NCF Nation: Chi Chi Ariguzo
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Mike Hankwitz didn't inherit a bare cupboard when he arrived as Northwestern's defensive coordinator in 2008.
The defense included several future NFL players, including end Corey Wootton and cornerback Sherrick McManis. Eight starters returned, and the unit improved from 88th nationally in points allowed to 26th in Hankwitz's first season.
But something was missing. As Hankwitz surveyed the number of spread offenses in college football -- not to mention the one his defense practiced against every day at Northwestern -- he knew the Wildcats' defense needed a speed boost.
"We had some players with good speed, but as a total defense, we didn't have that same speed at every position," Hankwitz told ESPN.com. "In this day in age with spread offenses, you need to have athletes who have the ability and speed to make plays in space. That's where we were a little deficient at the time. If you had a guy hurt, the next guy might not have been as fast. So we recruited to that end. We tried to recruit better speed to cornerback, and we're making progress in that way.
"As a whole, our team defensive speed has improved, and we're excited about that."
It was noticeable last season as Northwestern's defense improved to 47th nationally after plummeting to 80th the year before. Several younger players who were part of the speed-driven recruiting push played key roles, including defensive backs Ibraheim Campbell and Nick VanHoose, linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and linemen Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson.
Northwestern's speed upgrade on defense has jumped out during spring practice. In Tuesday's workout, Lowry zoomed past a tackle for an easy "sack" against quarterback Trevor Siemian. Speed has helped cornerback Dwight White put himself in position to start opposite VanHoose in the fall. The same holds true for safeties like Traveon Henry, Jimmy Hall and Terrance Brown, competing to start next to Campbell.
"Our team speed is definitely much improved," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Our secondary runs as well as it has at all four positions."
The popularity of the spread offense, which Northwestern has used since 2000, fueled the team's speed push in recruiting. Northwestern needed more athletes who could make plays in space, especially in the secondary.
Not surprisingly, the secondary had the most dramatic upgrade last season, and depth at both cornerback and safety has improved for 2013. The secondary not only has more speed but better size.
"Traveon Henry's a 6-[foot]-1, 200-plus-pound safety, Jimmy Hall's the same way, Terrance Brown is the same way; we've upgraded our size at corner," Fitzgerald said. "Most of our guys used to be 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-10. Now we're 5-11 and 6-foot. That size-speed combination is critically important if we want to take the next step in this league."
Greater speed allows Hankwitz to be "a little more aggressive" with his defensive calls. It also helps younger players get on the field early as they can overcome some weaknesses technically and fundamentally.
"Last year, being a little undersized at D-end as a freshman, I relied on my speed a lot of times to beat tackles," said Lowry, who had a sack, six quarterback hurries and three tackles for loss as a true freshman. "When you're fast, it sets up moves, so if a tackle is overset, you come back with a counter. You've got to make sure you use your technique, use your hands where the coaches teach you. But having the extra speed, it's almost like you can't teach that.
"It's something most guys don't have."
Northwestern's speed push started with the linebackers and spread quickly to the secondary, but the line hasn't been neglected. Redshirt freshman end Ifeadi Odenigbo, the team's most-decorated recruit in years, only started playing football as a high school sophomore but made his mark with speed, twice tracking down Braxton Miller in a playoff game.
Both Odenigbo and Gibson ran track in high school, while both Gibson and Lowry played basketball.
"They're very, very athletic," senior end Tyler Scott said. "Dean's very athletic. Deonte, when he's healthy, is a force coming off the edge. And Ifeadi, he's got some speed that we haven't seen here for a while."
Northwestern's defense expects to be seeing more of that speed in the coming seasons.
"We're still not quite there where we have all five classes at an elite level athletically," Fitzgerald said, "but I think we're really close."
Heavens knows I need a new season to begin after a horrible showing in the regular season, when I finished a full five games behind Rittenberg. My pride suffered, and so did my bank account when I was forced to pick up his steak at St. Elmo's in Indy.
But bowl season offers a chance at redemption, not just for me but for the Big Ten as a whole after the league took some beatings in the fall. Here are our picks for the seven bowl games involving conference teams:
Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas
MINNESOTA vs. TEXAS TECH (Dec. 28)
Brian Bennett: The Red Raiders have an interim coach, and Minnesota has had a month to heal the many injuries that ravaged its offense late in the season, both of which are positives for the Gophers. I think Matt Limegrover will find some creative ways to use MarQueis Gray. Still, Minnesota lacks the weapons to go up and down the field against a high-scoring Big 12 team. Michael Carter and the Gophers secondary will make some plays but not enough to stop Texas Tech, which pulls away after a close first two-and-half quarters. ... Texas Tech 31, Minnesota 17.
