NCF Nation: James Vandenberg

Unless you've been living in a world without ESPN, the Internet or sports talk radio, you're well aware that the NFL draft begins Thursday night.

What will the weekend hold for Big Ten products? Who will be the top pick from the league? Which players should be garnering more buzz? Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett try to answer those questions and more in this blog debate:

Brian Bennett: Adam, another NFL draft is nearly upon us. What better way to spend 96 hours of a spring weekend than listening to analysts describe a player's upside? At least we won't have to read any more 2013 mock drafts after Thursday afternoon.

But let's get down to Big Ten business. According to our colleagues with the good hair -- Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay -- the league very well might not produce a first-round pick for the first time since the AFL-NFL merger. Last year, the first Big Ten player taken was all the way down at No. 23. What's going on here? Is there that big of a talent shortage in the conference, or is this just a blip? And do you think any Big Ten players hear their names called on Thursday night?

[+] EnlargeKawann Short
AP Photo/Michael ConroyKawann Short's versatility could make him too attractive for NFL teams to pass up in the draft's first round.
Adam Rittenberg: I think we can match them follicle for follicle, don't you? The Big Ten's draft downturn has been a trend for a number of years. First, the league was falling out of the top 10 consistently. Then, it started to only see selections in the final 10-12 picks. Now it might fall out of the first round entirely. So, yes, there is a talent shortage at the very highest levels and especially at certain positions. The three we've written about most often are quarterback (last first round pick: Kerry Collins), cornerback and wide receiver. I still think the Big Ten produces a wealth of great linemen on both sides of the ball, as well as its share of quality running backs. But the running back position isn't valued nearly as high in the first round as cornerback and quarterback.

I thought the Big Ten still would have a first-round pick even after Michigan LT Taylor Lewan announced he would return in 2012. But now I'm not so sure. Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins and Purdue DT Kawann Short both could hear their names called, but it's far from a guarantee.

What do you think this year's draft says about the state of the Big Ten?

Brian Bennett: I think you hit on several of the reasons, and I'd add in the population and demographic shifts as another. Of course, if Lewan came out as expected, he'd probably be a top-15 pick. And if the NFL were to do last year's draft over, I'm pretty sure Russell Wilson would go in the first round, right?

Still, the downturn in top-level NFL talent, at least from a draft perspective, has to trouble the conference and offers a possible explanation as to why the Big Ten has struggled on the big stage of late. I believe that the way Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke are recruiting will mean more elite players will be entering the pros in the near future, but we shall see.

Let's talk about this year's prospects. Who do you think will be the first Big Ten player selected this weekend? And which Big Ten product do you think should be the first one taken?

Adam Rittenberg: As much as I'd love to see Wisconsin RB Montee Ball work his way into the first round, I think the first pick will be either Short or Hankins. Both are potentially great NFL defensive linemen, but I think Short has a little more versatility to his game and can be an effective pass-rusher in addition to his run-stuffing duties. Short wasn't healthy for a chunk of last season, which led to some erratic play, but he has the ability to dominate inside. So does Hankins, but he's more of a space-eater than a difference-maker on the pass rush. I think Short should be the first Big Ten player taken, and I think he will be.

You mention Wilson, who was arguably the biggest steal of the 2012 draft. Which Big Ten player will fill that role this year? Who are the value picks out there from the league?

Brian Bennett: Wilson slipped in last year's draft because of concerns over his height. And I think there may be a similar thing going on with Ohio State's John Simon. He's viewed as a tweener because he's only 6-foot-1, but there's no questioning Simon's motor, heart or leadership. As long as he can stay healthy, he'll be a productive player for a long time in the NFL.

Penn State's Jordan Hill is another guy who's shorter than the prototype for a defensive lineman but who also makes up for it with his performance and drive. I also believe Nebraska's Rex Burkhead is being undervalued, though running backs aren't the commodities they once were at the next level. A knee injury hurt Burkhead's stock, but he showed at the combine what kind of athlete he is. And I think Michigan State cornerback Johnny Adams, who was looked at as a first-round draft pick not that long ago, could be had at a good price this weekend.

Which players do you think are being undervalued? And what do you see as the draft fate for Michigan's Denard Robinson?

[+] EnlargeBurkhead
Andrew Weber/US PresswireRex Burkhead showed during pre-draft workouts that he's recovered from a 2012 knee injury.
Adam Rittenberg: You bring up some really interesting names, BB, especially Burkhead, who, if healthy and in the right system, could be a very valuable NFL player. Simon is another guy who needs to be in the right system and must overcome measurables that aren't ideal for the NFL at defensive end or outside linebacker. I wouldn't forget the group of Illinois defensive linemen -- Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster, who wowed the scouts during pro day in Champaign. It's easy to dismiss them because they played on a terrible team, but all three have been on the NFL radar for some time -- especially Spence and Buchanan -- and have the talent to succeed at the pro level.

Ohio State tackle Reid Fragel is another guy who could be a great value, although his stock seems to be rising quickly. He started his career as a tight end but really thrived last year at the tackle spot.

Robinson will be one of the weekend's top story lines. He's clearly a work in progress as a receiver, but you can't teach that speed and explosiveness. Robinson is a risk-reward guy, but I'd be surprised if he's still on the board midway through the third round.

The Big Ten sends a fairly small contingent of underclassmen to this year's draft. How do you think those players pan out?

Brian Bennett: Michigan State has three of 'em in Le'Veon Bell, Dion Sims and William Gholston. I think there's a chance that some team reaches for Bell in the first round, and he's got the body to be a very good NFL running back for a long time. Sims also presents an intriguing option for teams, especially with the increased use of tight ends in the pro passing game. Despite Gholston's impressive physical traits, he didn't test that well in Indianapolis and had a questionable motor in college. Teams could shy away from him.

You mentioned Spence from Illinois, a guy whose stock seemed to climb as he showed some great strength in workouts. Hankins will be a second-rounder at worst. Then there's Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, who posted a slow sprint time at the combine. But how many times do centers need to sprint? I still think he'll be a good player, and one who shouldn't fall past the second round.

This is getting to be as long as the draft itself, so we should probably start wrapping things up. Any final thoughts on the Big Ten's outlook this weekend?

Adam Rittenberg: The big story lines for me, other than whether the Big Ten has a player drafted in the first round, are where running backs like Ball, Bell and Burkhead land, the Denard Watch, how the underclassmen fare and where the potential sleepers we outlined above end up. This won't be a transformative draft for the Big Ten because it lacks elite prospects at the positions we mentioned earlier, especially cornerback and quarterback. But there are always a few surprises along the way. As a Chicago Bears fan, I'm always interested to see if a Big Ten player ends up at Halas Hall.

What Big Ten story lines intrigue you heading into the draft?

Brian Bennett: You mentioned most of the big ones. I'll also be interested to see if any team takes a chance on Penn State's Michael Mauti and whether Iowa's James Vandenberg gets drafted after a disappointing senior year. I predict the Big Ten keeps its first-round streak alive -- barely -- and that Robinson stays in Michigan when the Detroit Lions draft him in the fourth round.

And then we can all put the 2013 NFL draft to bed -- and start studying those 2014 mock drafts.
Big Ten spring football is finally in full swing as Iowa on Wednesday became the 12th and final league team to hit the practice field. The return to the gridiron can't come a moment too soon for the Hawkeyes, who went 4-8 in 2012, their worst record since coach Kirk Ferentz's second season at the helm (2000). It has been another offseason of transition for Iowa as Ferentz welcomes three new full-time assistants (Chris White, Bobby Kennedy and Jim Reid) for a second consecutive year. Finding a quarterback tops Iowa's spring agenda, and the team also needs to identify a center and more playmakers on both sides of the ball.

