Chicago Colleges: Damien Proby

Northwestern Wildcats season preview

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Northwestern Wildcats:

2013 overall record: 5-7 (1-7 Big Ten)

Key losses: QB Kain Colter, DE Tyler Scott, LB Damien Proby, K Jeff Budzien

Key returnees: QB Trevor Siemian, RB Venric Mark, WR Tony Jones, WR Christian Jones, SB Dan Vitale, C Brandon Vitabile, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, S Ibraheim Campbell

Instant impact newcomer: WR Miles Shuler. He arrived on campus last year but was forced to sit out a season following a transfer from Rutgers. He’s a second-team wideout, but he’ll definitely get some reps at the position -- and, with his speed, he should compete for the one of the spots at returner. After all, he did win the New Jersey high school state titles in the 55- and 100-meter events.

Projected starters

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesThe Wildcats are hoping senior QB Trevor Siemian can get them more wins in the Big Ten this season.
Offense: QB: Trevor Siemian, Sr., 6-3, 210; RB: Venric Mark, Sr., 5-8, 175; SB: Dan Vitale, Jr., 6-2, 225; OT: Paul Jorgensen, Sr., 6-6, 295; OG: Geoff Mogus, Jr., 6-5, 295; C: Brandon Vitabile, Sr., 6-3, 300; OG: Matt Frazier, Jr., 6-4, 290; OT: Jack Konopka, Sr., 6-5, 300; WR: Tony Jones, Sr., 6-0, 195; WR: Christian Jones, Sr., 6-3, 225; WR: Cameron Dickerson, Jr., 6-3, 200

Defense: DE: Dean Lowry, Jr., 6-6, 265; DT: Sean McEvilly, 6-5, 290; DT: Chance Carter, Sr., 6-3, 295; DE: Deonte Gibson, Jr., 6-3, 260; OLB: Jimmy Hall, Sr., 6-2, 205; MLB: Collin Ellis, Sr., 6-2, 230; OLB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Sr., 6-3, 235; CB: Nick VanHoose, Jr., 6-0, 190; CB: Matthew Harris, So., 5-11, 180; S: Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., 5-11, 205; S: Traveon Henry, Jr., 6-1, 200

Special teams: K: Hunter Niswander, RS Fr., 6-5, 210; P: Chris Gradone, Jr., 6-2, 190

Biggest question mark: Can Northwestern win the close game? The Wildcats hung tough against Ohio State last season, but then, two weeks later, they began one of the most frustrating streaks in recent memory. From Oct. 19 to Nov. 16, Northwestern managed to lose four straight games by eight points or less. The game against Nebraska ended on a Hail Mary, then the loss against Michigan was decided in triple overtime. Northwestern has a lot going for it this season -- the return of Mark, a dynamic passing attack, a good defense -- but it has to prove it can win those tight contests.

Most important game: Sept. 27 at Penn State. It may not be the most anticipated game of the season but, as the conference opener, it’ll set the tone for a Wildcats team that won just a single Big Ten game last year. A win here should propel Northwestern to a 4-0 start and could give the Cats a boost of confidence heading into the heart (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan) of their conference schedule.

Upset special: Oct. 18 vs. Nebraska. Motivation shouldn’t be in short supply for Northwestern here, as it would’ve come away with the win last season if it weren't for a Hail Mary. Now the Huskers have a few more question marks on their team -- and Northwestern could be poised to take advantage.

Key stat: In conference play last season, Northwestern was outscored by its opponents 66-30 in the fourth quarter. Actually, building off a number first calculated by WNUR’s Michael Stern, opponents have outscored Northwestern in the fourth quarter by 703-580 during the Pat Fitzgerald era.

What they’re wearing: The Wildcats have purple, white and black Under Armour jerseys, pants and helmets in nine different combinations. But there's no telling yet what Northwestern will wear, since Fitzgerald and the student-athlete leadership council determine, week-to-week, what the Wildcats will be sporting on game day. According to a spokesman, there could also be a surprise in store this season, although nothing official has yet been announced.

All that being said, there are still two new definite additions to this year's uniforms: a new glove and cleat design.

