Chicago Colleges: Rex Burkhead

Unless you've been living in a world without ESPN, the Internet or sports talk radio, you're well aware that the NFL draft begins Thursday night.

What will the weekend hold for Big Ten products? Who will be the top pick from the league? Which players should be garnering more buzz? Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett try to answer those questions and more in this blog debate:

Brian Bennett: Adam, another NFL draft is nearly upon us. What better way to spend 96 hours of a spring weekend than listening to analysts describe a player's upside? At least we won't have to read any more 2013 mock drafts after Thursday afternoon.

But let's get down to Big Ten business. According to our colleagues with the good hair -- Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay -- the league very well might not produce a first-round pick for the first time since the AFL-NFL merger. Last year, the first Big Ten player taken was all the way down at No. 23. What's going on here? Is there that big of a talent shortage in the conference, or is this just a blip? And do you think any Big Ten players hear their names called on Thursday night?

[+] EnlargeKawann Short
AP Photo/Michael ConroyKawann Short's versatility could make him too attractive for NFL teams to pass up in the draft's first round.
Adam Rittenberg: I think we can match them follicle for follicle, don't you? The Big Ten's draft downturn has been a trend for a number of years. First, the league was falling out of the top 10 consistently. Then, it started to only see selections in the final 10-12 picks. Now it might fall out of the first round entirely. So, yes, there is a talent shortage at the very highest levels and especially at certain positions. The three we've written about most often are quarterback (last first round pick: Kerry Collins), cornerback and wide receiver. I still think the Big Ten produces a wealth of great linemen on both sides of the ball, as well as its share of quality running backs. But the running back position isn't valued nearly as high in the first round as cornerback and quarterback.

I thought the Big Ten still would have a first-round pick even after Michigan LT Taylor Lewan announced he would return in 2012. But now I'm not so sure. Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins and Purdue DT Kawann Short both could hear their names called, but it's far from a guarantee.

What do you think this year's draft says about the state of the Big Ten?

Brian Bennett: I think you hit on several of the reasons, and I'd add in the population and demographic shifts as another. Of course, if Lewan came out as expected, he'd probably be a top-15 pick. And if the NFL were to do last year's draft over, I'm pretty sure Russell Wilson would go in the first round, right?

Still, the downturn in top-level NFL talent, at least from a draft perspective, has to trouble the conference and offers a possible explanation as to why the Big Ten has struggled on the big stage of late. I believe that the way Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke are recruiting will mean more elite players will be entering the pros in the near future, but we shall see.

Let's talk about this year's prospects. Who do you think will be the first Big Ten player selected this weekend? And which Big Ten product do you think should be the first one taken?

Adam Rittenberg: As much as I'd love to see Wisconsin RB Montee Ball work his way into the first round, I think the first pick will be either Short or Hankins. Both are potentially great NFL defensive linemen, but I think Short has a little more versatility to his game and can be an effective pass-rusher in addition to his run-stuffing duties. Short wasn't healthy for a chunk of last season, which led to some erratic play, but he has the ability to dominate inside. So does Hankins, but he's more of a space-eater than a difference-maker on the pass rush. I think Short should be the first Big Ten player taken, and I think he will be.

You mention Wilson, who was arguably the biggest steal of the 2012 draft. Which Big Ten player will fill that role this year? Who are the value picks out there from the league?

Brian Bennett: Wilson slipped in last year's draft because of concerns over his height. And I think there may be a similar thing going on with Ohio State's John Simon. He's viewed as a tweener because he's only 6-foot-1, but there's no questioning Simon's motor, heart or leadership. As long as he can stay healthy, he'll be a productive player for a long time in the NFL.

Penn State's Jordan Hill is another guy who's shorter than the prototype for a defensive lineman but who also makes up for it with his performance and drive. I also believe Nebraska's Rex Burkhead is being undervalued, though running backs aren't the commodities they once were at the next level. A knee injury hurt Burkhead's stock, but he showed at the combine what kind of athlete he is. And I think Michigan State cornerback Johnny Adams, who was looked at as a first-round draft pick not that long ago, could be had at a good price this weekend.

Which players do you think are being undervalued? And what do you see as the draft fate for Michigan's Denard Robinson?

[+] EnlargeBurkhead
Andrew Weber/US PresswireRex Burkhead showed during pre-draft workouts that he's recovered from a 2012 knee injury.
Adam Rittenberg: You bring up some really interesting names, BB, especially Burkhead, who, if healthy and in the right system, could be a very valuable NFL player. Simon is another guy who needs to be in the right system and must overcome measurables that aren't ideal for the NFL at defensive end or outside linebacker. I wouldn't forget the group of Illinois defensive linemen -- Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster, who wowed the scouts during pro day in Champaign. It's easy to dismiss them because they played on a terrible team, but all three have been on the NFL radar for some time -- especially Spence and Buchanan -- and have the talent to succeed at the pro level.

Ohio State tackle Reid Fragel is another guy who could be a great value, although his stock seems to be rising quickly. He started his career as a tight end but really thrived last year at the tackle spot.

Robinson will be one of the weekend's top story lines. He's clearly a work in progress as a receiver, but you can't teach that speed and explosiveness. Robinson is a risk-reward guy, but I'd be surprised if he's still on the board midway through the third round.

The Big Ten sends a fairly small contingent of underclassmen to this year's draft. How do you think those players pan out?

Brian Bennett: Michigan State has three of 'em in Le'Veon Bell, Dion Sims and William Gholston. I think there's a chance that some team reaches for Bell in the first round, and he's got the body to be a very good NFL running back for a long time. Sims also presents an intriguing option for teams, especially with the increased use of tight ends in the pro passing game. Despite Gholston's impressive physical traits, he didn't test that well in Indianapolis and had a questionable motor in college. Teams could shy away from him.

You mentioned Spence from Illinois, a guy whose stock seemed to climb as he showed some great strength in workouts. Hankins will be a second-rounder at worst. Then there's Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, who posted a slow sprint time at the combine. But how many times do centers need to sprint? I still think he'll be a good player, and one who shouldn't fall past the second round.

