Big Ten: Traye Simmons

Big Ten Friday mailblog

July, 30, 2010
7/30/10
5:00
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You should already know this, but Big Ten media days begin Monday. The top three teams and preseason players of the year are announced Monday morning, so check the blog early and often. It'll be worth it.

As always, contact me here and follow me on Twitter.

Kurt from Chesapeake, Va., writes: Adam,You mentioned that one of the issues that will be discussed at the Big Ten Meetings will be the possibility of going to a nine-game conference schedule. Why would the Big Ten do this? To me, I see nothing but downfalls to this, including: 1. Big Ten teams will play an un-even number of home and road games, a trend that would be reversed every season. 2. Big Ten teams will have more potential losses, which could and would hurt bowl selections. 3. In the season that a Big Ten team would have five conference away games, there is less likelihood that the team will schedule tough non-conference games, and it would be almost guaranteed that if the Big Ten team does schedule an "A" level opponent, it would have to be at home. 4. Having nine conference games, then that would possibly cut into revenue from eliminating a non-conference game. 5. Adding another conference game would take away from the "prep" non-conference schedule where a team is able to "prepare themselves" for the conference slate. What do you think about this?

Adam Rittenberg: Kurt, do you mind if I copy your photonote and pass it out to the Big Ten coaches on Monday? Because you outline many of the reasons why the coaches might not be excited about the prospect of a nine-game Big Ten schedule. It means six more losses for the league, five conference road games every other year for each team, and most likely fewer bowl appearances. From the coaches' perspective, it's probably not a good idea. But for the athletic directors, it makes sense for a number of other reasons. It eases the burden of nonconference scheduling and likely reduces the number of guarantee games they pay for FCS or lower-tier FBS opponents. More important, it gives the ADs a more attractive home schedule every other year to sell to fans. A schedule with five Big Ten home dates looks a lot more attractive than one including Towson, Eastern Michigan and Arkansas State. Your point about potential lost revenue could be offset by increased revenue from a better schedule. To get the ADs' perspective, check out what Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke told me. Bottom line: a nine-game Big Ten schedule will be discussed next week, and the AD's ultimately have more say here.



Andrew from Madison, Wis., writes: Hey Adam - loving the hope/concern series! Seems like the secondary is a concern for a lot of teams in the Big 10 for this upcoming season. Seems like Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Illinois are all either coming off poor performances last season or lost some major talents in the off season. Is this just a coincidence for this season or is there a specific reason why this position group seems poised to under perform across the big 10?

Adam Rittenberg: Andrew, that's a great observation. The Big Ten retains some great defensive backs like Iowa's Tyler Sash, but secondary could be a weak spot for the league this season. Among the big losses are Iowa's Amari Spievey, Northwestern's Sherrick McManis and Brad Phillips, Michigan's Donovan Warren, Wisconsin's Chris Maragos, Ohio State's Kurt Coleman, Minnesota's Traye Simmons and Purdue's Torri Williams. It'll be very interesting to see how certain groups bounce back. Can Purdue replace all four starters? Will Iowa find a shut-down corner like Spievey? Can Northwestern avoid a relapse? Will Michigan State be younger but better in the back four? We'll find out soon enough.


Dale from San Marcos, Texas, writes: Can I get your personal opinion on RFR running back Jamaal Berry? What are his strengths and how does he measure compared to the other Ohio State backs? For instance when QUIZZ Rodgers arrived at Oregon State, his coach said it took about 3 seconds to know he was a player. Berry didn't even play in the Spring Game for Ohio State after sitting out a year. He's like a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Oh wait that's Russia. I'm perplexed.

Adam Rittenberg: I like the analogy, Dale. As for Berry, Ohio State fans seem to be obsessed with this guy. I've only seen him a few times in practice, and I was neither blown away nor disappointed by him. He was OK. We just have to wait and see if he can make up ground in preseason camp, because right now Brandon Saine and Dan Herron are the bell cows for Jim Tressel. Berry certainly comes in with some impressive credentials, but he's got to stay healthy after nagging hamstring problems last fall and really challenge Saine, Herron and Jordan Hall (don't forget about him) for carries.


Lance from Greensboro, N.C., writes: Welcome back! Two things: When the BT expanded, I thought a championship game was a no brainer. But now I've heard a very intriguing idea - play nine conference games, and schedule the rivalry games on the first Saturday in December. This solves the "out-of-sight, out-of-mind" problem with not playing after Thanksgiving, but also avoids the championship loser out of the BCS problem. Plus, some of the rivalry games could prove more attractive than other conference championship games. What do you think? Thanks!

