NCF Nation: Eric Martin

The 2013 season is less than three months away, and few things generate more excitement among fans than the first chance to see certain players compete in games. Every year, the Big Ten produces a handful of first-year stars, whether they're true freshmen, redshirt freshmen or transfers.

Who are the first-year Big Ten players to watch in 2013? Here are five of them.

[+] EnlargeDanny Etling
AP Photo/Daryl Quitalig via Triple Play New MediaFreshman Danny Etling will battle senior Rob Henry for the Boilers' starting quarterback job.
Purdue QB Danny Etling, freshman: It didn't take long for Etling to impress Darrell Hazell, John Shoop and the rest of Purdue's new coaching staff. A decorated recruit and an Elite 11 finalist, Etling enrolled early and went through spring practice. He made a strong push late in the session and leapfrogged Austin Appleby to join senior Rob Henry in the top group entering fall camp. Although Henry is an excellent leader who has waited a long time to be the starter, don't be surprised if Hazell and the staff decide that the future is now and go with Etling, despite his youth. "Danny's work ethic puts him in a position," Hazell told ESPN.com. "He's a smart guy, gets himself out of trouble and is accurate when he's moving around in the pocket."

Michigan RB Derrick Green, freshman: Until Jabrill Peppers' commitment last month, no Michigan recruit in the Brady Hoke era has generated more excitement than Green, a late pickup in the 2013 class. The Wolverines are looking for a feature running back in their pro-set offense and struggled to find one last season, when quarterback Denard Robinson had more than twice as many rush yards (1,266) as any other player. Green plays a position where true freshmen can make an immediate impact, and he has a sturdy frame at 6-foot, 215 pounds. Michigan has been waiting for a power back like Green, and if he can grasp the protection schemes and outperform Fitzgerald Toussaint in camp, he'll likely play a lot this season.

Nebraska DE Randy Gregory, junior: It's no secret Nebraska needs help on defense, especially up front, where the Huskers lose three starters from 2012 and need a difference-maker to emerge. Gregory comes in from the junior-college ranks with an excellent chance to start or at least log significant playing time. The 6-foot-6, 230-pound junior from Arizona Western Community College missed last season with a broken leg but recorded 21 tackles for loss, including nine sacks, in 2011 as he helped Arizona Western to the NJCAA title game. The one-time Purdue recruit could fill the pass-rushing void left by Eric Martin.

Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg, freshman: Although Hackenberg didn't enroll early like Purdue's Etling, he also enters preseason camp with an excellent chance to become a Big Ten starting quarterback as a true freshman. After Steven Bench's transfer, Penn State's quarterback race is down to Hackenberg and junior-college transfer Tyler Ferguson, who went through the spring and slightly outperformed Bench. RecruitingNation rated Hackenberg as the No. 1 quarterback in the 2013 recruiting class, and he has all the mental and physical skills to play early in his career. He'll be challenged to grasp O'Brien's complex, NFL-style offense in several weeks this summer, but unless Ferguson creates significant separation, expect to see plenty of Hackenberg during the season.

Minnesota LB Damien Wilson, junior: The Gophers need immediate help at linebacker after losing Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper, and they expect to get it from Wilson, a junior-college transfer from Mississippi. Head coach Jerry Kill was excited about Wilson's addition on signing day, and Wilson showed some promising signs during his first spring session with the Gophers. The 6-foot-2, 254-pound Wilson ranked fourth nationally in the juco ranks with 122 tackles last season and recorded six tackles for loss, two sacks and two pass breakups. Barring a preseason surprise, he'll play a significant role for Minnesota's defense this fall.

Nebraska keys for Capital One Bowl

December, 31, 2012
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Here are three keys for Nebraska in its matchup against Georgia in Tuesday's Capital One Bowl.

1. Protect the football: It might be asking too much of a team that has given the ball away more (32) than all but five FBS teams, but Nebraska can't expect to upset Georgia if it commits turnovers in bunches. Nebraska tied for the most lost fumbles in the country with 21, and quarterback Taylor Martinez threw 10 interceptions. Georgia is good at taking away the ball, ranking 22nd nationally in turnovers forced (27). Bulldogs All-America linebacker Jarvis Jones has seven forced fumbles, so Martinez, Rex Burkhead and the other Husker ball carriers must be aware of No. 29 at all times. Georgia has had five turnover-free games and boasts a 29-1 record under coach Mark Richt when avoiding a turnover.

2. Pressure Murray: The lack of a truly dominant defensive lineman has hurt Nebraska in its recent losses. Georgia's Aaron Murray is the best drop-back quarterback the Huskers have seen this season, ranking second nationally in pass efficiency (172.4) with 31 touchdown strikes against just 8 interceptions with a completions rate of 65.4 percent. Although Nebraska leads the nation in pass defense (148.2), it will be vulnerable if it doesn't make Murray's life tough in the pocket. Senior defensive end Eric Martin showed flashes of dominance at times this season, finishing with 8.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss. The Huskers need Martin or another pass-rusher to deliver against the Dawgs.

3. Start fast: Motivation is a big question mark in this game as both teams had much higher goals that vanished after losses in their respective conference championship games. Georgia has to be particularly bummed after being one play away from a spot in the national title game. Bo Pelini's squad must capitalize on any potential hangover from the Bulldogs. It isn't Nebraska's strong suit, as the Huskers are more of a second-half team and have had some problems in the second quarters of games (outscored 118-103). But Nebraska can't expect Georgia to leave the door open like so many Big Ten teams did this season. The Huskers need their best 60-minute effort of the season to pull off the upset in Orlando.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 14

December, 3, 2012
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With just one game during the weekend, we'll dispense with the usual categories and do things a little differently with the rewind. Here's the good, the bad and the ugly from Wisconsin's 70-31 win over Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game.

The good: Good doesn't begin to describe Wisconsin's running game. The Badgers piled up 539 rushing yards, the most ever yielded by a Cornhuskers defense, and it was hard to single out one guy. Montee Ball had 202 yards and three touchdowns. James White ran for more than 100 yards and had five total touchdowns, including a touchdown pass. Melvin Gordon, who came into the game with 354 rushing yards the entire season, finished with 216 yards on just nine carries. Wisconsin used him to devastating effect on jet sweeps, and he became an effective decoy on plays where he didn't get the handoff.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Richard Mackson/USA Today SportsMontee Ball focused on his production after contact this season. Wise move. He enters the Rose Bowl with 21 TDs.
Overall, the Badgers just looked faster than they had all season, surprising us all by taking better advantage of the turf at Lucas Oil Stadium than Nebraska did. They also ran to the outside more than we had seen all season.

"They were on the edge most of the game," Cornhuskers linebacker Will Compton said. "They weren't the up-the-middle, pound-and-pound team. They had got outside plays and really stuck with it, and then when that stuff works, why get away from it?"

Wisconsin stayed with it most of the night, throwing only 10 passes yet scoring 10 touchdowns.

