NCF Nation: A.J. Barker

Pregame: Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas

December, 28, 2012
Minnesota (6-6, 2-6 Big Ten) vs. Texas Tech (7-5, 4-5 Big 12)

WHO TO WATCH: Texas Tech receivers Eric Ward and Darrin Moore. They are big targets in the red zone and caught 24 of quarterback Seth Doege's 38 touchdowns this season. Only two other teams have two receivers with double-digit touchdown catches. Tech's offense runs as Doege, Ward and Moore run. Additionally, tight end Jace Amaro has been cleared to play after missing the final six games of the season with a rib injury. He adds another dangerous asset to Texas Tech's offense, which ranked 12th nationally this year. West Virginia's Geno Smith is the only quarterback with more touchdown passes than Doege.

WHAT TO WATCH: Can Minnesota compete? The two-touchdown line is one of the largest of the bowl season, but the Golden Gophers will have an opportunity to log their best win of the season since knocking off 7-5 Syracuse back on Sept. 22. The Golden Gophers lost three of their final four games of the season -- all by at least 16 points -- but all three losses came to bowl teams. Also, how will both teams handle the loss of big contributors -- wide receiver A.J. Barker (transfer) for Minnesota and cornerback Cornelius Douglas (suspension) for Texas Tech?

WHY TO WATCH: You might find a piece of the answer to the eternal question of how important quarterback play is. Tech's Doege has had his share of struggles, but he has been the guy all season for the Red Raiders and racked up 3,934 passing yards and is 12th nationally in passer rating. Minnesota, meanwhile, has played musical chairs with its quarterbacks all season long and sophomore Max Shortell was frustrated enough to transfer. Philip Nelson will get the start for Minnesota, but will he stay there? Texas Tech fans also can tune in to see how much screen time new coach Kliff Kingsbury gets during the game.

PREDICTION: Texas Tech 34, Minnesota 17. I don't think the Gophers can keep up with the speed and efficiency of Texas Tech's offense. The Red Raiders will have some defensive issues of their own, too, even though Minnesota ranks 111th nationally in total offense. Too much Red Raiders, though. Amaro returns in a big way, and Moore is a pest in the red zone for the Golden Gophers.

Bonus picks! Here's what Big Ten colleagues Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett have to say by way of a prediction:

Brian Bennett: The Red Raiders have an interim coach, and Minnesota has had a month to heal the many injuries that ravaged its offense late in the season, both of which are positives for the Gophers. I think Matt Limegrover will find some creative ways to use MarQueis Gray. Still, Minnesota lacks the weapons to go up and down the field against a high-scoring Big 12 team. Michael Carter and the Gophers' secondary will make some plays but not enough to stop Texas Tech, which pulls away after a close first two-and-half quarters. ...Texas Tech 31, Minnesota 17.

Adam Rittenberg: The Gophers' defense is much improved in Year 2 under Tracy Claeys, but you need a decent amount of offensive firepower to keep pace with Texas Tech. Like you, my concern is the lack of playmakers surrounding Nelson and Gray. Both men will see time at quarterback and help the Gophers take a first-half lead, but a Minnesota turnover changes the game and Texas Tech strikes for two fourth-quarter passing touchdowns to win. ... Texas Tech 34, Minnesota 21

A.J. Barker transfers to Houston

December, 7, 2012
Minnesota is going to Houston for its Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas game. Disgruntled former Gophers receiver A.J. Barker is heading to the same destination.

Barker, who quit the team last month and then publicly aired his grievances with coach Jerry Kill and other staffers, will transfer to Houston, according to the Pioneer-Press. Barker was a walk-on at Minnesota but will get a scholarship with the Cougars and will be immediately eligible.

At Houston, he'll play for head coach Tony Levine, who is from St. Paul and who played receiver at Minnesota in the 1990s.

Barker led the team in catches, yards and touchdowns this year but didn't play after an ankle injury on Oct. 27 against Purdue. He later claimed that trainers were keeping him in the dark about his injury and that Kill was verbally abusing and mistreating him. Kill said Barker didn't follow instructions and had problems with discipline.

The saga now comes to a close, with a happy resolution for Barker. But if he happens to run into some of the Gophers in Houston later this month, it might be a little awkward.
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.
Minnesota receiver A.J. Barker stunned a lot of people by announcing Sunday evening that he was quitting the team, then accusing head coach Jerry Kill and other Gophers staffers of mistreatment in a long online letter.

Kill responded to the accusations with a short news conference on Monday. Kill defended the way Barker was treated in his program.

"I feel bad for A.J.," Kill said. "I feel bad that's the way he feels about the situation, and I'll do anything I can to help in the future with whatever he decides to do. ... But I don't treat my players any differently than I treat my own two daughters."

Kill said he didn't really know what brought about Barker's unhappiness and that his attempts to reach the player after reading the letter Sunday were unsuccessful. But he said things came to a head during Thursday's practice, when he said he heard Barker having a "confrontation" with one of the team's trainers.

"It got loud," Kill said. "I called him over to let him know I wasn't very happy. ... You do not talk to an adult or someone of authority in that voice."

Barker accused the training staff of keeping him in the dark about his injury. Kill said Barker had not been following trainers' instructions after injuring his ankle.