This is getting to be as long as the draft itself, so we should probably start wrapping things up. Any final thoughts on the Big Ten's outlook this weekend?

Adam Rittenberg: The big story lines for me, other than whether the Big Ten has a player drafted in the first round, are where running backs like Ball, Bell and Burkhead land, the Denard Watch, how the underclassmen fare and where the potential sleepers we outlined above end up. This won't be a transformative draft for the Big Ten because it lacks elite prospects at the positions we mentioned earlier, especially cornerback and quarterback. But there are always a few surprises along the way. As a Chicago Bears fan, I'm always interested to see if a Big Ten player ends up at Halas Hall.

What Big Ten story lines intrigue you heading into the draft?

Brian Bennett: You mentioned most of the big ones. I'll also be interested to see if any team takes a chance on Penn State's Michael Mauti and whether Iowa's James Vandenberg gets drafted after a disappointing senior year. I predict the Big Ten keeps its first-round streak alive -- barely -- and that Robinson stays in Michigan when the Detroit Lions draft him in the fourth round.

And then we can all put the 2013 NFL draft to bed -- and start studying those 2014 mock drafts.

The Big Ten's All-Bowl team

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
11:00
AM CT
The Big Ten won only two bowl games this season, but several players stood out around the league.

Let's take a look at ESPN.com's Big Ten All-Bowl squad ...

OFFENSE

QB: Devin Gardner, Michigan -- There weren't many good choices around the league, but Gardner fired three touchdown passes and racked up 214 pass yards. He has accounted for at least two touchdowns in all five of his starts at quarterback for the Wolverines.

RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State -- The nation's ultimate workhorse running back did his thing in his final game as a Spartan. Bell had 32 carries for 145 yards and a touchdown, recording his eighth 100-yard rushing performance of the season. He also threw a 29-yard pass on a pivotal third-down play.

RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska -- Another back who stood out in his final collegiate game, Burkhead racked up 140 rush yards and a touchdown on 24 carries, and added four receptions for 39 yards. It's really too bad we didn't get to see what Burkhead could have done all season when healthy.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Gallon
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJeremy Gallon celebrates one of his two touchdown catches against South Carolina.
WR: Jeremy Gallon, Michigan -- Gallon recorded career highs in receptions (9) and receiving yards (145), and scored two touchdowns against a strong South Carolina defense in the Outback Bowl. It was his third 100-yard receiving performance of the season.

WR: Derrick Engel, Minnesota -- Along with quarterback Philip Nelson, Engel provided some hope for Minnesota's future on offense with 108 receiving yards on four receptions in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. His 42-yard reception marked the third longest of Minnesota's season.

TE: Dan Vitale, Northwestern -- The freshman provided offensive balance Northwestern needed against a Mississippi State team that focused on taking away Venric Mark and the run game. Vitale recorded team highs in both receptions (7) and receiving yards (82) as Northwestern ended the nation's longest bowl losing streak in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

OL: Taylor Lewan, Michigan -- Everyone remembers Jadeveon Clowney's near decapitation of Michigan's Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl -- which resulted from a miscommunication between Lewan and tight end Mike Kwiatkowski -- but the Wolverines' left tackle did a good job overall against college football's most dominant defensive lineman. Lewan anchored a line that helped Michigan put up decent numbers against an elite defense.

OL: Zac Epping, Minnesota -- Minnesota's offensive line showed flashes of the dominance it displayed for much of the Glen Mason era against Texas Tech. The Gophers racked up 222 rush yards and two touchdowns on 54 carries, as Epping and his linemates opened up holes for Donnell Kirkwood, Rodrick Williams and MarQueis Gray.

OL: Brian Mulroe, Northwestern -- Mulroe made his 40th career start and helped Northwestern finally get over the hump in a bowl game. The Wildcats had a balanced offensive attack, avoided the penalty flag and didn't allow a sack against Mississippi State.

OL: Cole Pensick, Nebraska -- Stepping in for the injured Justin Jackson at center, Pensick helped the Huskers find success running the ball against Georgia, especially up the middle. Nebraska had 239 rushing yards in the Capital One Bowl.

OL: Travis Frederick, Wisconsin: The Badgers rushed for 218 yards against Stanford, which came into the Rose Bowl with the nation's No. 3 rush defense. They also gave up only one sack to a defense which led the FBS in that category. Frederick played very well at center and announced he would skip his junior year to enter the NFL draft a few days later.

DEFENSE

DL: Quentin Williams, Northwestern -- Williams set the tone for Northwestern's win with an interception returned for a touchdown on the third play from scrimmage. He also recorded two tackles for loss, including a sack, in the victory.

DL: William Gholston, Michigan State -- Another player who stood out in his final collegiate game, Gholston tied for the team lead with nine tackles, including a sack, and had a pass breakup in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win against TCU. The freakishly athletic defensive end stepped up in a bowl game for the second straight season.

DL: Tyler Scott, Northwestern -- Scott and his fellow linemates made life tough for turnover-prone Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell in the Gator Bowl. The Wildcats junior defensive end recorded three tackles for loss, including two sacks, and added a quarterback hurry in the win.

DL: Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota -- The big man in the center of Minnesota's defensive line stood out against Texas Tech, recording six tackles, including a sack, and a pass breakup. Gophers fans should be fired up to have Hageman back in the fold for the 2013 season.

LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State -- Bullough once again triggered a strong defensive performance by Michigan State, which held TCU to just three points in the final two and a half quarters of the Wings bowl. The junior middle linebacker tied with Gholston for the team tackles lead (9) and assisted on a tackle for loss.

LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin -- The Badgers' defense clamped down against Stanford after a slow start, and Borland once again stood out with his play at middle linebacker. The standout junior led Wisconsin with nine tackles as the defense kept the Badgers within striking distance in Pasadena.

LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan -- Ryan capped a breakout season with another strong performance in the bowl game, recording 1.5 tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and half a sack. He'll enter 2013 as a top candidate for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.

CB: Michael Carter, Minnesota -- Carter finished off a strong senior year with two interceptions, a pass breakup and seven tackles in the 34-31 loss to Texas Tech.

