NCF Nation: Carl Pelini

1. Michigan’s feuds with Ohio State and Notre Dame always drew more attention than its games with Michigan State. But that has changed, and not, Wolverines coach Brady Hoke said Wednesday on the ESPNU College Football Podcast, because the Spartans won four in a row from 2008-11. “I think some of the changes with the divisional races puts a little more emphasis on this football game,” Hoke said. “But from a passion standpoint … it’s always been a very physical game. It’s always a game that been played through the whistle. The intensity of the rivalry is there. It’s real.”

2. Florida Atlantic head coach Carl Pelini and defensive coordinator Pete Rekstis resigned, a source told my colleague Brett McMurphy, because they attended a party where people used marijuana. I guess the coaches picked the wrong state in which to attend the party. According to Governing magazine, 21 states and the District of Columbia have legalized some form of marijuana usage. No, Florida is not one of them. But still this story, in 2013, is a stunner. Maybe FAU wanted Pelini (5-15 in two seasons) out?

3. Stanford senior defensive end and team captain Ben Gardner's season-ending pectoral injury means that the Cardinal will have started only two games with their preseason starting defensive line. Senior Henry Anderson hurt his knee in the second game against Army. That the line has remained a strength for the Cardinal is a credit to fifth-year senior Josh Mauro, who pretty much turned Anderson into Wally Pipp. But it’s a shame that the three seniors will have played together so little in their final season.

ACC weekend rewind: Week 1

September, 2, 2013
9/02/13
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There's one more game to go, but here's a look back at the weekend that was in the ACC:

The good: You have to start with Clemson, which came away with a signature, 38-35 home victory over favored Georgia from the SEC and has earned the early status of national title contender. The Tigers became the first non-SEC team ever to defeat consecutive top-10 SEC opponents. Tajh Boyd looked like a Heisman contender and Sammy Watkins looked like the guy everyone remembered from 2011. Dabo Swinney stressed that it was just one game, but it was certainly a major one for the ACC and its national perception.

The bad: North Carolina's offensive line played respectable against Jadeveon Clowney and the vaunted South Carolina front. But the defense surrendered too many big plays, including a 75-yard touchdown run, a 65-yard touchdown pass and a 29-yard touchdown pass. The Tar Heels scored just one touchdown in three red zone trips in their 27-10 season-opening loss.

The ugly: Beamer Ball was missing Saturday, as Virginia Tech gave up a punt return touchdown and a kickoff return touchdown to Alabama's Christion Jones. Vinnie Sunseri also notched a pick-six off Logan Thomas, whose 5-of-26 passing line was far from spectacular, too. (Honorable mention: FAU coach Carl Pelini ordering a spike on fourth down late in Friday's 34-6 loss at Miami.)

The surprise: Jim Grobe was not kidding when he said he was going to play more true freshmen this season. Wake Forest broke in nine first-year players during Thursday's 31-7 win over Presbyterian. In his previous 12 years, Grobe had only played 22 true freshmen in total. (In opponent news, Villanova's fake punt against BC has to qualify here as well.)

strong>The history: In beating Elon 70-0, Georgia Tech tied a school record for points in the modern era and set a school record for margin of victory in the modern era. The Yellow Jackets also broke the ACC record for margin of victory, and their 10 touchdowns tied a school record as well.

The delay(s): UNC and South Carolina took a nearly two-hour break Thursday because of lightning. Virginia's opener Saturday against BYU was delayed more than two hours because of bad weather, too. How bad? Just take a look at the picture BYU posted on Twitter of the flooding in the tunnels of Scott Stadium.

The unfortunate turn of events: Dave Doeren unveiled Brandon Mitchell as his quarterback choice. It looked like the right one before Mitchell suffered a foot injury that will force him to miss four to six weeks. The Arkansas transfer went 3-of-3 for 93 yards and orchestrated consecutive touchdown drives to start the game. Colorado State transfer Pete Thomas shouldered the load after Mitchell's injury.

The playmaker: Duke Johnson gets this honor after tallying three plays of 35 yards or more in the first half Friday night for Miami. Johnson looks like he won't be taken down by a sophomore slump this year, as he opened with 186 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.
Howard Schnellenberger has to do the honorary coin toss for this one, right?

Miami and Florida Atlantic will play each other three times between 2013 and 2016, the schools announced Saturday. Despite being roughly an hour apart, the schools have never met.

"I'm thrilled to death that FAU and UM are going to face-off on the gridiron," Schnellenberger said in a statement. "It is part of the big plan and may develop into a wonderful addition to south Florida football."

Schnellenberger coached the Hurricanes to their first national title in 1983. He started the Owls' program in 1998 and was its only coach before retiring at the end of this past season and becoming a school ambassador. Carl Pelini succeeded him as coach. Schnellenberger's career record is 158-151-3

FAU will travel to Sun Life Stadium on Aug. 31, 2013 and host Miami at FAU Stadium in 2015. Miami will host FAU again in 2016. The dates for the last two games have yet to be announced.

The 2013 game will be the first of four games Miami plays against in-state schools that season, as the Hurricanes will also travel to Florida State, host Florida and visit South Florida. The 2015 game will mark Miami's first in Palm Beach County and its first away game south of Tampa.

FAU's only game against an ACC school was a 54-6 loss at Clemson on Sept. 2, 2006.

"It's a great matchup," Pelini said in a statement. "Miami is a prestigious program of which we would like to emulate. It will be great for our players to challenge the names they played against in high school and for the fans to have a close away game to attend."

