Chicago Colleges: Roy Roundtree

Wildcats crush Illini, likely Florida-bound

November, 24, 2012
11/24/12
2:27
PM CT
Sure, there are some what-ifs for Northwestern after a season like this.

What if the Wildcats had intercepted Taylor Martinez in the fourth quarter Oct. 20? What if they had tackled Roy Roundtree before the ball arrived Nov. 12? What if they had protected leads a little bit better?

Had one or two plays went differently, Northwestern would be packing its bags for Indianapolis and the Big Ten title game. Those near misses are frustrating, but the 2012 Wildcats team should be appreciated as one of the Big Ten's best. It certainly looks like Pat Fitzgerald's best product in his six seasons as head coach.

And if Northwestern can get the bowl monkey off of its back in the coming weeks, the season will be branded as a major success, period.

Northwestern made easy work of Illinois in a 50-14 romp at Ryan Field to finish 9-3. A Florida bowl invitation -- Outback or Gator the probable choices -- likely awaits the Wildcats (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten), who are searching for their first postseason victory since the 1949 Rose Bowl.

After a shaky start on defense, Northwestern dominated the Illini with a dynamic run game and capitalized on Illinois' many mistakes. The game basically was over as soon as Northwestern announced its star backfield of quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark would be available to play.

Colter and Mark knifed through Illinois' defensive front, which hasn't been the biggest weakness for the Illini this season but certainly was Saturday. The tandem combined for 215 rush yards and two touchdowns, and Colter added three touchdown passes on only 11 attempts, including a well-designed pass across the field to Tyris Jones in the third quarter. Six different Wildcats players reached the end zone, including Paul Jorgensen, a converted tackle who Illinois didn't bother to acknowledge on a 24-yard scoring reception midway through the third.

Northwestern diversified its run game, using Tim Riley as a power back and getting Jones and Mike Trumpy involved as well. The Wildcats racked up 338 rush yards and even put punt protector Bo Cisek in at tailback in the fourth quarter (he fumbled).

Had wideout Christian Jones tiptoed into the end zone, Northwestern would have had three different Joneses -- Tyris, Tony and Christian -- score touchdowns.

Illinois' much-maligned offense actually showed some fire early, as running back Donovonn Young ripped through some shoddy Northwestern tackles. The Illini (2-10, 0-8) scored two touchdowns in the first 20 minutes, but then they started making mistakes. Eight first-half penalties combined with four turnovers doomed the Illini, who went winless in Big Ten play for the fourth time since 1997.

Coach Tim Beckman's first season was an utter disaster, but it still would be surprising if he isn't back in 2013. There likely will be staff changes -- I've heard at least two assistants are done -- but Illinois can't dump Beckman after one year and expect to hire anyone decent.

Illinois had won the teams' past two meetings and rubbed it in last year, playing "Sweet Home Chicago" when it was over. But Northwestern has been the better program for the past decade and showed why Saturday.

It's been a disappointing season around most of the Big Ten, but Northwestern can feel good about itself with a solid 9-3 record that easily could have been better. The Wildcats entered the year with a young team not projected to do much. Now they're likely headed for a Jan. 1 Florida bowl against an SEC team. And almost everyone returns for 2013.

The future is bright in Evanston.

Big Ten predictions: Week 13

November, 21, 2012
11/21/12
9:00
AM CT
After a historic week off the field, the Big Ten steps between the lines Friday and Saturday for the final time in this regular season. All 12 teams are in action, and several rivalry games are on tap, highlighted by The Game between Michigan and Ohio State.

As for the blogger predictions race, Brian Bennett is sort of like his old league, the Big East. On life support. He's six games behind Adam Rittenberg with only one week to go.

Let's get to the predictions ...

Friday

No. 14 NEBRASKA at IOWA

Brian Bennett: Iowa needs a hero and will be holding out for one until the end of the night. Not happening. Nebraska is on a roll right now, and will push around a Hawkeyes team that has little to play for and no ability to keep up with the Huskers on the scoreboard. Taylor Martinez puts up one last argument for Big Ten offensive player of the year honors with 100 yards rushing and 200 yards passing as Nebraska punches its ticket to Indy. ... Nebraska 38, Iowa 17

Adam Rittenberg: As you wrote last week, there's no stopping the Huskers now. Bo Pelini's team knows what it needs to do, and everyone has taken care of business against Iowa's flat-lining defense in recent weeks. Martinez continues his major awards push with four total touchdowns (three passing, one rushing), and RB Ameer Abdullah adds a long scoring run as Nebraska leads throughout and earns the right to represent the Legends Division at the championship game. ... Nebraska 35, Iowa 10