The bad: The announced attendance for Saturday's game was just 41,260, or about 23,000 fewer fans than at last year's inaugural title game. Whole sections in the upper end zones and corners of Lucas Oil were empty, especially on the Wisconsin side. The Big Ten anticipated a smaller crowd than last year because of the unusual circumstances of the Badgers' season, but the league was hoping to cross the 50,000 mark through strong walk-up sales. By comparison, the ACC title game Saturday -- usually the butt of bad-attendance jokes -- drew 64,778.

That said, Indianapolis again proved to be an excellent host, and it sure didn't hurt that it was 60 degrees on Saturday. The streets were packed with red Friday and Saturday, and the Big Ten fan fest was packed before the game. The small crowd had some wondering whether the league should move the game to Chicago, where there are more casual Big Ten fans, or play it at home sites. But there's no guaranteed way to attract more fans. The Pac-12 title game between UCLA and Stanford was held Friday at Stanford. The announced crowd: 31,622.

We really can't judge this game until there's a team involved that has a chance to play for a BCS title or a spot in the forthcoming four-team playoff. Or if Ohio State or Michigan are in it. Then we'd probably see a whole different atmosphere.

The ugly: Nebraska's defense, obviously. This was as bad a defensive performance as you could see on a big stage, and the Cornhuskers for some reason looked completely unprepared. They took lousy angles to the ball and settled for arm tackles instead of trying to wrap up ball carriers. While coach Bo Pelini rightly said that the absence of injured defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler was only a tiny factor, it's also true that Wisconsin's offensive line took advantage of a smallish defensive front featuring guys like 250-pound Eric Martin and 260-pound Cam Meredith. And as the game began to slip away, so did Nebraska's effort on defense, highlighted by some comical attempts at tackling Ball on his 57-yard touchdown run.

"What is defensive football?" Pelini said (and no, he wasn't asking for advice, smart aleck). "It's play your gaps. Handle your responsibility. Be where you're supposed to be and make tackles when you're there. We did none of the above."

The continual defensive lapses by this program on the road under a defense-first coach make you wonder. The Omaha World-Herald's Sam McKewon offered this stat Monday: In the Huskers' past 17 games away from home, they are giving up an average of 30.3 points and 400 yards per game. Record in those games: 8-9. (The offense isn't helping much, either, as Nebraska has an unfathomable minus-27 turnover margin and 40 giveaways in those 17 games.)
Rather than the normal Friday Q&A, we decided to reach out to two coaches who faced both Big Ten championship game participants -- No. 12 Nebraska and Wisconsin -- earlier this season. Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio and Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien were nice enough to oblige. Both Michigan State and Penn State beat Wisconsin and lost to Nebraska (both in somewhat controversial fashion). Michigan State rallied to beat Wisconsin 16-13 in overtime Oct. 27 at Camp Randall Stadium, and fell to Nebraska 28-24 the following week in East Lansing. Penn State lost 32-23 at Nebraska on Nov. 10 and finished its season with a 24-21 overtime win against Wisconsin last Saturday in Happy Valley.

Dantonio's Spartans played in last year's Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin and have had several exciting games against the Badgers in recent years.

Here's what Dantonio and O'Brien had to say about the title game participants.

On the challenges the two offenses present ...


[+] EnlargeNebraska's Taylor Martinez
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesQuarterback Taylor Martinez helped rally Nebraska past Wisconsin in September.
Dantonio: They're two different types of offenses. You have Nebraska, which is a no-huddle and a more running-spread type thing, and it incorporates option, zone read and different things. Wisconsin is more power-oriented, more pro-style-attack. Both of them play to their strengths. You have marquee players in [Taylor] Martinez from Nebraska, and then also Montee Ball and even James White with Wisconsin. And with Nebraska, you combine it with having [Ameer] Abdullah back there, he's an outstanding player as well, a powerful runner relative to his size.

O'Brien: Both teams are really good. Offensively, it comes down to, in my opinion, how well Wisconsin will be able to run the ball with Montee Ball. For the Nebraska offense, how well does Taylor Martinez play? Those two guys are the focal points of their offenses.

On the two defenses ...

Dantonio: Two very systematic approaches, but two different styles. Nebraska is a 4-3 and more man-conscious. Even when they're zone-conscious, they'll play a lot of man coverage with a downfield safety and different combinations. Wisconsin's going to be a little more zone-oriented. They will get in Cover 1 and man coverage, but you get a little more zone pressure out of Wisconsin than Nebraska. With Nebraska, it's a little more man pressure. You have two defensive coaches by trade [Wisconsin's Bret Bielema and Nebraska's Bo Pelini], and both have been very successful defensive coordinators. Both programs are built on toughness, and both have big-play ability. They have marquee defensive players with [Chris] Borland and [Mike] Taylor on Wisconsin, and then with Nebraska, 51 [Will Compton] and [Eric] Martin stand out, and their secondary is very, very good as well. But I think Wisconsin's secondary can play, too.

O'Brien: I believe Wisconsin has a very, very physical defense, and Nebraska on defense is also very physical and they do a very good job on third down. They disrupt the timing of the passing game. They hit your receivers at the line of scrimmage and do a really good job of that. And like I said, they make it really difficult for you on third down, and I think that's because they are a game-plan, third-down team. They don't just do what they did in previous weeks on third down; they're going to have something new for you. I think a lot of the credit goes to their players and to Bo Pelini for that.

On Wisconsin quarterback Curt Phillips (only Penn State faced him) ...

O'Brien: I thought he was a very poised player. Beaver Stadium is not the easiest place to play, and our front four is not the easiest to play against. But he kept his poise and played a good game and brought them back down the field for a tying touchdown. He knows their offense and is obviously a bright kid and a poised guy.

On which Wisconsin and Nebraska players Michigan State prepared the most for ...

Dantonio: Martinez, because it all goes through him, and we felt [wide receiver] Kenny Bell was excellent. We thought Nebraska really had as good a group of wide receivers as there are in the league. And we had a great deal of respect for Abdullah -- obviously for [Rex] Burkhead, but felt like he probably wasn't going to play against us. We saw Abdullah making a lot of plays. And then for Wisconsin, obviously it's Ball. They're on their third quarterback, which makes a difference, but I thought [Phillips] played pretty well against Ohio State. So Ball and the type of power-oriented attack they have, they get a lot of people to the point of attack with their runs. They create some different things with different formations. And White is another guy, and Gordon can make some plays, too. They have three very good running backs.

On what the game could come down to ...

Dantonio: When you look from afar, you see this league having a lot of parity. Any week, anybody can rise up and play. I know what Wisconsin's record is, and I know what Nebraska's record is, but you can throw out the records as far as I'm concerned. The game always comes down to who makes the least amount of mistakes. I looked at our game last year [against Wisconsin in the league championship] and how it flowed back and forth. Whoever can really regain momentum once they lose it will have an edge. If you can eliminate the big play and eliminate turnovers, or get the big play and eliminate turnovers, then you've got a great chance to win. I think it'll be a great football game.

O'Brien: Both teams are really good. Like every game, it could come down to special teams and a play in the kicking game. Any time you get into a championship game and have two good teams and two really, really good head football coaches, it's going to go right down to the wire.

Big Ten: Who will transform tomorrow?

November, 30, 2012
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Each Friday during the season, we'll be taking a look at a Big Ten player to watch when the games kick off Saturday.

