Big Ten: Trent Mossbrucker

Three sacks in a row.

How does that happen?

To "Mr. Clutch" Ricky Stanzi and No. 9 Iowa, no less.

Iowa reclaimed the fourth-quarter magic that had defined last year's run to the Orange Bowl championship. And then, just like that, it all went away in a 34-27 loss to No. 24 Arizona in the desert.

It was Arizona quarterback Nick Foles -- the Michigan State transfer -- who played the role of hero Saturday night against Iowa. Foles channeled Stanzi, brushing off a pick-six to lead an incredibly impressive game-winning drive against an Iowa defense that seemingly had regained its swagger.

Iowa had one last chance, but Stanzi couldn't get out of his own backfield as the offensive line melted down.

Iowa's two biggest concerns entering the season -- offensive line and cornerback -- were exposed in the loss to Arizona. An inexperienced offensive line really missed last year's starters, and Iowa certainly could have used cornerback Amari Spievey tonight as Foles carved up the secondary. Although the defense looked great for chunks of the second half, I expected a better performance tonight.

Special teams was the weakness no one expected to hurt the Hawkeyes, but Iowa essentially handed Arizona two touchdowns because of miscues in the kicking game. And after regaining all the momentum, Trent Mossbrucker has the go-ahead PAT attempt partially blocked. It was poor execution all around.

Would things have been different if Iowa had come all the way back to take the lead? We'll never know.

But a team can't expect to live on the edge as much as Iowa has and not tumble over the edge from time to time. Iowa played a miserable first half, and while it recovered well, there wasn't enough consistency for the win.

This is a tough blow for Iowa, which boasted a senior-laden team with legit national title aspirations. There will be a drop in the polls later today.

The good news is the Hawkeyes still can make some noise in the Big Ten and get back to a BCS bowl.
The position rankings finish with the special-teams units. For this list, I examine kickers, punters, return men and coverage units and look at each team's overall picture in the all-important third phase. The Big Ten loses several elite specialists, including punter Zoltan Mesko and kicker Brett Swenson. It's a little odd not to see Ohio State near the top, but if there's a hole on Jim Tressel's team this year, it might be on special teams.

Here are my top five:

[+] EnlargeDerrell Johnson-Koulianos
Aaron Josefczyk/Icon SMIDerrell Johnson-Koulianos ranked second in the Big Ten in kick return average (31.5 ypr) in 2009.
1. Iowa: The Hawkeyes boast one of the league's top punters in Ryan Donahue, who has averaged more than 40 yards per punt in each of his first three seasons. Iowa also brings back Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, who ranked second in the Big Ten in kick return average (31.5 ypr) in 2009. There's competition at kicker (big surprise), but Daniel Murray and Trent Mossbrucker both boast experience. Colin Sandeman quietly ranked second in the league in punt return average last year.

2. Michigan State: Swenson is undoubtedly a major loss, but Michigan State should improve in the other phases of special teams. Punter Aaron Bates was extremely solid in 2009, averaging 41.6 yards despite a league-high 63 attempts. Look out for Keshawn Martin, who averaged 28.9 yards on kick returns last fall. Martin could be the league's top return man by season's end. The Spartans need to upgrade their kickoff coverage unit.

3. Ohio State: Despite question marks at both specialist spots, Ohio State's history as an elite special-teams squad under Tressel can't be overlooked. Hopes are high for Ben Buchanan at punter, and Devin Barclay has a very big kick on his résumé against Iowa last year. The Buckeyes must replace return man Ray Small, but there's enough talent there. The coverage teams are always good in Columbus.

4. Minnesota: The Gophers' strengths are their return teams, led by Troy Stoudermire and Bryant Allen. Minnesota led the Big Ten in punt return average, although it had only nine runbacks all year, and finished fifth in kick return average. Eric Ellestad was perfect on PATs and had a decent year on field goals. The Gophers need Dan Orseske to step in at punter for Blake Haudan.

5. Wisconsin: There are some concerns about the Badgers' special-teams units, but everyone is back and should be better. Punter Brad Nortman averaged 42 yards per punt last year, and while kicker Philip Welch took a mini step back, he still booted 17 field goals. David Gilreath is one of the league's most experienced return men, and linebacker Chris Borland proved to be a difference-maker on special teams last year.

More rankings ...

Iowa spring recap

May, 5, 2010
5/05/10
10:00
AM ET
2009 overall record: 11-2

2009 conference record: 6-2 (T-2nd)

Returning starters

Offense: 6, defense: 8, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

QB Ricky Stanzi, WR Marvin McNutt, WR Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, RB Adam Robinson, OT Riley Reiff, DE Adrian Clayborn, DT Karl Klug, DE Broderick Binns, S Tyler Sash

Key losses

LT Bryan Bulaga, RT Kyle Calloway, TE Tony Moeaki, G Dace Richardson, C Rafael Eubanks, LB Pat Angerer, LB A.J. Edds, CB Amari Spievey

2009 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Adam Robinson* (834 yards)

Passing: Ricky Stanzi* (2,417 yards)

Receiving: Derrell Johnson-Koulianos* (750 yards)

Tackles: Pat Angerer (145)

Sacks: Adrian Clayborn* (11.5)

Interceptions: Tyler Sash* (6)

Spring answers

1. Man in the middle: Jeff Tarpinian emerged from spring ball as Iowa's starting middle linebacker, taking over for first-team All-Big Ten selection Pat Angerer. Tarpinian has big shoes to fill but boasts some experience and stepped up his play this spring. "I'm really pleased with his progress," head coach Kirk Ferentz said of Tarpinian.

