NCF Nation: C.J. Bacher

Matt McGloin, Braxton Miller and Joel StaveUS PresswireThe recent performances by (L to R) Penn State's Matt McGloin, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Wisconsin's Joel Stave give the Big Ten some hope for improved quarterback play.
Of the many theories to explain the Big Ten's collective struggles this season, the one about the league's dearth of elite quarterbacks certainly rings true.

Through eight weeks, the Big Ten has just one quarterback ranked among the nation's top 30 in pass efficiency (Nebraska's Taylor Martinez at No. 15). The league has just one quarterback in the nation's top 30 in completions per game (Penn State's Matt McGloin at No. 19). The league has zero quarterbacks ranked in the nation's top 30 in total passing yards.

As former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce told me last month, "A team can't get cut short at that position. I don't know whether the evaluation of the quarterbacks has been wrong, or they had injuries or whatever, but the quarterback position is down in the Big Ten. There's no doubt about that."

Bruce is right. There's no doubt. But there's also hope on the horizon for a league that hasn't had a quarterback selected in the first round of the NFL draft since 1995 (Penn State's Kerry Collins).

I sat in Kinnick Stadium on Saturday night and watched McGloin pick apart what had been a pretty salty Iowa defense. McGloin had complete command and tremendous awareness of his receivers and tight ends. He made correct reads and confident throws. McGloin's mobility is, well, limited, but one of his best plays came in the first quarter, when he evaded the rush and spotted tight end Jesse James on a deep crossing route to set up Penn State's first touchdown. As I tweeted at the time, McGloin is simply a different quarterback.

The same Matt McGloin who looked lost for much of the past two seasons has thrown 14 touchdown passes and just two interceptions in 259 pass attempts. The same guy whose selection as the Lions' starting quarterback this spring elicited groans from much of Nittany Nation, and understandably so, is by far the best drop-back passer in the Big Ten. Some say that's an indictment against the league, and they're right to a degree. But it's also a tribute to what new Penn State coach Bill O'Brien can do with a quarterback.

If O'Brien can do this with McGloin, a former walk-on (sorry, Matt, had to mention it) in one offseason, think of what he can do with a quarterback who comes to Penn State with bona fide next-level potential. Like Christian Hackenberg, the nation's No. 1 quarterback prospect, who has verbally committed to O'Brien and the Lions.

There are other reasons for optimism at the most important position on the field. Ohio State's Braxton Miller has exceeded all expectations in his first year as a spread-offense quarterback. Whether or not Miller hoists the Heisman Trophy in December -- or even gets to New York for the ceremony -- he'll enter 2013 as the likely Heisman front-runner. There's little doubt Miller's skills fit seamlessly with what Urban Meyer and Tom Herman want to do on offense.

Youth is a common theme among current Big Ten quarterbacks. New offensive systems is another.

Minnesota coach Jerry Kill pressed the fast-forward button Saturday, burned Philip Nelson's redshirt and decided the future is now at quarterback. While Nelson made some expected mistakes in his first career start at a very tough venue (Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium), he also showed why Minnesota fans are so excited about his potential. The experience this fall only will make him better in 2013.

The other quarterback on the field at Camp Randall Stadium, Wisconsin freshman Joel Stave, also is hardly a finished product. But he's a good play-action passer who doesn't make a ton of mistakes in a newish offense. Stave is another guy who should be better in 2013. Wisconsin also will have Danny O'Brien, Jon Budmayr and heralded recruit Bart Houston, provided Budmayr and Houston recover from their injuries.

Northwestern sophomore Trevor Siemian is another young Big Ten quarterback who looks his age. He's a half-step slow on his reads and his deliveries, and he's not connecting on the short-to-midrange routes that have defined Northwestern's offense for years. The good news is coordinator Mick McCall has a proven track record of developing younger quarterbacks into top-level Big Ten players in their junior and/or senior seasons (Dan Persa, Mike Kafka, C.J. Bacher). There's no reason to think Siemian, who has played more than the others as a sophomore, won't make a similar jump in 2013.

Look around the Big Ten, and most of the current signal-callers will be back next fall.

Nebraska's Martinez is a confounding player at times, particularly away from Lincoln, but he also has undoubtedly improved in 2012 -- he completes a league-best 67 percent of his passes with 15 touchdown strikes and four interceptions -- and will enter next year as one of the nation's most experienced quarterbacks. Another player who falls under that label is Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase, who has had his struggles this season but also has been operating in a new system with barely any weapons around him. Scheelhaase and the Illini offense will be better in 2013.