This week's selection: Nebraska defensive end Eric Martin

Saturday assignment: vs. Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis, 8:15 p.m. ET, Fox

Athletic pass-rushers don't usually have fun playing the Badgers, who like to use their mammoth offensive line to pound the ball on the ground. And when Wisconsin does throw the ball, it often does so off play-action, paralyzing the defense with indecision.

Still, Martin has a chance to have a large say in which team goes to the Rose Bowl if he continues his recent level of play. He was absolutely dominant at Iowa last week, repeatedly getting into the face of quarterback James Vandenberg and disrupting everything the Hawkeyes tried to do. He finished tied for second in the league with 8.5 sacks.

"He's an impactful guy," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "He's hard to block on the edge. He's not your prototype defensive end size-wise, but he's a powerful guy. He's quick, he's explosive and he plays with tremendous energy."

Martin likely will be matched up against Wisconsin tackle Ricky Wagner at times, meaning we'll have two first-team All-Big Ten performers going head to head (Martin was voted first team by the media; Wagner was selected by the coaches and media). The 250-pound Martin will be giving up nearly 70 pounds, but will have a definite speed advantage.

For the Badgers to win, they're going to have to make plays in the passing game behind Curt Phillips. They'd also better be ready to keep Martin out of their backfield.
The Ohio State Buckeyes have been atop the Big Ten power rankings most of the season. They'll stay there for a very long time.

Ohio State's win against Michigan secured a 12-0 season, just the sixth undefeated, untied campaign in team history. While the Buckeyes won't be in Indianapolis this week for the league championship game, they have proved to be the class of the conference after beating every top team in the league except Northwestern.

Nebraska retains the No. 2 spot, and most of the rankings remain the same after Week 13. Our toughest decision came at No. 3, between Michigan and Penn State. If only the teams had played each other this season.

To the rundown ...

1. Ohio State (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten, last week: 1): Sure, the Big Ten is down and Ohio State has its flaws, but any team that runs the table in any season deserves a ton of credit. Urban Meyer took a seven-loss team with significant depth issues and ran the table in his first year. Braxton Miller and the offense carried the Buckeyes early this season, but the defense stepped in the second half of Big Ten play. Ryan Shazier, Johnathan Hankins and others blanked Michigan in the second half to win The Game and ensure perfection.

2. Nebraska (10-2, 7-1, last week: 2): Most of us thought Bo Pelini was crazy when he talked about winning out moments after his team had been beaten 63-38 at Ohio State. Bo might have thought so, too. But his players believed and found a way to claim the Legends Division title and a spot in Indianapolis. Nebraska needed its defense in a big way at Iowa and received huge performances from defensive end Eric Martin and others. And with Rex Burkhead back in the fold at running back, the Huskers will be even better the rest of the way.

3. Michigan (8-4, 6-2, last week: 3): We gave Michigan a slight edge against Penn State because the Wolverines had no bad losses and gave Ohio State a tougher test. The Wolverines' defense did a nice job keeping Ohio State out of the end zone Saturday, but the offense disappeared in the second half, recording just 60 total yards and four first downs. Offensive coordinator Al Borges got predictable and must iron out the game plan before a tough bowl matchup against an SEC opponent.

4. Penn State (8-4, 6-2, last week: 4): Bill O'Brien described his team as resilient all season, and Penn State once again showed why in Saturday's overtime win against Wisconsin. Playing without star linebacker Michael Mauti, the Lions' defense shut down Wisconsin for most of the game, receiving a huge performance from defensive tackle Jordan Hill. Zach Zwinak stepped up at running back and kicker Sam Ficken, who took so much abuse earlier in the season, went 3-for-3 on field goal attempts and hit the game winner in overtime. What a satisfying way to end the season for O'Brien and his crew.

5. Northwestern (9-3, 5-3, last week: 5): If you're searching for good stories amid the Big Ten morass this season, look no further than Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats. A young team exceeded all expectations during the regular season and was a play or two away from going to the Big Ten title game. Northwestern steamrolled Illinois with its dynamic rushing attack led by quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark. Fitzgerald tied Lynn Waldorf for the school's all-time coaching wins list with his 49th. An opportunistic defense stepped up, too, as Northwestern secured a spot in a Florida bowl (most likely Outback).

6. Wisconsin (7-5, 4-4, last week: 6): Another close loss for the Badgers, who had an offensive spark early and late but disappeared in between. Wisconsin's defense has made strides during the Big Ten season, but the offense simply lacks consistency, especially up front. It has proved costly in three overtime defeats this year. The Badgers are the third-best team in the Leaders Division but will go to the Big Ten title game, where they'll try to finish a bit better against Nebraska. Quarterback Curt Phillips has shown poise late in games.

7. Michigan State (6-6, 3-5, last week: 7): The Spartans went to their bread and butter -- defense and Le'Veon Bell -- to get past Minnesota and reach the six-win plateau. Michigan State's defense was simply dominant at TCF Bank Stadium, holding the Gophers to four net rush yards and three points on offense. Bell racked up a career-high 266 rush yards and a touchdown, his third 200-yard effort of the season. Michigan State didn't have the season it envisioned, but at least it has a chance to get better during bowl practices before a potential springboard for 2013.

8. Purdue (6-6, 3-5, last week: 9): Like Michigan State, Purdue underachieved this season but found a way to squeak into a bowl game. Credit quarterback Robert Marve, running back Akeem Shavers and the rest of Purdue's seniors for refusing to let the season go down the drain after an 0-5 start to Big Ten play. Shavers and Marve were brilliant against Indiana, and Frankie Williams and the Purdue secondary stepped up as well. It wasn't enough to save coach Danny Hope, but Purdue can win its second straight bowl and end a turbulent season on a good note.

9. Minnesota (6-6, 2-6, last week: 8): Big Ten play was no picnic for the Gophers, who endured numerous injuries, quarterback changes, the A.J. Barker turmoil this week and back-to-back losses to finish the regular season. Minnesota should get healthier before its bowl game, but it has a long way to go on the offensive side after rushing for four net yards Saturday against Michigan State. The next few weeks are big for freshman quarterback Philip Nelson, who struggled in his last two games.

10. Indiana (4-8, 2-6, last week: 10): The past three weeks showed that Indiana still has a long way to go to legitimize itself in the Big Ten. A defense that has struggled for more than a decade surrendered 163 points in losses to Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue. After taking great care of the ball, quarterback Cameron Coffman had seven interceptions in his final three contests. Indiana made progress in Kevin Wilson's second season, and a big opportunity awaits in 2013 with eight home games. But there's a lot of work ahead in the offseason.

11. Iowa (4-8, 2-6, last week: 11): The defense came to play on Black Friday, but an offense that had sputtered all season went out with a whimper. Iowa failed to convert two more turnovers into points, and coordinator Greg Davis once again left Hawkeye fans pulling out their hair with his perplexing play calls. What looked like an eight- or nine-win season in September turned into a complete mess for Kirk Ferentz's crew. The Legends Division will be loaded again in 2013, so Iowa faces a critical offseason.