Saturday

No. 19 MICHIGAN at OHIO STATE

Adam Rittenberg: The Game has become a lot more interesting for two reasons -- Devin Gardner's emergence at QB for Michigan, and Ohio State's progress on the defensive side. Gardner will make some plays and get Michigan out to an early lead on a scoring pass to Roy Roundtree, but Ohio State will respond behind RB Carlos Hyde, who will get the ball more (as Urban Meyer said he would) and finish with 120 rushing yards and two scores. The Game lives up to its billing and goes down to the wire. Braxton Miller scores the game-winning touchdown with 25 seconds left. ... Ohio State 24, Michigan 21

Brian Bennett: Meyer said Tuesday he would open up the offense after getting conservative at Wisconsin. Combine that with Gardner and Denard Robinson on the other side, and I think we're in for a shootout. I could see either side winning, but after 11 straight wins, how can you pick against the Buckeyes? Miller wills them to another victory, finishing with 375 total yards and four touchdowns. ... Ohio State 35, Michigan 31

ILLINOIS at NORTHWESTERN

Brian Bennett: Both schools want to be known as Chicago's team. Unfortunately for Illinois, it has become the Cubs of the Big Ten. The Illini have given us no reason to think they will win a Big Ten game since the middle of last season, and that's not going to change in the finale against Northwestern. The Wildcats' defense steals the show here, holding Illinois without a touchdown in a low-scoring win. ... Northwestern 21, Illinois 9

Adam Rittenberg: Tim Beckman's squad will fight hard for a quarter or so, but if Northwestern's backfield of QB Kain Colter and RB Venric Mark is healthy, the Illini are in trouble. Mark breaks free for a long scoring run, and Northwestern pulls away early in the third quarter. The Wildcats record another defensive touchdown and end their mini slide against the Illini, who finish 2-10. ... Northwestern 27, Illinois 13

INDIANA at PURDUE

Adam Rittenberg: Purdue clearly has more to play for, but I kind of like Indiana to play Boiler Spoiler. Cameron Coffman rallies the Hoosiers with three second-half touchdown passes, and while Purdue gets good performances from QB Robert Marve and WR Antavian Edison, a fourth-quarter turnover allows the Hoosiers to win The Bucket in Ross-Ade Stadium and end Purdue's season. ... Indiana 31, Purdue 28

Brian Bennett: I agree this one will be close, but I think Purdue is hungry to get back to a bowl and atone for a terrible 0-5 start to Big Ten play. The Boilers have found a spark since Marve became the starting QB, and their defense has gotten healthier. Marve throws three TDs, and Josh Johnson picks off two passes as the Boilers hold on. ... Purdue 28, Indiana 27

MICHIGAN STATE at MINNESOTA

Brian Bennett: Really tempted to pick Minnesota here, but the Gophers are banged up on both sides of the ball. Assuming Michigan State comes to play, the Spartans' physical style will take its toll. Minnesota jumps ahead early, but the Spartans mount a comeback in the second half and go ahead for good on an Andrew Maxwell TD pass to Dion Sims. Michigan State -- finally -- wins a close game to go bowling. ... Michigan State 24, Minnesota 17

Adam Rittenberg: Like you, it wouldn't shock me to see Minnesota win, but the injuries combined with a young quarterback facing a ferocious defense prove to be too much. The Spartans have their typical red zone stalls in the first half but come alive following a pick-six by CB Darqueze Dennard. Michigan State takes a second-half lead, and holds on behind Le'Veon Bell and the run game to squeak into a bowl. ... Michigan State 20, Minnesota 16

WISCONSIN at PENN STATE

Adam Rittenberg: Penn State will have the emotional edge on senior day, but how well has that worked out for the Lions this season? It didn't help against Ohio in the opener or Ohio State under the lights in an electric atmosphere. Even an emotionally charged game at Nebraska didn't go the Lions' way (thanks in part to the replay crew). Penn State takes its customary early lead, but Wisconsin chips away behind two touchdowns from Montee Ball and moves ahead in the fourth quarter. However, the Lions have one final push, and senior QB Matt McGloin sneaks into the end zone with 10 seconds left and does the discount double check move as Penn State prevails. ... Penn State 21, Wisconsin 20

Brian Bennett: It should be an emotional day for Penn State's seniors, who will be remembered by Nittany Lions fans for a long time. I don't see how Wisconsin, coming off an overtime loss to Ohio State and knowing the Big Ten title game is next week, can possibly match Penn State's energy. The Badgers come out flat against the hot-starting home team and never catch up. Ball gets the touchdowns record, but it's not enough as McGloin and Allen Robinson continue their assault on the Penn State record books. ... Penn State 24, Wisconsin 14

