Chicago Colleges: Nathan Scheelhaase

Spring preview capsules: West Division

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
9:00
AM CT
Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Jeff Duckworth, Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.

Schedules could be big factor in B1G West

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
10:30
AM CT
The division formerly known as the Legends has a new name (West), three new teams (Illinois, Purdue and Wisconsin) and the same wide-open feel as its predecessor.

Last summer, before Michigan State ran away with the Legends title in dominant fashion, the division seemed there for the taking. Michigan was a popular pick, so was Nebraska, and Northwestern entered the season in the national rankings. Seasoned Big Ten observers knew better than to count out Michigan State. The Legends was pegged as a four-team race. As it turned out, the two teams generating the least buzz, Iowa and Minnesota, both ended up winning eight games.

The West has a similar look entering the 2014 season. There's no clear-cut favorite, and every team has some potentially fatal flaws.

Wisconsin: Loses 25 seniors and has issues at quarterback, wide receiver and potentially the defensive front seven.

Nebraska: Still a lot of youth at key spots and often plays sloppy; difficult to trust.

Iowa: Offense struggles to score; loses all three starters at linebacker, team's best position group in 2013.

Minnesota: Major quarterback issues, offense often struggles to score and several key defenders depart, including tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and do-it-all defensive back Brock Vereen.

Northwestern: Has lost its crunch-time mojo after a disastrous 2013 season, lingering questions about quarterback Trevor Siemian.

Illinois: Big Ten's worst rush defense still has major concerns, and four-year starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is gone.

Purdue: Do we need to recap last season? Didn't think so.

So there you have it. Is there a 2013 Michigan State in this bunch? Perhaps, but if so, it might qualify as an even bigger surprise than what the Spartans did this past fall.

If parity rules the West, the division title could come down to schedules. Not surprisingly, ESPN Insider's KC Joyner lists Iowa's schedule as a major reason why the Hawkeyes could win the division. Iowa doesn't play any of the big four in the East Division -- Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State -- and faces both Wisconsin and Nebraska at home. The Hawkeyes' Big Ten road schedule -- Purdue, Maryland, Minnesota and Illinois -- is extremely favorable.

[+] EnlargeJake Rudock
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltJake Rudock and Iowa could benefit from a less taxing schedule than their Big Ten West counterparts.
Here are the league schedules for the West teams:

ILLINOIS

Home: Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa, Penn State
Road: Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Northwestern
No plays: Maryland, Michigan State, Michigan, Rutgers, Indiana

IOWA

Home: Indiana, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Nebraska
Road: Purdue, Maryland, Minnesota, Illinois
No plays: Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers

MINNESOTA

Home: Northwestern, Purdue, Iowa, Ohio State
Road: Michigan, Illinois, Nebraska, Wisconsin
No plays: Indiana, Maryland, Michigan State, Penn State, Rutgers

NEBRASKA

Home: Illinois, Rutgers, Purdue, Minnesota
Road: Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Iowa
No plays: Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State

NORTHWESTERN

Home: Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan, Illinois
Road: Penn State, Minnesota, Iowa, Purdue
No plays: Indiana, Maryland, Michigan State, Ohio State, Rutgers

PURDUE

Home: Iowa, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Northwestern
Road: Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, Indiana
No plays: Maryland, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers

WISCONSIN

Home: Illinois, Maryland, Nebraska, Minnesota
Road: Northwestern, Rutgers, Purdue, Iowa
No plays: Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State

Iowa and Wisconsin definitely have the edge with schedules. Neither plays any of the big boys in the East, something that thankfully will change with the introduction of a nine-game league schedule in 2016. The Hawkeyes' schedule is slightly more favorable because they get the Badgers at home.

Minnesota improved in Year 3 under Jerry Kill, but it could have a tough time making additional strides this fall. The Gophers have a challenging road schedule and only one potential gimme at home (Purdue). Northwestern also has a tough slate on its home field and misses three of the potentially weaker East teams, although the Wildcats also don't face either Michigan State or Ohio State.

Purdue is another team with some solid home opponents. The road schedule isn't overly taxing for Darrell Hazell's crew.

Nebraska and Illinois both have potentially favorable home schedules, especially Nebraska, but both squads will be tested plenty on the road.

Time will tell if the West actually becomes a logjam of comparable teams. If so, Iowa and Wisconsin should benefit, and there could be plenty at stake when the teams meet Nov. 22 in Iowa City.

Like a trip to Indianapolis.

Big Ten postseason player rankings: No. 25

January, 20, 2014
Jan 20
8:00
AM CT
You know it, you love it, you can't live without it. That's right; it's time once again for our biannual Big Ten Top 25 player rankings.

We did this before the season began, of course, taking into account past performance and potential for the year ahead. You can review our preseason list here and figure out who we underrated, overrated or properly rated. With a full season in the books, we don't have to concern ourselves with potential any more. So our postseason player rankings are based only on 2013 performance and not on any other factors such as NFL prospects or congeniality.

As always, this list was tough to pare down and order because of the many standout players in the league. But we did our resolute best. And it begins with:

No. 25: Nathan Scheelhaase, QB, Illinois

Previous ranking: Not ranked

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
Michael Hickey/Getty ImagesNathan Scheelhaase was the only Big Ten passer to throw for more than 3,000 yards in 2013.
Making the case for Scheelhaase: The Illini quarterback had appeared on our top-25 lists in previous years, but after an injury-filled junior campaign as part of a crummy offense in 2012, we weren't sure what to expect of Scheelhaase this season. Luckily, with the help of Bill Cubit's new offense, he got back to form. And then some.

Scheelhaase led the Big Ten in passing yards with 3,272, the only league player to top 3,000 yards. He also added 21 touchdown passes against 13 interceptions and completed 66.7 percent of his attempts. That last number was also the highest of any regular starting quarterback in the conference, and he paced the league in total offense by tacking on 271 rushing yards and four runs for scores.

He announced himself early this season with 416 passing yards in the opener against Southern Illinois, a four-touchdown day in the victory over Cincinnati and a five-touchdown performance vs. Miami (Ohio). After slowing down a bit in the middle of the season, the senior picked things right back up with 321 passing yards vs. Penn State, 450 at Indiana and 288 against Ohio State.

Yes, Scheelhaase's interception total was a bit high, but so much of Illinois' offense -- and really, the entire team's hopes, given the state of the defense -- depended on his right arm. And he delivered by exceeding his previous career-best season by more than 1,100 yards. That's good enough to kick off our top 25.

Offseason to-do list: Illinois

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
8:00
AM CT
The offseason is in its early stages, and to get us through the long winter, we're taking a look at what each team must do in the months ahead before actual football returns to the field.

Up next in our series: Illinois

1. Get better up front on defense: The Fighting Illini ranked last in the Big Ten and 116th nationally in stopping the run, allowing 238.6 yards per game on the ground and an average of more than 5.5 yards per rush. Illinois was also second-to-last in the league in sacks generated. When you can't slow down an opposing running game or put pressure on the quarterback, that's bad news. It doesn't help that the best player in the front seven -- linebacker Jonathan Brown -- is graduating. Just about everybody else is back up front, though, and head coach Tim Beckman brought in a junior college transfer (Joe Fotu) and a high school player (Paul James III) as early enrollees to help bolster the defensive line. Illinois simply must get better in the trenches defensively, and that starts in the weight room this winter.

