NCF Nation: Daimion Stafford

Travis FrederickMike McGinnis/Getty ImagesAs the 31st pick, Travis Frederick was the first Big Ten player to be drafted.
The gap between the Big Ten and the SEC not only is widening on the field, but on the NFL draft boards.

While the SEC produced a record 63 picks in the 2013 NFL draft -- eight more than any conference in any draft in the modern era and 32 more than the next-best conference (ACC) in this year's draft -- the Big Ten endured a mostly forgettable three days at New York's Radio City Music Hall. Before going any further, this post isn't meant to knock the Big Ten players who heard their names called Thursday, Friday and Saturday. They worked years for this moment and deserve to celebrate their accomplishments. Congrats to all.

But for the Big Ten as a whole, this draft was a total dud. Was it the league's worst draft ever? If it isn't, it's certainly in the conversation.

The Big Ten produced only 22 draft picks, its lowest total since 1994, when it had 21 (and 11 teams, not 12). In 1994, the Big Ten had the No. 1 overall pick (Ohio State DT Dan Wilkinson), four first-round selections and eight selections in the first three rounds.

You have to wonder how much the Big Ten's damaged national reputation is impacting its draft hopefuls. The SEC's rise has made that conference the first place NFL general managers and player personnel directors look for talent. Although Big Ten players might be comparable to their SEC counterparts in many ways, their competition level might be looked at as a drawback in the final evaluations.

This year, the Big Ten tied with the Big 12 for fourth among leagues in producing picks, but the Big Ten produced fewer selections in the first three rounds (7) than any of the power conferences. Last year, the Big Ten finished with 41 draft picks, just one behind the SEC for the top spot.

Other items of note (tip of the cap to ESPN Stats & Information and the Plain Dealer's Doug Lesmerises for several of these):

  • [+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
    Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMichigan State's Le'Veon Bell was the second running back taken in the draft.
    Although the Big Ten's national reputation has been an issue for some time, it didn't dramatically impact the draft until this year. The Big Ten has produced at least 27 draft picks every year since the 21-player output in 1994.
  • The Big Ten's four biggest brand-name programs -- Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska -- combined to produce just two picks in the first three rounds (Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins and Penn State DT Jordan Hill).
  • Nebraska endured its longest drought without a selection since 1970, as running back Rex Burkhead waited until the sixth round to hear Cincinnati call his name with the 190th overall pick. The Huskers didn't have a selection in the first four rounds for the third time in the past six seasons. With just two draftees -- Burkhead and safety Daimion Stafford, who went in the seventh round -- Nebraska had its weakest output since 1969.
  • Michigan went without a draftee in the first four rounds for the first time since 1968 and without one in the first three rounds for just the fifth time since 1970 (1976, 1989, 2006 and 2009 were the others). The Wolverines have had just five players drafted in the past two seasons.
  • Ohio State had just three players -- Hankins, defensive lineman John Simon and offensive tackle Reid Fragel -- drafted from a team that went 12-0 in 2012. Fragel's selection in the seventh round helped Ohio State avoid its smallest draft class since 1968.
  • An Illinois team that went 2-10 last season and 0-8 in Big Ten play led the league with four players drafted. It continues a mystifying trend for the Illini, who have had four players selected in each of the past four NFL drafts, even though the team has endured losing seasons in three of the past five years. Illinois has produced 10 players selected in the first three rounds since 2010, the most of any Big Ten team.
  • As expected, three Big Ten teams -- Northwestern, Minnesota and Indiana -- had no players drafted. Northwestern went 10-3 last season.

Perhaps the best draft news for the Big Ten is that future member Rutgers had seven players selected, tied for the sixth highest total.

(Read full post)

Big Ten combine results: DB

February, 27, 2013
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The 2013 NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis wrapped up Tuesday with the defensive backs. Five Big Ten defensive backs participated in some or all of the events and drills.

Let's see how they did ...
  • Illinois CB Terry Hawthorne ran the 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds, tying him for 13th best among all defensive backs. Other 40 times include Michigan State CB Johnny Adams (4.48), Iowa CB Micah Hyde (4.56), Purdue CB Josh Johnson (4.65) Nebraska S Daimion Stafford (4.69).
  • Stafford ranked sixth among defensive backs in bench press repetitions with 21. Adams and Johnson both had 16, Hawthorne had 13 and Hyde had 12.
  • No Big Ten defensive backs were among the top performers in vertical jump. Hawthorne led the Big Ten crew at 35.5 inches, followed by Johnson (35 inches), Hyde (33) and Stafford (30.5). Adams didn't participate in this event.
  • The Big Ten had no top performers in the broad jump, but Iowa's Hyde led the group at 121 inches.
  • Hyde tied for 12th among all defensive backs in the three-cone drill at 6.78 seconds. Johnson (6.99) and Stafford (7.06) also participated.
  • Hyde (4.2 seconds) and Johnson (4.25 seconds) were the only defensive backs to post times in the 20-yard shuttle.
  • Johnson tied for fourth among all defensive backs in the 60-yard shuttle (11.51 seconds).

In case you missed the results for the other Big Ten players at the combine, check them out here and here.

ESPN.com's All-Big Ten team

December, 10, 2012
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As you may have noticed, we weren't exactly big fans of the official All-Big Ten teams that were announced last month.

We don't claim to know more about football than the league's coaches, not for a second. But after watching every Big Ten game all season long, we found ourselves scratching our heads at some choices that didn't seem to jibe with what we were seeing. Well, it's time to put our money where our mouths are and offer our official ESPN.com picks for the 2012 All-Big Ten team. Now you can argue with our choices, which look like this:

Offense

QB: Braxton Miller, Ohio State
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin
RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State
WR: Allen Robinson, Penn State
WR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska
TE: Kyle Carter, Penn State
OT: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OG: Spencer Long, Nebraska
C: Matt Stankiewitch, Penn State
OG: Brian Mulroe, Northwestern
OT: Jack Mewhort, Ohio State

Defense

DL: John Simon, Ohio State
DL: Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State
DL: Jordan Hill, Penn State
LB: Michael Mauti, Penn State
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
DB: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
DB: Ciante Evans, Nebraska
DB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
DB: Daimion Stafford, Nebraska

Special teams

PK: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
All-purpose: Venric Mark, Northwestern

The first thing you might notice with our team is that we're lining up as a 3-4 defense. We decided to go with only three defensive linemen and four linebackers because linebacker was such a strong position for the league this year. And even with four, we still left off very worthy players such as Wisconsin's Mike Taylor, Penn State's Gerald Hodges and Michigan State's Max Bullough. Going with three down linemen meant we excluded Purdue's Kawann Short, a great player who was slowed by injuries during the heart of the Boilers' schedule. ... One of our toughest calls was at tight end. You can make a great case for either Carter or Michigan State's Dion Sims, and their numbers are incredibly close. ... We chose four defensive backs instead of two corners and two safeties, just as the Big Ten does with its official teams. And we were happy to do so since we thought the safety position was a little lacking this year overall. And since Evans is a nickelback, it kind of works, anyway. ... We went with Michigan State's Bell in a close call over Northwestern's Mark but still got Mark on our team as the all-purpose player, which fits his skills since he is a top-flight punt returner. ... Ohio State leads the way with six selections, followed by Penn State with five and Nebraska with four.
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My eyes are burning after watching the Nebraska-Iowa game, but Husker eyes are smiling, and they should be.

