NCF Nation: Andrew Sweat

When a football coaching staff signs one of the top few recruits at any position, it's cause for celebration. Therefore, grabbing two of the top three prospects at that position might warrant an Animal House-style party.

Between 2006, when ESPN began assembling recruit rankings, and 2013, individual programs managed to sign at least two of the top three players at a position 16 times. In many cases, one -- and sometimes both -- of those players became instant stars as true freshmen. Think Taylor Mays and Joe McKnight at USC, De'Anthony Thomas at Oregon, Laremy Tunsil at Ole Miss and Sean Spence at Miami.

This was a relatively unique occurrence up until 2014, when it happened five times -- with four of the five instances occurring in the SEC: twice at Alabama, which signed the top two players at both center (No. 1 Josh Casher and No. 2 J.C. Hassenauer) and outside linebacker (No. 1 Christian Miller and No. 2 Rashaan Evans), plus at LSU (with No. 1 and 3 wide receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn) and Florida (with No. 2 and 3 defensive tackles Gerald Willis and Thomas Holley).

Clemson was the other school to accomplish the feat in 2014, signing No. 2 and 3 receiving tight ends Milan Richard and Cannon Smith.

In some of these cases -- particularly at LSU, which lost the vast majority of its receiving production from 2013 -- expectations are high that the star signees can immediately become valuable contributors as true freshmen. The Tigers have multiple alternatives at receiver, including Travin Dural and John Diarse, but Dupre and Quinn might rank among the leading contenders for playing time.

Judging by the long list of Freshman All-America and freshman all-conference honors won by those who previously signed as part of such a dynamic duo, perhaps it's not such a long shot that at least one of the newcomers will make a similar instant impact.

2006

Safety | USC
No. 2 Taylor Mays, No. 3 Antwine Perez

Mays appeared in all 13 games -- starting the last 12 at free safety after Josh Pinkard suffered a season-ending injury in the opener -- in 2006 and led the Trojans with three interceptions. Mays was fifth on the team with 62 tackles and tied for second with six passes defended, ending the season as Pac-10 Co-Freshman of the Year and as a member of multiple Freshman All-America teams. Perez played in seven games and recorded three tackles.

2007

Center | Auburn
No. 1 Ryan Pugh, No. 3 Chaz Ramsey

Pugh started six of Auburn's final nine games at left tackle and appeared in eight games overall. He also backed up Jason Bosley at center and earned Coaches' All-SEC Freshman team honors after the season. Like Pugh, Ramsey appeared for the first time in Week 4 and went on to start nine of the Tigers' last 10 games at right guard. He also made the Coaches' All-SEC Freshman team.

Running back | USC
No. 1 Joe McKnight, No. 2 Marc Tyler

McKnight played in all 13 games in 2007, ranked third on the team with 540 rushing yards and scored three touchdowns. He also caught 23 passes for 203 yards and a touchdown and served as the Trojans' primary punt returner, with his 8.4 yards per return helping him earn a All-Pac-10 honorable mention nod. Tyler redshirted in 2007 while recuperating from a high school leg injury.

2008

Inside linebacker | Ohio State
No. 1 Etienne Sabino, No. 2 Andrew Sweat

Sabino played in all 13 games and notched six tackles. He notched the only touchdown in the Buckeyes' 16-3 win against Purdue by returning a blocked punt 20 yards for a score. Sweat appeared in the last nine games and recorded five tackles, also contributing mostly on special teams.

Outside linebacker | Miami
No. 1 Arthur Brown, No. 2 Sean Spence, No. 3 Ramon Buchanan

Not only did Miami sign ESPN's top three outside linebacker prospects in 2008, it also signed No. 5 Jordan Futch. That's an outstanding haul for one year. At any rate, Spence emerged as the key member of this group from the get-go, ranking third on the team with 65 tackles and leading the Hurricanes with 9.5 tackles for a loss in 2008. He was ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year and made multiple Freshman All-America teams. Brown (who later transferred to Kansas State) played in 11 games as a freshman, notching four tackles and shifting from outside to inside linebacker. Buchanan had six tackles in nine games, playing mostly on special teams and also contributing at safety and linebacker.

Offensive tackle | Ohio State
No. 2 Michael Brewster, No. 3 J.B. Shugarts

Brewster played in 12 of the Buckeyes' 13 games in 2008 and started the last 10 at center, earning Freshman All-America honors in the process. Shugarts appeared in seven games at offensive tackle and missed six other games with a shoulder surgery that required offseason surgery.

Safety | Florida
No. 1 Will Hill, No. 2 Dee Finley

Hill played in 13 games and ranked sixth on the team with 48 tackles. He also picked off two passes and notched 1.5 sacks. He made the SEC All-Freshman team and led the Gators with 22 tackles on special teams. Finley did not qualify academically and spent the 2008 season at Milford Academy prep school. He eventually enrolled at Florida and shifted from safety to linebacker, but transferred away from Gainesville in 2011.

2009

Safety | South Carolina
No. 2 Stephon Gilmore, No. 3 DeVonte Holloman

Early enrollee Gilmore started all 13 games at cornerback, ranking fifth on the team with 56 tackles. He tied for the team lead with nine passes defended and ranked second with eight pass breakups, adding six tackles for a loss, three sacks, two fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and an interception. The Freshman All-SEC and Freshman All-America honoree also averaged 10.1 yards per return as a punt return man. Another early enrollee, Hollomon also played in every game, notching 30 tackles, an interception (which he returned 54 yards against rival Clemson) and a tackle for a loss.

2010

Athlete | Florida
No. 1 Ronald Powell, No. 2 Matt Elam

Powell played in 13 games at strongside linebacker and recorded 25 tackles, three tackles for a loss and a sack en route to winning Freshman All-SEC honors. Elam also played in all 13 games, mostly on special teams and at defensive back, and notched 22 tackles, two tackles for a loss and a sack.

Defensive tackle | Florida
No. 1 Dominique Easley, No. 3 Sharrif Floyd

Easley recorded four tackles in six games. Floyd played in all 13 games, earning Coaches' Freshman All-SEC honors by making 23 tackles and 6.5 tackles for a loss.

Wide receiver | Texas
No. 2 Mike Davis, No. 3 Darius White

Davis ranked second on the team with 478 receiving yards and 47 receptions (a record for a Texas freshman). He became one of only three receivers in Longhorns history to post multiple 100-yard games as a freshman. White appeared in 10 games in 2010, but caught just one pass for 5 yards and eventually transferred to Missouri after two seasons, citing a need for a fresh start.

2011

Athlete | Oregon
No. 1 De'Anthony Thomas, No. 2 Devon Blackmon

The speedy Thomas earned Pac-12 Co-Offensive Freshman of the Year honors and was named an All-Pac-12 kick returner and a Freshman All-American. He was the only player in the nation to post at least 400 yards rushing, receiving and kick returning in 2011, ranking as the Ducks' second-leading receiver (595 yards on 46 catches) and third-leading rusher (608 yards and seven touchdowns). His 983 kickoff return yards ranked second in school history. Blackmon redshirted in 2011 and appeared in two games in 2012 before announcing his plan to transfer. He played at Riverside City College before signing with BYU as a juco transfer in 2014.

