Big Ten: Tramaine Brock


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


The Wisconsin-Minnesota game will always be known as the Battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe, but this year's contest could carry a different title: The Kim Royston Classic.

Royston, the starting free safety for Minnesota, spent his first two seasons at Wisconsin before transferring last fall, largely because of a lack of playing time.
 
 Jerry Lai/US Presswire
 Kim Royston knows he has to keep his emotions in check when Minnesota hosts Wisconsin.


The process wasn't easy, as Big Ten rules prevented Royston from accepting a scholarship to Minnesota. Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema also initially didn't grant Royston's release, preventing him from talking to Minnesota's coaches until after he had been admitted to school.

When Royston takes the field Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium (ESPN, noon ET), Bielema and his former Badgers teammates will be waiting on the opposite sideline. Royston will receive instructions from Gophers co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Ron Lee, who actually recruited Royston to Wisconsin when he served on Barry Alvarez's staff from 2003-05. It should be a surreal experience for Royston, but he expects to maintain his focus.

"Once I come out the tunnel I’ll probably feel totally different, but like I’ve said, I’m going to try to hold back my emotions, because you can’t play with your emotions," Royston told reporters Tuesday. "Just go out there level-headed."

Royston maintains contact with several of his former Badgers teammates, and they've talked about the game in recent months. Communication lines will be down this week, but there's not much else that needs to be said.

"Between me and him it's friendly," Badgers safety Jay Valai told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "But between him and this university obviously it is a little different. Kim is going to want blood. You all better be ready. He is dead serious. He wants a little revenge.

"I would be, too, if I were him. It's going to be judgment day for him."

Royston has filled a valuable role for the Gophers, who lost starting safety Tramaine Brock this summer because of academic issues. He ranks fifth on the team in tackles (17) with an interception and two passes defended.

"The day is coming up soon," he said. "It’s just going to be a crazy atmosphere and a crazy experience with me, because I came into school with a lot of the guys that I’m going to be playing against and I grew fond relationships. But once we get on the field, it’s football time.

"You just have to stay focused on the task at hand and not look in the past."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

When it came to the cornerback position in the Big Ten in 2008, only two names mattered: Malcolm Jenkins and Vontae Davis. 

Not only were Jenkins and Davis regarded as the class of the conference, but some considered them the top two corners in the country. Both men delivered solid seasons and were picked in the first round of April's NFL draft.

Without Jenkins and Davis, the face of the Big Ten cornerback is a mystery heading into the fall.

Traye Simmons plans to corner the market. 

The Minnesota senior boasts strong statistics from 2008 -- four interceptions, 14 pass breakups, 18 passes defended, one forced fumble. He also has a catchy nickname, Big-Play Traye, which headlines his MySpace page.

Perhaps most important, Simmons oozes confidence. 

"Last year, Malcolm and Vontae had the pressure on them to produce and perform week in and week out," Simmons said. "For me, it was more I had to prove myself to the league and just play like I know how to play. But this year, people respect me. I will be one of the top returning corners in the league, so it's up to me to live up to it.

"I feel I perform well under pressure." 

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Minnesota will be without one of its top recruits, as well as its starting free safety from last season, when the team takes the field for 2009. 

As previously reported, heralded running back recruit Hasan Lipscomb didn't qualify academically for this season and will head to junior college. Lipscomb could have been in the mix for significant carries had he qualified. 

Minnesota also announced Tuesday night that safety Tramaine Brock will not return after failing to qualify academically. Brock, who appeared in all 13 games last year and finished third on the team with 73 tackles, withdrew from school in January and missed spring practice because of academic reasons. Head coach Tim Brewster initially expected Brock to re-enroll in the summer and be ready for the season, but things obviously didn't work out. 

While Lipscomb could return to Minnesota next year, Brock's career with the Gophers is over after one year. Wisconsin transfer Kim Royston is expected to step into Brock's role this season.

Brewster also announced Tuesday that offensive line recruit Josh Campion will miss the 2009 after undergoing surgery.    

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota will open spring practice Tuesday with a new offensive coordinator (Jedd Fisch), a new run game coordinator (Tim Davis) and a new offensive philosophy (pro-style sets, power run, physical play).

Given all the changes, it doesn't seem like an ideal time to have star wide receiver Eric Decker playing baseball or veteran quarterback Adam Weber held out of contact drills.

Think again.

"People think I'm crazy, but I think it's a tremendous thing for our football team that Adam Weber is not going to get contact reps," head coach Tim Brewster said.