Indiana might have the Big Ten's deepest group of quarterbacks in 2013, as Tre Roberson returns from injury to join Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld in a pass-oriented scheme coordinated by Seth Littrell.

This isn't to suggest Big Ten teams don't have concerns at quarterback, both now and in years ahead. Andrew Maxwell's struggles at Michigan State are unsettling. Then again, he's a first-year starter with no proven receivers. Michigan loses one of the most productive players in team history in Denard Robinson. Then again, Robinson's departure accelerates Michigan's transition to the true pro-style offense Al Borges wants to run. If incoming recruit Shane Morris is as good as advertised, Michigan's future at quarterback looks promising.

No one expected Iowa's James Vandenberg to struggle so much in his senior season. Then again, the Hawkeyes are operating in a new offense under Greg Davis, and another full offseason could pay dividends for the new starter (most likely Jake Rudock).

The quarterback spot is and has been a problem in the Big Ten. There's no sugarcoating it.

But I saw reason for optimism with McGloin in Iowa City, and the combination of coaches, new systems, maturing players and incoming recruits suggests better days lie ahead.
Northwestern offensive coordinator Mick McCall is one of the nation's more underrated quarterback coaches.

Since he arrived before the 2008 season, he has helped C.J. Bacher, Mike Kafka and Dan Persa become some of the Big Ten's best signal-callers.

McCall faces yet another challenge today as sophomore Kain Colter will make his first start at quarterback in the season opener at Boston College. Persa, still hampered by a surgically repaired Achilles tendon, isn't dressed for the game and won't play.

It's certainly tough news for Northwestern and its All-Big Ten quarterback, although not surprising after the preseason. Colter took the majority of reps with the first-team offense in camp and showed improvement as a passer. Persa looked fine with his passing but struggled to move around. His legs helped him immensely in 2010, and Northwestern needs its quarterbacks to be running threats.

Still, it's a little surprising that Persa hasn't even dressed for the game. You have to wonder why Northwestern launched a Heisman Trophy campaign for the senior when his playing status was in doubt. I wouldn't expect to see Persa until a Week 3 matchup against Army, at the earliest.

Colter faces a good Boston College defense and must show he's more than a good athlete. He must connect on Northwestern's high-percentage passes, use a very good group of receivers and tight ends and limit major mistakes. It'll be a tough task.

The Wildcats need to rally around Colter and show that they can win without Persa. Northwestern fell apart on both sides of the ball last season after Persa ruptured his Achilles tendon in a Nov. 13 win against Iowa.

Will Kain be able? We'll find out very soon.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- During Northwestern's team meeting Sunday, coach Pat Fitzgerald tried to loosen up his new starting quarterback.

"I said, 'Remember when I recruited you and I told you that you were going to start your first college game at Wrigley against the Illini?' " Fitzgerald said. "And he kind of chuckled. I said, 'Just like we scripted, right?' "

Not quite.

[+] EnlargeNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhAt just 37, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald is the second-longest-tenured coach in the Big Ten.
The script certainly has changed for Northwestern after it lost star quarterback Dan Persa to a season-ending ruptured Achilles' tendon. Persa, who suffered the injury while throwing the game-winning touchdown pass Saturday against Iowa, underwent successful surgery Saturday night and is expected to make a full recovery by the spring or shortly thereafter.

The loss of Persa thrusts Watkins, a redshirt freshman, into the spotlight. And what a bright spotlight it will be.

Northwestern and Illinois play the first football game at Wrigley Field since 1970 and the first college football game at the Friendly Confines since 1938. Northwestern and Illinois haven't played at Clark & Addison since 1923, a 29-0 Illinois win. ESPN "College GameDay" also will be on site.

Add in the fact that Watkins grew up in Chicago's west suburbs.

"Growing up in the Chicagoland area, playing in Wrigley against an in-state rival, it's a perfect opportunity," Watkins said. "I'm really excited."

It's an opportunity Watkins would have gladly passed up if Persa could have avoided what Fitzgerald called "a freak injury." Watkins talked to Persa the night of Persa's surgery and visited with Persa on Monday at the football offices.

