Big Ten: Troy Stoudermire

Eric Murray manning up for Minnesota

November, 20, 2013
11/20/13
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Any credible list of the Big Ten's best cornerbacks starts with Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard, moves on to Ohio State's Bradley Roby and then typically branches off in several directions.

Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste would appear third on some ballots, as would Michigan's Blake Countess, Iowa's B.J. Lowery and Nebraska's Ciante Evans. Wisconsin freshman Sojourn Shelton also is getting noticed for his recent play.

One name no one's talking about is Eric Murray, although Minnesota's coaches could filibuster for days about the sophomore cornerback. Murray's problem: Unlike the other aforementioned corners, he has yet to intercept a pass this season. Interceptions equal attention, especially the pick-six variety.

[+] EnlargeEric Murray
Zumapress/Icon SMIEric Murray has hounded receivers such as Penn State's Allen Robinson throughout the Big Ten season.
The irony is that Murray's lack of picks can be attributed, at least in part, to how much confidence the coaches have in his game.

"He doesn't play a lot of zone," Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel told ESPN.com "He's pretty much a man-to-man guy, and a lot of it's press-man. It's hard to get a lot of interceptions when you play as much press-man as he does.

"But we feel like he can get people stopped when we need to get 'em stopped."

It's why Minnesota often has Murray mark the opponent's top pass-catching threat. He has lined up across from Penn State's Allen Robinson, Michigan's Jeremy Gallon, Indiana's Cody Latimer, Northwestern's Tony Jones, Nebraska's Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa, and San Jose State's Chandler Jones, the nation's No. 7 wideout. The 6-foot, 194-pound Murray has the length to defend bigger receivers and the speed to pace smaller ones.

Every receiver struggled to match his typical production against Murray, whose next assignment is Wisconsin star Jared Abbrederis on Saturday, when the 19th-ranked Badgers visit No. 25 Minnesota in the most anticipated Axe game in years.

Robinson, the Big Ten's top wideout, was targeted five times with Murray guarding him and recorded just two receptions for 18 yards. Enunwa didn't record any receptions in the nine plays he went against Murray.

"Our staff, we think Darqueze Dennard's the best corner in this conference," Sawvel said. "I know Roby gets a lot of publicity, and we think he's really good, too.

"But outside of those two, we wouldn’t trade Eric for anybody in the conference."

After playing mostly special teams as a freshman in 2012 -- cornerbacks Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire started every game -- Murray had a strong offseason, leaving Sawvel optimistic about his potential for this fall.

Still, Sawvel wondered how the young cornerback would handle failure, and how often he would fail. The answer came Oct. 26 against Nebraska. On the fifth play from scrimmage, Bell beat Murray on a post for 42 yards to the Minnesota 2-yard line, setting up a touchdown.

"His reaction when he came back to the sideline was, 'I'm gonna kick his ass the rest of the game,'" Sawvel said. "It was not, 'Boy, he's tough to cover.' It wasn’t any of that. There was no self-doubt. He was mad about it, but he was like, 'I got this.' And he did."

Nebraska targeted Bell three more times with Murray on him but completed zero passes, as Minnesota rallied for a 34-23 win.

"Whoever's in front of me, it doesn't matter," Murray said. "I just have to be comfortable in myself. If you think negative, negative things will happen."

Murray's positive outlook and drive helped him get to the Big Ten despite being largely overlooked in recruiting. After Murray's junior year at Milwaukee's Riverside University High School, his coach took him to three camps -- Central Michigan, Northern Illinois and Minnesota. Murray worked mostly as a receiver during the Gophers' camp, but head coach Jerry Kill wanted to see if his athleticism translated better at corner.

Days later, Murray returned to Minnesota for a second camp, where he worked one-on-one with Sawvel for 2 1/2 hours.

"Sometimes you get fortunate in recruiting," Kill said. "You've got to go with what you see."

The coaches liked what they saw then, and what they continue to see from Murray.

"Sometimes you have to motivate people to go to work, but not him," Kill said. "He loves playing football, and he takes what he does very seriously.

"He's one of those kids who really tries to master his craft."

Murray spends at least 30 minutes a day watching film of opposing receivers, charting their tendencies and the routes they most often run. He prefers man coverage to zone, where a cornerback must expand his vision rather than simply shadow the receiver.

Murray also watches other cornerbacks, like Dennard, a potential first-round draft pick who plays in an aggressive scheme where the corners are left to fend for themselves. Minnesota uses its corners similarly.

"He presses a lot, and I feel like that's more of my style," Murray said. "I would rather press more than anything."

Even if it means fewer interception opportunities. Murray has come close, as he came down out of bounds following a pick against UNLV and had an end zone interception against Penn State nullified by an offsides penalty.

"I really don't mind it," he said. "As long as my guy doesn't catch the ball, I'm all right. It'll feel really good to get my first one, but I'm not putting too much pressure on myself."

Instead, he'll keep pressuring his opponents. Next up is Abbrederis, whom Sawvel calls "the biggest challenge in the conference.

Murray won't be the only Gophers defensive back dealing with Abbrederis, but the two will see plenty of one another.

"You've got to match strength with strength," Sawvel said. "Where Darqueze Dennard and those people are, that's what Eric Murray will be in the next year or two.

"This is a guy who's going to be as good as it gets in this conference."

Big Ten Friday mailblog

August, 30, 2013
8/30/13
4:00
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My mailbag will come to you just once a week from here on out, right around this time on Fridays. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter.

Have a great first football weekend! To the inbox ...


Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes: Hi Adam. Just reviewed your chat today. In general, agree with your comments on Minnesota except the lack of depth. Yes they have areas of lack of depth -- LB, CB, WR -- but elsewhere they are deeper than last year. That depth, plus Nelson's additional experience, plus their bowl experience, is why I like the team better. I also think Kill's health is better and that can't hurt.

Adam Rittenberg: Some good points here, Craig. I think we saw in Thursday's opener against UNLV how Nelson's experience last year paid off. He looked very comfortable moving around in the pocket, and his athleticism on designed runs also gives Minnesota a good weapon in the ground game. I'm still a little concerned at whether Minnesota's skill players will make an impact against good Big Ten opponents. The Gophers line struggled to dominate UNLV for much of the game and didn't show the physical play we saw in the bowl game against Texas Tech.

You're right that I overlooked some of the depth in the secondary despite losing corners Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire. The Gophers have some playmakers back there. The good news is Minnesota won its opener easily and still has a lot of room for improvement. And we're all pleased that Coach Kill seems to have his health more under control.


John from Au Gress, Mich., writes: As far as Defensive POY is concerned, it was interesting to see what a rival network found when it polled BIG players and coaches. Max Bullough was the runaway choice. Two things work against Max for this award (1) few journalists take enough time to recognize the value of a defensive quarterback like Bullough and (2) with all the "3 and outs" the MSU defense will force, he won't have enough tackles to get his due. Total tackles is an overhyped stat too. My first thought is the overall defense must stink if you get that many opportunities. Borland will probably lead the BIG with around 150 tackles and he would probably like to stay around 100. He seems like a great team guy, and would rather have the defense get off the field.

Adam Rittenberg: John, some good points here, and I couldn't agree more about tackles being an overrated statistic, especially when it comes to linebackers. I would hope the award isn't given based on total tackles, as some standout defenders will be on the field a lot less than others. For me, it's between Borland and Bullough for this award. Both are the nerve centers of their respective defenses. If the Spartan Dawgs once again finish in the top five nationally, I'd have no issue with Bullough getting the hardware. Ultimately, Borland makes more impact plays than Bullough -- or any Big Ten defender, for that matter. Borland is just a freak in that way. Does it mean he's more valuable to his defense than Bullough? It's up for debate. Both are exceptional players, and as I recently wrote, both have a ton of respect around the Big Ten.


