NCF Nation: Corey Wootton


EVANSTON, Ill. -- Mike Hankwitz didn't inherit a bare cupboard when he arrived as Northwestern's defensive coordinator in 2008.

The defense included several future NFL players, including end Corey Wootton and cornerback Sherrick McManis. Eight starters returned, and the unit improved from 88th nationally in points allowed to 26th in Hankwitz's first season.

But something was missing. As Hankwitz surveyed the number of spread offenses in college football -- not to mention the one his defense practiced against every day at Northwestern -- he knew the Wildcats' defense needed a speed boost.

"We had some players with good speed, but as a total defense, we didn't have that same speed at every position," Hankwitz told ESPN.com. "In this day in age with spread offenses, you need to have athletes who have the ability and speed to make plays in space. That's where we were a little deficient at the time. If you had a guy hurt, the next guy might not have been as fast. So we recruited to that end. We tried to recruit better speed to cornerback, and we're making progress in that way.

"As a whole, our team defensive speed has improved, and we're excited about that."

It was noticeable last season as Northwestern's defense improved to 47th nationally after plummeting to 80th the year before. Several younger players who were part of the speed-driven recruiting push played key roles, including defensive backs Ibraheim Campbell and Nick VanHoose, linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and linemen Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson.

Northwestern's speed upgrade on defense has jumped out during spring practice. In Tuesday's workout, Lowry zoomed past a tackle for an easy "sack" against quarterback Trevor Siemian. Speed has helped cornerback Dwight White put himself in position to start opposite VanHoose in the fall. The same holds true for safeties like Traveon Henry, Jimmy Hall and Terrance Brown, competing to start next to Campbell.

"Our team speed is definitely much improved," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Our secondary runs as well as it has at all four positions."

The popularity of the spread offense, which Northwestern has used since 2000, fueled the team's speed push in recruiting. Northwestern needed more athletes who could make plays in space, especially in the secondary.

Not surprisingly, the secondary had the most dramatic upgrade last season, and depth at both cornerback and safety has improved for 2013. The secondary not only has more speed but better size.

"Traveon Henry's a 6-[foot]-1, 200-plus-pound safety, Jimmy Hall's the same way, Terrance Brown is the same way; we've upgraded our size at corner," Fitzgerald said. "Most of our guys used to be 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-10. Now we're 5-11 and 6-foot. That size-speed combination is critically important if we want to take the next step in this league."

Greater speed allows Hankwitz to be "a little more aggressive" with his defensive calls. It also helps younger players get on the field early as they can overcome some weaknesses technically and fundamentally.

"Last year, being a little undersized at D-end as a freshman, I relied on my speed a lot of times to beat tackles," said Lowry, who had a sack, six quarterback hurries and three tackles for loss as a true freshman. "When you're fast, it sets up moves, so if a tackle is overset, you come back with a counter. You've got to make sure you use your technique, use your hands where the coaches teach you. But having the extra speed, it's almost like you can't teach that.

"It's something most guys don't have."

Northwestern's speed push started with the linebackers and spread quickly to the secondary, but the line hasn't been neglected. Redshirt freshman end Ifeadi Odenigbo, the team's most-decorated recruit in years, only started playing football as a high school sophomore but made his mark with speed, twice tracking down Braxton Miller in a playoff game.

Both Odenigbo and Gibson ran track in high school, while both Gibson and Lowry played basketball.

"They're very, very athletic," senior end Tyler Scott said. "Dean's very athletic. Deonte, when he's healthy, is a force coming off the edge. And Ifeadi, he's got some speed that we haven't seen here for a while."

Northwestern's defense expects to be seeing more of that speed in the coming seasons.

"We're still not quite there where we have all five classes at an elite level athletically," Fitzgerald said, "but I think we're really close."

Big Ten stock report: Week 4

September, 22, 2010
9/22/10
9:08
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Invest wisely.

STOCK UP

Scott Tolzien: After a bit of shakiness in Wisconsin's first two games, Tolzien looked very sharp against Arizona State despite not having two of his top receivers (Nick Toon and David Gilreath). The senior quarterback completed 19 of 25 passes for 246 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions.

Anthony Santella: Special teams play hasn't been a Big Ten strength so far this season, but Santella is a bright spot. The Illinois senior leads the nation in punting with a 48.9-yard average. Santella has improved from 50th nationally in punting in 2009 and 75th in 2008.