Watkins has tried to absorb as much as he can from the junior quarterback, who will be involved in practice this week and on game day. But Watkins now will lead the offense, beginning in a film-review session tonight.

"He's staying very positive," Watkins said of Persa. "He's been there for me and supporting me. Anything he needs to do to help me be prepared, he will this week, so it's been helpful. ... I just told him how sorry I was for him that it had to end like that. I've got his back, and I'm going to do everything I can for him to lead this team to victories."

Northwestern is no stranger to in-season quarterback changes.

Persa relieved Mike Kafka last year for stretches of two games after Kafka hurt his hamstring. The year before, Kafka relieved C.J. Bacher for two games after Bacher injured his hamstring. Watkins stepped in for Persa three weeks ago at Indiana after Persa suffered a concussion late in the game. On his first play, Watkins fired a 13-yard pass on third-and-8 to set up a field goal.

"He's an extremely talented quarterback," Fitzgerald said. "He's a dual-threat guy with his size at 6-6 and close to 250 pounds. A kid that can run. He's got a great arm, he's got a great understanding of our offense.

"Evan will be ready."

Watkins has appeared in four games this fall, completing 3 of 7 passes with no touchdowns or interceptions. He has only two rushing attempts, a total that will increase Saturday.

Although Watkins admits he's "not Persa-fast" -- Persa leads the team with 519 rush yards and nine touchdowns -- and likely will sit in the pocket more, he's not a plodder, either.

"He moves better than people give him credit for," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "He's going to run around and make some things happen."

Watkins' biggest challenge will be handling the emotions of his first start, especially in such a unique setting. He showed some savvy Monday when asked if he's a Cubs or White Sox fan.

"I'm a Chicago fan," he said.

Likely translation: He's a White Sox fan.

How will Watkins balance his emotions Saturday?

"I'm going to be excited," he said, "but you've got to stay focused and prevent any distractions. Just keep your mind on winning."
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Dan Persa is still a novice when it comes to playing quarterback at the college level.

His career stat line shows only 34 pass attempts, 51 rushing attempts, two touchdowns, two interceptions and zero starts. It's a résumé not unlike those of other backup quarterbacks in the Big Ten.

Where Persa distinguishes himself is leadership. He's the resident expert at Northwestern.

[+] EnlargePersa
Jerry Lai/US PresswireAlready a threat running the ball, Dan Persa is working on fine-tuning his passing skills.
Since the moment Persa arrived in Evanston, he has prepared to lead. After the 2007 season, head coach Pat Fitzgerald formed a 10-man leadership council to give players greater ownership of the offseason program. Persa is the only player elected to the council in each of the three seasons.

Despite his place on the depth chart -- behind C.J. Bacher and Mike Kafka in 2008, and behind Kafka in 2009 -- Persa always tried to find ways to assert himself and gain confidence among others. He even saw time on special teams in 2008, returning one kickoff for 15 yards.

"I tried to get in here as much as I can to show people than I'm willing to work as hard as anyone," Persa said. "Everybody looks to you for energy, they look to you for attitude. If you're having a bad day and you're wearing your feelings on your sleeve, everybody's going to see that and then they're going to be down.

"But if they see you energized and ready to go, they're like, 'Alright, let's go.'"

Persa will get his chance to lead in the spotlight this fall as he moves into a starting role. The former Pennsylvania high school superstar takes over an offense that relied almost exclusively on Kafka's right arm last season.

Although Persa established himself as a locker-room presence years ago, he cranked things up during the winter months in preparation for his first spring practice at the helm.

"Mike Kafka was an extremely hard worker," left tackle Al Netter said, "and Dan works as hard, if not harder. This offseason, he's the first guy in the football offices, and he's the last guy to leave, every single day. His work ethic is spectacular. I look up to him, all the other guys look up to him, so he's taken this role very seriously."

Persa's rationale: "Knowing that you'll be the leader of this team, it's not just taking care of yourself any more. You've got to bring the whole team, the whole offense, along. If the offense fails, it's pretty much on you."

Since installing the spread offense before the 2000 season, Northwestern has had different types of trigger men. Brett Basanez and C.J. Bacher developed into record-setting passers, while Kafka transformed himself from a run-first quarterback into the Big Ten's passing leader last fall.

