Big Ten: Vanderbilt Commodores

Video: Friday Four Downs

October, 19, 2012

Urban Meyer's increased involvement with the Ohio State defense and a lot of scheduling are among the top storylines in the Big Ten this week.

Some quick notes and nuggets after Northwestern rallied to defeat Vanderbilt 23-13 on Saturday night at rainy Ryan Field ...

It was over when: Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter reversed field on third-and-long and raced in for a 29-yard touchdown with 1:24 remaining. Moments earlier, Wildcats defensive end Tyler Scott sacked Vanderbilt's Jordan Rodgers with 2 minutes remaining, forcing a fumble that the Wildcats recovered at the Vanderbilt 21-yard line with 1:47 left..

Gameball goes to: Northwestern running back Venric Mark. He's almost always the smallest player on the field, but Saturday night he was the best and the toughest. The junior had 23 rushes for 128 yards and a touchdown, recording his first career 100-yard rushing performance. He added a 14-yard reception. Mark is the biggest reason why Northwestern is 2-0, coming out of nowhere to claim the team's top running back spot in the preseason.

Stat of the game: Northwestern had just 85 yards and converted only 2 of 6 third-down chances in the first half. The Wildcats racked up 228 and converted 5 of 10 third-down chances, while Vanderbilt went just 4-of-15 on third downs.

What Vanderbilt learned: You have to put your foot on a team's throat when you can. Vanderbilt thoroughly dominated the first half, outgaining Northwestern 232-85 and running 12 more plays than the Wildcats. But the Commodores led by only seven points after a Rodgers fumble in the red zone. Vanderbilt let Northwestern's defense gain confidence, and the 'Dores didn't do enough in the second half, especially with their offensive play-calling. The offensive play-calling was baffling at times, as Vanderbilt didn't capitalize on an obvious advantage with wideout Jordan Matthews.

What Northwestern learned: The defense has some fight in it. Despite losing top cornerback Nick VanHoose on the second play, the Wildcats dug in and held Vanderbilt in check for most of the game. The much-maligned unit bought a stagnant offense enough time to get rolling, and Northwestern once again came up big in the fourth quarter behind quarterback Trevor Siemian. Although Colter once again got the start at quarterback and scored the final touchdown, Siemian looks like the better trigger man for the offense.

What it means: Northwestern remains an extremely dangerous team in close games, especially when you don't put the Wildcats away when you can. The defensive performance raises the ceiling for the Wildcats' season, and a very favorable schedule awaits Pat Fitzgerald's squad with three more home games before trips to Penn State and Minnesota. Vanderbilt continued to struggle in close games and faded in the fourth quarter. The 'Dores will point to another highly questionable call, one that prolonged Northwestern's go-ahead drive. But they didn't do nearly enough on offense to win this one.

Video: Pat Fitzgerald previews home opener

September, 8, 2012

Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald previews the Vanderbilt team his Wildcats will face Saturday in Evanston.
A day packed with Big Ten scheduling news continues as Ohio State has announced it will open the 2013 season against Vanderbilt in Columbus.

Vanderbilt is the second confirmed opponent on Ohio State's 2013 slate. The Buckeyes will host the Commodores on Aug. 31 and visit California on Sept. 14. The addition ensures Ohio State will play two nonconference games against opponents from AQ conferences, as it will this season (Miami, Colorado). Ohio State typically opens the season against smaller, in-state programs and hasn't kicked off a year against an opponent from an AQ conference since Washington in 2003.

It will be interesting to see what type of Vanderbilt team the Buckeyes face in 2013. Vanderbilt opened the coffers during its recent coaching search and wants to upgrade the program to compete better in the SEC. The 'Dores are no strangers to opening their season against the Big Ten, doing so against Michigan in 2006 and Northwestern in 2010.

It marks the fifth meeting between the schools and the most recent since 1933. Ohio State holds a 3-1 edge in the all-time series.
Last week, a few reports out of Tennessee stated that Vanderbilt received "some admission of error" from the Big Ten regarding a penalty call at the end of the Vanderbilt-Northwestern game on Sept. 4.

A Big Ten officiating crew flagged Vanderbilt safety Jay Fullam for a high hit on Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa. The penalty gave Northwestern a first down and allowed Persa to run out the clock to secure a 23-21 victory. The Tennessean reported that an apology from the Big Ten was issued to the SEC office.
"What good does it do?" Vanderbilt coach Robbie Caldwell said. "It's amazing to me. … The same people will be working the games. They'll be rolling on, bottom line."