As for Barker's accusation that a Gophers staffer had called him an anti-gay slur, Kill said, "Nobody's ever done that. Not to my knowledge. I'm not around every single minute, but as far as when I've been around, there's nobody [that has] ever done that."

Kill also said he did not insult Barker's family, as Barker claimed.

The Minnesota coach said he has a list of rules and procedures that every player must follow and that he's been consistent on those his entire career. Kill said he wishes Barker had handled his concerns differently.

"I wish he had come and seen me," Kill said. "Things are a lot easier that way, to me. You always do things face to face on that nature."
A bizarre and troubling story emerged Sunday afternoon out of Minneapolis, and it's not good for the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Barker
Brad Rempel/Icon SMIA.J. Barker, who had 577 yards and seven touchdowns, has left the Gophers team.
Junior wide receiver A.J. Barker, one of the team's best stories this season, announced on Twitter that he's quitting the team and made strong allegations of mistreatment by head coach Jerry Kill. Barker, the Gophers' top wideout with 30 catches for 577 yards and seven touchdowns, tweeted Sunday afternoon: "Well, its official. I am done playing football for the University of Minnesota and I will be looking to transfer next season for my final yr." He then directed his followers to a newly created tumblr page, where he posted an extensive letter to Kill detailing why he's quitting (warning: the letter contains profanity).

As a walk-on, Barker can transfer to another school without having to sit out before his final season of eligibility.

Barker alleges that Kill confronted him at a recent practice and questioned his attitude and work ethic in his recovery from an ankle injury. Barker sustained the injury Oct. 27 against Purdue and aggravated it in pregame warmups Nov. 5 before the Gophers hosted Michigan. He writes that the training staff didn't inform him immediately that he had suffered a high ankle sprain. Barker also accuses tight ends coach Rob Reeves of calling him a slur because of his religious views.

But Barker's criticism is directed mainly at Kill. He writes, "You took the one thing you had a say in (my football playing career and my future) and you held it against me in an attempt to break me, going as far as to tell me I'll never get a scholarship or see the field again."

He adds:
You revealed the extent to which you are a manipulator. You assured me that you could save me, that you’ve had problematic players in the past (calling out by name: Bart Scott, Brandon Jacobs, and even my teammate Michael Carter), and that you knew how to deal with people like me. You did everything you could to connect with me and at times you did so well that I essentially blacked out in hypnosis as you praised me like you never had before. You had hitched yourself to my wagon. You had driven a wedge into my character and filled it with your praise and support. You had beaten me down and brought me back up by your "grace". It was textbook manipulation and I saw through it the whole time.

Barker signs the letter, "your former player," but adds that he's willing to meet with Kill if his parents and athletic director Norwood Teague are present.

UPDATE: Teague issued a statement about Barker on Sunday night.

It reads:
"Coach Kill received an email from A.J. Barker today notifying the Coach that he has quit the team. Coach Kill tried reaching out to A.J. after receiving the email, but was unable to connect with him. We understand A.J.'s frustration with his injury, and we regret that he has chosen to leave the team on these terms. Our concern first and foremost is student athletes and we wish A.J. well."

Barker is scheduled to appear on ESPN Radio 1500 on Monday morning.

We'll have more on this as it becomes available, so stay tuned ...
A few injury-related notes from around the league ...
  • Wisconsin could be without its top defensive playmaker against Ohio State as junior linebacker Chris Borland could miss the game with a hamstring injury. Borland, who sustained the injury last week against Indiana, isn't running at full speed but will test the hamstring in pregame warm-ups. Sophomore Marcus Trotter will start at middle linebacker if Borland can't go. Borland leads the Badgers with 4.5 sacks, is tied for third in the league with three forced fumbles and has 82 tackles and nine tackles for loss. He ranks in the top 15 in the Big Ten in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks and forced fumbles.
  • Northwestern will be without its top corner for the third straight game as Nick VanHoose will sit out against Michigan State with a shoulder injury. VanHoose's absence has proved costly as teams have attacked Demetrius Dugar and the secondary. Reserve linebacker Collin Ellis also is out with an undisclosed injury.
  • Minnesota top wideout A.J. Barker (ankle) will miss his third straight game Saturday at Nebraska. The Gophers also will be without defensive tackle Roland Johnson (knee) and reserve linebacker Lamonte Edwards. Senior defensive end D.L. Wilhite, tied for the Big Ten sacks lead with 7.5, is listed as questionable on the team's injury report but also remains the starter on the depth chart. Center Jon Christenson, injured last week at Illinois, also is questionable.
  • Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead (knee) will be a game-time decision against Minnesota, coach Bo Pelini said Thursday. Burkhead, who twice has aggravated the knee in Big Ten play and has missed the past three games, tested out the knee this week in practice. Wide receiver Tim Marlowe also is a game-time decision.
Ten items to track around the Big Ten in Week 11.

1. Leaders of the pack: How nutty is the Leaders Division? There could be only one bowl-eligible team (Wisconsin). Indiana could represent the division at the league title game with a 5-7 record. Oh, yeah, and Wisconsin and Indiana are playing an incredibly significant game on the second Saturday of November. Pretty sure no one predicted that. Wisconsin can secure a spot in the Big Ten title game with a victory in Bloomington, where the Badgers have won six of their past seven games. Indiana, meanwhile, plays arguably its biggest home game in decades. A win puts the Hoosiers in the driver's seat to represent the Leaders Division in Indy with two games to play. But Kevin Wilson and his players aren't getting wrapped up in the hype. "We're 4-5 and 2-3 in the league," Wilson said. "We always play in bad TV slots and we don't get much coverage, so we're going to just keep plugging along and getting better. ... We are a long way from being a good football team."

