NCF Nation: Devin Funchess

The 43-yard touchdown connection between Devin Gardner and Devin Funchess in an 18-13 win over Penn State was a rare site for this year’s Michigan team.

The standout individual effort by Funchess gave the Wolverines their longest completion of the year and the longest play of any kind since a season-opening drubbing of Appalachian State. As much trouble as Michigan’s offense has had with turnovers and finding a steady run game this season, it’s had an equally difficult time coming up with the type of big plays that can mask those inconsistencies.

[+] EnlargeDevin Funchess
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsMichigan hopes to get more big plays from Devin Funchess and the offense.
 “There is no question we have to create more explosive plays,” head coach Brady Hoke said after an open week to mull over his team’s most glaring issues.

Michigan’s bye week after seven straight games provided Hoke and his 3-4 team with an overdue opportunity to get healthy and evaluate themselves. Beating Penn State the previous Saturday allowed him to go through that process with less pressure and fewer questions about his future.

With in-state rival Michigan State next on the schedule and Ohio State looming a month later, the recalibrations Hoke and his staff make this week have the potential to save their jobs in Ann Arbor or provide the final nail in the coffin of their Michigan coaching careers. This week Hoke is attempting to land on the right side of the fine line that separates making improvements and overwhelming your team by tinkering too much.

“At times you say, ‘We need to add this,’ and then you add too much. Then you have a real problem,” Hoke said. “For us, it’s going back to what we want to be identity-wise, and we want to run the football.”

The run, Michigan hopes, will set up its dynamic offensive players with more chances to produce game-changing plays. Through seven games, the Wolverines have picked up 30 or more yards on a single play six times, fewer than all but four teams in the bowl subdivision this season. The only offensive category where they’ve struggled more is in turnover margin, where they rank dead last.

Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said big chunk gains usually come from exploiting an opponent’s weakest points or putting your best playmakers in a position to excel. Three of those long plays came from sophomore running back Derrick Green, who is sidelined for the rest of the season with a broken collarbone. The onus in Green’s absence falls even more squarely on the shoulders of Funchess and Gardner, the senior quarterback who has looked like more of an offensive threat in his two most recent games.

“I get the ball every play so it’s pretty much all my responsibility,” Gardner said. “Even if it’s a big run play for our running backs, I’ve got to hand it to them. I feel like I’m a big part of that.”

Gardner has the potential to create a few of those plays with his feet, but his best bet is to connect with his favorite target, the 6-foot-5 Funchess. He leads the team with 36 receptions and four touchdowns, but three of those came against Appalachian State.

 Funchess battled a leg injury during most of September, making his highlight-reel return to the end zone against Penn State a beacon of hope that more spectacular efforts might be coming now that he’s healthy. Nussmeier knows Michigan has to find ways to get the ball in his hands.

“We’re always looking for ways to [create good match-ups],” he said. “Without giving away too much scheme stuff, we evaluated that very hard during the bye week and looked at ways to do that better.”

The Spartans, for all of their prowess on defense, have been burned by the long ball several times this season. They’ve surrendered at least 30 yards on 19 different plays this season, which ranks them 103rd in the nation in that category. The miscues have come against competition that ranges from Oregon to Eastern Michigan.

Michigan enters Saturday’s rivalry game as a double-digit underdog. The line against the Buckeyes later this season should be equally lopsided. The Wolverines likely need to win at least one of those games if Hoke is going to return in 2015. One tried-and-true way to pull off an upset -- especially with a defense that has held its own this season -- is with a few big plays.
Our crew of Big Ten reporters will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. They'll have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.

Today's Take Two topic: Who has the best receiving tandem in the Big Ten?

[+] EnlargeGeno Lewis
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsPSU's Geno Lewis has the stats and intangibles to make a case for one of the Big Ten's best WRs.
Take 1: Josh Moyer

Dan, Dan, Dan -- let's not overthink this. Michigan has the Big Ten's best receiver in Devin Funchess, but there's really no No. 2 there. Stefon Diggs is an elite talent, but Deon Long hasn't made a huge impact this season. So, let's not get cute with this pick. The answer is really simple: Penn State's Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton.

Now, before the season, I wouldn't have guessed this. Lewis was inconsistent last season, and Hamilton missed his true freshman season with an injury. But you can't argue with their production this season. Only four receivers in the Big Ten are averaging at least 100 yards a game, and Lewis and Hamilton are two of them. Lewis leads the conference in receiving yards (462) and is second in receptions (25); Hamilton leads the conference in receptions (30) and is second in receiving yards (402). How's that for complementary?

But you know what, Dan? Let's forget about the stats. You want a deep threat with great focus and athleticism? Lewis has made several highlight-worthy catches, including a tipped ball he pulled down for a 41-yard gain against UCF. You want consistency and a target on more underneath routes? Hamilton caught a pass in 13 of this season's first 14 quarters. You want clutch plays? Well, on PSU's game-winning drive against Rutgers, Lewis accounted for 76 yards on the Nittany Lions' 80-yard drive. You want a guy who has the potential to grow a lot more just this season? Hamilton was called "one of the biggest sleepers in the Big Ten" in the preseason by his receivers coach and, despite an 11-catch performance in Week 1, Hamilton said he didn't feel 100 percent.

This is a young tandem -- Hamilton is a redshirt freshman, Lewis a redshirt sophomore -- but their ability is not in doubt. We'll probably see these guys a few times on "SportsCenter"'s top 10 plays, and it certainly doesn't hurt that they have Christian Hackenberg throwing to them. So the answer here is an easy one: It has to be Penn State's tandem.

Take 2: Dan Murphy

[+] EnlargeTony Lippett
Phil Ellsworth/ESPN ImagesThrough three games this season, Spartans WR Tony Lippett has 18 receptions for 345 yards and 5 TDs.
Michigan State veteran Tony Lippett played less than a half on Saturday in Sparty's blowout 73-14 win against Eastern Michigan, but he still had time to add to his league-leading total of five receiving touchdowns. Getting to the end zone was the main thing missing from Lippett's game in past years. Now he's on track to contend for the conference's best receiver and a shot at the Biletnikoff Award short list.

