Big Ten: Simoni Lawrence

Mike Rallis felt like any player would as he lay on the field at TCF Bank Stadium, his leg mangled after being hit on kickoff coverage against Cal.

A broken leg and torn ankle ligaments ended Rallis' season after just three games. It was a rough reality for the former Minnesota walk-on.

These days, Rallis has a dramatically different take on what happened.

"Looking back at it now, it was definitely a blessing in disguise," Rallis told me Wednesday afternoon. "When it first happened, I was pretty devastated, as you'd expect, just because I'd worked so hard all offseason, all spring, for the season, just as everyone had. But I didn't pout over it too long. Went right back to work the next day in the weight room."

It was there where Rallis started the transition from safety to linebacker, even though he didn't know it.

At the time of the injury, Rallis weighed 210 pounds. But his work in the weight room during the Big Ten season added eight more pounds of good weight to his frame. Then Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster summoned Rallis to his office and told him he would switch to linebacker.

"Coach Brew, as usual, got me fired up about the move, and I just embraced it," Rallis said. "Went straight back to the weight room and kept lifting."

Working with strength coach Mark Hill, Rallis increased his weight to 225 pounds, saw how it felt, and kept going. He now checks in at 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, ideal size for a linebacker, and expects to stay at this weight for the season.

After a very impressive performance in spring ball, Rallis is being viewed as the leader of a unit that loses all three starters from 2009.

Lee Campbell, Nate Triplett and Simoni Lawrence combined for 309 tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions, four fumble recoveries and 18 passes defended last fall. Their departures didn't serve as the primary motivation for Rallis' excitement about the switch, although he acknowledges the obvious.

"You can say there's an opportunity, but there’s also a void that's left," Rallis said. "Someone needs to step up and fill that void. That’s an exciting thing, to have people expecting you to do something. I step up to the challenge. I'm a guy who loves a challenge, and to live up to what those three guys did, we definitely have a challenge in front of us as a group of linebackers."

Minnesota also returns Keanon Cooper and Gary Tinsley, both of whom appeared in every game last season as reserves and combined for 64 tackles. But it's clear the coaches are looking to Rallis to lead the way.

"I've always believed this," he said, "you have to lead by example first; show them what to do before you can tell them what to do. Especially at linebacker, you can be more physical day in and day out and just go to work every single day. That's what I tried to do from the moment I got back from my broken leg."

Opening camp: Minnesota

August, 5, 2010
8/05/10
2:30
PM ET
Schedule: The Gophers hit the field Friday for their first practice.

What's new: Another offensive coordinator, the Gophers' third in as many seasons. Jeff Horton isn't bringing dramatic changes like his predecessor Jedd Fish, and he'll try to simplify things for senior quarterback Adam Weber, who retained his starting job after spring ball. There are also a ton of new faces on defense as Minnesota loses nine starters, including productive linebackers Lee Campbell, Nate Triplett and Simoni Lawrence. The Gophers also have a new wide receivers coach in former NFL player Steve Watson, who must identify some playmakers after the loss of standout Eric Decker.

Sidelined: We thought Kim Royston would be in this category, but the senior safety has healed extremely well from a broken leg this spring. Royston won't be 100 percent for the start of camp, but barring any setbacks, he should be ready for the start of the season. As one of only two returning starters on defense, Royston provides a strong presence in the secondary. Linebacker Sam Maresh, a possible starter, isn't with the team as he improves his grades at a junior college.

Key battle: Name a spot on defense and there's probably some competition there, as Minnesota must find answers at linebacker, defensive end and cornerback. The linebacker group should be particularly interesting. Mike Rallis locked up a starting job this spring, but the other spots are open as Keanon Cooper, Gary Tinsley and others are in the mix. Cornerback also is a spot to watch as Michael Carter and Christyn Lewis try to lock up starting spots.

New on the scene: Head coach Tim Brewster and his staff have recruited well, and it's time they start to see the rewards. Lewis and tight end Tiree Eure both are junior-college transfers who should contribute right away. Minnesota really likes redshirt freshmen offensive linemen Ed Olson and Brooks Michel, and incoming freshman tackle Jimmy Gjere is a name to watch. It also will be interesting to see if freshmen running backs Lamonte Edwards and Donnell Kirkwood can work their way into the mix.

