NCF Nation: Derek Dimke

Our series ranking each position group from the 2011 Big Ten season comes to a close today with the final group, and one that is often overlooked but is always important: special teams.

Special teams is a broad spectrum, so we're combining performances in punting, kickoffs and field goals to come up with each team's position on this list.

And away we go:

1. Nebraska: Boy, did we mess this up in the preseason by ranking the Huskers 11th out of 12. Though we wrote at the time that Nebraska would almost certainly outperform its low rankings, we thought replacing star punter/kicker Alex Henery would be tough. Not really, as Brett Maher was one of the best punters and kickers in the league and the country. Freshman Ameer Abdullah was a star in kick returns, finishing ninth nationally in that category. So just remove one of the ones from that preseason number, and then we've got it right.

[+] EnlargeRaheem Mostert
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesRaheem Mostert took a kickoff return back 99 yards for a score in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
2. Purdue: The Boilermakers were mostly mediocre on offense and defense but did some great work on special teams. Freshman Raheem Mostert led the nation in kickoff returns, while sophomore Cody Webster finished second in punting. The strong-legged Carson Wiggs tied Maher for most field goals made in the league, though he still needs to improve his accuracy. Blocked kicks helped secure wins over Middle Tennessee and Ohio State, but Purdue lost on a blocked field goal try at Rice.

3. Penn State: When Anthony Fera returned from suspension and took over field goal duties, the Nittany Lions' special teams became truly special. Fera hit 14 of 17 field goals after Penn State had looked very shaky in that area early in the year, and he was also one of the league's top punters. Chaz Powell and Justin Brown were dangerous return men.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes ranked among the top third of Big Ten teams in just about every special-teams category. Field goal kicker Drew Basil made a dozen in a row at one point, and Ben Buchanan was solid at punter. Jordan Hall added some big returns.

5. Michigan State: We ranked the Spartans No. 1 in the preseason, and they came up with some game-changing plays, particularly in the first game against Wisconsin and in the Outback Bowl win over Georgia. But statistically speaking, Michigan State was average in most aspects of the kicking game. But Mike Sadler had some big moments punting, and Keshawn Martin did excellent work on punt returns.

6. Wisconsin: A tough team to rank, as there was both good and bad here. Jared Abbrederis led the nation in punt return average at 15.8 yards per attempt. Brad Nortman was a very reliable punter, while Philip Welch made five of his six attempts at field goals, something the Badgers didn't need very much with Montee Ball assaulting the end zone. But we can't ignore the big special-teams breakdowns against Michigan State and Ohio State that had as much as anything to do with ruining a potential undefeated season.

7. Michigan: The Wolverines weren't outstanding at any one area on special teams, but they proved much better than the No. 12 ranking we saddled them with in the preseason. Brendan Gibbons solidified what looked like a scary place-kicker situation and played a large role (along with brunette girls) in the Sugar Bowl victory. Michigan was also strong in punt returns and kick coverage, though its punting and kickoff returns left much to be desired.

8. Iowa: The good news first: Iowa led the league in net punting, thanks to a strong showing by senior Eric Guthrie in his first year starting. Now the bad: The Hawkeyes ranked second-to-last in kickoff coverage, and Mike Meyer missed six of his 20 field goal attempts, including both tries in the humbling loss to Minnesota.

9. Minnesota: Even without premier return man Troy Stoudermire, who missed most of the year with an injury, the Gophers ranked fifth in the league in kickoff returns, and they led the league in kickoff coverage. But a team that punted as much as Minnesota did in 2011 needed to do better than 11th in the conference in that category. Bonus point for the perfectly executed onside kick in the Iowa win.

10. Northwestern: The Wildcats' defense got the brunt of the blame in Northwestern's losses, but special teams didn't hold up its end of the bargain, either. Northwestern made only six field goals all year and ranked near the bottom of the conference in most categories. The bright spot was a league-best punt return unit.

11. Indiana: Mitch Ewald went 13-of-16 on field goals, but the Hoosiers weren't very good in most other areas. They returned more kickoffs than anyone in the Big Ten -- a product of a crummy defense -- but didn't do enough with them in finishing 108th nationally in that stat.

12. Illinois: Ron Zook didn't help his case to be retained as head coach through the performance of his special teams, a part of the game that was supposed to be his field of expertise. Illinois was simply dreadful in creating advantageous field position, finishing last in the nation in kickoff returns and third-to-last in punt returns. The Illini also weren't very good at kickoff coverage, though at least Derek Dimke made 10 of 12 field goals. Even that was marred by his missed 42-yarder at the end of a 10-7 loss at Penn State.

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

October, 31, 2011
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What a crazy weekend in the Big Ten. It's worth a second look.

Team of the week: Nebraska. The Cornhuskers made an emphatic statement with their 24-3 pasting of Michigan State in Lincoln. They now control their own destiny in the Legends Division race and are the league's highest-ranked team. If they can keep playing defense like they did Saturday, look out. Honorable mention to Ohio State and Minnesota.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Greg Bartram/US PresswireBraxton Miller and Ohio State pulled out a thrilling win against Wisconsin.
Game of the week: Ohio State 33, Wisconsin 29. For the second straight week, Wisconsin was involved in a thriller. For the second straight week, the Badgers didn't like the outcome. The Buckeyes, who had only three points at halftime, rallied for 30 points in the final two quarters, including the game-winning pass with 20 seconds to go. That overshadowed, for the second straight week, what had been an excellent fourth-quarter comeback by Wisconsin, which trailed 26-14 with 4:39 left but took a 29-26 lead a little more than three minutes later.

For the second straight week, Bret Bielema committed the sin that gets you beat in video-game football: scoring with too much time left. On Saturday, the Badgers left 1:18 on the clock for Ohio State, a week after giving Michigan State 1:26 to get in position for the Hail Mary. Wisconsin needs to work on taking a knee in the red zone late in games. Kidding, of course, but if Badgers fans can't laugh, they'll probably cry.

Biggest play: Braxton Miller's 40-yard touchdown pass to Devin Smith for the win against Wisconsin, obviously. The true freshman somehow had the presence of mind in that situation to keep his eyes downfield while scrambling and to let the heave go just before he crossed the line of scrimmage. The Badgers' coverage broke down to leave Smith ridiculously open in the end zone, but the defense had to react to Miller's running ability. Amazingly, in the previous win against Illinois, Miller had completed only one pass for 17 yards.

Best call: Jerry Kill's decision to go for an onside kick with 8:22 left in the game against Iowa. Minnesota had just scored to cut the lead to 21-16, and Kill thought his defense needed a break. What made the call even gutsier was that walk-on kicker Jordan Wettstein was in the game in place of injured regular kicker Chris Hawthorne. But the Gophers are well-schooled on this particular play."I actually wrote a paper about how we teach it," Kill said after the game. "We've been doing that particular onside kick for 13 years. We've practiced it every day since I got here."