Curtis from San Angelo, Texas, writes: You wrote, "Bad calls shouldn't be hidden from fans in the stadium when those at home see them replayed over and over." No, they probably shouldn't. On the other hand, replays of bad calls shouldn't be used like gasoline being poured on a fire, either. Not everyone enjoys going to a sporting event and hearing "fans" yell obscenities (sometimes en masse) at the officials for missing a call. As long as humans are involved, calls will be missed. Hopefully this won't backfire and lead to egging on rude behavior.

Adam Rittenberg: Curtis, I think there's a compromise here, although the replays will be at the discretion of each Big Ten school. I agree that a controversial call shouldn't be replayed 20 times in super slo-mo in the stadium, but fans who pay good money to watch those games have the right to see what everyone else does at home. Big Ten officiating chief Bill Carollo wants his crews to be held accountable. He puts a lot of pressure on them to get it right. Sure, some fans will act like idiots, but the yelling at the officials is going to be there with or without the replays. It's important to enhance the game-day experience at a time when attendance is dropping a bit and the modern-fay fan wants more out of his/her Saturday afternoon.


Lone Wolf McCaw from Siberia, USSR: I don't get it Adam, I don't. I see there are a lot of coaches that won't name who their starters are. Why? I get there are players and positions where you just don't know who is better, or want to see how they perform in a real game. But you can't tell me that, that is the case with all the teams that won't give out a depth chart. Are the coaches writers for a mystery TV show or something, and want to keep us guessing til the end? How does not revealing who your starters are benefit the team in any way, shape or form? I will hang up now and listen to your answer.

Adam Rittenberg: Lone Wolf, as a media member in the business of information, you're preaching to the choir, brother. Some coaches think concealing their starting quarterback provides an advantage because opponents have to prepare for more than one player. I'm not sure I buy that. Teams have so much time to prepare for the opener that they almost overprepare. I think the secrecy has more to do with taking pressure off of the starter, and even the player or players who lose the competition. When you have a true freshman starter, as Penn State likely will with Christian Hackenberg, you can delay the heavy scrutiny until after he plays his first game. But I'm not a fan of keeping this under wraps.


Steve from Washington, D.C., writes: Count me among the many Northwestern fans who are incredibly psyched for this season. I'm stoked to see the speed and talent that we have lined up on the defensive side of the ball. What keeps me up at night, though, is that we play in a conference known for power football, big linemen pushing up the middle with a big RB running behind them. Do you think NU will struggle to stop an up-the-gut power run game? Which matchups should I be particularly worried about in this regard?

Adam Rittenberg: Steve, I think this is a fair concern, although Northwestern's run defense improved significantly in 2012, going from 84th in 2011 to 21st last year (127.6 ypg). The big issue is the loss of defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt, hardly a household name around the Big Ten but a huge part of Northwestern's success against the run. The Wildcats lack depth at defensive tackle and need Sean McEvilly to stay healthy and others (Will Hampton, C.J. Robbins) to step up. Standout safety Ibraheim Campbell also plays a huge role in stopping the run. Campbell might be Northwestern's most valuable player, especially against teams like Wisconsin that run the power.


Adam from DC writes: Ohio State lost seven starters from last year's squad, including all four defensive linemen and two of their three linebackers. OSU also won some close games last year and didn't exactly lead the conference in defense.You picked the OSU Defense for your fantasy team. Why so much faith in the 2013 OSU defense?

Adam Rittenberg: Adam, it has more to do with how fantasy points are awarded for defense, at least in the ESPN College Football Challenge, which Brian and I use. Ohio State's defense actually recorded the most fantasy points (149) in the Big Ten last year, while Michigan State's defense, undoubtedly the best in the league, finished sixth in fantasy points (105). Defenses are awarded points for team wins, of which Ohio State will have plenty, and can pile up points for scoring touchdowns and forcing turnovers. Ohio State might not be the most stifling Big Ten defense, but I expect the Buckeyes to make a bunch of plays, even with all of their youth. The Buckeyes feature several big-play defenders like linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby.


Jeff from San Diego writes: I had a slew of Hawkeye questions for you, but really you can answer them all by responding to this one question; will Kirk Ferentz still be Iowa's coach in three years?

Adam Rittenberg: In three years? Hmm, that's a very tough one. I'm inclined to say yes, but I'm not confident in my answer. That would put Ferentz in his 17th season at Iowa. Obviously, he has a hefty contract that goes for much longer, and maybe he'd like to keep coaching the Hawkeyes for another eight years. Still, it's a long time, and if the momentum doesn't turn soon, Iowa will face a tough decision with its highly paid coach. I don't think Ferentz is in danger this season, but he has to show some positive signs soon. The move to the West division and the soft schedules the next few years should help him.


Ben from Ann Arbor, Mich., writes: Adam, where would you have put Jake Ryan in your preseason rankings had he been healthy? I'm thinking between Roby and Dennard, but I'd appreciate your unbiased opinion.

Joe from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Really? No Carlos Hyde in the top 25? Does his three-game suspension (no charges by the way) really merit that much of a drop? Where would he have ranked had he not been suspended? I figured he would have be top 10/ top 15 for sure.

Adam Rittenberg: Ben, I think we would have had Ryan around No. 11 or No. 12, behind both Roby and Dennard, who have a little more potential to be nationally elite than Ryan does. I'm a big fan of Ryan's playmaking ability, though, and can't wait to see him back on the field for the Maize and Blue. Joe, we were in a bit of a bind with Hyde because when we kicked off the rundown, his status for the season was very much in doubt and there had been some chatter that he wouldn't play this fall. We had to make our full list on the assumption that he wouldn't play. If the Hyde situation hadn't happened, you'd probably see him right around the No. 15 spot.
Only 22 Big Ten players heard their names called during the 2013 NFL draft, the league's lowest total in nearly two decades (it had 21 draftees in 1994).

But as soon as the draft ended Saturday, the free-agent signings began. And there were plenty around the Big Ten from all 12 squads.

Here's our first look list of free-agent signings or team tryouts from the conference. As a reminder, this is not a final list, and we'll have updates later on either here on the blog or on Twitter.

Here we go ...

ILLINOIS

C Graham Pocic, Houston Texans
DE Justin Staples, Cleveland Browns
DE Glenn Foster, New Orleans Saints

INDIANA

C Will Matte, Kansas City Chiefs (tryout)
DE Larry Black Jr., Cincinnati Bengals
DT Adam Replogle, Atlanta Falcons

IOWA

WR Keenan Davis, Cleveland Browns
OL Matt Tobin, Philadelphia Eagles
QB James Vandenberg, Minnesota Vikings

MICHIGAN

WR Roy Roundtree, Cincinnati Bengals
S Jordan Kovacs, Miami Dolphins
LB Kenny Demens, Arizona Cardinals
DE Craig Roh, Carolina Panthers
OL Elliott Mealer, New Orleans Saints
OL Patrick Omameh, San Francisco 49ers
OL Ricky Barnum, Washington Redskins
LB Brandin Hawthorne, St. Louis Rams
(WR Darryl Stonum, dismissed before the 2012 season, signed with the Kansas City Chiefs)

MICHIGAN STATE

CB Johnny Adams, Houston Texans
DT Anthony Rashad White, Pittsburgh Steelers
OL Chris McDonald, New England Patriots

MINNESOTA

CB Troy Stoudermire, Cincinnati Bengals
TE MarQueis Gray, San Francisco 49ers
CB Michael Carter, Minnesota Vikings

NEBRASKA

DE Eric Martin, New Orleans Saints
LB Will Compton, Washington Redskins
TE Ben Cotton, San Diego Chargers
TE/FB Kyler Reed, Jacksonville Jaguars
K Brett Maher, New York Jets
DE Cameron Meredith, Oakland Raiders

