NCF Nation: Brandon Green
"Coach?" they asked Limegrover, the Gophers' offensive coordinator and line coach.
"Yeah," he replied. "It's me."
Limegrover started losing weight in January and had dropped 40-50 pounds by the time spring ball ended. But the players didn't notice a change until they went several weeks without seeing him.
"They got a big kick out of that," he said.
As of Thursday morning, Limegrover had shed nearly 120 pounds from his frame -- "It's like 119.8," he reported -- and often draws double-takes when spotted on campus.
Part of his motivation for the weight loss came from how he felt during the 2011 season.
"I felt so run down didn't feel like I was at my best, and felt like that was unfair to the kids I was coaching and the team in general," he said. "I feel like a million bucks out there now, 10 times better than I did at any point the last couple years.
"Now I'm not saying it'll help us win some games, but it can't hurt."
While Limegrover has slimmed down considerably, his offense could be fattening up this fall.
Minnesota struggled offensively in 2011, the first season of the Jerry Kill era, finishing last in the Big Ten in both scoring (18.4 ppg) and total offense (310.3 ypg), and 11th in passing offense (150.3 ypg). The Gophers failed to score 30 or more points in a game and had 17 points or fewer in half of their contests.
A big reason for the futility: no identity.
Year 2 at Minnesota promises to bring greater production, and Limegrover is encouraged by what he's seen in the first few practices of fall camp. The best signs come from the running backs, a mostly anonymous group in 2011 that loses Duane Bennett (639 rush yards).
Junior college transfer James Gillum, who turned heads this spring, continues to display excellent vision and the power to run between the tackles. Sophomore Devon Wright and freshman K.J. Maye provide speed threats on the edge, while Donnell Kirkwood and David Cobb both are healthy and ready to contribute. All the backs have shown a greater grasp of the scheme and the versatility to help in multiple areas.
"Those kids have lifted the energy level of the offense," Limegrover said. "They've given us a spark. They're hitting holes and they're doing things on the perimeter. They're picking up their assignments in the pass game. It's really been a bright spot for us because that's an area I know a lot of people have questions."
The same holds true for the wide receivers. Minnesota loses Da'Jon McKnight, who accounted for 51 of the team's 134 receptions in 2011. No returning player had more than 15 catches a year ago.
Brandon Green, a fifth-year senior who Limegrover calls "Mr. Dependable," leads the group and likely will be quarterback MarQueis Gray's top target. Devin Crawford-Tufts has filled out a bit and "can still run like a deer," Limegrover said. Speedster Marcus Jones is back from a knee injury, and incoming freshmen Andre McDonald and Jamel Harbison are already showing the ability to contribute right away. Tight end John Rabe should have a much bigger role in the passing game after recording two touchdown catches last fall.
"We're looking more like a Big Ten receiving crew and Big Ten running backs," Limegrover said. "We've worked to get our tight end position more involved. And especially in the O-line, we're a year bigger and more physical, even though we're still young."
About the only Gophers offensive player who doesn't spark skepticism is senior quarterback MarQueis Gray. He carried the unit for much of the 2011 season, rushing for 966 yards on a team-high 199 carries, and making strides as a passer.
Limegrover is thrilled with Gray's offseason, calling him a "papa bear" for Minnesota's younger players. But Limegrover knows the Gophers must give their signal-caller more help.
"It isn't like basketball where LeBron James, you just clear a side of the floor and let him do his thing," Limegrover said. "We've got to be able to have great support around him. The worst thing we could do for our offense and for this program and for MarQueis Gray is to sit back and go, 'Well, we're going to put it all on his shoulders and we’ll only go as far as he'll take us.' That would be lazy and shortsighted. Every day, we get a little bit closer to everybody feeling good about those other spots.
"That's by far our biggest goal, to get to where we don't have just one bullet in our gun."
Gray got much better as the season went along in 2011 and has the potential to develop into a star this year for the Gophers. He carried a heavy workload last year, though, as he led the team in both rushing (966 yards) and carries (199) as well as throwing the ball. In the last two games of the season, he rushed 27 times each.
That confidence is based more on potential than past evidence this spring. Minnesota's top receiver the past couple of seasons, Da'Jon McKnight, was a senior last year. The leading returning pass catcher is Green, who had just 15 receptions in 2011. The Gophers also lost last year's leading rusher at tailback, departed senior Duane Bennett, and Donnell Kirkwood is injured this spring.
Still, Minnesota -- which lacked a lot of big plays on offense in head coach Jerry Kill's first season -- is hopeful that more options and more comfort at the skill positions will translate into a more diversified attack.
"If we have nothing else, all the way around we have competition," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said.
The Gophers need someone to emerge at running back, both to take the pressure off Gray to carry the ball and to turn their rushing game into a two-pronged danger. It's an unproven group this spring, which is a big reason why Minnesota brought in junior college transfer James Gillum, who ran for 1,042 yards at Mississippi Gulf Coast last year.
"The thing about I like about him was that he was down in Mississippi playing against SEC linebackers and defensive ends," Limegrover said. "And no offense to his offensive linemen, but sometimes those are in-state guys. So a lot of times he was making something out of just nothing, and he was still grinding out 130, 140 yards per game.
