NCF Nation: Darius Willis

We're moving on with our postseason position rankings. Today, it's time for linebackers. If you missed it, here's how I ranked them in the preseason.

At this position, depth is a major factor in these rankings. Additionally, I included nickelbacks in this grouping. Hybrid defensive end/linebackers will be grouped with defensive lines.

[+] EnlargeJake Knott
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireIowa State linebackers Jake Knott, 20, and A.J. Klein combined for 231 tackles in 2011.
More postseason position rankings: 1. Iowa State: The Cyclones top the list after a huge year from their outstanding duo, Jake Knott and A.J. Klein. They combined for 231 tackles in 2011, both finishing among the top four in the Big 12 in tackles. They had 241 together in 2010, but this season Knott played through injuries and Klein was awarded co-Defensive Player of the Year honors from the league's coaches.

2. Texas: The Longhorns will sorely miss an outstanding duo of their own with tons of experience. Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho are both NFL-bound after combining for 215 tackles.

3. Oklahoma: The Sooners weren't quite as good as expected in 2011, but part of that was because of a Travis Lewis preseason toe injury that slowed him for much of the season. Lewis, Tony Jefferson and Tom Wort all topped 70 tackles in 2011, and are a solid group.

4. Kansas State: Arthur Brown reinvigorated this group, finishing eighth in the Big 12 with 101 tackles, but the Wildcats linebackers were more than just Brown. Tre Walker and converted safety Emmanuel Lamur combined for 135 stops and helped lead one of the league's most underrated units and a much-improved run defense.

5. Texas A&M: The Aggies' backers were big pass-rushers, though they struggled in coverage this season. Sean Porter was the Big 12's sack champion with 9.5, and Caleb Russell and Jonathan Stewart combined for six more. Damontre Moore is the rawest talent of the bunch, but built on that in 2011, making 72 tackles.

6. Oklahoma State: OSU's group was good, but not great. Alex Elkins' crazy story came to an end with 90 stops in 2011. He showed up everywhere for the Cowboys, but reigning Big 12 Freshman of the Year Shaun Lewis didn't quite have the sophomore season some had hoped. Caleb Lavey added some solid play for the turnover-hungry unit, producing 74 tackles and five tackles for loss.

7. Missouri: Zaviar Gooden wasn't quite the impact player Mizzou had hoped, but he was solid alongside a group that's been injury prone over the past two years. Sophomore Andrew Wilson emerged as the team's top tackler with 98 stops, and Luke Lambert added 82 more. A high ankle sprain in the season opener kept Will Ebner off the field, but he'll be back in 2012 after the NCAA granted him a fifth year of eligibility.

8. Kansas: Steven Johnson led the Big 12 with 119 tackles, but the rest of the unit left a lot to be desired. Darius Willis has some potential, but the rest of the team's linebackers have their work cut out for them in 2012. Tunde Bakare also returns from a unit that ranked ninth in the Big 12 in rushing defense.

9. Baylor: The Bears needed help just about everywhere. Elliot Coffey was solid, and finished tied for fourth with 114 stops, but Baylor was eighth in the Big 12 in rush defense. Baylor has solid athlete in the secondary and on the defensive line, but at linebacker, Rodney Chadwick and Brody Trahan leave a bit to be desired. Ahmad Dixon was better in 2011, but still has a lot of potential that needs to be filled.

10. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders are looking for a new defensive coordinator and the 4-2-5 made a short stop in Lubbock. The Red Raiders were awful everywhere on defense, but especially up front. Nobody in college football was worse at stopping the run, and D.J. Johnson, Daniel Cobb and Cqulin Hubert turned in forgettable performances. Time to get better for 2012.
The Darius Willis story has officially gone from sad to bizarre.

Willis, if you recall, is an Indiana running back sidelined by knee problems since early last season. Coach Kevin Wilson said last week that Willis' football career might be over, a position the coach reiterated Tuesday.

Here's where it gets weird.

During Indiana's loss to North Texas last Saturday night, Willis was participating in a pro wrestling event in Bloomington. The Indiana Daily Student reports Willis was summoned to the ring, where he helped pro wrestler PJB "take down his opponent with a flying shoulder tackle."

Oh yeah, there's video.

Well, at least we know Willis' shoulder is OK.
"I've just always wanted to be around it, wanted to come watch it," Willis said Saturday after the match. "It was just something I wanted. I always watched wrestling and just wanted to go out and give it a try and see how it is."

Here's the problem for Willis: Wilson didn't know the running back planned to enter the wrestling ring.

