Big Ten: Vince Biegel
Pretenders and contenders will be more easily defined at the open of October than during the mayhem of the early weeks, when next to nothing went right for the Big Ten. Even just last week, confusion reigned after the league went 12-1 with four wins over Power 5 foes.
Well, Saturday was more down to Earth. Week 5 offered a better look at the Big Ten’s true colors than we’ve seen at any time this season.
The verdict: The talent on display in offensive outbursts on Saturday can take Michigan State and Ohio State far in this league. Wisconsin and Iowa might have to win ugly all year. Penn State is not as good as it looked through four games; Northwestern is better than it appeared through three.
Indiana still isn’t consistent enough to pencil into a bowl game. Minnesota and Maryland should not be overlooked.
And Nebraska, the league’s lone unbeaten, gets its chance this week to prove it belongs in the national conversation with MSU and OSU. The Huskers visit Spartan Stadium on Saturday.
We’ll get to that soon enough. First, let’s rewind.
Biggest play: Down 20-10 to Wisconsin, South Florida QB Mike White hit Kennard Swanson for a 52-yard gain that looked set to get the Bulls in position for a touchdown that could cut the Badgers’ lead to three points. But a lunging hit by Wisconsin freshman Lubern Figaro jarred the football loose from Swanson. Linebacker Vince Biegel recovered at the 10-yard line, and Wisconsin drove 90 yards in 18 plays for the backbreaking score. Without that turnover, it might have ended differently.
Big Man on Campus (offense): Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova fired four touchdowns in the Scarlet Knights’ 31-6 win over Tulane. Nova was notably efficient in the first half, hitting 9 of 9 throws for 195 yards and three scores. In the process, he moved his career total to 61 touchdown passes, passing Mike Teel for the school record.
Big Man on Campus (defense): Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory is officially back. The intimidating junior, who missed the Huskers’ first two games with a knee injury, recorded 2.5 sacks among his seven tackles and three quarterback hurries in a 45-14 Nebraska thumping of Illinois. Gregory looks more dangerous than ever, often lining up at the second level as a linebacker hybrid. He even delivered a devastating block on Nate Gerry’s 53-yard interception return.
Big Man on Campus (special teams): Maryland place-kicker Brad Craddock connected on three field goals, including two from 48 yards in the Terrapins’ 37-15 win over Indiana, to stay perfect for the season on 10 attempts.
Biggest faceplant: Aside from Michigan -- no repeat winners -- it’s Indiana. What happened to the Hoosiers? They followed the groundbreaking win at Mizzou by failing to show at home as Maryland looked solid in its inaugural league game. So much for the Hoosiers' triple threat on offense. The Terps’ quarterback duo of C.J. Brown and Caleb Rowe teamed with receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long to steal the show.
Facts and numbers to know: Michigan ranks last nationally in turnover margin at minus-12 and 90th in offensive efficiency, according to ESPN Stats and Info. ... Nebraska I-back Ameer Abdullah rushed for 208 yards, moving his nation-leading season total to 833 yards. The Huskers, as a team, rushed for 458 yards against Illinois, totaling 190 on the ground, with no passing yards, in the first quarter. ... Rutgers has recorded 21 sacks in five games. ... Wisconsin remains the only team nationally not to surrender a red-zone touchdown. ... Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz earned his 65th conference victory to tie former Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez for 10th all time. ... Ohio State’s 710 yards of offense against Cincinnati came within 8 yards of the school record and marked its highest output since totaling 715 against Utah in 1986. ... Michigan State has scored 174 points in three home games and 50 in back-to-back games for the first time since 1978. ... Northwestern held Penn State to 18 rushing yards in the first three quarters of its 29-6 win.
LSU has not lost a nonconference game in the regular season since falling to Virginia Tech on Sept. 7, 2002. Since then it has won 45 straight, while Wisconsin’s record in that same time period is 43-3, the nation’s second-best winning percentage (.935).
Obviously one of them is going to lose on Saturday, though, so let’s take a look at some of the key factors in the LSU-Wisconsin game and what a win might mean for their respective conferences.
Key to victory for Wisconsin: Dominate the line of scrimmage. That’s always the motto for the Badgers, who showed they could fare just fine against an SEC defense when they ran for 293 yards against South Carolina (and Jadeveon Clowney) in the Jan. 1 Capital One Bowl. Controlling the game on the ground with Melvin Gordon, Corey Clement and a talented offensive line becomes an even higher priority given Wisconsin’s inexperience at receiver and quarterback, where Tanner McEvoy makes his first FBS start. And the Badgers’ 3-4 defense has to win battles up front and make LSU beat it through the air.
Keep an eye on: Wisconsin linebacker Vince Biegel. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound sophomore could give the Badgers the pass-rushing and playmaking presence they desperately need from their completely revamped defensive front seven. Biegel will be critical in both helping against the run and creating havoc in the LSU backfield from his outside linebacker spot. Like many players at his position for Wisconsin, he has been nicked up in fall practice. But after a breakout spring, Biegel could be a guy who announces himself as an up-and-coming star on this national stage.