Nebraska will represent the Legends Division next week at the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis. The Huskers (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten) earned the right to face Wisconsin after outlasting Iowa 13-7 in a sloppy game in frigid conditions at Kinnick Stadium. Coach Bo Pelini's team fulfilled his "win-out" pledge in Columbus in claiming its final six conference contests.

Everyone expected Nebraska to win Friday, but how it happened came as a surprise. The Big Ten's top offense marched 75 yards on its first possession before settling for a field goal, and then did very little after that point. In between the opening drive and Nebraska's 43-yard touchdown march late in the third quarter, the offense had only 48 total yards.

This win was all about the defense and running back Rex Burkhead, who returned from injury to give the sputtering Huskers attack a boost in the second half. Iowa's inept offense and hyper-conservative coaching staff also deserves an assist in Nebraska's win. Hawkeyes fans deserve better (more on this later).

Nebraska defensive end Eric Martin quietly had put together an all-conference caliber season -- 7.5 sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss -- but most Big Ten fans probably didn't notice him until today. Martin was the single most dominant player on the field at Kinnick Stadium, constantly harassing quarterback James Vandenberg and disrupting pass plays. Martin's stats are impressive (seven tackles, three tackles for loss, one forced fumble, two quarterback hurries) but hardly tell the full story of how much he impacted the game. He's a lock for at least second-team All-Big Ten honors and improved his case to be a first-team selection.

Other members of the Blackshirts stepped up as Nebraska overcame two first-half turnovers and several short fields. Safety Daimion Stafford had a terrific interception after a pass breakup by cornerback Ciante Evans, and linebacker Alonzo Whaley sealed the win by jumping a short pass route -- does Iowa have any other kind? -- in the closing minutes.

Nebraska held Iowa to 200 yards, 13 first downs and just 5-of-15 on third-down conversions.

Quarterback Taylor Martinez had his least effective performance of the season in the poor conditions (63 pass yards, 36 rush yards, one lost fumble), and the Huskers needed something to spark their offense. Enter Superman.

[+] EnlargeRex Burkhead
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallThe Nebraska offense was stuck in neutral much of a the game, but running back Rex Burkhead (22) provided a much-needed spark.
Burkhead, out since Oct. 20 after aggravating a knee injury that has limited him all season, returned to the field with Nebraska trailing 7-3 in the third quarter. Pelini said it was Burkhead's decision to play, and the senior delivered. He had 16 carries for 69 yards and Nebraska's only touchdown, and his biggest play was a 9-yard run for a first down from the Nebraska 2-yard line. I'm still not sure how Burkhead stayed on his feet so long.

The game encapsulated Iowa's miserable 2012 campaign and some of the season-long issues that never got fixed.

Two examples of ineptitude:

  • After dropping an interception, Iowa drove to the Nebraska 19 late in the first half. After Vandenberg was dropped for no gain, Iowa let a bunch of time tick away before calling a timeout. The Hawkeyes then proceeded to earn an illegal substitution penalty (after a timeout, mind you). Moments later, Mike Meyer hooked a field goal and Iowa wasted a perfect opportunity to tack onto a lead in a game where points were at a premium.
  • Facing a third-and-4 near midfield midway through the fourth quarter, Iowa handed the ball to Mark Weisman, who was easily smothered short of the marker. First-year coordinator Greg Davis has had a lot of head-scratching calls this season, but this might have been the worst. The height of conservatism. Pathetic.

I didn't even mention the punt from the Nebraska 31-yard line in the first half.

Iowa's defense deserves better than what it got from the offense this season. The Hawkeyes must have set a record for most takeaways not converted into points. Or third-down pass routes run short of the marker.

Kirk Ferentz won't be fired because he makes too much money. So unless he leaves for the NFL, he'll be tasked to fix this mess. Vandenberg regressed as a senior and Davis left Hawkeyes fans banging their heads against the wall. I've defended Ferentz before, and his overall success at Iowa can't be denied, but the program has completely lost momentum, dropping its final six games. Iowa went 4-8 despite a very easy schedule that didn't include Ohio State or Wisconsin and had Penn State at home.

This is unacceptable for a program that won a BCS bowl game three years ago. It's certainly unacceptable for a coach making what Ferentz makes.

Nebraska, meanwhile, might be the sloppiest good team I've ever seen. The Huskers still make a lot of mistakes, but they've found ways to win since the Ohio State debacle.

And if the Blackshirts play like this and Burkhead continues to get healthy and contribute, Nebraska could win two more times this season, including Jan. 1 in Pasadena.

Nebraska clobbers Minnesota 38-14

November, 17, 2012
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Michigan keeps winning, but it doesn't really matter with the way Nebraska is playing.

It's hard to imagine a scenario in which the Huskers aren't in Indianapolis in two weeks for the Big Ten championship game. They absolutely dominated Minnesota 38-14 in their final home game on Saturday, finally putting together a complete effort that didn't require a comeback.

If Nebraska can play half as well as that next week against what has become a dreadful Iowa team, the Legends Division trophy will reside in Lincoln. Even on the road, a Huskers loss next week would qualify as one of the biggest upsets of the season.

Big Red made sure there would be no such upset this week against the Gophers. They were terrific from the get-go, building a 24-0 lead and limiting the Gophers' offense to just 60 yards in the first half. It only got worse from there, as Nebraska led 38-0 before putting in the second stringers.

We've been waiting to see what Nebraska could do offensively if it could limit its turnovers and slow starts. This was a pretty good example.

The usually-butterfingered Huskers' starters lost only one fumble, but got it right back when Daimion Stafford grabbed an interception on the very next play. Though Nebraska didn't have its typically large rushing figures, Taylor Martinez threw for 308 yards on an efficient 21-for-29 afternoon and got an early rest for the first time in a long while. Kenny Bell had one of his best games, with nine catches for 136 yards and two scores.

The defense was even more impressive, keeping Philip Nelson (8-for-23, 59 yards) and the Gophers attack searching for answers all day. The Blackshirts were all over Minnesota's pass routes. Stanley Jean-Baptiste returned an interception 48 yards for a touchdown. Until the middle of the fourth quarter Minnesota was 0-for-11 on third downs and didn't crack 100 yards of total offense. The Gophers never mounted a credible scoring chance until the Huskers' backups came in the game late.

It was a disappointing day for Minnesota, which has unfortunately become used to being blown out by Nebraska in its history. But this was always going to be a very difficult game on the road for the Gophers. They did what they needed to do last week in getting bowl eligible and will have a chance to knock off a reeling Michigan State club next week at home.

After last week's win over Penn State, Nebraska players and coaches said they believed this team hadn't yet hit his peak. If this performance is an indication, the Huskers are still getting better at the right time of the year.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 11

November, 12, 2012
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Through the lens of history ...

Team of the week: Wisconsin. Reports of the Badgers' demise were premature. While everybody was hopping aboard the Indiana bandwagon last week, Wisconsin simply got back to what it does best: running the ball. Bret Bielema's team steamrolled to a school-record 564 rushing yards and threw it only seven times in a 62-14 rout of the Hoosiers. As a result, the Badgers are going back to the Big Ten championship game.

Game of the week: Lots of good ones Saturday, but the most drama came in Ann Arbor. Michigan outlasted Northwestern 38-31 in overtime thanks to a last-minute miracle and plenty of chutzpah from Devin Gardner. There is some magic in those Michigan uniforms at the Big House.