Wilson told reporters Wednesday that Willis remains on scholarship with the team and that they're applying for Willis to be declared a medical hardship, which would end his career.
As for whether an amateur college athlete entering a professional wrestling event is against NCAA eligibility requirements, Wilson slightly shrugged his shoulders. He stepped away from the circle of media crowded around him, as he said, "I don't know."

The Daily Student reports Willis plans to wrestle again in November.

Maybe he'll go by Darius the Destroyer.

I have no more words.
Running back Darius Willis came to Indiana with tremendous promise and showed snippets of his tremendous talent in 2009.

But Willis never has been able to stay on the field. Hamstring and ankle issues limited him during his first three years at IU, and after appearing in the first four games last fall, Willis suffered a patellar tendon injury and underwent season-ending surgery.

Willis has yet to play this fall, and the knee problems have put his career in jeopardy.

Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson told reporters Wednesday that Willis reaggravated his knee injury, which could be career ending. The Indiana Daily Student reported Wednesday that Willis is out for the season, and while Wilson didn't confirm the report, things don't look good.
"It could be the end of his career," Wilson said. "It’s a recurring deal. He's far enough along. That's just for the doctors and his family to decide."

It's a tough situation for a player who has had no luck on the injury front. Willis looked like Indiana's featured back of the future in 2009, when he rushed for 607 yards.

Wilson said Willis could apply for a medical hardship waiver, which would keep him on scholarship even though he won't play.
We've taken a look at the Big 12 offensive skill positions in our position rankings, and we'll circle back along to the lines eventually. For now, though, we'll flip to the defensive side of the ball, starting with linebackers.

There's a lot of turnover in this space, and the bottom half was pretty hard to sort out. We haven't seen a lot of these new faces on the field for extended periods of time, so it's somewhat of a crapshoot. I don't feel like there's a wide gap between teams 7-10, and each of those squads have at least one linebacker who could be due for a huge year and shoot them up this list.

I see Nos. 1-3 possibly being great, with dropoffs before the No. 4 and No. 7 teams.

Also, if you missed them, here are the other position rankings we've done so far.
So, without further ado, here's how I ranked the linebackers. (Nickel backs are included in this list, hybrid DE/LBs will be with defensive lines)

[+] EnlargeTravis Lewis
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireOklahoma's Travis Lewis is the Big 12's top returning defender.
1. Oklahoma -- The Sooners boast the Big 12's top returning defender in Travis Lewis, who has notched at least 100 tackles in each of the past three seasons, and he'll be joined by the Big 12's co-Defensive Freshman of the Year, Tony Jefferson. Tom Wort and Corey Nelson are both loaded with potential, and will fill out the rotation, after the starter at middle linebacker, Austin Box, died on May 19.

2. Iowa State -- The Cyclones boast two of the Big 12's best in Jake Knott and A.J. Klein, who combined for more tackles than any two teammates in the Big 12 last season. They had 241 stops, and, after healing from a broken leg suffered midseason last year, Matt Tau'fo'ou should join them at middle linebacker.

3. Texas -- Texas' offense may be lacking, but the defense will be strong once again, led by two others likely to earn spots as some of the Big 12's best. Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho were Texas' top two tacklers last year with 187 stops, and return as likely captains come fall camp. Texas' depth chart is wide open, but look for former blue-chip recruit Jordan Hicks to emerge as another star this year, despite being forced to sit out spring camp with a broken foot. Dravannti Johnson played some defensive end last year at the Buck position for the Longhorns, but may find his way back to linebacker. Tevin Jackson was ineligible last year, but he's ready for 2011, and could make an impact.

4. Oklahoma State -- The Cowboys "Star" linebacker is occupied by co-Defensive Freshman of the Year Shaun Lewis, and sophomore Caleb Lavey is charged with replacing Orie Lemon, the leader of last year's defense. Oklahoma State has questions on the weak side, but LeRon Furr and Chris Dinkins will compete next fall. Kris Catlin could be a factor, too.

5. Texas A&M -- The Aggies must replace their leading tackler, Michael Hodges, and don't have a clear replacement heading into fall camp. The good news: They've got two others with lots of experience in the linebacking corps that look like budding stars. Garrick Williams should be one of the defense's leaders and Sean Porter returns after making 74 tackles last year to rank third on the team.

6. Missouri -- The Tigers have lots of experience at middle linebacker, where a pair of seniors (albeit frequently injured seniors) Will Ebner and Luke Lambert will be on the field a lot. One of the Big 12's most exciting players, junior Zaviar Gooden, will hold down the weakside and perhaps become a household name by season's end. Sophomores Andrew Wilson and Donovan Bonner, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, will likely compete for strongside duties in fall camp. Andrew Gachkar, the team's leading tackler, is gone, but here's guessing Gooden emerges as the defense's top playmaker.