12. Illinois (2-10, 0-8, last week: 12): There are really bad teams, and then there's Illinois. Tim Beckman's first season mercifully ended Saturday, but not before another embarrassing road loss, this time at the hands of a rival. The Illini's offense actually showed up early, but eight first-half penalties, four turnovers and a defensive front seven that had no answer for Northwestern's run game ensured the Orange and Blue would end the Big Ten season winless for the fourth time since 1997. Beckman, who earned a penalty by accidentally contacting an official during a Northwestern interception, has a lot to fix.
Recognizing the best and the brightest from around the Big Ten in Week 13:
  • Ohio State's defense: After some early hiccups, Ohio State slammed the door on Michigan in the second half to secure a 12-0 season. The Buckeyes shut out Michigan in the final 30 minutes, allowing just eight yards in the fourth quarter and 60 in the second half (four first downs). Standouts included senior linebacker Zach Boren (9 tackles, 2 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery), linebacker Ryan Shazier (2.5 TFLs, one sack), space-eating defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins and safety Christian Bryant (one forced fumble, two pass breakups). Offense might have carried Ohio State early this season, but the Silver Bullets showed up when it counted.
  • Nebraska DE Eric Martin: If you hadn't noticed the Huskers senior before Friday, you likely know the name now. Martin was dominant in Nebraska's defense-driven win against Iowa, racking up seven tackles, three tackles for loss (one sack), a forced fumble and two quarterback hurries. His numbers don't fully illustrate how much he impacted the game, but he locked up a spot on the All-Big Ten team and possibly will be a first-team selection.
  • Northwestern QB Kain Colter: Like Indiana and Iowa, Illinois had no answer for the elusive Wildcats signal caller, who capped an excellent regular season with 88 rush yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. Colter threw only 11 passes but completed nine of them, three for touchdowns to three different receivers (Tony Jones, Tyris Jones and Paul Jorgensen). Colter's backfield mate Venric Mark also merits a mention (18 carries, 127 yards, TD).
  • Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell: He's the mean, green wrecking machine of Michigan State's offense, which would be even more anemic without him. Bell once again showed Saturday why he's one of the nation's best running backs, racking up a career-high 266 yards and a touchdown on 35 carries. He routinely carried Minnesota defenders for extra yards. The junior is one of only three FBS players -- and the only one in a major conference -- to record three 200-yard rushing performances this season.
  • Penn State DT Jordan Hill: From Jared Odrick to Devon Still and now to Hill, Penn State's tradition of elite defensive tackles has continued. Hill, a sure-fire first-team All-Big Ten selection, finished his career with a flourish, recording 12 tackles, including three tackles for loss and two sacks, as Penn State beat Wisconsin in overtime. Despite battling a bum knee, Hill helped shut down Montee Ball and the Wisconsin offense after the first quarter. On a day when linebacker Michael Mauti couldn't play, Hill stepped up in a big way.
  • Purdue RB Akeem Shavers: He wasn't the only Purdue player to gash Indiana's defense in the Bucket game, but he was the most effective from start to finish. The senior stepped up in a big way, racking up 126 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries to go along with 99 receiving yards and two touchdowns. He scored three touchdowns in a span of 4:26 in the fourth quarter, starting with a 73-yard scoring reception. He's now responsible for Purdue's two longest pass receptions of the season.
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My eyes are burning after watching the Nebraska-Iowa game, but Husker eyes are smiling, and they should be.

Nebraska will represent the Legends Division next week at the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis. The Huskers (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten) earned the right to face Wisconsin after outlasting Iowa 13-7 in a sloppy game in frigid conditions at Kinnick Stadium. Coach Bo Pelini's team fulfilled his "win-out" pledge in Columbus in claiming its final six conference contests.

Everyone expected Nebraska to win Friday, but how it happened came as a surprise. The Big Ten's top offense marched 75 yards on its first possession before settling for a field goal, and then did very little after that point. In between the opening drive and Nebraska's 43-yard touchdown march late in the third quarter, the offense had only 48 total yards.

This win was all about the defense and running back Rex Burkhead, who returned from injury to give the sputtering Huskers attack a boost in the second half. Iowa's inept offense and hyper-conservative coaching staff also deserves an assist in Nebraska's win. Hawkeyes fans deserve better (more on this later).

Nebraska defensive end Eric Martin quietly had put together an all-conference caliber season -- 7.5 sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss -- but most Big Ten fans probably didn't notice him until today. Martin was the single most dominant player on the field at Kinnick Stadium, constantly harassing quarterback James Vandenberg and disrupting pass plays. Martin's stats are impressive (seven tackles, three tackles for loss, one forced fumble, two quarterback hurries) but hardly tell the full story of how much he impacted the game. He's a lock for at least second-team All-Big Ten honors and improved his case to be a first-team selection.

Other members of the Blackshirts stepped up as Nebraska overcame two first-half turnovers and several short fields. Safety Daimion Stafford had a terrific interception after a pass breakup by cornerback Ciante Evans, and linebacker Alonzo Whaley sealed the win by jumping a short pass route -- does Iowa have any other kind? -- in the closing minutes.

Nebraska held Iowa to 200 yards, 13 first downs and just 5-of-15 on third-down conversions.

Quarterback Taylor Martinez had his least effective performance of the season in the poor conditions (63 pass yards, 36 rush yards, one lost fumble), and the Huskers needed something to spark their offense. Enter Superman.

[+] EnlargeRex Burkhead
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallThe Nebraska offense was stuck in neutral much of a the game, but running back Rex Burkhead (22) provided a much-needed spark.
Burkhead, out since Oct. 20 after aggravating a knee injury that has limited him all season, returned to the field with Nebraska trailing 7-3 in the third quarter. Pelini said it was Burkhead's decision to play, and the senior delivered. He had 16 carries for 69 yards and Nebraska's only touchdown, and his biggest play was a 9-yard run for a first down from the Nebraska 2-yard line. I'm still not sure how Burkhead stayed on his feet so long.

The game encapsulated Iowa's miserable 2012 campaign and some of the season-long issues that never got fixed.

Two examples of ineptitude:

  • After dropping an interception, Iowa drove to the Nebraska 19 late in the first half. After Vandenberg was dropped for no gain, Iowa let a bunch of time tick away before calling a timeout. The Hawkeyes then proceeded to earn an illegal substitution penalty (after a timeout, mind you). Moments later, Mike Meyer hooked a field goal and Iowa wasted a perfect opportunity to tack onto a lead in a game where points were at a premium.
  • Facing a third-and-4 near midfield midway through the fourth quarter, Iowa handed the ball to Mark Weisman, who was easily smothered short of the marker. First-year coordinator Greg Davis has had a lot of head-scratching calls this season, but this might have been the worst. The height of conservatism. Pathetic.

I didn't even mention the punt from the Nebraska 31-yard line in the first half.

Iowa's defense deserves better than what it got from the offense this season. The Hawkeyes must have set a record for most takeaways not converted into points. Or third-down pass routes run short of the marker.