Weekend Rewind: Non-AQs

December, 5, 2011
12/05/11
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Let's take a look back at the week that was in the non-AQs:

And then there were none. For the first time since the BCS expanded to five games beginning in the 2006 season, there are no non-AQs represented in BCS games. The shocker of the weekend, of course, was Houston losing to Southern Miss 49-28. The Cougars were the best hope for the non-AQs to get an automatic spot into the BCS for the sixth straight season. All they had to do was win the Conference USA championship game. But Southern Miss came to play with a defense that wreaked havoc for most of the afternoon. The Golden Eagles had six tackles for loss, two interceptions, eight pass breakups and seven quarterback hurries. One of those interceptions was returned for a touchdown -- the eighth of the season to set a new FBS record. Tracey Lampley had 240 all-purpose yards as Southern Miss set championship game records for points scored and touchdowns (seven). Heading into the game, most would have guessed it would be Houston setting the records. But the Cougars were held to season lows in scoring and total offense. The loss opened the door for perhaps TCU to sneak in as an automatic qualifier. All the Horned Frogs had to do was move up two spots from No. 18 to No. 16 in the final BCS standings. But they did not move at all, ending up at 18. Boise State, the top-ranked of the non-AQs at No. 7, was disqualified from automatic selection because it failed to win its conference.

But what feels so inexcusable to Boise State and non-AQ fans is the fact that the Broncos were passed over for an-at large berth into the Sugar Bowl by both Michigan and Virginia Tech, ranked lower than them and with more losses than them. Virginia Tech is most galling, considering the Hokies got blown out in two games against Clemson, lost the ACC championship game and have not beaten anybody ranked in the Top 25 this season. So what if the Hokies travel well? That should not be the reason one team gets picked over another just as deserving. The bottom line is this: No one-loss team from the non-AQs has ever been taken as an at-large team. Boise State has now been passed over four times for BCS games as a top-10 team. That includes 2008, when the Broncos went undefeated. Now you know why they want to join the Big East. That conference's representative in the BCS, West Virginia, went 9-3.

MAC comeback. Usually it is Northern Illinois on the losing end of heartbreakers in the MAC title game. So maybe it was about time for the Huskies to feel a little bit of love. If you turned your TV set away from the game after Ohio took a 20-0 lead Friday night, you were probably not alone. Northern Illinois appeared lifeless, was mistake prone, with three first-half turnovers. Quarterback Chandler Harnish had 13 yards rushing and 35 passing yards at halftime. But it was Ohio's turn to make mistakes in the second half, with three interceptions that allowed Northern Illinois to come back and win. Ohio had just 70 total yards after halftime with 31 on the ground and 39 passing. Mathew Sims kicked a 33-yard field goal as time expired to give Northern Illinois a 23-20 win and cap its largest comeback in modern-day history. Harnish finished the game with 250 yards passing and three touchdowns, and help avenge a heartbreaking, last-minute loss to Miami (Ohio) in last year's MAC game.

Coaching carousel. Fresno State fired longtime coach Pat Hill after the Bulldogs went 4-9, tying for the most losses in school history. Hill was at the school for 15 seasons and certainly put this program on the national map. But the Bulldogs slipped in recent years, and in the end he simply did not win enough games at the end of his career. Colorado State also fired coach Steve Fairchild after a third straight 3-9 season. UAB hired Arkansas offensive coordinator Garrick McGee to replace Neil Callaway. FAU hired Carl Pelini, Nebraska defensive coordinator and brother of Huskers head coach Bo Pelini, to take over for the retired Howard Schnellenberger. Also, according to reports, Ole Miss will hire Arkansas State coach Hugh Freeze after one season on the job with the Red Wolves, and Tulane will hire Saints assistant Curtis Johnson. Hawaii coach Greg McMackin met with the school's chancellor and athletic director on Sunday, and a decision on his future could come soon. The Warriors went a disappointing 6-7 this season after being the preseason choice to win the WAC.
Ohio State? Nebraska? Maybe Iowa?

If former Arizona head coach Mike Stoops doesn't land another head-coaching position, it's a pretty good bet he'll be coaching defense in the Big Ten in 2012.

Stoops
Stoops
Stoops has confirmed he met with new Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, presumably about the Buckeyes' defensive coordinator position. While he's not saying whether or not he has been offered the job, Stoops certainly is in the mix.

He also could get a call from his good friend Bo Pelini, who likely will need a defensive coordinator to replace his brother, Carl, expected to become Florida Atlantic's head coach. Stoops told the Lincoln Journal Star's Steven M. Sipple that he would be interested in an opening on Nebraska's staff should one emerge.

Stoops and Pelini haven't discussed any jobs, Sipple reports. Their two families are close as the groups of brothers grew up together in Youngstown, Ohio.

"We're great friends, and I have great respect for Bo and what he's done," Stoops told the Journal Star.

There's also the situation at Iowa, which has a defensive coordinator in Norm Parker. But Parker's health issues in recent years have made his future a constant topic of discussion. I've heard from many Iowa fans expressing interest in Stoops, a safety at Iowa from 1982-84.

It will be interesting to where the coaching carousel goes, but Stoops could be heading back to the Big Ten.
Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini has reached a verbal agreement to become Florida Atlantic's head coach, colleague Joe Schad and others are reporting.

Schad reports that Pelini is expected to be introduced at Florida Atlantic on Monday. Pelini will replace Howard Schnellenberger, who announced before the season that he planned to retire and will coach his final game Saturday when the 1-10 Owls host Louisiana-Monroe. Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne was among those who recommended Pelini for the job.

It will be interesting to see where Nebraska coach Bo Pelini looks to replace his older brother on staff. The Pelini brothers helped bring Nebraska's defense to prominence in 2009 and 2010, and the unit had its good moments this year but also dealt with some puzzling inconsistency.

Former Arizona coach Mike Stoops was among the candidates Carl Pelini beat out for the FAU job, Schad reports. Stoops confirmed he has had discussions with new Ohio State coach Urban Meyer about a position on the Buckeyes staff. It will be interesting if Bo Pelini makes a push for Stoops, his close friend, for the Huskers' vacancy.

Nebraska's offense should be very strong in 2012, and it will be the defense, Bo Pelini's specialty, which must makes strides after losing standouts Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard. This will be a very important hire for Bo.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- In the locker room after a 24-3 win over Michigan State, Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini told his players that he had a present for them. Then he held up a black shirt.

As fashion goes, it isn't much to look at. Just a plain, mesh black shirt that big men sweat through during practice. But the shirts are a proud tradition for the Cornhuskers' defense, and they're only handed out when the players earn them through performance.