7. Kansas -- The Jayhawks linebackers were solid last year, and could be pretty good again, despite losing Drew Dudley and Justin Springer, two of the team's top four tacklers. Steven Johnson, the team's leading tackler in 2010, is back and he'll be joined by possible star Huldon Tharp, who missed all of last season with a leg injury. Fellow sophomore Darius Willis earned a starting role after spring.

8. Kansas State -- K-State's front seven struggled last year, but will get a big boost from Arthur Brown. One man won't be enough to totally fix the Wildcats rush defense problems, though. K-State gave up 26 more yards on the ground per game than any other team in the Big 12 (more than 231 per game) but Brown may be playing in a 4-3 next fall rather than the 4-2-5 the Wildcats have employed since Snyder's return. Alex Hrebec, Emmanuel Lamur, Tre Walker and Blake Slaughter will likely fill the rotation along with Brown.

9. Baylor -- Baylor's defensive depth chart, like Texas', is a bit amorphous after bringing in a new coordinator, but Elliot Coffey figures to be the Bears biggest playmaker at linebacker. Chris McAllister should be solid and Ahmad Dixon is promising at nickelback, too. Brody Trahan is a great story, but him going from third-string quarterback to starting linebacker isn't a ringing endorsement for Baylor's depth at the position.

10. Texas Tech -- Tech will be moving to a 4-2-5 this year under new coordinator Chad Glasgow, and could rise up this list, but the Red Raiders lose a lot of talent from last season's team, which ran the 3-4. Bront Bird and Brian Duncan are both gone, and youth will be a big factor with this group. Cqulin Hubert's outstanding potential is matched by his more outstanding first name, and freshman Blake Dees showed promise after arriving early this spring. They'll likely be the rotation at middle linebacker spot alongside Daniel Cobb and Zach Winbush. Terrance Bullitt could be a playmaker at his new safety spot, listed as a strong safety but with plans to spend lots of time near the line of scrimmage, a la nickelback.
Beginning today, we're going to start ranking each position group in the Big Ten. These rankings will reflect the overall strength at each position, so depth matters as well as individual star power. Following each group ranking, we'll also give out our list of the top individual players at that position.

Let's start out with a look at the running back groups across the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball and James White
AP Photo/Morry GashMontee Ball and James White did a lot of celebrating last season, as the duo combined for 32 TDs.
1. Wisconsin: No surprise at the top. Even with John Clay gone and Zach Brown transferring, the Badgers are loaded at tailback. They've still got junior Montee Ball, who finished four yards shy of 1,000 last season with 18 touchdowns, along with reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year James White, who ran for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns. Throw in senior fullback Bradie Ewing and redshirt freshman Jeff Lewis, and the Badgers should be powerful on the ground yet again in 2011.

2. Michigan State: Other than Wisconsin, the Spartans have the best collection of experience and talent in the backfield. First-team All-Big Ten performer Edwin Baker ran for 1,201 yards and 13 scores last year. Le'Veon Bell, a 237-pound bruiser, complemented him as a true freshman with 605 yards and eight scores. Larry Caper is a capable veteran, and fifth-year senior Todd Anderson starts at fullback. The Spartans are deep and versatile in their rushing attack.

3. Ohio State: The Buckeyes might have earned a higher ranking if Dan Herron were eligible to play a full season. But with Herron (1,155 yards and 16 scores in '10) suspended for the first five games, Ohio State will need some youngsters to fill his shoes. The good news is that there are plenty of talented candidates. Jaamal Berry is the leading returning rusher outside of Herron, and he averaged 8.3 yards per carry in a limited role last season. Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde will also battle for more playing time, while redshirt freshman Rod Smith could emerge as the No. 1 tailback after an impressive offseason. Zach Boren is back at fullback. Things may be in flux in Columbus, but you can almost always count on a good running game from the Buckeyes.

[+] EnlargeNebraska's Rex Burkhead
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesJunior Rex Burkhead averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season and scored seven TDs.
4. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers led the Big 12 in rushing last season with 247.6 yards per game on the ground, good for ninth in the FBS. Leading rusher Roy Helu Jr. is gone, but junior Rex Burkhead returns after a 951-yard campaign. He will occasionally line up at receiver or take snaps in the Wildcat. The Cornhuskers lack experience behind him but are expecting big contributions from incoming freshmen Aaron Green and Amer Abdullah. ESPN Recruiting ranked Green as the No. 11 player overall in the Class of 2011.

