NCF Nation: Greg Davis

C.J. Fiedorowicz was named to the All-Big Ten first team by the league coaches last season and was drafted at the start of the third round by Houston last month.

Most teams might struggle to replace a three-year starting tight end with Fiedorowicz's talent. Then again, most teams don't have Iowa's tight end tradition.

[+] EnlargeRay Hamilton
Stephen Mally/Icon SMIRay Hamilton will get his chance in the tight end spotlight for Iowa this fall.
From the just-retired Dallas Clark to Tony Moeaki to Scott Chandler and others, the Hawkeyes have thrived at producing top-flight tight ends under Kirk Ferentz. ESPN.com's recent Position U series ranked Iowa No. 2 among all programs for the title of Tight End U, and the school has had much more recent success at that spot than the No. 1 team on the list, Miami.

So it shouldn't come as a big surprise that Iowa isn't sweating the loss of Fiedorowicz too much. Plenty of others are ready to carry on the tradition.

"We're going to miss him," senior Ray Hamilton told ESPN.com. "But that just means more opportunities for the rest of us. And we've got the talent, from top to bottom."

Ferentz can still call on a deep stable of capable tight ends, beginning with Hamilton. He mostly sat behind his close friend Fiedorowicz the past three seasons, yet Hamilton was a highly-ranked recruit himself with offers from several marquee programs coming out of Strongsville, Ohio. He has 11 catches for 130 yard in his career, but often he has been asked to come in as a blocking tight end.

"The coaches had a role for me every game, each year, and I came in to do my job, which was to raise hell every play I was in there," he said. "I did a lot of run blocking, which was all right because I love blocking. There's no better feeling than moving a grown man off the ball against his will. That's all that matters."

That role doesn't come with as much glory as, say, catching six touchdown passes, as Fiedorowicz did a year ago. But the 6-foot-5, 252-pound Hamilton has performed his job well.

"Ray’s always been one of those underappreciated guys in some ways at times, even by us," Ferentz told reporters this spring. “He made a lot of clutch plays during the season. He makes them during practice. He’s a pretty good all-around tight end, in our opinion.

"We’re losing a pro guy, and when you lose a pro guy, it’s not fair to measure it ... to a guy who hasn’t played. The good news is, I think, that Ray has improved his game, and I thought he was pretty good last year.”

With Fiedorowicz gone, Hamilton could be looking at a starting role, along with more targets from quarterback Jake Rudock.

"I haven't really proven too many times that I can catch a pass and then do something with it," he said. "So I'm anxious to go out there and catch some balls, try and break some tackles and make some plays for this team."

He's not the only tight end capable of those things. Junior Jake Duzey is the leading returning pass-catcher in the group and had the memorable 85-yard touchdown reception at Ohio State last season. Sophomore George Kittle, Hamilton said, "may be even faster than Duzey," while junior Henry Krieger-Coble "has some of the best ball skills and hands you're going to find."

That depth gives Ferentz and offensive coordinator Greg Davis options. They used those to their advantage in the second half of last season while breaking out a three-tight end look, starting with the Ohio State game.

"That's a blast for us," Hamilton said. "There's no better feeling than having three guys from your own position group on the field at the same time and moving the ball down teams' throats."

Hamilton is embracing the leadership role with the group as its only senior. The tight end tradition at Iowa is one reason he chose to go there, and he's mindful of keeping that torch lit. Maybe he'll be the next guy to enter the spotlight. If not, he'll continue to play his role.

"I just love blocking, period," he said. "I love getting down and nasty with it. That's just the kind of player I am."

There will always be room on the Hawkeyes for a guy like that.
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Let's explore Jake Rudock's football smarts, shall we? You already know about the book smarts, at least if you've been paying attention.

Anything written or said about Rudock notes that he's a brain. The Iowa junior quarterback is a microbiology/premed major and an academic All-American who, before making his Hawkeyes debut last fall, broke down his organic chemistry class for a group of reporters whose chosen profession had steered them as far away from classes like organic chemistry as possible. He mentioned stereoisomers and other head-spinning terms.

Most football players want nothing to do with team doctors. Rudock, who wants work in pediatric medicine, picks their brains and hopes to shadow some of them. It doesn't hurt that Iowa's Kinnick Stadium is located across the street from University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, one of the nation's 50 largest public hospitals. Rudock wants to volunteer there in pediatrics this summer.

"He's a very bright guy who has taken classes that I certainly can't tutor for him," Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis told ESPN.com. "I'm not sure anybody on our team or staff could tutor for him."

[+] EnlargeJake Rudock
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltJake Rudock's smarts in the classroom started to translate on the field in 2013, something Iowa hopes continues this season.
But enough about Rudock's academic aspirations and achievements. Iowa fans care mainly about the 12 exams that await Rudock this season, his second as the team's starting quarterback.

If Rudock excels on the field like he does in the chem lab, more tests could come for a Hawkeyes team with high expectations in 2014.

"He's a really intelligent guy," Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said. "He's a football-intelligent guy, too. Sometimes there's not always a correlation. In his case, he's good both ways."

Rudock's football wisdom should help as Iowa expands its offense in Davis' third season. Iowa averaged nearly five more plays per game in 2013 than it did in 2012, and Davis intends to further ramp up the tempo and broaden the playbook.

There's little Davis can throw Rudock's way that Rudock hasn't seen before. He operated from numerous formations as a quarterback for Florida prep powerhouse Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas.

"We'd go three receivers wide," Rudock said. "Then we'd run the veer out of the gun, the option under center, zone schemes, lead schemes, pulling guards, pulling guard and tackle, all that stuff. We used a lot of different screens, all that good stuff."

Bryan Baucom, the offensive coordinator at St. Thomas Aquinas, adds a few more to the list: classic pro set, shotgun empty, Oklahoma-style wishbone.

"If it was invented," Baucom said, "we were running it."

Rudock ran it well, setting a host of records at St. Thomas Aquinas, including career touchdown passes (73), single-season passing yards (2,827), career completion percentage (64 percent) and, most important, career victories (31). Davis didn't recruit Rudock to Iowa but was impressed watching how his high school moved seamlessly from a spread formation to two backs to something else.

Iowa might not be known for multiplicity on offense, but things could be changing with Davis calling plays and Rudock calling signals.

"He's pretty comfortable with a bunch of different ways to play the game," Davis said.

Rudock's comfort level showed this spring after a season where he put up first-year starter numbers: 2,383 pass yards, 18 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 59-percent completions. He had highlights, like a game-winning touchdown strike to C.J. Fiedorowicz in overtime against Northwestern, but also plenty of mistakes.

Being good but not great might seem alien to a high achiever like Rudock. But he not only put in the work to improve, but embraced the grind.

"In the classroom, it all doesn't just come to me," he explained. "Just like in football, it all doesn't just come to you. You have to put the effort to watch that film, meet with coaches, try to further understand things and not just understand the first layer but the second and third tiers."

Baucom never remembers yelling at Rudock because the quarterback knew right away if he missed a read or a coverage. Rudock started practicing with the Aquinas varsity as a freshman after his junior-varsity season concluded. The strong-minded, skinny quarterback was a "great huddle guy," Baucom recalled, who teammates easily followed.

"He's a smart kid, down-to-earth kid, never too high, never too low," Baucom said.

How even-keeled is Rudock? Consider how he reacted to the news that Iowa first team All-Big Ten left tackle Brandon Scherff would return for his senior season even though he likely would have a first-round pick in the NFL draft.

"I remember finding out and being like, 'Well, that's good,'" Rudock said.

Well, that's good? No primal scream? No backflip?

"It was more a sigh of relief," Rudock said. "It makes you feel safer back there."

Rudock should feel fairly safe as Iowa's starter, but the coaches also see a role for C.J. Beathard, who appeared in five games last season and stood out in spring ball. Davis came away "extremely pleased" with Beathard this spring, noting his big arm and his lateral quickness.

Iowa historically has been a one-quarterback team, but Beathard could be used in a package of plays built around the zone read.

"I wouldn't rule it out," Ferentz said.

The competition shouldn't faze Rudock. Few things do.

