NCF Nation: Christian Kirksey

The biggest non-game on the American sporting calendar is all done, as the 2014 NFL draft wrapped up Saturday afternoon in New York. After arguably its worst draft in the modern era in 2013, the Big Ten performed better this year with 30 picks. Still, the league finished fourth among conferences in selections, trailing the SEC (49), ACC (42) and Pac-12 (34).

After a big Friday night with six second-round selections -- including four in a row -- and six third-round selections, the Big Ten's momentum slowed a bit Saturday in the final four rounds. The league had only one sixth-round pick and only four in the seventh round.

Let's start the breakdown by listing Big Ten draftees by round (with comments below). Maryland and Rutgers players aren't included here because neither group competed in the Big Ten (Terrapins CB Dexter McDougle went in the third round; Rutgers had no players drafted).

FIRST ROUND (4)
[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyTaylor Lewan was the first Big Ten player selected, going 11th overall to the Tennessee Titans.
Analysis: Click here for my first-round thoughts

SECOND ROUND (6)
Analysis: Hageman ends up in a really good spot with the Falcons. Although Latimer had an excellent pre-draft performance, it wasn't surprising to see him end up in the middle of the second round. Hyde waited longer than many anticipated, but he enters a great situation with a team that loves to play power football. Robinson joins a new-look Jaguars passing attack featuring quarterback Blake Bortles and wideout Marqise Lee.

THIRD ROUND (6)
Analysis: Everyone had Southward going before Borland, right? Borland, the 2013 Big Ten defensive player of the year, had an exceptional college career, but concerns about his height and perhaps his injury history moved him down the draft boards. The Iowa Effect shows up here as both Fiedorowicz and Kirksey were swept up by teams that respect what the Hawkeyes do. What does it say that Michigan's offensive line struggled mightily in 2013 but had two tackles drafted in the first three rounds? Those young Wolverines linemen had better step up this fall.

FOURTH ROUND (4)
Analysis: Some really good pickups in this round, especially White, who will fit in very well with New England's offense. Although James Morris received the most accolades among Iowa's linebackers at the college level, both Kirksey and Hitchens were mid-round selections, while Morris went undrafted and signed with New England as a free agent. As a Chicago Bears fan, I love the Vereen pick. He's a smart, athletic versatile player who knows from his older brother what it takes to succeed in the NFL.

FIFTH ROUND (5)
[+] EnlargeJared Abbrederis
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsJared Abbrederis isn't venturing far from Madison as he was drafted by the Green Bay Packers.
Analysis: Like his teammate Borland, Abbrederis had a much longer wait than expected but lands in a very familiar spot with Green Bay. I think he's a steal and will surprise people with his ability to make plays despite less-than-ideal measurables. Pamphile had a fairly quiet college career but is seen as a project and could develop into a better pro. Urschel is another player who lacks the ideal physical traits sought in the NFL, but could make up for it with exceptional intelligence.

SIXTH ROUND (1)
Analysis: Enunwa complemented his superb blocking skills with big-play ability in the pass game as a senior. He's a good value for a Jets team that needs to boost the league's 31st-ranked pass offense.

SEVENTH ROUND (4)
Analysis: All four players could be very good values. Bolser is an athletic tight end who had 15 career touchdown catches. Allen showed versatility as a senior, transitioning to a 3-4 scheme. Gallon heads to a Patriots team that has had success with smaller, productive receivers. Bryant likely would have been selected higher if not for major leg and ankle injuries last season.

Here are the draft picks per B1G team:

Ohio State: 6
Wisconsin: 5
Michigan: 3
Penn State: 3
Nebraska: 3
Iowa: 3
Purdue: 2
Minnesota: 2
Indiana: 2
Michigan State: 1

The big surprise is a Michigan State team that dominated Big Ten play and won the Rose Bowl had just one player selected, as standout linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen didn't have their names called. Only four teams -- LSU, Alabama, Notre Dame and Florida State -- had more selections than Ohio State. Illinois, which led the Big Ten in draft picks last season (4) and had 18 picks between 2009-13, had no selections. Northwestern also went without a draft pick for the second straight year.

Curious about the Big Ten's undrafted free-agent signings? Check back in a bit as we take a look.

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- No Big Ten coach takes the temperature of his team in spring practice quite like Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. No Big Ten coach has lived in as many different climates.

The dean of the league's coaches knows the sunniness that surrounds teams after redemptive seasons such as the ones the Hawkeyes had in 2001, 2008 or last fall, when Iowa improved its wins total by four. He also knows the polar vortex that exists, at least outside Iowa's football complex, after poor performances like the ones the team delivered in 2007 and 2012.

Ferentz also understands how quickly the weather changes, like it often does on spring afternoons in the Midwest.

So at a recent team meeting, Ferentz detoured from the typical spring minutia -- replacing seniors, creating depth, finding leaders, building identities -- and addressed a macro item: the preseason polls.

"He said we might be ranked," running back Jordan Canzeri told ESPN.com, "and even if we are, no one is to keep that in their head. There were several teams that were ranked and didn't get to go to a bowl game this past year. You never want to be cocky. Even if the stats show you're good, you still want to prepare as you would with any other team, so you don't get satisfied and complacent."

Iowa likely will be ranked when the preseason polls come out. The Hawkeyes appear in some way-too early versions. They return eight offensive starters, including left tackle Brandon Scherff, a preseason All-America candidate, along with three of four starting defensive linemen from a team that flipped its regular-season record in 2013.

The quarterback uncertainty that hovered over the program last spring, when no signal-caller had taken a snap in a game, is no longer there, as junior Jake Rudock has established himself. An unprecedented stretch of running back maladies has subsided as Iowa returns three veteran options (Mark Weisman, Canzeri and Damon Bullock) and two promising young players (LeShun Daniels Jr. and Barkley Hill). There's more explosiveness at wide receiver, and the defensive line, led by senior tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, looks more like the elite units Iowa produced for most of Ferentz's tenure.

[+] EnlargeCarl Davis
David Purdy/The Des Moines Register via USA TODAY SportsWith Carl Davis and others back, Iowa's defensive line should be the team's strongest unit.
"We are a more experienced unit, probably the most experienced unit on the team," defensive line coach Reese Morgan said.

There are enough internal reasons to indicate Iowa will take another step this season, but the biggest factors in the Hawkeyes favor are external. Their new division, the Big Ten West, lacks a clear-cut favorite or a flawless team. And their schedule is undoubtedly the most favorable in the league.

Not only does Iowa miss Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State from the East Division, but it hosts both Wisconsin and Nebraska. The Hawkeyes' toughest league road game should be a Nov. 8 visit to Minnesota.

"It's a pretty favorable schedule for us," wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley said, "but every week is going to be a challenge. Nothing that happened last year really matters."

Davis looks forward to visiting Big Ten newcomer Maryland, but he had hoped to play more of the league's traditional powers. The only way Iowa sees Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan is in the Big Ten championship game.

"When the Big Ten started, those are the teams that dominated," Davis said. "You want to be able to play those teams and beat those teams. I really look forward to it.

"I definitely feel we're in contention for a Big Ten championship. Every team says it, but we're hungry."

Ferentz has seen Iowa go from good to great in 2002 and again in 2009. He also has seen the program fall short of expectations, as it did in 2006 and 2010.

The first step to building upon success, Ferentz said, is not taking it for granted. Take Iowa's group of linebackers, which loses three multiyear starters from last year's squad: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens.

"If we're waiting for Morris, Kirksey and Hitchens to give us 300 tackles, that ain't gonna happen," Ferentz said. "Two years ago, we had a disappointing season. Last year was a new year and this year was the flip record-wise, but it's a new year again. This team has to form its own identity, and it starts with our experienced players. We're going to need them to play their absolute best, which is what those seniors did last year."

Iowa's linebacker reset has been a top spring storyline. Quinton Alston has stepped into the lead role, earning high marks from teammates and coaches. Travis Perry and Reggie Spearman, who played as a 17-year-old freshman last fall and doesn't turn 18 until August, are likely starters alongside Alston.