You're probably nodding your head about the crazy part. But let him explain.

"MarQueis Gray is going to get the contact reps," Brewster said. "MarQueis Gray is going to get forced development this spring. That's a great thing for our football team."

Gray, a heralded recruit from Indianapolis, enters spring ball as the team's No. 2 quarterback despite not taking a snap in a college game. An issue with Gray's ACT scores put his college career on pause last fall, but the 6-4, 215-pound freshman will be back on the field Tuesday.

Brewster said he wouldn't trade Weber for any quarterback in the country, but don't expect Gray to sit on the sidelines the next two seasons. He's going to get on the field some way, whether it's as a quarterback, wide receiver or even running back.

"MarQueis has got to put himself in a position where he can take control of our offense and execute our offense, and we don't miss a beat," Brewster said. "Because he's one play away from being our starting quarterback. He's an extremely gifted, talented football player."

Decker's absence with the Gophers baseball team opens up opportunities for other playmakers to develop. Minnesota relied on Decker at times too much last fall, and Brewster is looking for young players like Brandon Green, Xzavian Brandon and Ben Kuznia to step up.

"I didn't think we had enough dynamic playmakers [in 2008]," Brewster said.

Here are some other notes from Brewster's pre-spring news conference.

  • Former defensive lineman Matt Stommes will enter the spring as Minnesota's starting left tackle, as junior Dom Alford shifts from left tackle to left guard. Stommes emerged after Tim Davis became offensive line coach in November and started at right tackle in the Insight Bowl. The senior is listed at 6-7 and 284, but Brewster said he's closer to 300 pounds.
"He's our best athlete in the offensive line," Brewster said. "The pro scouts that have come in and looked at his prototype ... he's got outstanding measurables. We really feel good about him."
  • Linebacker Sam Maresh will be on the practice field Tuesday, which is an amazing accomplishment after he underwent open heart surgery last summer and discovered a non-cancerous growth in his calf this winter. Brewster isn't sure how much Maresh will do but said the freshman went through a rigorous conditioning session Monday morning with his teammates. "There's a chance that he can play [this season]," Brewster said. "I don't want to rush him back. I want to make sure he's 100 percent confident in the calf."
  • Starting cornerback Marcus Sherels will miss most of spring drills following offseason shoulder surgery. He should be fine for preseason camp. Offensive lineman Jeff Tow-Arnett also will miss spring ball after undergoing knee surgery in November. Brewster hopes to have him back for the summer.
  • Sophomore running back Duane Bennett, who started last season before suffering a torn ACL, likely will be held out of contact drills this spring. Same goes for Weber, who will participate in everything else as he grasps the new offense.
  • Expect heralded 2008 recruit Keanon Cooper to play a significant role this fall at one of the outside linebacker spots. Cooper is still listed as a free safety but boasts speed and decent size (6-1, 220). Brewster said Cooper ran a 4.41 in the 40-yard dash. Linebacker Simoni Lawrence, who Brewster said is on the cusp of becoming one of the Big Ten's top defenders, ran a 4.43 in the 40.
  • Brewster expects transfers Matt Carufel (Notre Dame) and Kim Royston (Wisconsin) to play major roles right away. Carufel projects as the starting right guard, while Royston will be in the mix at safety. Brewster said Kyle Theret, who recorded three interceptions and 11 pass deflections last fall, will be pushed to keep his starting job. There could be a hole at the other safety spot, as Tramaine Brock has left the team because of academic issues. Brewster didn't say much about Brock, only that he's waiting to see how everything plays out.
  • The team hopes to move into TCF Bank Stadium by July 1 and conduct several preseason practices on the field before the Sept. 12 opener against Air Force. "It's something that's been needed at the U. for a long time," Brewster said. "Fortunately, the dream, it's happened."
  • Minnesota's schedule gets tougher in 2009, as it faces Cal and Air Force and adds defending Big Ten co-champ Penn State and Michigan State to the conference slate. The Gophers will not play Indiana or Michigan, and in 2010 they begin a series with USC. "I was a big part of making the schedule a lot stronger," Brewster said. "It does a whole lot more good than it does harm. ... I don't want to play USC every week, but I want to play a schedule our fans are really excited about."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

ESPN.com senior writer Ivan Maisel revealed his teams on the rise for 2009, and Minnesota made the list. The Gophers rebounded from a 1-11 season in 2007 to go 7-6 last fall. They return nine starters on offense and possibly as many as eight on defense, pending safety Tramaine Brock's academic situation. Minnesota also hired four new coaches, including coordinators Jedd Fisch and Kevin Cosgrove.