Adam Rittenberg: Lance, I've heard the same idea from people within the Big Ten. You add two bye weeks to the schedule and finish in early December, much like the Pac-10 does right now. There's certainly a contingent of coaches around the country who don't love league championship games, but there's also a ton of support for these events and lots of money to be made. Can a wealthy league like the Big Ten afford to stiff-arm millions and maybe help its second-place team reach BCS bowls every year? Sure. But I still think you'll see a title game when all is said and done.


Seann from Fort Collins, Colo., writes: Hi Adam. Thanks for the updates on the blog. What do you think about the Spartans' recruiting for the 2010 and 2011 classes? It seems like they are doing a better job competing for some of the top talent. A few years ago if you asked a top recruit if he wanted to go to Michigan or Michigan State he probably would have looked at you weird. Now it seems like state is in the mix. Do you think Mark Dantonio has improved the recruiting at state for the long term?

Adam Rittenberg: I really like what Mark Dantonio and his staff have done with local and regional recruiting. It's the right approach, and they've gone about it in a very effective way. Michigan State is consistently putting itself in the top half of the league in recruiting and, in some years, in the top three. I know the Michigan State/Michigan local recruiting debate makes for good fodder, but the truth is both programs have done pretty well and improved themselves. One potential concern for Michigan State is the departure of Dan Enos to Central Michigan. Enos really spearheaded the team's recruiting efforts in the Detroit area, and the other coaches need to pick up the slack.
The spring game recap series marches on with Minnesota, which wrapped up its spring session Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

Both the offense and defense had some highs and lows, as the offense started fast before slowing down considerably, while the defense allowed an early touchdown before turning up the heat with physical play in the second half.

Not surprisingly, the quarterbacks took center stage. Three-year starter Adam Weber got most of the work with the first-team offense and led an opening scoring drive, thanks in large part to a 56-yard completion to speedster Troy Stoudermire. But the senior completed less than half his passes (8 of 20) in the game. Backup MarQueis Gray accounted for the game's lone touchdown pass, a 38-yard strike to Hayo Carpenter, but he also threw an interception. Third-stringer Moses Alipate completed 2 of 4 passes for 14 yards.

Head coach Tim Brewster will name a starter in the coming days, and all signs point to Weber, who stepped up his game this spring after a subpar junior season. I'm sure a portion of Gophers fans will be upset to see Weber back at the controls, but his struggles last season weren't all his fault. Remember that he was recruited to play in the spread and had to adjust to a dramatically different and overly complex offense in 2009. He'll be better this season, especially if the offensive line steps up.

Minnesota's running game showed some life early as top backs Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge racked up 97 of their combined 106 rushing yards in the first half. Bennett averaged 6.1 yards a carry, though the backs struggled to find running room late in the game.

The defense played without any returning starters from 2009 but still showed some good things, especially at linebacker. Mike Rallis, a converted safety, recorded two sacks and three tackles for loss. Sam Maresh had two tackles for loss and a pass breakup, and Keanon Cooper picked off a Gray pass.

Other Gophers nuggets:

  • Kenny Watkins and Christyn Lewis filled the starting safety spots in place of the injured Kim Royston and the suspended Kyle Theret, and both players turned in solid performances. Lewis and Watkins combined for seven tackles and two pass breakups.
  • Minnesota must replace both of its starting defensive tackles, but Jewhan Edwards and Brandon Kirksey earned high marks from reporters who attended the game.
  • The biggest hole for the defense could be the cornerback spot, as it must replace Traye Simmons and Marcus Sherels. Michael Carter recorded two pass breakups in the spring game and Ryan Collado added three tackles and a pass breakup. Kyle Henderson, a transfer from Minnesota-Mankato, was one of the spring game stars with four tackles and three pass breakups. Still, Minnesota needs to develop more depth there.
  • Kicker Eric Ellestad turned in a solid performance, going 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts with a long of 50 yards.
Minnesota had the Big Ten's most experienced roster in 2009, and there are quite a few holes to be filled this spring. The Gophers must replace nine starters on defense as well as All-Big Ten wide receiver Eric Decker, a team record-holder.

The spring features a competition at quarterback between Adam Weber and MarQueis Gray and plenty of opportunities for young, highly recruited players to step up.

Here's a look at Minnesota's strong point and weak point heading into spring ball, which kicks off March 23.