2012

Defensive end | Florida State
No. 1 Mario Edwards, No. 3 Chris Casher

Edwards became the only freshman to start all season for a loaded FSU defense when he replaced the injured Tank Carradine in the ACC Championship Game. He also started in the Orange Bowl win over Northern Illinois. In all, Edwards finished the season with 17 tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks. Casher played in two early games before suffering a season-ending injury and taking a redshirt in 2012.

2013

Offensive guard | Michigan
No. 2 David Dawson, No. 3 Patrick Kugler

Dawson and Kugler both redshirted in 2013. Dawson practiced during the spring at left guard and left tackle, while Kugler is among the candidates to start at center this fall.

Offensive tackle | Ole Miss
No. 1 Laremy Tunsil, No. 3 Austin Golson

Tunsil immediately became one of the better offensive tackles in the SEC, earning second-team All-SEC and Freshman All-America honors in 2013. He played in 12 games and started nine at left tackle, making him one of only two true full-time freshman starters at the position in the FBS. Tunsil allowed just one sack all season. Golson played in 12 games, mostly at guard, before missing the Rebels' bowl game because of shoulder surgery. He transferred to Auburn this summer, citing a family illness as the reason he wanted to move closer to his Alabama home.

Safety | USC
No. 1 Su'a Cravens, No. 3 Leon McQuay III

A 2013 early enrollee, Cravens started 13 games at strong safety, ranked eighth on the team with 52 tackles and tied for second with four interceptions. He made multiple Freshman All-America teams and earned an All-Pac-12 honorable mention nod after the season. McQuay played in all 14 games, picked off one pass and recorded 19 tackles.
Everyone knows Terrelle Pryor headlined Ohio State's nationally acclaimed recruiting class in 2008.

But who can name the Buckeye's No. 2 rated player in the class, according to ESPN Recruiting? Hint 1: It wasn't Mike Adams, Mike Brewster, J.B. Shugarts or DeVier Posey. Hint 2: He's still in Columbus.

It might surprise some to know Etienne Sabino came to Ohio State with as much hype as the others, besides Pryor. ESPN Recruiting ranked him as the nation's top inside linebacker and No. 18 player overall. Sabino, who had an excellent size-speed combo coming out of Miami's Dr. Krop High School, received similar accolades from other recruiting services.

[+] EnlargeEtienne Sabino
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesEtienne Sabino, right, is looking to end his career at Ohio State the right way in 2012.
Yet unlike Pryor, Brewster and the others, Sabino didn't make an impact right away. He played mostly special teams as a freshman, recording six tackles. He had virtually the same results as a reserve in 2009 (13 games played, six tackles made).

Pegged as a starter in the spring of 2010, Sabino had high hopes entering fall camp. Linebackers coach Luke Fickell said of Sabino that spring, "He's the guy. ... This has been his best spring so far." But a great spring didn't translate into fall camp, as Andrew Sweat beat out Sabino for the third starting linebacker spot alongside Ross Homan and Brian Rolle. Sweat had been another decorated recruit in 2008, although not as heralded as Sabino.

Sabino and the coaches agreed he should redshirt the season, and while a rash of injuries midway through the season nearly forced him onto the field, he was able to sit out.

His wait for a bigger role finally ended in 2011, as he started five games and recorded 62 tackles, including 6.5 for loss and two sacks. It was a step, although not a huge one. Ask most Ohio State fans what they're excited about at linebacker entering 2012, and the name Ryan Shazier likely will be brought up before Sabino's.

"Coming in from high school, you want everything to happen right away," Sabino told ESPN.com. "You want to jump in, you want to contribute to the team, you want to be a superstar. Unfortunately, it doesn't always happen that way. As of right now, I think my career, would I want it to be a little better at this point? Yes. But I feel like it’s getting better in the past year or so, and I'm looking to build on that.

"I just feel ready. I felt ready before, but I have such a good grasp of what we're doing and what's expected."

As one of just eight members of the 2008 class still with the Buckeyes, the 6-foot-3, 237-pound Sabino is embracing a greater leadership role. He called the most recent spring practice "the most comfortable I’ve felt since I've been here." He has embraced the scheme under Fickell, the team's defensive coordinator, and his role as an outside linebacker after getting a look at the middle earlier in his career.

Ohio State's defense took a step back in 2011, and the linebacker play was below program standards. While the Buckeyes have depth questions at linebacker outside of Sabino, Shazier and Storm Klein, Sabino has high hopes for the group.

"We pride ourselves on being Linebacker U," Sabino said. "There might be a little bit of a controversy everywhere else, but we truly feel this is Linebacker University and we're trying to uphold that tradition here."

Fickell, who like many had such high hopes for Sabino coming out of spring practice in 2010, has seen the fifth-year senior embrace the urgency before his final season in Scarlet and Gray.

"He is an unbelievable example to a lot of guys because he was one of those highly, highly recruited guys," Fickell told ESPN.com. "Things didn't happen for him really fast, and he's had a true up-and-down college career from what people might have thought or he might have thought when he came out. It just doesn’t always happen for everybody really fast.

"We always try to tell them, 'It’s not about where you start, it's where you finish.' He's on that route to really be able to finish very, very well."

Sabino still has time to make Ohio State fans remember his name.
We continue our postseason position rankings today as we move on to the linebackers.

Not surprisingly, Linebacker U takes the top spot, though it was a very close call. Depth helped the top two teams on this list, while star power marked spots Nos. 3 through 5. After that, it's a bit of a dropoff.

Away we go ...

[+] EnlargeGerald Hodges
Rob Christy/US PresswireGerald Hodges led a deep group of Penn State linebackers this past season.
1. Penn State: We thought this group could be the deepest linebacking corps in the league this past season, and that depth proved both true and invaluable when starter Michael Mauti went out in the fourth game of the season. Even without him, the Nittany Lions' linebackers played great, led by first team All-Big Ten performer Gerald Hodges, who had a breakout campaign. Nate Stupar filled in nicely for Mauti, and Glenn Carson was solid in his first year as a starter in the middle.

2. Michigan State: We wondered in the preseason how the Spartans would replace stars Greg Jones and Eric Gordon. The answer: very nicely, thank you. Sophomores Denicos Allen and Max Bullough emerged as fierce playmakers, especially on the blitz, and Chris Norman provided steady play on the weak side. All three return in 2012 to give Penn State a run for its money as the best group in the league.

3. Wisconsin: Mike Taylor and Chris Borland were finally healthy in the same season, and what a difference that made. They were a terrific pair, combining for 293 tackles and becoming the only Big Ten duo to average more than 10 tackles per game each. Taylor in particular made great strides. Kevin Claxton was overshadowed a bit as the third Badgers linebacker, but that's understandable given the amount of plays Borland and Taylor made.

4. Illinois: The emergence of Jonathan Brown (108 tackles, 19.5 for loss) as fire-breathing pass-rusher made this unit better than we projected in the preseason. Ian Thomas also had a good season at the position with 85 tackles, and Trulon Henry rounded out a strong crew before he missed time late following a shooting incident. The Illini defense stayed consistent throughout the team's struggles.

5. Nebraska: Depth was not a strong suit for the Huskers by any means, but there was no better linebacker in the league and few better in the nation than All-American Lavonte David. He had 133 tackles and countless big plays. Will Compton came on as the season wore along to provide a good complement to David. Finding consistent play elsewhere at the position was a challenge for Nebraska.

