Big Ten: Travis Prentice

The postseason player rankings wrap up Monday with the No. 1 selection, so you're getting a double dose today. If you haven't figured out who the top two are, you probably weren't paying attention this season. As a reminder, the rankings are based solely on performance during the 2012 campaign.

Our next player is no stranger to the top of the rankings. We've known him as Montee, Mon-tay and, my personal favorite, MoneyBall. You can typically find him in opposing end zones and he checks in at ...

No. 2: Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin, senior, 5-foot-11, 215 pounds

Preseason ranking: No. 1

2012 numbers: 356 rushes for 1,830 yards and 22 touchdowns; 10 receptions for 72 yards; set a single-season team record for rushing attempts; set the NCAA career touchdowns record with 83.

Why he's here: Ball was the only Big Ten player to earn a major national individual honor as he claimed the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back. He had a much tougher road in 2012 than in 2011, when he put up statistics that might not fully be appreciated for years, but he fought through adversity to finish strong.

After Ball surprised many by returning to Wisconsin for his senior season, the team launched a Heisman Trophy campaign complete with the slogan, "This fall belongs to Ball." But things got off to a rough start even before the season when a group of men attacked and beat Ball in downtown Madison, sending him to the hospital with a concussion. Ball recovered but had to fight for every yard early on as Wisconsin's offense struggled with coaching transition, particularly along the offensive line, typically the team's strongest and most reliable unit. In Week 4, Ball had his first career lost fumble and sustained another concussion. The following week, a mix-up between Ball and quarterback Danny O'Brien led to another fumble that ended Wisconsin's comeback attempt at Nebraska.

But Ball never let the obstacles defeat him, and that's the biggest reason why he's here in the rankings. He surged down the stretch in Big Ten play, recording two 200-yard performances, four performances of more than 190 rush yards and seven 100-yard efforts in his final eight league contests. Ball had a career-high 247 rush yards -- and a career-long 67-yard run -- against Purdue, tied Ron Dayne's touchdowns record during a 198-yard performance at Indiana and broke Travis Prentice's NCAA career touchdowns mark in the regular-season finale at Penn State.

The senior racked up 202 rush yards and three scores as Wisconsin ran all over Nebraska in the Big Ten championship. He had exactly 100 yards in the Rose Bowl against Stanford, becoming the first player to ever record three consecutive 100-yard efforts in the Rose Bowl and the first to score touchdowns in three different Rose Bowls. In addition to the Doak Walker Award, Ball earned AP first-team All-America honors, consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors, the Grange-Griffin Big Ten Championship MVP award and the Ameche-Dayne Big Ten Running Back of the Year award.

"Sometimes you've got to go through some things in life to become better and they're not really pleasant all the time," former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said in November. "So take those setbacks. He's championed them individually and it's obviously put him in the position he's at today to be one of the premier players in college football, not only in our conference, but throughout the country."

The countdown

No. 25: Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan
No. 24: Michael Carter, CB, Minnesota
No. 23: Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern
No. 22: Spencer Long, G, Nebraska
No. 21: Carlos Hyde, RB, Ohio State
No. 20: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
No. 19: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
No. 18: Mike Taylor, LB, Wisconsin
No. 17: Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
No. 16: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
No. 15: Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State
No. 14: Matt McGloin, QB, Penn State
No. 13: Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin
No. 12: Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State
No. 11: Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
No. 10: Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State
No. 9: Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern
No. 8: Jordan Hill, DT, Penn State
No. 7: Taylor Lewan, LT, Michigan
No. 6: Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State
No. 5: Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska
No. 4: John Simon, DE, Ohio State
No. 3: Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State

UW's Ball sets NCAA rush TDs mark

December, 1, 2012
12/01/12
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Another game, another NCAA record for Wisconsin senior running back Montee Ball.

After setting the NCAA career total touchdowns record last week at Penn State, Ball broke Travis Prentice's record for career rushing touchdowns with his 74th on a 16-yard dash and leap to the pylon in the second quarter of the Big Ten championship game against Nebraska.