NORTHWESTERN

OL Patrick Ward, Miami Dolphins
DL Brian Arnfelt, Pittsburgh Steelers
LB David Nwabuisi, Carolina Panthers (tryout)
WR Demetrius Fields, Chicago Bears (tryout)

OHIO STATE

CB Travis Howard, Houston Texans
S Orhian Johnson, Houston Texans
FB Zach Boren, Houston Texans
TE Jake Stoneburner, Green Bay Packers
DE Nathan Williams, Minnesota Vikings
DL Garrett Goebel, St. Louis Rams
LB Etienne Sabino, New York Giants

PENN STATE

OL Mike Farrell, Pittsburgh Steelers
CB Stephon Morris, New England Patriots
OL Matt Stankiewitch, New England Patriots
FB Michael Zordich, Carolina Panthers

PURDUE

CB Josh Johnson, San Diego Chargers
QB Robert Marve, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
RB Akeem Shavers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

WISCONSIN

CB Marcus Cromartie, San Diego Chargers
CB Devin Smith, Dallas Cowboys
S Shelton Johnson, Oakland Raiders
Brock VereenAP Photo/Paul BattagliaThanks to a solid 2012 season, Brock Vereen has excelled as a starting safety for the Gophers.
Anyone could see that Minnesota's secondary took a major step in 2012, helping the defense finish 12th nationally in pass yards allowed and 23rd in pass efficiency.

But could anyone identify the most invaluable piece of the Gophers' back four? Probably not.

The natural inclination is to pick one of the cornerbacks, Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, both of whom earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors (Carter should have been a second-team selection). Safety Derrick Wells put up impressive numbers (74 tackles, two interceptions, 10 pass breakups, one fumble recovered) in his first season as the starter.

But any of those players would be the wrong answer.

"Yeah, we had Troy Stoudermire, yeah, we had Michael Carter, and Michael Carter had a really good year," Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel told ESPN.com. "But Brock was the most valuable of all our DBs last year. ... Just from a calming influence, from maturity, from a steadiness of play.

"When he wasn't out there, we weren't the same."

Sawvel can't stop raving about Brock Vereen, the Gophers' senior safety who started seven games last season (including each of the final six) and recorded 64 tackles, two interceptions and nine pass breakups. Although Minnesota must replace both Carter and Stoudermire this season, Vereen is back to anchor the secondary and the defense, which loses two starting linebackers and top pass rusher DL Wilhite.

"I need to step up and accept that leadership role," Vereen said. "That comes with confidence. It's definitely been a focus this spring. I've never been a vocal leader, so that aspect is something new, but I've always felt comfortable having guys look up to me.

"I know that I need to talk more, but at the same time, I also know some of the younger guys can learn just by watching me."

Vereen can educate Minnesota's young safeties and cornerbacks because he has played both positions for the Gophers. He spent his first two seasons at cornerback, starting four games in 2010 and all 12 as a sophomore the following year.

The 6-foot, 202-pound Vereen immediately bought in to Sawvel and the coaching staff that arrived with Jerry Kill after the 2010 season. He told Sawvel he wished he had been redshirted in 2010, as he had received little guidance as a true freshman.

"His first thing was, 'I can't wait to be coached. I can't wait to learn what a new staff is going to do,'" Sawvel said.

Vereen had a strong finish to the 2011 campaign, limiting talented receivers like Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis (two catches, 27 yards) and Illinois' A.J. Jenkins (four catches, 30 yards). In hindsight, Sawvel wished he had flipped Vereen from side to side rather than leaving him in one spot because he evolved into Minnesota's top cover corner.

But after the season, the coaches moved Vereen to safety. They had brought in several cornerbacks through recruiting, and Sawvel saw a higher ceiling for vereen at safety.

"He doesn’t have the hips of an elite corner," Sawvel said. "That doesn't mean he couldn’t play it. He could or play it on a short-term basis, but by the same token, he's extremely smart and he's a physical guy. We thought with his skill set, he has a better chance to become an elite safety."

[+] EnlargeBrock Vereen
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsBrock Vereen is in a football family, parents who travel to his games and a brother who plays for the New England Patriots.
The coaches appear to be on the right track. Vereen sat out last spring with an injury and began the season as a reserve safety, in part because Sawvel knew Vereen was mature enough to handle coming off of the bench.

The turning point came in Week 4 against Syracuse, when Vereen and the defense shut down Ryan Nassib and the Syracuse offense in a 17-10 victory.

"After that game, it was clear," Sawvel said. "It was like, 'Brock's the starter. He needs to be on the field all the time.'"

More like all over the field. Vereen can cover slot receivers, square up running backs in the hole and even play a nickel safety/linebacker hybrid role, like he did against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, when he led Minnesota with 10 tackles.

"Somebody asked me, 'What is he? Is he a strong safety? Is he a free safety?'" Sawvel said. "He's a field safety. That allows him to cover people a lot. But when we played Michigan State, they're lining up in two-back and he plays a really good game, and there’s several times where we get the ball bounced to him, and it's him and [running back] Le'Veon Bell and he won all of them.

"That's a big luxury to have, that you have a guy who can do that much."

A native of Valencia, Calif., Vereen wanted "something new" for his college experience. His older brother, Shane, had starred for Cal at running back, and Brock drew interest from several Pac-12 schools in recruiting. He ended up picking his farthest suitor, Minnesota.

Although Vereen has family ties in the Midwest -- grandparents in Illinois, cousins in Indiana, an uncle living minutes away from Minnesota's campus -- life in Minneapolis provided a bit of a shock.

"I've never been more homesick than that first winter," Vereen said. "That definitely was something I needed to adjust to. But it's been great."

Vereen's parents, Venita and Henry, spend every fall and winter weekend on the road, attending their sons' games. Typically, one watches Brock with Minnesota and the other watches Shane play for the New England Patriots. If there's enough time between the two games, they'll attend both.

"I don’t know how they do it, home and away," Brock said. "They have their little system worked out, and I just love 'em for it, all of their sacrifices for me."

Brock attends any of Shane's games that he can -- it helps that the Patriots are a perennial playoff team -- and Shane spends his bye weekend at a Gophers game. The two brothers talk daily, often about football, and Brock keeps close tabs on his brother.

"When I was in high school and he was in college, he was at the level I wanted to get to, so I wanted to know everything he did," Brock said. "And it's the same situation now. I've learned not necessarily from him telling, but just from watching him. That goes back to when we were kids. I've always been very observant of him. He's been very successful in everything that he’s done, so I've been trying to do what he did to get to the level he's at."

Sawvel thinks Brock Vereen has NFL potential, although he'll need to "put out more good video" as a senior.

If NFL talent evaluators see what Minnesota's coaches do in Vereen, he could follow his brother's path a year from now.

"He's just very valuable to us," Sawvel said. "He really is."

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

February, 26, 2013
2/26/13
5:00
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Let's get to it ...

Radi from Bangkok writes: Hey Adam, If the B1G wants to to expand to 18 teams, create 3 divisions and play 5 divisional games, with 2 cross-over games with each of the other 2 divisions, then invite Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia Tech to join the B1G East Division, then offer Notre Dame to join this same division, that the Irish would be foolish to not join on these conditions?

Adam Rittenberg: Radi, I see what you mean about the Notre Dame appeal because ND still could showcase its product in "ACC country" through Georgia Tech, UNC and Virginia. Notre Dame is trying to maintain its brand in regions other than the Midwest, and perhaps a widened Big Ten would pique the interest more in South Bend than a true Midwest league. Ultimately, Notre Dame wants to remain as independent as possible and continue to play games in other regions like the West Coast (USC, Stanford) and even in Big 12 territory. Your proposed schedule would give Notre Dame only three nonleague games to maneuver. Would that be a deal-breaker? Who knows. It really comes down to whether Notre Dame will be forced to join a league. If so, ND could have a decision between a potentially weakened ACC and a broadened Big Ten. That's interesting.




