NCF Nation: Jared Crick

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska linebacker Will Compton reaches into his jeans pocket and pulls out his iPhone.

The lock screen displays the following: "Thank God, go to work, do extra, don't give yourself an excuse and become the absolute best." Compton's phone also contains what he describes as desire statements and reward statements.

Desire statement: "I want to be one of THE BEST linebackers in the country."

Reward statement: "Reap the benefits. All-Conference, All-American, getting drafted to the NFL."

Compton reviews the messages every day as part of a routine he adopted during the offseason. His goal: becoming a trusted and genuine leader for Nebraska's defense, which loses several from the 2011 team -- linebacker Lavonte David, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, safety Austin Cassidy, tackle Jared Crick.

As Nebraska's starting middle linebacker, Compton, who earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last season, knows leadership comes with the territory. But he has taken a uniquely proactive approach to the responsibilities he'll shoulder in 2012.

"I've put in extra time to know what I can do in that role," Compton told ESPN.com last month. "You can't just all of a sudden be a leader. I try to lead with my personality, be a genuine type of guy instead of just out on the field barking all the time, saying, 'Hey, I'm a leader now. Let's do this and do that.'

"You might naturally have things, but you also need a sense of direction when you're stepping in a role like that."

Compton has taken many of his cues from a book, "The Mental Edge," by noted sports psychologist Ken Baum. During a team flight to a game last season, Compton noticed Huskers star running back Rex Burkhead reading the book and asked him about it.

Burkhead told Compton about some of the visualization techniques the book promoted and how to gear the mind to produce outcomes. Compton admits he's not a big reader, but he became interested.

"I was like, 'Has it helped you out?'" Compton said. "And he said it's done wonders for him. Once he got done with it, I've had it ever since and I've just gone over it a lot, done all the techniques. It's probably the best book I've read."

Compton began spending 10-15 minutes a day visualizing game scenarios and moments of success: a 13-tackle effort in a win at Penn State ... pressuring quarterback Kirk Cousins in a win against Michigan State ... celebrating with his teammates after forcing a turnover ... racking up a career-high 15 tackles in a win against Fresno State. He tried to tune his mind so he could literally "feel the wind and smell the grass." He began doing breathing exercises to relax.

He also worked on performance cues, simple acts that put him in the right mind-set to perform. The cues can be as simple as squeezing a fist or touching an index finger to a thumb.

"When you hit those performance cues," he said, "when you're about ready to take the field, those feelings of excitement and success enter your body."

If Compton needed an extra boost, he watched video of Baltimore Ravens standout linebacker Ray Lewis, whose pregame speeches and displays are never short on emotion.

Burkhead saw changes in his teammate during the winter months and when Nebraska began spring ball.

[+] EnlargeWill Compton
Troy Babbitt/US PresswireLB Will Compton says he's putting the pressure on himself to make Nebraska a standout team in 2012.
"You can see it on the field," Burkhead said. "His energy, his leadership toward the defense, his aggressiveness, the toughness he has to keep pushing throughout practice, you can definitely tell he's made significant improvement."

Compton always has been interested in the mental side of football, but he used to struggle with it. After starting eight games as a redshirt freshman in 2009, he missed the first five contests of 2010 with a foot injury and finished the season with just 15 tackles in nine games (four starts).

The 6-2, 230-pound Compton started 11 games last fall and recorded 82 tackles, including seven for loss.

"A couple years ago, all I thought was, 'Gosh, don't mess up. I don't want the coaches to chew me out,'" he said. "I firmly believe that it's all mental, the way you think for yourself and the way you think of success against negative feelings. When you start to make plays, you don't even worry about messing up any more."

Compton relays a similar message to Nebraska's younger linebackers, especially those who will help fill the void left by David, one of the nation's most productive linebackers the past two seasons.

"It's not being the next Lavonte David," he said. "It's about playing your role, and that role happens to be the starting Will linebacker. You just want success in that."

Nebraska's coaches acknowledge the team's depth at linebacker still isn't where it needs to be for the Big Ten, which requires more linebackers on the field than the Huskers used to play in the Big 12. The issue is being addressed in recruiting, but the Huskers will lean on a select few this fall.

Compton has shown he's ready to answer the bell.

"He's a fifth-year senior, he knows this is his last go-round for this team and the program," defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "You can tell everything he's done in the offseason has been purposeful."
The NFL draft begins Thursday night. You probably weren't aware of that, because the draft, like most things associated with the National Football League, gets very little media coverage. Ahem.

Luckily, Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett are stepping into this void to talk about the draft, and specifically the Big Ten prospects hoping to hear their name called over the long weekend.

Brian Bennett: Adam, we usually leave draft talk to people with better hair than us, like Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay. But let's give it a shot. You know the NFL is a different game when Iowa's Riley Reiff is widely expected to be the top player taken from the Big Ten. Reiff is an excellent player and terrific pro prospect, no doubt. But if you would have asked league fans to pick a most valuable player from the conference this season, Reiff probably wouldn't have cracked the Top 10.

Speaking of the Top 10, the Big Ten hasn't had a player selected in that range for the past three years and is likely to make it four this year. What, if anything, does that say about the talent the league has been producing? And is Reiff the first guy you would take from the conference if you had an NFL team? (I'll resist from making wisecracks about your Big Ten fantasy team management last year).