Northwestern's defensive line: The loss of third-round draft pick Corey Wootton hasn't fazed the Wildcats, who are receiving excellent play up front from defensive tackles Jack DiNardo and Corbin Bryant and end Vince Browne. The three combined for 7.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a pass breakup against Rice.

Penn State's third-down efficiency: The Lions have been excellent on third down on both sides of the ball. They rank 12th nationally in third-down conversions at 53.7 percent, a testament to an offensive line that has yet to allow a sack. Penn State leads the Big Ten and ranks 12th nationally in third-down defense at just 25 percent conversions.

STOCK DOWN

Greg Robinson: His Michigan defense showed some shakiness in the first two games but made up for it by forcing turnovers. There was nothing to sugarcoat the struggles Saturday against Massachusetts, which rolled up 36 points and 439 yards, keeping things very interesting until the end.

Iowa's offensive line: After holding up well the first two weeks, Iowa's inexperience up front showed against Arizona. The Hawkeyes surrendered six sacks, including three on the final four offensive plays. Though senior quarterback Ricky Stanzi needed to get rid of the ball, he didn't have much chance to do so.

Special teams: Major breakdowns are becoming an epidemic around the Big Ten. You saw it Saturday with Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State. The mistakes need to be fixed ASAP.

Now it's time to check in on the league award races.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR RACE: OFFENSE

(Player, Week 3 performance)

1. Michigan QB Denard Robinson: 10-for-14 passing, 241 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT; 17 rushes, 104 yards, 1 TD.

2. Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor: 22-of-29 passing, 235 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs; rushing TD; had school-record 16 consecutive completions in first half.

3. Northwestern QB Dan Persa: 24-for-32 passing, 307 yards, 1 TD; 34 rush yards, 1 TD.

4. Michigan State RB Edwin Baker: 14 carries, 90 yards, 1 TD.

5. Wisconsin RB John Clay: 22 carries, 123 yards, 1 TD.

6. Illinois RB Mikel LeShoure: 24 carries, 180 yards, 1 TD.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR RACE: DEFENSE

1. Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan: Recorded five tackles, two for loss and a sack. Leads Big ten with 8.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 more than any other player.

2. Michigan State LB Greg Jones: Recorded nine tackles, including a sack and had a quarterback hurry. Leads the Big Ten with 29 tackles.

3. Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt: Played through pain against Arizona State to record a pass breakup and three quarterback hurries.

4. Ohio State S Tyler Moeller: Recorded a forced fumble, an interception and 1.5 tackles for loss. Ties for league lead in forced fumbles with two.

5. Northwestern LB Quentin Davie: Recorded a game-high 10 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, and had an interception returned for a touchdown. Leads the Big Ten in both interceptions (3) and passes defended (5).

FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR RACE


1. Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell: 17 rushes, 114 yards, 1 TD.

2. Wisconsin RB James White: 6 rushes, 40 yards, 4 kick returns for 93 yards.

3. Penn State QB Rob Bolden: 17-of- 27 passing, 217 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT; 4 carries, 33 rush yards, 1 TD.

4. Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase: 16 carries, 115 yards, 1 TD; 8-of-16 passing, 70 yards.
The Big Ten gave us plenty to remember in 2009, and here are 10 moments that stood out to me.

[+] EnlargeMarvin McNutt
AP Photo/Al GoldisMarvin McNutt's TD reception as time expired gave the Hawkeyes the win over Michigan State.
Stanzi to McNutt with 0:00 on the clock: Iowa's perfect record was on the line as the Hawkeyes offense lined up for one final play, trailing Michigan State 13-9 with two seconds left in an Oct. 24 game at Spartan Stadium. On fourth-and-goal from the 7-yard line, quarterback Ricky Stanzi found wide receiver Marvin McNutt in the end zone for the win as Iowa improved to 8-0.

Barclay kick comes up roses: The pseudo Big Ten championship between Ohio State and Iowa went to overtime before Buckeyes backup kicker Devin Barclay, a 26-year-old former Major League Soccer player, drilled a 39-yard field goal for a 27-24 win. Barclay's kick gave Ohio State the outright Big Ten title and its first berth in the Rose Bowl in 13 years.

Expansion on the table: Arguably the Big Ten's biggest news story of 2009 didn't take place on the field, but in a meeting of league presidents and athletics directors in early December. The suits agreed to put league expansion on the front burner and explore the possibility of adding a new member or members. Though the Big Ten typically explores expansion every five years, the league's decision to go public about it is significant.

