Big Ten: Zeke Markshausen

With spring practice officially behind us, we're taking a look at each Big Ten team and identifying a player who announced himself as a potential key performer this fall.

These are guys who haven't played big roles yet but showed enough during the 15 spring practices -- not just some fluky, spring-game performance against backups -- to factor heavily into their team's plans.

The series turns to a team that generated more attention off the field than on it this spring, but still had some players make strides.

Spring breakout player: WR Miles Shuler

Shuler, who transferred to Northwestern from Rutgers last September, spent the 2013 season doing whatever was asked of him. Before Northwestern faced Ohio State, he played the role of Braxton Miller on the scout team. Before Northwestern faced Nebraska, he was Tommy Armstrong.

A quarterback in high school, Shuler helped his new team prepare for dual-threat signal- callers who brought the option threat throughout the fall.

Although he calls the experience "really, really fun" and "humbling," Shuler was glad to return to his primary position as a wide receiver and enter the two-deep this spring. His superb speed stood out on the practice field and allowed him to make several plays from the slot receiver role, which Northwestern features in its spread offense.

"He wants to play, he wants to be great," Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald told ESPN.com. "We had a great relationship with he and his family in high school. In recruiting, it's like everything when you finish second, you're like, 'Aw, man!' Now to see the success that he's having just in spring has been fun to watch.

"Hopefully, he can have an instant impact this fall."

Shuler had five receptions in two years at Rutgers but didn't appear to be a great fit for the Scarlet Knights' pro-style offense. He could thrive in Northwestern's system, which has featured small, fast slot receivers like Jeremy Ebert and Zeke Markshausen. The Wildcats use 6-foot-3 Christian Jones, their leading receiver, in the slot and have put tight end Dan Vitale there, too, but the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Shuler is much more of a prototype on the inside.

He provides a second speed threat at receiver alongside Tony Jones, who plays on the outside. Shuler, who says he's a bit faster than Jones, has studied Ebert, who had 137 receptions and 19 touchdowns in his final two seasons for the Wildcats.

"I watch Jeremy Ebert all the time," Shuler said. "I love what they did with him in the past, and I'm really excited to see what they'll bring for me this year. I don't know how they'll use me, but I expect it will be similar to how they used Jeremy."

If so, Northwestern's passing game, which struggled for much of 2013, will get a major jolt.
The good news: Indiana has hired an outstanding receivers coach in Kevin Johns, who moves to IU from Northwestern.

[+] EnlargeTandon Doss
AP Photo/Darron CummingsIndiana receiver Tandon Doss will bypass his senior year to enter the 2011 NFL draft.
The not-so-good-but-not-shocking news: Johns won't get to coach Tandon Doss with the Hoosiers.

Doss is declaring for the NFL draft and will bypass his senior season with the Hoosiers.

After earning back-to-back first-team All-Big Ten honors, Doss received a strong evaluation from the draft advisory board and saw the move as an opportunity to help his family. He also had some concerns about playing in a new system at IU.

Doss' departure doesn't come as a major surprise. He led the Big Ten and ranked fourth nationally in all-purpose yards (175.8 ypg), while ranking second in the Big Ten in receptions. An outstanding return man and receiver, Doss has all the ingredients to do big things at the next level.
"While my experience at Indiana was great, my decision came down to the fact that I could not pass up the opportunity to start my professional career," Doss said in a prepared statement. "Entering the NFL Draft was the best decision for myself, and most importantly, my family. My experience at IU was great and helped lay the foundation for my future. I can assure you that I will work hard and represent Indiana University in a first-class manner. I would like to thank coach [Bill] Lynch, coach Billy Lynch, all my coaches, the training staff and the support staff. I also wish coach [Kevin] Wilson and his staff the best of luck. I know they will do a great job. Lastly, I want to thank all the Indiana fans for their support. I hope all of you will continue to follow me as I move on to the NFL.”

Northwestern has confirmed Johns' hiring by Indiana, which will be announced Tuesday.

Johns, who also will serve as Indiana's pass game coordinator alongside new offensive coordinator Brent Pease, did an outstanding job with the Wildcats' wideouts the last few years. He helped mold players like Zeke Markshausen and Jeremy Ebert into All-Big Ten receivers. He's ready to move into a bigger role and will get one at IU, which returns a good group of receivers led by Damarlo Belcher (as long as he stays for his senior year).