Breaking out: Brewster sings the praises of defensive end Ra'Shede Hageman, and Minnesota could really use a boost in the pass rush from the redshirt freshman. MarQueis Gray didn't win the starting quarterback spot, but he's a guy who needs the ball in his hands one way or another. Replacing Decker will be tough, but Minnesota has high hopes for Da'Jon McKnight, who averaged 18.3 yards on 17 receptions last year.

Time to step up: Without a doubt, Minnesota's offensive line is the group that needs to elevate its play in camp. The line boasts both experience and some exciting young talent, and the players are used to coach Tim Davis and his demands. Minnesota simply can't rank last in the league in rushing year after year. It's time for the line to get tougher, come together and build off of a strong spring.

Quotable: "We're bigger. We're stronger. We're faster. We're more athletic than we've been. And rightfully so. We need to be. We know that we're going to play one of the most challenging schedules in America this season. And our players are going to have to be prepared." -- head coach Tim Brewster
The thought first dawned on me late Friday afternoon in Columbus, as large groups of reporters circled around Ohio State linebackers Ross Homan and Brian Rolle after practice. Finally, Homan and Rolle were getting the attention they deserved.

One problem you encounter when a league boasts so many elite players at one position is that most of them tend to get overlooked. The Big Ten had three consensus selections for first-team all-conference in 2009: Michigan State's Greg Jones, Penn State's Navorro Bowman and Iowa's Pat Angerer. I'd put those three against any group in college football, and I'd like my chances. If you're running a 3-4 scheme, toss in Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2009.

But the performances of Jones, Bowman, Angerer and Borland overshadowed guys like Homan. How many linebackers record 108 tackles, five interceptions, 10 passes defended, five tackles for loss, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries and don't make first-team all-conference?

The good thing for Homan is he has another season to get the attention he deserves. The same can't be said for Minnesota's all-senior linebacking corps of Nate Triplett, Lee Campbell and Simoni Lawrence, each of whom ranked among the Big Ten's tackles leaders last fall. Or Indiana's Matt Mayberry, a blog favorite who flew under the radar. Or Iowa's A.J. Edds, who finished the season with five interceptions and nine passes defended. Penn State's Josh Hull got some love with a second-team All-Big Ten pick from the coaches, but his value to the defense wasn't really known outside Happy Valley.

Those players have moved on, but here are a few linebackers who will step into the spotlight in 2010:

Ross Homan, Sr., Ohio State
2009 stats:
108 tackles, 5 interceptions, 10 passes defended, 5 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries

Brian Rolle, Sr., Ohio State
2009 stats:
95 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 1 fumble recovery, 2 passes defended

Quentin Davie, Sr., Northwestern
2009 stats:
90 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 6 quarterback hurries, 1 interception

Jason Werner, Sr., Purdue
2009 stats:
77 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 interception, 3 passes defended

Eric Gordon, Sr., Michigan State
2009 stats:
92 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 blocked kick

Jeremiha Hunter, Sr., Iowa
2009 stats:
89 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 1 blocked kick, 1 interception, 5 passes defended

Mike Taylor, So., Wisconsin
2009 stats:
46 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 1 interception, led the team in tackles before suffering season-ending injury against Iowa on Oct. 17.

Tyler Replogle, Sr., Indiana
2009 stats:
80 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 1 interception, 2 pass breakups

Joe Holland, Jr., Purdue
2009 stats:
81 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 1 interception, 2 passes defended

Ian Thomas, Jr., Illinois
2009 stats:
95 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 4 passes defended, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery

Big Ten to send 41 to NFL combine

February, 2, 2010
2/02/10
1:30
PM ET
The official list of invitees to the NFL scouting combine is out, and the Big Ten will send 41 former players to Indianapolis later this month. The combine takes place Feb. 24-March 2, and all 11 Big Ten schools will be represented. Iowa leads the way with seven invitees, followed Penn State with six invitees and four teams (Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State) each with four invitees.

You've already seen an early list, which didn't include underclassmen and some seniors who were named later.

