NCF Nation: Brett Maher

If Bo Pelini is feeling any pressure in Lincoln this spring to deliver a championship, you couldn't tell by the way Nebraska started spring practice. The Huskers coach participated in a Harlem Shake video with the team over the weekend, with Pelini sending up his own fiery image before dancing with his players.

I caught up with Pelini after Nebraska's first spring practice to ask about the spring and how he plans to replace eight starters on defense. Here is that conversation.

How did the "Harlem Shake" video come about?

Bo Pelini: We were just having some fun with it. It was actually my daughter, she just turned 12, she had a sleepover the night before. And her and her friends, they'd been telling me what this "Harlem Shake" thing was and they were showing it to me. And I thought it was a good idea, that our kids would have fun with this. We had fun with it, and it was something different.

Was that a way to loosen things up as you get started with practice?

BP: No doubt. The team, they had a good time. It was fun. I'm just glad I didn't throw my back out. It was probably the first time I'd danced since my wedding.

It looked like you had some pretty good moves.

BP: Yeah, right. You know better than that.

What are some of your main goals and objectives this spring?

BP: Just get these guys taught and develop their understanding. We've got kind of an interesting mix of youth and experience. I think it's a very talented group, a pretty explosive group of athletes. We've got a lot of guys who've got a lot to learn. Even on the offensive side, where we have some experience coming back, per se, and some guys who have been through it, in this day and age you've got to keep building depth. Every guy out there you've got to try and get taught, and get as many guys out there that you trust as possible.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsNebraska coach Bo Pelini has a message for those who want to see him make changes to his defense. "That's asinine," he said.
As a coach, is it kind of exciting to be able to work with a young group that has some athleticism on defense?

BP: Oh, no doubt. It's going to be fun. This a real eager group and a real hard working group. These kids want to play. They're eager, they soak in everything you tell them. Sometimes guys get to a point in their career where they think that they know. These kids know they don't know. They're like sponges right now. It's a fun time to work with them and help them develop into the kind of players they can be.

Given how much experience you have on offense, will you spend more time than normal with the defense this spring?

BP: Yeah, that's where I spend the majority of my time anyway, but it makes sense to get as many eyes and extra teachers on that side of the ball. That will help us. We feel good about where we are offensively and what that potential is; now we've just got to match that up with what we think we can do defensively. And I think we have a chance to be pretty damn good.

I saw a quote where one of your players said the young defenders might make mistakes, but they'll make them going 100 mph. Is that kind of what you're looking for, that they may not all get it right away but that they can make up for that with their speed and athleticism?

BP: Absolutely. And to a certain extent it's our job to try not to weigh them down. Don't get them thinking. Kind of the message is, I told them, "You're not going to be perfect. But play fast. Believe in what you see. We'll get you coached up, but don't go out there thinking. Go out there and believe in your preparation, believe in what you're learning, trust your learning and go out there and play fast and make plays." That's kind of been the common theme, and I saw a lot of that the other day.

The defensive line and safety are two areas hit hard by graduation. What do you see out of those positions this spring?

BP: I think we have guys that may be a little more dynamic athletically than what we've been. And we have some guys who we think can really do some things. It's going to be interesting to watch their development and how they continue to respond. We've moved some guys around. We have a lot of options in the secondary. A few years ago when we we were in the Big 12, we were recruiting more in the secondary than we were at linebacker, which is why we're a little bit younger at linebacker. We have a few more options in the secondary and guys that can do a lot of different things and play multiple spots, so that helps you.

Is there a whole lot of competition this spring, given how many starting jobs are open on defense?

BP: Absolutely. Like I told our guys, "Don't worry where you're lining up on the depth chart. Worry about taking care of yourself and your reps. Concentrate on making yourself a better football player." At the end of the day, it's only 15 practices. These jobs aren't going to be won or lost this time of year. Now we're going to make some strides, and maybe certain guys put themselves in position to be starters. But there's a lot of football to be played and a lot of practices to be had before we actually kick this thing off at the end of August. So if every guy just concentrates on making themselves better and tries to make the most out of every single rep that we have, then that's going to give them the best opportunity to grow as a football player and be ready to play in the fall.

You're going to be doing more live contact stuff than usual this spring, right?

BP: Yeah. We're going to do a little bit more scrimmaging maybe than we have in the past and really have a nice, good physical spring to try and put guys in position to see who can do it live, who's going to be able to make plays in space. Defensively, who's going to be able to make those one-on-one tackles when they find themselves in those positions? You want to take the guesswork out of it, see that guy, if he was there, would he have finished it off? Well, we're going to be asking them this spring to finish it off and see where they are. It's one of the reasons we went a little bit earlier in the spring than we have in the past, so we can be physical and then split up our spring with the spring break. We'll have eight practices before spring break and seven after, to give our guys a little bit of a break in there so we can make the most out of every opportunity we have.

[+] EnlargeJason Ankrah
AP Photo/Scott A. MillerVeteran Nebraska defensive lineman Jason Ankrah is looking forward to taking on a leadership role, coach Bo Pelini said.
Jason Ankrah is one of your few veterans up front defensively and a guy you're counting on as a leader. What do you see for him this spring and this season?

BP: He is a leader. He's been around, he's played a lot of football for us. He's looking to embrace that type of role, and he's got that kind of influence in the locker room. He's got the ability and the experience that guys are going to look to him. Some guys embrace that, some guys don't. It's got to be in your personality. He's looking forward to it, and I think that will be big. We had some leadership walk out the door. So we have to make sure we have guys who are ready, willing and able to step into that role.

You've got a lot of guys on offense where you pretty much know what you're going to get, like Taylor Martinez, Ameer Abdullah, Kenny Bell, Spencer Long. Do you hold them out of the live stuff and focus on younger players this spring because of that, or do they still need those reps?

BP: A little bit of both. We want to continue to develop our depth on that side. But the bottom line is, you've got to continue to get better. Even a guy like Taylor, as much football as he's played here, there are a lot of things he still needs to continue to work on to get better at. So there are going to be certain times and certain situations, just like any spring, where you take some guys out who have played a lot of football and maybe not get them as banged up as much, and that gives you a chance to look at some younger guys and build depth. But there are going to be some times where they're right in the thick of it.

What is the next step forward for Taylor?

BP: Just like any quarterback, it's such a difficult position, so much goes into it. Continue to work on being efficient and on decision-making. Eliminate turnovers and just continue to manage the offense. He has such confidence in himself that sometimes he tries to win the game by himself. As a quarterback, you've got to continue to let the offense work for you and let the game come to you. You don't need to try and win the game on every play. It all comes down to decision-making and managing the game, managing the offense. I think he made a lot of strides last year, but like any guy who's a young football player -- and all these guys are still young, they're all still learning how to play the game -- he has a ways to go in that regard.

The receiver group was impressive last year, and almost all those guys are back. How much potential does that group have this year?

BP: It's a dynamic group, and I think they got better last year. I thought they played very well. You look at it, and we still have some youth there. We have to continue to build that depth over there. We got hit hard with injuries. In the early games, we had a bunch of guys catching passes, but it was just one of those things where you got a bunch of injuries at the wide receiver spot. But we think we have some other guys who can spell those guys, and if that's the case and they can take some snaps off them and keep them fresh throughout the game, that will make them that much more effective.