I've been impressed with Wilson's assistant hires so far. He's putting together a very solid staff with the Hoosiers.

Northwestern spring wrap

May, 5, 2010
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2009 overall record: 8-5

2009 conference record: 5-3 (T-4th)

Returning starters

Offense: 8, defense: 5, kicker/punter: 1 (Stefan Demos handled both duties in 2009)

Top returners

TE Drake Dunsmore, LT Al Netter, C Ben Burkett, LB Quentin Davie, LB Nate Williams, DT Corbin Bryant, DE Vince Browne, S Brian Peters, K/P Stefan Demos

Key losses

QB Mike Kafka, WR Zeke Markshausen, WR Andrew Brewer, DE Corey Wootton, CB Sherrick McManis, S Brad Phillips, DT Adam Hahn

2009 statistical leaders (*-returners)

Rushing: Arby Fields* (302 yards)

Passing: Mike Kafka (3,430 yards)

Receiving: Andrew Brewer (925 yards)

Tackles: Quentin Davie* (90)

Sacks: Quentin Davie* and Vince Browne* (5)

Interceptions: Sherrick McManis (5)

Spring answers

1. Persa ready to lead at QB: There's no quarterback controversy in Evanston as junior Dan Persa has established himself as the undisputed leader of the offense despite his limited game experience. Persa still must prove himself this fall, but he has done all the right things to prepare to succeed All-Big Ten selection Mike Kafka.

2. Ebert back to top form: Jeremy Ebert never fully recovered from hip surgery last season, but the junior looked like a No. 1 wide receiver this spring. Ebert should fit into the Eric Peterman-Zeke Markshausen mold as a reliable possession receiver, though he can also stretch the field at times. He finished spring ball with a solid performance (4 receptions, 49 yards) in the spring game.

3. Depth at linebacker and defensive tackle: Coaches often stress the importance of up-the-middle defense, and Northwestern looks strong at two of the three spots. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald says the team's linebacker depth is the best it has been in recent memory, as Quetin Davie leads a strong group. Niko Mafuli turned in a strong spring at defensive tackle and should form a solid rotation with projected starters Corbin Bryant and Jack DiNardo. The safety spot is the only remaining question mark.

Fall questions

1. Running back: Northwestern can't expect to run the ball as poorly as it did last fall and win eight or more games again in 2010. Persa is still inexperienced and will need some help from the running backs. Arby Fields comes out of the spring as the No. 1 back, even though he didn't participate in any scrimmages because of his baseball responsibilities. The Wildcats need Fields or another candidate to create some clear separation in preseason camp.

2. Safety depth: The team loses two multiyear starters at safety in Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith, putting the position very much in the spotlight. Northwestern feels good about playmaking junior Brian Peters, who essentially served as a third starter in 2008 and 2009. But other than Peters, there are question marks. Jared Carpenter emerged from spring ball as the No. 2 starter, but converted linebacker David Arnold and Hunter Bates will compete for playing time.

3. Special teams: The kicking game must remain a top priority for Northwestern, which has lost or nearly lost quite a few games because of special teams. Stefan Demos is an All-Big Ten kicker, but he would really benefit if Brandon Williams could step up and become the starting punter. Northwestern also must improve its return and coverage teams. Stephen Simmons should help on kickoff returns if he can stay healthy.
The best case-worst case rewind marches on with ... Northwestern.

In case you missed it: Northwestern's best case-worst case.

Best-case synopsis: The Wildcats reload at the offensive skill positions and actually increase their production on that side of the ball. Led by pass rusher Corey Wootton, the defense improves in Year 2 under coordinator Mike Hankwitz and NU surges out to an 8-0 start. Northwestern wins its third straight game against Iowa and finishes with a 10-2 regular-season record. The Wildcats advance to the Outback Bowl and beat Arkansas for their first postseason victory since the 1949 Rose Bowl.

Worst-case synopsis: The offense takes a major step back as new players struggle in premier roles. Quarterback Mike Kafka can't avoid interceptions and never gets comfortable as a passer. The defense struggles with injuries and poor production, making 2008 look like the exception rather than the rule. Northwestern notches no impressive victories and drops its final four games to miss the postseason. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald strongly considers leaving for Notre Dame, raising doubts about his future in Evanston.