2. Develop weapons in the passing game: Under first-year coordinator Bill Cubit, the Illini had one of the best and most consistent passing attacks in the Big Ten. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is graduating, but Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt should be able to fill his shoes. The bigger question is at receiver, where the team's three starters at the end of the season -- Steve Hull, Miles Osei and Spencer Harris -- were all seniors, as was Ryan Lankford, who was one of Scheelhaase's top targets before getting hurt. The leading returning wideout is Martize Barr, who was underwhelming with 26 total catches after transferring in from junior college. Beckman brought in help at this position as well with juco transfers Tyrin Stone-Davis and Geronimo Allison, along with early enrollee Mike Dudek. All three will get a chance to play right away, and the Illini need them to pan out.

3. Build some excitement: Illinois wasn't all that far off from being a bowl team in 2013, and it was competitive in many games. That didn't do much to boost fan interest or create turnout at home games. The biggest threat to Beckman's long-term security is fan apathy. Beckman needs to continue to sell his vision for the program to Illini Nation, and the team has to show improvement -- especially defensively -- during the spring. Allowing more fan access to practices last season was a good idea and a good start. Ultimately, Beckman will have to show he can win Big Ten games to bring the fans back.

More to-do lists

Season wrap: Illinois

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
10:00
AM CT
The program hasn’t returned to respectability yet in the Big Ten, but at least Illinois was able to get back in the win column before the season was over.

There were some signs outside of conference play that the rebuilding job might be ahead of schedule for the Illini, but once they got back inside the league, there wasn’t much to feel good about until a late victory over Purdue ended an ugly 20-game losing streak in the Big Ten.

The good news for Illinois is that skid is over. The bad news moving forward is it must replace do-it-all quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase as it closes the book on 2013 and tries to get back into a bowl game in 2014.

Offensive MVP: QB Nathan Scheelhaase. Through all the rough patches and the piles of defeats, the Illini did know they could always rely on Scheelhaase to provide some entertainment and plenty of production leading the attack. With a final 300-yard passing outing to close the season, Scheelhaase broke the school record for total offense previously held by Juice Williams, another indicator of just how much he’s given the program over the last few years.

Defensive MVP: LB Jonathan Brown. Wherever the football was, Brown was a safe bet to be nearby as he did everything he could to help the Illini turn things around defensively. He led the team in total tackles (119), tackles for loss (15) and sacks (5), and for good measure the senior added a forced fumble and an interception as another veteran at least went out on a personal high note for Illinois.

Best moment: The future looked mighty bright after two games, particularly on the heels of a 45-17 throttling of a Cincinnati team that would eventually go on to win nine games. Scheelhaase produced four touchdowns as the offense exploded, Mason Monheim paced an aggressive defensive performance with a pair of tackles for loss and everything appeared to be trending in the right direction. The buzz was short lived, and it would never be that positive again for the Illini.

Worst moment: The gap between the Big Ten’s elite programs was never likely to shrink that much this season, so blowout scores against division champions like Michigan State and Ohio State weren’t much of a surprise. But the struggles against the rest of the pack were troubling, most notably a 37-34 loss at home to end the season against Northwestern. The Wildcats had been ravaged by injuries and hadn’t won a conference game all year, and dropping that decision a week after ending the epic losing streak wasn’t a strong way to capitalize on any momentum the Illini might have had heading into the offseason.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 14

December, 2, 2013
12/02/13
9:00
AM CT
Rivalry week in the Big Ten left no doubt: The conference's top two teams will meet in the league championship.

Wisconsin's shocking home loss to Penn State ends the debate over whether the Badgers or Michigan State should be at No. 2 behind front-runner Ohio State. Although the Buckeyes and, to a lesser extent, the Spartans had some struggles Saturday, they found ways to win. The Badgers had their worst performance of the season, and it cost them a potential BCS at-large berth.

That doesn't take away from Penn State, which received big boosts from quarterback Christian Hackenberg and others.

Our big dilemma this week was what to do with the 6-8 spots. Penn State had by far its best showing of the season, and Michigan had its best showing in months, even in defeat, against archrival Ohio State. Nebraska didn't show up at home on Black Friday, however, the Huskers have road wins against both the Lions (six days before the Iowa clunker) and Michigan.

After some spirited debate, we ultimately went with body of work to determine the rundown, especially since these are the final regular-season rankings. We understand it devalues the Week 14 performances a bit.

Here's one last look at the Week 13 rankings.

Now for the new rundown, final regular-season version.

1. Ohio State (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten: last week: 1): The Buckeyes lost their composure early and nearly lost their perfect season late. They were faced with adversity for the first time in six weeks, but they made enough plays on both sides of the ball to win. Running back Carlos Hyde (226 yards, one TD) and quarterback Braxton Miller (five total TDs) led a virtually unstoppable offense, which helped overcome some shoddy pass defense. The Buckeyes now await Michigan State in the Big Ten title game.

2. Michigan State (11-1, 8-0; last week: 3): There weren't many style points against Minnesota, but the Spartans came away with another double-digit Big Ten win. The defense kept Minnesota out of the end zone, as linebacker Denicos Allen led the way. Running back Jeremy Langford (134 rush yards, TD) had another big day as Michigan State moved closer to a BCS bowl berth, regardless of the result in Indianapolis.

3. Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2; last week: 2): It's only a one-spot drop for Wisconsin, but what a downer in Mad City. A team that had been so dominant since falling at Ohio State never showed up on Senior Day against a plucky Penn State team that took control from the onset. Quarterback Joel Stave threw three interceptions in the loss, and one of the Big Ten's better defenses allowed a slew of big plays as Penn State racked up 465 yards. It led to Wisconsin's most surprising home loss in recent memory.

4. Iowa (8-4, 5-3; last week: 4): Kirk Ferentz's crew entered the regular season as a popular pick to finish last in the Legends Division. The Hawkeyes emerged as one of the better teams not only in the division but the entire Big Ten. They've flipped their 2012 regular-season record behind a salty rush defense, led by an outstanding group of linebackers, and a functional offense. After two lackluster showings in the Heroes Game, Iowa outclassed Nebraska in Lincoln and should move up the bowl pecking order.

5. Minnesota (8-4, 4-4; last week: 5): It doesn't take a doctor at the Mayo Clinic to diagnose what's wrong with Minnesota. The Gophers' defense keeps them in every game, and Saturday's matchup at Michigan State proved to be no exception. But the offense simply can't score or consistently pass the football. Minnesota failed to reach double digits for the third time this season despite multiple opportunities in Spartans territory. It's still a great season for Jerry Kill's team, but there's a lot of work to do on offense before a bowl appearance.

6. Nebraska (8-4, 5-3; last week: 6): No one would dispute Bo Pelini that this has been a difficult season in Husker Country. No one would argue with Nebraska's ability to keep fighting. But when the same problems (namely turnovers) surface year after year, the bigger picture of the program becomes more depressing. The Huskers and their head coach self-destructed for much of the Iowa game and fell for the third time on their home field. Fortunately for Pelini, it didn't cost him his job, and he should get another chance to compete for an elusive league title in 2014.