ESPN.com caught up with Ferentz on Wednesday to discuss the spring.

What are the main objectives for you guys this spring?

Kirk Ferentz: Like any spring, you've got a lot of players on a lot of different levels. You've got experienced players, and we're certainly counting on them improving and developing into leaders. You've got younger guys who have played, and you're hoping they're ready to play more proficiently. And then you've got other guys who, in some cases, are special-teams guys who have a chance to become offensive and defensive role players, or guys who haven't been on the field yet. So you have a lot of layers of players at different levels. The biggest thing is trying to gauge where they're at, and at the same time, you're trying to find out what they can do and pull a team together. It's always a fun period and a really interesting period.

How has the transition on the staff this year gone so far, especially in relation to last year? You had quite a long period without any changes on your staff.

KF: Last year was probably a little more dramatic with two new coordinators. Norm [Parker] and Ken [O'Keefe] were here 13 years, so they were big departures. We've got Phil [Parker] and Greg [Davis] both in their second years, and they're both tremendous coaches. What's unusual is how long we were all together at one time. Usually staffs don't stay in one place for 13, 14 years. Normally they move to the next channel and you have a new group of folks coming in. So it's a natural series of transitions. The way I look at it, we've had six new members join the staff in the last two years, and it's a matter of pulling everything together. But I'm really excited about all the guys who have joined. They're outstanding coaches, and it looks like they're all going to be great fits here at Iowa. At the same time, I'm very appreciative of the guys who had been here and helped us move things.

Is the transition harder for the players or the new coaches?

KF: There's learning on both sides. The players to have learn their coaches, certainly, and the coaches have a lot to learn about the players. That can be a healthy thing, too. It's a clean slate and a fresh beginning for everybody. For players, it's a whole new opportunity.

Offensively, it wasn't what you were hoping for last year. Is it a total reset this year with some new faces, or are there some things you can continue from last year?

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Byron Hetzler/USA TODAY SportsThough Kirk Ferentz lost his starting quarterback and center, he said he's more optimistic about Iowa's offense than he was a year ago.
KF: It may be ironic. We feel more comfortable and more optimistic right now than we did a year ago about the offense. The part that's ironic is we lost a two-year starter at quarterback [James Vandenberg]. We had James play a lot at quarterback and James Ferentz played like 38 games at center, so you have two guys right in the middle of things who aren't going to be there. But I look around at other positions and we've got a lot of guys coming back who have played in the system and who I think are more capable now of playing at a higher level than they were a year ago. That's got us excited. That being said, we've got to find replacements for both Jameses. We've got to find a replacement for Keenan Davis and Matt Tobin, to start with. But I look at the group coming back and as recent as late last August, we didn't know if Damon Bullock could play in this conference successfully, and we had no idea Mark Weisman could run the ball. So I think we're a lot further down the road than we were even eight months ago, 10 months ago.

When you and Greg looked at things, did you identify areas to target for the spring?

KF: Greg came in, this was all new to him, the players were all new to him. His knowledge of our personnel is a lot more extensive than it was a year ago at this time. And that was one of the reasons I was so attracted to Greg in the hiring process, his ability historically to work with a lot of different types of players and different types of offenses. He wasn't married to one system. There's nothing like experience, and he's got a real good grip on who our players are, what they can do and what we can do to help them be more productive.

(Read full post)

Quarterback Gunner Kiel is on the move again, opting to transfer from Notre Dame after redshirting last season.

Kiel's travails are well documented. The Columbus, Ind., native, rated by RecruitingNation as the No. 3 quarterback in the 2012 recruiting class, originally committed to Indiana in July 2011, a major surprise at the time. He reopened his recruitment that fall, verbally committed to LSU but soon had second thoughts and enrolled at Notre Dame, prompting Les Miles to question his leadership abilities.

[+] EnlargeGunner Kiel
Matt Cashore/US PresswireA number of Big Ten teams could be interested in a strong-armed QB like Gunner Kiel.
IrishIllustrated.com on Thursday reported four potential transfer destinations for Kiel: Ball State, Miami (Ohio), Northern Illinois and Cincinnati. Anyone else surprised not to see a Big Ten team listed?

Kiel certainly is looking for immediate playing time, and he would have a better chance to find it by dropping down to the MAC or the Big East. He found himself behind several quarterbacks on Notre Dame's depth chart, including starter Everett Golson. Kiel talked in January about the need to be patient and wait his turn, but few seem surprised by his decision to transfer.

Although Kiel brings baggage and the potential for drama, he also brings talent. Almost every Big Ten team pursued Kiel during his initial recruitment, and several squads could use him on their roster. He can play in both a pro-style offense and a spread. While he's a good athlete, his arm strength really stands out.

It will be interesting to see if Notre Dame blocks Kiel from transferring to future Irish opponents like Purdue and Michigan State. If not, Purdue in particular might be a good landing spot as the Boilers have an unsettled situation at quarterback. Michigan State also is looking for answers under center and loses Andrew Maxwell following the 2013 season, which Kiel will sit out. The Spartans bring in heralded quarterback recruit Damion Terry this summer, and Connor Cook and Tyler O'Connor also are in the mix.

What about Iowa? The Hawkeyes don't know what they have in Jake Rudock, who couldn't get on the field last fall despite James Vandenberg's struggles. Much like Purdue, Iowa's quarterback situation is a big mystery.

Minnesota hopes Philip Nelson is its quarterback of the future, and Nelson very well could turn out to be. The Gophers also signed two quarterbacks, Chris Streveler and Donovahn Jones, in February, but do any of their signal-callers have as much potential as Kiel?

Illinois loses veteran Nathan Scheelhaase after the 2013 season. Although Reilly O'Toole has shown flashes and the team signed four-star prospect Aaron Bailey in February, there are no guarantees at quarterback for 2014 and beyond.

Wisconsin undoubtedly will be brought up as a possible landing spot, given the team's recent history with transfers. But the Badgers also have a redshirt sophomore (Joel Stave), a highly touted redshirt freshman (Bart Houston) and an incoming junior-college player with three years of eligibility left (Tanner McEvoy) in the mix at quarterback. I'd be surprised if Wisconsin pursues Kiel.

One team we can likely eliminate is Indiana. The Hoosiers are set at quarterback for the foreseeable future. Plus, they've already been down this road before.

There's risk involved given Kiel's track record, and almost every Big Ten team thinks it has the next great quarterback poised to take over. But the league isn't exactly stacked with high-ceiling quarterbacks. Kiel is from Big Ten country and needs a landing spot. Some Big Ten teams might want to roll the dice.
Denard RobinsonAP Photo/Dave MartinMichigan's Denard Robinson impressed with his speed at the combine.

Michigan's Denard Robinson boasted last year that he could beat Usain Bolt in the 40-yard dash.

If that's true, than the Olympic sprint champion wouldn't be one of the fastest 10 men in this year's NFL draft. While Robinson's claim might have been too bold, he still put up a predictably fast time in the 40 during NFL combine workouts on Sunday. The former Wolverine ran an official 4.43-second 40 in Indianapolis, tying him for ninth among all players who have worked out so far. Bolt might need to worry more about Texas receiver Marquise Goodwin, who ran a 4.27.