2. The M&M QBs matchup: Arguably no two Big Ten players have improved more from the 2011 season than Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin and Nebraska signal-caller Taylor Martinez. McGloin leads the Big Ten in passing (270.7 yards per game), while Martinez is second (215.7). They rank second (Martinez, 289.7) and fourth (McGloin, 271.2) in total offense, and they're tied for the Big Ten lead in touchdown passes with 18. The two men share the field Saturday at Nebraska's Memorial Stadium, where Martinez has been very good. Martinez needs just 190 passing yards to become Nebraska's all-time leader, and he just needs four more passing touchdowns to tie Zac Taylor's team mark. McGloin needs four touchdown strikes to pass Daryll Clark for Penn State's career record.

[+] EnlargeMatt McGloin
Evan Habeeb/US PresswireMatt McGloin and Penn State are looking to go 4-0 on the road in Big Ten play this year.
3. Quarterback questions: While both Nebraska and Penn State know who will be leading their offenses Saturday, other Big Ten teams have questions at the most important position on the field. Coach Bret Bielema has made a decision on a starter for the Indiana game, and while he's not revealing it publicly, Curt Phillips reportedly will finally get his shot to lead the offense after years of battling injuries. Michigan coach Brady Hoke also isn't saying much about the availability of top quarterback Denard Robinson (elbow), who sat out last week. Both Robinson and backup Devin Gardner took reps in practice this week. Indiana and Northwestern, meanwhile, have had ups and downs with their respective quarterback rotations this season. Indiana's Cameron Coffman and Northwestern's Kain Colter both stepped up big in their most recent performances. Will the coaches stick with them on Saturday?

4. Gophers' one win away: Minnesota coach Jerry Kill always talks about the time it takes to build a program, and he's right. But the Gophers can take a significant step Saturday when they visit slumping Illinois. A victory makes Minnesota bowl eligible and likely ensures the Gophers go somewhere warm for the holidays for the first time since the 2009 season. After wasting several opportunities last week against Michigan, Minnesota must capitalize in Champaign or run the risk of a late-season slide. The Gophers finish with Nebraska on the road and Michigan State at home, so they really need this one. Minnesota has won its past three road games against Illinois, last falling at Memorial Stadium in 2001. The Gophers are 0-2 on the road this season.

5. Boilers, Hawkeyes on the ropes: Once-promising seasons for both Purdue and Iowa have spiraled out of control in recent weeks. The Boilers have been blown out in four of five Big Ten games and must win their final three contests to go bowling. Fourth-year coach Danny Hope is under fire -- Purdue reportedly is putting feelers out for a new coach -- but maintaining his eternally optimistic view, saying this week, "I'm not going to let a disgruntled fan or any one person take my spirit away or take away from what it is that we're here to do, and that's to coach football and have fun and to win." Purdue needs a win as it travels to Iowa, where head coach Kirk Ferentz is also feeling the heat (although he has no chance of being fired). Iowa hopes to avoid its first four-game losing streak since the 2007 season.

6. November reign: Every Big Ten team is hoping to make it a November to remember, and several Big Ten coaches have done their best work in the season's pivotal month. Wisconsin's Bielema is 17-3 in November games during his six previous seasons as Badgers boss, including a 9-3 mark in November road contests. Nebraska's Bo Pelini boasts a 13-4 mark in November games, although he went 2-2 in his first November in the Big Ten. Pelini has lost to only one unranked team in November at Nebraska (Northwestern last season). Speaking of the Wildcats, they are 10-5 in November in the past four seasons. Pat Fitzgerald is 13-8 overall in November games at Northwestern, which squares off against a Michigan team that went 3-1 in November in Brady Hoke's first season as coach. There's more of this coming next week, as Ohio State's Urban Meyer (33-7 in November) and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio (13-4 in November) return to the field.

7. Road warriors: Missed field goals cost Penn State in its first road game at Virginia, but since then, the Lions have been dominant away from Happy Valley, winning their three Big Ten road games by a combined score of 107-30. Penn State aims to sweep its Big Ten road schedule for just the third time (previously done in 2009, 1994) in its 20-year history as a member of the league. Bill O'Brien is one of only five first-year Big Ten coaches (Meyer being another) to win his first three league road games. Former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce is the only Big Ten coach since 1950 to win his first four conference games on the road, accomplishing the feat in 1979. Nebraska provides by far the toughest road test for Penn State, which makes its first trip to Lincoln since 2003.

8. Stayin' alive in Ann Arbor: Although Michigan is tied with Nebraska atop the Legends Division and Northwestern is just a game back, both the Wolverines and the Wildcats would lose head-to-head tiebreakers with the Huskers, making their margin for error razor-thin. The loser of Saturday's Northwestern-Michigan game at Michigan Stadium could completely drop out of the race, especially if Nebraska defends its home turf against Penn State. Northwestern is 16-9 in true road games since the start of the 2008 season, including a win at the Big House in 2008, but Michigan has been perfect (12-0) at home under Hoke, averaging 37.8 points and 465 yards per game this season.