The Gophers gave no indication before the kick that they were going for the onside try, and Wettstein executed it perfectly. Kim Royston recovered and Minnesota went in for the winning score to notch its first Big Ten victory. Iowa was not prepared for the trickery, even though the Gophers had nothing to lose. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz called Kill's gamble "not totally surprising," yet he didn't think it was worth putting his hands team in the game at that time. In large part because of that play, the Gophers had their hands on Floyd of Rosedale after the game.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Northwestern tight end Drake Dunsmore. He set a school record with four touchdown catches against Indiana, finishing with a total of seven catches and 112 yards. Plus, Drake Dunsmore is a fun name to say. Special shoutouts to Rex Burkhead and Braxton Miller for their performances as well.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Penn State linebacker Gerald Hodges. He earns his second straight player of the week award after recording 19 tackles, a sack, two pass breakups and a forced fumble against Illinois. Linebacker whew. It was a big week for big tackle numbers in the Big Ten. Wisconsin's Mike Taylor had 22 against Ohio State, and Michigan State's William Gholston recorded 15 stops while returning from suspension.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Minnesota's Jordan Wettstein. We already talked about the onside kick, and Wettstein also made a field goal in his first career attempt.

Worst hangover: Iowa fans aren't feeling that great right now, a fact made obvious as I listened to the Hawkeyes' postgame call-in show on the drive from Lincoln to Omaha on Saturday evening. (And the fact that the first caller was"Randy on a tractor" made it priceless). But Wisconsin gets the nod for the starring role in "The Hangover: Part II."

It's not just that the Badgers lost on a long pass in the final minute for the second straight week, though that certainly is a punch in the groin. And it's not just the little what-ifs that accompany each loss -- what if, for instance, Dan France doesn't recover that fumble for Michigan State, or Wisconsin doesn't let two punts get blocked or Miller takes one more step before releasing his throw ...

No the real downer in this situation is how well the season would have been set up for a Wisconsin title run. Clemson and Kansas State became the latest unbeatens to go down over the weekend, and the Alabama-LSU duel will reduce the number further. Oklahoma State still must play Oklahoma, while Stanford has to get past Oregon. It's quite possible that the Badgers would have been in prime position for spot in the BCS championship game had the past two games lasted only 59 minutes in regulation.

I know Halloween is a big event in Madison, but Badger backers must be feeling a little cursed this Oct. 31.

Strangest moment: Let's just go ahead and say the entire Illinois-Penn State game was just plain weird.

First, there was the freakish snow storm on Oct. 29 that turned Beaver Stadium into a whiteout without any help from the fans.

Then we had a game that was 0-0 until midway through the third quarter.

Penn State trailed 7-3 with three minutes left and had done nothing in the passing game. Matt McGloin was 5-for-22 for 40 yards at that point. Yet McGloin then completed four passes for 58 yards to lead the team on an 80-yard touchdown drive. Receiver Derek Moye, who wasn't supposed to play because of a broken foot, came into the game for the first time on the final drive. He made a catch and drew a pass interference penalty on fourth down.

Illinois tried to answer, but Derek Dimke's field goal attempt as time expired hit the right upright and bounced away, while students ran through the snow-packed stands and threw snowballs. Dimke hadn't missed a field goal all year.

It was all a little crazy, even to the man who earned his Division I record-breaking 409th win.

"To all the fans out there, thank you for sitting through that today,"Joe Paterno said."You've got to be nuts."
Five lessons from a full slate of Big Ten conference play in Week 9:

1. The race to Indy is wide open: Division play, parity and the lack of a truly dominant team have combined to add serious drama to the Big Ten title chase. Nebraska's 24-3 win over Michigan State helped create a three-way tie atop the Legends Division between the Huskers, Spartans and Michigan. You could make a strong case for any of the three earning the trip to the inaugural Big Ten title game. Nebraska is the only team that controls its own destiny, but the Cornhuskers still have to go to Ann Arbor and State College, while Michigan would lose a tiebreaker against Michigan State, which has the easiest schedule the rest of the way. Wisconsin's second straight heart-breaking loss leaves Penn State in control of the Leaders Division. But the Lions' remaining schedule (Nebraska, at Ohio State, at Wisconsin) means that race is far from over. Ohio State could get to Indianapolis by winning out and having Penn State lose one of its other two games. It should be a November to remember in the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargePenn State's Silas Redd
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesSilas Redd and Penn State are flying high with a perfect 5-0 conference record.
2. Penn State is living dangerously: Who would have thought that Penn State would be the last unbeaten team in Big Ten play? Or that the Nittany Lions would be 8-1 at this point? We've seen it, but we're still not sure we believe it. Penn State has won all of its five league games by 10 points or less, and Saturday's 10-7 victory over Illinois was the latest example of the football gods smiling on Happy Valley this season. Quarterback Matthew McGloin and the offense stunk for most of the game but somehow drove 80 yards for the tying score with a little more than a minute left. The team held on when Derek Dimke -- who hadn't missed a field goal all year -- bounced one off the upright as time expired. Hey, 8-1 is 8-1, and Joe Paterno deserves some good fortune. But can the Lions keep this up when the meat of their schedule arrives after the bye week? The good news: every other team in the Leaders Division has at least two Big Ten losses.

3. Ohio State has reasons to believe: An Ohio State program that has been beaten up on and off the field in recent weeks and months finds itself with new life -- and a very real chance to make noise in the Leaders Division. The Buckeyes defense seems to be getting better by the week and stifled Wisconsin for much of Saturday night's game. Braxton Miller is the same player we saw at the start of the month and showed he not only can pass the ball but make a huge throw at the most important time. Ohio State has zero margin for error if it wants to reach Indianapolis, but Luke Fickell and his players seem to be thriving on adversity and, as Fickell often says, the need to gain momentum. Right now, the Buckeyes have momentum entering a month where they've always thrived.

4. This is a different Michigan team: Excitement over Brady Hoke's early success has been tempered because Michigan started strong and faded the past couple of years under Rich Rodriguez. But Hoke is not RichRod, and this Wolverines team looks different. They made a statement on Saturday by bouncing back nicely from the Michigan State loss and trouncing Purdue 36-14 at home. Even without an superstar performance by Denard Robinson, Michigan still ran for 339 yards as Fitz Toussaint had a career day. The defense stiffened after an early touchdown, and defensive tackle Mike Martin's safety highlighted his terrific day. Because the Wolverines now can actually stop people and run the ball with more than just Robinson, they can be good in November instead of just September.

5. It's just not Iowa's year: The Hawkeyes were holding out hope of making the Big Ten title game, with both Michigan schools having to play in Iowa City. But that balloon popped when Minnesota pulled off a shocking 22-21 upset to keep the Floyd of Rosedale trophy in the Twin Cities. Kirk Ferentz and his staff haven't been able to plug the holes on defense all season, and a normally high-scoring offense couldn't cash in opportunities against the Gophers. Simply put, this is just not a very good Hawkeyes team. Their wins have come against mediocre or bad opponents, and they've lost two rivalry games they shouldn't have (Iowa State being the other). Given the team's five-game road losing streak and the remaining schedule (Michigan, Michigan State, at Purdue, at Nebraska), it's fair to wonder whether or not the 5-3 Hawkeyes will even make a bowl this season.

Final: Penn State 10, Illlinois 7

October, 29, 2011
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At some point, a team needs its quarterback to show up and step up.

Matthew McGloin waited nearly 57 minutes to do so Saturday at Beaver Stadium. But with Penn State on life support, needing to go 80 yards to preserve its undefeated Big Ten record, McGloin rose to the occasion.

Thanks to McGloin's heroics and Illinois kicker Derek Dimke's first missed field-goal attempt of the season, Penn State survived 10-7. The Lions are the only team without a loss in Big Ten play, and coach Joe Paterno notched his 409th win to surpass Eddie Robinson for the Division I record.