7. Penn State (7-5, 4-4; last week: 8): The Lions had a better team in Bill O'Brien's first season, but they didn't have a better win than Saturday's stunning upset of Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium. After losing their first three road games by a combined score of 131-48, Penn State dominated Wisconsin for much of the afternoon at a place where the Badgers rarely lose. Hackenberg ended his freshman season with a signature performance (339 pass yards, 4 TDs) as the offense repeatedly gashed Wisconsin. A much-maligned defense held the Badgers' run game in check as Penn State ended an up-and-down season on a very good note.

8. Michigan (7-5, 3-5; last week: 7): After plummeting to historic lows earlier in the month, Michigan's offense looked like a completely different unit against Ohio State. Quarterback Devin Gardner played brilliantly, coordinator Al Borges called a good game and several others -- Jeremy Gallon, Jake Butt and De'Veon Smith -- stepped up in a 603-yard effort. It wasn't enough, as Michigan fell by a point and the defense had no answers for Ohio State, but the Wolverines played their best game in months and can feel a bit better entering the postseason.

9. Indiana (5-7, 3-5; last week: 9): Oh, what might have been for Indiana. A team with such an explosive offense and eight home games should have made a bowl game, period, but the Hoosiers couldn't get it done. At least they reclaimed the Old Oaken Bucket as quarterback Tre Roberson (six TD passes, 273 pass yards, 154 rush yards) torched Purdue and received help from Stephen Houston, D'Angelo Roberts, Cody Latimer and others. It's clear the Hoosiers have to make upgrades on defense. They can't keep wasting such explosiveness on offense.

10. Northwestern (5-7, 1-7; last week: 11): A season to forget for Northwestern ended on a positive note, as Pat Fitzgerald's team avoided a winless Big Ten season and recorded another victory against its in-state rival. Quarterback Trevor Siemian enters the offseason with some confidence after passing for a career-high 414 yards and four touchdowns against Illinois. Wide receiver Christian Jones (13 catches, 182 yards, two TDs) also stepped up as Northwestern twice rallied from deficits against Illinois. Fitzgerald said afterward that Northwestern "will be back" in 2014. The work begins now.

11. Illinois (4-8, 1-7; last week 10): The wins total doubled from two to four, which is nothing to celebrate. But Illinois clearly improved in Year 2 under coach Tim Beckman, who should receive another season in Champaign. Illinois has fixed the offense, and while quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will be tough to replace, several playmakers like Josh Ferguson return. A bigger issue is the defense, which had no answer for Northwestern's passing attack on Saturday and surrendered more than 40 points and more than 500 yards per game in Big Ten play.

12. Purdue (1-11, 0-8; last week: 12): The optimist sees a dynamic young quarterback in Danny Etling, who finished his freshman season with 485 pass yards and four touchdowns against Indiana, and a team that can only get better. The pessimist sees a Purdue squad that was the worst in recent Big Ten history and has much work to do on both sides of the ball to become competitive in coach Darrell Hazell's second season. A big offseason awaits Hazell and his staff as they can't go through another season like this one.

Big Ten's lunch links

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
11:00
AM CT
Happy Turkey Day eve.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 13

November, 25, 2013
11/25/13
9:00
AM CT
There's only one debate in the Power Rankings: Who's No. 2?

All the top teams held serve in Week 13, and the Big Ten championship matchup is set for Ohio State and Michigan State to meet Dec. 7 in Indianapolis. The Buckeyes remain atop the league, but which team comes next: Wisconsin or Michigan State?

Although most polls have Michigan State ahead of Wisconsin, we've been keeping the Badgers at No. 2. It's extremely close between the two, and it's too bad the Spartans and Badgers won't face one another this season, especially given their recent history.

We're actually split on the No. 2 spot. Brian is keeping Wisconsin ahead of MSU on his ESPN.com power rankings ballot, while Adam has flipped the two this week, noting Michigan State's superior quarterback and special-teams play.

A second-place tie doesn't really work in the Big Ten rankings, so Wisconsin remains at No. 2 by the slimmest of margins.

Elsewhere, Iowa and Minnesota trade places, and so do Illinois and Northwestern.

Here's one last look at the Week 12 rankings.

Now, for the newest rundown …

1. Ohio State (11-0, 7-0; last week: 1): Another easy afternoon at The Shoe for Urban Meyer's Buckeyes, who set a program record with their 23rd consecutive victory. Quarterback Braxton Miller (144 rush yards, 160 pass yards, 4 TDs) and running back Carlos Hyde (117 rush yards, two TDs) both hurt Indiana early and often, and linebacker Ryan Shazier (20 tackles) sparked a stout defensive effort. Ohio State is very much in the national-title hunt as it prepares to visit rival Michigan this week.

2. Wisconsin (9-2, 6-1; last week: 2): A BCS at-large appearance looks likelier for the Badgers, who won their fifth consecutive game Saturday and their 10th straight against Minnesota. The running backs might grab the spotlight, but it's time Wisconsin's defense received some credit for an exceptional season. Linebacker Chris Borland led the way Saturday with his NCAA record-tying 14th career forced fumble and two fumble recoveries, as the Badgers shut out Minnesota's offense. Wisconsin finishes the regular season against Penn State at Camp Randall Stadium.

3. Michigan State (10-1, 7-0; last week: 3): Quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford continue to sparkle in Big Ten play, as both men performed well in a win at Northwestern. The defense surrendered 224 yards but shut out Northwestern in the second half and recorded two takeaways. Michigan State is headed back to Indianapolis for the second time in three seasons to face Ohio State on Dec. 7. Can't wait.

4. Iowa (7-4, 4-3; last week: 5): Thanks to linebacker Anthony Hitchens and a much-improved defense, Iowa overcame four turnovers to rally past Michigan. Quarterback Jack Rudock (two TDs, three INTs) had an erratic day, but Iowa dominated the second half, erasing a 21-7 deficit to win 24-21. The Hawkeyes will be going to a decent bowl game, and they have a chance for a very nice finish if they can beat Nebraska on the road this Friday.

5. Minnesota (8-3, 4-3; last week: 4): The Gophers are modeling themselves after Wisconsin, which is good, but they're simply not there yet. Minnesota's flaws on offense, especially at wide receiver, showed up Saturday as the Gophers scored no offensive points on their home field. The defense kept the game relatively close, but Minnesota never seriously challenged Wisconsin in the second half. Things don't get any easier this week, when the Gophers visit Michigan State.

6. Nebraska (8-3, 5-2; last week: 6): A horrendous personal-foul call didn't doom the Huskers, who found a way to beat Penn State in overtime and showed some grit along the way. Running back Ameer Abdullah had his typical brilliant game, and quarterback Ron Kellogg III did a nice job in relief of Tommy Armstrong Jr. Kicker Pat Smith stepped up in the clutch as Nebraska won for the third time in four games. The Huskers host Iowa on Black Friday.