Keep an eye on: LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander. One of the Tigers’ top playmakers at linebacker last season, Alexander has shifted from strongside linebacker to Lamin Barrow's old spot on the weak side, which should allow him to be even more active on defense. His sideline-to-sideline speed and tackling ability should make him a great fit for the new role. Alexander and the LSU defense will have their hands full with a powerful Wisconsin running game that features Heisman Trophy contender Gordon. But if Alexander lives up to the reputation he’s already started building at his new position, he’s in line for a huge season, starting Saturday.
What win will mean for Big Ten: Marquee nonconference wins have been in short supply for the Big Ten in recent years, and there would be no better way to build instant credibility than by gaining a win over an established SEC power. Wisconsin would become an immediate playoff contender, as the rest of its schedule is extremely favorable. Other league teams would also get a boost in terms of conference perception. The doom-and-gloom outlook for the Big Ten since Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller's season-ending shoulder injury would fade away quickly with a Badgers victory in Houston.
What win will mean for SEC: LSU has been the SEC’s standard bearer in the past decade when it comes to these marquee nonconference openers. LSU's aforementioned 45 straight nonconference wins in the regular season is the nation’s longest streak. That includes wins in 11 straight openers, against such opponents as TCU, Oregon, North Carolina, Washington, Oregon State and Arizona State. LSU beating Wisconsin would be another feather in the SEC’s cap, solidifying its status as the nation’s best conference.
@BennettESPN B1G lost lots of defensive star power (dennard, shazier, borland, hageman, bullough). What 4-5 guys step up to fill conf. void?— Keith Glaser (@keithcg) August 25, 2014
Brian Bennett: The strength on defense throughout the league right now is on the defensive line and at end in particular with Shilique Calhoun, Randy Gregory, Joey Bosa, Noah Spence, Andre Monroe, etc... The Big Ten definitely took a big hit at linebacker, with guys like Ryan Shazier, Chris Borland, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen, and Iowa's senior trio all moving on after last season. I'm looking forward to seeing who steps up at that position and expect some new stars to emerge at places like Michigan State (Ed Davis, maybe Riley Bullough), Ohio State (Joshua Perry, Darron Lee, Raekwon McMillan), Iowa (Reggie Spearman, Travis Perry) and Wisconsin (Vince Biegel).
@BennettESPN is alleged choice of McEvoy as WIS QB have to do with the potential weakness at WR? No one open, make plays with feet?— Steve Moon (@moonraker717) August 25, 2014
Brian Bennett: I don't think it has too do much with the questions at receiver. Head coach Gary Andersen has made no secret of his preference for mobile quarterbacks, something we talked about before he ever coached a game at Wisconsin. I believe Andersen really wanted Tanner McEvoy to win the job because he has a far superior ability to make plays with his feet than incumbent starter Joel Stave. I just wonder if giving McEvoy his first FBS exposure as a quarterback against LSU is the best move, but there is also a good chance Andersen will play both guys on Saturday, anyway.
Brian Bennett: Michigan would likely have to climb over 7-to-10 teams to get into either major Top 25, so the Wolverines would need to win in impressive blowout fashion and benefit from some upsets. But this question is a good way to remind us all that we shouldn't really worry, or even pay much attention to, the polls. They mean nothing now, other than a possible subconscious influence on the College Football Playoff committee members. All that matters is what the selection committee thinks, and their first set of weekly rankings won't come out until late October. I still think the idea of a weekly Top 25 from a committee primarily charged with picking the four best teams is silly and unnecessary. But if you're going to fret over any set of rankings, make it those.
Sam from Colorado Springs, Colorado, writes: What has to happen for Illinois to be the darkhorse team in the West Division? Do you see any possible way it could happen?
Brian Bennett: It's probably a stretch to think Illinois can actually contend for a division title, even in the wide open, wild wild West. But stranger things have happened, and I do think the Illini can make a bowl game this season if things break right. Of course, it's all about that defense and whether coordinator Tim Banks can get the group to stop the run. The addition of some junior college players like Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu should help, and that side of the ball is more mature now. I expect the offense to remain very good, especially with strong-armed Wes Lunt at quarterback. This is a team that scored 32 points on Wisconsin and 35 against Ohio State last season, so even a return to mediocrity on defense could make Illinois a tough out.
KyleS from Columbia, South Carolina, writes: I'm surprised you picked Rutgers only winning 4 games for this upcoming season. I know you were a blogger that followed Rutgers when they played in the Big East. Luckily for me when Rutgers wins 6+ games, I will be able to send you another email to say... I told you so.
Brian Bennett: Now is the time for confidence and optimism. I'm not sure how having covered Rutgers previously is supposed to influence my prediction for this season, but if the Scarlet Knights do somehow manage to win six or more games against that schedule, by all means write me back and crow about it. Just know that I now have your e-mail address, too.
Rich from Omaha, Nebraska, writes: Brian: Nebraska will be 2014's Auburn. Their O-line is much better than people realize. They have the best backfield in the Big Ten, especially now, unfortunately. Their defensive line and linebackers will be the best rated units by the end of the season statistically. And they won't turn it over 5 times when the beat an overrated Michigan State in East Lansing. No one outside of Nebraska sees it coming. Last year, I thought they might win 9. This year, they can win them all. Save this post and you'll realize in November, this is was not some homer drinking the Kool-Aid.