Adam Rittenberg: Hey now, Year 2 will be different, my friend. The Shorties are coming for you. The Big Ten's Top 10 drought is certainly noteworthy, and I think it stems in part from the league producing fewer elite pro-caliber quarterbacks and cornerbacks in recent years. It does surprise me that the Big Ten hasn't had a defensive lineman in the top 10 recently, as the league has been very strong at both line spots. I think that will change in 2013. As for Reiff, he was about as under-the-radar as an elite player could get during his time at Iowa. He certainly performed well, but you didn't hear much about him, even compared to previous Hawkeyes standout linemen like Bryan Bulaga. Reiff is a masher, though, and while some say he's not the most dominant tackle, he should be able to help an NFL team this coming season.

I'd want to start my team with a potential difference-maker on the defensive line. The Big Ten has plenty of options, but Illinois' Whitney Mercilus is a natural pass-rusher who can put up big numbers. Have Merci? Yes, please. What's your view of the Big Ten's defensive line crop entering the draft?

BB: We both agreed that the defensive line, especially on the interior, is where the league's true strength lay in 2011. I'm a bit surprised that some mock drafts don't have Michigan State's Jerel Worthy, who has the chance to be a major presence on defense, in the first round and that Penn State's Devon Still, who was wildly productive last season, is being projected as a second-rounder at best. I'd rather take one of those guys than roll the dice on Memphis' Dontari Poe, a combine wonder who did next to nothing in college. And though Michigan's Mike Martin is a little short by NFL standards, I have little doubt he'll be a productive pro.

[+] EnlargeIowa's Riley Reiff
Jeffrey G. Pittenger/US PRESSWIREIowa's Riley Reiff could be the first Big Ten player selected in the NFL draft.
I'm also interested in seeing how the centers get drafted. Wisconsin's Peter Konz, Michigan's David Molk and Ohio State's Michael Brewster were arguably the top three centers in the nation last year. Molk, of course, publicly said he's the best of the three, and he did win the Rimington Trophy. Konz likely will go first, but I will be fascinated to see who ends up having the best career.

You mentioned quarterbacks. What do you think about Michigan State's Kirk Cousins and Wisconsin's Russell Wilson as potential NFL players? And will Dan Persa get a shot somewhere?

AR: Cousins should be the first Big Ten quarterback off the board, and many projections have him going in the second round. He clearly improved his stock during the predraft process. While everyone raves about the character of both Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin -- and for good reasons -- Cousins, as we both know, certainly fits into the same category as those two. He's not the fastest or most athletic guy, but he's extremely smart and played in a pro-style system at Michigan State. He could end up being a solid pro quarterback.

The issue for both Wilson and Persa is size, Persa more so than Wilson. While Wilson boasts tremendous arm strength and athleticism, his height scares teams. He does a tremendous job of extending plays and can make all of the throws, but he'll have to prove himself as a consistent pocket passer in a league where everyone is really big and really fast. Looks like a midround selection. Whether or not Persa gets drafted at all will be interesting. The guy obviously has a ton of heart and tremendous leadership skills, but he's small and suffered a major injury at Northwestern. I think Todd McShay summed up the sentiment about Persa when he told the Chicago Tribune, "I want to like Persa, but as an NFL prospect, he is limited." Persa will find his way onto a roster, but he'll have a lot to prove.

We've read a lot of draft evaluations in recent weeks. Which Big Ten player could be a real steal for a team this weekend?

BB: The guy whom I think is really undervalued is Iowa's Marvin McNutt. I've seen him going as late as the fifth or sixth round, which seems (Mc)nuts to me. Sure, it's a deep draft for receivers, and McNutt might not have blazing speed. But we saw him make some absolutely spectacular catches last season, and he closed his career as the Hawkeyes' all-time leader in receiving touchdowns. He has good size and produced 1,300 receiving yards in what was clearly not a gimmicky, pass-happy offense. If I were a GM and he was sitting there in Round 4 or later, I'd happily grab him.

Two other guys I think can be big bargains for teams are Nebraska's Lavonte David and Ohio State's Mike Adams. Both are being projected as second-rounders for different reasons (David because of size, Adams for off-the-field issues in college), but I think both will have long and stellar careers. They'll bring first-round value without the price.

Who do you see as underrated, or possibly overrated, from the Big Ten in this draft?

AR: I would have put Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler in the underrated category, but it seems like teams have caught on to how good he can be. He'll likely be a late first-round pick. Same with Konz and maybe Adams. It baffles me why Devon Still isn't projected higher in the draft. Two others I'd put in the underrated category are Michigan's Martin and Iowa's Mike Daniels. You don't have to be Vince Wilfork to be an effective NFL defensive tackle. Both Martin and Daniels are smaller defensive tackles, but they're both extremely strong physical and play with sound fundamentals. Both men have been tutored by excellent defensive coaches, and the teams that select them will be inheriting very hard workers.

Two of the more intriguing Big Ten prospects are Ohio State receiver DeVier Posey and Nebraska defensive tackle Jared Crick. Posey, who I chatted with briefly last week in Columbus, played only three games last fall because of suspensions stemming from NCAA violations. He's clearly a gifted guy, but it'll be interesting to see how much the off-field issues and lack of playing time impact his draft position. Crick entered 2011 as an All-America candidate but missed most of the season with injury. He definitely can help an NFL team, but like with Posey, there are question marks.