9. Unlucky 13: The one number Minnesota wants to avoid Saturday -- unless it's signifying a victory -- is 13. The unlucky number has been exactly that for the Gophers this season, as they've scored 13 points in all four of their Big Ten losses (against Iowa, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Michigan). Minnesota has moved the ball decently at times, but has struggled to translate yards into points and has repeatedly stubbed its toe in the red zone. The Gophers have scored touchdowns on only 16 of 30 red zone opportunities this season and on only 6 of 13 opportunities during conference games. Illinois actually ranks in the top half of the Big Ten in red zone defense, so Minnesota will have to be more polished in Saturday's game, especially if top wide receiver A.J. Barker (ankle) can't play. The Gophers likely won't need many points to win -- Illinois has scored 24 or fewer in eight of nine games -- but another 13-point performance could spell trouble.

10. Veterans Day tributes: Several Big Ten teams honor the nation's military veterans Saturday, including Iowa, which will don special uniforms for its game against Purdue. The Hawkeyes are expected to wear silver pants, black shoes and silver helmets, and the nameplates on the backs of their jerseys will list a branch of the armed services -- chosen by each player. Illinois will have several veterans tributes for its game against Minnesota, including the coaching staff wearing camouflage hats and American flags being passed out to the first 10,000 fans at the game.
Lessons learned from Week 9 in the Big Ten:

1. The Big Ten is the league of second chances: Nebraska's season seemed headed down the tubes after it allowed 63 points to Ohio State on Oct. 6 in Columbus. The Huskers also were on life support down 12 points to Northwestern midway through the fourth quarter on Oct. 20. Look at them now: tied for the lead in the Legends division but holding tiebreakers against both of their top two challengers, Michigan and Northwestern. The Big Ten is a bad league in 2012, but it's also a league of second chances. Nebraska has capitalized on its new life but must keep it going this coming Saturday at Michigan State, which finally showed an offensive pulse in rallying past Wisconsin. Michigan and Wisconsin got knocked down after losing their starting quarterbacks, and it'll be challenging for both teams in the coming weeks. But to write anyone off -- aside from Illinois and Purdue -- seems silly in this silly league. Nebraska is control for now. Wisconsin's grasp on the Leaders division could be loosening a bit. Northwestern is still hanging around. So are others. Aside from Ohio State, every Big Ten team has been knocked to the mat a few times this season. But entering the season's most important month, most are still standing.

2. Ohio State is the best team in the Big Ten: There was a shred of doubt about this, at least outside Columbus, as Ohio State came to State College, Pa., after two shaky wins against the Indiana schools and took on a red-hot Penn State team that had captured five wins in a row. But on a big stage in a hostile environment, Braxton Miller and the 9-0 Buckeyes made it clear that they're the best team in a flawed Big Ten. Ohio State overcame a slow start and a special-teams miscue and took control thanks to Miller and a stout defense that received big plays from linebacker Ryan Shazier and others. Urban Meyer's team made its loudest statement of the season against a surging team playing before a raucous crowd. It's too bad the Buckeyes won't be playing in Indianapolis or Pasadena this season -- the OSU administration has itself to blame for that -- but the chase for a perfect regular season shifts into high gear. Ohio State should handle Illinois easily next week before closing the season with Wisconsin (road) and Michigan (home). The push for perfection and Miller's Heisman campaign should be fun to watch the rest of the way.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Mary Langenfeld/US PresswireMontee Ball and heretofore-resurgent Wisconsin lost some luster Saturday but still look good for Indy.
3. Forget a marquee matchup in Indy: Hope had started to flicker lately that the Big Ten championship game could actually feature a pretty appealing matchup, thanks to Wisconsin's recent resurgence. Well, Michigan State put the brakes on that talk by going into Madison and winning in overtime while holding the Badgers to just one touchdown. Now 6-3 overall and 3-2 in the conference, Wisconsin doesn't deserve to be ranked, yet it still almost certainly will reach Indianapolis by default in the probation-riddled Leaders division. With reports that quarterback Joel Stave (collarbone) could be lost for the season, this team could struggle in its final three games at improving Indiana, versus Ohio State and at Penn State. In fact, it's not outrageous to suggest that Wisconsin could wind up 6-6 and make it to Indy. The Badgers may still finish strong, and they basically have a one-game season to go to the Rose Bowl. There just isn't much hope of the Big Ten title game staging a marquee matchup.

4. Northwestern needs to stay grounded: We have grown accustomed to Northwestern slinging the ball around the gridiron with quarterbacks like Dan Persa and Mike Kafka. But that's not the best formula for success with this year's team. The Wildcats are most dangerous when they have Kain Colter and Venric Mark in the backfield together running wild. Coach Pat Fitzgerald mostly ditched the quarterback rotation with Trevor Siemian and gave Colter the ball on Saturday against Iowa. Colter and Mark combined to run for 328 yards on 42 carries (7.8 yards per carry), while Mark became the school's first 1,000-yard back since 2006 in the process. Northwestern threw only 10 passes all day yet won 28-17 in a game that shouldn't have been that close. You wonder whether the Wildcats would have been able to close out Penn State and Nebraska in the fourth quarter if they had stayed committed to the ground attack with their best two athletes. No sense looking backward now, but Northwestern should continue what worked Saturday as it moves forward.