Here's what Maisel wrote about Minnesota:

The Gophers have 19 returning starters, including wide receiver Eric Decker, who may be the best receiver north of Julio Jones. A healthy Decker helped Minnesota begin 7-1. An injured Decker left the Gophers' offense shorthanded as Minnesota lost its last four regular-season games. Like Miami, the biggest changes for Minnesota are among the guys wearing whistles. Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, 32, who comes from the NFL, has never been a coordinator. Offensive line coach Tim Davis is a steal. Defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove is a veteran who knows the Big Ten well. His defenses played well at Wisconsin under Barry Alvarez. At Nebraska under Bill Callahan, they didn't.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Kevin Cosgrove had opportunities to return to coaching last year and possibly ease the pain from an ill-fated final season as Nebraska's defensive coordinator.

He ultimately determined the timing was off and stepped away for two reasons. First, Cosgrove wanted to help coach his younger son, Connor, at Edgewood High School in Madison, Wis., where the family returned after four years in Nebraska. Kevin's college coaching responsibilities had prevented him from attending practices and some games when his other son, Clint, played high school ball.

The second reason Cosgrove took a break will mean more to Minnesota fans, some of whom undoubtedly greeted Cosgrove's hiring as Gophers co-defensive coordinator with trepidation.

Cosgrove spent the year away researching defensive strategy, and he devoted much of his energy toward deciphering the ever-popular spread offense.

"That was my main area of research," Cosgrove said. "The teams that I visited with and spent a lot of time with, those teams have tremendous success defending it."

Cosgrove's ability to stop the spread, a scheme used in some degree by seven Big Ten teams, is the big question as he comes on board at Minnesota. Nebraska struggled mightily against the spread in 2007, finishing last in the Big 12 in both total defense (476.8 ypg) and scoring defense (37.9 ppg).

The Cornhuskers gave up 76 points to Kansas and 65 to Colorado and allowed 19 more touchdowns than the next worst defense in team history. Cosgrove doesn't downplay how poor the unit performed that fall, but he also notes his defense against the spread shouldn't be judged solely by 2007.

"Besides the last year we were at Nebraska, when it looked like a mess, we played it very well," Cosgrove said. "But I'm not going to say that's the right way exactly. That's the way a lot of people defended it back then. But there's different ways now to defend it."

Minnesota was not among Cosgrove's suitors last year, but after defensive coordinator Ted Roof left the Gophers for Auburn, head coach Tim Brewster picked up the phone.

Cosgrove quickly warmed to the job. He was already sold on the league, where he enjoyed his most success as Wisconsin's defensive coordinator and linebackers coach from 1990-2003. He's spent a total of 22 years in the Big Ten, working at Illinois from 1980-87.   

"I love the Big Ten," he said. "The league's changed since I've been in it in four years. The Big 12's a little bit different because they were more advanced as far as the spread offenses are concerned, but the Big Ten is doing very similar things right now. And I always kept my eye on the Big Ten, believe me.

"It's good to get back in it."

Cosgrove inherits a defense that struggled a bit down the stretch but still made major strides from 2007, when it managed to perform worse than Nebraska's unit. The Gophers return seven starters -- possibly eight, pending Tramaine Brock's situation -- from a group that tied for the league lead in sacks (34) and ranked second in takeaways (31).

"A lot of kids are coming back and they'll be a year older," Cosgrove said. "I like what I see." 

Big Ten mailbag

March, 10, 2009
3/10/09
9:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Here's my question: Why is the Big Ten offseason so long?

OK, your turn.

Jonathan from Torrance, Calif., writes: Everyone always talks about possible teams that could be added to the Big Ten, but my question to you is, which team do you think contributes least to the Big Ten and could be subtracted?

Adam Rittenberg: It's a tough call, Jonathan, since all the teams bring something a little different to the table. For years the answer would have been Northwestern, which had non-competitive teams in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. But the Wildcats have been a different team since 1995, winning three Big Ten titles and reaching six bowls. If you go by recent performance, it has to be Indiana. The Hoosiers didn't reach a bowl from 1994-2007 and slipped back again last year. At times the program seems neglected, though the recent improvements to Memorial Stadium suggest those days are ending.


Wes from Columbus writes: I have been seeing a lot of people on the blogs saying that pryor has no throwing ability. Do you agree with this or do you think that these opinions are develped from the amount of yards per game he was averaging? Tressel was not letting him throw alot partly because we had beanie who could break one for a TD on any play. Afterall, he was the most efficient passer in the big ten last year. Another reason could be because of his showing in the Fiesta bowl in which he played with a bum shoulder on his throwing arm. Do people know that he was hurt in that game? Your opinion?

