Chicago Colleges: Big Ten Conference

Spring 'game' recap: Northwestern

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
9:45
AM CT
We've been recapping all the spring game action in the Big Ten from over the weekend, and we're going to keep the Northwestern entry short and sweet.

Not because we have anything against the Wildcats. It's just that they didn't have an actual spring game. Because of injuries, head coach Pat Fitzgerald held a regular practice for his 15th session of the spring on Saturday.

Or at least it was supposed to be a regular practice, until storm clouds forced the team to rush indoors halfway through the drills.

"With the storm coming in,” Fitzgerald said, “we had to adjust quickly, which was a good challenge for the guys. And I thought the guys came back and finished practice well.”

You can find some coverage of the day's practice here and here. Because it wasn't a spring game, there is no star of the game or stats to report.

A big issue remains the defensive line, which had four key contributors out this spring.

"That is a major work in progress," Fitzgerald said. "I like what the guys did this spring, but there's no way, shape or form that we're ready to make any analysis there. I'd say the same thing at running back with the guys being out. Then we've got to get some things solidified in the kicking game."

There might not be another Big Ten team that will have to get more done early in fall camp than the injury-riddled Wildcats.

Spring game preview: Illinois

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
11:00
AM CT
Ten league squads wrap up spring practice this weekend, and we’re taking a look at each spring game or scrimmage. Up next: the Illinois Fighting Illini.

When: 3 p.m. ET Saturday

Where: Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill.

Admission: Tickets and parking are free. Only the East side of the stadium is open, and fans should enter through Gates 17, 19 and 21.

TV: Streamed on BTN2Go.com

Weather forecast: Partly cloudy, temperatures in the 60s, winds at 10-15 mph

What to watch for: The Orange and Blue game will be played with a normal clock for the first three quarters and a running clock for the fourth, aside from the final two minutes if the game is close. Every drive following a score will begin at the offense's 27-yard line. Punts will be fair-caught, and field goals will be attempted without a rush. The seniors selected the rosters earlier this week, as quarterback Wes Lunt was the first pick (Blue), followed by running back Josh Ferguson (Orange). Seven players are listed on both rosters and could play for both squads.

Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit is in no rush to name a starting quarterback, but Lunt has looked the part this spring, especially in last week's scrimmage. Coach Tim Beckman described the spring game as another opportunity to compete, although Lunt and Reilly O'Toole both will play for the Blue squad, while dual-threat sophomore Aaron Bailey suits up for the Orange. Newcomer receivers Geronimo Allison and Mike Dudek, both of whom have stood out this spring, will play for the Orange team. Top running backs Ferguson and Donovonn Young also will play for Orange.

On defense, keep an eye on linebacker T.J. Neal, whom Beckman singled out for his play this spring. He brings versatility to the group. Defensive coordinator Tim Banks called Neal "the surprise of the spring." Leo DeJazz Woods and end Kenny Nelson are worth watching after making plays in earlier spring scrimmages.

The quarterback position always generates attention, but Illinois' biggest problems in 2013 were on the defensive side of the ball. The unit is better, coaches say, and fans can get a glimpse of the differences Saturday.

Wildcats offense aims to make waves again

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
10:30
AM CT
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Two years ago, the Big Ten blog ranked Northwestern's wide receivers and tight ends as the league's best. The Wildcats proceeded to finish 106th and 69th in passing the next two seasons.

Whoops.

Our prediction clearly missed the mark back then, mainly because Northwestern became more of a zone-read run-driven offense led by quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark. But maybe we jumped the gun on the Wildcats.

[+] EnlargeTony Jones
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesTony Jones is part of a deep and talented group of receivers at Northwestern.
After watching Northwestern's practice Thursday, a case can be made that the receivers and tight ends, while lacking a bona fide superstar, should be among the Big Ten's best this fall. There were familiar faces like Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Dan Vitale. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler made play after play downfield, showing that the Wildcats have another deep threat alongside Tony Jones.

Wide receiver Kyle Prater, a one-time elite recruit who has battled myriad injuries during stints at both USC and Northwestern, is finally helping and contributing. Sophomore Mike McHugh provides another presence outside, and Jayme Taylor complements Vitale at the superback (tight end/fullback) spot.

An offense that struggled to find playmakers in 2013 now might have a surplus.

"We're going to attack you with waves of people," coach Pat Fitzgerald told ESPN.com. "And we've proven over time that when we have that in place, I don't know how you stop us."

The Wildcats couldn't produce second and third waves of passing weapons in 2013. It might not have mattered with the way their offensive line was pushed around, but Christian Jones logged too many snaps without a break. So did Vitale.

The depth issues especially hurt with an up-tempo offense, Fitzgerald noted, because you want to rotate personnel more often. When Northwestern had to pass more after injuries to both Mark and Colter, it couldn't deliver.

"When guys got dinged, and that's going to happen, we didn't have the depth we needed," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "Now we can run the same personnel, but wave two is coming at you. We're still going to have our starters and they're going to get to play, but it's nice to bring some of those other guys along.

"Right now, the ball's getting spread around a lot more."

Northwestern's deepest position actually might be running back, especially when Mark and Stephen Buckley return to action this fall. Treyvon Green, the team's leading rusher in 2013, and Warren Long took most of the carries this spring. Several heralded freshmen arrive in the summer.