To make this list, though, he'll need a partner. That's where junior MacGarrett Kings Jr. comes in. The 5-foot-10 speedster has only four catches through three games this season, but he has the physical skills to complement Lippett when he reaches his potential.

Kings missed the majority of spring practice after a DUI arrest and has been playing catch up ever since. Spartans coach Mark Dantonio made Kings scrape his way back toward the top of the depth chart during fall camp. His day against Eastern Michigan was short as well, but he did flash his big-play ability with a 43-yard punt return to set up the first of many scores.

Lippett is averaging six receptions and 115 yards per outing after three games, one of which came against a talented Oregon team that boasts one of the best cornerbacks in the country in Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. He has reached the end zone in every game this season, more than doubling his career touchdowns after starting the year with only four to his name.

Penn State's Lewis owns the Big Ten passing play of the year so far with his 53-yard catch-and-run to help take down Rutgers two weeks, but we're only four weeks (and one league game) into the season. Lewis and Hamilton rank among the top three receivers in the conference in catches per game and yards per game, but small sample sizes make it hard to extrapolate in September.

Lippett and Kings should be able to pass Lewis and Hamilton as the conference's top receiving tandem once they get up to full speed.

The battle for wide receiver duo supremacy is likely to remain between these two programs this season for one main reason -- both pairs have the luxury of a quality quarterback. The league has other talented receivers such as Diggs, Funchess, and Kenny Bell and Jordan Westerkamp in Nebraska, but no one from that group has a proven consistent passer to feed them the ball.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Joe Schmidt is a former walk-on who worked his way to a scholarship before earning Notre Dame's starting middle linebacker role. He is a coach's dream who never makes one game or snap out to be bigger than it really is.

Yet when Schmidt entered the media room after Notre Dame's 31-0 win over Michigan, the optimist in him was outdone by the sheer absurdity of the goodbye his young and unproven defense had just delivered the Wolverines.

"You want to believe that this is something you can accomplish every time you go on the field," Schmidt said. "And there's still a lot of things we could've done better today, but …"

He paused for three seconds and collected himself with a deep breath.

"Shoot. This is a great feeling right now."

As finales go, this was more Sopranos than Breaking Bad, a much-hyped shootout that turned into a dramatic letdown. Notre Dame didn't just send Michigan back to Ann Arbor with a 1-1 record and a bad taste in its mouth from being on the losing end of these programs' final meeting. No, the Irish flat-out demoralized the Wolverines. They bullied their hapless offensive line, shredded their patchwork secondary and delivered one indignity after another following a week that did nothing but suggest the visitors would be the ones who would enter with chips on their shoulders.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Cody Riggs and Joe Schmidt
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsCody Riggs, right, and Joe Schmidt celebrate one of Notre Dame's three interceptions against Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner.
Michigan had played 365 straight games in which they scored points before Saturday. These Irish met them in a dark alley here in Week 2, and they rendered them rudderless.

"I just got the stat from [SID Michael] Bertsch: 1984 was the last time these guys were shut out?" Schmidt said as he double-checked with reporters. "I think that kind of speaks for itself on how great this feels right now for me and for this defense and for this team."

Michigan left here last time feeling disrespected, with athletic director David Brandon on the receiving end of a cancellation letter from counterpart Jack Swarbrick. The Wolverines had said what Notre Dame did to them was a slap in the face. To add insult to injury, the Irish announced Thursday they would play a future series against Michigan's arch-rival, Ohio State.

What Notre Dame did to Michigan before a sellout crowd under the lights was far more humiliating.

The Wolverines seemingly dared Everett Golson to beat them with his arm. He looked every bit as lethal as he did last week against Conference USA member Rice and completed 23 of 34 passes for 226 yards with three touchdowns.

Michigan's quarterback, Devin Gardner, received help from no one but Devin Funchess, which led coach Brady Hoke to defend why he stuck with his signal caller after Gardner threw three interceptions and lost a third-quarter fumble on a reckless spin move Schmidt saw coming from a mile away.

"Sometimes it just opens up, and as a defensive player, that's the stuff you lay awake at night dreaming of," Schmidt said. "Quarterback's back, ball's right there, you know you can force the fumble."

Gardner's predecessor, Denard Robinson, had tossed four picks and lost one fumble in a 2012 loss to Notre Dame. That was against the No. 2 scoring defense in the country, the catalyst behind an Irish team that went all the way to the BCS title game.

This year's defense started eight new faces from a year ago in its second game under new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who himself turned into an overnight internet celebrity for a raucous late-game celebration.

"I would say it really just ceases all the doubts about, We're young, 'Can we execute?'" Jaylon Smith (10 tackles) said.

VanGorder can be forgiven for his excitement, but the best was yet to come.

Whereas Hoke had quipped last year that Notre Dame was chickening-out of this rivalry — a brushfire Michigan threw gasoline on by playing the "Chicken Dance" after its win over Notre Dame in 2013 — Notre Dame fans took matters into their own hands in the closing minutes and started a stadium-wide rendition of "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye."

And that wasn't even the final indignity.

On what looked like it would be the final play of the game, Gardner was picked off one last time by Elijah Shumate, who returned it 61 yards for a touchdown. Michigan personnel had already made their way to the locker room, having escaped the hysteria engulfing Notre Dame Stadium — except the officials ruled Max Redfield had roughed the passer on the return, the touchdown didn't count and the game couldn't end on a defensive penalty. This made for an awkward delay, as the playing grounds cleared and a chunk of the Wolverines' roster made the long walk back through the tunnel and onto the FieldTurf before going right back up after the Irish showed mercy and took a knee.

"We temper it by knowing that we got a long season ahead of us, and it counts as one, it doesn't count as two," said coach Brian Kelly, who tried so hard all week to not give in to the hype. "If it counted as two, we would probably be a little bit happier, but it counts as one.

"But there's no question -- I would be lying if I told you that it doesn't feel great to shut out Michigan 31-0."
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Even among the largest crowd in college football history, Devin Gardner's knack for finding one particular face in the stands worked again.