[+] EnlargeRoy Roundtree
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireRoy Roundtree made one of the biggest plays in the Big Ten all season with a miraculous catch in the final seconds of regulation.
Biggest play: As if there were any doubt. We've had the Immaculate Reception; should we call this one the Roundtree Revelation? Roy Roundtree's 53-yard catch off a tipped ball (around the 1:20 mark) with eight seconds left to set up Michigan's tying field goal may well go down as the Big Ten play of the year. How did Roundtree get so open on a post route, with Northwestern in a prevent defense? "Anybody who goes to catch the ball I'd like to have triple-teamed," Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "That would be ideal. But I can't say I would change the call. I just wish we had knocked the dang ball down." Instead, Roundtree and Northwestern cornerback Daniel Jones both got their hands it, the ball bounced straight up and Roundtree maintained his concentration long enough to haul it in while falling down. Roundtree's Roundabout Reception (OK, this still needs some work) will go down in Wolverines' lore.

Best call: Minnesota was struggling again in the red zone at Illinois and was locked in a 3-3 game in the second half when it faced a fourth-and-inches on the Illini 16. Instead of going for the easy field goal, head coach Jerry Kill went for the kill. A Philip Nelson sneak picked up the first down, and the Gophers would go on to score a touchdown en route to an eventual 17-3 victory. Minnesota reached the six-win plateau and is going bowling for the first time since 2009. Ski-U-Mah!

Testiest news conference: It's not much fun being either a coach or a reporter at a news conference when a team is losing; there are only so many ways to ask the question: Why do you stink? And so it went at Iowa, which lost its fourth straight game by falling at home to Purdue. The very first question posed to head coach Kirk Ferentz was why and how he got outcoached. "You can say it’s this, it’s that, lunar moon, whatever," Ferentz said. "But that’s coaching. And that’s me. Coaching starts with me.” Later, after more questions about his team's struggles, Ferentz tried to defend Iowa's season by pointing to victories over Minnesota and Michigan State. "It’s not like this has been a dog crap team,” Ferentz said. “You want to paint that picture, I’m not buying that.” (And if such a picture is for sale, I want to avoid that arts and crafts show.)

Big Man on Campus (Offense): This fall may not totally belong to Ball, but the state of Indiana sure does. Montee Ball ran for 198 yards and three touchdowns in Wisconsin's 62-14 hammering of Indiana, putting the Badgers' star within one touchdown of tying the NCAA career record. For his career, Ball has tallied 824 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in five games while playing in the Hoosier State. He's got one more left: the Dec. 1 Big Ten title game in Indianapolis.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Nebraska safety Daimion Stafford was part of a dominant second-half defensive effort from the Blackshirts in a 32-23 win over Penn State. Stafford's interception of Matt McGloin helped set up the tying touchdown in the third quarter, and he later recovered the fumble by Matt Lehman in the end zone. Special mention also goes to Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short, who had four tackles for loss to help the Boilermakers control the line of scrimmage at Iowa.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Purdue freshman Paul Griggs missed a short field goal at the end of the first half at Iowa and had misfired on a couple of tries at Ohio State that could have changed the outcome of that overtime loss. But he made up for that by drilling a 46-yard field goal as time expired to give the Boilers the 27-24 victory. "It seemed like everybody was grabbing me, and I know I got grabbed by a couple of the guys after the kick,” Griggs said. “As soon as I got away from them, I was running over toward the fans, and my mom ran out of the stands and she blindsided me. She was quite happy.”

Worst hangover: Northwestern could be 10-0 right now. In all three of their losses, the Wildcats held double-digit leads in the fourth quarter. A good season could have been a great one in a very winnable Big Ten. Instead, Northwestern keeps finding ways to punch its fans in the gut. The Michigan loss was the worst one yet, as the Wildcats first surrendered a 10-point fourth-quarter lead, then went ahead again late only to surrender the miraculous catch to Roundtree.

Strangest moment: Penn State sure wasn't happy about the controversial fumble call on Lehman's near-touchdown. But there was a strange penalty earlier in the game that went against the Nittany Lions, too.

Late in the first half, Nebraska's Brett Maher shanked a punt for 16 yards, apparently giving Penn State great field position. But the officials called sideline interference on the Lions, a 15-yard penalty.

Sideline interference? You see teams get warned for that but rarely flagged. Penn State beat writers in the press box thought that secondary coach John Butler, who often crowds the field, was the one who drew the flag. But Bill O'Brien said that wasn't the case.

"I guess the referee was running down the sideline and from what I was told, he ran into one of our players and I guess that's sideline interference," O'Brien said.

From that point on, a Penn State staff member made sure to keep telling coaches and players to move back anytime they got close to the field. And the Nittany Lions were left to wonder when they were going to get a break from the refs.
Recognizing the best and brightest from Week 11 in the Big Ten:
  • Wisconsin RB Montee Ball: Who says says the Badgers' star is having a down year? Ball now needs just one more touchdown to tie the NCAA career record of 78 after he gashed Indiana for 198 yards and three scores on 27 carries. Ball was the biggest part of a school-record 564-yard rushing effort by the Badgers. James White (14 carries for 161 yards and two scores), Melvin Gordon (8 carries, 96 yards and a touchd0wn) also got in on the fun.
  • Purdue QB Robert Marve: Marve has had an up-and-down career marred by knee injuries, but Saturday's 27-24 win at Iowa has to be one of his finest moments. The senior completed 25 of 33 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns, and he set up the game-winning kick with a 17-yard run and a 20-yard pass completion in the final 30 seconds. Thanks to their quarterback's heroics, the Boilermakers remain alive for a bowl this year.
  • Michigan WR Roy Roundtree: The senior's 53-yard catch off a tipped ball in the final seconds against Northwestern is a candidate for one of the plays of the year in college football. If that's all Roundtree did, he'd still deserve a sticker for saving the Wolverines' bacon and helping his team pull out an incredible 38-31 overtime victory. But Roundtree had a solid all-around day, finishing with five catches for 139 yards.
  • Minnesota RB Donnell Kirkwood: There wasn't much offense Saturday in Champaign, but Kirkwood provided much of it for a Gophers team that needed its top running back to be at his best. Kirkwood racked up a career-high 152 rush yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries to lift Minnesota past Illinois. After failing to rush for a touchdown in Minnesota's first five Big Ten games, he twice reached the end zone, including the clincher from 12 yards out with 1:34 left. Kirkwood is the first Gophers running back to eclipse 700 yards in a season since Amir Pinnix ran for 1,272 yards in 2006.
  • Nebraska S Daimion Stafford: The Huskers once again needed the Blackshirts to step up in the second half, and Stafford came through with an interception of Matt McGloin early in the third quarter. Stafford's pick set up Nebraska's game-tying touchdown, as the Huskers quickly erased a 14-point halftime deficit and went on to win 32-23. He also recovered the controversial fumble by Penn State's Matt Lehman in the end zone in the fourth quarter. Stafford finished with eight tackles.

Huskers make crazy work like a charm

November, 10, 2012
11/10/12
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Serious-minded Nebraska coach Bo Pelini is not usually one to make a lot of wisecracks when talking to the media.

But Pelini couldn't help but joke after his team pulled off yet another comeback from a double-digit deficit, this time to beat Penn State 32-23 on Saturday.