McGloin led a Penn State offense that looked worse than it has all season -- and that's saying something -- on a 10-play, 80-yard scoring drive. McGloin went 4-for-6 passing for 48 yards on the game-winning march and had another pass dropped by senior Derek Moye, who surprisingly returned to the field after missing two games with a broken bone in his foot.

Before the decisive drive, McGloin had gone 5-of-18 for 50 yards and an interception. Fellow QB Rob Bolden had looked even worse. Penn State's season long quarterback mess was, well, messy.

But if there's one thing you can say about McGloin it's that he never gives up or stops believing in himself, even when few others do. Credit the junior for finding a way against an Illinois defense playing at an extremely high level. He also got help from sophomore running back Silas Redd, who had another huge performance (30 carries, 137 yards, TD), including the game-winnning touchdown run.

Illinois drops its third straight game, and no loss was more heart-wrenching than today's. The Illini defense played great, but the offense once again took a while to get going. Illinois botched a field goal and missed another, and the team drew six penalties, including a debatable pass inference call on cornerback Justin Green that set up Penn State's winning score. The laces appeared to be in on Dimke's miss at the end. As Ray Finkle will tell you, LACES OUT!

How is Penn State 8-1? Many will ponder that question during the next two weeks. Defense and Redd have something to do with it, and McGloin stepped up when the Lions needed him most.

Penn State now enters a bye week before its decisive stretch of the season against Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin. The easy part is over for JoePa's crew, but Penn State controls its own fate in the Leaders Division.

Halftime: Penn State 0, Illinois 0

October, 29, 2011
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U-G-L-Y.

That pretty much sums up the first half in State College, where it's snowing and neither offense has shown up. Will this be first to 10? First to score?

Illinois appeared ready to make the scoreboard operator finally do his job late in the first half as Derek Dimke lined up for a 26-yard field-goal try. Dimke has been perfect on seven attempts this season. But the Illini botched the snap and then threw an interception to Penn State's Sean Stanley, who turned in a nice half.

Illinois might have botched the game winner at the rate this contest is going.

The teams combined for nine first downs, two third down conversions on 17 attempts, four turnovers and 176 total yards. While both teams boast solid defenses, the two offenses have been downright painful to watch.

Both teams have played two quarterbacks, although Illinois looks much more justified to do so than Penn State. Joe Paterno and his staff continue to trot out Rob Bolden, who clearly hasn't developed the way anyone had hopes. While Matthew McGloin made his second start and struggled, Bolden failed to complete a pass on four attempts and twice fumbled. Fans seemed to boo the sophomore late in the half.

Nittany Lions sophomore RB Silas Redd has been solid as usual (14 rushes, 74 yards), but the lack of production at quarterback is infuriating. Will McGloin be the guy in the second half like he has the past few games? You never know with this staff.

Illinois' Reilly O'Toole completed 3 of 4 passes in relief of Nathan Scheelhaase, who has struggled mightily for the third consecutive game. The Illini can't abandon their run game with Jason Ford, especially in a contest where few points will be scored.

Here's hoping for some excitement in the final 30 minutes. Strange, strange day in the Big Ten.

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 9

October, 26, 2011
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Michigan State's win over Wisconsin changed the conversation in the overall Big Ten race. But did it change anything in the individual award races Let's find out:

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson: He didn't have his best day against the Spartans and likely was knocked out of the Heisman race. But Wilson's overall body of work is still enough to earn the top spot for at least another week.

2. Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson: Shoelace was No. 2 last week and there was no reason to move him after a bye. A big key will be how he finishes the season, beginning this week against Purdue.

3. Wisconsin running back Montee Ball: Despite the loss, Ball racked up another 100-yard day and two more touchdowns against Michigan State. He now leads the Big Ten in rushing and scoring and still is on pace to shatter the league touchdown record.

4. Penn State running back Silas Redd: The biggest mover in our tracker, Redd has been spectacular in posting four-straight 125-plus yard games for the Nittany Lions. He's the third-leading rusher in the league behind Ball and Robinson.

5. Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead: Burkhead had another 117 yards against Minnesota last week and just keeps on chugging. He has a statement game opportunity this week against Michigan State.

Dropped out: Illinois receiver A.J. Jenkins

On the cusp: Iowa receiver Marvin McNutt; Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg; Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus: The Illini have lost two in a row, but you can't blame Mercilus. He still leads the nation in sacks with 10 and paces the Big Ten with five forced fumbles and 15 tackles for loss.

2. Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still: Northwestern hoped its hurry-up offense would slow down Still last week. Nope. He still managed a sack and two tackles for loss as his wrecking-ball ways continue.

3. Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy: Wisconsin scored 31 points on Michigan State but needed two late touchdowns to do so, and that was nearly 20 points below their average. As always, Worthy was the point man for the Spartans' defensive attack.

4. Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David: Just named a Butkus semifinalist, David has been the best player on the Nebraska defense all season long and leads the Huskers with 64 tackles.

5. Ohio State defensive tackle John Simon: The Buckeyes were off last week. Simon gets a chance to strut his stuff against Wisconsin in a prime-time game Saturday.

On the cusp: Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short; Purdue cornerback Ricardon Allen; Penn State linebacker Gerald Hodges; Wisconsin linebacker Mike Taylor.

Bakken-Andersen Kicker of the Year

1. Brett Maher, Nebraska: Maher has connected on a league-best 13 field goals so far this season, and his three misses have all come from at least 50 yards. He's also terrific on punts and kickoffs.

2. Anthony Fera, Penn State: Fera has shored up what was a terrible kicking game for the Nittany Lions, hitting 11 of 12 tries since he took over field goal duties. The Penn State offense really needed him at times. And like Maher, he gets bonus points for being a great punter as well.

3. Derek Dimke, Illinois: Dimke has made all seven tries this season, and his field goals played a huge role in wins over Arizona State, Western Michigan and Northwestern. He loses points for lack of range -- only one of his field goals has come from beyond 40 yards -- and lack of opportunity, as he has not even attempted a field goal in half his team's eight games.

Eddleman-Fields Punter of the Year

1. Cody Webster, Purdue: Webster is averaging 46.6 yards per punt, good for fifth in the FBS.

2. Maher, Nebraska: Maher's punting average of 45.5 yards would rank him 12th nationally, but he is one attempt shy of qualifying.

3. Fera, Penn State: Fera has been a great two-way weapon for the Nittany Lions and averages 43.6 yards per punt.

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

September, 26, 2011
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Wake me when September ends. Oh, wait. September Big Ten football is already over. Let's review the last week of the first month of the season.

Team of the week: Michigan. The Wolverines take home this honor for the second time in three weeks, as their win over a motivated, previously unbeaten San Diego State team was probably the best of the week in the Big Ten. Michigan is 4-0 and will be heavily favored to make it 5-0 against Minnesota this week. Then the fun starts.

Best game: Honestly, Week 4 was mostly a yawner in the Big Ten. Illinois' 23-20 win over Western Michigan had some good moments, though. The Broncos threw the ball just about every down, tied it up in the fourth quarter and got the ball back with about a minute left with a chance to tie or take the lead. That provided the best drama of an off-off-Broadway kind of weekend.

