NCF Nation: Bruce Gaston

The top half of the Power Rankings remains exactly the same, but some interesting story lines are starting to develop.

Is Ohio State or Michigan the Big Ten's best team? Michigan made its case Saturday night against Notre Dame, while Ohio State's bigger tests await in Weeks 5 and 6 (Wisconsin and Northwestern). For now, we're keeping the Buckeyes at No. 1, but we'll need to see a strong performance this week on the road against Cal's high-powered offense.

Northwestern and Wisconsin held steady, and both Nebraska and Penn State looked better in Week 2. Illinois is the big mover after Saturday's dominant win against Cincinnati, while Indiana, Michigan State and Iowa fall. There's some separation after the top six, and Nos. 7-9 really could appear in any order.

These are consistent with our rankings in the ESPN.com power poll.

Here's one last look at the previous Big Ten rankings.

To the rundown …

1. Ohio State (2-0, last week: 1): Braxton Miller's knee injury created some tense moments in Columbus, but Ohio State fans settled down and settled in to the smooth sounds of Kenny G (Guiton, that is). One of the nation's best backup quarterbacks torched San Diego State for three touchdowns as a Buckeyes team that sleepwalked through the second half in Week 1 took charge from the get-go. Ohio State's young defense will be tested much more this week by the "Bear Raid" offense at Cal.

2. Michigan (2-0, last week: 2): Debate the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry all you want, but it mattered a lot for quarterback Devin Gardner and the Wolverines. Gardner proved he's a big-game quarterback and triggered an impressive offensive performance against Notre Dame's physical defense. Although Michigan's defense had some issues, it made timely plays against the Irish. The Wolverines have the look of a BCS bowl team and possibly a Big Ten champion.

3. Northwestern (2-0, last week: 3): Week 1 was all about survival for Northwestern. Saturday night, the Wildcats showed why they should contend for the Legends Division title this season. Quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian had their way with Syracuse's defense, and wideout Tony Jones had a huge night as Northwestern easily improved to 2-0. The Wildcats should be 4-0 in three weeks when Ohio State visits Evanston, and star running back Venric Mark should be healthy by then.

4. Wisconsin (2-0, last week: 4): The run game has been dominant, the defense suffocating and the competition level horrendous. What do we make of these Badgers after two not surprisingly dominant performances against lowly Massachusetts and Tennessee Tech? Wisconsin deserves credit for handling its business with few if any mistakes, recording back-to-back shutouts to open a season for the first time since 1958. Quarterback Joel Stave looks comfortable. But the competition goes up -- way, way up -- this week at Arizona State.

5. Nebraska (2-0, last week: 5): The Huskers defense doesn't deserve the "Blackshirts" label quite yet, but at least the unit avoided less-flattering terms for a week. Cornerbacks Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans set the tone for a rebound performance with pick-sixes in the first quarter, and junior-college transfer Randy Gregory applied pressure all game. The defense needs a better performance this week against UCLA, potentially the only team that can beat the Huskers during the first two months of the season.

6. Penn State (2-0, last week: 6): After a rough start, freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg settled down in his Beaver Stadium debut. He also got a ton of help from the run game, which had struggled in the opener but broke out for 251 yards and five touchdowns. Tackle DaQuan Jones triggered a suffocating Lions defense, which will be tested much more this week when Blake Bortles and Central Florida visit Happy Valley.

7. Minnesota (2-0, last week: 8): Although Aggie Vision was the real highlight Saturday night, Minnesota provided a few of its own in an easy win against New Mexico State. The Gophers continue to find creative ways to score, adding a special teams touchdown and a defensive touchdown in a 44-21 romp. Despite being short-handed at running back, Minnesota got the ground game going behind Rodrick Williams (148 yards, 1 TD), David Cobb (56 yards, 1 TD) and quarterback Philip Nelson (122 rush yards, 1 TD). The Gophers have another tuneup this week before their first real test Sept. 21 against San Jose State.

8. Michigan State (2-0, last week: 7): Can Shilique Calhoun play quarterback? The sophomore defensive end has been Michigan State's best offensive weapon in the first two games, scoring one more touchdown than the entire Spartans offense. Michigan State's defense has added a dynamic playmaking element early this season. Unfortunately, the problems on offense only seem to be worsening and the quarterback situation is anyone's guess right now.

9. Illinois (2-0, last week: 11): Surprise, surprise, the Illini are unquestionably on the rise. Few saw it coming, but Illinois walloped Cincinnati behind another impressive performance by quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and the offense. One of the nation's worst offenses has surged under coordinator Bill Cubit, scoring 87 points in the first two games. Linebacker Mason Monheim and the defense rebounded nicely after a shaky Week 1 effort. Can the Illini pull off another upset this week against Washington at Chicago's Soldier Field?
10. Indiana (1-1, last week: 9): Kevin Wilson's words last week proved prophetic as Indiana's offense lacked the efficiency it needed early on against Navy's ball-control offense. But eventually a defense has to make some stops and Indiana's once again couldn't, especially in the closing minutes. The Hoosiers surrendered 444 rush yards in a 41-35 loss, once again showing that this program hasn't turned a corner. Things get tougher this week as a very good Bowling Green squad comes to Memorial Stadium.

11. Iowa (1-1, last week: 10): Some Iowa fans undoubtedly felt better about their team after last week's loss to Northern Illinois than Saturday's win against FCS Missouri State. The Hawkeyes had just seven points through the first 37 minutes before Mark Weisman (180 rush yards, 2 TDs) took over down the stretch. Quarterback Jake Rudock showed good mobility but also threw a pick-six. Iowa faces a must-win this week as it hits the road to face rival Iowa State.

12. Purdue (1-1, last week: 12): The Boilers got a win Saturday, but they won't win many more if they don't clean up their problems on offense. If Purdue can't punch the ball into the end zone against Indiana State from inside the 5-yard line, what's going to happen against Big Ten defenses? Defensive tackle Bruce Gaston had a big day, but the Boilers need many others to elevate their play as Notre Dame visits Ross-Ade Stadium this week.
Beau AllenJeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin will again be counting on Beau Allen to be a force on the defensive line.
You can bemoan the Big Ten's recent lack of elite talent at some positions like quarterback and wide receiver. But one spot where the league has been traditionally strong is at defensive tackle.

That has been arguably the conference's deepest and strongest position in the past two years, filled with stars like Devon Still, Mike Martin, Jerel Worthy, Jordan Hill, Kawann Short and Johnathan Hankins, to name a few. In an otherwise slow NFL draft for the league, the Big Ten saw four defensive tackles get selected last month, including two underclassmen (Hankins and Akeem Spence). In 2012, the conference had five defensive tackles get drafted.