The biggest challenge could be replacing Kirksey, a converted safety who brought defensive back speed to outside linebacker.

"Chris had a different skill set than the guys we have out there now," defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. "It's been a long time since we had a guy who could run that fast and still have the power and explosion to play in the box, too, or at least on the tight end. We have three or four guys we're trying to look at with that position."

Other uncertainties include the cornerback spot opposite dynamic sophomore Desmond King, free safety and the second-string offensive line, which coordinator Greg Davis lists as the unit's biggest concern.

Iowa players understand that their margin for error remains slim.

"The determining factor is going to be winning those close games," Martin-Manley said.

Iowa won several such contests in 2009, its last truly special season. The 2014 team also could reach rarefied air, but Hawkeyes won't get caught with their heads in the clouds.

"That's what we do here; we work hard," Davis said. "That's something you get used to the longer you're in this program. The grind becomes normal, and I feel like all our hard work will be able to pay off."

Outback Bowl preview

January, 1, 2014
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Iowa (8-4) and No. 16 LSU (9-3) will meet Wednesday for the first time since the Hawkeyes shocked LSU with a last-second touchdown to win the 2005 Capital One Bowl in Nick Saban's final game as the Tigers' coach. Here are a few players and matchups to watch for in their rematch nine years later at the Outback Bowl (1 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Who to watch: This will likely be the last time we see LSU's exciting offense in its current form. We already know resurgent senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger is out with a knee injury, and it's highly possible that some of the Tigers' most impressive offensive players could make the leap for the NFL after the Outback Bowl. Receivers Jarvis Landry (75 catches, 1,172 yards, 10 TDs) and Odell Beckham (57-1,117, 8 TDs), running back Jeremy Hill (1,185 yards, 14 TDs) and offensive tackle La'El Collins (plus defensive linemen Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson) could follow the lead of the 11 Tigers who jumped to the pros last year before exhausting their college eligibility. On the Iowa side, the defense leads the way – we'll discuss that group in a moment – along with a run-heavy offense. Mark Weisman leads the team with 937 rushing yards and seven TDs, and the rushing attack is led by All-Big Ten offensive lineman Brandon Scherff, with Florida native Jake Rudock (2,281 passing yards, 18 TDs, 12 INTs) at the trigger.

What to watch: The most intriguing matchup of the day is probably LSU freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings against Iowa's stout defense. Jennings did a great job in taking over for an injured Mettenberger against Arkansas in LSU's comeback win, but Iowa presents a different challenge. Led by senior linebackers James Morris (98 tackles, 14.5 TFL, five sacks), Christian Kirksey (97 tackles) and Anthony Hitchens (102 tackles, 13 TFL), Iowa has arguably its best defense since Kirk Ferentz became the Hawkeyes' coach. They are No. 7 nationally in total defense (303.2 yards per game) and No. 11 in scoring defense (18.8 points per game). Jennings obviously has some talented weapons at his disposal, but he's a rookie starter and that can be a scary proposition.

Why to watch: Aside from the classic offense-versus-defense matchup, we could also see Les Miles' LSU program establish a team standard for consistency. The Tigers can win 10 games for the fourth consecutive season, which would be a school record. LSU has done it in three consecutive seasons twice: 2005-07 and the current streak. On the other sideline, Iowa can complete a surprising bounce-back season with a victory over one of the nation's elite programs. The Hawkeyes are 0-4 against ranked opponents this season, but with a victory, could finish as a ranked team a year after going 4-8.

Prediction: LSU 28, Iowa 21. Despite Jennings' youth, Las Vegas still favors LSU by 7.5 points at most sites. That's largely because the Tigers simply have more offensive firepower than the Hawkeyes. Iowa's defense is good enough to make LSU sweat, but the Tigers have too many weapons to remain quiet for long.

Senior LBs lead the way for Iowa

December, 18, 2013
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James MorrisMatthew Holst/Getty ImagesIowa linebacker James Morris pressures Michigan QB Devin Gardner during the Hawkeyes' win.
Anthony Hitchens switched positions and joined fellow true freshmen James Morris and Christian Kirksey at linebacker just before Iowa played in the 2010 Insight Bowl. The seeds of something special had been planted.

“We knew we were going to have a great opportunity to be a great linebacking corps,” Kirksey told ESPN.com, remembering that moment. “We came in together, and we were going to leave together.”

As the Hawkeyes prepare for the Jan.1 Outback Bowl against LSU, that long-ago promise has been fulfilled. All seniors now, Morris, Kirksey and Hitchens are major reasons why Iowa went from 4-8 last season to 8-4 this year, finishing No. 7 nationally in total defense.

During the preseason, the three set a goal to become the best linebacker group in the country. After a year in which they each finished between 97 and 102 tackles while improving their big-play capabilities, they at least have a claim to that title.

“It’s a hard thing to determine,” Morris said. “Stats don’t determine it, and you can’t just tell by watching film. But it’s something we strive to be, and I’d be lying if I told you we didn’t want to be the best linebacker corps in the Big Ten and the nation.”

They put up similar tackle numbers a year ago, but none of the three made first- or second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2012. So they came into this year determined to improve. Head coach Kirk Ferentz said all three brought “the right edge” into the preseason and have been “exemplary” ever since.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Hitchens
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallAnthony Hitchens led the Big Ten in total tackles in 2012 but got even better by becoming a student of the game.
Their value was apparent all year but especially so at season’s end.

On senior day against Michigan, Hitchens shed a block and forced a fumble from quarterback Devin Gardner to seal a 24-21 win over the Wolverines. Then the finale at Nebraska turned into a wrecking ball party for the threesome. They combined for 28 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two interceptions and two forced fumbles in the 38-17 win.

"That was one of the most fun games I've ever played in," Morris said. "It's one I won't soon forget."

The group saw a big increase in its turnovers, sacks and tackles behind the line of scrimmage this season. Morris led the team with 14.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and four interceptions. Hitchens collected the most tackles, along with 13 tackles, two sacks and an interception. Kirksey scored the lone defensive touchdown of the three (against Northern Illinois) and was named Walter Camp national defensive player of the week for his performance at Nebraska.

Linebackers can't succeed solely on their own, and Iowa's vastly improved defensive line gave the trio more freedom to go make plays instead of cleaning up messes. Hitchens also helped elevate the entire unit's play by making major strides in his second year as a starter.

Though he led the Big Ten in total tackles in 2012, Hitchens accomplished most of that through his quickness, and he wasn’t always in the right spots. This offseason, he spent time working with linebackers coach Jim Reid on becoming more of a student of the game.

“My tackles for loss are a lot better this year because I can see stuff faster,” he said. “I can read my keys and get in the backfield faster. I can see guards pulling. Coach Reid helped me out a lot on that.”

After four seasons together, the three have grown tight. They'll occasionally get a home-cooked dinner from Morris' parents, who live right outside of Iowa City. Kirksey and Hitchens like to tease Morris by saying he’ll be governor of Iowa someday.

“Yeah, that’s real creative on their part,” Morris said. “I’m a political science major. But I don’t know enough rich people to run for office. That’s the truth.”

Morris said Kirksey likes to talk in silly voices and loves to impersonate the Pillsbury Doughboy. They both agree that Hitchens is the goofiest of the three.

“We've got similar characteristics, but we're all different at the same time,” Kirksey said. “Anthony is probably the most consistent. He always makes both of us laugh."

The three compete with each other for sack numbers, in the weight room or at anything, really. Rock-paper-scissors has become their latest craze around the football complex. That closeness carries over onto the field.

“There’s certainly a chemistry there,” Morris said. “Communication is easier because we know how each other thinks, we know how each other plays. In certain situations, we know exactly where each other is going to be on the field. That’s a luxury.”

Iowa will greatly miss their leadership and production in 2014, but they express confidence that current backups like Reggie Spearman, Quinton Alston and Chad Gilson can pick things up next year.

But first, the three senior linebackers want to finish strong and cement their legacy with a win over LSU.

