Chicago Colleges: Nick VanHoose

Northwestern Wildcats season preview

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
10:30
AM CT
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Northwestern Wildcats:

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

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

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

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

Projected starters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Stats & Info projections: 6.59 wins

Wise guys over/under: 7.5 wins

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

B1G spring position breakdown: DB

March, 6, 2014
Mar 6
3:00
PM CT
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive backs.

Illinois: The secondary returns mostly intact from 2013, as Illinois returns starters at both cornerback spots (V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence), as well as Zane Petty, who started the final seven games at free safety. Taylor Barton, who opened last season as a starting free safety, also is back. Building safety depth is important this spring as Illinois must replace Earnest Thomas III. Barton will compete with Jevaris Little and others for playing time. The depth is much better at corner as Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap both saw significant action as freshmen last fall.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana returns a lot in the defensive backfield but must improve after struggling to stop opponents in 2013. The Hoosiers also lose only one starter in safety Greg Heban, a mainstay during the past four seasons. There's a lot of experience at cornerback with returning starters Tim Bennett (senior) and Michael Hunter (junior), along with reserve Kenny Mullen (senior). Decorated recruit Rashard Fant, who redshirted in 2013, will compete for significant playing time. Senior safety Mark Murphy will lead the secondary, and sophomore Antonio Allen could fill the other safety spot when he returns from an ACL tear. Building depth here always is a priority at IU.

Iowa: The situation isn't as dramatic as the linebacker spot, but Iowa still must replace two productive players in cornerback B.J. Lowery and safety Tanner Miller, who combined for six interceptions in 2013. Lowery is the more significant loss, as he had 19 passes defended and three forced fumbles. The good news is Desmond King looks like a budding star and he will move into the featured role Lowery occupied. Jordan Lomax, Sean Draper and others will compete to start opposite King. Strong safety John Lowdermilk returns after a solid junior season. Lomax also could play free safety and will compete there with Anthony Gair and Nico Law, who both appeared in all 13 games last fall as reserves.

Maryland: The back four aims for better results on the injury front and on the field in 2013. Maryland returns both starters at safety in Sean Davis, the team's leading tackler with 102 last fall, and Anthony Nixon, but there should be competition behind them with A.J. Hendy and Zach Dancel. The cornerback position is worth watching this spring as Dexter McDougle departs and Jeremiah Johnson remains limited by a toe injury. Will Likely has opened the spring as a starter, and Alvin Hill could rise up after recording 24 tackles last season.

Michigan: The secondary took a step back in 2013 and all jobs are open even though Michigan returns two veteran cornerbacks -- Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor -- and some experience at safety. Jabrill Peppers, the nation's No. 2 overall recruit according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, will play a major role for the Wolverines this fall, whether it's at corner, safety or nickel. Junior Jarrod Wilson started the first seven games of last season at free safety, and Dymonte Thomas is a good candidate to start at one of the safety spots. Michigan should expect more from this group in 2014.

Michigan State: Will opposing offenses invade the No Fly Zone in 2014? Not if Michigan State can fill several spots, none bigger than Darqueze Dennard's at cornerback. Dennard, a unanimous All-American and the Jim Thorpe Award winner, departs to the NFL, and junior Trae Waynes slides into the featured corner role after a promising sophomore season. The competition opposite Waynes heats up this spring as Ezra Robinson, Darian Hicks, Jermaine Edmondson and Arjen Colquhoun compete. Free safety Kurtis Drummond boasts 21 career starts and enters 2014 as one of the league's top safeties. RJ Williamson likely will fill Isaiah Lewis' spot at strong safety, and Demetrious Cox provides depth.

Minnesota: Like the Gophers' defensive line, the secondary loses a huge piece in Brock Vereen, who played both safety and cornerback last season. But there might be enough returning pieces to fill the void. Cornerback Eric Murray had a very solid first season as a starter, and Minnesota also brings back Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, both of whom have starting experience. Leading tackler Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson finished last season as the starting safeties, and both are back. Senior Grayson Levine provides some experience in a reserve safety role.

Nebraska: An important spring awaits new defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, who must identify new starters at cornerback, safety and nickel. The Huskers are replacing Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who combined for eight interceptions, 18 passes defended and 15 tackles for loss in 2013. Safety Andrew Green, who made 10 starts in 2013, also leaves. The good news is cornerback Josh Mitchell had an excellent bowl game and will fill a starting spot. Leading tackler Corey Cooper also returns at safety. There's not much experience at corner other than Mitchell, and Daniel Davie, Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose and others will compete. Nebraska brings back more at safety with Harvey Jackson, who made three starts in 2013, and junior Charles Jackson.

Northwestern: That the Wildcats' secondary could be one of the team's biggest strengths seemed laughable three years ago, but it could be true this fall. All four starters return, led by safety Ibraheim Campbell, one of the Big Ten's most productive defenders (262 career tackles). The depth at cornerback looks strong as starters Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris return, along with Dwight White and Daniel Jones, who opened 2013 as a starter and is coming back from an ACL tear. Traveon Henry should start alongside Campbell, and there are some promising young safeties like Godwin Igwebuike.

Ohio State: Pass defense proved to be Ohio State's downfall in 2013, and the Buckeyes' secondary will be under the microscope this spring as new assistant Chris Ash steps in. Ohio State loses All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby and will lean more on Doran Grant, who started opposite Roby in 2013. Ash also expects big things from Tyvis Powell, who will start at one of the safety spots. Safety Vonn Bell finally logged significant playing time in the Orange Bowl and could become a permanent starter as a sophomore. Veteran Ron Tanner and Cam Burrows also are in the mix at safety. There should be good competition to start opposite Grant, as Armani Reeves tries to hold off redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple.

Penn State: After a season of moving parts and inconsistent plays, Penn State hopes for a more settled secondary. Adrian Amos, who alternated between cornerback and safety last season, will lead the group and brings plenty of experience. Jordan Lucas likely will start opposite Amos at cornerback after making strides toward the end of his sophomore season. PSU loses some leadership at safety with Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong departing and will lean on Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle, both of whom have starting experience. Converted wideouts Trevor Williams and Malik Golden provide depth at cornerback and safety, respectively.

Purdue: The rotation from 2013 returns almost completely intact, but Purdue loses a very big piece in cornerback Ricardo Allen, a four-year starter. Cornerback Frankie Williams enters his third year as a starter and will slide into Allen's featured role, while the competition for the other top corner spot will feature Antoine Lewis and Leroy Clark, among others. Purdue has plenty of experience at safety with Taylor Richards, who started every game in 2013, and Anthony Brown, who replaced the injured Landon Feichter and had 69 tackles. Feichter also is back from a broken leg.

Rutgers: This group is anxious to turn the page after a season filled with personnel issues and poor performance (Rutgers finished 120th nationally in pass defense). Senior safety Lorenzo Waters leads the group after recording 62 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2013. Johnathan Aiken will try to start opposite Waters at free safety, although he'll be pushed by Delon Stephenson and Tejay Johnson, who started three games last fall. Gareef Glashen started six games last season and seems likely to retain one of the top cornerback spots. There will be competition at the other between Anthony Cioffi and Nadir Barnwell, both of whom started games as true freshmen in 2013. The most intriguing player to watch is cornerback Ian Thomas, who returns to the team after quitting midway through last season, one that he began as a starter.