But it's becoming fairly apparent that Northwestern's offense will have more of a passing lean this fall. Quarterback Trevor Siemian, who left no doubt about his starter status this spring, boasts a strong arm and much less mobility than Colter. The offense could look a lot more like the units in 2007 and 2009, which ranked in the top 15 nationally in passing.

"We still have the option, but our next option off of a run play is maybe to throw something," McCall said. "That's the way it's always been in this system. When we had an option quarterback, you could pitch it off of that. Now they load the box and we pull the ball and we're going to throw it."

McCall is quick to note that during his tenure, Northwestern has yet to make it through the season without an injury to a quarterback or a running back.

Translation: the Wildcats will need all of their options.

"We have a lot of talent across the board," Shuler said. "Speed, size, quickness. We have a lot of depth, so I'm really excited."

Spring game preview: Northwestern

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
3:30
PM CT
We're previewing all of the Big Ten spring games, even the ones that are not quite spring games, like Northwestern's practice on Saturday ..

When: 11 a.m. ET
Where: Ryan Field
Admission: Free. Stadium gates will open at 10 a.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network (live)
Weather forecast: Partly sunny, with a high near 68. Wind 10 to 15 mph.

What to watch for: Just like last year, the Wildcats won’t hold an actual spring game. Instead, their 15th session of the spring will be just like a regular practice, except that fans will be invited to attend.

And, no, they didn’t scrap the spring game because of union demands. Pat Fitzgerald’s team is simply too banged up to field two squads and go at it in any kind of live scrimmage. Northwestern opened spring drills with 11 players sidelined because of injuries, including potential starting defensive linemen Sean McEvilly, Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo, cornerback Daniel Jones and star running back Venric Mark.

Because of the injuries, Fitzgerald hasn’t really been able to have scrimmages all spring and says he’ll have to hold some during two-a-days in August to get his players up to speed.

There will still be some story lines to watch Saturday, and in fact, you may learn more from a regular practice effort than you would from most vanilla, fan-friendly spring exhibitions. Fitzgerald has said this is quarterback Trevor Siemian’s team, which means the offense should be fairly reliant on the passing game and not so much the option. At receiver, transfer Miles Shuler has earned praise, and the oft-injured Kyle Prater has had a nice spring, Fitzgerald said this week. It's just about now or never for Prater.

Collin Ellis has moved to middle linebacker, and there's a pretty good competition for his old spot on the outside, with Jimmy Hall and Drew Smith battling it out.

Mostly, though, the Wildcats and their fans are happy to see a day that should be all about football after their spring was dominated by union talk. The vote still looms, but at least on Saturday, the team can just practice, even if it's not a traditional spring game.
The head coaches from the new Big Ten West Division, along with a player from each team, addressed reporters today on a teleconference. The East Division coaches and players will follow Thursday.

To the notebook:

WISCONSIN
  • Coach Gary Andersen has some concern about QB Joel Stave's lingering shoulder injury. Stave, who hurt the AC joint of his throwing shoulder in the Capital One Bowl, has been shut down for the rest of the spring and will undergo an MRI. "The challenge is to truly identify the situation and start the rehab process," Andersen said.
  • Wisconsin's blockbuster opener against LSU in Houston has motivated players during the offseason. The Badgers typically open seasons with FCS or lower-level FBS opponents, so this is different. "It would give me an edge if I were a player," Andersen said.
  • RB Melvin Gordon said he turned down the NFL draft to try to lead Wisconsin into the inaugural College Football Playoff. Andersen on Gordon's return: "Huge is not a big-enough word."
NORTHWESTERN
  • The two-quarterback system is dead, at least for the 2014 season, as senior Trevor Siemian has established himself as the clear starter this spring. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said, "This is Trevor Siemian's football team." Siemian added that while sharing time with Kain Colter had its benefits, he's excited for his moment. "It's been a long time coming," he said.
  • WR Miles Shuler, who transferred from Rutgers last September, will be an impact player for the Wildcats, Fitzgerald said. Shuler spent last season in several roles, including mimicking Braxton Miller and other mobile quarterbacks on Northwestern's scout team. "You just have to get the ball in his hands," Siemian said.
  • Injuries along the defensive line will prevent Northwestern from having a true spring game Saturday. Fitzgerald said the Wildcats will hold more two-a-day practices this summer to make up for the lost scrimmage time. Northwestern didn't have any two-a-days last year.
NEBRASKA
  • RB Ameer Abdullah has spent the spring trying to become a more complete back. It includes improving his pass-blocking by facing players like DE Randy Gregory and LB Zaire Anderson. Abdullah said Gregory is "the best that we're going to see in the conference, and luckily he's on our team."
  • Coach Bo Pelini described his epic Twitter interaction with alter ego Faux Pelini during the BCS national title game as "having a bit of fun." He didn't think it would go viral, although he's aware of Faux's strong following. Pelini doesn't follow Faux but his wife provides him updates "all the time."
  • Abdullah thinks WR Kenny Bell will have a breakout season after not getting the ball thrown his way as much in 2013. Bell's post routes and linear speed impress Abdullah.
  • The Huskers' spring game on Saturday will feature the offense against the defense and a modified points system.
PURDUE
  • RB Raheem Mostert and DT Ra'Zahn Howard both have stood out this spring. Mostert, who won two gold medals at the Big Ten indoor track championships earlier this year, has made a strong push for a starting spot. Howard is showing greater stamina and explosiveness after losing weight during the offseason, coach Darrell Hazell said. Veteran DE Ryan Russell also has emerged late in the spring.
  • Purdue's current lack of depth at tight end doesn't worry Hazell. Dolapo Macarthy (shoulder) will be fine by preseason camp, and Gabe Holmes should return after missing the spring because of academic issues.
  • The Boilers have dramatically reduced their turnovers and mental errors in practice this spring. "Last year, we couldn't even line up correctly," QB Danny Etling said.
ILLINOIS
  • Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, filling in for coach Tim Beckman, said new wide receivers Geronimo Allison (junior college transfer) and Mike Dudek (a freshman early enrollee) both have exceeded expectations so far this spring.
  • Cubit sees separation at times in the quarterback competition but is in "no rush" to name a starter, noting that some players take longer to develop than others. Although Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt has looked the part so far in the spring, it seems as though Cubit will let this play out a little longer.
MINNESOTA
  • Like Siemian at Northwestern, Gophers QB Mitch Leidner has taken ownership of the team this spring and appears to be the obvious starter. Coach Jerry Kill said Leidner "became a coach" during winter workouts. "Everybody sees me as the leader of this team," Leidner said.
  • Leidner admits he was fairly shocked when QB Philip Nelson decided to transfer to Rutgers after the season. Nelson and Leidner shared snaps last season, and Leidner said he came to Minnesota to compete with Nelson.
  • The running back competition already is heating up, as redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards has turned in a strong spring alongside David Cobb and others. Edwards, the younger brother of former Michigan star WR Braylon Edwards, redshirted last season because of an ankle injury. Kill sounds as if he can't get enough ball-carrying options, as recruits Jeff Jones and Rodney Smith arrive this summer.
IOWA
  • Coach Kirk Ferentz said QB Jake Rudock is "perfectly healthy" after being bothered by knee injuries late in the season. The quarterback situation has a different feel this spring as both Rudock and C.J. Beathard gained experience in 2013. "It's a situation where both guys have to be at their best," Ferentz said.
  • Brandon Scherff had only played quarterback and tight end in high school when he committed to play for Iowa. He since has blossomed into an offensive tackle whom Ferentz said could have been a first-round draft pick had he decided to skip his senior season with the Hawkeyes. "My goal is to be one of the best offensive linemen in the nation," Scherff said.
Michigan's defense controlled play throughout the spring game Saturday at Michigan Stadium, echoing a theme throughout most of the league that day.