If Ball scores in the second half, he'll tie Prentice's record for career games with multiple touchdowns (25).

Ball has 14 carries for 111 yards and a touchdown in the first half, as Wisconsin leads 42-10.

Montee Ball is NCAA's touchdown king

November, 24, 2012
11/24/12
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There's a new touchdown king in college football, and his name is Montee Ball.

The Wisconsin senior running back scored his 79th career touchdown in the first quarter at Penn State, eclipsing former Miami (Ohio) star Travis Prentice for the NCAA all-time total touchdowns record. Ball scored on a 17-yard sweep with 6:26 left in the first quarter to give Wisconsin a 13-7 lead.

Ball has scored 15 touchdowns in his past eight games after a slow start to his senior season. He also tied Prentice for the career lead in rushing touchdowns with his 73rd. He already holds the Big Ten record for career rushing touchdowns.

MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin running back Montee Ball's highlight tape of touchdowns might as well be a full-length feature. He entered Saturday with 77, one shy of the FBS all-time record.

Unfortunately for Ball, Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier watched most of the movie in the week leading up to Saturday's game.

"He scores plenty of touchdowns," Shazier said. "I watched film on him, and I saw when he gets around the [1- or 2-yard line], he likes to jump. So once he jumped, I jumped, and I punched the ball out."

Shazier's forced fumble against Ball late in the fourth quarter -- just the second lost fumble in Ball's record-setting career -- ended up not meaning much. Wisconsin scored on its next possession to tie the game before Ohio State went on to win 21-14 in overtime.

But Shazier's play epitomized Ohio State's victory, one fueled by defense with a sprinkle of special teams, thanks to Corey "Philly" Brown.

Braxton Miller won't be on "SportsCenter" tonight, but Shazier should be. So should defensive end John Simon, who tied a career high with four sacks. So should cornerback Bradley Roby, who had to cover two players after a teammate blew an assignment and batted down a sure-fire touchdown catch by Derek Watt.

The silver bullets stood tall at Camp Randall Stadium, helping Ohio State secure a Leaders Division title, maintain a perfect 11-0 record and set up a chance for perfection in The Game next week against Michigan.

"Our offense kind of struggled a little bit, but at the same time, it's a team sport, so the defense, we needed to go out and do our thing," said Roby, who wore a Leaders Division championship T-shirt. "Defense wins championships. We thrive on that."

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
AP Photo/Andy Manis)Ryan Shazier and the Ohio State defense wrapped up Montee Ball when it counted.
Added defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins: "Being here at Ohio State, the defense always carries this team."

Wisconsin (7-4, 4-3 Big Ten) moved the ball better than Ohio State, outgaining the Buckeyes 360-236. The Badgers reached Buckeyes territory on four drives and started two others in plus territory. Ball had 191 rushing yards on 39 carries, while quarterback Curt Phillips passed the ball much more than he did the previous week with some success (14-for-25 passing).

But Ohio State allowed just 14 points.

"That's where it hurts the most," Ball said. "We're driving the football down the field, driving down the field, and we still fall short."

Ball tied Travis Prentice's Football Bowl Subdivision record midway through the second quarter and appeared ready to break it as Wisconsin reached the Buckeyes' 3-yard line with 3:44 remaining. Thanks to Shazier, Ball remains stuck on 77.

"We knew that he needed two to break the record, and we were not going to allow him to break it on us," Shazier said.

First-year coach Urban Meyer often tells his players, a team that refuses to be beat won't be beat. Ohio State at times has looked like a team that would be beat. It looked that way for stretches of the Big Ten opener against Michigan State. It looked that way for much of an Oct. 20 game against Purdue before surviving in overtime without Miller.

It even looked that way after Wisconsin forced overtime when Phillips found Jacob Pedersen in the end zone with eight seconds left in regulation.

"We were sucking our thumbs after that," Meyer said.