Kirk Ferentz won't be fired because he makes too much money. So unless he leaves for the NFL, he'll be tasked to fix this mess. Vandenberg regressed as a senior and Davis left Hawkeyes fans banging their heads against the wall. I've defended Ferentz before, and his overall success at Iowa can't be denied, but the program has completely lost momentum, dropping its final six games. Iowa went 4-8 despite a very easy schedule that didn't include Ohio State or Wisconsin and had Penn State at home.

This is unacceptable for a program that won a BCS bowl game three years ago. It's certainly unacceptable for a coach making what Ferentz makes.

Nebraska, meanwhile, might be the sloppiest good team I've ever seen. The Huskers still make a lot of mistakes, but they've found ways to win since the Ohio State debacle.

And if the Blackshirts play like this and Burkhead continues to get healthy and contribute, Nebraska could win two more times this season, including Jan. 1 in Pasadena.

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

September, 24, 2012
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Well, that wasn't a great week and it was a terrible nonconference season. Let's rewind Week 4 and then start looking forward to conference play.

Team of the week: Minnesota. The Golden Gophers are a golden 4-0 for the first time in four years. And while the team still has many strides to make, 4-0 is 4-0. A bowl game is not just a possibility now; it's a realistic option, especially if Minnesota continues to play defense like it did in a 17-10 win over Syracuse. The Gophers just need to win two Big Ten games to get to the postseason, and they might do even better than that.

Game of the week: It wasn't much fun for the majority of the crowd in Iowa City, but Central Michigan's 32-31 win over Iowa had the most drama of the day. The Chippewas scored nine points in the last 45 seconds, recovering an onside kick and making a 47-yard field goal with three seconds left to stun the Hawkeyes.

[+] EnlargeCentral Michigan
Denny Medley/US PresswireThe Chippewas scored nine points in the final 45 seconds to shock the Hawkeyes.
Biggest play: Let's go back to Kinnick Stadium for that onside kick. Central Michigan got two cracks at it, after the first, unsuccessful attempt was wiped out by a delay of game penalty. Then David Harman, just moments before he'd kick the game winner, bounced the ball off to his right. Iowa never touched it, and tight end Henry Krieger-Coble backed away from the ball. "We just looked very confused out there,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said afterward. “That’s not a good thing." No, it's not. And after Iowa lost to Minnesota last year in part because of a failed onside kick recovery, you'd have thought the Hawkeyes would have been more ready.

Best call: Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees checked into a play at the line of scrimmage on third-and-4 with less than three minutes left. Turned out to be checkmate. Rees found Tyler Eifert for a 38-yard catch in one-on-one coverage, effectively letting the Irish run out the clock and keep the ball away from miracle-maker Denard Robinson in the 13-6 win. Brian Kelly's decision to sub Rees in after Everett Golson threw two early interceptions was also a great call. Worst call definitely goes to Michigan for somehow thinking diminutive halfback Vincent Smith throwing a halfback pass over the towering Irish front seven on the Notre Dame 10-yard line was a good idea. The entire complexion of that game could have changed if Michigan got points there instead of that interception.

Best blunt assessment: Urban Meyer, after his Ohio State team had another wobbly win, this time over UAB: "You've got to think about where this team was now. This is not a finely tuned machine right now, and it hasn't been for a while. We've got to develop a finely tuned machine. Obviously there's some growing pains and it's not as easy. I thought we'd be further ahead."

Big Man on Campus (offense): Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin has had a rocky career, but he might have turned in his finest effort on Saturday against Temple. The senior finished 24-of-36 for a career-high 318 yards and a touchdown with an interception, and he also had the Lions' first two rushing scores of the season in the 24-13 win. Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell (36 rushes, 253 yards, one touchdown) also had a monster game, but he did it against the worst rushing defense in the nation.

Big Man on Campus (defense): How's this for dominant? Nebraska's Eric Martin had five tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks against Idaho State, and he didn't even play a full three quarters. In games against opponents with a pulse, Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland collected 12 tackles, including 3.5 for loss and 2 sacks, plus two pass breakups, in the Badgers' 37-26 win over UTEP.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Northwestern's Brandon Williams averaged 56.7 yards per punt, including a long of 61, in the Wildcats' 38-7 win over South Dakota. Two of his three punts were downed inside the 20. Special shoutout also to Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, who had an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown.

Worst hangover: Ay, Ay, Ay for the two U. of I's. Iowa's loss brought about a long week of hand-wringing and sports talk show phone-ringing in Hawkeye nation. Already on Twitter after the game Saturday, many fans were complaining about Ferentz and his salary, as if they were responsible for footing the bill. At least the Hawkeyes almost won. Illinois got blasted on its own field by Louisiana Tech, 52-24. The Illini imploded in the second half, setting up two Bulldogs scores with turnovers and giving the ball away six times on the night. Illinois looked like a mystery team coming into the season; now the mystery is, just what are this team's strengths? Too bad Illinois and Iowa aren't playing each other. They both could use a winnable game.

Strangest moment: Michigan's final five pass attempts in the first half against Notre Dame were all intercepted. That, my friends, is hard to do. And it's a good way to sum up the Big Ten nonconference season.
Nebraska's official homecoming game takes place Sept. 29 against Wisconsin, but for Huskers quarterback Taylor Martinez and a group of his teammates, it really arrives Saturday.

Martinez has had Saturday's game at UCLA marked on his calendar since his senior year at Centennial High School in Corona, Calif. As soon as Martinez and his close friend and high school teammate, Ricky Marvray, finalized their college choices -- Martinez picked Nebraska, Marvray picked UCLA -- they looked at the schedule and saw Sept. 8, 2012: Nebraska at UCLA, Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
AP Photo/Dave WeaverTaylor Martinez is one of several Huskers looking forward to Nebraska's Week 2 game at UCLA.
"We've been looking forward to it ever since high school," Martinez told ESPN.com.

The wait ends Saturday afternoon in Pasadena, Calif., as Martinez and several other California natives return to home soil. Nebraska's roster includes eight Californians, including four -- Martinez, defensive end Cameron Meredith, wide receiver Quincy Enunwa and safety Daimion Stafford -- in starting roles.

As of Monday night, Meredith's cheering section had swelled to 216 people -- "That’s friends, family, teachers, coaches, everything," he explained. Although Nebraska made consecutive trips to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl in both 2009 and 2010, Meredith's entourage had more time to plan for Saturday's game.

"We're going to have a huge Nebraska section, just for us," said Meredith, a Huntington Beach, Calif., native. "You've got me, Taylor, Quincy, Eric [Martin], Josh Mitchell, there are going to be a lot of people for us alone. That will be pretty cool."

Because of its location in a sparsely populated state, Nebraska always has had to recruit nationally. Bo Pelini has put an emphasis on scouring California for talent since his return to Lincoln as the Huskers' head coach.

Pelini's first full recruiting class (2009) included six Californians, including Martinez and Martin. Nebraska has added seven California natives in the past three classes -- both high school players and junior college arrivals like Stafford. The Huskers' most talked-about recruit for the 2013 class, quarterback Johnny Stanton, hails from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.

"California's been a fairly productive area for us," Pelini said. "We've built some strong relationships there, had some really good success. ... We view this game as something that, the kids from California, their folks are going to have a chance to see them play. This provides that opportunity. And to showcase our program and what we do out there in the California area.