Decker gets decked but hangs on: Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker made a national name for himself against Cal, and one play stands out. Early in the second quarter, Decker caught a 26-yard touchdown pass and held on despite taking a vicious shot from Bears safety Sean Cattouse. He needed stitches in his chin but didn't miss a play and caught another touchdown just before halftime.

Rodriguez on the defensive: After allegations of NCAA rule violations rocked Michigan a week before the season, an emotional Rich Rodriguez defended his compliance record and his approach with players at a Sept. 1 news conference. "We know the rules," Rodriguez said, "and we follow the rules." The NCAA launched an investigation into the allegations that has yet to conclude.

Bowl bliss for the Big Ten: OK, so this isn't one moment, but four of them. Two took place in Orlando, one in Miami and one in Pasadena. They marked four bowl victories for Big Ten teams, all against top-15 opponents. These moments signified that the Big Ten hadn't fallen as far as many believed, and that the league will be a major player in the national title race in 2010.

Wootton sacks Stanzi: It's rare when one play has as strong of an impact on two teams' seasons as Corey Wootton's sack of Stanzi did in a Nov. 7 game at Kinnick Stadium. It resulted in a Northwestern touchdown as the Wildcats went on to upset Iowa and go 3-0 in November to reach a New Year's Day bowl. Stanzi suffered a severe ankle sprain and missed the rest of the regular season, as Iowa saw its hopes for a perfect season and the Big Ten title disappear.

Fearless Forcier rallies Michigan past Irish: The Michigan-Notre Dame game turned out to be an entertaining matchup between two very mediocre teams, but it also put Tate Forcier on the national radar. Forcier led the game-winning drive in the final minutes and found Greg Mathews in the end zone with 11 seconds left. The freshman accounted for three touchdowns (2 pass, 1 rush) and 310 total yards.

Illini season ends with a thud: Illinois would like to forget the 2009 season, but it's easy to remember how the miserable campaign ended for Ron Zook's squad. Illinois led 52-51 as Fresno State went for a two-point conversion and the win. Ryan Colburn's desperation pass deflected to Devan Cunningham, a 350-pound offensive tackle, who rumbled into the end zone to give Fresno a 53-52 win.

Penn State punt team gets punk'd: At a rain-soaked Beaver Stadium, Penn State led Iowa 10-5 early in the fourth quarter when Hawkeyes defensive end Adrian Clayborn trucked Nick Sukay, blocked Jeremy Boone's punt and raced 53 yards to the end zone. The play turned around the game, launched Iowa's magical run and handed Penn State a painful loss.
Georgia Tech defensive end Derrick Morgan likely will be a top 10 pick in April's NFL draft.

At 6-4 and a chiseled 272 pounds, Morgan has all the measurables that make pro scouts salivate. He earned ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors after leading the league with 12.5 sacks. He finished the regular season with 18 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. has Morgan at No. 8 on his draft board.

So, should Iowa be afraid of Morgan on Tuesday night in the FedEx Orange Bowl? Not a chance.

The Hawkeyes haven't seen an offense that as talent and tricky as Georgia Tech's triple option, but they've seen defensive ends like Morgan.

Pretty much every week in the Big Ten.

No league in the country had a deeper group of standout pass rushers than the Big Ten. Iowa faced stars like Michigan's Brandon Graham (nation-leading 26 tackles for loss), Wisconsin's O'Brien Schofield (No. 2 nationally with 24.5 TFLs), Penn State's Navorro Bowman, Indiana's Jammie Kirlew and Ohio State's Thaddeus Gibson and Cameron Heyward. The Hawkeyes also lined up against future NFL draft picks like Penn State defensive tackle Jared Odrick and Northwestern defensive end Corey Wootton.

Plus, Iowa's offensive linemen practice against All-Big Ten players like defensive end Adrian Clayborn every day.

"We've played a lot of good ends here, the last two years," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "We have a lot of them in our conference, Graham, Penn State's guys were good. You can go right down the list. ... Certainly Morgan's an excellent football player. All the accolades that he's received, he's earned. He didn't just stumble into them. All that being said, we're not a big team for putting four guys on one guy."

Tuesday night will be an excellent chance for Iowa's offensive linemen, and particularly left tackle Bryan Bulaga, to shut down one of the game's premier defensive ends.
Northwestern's biggest challenge Friday against Auburn might take place before the ball is snapped.

Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is known for his innovative approach and extensive playbook, but he sets everything up by running a ton of pre-snap motion to throw off the opposing defense. For defenders, a misstep before the snap can lead to disastrous results after it.