But once again, Ohio State made the plays it had to. Running back Carlos Hyde, who had just 13 carries in regulation, broke a tackle and ran 11 yards on the first play of overtime. Three plays later, he scooted easily into the end zone.

The defense then took over. Linebacker Etienne Sabino, playing for the first time since suffering a broken leg in the Big Ten opener against Nebraska, dropped Ball for a loss of 2 yards. Safety Christian Bryant, who recovered Ball's fumble in the fourth quarter, broke up a pass on fourth down to end it.

"We can't be beat," Hankins said. "We're not settling for a loss. We want to go undefeated, and that's our goal."

Shazier called Camp Randall Stadium a "gladiator-type atmosphere," as Wisconsin fans tried boost Ball and the other seniors to a win that would have further validated the Badgers' spot in the Big Ten title game Dec. 1. Instead, the Buckeyes were the bad guys again, sweeping their Big Ten road schedule -- a hallmark of Jim Tressel's best teams and Meyer's first.

"You go into someone else's home, in front of their fans, their moms, their girlfriends, and you just want to dominate them," Roby said. "What's better than that? Going into somebody else's house and taking everything they have. You see that when we play away games. We play way better than we do at home."

Ohio State will have to be good at home to preserve perfection. The season ends next Saturday no matter what for a Buckeyes team that, while flawed, has managed to walk off the field a winner 11 times.

Michigan comes in with an outside chance to reach the Big Ten title game and a definite chance to ruin the Buckeyes' quest for 12-0.

"We can talk about it now," Meyer said.

The Game is here. A chance for Ohio State's sixth-ever undefeated, untied season is at stake.

Buckle up.

"[Wisconsin] is not our rival," Meyer said. "The next one is."

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 12

November, 15, 2012
11/15/12
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Ten items to track around the Big Ten entering Week 12:

1. Ballin' for history: Thirteen years after Ron Dayne broke the NCAA career rushing record, another Wisconsin running back is on the doorstep of a major milestone. Badgers senior Montee Ball, who, unlike Dayne, spent a year and a half as a reserve, needs one more touchdown Saturday against Ohio State to tie the NCAA career mark of 78 held by former Miami (Ohio) star Travis Prentice. Ball has scored 13 touchdowns in his past six games and is averaging 179.1 yards and three touchdowns in his past nine November games. A big performance against the unbeaten Buckeyes will once again put Ball on the radar for top national honors. Ball's next rushing touchdown will mark his 72nd, moving him past Dayne for the Big Ten career record.

2. Holding serve in the Legends: Nebraska and Michigan are tied atop the Legends Division at 5-1, and on paper, they should stay that way after Week 12. Both teams are favored to take care of Minnesota and Iowa, respectively, on senior day in Lincoln and Ann Arbor. Nebraska's magic number (wins and Michigan losses) to punch its ticket to Indianapolis is 2. A Huskers loss and a Michigan win puts the Wolverines in control of their own fate in the division. One senior day subplot is whether face-of-the-program stars like Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson will play after missing time with injuries. Burkhead (knee) returned to practice this week and seems closer to a return, while Robinson (elbow) remains day-to-day.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Andrew Weber/US PresswireLe'Veon Bell and the Spartans plan to finish strong against Northwestern on Saturday.
3. Finishing school: Northwestern and Michigan State easily could be playing for a Legends Division title Saturday. Instead, both teams' inability to finish against the likes of Nebraska and Michigan has left them looking for a full 60-minute performance. Michigan State's four Big Ten losses have come by a combined 10 points. Northwestern held double-digit second-half leads in all three of its Big Ten losses. Something's gotta give Saturday as the teams meet at Spartan Stadium. "Their problem, just like ours, has been closing out games," Spartans linebacker Chris Norman told ESPN.com this week. "... It's going to come down to who can finish the best. Saturday is going to be interesting."