Several Big Ten squads held scrimmages or open practices, and the defenses had the edge in most of them. The offenses stepped up in a few, and several quarterbacks appear to be separating themselves.

Let's recap the weekend scrimmages. (Note: Scrimmages that were closed to the media and had no available statistics.)

WISCONSIN

Despite a new-look front seven and several position changes, Wisconsin's defense dominated Saturday's scrimmage. Cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary both had good days against an undermanned receiving corps, and coach Gary Andersen called the quarterback play very average. "We have a long way to go in the throw game, and that's disappointing," Andersen said. "If we want to be a good team, we have to figure that out." The defense also shined against the run, even against top backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement.

PURDUE

Technically, the Boilers' offense won Saturday's jersey scrimmage at Ross-Ade Stadium. But the defense looked stronger for much of the day, recording seven sacks and two takeaways. Unofficially, five Boilers recorded sacks, including two from tackle Michael Rouse III, who finished with three tackles for loss. Coach Darrell Hazell said of the defensive line, "They played in the [offensive] backfield."

Top quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby struggled, combining to complete 21 of 42 passes for 205 yards with a touchdown (Etling) and an interception (Appleby). Running back Raheem Mostert highlighted the offense with 134 yards and two touchdowns on only nine carries. Mostert is making a strong push this spring to be Purdue's No. 1 running back.

MINNESOTA

The Gophers' defense loses top performers Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen from last fall's unit, but it controlled play on Saturday. Minnesota's D held the offense without a point on its first seven possessions in the scrimmage. Safety Cedric Thompson had an excellent interception off a deflection on the first drive. The offense picked it up later in the scrimmage, as quarterback Mitch Leidner found KJ Maye for a 50-yard touchdown strike, and both Leidner and Berkley Edwards had long touchdown runs.

NEBRASKA

Here's one offense that flexed its muscles on Saturday after being subdued earlier in the week. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. had an "efficient" performance, according to coach Bo Pelini, as he continues to look like the team's top signal-caller. Armstrong ran for two touchdowns. Sophomore Terrell Newby received a lot of work at running back as Ameer Abdullah sat out, and receiver Jordan Westerkamp turned a short pass into a long gain. Defensive tackle Aaron Curry left the field with a neck injury, but Pelini thinks he'll be fine.

MICHIGAN STATE

The offense recorded a 27-25 win against the defense in MSU's first spring jersey scrimmage, as quarterback Connor Cook completed 15 of 21 passes for 187 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Wide receiver DeAnthony Arnett, who has been relatively quiet since transferring from Tennessee, had five receptions for 67 yards and a touchdown. Tyler O'Connor, competing for the backup quarterback job, had a good day (10-for-15 passing, 132 yards, TD).

