NCF Nation: Donnell Kirkwood

Bill Belton Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsBill Belton's emergence has been a major boost for the Penn State offense.
The Big Ten returned seven of its top 10 rushers from the 2012 season, so it seemed likely that familiar names would fill this year's rushing chart. It hasn't worked out like that.

Only two players ranked in last year's top 10 -- Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Iowa's Mark Weisman -- are among the league's current top 10 ground gainers. The list features five backs who didn't enter the season as starters but have stepped up for injured teammates or simply because they were the best options. Today's poll question asks: Which Big Ten running back has been the biggest surprise so far this season?

You won't see Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon on the list because we don't consider his success surprising at all.

Here are the candidates, listed alphabetically:

Bill Belton, Penn State (Big Ten rushing rank: 7): Lions fans waiting for Belton to blossom are finally getting their wish. Zach Zwinak led Penn State's rushing attack in 2012 with 1,000 rush yards on 203 carries. But Zwinak's fumbling issues created an opening for Belton, who has cashed in during Big Ten play. Belton recorded the decisive fourth-down run in Penn State's four-overtime win against Michigan, quietly had a nice game against Ohio State and last week went for 201 yards and a touchdown in an overtime win against Illinois, the Lions' first 200-yard rushing performance since Larry Johnson in 2002.

SportsNation

Which Big Ten running back has been the biggest surprise so far this season?

  •  
    41%
  •  
    24%
  •  
    4%
  •  
    4%
  •  
    27%

Discuss (Total votes: 6,514)

David Cobb, Minnesota (Big Ten rushing rank: 5): The Gophers had every intention of establishing their ground game this season, but they pegged Donnell Kirkwood to do most of the heavy lifting. But an ankle injury in the opener slowed Kirkwood and Cobb, who had only one carry last season as a sophomore, is blossoming in a featured role. He established himself with 125 yards and two touchdowns in a non-league win against San Jose State. During Minnesota's current three-game Big Ten win streak, Cobb has three 100-yard rushing performances and 429 total yards on 80 carries.

Tevin Coleman, Indiana (Big Ten rushing rank: 4): After pushing Stephen Houston throughout the offseason, Coleman has emerged as one of many dangerous weapons on Indiana's offense. He has scored in every game this season, averaged 6.4 yards per carry and 131.6 all-purpose yards per game. Primarily a big-play run threat, Coleman also has contributed as a receiver (18 receptions, 164 yards) and as a kick returner.

Treyvon Green, Northwestern (Big Ten rushing rank: 9): Green has been a bright spot for an injury-plagued and inconsistent Wildcats offense this season. Top back Venric Mark has played only one full game because of injuries, but Green has filled the void with 612 rush yards and eight touchdowns on only 95 carries. Green has three 100-yard rushing efforts, including last Saturday at Nebraska, where he gashed the Huskers for 149 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries.

Jeremy Langford, Michigan State (Big Ten rushing rank: 6): The Spartans entered the season with a pretty desperate situation at running back. They had moved backup middle linebacker Riley Bullough to the position in spring practice, and seemed likely to use several true freshmen at the position. But Langford took charge Oct. 12 against Indiana, racking up 109 rush yards and three touchdowns. He has eclipsed 100 yards on the ground in each of the past four games, scoring six touchdowns during the span. Along with quarterback Connor Cook and an improved offensive line, Langford is a big reason for the offense's turnaround.

Now it's time to vote. Let us know who is the Big Ten's surprise back.
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football:

1. Wisconsin-Ohio State could be the Big Ten's game of the year: In recent years, the Badgers-Buckeyes matchups have been more significant than Ohio State-Michigan or any other conference pairing. This week's showdown at Ohio Stadium could be just as significant. Ohio State is the Big Ten's best team, and Wisconsin might be No. 2 after another dominant rushing performance against Purdue. Both teams ascribe to the power run game but do it in vastly different yet equally entertaining ways. Although the Kenny G show has been terrific for the Buckeyes, top quarterback Braxton Miller should be back for the Big Ten opener. Miller might not be the biggest offensive star on the field, as Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon has performed as advertised, racking up 624 rush yards and seven touchdowns in the first four games. The game features first-year Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen going up against his former boss, Urban Meyer. One of these teams has held at least a share of the past eight Big Ten titles. The winner takes control of the Leaders Division. Should be a great one.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner, Jefferson Ashiru
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesMichigan quarterback Devin Gardner had another three turnovers in the Wolverines' close win over UConn.
2. Michigan has real problems: It was tempting to write off Michigan's struggle to beat Akron last week as a hangover from the high-stakes Notre Dame game. But no hangovers the past two weeks. The Wolverines found themselves down two touchdowns in the second half Saturday night at UConn, the same Huskies team that lost at home by 15 to Towson in the opener. Michigan rallied for the 24-21 win, and at least Brady Hoke's team has shown grit at the end of games the past three weeks. But quarterback Devin Gardner committed three more turnovers (two interceptions, one fumble), and he has devolved from potential Heisman candidate to a potential problem spot in just a fortnight. An even thornier issue is the continued inability of the Michigan offensive line to open consistent holes for the running game. If the Wolverines are having trouble running the ball against Akron and UConn, what's going to happen in Big Ten play? There's plenty of time for Hoke & Co. to right the ship, and the upcoming bye week is a welcome sight. But right now, Michigan does not look like the top-15 team we thought it was two weeks ago.

3. The Iowa-Minnesota game has added meaning: We love the pig, but there's a lot more than the Floyd of Rosedale at stake (steak?) this week as Iowa and Minnesota open Big Ten play in Minneapolis. Both teams have shown improvement, especially with their power running games, and enter the matchup with momentum. Iowa exploded for 38 first-half points Saturday against Western Michigan and finished with 59, its highest total since 2002. The Hawkeyes received contributions in all three phases, including two punt return touchdowns from receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley and two pick-sixes from cornerback B.J. Lowery. Iowa's defense has yet to allow a rushing touchdown. After a miserable offensive performance in 2012, Iowa is starting to establish an identity behind its line and a stable of running backs. Minnesota is doing the same, finally showing it can control the line of scrimmage and dominate on the ground. Despite not having its starting quarterback (Philip Nelson) or starting running back (Donnell Kirkwood), Minnesota racked up 353 yards and six rushing touchdowns, including four by backup signal-caller Mitch Leidner, in an impressive win against San Jose State. The Gophers are 4-0 for the second straight season. Both teams have very challenging league schedules, so getting off to a 1-0 start is huge. Big one at TCF Bank Stadium this week.

4. Bo Pelini is still standing, but needs time to regroup: The open week couldn't come at a better time for Nebraska's coach and his team, which ended an emotional week with a 59-20 thumping of FCS South Dakota State. The firestorm from audio-gate should die down, at least a little, as Pelini got through Saturday's game without any further controversy, and received mostly support from Huskers fans. Pelini is hardly out of the woods, though, and must turn his attention to a defense that needs a ton of work before Big Ten play begins Oct. 5 against Illinois. The Huskers surrendered 465 yards to the Jackrabbits, who had a balanced attack (238 yards passing, 227 yards rushing). Pelini called it the defense's worst performance in a season filling up with them. Whether it's youth, talent, scheme or attention to detail, Nebraska's defense must get back on track soon. Although the schedule remains favorable the next month or so, it's hard to see the Huskers repeating as Legends Division champs without some significant upgrades on D.