4. Hope and a prayer: There's growing talk that Purdue will make a head-coaching change after the regular season no matter what happens in the final two games. But can fourth-year boss Danny Hope save himself with a three-game win streak to become bowl-eligible? It's reason enough to tune in for an otherwise off-the-radar game between Purdue and slumping Illinois on Saturday. A loss to the Illini would prevent Purdue from getting bowl-eligible and likely seal Hope's fate, while a Purdue win adds intrigue to next week's Bucket game against Indiana. The Boilers' offense got on track last week behind quarterback Robert Marve and running back Ralph Bolden, while defensive tackle Kawann Short had his best game of the season at Iowa.

5. Rivalry renewed: Saturday's game at Camp Randall Stadium won't decide which Leaders Division team goes to the Big Ten title game, as Wisconsin already punched its ticket last week. But Ohio State can lock up the Leaders Division championship -- the only title it can win this season -- while Wisconsin can legitimize its trip to Indy by handing Urban Meyer's Buckeyes their first loss of the season. Looking ahead, the Ohio State-Wisconsin game likely will be the signature contest in the division for years to come. Illinois is a mess, Purdue has backslid this season, Indiana is still building and Penn State still has three more years of postseason bans. "I hate Wisconsin just as much as Michigan," Ohio State wide receiver Corey Brown said this week. While Meyer and Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema say their post-signing day spat is a thing of a past, it could bubble up Saturday depending on how the game goes.

6. Taking a pass: The Big Ten might not be flush with elite quarterbacks and high-powered offenses this season, but a few of its teams can sling the ball a bit, and two of them meet at Beaver Stadium. Indiana and Penn State are the Big Ten's top two pass offenses, ranking 26th and 40th nationally, respectively. They'll share the field Saturday as they try to rebound from different types of losses. Indiana quarterback Cameron Coffman struggled with his accuracy (25-for-46) in last week's loss to Wisconsin and looks for a sharper afternoon. Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin wasn't a happy guy after the Nebraska loss and will try to take it out on IU. The game features two of the Big Ten's top receivers in Penn State's Allen Robinson and Indiana's Cody Latimer.

7. Hawkeye hex: Iowa has been in a funk for much of the season and particularly in the past month, dropping four consecutive Big Ten contests. Perhaps a date with Michigan can put the Hawkeyes back on track. See, Iowa has won three straight against Michigan for the first time in team history and five of its past eight against the Wolverines. Michigan's seniors are anxious to finally get over the hump against Iowa, one of two Big Ten teams (Penn State the other) they have yet to beat. But maybe it works the other way and Iowa finally shows a spark on offense and stiffens its defense. If not, the Hawkeyes won't be going bowling for the first time since the 2006 season, and it'll be a very long winter for Kirk Ferentz. "It doesn't hurt, obviously," Ferentz said of his team's Michigan win streak, "but it doesn't guarantee us anything."

8. Backs of different sizes: Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell is the biggest featured running back in the Big Ten, checking in at 6-2 and 244 pounds. Northwestern's Venric Mark is the smallest, checking in at 5-8 and 175 pounds. But both have been extremely effective this season with the ball in their hands. Bell leads the Big Ten in rushing yards (1,249), while Mark ranks third in rushing yards (1,181) and first in all-purpose yards (1,917). Each has been the MVP of his respective offense, and it'll be interesting to see them on the same field at Spartan Stadium. Both Michigan State and Northwestern defend the run well, too, both ranking in the top 25 nationally.

9. Illini look for a spark: Illinois ranks last in the Big Ten in scoring, rushing and total offense, and lingers near the bottom of the FBS in all the significant categories. The Illini need some sort of boost on offense or a 2-10 season is a virtual certainty. Head coach Tim Beckman, whose background is defense but who had a high-powered offense at Toledo the past few years, took a more active role with the offense this week in an effort to get things going. Beckman also noted that co-offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales call plays on different downs. Hmmm. Starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne took more reps with the wide receivers this week and could see an increased role against Purdue. Illinois aims to win on senior day for the first time since 2007.