Season records

Adam Rittenberg: 71-19 (.789)

Brian Bennett: 65-25 (.722)

What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 12

November, 19, 2012
11/19/12
11:06
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Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

1. There's no stopping Nebraska now: The Cornhuskers were absolutely dominant against Minnesota, racing out to a 38-0 lead before resting their starters in the fourth quarter. That was the kind of complete performance we've been looking for from Nebraska, and while the Gophers are not to be confused with one of the Big Ten's best teams, the fact that the offense limited mistakes and the first-string defense pitched a shutout shows that this team is on the upswing. With as bad as Iowa looked Saturday (and, for that matter, the previous four Saturdays), it would take something really absurd for Nebraska to lose in Iowa City on Black Friday. This team is heading to the Big Ten championship game to face a Wisconsin club it has already beaten, and if Taylor Martinez keeps leading the way he has, it will go on to the Rose Bowl. The Huskers' only losses this season were to 11-0 Ohio State and a UCLA squad that just beat USC to win the Pac-12 South. Not bad at all for Bo Pelini's team.

2. Ohio State is doing something special: There are two undefeated teams left in the country: Notre Dame and Ohio State. The losses by Kansas State and Oregon proved just how difficult it is to go through a season unscathed. The Buckeyes might not have played the strongest schedule in the country, but they still deserve praise for figuring out how to win every week. Saturday was a great example, as Braxton Miller had his first off game of the year, throwing for only 97 yards and rushing for just 48 against a stout Wisconsin defense. Ohio State mustered just one offensive touchdown in regulation on the road. But when overtime came, Miller worked some magic to help the Buckeyes escape for their 11th win of the year. That counts for something, on a day when other top Heisman Trophy candidates struggled and lost. The Buckeyes still must beat Michigan in the finale, which will be no easy task. But if so, they could find themselves as possibly the only undefeated team in the country when the dust clears. That would have Ohio State fans forever wondering what might have happened if the school had self-imposed a bowl ban last year. But there will be no doubt that it was a special, extremely rare accomplishment.

3. Michigan's future looks bright with Devin Gardner at QB: Denard Robinson has been the face of Michigan's program for the past two and a half seasons, and most figured the Wolverines would take a step back on offense after his graduation. The Wolverines couldn't do anything offensively against Nebraska after Robinson aggravated a nerve issue in his throwing elbow. If only Devin Gardner had been ready to step in at Memorial Stadium. Gardner has been brilliant since moving into the starting role, and he turned in an unreal performance Saturday against Iowa. The junior accounted for six touchdowns, running for three and throwing for three, as the Wolverines routed the Hawkeyes to remain perfect at home for the second straight season. He led six consecutive touchdown drives midway through the game. Gardner's presence has allowed Michigan to maximize its talent at receiver, as Jeremy Gallon, Roy Roundtree and Devin Funchess all contributed Saturday. Although Robinson, who started at tailback, is getting healthier, it's clear the future is now for the Michigan offense with Gardner, who provides the balance the Wolverines have been seeking. It'll be interesting to see how he performs this week against a much better defense in The Game, but the long-term outlook for Michigan's offense looks extremely bright, especially if Gardner gets another year of eligibility from the NCAA.

4. Northwestern has developed resiliency: After a heartbreaking loss on the road last week at Michigan, you could have understood if the Wildcats would have had a letdown at Michigan State on Saturday. And once Venric Mark and Kain Colter both left the game in the second half with injuries, the Wildcats had some major work cut out for them against an outstanding Spartans defense. Despite being outgained by more than 100 yards and scoring only one offensive touchdown, however, Northwestern showed major grit by pulling out a 23-20 road win. It did so by causing four turnovers and getting strong defensive performances from Ibraheim Campbell and David Nwabuisi. After all three of the Wildcats' difficult, come-from-ahead losses -- Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan -- they have followed it up with a win the next Saturday. For a young team to show that kind of resiliency is impressive. (Compare that to Michigan State, which just can't get over the hump on a weekly basis.) Instead of lamenting what might have been in those defeats, it's time to celebrate Pat Fitzgerald's bunch, which is a win over woeful Illinois away from a 9-3 season.