6. Ohio State: We pegged the Buckeyes at No. 3 in our preseason linebacker rankings, but it wasn't a vintage year for a group that struggled down the stretch drive. Andrew Sweat led the way with 72 tackles despite missing two games because of injury, and Etienne Sabino had a decent season (62 tackles, 6.5 for loss) if not the breakout season many had predicted. Freshman Ryan Shazier announced himself late in the year as a potential star in the making.

7. Michigan: The Wolverines' defense surprised everyone in 2011, though the defensive line was clearly the vanguard on that side of the ball. Kenny Demens led the team with 94 tackles, while freshmen Desmond Morgan and Jake Ryan made an immediate impact as starters. This wasn't an overwhelming group, but it was one that mostly did its job.

8. Iowa: The Hawkeyes had a hard time keeping everybody healthy and consistent, but this spot might have been the best part of their defense. James Morris and Christian Kirksey tied for the team lead with 110 tackles each, while Tyler Nielsen added 73 stops while battling some nagging injuries. The Iowa defense overall was disappointing, however.

9. Purdue: Danny Hope usually knew what to expect from week to week out of his linebackers: solid, consistent play. Joe Holland, Dwayne Beckford and Will Lucas each had between 82 and 94 stops as the top three tacklers on the team. Lucas and Holland also recorded double-digit tackles for loss. The chief complaint here is that the Boilermakers gave up some big point totals during the season.

10. Minnesota: The Gophers struggled up front and in the secondary, but linebacker was their most experienced and reliable defensive position, as expected. Veterans Gary Tinsley, Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper played in every game, and were among the most consistent players on the team. Tinsley led the way with four sacks. Florida transfer Brendan Beal was expected to make an impact, but missed the season with a knee injury.

11. Northwestern: It wasn't a very good year overall for the Wildcats' defense, and linebacker was no exception. David Nwabuisi ranked third on the team with 84 tackles, while Bryce McNaul was right behind with 76. But Northwestern's starting trio combined for just 2.5 sacks and didn't come up with enough difference-making plays throughout the season.

12. Indiana: The good news for the Hoosiers was that Jeff Thomas was the best player on defense in 2011, finishing with 80 tackles, including 10.5 for loss. The bad news is that he was a senior. Besides Thomas, Indiana was forced to go young at the position, playing freshmen Chase Hoobler, Mike Replogle and Mark Murphy, a safety/linebacker hybrid, at times during the season. Kevin Wilson hopes the experience makes them better in '12, but this is yet another position that needs vast improvement going forward.
The folks at ESPN Recruiting stepped into the rewind machine Wednesday and looked back at the ESPNU 150 from 2008 Insider to see which heralded recruits panned out and which did not.

From a Big Ten slant, this exercise is essentially a referendum on Ohio State's class, which ranked sixth nationally that year Insider and featured eight ESPNU 150 prospects, headlined by quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Several other Big Ten squads had prospects in the 150 as well.

Overall, the results are mixed. Some players matched their hype, like Ohio State center Mike Brewster and, when healthy, Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti. Others did not or have not, once again proving that recruiting rankings should be viewed with caution.

Here's a look.

Prospects ranked from 1-25 Insider

No. 4: Terrelle Pryor, QB, Ohio State -- Helped Buckeyes win three Big Ten championships and two BCS bowls before departing in June because of multiple NCAA rules violations.

No. 18: Etienne Sabino, LB, Ohio State: -- Started the 2011 season after redshirting in 2010. Hasn't been a difference-maker for Buckeyes, but ended with a strong performance in the Gator Bowl and could be a key player in 2012.

Prospects ranked from 26-50 Insider

No. 42: Mike Brewster, C, Ohio State -- Four-year starter undoubtedly paid off for Ohio State. Brewster earned All-Big Ten honors and was an All-America candidate his final two seasons.

No. 48: Andrew Sweat, LB, Ohio State -- Sweat had a solid but unspectacular career for Ohio State. He was the team's top linebacker in 2011, and Ohio State missed him late in the season.

Prospects ranked between 51-75 Insider

No. 56: J.B. Shugarts, T, Ohio State -- Started the final three seasons at right tackle but never earned All-Big Ten honors.

No. 58: Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State -- Plagued by knee problems, but very effective when healthy. He turned in a strong 2010 season and entered 2011 as an All-America candidate before tearing his ACL in September. He'll be back in 2012.

No. 69: Dann O'Neill, T, Michigan -- Redshirted as a freshman before transferring to Western Michigan, saying Michigan wasn't the right fit. He earned third-team All-MAC honors in 2011.

No. 71: Darryl Stonum, WR, Michigan -- Turned in a nice year in 2010, but found himself in off-field troubles throughout his Michigan career. Wolverines coach Brady Hoke on Tuesday dismissed Stonum after his latest infraction that resulted in jail time.

Prospects ranked 76-100 Insider

No. 88: Mike Adams, T, Ohio State -- One of the Big Ten's top offensive linemen during his final two seasons, earning first-team all-conference honors in 2010 and second-team honors in 2011 despite playing in only seven games. He had some off-field issues with the Buckeyes and was part of the Tat-5 with Pryor.

Prospects ranked 101-125 Insider

No. 107: Jake Stoneburner, TE, Ohio State -- An excellent weapon when used in the Ohio State offense. He recorded a team-high seven touchdown receptions in 2011, but had only 14 overall receptions. He returns in 2012 and should have a bigger role in a more wide-open offense.

No. 115: Brandon Moore, TE, Michigan -- Moore has two receptions in three years as a reserve tight end for the Wolverines. He could see a bigger role in 2012 as Kevin Koger departs.

No. 119 Baker Steinkuhler, DT, Nebraska -- Started the past two seasons on the Huskers' defensive line and recorded 40 tackles, including five for loss and two sacks, during the 2011 season. He earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors and will be called upon to take a leading role for Big Red in 2012.

Prospects ranked 126-150 Insider

No. 128: Patrick Nixon-Youman, CB, Illinois -- Hip surgery a few years ago slowed Nixon-Youman's progression, but he appeared in 11 games in each of the past two seasons in a reserve role. He could play a bigger role in 2012.

No. 130: Keanon Cooper, LB, Minnesota -- Started in 2011 for Minnesota and recorded 77 tackles, including six for loss, as well as two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He enters his third season as a starter in 2012 and will need to be a big contributor for the Gophers' defense.

No. 135: Travis Howard, CB, Ohio State -- Took on a bigger role in 2011 and recorded 44 tackles, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and five pass breakups for the Buckeyes. He'll enter the 2012 season as a projected starter and could end his career with a flourish.

No. 141: J.B. Fitzgerald, LB, Michigan -- Started only three games in his career, but appeared in 50 contests and was a valuable reserve and special teams performer for Michigan in 2011.

No. 148: Tyler Westphal, DE, Wisconsin -- Had a serious shoulder injury following his redshirt year in Madison and eventually transferred to North Dakota State.

Minnesota linebacker Brendan Beal, who has yet to play for the Gophers after transferring from Florida, is No. 133 in the rankings.

Gator Bowl: Ohio State vs. Florida

January, 1, 2012
1/01/12
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Urban Meyer won't be coaching in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, but his fingerprints will be all over the game. It's also a rematch of the 2007 BCS title game. Ohio State hopes for a better outcome in this one.