"If you're not working, somebody else is," he said, "so it's important not to ever be satisfied with where you're at."

Rudock committed to Iowa in July before his senior year of high school, picking the Hawkeyes ahead of Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota, among others. When Miami hired Al Golden that December, the new Hurricanes coach pursued Rudock, but the quarterback stayed firm with his pledge.

He hasn't looked back.

"He knows what he wants to do with his life," Baucom said. "He had a plan in place and he's following that plan. He wanted to go to one of the top medical schools, That’s why he picked Iowa. He wanted to play Division I football. He accomplished that."

It doesn't take a microbiology major to identify the next item in Rudock's plan -- a Big Ten championship.

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- No Big Ten coach takes the temperature of his team in spring practice quite like Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. No Big Ten coach has lived in as many different climates.

The dean of the league's coaches knows the sunniness that surrounds teams after redemptive seasons such as the ones the Hawkeyes had in 2001, 2008 or last fall, when Iowa improved its wins total by four. He also knows the polar vortex that exists, at least outside Iowa's football complex, after poor performances like the ones the team delivered in 2007 and 2012.

Ferentz also understands how quickly the weather changes, like it often does on spring afternoons in the Midwest.

So at a recent team meeting, Ferentz detoured from the typical spring minutia -- replacing seniors, creating depth, finding leaders, building identities -- and addressed a macro item: the preseason polls.

"He said we might be ranked," running back Jordan Canzeri told ESPN.com, "and even if we are, no one is to keep that in their head. There were several teams that were ranked and didn't get to go to a bowl game this past year. You never want to be cocky. Even if the stats show you're good, you still want to prepare as you would with any other team, so you don't get satisfied and complacent."

Iowa likely will be ranked when the preseason polls come out. The Hawkeyes appear in some way-too early versions. They return eight offensive starters, including left tackle Brandon Scherff, a preseason All-America candidate, along with three of four starting defensive linemen from a team that flipped its regular-season record in 2013.

The quarterback uncertainty that hovered over the program last spring, when no signal-caller had taken a snap in a game, is no longer there, as junior Jake Rudock has established himself. An unprecedented stretch of running back maladies has subsided as Iowa returns three veteran options (Mark Weisman, Canzeri and Damon Bullock) and two promising young players (LeShun Daniels Jr. and Barkley Hill). There's more explosiveness at wide receiver, and the defensive line, led by senior tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, looks more like the elite units Iowa produced for most of Ferentz's tenure.

[+] EnlargeCarl Davis
David Purdy/The Des Moines Register via USA TODAY SportsWith Carl Davis and others back, Iowa's defensive line should be the team's strongest unit.
"We are a more experienced unit, probably the most experienced unit on the team," defensive line coach Reese Morgan said.

There are enough internal reasons to indicate Iowa will take another step this season, but the biggest factors in the Hawkeyes favor are external. Their new division, the Big Ten West, lacks a clear-cut favorite or a flawless team. And their schedule is undoubtedly the most favorable in the league.

Not only does Iowa miss Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State from the East Division, but it hosts both Wisconsin and Nebraska. The Hawkeyes' toughest league road game should be a Nov. 8 visit to Minnesota.

"It's a pretty favorable schedule for us," wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley said, "but every week is going to be a challenge. Nothing that happened last year really matters."

Davis looks forward to visiting Big Ten newcomer Maryland, but he had hoped to play more of the league's traditional powers. The only way Iowa sees Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan is in the Big Ten championship game.

"When the Big Ten started, those are the teams that dominated," Davis said. "You want to be able to play those teams and beat those teams. I really look forward to it.

"I definitely feel we're in contention for a Big Ten championship. Every team says it, but we're hungry."

Ferentz has seen Iowa go from good to great in 2002 and again in 2009. He also has seen the program fall short of expectations, as it did in 2006 and 2010.

The first step to building upon success, Ferentz said, is not taking it for granted. Take Iowa's group of linebackers, which loses three multiyear starters from last year's squad: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens.

"If we're waiting for Morris, Kirksey and Hitchens to give us 300 tackles, that ain't gonna happen," Ferentz said. "Two years ago, we had a disappointing season. Last year was a new year and this year was the flip record-wise, but it's a new year again. This team has to form its own identity, and it starts with our experienced players. We're going to need them to play their absolute best, which is what those seniors did last year."

Iowa's linebacker reset has been a top spring storyline. Quinton Alston has stepped into the lead role, earning high marks from teammates and coaches. Travis Perry and Reggie Spearman, who played as a 17-year-old freshman last fall and doesn't turn 18 until August, are likely starters alongside Alston.

The biggest challenge could be replacing Kirksey, a converted safety who brought defensive back speed to outside linebacker.

"Chris had a different skill set than the guys we have out there now," defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. "It's been a long time since we had a guy who could run that fast and still have the power and explosion to play in the box, too, or at least on the tight end. We have three or four guys we're trying to look at with that position."

Other uncertainties include the cornerback spot opposite dynamic sophomore Desmond King, free safety and the second-string offensive line, which coordinator Greg Davis lists as the unit's biggest concern.

Iowa players understand that their margin for error remains slim.

"The determining factor is going to be winning those close games," Martin-Manley said.

Iowa won several such contests in 2009, its last truly special season. The 2014 team also could reach rarefied air, but Hawkeyes won't get caught with their heads in the clouds.

"That's what we do here; we work hard," Davis said. "That's something you get used to the longer you're in this program. The grind becomes normal, and I feel like all our hard work will be able to pay off."
Five lessons from the final weekend of Big Ten regular-season play:

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Tony DingQB Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes weren't perfect vs. Michigan but they survived in Ann Arbor.
1. Ohio State is imperfect, but a perfect record might be good enough: There they are, the team America loves to hate, on the doorstep of the national championship game. Ohio State didn't look like the No. 2 team in America during its one-point win against unranked Michigan, allowing 41 points, 31 first downs and 603 total yards to an inspired Wolverines team that managed just 158 yards the week before against Iowa. But Ohio State handled its first brush with adversity in six weeks, as running back Carlos Hyde bulldozed his way to 226 rushing yards and Tyvis Powell snuffed out Michigan's potential game-winning two-point conversion attempt with 32 seconds to play. The Buckeyes walked out of the Big House with a win, which is more than Alabama could say at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Alabama's loss should move Ohio State up to No. 2 in tonight's BCS standings, although Auburn is now a threat to leapfrog the Scarlet and Gray. This is an imperfect, perfect Ohio State team, which might be headed to play for a crystal football if it can get past Michigan State in the Big Ten championship.

2. It's Michigan State or bust for a second BCS bid: There's no good way to explain Wisconsin's 31-24 loss to Penn State at home on Saturday. The Badgers had been so sound on both sides of the ball all season long, and so dominant the past two months. But Wisconsin made uncharacteristic mistakes all game against a Penn State team that delivered by far its best road performance of the season. Whatever the reason for that stink bomb from Gary Andersen's team, it removed all doubt about a fourth straight BCS game for the Badgers, and it left Michigan State as the clear No. 2 team in the Big Ten. The Spartans weren't especially impressive in a 14-3 win over Minnesota, but an 11-1 season should get the Spartans in the top 10 of the BCS standings tonight. Michigan State can erase all doubt by beating Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game, sending the Buckeyes to an at-large spot in the process. If not, the Spartans no longer have to worry about competition from within their own league for a BCS at-large spot. Saturday was a very good day to be a Spartan, and a very bad one to be a Badger.