Imani Cross did some great work at the goal line last year. How much more can he add to his game this spring and offseason?

BP: He's looking good. He's -- not noticeably, because he's such a big thick guy -- but he's carrying less weight, and he's slimming down a little bit. I think he has a chance to really be a good football player for us and do some things. Not be just a short-yardage guy, but a guy who can carry the ball and help us in a lot of different areas and a lot of different situations. I think he's got that in him, and we can really expand his role. I think he's excited to do that, and he's determined to do that.

Finally, you lost a very valuable special-teams player in kicker/punter Brett Maher. Is that an area you can figure out this spring, or will that have to wait until fall camp?

BP: It probably won't be settled until this fall, but we have some good competition there. We've got some kids coming in, too. I think it's going to be good competition. The talent is there. We have guys that can do it. But having that consistency ... we've been really fortunate that we haven't had to worry about it the past couple years. We had Alex [Henery] and then went right into having Brett. So we've been very fortunate in that regard. This year, the job is open, and the competition will go right to the end. Obviously, to win a championship, you'd better have somebody in that kicking mode that you can trust.
The NFL scouting combine is in the books and pro days at all the Big Ten schools will take place in the coming weeks. There's still time for the Big Ten's NFL draft hopefuls to boost their stock before the selections are made April 25-27.

But at the very top of the draft -- the first round, in particular -- things are looking rather bleak for the Big Ten, according to ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr.

Kiper's post-combine Big Board Insider features zero Big Ten players among the list of 25. Several Big Ten players have been included on previous Big Boards, including Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins and Purdue DT Kawann Short. If Michigan LT Taylor Lewan had skipped his final college season and entered the draft, he likely would be in Kiper's top 15.

Few would be surprised to see Hankins drafted in the first round, but his combine performance didn't exactly jump out. Short is another intriguing prospect, and Wisconsin center Travis Frederick also could sneak into the first round.

But if Kiper's forecast plays out, the Big Ten once again could be waiting a while before one of its players is drafted in April. The league didn't have a player selected in the 2012 draft until the Detroit Lions selected Iowa offensive tackle Riley Reiff with the No. 23 overall pick. The Big Ten hasn't produced a top 10 draft pick since Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long went No. 1 overall in the 2008 draft (Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the No. 2 overall pick in 2010, played his entire career in the Big 12).

Here's a look at the Big Ten's recent highest draft picks:

2012: No. 23, Iowa LT Riley Reiff (Detroit)
2011: No. 11, Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt (Houston)
2010: No. 13, Michigan DE Brandon Graham (Philadelphia)
2009: No. 11, Penn State DE Aaron Maybin (Buffalo)
2008: No. 1, Michigan LT Jake Long (Miami)
2007: No. 3, Wisconsin LT Joe Thomas (Cleveland)
2006: No. 5, Ohio State LB A.J. Hawk (Green Bay)
2005: No. 3, Michigan WR Braylon Edwards (Cleveland)
2004: No. 2, Iowa LT Robert Gallery (Oakland)
2003: No. 2, Michigan State WR Charles Rogers (Detroit)
2002: No. 12, Wisconsin DT Wendell Bryant (Arizona)

So after six straight years of top-5 picks (2003-2008), the Big Ten likely will go five straight years without a top 10 pick. Not good.

Several Big Ten players appear on Kiper's latest top-5 lists by position. Insider
  • Wisconsin's Montee Ball is the No. 2 running back
  • Ohio State's Zach Boren is the No. 3 fullback
  • Wisconsin's Frederick is the No. 1 center
  • Nebraska's Brett Maher is the No. 4 kicker
Neither Hankins nor Short appear among the top five defensive tackles.

Montee Ball's decision to return to Wisconsin for his senior season raised an eyebrow or two after the running back turned in a record-setting junior season in 2011. Ball returned in large part because he received a third-round grade from the NFL draft advisory committee.

If ESPN's Mel Kiper turns out to be right, Ball's decision will be labeled a wise one.

Kiper came out with his first mock draft for 2013 Insider on Wednesday, and Ball is listed as a first-round pick, going No. 21 overall to the Cincinnati Bengals. Ball didn't appear on Kiper's Big Board this season, but made a strong push late in Big Ten play. Kiper writes that Ball would be an excellent fit for the Bengals' system.

Ohio State defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins is the only other Big Ten player in the mock draft, going at No. 15 to the New Orleans Saints. Kiper likes Hankins' ability to beat interior blockers to the backfield and eat up double teams.

It would have been interesting to see where Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan would have ended up on Kiper's list if he decided to skip his final season with the Wolverines. Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short, a projected first-rounder for much of the season, reportedly just missed the cut.

The deadline for early entries to the NFL draft has come and gone, and Kiper has issued his top 5 prospects at each position Insider.

Here's who made it from the Big Ten:
  • Wisconsin's Ball is the No. 2 running back
  • Ohio State's Zach Boren is the No. 3 fullback
  • Michigan State's Dion Sims, who will skip his senior season, is the No. 4 tight end
  • Wisconsin's Travis Frederick, who will skip his senior season, is the No. 1 center
  • Hankins is the No. 3 defensive tackle
  • Nebraska's Brett Maher is the No. 4 kicker

Weekend rewind: Big Ten Week 13

November, 26, 2012
For one last (regular-season) time, let's do the rewind:

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesOhio State's Ryan Shazier ran his season sack total to five with this takedown of Michigan's Devin Gardner.
Team of the week: Ohio State, naturally. The Buckeyes finished a perfect 12-0 season by beating their archrival, Michigan, at home. That's a pretty good week. Lots of people want to knock Ohio State for its schedule, and understandably. According to the NCAA, the Buckeyes have played only the 65th-toughest schedule in the country. That's not far off from Georgia (No. 60), which is getting an awful lot of love from some pollsters.

Game of the week: It was an emotional day at Penn State, as the school honored the seniors and the season by putting a 2012 sign on Beaver Stadium and paid tribute to injured linebacker Michael Mauti by placing his No. 42 on the team's helmets. We figured Wisconsin might have a hard time matching the Nittany Lions' energy level, but instead the Badgers took a 14-7 halftime lead. Penn State rallied, but Wisconsin tied the game with 18 seconds left in regulation on a Curt Phillips pass to Jeff Duckworth. But the Nittany Lions prevailed in overtime, giving this special team a final celebration that it definitely earned.

Biggest play: Nebraska led Iowa 13-7 in the fourth quarter with the Legends Division title on the line, and the Hawkeyes had just pinned the Huskers inside their own 1 on a punt. Luckily for Big Red, Superman Returns is not just a mediocre movie. After a quarterback sneak for one yard, senior Rex Burkhead -- playing for the first time in a month -- took an inside-zone handoff and somehow muscled his way through a pile of would-be tacklers for an improbable nine yards. That first down got Nebraska out of trouble and helped the Huskers hold on for the win and a spot in Saturday's Big Ten title game.