7. Michigan (7-4, 3-4; last week: 7): We'd normally move Michigan lower, but there's no place to put the Wolverines because Penn State and Indiana both lost, too. Linebacker Jake Ryan and the defense came to play at Iowa, forcing four turnovers and converting one into points. But the offense remains embarrassingly bad, especially in the run game. Michigan finished with 10 first downs, 60 rush yards and 158 total yards as the heat continues to rise on coordinator Al Borges. Things will likely get worse this week, when Ohio State storms into the Big House.

8. Penn State (6-5, 3-4; last week: 8): This time, Penn State had no late-game heroics because special-teams miscues and other problems resulted in an overtime loss on senior day. The Lions received a big performance from running back Zach Zwinak (149 rush yards) and quarterback Christian Hackenberg accounted for three touchdowns, but the team's limitations in all three phases showed up in the loss. Penn State ends the season with a trip to Wisconsin, which likely won't be pretty.

9. Indiana (4-7, 2-5; last week 9): The lingering defensive issues are there, but Indiana has a new problem: The offense isn't showing up. IU once again felt the absence of injured running back Tevin Coleman against Ohio State, recording just 122 rushing yards. Indiana actually had more first downs than the Buckeyes (24 to 22) but didn't score for three and a half quarters and couldn't stop Ohio State's big-play offense. Kevin Wilson's team finishes the season against Purdue at home.

10. Illinois (4-7, 1-6; last week: 11): Tim Beckman and his Illini players can finally stop talking about The Streak, as Illinois won a Big Ten game for the first time in 777 days (Oct. 8, 2011). There was some typical sloppiness, and the defense struggled early, but Illinois made enough plays down the stretch to get out of Purdue with a four-point win. The Nathan Scheelhaase-Steve Hull connection produced 169 yards and two touchdowns as the close friends are ending their careers on a good note.

11. Northwestern (4-7, 0-7; last week: 10): The unthinkable has happened, the worst-case scenario amazingly eclipsed: Northwestern's bowl streak is over at five seasons after a 4-0 start and a fourth-quarter lead against Ohio State on Oct. 5. The Wildcats actually moved the ball well against Michigan State but repeatedly stalled in plus territory and took no risks despite a winless mark in Big Ten play. Northwestern has its longest losing streak since 1998, and Pat Fitzgerald has some serious work to do in the offseason, which will begin next week.

12. Purdue (1-10, 0-7; last week: 12): Darrell Hazell is looking for any sign of progress and saw some against Illinois, as the Boilers played their first competitive game in the Big Ten. Purdue finally ran the ball a little, as Akeem Hunt eclipsed 100 yards on the ground, and the defense forced four turnovers. Ultimately, Purdue couldn't do enough offensively or slow down Illinois' pass game. The Boilers wrap up the season this week with the Bucket game in Bloomington, Ind.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 11

November, 11, 2013
11/11/13
9:00
AM CT
The Week 11 power rankings begin with a mea culpa.

Upon further review, we botched last week's rankings, when we had Minnesota behind both Michigan and Nebraska, largely because of the Gophers' loss to Michigan on Oct. 5. We should have had Minnesota in the No. 4 spot and Nebraska at No. 5. That's where we have the Gophers and Huskers after the Week 11 results. Both teams recorded big wins, but Minnesota's head-to-head win against Nebraska on Oct. 26 gives the Gophers the edge.

So, Nebraska fans, don't freak out when you see Big Red one spot below last week's rankings. That's on us. Both teams basically retain their positions.

Michigan, meanwhile, drops down the list, while both Iowa and Indiana move up. Penn State and Indiana trade places after the Hoosiers' come-from-behind win against Illinois.

Here's one final look at the Week 10 rankings.

Now for the new rundown ...

1. Ohio State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): The Buckeyes had the week off and watched their national championship stock improve a bit with Oregon's loss to Stanford. Style points should come into play from here on out, so the Buckeyes need to continue their dominant play this week at Illinois. Quarterback Braxton Miller attempted only four passes in his last game in Champaign. Just a hunch he'll have a few more this time.

2. Wisconsin (7-2, 4-1; last week: 2): Spurred by running back James White and a salty defense, the Badgers continue to impress as they angle for a potential BCS at-large berth. Wisconsin had a surprisingly easy time with BYU to complete non-league play at 3-1*, as White finished with 194 all-purpose yards (147 rush, 47 receiving) and three touchdowns. The defense held Taysom Hill and the Cougars in check for most of the game. Wisconsin remains at home this week as Indiana visits Camp Randall Stadium.

3. Michigan State (8-1, 5-0; last week: 3): Mark Dantonio's squad had an extra week to glow after a dominant performance against rival Michigan. The Spartans remain in the driver's seat in the Legends Division but face a Nebraska team that has beaten them each of the past two seasons. Running back Jeremy Langford, a big part of the Spartans' Big Ten surge, takes aim at a Huskers defense that has tightened up lately. A win in Lincoln moves Michigan State much closer to Indianapolis.

4. Minnesota (8-2, 4-2; last week: 6): What looked like a lost season for Minnesota in early October has turned into a special one. The Gophers have won four consecutive Big Ten games for the first time in 40 years. David Cobb continues to spark the power run game, and the defense limited Penn State to 10 points on Saturday. This isn't just a team using its coach's health situation for motivation. Minnesota is legit and could be a serious factor in the Legends race.

5. Nebraska (7-2, 4-1; last week: 4): Again, we had this wrong in last week's rankings, so we're not trying to punish a Huskers team that has revived its season the past two weeks. Nebraska's young defense is blossoming right now after recording season highs in both sacks (seven) and tackles for loss (15) in Saturday's dramatic win at Michigan. Running back Ameer Abdullah continues to sizzle, and defensive end Randy Gregory is a force. The Legends Division title could come down to this week's game in Lincoln, as Michigan State comes to town.

6. Iowa (6-4, 3-3; last week: 7): After a one-year hiatus, the Hawkeyes will go bowling again this season after a businesslike performance against Purdue in which they racked up 318 rushing yards, including 165 by Jordan Canzeri. Defense linemen Mike Hardy, Drew Ott and Louis Trinca-Pasat triggered a stout defensive effort as Iowa reached the six-win threshold. The Hawkeyes now have an opportunity to turn a decent season into a good one. They're off this week before hosting struggling Michigan on Nov. 23.

7. Michigan (6-3, 2-3; last week: 5): Two weeks ago, Michigan looked like the shakiest 6-1 team in the country. Now the Wolverines simply look shaken. They've endured the worst two-week stretch of rushing offense for any FBS team in the past decade, and quarterback Devin Gardner, who looked so confident after the Notre Dame win, has backslid. Whether it's growing pains with a young offensive line or a group not playing anywhere near its talent level, Michigan has some major issues right now. Fortunately for the Wolverines, their upcoming opponent Northwestern might be more of a mess.

8. Indiana (4-5, 2-3; last week: 9): The formula for success hasn't changed at Indiana, which can strike quickly and often on offense and win shootouts with just about anyone. Wide receiver Cody Latimer (11 receptions, 189 yards, three touchdowns) and running backs Tevin Coleman (215 rushing yards, two TDs) and Stephen Houston (150 rushing yards, two TDs) sparked Indiana to its highest points total (52) against a Big Ten opponent at Memorial Stadium and tying the school record for total yards (650). Who needs defense with an offense like IU's? But the Hoosiers still need a major upset on the road to become bowl-eligible and visit Wisconsin this week.

