Chicago Colleges: Kenny Bell
And here they are:
QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State: Braxton Miller's injury opened up this spot on the first team. Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Indiana's Nate Sudfeld were potential choices here too, but Cook's Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl MVP finish earn him the nod.
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: Well, sure. He could lead the nation in rushing, unless ...
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: ... Abdullah, his good friend, beats him to it. In a league blessed with great running backs, these two stand out the most.
WR: Stefon Diggs, Maryland: There is a lot of uncertainty in the Big Ten at receiver heading into 2014. This much is certain: If Diggs can stay healthy, he'll be one of the nation's best.
WR: Shane Wynn, Indiana: Wynn scored more touchdowns than any other Big Ten receiver the past season, and now he steps into a more featured role.
TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan: Funchess might play wide receiver almost exclusively, in which case this should be viewed as a third wide receiver spot on the team. The matchup nightmare looks poised for a big season.
OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa: He might just be the best left tackle in college football in 2014. He's definitely got NFL scouts drooling.
OT: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin: An enormous road grader at right tackle. Trying to shed him and catch Melvin Gordon is just not fair.
OG: Kaleb Johnson, Rutgers: He thought about leaving for the NFL after the past season but instead gave the Scarlet Knights a boost by returning. He has started 37 straight games.
OG: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: He could be the next rising star in Wisconsin's offensive lineman factory.
C: Jack Allen, Michigan State: A second-team All-Big Ten pick the past season, the former high school wrestling champion has no let up in his game.
DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: He’s the returning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year and could become the conference’s defensive player of the year in 2014, unless ...
DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska: ... Gregory edges him out for the honor. The pass-rush specialist outpaced Calhoun in sacks (10.5) the past season, and Bo Pelini said Gregory has “only scratched the surface of what he’s going to be down the line.”
DT: Michael Bennett, Ohio State: He anchors the best defensive line in the conference and was named to the All-Big Ten’s second team last season.
DT: Carl Davis, Iowa: He still thinks Scherff would get the best of him if they squared off, but Athlon thought highly enough of Davis to make him a fourth-team preseason All-American.
LB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Northwestern: The quiet Ariguzo likes to let his play do the talking, and it chatted up a storm this past season -- to the tune of 106 tackles and four interceptions.
LB: Mike Hull, Penn State: He was a coin-flip from transferring to Pittsburgh during the sanctions, but now he’s the leader of this revamped defense.
LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan: Ryan shocked onlookers last season by taking less than seven months to go from ACL surgery to playing in a Big Ten game. Hopes are higher now for the healthy redshirt senior, as he has registered a stop in the backfield in 25 of his past 30 games.
CB: Trae Waynes, Michigan State: He’s taking over at Darqueze Dennard's boundary cornerback position, but he’s up for the challenge. He’s already on the watch lists for the Bednarik and Thorpe awards.
CB: Blake Countess, Michigan: He tied for the Big Ten lead in interceptions (6) the past season -- despite battling lower abdominal pain most of the year.
S: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: The blue-collar DB started 21 straight games and was a Sports Illustrated All-American the past season.
S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: A smart and instinctive player, Campbell has been remarkably consistent for the Wildcats. He’s a three-time all-academic B1G player and has eight career interceptions.
K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State: As a freshman in 2013, he made 15 of his 16 field-goal attempts.
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State: An ESPN.com All-American in 2013, Sadler combines with Geiger to give the Spartans the best 1-2 kicking tandem in the league.
KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska: He led the Big Ten in return yardage the past season (averaging 26.5 yards per kick) and took one 99 yards for a touchdown at Penn State.
PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa: He averaged 15.7 yards per return in 2013 and scored on two punt returns in the same game.
Selections by school:
Michigan State: 7
Ohio State: 1
Penn State: 1
Coaches are talking about the importance of taking it one game at a time while chasing a conference title. Players have busted out their finest suits and are raving about how difficult the offseason conditioning program was at their schools. And the media grabbed some free food between interviews.
There is one more day to go before the circus leaves Chicago, but before we get to that, the Big Ten blog is handing out some awards to put a bow on the opening day.
Best-dressed player: Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond. The honors could just as easily have gone to teammates Shilique Calhoun or Connor Cook, the former for his bow tie and the latter for his accessorizing with his enormous championship ring. But Drummond stole the show as the sharpest of the Spartans, who clearly looked the part of returning conference champs.
I think the Best Dressed award has been locked up today. Kurtis Drummond, folks. pic.twitter.com/XAnHXjJWKP— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 28, 2014
Most fun-loving players: The bright spotlight and huge crowd around him might have kept Ohio State coach Urban Meyer a bit guarded, but his players certainly welcomed the attention and weren't afraid of being playful with the media. Tight end Jeff Heuerman loosened things up by locking quarterback Braxton Miller in a headlock, and after that, both decided to moonlight as media members by sneaking over to ask Meyer a few questions toward the end of a session -- a rare glimpse at the personalities off the field of two of the league's best talents on it.
Ohio State's Jeff Heuerman and Braxton Miller decided to join the media today and interview Urban Meyer. pic.twitter.com/scWhYDZRNs— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 28, 2014
Biggest missed opportunity: The Wisconsin-LSU matchup to open the season is appealing enough at a neutral site. But the Badgers and Tigers could have taken the intrigue to another level by hosting those games at two of the loudest, most hostile stadiums in the country -- if only Gary Andersen had been around a couple of years earlier. The Badgers' coach said he "would have said yes" to a home-and-home series at Camp Randall and in Death Valley, a tantalizing what-might-have-been if the Tigers might have been as willing as Andersen.
Most appropriate Twitter handle: Nebraska’s Kenny Bell (@AFRO_THUNDER80). The 6-foot-1 receiver was probably the easiest player to pick out of a crowd, as his puffy afro towered over opposing players. Bell’s play didn’t earn him an award last season -- he was honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team -- but we just couldn’t go one more day without recognizing that 'fro.
Best-dressed coach: Penn State’s James Franklin. Every day, the head coach spends 22 minutes to shave his head in every direction and trim that goatee ... so it seems slightly surprising that he is probably the coach who spends the most time on his head, considering he’s bald. But, hey, it takes time to pull that look off -- and he was also looking dapper with that Penn State lapel, blue tie and matching pocket square. Franklin often jokes that he doesn’t need to sleep, so maybe he uses some of that extra time to pick out the right clothes.
James Franklin and our Josh Moyer are sharing head shaving techniques. Seriously. pic.twitter.com/S7iVnnNvo9— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) July 28, 2014
Quote of the day: Penn State linebacker Mike Hull has learned under three head coaches -- Joe Paterno, Bill O'Brien and Franklin -- during his career, and their personalities really couldn’t have been any different. Hull laughed while providing their takes on social media as an example.
“Yeah, I’ve seen the whole evolution,” he said. “Joe didn’t know what Facebook was, O’Brien called Facebook ‘Spacebook’ and, now, Coach Franklin probably has every social media there is to have. It’s crazy.”
Most Big Ten quote: “How are you going to approach the Rose Bowl?” -- Michigan coach Brady Hoke, lamenting some aspects of the College Football Playoff in years, like this season, when the Granddaddy of Them All is to serve as a national semifinal game. Hoke suggested that some of the pageantry associated with the game -- for instance, the Beef Bowl team competition at Lawry’s, a prime rib restaurant in Beverly Hills -- will be eliminated because of the high stakes and need for a regular game-week regimen. Of the traditional Rose Bowl, Hoke added: “It’s the greatest experience in America for kids.”
Most Iowa quote (maybe ever): “Sometimes, old school is a good school.” -- Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz on his program’s resistance to some of the offensive innovation that has swept college football.