3. You can't kill the Hawkeyes: Just when it seems safe to write off the Iowa Hawkeyes and Kirk Ferentz, the Big Ten's longest-tenured coach, they rise again. Iowa smacked Nebraska 38-17 in Lincoln to record a statement victory and flip its 2012 record from 4-8 to 8-4. It looks like there will be a third act in Iowa under Ferentz, who oversaw strong stretches from 2002 to '04 and 2008 to '09. Picked by many (cough, cough) to finish last in the Legends Division, Iowa ended up finishing second with a 4-1 mark in division play. James Morris and his fellow senior linebackers have sparked a defensive resurgence, and the offense has found its identity in Year 2 under coordinator Greg Davis. Iowa's four losses all came against teams ranked in the top 20. The talk about Ferentz's hefty salary and whether he's worth all that dough will never go away, but he has successfully facilitated another turnaround at Iowa, which should end up in a decent bowl game. Unlike many of its Big Ten brethren, Iowa typically shines in the postseason, going 6-4 in bowls under Ferentz.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioMichigan tailback Derrick Green rushed for 47 yards in the loss to Ohio State.
4. Minnesota is a passing game away from being a real contender: The Gophers lost their last two games of the regular season but earned respect for how they played against Wisconsin and Michigan State. The Badgers came away talking about how they needed to match Minnesota's physicality, which was something that hadn't been said in a long time. At Michigan State on Saturday, the Gophers became just the second team to rush for more than 100 yards against the Spartans this season, and they held an improving MSU offense to just two scoring drives. Yet Minnesota won't be a true Big Ten contender until it develops a passing game. Bad things tend to happen when the offense is forced to throw, like when Philip Nelson threw two interceptions (and should have had a third) or when Mitch Leidner was sacked for a fumble in the red zone on Saturday. The two quarterbacks combined for just nine completions in 25 attempts in East Lansing. Receiving targets Donovahn Jones, Drew Wolitarsky and Maxx Williams all have promising ability, but all are freshmen who are getting baptized by fire right now. If Minnesota can maintain its gains on defense and in the trenches while becoming competent in the passing game, it will be hard to handle next season.

5. Indiana missed a big opportunity this year: It's hard not to look at Indiana's score against Purdue in the Old Oaken Bucket Game and wonder how this team is staying home for the holidays. The Hoosiers had one of the most explosive offenses in all of the BCS -- except when they played Wisconsin and Ohio State -- and eight home games. Yet they finished 5-7 and still have just one bowl appearance under their belt since 1993. All they had to do was beat Navy at home or not mess up the ending of the game against Minnesota and they would have gotten to six wins. Of course, it's easy to pinpoint the reason why Indiana did not get there: an atrocious defense that has not made nearly enough strides in Kevin Wilson's three years. The Hoosiers should be potent on offense again next year, with quarterbacks Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld, running back Tevin Coleman and receivers Cody Latimer and Shane Wynn still owning eligibility. But if Wilson doesn't make major changes on defense, it might not matter -- again.
Every Sunday around this time, we'll recap five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

Pencils ready? Class is in session ...

Freshman Christian Hackenberg had some big mistakes but showed poise in Penn State's win.
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesFreshman Christian Hackenberg completed 22 of 31 passes for 278 yards in Penn State's win over Syracuse.
1. Big Ten quarterback mysteries partially solved: Week 1 provided some clues about the Big Ten's cloudy quarterback picture, but a few mysteries remain. True freshman Christian Hackenberg looks like the long-term answer at Penn State. Although he had a few shaky moments, Hackenberg completed 22 of 31 passes for 278 yards and showcased a big-time arm on a 54-yard touchdown strike to Eugene Lewis early in the fourth quarter of the Lions' win against Syracuse. Joel Stave got the start for Wisconsin and re-established himself with a mostly solid performance against Massachusetts, twice finding top receiver Jared Abbrederis for touchdowns. Jake Rudock's collegiate debut ended with a costly interception, but the Iowa sophomore showed some positive signs against Northern Illinois, passing for 256 yards. Iowa has something to build on with Rudock. Indiana might lack a definitive starter, but the Hoosiers have multiple options with Tre Roberson, Nate Sudfeld and Cam Coffman. Sudfeld, who played most of the opener and fired four touchdown passes, may end up being the answer for IU. Things are much shaker for Michigan State and Purdue, as both teams struggled at the quarterback spot in their openers. The Spartans likely will continue to play multiple signal-callers, while Rob Henry's starting spot at Purdue could be in jeopardy if he doesn't take better care of the ball.

2. Michigan, Illinois and Iowa can see clearly now on offense: After two years of running the Denard offense, Michigan displayed a system more suited to coordinator Al Borges' long-term vision. The result was a 59-point, 463-yard explosion against Central Michigan, in which just about everybody contributed. Michigan's vertical passing game is much more of a factor with Devin Gardner at quarterback, and the Wolverines ran the ball well with multiple backs. Illinois and Iowa lived in the dark on offense for much of the 2012 season, finishing 119th and 114th, respectively, in yards per game. Both the Fighting Illini and Hawkeyes looked more comfortable with their offensive identities in the openers. Illinois senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase threw for 340 first-half yards en route to a career-high 416 against Southern Illinois. Despite a crunch-time interception, Iowa's Rudock played with better rhythm in his first career start than veteran James Vandenberg did all of last season. The Hawkeyes are far from a juggernaut but eclipsed 300 yards in the first half against Northern Illinois and scored two touchdowns, more than they had in the first two games of last season. Now if only Greg Davis would get rid of the bubble screen ...

3. Michigan State, Nebraska haven't fixed their issues: First, the good news: We've only played one week, and Michigan State and Nebraska are each 1-0. The Spartan Dawgs defense is as good as advertised, perhaps even a little bit better, while the Nebraska offense remains explosive. Now, the bad news: The problems that plagued both teams last season and were supposedly addressed in the offseason remain glaring, neon-blinking red flags. The Spartans' offense struggled up front against an inferior opponent in Western Michigan, couldn't create separation at wide receiver and never consistently moved the football. Quarterbacks Andrew Maxwell and Connor Cook combined to complete 17 passes for 116 yards, continuing a troubling trend of a condensed passing game. Although Jeremy Langford (94 rush yards) was a bright spot at times, he also fumbled in the red zone. Michigan State can't expect to win more games by having its defense outscore its offense. The opposite is true at Nebraska, which rebuilt its defense in the offseason with supposedly more athletic players. We totally expected the new Blackshirts to need a few games to find their sea legs, but we did not foresee Wyoming putting up 602 yards of offense and nearly winning in Memorial Stadium. That's reminiscent of the Huskers' defensive disasters last season, only worse because it came at home against a mediocre WAC team. Right now, the same songs are playing in East Lansing and Lincoln, and someone better change the channel.

4. Ohio State can't lose focus despite weak schedule: Let's face it: Ohio State shouldn't have too much to worry about until Wisconsin comes to The Shoe on Sept. 28. But the Buckeyes are far from a perfect team, and they need to use each week as an opportunity to develop, especially on defense. Ohio State built a 23-0 lead against Buffalo in less than a quarter Saturday, but the concentration level seemed to waver a bit from then on. The Bulls began moving the ball, Braxton Miller threw a pick-six and there was a decent amount of sloppiness in the middle of the game. Ohio State might have had a perfect record in 2012, but it was far from a perfect team and remains that way now. Turnovers and penalties -- the Buckeyes had nine of them -- will get you beat against better competition. Ohio State would benefit from a true test during nonleague play, but unless San Diego State or Cal surprisingly provides one, it won't come until the Big Ten opener against the Badgers. Urban Meyer and his staff must stress the details in all three phases the next few weeks. Talent isn't the issue for Ohio State, but a lack of focus could prove costly down the road.

5. Honeymoon is over for Hazell, continues for Andersen: Purdue was a solid underdog on the road at Cincinnati, but few expected the nightmarish result that occurred. Down just 14-7 at halftime, the Boilermakers imploded in an ugly 42-7 loss that was as bad as anything from the Danny Hope era. Purdue had four turnovers and was so inept that quarterback Rob Henry tweeted an apology to "all my family, teammates, friends and fans. My performance today was unacceptable. Never played that bad in my life." The schedule provides a break next week with Indiana State, but then the Boilers have six straight tough games. First-year coach Darrell Hazell has a lot of work to do to keep the offseason optimism going. There's no such problem yet for Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen. It seemed like not much had changed in Madison as the Badgers beat UMass 45-0 and rushed for 393 yards. Of course, Andersen had a much easier opponent for his debut and gets Tennessee Tech next week. His first real challenge will come in Week 3 at Arizona State. But Wisconsin clearly is in a lot better shape than Purdue right now.
Iowa learned a painful lesson Saturday: it's how you start and how you finish.