[+] EnlargeBrendan Smith
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesSafety Brendan Smith knows the Wildcats can't afford to be fooled by Auburn's pre-snap motion.
"It's like window dressing," Northwestern senior safety Brendan Smith said. "They're saying, 'Hey, we're going to try and confuse you. Watch this!' Like if they're magicians, 'Here's the magic. Watch me over here! Watch me over there! Boom!' They try to motion around, but they're going to run the same play."

Smith and his fellow defenders have spent the past few weeks studying Auburn's pre-snap motion so they can recognize it in the Outback Bowl and not get sucked in. They've seen Auburn shuffle a ton of personnel before the snap, only to run a simple inside zone play to running back Ben Tate.

The solution to contain Auburn? Just do your job.

"They take advantage of the mental mistakes on defense," Smith said. "As long as we play one team, Auburn, we have a great chance of winning."

Northwestern will rely heavily on Smith and fellow safety Brad Phillips, another senior, to direct others on Auburn's pre-snap motion.

"Sometimes, we could say, 'Play it! Play it! Play it!'" Smith said. "Other times, we'll have to check and get us into something else. That's all dependent on the pre-call. But a lot of the looks will get us into our base [defense]."

Like Auburn, Northwestern runs a no-huddle spread offense that should help the NU defenders prepare for the Tigers' up-tempo pace. Though the Wildcats usually don't run as much pre-snap motion as Auburn, they can execute plays like rapid fire, keeping the defense on its heels.

With three weeks to practice against their own offense and examine Auburn's, the Wildcats defenders feel ready.

"The biggest thing is studying their tendencies," defensive end Corey Wootton said of Auburn. "Certain formations, certain sets they're in, it's pretty predictable what they're doing."
Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi had a lot of time to think as he made the long drive Tuesday from Iowa City to his home in suburban Cleveland.


Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireIowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi will be back on the field for the first time in 59 days when he starts for the Hawkeyes in the Orange Bowl.
Georgia (Tech) certainly was on Stanzi's mind. His right ankle? Not so much.

"The ankle's good," Stanzi told me Tuesday, about one-third of the way through his drive. "I've been able to practice 100 percent each day for the last three weeks. So that's not been a problem. That'll be something I won't have to worry about."

The last time we saw Stanzi on the football field, he was on his back in the north end zone at Kinnick Stadium. His ankle had been severely sprained following a hit by Northwestern's Corey Wootton, and the injury would keep him sidelined for the rest of the regular season.

That was 46 days ago. When Stanzi steps on the field Jan. 5 against Georgia Tech in the FedEx Orange Bowl, he'll end a 59-day layoff between snaps.

The long lull certainly can't be dismissed, and Iowa is addressing it in its preparation by using each week this month as if it were a game week. But Stanzi is confident he and his teammates will be ready to go against Tech.

"I'm sure when the game time comes, it'll just be regular routine," he said. "You do it so many times that it's weird more so when you're not in there than it is when you have to be thrown back in there after a while. I don't see it being a problem. I haven't thought of it as weird at all throughout practice, to get back into the swing of things after being off for a couple of weeks."

Stanzi also remains confident that the offense will re-establish the chemistry it had with him at the helm. Iowa never lost a game that Stanzi finished, and Stanzi owns a 17-4 record as the Hawkeyes starter.

After Stanzi went down against Northwestern, his teammates candidly told of what he meant to the offense.

"There's no doubt that we're a different team when Rick Stanzi's in there," wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos said. "We had a gift in Ricky."

A gift the Hawkeyes get back for the bowl game.

"You can get a feeling about whether a team clicks or not, and our team has that," Stanzi said. "Some of the leaders who have been here for a while, we've played a lot of football together, whether it be spring ball or actually this season and camp. We've put in a lot of time and a lot of effort together, and those things have been showing up on the field for us.

"There's definitely a sense of camaraderie within our team, and it's a good team feeling to have that when you're going into a big bowl game and you have a big [layoff] where things can get rusty but guys all have the same goals. When you have that, it definitely leads to good things."

Stanzi is very aware of the task ahead of him in Miami. Georgia Tech's defense looks fairly average on paper, but the Yellow Jackets boast several individual standouts, including end Derrick Morgan.

"With Morgan coming off the edge, there's not a lot of guys who do it as good as he does," Stanzi said. "It's definitely a different type of defense with the aggressive side and a number of big-name players they have over there that we have to try to isolate."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Reports out of Iowa surfaced Monday that Hawkeyes quarterback Ricky Stanzi had undergone surgery and wouldn't be back for a bowl game.