Best quote about a player not in attendance: “I don’t like standing too close to him because it seems like the wind is always blowing through his hair. When he smiles, this little thing comes off his tooth like in the toothpaste commercial.” -- Penn State coach James Franklin on sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
The 1,000-yard mark means more to wide receivers than rushers, especially in the Big Ten. Four players reached the milestone in 2013 after just one (Robinson) in 2012. The Big Ten had four 1,000-yard receivers in 2011 but none in 2010 and just one (Purdue's Keith Smith) in 2009. So this category can be tricky to forecast.
Although no Big Ten returning player had more than 800 receiving yards in 2013, the league boasts several potential breakout stars. Your task today: Select the Big Ten player most likely to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards this fall.
The candidates ...
Kenny Bell, Nebraska, senior: The 'fro, tragically, is no mo' after Bell lost a bet to his friend, Northern Colorado defensive lineman Devontae Chapple. But perhaps less hair will mean more production after Bell's receiving yards went from 863 in 2012 to 577 last year. Nebraska never has had a 1,000-yard receiver, and quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. has much to prove as a passer, but Bell is one of the nation's most experienced wideouts.
Stefon Diggs, Maryland, junior: Big Ten fans who haven't seen Diggs are in for a treat, at least when he's not facing their favorite team. An ESPN 150 recruit who picked Maryland over Ohio State and others, Diggs finished eighth nationally in all-purpose yards (174.2) as a true freshman. He averaged 17.3 yards per reception through Maryland's first seven contests last season before suffering a broken leg. Diggs should be fine for the season and can put up huge numbers with his big-play ability. Maryland's depth at receiver -- Deon Long also returns from a broken leg -- could make it tough for Diggs to get to 1,000 yards.
Devin Funchess, Michigan, junior: Funchess is listed as a tight end and won the Big Ten's tight end of the year award last fall, but he plays like a bigger receiver at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds. He has averaged 15.5 yards per reception in his first two seasons with 11 touchdowns, setting a team record for receiving yards by a tight end with 748 last fall. Funchess becomes quarterback Devin Gardner's favorite target as Gallon departs. Michigan needs its receivers to step up, but Funchess could threaten 1,000 yards this year.
Shane Wynn, Indiana, senior: Like Bell, Wynn saw a slight production drop from 2012, when he led Indiana with 68 receptions, to last season, when he had 46 but still put up about the same yardage. But the departures of Latimer and tight end Ted Bolser, both selected in the NFL draft, along with Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson leave Wynn as undoubtedly Indiana's No. 1 passing target. Quarterbacks Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson will be looking for Wynn a lot this fall, and his numbers could surge in a productive IU offense.
And, finally ...
Mystery man: Don't like any of these candidate to reach 1,000 receiving yards? This is the spot for you. Maybe Rutgers' Leonte Carroo complements his touchdowns with bigger yards totals this fall. One of the Northwestern Joneses (Christian or Tony) might reach 1,000 yards in a more pass-driven offense. Geno Lewis could follow Robinson's path at Penn State. Maybe Ohio State's Devin Smith gets there. Will one of Michigan State's receivers -- Tony Lippett, Macgarrett Kings, Aaron Burbridge, Keith Mumphery -- separate from the pack? Maybe one of the spring standouts -- Iowa's Derrick Willies, Illinois' Geronimo Allison or Mikey Dudek, Michigan's Freddy Canteen -- has a true breakout season.
Unlike the 1,000-yard mark for a back, getting to 1,000 yards receiving is not always easy, especially in a league like the Big Ten that often lacks prolific passing attacks. In 2012, just one Big Ten receiver reached quadruple digits in yardage -- Penn State's Allen Robinson, who had 1,013. Last year was a much better season for league wideouts, as Robinson, Michigan's Jeremy Gallon, Indiana's Cody Latimer and Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis all got to that plateau. Illinois' Steve Hull just missed it with 993 yards in 12 games.
But all five of those players are gone, along with three others who finished in the top 10 in receiving yards per game in the conference: Indiana's Kofi Hughes, Nebraska's Quincy Enunwa and Ohio State's Corey Brown.
So it's a bit of a rebuilding year, receiving-wise, for the Big Ten in 2014. Still, let's take a look at the top prospects for a 1,000-yard season among the league wideouts:
Shane Wynn, Indiana (633): Wynn is one of the most explosive players in the league and had 11 touchdown receptions last season. As the Hoosiers look to replace Latimer and Hughes, he should become an even larger factor in the offense despite his diminutive stature (5-foot-7).
Devin Funchess, Michigan (748): Funchess would be one of the more unconventional players to register 1,000 yards receiving, as a 6-5, 230-pound converted tight end. But he is the Wolverines' leading returning receiver, and if he can fix a mild case of the dropsies, he could go even higher in 2014.
Leonte Carroo, Rutgers (478): Carroo flashed his ability as a sophomore in 2013, grabbing nine touchdowns in just 10 games. The Scarlet Knights rave about his talent. The team's passing game must improve significantly for any receiver to have a chance at 1,000 yards, but new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen might be the man to fix it.
Kenny Bell, Nebraska (577): Bell seems to make this list every year, and he got close to becoming the Huskers' first-ever 1,000-yard receiver in 2012 with 863 yards. His numbers dipped last season, but a more consistent passing attack could help him turn in a big senior season. He is, after all, a little more aerodynamic now.
DeAngelo Yancey, Purdue (546): Yancey got more than halfway to 1,000 as a freshman despite having one or zero receptions in seven games and often playing with a true freshman quarterback in Danny Etling. He averaged 17.1 yards per catch, showing his explosiveness. The Boilers have a long way to go on offense, but Yancey is a playmaker they can build around.
Christian Jones (668) and Tony Jones (630), Northwestern: The Wildcats have spread the ball out so much lately that no one receiver has put up monster stats (though if you combined these two guys into one receiver named ChrisTony Jones, you'd have a 1,300-yard wideout). But Northwestern should pass the ball more and run option a lot less with Trevor Siemian as the starting quarterback, so that could increase everybody's numbers in the passing game.
Geno Lewis, Penn State (234): It would be quite a leap for Lewis to go from his modest 2013 numbers to the 1k level. But with Robinson gone, Christian Hackenberg needs someone to catch his passes. Lewis is the most experienced target and a talented player who could take advantage of a great opportunity. If not, perhaps a freshman such as De'Andre Thompkins or one of the team's tight ends steps up.
To the notebook:
- 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."
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Illinois: The Illini are looking for more from this group after losing top target Steve Hull, who exploded late in the season to finish just shy of 1,000 receiving yards. While running back Josh Ferguson (50 catches in 2013) will continue to contribute, Illinois could use a boost from Martize Barr, who arrived with high expectations but only had 26 receptions last fall. Another junior-college transfer, Geronimo Allison, could make an impact beginning this spring, but there's some mystery at wideout. Illinois looks more solid at tight end with seniors Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.
Indiana: Despite the somewhat surprising early departure of All-Big Ten selection Cody Latimer, Indiana should be fine here. Shane Wynn is the veteran of the group after recording 633 receiving yards on 46 catches last season. Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson also depart, so Indiana will be leaning more on Nick Stoner and Isaiah Roundtree. The Hoosiers have high hopes for early enrollee Dominique Booth, a decorated recruit who could fill Latimer's spot on the outside. Productive tight end Ted Bolser departs and several players will compete, including early enrollee Jordan Fuchs.
Iowa: Almost all the wide receivers are back from a group in which none eclipsed more than 400 receiving yards in 2013. Balance is nice, but separation could be nicer for the Hawkeyes this spring. Kevonte Martin-Manley is the most experienced wideout and has 122 career receptions. Tevaun Smith also returns, and Iowa fans are excited about big-play threat Damond Powell, who averaged 24.2 yards on only 12 receptions last season. Iowa loses its top red-zone target in tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and will need Jake Duzey to deliver more Ohio State-like performances.