Stephen from Harrisburg, Pa., writes: I'm just curious why Gerald Hodges didn't make the list. I realize that Mauti had a larger impact overall as a leader, but I think that Hodges also contributed overall to keeping the 2012 PSU team together and was an irreplaceable cog in that machine.

Adam Rittenberg: Stephen, I agree that Hodges had a big role in Penn State going 8-4 this past season. Along with Purdue DT Kawann Short and Nebraska WR Kenny Bell, Hodges was one of our final cuts from the rankings. You certainly can make a case that he should be there, but we already had six linebackers, the largest contingent of any position. Mauti certainly overshadowed Hodges, and Hodges wasn't a huge factor during nonleague play. Again, he had a great year and certainly could have been in the rankings, but we felt the other linebackers were more deserving.




John from La Crosse, Wis., writes: do you think that this Wisconsin team can have a better year than last year's even with a new coaching staff? I know that many times a new staff comes in the team is in turmoil, but this team just came off a third straight B1G Championship, and though it is losing key guys like Ball, Wagner, Taylor, and Shelton Johnson, but they do keep a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. If they get solid play from QB, another receiver steps up, and the secondary can fill its holes, do you think that they can make another run at B1G title and compete with Ohio State as well?

Adam Rittenberg: There are a lot of issues to address, John, combined with the potential growing pains of a new staff, as you point out. But you can't discount a culture of success, and that's what Wisconsin has established in recent seasons. Those players know how to win and what it takes to be champions. I think the defense will be solid, and perhaps even a bit improved under the new coaching staff. The secondary is a big concern, and Wisconsin also needs to develop a game-changing pass-rusher again. But Chris Borlandis a superstar and a great leader at linebacker. The quarterback race also is fascinating because the candidates are so different. It's too soon to tell how things will shake out and after last year, I would be a bit wary of some hiccups early in the season. The schedule also is challenging, and Ohio State is a more complete team right now. But you can never count out Wisconsin.




FredCox from Minnesota writes: No D.L. Wilhite? Oh, well...I'm gonna wager there will be 2-3 Gophers on this list next year, do you agree?

Adam Rittenberg: It's certainly possible, Fred. Gophers defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman certainly is on our radar entering the 2013 season. If he plays to his potential, he'll have a great chance to make the postseason top 25. Aside from Hageman, though, Minnesota doesn't have too many obvious potential stars. If quarterback Philip Nelson builds off of his bowl performance, he'll be a player to watch. The Gophers need more difference-makers at the offensive skill spots, and they lose two big pieces in the secondary with Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire. The biggest reason to think Minnesota will have more representation is Jerry Kill's track record in Year 3 of his previous coaching stops. His teams typically make big strides.




Mochila from Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: Putting aside Short's snub (I still disagree with your evaluation which penalizes players on weak teams), what does Allen Robinson's inclusion at #11 say about the league this past year? Last year you guys left out Jeremy Ebert whose stats were slightly better than Robinson's this year. Obviously WR was a far weaker position across the league, but was the league in general lacking in big time players thus benefiting a good, but inconsistent Robinson?

Adam Rittenberg: Robinson at No. 11 underscores the lack of elite wide receivers in the Big Ten. The fact we only considered two other wideouts for the top 25 -- Nebraska's Bell and Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis -- confirms it as well. I disagree, though, with your claim that Robinson was inconsistent. He had five or more receptions in 10 of 12 games and eclipsed 50 receiving yards in nine contests. Those numbers might not jump out in most leagues, but in the pass-challenged, receiver-strapped Big Ten, they're pretty consistent. The receiver depth was much better in 2011, which contributed to Ebert being left out despite some solid numbers. But leaving him out entirely might have been an oversight on our part.




IrrationalIowaGuy from Iowa writes: Marc Morehouse of the Gazette in the above article lists the Iowa recruits from the state of Florida since the 1999 class. There have been exactly 2 good recruiting classes, both over 10 years ago, which have panned out from Florida. The rest have transferred, dropped out, got AIRBHG'd, or rode the bench. You don't have to recruit every state, Rit, you can only have so many guys on your roster. Missouri, East Coast, Ohio/Michigan, and Illinois account for around 12-15 recruits, Iowa accounts for 4-6 recruits. Add Texas and that's a full class.

Adam Rittenberg: I agree you don't have to recruit every state, but there are certain states where you should invest, especially with limited in-state talent, and Florida is one of them. Again, there are two arguments here I don't understand. The first is the either-or argument. Big Ten teams don't have to invest their recruiting resources in Texas or Florida. They can recruit both states. Most programs around the country do just that. I understand that many of Iowa's new assistants have ties to Texas, which is great. But I also think Kirk Ferentz had an opportunity -- with so many recent staff vacancies -- to hire someone who could recruit Florida as well.

The other argument is the one you present, that just because Iowa's recruiting efforts in Florida haven't panned out means it's time to switch gears to other states/areas. Isn't that more of an Iowa problem than a Florida problem? There are countless examples of Florida recruits who have panned out, and not just the nationally elite guys but players who have come to the Big Ten and excelled in recent years. Look at James White at Wisconsin or Corey Liuget at Illinois or Trevor Siemian at Northwestern or Josh Johnson at Purdue -- and maybe Jake Rudock at Iowa. It's about finding the right players and the right fit for your team, and in my opinion, Iowa can and should find recruits from Florida to help. Every Big Ten team should invest time in that state.

B1G postseason position rankings: DB

February, 21, 2013
2/21/13
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Our postseason position rankings are getting close to wrapping up, but first let's put a bow on the defensive side of the ball with a look at the defensive backs.

Star power matters, but depth is also important. The secondary wasn't a particularly standout group for the Big Ten in 2012, though there were some elite players in the back end of the league's defenses. You can see how we ranked the DB groups in the preseason here. And here's how we see it now:

1. Michigan State (Preseason ranking: 1): So maybe Johnny Adams didn't have quite the season we expected out of him, but he was still easily one of the best cornerbacks in the league. And Darqueze Dennard reached an elite level, arguably turning in a better year than Adams at the other cornerback spot. Isaiah Lewis remained one of the top safeties in the league. The Spartans finished third nationally in pass efficiency defense, and their secondary was also stout in run support and on the occasional blitz.

2. Ohio State (Preseason: 2): Teams could pass on the Buckeyes, especially early, as they ended up ranked just 11th in the league in passing yards allowed. But Bradley Roby had an All-American year at cornerback, and Travis Howard grabbed four interceptions while improving over the course of the fall. While Ohio State's safeties sometimes went for the big hit instead of making the safe play, this group had star power and played great when it mattered.

3. Nebraska (Preseason: 4): The numbers would suggest a higher ranking, as the Cornhuskers finished fourth nationally in passing yards allowed and ninth in pass efficiency defense. Yet we can't forget some of the secondary's problems in open-field tackling and helping against the run in big games, or how Aaron Murray and Georgia dissected it in the Capital One Bowl. Still, this group -- led by P.J. Smith, Daimion Stafford and Ciante Evans -- was deep and clearly comprised the strength of Nebraska's defense.

[+] EnlargeMichael Carter
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsGophers defensive back Michael Carter had a breakout game in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, recording seven tackles and two INTs.
4. Minnesota (Preseason: 10): The biggest climber on our board, the Gophers made a major improvement in their secondary thanks to the breakout year by Michael Carter and the return of Troy Stoudermire at the other corner spot. Derrick Wells also made a major impact at safety as Minnesota went from having one of the worst pass defenses in the country in 2011 to the No. 23 pass efficiency defense in 2012.