Brian Bennett: Yes, people are feeling great about their teams. I'm looking forward to all the caterwauling from all 14 fan bases Saturday afternoon after their team's first failed third down. It's almost here. Enjoy all the ups and downs.
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC
Previewing the 2014 season for the Wisconsin Badgers:
2013 overall record: 9-4 (6-2 Big Ten)
Key losses: RB James White, WR Jared Abbrederis, TE Jacob Pedersen, OG Ryan Groy, DE Pat Muldoon, DT Beau Allen, LB Chris Borland, S Dezmen Southward
Key returnees: RB Melvin Gordon, OT Rob Havenstein, OG Kyle Costigan, OT Tyler Marz, CB Sojourn Shelton, S Michael Caputo
Instant impact newcomer: Safety Lubern Figaro. If you're from outside the Badger State, you're probably asking, "Who?" After all, Figaro was just a three-star recruit and enrolled over the summer -- but he's already projected to start in the opener. Part of the reason is reportedly an injury to safety Leo Musso, but Figaro has already done plenty to separate himself. In the first scrimmage this preseason, he returned a pick for a touchdown. DB Sojourn Shelton made an impact last season when he was a true freshman; now it looks as if it's Figaro's turn.
Offense: QB: Joel Stave, RS Jr., 6-5, 220; RB: Melvin Gordon, RS Jr., 6-1, 213; FB: Derek Watt, RS Jr., 6-2, 236; WR: Alex Erickson, RS So., 6-0, 196; WR: Reggie Love, RS So., 6-3, 214; TE: Sam Arneson, Sr., 6-4, 244; OT: Tyler Marz, RS Jr., 6-5, 321; OG: Dallas Lewallen, RS Sr., 6-6, 321: C: Dan Voltz, RS So., 6-3, 311; OG: Kyle Costigan, RS Sr., 6-5, 319; OT: Rob Havenstein, RS Sr., 6-8, 333
Defense: DE: Chikwe Obasih, RS Fr., 6-2, 268; DT: Warren Herring, RS Sr., 6-3, 294; DE: Konrad Zagzebski, RS Sr., 6-3, 277; OLB: Joe Schobert, Jr., 6-2, 240; ILB: Marcus Trotter, RS Sr., 6-0, 226; ILB: Derek Landisch, Sr., 6-0, 231; OLB: Vince Biegel, RS So., 6-4, 244; CB: Darius Hillary, RS Jr., 5-11, 188; CB: Sojourn Shelton, So., 5-9, 178; S: Michael Caputo, RS Jr., 6-1, 212; S: Lubern Figaro, Fr., 6-0, 179
Specialists: P: Drew Meyer, RS Jr., 6-3, 187; PK: Rafael Gaglianone, Fr., 5-11, 231
Biggest question mark: Can this front seven recover from so many key departures? Of the seven players who started in the Badgers' bowl game last season, only one returns. That leaves quite a few holes, especially when considering the departures of Big Ten defensive player of the year Chris Borland and two All-Big Ten honorable mentions (Beau Allen, Pat Muldoon). Wisconsin's front seven dominated in 2013, as they helped the Badgers rank No. 5 nationally in rush defense (102.5 yards per game) and No. 6 in scoring defense (16.3 points per game). Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is solid, but he's not a magician. Those defensive numbers will almost certainly drop from last season -- but just how much?
Most important game: Nov. 15 versus Nebraska. It's basically a three-team race in the West Division, so this is a must-win if Wisconsin wants a spot in the Big Ten championship game. There's no Ohio State or Michigan State on the schedule this season, so the Huskers and Iowa Hawkeyes are the teams to beat. Iowa is just as important, but that contest comes a week later, and that won't mean a thing if Wisconsin first can't get past this contest.
Upset special: Nov. 29 versus Minnesota. A lot could be on the line when the Badgers square off against Minnesota in the final game of the regular season. And, depending how Wisconsin's defense progresses, this could be an interesting one. Wisconsin's run defense is a wild card right now, and the Gophers could boast the second-toughest rushing attack on Wisconsin's schedule (outside of Nebraska). No team held Wisconsin to fewer points (20) last season than Minnesota, so there is some potential here. Plus, one has to think the Gophers will be able to manage better than a seven-point offensive effort this time around.
Key stat: Sure, everyone knows the departure of Jared Abbrederis will hurt Wisconsin. But the Badgers actually lost their top four targets, and only one (Jordan Fredrick) recorded catches in the double-digits. And he had just 10. Overall, Wisconsin lost 81 percent of its receiving production, as this year's returners had just 42 combined receptions last season compared with the 217 total catches.
What they're wearing: Wisconsin has come a long way since 2010, because it basically went from rotating between two uniform combinations to doing photo shoots with more than 20 combinations.