“If you beat a team like that, it would probably do wonders for the status of Iowa football and how it’s perceived, not only in the Midwest but across country,” Morris said. “As a player, you can’t really ask for more than that.”



The Big Ten's bowl lineup is now official. Both participants from the league championship game are headed to BCS bowls, while five others will play postseason games in Florida, Arizona and Texas. The overall lineup doesn't seem quite as daunting as last season's, when the Big Ten had zero top-10 teams and played three top-10 opponents in the postseason.

We'll be breaking down these games for the next few weeks, but we wanted to share our first impressions of the lineup:

Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO, Jan. 1: Michigan State vs. Stanford
Discover Orange Bowl, Jan. 3: Ohio State vs. Clemson
Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1: Wisconsin vs. South Carolina
Outback Bowl, Jan. 1: Iowa vs. LSU
Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Dec. 28: Michigan vs. Kansas State
TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Jan. 1: Nebraska vs. Georgia
Texas Bowl, Dec. 27: Minnesota vs. Syracuse

Let's begin ...

Adam Rittenberg's first impressions

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesMark Dantonio's Spartans enter the Rose Bowl on a nine-game win streak.
Best game: Rose. The most tradition-rich bowl will celebrate its 100th edition with a matchup of teams with traditional offenses based around the power-run and aggressive, hard-hitting defenses. Michigan State recorded the signature win of the Mark Dantonio-era against Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game and enters the Rose Bowl on a nine-game win streak, winning each contest by at least 10 points. Both teams have standout defenders (MSU's Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Shilique Calhoun and Denicos Allen; Stanford's Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Jordan Richards), underrated quarterbacks in Connor Cook and Kevin Hogan and impressive running backs in Jeremy Langford and Tyler Gaffney. Good times.

Worst game: Gator. I'm probably not as upset about this one as Brian (or most Nebraska fans), but a rematch of last season's Capital One Bowl featuring two teams playing without their starting quarterbacks doesn't move the needle. At least running backs Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska) and Todd Gurley (Georgia) are fun to watch.

Sneaky good game: Capital One Bowl. Not sure how sneaky this one is, but both teams are talented on both sides of the ball and easily could have better records. The game features the nation's most talented defender in South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney against one of the nation's most accomplished defenders in Wisconsin's Chris Borland. The Badgers' seniors want to go out on a good note after a stunning home loss to Penn State, not to mention three consecutive losses in the Rose Bowl.

The bowl season will be a success if: The Big Ten records a winning record with at least one BCS bowl win. This season's lineup is slightly more favorable, and four wins certainly isn't out of the question. Ohio State and Minnesota both should win their games, and Michigan State, while less experienced than Stanford in BCS games, is playing its best football. Wisconsin needs to rebound, Iowa has a tough draw and both Michigan and Nebraska have been enigmatic, but the Big Ten should expect a little more in its final season of its self-created meat-grinder bowl lineup.

Brian Bennett's first impressions

Best game: The Rose Bowl is tremendous and looks to be the second-best game outside of the BCS title game. But let me also put in a plug for a possible underrated Orange matchup between Ohio State and Clemson. I saw Clemson earlier this season, and while the Tigers stumbled badly against Florida State and South Carolina, they are loaded with athletes. Put Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde all on the same field, and you're guaranteed some fireworks. Both teams score more than 40 points per game so we could have an entertaining shootout with some intriguing back stories (the Woody Hayes punch, Urban Meyer's return to the state of Florida).

Worst game: Minnesota had a great season and has a legitimately good defense and solid running game led by David Cobb. So I was hoping to see the Gophers get a chance to prove themselves against a decent opponent. Unfortunately, they drew a 6-6 Syracuse squad that beat absolutely no one and has an even lower-scoring offense than Minnesota. A bowl win is probably all that matters to Jerry Kill and his players, but I think they deserved a better showcase opportunity.

Sneaky good game: Outback. Iowa will have to make up for a talent gap with LSU -- as most teams do when they play the Tigers. But the Hawkeyes really hit their stride in the season finale at Nebraska, and they have only lost to teams ranked in the top 20. LSU, meanwhile, will be without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who tore his ACL in the season finale, and this was not a vintage Tigers' defense. Both teams like to run the ball a lot, and Iowa linebackers James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey must continue to lead the way for Phil Parker's defense. Maybe if we're lucky, we'll get an ending half as good as the 2005 Capital One Bowl.

The bowl season will be a success if: At least one BCS win is a necessity, especially with opponents who are similar in style in both games. Winning at least one of the games against the SEC on New Year's Day is also important; that holiday has been unkind to the Big Ten of late, and Georgia and LSU look more vulnerable than usual. An overall winning record is possible and could start to change the conference's image. Another sign of success will be if Wisconsin can avoid adding to Clowney's postseason highlight reel.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 14

December, 2, 2013
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There were two huge rivalry games Saturday, with BCS national title implications at stake. What were the odds that both underdog home teams would score a touchdown to get within one point with 32 seconds left in the game?

That was the scenario in both the Ohio State-Michigan and Alabama-Auburn games. You know what happened. Brady Hoke went for the two-point conversion and didn't get it. Auburn chose to kick the extra point for the tie and won on a heaven-sent final play.

[+] EnlargeMichael Bennett
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesOhio State survived a scare from Michigan after the Wolverines failed on a two-point conversion to win the game.
Of course, the Tigers and Wolverines were in vastly different situations. Auburn had much more on the line, while Michigan's season would have been made by beating Ohio State. Auburn also knew that Alabama had a dicey kicking situation. Yet Michigan also was at home, where it had lost only once under Hoke, and it already had played in two overtime games this season. The Wolverines could have given themselves a chance to win on a miracle in regulation or in overtime.

Ultimately, I had no problem with Hoke's call, though the two-point play itself was uninspiring. Sometimes it's not the decision but how it unfolds.

Consider that in the biggest play calls for both Penn State and Northwestern on Saturday, both coaches went with a run up the middle on third down. The Nittany Lions' surprise draw play on third-and-9 from their 19 resulted in a 61-yard gain by Zach Zwinak that put Wisconsin away. Northwestern went with a basic running play on third-and-6 at Illinois and got 11 yards from Treyvon Green, allowing the Wildcats to then run out the clock.

Had those runs been stuffed, both coaches would have been criticized for being too conservative and playing not to lose. It's a tough world, coaching. Unless you are blessed with Guz Malzahn's luck.

Take that and rewind it back ...

Team of the week: Penn State. Absolutely no one saw the Nittany Lions' 31-24 win at Wisconsin coming, especially because PSU had played so poorly on the road in Big Ten play. But coach Bill O'Brien led his team to another victory in a season finale, and recording two straight winning seasons under heavy NCAA sanctions is wildly impressive.

Worst hangover: BCS for Wisconsin? Yes, if that stands for Badgers Caught Sleepwalking. Instead of earning a possible Orange Bowl bid, the Badgers laid a giant egg. A tremendously successful large senior class somehow went out on the worst possible note at Camp Randall Stadium.

Big Men on Campus (offense): It has been a tough year for Northwestern, but the Wildcats finally got a Big Ten win at Illinois. And quarterback Trevor Siemian and receiver Christian Jones were big reasons why. Siemian threw for 414 yards and four touchdowns, while Jones had two of those scores during a 13-catch, 182-yard career day.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Iowa linebacker Christian Kirksey was named Walter Camp national defensive player of the week after recording 11 tackles, including three for loss, plus a sack and a forced fumble against Nebraska. Really, you could just as easily single out fellow linebackers James Morris and Anthony Hitchens, who also had great games to cap tremendous seasons by all three. The Hawkeyes will really miss all three seniors next year.

[+] EnlargeWeisman
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesIowa's Mark Weisman scored two touchdowns in the win over the Cornhuskers.
Big Man on Campus (special teams): Chris Davis. Sure, he plays for Auburn. But his incredible 109-yard kick-six touchdown against Alabama just might allow a Big Ten team to play for the national title for the first time since the 2007 season. Buckeye Nation is a big fan of Davis.