For about as long in a season as anyone can remember, Nebraska had gone shirtless in 2011. The defense looked nothing like the one that has annually been one of the nation's best. On Saturday, the Huskers finally found their form, holding Michigan State to a season-low 187 yards in a dominant effort.

"We turned the corner," defensive end Josh Williams said. "Now we can actually say we're Blackshirts."

[+] EnlargeB.J. Cunningham
AP Photo/Dave WeaverThe Cornhuskers kept B.J. Cunningham without a catch in a game for the first time since 2008.
And Nebraska can say that it's back in the hunt for a Legends Division title. By ruining Michigan State's magical October run, Big Red moved into a first-place tie in the division, along with the Spartans and Michigan. The Big Ten may not have any national title contenders, but the league should boast a wild November race toward Indianapolis.

The Huskers still have to go to Penn State and Michigan, but now they control their own destiny. If they play defense like they did Saturday, they may just put a chokehold on the division.

"I think they saw today what we're capable of doing when we're right," coach Bo Pelini said.

Michigan State looked lost in its first conference trip to Lincoln, confused by a Huskers defensive scheme that is both simple and complex at the same time. They play both their safeties deep to help in the passing game, leaving it to the linebackers to stop the run and the front four to get pressure. Carl Pelini said he called the same defensive play for almost the entire game.

Why change when it's working so well? Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins couldn't find openings in the zone and continually threw into double coverage. Nebraska made sure to give safety help all day on star receiver B.J. Cunningham, who finished without a catch for the first time since 2008. At the end of the third quarter, Cousins had just 35 passing yards -- or nine fewer than he had on last week's Hail Mary to beat Wisconsin. And while the Cover 2 look should in theory leave a defense open to the running game, the Spartans managed only 101 rushing yards, averaging a paltry 3.4 yards per carry.

Afterward, the only real question was: Where had this defense been all season?

Pelini said he sensed a big day coming because the players were "locked in" all week with their preparation.

"It's easy to defend a team when you know what they're doing before they even know," Nebraska safety Austin Cassidy said. "We knew exactly what was going to happen on every play."

That kind of knowledge had been missing earlier this season, as the Huskers' defense surrendered 38 points to Washington, 48 to Wisconsin and 27 to Ohio State. Carl Pelini blamed some of the bad defense partly on a lack of cohesion in the secondary, which is so key to his scheme. Star cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who shut down Cunningham on Saturday, missed time with a pulled leg muscle he suffered in training camp and is just now rounding into form. Safety Daimion Stafford, who came over from junior college this summer, needed to grow. He broke up three passes and nearly had a pick-six Saturday.

"Our guys are more knowledgeable now, so they're being faster and more aggressive and not second-guessing themselves," Carl Pelini said.

The improvement began during the bye week following an Oct. 8 victory over Ohio State. That's when the Pelini brothers got back to basics with their defense, re-emphasizing fundamentals and basic concepts.

"Physically and mentally we were able to regroup," Cassidy said. "We were able to step back as a unit, as defensive backs, and focus on ourselves. That helped people get a better grasp on what we're trying to do."

Michigan State looked like it could use some time off. After three straight emotional wins against Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin, the Spartans were uncharacteristically sloppy on special teams, hurt themselves defensively with drive-extending penalties and appeared to be worn down in the fourth quarter.

They refused to use the October grind as an excuse for the loss, however. In reality, a 3-1 record through that stretch is probably as good as the team could have hoped for coming into this season. Michigan State has a much easier schedule in the final month than either Nebraska or Michigan and can get to Indy by winning out if the Huskers drop a game.

"We had a great month," Cousins said. "It didn't end the way we wanted it to, but it's more important how we respond than what we did in October. People remember how you finish, and that's why November is so important."

No one will want to play the Huskers in November if their defense can keep up this resurgence. Michigan State came into Saturday's game with the heavily-hyped defense, one that ranked second nationally in yards allowed per game. But now that the Blackshirts are back, there might be a new big, bad bully in the Big Ten.

"We're pretty damn proud of our defense around here," Carl Pelini said. "Everybody you listened to this week said [Michigan State is] a better defense. I challenged our guys and said, 'Let's go out and show them we are a better defense.' Who knows who's better or not, but today our defense was better."

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 8

October, 20, 2011
10/20/11
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Ten items to track on Saturday as you watch another set of Big Ten games.

1. Wisconsin offense vs. MSU defense: Two of the nation's elite units clash Saturday night at Spartan Stadium in a game that likely will determine the Big Ten's top team. The nation's top scoring offense (50.2 ppg) is pitted against a Michigan State defense ranked fourth in points allowed (10.8 ppg), second in yards allowed (186.2 ypg) and first against the pass (119.2 ypg). From terrific individual matchups -- Jerel Worthy vs. Peter Konz, Nick Toon vs. Johnny Adams -- to the chess game between the coordinators, these two units will easily hold your attention.

2. Life without Crick begins: After six shaky quarters in Big Ten play, Nebraska's defense regained its mojo in the final 23 minutes of a historic comeback victory against Ohio State on Oct. 1. But the Huskers received some bad news during the bye week, as star DT Jared Crick was ruled out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Coach Bo Pelini plans to use a four-man rotation at defensive tackle -- Chase Rome, Terrence Moore and Thaddeus Randle will see time alongside starter Baker Steinkuhler. Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said this week that Rome, a redshirt freshman, "plays like a madman" and has stood out. The Crick-less defensive line debuts Saturday against 1-5 Minnesota.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
AP Photo/Andy Manis Can Russell Wilson and the Badgers continue their torrid run when they visit East Lansing?
3. JoePa goes for No. 408: There's something about Joe Paterno, Northwestern and milestone victories. In 2001, Paterno tied Paul "Bear" Bryant's Division I-A record with his 323rd coaching victory after Penn State upset Northwestern in Evanston. Last year, JoePa earned win No. 400 after Penn State rallied past Northwestern in State College. Paterno can reach another plateau Saturday night as Penn State visits Northwestern. A victory gives Paterno 408 for his career, tying him with the late Eddie Robinson for the most in (formerly Division I) history.