CB: Nick VanHoose, Northwestern: The redshirt freshman picked off a Mississippi State pass and returned it 39 yard to set up the game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter.

S: Jared Carpenter, Northwestern: The senior was named MVP of the Gator Bowl win with a game-high 10 tackles and a near interception late in the game.

S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: The Wildcats dominate our all-bowl team secondary for good reason. Campbell had an interception and a pass breakup against the Bulldogs.

Specialists

P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State -- The punters took center stage in Tempe as both offenses struggled, and Sadler provided MSU with a huge lift in the field-position game. He set Spartans bowl records for punts (11) and punting yards (481), averaging 43.7 yards per punt with three inside the 20-yard line. His booming punt inside the TCU 5 helped lead to a game-turning fumble by the Horned Frogs' Skye Dawson.

K: Brendan Gibbons and Matt Wile, Michigan -- Both kickers share the honors after combining to go 3-for-3 on field-goal attempts in the Outback Bowl. Gibbons, the hero of last year's Sugar Bowl, connected from 39 yards and 40 yards in the first half. Wile hit a career-long 52-yard attempt in the third quarter, setting an Outback Bowl record.

Returner: Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota -- It took a bit longer than expected, but Stoudermire finally set the NCAA record for career kick return yards with a 26-yard runback on the opening kickoff against Texas Tech. The senior cornerback finished the game with 111 return yards, including a 37-yard runback, on four attempts.

Poll: Best B1G bowl performance (player)

January, 2, 2013
1/02/13
8:04
PM CT
Earlier today, we presented you with our Big Ten bowl helmet stickers, recognizing five outstanding performances from the postseason.

Now it's time to decide on which one was the best of the Big Ten bowls. Here are the candidates and their particulars:

SportsNation

Which of these Big Ten players had the best bowl performance?

  •  
    6%
  •  
    25%
  •  
    32%
  •  
    15%
  •  
    22%

Discuss (Total votes: 8,885)

Recognizing the top individual performances by Big Ten players in the postseason:
  • Minnesota CB Michael Carter: Carter had two interceptions, a pass breakup 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: Bell carried 32 times for 145 yards and a touchdown and also threw a pass for 29 yards in Michigan State's 17-16 win over TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
  • Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead: Burkhead ran 24 times for 140 yards and a touchdown and had four catches for 39 yards and a score in the Cornhuskers' 45-31 loss to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl.
  • Michigan WR Jeremy Gallon: Gallon caught nine passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns in the Wolverines' 33-28 loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.
  • Northwestern DL Quentin Williams: We honored the Wildcats' secondary as a whole for our helmet stickers, but we'll go with Williams for this individual nomination. He had a pick-six, a sack and two tackles for loss in Northwestern's 34-20 win over Mississippi State in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl.

Which player had the best bowl showing? Vote now in our poll. (Tomorrow, we'll take at the best offensive and defensive units from the league's postseason).

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.

ESPN.com's All-Big Ten second team

December, 10, 2012
12/10/12
9:51
PM CT
We unveiled our All-Big Ten team earlier today, but there are many others who deserve recognition. That's why we have a second-team all-conference squad. A handful of these players easily could have easily appeared on the first team, as several of the decisions were extremely close.

Here's the second-team squad:

Offense

QB: Taylor Martinez, Nebraska
RB: Venric Mark, Northwestern
RB: Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
WR: Cody Latimer, Indiana
TE: Dion Sims, Michigan State
C: Travis Frederick, Wisconsin
G: John Urschel, Penn State
G: Andrew Norwell, Ohio State
T: Rick Wagner, Wisconsin
T: Jeremiah Sirles, Nebraska

Defense

DL: Kawann Short, Purdue
DL: Eric Martin, Nebraska
DL: D.L. Wilhite, Minnesota
DL: Adam Replogle, Indiana
LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State
LB: Mike Taylor, Wisconsin
LB: Gerald Hodges, Penn State
DB: Josh Johnson, Purdue
DB: Michael Carter, Minnesota
DB: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern
DB: Micah Hyde, Iowa

Special teams

K: Brendan Gibbons, Michigan
P: Cody Webster, Purdue
All-purpose: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska

Unlike the first team, we used a traditional 4-3 defense. We had three very good linebackers in Bullough, Hodges and Taylor who could have made the first team, and there's a clear drop-off after that point. ... Nebraska's Martinez struggled in the Big Ten title game, and we had a tough decision between him and Penn State's Matt McGloin, but Martinez's overall production gave him the edge. ... Northwestern's Mark made the first team as an all-purpose player, but he was our obvious first choice for second-team running back, too. It came down to Hyde and Abdullah for the other spot, but Hyde had better per-game production than Abdullah. The good news is Abdullah, who did a terrific job filling in for Rex Burkhead, still makes the team as an all-purpose player ... There were some tough choices at defensive back, and players like Michigan State safety Isaiah Lewis and Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs nearly made the list. Michigan State had the ultimate team defense this season, a great unit not loaded with superstars. ... Nebraska's Brett Maher received more recognition on the official All-Big Ten teams, but liked Gibbons' steadiness throughout the season and his ability to make big kicks against both Michigan State and Northwestern.

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.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 14

November, 26, 2012
11/26/12
12:47
PM CT
The Ohio State Buckeyes have been atop the Big Ten power rankings most of the season. They'll stay there for a very long time.

Ohio State's win against Michigan secured a 12-0 season, just the sixth undefeated, untied campaign in team history. While the Buckeyes won't be in Indianapolis this week for the league championship game, they have proved to be the class of the conference after beating every top team in the league except Northwestern.

Nebraska retains the No. 2 spot, and most of the rankings remain the same after Week 13. Our toughest decision came at No. 3, between Michigan and Penn State. If only the teams had played each other this season.

To the rundown ...

1. Ohio State (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten, last week: 1): Sure, the Big Ten is down and Ohio State has its flaws, but any team that runs the table in any season deserves a ton of credit. Urban Meyer took a seven-loss team with significant depth issues and ran the table in his first year. Braxton Miller and the offense carried the Buckeyes early this season, but the defense stepped in the second half of Big Ten play. Ryan Shazier, Johnathan Hankins and others blanked Michigan in the second half to win The Game and ensure perfection.