Team’s top Twitter follows: The official accounts to follow include both Northwestern sports (@NU_Sports) and Wildcats' football (@NUFBFamily). Head coach Pat Fizgerald (@coachfitz51) is an active tweeter, but you'll find he mostly just retweets others. Ditto for offensive coordinator Mike McCall (@McCallMick). One Northwestern employee worth following, though, is director of player personnel Chris Bowers (@NU_Bowers) who mixes it up between work and other things. Running back Venric Mark (@PurpleBlaze_5) keeps it light, as does fellow tailback Warren Long (@larrenwong). Freshman cornerback Parrker Westphal (@Optimus_22HB) is also very active. As far as news coverage, you'll find plenty from blogs Lake The Posts (@LakeThePosts) and SB Nation's Inside NU (@insidenu). The award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern (@thedailynu), is also a good bet.

They said it: "I actually think, looking back, I think it was good for us in a sense -- just for guys talking about things that matter to us and guys had beliefs one way or another and overcoming all that. It was kind of a point for us to rally around and get over. And, looking back now, our guys were so mature handling that whole ordeal. It’s not even an issue now. I think it’ll help us out in the long term." -- quarterback Trevor Siemian, on overcoming the disagreements regarding the unionization issue

Stats & Info projections: 6.59 wins

Wise guys over/under: 7.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Seven wins. Northwestern will improve upon last season's performance. Really, the only question is, "By how much?" Even with Venric Mark's two-game suspension, Northwestern should be just fine. And with 18 returning starters, the Wildcats could be the surprise of the West. But last season still has us a bit jittery in picking the Cats to beat out teams such as Penn State and Michigan. That could change, but right now, we're going to play it safe and say -- at the least -- Northwestern easily rebounds with a bowl game.

B1G spring position breakdown: LB

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.

Wildcats aim for another Lincoln revival

November, 1, 2013
Nebraska's Memorial Stadium isn't an ideal place for a visiting team to revive its season.

The Cornhuskers are 396-117-13 all-time on their home field with 44 consecutive winning seasons there and a 34-7 mark under sixth-year coach Bo Pelini. Northwestern comes to Lincoln, Neb., on a four-game slide, winless in Big Ten play and simply trying to inch closer to bowl eligibility after a miserable month of October.

So why could Saturday's game be exactly what the Wildcats need? Because they've done it before.

Northwestern came to Lincoln at 3-5 in 2011, a season that also began with high hopes before veering off track. Like this year's team, the 2011 Wildcats dealt with key injuries on the offensive side, including a constant will-he-play-or-won't-he distraction involving quarterback Dan Persa, who had ruptured his Achilles' tendon the previous season.

Just when Northwestern's streak of bowl appearances seemed over, the team put it all together in Lincoln, as quarterback Kain Colter spurred Northwestern to a 28-25 win. The Wildcats ended up winning their next two games to become bowl eligible.

[+] EnlargeKain Colter
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesQB Kain Colter and the Northwestern Wildcats have to shake off the frustration of their four-game losing streak.
Northwestern hopes for a similar revival Saturday afternoon against a Nebraska team also reeling after a 33-24 loss at Minnesota. Senior linebacker Damien Proby said Monday that the 2011 win in Lincoln will be brought up before Saturday's game kicks off.

"We can't go back and fix our past mistakes," Proby said. "The end goal right now is to go 1-0."

To get back on track, Northwestern must get back to what it has done in the past: win the turnover battle, limit penalties and finish drives. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald said the team has beaten itself in three of the four losses, especially on offense.

Northwestern has had eight turnovers in its four Big Ten losses, including two fumbles in Iowa territory that loomed large in last week's 17-10 overtime loss to the Hawkeyes. The Wildcats actually had been somewhat loose with the ball during nonconference play, committing six turnovers but surviving because the competition wasn't as strong.

Penalties also have been an issue, as the Wildcats have been flagged more than their opponent in three of their Big Ten losses. An illegal block penalty on superback Dan Vitale late in regulation at Iowa loomed large as Northwestern appeared to be going in for the game-winning score.

"You look at some of the penalties of aggression," Fitzgerald said. "I don't think there's a coach in the country that gets upset with guys trying to play hard and trying to play physical. But the other ones are unacceptable, and we've been pretty darn disciplined around here.

"It's unfortunate that a couple times, we haven't done that."