4. Spartans' October grind continues: Michigan State is halfway through one of the more grueling months in recent Big Ten history and boasts a 2-0 mark. The Spartans already have made history with their first win at Ohio State since 1998 and their fourth consecutive win against archrival Michigan last Saturday. They now aim to make a national statement by recording their first win against a BCS top 10 team under coach Mark Dantonio. Although Wisconsin certainly gets Michigan State's attention, it'll be interesting to see how the Spartans perform after emotional games against Michigan and Ohio State. Oh, yeah, and a road trip to Legends division contender Nebraska awaits next week.

5. Badgers' road leads to house of horrors: Wisconsin's first true road game of the 2011 season takes place in a stadium that has been the program's house of horrors in recent years. The Badgers have dropped three consecutive games in Spartan Stadium, including a 34-24 defeat last year that proved to be their only regular-season loss. They blew a late lead in East Lansing in 2008 and suffered a 49-14 beating in 2004 when they were 9-0 and ranked No. 5 in the BCS standings. Quarterback Russell Wilson hasn't been part of the Badgers' stumbles in Sparta, and Wisconsin will lean on the transfer in what should be a raucous environment Saturday night.

6. Boiler crossing: The Illinois-Purdue game won't make waves nationally or even regionally, but it's absolutely huge for both teams. Illinois comes off of its first loss and knows the doubters are getting louder. The Illini also must regain their swagger on both sides of the ball after failing to score for 53 minutes last week and falling to an Ohio State team that completed only one pass (and attempted just four). This game might be even more important for Purdue, which did some good things last week at Penn State but once again made too many major mistakes to record a win. The Boilers' schedule following Illinois is very difficult -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Iowa -- so if they want to end their bowl drought, they had better start winning soon.

7. Iowa's McNutt eyes the record: After coming to Iowa City as a quarterback, Marvin McNutt will leave as one of the Hawkeyes' most prolific wide receivers. Last week he tied Tim Dwight and Danan Hughes for the team's career touchdown receptions record with 21. McNutt can set the record Saturday as he goes up against an Indiana defense that has surrendered 13 passing touchdowns this season. McNutt ranks fourth in the Big Ten in receptions (5.8 rpg) and third in receiving yards (95.5 ypg) this season.

8. Spartans getting defensive: Michigan State has been on the defensive about its defense since last week's penalty-filled win against Michigan. Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi on Tuesday clarified his "unnecessary roughness" quote and defended the unit against claims it played dirty against Michigan, in a game that featured several personal fouls. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has his team prepared, saying the Spartans, "do certain things, whether it be before the snap, during the snap or after the snap that can cause you to react." It will be interesting to see if Michigan State's defense can strike a balance between aggression and discipline against a Wisconsin team that rarely beats itself.

9. A close shave in Evanston: Northwestern has lost four consecutive games for the first time since 2006, and quarterback Dan Persa's senior season seems to be going down the drain. The Wildcats clearly need a shake-up ... or a shave-up? The day after throwing a pick-six at Iowa, Persa decided to shave his head. "Woke up on Sunday, felt like shaving it," Persa said Monday. "So I shaved it." Perhaps the new 'do will help Persa and the Wildcats in a must-win game Saturday night against Penn State at Ryan Field. It's a big one for Persa, a Pennsylvania native who was overlooked by the Lions during the recruiting process. The quarterback needs a strong effort against a Penn State defense ranked seventh nationally against the pass (161.1 ypg).

10. Hoosiers receivers under the gun: Indiana coach Kevin Wilson rarely holds back, and this week he unloaded on his wide receivers, a group that was supposed to be the team's strength. "Our receiver play's been very, very poor," Wilson said. "... We don't work with any sense of speed and urgency out there." Injuries have been a problem, but the wideouts need to help out their young quarterbacks, beginning Saturday afternoon at Iowa. The Hoosiers will be without Damarlo Belcher (knee), so Kofi Hughes and others must step up against the Iowa secondary.
There are two ways for the Big Ten to boost its sagging national reputation.

The first is the most direct, effective and difficult: win a national championship. The BCS championship game is the only contest that truly shapes national perception. When a team hoists the crystal football in early January, the bowl performances of its conference brethren, good or bad, typically fade away. Until the Big Ten wins a title for the first time since 2002, it will have a hard time convincing anyone outside the heartland that it's an elite conference.

The second path involves more teams but can be more manageable: avoid days like the Big Ten endured on Jan. 1. As you remember, the league went 0-5 in bowls that day, a historic failure that made it easy for critics to open fire. The carnage included three double-digit losses to the rival SEC, which went on to win its fifth consecutive national title. The New Year's Day disaster said less about the Big Ten's strength at the top and more about its utter lack of depth as a conference.

Although Ohio State's losses in the BCS title game hurt the Big Ten's rep, the New Year's Day debacle along with poor overall bowl performances between 2006-08 (6-16 combined record) do just as much damage, if not more.

That brings us to this season.

Wisconsin on Saturday night announced itself as the Big Ten's best team -- perhaps by a wide margin -- and a national championship contender. Looking at the Badgers' remaining schedule, an Oct. 22 trip to Spartan Stadium -- Wisconsin's own personal house of horrors -- as well as trips to Ohio State (Oct. 29) and Illinois (Nov. 19) stand out. But the Badgers will be favored in all three games and have a very real chance to reach the Big Ten championship game Dec. 3 with an unblemished record.

If Wisconsin can win a national title -- preferably against an SEC opponent -- the Big Ten's overall bowl performance will be a footnote. Yet it won't be easy for Bret Bielema's crew.

What about Path No. 2? Can the Big Ten produce a good overall showing in the bowls?

Right now, Big Ten depth doesn't look very promising. Nebraska, which many considered the Big Ten's second best team, got steamrolled in Madison and has fallen well short of expectations on the defensive side. Two traditional powers, Ohio State and Penn State, are having major problems on offense. Michigan and Illinois both are 5-0, but neither squad has played a road game. Northwestern has significant concerns on defense, while quarterback Dan Persa's health situation remains in constant limbo. The Big Ten likely won't have to worry about Purdue, Indiana or Minnesota hurting its bowl record.

What the Big Ten needs is its middle class to rise in the final eight weeks of the regular season. It doesn't want a repeat of 2010, when only three squads entered the bowl season with more than seven victories.

