NCF Nation: Devin Funchess

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
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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
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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.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 6

October, 6, 2013
10/06/13
9:02
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It's time to recognize the best and brightest around the Big Ten in Week 6.

Here w e go ...
  • Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde: On a night where quarterback Braxton Miller nearly was benched for shaky play, Hyde stepped up in the second half as Ohio State rallied for its 18th consecutive win. Hyde had a career-high 168 rush yards and three touchdowns, all in the second half. He also had a career-high 38 receiving yards on four receptions as the Buckeyes survived in Evanston.
  • Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: Freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. looked good against Illinois, but he had plenty of help from his veteran backfield mate. Abdullah had a career-high 225 rush yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries, the highest rushing total for a Nebraska player since the 2010 season.
  • Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard: The sticker could go to the entire Spartan Dawgs defense, as Michigan State shut down Mark Weisman and Iowa's run game and blanked the Hawkeyes in the second half at Kinnick Stadium. But Dennard showed why he's one of the nation's best cornerbacks with two interceptions and a team-high eight tackles. It marked Dennard's third multi-interception game of his career.
  • Indiana WR Cody Latimer: After a slow start to the season, Latimer is emerging for the high-powered Hoosiers offense. He had career highs in both receptions (9) and receiving yards (140), and recorded his third consecutive 100-yard receiving performance, the first Indiana player to do so since James Hardy in 2005. Latimer also made a mark on special teams, recovering a fumble in the win against Penn State.
  • Michigan TE Devin Funchess: The sophomore tight end had a breakout performance against Minnesota, recording career highs in both receptions (7) and receiving yards (151). He also hauled in a touchdown catch and recorded the second 100-yard receiving performance of his career.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan was referring to the Wolverines’ recently criticized quarterback, but it might as well have been a statement about the team in its entirety following Saturday’s 42-13 home win against Minnesota.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Devin Gardner was 13-of-17 for 235 yards and no turnovers in Michigan's win over Minnesota.
“He wasn’t playing like himself,” Lewan said of Devin Gardner, whose carelessness with the ball played large roles in close victories against supposed also-rans Akron and UConn. “It was a good off week, and things settled down for him.”

Lewan admitted that he was downright irritable after the nerve-fraying win at UConn, saying he would not apologize for a 4-0 team.

“I’m not going to apologize for 5-0 either,” the All-American lineman said.

This time he was smiling.

That grin as an indication, the postgame had a different tone than wins that required late defensive stops to secure victories against one team that lost 43-3 Saturday to Ohio (Akron) and one team that now has an interim coach (UConn).

The Wolverines, who got their first Big Ten win and held on to the Little Brown Jug, outscored Minnesota 35-6 starting with a score late in the second quarter.

“Things we’d been good at in the past we had slipped on,” Gardner said. “It felt good to get rolling again.”

There might have been little drama for the Wolverines, which was welcome, but there was one potential discovery.

Hoke told ESPN.com on Friday that tight end Devin Funchess would see some time on the outside, at receiver, to create mismatches for the 6-foot-4, 235-pound sophomore.

Funchess did play mostly outside, and the mismatches were prevalent all day. Michigan didn’t even try a pass in the first quarter, but Funchess still had four catches for 62 yards -- including a 24-yard touchdown -- in the first half.

“We want to take advantage of his assets,” Hoke said.

Funchess finished the day with seven receptions for 151 yards and that score. His 46-yard catch down the sideline, illustrating his potential as a vertical threat, set up the team’s final offensive touchdown.

Blake Countess’ 72-yard pick-six punctuated the rout, sending 111,079 fans spilling out into Main Street. Most of them were pleased, as opposed to the past two wins that had fans on edge and analysts picking apart the Wolverines and their quarterback.

Gardner had turned the ball over seven times (five interceptions, two fumbles) versus Akron and UConn.