"I'm going to call the Big Ten and spot 'em 14 points, and we're good to go," Pelini said.

At this point, if you're a Nebraska fan or an opponent victimized by these zombie-like Huskers, you can't do much else but shake your head at the absurdity of this team's ways. Down 17 at home in the third quarter to Wisconsin? No problem. Trailing by 12 with six minutes to go at Northwestern? No sweat. Behind by 10 with a little more than seven minutes to play? We got this.

Some teams walk a tightrope. Nebraska jumps a motorcycle over a lake full of alligators while on fire. Team officials say the Huskers' four second-half, double-digit comebacks this season lead the nation and are the most in school history.

So when Penn State ran to the locker room with a 20-6 lead after 30 minutes on Saturday, there was no panic for the home team.

"The vibe at halftime was, 'All right, it's 0-0,'" running back Ameer Abdullah said. "We do this every week. We know what to do."

Pelini said he was hoping his team could the score by the fourth quarter. It surprised him by striking for two touchdowns in the first 5:23 of the second half to shift momentum their way. But this is Nebraska, so it still wasn't easy.

The Huskers wouldn't take their first lead until there was 10:57 left to play. And they caught a major break after that, when tight end Matt Lehman fumbled a potential go-ahead Penn State touchdown into the end zone for a Nebraska touchback.

Replays appeared to show that Lehman broke the plane just before losing the ball, but an official review upheld the fumble call. Nittany Lions quarterback Matt McGloin later tweeted out a video of the play and hinted in a postgame interview that referees had it in for Penn State because of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

[+] Enlargebo pelini
AP Photo/Dave WeaverAfter losing to UCLA last season, Bo Pelini and Nebraska hope to turn the tables when the Bruins and Huskers meet again on Saturday.
Pelini acknowledged his team was "fortunate" that the play was ruled a fumble on the field, making it harder to overturn. Nebraska also benefited from some questionable late calls at Michigan State last week. But championship seasons are often marked by those kinds of good fortune.

Fumble or not, the fact remains that the Huskers outscored Penn State 26-3 in the second half, holding the Nittany Lions to just 136 total yards after halftime. The Blackshirts defense was clearly bothered by Penn State's hurry-up "NASCAR" offensive package, burning three defensive timeouts and getting caught with too many defenders on the field several times in the first half.

"They went to the hurry-up and we couldn't adjust well," defensive lineman Cam Meredith said. "A lot of times we were looking at the sideline and not getting the call. We came up with a solution."

The answer was brilliantly simple, as Nebraska decided just to go with the same defensive alignment every time Penn State went to the no-huddle. It worked, as Daimion Stafford grabbed a key interception against McGloin and the Huskers later forced McGloin into an intentional grounding in the end zone for a safety.

Nebraska forced three turnovers, for once coming out on the right side of that battle. That doesn't mean it was all good news, though, as quarterback Taylor Martinez fumbled the ball inside the Penn State 5 to ruin a scoring chance, and Tim Marlowe muffed a first-half punt return to set up a Nittany Lions touchdown. The Huskers entered the day tied for second-to-last in the nation in lost fumbles, and they gave two more away to run their season total to minus-16.

Slipperiness with the ball isn't supposed to translate to winning. Yet, like an eccentric billionaire, Nebraska keeps succeeding despite its erratic behavior. Its offense leads the Big Ten in scoring and yardage despite all the turnovers and the slow starts. What could the Huskers do if they ever cleaned all that up?

"The sky's the limit," said Abdullah, who had his sixth 100-yard day of the season with 116 yards on 31 carries. "We've yet to play our best game offensively. We say we want to play our best game in our last game, and we've got a couple of games left."

Believe it or not, there is some method to this comeback madness. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck says opposing defenses have thrown new looks at the Huskers all season long in an effort to slow down their deep cast of offensive skill players.

"There are some games where we might as well not even practice," he said. "Because what we're seeing isn't what we're practicing against."

Beck said it often takes a couple of quarters to figure out just what is happening and then adjust to it. On Saturday, the Nittany Lions used some blitzes and schemes that Beck hadn't seen on film from them all year.

Beck's offense also is designed to wear opponents out with its high-tempo pace and speed. That's one reason the Huskers kept running toss sweeps to different sides of the field, making Penn State's thin defense run from sideline to sideline all game. The Nittany Lions looked gassed by the fourth quarter.

That doesn't mean Nebraska would like to continue this particular pattern of falling behind, turning the ball over and mounting wild comebacks.

"It's enough already," Martinez said. "We need to start getting ahead."

But this particular brand of crazy works for them. After losing 63-38 at Ohio State on Oct. 6, Pelini told his team it needed to win out to claim a Big Ten title. Four straight wins later, the Huskers are in control of the Legends Division. They need only to beat Minnesota at home next week and win at struggling Iowa in the season finale to reach the Big Ten championship game.

"That's four down, and we've got two more to go," Pelini said. "We just have to stay the course."

The same crazy, winning course.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 10

November, 5, 2012
11/05/12
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Remember November (third).

Team of the week: They drive their fans crazy, but no one can doubt the heart and the will of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Again on the ropes in the fourth quarter this week, they rallied from a 10-point deficit at Michigan State and drove in for the winning score with six seconds to go when Taylor Martinez hit Jamal Turner for a 5-yard touchdown pass. Nebraska will be going to the Big Ten championship game if it can stay on the plus side of crazy for the next three weeks.

Game of the week: It has to be that 28-24 road victory for Nebraska. Some huge individual performances (among others: Martinez, Ameer Abdullah for Nebraska, Le'Veon Bell, Kurtis Drummond, Darqueze Dennard for Michigan State) were paired with wild momentum swings, key turnovers and loads upon loads of dumb and sometimes questionable penalties. More on the latter in a moment.

[+] EnlargeDrew Dileo
Jesse Johnson/US PresswireDrew Dileo caught a 45-yard touchdown strike from Devin Gardner, who filled in ably for the injued Denard Robinson.
Best play: Michigan looked to be in trouble early at Minnesota with Denard Robinson out and the offense not doing much of anything in the second quarter. But then fill-in quarterback Devin Gardner made something out of nothing, scrambling several seconds before finding a wide-open Drew Dileo in the end zone for a 45-yard touchdown. On a third-and-17, no less. "It was kind of my fault because I don't think I got in the right protection," Gardner told reporters. "Afterward, I just tried to do the best I could." His best was pretty good and seemed to infuse him and the entire offense with confidence the rest of the way, as the Wolverines went on to a 35-13 victory.

Biggest call: They will be debating the pass interference call against Michigan State's Dennard in the final minute for a long time in Lincoln, East Lansing and possibly even Ann Arbor and/or Evanston. It was third-and-10 from the Spartans' 20 when Dennard was called for interfering with Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell, setting the Huskers up on the 5-yard line with first-and-goal. Replays showed that Dennard had solid coverage, and it appeared that Bell hooked his arm. Michigan State players were furious with the call, and several tweeted diatribes against the officials before later deleting them.

The Spartans were also upset about a personal foul against Johnny Adams that wiped out what would have been an interception return for a touchdown earlier in the game. But complaining about the officials is little more than whining. Michigan State benefited from a questionable call earlier in the game when Nebraska's Daimion Stafford was called for a late hit out of bounds on Andrew Maxwell, which extended a drive and led to a touchdown. Bad calls even out, and the Spartans should blame themselves for letting the Huskers convert a fourth-and-10 earlier on the winning drive or not picking up a loose fumble earlier in the quarter. Mark Dantonio summed it up well with his postgame quote.