Although every Big Ten team but Wisconsin has shown some flaws, the potential for improvement is there, particularly with certain teams.

Michigan and Illinois have won games despite playing their best football, particularly Illinois. If the Wolverines' defense continues to make strides and Denard Robinson trims his turnovers, Michigan will be a tough out. Illinois also has to cut down on mistakes after turnovers and penalties nearly cost it against Northwestern.

Three teams that should be better in November are Michigan State, Nebraska and Iowa. The Spartans' defense is for real, and can carry the team a long way. If the offensive line gets more consistent and Michigan State can produce an effective run game, look out for Mark Dantonio's team.

Iowa also is a squad to watch. Gifted QB James Vandenberg and a deeper-than-expected receiving corps make the offense extremely dangerous. The defense won't be as stifling as it has been in past seasons but still makes plays, particularly in the secondary.

There's something wrong with Nebraska's defense, but there's time to fix it, and Bo and Carl Pelini are pretty handy. Taylor Martinez is what he is and can't hurt the team like he did at Wisconsin, but an upgraded defense can take the Huskers a long way.

I have less hope for Penn State, Ohio State and Northwestern, as all three teams have significant weaknesses (offense for Penn State and Ohio State, defense for Northwestern). But each team also has reasons to believe it can make strides down the stretch (Penn State's defense, Ohio State's returning players from suspension, Persa's presence for Northwestern).

The Big Ten's problem hasn't been at the top the past two years. The league is 3-1 in BCS bowl games (yes, I know Ohio State's Sugar Bowl win will be vacated) with a close loss to a great TCU team in the Rose Bowl.

The bigger issue is building depth and solidifying the middle class before facing what is annually the nation's toughest bowl lineup.

Otherwise, Jan. 2 could be another very long day for Jim Delany.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 4

September, 22, 2011
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This week's sorry slate of Big Ten games tested my what-to-watch detective skills. Are there really 10 things to watch around the league on Saturday?

You bet, and here they are.

Brady Hoke
David Dermer/Getty ImagesMichigan coach Brady Hoke will face his former team, San Diego State, in an emotional game this Saturday.
1. The Brady Bowl: Michigan coach Brady Hoke goes up against his former team as San Diego State visits the Big House. There's a lot of familiarity on both sides, and it will be interesting to see the coaches match wits, particularly longtime colleagues Al Borges (Michigan's offensive coordinator) and Rocky Long (San Diego State's head coach). The Aztecs players will be geared up to face Hoke, and the Wolverines much match their intensity.

2. Miller time or Cup 'o Joe: Ohio State coach Luke Fickell was noncommittal Tuesday about his starting quarterback for Saturday's game against Colorado, although he seemed to lean toward true freshman Braxton Miller. Fickell wants more big plays from the offense and Miller can provide them. He also elevates the risk for mistakes, committing two turnovers in the loss to Miami. Miller clearly is Ohio State's future at quarterback, but Fickell needs to win now as his own future is in doubt. It'll be interesting to see what the young coach does with his signal-callers.

3. Illini defense to be tested again: Illinois' defense carried the team to a signature win last week against Arizona State. Vic Koenning's unit faces another test Saturday against Western Michigan and talented quarterback Alex Carder, who ranks 12th nationally in passing efficiency. If the Illini don't tighten up a bit in the secondary or pressure the pocket like they did last week, Carder will capitalize. Illinois also must avoid the letdown factor against a team it lost to in 2008.

4. Blackshirts look for boost: We're still waiting for the Nebraska defense to live up to the lofty expectations placed on the unit -- both inside and outside the program -- entering the season. The Blackshirts have allowed 68 points in their past two games and rank in the middle of the pack nationally in most major defensive statistical categories. The Pelini brothers will look for a more polished performance against 3-0 Wyoming before a much tougher game next week at Wisconsin.

5. The Bison are coming: Most games against FCS opponents are glorified practices, but not for Minnesota. The Gophers lost to South Dakota last year and North Dakota State in 2007, and they barely escaped against South Dakota State in 2009. Jerry Kill might be the perfect coach to prepare Minnesota for a rematch with North Dakota State, as he spent a lot of time at the FCS level and knows how motivated those teams are to face the big boys. The Bison are ranked No. 6 in the latest FCS poll and provide a significant challenge for Kill's Minnesota squad.

6. Hillman vs. Denard: Two of the nation's most dynamic ball carriers will share the field Saturday at the Big House. San Diego State's Ronnie Hillman, the nation's second-leading rusher (165.7 ypg), will test Michigan's defensive front seven. Michigan will counter with -- who else -- Denard Robinson, who has been brilliant with his feet despite some ups and downs as a passer in the first three games.

7. The McGloin-Bolden saga: Will Week 4 finally provide some clarity in Penn State's seemingly never-ending quarterback competition? Most Nittany Lions fans certainly hope so. Coach Joe Paterno wants to be fair to both Rob Bolden and Matthew McGloin, both of who have had their ups and downs in the first three games. "I don't know what I'm waiting for,'' Paterno said this week. Maybe a touchdown pass. Penn State is one of only three FBS teams not to record a passing touchdown in the first three games.

8. Young lines under the gun: Michigan State and Indiana both will send relatively inexperienced offensive lines onto the field Saturday. Injuries have taken their toll on the Spartans' line, and junior-college transfer Fou Fonoti needs to step up at tackle in place of Skyler Burkland. Despite a flurry of false-start penalties last week, Indiana plans to start several freshmen offensive linemen in its first true road game against winless North Texas.

9. Iowa's green-out: Iowa fans excel at color coordination, but you'll see plenty of green mixed in with black and gold on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. The school is encouraging its fans to wear green as a tribute to former safety Brett Greenwood, who remains hospitalized after collapsing Sept. 9 during a workout. It's a great idea and I hope to see plenty of green in the grandstands.