Well, Stanzi did have surgery on his injured right ankle, but his status for the postseason seems much more promising, according to head coach Kirk Ferentz.

"It is correct that he had surgery," Ferentz said Tuesday. "We think he's going to be just fine. It's very, very doubtful that he'll play in the next two weeks, but we're very, very confident that he'll return shortly thereafter and be ready to go."

When I asked Ferentz about Stanzi's chances to play in a bowl game, the coach said, "A good chance, but I'm an optimist."

Given that Ferentz hasn't been overly optimistic about other Hawkeyes injuries this season, you should expect No. 12 to be out there in January when Iowa plays its bowl game.

Stanzi severely sprained his ankle after being sacked by Northwestern's Corey Wootton in the second quarter of Iowa's 17-10 loss on Saturday. He left the game and was spotted on crutches and wearing a walking boot on the Hawkeyes sidelined.

Redshirt freshman James Vandenberg will make his first career start Saturday when No. 10 Iowa visits No. 11 Ohio State (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Five lessons from a wild week in the Big Ten.

1. Once again, Ohio State is the team to beat: Completely written off after a loss to Purdue, Ohio State is in position to win its fifth consecutive Big Ten title and reach the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1997. The Buckeyes crushed Penn State in Happy Valley as the defense flexed its muscles and sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor stepped up on a very big stage. Ohio State enters this week's clash against a reeling Iowa team riding a wave of confidence, having dominated the Hawkeyes in Columbus ever since 1991. It has been a strange road for the Big Ten preseason favorites, but Ohio State is hitting its stride at the perfect time.

2. The Big Ten won't be playing for the national title: Iowa's loss to Northwestern takes the Big Ten out of the national title race, and it's likely the league will only have one BCS bowl entry for the first time since 2004. The Hawkeyes entered Saturday with a shot at the championship game but needed to run the table, complete a brutal road slate and hope for some help. Ricky Stanzi's ankle injury puts Iowa's BCS bowl hopes in serious jeopardy, while Penn State saw its BCS bowl hopes likely dashed with a blowout loss to the Buckeyes.

3. Michigan could be staying home for another winter: The Wolverines faced a virtual must win Saturday against Purdue but squandered a 24-10 halftime lead and fell 38-36. At 5-5, Michigan needs to pull off an upset against Wisconsin or Ohio State to become bowl eligible. Second-year head coach Rich Rodriguez has won only two Big Ten games at Michigan, and he'll be under a ton of pressure if the Wolverines miss the postseason once again. Though the offense showed life, Michigan's defense once again flat lined against Joey Elliott and Purdue.

4. Corey Wootton is still a difference maker: It's been a very rough season for the Northwestern senior defensive end, who hasn't looked like the same player coming off of ACL surgery. But Wootton made the play of the day in the Big Ten when he sacked quarterback Ricky Stanzi in the end zone, forcing a fumble that NU recovered for a touchdown. Wootton completely changed the game and most likely the Big Ten title race, as Stanzi suffered a severe right ankle sprain. Northwestern notched its first win against a top 10 opponent since 2004 and is almost assured of back-to-back bowl appearances for just the second time in team history.

5. Bowl bids still up for grabs: We're more than a week into November, and all 11 teams are still alive for bowl berths. The Michigan State-Purdue game this week at Ross-Ade Stadium could be a play-in game for the postseason, while both Indiana and Illinois can't afford to lose any more. Minnesota needs to take care of business this week against South Dakota State after stumbling against Illinois. The top four spots seem set with Ohio State, Iowa, Penn State and Wisconsin, but there are a lot of possibilities for bowl selection after that group.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Quick thoughts after a wild first half at Kinnick Stadium, where Northwestern leads No. 4 Iowa 14-10.

Turning point: With Iowa leading 10-0 in the second quarter, Northwestern defensive end Corey Wootton hit quarterback Ricky Stanzi in the end zone, jarring the ball loose. Northwestern's Marshall Thomas recovered the fumble for a touchdown and Stanzi left the game with a right ankle injury.

Stat of the half: Iowa committed four turnovers in the second quarter but allowed only 14 points. The Hawkeyes have committed 21 turnovers this season. In last year's game against Northwestern, Iowa had five turnovers but lost by only five points.

What Northwestern needs to do: Keep putting pressure on Iowa backup quarterback James Vandenberg if Stanzi doesn't return. Vandenberg is in a very tough situation, and he'll give the defense opportunities to make plays. Northwestern also must find some consistency on offense and make more big plays.