Adam Rittenberg: The Gophers' defense is much improved in Year 2 under Tracy Claeys, but you need a decent amount of offensive firepower to keep pace with Texas Tech. Like you, my concern is the lack of playmakers surrounding Philip Nelson and Gray. Both men will see time at quarterback and help the Gophers take a first-half lead, but a Minnesota turnover changes the game and Texas Tech strikes for two fourth-quarter passing touchdowns to win. ... Texas Tech 34, Minnesota 21
Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl
TCU vs. MICHIGAN STATE
Adam Rittenberg: This figures to be a close, low-scoring game that likely comes down to how much progress Michigan State's offense has made in the past month or so. TCU is loaded with young talent and could contend for the Big 12 title next year, but I saw the Frogs' regular-season finale against Oklahoma and wasn't overly impressed. A heavy dose of Le'Veon Bell combined with a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Andrew Maxwell to Dion Sims gives Michigan State just enough, as the Spartans' defense rises to the occasion once more. ... Michigan State 21, TCU 17
Brian Bennett: I've been wrong about Michigan State most of the year, so what's one more? The extra 15 practices must have helped the Spartans' sluggish passing game at least a little bit, and TCU will have to adapt to a more physical style of play than it saw in the Big 12. Johnny Adams' turf toe injury worries me, but I like Bell to rush for 150 yards in probably his final college game, while Maxwell provides optimism for 2013 with 200 yards passing. Max Bullough makes a defensive stop at the end of the game to seal it. ... Michigan State 20, TCU 16
Heart of Dallas Bowl
PURDUE vs. OKLAHOMA STATE (Jan. 1)
Brian Bennett: There's a reason why the Boilers were the biggest underdog on the board in bowl season. They've got an interim coach in Patrick Higgins and have been exposed by some of the better offenses on their schedule, which is a frightening prospect against the high-flying Cowboys. I believe a healthier defensive line will give Purdue a chance in this one, and Oklahoma State is not going to be really pumped up to be in this game a year after playing in a BCS bowl. Robert Marve tosses a couple of scores and Akeem Shavers runs for 135 yards. But in the end, the Pokes -- led by 175 receiving yards from Josh Stewart -- have a little too much for Purdue in a wild one. ... Oklahoma State 31, Purdue 27
Adam Rittenberg: Again, the Big Ten team might be more motivated than the Big 12 squad, but can Purdue keep up on the scoreboard? I don't think so. Although cornerbacks Josh Johnson and Ricardo Allen give the Boilers' a chance against the pass-happy Pokes, Purdue isn't consistent enough or dangerous enough on offense to pace Oklahoma State. I agree Marve has a nice performance in his final college game and Antavian Edison scores twice, but Purdue will be playing catch up after a rough first half and falls short. ... Oklahoma State 38, Purdue 28
TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl
MISSISSIPPI STATE vs. No. 20 NORTHWESTERN (Jan. 1)
Adam Rittenberg: Is this the year Northwestern ends the bowl losing streak? I think it is for several reasons. Northwestern has its most complete team under coach Pat Fitzgerald. The Wildcats can run the ball effectively and perform well for the most part on special teams. Plus, they ended the season playing better than Mississippi State. Northwestern never makes it easy and will have some tense moments in this one, but Venric Mark and Kain Colter will find room, combining for 175 rush yards and two scores. Backup quarterback Trevor Siemian comes in to throw a third-quarter touchdown and linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo seals the win with an interception. ... Northwestern 27, Mississippi State 24
Brian Bennett: No more monkeying around. Northwestern finally has a more manageable bowl matchup, though it's certainly still not an easy assignment. The month off should help refresh the legs of Colter and Mark, who work their option magic against a mediocre Mississippi State run defense. Mark scores twice on the ground and also returns a punt for a touchdown. The Bulldogs' Tyler Russell shreds the Northwestern defense for 300 passing yards, but Jeff Budzien hits a game-winning field goal with no time left. Fitzgerald and his players party like it's 1949. ... Northwestern 28, Mississippi State 27
No. 10 SOUTH CAROLINA vs. No. 18 MICHIGAN (Jan. 1)
Brian Bennett: I like this matchup a lot and think Michigan can get some things done on offense with a month to prep the Devin Gardner/Denard Robinson combo. But South Carolina's fearsome defense has shut down better attacks in wins against Clemson and Georgia this season and will soon enough figure out Al Borges' bag of tricks. Michigan jumps ahead early on a long Robinson run and a Gardner touchdown pass. Jadeveon Clowney & Co. lock things down in the second half, and Connor Shaw runs for a pair of scores for the Gamecocks. ... South Carolina 24, Michigan 17
Adam Rittenberg: It'll be a lot of fun to watch Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan match up against Clowney. Two potential first-round draft picks going at it. I agree Borges will get really creative in this one, but Michigan's offensive line won't be able to stop the Gamecocks for four quarters. The Wolverines make a nice rally in the third quarter as Gardner finds Robinson on a touchdown strike, but South Carolina controls the ball and the clock in the fourth. ... South Carolina 21, Michigan 16
Capital One Bowl
No. 7 GEORGIA vs. No. 16 NEBRASKA (Jan. 1)
Adam Rittenberg: It's hard to have much faith in Nebraska after what we witnessed in Indianapolis. Great teams don't let down on defense like the Huskers did. Great teams don't play such a chaotic brand of football with so many turnovers. Maybe the Huskers face a napping Bulldogs team, jump ahead behind their dynamic offense and hold on for the win. But I don't see it. Georgia will be sluggish early, but I get the sense Aaron Murray wants to make a statement after the way the SEC championship game ended. Murray and the Bulldogs light up the Huskers in the second half, while Taylor Martinez commits two costly turnovers. ... Georgia 38, Nebraska 23
Brian Bennett: Does either team want to be here? Can either defense stop the other? Those are the main questions leading into this game. I'm not too worried about the disappointment angle but am concerned about Nebraska's ability to slow down Murray, Todd Gurley and a well-balanced Bulldogs offense. The Huskers and Taylor Martinez absolutely must hang onto the football in this one, but I see Jarvis Jones forcing a couple of costly turnovers. Nebraska will do a good job against the pass but will give up too much in the running game, as Gurley goes for 150 and a pair of scores. Martinez compiles 300 total yards but is pressured more often than he's used to and forces a couple of bad throws. Georgia owns the fourth quarter. ... Georgia 35, Nebraska 24.
Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO
WISCONSIN vs. No. 6 STANFORD (Jan. 1)
Brian Bennett: These two teams share a lot of similar traits, as Stanford is the most Big Ten-like Pac-12 team imaginable. The line of scrimmage will be for grown men only. I'd like Wisconsin's chances a lot better if the team didn't have to deal with the distraction of the coaching turmoil. No matter what the Badgers say, that had to hurt their preparation at least a little bit. Plus, the Cardinal seem a little better equipped to throw the ball if the rushing game gets stuffed, while Wisconsin is a little more one-dimensional and will face one of the best run defenses in America. Never count out Barry Alvarez in Pasadena, but I think Montee Ball will have to work a little too hard for his yards in this one. Stanford beats the Badgers at their own game, running the clock out late with a physical rushing attack as Wisconsin goes 0-for-Pasathreena. ... Stanford 24, Wisconsin 21.
Adam Rittenberg: We can't agree on every pick, can we? Nah. Barry's back and I'm a believer. Stanford's defense is as good as advertised, but the Badgers' offense is confident after the Big Ten title game and once again will empty the playbook. The Badgers score early on some razzle-dazzle, and receive a strong performance from Ball (150 rush yards, 2 TDs) in his final collegiate game. Stanford's pressure forces a turnover in the third quarter that changes momentum, but Wisconsin's underrated defense will be the difference, as Chris Borland forces a Stepfan Taylor fumble in crunch time. Alvarez improves to 4-0 in the Rose. ... Wisconsin 24, Stanford 23
Adam Rittenberg: 76-21 (.784)
Brian Bennett: 71-26 (.732)
Scott from Forney, Texas, writes: Nice words, Adam, about Nebraska's Rex Burkhead. My question, that I have not seen an adequate response for, is why did Nebraska not consider/seek a medical redshirt additional season for Rex Burkhead after he was hurt in the season's very first game? Am I missing some NCAA rule in Rex's case? I told my 15 year-old son as soon as it occurred in that first game, if they don't do it, Rex will likely face a nagging bad knee for much of the season. NU trainers/docs obviously have much more info than I do. But, it appears to be a mostly wasted senior season for Rex after two attempted comebacks that ended during those two games with Rex limping badly off the field. Rex is a special Nebraska running back who only comes along once in a generation.
Adam Rittenberg: Scott, in order to apply for and receive a medical redshirt, you need evidence to show the injury is severe enough to cost a player the season. An MCL sprain in Week 1 isn't sufficient enough, and, as we saw, Rex returned to the lineup a few weeks later. Teams can't hold a player out when he could be cleared to play and then seek a medical redshirt. That doesn't fly. If it had been a completely torn ligament that required surgery, it would be different. So Nebraska had to play Burkhead after he was ready to return. Could the school have sought a redshirt after Burkhead first aggravated the knee against Ohio State? That's possible, but then you're dealing with questions about number of games played. It's definitely an unfortunate situation for such a great player, and I wish we could have seen Rex all season. But I don't think Nebraska had many options given the nature of his injury.
Bryan from Eden Prairie, Minn., writes: With the story that the Big Ten championship game ticket market is extremely cold, do you think there's a possibility that a change could occur and the conference goes the Pac-12 route of having the team with the better record host the championship game? Or is this just currently a bottom period & things will look brighter once the times that Ohio State goes to Indy against a Michigan/Nebraska, creating a little bigger buzz?
Adan Rittenberg: Bryan, it's something for the Big Ten to consider, but the league has made a commitment to Indianapolis through the 2015 game, and I expect the next three games (at least) to be played there. Commissioner Jim Delany and his staff love how Indianapolis puts on big sporting events. The game will generate more buzz when it has an impact on the national title race, when it features two ranked teams and even when it features two division champions. This year's game has none of those qualities. The first time Ohio State or Michigan plays in the game, the crowd should be pretty big. The same goes for Penn State, Iowa or other teams with large fan bases that like to travel. Although I'm a little surprised the Nebraska turnout won't be better, I'm not surprised by the smaller contingent for Wisconsin. Bottom line: the game needs to mean more to draw bigger crowds, but the Big Ten shouldn't dismiss campus sites in the future.
Jon from San Jose, Calif., writes: The Big Ten said it may open up an East Coast office. But Adam, would you open up an office for 2-3 schools out of 14? Would it make more sense for 4-5 schools out of 16 (meaning some more ACC are in play)?
Adam Rittenberg: Jon, good question. The Big Ten technically sees Penn State as an East Coast school now, as it attempted to build a "bridge" from Penn State to the coast with the Maryland/Rutgers additions. But I agree that you don't open up a second league office unless you really want a presence in that part of the country. From talking to several folks, my sense is the Big Ten's primary expansion targets if it chooses to go to 16 are in the ACC -- North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia Tech, maybe Duke. The interesting thing will be if the ACC makes itself attractive enough to retain those schools after Wednesday's addition of Louisville.
Cardiac Kev from Chicago writes: Little has been talked about the overall youth of 9-3 Northwestern. The 'Cats are ranked in all polls right now. If they win and get the monkey off their back in their bowl game, do you expect Northwestern to be ranked in the preseason next year?
Adam Rittenberg: Absolutely, Kevin, and most likely in the top 20. Northwestern would have a 10-3 record, a bowl win against a very good SEC team and, as you mention, almost all of its key players returning for 2013. I even think the voters who actually study Northwestern's roster going into 2013, regardless of the bowl outcome, might consider ranking the Wildcats. This was seen as a rebuilding year, and coach Pat Fitzgerald instead had his best team in his tenure. With most of that team coming back -- Kain Colter, Venric Mark, Ibraheim Campbell, Nick VanHoose, Chi Chi Ariguzo, the list goes on -- Northwestern has a chance to be very good next fall.