9. Penn State (5-4, 2-3; last week: 8): The grittiness Bill O'Brien's team has shown on its home field simply isn't there when Penn State leaves the comforts of Happy Valley. Things started poorly in Minneapolis with a Bill Belton fumble and didn't get much better, as Penn State couldn't contain Minnesota's offense or generate much from its own. Christian Hackenberg looked like a freshman at TCF Bank Stadium, completing just 14 of 25 passes with a fumble at the Minnesota 1-yard line. The Lions are fortunate to have any Big Ten wins at this point. They should get another this week as slumping Purdue comes to Beaver Stadium.

10. Northwestern (4-5, 0-5; last week: 10): The off week came at a good time for Northwestern, and not just because of its five-game slide. Coach Pat Fitzgerald listed 13 key players that would have been out if the team played on Saturday. Northwestern should be a little healthier when Michigan comes to town this week. The Wildcats are still trying to get their offense on track, as they must win two of their final three to become bowl-eligible.

11. Illinois (3-6, 0-5; last week: 11): For the second consecutive week, Illinois appeared on the brink of its first Big Ten win since 2011. And once again the Illini fell short, this time in a fourth-quarter collapse as Indiana scored the final 17 points to pull away. Illinois wasted huge performances from wide receiver Steve Hull (224 receiving yards, two touchdowns) and Nathan Scheelhaase (450 pass yards) as the defense couldn't stop Indiana when it counted. The losing streak likely will last another week as Illinois hosts Ohio State on Saturday.

12. Purdue (1-8, 0-5; last week: 12): First, the positives: Purdue scored a touchdown for the first time since Oct. 12 and ended a 200-play drought of no plays in the opposing red zone against Iowa. But the Boilers' offense didn't do much else, as the line continues its season-long struggles and the run game did nothing against a stout Iowa defense. Purdue couldn't stop Iowa's ground game, which piled up 318 yards. Darrell Hazell's crew visits Penn State this week.

Big Ten predictions: Week 11

November, 7, 2013
11/07/13
9:00
AM CT
Last week's predictions came down to a Hail Mary in Lincoln, Neb. What does Week 11 have in store?

Brian Bennett has rallied to take a one-game lead in the season standings. If he can hold on, he'll be chowing down on Adam Rittenberg's dime at St. Elmo in Indianapolis. But there's a long way to go, including five games this Saturday.

Let's get started …

PENN STATE at MINNESOTA

Brian Bennett: I might pick Penn State here if it the game were in State College, Pa., where the Lions seem to have all of their mojo. But Minnesota has something special going and I'm done doubting the Gophers. Ra'Shede Hageman causes havoc on defense as Penn State turns the ball over three times, and Minnesota's ground game wears down the Nittany Lions defense. … Minnesota 24, Penn State 20.

Adam Rittenberg: Gophers fans probably won't like this, but I'm picking Minnesota after being burned the past two weeks. A balanced offense takes advantage of Penn State's leaky defense and a team that struggles away from home. David Cobb goes for 150 rush yards and two scores, and Philip Nelson adds two more touchdown passes. Allen Robinson has another big day for Penn State, but it's not enough as Minnesota wins its fourth consecutive Big Ten game for the first time in 40 years. … Minnesota 31, Penn State 24

IOWA at PURDUE

Rittenberg: The Hawkeyes need this one to become bowl eligible, and they'll play with a purpose at Ross-Ade Stadium. Iowa finishes a touchdown drive on the first possession behind a Mark Weisman run and controls the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Linebacker James Morris adds another takeaway as Iowa pulls away in the third quarter behind Weisman and Damon Bullock. … Iowa 31, Purdue 7

Bennett: Iowa won't need to score in the second half of this game in order to win, but the Hawkeyes will do so anyway. There's just not much to like about the way Purdue is playing right now, and I think Jake Rudock will throw a couple of touchdown passes in the second quarter to put this away early. … Iowa 38, Purdue 3.

ILLINOIS at INDIANA

Bennett: I guess somebody's got to win this one, eh? Don't expect a whole lot of defense from either side. Indiana has a few more playmakers on offense, and that, plus the home-field advantage, should be enough. But barely, as the Hoosiers rally from an early 10-point deficit to win on the Mitch Ewald field goal they should have kicked last week. … Indiana 38, Illinois 35

Rittenberg: Both of these teams had brutal losses last week, so which one bounces back? Although I liked much of what Illinois did at Penn State, but the Illini's struggles against the run still concern me. Tevin Coleman goes for 180 yards and three touchdowns, including the game winner, as Indiana overcomes a 300-yard passing performance by Nathan Scheelhaase and wins a shootout. … Indiana 45, Illinois 41

NEBRASKA at MICHIGAN

Rittenberg: The Hail Mary didn't do much to change my opinion of Nebraska, and while Michigan also has its problems, the Wolverines are a different team at home under coach Brady Hoke. Quarterback Devin Gardner continues his season of extremes with a big performance, passing for 250 yards and two touchdowns and adding another on the ground. Ameer Abdullah keeps the Huskers in this one with 150 rush yards and two scores, but Michigan uses a big second half to record the W. … Michigan 38, Nebraska 31

Bennett: No outcome here would surprise me because these are two of the most inconsistent and flawed teams we've seen all season. I'm worried about whether Gardner has PTSD from last week's Michigan State beatdown. But Nebraska has to win one of these big games on the road before I will pick it, and I think the Huskers' offense is a little too beat up right now to win in Ann Arbor, Mich. … Michigan 27, Nebraska 17

BYU at WISCONSIN

Bennett: I'm tempted to pick BYU because the Cougars have been on a roll and have the ability to put up points fast. Wisconsin is also pretty beat up right now. I'll stick with the Badgers because their run defense is very stout and the Camp Randall Stadium edge is just too much. It will be awfully close, however. … Wisconsin 28, BYU 24

Rittenberg: This is a sneaky-good game as both teams are better than their 6-2 records indicate, and both coaching staffs have a lot of familiarity from Gary Andersen's time in the state of Utah. Taysom Hill puts BYU on top early with some big plays, but Wisconsin's defense stiffens and the Badgers get strong performances from Melvin Gordon and James White, who combine for four touchdown dances on the day. … Wisconsin 34, BYU 26

You've heard from us. Now it's time to hear from one of you. 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), hometown and a brief description of 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 is Adam Miller from Los Angeles. Adam, the floor is yours …

Long time reader, first time writer, hoping to be your next guest picker! As a recent Penn State grad living across the country in Pac-12 territory, I need all the B1G I can get, and your blog does a lot to help with that (even though I'm still adjusting to 9am 'Lunchtime Links'). I'm even traveling from SoCal to Minneapolis this weekend with college buddies to watch my Nittany Lions taking on a surging Minnesota squad. Pretty excited for a short work week capped off with a great football weekend. Hope to hear from you guys. Keep up the good work -- Adam, PSU Class '13


Here are Adam's Week 11 picks:

Penn State 28, Minnesota 24
Iowa 27, Purdue 14
Indiana 41, Illinois 21
Michigan 34, Nebraska 27
Wisconsin 34, BYU 17

SEASON RECORDS

Brian Bennett: 62-12
Adam Rittenberg: 61-13
Guest pickers: 57-17

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 8

October, 21, 2013
10/21/13
9:00
AM CT
The top half of the Power Rankings remains virtually unchanged, as Big Ten kingpin Ohio State rallied to beat Iowa, Wisconsin stomped Illinois, and the Michigan schools held serve in vastly different ways (all defense for Michigan State, all offense for Michigan).