After allowing a touchdown on the opening possession, the defense forced four consecutive stops. Standouts included safety Kurtis Drummond (six tackles, 1 TFL, interception), end Shilique Calhoun (two sacks) and linebacker Chris Frey, an early enrollee, who had two sacks and three tackles for loss.

ILLINOIS

The Illini had their second off-site practice of the spring, traveling to Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield for a controlled scrimmage on Friday night. Quarterback Wes Lunt continues to look like Illinois' starter. According to Rivals.com's Doug Buchson, Lunt completed his first 14 pass attempts against the second-string defense for about 250 yards and two touchdowns. Freshman wideout Mike Dudek continues his strong spring, and receiver Geronimo Allison had a 45-yard touchdown catch from Lunt.

Defensive linemen Kenny Nelson and DeJazz Woods stood out against the second-team offensive line, consistently penetrating the backfield. Cornerback Caleb Day also looked good.

RUTGERS

The most important thing coming out of Rutgers' first spring scrimmage was some clarity at quarterback, as Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano all worked with the first-team offense. Although a rash of injuries made it tough to get a true gauge, Bimonte had the best day, leading two touchdown drives. Coach Kyle Flood said all three signal-callers will continue to work with the top offense. Flood singled out defensive linemen Darius Hamilton and Kemoko Turay for their play during the scrimmage.

NORTHWESTERN

Like several other Big Ten teams, Northwestern can't have full-blown scrimmages because of its injury situation. But the Wildcats had their top units match up for stretches of Saturday's practice on the lakefront. Trevor Siemian entered the spring as the No. 1 quarterback and appears to be ending it the same way. Siemian looked sharp on his first series, completing all three of his attempts. Dropped passes were a problem for much of the day, but wide receiver Kyle Prater, a USC transfer who has battled injuries for much of his career, had a one-handed grab on a pass from Zack Oliver. Cornerback Matt Harris and safety Kyle Queiro both made plays for the defense.

OHIO STATE

The Buckeyes invited students inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for Saturday's practice, creating some cool scenes. Several young players stood out, namely cornerback Eli Apple, who had two interceptions and a big hit. Running back Curtis Samuel, an early enrollee, also sparked the crowd with a 50-yard touchdown run. Linebacker has been an area of concern for Ohio State, but Darron Lee and Chris Worley both made some plays on the outside. Ezekiel Elliott is looking more like Ohio State's top running back, as he showed his size and versatility during the practice.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
12:00
PM CT
Big Ten is desperate for a title. Which one of you is willing to make the sacrifice?

Links time ...

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2
5:00
PM CT
Back from Michigan. And back to the mailbag.

Caleb from MSU writes: With Malik McDowell finally in the fold, we now have a better look at the pieces available to the MSU defensive line. That being said, what are the chances McDowell starts and or contributes in a major way this year? With [Marcus] Rush and [Shilique] Calhoun on the ends, there could be some favorable matchups on the inside. Or do you think he needs time to mature to the college game?

Brian Bennett: Caleb, it's really tough to predict how much a young guy will contribute before he ever makes it to campus. But McDowell was a big-time recruit, or else we wouldn't have been nearly so interested in him. Mark Dantonio usually likes to redshirt guys on the lines, but he said Wednesday that McDowell would likely play this fall because, "I just think he’s too big and strong and fast.” The Spartans are excited about Joel Heath's potential on the inside, but after losing Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds off last season's team, there should be some opportunities for McDowell to at least contribute.


Kyle G. from Prior Lake, Minn., writes: Curious as to what your thoughts are on the Gophers defense for this upcoming season. A lot of guys returning. Could they [rank] in the top half of the Big Ten?

Brian Bennett: Minnesota didn't lose a lot of players off last season's defense, but they must replace their best defensive lineman (Ra'Shede Hageman), two starting linebackers (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) and a very good defensive back (Brock Vereen). So those are concerns. But I think Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys have shown they can put together a strong defense, and they still have some good players to work with such as defensive end Theiren Cockran and corner Eric Murray. If someone such as Scott Ekpe steps up to help replace Hageman in the middle and some young linebackers move forward, this has a chance to be an upper-level Big Ten defense.


Jon L. via Twitter writes: Read some stuff at NU specific sites but interested in a broader opinion... What will Kain Colter's legacy be in the BIG and at NU?

Brian Bennett: Good question, but the answer is tied to the eventual outcome of the unionization case. Maybe the full NLRB or the Supreme Court eventually rules against the union movement, or Northwestern's players elect not to unionize. Then this could become an interesting footnote. Or maybe Colter winds up as college sports' version of Curt Flood, an excellent player in his own right who's now known more for his role in bringing about free agency in baseball. Colter's legacy as a player is solid, as he helped lead Northwestern to 10 wins in 2012 and guided the Wildcats to their first bowl victory in 64 years. But whether he's eventually viewed as a pioneer who helped improve athletes' causes or someone who brought down college sports as we know them can't possibly be known yet.


Timmer S. via Twitter writes: Would an annual B1G-ACC football tourney ever be possible? Would be an awesome Week 2 event. Probably tough to schedule.

Brian Bennett: It would be a blast, and there are already some natural tie-ins with Penn State-Pitt, the Rutgers and Maryland connections and Notre Dame. But as we saw with the short-lived Big Ten/Pac-12 alliance idea, it's just extremely difficult to schedule these types of things in football because teams have vastly different priorities, rivalries, etc. The ACC has talked about having such an alliance with the SEC, where there are already a lot of established interconference clashes. So I don't think we'll ever see a Big Ten/ACC football challenge materialize.