WHO TO WATCH: Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller. The precocious true freshman quarterback showed flashes of greatness this season, including his game-winning touchdown heave to beat Wisconsin. He has incredible shiftiness for a quarterback and has run for at least 91 yards five different times this season. Miller put it all together in the season-ending loss at Michigan, totaling 335 yards and three touchdowns. The Buckeyes finally took the reins off the passing game in that contest, something they'll probably have to do again against Florida's defense, which is ranked No. 9 nationally. Meyer has already gushed about Miller's potential in his system, and this will be a good gauge of how far the youngster has progressed after some extra bowl practices.

WHAT TO WATCH: Will the real Ohio State defense please stand up? The Buckeyes were uncharacteristically sloppy with their tackling and techniques down the stretch while losing their final three games. Penn State stunned the defense by running the Wildcat, while Michigan racked up 444 total yards in a 40-34 win. Key injuries and youth prevented this from being a vintage Silver Bullets squad this year. The unit should be healthier now, with players like linebacker Andrew Sweat back to full strength, and the young players have had more practice time. They have a favorable matchup against a Gators offense that struggled to find its identity and ranked 101st in the FBS in yards per game this season. Florida also has a new offensive coordinator after Charlie Weis left for Kansas. Ohio State has little excuse not to turn in a strong defensive performance here.

WHY TO WATCH: While Meyer will dominate much of the discussion, the former Florida and future Ohio State coach has said he doesn't plan to attend the game in person. Buckeyes fans are more fired up about the first spring practice under Meyer than they are watching this 6-6 team any more, but it's their last chance to see their school play in a bowl game until at least December 2013 because of next year's NCAA-imposed bowl ban. So they'd better enjoy this one now. The fact that Ohio State gets another crack at an SEC team in a bowl -- technically, the program is 0-for-9 against the SEC in the postseason since last year's Sugar Bowl win over Arkansas was officially vacated -- injects a little more spice into the matchup.

PREDICTION: Ohio State 24, Florida 23. With nothing to lose and no bowl game next year, the Buckeyes let it all hang out. Miller plays well, and Ohio State gets valuable contributions from running back Dan Herron and receiver DeVier Posey, who each had an instrumental role in the NCAA punishment. It's not exactly redemption for them or for 2007, but it sure beats losing.

2011 Big Ten Super Seniors

December, 29, 2011
12/29/11
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Borrowing an idea from our friends at the SEC blog, I wanted to recognize some of the best seniors in the Big Ten in 2011.

To spread the love around, the following list features one senior from each Big Ten team. I really looked for guys who saved their best for last, took their game to the next level and performed consistently all season. There are obviously more standout seniors than the ones mentioned below, but these players all deserve some recognition.

[+] EnlargeB.J. Cunningham
Mike Carter/US PresswireSpartans receiver B.J. Cunningham is one of several of ESPN.com's Big Ten Super Seniors.
Here's the list, in alphabetical order:

Michigan State WR B.J. Cunningham: He took the step from good (50 catches, 611 receiving yards, 9 TDs) to great (72 catches, 1,240 yards, 12 TDs) this season. He eclipsed 100 receiving yards in both games against Wisconsin and went for 154 yards on nine catches against Ohio State. His 17.2 yards-per-reception average was tops among the Big Ten's leading receivers. Cunningham became a very hard player to contain on the outside.

Nebraska LB Lavonte David: He played only two seasons in Lincoln but won't soon be forgotten. David didn't match his team record tackles total from 2010 (152) but still had 122 stops, the third-highest total in the Big Ten. He also become more of a difference-maker, making the critical plays for the Huskers in wins like Ohio State. David led Nebraska in tackles for loss (11) and finished second in sacks (3.5). He also had two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

Illinois WR A.J. Jenkins: The Illini offense disappeared in the second half, but Jenkins' accomplishments shouldn't go unnoticed. He went from a decent receiver to one of the best in the Big Ten, recording a league-best 82 receptions for 1,197 yards and seven touchdowns. Although Jenkins did much of his damage in the first six games, he still recorded six or more receptions in nine games and at least four catches in all 12 regular-season contests. He accounted for 53.3 percent of the team's receiving yards, the most nationally by eight percent.

Purdue LT Dennis Kelly: The offensive linemen deserve some love on this list, and Kelly stabilized Purdue's front five in his third season as a starter. Kelly started every game for the third consecutive season, giving him 37 career starts, and anchored a Purdue line that helped the team rank fifth in the league in rushing (181.6 ypg) and third in first downs (20.5 per game). Kelly finished his career as a bowl champion as Purdue captured the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on Tuesday night.

Iowa WR Marvin McNutt: McNutt had been a productive pass-catcher for Iowa, but he took his game to the next level this season. The Big Ten's best receiver recorded 78 receptions for 1,269 yards and 12 touchdowns. He had eight 100-yard receiving performances and four games with multiple touchdown catches. McNutt also made the best catch of the Big Ten season against Michigan State on Nov. 12.

Northwestern S Brian Peters: It was a very rough year for the Wildcats' secondary, but it would have been even worse without Peters' contributions. He made by far the most big plays for the unit, recording four interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Peters finished second on the team in tackles (85) and had four tackles for loss, four pass breakups and a sack.

Minnesota S Kim Royston: Talk about a player who made the most of his final opportunity. Granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, Royston turned in a terrific season, leading Minnesota and finishing third in the Big Ten with 123 tackles, 36 more than any other Gophers defender. Royston had an interception, two pass breakups and a sack. He recorded double digits in tackles in eight contests and provided leadership for a unit that needed it.

[+] EnlargeDevin Still
Jeffrey G. Pittenger/US PresswirePenn State defensive tackle Devin Still was more than a handful for opposing blockers in 2011.
Penn State DT Devon Still: Brian and I look like fools (yeah, it happens a lot) for leaving Still off of our preseason top 25 player rankings. But he wasn't nearly the same player in 2010 as he turned out to be this fall. The Lions star put it all together to win Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. A disruptive force that put strain on every opposing offensive line, Still recorded 17 tackles for loss, tied for fourth in the Big Ten. He had 4.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, and his stats hardly tell the full story. No Big Ten player better fits the definition of Super Senior.

Ohio State LB Andrew Sweat: It wasn't a typical year for Ohio State's senior class, as several key players missed chunks of the season because of suspensions. Sweat stepped up his play for a mostly young defense, though, and contributed 68 tackles, five tackles for loss, a forced fumble, an interception and three pass breakups. The Buckeyes sorely missed him in their final two games, when he sat out with head and elbow injuries.

Indiana LB Jeff Thomas: Youth was served all season at Indiana, which played more young players than any FBS team this season. But Thomas did his part on a flawed defense, leading the squad in both tackles (80) and tackles for loss (10.5). He added three pass breakups, a sack and a fumble recovery. The junior-college transfer has been one of few bright spots for Indiana's defense the past two seasons.

Michigan DE Ryan Van Bergen: Many Wolverines defenders benefited from a new coaching staff and a new scheme, but perhaps none more than Van Bergen. He led the team in both tackles for loss (12) and sacks (5) and finished second with three fumble recoveries. Van Bergen finished the season playing his best football, recording seven tackles for loss in the final three games.

Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson: He came to Madison as a senior and turned in one of the more memorable offensive performances in team history. Although Wilson had put up big numbers at NC State, he became a much more efficient quarterback with the Badgers, completing 72.5 percent of his passes with 31 touchdowns and only three interceptions in 284 attempts. He ranked second nationally in pass efficiency (191.6), trailing only Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III. Wilson earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors.

First take: Big Ten bowl lineup

December, 5, 2011
12/05/11
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We've had some time to digest the bowl selections and examine the Big Ten's bowl lineup for this season.