Strangest moment: Penn State's hurry-up offense clearly confused Wisconsin's defense several times. The most obvious moment came early in the third quarter, when the Badgers had only nine men on defense when the Nittany Lions ran a play. Somehow, Wisconsin got out of that power-play situation when Tanner McEvoy broke up an underthrown deep ball.

Pointing the thumb or the finger? Coaches always talk a good game about accountability, and Bo Pelini usually is one to take blame for a poor performance by his team. But the Nebraska coach looked everywhere but in the mirror on his 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Iowa. Pelini said the call was chicken manure -- I'm paraphrasing -- and even brought Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz's own sideline demeanor into the conversation.

But where was the personal responsibility for Pelini nearly hitting an official in the face with his hat? In what other sport -- or walk of life -- would that be acceptable? Even Prop Joe and Avon Barksdale ("The Wire" nerd alert) knew better than to accost the ref in their annual basketball game. Pelini is lucky to still be employed by Nebraska after Friday's meltdowns.

A Bucket load of offense: Indiana took out a little offensive frustration on Purdue. After being bottled up on offense by Wisconsin and Ohio State, the Hoosiers unleashed a school record 692 yards and 42 first downs to win the Old Oaken Bucket for the first time in three years. Tre Roberson, D'Angelo Roberts and Stephen Houston all rushed for more than 100 yards for Indiana, the first time in school history the team produced a trio of 100-yard rushers in the same game.

Zero sum game: Minnesota failed to score an offensive touchdown in its final 10 quarters of the regular season. The lack of an explosive/entertaining offense could hurt the Gophers come bowl selection time. Meanwhile, Michigan State has held six opponents without an offensive TD and pitched shutouts in six of its eight Big Ten games.

Fun with numbers: Because the debate is about to take over our lives, some key comparisons between Ohio State and Auburn:

  • Scoring margin: Plus-27.9 per game for Ohio State, plus-16.1 for Auburn
  • Rushing yardage: 321.3 per game for Ohio State, 318.3 for Auburn
  • Total yards: 530.5 per game for Ohio State, 491 for Auburn
  • Team adjusted QBR: 83.8 for Ohio State, 81.0 for Auburn
  • Yards allowed per game: 355.8 for Ohio State, 414.3 for Auburn
  • Sagarin strength of schedule rating: 61st for Ohio State, 26th for Auburn
  • Wins over ranked teams: One for Ohio State (Wisconsin), three for Auburn (Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M)
Recognizing the best and the brightest around the Big Ten during rivalry weekend:
  • Iowa LBs James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens: The Hawkeyes' starting linebackers have played huge roles in the team's turnaround this season, and they showed why on Black Friday against Nebraska. They combined for seven tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, two interceptions and two sacks. Morris recorded his fourth interception of the season, Kirksey led the team with 11 tackles (3 for loss), and Hitchens had his first career pick. The three seniors have combined for 10 takeaways this season.
  • Michigan State LB Denicos Allen: He led the Spartans' defensive effort with 13 tackles, including two tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries. He tracked down David Cobb from behind near the goal line to keep Minnesota out of the end zone early. Hat tips also go to Trae Waynes, who had his first two career interceptions, and Tyler Hoover, who forced a key fumble deep in the Spartans' red zone in the fourth quarter.
  • Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: This was the best game of the season for the true freshman, as Wisconsin dared the Nittany Lions to pass. Hackenberg responded in a big way and finished 21-of-30 for 339 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. He played a nearly flawless first half and helped engineer a huge upset over No. 15 Wisconsin. There's no need to wait until Monday; it's pretty clear he's the Big Ten freshman of the week.
  • Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde: In a tight game where Braxton Miller attempted just 15 passes, Urban Meyer leaned heavily on Hyde -- and Hyde didn't disappoint. He carried 27 times for 226 yards (8.4 ypc) and a touchdown. Although his fumble led to a Michigan score, the Buckeyes never would've found themselves in the red zone so often without him. Twenty of his carries went for at least 5 yards, and 10 went for at least 10 yards. He ran consistently hard.
  • Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian and WR Christian Jones: It's difficult to pick one over the other since they formed such a dangerous combination on Saturday. Siemian threw for 414 yards -- surpassing his previous season high by 138 yards -- and added four touchdowns. Jones was the main beneficiary as he caught a career-high 13 catches for 182 yards. That nearly doubled his previous career high of 94 yards. It was definitely a game to remember for those two, as the Wildcats finally came away with a Big Ten win.
  • Indiana QB Tre Roberson: It was a good day for Big Ten quarterbacks, and Roberson continued the trend. He didn't exactly play a tough opponent (Purdue), but his performance on the stat sheet was the most impressive. He tossed six touchdowns to two interceptions. And he added 273 passing yards to a game-high 154 rushing yards. The Hoosiers' uptempo offense went through Roberson, and he made the most of it.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 5

September, 29, 2013
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Recognizing the best and the brightest from Week 5 in the Big Ten:

Iowa's group of linebackers: Where do we even begin? The trio finished 1-2-3 in tackles and led the defense to a dominating win over Minnesota. But the most impressive number wasn't found within the individual stats. Minnesota came into the game with the nation's 13th-ranked rushing offense and limped out with just 30 yards on 27 carries. Each linebacker contributed something different. Anthony Hitchens paced the Hawkeyes with 10 tackles, Christian Kirksey came up with an interception, and James Morris finished with a sack and a pick. They came up big Saturday and were a huge reason for the win.

Wisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis: Wisconsin might not have come out a winner, but that had nothing to do with the sure-handed Abbrederis. He dominated an All-American cornerback, became the first Wisconsin wideout to finish with 200 receiving yards since Lee Evans in 2003 and was clearly the Badgers' MVP. He made 10 catches for 207 yards, while the rest of his team wound up with eight receptions for 88 yards. He was nearly unstoppable Saturday night and added some nice clips to his highlight film, including a leaping 33-yard catch, where he held on despite a big hit. Abbrederis made a statement in Saturday's game, and it was a pretty easy decision to hand the man a helmet sticker.

Ohio State QB Braxton Miller: Wait, Miller's coming off an injury? It certainly didn't look like it. Wisconsin had no answer for the dual-threat quarterback in the first half, and Miller did enough in the second half to keep Ohio State's 17-game winning streak alive. Miller is known more for his legs than his arm, but he impressed greatly with the latter against the Badgers. He completed 68 percent of his passes, threw for 198 yards and tossed four touchdowns to no interceptions. He flashed good arm strength and launched a 40-yard TD to Corey Brown with just one second left in the first half. That was one of the game's key plays, and Ohio State's undoubtedly happy to have Miller back. (Oh, and he did rush for 83 yards on 22 carries.) There's no quarterback controversy in Columbus after that performance.

Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase: It's pretty difficult to ignore a quarterback who tossed five touchdowns in one half -- even if they did come against the hapless Miami (Ohio) Redhawks. The senior signal-caller finished 19-of-24 for 278 yards and guided the Illini to six scores on their first seven drives. Outside of an interception, Scheelhaase played a perfect game. He's a no-brainer for a helmet sticker here, especially because he basically put those numbers up in just two quarters. He took a seat in the third quarter because Illinois already had the game in hand.

Iowa RB Mark Weisman: He didn't find the end zone, but he's the one who often drove the Hawkeyes downfield against the nation's No. 21 run defense. Weisman's number was called five times on the eight-play, 80-yard TD drive -- and he came up with 19 of the 27 yards in the first scoring drive that resulted in a field goal. Jake Rudock played well, but his longest pass came on a wide receiver screen. Weisman was consistent throughout and rushed 24 times for 147 yards against a good run defense. He earned his helmet sticker this week.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 3

September, 16, 2013
9/16/13
11:00
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Joel Stave reacts to the refereeChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesJoel Stave and the rest of the Wisconsin Badgers were flabbergasted by the ending of Saturday night's loss to Arizona State, as the Badgers bizarrely ran out of time deep in ASU territory.
It was a rough weekend all around for the Big Ten, which went 0-3 against ranked teams, 1-3 versus the Pac-12 and only 5-5 against FBS competition. Even some of the winning teams either had major scares (Michigan), looked sluggish (Northwestern) or had the game overshadowed by a different concern (Minnesota).