10. Bowl picture taking shape: We learned a little more about the Big Ten bowl contingent last week as Minnesota became bowl-eligible, Purdue took a big step toward the postseason and both Iowa and Indiana took a step toward a winter at home. There should be some more answers in Week 12. Michigan State aims for its sixth win to go bowling for the sixth consecutive season under coach Mark Dantonio. Purdue must keep its bowl hopes alive at Illinois, while both Iowa and Indiana must win on the road to avoid loss No. 7. It won't be easy for the Hawkeyes or Hoosiers. Indiana never has won at Beaver Stadium in 15 previous meetings with Penn State. Iowa never has won consecutive games at Michigan Stadium.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- When Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema addressed his team Friday night, he read a list of approximately 20 teams that recently had been among the nation's elite but had fallen on hard times.

Teams like Wisconsin. Teams with worse records than the Badgers.

"The one thing I've constantly got to be aware of as a head coach is the temperature of my team, what are they feeling," Bielema said. "They were unranked and lost a heartbreaker to Michigan State. But what I was trying to stress was the character of this room would show [Saturday]. ... I rattled off a bunch of BCS teams that are in the thick of it but are 6-3 or [worse]. I wanted to remind them that teams either quit, or they battle forward.

"Obviously, they answered the bell today."

Wisconsin's road back to Indianapolis has been filled with obstacles this season, but the final leg proved to be surprisingly easy as the Badgers ensured they'll be back at Lucas Oil Stadium on Dec. 1. Behind a dominant offensive line and a stable of dominant running backs, led by Montee Ball, Wisconsin crushed Indiana 62-14 at Memorial Stadium.

A program known for its ground game piled up more rushing yards (564) than it ever has before, tying for the sixth-highest total in Big Ten history and the highest in a league game since 1975 (Michigan, 573 yards). Little about Wisconsin's offense resembled the record-setting units of 2010 and 2011, but it felt like old times Saturday as the Badgers, despite playing with their third starting quarterback (Curt Phillips), took control immediately and never looked back.

Wisconsin (7-3, 4-2) looked like Wisconsin. And Indiana (4-6, 2-4) looked like Indiana.

"It did a little bit," said tight end Sam Arneson, who recorded his first career touchdown on his second career catch on Wisconsin's second possession. "When you're rolling and they can't really slow you down, it feels pretty good."

As much turmoil as Wisconsin has been through this season -- nearly being shut out at Oregon State, firing offensive line coach Mike Markuson after two games, enduring a miscommunication at the end of the Nebraska game, losing top quarterback Joel Stave in the Michigan State loss -- the Badgers found a way to fulfill the consensus preseason expectation of reaching Indianapolis. They've lost three games by a total of nine points, dominated the teams they were supposed to beat and, at times, looked like the team we'd grown accustomed to seeing the past two years.

Wisconsin beat Indiana 83-20 in 2010 and 59-7 last year. The Hoosiers, while exposed Saturday, are undoubtedly a better team, and Wisconsin still rolled.

"This is the group I've coached for seven years," Bielema said. "I know this record may not be as high as it has in years past, or our ranking, but we're a really good football team."

[+] EnlargeCurt Phillips
AP Photo/Darron CummingsQuarterback Curt Phillips did his share to help Wisconsin in his first career start on Saturday.
The Badgers looked like it Saturday, mounting eight-play touchdown drives on their first two possessions. Even when Indiana showed some life in the second quarter, Wisconsin removed any doubt as James White raced in from 69 yards out on third-and-16.

And while Wisconsin didn't put too much on Phillips' shoulders, the senior made some nice contributions in his first career start, namely a fourth-down conversion early in the second quarter and a 52-yard run to set up a field goal. Phillips has overcome three ACL surgeries since the spring of 2010.

"The plan was to not put a lot on Curt," Bielema said. "And obviously it worked very, very well."

After finishing with 19 net rush yards in the Michigan State loss, Wisconsin averaged 8.8 yards per attempt Saturday, nearly setting another team mark (8.91 yards per carry against Hawaii in 1996).