What Iowa needs to do: Ride the defense and special teams until Stanzi returns (hopefully). The offensive line has done a good job for the most part, so freshman running back Brandon Wegher should have some room to roam. But Vandenberg must show something in the passing game to prevent Northwestern from loading up against the run.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Iowa will need to come from behind yet again to maintain its perfect season.

And this time, the Hawkeyes might need to do it without starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi, who left the game with a right ankle injury.

Corey Wootton's sack of Stanzi has completely changed this contest. Stanzi was down for several minutes and eventually hobbled to the locker room. His backup, redshirt freshman James Vandenberg, entered the game and his first pass of the season went right to linebacker Quentin Davie for an interception.

Northwestern backup quarterback Dan Persa converted on an impressive drive and found Drake Dunsmore in the end zone for the go-ahead score, as the Wildcats lead 14-10.

If Stanzi doesn't return, Iowa could really be in some trouble.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 5

September, 28, 2009
9/28/09
9:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Some shuffling at the top, as Iowa makes a big move while Penn State drops. The midsection looks fairly solid with Wisconsin and Minnesota, who meet Saturday in Minneapolis, as well as Indiana, while the bottom isn't very good at all.

1. Ohio State (3-1, 1-0) -- The Buckeyes are back on top after posting back-to-back shutouts for the first time since 1996. Jim Heacock's defense might have lost several big names from 2008, but it continues to surge as a unit. Ohio State enters a pretty favorable October slate before things get tougher in November. By then, Terrelle Pryor and the offense will need to be fully clicking.

2. Iowa (4-0, 1-0) -- Beware of the Hawkeyes, who began their rough Big Ten road slate with a national statement Saturday night at Penn State. Iowa is one of the best-coached and most resilient teams in the country, and the Hawkeyes won't flinch in tough environments. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi still needs to settle into a more consistent rhythm with his receivers, but defense and special teams can carry this team a long way.

3. Penn State (3-1, 0-1) -- Perhaps the nonconference schedule was too cushy. More likely, the Nittany Lions offensive line is a glaring weakness. Iowa imposed its will at the line of scrimmage throughout Saturday night's game, bullying Penn State's front five and creating another nightmare for quarterback Daryll Clark. The defense will keep Penn State in a lot of games, but the Lions need to get the offense on track again. Penn State has never won the Big Ten when it drops its league opener.

4. Michigan (4-0, 1-0) -- Tate Forcier might be the most clutch freshman in the country, and his heroics despite a bum throwing arm saved Michigan from a momentum-killing loss. The Wolverines have some major issues on defense, particularly in the secondary, after struggling to keep Indiana in check. Michigan can reestablish its dominance over sputtering in-state rival Michigan State this week in East Lansing.

5. Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0) -- Don't take this placement as a knock, Badgers fans. I’m definitely starting to believe in this team. Quarterback Scott Tolzien has been a very pleasant surprise, and Dave Doeren’s defense appears to have fixed the problems from Week 2. Wisconsin once again held serve at Camp Randall Stadium, but things get much tougher the next two weeks as the Badgers hit the road against Minnesota and Ohio State.

6. Minnesota (3-1, 1-0) -- The Gophers are tied with Iowa for the most road victories (2) of any Big Ten team and now return home to face rival Wisconsin. Minnesota’s run game finally emerged Saturday against Northwestern, as the offensive line generated consistent push and Duane Bennett scored three touchdowns. With a more balanced offense, Minnesota will be tough to beat, though there are some issues in the secondary to iron out.

7. Indiana (3-1, 0-1) -- This is a significantly improved Indiana team from 2008, and the Hoosiers nearly notched their biggest win in decades Saturday at Michigan. It’s too bad a controversial call factored into the outcome, but Indiana should gain confidence from the way it performed in a tough environment. Things get tougher this week as Ohio State visits Bloomington.

8. Purdue (1-3) -- The Boilers were the best of a very bad bunch of bottom-feeders Saturday, nearly upsetting Notre Dame before falling short. Danny Hope appeared to make the first major tactical mistake of his Purdue tenure down the stretch, but his team showed good resolve with two fourth-quarter touchdowns. The Boilers must defend the run better, but they’ve been so unpredictable this season that a few big wins could be coming.

9. Northwestern (2-2, 0-1) -- A 4-0 start seemed like a decent bet for Northwestern entering the season, but Pat Fitzgerald’s team is going through a surprising decay on defense. Defensive end Corey Wootton is still working into form, but the unit has looked soft, slow and fundamentally flawed for the last three games. Northwestern needs to win games the way it did in 2008, not in the years before, with stout defense. A trip Saturday to Purdue will be critical for the Wildcats.

