NCF Nation: Aaron Hill

Badgers chopping their way to BCS bowl

November, 23, 2013
11/23/13
9:25
PM ET


MINNEAPOLIS -- It's tradition in the Paul Bunyan's Axe series for the winning team to grab the axe and hunt down both goal posts for some pretend chopping.

That tradition hit a slight snag on Saturday night. After No. 19 Wisconsin downed No. 25 Minnesota 20-7, the Badgers rushed to the west end zone at TCF Bank Stadium and attacked one of the goal posts. When they carried the axe to the opposite end zone, however, they found the Gophers' players and coaches blocking their path.

Some heated words were exchanged. There was some shoving. Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said a security officer pointed a finger in his face and told his team to leave. The Badgers never got to that goal post.

"It's happened for as long as I've been alive, going to both goal posts," Wisconsin senior linebacker Chris Borland said. "They kind of crashed our party."

[+] EnlargeBeau Allen
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsBeau Allen and Wisconsin chopped down Minnesota and the Badgers' BCS bowl hopes are looking up.
For the most part, though, the Badgers simply laughed off the Minnesota blockade. And why not? Nobody has stopped them when it has mattered in nearly two months.

Wisconsin (9-2) has won six straight games since a 31-24 loss at Ohio State on Sept. 28, with all of those wins coming by at least 10 points. If this keeps up, it might prove difficult to keep Andersen's team from crashing the BCS party.

After three straight Rose Bowl trips, the Badgers are left hoping for an at-large bid since Ohio State clinched the Leaders Division spot in the Big Ten championship game on Saturday. They still need a sizable bump in the BCS standings, but perhaps a road win over a ranked team will provide that boost. Oregon's loss on Saturday might have also helped, as the Pac-12 might not get a second bid now.

Andersen has declined to campaign for his team. But they are doing the important work for him.

"When you have nine wins, you're very close to being a great football team," Andersen said. "I'm not so sure we're not a great team right now. If the season were over, I'd probably say they were a great team. But I don't want to tell them that yet."

Saturday's win was more of an efficient bloodletting than a showcase. The Gophers, who had won four straight Big Ten games behind some inspired play, went toe-to-toe with Wisconsin in the trenches early. Borland said it took some time to adjust to Minnesota's physical style, and the sub-zero wind chill didn't make the shoulder-pad slamming any more pleasant.

But after Minnesota grabbed a second-quarter lead on Aaron Hill's pick-six and then threatened again in Badgers territory, the Wisconsin defense clamped down. Brendan Kelly forced a fumble from quarterback Philip Nelson that Borland recovered, leading to an eventual touchdown. Another quick three-and-out defensive series set up a field goal for a 13-7 halftime lead.

Wisconsin caused a season-high three turnovers and limited Minnesota to just 185 total yards and 3.4 yards per play. For the third straight Big Ten game and the sixth time in 11 games overall, the Badgers defense did not allow an offensive touchdown.

"It's been fun to see this defense develop into what it is," Borland said.

The offense didn't do a whole lot after Joel Stave's third-quarter touchdown throw to Jared Abbrederis for the game's final points. But it says a lot that Wisconsin seemed disappointed with a 197-yard rushing effort.

Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said earlier in the week that the Badgers had no weaknesses. That's not quite true, as special teams remain shaky. One of kicker Jack Russell's field goal tries took a dogleg left, and Andersen broke out a bizarre fourth-quarter fake-field goal play that lost 7 yards. He said he'd been holding on to that play for weeks, and that he would definitely scrap it now.

Everything else, however, has been going Wisconsin's way. Now it's a wait-and-see game with the BCS standings.

"I think this team has a lot of talent and deserves a little more recognition," defensive lineman Ethan Hemer said. "Hopefully, a win like this will put us in that spot."

On Saturday, the players were just happy to celebrate a 10th consecutive win over Minnesota, the longest by either side in the 123-year history of the rivalry. Borland hoisted freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton on his shoulders, and Shelton held up a whiteboard that read "10 straight." The many Badgers fans who made the trip chanted, "10 more years."

"Ten's a great number," Borland told ESPN.com. "That's a decade of dominance."

The Badgers have been dominating everybody for nearly two months. It remains to be seen whether they can chop their way through the BCS road blocks.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 10

November, 4, 2013
11/04/13
9:00
AM ET
We have true separation in the Big Ten, and not just with Ohio State at the No. 1 spot. Although the Buckeyes remain the league's kingpin, both Wisconsin and Michigan State also belong in the Big Ten's upper crust.