Northwestern also has struggled to finish drives. The Wildcats had nine possessions reach Ohio State territory in their Big Ten opener, but only three ended with touchdowns. They failed to score a touchdown against Wisconsin, had just two touchdowns against Minnesota and just one against Iowa. Although Northwestern leads the Big Ten and ranks second nationally in red-zone scoring (30 scores in 31 possessions), its red-zone touchdown ratio isn't nearly as strong (18 of 31 possessions).

"Quite frankly, two-thirds of our football team is playing well enough for us to win," Fitzgerald said. "We've got to become more consistent offensively, and we've got to score more touchdowns. If we do that, we'll be fine. You’ve just got to keep grinding and doing what you do. The formula works.

"We're just on a journey with some bumps in the road right now."

Saturday, that journey reaches Lincoln, where Northwestern hopes to once again get back on course.

Cats still look to climb over hump

October, 6, 2013
EVANSTON, Ill. -- The first thing he did was thank the media, and then the fans, especially the fans, the ones who helped create an atmosphere unseen around these parts since he was the one out on Ryan Field making hits some 18 years ago.

And then Pat Fitzgerald offered a bit of an apology.

"Our students were absolutely amazing. I think they started their day at about 2 in the morning, and we're sorry we didn't finish the job for them and give them a great homecoming," said Fitzgerald, the eighth-year Northwestern coach and former Wildcats linebacker. "But unbelievable, the amount of support that we've received from our students. Unbelievable homecoming setting. Incredibly thankful for that."

This town proved itself to be more than worthy of all of the national attention that was washed upon it this past week, from the "College GameDay" circus to the announced crowd of 47,330 in attendance for the prime-time kickoff. Fans and alumni from both Ohio State and Northwestern flooded the L-trains coming from the city and helped give some validation to the moniker of "Chicago's Big Ten Team." Tailgaters weathered late-afternoon thunderstorms that threatened to end this party a few hours too soon.

Then the No. 16 Wildcats gave the natives plenty to cheer about, going blow-for-blow with the No. 4 Buckeyes before falling by a 40-30 final that gave little indication of just how tight the preceding 60 minutes had been.

[+] EnlargeKain Colter, Ryan Shazier
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesRyan Shazier is blitzing more and getting more quarterbacks in his grasp.
"Our players went out there with the right attitude," said linebacker Damien Proby, who was responsible for the third of Braxton Miller's three turnovers when he forced a fumble in the third quarter. "We didn't play this game or approach this game for the media; we played this for ourselves, and we wanted to prove something to ourselves. And that's something that we still need to do, but we definitely took a step in that direction like we wanted to."

Northwestern took a 20-13 lead into halftime on the back of an opportunistic defense that forced two Miller turnovers and saw quarterback Kain Colter score two different times without throwing the ball -- once on a 9-yard third-down strike from co-signal-caller Trevor Siemian, later on a 2-yard rush. Ohio State's only touchdown through 41-plus minutes came on a blocked punt in the end zone, courtesy of cornerback Bradley Roby.

Juggling quarterbacks like they usually do, the Wildcats' biggest crime for much of the game was stalling in the red zone, settling for three short Jeff Budzien field goals that gave them a 10-point lead in the third quarter.

Carlos Hyde was too much, though, as the Buckeyes went back to the basics and relied on the 6-foot, 235-pound bull to barrel his way to the tune of 168 rushing yards and 38 more receiving yards. Hyde reached the end zone three times in the second half, the middle of which, with 11:29 left in the game, was ruled a score after review, giving Ohio State a 27-23 lead. It had come after Northwestern's only turnover of the game, a Siemian pass picked off by Doran Grant.

Siemian finished 13-of-18 for 245 yards with two touchdowns, keeping a number of plays alive with his feet. Colter was 12-for-12 for 98 yards.

Both benefited greatly form the return of Venric Mark, who tallied 103 total yards in his first extended action of the season.

"There were definitely plays down the stretch that we could've made, and it could've been a different outcome," said end Tyler Scott, who notched one sack and had forced and recovered Miller's first fumble, setting up Northwestern's first score. "It was third-and-[2] at the goal line and Hyde sticks the ball out, and if we got a stop, they might've been kicking a field goal and it might've been a different game, but we've just got to look at the film, see where we can improve."