Here's the full roster of Big Ten participants, sorted by team:

ILLINOIS: G Jon Asamoah, WR Arrelious Benn, TE Michael Hoomanawanui

INDIANA: DE Jammie Kirlew, DE Greg Middleton, S Nick Polk, OT Rodger Saffold

IOWA: LB Pat Angerer, OT Bryan Bulaga, OT Kyle Calloway, LB A.J. Edds, TE Tony Moeaki, G Dace Richardson, CB Amari Spievey

MICHIGAN: DE Brandon Graham, P Zoltan Mesko, RB Brandon Minor, CB Donovan Warren

MICHIGAN STATE: K Brett Swenson, WR Blair White

MINNESOTA: LB Lee Campbell, WR Eric Decker, LB Simoni Lawrence, LB Nate Triplett

NORTHWESTERN: QB Mike Kafka, CB Sherrick McManis, DE Corey Wootton

OHIO STATE: S Kurt Coleman, DE Thaddeus Gibson, K Aaron Pettrey, DT Doug Worthington

PENN STATE: LB Navorro Bowman, QB Daryll Clark, LB Josh Hull, LB Sean Lee, DT Jared Odrick, TE Andrew Quarless

PURDUE: DT Mike Neal, CB David Pender

WISCONSIN: TE Garrett Graham, LB O'Brien Schofield (injured)
College football all-star season is nearly upon us, as ESPN's Scouts Inc. is covering all of the preparations for Saturday's East-West Shrine Game in Orlando.

Don't forget about the Texas vs. The Nation All-Star Challenge, to be played Feb. 6 at Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso, Texas. As its title suggests, the game pits all-stars hailing from Texas against those from around the country.

Eight Big Ten players are scheduled to participate in the game, all for the Nation squad.

They are:

  • Penn State CB A.J. Wallace (also listed as a return man)
  • Ohio State K Aaron Pettrey
  • Indiana S Nick Polk
  • Minnesota LB Simoni Lawrence
  • Minnesota LB Nate Triplett
  • Penn State LB Josh Hull
  • Indiana DE Jammie Kirlew
  • Penn State OL Dennis Landolt

The full game rosters can be found here.
The official list of invitees to the NFL scouting combine should be available soon, but Sporting News has compiled a preliminary roster, which includes 33 players from the Big Ten. This list DOES NOT include juniors who have declared for the draft and will be updated with underclassmen and other seniors.

The combine takes place Feb. 24 through March 2 in Indianapolis.

ILLINOIS: G Jon Asamoah, TE Michael Hoomanawanui

INDIANA: DE Jammie Kirlew, DE Greg Middleton, S Nick Polk, OT Rodger Saffold

IOWA: LB Pat Angerer, OT Kyle Calloway, LB A.J. Edds, TE Tony Moeaki, G Dace Richardson

MICHIGAN: DE Brandon Graham, P Zoltan Mesko, RB Brandon Minor

MICHIGAN STATE: K Brett Swenson, WR Blair White

MINNESOTA: WR Eric Decker, LB Simoni Lawrence, LB Nate Triplett

NORTHWESTERN: QB Mike Kafka, CB Sherrick McManis, DE Corey Wootton

OHIO STATE: S Kurt Coleman, K Aaron Pettrey, DT Doug Worthington

PENN STATE: QB Daryll Clark, LB Sean Lee, DT Jared Odrick, TE Andrew Quarless

PURDUE: DT Mike Neal, CB David Pender

WISCONSIN: TE Garrett Graham, DE O'Brien Schofield

Insight Bowl preview

December, 30, 2009
12/30/09
9:00
AM ET
Here's what you need to know about Thursday's matchup between Minnesota (6-6) and Iowa State (6-6) in the Insight Bowl:

WHO TO WATCH: Adam Weber. The Minnesota junior quarterback has taken a step back in his third year as the starter, but as he showed on Halloween night against Michigan State, he still can light it up. Weber also can struggle mightily, as he showed in shutout losses to Iowa and Penn State and a near shutout at Ohio State. Golden Gophers head coach Tim Brewster will open up the quarterback competition in spring practice, but Weber can help his cause with a strong showing against a vulnerable Iowa State defense that ranks 95th nationally against the pass (245 ypg). Minnesota is still searching for someone to replace Eric Decker's production, but Weber has some decent options in tight end Nick Tow-Arnett and wide receiver Troy Stoudermire. If Weber struggles, don't be surprised if Minnesota goes to MarQueis Gray.

