Big Ten: Ryan Lankford

Thirty Big Ten players heard their names called during the 2014 NFL draft, but many others received phone calls immediately after the event. The undrafted free-agent carousel is spinning, and players from around the Big Ten are hopping aboard.

Unlike the draft, the UDFA list is somewhat fluid, and other players could get picked up later today or in the coming days. To reiterate: This is not the final list.

Here's what we know right now from various announcements and media reports:

ILLINOIS
  • LB Jonathan Brown, Arizona Cardinals
  • WR Ryan Lankford, Miami Dolphins
  • TE Evan Wilson, Dallas Cowboys
  • WR Steve Hull, New Orleans Saints
  • WR Spencer Harris, New Orleans Saints
Notes: Illini OT Corey Lewis, who battled knee injuries throughout his career, told Steve Greenberg that several teams are interested in him if he's cleared by doctors.

INDIANA
  • WR Kofi Hughes, Washington Redskins
  • RB Stephen Houston, New England Patriots
Notes: S Greg Heban and K Mitch Ewald have tryouts with the Chicago Bears.

IOWA
  • LB James Morris, New England Patriots
  • OT Brett Van Sloten, Baltimore Ravens
  • G Conor Boffeli, Minnesota Vikings
  • WR Don Shumpert, Chicago Bears
  • LS Casey Kreiter, Dallas Cowboys
MARYLAND
  • LB Marcus Whitfield, Jacksonville Jaguars
  • CB Isaac Goins, Miami Dolphins
MICHIGAN
  • LB Cam Gordon, New England Patriots
  • S Thomas Gordon, New York Giants
Notes: RB Fitzgerald Toussaint (Baltimore), DT Jibreel Black (Pittsburgh), LS Jareth Glanda (New Orleans) and DT Quinton Washington (Oakland) will have tryouts.


MICHIGAN STATE
  • LB Denicos Allen, Carolina Panthers
  • S Isaiah Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals
  • T/G Dan France, Cincinnati Bengals
  • WR Bennie Fowler, Denver Broncos
  • LB Max Bullough, Houston Texans
  • DT Tyler Hoover, Indianapolis Colts
  • DT Micajah Reynolds, New Orleans Saints
  • OL Fou Fonoti, San Francisco 49ers
Notes: LB Kyler Elsworth has a tryout scheduled with Washington.

MINNESOTA
  • LB Aaron Hill, St. Louis Rams
NEBRASKA
  • QB Taylor Martinez, Philadelphia Eagles
  • OT Brent Qvale, New York Jets
  • CB Mohammed Seisay, Detroit Lions
  • DE Jason Ankrah, Houston Texans
  • C Cole Pensick, Kansas City Chiefs
  • OT Jeremiah Sirles, San Diego Chargers
Notes: CB Ciante Evans has yet to sign but will do so soon. DB Andrew Green has a tryout with the Miami Dolphins.

NORTHWESTERN
  • WR Kain Colter, Minnesota Vikings
  • K Jeff Budzien, Jacksonville Jaguars
  • WR Rashad Lawrence, Washington Redskins
  • DE Tyler Scott, Minnesota Vikings
OHIO STATE
  • S C.J. Barnett, New York Giants
  • K Drew Basil, Atlanta Falcons
  • WR Corey Brown, Carolina Panthers
  • G Andrew Norwell, Carolina Panthers
  • G Marcus Hall, Indianapolis Colts
  • WR Chris Fields, Washington Redskins
PENN STATE
  • OT Garry Gilliam, Seattle Seahawks
  • LB Glenn Carson, Arizona Cardinals
  • S Malcolm Willis, San Diego Chargers
Notes: OT Adam Gress will have a tryout with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

PURDUE
  • DE Greg Latta, Denver Broncos
  • S Rob Henry, Oakland Raiders
  • G Devin Smith, San Diego Chargers
  • DT Bruce Gaston Jr., Arizona Cardinals
Notes: P Cody Webster will have a tryout with Pittsburgh.

RUTGERS
  • WR Brandon Coleman, New Orleans Saints
  • WR Quron Pratt, Philadelphia Eagles
  • LB Jamal Merrell, Tennessee Titans
  • DE Marcus Thompson, Miami Dolphins
  • S Jeremy Deering, New England Patriots
Notes: According to Dan Duggan, DE Jamil Merrell (Bears) and G Antwan Lowery (Baltimore) will have tryouts.

WISCONSIN
  • G/T Ryan Groy, Chicago Bears
  • TE Jacob Pedersen Atlanta Falcons
  • TE Brian Wozniak, Atlanta Falcons
  • DE Ethan Hemer, Pittsburgh Steelers
Quick thoughts: Martinez's future as an NFL quarterback has been heavily scrutinized, but Chip Kelly's Eagles are a fascinating destination for him. Whether he plays quarterback or another position like safety, Kelly will explore ways to use Martinez's speed. ... The large Michigan State contingent is still a bit startling. The Spartans dominated the Big Ten, beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl, use pro-style systems on both sides of the ball and had just one player drafted. Bullough, Allen and Lewis all were multiple All-Big Ten selections but will have to continue their careers through the UDFA route. ... Colter certainly looked like a draft pick during Senior Bowl practices in January, but that was before his ankle surgery and his role in leading the unionization push at Northwestern. I tend to think the injury impacted his status more, but NFL teams have been known to shy away from so-called locker-room lawyers. ... Other Big Ten standouts like Jonathan Brown, Morris and Pedersen were surprisingly not drafted. Morris should be a great fit in New England. ... Coleman's decision to leave Rutgers early looks questionable now that he didn't get drafted.
CHICAGO -- It's easy to spot Geronimo Allison on the football field, and not just because of the green no-contact jersey he has been sporting this spring at Illinois.

At 6-foot-3 and wiry, Allison fits the mold of an outside receiver. He has good speed and agility, as he showed Friday at Gately Stadium on Chicago's South Side, leaping for a pass from Wes Lunt in the corner of the end zone. Allison, who enrolled at Illinois in January, is quickly gaining attention midway through his first spring with the Fighting Illini. And not just because of his name.

"He's got a ton of potential," Lunt said. "He's picked up the offense really quick. He's already running with the [starters], and he's going to help us this year."

Allison never has had a problem performing on the field. His plight was getting there.

Geronimo Allison
Illinois Athletic Media ServicesGeronimo Allison is ready to take advantage of an opportunity at Illinois.
As a senior at Spoto High School in Riverview, Fla., Allison averaged nearly 22 yards per catch with four touchdowns. But his prep bio, at least for football, ends there.