In Persa, the Wildcats might have the most natural fit for the spread since Zak Kustok, who led NU to its last Big Ten championship (2000). Persa is a true dual-threat quarterback who became the first Pennsylvania high school player to eclipse 2,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a season.

It's noteworthy that if Persa didn't end up at NU, he likely would have signed with Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia. Rodriguez is arguably the biggest reason Northwestern runs the spread, as Wildcats coaches implemented the system after visiting with Rodriguez at Clemson in 1999.

"If I don't run, I think that's taking away from one of my strengths," Persa said. "But I don't see myself running 20, 25 times a game."

NU coaches know Persa can run, so they're spending more time fine-tuning his passing skills. As a smaller quarterback -- Persa is somewhat generously listed at 6-foot-1 -- he has to be precise with his footwork to help his field vision.

"I know he worked hard last summer about really getting some depth on his drop," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "He did a good job with that. We're going to try and move the pocket a little bit more to help him out, but we still are who we are. We're a spread team, we're going to be in empty, we're still going to run the ball with the quarterback at times."

Persa's size hurt him a bit in the recruiting process, as some schools wanted him to play defense. But the shotgun spread offense isn't married to 6-5 quarterbacks, and so far, Persa is standing tall at Northwestern.

"He has always led," McCall said. "He was always a voice here because he still worked his fanny off in the weight room, he still worked his fanny off in workouts. But he had to be [Kafka's] right-hand man.

"Now he's the guy."

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 12

November, 22, 2009
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These guys saved their best for last.

  • Ohio State's defense: I could probably give helmet stickers to five Buckeyes defenders, but I need to spread the wealth a bit. Ohio State's defense forced five turnovers, converting one for a touchdown, in its 21-10 victory against Michigan. Individual standouts included safeties Kurt Coleman and Jermale Hines, cornerback Devon Torrence, defensive end Cameron Heyward and linebackers Brian Rolle, Ross Homan and John Simon.
  • Penn State QB Daryll Clark: After two uncharacteristic performances, Clark stepped up big in Penn State's spanking of Michigan State. The senior completed 19 of 27 passes for 310 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions as he spread the ball to eight different players.
  • Purdue QB Joey Elliott: If Clark doesn't win first-team All-Big Ten quarterback, it should go to Elliott. He made the most of his senior season and finished with a big win against Indiana, completing 21 of 29 passes for 205 yards and four touchdowns in the win.
  • Northwestern QB Mike Kafka and WR Andrew Brewer: Three years ago, they competed for the starting quarterback job and lost out to C.J. Bacher. On Saturday against Wisconsin, they hooked up six times for 102 yards and two touchdowns. Kafka finished 26-of-41 for 325 yards and no interceptions.
  • Iowa's defense: Another team effort from the Hawkeyes, who shut out Minnesota for the second straight year. All four starting defensive linemen recorded tackles for loss, and linebackers Pat Angerer and Troy Johnson stepped up in a big way as Iowa inched closer to a BCS at large berth.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EVANSTON, Ill. -- It's no secret around these parts that Northwestern's offensive production largely depends on quarterback Mike Kafka's ability to evolve as a passer.

Kafka might not be a household name in the Big Ten, but he holds the league's single-game record for quarterback rushing with 217 yards against Minnesota last year. The senior is less accomplished as a passer, but he spent the summer focusing on the passing game.

 
  Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
  Mike Kafka, above, spent time this summer working with former Northwestern QB Brett Basanez.

Part of Kafka's summer regimen involved working with former Northwestern quarterback Brett Basanez, the 2005 Big Ten co-Offensive Player of the Year. Basanez, who ranks third on the Big Ten's career passing yards list (10,580), returned to the area after signing with the Chicago Bears as a reserve quarterback.

Kafka gathered several of Northwestern's receivers and worked with Basanez twice a week for six weeks. Wildcats backup quarterback Dan Persa and Kafka's brother, Jason, who will play football at San Jose State this fall, also participated.

"We were working out with an NFL quarterback," Kafka said. "You can't beat that."

Basanez critiqued Kafka's passing mechanics and footwork, but his most valuable advice had to do with the mental aspect of playing the position.

"We talked a lot about being able to manage the game and control and lead," Kafka said. "That was one of the biggest things -- leadership. A lot of times, the quarterback doesn't have to be the best player on the field, as long as you lead your team down the field."