2. Separation along O-line: Iowa's offensive line remains its No. 1 area of concern, but six players separated themselves this spring, which is a good sign. Along with returning starters Riley Reiff and Julian Vandervelde, right tackle Markus Zusevics and right guard Adam Gettis emerged as front-runners at their positions. Josh Koeppel and James Ferentz are neck-and-neck at the center spot, and the competition will continue in August.

3. Klug steps up: Adrian Clayborn is the defense's undisputed leader, but defensive tackle Karl Klug established himself as Clayborn's right-hand man this spring. Klug admits he's not the most vocal player, but his experience and attitude command respect on the field. "Karl played well in the fall," Kirk Ferentz said, "but if you surveyed any 10 of our players now, at least nine of them would tell you, maybe 10, that Karl Klug is one of our best leaders and one of our best players."

Fall questions

1. Running back: Iowa boasts depth at running back, but the No. 1 spot is very much up for grabs entering the summer. Robinson missed spring ball following shoulder surgery, Brandon Wegher sprained his shoulder during the spring and Jewel Hampton was held out of contact as he recovers from his knee injury. Iowa needs to keep these guys healthy in camp and figure out how the carries will work this fall.

2. O-line chemistry: The offensive line will be a major area to watch until the season opener and likely beyond. Iowa loses four players with starting experience and will lean heavily on Reiff and Vandervelde to lead the group. Just because the Hawkeyes have a strong record up front doesn't guarantee the line will reload, and Iowa knows it needs to keep Stanzi on the field after last season.

3. Kicking it: Ferentz said the kickers were inconsistent this spring, and Daniel Murray and Trent Mossbrucker will continue to compete throughout fall camp. Murray connected on 19 of 26 field goal attempts last season but missed some chip shots, and Mossbrucker, the team's top kicker for most of 2008, has worked his way back into the mix.
Before we get ready for a six-pack of spring games Saturday, let's take a quick look back at the final Big Ten scrimmage from a week ago.

Iowa wrapped up spring drills at Kinnick Stadium, and while it was more of a regular practice than the other spring games, the Hawkeyes did a bit of scrimmaging.

Iowa's top three running backs -- Adam Robinson, Brandon Wegher and Jewel Hampton -- missed the scrimmage as they recover from injuries, but quarterback Ricky Stanzi played and completed 7 of 11 passes for 72 yards. Backup James Vandenberg completed 13 of 22 passes for 144 yards. True freshman A.J. Derby twice was picked off by safety Nick Nielsen in limited work.

The Hawkeyes spread the ball around to several receivers. Starter Derrell Johnson-Koulianos recorded a 32-yard reception, while walk-on Don Nordmann had five catches for 49 yards.

Linebacker Troy Johnson stood out for the defense with a sack and a 48-yard touchdown return following a fumbled snap between Vandenberg and center James Ferentz.

Other Iowa nuggets:
  • The kicking game is a bit of a question mark after starter Daniel Murray converted only 3 of 7 attempts in the scrimmage. Trent Mossbrucker fared better, hitting on 4 of 5 attempts. "It's kind of been underwhelming this spring, quite frankly," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "We've been very inconsistent. We've flashed, but we've been very inconsistent." Mossbrucker was the team's top kicker for most of the 2008 season and will push Murray for the starting job in preseason camp.
  • Another Iowa running back got a bit banged up, as Brad Rogers left the field with a left ankle injury that head coach Kirk Ferentz called a mild sprain. Wegher and Paki O'Meara got banged up during spring drills, although Hampton was fine and held out of contact only as a precaution. Still, running back health is a concern entering the fall.
  • The top offensive line consisted of left tackle Riley Reiff, left guard Julian Vandervelde, center James Ferentz, right guard Adam Gettis and right tackle Markus Zusevics. Josh Koeppel remains in the mix at center.
Iowa opened spring practice today, and head coach Kirk Ferentz met with reporters to preview the next few weeks.