That's why it's notable that, heading into the 2013 season, the Big Ten has no established stars on the defensive interior. Several schools lost top players to either graduation or the draft, including Ohio State (both starters, Hankins and Garrett Goebel are gone), Penn State (Hill), Purdue (Short), Michigan (Will Campbell), Indiana (Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr.), Illinois (Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster), Nebraska (Baker Steinkuhler), Northwestern (Brian Arnfelt) and Michigan State (Anthony Rashad White).

That's a big talent drain for one position. None of the returning defensive tackles in the league have ever made first- or second-team All-Big Ten. The top veteran tackles in the conference look like this (in alphabetical order):

  • Beau Allen, Wisconsin, senior: An underrated player, the 330-pound Allen has what you'd call a low center of gravity, with calves that look like a normal man's thighs. He's a big reason why the Badgers were able to keep teams from running the ball effectively up the middle last year.
  • Bruce Gaston, Purdue, senior: Overshadowed at times by Short, Gaston has the ability to disrupt things up front as well and will be asked to do more this season. He was slowed by injuries last year.
  • Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota, senior: As athletically gifted as any Big Ten D-tackle, the 6-foot-6, 310-pound Hageman started to figure things out last season and had a strong spring. He looks like a guy who can take his game to the elite level if he stays focused and driven.
  • DaQuan Jones, Penn State, senior: The 330-pounder is hoping to break out as a senior the way Hill and Devon Still did the past two years. He's been more of a run-stopper than a big-time playmaker so far in his career.
  • Quinton Washington, Michigan, senior: He moved into a starter's role last year and will be the most experienced tackle on the Wolverines following Campbell's graduation. With the Michigan coaching staff's expertise on defensive line play, he could take a step forward this year.

All of those guys have been solid contributors, but hardly superstars. They're also all seniors, so maybe they'll go out with a bang.

Or maybe it's younger guys who emerge as the next wave of great Big Ten defensive tackles. Iowa's Carl Davis had a huge spring game and has always had talent but not health. Injuries have also held back Nebraska's Thad Randle and Ohio State's Michael Bennett. Michigan State's Lawrence Thomas, Michigan's Ondre Pipkins, Nebraska's Aaron Curry and Penn State's Austin Johnson could be on the rise. Recruiting and developing stud defensive tackles may be one of the hardest things to do in football, however.

On paper, the Big Ten defensive tackle situation looks to be down from the past couple of years. But new stars are sure to step forward in the fall. Several of them will have to do if the league's recent strong tradition at the position is to continue.

Heart of Dallas Bowl keys: Purdue

December, 30, 2012
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Three keys for Purdue in Tuesday's Heart of Dallas Bowl against Oklahoma State:

1. Dominate the trenches: Purdue's strength this season was supposed to be its defensive line, led by All-Big Ten defensive tackle Kawann Short. When Short and others dealt with injuries in the middle of the season, the Boilermakers got steamrolled in league play. Not coincidentally, the team won its final three games after those guys started to get healthy, and a month-long break should have the defensive line in its best shape since early September. The 315-pound Short can change a game when he's blowing up the middle of the line of scrimmage, and fellow tackle Bruce Gaston is an underrated force. Ryan Russell is a promising young pass-rusher who has also healed from some bumps and bruises. Purdue absolutely must disrupt the timing and rhythm of Oklahoma State's high-powered offense while keeping running back Joseph Randle in check. If they can do that, the Boilers will have a chance.

2. Run, run, run the ball: Akeem Shavers was the MVP of last year's Little Caesars Pizza Bowl with 149 rushing yards. While Oklahoma State's defense is much better than Western Michigan's was a year ago, Shavers ended this season with 225 rushing yards in his final two games. Ralph Bolden is also expected back following a late-season hamstring injury, and Akeem Hunt gives the team a home run hitter with his sprinter's speed. Purdue has to get its running game charged up to help out quarterback Robert Marve and, more importantly, keep the Cowboys' offense on the sidelines.

3. Stay clean: One of the reasons Danny Hope didn't make it to this bowl game is that the Boilers often played sloppily under their former head coach. Penalties, turnovers and special teams blunders always seemed to rear their heads at the wrong times. That can't happen in a game like this, in which Purdue is such a huge underdog. Marve gave the team a spark when he was thrust into the starting lineup, but he still has a tendency to force throws into coverage. He and the Boilers can't afford to give Oklahoma State extra possessions, and Purdue has to maximize opportunities in the kicking game to win the field-position battle. This team has enough talent to pull off the upset, especially against an Oklahoma State squad that might be overlooking this game. But the Boilermakers can only put themselves in that position if they first avoid beating themselves.

Purdue embraces underdog role

December, 27, 2012
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If any team can play the "nobody-believed-in-us" card this bowl season, it's Purdue.

The Boilermakers are the biggest underdog in the 35 bowls, according to the oddsmakers, in their matchup against Oklahoma State in the Jan. 1 Heart of Dallas Bowl. It's the kind of thing players say they don't pay attention to, except that they do.

"I don't really look at that stuff," senior defensive tackle Kawann Short told ESPN.com. "But a lot of people around here have told me that the spread is highest in the bowls. So it's on us to go out there and make a statement. We feel like we can play with any team in the nation right now."

People are understandably low on the Boilermakers, who had to win their final three games just to finish 6-6. Even that wasn't enough to save the job of head coach Danny Hope, who was fired one day after the regular-season finale. Receivers coach Patrick Higgins is coaching the bowl game before turning the program over to Darrell Hazell.

Purdue also got blasted in some big games this year, losing 44-13 to Michigan, 38-14 to Wisconsin, 44-28 to Minnesota and 34-9 to Penn State. No wonder, then, that Oklahoma State is a big favorite with an offense that averages 44.7 points per game.

[+] EnlargeKawann Short
AP Photo/Michael ConroyKawann Short's versatility could make him too attractive for NFL teams to pass up in the draft's first round.
But there are a couple of reasons to maybe believe in the Boilers. They only lost by a field goal on the road to Notre Dame, now the nation's No. 1 team, in September. And they had undefeated Ohio State on the ropes in Columbus before the Buckeyes made a miracle comeback in the final minute and won in overtime. So this team has some experience rising to the occasion.

And Purdue has something going for it now that was absent during its five-game losing streak in the middle of the season: health on the defensive line. That unit was expected to be one of the best in the Big Ten but didn't play like it when several key members of the group were banged up in midseason.

"Kawann and Bruce Gaston are two of the best defensive tackles in the Big Ten; I'd still argue that," said defensive end Ryan Russell, who was a member of the walking wounded. "As a whole, the D-line prided ourselves on having lot of depth this year, and when those injuries happened, there wasn't as much depth. So I'm glad we finally got an opportunity to rest, heal up and show what we're really about."