10. Michigan State (1-3, 0-1) -- I’m sending out an S.O.S. from East Lansing, as these look like the Same Old Spartans. Sorry to resort to a cliché, but Michigan State has been a total cliché so far. We’ve all seen this movie before, and Mark Dantonio needs to make sure there’s a better ending. Dantonio’s secondary has been a mess, and there’s still no resolution at quarterback. The good news is Michigan State can get on track by beating archrival Michigan this week.

11. Illinois (1-2, 0-1) -- No one in Illinois’ camp can explain what’s happening to this team after its second blowout loss in three games. Even with the offense at full strength, Illinois couldn’t score against Ohio State. The Illini profile consists of a win against FCS Illinois State, and that’s it. From afar, it looks like the team lacks much genuine leadership. It better come from head coach Ron Zook or quarterback Juice Williams in a hurry. Illinois must at least be competitive with Penn State, or Zook could be on the hot seat.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Patience is the theme right now for Corey Wootton, and for Northwestern fans anticipating huge things from the senior defensive end.

Wootton isn't quite up to game speed as he comes off of ACL surgery. Those constant double teams don't help, either. But he feels it coming back slowly.
 
 Scott Boehm/Getty Images
 Corey Wootton is trying to return to the form that helped him record 10 sacks last season.


"I don't feel like I'm quite there yet, but every week it's getting better," Wootton said after Wednesday's practice. "After being out for six, six-and-a-half months before I could train again, it's just going to take time. It gets frustrating, but I just try to push through it."

Wootton has one tackle and two quarterback hurries in Northwestern's first two games, though he didn't play much in the team's season-opening romp of Towson. The burst that helped him record 10 sacks and 16 tackles for loss in 2008 hasn't shown up consistently, but he isn't far away.

Defensive line coach Marty Long admits he hasn't had enough time to truly assess Wootton's situation. Wootton reached the point of attack seven times in last week's game against Eastern Michigan. A better gauge comes Saturday when the Wildcats head to Syracuse (ESPN360, 7 p.m. ET).

"What he went through was traumatic, and his body's feeling a little different than it did at this time last year," Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "So now he's got to get used to it and comfortable with it, and he's close. He's really close.

"What I'm most proud of is what he's fought through overcoming this injury. A lesser man, seven months in, would never have gone through camp. A lesser man would not be playing right now."

(Read full post)

Big Ten power rankings

September, 14, 2009
9/14/09
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Michigan has made things a lot more interesting in the Big Ten, while the league's midsection remains as muddled as ever.

Just as a reminder, these rankings are fluid. Wins are rewarded. Losses carry a price.

1. Penn State (2-0) -- It's safe to say the Nittany Lions are the league's best team right now, but the mood isn't totally comfortable in Happy Valley. Penn State wants to see more from its run game and offensive line to take some pressure off of senior quarterback Daryll Clark.

2. Michigan (2-0) -- Too high a placement for Rich Rodriguez's crew? Name another Big Ten team that has looked impressive in back-to-back weeks. Michigan still has some concerns (youth, depth), but it looks completely different on offense and continues to get big performances from young players like quarterback Tate Forcier.

3. Ohio State (1-1) -- The Buckeyes would have been No. 1 had they held off USC, but another close loss raises questions about Jim Tressel, Terrelle Pryor and the offense. Cameron Heyward and the defense played masterfully, but does Tressel-ball still work in this era of college football, or does Ohio State need to evolve?

4. Iowa (2-0) -- Iowa State isn't very good, but a 32-point road win in a rivalry game speaks for itself. Tyler Sash led an opportunistic Iowa defense with three interceptions, and the Hawkeyes established a run game with freshmen Brandon Wegher and Adam Robinson. After some tough luck on the health front, Iowa is back on track heading into a big stretch against Arizona and Penn State.

5. Minnesota (2-0) -- The Gophers have a road win against an improved Syracuse team and a hard-fought home victory against always-tough Air Force. Their lack of explosiveness on offense is still a concern, but the defense has taken a step forward under Kevin Cosgrove and Ron Lee. A huge opportunity arrives Saturday as Cal visits TCF Bank Stadium.

T-6 Northwestern (2-0) -- The Wildcats drop two spots after letting their guard down in the second half against Eastern Michigan and nearly falling to the Eagles. Star defensive end Corey Wootton hasn't shown up so far, and Northwestern's overall defensive line play has been uninspiring. Things get tougher next week against Syracuse at the Carrier Dome.