"We're looking forward to it."

Pelini is considering sending some of his assistants to local high school games Friday night to assist with 2013 recruiting. Meredith, one of three Californians to sign with Nebraska in 2008, two months after Pelini's hiring, isn't surprised by the Huskers' strategy.

"Texas, California and Florida, those are the high school football states," he said. "Nebraska has gone after some of those California prospects, especially since Bo’s been here. It's good for us because some really good athletes come out of there."

Both Martinez and Meredith drew interest from UCLA coming out of high school, and both have been on the Bruins sideline for games at the Rose Bowl. Martinez, who was recruited as a safety, admits he grew up a big Bruins fan and was initially disappointed when he didn't receive a scholarship offer from the team. Meredith attended junior day at UCLA and considered several Pac-12 schools in the recruiting process.

They both ended up in Nebraska -- about 1,500 miles and a world away from California.

"It's totally different from the West Coast," Martinez said. "Once you come out there, it's a culture shock. They do everything different. It's just a slower pace of life."

Meredith had grown accustomed to the varied landscape in California.

"You've got the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Laguna Beach to Big Sur to Death Valley," he said. "You've got so many different climates, it's amazing. I could surf and go up to the mountains and go snowboarding that same day."

There's not much surfing or snowboarding in pancake-flat Nebraska, but both Martinez and Meredith have warmed up to their new home -- even the weather.

"I love California, but I also love Nebraska," Martinez said. "I lived in California my whole life, and coming to Nebraska, actually living in snow and cold weather, that's kind of neat."

Added Meredith: "After meeting some friends here, going to their hometowns, hanging out in Lincoln for a little while, going up to Omaha, I’ve really adjusted to it. I'd consider living here."

This week's trip takes on added significance for the Huskers because they hope it's not their only one to Pasadena. After an impressive opening win against Southern Miss, in which Martinez set a career high for pass yards (354) and tied one for pass touchdowns (5), Nebraska is setting its sights on its first league title since 1999.

As a member of the Big Ten, Nebraska would, in all likelihood return to the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.

"Our goal is to win the Big Ten, and if you win the Big Ten, you wind up in the Rose Bowl," Meredith said. "It’s a famous stadium. Just imagine all the famous teams that played there in the past, and all the championship games that went on.

"There will be some motivation for us to get back there."
LINCOLN, Neb. -- They can't be called pop quizzes because they happen every day.

When safety P.J. Smith and his fellow Nebraska defensive backs enter their meeting room each day, they know exactly what's coming.

"This is the first time we've ever taken tests," Smith told ESPN.com. "Since the season ended, we had a test every week. And now, since [defensive backs coach Terry Joseph] is here, we have a test every single day we get in the meeting room."

Joseph's exams typically contain three questions, which require short written responses. The players have two minutes to complete their choices, which is 119 seconds longer than they have during games in the fall. The players with the lowest grades at week's end typically have to clean the secondary room.

"He tries to put pressure on us," Smith said.

Pressure is one word to describe the theme of Nebraska's offseason, particularly on the defensive side. Details is another. So is accountability.

[+] EnlargeWill Compton
Troy Babbitt/US PresswireWith star LB Lavonte David gone, Nebraska will look to Will Compton to make an impact at the position.
The team ended the 2011 season with a thud, falling 30-13 to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. A defense that had entered the fall with a star-studded lineup -- tackle Jared Crick, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard were the headliners -- finished 42nd nationally in points allowed and 37th in yards allowed, significant drops in both categories from the previous season (ninth in points allowed, 11th in yards allowed). The Huskers' D received some A-level performances from David and Dennard, but the overall unit, aside from a few exceptions, wasn't exceptional.

Nebraska didn't generate enough pressure (84th in sacks, 112th in tackles for loss) and didn't really have a hallmark.

"Generally, we didn't make a ton of busts a year ago," said defensive coordinator John Papuchis, who coached the defensive line in 2011. "But it's the small details within each defense that make the difference between being a good defense and a great defense. At times, we showed signs of being a very good defense. And at other times, we didn't live up to the standard we have set for ourselves.

"And I think what held us back more than anything came into those details."

Papuchis and the other defensive assistants have spent the offseason stressing concepts rather than pure memorization. The how and the why became more important than the what and the who.

They "went back to square one," even with older players, and worked on terminology as an entire unit. Crick and other Nebraska players talked before last season about the uniqueness of their defense, how the scheme would help set the Huskers apart in a new league.

"There's not one defense that’s comparable to ours," Crick said. "Very complex, and that's what makes it unique. As a defensive lineman, I have five responsibilities, where other defensive linemen, all they've got to do is shoot their gap. We want it that way."

And it is different, as Nebraska uses a two-gap system not employed by most college teams. But because of several reasons -- the coaches point mainly to attention to detail -- the Huskers didn't enjoy a major schematic advantage.

"Our defense is kind of like learning how to study math," Papuchis said. "If you don't have a foundation, everything else after that won't make sense."

One issue Papuchis noticed with Nebraska's youngish secondary in 2011 was alignment. Players knew their responsibilities, but they would line up inside when they needed to be outside, or vice versa.

"What doesn't seem like a big deal, six inches one way or the other, makes all the difference in the world if they convert third-and-6," he said.

It's why Joseph tests them every day. Mistakes happen, Smith said, but Joseph wants the DBs to "make a new mistake. Don't make the same mistake."

Nebraska should have a more seasoned secondary in 2012, and Papuchis has been pleased this spring with Daimion Stafford, Ciante Evans, Andrew Green and Antonio Bell, among others. Linebacker Will Compton said the secondary is receiving extra attention this spring from both Papuchis and head coach Bo Pelini.

"We're getting back to some of the multiplicity we've had in the past," Pelini said. "I'm excited. I think we have a chance to be pretty good on defense."

There are different challenges for the other two groups on defense. The linebackers begin life without David, one of the nation's most productive defenders the past two seasons. Compton will lead the group, but depth is still a concern and will be for the next few years.

"We'll have guys very capable," Compton said. "It's about being a successful Will linebacker, not about being the next Lavonte David."

Nebraska has good depth at defensive end with Cameron Meredith, Jason Ankrah, Eric Martin and Joe Carter. And while the scheme stresses the need to prevent offensive linemen from reaching the second level, pass rushers could be turned loose more as Nebraska tries to generate more pressure.

New line coach Rick Kaczenski has brought an attacking style.

"Last year, we were a little bit passive," Meredith said. "Now offensive linemen at practice are telling us, 'You guys attack a lot more.'"

The linemen also are stressing accountability. If anyone is late for a meeting or another activity, the whole group runs or does Turkish get-ups.

"Everybody had a sour taste in how we finished up the season," Pelini said. "I said, 'Either you can talk about it or do something about it.' I think everybody around here has taken the attitude to raise their level of accountability.

"To get over the top, we've got to have a little bit more attention to detail, raise our standards that much more, raise our accountability that much more."
We covered all the offensive position groups in our postseason rankings series here, here, here and here. Now it's time to turn our attention to the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive tackle was the strongest position in the league in 2011, so that makes this a competitive situation. There are some major changes from our preseason order as well. Remember this is about overall production, and depth matters along with star power. The top four on this list are really, really strong.

