose a three-year starter at quarterback (C.J. Bacher), a four-year starter at running back (Tyrell Sutton) and three multiyear starters at wide receiver (Eric Peterman, Ross Lane and Rasheed Ward). In the past, these losses have signaled a drop-off for a program that has reached consecutive bowl games just once before (1995-96). Northwestern needs quarterback Mike Kafka and others to step up and continue the momentum it generated last season.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The skill positions will top Pat Fitzgerald's wish list as the Northwestern head coach wraps up a small recruiting class on the heels of a 9-4 season.
Northwestern loses its starting quarterback (C.J. Bacher), its top two running backs (Tyrell Sutton and Omar Conteh) and its top three wide receivers (Eric Peterman, Rasheed Ward and Ross Lane). Mike Kafka steps in at quarterback, but he'll be a senior. The Wildcats need another capable signal caller for 2010, and they think they've found one in commit Evan Watkins.
Running back will be the team's biggest need next fall, and the recruiting class could help. Sutton arrived four years ago as a true freshman and rushed for nearly 1,500 yards. Though undersized rising junior Stephen Simmons did a nice job in relief of Sutton this fall, Northwestern needs to stock up in the backfield.
The Wildcats return some capable possession-type wide receivers (Jeremy Ebert, Andrew Brewer), but adding a player who can stretch the field would be a big plus in this class.
On the defensive side, linebacker likely will be the top priority, as Northwestern loses two starters (Malcolm Arrington and Prince Kwateng). Fitzgerald has always recruited well to his former position and will look to add there. The defensive line loses two starters and another (star end Corey Wootton) after the 2009 season, so building depth up front is vital.
Northwestern also loses kicker Amado Villarreal, a two-year starter, and will award a scholarship to incoming recruit Jeff Budzien.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Before putting a sleepy Big Ten bowl season to bed, it's time to recognize some of the memorable moments from the last few weeks. Contrary to the 1-6 record, the Big Ten produced its share of highlights. And lowlights.
Here they are.
Best closing performance -- Iowa running back Shonn Greene capped a tremendous 2008 season in fitting fashion with his 13th consecutive 100-yard rushing performance. Greene punished South Carolina for 121 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the Outback Bowl. The junior then confirmed what many had believed for months and declared for the NFL draft.
|Scott A. Miller/US Presswire|
|Shonn Greene punctuated his college career with a victory over South Carolina.|
Best catch -- Ross Lane's leaping grab in the back of the end zone secured a 23-yard touchdown and gave Northwestern a 23-20 lead over Missouri entering the fourth quarter of the Alamo Bowl. Lane used his entire 6-foot-3 frame to make the reception and managed to get a foot down before tumbling beyond the end line. His catch would have been the signature image had Northwestern held on for the win.
Best catch by a quarterback -- OK, Terrelle Pryor is the only Big Ten signal caller who qualified, but he showed impressive athleticism to haul in a 5-yard fade pass from Todd Boeckman for a touchdown. Ohio State's use of Pryor and Boeckman together gave the offense a boost at times, and Pryor's leaping ability had some wondering whether he would be better used as a wide receiver.
Best preview of the future -- Michigan State backup quarterback Kirk Cousins continued to boost his stock for the 2009 season with a solid effort in limited action at the Capital One Bowl. Cousins spelled Brian Hoyer for a series and completed 4 of 5 pass attempts, leading Michigan State into Georgia territory and setting up a long field-goal attempt. Though he'll have to beat out Keith Nichol for the starting job in the offseason, Cousins looked game-ready this fall.
Best performance by a secondary -- Iowa's back four continued to cause problems in the Outback Bowl, as they did throughout the second half of the season. Safety Tyler Sash recorded two interceptions and cornerback Bradley Fletcher had an interception and a forced fumble. Cornerback Amari Spievey added a pass breakup as the Hawkeyes flustered South Carolina's Stephen Garcia.
Best comeback: Had Ohio State held on to beat Texas, Boeckman would have been the top story. After sitting on the bench for the final nine regular-season games, Boeckman returned to meaningful action and gave the Buckeyes' offense a much needed boost against Texas. He sparked the offense with a 48-yard pass to Brian Robiskie and hit Pryor for the team's first touchdown.
Worst quarter -- The Big Ten's second-quarter blues continued in BCS games as Penn State was outscored 24-0 in the second quarter of the Rose Bowl. Penn State had taken USC's first punch and mounted an impressive scoring drive, but the Nittany Lions committed out-of-character mistakes in the second quarter and couldn't stop Mark Sanchez and the Trojans, who took a 31-7 halftime lead.
Worst turnover -- It seems hard to fathom given the final score, but Wisconsin outplayed Florida State for the first quarter of the Champs Sports Bowl and had the ball inside the Noles' red zone early in the second quarter. Quarterback Dustin Sherer attempted a lateral that fell incomplete, and Florida State's Derek Nicholson wisely picked up the ball and raced 75 yards to the end zone. Wisconsin players thought Sherer had thrown an incomplete forward pass and didn't bother to chase Nicholson. They would never catch Florida State.