Well, according to the Big Ten, there was no apology issued to the SEC regarding the call. The Big Ten issued a statement Sunday regarding the situation on its website.
"In response to isolated media reports late last week suggesting that the Big Ten Conference had issued an apology related to an officiating call in the Northwestern-Vanderbilt game on September 4, the Big Ten Conference would like to make clear that it supports judgment calls explicitly intended to protect the health and safety of student-athletes. NCAA football playing rules include specific language that encourages officials, when in doubt, to apply the rules to protect the athletes and the conference fully supports them in these instances. Contrary to isolated media reports, the conference did not issue an apology related to any officiating call in the Northwestern-Vanderbilt game."

Both Persa and Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said officials made a correct call, according to the new policies to protect player safety.

I still think it was a tough call to make, given the situation, but the Big Ten clearly stands by the men in stripes.

And really, would the Big Ten ever apologize to the SEC about anything? Please.
Northwestern will kick off the 2010 season under the lights as the team's opener at Vanderbilt has been set for 7:30 p.m. ET (6:30 p.m. local time).

The SEC announced that Comcast/Charter Sports Southeast will televise the game, which will also be available on Vanderbilt and ESPN originally wanted to move the opener to Sunday, Sept. 5, but Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald nixed it, saying he didn't want a short week of preparation following the opener. Northwestern had been willing to move the game to Sept. 2 (Thursday) or Sept. 3 (Friday), but it will remain as scheduled on a Saturday.

Northwestern now has two scheduled night games this fall, as it host Purdue on Oct. 9 at 7:30 p.m. ET. The Wildcats lost their only night game in 2009, falling 37-34 at Syracuse.

The night kickoff should help Northwestern's players, who aren't as accustomed to the heat Nashville can have at that time of year. Vanderbilt will be playing its first game under interim head coach Robbie Caldwell, who takes over for the retiring Bobby Johnson.
The big news in college football today is the surprising retirement of Vanderbilt head coach Bobby Johnson. Johnson will step down at the end of the July and assistant Robbie Caldwell will serve as the Commodores' interim head coach.

There's a Big Ten hook to this, as Northwestern opens the 2010 season at Vanderbilt on Sept. 4. How will the Commodores respond to the surprise development when they take on the Wildcats?

Coaching change is never easy, especially when it comes out of the blue and so close to the season. While Vanderbilt players are familiar with Caldwell, they have to be stunned by Johnson's decision and especially the timing of it. Although Johnson did a great job in a challenging situation in Nashville, Vanderbilt comes off of a rough 2009 season, and this news certainly isn't good for the program.

Northwestern found itself in a similar position in the summer of 2006 following the sudden death of head coach Randy Walker. Assistant Pat Fitzgerald was promoted to the top job, and had about two months to get the team refocused for the season. Northwestern won an emotional opener against Miami (Ohio), Walker's alma mater, but struggled to a 4-8 finish.

Although Vanderbilt's situation isn't nearly as traumatic, the coaching change occurs closer to the start of the season.

Fitzgerald told me he was "very surprised" to hear about Johnson's retirement. I doubt this changes Northwestern's preparation too much, although the Wildcats' coaches need to study up more on Caldwell, a longtime offensive line coach.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

May, 14, 2010
We've got a big week coming up, as the Big Ten coaches and athletics directors meet Monday-Wednesday in Chicago. I'll be on hand for all of it.

All of us had better rest up.

Drew from Lafayette, Ind., writes: I know the expansion rumors about Nebraska, Missouri, Rutgers, and ND were squashed by the Big Ten. However, the more I think about it the more it seems legit. Big Ten has 11 teams, adding four would bring it to 15 teams, still off balance right? Well the wild card in the group is ND. If ND says no and sticks with tradition that would be only three teams joining but bring the total schools to 14, aka balanced. But if ND does say yes, then all the Big Ten needs to do is go after one more school (Pitt, Syracuse, Maryland, Vandy), which would be a lot easier after they have already had those four sign on the dotted line, to become the 16 conference super league I know many have said they want to be. Am I thinking about this wrong?