Strongest position: Safety

  • Key returnees: Senior Kyle Theret (73 tackles, 3 INTs, 7 passes defended); senior Kim Royston (86 passes, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble, 7 passes defended); senior Ryan Collado (34 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 1 pass defended).
  • Key departures: None
  • The skinny: Minnesota boasts the Big Ten's top safety tandem in Theret and Royston. The two finished the 2009 season on a high note in the Insight Bowl. Theret had two interceptions and a 40-yard reception on a fake punt, while Royston recorded a career-high 15 tackles, including a forced fumble. Collado provides depth behind them. Although the Gophers lose both starting cornerbacks (Traye Simmons and Marcus Sherels), the veteran leadership at safety combined with some exciting young players should fill in the gaps.
Weakest position: Offensive line

  • Key returnees: Tackles Dom Alford, Jeff Wills and Ryan Wynn; guards Matt Carufel, Chris Bunders and Trey Davis; and center D.J. Burris.
  • Key departures: Tackle Matt Stommes, center Jeff Tow-Arnett
  • The skinny: It would be easy to spotlight linebacker or defensive tackle, positions where the Gophers lose multiple starters from 2009. But until the offensive line starts stepping up, this team is going to struggle. Minnesota has ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing yards in each of the past two seasons, which is simply unacceptable for a program steeped in running tradition. The Gophers have experience, but whether these linemen are good enough or tough enough to execute a new scheme remains to be seen.

Big Ten team recruiting needs

January, 20, 2010
1/20/10
11:43
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National Signing Day is right around the corner, and Big Ten teams will look to add depth and identify a few immediate contributors in the upcoming recruiting classes. What do these squads need the most?

Here's a look:

ILLINOIS

Offensive line: The line hasn't been great the last two seasons, and Illinois loses standout Jon Asamoah and center Eric Block. Illinois looks strong at running back in 2010, but someone needs to create rushing lanes.

Safety: The Illini defense hasn't been the same since the departures of safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison following the 2007 season. Ron Zook could really use a safety or two who could step in and contribute right away against the run and in coverage.

INDIANA

Defensive end: The Hoosiers lose two multiyear starters at end: Jammie Kirlew, a two-time All-Big Ten selection, and Greg Middleton, who led the nation in sacks in 2007. Indiana's pass rush will suffer unless it builds depth at end and throughout the line.

Secondary: Indiana loses starting safeties Austin Thomas and Nick Polk as well as its top cornerback, Ray Fisher. Expect the Hoosiers to go very heavy with defensive back recruits as they try to shore up an area that has been problematic during the last decade.

Offensive line: The situation on the line certainly is better than it was a year ago, but the departure of talented left tackle Rodger Saffold creates a void. Indiana is the type of team that always could use more depth up front so the drop-off between starters and backups isn't so dramatic.

IOWA

Offensive line: Iowa loses four linemen who started most or all of its games last year, including All-Big Ten performers Bryan Bulaga and Dace Richardson. The Hawkeyes can't expect freshmen to come in and start right away up front, but they need some insurance if injuries crop up.

Linebacker: Standouts Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds depart, and while Iowa has some guys ready to step in, it can always use depth in the defensive midsection. The Hawkeyes defensive line should sizzle in 2010, but they need sure tacklers at linebacker, too.

MICHIGAN

Secondary: There's no mystery here, as the Wolverines really struggled with breakdowns in the back four and lose standout cornerback Donovan Warren to the NFL draft. Michigan needs to bolster its talent level at both cornerback and safety to have improved results in 2010.

Linebacker: The Wolverines linebackers struggled in 2009, and there are opportunities for young players to step in here and contribute. Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton are back, but it's obvious this is another area Michigan must upgrade this coming season.

Specialists: Michigan loses both of its starting specialists, including All-Big Ten punter Zoltan Mesko, a Ray Guy Award finalist. This is always an area where a strong true freshman can step in and contribute immediately.

MICHIGAN STATE

Trenches: Line play was a weakness for the Spartans in 2009, and they'll be looking to upgrade on both sides of the ball. They lose top pass rusher Trevor Anderson as well as left tackle Rocco Cironi, center Joel Nitchman and guard Brendon Moss on the offensive line.

Secondary: This unit turned out to be a major disappointment, considering the preseason expectations. Michigan State loses safety Danny Fortener and corners Ross Weaver and Jeremy Ware, and there should be ample opportunities for freshmen to step in and play.

Linebacker: Probably not a critical need, but Michigan State needs to start preparing for life after Greg Jones. The Spartans also lose Adam Decker and Brandon Denson from the 2009 team, and Eric Gordon will depart with Jones after 2010.