Biggest play: Right after San Diego State failed to convert a fourth down in the fourth quarter, Michigan's Denard Robinson sprinted for a 30-yard gain. That set up Vincent Smith's touchdown to make it 28-7 and get the Wolverines out of harm's way. Robinson struggled again throwing the ball, but there's no one better at ripping off a big play at the right time.

[+] EnlargeMatt McGloin
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPenn State QB Matthew McGloin has earned praise from coach Bill O'Brien during spring workouts.
Best call: Luke Fickell's mid-week decision to promote freshman Braxton Miller to starting quarterback. Ohio State needed a spark on offense, and while Miller completed only five passes against Colorado, he did throw two touchdowns and run for 83 yards. The Buckeyes probably could have beaten Colorado with Joe Bauserman, but Miller provides them some optimism.

Big Men on Campus (Offense): Denard Robinson and Matt McGloin. The two quarterbacks each had big days in different ways Saturday. Michigan's Robinson completed a standout September by rushing for 200 yards and three touchdowns in a win over San Diego State. He moved into second place on the Big Ten’s career rushing yards list by a quarterback with 2,605, second only to Indiana's Antwaan Randle El (3,895). McGloin didn't start but was terrific for Penn State against Eastern Michigan. He went 14-of-17 for 220 yards and three touchdowns after coming in during the second quarter. During his time at quarterback, the Nittany Lions increased their lead from 3-0 to 31-0.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Iowa defensive lineman Tom Nardo. The senior had a career-high 12 tackles, including two for loss, as the Hawkeyes beat Louisiana-Monroe 45-17.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Illinois kicker Derek Dimke drilled all three of his field goal attempts, from 39, 35 and 21, including the game-winner as the Illini survived against Western Michigan. Dimke is a perfect 6-for-6 on the year.

Worst hangover: (Tie) Minnesota and Indiana. Both teams are 1-3 and have a lot more questions than answers at this point. The Gophers somehow have played their best football against USC and Miami (Ohio) while looking their worst against New Mexico State and North Dakota State. The Hoosiers committed the unforgivable sin of falling behind North Texas 24-0 before losing 24-21. These are two teams not anxiously awaiting Big Ten play, because they're going to have a hard time finding more wins.

Strangest play: With five seconds left in the first half, Minnesota set up a fourth-down heave from midfield. North Dakota State's Colten Heagle picked it off near the 18, was tackled around midfield and just tossed the ball out. Marcus Williams picked it up and raced the rest of the way untouched for a score and a 28-14 Bison lead. Williams, who scored twice on defense, is from the Twin Cities but was not recruited by Minnesota. That's the kind of year it's been for the Gophers.
Meant to post this Friday, but we finally wrap up the Big Ten preseason position rankings with the individual specialists. I'll break down the top five kickers, punters and return men in the league (sorry, long snappers).

[+] EnlargeDerek Dimke
Mike DiNovo/US PresswireIllinois kicker Derek Dimke led the Big Ten with 24 field goals last season.
Although the Big Ten loses its most famous specialist from 2010 -- Michigan State punter Aaron Bates -- and Nebraska says goodbye to All-American Alex Henery, there are a few standout players back in the fold. Quite a few strong punters depart, although keep an eye on the sophomores coming back.

Let's take a look.

KICKER

1. Derek Dimke, Illinois, senior: Dimke had a terrific junior season, converting a league-high 24 field goals on 29 attempts. He also was perfect on extra-point tries, going 43-for-43, and led the Big Ten with 22 touchbacks. Dimke earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches and will be on the radar for the Lou Groza Award this fall.

2. Dan Conroy, Michigan State, junior: Thanks to Conroy, the loss of standout kicker Brett Swenson didn't sting too much for the Spartans. Conroy led the Big Ten in field-goal percentage, converting 14 of 15 opportunities, and missed only one of his 46 extra-point tries. Conroy earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors for his efforts.

3. Philip Welch, Wisconsin, senior: Doesn't it seem like Welch has been at Wisconsin for a decade? The three-year starter enters his final season in Madison after earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2010. Welch was perfect on 67 extra-point attempts last fall and went 17-for-22 on field-goal attempts.

4. Carson Wiggs, Purdue, senior: There's no doubt as to who has the strongest leg in the Big Ten, if not the country. Wiggs can connect from just about anywhere, as he showed in April during Purdue's spring game with a 67-yard field goal. His leg strength gets the attention, but Wiggs is a little underrated as an overall kicker. He connected on 15 of 19 attempts in 2010, going 4-for-4 between 40 and 49 yards, and had 11 touchbacks as Purdue led the Big Ten in kickoff coverage.

5. Mitch Ewald, Indiana, sophomore: Ewald had an excellent freshman season for the Hoosiers, capitalizing on limited opportunities. He finished fourth in the league in field-goal percentage, connecting on 16 of 19 attempts, and he was perfect on 33 extra-point tries. Ewald had five games with multiple field goals and will once again be a big weapon for IU this fall.

PUNTER

1. Brad Nortman, Wisconsin, senior: Like Welch, Nortman has been a fixture in Madison the past four years and enters 2011 as the league's most experienced punter by far. Nortman averaged 42.7 yards per punt in 2010, blasting eight punts of 50 yards or more and placing 14 punts inside the 20-yard line. He has averaged 42.1 yards per punt during his career.

2. Anthony Fera, Penn State, sophomore: Fera had an excellent freshman season for Penn State, which improved in punt coverage and other special teams areas. He averaged 41.4 yards per punt, placed 13 punts inside the opponents' 20 and had nine punts of 50 yards or longer. Fera also forced 19 fair catches.

3. Cody Webster, Purdue, sophomore: Webster helped Purdue address a need at punter and turned in an excellent freshman season. He finished fifth in the Big Ten in punting average (43.3 ypp), booming 17 punts of 50 yards or longer and placing 12 inside the opponents' 20.

4. Will Hagerup, Michigan, sophomore: Hagerup was the lone bright spot for Michigan's special teams in 2010. He started 10 games and ranked fourth in the Big Ten in punting average (43.6 ypp), a mark that ranked second in team history (minimum of 30 attempts). He placed 11 punts inside the 20.

5. Ben Buchanan, Ohio State, junior: Ohio State needs to be sharper in the kicking game this fall, and Buchanan will play a huge role. He averaged 41 yards on 44 attempts in 2010, placing 15 punts inside the opponents' 20 and forcing 17 fair catches. Expect Buchanan to take another step in his development this season.

RETURNER

1. Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota, senior: Already a record-setting return man, Stoudermire needs only 16 kick returns and 189 kick return yards to set NCAA all-time records in both categories. Stoudermire has 2,929 kick return yards, recording 30 runbacks or more in each of the past three seasons. He averaged 27.2 yards on returns in 2010.

2. Jordan Hall, Ohio State, junior: Hall is likely the Big Ten's best all-around returner. He finished second in the league in kick return average (27.9 ypr) and third in punt return average (9.9 ypr). Hall really emerged as Ohio State's go-to return man last season. It will be interesting to see if his return responsibilities change at all depending on who emerges as the Buckeyes' top running back.

3. Keshawn Martin, Michigan State, senior: Expect teams to punt the ball away from Martin this fall. He led the Big Ten and ranked 11th nationally in punt return average (14.2 ypr). His touchdown return against Wisconsin set the stage for Michigan State's come-from-behind win. Martin's kick return average of 17.8 yards should increase this fall.

