Big Ten: Thad Randle

A man wearing a newsboy cap approached Kirk Cousins and offered congratulations to the former Michigan State quarterback, who held court with reporters in the Rose Bowl tunnel moments after the Spartans beat Stanford.

Jim Delany wasn't easy to spot in the headgear, and one could argue that the Big Ten commissioner wisely disguised himself on a day that hasn't been kind to his league in recent years. But for the first time in four years, and for just the second time in 14 years, Delany walked out of the Rose Bowl with a smile on his face.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesConnor Cook and Michigan State gave the Big Ten plenty to celebrate.
For Delany and the Big Ten, the Rose Bowl sits on a pedestal. And after just one Big Ten win in the previous 10 tries, Michigan State's 24-20 triumph in the game's 100th edition was cause for celebration. MSU's victory doesn't dull the pain of the Big Ten's second consecutive 2-5 bowl season, but it certainly helps to prevail in the most important postseason game on the biggest stage against the best opponent.

The Spartans won a team-record 13 games and completed the best season for a Big Ten team in recent memory, finishing No. 3 in the final polls. Nebraska provided the other bright spot, upsetting Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl thanks to a stingy red-zone defense and several standout performances from seniors.

Elsewhere, the Big Ten felt the familiar postseason sting of what might have been. The league easily could have had a better record in the Florida bowls, but Wisconsin and Ohio State had sloppy performances and Iowa's offense never got on track against LSU.

Wisconsin never punted in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina and had two 100-yard rushers in Melvin Gordon and James White, but the Badgers committed four turnovers and scored just 17 offensive points. A team that had been so solid through the first 11 games unraveled in the regular-season finale against Penn State and in the bowl, failing to capitalize on a great chance to build on a 17-13 third-quarter lead. Dave Aranda's defense was shredded for the second straight game as South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw accounted for five touchdowns (3 pass, 1 rush, 1 receiving). A decorated Wisconsin senior classes ended 0-4 in Jan. 1 bowls.

Ohio State also finished the season on a surprising losing streak, squandering two second-half leads in a 40-35 loss to Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl. Like Wisconsin, the Buckeyes also were doomed by turnovers, particularly a muffed punt by Corey Brown in the third quarter with a nine-point lead. A depleted Ohio State defense couldn't stop Clemson's big-play receivers, the coaches once again avoided running back Carlos Hyde in crunch time, and a banged-up Braxton Miller committed turnovers on Ohio State's final two possessions.

Injuries and personnel issues were a theme throughout the Big Ten during the bowl season. Wisconsin and Iowa saw their starting quarterbacks hurt during games, while Michigan's top signal-caller, Devin Gardner, showed up in Arizona on crutches and didn't play in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Michigan State overcame the loss of starting middle linebacker and co-captain Max Bullough, as Kyler Elsworth and Darien Harris filled in well. Ohio State played without top cornerback Bradley Roby (injury) and top pass-rusher Noah Spence (suspension).

A little more offense could have put Iowa and Minnesota over the top in their bowl games. Minnesota didn't reach the end zone for three quarters in the Texas Bowl, eventually falling 21-17 to a mediocre Syracuse team. Iowa's only touchdowns came on drives of 1 and 4 yards, as the Hawkeyes had just 11 first downs and 233 total yards against LSU.

It wouldn't have taken much for the Big Ten to post a winning record in the bowls. The league had only one non-competitive performance, coming from Michigan in the Wings Bowl, as the Wolverines ended a disappointing season on a down note. The defense never gave first-time starting quarterback Shane Morris much of a chance, allowing touchdowns on Kansas State's first three possessions. Morris held his own but Michigan didn't reach the end zone until the 58th minute in what proved to be the final game for beleaguered offensive coordinator Al Borges.

Nebraska started New Year's Day on a good note as wide receiver Quincy Enunwa triggered the win with a 99-yard touchdown reception, while defensive linemen Jason Ankrah, Randy Gregory and Thad Randle limited Georgia's offense. Michigan State capped the afternoon by rallying past Stanford behind a suffocating defense and quarterback Connor Cook, who collected another postseason MVP honor and his second straight 300-yard passing performance.

The Spartans boost hope for the future after another Big Ten postseason rife with missed opportunities. The league has another team capable of competing for a national championship.

The playoff arrives in 2014, along with a more palatable Big Ten bowl lineup and most likely more bowl-eligible teams. The Big Ten took a small step in the postseason after a historically bad 2012 campaign, but more progress must be made for the rest of college football to start tipping its cap.

Big Ten all-bowl team

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The Big Ten went 2-5 in bowl games for the second consecutive season, but there were notable performances around the league, even in losing efforts.

Here's a look at ESPN.com's Big Ten all-bowl squad:

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook threw for 332 yards and two TDs to lead the Spartans to a Rose Bowl win over Stanford.
QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State: He followed his first career 300-yard passing performance in the Big Ten championship with his second in the Rose Bowl against Stanford. Cook overcame an ugly pick-six to pass for a career-high 332 yards and two touchdowns on 22 of 36 attempts. He earned offensive player of the game honors.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: The Badgers featured Gordon, who will return next year, in the Capital One Bowl and received good production, as the sophomore rushed for 143 yards on 25 carries. His fumble in the closing minutes allowed South Carolina to run out the clock, but he showed his typical explosiveness as well as durability that should help him in the 2014 season.

RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: Abdullah ended a tremendous junior season with his 11th 100-yard rushing performance as Nebraska upset Georgia in the Gator Bowl. He finished with 122 rush yards and a touchdown on 27 carries.

WR: Quincy Enunwa, Nebraska: Enunwa ended his Huskers career with his best performance, recording a career-high 129 receiving yards and two touchdowns, including a 99-yarder in the third quarter that proved to be the winner. He broke Nebraska's single-season record with 12 touchdowns and earned bowl MVP honors.