"It's the same formula we've had any time we've run the ball successfully," guard Ryan Groy said. "It's getting on blocks, being assignment-sound, and it's finishing. It's simple concepts, but it's everybody doing their part."

Ball certainly did his share Saturday, rushing for 198 yards and three touchdowns on 27 attempts in three quarters of work. The senior passed Ricky Williams and moved into sole possession of second place on the NCAA's all-time touchdowns list with 77, one shy of Miami University's Travis Prentice.

The 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist has been at his best during the stretch run, averaging 179.1 yards and three touchdowns in his past nine November games. He has been pretty good in the Hoosier State -- 445 rush yards, six touchdowns against Purdue and Indiana -- and gets one final opportunity Dec. 1 in Indy.

"I didn't even think about that," Ball said, smiling. "Yeah, glad to get back to Indianapolis."

Wisconsin will return to Lucas Oil, but it'll have an asterisk if it doesn't beat Ohio State and Penn State to share the Leaders Division title. If you think the Badgers will pack it in these last two weeks, you're sadly mistaken. Despite Saturday's result, Ball said Wisconsin is "still searching" for a statement win.

Next week against undefeated Ohio State would be the perfect time.

"Certain teams are handicapped, but we want to make sure that we go to Indy because we won every game," Ball said. "That's what we're going to try to fight for."

Indiana is left to fight for bowl eligibility and needs two road wins (Penn State, Purdue) to get there. Despite a very real chance to reach Indianapolis, Indiana showed how far it still must go on both sides of the ball.

Quarterback Cameron Coffman struggled with overthrows and Indiana had just two first downs in the first quarter, the kiss of death for an up-tempo spread offense. The defense showed a bit of life in the second quarter but had no answer for Ball, White (161 rush yards, 2 TDs) and Melvin Gordon (96 rush yards, 1 TD).

"They are a great team," Hoosiers defensive lineman Adam Replogle said. "We knew what they were. It's Wisconsin."

The Wisconsin of old showed up Saturday.

If the same product shows up in the coming weeks, the Badgers' difficult road could lead back to Pasadena.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 8

October, 18, 2012
10/18/12
10:15
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Ten items to track around the Big Ten in Week 8 ...

1. Clock ticking for Michigan seniors: Quarterback Denard Robinson and his fellow Michigan seniors have been through a lot in their careers -- some historic lows from 2008 to '10, a rebound 2011 season under current coach Brady Hoke, a Sugar Bowl championship and a streak-snapping win against Ohio State last November. But the fourth-year seniors never have beaten Michigan State. Hoke puts countdown clocks for Michigan State and Ohio State in the football complex and has emphasized the need to beat the Spartans since the preseason. Robinson has struggled in two starts against Michigan State (4 interceptions, 2 touchdowns) and tries to turn the tide against a stout Spartans defense. Michigan can nudge Michigan State farther out of the division race with a victory.

2. Blackshirts versus Blackshirts: Northwestern will don all-black uniforms Saturday at Ryan Field for one of its more anticipated home games in recent memory. Some are joking the Wildcats' threads will be the first blackshirts Nebraska has seen this season. The Huskers' defense has a lot to prove after Ohio State put 63 points on the board against Bo Pelini's squad Oct. 6 in Columbus. Spread offenses have given Nebraska trouble in recent years, and Northwestern quarterback/receiver Kain Colter led his team's upset win last year in Lincoln (2 rush TDs, 1 pass TD). Pelini wants to see an "angry" Nebraska team in Evanston and feels like he has one. The fifth-year coach has stressed winning out, which would put Nebraska in the Big Ten title game. A Northwestern win, meanwhile, means the Wildcats are serious contenders in the Legends Division.