The Michigan quarterback is always able to pick out his mom from the field, and doing it with so many extra bodies crammed into the Big House and the boisterous postgame celebration that followed perhaps his most impressive victory after knocking off Notre Dame is still burned into his brain.

“It's weird, but somehow I'm always able to find her,” Gardner said. “And after the game, it was an amazing feeling. You know, it was the largest crowd to ever watch a football game, so you try to block it out during the game, but once the game is over, you kind of realize, ‘Wow, this is cool.'

“Walking off the field with a win. That's my No. 1 memory.”

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsDevin Gardner was nearly perfect in Week 1 against Appalachian State, completing 13 of 14 passes with three TDs.
Gardner made plenty of them in a thrilling win for the Wolverines, and his four touchdowns in the last scheduled meeting with the Irish at Michigan Stadium won't soon be forgotten.

But there was one lowlight that might be every bit as memorable, and in some ways it might actually be the easiest play to recall from the game. And it's also one which provides something of a tidy summary for Gardner's career with the Wolverines to this point.

For all his success commanding the huddle and handling the environment, the effectiveness he displayed as a rusher and the clutch throws he made to knock off Notre Dame, it was a brain lapse in the end zone and a gift-wrapped interception for a touchdown that tightened up the game and offered what would be a glimpse at Gardner's up-and-down junior season.

He was capable of brilliance like accounting for five total touchdowns against the Irish or carving up Ohio State for 451 yards and four scores despite battling through an injury. But Gardner was also prone to turnover issues during his 11-interception campaign, like the costly toss to the Irish that produced a rare zero-yard return for a score or the do-or-die two-point conversion attempt that was picked off by the Buckeyes' Tyvis Powell to overshadow a gutsy effort in The Game.

Gardner did more than enough to overcome that mistake against the Irish and even a decent defensive outing against Ohio State would have given him another win to improve his reputation as a big-game quarterback for a program that is battling its own fight with national perception coming off seasons that don't meet the Michigan standard. But discussions about how he's viewed outside the program appear to matter little to Gardner, even with another chance to change the conversation on Saturday at Notre Dame.

“People are going to say what they want, but my teammates know that I did everything I could to help us win,” Gardner said. “It doesn't matter what anybody else thinks.

“I just keep the main thing the main thing, and that's winning the game and doing everything I have to do to win. Do my job every play, and if everybody else goes out collectively and does that we'll be fine.”

There was hardly a unit that didn't look capable of handling its duties last week in a season-opening rout of Appalachian State.

Wide receiver Devin Funchess was a matchup nightmare on the perimeter, and he torched the Mountaineers with three straight touchdowns to start the year. The defense pitched a first-half shutout before starting to turn its eyes toward the Irish, and the special teams chipped in a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown as well.

But Gardner, in good times and bad, is always under the brightest spotlight. And if his senior debut was an opportunity to showcase his own personal improvement, it's hard to argue with a performance that included just one incompletion, no turnovers -- and one more victory stroll to the locker room.

“[Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier] always tells us we have to have our own identities as individuals in the offense,” Funchess said. “I think Devin found his swag and his comfort level.”

For both Gardner and the Wolverines, that confidence could lead to a few more happy memories.


ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Nothing had changed physically for Devin Funchess, but his jersey no longer fit.

The number was all wrong now, especially since the No. 87 was reserved at Michigan for a tight end and Funchess was now officially, fully a wide receiver after previously shuffling between positions.

And while the process of switching numbers isn’t an overnight proposition at a program with as much history as Michigan, Funchess knew something had to be done to make sure he looked right and was paying the proper respects to the school’s rich tradition before opening the season last weekend against Appalachian State.

“I felt like No. 87 was more of a tight end number,” Funchess said. “I was just thinking of a number, and I was always watching highlights, and I saw David Terrell and Anthony Carter, Tyrone [Butterfield] and of course Braylon [Edwards]. I saw those guys, and I think I fit that frame.

“I think the No. 1 fit me.”

Earning the right to put it on for the first time, though, wasn’t as simple as Funchess just asking for a new digit and expecting a different uniform to show up in his locker.

[+] EnlargeDevin Funchess
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsDevin Funchess donned the No. 1 jersey for the first time in the opener and then rose to the occasion.
He was aware of that, of course, and methodically worked through a checklist before making a request to slip on a jersey that has been synonymous with game-breaking wide receivers at Michigan for nearly four decades.

The first step was actually becoming a full-timer at the position, which new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier made clear that Funchess would be this fall while challenging him to learn not only all of his responsibilities on the field, but those of each of the other wideouts in the formation as well.

Then Funchess asked for feedback from respected team leaders throughout offseason workouts and training camps, checking in with them to make sure he was putting in enough effort to earn the right to switch.

He also had to be sure that No. 1 was the best choice for him, with hours of watching highlights of former Michigan stars wearing that famous digit helping convince Funchess he was ready to pick up the torch and add his name to the list.

Finally there were the not-so-small matters of making the request to Michigan coach Brady Hoke, calling the family of Michigan’s designated legend for the No. 87 jersey, Ron Kramer, to get approval to make a change and ultimately passing something of a history test to prove that Funchess understood what he was asking for in becoming just the seventh wide receiver in Michigan history and first since 2004 to wear the iconic jersey.

“Devin being more of a wide receiver, obviously, he thought that's what he wanted to do,” Hoke said. “Believe me, I asked him who has worn No. 1.

“He started with Anthony Carter and went down the list, and I think that he has earned it.”

Less than a week before the Wolverines emerged from the locker room to open the season, Hoke gave the final blessing on Sunday of game week and Funchess had his new look.

And just before taking the field six days later and providing some strong evidence that he’ll only add to the legacy of the uniform by scoring the first three touchdowns of the season for the Wolverines and making life miserable for Appalachian State defenders helpless against his size and speed, Funchess snuck in a quick glance at the number now on his chest.

“It gave me goosebumps,” Funchess said. “A number is just a number. But, you know, this number just brings a bigger target for me because off all those greats that have played here and worn that number.

“Everybody has been kind of wondering [about moving on from tight end], I just felt like when Coach Nuss told me I was going to move outside permanently, I had to get a different mindset to that position.”