WR: Tony Lippett, Michigan State: MSU leaned on its passing game to open up the deep middle, and Lippett repeatedly attacked Stanford's vulnerable secondary. He had five receptions for a career-high 94 yards, and his 25-yard touchdown reception early in the fourth quarter ended up being the winner. His five receptions marked the most by a Spartans receiver in a Rose Bowl.

TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota: The Gophers' offense wasn't pretty in a disappointing Texas Bowl loss to Syracuse, but Williams again provided a bright spot in a mostly meek passing attack. The freshman led Minnesota with five receptions for 76 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

C: Cole Pensick, Nebraska: Pensick returned to the center spot after playing several games at guard and helped Nebraska to a win. Georgia had only one sack, and the Huskers rushed for 144 yards.

OL: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: Costigan and his fellow linemen held up well against Jadeveon Clowney and Co., as the Badgers racked up 293 rush yards on 43 attempts.

OL: Blake Treadwell, Michigan State: The Spartans' co-captain graded out well in the Rose Bowl as MSU had success moving the ball against a strong Stanford defense.

OL: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin: Like Costigan, Havenstein helped Gordon and James White both eclipse 100 rushing yards against South Carolina, which recorded only one sack in the game.

OL: Jack Allen, Michigan State: Allen was among three Spartans linemen not to allow a sack and aided an offense that racked up 21 first downs and 24 points against Stanford.

DEFENSE

DE: Jason Ankrah, Nebraska: Another Husker who shined in his final college game, Ankrah recorded two sacks, a forced fumble and two quarterback hurries as the line applied good pressure on Georgia backup quarterback Hutson Mason. It marked the first multi-sack performance of Ankrah's career.

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesOhio State's Joey Bosa made plenty of big hits in the Orange Bowl, including this one on Clemson's Tajh Boyd that resulted in a safety after Boyd was called for intentional grounding.
DE: Joey Bosa, Ohio State: If you're looking for reasons to feel optimistic about Ohio State's beleaguered defense, Bosa certainly provides a big one. The freshman made his presence known in the Orange Bowl despite an ankle injury, combining with linebacker Joshua Perry to force a first-quarter safety. He finished with five tackles, including a sack.

DT: Micajah Reynolds, Michigan State: The 307-pound Reynolds clogged the middle and helped Michigan State shut down Stanford's running attack for the final three quarters of the Rose Bowl. He recorded a team-high two tackles for loss and finished with four solo tackles in his final college game.

DT: Thad Randle, Nebraska: Like several Huskers on this list, Randle saved arguably his best performance for his final game. He recorded eight tackles as Nebraska held Georgia to 2.2 yards per rush and only 12 points on six trips inside the red zone.

LB: Kyler Elsworth, Michigan State: Thanks to Elsworth, Max Bullough's absence had little bearing on the Spartans' defense, which limited Stanford to 13 offensive points. Elsworth recorded 1.5 tackles for loss and was the first man in on the decisive fourth-down stop of Stanford's Ryan Hewitt. He earned Rose Bowl defensive player of the game honors.

LB: James Morris, Iowa: Morris ended an excellent senior season with 2.5 tackles for loss, including two sacks, as the defense kept Iowa alive for much of the Outback Bowl against LSU. He finished the season with a team-high eight sacks and eclipsed 400 career tackles.

LB: Denicos Allen, Michigan State: Allen also stepped up in Bullough's absence and sparked Michigan State with 1.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. He helped Michigan State hold Stanford to only three offensive points in the final three quarters.

CB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State: You didn't hear Dennard's name called much during the Rose Bowl because he shut down Stanford's Ty Montgomery and one side of the field. He finished with a tackle for loss and made sure Stanford didn't attack the No Fly Zone in his final game.

CB: Josh Mitchell, Nebraska: Mitchell made two plays to set up Nebraska touchdowns against Georgia: a second-quarter fumble recovery and a third-quarter interception on the first series of the second half. He hadn't had a takeaway all season before the bowl but stepped up at the right time.

S: John Lowdermilk, Iowa: He gave Iowa new life in the third quarter of the Outback Bowl with a 71-yard interception return. It should have been a touchdown, as Lowdermilk dropped the ball short of the goal line, but Iowa scored three plays later to cut LSU's lead in half. Not a bad time for Lowdermilk's first career interception.

S: Cedric Thompson, Minnesota: Thompson recorded a career-high 14 tackles in the Texas Bowl as Minnesota held Syracuse to only 188 pass yards. He also recovered a fumble in Gophers territory in the first quarter as the defense kept Minnesota in the game.

SPECIAL TEAMS

P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie (Oi Oi Oi). Ohio State's Australian import ended a tremendous debut season with a big performance in the Orange Bowl. He averaged 48.2 yards on five punts, with a long of 63 yards, and placed three punts inside Clemson's 20-yard line, including one downed at the Tigers' 1 that set up an Ohio State safety. There were a lot of good choices here (MSU's Mike Sadler and Minnesota's Peter Mortell also were terrific), which says something about the Big Ten's bowl showing.

K: Matt Wile, Michigan: Not many great choices here, but Wile was the only Big Ten kicker to convert multiple field-goal attempts in a bowl. Wile did a nice job filling in for starter Brendan Gibbons in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and also handled punts and kickoffs.

Returner: Kenzel Doe, Wisconsin: Doe kept Wisconsin's hopes alive in the Capital One Bowl with a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown after the Badgers had fallen behind by 10 points. It marked Wisconsin's first kickoff return touchdown in a bowl game and its first since David Gilreath's 97-yard runback on the opening play of the Badgers' win against No. 1 Ohio State in 2010.
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Nebraska extended its streak of nine-win seasons to six under coach Bo Pelini with a 24-19 upset victory over No. 22 Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. Here's a quick recap:

It was over when: The Bulldogs (8-5) turned it over on downs with 25 seconds to play as tight end Arthur Lynch dropped a fourth-and-3 pass from quarterback Hutson Mason inside the Huskers' 10-yard line. Nebraska linebacker David Santos received credit for a breakup, but it appeared to bounce straight off the hands of Lynch, who was the top receiving target all afternoon for Mason.

