Chicago Colleges: D.L. Wilhite

Poll: Big Ten's most surprising player

October, 3, 2012
The Big Ten's collective struggle in September has been the main storyline so far this season, but the league has produced its share of bright spots -- surprise stars, in fact. Here's your chance to select the league's most surprising player through the first five weeks.

Raise your hand if you expected Iowa's Mark Weisman to a) lead the Big Ten in touchdown runs and rank fourth in rushing yards, b) become Iowa's featured back, c) see the field at all for the Hawkeyes. Hadn't heard of Weisman before Sept. 15? You're not alone. The Hawkeyes' battering ram of a fullback has gone from anonymous to local cult hero in a matter of weeks, racking up 515 yards and seven touchdowns on 74 rushes.


Who has been the Big Ten's surprise player through the first five weeks?


Discuss (Total votes: 11,446)

Matt McGloin didn't need to introduce himself to the Big Ten like Weisman did, but he had a reputation to repair. Most Penn State fans were less then thrilled when first-year coach Bill O'Brien named McGloin the team's starting quarterback late this spring. McGloin hadn't exactly torn apart opposing defenses the past two years. But Nittany Nation has a different view of the senior signal caller these days, as McGloin leads the league in passing (243.4) and completions (101) with 10 touchdown strikes and only two interceptions in a league-high 170 attempts.

Like McGloin, Minnesota defensive end D.L. Wilhite entered his fifth year with a less-than impressive résumé. He had appeared in 35 career games, starting 16, but had just 34 total tackles with seven sacks and two forced fumbles. He played for a Gophers defensive line that has been among the nation's least effective for the past three seasons. But Wilhite and the front four have surged this season. Wilhite leads the Big Ten with 4.5 sacks, and ranks fourth with 5.5 tackles for loss. He also has a forced fumble.

You might have caught a glimpse of Northwestern's Venric Mark before this season as he sprinted downfield on a punt or kickoff return. That's all Mark really was, a gifted return specialist, as he couldn't crack the lineup as a wide receiver and briefly was a candidate to play in the secondary. But he has found a home at running back and energized a position that has been dormant in Evanston in recent years. Mark ranks fourth in the league and tied for 17th nationally in rushing average (107.6 ypg). He has five rushing touchdowns and seven total touchdowns.

Penn State fans knew about McGloin, but they had major concerns about who he'd be throwing passes to this fall after top returning receiver Justin Brown transferred to Oklahoma. O'Brien talked up Allen Robinson in preseason camp, but Robinson had just three catches as a true freshman in 2011. Robinson has backed up his coach -- and his quarterback -- in a big way through the first five games, ranking second in the Big Ten in both receptions (6.4 rpg) and receiving yards (87.8 ypg), and tying for the league lead in touchdown catches (5).

All five players are surprises, to varying degrees. And there are others. It's your turn to pick the most surprising player. Time to vote.

Big Ten: Looking back and forward

October, 1, 2012
Check your calendar. It's Oct. 1, which means the first month of the college football season is in the books. As you know, it hasn't been a great one for the Big Ten.

Let's take a quick look back at the Big Ten's September before spinning it forward.

Best of September

1. Miller time: Braxton Miller came to Ohio State to play for Jim Tressel, but the Buckeyes sophomore quarterback is meant to play in an offense like the one Urban Meyer has brought to Columbus. While more accomplished Big Ten offensive stars (Denard Robinson, Montee Ball) have struggled, Miller has been spectacular through the first month, recording 577 rush yards, 933 pass yards and 15 touchdowns (8 pass, 7 rush). He's very much on the Heisman Trophy radar entering the October.

2. Purple reign: Aside from Ohio State, Northwestern is the only other Big Ten team to truly take care of business in the early going. The Wildcats accounted for three of the Big Ten's six wins (Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Boston College) against teams from automatic-qualifying conferences and recorded their third 5-0 start in the past five seasons. The coaches have used quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter well and received improved play in both rushing offense and rushing defense. Northwestern exits September ranked in both major polls for the first time since 2008.