Short, an all-Big Ten performer and potential first-round pick next April, dealt with a high ankle sprain in the middle of the year. By the Minnesota game, he said, he was "not even 80 percent." He battled through it though and said quarterback Robert Marve -- who played on a torn anterior cruciate ligament without undergoing surgery -- jokingly gave him a hard time whenever Short tried to complain about his ankle.

Short regained his effectiveness toward the end of the season, and with a month off to heal expects to be fully healthy for the bowl game. He was dominant against Notre Dame and is a difference-making force inside when right.

"I'm very excited that a lot of people are back and healthy," Short said. "We're going out there with a chip on our shoulder. Things didn't go our way this season, but right now I feel like we can bring a lot of stuff to the table."

Purdue's best chance of slowing down the Cowboys' spread offense -- which gained nearly 550 yards per game this season, fifth-best in the country -- is probably to disrupt its timing right at the line of scrimmage.

"You have to get lined up and know your assignments quick and fast," Russell said. "They definitely have a lot of weapons. It's about matching their pace and enforcing your will, instead of going with the flow and letting them do what they love to do."

And while Oklahoma State has a prolific offense, the Cowboys went just 7-5 and lost their last two games of the regular season. Purdue players don't quite see why they're being painted as giant underdogs to an opponent whose best victories came against Texas Tech and Iowa State.

"People are not respecting us very much," offensive lineman Trevor Foy said. "I'm looking forward to taking advantage of that, because I know they're going to look over us and we're going to come after them."

And if the Boilermakers do pull off the upset, they can correctly make the "nobody-believed-in-us" claim.
Hope or change?

That appears to be the decision for Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke, and evidence seems to be pointing to the latter. The Boilermakers have lost five straight games, four of them in blowout fashion, to drop head coach Danny Hope's career record to 19-27. One published report has said Burke has already put out back-channel feelers to potential replacements for Hope.

Asked about that on Tuesday's Big Ten coaches' teleconference, Hope said, "That's news to me." But he understands that the temperature is reaching boiling temperatures under his seat.

[+] EnlargeDanny Hope
Pat Lovell/US PresswireThe 2012 season hasn't gone as planned for Danny Hope's Boilermakers.
Hope said he will block out the criticisms and continue to concentrate on coaching the Boilers (3-6, 0-5 Big Ten), who can still go to a bowl game if they win their final three games, starting this week at Iowa.

"I'm not going to let a disgruntled fan or any one person take my spirit away or take away from what it is that we're here to do, and that's to coach football and have fun and to win," Hope said at his weekly news conference. "Obviously, the fans have a reason to be disappointed. We're very, very disappointed. But I don't let someone that demonstrates themselves in a small way set me back a whole lot, if you will. I certainly wouldn't let someone that has small character take my happiness away."

One big question remains: How did this happen? This was supposed to be Hope's best team in West Lafayette, and Purdue started off well, going 3-1 and playing Notre Dame to the wire on the road. Then things collapsed with blowout losses at home to Michigan and Wisconsin. The Boilers nearly upset Ohio State on the road but blew a late lead to lose in overtime. The last two games have brought double-digit losses to Minnesota and Penn State. Hope called it "surprising and baffling" but offered some reasons why the team has failed to perform."

"I think a lot of it has to do with where we're at from a physicality standpoint," he said. "We've had a lot of guys that have been banged up, and their level of performance has dropped off.

"I think Ryan Russell is a great defensive end, and I think when the season started off, he may have been one of the best defensive ends in the Big Ten potentially. ... He's had some injuries, and he has sucked it up and played injured on Saturdays, and we appreciate that effort, but he hasn't been as effective as he was earlier in the season. The same is true with Bruce Gaston and the same is true with Kawann Short and the same is true with Ricardo Allen, and O.J. Ross has been out of the equation and Raheem Mostert has been out of the equation, and those are our very best players."

Hope said some of the negativity also started to snowball for his team.

"You lose and you lose ugly, and then the fans turn on you in some ways and then doubt creeps in it a little bit," he said. "And maybe a guy doesn't play as well and then a few guys get injured and pretty soon you're not as good as you should be or as good as you were.

"It's hard to kind of hold all that together. And then the competition picks up and you get more guys injured and you lose some more and things become tough around you. "

But Hope isn't deflecting blame and says that "if we're not successful, then ... I'm the one that ought to be ripped. I'm the one that trained them."

Purdue fans are doing plenty of ripping on their head coach these days. It's up to Burke to decide whether Hope or change is the best course of action going forward.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 2

September, 10, 2012
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Just about everyone in the Big Ten would like to forget Week 2. But those who fail to study history are ... well, you know. Let's take a quick look back, before hoping the future brings better things.

Team of the week: Northwestern. Pretty easy call here as the Wildcats were the only Big Ten team to defeat a BCS automatic-qualifier opponent in Week 2, helping the league avoid an 0-7 record in those contests. Pat Fitzgerald's team was also only one of two conference teams to play such an opponent at home (Iowa was the other). Still, the 23-13 victory over Vanderbilt was impressive because of how the defense played and how Northwestern secured a lead to finish out a game. Also: the Big Ten beat the SEC! How is this not a bigger story? (Ahem.)

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Richard Mackson/US PresswireIt was a tough night for Bo Pelini's defense, as the Cornhuskers surrendered 653 yards to UCLA.
Game of the week: Nebraska's 36-30 loss to UCLA provided the most entertainment, though Huskers fans might not have enjoyed the ending much. The two teams staged a classic West Coast shootout in the first half, going into intermission tied at 27 before things settled down a bit. They combined for 1,092 total yards, with the Bruins gobbling up 653 of them on Nebraska's defense.

Biggest play(s): Purdue needed one third-down stop in the final two minutes to give itself a chance to beat Notre Dame but couldn't come up with it on two tries. The Irish surprisingly put Tommy Rees into the game for the final drive, and he completed a 10-yard pass on third-and-6 near midfield under heavy duress. It looked like the play clock might have expired before the snap, but the Boilers did not get the call. Then, on third-and-10 from the Purdue 41, Reese found Robby Toma for 21 yards to set up the game-winning field goal. Michigan's defensive stops against Air Force late and James Vandenberg's costly interception to end Iowa's last drive against Iowa State also were huge.

Best call: Fitzgerald has seemingly figured out just how to juggle a pair of differently talented quarterbacks. He brought Trevor Siemian to end the Syracuse game, and Siemian led the team on a game-winning drive. Siemian also guided the Cats to two scoring drives against Vanderbilt, while starter Kain Colter sealed the deal with a touchdown run on third and long. Somehow, Fitzgerald has pulled this off so far without causing a quarterback controversy.