Chris Grandview, Mo., writes: Brian, I am wondering why more and more people want Penn State over Iowa to play Nebraska on Black Friday? I mean, there is history for both Iowa and Penn State playing Nebraska, but why now does everyone think Penn State will be a better matchup now? Look at last year; no one picked Iowa, like I did, to beat Nebraska and Iowa completely dominated Nebraska. Are fans of the Big Ten afraid Iowa can't handle their own now, or that Penn State is some better program always, compared to Iowa? Thanks for your time, sir!

Brian Bennett: Fans from both Penn State and Nebraska have enjoyed that series, and there is some interesting history there, as you noted. So I understand that. But I've also said repeatedly that the Heroes Game series between Iowa and Nebraska just needs time to grow. The geography makes that a natural potential rivalry, and it will also be a West Division game. The Hawkeyes' victory in Lincoln was the first step in making that more of an actual rivalry. These things need some time to develop, and I think eventually Iowa-Nebraska can become a much more interesting end-of-season affair.

Mark making most of spring recovery

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
6:00
PM CT
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Boot-free and three weeks ahead of schedule, Venric Mark has adjusted to a different view of Northwestern's spring practice as he recovers from winter ankle surgery.

"What’s jumped out to me: At first he was a lead-by-example guy. Great work ethic and commitment," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "And now he’s a guy who has been through a bunch, is wiser and is able to impart some wisdom. He’s really willing to give."

Said Mark: "Right now I'm learning how to be a leader while sitting out, and I can say that's one thing I have actually improved on."

Mark is running and cutting this spring, happy to be granted a fifth season by the NCAA but eager to get back in the action on the field. He has locked himself in mentally by further immersing himself in the playbook while learning how to hold underclassmen more accountable.

[+] EnlargeVenric Mark
Dave Stephenson/Icon SMINorthwestern's Venric Mark is eager to get running again after an ankle injury shortened his 2013 season.
The surgery, he said, was hardly a real surgery at all, with the running back describing a procedure in which an incision the size of a fingernail was made in his left ankle to clear out "two loose bodies" before he was sewed back up.

It came on the heels of a lost season in which Mark missed the Wildcats' final six-plus games -- after missing most of the first four with a hamstring injury -- because of a fracture suffered during a goal-line play Oct. 12 at Wisconsin.

"We ran inside-zone, I end up cutting it up, I got hit from both sides, stayed on my feet, I'm on top of my feet, somebody else comes in and tries to dive to take out the pile and ends up chipping the side of my ankle," Mark said. "And me personally, I thought it was an ankle sprain, so I stayed in the game.

"And actually, the defense went out, made a great stop and then I went back to actually punt return, and then when I went back to punt return, I'm like bouncing around. I'm like, 'Hold on, I've had an ankle sprain before -- this is not the same.' And that's when of course everything else followed."

Mark refused to leave the game before finally recognizing his limitations while trying to run a route as a receiver. And seeing the team struggle through the rest of its underwhelming 5-7 campaign has created a whole new cohesiveness this spring.

As Mark and his teammates deal with questions about Northwestern's unionization efforts -- a topic that isn't going away anytime soon -- the redshirt senior senses a confluence of factors he believes has made the Wildcats closer than he's ever seen them.

"I feel like the disappointment last year had a big (contribution) to our team being a lot closer now," Mark said, "because when you have a good season and then you end up having another bad season, it's kind of a reality check. And so now we know what the standard is, if that makes sense. Five-and-whatever-we-went, that's not the standard of Northwestern, and we need to make sure we understand that."

For those reasons and many more, the NFL can wait for Mark, who's looking to add to his 4,271 career all-purpose yards and return to his All-America form of 2012.

"I can honestly say that: That never crossed my mind at all," Mark said. "One year and done; that's really not my thing. The first two years I was here, I understand they were trying to prep me, get me ready, so that's understandable. I did have a good junior year and I wanted to end on a good note. Being here, this school's done a lot for me and my family, everybody on my team. So it's just a great opportunity just to be here. So I wanted to get my degree, make sure I finish out and have one more good year before trying to pursue the NFL."

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
5:00
PM CT
Coming at ya from Happy Valley. Dropping in on James Franklin and the Nittany Lions on Wednesday.

To the inbox ...

Ken from Kansas City, Mo., writes: Hey Adam! I loved the "dictator for the day" thread. I just have one suggestion ... since everyone was worried about some teams getting five home games and other teams getting four in a nine-game schedule, and with two bye weeks now due to extending games beyond Thanksgiving, how about every team has one of their conference games played internationally each year, following a bye week? This would: increase international exposure for the B1G, be a cool perk when it came to recruiting -- "your son will get to visit four or five foreign countries during their years at our university" -- and leave everyone with an even 4-4-1 split on conference game locations and make for some cool travel options for the fans.

Adam Rittenberg: Ken, a couple things here. The double-bye thankfully won't be an annual occurrence in college football. It takes place only when Aug. 30 or Aug. 31 falls on a Saturday, as was the case last year and again this fall. Also, Big Ten schools don't want to part with home games, especially for an international site that, while appealing to some, prevents many others from attending. It also disrupts the players' schedule. I like the way you're thinking because exposure is the name of the game, and occasional international events like Penn State's opener this fall make sense. But not every year.