Michigan, and Gardner, had no giveaways Saturday. That ended an unfortunate streak of 25 consecutive games with at least one turnover.

“When you don’t turn the ball over, it’s a good day,” said Gardner, who completed 13 of 17 passes for 235 yards and one score -- all in the final three quarters. “We responded. That’s the best way I can describe it.”

There was a message in Michigan’s approach to the game too. It came out with runs on its first 10 offensive plays, including a six-play touchdown drive on its initial possession.

In addition to the questions about Gardner, the offensive line had likewise been scrutinized. The Wolverines had new starters at center and left guard, trying to shake things up.

Hoke talked Friday about intentionally physical practices during the bye week. The Wolverines even had one 6 a.m. practice.

The team wound up rushing Saturday for just 113 yards on 35 carries (3.2 yards per carry), but it had four rushing scores -- including two by starter Fitzgerald Toussaint. Freshman Derrick Green added a rushing touchdown, the second of his rookie season.

Lewan might have been smiling, but he wasn’t leaving the stadium completely satisfied.

“We should have gotten Fitz 100 yards,” he said early in his visit with reporters. “[Our push] was better than it has been, but not up to our potential.

“That’s a hard word, potential -- because it means you haven’t done it yet.”

Hoke said Friday that the team would approach this stretch, between open dates, as a three-game schedule. A trip to Penn State is next, followed by a visit from Indiana. The Hoosiers upset the Lions on Saturday, winning in that series for the first time ever.

“I think we’re improving,” Hoke said. “I think we’ve got a long way to go.”

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- If there’s anything this game has taught us recently it’s that it’s not over until the clock reads zeros. No. 17 Michigan held a 14-point advantage over No. 14 Notre Dame heading in to the fourth quarter but fate wouldn’t let that stand. How could it when the Wolverines would need to one-up the fourth quarter from two years ago under the lights?

But even with some really poor decisions and a few clutch plays made on offense and defense, Michigan was able to pull off the win over Notre Dame, 41-30. The victory keeps Michigan coach Brady Hoke undefeated in Michigan Stadium in his third year at the helm of the Wolverines.

It was over when: In most instances, an 11-point lead with less than five minutes remaining would feel pretty safe. But nothing really felt safe for the Wolverines -- especially against this Notre Dame team -- until Blake Countess intercepted a tipped pass in the end zone with 1:29 remaining in the game.

Game ball goes to: Jeremy Gallon. The wide receiver made catch after catch that he was seemingly too short or too covered to make. His three touchdowns on eight receptions, however, led the Wolverines, and his 184 yards were a career high. With quarterback Devin Gardner at the helm of this Michigan offense, it is allowing playmakers like Gallon to really come in to their own, and the senior's performance against the Irish showed just that.

Stat of the game: Louis Nix III recorded just four tackles and two of them (including the one for a loss) came when the game was already out of hand. Not once did Notre Dame’s stud defensive lineman -- who was going up against three interior offensive linemen from Michigan who all saw their first starts just a week ago -- get to Gardner.

Unsung hero: Fitzgerald Toussaint. Because of the nature of Gallon’s big performance, Toussaint’s 71 yards on 22 carries will largely go unnoticed. However, it is because of his ability to get short yardage and hit holes that the passing lanes were open for guys like Gallon, Drew Dileo and Devin Funchess. Offensive coordinator Al Borges has always said he wants a featured back in his offense and 22 carries is within their desired range.

Second-guessing: A safety isn’t the worst possible thing. And no, it’s not ideal either. But the only thing worse would be exactly what Gardner did -- incidentally throwing it to the other team as three Irish defenders closed in on him. It was a huge dent on a game that was relatively empty of errors on the quarterback’s part. But that play completely shifted the momentum of the game and what could’ve been a small dent in the game turned this game into the dogfight that it became.

Dig of the game: Michigan Stadium played “The Chicken Dance” following the win, which is a reference back to last May when Hoke said that Notre Dame was chickening out of the rivalry.