"I feel like he brings kind of a grit as a guy who can say, 'OK, hand me the ball and I'll do my thing.'"
Kill also pointed to David Cobb, who played sparingly as a true freshman, as a 220-pound standout athlete who could contribute at tailback.
The receiver position has more bodies than this time a year ago but no true leader. But Green, who's now a senior, wants to change that.
"Now that Da'Jon is gone, I've got the most experience," he said. "I feel like it's my time to step up and lead the receivers and do what I need to do to help us win."
Other possibilities in the passing game are Devin Crawford-Tufts, who played as a true freshman in 2011; Marcus Jones, who's coming off an ACL injury; Malcolm Moulton, who played some as a junior-college import last year; and new juco transfer Isaac Fruechte.
"There's a lot of depth, and different receivers can do different things," Green said. "I feel like we've got a lot of weapons where MarQueis can go out and pass the ball around."
If so, his roommate might have less of a burden to carry in 2012.
The Big Ten is blessed with plenty of standout wide receivers, but remember these rankings heavily account for overall depth at the position, not just isolated star power. We're also including the tight ends in this group while acknowledging that the best ones aren't necessarily big-time pass-catchers.
Here's how we rank them:
2. Michigan: If Darryl Stonum weren't suspended indefinitely, this group might be No. 1. It's still pretty good as things stand now. Roy Roundtree leads the way after catching 72 passes for 935 yards and seven touchdowns last year, and Junior Hemingway is a strong secondary option for Denard Robinson. Tight end Kevin Koger is a third-year starter who can occasionally make big plays in the passing game.
3. Northwestern: Senior Jeremy Ebert (62 catches for 935 yards and eight touchdowns last season) was a first-team All-Big Ten performer as voted by the media. Demetrius Fields had 25 receptions last year, and the Wildcats are counting on big improvements from sophomores Rashad Lawrence, Tony Jones and Venric Mark. Northwestern uses its superback position as a tight end, and Drake Dunsmore had 40 catches from that spot last year.
4. Indiana: The Hoosiers languish at the bottom of many of these rankings, but receiver/tight end is a point of pride. Senior Damarlo Belcher led the Big Ten with 78 catches last year on his way to 832 yards. Even with the loss of Tandon Doss and Terrance Turner, who each had more than 60 catches in '10, new coach Kevin Wilson has a solid corps behind Belcher with Duwyce Wilson and Kofi Hughes, among others. And Ted Bolser is a highly productive tight end who had 27 catches for 407 yards and five scores a year ago.
5. Penn State: Three of the top four receivers from last year return, including No. 1 target Derek Moye (his 16.7 yards per catch average was second in the Big Ten a year ago). Justin Brown and Devon Smith need to continue moving forward. Will the Nittany Lions get anything out of Curtis Drake, who's trying to return from his second broken leg? Penn State hopes to get something out of the tight end position, where Andrew Szczerba and Garry Gilliam dealt with season-ending injuries last year.
6. Wisconsin: Once we reach the middle of these rankings, the units start to become interchangeable and a little indistinguishable. Wisconsin doesn't have to throw it too much because of its stellar running game, but the Badgers have some solid choices when they do go to the air. Senior Nick Toon has the talent to record more than the 36 catches and 459 yards he produced a year ago. Jared Abbrederis should continue to come along after a nice freshman campaign. There's potential but not much experience among the rest of the receivers. Star tight end Lance Kendricks will be tough to replace, but Jake Byrne is an outstanding blocker and Jacob Pedersen caught two touchdowns last year.
7. Nebraska: Brandon Kinnie is the leader here, and the 6-foot-3 senior isn't afraid to make the big catch. Freshmen Jamal Turner and Kenny Bell had nice springs and could add some playmaking skills to a largely unproven crew around Kinnie. Kyler Reed might be the most dangerous pass-catching tight end in the Big Ten, if not the country, after hauling in eight touchdowns and 18 yards per reception a year ago.
9. Ohio State: Seems like we write this a lot, but the Buckeyes would be ranked higher if their star player in this group were available an entire season. But DeVier Posey's five-game suspension means this is an awfully young corps, and that inexperience showed with some inconsistent play this spring. Ohio State will need talented sophomore Corey "Philly" Brown to take a big leap forward and youngsters like Chris Fields, T.Y. Williams and James Louis to contribute in Posey's absence. Tight end Jake Stoneburner might have to become a bigger presence in the passing game.
10. Purdue: The Boilermakers have some decent depth but no proven stars. Antavian Edison is the leading returning receiver with just 314 yards last year, though the junior does have good speed. Justin Siller is talented but has had trouble staying healthy. Purdue lost two solid veterans at tight end in Kyle Adams and Jeff Lindsay and added a couple of potential replacements, including former basketball player Patrick Bade, this summer.
11. Minnesota: Da'Jon McKnight tied for second in the Big Ten last year with 10 receiving touchdowns. But the Gophers' second-leading receiver last season was MarQueis Gray, who's now their starting quarterback. Brandon Green could help after an injury-plagued season. Tight end Eric Lair can grab a few passes, as he did 39 times in 2010.