Game ball goes to: Tommy Armstrong. The Huskers' redshirt freshman quarterback was cool under pressure in his return after missing most of the season's final two games with an ankle injury. Armstrong threw a pair of touchdown passes and had another dropped. He made smart decisions in the run game and largely avoided mistakes.

Stat of the game: Twelve. That's the touchdown catch total for Nebraska senior Quincy Enunwa after his two scores on Wednesday, including a 99-yard reception from Armstrong in the third quarter. Enunwa's total breaks a Nebraska record set in 1971 by Johnny Rodgers, one year before he won the Heisman Trophy. A physical force in the run and pass game, Enunwa, by the way, didn't make it on the Big Ten's all-conference list, even at honorable mention. With the likes of Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis and Penn State's Allen Robinson, it was an exceptional season for receivers in the league. But Enunwa deserves some recognition.

Unsung heroes: Thad Randle and Jason Ankrah, the seniors up front on the Nebraska defense. Randle has never been healthy in college, and Ankrah was without help on Wednesday from Avery Moss, who didn't travel to Florida. They formed an important part of the front seven, which was as usual led by Randy Gregory at defensive end. They slowed Todd Gurley and pressured Mason on Wednesday. In the red zone, the Huskers were especially strong.

What Nebraska learned: It's got a gamer in Armstrong, the quarterback who started eight games this year and will enter spring practice as the leader to start in 2014. He'll get pushed by Johnny Stanton and possibly incoming freshman Zack Darlington, but Armstrong might be tough to unseat after the poise he showed Wednesday. If I-back Ameer Abdullah and Gregory return, the building blocks exist for Nebraska (9-4) to break through in 2014. It would help mightily to use Wednesday as a springboard to play fundamental football in the new year and capitalize on opponents' errors.

What Georgia learned: Transition from the Aaron Murray era won't be easy. When a program has played with one quarterback for four seasons, the offensive system morphs to reflect his strengths. Under Mason, the Bulldogs must find the right balance. It wasn't going to happen in this bowl season. The problems in the secondary on Wednesday can't be explained away by injuries. While Georgia has the talent to field an elite defense, it never came together over the past four months.

To watch the trophy presentation of the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, click here.

Defensive woes loom large at Nebraska

September, 23, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. – Amid four quarters on Saturday filled with defensive sequences that exasperated Bo Pelini, the Nebraska coach had no trouble identifying one spot, moments after the Huskers’ 59-20 victory over South Dakota State, that captured the essence of the Blackshirts' trouble at the end of a scary September.

The Jackrabbits scored two touchdowns on nine plays, covering 176 yards in less than three minutes to open the game -- often running straight at Nebraska.

But that’s not what Pelini referenced. He’s talking about the next possession, when the Huskers stacked the box with eight defenders, and still South Dakota State running back Zach Zenner churned for 15 yards on the first play, followed by gains of 4 and 5 up the middle.

“There is zero,” Pelini said, “zero excuse for that.”

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikBo Pelini wasn't happy with Nebraska's defense against South Dakota State.
The Nebraska defense has problems. Four games into this season, troubling trends that emerged late last season have turned into a cold reality.

Replacing seven senior starters from a year ago, the Huskers knew they would face growing pains this fall. Some of what we’ve seen this month, though, is rooted more deeply than in Nebraska’s lack of experience.

“Every week with this group, right now, feels like it’s a new adventure,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said, “whether it’s from quarter to quarter or half to half or game to game. There are times that we show signs of being pretty good, and then there are times where it’s hard to watch.

“I don’t know how to say it other than that.”

He could say it like this: The Huskers have two weeks to prepare for Illinois and the start of Big Ten play. And based on the results of late – FCS-level South Dakota State scored just three points after the first quarter on Saturday but still totaled 465 yards – Nebraska coaches and players must decipher the cause of their defensive woes and fix them fast.

Statistics here tell just part of the story. But an important part.

In the first 12 games of last season, Nebraska ranked first nationally in passing yards allowed per game (152.2), first in opponent completion percentage (45.5), second in yards per opponent passing attempt (5.16), 13th in yards per opponent play (4.59) and 23rd in points per opponent drive (1.44).

In six games since, in the same categories, Nebraska is 105th (277.5 passing yards per game), 82nd (62.4 percent completion rate), 116th (9.35 yards per opponent passing attempt), 118th (7.45 yards per opponent play) and 105th (2.58 points per opponent drive).

Something is wrong. Pelini said it’s a missing attitude.

Pelini discussed it Saturday with former Huskers tight end and current associate athletic director Jamie Williams before the coach roasted the defense in his postgame news conference.

“You’ve got to have a killer instinct,” said Pelini, who was defensive coordinator at Nebraska, Oklahoma and LSU. “In football, no one’s going to give you anything. You’ve got to take it. You’ve got to earn it. If you don’t have that kind of approach, it’s not going to work out well for you.

“Right now, we’re not playing with a type of attitude that you need to take to the field defensively. There has to be a sense of urgency every time you line up.”

The Huskers have endured struggles at all three levels.

Newcomer Randy Gregory at defensive end is a bright spot. Freshmen Avery Moss and Vincent Valentine have played well on the line, but veterans Jason Ankrah and Thad Randle aren’t showing up.

True freshman linebackers Nathan Gerry and Josh Banderas were benched for Zaire Anderson and David Santos in the first half on Saturday. Anderson appeared to play well, but missed assignments continued to plague the unit.

In the secondary, Stanley Jean-Baptiste, with interceptions in every game this year, is a star in the making. The safeties are a different story, especially at the spot next to Corey Cooper.