Wisconsin: The Badgers are relatively young at both secondary positions but boast far more experience at cornerback than safety. Junior Darius Hillary and sophomore Sojourn Shelton started all 13 games at cornerback last season. Peniel Jean adds even more experience at the position. Safety is much less settled as Dezmen Southward graduates, Michael Caputo shifts to linebacker and Tanner McEvoy returns to quarterback. Nate Hammon and Leo Musso both played in all 13 games last fall as reserves. Newcomers like Serge Trezy and Austin Hudson could compete for time when they arrive this summer.
Tags:

Northwestern Wildcats, Illinois Fighting Illini, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Michigan State Spartans, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Indiana Hoosiers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Purdue Boilermakers, Big Ten Conference, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, Dwight White, Ian Thomas, Ibraheim Campbell, Tanner Miller, Mark Murphy, Daniel Jones, Nick VanHoose, Traveon Henry, Darius Mosely, Adrian Amos, Chris Ash, Zane Petty, Jaylen Dunlap, Godwin Igwebuike, Rashard Fant, Vonn Bell, Darius Hillary, Michael Caputo, Peniel Jean, Eaton Spence, Jevaris Little, Taylor Barton, V'Angelo Bentley, Corey Cooper, Josh Mitchell, Landon Feichter, B.J. Lowery, Ryan Keiser, Derrick Wells, Dezmen Southward, Jesse Della Valle, Blake Countess, Jabrill Peppers, Trae Waynes, Doran Grant, Sojourn Shelton, Kurtis Drummond, Tyvis Powell, Charlton Warren, Charles Jackson, B1G spring positions 14, A.J. Hendy, Alvin Hill, Andrew Green, Anthony Cioffi, Anthony Gair, Anthony Nixon, Antoine Lewis, Antonio Allen, Antonio Johnson, Arjen Colquhoun, Armani Reeves, Austin Hudson, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Cam Burrows, Cedric Thompson, Daniel Davie, Darian Hicks, Delon Stephenson, Demetrious Cox, Dexter McDougle, Dymonte Thomas, Eli Apple, Eric Murray, Ezra Robinson, Frankie Williams, Gareef Glashen, Gareon Conley, Grayson Levine, Harvey Jackson, Jarrod Wilson, Jeremiah Johnson, Jermaine Edmonson, John Lowdermilk, Johnathan Aiken, Jonathan Rose, Jordan Lomax, Kenny Mullen, Leo Musso, Leroy Clark, Lorenzo Waters, Malik Golden, Matt Harris, Michael Hunter, Nadir Barnwell, Nate Hammon, Nico Law, Raymon Taylor, RJ Williamson, Ron Tanner, Sean Davis, Sean Draper, Serge Trezy, Taylor Richards, Tejay Johnson, Tim Bennett, Trevor Williams, Will Likely, Zach Dancel

Northwestern season preview

August, 13, 2013
8/13/13
10:30
AM CT
Northwestern finally shredded the monkey Jan. 1 and won its first bowl game since the 1949 Rose, recording its 10th win in the process. Pat Fitzgerald's crew returns the core pieces from that team, but faces a tougher schedule featuring the likes of Ohio State and Wisconsin.

Can Northwestern take the next logical step and reach the Big Ten title game, or will it backslide in 2013?

NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Rich Barnes/US PresswireNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has a lot of returning talent, but faces a difficult 2013 schedule.
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (50-39, seven seasons at Northwestern and overall)

2012 record: 10-3 (5-3 Big Ten)

Key losses: G Brian Mulroe, OT Pat Ward, DT Brian Arnfelt, LB David Nwabuisi, DE Quentin Williams

Key returnees: RB Venric Mark, QB Kain Colter, C Brandon Vitabile, TE Dan Vitale, DE Tyler Scott, S Ibraheim Campbell, CB Nick VanHoose, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, K Jeff Budzien

Newcomer to watch: Redshirt freshman cornerback Dwight White had an excellent spring as he makes a push to start opposite Nick VanHoose. White, a 5-foot-10, 178-pound speedster, has good ball skills and brings a playmaking threat to a secondary that, while improved, needs more difference-makers. White will push Daniel Jones and others for playing time this fall.

Biggest games in 2013: The Wildcats face plenty in Big Ten play, starting with the league opener Oct. 5 against Ohio State. If Northwestern and Ohio State both come in undefeated -- a good possibility -- it'll be Northwestern's biggest home game in Fitzgerald's tenure. Another big game follows Oct. 12 at Wisconsin, and Northwestern opens November with three Legends division tests, as it visits Nebraska (Nov. 2) and hosts Michigan (Nov. 16) and Michigan State (Nov. 23).

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Northwestern must shore up its line play on both sides of the ball after losing valuable veterans to graduation. Three starting spots must be filled on the offensive line, including right tackle, as Jack Konopka is expected to slide over to the left side. Several likely starters missed spring ball after offseason surgeries, which gave players like Shane Mertz and Ian Park added reps.

Northwestern also must find a space-eater or two on defense after losing Brian Arnfelt. The team has better depth at defensive end than tackle, where it needs more from veterans Will Hampton and Sean McEvilly.

Outlook: The arrow is definitely pointing up in Evanston after Northwestern recorded just the second 10-win season in team history and could have easily won more games. Many of the building blocks remain, including the dynamic backfield of Mark and Colter, who executed the zone-read game to perfection last fall. Northwestern has upgraded its recruiting efforts, especially on defense, and should boast more speed, athleticism and depth than it did in 2012.

So why is there a hesitation to buy into the Wildcats, who most are picking to finish third or fourth in the Legends division?

There's the Northwestern factor, as some still can't separate the program's current state from its pathetic past in the 1970s and 1980s. A more valid reason for concern is the schedule, as both Ohio State and Wisconsin return, and Northwestern skips the Indiana schools. There won't be many easy games during Big Ten play, and getting back to 10 wins will pose a significant challenge.

Northwestern once again will employ a quarterback rotation of Colter and Trevor Siemian, a big-armed junior who can spark the passing game. The receivers had a somewhat underwhelming season, but could be a bigger threat this season as almost everyone returns. Tight end Dan Vitale blossomed down the stretch in 2012 and will attack the deep middle along with wideout Christian Jones.

The defense generated 29 takeaways in 2012 and hopes to continue its playmaking ways with more explosive athletes at all three levels. Campbell is one of the Big Ten's best defensive backs, and VanHoose made a huge difference when healthy. Northwestern needs linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo to continue smothering the football, and for speedy down linemen like Dean Lowry to complement Tyler Scott on the pass rush.

Special teams was a huge factor for Northwestern's success in 2012, and must continue its upward trajectory. The Wildcats also hope to stay healthy after losing only five starts to injury -- the fewest in the Big Ten -- last season.

"To have the number of young men we have coming back in '13 from a starting standpoint," Fitzgerald said, "gives us great confidence we'll hopefully be able to take the next step."

On paper, this is a better Northwestern team than the 2012 version, but the tougher schedule will make it difficult to match or exceed last season's win total.
Now that spring practice is over, we're examining the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team for the 2013 season.

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

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

Venric Mark, RB, Sr.

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

Ibraheim Campbell, S, Jr.

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

More indispensable:

Michigan
Wisconsin
Minnesota
Nebraska
Indiana
Michigan State
Ohio State
Iowa
Penn State
Illinois
Purdue

Contender or pretender: Northwestern

April, 22, 2013
4/22/13
2:30
PM CT
We're taking a page from our friends at the ACC blog and starting a series that examines whether certain Big Ten teams will be contenders or pretenders in the 2013 season. The series won't include Ohio State, Michigan or Nebraska, three teams that, in our view, have earned the "contender" label entering the fall. For each team, we'll make a case for why they're contenders and pretenders and provide our final verdict (a final verdict in late April, mind you). We invite you to vote on whether a team is a contender or a pretender or send us your thoughts for mailbags here and here.

