NCF Nation: Carson Wiggs

Our series ranking each position group from the 2011 Big Ten season comes to a close today with the final group, and one that is often overlooked but is always important: special teams.

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

And away we go:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12. Illinois: Ron Zook didn't help his case to be retained as head coach through the performance of his special teams, a part of the game that was supposed to be his field of expertise. Illinois was simply dreadful in creating advantageous field position, finishing last in the nation in kickoff returns and third-to-last in punt returns. The Illini also weren't very good at kickoff coverage, though at least Derek Dimke made 10 of 12 field goals. Even that was marred by his missed 42-yarder at the end of a 10-7 loss at Penn State.
National Signing Day is barely a week away, and Big Ten teams will be stockpiling for the future (and, in some cases, the present). Today we'll take a look at the recruiting needs of each Big Ten team, starting with those in the Leaders division. These needs are based on current rosters and anticipated departures in the near future. And to save you some email time, we do realize teams have already addressed needs in compiling their 2012 classes.

Let's get started ...

ILLINOIS

Wide receiver: The Illini lose A.J. Jenkins, who accounted for 90 of the team's 226 receptions in 2011. No other Illinois player had more than 26 catches, so there certainly are opportunities for young players to emerge and make an immediate impact for the new coaching staff.

Linemen: Illinois loses two starters from an offensive line that struggled down the stretch of the regular season. It's important to build depth there going forward. Despite Whitney Mercilus' early departure to the NFL draft, the defensive line returns some talented players. Still, defensive end Michael Buchanan is entering his senior year, and defensive tackle Akeem Spence is a bona fide NFL prospect who could enter the draft with a strong 2012 campaign.

Safety: The Illini defense didn't have many weaknesses in 2011, but safety was a liability at times. The team returns experience for 2012, but will lose some key players after the season. An impact defensive back or two in the 2012 class would really help.

INDIANA

Defensive back: This has been a primary recruiting need for the past few seasons, and it remains a pressing concern after Indiana surrendered a league-worst 8.5 yards per pass and a league-high 26 passing touchdowns in 2011. Indiana needs impact players and depth among the back four to be able to limit Big Ten offenses.

Defensive front seven: Sense a theme here? Indiana needs defenders in the worst way, and the front seven is a huge piece to the puzzle. The Hoosiers return some experience at defensive tackle, but lose top linebackers Jeff Thomas and Leon Beckum. The coaches showed in 2011 that they're not afraid to play young players, and they need more contributors on the defensive side.

Quarterback: Starter Tre Roberson returns, but Indiana needs bodies here after Dusty Kiel and Ed Wright-Baker both opted to transfer earlier this month.

OHIO STATE

Offensive line: Three multiyear starters depart at center, left tackle and right tackle, so Ohio State's offensive line will have a very different look in 2012. The Buckeyes could use some immediate-impact linemen, like center Mike Brewster in 2008, and they'll look to build depth here.

Defensive end: Ohio State appears loaded at defensive tackle for 2012 and beyond, but the team needs some more pure pass-rushers on the edge. John Simon, who had four more sacks than anyone on the squad in 2011, will be a senior this coming season.

Wide receiver: The Buckeyes lacked reliable receiver options in 2011 and had their best wideout, DeVier Posey, for only three games because of suspension. Posey departs and Ohio State needs to build depth and increase competition in what should be a more wide-open offense under Urban Meyer.

PENN STATE

Quarterback: New coach Bill O'Brien might be the quarterback whisperer Penn State has waited for, but he also needs to upgrade the talent on the roster. Matthew McGloin and Rob Bolden both must make significant strides, and while Paul Jones is an intriguing player, we've yet to see him in a game. Penn State needs more options here.

Wide receiver: Top target Derek Moye departs, and Penn State returns only two players with decent but not great production in Justin Brown and Devon Smith. Brown looks like a potential impact player in 2012, but Penn State needs more options in the passing game.

Defensive back: Penn State loses all four starters, although returning players like Stephon Morris, Malcolm Willis and Adrian Amos have logged playing time. Still, the Lions need some more players here to build depth and increase competition.

PURDUE

Offensive line: This is one of few areas where Purdue loses a decent amount of production from 2011, as tackle Dennis Kelly and Nick Mondek both depart. Two more starters exit after the 2012 season, and Purdue wants to be a run-based offense. It's important to build some depth up front with the 2012 class.

Kicker: Purdue loses the bionic-legged Carson Wiggs, who did more than make field goals from ridiculous distances. He also kicked off and served as a backup punter, attempting 45 punts over the past two seasons. The versatile Wiggs leaves a major void, and Purdue must address the specialist spot.

Defensive back: The Boilers say goodbye to both of their starting safeties from the 2011 team. They also will lose starting cornerback Josh Johnson after the 2012 season, while Ricardo Allen might be an early entry candidate with a big junior year. While this isn't a pressing need right now, it could soon become one.

WISCONSIN

Quarterback: Russell Wilson saved Wisconsin in more than one way in 2011, and his departure is significant. The team's most experienced signal callers, Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips, both are coming off of major injuries. Wisconsin typically doesn't play younger quarterbacks, but needs more options after a season where Wilson showed what the offense could be.