You can't handle the truth: (quotes from the original post) "The Capital One Bowl predictably passes over Northwestern, but the Outback Bowl, which snubbed the team last year, selects the Wildcats." ... "The defense keeps pace." ... "Northwestern heads back to the postseason." ... "Wootton and several other contributors go down with injuries." ... "Northwestern heads to Syracuse and performs much like it did at Duke last year, except with a worse result." ... "A week later, Minnesota avenges back-to-back heartbreaking losses to Northwestern." ... "The Wildcats rebound against Purdue and Miami (Ohio)." ... "Attendance struggles again at Ryan Field."

Lies, lies, lies: "Northwestern gets through a season without special teams costing it a game." ... "Surprisingly good crowds turn up at Ryan Field to watch Northwestern crush Towson and Eastern Michigan. The team heads to Syracuse and thumps the Orange for the second straight year, as Corey Wootton sacks Greg Paulus four times. Northwestern then delivers more heartbreak to Minnesota." ... "The Wildcats start 6-0 by trouncing Miami (Ohio)." ... Northwestern wins its first bowl since the 1949 Rose and winds up 11-2." ... "Northwestern finalizes a 2011 game at Wrigley Field and sees home attendance increase by 25 percent." ... "Once again, Northwestern takes a major step back on offense with a new quarterback." ... "Northwestern drops its final four games, including a heartbreaker to Wisconsin at home, to miss the postseason despite a cushy schedule."

Reality check: Northwestern ended up somewhere in the middle record-wise, but a 3-0 November (two wins vs. ranked teams) and a surprising invitation to the Outback Bowl created a best-case feel around the program. Kafka, known more for his legs than his arms before the season, blossomed into an All-Big Ten quarterback and led an offense with other surprise stars like wideout Zeke Marskhausen. He didn't get much help from the run game, which had been a strong point in past years. An injury plagued defense struggled early but got it together down the stretch, as Wootton, quiet for most of the fall, made the biggest play of the season at Iowa. The Wildcats couldn't complete a furious rally in the Outback Bowl, as their kicking game let them down again.
Well, that was wild.

For the second straight year, Northwestern went to overtime in its bowl game. And once again, the Wildcats came out on the short end of a wacky contest with Auburn. NU made two amazing comebacks and received one of the truly unique performances from senior quarterback Mike Kafka, but special teams once again hauntSteed the Wildcats, as Stefan Demos missed two field goals.

The Wildcats seriously might be cursed in the postseason.

The Big Ten falls to 1-2 in bowls.

How the game was won: Both teams committed costly mistakes, combining for nine turnovers. Northwestern made a furious rally in the final minutes, scoring two touchdowns in the final 3:20 and getting the ball back with a chance to win at the end of regulation. But Demos hooked a 44-yard field goal, while Auburn's Wes Byrum converted a chip shot in overtime. Demos missed a 37-yard attempt in overtime but was roughed, giving Northwestern new life. The Wildcats couldn't get into the end zone and tried a fake field goal for the win, but Zeke Marskhausen was brought down short of the goal line.

Stat of the game: Kafka's stat line qualifies here. He went 47 of 78 passing for 532 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions. He also had 20 rushes for 29 yards and a score. Northwestern outgained Auburn 619-425.

Player of the game: It's got to be Kafka. Sure, his interceptions put Northwestern in a big hole early, but he proved to be extremely clutch on both comeback attempts. The Wildcats had no run game today, so everything fell on Kafka's shoulders, and he made a ton of big throws. A team rarely has a chance to win when its quarterback throws five picks, but Kafka and an opportunistic defense kept NU in the game.

Second guessing: Northwestern's offense was in a nice rhythm at the end of regulation, but the Wildcats went deep on second-and-long when they might have been able to set up a shorter field-goal try. I didn't mind the fake field-goal attempt for the win in overtime, but the Wildcats should have thrown to the end zone at least once after the gift roughing-the-kicker penalty set up first-and-goal from the Auburn 9.