“Everybody’s trying to do the very best they can do out there,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s out for Michigan State, I don’t think anyone’s out for Nebraska. It’s an instinctive game and it’s instinctive for officials too.”

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Indiana receiver Cody Latimer had a monster game against Iowa, hauling in seven catches for 113 yards and three touchdowns in the 24-21 win. His 30-yard score proved to be the game winner. Afterward, he said this: "We need to get some big wins to help us get to the bowl game we want, the Rose Bowl." And no one laughed.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Penn State's Gerald Hodges was a force of nature in his team's 34-9 win at Purdue. The linebacker had eight tackles, including three for loss, and a pass breakup to help hold the Boilermakers to just 87 rushing yards.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): There weren't many standout special-teams plays on Saturday, but how about some love for much-maligned Penn State kicker Sam Ficken? He made both of his field goal attempts (from 27 and 24 yards) and all four of his extra points. Maybe Bill O'Brien won't have to go for it on every fourth down now.

Worst hangover: Michigan State will have to stew over another close loss at home for two weeks. But how about Iowa? The Hawkeyes still technically controlled their own destiny in the Legends race before Saturday. They not only lost to Indiana but also got pushed around by the Hoosiers. That's three straight losses for Iowa, its longest losing streak since 2008. The 4-5 Hawkeyes will have to work hard just to get to a bowl game now. You get the feeling that Iowa fans are just ready for this season to end.

Strangest moment: Ohio Stadium went dark for about 20 minutes before the Buckeyes played Illinois. The video screens, ribbon boards and sound system all were without power. Luckily, the game clock came back on right before kickoff, and the video boards resumed early in the first quarter. I hope Ohio State got a warranty with that $7 million upgrade.

LINCOLN, Neb. -- After Nebraska forced 10 three-and-outs and held Northwestern's offense in check last week, coach Bo Pelini made his defenders an offer.

It was an offer they could refuse. And they did. The Huskers turned down their coveted blackshirts.

"They didn't want them," Pelini said. "They didn't think they'd earned them yet. It shows the character of our kids and the type of standards that they have. They said they hadn't earned them, and [that] we'll revisit it after the Michigan game.

"I think they earned them."

Nebraska's defenders donned the blackshirts in a joyous locker room late Saturday night following a 23-9 win against Michigan. The Huskers earned them by keeping Michigan in check before Denard Robinson left the game with a right elbow injury, and they earned them by slamming the door on backup signal caller Russell Bellomy in the second half. Nebraska held Michigan to just 44 yards after Robinson's injury.

It received big performances from linebacker Sean Fisher (7 tackles, 2 TFLs), linebacker David Santos (10 tackles, 1 TFL), nickel back Ciante Evans (2 TFLs, 1 sack), safety Daimion Stafford (interception, tackle for loss), safety P.J. Smith (53-yard interception return) and many others.

The blackshirts, while meaningful, aren't Nebraska's garb of choice this fall. Five weeks from Saturday, they want to be donning Big Ten championship T-shirts at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

The Big Ten is a weak league that actually seemed to get weaker in Week 9, but some team is going to wear those shirts in Indiana. Some coach is going to hoist the championship trophy. Some group of players will celebrate on the field with roses in their mouths.

Why not Nebraska? Three weeks after getting pounded by Ohio State, the Huskers (6-2, 3-1) have steadied themselves and regained control in the Legends Division.

[+] EnlargeNebraska's David Santos
AP Photo/Nati HarnikDavid Santos and the Nebraska defense earned its blackshirts against Michigan.
"With the Big Ten standings, [Saturday's game] was kind of a must-have," Fisher said. "Not that it wasn't still possible to get to the Big Ten championship, but it was out of our control if we lost.

"We want to control our own future, and winning tonight took us one step closer to that."

After getting pummeled in Columbus, Pelini challenged his team to win out. A cross-division loss, as painful as it was, wouldn't hurt if Nebraska ran the table in the Legends Division. Following an off week, the Huskers rallied from 12 points down in the fourth quarter to beat Northwestern by a point last Saturday.

They never truly lost control against Michigan, keeping the Wolverines out of the end zone and capitalizing against Bellomy, a freshman who misfired on his first 11 pass attempts and had three interceptions. Pelini made a few defensive calls he didn't expect with Robinson out of the game, but Nebraska didn't change much schematically. It loaded up at the line and made Bellomy make throws he couldn't deliver.

"Obviously, you notice," Fisher said of Robinson's absence. "He's such a threat. I hope he's OK, I don't know what happened, and obviously, you don't want to see anybody get injured. But we weren't upset about it."

Robinson aggravated a nerve in his throwing elbow that he initially hurt Oct. 13 against Illinois. He only missed about a quarter against the Illini but didn't return Saturday, as he had trouble gripping the ball.

Coach Brady Hoke is optimistic the senior will return soon, possibly next week against Minnesota, and Michigan's hopes to challenge Nebraska in the division could hinge on it.

The Robinson injury was among several key developments in the Big Ten, a league no eligible team seems to want to win.

Wisconsin lost starting quarterback Joel Stave early in the third quarter of Saturday's overtime loss to Michigan State. Stave reportedly has a broken collarbone, which would cost him his season. A Badgers team that had regained its mojo after early-season struggles, now has a murky future on offense, as backup Danny O'Brien struggled mightily against Michigan State. Who could challenge the Badgers in the Leaders? How about Indiana, a team that has been in every game this season and finally got over the hump Saturday at Illinois.

Iowa has tumbled out of the race after consecutive blowout losses, while Northwestern, like Nebraska, has new life after a strong performance. Michigan State is in position to shape the race after the win in Madison, but with three league losses already, Mark Dantonio's squad must win out and get a lot of help to return to Indy.

Ohio State separated itself as the Big Ten's best team Saturday, but the Buckeyes won't be going to Indy because of NCAA sanctions. Neither will Penn State, a good team, but one that didn't measure up against Urban Meyer's squad.

The Big Ten has become the league of second chances. Michigan might get one. The Huskers certainly have theirs, and they don't intend to squander it.

"This is a big step for us," Pelini said. "I told the team, when you're winning, as the season goes on, the stakes get higher and higher every week."

Huskers players have embraced the urgency of the league race as they chase their first conference title since 1999. Claiming the tiebreakers against both Michigan and Northwestern could loom large in the coming weeks.

"In the end, it may be a big deal, but we have to make sure we take care of us the rest of the way, or none of that's going to matter," tight end Ben Cotton said. "We know we've got to stay in control."

To do so, Nebraska must win next week in East Lansing, where Michigan State already has lost three times, but returns with some confidence. Control has been fleeting in this league.

Don't tell Pelini about being in the driver's seat for Indianapolis.

"I don't buy into all that crap," he said.

His players didn't buy into the blackshirt offer, either. And in a few weeks, the Huskers might have the look of a champion.
Nebraska's official homecoming game takes place Sept. 29 against Wisconsin, but for Huskers quarterback Taylor Martinez and a group of his teammates, it really arrives Saturday.