WHAT TO WATCH: Minnesota's linebackers against Iowa State's rushing attack. Seniors Lee Campbell, Nate Triplett and Simoni Lawrence have carried the Gophers' defense this fall, combining for 284 tackles. Iowa State isn't much of a passing team and wants to get Alexander Robinson going. Robinson, ranked 29th nationally in rushing average, is a Minneaoplis native who nearly considered transferring to Minnesota after Gene Chizik bolted from Ames. If Minnesota can plug the middle with defensive tackles Garrett Brown and Eric Small, the linebackers should be in position to slow down Robinson and mobile quarterback Austen Arnaud.

WHY TO WATCH: Brewster is safe and will receive a contract extension in the near future, but this remains a pivotal game for the Minnesota program. A victory assures Minnesota of a winning season and could bring some life back to a fan base that seems unhappy with the current direction. The Gophers haven't won a bowl game since 2004 and lost the Insight Bowl in 2006 and 2008. A loss will brand the 2009 season as a disappointment and increase the pressure on Brewster and his assistants this offseason. It's also a nice regional game between two upper Midwest teams that haven't played since 1997.

PREDICTION: Neither of these teams is very good, and both offenses are inconsistent at best. Expect a low-scoring affair, and the team that makes the fewest number of major mistakes wins. Iowa State will have more fans in Tempe and could be more motivated than Minnesota, which has gone to the Insight Bowl in three of the past four years. The Gophers offense has been too inconsistent for my liking, and Iowa State finds a way to win, 17-14.
Minnesota had the Big Ten's most experienced team this fall, though at times the Gophers didn't look like it.

An offensive makeover led to significant growing pains on that side of the ball. Quarterback Adam Weber, a third-year starter, struggled to find a rhythm in Jedd Fisch's pro-style system, especially after superstar wide receiver Eric Decker went down with a foot injury. More troubling was the fact that Minnesota ended up as one of the Big Ten's most penalized teams for the second consecutive season.

The Gophers' veteran presence showed up on defense, as the team boasted arguably the league's best group of linebackers with Lee Campbell, Nate Triplett and Simoni Lawrence. Two senior defensive tackles and standout cornerback Traye Simmons helped the defense hold several teams in check. Kevin Cosgrove's unit is the biggest reason why Minnesota will play in a bowl for the second consecutive season.

Decker's injury was a major blow for the Gophers, who played a challenging schedule and notched decent wins against Northwestern, Air Force and Michigan State. They also had good moments against both Cal and Wisconsin. But the offensive struggles really showed up in the second half of the season, as Minnesota endured two shutouts in Big Ten play and nearly a third at Ohio State. Head coach Tim Brewster's struggles in rivalry games continued, as Minnesota fell short against both Wisconsin and Iowa.

Offensive MVP: Eric Decker. It says something when the offensive MVP missed half of the season, but Decker was simply that good. He could have made a serious run for the Biletnikoff Award had he stayed healthy, and he still led Minnesota in receptions (50), receiving yards (758) and receiving touchdowns (5). Decker's brilliant performance against Cal still resonates with me, and the Big Ten coaches selected him first-team all-conference despite his injury.

Defensive MVP: Lee Campbell. Campbell really stepped up nicely as a senior, finishing third in the Big Ten with 112 tackles, including a league-high 65 solo stops. He stood out on special teams with two blocked kicks and was very effective in pass coverage with an interception and six passes defended. Honorable mentions go to both Triplett and Simmons.

Turning point: Decker's injury in a 38-7 loss to Ohio State on Oct. 24 really hurt the Gophers, though the offense already had started to struggle a bit. Minnesota briefly turned things around with a wild win on Halloween night against Michigan State, but came out flat the next week against a woeful Illinois team.

What's next: Minnesota's immediate destination is Tempe, Ariz., where it will play in the Insight Bowl for the second straight season and for the third time in the last four seasons. But where is Minnesota really headed as a program? If Brewster returns for 2010, he needs to develop heralded recruits into stars and get the offense moving. The Gophers need to show they're closer a Big Ten title than they were when they dismissed Glen Mason.

Insight Bowl

December, 6, 2009
12/06/09
10:15
PM ET
Minnesota (6-6) vs. Iowa State (6-6)
Dec. 31, 6 p.m. (NFL Network)

The Insight Bowl might not attract much national attention, but you can bet it'll mean a lot in the upper Midwest.