OK, time to wrap up this draft discussion. What do you think the major story line regarding the Big Ten will be coming out of this weekend's festivities?

BB: I'll go out on a limb and say Reiff is not the first Big Ten player drafted, as someone reaches for Mercilus, Worthy or Konz first. And I think the other big stories will be with the quarterbacks, as Cousins is drafted in the second round and Wilson is picked higher than people expect. What are your predictions?

AR: I wouldn't mind if that someone landing Reiff or Mercilus is my Chicago Bears, but that's another debate. Worthy's selection will be fascinating, as his stock has been pretty volatile throughout the process. I think both Martin and Daniels go earlier than expect, while Wilson has to wait a while. It'll be fascinating to see where Molk ends up. No matter where he's selected, he'll feel overlooked. As a short guy myself, I'm definitely rooting for the vertically challenged (Molk, Wilson, Persa, Martin, Daniels etc.). Another story line: Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, whose draft stock already had dropped before his arrest over the weekend.

Should be a fun weekend.
Cameron Meredith is a visual person, both inside and outside Nebraska's football complex.

The Huskers senior defensive end enjoys photography and has displayed his painting skills at The Corky Canvas, a Lincoln nightspot where patrons learn to paint while enjoying a beverage or two. Meredith's girlfriend is one of the painting instructors there.

[+] EnlargeCameron Meredith
Evan Habeeb/US PresswireNebraska's Cameron Meredith led the team in QB hurries (9), and ranked second in sacks (5).
"Not to brag, but I'm pretty artistic," said Meredith, who lists Salvador Dali's "Melting Clocks" and the works of Andy Warhol among his favorites. "That was my first passion, actually, before sports."

Meredith has used his visual skills in the film room this winter as he adjusts to a new defensive line coach, Rick Kaczenski, who joined Nebraska's staff in December after spending the past five seasons working with Iowa's defensive linemen. Kaczenski takes over a group that loses tackle Jared Crick but returns mostly intact and is led by Meredith and tackle Baker Steinkuhler, both multiyear starters.

To help Nebraska's linemen understand his vision, Kaczenski played them video clips of former Iowa standouts like Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug.

"On the field, he can explain it, he can go through it," Meredith said, "but until we see it in full action, we don't really understand. He brought in some really good clips of those Iowa players doing some pretty good stuff."

The transition should be smooth, because Nebraska's defenders studied Iowa more than any other team in 2011, even before Kaczenski arrived. Iowa's two-gap scheme resembled Nebraska's defensive system, and while Meredith said it's not a carbon copy, it helped players to see a similar defense go against Big Ten offenses.

"I was watching more of the [players'] technique, but you can see similarities," Meredith said. "For example, Coach Kaz wants us to make contact with our head, head-butt them more and get separation. Once we see one of the Iowa players do it who's similar to us, it puts in our minds, 'Hey, it's the same stuff. We've just got to learn the technique.'"

Meredith and his teammates get down to business when Nebraska opens spring practice March 10. The Huskers' defense fell short of expectations in 2011, finishing 37th in yards allowed and 42nd in points allowed, and must replace standouts like linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard.

After spending much the winter self-scouting, Meredith thinks third downs and limiting big plays are areas the defense must upgrade. Nebraska finished 64th nationally in third-down defense (40.2 percent conversions) in 2011 after ranking fourth in 2010 (29.95 percent) and 15th in 2009 (32.3 percent).

"Third down needs to become a lot more important to the defense," said Meredith, who led the team in quarterback hurries (9) and ranked second in both sacks (5) and tackles for loss (6). "You can either give the ball back to your offense, or they have another chance to get a first down and go score. One of the biggest things, which is why we didn't have great success in some games, once a team got a big play, it was kind of a snowball effect. We need to eliminate that, get in those manageable third-down situations, and get home on a blitz or on the pass rush."

The Huskers will go through their first spring with new coordinator John Papuchis, although the linemen are more than familiar with Papuchis, who coached them directly the past four seasons. Papuchis emphasizes the need for players to not only know their position, but the positions alongside them -- defensive ends must be able to transition inside, and vice versa -- what's happening at other levels of the defense.

His mission should help Nebraska's defense improve its communication, which Meredith said must be significantly better in games.

"He did a great job as a D-line coach of making us aware of why we're doing things rather than [just] what we're doing," Meredith said. "We knew exactly what the linebackers and DBs were doing, because JP expected that out of us. Him being a defensive coordinator, he's going to broaden everyone's span of football knowledge."

Nebraska's defenders begin putting paint brush to canvas next week.

Meredith hopes the team's final pictures looks like this and this.

B1G combine contingent gets to work

February, 22, 2012
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The NFL scouting combine kicks off today in Indianapolis, and 45 Big Ten players will be part of the most scrutinized job interview in sports.

Here's the full schedule of events. The first set of interviews take place Wednesday, and position group workouts take place from Friday-Tuesday.