Adam Rittenberg: You're right in part, Wes, and Ohio State certainly was a run-first team last year. My concern with Terrelle Pryor isn't how he throws the deep ball, but the short and intermediate routes. He has to get more consistent on the high-percentage throws, but he certainly can make those improvements in his game. Pryor can become a decent or above-average passer, which will make him even more dangerous as a runner.

There was a lot of speculation about Pryor's health in the Fiesta Bowl, but nothing has been substantiated. It bothered me that on several plays he seemed to run out of bounds way too soon with open field ahead of him, but there has been nothing official on any injury.


Ken from Minnesota writes: Love your blog. You show a lot of energy and creativity in your coverage. I also appreciate that you cover all eleven teams. Brewster seems to like you and gives you some nice items/access. On your recent item: Traye Simmons stood out and made some nice plays. Sherels injury against Indiana helped contribute to the team slipping down the stretch; he had surgery at the end of the season(shoulder) so I hope he returns 100 percent. I'm not counting on Brock getting back in. Kim Royston went to Wisconsin for two years and was in on secondary coverage for Bielema. He left over perception he wasn't getting fair shake for playing time, sat out last year and is paying his own way at Minnesota and is expected to help out the secondary (safety-some corner). He's from St Paul's Catholic power Cretin-Derham High School, where Notre Dame has pulled a number of stars (including Michael Floyd). Brewster convincing Royston to transfer here on his own dime is a coup that he hopes leads to more success recruiting Cretin-Derham.

Adam Rittenberg: Thanks, Ken. We'll have to wait and see on Tramaine Brock, but that's a risk you run by bringing in so many junior college players. Royston is an interesting addition for the Gophers after being squeezed out of the rotation at Wisconsin. He'll definitely be motivated to regain some playing time, though he enters a pretty crowded defensive backfield at Minnesota.


Brian from Baltimore writes: Adam, can we get an update on the PSU reciever situation? If I had to guess, I'd say Derek Moye and Justin Brown will take over the #1 and #2 reciever roles. Also, I think Devon Smith is the clear choice for punt/kick returns.

Adam Rittenberg: Moye seems to be a popular man among Penn State fans, and I'd expect him to get a lot of attention this spring. He boasts excellent size (6-5), a trait Penn State didn't have with multiyear starters Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood. A freshman like Brown should get a shot to play right away, but I could see a guy like Brett Brackett or Graham Zug earning a spot as a possession wideout. Chaz Powell also will be in the mix.


Greg from Iowa City writes: Arizona's football game at Iowa this fall is considered a premium game, in part, because the Wildcats are coached by former Hawkeye Mike Stoops.

Adam Rittenberg: True, Mike Stoops definitely is a draw, having played and coached at Iowa. But there's not much recent history between the teams, and Iowa could have saved its premium dates for the Big Ten schedule. It really can go either way, since it's a bit of a ho-hum Big Ten home slate for the Hawkeyes this year.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Today's position superlatives finish with the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Check out the blog next week for the final four teams: Illinois, Northwestern, Ohio State and Purdue.

Minnesota returns nine starters on offense, including the entire line, and could make major strides if the holdovers adjust to a new scheme and style. There are a few more questions on the defensive side, particularly up front. But overall, Minnesota doesn't have many glaring weaknesses heading into spring ball.

Strongest position -- Defensive back

Key returnees: Senior cornerback Traye Simmons, junior safety Kyle Theret, senior cornerback Marcus Sherels, senior safety Tramaine Brock (expected to rejoin team after leaving school due to academic reasons), junior cornerback Ryan Collado

Key losses: None

The skinny: As long as Brock comes back this summer -- head coach Tim Brewster expects him to return -- Minnesota will bring back every member of a playmaking secondary. The four starters combined for 10 interceptions, 48 pass deflections, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries last fall. Though the Gophers were exposed late in the season, the defensive backs, particularly Simmons, showed the ability to change games. A talented wide receiving corps led by Eric Decker almost got the nod here, and Minnesota should be decent at linebacker.