“They’re playing too tentative,” Pelini said.

The Huskers lack aggression, in general, on defense. Pelini and defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski talk regularly to the linemen about exploding at the snap, initiating contact with the players across the line of scrimmage.

“I wasn’t doing that the first series,” Gregory said. “The defensive line as a whole, we weren’t doing that.”

Gregory doesn’t know how to make the fixes or even what to say to his teammates.

“I don’t think anybody knows what to say,” he said, “but we’ve got to come in with the mindset that we’re going to stop them.”

Others sounded more confused. A couple defenders said they thought the Huskers played well defensively on Saturday. Meanwhile, Pelini described it as “the worst defensive performance of the season.”

He issued a promise, too.

“I’ll get this fixed,” the coach said. “Trust me there.”

Interesting choice of words. Trust, it seems, is wearing thin among the Nebraska defense these days.

Video: Like mother, like son

September, 14, 2013
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Nebraska defensive tackle Thad Randle is the son of another defensive tackle -- his mother, who plays in a women's football league.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 22, 2013
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On this day in 1851, the United States won its first ever America’s Cup. And for winning it all, you get a silver trophy. Oh, yachting.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 12, 2013
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If that's true, if you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.
Nebraska returns senior quarterback Taylor Martinez and most of the firepower from the Big Ten's top offense in 2012. Most believe the Huskers' season hinges on a young, inconsistent defense under the guidance of coordinator John Papuchis and head coach Bo Pelini.

The Blackshirts finished fourth nationally in pass defense and ninth in pass efficiency defense in 2012, but they struggled against the run (90th nationally) and hemorrhaged points in Nebraska's four losses, surrendering 63 to Ohio State, 70 to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game and 45 to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. Nebraska must replace all three starting linebackers and its top pass-rusher, Eric Martin, among others. The Huskers return an experienced secondary led by nickelback Ciante Evans.

ESPN.com caught up with Papuchis earlier this month to discuss the state of the Nebraska defense.

After looking at the unit during spring practices, what were some of your big takeaways from their performance?

John Papuchis: That's an interesting question because what I've been doing the last couple weeks is going back and looking at our spring cutups. One thing that jumped out to me, after having a little bit of time away from it, was that we improved pretty significantly and steadily as the spring went on. From the first practice to the 14th practice leading up to the spring game, we were much crisper in our alignments and understanding our assignments, we played faster. There was just a lot of development that took place over the course of those 14 practices. We're a young group, and we're going to need all 29 practices before we kick it off against Wyoming.

[+] EnlargeJohn Papuchis
AP Photo/Nati HarnikJohn Papuchis knows his defense will need to be better against the run after finishing 90th in the nation last season.
Were there specific areas or groups where you saw the most improvement, or was it across the board?

JP: Each position group has its own learning curve. Defensive line, we are relatively young, so for a lot of those guys, it was their first opportunity to really get coached. Where I saw the improvement had more to do with technique than it ever had to do with scheme. They had a pretty good feel of the scheme; it's a little bit simpler in terms of what they're asked to execute. Linebacker, another young group, and where I really saw their improvement was just better understanding of alignment and where they fit in the run game and the pass game. And then in the secondary, where we are a little bit more mature, Ciante Evans, Stanley Baptiste, Mo Seisay, Harvey Jackson, Corey Cooper, where I really saw those guys make a jump is just a better feel of the nuances of the defense. They were kind of a little bit ahead, the linebackers and D-line, and they showed improvement as spring went on, but it was kind of Level 2 and Level 3 improvement, as opposed to just the basics.

Who do you look for to be leaders up front and with the linebackers, and how much competition do you anticipate with those groups?

JP: There's going to be a ton of competition, and that's going to be a good thing for us. Really since I've been here, the way things have fallen, a lot of times going into camp, you have a pretty good idea of who your core guys are going to be. And although we have an idea right now, there are some spots that need to be ironed out. In terms of leadership, Jason Ankrah and Thad Randle across the front. Both of those guys are fifth-year seniors and have been in the program a long time. Jason has started and played a lot of games for us. Thad has been a little nicked up the last two years. But both of them have done a nice job of being leaders through the offseason.

Linebacker, we're young, but the one guy who has some pretty good playing experience is David Santos. He's done a good job of taking that leadership role. And another guy who has been in the program for a while and has played on special teams, and has always been one play away from having a more significant role is Trevor Roach. He's done a nice job of being a leader and more of a veteran guy with that group.

(Read full post)

Big Ten lunch links

July, 18, 2013
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It's good to be back. Let's check out today's links ...

100-days checklist: Big Ten

May, 21, 2013
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Good news: We are just 100 days away from the start of college football.

To mark the occasion, we're pulling out a checklist today of things that Big Ten teams need to accomplish between now and the start of the season. It's not quite "The Final Countdown" (cue GOB Bluth), but we are inching ever so close to kickoff. Here's what needs to happen in the next 100 days:

1. Identify a starting quarterback at Iowa, Indiana, Michigan State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin: It seems as if there are an unusually high number of Big Ten teams who don't know for sure who their starting quarterbacks will be in the fall. (You could also add Illinois and Minnesota to this list, though it appears likely that Nathan Scheelhaase and Philip Nelson, respectively, would have to lose the job in the summer.) Iowa had a three-man race this spring that will probably come down to Jake Rudock and Cody Sokol in training camp. There's very little separation between Cameron Coffman, Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson at Indiana. Connor Cook continues to breathe down the neck of incumbent Andrew Maxwell at Michigan State. Tyler Ferguson claimed the starting job at Penn State during the spring, prompting Steven Bench to transfer, but highly touted recruit Christian Hackenberg will push for immediate time. Purdue will likely decide between senior Rob Henry and true freshman Danny Etling. Joel Stave and Curt Phillips separated themselves from the Wisconsin QB derby this spring, while incoming junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy could expand the race this summer. All these situations should work themselves out in August, but no team wants to be dealing with an unsettled quarterback competition once the season starts.