Maryland: When the Terrapins get healthy, they might have the Big Ten's best wide receiving corps. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, both of whom sustained broken legs against Wake Forest last season, have the ability to stretch the field as both averaged more than 15 yards per reception before the injuries struck. Leading receiver Levern Jacobs also returns, alongside junior Nigel King and sophomore Amba Etta-Tawo, who averaged more than 16 yards per catch in 2013. Marcus Leak, who started seven games in 2012, rejoins the team after a year away. The Terps are unproven at tight end after losing Dave Stinebaugh.
Michigan: There's a reason why some Michigan fans want Devin Gardner to return to wide receiver for his final season. The Wolverines are thin on the perimeter after losing Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo. Redshirt sophomores Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh are both candidates to start, and Dennis Norfleet could be the answer in the slot. But there's plenty of opportunity for younger players like Drake Harris, an early enrollee. Michigan's best pass-catching option, Devin Funchess, is listed as a tight end but plays more like a receiver. The Wolverines will be without their second-string tight end, Jake Butt, who suffered an ACL tear in winter conditioning.
Michigan State: Remember all the justified angst about this group a year ago? It has pretty much gone away as the Spartans wideouts rebounded nicely in 2013. Bennie Fowler departs, but MSU brings back its top two receivers in Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings, who showed explosiveness down the stretch last fall. Aaron Burbridge had a bit of a sophomore slump but provides another option alongside veteran Keith Mumphery, who averaged 16.6 yards per catch in 2013. Josiah Price leads the tight end group after a solid freshman season.
Minnesota: Here's a group to watch during spring practice, particularly the wide receivers. Minnesota has proven it can run the ball and defend under Jerry Kill, but the passing game was putrid in 2013, ranking last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally. Youth is partly to blame, and while the Gophers still lack experience, they can expect more from promising players like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones. Senior Isaac Fruechte provides a veteran presence. Minnesota looks solid at tight end with sophomore Maxx Williams, the team's receiving yards leader (417) in 2013.
Nebraska: The Huskers lose a significant piece in Quincy Enunwa, who led the team in receiving yards (753) and had three times as many receiving touchdowns (12) as anyone else in 2013. Kenny Bell is set to recapture the No. 1 receiver role, which he had in 2012, and comes off of a 52-catch season as a junior. Nebraska must build around Bell this spring with players like the mustachioed Jordan Westerkamp, who had 20 catches as a freshman, including a rather memorable one to beat Northwestern. Will Jamal Turner turn the corner this offseason? Juniors Sam Burtch and Taariq Allen also return. Cethan Carter started six games at tight end last fall and should take over the top spot there as Jake Long departs.
Northwestern: The passing game fell short of expectations in 2013, but there's reason for optimism as Northwestern returns its top three pass-catchers in Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Dan Vitale. The two Joneses (no relation), who combined for 109 catches in 2013, lead the receiving corps along with junior Cameron Dickerson. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler provides a playmaking spark, possibly at slot receiver. Vitale, who had a somewhat disappointing sophomore season, has All-Big Ten potential at the superback (tight end) spot. Although Northwestern rarely plays true freshmen, superback Garrett Dickerson, Cameron's brother, could see the field right away.
Ohio State: A group that drew heavy criticism from coach Urban Meyer two springs ago is stockpiling talent. Devin Smith is the familiar name, a big-play senior who has started each of the past two seasons and boasts 18 career touchdowns. Ohio State must replace top wideout Corey Brown and will look for more from Evan Spencer. Michael Thomas has stood out in practices but must translate his performance to games. This could be a breakout year for H-back Dontre Wilson, who averaged nine yards per touch as a freshman. Buckeyes fans are eager to see redshirt freshmen Jalin Marshall and James Clark, and incoming players like Johnnie Dixon could make a splash right away. Ohio State returns an elite tight end in Jeff Heuerman.
Penn State: The Lions have very different depth situations at receiver and tight end. They're looking for contributors on the perimeter after losing Allen Robinson, the Big Ten's top wide receiver the past two seasons, who accounted for 46 percent of the team's receiving production in 2013. Brandon Felder also departs, leaving Geno Lewis as the likeliest candidate to move into a featured role. Richy Anderson also returns, but there will be plenty of competition/opportunity at receiver, a position new coach James Franklin targeted in recruiting with players like Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. Things are much more stable at tight end as the Lions return three talented players in Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman.
Purdue: If you're looking for hope at Purdue, these spots aren't bad places to start. There are several promising young players like receiver DeAngelo Yancey, who recorded a team-leading 546 receiving yards as a freshman. Cameron Posey also had a decent freshman year (26 catches, 297 yards), and Danny Anthrop averaged 18.4 yards as a sophomore. A full offseason with quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby should help the group. Tight end also should be a strength as Justin Sinz, who led Purdue with 41 catches last season, is back along with Gabe Holmes, who returns after missing most of 2013 with a wrist injury.
Rutgers: The good news is tight end Tyler Kroft returns after leading Rutgers in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last season. Kroft will immediately contend for All-Big Ten honors. Things are murkier at wide receiver, where top contributors Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt both depart. Leonte Carroo took a nice step as a sophomore, averaging 17.1 yards per catch and enters the spring as the frontrunner to become the team's No. 1 wideout. Ruhann Peele is another promising young receiver for the Scarlet Knights, who boast size with Carlton Agudosi (6-foot-6) and Andre Patton (6-4).
Wisconsin: The quarterback competition will gain more attention this spring, but Wisconsin's receiver/tight end situation could be more critical. The Badgers lose Jared Abbrederis, their only major threat at receiver the past two seasons, as well as top tight end Jacob Pedersen. Players like Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe must translate their experience into greater production, and Wisconsin will look for more from young receivers like Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright. Help is on the way as Wisconsin signed five receivers in the 2014 class, but wideout definitely is a position of concern right now. Sam Arneson is the logical candidate to step in for Pedersen, but there should be competition as the Badgers lose a lot at the position.
But we can also say with confidence that we watched more Big Ten football here at the blog than anyone else. So here are our picks for the 2013 ESPN.com All-Big Ten team:
RB: Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
WR: Allen Robinson, Penn State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan
OL: Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
OL: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OL: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OL: Corey Linsley, Ohio State
OL: Ryan Groy, Wisconsin
DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
DT: Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota
DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State
LB: James Morris, Iowa
DB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
DB: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
DB: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
DB: Brock Vereen, Minnesota
K: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska
PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa
OK, so we cheated just a bit on positions, going with three tackles on our offensive line and a 3-4 defense. But considering the coaches had six defensive backs and two punters on their first team, we don't feel too bad about it. ... We wanted to include Scherff, Lewan and Mewhort on the first team, because we thought they were the three best linemen in the league. If we had to field an actual team with these guys, we're sure we could figure it out. It was a tough call between Groy and Penn State's John Urschel, whom we love for his on- and off-the-field accomplishments. We just felt Wisconsin had the better overall season as an offensive line, so we went with Groy. ... We went with the 3-4 because linebacker was such a deep position in this league -- so deep that we had to leave off some deserving players, like Michigan State's Denicos Allen -- while defensive line wasn't nearly as strong. ... The defensive backfield was a tough call (no wonder the coaches had an, ahem, pick six there). Dennard was a lock, and we felt that Drummond was the league's best safety in a year when that position was a bit weak conference-wide. We like what Vereen did in providing versatility and leadership for the Gophers, and Roby overcame a slow start to do his usual fine work. We had to leave off very good cornerbacks like Michigan's Blake Countess, Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Iowa's B.J. Lowery -- but that's what a second team is for. Stay tuned. ... Ohio State leads the way with six selections, followed by Michigan State with five. It's almost as if those were the two best teams in the league or something.