5. The arrow is pointed up for Indiana, Minnesota: No one can get too excited about a win over Illinois or Purdue these days. Still, Indiana's road win against the Illini and Minnesota's home domination of the Boilers could be turning points for the respective programs. Both teams identified freshman quarterbacks -- Indiana's Nate Sudfeld, Minnesota's Philip Nelson -- who spark the offense and spread the ball to talented receivers like Minnesota's A.J. Barker (135 receiving yards, 2 TDs against Purdue) and Indiana's triple threat of Kofi Hughes, Cody Latimer and Shane Wynn. Indiana has competed well all season, losing four of its games by four points or fewer, and might have just needed the experience of finishing out a win. The offense is legit: IU has scored at least 27 points in all six games versus FBS competition and has eclipsed 30 points five times. Minnesota's improvement on defense has been noticeable this season, and cornerback Michael Carter came up big against Purdue (pick-six, 6 PBUs). But Nelson provided the biggest boost, firing three first-half touchdown passes and completing 15 of 22 passes for 246 yards. Minnesota's offense finally started to score after putting up 13 points in each of its first three Big Ten games. Jerry Kill's squad is a win from bowl eligibility, while Kevin Wilson's team has a lot of work left. But the future of both programs looks promising.

Friday Q&A: Minnesota WR A.J. Barker

October, 12, 2012
Minnesota junior A.J. Barker ranks fifth in the Big Ten in receiving yards per game, with 19 catches for 357 yards and four scores. If you saw that kind of success coming for Barker this year, you must be a psychic. He was a little known commodity coming into the season, having played in only six games and boasting one career catch before 2012. And he's a walk-on.

I recently caught up with the St. Paul, Minn., native to find out his story for this week's Friday Q&A:

How have things been going up there with the bye week last week?

A.J. Barker: It was good. We've gotten a lot of fresh legs under us, gotten healed up and are ready to go.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Barker
Marilyn Indahl/US PresswireA.J. Barker has made a name for himself at Minnesota this season, racking up more than 300 yards receiving and four TDs.
How quickly were you able to bounce back from the loss to Iowa before the bye?

AB: It was tough. You never want to lose any game but we've got a really good, consistent coaching staff, and they got us refocused really quickly and the guys just bought into that. We had a great week of practice last week and a great week of practice this week, so I think we bounced back real well.

Let's talk about your background. Did you grow up a Gophers fan?

AB: Yep. With it being the only D-I school in Minnesota, it's kind of tough not to.

What kind of recruiting interest did you draw out of high school?

AB: I had some lower Division I schools, some FCS schools, that showed some interest. But I made it pretty clear early on that I was going to try and walk on in the Big Ten, and when I got that opportunity I wasn't going to miss it.

So did you have any actual scholarship offers from FBS schools?

AB: It's hard to say whether any would have offered me or not. I was pretty honest in the process and told them, "Hey, I'm going to come to Minnesota." And once I got into school that's what I did. Around my junior year, I was thinking about whether I wanted to try to play basketball or football in college. I thought I could be a great football player, and I wanted to go after it. I wanted to stay home and come to Minnesota. And I was able to execute that plan, which has been awesome.

You redshirted your first year, played a little the next year and then got hurt, right?

AB: Yeah, last year, my redshirt sophomore season, I tore my hamstring in camp. It set me back. It was a slower recovery than I wanted it to be.

So it's safe to say that you were a little under the radar coming into this season.

AB: I knew people had no idea who I was. I know this is a little thing, but I remember seeing a poll about Gophers receivers, and there were 12 receivers listed and I wasn't even listed as one of the 12. So I was like, "Huh. All right, well, we've got to prove them wrong."

Jerry Kill said a couple of weeks ago that you play with a chip on your shoulder. Do you agree?

AB: Oh yeah. I'm a hungry competitor. I feel like I've played that way my whole life. Yeah, I do feel like I play with a chip on my shoulder but I've always really competed with a chip on my shoulder.

How much does being a walk-on and not getting much recognition motivate you?

AB: It's a big driver. You know, not having anyone in the outside world -- my family and my friends trust me -- but in the outside world, you're really kind of ridiculed. It's kind of like, "Oh, you're a walk-on. Good luck." You just sit there, and you really can't say anything either, because the reality is that most [walk-ons] don't pan out. You just bite your tongue and let it fuel you. Just go to work and chip away. The hardest part is when you're going to work, you don't see those rewards. Even when you're doing good things, you don't get that positive feedback. It's a struggle. But luckily for me, it just kept fueling and fueling me. I got angrier and more aggressive about it and was able to control that aggression through it. So it's paid off.

You went out in the opener and had a 100-yard game against UNLV. How good did it feel to do that?

AB: It felt real good. It's what I thought I could do. I'm not going to say I never doubted myself. But getting to the point where it was actually happening, it was awesome. It was awesome for me, awesome for my family It just seemed like there was so much time where you were like, "Man, I want to believe it will work out but it doesn't look right." You can't really see the light at the end of the tunnel. Then it comes on quickly like that, because it really comes on fast. I mean, we're flying to UNLV and I don't know if I'm even going to play and all of a sudden, I'm making plays and it's like,"boom." This is what I had hoped for, and now it's here, so now you've got to run with it. It's been a rollercoaster.