Michigan-Notre Dame writers roundtable

September, 3, 2013
9/03/13
2:00
PM ET
Michigan StadiumAP Photo/Tony DingCan anything top Michigan's 35-31 win in 2011, which was the first night game in the history of Michigan Stadium?

Under the lights ... and two of college football’s oldest rivals in one of their last scheduled meetings … and College GameDay. Does it get any better than this? Only when Big Ten reporter Brian Bennett, Dame reporter Matt Fortuna and Michigan reporter Chantel Jennings get together to talk about it. Today, they discuss a few topics surrounding the highly anticipated matchup.

1. Over the past few years, this rivalry has seen its fair share of big stars excel during this game -- Denard Robinson's 502 yards in 2010, Roy Roundtree's game-winning catch in 2011, Manti Teo's defensive performance in 2012. Which player could you see having a mega game on Saturday?

Bennett: How about Jeremy Gallon? The Michigan receiver had the huge 64-yard catch that set up Roundtree's game-winner in 2011. While he wasn't as active in last year's game, that's primarily because the Wolverines were busy throwing the ball to Notre Dame. Gallon has been more effective ever since Devin Gardner started running the show, and I could see him burning the Irish secondary for some big plays.

Jennings: The heroes this game has helped create have kind of come out of nowhere in some instances. So I’m going to pick a guy who has been flying under the radar statistically, who I think has the ability to show up in big games, and that’s Michigan tight end Devin Funchess. He had a fine freshman year and a better offseason. I think we could see him be a big difference maker on Saturday.

Fortuna: If I'm Notre Dame, I'm gearing up for Gardner, since Michigan quarterback play has essentially decided these contests in one form or another in each of the past four years. From the Irish side, though, I think wide receiver DaVaris Daniels could break out. He was Notre Dame's best offensive player in the national title game loss to Alabama, hauling in six catches for 115 yards. On Saturday against Temple, the redshirt sophomore had three catches for 69 yards, including a pair of 32-yard touchdown receptions on the Irish's first two drives.

2. Which mismatch between these two teams are you most intrigued to watch?

Bennett: On paper at least, it's the Michigan interior offensive line vs. Notre Dame nose guard Louis Nix III. Center Jack Miller and guards Kyle Kalis and Graham Glasgow are talented and played well together last week, but they have very little experience. Nix, meanwhile, is a 357-pound man-mountain who helped anchor a championship-level defense last season. He commands double teams, and it will be up to Michigan's young inside guys to keep him in check so Stephon Tuitt and others can't wreak even more havoc.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
Andrew Weber/US PresswireMichigan tackle Taylor Lewan will have his hands full with Notre Dame's talented defensive line.
Jennings: Left tackle Taylor Lewan on whomever or whatever Notre Dame tries to throw at him. He’s so crucial to Michigan’s offense, and I really don’t see him not dominating any matchup this season. Lewan came back for games like this and matchups like what he’ll have against Tuitt.

Fortuna: I'll say Notre Dame's offensive line against Michigan's defensive line. The Irish have three starters back from last season, along with a very talented center in Nick Martin. One of the reasons they were able to jump out to a 17-point lead in Ann Arbor two years ago was because of their ability to run up the middle, as the Irish averaged six yards per rush on the night. Notre Dame is now in its third straight year of starting Zack Martin and Chris Watt together on the left side, and it has started using pistol packages in 2013 to tailor to the strengths of some of its young backs in hopes of establishing a downhill run game. This is far from a "mismatch," but with Michigan returning just three starters from last season's front seven, and with the teams so evenly matched across the board, I'd say this is where Notre Dame probably has the biggest edge. Conversely, I can't wait to see Tuitt and Lewan go head-to-head. Both will be a lot richer eight months from now.