3. Surprise stars: September didn't bring too many positives from the team level, but the Big Ten saw its share of surprise stars around the league. Mark Weisman came out of nowhere -- actually, the Air Force Academy -- to rescue Iowa's rushing attack in Week 3, and he has piled up 507 rush yards and seven touchdowns in the past three games. Penn State's Allen Robinson, who entered the year with just three career receptions, has been the Big Ten's top wide receiver (32 receptions, 439 yards, 5 TDs). Other surprise standouts include Northwestern running back Venric Mark, Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin and Minnesota defensive end D.L. Wilhite.

Worst of September

1. Big-game woes: The Big Ten flunked its nonleague exam, failing in nearly every big-game opportunity through the first four weeks. Things got off to an ominous start when Alabama crushed Michigan 41-14 in Week 1. Things only got worse the following Saturday, as the Big Ten went 6-6, including three road losses to Pac-12 foes. The Big Ten went 0-3 against Notre Dame, and its members suffered ugly losses against teams like Central Michigan and Louisiana Tech. Aside from Michigan State's season-opening win against Boise State and Northwestern's triumphs, there was nothing to celebrate in nonleague play.

2. The thin red line: No one doubts Wisconsin lost a game-changer in quarterback Russell Wilson, now starting for the Seattle Seahawks. But the Badgers still returned a Heisman Trophy finalist in Ball at running back, an NFL prospect in tackle Ricky Wagner and other solid pieces of an offense that set records each of the past two seasons. Few could have seen Wisconsin's rapid drop in offensive production. Coach Bret Bielema already has replaced offensive line coach Mike Markuson, made a quarterback change and seen Ball sustain a concussion. Although the unit is showing a bit of life lately, its short-yardage struggles at Nebraska reconfirmed that Wisconsin isn't Wisconsin right now.

3. No offense: With a few exceptions, Big Ten teams were pretty brutal to watch on offense during the season's first month. Only four league squads rank among the nation's top 50 in total offense, and just five rank in the top 50 in scoring. Wisconsin's decline has been the most shocking, but Michigan State hasn't replaced the production it lost in the pass game. Iowa couldn't reach the end zone until Weisman came along. Illinois has scored just 21 points in its two games against major-conference opponents and has yet to form an identity under its new coaching staff.

Three storylines for October

1. Search for separation: If the recent power rankings and bowl projections haven't made it clear, the Big Ten is a muddled mess after the first month of the season. There's very little separation among the top eight teams. Fortunately, four more Saturdays of league play -- and particularly key division matchups -- should identify the teams to beat in each division. Almost every Big Ten squad looks capable of making a run to Indy right now, particularly in the wide-open Leaders Division. The pool of teams that can make this claim in a month will be reduced.

2. Penn State's progress: Written off by many after a 0-2 start, Penn State has turned its season around with three consecutive wins. First-year coach Bill O'Brien has done a tremendous job of keeping his players focused on the present, rather than the program's uncertain future. O'Brien has molded McGloin into a solid Big Ten signal-caller, while the defense has turned things around after a rough opener, as senior linebacker Michael Mauti leads the way. It'll be interesting to see if Penn State can keep up its winning ways and continue to surprise folks who saw the program falling apart immediately after the NCAA imposed severe sanctions in July.

3. Mitten fight: The Big Ten's two members from the Mitten State -- Michigan and Michigan State -- entered the season as the most popular picks to win the league, but the first month hasn't gone as planned for either squad. The teams are a combined 5-4 with two losses to Notre Dame. It'll be interesting to see if both the Wolverines and Spartans can get back on course during the first two weeks of the month before they meet Oct. 20 in Ann Arbor in a game that could decide the Legends Division. The in-state rivalry had been designated a potential Big Ten game of the year before the season. We'll soon find out how significant it will be.

What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 4

September, 23, 2012
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

1. Bring on the conference season ... please: There's no way to sugarcoat it. The Big Ten's nonconference schedule (which has two more inconsequential games left) has been a disaster. The league's 33-13 record doesn't begin to tell the story of the train wreck that included losses to three MAC teams, an 0-3 record against Notre Dame, a 1-3 mark against the Pac-12, a loss to Louisiana Tech and several very close calls to non-power-league teams. Michigan State's squeaker over a Boise State team replacing most of its starting lineup remains the Big Ten's signature victory, and Northwestern and Minnesota helped saved the day with a combined 8-0 record, including four wins over BCS AQ teams that won't be in the national title conversation anytime soon. Michigan flopped in its two spotlight games against Alabama and Notre Dame. Michigan State also got clobbered by the Irish, while UCLA ran all over Nebraska. The Big Ten is a national punchline right now, a status it has earned with possibly the worst start in the history of the conference. The good news? League play starts next week, and these teams are all so flawed that it should be as exciting a conference race as there is anywhere. For the Big Ten, it can't start soon enough.