5. Indiana still hasn't arrived: Indiana entered the year with high hopes for a bowl game this year, and with a warp-speed offense averaging 50 points a game through three weeks, the Hoosiers didn't appear to be deluding themselves. But after an impressive showing last week against Bowling Green, Kevin Wilson's team found itself right back in a familiar spot: unable to defend a good team. Missouri racked up 623 yards -- the most in Memorial Stadium history -- in a 45-28 win in Bloomington on Saturday. The game wasn't even as close as the final score, as Indiana tacked on a touchdown and two-point conversion with 10 seconds to go, and Missouri had three turnovers in the first half to kill promising drives. The Hoosiers' vaunted offense failed to score from the 6:31 mark of the second quarter until there was 11:24 left in the game, and IU punted nine times after punting only five times in the first three games combined. The loss to Navy now hurts even more, as Wilson's team would have to go 4-4 in Big Ten play to become bowl eligible. That seems like an awfully tall order. Penn State comes in next after a bye for both teams, and the Nittany Lions just righted their defense in a 34-0 shutout of Kent State. Penn State has never lost to Indiana and will be favored soundly again on Oct. 5. It might be wait for next year time again in Hoosierland.
Ten items to track around Big Ten football in Week 2:

1. House party: If the second night game at Michigan Stadium is anything like the first, we'll all be thrilled (well, except for those Notre Dame folks). Michigan and Notre Dame delivered the drama two years ago under the lights, and the spectacle Saturday night in Ann Arbor should once again be incredible. The teams' past four meetings have all been decided by seven points or fewer (19 points total). The series sadly disappears after the 2014 meeting in South Bend, so enjoy it while it lasts.

2. Rees vs. Gardner: Notre Dame-Michigan features another appetizing quarterback matchup. While Tommy Rees remains a polarizing figure for some Notre Dame fans, it's hard to argue with what he has done against Michigan. Before last Saturday's opener against Temple, Rees' only 300-yard passing performance came against Michigan two years ago, and he led Notre Dame to victory last fall. Rees can stretch the field, as he had more passes of 20 yards or longer against Temple (7) than Everett Golson had in any game last season. Devin Gardner was Michigan's leading receiver last year against Notre Dame, but he's firmly entrenched as a quarterback. Gardner has been deadly in the red zone for the Wolverines, converting 19 touchdowns in 22 red zone trips as the starter.

3. Spartans looking for a spark: Michigan State basically has two more weeks to get its offense right before facing one of the nation's top defenses on the road at Notre Dame. The unit's opening act was highly disappointing, as Michigan State averaged just 3.8 yards per play against a Western Michigan defense that ranked 61st nationally in 2012. Head coach Mark Dantonio has kept mostly quiet about his quarterback situation this week as four players continue to get reps in practice. The Spartans need a solution there and at other offensive spots against South Florida, which allowed 56 points to McNeese State in its opening loss.

4. Illini aim to continue big-play ways: One of the nation's most feeble offenses in 2012 broke out last week against Southern Illinois, as Illinois recorded six plays of 30 yards or longer -- matching its total from all of last season! Senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase recorded a career-high 416 pass yards and featured weapons like Josh Ferguson and Ryan Lankford. The question is whether the Illini can come close to that type of production against a much, much tougher opponent in Cincinnati, which held Purdue to one short scoring drive and only 226 yards last week. We'll get a much better gauge about Illinois' offensive progress against Tommy Tuberville's defense.

5. Northwestern's health: After a mostly injury-free season in 2012, Northwestern already has been bitten by that pesky bug early this fall. The Wildcats will be without starting cornerback Daniel Jones (knee) for the rest of the season, putting redshirt freshman Dwight White in the spotlight against Syracuse. Top quarterback Kain Colter (head) and running back Venric Mark (leg) both are questionable for the game. If Northwestern can survive again like it did last week against Cal, it has a chance to get healthy in the next two weeks against weaker opponents before a two-week prep for Ohio State.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesQuarterback Devin Gardner was 10-of-15 passing for 162 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions in Michigan's season-opening rout of Central Michigan.
6. Roby watch in Columbus: After playing nine new defensive starters in last week's opener against Buffalo, Ohio State regains a very big piece in All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby, who returns from suspension. Coach Urban Meyer wanted Roby to re-prove himself as a starter this week in practice, but it's only a matter of time before the junior distinguishes himself. Ohio State is looking for a cleaner performance in all three phases against struggling San Diego State, and it will be interesting to see how Roby performs.

7. Indiana's offensive efficiency: Kevin Wilson's Hoosiers scored touchdowns on five of their first six offensive possessions in last week's opener against Indiana State, en route to a Memorial Stadium-record 73 points. If Indiana can come close to that type of efficiency Saturday against Navy, it will improve to 2-0. Possessions likely will be limited against the Midshipmen, as Indiana found out last year when it had only 10 offensive drives in a 31-30 loss. The Hoosiers had to settle for three field goals of 30 yards or less and need to be better about punching it in against Navy. "You don't get as many at-bats," Wilson said.

8. Second chances: Purdue and Iowa didn't get off to the starts they wanted in Week 1, and neither did Nebraska's defense, which surrendered 35 first downs and 602 yards to Wyoming in the opener. Fortunately, all three teams should redeem themselves against weaker competition on Saturday. The Boilermakers need to boost quarterback Rob Henry's confidence and fix their communication problems on offense against Indiana State. Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock must rebound from his late interception against Missouri State. The Huskers defense, meanwhile, aims to clean things up against a Southern Miss team that has lost 13 straight and scored just 15 points against Texas State last week.

9. Wolverines' youth put to test: Don't be surprised if Michigan-Notre Dame comes down to how well the Wolverines' young interior offensive line performs against an elite Fighting Irish defensive front led by nose guard Louis Nix III and end Stephon Tuitt, two potential first-round picks in next April's NFL draft. Michigan will start redshirt freshman Kyle Kalis at right guard, true sophomore Jack Miller at center and redshirt sophomore Graham Glasgow at left guard. They'll be challenged all night long (especially Miller) as they try to create running room for Fitzgerald Toussaint and protect Gardner.

10. Hack's home debut: Penn State fans have been waiting more than a year and a half to watch quarterback Christian Hackenberg take snaps at Beaver Stadium. They'll finally get their chance Saturday as the Lions face Eastern Michigan in their home opener. Hackenberg had a few expected hiccups in his collegiate debut against Syracuse but also showed why he can be such a special player for Penn State's offense. Head coach Bill O'Brien vows to put Hackenberg in better positions to succeed this week. Hackenberg also will have top weapon Allen Robinson at his disposal from the start, which should make a big difference.
CHICAGO -- Penn State coach Bill O'Brien and his Purdue counterpart, Darrell Hazell, will face the same decision sometime next month: Should I start a true freshman quarterback this season?