The big debate in these rankings concerns the No. 2 spot, which Wisconsin has occupied for several weeks. The Badgers handled Iowa on the road and delivered a salty defensive performance even without superstar linebacker Chris Borland. Michigan State smothered Michigan, complementing a dominant defense with timely passes from Connor Cook. Both teams have won at Iowa and at Illinois. Michigan State has the best win between the bunch but has played the easier schedule.

For now, we're keeping Wisconsin at No. 2. We realize we're in the minority there, but Wisconsin hasn't done much to move down since the Northwestern game. It's too bad the Badgers and Spartans can't play this season to decide the second spot.

Elsewhere, Nebraska avoids another drop thanks to its Hail Mary against sad-sack Northwestern. We debated whether to move Minnesota higher, and we will if the Gophers keep winning. Iowa falls down a few spots, and the bottom of the rankings remains unchanged.

Here's one last look at the Week 9 rankings.

Now, the new rundown ...

1. Ohio State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): Ross-Ade Stadium is no longer a graveyard for the Buckeyes, who buried Purdue in a matter of minutes Saturday. Ohio State scored 28 first-quarter points and 42 in the first half, as the tight ends got involved, quarterbacks Braxton Miller and Kenny Guiton both had jump-pass touchdowns and the defense blanked Purdue. Whether style points matter, Ohio State is finally getting them. The Buckeyes are off this week before visiting Illinois on Nov. 16.

2. Wisconsin (6-2, 4-1; last week: 2): The offense struggled and top defender Borland watched from the sideline with a hamstring injury, but Wisconsin found a way to beat Iowa. Marcus Trotter was fabulous filling in for Borland, as the Badgers' defense repeatedly turned Iowa away in plus territory. Running back James White came alive late as Wisconsin pulled away. The Badgers will need a stronger performance this week as they step out of league play against a good BYU squad.

3. Michigan State (8-1, 5-0; last week: 3): Not only did the Spartans reclaim their superiority against in-state rival Michigan, but they looked like a worthy competitor for Ohio State in a potential Big Ten championship game matchup. If Nebraska falls this week at Michigan, MSU would have a two-game lead on the rest of the division with three weeks to go. An elite defense had its best performance under Pat Narduzzi, as end Shilique Calhoun and linebackers Denicos Allen and Ed Davis combined for seven sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. Cook made some impressive throws as the Spartans pounded Michigan. They'll have some extra time to celebrate during an open week before visiting Nebraska on Nov. 16.

4. Nebraska (6-2, 3-1; last week: 7): One play makes all the difference between another Power Rankings drop for Big Red and a three-spot gain. Nebraska had defensive problems early and turnover problems late against Northwestern, but the Huskers never gave up and won a game on a Hail Mary to Jordan Westerkamp for the first time in team history. Credit running back Ameer Abdullah for keeping a potentially splintering team together. The young defense also shut down Northwestern's offense in the second half. Nebraska must beat Michigan on the road this week to stay in the Legends Division race.

5. Michigan (6-2, 2-2; last week: 4): That Notre Dame win feels like years ago as Michigan's warts were exposed in Saturday's loss at Michigan State. The Wolverines are either too young or simply not tough enough, as they were pushed around the field at Spartan Stadium. Michigan had a program-low rushing total (minus-48 yards) and couldn't protect quarterback Devin Gardner. The program's Big Ten championship drought almost certainly will reach nine years, and it's fair to question where things are really headed under third-year coach Brady Hoke. At least Michigan returns home, where it has never lost under Hoke, to face Nebraska this week.

6. Minnesota (7-2, 3-2; last week: 6): The Minnesota mojo continues, thanks in large part to an inexcusable crunch-time blunder by Indiana. Minnesota blew a 22-point third-quarter lead but rallied behind Philip Nelson, who established himself as the team's offensive leader with 298 pass yards and four touchdowns. It was a rough second half for the defense, but linebacker Aaron Hill came up with the decisive play late as the Gophers got out of Bloomington with their third consecutive league win. Minnesota is a factor in the Legends Division race but must keep winning this week against Penn State.

7. Iowa (5-4, 2-3; last week: 5): Sure, the Hawkeyes are improved this season, but some of the same maddening offensive traits remain, like being unable to finish drives. Iowa should have been up at halftime rather than down 7-6 to Wisconsin, and although quarterback Jake Rudock's injury impacted the game, the Hawkeyes' second-half struggles on offense are nothing new. The defense is good enough to get Iowa a few more wins, but can the offense start scoring? Iowa visits Purdue this week.

8. Penn State (5-3, 2-2; last week: 8): It isn't always pretty with Penn State, but the Lions don't quit, especially on their home field. Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg once again rallied his team from a late deficit and stepped up in overtime as Penn State avoided what would have been a bad loss to Illinois. Bill Belton established himself as the team's top running back with 201 yards and a touchdown. The defense remains far too vulnerable to big passing plays. Penn State will need to be better on both sides of the ball this week as it visits surging Minnesota.