First up, the Northwestern Wildcats.

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Why they're contenders: Not only did Northwestern win 10 games last season, including its first bowl in 64 years, but the Wildcats return the core pieces from the 2012 squad on both sides of the ball. Fifteen starters return, including the dynamic offensive backfield of quarterback Kain Colter and Venric Mark, an All-Big Ten running back and an All-America all-purpose player. Quarterback Trevor Siemian, who shared time with Colter and improved as the season progressed, also comes back. The key receivers are back and could see enhanced roles in a more balanced offense, and tight end Dan Vitale, a weapon down the stretch last season, is just a true sophomore. Northwestern's speed-based recruiting efforts on defense are starting to pay off, especially in the secondary, where the team returns standouts Ibraheim Campbell and Nick VanHoose and boasts good depth at both cornerback and safety. Defensive end Tyler Scott, the Big Ten's leading returning sacks leader, is back, along with several exciting young edge rushers. Special teams once again should be a strength with Mark and Jeff Budzien, the 2012 Big Ten co-kicker of the year, back in the fold.

Why they're pretenders: It all starts up front, and Northwestern has question marks on both of its lines entering the fall. The Wildcats must replace three starting offensive linemen, including All-Big Ten guard Brian Mulroe. Several potential starters sat out spring practice, and while that gave young players increased reps, the first-team line will have limited time to bond before the season kicks off. Northwestern also is a little thin at defensive tackle after losing Brian Arnfelt. The biggest potential drawback is a schedule that definitely gets tougher and could be significantly more challenging than the 2012 slate. Northwestern faces Ohio State for the first time since 2008, and Wisconsin returns to the slate as well after a two-year break. The Wildcats open Big Ten play with the Buckeyes (home) and the Badgers (road). And while Northwestern has established itself as a solid Big Ten program under Pat Fitzgerald, it hasn't handled high expectations well, like in 2001 (preseason Big Ten favorites) and 2011.

Final verdict: The schedule is definitely a factor, but if Northwestern can split its first two Big Ten contests, it should be right in the mix for the Legends Division title. The Wildcats host the Michigan schools, and although they visit Nebraska, they won in Lincoln with an inferior team in 2011. Some still don't take Northwestern seriously because they can't shed the perception created in the program's dark days. Those days are over, the talent is much better and most of it returns. Northwestern is a contender.

Northwestern defense embraces speed need

April, 10, 2013
4/10/13
2:00
PM CT

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Mike Hankwitz didn't inherit a bare cupboard when he arrived as Northwestern's defensive coordinator in 2008.

The defense included several future NFL players, including end Corey Wootton and cornerback Sherrick McManis. Eight starters returned, and the unit improved from 88th nationally in points allowed to 26th in Hankwitz's first season.

But something was missing. As Hankwitz surveyed the number of spread offenses in college football -- not to mention the one his defense practiced against every day at Northwestern -- he knew the Wildcats' defense needed a speed boost.

"We had some players with good speed, but as a total defense, we didn't have that same speed at every position," Hankwitz told ESPN.com. "In this day in age with spread offenses, you need to have athletes who have the ability and speed to make plays in space. That's where we were a little deficient at the time. If you had a guy hurt, the next guy might not have been as fast. So we recruited to that end. We tried to recruit better speed to cornerback, and we're making progress in that way.

"As a whole, our team defensive speed has improved, and we're excited about that."

It was noticeable last season as Northwestern's defense improved to 47th nationally after plummeting to 80th the year before. Several younger players who were part of the speed-driven recruiting push played key roles, including defensive backs Ibraheim Campbell and Nick VanHoose, linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and linemen Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson.

Northwestern's speed upgrade on defense has jumped out during spring practice. In Tuesday's workout, Lowry zoomed past a tackle for an easy "sack" against quarterback Trevor Siemian. Speed has helped cornerback Dwight White put himself in position to start opposite VanHoose in the fall. The same holds true for safeties like Traveon Henry, Jimmy Hall and Terrance Brown, competing to start next to Campbell.

"Our team speed is definitely much improved," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Our secondary runs as well as it has at all four positions."

The popularity of the spread offense, which Northwestern has used since 2000, fueled the team's speed push in recruiting. Northwestern needed more athletes who could make plays in space, especially in the secondary.

Not surprisingly, the secondary had the most dramatic upgrade last season, and depth at both cornerback and safety has improved for 2013. The secondary not only has more speed but better size.

"Traveon Henry's a 6-[foot]-1, 200-plus-pound safety, Jimmy Hall's the same way, Terrance Brown is the same way; we've upgraded our size at corner," Fitzgerald said. "Most of our guys used to be 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-10. Now we're 5-11 and 6-foot. That size-speed combination is critically important if we want to take the next step in this league."

Greater speed allows Hankwitz to be "a little more aggressive" with his defensive calls. It also helps younger players get on the field early as they can overcome some weaknesses technically and fundamentally.

"Last year, being a little undersized at D-end as a freshman, I relied on my speed a lot of times to beat tackles," said Lowry, who had a sack, six quarterback hurries and three tackles for loss as a true freshman. "When you're fast, it sets up moves, so if a tackle is overset, you come back with a counter. You've got to make sure you use your technique, use your hands where the coaches teach you. But having the extra speed, it's almost like you can't teach that.

"It's something most guys don't have."

Northwestern's speed push started with the linebackers and spread quickly to the secondary, but the line hasn't been neglected. Redshirt freshman end Ifeadi Odenigbo, the team's most-decorated recruit in years, only started playing football as a high school sophomore but made his mark with speed, twice tracking down Braxton Miller in a playoff game.

Both Odenigbo and Gibson ran track in high school, while both Gibson and Lowry played basketball.

"They're very, very athletic," said senior end Tyler Scott, who finished . "Dean's very athletic. Deonte, when he's healthy, is a force coming off the edge. And Ifeadi, he's got some speed that we haven't seen here for a while."

Northwestern's defense expects to be seeing more of that speed in the coming seasons.

"We're still not quite there where we have all five classes at an elite level athletically," Fitzgerald said, "but I think we're really close."

Three Wildcats starters to sit out spring

February, 25, 2013
2/25/13
12:33
PM CT
Northwestern will be without at least three projected starters when it opens spring football in the Big Ten with the first of 15 practice sessions Wednesday in Evanston.

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

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

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

Both Proby and Konopoka started all 13 games last season.

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

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

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

Big Ten mailblog

January, 15, 2013
1/15/13
6:48
PM CT
And away we go ...

Greg from Eldora, Iowa, writes: Hello Adam, on your BIG footprint article, the other states BIG teams needs to recruit are states that play high school spring ball, which I think is a much bigger reason than people think for SEC, Big 12, and PAC 12 having improving success. Ohio applied to their high school association to add spring ball and it was turned down. BIG states need to add spring ball for high school for better development of players at least in the higher classes. If I was coaching I would push my state to develop football players in my state, kids that want to play for a home state school. It would be easier developing these kids than every program in the country hovering over the South and California.

Adam Rittenberg: Greg, you make a really good point about spring football. It's a huge advantage for recruits in certain states and also for programs located in or closer to those states. Former Purdue coach Joe Tiller talked to me extensively in September about the playing-time advantage for recruits who live in southern states. Here's some of what he said: "Four years ago, Florida with their spring practices and Georgia with their spring practices and Texas with their spring practices, those kids, I know when we recruited them to Purdue, they were just advanced players over the guys we were getting out of the Midwest. They weren't necessarily more gifted naturally, but they were just advanced in the sense that they played so much more football." Tiller also said former Purdue quarterback Drew Brees played more high school ball his final two seasons in Texas (32 games) than many recruits from Indiana did in their final three seasons (30). I know each state high school sports association has to consider the pluses and minuses of spring football, but it definitely provides recruits from other regions an advantage as they prepare to play in college.