It's a daunting and exciting possibility, depending on who you ask. It's also a realistic one for both Penn State and Purdue heading into 2013.

Danny Etling enrolled early at Purdue and put himself in position to compete for the team's top quarterback job following a solid spring. Christian Hackenberg didn't even need to go through the spring to be considered for Penn State's starting job. When camps kick off in August, Etling will compete with senior Rob Henry and possibly redshirt freshman Austin Appleby for the Purdue job, while Hackenberg will vie with junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson in State College.

Both Hazell and O'Brien vow to play the best quarterback, regardless of age, but there are added risks of going with a true freshman, including the impact on the rest of the roster. Will the Purdue locker room support Etling if he beats out Henry, a former team captain and one of the most popular players on the squad? How will a Penn State team carried by veteran leadership in 2012 respond to a quarterback who hasn't played a meaningful down at the college level?

According to players on both teams, they'll be just fine.

"If it is Danny, we'll be behind him," Purdue defensive tackle Bruce Gaston told ESPN.com. "We'll be behind whoever, especially if it is Danny because we're not going to let a freshman go in there thinking that he has no support. That's not going to do anything but hurt us in every aspect of the game.

"We have no clue who [the starter is] going to be, but we'll support them."

So will Henry, according to Gaston.

"Rob is one of the most humble people I know," Gaston said. "Rob would definitely not make a fuss or anything. He'll handle it in the most professional way."

Penn State's situation is a bit different as both Ferguson and Hackenberg are newcomers. Although Ferguson went through the spring with the team, players had much more familiarity with Steven Bench, last year's backup quarterback who transferred to South Florida after being told he wouldn't compete for the starting job.

Whoever emerges in camp at Penn State will be a new voice of leadership.

"They're definitely going to need a little bit of help, a little bit of guidance," senior linebacker Glenn Carson said, "but they're both guys that have a lot of confidence, have that swagger that is much needed as a quarterback. I think they're going to be fine. They might need a teammate's helping hand, but I really don't feel like I have to go too far out of my way because they have that confidence built in."

A young quarterback can help himself by reaching out to older teammates, like Minnesota's Philip Nelson did in 2012. Minnesota took the redshirt off of Nelson midway through the season, and the true freshman started the Gophers' final seven games.

"It's easy to get behind somebody who asks for help," Gophers running back Donnell Kirkwood said. "He was new, he was a freshman, Wisconsin was his first start and he was a little shaken up by that, but he took on a leadership role."

Carson has no concern about a divided or apathetic locker room at Penn State, depending on who wins the quarterback job.

"This team understands how important these guys are to us," Carson said. "Even though they're freshmen and they're young, they're just getting into the program, the team really respects these guys and knows how important they are. It's going to be a really big camp for both of these guys.

"They're going to have to truly emerge, not only as players but as leaders so that they really can take the locker room."
CHICAGO -- Minnesota running back Donnell Kirkwood was browsing the Web about the developments in the Ed O'Bannon antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA when two names caught his eye.

They belonged to his Gophers teammates Moses Alipate and Victor Keise.

"I was on the Internet and their names popped up and I was like, 'What?'" Kirkwood said Thursday at Big Ten media days. "We support them all the way with it, as long as it doesn't interfere with the team and bring negative attention. As long as they show up to workouts every day and do their part, I think it's all right."

Alipate and Keise are among six current FBS players who joined the O'Bannon lawsuit, which alleges that the NCAA, EA Sports and Collegiate Licensing Co., the nation's leading trademark and licensing firm, violated antitrust laws by using players' names, likenesses and images without compensation. Both Minnesota players are fifth-year seniors who haven't played much at the college level.

Kirkwood hasn't discussed the case with Alipate and Keise other than to ask one question.

"If y'all win, how much do we get?" he said with a laugh.

Like many college players, Kirkwood played the "NCAA" video game from EA Sports, which has contained his likeness in recent years. He doesn't feel as strongly as Alipate and Keise about the pay-for-play debate but would like to see the value of his athletic scholarship go a little further, a proposal the Big Ten has backed for several years.

"When I signed my letter of intent, I knew I wasn't going to be getting paid, so it never really crossed my mind," Kirkwood said. "I started finding out about the revenue when I got to college. It'd be nice to have a little extra money in your pocket when times get rough at the end of the month, but I know we're not NFL players and we shouldn't get millions of dollars in college."

A stipend could help players with basic living expenses, Kirkwood said, as well as help their families travel to far-away games. But the Gophers junior opposes a full-blown pay-for-play system in college football featuring agents and contracts.

"That would be too much," he said. "That might mess up the whole entire recruiting process. If they choose to do that, everybody should get the same amount across the country."
By the end of last season, Minnesota's offense was being held together by little more than spit and string.

Offensive line injuries and a general lack of depth had the coaching staff scrambling for anything that would work. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover remembers the desperation that went into writing out the game plan for those final few weeks in November.

[+] EnlargeDonnell Kirkwood
AP Photo/Tom OlmscheidFollowing a solid 2012 season, running back Donnell Kirkwood and the Gophers' offensive unit are excited for what's ahead in the upcoming year.
"We got to where we were putting up plays and going, 'OK, we hope this one gets us five yards. If we run this one once, hopefully it's enough to get us into a second-and-normal situation,'" Limegrover told ESPN.com. "There just wasn't that flow."

Everything changed during bowl season. The offensive linemen regained their health and the coaches got 15 extra practices to reset the approach. After averaging just 13.5 points per game over their final four regular-season contest, the Gophers scored 31 against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. Though they lost that game, they gained something potentially more valuable: an offensive identity.

"Really for the first time since we've been here, I feel like a lot of the components of what we want to do and who we want to be are in place," said Limegrover, who is entering Year 3 in the Twin Cities along with the rest of head coach Jerry Kill's staff.

The confidence earned in that bowl performance has carried over into spring practice. Minnesota discovered last December that it had something to build its offense around: a strong running game. The Gophers ran for 222 yards against Texas Tech and are looking to continue that same hard-nosed philosophy this year.

It helps that they return leading rusher Donnell Kirkwood, whose 926 yards as a junior were the most by a Gopher back since 2006. The 223-pound Kirkwood came into spring focused on correcting all the little mistakes he made last year and learning not to dwell on them.

"I'm more comfortable with myself," he said. "I'm not grading myself as hard and not getting in the gutter when I do something bad. I'm very critical of myself, but I've kind of learned that's part of the game. I've got to keep playing after mistakes."

Limegrover says Kirkwood is becoming more of a complete back in all areas of his game.

"The guys up front love him," Limegrover said. "They know he's going to run hard and he's going to hit where he needs to hit. They know that if we do our job, he makes us look good."

Kirkwood is also getting pushed by 235-pound sophomore Rodrick Williams Jr., who came on late last season and ran for 60 yards and a touchdown in the bowl. And Limegrover said junior David Cobb might have the most natural ability of all the running backs on the roster and could "really be a kid that pops on the scene" if he figures out the finer points of the game.

Minnesota has some backs with meat on their bones and an offensive line that is starting to develop a nasty streak, even with tackle Ed Olson out this spring because of an injury.