After a sluggish start, the Hawkeyes did a lot of good things in the second and third quarters, and the early part of the fourth, in Saturday's season opener against Northern Illinois. Quarterback Jake Rudock made some big throws in his collegiate debut, and a defense led by three senior linebackers held Huskies star Jordan Lynch in check.

But mental and physical breakdowns on both sides of the ball doomed Iowa down the stretch, as Northern Illinois rallied for a 30-27 win at steamy Kinnick Stadium. Mathew Sims' 36-yard field goal with four seconds left sealed it for NIU as Rod Carey recorded his first career coaching win.

This one will sting for a while for Iowa, which really needed something to go its way following a long and mostly gloomy offseason.

The Hawkeyes stumbled out of the gate but survived by scoring 17 unanswered points to take control midway through the game. Linebacker Christian Kirksey turned the momentum with a forced fumble, scoop and 48-yard touchdown return late in the first quarter. Rudock completed 13 of 21 attempts for 188 yards and a touchdown in the first half, and Iowa's defense began bottling up Lynch (56 rush yards on 22 carries) and his Wildcat-like, inside zone rushing attack.

But Iowa suffered a breakdown midway through the fourth, as a blown coverage allowed Lynch to find Da'Ron Brown wide open for a 33-yard score with 5:05 remaining. Lynch ended up hurting Iowa much more with his arm (275 pass yards, 3 TDs) than his legs.

Even then, the Hawkeyes appeared to be in good position to win as Rudock led the offense inside NIU territory. Then, on third-and-9 from the 44-yard line, offensive coordinator Greg Davis made one of those calls that drive Iowa fans batty: a bubble screen. It predictably went for a yard.

After a season where Iowa consistently called third-down passes with no chance of reaching the marker, Davis should know better. He should rip the bubble screen out of his playbook. The swing pass, too. They don't work.

Iowa still had a decent chance after the defense forced a three-and-out, but Rudock finally showed his inexperience, telegraphing a throw that NIU's Jimmie Hall easily picked off. Three plays later, Sims split the uprights to give the Huskies the win.

There were some positives in this game for Kirk Ferentz's crew, but it's all about the bottom line. Iowa found a way to lose.

Last year's Iowa win against Northern Illinois proved to mean nothing for the Hawkeyes. I have a feeling today's loss will be much more significant for the Hawkeyes going forward.

Most to prove in the Big Ten

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
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Every season, each Big Ten player, coach and team sets out to prove something. Maybe it's to prove last season was just a hiccup or that this season is the start of something special.

Whatever it is, some naturally have more to prove than others. So here's a look at 10 players, units and coaches in the Big Ten who have the most to prove:

[+] EnlargeAndrew Maxwell
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesAndrew Maxwell could be on a short leash in East Lansing, so he has plenty to prove.
1. Michigan State QB Andrew Maxwell. Despite starting every game last season, Maxwell was just named the 2013 starter on Tuesday. So it's not exactly a stretch to think he's on a short leash. Connor Cook will get some playing time Friday, Tyler O'Connor is "in the mix" and true freshman Damion Terry wowed the staff in a recent scrimmage. If Maxwell doesn't quickly prove he's the right man for the job, he'll be watching the right man from the bench.

2. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz/offensive coordinator Greg Davis. Are Ferentz's best years behind him? And was last year's passing offense the start of a trend for Davis? The Hawkeyes finished last season at 4-8, their worst record since 2000, and finished with the nation's No. 114 offense. There are plenty of questions surrounding both of these coaches right now, and quieting them would certainly go a long way in proving Iowa's winning tradition isn't gone for good.

3. Penn State special teams. The Nittany Lions ranked near the bottom statistically in nearly every special teams category in the Big Ten last year. They were tied for ninth in field goal percentage, 11th in punting average, last in kick return average and ninth in punt return average. Sam Ficken rebounded in the second half of the season after missing four field goals against Virginia, but he was sporadic again in the Blue-White Game. Alex Butterworth's hang time also needs to improve.

4. Purdue coach Darrell Hazell. He guided Kent State to an impressive 11-3 record last season, became the Mid-American Conference coach of the year and nearly earned a berth in the Rose Bowl. But that was the MAC and this is the Big Ten. There's a big difference, and he wants to show fans of the gold and black that kind of success can carry over.

5. Michigan QB Devin Gardner. He has big shoes to fill when it comes to replacing Denard Robinson, but expectations are already soaring for the player who has started just four career games at quarterback. Some sporting books have increased Gardner's odds at the Heisman to 25-to-1, which means increased confidence, and Michigan is expected to compete with Ohio State for the conference title this season. That's a lot of pressure and, by default, means Gardner has a lot to prove.

6. Wisconsin front seven. New coach Gary Andersen is hoping the new 3-4 defense can create some headaches for opposing offenses, and the front seven here are trying to show they're quick studies. Wisconsin will have to rely on these seven to win, and their adjustment to the new scheme will have a direct impact on the number of marks in the "W" column.

7. Ohio State defensive line. Having four new starters tends to mean there are question marks, and this young group will have to answer them. Noah Spence came in as the nation's No. 4 recruit back in 2012, and reports all seem to conclude he's living up to the hype. Depth here isn't great and neither is experience, but talent and health are the main things that matter.

8. Nebraska defense. There's no problem on the offensive side of the ball with players such as Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah, but defense is what's preventing this team from being great. The Huskers' run defense ranked 90th in the nation last season -- allowing 653 yards, 498 yards, 640 yards and 589 yards in their four losses -- and they could be even worse this year. Three new linebackers will take the field, and Nebraska lost two of its top pass-rushers. A lot to prove? You bet.

9. Michigan RB Fitzgerald Toussaint. There's no way around it. You have to use the term "disappointment" when referring to Toussaint's 2012 season. Coming off a breakout 1,000-yard campaign in 2011, he struggled last season, averaging just four yards a carry and running inconsistently before breaking his leg against Iowa. He wants to show that 2012 was an aberration.

10. Badgers' receivers outside of Jared Abbrederis. If you're having difficulty naming a Wisconsin receiver other than Abbrederis, don't feel bad. Abbrederis caught 49 balls last season -- more than all of the other Wisconsin wideouts combined (48). Jordan Fredrick, Alex Erickson and Kenzel Doe will need to step up to make sure secondaries don't just focus on the fifth-year senior.
Maybe Jordan Canzeri thought AIRBHG was asleep. Iowa's spring game, after all, is just two days away.

Or maybe Canzeri is bold enough to defy Iowa's dastardly deity.

Canzeri, who can include himself among the countless victims of AIRBHG (Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God), thinks the fortunes of Iowa's running back group are about to change in 2013.

"The experience level is really high, so that's great," Canzeri told ESPN.com this week. "The previous years, we had young backs fill up the position. Now we all know what we're getting into. We're all ready for it.

[+] EnlargeIowa's Jordan Canzeri
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa running back Jordan Canzeri suffered a torn ACL last spring and missed the season, but he's back competing for the Hawkeyes.
"So no bad luck next year."

Iowa fans hope those aren't infamous words, and they've witnessed first-hand the damage AIRBHG does to the Hawkeye running back room. The attrition at the position has been unlike anything we've seen in the Big Ten in recent memory, but what few point out is the fact Iowa continues to produce quality ball-carriers.

The Hawkeyes have three of them this spring in Mark Weisman, Damon Bullock and Canzeri. All three have started games, and all three are receiving a good amount of reps in practice.

If AIRBHG just stays away, Iowa's running backs could be the strength of an offense that needs a boost after finishing 114th nationally in 2012.

"I definitely think so," Canzeri said. "The starting position, that's something me, Mark and Damon are looking to get, but whoever doesn't get that position, the rotation itself will be strong. Mark, he's running so much better, and Damon and I both became better. For us three backs, we're all different in many ways.

"For us to be able to rotate, if that happens, it'll be trouble for the defenses to go against."

Canzeri entered last spring as the potential starter but suffered a torn ACL. Bullock ended up starting the season opener and rushing for 150 yards in a win against eventual Orange Bowl participant Northern Illinois.