Weakest position -- Defensive end

Key returnees: Senior Derrick Onwuachi, senior Cedric McKinley

Key departures: Willie VanDeSteeg (53 tackles, 19 TFLs, 10.5 sacks)

The skinny: VanDeSteeg was Minnesota's pass rush at times last fall, winning a game at Illinois almost single-handedly in the fourth quarter. He'll definitely be missed, and Minnesota needs to identify a standout end to complement two solid tackles in seniors Eric Small and Garrett Brown. Minnesota tied for the league lead in sacks last fall (34), but VanDeSteeg was a major reason why. Other potential weaknesses include running back and offensive line.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

"Last week, Maybin said he weighed in the 242-245 range. This week, he said he's gained eight pounds. Eat. Train. Sleep. There ain't nothing else to do here."

"Athletic director Joel Maturi said the Gophers still are negotiating to add Southern California to the schedule in a future home-and-home series. A decision should be made within a week."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Minnesota will add six players to its roster when spring practice begins March 24, including highly touted 2008 commits MarQueis Gray and Sam Maresh.

The Gophers also announced Thursday that starting safety Tramaine Brock will miss spring ball, though head coach Tim Brewster expects Brock to re-enroll during the summer and be eligible for the 2009 season.

Gray, a gifted dual-threat quarterback, left the team last season after the ACT board flagged his test scores. The Indianapolis native passed the ACT in November and should be the front-runner to back up Adam Weber next season.

Maresh, a standout linebacker, underwent heart surgery in June to repair his aortic valve but has recovered in time to begin practicing with the team this spring.

"Sam and his story are amazing," Brewster said in a statement. "It is truly a blessing for the state of Minnesota and the University of Minnesota to have him representing the university and playing football. He's been through a great deal. I'm just thankful and excited that he's healthy, doing well and ready to join our program."

Linebacker Spencer Reeves, another decorated 2008 recruit, also will rejoin the team for spring ball along with junior college transfer Jeff Wills, an offensive tackle. Minnesota also welcomes two transfers, former Notre Dame guard Matt Carufel and former Wisconsin safety Kim Royston, both of whom sat out last season in compliance with NCAA rules.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Minnesota needed a quick fix last year and got it in the form of seven junior college transfers. The strategy paid off as the Golden Gophers improved their win total by six and received solid production from players like cornerback Traye Simmons and safety Tramaine Brock.

But head coach Tim Brewster will build his program with top high school talent, and his 2009 class will provide a better barometer of what to expect from the recruiting whiz.

Despite returning the nucleus from a bowl team, Minnesota has gaps to fill going forward, especially as it returns to its roots as a power run team. Offensive line depth was a major problem this season, and Brewster will try to add several big pieces up front. The defensive line loses All-Big Ten performer Willie VanDeSteeg, but Minnesota returns several rising seniors who should fill out the depth chart this fall.

Another spot that needs a few more bodies is the secondary, which will lose Simmons, Brock and cornerback Marcus Sherels after the 2009 season. Expect Brewster to load up on defensive backs or players who have the athleticism to eventually shift to cornerback or safety.

Minnesota's offense returns virtually intact, and quarterback MarQueis Gray, who is now eligible, likely will succeed Adam Weber as the starter in 2011. But wide receiver and running back remain areas that could use an immediate contributor. Wideout Eric Decker won't be there forever, and Minnesota needs to plan ahead to replace his remarkable production.

The Gophers also lose their starting punter and starting kicker, so expect them to add a specialist on National Signing Day.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

After a lengthy hiatus, What to Watch is back as we take a look at the first three Big Ten bowl games.

  • Champs Sports -- Wisconsin vs. Florida State, Dec. 27
  • Valero Alamo -- Northwestern vs. Missouri, Dec. 29
  • Insight -- Minnesota vs. Kansas, Dec. 31

Here are some things to keep an eye on as you watch the games (in order).

1. Wisconsin's power run game -- The Champs Sports Bowl will feature strength vs. speed, and Wisconsin needs to overpower a swift Florida State defense with 473 pounds of running back. P.J. Hill and John Clay form a bruising rushing tandem, and Wisconsin will have to control the clock and wear down the Seminoles. The Hill-Clay attack seemed to surge in the final five games.

2. Wisconsin linebacker Culmer St. Jean -- He appeared in every game this fall and racked up 16 tackles, but the Badgers sophomore linebacker takes on a much bigger role against the 'Noles. St. Jean will start at middle linebacker as Jaevery McFadden moves to the weak side to replace the injured Jonathan Casillas. Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said St. Jean has been peaking in practice heading into the bowl.

3. Wisconsin wide receiver David Gilreath -- The sophomore could be an X-factor in this game. He took on a bigger role in the rushing attack late in the season, but Wisconsin has to find better ways to use his speed. It's baffling that Wisconsin ranks last nationally in kickoff returns despite having Gilreath as the return man. If offensive coordinator Paul Chryst finds creative ways to use Gilreath, Wisconsin could surprise Florida State.