"The days are gone of saying, 'Well, our offensive line is young, they're inexperienced,'" Limegrover said. "We've got to step up and be able to play with the big boys up front. I don't know if offensive linemen ever have a swagger, but there's definitely a different feeling in that room right now about what we can and can't do."

Having that power run game should also benefit quarterback Philip Nelson. Not only will it open things up in the play-action game, but the Gophers won't have to ask Nelson to run the ball as much. Limegrover said Minnesota relied too much on the quarterback run game last year because it went into the season thinking it would have MarQueis Gray under center all year. Now, they can use it as a complementary piece of the offense and pick their spots with it.

The passing game still needs polish, but the running game has given the Gophers a great building block. At a recent Saturday practice, Limegrover said the offense was clicking like an advanced operation.

"I had to kind of readjust my eyes because things were happening very quickly," he said. "It was really the first time since I've been here where we were like, 'Wow, that happened pretty fast.'"

And the days of holding together the offense with spit and string seemed like a distant memory.

The Big Ten's All-Bowl team

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
11:00
AM ET
The Big Ten won only two bowl games this season, but several players stood out around the league.

Let's take a look at ESPN.com's Big Ten All-Bowl squad ...

OFFENSE

QB: Devin Gardner, Michigan -- There weren't many good choices around the league, but Gardner fired three touchdown passes and racked up 214 pass yards. He has accounted for at least two touchdowns in all five of his starts at quarterback for the Wolverines.

RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State -- The nation's ultimate workhorse running back did his thing in his final game as a Spartan. Bell had 32 carries for 145 yards and a touchdown, recording his eighth 100-yard rushing performance of the season. He also threw a 29-yard pass on a pivotal third-down play.

RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska -- Another back who stood out in his final collegiate game, Burkhead racked up 140 rush yards and a touchdown on 24 carries, and added four receptions for 39 yards. It's really too bad we didn't get to see what Burkhead could have done all season when healthy.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Gallon
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJeremy Gallon celebrates one of his two touchdown catches against South Carolina.
WR: Jeremy Gallon, Michigan -- Gallon recorded career highs in receptions (9) and receiving yards (145), and scored two touchdowns against a strong South Carolina defense in the Outback Bowl. It was his third 100-yard receiving performance of the season.

WR: Derrick Engel, Minnesota -- Along with quarterback Philip Nelson, Engel provided some hope for Minnesota's future on offense with 108 receiving yards on four receptions in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. His 42-yard reception marked the third longest of Minnesota's season.

TE: Dan Vitale, Northwestern -- The freshman provided offensive balance Northwestern needed against a Mississippi State team that focused on taking away Venric Mark and the run game. Vitale recorded team highs in both receptions (7) and receiving yards (82) as Northwestern ended the nation's longest bowl losing streak in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

OL: Taylor Lewan, Michigan -- Everyone remembers Jadeveon Clowney's near decapitation of Michigan's Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl -- which resulted from a miscommunication between Lewan and tight end Mike Kwiatkowski -- but the Wolverines' left tackle did a good job overall against college football's most dominant defensive lineman. Lewan anchored a line that helped Michigan put up decent numbers against an elite defense.

OL: Zac Epping, Minnesota -- Minnesota's offensive line showed flashes of the dominance it displayed for much of the Glen Mason era against Texas Tech. The Gophers racked up 222 rush yards and two touchdowns on 54 carries, as Epping and his linemates opened up holes for Donnell Kirkwood, Rodrick Williams and MarQueis Gray.

OL: Brian Mulroe, Northwestern -- Mulroe made his 40th career start and helped Northwestern finally get over the hump in a bowl game. The Wildcats had a balanced offensive attack, avoided the penalty flag and didn't allow a sack against Mississippi State.

OL: Cole Pensick, Nebraska -- Stepping in for the injured Justin Jackson at center, Pensick helped the Huskers find success running the ball against Georgia, especially up the middle. Nebraska had 239 rushing yards in the Capital One Bowl.

OL: Travis Frederick, Wisconsin: The Badgers rushed for 218 yards against Stanford, which came into the Rose Bowl with the nation's No. 3 rush defense. They also gave up only one sack to a defense which led the FBS in that category. Frederick played very well at center and announced he would skip his junior year to enter the NFL draft a few days later.

DEFENSE

DL: Quentin Williams, Northwestern -- Williams set the tone for Northwestern's win with an interception returned for a touchdown on the third play from scrimmage. He also recorded two tackles for loss, including a sack, in the victory.

DL: William Gholston, Michigan State -- Another player who stood out in his final collegiate game, Gholston tied for the team lead with nine tackles, including a sack, and had a pass breakup in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win against TCU. The freakishly athletic defensive end stepped up in a bowl game for the second straight season.

DL: Tyler Scott, Northwestern -- Scott and his fellow linemates made life tough for turnover-prone Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell in the Gator Bowl. The Wildcats junior defensive end recorded three tackles for loss, including two sacks, and added a quarterback hurry in the win.

DL: Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota -- The big man in the center of Minnesota's defensive line stood out against Texas Tech, recording six tackles, including a sack, and a pass breakup. Gophers fans should be fired up to have Hageman back in the fold for the 2013 season.

LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State -- Bullough once again triggered a strong defensive performance by Michigan State, which held TCU to just three points in the final two and a half quarters of the Wings bowl. The junior middle linebacker tied with Gholston for the team tackles lead (9) and assisted on a tackle for loss.

LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin -- The Badgers' defense clamped down against Stanford after a slow start, and Borland once again stood out with his play at middle linebacker. The standout junior led Wisconsin with nine tackles as the defense kept the Badgers within striking distance in Pasadena.

LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan -- Ryan capped a breakout season with another strong performance in the bowl game, recording 1.5 tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and half a sack. He'll enter 2013 as a top candidate for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.

CB: Michael Carter, Minnesota -- Carter finished off a strong senior year with two interceptions, a pass breakup and seven tackles in the 34-31 loss to Texas Tech.

CB: Nick VanHoose, Northwestern: The redshirt freshman picked off a Mississippi State pass and returned it 39 yard to set up the game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter.

S: Jared Carpenter, Northwestern: The senior was named MVP of the Gator Bowl win with a game-high 10 tackles and a near interception late in the game.

S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: The Wildcats dominate our all-bowl team secondary for good reason. Campbell had an interception and a pass breakup against the Bulldogs.

Specialists

P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State -- The punters took center stage in Tempe as both offenses struggled, and Sadler provided MSU with a huge lift in the field-position game. He set Spartans bowl records for punts (11) and punting yards (481), averaging 43.7 yards per punt with three inside the 20-yard line. His booming punt inside the TCU 5 helped lead to a game-turning fumble by the Horned Frogs' Skye Dawson.

K: Brendan Gibbons and Matt Wile, Michigan -- Both kickers share the honors after combining to go 3-for-3 on field-goal attempts in the Outback Bowl. Gibbons, the hero of last year's Sugar Bowl, connected from 39 yards and 40 yards in the first half. Wile hit a career-long 52-yard attempt in the third quarter, setting an Outback Bowl record.