But, really, all I want to talk about is the Wisconsin-Arizona State ending, aka the Desert Debacle.

If you haven't read up on one of the most absurd finishes of all time yet, take a moment to brush up here and here and here. Consider all the things that went sideways in 18 infamous seconds:

  • As Badgers quarterback Joel Stave ran to his left to center the ball for an upcoming field goal try, he collided into the backside of left guard Ryan Groy and very nearly clipped Groy's heel while attempting to kneel. (Groy didn't even need to be there, as he'd shed a defender and had no one left to block.) Adding to the confusion, Stave quickly bounced up and placed the ball on the 15-yard line as if the pigskin were covered with scorpions. Had he merely Tebowed it and held onto the ball for a couple of seconds, or just handed it to an official, the ensuing chaos probably doesn't occur.
  • A whistle had blown and the referee, stationed behind the Wisconsin offense, clearly signaled the ball as down. And yet, other officials and players seemed unsure if Stave had actually knelt or whether it was a live, loose ball. Postgame photographic evidence proved he did take a knee, but it took a specific angle on a freeze frame from the hi-def broadcast to remove doubt. Things aren't nearly as clear in full speed live action when you're a 50-year-old-plus referee who's been running around in desert heat for three-plus hours.
  • But here's the thing: It shouldn't have mattered whether Stave's knee actually ever touched the turf. According to the NCAA rules manual (specifically, Rule 4, Article 2, Section A), the ball is dead if "an official sounds his whistle (even though inadvertently) or otherwise signals the ball dead." Later in Rule 4, the handbook states that the play is dead "when a ball carrier simulates placing his knee on the ground." So Stave should be off the hook here, even though his actions looked odd at the time.
  • Three Sun Devils players went for the ball, understandably so given the mixed signals, and Anthony Jones laid on it for more than five seconds. Ironically, Arizona State fans booed earlier in the game when they thought Wisconsin's Michael Caputo faked an injury to slow their team's offensive pace by the goal line. Apparently, an even better way to disrupt tempo is to smother the ball like it's a rogue hand grenade, because Jones astonishingly got away with a clear and obvious delay of game infraction.
  • Even if Stave's kneel-down had gone smoothly, the clock would not have stopped, and the Badgers had no timeouts. Yet, Stave and his teammates wasted precious time by looking to the confused officials instead of rushing into formation for a spike. In fact, Wisconsin players only frantically pointed to the clock when there were two seconds left. The umpire, moving slower than most Arizona retirees, wrongly signaled for the Badgers line to back away, but even that didn't happen until 0:02. The umpire also appeared never to have looked at the referee as the latter was signaling the ball as down.

Without question, the Pac-12 officiating crew displayed a shocking lack of rules knowledge and cohesion. They never huddled together to try and figure out what had happened. The referee, who presumably whistled the play dead and signaled it as so, should have taken charge of the situation. It's disgraceful that two teams could play so hard for 59-plus minutes, only to have officials approach the frenzied final moments so casually (they sure moved fast once they'd decided the Sun Devils had won, however). And if we're going to continually interrupt games for replays, many of which have seemingly little effect on the final outcome, then why isn't there a protocol in place to correct last-second disasters like this on review?

While the officials deserve nearly all the blame, Wisconsin played with fire in trying to get the ball into only slightly better kicking position with the clock dwindling. Badgers coach Gary Andersen said his team practices that specific play for that amount of time, but any seasoned Saturday observer knows that most college teams are notoriously bad at late-game execution. That's because of both inexperienced players and the NCAA 20-hour rule that limits the amount of time coaches can spend on such scenarios. Even when teams do practice for it, they can neither simulate nor predict how quickly -- or, in this case, how interminably -- a given official will clear the pile and spot the ball.

Two more points to consider: First, the bizarre finish absolved Arizona State's Todd Graham of some atrocious clock management and play calling on the Sun Devils' final drive. Graham has yet to impress as a head coach; he twice decided to go for two-point conversions far too early in a back-and-forth game, and it nearly cost his team.

Secondly, Wisconsin's kicking game has been highly suspect for a while now, so there's no guarantee Kyle French makes that field goal, even if it's only from 27 yards out after a delay penalty. But French is 6-for-6 in his career from 30 yards or closer, and he'd made one from 34 earlier Saturday night. It's a shame we'll never know if he could have hit the game winner.

One last question: Why do so many weird things keep cropping up at the end of games for the Badgers, who now have 10 losses by a touchdown or less since the start of 2011? Wisconsin fans can no longer scapegoat Bret Bielema for late-game mismanagement; his wife's schadenfreude was readily apparent when Jen Bielema tweeted "#karma" shortly after the Arizona State fiasco ended.

Take that and rewind it back ...

Team of the Week: Iowa. The Hawkeyes snapped a two-game losing streak against Iowa State, beat a FBS team for the first time since Oct. 13 of last year, and now can feel much better about a potential return to postseason play.

Biggest hangover: Nebraska. For all the obvious reasons. The sky isn't falling in Lincoln, as the Huskers should still be able to win at least eight or nine games. But the sun sure ain't shining, either.

[+] EnlargeMark Weisman
David Purdy/Getty ImagesMark Weisman made 35 carries against Iowa State. Workhorse running backs are still typical throughout the Big Ten.
Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Info): Iowa’s Mark Weisman ranks third in the FBS in rushing yards, but his most impressive stat might be his 85 carries. Weisman, who toted it 35 times versus Iowa State, has run the ball 10 times more than anybody else in the nation. Michigan State workhorse Le'Veon Bell had 81 carries through three games last year. ... Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, meanwhile, leads the country at 12.89 yards per rush. The redshirt sophomore is averaging 10.1 yards per attempt for his career. ... Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld has taken over the Big Ten lead in QBR. Sudfeld ranks seventh nationally with his 91.7 raw score (based on a 100 point scale). Sudfeld also is tied for the national lead in most completions of 20 yards or more, with 19. ... Penn State continues to baffle with its ineptitude on third down, having now converted just four of 34 tries. Only Miami of Ohio (3-for-29) has been worse. ... Bet you wouldn’t have guessed this, but Iowa is leading the league in plays per game, at 83 snaps per contest. The Hawkeyes are tied for 10th nationally in plays per game. Minnesota is running the fewest plays per game in the Big Ten, at 60.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Kenny Guiton -- or Kenny Football, as I’ve taken to calling him, because the real Kenny G is far too lame -- continues to get it done in Braxton Miller's absence. The Ohio State quarterback threw for 276 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 92 yards in the win at Cal. Urban Meyer says he might find ways to play Guiton when Miller is healthy.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Not a lot of great individual defensive performances in Week 3 (see below), so we’ll go with Iowa’s linebackers. Christian Kirksey, Anthony Hitchens and James Morris combined for 25 tackles, and Morris had a 27-yard interception return. They helped limit Iowa State to just 59 yards rushing.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): It’s time to recognize Purdue’s Cody Webster, who might win the Ray Guy Award if it were handed out today. Webster continued his tremendous season by averaging 41.8 yards per punt and downing three of them inside the 20 versus Notre Dame.

Pointing up (the wrong way): In the first two rewinds of 2013, we pointed out how scoring is up in the Big Ten. In Week 3, that was also true in a negative way. Six Big Ten teams (Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Purdue and Illinois) gave up at least 31 points, and Michigan nearly joined them (and would have been the sixth of seven to lose if so). Offenses have improved in the league, but let’s face it: Most Big Ten teams still aren’t well-equipped to win shootouts, so the defenses need to play better.

Strangest moment, Part II: Nothing tops the end of the Wisconsin-Arizona State game for absurdity. But more strangeness occurred in the UCLA-Nebraska game, when officials signaled for a made field goal on a kick that was obviously wide right. The call was overturned on replay, but how is that missed in the first place? An Arizona State field goal early against Wisconsin was similarly odd, as it appeared to curve from out, to in, to above the right upright. Officials called it good, but it was hard to tell for sure. Both plays only added fuel to comedian Adam Carolla’s common-sense crusade to raise the darn uprights already.