Adam Rittenberg: Drew, what isn't legit is the report that offers have been made from the Big Ten to these schools. Now I'm sure informal discussions have taken place with all four, but the Big Ten hasn't reached the offer stage, or, to be accurate, the stage where a school(s) would apply for admission to the league. What might be correct is that some or all of these teams could join the Big Ten. We can throw 10 different expansion scenarios out there and it's likely one will be ultimately correct. It certainly wouldn't shock anyone if Nebraska, Missouri and Rutgers applied to join the Big Ten. Notre Dame's situation is a bit different, as we all know. So could the report ultimately be true? Sure. But it's not legit right now because a lot could still change.

Stacy from Orlando writes: Adam, you don't think that the Big Ten would be dumb enough to give Notre Dame a favorable offer giving the Irish a benefit not currently enjoyed by the current Big Ten member schools, right? There's too much power/pressure from Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and the like and that would never get approved, right?

Adam Rittenberg: Stacy, I highly doubt any expansion candidate, including Notre Dame, would get a sweetened deals. The Big Ten is in a strong enough position that it doesn't have to provide extra benefits for anyone. If anything, a new member might not enjoy the same privileges as existing members, but I doubt this as well. The Big Ten has prided itself on all of its members being as equal as possible (i.e. TV revenue sharing). This puts the Big Ten in a stronger place than, say, the Big 12. I also go back to the last time the Big Ten and Notre Dame talked. The Big Ten was in a weaker position (no Big Ten Network, weaker overall TV deal), while Notre Dame was in a stronger position (full BCS share). Things have changed since then.

Phillip from Palo Alto, Calif., writes: In Tuesday's mailblog you said that Vanderbilt's football success has been extremely limited, which isn't in question. However isn't that basically describing Rutgers, outside of being close to New York? And wouldn't it be a stronger argument that Vanderbilt's entire athletic department and school are substantially stronger than Rutgers (just look at every year-end Director's Cup rankings)? What makes Rutgers so appealing other than New York, which is not a guarantee, Adam?

Adam Rittenberg: Phillip, a couple of points. Rutgers has had more recent success in football than Vanderbilt, and RU has made a strong investment in the program to elevate its profile. Vanderbilt is in a very tough situation in the SEC, but other schools in big conferences with similar profiles -- Northwestern, Stanford -- have found ways to succeed more often. You're right that Vanderbilt has a stronger overall athletic program than Rutgers, and the Directors' Cup stats back it up. As for academics, Vandy has an edge, but Rutgers is a solid academic school, too, and certainly fits into the parameters of what the Big Ten will accept. The big difference here is the New York market and the potential, not the guarantee, that it provides. Will Big Ten football make a splash in the New York market? Tough to tell, but it's possible. And if it works, the rewards are immense. Nashville doesn't provide the same potential, especially in a state with another dominant college program (University of Tennessee).

Josh from Parma, Mich., writes: Why is it that you can be so lenient with the things that Michigan State players do, such as crimes and other forms of trouble for which they have become so closely associated with and yet be so hard on players like Demar Dorsey who plan on going to Michigan? and also see Michigan State as a team on the rise and Michigan struggling again this year? I think your a little biased in some aspects of your assessments and I also think that Michigan has an excellent year going around 8-4 as Rodriguez truly begins to rebuild this program with his players. Now thats said I see Michigan State as a legit threat in the Big Ten, but not to some schools such as Ohio State and Wisconsin. I also believe that Michigan losing its last two games to Sparty aren't going to let a third happen at home.

Adam Rittenberg: Oh. My. Goodness. Go back and read the blog, Josh. First off, I posted every bit of news about Michigan State's messy offseason and shelled out criticism when it was due. Had Mark Dantonio allowed Oren Wilson back on the team, I would have ripped him. But he didn't. I actually got a ton of e-mails from Michigan State fans telling me to lay off the incident, which I didn't. Regarding Demar Dorsey, I took a wait-and-see approach and didn't criticize Michigan nearly as much as most media outlets. Here's an excerpt of what I wrote about Dorsey in February:

Lloyd Carr gave players second chances, too. He assumed the risk of them messing up again. Every college football coach does. Like it or not, it's part of this sport.

Michigan shouldn't have to stay away from every promising recruit with a checkered past because it's Michigan. Rodriguez has given second chances before, and some have blown up in his face. But he shouldn't stop doing it entirely.

If Rodriguez and his staff are satisfied that Dorsey's troubles are behind him, they have the right to bring him on board. They also have the right to be criticized if he messes up again.

As to your final few points, I agree. Michigan can go 8-4. Michigan State should be a solid team, but likely not an elite one in the Big Ten. and Michigan certainly could end the losing streak to the Spartans. Have a nice day!