Allison finished ninth grade with a grade point average that had dipped to 1.4. He was ineligible to compete as a sophomore and junior. Although he returned for his senior season, the opportunity to play major college football, at least right away, wasn't available.

"I realized you can't really play this game without grades," Allison said. "It will hold you back."

Allison landed at Iowa Western Community College, a junior-college powerhouse located in Council Bluffs, Iowa, near the Nebraska border. He helped Iowa Western to the 2012 NJCAA national title and led the Midwest Conference in catches (69), receiving yards (872) and receiving touchdowns (8).

More importantly, Allison boosted his grades, earning a B average by the end of his second year.

"He graduated in three semesters, which is pretty darn good for a kid who had some academic issues coming out of high school," Iowa Western coach Scott Strohmeier said. "He had his mind set that he was going to class and do the work. His goal was to get to Division I. We knew he had the talent. The only thing that would hold him back was his academics, and he wasn't going to let that happen."

The offers that could have come in high school started to flow in. Kansas State and Iowa State pursued Allison, but he settled on Illinois. Two of his teammates on Iowa Western's title-winning team, wide receiver Martize Barr and tight end Dallas Hinkhouse, already played for the Illini.

"I didn't come over here empty-handed," Allison said.

Barr considers Allison like a younger brother. When Illinois offered Allison a scholarship, Barr became his primary recruiter.

"I knew I could get him here," Barr said.

Both men have taken the long way to Champaign.

Barr, a native of Washington, D.C., began his career as a safety at New Mexico, playing for former Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley. When Locksley was fired in September 2011 after going just 2-26 with the Lobos, Barr transferred to Iowa Western. He had hoped to follow Locksley to Maryland, where Locksley went as offensive coordinator, but instead wound up at Illinois.

Barr was the juco receiver generating buzz last spring with the Illini, but his numbers during the season (26 catches, 246 yards) didn't meet expectations. The coaches want more from Barr this fall and have high hopes for Allison.

Illinois needs help at receiver after losing top target Steve Hull and veterans Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford. Barr actually is the top returning wide receiver. (Josh Ferguson, who had 50 catches last year, plays running back.)

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
Keith Gillett/Icon SMITim Beckman likes what he sees so far out of juco transfer Geronimo Allison.
"We won a national championship together," Barr said of himself and Allison. "I love him to death. We can't wait to get back on that boundary together and get that championship pedigree here to Illinois."

Strohmeier considered redshirting Allison in 2012 because Iowa Western had so much firepower at receiver. But much like this spring at Illinois, Allison "stood out, stood out and made plays."

"Athletically and running and catching the football and understanding the game, he's not going to have any problem [at Illinois]," Strohmeier said. "He's also not afraid to block somebody in the run game."

Allison is spending the spring familiarizing himself with a more sophisticated, pass-oriented offense based on timing and tempo. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit wants the ball out quickly, and receivers have to be precise with their routes.

The academic transition, so far, has been smooth.

"G-Mo's doing outstanding in school," Illini coach Tim Beckman said. "He's only been here for a couple months, but he's proven and shown everything that he needs to do to get himself better."

Allison doesn't lack in confidence in his ability, which isn't surprising for a guy named Geronimo. His mother, Melissa Golver, wanted a unique name for her son.

It led to some teasing during his childhood, but Allison eventually grew accustomed to the name.

"I'm planning on naming my son after me," he said, "if I have one."

If Allison's plan comes true, Illinois fans soon will know the name. After catching up in the classroom, Allison is primed to catch plenty of passes this fall for the Illini.

"It's going to be fun," he said. "I'm going to put on a show."

Offseason to-do list: Illinois

January, 17, 2014
1/17/14
9:00
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The offseason is in its early stages, and to get us through the long winter, we're taking a look at what each team must do in the months ahead before actual football returns to the field.

Up next in our series: Illinois

1. Get better up front on defense: The Fighting Illini ranked last in the Big Ten and 116th nationally in stopping the run, allowing 238.6 yards per game on the ground and an average of more than 5.5 yards per rush. Illinois was also second-to-last in the league in sacks generated. When you can't slow down an opposing running game or put pressure on the quarterback, that's bad news. It doesn't help that the best player in the front seven -- linebacker Jonathan Brown -- is graduating. Just about everybody else is back up front, though, and head coach Tim Beckman brought in a junior college transfer (Joe Fotu) and a high school player (Paul James III) as early enrollees to help bolster the defensive line. Illinois simply must get better in the trenches defensively, and that starts in the weight room this winter.

2. Develop weapons in the passing game: Under first-year coordinator Bill Cubit, the Illini had one of the best and most consistent passing attacks in the Big Ten. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is graduating, but Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt should be able to fill his shoes. The bigger question is at receiver, where the team's three starters at the end of the season -- Steve Hull, Miles Osei and Spencer Harris -- were all seniors, as was Ryan Lankford, who was one of Scheelhaase's top targets before getting hurt. The leading returning wideout is Martize Barr, who was underwhelming with 26 total catches after transferring in from junior college. Beckman brought in help at this position as well with juco transfers Tyrin Stone-Davis and Geronimo Allison, along with early enrollee Mike Dudek. All three will get a chance to play right away, and the Illini need them to pan out.

3. Build some excitement: Illinois wasn't all that far off from being a bowl team in 2013, and it was competitive in many games. That didn't do much to boost fan interest or create turnout at home games. The biggest threat to Beckman's long-term security is fan apathy. Beckman needs to continue to sell his vision for the program to Illini Nation, and the team has to show improvement -- especially defensively -- during the spring. Allowing more fan access to practices last season was a good idea and a good start. Ultimately, Beckman will have to show he can win Big Ten games to bring the fans back.

More to-do lists

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
12:00
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Boo!
  • Dual-threat quarterbacks have had some success against the Michigan State defense. So, might Michigan have an answer for the Spartans with Devin Gardner taking the snaps on Saturday?
  • The gigs haven't all been glamorous for Pat Narduzzi, but all the experiences for the Michigan State defensive coordinator are building to the moment when he runs his own program.
  • Wisconsin running back James White has only been knocked out of one game in his career, and he's got some unfinished business to handle this weekend at Iowa.
  • The Iowa defensive ends might not fit the traditional mold, but their approach is working just fine up front for a hard-nosed unit.
  • Nebraska is continuing to search for answers at linebacker, with the ability to bounce back being put to the test in the middle of the defense.
  • Northwestern has righted its ship before with a momentum-swinging road win against the Huskers, and it's leaning on that memory from two years ago as it tries to stop its slide this weekend.
  • Penn State is trying to figure out exactly what has gone wrong on defense lately, and simplifying the approach is the first step in working to get it corrected.
  • Preparing for an offensive "juggernaut," Jerry Kill wanted defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys to have more time to focus on Indiana than worrying about head-coaching responsibilities.
  • Illinois senior receiver Ryan Lankford's career is over after undergoing surgery on his injured shoulder, but he's still aiming to have an impact on the sideline for the final month of the regular season.
  • Bradley Roby wiped the slate clean after a rocky first half of the season, and the fresh start clearly paid off for the Ohio State cornerback last week in an outstanding effort against Penn State.