5. Penn State: Yes, the school's all-time leading rusher has moved on, as Evan Royster graduated. But the Nittany Lions still feel confident about their running game, which should be led by sophomore Silas Redd. He ran for 461 yards and 5.7 yards per carry as a true freshman, showing a physical style. Senior Stephfon Green will be asked to take on a larger role, and Brandon Beachum is back after missing last season with a knee injury. Joe Suhey and Michael Zordich are productive players at the fullback spot.

6. Purdue: The Boilermakers' stock in this chart could go up if Ralph Bolden successfully returns from injury. So far, so good for Bolden, who was a second-team All-Big Ten performer in 2009. Rob Henry led the team in rushing last year with 547 yards, but fullback Dan Dierking graduated. Junior college transfer Akeem Shavers got a lot of carries this spring and should contribute, and Reggie Pegram also is in the mix.

7. Iowa: Running back depth is a serious issue for Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes. Adam Robinson, who would have been the leading returning running back in the Big Ten in terms of yards per game, was dismissed from the team following a December arrest. Marcus Coker could emerge as a superstar, however, after starting four of Iowa's final five games as a true freshman. He was the offensive MVP of the Insight Bowl with 219 rushing yards on 33 carries and has drawn comparisons to former Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene. There's virtually no proven experience behind him, though, and three-year starting fullback Brett Morse is no longer around.

8. Michigan: If only we could count Denard Robinson as a running back. Brady Hoke plans to cut down on Shoelace's carries, which means the Wolverines' tailbacks will get more of a chance to shine. The question is who will step up. Senior Michael Shaw and junior Vincent Smith split time as starters last season, while Stephen Hopkins and Michael Cox are in the mix for more carries. Can celebrated recruit Justice Hayes contribute right away?

9. Illinois: Mikel Leshoure's dash to the NFL left the Illini with uncertainty at running back. Senior Jason Ford, the most likely successor, sat out much of spring ball with a hurt knee, while Troy Pollard's promising spring was cut short by a concussion. Incoming freshman Donovonn Young will get a look this fall.

10. Northwestern: Like Nebraska and Michigan, Northwestern relied on its quarterback -- in this case Dan Persa-- for a heavy chunk of the rushing yards. Mike Trumpy came on late in the year as a freshman and solidified his starting spot with a strong spring. Sophomore Adonis Smith, senior Jacob Schmidt and junior Tyris Jones will fight for carries behind him.

11. Minnesota: There was healthy competition at tailback this spring with a mixture of veterans and fresh faces. DeLeon Eskridge led the team last year with 698 rushing yards, while Duane Bennett added 529. They're being pushed by redshirt freshmen Donnell Kirkwood and Lamonte Edwards. New coach Jerry Kill will look to improve on the Gophers' paltry 3.6 yards per carry average last season. This is a group that could make a major move up the rankings.

12. Indiana: New Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson has a challenge in figuring out this group. Three of the top candidates for the starting tailback job, Darius Willis, Antonio Banks and Xavier Whitaker, all suffered season-ending knee injuries in 2010 and missed spring practice. IU's leading rusher last season finished with just 352 yards. Nick Turner and Matt Perez got the bulk of the reps in the spring. Perhaps Wilson's high-tempo offense will improve the stats for Indiana ball carriers.
Apologies for posting this late, but Indiana junior running back Darius Willis has been suspended one game for conduct detrimental to the team.

Indiana didn't specify which game Willis will miss, although it likely will be the opener Sept. 3 against Ball State. The team had no additional comment on the suspension.

Willis had a protective order filed against him in March stemming from allegations of domestic violence from an Indiana female student. No charges were filed against Willis and the protective order remains in place until Aug. 25.

Willis is one of several Hoosiers running backs limited by injuries during spring practice, which concluded Tuesday. The team's leading rusher in 2009, Willis played the first half of the 2010 season before undergoing season-ending surgery to repair his patellar tendon.
If you enjoy points and passing offense, you'll like watching the Indiana Hoosiers in 2010.

Indiana swept its cushy nonconference slate with another high-scoring shootout win, rallying in the second half to beat Arkansas State 36-34 in Bloomington. Bill Lynch's squad now only needs two Big Ten wins to become bowl eligible.

Where would Indiana be without Ben Chappell? The senior quarterback rebounded from a rough day at Ohio State to pass for 382 yards and four touchdowns today.

He got a ton of help from talented receivers Damarlo Belcher and Tandon Doss, both of whom eclipsed 100 receiving yards. And perhaps the most encouraging sign for Indiana's offense was the play of running back Trea Burgess, who rushed for 96 yards on 19 carries in place of the injured Darius Willis. The big question is whether Burgess can be the answer against Big Ten defenses, and he faces a good one next week at Illinois.