Wide receiver: The Badgers typically get by with 1-2 good wideouts and an excellent tight end or two, but they could use more depth at the receiver position. Top target Nick Toon departs, and Wisconsin is pretty thin at receiver aside from Jared Abbrederis.

Defensive speed: Oregon makes a lot of teams look slow, but the Rose Bowl spelled out what the Badgers must do to take the next step as a program. Wisconsin needs to upgrade its speed at all three levels of the defense, particularly the back seven, to prevent explosion plays. Michigan State also exposed Wisconsin's defense, so the need for speed certainly is there.
Here's a look at three keys for Purdue during Tuesday's Little Caesars Pizza Bowl matchup against Western Michigan in Detroit.

1. Establish the run without Bolden: Boilers leading rusher Ralph Bolden is out (torn ACL), but the team has other backs capable of attacking a Western Michigan defense ranked 107th nationally against the run. Akeem Shavers will be Purdue's primary ball carrier, and Jared Crank and Reggie Pegram also should get some touches. Purdue needs to take the pressure off of its quarterbacks and consistently move the chains against the Broncos. One potential problem area is the red zone, where Western Michigan plays its best defense (sixth nationally at 70 percent scoring conversions). Purdue has scored touchdowns on 30 of its 47 red zone opportunities, so the Bolden-less backfield must cash in when opportunities arise.

2. Contain Jordan White: The Western Michigan senior receiver leads the nation in both receptions per game (10.58) and receiving yards per game (137.2). White will be a factor, and quarterback Alex Carder will get him the ball, but Purdue must prevent the Broncos star from taking over the game. Boilers sophomore cornerback Ricardo Allen has covered several other standout receivers this season -- Notre Dame's Michael Floyd, Iowa's Marvin McNutt and Illinois' A.J. Jenkins among them -- and will be assigned to White for most of the game. Allen's aggressive style could result in big plays for Purdue or for Western Michigan, but he's the type of corner you want against a talent like White.

3. Gain the edge on special teams: Purdue's season has been largely defined by special-teams plays, both the good and the bad. A blocked kick has both cost Purdue a chance at victory (against Rice) and preserved a chance for an eventual win (against Ohio State). The Boilers need strong performances from specialists Carson Wiggs and Cody Webster in kicker-friendly Ford Field, and they must avoid breakdowns against Western Michigan, which has been solid on both punt returns and kick returns this season. If Wiggs converts some lengthy field goals, Webster puts Western Michigan in tough field-position situations and Raheem Mostert breaks off a long return or two, Purdue will be in good shape in what should be a close game.

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

November, 28, 2011
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For the final time in the 2011 regular season, let's press the rewind button:

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Mary Langenfeld/US PresswireRussell Wilson's one season at Wisconsin was surely something to smile about.
Team of the week: Wisconsin. The Badgers had an uphill climb after losing back-to-back games against Michigan State and Ohio State to end October. But they battled back to win their final four games in impressive fashion, including Saturday's 45-7 blowout of Penn State in Madison. Now they're just one win away from their second straight Rose Bowl appearance.

Game of the week: Michigan 40, Ohio State 34. Five lead changes, more than 800 yards of offense, a duel between two super-athletic quarterbacks and a game that came down to the final two minutes in a huge rivalry. Yep, this one was a no-doubter this week. Best edition of The Game since 2006.

Biggest play: Josh Johnson's interception of Indiana quarterback Tre Roberson late in the fourth quarter. The Hoosiers had moved the ball well all day and only trailed Purdue by eight points as they started their final drive. Johnson and receiver Nick Stoner caught Roberson's pass simultaneously, but Johnson ripped the ball away when they hit the turf. That allowed the Boilermakers to run out the clock, get back the Old Oaken Bucket, clinch bowl eligibility and quite possibly save Danny Hope's job. Good thing for them the play was not reviewable by rule.

Best call: Nebraska's decision to let Rex Burkhead break the school record for carries with a kneel down for No. 38 against Iowa. Burkhead, who hadn't played for several minutes after scoring a touchdown on his 37th carry, was typically humble when asked to go in for the record, telling his teammates he didn't want to get it that way. But offensive lineman Marcel Jones convinced him to do it for the seniors. Burkhead wasn't anywhere near 100 percent for last week's game but has been one of the biggest warriors in the Big Ten all season. He deserves as many places in the Nebraska record book as he can get.

Big Men on Campus (Offense): Michigan's Denard Robinson and Wisconsin's Montee Ball. These two share the award for a second straight week, and with good cause. Robinson accounted for five touchdowns and more than 330 yards of total offense, becoming just the fourth player in NCAA history to gain 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in a season twice in his career. He ran for 170 yards in the 40-34 win over Ohio State. Ball just keeps on piling up the touchdowns, adding four more in the win over Penn State. He ran for 156 yards on 25 carries and set the NCAA record with multiple touchdowns in 12 straight games. He has 34 touchdowns on the season, second-most of any FBS player in history and just five short of Barry Sanders' record of 39.