4. The Badgers' offensive line -- Sure, they're big, and at times they've played well as a unit, but few things have gone according to plan for the Wisconsin offense this season. The next task is a daunting one -- finding a way to block Florida State defensive end Everette Brown. Sophomore left tackle Gabe Carimi receives the undesirable task of trying to keep Brown from digesting quarterback Dustin Sherer.

5. C.J. Bacher and Northwestern's passing attack -- Northwestern was able to win nine games without summoning superhuman performances from Bacher, who delivered a couple of them last season. But to get win No. 10, Bacher will need to be at his best. Missouri's high-powered offense probably can't be held down for 60 minutes, but the Tigers' pass defense is miserable. Bacher can put up big numbers with a veteran receiving corps, but he must avoid interceptions, his bugaboo, and make more plays in the red zone.

6. Northwestern defensive end Corey Wootton -- There's some talk that Northwestern's all-conference end could enter the NFL draft after a stellar junior season. He can showcase his ability on a national stage against Chase Daniel and Missouri. Northwestern will have to generate a strong pass rush against Daniel, and Wootton leads a defense that led the Big Ten in sacks (33) this fall.

7. Northwestern running back Tyrell Sutton -- Northwestern likely will get its best all-around player back for the Alamo Bowl, but how he responds from left wrist surgery is a big question. Sutton, who typically carries the ball in his right arm, will wear a cast for the game and expects to be fine. The Wildcats struggled to generate a consistent run game without him and need one to control the clock against Missouri.

8. Minnesota's offensive line -- Head coach Tim Brewster acknowledged his team got beat up down the stretch, and no unit suffered more than the offensive line. Brewster brought in veteran line coach Tim Davis after the regular season, and it will be interesting to see what impact Davis has on a young group. The Gophers need to reduce the pressure on quarterback Adam Weber and find a way to run the ball against Kansas.

9. Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker -- The first-team All-Big Ten selection underwent left knee surgery after the regular season but is expected to be fine for the Insight Bowl. Minnesota seemed to lose its consistency on offense after Decker sprained his ankle Nov. 1, and Weber undoubtedly will be thrilled to have his top target healthy again. If Weber and Deck regain their rhythm and keep Todd Reesing and the Kansas offense off the field, Minnesota should have a shot in this one.

10. Gophers secondary and forcing turnovers -- Minnesota built its 7-1 start on amazingly opportunistic defense, particularly from the secondary. The Gophers' four starting defensive backs -- Traye Simmons, Tramaine Brock, Marcus Sherels and Kyle Theret -- have combined for 10 interceptions, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. The group also owns a whopping 47 pass deflections. Minnesota's secondary has to force mistakes from Reesing, who has thrown 12 interceptions this season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

After studying the All-Big Ten selections for 2008, it's clear the Big Ten is much stronger at some positions than others. The fact that it was hard to choose a second-team All-Big Ten quarterback tells you something about the league's troubles under center. On the flip side, there are 10-15 defensive linemen worthy of All-Big Ten status.

With the regular season wrapped up, here's a closer look at the Big Ten positions, from strongest to weakest.

Defensive line -- The depth at both line positions is astounding and will be reflected in the next few NFL drafts. Beginning with end, you have Penn State's Aaron Maybin, Minnesota's Willie VanDeSteeg, Michigan's Brandon Graham, Northwestern's Corey Wootton and Indiana's Jammie Kirlew. Guys like Michigan's Tim Jamison, Illinois' Derek Walker, Michigan State's Trevor Anderson, Wisconsin's Mike Newkirk, Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan and Penn State's Josh Gaines would be all-conference in most leagues, but not the Big Ten. The tackle spot might be even more stacked. Iowa's Mitch King leads the way, but he's joined by teammate Matt Kroul, Penn State's Jared Odrick, Michigan's Terrance Taylor, Northwestern's John Gill and Ohio State's Nader Abdallah.

Running back -- If not for the overwhelming depth on the D-line, this group would be No. 1 on the list. The Big Ten boasts three of the nation's top seven rushers in Iowa's Shonn Greene, Michigan State's Javon Ringer and Ohio State's Chris "Beanie" Wells. Penn State's Evan Royster also had a fabulous year. When guys like Purdue's Kory Sheets, Wisconsin's P.J. Hill, Michigan's Brandon Minor and Northwestern's Tyrell Sutton aren't even on the radar for all-conference, you've got a pretty solid group.