12. Illinois: The good news: A.J. Jenkins is a reliable weapon who had 746 yards and seven touchdowns last season. The bad news: There's not much experience behind him. Perhaps Ryan Lankford, who starred in the spring while Jenkins was out with an injury, will emerge as a star his sophomore year. Evan Wilson is back at tight end after starting 11 games as a freshman.
But we don't know who will be the Golden Gophers' starting quarterback next fall. We don't know who will emerge as the top ball carrier or the playmaking receiver. We don't know who will replace three outstanding linebackers, two solid defensive tackles and a top-level cornerback in Traye Simmons.
Every bowl-bound team hopes to use the extra game to get an idea of what to expect the following season. For Minnesota, today's game takes on added meaning before a pivotal 2010 campaign. Expectations will be higher then, and the pressure will be turned up on Brewster to produce better results.
"Every coach would love to be able to win the last game of the season because it springboards you," Brewster said. "It springboards you forward with positive momentum, positive energy. Not that a loss is going to determine your season the following season. I just think a last-game win certainly helps, particularly from a mental point of view, going into the offseason."
Though Minnesota loses more on defense, the offense will be the big question mark in the spring.
Quarterback Adam Weber is completing his third season as the starter, but he'll need to beat out talented backup MarQueis Gray and third-stringer Moses Alipate this spring to keep his job. Running backs Duane Bennett, Kevin Whaley and DeLeon Eskridge all return, but one of them needs to distinguish himself this spring, something that didn't happen during the season. The Gophers are also searching for the next Eric Decker at receiver and will be looking to players like Troy Stoudermire, Brandon Green and Da'Jon McKnight to step up.
The offense has been a unit of extremes, from the highs against Michigan State and Northwestern to the lows against Penn State, Iowa and Ohio State.
"The level of consistency has got to improve," Brewster said. "That's been our mindset in our preparation for the bowl game. 'Let's make good decisions with the ball, not turn the ball over, be able to run the football and take advantage of some strengths down the field.'
"I expect us to play well offensively, based on the practices we've had."
Kudos and criticisms from around the league. Remember, players or coaches acknowledged in helmet tickers or Players of the Week don't appear here.
|Andrew Weber/US Presswire|
|Illinois' Jason Ford rushed for 128 yards and one touchdown in Saturday's victory.|
Thumbs down, Purdue's offense: The unit had a complete meltdown at Wisconsin after several solid performances. It wasn't just the turnovers that held Purdue back this time. Quarterbacks Joey Elliott and Caleb TerBush combined to complete only 27 percent of their passes, a statistic impacted by a ton of drops by their wide receivers.
Thumbs up, Chris Borland: The Wisconsin linebacker deserves consideration for Big Ten freshman of the year. He has meant that much to the Badgers' turnaround this fall. Borland continued to produce in his first career start at outside linebacker, forcing a fumble and recovering two fumbles against Purdue to earn Big Ten co-defensive player of the week honors.
Thumbs down, Greg Robinson: After an impressive performance in the season opener against Western Michigan, Robinson's unit has declined sharply. I heard a lot about improved communication and better cohesion before the season, but the defense endures multiple major breakdowns in every game. Whether it's pass defense against Notre Dame and Penn State or run defense against Illinois, the defense has been a disaster and it falls in his lap.
Thumbs up, Jedd Fisch: The Minnesota offensive coordinator produced his best game plan in his first game without his best player, wide receiver Eric Decker. Fisch was extremely creative and aggressive, and he received big plays from Duane Bennett, Nick Tow-Arnett, Da'Jon McKnight, Brandon Green and Troy Stoudermire.
Thumbs down, Minnesota's discipline: The Gophers notched a big win against Michigan State, but their 17 penalties tied a Big Ten single-game record set by Michigan State way back in 1957. It seemed like flags were flying on almost every play, and Minnesota won't win many more games if it doesn't improve its discipline.
Thumbs up, Penn State QB Daryll Clark: He should be the frontrunner for Big Ten offensive player of the year, with Wisconsin's John Clay as his only legitimate challenger. Clark turned in another strong performance against Northwestern, passing for 274 yards and a touchdown and scoring a rushing touchdown as well.
Thumbs down, Big Ten replay officials: Replay is supposed to ensure that the officiating crews get it right in these games, but the folks in the booth had a rough Saturday. The term "indisputable video evidence" definitely seemed a bit hazy in the Indiana-Iowa and Michigan State-Minnesota games.
Thumbs up, Terry Hawthorne: The Illinois freshman cornerback made arguably the play of the game against Michigan when he chased down wide receiver Roy Roundtree at the Illini 1-yard line. Illinois stopped Michigan on four straight plays and kept the Wolverines' lead at only six points, setting the stage for a second-half surge.
Thumbs down, Northwestern's fourth-quarter performance: The Wildcats have owned the fourth quarter in past seasons, but they are struggling in crunch time in 2009. After allowing 21 fourth-quarter points to Penn State in Saturday's loss, the Wildcats have been outscored 72-44 in the final 15 minutes.
And, for the first time ever ...