Yet he, too, fell victim to AIRBHG, suffering a concussion against Northern Iowa. That cleared the way for Weisman, a little-known fullback who had transferred from Air Force. Weisman plowed his way to a brilliant four-game stretch -- 623 rush yards, eight touchdowns -- before being sidelined with an ankle injury.

Weisman is back to full strength this spring and has been working with new running backs coach Chris White to refine his game.

"I'm trying to get two hands off the ball," he said. "I used to carry the ball with two hands, but you want to be able to get through traffic, so you get that extra hand off for balance and you try to get those extra defenders off of you. And then just making one cut instead of trying to run over everyone.

"It's second nature to do that, but you remind yourself every time you get the ball to switch it real quick and try to make those moves."

White said earlier this spring that the 225-pound Weisman is even making some jump cuts in practice.

"I want Mark to break arm tackles," White said. "I want Mark to really stick his foot in the ground and run through a guy or run around a guy or stiffarm a guy or break a tackle. That's the thing that I'm challenging Mark to be -- a complete back."

Weisman is willing to play running back or fullback, and Iowa is practicing more with multiple backs on the field, as both Bullock and Canzeri have played some at slot receiver.

"We're committed to running the football," offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. "It's been nice to have two backs the whole spring. Mark and Damon have both made every practice. That gives you an opportunity to wear down the defense. It also gives you an opportunity, because of their abilities, to put the two of them in the game."

It's a luxury Iowa hasn't had, and one the Hawkeyes likely will need as they work in a new starting quarterback -- Jake Rudock, Cody Sokol or C.J. Beathard -- who will take his first snap in an FBS game this fall.

"Last season, none of us want to go through anything like that again," Canzeri said. "It's made us stronger as a group. We're a lot more focused and we work a lot harder."
Iowa fans, know this: Greg Davis felt your pain about last year's offense.

"It obviously wasn't the season we wanted, and it was frustrating for all of us," the second-year Hawkeyes offensive coordinator told ESPN.com. "It was frustrating for me."

Iowa finished 11th in the Big Ten in scoring in 2012 and averaged just 16.7 points in the final six games of a dismal 4-8 season. So Davis, along with head coach Kirk Ferentz and the rest of the offensive staff, set about trying to fix things this offseason. The problems weren't hard to pinpoint when they gathered together to go over what went wrong.

"Everybody came in with a list of things that was pretty similar," Davis said. "There were a lot of things that were on everybody's sheet."

[+] EnlargeMark Weisman
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallMark Weisman led the Hawkeyes in rushing last season with 815 yards.
The lack of a downfield passing game checked in very high on that list. One of the indelible images of the Hawkeyes' season was watching quarterback James Vandenberg throw horizontal passes to receivers well short of the first-down marker.

Davis wants to use the vertical passing game a lot more this year, but that is easier said than accomplished.

"We had to look at, how do we get the ball deep?" he said. "We're not all of a sudden going to have Jerry Rice and John Taylor on the outside."

The Hawkeyes' lack of playmakers at receiver became painfully obvious last season. Though Davis likes the progress of slot receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley and the speed of Jordan Cotton and Don Shumpert, Iowa still looks a little athletically challenged on the perimeter.

So Davis' plan is to use one of the team's main strengths -- its running game -- to shore up a weakness.

"Because of our ability to run the ball, we've really worked hard on play-action shots," he said. "Hopefully, many of our big plays will come off play-action."

With the healthy return of Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal, Davis thinks the offensive line will perform like a typical group of Iowa mashers up front. The Hawkeyes -- dare we tempt fate by saying it -- are now flush with running backs, led by bulldozer Mark Weisman and the speedier Damon Bullock. Building pass plays out of run looks should both improve the protection for the quarterback and give receivers more time to get 15 yards or so downfield and read the defense.

"There's more of a threat all around," running back Jordan Canzeri said. "We have some new plays where we're taking more shots downfield, different routes."

Davis also wants the offense to simply have more opportunities, period. Iowa averaged only 66 offensive snaps per game last year, running the fewest plays in the Big Ten. Part of that, of course, is converting third downs and staying on the field. But Davis also hopes to incorporate more no-huddle, which the Hawkeyes used in stretches last year.

"We want to play faster, we want to get more snaps and we want to stress the defense more," Davis said. "We do so much at the line of scrimmage anyway, so why huddle?"

That doesn't mean that Iowa is about to become a spread team by any means. But having both Bullock and Weisman, who were almost never healthy at the same time last year, adds more options. Weisman can line up as the fullback in the I-formation, or the Hawkeyes can use him as a single back with Bullock splitting out as a receiver. If they do that without huddling, that should create some favorable matchups against defenses.

Of course, first and foremost, the Hawkeyes need to identify a starting quarterback, and they're not much closer to doing so with spring practice set to end Saturday. Davis said the three contenders for the job -- Jake Rudock, Cody Sokol and C.J. Beathard -- are still "too close to call."

"They've all done some things where you say, 'Wow, this is really pretty good,'" he said. "They've also all done some things where you say, 'Wow, this is really not very good.' I'm pretty sure won't know until [preseason] camp."

Throughout the spring, Iowa has rotated the three quarterbacks every two plays. Last Saturday, for the first time, each was given a chance to lead a drive until its completion during team drills. Yet, there's still not much separation.

Davis said it reminded him a little of when he was at Texas and the quarterback race was so close that the Longhorns began the season alternating freshmen Colt McCoy and Jevan Snead. McCoy didn't show he was the guy until he actually had to make plays with defenders chasing him and without the comfort of a no-contact jersey.

Iowa fans -- and Davis -- just hope that whoever starts ends up running an offense that makes many more plays than last year.
Spring practice has begun in the Big Ten, so let's take a look at what to expect from each Legends Division team this spring.

IOWA

Spring start: March 27

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:

1. Questions at quarterback: The Hawkeyes played James Vandenberg for every snap last season, and now that he's gone, they have no quarterbacks on the roster with any game experience. Sophomore Jake Rudock has been viewed as Vandenberg's successor, but he's still a mostly unknown quantity who should get pushed in the spring by former junior college transfer Cody Sokol and redshirt freshman C.J. Beathard. Whoever wins the job will be tasked with improving an Iowa passing game that finished with a Big Ten-worst seven touchdown passes in 2012.

2. Skills competition: While the quarterback race is vital, Iowa also needs standouts to emerge at the other skill positions to fix an offense that sputtered under first-year coordinator Greg Davis. The wideout corps, which struggled to get separation or make big plays, now is without departed senior Keenan Davis, who tied for the team lead with 571 receiving yards. There's a reason why Iowa signed five receivers in the 2013 class. The running back position has strength in numbers, with Damon Bullock, Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri and Barkley Hill all competing for carries this spring. The Hawkeyes just need to finally get some luck in the health and off-field departments at that position while hoping one player emerges as the go-to back.

3. Transition game: Iowa long had one of the most stable staffs in the country. But coach Kirk Ferentz added three new assistants this offseason for the second straight year, giving the program some fresh voices but also causing some potential bumps in transition. The offense in particular didn't mesh well last season under Davis, who'll look for solutions this spring. Ferentz has new coaches overseeing the running backs (Chris White) and receivers (Bobby Kennedy) and a new defensive assistant who'll work with the linebackers (Jim Reid). The Hawkeyes hope they can inject some life into a program that has seen its fortunes dip the past couple of seasons, including last year's 4-8 disaster.

MICHIGAN

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Devin Gardner as starter: Denard Robinson is gone and Gardner is the presumed Michigan starter for the first time. How he adjusts to that -- and how Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges develops more of a pro-style offense around him -- are a major launching point for the Wolverines next season.

2. Offensive line play: Michigan is replacing the entire interior of its offensive line and while there is a lot of young talent there, none of the potential candidates have any experience. Michigan offensive line coach Darrell Funk said he would like to have at least one of the three slots, if not two, settled by the end of spring.

3. Linebacker competition: The deepest position on Michigan’s roster also has the most competition. Jake Ryan at strongside linebacker is almost a given, but the middle and weak side slots are wide open. A bevy of freshmen and sophomores, along with returning starter Desmond Morgan, will vie for playing time in what will be a likely increased rotation in the fall.