There are always some interesting finds in the combine numbers. Who would have guessed, for instance, that the creator of the Le'Veon Leap, Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell, would record the same number on the vertical jump (31.5 inches) as Wisconsin offensive tackle Ricky Wagner? The same Wagner who was listed at 317 pounds this season for the Badgers. Strange but true.

The quarterbacks, wide receivers, running backs, tight ends, offensive linemen and specialists have all had their turn under the microscope at the combine. Defensive linemen and linebackers will work out today, with defensive backs wrapping things up on Tuesday.

Let's take a look at how Big Ten players rank among the top overall performers so far:

  • Nebraska's Rex Burkhead, not surprisingly, tested well in several areas. The Huskers running back was fifth overall in the vertical leap at 39 inches, tied for 8th in the broad jump at 10 feet, five inches, was 10th in the 20-yard shuttle at 4.09 seconds, 14th in the three-cone drill at 6.85 seconds and 14th in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.51 seconds.
  • In addition to his 40 time, Robinson tied for 13th in vertical jump at 36.5 inches.
  • Illinois defensive tackle Akeem Spence is third in the bench press so far at 37 reps at 225 pounds.
  • Ohio State offensive lineman Reid Fragel is ninth in the bench press with 33 reps.
  • Michigan State's Bell is ninth in the three-cone drill at 6.75 seconds. Bell, by the way, weighed in at 230 pounds.
  • Ohio State tight end Jake Stoneburner tied for 12th in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.5 seconds.

Now let's examine the position groups and see how Big Ten players stacked among their peers at their positions:

Quarterbacks

  • Iowa's James Vandenberg was third among quarterbacks in the vertical jump at 32 inches, second in the three-cone drill, fourth in the broad jump at 116 inches, seventh with a 4.92 in the 40-yard dash, and tied for 10th in the 20-yard shuttle.
  • Minnesota's MarQueis Gray was fourth with a 4.73-second 40-yard dash, seventh in vertical jump at 30 inches, tied for in the ninth broad jump (111 inches ), 10th in three-cone drill and tied for fourth in the 20-yard shuttle.
Running backs

  • Who was the fastest among big-time Big Ten backs? Bell ran a 4.60, just ahead of Wisconsin's Montee Ball at 4.66, while Burkhead posted a 4.73.
  • Bell was also ninth in the 225-pound bench press at 24 reps, third in the three-cone drill and 10th in the 20-yard shuttle.
  • Burkhead was behind only Texas A&M's Christine Michael in vertical jump, tied for second in broad jump, placed fourth in the three-cone drill, second in the 20-yard shuttle and fifth in the 60-yard shuttle. He tied for 13th with 22 reps on the bench press.
  • Ball talked last week about not being known for doing any one thing great. His combine numbers were a reflection of that. His 40 time was 19th among running backs, and his only Top 15 finish in any workout was his seventh-place showing in the three-cone drill.
  • Ohio State fullback Zach Boren tied for seventh in bench press at 25 reps.
Receivers

  • Robinson was the only Big Ten player to be invited as a receiver. In addition to his numbers mentioned earlier, Robinson tied for 10th among wideouts in the broad jump at 123 inches and tied for 12th in the 20-yard shuttle.
Tight ends

  • Michigan State's Dion Sims tied for third among tight ends in the bench press at 22 reps, was third in the vertical leap (35 inches) and finished second in both the three-cone and 60-yard shuttle drills. He was 12th in the 40-yard dash at 4.75 seconds and 12th in broad jump at 112 inches.
  • Ohio State's Stoneburner was third among tight ends in the 40-yard dash at 4.6 seconds. He was fifth in vertical leap (34.5 inches), tied for fourth in the broad jump (116 inches) and sixth in the three-cone drill. He placed ninth in bench at 18 reps.
Offensive line

  • Ohio State's Fragel was fourth among offensive linemen with 33 reps on the 225-pound bench press. He was fifth in vertical leap at 30 inches and third in the broad jump at 113 inches.
  • Wisconsin tackle Ricky Wagner was third in the vertical jump at 31.5 inches. He did 20 reps on the bench press and ran a 5.17 40-yard time.
  • Badgers center Travis Frederick ran a 5.58 40-yard time and did 21 reps on the bench press.
  • Illinois' Hugh Thornton was 10th in the 20-yard shuttle drill. His 40 time was 5.11 seconds, and he did 27 reps on the bench.
  • Penn State center Matt Stankiewitch did 27 reps on the bench and ran a ran a 5.43 in the 40.
Way back in the heady days of the 2012 preseason, we ranked every Big Ten position group from No. 1 through 12. We had to base our thoughts on previous performance and a lot of projections in August.

We're going back now and issuing a final, postseason ranking for each position group, and these will be far less subjective now because we have an actual full season's worth of data on hand.

Quarterbacks, naturally, are up first. (Those guys hog all the glory). You can take a look back and see how we ranked this group in the preseason here. Depth is an important factor in these position rankings, but having a standout main guy under center (or in the shotgun) is the most overriding concern with this group.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteThanks to consistent play by QB Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes finished the 2012 season unbeaten.
1. Ohio State (Preseason rank: 5): We figured Braxton Miller would improve greatly in his second year of starting and in Urban Meyer's system. We didn't know he'd become the Big Ten offensive player of the year or finish fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. While he didn't always throw the ball with precision, Miller made all the big plays and led his team to a 12-0 record. The biggest preseason worry was what would happen if he got hurt. Kenny Guiton answered that in the Purdue comeback.

2. Penn State (Preseason: 12): The Nittany Lions were dead last in our preseason rankings, and with good reason considering their past performances at the position. But I did write at the time: "Call me an optimist, but I believe Matt McGloin will be more effective at quarterback now that he's got a more modern offensive system and peace of mind that he's the starter." Uh, yeah. McGloin led the Big Ten in passing yards (3,266) and passing touchdowns (24) while throwing only five interceptions. And he stayed healthy, keeping Penn State's youthful backups from getting exposed.

3. Nebraska (Preseason: 3): Taylor Martinez led the Big Ten in total offense and completed a career-best 62 percent of his passes. When he was good, he was as good as there was in the league. But he still struggled with turnovers in key games, including 12 interceptions and numerous fumbles. If he can eliminate the mistakes, the sky's the limit.

4. Michigan (Preseason: 2): The Wolverines are a hard to team to peg in these rankings. Do we rank them based on Denard Robinson's poor showings in big games against Alabama and Notre Dame? Do we rank them based on Devin Gardner's strong finish to the season, when he was as productive as any Big Ten QB? How much do we factor in the team's lack of a solid backup plan in the Nebraska loss when Robinson got hurt early? You have to weigh the good with the bad, which makes this spot feel about right.

5. Northwestern (Preseason: 9): Starting quarterback Kain Colter threw for 872 yards, which was nearly 450 yards less than nominal backup Trevor Siemian. But Colter also rushed for 894 yards and kept defenses off balance with his versatility. Meanwhile, the Wildcats could use Siemian when they needed to stretch the field. The next step for Northwestern is developing a more consistent downfield passing attack.

6. Indiana (Preseason: 11): Who would have guessed in the preseason that the Hoosiers would actually exhibit the best depth at quarterback? After starter Tre Roberson went down in Week 2, Indiana was able to plug in juco transfer Cameron Coffman and true freshman Nate Sudfeld to sustain the league's top passing offense. The three combined to throw for more than 3,700 yards. Coffman got the bulk of the work but needed a better touchdown-to-interception ration than his 15-to-11 mark.