Thumbs up and thumbs down, Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi: Just having a little fun with this one, as Stanzi showed both his best and his worst on Saturday against Indiana. He threw a career high five interceptions, four in the third quarter, but once again responded in the fourth with two huge touchdown passes to notch his first career 300-yard passing performance and lift Iowa to another huge win.
In a conference starved for offensive stars, Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker shined the brightest during the first part of the season.
He caught 43 passes for 639 yards in his first five games and drew some well-deserved national attention after a gutsy performance in Minnesota's loss to Cal on Sept. 19. For a Gophers offense going through a lot of transition this year, Decker was the one constant.
|Jack Rendulich/Icon SMI|
|Minnesota's Eric Decker will miss the rest of the regular season with a strained left foot.|
And now he'll be sidelined for the rest of the regular season with a strained left foot that may require surgery. Decker, who missed time late last season with a high ankle sprain, sustained the injury during Saturday's loss to No. 17 Ohio State.
You can't sugarcoat the significance of this loss for the Gophers.
Minnesota's offense ranks last in the Big Ten in both total yards (292.8 ypg) and rushing yards (105.9 ypg) and 10th in scoring (21.1 ppg). The Gophers' new pro-style system hasn't clicked consistently, as the offensive line is struggling and junior quarterback Adam Weber seems to be regressing.
Decker deserves to finish his spectacular college career in a bowl game. But will he get the chance?
Minnesota needs to win at least two of its final four games to reach the postseason. The Gophers begin a three-game homestand Saturday night against Michigan State (Big Ten Network, 8 p.m. ET) before hosting Illinois and South Dakota State. Though they should be favored in the latter two contests, they need to find some offense in a hurry.
The offensive line needs to protect Weber better, and wide receivers like Troy Stoudermire and Brandon Green have to step up. Tight end Nick Tow-Arnett has done his part, but Decker had 32 more receptions than any other Gophers wideout despite a drop in production the last three games.
An inconsistent run game also needs to improve, which won't be easy against Michigan State. Running backs Duane Bennett, DeLeon Eskridge and Kevin Whaley all have had their moments, but Minnesota lacks a bell cow in the backfield.
The Gophers are sticking with Weber as the starting quarterback, but they can't forget about talented freshman MarQueis Gray.
Decker could have pursued a pro baseball career after being drafted in June by the hometown Twins, but he returned to serve as a co-captain and set more records. He owns team records for career receptions, career receiving yardage, career 100-yard receiving games, single-season receptions and consecutive 100-yard games.
"It’s cumulative right now, all 11 guys on offense have to step up," head coach Tim Brewster said. "I really think he’s the most complete wide receiver in college football today. You don’t just replace that guy too easily. We’ll be fine. It’s kind of our mindset. Next man up. Our guys are going to respond well."
We'll find out on Saturday night.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Every Big Ten team circled and underlined a few questionable positions entering spring practice. Some of those concerns went away as young players blossomed and depth was built. Where did each Big Ten team get better this spring?
Here's a snapshot:
Illinois' running backs -- The development of sophomores Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure this spring gives Illinois plenty of options at running back heading into 2009. Ford and LeShoure both improved physically and mentally and will compete with senior Daniel Dufrene to be the featured runner. Bottom line: Juice Williams' job should be easier.
Indiana's offensive line -- After being decimated by injuries last season, Indiana can feel a bit better about the front five. Tackle James Brewer might finally be reaching his potential, and center Will Matte impressed the coaches in the middle of the line.
Iowa's offensive line -- This group figured to be pretty solid no matter what, but Iowa got some help from a familiar name in the interior line. Dace Richardson might finally be healthy, and he worked with the first-team at left guard as Iowa tries to replace all-conference linemen Seth Olsen and Rob Bruggeman.
Michigan's offensive line -- Not a major surprise here, considering the Wolverines bring back all their starters from last season. But an extra year of experience plus several talented redshirt freshmen (Ricky Barnum, Patrick Omameh) joining the mix should pay off big time this fall.
Michigan State's quarterbacks -- The Spartans felt great about the progress of quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol, who both threw for 357 yards and four touchdowns in the spring game. Head coach Mark Dantonio is in no rush to name a starter, but unlike many men in his position, he really has two viable options here.
Minnesota's wide receivers -- With superstar Eric Decker playing baseball, Minnesota needed to identify other solid options at receiver. Return specialist Troy Stoudermire emerged as a big-play threat, and quarterback Adam Weber liked what he saw from Brandon Green and Da'Jon McKnight.
Northwestern's running backs -- Of the three offensive skill positions where Northwestern loses starters, running back appears to be the most stable. Sophomore Jeravin Matthews emerged this spring and will push Stephen Simmons for the starting job. Northwestern has several options in the backfield after losing four-year starter Tyrell Sutton.
Ohio State's linebackers -- You can't deny all the production Ohio State loses in its defensive midsection, but the spring revealed several solid players who can step in. Austin Spitler and Tyler Moeller have waited their turn for the spotlight, and Brian Rolle had an excellent spring. With returning starter Ross Homan back on the outside, the Buckeyes should once again be solid.