The changes come in the league's second tier, as Northwestern continues its shocking tumble after a home loss to Minnesota, which moves up three spots. Iowa actually moves up despite a loss, as we liked the Hawkeyes' game plan and execution against Ohio State. Indiana also holds steady after nearly winning a shootout at the Big House.

Let's take one final look at the Week 7 rankings.

Now for the fresh rundown ...

1. Ohio State (7-0, 3-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): Another test passed for Ohio State, which overcame a plucky Iowa team with a stellar second half behind quarterback Braxton Miller (222 pass yards, 2 TDs, 102 rush yards) and running back Carlos Hyde (149 rush yards, 2 TDs). The Buckeyes also survived the ejection of star cornerback Bradley Roby in the first quarter and limited Iowa's offense to one big play in the second half. The defense once again will be challenged this week as Christian Hackenberg, Allen Robinson and Penn State visit Columbus.

2. Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1; last week: 2): Ohio State retains its spot atop the rankings with a perfect record, but Wisconsin has looked like the Big Ten's most dominant team of late. After crushing Northwestern at Camp Randall Stadium, the Badgers went on the road and steamrolled Illinois, as running backs Melvin Gordon (142 rush yards, 3 TDs) and James White (98 rush yards, 2 TDs, 29 receiving yards, 1 TD) did their thing and Joel Stave had an extremely efficient performance (16 of 21 passing, 189 yards, 2 TDs). The second open week comes at a good time as linebacker Chris Borland must get healthy for the stretch run, which features some tricky games.

3. Nebraska (5-1, 2-0; last week: 3): The Huskers might be the Legends Division favorite at this point, as they get Michigan State at home. Quarterback Taylor Martinez should make his return from turf toe this week against Minnesota as Nebraska tries to keep building momentum before the season's defining month. Martinez needs some work before the schedule gets tougher, and the Huskers' offensive line plays its first game without standout guard Spencer Long.

4. Michigan State (6-1, 3-0; last week: 4): A shutout of Purdue wasn't surprising. Neither was another defensive touchdown, Michigan State's fifth of the season, courtesy of linebacker Denicos Allen. But Michigan State's offense took a step backward, as the line struggled to control Purdue's defensive front and Connor Cook completed only 13 passes for 107 yards. The Spartans will need to be sharper this week against Illinois and particularly when the schedule gets tougher in November.

5. Michigan (6-1, 2-1; last week: 5): We think Jeremy Gallon just caught another long pass. Gallon set a Big Ten single-game record with 369 receiving yards (second most in FBS history), while quarterback Devin Gardner set team records for pass yards (503) and total yards (584) and accounted for five total touchdowns. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint added 151 yards and four touchdowns. Michigan needed all the offense to win a shootout with Indiana at the Big House. As for the defense? A problem for another day. Michigan has two weeks to prepare for its Nov. 2 showdown at Michigan State.

6. Penn State (4-2, 1-1; last week: 7): The off week came at a good time for Penn State after a physically and emotionally draining four-overtime win against Michigan. The Lions had more diversity in their passing game against the Wolverines and will need the same -- as well as strong run production -- to keep pace with Ohio State on Saturday in Columbus. Penn State has won two of its past three games at Ohio Stadium and could play spoiler down the stretch in Leaders Division play.

7. Iowa (4-3, 1-2; last week: 8): Credit Iowa for an excellent game plan coming off the open week. The Hawkeyes racked up 17 first-half points against Ohio State and controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Ultimately, better talent won out as Iowa couldn't keep pace with Miller, Hyde and the Buckeyes, but the Hawkeyes certainly could make some noise down the stretch in the wide-open Legends Division. Sophomore tight end Jake Duzey (6 receptions, 138 yards, 1 TD) gives Jake Rudock another weapon in the passing game. Iowa returns home this week to face sputtering Northwestern.

8. Minnesota (5-2, 1-2; last week: 11): The bye week clearly paid off for Minnesota, and so did a halftime pep talk from coach Jerry Kill, who made his presence felt at Ryan Field without being on the sideline. Minnesota dominated the line of scrimmage, as defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, running back David Cobb and quarterback Philip Nelson, who relieved Mitch Leidner, stepped up in the final three quarters. The Gophers took advantage of a short-handed Northwestern team and overcame several bad calls to record a big road win. Up next: Nebraska at home.

9. Indiana (3-4, 1-2; last week: 9): The Hoosiers are high on entertainment value, boasting the Big Ten's best quick-strike offense and quite possibly the league's best group of wide receivers. But all those highlights and points still aren't translating to enough wins. It's the same movie with IU, with an A-plus offense and a D-minus defense, which surrendered an unacceptable 63 points and 751 yards to Michigan on Saturday. Tre Roberson was brilliant at Michigan and seemed to pass by Nate Sudfeld in the quarterback pecking order. But the defense remains the team's top priority entering the open week.

10. Northwestern (4-3, 0-3; last week: 6): The free-fall continues for a Wildcats team that was No. 2 in the power rankings just two weeks ago. Remember when Northwestern held a fourth-quarter lead against Ohio State? Key injuries certainly have played a role in Northwestern's downfall, but quarterback Trevor Siemian seems to be regressing and so is the offensive line. A bowl game suddenly is no guarantee for the Wildcats, who need to get Kain Colter and Venric Mark healthy and refocus for the stretch run. They visit Iowa this week.

11. Illinois (3-3, 0-2; last week: 10): The Illini needed a fast start coming off the open week against Wisconsin but stumbled out of the gate, falling behind 21-0 on their home field before course-correcting in the second quarter. Quarterback play wasn't the issue, as Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole combined to complete 25 of 32 passes for 318 yards, but two fumbles led to Wisconsin touchdowns and Illinois' defense couldn't slow down the Badgers. The Illini need at least one upset down the stretch to have a chance to reach six wins and a bowl.

12. Purdue (1-6, 0-3; last week: 12): Darrell Hazell's squad can build on Saturday's road performance against Michigan State, especially a Boilers defense that allowed just one score and repeatedly penetrated the backfield. The offense had several chances but couldn't finish drives in Spartans territory. Purdue needs to clean up its pass protection after allowing five sacks, but if Bruce Gaston Jr. and the defensive front continues to step up, a win could be coming down the stretch. The Boilers have a week off before hosting Ohio State.

ESPN.com's midseason All-Big Ten team

October, 18, 2013
10/18/13
1:30
PM CT
We've reflected on the first half of the Big Ten season, evaluated each team and looked ahead to what promises to be a more exciting second half.

As we put a bow on the first half, we're selecting a midseason All-Big Ten team. This list certainly isn't as significant as the postseason squad, but these players merit recognition for their performances during the first seven weeks of the season.