Minnesota and Iowa State haven't played since 1997, but the two schools are separated by only 215 miles and share a hated rival in the Iowa Hawkeyes. Iowa State makes its first bowl appearance since 2005, while Minnesota returns to the Insight Bowl for the second straight year and for the third time in the past four seasons.

This is a very critical game for Gophers fourth-year coach Tim Brewster and a team that broke even despite boasting the Big Ten's most experienced roster. A victory would secure consecutive winning seasons and build momentum for 2010, when Brewster's recruits will occupy most of the key roles. A loss would increase doubts about the program's direction and put Brewster squarely on the hot seat.

The Insight Bowl typically is high scoring, but don't expect too many points on Dec. 31 in Tempe, Ariz. Minnesota has been shut out twice this season and ranks 98th nationally in scoring (21.6 ppg), while Iowa State is even worse, coming in 102nd in scoring (21.1 ppg). Both teams have quarterbacks (Minnesota's Adam Weber, Iowa State's Austen Arnaud) who can do big things, but also hurt their teams with turnovers.

Defense is certainly Iowa State's calling card, as the Cyclones have held opponents to 17 points or fewer in each of their six wins. Minnesota also relies heavily on its defense, particularly linebackers Lee Campbell, Nate Triplett and Simoni Lawrence, but needs some offensive playmakers to emerge at Sun Devil Stadium.
The teams will be separated by more than 300 miles, but Minnesota and Indiana will seek the same thing Saturday when they take the field.

Here's a hint: it's more important than a bronze pig or an iron-bound bucket.

"We have to go in and earn respect back," Minnesota senior linebacker Simoni Lawrence said.

[+] EnlargeSimoni Lawrence
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesSimoni Lawrence and the Gophers hope to earn back some respect when they visit Iowa on Saturday.
The Gophers lost some when they were pummeled 55-0 by Iowa last year in the Metrodome. It marked Minnesota's worst Big Ten loss in team history and the second worst loss overall (the Gophers fell 84-13 to Nebraska in 1983). Minnesota had been drubbed by Iowa before -- it lost 45-3 in 1995, 33-0 in 1959 and 41-7 in 1921 -- but nothing quite like last year's beating.

Indiana knows the feeling. The Hoosiers fell 62-10 to Purdue last fall to end a miserable 3-9 campaign. The 52-point margin of victory marked the largest in the Old Oaken Bucket series since 1893, when Purdue won 64-0. Purdue scored on its first 10 offensive possessions (eight touchdowns, two field goals) before trying to run out the clock on its 11th drive.

Both the Gophers and the Hoosiers will have little trouble getting motivated on Saturday. Minnesota kicks things off at No. 13 Iowa (ESPN, noon ET), while Indiana hosts Purdue (Big Ten Network, 3:30 p.m. ET) later in the day.

"It's not one of those things that we have to dwell on the final score," Indiana head coach Bill Lynch said. "Any of us that were there know how that game went. They got after us, and it's certainly in the back of the minds of our guys."

Lynch's Minnesota colleague, Tim Brewster, also has no need to conduct a history class this week in Minneapolis.

"We know exactly what happened last year," Brewster said. "Obviously, Iowa was much better than us the day we played them. They played an outstanding game, and we did not play well. But that was last year. This is a whole new year. It's a totally different team."

Lynch
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesIndiana coach Bill Lynch hopes for a different outcome this season against Purdue.
Indiana has at times looked like a totally different team this fall, though its record could be similar. The Hoosiers have led in all four of their Big Ten road games, only to lose, and gave Wisconsin all it could handle two weeks ago in Bloomington.

A bowl berth is off the table, so Indiana's mission seems pretty clear: avenge last year's loss to Purdue and create some positive momentum for 2010.

"It'd be huge," Lynch said. "It's important for your seniors leaving on a positive note, and it certainly leads you into the offseason and the future. And when it's a rivalry game against Purdue, it means a great deal. It is a different game than the others."

Lawrence will sometimes pose a question to Minnesota fans he meets: If you could beat either Wisconsin or Iowa, the program's top two rivals, who would it be?

"Everybody always says Iowa," he said. "I'm going to try and get everybody as geeked up as possible for this game. This is my last chance to get a trophy since I’ve been here with coach [Tim] Brewster."