Alex G. from Ames, Iowa, writes: Reading your article on Greg Davis, I want to know your personal opinion on the matter. After all, this is the worst scoring offense under Ferentz since Jake Christensen led(?) the offense to just 18.5 ppg. Not to mention, there have only been 22 worse seasons than 2012 in the 123 years of football played at Iowa, and it's hard to blame the 34h best defense in the nation for that. Additionally, Iowa was only 1 of 4 teams in the nation (other 3 went a combined 9-38 this season) to be ranked 100th or worse in BOTH passing and rushing this year. To me, there is no excuse for any of that. This team had enough talent to be respectable, and coaching failed. Where do you stand?
Adam Rittenberg: Alex, if it were me, I never would have hired Davis in the first place. But Ferentz, like it or not, is only going to hire certain types of offensive coordinators. Guys like Kliff Kingsbury or Chad Morris aren't going to be walking through the door in Iowa City as long as Ferentz has the big office. They just don't fit Ferentz, even though they do fit what college football has evolved into the past 5-10 years. The bottom line is I understood why Ferentz hired Davis, and as bad as this year was, it's not surprising to see Ferentz keep him for another year. It's hard to transition from doing things one way under Ken O'Keefe for years and then work under a new coordinator. I do think if Ferentz was under any real pressure, he might make a change, but he isn't. Davis' system should click better in 2013, but the play-calling also must improve. It left a lot to be desired this fall.
Bart from Columbus writes: Way to write an entire article about the subject without mentioning the fact that it's been 33 years since OSU won CotY (Coach of the Year). What else could you have talked about in your post, Adam? Maybe you could have told us when exactly the award stopped being about coaching and started being about rewarding plucky underdogs. Maybe you could have discussed all the things that should have disqualified certain coaches from winning the award such as not having your team ready to play until week 3 or losing to a mac school. Instead we get a fluff piece that does nothing but make excuses for the Big Ten coaches celebrating mediocrity. Any chance this is the reason our conference can't compete nationally... because we reward teams for going 8-4 instead of winning?
Adam Rittenberg: Reading is a skill, Bart. What part about this sentence -- "Buckeye fans were hopeful Meyer would be the first Ohio State boss to win Big Ten Coach of the Year honors since Meyer's mentor Earle Bruce got it in 1979" -- don't you understand? That's 33 years, just spelled out in a different way. And the post illustrates much of what you say, that the award is mainly about rewarding coaches who turn around programs. For a lot of people, that's the definition of coaching. If you bothered to read our Big Ten Coach of the Year endorsement, you'd know I endorsed Urban Meyer over Bill O'Brien. Wednesday's post merely explains why the award would go to O'Brien over Meyer. It doesn't justify it. And it's also a stretch to say this type of award voting has any bearing on how the league performs on the field.
Joe C. from South Bend, Ind., writes: What future do you see for Zach Zwinak? Since he took over the starting job, he continued to one up himself, finishing with 1000 yards over 9 games. He has some issues with fumbling, but he was only a sophomore. Would you put him in your preseason top 25 countdown next year?
Steve from Milwaukee writes: Just an idea -- in the downtime in the coming weeks before the bowls, you guys should do a quick evaluation of your preseason top 25 -- maybe 5 a day for a week. Not a re-rank (I know that's coming for postseason), but simply some quick comments on each player and how they fell short/met/exceeded expectations based on your predictions.
Adam Rittenberg: To answer Steve first, we'll definitely look back at the preseason top 25 player rankings and see how guys did. And we'll also do a postseason top 25 ranking after all the bowls are complete. Should be fun to see who met expectations, who exceeded expectations and who underperformed. Joe, I really liked what I saw from Zwinak during Big Ten play. He's a no-nonsense, hard-nosed runner who seemed to fit in well with Bill O'Brien's offense. He took advantage of Bill Belton's injury/inconsistency and established himself as Penn State's top back. Will he be in the preseason top 25 for 2013? Hard to say. Depends on who comes back, as the Big Ten will have quite a few good running backs in 2013 (Venric Mark, Ameer Abdullah, Carlos Hyde, James White, maybe Le'Veon Bell). But Zwinak certainly deserves some consideration.
The Wildcats and Gophers are two of the only three undefeated Big Ten teams left (Ohio State is the other). That they are a combined 6-0 is notable since they won just nine games between them last year. Yet these two teams bear little resemblance to last season's clubs.
One of the biggest differences for Northwestern this year is its play up front. The defense is allowing just 80 rushing yards per game and only 2.9 yards per carry, while the offense is averaging over 200 rushing yards per game.
"I think we're a tougher team from top to bottom," senior wide receiver Demetrius Fields said. "The proof is in the pudding, in the running game. We've committed to a mentality, a want-to."
The Wildcats' defense still has holes but is making more things happen. Linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and defensive lineman Brian Arnfelt rank in the top five of the Big Ten in tackles for loss. The team didn't have a single player in the top 20 of that stat last season.
"In the offseason, we tried to make it a point to come together, so when we're on the field communication wasn't going to be a problem," junior defensive end Tyler Scott said. "I think this team is super close, and we really enjoy being around each other. We have fun together, and we have trust in each other so we can go play fast."
Jerry Kill never promised a fast turnaround at Minnesota but rather a gradual building of the program when he took over before last year. So Kill is trying not to overplay the fact that his team has already matched its 2011 win total. The schedule -- UNLV, New Hampshire and Western Michigan -- isn't exactly the NFC East.