Unsung heroes of the game: So many to name for Northwestern. Wide receiver Andrew Brewer and tight end Drake Dunsmore combined for 16 receptions, 247 yards and three touchdowns. Cornerback Sherrick McManis had an incredible interception and a fumble recovery at the end of regulation. Auburn's Walter McFaden (2 INTs, 1 returned for TD) also deserves a mention.

What it means: Northwestern's bowl losing streak continues, and this one will be very hard to swallow. Until special teams no longer becomes a liability, it's hard to see the Wildcats winning in the postseason. But they never give up, as they showed today and for much of the season. The program might not truly gain national respect until it wins a bowl game, but there was some measure gained today against Auburn. Northwestern loses several standout seniors but should be in decent shape for a third consecutive bowl run in 2010.

Outback Bowl preview

December, 31, 2009
12/31/09
9:30
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Here's a quick look at the first of three Big Ten games on New Year's Day, as Northwestern (8-4) squares off against Auburn (7-5) in the Outback Bowl (ESPN, 11 a.m. ET).

WHO TO WATCH: Mike Kafka. Few Big Ten players proved more valuable to their teams this fall than Kafka, who ended the season playing his best football. He complemented an efficient short passing attack with more downfield shots to receivers Andrew Brewer and Zeke Markshausen. Kafka faces an Auburn defense that defends the pass well (28th nationally) but has struggled with depth problems for most of the fall. You figure Auburn's high-powered offense will hit on some big plays against the Wildcats, so Kafka will be called upon to answer. If he plays like he did Nov. 21 against Wisconsin, Northwestern should be in good shape.

WHAT TO WATCH: The chess match between Mike Hankwitz and Gus Mulzahn. Hankwitz, the Northwestern defensive coordinator, has seen it all in two plus decades running defenses. But Mulzahn's innovative offense, which employs a huge playbook and a ton of motion before the snap, will test Hankwitz's scheming skills. Northwestern's defense got healthier and improved its tackling as the season went on, but the Wildcats have been gashed for big plays at times. Hankwitz had an excellent game plan against Missouri's high-powered offense last year in the Valero Alamo Bowl, and it will be interesting to see what he comes up with after nearly a month to prepare for Malzahn and Auburn.

WHY WATCH: Northwestern finished the season as one of the nation's hottest teams, going 3-0 in November with two wins against ranked opponents (Iowa and Wisconsin). After a lengthy layoff, the Wildcats play on New Year's Day for the first time in 13 years and search for their first bowl victory since the 1949 Rose Bowl. It's also the Big Ten's first crack at the SEC, regarded as the nation's premier conference in large part because of its BCS title game wins against Ohio State. Northwestern still struggles to shake its miserable pre-1995 history, and a win against Auburn would go a long way toward erasing the program's poor past.

PREDICTION: The Wildcats are the hotter team, as Auburn dropped five of its final seven contests, but the Tigers are feeling good about themselves after taking No. 1 Alabama to the wire in the Iron Bowl. Both teams are excited to be here, and both boast strong offenses. Auburn takes an early lead behind big plays from quarterback Chris Todd and running back Ben Tate, but Northwestern once again rallies, as it has all season. The Wildcats win this one, 31-28.

Northwestern Wildcats season recap

December, 9, 2009
12/09/09
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An 8-4 record seemed like a reasonable expectation for Northwestern in August, so you could say the Wildcats' season went according to plan.

And you'd be totally wrong.

Few envisioned this type of 8-4 campaign for Pat Fitzgerald's team, which overcame injuries and poor play in September and early October to reach a New Year's Day bowl game for the first time in 13 years. It took some wild comebacks, a season-changing play at Iowa and the emergence of several new stars, but the Wildcats are going bowling in back-to-back years for just the second time in team history.

Early on, it seemed like much of the progress made last season would go to waste. A defense that had reshaped its image in 2008 flopped in losses to Syracuse and Minnesota. Northwestern struggled to beat woeful teams like Eastern Michigan and Miami (Ohio). Quarterback Mike Kafka showed obvious growth, but he struggled in the clutch and got no help from the run game.

But after wild comebacks against both Purdue and Indiana, NU stunned undefeated Iowa in Iowa City for the third straight time and went 3-0 in November. Kafka became one of the league's most valuable players, while Zeke Markshausen blossomed as a surprise star at wide receiver. A beat-up defense eventually got on track and forced critical turnovers in wins against Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, while line play picked up on both sides of the ball.