[+] EnlargeMichigan's Denard Robinson
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesMichigan, Denard Robinson and much of the Big Ten took a beating during the nonconference schedule.
2. The I's have it ... rough: It was a disheartening day for Iowa and Illinois. While Iowa has ebbed and flowed during Kirk Ferentz's tenure as coach, has it ever been this bad in Hawkeye Country? It's hard to imagine a lower point for Iowa since 2002 or so than Saturday's 32-31 loss to a weak Central Michigan team at Kinnick Stadium. If it's not the offense for Iowa, it's a defense that couldn't stop Chippewas quarterback Ryan Radcliff. And in the end, Iowa's special teams let it down on an onside kick recovery. We knew Iowa would have some growing pains with a young team and new coordinators, but the Hawkeyes have struggled against two MAC teams and lost to rival Iowa State at home. Hawkeyes fans always have high expectations, especially for their extremely well-compensated coach. The program has completely lost momentum from the 2009 season, and it can only hope Saturday was rock bottom. Meanwhile, Tim Beckman is just starting his program at Illinois, but it's off to a bad start. After a promising opening win over Western Michigan, the Illini have gotten completely waxed by both Arizona State and, in Saturday's home implosion, Louisiana Tech. (The Charleston Southern game was worthless). We knew that Illinois lacked playmakers for Beckman's spread, but it's shocking how easily other spread teams have shredded the once-proud Illini defense. Beckman has a lot of ground to make up in Champaign.

3. Buckeyes, Spartans have work to do before showdown: The Ohio State-Michigan State game in East Lansing looks like the main event of the first Saturday of Big Ten play, but both teams need work in the next six days. Ohio State struggled on its home field for the second straight week Saturday, committing special teams blunders and surrendering 22 first downs and 402 yards to UAB. That might not matter much to Buckeyes assistant Everett Withers, but it's a concern for a unit that had been pegged as one of the Big Ten's best. Then again, Ohio State isn't facing a juggernaut with Michigan State, which needed three and a half quarters to reach the end zone against an Eastern Michigan team that entered the game allowing an average of more than 40 points. Le'Veon Bell is a work horse for the Spartans, but they continue to struggle to stretch the field with the passing game. These teams played a game that made our eyes bleed last year in Columbus. Although this year's contest figures to be more entertaining, both Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio have a lot to fix.

4. Claims of Penn State's demise were premature: After Penn State dropped its emotionally charged season opener against Ohio and kicked away a sure win at Virginia, many felt the Lions had reached their breaking point after a nightmarish offseason. Predictions of three-win seasons rolled in. Instead, Bill O'Brien's squad has made a nice turnaround and recorded convincing wins against Navy and Temple. The offense is clearly better under O'Brien's leadership, and senior quarterback Matt McGloin looks much more comfortable and efficient. The defense can be dominating at times and bottled up Temple's rushing attack Saturday. Penn State still has its flaws -- too many penalties Saturday -- but so does every Big Ten team. The Lions are starting to hit their stride under O'Brien, and they could make things very interesting in the wide-open Leaders Division.

5. Minnesota could go bowling: Break up the Gophers. They're 4-0 for the first time since 2008 and could make the postseason for the first time since 2009. The biggest difference for this team is on the defensive end, where Minnesota is finally getting a strong pass rush up front with D.L. Wilhite and Ra'Shede Hageman leading the charge. The defense paved the way for a 17-10 win over Syracuse that wasn't as close as the score. Donnell Kirkwood has provided the offense a solid running attack, and the team has proved it can win with either MarQueis Gray or Max Shortell at quarterback. Minnesota isn't a powerhouse yet, and the schedule is going to get a whole lot tougher. But Jerry Kill has guided this program to five straight wins since the end of last season and only needs to match last year's 2-6 Big Ten record to qualify for a bowl. In fact, the Gophers probably will be favored this week at Iowa.