And a different number. But in terms of production, nothing appears to be any different with the latest in a line of Michigan receivers now all set to torment defensive backs while wearing the No. 1.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 1

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
2:00
PM ET
 
Brian Bennett, Josh Moyer, Adam Rittenberg, Mitch Sherman and Austin Ward contributed to these rankings.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 1

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
8:00
AM ET
Recognizing the best and the brightest from Week 1 in the Big Ten:

Rutgers RB Paul James: It sure looks as if we can add James to the growing list of solid running backs in the conference. James was the constant in the Knights’ offense Thursday and, whenever it faltered, he was the one to pick it up. His stat line: 29 carries, 173 yards, three TDs. He was the workhorse against Washington State, and he was the reason the Knights were able to match the Cougars’ high-scoring offense. Maybe Leonte Carroo was a bit flashier -- maybe -- but James was Mr. Consistent.

Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: All he did was set a single-game school record with 454 passing yards. And, oh yeah, he went 4-of-6 for 55 yards and ran for another 8 yards on the game-winning drive. He took his share of hits in the pocket and didn’t get much run support, but he did just about everything he could for the win. Did he force it at times? You bet. But he was the main reason PSU moved the ball downfield, and he is now the only player in the 127-year history of the Nittany Lions to reach the 400-yard passing plateau. How could we not give him a helmet sticker?

Penn State K Sam Ficken: It’s only fair. Hackenberg drove the offense; Ficken won the game. After missing four field goals in the 2012 loss to Virginia, Ficken redeemed himself by going 4-of-4 on Saturday -- and by nailing the last-second, game-winning 36-yard field goal. Kickers don’t earn helmet stickers all that often, but kickers don’t have days like Ficken too often, either. It’s a true underdog story.

Michigan WR Devin Funchess: Tell me if you see a pattern here. First score, first passing TD -- Funchess. Second score, second passing TD -- Funchess. Third score … OK, OK. You get it. Funchess finished with seven catches for 95 yards and scored the game’s first three TDs. He helped ice this game before it really started. Props to Devin Gardner for getting him the ball, but Funchess has to get most of the credit on those last two tosses. He leaped, made an adjustment and broke a tackle for the second TD. And he came up with a catch in double coverage for the third.

Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: His video game-esque stats are a bit misleading, since a lot of his yards came after the catch. But Barrett didn’t let up in his first career start. He kept a cool head in the second half and helped lead the Buckeyes to a comeback win. His final numbers? Check this out: 12-of-15, 226 passing yards, two TDs, one interception, 50 rushing yards. He really earned this helmet sticker with his final two quarters, going 4-of-4 for 130 yards and two TDs. It was a memorable first start.

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: The impressive part? Abullah rushed for 232 yards and a TD on just 21 carries. The more impressive part? He was pulled in the middle of the third quarter when the game was in hand. He was nearly perfect after the first drive; nine of his last 15 carries went for at least 10 yards. He’s shifty, he’s quick, and he just outright confused the hapless Florida Atlantic defense. We see many more helmet stickers in Mr. Abdullah’s future.

Preseason All-Big Ten team

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
9:00
AM ET
There is no official preseason all-conference team in the Big Ten (or official predicted order of finish, etc.). But we here at ESPN.com have got you covered with our preseason all-league picks on offense, defense and special teams.

And here they are:

Offense

QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State: Braxton Miller's injury opened up this spot on the first team. Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Indiana's Nate Sudfeld were potential choices here too, but Cook's Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl MVP finish earn him the nod.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: Well, sure. He could lead the nation in rushing, unless ...

RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: ... Abdullah, his good friend, beats him to it. In a league blessed with great running backs, these two stand out the most.

WR: Stefon Diggs, Maryland: There is a lot of uncertainty in the Big Ten at receiver heading into 2014. This much is certain: If Diggs can stay healthy, he'll be one of the nation's best.

WR: Shane Wynn, Indiana: Wynn scored more touchdowns than any other Big Ten receiver the past season, and now he steps into a more featured role.

TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan: Funchess might play wide receiver almost exclusively, in which case this should be viewed as a third wide receiver spot on the team. The matchup nightmare looks poised for a big season.

OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa: He might just be the best left tackle in college football in 2014. He's definitely got NFL scouts drooling.

OT: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin: An enormous road grader at right tackle. Trying to shed him and catch Melvin Gordon is just not fair.

OG: Kaleb Johnson, Rutgers: He thought about leaving for the NFL after the past season but instead gave the Scarlet Knights a boost by returning. He has started 37 straight games.

OG: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: He could be the next rising star in Wisconsin's offensive lineman factory.

C: Jack Allen, Michigan State: A second-team All-Big Ten pick the past season, the former high school wrestling champion has no let up in his game.

Defense

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: He’s the returning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year and could become the conference’s defensive player of the year in 2014, unless ...

DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska: ... Gregory edges him out for the honor. The pass-rush specialist outpaced Calhoun in sacks (10.5) the past season, and Bo Pelini said Gregory has “only scratched the surface of what he’s going to be down the line.”

DT: Michael Bennett, Ohio State: He anchors the best defensive line in the conference and was named to the All-Big Ten’s second team last season.

DT: Carl Davis, Iowa: He still thinks Scherff would get the best of him if they squared off, but Athlon thought highly enough of Davis to make him a fourth-team preseason All-American.

LB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Northwestern: The quiet Ariguzo likes to let his play do the talking, and it chatted up a storm this past season -- to the tune of 106 tackles and four interceptions.

LB: Mike Hull, Penn State: He was a coin-flip from transferring to Pittsburgh during the sanctions, but now he’s the leader of this revamped defense.

LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan: Ryan shocked onlookers last season by taking less than seven months to go from ACL surgery to playing in a Big Ten game. Hopes are higher now for the healthy redshirt senior, as he has registered a stop in the backfield in 25 of his past 30 games.

CB: Trae Waynes, Michigan State: He’s taking over at Darqueze Dennard's boundary cornerback position, but he’s up for the challenge. He’s already on the watch lists for the Bednarik and Thorpe awards.