Worst tackle -- Safety Anderson Russell had been one of Ohio State's defensive standouts in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, recording an interception, a forced fumble and a pass breakup to go along with nine tackles. But unfortunately, Russell's lasting image will be a missed tackle on wide receiver Quan Cosby that allowed Texas to score the game-winning touchdown with 26 seconds left. Ohio State had tackled extremely well until the final minute, limiting big plays, but Cosby scooted by Russell and into the end zone.
Worst special teams play -- Northwestern's Stefan Demos was supposed to punt the ball out of bounds late in the first half, but his kick instead went high and short, right into the hands of dangerous return man Jeremy Maclin. The Missouri star raced 75 yards to the end zone with a minute left in the half, and Northwestern went to the locker room tied at 10-10 after dominating the first 30 minutes. A missed extra point in the third quarter also stung the Wildcats in their overtime loss.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The Big Ten probably wants to forget this postseason after going 1-6 in bowls. But several players stood out, even in defeat, and they deserve recognition. Let's hand out helmet stickers for the final time this season, beginning with the one Big Ten team (Iowa) that actually won its bowl.
Iowa running back Shonn Greene -- Playing in what would be his final collegiate game, the Hawkeyes' junior went out with a flourish, racking up 121 rushing yards and three touchdowns against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. Greene eclipsed 100 rushing yards in all 13 games and set a single-season school rushing record with 1,850 yards.
Iowa strong safety Tyler Sash -- South Carolina was in a giving mood (five turnovers), and Sash capitalized with two interceptions, raising his season total to five. Sash, a redshirt freshman who became one of the team's top playmakers, picked off Stephen Garcia's first pass of the game and had interception returns of 45 and 29 yards.
Iowa cornerback Bradley Fletcher -- The senior recorded an interception and a forced fumble in his final game in a Hawkeyes uniform. With Iowa up 14-0, Fletcher squashed any chance of a South Carolina rally by intercepting a Garcia pass in the end zone for a touchback. He also forced a fumble on South Carolina's first play of the second half.
Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman -- He hadn't taken significant snaps since September but gave Ohio State a big lift in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl against Texas. The offense was sputtering until Boeckman found Brian Robiskie for a 48-yard completion on the first play of the fourth quarter. Boeckman later threw a touchdown to fellow quarterback Terrelle Pryor and nearly helped Ohio State to a big upset.
Ohio State's defense -- Colt McCoy and Quan Cosby had the final word in Glendale, but Ohio State held the high-powered Texas offense well below its season scoring average. The Buckeyes racked up three sacks and nine tackles for loss and limited big plays until Cosby's 26-yard touchdown with 16 seconds left.
Northwestern quarterback C.J. Bacher -- Bacher ended an up-and-down senior season with arguably his best performance in the Valero Alamo Bowl. He threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns against Missouri in a 30-23 overtime loss. Bacher threw only one interception and spread the ball well to his veteran targets.
Northwestern's senior wide receivers -- Rasheed Ward, Ross Lane and Eric Peterman combined for 19 receptions, 261 yards and three touchdowns in the Alamo Bowl. All three had scoring receptions of 20 yards or longer, highlighted by Lane's circus catch in the back of the end zone late in the third quarter.
Penn State linebacker Navorro Bowman -- The Rose Bowl was a rough one for Penn State's defense, but Bowman certainly did his part with five tackles for loss and a sack. Bowman finished the season with 106 tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss. Next season he'll form the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem with Sean Lee.
Michigan State safety Otis Wiley -- Wiley and his fellow defenders held Georgia to three first-half points in the Capital One Bowl and gave the Spartans offense a chance to create some distance on the scoreboard. Michigan State eventually caved against Matthew Stafford, but Wiley had a forced fumble and seven tackles to go along with 87 return yards in his final collegiate game.
Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker -- Decker returned from knee surgery and an ankle injury to boost the Gophers in the Insight Bowl with eight receptions for 149 yards and a touchdown. The junior set Minnesota bowl records for receptions and receiving yards and will return in 2009 as one of the Big Ten's top targets.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Northwestern outplayed Missouri for most of the Valero Alamo Bowl.
The Wildcats had a tremendous game plan, made big plays on both sides of the ball and kept Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman from lighting up the Alamodome scoreboard, which seemed like a guarantee entering tonight's contest. As the biggest underdog of the 68 FBS bowl teams, Northwestern has nothing to be ashamed about after a 30-23 overtime loss to the Tigers in a thrilling contest.
But when you're a massive underdog and you face a more talented opponent, you need to execute the little things. Details matter more than ever. For Northwestern, the little things came on special teams, and in that area, Pat Fitzgerald's team failed miserably.
Northwestern had no business being tied with Missouri at halftime after dominating the opening 30 minutes. But a poorly executed punt, one that should have gone out of bounds, allowed Maclin to race 75 yards for the tying touchdown with a minute left before the break.
That's seven points right there. At worst, Northwestern should have been up 10-3 at the half.
