NCF Nation: Chris Maragos
1. Iowa: Playmaker extraordinaire Tyler Sash leads a group that boasts good experience but must fill a major void following the departure of All-Big Ten cornerback Amari Spievey. Sash has recorded 11 interceptions in his first two seasons and already holds the team record with 350 interception return yards. His heroics overshadow the very solid play of fellow safety Brett Greenwood, who has started for two and a half seasons and owns seven interceptions and 18 pass breakups in his career. Shaun Prater is a returning starter at corner, and Iowa also has Jordan Bernstine, Micah Hyde, William Lowe and others.
3. Ohio State: There are some question marks here after the departures of All-Big Ten standout Kurt Coleman and veteran safety Anderson Russell, but Ohio State almost always finds a way to survive in the back four. The return of Tyler Moeller definitely helps, and safety Jermale Hines could have a big year after recording two interceptions in 2009. Is Chimdi Chekwa ready to be a shut-down corner in the Big Ten? We'll find out. Also keep an eye on athletic corner Devon Torrence and safety Orhian Johnson.
4. Wisconsin: This isn't a shut-down secondary -- evidence: 55th in pass defense in 2009 (217.5 ypg) -- but there are playmakers and hard-hitters, specifically veteran safety Jay Valai, among the group. There's good depth at cornerback with returning starter Devin Smith, Niles Brinkley, Antonio Fenelus and Marcus Cromartie, who has stood out in camp so far. Chris Maragos is a significant loss at safety, and it remains to be seen whether Aaron Henry can regain his pre-injury form as he moves from cornerback to safety.
5. Minnesota: I'm taking a little leap of faith here again, but if safeties Kim Royston and Kyle Theret are on the field together, good things will happen. The two combined for 159 tackles, four interceptions and 14 pass breakups in 2009, and finished with an outstanding performance in the Insight Bowl. I also like talented young cornerback Michael Carter, while Ryan Collado brings experience to the other corner spot. Minnesota expects juco transfer Christyn Lewis and redshirt freshman Kenny Watkins to add depth at safety.
Up next: Offensive line
More rankings ...
After his surgically repaired right knee forced him to miss the 2008 season, Henry had high hopes for himself last fall. He felt great during spring practice, and even after having a third knee procedure less than six weeks before the opener, the cornerback remained confident about his comeback.
"And two games turned into the season."
Henry started the first two games and struggled before losing the top job to Antonio Fenelus. He served as Wisconsin's top nickelback and recorded 18 tackles and four pass breakups, but his performance certainly didn't meet his standards.
"Last season was horrible," Henry said. "There were times where I felt real good, but there were times when I felt like, ‘Man, is this the game I want to play?' I was questioning myself, I was questioning my ability, I was just questioning the things that were going on around me because I had so much expectations for myself, and I didn’t fulfill them."
Henry is getting another chance this season, but at a new position. After playing cornerback for three years, he shifted to free safety this spring. Wisconsin needs to replace Chris Maragos, and Henry is the projected starter at safety alongside senior Jay Valai.
A new position has brought new challenges for Henry, who brings good size to the safety spot (6-foot, 202 pounds).
"It’s a completely different mindset as far as safety goes," he said. "You’ve got to pretty much be the field general. At corner, you’re on an island, and you’re doing a lot more physically because you’re one-on-one with [the wide receiver]. At safety, it’s more of like a chess game against the quarterback as far as the pass goes, and then you’ve got to read your keys and come up and support the run."
Henry also is adjusting to his new partner in the backfield: the hard-hitting, lively and garrulous Valai.
"Different personalities, different body types, different backgrounds, different influences," Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said.
It's tough to argue with that assessment.
The 2009 campaign will be remembered as the season Wisconsin got back on track. Everything seemed to stabilize, from the quarterback to the head coach to the defensive leadership.
Many of the reasons for UW's turnaround showed up Tuesday night against No. 15 Miami. An aggressive defense shut down Jacory Harris and the Hurricanes offense. A balanced offense found gaps in Miami's defense and should have scored at least 30 points. Quarterback Scott Tolzien made good decisions and tough throws. Tight ends Lance Kendricks and Garrett Graham torched Miami for 13 receptions and 205 receiving yards (107 after the catch). The offensive line imposed its will for backs John Clay (121 rush yards, 2 TDs) and Montee Ball (61 rush yards).
Keep in mind, Miami is the type of team that supposedly gives the Big Ten trouble, but Wisconsin faced very little adversity aside from the opening minute and the final two.