Both teams exchanged touchdowns on the next two drives, before Colter bobbled a fourth-and-1 snap at the Ohio State 34 with less than three minutes to play, diving on it and falling just short of the first down on a play that was upheld after Fitzgerald's challenge.

Northwestern got the ball back with 21 seconds left, and a Joey Bosa recovery in the end zone of a failed lateral attempt provided window-dressing for the Buckeyes as the horn sounded and Urban Meyer improved to 18-0 as Ohio State's coach.

Said Fitzgerald: "There's a team getting on the bus going back to Columbus that knows it just got into a fight with a pretty darn good football team."

Good enough, it would seem, to potentially get another shot at these Buckeyes in two months.

Asked about the potential of a rematch in the Big Ten title game, Fitzgerald said "it would be a great problem."

Echoed Proby: "That's a good problem to have as a program."

Different problems for a different program, one that felt the need to seek forgiveness for not punctuating an exhilarating day with a historic win.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 4

September, 23, 2013
Remember two weeks ago when we were debating Ohio State versus Michigan as the Big Ten's top team? Well, the Buckeyes have created some separation from Michigan and the rest of the league with two dominant offensive performances. Michigan, meanwhile, either has a massive hangover from beating Notre Dame or a lot of issues to sort out.

We gave the Wolverines the benefit of the doubt after the Akron game and kept them at No. 2. After Saturday night's slopfest at Connecticut, we can no longer keep Michigan in the second slot. Northwestern looked lackluster for the second straight week but avoided the major scare Michigan has endured. Wisconsin, meanwhile, might be the league's second-best squad. We'll find out a lot about the Badgers this week in Columbus.

Minnesota and Iowa make nice moves this week, while Indiana takes a tumble.

As a reminder, we keep these rankings consistent with how we vote in the Top 25. Here's one final look at last week's power poll.

Let's get to the rundown ...

1. Ohio State (4-0, last week: 1): We'll finally get a gauge on these Buckeyes as they open Big Ten play Saturday night against Wisconsin, but the recent results have been encouraging. Braxton Miller's absence once again didn't faze Ohio State, which scored 34 points in the first quarter and received a nice boost from running back Carlos Hyde in his season debut. Backup signal-caller Kenny Guiton continued his surge with a school-record six touchdown passes. Miller likely returns this week, but the Buckeyes' offense clearly is more than just one man this season.

2. Northwestern (4-0, last week: 3): For whatever reason, Northwestern looks worse against weaker nonleague foes than seemingly stronger ones. The Wildcats had more positives against Cal and Syracuse than Western Michigan and Maine, although they were never in serious danger of losing in the past two weeks. Linebacker Damien Proby sparked a takeaway-driven defense Saturday. Quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian struggled but have two weeks to prepare for Ohio State, when running back Venric Mark is expected back.

3. Wisconsin (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten; last week: 4): Credit Gary Andersen's players for not letting last week's unfortunate ending linger as they opened Big Ten play against Purdue. Wisconsin went back to what it does best, overpowering opponents with the run game, as Melvin Gordon and James White combined for 292 rush yards and four touchdowns. The Badgers' defense bottled up Purdue, surrendering only 12 first downs, 45 rush yards and 180 total yards. You have to like how Wisconsin is performing before this week's showdown in Columbus.

4. Michigan (4-0, last week: 2): The Akron game could be forgivingly dismissed as a letdown. But when many of the same issues surface for the second straight week against a poor opponent, it's reason to be concerned. Michigan won't stay perfect much longer if quarterback Devin Gardner keeps turning over the ball (he leads the nation with 10 turnovers) and the offensive line endures periods of inconsistent play. Coach Brady Hoke and his staff have plenty of items to address this week before the Jug game against potentially undefeated Minnesota.

5. Nebraska (3-1, last week: 6): After a turbulent eight days, Bo Pelini wanted his players to have some fun in their final nonleague tuneup. The offense had plenty despite playing without top quarterback Taylor Martinez, eclipsing 300 pass yards and 300 rush yards. Reserve quarterbacks Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg III both performed well. The defense had a lot less fun, however, surrendering 465 yards in a performance that Pelini labeled its worst of the season. Nebraska has to get a handle on its defense this week before opening Big Ten play against Illinois.