-- Michael Rothstein, WolverineNation

MICHIGAN STATE

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:

1. Still Maxwell's house?: Senior Andrew Maxwell started all 13 games last season at quarterback but was pulled in favor of freshman Connor Cook for the deciding drive of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The Spartans will open up the competition under center, with Tyler O'Connor and eventually incoming freshman Damion Terry joining the fray. Though he has a big edge in experience, Maxwell will have to prove that he can greatly increase last season's 52.5 completion percentage to hold onto the job through the spring.

2. Replacing Bell: Saying running back Le'Veon Bell was a big part of the 2012 offense is like saying Tom Hanks had substantial role in "Cast Away." Bell carried the ball 382 times last year, more than any back in the country, and gained 1,793 yards. There is no ready-made in-house replacement, as leading returning rusher Nick Hill had just 21 rushing attempts last year and may be too slight (5-foot-8, 190 pounds) to be an every-down back. Junior Jeremy Langford will move back to the backfield after seeing time at receiver. Signees Delton Williams, Gerald Holmes and R.J. Shelton might wind up with the job.

3. New playcaller in town: Mark Dantonio has yet to officially announce a replacement for former offensive coordinator Dan Roushar, who recently left for an assistant's post with the NFL's New Orleans Saints. But reports are that former Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman has been tapped to lead the Spartans' offense. Can Bollman, whom Buckeyes fans criticized as being too conservative, find the solutions for what was a dreadful attack in 2012? The Spartans' defense once again enters spring ball with very few question marks. Michigan State's hopes rely heavily on how much progress it can make on the offensive side.

MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 26

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:

1. Defensive back end: The Gophers lost two outstanding cornerbacks in Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, as well as starting linebackers Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper. Jerry Kill has tried to address this during recruiting, adding a pair of well-regarded junior college linebackers (De'Vondre Campbell and Damien Wilson) as well as touted high school corner Jalen Myrick. But some holdovers from last season's roster will have to step into bigger roles this spring.

2. The full Nelson: True freshman Philip Nelson took over the quarterback job midseason and now will enter practice as the starter. He showed flashes of immense potential but still has a lot of things to learn. Kill has said Nelson is no lock to start in 2013 and that he'll face legitimate competition from redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner and incoming freshman Chris Streveler. Nelson has the inside track for now but must hold onto it.

3. Receiving line: The Gophers don't have a returning wideout who had more than 375 receiving yards last year, though Derrick Engel showed promise with a 100-yard day in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. You can blame some of that on the turnover and youth at quarterback. But Minnesota needs much better play at receiver to become a more balanced offense. Improvement by guys like Devin Crawford-Tufts and Isaac Fruechte this spring will help, as would some immediate contributions from recruits Eric Carter and Drew Wolitarsky.

NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:

1. Youth movement on defense: The Cornhuskers lost eight starters from last season's defense and will hope that some athletic young players are ready to step in. Guys like Charles Jackson, Jonathan Rose and Thomas Brown will be given long looks this spring. Nebraska coaches are hopeful that what they lack in experience, they'll make up for in speed. There's no bigger key for Big Red than having its young defenders make great strides in the spring.

2. Safety issues: The safety spot is an important one in Bo Pelini's scheme, and the Huskers lose both starters and a couple of top reserves from that position. Jackson will be given a look there, and the staff is high on Corey Cooper. But no starting jobs are locked down.

3. Martinez's progression: Senior quarterback Taylor Martinez won't be involved in a lot of live drills, and the spring will be a time to get freshman Tommy Armstrong some reps. But Martinez still needs to fine-tune a few parts of his game, most notably his tendency to force throws in key spots. He made great progress last offseason through extra hours of hard work; a similar leap this spring would make Martinez one of the very best players in the country.

NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 27

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. The quarterback duo: The Wildcats spent large parts of last season rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, using Siemian for more obvious passing situations. Will that continue this season? Colter needs to improve as a passer to become a better option as an every-down quarterback, and Northwestern's downfield passing game must get better. You can bet there will be a lot of eyes on Colter and Siemian this spring to see what offensive coordinator Mick McCall has planned.

2. Secondary concerns: The news that cornerback Nick VanHoose won't practice this spring because of injury could be a blessing in disguise. The Wildcats' secondary struggled when he was hurt last season, so this may provide an opportunity for others to get better without him. Jimmy Hall and Traveon Henry are youngsters who should see plenty of reps this spring in the defensive backfield.

3. Offensive line makeover: Three starters are gone from last season's offensive line, including both guards and left tackle Patrick Ward. Jack Konopka is the favorite to succeed Ward but will miss the spring with injuries, while 2012 signee Adam DePietro is among those who could step in at guard. Northwestern should have one of the best running games in the Big Ten in 2013 but will need its line to begin to take shape this spring.
The 2012 college football season is barely on ice and we're already heating up for the 2013 campaign with a way-too-early version of the Big Ten power rankings. This is a snapshot of how the league looks at this point in time, not knowing all the personnel/coaching changes that will be in place for next season. As a reminder, these can and will change during the next eight months.

Ohio State is on top, and quite frankly, the Buckeyes are head and shoulders above the rest of the league. Other teams such as Northwestern, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan certainly belong in the league's lead pack, while Michigan State and Penn State both have talent as well as question marks. We don't see a whole lot separating Nos. 2-6.

Here we go ...

1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes made the most of their sanctioned season, running the table to post just the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history. Urban Meyer's crew now takes aim at a Big Ten title and perhaps even a national title, its first since 2002. Junior quarterback Braxton Miller leads a potentially explosive offense, but Ohio State needs its young defenders to grow up in a hurry as there are depth and experience questions on that side of the ball.

2. Northwestern: The Wildcats won 10 games in 2012 with a young team most projected to win no more than seven. Northwestern returns a very strong nucleus, led by running back Venric Mark and quarterback Kain Colter, and loses only a few key seniors. Most of the Wildcats' talent can be found in their younger classes. The schedule gets tougher in 2013 -- Northwestern opens Big Ten play with Ohio State and Wisconsin -- but the Wildcats should be a major factor in the Legends Division if they can shore up their offensive line and continue to make strides on defense.

3. Nebraska: There's no doubt Nebraska will have one of the nation’s top offenses in 2013. Fourth-year starter Taylor Martinez returns at quarterback and has the Big Ten's largest arsenal of weapons at his disposal. The big concerns are on defense after Nebraska hemorrhaged points and yards in its four losses this past season and loses a group of seniors. Bo Pelini needs to get his defense back on track and hope the offense can limit turnovers, a huge problem throughout this season.

4. Wisconsin: Gary Andersen hardly inherits a bare cupboard in Madison. His predecessor, Bret Bielema, actually pointed to the 2013 team as potentially his best with the Badgers. The coaching transition could create some speed bumps, but Wisconsin returns two dynamic running backs in James White and Melvin Gordon, multiple quarterbacks with experience and a good defensive front seven led by Chris Borland. There are concerns in the secondary (three starters gone) and at wide receiver (not enough playmakers), but Wisconsin should push Ohio State in the Leaders Division.

5. Michigan: The Denard Robinson era is over and Michigan needs offensive playmakers to replace its record-setting quarterback and surround new signal-caller Devin Gardner. A bigger concern, though, is an offensive line that struggled at times in 2012 and must replace most of its starting lineup. Coach Brady Hoke should see some of his strong early recruiting efforts pay off in Year 3, although Michigan might not have the depth to challenge for a league title until 2014. Linebacker Jake Ryan leads a defense that has improved the past two seasons but must measure up to elite competition.

6. Michigan State: Pat Narduzzi's defense should once again be one of the nation's best, especially with All-Big Ten standout Max Bullough once again leading the unit at middle linebacker. But the NFL departures of Le'Veon Bell and Dion Sims could hamper an offense that had no other consistent weapons in 2012. The schedule definitely favors MSU, but how will the Spartans score points? MSU's quarterback competition between Connor Cook and Andrew Maxwell will be one of the top storylines of spring practice.