Brian from Baltimore writes: So far PSU and James Franklin are "walking the walk"' as far as dominating recruiting. How surprising is this? After this torrid pace of commitments slows down, how do you see Penn State faring overall for 2015 recruits?

Rittenberg: Brian, while the sheer number of early commits is noteworthy, Franklin's recruiting success certainly is not. He has been regarded as a nationally elite recruiter since his time as a Maryland assistant, and the enthusiasm he brings to Penn State -- and a region where he and several of his assistants already have familiarity -- translates on the trail. Franklin did really well with early commitments in Vanderbilt's 2013 class, as 16 players pledged before the season. If Penn State hangs onto all these recruits and continues to add solid pieces, Franklin will bring in a nationally elite class next February.


Brian from West Michigan writes: If the Northwestern unionizing efforts succeed, are they aware of the unintended consequences that are coming from their actions? For instance, now that they are considered "employees," their scholarship value (upwards of 50K/year depending on the school) is considered compensation and eligible to be taxed. You hear stories of kids being able to use athletics to get them a degree that otherwise they couldn't have afforded. How does a college kid who is now "making" $50K/year scrape up the cash to pay Uncle Sam?

Rittenberg: Brian, the tax question looms large in the debate, and there are different opinions on what the players would be required to pay. Kevin Trahan addresses it well here, quoting several tax experts who say the players will have to pay taxes on their scholarships. College Athletes Players Association president Ramogi Huma, meanwhile, cites a provision in the tax code that states scholarships for "degree candidates" are not taxable. It doesn't sound like tax status will factor into the NLRB's final ruling on whether players are employees, but it's certainly a significant factor for the players as they pursue this route.


Jim from Virginia writes: A lot is made of "skill" positions (top three backfield, etc). Yet, when looking at the offensive and defensive lines, Nebraska seems to be able to make a case for turning a four-loss year last year -- when the offensive line got experience through injuries and the defensive line matured -- into maybe Bo Pelini's best campaign.

Rittenberg: Jim, I agree that Nebraska's ceiling this season largely depends on line play. Randy Gregory provides a major edge-rushing threat for the defensive line, and if Nebraska can stay healthy and generate more from the inside tackles, it should be pretty stout up front. There are more questions along the offensive line, which loses key players such as Spencer Long, Cole Pensick and Jeremiah Sirles. Alex Lewis is a key addition because he brings experience from Colorado. Lewis and Jake Cotton should anchor the left side of the Husker line. Nebraska must build depth and chemistry with the group the rest of the spring and through fall camp. It likely needs younger players such as Givens Price to blossom.


Keith from Kunming, China, writes: Hey Adam,You didn't like the Premier League model for B1G and MAC, but I do. You said it's not realistic to move between leagues, but it is if the B1G and the MAC have a contractual relationship, and the MAC is essentially absorbed into the B1G as a sort of junior league. B1G doesn't "own" MAC programs but it effectively subsidizes them. Michigan will continue to fill its stadium when relegated (oh! the joy in East Lansing!), which will be financially great for the MAC opponents. My only change to the model proposed is that relegation should happen every years, as in England. Why wouldn't this work?

Rittenberg: Keith, first off, thanks for reading from so far away. Although the Big Ten and the MAC have a strong relationship when it comes to scheduling, officiating and other areas, your proposal requires the Big Ten to shoulder a major financial and structural burden, while embarrassing its members in the process. I'm not saying it wouldn't be fun for fans, but does the Big Ten want to be so closely tied with the MAC, which has schools with profiles that differ markedly from those in the Big Ten? Scheduling would be a huge headache because you wouldn't know where certain teams would be. Money would be a problem on several levels, from television audience to stadium size.

B1G coaches tourney results: Game 6

March, 31, 2014
Mar 31
3:00
PM CT
Our first Final Four game in the all-time Big Ten coaches tournament is set.

No. 4 seed Joe Paterno advanced earlier, and now we find out his opponent. The sixth game in our bracket featured No. 3 seed Tom Osborne from Nebraska vs. the No. 6 seed, Chicago's Amos Alonzo Stagg.

Osborne ran away with this one, winning 72 percent of the vote to 28 percent for Stagg. So it will be Osborne vs. Paterno in one semifinal, which will begin later this week. Should be extremely interesting.

Here are some of your thoughts on the Osborne-Stagg game:
Casey from Hudson, N.H.: As a former Nebraskan, Tom Osborne was and still is the face of Cornhusker football. His record speaks for itself and what he did outside of football is even more remarkable.

Alex from York, Neb.: Osborne gets the nod here, Stagg meant a lot to football but most all of us can remember how totally dominant Nebraska was in Osborne's last 5 years as a coach, going 60-3 with 3 national titles. For perspective, Alabama's record the past 5 years was “only” 60-7, also with 3 national titles. Winning 9 or more games every year in an era where you played 11, MAYBE 12 games per year is too impressive to ignore here.

Josh from Des Moines, Iowa: No doubt about it Osborne is the greatest coach ever. IF he hadn't retired so early and was still coaching, Nebraska would have three additional national championships at least! Osborne was ahead of his time with his schemes and player development.