Linebacker -- This was another group that caused some tough choices for first-team all-conference. Ohio State's James Laurinaitis was a shoo-in, but Illinois' Brit Miller, Penn State's Navorro Bowman and Michigan State's Greg Jones are all in the mix for the other two spots. Iowa's Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds, Ohio State's Marcus Freeman, Wisconsin's DeAndre Levy and Indiana's Matt Mayberry add depth.

Offensive line (interior) -- Three centers were listed on the media's all-conference team, illustrating the depth there. Penn State center A.Q. Shipley earned Offensive Lineman of the Year honors, and Iowa's Rob Bruggeman and Illinois' Ryan McDonald also were recognized. The guard spot might be even stronger with Iowa's Seth Olsen, Penn State's Rich Ohrnberger and Stefen Wisniewski, Wisconsin's Kraig Urbik and Andy Kemp and Michigan State's Roland Martin.

Punter -- This was another group that stirred some debate about All-Big Ten selections. Michigan's Zoltan Mesko was the obvious choice, but Iowa's Ryan Donahue, Michigan State's Aaron Bates and Penn State's Jeremy Boone also were in the mix. Freshmen Brad Nortman (Wisconsin) and Chris Hagerup (Indiana) had terrific seasons, and I was also very impressed with Ohio State's A.J. Trapasso, Minnesota's Justin Kucek and Northwestern's Stefan Demos.

Cornerback -- I didn't fully grasp how strong the league was at cornerback until reviewing the All-Big Ten lists. Everyone knew about Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins and Illinois' Vontae Davis, but several other players add depth, namely Wisconsin's Allen Langford, Iowa's Amari Spievey and Bradley Fletcher, Minnesota's Traye Simmons, Northwestern's Sherrick McManis and Michigan State's Chris L. Rucker.

Offensive tackle -- There weren't any off-the-charts performances here, but it's a solid group overall. Penn State's Gerald Cadogan moved past Ohio State's Alex Boone as the league's premier tackle. Boone didn't have the dominant year many expected, but he wasn't the main problem on Ohio State's underachieving line. Add in players like Iowa's Bryan Bulaga, Illinois' Xavier Fulton and Wisconsin's Eric Vanden Heuvel, and it's a decent group.

Safety -- Michigan State's Otis Wiley might be the only surefire NFL draft pick from this crop, but several other players turned in strong performances. Ohio State's Kurt Coleman should have been second-team All-Big Ten for both the media and coaches, and Northwestern's Brad Phillips has a major beef for being left off the list. Other standouts include Iowa's Brent Greenwood, Wisconsin's Jay Valai and Minnesota tandem Kyle Theret and Tramaine Brock.

Kicker -- A decent group overall, led by Penn State's Kevin Kelly and Michigan State's Brett Swenson, both of whom should have been Lou Groza Award semifinalists. Wisconsin's Philip Welch quietly had a very solid season (17-for-20), and Northwestern's Amado Villarreal also performed well.

Tight end -- Not the best season for tight ends, though it didn't help that Wisconsin All-American Travis Beckum was hurt for most of the fall. His replacement Garrett Graham had a nice year, as did Iowa's Brandon Myers, Michigan State's Charlie Gantt, Minnesota's Jack Simmons and Illinois' Michael Hoomanawanui, but it wasn't a great group overall.

Wide recever -- Minnesota's Eric Decker and Illinois' Arrelious Benn will be solid NFL players, and Penn State's Derrick Williams also will get to the next level. But quarterbacks and wide receivers are intertwined, and neither position sizzled this season. Penn State's three seniors (Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood) performed well, as did Purdue's Greg Orton and Wisconsin's David Gilreath. But not much depth here.

Quarterback -- This was the worst quarterback crop
in recent memory. Penn State's Daryll Clark was fabulous in his first season as the starter, and both Illinois' Juice Williams and Minnesota's Adam Weber showed growth at times. But it was legitimately difficult to choose a second-team all-league quarterback. Several fifth-year seniors struggled this fall, though there's hope for next year with players like Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor and Iowa's Ricky Stanzi.