Worst call: There's no way the officials in the Oregon State-Wisconsin game should have overruled the call on the field that the Badgers recovered their own onside kick with 1:31 left. It was a beautifully executed play, as kicker Kyle French dribbled the ball forward and then performed a hook slide to secure it. Replay officials, however, overturned the call and said the ball did not go 10 yards. But the replays sure make it appear as though Oregon State's Tyrequek Zimmerman touched the ball before French did, making it a live ball. It's close, no doubt, but either way there was not indisputable evidence, so the call on the field should have stood. Those were Pac-12 replay officials, in case you were wondering. Karma is a funny thing, though. The Badgers should have gotten that call, but they didn't deserve to win after playing terribly most of the game.

Big Man on Campus (offense): Any time you account for more than 100 percent of your team's offense, you're ... wait, what? Michigan's Denard Robinson pulled off that feat by totaling 426 yards even though the Wolverines finished with only 422 against Air Force. Because kneel downs are considered a team run, Robinson had more yards than his entire team. He ran for 218 and threw for 208 and had four touchdowns. Special mention goes to Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Minnesota's MarQueis Gray, as it was a pretty good week for quarterbacks who can run.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Purdue's Kawann Short had a pair of sacks and four tackles against Notre Dame, but that doesn't tell the full story of his dominance. The Irish netted only 52 rushing yards on 36 attempts against the Boilers as Short plugged up the middle of the line, aided by Ryan Russell, Bruce Gaston and others up front. Penn State's Michael Mauti also turned in a gutsy effort in the loss at Virginia.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Northwestern kicker Jeff Budzien was 3-for-3 on field goals against Vandy, drilling attempts from 40, 27 and 18 yards in the win.

Worst hangover: The collective hangover for the league is worse than a fraternity house after a raging kegger. Unless you're Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern or Ohio State, you weren't feeling too good about things on Sunday morning. Penn State received another gut punch, Wisconsin short-circuited, Purdue and Iowa came up short against rivals and Illinois didn't show up. Still, Nebraska probably feels the worst of all. This was a team boasting of playing for a national title in the preseason, and an opening week blowout of Southern Miss made it appear as though the Huskers had finally turned the corner. Except around that corner was an oncoming train. A Bo Pelini defense should not be as thoroughly shredded as it was against UCLA, and the offense reverted to some bad habits in the second half. It's not the end of the world for Big Red, but it does give cause for alarm.

Strangest moment: I guess we can excuse Penn State for not really understanding this whole names-on-the-back-of-jerseys things.

The Nittany Lions went through decades of player anonymity before Bill O'Brien decided to put names on the back of players this season. And it's clear this caught some people off guard, as Penn State's uniforms against Virginia suffered some wardrobe malfunction. Namely, the names were coming off the jerseys during the game. You could say Mauti left it all on the field, including a couple of letters. It has been that kind of year for the Lions so far.
Purdue and Notre Dame are both looking to go 2-0 as each returns quarterbacks from one-game suspensions. Is this the year the Boilermakers finally stop the bleeding against the in-state rival Irish, who have not lost to them since 2007? Let's take a closer look:

When Purdue has the ball: Caleb TerBush will get the start for the Boilermakers after being suspended from the opener, a 48-6 rout of Eastern Kentucky. Robert Marve was a big reason for that Week 1 success, completing 30 of 38 passes for 295 yards and three touchdowns. He and Rob Henry will see some action as well, but just how much coach Danny Hope divvies up the reps remains to be seen. Hope said TerBush gets the first snap because of his improved decision-making. If he's smart, he'll look to attack Notre Dame's green cornerbacks, as the Irish gave up 192 passing yards Saturday to Navy.

When Notre Dame has the ball: The main question is just how much of a push the Irish can get up front against Purdue's strong front-seven. The offensive line may be Notre Dame's biggest strength, and it certainly looked that way in paving the way for 293 rushing yards Saturday against the Midshipmen. But this Saturday it is going up against a far different defense, one that returns three starters on the line, including tackles Bruce Gaston and All-Big Ten senior Kawann Short. Taking pressure off Everett Golson will again be key, allowing the redshirt freshman some time in the pocket to look for some of his big targets.

Intangible: This may sound familiar to Notre Dame fans, but turnovers are the key. The fact that the Boilermakers gave it away five times in their opener — against an FCS opponent, no less — has to concern Hope, especially with four of those turnovers coming from the quarterback position. Notre Dame, meanwhile forced five fumbles Saturday and recovered three. Last season the Irish forced just eight and recovered six in 13 games.

Prediction: Notre Dame 28, Purdue 13. Expect a tight, low-scoring contest early, with the Irish eventually establishing another strong effort on the ground to head into East Lansing at 2-0.
We covered all the offensive position groups in our postseason rankings series here, here, here and here. Now it's time to turn our attention to the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive tackle was the strongest position in the league in 2011, so that makes this a competitive situation. There are some major changes from our preseason order as well. Remember this is about overall production, and depth matters along with star power. The top four on this list are really, really strong.

Here we go:

[+] EnlargeWilliam Gholston and Aaron Murray
J. Meric/Getty ImagesWilliam Gholston and the Spartans' defensive line helped key a Michigan State win over Georgia in the Outback Bowl.
1. Michigan State: The Spartans finished with the top total defense in the Big Ten and one of the best in the nation, and it all started with a dominant front. All-American tackle Jerel Worthy commanded extra attention inside and was joined by Kevin Pickelman and Anthony Rashad White as forces inside. William Gholston was brilliant at times, never more so than in the Outback Bowl win over Georgia. And freshman Marcus Rush turned in an outstanding season at the other defensive end spot. The Spartans had no weaknesses at this position in 2011.

2. Michigan: We projected the Wolverines would make a significant leap in '11, but the amount of improvement still surprised us. The combination of head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, both defensive line coaches at heart, and valuable seniors Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen made this the backbone of Michigan's Sugar Bowl run. The Wolverines were especially tough in short-yardage situations because their defensive front was so stout.

3. Penn State: Big Ten defensive player of the year Devon Still wrecked just about everybody's game plan with a huge senior campaign. Jordan Hill had a solid, underrated year next to him inside. Jack Crawford stayed healthy and contributed 6.5 sacks, while Eric Latimore and Sean Stanley combined for another 7.5 quarterback takedowns.

4. Illinois: Defensive end Whitney Mercilus was a consensus first-team All-American who led the nation in sacks and forced fumbles. Nobody saw that coming. He had good company along the line as well, with guys like Akeem Spence inside and Michael Buchanan at the other end spot. The Illini may have faltered down the stretch as a team, but the D-line stayed strong throughout the year.