2. Nebraska (10-2, 7-1, last week: 2): Most of us thought Bo Pelini was crazy when he talked about winning out moments after his team had been beaten 63-38 at Ohio State. Bo might have thought so, too. But his players believed and found a way to claim the Legends Division title and a spot in Indianapolis. Nebraska needed its defense in a big way at Iowa and received huge performances from defensive end Eric Martin and others. And with Rex Burkhead back in the fold at running back, the Huskers will be even better the rest of the way.

3. Michigan (8-4, 6-2, last week: 3): We gave Michigan a slight edge against Penn State because the Wolverines had no bad losses and gave Ohio State a tougher test. The Wolverines' defense did a nice job keeping Ohio State out of the end zone Saturday, but the offense disappeared in the second half, recording just 60 total yards and four first downs. Offensive coordinator Al Borges got predictable and must iron out the game plan before a tough bowl matchup against an SEC opponent.

4. Penn State (8-4, 6-2, last week: 4): Bill O'Brien described his team as resilient all season, and Penn State once again showed why in Saturday's overtime win against Wisconsin. Playing without star linebacker Michael Mauti, the Lions' defense shut down Wisconsin for most of the game, receiving a huge performance from defensive tackle Jordan Hill. Zach Zwinak stepped up at running back and kicker Sam Ficken, who took so much abuse earlier in the season, went 3-for-3 on field goal attempts and hit the game winner in overtime. What a satisfying way to end the season for O'Brien and his crew.

5. Northwestern (9-3, 5-3, last week: 5): If you're searching for good stories amid the Big Ten morass this season, look no further than Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats. A young team exceeded all expectations during the regular season and was a play or two away from going to the Big Ten title game. Northwestern steamrolled Illinois with its dynamic rushing attack led by quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark. Fitzgerald tied Lynn Waldorf for the school's all-time coaching wins list with his 49th. An opportunistic defense stepped up, too, as Northwestern secured a spot in a Florida bowl (most likely Outback).

6. Wisconsin (7-5, 4-4, last week: 6): Another close loss for the Badgers, who had an offensive spark early and late but disappeared in between. Wisconsin's defense has made strides during the Big Ten season, but the offense simply lacks consistency, especially up front. It has proved costly in three overtime defeats this year. The Badgers are the third-best team in the Leaders Division but will go to the Big Ten title game, where they'll try to finish a bit better against Nebraska. Quarterback Curt Phillips has shown poise late in games.

7. Michigan State (6-6, 3-5, last week: 7): The Spartans went to their bread and butter -- defense and Le'Veon Bell -- to get past Minnesota and reach the six-win plateau. Michigan State's defense was simply dominant at TCF Bank Stadium, holding the Gophers to four net rush yards and three points on offense. Bell racked up a career-high 266 rush yards and a touchdown, his third 200-yard effort of the season. Michigan State didn't have the season it envisioned, but at least it has a chance to get better during bowl practices before a potential springboard for 2013.

8. Purdue (6-6, 3-5, last week: 9): Like Michigan State, Purdue underachieved this season but found a way to squeak into a bowl game. Credit quarterback Robert Marve, running back Akeem Shavers and the rest of Purdue's seniors for refusing to let the season go down the drain after an 0-5 start to Big Ten play. Shavers and Marve were brilliant against Indiana, and Frankie Williams and the Purdue secondary stepped up as well. It wasn't enough to save coach Danny Hope, but Purdue can win its second straight bowl and end a turbulent season on a good note.

9. Minnesota (6-6, 2-6, last week: 8): Big Ten play was no picnic for the Gophers, who endured numerous injuries, quarterback changes, the A.J. Barker turmoil this week and back-to-back losses to finish the regular season. Minnesota should get healthier before its bowl game, but it has a long way to go on the offensive side after rushing for four net yards Saturday against Michigan State. The next few weeks are big for freshman quarterback Philip Nelson, who struggled in his last two games.

10. Indiana (4-8, 2-6, last week: 10): The past three weeks showed that Indiana still has a long way to go to legitimize itself in the Big Ten. A defense that has struggled for more than a decade surrendered 163 points in losses to Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue. After taking great care of the ball, quarterback Cameron Coffman had seven interceptions in his final three contests. Indiana made progress in Kevin Wilson's second season, and a big opportunity awaits in 2013 with eight home games. But there's a lot of work ahead in the offseason.

11. Iowa (4-8, 2-6, last week: 11): The defense came to play on Black Friday, but an offense that had sputtered all season went out with a whimper. Iowa failed to convert two more turnovers into points, and coordinator Greg Davis once again left Hawkeye fans pulling out their hair with his perplexing play calls. What looked like an eight- or nine-win season in September turned into a complete mess for Kirk Ferentz's crew. The Legends Division will be loaded again in 2013, so Iowa faces a critical offseason.

12. Illinois (2-10, 0-8, last week: 12): There are really bad teams, and then there's Illinois. Tim Beckman's first season mercifully ended Saturday, but not before another embarrassing road loss, this time at the hands of a rival. The Illini's offense actually showed up early, but eight first-half penalties, four turnovers and a defensive front seven that had no answer for Northwestern's run game ensured the Orange and Blue would end the Big Ten season winless for the fourth time since 1997. Beckman, who earned a penalty by accidentally contacting an official during a Northwestern interception, has a lot to fix.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 12

November, 15, 2012
11/15/12
10:15
AM CT
Ten items to track around the Big Ten entering Week 12:

1. Ballin' for history: Thirteen years after Ron Dayne broke the NCAA career rushing record, another Wisconsin running back is on the doorstep of a major milestone. Badgers senior Montee Ball, who, unlike Dayne, spent a year and a half as a reserve, needs one more touchdown Saturday against Ohio State to tie the NCAA career mark of 78 held by former Miami (Ohio) star Travis Prentice. Ball has scored 13 touchdowns in his past six games and is averaging 179.1 yards and three touchdowns in his past nine November games. A big performance against the unbeaten Buckeyes will once again put Ball on the radar for top national honors. Ball's next rushing touchdown will mark his 72nd, moving him past Dayne for the Big Ten career record.