Penn State's defensive line -- Despite losing three defensive ends with starting experience, Penn State should once again boast one of the league's top pass rushes. Sophomore Jack Crawford looks like the Nittany Lions' next superstar pass rusher and should fill the void on the edge with Eric Latimore and Kevion Latham.
Purdue's running backs -- Even with Jaycen Taylor still rehabbing from a torn ACL, Purdue got a lot better at running back this spring. Ralph Bolden came out of nowhere to steal the show in spring scrimmages (420 rush yards, 4 touchdowns), and Dan Dierking also looked impressive. The Boilers will need a viable rushing attack this fall, and they can feel a lot better about this group.
Wisconsin's wide receivers -- Dropped passes dogged the receivers throughout 2008, but the group definitely got better this spring. Nick Toon emerged as a potential No. 1 target with an excellent performance in practice, and Isaac Anderson, Kyle Jefferson and David Gilreath all showed progress at times.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Spring practice felt more like spring training for Minnesota junior quarterback Adam Weber.
To loosen his arm before each Gophers workout, Weber warmed up by throwing a baseball. To get his hips more into each pass, Weber swung a baseball bat and hit soft toss into a fence. About the only thing Weber didn't do was field grounders, though he might want to bring his mitt to preseason camp.
|Scott Boehm/Getty Images|
|New Gophers offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch is working to speed up QB Adam Weber's release.|
You never know what Minnesota's new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch will ask for next.
The baseball drills are part of Fisch's effort to create a more natural and efficient throwing motion for Minnesota's quarterbacks. He's not overly concerned with rigid throwing mechanics. He wants the quarterbacks to be comfortable and quick with the ball.
"My belief is you've got to throw it naturally, like you've been brought up when you were a kid," Fisch said. "And the first ball you ever throw in your life is a round one. I've always thought that your best quarterbacks are your shortstops, not your pitchers. They're the most natural throwers.
"I'm going to see who can play shortstop."
Weber admits he has never prepared for football by throwing a baseball, but he rolled with it. Together, they adjusted Weber's throwing motion to speed up his release.
"It's holding the ball in a comfortable position and just making comfortable throws, using my full body and not trying to be very mechanical," Weber said.
Weber, a second-team All-Big Ten honoree last fall, was held out of contact this spring following surgery on his non-throwing shoulder. But he made good use of the 15 workouts, spending time with Fisch and trying to grasp the many changes on offense.
Minnesota has scrapped the spread offense and Fisch, who previously served as the Denver Broncos' wide receivers coach, is installing a pro-style system that will feature more power run. The terminology is completely new, and the complex scheme demands a lot of each player, particularly Weber and backup MarQueis Gray.
But Weber has seen encouraging signs this spring, especially from younger players like Gray, Troy Stoudermire, Brandon Green and Da'Jon McKnight.
"We have a lot of time before our first game, and we know that," said Weber, a two-year starter who recorded 2,761 pass yards, 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions last season. "It's all about really pushing ourselves. If we can grow together and not use any excuses like it's a new offense or anything, I believe we can do something truly special."
The baseball drills are only part of Fisch's innovative teaching approach. He also puts together PowerPoint presentations and elaborate video cut-ups for the Gophers, just like he did with Broncos players last year.
It might border on sensory overload, but players typically respond well.
"We're all visual learners," Fisch said. "The most important thing is 3-D and color and all those things. They're not just black-and-white sheets of paper any longer. We try to be Y2K-compliant. We try to play to their strengths."
Fisch expects some growing pains and acknowledges his system is "very different" than what the Gophers have done in the past. Weber enjoyed success his first two seasons as the starter, but he doesn't resist change or Fisch, whose background helps.
"When he was in the NFL, he'd go to pro [scouting] days," Weber said. "He knows what he's looking for in somebody or what teams are looking for at the next level. It's nice to have that guy who's been there and done it.
"He's got a good feel for what needs to be done and how things need to look."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
1. Daryll Clark's response -- The Penn State quarterback took the blame for the Iowa loss and admits he's struggling right now. There has also been some ridiculous talk about replacing Clark with Pat Devlin. Clark shouldn't have to worry about his job, but he needs to get on track again against a woeful Indiana defense that has been hit hard by injuries in the secondary. This is the perfect game for Clark and the Nittany Lions to revive the big-play attack.
2. Ohio State defense vs. Juice Williams -- Williams toyed with the Buckeyes last fall in Columbus, throwing four touchdown passes and racking up 70 rush yards. He almost single-handedly ran out the final eight minutes to preserve a 28-21 upset. You can bet Malcolm Jenkins, James Laurinaitis and Ohio State's other defenders are itching to face Williams again in Champaign (ESPN, noon ET). Ohio State's defense is hitting its stride, but Williams will provide a good test.
3. Bret Bielema and Tim Brewster -- Something is bound to happen in the already simmering Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry, and it will be interesting to see what the two head coaches say and do during and after Saturday's game. Bielema's dash to midfield after last year's Wisconsin win made waves this week, and Brewster has already declared Wisconsin as Minnesota's top rival. There should be some fireworks in Madison (ABC, 3:30 p.m.).