3. Is there any way this game could one-up the last time these two teams met in the Big House?

Bennett: It's possible that this could be an even better overall game than the one in 2011, just not as flashy. People remember the Michigan comeback and the crazy fourth quarter, but it was a pretty lopsided affair until then. That wild finish was made possible by major defensive breakdowns on both sides, and both teams are much more sound defensively now. I believe these are two legitimate top-15 teams, so we should expect a tight game. The atmosphere won't be quite as special because it won't be the first time under the lights at the Big House. But Notre Dame-Michigan usually finds a way to amaze us.

Jennings: I was on the sideline for the final minutes of that matchup two years ago, and to call the atmosphere electric would still be selling it short. I don’t know if the Wolverines have had a game as exciting since, so I’m going to go with no. I think it’ll be a great game and the fact that it’s the last in Michigan Stadium for the foreseeable future adds a lot. But as far as the plays themselves, jam packed into that short amount of time, I just don’t see that being topped.

Fortuna: I said no to this same question two years ago and was sadly mistaken, so I'll try not to be as definitive in my answer this time around. Whether it was Denard Robinson or Tate Forcier before him, magic seems to always happen in the late moments of this game. I'll just go ahead and make the bold prediction that if Notre Dame takes the lead with 30 seconds remaining this time, its secondary will hold up and secure an Irish win. Like I said, bold.
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

We're in the process of projecting the Big Ten's statistical leaders for the 2013 season. After forecasting the league's top rusher, today's Take Two topic is: Who will lead the Big Ten in passing this year?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten hasn't been loaded with premier passers and loses its only 3,000-yard performer from 2012 in Penn State's Matt McGloin. Although the league's next three top passers return, two of them, Indiana's Cameron Coffman and Michigan State's Andrew Maxwell, are fighting to retain their starting jobs for the season. Although there's no shortage of quarterbacks with starting experience or significant playing time around the league, few have shown the ability to consistently put up big passing totals.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
AP Photo/Nati HarnikNebraska's Taylor Martinez passed for 2,871 yards and 23 touchdowns last season.
My pick comes down to three quarterbacks: Michigan's Devin Gardner, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Ohio State's Braxton Miller. If I knew Indiana's or Penn State's starting quarterback, I might include them in the race because of those teams' strength at wide receiver and tight end. But that's too risky right now. Gardner started just five games for Michigan, but averaged 243.8 pass yards in those contests. His numbers could go up as Michigan moves away from the spread and into a pro-style system. Gardner had a strong spring, and Michigan wants to keep him in the pocket more often than not. Miller also should up bigger passing totals as he enters his second year in Ohio State's offense and should have more help at the wide receiver spot. He's such a talented runner, but the Buckeyes don't want to take too many chances with his health, and the coaches see good potential for his growth as a passer.

Gardner and Miller are solid choices, but I'm going with Martinez here. His passing numbers soared from 2011 to 2012, as he completed nearly 6 percent more passes, nearly 800 more yards and threw 10 more touchdowns. He's fully comfortable with the offense under coordinator Tim Beck and should enter the season at 100 percent, health-wise. Nebraska also returns top wide receivers Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner. The Huskers need some help at tight end but have recruited well at tight end and have warmed up more and more to the pass under Beck. Martinez will finish his career with every significant Nebraska passing record, and he'll also top the Big Ten's passing yards chart as a senior.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

If I were confident Indiana would go with one quarterback all season, my pick would be the Hoosiers' starter. Don't forget that Coffman is the leading returning passer in the league (in terms of yards per game), or that IU led the conference in passing yards this season. But I suspect Kevin Wilson will end up juggling quarterbacks and using some combination of Coffman, Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson. Can I say my choice is Cam Roberfeld?

I guess not. So I'll go with the next best option: Michigan's Devin Gardner. As Adam mentioned, Gardner posted big passing numbers last year after taking over for Denard Robinson down the stretch, and that was without a lot of practice during the year at quarterback (he split time there and at receiver). By all accounts, Gardner has had a fantastic offseason, and Al Borges must be foaming at the mouth at the prospect of finally unleashing a true pro-style offense.