Wisconsin had a fairly watered-down 9-3 record entering the Champs Sports Bowl, but a signature win against Miami changes things. And raises the bar for 2010.
The Badgers lose only one offensive starter in Graham. Clay likely will enter the fall as a Heisman Trophy candidate. There are some significant departures on defense, namely end O'Brien Schofield, linebacker Jaevery McFadden and safety Chris Maragos. But Wisconsin boasts a lot of young talent on defense, including linebacker Chris Borland, the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year this fall, as well as end J.J. Watt, linebacker Mike Taylor and cornerback Devin Smith.
For the most part, Wisconsin remains a young team. And a good one.
Expectations will be higher for Wisconsin in 2010, and they should be. The Badgers should challenge both Ohio State and Iowa for the Big Ten title. Wisconsin proved Tuesday it can win a big game on a big stage, and the bowl victory could signal bigger things ahead for Bielema's crew.
Chris Borland can force fumbles, block kicks and sack quarterbacks, but he's not allowed to sit on couches or ride elevators.
|David Stluka/Icon SMI|
|Chris Borland is is the first Wisconsin player in over 30 years to both force and recover at least three fumbles in a season.|
"Some guys have had to sit in meetings with no shirt on," Borland said. "I haven’t been caught yet. I’ve been threatened one time. So I still feel like a freshman."
There are other reminders of Borland's youth, like his face. He's been trying to grow a mustache, but it's been a struggle so far.
"I don’t even know if I’m at Adam Morrison yet," Borland lamented. "I’m trying to get to Jack Lambert, but that might be years away."
No. 21 Wisconsin hasn't had to wait nearly as long for Borland to blossom on the field.
Arguably no freshman in the Big Ten has made a bigger impact on his team than the 5-foot-11, 235-pound linebacker, who has recorded three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, five tackles for loss (2.5 sacks), four quarterback hurries and two pass breakups. Borland is the first Wisconsin player to both force and recover at least three fumbles in a season since Ed Bosold in 1972.
He has starred on special teams all season and moved into a starting role at strongside linebacker following a season-ending injury to Mike Taylor on Oct. 17.
Borland's emergence typifies the youth movement sweeping through Wisconsin's defense, which has made obvious strides this season despite losing six multiyear starters (five in the front seven). The Badgers rank 21st nationally in total defense (302.9 yards per game) and last Saturday shut out a Big Ten opponent (Purdue) for the first time in a decade.
Wisconsin's two-deep on defense is filled with freshmen and sophomores, including starters such as sophomore defensive end J.J. Watt, sophomore cornerback Devin Smith and Borland. Taylor, who led the team in tackles before his injury, is a redshirt freshman.
"I’m a freshman, so I don’t have a measuring stick for it, but I can’t imagine any other teams, or even teams at Wisconsin in the past, being as focused as this defense," Borland said. "The older guys have talked about how we’re playing harder this year than they did last year. We’re in full pads more, going longer [practice] periods and hitting more, just an attitude change around here, trying to re-establish that Wisconsin, hard-nosed, grind-it-out type of football."
While the young players provide a jolt, veteran defenders like end O'Brien Schofield and safety Chris Maragos are playing their best football in their senior seasons. Schofield, an afterthought last season, remains tied for the national lead in tackles for loss (2.06 per game).
"We’ve been able to gain some depth," head coach Bret Bielema said. "In this league, any time you can gain quality depth that allows you to rotate players through defensively, you can be a better football team."
Borland's goals entering the season were simply to play on every special teams unit and become a solid backup linebacker. But Bielema had high expectations from the time Borland attended Wisconsin's football camp last summer.
Borland showed he could do it all during the camp -- even punt and catch passes -- and he saved his best display for last.
"We offered him a scholarship," Bielema recalled, "and when he got off the elevator, he did a standing backflip with something in both hands. He’s got a tremendous amount of athletic ability."
So Borland did ride the elevator. But back then, he didn't know the rules.
"Now I know my place," he said.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The national spotlight will shine brightest in Dallas and South Bend this week, but quite a few eyes and ears will be tuned to what happens Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
|Scott Boehm/Getty Images|
|Bret Bielema's Badgers are looking to rebound from Saturday's loss at Ohio State.|
The Iowa-Wisconsin matchup means something, and not just to the two rivals competing for the Heartland Trophy. It means a lot in the Big Ten title race, and possibly the national title chase, given Iowa's unblemished record. Granted, we'll hear the standard storylines all week (Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema facing his alma mater, border battle, homecoming in Madison, etc.), but the matchup has bigger-picture implications.
Back in the preseason, a marquee matchup seemed unlikely as both teams dealt with major concerns.