5. Home-field dominance no longer there for Badgers, Spartans: Wisconsin and Michigan State took steps toward college football's upper echelon the past two seasons thanks in large part to dominant play at home. The Badgers' success at Camp Randall Stadium is hardly new, yet Wisconsin entered the season on a 16-game home win streak, the second-longest in the country behind LSU. Michigan State, meanwhile, swept its home schedule in each of the past two seasons, including two wins against Wisconsin. But both teams have taken a step back this fall and stumbled where they've been at their best. Wisconsin couldn't translate yards into points against Ohio State and dropped its second consecutive home game for the first time since 2008. It's even worse for Michigan State, which fell 23-20 to Northwestern and went 0-4 in Big Ten home games for the first time since 2006, John L. Smith's final year as coach. At some point, you stop becoming the best [insert record] team in the country and you become a major disappointment. Michigan State deserves the label after making far too many mistakes at Spartan Stadium. While Michigan State and Wisconsin have lost their home dominance, Michigan has reclaimed it under Brady Hoke. The Wolverines have been perfect at the Big House in Hoke's first two seasons.

Big Ten stock report: Week 12

November, 14, 2012
11/14/12
9:00
AM CT
We take a look inside the Big Ten trends, with no insider trading needed.

Stock up

James White: While Montee Ball understandably is getting all the attention right now, don't forget the job Wisconsin's No. 2 back is doing. White rushed for 161 yards on just 14 carries last week at Indiana, including the back-breaking 69-yard touchdown at the end of the first half. White has run for at least 100 yards in three of his last four games.

Baker Steinkuhler: The Nebraska defense has played much better in recent weeks -- particularly in the second halves -- and senior defensive tackle Steinkuhler is a reason why. A one-time highly decorated recruit, Steinkuhler is living up to that reputation by playing the best football of his career the past few weeks, coach Bo Pelini said this week. He had six tackles and a sack against Penn State last week. “Baker’s a stud," Pelini said. "He’s a leader. He’s everything you want.”

Purdue's ACL trio:
Take a knee, gentlemen. The Boilermakers' backfield trio of Robert Marve, Rob Henry and Ralph Bolden -- who have seven torn ACLs between them -- had a big day at Iowa last week. Marve threw for 266 yards and led the final drive for the winning field goal. Henry continued to play his jack-of-all trades role, including a flip to Akeem Shavers on a double option for a touchdown. Maybe most encouragingly, Bolden eclipsed 100 rushing yards for the first time since the beginning of last season. "That was very special for our whole football family," head coach Danny Hope said.

Donnell Kirkwood: The Minnesota running back is somewhat quietly putting together a strong season. The sophomore ran for a career-best 152 yards and two touchdowns last week against Illinois, his third 100-yard game of the season. Kirkwood now has 819 rushing yards on the season and has a great shot at going over 1,000 for the year, especially with the Gophers reaching a bowl game. Minnesota's last 1,000-yard back was Amir Pinnix in 2006 (1,272).

Michigan's passing game: There's no doubt the Wolverines' passing game has improved with Devin Gardner at quarterback, which has seemed to raise the level of play of the receivers. Senior Roy Roundtree had 139 yards receiving last week against Northwestern and 64 yards the week before; Roundtree's previous season high was 33 yards. Jeremy Gallon had seven catches for 94 yards last week and four grabs for 72 yards the week before. Gallon hadn't caught more than three balls in a game since catching four in the season-opening loss to Alabama. As Kyle Meinke points out, Michigan has 520 passing yards the past two weeks under Gardner, compared to 482 in five previous Big Ten games from Denard Robinson.

Stock down

Indiana's rush defense: Well, this one is fairly obvious after the Hoosiers surrendered 564 yards on the ground to Wisconsin. That won't help your stats, and Indiana now ranks 118th nationally -- out of 120 FBS teams -- in allowing 244 rushing yards per game. What's most disappointing about last week's effort is the Hoosiers knew Wisconsin would have a first-time starter at quarterback, so the Badgers were going to try to run the ball as much as possible. Knowing what's coming and stopping it are two different things.

Iowa's running game: Focus on the failures in the passing game if you want, but Iowa's real problems are in its bread and butter: the running game. During the Hawkeyes' current four-game losing streak, they are averaging just 78 rushing yards per game and a mere 2.5 yards per carry. Offensive line injuries and the rotating cast at running back have played a large role.

Illinois' offensive line: The Illini struggles up front on offense aren't exactly new, but they're not getting any better, either. Illinois is last in the Big Ten with 21 sacks allowed through 10 games. That ranks the team 114th nationally. Tim Beckman will not get this program going until he first solves the issues on the O-line. "We've had tremendous problems protecting Nathan [Scheelhaase] or Reilly [O'Toole]," Beckman said. "We've got to continue to improve in those categories and get our young players going. We need to get ourselves in the weight room and get stronger and get much more physical."

Penn State's finishing kicks: No Big Ten team has been better at jumping out to an early lead than the Nittany Lions. But Penn State's second halves leave something to be desired. The team has either led or has been tied at halftime in all four of its losses, including last week when it lost 32-23 at Nebraska after taking a 20-6 lead into the break. "That's probably more of a discussion for after the season," coach Bill O'Brien said. "So in the offseason, we're going to dive into this thing and scout ourselves and see if we can improve. But over the next two weeks we need to make sure we do a better job of coming out after halftime."