6. Minnesota (4-0, last week: 7): Knock San Jose State if you must, but the Spartans provided the biggest test for Minnesota to date, and the Gophers passed it with flying colors. Minnesota showed the physical dominance coach Jerry Kill has been waiting for, piling up 353 rush yards and six touchdowns behind quarterback Mitch Leidner and running back David Cobb. Although San Jose State's David Fales showed why he's an NFL prospect, the Gophers continued to force turnovers. Minnesota hosts Iowa this week in a game that has more than bacon on the line.

7. Michigan State (3-1, last week: 5): The Spartans looked like the better team for much of Saturday's game at Notre Dame. But many of the same issues that surfaced in close losses last season -- stalled drives, dropped passes, not enough takeaways and missed field goals -- surfaced in a 17-13 setback. Coach Mark Dantonio and his players say this feels different, and that they can overcome their errors to make some noise in a wide-open Legends Division. The defense remains championship-level, but there are other issues to sort out, namely quarterback.

8. Penn State (3-1, last week: 8): Kent State's woeful offense turned out to be the perfect cure for a Nittany Lions defense that struggled mightily in a Week 3 loss to Central Florida. Safety Ryan Keiser and cornerback Jordan Lucas helped trigger Penn State's first shutout since 2010, as the Lions allowed only nine first downs and 190 total yards. The run game once again surged behind Akeel Lynch (123 rush yards) and others. Penn State's defense will face much greater tests when Big Ten play begins in two weeks.

9. Iowa (3-1, last week: 11): Kirk Ferentz's crew is clearly on the rise after its most complete performance in recent memory. Iowa received numerous contributions on offense, two punt return touchdowns from Kevonte Martin-Manley and a pick-six from B.J. Lowery -- all during a 38-point first half against Western Michigan. Lowery added another pick-six in the second half and stomped the Broncos. After a rough start to the season, Iowa has the momentum it needs heading into a pivotal Big Ten opener against Minnesota.

10. Illinois (2-1, last week: 10): The Illini sat back and watched the rest of the Big Ten in Week 4, enjoying the first of two open weeks. They'll have an excellent chance to improve to 3-1 this week against an 0-3 Miami (Ohio) squad that was shut out Saturday against Cincinnati and has scored just 21 points in its first three games. This is the perfect opportunity for Illinois' defense to rebound after getting gashed by Washington in Week 3. Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase tries to bounce back after completing just 9 of 25 pass attempts.

11. Indiana (2-2, last week: 9): Just when Indiana appears ready to turn a corner, it becomes Indiana again. For the second time in three games, Indiana limped out of the gate and fell behind, never finding a good offensive rhythm and struggling to stop Missouri's balanced attack. Missouri piled up 623 yards, a Memorial Stadium record for an Indiana opponent. The Hoosiers' defense remains far too vulnerable, and quarterback Nate Sudfeld struggled, throwing three interceptions. There's a lot to fix in the open week before Penn State comes to town.

12. Purdue (1-3, 0-1 Big Ten; last week: 12): Trips to Madison haven't been kind to the Boilers, and Saturday's proved to be no exception as Darrell Hazell's team took a step back after an encouraging performance against Notre Dame. When you can't run the ball or stop the run, you have no chance, and Purdue struggled mightily in both areas. Hazell admits Purdue must do some "soul searching" following a rough start, and things don't get any easier this week against Jordan Lynch and Northern Illinois.
Now that spring practice is over, we're examining the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team for the 2013 season.

By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt or suspended or vaporized. That could be because of their value to the team, or because of a lack of depth at their position.

We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. The series wraps up with the Northwestern Wildcats.

Venric Mark, RB, Sr.

There is little doubt Mark finished the 2012 season as Northwestern's most valuable player, and he'll enter the 2013 campaign as the team's most indispensable piece. Although you can make a good case for multitalented quarterback Kain Colter or even center Brandon Vitabile, one of just two returning starters on a new-look offensive line, no player fundamentally changes games like Mark. Last fall, he became Northwestern's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006 and averaged 6.2 yards a carry with 13 touchdowns as the team's featured back. He also earned All-America honors as a return man, scoring two punt return touchdowns and averaging 18.7 yards per runback. Mark finished with 2,166 all-purpose yards, just 29 yards shy of Damien Anderson's team record, and he helped make the kicking game, once a weakness for Northwestern, into a significant strength. Colter would be a big loss, too, but Northwestern has another capable, albeit different option, in Trevor Siemian. Although the team's depth at running back isn't bad, no one has Mark's breakaway ability on carries and returns. He'd be missed.