2. Solidify the defensive front sevens at Nebraska and Ohio State: The Huskers and Buckeyes stand out as two of the top Big Ten contenders in 2013, but both have serious questions at defensive line and linebacker. The issue is more dire at Nebraska, which struggled there last year and is replacing all but one starter from 2012. Summer arrivals, including junior college star Randy Gregory, could make an immediate impact, and players coming back from injury such as linebacker Zaire Anderson and defensive tackle Thad Randle will need to play up to potential. Ohio State is less concerned about its defense after the spring performance of defensive ends Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, but linebacker Ryan Shazier is still the only returning starter in the front seven. Curtis Grant must finally live up to his talent to provide help to Shazier, and someone must assume John Simon's leadership role.

3. Locate the next great receivers: A few Big Ten teams, such as Nebraska, Penn State and Indiana, don't have to worry too much about who will catch the ball this year. But just about everybody else needs to find playmakers in the passing game. The top of that list includes Iowa, which couldn't generate a downfield passing attack last year; Illinois, which needs receivers to make new coordinator Bill Cubit's spread system work; Michigan State, whose young wideouts must improve on last year's shaky performance; Minnesota, which doesn't have many proven weapons to surround Nelson; and Wisconsin, which still must find a complement to Jared Abbrederis. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is hoping some incoming freshmen augment a very thin receiver group, while Michigan needs to replace the production of Roy Roundtree. Purdue and Northwestern have lots of speedy options but could use the emergence of a true No. 1 target. Receiver was a weak spot as a whole in the Big Ten in 2012, and hopefully some players will improve through offseason voluntary passing drills.

4. Strengthen the running game at Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana and elsewhere: It's a cliché to say that you have to run the ball to win, but in the case of the Big Ten, that's always been true. That's why it's so vital for the Wolverines and Spartans -- who both expect to contend in the Legends Division -- to find answers in their rushing attacks. Michigan is replacing its entire starting interior offensive line after struggling to get a running game going outside of Denard Robinson last year. Fitz Toussaint is hoping to bounce back from a disappointing season and a leg injury, while hotshot freshman Derrick Green could get lots of carries right away. Michigan State's efforts to replace workhorse extraordinaire Le'Veon Bell this spring ended up with converted linebacker Riley Bullough emerging as the top back in a mediocre field. Three incoming freshmen will compete for time right away this summer. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson put a heavy emphasis on the running game this spring, hoping for more balance after his team led the league in passing and finished last in rushing last season. Iowa has depth for once at running back but needs to stay healthy there, as the ground game is the key to the Hawkeyes' entire offensive philosophy. Nebraska also can't afford injuries, as Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross are the lone backs with any experience. Illinois averaged just 3.5 yards per carry as a team last year, a number that must improve. And while Purdue loved what it saw from Akeem Hunt this spring, he still must prove he can be an every-down back after attempting only 42 carries last season.

5. Mesh with new coaches: Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Purdue's Darrell Hazell are the fresh faces among head coaches in the league, and while they did a great job of connecting with their players this spring, they still need to get their new systems fully in place. The Badgers will be using some new, 3-4 looks on defense, while Hazell wants a more physical and disciplined team than we've seen from the Boilermakers of late. Michigan State has a new offensive playcaller in Dave Warner, while Cubit was one of many staff changes at Illinois. Penn State's John Butler takes over from Ted Roof as the Lions' defensive coordinator. With only 15 spring practices so far to implement their styles, those new coaches have had to rely on a lot of classroom time and players learning on their own. That will have to continue this summer during voluntary workouts and then will intensify when preseason practice begins. For new coaches, it's a race against the calendar -- and the calendar says there are only 100 days until kickoff.
Beau AllenJeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin will again be counting on Beau Allen to be a force on the defensive line.
You can bemoan the Big Ten's recent lack of elite talent at some positions like quarterback and wide receiver. But one spot where the league has been traditionally strong is at defensive tackle.

That has been arguably the conference's deepest and strongest position in the past two years, filled with stars like Devon Still, Mike Martin, Jerel Worthy, Jordan Hill, Kawann Short and Johnathan Hankins, to name a few. In an otherwise slow NFL draft for the league, the Big Ten saw four defensive tackles get selected last month, including two underclassmen (Hankins and Akeem Spence). In 2012, the conference had five defensive tackles get drafted.

That's why it's notable that, heading into the 2013 season, the Big Ten has no established stars on the defensive interior. Several schools lost top players to either graduation or the draft, including Ohio State (both starters, Hankins and Garrett Goebel are gone), Penn State (Hill), Purdue (Short), Michigan (Will Campbell), Indiana (Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr.), Illinois (Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster), Nebraska (Baker Steinkuhler), Northwestern (Brian Arnfelt) and Michigan State (Anthony Rashad White).

That's a big talent drain for one position. None of the returning defensive tackles in the league have ever made first- or second-team All-Big Ten. The top veteran tackles in the conference look like this (in alphabetical order):

  • Beau Allen, Wisconsin, senior: An underrated player, the 330-pound Allen has what you'd call a low center of gravity, with calves that look like a normal man's thighs. He's a big reason why the Badgers were able to keep teams from running the ball effectively up the middle last year.
  • Bruce Gaston, Purdue, senior: Overshadowed at times by Short, Gaston has the ability to disrupt things up front as well and will be asked to do more this season. He was slowed by injuries last year.
  • Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota, senior: As athletically gifted as any Big Ten D-tackle, the 6-foot-6, 310-pound Hageman started to figure things out last season and had a strong spring. He looks like a guy who can take his game to the elite level if he stays focused and driven.
  • DaQuan Jones, Penn State, senior: The 330-pounder is hoping to break out as a senior the way Hill and Devon Still did the past two years. He's been more of a run-stopper than a big-time playmaker so far in his career.
  • Quinton Washington, Michigan, senior: He moved into a starter's role last year and will be the most experienced tackle on the Wolverines following Campbell's graduation. With the Michigan coaching staff's expertise on defensive line play, he could take a step forward this year.