Offensive MVP: Mike Kafka. Few players meant more to their teams than the senior quarterback, who deservedly earned second-team All-Big Ten honors for the Wildcats. A run-first quarterback for much of his career, Kafka developed into a precision passer, leading the Big Ten in completion percentage (65.7) and ranking second in total offense (263.6 ypg).

Defensive MVP: Sherrick McManis. It's a close call between McManis and safety Brad Phillips, but the senior cornerback made a difference every time he stepped on the field. His interception late in the first half at Purdue sparked a major comeback, and his absence against Syracuse likely cost Northwestern a victory. An honorable mention goes to Phillips, a first-team All-Big Ten selection by the coaches.

Turning point: Two come to mind. Northwestern trailed Indiana 28-3 on Oct. 24 before mounting the biggest comeback in team history. A New Year's Day bowl seemed virtually impossible at the time. The more memorable moment came Nov. 7 against Iowa, when defensive end Corey Wootton sacked Ricky Stanzi in the end zone, knocking the ball loose for a touchdown and knocking Stanzi out of the game. Northwestern trailed 10-0 at the time but rallied to win.

What's next: Northwestern aims for its first bowl victory in 60 years as it takes on Auburn in the Outback Bowl (ESPN, 11 a.m. ET). The Wildcats need to get over the hump in the postseason to truly gain league-wide respect. The team must replace Kafka, McManis, Phillips and Wootton in the offseason.
For the fifth consecutive season, the Big Ten led all conferences with eight players named to the ESPN The Magazine Academic All-America teams, which were announced today. The Big Ten leads all leagues with six first-team selections, the third-highest total in conference history.

Here are the honorees and their grade-point averages:

First Team
  • Michigan P Zoltan Mesko, 3.65
  • Michigan State WR Blair White, 3.89
  • Northwestern WR Zeke Markshausen, 3.46
  • Penn State LB Josh Hull, 3.56
  • Penn State C Stefen Wisniewksi, 3.89
  • Penn State LS Andrew Pitz, 3.93
Second Team
  • Northwestern K Stefan Demos, 3.49
  • Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan, 3.38

Penn State and Texas are the only schools with multiple first-team selections, and Penn State is the lone school with three honorees.

The most impressive thing about this list is that it includes seven All-Big Ten performers, including four first-team selections in Mesko (media and coaches), Wisniewski (media and coaches), White (coaches) and Kerrigan (media). Congratulations to all the honorees.

Wrapping up the early Big Ten games

November, 14, 2009
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We're about to get started here in Columbus. Here's what has happened so far in the Big Ten today.

Penn State 31, Indiana 20: Penn State gave Indiana a great opportunity to take control of this game with four first-half turnovers. When the Hoosiers couldn't capitalize, the Lions didn't give them a second chance. Penn State scored 24 unanswered points as running back Evan Royster got going and the defense held IU quarterback Ben Chappell in check for most of the second half. Daryll Clark didn't have a great game by any means, but he avoided mistakes in the second half and moved Penn State closer to the 10-win plateau. Linebacker Navorro Bowman made the play of the day when he intercepted a Chappell pass and raced 73 yards to the end zone. It has been a season of near misses for Indiana, which can't generate a consistent rushing attack.

Wisconsin 45, Michigan 24: Scott Tolzien became the latest quarterback to completely pick apart Michigan's secondary, as Wisconsin came in with an excellent offensive game plan today. Tolzien fired four touchdown passes as wide receiver Nick Toon and Isaac Anderson and tight end Garrett Graham all had big games. Badgers running back John Clay once again went over the 100-yard rushing mark (151, to be exact) as Wisconsin eclipsed its victories total from last season. Michigan backslid in the second half for the third straight week, as the run game never truly got going. Tate Forcier had arguably his best game at quarterback for the Wolverines, but he can only do so much. Greg Robinson's defense is a disaster, and Michigan's bowl hopes could be finished after a 4-0 start.