Jacob from Cresco, Iowa, writes: Hey Adam if missouri/nebraska/notre dame were to join the big ten would iowa have some new rivalary games? (missou-iowa gold and black rivalary), (nebraska-iowa border rivalary) (notre-iowa, didnt they use to have a rivalary for 37 years?)

Adam Rittenberg: Absolutely, Jacob. The Nebraska-Iowa rivalry would be huge, in my opinion. The Missouri-Iowa series would be very intriguing, as the two programs haven't played since 1910 after playing 12 times in a 19-year span. I think emotions would be running pretty high on both sides. Iowa and Notre Dame have played 24 times, the last in 1968. The Hawkeyes and Fighting Irish played every year between 1945-61. Notre Dame obviously has many other rivals, so I don't know if the potential is really there with Iowa, but the games likely would be entertaining. But the bottom line is Big Ten expansion certainly should add rivals for the Hawkeyes.

Big Ten mailblog

May, 11, 2010
Before we get started, a quick reminder. The only reports about Big Ten expansion that I'll address on this blog will be legitimate ones. I'm not going to acknowledge every unfounded rumor or speculative missive out there. So if you're wondering why I don't weigh on everything you hear, consider the original source. Or keep waiting.

Let's begin.

Jeff from Lawrence, Kan., writes: I keep reading about the rise of Denard Robinson during the spring in AA. I can't help but be skeptical. First, it's spring ball and it seems like RichRod likes to send as many messages during spring as practices. Second, the final scrimmage was 1's vs. 2's, which means Shoelace was set up to succeed (lack of depth for 2's in the secondary) and LMT (Little Man Tate) was set up to struggle (lack of available depth for 2's at receiver). I gotta think Forcier got the message and will be fine going into fall.

Adam Rittenberg: Jeff, this is a totally understandable position, and it's good to point out who each quarterback faced in the spring game. It's safe to say Robinson made progress this spring, certainly from what we saw last fall. Yet for folks to say Tate Forcier is lagging way behind him now is incorrect. The truest part of your note is the last sentence: "I think Forcier got the message." Rich Rodriguez certainly did everything he could to challenge Forcier this spring, and we'll see what type of response Forcier provides in preseason camp. Coaches challenge players who they know can be better, and perhaps Forcier is still Michigan's best option at quarterback. Should be a fun August.

Ross from Hastings, Neb., writes: Ok Adam, I love bashing Colorado because they think they are out rival...How long till Nebraska goes to the Big 10, who will be our chief rival, and how do we fare in the Big 10 long term???Looking forward to you being my new blogman! Haha!

Adam Rittenberg: Ha, I won't tell David Ubben you wrote that. Nebraska could have several rivals in the Big Ten, but Iowa makes a ton of sense, especially if both programs are in the top 20 year after year. You've got two extremely passionate fan bases in bordering states competing for recruits and regional bragging rights. A recent poll shows that Iowa fans are split on finishing the regular season against Penn State or Minnesota, and a sizable chunk (18 percent, as of Monday night) would pick Nebraska if the Cornhuskers join the Big Ten. So Iowa is at the top of the list, while Wisconsin could be another rival for Nebraska. After all, Barry Alvarez was a Cornhusker.

Jacob from Texas writes: In all the expansion talk, no one has discussed an addition of a team for spite's sake. Adding Vanderbilt would stick it to the SEC, add a fine academic institution, and again stick it to the SEC! I know Vanderbilt is an original member of the SEC, but they have to be sick of holding the only academic standards in the SEC!

Adam Rittenberg: Several folks have brought up Vandy, but I just don't see what the Commodores add from a football perspective. The two main elements driving the Big Ten's expansion push are television market potential and football success. Vanderbilt is in a decent market (Nashville), but doesn't move the needle like its in-state colleague Tennessee. And the Commodores' success in football has been extremely limited. You're right that the academics make Vandy a great fit in the Big Ten -- and a better fit than in the SEC -- but other than that, I don't get too excited about the Dores. And contrary to popular belief, sticking it to the SEC isn't Jim Delany's primary goal in life.

Ben from London, England, writes: Adam, I'm a big fan of your blog, but I don't understand the love for MSU. They finished 6-7 and in their last three games they conceded an average of 40 points! The only Div1 team they beat with a winning record was Northwestern! They may have Greg Jones coming back, but the secondary is still weak! So how can MSU be T-4 in your rankings?