5. Wisconsin: The Badgers didn't have many household names on the defensive line, and certainly no one stood out like J.J. Watt the year before. But Bret Bielema relied on a solid group of veterans that helped the team finish third in the league in total defense and fifth in sacks. Patrick Butrym, Louis Nzegwu, Brendan Kelly and Ethan Hemer were part of a group that played better than the sum of its parts.

6. Ohio State: The Buckeyes had one of the best defensive players in the league in John Simon, who had 16 tackles for loss and seven sacks in a breakout season. Tackle Johnathan Hankins emerged as a disrupter at 335 pounds. But Ohio State didn't get its usual production elsewhere on the line, got beat up as the season went along and lacked depth, which is one reason why Urban Meyer went out and signed so many pass rushers in his first recruiting class.

7. Nebraska: The biggest disappointment from the preseason, as the Huskers tumbled from their No. 1 ranking last summer. Jared Crick's season-ending injury hurt the production, but he was not putting up huge numbers before he tore his pectoral muscle. Cameron Meredith, Baker Steinkuhler and Eric Martin had some nice moments, but Nebraska wasn't nearly as fierce up front as we thought it might be.

8. Purdue: Kawann Short turned in his best season, with 17 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks from his interior spot, while Bruce Gaston and Gerald Gooden provided solid support. But the Boilermakers' pass rush off the edge lacked explosiveness until freshman Ryan Russell started to come on late in the season. Everyone except Gooden returns, and with a new position coach Purdue hopes this unit can go from decent to great in 2012.

9. Iowa: Another disappointing crew, as the Hawkeyes proved it's not easy to replace three draft picks off the defensive line and simply reload. Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns were the senior anchors, but Iowa's pass rush was sluggish until late in the season. And there wasn't a whole lot of depth behind them. This group loses three starters and will be extremely young in 2012.

10. Northwestern: We ranked the Wildcats 10th in the preseason as well, but we still expected better things out of this group. Northwestern generated very little pressure on opposing quarterbacks and ranked last in the Big Ten in sacks. Vince Browne, a projected all-conference pick in the summer, had a subpar season with only 3.5 tackles for loss after putting up 15.5 in 2010. It's clear this group needs to get better for Northwestern to take the next step.

11. Minnesota: The Gophers weren't as terrible on the defensive front as they were in 2010, when they finished last in the nation with only nine sacks. In fact, they more than doubled that total with 19 last season. Still, it was a mostly anonymous crew that gave quarterbacks too much time to carve up the secondary in the passing game. Jerry Kill still needs to find more playmakers at this position.

12. Indiana: The Hoosiers had problems all over the defense, and the line was no exception. Adam Replogle and Larry Black gave the unit some veteran leadership in the middle, but Indiana resorted to playing a lot of kids at the defensive end spots. The results were about what you'd expect.

Halftime: Purdue 23, Indiana 17

November, 26, 2011
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All Purdue has to do to get bowl eligible is to beat a 1-10 team that hasn't defeated an FBS opponent all year.

Ah, yes, but this is a rivalry game. And as we've seen already with some scores across the country Saturday, those are never as easy as they may seem.

Indiana is giving the Boilermakers everything it has in the Old Oaken Bucket game. The Hoosiers came out quite feisty, taking a 17-10 lead early while gashing Purdue's defense often. Stephen Houston had a 52-yard touchdown run and Danny Hope's team looked like it might be ripe for an upset in this rivalry for the second straight year.

But special teams -- which have been up and down for the Boilers all year -- played a big role in turning the tide in the half. Freshman Raheem Mostert, who's had a sensational season, returned a kickoff 80 yards to set up a touchdown. Carson Wiggs also drilled three field goals.

Defensive lineman Bruce Gaston also came up with a big sack of Tre Roberson in the red zone to hold IU to a field goal. Purdue's defense played better in the second quarter after giving up too many big plays right up the middle early on.

The Boilers aren't out of the woods yet by any means. But they withstood an early storm and now just have to hold on for 30 more minutes to go bowling for the first time since 2007.
Danny Hope took a brief break from entertaining recruits and preparing for Iowa to answer a phone call late Sunday afternoon.

"Sundays are nuts," the Purdue coach told ESPN.com.

What about Saturdays?

"Saturday," Hope said, "is the best day of the week."

[+] EnlargeDanny Hope
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireCoach Danny Hope and Purdue need one win to become eligible for a bowl game.
This past Saturday certainly fit the description for Hope and his Purdue Boilermakers. It was their best day of the year. In fact, it might have been the program's best moment since its previous upset of Ohio State in 2009.

After two blowout losses on the road, Purdue returned home Saturday and breathed life into its season and its discouraged fan base with a 26-23 overtime victory against Ohio State. The Boilers outplayed the Buckeyes most of the game, nearly let it go late before making a huge special teams play and then prevailing in the extra session.

Hope's team is one win away from becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2007.

"It was a lot of fun," Hope said. "Sometimes a football team stubs its toe a couple times in a row, and they may not have the substance to bounce back. Our team showed some great mental toughness."

Purdue's resolve showed up in all three phases Saturday.

A defensive line that had surrendered 703 rush yards in losses to Michigan and Wisconsin the previous two weeks held Ohio State's high-powered ground game to 163 yards on 47 carries (3.5 ypc). Defensive tackle Kawann Short led Purdue's effort with three sacks in a performance that resembled Ryan Kerrigan's incredible day against Ohio State two years ago. Like Kerrigan did in 2009, Short earned National Defensive Player of the Week honors for his effort against the Buckeyes.

"He has a tremendous upside," Hope said. "He can still play a lot better. He can be a dominant player on the national level. You haven't seen the best of him yet."

"I was really proud of our entire defense and particularly our defensive line and linebackers," Hope continued. "They really had to man-up this weekend."

Perhaps the same can be said for Purdue's offense, which hadn't done much in the previous 10 quarters entering Saturday's game, scoring only 31 points during the span.

The Boilers on Saturday established themselves early, showing good balance on offense in the first half. Although they stalled a bit after halftime, quarterback Robert Marve sparked the unit in overtime, going 3-for-3 on pass attempts and stretching across the goal line for the game-winner.

But the biggest play, the one that might have saved Purdue's season, came on special teams, an area where the Boilers have had their ups and downs. In Week 2, Purdue lost 24-22 to Rice after a 31-yard field-goal attempt -- a chip shot for the bionic-legged Carson Wiggs -- was blocked as time expired. Hope didn't mince words after the game, saying, "It was lost on the field goal."

Purdue also struggled in the kicking game in its 23-18 loss to Penn State, missing two field goal attempts and allowing a long return.

The Boilers redeemed themselves Saturday, as defensive tackle Bruce Gaston blocked a potential game-winning extra-point attempt with 55 seconds left in regulation.