Michigan State 40, Purdue 37: The Spartans received big plays in all three phases during a wild second half as they held off Purdue to get bowl eligible. Special teams was huge down the stretch as Michigan State blocked a long field goal attempt, received another huge kickoff return from Keshawn Martin and drilled the game-winning field goal with 1:51 left. Quarterback Kirk Cousins didn't have his typical accuracy, but he hit on several huge pass plays, three for touchdowns. Purdue's desperate run for a bowl game ends despite another huge performance from quarterback Joey Elliott, an All-Big Ten candidate. Wideout Keith Smith and running back Ralph Bolden came up big, but the Boilers defense couldn't stop the big play.

Northwestern 21, Illinois 16: Illinois made this one interesting with a furious fourth-quarter rally behind backup quarterback Jacob Charest, who struggled for the first 50 minutes or so. After a sloppy first half, Northwestern took control with a 7-play, 99-yard scoring drive in the third quarter. Mike Kafka finally hit on a big pass play to Andrew Brewer (52 yards), and the run game started to show up with freshman Arby Fields. Kafka passed for 300 yards and Zeke Markshausen continued his surprise season at wide receiver. The game wasn't without controversy, as replay officials didn't overturn a fourth-down interception that sealed the win for Northwestern, which secures back-to-back bowl berths for the second time in team history. Illinois inexplicably will miss a bowl for the second straight season.

Minnesota 16, South Dakota State 13: The Golden Gophers are bowl eligible, but they didn't make it easy on themselves. Minnesota rode great defense to hold off South Dakota State and notch victory No. 6. Junior quarterback Adam Weber continued to struggle, completing 10 of 21 passes with a pick-six in the second quarter as the Minnesota offense piled up only 231 yards. But the Gophers defense forced four turnovers, including a fumble recovered for a touchdown by D.L. Wilhite. A huge sigh of relief for Tim Brewster, who now tries to win his first trophy game next week at Iowa.

video

Penn State held off Indiana's upset bid, 31-20.

Halftime thoughts around the Big Ten

November, 14, 2009
11/14/09
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It has been a very entertaining day so far around the Big Ten. Must be the nice weather.

Here are my quick thoughts at halftime around the league.

Indiana 10, Penn State 10: This has been the story of Indiana's season. The Hoosiers once again came out hot on the road and took a 10-0 lead against a disinterested Penn State team. Quarterback Ben Chappell was cookin' and all seemed right for IU. Penn State committed four first-half turnovers as quarterback Daryll Clark struggled. But things went sour for the Hoosiers late in the half, as a missed field goal led to a long Penn State touchdown drive. The Lions can't possibly play worse in the second half, so you'd have to think Penn State wins.

Purdue 20, Michigan State 17: I'm continually impressed with the way Danny Hope's team has performed in Big Ten play. After fumbling on the first play of the game, Boilers quarterback Joey Elliott has dissected Michigan State's overrated secondary for 180 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore running back Ralph Bolden looks very good so far, and Purdue should be up more in this one. Two big plays on either side of the ball have led to Michigan State's two touchdowns, but quarterback Kirk Cousins needs a strong second half, especially with the run game struggling.

Wisconsin 21, Michigan 17: A very interesting game so far at Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien, tight end Garrett Graham and wideout Nick Toon are taking advantage of a vulnerable Michigan secondary, hooking up for two scores. It has been an odd half for Michigan's defense, which has scored a touchdown and set up a field goal with an interception in Badgers territory. Wolverines quarterback Tate Forcier, rumored to have lost his starting job, has been spectacular so far (15-for-18 passing, TD), while Vincent Smith has been a difference maker at running back. I'm not sure Wisconsin's John Clay got in the end zone for the go-ahead score, but this one could come down to the wire.

Northwestern 7, Illinois 3: Both defenses look good so far, but it has been a very sloppy game in Champaign. Northwestern has been hurt by dropped passes, sacks, penalties and two missed field goals, while Illinois quarterback Jacob Charest looks shaky in his first career start. NU's Mike Kafka has passed the ball well despite getting little help from his wideouts, and he made a great throw to Zeke Markshausen for the go-ahead score late in the half. Illinois' running back Mikel LeShoure is having another big day, but the Illini need to find a way to get in the end zone.