Plenty of what-ifs for Wildcats, Spartans

November, 13, 2012
11/13/12
5:12
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Dantonio/FitzgeraldUS PresswireMark Dantonio's Spartans and Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats still have plenty to play for.
Michigan State linebacker Chris Norman admits he plays the what-if game.

It's what happens when your team loses four Big Ten games by a total of 10 points.

"I know I have, and I'm pretty sure some of my teammates have, too," Norman told ESPN.com. "It's natural to do so with everything that hasn't been going our way. What if this would have happened? What if that would have happened? You can really point out so many things that happened and say, 'Man, if that one thing is different, then the whole season would be different.'"

Northwestern knows the feeling. The Wildcats haven't endured as much misery as Michigan State and, unlike the Spartans, who were pegged by many to win the Big Ten this year, they've exceeded many preseason expectations with a 7-3 record. But they've also held double-digit, second-half leads in all three of their losses (Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan).

Their most painful setback came last Saturday at the Big House, as a desperation pass from Devin Gardner, deflected by Northwestern's Daniel Jones and caught by Roy Roundtree allowed Michigan to tie the game at the end of regulation. The Wolverines won 38-31 in overtime.

"That's football for you," Northwestern center Brandon Vitabile told ESPN.com. "That's what it comes down to sometimes, one or two plays, and just being able to make one more stop or one more block or more tackle. Everyone can play the, 'if this, then that' game."

Odds are the Wildcats or the Spartans will be asking those same questions after their game Saturday in East Lansing, Mich. One of them, though, will be celebrating an important win. Michigan State (5-5, 1-4) is still trying to get bowl eligible, while Northwestern (7-3, 3-3) can improve its bowl position before closing out the season against struggling Illinois.

But these teams easily could be playing for a chance to represent the Legends Division in the Big Ten title game in Indy. Both teams had division front-runners Nebraska and Michigan on the ropes. Both teams squandered fourth-quarter leads against the Huskers and Wolverines, losing by a combined 14 points in those four games.

"That just shows you how close both programs are," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "... With the ball being oblong, it sometimes bounces weird, and they've just had some tough bounces. At the end of the day, so have we, but it’s not a pity party. It's football."

Michigan State had an extra week to regroup following its loss to Nebraska, which featured some controversial calls down the stretch. When the Spartans resumed practice, Norman saw a "business-like approach" from his teammates. They know they need at least one win to reach a bowl game for the sixth consecutive season.

Close games and home wins had been Michigan State's hallmarks in 2010 and 2011, when the team won 22 games. The Spartans swept their home schedules in both seasons and went 9-1 in games decided by 10 points or fewer. A loss Saturday means Michigan State would go winless at home in Big Ten play for the first time since 2006.

"We really want to get at least one [Big Ten] win under our belt in Spartan Stadium," Norman said. "We've done really well here in the past, and it’s something we haven't been able to do this season. It's our last home game, and it's a really good stage that is set for us."

Michigan State's season reminds Mark Dantonio of the 2007 campaign, his first as the team's head coach. The Spartans lost five games by seven points or fewer and sat at 5-5 before winning its final two games.

"That's sort of the same situation we're in right now," Dantonio said. "You always want to finish strong. That's the message sent around here constantly, complete our circles and finish strong."

Fitzgerald on Monday calmly answered questions about the 53-yard pass to Roundtree that set up Northwestern's latest agony. What was the coverage plan? What was the personnel on the play? Should Northwestern have purposely interfered with Roundtree, limiting such a large gain?

But he not surprisingly seemed more eager to talk about the need to respond this week. Northwestern's late-game struggles are an issue that must be addressed, but the team also has rarely, if ever, let painful losses impact its next game.

"We’ve responded in the past, and we're going to need our best response of the year this Saturday," Fitzgerald said. "In a weird sort of way, it's easier to respond when you get knocked down than it is when you have success, in a crazy sort of way. We've won a lot of close games around here, and unfortunately we let one get away Saturday."

He liked the team's energy in Monday's workout and called Tuesday's practice the best of the season. But he also noted Northwestern is facing a Michigan State squad that "very easily could be undefeated."

"We're close," Fitzgerald said. "This young team's growing up. There's no moral victories in our ballclub. There's a lot of frustration in the way that we haven't been able to finish. But what's done is done."

Michigan State knows the feeling.

"Their problem, just like ours, has been closing out games," Norman said. "The same thing happened against Michigan. I guess when we play them, it's going to come down to who can finish the best. Saturday is going to be interesting."