How has that changed things for you? Are you recognized a lot more on campus now?

AB: I get a lot more texts, from tons of people. But I like to be pretty low key when I'm going to class, so I don't get much attention. I prefer it that way.

What parts of your game have improved the last couple of years?

AB: I just think in terms of processing the game, everything goes hand in hand. You can't just process, and you can't just be fast. So the combination of my game speed, my strength and my processing has all been able to raise. Just getting everything to come up is what's brought me up the most.

There were lots of questions about the offense and the receivers in particular this offseason. How do you think you guys have come along so far this season?

AB: I think the offense is coming along really well. We're developing and getting a feel for what we can do and what some of our limitations may be, and I feel really confident about what we're going to be doing going forward. There have been some rough patches, but you chip away and right now we're in a very good position going forward with the offense. I think we can do a lot of damage.

MarQueis Gray got hurt and Max Shortell came in at quarterback. Gray might be back this week. What's it going to be like when both guys are healthy?

AB: It will be interesting to see. It's not a secret that it's been tough for schools in the past to handle two quarterbacks, and that's for the coaches to decide which one plays or whether they both play. I think we as a team need to take that on as a new challenge, as if we have to discover the answer, discover a positive answer. That's going to be a huge sign of our team's maturity. Hopefully, we take that on and run with it.

Finally, has there been much discussion about putting you on scholarship?

AB: No, it doesn't come up. I've read some things in the newspaper, but other than that, no. I'm just here to go to work.

Big Ten stock report: Week 4

September, 19, 2012
Our weekly checkup on the bulls and bears of the Big Ten (and we don't mean those Chicago pro teams):

Stock up

A.J. Barker: When searching for playmakers among Minnesota receivers this offseason, we rarely mentioned Barker's name. Hard to blame us there, since the junior had one career catch coming into this season. But Barker now has a pair of 101-yard games and four touchdowns this season, ranking third in the Big Ten in receiving yards. "The biggest thing is he's healthy," head coach Jerry Kill said. "He's had a lot of hamstring problems. He's playing full speed and is a very gifted athlete. He runs very good routes and has good hands, and he's playing with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder, which is a good thing."

[+] EnlargeBill O'Brien
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPenn State coach Bill O'Brien, right, celebrates with quarterback Matt McGloin after a second-quarter touchdown during the Nittany Lions' win Saturday, O'Brien's first with the team.
Matt McGloin: Believe it or not, McGloin is developing into a very dependable quarterback. The Penn State senior still needs to improve his completion percentage (56.7), but he's fourth in the Big Ten in passing yards (688). Maybe most importantly, McGloin has an 8-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio after coming into this season with a 22-to-14 mark. "He's made a lot of progress," Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said. "Matt's done a good job in ... making good decisions when he throws the ball and making good decisions when he scrambles of taking care of the ball. It's something he just needs to continue to do."

Devin Gardner: After seeing Gardner work out as a receiver this spring, I thought the storyline of his move from quarterback was overblown. But Gardner has improved at his new position and surprisingly leads Michigan with eight catches for 155 yards and three touchdowns. He may have become too valuable at receiver to move back to quarterback.

Indiana's offense: Granted, the competition level hasn't been stiff. But the Hoosiers are showing increased firepower this year and currently lead the league in total yards and passing yards, while averaging 36 points. Those numbers are way up from last year, and they've done it while using three quarterbacks so far because of injuries.

Nebraska's backfield stable: It's notable that Nebraska hasn't missed a beat in the running game with Rex Burkhead out since the first half of the opener. The Huskers rank eighth nationally in rushing at 295 yards per game thanks to excellent work by Ameer Abdullah and others. Burkhead is scheduled to return this week against Idaho State, and now Nebraska knows it doesn't have to burden him with a huge workload. Abdullah, who had 30 carries last week, plus Braylon Heard and Imani Cross give Bo Pelini all kinds of options to choose from.

Stock down

Ohio State's tackling: The Buckeyes' defense is loaded with former stud recruits and future pros. So why isn't it dominating? Missed tackles have been a huge problem, an issue Urban Meyer called "terrible" after his team gave up several big plays to Cal last week. Meyer plans on having the Buckeyes tackle more in practice this week, and the linebackers and safeties in particular need to do a better job of wrapping up.

Roy Roundtree: The Michigan senior was supposed to regain his 2010 form this year as he took over the No. 1 receiver spot from Junior Hemingway. But Roundtree has only five catches for 42 yards in three games. He did have his knee scoped in fall camp, which may be limiting his effectiveness. Still, when a converted quarterback is your leading receiver, that says a lot about the state of your receiving corps. Perhaps playing Notre Dame, against whom he made the game-winning catch a year ago, will get Roundtree going this week.

Illinois attendance: We understand that the opener was played in poor weather conditions, and last week's opponent (Charleston Southern) wouldn't get anybody excited. Yet the Illini are officially averaging just over 44,000 fans in their two home games, which is below such football factories as Indiana and Kansas. Reports say that actual attendance last week was closer to 30,000. No weather or opponent factors would create those types of poor numbers at football-crazy schools across the Big Ten or the country. Is Louisiana Tech enough to get the Illinois faithful invested this week?