Hope and his coaches had spotted an opening in Ohio State's protection during the game.

"We changed the pressure point a little bit and found some daylight," he said.

But it was more than just scheme recognition.

"Any time they're lining up to kick an extra point or a field goal, on the defensive side you're [ticked] off anyway," he said. "You want to block the [crud] out of the ball.”

Purdue's 2009 win against Ohio State sparked the Boilers down the stretch, as they finished 4-4 in Big Ten play. But Purdue fell a win shy of a bowl game.

The 2011 Boilers hope the victory carries over as they look for back-to-back wins for the first time this season.

Hope can't pinpoint why his team has given Ohio State so much trouble. But he didn't downplay what was at stake for the Boilers on Saturday.

"We had to rise up and play," He said. "We needed to win. I don't think it would have mattered this weekend who [the opponent] was.

"It was meant to be.”
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Weekend rewind: Big Ten

November, 14, 2011
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Team of the week: Purdue. By beating Ohio State for the second straight time at home, the Boilermakers put themselves in position to make a bowl game for the first time since 2007 if they can beat either Iowa or Indiana in the final two weeks. Shoutouts to Nebraska for winning in a tough environment and Michigan State for exorcising its road demons as well.

[+] EnlargeRobert Marve
Sandra Dukes/US PresswireRobert Marve and Purdue moved to 5-5 overall with a 26-23 overtime victory over Ohio State.
Game of the week: Purdue 26, Ohio State 23. Just by going into overtime, this one would have taken the honors. There was much drama at the end, as the Buckeyes scored with 55 seconds left on a spectacular play by Braxton Miller, who hurdled prone center Mike Brewster while avoiding pressure before finding Jordan Hall across the field for a touchdown. Purdue had a chance to get within field goal range at the end of regulation but threw an ill-advised interception. A big sack by Dwayne Beckford and a tackle just before the sticks by Ricardo Allen put Ohio State at 4th and 1 on the Purdue 16 in the first overtime possession. Luke Fickell played it safe with the field goal instead of relying on his powerful running game to get one yard. That didn't work, and it might cost Fickell his job.

Biggest play: Lavonte David's stop of Silas Redd on 4th and 1 from the Penn State 37 with 1:49 left. The Nittany Lions trailed 17-14 and had all the momentum after scoring two touchdowns to get back in it, and they handed the ball to their best player on the game's biggest play. But Nebraska's star defender was better and made a great, everything-he-had tackle. That play was an illustration of why David is the Big Ten's best linebacker.

Best calls: Michigan State led 31-7 in the third quarter, but Mark Dantonio wouldn't take his foot off the gas. He called for a reverse pass, which Keshawn Martin completed for a 28-yard gain, and later in the drive the Spartans pulled off a fake field goal. You could say the plays didn't mean that much because Michigan State still ended up with just three points on that drive, and Iowa stormed back for two straight touchdowns afterward, perhaps angered by the trick plays. But I loved the fact that Dantonio signaled to his team that they were going for the kill on the road, a place where the Spartans have struggled the past couple of years. They'll need that attitude to finish off the season strong and get to Indianapolis.

Best catch: If you didn't see Iowa receiver Marvin McNutt's one-handed, on-the-run catch against Michigan State, go YouTube it now. Or check out this photo illustration. It's quite likely the catch of the year from the league's top receiver.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson. So this guy has been pretty good, huh? He earned his third Big Ten player of the week award for his nearly-perfect performance against Minnesota, in which he completed 16-of-17 passes for 178 yards and four touchdowns. He was 13-of-13 in the first half, and his 94.1 completion percentage ranks as the fourth highest in a game in Big Ten history.

Big Men on Campus (Defense): Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short and Michigan defensive end Ryan Van Bergen. Half of Short's tackles against Ohio State were sacks, as he had a career-high three of those to help slow down the Buckeyes. It's his second weekly award of the season. Van Bergen had seven tackles, including a career-high 2.5 sacks, as Michigan held Illinois to just 37 yards rushing.

Big Men on Campus (Special teams): Nebraska's Brett Maher and Purdue's Bruce Gaston. Maher averaged 45 yards per punt on eight punts, placed five inside the 20-yard line and had a booming 61-yarder to pin Penn State deep late in the game. He also drilled a 41-yard field goal. Gaston blocked Ohio State's extra point attempt with 55 seconds remaining to force overtime.

Best moment: The midfield prayer between Penn State and Nebraska players after the coin toss. After a horrible week, this was a tremendous gesture by both sides to recognize the seriousness of the situation. I don't mind admitting I had goosebumps watching the scene unfold from the press box as the crowd of more than 107,000 fell to a hushed silence. Nebraska assistant coach Ron Brown, the former director of a statewide Fellowship of Christian Athletes, led the prayer. You can listen to what he said to the players here.

Funniest moment: After beating Minnesota to claim Paul Bunyan's Axe, Wisconsin players -- led by Nick Toon, Montee Ball and Aaron Henry -- grabbed the axe and pretended to chop down one of the Gophers' goal posts. Then they ran to the other side of the stadium and did it to the other goal post. Minnesota didn't like it, but to the victors go the spoils. You can see it at the beginning and end of this video. And take note, Iowa-Iowa State and Michigan State-Penn State: this is why you create cool trophies.

Worst hangover: This category is officially retired for the season. There's no way anything can match what happened at Penn State.
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

1. Wisconsin and Michigan State are on a collision course: Saturday cleared up the Big Ten division races considerably, as Michigan State took a huge step closer to Indianapolis and Wisconsin received a major boost. The Spartans won in Iowa City for the first time since 1989, snapping a seven-game slide, and becomes the only team in the Legends division to control its own fate. Michigan State can get to Indianapolis with two wins or a win and a Nebraska loss. Wisconsin, meanwhile, benefited from losses by both Penn State and Ohio State on Saturday. The Badgers once again control their own fate in the Leaders division heading into the final two weeks. Although Penn State holds the same distinction, the Lions must visit Ohio State and Wisconsin in their final two games.

[+] EnlargeNebraska running back Rex Burkhead
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarWith Rex Burkhead leading the way, Nebraska could make its first BCS appearance in a decade.
2. Nebraska is still alive for a BCS bid: One of the main reasons Nebraska's loss to Northwestern was so painful for Big Red fans -- besides the fact that it knocked the team out of first place in the Legends -- was because tough road games at Penn State and Michigan were up next. But the Huskers pulled off a 17-14 victory in State College under difficult circumstances, to set up a big showdown in Ann Arbor next week. Even if Michigan State goes on to Indianapolis, Nebraska would be in good shape for an at-large BCS bid if it won out and finished 10-2. In fact, that might be a better outcome than if the Huskers were to win the division but lose in the Big Ten title game. The losses by Boise State and Stanford on Saturday may have greatly enhanced the Big Ten's chances of getting an at-large BCS bid, and Nebraska's fan base will make it attractive to big bowls. If the Blackshirts defense can keep playing more like they did against Penn State than they did against Northwestern and Rex Burkhead continues leading the offensive charge, Bo Pelini's team could make its first BCS appearance in a decade.