Kevin from the Northwest Suburbs writes: Hey Adam a big Northwestern observation here. I believe this season is Pat's Fitzgerald year to actually put Northwestern's name on the national map like Harbaugh did with Stanford. This is arguably Pat's best team and most well rounded team on all three phases of the game since he took over at Northwestern. They play most of the Big 10 best teams. They play their road schedule against Cal (Pac-12), Wisconsin, Iowa, and Nebraska. All those teams are tough at home. They then play Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State at home. For those who have never been to Ryan Field there is usually a 60-40 crowd favoring northwestern against the bigger schools and sometimes even 50-50 when playing schools like Michigan. If Northwestern can put up a 10-11 season, its time to put them on the national stage and start to see them as a top team in the Big Ten and to start smelling roses in 2013 as well as the close future. If they only end up with 7 wins or less, they'll still be trying to get their name on top of the big ten. I think this upcoming season will tell us what type of direction and how far this Northwestern program can go? Agree?

Adam Rittenberg: Kevin, I agree that Northwestern has a great opportunity in 2013. Northwestern finally ended the season with a bowl win, which resonates throughout the spring and summer, makes the media pay attention when it otherwise wouldn't and generates hype and expectations for the next season. The Wildcats also return most of their core pieces from the 2012 team, namely quarterback Kain Colter, running back Venric Mark and defensive backs Ibraheim Campbell and Nick VanHoose. So there's a chance to take another step, but it won't be easy. The schedule is extremely challenging. As I pointed out Monday, Northwestern appears to have by far the toughest schedule of any of the Big Ten title contenders entering 2013. Northwestern also has struggled to handle high expectations (2001, 2011) in the past. Although recruiting has improved, Northwestern hasn't reached the level Stanford did under Jim Harbaugh (continued now by David Shaw). Northwestern's program definitely is headed in the right direction and 2013 will be a telling season, but I could see Northwestern having a better team than 2012 but one with a worse record (8-4 or so).




Brian from Warrensburg, Mo, writes: Adam, seriously...we need to talk about your final top 25 voting. As an avid Husker fan, my mind is blown that they didn't even make the top 25 and only hit number 25 in Brian's vote. You ranked 3 B1G teams that Nebraska beat ahead of them, and they barely lost their bowl game to a team in your top 5. Please help me and other Husker fans understand, because I know I'm not the only one who was baffled. 10 wins with a really tough schedule, and you think San Jose State is a better team??

Rod Harris from Homer, Neb., writes: No wonder you are a lowly blogger. You have proven once again that you don't know much about how to judge college football teams. I'm just glad you don't have an AP vote! And you are proof of why we need a playoff system in college football because I'm sure there are voters out there that are just as clueless as you are when it comes to rating college football teams.

Adam Rittenberg: These are just some of the emails I received about my final power rankings, which didn't include Nebraska. I didn't include the note asking me to kill myself and noting that Brian Bennett and I are the worst sports writers on the planet (glad we have the market cornered). Honestly, I'm a little surprised so many people are coming to the defense of what is, at best, a fringe Top 25 team. Nebraska finished No. 25 in the final AP Poll and No. 23 in the final coaches' poll. Brian had the Huskers at No. 25 in his final power rankings. If our power rankings included 27 spots instead of 25, I would have included the Huskers. So we're all in the ballpark with ranking this football team. Many folks doing end-of-year rankings didn't think Nebraska belonged much higher than the final few spots of the rankings. When you're a total no-show in the biggest game of the season (against a seemingly weaker opponent) and then lose your bowl game by 14 points -- even while competing well for three quarters -- you're not going to be rewarded in the final rankings. San Jose State pushed Rose Bowl champ Stanford in the season opener, beat a solid BYU team and won its final seven games. That team should be rewarded.

I don't believe in ranking a team because of what it did in late October, which would be the argument for ranking Nebraska ahead of both Northwestern and Michigan (which almost no one did, by the way). Rankings are about what you've done lately, and Nebraska ended the season poorly, even if it hung in there with Georgia for a while. I look at Nebraska and see a talented team that plays an extremely chaotic style (turnovers, penalties, frantic rallies in the fourth quarter). There aren't many teams that can rank 118th nationally in turnovers lost (35) and still win 10 games. I guess that's a testament to Nebraska's talent and resilience, and the Huskers definitely were resilient late in the regular season. But is that a formula for sustained success? No way. And if Nebraska doesn't clean up its play, especially in big games, it won't take the next step and gain respect from the media.




Justin from East Lansing, Mich., writes :Adam,First of all, thanks to you and Brian for your Big Ten blogging efforts. I read it everyday.Now, I know that you have probably heard this idea, but how about making the Divisions--Leaders: Rutgers, Maryland, Penn State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska; Legends: Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern, Illinois, Purdue, and Indiana?I know it would be like a 'Central Division' and 'Everyone Else Division,' but I think that it would work.

Adam Rittenberg: Justin, I like how you keep the Wisconsin-Iowa-Minnesota cluster together in the "Everyone Else Division," because I think it's important for those teams to play every year. It's also good for emerging rivalries like Nebraska-Iowa and Nebraska-Wisconsin to continue. Although the fan bases in the "Everyone Else" would have some tougher travel than those in the "Central," there would be some easier trips mixed in (Wisconsin-Iowa, Penn State-Rutgers, etc.). I think this could work, but I also see a geographic split being fine and going East-West. The teams that could go in either division appear to be Indiana, Purdue, Illinois and Northwestern. I'd be OK with splitting Indiana/Purdue or Illinois/Northwestern and giving them a protected crossover game. I'd also be OK with splitting Michigan and Michigan State into different divisions and giving them a crossover game. If you put Ohio State and Michigan in the same division, you have to make sure the other division has enough strength. Would Wisconsin, Nebraska, Penn State and Iowa provide enough in your model? It's possible.




Chris from Madison, Wis., writes: Hey Adam! I was just wondering what your thoughts are on the Badgers upcoming QB battle. You've mentioned it briefly a few times but the dynamics of it are really intriguing. You have Curt Phillips, the (now) experienced leader who commands respect from his teammates but has yet to really be proven as a passer. There's Joel Stave, the "spark" of the offense early this season who has starting experience and shows great talent as a passer (even just in the 2 plays from the Rose Bowl). Danny O'Brien, while not the favorite to win it, can still fix some things and does have experience and talent. The most intriguing player, and my dark horse candidate, is Bart Houston. In tapes I've watched of him and Stave, Bart seems to have some talent, or edge to him, that Stave didn't quite display to the same level. Houston is more mobile and built to take punishment as well. What are your thoughts? I think this could make a great piece as spring ball nears!

Adam Rittenberg: Chris, I agree it's a fascinating competition, and we'll preview all the QB races before spring ball kicks off. I'm with you about Bart Houston. He's the real wild card here: big-time recruit, has the skills to be a special player, but lacks experience and will be working with a new offensive coordinator in Andy Ludwig. I don't think Danny O'Brien will be a factor, but we'll see. Curt Phillips did a nice job late in the season and will be another offseason removed from surgery, but he'll need to make strides as well. Stave really seemed to be turning a corner before his injury, and if I had to pick a favorite for the job, it'd probably be Stave. Another subplot here is whether Wisconsin can surround its quarterback with enough capable receivers. Jared Abbrederis was the team's only consistent threat at receiver last season. It's really important for the Badgers to find a No. 2 and No. 3 option at receiver. But I'm definitely looking forward to the competition. It's unique because so many players have starting experience.