7. Purdue (Preseason: 1): We overrated the Boilermakers' depth in the preseason. It turned out that only one of the trio of former starters performed at a high level, and Robert Marve didn't play enough because of a torn ACL and Danny Hope's misguided insistence on sticking with Caleb TerBush. Purdue actually led the Big Ten in passing touchdowns (30) and finished third in passing yards, but much of that was because the team often had to throw the ball a lot after falling way behind. This ranking could have been higher with a full season of Marve.

8. Wisconsin (Preseason: 8): Danny O'Brien quickly showed that he was not the next Russell Wilson, but luckily the Badgers had some depth. Redshirt freshman Joel Stave showed major promise before his season was derailed by a broken collarbone, and Curt Phillips turned in a nice comeback story by managing the team well down the stretch. Still, Wisconsin ranked last in the Big Ten in passing yards.

9. Michigan State (Preseason: 10): It was not exactly a season to remember for first-year starter Andrew Maxwell, who was benched late in the Spartans' bowl game. But for all his struggles, Maxwell still finished No. 4 in the league in passing and had some nice games in the middle of the year.

10. Minnesota (Preseason: 6): What could MarQueis Gray have done if he hadn't hurt his ankle, prompting an eventual move to receiver? True freshman Philip Nelson took over the reins midseason and broke out with a huge first half against Purdue. However, he failed to throw for more than 80 yards in the team's final three regular season games. Nelson led the team with just 873 passing yards on the season, and the Gophers threw 15 interceptions.

11. Iowa (Preseason: 4): Nobody took a bigger tumble than the Hawkeyes, as James Vandenberg went from a 3,000-yard passer as a junior to often looking lost as a senior. He completed only 57.3 percent of his passes and tossed only seven touchdowns, with eight interceptions, and Iowa showed almost no ability to go vertical. And no other Hawkeye attempted a pass all season.

12. Illinois (Preseason: 7): The Illini had experience at the position with Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole, but they were both part of a wildly dysfunctional offense. Illinois was next-to-last in passing yards in the Big Ten and also had just 11 touchdown passes versus 14 interceptions. In fairness, both QBs were often running for their lives and had very little help.
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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.

Big Ten predictions: Week 12

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

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

Let's get picky ...

NORTHWESTERN at MICHIGAN STATE

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

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

IOWA at No. 21 MICHIGAN

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

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

INDIANA at PENN STATE

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

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

MINNESOTA at No. 14 NEBRASKA

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

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

OHIO STATE at WISCONSIN

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

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

PURDUE at ILLINOIS

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

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

Season records

Adam Rittenberg: 65-19 (.773)

Brian Bennett: 60-24 (.714)

Big Ten predictions: Week 11

November, 8, 2012
11/08/12
9:00
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What time is it? Prediction time, whoop.

Three weeks remain in the regular season, and Brian Bennett needs them to be very good ones. He trails Adam Rittenberg by four games in the season standings. If Bennett can't mount a late surge, Rittenberg promises to make him a poor man at St. Elmo in Indianapolis the eve of the Big Ten title game.

Five games are on the slate this week, so let's begin.

WISCONSIN at INDIANA

Brian Bennett: It's the biggest Indiana game in almost 20 years. Unfortunately, the Badgers are about to turn the Cinderella Hoosiers back into a pumpkin. Wisconsin will struggle to get much going in the passing game under new quarterback Curt Phillips, but it won't matter as Montee Ball and James White lead a 300-yard rushing effort and Bret Bielema's team clinches a berth in Indy. ... Wisconsin 31, Indiana 24

Adam Rittenberg: Hoosier Nation should be fired up for this one, and Indiana will ride the momentum to an early lead on a Cody Latimer touchdown catch. But Wisconsin eventually will settle down and start controlling the line of scrimmage, displaying the necessary sense of urgency. The line will wear down the Hoosiers in the second half, and Ball and White will combine for 210 rush yards and three scores. Phillips will make some key throws down the stretch as Wisconsin prevails to secure a spot in Indy. ... Wisconsin 34, Indiana 27

No. 24 NORTHWESTERN at MICHIGAN

Adam Rittenberg: This one will be closer than the oddsmakers think, as Northwestern matches up decently and should be a bit healthier following the open week. But Michigan's defense will do enough to slow down Kain Colter and Venric Mark, who will combine for two first-half touchdowns but not much after that. The Wolverines' big-play pass game will come alive behind Devin Gardner, who will fire two more touchdown passes as Michigan remains perfect at home under Brady Hoke. ... Michigan 23, Northwestern 17

Brian Bennett: Denard Robinson will play some but split time with Gardner at quarterback. Both are effective enough to lead Michigan to a victory because the Wolverines' defense knows how to slow down a running team. Jake Ryan will force a key second-half fumble, and Michigan will keep its Legends hopes alive. ... Michigan 30, Northwestern 21

PURDUE at IOWA

Brian Bennett: Somebody has to win between these two scuffling teams, and I've got more confidence in Iowa than a dysfunctional Purdue outfit right now. James Vandenberg and Kevonte Martin-Manley will hook up for a pair of scores, and the Hawkeyes' defense will shut down the Boilers after their usual early score. ... Iowa 24, Purdue 13

Adam Rittenberg: I guess we're contractually obligated to pick a winner here, huh? OK, well here it goes. Purdue will have its typical great first drive and jump ahead on an Antavian Edison touchdown catch from Robert Marve. But Iowa eventually will take control on its home field behind Damon Bullock, who will record 120 rush yards and two scores. Vandenberg will start slowly but come alive in the second half as Iowa hands Purdue a sixth Big Ten loss and ensures the Boilers won't be bowling for the second straight year. ... Iowa 27, Purdue 19

PENN STATE at No. 18 NEBRASKA

Adam Rittenberg: This will be a good one, as a Penn State team that has been very good on the road faces its toughest test against a Nebraska squad eying Indianapolis (and maybe Pasadena). The Lions will jump ahead early, as they typically do, when Zach Zwinak completes a long scoring drive with a touchdown run. Nebraska will respond and the teams will trade leads during the second half, but the Huskers' spread will prove to be too much for Penn State. Kenny Bell will bounce back from last week with two scoring receptions, and Matthew McGloin will throw a costly interception in the fourth quarter. ... Nebraska 30, Penn State 28

Brian Bennett: It's a matchup of the top two passers in the Big Ten in Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and McGloin. I have to keep repeating that sentence to believe it. Nebraska is the smart pick here, especially at home, but I am down in the picks contest and need to come up with a Hail Mary. So I'll go with the Penn State upset, thinking the Cornhuskers could be due for a letdown after three straight emotional games. The Lions will get up early on a couple of McGloin touchdown passes, and Nebraska will be unable to complete one of its patented comebacks as Penn State grinds out the clock with the power running game and some safe throws to its tight ends. ... Penn State 27, Nebraska 24

MINNESOTA at ILLINOIS

Brian Bennett: My picks have been pretty bad this year, but going against Illinois has served us both well all season. Even at home against a banged-up Minnesota offense, I just don't see how the Illini can get over the hump. Philip Nelson will hit John Rabe for a pair of scores, and the Gophers will get the road win to clinch bowl eligibility. ... Minnesota 24, Illinois 14

Adam Rittenberg: I'm tempted to pick Illinois, as Minnesota hasn't scored well in Big Ten play at all. But the Illini have too many problems right now, and I don't think they can put it together against a Gophers team that needs to secure bowl eligibility before a tough closing stretch. After stubbing their toe in the red zone on their first drive, the Gophers finally will get it together behind running back Rodrick Williams. Illinois will respond and take a fourth-quarter lead, but a roughing-the-passer penalty will set up Minnesota's game-winning drive as Nelson finds Isaac Fruechte in the end zone. ... Minnesota 23, Illinois 20

Michigan State and Ohio State are both off.