3. Luke Fickell is back on the hot seat: Perhaps Fickell never left the hot seat, but he had helped his cause with three consecutive wins, highlighted by the Wisconsin triumph on Oct. 29. But Ohio State's loss Saturday at Purdue -- its second consecutive stumble in West Lafayette -- puts Fickell back in the crosshairs. The Buckeyes fell to 3-3 in Big Ten play and will have a tough time getting back in the Leaders division race with two weeks to play. Ohio State came out flat for the second consecutive week, falling behind 10-0 and 17-7. QB Braxton Miller nearly rescued the team again in the fourth quarter, but Purdue DT Bruce Gaston blocked a potential game-winning PAT try. It was a brutal way to lose, but Ohio State shouldn't have put itself in such a shaky position. After a brief reprieve, Fickell will be feeling the heat again this week.

4. Michigan's defense is carrying the team: Who would have thought this would be possible after watching the past three seasons in Ann Arbor? Michigan is leaning heavily on its defense right now and has for a good portion of the season. Mike Martin and the Wolverines held Illinois to minus-12 rush yards in the first half and just 37 for the game on 33 carries. The Michigan offense, meanwhile, is searching for greater consistency, especially from the quarterback position. The defense continued to bail out the offense at Illinois and bought enough time for the offense to get going. While Brady Hoke and his staff have to figure out what to do with Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner, the coaches have undoubtedly make improvements on defense that should help Michigan reach a good bowl.

5. The bottom of the Big Ten's bowl picture is fuzzy: The race for the final few Big Ten bowl tie-ins got a lot more interesting Saturday. Purdue's upset of Ohio State moves Danny Hope's crew one win closer to becoming bowl-eligible for the first time since 2007. The Boilers could win out as they finish with Iowa and Indiana. Iowa, meanwhile, needs to avoid another late-season slide even though it already has reached the six-win plateau. The Hawkeyes, winless in Big Ten road games, finish at Purdue and at Nebraska. Northwestern won its third straight to return to the .500 mark. The Wildcats need only one more win to become bowl-eligible and finish with two home games (Minnesota, Michigan State). Illinois looked like a lock for a good bowl in early October after a 6-0 start, its best since 1951. But Ron Zook's crew continued its free-fall against Michigan and has dropped four straight.
Peel off the back and affix to hat. Time to recognize the stars who shined brightest in the Big Ten on Saturday.
  • Northwestern WR Jeremy Ebert: Ebert had a huge day in the 28-6 win over Rice, recording 7 catches for a career-high 208 yards and two touchdowns. That included a 90-yard strike from Dan Persa that was the second-longest play in school history. Persa had a big game, too, throwing for 372 yards and four touchdowns, with a pair of interceptions.
  • Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell: The Spartans needed a spark after averaging just 67 rushing yards in their first three road games, and Bell provided it with help from his offensive line in a 37-21 victory against Iowa. Bell racked up a season-high 112 rushing yards and a touchdown on 20 carries (5.6 ypc). He also added two receptions for 49 yards, including a 45-yarder on third-and-8 midway through the fourth quarter.
  • Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson: The senior continued his assault on the record book, completing his first 16 pass attempts in Wisconsin's blowout win against Minnesota. Wilson finished the game 16-for-17 passing for 178 yards and four touchdowns. RB Montee Ball (166 rush yards, 2 rushing TDs, 1 receiving TD) and WR Nick Toon (8 receptions, 100 yards, 2 TDs) also merit mentions.
  • Purdue DL Bruce Gaston: He gets a sticker simply for making one play, but it was enormous. Gaston blocked Drew Basil's extra-point attempt after Ohio State had tied the score at 20 with 55 seconds left, keeping the Boilermakers alive and giving them a chance to eventually win the game 26-23 in overtime.
  • Nebraska P/K Brett Maher: A secret weapon for the Huskers, Maher proved to be very important in a 17-14 win at Penn State. He averaged 45 yards on eight punts and put five inside the Nittany Lions' 20, including a 61-yarder late that pinned Penn State deep in its own territory. Maher also made a 41-yard field goal in his only attempt.
  • Michigan RB Fitzgerald Toussaint: The Wolverines offense has some issues right now, but the running back spot isn't one of them. Toussaint has established himself as the team's top back. After recording 170 rush yards two weeks ago against Purdue, Toussaint racked up a career-high 192 rush yards and a touchdowns on 27 carries in Saturday's 31-14 win at Illinois. DT Mike Martin (9 tackles) merits a mention after leading a suffocating effort against the run.

Friday Q&A: Purdue DT Kawann Short

October, 28, 2011
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Purdue no longer has Ryan Kerrigan, a first-round NFL draft pick this spring, but the Boilermakers have another star in the making on the defensive line. Junior tackle Kawann Short was named the Big Ten's co-defensive player of the week for his two-sack, 3.5 tackle-for-loss performance last week against Illinois. The 6-foot-3, 310-pounder has emerged alongside Devon Still, Jerel Worthy, John Simon and others as a standout interior lineman in this league. I recently caught up with Short on the eve of Purdue's game at Michigan for this week's Friday Q&A:

What has been the key to your success so far this season?

Kawann Short: Just watching film, doing what the coaches tell me to do. I'm trying to be consistent, to not let up in practice and go hard all the time. And it's showing up in the games on Saturday.

Danny Hope said your improved conditioning has been a big key. How has that helped you this season?

[+] EnlargeKawann Short
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesKawann Short, Purdue's junior defensive tackle, says the Boilers "must" get to a bowl game this season.
KS: It's been a dramatic change from my freshman year to now. My weight has fluctuated, but it's also about being muscular and just pushing myself, really. As a young guy, you're really not always pushing yourself as hard as you could. As an older guy, I want to set an example for the younger guys.

How many more snaps can you play now with your better conditioning?

KS: I can play a whole game. At Penn State, I played the whole game, and at the end of the day, it wasn't bad. Last year, I could probably play no more than like 50 or 60 snaps. On Saturday [against Illinois], I played like 70 or 80, and I felt pretty good about it.

Are you seeing a lot more double teams now?

KS: Yeah. People told me it was going to happen. Teams see you getting better, and they start focusing on you more. I don't even acknowledge it, just because I've been in that position before. Now it's time for the younger guys to step up and beat the one-on-ones.

What did you learn in playing next to Ryan Kerrigan?