4. Venric Mark, Northwestern, sophomore: For the first time in recent memory, Northwestern has a true difference maker in the return game. Mark came on strong late in his freshman year, finishing fourth in the league in kick return average (26.2 ypr) with a touchdown runback against Wisconsin. He also showed promise as a punt returner, averaging 12.9 yards on nine attempts.

5. Jaamal Berry, Ohio State, sophomore: Berry forms a dangerous Buckeye return tandem with Hall. He finished fifth in the league in kick return average (25.4 ypr) but had three more attempts than Hall. Berry clearly has big-play skills as a running back, so don't be surprised if he breaks off some big returns this fall.
Our preseason position ranking series comes to an end today with everybody's favorite group: special teams.

For this ranking, we're going to consider punters, kickers and returners only. No offense to the long-snappers or the punt-team gunners, but things like kickoff coverage units are hard to forecast. We'll give a little extra weight to teams that have returning and proven players at these spots, because it's difficult to know how new punters and kickers will fare when the pressure of real games begin.

As the guys in these positions would say, let's kick it:

[+] EnlargeDan Conroy
Andrew Weber/US PresswireDan Conroy was nearly perfect on his field goal attempts last season.
1. Michigan State: Kicker Dan Conroy made 14 of his 15 attempts last year, and Keshawn Martin led the league in punt return average. They will miss punter Aaron Bates and will have to improve their kickoff return game. And you know you always have to watch out for the fake when the Spartans line up for a kick.

2. Wisconsin: The Badgers are set at both punter and kicker, with seniors Brad Nortman and Philip Welch, respectively. Both are third-year starters who can be relied upon. Wisconsin will need to find a replacement for primary return man David Gilreath.

3. Penn State: The Nittany Lions bring back punter Anthony Fera and punt returner Devon Smith, who finished just behind Martin in yards per attempt last season. Chaz Powell and Stephfon Green are dangerous kick returners. Fera could move over to handle field goals this season if incoming freshman Sam Ficken doesn't win the job.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have a veteran punter in senior Ben Buchanan and two threats to take a kick to the house in Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry. Sophomore Drew Basil is expected to take over at place-kicker. Special teams are almost always a force in Columbus.

5. Purdue: No one in the league has a bigger leg than Carson Wiggs; the questions is whether he can consistently harness it. Punter Cody Webster averaged 43.3 yards per attempt last season, second best among returning punters. The Boilermakers' return game needs to improve.

6. Illinois: Derek Dimke was a Lou Groza semifinalist last season and broke the school record for points by a kicker. He nailed two 50-plus yarders. Ray Guy semifinalist Anthony Santella is gone, though return man Troy Pollard is back.

7. Northwestern: Brandon Williams improved at punter as his freshman year went along last season. The Wildcats at long last have an elite return option in Venric Mark. But place-kicker was a concern this spring, with Jeff Budzien and Steve Flaherty competing for the job.

8. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz's teams usually find a way to be good on special teams, so odds are the Hawkeyes will climb these rankings. But they lost a lot from 2010, including Ray Guy finalist and four-year starter Ryan Donahue, plus both primary return men. Eric Guthrie held the edge at punter after the spring. Place-kicker Mike Meyer returns after taking over that role for the final 10 games and doing a solid job.

9. Indiana: Mitch Ewald was named to the Groza watch list after a strong freshman year in which he made 16 of 19 field goals. Chris Hagerup needs to increase his punting average of 39.4 yards. The Hoosiers should have enough athletes to replace Tandon Doss on returns.

10. Minnesota: Dan Orseske's 36.1-yard average was worst among starting Big Ten punters in 2010, so that must get better. Jerry Kill must also find a new place-kicker -- NC State transfer Chris Hawthorne looks like the top option. Troy Stoudermire, one of the league's top return specialists, is back for his senior year.

11. Nebraska: Like Iowa, this is a team that will almost assuredly outperform this ranking. But boy did the Huskers lose a lot of talent and experience. It will be difficult to match the value that punter/kicker Alex Henery brought -- Brett Maher and freshman Mauro Bondi will battle to replace him -- and Adi Kunalic was a secret weapon as kickoff specialist. Top returner Niles Pau is gone, too. The Cornhuskers will likely reload, but nobody has bigger shoes to fill at these positions in the Big Ten.

12. Michigan: The kicking game looked like a disaster this spring, with neither Seth Broekhuizen nor Brendan Gibbons inspiring confidence. Incoming freshman Matt Wile might win the job this summer. This could prove to be an Achilles' heel for the Wolverines, as it was a year ago. On the plus side, Will Hagerup is the leading returning punter in the Big Ten, though he had only 33 attempts last season.

2010 Big Ten All-Bowl team

January, 14, 2011
1/14/11
11:29
AM ET
Let's put a bow on this year's Big Ten postseason by taking a look at the league's All-Bowl team.

OFFENSE

QB: Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State
Pryor won MVP honors in a BCS bowl for the second consecutive season as he led Ohio State to a victory in the Sugar Bowl. The junior maintained his focus after the suspension controversy and recorded 222 pass yards and two touchdowns to go along with 115 rush yards on 15 carries. Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase merits a mention after a strong effort in the Texas Bowl.

RB: Marcus Coker, Iowa
The true freshman rushed for an Iowa bowl record 219 yards and two touchdowns as the Hawkeyes beat Missouri in the Insight Bowl. Coker was the team's only proven option at running back for the bowl, and he stepped up in a big way, averaging 6.6 yards per carry.

[+] EnlargeMikel Leshoure
AP Photo/Dave EinselMikel Leshoure earned MVP honors in the Texas Bowl.
RB: Mikel Leshoure, Illinois
The Big Ten's best running back ended his season -- and, as it turned out, his college career -- in typical fashion, rushing for 184 yards and three touchdowns as Illinois blew out Baylor. Leshoure broke five team records and tied a sixth with his bowl performance, most notably breaking Rashard Mendenhall's single-season Illinois rushing record with 1,697 yards.

WR: Dane Sanzenbacher, Ohio State
Sanzenbacher caught three passes for 59 yards and a touchdown in the Sugar Bowl, but his biggest contribution came on the game's opening drive. After Pryor fumbled the ball near the goal line, Sanzenbacher swooped in for the recovery and his first career "rushing" touchdown. The Great Dane showed why he was voted Ohio State's team MVP.

WR: Derek Moye, Penn State
His quarterback threw too many passes to Florida defenders, but Moye did his part for Penn State with five receptions for 79 yards and a touchdown. He nearly had a second touchdown following a 44-yard reception but the ball was placed at the 1-yard line. Penn State scored on the next play to tie the score at 14-14.

TE: Jake Stoneburner, Ohio State
Ohio State featured its tight ends in a 28-point first half at the Sugar Bowl, and Stoneburner benefited with three receptions for 39 yards. Fellow tight end Reid Fragel added a 42-yard reception. Wisconsin's Lance Kendricks, Iowa's Allen Reisner and Michigan's Kevin Koger all merit mentions here.

OL: Josh Koeppel, Iowa
Koeppel and fellow linemen James Ferentz and Markus Zusevics got Coker going early by creating a huge hole for the freshman early in the second quarter. Coker zipped through it for a 62-yard touchdown as Iowa surged out to a 14-3 lead.