Gardner's five-game numbers last year project to more than 3,000 yards passing over a full 13-game season. I don't know if he'll get all the way there, and losing veteran receiver Roy Roundtree doesn't help. But he's still got big-play man Jeremy Gallon to target, as well as promising young receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, plus talented tight end Devin Funchess. Gardner completed 59.5 percent of his passes last year, a rate I expect to go way up with a full offseason as the starting quarterback under his belt. Michigan will look to run the ball a lot as well. But the Wolverines won't have to accommodate the talents of Robinson, and Gardner won't run as much as Nebraska's Martinez.

Plus, Michigan doesn't have any other experienced options, so Gardner will likely take just about every snap. That makes him a safe pick to lead the league in passing yards.
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

1. There's no stopping Nebraska now: The Cornhuskers were absolutely dominant against Minnesota, racing out to a 38-0 lead before resting their starters in the fourth quarter. That was the kind of complete performance we've been looking for from Nebraska, and while the Gophers are not to be confused with one of the Big Ten's best teams, the fact that the offense limited mistakes and the first-string defense pitched a shutout shows that this team is on the upswing. With as bad as Iowa looked Saturday (and, for that matter, the previous four Saturdays), it would take something really absurd for Nebraska to lose in Iowa City on Black Friday. This team is heading to the Big Ten championship game to face a Wisconsin club it has already beaten, and if Taylor Martinez keeps leading the way he has, it will go on to the Rose Bowl. The Huskers' only losses this season were to 11-0 Ohio State and a UCLA squad that just beat USC to win the Pac-12 South. Not bad at all for Bo Pelini's team.

2. Ohio State is doing something special: There are two undefeated teams left in the country: Notre Dame and Ohio State. The losses by Kansas State and Oregon proved just how difficult it is to go through a season unscathed. The Buckeyes might not have played the strongest schedule in the country, but they still deserve praise for figuring out how to win every week. Saturday was a great example, as Braxton Miller had his first off game of the year, throwing for only 97 yards and rushing for just 48 against a stout Wisconsin defense. Ohio State mustered just one offensive touchdown in regulation on the road. But when overtime came, Miller worked some magic to help the Buckeyes escape for their 11th win of the year. That counts for something, on a day when other top Heisman Trophy candidates struggled and lost. The Buckeyes still must beat Michigan in the finale, which will be no easy task. But if so, they could find themselves as possibly the only undefeated team in the country when the dust clears. That would have Ohio State fans forever wondering what might have happened if the school had self-imposed a bowl ban last year. But there will be no doubt that it was a special, extremely rare accomplishment.

3. Michigan's future looks bright with Devin Gardner at QB: Denard Robinson has been the face of Michigan's program for the past two and a half seasons, and most figured the Wolverines would take a step back on offense after his graduation. The Wolverines couldn't do anything offensively against Nebraska after Robinson aggravated a nerve issue in his throwing elbow. If only Devin Gardner had been ready to step in at Memorial Stadium. Gardner has been brilliant since moving into the starting role, and he turned in an unreal performance Saturday against Iowa. The junior accounted for six touchdowns, running for three and throwing for three, as the Wolverines routed the Hawkeyes to remain perfect at home for the second straight season. He led six consecutive touchdown drives midway through the game. Gardner's presence has allowed Michigan to maximize its talent at receiver, as Jeremy Gallon, Roy Roundtree and Devin Funchess all contributed Saturday. Although Robinson, who started at tailback, is getting healthier, it's clear the future is now for the Michigan offense with Gardner, who provides the balance the Wolverines have been seeking. It'll be interesting to see how he performs this week against a much better defense in The Game, but the long-term outlook for Michigan's offense looks extremely bright, especially if Gardner gets another year of eligibility from the NCAA.