5. Michigan (Preseason: 3): The Wolverines lost Blake Countess in the first half of the opener and didn't have anyone make first- or second-team All-Big Ten from its secondary. Still, this group had two sturdy seniors in safety Jordan Kovacs and cornerback J.T. Floyd and finished second in the league in pass defense. Those numbers may be a bit skewed by the fact that Michigan didn't face many high-powered passing teams, but this group held its own.

6. Wisconsin (Preseason: 7): The late-game breakdowns by the secondary in 2011 were a distant memory as the Badgers were solid all the way around at defensive back in 2012. They finished third in the league in pass efficiency defense. Getting Devin Smith back at corner really helped, as did the marked improvement of Marcus Cromartie. Safeties Dezmen Southward and Shelton Johnson also had good years. The bad news for Wisconsin is that only Southward returns from that veteran group.

7. Penn State (Preseason: 9): The defensive backfield was the big question mark on the Nittany Lions' defense heading into the season with four new starters. But despite a lack of experienced depth, the starting group of Stephon Morris, Adrian Amos, Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong prevented Penn State from experiencing a drop-off at DB, allowing just 15 touchdown passes in 12 games.

8. Purdue (Preseason: 5): A secondary with two cornerbacks as talented as Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson should not be ranked this low. But the Boilermakers simply got burned too much in big games to be ranked much higher than this. They did tie for the league lead with 14 interceptions, paced by Landon Feichter's four picks.

9. Northwestern (Preseason: 11): The Wildcats' secondary was much, much better when cornerback Nick VanHoose was healthy, and Ibraheim Campbell had a terrific year at safety. This group showed its potential early in the season and in the bowl win over Mississippi State. But the late-game breakdowns, particularly against Michigan (the Roy Roundtree catch) and Nebraska, prevent a higher ranking.

10. Iowa (Preseason: 8): Micah Hyde was named the Big Ten defensive back of the year. This really happened. I looked it up again to make sure. Not that Hyde had a bad season. He just didn't really stand out nearly as much as guys like Dennard, Carter or Roby. Hyde and fellow cornerback B.J. Lowery formed a good tandem, but safety play was shaky for the Hawkeyes and offenses torched them down the stretch. Iowa allowed opponents a league-worst 63.5 completion percentage.

11. Illinois (Preseason: 6): Terry Hawthorne remained an underrated cornerback who should hear his name called in the April NFL draft. Outside of that, it's hard to find many positives for the Illini secondary, as the team finished last in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense and didn't have much else to hang its hat on.

12. Indiana (Preseason: 12): The Hoosiers had hopes of making strides in the secondary with returning starters Lawrence Barnett, Greg Heban and Mark Murphy. But Indiana gave up more touchdown passes (23) than any other league team while only intercepting seven passes. While not all of the pass defense problems can be blamed on the secondary, of course, it's clear this team still lacks high-impact players in the back end.

The Big Ten's All-Bowl team

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
11:00
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The Big Ten won only two bowl games this season, but several players stood out around the league.

Let's take a look at ESPN.com's Big Ten All-Bowl squad ...

OFFENSE

QB: Devin Gardner, Michigan -- There weren't many good choices around the league, but Gardner fired three touchdown passes and racked up 214 pass yards. He has accounted for at least two touchdowns in all five of his starts at quarterback for the Wolverines.

RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State -- The nation's ultimate workhorse running back did his thing in his final game as a Spartan. Bell had 32 carries for 145 yards and a touchdown, recording his eighth 100-yard rushing performance of the season. He also threw a 29-yard pass on a pivotal third-down play.

RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska -- Another back who stood out in his final collegiate game, Burkhead racked up 140 rush yards and a touchdown on 24 carries, and added four receptions for 39 yards. It's really too bad we didn't get to see what Burkhead could have done all season when healthy.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Gallon
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJeremy Gallon celebrates one of his two touchdown catches against South Carolina.
WR: Jeremy Gallon, Michigan -- Gallon recorded career highs in receptions (9) and receiving yards (145), and scored two touchdowns against a strong South Carolina defense in the Outback Bowl. It was his third 100-yard receiving performance of the season.

WR: Derrick Engel, Minnesota -- Along with quarterback Philip Nelson, Engel provided some hope for Minnesota's future on offense with 108 receiving yards on four receptions in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. His 42-yard reception marked the third longest of Minnesota's season.

TE: Dan Vitale, Northwestern -- The freshman provided offensive balance Northwestern needed against a Mississippi State team that focused on taking away Venric Mark and the run game. Vitale recorded team highs in both receptions (7) and receiving yards (82) as Northwestern ended the nation's longest bowl losing streak in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

OL: Taylor Lewan, Michigan -- Everyone remembers Jadeveon Clowney's near decapitation of Michigan's Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl -- which resulted from a miscommunication between Lewan and tight end Mike Kwiatkowski -- but the Wolverines' left tackle did a good job overall against college football's most dominant defensive lineman. Lewan anchored a line that helped Michigan put up decent numbers against an elite defense.

OL: Zac Epping, Minnesota -- Minnesota's offensive line showed flashes of the dominance it displayed for much of the Glen Mason era against Texas Tech. The Gophers racked up 222 rush yards and two touchdowns on 54 carries, as Epping and his linemates opened up holes for Donnell Kirkwood, Rodrick Williams and MarQueis Gray.

OL: Brian Mulroe, Northwestern -- Mulroe made his 40th career start and helped Northwestern finally get over the hump in a bowl game. The Wildcats had a balanced offensive attack, avoided the penalty flag and didn't allow a sack against Mississippi State.

OL: Cole Pensick, Nebraska -- Stepping in for the injured Justin Jackson at center, Pensick helped the Huskers find success running the ball against Georgia, especially up the middle. Nebraska had 239 rushing yards in the Capital One Bowl.

OL: Travis Frederick, Wisconsin: The Badgers rushed for 218 yards against Stanford, which came into the Rose Bowl with the nation's No. 3 rush defense. They also gave up only one sack to a defense which led the FBS in that category. Frederick played very well at center and announced he would skip his junior year to enter the NFL draft a few days later.

DEFENSE

DL: Quentin Williams, Northwestern -- Williams set the tone for Northwestern's win with an interception returned for a touchdown on the third play from scrimmage. He also recorded two tackles for loss, including a sack, in the victory.

DL: William Gholston, Michigan State -- Another player who stood out in his final collegiate game, Gholston tied for the team lead with nine tackles, including a sack, and had a pass breakup in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win against TCU. The freakishly athletic defensive end stepped up in a bowl game for the second straight season.

DL: Tyler Scott, Northwestern -- Scott and his fellow linemates made life tough for turnover-prone Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell in the Gator Bowl. The Wildcats junior defensive end recorded three tackles for loss, including two sacks, and added a quarterback hurry in the win.

DL: Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota -- The big man in the center of Minnesota's defensive line stood out against Texas Tech, recording six tackles, including a sack, and a pass breakup. Gophers fans should be fired up to have Hageman back in the fold for the 2013 season.

LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State -- Bullough once again triggered a strong defensive performance by Michigan State, which held TCU to just three points in the final two and a half quarters of the Wings bowl. The junior middle linebacker tied with Gholston for the team tackles lead (9) and assisted on a tackle for loss.

LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin -- The Badgers' defense clamped down against Stanford after a slow start, and Borland once again stood out with his play at middle linebacker. The standout junior led Wisconsin with nine tackles as the defense kept the Badgers within striking distance in Pasadena.

LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan -- Ryan capped a breakout season with another strong performance in the bowl game, recording 1.5 tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and half a sack. He'll enter 2013 as a top candidate for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.

CB: Michael Carter, Minnesota -- Carter finished off a strong senior year with two interceptions, a pass breakup and seven tackles in the 34-31 loss to Texas Tech.