All of those guys have been solid contributors, but hardly superstars. They're also all seniors, so maybe they'll go out with a bang.

Or maybe it's younger guys who emerge as the next wave of great Big Ten defensive tackles. Iowa's Carl Davis had a huge spring game and has always had talent but not health. Injuries have also held back Nebraska's Thad Randle and Ohio State's Michael Bennett. Michigan State's Lawrence Thomas, Michigan's Ondre Pipkins, Nebraska's Aaron Curry and Penn State's Austin Johnson could be on the rise. Recruiting and developing stud defensive tackles may be one of the hardest things to do in football, however.

On paper, the Big Ten defensive tackle situation looks to be down from the past couple of years. But new stars are sure to step forward in the fall. Several of them will have to do if the league's recent strong tradition at the position is to continue.
2012 record: 10-4
2012 conference record: 7-1 (first in Legends Division, lost in Big Ten championship game)
Returning starters: Offense: 7; defense: 5; kicker/punter: 0

Top returners

QB Taylor Martinez, RB Ameer Abdullah, WR Kenny Bell, OG Spencer Long, DB Ciante Evans, OT Jeremiah Sirles, DE Jason Ankrah, WR Jamal Turner

Key losses

RB Rex Burkhead, LB Will Compton, DE Eric Martin, DE Cameron Meredith, S Daimion Stafford, TE Kyler Reed, K/P Brett Maher

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Ameer Abdullah* (1,137 yards)
Passing: Taylor Martinez* (2,871 yards)
Receiving: Kenny Bell* (863 yards)
Tackles: Will Compton (110)
Sacks: Eric Martin (8.5)
Interceptions: Daimion Stafford (4)

Spring answers

1. Loaded on offense: Nebraska has a great chance to rank among the top-scoring teams in the country this year. Almost everybody is back from what was an already potent attack, and senior quarterback Taylor Martinez appeared to take another step forward with a steady, mistake-avoiding spring. The Huskers might already have the top receiving corps in the Big Ten, and Jamal Turner looks poised to raise his game to another level. Starting running back Ameer Abdullah missed most of the spring with a knee injury, but that gave Imani Cross more opportunities. Cross should emerge as a strong complementary option in the backfield. Add in some other emerging weapons like wideout Alonzo Moore, and offensive coordinator Tim Beck has to feel like he has a full toy box to play with.

2. Emergency plan in place: Though Nebraska hopes that Martinez plays every meaningful snap at quarterback, the Huskers don't have to fear the worst if that doesn't happen. Backups Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg each played very well during the spring game, and Armstrong showed some nice zip on his throws. Of course, a spring game is a lot different than an actual fall Saturday. But at least Nebraska might not have to completely panic should Martinez miss any time.

3. Santos stands out: There are many questions about Nebraska's defense, which we'll get to in a minute. But linebacker David Santos isn't one of them. The sophomore proved to the coaches this spring that he's ready to step into a much larger role, and despite his youth he is becoming a leader of the green linebacker corps. Right now, he's the starting middle linebacker, though he has the speed and versatility to play on the outside as well.

Fall questions

1. Defensive front seven: Spring practice did little to calm questions about the inexperienced defensive line and linebacker crew. Defensive end Jason Ankrah was the only returning starter among the group this spring, and it showed, especially in a lackluster spring game performance. The defensive line is particularly worrisome, though the expected healthy return of tackle Thad Randle and the arrival of junior-college star Randy Gregory should help matters. The linebackers will no doubt make mistakes but the hope is that their speed erases problems. There's no doubt that the defensive front is Nebraska's No. 1 question, especially after a group of veterans couldn't prevent last year's massive breakdowns.

2. Ball security: The Huskers tried to address their 2012 turnover problems this spring by making every player in the offensive lineup do up-downs as physical punishment any time the ball hit the ground. Martinez showed good decision-making this spring in avoiding bad throws. Nebraska hopes the extra focus on ball security will help this fall, but that remains to be seen. Martinez has had a bad habit of fumbling during his career. Cutting down turnovers will be key, because the Huskers offense can often only be stopped by itself.

3. Kicking concerns: Replacing Brett Maher, who was one of the best in the Big Ten at both punting and field goals, won't be easy. The strong-legged Mauro Bondi will take over place-kicking and hopes to continue in the tradition set by Maher and Alex Henery. But he'll have to prove it when the lights come on. Nebraska also struggled on kickoff returns down the stretch last year. With the defense still a question mark, the Huskers need to make sure they're rock solid on special teams.
Brian and I on Wednesday debated which struggling unit from the 2012 season -- Illinois' offense, Indiana's defense, Iowa's offense, Michigan State's offense or Nebraska's defense -- would take the biggest step forward this fall. I went with the MSU offense, while Brian picked Nebraska's D. Now it's time for you to weigh in with your vote.

We want you making an educated choice, so here's a quick look at each unit.

Illinois offense

National rankings from 2012: 119th in total offense, 119th in scoring, 107th in passing, 97th in rushing

Case for improvement: It can't get much worse, right? Illinois brings in an experienced playcaller in Bill Cubit, boasts a three-year starter at quarterback in Nathan Scheelhaase and two capable running backs in Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young. Junior-college arrivals like receiver Martize Barr drew good reviews this spring.

Case for status quo: It's the third offensive system in as many years and Scheelhaase's head has to be swimming a bit. Wide receiver is a major question mark, and the offensive line loses two veterans from a group that underperformed in 2012.

Indiana's defense

SportsNation

Which struggling unit in 2012 will make the biggest step forward in 2013?