Paul from La Crosse, Wis.: I grew up during the '90s. There was no better time to be a Husker fan. Maybe the (Bob) Devaney years could stack up, but I wasn't a twinkle in my parent's eyes yet. Even at a young age it was apparent that Tom Osborne was someone to be respected and you could see how much the players respected him. I will never forget Tom being carried off the field by his players after winning the 1994 Orange Bowl. I say good luck to anyone who tries to get in the way of Tom and winning this tournament. Us Husker fans love our Tom Osborne.

Brian from Omaha: T.O. managed a successful program for 25 years, nine wins every season. I can't replicate that success on video games nor could any of the other coaches in this field.

Big Ten lunch links

March, 31, 2014
Mar 31
11:00
AM CT
College basketball season is over in the state of Michigan, but the party continues in Wisconsin.

Ready for some spring football links? Here ya go ...
 

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

March, 25, 2014
Mar 25
5:00
PM CT
Spring practice is in full swing around the Big Ten, and we've got you covered. Be sure to check us out on Twitter.

Mail call ...

Lance from Mooresville, N.C., writes: Some hypotheticals for you in regards to the 2013 Spartans: 1. If Le'Veon [Bell] would have stayed, would MSU have won a national title? Or would MSU have used him as a crutch like it did in 2012. 2. If MSU would have beat tOSU in the BIG CCG by 20-plus points and not given tOSU the lead back in the third quarter, would it have gone to the NCG? 3) How crazy is it that the BCS came a year too late for U of M and they didn't get an outright national title, and the playoff came a year too late for MSU, and it didn't get a chance to play for one either.

Adam Rittenberg: 1. I don't think Le'Veon Bell, as good as he is, would have been the difference in Michigan State winning a national title. And as you note, it might have changed how the coaches approached the quarterback position. MSU needed to lean more on its QB, partly because Bell wasn't there, and it allowed for Connor Cook to emerge. 2. Maybe if Missouri had beaten Auburn, MSU could have vaulted into the No. 2 spot. There was a strong push to get the SEC champ in the game after the run of national titles, but Missouri didn't have the backing that Auburn did. 3. I guess the college football powers-that-be are anti-Mitten State. It's really too bad MSU didn't have a chance to participate in a playoff last year.

 




Puck from Chesapeake, Va., writes: What impact does Taco Charlton make the for Wolverines this fall? I want him to be a game-changer!

Adam Rittenberg: Puck, few young players impressed me more physically on my spring trips last year than Taco Charlton. Freshmen simply don't look like that very often. He got a small taste of game action last fall, appearing in 10 games as a reserve and recording two tackles. I'm interested to see if he makes a significant jump in Year 2. Michigan needs more pass-rushing production, and while Charlton is behind Brennen Beyer, he could have a bigger role. Frank Clark and Mario Ojemudia are on the other side and boast more experience, but I don't know if any Michigan defensive end has Charlton's physical gifts.

 




Leo from Philadelphia writes: I grew up in close proximity to both Maryland and Rutgers. I feel like I know what both schools represent (having lots of friends from each), and I can't see either being a rival to Penn State (for obvious reasons). I understand why people from those schools try to justify it, but in reality Penn State has no true rival in the B1G. Ohio State might be the closest thing, but at the end of the day it's not (for obvious reasons). If the Big Ten caters to it, Nebraska, Wisconsin or Michigan State have serious potential (mainly Nebraska). Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Leo, the only way Maryland or Rutgers becomes Penn State's rival is if one or both start beating the Lions on a regular basis. James Franklin's connection to Maryland makes that series more interesting, but I can't call it a rivalry until the Terps start winning. Penn State will see Ohio State, Michigan and MSU annually in the East Division, but all three programs have bigger rivals. A lot of Penn State and Nebraska fans wanted to see that series continue annually, but the division realignment makes it tough. Penn State might never have a true Big Ten rival. At least Pitt returns to the schedule in 2016.

 




Stephen from Mount Prospect, Ill., writes: Where do you stand on conference games beginning from Week 1? I think one of the more overlooked parts of the early part of the schedule is the effects it has on rankings and conference prestige. More early conference games will truly show who are the top teams. Look at the Michigan game when it lost to App State. It was the first game of the year, and the Wolverines were ranked fifth. It was a huge deal that they lost, and the perception was that the Big Ten was bad that season. If they played them at the end of the season with three losses, it wouldn't have been as big of a story.

Adam Rittenberg: Stephen, some really good points here. I've long been in favor of earlier conference games because they add some spice to those September Saturdays. No one like the Big Ten's MAC/FCS Invitational, which seems to take place one Saturday per season. Sprinkling in earlier league games, as we'll see in the near future, ensures the league remains somewhat relevant in the national discussion. But your point about early league games shedding light on which teams are good and which teams are not is very valid. I hate preseason polls and early-season rankings, but they would be slightly more accurate if teams faced stronger competition in September.

 




Al Baker from Lincoln, Neb., writes: It's Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, not Edwardsville, a much smaller satellite campus.

Adam Rittenberg: Actually, the Illinois state senators were referring to the Edwardsville campus, in the context of having a Big Ten candidate closer to a larger media market (St. Louis). Carbondale brings nothing to the Big Ten in terms of market. Same goes for Illinois State, Northern Illinois and most of the highly unrealistic candidates for Big Ten expansion. SIU-Edwardsville at least has location in its favor, but not much else.