One possible new look includes an all-red, jersey-pant combo (not to be confused with Nebraska's all-red getup):
@UWCoachAndersen) joined Twitter just a few weeks ago, but he pumps out unique tweets and is a great follow. The official Wisconsin football account (@BadgerFootball) tweets like crazy and is always on the ball. As far as players, running back Melvin Gordon (@Melvingordon25) is a no-brainer, while cornerback Sojourn Shelton (@SDS1_) definitely deserves a few more follows. There are quite a few good follows for your coverage needs -- besides us, of course -- including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Jeff Potrykus (@jaypo1961) and SB Nation blog Bucky's 5th Quarter (@B5Q).
They said it: "No question there's a temptation to run him every time." – Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen on running back Melvin Gordon
Stats & Info projection: 9.29 wins
Wise guys over/under: 9.5 wins
Big Ten blog projection: Ten wins. Wisconsin has a lot of question marks, but it also has a lot of talent. The rushing offense should be one of the nation's best and, while this defense will undoubtedly take a step back from last season, it shouldn't free-fall with Dave Aranda at the helm. Wisconsin's schedule is pretty favorable, as it doesn't play any of the big names from the East, and it's possible it could be favored in every game from Week 2 on. Wisconsin's getting the benefit of the doubt here, but if it can manage a win against LSU in the opener, that bandwagon is going to get big in a hurry.
I'm not a doctor and know Ohio State didn't take Miller's situation lightly, but the whole thing seemed odd. He initially hurt the shoulder in the Orange Bowl but didn't have surgery until late February, as Ohio State hoped the injury would heal on its own. Ohio State called the surgery "minor" and said Miller would be limited in spring practice. He sat out the whole session.
He started throwing in early July and was making good progress. But when camp began, he threw on a limited basis and sat out scrimmages to rest the shoulder. Monday morning, offensive coordinator Tom Herman acknowledged Miller "had a little bit of a setback with some additional soreness that we weren't expecting." Miller, not surprisingly, declared himself 100 percent. But later that day, on a seemingly benign rollout pass, he reinjured the joint. Season over.
Some, like colleague Austin Ward, are calling it a fluke. But it's not as if there wasn't concern before he was re-injured. Miller already had been experiencing considerable soreness.
From Cleveland.com's Doug Lesmerises:
The Buckeyes will move forward. On the outside, there may be some dwelling though, especially since Miller was calling himself "100 percent" hours before Monday afternoon's practice even though he hadn't been allowed to really let it go on consecutive days in practice.
"Oh, I second-guess everything," Meyer said about what could have been done differently since February.
"When I say second-guess, I just ask the questions, because I'm not a doctor," Meyer said. "And I don't know. But I've been around long enough, things happen and it's unfortunate.
"I have great trust in our medical stuff, but sure, will you second-guess? I wouldn't say second-guess, just make sure in the evaluation we're doing the best we can."
So the Buckeyes tried to limit Miller in the last few weeks. And then it went wrong.
Maybe Miller should have been completely shut down. Maybe the re-injury was just bad luck. Either way, it will be interesting to see how Ohio State handles Miller this time around.
Taking a spin around the league ...
- Being named Illinois' starting quarterback was a "dream come true" for Wes Lunt.
- According to Vince Biegel, Wisconsin's banged-up linebackers will be good to go for the LSU game.
- D.J. Foster's transition to defensive tackle is going smoothly so far for Nebraska. In case you missed it, Bo knows fun.
- An excellent piece on Cedric Thompson's path to becoming a leader for Minnesota's defense.
- Iowa CB Jordan Lomax responds well to losing his starting job last season.
- Purdue's kicking competition is far from over, while Northwestern's kick game looks a bit shaky.
- A DUI arrest in April led to Macgarrett Kings' spring suspension at Michigan State, but the wideout appears to have avoided playing-time penalties.
- Pete Thamel is there as Ohio State begins life A.B. (After Braxton).
- Michigan's starting offensive line is finally taking shape. The Wolverines have a two-man race at running back.
- Indiana coach Kevin Wilson wants to see more from top quarterback Nate Sudfeld.
- Penn State's Week 1 trip to Ireland presents some unique challenges. James Franklin expects "a handful" of Lions freshmen to play right away.
- We're a week away from football, and Rutgers has started its preparation for the opener against Washington State
- Michael Dunn has had quite a journey to possibly starting for Maryland at left tackle this fall.
- Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany takes on the Ice Bucket Challenge. Well done!
To get you more than ready, we've been looking at three questions each team will likely face at the Hilton Chicago. We wrap up our series now with the Wisconsin Badgers, who will have running back Melvin Gordon, offensive tackle Rob Havenstein and defensive lineman Warren Herring to the festivities along with coach Gary Andersen.
1. How will the passing game come together?
The spring featured an intriguing competition at quarterback between last year's starting safety, Tanner McEvoy, and incumbent starter Joel Stave, who was recovering from a shoulder injury. McEvoy, who has never thrown a pass in an FBS game, could win the job with a strong fall camp. An even bigger question might be who will catch the throws from either guy, as Jared Abbrederis' graduation leaves a major void at wide receiver. The Badgers have few proven options there, and the recent departures of a pair of incoming freshmen wideouts didn't help. We know Wisconsin will be able to run the ball well once again. But can the passing game make enough strides for this team to be a serious Big Ten contender?