Big Men on Campus (Defense): Minnesota's Kim Royston and Nebraska's Lavonte David. Royston had 13 tackles against Illinois, the eighth time this season he finished a game with 10 or more stops. He also had his first sack of the season and a pass breakup while finishing the season with 123 tackles, the most by a Gopher since 2001. David capped his spectacular regular season with eight tackles and a sack, along with two pass break-ups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, as the Huskers nearly shut out Iowa.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Purdue's Carson Wiggs. He made four field goals -- from 48, 43, 29 and 22 yards -- in the Boilers' bowl-clinching 33-25 win over Indiana.

Best moment: It wasn't quite "Rudy," but it was close at Camp Randall on Saturday.

Wisconsin senior defensive end Greg Russo served two tours in Iraq before walking on to the Badgers last spring. For almost the entire season, he'd been waiting for the NCAA to clear him to appear in a game.

He finally got on the field for the first time with about a minute left in the win over Penn State. He didn't record a tackle like Rudy, but he didn't care.

"We stand on the field every day for practice," Russo told the Wisconsin State Journal. "But tonight, standing in the middle of the field and looking around and seeing the fans there and knowing I was a part of something that big, a part of being the Leaders Division champs, it was a totally different feeling, like I was on a completely different field and I was in a completely different place."

Final: Purdue 33, Indiana 25

November, 26, 2011
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Purdue has the Old Oaken Bucket back. More importantly, the Boilers have bowl eligibility.

It wasn't easy, as Purdue had to hold on for a 33-25 win on the road against rival Indiana. But the team looks likely to make the postseason for the first time since 2007 by getting its sixth win.

Fittingly in a season where special teams played such a big part in the outcomes (Middle Tennessee, Rice, Ohio State), the kicking game again played a huge role. Carson Wiggs kicked four field goals, Raheem Mostert had a huge kick return and a Cody Webster punt was downed at the Indiana 1 on the Hoosiers' final possession of the game.

The bad news for the Boilers was that running back Ralph Bolden appeared to injure his knee after rushing for 55 yards. Bolden has dealt with ACL problems his whole career, and we can only wish him the best with this latest injury. Akeem Hunt stepped up in Bolden's absence to produce 100 rushing yards on 10 carries, including a 50-yard gain that set up Purdue's final touchdown. Josh Johnson sealed the win with an interception of Tre Roberson with 4:38 left.

With Illinois losing its sixth straight game on Saturday, the Boilers should get the Big Ten's final bowl tie-in slot if the league gets two in the BCS. If not, another game with an open spot would likely scoop up this team since its fan base should be excited about the postseason. Danny Hope definitely bought himself some more time with the win, as a second straight loss to Indiana would have caused some serious questions to be raised in West Lafayette.

Indiana finishes 1-11 with no wins over FBS teams. There are some positives, because the Hoosiers pushed a lot of youngsters into duty and have solid building blocks in Roberson and running back Stephen Houston (seven rushes for 129 yards and a touchdown). But Kevin Wilson still has a serious rebuilding project ahead of him.

Halftime: Purdue 23, Indiana 17

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

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

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

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

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

The Boilers aren't out of the woods yet by any means. But they withstood an early storm and now just have to hold on for 30 more minutes to go bowling for the first time since 2007.

Halftime: Iowa 21, Purdue 14

November, 19, 2011
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Pick a sequence that defines the Iowa-Purdue first half.

It might be the one that saw Purdue punter Carson Wiggs roll out deep into his own territory with the option to run for a first down, only to punt apparently past the line of scrimmage and have it blocked and recovered by Iowa at the 10. But then the Hawkeyes fumble the ball away on the next play.

Or maybe the defining sequence was Purdue quarterback Robert Marve throwing an interception at the Iowa 1, followed immediately by Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg fumbling in his own end zone for a Purdue touchdown.

Yep, there's a reason why both these teams have mediocre records.

Iowa has been better most of the half, outgaining Purdue by 140 yards. Other than the fumble, Vandenberg has been excellent in throwing two touchdowns, and Marcus Coker is over 100 yards already with a score. But the Hawkeyes have those two costly fumbles and have missed a field goal, which is why they're only up seven instead of much more. Still, Kirk Ferentz has to be happy to be leading on the road, where Iowa hasn't won all year.

Caleb TerBush started at quarterback for Purdue but has thrown for only 42 yards. The Boilers haven't done much on the ground, either. They're lucky not to be behind by much more, but if they hang around long enough, maybe Iowa will make some more big mistakes and help them out.
Danny Hope took a brief break from entertaining recruits and preparing for Iowa to answer a phone call late Sunday afternoon.

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

What about Saturdays?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it was more than just scheme recognition.

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

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

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

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

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

"It was meant to be.”
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Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

1. Wisconsin is the Big Ten's only national title contender: Not a huge revelation, but it became official Saturday as both Michigan and Illinois lost to leave Wisconsin as the Big Ten's only unbeaten team. The Badgers have absolutely dominated the competition through the first six games, outscoring their opponents by a combined count of 301-58. Bret Bielema's squad is clearly the class of the Big Ten at this point, and there could be a substantial gap between Wisconsin and the rest of the league. We'll find out this week as Wisconsin visits East Lansing, a place where it has struggled in recent years (three straight losses).