Here are some thoughts after looking over the bowl landscape:
  • As usual, the Big Ten's bowl lineup will be challenging, but not as daunting as it was last year. Having two teams in BCS bowls every year makes things tougher for the squads in non-BCS bowls, especially given the locations of the games. It's vital for the Big Ten to get at least a split in the BCS bowls. Although Oregon is a tough draw, Wisconsin can put up points and control possession time. Michigan State exposed Wisconsin's lack of speed on defense, and Oregon will try and do the same. Wisconsin will need a bunch of eight-minute scoring drives to win this game.
  • Michigan will be a popular pick against Virginia Tech, which has been miserable in BCS bowls, but those thinking the Wolverines will roll the Hokies should tone it down a bit. If Denard Robinson limits mistakes, he'll be a tough matchup for Virginia Tech.
  • The SEC-Big Ten matchups look more favorable after the Big Ten embarrassed itself against its rival conference in last year's bowls. Nebraska's offense will be challenged by South Carolina's ferocious defense, but the fact the Huskers are so run-oriented should help them against a team that is good but not great against the run. Michigan State and Georgia are evenly matched, and while the Spartans are disappointed after their Big Ten title game loss, they should be motivated to get their first bowl win under Mark Dantonio. As Dantonio said last week, the Spartans showed in the 2011 Capital One Bowl that they weren't BCS-worthy. They have another chance to change perception against Aaron Murray and Georgia, and they must take advantage. Ohio State and Florida both are mediocre, but I like this matchup for the Buckeyes, who should benefit from bowl practice. Buckeyes linebacker Andrew Sweat (concussion) should be back, and he'll provide a big boost against an anemic Gators offense.
  • The Big 12-Big Ten matchups are by far the toughest on paper, and it's tough to see the Big Ten doing any better than a 1-1 split. Iowa and Northwestern both are sizable underdogs against Oklahoma and Texas A&M, respectively. Although Oklahoma has been the most overrated team in America for much of the season, the Sooners boast a lot of talent. Iowa has been fabulous in bowls under Kirk Ferentz, but the Insight Bowl will be a major test. Texas A&M's motivation could be an issue for the Aggies, who saw their coach fired last week. This would play into Northwestern's favor, as the Wildcats will be geared up to get their first bowl win since the 1949 Rose. But Northwestern's defense has been pretty awful for most of the season, and without top cornerback Jordan Mabin, the Wildcats could struggle against a dangerous A&M offense.
  • Speaking of motivation, it will be the key factor for Penn State in the TicketCity Bowl. The Lions deserved a better bowl after going 9-3, and the players were unfairly punished for a situation they had no part in creating. As you can see here and here, Penn State players weren't too thrilled about their bowl placement. If Penn State shows up to play, the Lions have a great chance to beat Houston, which showed itself to be a fraud in the Conference USA title game. The Cougars can't stop the run, and Penn State's Silas Redd should have a huge day in Dallas. But if the Lions don't care, Case Keenum could shred them.
  • Ricardo Allen and Purdue's secondary will be tested by Western Michigan's passing attack, led by quarterback Alex Carder and receiver Jordan White. It's another good opportunity for Allen to showcase his skills against an elite wideout. The Boilers will miss top running back Ralph Bolden (knee), but they have other backfield options and face the nation's No. 107 rushing defense. Pretty even matchup in Detroit.
  • It's hard to know what to expect from Illinois or UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco. Both teams had their coaches fired, and both had disappointing finishes to the season. Will Illinois coordinators Vic Koenning and Paul Petrino, both in the mix for other jobs, still be around to coach the game? Illinois' defense should be able to contain a UCLA offense that averages just 23.8 points per game. But if the Illini offense doesn't figure things out and show life for the first time since early October, it likely won't matter.
  • Remember that a .500 record typically qualifies as a strong bowl performance from the Big Ten, which faces the nation's toughest lineup almost every year. It's crucial the Big Ten wins at least one of its BCS games and performs better against the SEC. If the Big Ten can get 5-6 wins with one BCS victory and a 2-1 mark against the SEC, the bowl season should be deemed a success. But there aren't many gimmes in the lineup and could be another rough year for the league.

Big Ten stock report: Week 13

November, 23, 2011
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Turkey stock is boiling over.

Stock up

Ryan Shazier: Stepping in for the injured Andrew Sweat, Ohio State's freshman linebacker made 15 tackles against Penn State in his starting debut. "I doubt if there's any linebackers that we have that get there a whole lot quicker," Buckeyes defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said. "He has instincts that are phenomenal. ... He's going to be an unbelievable linebacker at Ohio State. There's no question about that."

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhPat Fitzgerald has the Northwestern defense playing much better in recent weeks.
Northwestern's defense: The Wildcats haven't exactly morphed into the Monsters of the Midway, but their defensive improvement is worth noting the past three games. They've held all three opponents to three points or fewer in one half of each game, and their passing defense has allowed just 182.7 yards per game in that span after getting torched for most of the season. "It starts with the guys' attitudes," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "They've really come to work, they've really come together every day and bonded tighter as we've moved forward. We went through some growing pains with some inexperienced players in October, but to the young men's credit, they stayed the course. We are playing our best defense of the year right now."

Curtis Drake and Bill Belton: The two Penn State speedsters led the Wildcat formation that surprised Ohio State and proved key to last week's 20-14 victory in Columbus. Drake has overcome serious leg injuries to become a factor, while the freshman Belton showed off his considerable skills for the first time on such a big stage. "I think he'll be a multi-dimensional guy for us," interim head coach Tom Bradley said of Belton. "He's a guy who will have a lot of tags to him. He's somebody who is just scratching the surface of some of things he may be able to do."

Mike Daniels: The Iowa defensive tackle had eight tackles, including four tackles for loss and two sacks last week at Purdue, giving the Hawkeyes a much-needed disruptive presence up front. "Mike's been nicked up a lot this year, unfortunately, and I think it affected his performance," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Last week in practice was probably the first week in quite some time where he felt 100 percent from start to finish, and it showed up on the field."

Michigan's third-down defense: Nebraska converted just 3-of-13 third downs last week in Ann Arbor. Opponents are converting just 35.6 percent of their third downs against the Wolverines, who have been great in short-yardage situations most of the season. Credit the defensive line, which has been the team's strength. "There's a sign in our defensive room that says, 'One yard is all we need to stop somebody,'" defensive end Ryan Van Bergen said. "We feel very confident in our goal-line and short-yardage game."

Stock down

Ohio State's starts: Are the Buckeyes aware what time their games start? For the third straight time last week, they fell behind 10-0 in the first half. They lost the past two of those games, to Purdue and Penn State, and a better start could have changed the outcome. "We have to make sure we're starting fast," defensive lineman John Simon said. "Once we get situated and make our adjustments, we're playing great defense. But we need to come out of the gate fast and make some plays early."

Nebraska's special teams: It was a tough few days for a unit that usually excels. The Huskers fumbled two kickoff returns, had a blocked punt and gave up a successful fake field goal at Michigan. Then Brett Maher was snubbed for finalist honors on both the Lou Groza and Ray Guy awards despite his outstanding season. Way to kick a kicking game when it's down.

Illinois ball security: The Illini committed four turnovers last week against Wisconsin, continuing a troubling trend. During their five-game losing streak, thy have given the ball away 15 times. Illinois is tied for 111th in the FBS with turnovers lost with 26 and is 97th in turnover margin, one year after being plus-eight in that department.