2. Who steps forward in the defensive front seven?
Dave Aranda's defense must replace all three starting defensive linemen from 2013 and three of its four starting linebackers. The lone returning starter from the front seven is Derek Landisch, who had 33 tackles last season. So, yeah, this is a formidable retooling project, with veteran stalwarts such as Chris Borland, Beau Allen and Brendan Kelly no longer around. There is still a lot for Aranda to build around in guys such as Herring, who has played a lot of snaps, and linebackers Vince Biegel and Marcus Trotter. But how quickly the defense can mesh together and play as well as an often underrated group from last season remains a question.
3. How big is the LSU game?
The first two questions above need to be answered quickly, because Wisconsin opens the season against LSU in Houston. It's one of the biggest regular-season games in years for the Badgers, who will quickly put themselves in the spotlight if they can beat the Tigers. The rest of their schedule is such that a 9-0 start before hosting Nebraska on Nov. 15 suddenly becomes a real possibility with an opening win, and the College Football Playoff would be an attainable goal. The challenge, however, is steep. It will be interesting to hear how much Andersen and his players have been thinking about and preparing for this game all spring and summer long. Having LSU on the schedule should certainly have added a little more urgency to offseason workouts.
Michael from Remsen, Iowa, writes: Do you think that NEBRASKA's young but very talented linebackers will take that step up this year and be the best linebacking group in the Big Ten? Also, who do you think wins the starting left tackle spot?
Brian Bennett: Michael, the potential is certainly there. Not all of the linebackers are young; the coaches have loved senior Zaire Anderson's talent and potential for some time, but he's just got to stay healthy and in the lineup. Michael Rose looks like a rising star, Josh Banderas has turned some heads in spring practice so far, and David Santos gained a lot of experience last year. Throw in newcomers like Marcus Newby and Courtney Love, and this is a deep group with loads of athleticism. Best in the Big Ten? I'm not so sure about that, but the league did lose an abundance of star linebackers to the NFL draft. I still need to see the Huskers' defense deliver consistently, but the future looks really bright in that front seven.
As for left tackle, Alex Lewis has been getting reps with the No. 1 unit so far this spring. Lewis transferred in after playing two years at Colorado and withstood some legal troubles. The reshuffling of Nebraska's offensive line remains a big story to watch this offseason.
Brian Bennett: A Rose Bowl victory followed by a Big Ten tournament title and seemingly every expert picking them to win the NCAA tournament understandably has Spartans fans feeling a bit chesty. Michigan State's defense has locked things down against Michigan the past few years. You need some bulletin board material, Doug Nussmeier?
Brian Bennett: The return of the dreaded double-bye does make for some less-than-stellar weeks on the 2014 schedule. But the nonconference opponents this year are much better than they were in 2013, and there are still some excellent heavyweight matchups sprinkled throughout the conference season. Ohio State-Michigan State, Nebraska-Wisconsin, Penn State-Michigan, Michigan State-Michigan, Ohio State-Penn State are just a few of those. The biggest question from the broadcast side is how many games will be picked up for primetime, especially in November? But the Big Ten isn't exactly hurting for exposure.
Brian Bennett: No doubt there are still some doubters on Minnesota (and polls like that tend to favor the biggest fan bases). The Gophers had a great run in the 2013 season but have yet to really break through as serious division contenders. It's going to be tough to do that without some major improvement in the passing game, something the team is emphasizing this spring for sure. Minnesota has a tougher schedule this year with a road game at TCU, crossover games against Ohio State and Michigan and intra-division road trips to Wisconsin and Nebraska. Still, a solid core returns from last year's team, and the arrow is pointing up in Minneapolis. I'm guessing Jerry Kill doesn't mind being the underdog right now.
Brian Bennett: Biegel ... animal ... Jack Russell ... nope, I'm going to stay strong. Biegel made an impact as a redshirt freshman at outside linebacker in the 3-4 and will step into a much bigger role this season. He needs to because the Badgers lost so much talent and experience in that front seven, including linebackers Chris Borland, Ethan Armstrong and Brendan Kelly. At 6-foot-4 and 233 pounds, Biegel has great size and a good chance to make some plays from that pass-rushing position. He's still a young guy, but he'll have to be an anchor for this rebuilt defense.
Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).
Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.
Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.
Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.
Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.
Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.
Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.
Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.
Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.
Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.
Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.
Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.
Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.
Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.
Wisconsin is up next.
1. Settle on a quarterback: What would the offseason be without a quarterback competition at Wisconsin? Although Joel Stave started every game in the 2013 season and has two more years of eligibility, he won't simply be handed the top job. Stave, who left the Capital One Bowl with a right shoulder injury, will be pushed by Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and early enrollee D.J. Gillins. Quarterback play has limited Wisconsin in each of the past two seasons, and it seems like coach Gary Andersen and his staff want a different type of quarterback (more mobility).
2. Find help at receiver: No position has less depth for Wisconsin, which loses standout Jared Abbrederis to graduation. Abbrederis led the team with 78 receptions this fall, and no other wide receiver had more than 12 catches. No returning receiver had more than 10 receptions in 2013, and Wisconsin loses reliable pass catchers at both tight end (Jacob Pedersen) and running back (James White). This is a fairly desperate situation, and the Badgers need young players such as Robert Wheelwright to blossom in a hurry.