[+] EnlargeMark Weisman
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa's Mark Weisman has four consecutive 100-yard rushing performances, including eight touchdowns during the span.
3. Weisman watch: There's no doubt Mark Weisman is Iowa's top offensive weapon, and for much of the past four games, he has been the Hawkeyes' only threat. The Air Force transfer has recorded four consecutive 100-yard rushing performance and a total of 623 yards and eight touchdowns during the span. But Weisman's status for Saturday night's showdown against Penn State is very much in doubt because of an ankle sprain he suffered last week at Michigan State. Weisman is cleared to play, and an MRI done Monday didn't show major damage, but Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz didn't sound overly optimistic about having the sophomore, noting that he "would have a lot of progress to make to be able to play." While Weisman might sit, Jordan Canzeri, who tore his ACL this spring, should return for Iowa at running back. Either way, the Hawkeyes are facing arguably the Big Ten's best defensive front seven and need more from a passing attack that ranks 99th nationally.

4. An ax to grind: The Big Ten's best rivalry trophy is at stake at Camp Randall Stadium as Wisconsin and Minnesota play for Paul Bunyan's Axe. Wisconsin has won eight straight in the series and can match the longest win streak by either squad with a victory Saturday. Minnesota senior linebacker Mike Rallis acknowledged this week, "If you don't ever win, it's not really a rivalry." The detest for the Badgers runs deep with Minnesota's roster, though, and while the Gophers will be short-handed, they can record a signature win and a significant upset Saturday. They'll have to beat a Wisconsin team that seems to have found its bearings after a slow start, especially along the offensive line.

5. Getting defensive in Columbus: Both Ohio State and Purdue are looking for better results from their defenses Saturday at The Shoe. The Buckeyes' defensive woes against Indiana (49 points allowed, 481 yards) and for much of the season prompted their offensive-minded head coach, Urban Meyer, to take a more hand's-on role with the defense this week. Ohio State is banged up on defense and had to move starting fullback Zach Boren to linebacker last week (he'll stay there for a while). Meyer stressed the need to finish plays within 4-6 seconds and tackle better. Tackling has been a huge issue for Purdue the past two weeks, as it has allowed 82 points and 771 rush yards in losses to Wisconsin and Michigan. Standout tackle Kawann Short and the Boilers' defensive line needs a dramatic improvement against Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde and Co., or Saturday's game will get ugly in a hurry. Purdue hasn't won in Columbus since 1988 and hasn't beaten an AP Top 10 team on the road since 1974.

6. Spartans' season on the brink: Michigan State has been the Big Ten's biggest disappointment this season. The Spartans already have lost three home games, including two league home games, meaning they'll need signature road wins to have any chance to repeat as Legends Division champs. Losses this week in Ann Arbor and next week in Madison would eliminate Michigan State from the race. Coach Mark Dantonio does a masterful job of embracing the Michigan rivalry, and his players have responded, winning four straight. Michigan State aims for its first five-game win streak against Michigan in program history Saturday. The Spartans will be geared up, but they can't expect to commit 13 penalties and win, like they did last year in East Lansing. "There's no question that both teams are going to go after each other," Dantonio said. "I don't think there's any question about that. But we've got to keep the game under control. We can't let it get out of control." All eyes will be on the William Gholston-Taylor Lewan matchup after their dust-ups last year.

7. Indiana drops anchor: Indiana coach Kevin Wilson isn't satisfied with being close, and neither are his players. The Hoosiers have had a chance to win all seven of their games this season, but they've only won two of them. "You are getting better and you should feel good about yourself, but you need to keep pushing," Wilson said Tuesday. The next push would be a win Saturday against Navy as Indiana wraps up non-league play for itself and for the Big Ten. Navy ranks 97th nationally in pass-efficiency defense, which should bode well for Hoosiers quarterbacks Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld, and their talented core of wide receivers. But the Midshipmen also have turned around their season a bit the past two weeks, and their triple option attack will test an Indiana defense that ranks 109th nationally against the run and has surrendered more than 350 rush yards in two of its past three games. Indiana could go on a nice second-half run, but it needs to get over the hump against Navy in a potential shootout.