The Wildcats then opened the second half with a brilliant scoring drive capped by a 46-yard Rasheed Ward touchdown catch. But in a scene Northwestern fans are all too familiar with, kicker Amado Villarreal missed on the extra point attempt. The conversion would have forced Missouri to score a touchdown in the closing minutes rather than settle for a field goal. Northwestern's defense did a great job of keeping Missouri out of the end zone, so a stop was likely.
Eight points on special teams likely doomed the Wildcats, and that's not even counting a missed field goal in the opening half. In a game where Northwestern did so many things right, the special teams details really stung.
The program's first bowl win since 1949 would have been huge, but Northwestern made a strong statement tonight, especially on the defensive side. The Wildcats held Missouri's offense to three first half points and picked off Daniel three times. Though Missouri ultimately made the plays when it mattered, Northwestern's defense was one of the bright spots in the Big Ten and should only improve in 2009.
Quarterback C.J. Bacher and wide receivers Eric Peterman, Ross Lane and Ward played arguably their best games of the season, and running back Tyrell Sutton came off a wrist injury to rush for 114 yards. Northwestern's problems along the offensive line came back to haunt the team late, and some questionable play-calling gave Missouri the time to rally and force overtime.
The 34-year-old Fitzgerald has Northwestern headed in the right direction. It's critical that this program sustains success, something it did not do after Fitzgerald finished playing in 1996. Those who dismiss Northwestern because of its pre-1995 history are simply uninformed, but the program still needs to get over the hump in bowl games.
Fine-tuning the details on special teams is a good place to start.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
MINNEAPOLIS -- Pat Fitzgerald's first significant decision as Northwestern's head coach came on Aug. 28, 2006, when he named Mike Kafka the team's starting quarterback.
|Harry How/Getty Images|
|Quarterback Mike Kafka led Northwestern to an upset victory over No. 17 Minnesota.|
Kafka went on to start the first four games of a star-crossed season for Northwestern. The team struggled to bounce back after the sudden death of head coach Randy Walker earlier in the summer. The Wildcats went 2-2 with Kafka at the helm, but a hamstring injury against Nevada sent the freshman to the sidelines.
He remained backstage until Saturday.
Starting quarterback C.J. Bacher had injured his hamstring a week earlier at Indiana, and though Bacher was available for the game against No. 17 Minnesota, Fitzgerald and his staff decided after Wednesday's practice that Kafka would get the start.
Kafka was ready Saturday, and his performance helped Northwestern to a 24-17 upset of Minnesota. The 6-3, 210-pound junior shattered a school record for quarterback rushing with 217 yards and also threw two touchdown passes to go along with two interceptions.
Kafka had runs of 53, 38 and 30 yards in the victory.
"He does it every week in practice," freshman wideout Jeremy Ebert said, "so it doesn't really impress us too much."
Minnesota shut down running back Omar Conteh, leaving the ball in the hands of Kafka, who Fitzgerald called "a true dual-threat quarterback."
"It shows great maturity on Mike's part," Fitzgerald said. "As a competitor, you never want to learn patience. It's the worst word in the world for a competitor. Mike's been patient for his opportunity."
How hard was the wait?
"You're a play away," Fitzgerald had continued to remind him. "You don't know when that opportunity's going to arise. All you control is if you're ready or not. And if you're ready, you go out there and take advantage of the opportunity. If you're not, you get exposed. That's the great thing about football, and it mimics life.
"We all get opportunities in life. Either we're ready for them or we're not."
Consider: Since the Nevada game in 2006, Kafka had completed 8 of 14 passes for 38 yards and no touchdowns.
"Us as an offense grew from there, and individually I definitely grew from that, too," Kafka said. "Since then, we've had a lot of adversity. We've had a lot of good things happen, too."
Many of those good things happened on the game's opening drive, as Kafka led the offense 78 yards in seven plays. He set the tone with an 11-yard run on the first play from scrimmage and hit several short routes.
Then, on third-and-5, with Minnesota cheating up to the line, Kafka found Ebert for a 36-yard score over the top of the defense.
"It was a very strong statement," Wildcats safety Brendan Smith said. "It put energy and life into our team.
"When he did that, everyone knew that, 'OK, it's a ballgame. We're going to win this game.'"
With both Bacher and starting running back Tyrell Sutton sidelined, Northwestern operated in a more conservative scheme, trying to avoid turnovers at all costs.
The Wildcats ran on third-and-19 to set up a field goal. They ran on third-and-17 inside Gophers territory, settling for a punt. Another trip to plus territory ended with a run on third-and-11. You could say Northwestern played not to lose on offense -- a risky proposition on the road. But it worked.
"It's different," Ebert said of the scheme, "but we trust our coaches and we trust our game plan."
Despite the no-mistakes plan, disaster struck for Kafka in the second quarter, as Minnesota cornerback Traye Simmons jumped his pass to Ross Lane and walked in for a touchdown. It was exactly the type of error an undermanned Northwestern offense needed to avoid.
But Kafka bounced back two possessions later, racing to the Gophers' 2-yard line after recognizing an open running lane. On the next play he found Josh Rooks in the end zone, putting Northwestern back on top.