3. Bolster the defensive front: Talented defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has some work ahead as Wisconsin loses five senior linemen along with linebacker Chris Borland, the Big Ten's defensive player of the year. The Badgers struggled to generate pressure in their final two games, losses to Penn State and South Carolina, and haven't been the same up front since losing All-American J.J. Watt. The development of the defensive ends and outside linebackers such as Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert will be critical for UW.
More to-do lists
ESPN.com caught up with Allen this week to discuss the season, the matchup and, of course, Halloween.
What does Beau Allen do on a bye week?
Beau Allen: Absolutely nothing. I went home (to Minnetonka, Minn.) actually for the weekend because it was my mom's birthday. My dad's birthday is actually on Halloween. I watched a lot of football and ate a lot of football. It was glorious.
Do you have a Halloween costume picked out?
Is it just too close to a game?
Allen: Yeah, just too close to a game. I've got a lot of schoolwork to do, and I'm actually going to see a movie, "Ender's Game" comes out, and I'm pretty fired up about that, because that was my favorite book.
So if you guys get a win on Saturday against Iowa, will you do a late Halloween celebration?
Allen: Yeah, probably. To be honest, I'll probably head over to the store and buy all the discounted candy. I'm trying to be frugal.
You haven't faced Iowa since your freshman year. What are you looking forward to going against the Hawkeyes again?
Allen: Obviously, it's a trophy game, and we've held the trophy the past couple years, so that's a big thing. But me personally, I'm excited because it's Big Ten football. They're a smashmouth team, they run the ball a lot, they've got powerful running backs and a good offensive line, so it's definitely a good challenge for our D-line. It's something we've been excited about.
Does Iowa remind you of your team a bit, going against your offense in practice?
Allen: Yeah, definitely. The way they run the zone is a little different, but just the philosophy of wanting to pound the ball, and then hitting the tight ends on boot and play-action and stuff like that, is definitely very similar.
Did they recruit you at all?
Allen: Yeah, I was recruited by [former Iowa defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski], who's at Nebraska now. They've had some talented D-linemen in the past. They were probably in my last four or five schools.
What put Wisconsin over the top?
Allen: I've had a lot of family connections here over the years, and I really liked the business school and the academics that I'm in right now. And just the atmosphere on game day. I felt really at home with the players.
Allen: I feel great with that. I love it our scheme. One thing I really like that is a little different from what we've done in the past is we have a lot of different personnel groupings. Coach Aranda does a great job of getting our personnel to match up with what the opposing offense likes to do. On game day, we'll have anywhere from five to eight different personnel groups. That puts the best players on our defense in the best positions to win. So I like that a lot.
Are there certain guys you're playing alongside now who you never did before?
Allen: So in one of our peso groups, where I'm an end, I'm playing next to a stand-up linebacker, like Joe Schobert or Vince Biegel, where I haven't played with them before. But then I'm still playing with a lot of guys I've played with in the past, like Brendan Kelly, Ethan Hemer, Tyler Dippel, Pat Muldoon, so it's a good combination of some new faces and some familiar ones.
Does what they're asking you to do change depending on the personnel grouping?
Allen: For most of the time when I'm lined up in base at nose guard, I've got my job role cut out for me, which is occupy blockers and try to keep our linebackers free. But then when we get into passing downs and stuff like that, sometimes they'll put me out into a pass rush role, which is kind of nice and refreshing for me.
Do you have any pass-rush moves you've been saving for this game?
Allen: Well, I don't want to tell you because the word might get out. But I've been saving up a spin move. I used it against Northwestern. Some people are surprised when big men hit spin moves, so been saving that bad boy.
Have you named it?
Allen: No, I haven't. Maybe I should. Got anything good? I'll work on that. Maybe the hair tornado or something like that.
You mentioned the Iowa running backs and Mark Weisman is a big guy. What will be the key to slowing him down?
Allen: I love playing bigger running backs like that. It's just getting back to tackling fundamentals. You can't really arm-tackle guys like that, especially me, if I'm on a blocker, I can't just try to reach out or he'll probably rip my arm off. You can't just expect to bring him down just by hitting him. You've got to wrap him up and get your defenders to rally and pursue the ball.
What are the keys to finishing the season strong, and what are the goals for your team? You need some help to get to the Big Ten championship.
Allen: Some of us are a little upset because we feel like we're not getting the recognition we deserve, but we can't think of it that way. We've got to practice every day the right way and play every game the right way and not try to look ahead to the end of the year. Just focus on the small daily things, and if we do that, we'll get to where we want to be at the end of the year.
Were you surprised when Wisconsin wasn't in the initial BCS standings? Has it been hard to get recognition?
Allen: Yeah, but if we just take care of our business and practice and play the way we know that we can, that will all sort itself out.