Adam Rittenberg: Ben, I totally understand I'm going out on a limb with the Michigan State love, given the Spartans' history for disappointing people. But I look at their team and see a lot of firepower on offense, multiple contributors at wide receiver, running back and tight end, not to mention a quarterback (Kirk Cousins) who played pretty darn well last year and should only get better. Yes, the secondary is a major concern, but Michigan State's defensive recruiting in 2010 was among the best in the Big Ten. You never want to rely on freshmen, but Michigan State is bringing in a few guys who can help immediately on defense. Michigan State wasn't far away in 2009. If Iowa doesn't complete that pass at the end of the game, the Spartans probably go 8-4 or better. I understand the risk in putting Michigan State at No. 4 with Penn State, but I'm willing to take the heat if it goes wrong.

David from New Haven, Ind., writes: after IU has another losing season do you think they will do the smart thing and hire a big name coach like mike leach or are hoosier fans doomed with lynch

Adam Rittenberg: Hard to say, David. If IU goes 5-7 with some quality Big Ten wins, Bill Lynch could survive for another year. Anything worse than that -- or even a watered-down 5-7 mark -- likely spells the end for him in Bloomington. Athletic director Fred Glass seems like he wouldn't hesitate to make a big splash with his next hire, but selling the job to a candidate like Mike Leach could be really tough. There's really no tradition at IU in the past 20 years, and a coach could be joining an expanding Big Ten that might be even more formidable. I wouldn't doubt Glass to go out and bring in a name coach, but let's see what happens this fall with Lynch.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

What if Penn State resumed its rivalry with Pitt? What if the Iowa-Missouri series finally happened? Why can't Wisconsin man up and play a solid BCS team every year? How about a Big Ten-ACC Challenge in football?

We've all pondered these scheduling questions and many others in recent years. When it comes to college football scheduling, you can dare to dream a bit. Although you'll rarely be satisfied in this climate of home games or bust, it's fun to play around with the possibilities.

Here are some nonconference matchups I'd like to see for each Big Ten team.


There's no love lost between these two coaching staffs, especially as Illinois has become more competitive as a national recruiter (i.e. Arrelious Benn). This game won't happen any time soon, but it would be extremely entertaining to watch Ron Zook and Charlie Weis stand on opposite sidelines. Both schools constantly compete for recruits, especially in the Chicago area, so why not meet on the field?


The teams used to play almost every year, and it would be nice to see the series resume. Indiana and Kentucky have a great rivalry in basketball, and both football programs face similar uphill climbs in major conferences. The proximity between the two schools would make it extremely easy for fans to travel to the games.


Many Iowa fans wish this series had happened already -- Missouri backed out of an agreement several years back -- and it makes a lot of sense for the two teams to meet. You already know my view on Missouri joining the Big Ten, and a natural rivalry with Iowa plays a major role. Both schools recruit in the same area, and both programs have elevated their profiles in recent years.


Two of college football's greatest settings would make this series a must-see. Michigan always fills up the Big House for games, and Wolverines fans would be guaranteed a trip to the Rose Bowl every other year even if their team doesn't reach the big game on Jan. 1. The two teams have met nine times in the regular season, most recently in 2000, and it would be great to see them celebrate the Pac-10-Big Ten rivalry.


The Big Ten should be more aggressive in scheduling the ACC for football, and this series would be a good start. Both programs are on the rise under third-year coaches (Mark Dantonio and Butch Davis), and both have been recruiting better in recent years. Let's just hope for better games than the two basketball matchups this past season.


Minnesota has taken a more aggressive approach to nonconference scheduling, and a series against Washington would fall in line with the new philosophy. Both schools are located in major cities on the northern edge of their respective conferences. Both are trying to revive tradition with energetic coaches (Tim Brewster and Steve Sarkisian). And selfishly, I wouldn't mind making the trip to Minneapolis or Seattle each year.


This isn't really a fantasy matchup because these teams will begin a four-game series in 2010. It's long overdue. Both Northwestern and Vanderbilt face a similar challenge as private institutions with limited football success trying to compete with storied programs in major conferences. Both schools are among the nation's academic elite. There are way too many similarities for the teams not to play.