What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 11

November, 11, 2012
11/11/12
10:00
AM CT
Lessons learned from Week 11 in the Big Ten:

1. A Wisconsin-Nebraska title game looks very likely: Wisconsin and Nebraska opened the Big Ten season under the lights in Lincoln on Sept. 29. The Badgers and Huskers likely will close out the conference season Dec. 1 in Indianapolis. Wisconsin punched its ticket for the Big Ten title game Saturday by crushing Indiana 62-14. Montee Ball and the Badgers rushed for a team-record 564 yards -- the highest total in Big Ten play since 1975 -- and completed a rough road back to Indy with a very easy final leg. Nebraska and Michigan remain tied atop the Legends division, but the Huskers' hold the head-to-head tiebreaker and took a big step toward Lucas Oil Stadium with another come-from-behind victory Saturday against Penn State. Nebraska once again overcame mistakes and turned in a big second half to remain perfect at home this season. If the Huskers take care of Minnesota at home and Iowa on the road, they'll head to Indianapolis, regardless of what Michigan does in its final two games. These two teams provided plenty of excitement in their first meeting, and it looks like they'll be reuniting in three weeks.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Tony DingPat Fitzgerald has seen his Northwestern squad blow double-digit leads in each of its three losses.
2. Northwestern's late-game problems are an epidemic: Northwestern still calls itself the "Cardiac Cats" and touts its long-term record in close games (32-13 in games decided by seven points or fewer since 2004), but blown leads have been a problem throughout Pat Fitzgerald's tenure, and they've been magnified this season. The Wildcats have squandered double-digit second-half leads in each of their three losses (Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan). The most painful collapse arrived Saturday as Northwestern outplayed Michigan for most of the way but couldn't knock down a desperation pass to Roy Roundtree (or interfere with Roundtree, which might have been just as good) that set up the game-tying field goal. There have been different explanations for each blown lead -- not having top cornerback Nick VanHoose might have cost Northwestern two games -- but Fitzgerald's late-game strategy should be called into question. There have been too many games like this under his watch, and until something shifts, Northwestern won't get over the hump. This is a young Wildcats team that has overachieved to a degree, but the season will be one filled with missed opportunities.

3. Iowa is staring at a lost season: It has been a season of low points for Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes. The first arrived in Week 4, when they blew a late lead and fell to a woeful Central Michigan team at Kinnick Stadium. The next came a month later, as Penn State turned a much-anticipated night game at Kinnick into an offensive and defensive clinic. More misery arrived the next two weeks, but Iowa managed to find a new low Saturday against a Purdue team that had dropped five straight and had been blown out four times in the Big Ten. Purdue gave Iowa opportunities with three turnovers, but the Hawkeyes couldn't cash in nearly enough, continuing a season-long theme, and lost 27-24. Iowa is plus-11 in turnover margin this season, among the national leaders, and sits at 4-6. That's very hard to do, and underscores Iowa's problems on offense. With upcoming games against Michigan (road) and Nebraska (home), Iowa is staring at a 4-8 season, which would be its worst under Ferentz since a 3-9 campaign in 2001. Tough times right now in Hawkeye Country.

4. The Big Ten's bowl contingent now could be growing: The Week 10 lessons noted that the Big Ten could have as few as five teams in the postseason this season, its lowest number since 1998. That still could be the case, but things changed a bit after Purdue scored an upset victory at Iowa and Minnesota ensured it will be bowling for the first times since 2009 after a victory at Illinois. As poorly as Purdue has played in the Big Ten, the Boilers still have a very realistic chance to get to 6-6, which is all you need this season in the Big Ten. Danny Hope's crew must beat Illinois on the road and Indiana at home, which doesn't seem overly daunting after the way the Hoosiers performed against Wisconsin. To their credit, the Boilers dominated Iowa at Kinnick Stadium and wouldn't have needed a last-second field goal to win if not for three turnovers. Perhaps Purdue can finish strong. Minnesota rode defense and Donnell Kirkwood to the six-win plateau, notching a crucial win before a tough closing stretch (at Nebraska, Michigan State). If Michigan State beats Northwestern on Saturday, five of the six Legends division teams will be bowling.

5. The Big Ten has an officiating problem: Crisis is probably too strong a word, but at the very least, the Big Ten has an image issue with its officiating after the past several weeks. Michigan State coaches and players were livid with some of the late-game calls in the loss against Nebraska, particularly a pass-interference penalty near the end zone at the end of the game. Michigan and Minnesota also griped about pass-interference interpretations, while Penn State has felt like it has gotten the short end of the stick a lot this year, especially with a lack of holding calls versus Ohio State. Frustrations boiled over for the Nittany Lions on a controversial fumble ruling late in Saturday's loss to Nebraska, which led quarterback Matt McGloin to suggest an officiating conspiracy against Penn State. That's taking things a little too far, but Big Ten officiating has some credibility issues right now. It would be nice if the league would issue some sort of statements about the most controversial calls, but the Big Ten prefers to handle such things in-house. The conference needs to make sure its officiating house is in order going forward.