9. Indiana (3-5, 1-3; last week: 9): Coach Kevin Wilson's crew doesn't quit, but the Hoosiers still don't know how to win. They were 9 yards away from completing a huge second-half comeback against Minnesota and moving a step closer to bowl eligibility. At worst, they were in position to send the game to overtime. Instead, everything fell apart on a dropped backward pass to Tevin Coleman, who had a big game (108 rush yards, TD). The quarterback race took another turn with Nate Sudfeld outplaying Tre Roberson, and the defense had a wildly inconsistent performance. Indiana hosts Illinois this week but will need a road win at Ohio State or Wisconsin to become bowl eligible.

10. Northwestern (4-5, 0-5; last week: 10): The former Cardiac Cats are only giving their fans heartache at this point as they've forgotten how to perform in the clutch. Northwestern had another golden opportunity for a road win, but let it slip away when it couldn't finish off Nebraska on either side of the ball, leading to the Hail Mary touchdown to Jordan Westerkamp. Injuries continue to mount in a snakebitten season for the Wildcats, who likely won't make a bowl. Northwestern has an off week to regroup before hosting Michigan on Nov. 16.

11. Illinois (3-5, 0-4; last week: 11): The Big Ten losing streak has reached 18 games, and arguably no defeat stung more than Saturday's at Penn State. Illinois wasted opportunities early, took the lead late and still couldn't hold on for a victory. Tim Beckman's team performed better than expected and can take some positives from its performance in Happy Valley, but there's still too much inconsistency on both sides of the ball, as the defense allowed 250 rush yards. Illinois visits Indiana this week.

12. Purdue (1-7, 0-4; last week: 12): The misery continues for Darrell Hazell's crew, which is on its way to its worst season since 1993 (1-10) and might be one of the worst squads in recent Big Ten memory. Young quarterback Danny Etling had another rough outing as Purdue never challenged Ohio State and had no answers for the Buckeyes' offense. Purdue has been shut out in consecutive games and has scored just 17 points in four Big Ten contests. The remaining schedule is a little more favorable, but Purdue has to show something positive by season's end.
Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys is matter of fact when talking about the state of the Gophers' linebacker position.

"I think everybody knows that's the one group we need better performance out of to keep developing as a defense," he told ESPN.com.

Claeys might be able to get a strong performance out of his linebackers in 2013, but it won't be because of their experience. The position was the hardest hit by graduation and other factors in the offseason. Starters Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper completed their eligibility, as did backups Spencer Reeves and Ryan Grant. Florida transfer Brendan Beal gave up football after a string of injuries, and reserve Lamonte Edwards was recently dismissed from the team after an off-the-field incident.

[+] EnlargeAaron Hill
AP Photo/Jesse JohnsonAaron Hill will be Minnesota's most experienced returning linebacker.
That leaves Aaron Hill as the lone returning starter, and one of the only guys with any game experience. But while the linebacker group is wildly unproven right now, Claeys does have some options.

"The one thing we did show this spring is we have enough bodies there," he said. "It's just a matter of, can they do what we ask them to do, and can they be consistent?"

Junior college transfer Damien Wilson enrolled in January and could start at middle linebacker. Redshirt freshmen Jack Lynn and Nick Rallis -- Mike's younger brother -- also got a lot of reps this spring. Claeys said all three started to come on strong in the last couple of weeks of spring practice.

This summer brought a wave of new faces at the position, including junior college transfer De'Vondre Campbell, and true freshmen De'Niro Laster, Chris Wipson and Rayfield Dixon. Campbell was a late addition just before signing day, and the coaches were excited about his 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame.

"He's a good-looking kid," Claeys said. "He's got length and height and everything you want in a Big Ten linebacker. Hopefully, the other guys are getting him comfortable in what to do scheme-wise and things like that. Then in fall camp, we'll spend a lot of time with De'Vondre and those new guys."

Hill, who has been a solid if unspectacular player for the Gophers so far, has taken on added importance this summer. With the coaches unable to work directly with players until next month, Claeys is relying on his veteran senior to help get the new guys up to speed during voluntary workouts.

"I think we can make some jumps during the summer," Claeys said. "By getting De'Vondre and those guys comfortable with the base calls of our scheme, they may have a chance to help us. The more time our linebackers put in together, the better we'll be."

Claeys said every linebacker will get a chance to show what he can do during the first two weeks of fall practice, and then the Gophers will start paring things down. He likes the speed and athleticism Minnesota has brought into the program at that position. The question is whether the young players can overcome their inexperience.