Ibraheim Campbell, S, Jr.

It's a tough call here as cornerback Nick VanHoose certainly seemed indispensable last season, when his absence because of injury potentially cost Northwestern games against Nebraska and Michigan. Veteran linebacker Damien Proby also would be a good pick given the team's inexperience at the position, and defensive end Tyler Scott has revived the pass rush. But Campbell has been the Wildcats' most productive defender the past two seasons, racking up 189 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. He's an integral part of Northwestern's run defense, which rose from 84th nationally in 2011 to 21st last season. Safeties are often called the quarterbacks of a defense, and Campbell certainly fills that role as he has grown into a strong leader. Northwestern is building better depth at both secondary spots, but cornerback isn't the vacuum it once was in Evanston. The Wildcats should be better equipped to play without VanHoose if he goes down this season. They would have a tougher time replacing all that Campbell brings to the defense.

More indispensable:

Michigan State
Ohio State
Penn State

Spring breakout player: Northwestern

March, 8, 2013
Spring practice is kicking off around the Big Ten, and we're taking a look at one potential breakout player for each team. We’re spotlighting players who could take a major step during spring ball, so those who have started multiple seasons or earned All-Big Ten recognition in 2012 aren't eligible.

Northwestern has a vacant starting spot at linebacker, and don't be surprised if it goes to ...

Drew Smith, LB, sophomore, 6-foot-1, 205 pounds

Smith appeared in all 13 games as a redshirt freshman last season, mostly on special teams but also as a reserve linebacker. He performed well, racking up 17 tackles, including three for loss and two sacks, to go along with a pass breakup and two quarterback hurries. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald on Thursday mentioned that he's looking for flexibility with his linebackers and safeties -- players strong enough to play the former but athletic enough to play the latter.

At 205 pounds with good speed, Smith is a good athlete who loves dropping the hammer on ball carriers. He rushed the passer well against Syracuse, Nebraska and Michigan last year. "He thoroughly enjoys contact," Fitzgerald told reporters Thursday. "I like guys that like contact at the linebacker level. He goes to bed dreaming about knocking somebody's lips off, and he goes around doing that."

Northwestern returns two starters at linebacker, although middle linebacker Damien Proby is sitting out spring practice with an injury. Smith will compete with Collin Ellis and others for an outside linebacker spot opposite Chi Chi Ariguzo. If he continues to knock people's lips off the rest of the spring, he'll see a lot of field time in the fall.

Three Wildcats starters to sit out spring

February, 25, 2013
Northwestern will be without at least three projected starters when it opens spring football in the Big Ten with the first of 15 practice sessions Wednesday in Evanston.

The Wildcats announced Monday that three projected starters will miss the spring session with injuries: cornerback Nick VanHoose, middle linebacker Damien Proby and offensive tackle Jack Konopka. Several other players who filled reserve roles in 2012 but could claim starting jobs in 2013 also are out, including offensive tackle Paul Jorgensen, wide receiver Kyle Prater, defensive tackle Will Hampton, defensive end Deonte Gibson and guard Matt Frazier.

All 13 players out for the spring are expected back for fall camp and the season. Most are recovering from postseason surgeries.

VanHoose missed three games late last season with a shoulder injury, so his absence for spring isn't a major surprise. Prater also didn't look 100 percent healthy in 2012. Konopka started at right tackle in 2012 and could be moved to the left side to replace the graduating Patrick Ward.

Both Proby and Konopoka started all 13 games last season.

Both Jorgensen and Frazier played behind offensive linemen who graduated following the 2012 season, so their absence this spring should ramp up the competition at those positions.

Both Gibson and Hampton, who started three games last season, figure to be in the mix for starting defensive-line positions, although they'll have to make up for lost time this summer.

Northwestern practices nine times before finals and spring break in mid-March. The Wildcats return for four more sessions before wrapping up with their spring game on April 13.



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