Season Records

Adam Rittenberg: 61-18 (.772)

Brian Bennett: 57-22 (.722)
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern defensive end Tyler Scott seems like the last player a coach would need to challenge.

Whether he's in the weight room (where Scott made his mark as a young player), the film room (where Scott spends practically all his time) or the field (where he has excelled this fall), the Wildcats junior has taken the same thorough approach. It's all about the process for him.

"He's as low-maintenance of a guy as there is in the country," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "He just works. He doesn't know anything other than work. He doesn't want a sticker on his helmet, he doesn't want a special T-shirt, he doesn't want a steak dinner.

[+] EnlargeTyler Scott
Brian Ekart/Icon SMITyler Scott leads the Big Ten in sacks with seven and is tied for the league lead with three forced fumbles.
"He just wants to work."

And that's precisely why Wildcats defensive line coach Marty Long challenged Scott in September. See, Long believes every player should be challenged, even ones like Scott who seem so easy to coach.

"He was playing well, but we needed him to play great," Long told ESPN.com. "I made a statement that we had one D-end that was playing at a Big Ten level, and that was Quentin Williams. Ever since that point in time, I think he's been playing Big Ten-level football."

More like All-Big Ten-level football. The 6-foot-4, 265-pound Scott leads the Big Ten in sacks (7) and is tied for the league lead in forced fumbles (3).

Scott has recorded four sacks and two forced fumbles in his last four games. He has recorded at least one tackle for loss in seven of nine games for No. 24 Northwestern. And he has played most of the season with a club on his left hand, the result of a broken finger.

"I didn't take it in a negative way, more of a motivational way," Scott said of Long's challenge. "I'm always going to give the most effort I can, but for him to say that, that's kind of taking a shot at my pride because I do work so hard."

Scott is hardly an overnight sensation at Northwestern. He had to redshirt the 2009 season because of a shoulder injury that required surgery. After a strong offseason, he worked his way onto the field as a reserve, appearing in all 13 games in 2010.

He moved into a part-time starting role last season and seemed to be turning a corner before a shoulder stinger shut him down for two weeks. During a five-game losing streak, Scott lost his grandfather and admits he "lost his edge a bit."

It was a season of what-ifs for Scott, who came close on a lot of sacks but recorded just one on the season for one of the nation's least effective defensive lines. He often got too far up-field on his rushes, and he spent much of the offseason working on becoming more active with his hands.

"I don't know exactly what it is," Long said, "He's making a lot of plays, but he's upset about the ones he doesn't make. I'm happy with his play right now. He'll look at me and say, 'I'm not happy.' That's the type of guy that you want to coach."

True to form, when asked about his spike in sacks, Scott barely acknowledges the ones he has recorded this season. Instead, he brings up a scramble by Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg that resulted in a Iowa first down in Northwestern's last game.

"I didn't get to the up-field shoulder," Scott said. "I definitely came through and totally missed, swung around and he escaped the pocket and got a first down, which kind of reminded me of last year."

Long says Scott embraces Kaizen, the Japanese philosophy of constant, continuous improvement, which Fitzgerald introduced at Northwestern several years ago. That may be true, but Scott links his approach a little closer to home -- to his parents, Bette and Rodney, both of whom played sports in high school.

"A big family value is to be humble," Scott said. "My mom always tells me it's not about you as a person, it's about how the team does. The goal is winning that week. If you played well, it's because your teammates helped you get there."

Northwestern has played better team defense this fall, making sizable jumps in categories like rushing defense, scoring defense and sacks from the 2011 season. But Scott has stood out up front, putting himself within striking distance of Northwestern's single-season sacks record of 12 set by Casey Dailey in 1997.

Long likens Scott to Joe Tafoya, part of the famed "Desert Swarm" defense at Arizona, where Long coached defensive line and outside linebackers from 1996-2003. Tafoya went on to a seven-year NFL career.

"I would say he's a better football player than Joe Tafoya," Long said.

Informed of Long's claim, Scott smiles, shakes his head and mumbles some cliché about just trying to improve and help the team win. Any praise for his play is going to come from others, like Fitzgerald, who this spring proclaimed Scott is, "on the cusp of being a breakout guy nationally."

His words have proven prophetic.

"A lot of times you look at guys and you go, 'If he just worked a little harder and his work ethic matched his talent, he'd be a great player," Fitzgerald said. "Tyler's that guy who does that. He's got outstanding talent, and he matches it with a terrific attitude and a terrific work ethic."

Big Ten power rankings: Week 11

November, 5, 2012
11/05/12
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Week 10 brought few surprises around the Big Ten. As a result, the power rankings see little shuffling before the second Saturday of November.

Ohio State cruised to a perfect 10-0, while Michigan and Penn State both recorded road wins in impressive fashion. In the two true toss-up games, Indiana outlasted Iowa and Nebraska rallied for a dramatic win against hard-luck Michigan State. Our top five teams from Week 9 remain the same. The toughest call comes at No. 3, as there's very little separating Penn State and Michigan, who unfortunately don't play this season. But both teams recorded decisive road wins, so we're keeping the Lions ahead for now. Both teams face bigger challenges in Week 11 with Nebraska and Northwestern, respectively.

Indiana makes a small move after its win, while the bottom of the league stays intact.

To the rundown:

1. Ohio State (10-0, 5-0, last week: 1): Ten straight weeks of games, 10 straight wins for Urban Meyer's Buckeyes, who get a well-deserved break after thumping Illinois at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State is 10-0 for the first time since 2007 as it chases its first perfect season since 2002, when it captured a national title. Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde form the Big Ten's most dangerous backfield and the defense continues to make big plays, getting another interception from CB Travis Howard. Ohio State has scored 52 points or more in three Big Ten games. It resumes play Nov. 17 at Wisconsin.

2. Nebraska (7-2, 4-1, last week: 2): For the second time in three weeks, Nebraska faced a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter of a Legends Division road game. And once again, the Huskers found a way to win behind QB Taylor Martinez, who overcame three turnovers (nearly four) to fire the game-winning touchdown strike and eclipse 200 rush yards. Nebraska wouldn't announce itself in the Big Ten until it recorded signature road wins, and the Huskers finally have gotten over the hump after the Ohio State debacle Oct. 6. Bo Pelini's team is in control of the Legends Division and might lock it up with a win this week against Penn State.

3. Penn State (6-3, 4-1, last week: 3): Resiliency has been Penn State's calling card under Bill O'Brien, so it wasn't surprising to see the Nittany Lions bounce back well from their first Big Ten loss. The Lions re-established the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, shutting down Purdue's offense and generating a nice power run game behind RB Zach Zwinak. Penn State racked up a season-high 506 yards of offense as QB Matt McGloin had another 300-yard passing performance. Gerald Hodges led the way on defense with three tackles for loss. Penn State has been dominant on the road in Big Ten play but faces its biggest test this week in Lincoln.