Minnesota 13, South Dakota State 10: Adam Weber's strange season continues as the Minnesota junior quarterback threw a pick-six in the second quarter. Minnesota's defense responded with a touchdown of its own, as Michael Carter forced a fumble that was recovered in the end zone. South Dakota State's offense doesn't appear too powerful, so Weber just need to limit mistakes after halftime. Kevin Whaley is running the ball decently for the Gophers, who should use backup quarterback MarQueis Gray more often.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten was well represented on the ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District teams, presented today by the College Sports Information Directors of America (COSIDA). It's especially nice to see several of the league's star players succeeding in the classroom.

Here's the breakdown by school of who made the teams, as well as their GPAs and majors:

Illinois

  • G Jon Asamoah, 3.82, community health
Iowa
  • G Julian Vandervelde, 3.47, religious studies/English
Indiana
  • QB Ben Chappell, 3.7, accounting
  • RB Trea Burgess, 3.47, telecommunications
  • LS Brandon Bugg, 3.62, Master's of business administration
Michigan
  • P Zoltan Mesko, 3.65, business administration (marketing & finance)
  • WR Jon Conover, 3.54, political science
Michigan State
  • WR Blair White, 3.89, human biology
  • RB Andrew Hawken, 3.44, supply chain management
  • LB Adam Decker, 3.62, finance
Minnesota
  • WR Eric Decker, 3.41, business and marketing education
  • C Jeff Tow-Arnett, 3.79, business and marketing education
Northwestern
  • WR Zeke Markshausen, 3.46, mechanical engineering and design & innovation
  • G Doug Bartels, 3.45, anthropology (pre-med)
  • K Stefan Demos, 3.49, communication studies
Ohio State
  • RB Marcus Williams, 3.86, physical therapy
  • OL Bryant Browning, 3.33, marketing
  • OL Andrew Moses, 3.86, political science
  • DT Todd Denlinger, 3.3, construction systems management
Penn State
  • OL Andrew Pitz, 3.93, journalism/telecommunications
  • LB Josh Hull, 3.56, environmental systems engineering
  • C Stefen Wisniewski, 3.89, secondary education
  • P Jeremy Boone, 3.33, elementary education
Purdue
  • LB Joe Holland, 4.0, movement & sports science
  • DE Ryan Kerrigan, 3.38, math education
Wisconsin
  • P Brad Nortman, 3.64, finance

Big Ten lunch links

October, 22, 2009
10/22/09
12:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Make it a good day.
If Purdue beats Ohio State, it's laughable. If, however, one-loss LSU fell to 2-5 Vanderbilt, it's reasonable to assume most would chalk it up to SEC depth.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midseason review: Northwestern

October, 20, 2009
10/20/09
2:05
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Northwestern Wildcats

Record: 4-3 (1-2 Big Ten)

As head coach Pat Fitzgerald has said several times this season, it hasn't been a yellow-brick road so far for Northwestern. Despite a favorable schedule and eight starters back from a defense that carried the team in 2008, the Wildcats have struggled to meet expectations. Standout defensive end Corey Wootton isn't the same player after returning from ACL surgery, and injuries have hit the defense in other key spots at inopportune times. The skill-position losses on offense are taking a toll, as Northwestern ranks 10th in the league in rushing (116.9 ypg), although senior quarterback Mike Kafka has been terrific for the most part. Northwestern might not be able to build on the momentum it carried over from 2008, but the Wildcats can still reach back-to-back bowls for just the second time in team history. They need to get the run game going in the second half and get a bit luckier with injuries to major contributors.

Offensive MVP, QB Mike Kafka -- Kafka has carried the offense with his precision passing, completing a league-best 67.8 percent of his throws. He ranks second in the Big Ten in both passing (250.7 ypg) and total offense (270.9 ypg), and he's second in quarterback rushing touchdowns with four. Honorable mentions go to wide receiver Zeke Markshausen and superback Drake Dunsmore.

Defensive MVP, CB Sherrick McManis -- Northwestern would probably be 5-2 had McManis been on the field Sept. 19 against Syracuse. The senior is a difference maker in the secondary, recording three interceptions and seven passes defended in only five games. Honorable mentions go to linebacker Quentin Davie and safeties Brad Phillips and Brian Peters.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

A few shout-outs and smack-downs to those not recognized previously (helmet stickers, players of the week, etc.).