MINNESOTA

Cornerback: The Gophers lose both of their starters, Traye Simmons and Marcus Sherels, and will be looking to build depth behind Michael Carter in 2010. I'm very excited about what Minnesota returns at safety, but the situation at corner seems a bit unsettled.

Offensive line: Minnesota will stick with the pro-style offense no matter who becomes its next coordinator, but for the system to truly click, the Gophers really need to upgrade their line. The team returns quite a few linemen for 2010, but it'll look for improved depth up front.

Running back: After finishing last in the Big Ten in rushing each of the last two seasons, Minnesota certainly will look to get better here. Kevin Whaley's departure creates a spot for a newcomer to compete with Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge for carries.

NORTHWESTERN

Secondary: The Wildcats lose three multiyear starters in the secondary, including All-Big Ten honorees Sherrick McManis and Brad Phillips. They'll need to build depth around safety Brian Peters and corner Jordan Mabin to avoid a major drop-off.

Defensive line: Corey Wootton's departure leaves NU without a proven pass rusher who can command double teams. The Wildcats also will look to build depth at defensive tackle after losing Adam Hahn and Marshall Thomas.

OHIO STATE

Safety: This is one of few spots where Ohio State loses two long-time contributors in Kurt Coleman, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, and Anderson Russell. Though Jermale Hines played a lot in 2009, the Buckeyes want to build depth around him.

Wide receiver: If the Buckeyes' offense builds off of its Rose Bowl performance, the wideouts figure to be more involved. Ohio State should be fine for 2010 with DeVier Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher, but it could lose both after the season and needs to start grooming replacements. These recruits also could help the return game, where Ohio State loses Ray Small and Lamaar Thomas.

PENN STATE

Quarterback: Two-year starter Daryll Clark is gone and Pat Devlin transferred following the 2008 season, creating a wide open competition at quarterback heading into 2010. Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin will compete, but Penn State always wants others in the mix there.

Linebacker: Penn State rarely has trouble reloading here, but it loses all three starters, including back-to-back first-team All-Big Ten selection Navorro Bowman. The Lions will look to build depth and identify an early contributor or two for the 2010 season.

Tight end/wideout: The Lions lose both Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler, so expect them to add a tight end or two in the incoming class. Quarless was a major part of the passing attack and Shuler hauled in two touchdowns, so Penn State won't neglect this position.

PURDUE

Secondary: A no-brainer here, as Purdue loses all four starters in the secondary, which has ranked in the upper half of the league against the pass. The Boilers likely need a newcomer or two to contribute right away in 2010.

Linebacker: Jason Werner hopes to return for a sixth year, but Purdue can't take any chances with a position that has struggled a bit the last two seasons. Danny Hope likes his young linebackers (Antwon Higgs, Dwayne Beckford), but he's looking for more.

Wide receiver/tight end: Purdue can never have enough pass receivers, and Hope will look to build around All-Big Ten performer Keith Smith in 2010. The Boilers lose No. 2 wideout Aaron Valentin, and Smith and tight end Kyle Adams depart after 2010.

WISCONSIN

Defensive line: All-Big Ten defensive end O'Brien Schofield departs, and the Badgers will be pretty young up front in 2010. It's important that Wisconsin builds depth behind players like J.J. Watt and Jordan Kohout.

Tight end: Lance Kendricks certainly eased concerns about this spot in the Champs Sports Bowl, but Wisconsin still loses All-Big Ten selection Garrett Graham as well as reserve Mickey Turner. No team in the Big Ten features the tight end spot as much as Wisconsin, so it'll be important to find a few recruits.

Minnesota wants bowl to be springboard

December, 31, 2009
12/31/09
11:00
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This much is known: Tim Brewster will be back as Minnesota's head coach in 2010.

But we don't know who will be the Golden Gophers' starting quarterback next fall. We don't know who will emerge as the top ball carrier or the playmaking receiver. We don't know who will replace three outstanding linebackers, two solid defensive tackles and a top-level cornerback in Traye Simmons.

[+] EnlargeTim Brewster
Chris Gardner/Getty ImagesGophers coach Tim Brewster is hoping for a bowl win to springboard his team into next season.
Many of these answers won't come for several months, but we could have a better idea after Thursday's matchup against Iowa State in the Insight Bowl (NFL Network, 6 p.m. ET).