Players and coaches from Wisconsin and Minnesota nearly brawled following the Badgers’ 20-7 win at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday. The brief altercation happened when Wisconsin brought Paul Bunyan’s Axe to the Gophers’ home end zone for the traditional “chopping” of the opponent's goal post. But Minnesota guarded the post and wouldn’t let the Badgers through.
“It’s just a pride thing,” Minnesota defensive back Brock Vereen told reporters. “This is our stadium, and even after the clock hits zero, we still feel the need to protect it. So I don’t think there’s any love lost or anything like that. I think they’d do the same thing.”
A small skirmish broke out in the same spot in 2011, when Wisconsin interrupted the singing of the alma mater. The Badgers tried to wait until the song ended on Saturday, but the Gophers still formed a resistance.
Wisconsin defensive tackle Beau Allen told reporters, I think jokingly, that teams have chopped both goal posts in all 123 years of the rivalry. (Which, of course, is impossible, since the Axe didn’t arrive on the scene until 1948). But Allen was right that the chopping is an annual tradition, so the Gophers can’t feign surprise that the axe came their way.
At the same time, if Minnesota wants to make such a stand on its home field, so be it. While Saturday’s game showed they’re getting a little closer to Wisconsin’s level, the Gophers have lost 10 straight in this series. Guarding the post could just have been their way of saying they’re tired of being pushed around.
With players and coaches exchanging curse words and shoves and Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen getting upset about a security officer he said put a finger in his face, the good news is both teams showed restraint in not letting things escalate. The axe celebration is one of the best in sports, but with so many people on the field, these postgame displays are axing -- I mean, asking -- for trouble. Something to keep in mind when this weekend’s rivalry games roll around.
Saturday's altercation just added a little more spice to the series. And maybe a new set of rules for the axe tradition.
Take that and rewind it back
Team of the week: Iowa. The Hawkeyes did everything they could to let Michigan win the game in the first half, throwing a pick-six and falling behind 21-7 at intermission. But this team has shown resiliency in bouncing back from last year's failures, and it owned the second half for a 24-21 win. Beating Nebraska this week would complete the symbolic turnaround from 4-8 to 8-4.
Best call: Loved Iowa's decision to have Jake Rudock roll out with a run/pass option on third-and-10 late in that game. It was far bolder than just running the ball and punting or throwing a screen, yet it didn't carry a lot of risk. It also showed a lot of confidence in Rudock who had thrown three interceptions. He completed a 12-yard pass to C.J. Fiedorowicz for the first down, allowing the Hawkeyes to go into victory formation.
Weirdest call: Wisconsin's Andersen called for a bizarre-looking fake field goal in the fourth quarter from the Minnesota 43. Holder Drew Meyer lined up behind the center in the middle of the field while everyone else split out wide. Meyer threw a lateral to tight end Sam Arneson, who had several blockers in front of him but nowhere to go. Arneson was supposed to pass the ball but never had time and wound up losing seven yards. "That one will be scratched off the play list for quite a while," Andersen said.
Best play: Michigan State receiver Bennie Fowler, who has had a great bounce-back season, summed up the season for his team and Northwestern on an 87-yard touchdown catch. Why are Northwestern defensive backs always involved in such wild plays?
Big Man on Campus (offense): Raise your arms and yell, "Steve Hull!" His late-career receiving renaissance continued with 10 catches for 169 yards and two scores as Illinois finally broke its Big Ten losing streak.
Big Men on Campus (defense): It's a tie between Ohio State's Ryan Shazier, who had a ridiculous 20 tackles and five tackles for loss against Indiana, and Wisconsin's Chris Borland, who made 12 stops with two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble. Do we really have to choose between these two for Big Ten defensive player of the year and linebacker of the year?
Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Nebraska's Pat Smith went 3-for-3 on field goals and drilled the 42-yard game-winner in overtime at Penn State.
Best failed effort: Penn State kicker Sam Ficken tried his best to stop Nebraska's Kenny Bell on Bell's 99-yard touchdown return. But Bell treated Ficken like a kicker while leaping over him at the 30-yard line on his way toward the end zone. The photo of that is delightful. “You will never live it down if you get tackled by the kicker," Bell said.
Best quote: From Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, whose nightmare season can't end soon enough: "The year '13 -- good riddance. Something about that number I don't like a whole lot. I like those hotels who don't put it on their floors."
It's not just the design of the foolery or how it's executed. It's when you call them. And of course, they're brilliant when they work and head-scratchers when they blow up.
Take a pair of fake punts on Saturday as an example. In Iowa City, Michigan State called for one from its own 37-yard line in the fourth quarter while leading Iowa 20-14. Mark Dantonio named the play "Hey Diddle Diddle" because punter Mike Sadler would run up the middle. Sadler actually veered right, but he gained 25 yards and set up a key field goal.
“We just sort of felt, if the moment was right, we’d do it,” Dantonio told reporters after the game. “I just wanted to make sure our players know, they’re at risk on the football field."
Meyer put the fake punt on from his own 32 in the second quarter, but punter Cameron Johnston came up well short of the sticks. Northwestern used the field position to kick a field goal and go up 20-13. The Buckeyes coach later said calling for the fake at that time was an error, but that won't change his mindset.
“That's who we are," he said. "We're going to run a fake punt again. I tell our players all the time: We're an aggressive team, we do what we've got to do to win games."
Sometimes you live by the trick play, sometimes you die by it. Dantonio has a history of using comically named gadget plays, but his halfback pass idea at Notre Dame earlier this year proved disastrous as it was picked off, costing the Spartans momentum in a close game. Nebraska botched a fake punt against UCLA when it tried to have a 300-pound defensive lineman rumble for a first down. Wisconsin executed a brilliant fake punt at Arizona State in Week 3 when linebacker Chris Borland passed for a first down.
When pulled off, trick plays can give a team a huge boost. When they fail, they can leave a coach with egg on his face. The trick is knowing when and where to call them.
Take that and rewind it back ...
Team of the week: With nods to Michigan State (which pulled out a big road win at Iowa) and Indiana (which snapped a 16-game losing streak versus Penn State) this honor belongs to Ohio State for a second consecutive week. Going to Northwestern was the Buckeyes' biggest challenge of the season, and they found themselves trailing for the first time since the second quarter of last year's season finale versus Michigan. They used their powerful offensive line to battle back and got a few key stops on defense in the fourth quarter for their 18th consecutive victory. Ohio State is halfway to an undefeated regular season with a highly advantageous schedule remaining.
Worst hangover: No matter how its season was going, Penn State could always count on one thing: beating Indiana. The Nittany Lions had never lost to the Hoosiers in 16 tries. So when the Hoosiers not only ended the streak but put an exclamation point on it by taking a 42-17 fourth-quarter lead and winning by 20, that raised a giant red flag over Penn State's season. This week's sold-out, white-out home game against Michigan looked like a great way for Lions fans to celebrate the reduction of their NCAA sanctions. Now, it could be a deflating reminder of the cost of those sanctions.
Big Man on Campus (offense): Heading into the Northwestern game, Meyer said of Carlos Hyde, "We're going to ride that horse." And boy did the Buckeyes ever climb aboard their workhorse tailback. Hyde ran for 168 yards and three touchdowns, the last one coming when he had the presence of mind to reach the ball across the plane on third down while falling backwards to save Ohio State's winning streak. Hyde ran like a guy who knew football was almost taken away from him after his poor decision this summer, and he became emotional when talking about it afterward.
Big Man on Campus (defense): In our Friday Q&A, Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard expressed his frustration with not having an interception through the first five weeks while saying he was very close. Dennard then went out and picked off two passes at Iowa, one in the first quarter and one in the fourth. The Hawkeyes were forced to try to beat Dennard through the air because they couldn't run the ball (see below).