4. Makeshift offensive backfields at the Big House -- Both Northwestern and Michigan are dealing with injuries at quarterback and running back heading into Saturday's matchup (ESPN2, noon ET). Given both teams' problems with turnovers this season, the group that takes better care of the football likely comes out with the win. Michigan quarterback Nick Sheridan tries to build off a strong performance last week in his second straight start, while Northwestern senior quarterback C.J. Bacher likely will return to the field after sitting out the past two weeks with a hamstring injury. Michael Shaw (Michigan) and Stephen Simmons (Northwestern) likely get the starts at running back.
5. Illinois tries to continue crazy pattern -- Since Sept. 13, Illinois has alternated wins and losses. It's not what head coach Ron Zook had in mind, but he wouldn't mind if it continued Saturday against No. 11 Ohio State. Illinois lost last week against Western Michigan and needs a win to get bowl eligible. The Illini usually play the Buckeyes tough, but Ohio State has won 14 straight Big Ten road games.
6. Purdue's quarterback situation -- Fifth-year senior Curtis Painter should return in some form at Iowa, but redshirt freshman Justin Siller is expected to start for the Boilermakers. Head coach Joe Tiller hinted at having a quarterback rotation, with Painter being used for the two-minute drill. The quarterbacks' differing skill sets could present some problems for Iowa, but both players will need to perform well to give Purdue a chance for the upset.
7. Minnesota tries to survive without Eric Decker -- The Gophers' offense was downright awful last week, and they'll be without star wide receiver Eric Decker (high ankle sprain) at Wisconsin. Freshmen Brandon Green and Brodrick Smith and sophomore Ralph Spry will have to step up, but perhaps more important, Minnesota must generate a running game outside of quarterback Adam Weber.
8. Derrick Williams -- If Penn State had held on to beat Iowa, Williams would have been a big story. Penn State used Williams in the "Wildcat" formation, in part to protect Clark, and the senior showcased his speed and versatility. In addition to running for a touchdown, Williams completed a 23-yard pass to Mickey Shuler for Penn State's only play of longer than 20 yards. The Lions likely will continue to expand Williams' role and maximize his versatility against Indiana.
9. Shonn Greene -- Expect to see the Iowa junior running back on this list for the rest of the season. He's just that good, and I don't think we'll see him in college next fall. Greene aims for his 11th consecutive 100-yard rushing game against Purdue, which ranks 90th nationally in rush defense (172.8 ypg). He got a bit banged up on a fourth-quarter touchdown run last week against Penn State but is expected to be fine for Saturday's game.
10. Michigan's final home appearance -- The Wolverines won't be going bowling, but a second straight win and a favorable send-off for the seniors would dull the pain for their fans, who have booed quite a bit this season. Obviously, an upset next week in Columbus would be bigger for the Wolverines, but another victory against a team with a winning record will help matters.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
It's time to look inside five Big Ten teams.
Minnesota -- Wide receiver Eric Decker will miss Saturday's game at Wisconsin (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET) with a high ankle sprain, and the Gophers are working to find ways to replace the Big Ten's receptions leader. Freshman Brandon Green will play a much more prominent role, and Minnesota also will turn to freshman Brodrick Smith and sophomore Ralph Spry, who comes off a two-game suspension for violating team rules. Green, listed as a starter this week, has 12 receptions in his last three games and could blossom into a top-end wideout with extra playing time.
Northwestern -- Running back has become the Wildcats' primary concern after season-ending injuries to starter Tyrell Sutton (dislocated wrist) and backup Omar Conteh (torn knee ligament). Sophomore Stephen Simmons will make his second career start Saturday at Michigan (ESPN2, noon ET), but he'll get help from freshman Jeravin Matthews, a special teams standout who has been moved from wide receiver to running back. Both Simmons and Matthews are small, quick backs, but they'll need to be effective in the passing game, an area where both Sutton and Conteh excelled.
Iowa -- Daniel Murray converted the biggest field goal in recent team history Saturday against Penn State, but he's once again listed as the backup kicker on this week's depth chart. Head coach Kirk Ferentz has confidence in both Murray and freshman Trent Mossbrucker, though it would be hard to see Iowa go against Murray with the game on the line. Mossbrucker, to his credit, has made 13 of 15 field-goal attempts and all 24 extra-point attempts this season. "We went from a situation not knowing where we were at in the spring to feeling confident right now that both guys plan an important role," Ferentz said.
Purdue -- The Boilermakers could use a quarterback rotation Saturday at Iowa. Fifth-year senior Curtis Painter is improving from a separated throwing shoulder, while redshirt freshman Justin Siller has shown enough promise to remain part of the game plan. Painter returned to practice this week, but head coach Joe Tiller said Siller likely will start against the Hawkeyes. Siller is practicing full-go this week after sustaining a bruised sternum against Michigan State. "What I'd really like in a perfect scenario this week would be for Curtis to get healthy enough to execute the two-minute game," Tiller said. "Justin isn't prepared to do that. It's not that he can't do it in the future, it's just how much are you going to heap on this guy now and what are you going to expect him to do."