"I think we've got a good mix there," he said. "But we're going to need some kids to help us and contribute who haven't played a lot."
Michigan State's defense decided enough was enough. So did Le'Veon Bell.

Had the season been a massive disappointment? Check. Had the lack of a Big Ten home win surprised everyone? Check. Had the number of near misses been infuriating for all involved? Check.

But the Spartans weren't about to miss out on a bowl game. No way. A 6-6 season would be salvaged, end of discussion.

Michigan State's defenders and Bell made sure of it in a 26-10 victory against Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium. The Spartans (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten) ensured they'll be going bowling for the sixth consecutive season under head coach Mark Dantonio, while Minnesota (6-6, 2-6) also is headed to the postseason despite dropping its last two games.

Gophers coach Jerry Kill didn't return to the sideline for the second half. There's no definitive word whether Kill had another seizure, but we'll pass along any news as it comes in.

Michigan State's defense turned in its most dominant effort of the season, surrendering 96 total yards, four net rush yards, seven first downs and just three points. Minnesota's only touchdown came from linebacker Aaron Hill on a pick-six of Andrea Maxwell.

Pat Narduzzi's crew was fabulous.

Bell, meanwhile, continued to carry the Michigan State offense -- quite literally -- piling up a career-high 266 rush yards and a touchdown on 35 carries. He recorded his third 200-yard rushing effort of the season and his sixth game of more than 30 carries. As bad as Michigan State's offense has been, think of where it would be without Bell.

About the only other offensive contribution the Spartans got came on a deflected pass intended for Tony Lippett that Bennie Fowler caught and ran into the end zone late in the first half.

Kicker Dan Conroy also made an impact, tying his career high with four field goals (48 yards, 43 yards, 43 yards, 30 yards). Although Michigan State's struggles in plus territory continued, the team didn't need many points Saturday.

Minnesota's defense kept it in the game, and the Gophers recorded two interceptions against Maxwell. But Nelson appears to be hitting a wall, and he needed a lot more help from the run game than he received today. Fortunately, Minnesota will have bowl practices to improve, and we hope Kill is OK.

Michigan State didn't expect to be here, squeaking into a bowl. All three of the Spartans' Big Ten wins came on the road, which could bode well as they'll play their bowl game away from East Lansing.

The offense needs a lot of work between now and late December, when Michigan State likely faces a Big 12 team in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

But Dantonio has to be pleased his team found a way, thanks to Bell, Conroy and the defense.

Minnesota 4-0 after holding off Syracuse

September, 22, 2012
9/22/12
11:24
PM ET


Look out for Minnesota. The Gophers are 4-0 for the first time since 2008 after an impressive 17-10 victory over Syracuse at home. Here's how it happened:

It was over when: Minnesota recovered Syracuse's onsides kick attempt with 45 seconds left, allowing the Gophers to get into the victory formation. A last-chance Orange rally resulted in a touchdown pass in the final minute, but it wasn't enough.

Game ball goes to: The Gophers' D. Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib came into the game as the second-leading passer in the FBS. Minnesota limited him to just 228 yards through the air, and much of that came on the final drive. Credit every level of the defense for the effort, as the front four led by D.L. Wilhite and Ra'Shede Hageman got tremendous pressure, and the secondary stayed glued to standout Orange receiver Marcus Sales, whose only two catches of the game came in the final two minutes. Aaron Hill also intercepted Nassib's pass at the Minnesota 3-yard line early in the third quarter.

Stat of the game: Turnover margin. Syracuse turned the ball over four times, including a pair of interceptions, while Minnesota didn't cough it up a single time. That was the difference in a game where the Orange outgained the Gophers 350-337.

How the game was won: This one wasn't actually as close as the final score indicates. Minnesota missed a pair of field goals after driving into the Syracuse red zone and had a touchdown pass wiped out by a penalty. But the Gophers didn't pay for leaving all those points on the field because of their outstanding defensive effort. Quarterback Max Shortell, starting for the injured MarQueis Gray, managed the game well, completing 16 of 30 passes for 231 yards, and Donnell Kirkwood ran for 99 yards and both Minnesota touchdowns.

What Minnesota learned: This was the best team the Gophers have played this season, and they won again. Minnesota already has more wins than it did a year ago and has won five straight dating back to last season. Jerry Kill's team now looks like a good bet to make it to a bowl game, and it has learned how to win some close games. The Gophers are no longer an easy out in the Big Ten.

What Syracuse learned: It was another tough loss for the 1-3 Orange, who lost a heartbreaker to Northwestern and hung tough against USC. Syracuse needs to get more from its offense when the passing game isn't lights out; the rushing game accounted for 122 yards but only 3.7 yards per carry. The Orange must get off the mat and get ready for Big East play on Friday against Pitt at home.

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