Big Ten predictions: Week 9

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
9:00
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Who are these guys? We're the real American pickers, and we're sifting through the Big Ten rubble to make our selections for Week 9. Thankfully, this is the final Saturday with a measly four games on the docket, as all 12 teams will be in action Nov. 2.

Adam clings to a one-game lead in the season standings, as the race for a dinner at St. Elmo in Indianapolis remains at steak. Our Week 8 picks mirrored one another. Will it be the same in Week 9?

Let's get started …

NEBRASKA at MINNESOTA


Brian Bennett: This is a good spot to bring back Taylor Martinez, so he can shake off some rust before the telling November stretch begins. I think Nebraska will still want to be a bit careful with its quarterback, however, and not risk any further harm to his turf toe. So Martinez doesn't run much but throws a pair of touchdowns to Quincy Enunwa, and the improving Huskers defense has a strong showing against a rather one-dimensional Minnesota attack. … Nebraska 28, Minnesota 16


Adam Rittenberg: A healthy Martinez makes the difference for the Huskers as the senior quarterback breaks off a long touchdown run in the first quarter and finishes with three combined scores. Philip Nelson rallies Minnesota in the second quarter with touchdown passes to Maxx Williams and Derrick Engel, but the Huskers' offense proves to be too much in the second half as Ameer Abdullah records another 100-yard game. … Nebraska 35, Minnesota 24

NORTHWESTERN at IOWA


Adam Rittenberg: Iowa has played better than its record shows, while Northwestern is in a major tailspin. So why am I picking Northwestern? Kain Colter's likely return gives Northwestern the ingredients it has been missing on offense the past two weeks. Colter will convert key third downs like he did last year against Iowa, and while the Hawkeyes take an early lead behind Mark Weisman's rushing and their tight-end play, Northwestern finds its offense again in the second half and rallies for a win at Kinnick. … Northwestern 31, Iowa 28

Brian Bennett: I've picked against Iowa a lot this season, with some successes (Northern Illinois, Michigan State) and some failures (Iowa State, Minnesota). I might give Hawkeyes fans a complex if I pick against them at home against a team that's 0-3 in the Big Ten. I'm still tempted to go with Northwestern because of the Wildcats' recent success against Iowa and the return of Colter. But I also really liked the way the Hawkeyes played at Ohio State on offense and think they can keep it up by using those big tight ends. It's going to be a close one, but Mike Meyer hits the game-winner with 90 seconds to go. … Iowa 27, Northwestern 24


MICHIGAN STATE at ILLINOIS


Brian Bennett: The Illini are at home, and Michigan State might get caught peeking toward Michigan. But the Illinois defense is really struggling right now, too much so to foresee an upset here. I think Connor Cook will get back on track a bit with 200 yards passing and a TD, and the Michigan State defense will force three turnovers against Nathan Scheelhaase & Co., including another one for a score. … Michigan State 24, Illinois 12


Adam Rittenberg: This could be a trap game for the Spartans before next week's home showdown against rival Michigan, but I think Michigan State's offense received its wakeup call against Purdue. Illinois' struggles against the run continue as Jeremy Langford goes for 120 yards and two touchdowns. The Illini strike first with a long scoring pass to Ryan Lankford and move the ball well at times, but Michigan State clamps down and records another defensive touchdown in the third quarter. … Michigan State 27, Illinois 16

PENN STATE at OHIO STATE


Adam Rittenberg: Get ready for another fun one at the Horseshoe, as both offenses can put up points and stretch the field. Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg looks nothing like a freshman in the first half with two touchdown passes before showing his youth late in the game, as he's picked off by Buckeyes cornerback Bradley Roby. As we've seen in the past few games, Ohio State's offensive line takes control in the second half. Carlos Hyde goes for 120 yards and a score as the Buckeyes use a big fourth quarter to win. … Ohio State 38, Penn State 28

Brian Bennett: Yeah, I think this has a chance to be a wild one. So wild that I'm calling for … overtime. With a week off to prepare, I expect Bill O'Brien to throw the kitchen sink at the Buckeyes' defense, and for Hackenberg to hook up with Allen Robinson for three scores. Ohio State mounts its patented comeback, ties the score on a Braxton Miller heave to Corey Brown, and wins it on a Hyde run in the second OT. … Ohio State 51, Penn State 48


That's how we see things playing out on Saturday. Now it's time to hear from our guest picker. As a reminder, throughout the season we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please), hometown and a brief description of why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.

This week's guest picker is Nick Galea from Normal, Ill. What'cha got, Nick?
Hey guys, I should be the guest picker because my life revolves around Big Ten football. I currently hold two degrees from Big Ten schools (MSU undergrad/Illinois law), and I've watched Big Ten football in 7 different venues in my life. This week is of special significance to me, as my two alma maters square off in Champaign. I'd love to have a prediction on the line while I'm in Memorial Stadium watching Nate Scheelhaase test the league's No. 1 defense. Thanks!

Here are Nick's Week 9 picks ...

Nebraska 38, Minnesota 24
Iowa 28, Northwestern 27
Michigan State 27, Illinois 10
Ohio State 45, Penn State 38

SEASON RECORDS

Adam Rittenberg: 55-9
Brian Bennett: 54-10
Guest pickers: 49-15

Big Ten predictions: Week 8

October, 17, 2013
10/17/13
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The second half begins this week, and it should be a very close race -- in our predictions contest, that is.