4. Michigan (6-3, 4-1, last week: 4): No Denard Robinson? No problem for Michigan despite a potentially tricky game at Minnesota. Devin Gardner moved from wide receiver to quarterback and stepped up in a big way in place of Robinson, while Gardner's fellow wideouts Drew Dileo and Jeremy Gallon picked him up with key catches as Michigan revived its passing attack against one of the nation's top pass defenses. The Wolverines' defense stepped up repeatedly in the red zone as Michigan retained the Little Brown Jug. Michigan must keep pace with Nebraska to stay alive in the division race and needs to beat Northwestern this week.

5. Northwestern (7-2, 3-2, last week: 5): Pat Fitzgerald gave his team a "C" for October, as the Wildcats went 2-2 in a month in which they've historically struggled. Northwestern now enters a month in which it typically thrives under Fitzgerald, and the Wildcats remain alive in the Legends Division chase, although they need Nebraska to start losing. They'll look for some of their road magic the next two weeks against the Michigan schools, and they also hope to regain the services of injured defensive backs Nick VanHoose and Quinn Evans. It'll be interesting to see if QB Kain Colter truly has control of the offense this week at the Big House.

6. Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2, last week: 7): The open week came at a perfect time for the Badgers, who must regroup after losing starting quarterback Joel Stave to a season-ending broken clavicle. Danny O'Brien and Curt Phillips competed for the top job throughout the practice week, as the staff decides who will lead the offense in a now crucial game at Indiana before a tough closing stretch (Ohio State, at Penn State). The Badgers will need a big game from their defense in Bloomington and arguably a bigger game from Montee Ball and the rushing attack against an Indiana team that struggles against the run.

7. Michigan State (5-5, 2-4, last week: 6): Close losses have defined Michigan State's season, and the Spartans suffered another devastating setback Saturday after having Nebraska on the hopes. Controversial calls once again played into the outcome, but the Spartans' defense couldn't get the stops it needed and surrendered 313 rush yards to the Huskers. RB Le'Veon Bell came to play, but QB Andrew Maxwell had another rough day. Michigan State must regroup during an off week before fighting for bowl eligibility the final two weeks. It needs one more win and faces Northwestern (home) and Minnesota (road).

8. Indiana (4-5, 2-3, last week: 9): This isn't a great Indiana team, but it also isn't a typical Indiana team. Typical Hoosiers teams would have folded after falling behind 14-0 on their home field against Iowa. But the 2012 Hoosiers didn't back down, steadied themselves and outlasted Iowa to record back-to-back Big Ten wins for the first time since 2007 and their first Big Ten home win since 2009. Cameron Coffman re-emerged at QB, while WR Cody Latimer had a huge day (7 catches, 113 yards, 3 TDs). The defense allowed only 14 points as IU set up a huge Leaders Division showdown this week against Wisconsin.

9. Minnesota (5-4, 1-4, last week: 8): Missed opportunity was the catchphrase for Minnesota on Saturday after failing to capitalize against a Robinson-less Michigan team. The Gophers couldn't build on a 7-0 lead and repeatedly stubbed their toe in the red zone, despite some decent play from QB Philip Nelson. Jerry Kill has cleansed the program of a lot of problems from the Tim Brewster era, but terrible penalties have remained. The Gophers have scored 13 points in all four of their Big Ten losses. Minnesota's typically stout pass defense also struggled against a backup quarterback. The Gophers try to get bowl-eligible this week when they travel to slumping Illinois.

10. Iowa (4-5, 2-3, last week: 10): The Hawkeyes slipped below .500 for the first time since 2007, and barring a surprising turnaround, they won't get back on the right side of the mark this season. Despite a very strong start at Indiana, the same problems surfaced on both sides of the ball as Iowa couldn't translate yards into points and surrendered way too many yards to their opponent. Senior QB James Vandenberg will get more criticism, and his end zone interception didn't help, but the problems go beyond him on a team that just isn't very good in any area. Iowa could get well against Purdue this week but will be an underdog in its final two games (Michigan, Nebraska).

11. Purdue (3-6, 0-5, last week: 11): We wish we could drop Purdue lower after its fourth Big Ten blowout loss in five games. Alas, there's Illinois. One of those teams amazingly will get a Big Ten win when they meet Nov. 17 in Champaign. Purdue still can get bowl-eligible, but it will need a rapid turnaround in its final three games and show a lot more fight on the defensive side of the ball. The offense once again looked good on the opening drive and then disappeared, as QB Robert Marve couldn't stretch the field. Another poor performance at home before a mostly empty Ross-Ade Stadium turns up the heat even more on embattled coach Danny Hope.

12. Illinois (2-7, 0-5, last week: 12): We knew there would be no bowl for the Illini this year, but Ohio State made it official Saturday, handing Tim Beckman's team its seventh loss. After a decent first quarter, Illinois reverted to form and imploded before halftime. The offense once again couldn't stretch the field, and slumping junior QB Nathan Scheelhaase threw an interception and completed 19 passes for only 96 yards. Illinois is right there with Colorado and Kentucky in the group of the worst major-conference teams in the country. The Illini need to generate something positive down the stretch before the 2013 campaign.
The showdown will happen: Wisconsin at Indiana, next Saturday in Bloomington, a berth in the Big Ten title game likely at stake.

If you expected it before the season, board a plane to Las Vegas. For the rest of us, it comes as a huge surprise.

Indiana stayed very much alive in the chase to represent the Leaders Division at the Big Ten title game Dec. 1 in Indianapolis, holding off Iowa 24-21 at Memorial Stadium. After a miserable start, the Hoosiers made more plays on both sides of the ball and recorded their first Big Ten home win since 2009. They've won back-to-back Big Ten games for the first time since 2007, the last time they reached a bowl game.

Kevin Wilson's squad didn't get an offensive explosion Saturday, but wide receiver Cody Latimer stepped up in a big way with seven catches for 113 yards and three touchdowns, including a 30-yard catch with 10:58 left that proved to be the game-winner. After quarterback Nate Sudfeld had provided a boost in recent weeks, Cameron Coffman proved to be the more effective signal caller against Iowa, competing 21 of 32 passes for 315 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Wilson was right: Coffman and Sudfeld are very even, and both can be effective at times.

Indiana should have had more than 24 points but made several mistakes in Iowa territory, including its first lost fumble of the season in the fourth quarter by Stephen Houston.

Yet the Hoosiers (4-5, 2-3) were the better team and showed it, especially on defense, a unit that has struggled much of the season. Coordinator Mike Ekeler called out the defense after last week's win against Illinois, and his crew answered, holding Iowa to just 14 offensive points (the Hawkeyes had a pick-six by Christian Kirksey against Sudfeld) and 5 of 14 third-down conversions. The Hawkeyes finished with only 96 rush yards on 30 carries.

Iowa (4-5, 2-3) got the start it needed, jumping ahead 14-0 behind a James Vandenberg touchdown pass to Kevonte Martin-Manley (7 catches, 131 yards) and Kirksey's 18-yard interception return. Vandenberg completed 10 of 15 passes in the first half, but made a costly error in the third quarter, throwing an interception in the end zone. It has been a nightmarish senior season for Vandenberg (21-of-34, 251 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) despite some bright spots in the past two weeks.

The offense gave Iowa a chance with the go-ahead score early in the fourth quarter, but the defense couldn't get off of the field. Coffman converted two key third downs to tight end Ted Bolser, and wide receiver Kofi Hughes (6 catches, 110 yards) had a big afternoon.

Iowa has lost three straight and must win two of its final three to get bowl-eligible.