2012 conference record: 4-4 (third in Leaders Division, Big Ten champions)
Offense: 8; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 2
LB Chris Borland, S Dezmen Southward, LB Ethan Armstrong, RB James White, RB Melvin Gordon, G/T Ryan Groy, WR Jared Abbrederis, QB Joel Stave, QB Curt Phillips
LB Mike Taylor, CB Devin Smith, CB Marcus Cromartie, RB Montee Ball, C Travis Frederick, T Ricky Wagner
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Montee Ball (1,830 yards)
Passing: Joel Stave* (1,104)
Receiving: Jared Abbrederis* (837 yards)
Tackles: Mike Taylor (123)
Sacks: Brendan Kelly* and Tyler Dippel* (5)
Interceptions: Devin Smith (4)
1. Separation at quarterback: Wisconsin entered the spring with a four-man quarterback competition and reduced the pool by 50 percent, as senior Curt Phillips and sophomore Joel Stave separated themselves midway through the session. Phillips, who ended last season as the starter, showed veteran leadership in grasping the offense, while Stave stood out in the spring game and might have more upside as a passer. Although redshirt freshman Bart Houston boasts tremendous natural ability, he's not ready to start in the Big Ten just yet. Danny O'Brien, who started the opener in 2012, has fallen back in the pack.
2. Front seven depth: The defense will go through more dramatic scheme changes under new coach Gary Andersen and his staff, but the front seven should be solid by Aug. 31. Inside linebacker Chris Borland is a tremendous leader at the nucleus of the defense. Several players who will be in the rotation -- Beau Allen, Tyler Dippel, Ethan Armstrong, Brendan Kelly -- missed part or all of the spring, which gave increased opportunities to players like tackle Warren Herring and linebackers Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert. The result should be good depth at both the line and linebacker spots.
3. Center of attention: Wisconsin's last two centers -- Peter Konz and Travis Frederick -- jumped to the NFL a year early, but the team once again appears ready to fill big shoes. Redshirt freshman Dan Voltz, who backed up Frederick last season, impressed the new coaches this spring and solidified the top center spot. Although overall line depth remains a concern entering the summer, Wisconsin feels good about the man snapping the ball.
1. Clarity at quarterback: The race is down to two, and actually three, as junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy arrives this summer and, according to Andersen, will get a fair chance to compete for the starting job. But Wisconsin needs a starter to emerge and take control of the team. Both Phillips and Stave have started games and should be able to win over a locker room. Phillips will be closer to full strength after suffering a knee injury in the Rose Bowl that limited his mobility this spring. If Stave continues to answer Andersen's challenge about improving the passing game, he could once again occupy the top job.
2. Secondary a primary concern: The Badgers return only one secondary starter in safety Dezmen Southward, and they lack overall depth in the back four. Peniel Jean and Darius Hillary took most of the reps as the first-team cornerbacks this spring, but they'll need to make more progress as young players like Sojourn Shelton and Reggie Mitchell have impressed the coaching staff. The bottom line is Wisconsin needs more bodies and more options to surround Southward.
3. Depth at receiver, offensive line: One area has lacked depth for a while, while the other has been a hallmark of the Wisconsin program. The Badgers need more reliable options to emerge around All-Big Ten candidate Jared Abbrederis at receiver. Kenzel Doe delivered a strong performance in the spring game and could complement Abbrederis, but there are opportunities for others to step up. The offensive line needs guards Dallas Lewallen and Kyle Costigan to stay healthy and for reserves to emerge to fill out the two-deep.
First up, the Wisconsin Badgers, who held their first spring game under new coach Gary Andersen at Camp Randall Stadium.
You can find coverage of Wisconsin's spring game here and here and here and here.
Star of the game: Quarterback Joel Stave. The redshirt sophomore ended a solid spring by completing 15 of 20 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown. Along with senior Curt Phillips, Stave already had separated himself in the competition for the starting job, and he heeded Andersen's challenge to upgrade the passing game. "Joel was poised today," Andersen said. "I thought he it wasn't perfect, but it doesn't have to be perfect."
How it went down: The defense played without six starters, held out because of injury or as a precaution, but still won the scrimmage 61-47 thanks to a scoring system that appeared to favor the defense. Wisconsin's personnel situation both on defense and with the offensive line made it tough to get an accurate gauge on the team, although several players certainly helped themselves.
Stave played very well and Phillips (8-for-13 passing, 82 yards) had a good day. With top receiver Jared Abbrederis held out, junior Kenzel Doe stepped up to record eight receptions for 93 yards. Doe, who had 16 catches last season but has been used mainly on returns, put himself in position to contend for the No. 2 receiver spot.
"Kenzel had a really good spring all around," Stave said. "He just continues to get better. He's a very athletic kid, so when he can get the ball in a space he can really make some good things happen."
The offense finished with 250 pass yards -- quarterbacks Danny O'Brien and Bart Houston played sparingly -- and Andersen called the passing game progress "very encouraging."
Sophomore running back Melvin Gordon took the bulk of the carries with James White held out and finished with 74 rush yards and a touchdown on 17 attempts. Doe had a 9-yard rush, while fullback Derek Watt had 22 rush yards and 22 receiving yards, plus a receiving touchdown.
Linebacker Vince Biegel, who has been in and out of the first-team defense this spring, ended the session with a strong performance, recording two sacks, including a safety. Walk-on Joe Schobert completed a strong spring with seven tackles and a sack. He's also in the mix for a starting outside linebacker spot.