Tags:

Big Ten Conference, Corey Wootton, Terrelle Pryor, Bradley Fletcher, Kory Sheets, Stefan Demos, Tim Jamison, Mike Newkirk, Kyle Theret, Kevin Kelly, Michael Hoomanawanui, Illinois Fighting Illini, Wisconsin Badgers, Nader Abdallah, Michigan Wolverines, Terrance Taylor, Bryan Bulaga, Navorro Bowman, Michigan State Spartans, Justin Kucek, Garrett Graham, A.J. Trapasso, Eric Vanden Heuvel, Stefen Wisniewski, DeAndre Levy, Iowa Hawkeyes, Arrelious Benn, Jack Simmons, Ryan Donahue, Aaron Bates, Josh Gaines, Jeremy Boone, Eric Decker, Shonn Greene, Brandon Myers, Traye Simmons, Chris Wells, Matt Mayberry, Aaron Maybin, Charlie Gantt, Tyrell Sutton, Northwestern Wildcats, Deon Butler, Ricky Stanzi, Jammie Kirlew, Pat Angerer, Indiana Hoosiers, Brandon Graham, Juice Williams, Amado Villarreal, Xavier Fulton, Rich Ohrnberger, Daryll Clark, Gerald Cadogan, James Laurinaitis, Roland Martin, Sherrick McManis, Jared Odrick, Rob Bruggeman, Big Ten Conference, Evan Royster, Jordan Norwood, Seth Olsen, Travis Beckum, Brit Miller, Chris Hagerup, Tramaine Brock, Brad Phillips, Kraig Urbik, Brad Nortman, Marcus Freeman, Chris L. Rucker, A.Q. Shipley, Derrick Williams, Vontae Davis, Purdue Boilermakers Ryan Kerrigan, Malcolm Jenkins, Zoltan Mesko, Otis Wiley, Adam Weber, Kurt Coleman, Derek Walker, Brent Greenwood, Greg Orton, Amari Spievey, Penn State Nittany Lions, Philip Welch, Mitch King, David Gilreath, Brett Swenson, Greg Jones, Matt Kroul, Ryan McDonald, Alex Boone, Allen Langford, Minnesota Golden Gophers Willie VanDeSteeg, Trevor Anderson, Javon Ringer

It's game day at the Metrodome

November, 1, 2008
11/01/08
11:03
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

MINNEAPOLIS -- Greetings from the Metrodome, or, as I affectionately call it, the Hump Dump. Sorry, but after touring TCF Bank Stadium on Friday afternoon, I can't wait to see Minnesota move out of this place.

  

It isn't all bad, though. Going through the revolving doors is fun, and the football press box has some of the best sightlines around.

Kind of a sleepy atmosphere around the stadium today, largely due to the 11 a.m. local time kickoff. Minnesotans take Halloween seriously, folks. There were some interesting costumes around my hotel last night. A guy dressed up as an Olympic speed skater gets high marks. It takes a real man to wear Spandex in public.

I stayed in the same hotel as Northwestern and rode the elevator with about 15 players this morning. Despite concerns about the weight limit, we made it safely, and running back Omar Conteh looked ready to go.

Conteh and junior quarterback Mike Kafka are expected to start for the Wildcats, who enter the game at 6-2 but come off a devastating loss at Indiana. A source told me quarterback C.J. Bacher (hamstring) will play only in an emergency situation. Bacher is on the field warming up, though. The key for Northwestern's new-look starting backfield will be ball security, as Minnesota leads the nation in both takeaways (24) and turnover margin (plus-1.88).

Minnesota comes in at 7-1 and is quite possibly the biggest surprise in the country after a 1-11 campaign in 2007. The Gophers look for their second victory against a team with a winning record and try to march closer toward a once-unthinkable January bowl game.

Here are some things I'll be watching today:

  • Minnesota's defense. How do the Gophers do it? The nation's worst unit in 2007 has led the turnaround this fall. The Gophers emphasize takeaways at every Tuesday practice, and I'm interested to see how these guys consistently make plays. Junior college transfers Tramaine Brock and Traye Simmons will be on my radar, and defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg likely will be applying the pressure on Kafka.
  • Both offensive lines. In many ways, both teams have survived problems with these groups. Minnesota has been banged up pretty much all season but continues to protect quarterback Adam Weber and move the ball. Northwestern has the youngest and least experienced line in the Big Ten, which has made Mick McCall's play calling more conservative. Both teams boast strong pass-rushers (VanDeSteeg, Corey Wootton and John Gill for Northwestern), so the line that protects better likely wins the game.
  • Coaching. Northwestern will have to tweak its offensive scheme for Kafka and likely will use more option and designed quarterback runs. Wildcats defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz might have some surprises today as he tries to force mistakes from the very disciplined Gophers offense. It wouldn't shock me if Minnesota defensive coordinator Ted Roof heavily blitzes Kafka, forcing him to make quick decisions.

SPONSORED HEADLINES