A few takeaways from Ferentz's news conference and Iowa's spring two-deep:

  • Health update: safeties Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood will miss spring ball following shoulder surgeries; running back Adam Robinson also will sit out following shoulder surgery; linemen Steve Bigach (knee) and Kyle Haganman (shoulder) also are out following surgeries. Running back Jewel Hampton (knee) has been cleared to practice this spring and will be involved in some contact drills (won't be tackled). Wide receiver Paul Chaney Jr. (knee) will be very limited in spring ball but should be back to full strength by June. Defensive end Dominic Alvis (groin) will be very limited. Nolan MacMillan could be in the mix at offensive line, but he's still working back from sports hernia surgery.
  • Not surprisingly, Ferentz fielded several questions about the offensive line, which loses four players who started part or all of last season. Iowa's spring depth chart shows the starting offense line as Riley Reiff at left tackle, Julian Vandervelde at left guard, Josh Koeppel or James Ferentz at center, Adam Gettis at right guard and Markus Zusevics at right tackle. But don't read into that too much, as Ferentz likened filling out the first string, after Reiff and Vandervelde, to throwing darts or flipping coins. "We probably have eight or nine guys competing for the top spots," Ferentz said. "We have a lot of guys on pretty equal footing as far as the competition goes."
  • As expected, Shaun Prater is listed as the starter at right cornerback, while Micah Hyde appears as the starter at left corner ahead of both William Lowe and Jordan Bernstine, who comes back from an ankle injury that sidelined him all of last season. Amari Spievey was a huge loss, and it will be interesting to see who steps in for him.
  • Ferentz gave a very Ferentz-like answer when asked about the expectations Iowa will face heading into 2010. "We have some very good players back and that will drive expectations," he said. "Preseason polls are a lot like recruiting rankings. They are all speculative. Recruiting rankings are based on what guys did in high school, which is the only way you can rank them. I think preseason rankings are based on your experience level, your success level and then maybe the name of your school, too. So those three things factor in. ... Outside of maybe the name-brand schools, the preseason polls are usually not real accurate."
  • Ferentz called the competition at kicker wide open between Daniel Murray and Trent Mossbrucker. "We can do better at that position," he said.
  • Ferentz praised the development of linebackers Jeff Tarpinian, Troy Johnson and Tyler Nielsen, who will compete for the two vacant starting spots alongside Jeremiha Hunter. "Quite frankly I'm almost more worried about a year from now at our linebacker spot," he said. "Sounds kind of funny, our two pretty good seniors graduating, but we are top heavy age-wise."
  • Ferentz is optimistic about the competition at running backs and would like to have three healthy options on game days this fall.
  • The coach also gave an update on his NCAA tournament bracket, which, like many of ours, is busted. One of his daughters, meanwhile, picked Northern Iowa's upset of Kansas. "She knows nothing about basketball," Ferentz said. "Her other picks were -- she was leading after the first two days. I guess she's still leading. She's beating the president, right now, on her brackets. Whatever. Mine are awful."
I'm man enough to admit mistakes, so here's one: I haven't given special teams nearly enough attention in the blog. As we saw throughout the 2009 regular season and bowl season, the kicking game often makes the difference in the final outcome.

Consider this a fresh start.

Let's take a look at who's back, who's gone and how the special-teams units look for each Big Ten squad in 2010. We'll start with the first six teams (by alphabetical order) and examine the other five later Tuesday.

ILLINOIS

  • Kicker: Derek Dimke and Matt Eller both return. Dimke went 5-for-5 on field-goal attempts (all beyond 30 yards) after taking over for Eller, who struggled in his second year, connecting on only 4 of 11 attempts.
  • Punter: Senior Anthony Santella returns after ranking sixth in the league in punting average (41.3 ypp).
  • Kick return: Troy Pollard is back, but Arrelious Benn and A.J. Jenkins both depart. Illinois finished ninth in the league last fall in this category (19.3 ypr).
  • Punt return: Jarred Fayson and Jack Ramsey both come back. Illinois ranked last in the league in punt returns in 2009 (4.2 ypr)
  • Quick thoughts: Illinois needs to upgrade its kicking game to have any shot at turning things around in 2010. The return game really struggled (114th nationally in punt returns, 105th in kick returns), and kickoff coverage wasn't good, either (90th). Dimke provided a nice spark late in the season, but Illinois has too much talent not to make a bigger splash in returns.
INDIANA

  • Kicker: Sophomore Nick Freeland returns after connecting on 14 of 25 attempts in 2009. Redshirt freshman Mitch Ewald and senior Nick Ford also are in the mix here.
  • Punter: Junior Chris Hagerup is back after finishing eighth in the league in punting average (40.5 ypp).
  • Kick return: Ray Fisher, who led the Big Ten in kick return average (37.4 ypr), is gone. Wide receiver Tandon Doss, who led IU with 25 runbacks, returns for his junior season.
  • Punt return: Indiana loses Fisher but brings back Doss. The Hoosiers finished second in the Big Ten in punt returns last fall (10.3 ypr).
  • Quick thoughts: Fisher is a major loss in the return game, but Doss certainly has the ability to fill the void. Indiana must figure things out on field goals, as it ranked last in the Big Ten in percentage last fall (.560). The offense should be pretty dynamic in 2010, so any help the kicking game provides would be huge. Indiana covered punts well but needs to improve on kickoffs after finishing 93rd nationally (23.2 ypr).
IOWA