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Lewis
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioIsaiah Lewis' interception against Michigan helped the Spartans remain undefeated.
2. Spartans are team to beat in Legends division: Michigan State is the only unbeaten team in the Legends division, and the Spartans established themselves as top dogs with a 28-14 win against archrival Michigan. With three division road games left -- Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern -- Michigan State had to take care of business on its home field. The nation's top-ranked defense contained Denard Robinson and forced mistakes, the biggest a pick-six by Isaiah Lewis. Michigan State's offense surged behind Edwin Baker, Kirk Cousins and Keshawn Martin. Michigan State now has a chance to make a league-wide statement next week against Wisconsin before resuming division play.

3. Michigan hasn't arrived: Brady Hoke kept trying to warn us, saying his team was overrated and that it wasn't close to his expectations for Michigan football. The Wolverines had some red flags during their 6-0 start, but they managed to cover up their warts with solid second-half adjustments and some heroic play from their quarterback. Well, we saw what happened when Michigan's flaws ran up against a good team on the road. Robinson's shortcomings as a passer were exposed, especially in a windy environment, and the Wolverines' defense got pushed around by a young Spartans offensive line. Michigan is clearly not anywhere near ready to be ranked in the top 10. The good news is, the Wolverines are still good enough to beat every team left on their regular-season schedule.

4. Illinois has a ways to go, too: Like Michigan, the Illini got off to a 6-0 start based in part on their comfortable home schedule. And like Michigan, we wondered just how for real this team was. Illinois had been living on the edge this season, winning its previous three home games by a total of nine points. The margin for error narrowed to nothing against Ohio State, which used a dominating defensive performance and power running game to humble Ron Zook's team. When you lose by 10 at home and the other team completed only one pass, you've been outmuscled. The Illini weren't as good as their record, but they still have enough talent to get to a good bowl game.

5. The next bubble to burst might be Penn State: The Nittany Lions deserve credit for being 6-1, and the defense continues to shine. But like Illinois and Michigan, they have some highly-exploitable weaknesses: namely, their offense. Purdue nearly pulled the upset in State College, and who knows what the outcome would have been if Carson Wiggs didn't miss a field goal and an extra point. Our point is, the Nittany Lions could be in trouble once they start facing the better teams on their schedule, particularly the ones who can score at least a couple of touchdowns. As this weekend taught us, a team's flaws will eventually catch up with it.

Penn State will be called the worst 6-1 team in America.

People will continue to point to the quarterback confusion, the inability to score touchdowns in the red zone and other obvious flaws with the Nittany Lions. But the record speaks for itself, and the Lions deserve credit for continuing to find ways to win.

Penn State's defense fueled a 23-18 victory against Purdue by forcing four turnovers, and Joe Paterno's team exploited a huge edge on special teams to beat the mistake-ridden Boilers. Among the heroes were linebacker Nate Stupar, who recorded two interceptions, kicker Anthony Fera (3-for-3 on field-goal attempts) and Chaz Powell, who had a 92-yard kick return before drawing a highly questionable penalty for tossing the ball in the air in celebration.

The Lions' quarterback situation didn't get much clearer as Matthew McGloin and Rob Bolden combined to complete just 10 of 23 passes for 185 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. It's hard to imagine that the quarterback situation won't catch up with Penn State at some point, but that point hasn't arrived yet.

One major bright spot was sophomore running back Silas Redd, who had 131 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries.

Purdue has to be kicking itself -- literally -- after another loss filled with major boo-boos. Standout kicker Carson Wiggs had a tough day, missing a 44-yard attempt and clanking a potential game-tying PAT try off of the upright that proved extremely costly. Purdue also allowed Powell's return at a very bad time, right after it closed to within two points with 8:08 to play.

The Boilers are a talented team with some exciting individual players -- Ralph Bolden, Justin Siller, Antavian Edison, Gary Bush -- who showed off their skills against a very good defense today. But mistakes kill you, and Purdue continues to make far too many to win in the Big Ten.
Power Rankings: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

It was a wild and mostly bad week in the Big Ten, and that means some shuffling in the power rankings. Of the four Big Ten teams in the preseason polls, only Wisconsin has looked polished both weeks, although Michigan State regained its swagger against Florida Atlantic. The top two are clear, but there’s no longer huge separation between the top four and the next five, where we continue to expect shuffling.

The bottom three teams -- Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota -- have separated themselves for the wrong reasons.

Let’s get to it.

1. Wisconsin (2-0): Quarterback Russell Wilson has been brilliant in his first two games as a Badger, completing 27 of 34 passes for 444 yards and five touchdowns (passer rating of 237.6). Wilson’s pocket presence showed against Oregon State, but the more important strides came from Wisconsin’s defense, which rebounded from a sloppy performance in the opener to blank the Beavers.

2. Michigan State (2-0): Speaking of defense, no Big Ten team put on a more dominant defensive display than Michigan State. A unit that lost two multiyear starters at linebacker held Florida Atlantic to one first down -- the stingiest Spartans effort since 1944 -- and just 48 total yards. Quarterback Kirk Cousins has been very solid so far. Michigan State begins its rough road stretch this week against a desperate Notre Dame team.

3. Nebraska (2-0): We're keeping the Huskers here for now, but the Big Ten’s newest member was thoroughly unimpressive against Fresno State. Coach Bo Pelini is right and some games turn into real grinds, but Nebraska should expect much more from its defense going forward. The offense will have its ups and downs, but the Blackshirts won’t beat the Big Ten's better teams with performances like Saturday's.