Gutsiest play: After throwing one of the weirdest, most-pinball-like interceptions you'll ever see, Purdue's quarterback found himself as the last line of defense against Indiana's Greg Heban. Marve, despite playing on a torn ACL, ran more than 60 yards to chase down Heban and make a touchdown-saving tackle. "It was kind of like one of those we're-going-to-see-where-my-body's-at-very-quickly kind of things," Marve said. "It was a funny play. My dad played some linebacker for a whole bunch of years, so he was proud of me." Marve's refusal to give up on the play despite only having one good knee is indicative of how the Boilermakers hung tough to win their final three games and make a bowl.

Best call: Penn State couldn't have played its finale without one more fourth-down gamble by Bill O'Brien. And this was one of his best. Early in the fourth quarter, O'Brien went for it on fourth-and-6 from the Wisconsin 41. Quarterback Matt McGloin scrambled and found tight end Jesse James for a touchdown, giving the Nittany Lions their first lead of the game. Penn State finished the season 19-of-34 on fourth-down conversion attempts. Air Force and Army, which both run the option offense, are the only two FBS teams that have gone for it on fourth down more than the Lions.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell nearly tripled Minnesota's total yardage all by himself. The junior running back shredded the Gophers for career-high 266 yards and a touchdown on 35 carries for his third 200-yard game of the season. Bell leads the Big Ten in rushing and ranks third nationally at 1,648 yards. His 350 carries (that's an average of 29 per game, folks) are more than any other FBS player.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill (12 tackles, three TFLs, two sacks) was absolutely dominant and helped make up for the loss of Mauti. The senior's final college performance probably earned him some extra NFL money.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Nebraska's Brett Maher made a pair of crucial field goals in the Huskers' 13-7 win, including a 52-yarder on a windy day. He also had a 61-yard punt that was downed inside the Iowa 5.

Biggest hangover: You can justify Michigan's 8-4 record by noting the Wolverines have lost to teams ranked No. 1 (Notre Dame), No. 2 (Alabama), No. 4 (Ohio State -- in the AP Top 25) and No. 12 (Nebraska). But this is Michigan, fergawdsake. The Maize and Blue are supposed to win big games, and instead they fell flat in every one, ending with some bizarre offensive playcalling in the second half at Ohio State. The Wolverines again ended up without a Big Ten title, and unless they can beat what will probably be a very good SEC opponent in a bowl, they'll finish a year that began with a top-10 ranking as a five-loss disappointment.

Strangest moment: What else could possibly go wrong for Illinois coach Tim Beckman?

During Saturday's 50-14 loss to Northwestern, Beckman was penalized for sideline interference twice in the first quarter. On the second one, he was run over by an official after a Wildcats' interception. Northwestern scored one play later after the 15-yard flag.

“The first one was on me," Beckman said. "I was running out there getting involved in the game. The second time I was behind the ball, as I always am because usually you’re behind the ball and the officials are all in front. Interception and they were running the other way. I’ll take the blame. That’s my fault. Not good on my part.”

There has been a whole lot of not good in Champaign this year.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 11

November, 12, 2012
Through the lens of history ...

Team of the week: Wisconsin. Reports of the Badgers' demise were premature. While everybody was hopping aboard the Indiana bandwagon last week, Wisconsin simply got back to what it does best: running the ball. Bret Bielema's team steamrolled to a school-record 564 rushing yards and threw it only seven times in a 62-14 rout of the Hoosiers. As a result, the Badgers are going back to the Big Ten championship game.

Game of the week: Lots of good ones Saturday, but the most drama came in Ann Arbor. Michigan outlasted Northwestern 38-31 in overtime thanks to a last-minute miracle and plenty of chutzpah from Devin Gardner. There is some magic in those Michigan uniforms at the Big House.

[+] EnlargeRoy Roundtree
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireRoy Roundtree made one of the biggest plays in the Big Ten all season with a miraculous catch in the final seconds of regulation.
Biggest play: As if there were any doubt. We've had the Immaculate Reception; should we call this one the Roundtree Revelation? Roy Roundtree's 53-yard catch off a tipped ball (around the 1:20 mark) with eight seconds left to set up Michigan's tying field goal may well go down as the Big Ten play of the year. How did Roundtree get so open on a post route, with Northwestern in a prevent defense? "Anybody who goes to catch the ball I'd like to have triple-teamed," Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "That would be ideal. But I can't say I would change the call. I just wish we had knocked the dang ball down." Instead, Roundtree and Northwestern cornerback Daniel Jones both got their hands it, the ball bounced straight up and Roundtree maintained his concentration long enough to haul it in while falling down. Roundtree's Roundabout Reception (OK, this still needs some work) will go down in Wolverines' lore.

Best call: Minnesota was struggling again in the red zone at Illinois and was locked in a 3-3 game in the second half when it faced a fourth-and-inches on the Illini 16. Instead of going for the easy field goal, head coach Jerry Kill went for the kill. A Philip Nelson sneak picked up the first down, and the Gophers would go on to score a touchdown en route to an eventual 17-3 victory. Minnesota reached the six-win plateau and is going bowling for the first time since 2009. Ski-U-Mah!

Testiest news conference: It's not much fun being either a coach or a reporter at a news conference when a team is losing; there are only so many ways to ask the question: Why do you stink? And so it went at Iowa, which lost its fourth straight game by falling at home to Purdue. The very first question posed to head coach Kirk Ferentz was why and how he got outcoached. "You can say it’s this, it’s that, lunar moon, whatever," Ferentz said. "But that’s coaching. And that’s me. Coaching starts with me.” Later, after more questions about his team's struggles, Ferentz tried to defend Iowa's season by pointing to victories over Minnesota and Michigan State. "It’s not like this has been a dog crap team,” Ferentz said. “You want to paint that picture, I’m not buying that.” (And if such a picture is for sale, I want to avoid that arts and crafts show.)

Big Man on Campus (Offense): This fall may not totally belong to Ball, but the state of Indiana sure does. Montee Ball ran for 198 yards and three touchdowns in Wisconsin's 62-14 hammering of Indiana, putting the Badgers' star within one touchdown of tying the NCAA career record. For his career, Ball has tallied 824 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in five games while playing in the Hoosier State. He's got one more left: the Dec. 1 Big Ten title game in Indianapolis.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Nebraska safety Daimion Stafford was part of a dominant second-half defensive effort from the Blackshirts in a 32-23 win over Penn State. Stafford's interception of Matt McGloin helped set up the tying touchdown in the third quarter, and he later recovered the fumble by Matt Lehman in the end zone. Special mention also goes to Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short, who had four tackles for loss to help the Boilermakers control the line of scrimmage at Iowa.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Purdue freshman Paul Griggs missed a short field goal at the end of the first half at Iowa and had misfired on a couple of tries at Ohio State that could have changed the outcome of that overtime loss. But he made up for that by drilling a 46-yard field goal as time expired to give the Boilers the 27-24 victory. "It seemed like everybody was grabbing me, and I know I got grabbed by a couple of the guys after the kick,” Griggs said. “As soon as I got away from them, I was running over toward the fans, and my mom ran out of the stands and she blindsided me. She was quite happy.”