OL: Jeff Allen, Illinois
Allen helped the Illini rack up 38 points and 291 offensive yards in the rout of Baylor. He also protected Scheelhaase, who completed his first 13 pass attempts and finished the game 18-for-23 passing.

OL: Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin
The Badgers didn't have the dominant offensive performance they envisioned against TCU, but they still rushed for 226 yards and two touchdowns. Carimi, the 2010 Outland Trophy winner, did his part in his final collegiate game.

OL: Randall Hunt, Illinois
Hunt and Allen earned the highest grades from the Illini coaches after the team dominated Baylor in the Texas Bowl. Illinois mounted seven drives of 53 yards or longer, including two fourth-quarter touchdown drives that overpowered the Bears and put away the game.

C: Mike Brewster, Ohio State
Ohio State physically dominated Arkansas up front in the first half, and Brewster led the way from the center position. He helped clear the way for Herron's walk-in 9-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter. Ohio State racked up 28 points and 338 yards in the first half and finished with 225 rush yards against Arkansas.

DEFENSE

DL: Cameron Heyward, Ohio State
Heyward delivered the best performance of his college career in his final game as a Buckeye. The senior racked up 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, two quarterback hurries and a pass breakup. He also caused a critical holding penalty by Arkansas midway through the fourth quarter.

DL: Corey Liuget, Illlinois
Liuget showed Baylor why he was the Big Ten's most disruptive defensive tackle this season. The junior recorded 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack and caused a ton of trouble in the Bears' backfield.

DL: Dexter Larimore, Ohio State
Heyward drew most of the praise in the Sugar Bowl, but Larimore caused almost as many problems for the Arkansas offensive line. The senior recorded six tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble as Ohio State held Arkansas' offense in check for a good portion of the game.

DL: Devon Still, Penn State
Still set a career high with 3.5 tackles for loss in Penn State's Outback Bowl loss to Florida. He tied for second on the team with seven tackles as Penn State prevented Florida from mounting long scoring drives.

LB: James Morris, Iowa
Like Coker, Morris raised hope for the Hawkeyes' future with a strong performance in the Insight Bowl. He recorded seven tackles, including one stop for loss, and showed more aggressiveness than some of his older teammates.

LB: Quentin Davie, Northwestern
The TicketCity Bowl wasn't a banner day for Northwestern's defense, but Davie did his part with 15 tackles, including two tackles for loss. His tackles total marked a career high in his final collegiate game with the Wildcats.

LB: Martez Wilson, Illinois
Wilson was a noticeable presence in what turned out to be his final game in an Illini uniform. Tez recorded seven tackles including one for loss in the win against Baylor.

DB: Micah Hyde, Iowa
Hyde made the biggest play of the Big Ten bowl season, picking off a Blaine Gabbert pass and returning the ball 72 yards for the game-winning touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. Iowa appeared headed toward another second-half collapse before Hyde made Gabbert pay for his only bad decision of the game.

DB: D'Anton Lynn, Penn State
Lynn made a huge impact at the start of the Outback Bowl, recording an interception and recovering a fumble in the Penn State end zone in the first 10 minutes of the game. He finished the season tied with Nick Sukay for the team lead in interceptions with three.

DB: Terry Hawthorne, Illinois
The sophomore cornerback set career highs in both tackles (9) and tackles for loss (1.5) in the win against Baylor. Hawthorne made his first start of the season after battling a foot injury for much of the fall.

DB: Devon Torrence, Ohio State
The Buckeyes' secondary once again needed a boost after losing a standout player to injury, and Torrence provided it. After All-Big Ten corner Chimdi Chekwa went out with a wrist injury, Torrence picked up the slack and recorded eight tackles, a tackle for loss, a forced fumble and a pass breakup.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Derek Dimke, Illinois
Dimke showed why he's known as the Big Ten's steadiest kicker in the Texas Bowl, going 3-for-3 on field goal attempts from 28, 38 and 43 yards out. He became the first Illinois player to make more than one field goal in a bowl game and connected on multiple kicks for the ninth time in the 2010 season.

P: Aaron Bates, Michigan State
Bates provided the lone bright spot for the Spartans in the Capital One Bowl, averaging 43.4 yards on seven attempts with a long of 55 yards and two punts placed inside the 20-yard line. Honorable mentions go to Illinois' Anthony Santella, Wisconsin's Brad Nortman and Iowa's Ryan Donahue.

KR: Martavious Odoms, Michigan
The fact that Odoms played in the Gator Bowl following a broken foot was pretty incredible, and unfortunately for Michigan, he got plenty of work on returns. Odoms racked up 163 kick return yards on seven attempts with a long runback of 43 yards. Honorable mentions go to Michigan State's Bennie Fowler, Iowa's Paul Chaney Jr. and Northwestern's Venric Mark.

ESPN.com's 2010 All-Big Ten team

December, 8, 2010
12/08/10
10:30
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It's time to reveal my All-Big Ten team. As always, there were some tough decisions, and several deserving players don't appear on the rundown below.

For your reference, the official All-Big Ten teams and my preseason all-conference squad.

OFFENSE

QB: Denard Robinson, Michigan
RB: Mikel Leshoure, Illinois
RB: Edwin Baker, Michigan State
WR: Dane Sanzenbacher, Ohio State
WR: Jeremy Ebert, Northwestern
TE: Lance Kendricks, Wisconsin
C: David Molk, Michigan
T: Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin
T: Mike Adams, Ohio State
G: John Moffitt, Wisconsin
G: Stefen Wisniewski, Penn State

DEFENSE

DL: Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue
DL: J.J. Watt, Wisconsin
DT: Adrian Clayborn, Iowa
DL: Corey Liuget, Illinois
LB: Greg Jones, Michigan State
LB: Martez Wilson, Illinois
LB: Brian Rolle, Ohio State
DB: Chimdi Chekwa, Ohio State
DB: Tyler Sash, Iowa
DB: Jermale Hines, Ohio State
DB: Ricardo Allen, Purdue

SPECIALISTS

K: Derek Dimke, Illinois
P: Aaron Bates, Michigan State
KR: Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota
PR: Keshawn Martin, Michigan State

Selections by team: Ohio State (5), Wisconsin (4), Michigan State (4), Illinois (4), Michigan (2) Purdue (2), Iowa (2), Northwestern (1), Penn State (1), Minnesota (1)

Five players are repeat selections from 2009: Wisniewski, Carimi, Clayborn, Jones and Sash.

Final: Fresno State 25, Illinois 23

December, 4, 2010
12/04/10
1:59
AM ET
Illinois didn't have to put the game in the hands of a WAC officiating crew.

The Illini could have shown up in the first quarter rather than fall behind 16-0. They could have displayed grit on defense before the halftime break. They could have finished drives and avoided dumb penalties.

But Illinois didn't do those things, and Friday night's game turned into a nail-biter that Fresno State won 25-23.

Make no mistake: Illinois has an extremely legitimate gripe with the WAC officials at Bulldog Stadium.

With 3:17 remaining, Fresno State faced fourth-and-1 from just outside its own 45-yard line. The Bulldogs had received an unfavorable spot on a third-down pass, putting the ball about a yard and a half shy of the marker. Based on that bad third-down spot, however, there's no way A.J. Ellis reached the marker on his fourth-down run up the middle.