Brian L. from Baltimore writes: If the PSU sanctions remain as-is (3 more ineligible seasons), how long do you realistically see BO'B staying put? I can't help but think another 8 win season is not in order for next year or two, thus his NFL stock has a high chance of dropping.

Adam Rittenberg: Brian, that's a fair point about Bill O'Brien's NFL stock, but I also wouldn't bet against him after seeing what he did during the final 10 games this season. Penn State's roster situation isn't actually as bad as it seemed to be when the sanctions were outlined, and if the Lions can stay relatively healthy, they should be OK in a mostly weak Leaders division. I think we'll hear O'Brien's name in the NFL mix most seasons, depending on the openings, and I do expect him to eventually make the jump. But it might not be for 3-5 years, which in my view would be a major victory for Penn State. Will some bad seasons at Penn State take O'Brien off of the NFL radar? Maybe, but I don't think so. The guy already was on a path to be an NFL coach, and he showed what he could do as a head coach in 2012. The NFL folks know O'Brien and understand the obstacles he faces at Penn State. I don't see him disappearing from consideration even if Penn State struggles in the near future.




SGTSparty from Detroit writes: Adam,For years we all knew Penn State as Linebacker U. But the past year or so it seems like the entire B1G has been stacked with excellent LBs. It begs the questions: 1) Do you think the B1G is the best linebacking conference in the NCAA? 2) Which team has/will have the best linebacker in the conference? 3) What about LB corps top to bottom?

Adam Rittenberg: SGT, Big Ten linebackers were absent from most of the All-America teams for the 2012 season. The SEC (Jarvis Jones, C.J. Mosley, Kevin Minter) and Pac-12 (Anthony Barr, Trent Murphy) had better representation than the Big Ten. I thought Penn State's Michael Mauti got snubbed on most of these teams, and while Ohio State's Ryan Shazier put up All-America numbers in Big Ten play, he started a bit slowly. From a depth standpoint, the Big Ten is among the nation's top leagues with its group of linebackers. But the best? Hard to make the case. As to your second question, there are several candidates for the Big Ten's top linebacker: Ohio State's Shazier, Wisconsin's Chris Borland, Michigan State's Max Bullough and Michigan's Jake Ryan are the top four. You can't go wrong with any of these four. I'd probably lean toward Borland and Bullough if I had to choose, although I loved what I saw from Shazier and Ryan this season. Regarding your final question, it comes down to Michigan State and Michigan for the league's top linebacking corps. I'd give the nod to Michigan State with Bullough, Denicos Allen and Taiwan Jones (reserve Kyler Elsworth is solid, too).

Big Ten bowl helmet stickers

January, 2, 2013
1/02/13
8:04
PM CT
Recognizing the top individual performances by Big Ten players in the postseason:
  • Minnesota CB Michael Carter: The Gophers senior had two interceptions, a pass break up and seven tackles in Minnesota's 34-31 loss to Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.
  • Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell: Playing in perhaps his final collegiate game, the Spartans junior once again carried the offense in a 17-16 win over TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Bell carried 32 times for 145 yards and a touchdown and also threw a pass for 29 yards. He accounted for all but 53 of Michigan State's total yardage.
  • Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead: The Huskers' defense struggled, but Burkhead was in beast mode in the 45-31 Capital One Bowl loss to Georgia. Fully healthy for the first time since the opener, Burkhead ran 24 times for 140 yards and a score, and he also had four catches for 39 yards and a touchdown. We can only imagine what kind of numbers he would have put up as a senior had he not dealt with a knee problem all year.
  • Michigan WR Jeremy Gallon: The redshirt junior turned in a strong season-ending performance, catching nine passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns in the Wolverines' 33-28 loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. He accounted for nearly 70 percent of Devin Gardner's passing yards.
  • Northwestern's secondary: After some shaky moments in the regular season, the Wildcats' pass defense came up large in the 34-20 win over Mississippi State in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. The Bulldogs threw for only 106 yards and were intercepted four times. Safety Jared Carpenter, who had 10 tackles, was named the game's MVP. Safety Ibraheim Campbell and cornerback Nick VanHoose also had picks. Add in defensive lineman's Quentin Williams' pick six and another interception by linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo, and you have the recipe for Northwestern's first bowl victory since 1949.

Instant analysis: Northwestern 34, MSU 20

January, 1, 2013
1/01/13
4:59
PM CT

The streak is over and the monkey is gone. Northwestern finally can celebrate a bowl win.

The Wildcats claimed their first postseason victory in 64 years after downing Mississippi State in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. Although the game didn't go as planned for either squad, Northwestern rode opportunistic defense (17 points off turnovers) and a big third quarter from Trevor Siemian to its first bowl win since the 1949 Rose. Surprisingly, there was little drama as Northwestern's defense clamped down.

Let's take a look at how it went down:

It was over when: Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell threw his fourth interception, a wounded duck on third-and-10, and Northwestern's Nick VanHoose returned the ball inside the red zone with 9:54 to play. Northwestern led by only seven at the time but scored three plays later to take a 14-point lead with 8:10 left. To truly seal the win, Wildcats defensive lineman Deonte Gibson dropped Russell on fourth-and-20 with 1:42 left.

Game ball goes to: Northwestern defensive ends Quentin Williams and Tyler Scott. Both of the Wildcats' top edge rushers stepped up in the bowl win. Williams set the tone for the game with an interception returned for a touchdown on the third play from scrimmage. He also had a sack and two tackles for loss, while Scott dropped Russell twice in the win.

Stat of the game: Both teams entered the game among the nation's best at taking care of the ball, but things changed in Jacksonville. The Wildcats and Bulldogs combined for seven turnovers, including three first-half interceptions by Mississippi State's Russell, who threw four picks after throwing just six in the regular season. Northwestern came in with just 12 giveaways, tied for sixth-fewest nationally, while Mississippi State had 13 giveaways (tied for ninth). Both teams ranked in the top 10 in turnover margin but looked sloppy with the ball.

Stat of the game II: Third-down efficiency played a huge part in the game, and Northwestern had a significant edge there. The Wildcats moved the chains 10 times on 19 third-down opportunities. The biggest conversion came with the game tied in the third quarter, when Siemian made a tough throw on the run to Rashad Lawrence to convert a third-and-10 in Wildcats territory. Northwestern scored the go-ahead touchdown three plays later. Mississippi State, meanwhile, was a mess on third down, converting just 1 of 11 chances.

Unsung hero: Northwestern freshman superback (tight end) Dan Vitale. Mississippi State's defense did a good job taking away Venric Mark and Kain Colter, but Vitale, a freshman, gashed the Bulldogs for seven receptions and 82 yards. He provided the receiving threat Northwestern needed against a good Bulldogs secondary.

What Northwestern learned: It can win a bowl game, for starters. After several near misses (2008 Alamo, 2010 Outback), Northwestern finally got over the hump in the postseason. Pat Fitzgerald and his staff did a masterful job coaching a young team not predicted to do much to just the school's third 10-win season. After blowing three fourth-quarter leads in Big Ten play, Northwestern made enough plays on both sides of the ball to hold off the mistake-prone Bulldogs. Northwestern needed this win to legitimize its program and should be right in the Legends division mix next fall, as most key players return.