Wisconsin entered August without a starting quarterback -- again. The Badgers were banged up along the offensive line and had major questions at linebacker after losing DeAndre Levy and Jonathan Casillas. Running back John Clay, a projected star, didn't have the offseason many had hoped for and slipped behind Zach Brown on the depth chart. Dark horse quarterback candidate Scott Tolzien emerged as a surprise starter. Veteran safeties Shane Carter and Aubrey Pleasant were indefinitely suspended. Bielema showed up on lists of coaches on the hot seat, even though his job was never in serious jeopardy.
Iowa, meanwhile, endured arguably the worst preseason of any Big Ten team. Hawkeyes running back Jewel Hampton, the projected successor to Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene, couldn't recover from a knee injury and had to be shut down for the season. Injuries also hit the wide receiving corps hard. Things still looked bleak after the season began, as Iowa barely survived its opener against Northern Iowa and lost more standout players (left tackle Bryan Bulaga, tight end Tony Moeaki, wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos) to injuries.
The fortunes have changed for both teams heading into Saturday's matchup (ESPN, noon ET).
|AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall|
|Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes are 6-0 for the first time since 1985.|
Iowa is 6-0 for the first time since 1985, a season that resulted in a Big Ten championship and a trip to Pasadena. The Hawkeyes own the nation's second-longest win streak (10) and the longest in head coach Kirk Ferentz's tenure. They're tied for second nationally in takeaways (19) and rank 20th in points allowed (15.8 ppg). The defensive line has been fabulous, and quarterback Ricky Stanzi continues to show resiliency despite some troubling miscues. Perhaps most important, Iowa has maintained its poise in close games, winning three by a combined six points.
"This year's team just has that air about them," running back Adam Robinson said. "Everybody wants to win when it's crunch time. We just have that no-quit attitude."
Wisconsin continues to sniff the national rankings despite a loss to Ohio State that in many ways validated the team's 5-0 start. The Badgers boast the Big Ten's most balanced offense and a defense that ranks third in the league in takeaways (16). Tolzien has emerged as the answer at quarterback, and Clay re-established himself as the team's top back with big performances against Michigan State and Minnesota. Senior end O'Brien Schofield has been the Big Ten's best defensive lineman this season, leading the nation in tackles for loss (2.42 per game). Defenders like Mike Taylor, Chris Maragos and Chris Borland have emerged as surprise stars.
If Wisconsin had translated a strong game plan into more points and fewer mistakes in Columbus, Saturday's matchup would pair two undefeated teams. Would that take the spotlight away from Texas-Oklahoma or USC-Notre Dame? Hard to tell.
But the Badgers and the Hawkeyes still deserve your attention.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Before I head over to The Shoe, here are some observations from the three early Big Ten games.
This was a disastrous 21-19 loss for the Wildcats, one that could change the complexion of a very promising season. Not only did Northwestern lose to arguably the Big Ten's worst team, but it lost starting quarterback C.J. Bacher (hamstring) and starting running back Tyrell Sutton (wrist) to injuries. Much like the Michigan State loss, the Wildcats were hamstrung by turnovers (5), bad red-zone play-calling and poor special teams play. The defense did a nice job aside from forcing no turnovers, but the offense never attacked a banged-up Indiana team down the field, as Illinois did last week. If Sutton and Bacher miss extended time, the Wildcats should struggle in their remaining games.
Indiana backup quarterback Ben Chappell played a terrific game, committing no turnovers and converting several big-play opportunities. Head coach Bill Lynch really liked this guy in the preseason, and the sophomore showed us why. Wide receivers Tandon Doss and Damarlo Belcher stepped up, and the defense came up with big plays in the fourth quarter. The heat on Lynch should go down a bit, and with a manageable closing stretch aside from Penn State, Indiana could salvage its season.
Illinois might be one of the Big Ten's most talented teams, but it's also arguably the most inconsistent. Quarterback Juice Williams had his first poor performance of the season, tossing three interceptions in a 27-17 loss. Heralded sophomore linebacker Martez Wilson missed several tackles, and the defense remains vulnerable against the run. This will be a better team next year, but getting bowl eligible could be a challenge with a tough closing stretch.
Wisconsin played an inspired game on both sides of the ball, and coach Bret Bielema deserves credit for igniting his team after a four straight losses. Dustin Sherer did what Badgers quarterbacks are supposed to do: limit mistakes and make plays here and there. He proved to valuable on the move (40 rush yards, TD), and he found David Gilreath for two touchdowns. A leg/ankle injury to All-American H-back Travis Beckum didn't look good, and his absence could sting down the stretch. But the defense regained its swagger as cornerbacks Allen Langford and Niles Brinkley and safety Chris Maragos snared interceptions.