Here we go:

[+] EnlargeWilliam Gholston and Aaron Murray
J. Meric/Getty ImagesWilliam Gholston and the Spartans' defensive line helped key a Michigan State win over Georgia in the Outback Bowl.
1. Michigan State: The Spartans finished with the top total defense in the Big Ten and one of the best in the nation, and it all started with a dominant front. All-American tackle Jerel Worthy commanded extra attention inside and was joined by Kevin Pickelman and Anthony Rashad White as forces inside. William Gholston was brilliant at times, never more so than in the Outback Bowl win over Georgia. And freshman Marcus Rush turned in an outstanding season at the other defensive end spot. The Spartans had no weaknesses at this position in 2011.

2. Michigan: We projected the Wolverines would make a significant leap in '11, but the amount of improvement still surprised us. The combination of head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, both defensive line coaches at heart, and valuable seniors Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen made this the backbone of Michigan's Sugar Bowl run. The Wolverines were especially tough in short-yardage situations because their defensive front was so stout.

3. Penn State: Big Ten defensive player of the year Devon Still wrecked just about everybody's game plan with a huge senior campaign. Jordan Hill had a solid, underrated year next to him inside. Jack Crawford stayed healthy and contributed 6.5 sacks, while Eric Latimore and Sean Stanley combined for another 7.5 quarterback takedowns.

4. Illinois: Defensive end Whitney Mercilus was a consensus first-team All-American who led the nation in sacks and forced fumbles. Nobody saw that coming. He had good company along the line as well, with guys like Akeem Spence inside and Michael Buchanan at the other end spot. The Illini may have faltered down the stretch as a team, but the D-line stayed strong throughout the year.

5. Wisconsin: The Badgers didn't have many household names on the defensive line, and certainly no one stood out like J.J. Watt the year before. But Bret Bielema relied on a solid group of veterans that helped the team finish third in the league in total defense and fifth in sacks. Patrick Butrym, Louis Nzegwu, Brendan Kelly and Ethan Hemer were part of a group that played better than the sum of its parts.

6. Ohio State: The Buckeyes had one of the best defensive players in the league in John Simon, who had 16 tackles for loss and seven sacks in a breakout season. Tackle Johnathan Hankins emerged as a disrupter at 335 pounds. But Ohio State didn't get its usual production elsewhere on the line, got beat up as the season went along and lacked depth, which is one reason why Urban Meyer went out and signed so many pass rushers in his first recruiting class.

7. Nebraska: The biggest disappointment from the preseason, as the Huskers tumbled from their No. 1 ranking last summer. Jared Crick's season-ending injury hurt the production, but he was not putting up huge numbers before he tore his pectoral muscle. Cameron Meredith, Baker Steinkuhler and Eric Martin had some nice moments, but Nebraska wasn't nearly as fierce up front as we thought it might be.

8. Purdue: Kawann Short turned in his best season, with 17 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks from his interior spot, while Bruce Gaston and Gerald Gooden provided solid support. But the Boilermakers' pass rush off the edge lacked explosiveness until freshman Ryan Russell started to come on late in the season. Everyone except Gooden returns, and with a new position coach Purdue hopes this unit can go from decent to great in 2012.

9. Iowa: Another disappointing crew, as the Hawkeyes proved it's not easy to replace three draft picks off the defensive line and simply reload. Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns were the senior anchors, but Iowa's pass rush was sluggish until late in the season. And there wasn't a whole lot of depth behind them. This group loses three starters and will be extremely young in 2012.

10. Northwestern: We ranked the Wildcats 10th in the preseason as well, but we still expected better things out of this group. Northwestern generated very little pressure on opposing quarterbacks and ranked last in the Big Ten in sacks. Vince Browne, a projected all-conference pick in the summer, had a subpar season with only 3.5 tackles for loss after putting up 15.5 in 2010. It's clear this group needs to get better for Northwestern to take the next step.

11. Minnesota: The Gophers weren't as terrible on the defensive front as they were in 2010, when they finished last in the nation with only nine sacks. In fact, they more than doubled that total with 19 last season. Still, it was a mostly anonymous crew that gave quarterbacks too much time to carve up the secondary in the passing game. Jerry Kill still needs to find more playmakers at this position.

12. Indiana: The Hoosiers had problems all over the defense, and the line was no exception. Adam Replogle and Larry Black gave the unit some veteran leadership in the middle, but Indiana resorted to playing a lot of kids at the defensive end spots. The results were about what you'd expect.

A game many pegged to be an offensive shootout has been dominated by the two defenses at Nebraska's Memorial Stadium.

The much-maligned Northwestern defense turned in its best half of the season, containing Taylor Martinez, Rex Burkhead and the high-octane Nebraska offense. Northwestern has tackled much better than usual and gotten off blocks, preventing the big plays Nebraska has lived on all season.

Northwestern's offense dominated the first quarter, but the Huskers are showing why they received their beloved Blackshirts earlier this week. The defense buckled down in a big way during the second quarter and recorded an interception following a tipped pass by DT Baker Steinkuhler. Steinkuhler also had a sack late in the half.

Both teams have been sloppy with the football, combining for four giveaways, including two Nebraska turnovers inside Northwestern territory. The offenses are piling up yards and first downs -- Nebraska has 181 yards and eight first downs, Northwestern has 160 yards and 12 first downs -- but they're struggling to put up points.

A potential concern for Northwestern is Dan Persa's health. The senior quarterback appeared to injure his left shoulder in the second quarter following a hit by Nebraska's Eric Martin. Persa returned but left a few minutes later, clutching his non-throwing shoulder. Kain Colter replaced Persa at quarterback, but Trevor Siemian also might be used.

It should be an interesting second half. Nebraska has been a much better second-half team than Northwestern this year.

Q&A: Nebraska DT Jared Crick

September, 9, 2011
9/09/11
11:00
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The Friday Q&A checks in with the Big Ten's No. 1 player in the preseason rankings, Nebraska standout defensive tackle Jared Crick. Nebraska opened its season with a 40-7 win against Chattanooga, and while the offense had some ups and downs, the defense performed as advertised.

Here are Crick's thoughts on Week 1, the depth of the Huskers' defensive line and what to expect Saturday night against Fresno State.

How did you feel about the defense's performance in the opener?

[+] EnlargeJared Crick
AP Photo/Nati HarnikJared Crick swatted away this throw by Chattanooga quarterback B.J. Coleman.
Jared Crick: I thought we played well, but after watching the film, I feel a whole lot better. I didn't see what I would want to see, but it's a good sign knowing what you've got to work on and knowing the exact points you've got to sharpen. We didn't play bad as a defensive front; we didn't play bad as a defense as a whole. I thought we played pretty well, it being our first time out there, but I'm definitely very excited after watching the film. In the past, you watch a game and you know you've got a whole lot to work on. Going into this week, we've just got to sharpen up a few things. And once we get that sharpened, we're going to be a whole lot better defense.

Are you ever worried to watch the film, even after a win?