Though I like colleague Heather Dinich's suggestion for an Ohio State-Miami matchup, Buckeyes fans want the SEC, and they want it bad. No league has damaged Ohio State's national reputation more than the SEC, and the hatred between Buckeye Nation and SEC fans runs deep. Florida makes the most sense for Ohio State, but any of the SEC title contenders would suffice.


This is a no-brainer. Fans on both sides desperately want to see the rivalry resume, and it's a shame there are no immediate plans for a series. The game means a lot to folks in the state of Pennsylvania, and the teams' frequent recruiting battles would only add fuel to the series. Although Pitt doesn't have the wow factor it had several decades ago, the game would generate a ton of local interest.


Something tells me Robert Marve wouldn't mind another crack at Randy Shannon and the Canes in 2010. And Marve isn't the only connection between the schools. New Purdue head coach Danny Hope is a Miami native who signed 14 players from Florida in his first recruiting class.


Wisconsin's hesitancy to schedule big-name teams has irritated its fan base, but athletic director Barry Alvarez can win some support by scheduling his alma mater. Imagine the sea of red from both fan bases when these teams meet at Camp Randall Stadium or Memorial Stadium, two of the nation's most hostile venues. It would be great to see Nebraska play a Big Ten team every year, and Wisconsin certainly needs a marquee opponent.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

FCS mania continues throughout the Big Ten, and South Dakota continues to be a popular choice for nonconference scheduling.

Northwestern announced Monday it will host South Dakota in 2012, though an exact date has not been determined.

South Dakota also plays Minnesota in 2010 and Wisconsin in 2011. Northwestern has an FCS opponent on the schedule in each of the next four seasons, which won't aid the team's struggles in attendance but should help in the win column.

The Wildcats are upgrading their nonleague schedule during the next few seasons, which is long overdue. The 2012 schedule features home games against both Boston College and Vanderbilt and a trip to Syracuse. 

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

After shuffling nonconference games to accommodate Miami (Ohio) and finalize the 2009 schedule, Northwestern is looking ahead to the future. 

The team has released tentative schedules for 2010 and 2011, which thankfully appear to pack a bit more punch than this year's slate. Northwestern rivals Penn State for one of the softest non-league slates among BCS teams, with games against Towson, Eastern Michigan, Syracuse and Miami (Ohio). 

Northwestern still needs a home game in 2010, but it will play:

  • at Vanderbilt (Sept. 4)
  • Illinois State (Sept. 11)
  • at Rice (Sept. 18)

In 2011, the Wildcats play:

  • at Boston College (Sept. 3)
  • Eastern Illinois (Sept. 10)
  • at Army (Sept. 17)
  • Rice (Nov. 26)

Upcoming contracts with Vanderbilt, Boston College and a likely improved Syracuse team give Northwestern a more attractive non-league slate, which could remedy the school's constant struggles with home attendance. The team's annual rivalry against Illinois has been shuffled around, with the 2011 game taking place Oct. 15, the earliest meeting in at least a decade. 

Also, Northwestern finishes the 2011 season with home games against Michigan and Rice. The school wants to hold a home game at Wrigley Field if the field can accommodate football. If Northwestern gets the go-ahead, expect one of these contests to be played at The Friendly Confines.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Mack Brown still gets nervous, even if he doesn't show it. 

When Brown met the media this morning, the Texas head coach recalled a conversation he had with coaching legend Darrell K. Royal about managing anxiety before games. 

 Joe Robbins/Getty Images
 Mack Brown doesn't see a playoff system coming to college football anytime soon.

"I asked coach Royal once, 'Did you have trouble sleeping the night before a big game?'" Brown said. "And at Texas they are all big. If you lose one, it gets real big. He said that unless you gag before you brush your teeth on Saturday morning, you are not ready to play.

"I gagged this morning. So I think I'm fine."

Brown will coach in a BCS bowl for the first time since guiding Texas to the national championship when his team takes the field Monday against No. 10 Ohio State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl (Fox, 8 p.m. ET). Despite his nerves in front of the bathroom sink, Brown showed none in front of reporters as he discussed Texas' final preparations for the game. 