Brewster has yet to win a rivalry trophy at Minnesota, a fact trumpeted by his critics. It won't be easy to end the drought Saturday, as Iowa can inch closer to an at-large BCS bowl berth with its 10th victory.

Minnesota hasn't won at Kinnick Stadium since 1999, Kirk Ferentz's first season as Hawkeyes head coach.

"They're a big favorite in the game, and rightfully so," Brewster said.

Lawrence has watched Iowa play more than any other Big Ten team this year. In addition to scouting the offense of Minnesota's upcoming opponent, he watches the Hawkeyes defense and admires its mindset and aggressive style.

But this week, Lawrence is no fan of Iowa's.

"We’ve got to go in there angry," he said. "That’s the only thing you can do. When a team beats you up like that, they'll be like, 'Aw, yeah, they’re just another team coming in.’ You’ve got to go in and earn some respect back."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The home stretch begins Saturday, and here are 10 things you don't want to miss.

1. Iowa's quest for perfection continues: The Hawkeyes are halfway through one of the nation's toughest road schedules, and it doesn't get much easier Saturday night at Michigan State (Big Ten Network, 7 p.m. ET). Spartan Stadium recently has posed problems for the Hawkeyes, who have dropped four consecutive games there, including a 16-13 decision last year. A win Saturday night will convince any nonbelievers left that Iowa is for real and move the Hawkeyes to at least No. 5 in the BCS standings. Iowa has shown no fear of tough environments and tough situations so far, but the Hawkeyes are now the team to beat in the Big Ten, which can bring unique challenges.

2. Penn State enters (Big) House of Horrors: Iowa isn't the only Big Ten team trying to end its struggles in the state of Michigan on Saturday. Penn State can't buy a break in Michigan Stadium, where it has lost five consecutive games stretching back to 1995. Head coach Joe Paterno is still haunted by the 2005 loss in Ann Arbor, the lone blemish on his team's record. The jury remains out on this Penn State team, which has looked very impressive against weak competition and seems to be getting stronger each week. The Lions can validate their record and end a rough run at Stadium and Main with a victory Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).

3. Pryor under pressure: Ohio State's offense and sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor are under the gun after a mistake-filled loss to Purdue last week. Critics and fans are questioning the scheme, the coaching and Pryor. Head coach Jim Tressel said this week that no major changes are coming and Pryor's teammates remain in his corner. Pryor handled himself well in responding to his critics this week. Still, the offense must bounce back strong against Minnesota (ESPN, noon ET). The Gophers boast an improved defense led by three excellent linebackers (Lee Campbell, Nate Triplett and Simoni Lawrence) and a playmaking cornerback (Traye Simmons). If Ohio State's offense starts off slowly, it could be a rough afternoon.

4. Postseason implications in Evanston: Northwestern and Indiana bring identical 4-3 records into Saturday's game at Ryan Field, and quite frankly, it's tough to see both squads reaching the postseason. The winner of the game should be in good shape for at least an invitation to the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl, while the loser will have an uphill climb. Northwestern's banged-up yet improving defense faces a confident Indiana offense led by quarterback Ben Chappell and wide receivers Tandon Doss, Damarlo Belcher and Mitchell Evans. The series usually produces plenty of excitement, as the last five meetings all have been decided by seven points or fewer.

5. Desperation at Boiler Station: The Big Ten's bottom two teams meet at Ross-Ade Stadium with very different mindsets. Purdue comes off an energizing upset of Ohio State, its first win against a ranked opponent since 2003. The Boilermakers hope the victory springboards them into a big second half as they try to turn those near misses into wins. Illinois, meanwhile, seems to be falling apart after its fourth consecutive double-digit loss and its fifth this season. The Illini remain undecided at quarterback and might soon need to make a decision about head coach Ron Zook's future at the school unless things turn around fast, beginning Saturday.

6. Jones vs. Sash: Two of the leading contenders for Big Ten defensive player of the year will be on the same field Saturday night in East Lansing. Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones had a monster first half, leading the nation with 85 tackles, including 8.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. He'll try to slow down Iowa's young running backs and put pressure on quarterback Ricky Stanzi. Hawkeyes safety Tyler Sash hopes to build on his Big Ten interceptions lead against Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has thrown only four picks in 156 attempts. Sash leads the most opportunistic secondary in the country, which faces a talented crop of Michigan State tight ends and wide receivers.