Penn State's running game: Silas Redd's transfer and injuries have taken their toll on the Nittany Lions' ground game. The team is only averaging 107.7 yards per game, which is last in the Big Ten and 102nd nationally. Penn State is one of only four teams in the country without a rushing touchdown this season. Derek Day could return this week and Bill Belton may be back soon. Not soon enough for what is an anemic rushing attack right now.

Wisconsin's turnover margin: The Badgers have been one of the best teams in the country at winning turnover margin. They were plus-14 in 2010 and plus-16 last year, both of which ranked in the top five of the FBS. This season, however, Wisconsin is at minus-three. And though the defense has kept the team in games, it has yet to create a single turnover. No wonder Bret Bielema was quick to pull quarterback Danny O'Brien after some carelessness with ball security last week against Utah State.
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

1. Void at the top: Throughout the offseason and up until 8 p.m. Saturday, we insisted that Michigan State was the Big Ten's top team. That title is totally up for grabs after the Spartans were pushed around by Notre Dame in a 20-3 loss. Who's No. 1 now? Is it Ohio State, which is 3-0 but looked awfully shaky against Cal in a game it probably should have lost? Is it Michigan, which shouldn't be punished too heavily for losing to a potentially great Alabama team? How about Purdue, which played Notre Dame much tougher on the road than Michigan State did at home, or Nebraska, which bounced back from the UCLA loss to thump Arkansas State? Or maybe Michigan State just doesn't match up well with the Irish, since it got beat soundly in South Bend a year ago but still won the Legends Division. We can't discount Northwestern, which is 3-0 with wins over three BCS AQ teams, and, yes, Minnesota is also undefeated. Ohio State likely will be the league's top team in the Associated Press poll this week. But the truth is, there's a major power void at the top of the conference.

[+] EnlargePurdue's Caleb TerBush
Andrew Weber/US PresswireAre Caleb TerBush and the Boilermakers the class of the Leaders Division?
2. What now for Wisconsin? No Badgers assistants are likely to lose their jobs this week, but no one in the coaches' offices can feel too comfortable right now, either. Bret Bielema fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson after only two games in an attempt to fix a stalled running attack, but the Wisconsin ground game was still pedestrian against Utah State. Montee Ball ran for 139 yards but needed 37 handoffs to do so as the team averaged only 3.5 yards per carry. Bielema even benched quarterback Danny O'Brien, who completed just 5 of 10 passes for 63 yards. Wisconsin was extremely fortunate to escape with the 16-14 victory as the Aggies missed a 37-yard field goal in the closing seconds. A loss would have sent Badger Nation into full panic mode. But if the offense doesn't perform better than it has the first three weeks, Bielema's team will have a hard time winning many Big Ten games.

3. Purdue could be the best team in the Leaders Division: Danny Hope's Boilermakers are no longer just a sleeper team in a division that Wisconsin had been pegged to dominate. Purdue might be the best of the bunch in the Leaders, which isn't a huge compliment but an encouraging sign in West Lafayette. Ohio State barely escaped against Cal, Wisconsin is a shell of its former self, and Illinois, Penn State and Indiana all have some flaws. The Boilers are very strong defensively and might have the league's top defensive line, led by star tackle Kawann Short. They have some depth in the run game and a standout receiver in Antavian Edison. Although Caleb TerBush has his ups and downs at quarterback, Purdue could go a long way this season. Right now, the Boilers might be the team to beat in the quest to reach Indianapolis.

4. Not the same old Northwestern: The Wildcats played a truly odd game against Boston College. They piled up 560 yards, 34 first downs and 100 total offensive snaps, yet they didn't score their first touchdown until Mike Trumpy broke off a 27-yard run with 1:37 left. Still, the 22-13 win over the Eagles was in some way like last week's 23-13 triumph against Vanderbilt. Northwestern showed that its defense could hold down a respectable offense (BC came in averaging 33 points per game) and that it could grind out a game once it grabbed the lead. Those things haven't been common of late for Pat Fitzgerald's team, but this one seems to have good chemistry and grit, not to mention a bevy of offensive weapons. The Wildcats are off to a excellent start, and with South Dakota and Indiana at home in the next two games, they could easily finish September at 5-0.