Here are some of the Big Ten storylines at the combine:

    [+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
    Chuck Cook/US PresswireRussell Wilson needs to convince teams that his less-than-ideal height won't hold him back at the next level.
  • The quarterbacks are always a story in Indy, and Wisconsin's Russell Wilson and Michigan State's Kirk Cousins will be representing the Big Ten. Wilson's biggest obstacle is his height, and he'll have to show he can throw over the top of massive linemen and make all the throws. He won't lack for motivation. Cousins had a strong showing during Senior Bowl week. He wants to put himself in that second group of quarterbacks behind Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. A strong combine performance could be the difference between being a third-round pick and a fifth-rounder.
  • Can Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy solidify himself in the first round? Worthy has moved around the mock drafts quite a bit during the past few months. There are obvious pluses to his game, namely his brute strength and ability to clog rushing lanes and drop quarterbacks. But some have questioned his motor and whether he takes too many plays off. He'll be under the microscope in Indy, especially from a conditioning standpoint.
  • The combine will be huge for Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who saw his stock drop during Senior Bowl week and missed the game because of a hip injury. Huskers coach Bo Pelini has called Dennard the nation's best cornerback, and he showed shutdown skills at times last season. But he has some work to do to get back in the first-round picture.
  • Remember Jared Crick? I ranked him as the Big Ten's No. 1 player entering the season, but he played in only five games before being sidelined with a torn pectoral muscle. Crick needs to show he's healthy and that he can thrive when not playing alongside Ndamukong Suh.
  • It will be interesting to see which Big Ten offensive linemen can boost their stock in Indy. Iowa left tackle Riley Reiff doesn't have much to prove and should be the league's first player drafted in April, but it'll be interesting to see how Wisconsin center Peter Konz, Ohio State center Mike Brewster, Wisconsin tackle Josh Oglesby, Illinois tackle Jeff Allen, Ohio State tackle Mike Adams and others perform. Konz certainly could be the first center drafted, while many project Adams in the first round. Oglesby is among the players trying to prove they can hold up after dealing with several knee injuries with the Badgers. Brewster's stock dropped at the Senior Bowl, and he finished the season as the Big Ten's No. 3 center after entering the fall as a preseason All-American.
  • Michigan State running back Edwin Baker surprised some by declaring for the draft. His production dropped off significantly in 2011, although Michigan State had some issues along the offensive line. Still, Baker needs a big performance in Indy to impress the talent evaluators.
  • Ohio State receiver DeVier Posey appeared in only three games as a senior because of suspension. He has the physical gifts to be an effective pro wideout, but he'll need a strong week before the scouts in Indy. Evaluators also will be trying to assess his character after some off-field missteps at Ohio State.
  • The combine is all about numbers, and Michigan defensive tackle Mike Martin might post some huge ones this week. Martin, one of the strongest players in college football, is bench pressing 505 pounds and squatting more than 700. Stephen Paea's combine record of 49 reps of 225 pounds could be in jeopardy. Martin should finish among the leaders in his position group in several categories.

'Whole new world' springs upon Big Ten

February, 17, 2012
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Urban MeyerJamie Sabau/Getty ImagesUrban Meyer is one of six new head coaches hired by Big Ten schools in the past two seasons.
When the Big Ten football coaches gathered in Chicago for a meeting earlier this month, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald looked over to Iowa's Kirk Ferentz and joked, "Which one of us is the old man now?"

Fitzgerald was struck by the notion that at age 37, heading into his seventh year as the Wildcats' head man, he is now the second-longest-tenured coach in the league. That shows how much change the conference has experienced the past two years -- and illustrates why this spring looms as an important time for many of its teams.

Three schools -- Ohio State, Penn State and Illinois -- hired new permanent head coaches this offseason, following the three that did so last year (Michigan, Indiana and Minnesota). Add in Nebraska, and seven of the 12 Big Ten teams have coaches either in their first or second year of competing in the conference.

"That's unprecedented," said Big Ten associate commissioner Mark Rudner, who has worked for the league since 1979 and currently serves as the football coaches' liaison to the conference. "It's a whole new world."

The Big Ten used to be known as a collection of icons, the league of Woody and Bo and larger-than-life coaches. No school is less familiar with change than Penn State, which will begin a season without Joe Paterno as head coach for the first time since 1966.

All the new personalities lead some to wonder if the Big Ten will maintain its identity and culture. Already, new Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has made waves with some aggressive recruiting tactics, leading Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema to criticize Meyer and caution that the Big Ten does not want to become a northern version of the SEC.

Meyer and Bielema met to hash out their differences in that coaches' meeting earlier this month. Rudner took it as a positive sign that 11 of the 12 coaches attended what was a voluntary gathering just two days after signing day. The only coach who didn't attend, Penn State's Bill O'Brien, was preparing to coach in the Super Bowl.

"Everybody seems willing to throw in with everybody else, so hopefully that will make for a lot smoother transition," Rudner said.

[+] EnlargeNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhAt just 37, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald is the second-longest-tenured coach in the Big Ten.
Transition will be the main buzzword thrown around most campuses when spring practice begins in early March.

Meyer will install the offensive system that helped the Florida Gators win two national titles as the Buckeyes begin their quest to regain Big Ten supremacy -- after the 2012 bowl ban expires, of course. Illinois is switching to a full-fledged spread attack under new coach Tim Beckman, himself a former Meyer assistant.