Indiana -- Head coach Bill Lynch hasn't pinpointed the reason for his team's rash of injuries, but it isn't the playing field at Memorial Stadium. Indiana had to install new turf late this summer after flooding damaged the old surface. Though several players have sustained knee injuries on the home turf, Lynch sees no different between what Indiana has and other fields around the Big Ten. The health watch on offense looks better this week, but Indiana will need to do more shuffling in the secondary as cornerback Richard Council battles a leg injury. The Hoosiers already have lost three secondary starters to season-ending injuries, and walk-on wide receiver Collin Taylor has been moved to free safety, where he'll back up Brandon Mosley.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
MINNEAPOLIS -- Now we know how No. 17 Minnesota got to this point.
After a slow start, the Gophers rallied in the second quarter and showcased the characteristics that have led to their 7-1 start. Minnesota's opportunistic defense came up with a game-changing turnover, and quarterback Adam Weber and the offense continue to play mistake-free football. But undermanned Northwestern is hanging in there, and it's been an entertaining game so far.
The Wildcats have to feel good to be tied after their worst fears came true. With a new starting offensive backfield, Northwestern's game plan focused on limiting turnovers. It worked for a litte more than a quarter. But after failing to get good first-down yardage, backup quarterback Mike Kafka showed his inexperience on a hitch pass to Ross Lane. Minnesota cornerback Traye Simmons read the route, stepped in for the interception and took it 23 yards to the end zone.
But Kafka responded nicely and sparked a touchdown drive with a 53-yard run to the Minnesota 2-yard line. The Gophers are clearly trying to take away running back Omar Conteh, which has opened up lanes for Kafka, who has 97 rushing yards on nine carries. Kafka completed his first eight pass attempts before slowing down a bit in the second quarter.
Minnesota's offense settled in nicely in the second quarter. Weber's ability to scramble and make throws on the run has spurred the Gophers. And though junior wide receiver Eric Decker broke his own single-season school record with his 68th reception, Weber is getting other receivers involved (Nick Tow-Arnett, Ben Kuznia, Brandon Green, Jack Simmons), completing 15 of 23 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown.
Both offensive lines have looked suspect at times, but Northwestern likely needs to force a turnover from Weber to pull out the upset.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
|Frank Victores-US PRESSWIRE|
|DeLeon Eskridge is one of several freshmen making an impact for the 7-1 Golden Gophers.|
As the head coach of arguably the nation's most opportunistic team, Tim Brewster knows that timing and momentum can be everything in college football.
Brewster has a good thing going at Minnesota right now. The Gophers are 7-1 and ranked 17th in the BCS standings after a historically bad 1-11 season in 2007. Their new outdoor, on-campus facility, TCF Bank Stadium, is set to open next September. They have a ton of talented underclassmen. The enthusiasm around the program is building at a rapid rate.
Minnesota's next phase seems clear. Accelerate and improve recruiting. Go after the top prospects while the team is winning. Canvass the state for top talent and tap into familiar spots like Texas and California.
Slam on the gas.
Thing is, when it comes to recruiting, Brewster has always been ahead of the curve. If there was a sixth gear, he would have found it.
"You seize every moment that you can," Brewster said, "but also understanding that we recruited at an extremely high level last year. Recruiting is something that really doesn't change with us, regardless of the now, the moment. We're going to recruit 24-7, 365. That's just kind of our thing."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Despite losing seven of the league's top 10 receivers from last season, this group should once again be solid in 2008. Teams like Ohio State, Penn State, Illinois and Northwestern return groups of receivers that have played together for a season or longer. Minnesota has a budding star in Eric Decker, while Wisconsin lacks a proven wide receiver but boasts arguably the nation's best tight end in Travis Beckum. Purdue is restocking at wide receiver but has history on its side, and Iowa welcomes back several key contributors from injuries.
As with the running backs, these rankings are broken down into two sections:
|AP Photo/Phelan Ebenhack|
|Wisconsin's Travis Beckum had 75 receptions for 982 yards last season.|
1. Travis Beckum, Sr., TE, Wisconsin -- It's rare that a tight end tops this list, but Beckum transcends his often overlooked position. The All-America candidate had 75 receptions for 982 yards and six touchdowns last season. If Beckum returns at top form following offseason shoulder surgery, he'll continue to flummox defenses with his size and speed.
2. Brian Robiskie, Sr., WR, Ohio State -- He averaged 17 yards a catch and had the third most touchdown catches (11) in the league last season. Now imagine what Robiskie will do without a torn meniscus in his knee that required offseason surgery. A deep threat on a squad with several of them, Robiskie is on the brink of a big season.
3. Arrelious Benn, So., WR, Illinois -- Fully healthy after shoulder surgery, Benn could easily become this season's Devin Thomas and rise to the top of the list. Illinois will get the ball in his hands as much as possible, whether it's in a ramped up passing attack, out of the backfield or on returns. A good route-runner with breakaway speed, Benn might be the league's most dynamic player.
4. Eric Decker, Jr., WR, Minnesota -- After putting up big numbers for a bad team last season, Decker should get more praise from fans and more attention from defenses this fall. A tremendous athlete who also plays baseball for the Golden Gophers, Decker gives quarterback Adam Weber a proven target who can get to the end zone (nine touchdowns in 2007).