The envelope, please ...

OFFENSE

QB: Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
WR: Allen Robinson, Penn State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: Ted Bolser, Indiana
C: Corey Linsley, Ohio State
OL: Spencer Long, Nebraska
OL: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OL:
Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin
OL:
Jack Mewhort, Ohio State

DEFENSE

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
DT: DaQuan Jones, Penn State
DE: Tyler Scott, Northwestern
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State
LB: James Morris, Iowa
DB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
DB: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska
DB: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern
DB: Blake Countess, Michigan


SPECIALISTS

K: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
KR: Marcus Jones, Minnesota
PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley

We'll start with the quarterback spot, which has been underwhelming around most of the league, partly because of injury. It was a close call between Scheelhaase and Penn State true freshman Christian Hackenberg, but Scheelhaase gets a slight edge with more touchdown passes and fewer interceptions. We had another tough decision at the No. 2 running back spot between Abdullah and Iowa's Mark Weisman, who has been very productive so far. Ultimately, Abdullah has made more out of his carries and got the nod.

The Big Ten's depth at linebacker prompted us to go with a 3-4 defensive alignment for the midseason team. We had some debate for the lone defensive tackle spot between Jones, Ohio State's Michael Bennett and Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman, but went with Jones, the league's leader in tackles for loss (8.5). Linebacker is so deep that it was tough limiting the list to only four. We ultimately went with Morris over Illinois' Jonathan Brown because Morris has made more game-changing plays. Cornerback has been a deeper position than safety through the first half, so we went with three corners and only one safety.

Kick returner was another close call between Minnesota's Jones and Illinois' V'Angelo Bentley.

Big Ten predictions: Week 8

October, 17, 2013
10/17/13
9:00
AM CT
The second half begins this week, and it should be a very close race -- in our predictions contest, that is.

Adam leads by one game, thanks to his correct pick of Penn State in a quadruple-overtime thriller. Yep, it's that close. Let's kick off the second-half picks now:

MINNESOTA at NORTHWESTERN

Brian Bennett: Last week's loss at Wisconsin was one of the worst performances in a long time for Northwestern. Pat Fitzgerald promised this week that his team would bounce back and play well, and I believe him. The Wildcats ought to be mad for this one, and though Mitch Leidner will lead Minnesota to a couple of scores, Northwestern will seize control in the second quarter. ... Northwestern 35, Minnesota 20

Adam Rittenberg: Will this be The Hangover Part II? I think Northwestern gets it together behind quarterback Kain Colter, who records a rushing touchdown, a passing touchdown and a receiving touchdown. Minnesota finds some gaps in Northwestern's defense early on, but the Gophers' one-dimensional offense dooms them in the second half. Tony Jones gets back on the touchdown train as Northwestern records its first Big Ten win. ... Northwestern 34, Minnesota 21

PURDUE at MICHIGAN STATE

Rittenberg: This isn't the type of matchup Purdue needs with all of its issues right now. Michigan State records two first-half takeaways, one for a touchdown, and rides Jeremy Langford and Delton Williams on the ground for three more touchdowns. The Spartans continue to take care of business against weak competition and improve to 3-0 in Big Ten play. ... Michigan State 31, Purdue 7

Bennett: The Spartans, who rolled up 42 points on Indiana last week, will continue to enjoy the Hoosier State this week. Purdue isn't doing much of anything right and didn't score until the final minute last week versus Nebraska. Good luck against the Spartans defense. Connor Cook throws for three TDs in an easy win. ... Michigan State 34, Purdue 6


INDIANA at MICHIGAN

Bennett: Do the Hoosiers have a shot? Their run defense is awful, but so is Michigan's rushing attack. I foresee a hot start by Indiana as Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson each lead first-quarter scoring drives. IU leads at halftime as Ann Arbor starts to panic. But Michigan takes over in the second half, and Devin Gardner puts up 350 total yards (250 passing, 100 rushing). ... Michigan 38, Indiana 28


Rittenberg: I might pick Indiana if the game was in Bloomington, but Michigan has been perfect at home under Brady Hoke and won't stop now. The Wolverines finally have some success in the run game as Fitzgerald Toussaint scores two first-half touchdowns. Indiana mounts a third-quarter comeback behind Roberson and wideout Cody Latimer (120 receiving yards, 2 TDs), but Michigan responds in the fourth quarter with two Gardner touchdown passes. ... Michigan 35, Indiana 27

IOWA at OHIO STATE

Rittenberg: Iowa is an improved team on both sides of the ball, but the Hawkeyes haven't seen an offense like Ohio State's. Carlos Hyde becomes the first player to rush for a touchdown against Iowa this season, and finishes with 125 yards on the ground. Iowa gets a boost from tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, but the Buckeyes pull away late in the second quarter and cruise to 7-0. ... Ohio State 42, Iowa 20

Bennett: This is a tough matchup for Iowa, as Ohio State has the second-best rush defense in the Big Ten and the Buckeyes can exploit some speed advantages. It's a big week for Braxton Miller, as he throws three touchdown passes and breaks Iowa's streak by running for another. ... Ohio State 37, Iowa 17

WISCONSIN at ILLINOIS

Bennett: The Illini will come out firing after the bye week and burn the Badgers for a couple of early scores. But then the Wisconsin defense shuts things down, and the running game grinds out 290 yards against the Illinois defense, led by Melvin Gordon's 160. ... Wisconsin 31, Illinois 14


Rittenberg: I agree that Illinois takes the early lead as Nathan Scheelhaase connects with Josh Ferguson and Ryan Lankford for touchdowns. But Wisconsin will crank up the run game as Gordon and James White both eclipse 100 yards. Tight end Jacob Pedersen hauls in a touchdown from Joel Stave as the Badgers march on. ... Wisconsin 34, Illinois 20

Now it's time to hear from 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), hometown and a brief description of 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 picker is Micah Tweeten from St. Paul, Minn. Take it away, Micah.
"I would love to be your guest picker of the week. I grew up in Nebraska, now live in Minnesota, and have been a Hawkeyes fan all my life (don't get me wrong though, Husker Nation is great too, it's definitely crazy at the games). I've been reading your (and Adam's) predictions and posts for a while now. Now let's see. Why should I be the guest picker of the week? Well it's simple. Iowa plays Ohio State this week, and being that they have only won two games against OSU since 1988 and this year isn't looking to promising for a win for the Hawkeyes either, I don't have much hope for this Saturday. I would love to have at least something to look forward to for this upcoming weekend. Thanks!"

Here are Micah's Week 8 picks …

Northwestern 31, Minnesota 17
Michigan State 34, Purdue 10
Ohio State 38, Iowa 24
Michigan 31, Indiana 21
Wisconsin 35, Illinois 18

SEASON RECORDS

Adam Rittenberg: 51-8
Brian Bennett:
50-9
Guest pickers:
45-14

Poll: Midseason offensive MVP

October, 16, 2013
10/16/13
1:00
PM CT
Earlier this week, we shared our picks for some midseason award winners in the Big Ten. Now we want to know what you think.

SportsNation

Who is the Big Ten's midseason offensive MVP?