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    5%
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    7%
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    21%
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    19%
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    48%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,393)

National rankings from 2012: 103rd in total defense, 101st in scoring defense, 116th in rushing defense, 98th in pass efficiency defense

Case for improvement: Nine starters return and Indiana brings in its best defensive recruiting haul in recent memory. Incoming recruits like Darius Latham could make an immediate impact. There's good leadership in the back end with Greg Heban and Mark Murphy, and David Cooper should be a solid contributor at linebacker.

Case for status quo: Indiana has been bad to dreadful on defense for the better part of the past two decades. It's debatable whether the Hoosiers have enough proven depth to consistently slow down Big Ten offenses. IU also loses its top two linemen -- Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr. -- from a unit that struggled mightily to stop the run.

Iowa's offense

National rankings from 2012: 114th in total offense, 111th in scoring, 101st in rushing, 99th in passing

Case for improvement: The Hawkeyes are more accustomed to coordinator Greg Davis' system and return a strong stable of running backs headlined by Mark Weisman. The offensive line could be a strength as Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal return from injuries. Tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz has the skills to be a superstar.

Case for status quo: Iowa lacks a quarterback who has taken a snap in an FBS game. Davis' system has clicked in the past, but the coach drew heavy criticism at the end of his Texas tenure and did little to help his cause in 2012. Wide receiver is a major question mark. And while the running back group looks strong, AIRBHG is lurking.

Michigan State's offense

National rankings from 2012: 95th in total offense, 108th in scoring, 75th in rushing, 85th in passing

Case for improvement: The offensive line returns seven players with starting experience and gets tackle Fou Fonoti back from injury. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell enters his second year as the starter, and promising young receiver Aaron Burbridge has experience under his belt. There are also more options at quarterback with Connor Cook, Tyler O'Connor and incoming freshman Damion Terry.

Case for status quo: Michigan State loses its top two weapons -- running back Le'Veon Bell and tight end Dion Sims -- from an uninspiring unit. Although the team has a new offensive playcaller in Dave Warner, he comes from the existing staff and will keep the same structure in place. Running back and tight end are significant concerns.

Nebraska's defense

National rankings in 2012: 35th in total defense, 58th in scoring defense, 90th in rushing defense, ninth in pass efficiency defense

Case for improvement: Bo Pelini hasn't forgotten how to coach defense, and while the Huskers will be younger at some spots, they also could be better. The secondary returns Ciante Evans and several other potentially dynamic players. Jason Ankrah is embracing a leadership role on the line, while linebacker David Santos gained valuable experience last fall.

Case for status quo: Ankrah and defensive tackle Thad Randle are the only returning starters in the front seven from a defense that struggled to stop the run for much of the season. Nebraska has lacked a difference-maker along the defensive line since moving to the Big Ten. As Brian wrote this week, Santos, a redshirt sophomore with one career start, is already considered a veteran on the unit.

Now it's time to vote. Make yours count.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- David Santos is what passes as a graybeard on Nebraska's defense these days.

Santos is a redshirt sophomore linebacker with one career start under his belt. Yet this spring, he was the guy many of the other Huskers linebackers were turning to for answers.

"It's kind of strange," he said. "This is only my second year, and a lot of guys helped me out last year. Now I guess I'm the veteran in the room. I don't feel old."

[+] EnlargeNebraska's David Santos
AP Photo/Nati HarnikNebraska linebacker David Santos had 10 tackles in his lone start last season, against Michigan.
Actual game-worn players are hard to find on that side of the ball, especially in the front seven. Senior defensive end Jason Ankrah is the only returnee with significant starting experience, as Big Red's defense will be massively green going into 2013.

So, even though Santos is still young and Ankrah is hardly a household name, both players are being asked to lead this spring and summer.

"It's been cool," Ankrah said. "I've always had somebody older than me be the vocal guy who takes control when things go wrong, and now I'm taking on that leadership. I've had some film sessions with [the other defensive linemen] one-on-one and a couple as a group. They'll ask me how to play a certain technique and other stuff."

Ankrah doesn't just want to lead with his words. The 6-foot-4, 265-pounder has shown glimpses of his ability, with six tackles for loss, a pair of sacks and two forced fumbles as a junior. He's eyeing the same kind of breakout senior season that Eric Martin had in 2012.

"I've been out there and I've been playing," he said. "Now, I want to be out there to make plays and change games."

Ankrah had to move down and play defensive tackle some last year as injuries hit the line. With a more set role this season and a little more freedom to get after opposing quarterbacks, he could flourish.

"Jason has played a lot of football for us the last three years, and there have been times when he's played really well," Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "But he feels like there's so much more in his game, and he knows he hasn't reached his potential yet. We want him to go out and have that hunger to have a great year, and I think he's set himself up to have a pretty good senior year."

The Huskers have been expecting good things out of Santos, an athletic linebacker who recorded 10 tackles in his lone start last season against Michigan. He played mostly weakside linebacker last season, but spent the bulk of the spring at the middle spot, where he helped instruct the young players around him on where to lineup. An arm injury near the end of spring practice kept Santos out of the spring game, but he's expected to be back for summer workout.

"He's pretty good at taking command of the guys and at making the calls," Papuchis said. "He's a bit ahead in terms of development from the other guys, and that means we're going to put more responsibility on him."

That responsibility includes not only learning a new position and adjusting to a full-time starting role, but also leading everyone else.

"I can't get lackadaisical, because I want to get to the next level," he said. "But while I'm doing that, I've got to help the young guys little bit."

Santos should get a little help in the leadership department when redshirt junior Zaire Anderson gets healthy. With Anderson at the weakside spot and Santos in the middle, Papuchis likes the speed his linebackers have. Redshirt freshman Jared Afalava drew rave reviews for his spring performance, and could step in at the strongside spot.