Since installing the spread offense in 2000, Northwestern has struggled to overcome the loss of a starting quarterback. The Wildcats stumbled to 3-9 in 2002, after losing Zak Kustok, and went 4-8 in 2006, after losing Basanez.

C.J. Bacher held the top job the past two-and-a-half seasons, though Kafka isn't a stranger to the spotlight. He started four games as a freshman and two last fall after Bacher hurt his hamstring.

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald said Kafka is "throwing the ball as well as he ever has" and gained confidence by being the clear-cut starter in camp.

"You can just tell that he's taken the time to improve, even on the little things," said wide receiver Andrew Brewer, a former quarterback who competed with Kafka in 2006. "It's definitely helped his mechanics and helped his arm speed and strength."

Big Ten lunch links

May, 4, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

A little less to link this time of year. Bear with me. 

Paterno said that when he starts talking about this to the Big Ten folks, "They're polite, but they snicker." Anyone who has ever seen a 13-year-old kid humor his elders knows the snicker.

"They don't know I know they're snickering," Paterno said.

They also apparently don't know what they don't know. The Big Ten has lost its edge in football, partly because its best teams are sitting around, waiting for their bowl game while rival conferences such as the Southeastern and Big 12 are playing widely watched league championship games. 

  • Michigan's newest commit can be used in a lot of ways, Mark Snyder writes in the Detroit Free Press. Speaking of recruiting, Penn State added another 2010 commit in running back Silas Redd, Philip Cmor writes in The Altoona Mirror.
  • Dismissals, defections and transfers contributed to Minnesota becoming the first Big Ten program to lose scholarships because of a low APR score, Dennis Brackin writes in the Star Tribune. 
"There's no doubt that some of the kids [from the 2007 class] were academically challenged," athletic director Joel Maturi said. "But we were trying to get a recruiting class at the end [after Tim Brewster's hiring in January] and we took some gambles, and lost on them."

Big Ten lunch links

May, 1, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

"I got a real good chance [to play this fall]," Denard Robinson said. "It's my gut feeling and the coaches have been telling me I have a chance to start."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Check out the Big Ten's spring prospectus, if you haven't already. One item that stood out to me is the fact that the Big Ten returns its six-most efficient quarterbacks from 2008.

Is this a good thing?

The easy answer is yes. Who doesn't want an experienced and efficient quarterback taking snaps for another year?

On the flip side, as stated countless times in this blog, quarterback play is the biggest factor separating the Big Ten from rejoining college football's elite.

Last year was downright miserable for Big Ten quarterbacks, as all-conference candidates like Purdue's Curtis Painter, Ohio State's Todd Boeckman and Indiana's Kellen Lewis really struggled. Northwestern's C.J. Bacher was average, at best, and both Iowa and Wisconsin replaced their opening-day starters.

So as you look at this list, keep in mind that at least five of the six players (Penn State's Daryll Clark is the exception) need to improve on last year's numbers to truly elevate quarterback play around the league.

The Big Ten's Returning Quarterbacks (2008 Statistics)
Quarterback, School Rating Pass yards TD INT
Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State 146.5 1,311 12 4
Daryll Clark, Penn State 143.4 2,592 19 6
Juice Williams, Illinois 138.1 3,173 22 16
Ricky Stanzi, Iowa 134.8 1,956 14 9
Adam Weber, Minnesota 126.9 2,761 15 8
Dustin Sherer, Wisconsin 120.7 1,389 6 5

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The departure of a three-year starter at quarterback is never cause for celebration, but Northwestern offensive coordinator Mick McCall could get exactly what he wants in the backfield this fall.

 
  Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
  Mike Kafka is one option for the Wildcats at quarterback in 2009.

Northwestern's spread offense works best with a mobile quarterback who poses a legitimate rushing threat. After all, the roots of the Wildcats' system can be traced directly to Rich Rodriguez, who has directed dynamic offenses with mobile quarterbacks (Shaun King, Woody Dantzler, Pat White) and struggled mightily when his quarterbacks lack foot speed (Michigan's 2008 season).

McCall also enjoyed his best coaching success when he mentored mobile quarterbacks Josh Harris and Omar Jacobs at Bowling Green.

Outgoing Northwestern starter C.J. Bacher and his predecessor Brett Basanez showed decent mobility at times, but the team has lacked a true rushing threat since Zak Kustok finished his career in 2001.