What Mississippi State learned: Russell can be rattled. The junior turned in a record-setting season for the Bulldogs but had a miserable performance in the bowl, completing only 12 of 28 passes for 106 yards with two touchdowns and the four picks. Mississippi State wins with discipline and Russell didn't have enough of it with the football. The Bulldogs played without star cornerback Johnthan Banks for most of the second half, and his absence showed. After a 7-0 start, Mississippi State had an extremely disappointing finish and lacked any decent wins on its résumé.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 15

December, 5, 2012
12/05/12
9:15
AM CT
Only one Big Ten game took place since the last edition of the power rankings, but the surprising result left quite a conundrum.

How should we rank teams 2 through 6 after Wisconsin smashed Nebraska by 39 points in the Big Ten championship game? Wisconsin had a truly great night in Indy and looked like a different team than we've seen all season, but the Badgers still have more losses than Nebraska, Northwestern, Michigan and Penn State.

Oh, the decisions. In the end, this version of the power rankings takes into account the totality of the season. It's a little different from the weekly ones in that sense. Plus, we want to remain consistent with how we voted in the ESPN.com power rankings. As a result, Wisconsin stays at 6 (commence hate mail).

Let's get to it ...

1. Ohio State (12-0, last week: 1): Get used to the Buckeyes occupying the top spot under coach Urban Meyer, who guided Ohio State to its sixth unbeaten and untied season in team history. The big keys entering the offseason are addressing depth issues on the defensive side, finding more consistent playmakers to surround quarterback Braxton Miller and maintaining the standard set this season on the offensive line.

2. Michigan (8-4, last week: 3): Jadeveon Clowney and the South Carolina Gamecocks await Michigan at the Outback Bowl, giving the Wolverines one final chance at a signature victory. Clowney and Wolverines tackle Taylor Lewan face off in a battle of future NFLers. Michigan should benefit from bowl practices as it continues to adjust to having both Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson in the backfield.

3. Penn State (8-4, last week: 4): Penn State won't soon forget the 2012 season or the 2012 senior class, but it's now time to look ahead to an uncertain future. Bill O'Brien and his assistants must be extremely selective with the 2013 recruiting class and future classes, as they can ill afford to miss on more than a few prospects. Penn State loses a lot of star power on defense but has a nice piece to build around at defensive end in Big Ten Freshman of the Year Deion Barnes.

4. Nebraska (10-3, last week: 2): On the cusp of its first league title since 1999, Nebraska tumbled down the mountain yet again. Saturday's loss was an all-time stinker, the worst in team history, according to veteran columnist Tom Shatel. The defense allowed more rushing yards (539) than it ever has, and the offense turned over the ball and didn't find a rhythm until it was far too late. Nebraska will try to rebound against Georgia in the Capital One Bowl.

5. Northwestern (9-3, last week: 5): Will Northwestern finally get the bowl monkey off of its back this year? Pat Fitzgerald's crew has a potentially favorable matchup against slumping Mississippi State in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. A young Wildcats squad should benefit from bowl practices, as players such as cornerback Nick VanHoose can fully heal. Northwestern's formidable rushing attack faces a Bulldogs defense ranked 70th nationally against the run.

6. Wisconsin (8-5, last week: 6): Yes, we saw what you saw Saturday night. The Badgers were brilliant. And if they follow it up against Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, they'll make a serious move up the power rankings. Still, this has been an inconsistent team that now must deal with the stunning departure of coach Bret Bielema to Arkansas. After dealing with so much adversity this season, can the Badgers rally again?

7. Michigan State (6-6, last week: 7): The good news for both the Spartans and their Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl opponent, TCU, is that their upcoming matchup is at a neutral site. Both squads failed to win a conference home game this season. Both squads are also very good on defense and inconsistent on offense. It'll be interesting to see Mark Dantonio and Gary Patterson match wits, and how Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell performs against a stout Frogs defense.

8. Purdue (6-6, last week: 8): The Boilers have a new head coach in Darrell Hazell, but his impact won't be felt until 2013. An extremely tough matchup against Oklahoma State awaits Purdue in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Cornerbacks Josh Johnson and Ricardo Allen will be tested early and often, and quarterback Robert Marve and the offense will need to put up big numbers for the Boilers to have a chance against the heavily favored Pokes.

9. Minnesota (6-6, last week: 9): Like Purdue, Minnesota heads to Texas for a bowl matchup in which it is a sizable underdog. And like the Boilers, Minnesota needs its cornerbacks (Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire) to step up against a very good passing offense in Texas Tech (second nationally). The Red Raiders allowed 111 points in their final two games, but Minnesota's offense has been banged up and struggling and must get healthy this month.

10. Indiana (4-8, last week: 10): It's all about improving the defense in Bloomington, and Indiana has upgraded its recruiting, most recently adding a commitment Insider from defensive tackle Darius Latham, an ESPN 300 prospect who had originally pledged to Wisconsin. The Hoosiers need more depth and more talent on defense to complement what will be a very explosive offense in 2013.

11. Iowa (4-8, last week: 11): Offensive coordinator Greg Davis is staying, and he'll be tasked to upgrade an offense that took a significant step back in his first season. Jake Rudock is expected to step in at quarterback, and Iowa should have good depth at running back (famous last words, I know). The defense returns most of its key pieces and showed the ability to take the ball away this season (23).

12. Illinois (2-10, last week: 12): As expected, coach Tim Beckman will get at least another season to get things right after a miserable first go-round. Staff changes probably are coming as Illinois tries to get back on its feet before spring practice. The Illini lose several NFL-caliber defensive players, but the bigger concerns are with an offense that finished 119th nationally this season.

Debating the 2012 All-Big Ten teams

November, 26, 2012
11/26/12
1:40
PM CT
The 2012 All-Big Ten teams and individual award winners will be revealed at 7 p.m. ET tonight on the Big Ten Network. We'll post the full lists shortly thereafter as well as reaction.

The four major awards -- Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and Freshman of the Year -- will be revealed Tuesday night. We will have our official blog endorsements for each of these throughout Tuesday, so be sure to check in.

To clarify, we don't have official votes for All-Big Ten (not like we cover the league closer than anyone year-round or anything, but we're not bitter), but we will reveal our own all-conference team at a later date.

For now, we're going to give our opinions on some of the key debates surrounding this year's all-conference team.

1. The Big Ten has three elite running backs -- Wisconsin's Montee Ball, Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell and Northwestern's Venric Mark -- and only two spots on the first-team All-Big Ten team. Who makes it and who doesn't?

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell, Etienne Sabino
Mike Carter/US PRESSWIRELe'Veon Bell was the workhorse for the Michigan State offense this season.
Brian Bennett: This is an extremely difficult decision. I was prepared to go with Ball and Mark before Bell put up his huge, 266-yard performance against Minnesota last week. Someone very deserving is going to get left off this list, and in my book that is Mark. It's hard to ignore Bell, who's leading the Big Ten and is No. 3 nationally in rushing while carrying it a ridiculous 29 times per game. The Spartans might have only won a couple of games without him. And Ball turned it up big time in conference play, leading his team to the Big Ten title game. So I'll take those two guys, with sincere apologies to Mark, who had a wonderful season in his own right.

Adam Rittenberg: All three of these players were so valuable to their respective offenses. Ball struggled early but came on strong during Big Ten play and set the NCAA's all-time touchdowns mark. Bell is arguably the nation's top workhorse back, racking up an insane 350 carries. And yet neither impacted games quite as much as Mark, who broke off more long runs and also was brilliant on returns. He transformed a Northwestern offense that had been reliant on the pass for years and had no dynamic run threat. It's really a shame the All-Big Ten team doesn't have a return specialist, as that would be a way to get all three men on the first team. I have no issue with Ball and Bell, but it's a little hard to ignore the running back for the best team of the three. While it's tough not to have Bell on the first team, I'm going to go with Ball and Mark here.