Illinois coach Ron Zook challenged the spot, but the officials upheld the call. I don't know what more indisputable video evidence was needed. The ball should have been moved back at least two feet.

It wouldn't have taken much for Illinois to get itself into range for a Derek Dimke field-goal try. Instead, the botched call allowed Fresno State to run out the clock.

Not to be forgotten in all this was the personal foul penalty on Illinois' Tavon Wilson for hitting a defenseless player after the Illini had stopped Fresno State near its goal line. Can't argue with that call. Wilson's got to know better in that situation.

Despite strong second-half performances from quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, running back Mikel Leshoure and defensive tackle Corey Liuget, Illinois couldn't finish off the regular season on the right note.

Big Ten teams might want to avoid playing at WAC stadiums in the final game of the season. Remember Michigan State at Hawaii in 2004? Or Northwestern at Hawaii that same year?

At least Illinois, unlike Michigan State or Northwestern in 2004, still can look forward to a bowl appearance, although it won't be in Florida. Tonight's loss pretty much eliminates Illinois from consideration for the Outback, Gator or Insight bowls.

Expect to see Illinois in the Texas Bowl against Baylor.
Illinois has been arguably the nation's biggest surprise this season, but the Illini will never be confused with a bunch of overachievers.

Coach Ron Zook has recruited too well for that label to apply, signing decorated classes pretty much every February during his tenure in Champaign. ESPN Recruiting rated Illinois' 2007 class (current seniors or redshirt juniors) at No. 12 nationally, while the 2008 class (current juniors and redshirt sophomores) ranked No. 16 and the 2009 crop (current sophomores and redshirt freshmen) rated in the top 40 according to several recruiting services.

Throughout Zook's tenure, most opposing coaches began their assessment of Illinois the way Michigan's Rich Rodriguez did Tuesday.

"Extremely athletic," said Rodriguez, whose Wolverines host Illinois on Saturday.

But extremely good?

Ron Zook
Chuck Rydlewski/Icon SMIRon Zook is in the midst of one of his most successful seasons since coming to Illinois.
That tag rarely has applied to Zook's Illini. Aside from the 2007 season, when Illinois went 9-4 and reached the Rose Bowl, Zook's Illini teams have the following records: 2-9, 2-10, 5-7 and 3-9.

Translating talent to on-field success has been a challenge, to say the least.

"It's the biggest challenge," Zook told ESPN.com this week. "You get good guys and you get them all playing for the same thing, that's hard to do. You can look at a lot of different teams that are successful or are not successful that are talented.

"A lot of it is maybe a little thing here, a little thing there, where they're not all on the same page."

The Illini certainly are on the same page this year, and they're writing a new chapter for a coach on whom many had closed he book after a 3-9 disaster in 2009. Illinois might be the best 5-3 squad in the country as its losses have come against three top-15 squads -- No. 11. Ohio State, No. 12 Missouri and No. 14 Michigan State -- that boast a combined record of 23-3.

With its toughest stretch in the rearview mirror, Illinois should have no trouble ending a two-year postseason drought and has a very realistic shot of playing in a Jan. 1 bowl game.

How did the Illini turn things around?

It started days after the 2009 season. Zook was spared but overhauled his coaching staff, bringing in two new coordinators (Vic Koenning for defense, Paul Petrino for offense) and several new position coaches.

The Illini players had to learn two new systems and philosophies, but they picked it up and bonded in the process.

"It's a hard thing to accomplish, to get everybody on the same page and trying to help each other," Zook said. "You don't know for sure until you do it, but the coaches have done a great job of doing the things our players can do well. To me, it's coaches being flexible, players being flexible and everybody buying into the same thing.

"It's a pretty close-knit group, and they're trying to do something that no one thinks they can do."

Illinois has made its biggest strides on defense and special teams. The Illini rank in the top 10 nationally in both net punting and kickoff coverage, while punter Anthony Santella and kicker Derek Dimke both are in the mix for national awards.

Few first-year assistants in the country have had a more positive impact than Koenning, as the defense has gone from 91st nationally in 2009 to 15th this year. Linebacker Martez Wilson and defensive linemen Corey Liuget, two top prospects from Zook's decorated recruiting classes, are blossoming this season, playing at first-team All-Big Ten levels.

"He's a great teacher," Zook said of Koenning. "He's been flexible, he's looked at things differently. We're not doing things the same as he's done everywhere else. It's like, we've got good players, so let's get them in the right positions to make plays."

Petrino's offense also seems to be hitting its stride, as redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase is evolving into a dangerous dual-threat quarterback. The Illini even dealt with claims of running up the score in last Saturday's 44-10 win against Purdue, which hasn't happened in a while.

Zook hasn't had much time to sit back and enjoy the ride, but he likes where things are headed.

"There are still questions out there," he said. "But as long as we continue in this same direction, we'll continue to improve."

Big Ten stock report: Week 9

October, 27, 2010
10/27/10
3:19
PM ET
Who moves up? Who moves down?

Let's take a look.

STOCK UP

Wisconsin RB Montee Ball: Despite losing the backup job to James White and seeing his carries decrease, Ball waited his turn and came up big against Iowa. He caught a 7-yard pass on fourth-and-4 to keep Wisconsin's game-winning drive alive and finished things off with two 8-yard runs, the second a powerful burst that reached the end zone.

Illinois' special teams: Punter Anthony Santella and kicker Derek Dimke both have been great all season, but the kicking game got another boost against Indiana as Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey both blocked punts, one resulting in a safety. It marked the first time Illinois has blocked two punts in a game since Sept. 11, 1976, against Iowa.

Ohio State's defensive line: Humbled the week before by Wisconsin, the Buckeyes' front four responded with authority against Purdue. Each starter recorded at least one tackle for loss, and ends Cameron Heyward and Nathan Williams both notched sacks as Ohio State held Purdue to nine first downs and 30 rush yards.

Penn State QB Rob Bolden: Before leaving the Minnesota game with a head injury, Bolden was on fire, completing 11 of 13 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown. The bye week clearly benefited the freshman, who settled into a nice rhythm. Hopefully, he's not out too long with an apparent concussion.

STOCK DOWN

Iowa's special teams: The indelible image from Iowa's magical 2009 season was Adrian Clayborn's punt block and return for a touchdown at Penn State. This year has been blighted by special-teams blunders, from the blocked punt and kick return touchdown against Arizona, to having an extra point try blocked and allowing Wisconsin to convert a fake punt in last Saturday's loss.

Indiana QB Ben Chappell: The senior has been outstanding in Indiana's four victories and its loss to Michigan, but it's been a different story on the road against above-average Big Ten defenses. After throwing two interceptions in a Week 6 loss to Ohio State, Chappell was picked off three times at Illinois, and the Illini returned one for a touchdown.

Northwestern's fourth-quarter defense: Everyone is still talking about the fake punt Northwestern allowed early in the fourth quarter, but it wouldn't have mattered if the Wildcats had made a stop on Michigan State's 88-yard scoring drive. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz took his foot off of the accelerator and didn't bring pressure, and Kirk Cousins picked apart a shaky secondary. Northwestern has allowed late scoring drives in each of its past two games.

Purdue's defense: The Boilers upgraded their play on defense in wins against Northwestern and Minnesota, but things went downhill from the get-go at The Shoe. Ohio State did pretty much as it pleased in a historic first half, piling up 42 points and 415 total yards, the highest-total for a half in the Jim Tressel era (2001-present). Ryan Kerrigan and his crew must do better this week at Illinois.
Let's press the rewind button on Week 8 before fast-forwarding into Week 9.