McCall will have two when spring practice opens March 30.

"It puts a lot of pressure on the defense when the quarterback can run and be able to break some things open that way," McCall said. "The defense definitely has to be a lot different."

Projected starter Mike Kafka already has established himself as a rushing threat in the Big Ten. Making his first start in three years Nov. 1 against Minnesota, Kafka set a Big Ten quarterback record with 217 rushing yards. He followed with 83 rushing yards the next week against Ohio State.

Backup Dan Persa can move a bit, too.

As a high school senior in Bethlehem, Pa., he became the first player in state history to eclipse 2,000 passing yards and 1,000 rush yards in the same season. Despite serving as Northwestern's third-string quarterback last fall, Persa was used regularly on special teams, even returning a kickoff against Michigan.

Kafka and Persa should enhance a rushing attack that loses Tyrell Sutton, a four-year starter at running back, but McCall chooses to focus more on their arms than their legs.

"We've still got to find ways to move the football through the air because you cannot sit there and pound the quarterback and pound him and pound him, and expect him to throw for 65 percent completion or 70 percent completion," McCall said. "[Tim] Tebow can't even do it, and you're talking about a guy who's won a Heisman.

"We've got to be realistic about what our guys can do and how many hits they can take."

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

If the first step toward growing for the future is not dwelling on the past, Northwestern quarterback Mike Kafka could do big things this fall.

 
  Harry How/Getty Images
  Mike Kafka posted a 217-yard rushing performance last season against Minnesota.

Big Ten fans might remember Kafka from a Nov. 1 game at Minnesota, when he delivered one of the league's top individual performances of the season. Making his first start in more than two years, Kafka led Northwestern to a 24-17 upset of the 17th-ranked Gophers and made Big Ten history in the process.

He set a Big Ten quarterback record with 217 rushing yards on 27 carries (8 ypc). Kafka had runs of 53, 38, 30 and 28 as a Wildcats team playing without its starting backfield survived in the Metrodome and finished the season 9-4.

And yet, when prodded about his season-saving performance, Kafka struggles to deliver the details.

"If the offensive line wasn't out there and the receivers weren't out there, I definitely wouldn't have rushed for however many yards I rushed for," he said.

You don't remember the exact number? It's not your new cell phone area code? It's not painted all over your bedroom?

"No, I don't know," he said. "I don't really care. We won. That's all that matters to me."

Kafka still gets plenty of attention for his season-saving performance at the Hump Dome, but he's fixated on the future as Northwestern prepares to open spring drills March 30.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten probably wants to forget this postseason after going 1-6 in bowls. But several players stood out, even in defeat, and they deserve recognition. Let's hand out helmet stickers for the final time this season, beginning with the one Big Ten team (Iowa) that actually won its bowl.

Iowa running back Shonn Greene -- Playing in what would be his final collegiate game, the Hawkeyes' junior went out with a flourish, racking up 121 rushing yards and three touchdowns against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. Greene eclipsed 100 rushing yards in all 13 games and set a single-season school rushing record with 1,850 yards.

Iowa strong safety Tyler Sash -- South Carolina was in a giving mood (five turnovers), and Sash capitalized with two interceptions, raising his season total to five. Sash, a redshirt freshman who became one of the team's top playmakers, picked off Stephen Garcia's first pass of the game and had interception returns of 45 and 29 yards.

Iowa cornerback Bradley Fletcher -- The senior recorded an interception and a forced fumble in his final game in a Hawkeyes uniform. With Iowa up 14-0, Fletcher squashed any chance of a South Carolina rally by intercepting a Garcia pass in the end zone for a touchback. He also forced a fumble on South Carolina's first play of the second half.

Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman -- He hadn't taken significant snaps since September but gave Ohio State a big lift in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl against Texas. The offense was sputtering until Boeckman found Brian Robiskie for a 48-yard completion on the first play of the fourth quarter. Boeckman later threw a touchdown to fellow quarterback Terrelle Pryor and nearly helped Ohio State to a big upset.

Ohio State's defense -- Colt McCoy and Quan Cosby had the final word in Glendale, but Ohio State held the high-powered Texas offense well below its season scoring average. The Buckeyes racked up three sacks and nine tackles for loss and limited big plays until Cosby's 26-yard touchdown with 16 seconds left.