2. Holding serve in the Legends: Nebraska and Michigan are tied atop the Legends Division at 5-1, and on paper, they should stay that way after Week 12. Both teams are favored to take care of Minnesota and Iowa, respectively, on senior day in Lincoln and Ann Arbor. Nebraska's magic number (wins and Michigan losses) to punch its ticket to Indianapolis is 2. A Huskers loss and a Michigan win puts the Wolverines in control of their own fate in the division. One senior day subplot is whether face-of-the-program stars like Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson will play after missing time with injuries. Burkhead (knee) returned to practice this week and seems closer to a return, while Robinson (elbow) remains day-to-day.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Andrew Weber/US PresswireLe'Veon Bell and the Spartans plan to finish strong against Northwestern on Saturday.
3. Finishing school: Northwestern and Michigan State easily could be playing for a Legends Division title Saturday. Instead, both teams' inability to finish against the likes of Nebraska and Michigan has left them looking for a full 60-minute performance. Michigan State's four Big Ten losses have come by a combined 10 points. Northwestern held double-digit second-half leads in all three of its Big Ten losses. Something's gotta give Saturday as the teams meet at Spartan Stadium. "Their problem, just like ours, has been closing out games," Spartans linebacker Chris Norman told ESPN.com this week. "... It's going to come down to who can finish the best. Saturday is going to be interesting."

4. Hope and a prayer: There's growing talk that Purdue will make a head-coaching change after the regular season no matter what happens in the final two games. But can fourth-year boss Danny Hope save himself with a three-game win streak to become bowl-eligible? It's reason enough to tune in for an otherwise off-the-radar game between Purdue and slumping Illinois on Saturday. A loss to the Illini would prevent Purdue from getting bowl-eligible and likely seal Hope's fate, while a Purdue win adds intrigue to next week's Bucket game against Indiana. The Boilers' offense got on track last week behind quarterback Robert Marve and running back Ralph Bolden, while defensive tackle Kawann Short had his best game of the season at Iowa.

5. Rivalry renewed: Saturday's game at Camp Randall Stadium won't decide which Leaders Division team goes to the Big Ten title game, as Wisconsin already punched its ticket last week. But Ohio State can lock up the Leaders Division championship -- the only title it can win this season -- while Wisconsin can legitimize its trip to Indy by handing Urban Meyer's Buckeyes their first loss of the season. Looking ahead, the Ohio State-Wisconsin game likely will be the signature contest in the division for years to come. Illinois is a mess, Purdue has backslid this season, Indiana is still building and Penn State still has three more years of postseason bans. "I hate Wisconsin just as much as Michigan," Ohio State wide receiver Corey Brown said this week. While Meyer and Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema say their post-signing day spat is a thing of a past, it could bubble up Saturday depending on how the game goes.

6. Taking a pass: The Big Ten might not be flush with elite quarterbacks and high-powered offenses this season, but a few of its teams can sling the ball a bit, and two of them meet at Beaver Stadium. Indiana and Penn State are the Big Ten's top two pass offenses, ranking 26th and 40th nationally, respectively. They'll share the field Saturday as they try to rebound from different types of losses. Indiana quarterback Cameron Coffman struggled with his accuracy (25-for-46) in last week's loss to Wisconsin and looks for a sharper afternoon. Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin wasn't a happy guy after the Nebraska loss and will try to take it out on IU. The game features two of the Big Ten's top receivers in Penn State's Allen Robinson and Indiana's Cody Latimer.

7. Hawkeye hex: Iowa has been in a funk for much of the season and particularly in the past month, dropping four consecutive Big Ten contests. Perhaps a date with Michigan can put the Hawkeyes back on track. See, Iowa has won three straight against Michigan for the first time in team history and five of its past eight against the Wolverines. Michigan's seniors are anxious to finally get over the hump against Iowa, one of two Big Ten teams (Penn State the other) they have yet to beat. But maybe it works the other way and Iowa finally shows a spark on offense and stiffens its defense. If not, the Hawkeyes won't be going bowling for the first time since the 2006 season, and it'll be a very long winter for Kirk Ferentz. "It doesn't hurt, obviously," Ferentz said of his team's Michigan win streak, "but it doesn't guarantee us anything."

8. Backs of different sizes: Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell is the biggest featured running back in the Big Ten, checking in at 6-2 and 244 pounds. Northwestern's Venric Mark is the smallest, checking in at 5-8 and 175 pounds. But both have been extremely effective this season with the ball in their hands. Bell leads the Big Ten in rushing yards (1,249), while Mark ranks third in rushing yards (1,181) and first in all-purpose yards (1,917). Each has been the MVP of his respective offense, and it'll be interesting to see them on the same field at Spartan Stadium. Both Michigan State and Northwestern defend the run well, too, both ranking in the top 25 nationally.

9. Illini look for a spark: Illinois ranks last in the Big Ten in scoring, rushing and total offense, and lingers near the bottom of the FBS in all the significant categories. The Illini need some sort of boost on offense or a 2-10 season is a virtual certainty. Head coach Tim Beckman, whose background is defense but who had a high-powered offense at Toledo the past few years, took a more active role with the offense this week in an effort to get things going. Beckman also noted that co-offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales call plays on different downs. Hmmm. Starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne took more reps with the wide receivers this week and could see an increased role against Purdue. Illinois aims to win on senior day for the first time since 2007.

10. Bowl picture taking shape: We learned a little more about the Big Ten bowl contingent last week as Minnesota became bowl-eligible, Purdue took a big step toward the postseason and both Iowa and Indiana took a step toward a winter at home. There should be some more answers in Week 12. Michigan State aims for its sixth win to go bowling for the sixth consecutive season under coach Mark Dantonio. Purdue must keep its bowl hopes alive at Illinois, while both Iowa and Indiana must win on the road to avoid loss No. 7. It won't be easy for the Hawkeyes or Hoosiers. Indiana never has won at Beaver Stadium in 15 previous meetings with Penn State. Iowa never has won consecutive games at Michigan Stadium.