Worst hangover: Northwestern could be 10-0 right now. In all three of their losses, the Wildcats held double-digit leads in the fourth quarter. A good season could have been a great one in a very winnable Big Ten. Instead, Northwestern keeps finding ways to punch its fans in the gut. The Michigan loss was the worst one yet, as the Wildcats first surrendered a 10-point fourth-quarter lead, then went ahead again late only to surrender the miraculous catch to Roundtree.

Strangest moment: Penn State sure wasn't happy about the controversial fumble call on Lehman's near-touchdown. But there was a strange penalty earlier in the game that went against the Nittany Lions, too.

Late in the first half, Nebraska's Brett Maher shanked a punt for 16 yards, apparently giving Penn State great field position. But the officials called sideline interference on the Lions, a 15-yard penalty.

Sideline interference? You see teams get warned for that but rarely flagged. Penn State beat writers in the press box thought that secondary coach John Butler, who often crowds the field, was the one who drew the flag. But Bill O'Brien said that wasn't the case.

"I guess the referee was running down the sideline and from what I was told, he ran into one of our players and I guess that's sideline interference," O'Brien said.

From that point on, a Penn State staff member made sure to keep telling coaches and players to move back anytime they got close to the field. And the Nittany Lions were left to wonder when they were going to get a break from the refs.

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska never makes things easy for itself and especially not its fans. But the No. 16 Cornhuskers keep on winning.

Down 20-6 at halftime against Penn State, the Huskers engineered one of their patented second-half comebacks and held on for a 32-23 victory at Memorial Stadium.

The win keeps Nebraska in first place of the Legends Division and gets it one step closer to playing in the Big Ten championship game. Here's a quick look at how it went down:

It was over when: Justin Blatchford broke up Matt McGloin's fourth-down pass attempt with under three minutes to play. But the game-changer came with 5:02 left, when McGloin was called for intentional grounding in the end zone. That penalty resulted in a safety and gave Nebraska the 29-23 lead and the ball. Nebraska scored two touchdowns in the first 5:23 of the second half to tie the score, the second one coming after a McGloin interception deep in Penn State territory.

Game ball goes to: Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez. He had another costly turnover, fumbling the ball inside the Penn State 5 to short-circuit a scoring opportunity. But Martinez still gets the job done. He completed 12 of 20 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown and carried 15 times for 104 yards. Ameer Abdullah also rushed for 116 yards on 31 carries.

Stat of the game: Penn State had 255 yards and 20 points in the first half. In the second half, Nebraska held the Nittany Lions to 136 yards and just one field goal. The Huskers outscored the Nittany Lions 26-3 in the second half.

Unsung hero of the game: Nebraska's Brett Maher shanked a 16-yard punt into the heavy wind earlier in the game. But with Nebraska needing to punt with about 5:40 to go, he unleashed a 69-yarder that went out of bounds at the Penn State 2. That pin job directly led to the safety.

Second guessing: Penn State was about to take the lead late when McGloin hit tight end Matt Lehman on a short pass near the goal line. But Lehman fumbled into the end zone, and Nebraska recovered. Replays appeared to show that Lehman crossed the plane before he fumbled, but the ruling was upheld after an official review. Bottom line: Lehman has to hold onto the ball there.

What it means: Go ahead and write Nebraska into the Big Ten title game, if not with permanent marker then at least with a finely-sharpened No. 2 pencil. The Huskers need only to beat Minnesota at home and Iowa on the road to claim the Legends Division title and a berth in Indianapolis because of their head-to-head win over Michigan. They are too good to lose to either of those teams, so a rematch of the 30-27 win over Wisconsin on Sept. 29 appears all but inevitable.
Coaches always talk about making it a November to remember. After a mostly forgettable week of predictions to end October, that's probably a good thing for our predictions.

The race is tightening a bit, as Brian Bennett gained on Adam Rittenberg, who still leads in the season standings by three games. Five games are on tap in Week 10, including several that will shape the races in both the Legends and Leaders divisions.

Let's get to it ...


Brian Bennett: The Jug game should be closer than it has been in recent years, as Minnesota is better and will be at home. But Michigan still has a big edge, as long as Denard Robinson is healthy enough to play. All indications are that he'll be fine, and that means trouble for the Gophers' defense. Robinson goes for the Jug-ular with 200 rushing yards, and the Wolverines pump the breaks on the Philip Nelson hype with a strong defensive performance. ... Michigan 31, Minnesota 17

Adam Rittenberg: You truly are the pun-isher, Bennett. This is a dangerous game for Michigan as it visits a Minnesota team playing with renewed confidence under Nelson. The Gophers jump ahead early behind a Nelson touchdown run, but Michigan eventually finds its bearings and attacks a defense that has been vulnerable to the ground game. Robinson racks up 110 yards and two scores, and Fitz Toussaint adds a key second-half rushing touchdown. Nelson starts strong, but commits a second-half turnover as Michigan escapes with the Jug. ... Michigan 24, Minnesota 16


Adam Rittenberg: This one certainly could go either way, but Indiana has the momentum after finally getting over the hump in a Big Ten game. Can the Hoosiers win back-to-back league contests for the first time since 2007? I say yes. Indiana gets a good mix of offense from QB Nate Sudfeld and running back Stephen Houston, who runs for a touchdown and hauls in another. Iowa running back Damon Bullock goes for 125 rush yards and two scores, but the Hawkeyes' offense can't translate yards into points. Hoosiers cornerback Greg Heban intercepts James Vandenberg to seal the win for IU. ... Indiana 31, Iowa 27

Brian Bennett: A lot of people will be picking Indiana this week as the Hoosiers seem to have all the momentum. Ah, but Kirk Ferentz's teams are most dangerous when counted out. This is still a major step up from Illinois for IU, which has trouble handling its (mild) success. Bullock runs for 150 yards and a pair of scores and Micah Hyde grabs a key interception to dash the Hoosiers' Leaders daydreams. ... Iowa 28, Indiana 25


Brian Bennett: The Spartans are at home, have that lock-down defense and should play with more confidence on offense after last week's win at Wisconsin. But ... I just remember how easily Nebraska shut down a much better Michigan State attack last year in Lincoln and how well the Blackshirts normally match up with pro-style passing teams. And even though Taylor Martinez and the Huskers won't score as much as they usually do, they will put up too many points for the Spartans. Martinez overcomes a couple of turnovers and leads a patented Nebraska comeback win. ... Nebraska 23, Michigan State 16

Adam Rittenberg: Maybe Michigan State finally has turned the corner, but I also like this matchup for Nebraska. Pelini's defenses feast on pro-style offenses, and Michigan State hasn't had a good one this season. The Spartans score an early touchdown off of a Nebraska turnover, but the Huskers eventually settle down. QB Taylor Martinez connects with receiver Kenny Bell for a score and several long passes, and while the Huskers struggle to get in the end zone, Brett Maher goes 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts. Spartans running back Le'Veon Bell records another 100-yard rushing performance, but he needs at least 30 carries to get there. ... Nebraska 19, Michigan State 17