2. Arguably no Big Ten position has more elite players than linebacker. The first-team All-Big Ten squad includes only three selections. Who makes the cut?

Adam Rittenberg: While I'd love to officially vote for All-Big Ten, this position group would drive me nuts because there are so many good choices. Penn State's Michael Mauti and Ohio State's Ryan Shazier have to be there. They're the two leading candidates for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Mauti triggered Penn State's effort on defense, while Shazier put up insane numbers in Big Ten games (15 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 1 interception, 8 pass breakups, 2 forced fumbles). The big decision is the third linebacker -- we'll likely have four LBs on our All-Big Ten squad. It's between Michigan's Jake Ryan and Wisconsin's Mike Taylor for me, and I'm going to go with Ryan, who made a few more impact plays during the Big Ten season (5 forced fumbles, 13 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks). Taylor, Michigan State's Max Bullough and Penn State's Gerald Hodges also were terrific, but I'm happy with these three.

Brian Bennett: I'm in agreement here. No two defensive players were more valuable to their teams than Mauti and Shazier. In addition to their great performances, Shazier held a thin linebacking corps together, while Mauti helped an entire program stay together. And Ryan simply made more impact plays at crucial times than the other outstanding linebackers who are All-Big Ten candidates. It seemed like every time you looked up during a Michigan game, the guy with the flowing blond locks was creating havoc. Linebacker was a major strength in the league, and even picking a second team here between Taylor, Bullough, Hodges and Chris Borland is no easy task.

3. Ohio State's Braxton Miller is a likely Heisman Trophy finalist and the leading candidate for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. It would be a surprise if he isn't the first-team All-Big Ten quarterback. Who should be the second-team QB, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez or Penn State's Matt McGloin?

Brian Bennett: Take nothing away from McGloin, who led the Big Ten with 3,271 passing yards and 24 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Just an amazing year for the fifth-year senior, who would win the most improved player award if the league had such a thing. The choice here, though, is Martinez. Yes, he still gets a little careless with the ball sometimes. But he was in complete command of the Big Ten's best offense, carrying it after star running back Rex Burkhead went down. He improved greatly as a passer, completing 63.3 percent of his throws while compiling nearly 2,500 passing yards and 21 touchdowns. He also averaged 5.4 yards per carry in conference play and finished No. 1 in the league in total offense. His ability to lead Nebraska on wild comebacks and get the Cornhuskers into the Big Ten title game can't be overlooked.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesTaylor Martinez led Nebraska to the Big Ten title game.
Adam Rittenberg: Yep, agree with you on this one. Both players are vastly improved from 2011 -- McGloin more so than Martinez -- but Martinez's running ability really sets him apart in my mind. He had 833 rush yards and eight touchdowns, spurring a ground attack that didn't have Burkhead for most of the season. Like his Nebraska team, Martinez got sloppy at times and played really poorly in the loss to Ohio State. But you can't discount what he did in all of those comebacks, which turned out to be Nebraska's hallmark in reaching the Big Ten championship game. I absolutely love what McGloin did this season in Bill O'Brien's NFL-style offense, leading the league in pass yards and pass touchdowns and setting team records in the process. There'd be no major outcry here if he appears on the second-team All-Big Ten squad ahead of Martinez. But if I had to choose, I'd go with Martinez.

4. Cornerback has been a bit of a pleasant surprise this year in the Big Ten. The All-Big Ten team only designates four "defensive backs," so conceivably four corners could make it. Which Big Ten corners deserve to be on the first team this season?

Brian Bennett: Ohio State's Bradley Roby is the no-brainer here. The redshirt sophomore developed into arguably the best cover corner in the league this year and is a lock for one of the first-team All-Big Ten spots. My second choice would be Nebraska's Ciante Evans. Though Evans plays nickel, the Huskers ask a lot out of nickelbacks in their scheme, and Evans was their best coverage guy for the nation's No. 2-ranked pass defense. I'd prefer to have two corners and two safeties on the team, but if we went with three cornerbacks, I'd probably turn next to Purdue's Josh Johnson, who eclipsed Ricardo Allen as his team's best defensive back this year.

Adam Rittenberg: There's no doubt cornerback is a stronger group than safety this season. I'm going to go with three first-team All-Big Ten corners, starting with Ohio State's Roby. The sophomore has been the best defensive back in the league this season, tying for second nationally in passes defended with 19, recording two interceptions and scoring three touchdowns. The play he made at Wisconsin covering two different players in the end zone was one of the best I've seen in recent years. I also like Evans as a first-team selection, as he made a bunch of plays for the league's top pass defense. My third choice comes down to Johnson and Minnesota's Michael Carter. I love what Johnson did, but Carter was more noticeable during Big Ten play and seemed to blossom at the end of his career. I'd go with Johnson and Northwestern's Nick VanHoose on the second team.

5. All of the position awards will be passed out tonight. Let's dissect two of them: the Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year and the Smith-Brown Defensive Lineman of the Year. Who wins?

Adam Rittenberg: Ah, two goodies. The tight end award comes down to two players who missed portions of the season with injuries: Penn State's Kyle Carter and Michigan State's Dion Sims. Both produced at a high rate, with Carter recording 36 receptions for 453 yards and two touchdowns, while Sims, Michigan's only reliable pass-catching threat, recorded 33 receptions for 451 yards and two scores. Man, that's close, but Carter gets the nod from me. He gave Penn State such a boost on offense. The defensive lineman award comes down to Ohio State defensive end John Simon and Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill. Both are sure-fire first-team All-Big Ten selections, but I'm going with Simon, who led the Big Ten in sacks (9) and ranked third in tackles for loss (14.5). He would have had a big final game, like Hill did, had he been healthy.

Brian Bennett: Can I combine all the Penn State tight ends into one? Call them Kyle James Lehman, and then you'd really have something. It is another razor-thin call, but I'll take Michigan State's Sims. He played two fewer games than Carter, but remember that Sims played through injuries at times this year and wasn't always 100 percent. When he was healthy, he was the best big-play threat at tight end in the league and the Spartans' only real go-to guy in the passing game. He's a physical specimen unlike any other Big Ten tight end. As for defensive linemen, you named the probable two leading contenders. I'd also throw Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins in there, as he was a dominant run-stuffer. But I'm with you on Simon. He not only put up some great stats, but he played through a lot of pain this year and was unquestionably the emotional leader for the 12-0 Buckeyes.

NU's Vitale named co-freshman of the week

November, 19, 2012
11/19/12
2:05
PM CT
[+] EnlargeDan Vitale
Mike Carter/US PresswireNorthwestern freshman Dan Vitale is averaging 9.8 yards per catch this season.
Northwestern superback Dan Vitale was named the Big Ten Co-Freshman of the Week on Monday.

Vitale, a Wheaton Warrenville South graduate, set career highs of nine catches and 110 receiving yards in the Wildcats’ 23-20 road win over Michigan State on Saturday. He became the second Northwestern receiver to go over 100 yards in a game this season.

The last Northwestern freshman to earn the award was Nick VanHoose on Oct. 15.

Vitale shared the honor with Michigan linebacker James Ross III, who had a career-high 12 tackles in Michigan’s win over Iowa on Saturday.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 11

November, 5, 2012
11/05/12
12:00
PM CT
Week 10 brought few surprises around the Big Ten. As a result, the power rankings see little shuffling before the second Saturday of November.