Take Two: B1G's non-quarterback MVP

October, 9, 2012
10/09/12
2:00
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Mark-RobinsonGetty ImagesNorthwestern's Venric Mark and Penn State's Allen Robinson have been nice surprises this season.
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

Today's Take Two Topic is inspired by Maxwell from Madison, Wis., who asked during Monday's chat: To this point, who is [the Big Ten's] non-quarterback offensive MVP?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

Maxwell posed an interesting question, because it's pretty obvious through six weeks that Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Penn State's Matt McGloin are two of the top MVP candidates in the league, while Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Michigan's Denard Robinson are crucial to their team's fortunes. Some of the running backs we expected to be MVP candidates, like Wisconsin's Montee Ball and Nebraska's Rex Burkhead, haven't had the kind of years anyone projected. My answer to this question is a guy hardly anybody was talking about this summer: Penn State receiver Allen Robinson. When Derek Moye graduated and Justin Brown transferred to Oklahoma State, the Nittany Lions receiving corps was badly in need of a leader this fall. Robinson, a sophomore, has taken that on his shoulders. He leads all Big Ten receivers in catches (41), yards (524) and touchdowns (7). McGloin has had a standout season, but more than a third of his passing yards have gone to Robinson. Penn State's offense wouldn't be nearly the same. And there's almost no way the team would be 4-2 without him.

Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

Robinson is a very good choice, BB. He has become a star at a position that entered the season with major question marks after Brown's departure. The same could be said for Northwestern's running back spot, which hasn't had a true standout since Tyrell Sutton left following the 2008 season. Things have changed this season because of Venric Mark, and he's my pick for non-QB offensive MVP. Despite standing barely 5-foot-8, Mark is the biggest reason why Northwestern started 5-0, and why the Wildcats were in position to be 6-0 before a fourth-quarter collapse at Penn State. He has three 100-yard rushing performances and averages 5.4 yards per carry with six rushing touchdowns. And unlike Robinson, Iowa's Mark Weisman, Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell or most other candidates (save for Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah), Mark has made a huge impact in more than one way. He has two punt returns for touchdowns, averages 32.9 yards per runback and ranks second in the Big Ten and seventh nationally in all-purpose yards (180.5 ypg). Only one other Northwestern player ever had recorded multiple punt return touchdowns in a season (Tom Worthington in 1949). Mark also has been surprisingly good in the red zone despite his size and complements quarterback Kain Colter in the option.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 5

September, 24, 2012
9/24/12
10:34
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It was another rough Saturday around most of the Big Ten, and as a result, there's a lot of shuffling in the power rankings. Ohio State remains at the top, mainly because it hasn't lost a game, while Nebraska moves into the No. 2 hole. The high-powered Huskers could be the Big Ten's best team, although they've yet to prove it against quality competition. The Michigan schools both take a tumble, and while Michigan State won Saturday, we're not impressed with the Spartans right now. There's very little separating teams 3-6, and we expect more movement in the coming weeks.

Illinois and Iowa both imploded Saturday, and both teams pay the price this week.

Let's get to it …

1. Ohio State (4-0, last week: 1): Someone needs to be at the top of this weak conference, and the Buckeyes continue to win, albeit in unimpressive fashion. Ohio State overcame special-teams breakdowns, penalties and some more shaky defense to beat UAB on Saturday. The good news is quarterback Braxton Miller can take over games when he wants to, and he'll be the best player on the field in many Big Ten games. Ohio State's offense faces by far its toughest test this week as it opens Big Ten play on the road at Michigan State, which nearly held the Buckeyes scoreless last year in Columbus.

2. Nebraska (3-1, last week: 4): We didn't learn a whole lot about Nebraska against a completely overmatched Idaho State team. It's pretty clear, though, that the Huskers boast plenty of weapons on offense, perhaps more than any other Big Ten team. Rex Burkhead's return only strengthens an already dynamic backfield. The Huskers now prepare for the one they've been waiting for, a chance to avenge last year's blowout loss at Wisconsin. After beating up on inferior competition, Taylor Martinez and the Huskers take aim at the Badgers.

3. Northwestern (4-0, last week: 5): This is the only Big Ten team that truly aced its nonconference exam, and it gets rewarded. After recording wins against Big East, SEC and ACC foes, Northwestern took a step down in class and made quick work of FCS South Dakota. Pat Fitzgerald's team has built its identity on running the ball with Venric Mark and others, and stopping the run. Northwestern still needs more from its quarterbacks in the passing game, and its secondary will be tested in the coming weeks as Big Ten play begins, but you have to like where this team is right now.

4. Purdue (2-1, last week: 6): The Boilers are here mainly because they looked much better against Notre Dame than either Michigan State or Michigan did. Purdue's crew had an open week before rounding out the nonconference slate this coming Saturday against Marshall. Michigan and Purdue will be the last Big Ten teams to open league play Oct. 6, but we'll get a very good read on Danny Hope's squad as it starts off with the Wolverines, Wisconsin and Ohio State. Quarterback Robert Marve returned to practice last week despite a partially torn ACL. It will be interesting to see if the star-crossed quarterback can help Purdue make a run for the Leaders division title.

5. Michigan State (3-1, last week: 3): It has been a rough two weeks in Sparta. Saturday was supposed to be the get-well game for Andrew Maxwell, Le'Veon Bell and the Michigan State offense. Instead, the Spartans went more than three quarters without reaching the end zone against one of the worst defenses in the FBS. Coach Mark Dantonio clearly wasn't happy afterward. Although Bell continues to be a workhorse, Michigan State's offensive issues remain heading into the Big Ten season. Fortunately, the Spartans' defense still can take them a long way this fall.

6. Michigan (2-2, last week: 2): A four-spot drop might seem harsh, but as stated earlier, there's not much separating No. 3 from No. 6. And Michigan really hasn't proven much in the first four weeks, falling to two Top 10 teams, squeaking by Air Force and pounding UMass. The Wolverines showed some promising signs against Notre Dame, particularly on defense and the way the offensive line blocked in the second half. But Denard Robinson's extreme play -- very good or very bad -- caught up with Michigan, which still puts too much of its fate on No. 16.