Jerry Kill at Minnesota and Kevin Wilson at Indiana will seek better things after disappointing first seasons, and each has brought in some junior college players to try to fill holes on the roster. Michigan won the Sugar Bowl in Brady Hoke's first year but still wants to move toward more of a pro-style offense, as long as it doesn't restrict the talents of QB Denard Robinson. Nebraska had its share of successes and setbacks in its first season of Big Ten play and now has a better idea of what it takes to compete in the league. The Huskers need to get stronger on defense but will have to do so without departed stars Lavonte David, Alfonzo Dennard and Jared Crick.

Even some of the most stable programs weren't immune to change. Wisconsin, which has gone to back-to-back Rose Bowls, lost most of its offensive staff when coordinator Paul Chryst went to Pitt and took several assistants with him. Purdue coach Danny Hope wasn't satisfied with making the program's first bowl since 2007 and reorganized his defensive staff. And as Big Ten dean Ferentz enters his 14th season at Iowa, he'll do so for the first time without defensive coordinator Norm Parker (who retired) or offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe (who left for the Miami Dolphins).

"We probably cheated time here a little bit," Ferentz said.

Some veteran staffs stayed intact, such as Northwestern and Michigan State. The Spartans figure to make another run at a Legends Division title if they can adequately replace QB Kirk Cousins, All-American defensive tackle Jerel Worthy and their top three receivers.

"Players just want to have consistency in vision and consistency in expectations," Fitzgerald said. "When you've had a position coach for four straight years, you know what to expect, and there's something to be said for that.

"At the same time, when there's change, there's a newfound sense of urgency. Our big challenge is making sure our guys don't feel like we're Charlie Brown's teacher going, 'Wah-wah-wah-wah,' and start getting bored."

There's nothing boring about the transition at Penn State. Paterno's reign came crashing down in shocking, controversial fashion before he passed away in January. For the first time in decades, the Nittany Lions will have several new assistant coaches, not to mention a new style of offense and leadership under O'Brien. Players can already see the differences in winter conditioning.

"There's a lot of excitement around here right now," linebacker Michael Mauti said. "It's just a whole new way of doing things."

They'll be saying that on a lot of Big Ten campuses this spring.

Spring previews: Legends Division

February, 17, 2012
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The 2012 Big Ten season doesn't kick off for six-and-a-half months, but spring football is just around the corner. All 12 Big Ten squads will hit the field next month for the first of 15 spring practices. There are plenty of new faces, as the winter months brought an unprecedented number of coaching changes to the Big Ten. Should be a fun and exciting spring around the conference.

Let's take a quick look at the Leaders Division:

IOWA

Spring practice start date: March 24
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • New coaching flavor: For the first time in the Kirk Ferentz era, Iowa will welcome new coordinators on both sides of the ball. Phil Parker isn't exactly new, having served as Iowa's defensive backs coach throughout Ferentz's tenure, but he now takes charge of the defense for the first time. Will he continue running Norm Parker's scheme or shake things up? Iowa also will have a new offensive coordinator (yet to be named) and several new position coaches, including Reese Morgan, who moves from offensive line to defensive line.
  • Running back auditions: Iowa once again needs to identify a featured back after Marcus Coker transferred to Stony Brook in January. Coker basically was the team's rushing attack in 2011, accounting for 77.3 percent of the rushing yards and 61.9 percent of the carries. Jordan Canzeri and Jason White will compete with several other unproven players this spring. The good news is Iowa has had little trouble developing backs. Keeping them is another story.
  • Reloading the defensive line: The running backs might get more attention, but defensive line is Iowa's most pressing need entering the spring. The Hawkeyes lose three starters from last season's squad, including NFL prospect Mike Daniels at defensive tackle. While D-line historically has been a strength for Iowa, the Hawkeyes haven't had so much uncertainty in quite some time. Morgan, who hasn't coached on the defensive side, has his work cut out this spring.
MICHIGAN

Spring practice start date: March 17
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Defensive line rotation: It's a good thing coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison focus so much on the defensive line. The unit needs some extra attention this spring after losing standouts Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. The defensive tackle spot will be particularly interesting. A lot of eyes will be on Will Campbell to see if the big man can finally blossom. Quinton Washington and others are in the mix.
  • Receiving orders: Michigan needs to develop more options in the passing game this spring. The team loses top wideout Junior Hemingway, and Darryl Stonum was dismissed from the squad in January following another legal issue. Roy Roundtree needs a big spring as he looks to re-establish himself as the team's No. 1 wideout after a production drop-off last season. Tight end Kevin Koger also departs, creating an opportunity for others.
  • Al Borges' offense, Take 2: The new offense had some highs and lows in Year 1, and Michigan will be looking to establish greater consistency this season. It'll be interesting to see how a full year in the system impacts quarterback Denard Robinson. Robinson must cut down on his interceptions after tossing 15 last season. The Wolverines also are looking for an offensive line anchor following the departure of All-American center David Molk.
MICHIGAN STATE