Big Man on Campus (special teams): Michigan State freshman kicker Michael Geiger missed his first field goal attempt against Iowa from 36 yards. That had to bring back bad memories for Spartans fans, because key missed field goals were an overlooked factor in last year's 6-6 regular season. But Geiger then made his next four tries, from 27, 35, 49 and 40 yards. Given the state of Michigan State's offense, it probably needs a reliable kicker more than most teams. That's why Geiger was an important recruit, and why Spartans fans should be happy that the Geiger counter is dialed in right now.
Best play: Kenny Bell's one-handed catch on his way to a 37-yard touchdown put Illinois away for good and gave Bell a secure spot on Nebraska's season highlight film. Teammate Ameer Abdullah's 43-yard touchdown run off an option pitch might have been the day's second-best play.
A spot of bother: Did Kain Colter and Northwestern get victimized by a bad spot on the quarterback's fourth-and-1 rushing attempt late in the game? Possibly. But when you mess up the center exchange and then fall into a pile of bodies, it's hard to get the benefit of the doubt, and replays were not conclusive.
The bigger question might be whether the Wildcats got a little too conservative on that drive as they trailed 34-30. Just about all night, they had torn through Ohio State's pass defense, including a 67-yard completion to Rashad Lawrence on the previous possession that set up a touchdown. Pat Fitzgerald likely wanted to burn some clock and put his team in position to win the game with a touchdown and not have his defense go back on the field. Still, after opening the drive with a 9-yard completion, the Wildcats ran the ball on their next five plays. The final four runs gained only 8 yards, and Colter came up an inch short of the first down at the Buckeyes' 34.
Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Info)
- Michigan State now leads the country in rushing defense, allowing just 50.4 yards per game. The Spartans held Iowa, which came to Saturday's game averaging 244 yards per game on the ground, to just 23 rushing yards. Since the start of 2011, Michigan State has held 20 opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing, including all five games in 2013.
- One reason for Ohio State's success has been its field position advantage, thanks to a strong punting game. The Buckeyes' opponents have started their possessions after a punt, on average, at the 18-yard line. That's second-best in the nation behind Houston.
- Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Michigan's Blake Countess are tied for the national lead with four interceptions each. Countess' 149 interception return yards are most in the FBS, and Jean-Baptiste's 134 ranks third.
- Indiana's strong passing attack isn't just a dink-and-dunk routine. The Hoosiers are averaging 14.66 yards per pass completion, best in the Big Ten and No. 14 in the FBS. Of those completions, 61.9 percent of them have gone for at least 10 yards.
- Bill O'Brien has hardly kept the reins on true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg. He is attempting 36.4 passes a game, most in the Big Ten and No. 17 nationally. Hackenberg attempted 55 passes Saturday against Indiana.
- Who has played the toughest schedule so far? According to one stat, it's Indiana. The Hoosiers' FBS opponents' winning percentage is 85.4 percent, second highest in the nation behind Washington. The weakest schedule, using that measurement, is Michigan State, whose FBS opponents' winning percentage is just 41.3 percent.
- Michigan has scored either a touchdown or a field goal on 81.3 percent of its drives inside the opponent's 40-yard line, tops in the league and No. 7 nationally. The Wolverines are also No. 3 in the FBS in red zone touchdown efficiency, reaching the end zone 81.8 percent of the time they break the opponent's 20-yard line.
Without further ado, the crystal ball says
PENN STATE at INDIANA
Brian Bennett: Indiana is 0-16 against Penn State, so you'd have to ignore all historic precedent to pick the Hoosiers. I see IU doing some damage on Penn State's pass defense just as UCF and Blake Bortles did. But the Hoosiers' defense won't have any answers for Christian Hackenberg and Zach Zwinak, the latter of whom scores three times. Penn State 42, Indiana 34
Adam Rittenberg: The Lions defense isn't as bad as it performed against UCF and not as good as it performed against Kent State. But an average Penn State defense, combined with Hackenberg and a stable of running backs, will be too much for Indiana to overcome. Hackenberg twice connects with Allen Robinson for touchdowns, and Indiana's quarterback situation becomes cloudier. Penn State 38, Indiana 27
ILLINOIS at NEBRASKA
Adam Rittenberg: Illinois' big-play offense isn't a welcome sight for Nebraska's beleaguered defense, which has been gashed by pretty much everyone so far this season. But Bo Pelini's teams typically perform well after open weeks, and at some point, the defense will start to tighten up. Illinois' Josh Ferguson gives his team an early lead, but Nebraska rallies in the second half behind running backs Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross, as well as wideout Kenny Bell, who hauls in two touchdown passes. Nebraska 38, Illinois 31
Brian Bennett: The Illini have a chance here, especially if Taylor Martinez doesn't play or is severely limited. Nathan Scheelhaase will burn the Huskers for three touchdown passes. But Nebraska's running game, led by a 150-yard day from Abdullah, will prove the difference, and Stanley Jean-Baptiste picks off Scheelhaase late to thwart a potential rally. Nebraska 38, Illinois 28
MICHIGAN STATE at IOWA
Brian Bennett: I've picked against the Hawkeyes three times already and have been wrong twice. (It's nothing personal, Iowa fans, I swear). I really should learn from my mistakes. But I think Michigan State's defense can slow down Mark Weisman and generally make life miserable for Jake Rudock on Saturday. I have little confidence in the Spartans' offense, but a bye week should have given Dave Warner and Jim Bollman a chance to come up with a couple of plays that work. That may be all it takes in a game like this, which is decided on field goals. Michigan State 13, Iowa 10.
Adam Rittenberg: Tsk, tsk, Brian. Haven't you learned never to doubt Herky in an under-the-radar year? Iowa has the momentum right now, and the Hawkeyes will wear down the Spartans in the second half with Weisman (2 TDs) and Damon Bullock. Michigan State's defense keeps it close as always, but the offensive issues continue as Iowa linebacker James Morris seals the win with his third interception of the season. Iowa 20, Michigan State 17
MINNESOTA at MICHIGAN
Adam Rittenberg: The open week came at a perfect time for Michigan to clean up its act. Quarterback Devin Gardner limits his risks and makes smarter decisions in this one, firing two second-half touchdown passes to Jeremy Gallon. Michigan rides running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (130 rush yards, 2 TDs) and contains a Minnesota offense that simply doesn't look ready for Big Ten play. Michigan once again teaches Minnesota how to juggy. Michigan 31, Minnesota 13
Brian Bennett: The Wolverines have issues, but I don't think they are as big as the problems Minnesota has, which include an MIA passing game. Surely two weeks of studying film have made Gardner more cautious with the ball. Michigan just has more weapons, especially at home where they never lose under Brady Hoke. It's not always pretty, but Gardner accounts for four touchdowns behind a revamped offensive line. Michigan 28, Minnesota 14
OHIO STATE at NORTHWESTERN
Brian Bennett: Northwestern should be able to make some plays on Ohio State's defense, especially with Venric Mark back and some questions in the Buckeyes' secondary. But I think the Wildcats will need turnovers to have a strong chance to win. They'll get two, but it won't be enough as Braxton Miller has his best game of the year, running for 120 yards and passing for 250. Ohio State starts fast again and holds on. Ohio State 36, Northwestern 27
Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern hasn't handled spotlight games well in the past, although the team seemed to turn a corner last year in ridding itself of its bowl bugaboo. Is Northwestern's Buckeye bugaboo next? I expect the Wildcats' offense to perform well and open up the playbook, especially with Mark back in the fold. Mark twice reaches the end zone and Trevor Siemian attacks a vulnerable Ohio State secondary playing without Christian Bryant. But Ohio State's big-play ability will be a little too much to overcome, as Miller leads a memorable game-winning drive in the final minutes. Ohio State 34, Northwestern 31
Now it's time for our guest picker. As a reminder, throughout the season we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please) and hometown and a brief description why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.