KS: Just as far as his intensity and energy and his drive. I've never seen that man take a play off or even mess up in a game. I'm trying to be like him now, where in meetings you never hear my name except when they say, "Good job here" or "Good job there." Playing next to Ryan gave me that energy, knowing that you've got to go every time you put your hand down in the grass and don't even think about tiredness. That's the biggest thing I learned from him.

Did you feel responsibility to become more of a leader after he left?

KS: Well, Gerald Gooden is the leader and a captain. But we're the two older guys on the line, so we have to set an example. He's doing it for the defensive ends, and I'm doing it for the tackles.

What was it like Saturday when you guys beat a ranked team for the first time since 2009?

KS: It felt great after the win. Holding them scoreless until the fourth quarter was a blessing, and it was great to see the whole team coming together like that. Now we know we're capable of doing it. Every Saturday, any team can be beat and you just have to be ready to play and bring it. We're going to try to do that the rest of these Saturdays in the conference.

You need two more wins, but do you feel like you guys can get to a bowl game for the first time since 2007?

KS: Most definitely. It's a must. We've got to. We've been out too long, and everybody is just hungry. We've been going home for Christmas and watching other teams and players and knowing we could be playing. We're trying not to go home this year.

Would not making a bowl be a disappointment now?

KS: Yeah, just because now we're a whole lot better team. Everybody's mindset is definitely different and we're working hard. That would hurt us. It would be a sharp pain in our stomachs just to know we could have been bowl eligible but we didn't do it.

What are the challenges for a defensive lineman when facing Denard Robinson this weekend?

KS: Just his quickness. You have to stay true to your assignments, because if you have any little mess-up, he can take off. He's a very good quarterback and runner. As far as the D-line, we've got to stay in our gaps. We've got to keep control and keep contain. If we do that, we should be in good shape.

You have four blocked kicks in your career. What's the secret to that?

KS: To be honest, I'm not doing it by myself. The guy next me helps me to get the push. All I'm doing is throwing my arms up and jumping a little bit. Ryan Kerrigan helped me do it a couple times. Bruce Gaston, Ryan Isaac and Brandon Taylor, all those guys helped me get one. I can't take all the credit, knowing those guys were with me all the time. All you need is that good push and to throw your hands up.

Is it true you didn't play football until eighth grade?

KS: Yeah. A lot of people were in my head telling me to go play. When I went to high school I wasn't even going to play, but one of the coaches told me to try out. I just stuck with it because it was something I was good at. I was more of a basketball player, but when I learned I could do both, I stuck with it.

And you won an Indiana state title in basketball with former Purdue star E'Twaun Moore as your high school teammate?

KS: It was in 2007, his senior year and my junior year. That was a great year, because it was also the year I committed to Purdue.

What position did you play?

KS: I played center. We had a 6-11 guy, but he played the 4 and the 3. I was going up against guys who were like 6-6, 6-7, but I was handling it pretty well. My big body kept me going.

You must have been a pretty good rebounder.

KS: Yeah, that was where all my points came off of. I was a double-double guy.

When did you know football was your future?

KS: Probably my sophomore year. I was just playing basketball because I really enjoyed myself and I couldn't see myself not playing. It helped me stay in condition and helped me get my footwork and coordination right. So it was definitely a plus.
Purdue linebacker Joe Holland has some personal motivation to beat Notre Dame this week. Both of Holland's parents and his grandfather graduated from the school in South Bend, and though the Irish recruited Holland out of high school, "they didn't recruit me like Purdue did," he says.

Holland doesn't want to finish his Boilermakers career without beating Notre Dame, so stopping the three-game losing streak in this rivalry is a high priority. But while Holland might be the happiest guy in Ross-Ade Stadium on Saturday night if Purdue wins, he realizes this game is more than just personal. It's an important opportunity for the entire program.

"The stage is definitely set," he told ESPN.com. "It's a huge game because of the opponent, it's a huge game because of the stage we're on. It would mean a lot for our team to get this one and to get some momentum going into the rest of the season."

[+] EnlargeJoe Holland
Thomas Campbell/US PresswireJoe Holland (30) knows what a win over Notre Dame would mean for the Purdue program.
Forward momentum has been hard to come by lately for the Boilers. They haven't had a winning season since 2007 and failed to make a bowl game in each of coach Danny Hope's first two years. Hope's first season included an upset of then-No. 7 Ohio State at home and a road triumph over Michigan. The team beat Northwestern on the road last year with a true freshman quarterback starting.

But Purdue (2-1) comes into this week with a six-game losing streak against BCS AQ teams. The program has been beset by injuries and hasn't registered on the national radar for a while now. Simply put, Hope and the players need something positive to happen. While Notre Dame is unranked and already owns two losses, beating the Irish would provide a good start.

"A win against Notre Dame would be a signature win," Hope said. "It would create great confidence for our football team. It certainly would receive a lot of national attention, and I think it would be a great sign for the direction the program is going in. It could also impact recruiting in some ways."

It's hard to say just how good this Boilermakers team is. It beat Middle Tennessee in the opener by blocking a field goal attempt on the last play, then lost the following week at Rice when its own late field goal try was rebuffed. A 59-0 win over Southeast Missouri State was good for confidence building and saw the return of quarterback Robert Marve to the lineup, but Southeast Missouri State has about as much in common with Notre Dame as West Lafayette does with Rio de Janeiro.

"We're still developing," Hope said. "This football team has great potential. I think it's one of those teams that will get better and better."

Purdue hangs its hat on its running game, which ranks 11th nationally with 258 yards per game on the ground. The return of Ralph Bolden from a knee injury and the addition of junior college transfer Akeem Shavers has given the backfield two fast, powerful ball carriers. Junior quarterback Caleb TerBush was pressed into starting duty when Rob Henry went down with a knee injury in preseason camp. TerBush has played well enough to retain the starting job over the veteran Marve, though Hope plans to play both quarterbacks.

The defense has solid experience on the back end and is led by its interior playmakers up front. Kawann Short and sophomores Bruce Gaston and Ryan Isaac have been disruptive from their defensive tackle positions.

"The games where we've been able to completely shut down the run have been our defensive tackles' best games," Holland said. "Kawann is a monster up front, and he's stringing together a couple of really good seasons. Bruce and Ryan are younger guys who are very, very developed and very strong. Both have the potential to be great players inside."

Purdue will need to play its best game to stop a Notre Dame team that could be undefeated if not for all its turnover problems. The Boilers have had an extra week to prepare thanks to a bye last week. It came at a good time, because they got to focus their attention on what looks like a key game in the program's trajectory.

"If things don't work out right, it's not the end of the world," Hope said. "But a win on Saturday could change our world in some ways."

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