The defensive line is more of a mystery, though Papuchis liked what he saw this spring out of guys like Greg McMullen, Avery Moss and Aaron Curry. He thinks Thad Randle can be a force inside if Randle can ever stay healthy, and highly touted junior college defensive end Randy Gregory is coming. The Nebraska defense showed during the spring game that it has a long way to go, but there is some athleticism to work with.

"The one thing about them is they can all run, and that makes up for some inexperience," Papuchis said. "If our guys play hard and they run to the ball and be physical, I think we'll be a pretty good defense."

And Santos and Ankrah will need to lead the way for the front seven.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

April, 8, 2013
4/08/13
5:00
PM ET
Answering a few e-mails before the big basketball clash ...

Joe J. from Tipp City, Ohio, writes: Will Tyler O'Connor or Connor Cook replace Andrew Maxwell as the starting QB for MSU?

Brian Bennett: Well, that's kind of the story of the offseason for the Spartans, isn't it? Adam was at Michigan State last week, where not much has been decided yet. All three quarterbacks are getting looks with the first team this spring, and Mark Dantonio is putting the pressure on the candidates by allowing the defense to hit them during practice. I don't think anyone knows for sure how this is going to play out. Maxwell still has a big, big edge in game experience, though Cook gained some momentum in the bowl game. O'Connor and incoming freshman Damion Terry present intriguing options with their athleticism and running ability. I find the idea of a two-quarterback system very interesting and perhaps the way to go. A bold prediction: Maxwell begins the year as the starter, but he's not the only quarterback who starts a game this year for Michigan State.



Jeff from Whitewater, Wis., writes: With the videos I've seen this winter/spring about the Badgers, I feel like the players are very comfortable with Gary Andersen. That being said: do you think that this transition will be a lot better than last year's? Even though they had to replace more as a coaching staff?

Brian Bennett: We won't really know, of course, until we see it. But I've got a feeling the transition could go more smoothly, even with completely new systems on both sides of the ball. I have two reasons for that assumption. No. 1, I think Andersen really relates well to the players, and everything I've heard out of Madison is that the players have really responded to him. And No. 2, which might be even more important, is that the Wisconsin players should be more accepting of change now. When you have the same head coach and virtually the same systems but different position coaches with different ideas of how to do things, I think that can cause some confusion and resistance. Now, the Badgers know that it's basically a clean slate and an entirely different way of doing things, and they have no choice but to get with the new program. Sometimes it's hard for players to accept change after they've had a lot of success, but I think the Badgers are used to that by now. We shall see.



Zach T. from Lincoln, Neb., writes: I am absolutely sick about hearing how everything in the SEC is better than the other conferences. The SEC brags about 7 consecutive national championships when a middle of the pack Big 12 team comes into their league and drops 400 yards of offense on their unstoppable defense. Two 4/5-loss Big Ten teams play close games against 2-loss SEC teams that could have gone either way while the league's best team is home for the holidays and Wisconsin is 6-points behind Stanford despite their HC bolting for the door. Also since the Huskers' spring game is Saturday I feel like I have to ask: With much of the offense returning, who would you watch the most to step up and make plays on defense? GBR!!

Brian Bennett: I agree that the SEC love-fest is over the top, but until somebody beats them when it matters, it won't stop anytime soon. That's the unfortunate reality. I didn't get to your question before the Huskers spring game, where defensive playmakers were a little hard to find. But I can tell you from talking to defensive coordinator John Papuchis that the guys he likes that we haven't heard a whole lot from before include: defensive linemen Greg McMullen, Avery Moss and Aaron Curry, linebackers David Santos and Zaire Anderson, safety Corey Cooper and cornerback Josh Mitchell. He also thinks Thad Randle can be a force on the defensive line if Randle can just get healthy. Papuchis also acknowledges that more playmakers have to develop for the defense to succeed.



JT from Newark, Del., writes: With the recent events at Rutgers and Auburn, what do you think the NCAA will do in terms of investigation? As a lifelong Penn State fan, I can't help but think the NCAA would be incredibly hypocritical if they didn't impose some penalty on both schools, especially considering both incidents are directly related to the student athletes.

Brian Bennett: The Auburn situation is way more likely to get the NCAA's attention, as accusations of abusive treatment of players by a coach has never seemed to be on the NCAA's radar. Rutgers broke no NCAA rules that I am aware of. Of course, the NCAA has also not shown a lot of interest in pursuing Auburn despite some pretty inflammatory accusations in the past few years. But you make a good point about the Penn State case. Mark Emmert's actions there created a precedent for the NCAA to A) punish a school without doing its own investigation and B) issue major sanctions for administrative missteps that did not break specific rules. As a Penn State fan, you're justified in asking why the NCAA would do that for one school but not others.



Rich from Des Moines writes: Way back on last Monday's mail you answered a question about conference loyalty and how there seems to be less among Big Ten fans than SEC fans. I get the same sense. And I want to weigh in as a Michigan State alumnus. I will never, ever root for Michigan to win anything. The rest of the conference? I want them to win all their non-conference games. But, I wish Michigan would lose every game in every sport in perpetuity. I grew up a Buckeye fan (Dad graduated from there). I wanted badly for OSU to beat UM when they played. But, I rooted for Michigan out of conference, especially the Rose Bowl and the NCAA tournament, for the sake of conference pride. That changed when I went to MSU in the Fall of 1984. I lived in Michigan from 1976 to 1995. Michigan fans treat MSU with contempt and disrespect. Most of the media favored UM and treated MSU as a joke or a glorified MAC team. I understand why. Michigan has a better tradition of winning. But when MSU would break through and win, especially in football, it was never that MSU was better. It was ALWAYS because Michigan played below par or gave the game away.

Brian Bennett: Some interesting points, and of course it's much harder to root for your conference brethren when they're also your biggest rival and you have live next to their fans 365 days a year. So I have to ask all of you non-Michigan fans, especially Michigan State and Ohio State supporters: Will you be pulling for the Wolverines tonight? Or does conference pride only go so far?

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