"When adversity hits, just flush it and move on," Kafka said. "There was still a lot of game left.
"I love the way our team responded today."
Last week's loss to Indiana mirrored Wildcats setbacks of past seasons -- Duke in 2007, New Hampshire in 2006. The game took a greater toll with the losses of Sutton and Bacher. Many waited for the collapse to begin.
But Saturday's win ensures Northwestern of a postseason bid -- the first hands Fitzgerald shook coming out of the locker room belonged to representatives of the Insight and Champs Sports Bowls -- and elevates hope for the future with Kafka under center.
"From adversity, you can really respond and respond greatly," Fitzgerald said. "A lot people were jumping off the bandwagon last week, a lot of people telling us just how bad we were. We don't worry about those things."
Fitzgerald left the Metrodome singing a Jimmy Buffet song.
Pretty soon, others might start to change their tune about his team.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
MINNEAPOLIS -- Now we know how No. 17 Minnesota got to this point.
After a slow start, the Gophers rallied in the second quarter and showcased the characteristics that have led to their 7-1 start. Minnesota's opportunistic defense came up with a game-changing turnover, and quarterback Adam Weber and the offense continue to play mistake-free football. But undermanned Northwestern is hanging in there, and it's been an entertaining game so far.
The Wildcats have to feel good to be tied after their worst fears came true. With a new starting offensive backfield, Northwestern's game plan focused on limiting turnovers. It worked for a litte more than a quarter. But after failing to get good first-down yardage, backup quarterback Mike Kafka showed his inexperience on a hitch pass to Ross Lane. Minnesota cornerback Traye Simmons read the route, stepped in for the interception and took it 23 yards to the end zone.
But Kafka responded nicely and sparked a touchdown drive with a 53-yard run to the Minnesota 2-yard line. The Gophers are clearly trying to take away running back Omar Conteh, which has opened up lanes for Kafka, who has 97 rushing yards on nine carries. Kafka completed his first eight pass attempts before slowing down a bit in the second quarter.
Minnesota's offense settled in nicely in the second quarter. Weber's ability to scramble and make throws on the run has spurred the Gophers. And though junior wide receiver Eric Decker broke his own single-season school record with his 68th reception, Weber is getting other receivers involved (Nick Tow-Arnett, Ben Kuznia, Brandon Green, Jack Simmons), completing 15 of 23 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown.
Both offensive lines have looked suspect at times, but Northwestern likely needs to force a turnover from Weber to pull out the upset.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Happy Friday to all. Let's see what's on your mind.
Adam from Phoenix writes: The 2008 Buckeyes look similar to the 2005 Buckeyes. 1.Tressel does not know who to play at quarterback: 2005 - Zwick/Smith & 2008 ? Boeckman/Pryor. 2.The ?pocket? quarterback lost in 2005 (Zwick) and is currently losing in 2008 (Boeckman). 3.A top-tier program won a game against the Buckeyes while Tressel was deciding who to play at quarterback (2005: TX & 2008: USC). 4.The team played much better after Tressel decided to play only one quarterback in 2005 and appears to play much better with Pryor under center in 2008. My picks for the Big Ten: 1. WI 2. PA St 3. OH St
Adam Rittenberg: That's an interesting comparison. I'm sure at this stage, Ohio State would be happy if the mobile quarterback or the pocket quarterback led the team to a BCS bowl win, as Troy Smith did against Notre Dame in 2005. It will be interesting to see how much longer Tressel goes with rotating quarterbacks. My sense is if Terrelle Pryor continues to make progress without making big mistakes, he'll get the keys to the car the rest of the season. Don't count this team out in the Big Ten race by any means, but they have a tough road with trips to Wisconsin, Michigan State and Illinois.
Brenton from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, writes: Adam, if Iowa lays it on Pittsburgh, a top 25 team at beginning of the season, will that be enough to make them a legitimate Big 10 conteder?
Adam Rittenberg: I'm still kicking myself for putting Pitt in my preseason Top 25. Someone must have spiked all of our drinks. But this would be a very solid road win for Iowa, which really hasn't been tested much on either side of the ball this season. The Hawkeyes can solidify their quarterback position with a strong road performance, and an already confident defense will gain another boost by containing LeSean McCoy. I wouldn't put Iowa in the Big Ten title mix just yet. If the Hawks beat Michigan State on the road and Wisconsin at home Oct. 18, then we'll talk.
Ron from Jacksonville, Fla., writes: Hey grew up with Kellen Lewis down here in the Jacksonville area and just wondering why he doesnt get some of the national pub that some other B10 Qb's get?( ala painter, Juice, Boeckman) He's put up better numbers then Juice and Boeckman. Put up simliar numbers to Painter's, and beat him head to head last season.
Adam Rittenberg: Ron, the easy answer is that he plays for Indiana, which has only become relevant again in recent years. For what it's worth, I ranked Lewis as the league's top quarterback entering the season and think highly of his speed and playmaking ability. Curtis Painter will set a ton of records before he's finished and plays for a team known for passing and big offensive numbers, so he'll probably get more pub than Lewis. But if Indiana starts strong -- a good possibility with the schedule -- and Lewis continues to put up big numbers, people will start to take notice. The Antwaan Randle El comparisons are certainly legitimate.