Every bowl-bound team hopes to use the extra game to get an idea of what to expect the following season. For Minnesota, today's game takes on added meaning before a pivotal 2010 campaign. Expectations will be higher then, and the pressure will be turned up on Brewster to produce better results.

"Every coach would love to be able to win the last game of the season because it springboards you," Brewster said. "It springboards you forward with positive momentum, positive energy. Not that a loss is going to determine your season the following season. I just think a last-game win certainly helps, particularly from a mental point of view, going into the offseason."

Though Minnesota loses more on defense, the offense will be the big question mark in the spring.

Quarterback Adam Weber is completing his third season as the starter, but he'll need to beat out talented backup MarQueis Gray and third-stringer Moses Alipate this spring to keep his job. Running backs Duane Bennett, Kevin Whaley and DeLeon Eskridge all return, but one of them needs to distinguish himself this spring, something that didn't happen during the season. The Gophers are also searching for the next Eric Decker at receiver and will be looking to players like Troy Stoudermire, Brandon Green and Da'Jon McKnight to step up.

The offense has been a unit of extremes, from the highs against Michigan State and Northwestern to the lows against Penn State, Iowa and Ohio State.

"The level of consistency has got to improve," Brewster said. "That's been our mindset in our preparation for the bowl game. 'Let's make good decisions with the ball, not turn the ball over, be able to run the football and take advantage of some strengths down the field.'

"I expect us to play well offensively, based on the practices we've had."
Minnesota had the Big Ten's most experienced team this fall, though at times the Gophers didn't look like it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minnesota freshman cornerback Michael Carter will be allowed to play against Illinois despite being arrested and jailed early Monday.

Carter remains listed as the backup to Traye Simmons on Minnesota's depth chart and will play Saturday against the Illini (Big Ten Network, noon ET), head coach Tim Brewster said.

Carter was charged with alcohol consumption by a minor and obstructing the legal process after police said he and teammate Kenny Watkins tried to pick a fight outside a pizza parlor near campus. Watkins was not charged in the incident.

One of the top recruits in Minnesota's 2009 class, Carter is the cousin of former Gophers All-American Tyrone Carter.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midseason review: Minnesota

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

Minnesota Golden Gophers

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

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

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

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

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Hit on all three choices last week. Let's see how I do this time around.

OFFENSE -- Iowa TE Tony Moeaki

Tight ends rarely qualify for this honor, but Moeaki's performance Saturday night against Michigan certainly merits the award. After missing the previous three games with an ankle injury and barely practicing, Moeaki recorded six receptions for 105 yards and two touchdowns. He hauled in scoring passes of 34 and 42 yards in Iowa's 30-28 win.

DEFENSE -- Minnesota LB Lee Campbell

The Gophers' linebackers have been tremendous this season, and Campbell turned in another masterpiece against Purdue. He recorded a game-high 11 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, and changed the game with an interception midway through the second quarter and returned the ball to the Purdue 2-yard line, setting up the go-ahead touchdown. Campbell also blocked a field goal attempt that teammate Traye Simmons returned to the end zone. Simmons, Wisconsin's O'Brien Schofield and Ohio State's Ross Homan and Kurt Coleman also merit mentions.

CO-SPECIAL TEAMS -- Ohio State WR Ray Small and Iowa K Daniel Murray

After Wisconsin closed to within eight points, Small gave Ohio State a comfortable cushion with a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the third quarter. It marked Ohio State's first kickoff returned for a touchdown since Ted Ginn in the 2007 BCS title game.

Murray connected on a career-high three field goals in the win over Michigan and likely would have hit a fourth if not for an Iowa penalty. After a chip shot in the first quarter, Murray connected from 40 and 41 yards out.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 6

October, 11, 2009
10/11/09
2:05
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