Adam Rittenberg: Unless the Buckeyes decide to start their open week early, they'll cruise against the overmatched, mistake-prone Illini. Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde combine for 300 rush yards and five touchdowns as Ohio State builds a big lead by the third quarter and puts it on cruise control. Backup QB Kenny Guiton gets extended playing time and fires a touchdown pass. Illinois doesn't quit and scores some touchdowns in garbage time. I've got the Buckeyes by 22, the number of pounds Tim Beckman says he has lost this season. ... Ohio State 45, Illinois 23

Brian Bennett: Beckman and Urban Meyer are good friends. I point this out only to say that Meyer might be more hesitant than usual to run up the score. Because that's all that's really standing between a huge Ohio State blowout here. Illinois just isn't doing much right in any phase of the game and is running into a buzz saw. Miller and Carlos Hyde each run for 100 yards and Miller throws for a pair of scores before the Buckeyes starters rest for much of the fourth quarter. ... Ohio State 38, Illinois 7


Brian Bennett: Could I see Penn State having a letdown after the Ohio State loss while going on the road? I suppose. But this Nittany Lions team knows that its opportunities are dwindling, and Ross-Ade Stadium could be a ghost town as Danny Hope's support is dwindling by the day. Purdue, as per usual, scores quickly but then stalls against Penn State's defense, which picks off Robert Marve twice. Bill Belton has his best day as a Lion by scoring three touchdowns as the Boilers' misery continues. ... Penn State 31, Purdue 14

Adam Rittenberg: Purdue has burned me too many times this season, and while I could see the desperate Boilers making one last stand, Penn State is superior on both sides of the ball. The Matt McGloin-Allen Robinson connection cranks up for two touchdown strikes, and Penn State linebacker Gerald Hodges records a defensive score on a fumble return. Marve plays well early but struggles in the fourth quarter, as Penn State responds once again. ... Penn State 28, Purdue 21

Wisconsin and Northwestern are both off.

Season records

Adam Rittenberg: 56-18 (.757)

Brian Bennett: 53-21 (.716)

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 5

October, 1, 2012
Be kind. Rewind.

Team of the week: Ohio State. While Nebraska, Iowa, Penn State and Northwestern all notched conference victories as well, the Buckeyes were the only team to go on the road in a hostile environment and beat a strong opponent (sorry, Penn Staters, but Illinois doesn't fulfill either of those qualifications right now). The Michigan State game always looked like a crucial date on the Buckeyes' schedule, because they face only two potentially difficult trips the rest of the way (at Penn State and at Wisconsin). Ohio State also proved it could win a Big Ten slugfest under Urban Meyer and was just tougher at the line of scrimmage than the Spartans.

[+] EnlargeSean Fisher
AP Photo/Dave WeaverAfter a sluggish start for the Nebraska defense, Sean Fisher and the Huskers managed to slow Montee Ball and Wisconsin on Saturday night.
Best game: The last game of the day was the best in the Big Ten on Saturday. Nebraska rallied from a 27-10 second-half deficit to nip Wisconsin 30-27 in a comeback reminiscent of last year's win over Ohio State. The game featured all sorts of big plays in all three phases and huge momentum swings. And credit the Sea of Red for creating an amazing atmosphere under the lights at Memorial Stadium.

Biggest play: Braxton Miller's 63-yard touchdown pass down the right sideline to Devin Smith. Michigan State had just seized momentum when Keith Mumphery carried would-be tacklers into the end zone for the Spartans' first lead of the game in the third quarter. But Ohio State, as it did all game, immediately answered with Miller's pass coming just 1:44 later. The Buckeyes caught Michigan State in a blitz, and Smith got a step on cornerback Johnny Adams. Miller placed the ball beautifully, hitting Smith perfectly in stride for what turned out to be the game-winning score.

Best call: New Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis has heard his share of criticism this early season with the Hawkeyes' struggles. But Davis pulled out a brilliant call in the first half of Iowa's 31-13 beatdown of Minnesota. With the Gophers stacked at the line of scrimmage to try to stop the tank that is Mark Weisman, Davis dialed up a flea flicker. Weisman faked a run, tossed the ball back to James Vandenberg, and Vandenberg hit a wide-open Jordan Cotton for a 47-yard touchdown that made the score 17-0. "We've been practicing that since the spring," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Just part of the offensive package that Greg's installed. It's all about the timing. Like every play, it's all about execution. Our guys really did a nice job on it."

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Northwestern's Kain Colter is technically a quarterback, but he's more like a Swiss army knife. He led the Wildcats in receiving in the 44-29 win over Indiana with nine catches for 131 yards and also paced them in rushing with 161 yards on only 14 carries. He also scored four touchdowns to power Northwestern's 704-yard offensive effort.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Penn State's Michael Mauti wasn't happy about Illinois' poaching attempts this summer, and he did something about it Saturday. The senior had two interceptions to go along with six tackles and half a sack. He set a school record with a 99-yard interception return to end the first half, coming up just short of what would have been a highly poetic touchdown.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Nebraska's Brett Maher made three field goals, including the tying and go-ahead kicks, and his only miss against Wisconsin came on a 52-yarder. He also averaged 46.7 yards on three punts. Special teams special shoutout to Indiana freshman Tevin Coleman, who returned a kickoff 96 yards for a third-quarter touchdown to keep his team in the game.

Worst hangover: Lot to choose from here, but how about Minnesota? The Gophers were feeling awfully good about themselves after a 4-0 start and had a chance to deliver a knockout punch to a reeling Iowa team in the Big Ten opener. Instead, the Hawkeyes battered and fried Minnesota in the Floyd of Rosedale game, leading 24-0 at halftime and physically manhandling Jerry Kill's team. If the Gophers can't come close to beating Iowa, how are they going to win many Big Ten games? Get well soon, MarQueis Gray.

Strangest moment: And we thought the NFL replacement refs were painful. Somehow in Purdue's 51-41 win over Marshall, Thundering Herd coach Doc Holliday got knocked down by an official while one of his players, Derek Mitchell, was scoring a touchdown on a blocked punt. Holliday had a big cut on his cheek, was bleeding on the sideline and said after the game he wasn't sure what happened. "I ran into a big official, or he was bigger than I was, anyway," Holliday told reporters. Making matters worse, Marshall got a delay of game penalty on the collision. The original Doc Holliday probably would have challenged someone to a duel over such an indiscretion.

Martinez engineers Nebraska rally

September, 30, 2012

LINCOLN, Neb. – Statistically, Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez fared only slightly better in the second half Saturday night than the first.

He rushed for 42 yards before halftime, 65 after. He completed 10 of 13 throws before halftime, 7 of 16 after.

Reality, though, tells it differently. Martinez, the junior quarterback, continued to come of age at Memorial Stadium. He led the Huskers from a pair of 17-point deficits to a 30-27 victory over Wisconsin by producing perhaps his most courageous effort in three seasons as the Nebraska starter.

“There are games like this for Taylor where he has been in a tailspin and gone the other way,” Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown said. “Not this time. Not tonight. You have to be proud of that kid.”

Martinez, after fumbling on the Huskers’ opening possession of the third quarter, directed a pair of touchdown drives on the next two drives that flipped momentum.