While the overall physicality is not yet to Kill's liking, Minnesota is averaging 210 rushing yards per game, 50 yards more than last year's team.
"I think it's more familiarity with the offense," tight end John Rabe said. "We're a lot more comfortable with the whole offensive scheme and knowing where we all fit in. We've had a pretty good start in the running game, and I don't think we're even close to where we can be."
The Gophers started to build confidence toward the end of last season, when they beat Iowa, hung tough at Michigan State and dominated Illinois. That has shown early this year, as they survived an overtime win at UNLV and outlasted Western Michigan despite losing starting quarterback MarQueis Gray to injury.
"Last year, we might have been like, 'OK, here it goes again,'" Rabe said. "But this year, we have a ton of confidence that we can pull these games out. Our whole attitude is that we are supposed to win and we are going to win these games, not that we're trying not to lose."
Rabe said there's a buzz building on campus about this team, with students and teachers talking football more than in the past. That has yet to spread nationally, as Minnesota's schedule and lack of recent success hasn't created much attention for the 3-0 start, though a win this week over Syracuse could help.
Northwestern is similarly unbeaten and unloved. The Wildcats aren't in the Top 25 this week despite beating three BCS AQ teams to start the year, and this week's game against South Dakota is unlikely to move the needle.
But that's OK with Pat Fitzgerald, who has been highly critical of his team even in triumph. Fields said he and the other veterans remember the 2010 season when Northwestern started out 5-0, only to fall apart and finish 7-6. They want to make sure this team stays focused on what's in front of them, and not get caught looking too much at the big picture.
So let the Gophers and Wildcats fly under the radar for now. They're not disappointed at all.
"People can't really deny you when you keep winning," Fields said.
Chi Chi Ariguzo: The Northwestern linebacker moved into a starting role for the first time this season, and the move has gone very well for the redshirt sophomore. Ariguzo -- whose actual first name is Ikechi -- was named the Big Ten defensive player of the week after collecting 10 tackles, including three for loss, against Vanderbilt. In Week 1 at at Syracuse, he had an interception and returned a botched lateral for a touchdown. He currently leads the Big Ten with 4.5 tackles for loss.
Devin Funchess: The Michigan true freshman tight end was outstanding against Air Force, hauling in four catches for 106 yards and a touchdown. The athletic 6-foot-5, 229-pounder showed receiving skills, and could provide a much needed target for Denard Robinson. He has future star written all over him.
Iowa's linebackers: Not much has gone right for the Hawkeyes' offense, but the linebackers have done their part. Head coach Kirk Ferentz said James Morris, who had 12 tackles and a key interception late against Iowa State, played tremendously last week. Christian Kirksey has been doing his part as well, which Ferentz said has opened opportunities for Anthony Hitchens. A first-year starter, Hitchens tallied an eye-popping 19 tackles last week. Now, if the defense could just get some help ...
Purdue in the red zone: Boiler up inside the 20. Purdue is currently tied for the national lead in red-zone offense, scoring on all nine drives inside the opponent's 20-yard line. That includes eight touchdowns. The Boilermakers also rank 13th nationally in red-zone defense, having surrendered just four scores -- and only two touchdowns -- during their opponents' seven trips inside their 20.
Iowa in the red zone: The Hawkeyes, of course, have scored only one touchdown all season, and that came from outside the red zone on a 23-yard run by Damon Bullock against Northern Illinois. Iowa has been in the red zone on offense six times in two games -- and come away with only five field goals.
Wisconsin's running game: You knew the Badgers' offensive output was atrocious, which led to offensive line coach Mike Markuson being dumped this week. Wisconsin has only 203 rushing yards as a team after two games, an average of 101.5 yards per game. To put that in perspective, Montee Ball alone only had three games all of last season when he failed to gain at least 115 yards, and he exceeded 203 yards against both Purdue (223) and Illinois (224).
Quarterback fears vs. Spartans, Buckeyes: There was near universal agreement this preseason that Michigan State and Ohio State would field the best defensive lines in the Big Ten this season. While they haven't been bad, it's somewhat shocking to see that the Spartans and Buckeyes have combined for only four total sacks this season. Urban Meyer has stressed the need for a better pass rush from his team. Michigan State has gotten decent pressure, but has only sack to show for it, and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi says he's not happy with the play of the defense overall. Sack numbers can be overrated, but it's also true that both lines can do a better job bringing down quarterbacks.
Illinois' defense: The Illini defense looked terrific in the opener against Western Michigan, continuing a string of great performances dating to last season. Which is why it was so shocking to see Arizona State move the ball at will against Illinois in last week's 45-14 shellacking. Players said this week that they had mix-ups in communication and were caught off guard by the Sun Devils' tempo. The latter doesn't make much sense since Todd Graham's teams have always played up-tempo, and the Illini defenders practiced against their own spread offense all preseason. We'll see if this was just one bad showing or an alarm bell.
Big Ten expansion candidates: With Notre Dame off the chessboard and the ACC going to a $50 million exit fee, who's left if the Big Ten ever decides to expand again? Rutgers? UConn? Louisville? None of those are very appealing, and it means that the league will be better off staying at 12 for the foreseeable future -- or at least until the next big seismic conference shift.
Team of the week: Michigan State. The Spartans' 17-13 win over Boise State wasn't a thing of beauty. They turned the ball over four times, committed way too many penalties and needed a late score to eke out a victory in a game they statistically dominated. But the bottom line is this: Michigan State beat a ranked nonconference team. No other Big Ten team can say that, and outside of possibly the Notre Dame games, no other league team will even get the chance to do so.