7. Minnesota (4-0, last week: 7): We understand why Gophers fans might be ticked off their team didn't move up after improving to 4-0. We both were really impressed with Minnesota on Saturday night, especially the defense facing a dynamic quarterback in Ryan Nassib. The Gophers should have won by more than seven and enter Big Ten play with a ton of confidence. We're still looking to see how Minnesota performs against better competition, and while Iowa is struggling right now, the Gophers haven't won at Kinnick Stadium since 1999. If they do, they'll move up the power rankings (and maybe into the national rankings).

8. Wisconsin (3-1, last week: 11): Bret Bielema's team took a step on the field -- and up the power rankings -- Saturday against UTEP. It was far from a spotless performance, and Wisconsin must be better this week at Nebraska, but the Badgers can feel a bit better about themselves, especially on offense. Quarterback Joel Stave looked good in his first career start, and he certainly benefited from the return of star receiver Jared Abbrederis. The Badgers ran the ball well despite losing Montee Ball to a head injury. They'll need to take a much bigger step against the revenge-minded Huskers.

9. Penn State (2-2, last week: 10): While some Big Ten teams easily could have worse records, Penn State is a kick away from being 3-1 with its only loss to a very good Ohio team. Quarterback Matt McGloin continues to surge under the tutelage of new coach Bill O'Brien, passing for a career-high 318 yards in Saturday's win against Temple. The defense is keeping opponents out of the end zone, and linebacker Michael Mauti is playing at an All-Big Ten level. The run game remains a concern, but Penn State is a confident team entering Big Ten play and will be extremely fired up to face Illinois and poacher coach Tim Beckman this week.

10. Indiana (2-1, last week: 12): An open week seemed to come at a good time for the Hoosiers, who lost a heartbreaker to Ball State on Sept. 15 after a 2-0 start. The Ball State loss actually is looking better and better. The week also gave top quarterback Cameron Coffman some additional time to heal from a hip pointer that forced him out of the Ball State game. Indiana aims for its first Big Ten victory since 2010 as it visits Northwestern on Saturday. Coffman and his receivers should be able to move the ball against the Wildcats, but can IU stop anyone on defense?

11. Iowa (2-2, last week: 9): This is the punishment spot in the power rankings. Wisconsin found itself here after Week 3, and Iowa drops down to No. 11 after an inexplicable loss to a weak Central Michigan team at Kinnick Stadium. Thanks to Mark Weisman, the Hawkeyes seemingly have remedied their offense, but their defense looked terrible Saturday, and they couldn't avoid the penalty flag. They also need to work on defending the onside kick. A very rough start for Kirk Ferentz's crew as Minnesota comes to town looking to keep Floyd for the third straight year.

12. Illinois (2-2, last week: 8): It's a close call between Illinois and Iowa for the cellar, but at least Iowa's losses have been competitive. Beckman's Illini were blown out for the second time in three weeks by an up-tempo, spread-offense team. While the Arizona State debacle could be somewhat excused after a long trip, Illinois' performance Saturday night against Louisiana Tech on its home field is downright embarrassing. Illinois' defensive struggles are almost as surprising as Wisconsin's offensive struggles, and the Illini still don't have an identity on offense.

Huskers, Wildcats cruise against FCS foes

September, 22, 2012
9/22/12
6:51
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There was zero drama in Lincoln, Neb., and Evanston, Ill., as both No. 25 Nebraska and Northwestern cruised to easy wins against overmatched FCS opponents.

Let's keep this short and sweet ...

Nebraska 73, Idaho State 7: Idaho State's victory against mighty Black Hills State evidently didn't carry over to Lincoln. Nebraska made quick work of the Bengals, scoring 35 points in barely 12 minutes and recording its first 70-point output since 2007 against Kansas State. All-Big Ten running back Rex Burkhead returned after missing two games with a knee sprain and raced 61 yards for a touchdown -- a career-long rush -- on his third carry of the game. The 35-point first quarter was Nebraska's highest output since 2000, when it put up a team-record 38 first-quarter points against Baylor. The Huskers wisely took it easy with Burkhead (8 carries, 119 yards, 2 TDs), mindful of next week's Big Ten opener against Wisconsin, and turned things over to Ameer Abdullah, who scored on a run and an 81-yard punt return.

Despite the weak competition, Nebraska showed why it might have the most diverse and dangerous offense in the Big Ten this season. The Huskers have no shortage of weapons and showcased several, including big-play receiver Kenny Bell, who had a 68-yard touchdown catch, a career long, in the first quarter. The defense also got into the scoring as Ciante Evans recorded a pick-six. Taylor Martinez had another efficient performance (9-for-13 passing, 165 yards, 2 TDs) and Nebraska racked up 15 first downs and 362 yards in the first half. These mismatches can be hard to watch, but Nebraska handled its business and now gears up for Big Ten play.

Northwestern 38, South Dakota 7: Northwestern didn't dispatch of South Dakota quite as quickly as Nebraska did Idaho State, but it didn't take long for Venric Mark and the run game to get going. Mark, one of the surprise stars of non-league play in the Big Ten, recorded 97 rush yards and three touchdowns in the first half as Northwestern surged to a 28-0 lead. He finished with 16 carries for 117 yards. The Wildcats got a scare early as quarterback Kain Colter, who still runs the ball a bit too recklessly, left with a wrist injury after taking a big shot. But Colter returned late in the second quarter.

The offensive line followed up a strong performance against Boston College with another one against the undersized Coyotes, as Northwestern racked up 277 rush yards on 53 carries. Northwestern has recruited well to the line, and after underachieving in recent years, the start to 2012 has been promising. The Wildcats also continued to defend the run well against option-centric South Dakota, surrendering only 51 yards on the ground. Pat Fitzgerald's squad aced its non-league exam, while there's a lot of room to improve, especially in the pass game, which generated only 131 yards Saturday. Still, Northwestern enters Big Ten play brimming with confidence.