4. Ohio State (2-0): After a no-frills opener, Ohio State had hiccups in all three phases against Toledo and nearly paid the price. Toledo looks like a solid team and coach Tim Beckman had an excellent plan against his former team, but Ohio State must start executing better on offense. The secondary also could be a trouble spot. Ohio State made enough plays to win, but it will take a better performance to beat Miami on the road.

5. Michigan (2-0): The Wolverines once again are the Big Ten's most exciting team, but are they one of the league's best? We'll find out in October. Notre Dame has outplayed Michigan for parts of the teams' past three games, particularly Saturday night’s clash at the Big House, but Michigan has won all three contests behind mind-boggling quarterback play. Greg Mattison's defense continues to make plays despite suffering some breakdowns that could prove costly down the road.

6. Illinois (2-0): We'll get a very good gauge on the Illini this week against Vontaze Burfict and Arizona State, but Ron Zook's squad has impressed so far. A multi-pronged rushing attack once again should be among the Big Ten’s best, and the Illini defense made several big plays against South Dakota State. A victory against Arizona State would validate Illinois as a team to watch in the Big Ten.

7. Northwestern (2-0): Life without Dan Persa has gone surprisingly well for the Wildcats, thanks to the terrific play of backup quarterback Kain Colter. Although Northwestern likely needs Persa back for the Big Ten season, Colter gives the offense a different element with his athleticism. The defense is still prone to too many breakdowns, and the front seven needs a disciplined performance this week at Army.

8. Penn State (1-1): The Nittany Lions' defense will keep them in a lot of games this season and potentially make them a factor in the Leaders division. But without a starting quarterback or an offensive identity, Penn State has limited potential. Alabama will make a lot of offenses look bad, but Penn State needs to settle on a starter and start building around him.

9. Iowa (1-1): The Hawkeyes take the biggest tumble in the power rankings after a poor performance in Ames. A team that struggled to finish games in 2010 couldn’t hold leads both late in regulation and in overtime, as Iowa State's Steele Jantz picked apart a defense that lost four players to the NFL draft. Iowa's defense needs to rebound this week against a Pitt team that runs a high-tempo spread offense.

10. Purdue (1-1): We wanted to drop the Boilers after their loss to Rice but Indiana and Minnesota made that impossible. Carson Wiggs nearly helped Purdue to another dramatic win but his 31-yard field-goal attempt was blocked as time expired as Rice prevailed 24-22. Purdue needs more from its defense and has to avoid the breakdowns that have surfaced too often during coach Danny Hope’s tenure.

11. Indiana (0-2): Opportunistic defense nearly lifted Indiana to a huge win against Virginia, but the Hoosiers still haven't learned how to win games. They squandered a late lead and committed an inexcusable turnover in the final two minutes to hand Virginia a 34-31 win. There are some positives to take away from the second-half comeback, but Indiana still makes too many mistakes to get over the hump.

12. Minnesota (0-2): If Minnesota had one of the nation's more encouraging losses in Week 1, it had one of the more demoralizing defeats in Week 2. A heavy favorite against New Mexico State, the Gophers were thoroughly outplayed on their home field. Minnesota must not only respond from the loss but handle the potential absence of coach Jerry Kill, who suffered a seizure on the sideline late in the game. We hope to see coach Kill back on the field as soon as possible.

It was a wild and mostly bad week in the Big Ten, and that means some shuffling in the power rankings. Of the four Big Ten teams in the preseason polls, only Wisconsin has looked polished both weeks, although Michigan State regained its swagger against Florida Atlantic. The top two are clear, but there’s no longer huge separation between the top four and the next five, where we continue to expect shuffling.

The bottom three teams -- Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota -- have separated themselves for the wrong reasons.

Let’s get to it.

1. Wisconsin (2-0): Quarterback Russell Wilson has been brilliant in his first two games as a Badger, completing 27 of 44 passes for 444 yards and five touchdowns (passer rating of 237.6). Wilson’s pocket presence showed against Oregon State, but the more important strides came from Wisconsin’s defense, which rebounded from a sloppy performance in the opener to blank the Beavers.

2. Michigan State (2-0): Speaking of defense, no Big Ten team put on a more dominant display than Michigan State. A unit that lost two multiyear starters at linebacker held Florida Atlantic to one first down -- the stingiest Spartans effort since 1944 -- and just 48 total yards. QB Kirk Cousins has been very solid so far. Michigan State begins its rough road stretch this week against a desperate Notre Dame team.

3. Nebraska (2-0): We’re keeping the Huskers here for now, but the Big Ten’s newest member was thoroughly unimpressive against Fresno State. Coach Bo Pelini is right and some games turn into real grinds, but Nebraska should expect much more from its defense going forward. The offense will have its ups and downs, but the Blackshirts won’t beat the Big Ten’s better teams with performances like Saturday’s.

4. Ohio State (2-0): After a no-frills opener, Ohio State had hiccups in all three phases against Toledo and nearly paid the price. Toledo looks like a solid team and coach Tim Beckman had an excellent plan against his former team, but Ohio State must start executing better on offense. The secondary also could be a trouble spot. Ohio State made enough plays to win, but it will take a better performance to beat Miami on the road.