Game of the week: In a week when six of the 12 Big Ten games were decided by a touchdown or fewer, Northwestern's 42-41 win over Syracuse still stood out. The wild affair featured lots of big plays -- such as Venric Mark's 82-yard touchdown on a punt return, Chi Chi Ariguzo's 33-yard fumble return for a score and Ryan Nassib's 50-yard touchdown pass to Jeremiah Kobena on the final play of the third quarter. There were also enormous momentum swings, as the Wildcats went from up 35-13 to down 41-35 in a little more than a quarter. And of course, it had the great finish, as Northwestern drove for the winning touchdown with 44 seconds left when Trevor Siemian found Demetrius Fields from 9 yards out.
Best call: Trailing Northern Illinois 17-12 late in the fourth quarter, Iowa faced a third-and-9 from the Huskies' 23. All game long, Northern Illinois had blitzed on third downs and flustered quarterback James Vandenberg. This time, the Hawkeyes went with a running play. NIU brought the pressure as expected, and Iowa got seal blocks from Zach Derby, Brandon Scherff and Matt Tobin. Running back Damon Bullock ran untouched into the end zone for the game-winning score.
“I told Coach after, 'That was just a brilliant call,'" Bullock told reporters. "I wasn’t even expecting it. It was third down and I was ready to pass-block."
Big Man on Campus (offense): It's a tie between Michigan State's Bell, who had a superhuman performance against Boise State with 265 total yards on 50 touches, and Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, who had a career day with 354 passing yards and five touchdowns. Both should be getting some Heisman attention after Week 1.
Big Man on Campus (defense): Minnesota safety Derrick Wells had two interceptions against UNLV, both of which set up field goals in the Gophers' 30-27 triple-overtime victory. Wells' second pick allowed Minnesota to kick the game winner in the third extra period. Honorable mention to Illinois' Michael Buchanan (a sack and an interception against Western Michigan) and Iowa's Joe Gaglione (three TFL's versus Northern Illinois).
Big Man on Campus (special teams): Northwestern's Mark averaged 67 yards on two punt returns and had that key touchdown. Special recognition to Iowa's Greg Castillo, who made a great play to down a punt on the 1-yard line and change field position late, and Purdue's Kawann Short, who blocked a field goal and an extra point against Eastern Kentucky.
Worst hangover: It's tough to choose between Penn State and Michigan. The Nittany Lions lost their opener to Ohio, adding to what has already been an extraordinarily difficult year. They could be looking at a long season with little letup in the schedule. As for the Wolverines, they were major underdogs against Alabama. But they were thoroughly clobbered in every aspect against the Crimson Tide, and Brady Hoke's pained facial expressions in the second half said it all. If injured starters Blake Countess and Taylor Lewan have to miss significant time, the Alabama loss could add to Michigan's hangover in a big way.
Strangest moment: We're not questioning Bill O'Brien's judgment, and he came to Penn State from the New England Patriots, an organization that knows something about moving players into unexpected roles. Still, it was awfully strange seeing All-Big Ten linebacker Gerald Hodges returning kicks and punts against Ohio. The 237-pounder looked awkward doing so and fumbled a punt return at his own 13 to set up a Bobcats field goal. That's not what cost Penn State the game, but it sure was a weird and totally surprising sight that we might not see again this season.
Did Keon Lyn get too greedy, or did the officials overreact to Trevor Siemian's timely tumble?
Regardless, Syracuse's 13th and final penalty of the game was ultimately the one that did the Orange in during Saturday's opener at the Carrier Dome, where their 22-point comeback went for naught in a 42-41 loss to Northwestern.
Lyn was charged with a late hit on Siemian, the Wildcats' quarterback, with less than a minute left on a third-and-15 play deep in Syracuse territory. With new life, Siemian hit Demetrius Fields for a 9-yard touchdown pass with 44 seconds remaining, and Jeff Budzien's extra point accounted for the final and decisive points.
The miscues took away from a monster day by Orange quarterback Ryan Nassib, who set school records with 44 completions (on 64 attempts) and 472 yards passing. He tossed four touchdown passes and one interception, leading Syracuse back from a 35-13 deficit to take a 41-35 lead with 2:40 remaining.
The Wildcats had rattled off 28 unanswered points of their own before the Orange's comeback, but their secondary gave up big play after big play.
Syracuse had 596 yards of total offense to Northwestern's 337, but the Orange turned the ball over three times.
Venric Mark returned a punt 82 yards for a Northwestern touchdown in the first quarter, and Chi Chi Ariguzo recovered a Jerome Smith third-quarter fumble and brought it back 33 yards.
Nassib, whose four touchdown tosses all came in the second half, played exactly how you would expect from a senior. But miscues elsewhere proved too much to overcome for Syracuse, which won't have a chance next week against USC unless it shores up some of those loose ends.
I would hate to see the EKGs of Northwestern fans.
The Wildcats never make it easy, or boring, and no lead ever seems safe. Even when they raced out to a 35-13 advantage over Syracuse midway through the third quarter today, no one who has followed this team for any period of time could feel entirely comfortable.
And so, in typical Northwestern fashion, the Orange rallied for four straight touchdowns to take a 41-35 lead with 2:40 to go. It looked like an all-time gag job for a program that has given away more than its share of leads over the years.
But these 'Cats just love drama. Northwestern needed less than two minutes to drive the length of the field, and backup quarterback Trevor Siemian hit Demetrius Fields for a nine-yard touchdown pass with 40 seconds to go as the Wildcats pulled out a 42-41 thriller. Pat Fitzgerald still hasn't lost an opener as head coach.