Northwestern quarterback C.J. Bacher -- Bacher ended an up-and-down senior season with arguably his best performance in the Valero Alamo Bowl. He threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns against Missouri in a 30-23 overtime loss. Bacher threw only one interception and spread the ball well to his veteran targets.

Northwestern's senior wide receivers -- Rasheed Ward, Ross Lane and Eric Peterman combined for 19 receptions, 261 yards and three touchdowns in the Alamo Bowl. All three had scoring receptions of 20 yards or longer, highlighted by Lane's circus catch in the back of the end zone late in the third quarter.

Penn State linebacker Navorro Bowman -- The Rose Bowl was a rough one for Penn State's defense, but Bowman certainly did his part with five tackles for loss and a sack. Bowman finished the season with 106 tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss. Next season he'll form the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem with Sean Lee.

Michigan State safety Otis Wiley -- Wiley and his fellow defenders held Georgia to three first-half points in the Capital One Bowl and gave the Spartans offense a chance to create some distance on the scoreboard. Michigan State eventually caved against Matthew Stafford, but Wiley had a forced fumble and seven tackles to go along with 87 return yards in his final collegiate game.

Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker -- Decker returned from knee surgery and an ankle injury to boost the Gophers in the Insight Bowl with eight receptions for 149 yards and a touchdown. The junior set Minnesota bowl records for receptions and receiving yards and will return in 2009 as one of the Big Ten's top targets.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten took a beating this bowl season, but rather than gripe about unfavorable locations and matchups, it's time to acknowledge a fact about the league.

The quarterback position stinks.

And in this age of college football, that equals competitive suicide.

All it took was a look across the field during bowl season to realize how far the Big Ten must progress at the quarterback spot.

The list of quarterbacks the Big Ten faced included:

  • Texas junior Colt McCoy, a Heisman Trophy finalist who ranks fourth nationally in pass efficiency, fifth in total offense and ninth in passing yards.
  • USC junior Mark Sanchez, who ranks sixth nationally in pass efficiency and 20th in pass yards.
  • Georgia junior Matthew Stafford, who ranks 15th nationally in pass efficiency and 14th in pass yards.
  • Missouri senior Chase Daniel, who ranks fourth nationally in pass yards and fifth in total offense.
  • Kansas junior Todd Reesing, who ranks eighth nationally in both passing yards and total offense.

Of the Big Ten quarterbacks competing in bowl games, only one, Penn State's Daryll Clark, ranks among the top 25 nationally in pass efficiency (Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor did not qualify). Minnesota's Adam Weber had the most passing yards (2,761), which ranks 35th nationally.

Granted, the Big Ten's best statistical passer, Illinois' Juice Williams, didn't reach the postseason, but this league is losing the arms race.

The Big Ten had by far the best stable of running backs in the country this season, boasting three of the nation's top six ball carriers (Shonn Greene, Javon Ringer, Chris "Beanie" Wells).

Who cares?

College football has become a quarterback's game, and the Big Ten has fallen way behind. For the Big Ten to restore its place among the nation's top conferences, the fix must begin under center. It takes more than adopting the spread offense, which most Big Ten teams have done. Quarterbacks must be better developed in this conference.

And despite the league's sagging national reputation, there is hope.

The quarterback spot figures to be stronger in 2009 than it was in 2008.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Your questions, my answers ...

Brad from Chicago writes: Great job on the blog this year. I think I have read it 2 to 3 times a day since you started it. My big gripe today is all this talk about how The Big Ten is not relevant in the Rose Bowl anymore. Since 1993 there has been one loss by a Big Ten team to a PAC 10 team not named Southern Cal, that loss being Washington over Purdue in 01. I am just fed up with the talk about how the Big Ten no longer can play with the elite from other conferences. The truth is USC can beat anybody, it is just every year they lose focus, get beat and then clean the clock of some Big Ten school, most recently my beloved Nittany Lions. The Big Ten hasn't won a Rose Bowl since 2000, but only one other PAC 10 school besides Southern Cal has won it since then and 3 years in there, there was no Big ten team in the game. I guess I am just a frustrated fan who can't figure out why most people in the media can't comprehend that sports are cyclical, they always have been. Eventually USC will stumble, they will go on a downward slide and the Big Ten will go on a streak of winning quite a few again and all this talk of revamping the Rose Bowl will be rendered pointless. Thanks again for a fantastic job this year.