Adam leads by one game, thanks to his correct pick of Penn State in a quadruple-overtime thriller. Yep, it's that close. Let's kick off the second-half picks now:

MINNESOTA at NORTHWESTERN

Brian Bennett: Last week's loss at Wisconsin was one of the worst performances in a long time for Northwestern. Pat Fitzgerald promised this week that his team would bounce back and play well, and I believe him. The Wildcats ought to be mad for this one, and though Mitch Leidner will lead Minnesota to a couple of scores, Northwestern will seize control in the second quarter. ... Northwestern 35, Minnesota 20

Adam Rittenberg: Will this be The Hangover Part II? I think Northwestern gets it together behind quarterback Kain Colter, who records a rushing touchdown, a passing touchdown and a receiving touchdown. Minnesota finds some gaps in Northwestern's defense early on, but the Gophers' one-dimensional offense dooms them in the second half. Tony Jones gets back on the touchdown train as Northwestern records its first Big Ten win. ... Northwestern 34, Minnesota 21

PURDUE at MICHIGAN STATE

Rittenberg: This isn't the type of matchup Purdue needs with all of its issues right now. Michigan State records two first-half takeaways, one for a touchdown, and rides Jeremy Langford and Delton Williams on the ground for three more touchdowns. The Spartans continue to take care of business against weak competition and improve to 3-0 in Big Ten play. ... Michigan State 31, Purdue 7

Bennett: The Spartans, who rolled up 42 points on Indiana last week, will continue to enjoy the Hoosier State this week. Purdue isn't doing much of anything right and didn't score until the final minute last week versus Nebraska. Good luck against the Spartans defense. Connor Cook throws for three TDs in an easy win. ... Michigan State 34, Purdue 6


INDIANA at MICHIGAN

Bennett: Do the Hoosiers have a shot? Their run defense is awful, but so is Michigan's rushing attack. I foresee a hot start by Indiana as Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson each lead first-quarter scoring drives. IU leads at halftime as Ann Arbor starts to panic. But Michigan takes over in the second half, and Devin Gardner puts up 350 total yards (250 passing, 100 rushing). ... Michigan 38, Indiana 28


Rittenberg: I might pick Indiana if the game was in Bloomington, but Michigan has been perfect at home under Brady Hoke and won't stop now. The Wolverines finally have some success in the run game as Fitzgerald Toussaint scores two first-half touchdowns. Indiana mounts a third-quarter comeback behind Roberson and wideout Cody Latimer (120 receiving yards, 2 TDs), but Michigan responds in the fourth quarter with two Gardner touchdown passes. ... Michigan 35, Indiana 27

IOWA at OHIO STATE

Rittenberg: Iowa is an improved team on both sides of the ball, but the Hawkeyes haven't seen an offense like Ohio State's. Carlos Hyde becomes the first player to rush for a touchdown against Iowa this season, and finishes with 125 yards on the ground. Iowa gets a boost from tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, but the Buckeyes pull away late in the second quarter and cruise to 7-0. ... Ohio State 42, Iowa 20

Bennett: This is a tough matchup for Iowa, as Ohio State has the second-best rush defense in the Big Ten and the Buckeyes can exploit some speed advantages. It's a big week for Braxton Miller, as he throws three touchdown passes and breaks Iowa's streak by running for another. ... Ohio State 37, Iowa 17

WISCONSIN at ILLINOIS

Bennett: The Illini will come out firing after the bye week and burn the Badgers for a couple of early scores. But then the Wisconsin defense shuts things down, and the running game grinds out 290 yards against the Illinois defense, led by Melvin Gordon's 160. ... Wisconsin 31, Illinois 14


Rittenberg: I agree that Illinois takes the early lead as Nathan Scheelhaase connects with Josh Ferguson and Ryan Lankford for touchdowns. But Wisconsin will crank up the run game as Gordon and James White both eclipse 100 yards. Tight end Jacob Pedersen hauls in a touchdown from Joel Stave as the Badgers march on. ... Wisconsin 34, Illinois 20

Now it's time to hear from our guest picker. As a reminder, throughout the season we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please), hometown and a brief description of why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.

This week's guest picker is Micah Tweeten from St. Paul, Minn. Take it away, Micah.
"I would love to be your guest picker of the week. I grew up in Nebraska, now live in Minnesota, and have been a Hawkeyes fan all my life (don't get me wrong though, Husker Nation is great too, it's definitely crazy at the games). I've been reading your (and Adam's) predictions and posts for a while now. Now let's see. Why should I be the guest picker of the week? Well it's simple. Iowa plays Ohio State this week, and being that they have only won two games against OSU since 1988 and this year isn't looking to promising for a win for the Hawkeyes either, I don't have much hope for this Saturday. I would love to have at least something to look forward to for this upcoming weekend. Thanks!"

Here are Micah's Week 8 picks …

Northwestern 31, Minnesota 17
Michigan State 34, Purdue 10
Ohio State 38, Iowa 24
Michigan 31, Indiana 21
Wisconsin 35, Illinois 18

SEASON RECORDS

Adam Rittenberg: 51-8
Brian Bennett:
50-9
Guest pickers:
45-14

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 10, 2013
10/10/13
12:00
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There's highs, there's lows, the roller coaster is out of control.
  • Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough may have a nose for the football, but he can't actually smell anything since he was born without that sense.
  • The bye week helped Devin Gardner relax, and the Michigan quarterback had much better results to show for it last weekend to keep the Wolverines unbeaten.
  • Bill O'Brien stopped by Nittanyville, and the Penn State coach wound up showing off his basketball skills in a dunk contest.
  • Ameer Abdullah might lack some size, but the Nebraska running back more than makes up for it with power that even far bigger defenders can't match.
  • Sean Robinson is in position to offer advice to a quarterback making his first start or one transitioning to defense. He's done both himself, making the Purdue linebacker an invaluable resource for Danny Etling and Rob Henry.
  • The Wisconsin receivers measure themselves with a statistic that doesn't show up in the box score, taking pride in their blocking and counting "knockdowns."
  • Northwestern receiver Rashad Lawrence is kicking himself over the longest play of his career, disappointed he couldn't turn it into a touchdown against Ohio State.
  • Held without a reception last weekend, Illinois is looking to get receiver Ryan Lankford back in the mix and the offense back on track during the bye week.
  • Kyle Rowland digs into Ohio State's official performance reviews of the coaching staff through its first season on the job.
  • Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague has "no question" about who his football coach is despite Jerry Kill's health issues.
The debate is over, at least for now. Ohio State affirmed itself as the Big Ten's top team by putting on an offensive show against Cal, despite missing its top quarterback and top running back.

There's more doubt about whether Michigan or Northwestern is No. 2 after the Wolverines' surprising struggles Saturday against Akron. For now, we have Michigan ahead by a nose hair, thanks to its win against Notre Dame.