  • Kicker: Daniel Murray handled all of Iowa's field goals in 2009, connecting on 19 of 26 attempts. Junior Trent Mossbrucker also returns.
  • Punter: Senior Ryan Donahue will contend for All-Big Ten honors this fall after averaging 40.9 yards per punt in 2009.
  • Kick return: Senior Derrell Johnson-Koulianos is back after finishing second in the league in kick return average (31.5 ypr). Running back Brandon Wegher and wideout Paul Chaney Jr. also are back.
  • Punt return: Senior Colin Sandeman is back, and he'll compete with Chaney and possibly others for the top job.
  • Quick thoughts: Special teams should be a major strength for the Hawkeyes in 2010. Johnson-Koulianos showed against Ohio State how dangerous he can be on kickoff returns. Donahue and Murray are two of the league's more experienced specialists. Iowa's coverage units fared well in 2009, ranking ninth nationally in kick coverage (18.4 ypr) and 21st in punt coverage (5.7 ypr).
MICHIGAN

  • Kicker: The Wolverines must replace Jason Olesnavage, who connected on 11 of 15 attempts in 2009.
  • Punter: Michigan suffers a big loss here as Ray Guy Award finalist Zoltan Mesko departs. Mesko led the Big Ten in punting average (44.5 ypp).
  • Kick return: Wideout Darryl Stonum is back after averaging 25.7 yards per runback with a touchdown in 2009. Michigan's No. 2 option, Martavious Odoms, also returns for 2010. The Wolverines ranked third in the Big Ten in kick returns last fall (23.8 ypr).
  • Punt return: Junior Hemingway is back after leading U-M in punt returns (8.6 ypr). Odoms had six punt returns last fall, though Michigan could look to its younger players here.
  • Quick thoughts: Replacing Mesko won't be easy, and Olesnavage quietly turned in a strong season, especially from long range. Incoming punter recruit Will Hagerup will step into the fire right away for the Wolverines. Kick returns should be a strength, and Michigan did a decent job on coverage last year, ranking 20th in punt coverage and third in the Big Ten in net kickoff coverage.
MICHIGAN STATE

  • Kicker: The Spartans suffer a big loss here, as first-team All-Big Ten selection Brett Swenson departs. Swenson went 19-for-22 on field goals last fall and led the Big Ten in kick scoring (101 points).
  • Punter: Senior Aaron Bates returns after finishing fifth in the league in punting average (41.6 ypp).
  • Kick return: Wide receiver Keshawn Martin is back after becoming arguably the Big Ten's most dangerous return man last fall. Michigan State needs a No. 2 option here.
  • Punt return: Martin did a nice job on punt returns in 2009, averaging 7.4 yards per runback.
  • Quick thoughts: Swenson leaves a major void at kicker, as Dan Conroy and Kevin Muma compete to replace the back-to-back All-Big Ten selection. Martin really blossomed on returns during Big Ten play and could be a huge X-factor for Michigan State this fall. The Spartans' coverage teams were average in 2009. If Conroy and/or Muma can hold their own on field goals, special teams could be a real strength for Mark Dantonio's team.
MINNESOTA

  • Kicker: Eric Ellestad is back for his senior year after connecting on 13 of 17 field-goal attempts, with all the makes coming from within 40 yards.
  • Punter: Minnesota loses Blake Haudan, who had a very solid 2009 season, ranking third in the league in average (42.6 ypp). Sophomore Dan Orseske will step in this fall.
  • Kick return: Wideout Troy Stoudermire is back after once again getting a ton of action on returns, recording 43 runbacks for 1,057 yards (24.6 ypr). Duane Bennett and Hayo Carpenter are possible No. 2 options.
  • Punt return: Sophomore wideout Bryant Allen is back after averaging 12.2 yards on six runbacks last fall. Minnesota led the Big Ten in punt return average (14.7 ypr), although the Gophers also had the fewest opportunities (9).
  • Quick thoughts: Haudan was a very solid punter in 2009, so Orseske will have some big shoes to fill. Stoudermire and Allen are fine options on returns, and Ellestad did a nice job on the kicks he should make. Minnesota really struggled on kickoff coverage, ranking 102nd nationally (24.1 ypr). If the offense starts slow again this fall, Minnesota will need to be sharp in the kicking game.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Thought the position rankings were over? Think again.

We don't forget the specialists on the Big Ten blog, so after a lengthy lull -- blame training camp -- it's time to examine the kicking game around the league. The rankings are based on kickers and punters, return men and coverage units.

Let's begin.

1. Michigan State -- The Spartans return two second-team All-Big Ten picks in kicker Brett Swenson and punter Aaron Bates, who averaged 42 yards on 71 punts. The return game looks a little suspect but a healthy Mark Dell should help.

2. Michigan -- It helps to have the best punter in the league in senior Zoltan Mesko, a leading candidate for the Ray Guy Award. Michigan should be more dynamic on returns with Martavious Odoms and others. The big question here is at kicker.

3. Penn State -- Punter Jeremy Boone didn't get many chances last fall but executed well when called upon. There are questions at kicker after the loss of first-team All-Big Ten performer Kevin Kelly, and Derrick Williams will be missed on returns. Penn State is always good on coverage teams.

4. Ohio State -- A few more question marks here than normal, but Ohio State's special teams track record under Jim Tressel can't be denied. Aaron Pettrey should be fine at kicker and has a strong leg. Ohio State brings back the league's top punt return man in Ray Small. The Buckeyes need to upgrade their kick return unit after finishing 108th nationally in 2008.