7. Wolverines offense vs. Lions defense: Something's got to give as the Big Ten's top scoring offense (37.3 ppg) takes on the nation's No. 2 scoring defense (8.7 ppg). Both units are getting healthier, as Michigan freshman quarterback Tate Forcier has recovered from head and shoulder injuries, while Penn State star outside linebacker Sean Lee should see his reps increase despite tweaking his knee against Minnesota. The Wolverines will use multiple quarterbacks and mix personnel behind an offensive line that gained confidence from the Iowa game. Penn State hasn't faced an FBS offense ranked higher than 79th nationally, but the Lions are receiving excellent play from their front four and linebackers Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull.

8. Gophers offense looks for a spark: Pryor isn't the only quarterback feeling the heat in Columbus on Saturday. Minnesota junior Adam Weber has struggled in recent weeks, and some are calling for backup MarQueis Gray to get more playing time. Weber could certainly use some help from his running backs, but it won't be easy against a dominant Ohio State defensive front. The Buckeyes undoubtedly will gear their defense toward Minnesota star wideout Eric Decker, so Weber must find other targets and do a better job of freelancing to make plays. Ohio State already owns two shutouts this season, and the Gophers were blanked last week at Penn State.

9. League title race taking shape: It's pretty easy to size up the Big Ten title race right now, with Iowa as the league's lone unbeaten team and in the driver's seat for the Rose Bowl and possibly more. But if Michigan State knocks off the Hawkeyes, things could really get interesting. You could have four one-loss teams by the end of play Saturday (Iowa, Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State), and an Iowa loss would open the door for some two-loss teams as well. Michigan State has a favorable schedule down the stretch and could legitimize itself as a league title contender. Losses by Penn State and Ohio State could really turn things around in the standings, given the preseason forecast for the league.

10. Star search on offense: The Big Ten is clearly a defense-oriented league this season, but the lack of stars on offense is really stunning. Things weren't much better in 2008, but at least the league boasted the nation's best group of running backs. As the stretch run begins, who will emerge at quarterback, running back or wide receiver? Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark has played well since the Iowa loss and needs a big performance at Michigan. Forcier, Stanzi, Purdue's Joey Elliott, Northwestern's Mike Kafka and Chappell also have had their good moments. I'm interested to see if the league's unheralded wide receivers (Keith Smith, Zeke Markshausen, Doss, Blair White) can keep up their strong play.

Second-half outlook: Minnesota

October, 21, 2009
10/21/09
1:20
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Record: 4-3

Remaining schedule: at Ohio State, vs. Michigan State, vs. Illinois, vs. South Dakota State, at Iowa

There should be a strong sense of urgency for Tim Brewster's squad in the second half. Minnesota is the Big Ten's most experienced team, and the Gophers will lose their best offensive player (wide receiver Eric Decker) and their terrific linebacking corps (Lee Campbell, Nate Triplett and Simoni Lawrence) after the season. So it's critical that the Gophers get back to the postseason and finish stronger than they did last year, when they dropped their final six games. The defense has made obvious progress, and all three linebackers rank among the league's top 15 tacklers. Minnesota must do a much better job of getting off the field as it ranks last in the Big Ten in third-down defense (50.9 percent). But the offense is certainly the top priority as the Gophers try to establish some consistency from their running backs as well as quarterback Adam Weber. The system is no longer new, and Minnesota needs its offensive line to step up and create room for Kevin Whaley, DeLeon Eskridge and Duane Bennett. The Gophers also need to take care of business at home, given their tough road slate.

Best-case scenario: The offense starts to click, holes open in the running game and Weber recaptures the form he showed at times the past two seasons. Minnesota sweeps its three home games and manages to pull a big road upset to finish 8-4 and reach a warm-weather bowl game in Texas or Florida.

Worst-case scenario: Weber continues to struggle and the run game never gets going as opposing defenses do everything they can to take Decker out of the equation. The defense doesn't improve on third down and begins to get tired down the stretch. Minnesota drops its final four Big Ten games and misses the postseason at 5-7.

Prediction: Bowl game. Minnesota finishes 6-6 or 7-5.