Purdue's third quarters: Maybe the Boilers should just stay on the field at halftime. They haven't scored a point in the third quarter since Oct. 15 versus Penn State, an improbable five-game streak. Danny Hope joked last week that his halftime speeches must be really bad, and that was before another scoreless third quarter against Iowa.

Penn State-Ohio State pregame

November, 19, 2011
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A few pregame notes from Ohio Stadium, where Penn State and Ohio State will kick off in a bit.
  • Penn State running back Silas Redd (collarbone) didn't look limited during warmups, but he wasn't getting hit. It'll be interesting to see if the Lions will give Stephfon Green more carries again since Redd has been banged up the last few weeks.
  • Ohio State right tackle J.B. Shugarts warmed up with the first-team offensive line. How much will he play after dealing with a knee injury?
  • Defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins and wide receiver Corey Brown, also injury question marks, warmed up for the Buckeyes. Linebacker Andrew Sweat isn't dressed for the game.
  • Penn State acting athletic director Dave Joyner met with local media before the game. He said he and president Rodney Erickson will handle the coaching search and are forming a search committee. He also said he's open to becoming the school's permanent AD.
  • Penn State stayed on the field long after Ohio State for warmups. The Buckeyes had to prepare for the Senior Day celebration, but the Lions got in some extra work.

It's game day at Ohio Stadium

November, 19, 2011
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Greetings from the Horseshoe, where this afternoon No. 21 Penn State and Ohio State meet in a game like none other in recent memory.

Both programs are dealing with controversy and uncertainty about the future.

Penn State, still shaken from the sex-abuse scandal, learned Friday that former coach Joe Paterno has been diagnosed with lung cancer. Paterno's son, Jay, the Nittany Lions' quarterbacks coach, discusses the news here and notes that his father's cancer is treatable. Penn State also received a letter Friday from NCAA president Mark Emmert, who wrote that the NCAA will look into whether there was a lack of institutional control at the school in its handling of the sex-abuse allegations against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. It's up to interim coach Tom Bradley, whose future with the program is unknown, to get his team focused for a huge Leaders Division matchup.

Speaking of coaches with uncertain futures, meet Luke Fickell. He has guided Ohio State through a turbulent season, but the team sits at 6-4 after last week's loss at Purdue. The Buckeyes' streak of six consecutive Big Ten titles (outright or shared) is on life support. Rumors are swirling that Ohio State has a coaching replacement in line for 2012, and Fickell could be leading the Buckeyes for the final time at Ohio Stadium today. It's Senior Day, and a class with a complicated legacy will be honored before the game. One of its members, wide receiver DeVier Posey, will make his season debut after serving two five-game suspensions for violating NCAA rules. Posey, by far the team's best receiver, could play a big role in the game.

There's no rain in the forecast and it's partly cloudy, but wind could be a factor.

On the injury front, Ohio State senior linebacker Andrew Sweat (concussion) is out. Other Buckeyes like defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, offensive tackle J.B. Shugarts and receiver Corey Brown are hobbled, but they all should play in limited fashion.

Penn State star running back Silas Redd also is expected to play despite practicing sparingly this week because of a collarbone injury. Redd, the Big Ten's No. 4 rusher at 105.9 yards a game, has been banged up for a few weeks.

The Lions have really struggled in Columbus, winning here just once since joining the Big Ten in 1993. Penn State has recorded only two touchdown passes at The Shoe as a Big Ten member, both from last year's game.

Much more to come from C-Bus, so don't go anywhere.
Recent history tells us that the arrival of November means good news for Ohio State and bad news for the rest of the Big Ten.

Ohio State has won its past 10 November games and hasn't lost during the month since a Nov. 10, 2007, defeat at the hands of Illinois. The Buckeyes have dropped just two November games since their most recent loss to archrival Michigan on Nov. 22, 2003.

Teams don't win six consecutive league titles without doing damage in November, and Ohio State has been flat-out dominant.

This year was supposed to be different. And it still might be. Ohio State has its flaws, namely youth at key positions on both sides of the ball and a first-year head coach in Luke Fickell. Most folks wrote off the Scarlet and Gray after their Oct. 8 collapse at Nebraska.

The Buckeyes aren't a dominant team. But they're a dangerous one.

That's the prevailing thought I had walking out of Ohio Stadium early Sunday morning after watching the Buckeyes' dramatic 33-29 win against Wisconsin. Ohio State came through in all three phases to beat what could be the most powerful team on its schedule in what was undoubtedly a make-or-break game.

The win makes Ohio State the Big Ten's most dangerous team right now.

Here are five reasons why:

1. A rapidly improving defense: Since the second-half meltdown at Nebraska, Ohio State's defense has been terrific. The Buckeyes held Illinois scoreless for more than 53 minutes in Champaign and set up two touchdowns with takeaways. The unit took its play to another level Saturday against Wisconsin, the Big Ten's most powerful offense. The Buckeyes held Wisconsin to 10 first-half rushing yards and only 89 for the game. Considering what Wisconsin's ground game had done the past year and a half, Ohio State's performance was exceptional. While several late breakdowns nearly cost the Buckeyes, they frustrated Wisconsin for 55 minutes. Defensive lineman John Simon is playing like an All-American, and the Buckeyes are getting boosts from Andrew Sweat, C.J. Barnett, Travis Howard, Johnathan Hankins and others. The arrow is pointing up for a defense that looked so-so in September and fell apart in Lincoln.

[+] EnlargeDan Herron
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesDan Herron's return has helped spark the Ohio State ground attack.
2. Dan Herron's return: Ohio State has its undisputed emotional leader back in the fold, and it shows. A veteran runner with fresh legs, Herron has racked up 274 rush yards in two game since returning from suspension. Helped also by the return of starting left tackle Mike Adams, Ohio State can do more things with its rushing attack, as we witnessed Saturday night against Wisconsin. Defenses must respect Herron, who knows how to gain the tough yards in Big Ten games, and the senior's return has opened things up for quarterback Braxton Miller.

3. A young QB building confidence: We learned a lot about Miller on Saturday night after Ohio State blew a 26-14 lead in the final minutes. The freshman didn't panic and seemed to thrive under pressure. He showed that he can, in fact, make big throws in big situations, and he should only gain confidence from the experience. Ohio State still must call more high-percentage passes for Miller, but the kid who looked absolutely lost against Miami and Michigan State is making strides and giving Ohio State's offense a real identity.

4. The schedule: The final four games set up well for Ohio State. The way Ohio State's defense is playing right now, I don't see the Buckeyes stumbling the next two weeks against Indiana and Purdue. Miller should continue to build his confidence against a porous Indiana defense and possibly against a decent but not great Purdue D. It leads to a Nov. 19 home showdown against Penn State, which has been similar to Ohio State this season (even better defense, good running backs, quarterback issues). The big news for the Buckeyes is they'll regain top receiver DeVier Posey against the Nittany Lions. While Herron and Adams have helped the offense, Posey can provide the biggest boost at a position where Ohio State lacks experience. Penn State will force Miller to throw the ball, and the freshman will have a proven target on the field. The Buckeyes then head to Michigan for The Game. While this will be the best Michigan team Ohio State has faced since 2007, Ohio State takes a seven-game win streak in the series to the Big House.