Speaking of defense, Indiana's still worries me. Aside from two first-half interceptions, Arkansas State quarterback Ryan Aplin threw the ball very well (33-for-44, 275 pass yards) against the Hoosiers. IU stopped the run well, but it's still too easy for teams to pass against its secondary.

I really think Indiana needs to win one of its next two contests, at Illinois and against Northwestern in Bloomington, to get to six wins. It likely needs to play a lot better on defense to do so.

We'll learn a lot about the Hoosiers before the end of the
If Indiana plans to make its second bowl in four years, it had better take care of business in the second half against Arkansas State.

The Hoosiers trailed the Red Wolves 14-12 at halftime, and the deficit would have been worse if not for an impressive 80-yard scoring drive at the end of the second quarter. After a slow start, IU quarterback Ben Chappell is picking up his play, completing 16 of 26 passes for 208 yards and a score.

Arkansas State's Ryan Aplin is the latest quarterback to take aim on Indiana's secondary. Aplin has completed 17 of 24 passes, but twice was picked off in the first half. The Red Wolves easily could have been up more than two points.

Some good news for Indiana as Trea Burgess has 44 rushing yards on eight carries. Indiana needs to spark his rushing attack in the wake of Darius Willis' season-ending injury.
The first set of Big Ten games are in the books, and here are my quick thoughts:

Illinois 33, Penn State 13: Wow. I'll admit I didn't have the guts to pick Illinois today, even though I thought the Illini were capable of knocking off Penn State in Happy Valley for the first time in team history. But few could see something like this going down in JoePa's town. Illinois is undoubtedly better than we thought entering the season, and Penn State is undoubtedly worse. Ron Zook's team executed extremely well on both sides of the ball and overcame two special-teams turnovers that Penn State couldn't convert into touchdowns. Freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase picked apart a banged-up Nittany Lions defense, completing 15 of 19 passes for 151 yards and a score, and running back Mikel Leshoure continued his strong season with 119 rush yards. Penn State had too many injuries on defense to overcome, but the offense continues to be a total mess for Joe Paterno. Freshman Rob Bolden seems to be regressing, and an underachieving offensive line couldn't generate any room for the running backs. I worried that Penn State had a leadership issue entering the season, and it's showing up. The Lions are a rudder-less ship right now.

Wisconsin 41, Minnesota 23: The Badgers needed a strong response after a poor performance in East Lansing, and aside from the second quarter, they delivered it. Wisconsin produced a complete offensive performance as Scott Tolzien displayed tremendous accuracy in the pocket (17-of-23), tight end Lance Kendricks continued to look like the John Mackey Award winner and running backs John Clay and James White both eclipsed 100 rushing yards. There's no reason the Badgers can't be dominant on offense all the time, and they have to feel better about themselves heading into next week's showdown with No. 2 Ohio State. Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber threw three touchdown passes in his final chance to hoist Paul Bunyan's Axe, but he got little help from a defense that surrendered 30 first downs and 473 total yards. The run game never got going after showing a spark last week against Northwestern. It'll be a long bus ride home for Tim Brewster's crew, and at 1-5, the final six weeks of the season could resemble a slow death march.

Ohio State 38, Indiana 10: Jim Tressel called off the dogs and Indiana scored a garbage-time touchdown, but make no mistake: This was an extremely impressive performance for a Buckeyes team needing style points after last week. While Ohio State's 24-13 win against Illinois looks a lot better today after what the Illini did in Happy Valley, the Buckeyes helped themselves by torching Ben Chappell and Indiana. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor dissected the Hoosiers' secondary, tossing touchdown passes to Dane Sanzenbacher, DeVier Posey and Brandon Saine, who looks more and more like a weapon at receiver instead of running back. Ohio State ran the ball decently, but it didn't need to with all of the holes in IU's pass defense. Indiana couldn't afford turnovers and Chappell had two of them, as Buckeyes linebackers Ross Homan and Brian Rolle teamed up on an interception. The Hoosiers missed running back Darius Willis (groin) and became one-dimensional, but their problems on defense didn't give them a chance.
The first Big Ten night game is in the books, and here are some quick thoughts:

Indiana 35, Akron 20: We won't get a true gauge on Indiana until Michigan visits Bloomington next week, but this much is clear: quarterback Ben Chappell and his receivers/tight ends are playing at an extremely high level. Chappell turned in another tremendous performance against Akron, completing 22 of 33 passes for 342 yards and four touchdowns. He got plenty of help from Terrance Turner (6 catches, 121 yards, 1 TD) and the other receivers, as well as tight ends Ted Bolser and Max Dedmond, who combined for three touchdown receptions.