Adam Rittenberg: You bring up a good point about USC, and my advice for every Big Ten team is root like heck for the Trojans to reach the national championship in 2009. It might sound defeatist to some, but the Big Ten needs a manageable bowl lineup next year. The league would have gotten one this year if Oregon State had beaten Oregon on Nov. 29, but it didn't happen and Penn State was stuck with USC. The Big Ten can't compete with USC, but as you point one, no one really can right now. But the Big Ten's problem goes beyond the Rose Bowl. The league simply has to find better players. Though I agree things are cyclical and the Big Ten will eventually rebound, things look very bleak right now.


Kenny from Columbia writes: Adam, regardless of bowl records. I still believe the big 10 is far better than the ACC or Big East. If the ACC or Big East sent there conference champ out to Pasadena every year they would be destroyed too. Cincinnati lost by 26 to Oklahoma. Virginia Tech lost to east carolina. So it's kind of unfair that the big 10 is looked at as the worst BCS conference. All the big 10 needs is an OSU win over Texas, or a win over USC when they visit the Shoe next season to get total respect back. Also, one thing no one is talking about is the fact that PSU had over 400 yards of offense against "the greatest defense ever" so they say.

Adam Rittenberg: Despite the recent downturn, the Big Ten is not the worst BCS conference. I can write that with a fair degree of certainty. But the Big Ten has definitely fallen to fourth, at best, behind the SEC, Big 12 and Pac-10. Some would argue the Mountain West is also better. The Big Ten wouldn't go 1-5 with the ACC's or the Big East's bowl lineup, and both of those leagues would struggle in the Rose Bowl, especially against USC. It'll take more than a Fiesta Bowl win or Ohio State beating USC next fall for the Big Ten to regain national respect, though those things would be nice for the league. The Big Ten needs to start winning Rose Bowls again, plain and simple.

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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Northwestern outplayed Missouri for most of the Valero Alamo Bowl.

The Wildcats had a tremendous game plan, made big plays on both sides of the ball and kept Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman from lighting up the Alamodome scoreboard, which seemed like a guarantee entering tonight's contest. As the biggest underdog of the 68 FBS bowl teams, Northwestern has nothing to be ashamed about after a 30-23 overtime loss to the Tigers in a thrilling contest.

But when you're a massive underdog and you face a more talented opponent, you need to execute the little things. Details matter more than ever. For Northwestern, the little things came on special teams, and in that area, Pat Fitzgerald's team failed.

Northwestern had no business being tied with Missouri at halftime after dominating the opening 30 minutes. But a poorly executed punt, one that should have gone out of bounds, allowed Maclin to race 75 yards for the tying touchdown with a minute left before the break.

That's seven points right there. At worst, Northwestern should have been up 10-3 at the half.

The Wildcats then opened the second half with a brilliant scoring drive capped by a 46-yard Rasheed Ward touchdown catch. But in a scene Northwestern fans are all too familiar with, kicker Amado Villarreal missed on the extra point attempt. The conversion would have forced Missouri to score a touchdown in the closing minutes rather than settle for a field goal. Northwestern's defense did a great job of keeping Missouri out of the end zone, so the chances for a stop were likely.

Eight points on special teams likely doomed the Wildcats, and that's not even counting a missed field goal in the opening half. In a game where Northwestern did so many things right, the special teams details really stung.

The program's first bowl win since 1949 would have been huge, but Northwestern made a strong statement tonight, especially on the defensive side. The Wildcats held Missouri's offense to three first half points and picked off Daniel three times. Though Missouri ultimately made the plays when it mattered, Northwestern's defense was one of the bright spots in the Big Ten and should only improve in 2009.

Quarterback C.J. Bacher and wide receivers Eric Peterman, Ross Lane and Ward played arguably their best games of the season, and running back Tyrell Sutton came off a wrist injury to rush for 114 yards. Northwestern's problems along the offensive line came back to haunt the team late, and some questionable play-calling gave Missouri the time to rally and force overtime.

The 34-year-old Fitzgerald has Northwestern headed in the right direction. It's critical that this program sustains success, something it did not do after Fitzgerald finished playing in 1996. Those who dismiss Northwestern because of its pre-1995 history are simply uninformed, but the program still needs to get over the hump in bowl games.

Fine-tuning the details on special teams is a good place to start.

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