Indiana is building its program, but in this year's Big Ten, it finds itself with a tremendous opportunity. The Hoosiers control their own fate in repping the Leaders division, and a win next week against Wisconsin will move them much closer to Lucas Oil Stadium.
Coaches always talk about making it a November to remember. After a mostly forgettable week of predictions to end October, that's probably a good thing for our predictions.

The race is tightening a bit, as Brian Bennett gained on Adam Rittenberg, who still leads in the season standings by three games. Five games are on tap in Week 10, including several that will shape the races in both the Legends and Leaders divisions.

Let's get to it ...

MICHIGAN at MINNESOTA

Brian Bennett: The Jug game should be closer than it has been in recent years, as Minnesota is better and will be at home. But Michigan still has a big edge, as long as Denard Robinson is healthy enough to play. All indications are that he'll be fine, and that means trouble for the Gophers' defense. Robinson goes for the Jug-ular with 200 rushing yards, and the Wolverines pump the breaks on the Philip Nelson hype with a strong defensive performance. ... Michigan 31, Minnesota 17

Adam Rittenberg: You truly are the pun-isher, Bennett. This is a dangerous game for Michigan as it visits a Minnesota team playing with renewed confidence under Nelson. The Gophers jump ahead early behind a Nelson touchdown run, but Michigan eventually finds its bearings and attacks a defense that has been vulnerable to the ground game. Robinson racks up 110 yards and two scores, and Fitz Toussaint adds a key second-half rushing touchdown. Nelson starts strong, but commits a second-half turnover as Michigan escapes with the Jug. ... Michigan 24, Minnesota 16

IOWA at INDIANA

Adam Rittenberg: This one certainly could go either way, but Indiana has the momentum after finally getting over the hump in a Big Ten game. Can the Hoosiers win back-to-back league contests for the first time since 2007? I say yes. Indiana gets a good mix of offense from QB Nate Sudfeld and running back Stephen Houston, who runs for a touchdown and hauls in another. Iowa running back Damon Bullock goes for 125 rush yards and two scores, but the Hawkeyes' offense can't translate yards into points. Hoosiers cornerback Greg Heban intercepts James Vandenberg to seal the win for IU. ... Indiana 31, Iowa 27

Brian Bennett: A lot of people will be picking Indiana this week as the Hoosiers seem to have all the momentum. Ah, but Kirk Ferentz's teams are most dangerous when counted out. This is still a major step up from Illinois for IU, which has trouble handling its (mild) success. Bullock runs for 150 yards and a pair of scores and Micah Hyde grabs a key interception to dash the Hoosiers' Leaders daydreams. ... Iowa 28, Indiana 25

No. 20 NEBRASKA at MICHIGAN STATE

Brian Bennett: The Spartans are at home, have that lock-down defense and should play with more confidence on offense after last week's win at Wisconsin. But ... I just remember how easily Nebraska shut down a much better Michigan State attack last year in Lincoln and how well the Blackshirts normally match up with pro-style passing teams. And even though Taylor Martinez and the Huskers won't score as much as they usually do, they will put up too many points for the Spartans. Martinez overcomes a couple of turnovers and leads a patented Nebraska comeback win. ... Nebraska 23, Michigan State 16

Adam Rittenberg: Maybe Michigan State finally has turned the corner, but I also like this matchup for Nebraska. Pelini's defenses feast on pro-style offenses, and Michigan State hasn't had a good one this season. The Spartans score an early touchdown off of a Nebraska turnover, but the Huskers eventually settle down. QB Taylor Martinez connects with receiver Kenny Bell for a score and several long passes, and while the Huskers struggle to get in the end zone, Brett Maher goes 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts. Spartans running back Le'Veon Bell records another 100-yard rushing performance, but he needs at least 30 carries to get there. ... Nebraska 19, Michigan State 17

ILLINOIS at OHIO STATE

Adam Rittenberg: Unless the Buckeyes decide to start their open week early, they'll cruise against the overmatched, mistake-prone Illini. Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde combine for 300 rush yards and five touchdowns as Ohio State builds a big lead by the third quarter and puts it on cruise control. Backup QB Kenny Guiton gets extended playing time and fires a touchdown pass. Illinois doesn't quit and scores some touchdowns in garbage time. I've got the Buckeyes by 22, the number of pounds Tim Beckman says he has lost this season. ... Ohio State 45, Illinois 23

Brian Bennett: Beckman and Urban Meyer are good friends. I point this out only to say that Meyer might be more hesitant than usual to run up the score. Because that's all that's really standing between a huge Ohio State blowout here. Illinois just isn't doing much right in any phase of the game and is running into a buzz saw. Miller and Carlos Hyde each run for 100 yards and Miller throws for a pair of scores before the Buckeyes starters rest for much of the fourth quarter. ... Ohio State 38, Illinois 7

PENN STATE at PURDUE

Brian Bennett: Could I see Penn State having a letdown after the Ohio State loss while going on the road? I suppose. But this Nittany Lions team knows that its opportunities are dwindling, and Ross-Ade Stadium could be a ghost town as Danny Hope's support is dwindling by the day. Purdue, as per usual, scores quickly but then stalls against Penn State's defense, which picks off Robert Marve twice. Bill Belton has his best day as a Lion by scoring three touchdowns as the Boilers' misery continues. ... Penn State 31, Purdue 14

Adam Rittenberg: Purdue has burned me too many times this season, and while I could see the desperate Boilers making one last stand, Penn State is superior on both sides of the ball. The Matt McGloin-Allen Robinson connection cranks up for two touchdown strikes, and Penn State linebacker Gerald Hodges records a defensive score on a fumble return. Marve plays well early but struggles in the fourth quarter, as Penn State responds once again. ... Penn State 28, Purdue 21

Wisconsin and Northwestern are both off.

Season records

Adam Rittenberg: 56-18 (.757)

Brian Bennett: 53-21 (.716)

Halloween in the Big Ten

October, 31, 2012
10/31/12
3:47
PM ET
It's Halloween, Big Ten fans, so we have a special treat (not trick) for you today.

The Big Ten blog has designed its very own haunted house of horrors for you to tour. So step right in and face your fears -- if you dare!

(Cue spooky organ music).

[+] EnlargeJoseph Fauria
Richard Mackson/US PresswireUCLA soaring past Nebraska in September was surely a frightening sight for the Big Ten.
There's no easing into this haunted house, as our very first room will make you shudder. Why, yes, it's the Big Ten's nonconference season! Our video screens are showing constant highlights of the league's 14 losses outside of league play. There is Central Michigan beating Iowa at home. UCLA running all over Nebraska. Oregon State holding Wisconsin to one touchdown. Ball State and Navy beating Indiana. Virginia topping Penn State, as you watch a constant loop of Nittany Lions missed field goals. Louisiana Tech blowing out Illinois. And now jumping out at you is ... the Notre Dame leprechaun! He is cackling hysterically about his 3-0 record against Big Ten teams this year. Vomit bags are provided on your right.

Let's move on to our next room, one guaranteed to make you break out in a cold sweat: the offensive passing offenses at Iowa, Michigan State and Michigan! See the Spartans drop passes, the Hawkeyes throw for six yards on third-and-8 and the Wolverines give away one of their league-worst 14 interceptions. We know it's frightening in here, but do not be alarmed: we guarantee you those teams cannot hit you with the footballs they're throwing.