  •  
    33%
  •  
    29%
  •  
    26%
  •  
    9%
  •  
    3%

Discuss (Total votes: 8,751)

With half the season in the books, who is the offensive player of the year so far in the league? The choices:
  • Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon: The Badgers' home run hitting back ranks third in the FBS with 870 rushing yards through six games, and he's averaging an eye-popping 9.7 yards per carry with eight touchdowns.
  • Penn State WR Allen Robinson: He leads the league in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (705) while adding five touchdowns. His big catch near the end of regulation against Michigan last week helped the Nittany Lions send the game into overtime, where they eventually won.
  • Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: With Taylor Martinez injured, Abdullah has stepped up to become the leader of the Huskers' offense. He ranks second in the league in rushing with 816 yards, averaging 7.2 yards per carry, and he has scored six touchdowns.
  • Iowa RB Mark Weisman: He has been the Hawkeyes' workhorse, carrying the ball a Big Ten-leading 126 times for 624 yards. He has had four 100-yard games this season.
  • Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase: A healthy Scheelhaase has made a world of difference for the Illini offense. He has the top pass efficiency rating among quarterbacks who have started more than three games and is averaging 259 passing yards per game, with 12 touchdowns.

Vote now in our poll.
Five lessons learned from a full week of conference play on Saturday:

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesCarlos Hyde carried 26 times for 168 yards and scored three second-half touchdowns Saturday.
1. Ohio State can handle adversity; will it be enough? Ohio State hadn't trailed all season before finding itself in a dogfight at Northwestern in which it had to come from behind in the fourth quarter on the road. In the end, Carlos Hyde and the Big Ten's best offensive line proved too much for the Wildcats. The Buckeyes are now 6-0, halfway to another undefeated regular season heading into a bye week and riding an 18-game winning streak under Urban Meyer. Yet Ohio State has shown some weaknesses, particularly with a pass defense that Northwestern exploited for 343 yards the week after safety Christian Bryant was lost for the season. A win is a win, and 18-0 is 18-0, but Meyer's team hasn't produced a lot of style points that would distinguish it in what looks like -- for now, anyway -- a very crowded BCS title chase. The good news is that the Buckeyes have cleared two of their biggest hurdles of the season with back-to-back wins over Wisconsin and the Wildcats, and they might not be challenged again until the season finale at Michigan, if even then. We wouldn't mind seeing a Northwestern-Ohio State rematch in Indianapolis, as Pat Fitzgerald's team looks like the best in a muddled Legends Division scrum, but the remaining schedule is tough. Someone from the Big Ten is probably going to have to play a near-perfect game to beat the Buckeyes; it remains to be seen whether perfection will be enough for Ohio State to get into the national title game.

2. Nebraska's defense and Michigan State's offense provide hope: The Huskers' defensive struggles and the Spartans' offensive woes were the top storylines for each team through the first month of the season. Nebraska entered the open week needing to repair a defense that hadn't stopped anyone consistently, from nationally ranked UCLA to FCS foe South Dakota State. But the Blackshirts responded against an Illinois offense that had made a bunch of big plays through the first four games. Young defenders like Jared Afalava, Randy Gregory and Michael Rose all had big games, as did veteran nickelback Ciante Evans, as Nebraska held Illinois out of the end zone for two and a half quarters. Nebraska's offense did its thing behind running back Ameer Abdullah, but the defense's progress is encouraging for the future. Michigan State also saw an encouraging performance from its offense, as quarterback Connor Cook bounced back from his struggles at Notre Dame and got some help from not one, but two receivers in Macgarrett Kings Jr. (five catches, 94 yards, TD) and Bennie Fowler (nine catches, 92 yards, TD). Michigan State dominated possession time (37 minutes, 13 seconds) and scored the game's final 16 points. Nebraska will continue to lean on its offense, while Michigan State will rely on the Spartan Dawg D, but both teams looked more balanced Saturday, which is a great sign for their chances in the wide-open Legends division.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
AP Photo/Tony DingAfter a week off, Devin Gardner accounted for 252 yards and two touchdowns, with no turnovers.
3. Bye weeks can be helpful: Data doesn't support the notion that bye weeks are beneficial to a team's win-loss record. But when a team is struggling in a certain area and has a week to work on it, that can be very helpful. As mentioned above, Michigan State and Nebraska both showed much improvement on their underwhelming sides of the ball after being idle in Week 5. Michigan worked in two new starters on the offensive line and came out determined to run the ball versus Minnesota. While the yards per carry average (3.2) still wasn't great, the push was better and the Wolverines ran for four touchdowns. More importantly, quarterback Devin Gardner finally played a turnover-free game. Indiana, meanwhile, simplified things for its young defense, as coach Kevin Wilson said there "was less on their plate" against Penn State. That worked, as the Hoosiers were able to attack and play loose in a 44-24 win over the Nittany Lions, coming up with several key stops. Northwestern obviously used its bye to get Venric Mark healthy and to work on more plays with Kain Colter at receiver, both of which proved helpful, indeed. The only team that didn't show some improvement after a Week 5 holiday was Penn State, although that might be due because of depth and injury issues than anything else.

4. Pump the brakes on Iowa and Illinois: The Hawkeyes and Illini had been undoubtedly the league's two big surprises through September and had chances to keep the good vibes going on Saturday. But Iowa took a step back against Michigan State, unable to run the ball or prevent a typically pedestrian Spartans passing attack from stretching the field. Iowa didn't look like a Legends Division contender and paid a price on the injury front. Things don't get any easier after an open week, as Iowa visits Ohio State (Oct. 19). Illinois needed its high-powered offense to strike against a seemingly vulnerable Nebraska defense, but it never happened, as Nathan Scheelhaase struggled with his accuracy. The Illini defense had all sorts of trouble against Nebraska's backup quarterback and running back Ameer Abdullah. Illinois has another week off before home tests against Wisconsin (Oct. 19) and Michigan State (Oct. 26). Both Iowa and Illinois could make bowls, but neither looks like a serious division contender.

5. Magic might be gone for Penn State: There were few better stories in the Big Ten last year than the way Penn State played under the cloud of NCAA sanctions, especially as the Nittany Lions won eight of their last 10 games. But Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill aren't walking through that door. Not only does Penn State lack the incredible senior leadership of last year's group -- which is less a knock on the current players than a tip of the cap to last year's veterans -- but it is struggling to find speed and playmakers on a defense that looks like one of the weakest in years in State College. The only two decent passing attacks on the Lions' schedule -- UCF and Indiana -- shredded Penn State defensive coordinator John Butler's crew. Meanwhile, the offense is becoming too reliant on the individual greatness of receiver Allen Robinson and failed to dominate an Indiana rush defense that has been the Big Ten's worst for multiple years in a row. A 20-point loss to the Hoosiers, in a game in which his team trailed 42-17, is easily the worst defeat of the Bill O'Brien era. The team is down to 61 scholarship players, and not all of them are healthy. "I don't think in any stretch of anybody's imagination that this is a normal Penn State team," O'Brien said. Unfortunately, this might be the new normal for Penn State as the sanctions take their toll, and another 8-4 season might well require some magic at this point.

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