5. Michigan (2-0): The Wolverines once again are the Big Ten’s most exciting team, but are they one of the league’s best? Notre Dame has outplayed Michigan for parts of the teams’ last three games, particularly Saturday night’s clash at the Big House, but Michigan has won all three contests behind mind-boggling quarterback play. Greg Mattison’s defense continues to make plays despite suffering some breakdowns that could prove costly down the road.

6. Illinois (2-0): We’ll get a very good gauge on the Illini this week against Vontaze Burfict and Arizona State, but Ron Zook’s squad has impressed so far. A multi-pronged rushing attack once again should be among the Big Ten’s best, and the Illini defense made several big plays against South Dakota State. A victory against Arizona State would validate Illinois as a team to watch in the Big Ten.

7. Northwestern (2-0): Life without Dan Persa has gone surprisingly well for the Wildcats, thanks to the terrific play of backup quarterback Kain Colter. Although Northwestern likely needs Persa back for the Big Ten season, Colter gives the offense a different element with his athleticism. The defense is still prone to too many breakdowns, and the front seven needs a disciplined performance this week at Army.

8. Penn State (1-1): The Nittany Lions’ defense will keep them in a lot of games this season and potentially make them a factor in the Leaders division. But without a starting quarterback or an offensive identity, Penn State’s ceiling is limited. Alabama will make a lot of offenses look bad, but Penn State needs to settle on a starter and start building around him.

9. Iowa (1-1): The Hawkeyes take the biggest tumble in the power rankings after a poor performance in Ames. A team that struggled to finish games in 2010 couldn’t hold leads both late in regulation and in overtime, as Iowa State’s Steele Jantz picked apart a defense that lost four players to the NFL draft. Iowa’s defense needs to rebound this week against a Pitt team that runs a high-tempo spread offense.

10. Purdue (1-1): We wanted to drop the Boilers after their loss to Rice but Indiana and Minnesota made that impossible. Carson Wiggs nearly helped Purdue to another dramatic win but his 31-yard field-goal attempt was blocked as time expired as Rice prevailed 24-22. Purdue needs more from its defense and has to avoid the breakdowns that have surfaced too often during coach Danny Hope’s tenure.

11. Indiana (0-2): Opportunistic defense nearly lifted Indiana to a huge win against Virginia, but the Hoosiers still haven’t learn how to win games. They squandered a late lead and committed an inexcusable turnover in the final two minutes to hand Virginia a 34-31 win. There are some positives to take away from the second-half comeback, but Indiana still makes too many mistakes to get over the hump.

12. Minnesota (0-2): If Minnesota had one of the nation’s more encouraging losses in Week 1, it had one of the more demoralizing defeats in Week 2. A heavy favorite against New Mexico State, the Gophers were thoroughly outplayed on their home field. Minnesota must not only respond from the loss but handle the potential absence of coach Jerry Kill, who suffered a seizure on the sideline late in the game. We hope to see coach Kill back on the field as soon as possible.

Purdue falls on the road

September, 10, 2011
9/10/11
7:21
PM ET
Say this for Purdue: it knows drama. This time, not a happy ending for the Boilermakers.

Rice 24, Purdue 22: Last week, Purdue blocked a field goal to secure the win against Middle Tennessee State. This time, the Boilers were on the opposite end of the stick, as Rice blocked a 31-yard attempt by Carson Wiggs in the final seconds to hold on for the upset at home. Clearly, Purdue doesn't have much margin for error right now, and Danny Hope's team once again hurt itself with penalties. This was a tough loss for Purdue and will hurt the team's chances of making a bowl game. The Boilers' only points in the second half came on a safety and a field goal by Wiggs, so the offense needs some work. It's a bad loss in a day full of them for the Big Ten so far.
Meant to post this Friday, but we finally wrap up the Big Ten preseason position rankings with the individual specialists. I'll break down the top five kickers, punters and return men in the league (sorry, long snappers).

[+] EnlargeDerek Dimke
Mike DiNovo/US PresswireIllinois kicker Derek Dimke led the Big Ten with 24 field goals last season.
Although the Big Ten loses its most famous specialist from 2010 -- Michigan State punter Aaron Bates -- and Nebraska says goodbye to All-American Alex Henery, there are a few standout players back in the fold. Quite a few strong punters depart, although keep an eye on the sophomores coming back.

Let's take a look.

KICKER

1. Derek Dimke, Illinois, senior: Dimke had a terrific junior season, converting a league-high 24 field goals on 29 attempts. He also was perfect on extra-point tries, going 43-for-43, and led the Big Ten with 22 touchbacks. Dimke earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches and will be on the radar for the Lou Groza Award this fall.

2. Dan Conroy, Michigan State, junior: Thanks to Conroy, the loss of standout kicker Brett Swenson didn't sting too much for the Spartans. Conroy led the Big Ten in field-goal percentage, converting 14 of 15 opportunities, and missed only one of his 46 extra-point tries. Conroy earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors for his efforts.