It's game day at Notre Dame Stadium

September, 22, 2012
9/22/12
5:51
PM CT
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- I'm back at Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since 2007, gearing up for No. 18 Michigan (2-1) against the 11th-ranked Fighting Irish (3-0).

In case you've been in a cave, this series has been just a bit entertaining in recent years, thanks mostly to one man: Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, who celebrates his 22nd birthday today (on Sept. 22, eerie!). The Wolverines senior has been Notre Dame's nightmare the past two seasons, rallying Michigan for wins and setting numerous records in the process. The Wolverines-Irish game takes place under the lights for the second consecutive year after last year's unbelievable finish at the Big House.

Michigan has won its past three meetings with Notre Dame -- all by four points -- and aims for its first four-game win streak in the series since 1898-1908. Although Notre Dame comes off of a big win at Michigan State, the Irish players should be locked in for this one. Notre Dame running back Theo Riddick said this week the three-game slide to Michigan is "basically tatted on us."

Robinson obviously is a huge key for Michigan, but he'll also need help from his receivers to pull off the mini upset tonight. Notre Dame's secondary is the weakness on a mostly stellar defense, and the Irish will be without starting safety Jamoris Slaughter, who suffered a season-ending ruptured Achilles' at Michigan State. The Spartans receivers simply couldn't attack Notre Dame; Michigan's core -- Devin Gardner, Roy Roundtree, Jeremy Gallon, Devin Funchess -- must create separation. It's also a big night for Michigan's lines, which struggled mightily in the season opener against Alabama and will be tested by Notre Dame's fronts on both sides of the ball.

The Wolverines are relatively healthy for the game. Linebacker Desmond Morgan and running back Stephen Hopkins both should return from injuries this week.

I picked Notre Dame 27-20, while Bennett forecasts another Michigan win (28-24).

Stay tuned for more coverage throughout the night.

Denard Robinson is ... ND's nightmare

September, 19, 2012
9/19/12
9:00
AM CT

Notre Dame has the perfect record, the home crowd, the prime-time stage and the more complete team, not to mention three years of frustrating losses as fuel.

Brian Kelly's squad is all set up to finally take down No. 18 Michigan.

There's only one problem: Denard Robinson. Every Notre Dame player, coach or fan will shudder when they see No. 16 in a winged helmet Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium. He's there to ruin their party.

When shamrocks face dreadlocks, dreadlocks win -- in unforgettable fashion.

Ever since Robinson took his first snap in a Michigan uniform -- a 43-yard touchdown run following a fumble in the 2009 opener -- he has been arguably the most exciting player in college football. More accomplished college stars don't have a highlight reel as extensive or as impressive as Robinson's. And no team has been Robinson's foil more than Notre Dame.

The Michigan senior quarterback has tormented Notre Dame the past two seasons.

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesLast season, Denard Robinson led Michigan's improbable comeback against Notre Dame.
In 2010, he set Michigan, Big Ten and Notre Dame records in rallying the Wolverines to a 28-24 victory in South Bend. Making his first career road start, Robinson shattered his own team total offense mark with 502 yards; set team records for total plays (68) and single-game road rushing (258 yards); recorded the fifth-highest rushing effort in Michigan history; set the Big Ten quarterback rushing record; recorded the longest run in Notre Dame Stadium history (an 87-yard scoring dash in the the second quarter) and the second-longest ever against the Irish (88 yards by Michigan State's Dick Panin in 1951); and set the single-game total offense record by a Notre Dame opponent.

Robinson also directed the game-winning drive (12 plays, 72 yards), which he of course capped with a 2-yard scoring run with 27 seconds left. Only three FBS quarterbacks had more yards in a game during the 2010 season than Robinson, and none faced a big-time opponent like Notre Dame.

His statistics against Notre Dame last September weren't quite as insane, although not far off (446 yards of total offense, 338 passing yards, 108 rushing yards, four passing touchdowns, one rushing touchdown). What stood out is that he did almost all of his work in the fourth quarter. Robinson completed only three of his first 13 pass attempts for 59 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions before firing a 77-yard pass to Junior Hemingway at the end of the third quarter.

"For three quarters," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said, "we did nothing on either side of the ball. Denard, in the fourth quarter, played well."