Ray from Chicago writes: The Wildcats appear to have trouble scoring touchdowns in the redzone, particularly last week against the Salukis. Northwestern is not a deep-pass team, so one would think that play calling inside the red zone would not be different that their regular game plan. Is Fitz calling the right plays or are the players failing to execute?
Adam Rittenberg: Ray, this has been a problem with Northwestern's spread offense for a number of years. They move the ball great between the 20's but struggle to punch it in the end zone. It's a big-yards, little-points offense. The red-zone issues cost the Wildcats last year against Duke when they couldn't convert four chances inside the 10-yard line. You're right about the short-pass-oriented attack, and it really should work better in the red zone. Wideout Ross Lane has emerged as a big target for C.J. Bacher down there, but the biggest problem historically has been the inability to run the ball in short-yardage situations. Northwestern is a terrible I-formation team and though Tyrell Sutton has good running strength, defenses consistently stop him with the offense lines up in the I. They might want to use backup running back Omar Conteh more in those situations, and the quarterback draw can also help.
Brett from Minneapolis writes: Adam, As a loyal Gopher fan, I am a little upset we're getting picked on for poor scheduling. The cupcake schedule can be attributed to Glen Mason (who will be an analyst for the Gopher-Buckeye game on Big Ten Network). Brewster is doing a better job of scheduling. This is from Gophersports.com: 2009: Air Force, Cal (Note: We had Syracuse on the schedule for the first game, but it has now been changed to TBA). 2010: Washington State, UNLV (soft, but the Badgers have also played them in the past. Also pulled an upset over Arizona State) 2011: WA State 2012: Colorado 2014 & 2015: Oregon State There are rumors flying around that Brewster is trying to schedule Texas in 2016. The Gophers have had problems scheduling quality basketball opponents as well and are trying to schedule schools to play the Gophers in both sports.
Adam Rittenberg: Agree on all points. The weak scheduling under Mason for all those years still fuels the criticism. Those nonconference slates rarely prepared the Gophers for Big Ten play, and, as a result, they would finish with a watered-down 7-5 or 6-6 record and go to a minor bowl game. Brewster came in with lofty expectations, and part of that comes with beefing up the schedule. Teams like Cal, Washington State, Colorado and Air Force aren't super powers, but they'll test Minnesota much more than Smorgasbord State or whoever they used to play.
Gary from the ATL (that's Atlanta for the un-hip) writes: Regarding your column on Joe Pa's decision on Evans and Koroma, what is your opinion of an appropriate punishment? Notwithstanding the negative spotlight on PSU, i.e., OTL story, I believe the three game suspension (Oregon State, Cuse and Temple) is more than adequate considering the charge. In fact, you wouldn't see anywhere near a 3 game suspension for similar charges at OSU, UF, Wiscy (DUI on a mo-ped), OU, UT, and other big programs. Just curious of your opinion. Keep up the great blog.
Adam Rittenberg: Thanks, Gary. The hard thing is that the punishments vary so much by school, as you point out. Some see misdemeanor marijuana possession as a slap-on-the-wrist transgression, especially for first-time offenders. Other schools take it a bit more seriously. What can't be ignored here is the timing -- the Tuesday night/Wednesday morning of game week after a year in which the team had a ton of off-field problems. How dumb can you be? The team's punishment could depend on what the university decides to do, but I'd say extending the suspensions another game or two sounds fair.
Paul from Bloomington, Ind., writes: Adam, thanks for offering your predictions for the Big Ten week 4. Also, thanks for offering a way for us to bombard you with criticism :) . From me, it's only on one game, though. No way in the world is Ball State beating Indiana Saturday. Didn't last year, didn't the year before, and it's not happening this year. You say Ball State will be pumped up. Good. So will IU. They're the real team on the rise. Indiana, at home, will have too much of an advantage. BSU has been the trendy pick recently. But, it stops now.
Adam Rittenberg: Congrats to Paul for writing the nicest critical e-mail I've received this season. This is a tough game to call, and I'll be happy to eat crow on Saturday night if the Hoo
siers hold serve at home. The early season schedule really concerns me, starting with two cupcakes before a bye week. Indiana hasn't faced any adversity on either side of the ball. Expect that to change on Saturday, even if Ball State doesn't win the game. I really like what the Hoosiers have going on the defensive side. They're more than just Greg Middleton up front, and Matt Mayberry has gotten rave reviews at linebacker. But the secondary concerns me against Nate Davis, a legit pro prospect. I think this could be a case where light scheduling comes back to haunt Indiana.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The Week 1 depth charts are gradually coming out around the Big Ten. Here's a look at two.
- As expected, no starting quarterback has been named for the Western Kentucky game. It will be Ben Chappell or incumbent Kellen Lewis.
- Redshirt freshman Chris Adkins has won the second starting cornerback spot opposite Chris Phillips. Donnell Jones and Richard Council are the second-stringers.