Returner: Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota -- It took a bit longer than expected, but Stoudermire finally set the NCAA record for career kick return yards with a 26-yard runback on the opening kickoff against Texas Tech. The senior cornerback finished the game with 111 return yards, including a 37-yard runback, on four attempts.
Three keys for Minnesota in tonight's Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas game against Texas Tech:

1. Get creative offensively: The Gophers had major trouble finding the end zone for large parts of the season. Injuries at quarterback, receiver and on the offensive line kept the Minnesota offense stuck in neutral; it averaged just 13.3 points per game in every Big Ten game except an outlying 44-point outburst against Purdue. The month off has given time for those nicks and bruises to heal and should help senior quarterback/receiver MarQueis Gray be as effective as he was early in the season. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover needs to maximize ways to use the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Gray along with true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson and lead tailback Donnell Kirkwood. The Gophers are still limited at receiver, with A.J. Barker quitting and Andre McDonald suspended. Limegrover must be creative in finding ways to move the ball and somehow keep up with Texas Tech's wide-open offense.

2. Control the skies: Texas Tech had the No. 2 passing attack in the country, averaging 362 yards per game in the air this season. That's no surprise, given the recent history in Lubbock. The good news for Minnesota is that defending the pass is the Gophers' strength -- they had the No. 11 pass defense in the country this season. Cornerbacks Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire must turn in great games, along with safety Derrick Wells, against standout receivers Eric Ward and Darrin Moore. That won't be enough against a team likely to line up four and five wide receivers every snap, so defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman and D.L. Wilhite will have to get pressure on Seth Doege and find ways to disrupt his rhythm. At the very least, the Gophers must take a bend-but-don't-break attitude and force the Red Raiders to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns.

3. Do all the little things right: Let's be honest: Minnesota is a huge underdog in this game and would probably be playing a much easier opponent if Ohio State and Penn State were bowl eligible. It's a tough matchup for a team that doesn't score a whole lot in what is almost a road game. But the Gophers still have a chance against a Texas Tech squad that lost four of its final five and saw its head coach bolt for Cincinnati after the season. They just have very little margin for error. Special teams have to come up big. They can't afford many penalties. And they absolutely must win the turnover battle and keep the Red Raiders offense off the field as much as possible. They're going to need some luck and to play nearly a perfect game. The good news: Minnesota should be far more excited to be in this game than the Red Raiders.

B1G bowl primer: Meineke Car Care Bowl

December, 18, 2012
12/18/12
10:00
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Our snapshots of each bowl featuring a Big Ten team continue.

MEINEKE CAR CARE BOWL OF TEXAS

Minnesota (6-6) vs. Texas Tech (7-5)

Where: Houston, Reliant Stadium

When: Dec. 28, 9 p.m. ET (8 p.m. CT)

TV: ESPN

About Minnesota: The Gophers return to a bowl game for the first time since the 2009 season after doubling their wins total from 2011 in coach Jerry Kill's second year. Thanks to an improved defense, Minnesota surged to a 4-0 start before struggling in Big Ten play. Injuries forced Minnesota to use three different starting quarterbacks: senior MarQueis Gray, sophomore Max Shortell and freshman Philip Nelson, who lost his redshirt midway through the season and started the final six contests. The Gophers finished 11th nationally in pass defense and bolstered their pass rush behind senior end D.L. Wilhite and junior tackle Ra'Shede Hageman. Nelson showed some flashes of potential in a home victory against Purdue, but injuries piled up for the Gophers' offense, which scored just 54 points in the final four games.

About Texas Tech: Like Minnesota, the Red Raiders saw most of their gains in the first half of the season. They won their first four games and six of their first seven before dropping four of their final five. The poor finish combined with mounting criticism led to the somewhat surprising departure of coach Tommy Tuberville to Cincinnati following the regular season. Texas Tech acted quickly in naming rising star Kliff Kingsbury as head coach, although offensive line Chris Thomsen will coach the Red Raiders in the bowl. The passing tradition at Tech is alive and well as Seth Doege triggers the nation's No. 2 pass offense (361.9 yards per game), and the Red Raiders also rank in the top 20 nationally in both scoring and total offense. The defense performed well through the first half, shutting down then-Heisman Trophy favorite Geno Smith and West Virginia, but the unit struggled late, surrendering more than 50 points in four of the final six contests.

Key players, Minnesota: Gray is set to play his final game in a Gophers uniform, and as has been the case for much of his career, his position is somewhat of a mystery. Gray started at quarterback last season and opened this fall as the team's top signal-caller, but knee and ankle injuries forced him to wide receiver. The extended break before the bowl has allowed Gray to get healthy, and both he and Nelson are practicing at quarterback. Although running back Donnell Kirkwood has been good at times, Minnesota lacks offensive playmakers. Senior cornerback Michael Carter headlines the secondary after recording two interceptions and 14 pass breakups this fall. Wilhite tied for second in the Big Ten with 8.5 sacks.

Key players, Texas Tech: Doege ranks 14th nationally in pass efficiency (156.6 rating) and ninth in total offense (331.1 ypg), having eclipsed 300 pass yards in nine of 12 games with a 499-yard effort against West Virginia and a 476-yard performance against Kansas. He has two excellent targets in wide receivers Darrin Moore and Eric Ward, both of whom rank in the top 20 nationally in receptions and in the top 30 nationally in receiving yards. Junior defensive end Kerry Hyder triggers Texas Tech's pass rush with five sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. Senior safety Cody Davis leads the unit in tackles (91) and interceptions (3), and ranks second in pass breakups (7).

Did you know: The teams' only previous meeting was a memorable one, as Texas Tech made a huge comeback to force overtime and eventually beat Minnesota in the 2006 Insight Bowl. The blown lead led to Minnesota's firing of longtime coach Glen Mason the next day. ... Texas Tech is bowl-eligible for the 19th time in the past 20 seasons. ... Minnesota will be looking for its first bowl win since the 2004 Music City Bowl, when it defeated Alabama 20-16. ... Minnesota is 5-9 all-time in bowls and has dropped four straight. ... Texas Tech makes its third appearance in what's now known as the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. Texas Tech played in the inaugural game in 2000 (then named the galleryfurniture.com Bowl) at the Astrodome and again in 2003 (then named the EV1.net Houston Bowl) at Reliant Stadium. Texas Tech's last appearance resulted in a 38-14 win over Navy on Dec. 30, 2003.

Big Ten predictions: Week 12

November, 15, 2012
11/15/12
9:00
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It's the home stretch of Big Ten play, and Adam Rittenberg already has the champagne on ice. Rittenberg holds a commanding five-game lead against Brian Bennett, who seems likely to suffer the same fate as his beloved St. Louis Cardinals this fall.

There's still time for Bennett to catch up, but he needs to make a major push beginning this week. Fortunately, the Big Ten has a full slate of games, as every team is in action.

Let's get picky ...