CB: Blake Countess, Michigan: He tied for the Big Ten lead in interceptions (6) the past season -- despite battling lower abdominal pain most of the year.

S: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: The blue-collar DB started 21 straight games and was a Sports Illustrated All-American the past season.

S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: A smart and instinctive player, Campbell has been remarkably consistent for the Wildcats. He’s a three-time all-academic B1G player and has eight career interceptions.

Special teams

K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State: As a freshman in 2013, he made 15 of his 16 field-goal attempts.

P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State: An ESPN.com All-American in 2013, Sadler combines with Geiger to give the Spartans the best 1-2 kicking tandem in the league.

KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska: He led the Big Ten in return yardage the past season (averaging 26.5 yards per kick) and took one 99 yards for a touchdown at Penn State.

PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa: He averaged 15.7 yards per return in 2013 and scored on two punt returns in the same game.

Selections by school:

Michigan State: 7
Iowa: 3
Michigan: 3
Nebraska: 3
Wisconsin: 3
Northwestern: 2
Indiana: 1
Maryland: 1
Ohio State: 1
Penn State: 1
Rutgers: 1
Illinois: 0
Minnesota: 0
Purdue: 0
This week, we’re counting down the Top 25 players in the Big Ten. Our reporting crew voted to select the list based on past performance and future potential.

The first five selections were unveiled on Monday. Here’s the next group of five:

20. Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan Wolverines: The play-making fifth year senior returned from a knee-ligament tear to play in eight games and start five last season. Named a team captain despite the abbreviated campaign, Ryan enters his final year at Michigan with the experience of 29 starts. He has made a tackle behind the line of scrimmage in 25 of his past 30 games and should anchor the Wolverines defensively.

19. Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State Spartans: What can the Spartans do to account for the loss of star corner Darqueze Dennard? It helps to have the junior Waynes, who’s set to move from the field corner to the boundary spot manned last year by the All-American Dennard. Waynes, a solid athlete, is up to the challenge.

18. Devin Funchess, WR/TE Michigan: Classify him any way you’d like, Funchess will catch plenty of passes this fall. The 6-foot-5 junior runs like a wideout with the size of a tight end. He has started 15 consecutive games and looks ready to improve his already solid production amid a plentiful mix of young talent for the Wolverines.

17. Kurtis Drummond, S, Michigan State: The fifth-year senior has started a team-high 21 consecutive games, earning preseason inclusion on watch lists for the Bednarik and Thorpe awards, plus the Nagurski Trophy. Drummond has a nose for the football, evidenced by his four interceptions last year, and he supports the run well.

16. Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State: In a league of strong backs, Langford often gets overlooked. Not a good idea after he rushed for 1,422 yards a season ago. Now as a fifth-year senior, the former cornerback and wideout has found a home in the backfield. His presence as a leader helps ease pressure on quarterback Connor Cook.

Look for Nos. 15-11 on Wednesday …
If the preseason All-America teams are any indication, the Big Ten will have a very good year in the offensive backfield -- both carrying the ball out of it and penetrating it.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Reese Strickland/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon has averaged a gaudy 8.1 yards per rushing attempt during his career.
Running back and defensive line appear to be the league's two strongest position groups -- possibly by a wide margin -- entering the 2014 season. Athlon on Monday came out with its preseason All-America teams, following up Phil Steele, who released his last week. Three Big Ten players made Athlon's first team: Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett and Michigan State punter Mike Sadler. Four other defensive linemen -- Nebraska's Randy Gregory (second team), Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun (second team), Ohio State's Joey Bosa (fourth team) and Iowa's Carl Davis (fourth team) -- made one of the remaining three teams, and two other running backs -- Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah (second team) and Michigan State's Jeremy Langford (fourth team) -- also appear.

Steele had Bennett and Calhoun on his first team, Gregory and Bosa on his second team and Davis on his third team. Like Athlon, he lists Gordon as a first-team running back and Abdullah on the second team. It's interesting to see Calhoun getting a bit more love than Gregory, even though Gregory led the Big Ten in sacks and is projected as a higher draft pick.

Not sure about you, but I can't wait for Calhoun and Gregory to share the field Oct. 4 at Spartan Stadium, or for longtime friends Gordon and Abdullah to match up on Nov. 15 at Camp Randall Stadium. Both matchups should be fun to watch all season.

It's not unusual for defensive line and running back to headline the Big Ten. Both positions historically are strong in the league, especially defensive line. A potential concern is that only one quarterback -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller -- and zero wide receivers make any of Athlon's teams. Steele has two Big Ten wideouts, Maryland's Stefon Diggs and Michigan's Devin Funchess (has played tight end but listed as a receiver), on his third team. Still, it's clear these are two positions where the Big Ten continues to need upgrades.

Other Athlon preseason All-America selections include: Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff (second team), Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman (third team), Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond (third team), Ohio State punter Cameron Johnston (third team), Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan (fourth team), Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes (fourth team) and Northwestern punt returner Venric Mark (fourth team).

The Big Ten is tied with the Pac-12 for third among overall Athlon All-America selections with 18, trailing both the ACC (27) and SEC (26).

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Kansas State and Michigan finished the regular season headed in opposite directions, and that dichotomy was clear from the outset Saturday as the Wildcats cruised to a 31-14 win in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

It was over when: Shane Morris' third-down pass with 7:30 to play and Kansas State up by 18 fell incomplete, sending Michigan's punt team in for the fifth straight drive and effectively ending any chance at a comeback attempt. Michigan's offense was stuck in neutral throughout, and while Kansas State failed to cash in on several second-half opportunities to put the game away, there was never any real drama down the stretch. Dante Barnett's interception on Michigan's next drive ensured the final score was as one-sided as the play on the field had been throughout.

Game ball goes to: Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters. The junior-college transfer was nearly flawless all night, completing 21 of 27 passes for 271 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Tyler Lockett caught all three touchdowns and would have had a fourth if he didn’t drop a perfectly thrown ball from Daniel Sams in the end zone. Waters was impressive with his arm, but he made his share of plays with his legs, too, racking up 42 rushing yards, including running for five first downs. Aside from the drop, Lockett was exceptional. He finished with 194 all-purpose yards -- his sixth game this season with more than 150 all-purpose yards.