Spring practice start date: March 27
Spring game: April 28

What to watch:
  • Take it to the Max: Andrew Maxwell's time has arrived as he steps in for three-year starter and three-time captain Kirk Cousins at quarterback. It's a tall order, but Maxwell has been groomed for this moment and has shown good potential in practices. He'll be working with a new set of leading receivers, including Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett, who hopes to be cleared to play for the upcoming season. Maxwell must establish himself as a team leader this spring.
  • We're not Worthy: All-American Jerel Worthy is gone, and Michigan State needs a replacement for the standout defensive tackle. While Anthony Rashad White returns at the other D-tackle spot, the Spartans don't have much overall depth at the position. It'll be interesting to see what the coaches do with Micajah Reynolds, who has bounced between defensive line and offensive line during his career. It's a big spring for Vanderbilt transfer James Kittredge and a host of players who redshirted last season, including Damon Knox.
  • Receiving orders: Arnett seemingly would be Michigan State's No. 1 receiver if he's ruled eligible by the NCAA, but there are no guarantees and the Spartans must identify other options this spring. Bennie Fowler showed promise in 2010 before being slowed by a foot injury last season. He needs a strong spring. Michigan State also is moving Tony Lippett back to receiver from cornerback, where he started several games last season. Lippett is an excellent athlete who can provide a boost on the edge. The Spartans also will be looking for more from tight end Dion Sims.
MINNESOTA

Spring practice start date: March 22
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • The search for a pass rush: Minnesota should be improved on offense in Year 2 of the Jerry Kill era, but the team could sink or swim depending on the defense. It starts up front with a defensive line that hasn't generated much pressure for several years. Coordinator Tracy Claeys wants to be aggressive, but can he find difference-makers? The Gophers haven't had an elite pass-rusher since Willie VanDeSteeg in 2008.
  • Supporting cast on offense: Although quarterback Marqueis Gray had his ups and downs last season, he accounted for most of Minnesota's offense, leading the team with 966 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns. Gray needs more help if the Gophers intend to take the next step this season. Minnesota will be looking for a featured running back this spring, as Donnell Kirkwood and others are in the mix. The Gophers also need more options at receiver after losing Da'Jon McKnight.
  • Troy Stoudermire: Stoudermire turned heads last spring with some big hits from the cornerback spot. After receiving an additional year of eligibility from the NCAA in January, he'll look to deliver more punishment. Minnesota desperately needs leaders and playmakers to emerge in the secondary, and Stoudermire's return could be huge after he missed most last season with a broken bone in his forearm.
NEBRASKA

Spring practice start date: March 10
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Star search on defense: No Big Ten defense loses more star power than Nebraska, which must replace linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, the league's top performers at their respective positions. David's departure is especially critical, as Nebraska lacked depth in its defensive midsection last season. Although Nebraska played most of the past season without defensive tackle Jared Crick, it needs some difference-makers to emerge in all three levels of the defense this spring.
  • Papuchis takes over: Like Iowa, Nebraska promoted a position coach to defensive coordinator, as John Papuchis takes control of a unit that fell short of expectations last season. Papuchis is young and energetic, and his rapid rise mirrors that of his boss, Huskers head coach Bo Pelini. Although no system overhaul is expected, it will be interesting to see how Papuchis puts his imprint on the defense this spring.
  • Taylor Martinez's maturation: Despite two years as the starter and the support of his coaches, Martinez enters a pivotal spring. Although Martinez remained healthy last season and showed improved decision-making at times, he also completed just 56.3 percent of his passes and didn't break off as many long runs. A full year in Tim Beck's offense could pay off for Martinez this spring, but he needs to continue to make strides. It will be interesting to see if the coaches even entertain the possibility of a competition, or if backup Brion Carnes gets more reps.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring practice start date: March 3
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Colter and the QB race: Northwestern will have a quarterback competition this spring as it looks for Dan Persa's replacement, but the hope among many is for Kain Colter to take control. Colter stepped in for Persa last season and emerged as the team's best all-around offensive weapon. But he needs to improve his arm strength and his accuracy and show he can be a more complete quarterback at this level. Although Colter will be on the field no matter what in the fall, he has the opportunity in spring ball to solidify himself as the starting quarterback.
  • Young defenders: The defense has been a big problem for the past year and a half, and Northwestern needs to identify more playmakers before September. The good news is the Wildcats played a lot of young players last season, particularly late in the season. Northwestern needs its youth to mature, beginning in the spring. Keep an eye on players such as defensive end Tyler Scott, safety Ibraheim Campbell, linebacker Collin Ellis and cornerback Daniel Jones. Northwestern needs several of them to take the next step.
  • Spotlight on the secondary: Few Big Ten units struggled more than Northwestern's secondary did last season. Making matters worse, the Wildcats lose three starters, including All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters and cornerback Jordan Mabin, a four-year starter. If Northwestern ever intends to turn the corner as a program, it needs to build better depth in the secondary, whether it's through recruiting or from moving players from other positions. It'll be interesting to see how the group performs this spring.
We covered all the offensive position groups in our postseason rankings series here, here, here and here. Now it's time to turn our attention to the defensive side of the ball.

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

Here we go:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The last time Nebraska played a Steve Spurrier-coached team, the Huskers steamrolled Florida 62-24 for the national title. The stakes won't be as high when the Huskers meet Spurrier's South Carolina Gamecocks in the Capital One Bowl, and the scoring doesn't figure to reach anywhere near those heights, either.