NORTHWESTERN at MICHIGAN STATE

Brian Bennett: Both teams have struggled to finish games in the fourth quarter, so which one will do so this week? Northwestern matches up well with the Spartans in a lot of ways, but I just have a hard time believing Michigan State will go winless at home in Big Ten play. The Spartans' outstanding run defense will slow down Kain Colter and Venric Mark, holding them both under 100 yards. Le'Veon Bell scores two touchdowns in perhaps his home finale, including the game winner in the final 90 seconds. ... Michigan State 21, Northwestern 20

Adam Rittenberg: Someone has to finish, and I think it'll be Northwestern. This is a good matchup for the Wildcats, who have moved the ball on just about everyone, including Michigan's stout defense, and do much better against teams with good run games and shaky pass attacks. Mark records 110 rush yards and two touchdowns and S Ibraheim Campbell records an interception down the stretch as Northwestern wards off another late collapse. Michigan State fights hard on senior day, but it's the same old story. ... Northwestern 20, Michigan State 17

IOWA at No. 21 MICHIGAN

Adam Rittenberg: All signs point to a big Michigan win, and like a good driver, I obey the signs. Iowa is a mess right now, and the Hawkeyes don't match up well against Michigan on either side of the ball. Yes, Iowa has a three-game win streak in the series, but that will fuel Michigan's seniors more in their final home game. QB Devin Gardner fires three touchdown passes and racks up 275 pass yards, and Jordan Kovacs records two sacks of James Vandenberg as the Wolverines march on to "Ohio." ... Michigan 38, Iowa 17

Brian Bennett: The Hawkeyes have beaten Michigan three straight times, but they couldn't do much of anything right in the past few weeks. I don't like the way Iowa is trending, and it is going to have a hard time scoring on Michigan's defense. I like Gardner to have a big game here and Denard Robinson to line up at least once at a different position. Big blowout in the season finale at the Big House. ... Michigan 38, Iowa 10

INDIANA at PENN STATE

Brian Bennett: Both teams are dealing with different types of hangovers. One thinks it has been worked over by the refs, while the other knows it was worked over by Wisconsin. I see Indiana bouncing back a bit with a better offensive performance. The Nittany Lions get out to a two-touchdown lead, but Cameron Coffman brings the Hoosiers back in the third quarter with a couple of scoring drives. Ultimately, the Lions win it on a Zach Zwinak touchdown run and a key interception from Adrian Amos. ... Penn State 31, Indiana 23

Adam Rittenberg: It's been a long season and I need some ZZs, as in Zach Zwinak touchdowns. Zwinak goes for 130 rush yards and three scores as Penn State capitalizes on the woeful Hoosiers rushing defense. I also see the Hoosiers hanging in there for a while and getting touchdown receptions from Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes. But Michael Mauti and the Penn State defense buckle down in the second half and the Lions prevail. ... Penn State 34, Indiana 23

MINNESOTA at No. 14 NEBRASKA

Adam Rittenberg: Nebraska has had letdown games at home under Bo Pelini, and this would qualify following a grueling stretch against Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. But the Huskers can taste a Big Ten title, and they'll respond well against a Gophers team that should play loose after getting bowl-eligible. Minnesota jumps ahead behind a Donnell Kirkwood touchdown run, but the Huskers are once again too much in the second half as RB Ameer Abdullah and QB Taylor Martinez combine for 225 rush yards and four touchdowns. ... Nebraska 33, Minnesota 20

Brian Bennett: Here's the biggest upset pick of the week -- Nebraska won't need a second-half comeback. The Legends Division title is too close now for the Huskers to mess up, and they will overwhelm the Gophers on senior day. Martinez and Abdullah both eclipse 100 yards on the ground, and Rex Burkhead gets a ceremonial carry in his final game at Memorial Stadium. ... Nebraska 37, Minnesota 16

OHIO STATE at WISCONSIN

Brian Bennett: The Badgers looked ridiculously good last week in rushing for 564 yards at Indiana, but the Buckeyes are not the Hoosiers. They will bring safeties down into the box and make Curt Phillips beat them over the top. He'll find Jared Abbrederis a couple of times for big plays but will also get picked off by Travis Howard and Bradley Roby. Meanwhile, Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde have fresh legs after the bye week and combine for four touchdowns. ... Ohio State 28, Wisconsin 25

Adam Rittenberg: I seriously considered picking Wisconsin, perhaps putting some faith in the Vegas oddsmakers, who favored the Badgers. But the Buckeyes twice have burned me when I've lost faith in them. This time, it won't happen. Both Miller and Wisconsin RB Montee Ball turn in big performances, and Ball sets the NCAA career touchdowns record with his second score in the third quarter. But it'll be too much Miller in the fourth quarter, and for the second consecutive year he finds Devin Smith for the game-winning touchdown to beat the Badgers. ... Ohio State 31, Wisconsin 28

PURDUE at ILLINOIS

Adam Rittenberg: I don't know if I've correctly picked a Purdue game in Big Ten play, but the bad luck can't last forever. Illinois will show some life offensively in the first quarter, scoring on a Donovonn Young run. But Purdue settles down behind QB Robert Marve, who fires two more touchdown passes and avoids a turnover. The Boilers take their first lead midway through the second quarter and never look back, scoring a special-teams touchdown in the second half. Illinois' misery continues. ... Purdue 27, Illinois 14

Brian Bennett: Believing Purdue can win two straight games is a dangerous activity. But I'd rather have an inconsistent team capable of playing well than a reliably bad one like Illinois. The Illini have shown some faint signs of competitiveness the past two weeks but still have major problems on the offensive line, which Kawann Short will exploit for three sacks. The Purdue defense scores a touchdown, and Akeem Shavers runs for two more. ... Purdue 24, Illinois 14

Season records

Adam Rittenberg: 65-19 (.773)

Brian Bennett: 60-24 (.714)
Recognizing the best and brightest from Week 11 in the Big Ten:
  • Wisconsin RB Montee Ball: Who says says the Badgers' star is having a down year? Ball now needs just one more touchdown to tie the NCAA career record of 78 after he gashed Indiana for 198 yards and three scores on 27 carries. Ball was the biggest part of a school-record 564-yard rushing effort by the Badgers. James White (14 carries for 161 yards and two scores), Melvin Gordon (8 carries, 96 yards and a touchd0wn) also got in on the fun.
  • Purdue QB Robert Marve: Marve has had an up-and-down career marred by knee injuries, but Saturday's 27-24 win at Iowa has to be one of his finest moments. The senior completed 25 of 33 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns, and he set up the game-winning kick with a 17-yard run and a 20-yard pass completion in the final 30 seconds. Thanks to their quarterback's heroics, the Boilermakers remain alive for a bowl this year.
  • Michigan WR Roy Roundtree: The senior's 53-yard catch off a tipped ball in the final seconds against Northwestern is a candidate for one of the plays of the year in college football. If that's all Roundtree did, he'd still deserve a sticker for saving the Wolverines' bacon and helping his team pull out an incredible 38-31 overtime victory. But Roundtree had a solid all-around day, finishing with five catches for 139 yards.
  • Minnesota RB Donnell Kirkwood: There wasn't much offense Saturday in Champaign, but Kirkwood provided much of it for a Gophers team that needed its top running back to be at his best. Kirkwood racked up a career-high 152 rush yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries to lift Minnesota past Illinois. After failing to rush for a touchdown in Minnesota's first five Big Ten games, he twice reached the end zone, including the clincher from 12 yards out with 1:34 left. Kirkwood is the first Gophers running back to eclipse 700 yards in a season since Amir Pinnix ran for 1,272 yards in 2006.
  • Nebraska S Daimion Stafford: The Huskers once again needed the Blackshirts to step up in the second half, and Stafford came through with an interception of Matt McGloin early in the third quarter. Stafford's pick set up Nebraska's game-tying touchdown, as the Huskers quickly erased a 14-point halftime deficit and went on to win 32-23. He also recovered the controversial fumble by Penn State's Matt Lehman in the end zone in the fourth quarter. Stafford finished with eight tackles.
Like the rest of his Minnesota teammates, running back Donnell Kirkwood surged out of the gate in nonleague play, racking up 361 rush yards and two touchdowns.