Stat of the game: 22. That was Michigan's rushing total with 2 minutes left on the clock, a dreadful effort that effectively doomed any chance at moving the ball consistently. The ground game has struggled all season for the Wolverines, and Kansas State didn't seem to break a sweat shutting down Michigan's runners. A 14-yard run by Devin Funchess on a double reverse in the first quarter and a 40-yard scramble by Morris with less than 2 minutes to play provided the only highlights. The rest of the ground game amounted to just 11 yards on 13 carries, and Morris was forced to carry the load in his first career start.

Unsung hero: Morris, a true freshman, stepped in for injured Devin Gardner, and he was solid. He wasn't asked to make too many tough passes -- particularly in the early going -- but he also got no support from the running game. Still, he completed 15 of 19 passes in the first half for 121 yards, converting a couple of big third downs and improvising when plays broke down. In the end, it didn't matter much, as Michigan simply couldn't overcome its many holes, and while Morris was calm, cool and consistent, the lack of support doomed his second half.

What Michigan learned: It has a quarterback for the future, but there are plenty of other issues that need to be addressed. Morris was solid despite getting precious little help from his teammates, but even if he continues to develop over the offseason and unseats Gardner as the quarterback of the future, Michigan's prospects won't improve much if the defense and running game don't get much better. Kansas State ran with ease up the middle, had wide open receivers often and had little trouble completely silencing Michigan's ground game. It was a script far too familiar for the Wolverines in 2013, and Brady Hoke has his work cut out for him finding answers before the 2014 season begins.

What Kansas State learned: There's no bowl jinx, and Bill Snyder can win games in December just as easily as he wins them in the fall. Kansas State hadn't won a bowl game since 2002, but the Wildcats dominated this one from the outset. The offense continues to evolve, and the defense completely shut down Michigan. After a slow start to the season, Kansas State finished as hot as anyone, winning six of its final seven games. More importantly, the pieces are in place for that success to continue into 2014.

To watch the trophy presentation of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, click here.
The Big Ten released its all-conference teams as selected by coaches and the media earlier this month. We didn't have a vote for the media teams, and we don't pretend to know as much about football as the league's coaches.

But we can also say with confidence that we watched more Big Ten football here at the blog than anyone else. So here are our picks for the 2013 ESPN.com All-Big Ten team:

Offense

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesBraxton Miller is one of six Buckeyes on ESPN.com's All-Big Ten team.
QB: Braxton Miller, Ohio State
RB: Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
WR: Allen Robinson, Penn State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan
OL: Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
OL: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OL: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OL: Corey Linsley, Ohio State
OL: Ryan Groy, Wisconsin

Defense

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
DT: Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota
DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State
LB: James Morris, Iowa
DB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
DB: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
DB: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
DB: Brock Vereen, Minnesota

Specialists

K: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska
PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa

OK, so we cheated just a bit on positions, going with three tackles on our offensive line and a 3-4 defense. But considering the coaches had six defensive backs and two punters on their first team, we don't feel too bad about it. ... We wanted to include Scherff, Lewan and Mewhort on the first team, because we thought they were the three best linemen in the league. If we had to field an actual team with these guys, we're sure we could figure it out. It was a tough call between Groy and Penn State's John Urschel, whom we love for his on- and off-the-field accomplishments. We just felt Wisconsin had the better overall season as an offensive line, so we went with Groy. ... We went with the 3-4 because linebacker was such a deep position in this league -- so deep that we had to leave off some deserving players, like Michigan State's Denicos Allen -- while defensive line wasn't nearly as strong. ... The defensive backfield was a tough call (no wonder the coaches had an, ahem, pick six there). Dennard was a lock, and we felt that Drummond was the league's best safety in a year when that position was a bit weak conference-wide. We like what Vereen did in providing versatility and leadership for the Gophers, and Roby overcame a slow start to do his usual fine work. We had to leave off very good cornerbacks like Michigan's Blake Countess, Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Iowa's B.J. Lowery -- but that's what a second team is for. Stay tuned. ... Ohio State leads the way with six selections, followed by Michigan State with five. It's almost as if those were the two best teams in the league or something.

Big Ten predictions: Week 12

November, 14, 2013
11/14/13
9:00
AM ET
It's picks time again as we attempt to forecast the five teams that will walk off the field Saturday with smiles on their faces.

Brian Bennett is still smiling these days as he clings to a one-game lead in the season standings. Adam Rittenberg has three weeks left to close the gap, or he'll be paying for Bennett's dinner in Indianapolis before the Big Ten championship game.

Iowa and Minnesota are off in Week 12, but the other 10 league squads are in action.

Let's get started …

PURDUE at PENN STATE

Bennett: Penn State is a much better team at home, and Purdue is … well, let's be kind. The Nittany Lions' struggling offense gets well versus the Boilermakers, as both Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak run for a pair of touchdowns. … Penn State 38, Purdue 14.


Rittenberg: The Lions get the win at home, but it's close for a half as Purdue's offense shows some life behind quarterback Danny Etling. But another freshman signal-caller, Christian Hackenberg, steals the show with three touchdown passes, two to Allen Robinson, as he regains his swagger for Penn State. … Penn State 31, Purdue 17

INDIANA at WISCONSIN

Rittenberg: Indiana has had absolutely no answers for Wisconsin's offense in recent years, and I can't see the script changing Saturday. Melvin Gordon breaks out of his mini-slump with two 60-yard touchdown runs, James White adds two more touchdowns and Wisconsin puts another big number on IU. The Hoosiers strike for some early points before Wisconsin's defense buckles down. … Wisconsin 45, Indiana 28

Bennett: 204-41. That's the combined score of the past three meetings between these teams. Indiana's offense is better and should score a bit, but Wisconsin could run for 400 yards if it wanted to this week. It will settle for 350. … Wisconsin 48, Indiana 24.