CB: Nick VanHoose, Northwestern: The redshirt freshman picked off a Mississippi State pass and returned it 39 yard to set up the game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter.

S: Jared Carpenter, Northwestern: The senior was named MVP of the Gator Bowl win with a game-high 10 tackles and a near interception late in the game.

S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: The Wildcats dominate our all-bowl team secondary for good reason. Campbell had an interception and a pass breakup against the Bulldogs.

Specialists

P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State -- The punters took center stage in Tempe as both offenses struggled, and Sadler provided MSU with a huge lift in the field-position game. He set Spartans bowl records for punts (11) and punting yards (481), averaging 43.7 yards per punt with three inside the 20-yard line. His booming punt inside the TCU 5 helped lead to a game-turning fumble by the Horned Frogs' Skye Dawson.

K: Brendan Gibbons and Matt Wile, Michigan -- Both kickers share the honors after combining to go 3-for-3 on field-goal attempts in the Outback Bowl. Gibbons, the hero of last year's Sugar Bowl, connected from 39 yards and 40 yards in the first half. Wile hit a career-long 52-yard attempt in the third quarter, setting an Outback Bowl record.

Returner: Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota -- It took a bit longer than expected, but Stoudermire finally set the NCAA record for career kick return yards with a 26-yard runback on the opening kickoff against Texas Tech. The senior cornerback finished the game with 111 return yards, including a 37-yard runback, on four attempts.
The college football postseason all-star games kick off in the next few weeks, so I thought it would be a good time to see who from the Big Ten is headed where. These games feature NFL draft hopefuls from around the sport, and we'll have full coverage of each contest, particularly the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.

These rosters will be updated in the coming days, but here are lists of confirmed attendees.

SENIOR BOWL

When: Jan. 26 Where: Mobile, Ala.
EAST-WEST SHRINE GAME

When: Jan. 19
Where: St. Petersburg, Fla. NFLPA COLLEGIATE BOWL

When: Jan. 19
Where: Carson, Calif. RAYCOM COLLEGE FOOTBALL ALL-STAR CLASSIC

When: Jan. 19
Where: Montgomery, Ala. CASINO DEL SOL COLLEGE ALL-STAR GAME

When: Jan. 11
Where: Tucson, Ariz.

Big Ten lunch links

January, 4, 2013
1/04/13
12:00
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I thought Ty Burrell was a Penn State guy. C'mon, Phil, pick one team!

Big Ten Friday mailblog

December, 28, 2012
12/28/12
4:30
PM ET
Big Ten bowl season is finally here. How ya feeling?

Jones from Omaha, Neb., writes: I was originally opposed to additional B1G expansion (Maryland, Rutgers) on grounds of brand dilution. They don't seem to bring nearly as much to the table as the Huskers. I'm warming to the brave new world. Now that even more expansion is likely and divisions must be realigned, I'm for Old B1G vs. New B1G. As a Husker fan this will give us exposure in far away lands, plus we've already given up all of our old traditional matchups by leaving Big 12. Bring on NC, Duke, Rutgers, Maryland, Virginia, and whoever else might be an expansion target.

Adam Rittenberg: Jones, if I didn't know better, I'd think you were trying to create a much easier path to the Big Ten championship game for your beloved Huskers. Being in a division with all of those ACC teams certainly looks more favorable than having to beat the likes of Michigan each year. I disagree with this view, as Nebraska has a better chance to build rivalries with teams closer to its campus. Geography will be a bigger factor in the next division alignment, and if Wisconsin is moved to the "West" division, Nebraska would have annual games with both Wisconsin and Iowa. These games could turn into truly great rivalries that Husker fans will value. I think Nebraska needs to be paired with at least one of the other major name-brand teams -- Michigan, Ohio State or Penn State -- but it makes more sense to divide things geographically if the Big Ten's next additions are on the East Coast.


Pat from Detroit writes: Not even a quick blurb about the passing of Reggie Garnett? I know i was over the holidays, but c'mon! The far too soon passing of an early 90s big ten stud could've at least made the lunch links. RIP Reggie.

Adam Rittenberg: Apologies, Pat, as I've been working on something outside the blog for most of the week and Brian has been busy with bowl assignments as well. It was sad to hear about Garnett's passing -- he was only 38. Check out some links about Garnett here and here and here. Coach Mark Dantonio released a statement about Garnett on Wednesday night. It reads: "We were very saddened to hear about the passing of Reggie Garnett yesterday. A four-year starter in the mid-1990s, Reggie was a tremendous player and a true Spartan. More importantly, he had remained connected to the MSU football program, returning to campus for reunions and games. Reggie was an outstanding young man, who will be missed by all of us. We’d like to express our deepest sympathy to his family as well as his extended Spartan family. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, teammates and friends."


Russ from Bloomington, Ill., writes: It sounds like there are going to be lots of openings for NFL head coaches starting next week. Is Kirk Ferentz still considered a good coach in those circles? And given that Iowa is going to be lucky to go 4-8 next year, could he finally be tempted to make the leap and spare us Hawkeye fans more one yard pass plays on 3rd and 3?

Adam Rittenberg: Good question, Russ. The Ferentz-to-NFL rumors seem to be an annual thing, and I doubt this year will be an exception, despite his recent struggles at Iowa. The job to watch is Kansas City, as Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli and Ferentz are close from their time with the Cleveland Browns. Pioli thinks very highly of Ferentz, but Pioli's own job should could be in jeopardy. My sense is that Ferentz doesn't want to leave Iowa on such a down note and would be likelier to make a jump when the program is in a bit better shape. His youngest son, Steve, just finished his freshman year on the team, and some think Ferentz, 57, wants to stay at Iowa until all of his children have graduated. Money clearly isn't a problem for Ferentz, although it's hard to resist the pull of the NFL.


John from New York writes: I understand Bennett's logic about a healthy D line and your loyalty to the Big Ten but there is no possible way he thinks the score of Purdue-Oklahoma State will be 31-27. Ok St scored 30 against Kansas State, 36 against Texas, and 48 against Oklahoma. Purdue gave up 41 to Marshall, 44 to Michigan, and 44 to Minnesota, they have no coach and not to mention they won't have a fan within 1000 miles of the stadium... Either you're required to show some sort of confidence in the league or he needs to be checked into a hospital. That game will be closer to 70-27

Adam Rittenberg: John, Oklahoma State certainly has the ability to light up Purdue's defense. But Kawann Short is a potential first-round pick at defensive tackle and played much of the season with a bum wheel. The Boilers' cornerbacks also will challenge the Cowboys receivers, but it really comes down to the defensive line and what type of pressure it can apply on the Pokes. Purdue's defense needs its best effort of the season to keep Oklahoma State's offense in check, but it's also important for Purdue to control the ball on offense and keep the Pokes offense off of the field. Could we see a 70-27 game? Sure. Oklahoma State has that type of firepower. But how much do the Pokes really want to be in this game? Purdue has an interim coach, but I really think the Boilers will be more motivated than Okie State.


Nick from Marion, Ohio, writes: Like most level-headed and educated realignment prognosticators, you believe the ACC is the most likely conference to supply the Big Ten with its next expansion targets. What happens if Maryland isn't able to wiggle out of its $50 million buyout; are Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia Tech still the likely looks? Also, give us three non-ACC schools you could see joining the ranks of the B1G.

Adam Rittenberg: Nick, I definitely think the outcome of the Maryland-ACC dispute about the buyout will be a major factor in any additional defections from the league. If Maryland indeed has to pay the full $50 million, it might discourage other schools from leaving, although the Big Ten long-term future revenue projections suggest it still might be smart to make the move. I firmly believe when the Big Ten expands again, it will once again look to the ACC. Georgia Tech is definitely on the radar. Virginia could be an attractive candidate and North Carolina is the grand prize, although UNC might not be realistic. We'll see. Outside the ACC, I don't see many realistic candidates. Maybe Kansas, although the Big Ten made a big deal about wanting to have a greater East Coast presence, and Kansas isn't there. Connecticut needs to become an AAU member to gain serious consideration.