Did you see? A skywriter spelled out “Go Blue” over Spartan Stadium shortly before Michigan State’s game against Youngstown State on Saturday. Who bothered to do that or why remains unclear, but as Michigan State swimming coach Matt Gianiodis tweeted: “That’s a lot of work for your 3rd biggest rival.” Maybe Michigan fans should have focused more on Akron.
After several mostly speculative versions of the Big Ten power rankings, we finally had a chance to evaluate these teams in games. The Week 1 competition mostly wasn't great, and the Big Ten's overall performance left something to be desired. We'll learn a lot more about most of these teams in the coming weeks.

We try to keep these rankings consistent with our ESPN.com national power rankings, so Ohio State remains No. 1, ahead of Michigan, even though the Wolverines looked more impressive against their MAC opponent than Ohio State did. But a Michigan win against Notre Dame this week could change things.

Wisconsin and Nebraska trade places in the rankings, and so do Penn State and Michigan State.

Here's one last look at the preseason power rankings.

Let's get to the rundown ...

1. Ohio State (1-0, preseason: 1): The Buckeyes had a flawless record in 2012, but they were a flawed team. They still are, and they showed some warts during the final three quarters of a 40-20 win against a plucky Buffalo squad. Quarterback Braxton Miller has improved and has a much better supporting cast, including running back Jordan Hall, but the Buckeyes need to take better care of the ball. A soft schedule should give Ohio State's young defense time to develop.

2. Michigan (1-0, preseason: 2): This year's opener went just a tad better than last year's for Brady Hoke's Wolverines. Michigan made big plays in all three phases and received contributions from many different players, delivering the most impressive debut in the league. Quarterback Devin Gardner (162 pass yards, 52 rush yards, three total touchdowns, two interceptions) can build off of this performance before facing a talented Notre Dame defense under the lights next week.

3. Northwestern (1-0, preseason: 3): The Wildcats remain in the three hole but solidified themselves after a resilient performance on the road against Cal. They played most of the game without their dynamic backfield of quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark, which fundamentally changed the offense. Thanks to unlikely heroes such as linebacker Collin Ellis and running back Treyvon Green, Northwestern remained perfect in openers under Pat Fitzgerald. Up next, Syracuse.

4. Wisconsin (1-0, preseason: 5): Fortunately, Wisconsin's next three openers (LSU twice, Alabama) will provide a lot more clues about the Badgers than Saturday's laugher against FBS bottom-feeder UMass. But you play the team across the field, and to Wisconsin's credit, it completely dismantled the Minutemen on both sides of the ball. The three-headed rushing attack of James White, Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement sparkled, combining for 388 yards and three touchdowns on 40 carries.

5. Nebraska (1-0, preseason: 4): The concerns about Nebraska's young defense weren't merely confirmed in the opener against Wyoming. They grew. Nebraska surrendered 35 first downs and 602 yards and nearly blew a 16-point fourth-quarter lead before surviving 37-34. Coach Bo Pelini didn't sound too discouraged Monday, but defensive coordinator John Papuchis said the defense has "nowhere to go but up." Nebraska needs a crisper performance this week against Southern Miss.

6. Penn State (1-0, preseason: 7): Like Northwestern, Penn State fought through some adversity to beat another major-conference team away from its home stadium. Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg backed up the hype for the most part, and tackle DaQuan Jones and safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong sparked the defense. The Lions must get better on third down (1-of-15) before Central Florida comes to town in Week 3.

7. Michigan State (1-0, preseason: 6): As dominant as the Spartan Dawgs were against Western Michigan -- and could be the entire season -- the big concern here is an offense that appears to have regressed, if that's even possible. The quarterbacks remain the focus, but Michigan State isn't getting enough from any part of its offense. If things don't change, expect another season of games that can go either way. MSU has a chance to get well this week against slumping South Florida.

8. Minnesota (1-0, preseason: 8): Credit defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and the Gophers for making big plays in all three phases in their opener against UNLV. But the 51-23 final score masked some of the issues Jerry Kill's team must address before the competition level improves. Minnesota needs a more physical effort from its offensive line, and it has to get off the field on defense after allowing UNLV to go 4-for-4 on fourth down. The Gophers need to clean things up this week on the road against New Mexico State.

9. Indiana (1-0, preseason: 9): A loaded Hoosiers offense set a Memorial Stadium record with 73 points against Indiana State, and Indiana has multiple weapons at quarterback, running back and wide receiver. But we've seen big offense from Indiana before. Can the Hoosiers' defense improve enough to boost the win total to bowl eligibility? IU's discipline will be tested this week against Navy's tricky triple-option offense.

10. Iowa (0-1, preseason: 11): Yes, the Hawkeyes actually move up a spot despite a loss (it has more to do with Purdue's plunge). Iowa in some ways looked like a better team against Northern Illinois, surviving a sluggish start to take control behind quarterback Jake Rudock, linebacker Christian Kirksey and a physical defense. But breakdowns on both sides of the ball doomed Iowa down the stretch, and Rudock's interception led to NIU's game-winning field goal. Iowa really needed a win and must regroup this week against Missouri State.

11. Illinois (1-0, preseason: 12): Senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase looks much more comfortable in Bill Cubit's offense and threw for a career-high 416 yards and two touchdowns against Southern Illinois. That's the good news. Illinois still has many areas to fix, especially on defense after nearly blowing a 22-point third-quarter lead. We'll learn a lot more about this team the next two weeks against Cincinnati and Washington.

12. Purdue (0-1, preseason: 10): What a mess. Nothing went right for the Boilers in coach Darrell Hazell's debut. The defense couldn't get off of the field on third down or fourth down. Rob Henry struggled and the offense committed three turnovers. Aside from a Cincinnati special-teams blunder, Saturday was a nightmare for the Boilers, who fell 42-7. Fortunately, Indiana State is next, but there's a lot of work to do.
Iowa learned a painful lesson Saturday: it's how you start and how you finish.

After a sluggish start, the Hawkeyes did a lot of good things in the second and third quarters, and the early part of the fourth, in Saturday's season opener against Northern Illinois. Quarterback Jake Rudock made some big throws in his collegiate debut, and a defense led by three senior linebackers held Huskies star Jordan Lynch in check.

But mental and physical breakdowns on both sides of the ball doomed Iowa down the stretch, as Northern Illinois rallied for a 30-27 win at steamy Kinnick Stadium. Mathew Sims' 36-yard field goal with four seconds left sealed it for NIU as Rod Carey recorded his first career coaching win.

This one will sting for a while for Iowa, which really needed something to go its way following a long and mostly gloomy offseason.

The Hawkeyes stumbled out of the gate but survived by scoring 17 unanswered points to take control midway through the game. Linebacker Christian Kirksey turned the momentum with a forced fumble, scoop and 48-yard touchdown return late in the first quarter. Rudock completed 13 of 21 attempts for 188 yards and a touchdown in the first half, and Iowa's defense began bottling up Lynch (56 rush yards on 22 carries) and his Wildcat-like, inside zone rushing attack.

But Iowa suffered a breakdown midway through the fourth, as a blown coverage allowed Lynch to find Da'Ron Brown wide open for a 33-yard score with 5:05 remaining. Lynch ended up hurting Iowa much more with his arm (275 pass yards, 3 TDs) than his legs.

Even then, the Hawkeyes appeared to be in good position to win as Rudock led the offense inside NIU territory. Then, on third-and-9 from the 44-yard line, offensive coordinator Greg Davis made one of those calls that drive Iowa fans batty: a bubble screen. It predictably went for a yard.

After a season where Iowa consistently called third-down passes with no chance of reaching the marker, Davis should know better. He should rip the bubble screen out of his playbook. The swing pass, too. They don't work.

Iowa still had a decent chance after the defense forced a three-and-out, but Rudock finally showed his inexperience, telegraphing a throw that NIU's Jimmie Hall easily picked off. Three plays later, Sims split the uprights to give the Huskies the win.