OHIO STATE at ILLINOIS

Bennett: It's 19 Big Ten losses in a row versus 21 overall wins in a row. Yeah, these teams could hardly be going in more different directions. The Buckeyes are rolling right now, and while I don't agree with Evan Spencer that they would wipe the floor with Alabama or Florida State, they will be taking a giant Swiffer to the Illini as Carlos Hyde rumbles for 185 rushing yards and three scores. … Ohio State 58, Illinois 17.


Rittenberg: Ohio State players are openly talking about the need to win with style points, and that's a scary situation for the Illini, who can't stop anyone right now. Braxton Miller attempted four passes in his previous game at Illinois. He fires four touchdowns to three different receivers, and Hyde adds 150 yards and two scores as the Buckeyes roll easily. Kenny G gets into the act late too with a pair. … Ohio State 52, Illinois 13

MICHIGAN at NORTHWESTERN

Rittenberg: I've been burned for picking Northwestern in its past two games, so while Michigan looks shakier right now, I'm going with the Wolverines. Northwestern is still really banged up, and Michigan's defense will contain Kain Colter and an offense operating with a limited playbook. Michigan's offense struggles early but hits on two big pass plays for touchdowns in the fourth quarter, including the game-winner to Devin Funchess. … Michigan 24, Northwestern 20

Bennett: Both teams have some major issues, especially on the offensive side of the ball. I just really don't like the mojo around Michigan right now. Northwestern has been close to breaking through the past couple of games and had a bye week to get healed up. The Wildcats should be able to stuff the Wolverines' nonexistent run game, and Colter leads his team on a last-minute drive for the game-winning field goal. … Northwestern 20, Michigan 17


MICHIGAN STATE at NEBRASKA

Bennett: I admire what Nebraska has done the past couple of weeks with an injury-plagued offense. At the same time, I shudder to think what Michigan State's defense can do to that offense, especially given some of the shuffling on the offensive line and the lack of a big-time passing attack. The Huskers' defensive improvement will be enough to keep this a close, low-scoring affair. But Nebraska will have too much trouble getting points and yards, and the Spartans hang on after building an early 10-point lead. … Michigan State 17, Nebraska 13.


Rittenberg: The Huskers are 5-0 with young Tommy Armstrong Jr. as their starting quarterback, but they haven't seen a defense as fearsome as Michigan State's. The Spartans are healthier and better on both sides of the ball, and they're motivated to beat Nebraska after blowing a fourth-quarter lead last year. Running back Jeremy Langford rushes for two touchdowns and cornerback Darqueze Dennard seals the win with an interception as Michigan State overcomes another gritty effort from Ameer Abdullah and the Huskers. … Michigan State 20, Nebraska 13

You've seen our predictions. Now it's time to hear from one of you. As a reminder, throughout the season, we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please), hometown and a brief description of why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.

This week's guest checks in from the Land of the Rising Sun. John Wells from Yokohama, Japan (formerly of Kenosha, Wis.), the floor is yours …
Konnichi wa (Hello) from Japan, where I have lived for 41 years after graduating from the Univ. of Wisconsin in 1973. I would love to be your "guest picker" for Week 12. I am an AVID Badger fan and Big Ten follower every week. My students know about Wisconsin and the Big Ten. I do not get much sleep on Saturday nights as I wake at odd hours just to catch the Badgers or any good Big Ten battle. I have flown across that wide Pacific three times to see the Badgers play in the Rose Bowl. I am a happy senior now (66) and what fun it would be if you both chose me. Can't imagine what life would be without Big Ten football! Thanks for considering me.

Domo arigato, John. Here are John's picks:

Penn State 31, Purdue 10
Wisconsin 45, Indiana 10
Ohio State 56, Illinois 10
Michigan 24, Northwestern 17
Michigan State 24, Nebraska 14

SEASON RECORDS

Brian Bennett: 64-13
Adam Rittenberg: 63-14
Guest pickers: 60-19

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 7

October, 13, 2013
10/13/13
9:00
AM ET
Recognizing the best and brightest from the Big Ten in Week 7:

  • Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford: Unlike Penn State last week, the Spartans realized that running the ball against Indiana is usually a good idea. And Langford was the star of that strategy, carrying the ball 23 times for 109 yards and three touchdowns in Michigan State's 42-28 victory over the Hoosiers. His last touchdown, a 32-yarder, put his team ahead 35-21. In all, the Spartans rushed for 238 yards as a team.
  • Nebraska DE Randy Gregory: There aren't many Big Ten defensive ends playing better than Gregory right now. The one-time Purdue commit and Indiana native haunted his home-state school with two sacks, a fumble recovery and a safety in the Huskers' 44-7 blasting of the Boilermakers. The entire Nebraska defense deserves a nod after holding Purdue scoreless until the final 39 seconds.
  • Wisconsin's defense: The Badgers held Northwestern -- a team that had scored at least 30 points in seven straight games -- to just two field goals in a dominating 35-6 win. Seven different Badgers had at least one sack. Chris Borland led the way with 10 tackles, but this was a total team effort -- and a very impressive one at that.
  • Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon: With only four games this week, we give a second sticker to a deserving Badger. Gordon rushed 22 times for 172 yards, including a 71-yard touchdown, in a bounce-back performance from his showing at Ohio State.
  • Penn State RB Bill Belton: We could have gone a number of ways in the Nittany Lions' wild, weird 43-40 win over Michigan in four overtimes. Christian Hackenberg made some great throws down the stretch, Brandon Felder provided a strong complement to Allen Robinson and Michigan's Devin Funchess was great for a second straight week. But we ultimately went with Belton, whose final numbers (27 carries, 85 yards) might not stand out in a box score. But Belton picked up the crucial first down on fourth-and-one in overtime No. 4 before finally ending things with a 2-yard touchdown run. That's enough to earn a sticker.
Ohio State hasn't been dominant or error-free the past two weeks, but the Buckeyes keep finding ways to win. Urban Meyer remains unbeaten in Columbus after an extremely hard-fought game at Northwestern, as Ohio State had to rally from halftime and fourth-quarter deficits.

Knock the Buckeyes if you'd like, but they've won 18 consecutive games, the longest streak in the nation.