This week's guest prognosticator is Brandon Poturica, who's stationed at Morón Air Base in Spain. Take it away, Brandon:
"Adam & Brian: Why you should choose me is simple. I met Urban Meyer in Kuwait during a USO tour in the summer of 2011, only months away from when he took the OSU job. I'm from his hometown of Ashtabula, Ohio, and have been stationed overseas since he took the job (Japan and Spain). The Buckeyes have been undefeated since the last time I stepped on American soil, and I'm a superstitious man, so if that means I don't return home and they keep winning, then I'll just have to cheer from afar. Go Bucks and God Bless the USA."
How could we say no to that? Thanks for your service, Brandon, and save us some sangria and tapas. Here are Brandon's picks:
Penn State 38, Indiana 17
Illinois 28, Nebraska 21
Iowa 17, Michigan State 14
Michigan 38, Minnesota 10
Ohio State 56, Northwestern 35
Adam Rittenberg: 44-6
Brian Bennett: 43-7
Guest pickers: 40-10
Here are some notes and updates from those teams:
- After six practices, the Hawkeyes' three-man quarterback race between Jake Rudock, Cody Sokol and C.J. Beathard is "about where we expected," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. All three are receiving equal reps, and all are working with the first-, second- and third-team offenses. "At this point, it's a jump ball for all three guys," Ferentz said.
- Accountability is a big theme this spring at Iowa after the team endured its worst season (4-8) in more than a decade. Ferentz said he can't bury his head in the sand after a season like last year's. "We have to do a better job in all areas and that starts with me," he said. Linebacker James Morris was candid about the legacy he'd like to leave at Iowa. "The mark we've left so far, if we're being completely honest, isn't a particularly good one," Morris said. "I'm not happy about it, but I'm excited we have one more opportunity to change things."
- Ferentz said Sunday's open practice in West Des Moines gives Iowa a chance to say thanks to its fans in the central and western parts of the state. Hawkeyes players enjoy the chance to perform in front of their fans. "It's something to break the monotony of spring ball," Morris said. "This will be something different."
- Morris wants to see Iowa's defense translate its red-zone effectiveness -- the Hawkeyes allowed only 15 touchdowns on 48 red-zone chances in 2012 and held opponents scoreless 10 times -- to the rest of the field. Better communication also is a focal point for the defense this spring.
- Head coach Brady Hoke said the team will explore the possibility of adding a junior-college quarterback or a graduate transfer from an FBS program to address the position. Russell Bellomy, the projected backup, is scheduled for ACL surgery May 1 and could miss the entire season. Walk-on Brian Cleary is working as the No. 2 quarterback this spring behind Devin Gardner, and heralded recruit Shane Morris arrives in the summer. Asked generally about redshirting players, Hoke didn't sound as if he'd hesitate to use a player like Morris. "No matter if they're fifth-year seniors or true freshmen, the best players have to play," he said. "If you don't do your justice on playing the best players, you're going to cheat the kids on this team."
- Both Hoke and left tackle Taylor Lewan praised the young players competing for the three vacant starting spots on the interior offensive line. Hoke has seen "a lot of progress" with players like Ben Braden, Kyle Kalis, Chris Bryant, Blake Bars and Joey Burzynski. Lewan sees more "maulers" along Michigan's line as the unit aims to be more physically dominant this season in a pro-set scheme.
- Lewan said the experience of playing for Michigan and the opportunity to win a Big Ten championship led him to decide to return for his senior season rather than enter the NFL draft, where he likely would have been a first-round pick. He said his decision was his own, and that those who haven't played for Michigan can't truly understand the lure of remaining there. "There's no better decision I could have made than coming back to the University of Michigan," he said.
- Lewan said defensive end Frank Clark could be on the All-Big Ten radar by the end of the season, while Hoke singled out Chris Wormley for having a strong spring with the D-line. Hoke said running back Fitzgerald Toussaint is progressing well as he recovers from leg surgery.
- Replacing Le'Veon Bell at running back remains a work in progress. While Nick Hill, Jeremy Langford and Nick Tompkins are working there this spring, head coach Mark Dantonio said players from other positions will "slide in and out" at running back to see how they handle the role. The Spartans are also bringing in three tailbacks this summer. "That's obviously a position of concern for us," Dantonio said. "We've got to find a guy you can give the ball to 250 times. I don't know if we have that yet. But that's part of who we are, and we're going to find him."
- Dantonio said placekicker Kevin Cronin has had an excellent spring and is the No. 1 on the depth chart now. But recruit Michael Geiger will come in this summer and push Cronin for the right to succeed the departed Dan Conroy.
- Spartans fans always seem to be curious about wideout and former Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett. Here's what Dantonio had to say about him today: "He's a guy who runs great routes but needs to catch ball a little more consistently and be more physical at the point of attack. ... He's a guy who I think will play next year and will add to our offense once he starts moving in a more consistent basis. But I think he's taken big steps this spring, and you can see that coming."
- Linebacker Max Bullough said going 7-6 last year after two 11-win seasons "put things in perspective for us. We hadn't lost many games the previous two years. Now we have that knowledge and experience that it could happen to us. ... We use that as motivation to move forward."
- Head coach Jerry Kill said injured offensive tackle Ed Olson (ankle) and defensive lineman Roland Johnson (knee) are both progressing well, and he expects both to be ready to go for fall camp.
- Kill had high praise for safety Brock Vereen, saying he could follow his brother, Shane, into the NFL. "He's gotten better and better since we've been here, and he's turned into a great football player in our minds. We look for him to have a very productive year."
- Vereen said the team is practicing with a new sense of confidence. "We're finally comfortable with coach Kill's system. We know what they expect from us. And that just makes it a lot easier to show up every day and do what we need to do."
- Vereen on how far away the Gophers are from contending in the Legends Division: "We are closer than a lot of people think. If you look back to last season, a lot of those games we lost were in the fourth quarter. A loss is a loss, but at the same time, we were in a lot of those games. It's about pushing through, which is something we learned the hard way, but we still learned. ... I think we're going to shock some people this year."
- Linebacker David Santos (arm) will miss a portion of summer workouts but will be back before the Huskers open preseason camp, head coach Bo Pelini said. Defensive linemen Vincent Valentine and Greg McMullen, who missed Saturday's spring game, aren't seriously injured and will be fine for workouts and camp.
- Although Nebraska's defense had its ups and downs this spring, redshirt freshman linebacker Jared Afalava stood out. Pelini expects a lot of production this fall from Afalava, who is "probably further ahead of where I thought he'd be." Pelini also praised senior defensive end Jason Ankrah, saying the coaches gave him more freedom to move around this spring. "Hopefully, his best year is yet to come," Pelini said.
- Senior quarterback Taylor Martinez expects Nebraska to throw the ball "a lot more" this season, mainly because of the team's strength at wide receiver with Kenny Bell, Jamal Turner and others. Martinez said expectations are extremely high for the offense, and that coordinator Tim Beck is more comfortable calling plays. "I'd rather throw the ball 30 times a game … get the football to those guys and let them do their thing," Martinez said. Pelini has no argument, saying "the best is yet to come" with Martinez at quarterback.
- Martinez said the Memorial Stadium crowd was about as loud as he's ever heard it when 7-year-old cancer patient Jack Hoffman ran for a 69-yard touchdown in Saturday's spring game.
- The Wildcats won't hold a traditional spring game this year but just a normal practice session. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald said 13 players had surgeries after the season, and the team was limited to eight healthy offensive linemen this spring. "We've had to tweak things, so that's why we've kept the same routine throughout all 15 of our practices," he said.