5. Iowa -- Punter Ryan Donahue is a stud and likely will set school records by the time he's done. Daniel Murray showed he could make a clutch kick against Penn State, though he remains in competition with Trent Mossbrucker. Andy Brodell is a big loss at punt returner, and Jewel Hampton might not be available to return kicks.

6. Wisconsin -- I really like Wisconsin's young specialists, kicker Phillip Welch and punter Brad Nortman. But you can't rank last nationally in kickoff returns and expect to be high on this list. Wisconsin needs to jump start its returns with David Gilreath.

7. Indiana -- Chris Hagerup is a terrific young punter after nailing 13 punts for more than 50 yards last fall. Demetrius McCray looks solid on kickoff returns. Indiana must replace former All-Big Ten kicker Austin Starr, but Starr really struggled last fall (10-for-17). Heralded freshman kicker Mitch Ewald joins the mix.

8. Purdue -- Carson Wiggs did a nice job at kicker after taking over for Chris Summers, who will handle the punting duties this fall. Purdue needs to improve its punting after finishing last in the league in 2008, but the return game looks solid with Aaron Valentin and Royce Adams.

9. Minnesota -- The Gophers are starting over after losing both of their top specialists. They'll be relying on junior Eric Ellestad and freshman Dan Orseske to step up. It helps to have the league's most dynamic return man in Troy Stoudermire.

10. Northwestern -- All too often, the kicking game has cost Northwestern, most notably in the Alamo Bowl against Missouri. Stefan Demos is finally healthy and could handle both the kicking and punting duties this fall. The Wildcats could use a boost in the return game from Stephen Simmons or Andrew Brewer.

11. Illinois -- I really like sophomore kicker Matt Eller, who beat Iowa with a field goal last November. But it's no secret the Illini need significant upgrades on their punt teams after finishing 10th in punting and last in returns. Florida transfer Jarred Fayson should boost the return game. The Illini must improve their kickoff and punt coverage.

Big Ten special-teams snapshot

June, 19, 2009
6/19/09
10:45
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Thanks to several of you for reminding me about special teams, a subject I had planned to tackle during spring ball but got bogged down with too many other things.

Here's a quick look at where each Big Ten team stands on special teams heading into the summer. A more comprehensive position-by-position ranking will come your way a little closer to the season.

GOOD SHAPE

Michigan State -- The Spartans return Lou Groza Award candidate Brett Swenson along with punter Aaron Bates, who averaged 42 yards per boot last season. Punt return man Otis Wiley is gone, but Mark Dell should step in nicely and the Spartans boast some exciting, young talent in Keshawn Martin, Jairus Jones and others.

Ohio State -- The Buckeyes don't have as many special teams certainties as most years, but history doesn't lie. Ohio State will always be strong on special teams under head coach Jim Tressel. Punter is a question mark, but Aaron Pettrey should be fine on field goals. Ray Small is one of the nation's best punt return men, and the kickoff return unit should be much more dynamic than it was last year.

Illinois -- The Illini return both of their starting specialists, and kicker Matt Eller looks like a keeper after connecting on 8 of 10 field goal attempts from beyond 40 yards last year. Illinois' return game also should be much improved as Florida transfer Jarred Fayson enters a mix that includes Arrelious Benn.

SO-SO

Penn State -- Jeremy Boone is one of the league's best punters, and odds are Penn State will be fine on special teams by the end of the season. But Kevin Kelly is a big loss at kicker, and the Nittany Lions will miss the dynamic Derrick Williams on punt and kickoff returns. Penn State will look to Chaz Powell to provide a spark on returns.

Iowa -- Ryan Donahue has established himself as a solid Big Ten punter, and the Hawkeyes have two options at kicker in Daniel Murray, the hero of the Penn State victory, and Trent Mossbrucker. The big loss comes at punt returner, as Andy Brodell was one of the best around. Iowa also might need a primary kick returner if Jewel Hampton moves into a starting spot at running back.

Minnesota -- The Gophers have the Big Ten's most dangerous return man in Troy Stoudermire, who averaged 25.8 yards on kickoff returns and racked up more than 1,000 return yards last year. Marcus Sherels is a very solid punt return man, but the Gophers must replace both of their starting specialists. Hopes are high for heralded freshman punter Dan Orseske.

Michigan -- Bad seasons usually equal a lot of work for the punter, and Zoltan Mesko came through in a big way for Michigan last fall. The Big Ten's best punter is back, and Michigan also boasts return men Martavious Odoms and Boubacar Cissoko. The situation at kicker looks a bit messy, and Rich Rodriguez will need some of his incoming freshmen to contribute right away.

Wisconsin -- Kicker Phillip Welch comes off a stellar freshman season in which he connected on 17 of 20 field goal attempts. Punter Brad Nortman also comes back, and David Gilreath remains a dangerous man on punt and kickoff returns.