- Fifth-year senior Marcus Thigpen remains the starter at running back ahead of Bryan Payton and Demetrius McCray. Freshman Darius Willis isn't listed on the depth chart but coach Bill Lynch expects him to play this fall.
- Florida transfer Jerimy Finch, cleared to play this season, is listed behind Austin Thomas as the second-string strong safety.
- Sophomore Brad Martin is the starting tight end ahead of promising redshirt freshman Max Dedmond.
- I was a little surprised not to see freshman wideout DaMarlo Belcher on the two-deep. He was the most impressive player at last Wednesday's practice and should see the field this fall.
- The new-look starting offensive line reads as follows: left tackle Al Netter, left guard Keegan Kennedy, center Ben Burkett, right guard Joel Belding and right tackle Kurt Mattes. That means C.J. Bacher's blind side will be protected by a redshirt freshman (Netter) and a guy (Kennedy) who played the better part of three seasons at defensive tackle. It's a little scary, but Northwestern has been impressed with both players and especially Burkett at center.
- Reserve wide receiver Jeremy Ebert is the lone true freshman on the two-deep -- a telling sign about Northwestern's returning experience. Ebert also will start at kickoff returner with Stephen Simmons. The Wildcats will start Eric Peterman, Ross Lane, Andrew Brewer and Rasheed Ward at the wide receiver spots.
- Sophomore Josh Rooks has moved into the top spot at superback (tight end-fullback hybrid) after the season-ending knee injury to Drake Dunsmore. Junior Brendan Mitchell is behind Rooks.
- Sophomore Corbin Bryant will start the Syracuse game at defensive tackle in place of suspended star John Gill. Bryant had five tackles last season.
- Senior Kevin Mims holds a starting spot at defensive end ahead of hard-charging redshirt freshman Vince Browne.
- Peterman will open the season as the starting punt returner ahead of safety Brendan Smith.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Despite losing seven of the league's top 10 receivers from last season, this group should once again be solid in 2008. Teams like Ohio State, Penn State, Illinois and Northwestern return groups of receivers that have played together for a season or longer. Minnesota has a budding star in Eric Decker, while Wisconsin lacks a proven wide receiver but boasts arguably the nation's best tight end in Travis Beckum. Purdue is restocking at wide receiver but has history on its side, and Iowa welcomes back several key contributors from injuries.
As with the running backs, these rankings are broken down into two sections:
|AP Photo/Phelan Ebenhack|
|Wisconsin's Travis Beckum had 75 receptions for 982 yards last season.|
1. Travis Beckum, Sr., TE, Wisconsin -- It's rare that a tight end tops this list, but Beckum transcends his often overlooked position. The All-America candidate had 75 receptions for 982 yards and six touchdowns last season. If Beckum returns at top form following offseason shoulder surgery, he'll continue to flummox defenses with his size and speed.
2. Brian Robiskie, Sr., WR, Ohio State -- He averaged 17 yards a catch and had the third most touchdown catches (11) in the league last season. Now imagine what Robiskie will do without a torn meniscus in his knee that required offseason surgery. A deep threat on a squad with several of them, Robiskie is on the brink of a big season.
3. Arrelious Benn, So., WR, Illinois -- Fully healthy after shoulder surgery, Benn could easily become this season's Devin Thomas and rise to the top of the list. Illinois will get the ball in his hands as much as possible, whether it's in a ramped up passing attack, out of the backfield or on returns. A good route-runner with breakaway speed, Benn might be the league's most dynamic player.
4. Eric Decker, Jr., WR, Minnesota -- After putting up big numbers for a bad team last season, Decker should get more praise from fans and more attention from defenses this fall. A tremendous athlete who also plays baseball for the Golden Gophers, Decker gives quarterback Adam Weber a proven target who can get to the end zone (nine touchdowns in 2007).
5. Deon Butler, Sr., WR, Penn State -- Butler quietly has become one of the league's most reliable receivers. He needs just 36 receptions to become Penn State's all-time career receptions leader and likely will claim several other school records. As the Nittany Lions transition to more of a spread offense this fall, Butler should excel.
6. Eric Peterman, Sr., WR, Northwestern -- Just when defenses label Peterman as a standard possession wide receiver, he'll gash them for a big gain. He tied for seventh in the league in receptions last season and will once again be C.J. Bacher's top target in the passing game, particularly on third down.
7. Greg Orton, Sr., WR, Purdue -- After playing behind three-time Big Ten receptions leader Dorien Bryant, Orton takes center stage as a senior. He must stabilize a new-look Boilermakers receiving corps and provide senior quarterback Curtis Painter a reliable first option. Orton has 125 receptions the last two seasons.
8. Andy Brodell, Sr., WR, Iowa --Remember the 2006 Alamo Bowl? Brodell torched Texas for a bowl-record 159 receiving yards, including a 63-yard touchdown. A broken leg cut short his 2007 season, but he's back and ready to restore his place among the Big Ten's top receivers.