7. Penn State: Bill O'Brien had a lot to do with Penn State's success in 2012, but so did a senior class featuring several NFL players on defense who certainly will be missed. O'Brien's next challenge is developing a capable quarterback, whether it's Steven Bench, junior college arrival Tyler Ferguson or, just maybe, heralded incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg. Penn State could feel the sting of the sanctions more from a depth standpoint in 2013, but O'Brien's Lions have defied the odds so far.

8. Minnesota: The Gophers doubled their win total in Jerry Kill’s second season, and Kill's track record at previous stops suggests another boost could be on the way in Year 3. Quarterback Philip Nelson looked good in the bowl game after some late-season struggles, but Minnesota still needs more weapons to develop around him as well as continued progress from the offensive line. Senior defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman leads a unit looking to fill gaps at linebacker and cornerback.

9. Indiana: The arrow is pointed up in Bloomington despite a poor finish to the regular season, and with eight home games on the slate in 2013, Indiana should expect to go bowling. Third-year coach Kevin Wilson has three quarterbacks with experience -- Tre Roberson, Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld -- at his disposal, as well as other weapons such as running back Stephen Houston and receiver Cody Latimer. IU's defense once again is a major question mark, but recruiting efforts have picked up on that side of the ball.

10. Purdue: If the Heart of Dallas Bowl was any indication, new Boilers coach Darrell Hazell has a lot of work ahead in Year 1. Purdue loses its top two quarterbacks (Robert Marve and Caleb TerBush), its top defender in Kawann Short and other key contributors on both sides of the ball. Hazell's predecessor, Danny Hope, signed a bunch of quarterbacks in his recent recruiting classes, and it will be interesting to see who rises to the top. Hazell should be able to clean up some of Purdue's sloppy play, but the Boilers have quite a few question marks after a disappointing 2012 campaign.

11. Iowa: After taking a significant step back in 2012, Iowa might have a tough time turning things around in a loaded Legends Division in 2013. The Hawkeyes welcome in a new quarterback (Jake Rudock) and need playmakers to emerge around him to generate much better results in Year 2 under coordinator Greg Davis. The defensive front seven could be solid as Iowa boasts a strong linebacking corps, but the Hawkeyes must plug a few holes in the secondary and get back to their traditionally stout play on D.

12. Illinois: Coach Tim Beckman needs to show significant signs of progress in Year 2 after a disastrous first season, and he might not have the personnel to do so. The Illini once again lose several defenders to the NFL draft and need to fill holes along the defensive line and in the secondary. Their bigger concerns are on the offensive side, as they had fewer playmakers than any Big Ten team in 2012. Veteran quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase returns, but Illinois needs a much better plan on offense and the personnel to get things done. An influx of junior college players must step up in a make-or-break year for Beckman.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 15

December, 5, 2012
12/05/12
10:15
AM ET
Only one Big Ten game took place since the last edition of the power rankings, but the surprising result left quite a conundrum.

How should we rank teams 2 through 6 after Wisconsin smashed Nebraska by 39 points in the Big Ten championship game? Wisconsin had a truly great night in Indy and looked like a different team than we've seen all season, but the Badgers still have more losses than Nebraska, Northwestern, Michigan and Penn State.

Oh, the decisions. In the end, this version of the power rankings takes into account the totality of the season. It's a little different from the weekly ones in that sense. Plus, we want to remain consistent with how we voted in the ESPN.com power rankings. As a result, Wisconsin stays at 6 (commence hate mail).

Let's get to it ...

1. Ohio State (12-0, last week: 1): Get used to the Buckeyes occupying the top spot under coach Urban Meyer, who guided Ohio State to its sixth unbeaten and untied season in team history. The big keys entering the offseason are addressing depth issues on the defensive side, finding more consistent playmakers to surround quarterback Braxton Miller and maintaining the standard set this season on the offensive line.

2. Michigan (8-4, last week: 3): Jadeveon Clowney and the South Carolina Gamecocks await Michigan at the Outback Bowl, giving the Wolverines one final chance at a signature victory. Clowney and Wolverines tackle Taylor Lewan face off in a battle of future NFLers. Michigan should benefit from bowl practices as it continues to adjust to having both Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson in the backfield.

3. Penn State (8-4, last week: 4): Penn State won't soon forget the 2012 season or the 2012 senior class, but it's now time to look ahead to an uncertain future. Bill O'Brien and his assistants must be extremely selective with the 2013 recruiting class and future classes, as they can ill afford to miss on more than a few prospects. Penn State loses a lot of star power on defense but has a nice piece to build around at defensive end in Big Ten Freshman of the Year Deion Barnes.

4. Nebraska (10-3, last week: 2): On the cusp of its first league title since 1999, Nebraska tumbled down the mountain yet again. Saturday's loss was an all-time stinker, the worst in team history, according to veteran columnist Tom Shatel. The defense allowed more rushing yards (539) than it ever has, and the offense turned over the ball and didn't find a rhythm until it was far too late. Nebraska will try to rebound against Georgia in the Capital One Bowl.

5. Northwestern (9-3, last week: 5): Will Northwestern finally get the bowl monkey off of its back this year? Pat Fitzgerald's crew has a potentially favorable matchup against slumping Mississippi State in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. A young Wildcats squad should benefit from bowl practices, as players such as cornerback Nick VanHoose can fully heal. Northwestern's formidable rushing attack faces a Bulldogs defense ranked 70th nationally against the run.

6. Wisconsin (8-5, last week: 6): Yes, we saw what you saw Saturday night. The Badgers were brilliant. And if they follow it up against Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, they'll make a serious move up the power rankings. Still, this has been an inconsistent team that now must deal with the stunning departure of coach Bret Bielema to Arkansas. After dealing with so much adversity this season, can the Badgers rally again?

7. Michigan State (6-6, last week: 7): The good news for both the Spartans and their Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl opponent, TCU, is that their upcoming matchup is at a neutral site. Both squads failed to win a conference home game this season. Both squads are also very good on defense and inconsistent on offense. It'll be interesting to see Mark Dantonio and Gary Patterson match wits, and how Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell performs against a stout Frogs defense.

8. Purdue (6-6, last week: 8): The Boilers have a new head coach in Darrell Hazell, but his impact won't be felt until 2013. An extremely tough matchup against Oklahoma State awaits Purdue in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Cornerbacks Josh Johnson and Ricardo Allen will be tested early and often, and quarterback Robert Marve and the offense will need to put up big numbers for the Boilers to have a chance against the heavily favored Pokes.

9. Minnesota (6-6, last week: 9): Like Purdue, Minnesota heads to Texas for a bowl matchup in which it is a sizable underdog. And like the Boilers, Minnesota needs its cornerbacks (Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire) to step up against a very good passing offense in Texas Tech (second nationally). The Red Raiders allowed 111 points in their final two games, but Minnesota's offense has been banged up and struggling and must get healthy this month.

10. Indiana (4-8, last week: 10): It's all about improving the defense in Bloomington, and Indiana has upgraded its recruiting, most recently adding a commitment Insider from defensive tackle Darius Latham, an ESPN 300 prospect who had originally pledged to Wisconsin. The Hoosiers need more depth and more talent on defense to complement what will be a very explosive offense in 2013.

11. Iowa (4-8, last week: 11): Offensive coordinator Greg Davis is staying, and he'll be tasked to upgrade an offense that took a significant step back in his first season. Jake Rudock is expected to step in at quarterback, and Iowa should have good depth at running back (famous last words, I know). The defense returns most of its key pieces and showed the ability to take the ball away this season (23).

12. Illinois (2-10, last week: 12): As expected, coach Tim Beckman will get at least another season to get things right after a miserable first go-round. Staff changes probably are coming as Illinois tries to get back on its feet before spring practice. The Illini lose several NFL-caliber defensive players, but the bigger concerns are with an offense that finished 119th nationally this season.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

November, 30, 2012
11/30/12
3:00
PM ET
Coming at you a bit early today as we gear up for championship weekend in Indy ...