8. On the Ball: After a rough few months both on and off the field, Wisconsin senior running back Montee Ball is back on track, racking up eight rushing touchdowns in Big Ten play and averaging 152 rush yards against league opponents. He broke the Big Ten career touchdowns record -- owned by former Badgers star Ron Dayne -- last week against Purdue and is six touchdowns shy of matching Travis Prentice's NCAA record of 78. He still needs five rushing touchdowns to match Dayne's Big Ten career record of 71. "I feel like I have my balance back, which is a huge part," Ball told ESPN.com this week. "My cuts are a lot better, a lot stronger. I just feel a lot more comfortable out there." Ball faces a Minnesota team that has been vulnerable against the run in Big Ten play. Wisconsin's offensive line seems to have turned the corner in the past five quarters. The Badgers' front five matches up against an improved Minnesota defensive front led by tackle Ra'Shede Hageman.

9. Lions enter their house of horrors: Kinnick Stadium hasn't been kind to Penn State, which hasn't won in Iowa City since 1999, Ferentz's first season as Hawkeyes coach. The Lions saw their national title hopes vanish at Kinnick in 2008 and managed just three points against the Hawkeyes in their last trip there in 2008. Despite his team's four-game win streak, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien made it clear that "the meat of the schedule" begins now, and Lions cornerback Stephon Morris tweeted this week, "This is a huge game, we hate them they hate us." A win keeps Penn State undefeated in Big Ten play and sets up next week's so-called Ineligi-bowl against Ohio State in Happy Valley. The game features an interesting coaching connection as Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz, Kirk's son, worked alongside O'Brien with the New England Patriots the past few years. Kirk Ferentz downplayed the impact of having Brian Ferentz on his staff.

10. Cat nap: After a sluggish start in a previous mid-afternoon kickoff against Boston College, Northwestern's team leaders decided to schedule a mandatory team nap before Saturday's game against Nebraska (3:30 p.m. ET kick). Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald greeted the decision with quasi-disgust, saying Monday, "Unbelievable. This is what I get paid to do. Seriously. Create nap time. It's pathetic." But the cat nap is definitely happening, as Fitzgerald confirmed later in the week, and it'll be interesting to see how Northwestern starts the game against the Huskers. Although the idea sounds silly, figuring out how to rest before games to produce peak performances is a subject that gets a lot of attention from sports teams at all levels. There will be some jokes if Northwestern sleepwalks through the first half against the Huskers. If the Wildcats win, expect to see the pregame nap adopted all over the country.

Player of the Week: Big Ten

October, 15, 2012
10/15/12
4:00
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We thought we'd be making this statement a lot earlier than we are, but better late than never: Wisconsin's Montee Ball is the Big Ten's player of the week.

After a strong fourth quarter in Wisconsin's Oct. 6 win against Illinois, Ball finally put it all together against Purdue and delivered his best performance of the season and possibly the best of his storied career. He had 29 carries for a career-best 247 yards and three touchdowns as Wisconsin thrashed Purdue 38-14 at Ross-Ade Stadium. More impressive, 194 of Ball's yards came after contact. It was a vintage performance from the 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist, highlighted by a 67-yard scoring run early in the second quarter, the longest run of Ball's career. He averaged 8.5 yards a carry against the Boilers.

Ball broke the Big Ten career touchdowns record held by former Wisconsin star Ron Dayne, his good friend and mentor. With 72 career touchdowns, he needs just seven to break the NCAA career mark held by former Miami (Ohio) star Travis Prentice.

The first half hasn't been what Ball expected, as his production dropped behind an offensive line that went through a coaching change after Week 2 and had some growing pains adjusting to a new system. Ball also missed most of a Week 4 game against UTEP with a concussion. But things seem to be shifting during Big Ten play, as Ball has eight touchdowns and is averaging 152 rush yards. If the current pattern continues, Ball's name should show up in this space a few more times before the end of the season.

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