Not surprisingly, the Gophers went 4-0.

It has been more of a struggle for Minnesota and Kirkwood during Big Ten play. The Gophers dropped four of their first five league contests, and Kirkwood averaged just 61.2 yards per game (including a 134-yard surge against Purdue) and zero touchdowns. If Minnesota intended to get bowl-eligible, it likely would need a big performance from No. 20 and the offensive line at Illinois.

Kirkwood delivered in a big way in Minnesota's 17-3 win over Illinois, ensuring that the Gophers will go bowling for the first time since the 2009 season. The sophomore racked up 152 rush yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries. Boosted by Kirkwood and a stingy defense, Minnesota (6-4, 2-4) had just enough to get past Illinois at Memorial Stadium. Second-year Gophers coach Jerry Kill recorded his first road win as the Gophers won in Champaign for the fourth straight time.

The game was hard to watch at times, particularly in the first half when the teams combined for just six points, one fumble and seven punts. Minnesota held Illinois to 13 first downs and 276 yards, and forced two Nathan Scheelhaase fumbles, including one in the closing minutes as the Illini quarterback tried to stretch the ball for a first down. Kirkwood sealed the win moments later with his second touchdown run, from 12 yards out.

The Gophers' defense once again stepped up, whether it was cornerback Michael Carter knocking down a third-down pass in Minnesota territory or linebacker Mike Rallis forcing Scheelhaase's fumble. Carter has been brilliant in Big Ten play.

Quarterback Philip Nelson had limited numbers (9-for-15 passing, 78 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs), but he made several key plays on third and fourth down, converting two fourth downs to set up the Gophers' first touchdown.

Illinois' defense kept it in the game most of the way, but the Illini have so many problems on offense that it didn't matter. Tim Beckman's crew had just 101 rush yards and couldn't mount a drive of longer than 11 yards in the second or third quarter. The Illini wrap up their home schedule next week against Purdue before finishing at Northwestern.

For Kill and the Gophers, this is one to celebrate. Few envisioned Minnesota would be bowling in Kill's second year. Despite some tough moments in Big Ten play, the Gophers are climbing back toward respectability.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 7

October, 15, 2012
10/15/12
10:13
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Upon further review ...

Team of the week: Iowa. Well, look at who's tied atop the Legends Division standings. Many people had written off the Hawkeyes after they lost at home to Central Michigan (a team which has followed up that upset in Iowa City by losing to Northern Illinois, Toledo and Navy, all by double digits). But give credit to the resiliency of Kirk Ferentz's team. On Saturday, Iowa outslugged Michigan State on the road and won in double-overtime 19-16. It wasn't a pretty game, but the Hawkeyes showed toughness and grit. Don't count them out of the Big Ten race just yet.

Best game: Hope you stayed up late to catch Ohio State's 52-49 win over Indiana, the Big Ten's version of Big 12 football. There were blocked punts, onside kicks, a 15-point Indiana rally in the final minutes, 1,059 total yards and way more tension than we usually associate with Buckeyes-Hoosiers matchups. You might have liked Iowa-Michigan State more if you enjoy, you know, actual tackling. But this kind of game is fun every once in a while, too.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Sandra Dukes/US PresswireBadgers RB Montee Ball had one of his best games of the season on Saturday against Purdue.
Biggest play: Let's go back to East Lansing and the second overtime period, when defensive lineman Louis Trinca-Pasat deflected a pass from Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell, causing the ball to sail through receiver Keith Mumphery’s hands and into the waiting embrace of an Iowa cornerback. That was a fitting end to a game that was all about defense.

Best play: The play of the day in the Big Ten happened around midnight, when Indiana's Nick Stoner leaped out of bounds to grab an onside kick and toss it back into the field of play. Stoner showed off the athleticism that allows him to star on Indiana's track team. D’Angelo Roberts recovered, and the Hoosiers went in for a score and two-point conversion for the game's final margin. Indiana's final onside kick was also brilliantly executed and conceived, but Ohio State's Corey Brown made a game-saving catch as he was all alone on his side of the field.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Wisconsin's Montee Ball has had quite a career, so when he sets a career high, that's saying something. His 247 yards (on 29 carries) versus Purdue were a personal best. His three touchdowns also gave him 72 for his career, moving him past Ron Dayne as the Big Ten's all-time leading touchdown maker. He needs seven more to break the NCAA record. If he keeps playing like he did Saturday, he'll smash it.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Michigan's Jake Ryan collected 11 tackles, including 3.5 for loss and a sack, and forced a fumble in the Wolverines' 45-0 annihilation of Illinois. We'd say he's playing like his hair is on fire, but his golden locks are so long it might take him a while to feel any follicular conflagration.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Iowa's Mike Meyer was 4-for-4 on field goals, including two in overtime and the 42-yard game winner against Michigan State. Meyer has made 14 out of 15 this year and has connected on his past 13 attempts. For a team that struggles to score, Meyer has been extra valuable.

Worst hangover: Michigan State. Adam and I are frantically going back through all our offseason blog posts and erasing the word "State" every time we picked Michigan State to win the Big Ten in 2012. At this point, the Spartans are not even guaranteed of making a bowl game, sitting at 4-3 with tough games left against Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern, plus a trip to Minnesota. How'd we miss so bad on the Spartans? Neither of us thought their offense would be this dreadful. And while their defense has been very good, it has had to be heroic to carry the entire team, and that's asking too much every week. Michigan State has somehow lost three home games this year after it had won 15 in a row at Spartan Stadium. The Notre Dame and Ohio State losses were forgivable to a degree. Losing to an Iowa team that had only 257 total yards and one touchdown? Not so much.