Scott from Forney, Texas, writes: Nice words, Adam, about Nebraska's Rex Burkhead. My question, that I have not seen an adequate response for, is why did Nebraska not consider/seek a medical redshirt additional season for Rex Burkhead after he was hurt in the season's very first game? Am I missing some NCAA rule in Rex's case? I told my 15 year-old son as soon as it occurred in that first game, if they don't do it, Rex will likely face a nagging bad knee for much of the season. NU trainers/docs obviously have much more info than I do. But, it appears to be a mostly wasted senior season for Rex after two attempted comebacks that ended during those two games with Rex limping badly off the field. Rex is a special Nebraska running back who only comes along once in a generation.

Adam Rittenberg: Scott, in order to apply for and receive a medical redshirt, you need evidence to show the injury is severe enough to cost a player the season. An MCL sprain in Week 1 isn't sufficient enough, and, as we saw, Rex returned to the lineup a few weeks later. Teams can't hold a player out when he could be cleared to play and then seek a medical redshirt. That doesn't fly. If it had been a completely torn ligament that required surgery, it would be different. So Nebraska had to play Burkhead after he was ready to return. Could the school have sought a redshirt after Burkhead first aggravated the knee against Ohio State? That's possible, but then you're dealing with questions about number of games played. It's definitely an unfortunate situation for such a great player, and I wish we could have seen Rex all season. But I don't think Nebraska had many options given the nature of his injury.



Bryan from Eden Prairie, Minn., writes: With the story that the Big Ten championship game ticket market is extremely cold, do you think there's a possibility that a change could occur and the conference goes the Pac-12 route of having the team with the better record host the championship game? Or is this just currently a bottom period & things will look brighter once the times that Ohio State goes to Indy against a Michigan/Nebraska, creating a little bigger buzz?

Adan Rittenberg: Bryan, it's something for the Big Ten to consider, but the league has made a commitment to Indianapolis through the 2015 game, and I expect the next three games (at least) to be played there. Commissioner Jim Delany and his staff love how Indianapolis puts on big sporting events. The game will generate more buzz when it has an impact on the national title race, when it features two ranked teams and even when it features two division champions. This year's game has none of those qualities. The first time Ohio State or Michigan plays in the game, the crowd should be pretty big. The same goes for Penn State, Iowa or other teams with large fan bases that like to travel. Although I'm a little surprised the Nebraska turnout won't be better, I'm not surprised by the smaller contingent for Wisconsin. Bottom line: the game needs to mean more to draw bigger crowds, but the Big Ten shouldn't dismiss campus sites in the future.



Jon from San Jose, Calif., writes: The Big Ten said it may open up an East Coast office. But Adam, would you open up an office for 2-3 schools out of 14? Would it make more sense for 4-5 schools out of 16 (meaning some more ACC are in play)?

Adam Rittenberg: Jon, good question. The Big Ten technically sees Penn State as an East Coast school now, as it attempted to build a "bridge" from Penn State to the coast with the Maryland/Rutgers additions. But I agree that you don't open up a second league office unless you really want a presence in that part of the country. From talking to several folks, my sense is the Big Ten's primary expansion targets if it chooses to go to 16 are in the ACC -- North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia Tech, maybe Duke. The interesting thing will be if the ACC makes itself attractive enough to retain those schools after Wednesday's addition of Louisville.



Cardiac Kev from Chicago writes: Little has been talked about the overall youth of 9-3 Northwestern. The 'Cats are ranked in all polls right now. If they win and get the monkey off their back in their bowl game, do you expect Northwestern to be ranked in the preseason next year?

Adam Rittenberg: Absolutely, Kevin, and most likely in the top 20. Northwestern would have a 10-3 record, a bowl win against a very good SEC team and, as you mention, almost all of its key players returning for 2013. I even think the voters who actually study Northwestern's roster going into 2013, regardless of the bowl outcome, might consider ranking the Wildcats. This was seen as a rebuilding year, and coach Pat Fitzgerald instead had his best team in his tenure. With most of that team coming back -- Kain Colter, Venric Mark, Ibraheim Campbell, Nick VanHoose, Chi Chi Ariguzo, the list goes on -- Northwestern has a chance to be very good next fall.



Alex G. from Ames, Iowa, writes: Reading your article on Greg Davis, I want to know your personal opinion on the matter. After all, this is the worst scoring offense under Ferentz since Jake Christensen led(?) the offense to just 18.5 ppg. Not to mention, there have only been 22 worse seasons than 2012 in the 123 years of football played at Iowa, and it's hard to blame the 34h best defense in the nation for that. Additionally, Iowa was only 1 of 4 teams in the nation (other 3 went a combined 9-38 this season) to be ranked 100th or worse in BOTH passing and rushing this year. To me, there is no excuse for any of that. This team had enough talent to be respectable, and coaching failed. Where do you stand?

Adam Rittenberg: Alex, if it were me, I never would have hired Davis in the first place. But Ferentz, like it or not, is only going to hire certain types of offensive coordinators. Guys like Kliff Kingsbury or Chad Morris aren't going to be walking through the door in Iowa City as long as Ferentz has the big office. They just don't fit Ferentz, even though they do fit what college football has evolved into the past 5-10 years. The bottom line is I understood why Ferentz hired Davis, and as bad as this year was, it's not surprising to see Ferentz keep him for another year. It's hard to transition from doing things one way under Ken O'Keefe for years and then work under a new coordinator. I do think if Ferentz was under any real pressure, he might make a change, but he isn't. Davis' system should click better in 2013, but the play-calling also must improve. It left a lot to be desired this fall.



Bart from Columbus writes: Way to write an entire article about the subject without mentioning the fact that it's been 33 years since OSU won CotY (Coach of the Year). What else could you have talked about in your post, Adam? Maybe you could have told us when exactly the award stopped being about coaching and started being about rewarding plucky underdogs. Maybe you could have discussed all the things that should have disqualified certain coaches from winning the award such as not having your team ready to play until week 3 or losing to a mac school. Instead we get a fluff piece that does nothing but make excuses for the Big Ten coaches celebrating mediocrity. Any chance this is the reason our conference can't compete nationally... because we reward teams for going 8-4 instead of winning?

Adam Rittenberg: Reading is a skill, Bart. What part about this sentence -- "Buckeye fans were hopeful Meyer would be the first Ohio State boss to win Big Ten Coach of the Year honors since Meyer's mentor Earle Bruce got it in 1979" -- don't you understand? That's 33 years, just spelled out in a different way. And the post illustrates much of what you say, that the award is mainly about rewarding coaches who turn around programs. For a lot of people, that's the definition of coaching. If you bothered to read our Big Ten Coach of the Year endorsement, you'd know I endorsed Urban Meyer over Bill O'Brien. Wednesday's post merely explains why the award would go to O'Brien over Meyer. It doesn't justify it. And it's also a stretch to say this type of award voting has any bearing on how the league performs on the field.



Joe C. from South Bend, Ind., writes: What future do you see for Zach Zwinak? Since he took over the starting job, he continued to one up himself, finishing with 1000 yards over 9 games. He has some issues with fumbling, but he was only a sophomore. Would you put him in your preseason top 25 countdown next year?

Steve from Milwaukee writes: Just an idea -- in the downtime in the coming weeks before the bowls, you guys should do a quick evaluation of your preseason top 25 -- maybe 5 a day for a week. Not a re-rank (I know that's coming for postseason), but simply some quick comments on each player and how they fell short/met/exceeded expectations based on your predictions.

Adam Rittenberg: To answer Steve first, we'll definitely look back at the preseason top 25 player rankings and see how guys did. And we'll also do a postseason top 25 ranking after all the bowls are complete. Should be fun to see who met expectations, who exceeded expectations and who underperformed. Joe, I really liked what I saw from Zwinak during Big Ten play. He's a no-nonsense, hard-nosed runner who seemed to fit in well with Bill O'Brien's offense. He took advantage of Bill Belton's injury/inconsistency and established himself as Penn State's top back. Will he be in the preseason top 25 for 2013? Hard to say. Depends on who comes back, as the Big Ten will have quite a few good running backs in 2013 (Venric Mark, Ameer Abdullah, Carlos Hyde, James White, maybe Le'Veon Bell). But Zwinak certainly deserves some consideration.
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.
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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.

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