So bully for Northwestern starting out 1-0 and winning on the road against a BCS AQ team. Good on them to be so resilient late. But the team has much to worry about after this one.
The defense, so maligned after last year's performance, actually played pretty well for the first two-and-a-half quarters. Syracuse committed three turnovers and Chi Chi Ariguzo scored on a 33 yard fumble return after the Orange gave up on a fumbled lateral. Ariguzo also had an interception.
But once Syracuse got down big, it took to the air. And the Wildcats' shaky pass defense looked lost. Orange quarterback Ryan Nassib completed 44-of-65 passes for 470 yards and four touchdowns as the Northwestern defensive backs got burned again and again. Nassib basically lobbed up a punt to wide open Jeremiah Kobena for a 50-yard score at the end of the third quarter as the defender fell down.
Syracuse is not normally an explosive passing team. The Wildcats' defense obviously still has a long ways to go for this team to be any kind of factor in the Big Ten. The good news is their offense can still put up a bunch of points in a hurry, and Venric Mark even returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown.
But if that defense doesn't figure things out, they might be looking at more shootouts in the future. And that means Northwestern fans will probably deal with a lot more heartburn this season.
Yes, the Wildcats have seen their wins total drop in each of the past three seasons, from nine in 2008 to eight in 2009 to seven in 2010 to six last fall. After back-to-back 5-3 marks in Big Ten play in 2008 and 2009, Northwestern has seen its league record flip in each of the past two seasons.
It doesn't take a mathematics major at Northwestern to see where things are going and ask the question: Has the program lost momentum?
"You can nitpick everything you want, but there has never been more positive momentum in the history of our program," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com. "If you're going to choose one thing to make it be whether or not you have momentum, that's unrealistic. But we've got to win football games and we've got to finish games better than we did a year ago.
It's Fitzgerald's job to look at the entire picture, and he notes some of Northwestern's recent accomplishments: four consecutive bowl appearances for the first time in program history; the winningest departing senior class in the program's history; a team GPA of 3.14; a 2012 recruiting class rated by many as the best in Fitzgerald's tenure. The school is also working on a facilities plan that could be a game-changer for the football program, which lags behind most of its Big Ten brethren.
Still, college football is a bottom-line business, and if Northwestern can't reverse the won-loss trend, its bowl appearances streak will end this season.
"Have we achieved our goals? Absolutely not," Fitzgerald said. "Are we hungry to do that? Absolutely. Are we working diligently to tweak the areas we need to improve? Absolutely."
Northwestern will try to make upgrades with a younger roster -- only 11 total starters return on offense and defense -- but quite possibly a more talented one. The team must fill several gaps, none more significant than Dan Persa's at quarterback, and hopes to do so by having what it believes to be stronger recruiting classes begin to pay dividends.
It's no secret the defense needs help after backsliding sharply in the past year and a half. Since a 6-2 start in 2010, Northwestern has surrendered 30 points or more 11 times. Last fall, the defense couldn't get off of the field (114th nationally in third-down defense at 50 percent conversions), fell victim to explosion plays and generated barely any pressure (106th in sacks, 104th in tackles for loss).
"You've got to make 'em earn everything," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said. "If they make great throws and great catches, you can live with those things. But we had some situations last year where we busted a coverage because of communication or we didn't have anybody back there. They didn't have to make the perfect throw or the perfect catch.
"We can execute better, no question."
The challenge is to improve communication and execution with a group heavy on youth. Although Northwestern returns all three starting linebackers, it will use young players in all three sections of the defense, including redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose, sophomore linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and redshirt freshman defensive end Deonte Gibson.
Consider that Ibraheim Campbell, a redshirt sophomore safety who led the team with 100 tackles in 2011, is viewed as the clear leader of the secondary.
Communication has been a focal point this spring, as players are taking extra measures to ensure they're on the same page.
"When I yell out a call to the D-line, the only way I know they got it is if they tap their hip," linebacker David Nwabuisi said. "We started forgetting about little stuff like that [in 2011]. Now when I make a call, if the D-lineman doesn't tap his hip, I keep on yelling at him until he does. Same thing with DBs to linebackers."
Communication shouldn't be an issue for Kain Colter, who started three games at quarterback in place of the injured Persa last season and evolved into arguably the Big Ten's most versatile offensive weapon (654 rush yards, 673 pass yards, 466 receiving yards, 18 total touchdowns). Colter is the best athlete to call signals at Northwestern since the team implemented the spread offense in 2000, but to maintain the program's recent run of top-shelf quarterbacks, he needs to become a more polished passer.
The junior emphasized velocity and arm strength during the winter -- he tore the labrum and the biceps in his throwing arm as a high school senior -- and expects to execute the high-percentage passes that drive the Wildcats' offense this fall. He'll have plenty of weapons as Northwestern boasts most likely its deepest receiving corps ever, even if USC transfer Kyle Prater can't play right away.
"My timing's getting a lot better, my arm strength's a lot better," Colter said. "I feel like I can make all the throws on the field. That hasn't been a problem this spring."
Northwestern loses four-year starters on both sides of the ball, an NCAA record holder in Persa, two-time All-Big Ten honoree Jeremy Ebert and Drake Dunsmore, the inaugural winner of the Kwalick-Clark Award as the Big Ten's top tight end. Fitzgerald likened the personnel turnover to a shift change at a factory and acknowledges the team dynamic is different.
Given the declining wins total, though, some new blood might not be a bad thing, and the coaches feel the team's overall talent level is on the uptick.
"There's better talent than people think," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "The cupboard's not bare. We've got guys who can play football. They just haven't had the experience yet.