10. Bucky Badger's pushups: Wisconsin scored 70 points or more three times last season, and the Badgers could close in on the plateau Saturday against FCS South Dakota. The Badgers lead the Big Ten in scoring (45 ppg) and total offense (505.7 ypg). Although Bret Bielema likely won't take many chances with his starters a week before Nebraska comes to town, his team should produce plenty of points -- and pushups for its beloved mascot.
Nebraska's defense could use a boost from a star player after a lackluster Week 3 showing against Fresno State.

Whether cornerback Alfonzo Dennard can provide one remains to be seen.

Huskers coach Bo Pelini isn't sure whether Dennard will make his season debut Saturday against Washington. Dennard has been sidelined since the middle of training camp with a pulled leg muscle.

Pelini on Monday said Dennard remains ahead of schedule in his recovery but that the injury requires 6-8 weeks of rehab and he's probably in week 5 of that process.

"He's as good a corner as there is in the country, so obviously that’s going to affect you some," Pelini said. "You've got to deal with that at different times in different spots. Other guys have got to step up."

While Dennard adds a shut-down corner to Nebraska's secondary, he also brings tremendous value as a run defender, as the Omaha World-Herald's Sam McKewon writes.

Fresno State racked up 190 rush yards and 444 total yards in a 42-39 loss.

From McKewon's story:
Last year, Husker safeties rolled down into run support with ferocity. Eric Hagg, Dennard and Prince Amukamara allowed them to. The gulf between those three and Ciante Evans, Andrew Green and [Justin] Blatchford alters how NU's defense must play. Washington, Wisconsin and even Ohio State will see how Fresno emptied the box and then attacked it with power.

Pelini described the play of the Dennard-less cornerback corps as "average."

"When we play technique, we're pretty good," he said. "When we get away from our technique, we're not very good."

Pelini added of the entire unit: "I don't think we handled anything well defensively. We didn't play well."

I wouldn't want to be around Pelini or his brother Carl this week. Expect a crisper performance from the Blackshirts against a Washington team that looks mediocre on offense.

But the Huskers could use Dennard on the field as soon as possible.

Q&A: Nebraska DT Jared Crick

September, 9, 2011
9/09/11
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The Friday Q&A checks in with the Big Ten's No. 1 player in the preseason rankings, Nebraska standout defensive tackle Jared Crick. Nebraska opened its season with a 40-7 win against Chattanooga, and while the offense had some ups and downs, the defense performed as advertised.

Here are Crick's thoughts on Week 1, the depth of the Huskers' defensive line and what to expect Saturday night against Fresno State.

How did you feel about the defense's performance in the opener?

[+] EnlargeJared Crick
AP Photo/Nati HarnikJared Crick swatted away this throw by Chattanooga quarterback B.J. Coleman.
Jared Crick: I thought we played well, but after watching the film, I feel a whole lot better. I didn't see what I would want to see, but it's a good sign knowing what you've got to work on and knowing the exact points you've got to sharpen. We didn't play bad as a defensive front; we didn't play bad as a defense as a whole. I thought we played pretty well, it being our first time out there, but I'm definitely very excited after watching the film. In the past, you watch a game and you know you've got a whole lot to work on. Going into this week, we've just got to sharpen up a few things. And once we get that sharpened, we're going to be a whole lot better defense.

Are you ever worried to watch the film, even after a win?

JC: You're not worried, but you're always critical. You're always looking for the finer details, even if it's the littlest thing because sometimes that's what wins and loses games. You're very critical of yourself, you're very critical of your teammates. We played a good game. We only allowed seven points and that came on a bust on our part. But knowing the exact precise things we need to work on going into this next Saturday, it's very positive for us. It's a great feeling.

How much help will you have up front from guys like Cam [Meredith]?

JC: It was good, but we expect that of Cam. Now that Cam's healthy, he's got a year of experience under his belt and he did that all through fall camp, he made plays. So we expected that from him. But it was definitely nice to see him come out Saturday and just have fun. Last year, at times he worried a little too much about his responsibility instead of just relaxing and letting the game come to him. That's exactly what he did Saturday and he did a great job for us.

Did you expect him to score on the interception?

JC: I would have liked him to, but I'm just glad we got the turnover inside the 5. We always want to score as defensive linemen because we don't get that opportunity too much, but it was special enough that he got the pick.

Who else stood out to you along the defensive line?

JC: [Jason] Ankrah played well for us, his first start. This was really the cornerstone of his career of seeing how good he can really be, going against some different competition finally. This is only going to build his confidence throughout this year, and I expect big things from him. And also the new guys who played, Joe Carter, Eric Martin, Chase Rome. I saw a lot of good things out of T-Mo, Terrence Moore. I feel good knowing where we're at as a defensive line right now.

Did you feel Jason was coming on strong in camp? When did he turn the corner?

JC: Last spring he started to really come around. We asked him to gain a lot of weight. He came in at 240 and I think he's now up to 265, so he had to adjust to that weight change. He's playing a lot more physical. We saw it through this spring and he's progressed through the summer, into fall camp and definitely into the game. He's got to keep progressing.

You've only played one game, but do you have a sense of how offensive lines are going to approach you this year?

JC: Hard to say. Chattanooga ran a lot of two-step drop, they got rid of the ball quick. I saw a couple double-teams, slide pro. We saw it all, so we're going to watch the film again, see what kind of protections we didn't do so well on, what we did do well. We don't expect offenses to run the same kind of protection that Cam had pressure on, that I had a lot of pressure. We're looking for the protections we didn't do so well on. We're going to anticipate that a lot more and have to prepare for how to beat it.

(Read full post)

Luke Fickell/Brady Hoke/Jerry KillUS Presswire/AP Photo/US PresswireLuke Fickell, Brady Hoke and Jerry Kill will make their debuts as Big Ten head coaches Saturday.

Every college football season brings new faces and new storylines, but the Big Ten hasn't had a makeover like this before.

The conference will feature a new member (Nebraska), new divisions (Legends and Leaders) and a new championship game, the first in its history. Five new coaches join the league, and at least six teams will start new quarterbacks. Not surprisingly, the league race appears wide open.

As the Big Ten season kicks off Thursday night in Madison, let's take a look at all the newness around the conference.