There were some positives in this game for Kirk Ferentz's crew, but it's all about the bottom line. Iowa found a way to lose.

Last year's Iowa win against Northern Illinois proved to mean nothing for the Hawkeyes. I have a feeling today's loss will be much more significant for the Hawkeyes going forward.
There are two active FBS players -- Tennessee's A.J. Johnson and Army's Geoffery Bacon -- who registered more tackles per game last year than Iowa linebacker Anthony Hitchens.

In his first year starting, Hitchens led the Big Ten with 124 tackles in just 11 games. Highlights included a 19-tackle game against Iowa State and 15 stops in an upset at Michigan State.

Yet Hitchens enters his senior year with the Hawkeyes less concerned with those tackle stats and more focused on improving his overall level of play.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Hitchens
Michael Hickey/Getty ImagesIowa linebacker Anthony Hitchens is looking to build on a 2012 season that saw him lead the Big Ten with 124 tackles.
"A lot of people just look at the numbers and see tackles, but they're not seeing behind the line, at the line or 10 yards downfield," he told ESPN.com. "Honestly, I don't think I played my best football last year. At times I showed it, but it was more like an up-and-down season."

Tackle numbers don't tell the whole story for a defensive player, which is one reason why Hitchens didn't make first- or second-team All-Big Ten despite his gaudy total. And he agrees that they are overrated.

"I don't think it judges the player,'" he said. "A lot of players could be making those tackles, too."

Hitchens said he got off to a bad start last year with his footwork and fundamentals, and while that improved throughout the fall, he was banged up late in the season. He also knows that only 5.5 of his tackles came behind the line of scrimmage, and he had just one sack, no passes defended and no forced turnovers.

"I need to be more of a complete player," he said. "Not just tackles -- I need tackles for loss, deflected passes, something like that. My focus is just being consistent this year. I'm trying to play at the highest level for the whole season."

There were flaws in Hitchens' game last year, which is why you didn't hear head coach Kirk Ferentz gushing about him much in 2012. But it's easy to critique the little things while forgetting the path Hitchens took to having a breakout season.

He was lightly recruited out of Lorain, Ohio, which sits about 30 miles west side of Cleveland on Lake Erie. Hitchens starred as a running back in high school but played for a small school -- he said his graduating class was just over 100 students -- and so he went overlooked. He attended an Ohio State camp, but that only served to generate some interest from Eastern Michigan. In January of his senior year, he was all set to commit to the only FBS school that was offering him a scholarship: Akron. But then Iowa called on a Tuesday, he visited Iowa City the following weekend and he'd found a home.

The Hawkeyes originally recruited him as a safety, as he measured in at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds as a high school senior (he's listed at 233 these days). He played some at safety as a true freshman before working out at running back to help the team's dire need there. He moved to linebacker in 2011 and started to show some promise before he suffered an injury that forced him to miss five games.

So last year, Hitchens said he felt like he was still "going into it blind" when he won a starting job. Then his training camp was disrupted when his adopted father needed a liver transplant, something that weighed heavily on his mind in the preseason. (The good news: the transplant was a success, and Brad Anderson is feeling good again, Hitchens says).

And while Hitchens might have made mistakes last season, he also displayed the speed and athleticism that made him a one-time defensive back/running back prospect, along with some pop, to make all those tackles.

"That showed that I have ability," he said. "Coach told me the ability is there; I've just got to do the little things like footwork and extra film work. If I take the extra time focus on other things, that will make me that much better."

He's already part of the most experienced linebacker corps in the Big Ten, starting alongside fellow senior returning starters James Morris and Christian Kirksey. They combined for 332 tackles last year, and Kirksey needed just five more for them to all go over 100.

Again, though, the tackle numbers don't tell the whole story. Hitchens said the group is still working to improve this summer and has a long way to go before it can be considered among the best units in the Big Ten. They're also trying to help the younger players behind them develop, as well as pushing each other every day.

"We're always competing with each other," he said. "We don't work out together, but we'll ask about each other's numbers, like, 'What did you get on this today?'"

They probably won't be just discussing tackle numbers, however.
Big Ten spring football is finally in full swing as Iowa on Wednesday became the 12th and final league team to hit the practice field. The return to the gridiron can't come a moment too soon for the Hawkeyes, who went 4-8 in 2012, their worst record since coach Kirk Ferentz's second season at the helm (2000). It has been another offseason of transition for Iowa as Ferentz welcomes three new full-time assistants (Chris White, Bobby Kennedy and Jim Reid) for a second consecutive year. Finding a quarterback tops Iowa's spring agenda, and the team also needs to identify a center and more playmakers on both sides of the ball.

ESPN.com caught up with Ferentz on Wednesday to discuss the spring.

What are the main objectives for you guys this spring?

Kirk Ferentz: Like any spring, you've got a lot of players on a lot of different levels. You've got experienced players, and we're certainly counting on them improving and developing into leaders. You've got younger guys who have played, and you're hoping they're ready to play more proficiently. And then you've got other guys who, in some cases, are special-teams guys who have a chance to become offensive and defensive role players, or guys who haven't been on the field yet. So you have a lot of layers of players at different levels. The biggest thing is trying to gauge where they're at, and at the same time, you're trying to find out what they can do and pull a team together. It's always a fun period and a really interesting period.

How has the transition on the staff this year gone so far, especially in relation to last year? You had quite a long period without any changes on your staff.

KF: Last year was probably a little more dramatic with two new coordinators. Norm [Parker] and Ken [O'Keefe] were here 13 years, so they were big departures. We've got Phil [Parker] and Greg [Davis] both in their second years, and they're both tremendous coaches. What's unusual is how long we were all together at one time. Usually staffs don't stay in one place for 13, 14 years. Normally they move to the next channel and you have a new group of folks coming in. So it's a natural series of transitions. The way I look at it, we've had six new members join the staff in the last two years, and it's a matter of pulling everything together. But I'm really excited about all the guys who have joined. They're outstanding coaches, and it looks like they're all going to be great fits here at Iowa. At the same time, I'm very appreciative of the guys who had been here and helped us move things.

Is the transition harder for the players or the new coaches?

KF: There's learning on both sides. The players to have learn their coaches, certainly, and the coaches have a lot to learn about the players. That can be a healthy thing, too. It's a clean slate and a fresh beginning for everybody. For players, it's a whole new opportunity.

Offensively, it wasn't what you were hoping for last year. Is it a total reset this year with some new faces, or are there some things you can continue from last year?

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Byron Hetzler/USA TODAY SportsThough Kirk Ferentz lost his starting quarterback and center, he said he's more optimistic about Iowa's offense than he was a year ago.
KF: It may be ironic. We feel more comfortable and more optimistic right now than we did a year ago about the offense. The part that's ironic is we lost a two-year starter at quarterback [James Vandenberg]. We had James play a lot at quarterback and James Ferentz played like 38 games at center, so you have two guys right in the middle of things who aren't going to be there. But I look around at other positions and we've got a lot of guys coming back who have played in the system and who I think are more capable now of playing at a higher level than they were a year ago. That's got us excited. That being said, we've got to find replacements for both Jameses. We've got to find a replacement for Keenan Davis and Matt Tobin, to start with. But I look at the group coming back and as recent as late last August, we didn't know if Damon Bullock could play in this conference successfully, and we had no idea Mark Weisman could run the ball. So I think we're a lot further down the road than we were even eight months ago, 10 months ago.

When you and Greg looked at things, did you identify areas to target for the spring?

KF: Greg came in, this was all new to him, the players were all new to him. His knowledge of our personnel is a lot more extensive than it was a year ago at this time. And that was one of the reasons I was so attracted to Greg in the hiring process, his ability historically to work with a lot of different types of players and different types of offenses. He wasn't married to one system. There's nothing like experience, and he's got a real good grip on who our players are, what they can do and what we can do to help them be more productive.

(Read full post)

The showdown will happen: Wisconsin at Indiana, next Saturday in Bloomington, a berth in the Big Ten title game likely at stake.