3. Philip Welch, Wisconsin, senior: Doesn't it seem like Welch has been at Wisconsin for a decade? The three-year starter enters his final season in Madison after earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2010. Welch was perfect on 67 extra-point attempts last fall and went 17-for-22 on field-goal attempts.

4. Carson Wiggs, Purdue, senior: There's no doubt as to who has the strongest leg in the Big Ten, if not the country. Wiggs can connect from just about anywhere, as he showed in April during Purdue's spring game with a 67-yard field goal. His leg strength gets the attention, but Wiggs is a little underrated as an overall kicker. He connected on 15 of 19 attempts in 2010, going 4-for-4 between 40 and 49 yards, and had 11 touchbacks as Purdue led the Big Ten in kickoff coverage.

5. Mitch Ewald, Indiana, sophomore: Ewald had an excellent freshman season for the Hoosiers, capitalizing on limited opportunities. He finished fourth in the league in field-goal percentage, connecting on 16 of 19 attempts, and he was perfect on 33 extra-point tries. Ewald had five games with multiple field goals and will once again be a big weapon for IU this fall.

PUNTER

1. Brad Nortman, Wisconsin, senior: Like Welch, Nortman has been a fixture in Madison the past four years and enters 2011 as the league's most experienced punter by far. Nortman averaged 42.7 yards per punt in 2010, blasting eight punts of 50 yards or more and placing 14 punts inside the 20-yard line. He has averaged 42.1 yards per punt during his career.

2. Anthony Fera, Penn State, sophomore: Fera had an excellent freshman season for Penn State, which improved in punt coverage and other special teams areas. He averaged 41.4 yards per punt, placed 13 punts inside the opponents' 20 and had nine punts of 50 yards or longer. Fera also forced 19 fair catches.

3. Cody Webster, Purdue, sophomore: Webster helped Purdue address a need at punter and turned in an excellent freshman season. He finished fifth in the Big Ten in punting average (43.3 ypp), booming 17 punts of 50 yards or longer and placing 12 inside the opponents' 20.

4. Will Hagerup, Michigan, sophomore: Hagerup was the lone bright spot for Michigan's special teams in 2010. He started 10 games and ranked fourth in the Big Ten in punting average (43.6 ypp), a mark that ranked second in team history (minimum of 30 attempts). He placed 11 punts inside the 20.

5. Ben Buchanan, Ohio State, junior: Ohio State needs to be sharper in the kicking game this fall, and Buchanan will play a huge role. He averaged 41 yards on 44 attempts in 2010, placing 15 punts inside the opponents' 20 and forcing 17 fair catches. Expect Buchanan to take another step in his development this season.

RETURNER

1. Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota, senior: Already a record-setting return man, Stoudermire needs only 16 kick returns and 189 kick return yards to set NCAA all-time records in both categories. Stoudermire has 2,929 kick return yards, recording 30 runbacks or more in each of the past three seasons. He averaged 27.2 yards on returns in 2010.

2. Jordan Hall, Ohio State, junior: Hall is likely the Big Ten's best all-around returner. He finished second in the league in kick return average (27.9 ypr) and third in punt return average (9.9 ypr). Hall really emerged as Ohio State's go-to return man last season. It will be interesting to see if his return responsibilities change at all depending on who emerges as the Buckeyes' top running back.

3. Keshawn Martin, Michigan State, senior: Expect teams to punt the ball away from Martin this fall. He led the Big Ten and ranked 11th nationally in punt return average (14.2 ypr). His touchdown return against Wisconsin set the stage for Michigan State's come-from-behind win. Martin's kick return average of 17.8 yards should increase this fall.

4. Venric Mark, Northwestern, sophomore: For the first time in recent memory, Northwestern has a true difference maker in the return game. Mark came on strong late in his freshman year, finishing fourth in the league in kick return average (26.2 ypr) with a touchdown runback against Wisconsin. He also showed promise as a punt returner, averaging 12.9 yards on nine attempts.

5. Jaamal Berry, Ohio State, sophomore: Berry forms a dangerous Buckeye return tandem with Hall. He finished fifth in the league in kick return average (25.4 ypr) but had three more attempts than Hall. Berry clearly has big-play skills as a running back, so don't be surprised if he breaks off some big returns this fall.
Our preseason position ranking series comes to an end today with everybody's favorite group: special teams.

For this ranking, we're going to consider punters, kickers and returners only. No offense to the long-snappers or the punt-team gunners, but things like kickoff coverage units are hard to forecast. We'll give a little extra weight to teams that have returning and proven players at these spots, because it's difficult to know how new punters and kickers will fare when the pressure of real games begin.

As the guys in these positions would say, let's kick it:

[+] EnlargeDan Conroy
Andrew Weber/US PresswireDan Conroy was nearly perfect on his field goal attempts last season.
1. Michigan State: Kicker Dan Conroy made 14 of his 15 attempts last year, and Keshawn Martin led the league in punt return average. They will miss punter Aaron Bates and will have to improve their kickoff return game. And you know you always have to watch out for the fake when the Spartans line up for a kick.

2. Wisconsin: The Badgers are set at both punter and kicker, with seniors Brad Nortman and Philip Welch, respectively. Both are third-year starters who can be relied upon. Wisconsin will need to find a replacement for primary return man David Gilreath.