That's putting it mildly.

Robinson connected on 7 of 10 pass attempts for 202 yards and three touchdowns with one interception in the fourth quarter -- translating to a passer rating of 318.7 (he had 105.2 rating in the first three quarters). Robinson rallied Michigan from a 24-7 deficit entering the quarter and then from a 31-28 deficit in the closing seconds, finding Roy Roundtree from 16 yards out for the winning score with two ticks left.

"Man," Robinson said, "it was a great game."

Robinson wasn't available for an ESPN.com interview this week, and Michigan didn't spend much time discussing its recent triumphs against Notre Dame. Besides, it's hard for anyone -- Robinson, his coaches, his teammates -- to truly pinpoint why he has been so good against Notre Dame.

They'd just like it to continue Saturday night.

"It's interesting," offensive coordinator Al Borges said. "I don't know. He pretty much prepares the same way, from my perspective, for every game. He's just had good games against Notre Dame. ... I'm not sure why."

"I don't know if anybody knows [the reason]," Hoke said. "Every year's different, every game's different, the pieces that are on the field are different. It's just been lucky for us, lucky for Michigan, that he's played well."

"It just happened to be Notre Dame, as it should be when it is a big rivalry like that, that he performs his best," Wolverines wide receiver Devin Gardner said.

Not surprisingly, this week's scouting report for Notre Dame's defenders, who are coming off of a brilliant performance at Michigan State, was short and sweet.

Stop 16.

"He's a superior football player," Kelly said Tuesday. "He's a difference-maker. ... It's about our defense not giving up those big, chunk plays. We gave them up in the running game in [2010] and we gave them up in the passing game in [2011]."

Robinson has Notre Dame's full attention.

"He's the best player on the field," Kelly said.

Robinson has played only two full games against Notre Dame -- he had 21 rushing yards and no passing yards against the Irish in 2009 -- but already owns the career record for total offense by an Irish opponent (969 yards). He needs four passing touchdowns to tie the record for most against Notre Dame held by former USC star Matt Leinart. He probably won't catch Tony Dorsett for the career rushing record against Notre Dame (754 yards) or Steve Stenstrom for the career passing record against the Irish (1,020 yards).

Still, his impact in the rivalry won't soon be forgotten, especially if he leads Michigan to a fourth consecutive win against the Irish on Saturday night.

"He'll play his best against us," Kelly said. "We're prepared for that."

WolverineNation's Michael Rothstein contributed to this report.

Notre Dame weekend rewind: Week 2

September, 12, 2011
9/12/11
2:34
PM CT
Much to the dismay of Notre Dame and its fans, the Fighting Irish will likely be forced to re-live Saturday's loss to Michigan for quite some time. Painful as it was, the defeat will no doubt make the highlight reels for the rest of the season.

Fortunately for the Irish, we'll only touch on a few points from this past weekend's 35-31 loss:

The Good: The Irish put up more than 500 yards of offense for the second straight week, giving them 1,021 yards on the season, the 10th-most among FBS teams.

The Bad: What's that about the offense? Despite its top-10 ranking in yards, the unit is tied for 69th in the nation in points scored. That, of course, comes back to turnovers. Eight of the Irish's nation-leading 10 giveaways have come on the offensive end, with the unit giving the ball away four times Saturday. The team also ranks dead last (120th) among FBS teams in turnover margin at minus-3.50.

The Ugly: The blame here shifts to the defense, which gave up 28 points in the fourth quarter, including two touchdowns in a 1-minute, 10-second span. Roy Roundtree's game-winner with two seconds left was the dagger, but Jeremy Gallon's 64-yard reception one play earlier was simply inexcusable.

Turning point: It's tough to pick just one, but Michigan's stop of Cierre Wood on third-and-1 from the Irish 29 with less than three minutes left gave the Wolverines new life after a Robert Blanton interception in the end zone. The Irish were 0-for-3 in the second half when faced with third down and less than 4 yards to go.

Call of the day: Brady Hoke would have been playing the odds had he settled for a field goal attempt and a chance for overtime with eight seconds left. Instead, he called one more play for Denard Robinson, and Shoelace delivered. The 16-yard touchdown pass to Roundtree with two seconds left capped another wild finish in this rivalry and another Michigan win in it.

Next up: Speaking of crazy finishes, the Irish now get set to host 15th-ranked and defending Big Ten co-champion Michigan State. The Spartans shocked Notre Dame in similar fashion to the Wolverines last year, running a fake field goal in overtime to clinch a 34-31 win. MSU is ranked third in the nation in scoring defense and fourth in overall defense, a situation that doesn't bode well for an Irish offense that can't seem to protect the ball for an extended period of time.

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