Gabriel from Virginia Beach, Va., writes: 1st round pick Lewan vs. Future 1st round pick Clowney: Who wins on Jan. 1st????

Adam Rittenberg: Gabriel, it should be a tremendous matchup in Tampa. It's hard to pick against Clowney, who has been so dominant this season as just a true sophomore. Lewan had some nice moments as well, but as he told me earlier this month, he hasn't seen a pass-rusher quite like Clowney. Michigan's offensive line has struggled at times to generate push in the run game, but it has protected the pocket well, allowing only 15 sacks in 12 games. I think Clowney records at least one sack in the game but doesn't dominate Lewan. I'm really interested to see what coordinator Al Borges has brainstormed for Michigan, which will need a creative game plan against such an athletic Gamecocks defense.


Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes: Troy Stoudemire is very close to breaking the NCAA kick return record. Will he get drafted as a kick returner considering the NFL's kick return rules? Is he the top kick returner in the country? in the B1G?

Adam Rittenberg: Craig, I think Stoudermire has a chance to play at the next level because of his versatility. He has played cornerback and receiver with the Gophers and obviously has talent as a return man, although his production has gone down since the 2008 season. He'll have to show well in the postseason all-star games, the NFL combine and any other pre-draft events, but he has a chance.
Three keys for Minnesota in tonight's Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas game against Texas Tech:

1. Get creative offensively: The Gophers had major trouble finding the end zone for large parts of the season. Injuries at quarterback, receiver and on the offensive line kept the Minnesota offense stuck in neutral; it averaged just 13.3 points per game in every Big Ten game except an outlying 44-point outburst against Purdue. The month off has given time for those nicks and bruises to heal and should help senior quarterback/receiver MarQueis Gray be as effective as he was early in the season. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover needs to maximize ways to use the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Gray along with true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson and lead tailback Donnell Kirkwood. The Gophers are still limited at receiver, with A.J. Barker quitting and Andre McDonald suspended. Limegrover must be creative in finding ways to move the ball and somehow keep up with Texas Tech's wide-open offense.

2. Control the skies: Texas Tech had the No. 2 passing attack in the country, averaging 362 yards per game in the air this season. That's no surprise, given the recent history in Lubbock. The good news for Minnesota is that defending the pass is the Gophers' strength -- they had the No. 11 pass defense in the country this season. Cornerbacks Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire must turn in great games, along with safety Derrick Wells, against standout receivers Eric Ward and Darrin Moore. That won't be enough against a team likely to line up four and five wide receivers every snap, so defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman and D.L. Wilhite will have to get pressure on Seth Doege and find ways to disrupt his rhythm. At the very least, the Gophers must take a bend-but-don't-break attitude and force the Red Raiders to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns.

3. Do all the little things right: Let's be honest: Minnesota is a huge underdog in this game and would probably be playing a much easier opponent if Ohio State and Penn State were bowl eligible. It's a tough matchup for a team that doesn't score a whole lot in what is almost a road game. But the Gophers still have a chance against a Texas Tech squad that lost four of its final five and saw its head coach bolt for Cincinnati after the season. They just have very little margin for error. Special teams have to come up big. They can't afford many penalties. And they absolutely must win the turnover battle and keep the Red Raiders offense off the field as much as possible. They're going to need some luck and to play nearly a perfect game. The good news: Minnesota should be far more excited to be in this game than the Red Raiders.

Big Ten lunch links

December, 27, 2012
12/27/12
12:00
PM ET
A full bowl of links for ya.

Season report card: Minnesota

December, 27, 2012
12/27/12
11:00
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We're back for another round of report cards today as we put every Big Ten team's regular season under the microscope. Minnesota plays its bowl game tomorrow. But first, the Gophers get their grades.

Offense: D

Things looked promising early in the year, as MarQueis Gray began to fulfill his potential as a dual-threat quarterback and some more options emerged in the passing game. But the Gophers' offense quickly crashed back to earth as Gray got hurt, leading to his eventual move to receiver to make way for true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson. Other injuries on the offensive line and particularly at receiver, where leading pass-catcher A.J. Barker quit the team after a dispute over his rehab, left offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover searching for duct tape to hold his group together. Minnesota exploded for 44 points against Purdue on Oct. 27, but that proved to be an aberration; the Gophers averaged a measly 13.3 points per game in their seven other Big Ten contests and failed to score more than 17 points in eight of their final nine games. They finished 111th nationally in total offense. Running back Donnell Kirkwood rushed for 849 yards but was practically invisible in the final two games.

Defense: B-minus

The improvement in Minnesota's defense over 2011 was obvious. The Gophers finished fifth in the league in total defense while allowing fewer than 24 points per game, and they ranked No. 11 nationally in defending the pass. Ra'Shede Hageman became a major impact player at defensive tackle, and end D.L. Wilhite had 8.5 sacks, good for second in the Big Ten. Michael Carter blossomed into one of the league's top cornerbacks as a senior, while safety Derrick Wells played great early in the year. Minnesota was not a dominant defense and gave up too many points to some of the better offenses in the league (Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska). But the unit became more than respectable this season and helped carry the team through its offensive struggles.

Special teams: C-minus

The return of Troy Stoudermire didn't really do much to improve Minnesota's kick return game, which ranked eighth in the Big Ten. The Gophers also didn't fare too well in punting (99th nationally in net punting), and Jordan Wettstein missed eight of his 21 field goal attempts. Without a lot of room for error, this team needs to find more ways to be effective in the kicking game.

Overall: C-plus

After a 4-0 start, Minnesota went just 2-6 and was barely competitive in three of its final four games. Yet this team easily earns a passing grade simply by winning enough games to make it to its first bowl since 2009 in Year 2 under Jerry Kill. There was undeniable progress, and perhaps the Gophers could have done even better than 6-6 with some better health luck on the offensive side. They had to juggle three starting quarterbacks, but getting Nelson starting experience should prove valuable down the road. The second half of the season pointed out a glaring need for more skill position players, but the building process appears to be on schedule in Minneapolis.

Previous report cards:

Illinois
Indiana
Iowa
Michigan
Michigan State
Ohio State
Nebraska

B1G bowl primer: Meineke Car Care Bowl

December, 18, 2012
12/18/12
10:00
AM ET
Our snapshots of each bowl featuring a Big Ten team continue.

MEINEKE CAR CARE BOWL OF TEXAS

Minnesota (6-6) vs. Texas Tech (7-5)

Where: Houston, Reliant Stadium

When: Dec. 28, 9 p.m. ET (8 p.m. CT)

TV: ESPN

About Minnesota: The Gophers return to a bowl game for the first time since the 2009 season after doubling their wins total from 2011 in coach Jerry Kill's second year. Thanks to an improved defense, Minnesota surged to a 4-0 start before struggling in Big Ten play. Injuries forced Minnesota to use three different starting quarterbacks: senior MarQueis Gray, sophomore Max Shortell and freshman Philip Nelson, who lost his redshirt midway through the season and started the final six contests. The Gophers finished 11th nationally in pass defense and bolstered their pass rush behind senior end D.L. Wilhite and junior tackle Ra'Shede Hageman. Nelson showed some flashes of potential in a home victory against Purdue, but injuries piled up for the Gophers' offense, which scored just 54 points in the final four games.