- Some of the lesser-known Northwestern players who have had good springs, Fitzgerald said, included backup quarterback Zack Oliver, receiver Mike Jensen, superbacks Mark Szott and Jack Schwaba and defensive lineman C.J. Robbins. Fitzgerald said he's been "very, very impressed" by Robbins, who has been injured the past two years.
- A question on offering prospects early prompted this response from Fitzgerald: "I have just a fundamental issue with offering a kid a scholarship that doesn't have a driver's license. Just barely shaving. And because he looks good in shorts doesn't mean he's going to be a great Big Ten football player. The glorification of these kids at a young age is unfair to them. It's putting unfair and unrealistic expectations on them."
- Defensive end Tyler Scott, who Fitzgerald said is "poised to take the next step," said he's worked hard on becoming a more vocal leader this year and on his pass-rushing techniques. "I'm trying to bring more tools to that aspect of the defense," he said.
We don't claim to know more about football than the league's coaches, not for a second. But after watching every Big Ten game all season long, we found ourselves scratching our heads at some choices that didn't seem to jibe with what we were seeing. Well, it's time to put our money where our mouths are and offer our official ESPN.com picks for the 2012 All-Big Ten team. Now you can argue with our choices, which look like this:
QB: Braxton Miller, Ohio State
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin
RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State
WR: Allen Robinson, Penn State
WR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska
TE: Kyle Carter, Penn State
OT: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OG: Spencer Long, Nebraska
C: Matt Stankiewitch, Penn State
OG: Brian Mulroe, Northwestern
OT: Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
DL: John Simon, Ohio State
DL: Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State
DL: Jordan Hill, Penn State
LB: Michael Mauti, Penn State
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
DB: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
DB: Ciante Evans, Nebraska
DB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
DB: Daimion Stafford, Nebraska
PK: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
All-purpose: Venric Mark, Northwestern
The first thing you might notice with our team is that we're lining up as a 3-4 defense. We decided to go with only three defensive linemen and four linebackers because linebacker was such a strong position for the league this year. And even with four, we still left off very worthy players such as Wisconsin's Mike Taylor, Penn State's Gerald Hodges and Michigan State's Max Bullough. Going with three down linemen meant we excluded Purdue's Kawann Short, a great player who was slowed by injuries during the heart of the Boilers' schedule. ... One of our toughest calls was at tight end. You can make a great case for either Carter or Michigan State's Dion Sims, and their numbers are incredibly close. ... We chose four defensive backs instead of two corners and two safeties, just as the Big Ten does with its official teams. And we were happy to do so since we thought the safety position was a little lacking this year overall. And since Evans is a nickelback, it kind of works, anyway. ... We went with Michigan State's Bell in a close call over Northwestern's Mark but still got Mark on our team as the all-purpose player, which fits his skills since he is a top-flight punt returner. ... Ohio State leads the way with six selections, followed by Penn State with five and Nebraska with four.
Let's start with the coaches' team. Braxton Miller is named the quarterback of the year in the league, but he's only the second-team quarterback on the coaches' selections? Uh, what? No offense to Taylor Martinez, who had a terrific year, but Miller was simply better all season long.
That's not even the biggest stunner involving an Ohio State player. Buckeyes linebacker Ryan Shazier did not make the first team, falling behind Michigan State's Max Bullough and Wisconsin's Chris Borland (Penn State's Michael Mauti is an understandable lock). There was talk of Shazier for Big Ten defensive player of the year after the way he blazed through the second half of the season. But that looks less likely now. (Unless the coaches want to engage in some serious trolling by naming Miller the offensive player of the year and Shazier defensive player of the year as second-teamers). Also bizarre: the coaches did not select Michigan's Jake Ryan for a first- or second-team spot. Ryan is undoubtedly one of the Big Ten's top four linebackers.
I'm also confused by the defensive back selections. Micah Hyde as the defensive back of the year? I really like the Iowa senior, but I sure thought Ohio State's Bradley Roby had the better season, along with Nebraska's Ciante Evans, the latter of whom somehow didn't make the first or second team by either the coaches or the media, even though Bo Pelini has said Evans is easily his best cornerback. But, you know, the Huskers only rank No. 2 nationally in pass coverage, so what does he know?. And while Johnny Adams has a boatload of talent, he had a disappointing year for Michigan State and didn't deserve first-team recognition this year, in my opinion.
I was also surprised not to see Ohio State's Jack Mewhort on the first or second team by the coaches (he was second team by the media). I thought the Buckeyes' left tackle was clearly one of the league's top offensive linemen all year long, especially since Wisconsin's Ricky Wagner (a first-teamer from both coaches and media) struggled early along with the entire Badgers line and missed a couple of games with an injury.
Jacob Pedersen as the tight end of the year also is baffling. Wisconsin coaches and Pedersen talked openly about how he was struggling to adjust to the No. 1 tight end role for the first half of the season, and he didn't really have a great game until the Purdue game. I thought Michigan State's Dion Sims and Penn State's Kyle Carter each had better years.
The media (not including Adam or I, who don't get to vote) did a better job overall, picking Miller as the first team quarterback, Shazier on the first team and at least putting Mewhort and Ryan on the second team. But again, the media whiffed on Evans for both first and second team honors. I also thought Nebraska's Kenny Bell deserved a first-team spot over Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis, who hasn't had a big game since the first week of October. Bell's blocking puts him over the top, for me. How Wisconsin, which struggled to score points against good opponents all year long, got four players on the media's first-team offense is a mystery to me.
The top three teams remain intact from Week 12, while Penn State and Northwestern move up a spot and Wisconsin moves down despite a good effort against Ohio State. Overall, there's not much movement. Expect a little more shuffling after the final Saturday of the regular season, but at this point, teams have defined themselves as good, average or disappointing.
To the rundown ...
1. Ohio State (11-0, 7-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): Quarterback Braxton Miller and the offense carried Ohio State through the first half of the season. But defense wins championships, and the silver bullets stepped up Saturday at Wisconsin, as linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end John Simon triggered an impressive bend-but-don't-break effort. Urban Meyer's team claimed the Leaders Division title and now sits on the doorstep of history, needing a win against archrival Michigan to record the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history.
2. Nebraska (9-2, 6-1; last week: 2): There was no second-half drama Saturday against Minnesota, as Nebraska surged to 38-0 lead in less than three quarters. Quarterback Taylor Martinez continued his push for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors, becoming Nebraska's career passing leader with 308 yards. Wide receiver Kenny Bell (9 catches, 136 yards, 2 TDs) had another big day, and an improving defense held Minnesota to 11 first downs and 177 yards. Nebraska is one win away from punching its ticket to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game.
3. Michigan (8-3, 6-1; last week: 3): Devin Gardner, your table is ready. Gardner showed Saturday that Michigan's future on offense is very bright, racking up 314 pass yards on 18 of 23 attempts with six touchdowns (three passing, three rushing) in a rout of Iowa. He is the first Wolverines player to account for six touchdowns since Steve Smith scored three rushing and three passing touchdowns at Minnesota in 1983. Denard Robinson is back in the fold, but Gardner provides the balance Michigan has lacked on offense. Gardner led Michigan to touchdowns on its first six possessions. The Wolverines' chances in The Game against Ohio State look a lot better than they did a few weeks ago.
4. Penn State (7-4, 5-2; last week: 5): It was a bittersweet day for Penn State, which got back on track with a win against Indiana but lost star linebacker Michael Mauti to another apparent knee injury. Senior quarterback Matt McGloin picked apart the Hoosiers for 395 passing yards and four touchdowns, becoming the school's single-season passing leader, while star wideout Allen Robinson had 10 receptions for 197 yards and three touchdowns. Penn State finishes its season this week against Wisconsin at Beaver Stadium.