A LITTLE SHAKY

Purdue -- From field goals to punt coverage, Purdue had its adventures on special teams last fall. But if Carson Wiggs continues to perform well on makeable kicks, the Boilers should be fine. Purdue loses Desmond Tardy, who led the Big Ten in kickoff returns (28.8 yards per return), as well as Kory Sheets. Hopes are high for Aaron Valentin on kickoff returns after the wideout averaged 25.7 yards per runback in 2008.

Indiana -- Austin Starr didn't have the senior season he envisioned, but the All-Big Ten kicker most certainly will be missed in Bloomington. Indiana also loses Marcus Thigpen, who made his mark as a kickoff returner. Punter Chris Hagerup looks like a keeper but comes off knee surgery, and the Hoosiers are looking for help on returns.

Northwestern -- The Wildcats need to reach a point where special teams no longer costs them games. It happened again in the Alamo Bowl, a game Northwestern should have won. Punter Stefan Demos did a lot of nice things last season but can't afford critical mistakes like the one he made in the bowl (kicking to Jeremy Maclin). The Wildcats bring in a scholarship kicker in Jeff Budzien, and they need some help on returns.

Big Ten internal affairs: Week 13

November, 19, 2008
11/19/08
9:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Iowa -- Kicker continues to be a question mark for the Hawkeyes with the re-emergence of junior Daniel Murray in recent weeks. Murray, who made the game-winning field goal against Penn State, connected on a 45-yard attempt last week against Purdue. Starter Trent Mossbrucker missed two extra-point attempts against the Boilers, and head coach Kirk Ferentz said the freshman needs a strong week of practice to reclaim a spot on the field Saturday at Minnesota. Mossbrucker had performed well entering the Penn State game, but Ferentz went with the more experienced Murray in the clutch. "He's been kicking a long time," Ferentz said of Mossbrucker. "He knows a lot more about it than I do or anybody here does. Yeah, just get back to what's made you a successful player. He'll be fine."

Michigan -- It will be interesting to see how head coach Rich Rodriguez uses his running backs Saturday at No. 10 Ohio State (ABC, noon ET). Junior Brandon Minor, the Wolverines' most productive back during the second half of the season, expects to return from a multitude of injuries against the Buckeyes. But junior Carlos Brown comes off his best performance, a 115-yard effort against Northwestern, and freshman Michael Shaw also is in the mix. Brown and Shaw likely will get the first opportunities against the Buckeyes, but Minor will be a factor. Michigan has racked up 170 rushing yards or more in five of its last six games.

Penn State -- Derrick Williams is playing his best football at the end of his career, and the Nittany Lions are doing all they can to get the ball to the talented senior. Two weeks ago, Williams took snaps at quarterback as Penn State used a Wildcat-like formation at Iowa. Last week against Indiana, he racked up 164 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns, getting eight touches on offense to go with three returns. If quarterback Daryll Clark continues to struggle early against Michigan State (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), don't be surprised to see Williams with the ball in his hands. Also, defensive end Josh Gaines (ankle) practiced Monday and is expected to play against the Spartans.

Illinois -- The days of removing Juice Williams from games to let him regroup appeared over after the Illini junior quarterback had a scorching start to the 2008 season. But after committing two turnovers last Saturday against Ohio State, the coaches replaced Williams with backup Eddie McGee. Williams has committed nine turnovers (8 interceptions, 1 fumble) in Illinois' last four games. He leads the Big Ten in both touchdown passes (22) and interceptions (15) this season. Still, head coach Ron Zook maintains confidence in Williams heading into the regular-season finale at Northwestern. "A lot of times he gets a lot of the blame that isn't necessarily his fault," Zook said. "That's part of it as well and it gets exaggerated when things aren't going right, particularly with a football team that was expected to play a little bit better and be a little bit more productive than we have been."

Indiana -- After dealing with a multitude of injuries all season, the Hoosiers appear to be getting healthy right at the end. Tackle Rodger Saffold returned to action against Penn State, and the other starting offensive linemen are all fine for Saturday's season finale at Purdue (ESPN2, noon ET). Head coach Bill Lynch isn't sure if backup running back Bryan Payton (ankle) will play, though Payton did more in practice Monday than he has in previous weeks. Running back Marcus Thigpen and wideout Mitchell Evans should be fine, and Indiana actually will have the option of playing either Kellen Lewis or Ben Chappell at quarterback. The Hoosiers previously had been forced to rotate the two because both have been banged up.

A look back at the Week 12 picks

November, 18, 2008
11/18/08
4:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Our review session is a day later than normal, thanks to the blog getting backed up with other items. After a miserable first two weeks in November, I broke through big time with a perfect 5-0 week that included some in-the-ballpark score predictions. No major surprises translated into a nice rebound, though things will get tougher for rivalry Saturday.

Let's look back at the picks.

INDIANA-PENN STATE

  • My pick: Penn State 48, Indiana 7
  • Game result: Penn State 34, Indiana 7
  • 20-20 hindsight: The Nittany Lions' slow start combined with some plucky play from Indiana prevented this one from turning real ugly. Penn State senior wide receiver Derrick Williams had a big game (161 all-purpose yards), though junior quarterback Daryll Clark struggled with three turnovers. The Lions did return to their big-play roots, though, thanks to Williams.