Indiana also did a better job of establishing Darius Willis and the rushing attack in the second half. I'm still very concerned about a Hoosiers defense that surrendered 20 points and 160 rushing yards. IU missed senior linebacker Tyler Replogle (concussion), who might be back next week, but the Hoosiers have to tighten things up against Denard Robinson and the Wolverines' offense.
In a day filled with big performances, Indiana quarterback Ben Chappell is poised to deliver another one.

Chappell has already thrown four touchdown passes as Indiana leads Akron 28-13 at halftime. The senior signal caller continues to look for his tight ends, finding Ted Bolser for two touchdowns and Max Dedmond for another. Hoosiers wideout Terrance Turner also is having a huge night with six receptions for 116 yards and a touchdown. Indiana's receiving corps is simply superb, and it will test Michigan's shaky secondary next week.

Chappell has completed 15 of 19 passes for 212 yards in the opening half. He needs to do this against better defenses, but so far, he has been fantastic.

Indiana's defense still concerns me, and Michigan could put up huge numbers next week. The Hoosiers also need to get their rushing attack going in the second half. Darius Willis has only 32 yards on nine carries. Not good enough.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 4

September, 23, 2010
The Big Ten slate is a major snoozer this week, but there always are some intriguing story lines when league teams take the field.

Here are 10 of them.

1. Running back roulette: The Evan Royster situation at Penn State will continue to be a major issue until No. 22 starts looking like the running back we saw in each of the last two seasons. Stephfon Green seems to be gaining on Royster, although Penn State guard Stefen Wisniewski tells me Royster doesn't have to worry about his starting job. It'll be interesting to see how the run game fares against unbeaten Temple.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
AP Photo/Al GoldisThe Spartans will be without coach Mark Dantonio when they take the field Saturday.
2. Missing their Mark: Michigan State will play its first game without head coach Mark Dantonio, who has returned home from the hospital after suffering a minor heart attack and undergoing surgery Sunday. Offensive coordinator Don Treadwell handles the head-coaching duties Saturday against Northern Colorado. Treadwell still will call the offensive plays, but he'll be on the field rather than in the coaches' booth. It'll be interesting to see how the Spartans handle the emotions and unfamiliarity of not having Dantonio leading them.

3. Must win for Minnesota: It's still September, but Minnesota can't come out of the month 1-3 and have a realistic expectation to reach a third consecutive bowl game. In fact, most of Minnesota's recent bowl appearances have been fueled by strong nonconference performances. The Gophers made some strides last week against USC but couldn't finish. They have to put it all together against a Northern Illinois team that will test the defense with quarterback Chandler Harnish.

4. Wolverines on the defensive: After letting UMass pile up 37 points and 439 yards last week, Michigan's defense had better buckle down Saturday against Bowling Green. The Wolverines are struggling to sack the quarterback (two sacks in three games) or stop the run (169.7 ypg allowed). Bowling Green will be without starting quarterback Matt Schilz (shoulder), so Michigan should have an opportunity to improve before Big Ten play begins.

5. Men down: Both Iowa and Wisconsin received some bad news this week, as the teams announced that Hawkeyes running back Jewel Hampton (knee) and Badgers linebacker Chris Borland (shoulder) both will miss the rest of the season with injuries. Iowa has only one healthy proven running back in Adam Robinson, and it'll be interesting to see how the offense changes, if at all, Saturday against Ball State. The Badgers shouldn't struggle too much with Austin Peay, but the game provides the opportunity to evaluate linebackers like Blake Sorensen, Kevin Claxton, Kevin Rouse, A.J. Fenton and others as they likely take on enhanced roles.

6. Wildcats aim for rare sweep: Between 1964-2007, Northwestern suffered at least one nonconference loss in every season. The Wildcats can sweep through non-league play for the second time in the last three years if they beat Central Michigan on Saturday. Despite road trips to Vanderbilt and Rice, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald calls the Chippewas "our stiffest test of the year, no question." Northwestern has been solid in Big Ten play for the last decade, but it needs to get over it annual hiccups in non-league play.

7. Et tu, Brute?: There should be plenty of Ohio State highlights Saturday against Eastern Michigan, though it shouldn't be very competitive on the field. The real intrigue lies with Brutus Buckeye, who returns to the field after being ambushed by Ohio University's mascot last week. Eastern Michigan's mascot, Swoop the Eagle, looks friendly enough, but Brutus had better beware.