5. Northwestern (8-3, 4-3; last week: 6): Pat Fitzgerald's crew took another fourth-quarter lead and this time held on, despite losing star running back Venric Mark to injury and going with Trevor Siemian at quarterback instead of Kain Colter. Although Northwestern benefited from four Michigan State turnovers, it took a more aggressive approach in crunch time and recorded a key road win to likely secure a Gator Bowl berth. Siemian, tight end Dan Vitale and others stepped up for the Wildcats, who finish up this week against Illinois in Evanston.
6. Wisconsin (7-4, 4-3; last week: 4): It's a little harsh to drop Wisconsin two spots after an overtime loss to Ohio State, but the move has more to do with both Penn State and Northwestern winning. The Badgers received a terrific defensive performance in regulation and outplayed Ohio State for long stretches, but they couldn't convert yards into points and repeatedly wasted opportunities in Ohio State territory. Montee Ball rushed for 191 yards and a score, and quarterback Curt Phillips made some key throws, but Wisconsin fell short on its home field for the second consecutive game. The Badgers visit Penn State this week before heading to Indy for the title game.
7. Michigan State (5-6, 2-5; last week: 7): Um, yeah, we didn't see this coming, either. Michigan State, picked by both of us and many others to win the Big Ten, needs to beat Minnesota just to get bowl eligible. The Spartans failed to win a Big Ten home game for the first time since 2006 after sweeping their entire home slate in each of the past two seasons. Mistakes once again doomed MSU, which had the edge in total yards, first downs, third-down conversions and many other categories against Northwestern. Andrew Maxwell passed for 297 yards and two scores, but it wasn't enough.
8. Minnesota (6-5, 2-5, last week: 8): Minnesota might be good enough to get to a bowl game, but the Gophers still can't compete with the Big Ten's elite. Jerry Kill's team was overmatched from the onset against Nebraska and never challenged the Huskers in a 38-14 loss. Freshman quarterback Philip Nelson had a rough afternoon, and one of the nation's best pass defenses couldn't stop Martinez, Bell and the Huskers. Minnesota has been a resilient team and must regroup for its finale at home, which would secure a winning season before the bowl game.
9. Purdue (5-6, 2-5; last week: 9): Credit the Boilers for not giving up after an 0-5 start to Big Ten play. Although the season didn't go as expected, Purdue is just one win away from heading to a bowl for the second straight season. The Boilers held off Illinois to record consecutive Big Ten road wins for the first time since 2009. Purdue had a balanced offensive attack triggered by the Akeems (Shavers and Hunt), and unlike last week, it didn't hurt itself with turnovers. Danny Hope's crew now returns home for the Bucket game and can close the season on a three-game win streak.
10. Indiana (4-7, 2-5; last week: 10): Credit the Hoosiers for fighting a lot harder than they did last week against Wisconsin. Cameron Coffman passed for 454 yards and Kevin Wilson got creative with onside kicks. But it's the same story for Indiana's defense, which simply isn't strong enough to stop good Big Ten offenses. McGloin and Penn State had their way with IU, which won't be going bowling and must make significant strides on the defensive side to get to the postseason in 2013.
11. Iowa (4-7, 2-5; last week: 11): Is it over yet? That's all Hawkeyes fans can ask themselves after the team's latest debacle against Michigan at the Big House. Iowa's once-solid defense has completely fallen apart in recent weeks, allowing touchdown drives on Michigan's first six possessions and 513 yards to the Wolverines. The offense continues to stop and start, and Kirk Ferentz's team is assured of its first losing regular season since 2000. Iowa also is mired in its first five-game losing streak since 2000.
12. Illinois (2-9, 0-7; last week: 12): At least the Illini didn't get blown out. Illinois lost a Big Ten game by fewer than two touchdowns for the first time this season, although that's little consolation for a team that has dropped eight straight and five straight on Senior Day. The Illini continued to beat themselves with three fumbles, including two by wide receiver Ryan Lankford. A talented Illinois defense has played better the past two weeks, but Purdue still racked up 207 rush yards. Coach Tim Beckman has emphasized the Northwestern game since his arrival, and an upset of the Wildcats this week in Evanston would be the only bright spot in an otherwise miserable season.
Nebraska and Taylor Martinez have been heavily criticized for their failures under adversity on the road in big Big Ten games. They successfully reversed that narrative on Saturday at Northwestern. Barely.
Despite lots of mistakes that could have crushed them, the Cornhuskers showed admirable grit in rallying from a 28-16 fourth quarter deficit to eke out a 29-28 win at Ryan Field. They owe a lot of that to Martinez.
The junior quarterback was magnificent late in the game, leading two long scoring drives to cap the comeback. He finished 27-of-38 for 342 yards and three touchdowns.
Martinez wasn't perfect, and Northwestern dropped two potential interceptions in the fourth quarter that could have sealed the win after they took their 12-point lead with 8:31 remaining. But Martinez bounced back after that by getting revved up and completing 10 straight passes, with a pair of touchdowns. His receivers also did some excellent work. Quincy Enunwa set career highs with six catches for 110 yards, while Kenny Bell had six receptions for 77 yards and a score.
Losing cornerback Nick VanHoose to injury earlier in the game hurt Northwestern. Losing Venric Mark (118 rushing yards) hurt big time. But so, too, did the Wildcats' own puzzling game plan.
Let's review: Nebraska has all sorts of trouble with mobile quarterbacks. Kain Colter tore up the Huskers in the second half of last year's win in Lincoln. So Northwestern decided to let Trevor Siemian take almost all of the snaps at quarterback. Huh?
Colter threw only two passes, and one of them was on a desperation heave on the game's final play. He ran the ball 14 times for 35 yards and caught three passes. Colter simply needs more touches than that, and unless Colter is hurt more than the Wildcats are letting on, the overuse of Siemian makes little sense. Siemian will be a very good quarterback but right now having him throw it is not Northwestern's best option. He completed just 15-of-35 passes for 116 yards, though he did toss two touchdowns.
While Northwestern played into the strength of the Nebraska defense in many ways, credit the maligned Blackshirts for responding two weeks after the 63-38 disaster at Ohio State. They held the Wildcats to just 301 total yards, including 180 rushing yards. Eighty of those came on one Mark sprint for a touchdown.
Yet Nebraska continually tried to beat itself. Incredibly, the Huskers muffed back-to-back punt returns in the first half, surrendering major field position with the lost fumbles. They also coughed up another fumble and shot themselves in the foot repeatedly with penalties. One penalty negated a fumbled punt by Mark that would have set up the offense for an easy score. Bo Pelini's team still is making too many mental errors, especially at this time of year.
Northwestern still nearly won this thing, but Jeff Budzien missed a 53-yard field goal with a little more than a minute to go. Budzien had been 11-for-11 on the year before that miss.
So it wasn't pretty or easy, but Nebraska got a big win on the road. The Huskers could not have afforded this loss in the Legends Division, and it helps knock the improved Wildcats a game back in the standings. This sets up a crucial showdown with Michigan next week in Lincoln in what might be the game of the year in the Legends race.
Nebraska will be happy to get back home. Much happier now that it has proved it can win under adverse conditions on the road.
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD
8:00 PM ET 22 Clemson 1 Florida State 10:30 PM ET 2 Oregon Washington State 3:30 PM ET Florida 3 Alabama 7:30 PM ET 4 Oklahoma West Virginia 3:30 PM ET 6 Texas A&M SMU 7:00 PM ET Mississippi State 8 LSU 12:00 PM ET Eastern Michigan 11 Michigan State 12:00 PM ET Troy 13 Georgia 7:30 PM ET 14 South Carolina Vanderbilt 4:00 PM ET Indiana 18 Missouri 12:00 PM ET Bowling Green 19 Wisconsin 3:30 PM ET Virginia 21 BYU 8:00 PM ET Miami (FL) 24 Nebraska