"It's just their time. Let's go play."
One win away.
Northwestern needs one more victory to secure bowl eligibility after a miserable 2-5 start. The Wildcats won their third consecutive game Saturday thanks to a defense that is showing up in force after struggling mightily during the first two months of the season.
Pat Fitzgerald's crew nearly recorded its first shutout since 2007 before a trick play led to Rice's touchdown with 4:16 left in the game. Fitzgerald continue to say his defense was a few plays away from taking steps, and he has to be pleased with his crew in the past two games. Linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo had a nice day with two tackles for loss.
Northwestern's offense received a career performance from senior receiver Jeremy Ebert, who finished with seven catches for 208 yards and two touchdowns. Dan Persa threw four touchdown passes and two interceptions, completing 25 of 32 attempts for 372 yards. Despite dealing with injuries all season, Persa has been impressive. Northwestern found its run game late and finished with 533 total yards.
The Wildcats remain at home next week against Minnesota and the following week against Michigan State, likely needing just one more win to reach a bowl for the fourth consecutive season.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Illinois picks up a major commit at tight end, while Penn State bolsters its quarterback position and other teams add key pieces. Here's your latest recruiting rundown in the Big Ten.
- 2010 verbal commits: 8
- ESPNU 150 Watch List: Safety Corey Cooper, quarterback Chandler Whitmer, tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz
- Quick take: Fiedorowicz is a big get for the Illini, who lose starting tight end Michael Hoomanawanui after the 2009 season. Illinois also will be breaking in a new starting quarterback and could lose superstar wideout Arrelious Benn to the NFL draft, so Fiedorowicz should be a big help during the transition.
- 2010 verbal commits: 9
- ESPNU 150 Watch List: None
- Quick take: Things have slowed down a bit for the Hoosiers, who are still glowing from the commitment of defensive end Jibreel Black from Cincinnati. Indiana has found a good offense-defense balance so far in the 2010 class.
- 2010 verbal commits: 10
- ESPNU 150 Watch List: Defensive end Matt Hoch, tackle Andrew Donnal
- Quick take: Both lines have been the focus of Iowa's recruiting so far, and the Hawkeyes made a big splash with Donnal, who could protect his fellow Ohioan Ricky Stanzi at some point down the line. At least seven of Iowa's commits could contribute on the offensive or defensive lines.
- 2010 verbal commits: 15
- ESPNU 150 Watch List: Quarterback Devin Gardner, wide receiver Jeremy Jackson, wide receiver Ricardo Miller, guard Christian Pace, safety Marvin Robinson
- Quick take: The nucleus for Michigan's 2010 class is in place, and the team hasn't added a commit since Courtney Avery on June 20. There are a ton of great athletes in this group, and Michigan likely will turn its attention to line play to wrap up the class.
- 2010 verbal commits: 9
- ESPNU 150 Watch List: Defensive end William Gholston, linebacker Max Bullough, quarterback Joe Boisture
- Quick take: After landing its first seven commits from within state borders, Michigan State went into enemy territory -- or Mark Dantonio's home state, depending on how you look at it -- to pick up offensive linemen Travis Jackson and Michael Dennis. The two Ohio natives balance out a class that is shaping up well for the Spartans.
- 2010 verbal commits: 10
- ESPNU 150 Watch List: None
- Quick take: The Gophers already have a strong in-state recruiting haul, and they went to the southeast for running back Donnell Kirkwood, a workhorse-type back who generated a lot of interest. Minnesota also remains in the mix for arguably the nation's biggest prize, local product Seantrel Henderson.
- 2010 verbal commits: 6
- ESPNU 150 Watch List: None
- Quick take: Pat Fitzgerald should never have a hard time recruiting linebackers, and Northwestern landed a good one -- with a good name -- in Chi Chi Ariguzo from Columbus, Ohio. Ariguzo can also play safety and should contribute on special teams early in his career. Northwestern has yet to land an in-state prospect.
- 2010 verbal commits: 8
- ESPNU 150 Watch List: Tackle Andrew Norwell, linebacker Jamel Turner, defensive end David Durham, running back Roderick Smith
- Quick take: A quiet week for the Buckeyes after filling their backfield needs with Smith and quarterback Taylor Graham. Ohio State hopes to go back into Florida for star linebacker Jeff Luc and possibly linebacker Deon Rogers.
- 2010 verbal commits: 12
- ESPNU 150 Watch List: Wide receiver Adrian Coxson, running back Silas Redd, center Miles Dieffenbach, defensive end Kyle Baublitz, defensive tackle Evan Hailes, quarterback Robert Bolden
- Quick take: Does Penn State currently have the Big Ten's best recruiting class for 2010? It sure looks that way as Bolden gives the Nittany Lions six watch list commitments out of 12 overall. Both Bolden and Paul Jones should be able to operate effectively in the Spread HD offense.
- 2010 verbal commits: 7
- ESPNU 150 Watch List: Quarterback Robert Marve (2007 watch list)
- Quick take: The quality of Purdue's commits seems to be getting better as quarterback Sean Robinson and defensive tackle Josh Davis came aboard. Robinson joins Marve and Caleb TerBush in the quarterback mix, while Davis boasts excellent size (6-foot-5, 250) for a young interior lineman.
- 2010 verbal commits: 8
- ESPNU 150 Watch List: Safety Frank Tamakloe
- Quick take: The quarterback position might be a question mark this season, but it's shaping up well for the future as Joseph Brennan committed to the Badgers. Brennan has good mechanics and accuracy, and he should get better with increased strength. Cameron Ontko could be a contributor at fullback or H-back down the line.