T-6 Wisconsin (2-0) -- It's hard to know what to make of the Badgers at this point, but they're finding a way to win despite some flaws. Scott Tolzien clearly was the right choice at quarterback, and running back John Clay came up big against Fresno State. The defense is a major concern, especially on third downs, but Wisconsin has done a nice job of surviving against decent teams.

8. Michigan State (1-1) -- Mark Dantonio often brings up Michigan State's struggles under high expectations, and Saturday's loss to Central Michigan certainly looked a lot like other Spartans' collapses. A lack of discipline showed up often, especially on special teams, but perhaps more damaging were the struggles of a deep and experienced secondary. Next week's game at Notre Dame will be huge.

9. Illinois (1-1) -- The Illini took care of business against Illinois State, pulling away to an easy win despite losing quarterback Juice Williams (bruised quadriceps) early. It wasn't a spotless performance, but running back Jason Ford made a difference in his return. Illinois can climb the rankings in the coming weeks with games against Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State -- or it can tumble to the bottom.

10. Purdue (1-1) -- Danny Hope's team would have made a big jump had it won at Oregon, but giveaways and other mistakes doomed the Boilers in Eugene. This team is better than many of us expected, and Ralph Bolden looks like a star at running back, but it can't win games with so many miscues. Purdue must bounce back against Northern Illinois before Notre Dame visits Ross-Ade Stadium.

11. Indiana (2-0) -- Improved defense has paid off early on for the Hoosiers, and the team sparked its rushing attack against Western Michigan behind Demetrius McCray. I'm not totally sold on IU, but there are certainly some encouraging signs for Bill Lynch's crew. This week's trip to Akron is huge before opening Big Ten play with Michigan and Ohio State.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The college football season is rapidly approaching, but many of you draftniks out there are starting a longer countdown -- to a weekend in late April when the NFL draft rules. 

Mel Kiper is always thinking about the NFL draft and released the first installment of his Big Board (Insider access), projecting the top 25 picks in the 2010 draft. Only two Big Ten players made the board, and just barely.

They are:

10. Arrelious Benn, WR, Illinois: Silky smooth, with excellent run-after-catch ability.

25. Brandon Graham, DE, Michigan: Awesome athlete and force off the edge.

Benn obviously has another season of eligibilty left after this one, but if he performs as expected this fall, it would be hard to see him sticking around Champaign. 

I'd be very surprised if only two Big Ten players went in the top 25 picks. Iowa left tackle Bryan Bulaga definitely has first-round potential if he delivers another strong season and comes out early.

Linebackers Navorro Bowman and Sean Lee of Penn State and Greg Jones of Michigan State also could boost their stock. I could also see Northwestern defensive end Corey Wootton and Penn State defensive tackle Jared Odrick getting first-round consideration.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten lacks an official preseason all-conference team, which would be interesting to see but prevents situations like Tebow-gate. We're a little more bold here at ESPN.com, so here's my All-Big Ten squad. There will be time for debate later. For now, enjoy the names.

OFFENSE

QB: Daryll Clark, Penn State
RB: Evan Royster, Penn State
RB: John Clay, Wisconsin
WR: Eric Decker, Minnesota
WR: Arrelious Benn, Illinois
OT: Bryan Bulaga, Iowa
OG: Jon Asamoah, Illinois
C: Stefen Wisniewski, Penn State
OG: Justin Boren, Ohio State
OT: Kyle Calloway, Iowa
TE: Garrett Graham, Wisconsin

DEFENSE

DE: Brandon Graham, Michigan
DT: Jared Odrick, Penn State
DT: Mike Neal, Purdue
DE: Corey Wootton, Northwestern
LB: Greg Jones, Michigan State
LB: Navorro Bowman, Penn State
LB: Pat Angerer, Iowa
CB: Amari Spievey, Iowa
CB: Traye Simmons, Minnesota
S: Kurt Coleman, Ohio State
S: Brad Phillips, Northwestern

SPECIALISTS

P: Zoltan Mesko, Michigan
PK: Brett Swenson, Michigan State
KR: Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota
PR: Ray Small*, Ohio State

*-Currently not with team

Penn State leads the way with five selections, followed by Iowa (4), Ohio State (3), Minnesota (3), Illinois (2), Wisconsin (2), Northwestern (2), Michigan (2), Michigan State (2) and Purdue (1).

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