It's time to recognize the best and the brightest from Week 6 in the Big Ten. The stickers definitely have a defensive flavor this week.
  • Minnesota LB Lee Campbell -- The Gophers senior continued an excellent season with a huge game against Purdue. His interception and 32-yard return set up Minnesota's go-ahead touchdown in the second quarter. He also blocked a field-goal attempt in the third quarter that teammate Traye Simmons returned 47 yards to the end zone. Campbell finished with 11 tackles (1.5 for loss) in the game.
  • Ohio State's defense -- There were too many great performances on this unit to narrow it down to one or two. Safeties Kurt Coleman and Jermale Hines combined for two interceptions (both returned for touchdowns) and 25 tackles. Linebacker Ross Homan recorded a career-high 15 tackles, including two sacks, while linebacker Brian Rolle added 14 stops. Just a total team effort from one of the nation's best defenses.
  • Iowa TE Tony Moeaki -- The oft-injured Moeaki showed against Michigan why he can be a special player when healthy. After missing the last three games with an ankle injury and barely practicing last week, Moeaki had six receptions for 105 yards and two touchdowns in the Hawkeyes' win. He hauled in scoring receptions of 34 and 42 yards.
  • Northwestern defensive backs Brian Peters and Sherrick McManis -- They share a sticker because it's two tough to separate their performances. Peters and McManis combined for two interceptions, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and two pass breakups as the Wildcats nearly shut out Miami (Ohio).
  • Michigan State safety Danny Fortener -- After assisting in an overtime interception last week against Michigan (his tipped pass went to teammate Chris L. Rucker), Fortener got one of his own. He picked off Illinois' Eddie McGee early in the second half and ran 45 yards to the end zone to put Michigan State ahead 24-0.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

After an exciting Week 5, things have gotten off to a bit of a boring start in the Big Ten today. All four early games were decided by double digits.

Michigan State 24, Illinois 14 -- A game that was supposed to feature two sleeper teams in the Big Ten instead paired two squads with losing records. But after today, it's clear that these two teams are headed in opposite directions. Michigan State turned in its second consecutive strong defensive performance, holding Illinois scoreless for more than 40 minutes. The Spartans won without starting quarterback Kirk Cousins, who missed the game with an ankle injury, and got good production from young running backs Larry Caper and Glenn Winston. Illinois continued its downward spiral with another horrendous offensive performance. Benching quarterback Juice Williams clearly wasn't the answer, as starter Eddie McGee struggled. Williams did some nice things in mop-up time for the second straight week, but it wasn't nearly enough. Think about this: Illinois has failed to score a first-half touchdown against a BCS opponent. Ron Zook's seat has to be sweltering after this one.

Minnesota 35, Purdue 20 -- When a team talks about the motto "Pound the Rock," like Minnesota does, you need to back it up. The Gophers walked the walk today. Actually, they ran. After falling behind 10-0, Minnesota discovered its rushing attack in the second quarter and never let up. Running backs Kevin Whaley and Duane Bennett led the way, and DeLeon Eskridge chipped in with two rushing scores. Quarterback Adam Weber also got more involved in the run game, which piled up 207 yards against the Boilers. Weber only had to attempt nine passes in the win. Minnesota also turned the momentum on defense and special teams with Lee Campbell's interception and Traye Simmons' return for a touchdown on a blocked field-goal attempt. Purdue blew another early lead and fell victim to too many mistakes. Joey Elliott did some good things but committed two costly interception. Danny Hope is having a rough time with a team that continues to hurt itself.

Penn State 52, Eastern Illinois 3 -- The Lions did what they needed to do against an overmatched opponent, grabbing a huge lead and giving backup quarterback Kevin Newsome some valuable playing time. Daryll Clark turned in his second strong performance, tossing three touchdown passes to three different receivers, and running backs Evan Royster and Stephfon Green both had big days. But Penn State fans wanted to see Newsome today, and they had to like how the freshman looked. Newsome completed 4 of 5 passes to go along with 48 rushing yards, including a 9-yard scoring run. Penn State's joke of a nonconference slate is now complete, and we'll finally start to get a good read on the Lions in Big Ten play.

Northwestern 16, Miami (Ohio) 6 -- There are two ways to look at this. Northwestern needs to win games with defense, and the Wildcats certainly have picked things up on that side of the ball. After forcing six turnovers last week against Purdue, Northwestern recorded four takeaways and seven sacks against Miami (Ohio). Defensive backs Brian Peters and Sherrick McManis were fabulous, and the Wildcats nearly posted a shutout despite playing without safety Brendan Smith and defensive end Corey Wootton. On the down side, the offense was extremely sloppy and once again couldn't generate a run game. A veteran offensive line should perform much better against a Miami defense that ranked 95th against the run. Northwestern can feel good about its defense, but it won't win many more games without better production from the run game.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Turns out, a 10-0 deficit was the best thing that could have happened to Minnesota. On the flip side, an early lead likely will doom Purdue yet again.

The Gophers are piling it on right now, thanks to improved offensive play and opportunistic defense and special teams. It all started with an impressive 84-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter, and the Gophers have continued to build with a solid rushing attack. It's good to see quarterback Adam Weber more involved as a runner, and Kevin Whaley, a player a lot of Gophers fans have wanted to see, also looks good.