Thumbs up, Greg Jones -- It seems like everyone takes Jones for granted at this point, but what he's doing every week is truly amazing. Jones led Michigan State in tackles in each of his first two seasons, and barring injury, he'll lead the Big Ten and possibly the nation this year. The junior linebacker currently leads the nation in total tackles (85) and ranks second in tackles average (12.1 tpg).

Thumbs down, Terrelle Pryor -- He doesn't deserve all the blame for what's wrong with Ohio State's offense, but he should be performing better than this. Turnovers are a Cardinal sin, especially on Jim Tressel's team, and Pryor had four of them against Purdue. After watching fellow No. 1 recruits Matt Barkley and Jimmy Clausen light up the sky in South Bend on Saturday, I have to wonder when Pryor will truly blossom.

Thumbs up, Derek Moye -- The Penn State sophomore wide receiver had a big day against Minnesota, making six receptions for 120 yards. He also turned in arguably the best catch of the weekend, a diving 12-yard grab in the end zone with only 35 seconds left in the first half. Moye and teammate Chaz Powell are quickly blossoming into good Big Ten receivers.

Thumbs down, Wisconsin's quarterback switch -- Many of us were scratching our heads at Camp Randall Stadium when Curt Phillips replaced Scott Tolzien at quarterback midway through the second quarter with Wisconsin leading 10-3. Tolzien had just led a 92-yard touchdown drive, during which he connected on several impressive play-action passes. The decision to insert Phillips seemed to stop the momentum, and Wisconsin never scored again. There's no need to get cute against a team like Iowa.

Thumbs up, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos -- After a slow start to the season, DJK is showing why he's Iowa's best wide receiver and one of the best in the league. Johnson-Koulianos led Iowa with eight receptions for 113 yards against Wisconsin and has 176 receiving yards in his last two games. If Johnson-Koulianos and tight end Tony Moeaki continue to make plays for Ricky Stanzi, the run game will open up more and more.

Thumbs down, Illinois' defense -- We can continue to rag on the offense, but at least the unit showed some life behind Juice Williams. Illinois' defense got absolutely shredded by quarterback Ben Chappell and Indiana, which should have scored way more than 27 points in Saturday night's win. This season has been an across-the-board disaster, and the defense shouldn't be spared.

Thumbs up, Tom Bradley -- It's pretty clear to me who Penn State's next head coach should be. Bradley has done a fabulous job with the Nittany Lions defense, which ranks second nationally in scoring (8.71 ppg) after shutting out Minnesota on Saturday. Despite not having linebackers Navorro Bowman and Sean Lee on the field together for most of the year, Bradley's defense hasn't allowed a first-half touchdown all season. Things do get much tougher Saturday at Michigan.

Thumbs down, Minnesota's first-down offense -- The run game has been a disappointment most of the season, and things reached a low point against Penn State. Minnesota had just one of its first eight plays on first down go for positive yards against the Lions, and Adam Weber was constantly in third-and-long. First-year coordinator Jedd Fisch needs to get things figured out as Minnesota faces an angry Ohio State team on Saturday.

Thumbs up, unheralded wide receivers -- Several of the Big Ten's best wide receivers this fall generated little to no hype during the recruiting process. Michigan State's Blair White and Northwestern's Zeke Markshausen, who combined for 28 receptions and 297 receiving yards in Saturday's game, both were walk-ons. Indiana's Tandon Doss wasn't a big-time recruit coming out of high school. Neither was Minnesota's Eric Decker. But all those players rank among the top six in the Big Ten in receiving yards.

Thumbs down, Northwestern's offensive line -- Offensive lineman are supposed to prefer run blocking to pass blocking, but evidently this doesn't apply to Northwestern's crew. Northwestern has tried everything to get the run game going but hasn't gotten consistent push from a line that returned four starters. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald sounds like he's ready to abandon the run entirely if things don't improve soon.

And, finally ...

Thumbs up, Joey Elliott -- The Purdue quarterback has turned in a very solid senior season, but he wasn't rewarded until Saturday. Elliott finally got the signature win that eluded his predecessor Curtis Painter as he passed for 281 yards and two touchdowns in Purdue's upset of Ohio State.

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