Martinez has had Saturday's game at UCLA marked on his calendar since his senior year at Centennial High School in Corona, Calif. As soon as Martinez and his close friend and high school teammate, Ricky Marvray, finalized their college choices -- Martinez picked Nebraska, Marvray picked UCLA -- they looked at the schedule and saw Sept. 8, 2012: Nebraska at UCLA, Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
AP Photo/Dave WeaverTaylor Martinez is one of several Huskers looking forward to Nebraska's Week 2 game at UCLA.
"We've been looking forward to it ever since high school," Martinez told ESPN.com.

The wait ends Saturday afternoon in Pasadena, Calif., as Martinez and several other California natives return to home soil. Nebraska's roster includes eight Californians, including four -- Martinez, defensive end Cameron Meredith, wide receiver Quincy Enunwa and safety Daimion Stafford -- in starting roles.

As of Monday night, Meredith's cheering section had swelled to 216 people -- "That’s friends, family, teachers, coaches, everything," he explained. Although Nebraska made consecutive trips to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl in both 2009 and 2010, Meredith's entourage had more time to plan for Saturday's game.

"We're going to have a huge Nebraska section, just for us," said Meredith, a Huntington Beach, Calif., native. "You've got me, Taylor, Quincy, Eric [Martin], Josh Mitchell, there are going to be a lot of people for us alone. That will be pretty cool."

Because of its location in a sparsely populated state, Nebraska always has had to recruit nationally. Bo Pelini has put an emphasis on scouring California for talent since his return to Lincoln as the Huskers' head coach.

Pelini's first full recruiting class (2009) included six Californians, including Martinez and Martin. Nebraska has added seven California natives in the past three classes -- both high school players and junior college arrivals like Stafford. The Huskers' most talked-about recruit for the 2013 class, quarterback Johnny Stanton, hails from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.

"California's been a fairly productive area for us," Pelini said. "We've built some strong relationships there, had some really good success. ... We view this game as something that, the kids from California, their folks are going to have a chance to see them play. This provides that opportunity. And to showcase our program and what we do out there in the California area.

"We're looking forward to it."

Pelini is considering sending some of his assistants to local high school games Friday night to assist with 2013 recruiting. Meredith, one of three Californians to sign with Nebraska in 2008, two months after Pelini's hiring, isn't surprised by the Huskers' strategy.

"Texas, California and Florida, those are the high school football states," he said. "Nebraska has gone after some of those California prospects, especially since Bo’s been here. It's good for us because some really good athletes come out of there."

Both Martinez and Meredith drew interest from UCLA coming out of high school, and both have been on the Bruins sideline for games at the Rose Bowl. Martinez, who was recruited as a safety, admits he grew up a big Bruins fan and was initially disappointed when he didn't receive a scholarship offer from the team. Meredith attended junior day at UCLA and considered several Pac-12 schools in the recruiting process.

They both ended up in Nebraska -- about 1,500 miles and a world away from California.

"It's totally different from the West Coast," Martinez said. "Once you come out there, it's a culture shock. They do everything different. It's just a slower pace of life."

Meredith had grown accustomed to the varied landscape in California.

"You've got the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Laguna Beach to Big Sur to Death Valley," he said. "You've got so many different climates, it's amazing. I could surf and go up to the mountains and go snowboarding that same day."

There's not much surfing or snowboarding in pancake-flat Nebraska, but both Martinez and Meredith have warmed up to their new home -- even the weather.

"I love California, but I also love Nebraska," Martinez said. "I lived in California my whole life, and coming to Nebraska, actually living in snow and cold weather, that's kind of neat."

Added Meredith: "After meeting some friends here, going to their hometowns, hanging out in Lincoln for a little while, going up to Omaha, I’ve really adjusted to it. I'd consider living here."

This week's trip takes on added significance for the Huskers because they hope it's not their only one to Pasadena. After an impressive opening win against Southern Miss, in which Martinez set a career high for pass yards (354) and tied one for pass touchdowns (5), Nebraska is setting its sights on its first league title since 1999.

As a member of the Big Ten, Nebraska would, in all likelihood return to the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.

"Our goal is to win the Big Ten, and if you win the Big Ten, you wind up in the Rose Bowl," Meredith said. "It’s a famous stadium. Just imagine all the famous teams that played there in the past, and all the championship games that went on.

"There will be some motivation for us to get back there."
Nebraska's defensive players enter their first game week feeling good vibes.

"Our confidence is high," senior linebacker Will Compton told ESPN.com. "And I think it's only going to get higher as the days go on."

All offseason, the Cornhuskers have talked about having a better understanding of the scheme and principals on defense, of communicating better and working together more. That, they believe, will lead to a much stronger performance from the Blackshirts than the disappointing showing of 2011.

[+] EnlargeWill Compton
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesWill Compton is looking to help Nebraska's defense regain its swagger after struggling in 2011.
Nebraska's defense had better be ready. Because it doesn't get much time to ease into things.

The season begins Saturday against Southern Miss, a team that averaged nearly 37 points per game a year ago. Week 2 brings a road trip to UCLA, followed by a visit from Arkansas State, which is now coached by former Arkansas and Auburn offensive whiz Gus Malzahn. September ends with a showdown against Wisconsin, which hung 48 points on Nebraska last season in Madison.

"We are going to get challenged right out of the gate," Compton said.

The Huskers think they're up to the challenge more than last year's defense was. Despite leaving the generally more offensive-minded Big 12, Nebraska's defensive numbers took a major tumble. To wit:

2009: 272 yards allowed per game (seventh in the FBS); 10.4 points allowed per game (first)

2010: 306.8 ypg (11th); 17.4 ppg (ninth)

2011: 350.7 (37th); 23.4 ppg (42nd)

So what has changed? More knowledge and more attention to detail. Better depth up front on the defensive line. And more experience at safety, a crucial spot in Bo Pelini's scheme.

"It's a much more mature group," first-year defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "Guys like Daimion Stafford, Ciante Evans, Andrew Green were in their first year of playing last year. Another year in the system gives them a greater understanding of their roles.

"Right know, our knowledge of what we're asking our guys to do is at a greater level, and we're able to progress further along in our package than we were a year ago."

It is also a defense that, at least going into the season, lacks stars. Last year's team had Jared Crick, Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard as the defensive headliners. These Huskers don't have a single player who was a first- or second-team All-Big Ten performer on defense in 2011. But they don't expect to be a no-name defense for long.


"These guys will certainly be better well-known through their play this year," Papuchis said. "Daimion Stafford, Ciante Evans, Will Compton, Jason Ankrah -- these guys are on the cusp of being the names people identify with and recognize.

"But at the end of the day, I believe this is a very unselfish defensive unit. I don't believe that they're worried about individual recognition and who the stars are. They want to go out there as a group and play the best defense they can. I don't think anybody needs to be the star to do that."

Pelini called Compton the unquestioned leader of the defense this summer. Papuchis said leaders at other positions have emerged this month, including Stafford in the secondary and seniors Baker Steinkuhler and Cameron Meredith on the defensive line.

Leadership could be key early as Nebraska deals with some unknowns. Southern Miss has a new head coach in Ellis Johnson, a new starting quarterback and a new offensive coordinator in Steve Buckley, who spent the previous five years as a high school coach. Huskers coaches have prepared by watching all kinds of different film, including high school games, but they expect surprises.

"You're going to see some things that we haven't seen before, and we have to be ready to make adjustments on the fly," Pelini said Monday.