JC: You're not worried, but you're always critical. You're always looking for the finer details, even if it's the littlest thing because sometimes that's what wins and loses games. You're very critical of yourself, you're very critical of your teammates. We played a good game. We only allowed seven points and that came on a bust on our part. But knowing the exact precise things we need to work on going into this next Saturday, it's very positive for us. It's a great feeling.

How much help will you have up front from guys like Cam [Meredith]?

JC: It was good, but we expect that of Cam. Now that Cam's healthy, he's got a year of experience under his belt and he did that all through fall camp, he made plays. So we expected that from him. But it was definitely nice to see him come out Saturday and just have fun. Last year, at times he worried a little too much about his responsibility instead of just relaxing and letting the game come to him. That's exactly what he did Saturday and he did a great job for us.

Did you expect him to score on the interception?

JC: I would have liked him to, but I'm just glad we got the turnover inside the 5. We always want to score as defensive linemen because we don't get that opportunity too much, but it was special enough that he got the pick.

Who else stood out to you along the defensive line?

JC: [Jason] Ankrah played well for us, his first start. This was really the cornerstone of his career of seeing how good he can really be, going against some different competition finally. This is only going to build his confidence throughout this year, and I expect big things from him. And also the new guys who played, Joe Carter, Eric Martin, Chase Rome. I saw a lot of good things out of T-Mo, Terrence Moore. I feel good knowing where we're at as a defensive line right now.

Did you feel Jason was coming on strong in camp? When did he turn the corner?

JC: Last spring he started to really come around. We asked him to gain a lot of weight. He came in at 240 and I think he's now up to 265, so he had to adjust to that weight change. He's playing a lot more physical. We saw it through this spring and he's progressed through the summer, into fall camp and definitely into the game. He's got to keep progressing.

You've only played one game, but do you have a sense of how offensive lines are going to approach you this year?

JC: Hard to say. Chattanooga ran a lot of two-step drop, they got rid of the ball quick. I saw a couple double-teams, slide pro. We saw it all, so we're going to watch the film again, see what kind of protections we didn't do so well on, what we did do well. We don't expect offenses to run the same kind of protection that Cam had pressure on, that I had a lot of pressure. We're looking for the protections we didn't do so well on. We're going to anticipate that a lot more and have to prepare for how to beat it.

(Read full post)

The position rankings move from offense to defense. We'll start with the group that has produced more Big Ten stars than any other position group in recent years.

The Big Ten had five defensive linemen, all from different teams, selected in the first round of April's NFL draft: Wisconsin's J.J. Watt, Illinois' Corey Liuget, Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, Iowa's Adrian Clayborn and Ohio State's Cameron Heyward. Iowa lost three starting D-linemen to the draft, and almost every Big Ten squad has to replace major contributors.

The personnel losses make the preseason D-line rankings both tricky and fun. The first three groups look very good, while there's not much difference in the middle of the league.

Let's take a look:

[+] EnlargeJared Crick
Brett Davis/US PresswireJared Crick and Nebraska join the Big Ten as the league's top defensive line.
1. Nebraska: The Big Ten's newest member should fit in well with its strong play up front. Star defensive tackle Jared Crick stiff-armed the NFL draft and returned for his final season, giving Nebraska a terrific centerpiece up front. He'll be complemented by veterans Baker Steinkuhler and the mustachioed Cameron Meredith. If converted linebacker Eric Martin builds off of a strong spring, Nebraska should be fine at the end spot.

2. Ohio State: Heyward's leadership and versatility will be missed, but Ohio State always finds ways to fill the gaps up front. Junior John Simon should be primed for a breakout season. Like Heyward, Simon can play both line spots but might see more time on the edge this fall. Nathan Williams adds experience at end, and promising sophomore Johnathan Hankins could wreak havoc on the interior this fall.

3. Michigan State: Like several Big Ten teams, the Spartans build their line around a potential superstar tackle in Jerel Worthy. The junior already is projected as a potential first-round pick in the 2012 draft after recording four sacks last fall. Anthony Rashad White emerged this spring as a nice complement to Worthy. Michigan State needs a better pass rush from the end spots, and hopes are high for William Gholston and Tyler Hoover.

4. Wisconsin: Watt is a huge loss because he contributed in so many ways, but Wisconsin could account for his production with greater depth. Ends Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert both have played a lot of football, and junior Brendan Kelly came on strong toward the end of spring practice. Senior tackle Patrick Butrym has emerged as one of the leaders on defense. Wisconsin needs young tackles like Jordan Kohout and Beau Allen to help Butrym.

5. Michigan: This is a projection pick, but I think Michigan's defensive front takes a significant step forward this season. Senior tackle Mike Martin is a bona fide NFL prospect and will lead the way, and players like Ryan Van Bergen and Craig Roh should be among the primary beneficiaries of the new defense under coordinator Greg Mattison. Michigan needs to build depth with Jibreel Black, Will Campbell and others, but there's great potential here.

6. Iowa: The Hawkeyes face a tough task in replacing multiyear starters in Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug. Senior tackle Mike Daniels is ready to lead the group after recording 11 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2010. The biggest key is getting Broderick Binns back to his 2009 form. Iowa also needs to build depth with Lebron Daniel and others, and avoid major injuries.

7. Purdue: Defensive tackle is a major strength for Purdue as Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston Jr. form one of the league's top tandems. Short quietly turned in an extremely productive season last fall (12.5 TFLs, 6 sacks). The big unknown is how Purdue replaces Kerrigan. The Boilers need veteran Gerald Gooden to stay healthy and others to emerge alongside him.

8. Penn State: Much like Purdue, Penn State looks strong at tackle and has question marks at end. Devon Still could contend for All-Big Ten honors after a terrific performance in the Outback Bowl against Florida. Still and Jordan Hill should lock up the middle, but Penn State needs Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore to get healthy at the end spots. If not, the Lions will turn to unproven players to spark their pass rush.

9. Illinois: Liuget is a significant loss in the middle and Illinois also must replace veteran end Clay Nurse. The Illini will rely on Akeem Spence to step in for Liuget, and Spence showed some good things this spring. There's talent on the edges with Michael Buchanan, Whitney Mercilus and others, but Illinois needs more consistent production.

10. Northwestern: This group took a step back last fall and got manhandled down the stretch as Northwestern hemorrhaged yards and points. Senior end Vince Browne is a playmaker who put up impressive numbers (15.5 TFLs, 7 sacks) in 2010. He'll need help from tackles Jack DiNardo and Niko Mafuli, and Tyler Scott could provide a lift at the other end spot. The Wildcats need their line to regain the edge it displayed in 2008.

11. Indiana: It wouldn't surprise me to see Indiana's front four rise up these rankings during the season. There are some nice pieces back, namely senior end Darius Johnson, who can be a force when healthy. Junior Adam Replogle has been productive at defensive tackle. There's plenty of competition at the other two spots as Indiana tries to turn a page on defense.

12. Minnesota: The Gophers' pass rush was practically invisible in 2010, as they finished last nationally in sacks (9). The good news is new defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will turn his linemen loose more often, giving players like Brandon Kirksey chances to make plays. We've heard a lot about Minnesota's talent up front but haven't seen nearly enough production on Saturdays.

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