About Texas Tech: Like Minnesota, the Red Raiders saw most of their gains in the first half of the season. They won their first four games and six of their first seven before dropping four of their final five. The poor finish combined with mounting criticism led to the somewhat surprising departure of coach Tommy Tuberville to Cincinnati following the regular season. Texas Tech acted quickly in naming rising star Kliff Kingsbury as head coach, although offensive line Chris Thomsen will coach the Red Raiders in the bowl. The passing tradition at Tech is alive and well as Seth Doege triggers the nation's No. 2 pass offense (361.9 yards per game), and the Red Raiders also rank in the top 20 nationally in both scoring and total offense. The defense performed well through the first half, shutting down then-Heisman Trophy favorite Geno Smith and West Virginia, but the unit struggled late, surrendering more than 50 points in four of the final six contests.

Key players, Minnesota: Gray is set to play his final game in a Gophers uniform, and as has been the case for much of his career, his position is somewhat of a mystery. Gray started at quarterback last season and opened this fall as the team's top signal-caller, but knee and ankle injuries forced him to wide receiver. The extended break before the bowl has allowed Gray to get healthy, and both he and Nelson are practicing at quarterback. Although running back Donnell Kirkwood has been good at times, Minnesota lacks offensive playmakers. Senior cornerback Michael Carter headlines the secondary after recording two interceptions and 14 pass breakups this fall. Wilhite tied for second in the Big Ten with 8.5 sacks.

Key players, Texas Tech: Doege ranks 14th nationally in pass efficiency (156.6 rating) and ninth in total offense (331.1 ypg), having eclipsed 300 pass yards in nine of 12 games with a 499-yard effort against West Virginia and a 476-yard performance against Kansas. He has two excellent targets in wide receivers Darrin Moore and Eric Ward, both of whom rank in the top 20 nationally in receptions and in the top 30 nationally in receiving yards. Junior defensive end Kerry Hyder triggers Texas Tech's pass rush with five sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. Senior safety Cody Davis leads the unit in tackles (91) and interceptions (3), and ranks second in pass breakups (7).

Did you know: The teams' only previous meeting was a memorable one, as Texas Tech made a huge comeback to force overtime and eventually beat Minnesota in the 2006 Insight Bowl. The blown lead led to Minnesota's firing of longtime coach Glen Mason two days later. ... Texas Tech is bowl-eligible for the 19th time in the past 20 seasons. ... Minnesota will be looking for its first bowl win since the 2004 Music City Bowl, when it defeated Alabama 20-16. ... Minnesota is 5-9 all-time in bowls and has dropped four straight. ... Texas Tech makes its third appearance in what's now known as the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. Texas Tech played in the inaugural game in 2000 (then named the galleryfurniture.com Bowl) at the Astrodome and again in 2003 (then named the EV1.net Houston Bowl) at Reliant Stadium. Texas Tech's last appearance resulted in a 38-14 win over Navy on Dec. 30, 2003.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 15

December, 5, 2012
12/05/12
10:15
AM ET
Only one Big Ten game took place since the last edition of the power rankings, but the surprising result left quite a conundrum.

How should we rank teams 2 through 6 after Wisconsin smashed Nebraska by 39 points in the Big Ten championship game? Wisconsin had a truly great night in Indy and looked like a different team than we've seen all season, but the Badgers still have more losses than Nebraska, Northwestern, Michigan and Penn State.

Oh, the decisions. In the end, this version of the power rankings takes into account the totality of the season. It's a little different from the weekly ones in that sense. Plus, we want to remain consistent with how we voted in the ESPN.com power rankings. As a result, Wisconsin stays at 6 (commence hate mail).

Let's get to it ...

1. Ohio State (12-0, last week: 1): Get used to the Buckeyes occupying the top spot under coach Urban Meyer, who guided Ohio State to its sixth unbeaten and untied season in team history. The big keys entering the offseason are addressing depth issues on the defensive side, finding more consistent playmakers to surround quarterback Braxton Miller and maintaining the standard set this season on the offensive line.

2. Michigan (8-4, last week: 3): Jadeveon Clowney and the South Carolina Gamecocks await Michigan at the Outback Bowl, giving the Wolverines one final chance at a signature victory. Clowney and Wolverines tackle Taylor Lewan face off in a battle of future NFLers. Michigan should benefit from bowl practices as it continues to adjust to having both Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson in the backfield.

3. Penn State (8-4, last week: 4): Penn State won't soon forget the 2012 season or the 2012 senior class, but it's now time to look ahead to an uncertain future. Bill O'Brien and his assistants must be extremely selective with the 2013 recruiting class and future classes, as they can ill afford to miss on more than a few prospects. Penn State loses a lot of star power on defense but has a nice piece to build around at defensive end in Big Ten Freshman of the Year Deion Barnes.

4. Nebraska (10-3, last week: 2): On the cusp of its first league title since 1999, Nebraska tumbled down the mountain yet again. Saturday's loss was an all-time stinker, the worst in team history, according to veteran columnist Tom Shatel. The defense allowed more rushing yards (539) than it ever has, and the offense turned over the ball and didn't find a rhythm until it was far too late. Nebraska will try to rebound against Georgia in the Capital One Bowl.

5. Northwestern (9-3, last week: 5): Will Northwestern finally get the bowl monkey off of its back this year? Pat Fitzgerald's crew has a potentially favorable matchup against slumping Mississippi State in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. A young Wildcats squad should benefit from bowl practices, as players such as cornerback Nick VanHoose can fully heal. Northwestern's formidable rushing attack faces a Bulldogs defense ranked 70th nationally against the run.

6. Wisconsin (8-5, last week: 6): Yes, we saw what you saw Saturday night. The Badgers were brilliant. And if they follow it up against Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, they'll make a serious move up the power rankings. Still, this has been an inconsistent team that now must deal with the stunning departure of coach Bret Bielema to Arkansas. After dealing with so much adversity this season, can the Badgers rally again?

7. Michigan State (6-6, last week: 7): The good news for both the Spartans and their Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl opponent, TCU, is that their upcoming matchup is at a neutral site. Both squads failed to win a conference home game this season. Both squads are also very good on defense and inconsistent on offense. It'll be interesting to see Mark Dantonio and Gary Patterson match wits, and how Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell performs against a stout Frogs defense.

8. Purdue (6-6, last week: 8): The Boilers have a new head coach in Darrell Hazell, but his impact won't be felt until 2013. An extremely tough matchup against Oklahoma State awaits Purdue in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Cornerbacks Josh Johnson and Ricardo Allen will be tested early and often, and quarterback Robert Marve and the offense will need to put up big numbers for the Boilers to have a chance against the heavily favored Pokes.

9. Minnesota (6-6, last week: 9): Like Purdue, Minnesota heads to Texas for a bowl matchup in which it is a sizable underdog. And like the Boilers, Minnesota needs its cornerbacks (Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire) to step up against a very good passing offense in Texas Tech (second nationally). The Red Raiders allowed 111 points in their final two games, but Minnesota's offense has been banged up and struggling and must get healthy this month.

10. Indiana (4-8, last week: 10): It's all about improving the defense in Bloomington, and Indiana has upgraded its recruiting, most recently adding a commitment Insider from defensive tackle Darius Latham, an ESPN 300 prospect who had originally pledged to Wisconsin. The Hoosiers need more depth and more talent on defense to complement what will be a very explosive offense in 2013.

11. Iowa (4-8, last week: 11): Offensive coordinator Greg Davis is staying, and he'll be tasked to upgrade an offense that took a significant step back in his first season. Jake Rudock is expected to step in at quarterback, and Iowa should have good depth at running back (famous last words, I know). The defense returns most of its key pieces and showed the ability to take the ball away this season (23).

12. Illinois (2-10, last week: 12): As expected, coach Tim Beckman will get at least another season to get things right after a miserable first go-round. Staff changes probably are coming as Illinois tries to get back on its feet before spring practice. The Illini lose several NFL-caliber defensive players, but the bigger concerns are with an offense that finished 119th nationally this season.

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