Compton has seen evidence of his team's ability to do just that in preseason practice. He said the defense has done a great job of getting off the field on third downs and readjusting if it does give up a third-down conversion. In doing that and communicating on the field, he said, the Blackshirts have "made a big jump."


Nebraska's defense is eager to show that last year was a blip and that this is another dominant unit. They'll get the chance to prove themselves in September.



"We need to take care of business our first couple of games," Compton said. "It's on us to do so. We need to make a statement early."

LINCOLN, Neb. -- They can't be called pop quizzes because they happen every day.

When safety P.J. Smith and his fellow Nebraska defensive backs enter their meeting room each day, they know exactly what's coming.

"This is the first time we've ever taken tests," Smith told ESPN.com. "Since the season ended, we had a test every week. And now, since [defensive backs coach Terry Joseph] is here, we have a test every single day we get in the meeting room."

Joseph's exams typically contain three questions, which require short written responses. The players have two minutes to complete their choices, which is 119 seconds longer than they have during games in the fall. The players with the lowest grades at week's end typically have to clean the secondary room.

"He tries to put pressure on us," Smith said.

Pressure is one word to describe the theme of Nebraska's offseason, particularly on the defensive side. Details is another. So is accountability.

[+] EnlargeWill Compton
Troy Babbitt/US PresswireWith star LB Lavonte David gone, Nebraska will look to Will Compton to make an impact at the position.
The team ended the 2011 season with a thud, falling 30-13 to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. A defense that had entered the fall with a star-studded lineup -- tackle Jared Crick, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard were the headliners -- finished 42nd nationally in points allowed and 37th in yards allowed, significant drops in both categories from the previous season (ninth in points allowed, 11th in yards allowed). The Huskers' D received some A-level performances from David and Dennard, but the overall unit, aside from a few exceptions, wasn't exceptional.

Nebraska didn't generate enough pressure (84th in sacks, 112th in tackles for loss) and didn't really have a hallmark.

"Generally, we didn't make a ton of busts a year ago," said defensive coordinator John Papuchis, who coached the defensive line in 2011. "But it's the small details within each defense that make the difference between being a good defense and a great defense. At times, we showed signs of being a very good defense. And at other times, we didn't live up to the standard we have set for ourselves.

"And I think what held us back more than anything came into those details."

Papuchis and the other defensive assistants have spent the offseason stressing concepts rather than pure memorization. The how and the why became more important than the what and the who.

They "went back to square one," even with older players, and worked on terminology as an entire unit. Crick and other Nebraska players talked before last season about the uniqueness of their defense, how the scheme would help set the Huskers apart in a new league.

"There's not one defense that’s comparable to ours," Crick said. "Very complex, and that's what makes it unique. As a defensive lineman, I have five responsibilities, where other defensive linemen, all they've got to do is shoot their gap. We want it that way."

And it is different, as Nebraska uses a two-gap system not employed by most college teams. But because of several reasons -- the coaches point mainly to attention to detail -- the Huskers didn't enjoy a major schematic advantage.

"Our defense is kind of like learning how to study math," Papuchis said. "If you don't have a foundation, everything else after that won't make sense."

One issue Papuchis noticed with Nebraska's youngish secondary in 2011 was alignment. Players knew their responsibilities, but they would line up inside when they needed to be outside, or vice versa.

"What doesn't seem like a big deal, six inches one way or the other, makes all the difference in the world if they convert third-and-6," he said.

It's why Joseph tests them every day. Mistakes happen, Smith said, but Joseph wants the DBs to "make a new mistake. Don't make the same mistake."

Nebraska should have a more seasoned secondary in 2012, and Papuchis has been pleased this spring with Daimion Stafford, Ciante Evans, Andrew Green and Antonio Bell, among others. Linebacker Will Compton said the secondary is receiving extra attention this spring from both Papuchis and head coach Bo Pelini.

"We're getting back to some of the multiplicity we've had in the past," Pelini said. "I'm excited. I think we have a chance to be pretty good on defense."

There are different challenges for the other two groups on defense. The linebackers begin life without David, one of the nation's most productive defenders the past two seasons. Compton will lead the group, but depth is still a concern and will be for the next few years.

"We'll have guys very capable," Compton said. "It's about being a successful Will linebacker, not about being the next Lavonte David."

Nebraska has good depth at defensive end with Cameron Meredith, Jason Ankrah, Eric Martin and Joe Carter. And while the scheme stresses the need to prevent offensive linemen from reaching the second level, pass rushers could be turned loose more as Nebraska tries to generate more pressure.

New line coach Rick Kaczenski has brought an attacking style.

"Last year, we were a little bit passive," Meredith said. "Now offensive linemen at practice are telling us, 'You guys attack a lot more.'"

The linemen also are stressing accountability. If anyone is late for a meeting or another activity, the whole group runs or does Turkish get-ups.

"Everybody had a sour taste in how we finished up the season," Pelini said. "I said, 'Either you can talk about it or do something about it.' I think everybody around here has taken the attitude to raise their level of accountability.

"To get over the top, we've got to have a little bit more attention to detail, raise our standards that much more, raise our accountability that much more."
The postseason position rankings are hitting the home stretch, and today we take a look at the Big Ten secondaries. It's a little tricky to evaluate secondary play from 2011. While seven Big Ten teams ranked in the top 18 nationally in pass defense, only two squads ranked in the top 29 in pass efficiency defense.

Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was the lone Big Ten defensive back to appear on both the coaches' and media's first-team all-conference squad, so there was some disagreement.

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Lewis
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioIsaiah Lewis' interception against Michigan helped the Spartans beat their in-state rival and propel Michigan State's secondary to elite status in the Big Ten.
The top seven units are solid, while the bottom three are among the worst in the FBS.

Michigan State once again tops a defensive chart, but the top four or five squads here were all strong in the secondary. Be sure and check out our preseason secondary rankings.

Let's get to the rundown:

1. Michigan State: The Spartans had three of four starting defensive backs — safety Trenton Robinson, cornerback Johnny Adams and safety Isaiah Lewis — selected first-team or second-team All-Big Ten, illustrating the depth coach Mark Dantonio has built in recent years. Michigan State's secondary also continued to be a playmaking unit, recording a league-best 18 interceptions, returning four for touchdowns. The Spartans had five defensive backs record two or more interceptions. Adams will enter the 2012 season pegged as the league's top cornerback.

2. Penn State: Like the other defensive units, Penn State's secondary shouldered a heavy burden because the team's offense struggled for so much of the season. The Lions had veteran leadership with D'Anton Lynn, Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino, and they led the Big Ten and ranked sixth nationally in pass efficiency defense (107.2 rating). Penn State finished third in the league in interceptions (14) and tied with Michigan for the fewest passing touchdowns allowed (12). Sukay earned second-team All-Big Ten honors.

3. Illinois: Although Illinois' strength on defense could be found in the front seven, the secondary held its own as well. The Illini ranked third nationally in pass defense (162.3 ypg), and opposing teams completed just 54.9 percent of their passes against the Orange and Blue. Illinois finished 30th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Although the safety play looked spotty at times, Illinois boasted a strong cornerback tandem in Terry Hawthorne and Tavon Wilson.