Wisconsin might have moved up to the No. 2 line if the officials had given the Badgers a chance to win the game against Arizona State. We like most of what we saw from Gary Andersen's crew on Saturday night. The same can't be said for Nebraska, which takes a tumble after folding the tent against UCLA, and Penn State, which caved defensively against UCF.

Week 3 was mostly rough for the Big Ten, but it had some bright spots. Michigan State found a quarterback, Indiana regained its footing on defense, and Iowa impressed on the ground against Iowa State.

There's not much separation in the league's bottom half, but as we noted Sunday, the Big Ten might not have a truly bad team.

Here's one last look at last week's rankings.

Now, let's get to the rundown ...

1. Ohio State (3-0, last week: 1): It'll take more than injuries and suspensions to slow down the Buckeyes' potent offense. Quarterback Braxton Miller didn't suit up against Cal, but backup Kenny Guiton once again stepped up with 276 pass yards and four touchdowns, to go along with 92 rush yards. Running back Jordan Hall (168 rush yards, 3 TDs) continued his brilliance filling in for the injured Carlos Hyde, who returns this week against Florida A&M.

2. Michigan (3-0, last week: 2): A week after looking like arguably the Big Ten's best team, Michigan backslid with a mistake-ridden performance against Akron. Brady Hoke's crew emerged with a win but also plenty of questions on both sides of the ball. As good as Devin Gardner has looked at times, the first-year starting quarterback must take better care of the football. Michigan also must patch up a vulnerable defense before Big Ten play.

3. Northwestern (3-0, last week: 3): Take away a lackluster first quarter against Western Michigan, and the Wildcats looked impressive on their home field. The offense clearly has improved despite the continued absence of star running back Venric Mark, as stand-in Treyvon Green (158 rush yards, 2 TDs) looks more than capable. Northwestern's defense remains too leaky but covers up yards with takeaways. The Wildcats have positioned themselves well for an Oct. 5 showdown with Ohio State.

4. Wisconsin (2-1, last week: 4): What is there left to say about the Arizona State ending? Wisconsin was far from perfect Saturday night, struggling to protect Joel Stave or stop back-shoulder throws from Arizona State's Taylor Kelly. But the Badgers fought hard in all three phases and received another huge boost from sophomore running back Melvin Gordon. They deserved better. It'll be interesting to see how they bounce back in the Big Ten opener against Purdue.

5. Michigan State (3-0, last week: 8): Look, an offense! And a quarterback! The Spartans finally start moving in the right direction in the rankings after a scoring explosion against Youngstown State. Connor Cook solidified himself as the team's starting quarterback with four touchdown passes and no interceptions, as Michigan State scored 35 first-half points. Sure, it's Youngstown State, but Michigan State needed a starting point on offense. It has one before a tough test at Notre Dame.

6. Nebraska (2-1, last week: 4): The collapses are no longer surprising because they seem to happen so often for Bo Pelini's teams. Sure, Nebraska normally keeps it together at home, and Saturday's third quarter was one of the worst in team history. But this is who these Huskers are under Pelini, a fragile team prone to blowout losses in big games. Nebraska falls off the national radar for a while but still could contend in the mediocre Big Ten.

7. Minnesota (3-0, last week: 7): It was a rough Saturday for the Gophers, who lost starting quarterback Philip Nelson to a hamstring injury and head coach Jerry Kill to another seizure. Minnesota also had a slow start against FCS Western Illinois until the offense caught fire in the fourth quarter behind running back David Cobb and backup quarterback Mitch Leidner, who was efficient in relief of Nelson. The Gophers face a test this week as San Jose State comes to town.

8. Penn State (2-1, last week: 6): It'll be a long week for defensive coordinator John Butler and a unit that surrendered 507 yards in the loss to UCF and had no answers for Knights quarterback Blake Bortles. After a final non-league tuneup against Kent State, Penn State opens Big Ten play against four potent offenses: Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois. Wide receiver Allen Robinson is a beast, but Penn State needs more balance.

9. Indiana (2-1, last week: 10): The Hoosiers forced a punt against Bowling Green, and they did much, much more in one of their better defensive performances in recent memory. Bowling Green didn't score an offensive touchdown as defensive end Nick Mangieri and the Hoosiers bent but didn't break. Indiana had more than enough offense from quarterback Nate Sudfeld (335 pass yards, 2 TDs) and running backs Tevin Coleman (129 rush yards, 2 TDs) and Stephen Houston (155 rush yards), pulling away for an impressive win.

10. Illinois (2-1, last week: 9): Missed scoring opportunities in the first half doomed Illinois in the final 30 minutes against Washington, which repeatedly gashed a young Illini defense. But Illinois showed plenty of fight, even in the fourth quarter when the outcome seemed decided. Illinois has playmakers on both sides of the ball -- QB Nathan Scheelhaase, RB/WR Josh Ferguson, WR Ryan Lankford, LB Jonathan Brown -- and could surprise some Big Ten teams.

11. Iowa (2-1, last week: 11): There's an argument that Iowa should handle Iowa State rather easily, which is what happened Saturday in Ames. But Iowa hasn't handled the Cyclones nearly as often as they should, which is what made Saturday's performance so important. The Hawkeyes needed to win this one to generate some positive vibes, and thanks to a Mark Weisman-led run game and a solid defense, they got it done.

12. Purdue (1-2, last week: 12): The Boilers remain at the bottom, but we feel a lot better about them after the Notre Dame game. Quarterback Rob Henry and the offense looked more comfortable, and the defense contained the Irish run attack. There were still too many mistakes down the stretch, but coach Darrell Hazell can build on this. The problem is the schedule simply doesn't let up, as Purdue visits Wisconsin this week.
Be honest. You did a double take when watching Illinois ball-carriers sprinting into the open field last Saturday against Southern Illinois.

Were those guys in the orange helmets the same ones who seemed to play in a studio apartment last season?

The most mind-blowing stat that came out of Illinois' season-opening win wasn't quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase's career-high 416 pass yards or the two 100-yard receiving performances (Ryan Lankford and Josh Ferguson) or team record 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by V'Angelo Bentley.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhNathan Scheelhaase and the Illini offense struggled last season but looked sharp in the opener under new coordinator Bill Cubit.
Illinois recorded six plays of 30 yards or longer in its 42-34 win, equaling its total from all of last season. Digest that for a minute. The Illini offense, which finished 119th out of 120 teams in both yards and scoring last fall, had only six true explosion plays in 12 games.

Only high-powered Oregon had more plays of 30 yards or longer in Week 1. Was it a starting point for the Illini offense? You bet.