5. Receivers are catching on: We've wondered for a while where the standout receivers were in this league outside of Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis. With Abbrederis out of commission this week because of an injury, several wideouts made statements on Saturday. Ohio State's Devin Smith continued his flair for the dramatic with a 72-yard, game-winning catch against Cal, part of a 145-yard, two-touchdown day. Penn State's Allen Robinson caught three touchdown passes and had 136 yards. Nebraska's Kenny Bell also caught a pair of scores, including a 42-yarder. Minnesota's A.J. Barker torched Western Michigan for 101 yards and three touchdowns. Illinois' Ryan Lankford broke out with seven catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns, albeit against Charleston Southern. Purdue's Edison is quietly putting together a strong season. Indiana's Cody Latimer had 115 yards and a pair of scores, including a 70-yarder late. Even Iowa, which struggled to throw the ball downfield in the first two weeks, got a 100-yard day from Kevonte Martin-Manley. Perhaps the new crop of Big Ten star receivers is starting to blossom.
Recognizing the best and the brightest from Week 3 in the Big Ten:
  • Ohio State QB Braxton Miller: Seems like it's Miller Time every Saturday in Columbus as the Ohio State sophomore quarterback continues to dazzle in Urban Meyer's offense. Miller accounted for five touchdowns (four passing, one rushing) as the Buckeyes held off Cal 35-28. He passed for 249 yards and added 75 on the ground. Miller has accounted for 12 of Ohio State's 16 touchdowns this season. Miller had help in getting the sticker from wideout Devin Smith, who racked up 145 receiving yards and two touchdowns, including the game winner.
  • Iowa RB Mark Weisman: Weisman for Heisman? Let's start the campaign! Weisman looked like the last guy to help Iowa end its touchdown drought, but after injuries to top backs Damon Bullock and Greg Garmon, the Hawkeyes turned to Weisman, and he stepped up. The walk-on had 24 carries for 113 yards and, yes, three touchdowns as Iowa beat Northern Iowa 27-16.
  • Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: No Rex Burkhead? No problem for the Huskers, who might have the Big Ten's best 1-2 punch at running back. Abdullah turned in another big day with 167 rush yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries in a 42-13 win over Arkansas State. He added two receptions for 39 yards. Quarterback Taylor Martinez (13-for-14 passing) and wideout Kenny Bell (two TD receptions) also deserve mention.
  • Minnesota QB Max Shortell: The sophomore stepped in for injured starter MarQueis Gray and delivered immediately, leading two touchdown drives after Western Michigan had reclaimed the lead. Shortell passed for 188 yards and three touchdowns as the Gophers beat Western Michigan 28-23, improving to 3-0. He shares part of the sticker with wide receiver A.J. Barker, who recorded three touchdown catches and 101 receiving yards.
  • Penn State WR Allen Robinson: The Big Ten is searching for star receivers, and Robinson looks ready to fill the void. The league's top receiver through the first two weeks had his best performance Saturday against Navy, hauling in five passes for 136 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-7 victory. He became the first Penn State player to record three scoring receptions since Graham Zug against Michigan in 2009.
Arguably the biggest question for Minnesota entering the season was whether the Gophers had any offensive weapons besides senior quarterback MarQueis Gray.

The Gophers showed Saturday they have plenty.

Despite losing Gray to a leg injury in the second quarter, Minnesota outlasted Western Michigan 28-23 to improve to 3-0 on the season. Max Shortell relieved Gray and fired three touchdown passes, two to emerging standout A.J. Barker, and got help from Donnell Kirkwood on the ground as the Gophers notched an important win.

The situation doesn't look good for Gray, who had to be taken to the locker room on a cart and had crutches on the sideline in the second half. His knee and ankle will be evaluated, and we'll have any updates on his status as they come in.

Shortell showed he can handle the offense, and engineered two touchdown drives at the end of the first half after Western Michigan reclaimed the lead at 10-7. The 6-foot-6, 237-pound Shortell completed 10-of-17 passes for 188 yards with the three scoring strikes and an interception. Barker had five catches, three of them touchdowns, for 101 yards, while Kirkwood added 110 rush yards on 23 carries.

Minnesota's defense wasn't as stifling as it had been in the first two games, but Michael Carter had an interception and Ra'Shede Hageman, who looked dominant again at times, nearly had another.

The Gophers gear up for their toughest non-league test next week against Syracuse before opening Big Ten play. Although Gray's status is a concern going forward, Minnesota is halfway to bowl eligibility and looks like it has enough to get back to the postseason.
It took three overtimes to bring out the best in MarQueis Gray and the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

After a sloppy performance, particularly from their senior quarterback, Minnesota made enough plays in all three phases in the extra sessions to beat UNLV 30-27 and survive a major scare on the road. The Gophers avoided losing to a Rebels squad coming off of a 2-10 season and gave coach Jerry Kill his first road win at the helm.

Before getting to Gray's odd night, some props for Minnesota's defense. The unit rescued the Gophers multiple times and showed tangible improvement. First, a line that has been largely ineffective for the past three seasons turned up the heat, as Ra'Shede Hageman, D.L. Wilhite, Ben Perry and others got involved. The secondary stepped up late, no one more so than sophomore safety Derrick Wells, who recorded two interceptions, including one in the end zone in the third overtime. Senior Jordan Wettstein, who had missed a short field-goal attempt early, connected from 32 yards out for the win.

Gray finished with a nice stat line (17-for-30 passing 268 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT), but he had a nightmarish performance in regulation. The senior struggled with his accuracy and missed at least three wide-open receivers for touchdowns. Despite a boost from Donnell Kirkwood (81 yards) and James Gillum (51 yards, TD) in the run game, Minnesota's offense stalled after getting next to nothing from its leader.

But to Gray's credit, he didn't quit and came alive in overtime with two touchdown strikes to tight end John Rabe. Wide receiver A.J. Barker also had a breakout performance (three receptions, 101 yards).

Minnesota made numerous mistakes, including 11 penalties and a muffed punt by Troy Stoudermire that led to a UNLV score.

This wasn't a masterpiece, and for the most part, the Gophers should hope what happened in Vegas stays there. They won't win many more games playing like this.

But it's always easier to build off of a victory, and Minnesota's flight home will be a happy one.