8. MAC attack: Eight Big Ten schools take on opponents from the Mid-American Conference on Saturday. Although most Big Ten fan bases aren't too worried about this, the MAC recorded four wins against its big brother league in 2008 and two in 2009. Temple, Toledo and Central Michigan all bring winning records into Big Ten stadiums Saturday. Don't be shocked if the MAC secures at least one win Saturday.

9. Show some ID, please: Several Big Ten offenses are still searching for their identities as league play beckons. Purdue is trying to overcome a rash of injuries and figure out what works best in the Robert Marve era before a bye week. Penn State boasts tremendous talent at wide receiver but has lacked consistency in the run game. Minnesota and Michigan State have been run-first teams so far this season, but both squads also boast some weapons in the passing game, as they showed last week. We should get a better idea of what these units are all about after Saturday.

10. Hoosiers on the ground: Indiana needs to improve both its rushing offense and rushing defense before Big Ten play kicks off next week against Michigan. The Hoosiers rank last in the league in both categories, making Saturday's game against winless Akron all the more critical. As good as Ben Chappell can be this season, he needs some help from Darius Willis and the running backs. And IU's defense has to lock it down better against the run before Denard Robinson comes to town.

Big Ten predictions: Week 4

September, 23, 2010
Predictions: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

Came this close to another perfect week of picks last Saturday. If only Iowa had completed its comeback. Oh, well.

Here's another stab at perfection:

Michigan 41, Bowling Green 26: I just can't imagine Michigan's defense playing as poorly as it did last week against UMass, and the Falcons will be without their starting quarterback. Denard Robinson gets a much needed rest in the fourth quarter as the Wolverines pull away thanks to a big first half.

Michigan State 45, Northern Colorado 20: The Spartans' offense continues to show good balance as backs Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell both eclipse 120 rush yards. Northern Colorado can score -- the Bears come in averaging 45.3 points -- and start quick before the Spartans take control in their first game without head coach Mark Dantonio.

Northwestern 34, Central Michigan 28: This should be one of the better games on a mostly uninspiring slate around the Big Ten. Central Michigan jumps ahead early as Northwestern's offense starts slow for the second straight week. But quarterback Dan Persa turns in another dominating second half and finds Jeremy Ebert for three touchdowns as the Wildcats survive.

Wisconsin 48, Austin Peay 10: The Badgers surge out to a quick lead behind the running of John Clay and James White. Quarterback Scott Tolzien gets some rest in the second half as Bret Bielema gets a good look at his linebacking corps without star Chris Borland.

Iowa 40, Ball State 10: Iowa comes out throwing the ball downfield to conserve its only healthy proven running back, Adam Robinson. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi has a big first half connecting with Marvin McNutt, and the defense holds Ball State to one offensive touchdown in an easy win.

Purdue 27, Toledo 17: Toledo has looked a lot better since the opener, and the Rockets jump ahead in this one. Quarterback Robert Marve takes a little while to get comfortable, but he'll be helped by a healthier Dan Dierking in the backfield as the Boilers' offense surges in the third quarter to take control.

Ohio State 45, Eastern Michigan 3: Terrelle Pryor passes for a couple of touchdowns but takes a backseat as the running game gets going behind Brandon Saine and Dan Herron. Just like last week, Ohio State surges out to a big lead but doesn't run up the score like some of the other teams in the top 10.

Penn State 23, Temple 13: Penn State fans are awfully chesty about this matchup, and given the series history, I guess they should be. But Al Golden brings his best Temple team to State College and the Owls hang around for a while as the Nittany Lions' offense struggles early. Ultimately, Penn State's defense will be too strong for Temple.

Indiana 38, Akron 17: Coach Bill Lynch receives a more balanced offensive performance as running back Darius Willis rebounds nicely from a subpar performance last week. Still, Indiana leaves too many questions on defense heading into next week's Big Ten opener against Robinson and Michigan.

Minnesota 26, Northern Illinois 24: This is my Pick of the Week. Check back later for a video post breaking down my selection.

Bye: Illinois

Last week: 10-1

Season record: 30-2 (.938)
Haven't had a chance to weigh in on Minnesota and Indiana, so here we go:

USC 32, Minnesota 21: After a very rough stretch both on and off the field, the Gophers came out with the zest I expected. They delivered the first punch with a nine-play, 69-yard drive to open the game and took a 14-13 lead midway through the third quarter on an Adam Weber touchdown pass to Da'Jon McKnight. But to pull the upset against No. 18 USC, Minnesota had to play virtually mistake free, and that didn't happen. A special teams breakdown led to the 14-13 lead lasting all of 12 seconds, and Minnesota committed three turnovers in the loss. The Gophers couldn't get their bread-and-butter run game going, as USC held Duane Bennett and crew to just 83 net yards. This type of effort likely would have drawn good reviews from the Minnesota faithful if the team had taken care of business against South Dakota. But at 1-2, Minnesota needs to beat a decent Northern Illinois team next week or things really could start going downhill.