WHO TO WATCH: Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez and I-back Rex Burkhead. The ball is almost always in one of these two Huskers' hands. They combined to rush for more than 2,000 yards and 24 touchdowns, including some option work between the pair. When we last saw Burkhead, he carried a school-record 38 times for 160 yards in a win over Iowa. The month off should really help him get his legs back after a heavy workload this season. Martinez made great strides as a game manager and leader this year but remains an inconsistent passer, as his 55.9 completion percentage attests. Martinez and Burkhead are a formidable pair, but they'll have to be at their best to counter an impressive South Carolina defense that allowed fewer than 270 total yards per game this season. Can either one of them turn the corner on the edge, especially with top-flight defensive ends Melvin Ingram and Jadeveon Clowney in pursuit?

WHAT TO WATCH: Can the Nebraska defense match South Carolina's? The Huskers thought they would have the same kind of disruptive defensive line as the Gamecocks boast this season, but an injury to star Jared Crick and underwhelming performances by others made this an average group. Lavonte David had an All-America season at linebacker, but much of the rest of the front seven was inconsistent during the year. This isn't a typical Spurrier team, especially with quarterback Connor Shaw posing as much of a threat running as he does passing. Star receiver Alshon Jeffery has been all but ignored and should be neutralized by Nebraska stud cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. So it will probably be up to the Huskers' front to make plays and disrupt South Carolina's timing in what could be a low-scoring affair. Do they have a Blackshirt-worthy performance in them?

WHY TO WATCH: Neither of these teams won a conference championship or even a division title, but this still has a chance to be one of the best non-BCS matchups. Both teams have a lot of talent and speed and spent some time hanging around the Top 10 this season. Nebraska has a chance to clinch its third straight 10-win season and will play its first postseason game as a Big Ten member. What better way for the Huskers to ingratiate themselves into their new league then by winning a bowl game against the SEC?

PREDICTION: South Carolina 20, Nebraska 17. It will be a defensive grinder, and the Huskers will struggle to move the ball down the field as the Gamecocks force Martinez to beat them with his arm. South Carolina's defense is just too good, and its speed helps contain Burkhead and the Nebraska option game.
Nebraska had a chance to make Big Ten history Saturday in its first season as a league member.

Since Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, no FBS team had beaten Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan in the same season. While scheduling sometimes prevented great teams from playing all four opponents, several really good squads fell short by a loss. Nebraska had no such concerns with its initial Big Ten schedule, which cut no corners. Not only did the Huskers face Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, but also Wisconsin and Iowa, two very good programs, and Northwestern, a consistent bowl participant.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioBo Pelini has always been emotional and has not been afraid to lash out at just about anyone. It caught up with the Nebraska coach on Monday.
Despite a taxing slate, Nebraska entered Michigan Stadium on Saturday with an opportunity to achieve the rare feat. Although the Huskers no longer had control of the Legends division, they could remain alive with a victory against Michigan. And even if Michigan State had clinched the division this week, Nebraska could finish the regular season at 10-2, earn a possible at-large berth in a BCS bowl and display some impressive notches on its first Big Ten belt.

Instead, the Huskers absorbed a thorough whipping at the Big House. Nebraska had three lost fumbles, eight penalties, three sacks allowed, only 260 yards, only three third-down conversions on 13 attempts and only 11 first downs. The implosion resulted in a 45-17 loss that coach Bo Pelini and others called “embarrassing," "awful" and "a comedy of errors."

Nebraska's meltdown at Michigan, like many blowouts for good teams, raises questions about the program and its direction. What is Nebraska football right now? Tough to say.

It's clear that the preseason expectations for the Huskers, tabbed as the Big Ten title favorite and certainly the favorite in the Legends division, were inflated. Many folks, including myself, underestimated the difficulty of switching conferences, playing new opponents and visiting difficult environments. The Huskers had reached the Big 12 title game in each of the past two seasons, returned a star-studded defense and introduced some much-needed changes on the offensive side. Pelini welcomed the lofty hopes from the outside, telling me in July that the team expected to win a championship in Year 1. Players like senior defensive tackle Jared Crick oozed confidence.

But a 48-17 loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten opener showed Nebraska hadn't arrived. From there, it has been a two-steps-forward-one-step-back type of season for Big Red. Nebraska's historic comeback against Ohio State -- the largest in team history -- put the team on the right track. The Huskers followed with impressive victories against Minnesota and Michigan State, handing the streaking Spartans a 24-3 loss in Lincoln.

Just when Nebraska appeared to turn a corner, it stumbled at home against 3-5 Northwestern, marking the fifth straight season the Huskers lost a home game to an unranked opponent.

The team responded the following week at Penn State in an emotion-charged game played under unique circumstances. While Pelini said after Nebraska's 17-14 win that he didn't think the game should have been played, his team displayed remarkable poise on the road.

Then came Saturday's clunker.

Perhaps Nebraska was emotionally spent. It's never easy to win consecutive road games in this league, much less at Penn State and at Michigan. But the Nebraska-Michigan game looked like a toss-up, two pretty good teams with a chance to be great. The Huskers clearly weren't up to the task.

Where does it leave Nebraska? Are the Huskers trending up or down in Year 4 of the Pelini era? Are they treading water?

Here's what we know. The defense isn't nearly the unit we thought it would be entering the season. There's a lack of depth in the front seven, compounded by Crick's season-ending injury after the Ohio State game. The Huskers need more Big Ten-quality linebackers and will have to pursue them in recruiting. There's star power with linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, but not enough production to go around.