"That was the one thing we got Saturday," offensive coordinator Bill Cubit told ESPN.com. "We had 10 big plays of over 20 yards throwing the ball and over 12 running the ball. If you don't have those big plays, it's just more difficult."

The Illini far exceeded their big-play goals in the opener, loosening the reins and getting results.

"Our players bought into the things that we felt were necessary to take some deep chances," head coach Tim Beckman said. "As we progress we hope to be able to gain those big chunk yardage plays.”

Saturday's home test against Cincinnati will provide a much better gauge of the Illinois offense and its big-play potential. Cincinnati thumped Purdue 42-7 in last week's opener, limiting the Boilers to just 57 plays and 226 yards.

But this much seems clear: Ilinois has a better idea of what it is after one game under Cubit than it did all of last season, as a rudderless ship never made it out of port.

"We have an idea of our identity," Scheelhaase said. "We're game-planning week to week, and at times will look different and will want to look different because of the players we have. ... It's nice to be able to put guys in different positions and throw different formations out there and make things more difficult on the defense. It's our job to be as comfortable as possible out there on Saturday."

Scheelhaase, who struggled with the rest of the offense in 2012, looked much more at ease last week. He completed 28 of 36 passes. Two of his incompletions were throwaways because of pressure. Two others were dropped.

Cubit liked how quickly Scheelhaase delivered the ball, a major emphasis point for a system where Cubit wants the ball out within 2.2 seconds. Although Scheelhaase threw an interception and was responsible for one of the five sacks Illinois allowed, he performed well for his first time in Cubit's offense.

"I was encouraged," Cubit said. "He's smart and he understands college football. There's really not too many defenses he doesn't know, so it was easy for me to communicate with him and not have to explain what a coverage is. He understands it right away and what the weaknesses are."

Illinois hopes Scheelhaase is surrounded by more weapons to exploit those weaknesses. Lankford posted a career high in receiving yards (115) against Southern Illinois, and Ferguson eclipsed 100 receiving yards for the first time in his career.

The 5-foot-10, 195-pound Ferguson accounted for three explosion plays, including a perfectly executed 53-yards touchdown on a screen pass, and finished with 152 all-purpose yards on only 13 touches.

"He's one of the game-breakers who can make a big difference," Cubit said. "If you don’t have one of those guys, it's hard to drive 90 yards."

Tight end Jon Davis, who had a 15-yard touchdown catch and an 11-yard run, also brings explosiveness to an offense that completely lacked it last season. The 6-3, 240-pound Davis saw time at tight end, wide receiver and running back last season and could boost Illinois in the red zone.

"Another guy who's so versatile," Scheelhaase said. "He ran the ball, caught the ball, split out, played in tight. He's one of the best players in the conference. Obviously, he dealt with some injury stuff last year, but he's a player who makes everyone around him better."

With more weapons and a clearer vision, Illinois' offense will improve after bottoming out in 2012. Cubit has raised the standard. According to Scheelhaase, only three or four players graded out against SIU.

"He wants it to be difficult for us to grade out," Scheelhaase said. "It raises our intensity each week."

That's a good thing. Cincinnati is coming to town.
Ten items to track around Big Ten football in Week 2:

1. House party: If the second night game at Michigan Stadium is anything like the first, we'll all be thrilled (well, except for those Notre Dame folks). Michigan and Notre Dame delivered the drama two years ago under the lights, and the spectacle Saturday night in Ann Arbor should once again be incredible. The teams' past four meetings have all been decided by seven points or fewer (19 points total). The series sadly disappears after the 2014 meeting in South Bend, so enjoy it while it lasts.

2. Rees vs. Gardner: Notre Dame-Michigan features another appetizing quarterback matchup. While Tommy Rees remains a polarizing figure for some Notre Dame fans, it's hard to argue with what he has done against Michigan. Before last Saturday's opener against Temple, Rees' only 300-yard passing performance came against Michigan two years ago, and he led Notre Dame to victory last fall. Rees can stretch the field, as he had more passes of 20 yards or longer against Temple (7) than Everett Golson had in any game last season. Devin Gardner was Michigan's leading receiver last year against Notre Dame, but he's firmly entrenched as a quarterback. Gardner has been deadly in the red zone for the Wolverines, converting 19 touchdowns in 22 red zone trips as the starter.

3. Spartans looking for a spark: Michigan State basically has two more weeks to get its offense right before facing one of the nation's top defenses on the road at Notre Dame. The unit's opening act was highly disappointing, as Michigan State averaged just 3.8 yards per play against a Western Michigan defense that ranked 61st nationally in 2012. Head coach Mark Dantonio has kept mostly quiet about his quarterback situation this week as four players continue to get reps in practice. The Spartans need a solution there and at other offensive spots against South Florida, which allowed 56 points to McNeese State in its opening loss.

4. Illini aim to continue big-play ways: One of the nation's most feeble offenses in 2012 broke out last week against Southern Illinois, as Illinois recorded six plays of 30 yards or longer -- matching its total from all of last season! Senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase recorded a career-high 416 pass yards and featured weapons like Josh Ferguson and Ryan Lankford. The question is whether the Illini can come close to that type of production against a much, much tougher opponent in Cincinnati, which held Purdue to one short scoring drive and only 226 yards last week. We'll get a much better gauge about Illinois' offensive progress against Tommy Tuberville's defense.

5. Northwestern's health: After a mostly injury-free season in 2012, Northwestern already has been bitten by that pesky bug early this fall. The Wildcats will be without starting cornerback Daniel Jones (knee) for the rest of the season, putting redshirt freshman Dwight White in the spotlight against Syracuse. Top quarterback Kain Colter (head) and running back Venric Mark (leg) both are questionable for the game. If Northwestern can survive again like it did last week against Cal, it has a chance to get healthy in the next two weeks against weaker opponents before a two-week prep for Ohio State.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesQuarterback Devin Gardner was 10-of-15 passing for 162 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions in Michigan's season-opening rout of Central Michigan.
6. Roby watch in Columbus: After playing nine new defensive starters in last week's opener against Buffalo, Ohio State regains a very big piece in All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby, who returns from suspension. Coach Urban Meyer wanted Roby to re-prove himself as a starter this week in practice, but it's only a matter of time before the junior distinguishes himself. Ohio State is looking for a cleaner performance in all three phases against struggling San Diego State, and it will be interesting to see how Roby performs.