9. Brian Hartline, Jr., WR, Ohio State -- Don't forget about Ohio State's other Brian, who collected 52 receptions for 694 yards and six touchdowns last fall. As Robiskie stretches the field, Hartline provides an excellent complement who goes over the middle and absorbs contact. He turned in an excellent spring as Robiskie recovered from injury.
10. Derrick Williams, Sr., WR, Penn State -- Most thought Williams would be higher on this list when he arrived in Happy Valley, but he hasn't matched the hype -- yet. His speed and athleticism remain top notch, and he should do well in a spread offense. A big-play threat who can do damage in the return game, Williams could finish his career with a flourish.
1. Ohio State -- Finding a third option remains on Ohio State's to-do list, but few teams boast a better passing tandem than the Brians. After a season to jell with quarterback Todd Boeckman, Robiskie and Hartline will punish defenses worrying about Heisman Trophy candidate Beanie Wells.
2. Penn State -- In terms of continuity at wide receiver, Penn State ranks at the top of the list. But the long-tenured group of Butler, Williams and Jordan Norwood hasn't always met expectations. As seniors, they should shine despite having to work with a new starting quarterback.
3. Illinois -- The league knows all about Benn, who will do even more damage at 100 percent this fall. His supporting cast includes Jeff Cumberland, a 6-5, 247-pound former tight end who can outjump defenders, as well as Chris James, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL. The Illini will accentuate the passing game more this fall, and this group should step up.
4. Northwestern -- This could be the Wildcats' best group of wideouts sinc
e they installed in the spread offense in 2000. Peterman is good for 6-10 receptions per game. Ross Lane provides Bacher with a red-zone threat, and Andrew Brewer, considered the team's top wideout before suffering a fractured humerus in training camp, rejoins the group.
5. Iowa -- Embattled quarterback Jake Christensen is thrilled to see what's coming back this fall. Brodell returns from a broken leg and gives Iowa a viable deep threat. Promising tight end Tony Moeaki is also back in the fold following an injury. Sophomore Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, the team's top receiver last season, provides depth along with Trey Stross.
6. Wisconsin -- Beckum and understudy Garrett Graham are the only reasons why the Badgers are this high. For them to stay there, several wide receivers must emerge from an unproven group. Kyle Jefferson displayed promise as a freshman and David Gilreath showcased his speed as a returner, but there are more questions than answers here.
7. Purdue -- It's impossible to replace Bryant's production or the mismatch problems Dustin Keller created, but Orton gives Purdue a strong first option with good size. More important, the Boilermakers have a track record of success at wide receiver and a senior quarterback (Curtis Painter) who can help unproven players. Junior-college transfer Aaron Valentin bolsters a group that also includes Desmond Tardy.
8. Minnesota -- I'm tempted to put the Gophers higher because of Decker, but there's not much behind him. Ernie Wheelwright's departure leaves a hole, which could be filled by dynamic freshman Brandon Green, sophomore Ralph Spry or several others. If Minnesota finds a solid second option for Weber, it will climb several spots.
9. Michigan -- Before you flood my inbox, allow an explanation. The Wolverines have no proven quarterbacks, only one semi-proven wide receiver (Greg Mathews) and a dramatically different offense to learn. A drop-off is likely, but not certain. Freshman Darryl Stonum bolsters the new-look corps, and players like Junior Hemingway and Toney Clemons could shine after waiting their turn for playing time.
10. Indiana -- There's no James Hardy on the roster, but juniors Ray Fisher and Andrew Means should stabilize a passing game led by quarterback Kellen Lewis. Tight end Max Dedmond provides another option in the new no-huddle offense, though another target or two needs to emerge.
11. Michigan State -- Javon Ringer told me to expect big things from this group, but I'm not convinced. Thomas and underrated tight end Kellen Davis will be missed, and Ringer had more receptions last season than any of the returnees. Deon Curry, Mark Dell, B.J. Cunningham and Blair White have the chance to step up -- and move up the list.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
|Scott Boehm/Getty Images|
|C.J. Bacher threw for 3,656 yards a year ago, but he isn't afraid to run with the ball.|
It was a weird 2007 for Northwestern quarterback C.J. Bacher. He led the Big Ten and set a school record with 3,656 passing yards. He had an insane two weeks during which he combined for 990 passing yards and nine touchdowns in wins against Michigan State and Minnesota.
But the gaudy numbers were a bit hollow as Bacher ranked seventh in the Big Ten in pass efficiency and tied with Minnesota's Adam Weber for the league lead in interceptions. He finished with as many touchdowns (19) as picks, a fitting stat for a Wildcats team that ended up 6-6 and missed a bowl game.
Bacher heads into his senior season hoping to lead a talented Northwestern offense back to the postseason. The skill positions are well-stocked, but he's dealing with his third offensive coordinator (Mick McCall) in four seasons and a rebuilding line. I caught up with Bacher on Thursday afternoon.
What has been your mental preparation heading into your senior season?
C.J. Bacher: We have a new offense now, so things have changed a little bit. I'm trying to get really comfortable with the offense and make sure my teammates are getting comfortable. That's the biggest focus right now, working to get better with the intricacies of the offense.