It was a performance unlike even what he did a season ago as Nebraska rallied from a 21-point deficit to beat Ohio State. The Huskers relied more on big defensive plays and the legs of I-back Rex Burkhead in that one.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
AP Photo/Nati Harnik"He made plays when he had to," one Nebraska coach said of Taylor Martinez. "He did what a good quarterback does to win."
This was clearly Martinez’s comeback.

With the Huskers down 27-10 after Montee Ball scored following the third-quarter Martinez fumble, the QB took Nebraska on a four-play, 77-yard march. He connected with Kenny Bell for a 20-yard completion and handled the final 38 yards with a rush through the heart of the Badgers’ defense.

“I thought that was a big answer,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “It got momentum going for us.”

Pelini said the Huskers were “kind of asleep” early on Saturday night as Wisconsin jumped to leads of 14-0 and 20-3.

If so, Martinez awoke them.

He directed a 10-play, 75-yard drive after the touchdown run, hitting Jamal Turner for 27 yards, then tight end Kyler Reed for a 10-yard score on third-and-4 with 3:47 to play in the third quarter.

“He put in a spot only I could catch it,” Reed said. “It was a tight window.”

A pair of field goals by Brett Maher put the Huskers ahead for good.

Martinez, on those scoring drives, helped his team by avoiding the mistake. Too often in that situation, he’s forced throws or lost composure. It happened Sept. 8 in the second half against UCLA, a 36-30 Nebraska loss.

“Taylor has gotten so much more confident,” tight end Ben Cotton said. “He’s matured so much.”

Offensive coordinator Tim Beck said Martinez ran as hard against Wisconsin as in any game he’s played at Nebraska.

“He made plays when he had to,” Beck said. “He did what a good quarterback does to win.”

Martinez deflected credit. He praised Beck. He recognized the Nebraska defense for holding Wisconsin to seven points in the second half and for stopping the Badgers on their final drive that ended on Ball's fourth-down fumble near midfield with just more than one minute to play.

“We’ve been in that situation before,” Martinez said.

Maybe so, but he had never responded with such resolve.

Despite his spot in second place on the all-time Nebraska total-offense chart and status among 25 quarterbacks in NCAA history to rush for more than 2,000 yards and throw for more than 4,000, Martinez faces plenty of critics.

They question his throwing mechanics and ability to win with his arm.

In the days before this game, Wisconsin defensive end David Gilbert was harsh in his analysis of Martinez.

Martinez heard.

Gilbert got the third-quarter sack of Martinez, forcing the fumble that Chris Borland recovered. But Martinez got the final word.

So did he say anything to Gilbert?

No, Martinez said with a big smile after the game.

“Wish I did,” he said. “Should have.”

But that’s football, Martinez said. He’s glad Gilbert talked. Maybe it played a role in the comeback -- and the quarterback’s big night.

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 5

September, 27, 2012
Players don't win individual awards in nonconference play. They do it by starring in Big Ten games Still, let's look at where the leaders for some award stand with non-conference play all but wrapped up.

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: Through four games, Miller is the Big Ten MVP, leading the league in scoring, ranking second in rushing and bailing out the Buckeyes in their four wins. But this week, he goes on the road for the first time and faces the powerful Michigan State defense. So stay tuned.

2. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska: It's hard to overstate just how good Martinez has been. He leads the league in pass efficiency and is completing more than 70 percent of his passes, with a 9-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He has a chance to erase some demons this week against Wisconsin.

3. Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State: Bell is second in the FBS in total rushing yards and has two 200-yard games. But after just a so-so showing against Notre Dame, he'll need to step it up versus Ohio State.

4. Matt McGloin, QB Penn State: Don't laugh. McGloin leads the Big Ten in passing yards and has a 9-to-2 TD-to-INT ratio. He's on pace for a 3,000-yard season. No, really.

5. Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State: McGloin's favorite target, Robinson has nearly 150 more yards than the next best Big Ten wide receiver, and he leads the league with five touchdown catches.

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State: The Nittany Lions defense is playing really well, and Mauti is its leader. He's second in the league in tackles and has to be pretty close to first in effort.

2. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue: Short drops a spot simply because he didn't play last week. He'll face a dangerous passing offense versus Marshall this week but will really make his bones in league play.

3. D.L. Wilhite, DE, Minnesota: Wilhite leads the league in sacks with 4.5, and with an extra tackle for loss, he's second in that category as well. He's a big key to a vastly improved Gophers pass rush.

Bakken–Andersen Kicker of the Year

1. Jeff Budzien, Northwestern: Budzien is a perfect 8-for-8 on field goal tries this season, and the 4-0 Wildcats needed them in their wins over Vanderbilt and Boston College.

2. Mike Meyer, Iowa: No kicker in the country has made more than Meyer's nine field goals, which also says something about the Hawkeyes' offense. Meyer is 9-for-10 on the season, including a 50-yarder in his team's one-point win over Northern Illinois. Reigning kicker of the year Brett Maher from Nebraska is just 4-for-8 this season.
The Big Ten doesn't announce an official preseason all-conference team. But that doesn't mean we can't.

Here are our picks for the 2012 preseason All-Big Ten team:


QB: Denard Robinson, Michigan
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin
RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska
RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
OT: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OT: Ricky Wagner, Wisconsin
OG: Spencer Long, Nebraska
OG: Chris McDonald, Michigan State
C: Travis Frederick, Wisconsin


DE: John Simon, Ohio State
DE: William Gholston, Michigan State
DT: Kawann Short, Purdue
DT: Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State
LB: Gerald Hodges, Penn State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Jonathan Brown, Illinois
CB: Johnny Adams, Michigan State
CB: Ricardo Allen, Purdue
S: Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State
S: Jordan Kovacs, Michigan


K/P: Brett Maher, Nebraska
KR: Raheem Mostert, Purdue
PR: Abbrederis

Thoughts: The first thing that likely jumps out at you is that we have three running backs and just one receiver on our first-team offense. No, we haven't forgotten the rules of football. It's just that we continue to feel the wide receiver crop is weak this season, and no great candidates for the second spot leap out at us. Perhaps Keenan Davis of Iowa or one of Northwestern's many receivers will have a great season, but no one has proved anything on a consistent basis. We'd rather have Bell -- who we believe is primed for a huge year -- on the team than any of the receiver candidates. Plus, isn't running the ball what Big Ten football is all about? ... Some of the toughest omissions came at linebacker, where Michigan State's duo of Denicos Allen and Max Bullough and Wisconsin's Mike Taylor were among those left out. At least we know we'd have an outstanding second-team unit at that position. ... Fiedorowicz is a bit of a projection pick, but we love the way he finished last season and how he fits into Greg Davis' new scheme. You certainly could make a strong case for Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen or Ohio State's Jake Stoneburner there as well. ... Some of these players won't live up to expectations, and others will explode on the scene this fall. But for now, we'd feel pretty good about throwing this team on the field.
Thanks to user Lavar A. from Silver Spring, Md., for inspiring this post:
We're coming up on the one-year anniversary of Nebraska joining the B1G and pretty much have completed a cycle of sports. How would you rate this experiment? Was the first year good for Nebraska and the B1G? Any surprises? How does it compare to PSU's first year in the B1G? In football, what do you think Nebraska's chances are to pull a PSU in their 2nd year and run the table?