4. Northwestern has developed resiliency: After a heartbreaking loss on the road last week at Michigan, you could have understood if the Wildcats would have had a letdown at Michigan State on Saturday. And once Venric Mark and Kain Colter both left the game in the second half with injuries, the Wildcats had some major work cut out for them against an outstanding Spartans defense. Despite being outgained by more than 100 yards and scoring only one offensive touchdown, however, Northwestern showed major grit by pulling out a 23-20 road win. It did so by causing four turnovers and getting strong defensive performances from Ibraheim Campbell and David Nwabuisi. After all three of the Wildcats' difficult, come-from-ahead losses -- Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan -- they have followed it up with a win the next Saturday. For a young team to show that kind of resiliency is impressive. (Compare that to Michigan State, which just can't get over the hump on a weekly basis.) Instead of lamenting what might have been in those defeats, it's time to celebrate Pat Fitzgerald's bunch, which is a win over woeful Illinois away from a 9-3 season.

5. Home-field dominance no longer there for Badgers, Spartans: Wisconsin and Michigan State took steps toward college football's upper echelon the past two seasons thanks in large part to dominant play at home. The Badgers' success at Camp Randall Stadium is hardly new, yet Wisconsin entered the season on a 16-game home win streak, the second-longest in the country behind LSU. Michigan State, meanwhile, swept its home schedule in each of the past two seasons, including two wins against Wisconsin. But both teams have taken a step back this fall and stumbled where they've been at their best. Wisconsin couldn't translate yards into points against Ohio State and dropped its second consecutive home game for the first time since 2008. It's even worse for Michigan State, which fell 23-20 to Northwestern and went 0-4 in Big Ten home games for the first time since 2006, John L. Smith's final year as coach. At some point, you stop becoming the best [insert record] team in the country and you become a major disappointment. Michigan State deserves the label after making far too many mistakes at Spartan Stadium. While Michigan State and Wisconsin have lost their home dominance, Michigan has reclaimed it under Brady Hoke. The Wolverines have been perfect at the Big House in Hoke's first two seasons.
It's fitting that when Michigan needed a mini miracle to tie last week's game against Northwestern, Roy Roundtree answered the bell. The senior wide receiver, who has made his share of big catches during his career, added another last Saturday, hauling in a 53-yard completion following a deflection to set up the game-tying field goal with two seconds left in regulation (Michigan went on to win in overtime). It has been an interesting career for Roundtree, who had a breakout season in 2010 but saw his production drop last fall as Michigan went away from a pure spread and changed the responsibilities for the receivers. He has been a bigger factor lately and will play his final game at the Big House on Saturday at Iowa as Michigan tries to stay alive in the Legends division race.

ESPN.com caught up with "Tree" this week.

[+] EnlargeRoy Roundtree
Michael Hickey/Getty ImagesReceiver Roy Roundtree says he has become a more well-rounded player in Michigan's offense.
Last game at the Big House this weekend. How are you feeling about it?

Roy Roundtree: Man, I can't believe it's finally come to an end, playing there. I'm staying focused, like Coach [Brady] Hoke said, and prepare myself so I can leave there on top. It's really going to be emotional for us and our families because we've been here for four or five years. To see last year's seniors so emotional, and the way they played against Ohio [State] and really took it out on them. We've just got to develop the same results.

What's your favorite memory of playing there? Was it the catch last week? The one against Notre Dame?

RR: They were both top to me. I really can't pick which one was better. It was the first night game here [against Notre Dame], and then last week, it was crazy how I came down with that ball. I really believe they're tied for me.

What happened on that play last week?

RR: It was basically the same route that Jeremy Gallon got us down there with last year against Notre Dame. This time, I was just the point guy, and Devin stepped up in the pocket and threw it. It was one-on-one coverage, I thought there would be more people back there, but it was just one guy. He threw it up there and I really focused on the ball and it fell right into my hands.

Did you feel the defender [Northwestern's Daniel Jones] would tip it away?