5. Knowing how to win: As mentioned earlier, Ohio State owns the month of November and boasts a roster of players who know how to win Big Ten titles and beat Michigan. The big concern with the Buckeyes was how they would handle the type of unfamiliar failure they experienced with an 0-2 start to Big Ten play. The past two games have shown Ohio State can weather the storm and come out even stronger. This is a mentally tough football team that has talent and seems to be maturing each week. Ohio State now enters November with momentum and confidence.

Ohio State likely needs a perfect November to have any shot at reaching the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis. The impending NCAA infractions committee ruling could change everything for the Buckeyes, but right now, their dreams are very much alive.

Until Ohio State is out of the race, you can't count out the Scarlet and Gray.

Especially since the Buckeyes are finally hitting their stride.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- About the only thing more surprising than Braxton Miller's on-the-run, nearly-past-the-line-of-scrimmage, 40-yard touchdown heave with 20 seconds left on the clock was what he had done moments earlier.

Ohio State's rocky season was on the brink. A Buckeyes team that had controlled play against No. 15 Wisconsin and dominated stretches of the second half found itself trailing 29-26 with 1:10 left. A defense that had stifled Wisconsin's high-powered offense had suffered a breakdown at the worst possible time, leading to the Badgers' go-ahead score.

A third Ohio State loss would essentially eliminate the team from the Big Ten title chase. It would mark another blow for a proud program that had taken so many shots during a miserable eight-month stretch. It would heighten questions about coach Luke Fickell's future and bring back the doom and gloom that enveloped the team during an 0-2 start to Big Ten play.

Unless a quarterback who had completed one pass in Ohio State's previous game against Illinois could work some magic in a likely passing situation, the Buckeyes would go down in defeat.

The Shoe was deflated. Miller wasn't. Before Miller took the field for the decisive drive, he let Fickell know things would be OK.

[+] EnlargeDevin Smith
Greg Bartram/US PresswireWisconsin lost for the second week in a row when Devin Smith caught a 40-yard touchdown pass with 20 seconds left in the game.
He winked.

"I gave him a little, you know, 'We got it, man. Don't worry about nothing,'" a smiling Miller recalled. "I knew we had it."

He might have been the only one. A Wisconsin team that had rallied the week before at Michigan State, only to lose on a Hail Mary, surely wouldn't allow any openings for Ohio State.

But as Miller rolled to his right, he spotted classmate Devin Smith in the end zone and let it fly.

"Once I looked back, I expected him to run because that's usually what he does," Smith said. "And I saw him look directly at me. And I saw him launch the ball. The ball was up there forever and I was like, 'Will it come down?' They all said it looked like a punt."

Best punt of Ohio State's season.

Miller said it was "50-50" whether he ran or passed on the play, and made the decision to throw a split second before crossing the line of scrimmage. He even asked Fickell whether he had crossed the line (officials reviewed the play and correctly ruled it a legal pass).

"I just had to let it go," he said.

Miller didn't wink at center Mike Brewster before the final series. He just told the senior All-America candidate to give him some time on the final drive.

An Ohio State line that spurred the team to 268 rush yards and three touchdowns in the 33-29 victory obliged.

"He just made a play," Brewster said of Miller. "When we needed him to do it, he made something happen. That's what he does best."

Fickell elevated Miller to a starting role in part because Ohio State's anemic offense needed more plays to be made. After a rocky start to Big Ten play against Michigan State (5-for-10 passing, 56 yards, 1 INT), Miller showed a spark the next week against Nebraska before leaving the game with an ankle sprain.

Saturday night, he came of age.

"It's a confidence thing," Fickell said. "I've talked about it all year long or as long as Braxton has been the quarterback. It was about confidence. He's learned to grasp things a lot more.

"And we know he can throw it."

Running back Jordan Hall was on the sideline for the decisive play, shielding his eyes.

"I just looked down," Hall said. "And when I heard the crowd, I was like, 'Must be good news.'"

Turned out to be very good news for Ohio State, which remains alive in the Leaders division race entering November. Both Ohio State and Wisconsin sit 2.5 games behind division leader Penn State, which ends the season with trips to Columbus (Nov. 19) and Madison (Nov. 26).

Although the Buckeyes need help from the Nittany Lions -- and the NCAA's infractions committee, which likely will rule on Ohio State's case next month -- their once-improbable goal of reaching Indianapolis with a chance to continue a streak of Big Ten titles remains on the table.

"This is for this team, this is for this program, this is what we expect," Fickell said. "But it is that same thing. It's about confidence. It's about momentum. And you can learn and learn and learn from all different ways.

"But until you do it, there's no other way to learn it."

Wisconsin learned a tough lesson for the second consecutive week, as the Badgers once again saw a valiant comeback on the road go up in smoke in the final seconds. Considered the class of the Big Ten two weeks ago, Wisconsin now sits at 2-2 in league play, needing a lot of help to reach Indianapolis.

Like last week, the Badgers made uncharacteristic errors, including another blocked punt that led to an Ohio State touchdown. And yet they put themselves in position to win. They simply needed to stop a quarterback who hadn't thrown a 40-yard pass all season.

"It was another heartbreaking loss for us," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "... Our kids never quit. They're going to be tested in an unbelievable fashion after the last two weeks. I can't describe the feeling of having to face those guys after all they've put in."

The feeling inside the stadium was pure elation, as fans rushed the field to celebrate. The entire student section in the south end spilled onto the field.

Was Buckeye Nation waiting for this moment? After the past eight months, absolutely.

"We've faced so much adversity, whether it's on the field or off the field," said linebacker Andrew Sweat, who sealed the win by pressuring Wisconsin's Russell Wilson on the final play. "We didn't quit, where some people would think we would.

"We've gotten stronger as a team. We've gotten better. And we'll continue to get better."

Video: Ohio State's Andrew Sweat

October, 30, 2011
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Adam Rittenberg talks with Ohio State linebacker Andrew Sweat following the Buckeyes' 33-29 win over Wisconsin.

Johnathan Hankins shapes up for OSU

October, 25, 2011
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The number most often associated with Ohio State defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins is 335.

At 335 pounds, Hankins is one of the biggest men in the Big Ten. He's among the largest defensive players in the nation and easy to spot in the heart of Ohio State's defensive line.

[+] EnlargeDefensive lineman Johnathan Hankins
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesAt 335 pounds, Ohio State defensive lineman Johnathan Hankins is easy to spot.
Every time "Big Hank" blows up a double team or drops a running back in the backfield, the number 335 is bound to be mentioned, whether it's on the television broadcast, the radio broadcast, Twitter or by fans in the stands. Hankins' size makes him stand out.

But Hankins spent the offseason focused on a different number: 60.

Ohio State's defense averaged 60.7 plays per game in 2010. Hankins wanted to make he'd be on the field for all of them in 2011.

"Last year he probably averaged 15 snaps a game, maybe a few more later in the season, 20 snaps," Buckeyes coach Luke Fickell said. "The question was, a guy his size, can he play 60, 65 snaps in a game? He's done a very good job of showing us that he can."

Hankins not only has stayed on the field longer but made his presence known. The sophomore leads Ohio State's defensive linemen with 36 tackles, a total that ranks second on the team behind linebacker Andrew Sweat. He also ranks second in tackles for loss (6.5) and tied for second in sacks (2).