NEW TEAM

Nearly 15 months after being admitted to the Big Ten, Nebraska will play its first game as a member of the league. The Huskers have enjoyed a honeymoon of sorts as the rest of the league familiarizes itself with the program's history, the school and a talented team projected to be in the mix for the Big Ten championship.

There will be much more hype surrounding Nebraska's first Big Ten game -- Oct. 1 at Wisconsin -- and rightfully so, and Saturday's opener against FCS Chattanooga won't be the best barometer for Bo Pelini's squad. The game will, however, provide a look at Nebraska's new offense under coordinator Tim Beck. Quarterback Taylor Martinez is healthy and supposedly more mature, while running back Rex Burkhead has received high marks throughout the offseason. Who steps up among Nebraska's talented young offensive skill players?

Those of us who haven't watched Big Red regularly also will get a sense of the defense and the complex scheme defensive tackle Jared Crick, coordinator Carl Pelini and others have cited. Don't expect Nebraska to reveal too much against Chattanooga, but after discussing the Huskers ad nauseum, it'll be nice to see them on the field.

NEW COACHES

Four Big Ten coaches will make their debuts with new teams Saturday, while Nebraska's Pelini works his first game as a Big Ten member.

Luke Fickell's job interview at Ohio State begins Saturday against Akron, as the former Buckeyes defensive lineman and longtime assistant makes his head-coaching debut for his alma mater. Fickell's in-game decisions, sideline demeanor and perhaps even his game-day attire (vest? no vest?) will be closely examined. Ohio State shouldn't have trouble with Akron, and anything less than a strong opening statement after a tough offseason will elicit some grumbling.

Another highly anticipated debut takes place in Ann Arbor as Brady Hoke leads Michigan out of the tunnel. Hoke has made few missteps since his hiring in January, and his approval rating among Michigan fans has soared. But things can change on game day, and a team going through quite a bit of transition must deliver a strong performance against Western Michigan.

Jerry Kill also has energized a fan base in Minnesota, and he begins another turnaround project with the Gophers after successfully rehabilitating programs at lower levels. Kill has been realistic about his team's prospects this season, and an opener at USC provides a huge challenge for Minnesota.

After years as one of the nation's top assistants, Kevin Wilson begins his head-coaching career Saturday as Indiana takes on Ball State at Lucas Oil Stadium, site of the Big Ten championship game. Wilson's personality and coaching style differ sharply from his predecessor, Bill Lynch, and Indiana fans hope the on-field results do, too. A new attitude certainly is taking root in Bloomington.

NEW QUARTERBACKS

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
AP Photo/The News & Observer,Ethan HymanRussell Wilson will make his highly anticipated debut under center for the Badgers on Thursday.
At least half the Big Ten will be starting new quarterbacks in Week 1: Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin. Penn State could play two quarterbacks with previous starting experience (Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin), while Northwestern might have to play multiple signal-callers because of Dan Persa's lingering injury issues.

Terrelle Pryor's departure from Ohio State in June leaves the Buckeyes with virtually no proven experience under center. Senior Joe Bauserman and freshman Braxton Miller emerged in camp, and both men could see significant time against Akron.

The Big Ten's most anticipated player debut takes place Thursday in Madison as Russell Wilson leads the Wisconsin offense against UNLV. Wilson, who started the past three season at NC State, has seamlessly transitioned to a new team and performed well in preseason practices.

Familiar names step into leading roles at Minnesota and Iowa. MarQueis Gray, the Gophers' No. 2 wide receiver in 2010, will start at quarterback, while James Vandenberg, who nearly led Iowa to a Big Ten championship in 2009 after Ricky Stanzi went down, leads the Hawkeyes offense against Tennessee Tech.

Purdue didn't expect to be in this category again, but Rob Henry's knee injury last week marked the latest blow for a star-crossed team. With Robert Marve still hobbled, Caleb TerBush will start the opener, making his first appearance since 2009.

Indiana's quarterback competition has been wide open throughout camp, as Dusty Kiel, Ed Wright-Baker and Tre Roberson try to separate themselves.

The season also brings some new challenges for returning quarterbacks. Michigan's Denard Robinson will have to adjust to a new offense after flourishing in the spread, while Northwestern's Persa might have to reinvent himself as a pocket passer because of limited mobility. Nebraska's Martinez aims for greater consistency in Beck's offense after mixed results in 2010.

As you can see, new is the norm for the Big Ten in 2011. Enjoy the ride.
They typically met around 1 p.m., after class, in the Nebraska football complex.

Cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard, Ciante Evans and Antonio Bell found a film room, slipped inside and closed the door. They grabbed notepads and pens, flipped on the television and didn't come out for the next two hours.

With 11 new opponents on the 2011 schedule, including eight teams in their new league, the Big Ten, the Nebraska players had no time to waste.

[+] EnlargeNebraska's Alfonzo Dennard
AP Photo/Dave WeaverAlfonzo Dennard, left, and his Husker teammates put in some extra time in the film room to prepare for their first season in the Big Ten.
"We went in there every day," Dennard said. "We had to watch a lot of tape on the Big Ten because we never played against them. In the Big 12, we knew what to expect and who to look out for. But the Big Ten, we really don't know anything."

Offseason film review is part of every team's regimen, but Nebraska players and coaches might be more bleary-eyed than most when September rolls around. Aside from Week 3 opponent Washington, a team Nebraska faced twice in 2010 (with very different results), it's a whole new world for Big Red this season.

The preparation process began in February, and players and coaches studied at different speeds. Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini finished reviewing Big Ten offenses by the start of spring practice, while others hadn't gone quite as in depth.

"I feel great about the preparation we've had," head coach Bo Pelini said. "We put a lot of work in."

Dennard, Evans and Bell organized their study by examining Nebraska's new opponents in order. They started with Chattanooga, which Nebraska hosts Sept. 3 in the season opener. To get a good gauge on the Mocs, they studied a game against a strong opponent -- in Chattanooga's case, Appalachian State.

Down the list they went until the first Big Ten opponent, Wisconsin, a team Nebraska faces Oct. 1 in Madison.

"They’ll try to run the ball to lull you to sleep, and then they’ll hit you with a play-action," Dennard said "So you've got to stay focused and on top of their receivers because they have a pretty good receiver, Nick Toon."