Before delving into these questions, let's look at how the two teams stacked up.


Record: 10-2 (6-2 Big Ten, 3rd)
Bowl result: 31-13 win against Tennessee in Florida Citrus Bowl
Regular-season highlight: Penn State rallied from a 37-17 third-quarter deficit at No. 24 Michigan State to win 38-37
Low point: 24-6 loss at No. 3 Ohio State
Record versus ranked opponents: 3-2
Final rankings: No. 8 AP, No. 7 coaches'
Stats: first in Big Ten in scoring (32.3 ppg), fifth in points allowed (17.9 ppg)
First-team All-Big Ten selections: 3 (TE Kyle Brady, WR Bobby Engram, G Jeff Hartings)


Record: 9-4 (5-3 Big Ten, 3rd in Legends division)
Bowl result: 30-13 loss to South Carolina in Capital One Bowl
Regular-season highlight: Nebraska dominated Michigan State, handing the eventual Legends division champ a 24-3 beat-down in Lincoln
Low point: The week after the Michigan State triumph, Nebraska fell to 2-5 Northwestern on its home field
Record versus ranked opponents: 2-2
Final rankings: No. 24 AP, No. 24 coaches'
Stats: fourth in Big Ten in scoring (29.2 ppg), seventh in points allowed (23.4 ppg)
First-team All-Big Ten selections: 4 (RB Rex Burkhead, K/P Brett Maher, LB Lavonte David, CB Alfonzo Dennard)

Penn State undoubtedly had the better first season in Big Ten play, but the teams shared some similarities. Both had the ability to put up points but underwhelmed a bit on the defensive side. Both struggled against the league's elite teams: Penn State's only losses came against Ohio State and Michigan, while Nebraska fell to BCS bowl participants Wisconsin and Michigan. Nebraska actually has the best win between the two squads, against then-No. 9 Michigan State, but the Huskers also have the only bad loss (Northwestern at home). The teams had about the same number of first-team All-Big Ten players (four versus three).

The Big Ten was a stronger league in 1993 than it was in 2011. Wisconsin won the Rose Bowl and the Big Ten went 4-3 overall in the postseason with its top four teams -- Wisconsin, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan -- all winning games. The Big Ten went 3-5 in bowl games last season with losses by Wisconsin, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State on Jan. 2.

To answer Lavar's question, Nebraska's first year in the Big Ten turned out OK, not great. Some of us, including yours truly, overestimated the difficulty the Huskers would have moving to a new league. Although Nebraska delivered some impressive performances, it also had some clunkers (Wisconsin, Michigan) and seemed to be a bit fragile in handling success.

Can Nebraska replicate what Penn State did in its second year as a Big Ten member (12-0 record, Rose Bowl championship)? It will be extremely tough, but the Huskers are confident they can take a giant step this fall. The key for Big Red will be to mirror Penn State's evolution on offense. The Lions went from a good offense in 1993 to a record-setting one in 1994, as they had the highest scoring average (47 ppg) for a Big Ten team in the modern era and averaged a league-record 48.1 points in league games. Nebraska returns eight starters on offense and will be in its second year in coordinator Tim Beck's system. The Huskers also expect to make upgrades on defense after backsliding in 2011.
Our series ranking each position group from the 2011 Big Ten season comes to a close today with the final group, and one that is often overlooked but is always important: special teams.

Special teams is a broad spectrum, so we're combining performances in punting, kickoffs and field goals to come up with each team's position on this list.

And away we go:

1. Nebraska: Boy, did we mess this up in the preseason by ranking the Huskers 11th out of 12. Though we wrote at the time that Nebraska would almost certainly outperform its low rankings, we thought replacing star punter/kicker Alex Henery would be tough. Not really, as Brett Maher was one of the best punters and kickers in the league and the country. Freshman Ameer Abdullah was a star in kick returns, finishing ninth nationally in that category. So just remove one of the ones from that preseason number, and then we've got it right.

[+] EnlargeRaheem Mostert
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesRaheem Mostert took a kickoff return back 99 yards for a score in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
2. Purdue: The Boilermakers were mostly mediocre on offense and defense but did some great work on special teams. Freshman Raheem Mostert led the nation in kickoff returns, while sophomore Cody Webster finished second in punting. The strong-legged Carson Wiggs tied Maher for most field goals made in the league, though he still needs to improve his accuracy. Blocked kicks helped secure wins over Middle Tennessee and Ohio State, but Purdue lost on a blocked field goal try at Rice.

3. Penn State: When Anthony Fera returned from suspension and took over field goal duties, the Nittany Lions' special teams became truly special. Fera hit 14 of 17 field goals after Penn State had looked very shaky in that area early in the year, and he was also one of the league's top punters. Chaz Powell and Justin Brown were dangerous return men.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes ranked among the top third of Big Ten teams in just about every special-teams category. Field goal kicker Drew Basil made a dozen in a row at one point, and Ben Buchanan was solid at punter. Jordan Hall added some big returns.

5. Michigan State: We ranked the Spartans No. 1 in the preseason, and they came up with some game-changing plays, particularly in the first game against Wisconsin and in the Outback Bowl win over Georgia. But statistically speaking, Michigan State was average in most aspects of the kicking game. But Mike Sadler had some big moments punting, and Keshawn Martin did excellent work on punt returns.

6. Wisconsin: A tough team to rank, as there was both good and bad here. Jared Abbrederis led the nation in punt return average at 15.8 yards per attempt. Brad Nortman was a very reliable punter, while Philip Welch made five of his six attempts at field goals, something the Badgers didn't need very much with Montee Ball assaulting the end zone. But we can't ignore the big special-teams breakdowns against Michigan State and Ohio State that had as much as anything to do with ruining a potential undefeated season.

7. Michigan: The Wolverines weren't outstanding at any one area on special teams, but they proved much better than the No. 12 ranking we saddled them with in the preseason. Brendan Gibbons solidified what looked like a scary place-kicker situation and played a large role (along with brunette girls) in the Sugar Bowl victory. Michigan was also strong in punt returns and kick coverage, though its punting and kickoff returns left much to be desired.

8. Iowa: The good news first: Iowa led the league in net punting, thanks to a strong showing by senior Eric Guthrie in his first year starting. Now the bad: The Hawkeyes ranked second-to-last in kickoff coverage, and Mike Meyer missed six of his 20 field goal attempts, including both tries in the humbling loss to Minnesota.

9. Minnesota: Even without premier return man Troy Stoudermire, who missed most of the year with an injury, the Gophers ranked fifth in the league in kickoff returns, and they led the league in kickoff coverage. But a team that punted as much as Minnesota did in 2011 needed to do better than 11th in the conference in that category. Bonus point for the perfectly executed onside kick in the Iowa win.