The big man also seems to be getting stronger with each game. He opened Big Ten play with six tackles and a sack against Nebraska, and followed it up Oct. 15 with arguably his best performance as a Buckeye, recording a team-high nine tackles, including two for loss, in a defense-driven 17-7 win at Illinois.

"This summer, I worked on my conditioning, eating right and just losing a few pounds," Hankins said. "It's helping me this year. That's been a major part."

Hankins shed about 15 pounds from his frame, which he calls "a good amount." While he remains as big or bigger than most offensive lineman he faces, Hankins feels lighter on his feet and generally more in shape.

"My first year, I would get tired after like one or two series," he said. "Right now, I feel like I can just play the whole game. Most of the time, I'm not really going to come out of the game.

"With my conditioning being where it's at right now, it's taken my game to another level."

Hankins showed some promise as a true freshman, appearing in all 13 games and recording 16 tackles, including a sack. Although he couldn't log many snaps, Ohio State only needed him to spell starters Cameron Heyward, a first-round pick in April's NFL draft, and veteran Dexter Larimore.

But the departures of Heyward and Larimore left Ohio State thin at tackle. The Buckeyes needed contributors to complement veteran John Simon up front.

"Coming into this year, I knew we were going to be pretty young," Hankins said. "I knew there were going to be roles and spots that needed to be filled. The coaches were going to be counting on me. The defense was going to be counting on me."

Hankins and Simon form a terrific defensive tackle tandem, combining for 14 tackles for loss and five sacks. They both stood out against Illinois, ranking as Ohio State's top two tacklers and accounting for six tackles for loss.

Ohio State will lean on the pair this week as it faces the Big Ten's top offense in No. 15 Wisconsin.

"It's awesome when you've got two big guys like that are getting after it and affecting quarterbacks and running backs," Buckeyes offensive tackle Mike Adams said.

Hankins, who hails from Detroit, has enjoyed watching former Nebraska star Ndamukong Suh star for the NFL's Lions. Another pro defensive tackle Hankins likes to scout is Green Bay Packers standout B.J. Raji.

Like Hankins, Raji is a guy who can't avoid references to his size. He's listed at 337 pounds.

"He's kind of a guy like me, a two- or three-down player," Hankins said. "He's a big guy, but good with his feet."

Does Hankins see himself in Raji?

"I don't think I'm as big as him," he said.

Not anymore, at least.

"He didn't want to be as heavy as he was last year," Fickell said of Hankins. "He knew he was going to have to play more, and he was going to have to get his weight down in order to do that.

"He's well-conditioned for his size, and I've been impressed with his ability to play over 60 snaps a game."

LINCOLN, Neb. -- When Nebraska fell apart at the end of the first half at Wisconsin, linebacker Lavonte David lit into his fellow defenders.

David's tirade was justified. The Blackshirts seemed blue after dealing with Russell Wilson for 30 minutes.

"I went in and yelled," David recalled. "I shouldn't do that. I should keep my poise."

David got another chance to address the defense in a dire situation Saturday night. An Ohio State offense that nearly was shut out at home the week before had racked up 20 points and 246 yards on the Huskers in the first half.

A sold-out Memorial Stadium crowd sat in stunned silence -- other than those who booed -- as Nebraska trotted to the locker room down 20-6.

"I talked to the guys, got the defense together and said, 'Everybody stay calm,'" David said. "I talked to them in a calm voice, and everybody stayed calm."

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Bruce Thorson/US PresswireNebraska was able to stop Braxton Miller and mount the biggest comeback in Cornhuskers' history.

At a time when cracks could form, when an 0-2 start in a new league seemed inevitable, when a once-promising season could go down the tubes, Nebraska stayed calm, stayed together and stayed on course. David backed up his calm words with effective action, stripping the ball from Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller midway through the third quarter.

Inspired by their leader, the Huskers took complete control and rattled off 28 unanswered points to win 34-27. It marked the biggest comeback in school history, and it took place in the first Big Ten home game in team history.

"I just had to learn," David said. "That's what being a leader is all about. You just can't go out there and talk reckless to your teammates. Those are the guys you're going to battle with. So just talk to them calmly, let them know how you feel and what we've got to do."

Nebraska made togetherness a theme after its humbling defeat at Wisconsin. Quarterback Taylor Martinez took much of the criticism, along with offensive coordinator Tim Beck, although the defense wasn't spared, either, after failing to slow down the Badgers.

The angst and anger in Husker Country would have skyrocketed for the next two weeks if Nebraska had lost to Ohio State. Instead, Bo Pelini and his players can exhale entering a much-needed bye week.

"We stayed the course," Pelini said. "That's kind of the motto of our program. It's about the culture, it's about the process, about staying the course.

"There was no panic."

The same couldn't be said for Ohio State, a program that has taken body blows both on and off the field in recent weeks. The Buckeyes came out with a superb game plan, dominated Nebraska on both sides of the ball and seemed fully in control with a 27-6 lead midway through the third quarter.

Then Miller fumbled. Two plays later, Martinez scooted into the end zone.

"That was the game-changing play," Pelini said of David's forced fumble and recovery.

On Ohio State's next possession, Miller suffered a right ankle injury and hobbled off the field. He had been brilliant up to that point, but his bad wheel prevented him from returning. Ohio State's wheels, meanwhile, fell off.

A Buckeyes team that looked so poised and cohesive suddenly became fragile. The offense stalled under backup quarterback Joe Bauserman. The defense couldn't slow down Martinez and I-back Rex Burkhead, who combined to pile up 250 yards and four touchdowns in the second half.

Ohio State went from 21 points up to seven points down in less than 18 minutes.

"I don't think I've seen a game that changed like that that I have been involved with," OSU first-year coach Luke Fickell said.

"I've never been a part of anything like that," added Buckeyes linebacker Andrew Sweat.

A win that would have breathed life into Ohio State's program turned into the most deflating of losses, one that dropped the Buckeyes to 0-2 in Big Ten play for the first time since 2004. The Buckeyes' October grind continues next week at Illinois and wraps up Oct. 29 against Wisconsin.

Fickell knew his team was ready Friday night. The focus was there. The attitude was there. And Ohio State showed up in a big way. And then it fell apart.

"These guys are resilient," Fickell said. "They have been through a lot and it will come down to their commitment to each other. That is what it really ultimately comes down to -- pride. It's not easy and will be hard to get over."

If Ohio State needs an example -- a painful example -- it can look at Nebraska.

The Huskers said their game plan didn't change in the second half.

The defense simply made stops. The offense simply got first downs, found its rhythm and began to wear down the Buckeyes.

"As long as we're getting first downs, we can go as fast as we want," Beck said. "We were close [in the first half]. We just didn't execute very well. ... Sometimes you're feeling 'em out, trying to figure out what their plan is, how they're trying to stop us, all the different formations we us. It sometimes takes a little bit of time."

Pelini was all smiles walking through the tunnel to Nebraska's locker room. But he took a defensive posture at his news conference, engaging in a testy exchange with a reporter who had been critical of Martinez during the week.

"I'm proud of him," Pelini said of Martinez. "Everybody wants to doubt him. You guys can choose to write whatever you want and attack him like the fans will, and now they'll praise him. ...

"He kept fighting, he led the team, he played a heck of a second half."

As a result, Nebraska enters the second half of its season with plenty to fix but a huge win on which to build. Ohio State, meanwhile, will have a tough time recovering.

"Between last week and this week, we became a lot closer unit," Huskers center Mike Caputo said. "And that's only going to help us the rest of this year."

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