OHIO STATE-ILLINOIS

  • My pick: Ohio State 28, Illinois 21
  • Game result: Ohio State 30, Illinois 20
  • 20-20 hindsight: I forecasted that Chris "Beanie" Wells and Malcolm Jenkins would have big games for the Buckeyes and both players came through. Wells racked up 143 rushing yards, a touchdown and an insane leap over Illinois safety Donsay Hardeman. Jenkins blocked a punt for a safety that gave Ohio State a 9-7 lead, one it never relinquished. Illinois made some plays, but Ohio State won its 15th straight Big Ten road game.

PURDUE-IOWA

  • My pick: Iowa 23, Purdue 17
  • Game result: Iowa 22, Purdue 17
  • 20-20 hindsight: If only Hawkeyes kicker Trent Mossbrucker had made one of two extra-point attempts, I would have been right on target. Oh, well. Some Iowa fans ripped me for picking a close game, but Purdue came to play, as it has for most of the season. Iowa running back Shonn Greene proved to be too much for the Boilers (211, 2 TDs), solidifying himself as the nation's best running back.

NORTHWESTERN-MICHIGAN

  • My pick: Northwestern 27, Michigan 24
  • Game result: Northwestern 21, Michigan 14
  • 20-20 hindsight: I should have factored the weather a bit more in my score prediction, but I can live with the final result. Northwestern's defense totally shut down Michigan in the second half, and senior quarterback C.J. Bacher survived some early shakiness to toss two touchdown passes. The most crucial turnover came late -- a fourth-quarter interception by Michigan's Steven Threet -- and the Wolverines suffered their school-record eighth loss.

MINNESOTA-WISCONSIN

  • My pick: Wisconsin 27, Minnesota 14
  • Game result: Wisconsin 35, Minnesota 32
  • 20-20 result: The Gophers performed much better than expected without star wide receiver Eric Decker, but a miserable fourth quarter led to their third straight loss. Wisconsin running back P.J. Hill had a big game (117 rush yards, 2 TDs), but it was the passing game behind Dustin Sherer and Isaac Anderson that spurred the Badgers offense.

Bye: Michigan State (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten)

Season record: 66-16 (80.5 percent)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Kirk Ferentz earned his Bachelor's degree in English Education, but the Iowa head coach could easily pass for a history major.

 
 David K Purdy/Getty Images
 Daniel Murray's field goal on Saturday clinched Iowa's upset of Penn State.

Ferentz frequently references the program's past when he surveys the present and the future of Hawkeyes football. And for quite some time, Ferentz has talked about the 2001 season.

Back in the spring, as Iowa endured an embarrassing series of off-field incidents involving football players, Ferentz brought up 2001, "our worst conduct year," he said. The Hawkeyes were solid citizens the next fall, and Ferentz hoped the same would hold true with his current squad.

The pattern from 2001 also has been reflected on the field. That year, Iowa lost five regular-season games by single digits, adding up to a total of 27 points. The 2008 Hawkeyes entered Saturday at 5-4, with all four losses coming by five points or fewer (12 points total).

"I talked to the team [Nov. 2] about our 2001 season, which was a little bit like how this one's been," Ferentz told ESPN.com on Monday night. "It took us till our 12th game, the Alamo Bowl against Texas Tech, where we finally won a close one. We drove the ball the length of the field, kicked a field goal and then Bob Sanders picked off a Hail Mary in the end zone to seal it.

"We were hopeful it wouldn't take 12 games to get one of those."

It didn't. Iowa's breakthrough came early Saturday evening against then-No. 3 Penn State, as Daniel Murray drilled a 31-yard field goal to lift his team to a 24-23 come-from-behind win.

The upset triggered a raucous on-field celebration, a congratulatory message from Iowa Gov. Chet Culver and the hope that perhaps Iowa had turned a corner. After all, the Hawkeyes followed the 2001 season with a dominant run from 2002-04, averaging 10.3 wins per year and reaching three January bowl games.

Could the Penn State win be the breakthrough Iowa needs?

(Read full post)

Big Ten internal affairs: Week 11

November, 12, 2008
11/12/08
9:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It's time to look inside five Big Ten teams.

Minnesota -- Wide receiver Eric Decker will miss Saturday's game at Wisconsin (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET) with a high ankle sprain, and the Gophers are working to find ways to replace the Big Ten's receptions leader. Freshman Brandon Green will play a much more prominent role, and Minnesota also will turn to freshman Brodrick Smith and sophomore Ralph Spry, who comes off a two-game suspension for violating team rules. Green, listed as a starter this week, has 12 receptions in his last three games and could blossom into a top-end wideout with extra playing time.

Northwestern -- Running back has become the Wildcats' primary concern after season-ending injuries to starter Tyrell Sutton (dislocated wrist) and backup Omar Conteh (torn knee ligament). Sophomore Stephen Simmons will make his second career start Saturday at Michigan (ESPN2, noon ET), but he'll get help from freshman Jeravin Matthews, a special teams standout who has been moved from wide receiver to running back. Both Simmons and Matthews are small, quick backs, but they'll need to be effective in the passing game, an area where both Sutton and Conteh excelled.