Strangest moment: There are helmet-to-helmet hits, and then there are, apparently, shoulder-to-decal hits. That's what happened in Saturday's Northwestern-Minnesota game. Wildcats safety Ibraheim Campbell collided with Gophers tailback Donnell Kirkwood so solidly that most of the gold "M" on one side of Kirkwood's helmet came off on the play. Campbell got the worst of that hit, but Northwestern got the 21-13 road win.
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

1. Bring on the conference season ... please: There's no way to sugarcoat it. The Big Ten's nonconference schedule (which has two more inconsequential games left) has been a disaster. The league's 33-13 record doesn't begin to tell the story of the train wreck that included losses to three MAC teams, an 0-3 record against Notre Dame, a 1-3 mark against the Pac-12, a loss to Louisiana Tech and several very close calls to non-power-league teams. Michigan State's squeaker over a Boise State team replacing most of its starting lineup remains the Big Ten's signature victory, and Northwestern and Minnesota helped saved the day with a combined 8-0 record, including four wins over BCS AQ teams that won't be in the national title conversation anytime soon. Michigan flopped in its two spotlight games against Alabama and Notre Dame. Michigan State also got clobbered by the Irish, while UCLA ran all over Nebraska. The Big Ten is a national punchline right now, a status it has earned with possibly the worst start in the history of the conference. The good news? League play starts next week, and these teams are all so flawed that it should be as exciting a conference race as there is anywhere. For the Big Ten, it can't start soon enough.

[+] EnlargeMichigan's Denard Robinson
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesMichigan, Denard Robinson and much of the Big Ten took a beating during the nonconference schedule.
2. The I's have it ... rough: It was a disheartening day for Iowa and Illinois. While Iowa has ebbed and flowed during Kirk Ferentz's tenure as coach, has it ever been this bad in Hawkeye Country? It's hard to imagine a lower point for Iowa since 2002 or so than Saturday's 32-31 loss to a weak Central Michigan team at Kinnick Stadium. If it's not the offense for Iowa, it's a defense that couldn't stop Chippewas quarterback Ryan Radcliff. And in the end, Iowa's special teams let it down on an onside kick recovery. We knew Iowa would have some growing pains with a young team and new coordinators, but the Hawkeyes have struggled against two MAC teams and lost to rival Iowa State at home. Hawkeyes fans always have high expectations, especially for their extremely well-compensated coach. The program has completely lost momentum from the 2009 season, and it can only hope Saturday was rock bottom. Meanwhile, Tim Beckman is just starting his program at Illinois, but it's off to a bad start. After a promising opening win over Western Michigan, the Illini have gotten completely waxed by both Arizona State and, in Saturday's home implosion, Louisiana Tech. (The Charleston Southern game was worthless). We knew that Illinois lacked playmakers for Beckman's spread, but it's shocking how easily other spread teams have shredded the once-proud Illini defense. Beckman has a lot of ground to make up in Champaign.

3. Buckeyes, Spartans have work to do before showdown: The Ohio State-Michigan State game in East Lansing looks like the main event of the first Saturday of Big Ten play, but both teams need work in the next six days. Ohio State struggled on its home field for the second straight week Saturday, committing special teams blunders and surrendering 22 first downs and 402 yards to UAB. That might not matter much to Buckeyes assistant Everett Withers, but it's a concern for a unit that had been pegged as one of the Big Ten's best. Then again, Ohio State isn't facing a juggernaut with Michigan State, which needed three and a half quarters to reach the end zone against an Eastern Michigan team that entered the game allowing an average of more than 40 points. Le'Veon Bell is a work horse for the Spartans, but they continue to struggle to stretch the field with the passing game. These teams played a game that made our eyes bleed last year in Columbus. Although this year's contest figures to be more entertaining, both Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio have a lot to fix.

4. Claims of Penn State's demise were premature: After Penn State dropped its emotionally charged season opener against Ohio and kicked away a sure win at Virginia, many felt the Lions had reached their breaking point after a nightmarish offseason. Predictions of three-win seasons rolled in. Instead, Bill O'Brien's squad has made a nice turnaround and recorded convincing wins against Navy and Temple. The offense is clearly better under O'Brien's leadership, and senior quarterback Matt McGloin looks much more comfortable and efficient. The defense can be dominating at times and bottled up Temple's rushing attack Saturday. Penn State still has its flaws -- too many penalties Saturday -- but so does every Big Ten team. The Lions are starting to hit their stride under O'Brien, and they could make things very interesting in the wide-open Leaders Division.

5. Minnesota could go bowling: Break up the Gophers. They're 4-0 for the first time since 2008 and could make the postseason for the first time since 2009. The biggest difference for this team is on the defensive end, where Minnesota is finally getting a strong pass rush up front with D.L. Wilhite and Ra'Shede Hageman leading the charge. The defense paved the way for a 17-10 win over Syracuse that wasn't as close as the score. Donnell Kirkwood has provided the offense a solid running attack, and the team has proved it can win with either MarQueis Gray or Max Shortell at quarterback. Minnesota isn't a powerhouse yet, and the schedule is going to get a whole lot tougher. But Jerry Kill has guided this program to five straight wins since the end of last season and only needs to match last year's 2-6 Big Ten record to qualify for a bowl. In fact, the Gophers probably will be favored this week at Iowa.

Minnesota 4-0 after holding off Syracuse

September, 22, 2012
9/22/12
11:24
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Look out for Minnesota. The Gophers are 4-0 for the first time since 2008 after an impressive 17-10 victory over Syracuse at home. Here's how it happened:

It was over when: Minnesota recovered Syracuse's onsides kick attempt with 45 seconds left, allowing the Gophers to get into the victory formation. A last-chance Orange rally resulted in a touchdown pass in the final minute, but it wasn't enough.

Game ball goes to: The Gophers' D. Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib came into the game as the second-leading passer in the FBS. Minnesota limited him to just 228 yards through the air, and much of that came on the final drive. Credit every level of the defense for the effort, as the front four led by D.L. Wilhite and Ra'Shede Hageman got tremendous pressure, and the secondary stayed glued to standout Orange receiver Marcus Sales, whose only two catches of the game came in the final two minutes. Aaron Hill also intercepted Nassib's pass at the Minnesota 3-yard line early in the third quarter.

Stat of the game: Turnover margin. Syracuse turned the ball over four times, including a pair of interceptions, while Minnesota didn't cough it up a single time. That was the difference in a game where the Orange outgained the Gophers 350-337.

How the game was won: This one wasn't actually as close as the final score indicates. Minnesota missed a pair of field goals after driving into the Syracuse red zone and had a touchdown pass wiped out by a penalty. But the Gophers didn't pay for leaving all those points on the field because of their outstanding defensive effort. Quarterback Max Shortell, starting for the injured MarQueis Gray, managed the game well, completing 16 of 30 passes for 231 yards, and Donnell Kirkwood ran for 99 yards and both Minnesota touchdowns.

What Minnesota learned: This was the best team the Gophers have played this season, and they won again. Minnesota already has more wins than it did a year ago and has won five straight dating back to last season. Jerry Kill's team now looks like a good bet to make it to a bowl game, and it has learned how to win some close games. The Gophers are no longer an easy out in the Big Ten.

What Syracuse learned: It was another tough loss for the 1-3 Orange, who lost a heartbreaker to Northwestern and hung tough against USC. Syracuse needs to get more from its offense when the passing game isn't lights out; the rushing game accounted for 122 yards but only 3.7 yards per carry. The Orange must get off the mat and get ready for Big East play on Friday against Pitt at home.

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