Wildcats, Gophers are on the upswing

September, 18, 2012
The Big Ten as a whole may be off to a disappointing start in 2012. But don't try selling that storyline at Northwestern or Minnesota, where disappointment is in short supply these days.

The Wildcats and Gophers are two of the only three undefeated Big Ten teams left (Ohio State is the other). That they are a combined 6-0 is notable since they won just nine games between them last year. Yet these two teams bear little resemblance to last season's clubs.

[+] EnlargeTyler Scott
Jerry Lai/US PresswireJunior defensive end Tyler Scott said a strong bond has been key in Northwestern's 3-0 start.
The 2011 Northwestern narrative was a simple one: great offense, crummy defense, inability to finish games. A 42-41 opening win over Syracuse reinforced some of the notions about the defense. In the two games, since, however, the Wildcats have held their opponents (Vanderbilt and Boston College) to just 13 points each, while Syracuse has shown itself to have one of the nation's top passing attacks.

One of the biggest differences for Northwestern this year is its play up front. The defense is allowing just 80 rushing yards per game and only 2.9 yards per carry, while the offense is averaging over 200 rushing yards per game.

"I think we're a tougher team from top to bottom," senior wide receiver Demetrius Fields said. "The proof is in the pudding, in the running game. We've committed to a mentality, a want-to."

The Wildcats' defense still has holes but is making more things happen. Linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and defensive lineman Brian Arnfelt rank in the top five of the Big Ten in tackles for loss. The team didn't have a single player in the top 20 of that stat last season.

"In the offseason, we tried to make it a point to come together, so when we're on the field communication wasn't going to be a problem," junior defensive end Tyler Scott said. "I think this team is super close, and we really enjoy being around each other. We have fun together, and we have trust in each other so we can go play fast."

Jerry Kill never promised a fast turnaround at Minnesota but rather a gradual building of the program when he took over before last year. So Kill is trying not to overplay the fact that his team has already matched its 2011 win total. The schedule -- UNLV, New Hampshire and Western Michigan -- isn't exactly the NFC East.

[+] EnlargeRa'Shede Hageman
AP Photo/Scott BoehmThe play of Ra'Shede Hageman has helped Minnesota's undefeated start to the season.
Still, this looks like a much different team than the one that lost to New Mexico State and North Dakota State at home early last season. After years of struggling to generate a pass rush, the Gophers have playmakers on the defensive line in Ra'Shede Hageman and D.L. Wilhite. The team has eight sacks already after getting only 19 a year ago.

While the overall physicality is not yet to Kill's liking, Minnesota is averaging 210 rushing yards per game, 50 yards more than last year's team.

"I think it's more familiarity with the offense," tight end John Rabe said. "We're a lot more comfortable with the whole offensive scheme and knowing where we all fit in. We've had a pretty good start in the running game, and I don't think we're even close to where we can be."

The Gophers started to build confidence toward the end of last season, when they beat Iowa, hung tough at Michigan State and dominated Illinois. That has shown early this year, as they survived an overtime win at UNLV and outlasted Western Michigan despite losing starting quarterback MarQueis Gray to injury.

"Last year, we might have been like, 'OK, here it goes again,'" Rabe said. "But this year, we have a ton of confidence that we can pull these games out. Our whole attitude is that we are supposed to win and we are going to win these games, not that we're trying not to lose."

Rabe said there's a buzz building on campus about this team, with students and teachers talking football more than in the past. That has yet to spread nationally, as Minnesota's schedule and lack of recent success hasn't created much attention for the 3-0 start, though a win this week over Syracuse could help.

Northwestern is similarly unbeaten and unloved. The Wildcats aren't in the Top 25 this week despite beating three BCS AQ teams to start the year, and this week's game against South Dakota is unlikely to move the needle.

But that's OK with Pat Fitzgerald, who has been highly critical of his team even in triumph. Fields said he and the other veterans remember the 2010 season when Northwestern started out 5-0, only to fall apart and finish 7-6. They want to make sure this team stays focused on what's in front of them, and not get caught looking too much at the big picture.

So let the Gophers and Wildcats fly under the radar for now. They're not disappointed at all.

"People can't really deny you when you keep winning," Fields said.