Proceed now into our spooky third room, the one coated in orange and blue. That's right, it's Illinois' season! Just try not to avert your eyes as the Illini's six-game losing streak to FBS teams -- by an average of 27 points per defeat -- unfolds before us. That skeletal figure you see in the corner is first-year coach Tim Beckman, who said he has lost 22 pounds during this trying fall. (The smiling spirit on the ceiling? We call him Zooker the Friendly Ghost).

Let's detour now into our haunted house's graveyard and check out the tombstones. "Here lies the Big Ten/Pac-12 scheduling alliance. Born December 2011. Died July 2012." "R.I.P., Big Ten BCS at-large streak. Taken too soon at age 7." "In Memoriam: Penn State and Ohio State bowl hopes." "Gone But Not Forgotten: Minnesota's future nonconference strength of schedule." "You Are Missed: Northwestern's fourth-quarter leads over Penn State and Nebraska."

We are getting close to the end now, but not before you check out this next blood-curdling chamber. Who's that nervous looking man sitting on a chair that's dangling over burning coals? Why, it's Purdue coach Danny Hope! The temperatures under his seat are rising to blazing levels after the Boilermakers' 0-4 start in Big Ten play, including last week's blowout loss at Minnesota. Those are Purdue fans in the back, offering the executioner's hood to AD Morgan Burke.

Our final rooms are still under construction but are nonetheless horrifying. The first is a replica of Lucas Oil Stadium, which offers a glimpse of a potential Big Ten championship game featuring a 6-6 Wisconsin or a 5-7 Indiana. Goose bumps! The other is a preview of New Year's Day for the league and some terrifying possible postseason matchups. Those green flashes you see are not from a strobe light. That's the Oregon Ducks, who are averaging 53 points per game and could cause nightmares for the Big Ten champ in Pasadena. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Before we leave, let's lighten things up a little bit so your pulse can slow down. Grab some free drinks and appetizers at our Big Ten costume party in the ballroom. Michigan coach Brady Hoke is getting into the spirit of political season by going as New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Hoke's center, Elliott Mealer, is Paul Bunyan. There's elusive Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller as Neo from "The Matrix." Penn State linebacker/warrior Michael Mauti is Braveheart, while his coach, Bill O'Brien, is Bruce Willis. That's Iowa running back Mark Weisman as Vin Diesel, while Hawkeyes quarterback and big-game hunter James Vandenberg is Elmer Fudd. Nebraska's defenders, coming back strong from some bad performances, are the zombies from "The Walking Dead," and Huskers receiver and Mr. Afro Thunder himself, Kenny Bell, is Roots drummer Questlove. Minnesota coach Jerry Kill shows off his school pride by dressing as Goldy Gopher. Michigan State's leaping Le'Veon Bell is a ballerina. And, of course, Adam Rittenberg is Woody Allen.

We hope you had a scary good time at our haunted house and ... wait, what's that loud buzzing sound? Oh, no, it's Urban Meyer coming at us with a chainsaw! He's already 9-0 at Ohio State, and he's just getting started in carving his way through the Big Ten. Run!

Happy Halloween, everybody.
If I had a dime for every post I wrote about Iowa's attrition at running back ...

There's more bad news this week as Mark Weisman, the Hawkeyes' biggest bright spot in a disappointing season, likely will miss Saturday's game at Indiana. Weisman, who recorded four consecutive 100-yard rushing performances, left last week's loss against Northwestern in the second quarter. The injury looked like a hip problem, although Weisman has been dealing with a sprained right ankle since an Oct. 13 win against Michigan State.

The good news is that Damon Bullock returned from a concussion against Northwestern and ran extremely hard, particularly in the second half. Bullock had 22 carries for 107 yards in the loss to the Wildcats. Ferentz liked the way Bullock competed in the game.

Given Iowa's issues with quarterback James Vandenberg and the pass game, it has to control possession and get something from the rushing attack against an Indiana defense ranked 109th nationally against the run. Indiana has put up points on everybody and Iowa's defense is struggling right now, so the Hawkeyes will need more from their offense and ground game to keep pace with the Hoosiers.

It got interesting in the end because with Northwestern, it always does, but the Wildcats avoided another fourth-quarter collapse and found their identity in the process.

Remember what Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter told me this week?
"That's the problem that we're facing, we don't have an identity," Colter told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "We really need to develop that with the play calling and find out what we're going to do. Once we finally establish that identity, I feel like teams are going to have to start game-planning to stop us, rather than us trying to game plan and change things and do that for them."

Opponents can start game-planning for the Wildcats now. It goes like this: stop Kain Colter.

Iowa had no answers for the Northwestern junior quarterback, who repeatedly gashed the Hawkeyes throughout Saturday's 28-17 victory at Ryan Field. Colter had 26 rushes for 166 yards and three touchdowns, including a 39-yard dash on third-and-5 to seal the win. He also completed 6 of 9 passes for 80 yards, including a 47-yard scoring strike to Christian Jones in the third quarter.

Colter helped Northwestern hold on after building a 28-3 lead.

Northwestern's quarterback rotation had stalled the previous three weeks, as sophomore Trevor Siemian struggled, Colter received surprisingly few snaps, three-and-outs spiked and time of possession plummeted. With Colter at quarterback Saturday, Northwestern (7-2, 3-2 Big Ten) converted 8-of-11 third-down attempts, went three-and-out only once and racked up 20 first downs and 433 yards against an Iowa defense that, until recently, had been very solid.

Siemian likely will be a good Big Ten quarterback some day, but Northwestern's identity on offense is all about Colter, the option game with running back Venric Mark and converting red zone chances into touchdowns. If not for a bad snap inside the Iowa 5-yard line early in the fourth quarter, Northwestern likely would have put this game away long before it did. Mark had another big day, rushing for 162 yards on 16 carries. His 72-yard run from the Northwestern 1-yard line put him past the 1,000-yard mark for the season -- Northwestern's first back to reach that milestone since Tyrell Sutton in 2006.

You have to wonder what Northwestern's record would be if it had stuck with Saturday's offensive approach against both Penn State and Nebraska, teams that erased double-digit fourth-quarter deficits against the Wildcats.

Iowa (4-4, 2-2) had its chances after the bad snap, but the Hawkeyes simply don't have the offensive firepower, imagination or execution to erase big deficits. Watching Iowa try to run the two-minute drill was painful, as the Hawkeyes couldn't attack downfield against a Northwestern defense missing two of its three best cornerbacks. First-year coordinator Greg Davis has had a very rough go this fall.

Senior quarterback James Vandenberg undoubtedly will receive more criticism from Iowa fans, some of which is merited. Although Vandenberg completed eight of his first nine pass attempts and 11 of 16 in the first half, he couldn't hit the big play, took three sacks and, most disappointing, had three delay of game penalties, including one in the closing minutes with Iowa driving deep in Northwestern territory. You just can't have that from a fifth-year senior. In Vandenberg's defense, he once again got no help from his drops-prone receivers.

The Hawkeyes received a nice boost from Damon Bullock, who returned from a concussion to grind out 107 rush yards on 22 carries. Iowa needed Bullock after Mark Weisman left the game with a hip injury.

Iowa hit a low point against Central Michigan in Week 4, rallied back the next two weeks, but has now been thoroughly outplayed in back-to-back weeks. The Hawkeyes' season could come down to next week's game at Indiana.

Northwestern, meanwhile, is still alive in the Legends Division race, and enters a much-needed off week before trips to both Michigan and Michigan State. After nine weeks, Northwestern finally knows what it is on offense.

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