RR: That's what I thought, but the wind blew my way, I guess.

It seems like you have a knack for making big catches. Has it always been that way in your career?

RR: I just always put a lot of pressure on myself because of what I can do. I just try to make the big catch. It's expected coming from a Michigan wide receiver. Our coach always emphasized that throughout camp, throughout spring ball. We actually talk among ourselves -- like me, Gallon and Funch [Devin Funchess], whoever the wide receivers are -- like, 'OK, I'm about to make the big play.' Last game, Funchess scored and Gallon made a big catch. I was like, 'OK, I guess it's my turn. I'm about to make a catch, so I can talk smack.' I made the catch, so I guess it gave me the win on that.

So were you talking smack this week?

RR: I was like, 'Yeah, I thought y'all were going to beat me, but y'all didn't.' They were like, 'Yeah, you won that one.' We always set ourselves up for challenges because we're trying to be the best wide receiving corps in the country.

So do you get in Devin's ear or Denard's ear and tell them if it's a close game, they need to get you the ball?

RR: I mean the play's called and they make their reads. Devin made a great read, he threw the ball up for me and I came down with it.

What has it been like being in one offense the first two years of your career and then a new system the last two years?

RR: I matured a lot better, learned more from defensive schemes, better route-running combinations in a pro-style offense. I feel like it really helped me. Even though you might not see 70 footballs, at the end of the day you're winning and that's all that matters. That's what I really enjoy doing. Blocking is the main thing for the receivers, and I really got set on that since Day 1. So I'm just trying to keep that going. But I've learned a lot.

Did you have to be more patient last year after being so productive (72 catches, 935 yards, 7 TDs) two years ago?

RR: That was the main thing. Once the ball came your way, you had to do something with it. I felt like all the wide receivers did that last year. Nobody had outstanding stats, but at the end of the day, we were winning. And we were getting knockdowns [on blocks]. Our goal was like, forget catches, let's get knockdowns on defenders.

How does playing in this offense prepare you for the NFL?

RR: I felt like I really developed a lot of skills from running slot and from running wide receiver. Coach [Al] Borges moves us around a lot, so I feel like it really helped me.

What kind of legacy does your senior class want to leave at Michigan?

RR: Man, just win out. Win out for each other, just like the younger guys winning out for the seniors. I want to leave my legacy as doing the right thing, staying focused one game at a time, Iowa this week and then we've got Ohio. So just trying to stay focused and finish strong.

You can't control what happens with Nebraska, but how much are you going to be watching what happens with them because of the division?

RR: I don't know what time they play or whatever, so I'll be watching whoever's on TV. You can't really worry about someone else.

I know how Coach Hoke feels about this, but in your mind, can it still be a successful season if you don't win a Big Ten title?

RR: We have to deal with what happens. I feel like I'll be happy if we finish out strong, and if the Big Ten works out our way, that will be great. But if not, we've still got the bowl game, and we can still leave out on top.

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 9

October, 25, 2012
10/25/12
3:00
PM ET
Last week, we presented our choices for the Big Ten midseason awards. It's time to check back in on the races as the second half is in full swing:

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: The Buckeyes' season looked to be in danger when Miller was taken away in an ambulance in the fourth quarter last week against Purdue. But Miller appears to be OK for this week's showdown between the top two candidates for the offensive MVP award.

2. Matt McGloin, QB, Penn State: The Nittany Lions have had only one 3,000-yard passer in their history -- Darryl Clark, who threw for 3,003 in 2009. McGloin is currently on pace for 3,065 yards.

3. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska: The Huskers' junior had another huge game last week, leading his team to a comeback victory at Northwestern. Would you have believed before the season that Martinez would lead the Big Ten in pass efficiency and touchdown throws (15) after eight weeks?

4. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin: Ball got off to a slow start this season, but in conference play he leads all players with 155 rushing yards per game and 10 rushing touchdowns. And isn't how you play in league action the most important thing?

5. Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern: Would the Wildcats have held on last week against Nebraska if Mark had not left the game with an injury? We'll never know. But we do know he's been one of the league's most valuable players and that he's still on pace for a 1,000-yard season.

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State: Mauti has simply been a force of nature for the Nittany Lions, leading them on and off the field. He's among the league leaders in tackles, fumbles forced and interceptions.

2. Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan: Ryan rockets up the list after an outstanding last few weeks. He is giving the Wolverines a much-needed pass-rushing presence and is leading a defense that keeps getting better every week.

3. Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State: The Spartans are just 4-4, but you can't blame the Big Ten's top defense, which didn't allow a touchdown in last week's loss to Michigan. Bullough is the leader of that defense and is having a great year.

4. Mike Taylor, LB, Wisconsin: Taylor led the league in tackles last year and is up to his old tricks, currently ranking second in the league with 84 stops and topping the Big Ten with 10 tackles for loss on an underrated defense.

5. Tyler Scott, DE, Northwestern: The Wildcats' defensive front is much-improved, and a large portion of the credit goes to Scott, who leads the Big Ten in sacks (six) and forced fumbles (three).

Kwalick–Clark Tight End of the Year

1. Dion Sims, Michigan State: Sims was one of the Spartans' top (only?) weapons before he injured his ankle. For the season, he has 24 catches for 313 yards and two touchdowns, and his team needs him to get healthy.

2. Kyle Carter, Penn State: The redshirt freshman is coming on, and the Nittany Lions are not surprisingly featuring the tight end under Bill O'Brien. Carter has 29 catches for 364 yards and a score and had a big game at Iowa last week.

3. Devin Funchess, Michigan: Another freshman, Funchess has only 11 receptions, but they have gone for 186 yards and three touchdowns as he has become a big-play weapon.

4. Jacob Pedersen, Wisconsin: Pedersen struggled early in the season but has come on of late. He's got 15 catches for 199 yards and two scores and is being targeted more often in the passing game.

It's game day at Notre Dame Stadium

September, 22, 2012
9/22/12
6:15
PM ET
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- I'm back at Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since 2007, gearing up for No. 18 Michigan (2-1) against the 11th-ranked Fighting Irish (3-0).

In case you've been in a cave, this series has been just a bit entertaining in recent years, thanks mostly to one man: Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, who celebrates his 22nd birthday today (on Sept. 22, eerie!). The Wolverines senior has been Notre Dame's nightmare the past two seasons, rallying Michigan for wins and setting numerous records in the process. The Wolverines-Irish game takes place under the lights for the second consecutive year after last year's unbelievable finish at the Big House.

Michigan has won its past three meetings with Notre Dame -- all by four points -- and aims for its first four-game win streak in the series since 1898-1908. Although Notre Dame comes off of a big win at Michigan State, the Irish players should be locked in for this one. Notre Dame running back Theo Riddick said this week the three-game slide to Michigan is "basically tatted on us."

Robinson obviously is a huge key for Michigan, but he'll also need help from his receivers to pull off the mini upset tonight. Notre Dame's secondary is the weakness on a mostly stellar defense, and the Irish will be without starting safety Jamoris Slaughter, who suffered a season-ending ruptured Achilles' at Michigan State. The Spartans receivers simply couldn't attack Notre Dame; Michigan's core -- Devin Gardner, Roy Roundtree, Jeremy Gallon, Devin Funchess -- must create separation. It's also a big night for Michigan's lines, which struggled mightily in the season opener against Alabama and will be tested by Notre Dame's fronts on both sides of the ball.

The Wolverines are relatively healthy for the game. Linebacker Desmond Morgan and running back Stephen Hopkins both should return from injuries this week.

I picked Notre Dame 27-20, while Bennett forecasts another Michigan win (28-24).

Stay tuned for more coverage throughout the night.

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