The Gophers added another chapter to one of college football's great stories this season, improving to 7-1 with a 17-6 win at Purdue. I'm continually amazed by Minnesota's opportunistic play on defense, as the Gophers forced four Boilermakers turnovers in the win. Tim Brewster clearly found the magical bye-week formula as his team came out ready, though the coach won't be pleased with 13 penalties. I realize Duke had to fire Ted Roof, but this guy can coach defense.
Purdue has really played decent defense for most of the season, and coordinator Brock Spack deserves credit. But no matter who takes the snaps (Curtis Painter, Joey Elliott or Justin Siller), the Boilermakers offense simply can't find the end zone. Siller might be the starter next week against Michigan as Painter continued to struggle. But confidence has to be low right now, and outside of kicker Carson Wiggs, there aren't too many reasons for optimism.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
I'm off to Rantoul, Ill., to spend the day with the Illinois Fighting Illini, one of two Big Ten teams to hold preseason practice off campus [Northwestern is the other]. I'll catch up with coach Ron Zook, offensive coordinator Mike Locksley and several players, so check back later for your Illini fill.
Onto the links:
- Arrelious Benn can take hits again in practice, and the Illinois star loves it, Bob Asmussen writes in The [Champaign, Ill.] News-Gazette. Benn will be in the backfield more as Illinois tries to replace Rashard Mendenhall. Also, tackle Xavier Fulton returned to practice.
- After taking plenty of hard knocks last season, Iowa quarterback Jake Christensen is ready to counter this fall, Andy Hamilton writes in the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Christensen and the offense impressed in Tuesday's scrimmage.
- Indiana coach Bill Lynch addressed Mitchell Evans' move from quarterback to wide receiver and other topics at media day, Jared Poertner writes in The Hoosier Scoop.
- Nick Sheridan might be inching ahead of Steven Threet in Michigan's quarterback competition, Jim Carty writes in The Ann Arbor News. The intensity was noticeable at Wolverines practice Tuesday, and young players like Michael Shaw and Martavious Odoms continue to impress, Mark Snyder writes in the Detroit Free Press. Shaw and fellow running back Sam McGuffie are among the freshmen who will play this fall, Angelique Chengelis writes in The Detroit News.
- Michigan State standout Greg Jones might not stay at middle linebacker after practicing there this spring. Adam Decker is getting his chance in the middle, the Lansing State Journal's Joe Rexrode writes in his blog. Spartans freshman wideout Fred Smith came in with all the hype, but classmate Keshawn Martin continues to impress, Shannon Shelton writes in the Detroit Free Press [second note].
- Minnesota brought in a ton of junior-college talent, but don't forget about the Gophers' seniors, who are finally healthy, Marcus Fuller writes in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Knee injuries are dogging the Gophers' offensive linemen, Kent Youngblood writes in the [Minneapolis] Star Tribune.
- Northwestern's offensive backfield has seen plenty of production but seeks more wins this fall, Mark Stewart writes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
- Ohio State defensive end Lawrence Wilson caught a bad break in the 2007 opener, but a talk with former Buckeyes punter Tyson Gentry put things in perspective. The Columbus Dispatch's Tim May wonders whether Ohio State would be ranked No. 1 if preseason polls were taken midway through training camp, after teams like Georgia and USC suffered significant injuries. Buckeyes incoming freshman defensive lineman Willie Mobley will miss the season with a shoulder injury that could have lingered from high school, Ken Gordon writes in The Columbus Dispatch.
- Fans aren't the only ones anxious to see Penn State's warp-speed redshirt freshman Stephfon Green at running back this fall, Cory Giger writes in The Altoona Mirror. Penn State's receiving corps is stacked with seniors, but don't count out redshirt freshman Derek Moye, who is finally healthy, Ron Musselman writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
- Purdue fans are anxious to see Joe Tiller's final season, as season-ticket sales are on pace to increase, Tom Kubat writes in The [Lafayette, Ind.] Journal and Courier.
- Chris Maragos' college journey has taken him from Western Michigan to Wisconsin and from wide receiver to safety. Now he's in the mix as the Badgers' top nickel back, Jeff Potrykus writes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. A torn ACL was the least of Aaron Henry's worries in the last few months, as the Wisconsin cornerback dealt with the loss of three friends, including former Central Florida football player Ereck Plancher, Jim Polzin writes in The Capital Times.