It could turn out that the Buckeyes' past two opponents, Wisconsin and Northwestern, both could make cases for being the league's No. 2 squad. We've been more impressed with the one-loss Wildcats than undefeated Michigan, which gets its own shot at Ohio State on Nov. 30 at the Big House. Not much separates Northwestern, Michigan and Wisconsin right now.

Michigan State and Indiana make positive moves in the rankings, while Iowa, Penn State and Minnesota fall.

Let's take one final look at the Week 5 Power Rankings.

Here's this week's rundown ...

1. Ohio State (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): For a while it looked like Ohio State's run of perfection would come to an end Saturday night. Quarterback Braxton Miller looked rattled, and Northwestern moved the ball well against the Buckeyes' defense. But Ohio State regrouped midway through the third quarter and made enough plays on both sides of the ball to survive another tough test. Meyer stuck with Miller after considering Kenny Guiton, running back Carlos Hyde had a big night and the young Buckeyes defense stopped the run when it needed to in the fourth quarter.

2. Northwestern (4-1, 0-1; last week: 2): The talent differential that plagued Northwestern for years isn't there as much anymore, as the Wildcats can keep pace with any team in the league. The problem: They still struggle to finish big games. They might have been a yard away from upsetting Ohio State but couldn't convert a fourth-and-1 in plus territory. The inability to finish drives cost Pat Fitzgerald's crew, which held Ohio State's offense out of the end zone for nearly three quarters. Venric Mark provided a big boost in his return from injury.

3. Michigan (5-0, 1-0; last week: 4): Michigan needed a clean game and got one against Minnesota, as the Wolverines had zero turnovers in a 42-13 victory. Quarterback Devin Gardner was efficient in the pocket, and tight end Devin Funchess had career highs in both catches (seven) and receiving yards (151). Michigan's defense settled down nicely after allowing an early touchdown, as Minnesota couldn't get the explosion plays it needed to hang around. The Wolverines head back on the road this week in Happy Valley.

4. Wisconsin (3-2, 1-1; last week: 3): The Badgers had an extra week to think about their missed opportunities at Ohio State before resuming play with another big game against Northwestern. Standout running back Melvin Gordon is expected back from a knee injury, and the off week came at a good time to boost the team's overall health. Wisconsin's defense had some struggles against Ohio State's spread offense and faces another spread team this week in Northwestern.

5. Nebraska (4-1, 1-0; last week: 5): Although the Huskers didn't move up in the rankings, we feel better about their ability to rise up after seeing their defense step up against a big-play Illinois offense. Young defenders like Jared Afalava, Michael Rose and Randy Gregory performed well, and veteran nickelback Ciante Evans had two tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Nebraska's biggest issue might be at quarterback, as freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. delivered in place of the hobbled Taylor Martinez. Armstrong received plenty of help from running back Ameer Abdullah (225 rush yards, 2 TDs).

6. Michigan State (4-1, 1-0; last week: 7): We knew the Spartans had a defense, which showed up big in the second half at Iowa, especially against the run. The big news is the Spartans also have a quarterback in Connor Cook, who passed for 277 yards and two touchdowns, finding both Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Bennie Fowler for big plays. Cook was visibly upset at Notre Dame, questioning the coaches' faith in him after being pulled on the final drive. He restored that faith Saturday and put Michigan State in position to challenge for a division title.

7. Iowa (4-2, 1-1; last week: 6): Mark Weisman and the power run game had been Iowa's identity through the first five weeks. But Michigan State stopped Weisman (seven carries, 9 yards) and completely shut down Iowa's offense in the second half. The Hawkeyes once again fell victim to a special-teams fake and couldn't stop big pass plays from Michigan State. Several injuries mounted up for Iowa, and while most don't appear to be serious, the open week comes at a good time before a trip to Ohio State.

8. Indiana (3-2, 1-0; last week: 11): The off week clearly paid off for Kevin Wilson's crew, which breathed life back into its bowl hopes with an excellent performance against Penn State. Quarterback Nate Sudfeld (321 pass yards, 2 TDs) bounced back nicely from his struggles against Missouri, wide receiver Cody Latimer (nine catches, 140 yards, fumble recovery) had a huge day and the defense contained Penn State's run game. Indiana's offense faces a much bigger test this week at Michigan State, but the Hoosiers head to East Lansing with some confidence.

9. Penn State (3-2, 0-1, last week: 8): Bill O'Brien's team has some serious problems after falling to Indiana for the first time in team history. The defense didn't show up against a spread offense for the second time in three games, and Indiana completely dominated the fourth quarter. Penn State has something special with Christian Hackenberg and wide receiver Allen Robinson, but the defense clearly has taken a step back. Things only get tougher with Michigan and Ohio State up next.

10. Illinois (3-2, 0-1; last week: 9): There's no doubt Illinois has improved this season, but by how much? The Illini never mounted a serious challenge against Nebraska, even though the Huskers played without Martinez, as Tim Beckman's crew fell behind 30-5 early in the third quarter. Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has gone from great (Cincinnati) to shaky (Washington) to great (Miami University) to shaky (Nebraska). But the bigger issue is a defense that surrendered 335 rush yards to the Huskers. Illinois is off this week before a critical home stretch against Wisconsin and Michigan State.

11. Minnesota (4-2, 0-2; last week: 10): It has been a rough few weeks both on and off the field for the Gophers, who dropped their second straight game and played without head coach Jerry Kill, who remained in Minneapolis after suffering another seizure Saturday morning. Minnesota enters an off week, which will put more attention on Kill and his health. The Gophers once again lack enough explosiveness on offense to do much damage against Big Ten defenses. Minnesota resumes play Oct. 19 at Northwestern.

12. Purdue (1-4, 0-1; last week: 12): The open week gave Darrell Hazell's crew a chance to regroup. Unfortunately, an off-field issue surfaced involving wide receiver B.J. Knauf, who has been suspended for the next two games. It will be interesting to see how freshman quarterback Danny Etling performs after some time to practice as the starter. Purdue's struggling defense will be tested again as the high-powered Nebraska Cornhuskers visit Ross-Ade Stadium.

SPONSORED HEADLINES