5. Deon Butler, Sr., WR, Penn State -- Butler quietly has become one of the league's most reliable receivers. He needs just 36 receptions to become Penn State's all-time career receptions leader and likely will claim several other school records. As the Nittany Lions transition to more of a spread offense this fall, Butler should excel.
6. Eric Peterman, Sr., WR, Northwestern -- Just when defenses label Peterman as a standard possession wide receiver, he'll gash them for a big gain. He tied for seventh in the league in receptions last season and will once again be C.J. Bacher's top target in the passing game, particularly on third down.
7. Greg Orton, Sr., WR, Purdue -- After playing behind three-time Big Ten receptions leader Dorien Bryant, Orton takes center stage as a senior. He must stabilize a new-look Boilermakers receiving corps and provide senior quarterback Curtis Painter a reliable first option. Orton has 125 receptions the last two seasons.
8. Andy Brodell, Sr., WR, Iowa --Remember the 2006 Alamo Bowl? Brodell torched Texas for a bowl-record 159 receiving yards, including a 63-yard touchdown. A broken leg cut short his 2007 season, but he's back and ready to restore his place among the Big Ten's top receivers.
9. Brian Hartline, Jr., WR, Ohio State -- Don't forget about Ohio State's other Brian, who collected 52 receptions for 694 yards and six touchdowns last fall. As Robiskie stretches the field, Hartline provides an excellent complement who goes over the middle and absorbs contact. He turned in an excellent spring as Robiskie recovered from injury.
10. Derrick Williams, Sr., WR, Penn State -- Most thought Williams would be higher on this list when he arrived in Happy Valley, but he hasn't matched the hype -- yet. His speed and athleticism remain top notch, and he should do well in a spread offense. A big-play threat who can do damage in the return game, Williams could finish his career with a flourish.
1. Ohio State -- Finding a third option remains on Ohio State's to-do list, but few teams boast a better passing tandem than the Brians. After a season to jell with quarterback Todd Boeckman, Robiskie and Hartline will punish defenses worrying about Heisman Trophy candidate Beanie Wells.
2. Penn State -- In terms of continuity at wide receiver, Penn State ranks at the top of the list. But the long-tenured group of Butler, Williams and Jordan Norwood hasn't always met expectations. As seniors, they should shine despite having to work with a new starting quarterback.
3. Illinois -- The league knows all about Benn, who will do even more damage at 100 percent this fall. His supporting cast includes Jeff Cumberland, a 6-5, 247-pound former tight end who can outjump defenders, as well as Chris James, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL. The Illini will accentuate the passing game more this fall, and this group should step up.
4. Northwestern -- This could be the Wildcats' best group of wideouts sinc
e they installed in the spread offense in 2000. Peterman is good for 6-10 receptions per game. Ross Lane provides Bacher with a red-zone threat, and Andrew Brewer, considered the team's top wideout before suffering a fractured humerus in training camp, rejoins the group.
5. Iowa -- Embattled quarterback Jake Christensen is thrilled to see what's coming back this fall. Brodell returns from a broken leg and gives Iowa a viable deep threat. Promising tight end Tony Moeaki is also back in the fold following an injury. Sophomore Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, the team's top receiver last season, provides depth along with Trey Stross.
6. Wisconsin -- Beckum and understudy Garrett Graham are the only reasons why the Badgers are this high. For them to stay there, several wide receivers must emerge from an unproven group. Kyle Jefferson displayed promise as a freshman and David Gilreath showcased his speed as a returner, but there are more questions than answers here.
7. Purdue -- It's impossible to replace Bryant's production or the mismatch problems Dustin Keller created, but Orton gives Purdue a strong first option with good size. More important, the Boilermakers have a track record of success at wide receiver and a senior quarterback (Curtis Painter) who can help unproven players. Junior-college transfer Aaron Valentin bolsters a group that also includes Desmond Tardy.
8. Minnesota -- I'm tempted to put the Gophers higher because of Decker, but there's not much behind him. Ernie Wheelwright's departure leaves a hole, which could be filled by dynamic freshman Brandon Green, sophomore Ralph Spry or several others. If Minnesota finds a solid second option for Weber, it will climb several spots.
9. Michigan -- Before you flood my inbox, allow an explanation. The Wolverines have no proven quarterbacks, only one semi-proven wide receiver (Greg Mathews) and a dramatically different offense to learn. A drop-off is likely, but not certain. Freshman Darryl Stonum bolsters the new-look corps, and players like Junior Hemingway and Toney Clemons could shine after waiting their turn for playing time.
10. Indiana -- There's no James Hardy on the roster, but juniors Ray Fisher and Andrew Means should stabilize a passing game led by quarterback Kellen Lewis. Tight end Max Dedmond provides another option in the new no-huddle offense, though another target or two needs to emerge.
11. Michigan State -- Javon Ringer told me to expect big things from this group, but I'm not convinced. Thomas and underrated tight end Kellen Davis will be missed, and Ringer had more receptions last season than any of the returnees. Deon Curry, Mark Dell, B.J. Cunningham and Blair White have the chance to step up -- and move up the list.