7. Indiana's offensive efficiency: Kevin Wilson's Hoosiers scored touchdowns on five of their first six offensive possessions in last week's opener against Indiana State, en route to a Memorial Stadium-record 73 points. If Indiana can come close to that type of efficiency Saturday against Navy, it will improve to 2-0. Possessions likely will be limited against the Midshipmen, as Indiana found out last year when it had only 10 offensive drives in a 31-30 loss. The Hoosiers had to settle for three field goals of 30 yards or less and need to be better about punching it in against Navy. "You don't get as many at-bats," Wilson said.

8. Second chances: Purdue and Iowa didn't get off to the starts they wanted in Week 1, and neither did Nebraska's defense, which surrendered 35 first downs and 602 yards to Wyoming in the opener. Fortunately, all three teams should redeem themselves against weaker competition on Saturday. The Boilermakers need to boost quarterback Rob Henry's confidence and fix their communication problems on offense against Indiana State. Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock must rebound from his late interception against Missouri State. The Huskers defense, meanwhile, aims to clean things up against a Southern Miss team that has lost 13 straight and scored just 15 points against Texas State last week.

9. Wolverines' youth put to test: Don't be surprised if Michigan-Notre Dame comes down to how well the Wolverines' young interior offensive line performs against an elite Fighting Irish defensive front led by nose guard Louis Nix III and end Stephon Tuitt, two potential first-round picks in next April's NFL draft. Michigan will start redshirt freshman Kyle Kalis at right guard, true sophomore Jack Miller at center and redshirt sophomore Graham Glasgow at left guard. They'll be challenged all night long (especially Miller) as they try to create running room for Fitzgerald Toussaint and protect Gardner.

10. Hack's home debut: Penn State fans have been waiting more than a year and a half to watch quarterback Christian Hackenberg take snaps at Beaver Stadium. They'll finally get their chance Saturday as the Lions face Eastern Michigan in their home opener. Hackenberg had a few expected hiccups in his collegiate debut against Syracuse but also showed why he can be such a special player for Penn State's offense. Head coach Bill O'Brien vows to put Hackenberg in better positions to succeed this week. Hackenberg also will have top weapon Allen Robinson at his disposal from the start, which should make a big difference.

Big Ten lunch links

September, 2, 2013
9/02/13
12:00
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I labored to put these links together. Get it? Get it? Enjoy the holiday.
Illinois entered the season as a team filled with question marks and one certainty: a clearer offensive identity with coordinator Bill Cubit.

After finishing near the bottom of the FBS in most major offensive statistics in 2012, the Illini hit the field Saturday with a better idea of who they would be on offense. Cubit's presence and vision represented a welcome change for senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who had played in two different systems in his first three seasons.

Scheelhaase looked loads more comfortable in Saturday's opener and shredded Southern Illinois' defense in a 42-34 victory at Memorial Stadium. The fourth-year starter racked up 340 first-half passing yards, completing 22 of 28 pass attempts, and finished with a career-high 416 pass yards and two touchdowns.

Yes, it's important to take the competition into account. Illinois' schedule gets exponentially tougher the next two weeks with Cincinnati and Washington, but after doing next to nothing right on offense last year, Scheelhaase and the Illini needed a confidence boost.

Illinois spread the ball around as eight players recorded multiple receptions. Senior Ryan Lankford had a big day (six catches, 115 yards) and Scheelhaase stretched the field with Steve Hull and junior college transfer Martize Barr. Speedster running back Josh Ferguson (104 receiving yards, 49 rushing yards) also showed he can be a factor in the pass game, taking a perfectly executed screen 53 yards to the end zone.

The Illini still need a lot of work before Cincinnati visits Champaign next week. They committed two turnovers, their offensive line is inconsistent and their special teams remain very shaky, despite V'Angelo Bentley's 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Illinois' defense also is prone to breakdowns, as SIU scored 27 second-half points.

Things got way too interesting in the fourth quarter, as Southern Illinois had a chance to tie the game and reached the Illinois 3-yard line.

We'll learn a lot more about Illinois the next two weeks. But so far, so good for Scheelhaase.

Illinois season preview

August, 21, 2013
8/21/13
10:30
AM ET
Can Tim Beckman turn around Illinois in his second year? That's one of the many questions surrounding the Illini heading into 2013:

ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI

Coach: Tim Beckman (23-26, 2-10)

2012 Record: 2-10 (0-8 Big Ten)

Key losses: WR Darius Millines, G/T Hugh Thornton, C Graham Pocic, DE Michael Buchanan, DT Akeem Spence, DT Glenn Foster, LB Ashante Williams, CB Terry Hawthorne, CB Justin Green, S Supo Sanni.

Key returnees: QB Nathan Scheelhaase, RB Donovonn Young, RB Josh Ferguson, WR Ryan Lankford, WR Spencer Harris, LG Michael Heitz, RG Ted Karras, RT Simon Cvijanovic, DE Tim Kynard, LB Mike Svetina, MLB Mason Monheim.

Newcomer to watch: Defensive lineman Paul James III was the only ESPN 300 recruit the Illini picked up last season, coming in at No. 200 out of Miami. Considering the heavy losses for Illinois on its defensive line, especially Buchanan, James could have the chance to play early. On a roster in need of a lot of retooling, getting him some early playing time could be key.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhNathan Scheelhaase returns for his fourth season as the Illini's quarterback.
Biggest games in 2013: For a team still trying to figure out its way out of the depths of the Big Ten, this season’s schedule will not help. Nonconference games against Cincinnati and Washington will be tough -- even if both are in the state of Illinois (Cincinnati in Champaign and Washington in Chicago). The Big Ten schedule isn’t too favorable for Illinois, either, with a tough opening stretch at Nebraska and then home against Wisconsin and Michigan State. By the middle of October, Illinois might know if it still has anything other than pride to play for.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: There are a lot of them, but the overriding one is if the second season under Beckman will be better than the first. Theoretically it should be, considering Illinois returns a chunk of its offense, led by QB Scheelhaase. But its defense will have major retooling to do as only four starters return. Considering the potential strength at the top of the Leaders Division, it could be a rough season no matter what.

Forecast: Not good. With a tough schedule, a rebuilding roster and already some pressure to win and win now, Year 2 of the Beckman experience might look eerily like the first season.

If not for Scheelhaase, its offense would lack a lot of experience. And the defense is already filling a lot of holes left in the secondary and on the defensive line.

Beckman is attempting to change that. Hiring Bill Cubit, an experienced offensive mind with head coaching experience at Western Michigan, is a start. He should be able to help Scheelhaase improve, and the Illini have a good running back to work with in Young, a junior who started 10 games last season, averaging 4.4 yards a carry.