Ohio State cruised to a perfect 10-0, while Michigan and Penn State both recorded road wins in impressive fashion. In the two true toss-up games, Indiana outlasted Iowa and Nebraska rallied for a dramatic win against hard-luck Michigan State. Our top five teams from Week 9 remain the same. The toughest call comes at No. 3, as there's very little separating Penn State and Michigan, who unfortunately don't play this season. But both teams recorded decisive road wins, so we're keeping the Lions ahead for now. Both teams face bigger challenges in Week 11 with Nebraska and Northwestern, respectively.

Indiana makes a small move after its win, while the bottom of the league stays intact.

To the rundown:

1. Ohio State (10-0, 5-0, last week: 1): Ten straight weeks of games, 10 straight wins for Urban Meyer's Buckeyes, who get a well-deserved break after thumping Illinois at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State is 10-0 for the first time since 2007 as it chases its first perfect season since 2002, when it captured a national title. Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde form the Big Ten's most dangerous backfield and the defense continues to make big plays, getting another interception from CB Travis Howard. Ohio State has scored 52 points or more in three Big Ten games. It resumes play Nov. 17 at Wisconsin.

2. Nebraska (7-2, 4-1, last week: 2): For the second time in three weeks, Nebraska faced a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter of a Legends Division road game. And once again, the Huskers found a way to win behind QB Taylor Martinez, who overcame three turnovers (nearly four) to fire the game-winning touchdown strike and eclipse 200 rush yards. Nebraska wouldn't announce itself in the Big Ten until it recorded signature road wins, and the Huskers finally have gotten over the hump after the Ohio State debacle Oct. 6. Bo Pelini's team is in control of the Legends Division and might lock it up with a win this week against Penn State.

3. Penn State (6-3, 4-1, last week: 3): Resiliency has been Penn State's calling card under Bill O'Brien, so it wasn't surprising to see the Nittany Lions bounce back well from their first Big Ten loss. The Lions re-established the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, shutting down Purdue's offense and generating a nice power run game behind RB Zach Zwinak. Penn State racked up a season-high 506 yards of offense as QB Matt McGloin had another 300-yard passing performance. Gerald Hodges led the way on defense with three tackles for loss. Penn State has been dominant on the road in Big Ten play but faces its biggest test this week in Lincoln.

4. Michigan (6-3, 4-1, last week: 4): No Denard Robinson? No problem for Michigan despite a potentially tricky game at Minnesota. Devin Gardner moved from wide receiver to quarterback and stepped up in a big way in place of Robinson, while Gardner's fellow wideouts Drew Dileo and Jeremy Gallon picked him up with key catches as Michigan revived its passing attack against one of the nation's top pass defenses. The Wolverines' defense stepped up repeatedly in the red zone as Michigan retained the Little Brown Jug. Michigan must keep pace with Nebraska to stay alive in the division race and needs to beat Northwestern this week.

5. Northwestern (7-2, 3-2, last week: 5): Pat Fitzgerald gave his team a "C" for October, as the Wildcats went 2-2 in a month in which they've historically struggled. Northwestern now enters a month in which it typically thrives under Fitzgerald, and the Wildcats remain alive in the Legends Division chase, although they need Nebraska to start losing. They'll look for some of their road magic the next two weeks against the Michigan schools, and they also hope to regain the services of injured defensive backs Nick VanHoose and Quinn Evans. It'll be interesting to see if QB Kain Colter truly has control of the offense this week at the Big House.

6. Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2, last week: 7): The open week came at a perfect time for the Badgers, who must regroup after losing starting quarterback Joel Stave to a season-ending broken clavicle. Danny O'Brien and Curt Phillips competed for the top job throughout the practice week, as the staff decides who will lead the offense in a now crucial game at Indiana before a tough closing stretch (Ohio State, at Penn State). The Badgers will need a big game from their defense in Bloomington and arguably a bigger game from Montee Ball and the rushing attack against an Indiana team that struggles against the run.

7. Michigan State (5-5, 2-4, last week: 6): Close losses have defined Michigan State's season, and the Spartans suffered another devastating setback Saturday after having Nebraska on the hopes. Controversial calls once again played into the outcome, but the Spartans' defense couldn't get the stops it needed and surrendered 313 rush yards to the Huskers. RB Le'Veon Bell came to play, but QB Andrew Maxwell had another rough day. Michigan State must regroup during an off week before fighting for bowl eligibility the final two weeks. It needs one more win and faces Northwestern (home) and Minnesota (road).

8. Indiana (4-5, 2-3, last week: 9): This isn't a great Indiana team, but it also isn't a typical Indiana team. Typical Hoosiers teams would have folded after falling behind 14-0 on their home field against Iowa. But the 2012 Hoosiers didn't back down, steadied themselves and outlasted Iowa to record back-to-back Big Ten wins for the first time since 2007 and their first Big Ten home win since 2009. Cameron Coffman re-emerged at QB, while WR Cody Latimer had a huge day (7 catches, 113 yards, 3 TDs). The defense allowed only 14 points as IU set up a huge Leaders Division showdown this week against Wisconsin.

9. Minnesota (5-4, 1-4, last week: 8): Missed opportunity was the catchphrase for Minnesota on Saturday after failing to capitalize against a Robinson-less Michigan team. The Gophers couldn't build on a 7-0 lead and repeatedly stubbed their toe in the red zone, despite some decent play from QB Philip Nelson. Jerry Kill has cleansed the program of a lot of problems from the Tim Brewster era, but terrible penalties have remained. The Gophers have scored 13 points in all four of their Big Ten losses. Minnesota's typically stout pass defense also struggled against a backup quarterback. The Gophers try to get bowl-eligible this week when they travel to slumping Illinois.

10. Iowa (4-5, 2-3, last week: 10): The Hawkeyes slipped below .500 for the first time since 2007, and barring a surprising turnaround, they won't get back on the right side of the mark this season. Despite a very strong start at Indiana, the same problems surfaced on both sides of the ball as Iowa couldn't translate yards into points and surrendered way too many yards to their opponent. Senior QB James Vandenberg will get more criticism, and his end zone interception didn't help, but the problems go beyond him on a team that just isn't very good in any area. Iowa could get well against Purdue this week but will be an underdog in its final two games (Michigan, Nebraska).

11. Purdue (3-6, 0-5, last week: 11): We wish we could drop Purdue lower after its fourth Big Ten blowout loss in five games. Alas, there's Illinois. One of those teams amazingly will get a Big Ten win when they meet Nov. 17 in Champaign. Purdue still can get bowl-eligible, but it will need a rapid turnaround in its final three games and show a lot more fight on the defensive side of the ball. The offense once again looked good on the opening drive and then disappeared, as QB Robert Marve couldn't stretch the field. Another poor performance at home before a mostly empty Ross-Ade Stadium turns up the heat even more on embattled coach Danny Hope.

12. Illinois (2-7, 0-5, last week: 12): We knew there would be no bowl for the Illini this year, but Ohio State made it official Saturday, handing Tim Beckman's team its seventh loss. After a decent first quarter, Illinois reverted to form and imploded before halftime. The offense once again couldn't stretch the field, and slumping junior QB Nathan Scheelhaase threw an interception and completed 19 passes for only 96 yards. Illinois is right there with Colorado and Kentucky in the group of the worst major-conference teams in the country. The Illini need to generate something positive down the stretch before the 2013 campaign.

Nebraska rallies to beat Northwestern

October, 20, 2012
10/20/12
6:48
PM CT


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.

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