As for Purdue, more mistakes, the latest a blocked field goal that Minnesota's Traye Simmons returned for a touchdown. The Boilers just can't seem to avoid the major blunder, especially after a hot start, and they appear headed for 1-5. Minnesota's defense really seems to have found its edge after the first quarter.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Let the games begin. Here are 10 things to watch as Big Ten football kicks off in 2009.


1. Michigan's response --
Head coach Rich Rodriguez and the program have been in the cross-hairs all week, but Michigan can ease some of the pressure by beating Western Michigan and showing tangible improvement. Team chemistry is a question mark after current players spoke publicly about possible NCAA rule violations involving time limits, but the Wolverines need a united effort Saturday. Michigan simply isn't good enough to win if the team is splintered.


2. Juice vs. Weatherspoon --
Missouri star linebacker Sean Weatherspoon targeted Illinois quarterback Juice Williams in some Twitter trash talk last month. Williams gets a chance to answer in the Edward Jones Dome, where he set a total offense record (461 yards) last year against Mizzou. This is a pivotal game for Williams and the Illini, who have the more experienced team and need to get over the hump against the Tigers.


3. Defending Paulus --
Minnesota co-defensive coordinators Kevin Cosgrove and Ron Lee face an unusual scouting challenge against Syracuse, as they prepare their players for a quarterback who spent the last four years shooting baskets on Tobacco Road. Greg Paulus plays a meaningful football game for the first time in four years, and it's up to cornerback Traye Simmons and the Gophers to make sure he doesn't find a rhythm.


4. New Hope at Purdue --
The Danny Hope era begins as Purdue opens the season against Toledo. Outside expectations are low for the Boilermakers, but Hope has brought plenty of energy and a faster pace to just about everything in the program. The Big Ten's mystery team will use plenty of freshmen and other newcomers right away, while heady quarterback Joey Elliott finally gets a chance to be the starter.


5. Paterno back where he belongs --
You can probably switch off the Penn State-Akron game shortly after the opening kickoff, but it's worth tuning in to see Joe Paterno run on the field for his 44th season as Nittany Lions head coach. Paterno hasn't coached from the sidelines since Sept. 27, but he'll be back as Penn State begins its Big Ten title defense at Beaver Stadium.


6. Captain Kirk at the controls --
Michigan State's quarterback competition isn't over, but sophomore Kirk Cousins gets the first shot in the opener against Montana State. Named just the second sophomore captain in team history last week, Cousins has the intangibles and the polished passing skills to be a star in this league. But he needs a strong debut Saturday since Keith Nichol isn't far behind.


7. A surprise backfield in Madison --
Few would have pegged quarterback Scott Tolzien and running back Zach Brown to be Wisconsin's opening-day starters when preseason camp began, but both players earned the top jobs over more heralded competitors. Tolzien must continue his steady play at a position where Wisconsin simply can't afford mistakes, and Brown looks to build on an excellent preseason as he'll likely share carries with John Clay.


8. Terrelle, Take 2 --
Ohio State should have little trouble with Navy, but it needs to see tangible signs of progress from quarterback Terrelle Pryor. The gifted sophomore spent the offseason improving his footwork and passing mechanics to become a more complete quarterback. This is Pryor's team now, and he needs a strong opening statement before facing USC in Week 2.


9. Locked and loaded in Bloomington --
Indiana's pistol formation makes its debut Thursday night against Eastern Kentucky, as the Hoosiers try to jumpstart a downhill rushing attack. Without Kellen Lewis on the field, the Hoosiers need a reliable run game and will look to an improved offensive line and a deep group of running backs led by Demetrius McCray and Darius Willis.


10. New backs on the block --
Iowa and Northwestern are among several Big Ten teams starting unproven running backs. The Hawkeyes likely won't find another Shonn Greene this fall, but they need decent production from former walk-on Paki O'Meara and redshirt freshman Adam Robinson to ease concerns after Jewel Hampton's season-ending injury. Northwestern will start junior Stephen Simmons at running back, but true freshman Arby Fields generated plenty of buzz in camp and should get plenty of work against Towson.

Best case-worst case: Minnesota

August, 31, 2009
8/31/09
5:43
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


The sixth installment in a series examining the best and worst outcomes, within reason, for each Big Ten squad.

BEST CASE


The run game resurfaces, the defense plays takeaway and Minnesota restores its tradition in a new on-campus stadium.