The secondary will continue to be a story line throughout fall camp as Wisconsin returns only one starter (safety Dezmen Southward). Cornerback Sojourn Shelton, an early enrollee who has drawn praise from the coaches all spring, recorded four tackles, including a tackle for loss, and broke up a few passes in the scrimmage. Peniel Jean and Darius Hillary, who are working as the top corners, had mixed results Saturday.
"The list is not real long with those kids," Andersen said, "but I think they have competed day in and day out, and techniques, moving to man coverage, moving to playing dog coverage, blitzing sometimes doesn't sound like a lot, but it's a lot to put on a kid's plate. They've got better every single day."
To the links ...
- Iowa is among the many Big Ten programs searching for a quarterback. Jake Rudock thinks the starting job is his to win. Two new Iowa assistants meet the media.
- DaQuan Jones is ready to lead Penn State's defensive line this season. A former NCAA enforcement director blasts Penn State's president for accepting severe sanctions last summer. Bill O'Brien encourages a divided PSU community to remain united behind the football team.
- After a season of criticism, Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell seems cool and collected as he has an edge on his competitors, Joe Rexrode writes. Questions abound for MSU's offense, while the defense looks strong. Mike Griffith writes about the Spartans players generating buzz this spring.
- Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah has made the most of his spring despite a knee injury. The Huskers coaches will select the teams for Saturday's spring game. Tom Shatel expects Nebraska's sellout streak to remain in 2062.
- At the moment, Minnesota has no plans to move Chris Streveler from quarterback to wide receiver.
- For the first time in 15 years, Indiana raised student ticket prices for football. Hoosiers wide receiver Duwyce Wilson is finally back to full strength.
- Michigan will have a tough time keeping linebacker James Ross off the field this fall.
- Illinois adds a wide receiver to its 2014 recruiting class.
- Wisconsin linebacker Vince Biegel is enjoying an injury-free spring. Another Badger defender who has battled injury, cornerback Peniel Jean, is eager to make an impact.
- Purdue's kickers are striving for consistency.
- A look at Northwestern incoming offensive line recruit Sam Coverdale.
- Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller wasn't pleased with a teammate after being hit in practice.
- Penn State is well stocked at receiver and tight end going into spring ball. A Joe Paterno tribute movie will be screened.
- Ohio State is looking at some junior college offensive linemen. Carlos Hyde has embraced a blog-given nickname.
- The door is open for Michigan to snag former Michigan State commit Drake Harris. Kenny Demens says Greg Mattison improved his shot at playing in the pros. Previewing the Wolverines' defensive line this spring.
- Pat Fitzgerald talks about Kain Colter. If you missed it, make sure to check out Adam's wall-to-wall coverage of Northwestern from yesterday.
- Nebraska is in limbo with its recruiting staff hires, like everybody else right now. There's a heavy-hitting battle on among the Huskers fullbacks this spring.
- Iowa has a few position changes, with Nate Meier's move to defensive end possibly the most important. Plans are still on for a Hawkeyes spring practice in Des Moines.
- Freshman linebacker Vince Biegel feels at home in Wisconsin's new defensive scheme.
- Five spring questions for Purdue.
- A closer look at Minnesota offensive lineman Zac Epping.
- Some Michigan State redshirt freshmen to watch this spring.
- Illinois' Michael Buchanan and Hugh Thornton are expecting to hear their names called in the NFL draft.
- Indiana's coordinators talked to the school website.
- The Wisconsin program that brought us the likes of Hugs Etienne made another addition to the all-name team by securing a verbal commitment from wide receiver prospect Jazz Peavy. Peavy gave his pledge after attending Wisconsin's camp Sunday. Wisconsin also added offensive tackle prospect Hayden Biegel, who received a grayshirt offer, meaning he won't join the team until January 2014. Biegel's brother, Vince, is a linebacker who signed with the Badgers in February. Wisconsin now has eight commits for what will be a small 2013 class.
- Nebraska also added two recruits during its Big Red Weekend event. Nathan Gerry, a projected safety from South Dakota, committed to the Huskers along with long snapper Gabriel Miller. Gerry reportedly had offers from several Big Ten schools.
- Iowa added a decorated prospect from a neighboring state in safety Malik Rucker, who committed to the Hawkeyes on Friday . Rucker is rated as the No. 2 player in Minnesota. He was considering Illinois and Minnesota, among others. He could play either defensive back spot for Iowa.
- Several Big Ten recruits were in action at the Big 33 Football Classic, where the Ohio all-stars defeated the Pennsylvania all-stars for the fourth consecutive time. Quarterback Tyler O'Connor, who signed with Michigan State in February, led the Ohio team to victory, earning MVP honors. He connected with Ohio State recruit Najee Murray for an 85-yard touchdown strike.
Be sure and check colleague Jared Shanker's Midwest recruiting blog for all updates on the Big Ten's future players. Here's an updated national scorecard of verbal commits for 2013.
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
12:00 PM ET Purdue Illinois 12:00 PM ET 20 Ohio State Maryland 2:30 PM ET North Texas Indiana 3:30 PM ET 17 Wisconsin Northwestern 7:00 PM ET Michigan Rutgers 8:00 PM ET 19 Nebraska 10 Michigan State