Midseason review: Minnesota

October, 20, 2009
10/20/09
1:15
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Record: 4-3 (2-2 Big Ten)

It has been a bit of a mixed bag so far for Minnesota, which continues to search for consistency from its offense to complement an improved defense. There's certainly a new buzz around the program as football returned to campus and outdoors for the first time since 1981. The Gophers opened the year with hard-fought wins against Syracuse and Air Force and stayed close with Cal until the fourth quarter. Since then, there have been good performances against both Northwestern and Purdue, a missed opportunity against Wisconsin and an anemic offensive showing in a 20-0 loss at Penn State. The transition from the spread offense to a pro-style system has been a struggle, and Minnesota needs more production from the run game and quarterback Adam Weber down the stretch. The defense has made obvious strides under new coordinators Kevin Cosgrove and Ron Lee, and the Gophers boasts one of the Big Ten's best linebacking corps.

Offensive MVP, WR Eric Decker: It's not a stretch to suggest that Decker was the Gophers offense through the first few games. He made eight or more receptions in each of Minnesota's first five contests and continues to find openings even though opponents know exactly what's coming from the Gophers. There's not a tougher wide receiver in the country than Decker, who ranks 10th nationally in receiving yards (104.4 ypg).

Defensive MVP, LB Nate Triplett: This award could go to any of the Gophers' top three linebackers, but Triplett has truly emerged as a major playmaker. He ranks second on the team and third in the Big Ten in tackles (10 tpg) and has recorded two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and six passes defended. Honorable mentions go to fellow linebackers Lee Campbell and Simoni Lawrence, and cornerback Traye Simmons.

Minnesota counters speed with speed

September, 19, 2009
9/19/09
1:03
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster is willing to sacrifice size for speed in recruiting, and it's starting to pay off on defense.

After struggling early, the Golden Gophers have countered Cal's speed with some of their own. Undersized players like linebackers Keanon Cooper (6-foot-0, 220) and Simoni Lawrence (6-foot-1, 221) and cornerback Ryan Collado (5-foot-9, 175) have looked impressive so far. Collado totally blew up a screen pass to Cal's Shane Vereen on second-and-10 inside Gophers territory.

Minnesota's bigger linebackers, Lee Campbell and Nate Triplett, led the defense in the first two games, but I could see the Gophers going with speed over size today.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Minnesota linebacker Simoni Lawrence doesn't lack confidence, and that's a good thing this week. Jahvid Best is coming to town, and Lawrence and his fellow defenders must find a way to slow down the Cal star running back on Saturday (ESPN, noon ET). The Gophers' linebackers have stepped up in the team's first two wins, especially last week against Air Force and the triple option, and hopes are high for Lawrence, a 6-foot-1, 218-pound senior from Upper Darby, Pa.

 
 AP Photo/Kevin Rivoli
 In transitioning from safety to linebacker, Simoni Lawrence has added 15 pounds to his frame.

Lawrence checked in earlier this week to share his thoughts about Best, Cal and his own development.

How was it being in the new stadium?

Simoni Lawrence: It's amazing. It was a great feeling, just because everybody's on campus and everything. Everybody came to the game, campus was fun. It just feels more like your home, and then after the game, you can walk to your apartment. It's like a two-minute walk.

I read that you said before the season you were gunning to be an All-American. Are you going to back that up?

SL: I've got to back it up. Your word is everything, and I'm going to do the best I can to back it up. Playing these regular teams now, it should be more exciting. You don't have to worry about the option. They can scheme and do what they want to do with me now.

Have you been a confident guy?

SL: I believe you've got to be confident in what you do. I love football and I'm always going to be confident because that's what I love the most. I trust my abilities, and the coaches and everybody do a great job of making us trust ourselves.

You've mentioned that coach [John] Butler tries to create monsters in the linebacker room. Do you fit that description?

SL: Oh, definitely. Last year, when I came in, I had more of a defensive back mentality from playing safety [in junior college]. And coach Butler beat that out of me pretty quickly this year.

How was that transition for you, from safety to linebacker?

SL: It was difficult, just getting used to playing in the box. Last year, I played the whole season at 210 [pounds], and it definitely starts to take a toll on your body when you're 210 and you're having to spill big fullbacks. You're not used to that. You're used to covering everybody. But coach Butler got me on the weight program, and I've put on a good 15 pounds. The transition's been smooth.

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