Indiana 38, Western Kentucky 21: The Hoosiers will fly under the radar because of a super soft nonconference schedule, but the Big Ten should be take notice of Ben Chappell and his high-powered passing attack. Chappell and his receivers put on a show at Western Kentucky, as the senior quarterback completed 32 of 42 passes for a career-high 366 yards and three touchdowns. Receiver Damarlo Belcher continued his hot start with 10 catches for 135 yards and a touchdown, and Tandon Doss had 62 receiving yards and a touchdown in his season debut. Indiana's passing attack will do some damage in the Big Ten, and teams like Michigan, which has major issues in the secondary, should be on notice. The Hoosiers' defense delivered a better performance than the opener, as Western Kentucky went more than 40 minutes without scoring. Indiana struggled to stop standout running back Bobby Rainey, but limited the Hilltoppers to 16 first downs and 288 total yards. My only big negative is Indiana failed to get Darius Willis and the run game going.

Big Ten predictions: Week 3

September, 16, 2010
South Dakota ended my quest for perfection (or was it Minnesota?). Either way, I'll try to start a new streak this week.

Michigan 43, Massachusetts 14: Denard Robinson does his thing for two and a half quarters before the real drama begins. Does Devin Gardner get the first call after Shoelace, or will it be Tate Forcier? Both reserve quarterbacks end up playing well as Michigan improves to 3-0.

Ohio State 41, Ohio 6: The Buckeyes receive an efficient performance from Terrelle Pryor, and receiver DeVier Posey beats his big brother Julian for two touchdowns. No special teams meltdowns this week, and the defense keeps the Bobcats out of the end zone.

Penn State 35, Kent State 10: After two quiet weeks, Evan Royster arrives in a big way against Kent State. The senior running back goes for 140 yards and three touchdowns against a good run defense, and quarterback Rob Bolden bounces back nicely from the Alabama loss.

Illinois 26, Northern Illinois 14: I'm buying into Illinois' defensive improvement under Vic Koenning, and the Illini receive another solid performance from Ian Thomas, Tavon Wilson and crew. Northern Illinois seems to be struggling to put it all together, and the Illini need this game more.

Purdue 34, Ball State 17: Receivers Justin Siller and Antavian Edison emerge as Purdue begins life without star wideout Keith Smith. The Boilers start slowly for the second consecutive week but get it going in the second quarter, as Dan Dierking eclipses 100 rushing yards for the second consecutive week.

USC 35, Minnesota 23: I've got a strange feeling about this one. Minnesota isn't as bad as it looked against South Dakota, and USC seems to be just skating by on its talent right now. I can't pick the Gophers to win, not with their issues on defense, but they'll come out energized after the Dakota Debacle. Minnesota takes an early lead, but Matt Barkley and his receivers prove to be too much in the second half.

Wisconsin 30, Arizona State 20: This is my Pick of the Week. Check the blog later as I'll have a video explaining my prediction in greater detail.

Indiana 45, Western Kentucky 21: The Hoosiers' offense shows no rust from the 16-day layoff, as Ben Chappell, Darius Willis and Tandon Doss all have big days against a woeful Western Kentucky defense. Indiana's defense struggles against Bobby Rainey, raising some concerns as Big Ten play beckons.

Northwestern 27, Rice 21: Another tricky road game for Pat Fitzgerald's crew against a Rice team that did some good things against Texas in the opener. The Owls jump ahead early and former Michigan running back Sam McGuffie reaches the end zone, but the Wildcats control play in the second half behind quarterback Dan Persa and receiver Jeremy Ebert.

Michigan State 33, Notre Dame 31: A very tough call here. Expect an entertaining shootout in East Lansing, as both offenses find their groove. I'm not sold on the Spartans' defense, and Notre Dame takes advantage as Michael Floyd has a big night. But Michigan State's balanced attack also steps up as Kirk Cousins rallies the team in the fourth quarter and Dan Conroy kicks a 42-yard field goal as time expires.

Iowa 26, Arizona 21: Arizona feeds off an electric atmosphere and jumps ahead behind Nic Grigsby, but Iowa duplicates what it did all last year and rallies on the road behind quarterback Ricky Stanzi. The senior signal caller overcomes an early interception and leads the game-winning touchdown drive, hitting Derrell Johnson-Koulianos for the decisive touchdown.

Last week: 9-1

Season record: 20-1 (.952)