10. Northwestern: The Wildcats' defense got the brunt of the blame in Northwestern's losses, but special teams didn't hold up its end of the bargain, either. Northwestern made only six field goals all year and ranked near the bottom of the conference in most categories. The bright spot was a league-best punt return unit.

11. Indiana: Mitch Ewald went 13-of-16 on field goals, but the Hoosiers weren't very good in most other areas. They returned more kickoffs than anyone in the Big Ten -- a product of a crummy defense -- but didn't do enough with them in finishing 108th nationally in that stat.

12. Illinois: Ron Zook didn't help his case to be retained as head coach through the performance of his special teams, a part of the game that was supposed to be his field of expertise. Illinois was simply dreadful in creating advantageous field position, finishing last in the nation in kickoff returns and third-to-last in punt returns. The Illini also weren't very good at kickoff coverage, though at least Derek Dimke made 10 of 12 field goals. Even that was marred by his missed 42-yarder at the end of a 10-7 loss at Penn State.
The gift baskets should be sent to East Lansing, Mich., care of Mark Dantonio.

The sender: commissioner Jim Delany and the rest of the Big Ten Conference.

Michigan State's electric triple-overtime win against Georgia in the Outback Bowl prevented the Big Ten from going 0-for-5 on college football's version of New Year's Day for the second consecutive season. The Spartans erased a 16-point halftime deficit and a 7-point deficit in the final moments of regulation to force overtime. Defensive tackle Anthony Rashad White blocked a Blair Walsh field-goal attempt in the third overtime to seal a 33-30 win, the team's first postseason victory under Dantonio.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State's Kirk Cousins
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaWith Robert Griffin III on the roster, one has to wonder about Kirk Cousins' future in Washington.
You had to be happy for senior quarterback Kirk Cousins, who led the tying drive in the fourth quarter and survived an interception in overtime. The Spartans' defense was brilliant for most of the day, particularly defensive end William Gholston, who had five tackles for loss, two sacks and a fumble recovery.

Just a great moment for Dantonio and the Spartans.

The rest of the league? Not so much.

Nebraska and Ohio State melted down in the second half, Penn State melted down in the first quarter and Wisconsin committed two second-half turnovers to lose a lead against Oregon. The result is a 1-4 ledger for the Big Ten, dropping its bowl record to 3-6 overall.

For the second straight year, Wisconsin lost the Rose Bowl in heart-breaking fashion, as a handful of plays and decisions led to Oregon's victory. Bret Bielema's timeout early in the third quarter when he thought Oregon had crossed the end line before downing the ball in the end zone came back to haunt Wisconsin in the final seconds. The timeout certainly wasn't Bielema's friend in losses to Oregon and Michigan State.

In the fourth quarter, Wisconsin's offense finally recaptured its big-play ability on a long pass to receiver Jared Abbrederis, who fumbled the ball away, the lone blemish on his otherwise masterful day.

The game ended with a questionable decision to spike the ball with only 2 seconds left and a winding clock. Very hard to do. And a hard way to lose.

The Big Ten now has won only one Rose Bowl since Wisconsin's back-to-back wins in the 1999 and 2000 games.

The league's bowl season wraps up Tuesday with Michigan going against Virginia Tech in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

A few thoughts on the day:

  • Special teams played a huge role for Big Ten teams. While Michigan State blocked a field goal to win its game, the all-important third phase hurt the Big Ten teams more than it helped. Ohio State's kicking-game breakdowns led to two Florida touchdowns, a kickoff return and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown. Nebraska, arguably the Big Ten's top special-teams squad during the season, had a miserable day in the kicking game, as South Carolina returned a blocked extra-point try for two points and Huskers' All-Big Ten kicker Brett Maher missed a short field-goal attempt early in the third quarter. Even Michigan State had a special-teams breakdown in its win, as Georgia's Brandon Boykin scooted 92 yards for a touchdown on a kick return late in the first half. Wisconsin had a strong special teams performance against Oregon.
  • Penalties also were a theme for the five Big Ten squads. Nebraska drew 10 flags in its loss and star cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was ejected for fighting with Gamecocks receiver Alshon Jeffery (also ejected). Michigan State received eight penalties in its win against Georgia, and Penn State drew six penalties, one above its season average.
  • Nebraska thoroughly outplayed South Carolina in the first half and had to be beside itself following the Hail Mary touchdown pass from Connor Shaw to Jeffery with no time left. After a good drive to begin the second half ended in the Maher missed field-goal try, the Huskers were done. They melted down in the final 25 minutes, drawing seven penalties. This is a mostly young team that should improve in some areas for 2012, although the Legends Division figures to be tough once again.
  • Penn State's performance wasn't a huge surprise, although I thought the Lions defense would fare better against Case Keenum. Penn State missed Matthew McGloin at quarterback, and the offensive line didn't impose its will against a Houston team that hasn't stopped the run all season.
  • For both Penn State and Ohio State, it's good to get these bowls in the rear-view mirror. Both teams need to move forward after rough years with new coaches (Penn State's has yet to be named).
Editor’s Note: Tune into the “AT&T ESPN All America Team Show” on Saturday (ABC, 1:30 p.m. ET) to see who ESPN’s writers and experts selected.

The envelope, please ...


QB: Russell Wilson, Wisconsin
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin
RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska
WR: Marvin McNutt, Iowa
WR: B.J. Cunningham, Michigan State
TE: Drake Dunsmore, Northwestern
OL: David Molk, Michigan
OL: Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin
OL: Peter Konz, Wisconsin
OL: Joel Foreman, Michigan State
OL: Reilly Reiff, Iowa


DL: Whitney Mercilus, Illinois
DL: Devon Still, Penn State DL: Jerel Worthy, Michigan State
DL: John Simon, Ohio State LB: Lavonte David, Nebraska
Gerald Hodges, Penn State
LB: Mike Taylor, Wisconsin
CB: Alfonzo Dennard, Nebraska
CB: Johnny Adams, Michigan State
S: Trenton Robinson, Michigan State
S: Nick Sukay, Penn State


P: Anthony Fera, Penn State
K: Brett Maher, Nebraska
KR: Raheem Mostert, Purdue
PR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin

Comments: We said before the season that the strength in the Big Ten lay in the interior lines, and that is illustrated in our picks. Still and Worthy had All-American seasons, and Simon was great as well. We didn't even have room for Michigan's Mike Martin, who had a terrific season. Our offensive line has two centers in Molk and Konz (two Rimington Trophy finalists) because we thought that position was much stronger than tackle. (Konz has played guard in his career, so we could figure it out if we actually had to play with this team). Some of our toughest choices came at the second receiver spot, where we liked Cunningham's production down the stretch far more than A.J. Jenkins' early numbers for an Illinois team that faded badly; the third linebacker spot, where we could have gone with Taylor's teammate Chris Borland or Illinois' Jonathan Brown; and the second safety selection, where we chose Sukay over Northwestern's Brian Peters, Minnesota's Kim Royston or Wisconsin's Aaron Henry because we felt Sukay made a big impact on a better defense. Lastly, only eight players who we chose on our preseason All-Big Ten team ended up on our official postseason squad. That shows how much things can change from season to season -- and it also shows that maybe our prognosticating skills need some improvement.