How has the offense changed?
CB: It's a lot like what we ran before. It's just the terminology's different and the routes are different. Small things have changed. We just have to learn those little things and get used to each other in the offense.
At Bowling Green (McCall's former school), they ran their quarterbacks quite a bit. Do you expect to be on the move a lot more this fall?
CB: Coach McCall's all about plays. He's had Josh Harris, who was a good runner and he ran with him. And he had Omar Jacobs, who was a great passer and he threw the ball a lot with him. We'll see what he thinks of me, and we'll find out when the season starts.
What do you think of yourself as a runner?
CB: I think I can run. I like running. I'd rather be back there throwing the ball, but I enjoy running, too. If I can pick up 5-10 yards on a run, I'll be happy to get ready for the next play.
This is your third coordinator in four years. How does Mick compare, personality-wise, with Garrick McGee and Mike Dunbar?
CB: It's been interesting. You start to get comfortable with an OC and then you have a new one the next year. It's a little tough to adjust. Coach McCall has done a great job making us feel comfortable with the offense and with him. He's got a real live personality. He's one of those guys who's happy-go-lucky and then he has the ability to really bear down and be a disciplinarian as well. We really enjoy being around him. It's been a lot of fun so far.
Has he incorporated plays that you guys ran in the past?
CB: There's a lot of both. We have a lot of plays we're running now that we haven't run before, and we have a lot of plays that are very similar to plays that we've run before, maybe details that are a little different. That's what we're trying to get used to. It's going to be a little different, but we're still a spread offense. We're still doing the same things that we were recruited here to do. It should be a smooth transition.
Who has had the toughest adjustment?
CB: I'd like to say the quarterback (laughs). I'm sure the receivers would say the receivers and the running backs would say the running backs. It's a lot to learn, it's a lot to digest, but we're all smart kids at Northwestern. We're going to figure it out.
CB: I think we've got the best receiving corps in the Big Ten. Top to bottom, we have a lot of guys that can make plays, both running routes and making plays after the catch. I'm really excited. We've got speed guys, we've got possession guys, but everybody in our receiving corps can make plays. The four guys that are looking like the frontrunners to get most of the playing time -- Eric, Ross, (Andrew) Brewer and Rasheed (Ward) -- are really doing a good job this summer. I'm excited. It makes my job that much easier when I've got those guys around me.
Andrew has only caught one pass in college, but he's a guy that creates a lot of excitement with his speed as a former quarterback. What does he bring to that group?
CB: The biggest thing about him is he's bigger than anybody on the perimeter and he's faster than anybody inside. He's a mismatch for us inside. I don't know how defenses are going to be able to defend him. I'm just excited to be able to throw him the ball, see him juke a corner or run past a linebacker. We're all excited to see what he can do in game situations. He's had this amount of time at receiver under his belt, and he's picked up the route-running a lot. He really knows what he's doing as a receiver.
When you look at your season last year, did it mirror the team's?
CB: Last year was, obviously, a very up-and-down season for us and, personally, I felt it was kind of the same way. The main focus for me to stay more consistent is to take care of the football and really not take as many shots. In a lot of games last year, I was trying to do too much. Coach McCall has really pounded it into my head that we can compete with anybody. I don't have to make the spectacular play, just the smart one.
Pat Fitzgerald has talked about sometimes the best throw is in the fourth row. Is that hard for you because you want to make plays?
CB: A couple years ago, we were a little overmatched against some of these teams. I've just got to realize that our team is so stacked on the perimeter, there's so many guys that can make big plays after they catch it, so a 2-yard pass might turn into a 50-yard gain, whereas a 50-yard pass is pretty hard to complete.
Most of the concerns with your offense are about the line, wh
ich loses three starters. What have you seen from that group so far?
CB: I'm really excited about our additions to the offensive line. Keegan Kennedy's moved over from defensive tackle to offensive guard. He's been looking really good. I'm really excited about his progress. Ben Burkett, who was injured last year and redshirted, he's looking really good, too. And then we added Al Netter over at left tackle. It's a process to get these guys to mesh, but Coach (Bret) Ingalls is doing a good job so far. I expected improvement from last year. With Ben, Keegan and Al, as soon as they can come together and mesh, they're going to do a great job protecting me and opening up holes.
Do you take on an even greater leadership role as a senior quarterback?
CB: As a senior, you do feel a bit of a sense of entitlement just because you've been here so long. We've got so many seniors now. It's pretty easy to get those guys to help us out with the leadership. When you get older and you've been on the field, people really look up to you. We have a lot of young guys who can help us this year, so it's definitely made it easier having more seniors.
What have you sensed from running back Tyrell Sutton after an injury-plagued 2007 season?
CB: He feels a bit of a sense of urgency just because it's his last year. These last couple of years have been tough for him because of injuries. You can expect for him to be back and be stronger than ever. I'm excited to see what he can do on the field. It was such a layoff from being actually healthy. Now we've got him healthy and, hopefully, we can keep him that way. If he can stay healthy, I think he's the best running back in the Big Ten.