Despite a change in offensive philosophy, Minnesota revives its run game and balances things out by attacking defenses with a deep and talented wide receiving corps, led by Eric Decker and Hayo Carpenter. Junior quarterback Adam Weber stays healthy, limits interceptions and operates the new scheme flawlessly with help from backup MarQueis Gray. The defense continues to pile up takeaways, replaces its lost pass-rushing production and does a better job of finishing games. Return specialist Troy Stoudermire sizzles and Minnesota replaces its starting kicker and punter.

Minnesota never wants to see the Metrodome again, but the team looks at ease in the Carrier Dome for its opener against Syracuse. Cedric McKinley makes Greg Paulus wish he'd stuck to hoops by sacking the Orange quarterback four times. The Gophers roll 41-10 and return home to open TCF Bank Stadium. Freshman linebacker Sam Maresh, who returned to football following open heart surgery last summer, leads the team onto the field as a deafening roar greets the players. Despite the emotions of the stadium opener and a tricky opponent (Air Force), Minnesota keeps its composure and improves to 2-0.

Heisman Trophy candidate Jahvid Best leads Cal into the Twin Cities on Sept. 19, but Minnesota running backs Duane Bennett, DeLeon Eskridge and Kevin Whaley end up stealing the show, piling up 285 rush yards against the Bears. Best turns in a typical performance, but the Gophers catch Cal's defense napping and win a shootout, 41-38. Entering the Top 25 for the first time, Minnesota visits Northwestern, a team that has dealt it back-to-back heartwrenching losses. This time, Minnesota prevails in dramatic fashion, as a Decker touchdown pass from Weber wins the game in overtime.

Minnesota reclaims Paul Bunyan's Axe the next week, as safety Kim Royston, a transfer from Wisconsin, knocks the 'W' decal off John Clay's helmet on a big hit. The Gophers improve to 6-0 with a homecoming blowout of Purdue before stumbling on the road against Penn State and Ohio State.

Heading into the home stretch, Minnesota splits against Michigan State and Illinois but crushes South Dakota State to improve to 8-3. The Gophers then head to Iowa City and avenge a 55-0 loss as Decker has a big day at Kinnick Stadium. The loss drops Iowa to 6-6.

At 9-3 and ranked in the Top 25, Minnesota moves on to the Outback Bowl, builds a huge lead against Georgia and doesn't blow it for its first Jan. 1 bowl victory since 1962. Decker wins the Biletnikoff Award, cornerback Traye Simmons is a finalist for the Thorpe Award and head coach Tim Brewster receives a lengthy contract extension.

WORST CASE


The offense stalls, the defense struggles, the stadium buzz vanishes and Minnesota endures another irrelevant season.

Despite returning more experience than any Big Ten team, Minnesota struggles with the scheme changes and the bad habits that hurt the team last season resurfaces. Jedd Fisch's pro-style system doesn't click with the offensive linemen, who struggle to create room for the running backs or buy enough time for Weber to attack downfield. The defense records its share of takeaways, but it struggles to contain the pass and doesn't generate much pressure up front without defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg.

Minnesota starts the season in the wrong place -- a domed stadium -- and suffers a mental meltdown against an inferior Syracuse team. The buzz around head coach Doug Marrone's first game and Paulus' first start at quarterback spurs the Orange, while the Gophers repeatedly hurt themselves with mistakes. Paulus throws for three touchdowns and runs in the game-winning score, dunking the ball over the goalpost to secure a 30-24 victory. The Gophers look a bit rattled the next week amid the hoopla over TCF Bank Stadium, but they survive against Air Force.

Reality returns as Best runs wild against the Minnesota defense and Cal rolls to a 48-14 victory. A week later, Northwestern hands Minnesota another brutal loss, this time by blocking a 25-yard field goal attempt as time expires to prevail 24-23. Wisconsin retains the axe as Clay and Zach Brown combine for 310 rush yards, dropping Minnesota to 1-4.

After beating Purdue, Minnesota suffers back-to-back blowouts against Penn State and Ohio State. Weber is under constant duress and has to leave the Ohio State game with an injury. Gray doesn't fare much better as the Buckeyes roll. The heat begins to rise on Brewster as the Gophers begin a three-game homestand. They find a way to go 2-1 but end the season on a down note against Iowa, which posts another shutout against its archrival.

The Gophers miss a bowl for the second time in two years under Brewster, who suddenly uses far fewer exclamation points in his tweets. Athletic director Joel Maturi decides to give Brewster one more year, but it's clear that a winning record must be posted. The team's recruiting takes a step back and Brewster does some more staff shuffling. Iowa wins the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl, and Wisconsin reaches a Jan. 1 bowl.

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