[+] EnlargeScott Tolzien
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallWisconsin's Scott Tolzien made some clutch throws in the fourth quarter at Iowa.
Team of the Week: Wisconsin. The Badgers get the nod for the second consecutive week after their second consecutive signature win, this time on the road against rival Iowa. Bret Bielema's squad had to overcome several key injuries -- running back James White, tight end Lance Kendricks -- and a red-hot Ricky Stanzi, but thanks to a gutsy fake punt call from Bielema, some clutch play by quarterback Scott Tolzien and the emergence of third-string back Montee Ball, Wisconsin rallied for a 31-30 victory. Wisconsin still needs some help to reach a BCS bowl, but it has survived the toughest part of its schedule and will be favored in its final four contests.

Best game: I give a slight edge to Wisconsin-Iowa, but Michigan State-Northwestern also provided plenty of drama. Both games featured fake punts with fun names -- "Mousetrap" and "Chain" -- that led to come-from-behind victories by the road team. We saw tremendous quarterback play in both contests -- Michigan State's Kirk Cousins and Northwestern's Dan Persa in Evanston, Iowa's Stanzi and Wisconsin's Tolzien in Iowa City -- and surprising players stepping up in the clutch (Wisconsin's Ball, Michigan State's Bennie Fowler). A ton of good stuff in both games.

Biggest play: The two fake punts are the obvious choices here, especially Wisconsin's on a fourth-and-4 from its own 26-yard line with about six minutes to play. But there were others as well. Tolzien made a huge throw to Ball for a 7-yard completion on fourth-and-5 in the closing minutes, and Michigan State receiver B.J. Cunningham came up huge on the game-winning touchdown, which he caught after Northwestern safety Brian Peters deflected the ball.

Specialist spotlight: Michigan State punter Aaron Bates and his Wisconsin counterpart Brad Nortman have received plenty of credit, and deservedly so, for executing the fake punts Saturday. Illinois continued to shine on special teams as punter Anthony Santella averaged 45.6 yards on five punts, Derek Dimke added two more field goals and Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey both blocked Indiana punts. Penn State punter Anthony Fera was outstanding, averaging 45.2 yards a punt with four placed inside the Minnesota 20-yard line. Purdue punter Cody Webster had another big day (six punts, 46.7-yard average), and Iowa's Ryan Donahue had a 71-yard punt. Northwestern kicker Stefan Demos rebounded with two field goals against Michigan State.

Game balls:

  • Michigan State DE Tyler Hoover: Hoover gave Northwestern's offensive line all sorts of trouble, recording two sacks and a forced fumble and tying Greg Jones for the team lead in tackles with nine. He tied a career high in tackles and set a personal best in sacks as he continues to blossom for the unbeaten Spartans.
  • Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt: The junior is making a serious push for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. He followed up a dominating performance against Ohio State with five tackles, including two for loss and a sack, and a huge blocked extra-point attempt that proved to be the difference in the game.
  • Illinois defenders Corey Liuget, Justin Staples, Terry Hawthorne, Patrick Nixon-Youman and Jonathan Brown: They'll have to share one game ball, but I doubt they'll mind after teaming up to shut down Indiana. Liuget recorded a sack and five quarterback hurries, while Staples had two tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Nixon-Youman and Brown both recorded pick-sixes, and Hawthorne had an interception and a tackle for loss in his first game back from injury.
  • Penn State CB D'Anton Lynn: Lynn stepped up in a big way at Minnesota, recording a game-high 10 tackles and a 58-yard interception return that turned the momentum in the second quarter.
  • Northwestern QB Dan Persa: Anyone who hadn't seen Persa before Saturday gained a ton of respect for the Wildcats' junior quarterback. He repeatedly sacrificed his body and made plays when they seemingly weren't there, recording three rushing touchdowns in the game.
  • Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien: Despite not having one of his top passing targets in Kendricks, Tolzien led Wisconsin to a huge road victory. He did have an ugly interception, but was otherwise brilliant, completing 20 of 26 passes for 205 yards and a touchdown.
  • Ohio State WRs Dane Sanzenbacher and DeVier Posey: One of the nation's top receiving tandems teamed up Saturday for eight receptions, 170 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Sanzenbacher had a 57-yard reception as he continues to improve his stock for the Biletnikoff Award.
  • Minnesota WR Da'Jon McKnight: The next Gophers coach will inherit a nice piece in McKnight, who continues to evolve as a go-to receiver. McKnight recorded eight receptions for 103 yards and three touchdowns against Penn State.
  • Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi: I put the poor clock management at the end of the game on the coaching staff, not Stanzi, who delivered another tremendous performance. The senior completed 25 of 37 passes for 258 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions against Wisconsin.

Now let's spin it forward for a quick look at Week 9.

Purdue (4-3, 2-1 Big Ten) at Illinois (4-3, 2-2): Purdue might have to start another new quarterback after Rob Henry's hand injury, and the timing doesn't favor the Boilers, as the Illinois defense is on fire. The game features two of the Big Ten's top pass-rushing groups, as Ryan Kerrigan leads Purdue, while Corey Liuget looks to keep his stellar season going. The winner moves one step closer to bowl eligibility.

Northwestern (5-2, 1-2) at Indiana (4-3, 0-3): This matchup features two similar teams dealing with similar senses of urgency. Northwestern aims to stop a two-game slide on the road, where it has been at its best under Pat Fitzgerald. Indiana probably needs to win this one to keep its bowl hopes alive, and the Hoosiers look to bounce back from a mistake-ridden performance at Illinois. The game also pairs two excellent quarterbacks -- Dan Persa and Ben Chappell -- and two vulnerable pass defenses. Expect a lot of points.

No. 5 Michigan State (8-0, 4-0) at No. 18 Iowa (5-2, 2-1): If the Spartans can get out of Iowa City with a victory, they can really start thinking about a run to the national title game. Michigan State certainly has the magic that Iowa had last year but is lacking this year after two fourth-quarter letdowns. Two outstanding quarterbacks meet in the Spartans' Kirk Cousins and the Hawkeyes' Ricky Stanzi, and the game also features defensive stars like Adrian Clayborn and Greg Jones. Iowa can't afford to lose and stay in the Big Ten race.

No. 11 Ohio State (7-1, 3-1) at Minnesota (1-7, 0-4): This one could get ugly. Ohio State's offense has carved up weak defenses all season, and Minnesota ranks 90th nationally in yards allowed (406.4 ypg) and 100th in points allowed (31.9 ppg). Quarterback Terrelle Pryor is licking his chops. Minnesota will need a huge performance from quarterback Adam Weber to keep pace against a banged-up Buckeyes defense that rebounded last week.

Michigan (5-2, 1-2) at Penn State (4-3, 1-2): Simply put, this is the biggest game of Rich Rodriguez's Michigan tenure. Rodriguez and the Wolverines come off of a bye week and need a win to stem talk of a 2009 redux. Penn State got the win it needed at Minnesota, but surrendered 433 yards. The Lions will be tested by Denard Robinson and co., while their quarterback situation remains unsettled after Rob Bolden's apparent concussion.

Bye: No. 10 Wisconsin (7-1, 3-1)

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