Big Ten Week 4 preview

September, 17, 2012
9/17/12
1:00
PM CT
There are only 14 weeks in the college football regular season. This is one of them.

That's about the nicest thing I can say about this week's slate of Big Ten games, which makes me yawn every time I scroll through it. But that's not to say there aren't any interesting contests on tap. Here's a quick preview of what's coming on Saturday in order of most to least interest (all times ET):

No. 18 Michigan (2-1) at No. 11 Notre Dame (3-0), 7:30 p.m., NBC: No doubt this is the headliner of the week, a game that has taken on even more prestige given the strong start this season by the Irish. Can the Wolverines do what Purdue and Michigan State couldn't and topple the Golden Domers? They do have Denard Robinson, who has caused more nightmares in South Bend than the bogeyman. With the game under the lights at Notre Dame Stadium, this should be a whole heap of fun.

Syracuse (1-2) at Minnesota (3-0), 8 p.m., Big Ten Network: A game that didn't seem all that interesting in the preseason now looks like maybe the second-best option for Week 4. The Gophers look to get to 4-0 but will have to do so without the injured MarQueis Gray. The Orange are 1-2 but played Northwestern close and hung with USC, and they rank third in the nation in passing yards behind Ryan Nassib. This will be a real test for Minnesota.

Temple (1-1) at Penn State (1-2), 3:30 p.m., ABC: The Nittany Lions finally got a win last week against Navy and need that mojo this week to avoid losing to Temple for the first time since 1941. The Owls didn't inspire a lot of confidence in losing to Maryland last week, but they nearly pulled off the upset of Penn State last year in Philly.

Louisiana Tech (2-0) at Illinois (2-1), 8 p.m., BTN: It says something when this is the fourth best game of the week, but I actually think this could be a good one. The Bulldogs are better than you think, having won eight games last year and playing TCU close in their bowl. Their opener against Texas A&M got postponed by weather, but they've averaged 56 points and nearly 290 rushing yards in wins over Rice and Houston. If the Illini are still banged up and not at their best, they could lose here.

UTEP (1-2) at Wisconsin (2-1), Noon, ESPN2: Fun fact: UTEP is ranked 106th in scoring offense. Wisconsin is ranked 113th. OK, that's not much fun if you're a Badgers fan. But the point is, Wisconsin has played so poorly that no game is safe at this point. The Miners gave Oklahoma a minor scare in Week 1.

South Dakota (1-1) at Northwestern (3-0), 3:30 p.m., BTN: After playing three straight BCS AQ teams, the Wildcats get a bit of a break here and should improve to 4-0. South Dakota did win at Minnesota two years ago, but the Coyotes lost to Maine in their season opener.

Central Michigan (1-1) at Iowa (2-1), Noon, BTN: Yes, we've reached the real snoozer portion of the schedule. The Chippewas got drilled at home by Michigan State two weeks ago. Iowa found a little bit of an offensive rhythm against Northern Iowa and should not have much trouble if it can keep that up.

UAB (0-2) at No. 16 Ohio State (3-0), Noon, BTN: This is little more than a tune-up for the Buckeyes before their showdown at Michigan State on Sept. 29. The Blazers have been outscored 88-35 in their first two games, losses to Troy and South Carolina. Have fun, Braxton Miller.

Eastern Michigan (0-3) at No. 21 Michigan State (2-1), 3:30 p.m., BTN: The Spartans will also just be tuning up before that Ohio State game, not to mention relieving some frustration from the Notre Dame loss. Eastern Michigan was last seen losing 54-16 to Purdue and ranks nationally in rush defense. Good luck stopping Le'Veon Bell this week, fellas.

Idaho State at No. 25 Nebraska (2-1), 3:30 p.m., BTN: Just about the only storylines for this one are Bo Pelini's health and Rex Burkhead's availability. The FCS Vandals lost to Air Force in the opener but then rebounded to beat Black Hills State, which is apparently a real team. Conference season can't get here soon enough.

Byes: Indiana, Purdue

Final: Northwestern 28, Nebraska 25

November, 5, 2011
11/05/11
6:13
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Kain Colter and the Northwestern Wildcats have turned the Legends Division race upside down.

Led by a heroic performance from Colter in relief of the injured Dan Persa, Northwestern shocked No. 10 Nebraska 28-25, handing the Huskers their second Big Ten loss and first at Memorial Stadium. The losses by division leaders Nebraska and Michigan leave Michigan State in sole possession of the Legends lead.

Nebraska was unable to contain Northwestern's offense, which repeatedly attacked the Huskers in the middle of the field, exactly where Michigan State refused to strike. The Huskers really missed star defensive tackle Jared Crick, and they repeatedly left Northwestern receivers open in the deep middle.

Even without Persa, who missed the entire second half with a left shoulder injury, Northwestern moved the ball thanks to Colter, who racked up 115 pass yards, 58 rush yards and 57 receiving yards. Colter led the decisive drive in the fourth quarter, as Northwestern marched 66 yards in 13 plays, all runs, and ate up 7:21 of clock. A veteran Wildcats offensive line imposed its will against Nebraska, and Colter scored from 1 yard out with 1:34 left. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini didn't use any of his three timeouts on the march, a decision that undoubtedly will be scrutinized.

Nebraska fell despite a terrific performance from sophomore QB Taylor Martinez, who attacked Northwestern with his arm, not his legs. Martinez completed 29 of 38 passes for 308 yards and two touchdowns, looking much more composed in the pocket.

But a defense that received its coveted Blackshirts on Monday didn't get it done. As a result, Nebraska finds itself in a very tough spot in the Legends Division. This looked like the easiest of the Huskers' final four games. They now must travel to Penn State and Michigan before finishing against Iowa.

Huge win for Northwestern, especially because it found a way to hold on in the second half after blowing so many big leads this season. A defense that hadn't stopped anyone held Rex Burkhead and the Nebraska rushing game in check.

The Wildcats continue their annual tradition of one shocking upset, and this is among the biggest wins in coach Pat Fitzgerald's career. Northwestern still needs two wins to become bowl eligible, but it returns home for its final three contests (Rice, Minnesota and Michigan State).

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