Here are some highlights:

  • Brown doesn't see a playoff system coming to college football, but he acknowledged that the impressive wins by USC and Utah strengthen the argument for one. A Texas blowout of Ohio State certainly would add to the playoff push, which Brown certainly advocates. With many coaches supporting a playoff, Brown encouraged media members to continue the fight. And while he covets a playoff, Brown doesn't want the bowl system to suffer.
"I played at Vanderbilt for two years, and when I saw Vanderbilt kick a last-second field goal to win their first Bowl game since 1955, there will be no team or coaching staff any happier than that Vanderbilt staff was," Brown said. "We do not need to take that away from college football. It is an exciting time. I see 7-5 teams throwing Gatorade on their coach. At Texas, if we were 7-5, they'd be throwing something on me but it wouldn't be Gatorade."
  • The Big 12 has been average at best during the bowl season, with Texas Tech and Oklahoma State losing, and a heavily favored Missouri team struggling mightily against Northwestern. But Brown thinks a conference and its teams shouldn't be evaluated solely on one game, especially a game that might bring lukewarm enthusiasm. 
"We've had some teams that weren't as excited about their game because they didn't get the draw they wanted and they got disappointed at the end of the year," Brown said. "That's the biggest thing in the bowl games: Who has the edge? Who is motivated? Who wants to be there? ... If you look at the games and see who wants to be there and who is motivated because none of us have played for a month, I think that usually tells you the story more than anything else."
  • Brown recounted the process of telling his players that they didn't reach the Big 12 championship game and likely wouldn't be heading to the national championship in Miami. His first directive was to refrain from commenting publicly about the snub and instead let him do the talking. Rather than allowing the players to learn their fate on TV, Brown and his staff sent text messages minutes before the announcement and then scheduled a team meeting several hours later. In the meeting, Brown explained why Texas was left out (the computer rankings weigh road wins more than neutral-site ones), reiterated that the system is flawed and told players not to start throwing a pity party.
"Some people like it," Brown said. "It is better than what we had 10 years ago. But in this case, it didn't work out for you. But one year it didn't work out for [USC]. One year it didn't work out for Auburn. In 2004 it worked out for you when you went to the Rose Bowl to play Michigan. Don't say 'Oh, poor me' and don't say the system was poor to you just this time. It has been poor to a lot of people. This year it was good to Oklahoma instead of us."
  • Texas has tried to strike a balance between fun and serious preparation this week in Arizona. Players were given an 11 p.m. curfew most nights, and Texas hasn't had any disciplinary infractions. Director of player development Ken Rucker gave the players an added incentive not to mess up.
"[Rucker] said if he smelled any alcohol on them, he would kiss them," Brown said. "That took care of that. As far as I know, nobody has been kissed by coach Rucker before they went to bed. If you see coach Rucker, only [his wife] Nancy wants to kiss coach Rucker. It is not a group of guys."
  • Like Ohio State's 28 seniors, Texas' seniors have made a unique impact on the program and the coaches. Longhorns All-American defensive end Brian Orakpo said Thursday that the team might be closer than the 2005 squad that won a national title. They built that foundation as juniors before the 2007 Holiday Bowl, when they spoke up about helping the coaches maintain the right focus.
"A lot of people say this team will be great next year, and that's not necessarily true because when you lose some ingredients, like Orakpo and his leadership and what he has meant to this program or Roy Miller," Brown said. "My experience has been you don't wave the wand and say we have a lot of good players coming back so it works again. For whatever reason it didn't work as well for 2006 and [2007], and it's has worked this year."
  • Brown, on the prospect of Ohio State using quarterbacks Terrelle Pryor and Todd Boeckman on the field together: "We hope it works as well as ours. I think ours had five plays for minus-12 yards."

Big Ten Friday mailbag

November, 21, 2008

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

I'm reporting from Columbus, where I'll be covering Ohio State-Michigan on Saturday (ABC, noon ET). Not to worry, as we'll also have coverage from State College, where No. 15 Michigan State takes on No. 8 Penn State (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).

Time for your last-minute questions on Big Ten rivalry week.

Stephen from Baltimore writes: Adam, how high do you see D-Will getting drafted after the season? Justin King went in the third round last year on pure speed and athleticism alone, so since Williams has actually produced nicely this season, I would think he would have a spot in the league (plus he can make an impact on punt and kick returns).

Adam Rittenberg: Derrick Williams, who Stephen is referring to, has really come on strong down the stretch. He's showing why he was the No. 1 recruit in the country back in 2005. Still, I think Williams will need a strong showing at the scouting combine to solidify his draft status. Williams' versatility as a ball-carrier and on special teams could put him in the first or second round.

Nathan from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, writes: I'm starting a petition and would appreciate your signature as well as those of your readers. My cause is the effort to change the name of the UGA running back's name to No Shonn.