The Huskers cornerbacks took notes on each new team.

"We'll write down, 'First down, they'll run the ball. Second down, they'll probably play-action,'" Dennard said.

The perceived stylistic differences between the Big Ten and Big 12 have been brought up throughout Nebraska's transition. Most see the Huskers moving from a finesse league filled with spread offenses and speed to a conference with more traditional schemes and power, particularly along the line of scrimmage. That might be simplifying things a bit.

When Huskers defensive tackle Jared Crick watched tape this offseason, the differences between the Big 12 and the Big Ten didn't jump out as much as the differences between Nebraska and every other team in America.

"Especially watching the Big Ten, offense and defense, it's nothing like ours," Crick said. "They play completely different. ... It's tough sometimes watching game film, when you're trying to see what they plan on running at you because no one plays like you. It's kind of up in the air. You have an idea, but you don't know [for sure]."

Crick and Carl Pelini both noted that while Nebraska might have a larger volume of prep work for the season, the other Big Ten teams will be surprised when they turn on tape of the Huskers. Nebraska is introducing a new offensive system this year under Tim Beck, but the real curveball could come from the Blackshirts defense.

"I expect them to run their base stuff at us to try and punch us in the mouth with what they do best," Crick said, "but honestly, I haven't seen a defense anywhere that's like ours. Ours is the most unique defense in the nation, so they're going to have to tweak some things for us, tweak their whole offensive game plan altogether.

"Our defense is unlike any others, not only in scheme but in personnel."

The prep work will continue on both sides for the next few weeks, but Dennard knows it's all about making adjustments on game day.

"They'll probably change everything up," he said, "so you can't be set for what they're going to do because of what they did last year.

"It's a process, but we know what to look for now."
Nebraska has no plans to tiptoe across the Big Ten's doorstep this season.

The Huskers fully intend to break down the door.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Brett Davis/US PresswireHead coach Bo Pelini and the Cornhuskers believe they have the talent and depth to compete for the Big Ten and national titles.
Since the Big Ten approved Nebraska as its 12th member on June 11, 2010, the goodwill has flowed from Lincoln across the league footprint. Nebraska has heaped praise upon its new league -- occasionally tweaking its old one, the Big 12, in the process -- and repeatedly noted that the Big Ten's history and culture provide an excellent fit for one of college football's iconic programs.

But the time for pleasantries is over. The Huskers aren't just happy to be here.

"We have all the pieces to win it all this year," senior defensive tackle Jared Crick said. "Not just the Big Ten championship, but the whole thing."

Bold words from arguably the Big Ten's best player. But there's evidence to back it up.

While moving to a new conference brings unique challenges for Nebraska coach Bo Pelini and his players, they fully believe they can win the Big Ten in Year 1. It would be quite an accomplishment for a program that, despite its storied history, last won a conference title in 1999 and hasn't recorded a top 10 finish in a decade.

Nebraska's case for a Big Ten title begins with its players, particularly on defense. Crick is one of three All-America candidates -- linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard are the others -- headlining a unit that ranked among the top 15 nationally in each of the past two seasons. Crick and David both earned second-team All-America honors in 2010, while Dennard recorded four interceptions for a secondary filled with NFL prospects.

But Nebraska is about more than star power. Veterans Baker Steinkuhler and Cameron Meredith join Crick on one of the nation's top defensive lines, while safety Austin Cassidy quarterbacks the unit and Sean Fisher returns from injury to assist David.

Despite losing first-round draft picks in each of the past two years (Ndamukong Suh, Prince Amukamara), the Blackshirts are setting the bar even higher in a league where elite defenses rise to the top.

"We have more talent than we've had in the past," said Crick, who has recorded 9.5 sacks in each of the past two seasons. "We have depth coming out of our ears. It's a great thing to know, that if you want a breather, you can come out and the next guy will come in and he won't let down. That's true across the board."

The Big Ten's best teams, namely Ohio State, boast elite defenses nearly ever year, and Nebraska brings a strong track record.

"Look at who coaches them," Huskers wide receiver Brandon Kinnie said. "You've got two defensive brainiacs."

Those would be Bo Pelini and his brother Carl, Nebraska's defensive coordinator. Bo Pelini has coached a top 15 defense in seven of the eight seasons since returning to the college ranks from the NFL.

Their intricate scheme asks a lot of the players but can suffocate opponents.

"There’s not one defense that’s comparable to ours," Crick said. "Very complex, and that's what makes it unique. As a defensive lineman, I have five responsibilities, where other defensive linemen, all they've got to do is shoot their gap. We want it that way."

Nebraska might have a championship-level defense this season, but questions swirl around an offense that has been unreliable. After the unit stumbled late last season, Pelini switched gears, promoting Tim Beck to coordinator.

Beck's system is designed to provide greater freedom for players and not bog them down in details.

"We're getting it down every day in practice," Kinnie said. "We haven't scratched the surface of what we can do."

The offense likely will hinge on sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez, whose inconsistent 2010 season mirrored that of the entire unit.

He sizzled during the first seven games, eclipsing 100 rushing yards five times and lighting up Oklahoma State for five touchdown passes. But an ankle injury suffered against Missouri derailed his season, which got ugly both on and off the field.

Martinez has earned high marks from his coaches and teammates during the offseason, both for his play and for displaying greater maturity.

"He's much more confident playing," Beck recently told reporters of his quarterback. "I'm really proud of his leadership, the way he's handling everything."

The Huskers are also a hungry bunch after dropping back-to-back Big 12 championship games by a combined four points. While the rest of the Big Ten gets adjusted to division play, Nebraska knows what it takes to reach a championship game, and the pain that comes with falling just short.

"We were really close, and we had some disappointments," Pelini said. "As a whole program, we've got to get over the top."

Despite a new league, 11 new opponents and a much-discussed schedule that makes stops in Madison, State College and Ann Arbor, there's a belief among the Huskers and the supporting evidence that they can take the next step.

"All over, we’ve got a good team, and we can do big things," Dennard said. "Last year, we ended up very bad, so we're going to try and go out there and show the world that Nebraska is a better team."

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