Iowa -- Daniel Murray converted the biggest field goal in recent team history Saturday against Penn State, but he's once again listed as the backup kicker on this week's depth chart. Head coach Kirk Ferentz has confidence in both Murray and freshman Trent Mossbrucker, though it would be hard to see Iowa go against Murray with the game on the line. Mossbrucker, to his credit, has made 13 of 15 field-goal attempts and all 24 extra-point attempts this season. "We went from a situation not knowing where we were at in the spring to feeling confident right now that both guys plan an important role," Ferentz said.

Purdue -- The Boilermakers could use a quarterback rotation Saturday at Iowa. Fifth-year senior Curtis Painter is improving from a separated throwing shoulder, while redshirt freshman Justin Siller has shown enough promise to remain part of the game plan. Painter returned to practice this week, but head coach Joe Tiller said Siller likely will start against the Hawkeyes. Siller is practicing full-go this week after sustaining a bruised sternum against Michigan State. "What I'd really like in a perfect scenario this week would be for Curtis to get healthy enough to execute the two-minute game," Tiller said. "Justin isn't prepared to do that. It's not that he can't do it in the future, it's just how much are you going to heap on this guy now and what are you going to expect him to do."

Indiana -- Head coach Bill Lynch hasn't pinpointed the reason for his team's rash of injuries, but it isn't the playing field at Memorial Stadium. Indiana had to install new turf late this summer after flooding damaged the old surface. Though several players have sustained knee injuries on the home turf, Lynch sees no different between what Indiana has and other fields around the Big Ten. The health watch on offense looks better this week, but Indiana will need to do more shuffling in the secondary as cornerback Richard Council battles a leg injury. The Hoosiers already have lost three secondary starters to season-ending injuries, and walk-on wide receiver Collin Taylor has been moved to free safety, where he'll back up Brandon Mosley.

Iowa's Murray ready in the clutch

November, 8, 2008
11/08/08
9:03
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The plan going in called for Daniel Murray to handle any field goal snapped from the 25-yard line or beyond.

So when Iowa converted a third-down pass and reached Penn State's 15-yard line with less than a minute remaining in Saturday's game, Murray figured he would be nudged out of the spotlight. After all, that's where he's been for the last six weeks, ever since he missed a 35-yarder in a 21-20 loss at Pitt, putting him at 1-for-3 on the season.

 
  Jerry Lai/US Presswire
  Iowa Hawkeyes kicker Daniel Murray (1) makes the game winning field goal during the fourth quarter against the Penn State.

Surely Iowa would go with freshman Trent Mossbrucker, who entered Saturday's game having made 13 of 15 field-goal attempts, all from inside 40 yards. But with about 20 seconds left, the coaches came over to Murray and told him this was his moment.

"You go with your gut," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "But the important thing is Danny's ready. He was ready to jump in there and get the job done."

But how ready could he be?

Murray hadn't attempted a field goal in Big Ten play. Now he was about to go for the game-winner against No. 3 Penn State, with a "howling" wind blowing around Kinnick Stadium.

"I was nervous until I got on the field," Murray said. "Once I got on the field, it was kind of like, 'No turning back now.' ... I knew I could do it, from anytime, anywhere. But the ability for them to put the confidence in me, I could only thank them so much for it."

The kick sailed through from 31 yards out, giving Iowa a 24-23 win, its first against a top 5 team since 1990, when the Hawkeyes knocked off No. 5 Illinois.

It made it only sweeter that the guy who made the biggest kick in recent team history is a townie, having grown up in Iowa City and attending Regina High School. A star soccer player who chose to walk on to the football team, Murray was named to the freshman All-Big Ten team after hitting 7 of 10 attempts last year.

But a slow start and an injury, combined with Mossbrucker's emergence, put Murray backstage after the Pitt game. He continued to handle kickoff duties and waited for his shot.

"Just being an Iowa City kid, it only makes it a little bit better," he said. "You've grown up watching it all, and you understand the history and the tradition behind the whole program."

Now he has his own chapter.

"I always dreamed about it," he said. "But you can only dream until it actually comes true."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Penn State's quest for a national title has ended.

A team that looked unflappable all season struggled down the stretch, giving Iowa a chance to rally for a monumental upset. The Hawkeyes erased a 9-point fourth-quarter deficit and won the game, 24-23, on a 31-yard Daniel Murray field goal with two seconds left.

Murray converted the winner with the wind at his back. Freshman Trent Mossbrucker had handled most of the kicks for Iowa, including the extra points Saturday, but with the game on the line, the Hawkeyes went with Murray, a more experienced player who kicked last year.

No. 3 Penn State made uncharactistic mistakes in the second half, dropping several passes and making questionable decisions. Junior quarterback Daryll Clark, who had displayed remarkable poise for most of the season, threw an interception that led to the decisive scoring drive. Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi rebounded from two second-half turnovers and led the Hawkeyes downfield in the final minutes, going 57 yards in 15 plays.

The crowd is storming the field. I'll be back later with more updates.

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