The other reasons for optimism in Champaign come from two junior college players who could make pushes to start: receiver Martize Barr and linebacker Eric Finney. Safety Zane Petty, another juco transfer, played Division I football before at Colorado State and could fill a need if he can move up the depth chart.

Illinois could also be strong at linebacker, led by Monheim, who led the Illini in tackles in 2012 with 86. Just a sophomore, he’ll be looked at to focus a young defensive group.

All of that said, for Illinois to have a successful season, it will need every possible thing to go right. If it doesn’t, the Illini will be watching bowl season from home again this winter.
Nathan Scheelhaase is among the nation's most experienced quarterbacks, but his most defining moments at Illinois haven't occurred on Saturdays.

Scheelhaase has started 36 games, passed for 5,296 yards and 34 touchdowns, helped the Illini to two bowl victories, struggled during a disastrous 2-10 campaign last fall, and played for two head coaches and four offensive coordinators. He has had great games, like the blowout bowl win against a Baylor team quarterbacked by some guy named Griffin in 2010. He also has had low points, especially in 2012, when he led an offense that finished 119th out of 120 FBS teams in yards and points.

But if you want to know who Nathan Scheelhaase is, look beyond the numbers or the games. Look beyond the Block I on his helmet or the often-butchered name (pronounced SHEEL-house) on the back of his jersey. If you really want to know him, spend a Sunday at Stone Creek Church in Urbana, Ill., about two miles southeast of Memorial Stadium.

Go during the fall, smack in the middle of football season. He'll be there.

Nathan Scheelhaase
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteQB Nathan Scheelhaase's faith has carried him through the highs and lows of his Illinois career.
"When you go through ups and downs of football, the greatest thing is to have a church that loves you every Sunday," Scheelhaase's mother, LouAnn, told ESPN.com. "Whether he won or lost the day before, Nathan never missed church on Sunday."

Former Illini assistant Reggie Mitchell, who recruited Scheelhaase, brought the quarterback to Stone Creek the first Sunday after Scheelhaase's arrival. It turned out to be the first phase of Scheelhaase's spiritual awakening.

Faith trumps football for the Illini senior, and his religious devotion has helped him navigate the challenging terrain in Champaign. Scheelhaase is prideful and public about his beliefs, from the eye-black crosses he wears on game days to the scripture passages he used to post on his Twitter page. He has drawn some criticism for sharing so much, but anything else would be like living in the dark.

"It's not the what that makes me different, it’s the who that makes me different, and that is God," he said. "If I didn't have God, I couldn't imagine what it would be like going through difficulties like there have been. That’s exactly what I rely on."

Scheelhaase grew up attending church but wasn't nearly as strong in his faith as he is now. He attended an all-boys Jesuit High School (Rockhurst) in Kansas City, Mo., and played for a coach (Tony Severino) who valued religion. After his senior season, he began dating Morgan Miller, an "amazing Christian," LouAnn said.

But it wasn't until Illinois that Scheelhaase turned a corner. He grew close to Marcellus Casey, Illinois' team chaplain at the time, and became a leader for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Scheelhaase bonded with teammates Steve Hull, Miles Osei, Ryan Lankford and Reilly O'Toole, who shared his devotion.

"Even growing up in a Christian school, I don't think it became real to him until his time at the university," said Justin Neally, an area representative for the local FCA chapter who serves as Illinois' team chaplain. "He was just going through the motions in high school. His faith might have been good luck charm at that time. It became his identity in college."

Neally recalls Scheelhaase telling him about his collegiate debut against Missouri at St. Louis' Edward Jones Dome in 2010. He completed just 9 of 23 passes and committed four turnovers in a 23-13 loss.

"The normal kid would feel a lot of pressure, but he stood with his faith and identity being secure," Neally said. "He said it wasn’t the greatest day for him statistically. He threw a couple picks, had a fumble, but he told me he never experienced so much joy."

Scheelhaase went on to lead Illinois to its first bowl win in 11 years. He soon recognized the public platform he occupied and decided to use it to display his faith.

He first sported the eye-black crosses for a 2011 home game against Michigan.

"I get kids that’ll come up to me, tell me my stats and say, 'I saw you on the sideline talking to such-and-such,'" Scheelhaase said. "I'm like, 'Man, these guys watch the game that closely. I might as well give them something even better to talk about.' That's exactly why I do it."

Scheelhaase would like to open spiritual doors, but those who know him say he doesn't force his beliefs on others.

His approach has sparked some backlash, and he and Neally often talk about former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, who displayed Bible verses on his eye black, made Tebowing a national fad and became a polarizing cultural figure.

"This is something that's transformed Nathan's life," Neally said. "In no way he feels like it's mission to save people."

Added Scheelhaase: "There’s always going to be persecution of your beliefs when you're strong about them. It’s worth making someone ask a question or seek something out versus being hush-hush about it."

Hull, who roomed with Scheelhaase during their freshman year, has seen Scheelhaase's faith "pull him through his low moments." After a record-setting freshman season and a strong start to 2011, Illinois' offense flat-lined down the stretch, leading to the firing of coach Ron Zook.

The free-fall continued last season under new coach Tim Beckman.

"When you deal with some struggles, you learn a lot about yourself," Scheelhaase said. "Leadership is easy when things are going well. Character is shaped not when times are good and things are easy, but when you're dealing with tough times. It's a crazy thing to say you can take joy in struggles, but it's so true."

Recent months have brought happier times for Scheelhaase. In February, he flew to Texas, where Miller was attending school at TCU, and surprised her with a proposal. They were married July 6 back home in Kansas City.

"Seeing that ring on his finger is so different," said Hull, who along with O'Toole, Lankford and Osei served as Scheelhaase's groomsmen at the wedding. "When the engagement happened, we started hearing Nate talk about life and his plans and career path.

"It was weird because we started realizing we’re about to become real adults in the real world."

Scheelhaase's post-football future could include a career in religion. When Nathan and LouAnn returned last June to LouAnn's hometown of Moville, Iowa, he asked to speak at the local church, making his grandmother Norma "pretty darn proud."

"He lives right, he walks right, he does his thing, he’s a man," LouAnn said. "He’s been through emotional turmoil, physical and injury turmoil, the coaching changes, the ups and downs. He's still going to find his joy in everything.

"I don't know what this next chapter for him holds. I just know he’s well prepared for whatever he does."

Big Ten lunch links

August, 8, 2013
8/08/13
12:00
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Happy happiness happens day.

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