4. Michigan: Arguably no single position group in the Big Ten made more dramatic strides than Michigan's secondary, a lightning rod for criticism the previous three seasons. The Wolverines finished 16th nationally in pass defense and 36th in pass efficiency defense. Although they didn't record many interceptions, they tied for the league low in passing touchdowns allowed (12). Safety Jordan Kovacs emerged as an effective blitzer and playmaker and cornerback J.T. Floyd blossomed with two interceptions, eight pass breakups and a forced fumble. Corner Blake Countess is an exciting young talent.

5. Nebraska: The Huskers had the Big Ten's best defensive back in Dennard, who shut down arguably the league's top two receivers (Marvin McNutt, B.J. Cunningham) in Nebraska victories. But the group's overall performance was a bit underwhelming, as opposing teams attacked the deep middle and caused some personnel shuffling. Opposing teams completed just 53.2 percent of their passes against Nebraska, the lowest number in the Big Ten. Hard-hitting safety Daimion Stafford emerged for a group that loses Dennard and veteran safety Austin Cassidy.

6. Wisconsin: For the second straight season Wisconsin displayed good playmaking ability in the secondary, finishing second in the Big Ten with 16 interceptions. Safety Aaron Henry (coaches) and cornerback Antonio Fenelus (media) both received first-team All-Big Ten recognition. The Badgers also played most of the season without one of their starting cornerbacks, Devin Smith. But the unit also had some high-profile lapses at the end of games. Speed also became an issue in the Big Ten title game against Michigan State and in the Rose Bowl against Oregon.

7. Ohio State: The numbers aren't bad -- Ohio State ranked 14th in pass defense and 53rd in pass efficiency defense -- but the Buckeyes seemed to be missing something in the secondary, and throughout their entire defense, for that matter. There were some bright spots, like freshman cornerback Bradley Roby, and some hard hits delivered by safety C.J. Barnett and others. But Ohio State finished just eighth in the league (53rd nationally) in pass efficiency defense, as opposing teams completed more than 60 percent of their pass attempts against the Scarlet and Gray.

8. Purdue: We had high hopes for a group that returned all four starters, headlined by All-Big Ten candidate Ricardo Allen at cornerback. At times, Purdue's secondary looked solid, but the unit's overall performance fell in line with the team's average theme for 2011. Allen struggled to contain some elite wideouts but still finished the season with 81 tackles (62 solo), three interceptions, four pass breakups, a blocked kick and a forced fumble. He and Josh Johnson form an exciting cornerback tandem entering the 2012 campaign.

9. Iowa: Much like Ohio State, Iowa didn't have a typical season on defense, and the secondary had its share of struggles. Iowa had average numbers (58th in pass yards allowed, 72nd in efficiency), and allowed opposing teams to complete 62 percent of their passes. The Hawkeyes saw a big drop-off in playmaking, as they recorded only 10 interceptions and allowed 21 touchdown passes. Safety Micah Hyde earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the media, while cornerback Shaun Prater didn't have the huge senior season some expected.

10. Northwestern: The Wildcats would finish last in some leagues, but they're the best of a bad bunch at the bottom of the rankings. Despite an All-Big Ten safety (Brian Peters) and a four-year starter at cornerback (Jordan Mabin), Northwestern suffered breakdowns in both scheme and execution. The Wildcats endured a particularly bad stretch to begin Big Ten play, as they couldn't stop Illinois receiver A.J. Jenkins, admittedly got confused against Iowa and let Penn State quarterback Matthew McGloin go off. The secondary has to be a huge priority for Pat Fitzgerald and his staff during the offseason.

11. Minnesota: It's a close call for the last spot, but Minnesota avoids the basement, thanks in large part to safety Kim Royston, who made the most of his sixth season with a team-high 123 tackles. But Royston was the lone bright spot for Minnesota's secondary, which stung from the loss of cornerback Troy Stoudermire to a broken arm. The Gophers recorded the fewest interceptions in the Big Ten (4), and allowed opponents to complete 67.7 percent of their passes, the highest total in the league. Minnesota finished 107th nationally in pass efficiency defense.

12. Indiana: The Hoosiers' historic struggles in the secondary continued in 2011, as they surrendered a league-high 26 passing touchdowns and finished 116th out of 120 FBS teams in pass efficiency defense. Opponents averaged 8.5 yards per completion against an Indiana team that played more freshmen than any squad in the FBS. There's some hope with players like safety-linebacker Mark Murphy and cornerback Greg Heban, and Indiana brings in two junior college defensive backs for 2012.
Big Ten fans heard a lot about Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard this summer. Adam and I ranked him No. 13 in our league player rankings, and Dennard made several preseason awards watch lists.

But those who hadn't previously watched the senior play might have spent much of this season wondering what the big deal was. Dennard missed the first three games with a quadriceps injury he suffered in August practice, and even after returning he didn't make a huge impact. Meanwhile, the entire Cornhuskers defense struggled to stop teams like Washington and Wisconsin.

[+] EnlargeAlfonzo Dennard
AP Photo/Paul BattagliaAlfonzo Dennard has slowly returned to form and enjoyed a breakout game last week against Michigan State.
The truth is, Dennard wasn't really himself for the first few games after he came back this season.

"Every single time I went out there, I was thinking about my quad," he told ESPN.com this week. "I wasn't even focused on my plays and stuff like that, because I was scared of being injured again."

Dennard said he didn't begin to start feeling truly healthy again until the Oct. 8 Ohio State game. Even then, he felt rusty with his technique and timing, thinking too much instead of just reacting. That changed last week.

"In the Michigan State game, I felt like I kind of picked up where I left off last year," he said.

And fans finally got to see what the fuss was about. Nebraska matched up Dennard most of the day with B.J. Cunningham, the Spartans' all-time leading receiver and one of the best wideouts in the league. Cunningham didn't record a single catch for the first time in 41 games. Not so coincidentally, the Huskers had their finest overall defensive performance of the season in a 24-3 win.

It's far too simplistic to say that Dennard is the only reason that the Blackshirts are back. But he is a big reason.

"When you know you've got a guy that's better, who can shut a guy down, that almost eliminates someone else from the equation," safety Austin Cassidy said. "Then maybe we can use a safety in on the run, or maybe we can focus on another wide receiver. If he takes care of his responsibility, that means we can give somebody else some help who might need it more."

Dennard didn't get it all done by himself last week. He had safety help on just about every deep try to Cunningham, often from the rapidly improving Daimion Stafford.

"That's a big deal," Dennard said. "When you don't have safety help, you can be kind of hesitant out there. But when you have help over the top, you can be as aggressive as you want."

The 5-foot-10, 205-pound corner likes to be aggressive. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said Cunningham has been great all year in going and getting jump balls, but he couldn't outwrestle Dennard for any. Dennard hasn't picked up an interception yet this season but has been close several times.

"He's been rounding into form the last couple weeks," head coach Bo Pelini said. "He's feeling good, feeling healthy. I wouldn't trade him for any corner in the country, so he means a lot to our defense."

Dennard will be challenged this week against Northwestern, which leads the league in passing offense (288 yards per game) during Big Ten play. He'll likely cover Wildcats star receiver Jeremy Ebert, and Dan Persa is the kind of mobile quarterback who has given the Huskers fits this season.

"They remind us a lot of the teams in the Big 12, so that's what we're used to," Dennard said. "But it's not going to be easy."

Little has come easy for Dennard most of this season. But he's back to the form that caused so many high preseason expectations. And the Blackshirts just might be, too.

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