If you expected it before the season, board a plane to Las Vegas. For the rest of us, it comes as a huge surprise.

Indiana stayed very much alive in the chase to represent the Leaders Division at the Big Ten title game Dec. 1 in Indianapolis, holding off Iowa 24-21 at Memorial Stadium. After a miserable start, the Hoosiers made more plays on both sides of the ball and recorded their first Big Ten home win since 2009. They've won back-to-back Big Ten games for the first time since 2007, the last time they reached a bowl game.

Kevin Wilson's squad didn't get an offensive explosion Saturday, but wide receiver Cody Latimer stepped up in a big way with seven catches for 113 yards and three touchdowns, including a 30-yard catch with 10:58 left that proved to be the game-winner. After quarterback Nate Sudfeld had provided a boost in recent weeks, Cameron Coffman proved to be the more effective signal caller against Iowa, competing 21 of 32 passes for 315 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Wilson was right: Coffman and Sudfeld are very even, and both can be effective at times.

Indiana should have had more than 24 points but made several mistakes in Iowa territory, including its first lost fumble of the season in the fourth quarter by Stephen Houston.

Yet the Hoosiers (4-5, 2-3) were the better team and showed it, especially on defense, a unit that has struggled much of the season. Coordinator Mike Ekeler called out the defense after last week's win against Illinois, and his crew answered, holding Iowa to just 14 offensive points (the Hawkeyes had a pick-six by Christian Kirksey against Sudfeld) and 5 of 14 third-down conversions. The Hawkeyes finished with only 96 rush yards on 30 carries.

Iowa (4-5, 2-3) got the start it needed, jumping ahead 14-0 behind a James Vandenberg touchdown pass to Kevonte Martin-Manley (7 catches, 131 yards) and Kirksey's 18-yard interception return. Vandenberg completed 10 of 15 passes in the first half, but made a costly error in the third quarter, throwing an interception in the end zone. It has been a nightmarish senior season for Vandenberg (21-of-34, 251 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) despite some bright spots in the past two weeks.

The offense gave Iowa a chance with the go-ahead score early in the fourth quarter, but the defense couldn't get off of the field. Coffman converted two key third downs to tight end Ted Bolser, and wide receiver Kofi Hughes (6 catches, 110 yards) had a big afternoon.

Iowa has lost three straight and must win two of its final three to get bowl-eligible.

Indiana is building its program, but in this year's Big Ten, it finds itself with a tremendous opportunity. The Hoosiers control their own fate in repping the Leaders division, and a win next week against Wisconsin will move them much closer to Lucas Oil Stadium.
Joe Gaglione and Matt McGloinUS PresswireJoe Gaglione and Iowa's staunch defense will try to stop Matt McGloin's surprisingly effective offense.
Image No 1: Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin dives into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter against Northwestern, his fifth rushing score in six games, as the Lions score 22 fourth-quarter points to rally for a 39-28 win. McGloin celebrates with the Aaron Rodgers championship belt move ... also known as the discount double check.

Image No. 2: After forcing two overtimes behind the strength of its defense, Iowa seals a 19-16 win against Michigan State when sophomore defensive lineman Louis Trica-Pasat deflects an Andrew Maxwell pass, and cornerback Greg Castillo comes down with it for an interception.

If you predicted either of these things happening two months ago, you might put Miss Cleo out of business. Or just hop the first plane to Vegas.

Expectations for both Penn State's offense and Iowa's defense were tempered before the season.

Penn State had the nation's 110th-ranked scoring offense in 2011 and this summer saw its top running back (Silas Redd) and top receiver (Justin Brown) transfer to other schools. Rob Bolden, the team's opening-day starting quarterback in each of the past two seasons, also transferred. The Lions' leading returning receivers were a running back (Curtis Dukes) and a fullback (Michael Zordich), who each had five catches in 2011. Their leading returning rusher, Dukes (237 yards), missed spring practice for academic reasons -- the time when new coach Bill O'Brien installed his NFL-style scheme. Penn State had zero proven offensive weapons entering the season.

Iowa's defense also featured more no-names than usual. The Hawkeyes, who had four defensive linemen selected in the NFL draft the past two years, turned to two seniors with limited production (Steve Bigach and Joe Gaglione) and another coming off of a serious knee injury (Dominic Alvis) to lead their front four. Freshman and sophomore defenders filled Iowa's preseason depth chart, particularly at the line positions. "This is our youngest team," Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said at preseason media day.

Yet midway through the season, both Penn State's offense and Iowa's defense are two of the more pleasant surprises in the Big Ten. The two units have been instrumental in Penn State's and Iowa's 2-0 starts to league play, and they'll match up against each other Saturday night when the Lions visit Kinnick Stadium.

"I'm not really surprised at all," McGloin told ESPN.com "I knew we had the talent on this team, and guys who were willing to put in the work to get the job done and learn this offense. I'm not really surprised at what I've done, or what Kyle Carter has done, or Allen Robinson or [Zach] Zwinak or [Michael] Zordich or the line."

McGloin leads the Big Ten in passing average (249.8 ypg) and is tied for the league lead in touchdown strikes with 12, four more than he had all of last season as Penn State's primary quarterback. With 1,499 pass yards through the first six games, he needs just 73 more to eclipse his season total from 2011.

Robinson, who had a grand total of three receptions as a true freshman for Penn State last fall, leads the Big Ten in receptions per game (6.8) and touchdown receptions. Penn State's other offensive standouts include Carter, a redshirt freshman tight end with 23 catches for 279 yards; and Zwinak, a former walk-on who had three carries for seven yards last year and now leads the team in carries (68) and rush yards (320). Zordich, a senior fullback, is a more familiar name but someone who hasn't had much of a chance to contribute until this season (37 carries, 167 yards, 10 receptions).

"It's an NFL offense," McGloin said. "This offense definitely gives guys an opportunity to showcase their ability and gives them a lot more recognition."

O'Brien's arrival has modernized Penn State's offense. Iowa, meanwhile, hasn't gone through dramatic scheme schedules defensively, although secondary coach Phil Parker moved into the coordinator role in the offseason following Norm Parker's retirement.

The defense has been better than expected from the start, holding Northern Illinois to 12 first downs and 201 total yards in the season opener. Iowa has surrendered 17 points or fewer in five of six games and allowed fewer than 350 yards in five of six games. While Penn State's offense isn't the strongest unit on its team, Iowa's defense undoubtedly deserves the label as the Hawkeye offense is still finding its identity.

"We're making progress," Ferentz said. "We were hopeful that we could during the course of the season. Some weeks have been a lot better than others, obviously, but the group's growing."

The defensive line, a major area of concern in August, has been a strength. Gaglione boasts eight tackles for loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles, while other linemen like Trinca-Pasat (three tackles for loss, two quarterback hurries) and Bigach (one sack, one forced fumble) have contributed.

Iowa has surrendered just five rushing touchdowns in six games.

"I knew they were going to go in there and be a help to the defense," linebacker Christian Kirksey told ESPN.com. "Coach Ferentz always talks about the next man in. As soon as Joe Gaglione and Steve Bigach jumped in, they were just eager and hungry to help out the defense."

The linebackers also have done their part. Veterans James Morris and Kirksey have combined for two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, three sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. Anthony Hitchens, a converted safety in his first season as a starting linebacker, leads the nation with 13 tackles per game (78 total).

"Iowa defense is built on one thing," Kirksey said. "Way back when Bob Sanders was here, way back when Adrian Clayborn was here, it was all still the same focus. We all grew around the tradition and we just took it to the field.

"We're a new group, but Iowa teaches the same lessons throughout the years."

McGloin sees it, too, calling the young Hawkeyes "a typical Iowa defense." O'Brien's system certainly isn't a typical Penn State offense, but that has been a good thing.

Although McGloin expected the unit to perform, his contributions as a rushing threat -- he had no rushing touchdowns in 2011 and just two in his career before this season -- are a bit of a surprise.

The only bad news: the discount double check is probably a thing of the past.

"I think I'm done with that," McGloin said, laughing. "That was just a one-time thing."

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