Big Ten's lunch links

March, 25, 2014
Mar 25
11:00
AM CT
Five months and three days 'til the start of college football.
We're not worthy! We're not worthy!

-- Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar, residents of Aurora, Ill.

Wayne and Garth referred to sharing oxygen with acclaimed rocker Alice Cooper, not whether their home state is worthy of a second public institution in the Big Ten. Two Illinois state senators from near Aurora are exploring the feasibility of having another public school gain consideration from the Big Ten, which has added three new members since 2010.

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
Keith Gillett/Icon SMIIllinois has two schools in the Big Ten -- the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, coached by Tim Beckman, and Northwestern -- but two state senators want to look into adding another public school from the state to the B1G.
Illinois State in the Big Ten? Southern Illinois-Edwardsville rubbing elbows with Michigan and Ohio State? Northern Illinois taking its successful football team to four or five Big Ten venues per season, rather than one or two?

In terms of likely expansion scenarios, any of these would rank pretty low. But Illinois Sens. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine) and Michael Connelly (R-Naperville) want to find out.

Murphy and Connelly have introduced a bill that would establish a task force to study whether the state has a second public institution that could merit consideration from the Big Ten. The bill, which has bipartisan support, passed the senate's higher education committee on March 19. Murphy told ESPN.com he hopes to get full senate approval in the next few weeks.

If signed into law, the task force would begin working this summer and have a report for the General Assembly in January.

There are gargantuan hurdles ahead, namely whether the Big Ten would want to expand again and consider a school in a state where it already has two members (the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Northwestern, a private institution.). But the senators simply want to gather information, and their plan stems from a good place.

"It's an annual rite of passage for us to get phone calls from parents of kids who have great ACTs, great GPAs and they couldn't get into the University of Illinois," Connelly told ESPN.com on Monday. "There's an annual trek, probably thousands of kids from the [Chicago] suburbs head to Iowa, head to Indiana, head to Missouri, head to Kansas, head to Michigan State. That drains us of talent and it requires many of these parents to pay out-of-state tuition, which far exceeds what they spend at a state school.

"We want to keep our best students here in Illinois. So we're looking at it. Can we do this?"

Murphy notes that Illinois is more populous than both Michigan and Indiana, and each have two state institutions in the Big Ten. But after the University of Illinois, which has stringent in-state admission standards, students don't have a second option that features both strong academics and a strong large-college experience, like Big Ten schools offer.

"We'd really like to model something after Michigan," Connelly said. "You have Ann Arbor, which is really an elite school. Michigan State is also a very good school, hard to get into, but it’s the kind of school that kids with 29s, 31s, 32s [on their ACTs] are getting into."

The task force would include government staffers and would not generate significant expenses. The senators have yet to contact the Big Ten about their proposal, but Murphy doesn't expect the league to slam the door on them. He has spoken to University of Illinois administrators about the bill and they were "open to the idea."

The Big Ten declined to comment about the bill other than stating that any written application to join the league must be approved by at least 70 percent of the league's Council of Presidents/Chancellors. After Rutgers and Maryland officially join the conference in July, candidates would need 10 of the 14 schools to say yes.

"One of the most important things is getting from the Big Ten as accurate an assessment as possible of their model or what it is they require for consideration," Murphy said. "You start with what are they looking for and then work your way back there. Which one of our schools most consistently resembles that now? There's a lot here that is potentially thorny. It's not like this is any slam dunk."

You start with what are they looking for and then work your way back there. Which one of our schools most consistently resembles that now? There's a lot here that is potentially thorny. It's not like this is any slam dunk.

Illinois Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine) on the possibility of adding a second public school in Illinois to the Big Ten.
No, it's not. For starters, the Big Ten has made it clear that candidates must be part of the Association of American Universities to gain consideration. The only Illinois schools in the AAU right now are Illinois-Champaign, Northwestern and the University of Chicago, a founding member of the Big Ten that stopped competing in the league in 1939.

The senators recognize the AAU factor and want to see what criteria other state institutions would need to meet. It's possible programs or resources could be consolidated to enhance a school's profile, Murphy said.

"Can you create an academic environment that is consistent with other Big Ten schools," Connelly asked. "And at that point, what would it take athletically?"

A lot of money. Murphy said the idea isn't to sink more taxpayer dollars into one school. But Big Ten athletic budgets and those of, say, Northern Illinois or Southern Illinois aren't comparable.

There's also the issue of demographics, which motivated the Maryland/Rutgers expansion. The Big Ten wants to add new markets for its upcoming television contract.

"One of our fastest growing state universities, especially in popularity, is Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, which is right there in the St. Louis media market," Connelly said.

Other schools that should be part of the study include Illinois State, Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois. State Sen. Napoleon Harris, a former Northwestern football player, mentioned Chicago State as an option, Murphy said.

"SIU-Edwardsville is the St. Louis media market, Chicago State is the Chicago media market," Murphy said. "Northern Illinois has football team that is close to being ready. Illinois State has campus infrastructure and the name.

"I don't have a favorite as I go into it."

The Big Ten's recent expansion activity, after decades of relative stability, motivated the bill.

"Once upon a time the Big Ten, if you weren't Notre Dame, they weren't going to consider expanding," Murphy said. "But at this point they've added Rutgers. The dynamic is changing.

"You'll never make anything like this happen if you say it's never going to happen. We're not losing anything by trying."

If true, no complaints here.

Party on, guys.

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