Adam Rittenberg: Good one. Nathan will be here all night, folks. The 11 o'clock show is totally different from the 8 o'clock show.

Nick from Boulder, Colo., writes: Adam, A buddy sent me an email that if OSU wins Saturday, they will be the winningest team in Big Ten History-based on win %. Is that true? This would be the best yardstick of comparison, because it would take out a lot of the subpar competition that the teams played when football was more like rugby.

Adam Rittenberg: That is correct. Ohio State currently is .2 percentage points behind Michigan and would edge ahead by a miniscule margin with a win Saturday. This story in The Cleveland Plain Dealer details how close the two teams are on the all-time chart.

Brad from Chicago writes: Adam, In regards to Shonn Greene coming out of nowhere, I would say Larry Johnson in his senior year at Penn State would have been a similar situation. Without looking at his stats, if my memory is correct he split time with other running backs his first three years so nobody knew exactly what he was capable of.

Adam Rittenberg: Thanks for the submission, Brad. Several of you have brought up Larry Johnson at Penn State. Todd from Detroit mentioned Devin Thomas at Michigan State. But what I truly find unique about Greene is that he wasn't even a little-used guy in the program last year, getting a few carries here and there. He wasn't a junior-college transfer. A year ago, he had nothing to do with playing football for a FBS program. He was hauling furniture and working out on his own, having very little to do with the Iowa program. To come back from that at a servicable level is one thing. To come back as an All-American and a potential Heisman Trophy finalist is something else. Can any of you remember a guy who was completely out of football, and then came back to have a season like Greene's?

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 AP Photo/Jay LaPrete
 Running back Daniel Dufrene has big shoes to fill this season.

 Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

RANTOUL, Ill. -- There aren't many people Daniel Dufrene meets who don't bring up Rashard Mendenhall.

Dufrene hears it from reporters, from fans, from anyone who watched Mendenhall's record-setting 2007 season at Illinois. The difference now is when Mendenhall's name comes up, Dufrene can smile and laugh.

There was none of that going on this spring.

"The coaches, they don't want me to be Rashard, they want me to be myself," said Dufrene, projected to succeed Mendenhall at running back for Illinois. "During the spring, really, I didn't listen to them as much. I just felt the pressure of trying to fill his shoes. Now I'm just more relaxed, just coming out and being myself."

The approach is helping Dufrene in preseason camp, as he moves closer to locking down the starting job. Though redshirt freshman Troy Pollard and true freshmen Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure also are in the mix for carries, Dufrene should get the first shot when Illinois opens the season Aug. 30 against Missouri.

The 5-foot-11, 201-pound junior averaged 6.3 yards a carry in limited work last season as Mendenhall's backup. But given a chance to lock down the top spot this spring, Dufrene struggled, and so did the other backs. Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley let them know about it, publicly expressing his disappointment in the group.

"He said we weren't running tough, running hard," Dufrene said. "I just took that as a challenge."

Locksley's message seems to have hit its mark.

"Awesome," he said of the backs' performance in camp. "That's been the biggest surprise group of training camp for us on offense. Coming into summer, we felt our receiving corps was probably the strength of our offense and that the backfield was a question mark, but Daniel has packed on a couple extra pounds. He looks really good. He's been pounding the ball up inside, he's got tremendous speed outside. I've been pleased with him."

Despite the subpar spring as a runner, Dufrene geared the offseason toward improving other areas, namely pass-blocking and catching passes out of the backfield. Mendenhall punished defenses as a ball-carrier, but he also finished second on the team in receptions with 34.

Illinois' offense requires its backs to do it all, and the adjustment took time for Dufrene, a junior-college transfer who started his college career at Vanderbilt. He was in a similar system at College of the Sequoias in California, but Illinois emphasizes the run more.

"If you look at junior-college guys, a lot of times it's their second year when they really perform the way you think that they can," head coach Ron Zook said. "I don't have any reason to think that Daniel's not going to be the type of back he was when we recruited him."

Dufrene's comfort level already has improved in the first week of camp. He had 10 carries for 60 yards and a touchdown in Monday's scrimmage. Perhaps more important, he set up the score with a 43-yard reception on a swing pass from quarterback Juice Williams.

Zook is keeping the competition open for the starting spot, but Dufrene, who has taken the majority of reps with the first-team offense, feels it's his job to lose.

"I've grasped what's going on," he said. "I've always felt confident in my running ability."