3. Penn State: The Nittany Lions bring back punter Anthony Fera and punt returner Devon Smith, who finished just behind Martin in yards per attempt last season. Chaz Powell and Stephfon Green are dangerous kick returners. Fera could move over to handle field goals this season if incoming freshman Sam Ficken doesn't win the job.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have a veteran punter in senior Ben Buchanan and two threats to take a kick to the house in Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry. Sophomore Drew Basil is expected to take over at place-kicker. Special teams are almost always a force in Columbus.

5. Purdue: No one in the league has a bigger leg than Carson Wiggs; the questions is whether he can consistently harness it. Punter Cody Webster averaged 43.3 yards per attempt last season, second best among returning punters. The Boilermakers' return game needs to improve.

6. Illinois: Derek Dimke was a Lou Groza semifinalist last season and broke the school record for points by a kicker. He nailed two 50-plus yarders. Ray Guy semifinalist Anthony Santella is gone, though return man Troy Pollard is back.

7. Northwestern: Brandon Williams improved at punter as his freshman year went along last season. The Wildcats at long last have an elite return option in Venric Mark. But place-kicker was a concern this spring, with Jeff Budzien and Steve Flaherty competing for the job.

8. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz's teams usually find a way to be good on special teams, so odds are the Hawkeyes will climb these rankings. But they lost a lot from 2010, including Ray Guy finalist and four-year starter Ryan Donahue, plus both primary return men. Eric Guthrie held the edge at punter after the spring. Place-kicker Mike Meyer returns after taking over that role for the final 10 games and doing a solid job.

9. Indiana: Mitch Ewald was named to the Groza watch list after a strong freshman year in which he made 16 of 19 field goals. Chris Hagerup needs to increase his punting average of 39.4 yards. The Hoosiers should have enough athletes to replace Tandon Doss on returns.

10. Minnesota: Dan Orseske's 36.1-yard average was worst among starting Big Ten punters in 2010, so that must get better. Jerry Kill must also find a new place-kicker -- NC State transfer Chris Hawthorne looks like the top option. Troy Stoudermire, one of the league's top return specialists, is back for his senior year.

11. Nebraska: Like Iowa, this is a team that will almost assuredly outperform this ranking. But boy did the Huskers lose a lot of talent and experience. It will be difficult to match the value that punter/kicker Alex Henery brought -- Brett Maher and freshman Mauro Bondi will battle to replace him -- and Adi Kunalic was a secret weapon as kickoff specialist. Top returner Niles Pau is gone, too. The Cornhuskers will likely reload, but nobody has bigger shoes to fill at these positions in the Big Ten.

12. Michigan: The kicking game looked like a disaster this spring, with neither Seth Broekhuizen nor Brendan Gibbons inspiring confidence. Incoming freshman Matt Wile might win the job this summer. This could prove to be an Achilles' heel for the Wolverines, as it was a year ago. On the plus side, Will Hagerup is the leading returning punter in the Big Ten, though he had only 33 attempts last season.

Spring game recap: Purdue

April, 11, 2011
4/11/11
11:00
AM ET
Purdue wrapped up spring practice Saturday with the Black and Gold Game, the first spring game in the Big Ten this year. The Gold team prevailed 14-3 behind touchdown receptions by Justin Siller and Normando Harris.

Let's take a closer look at the game.

Game coverage: Here and here and here.

Quotable: "We're not going to have great talent sitting on the sideline. Rob Henry is a great talent. Robert Marve is a great talent and Caleb TerBush is a great talent. We're going to find a way for all three of those guys to help us win, regardless of how it shakes down on the depth chart." -- coach Danny Hope on his quarterbacks

Highlights
  • Top quarterback Rob Henry had a decent day for the Gold squad, completing 8 of 12 passes for 76 yards with a touchdown and an interception, and adding 27 rush yards. Caleb TerBush called signals for both teams and completed 16 of 27 passes for 172 yards with a score and an interception. Receiver Antavian Edison capped a strong spring with five receptions and two rushes for 26 yards.
  • Purdue's defense was the more dominant unit for much of the scrimmage. Linebacker Antwon Higgs and safeties Logan Link and Jarrett Dieudonne all recorded interceptions, and the teams combined for seven "sacks," including two apiece by defensive ends Robert Maci and Ryan Russell (Black team).
  • It's rare when a kicker steals the show at a spring game, but Carson Wiggs isn't your typical specialist. The bionic-legged Wiggs, who kicked the nation's longest field goal (59 yards) last season, put on a display just before halftime. He kicked five field goals, including a 67-yarder that would have been good from 75. Wiggs also connected from 57, 52, 47 and 42 yards and missed from 62. That's called range, people.
  • Purdue on Friday announced six team captains for 2011: Henry, Wiggs, defensive tackle Kawann Short, offensive tackle Dennis Kelly and linebackers Joe Holland and Chris Carlino. The most significant selection is Henry, just a sophomore. Although Purdue's quarterback race isn't over as Robert Marve will rejoin the mix this summer, Henry separated himself this spring and clearly has the support of his teammates. It'll be an interesting decision for Hope, who has a lot invested in Marve but has repeatedly praised Henry's progress.

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