The offense has been about what I expected: explosive at times, hard to stop when in rhythm but also inconsistent. Nebraska has dealt with inexperience and injuries along the offensive line, and still played well at times. Its best wide receivers are young. Quarterback Taylor Martinez is only a sophomore. It's a unit that should mature and improve with time.

The defense is where Pelini's teams should thrive and have in the past. Aside from the Michigan State game, the Huskers have lacked many dominating performances.

Pelini has made Nebraska a good program again after the disastrous Bill Callahan era. The Huskers still can reach 10 wins this season with victories Friday against Iowa and in their bowl game.

But whether Nebraska can take the next step in its new league remains to be seen. Remember, non-traditional powers like Wisconsin and Michigan State are on the upswing, and Michigan has emerged from the darkness under Brady Hoke. The competition throughout the league, both on the field and in recruiting, has intensified.

Saturday won't be Nebraska's only opportunity to make Big Ten history on the big stage. The Huskers can only hope their next performance brings a better result.

Final: Northwestern 28, Nebraska 25

November, 5, 2011
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Kain Colter and the Northwestern Wildcats have turned the Legends Division race upside down.

Led by a heroic performance from Colter in relief of the injured Dan Persa, Northwestern shocked No. 10 Nebraska 28-25, handing the Huskers their second Big Ten loss and first at Memorial Stadium. The losses by division leaders Nebraska and Michigan leave Michigan State in sole possession of the Legends lead.

Nebraska was unable to contain Northwestern's offense, which repeatedly attacked the Huskers in the middle of the field, exactly where Michigan State refused to strike. The Huskers really missed star defensive tackle Jared Crick, and they repeatedly left Northwestern receivers open in the deep middle.

Even without Persa, who missed the entire second half with a left shoulder injury, Northwestern moved the ball thanks to Colter, who racked up 115 pass yards, 58 rush yards and 57 receiving yards. Colter led the decisive drive in the fourth quarter, as Northwestern marched 66 yards in 13 plays, all runs, and ate up 7:21 of clock. A veteran Wildcats offensive line imposed its will against Nebraska, and Colter scored from 1 yard out with 1:34 left. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini didn't use any of his three timeouts on the march, a decision that undoubtedly will be scrutinized.

Nebraska fell despite a terrific performance from sophomore QB Taylor Martinez, who attacked Northwestern with his arm, not his legs. Martinez completed 29 of 38 passes for 308 yards and two touchdowns, looking much more composed in the pocket.

But a defense that received its coveted Blackshirts on Monday didn't get it done. As a result, Nebraska finds itself in a very tough spot in the Legends Division. This looked like the easiest of the Huskers' final four games. They now must travel to Penn State and Michigan before finishing against Iowa.

Huge win for Northwestern, especially because it found a way to hold on in the second half after blowing so many big leads this season. A defense that hadn't stopped anyone held Rex Burkhead and the Nebraska rushing game in check.

The Wildcats continue their annual tradition of one shocking upset, and this is among the biggest wins in coach Pat Fitzgerald's career. Northwestern still needs two wins to become bowl eligible, but it returns home for its final three contests (Rice, Minnesota and Michigan State).

Halloween in the Big Ten

October, 31, 2011
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The Big Ten blog is haunted today. Bennett is going as Albert Pujols, for obvious reasons.

Halloween came a little early for teams like Michigan State and Wisconsin, which has endured a two-week nightmare.

In keeping with the Halloween spirit in Big Ten country and beyond, we present this primer ...

Haunted House: Camp Randall Stadium remains the toughest place to win in the Big Ten, and Wisconsin can't wait to return home after the past two weeks. Wisconsin has won 14 consecutive games there, including the past seven by 31 points or more. The Badgers have averaged 48.5 points during the span. Spartan Stadium is quickly becoming a haunted house, too.

Boo (boo): Nebraska's defense lost one of its leaders and stars as tackle Jared Crick suffered a season-ending torn pectoral muscle against Ohio State. Purdue couldn't avoid the injury bug before the season, losing projected starting quarterback Rob Henry to a season-ending ACL tear.

[+] EnlargeDevin Smith
Greg Bartram/US PresswireOhio State's Devin Smith caught this winning TD pass against Wisconsin in one of the Big Ten's most thrilling games this season.
Thriller: The Big Ten has had three ultimate thrillers this season. Michigan and Notre Dame combined to score three touchdowns in the final 72 seconds, including the game-winner by the Wolverines with two seconds left. Wisconsin and Michigan State then had a see-saw battle that ended with a 44-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass from Kirk Cousins to Keith Nichol with no time left on the clock. And Wisconsin and Ohio State combined to score four touchdowns in the final 4:39 Saturday night, including the game-winning pass from Braxton Miller to Devin Smith.

Graveyard: The Big Ten's BCS title hopes; Russell Wilson's Heisman Trophy hopes; Penn State's losing streak against Iowa; Iowa's losing streak against Northwestern; Michigan State's road losing streak against Ohio State.

Trick or treat (high-stakes game): The Nov. 12 matchup between Penn State and Nebraska in State College should have enormous implications for both teams and both divisions. Penn State is the only unbeaten team in Big Ten play and holds a two-game lead in the Leaders division. A victory would move Joe Paterno's team one big step closer to Indianapolis. If Nebraska gets by 3-5 Northwestern this week, the Huskers will remain in good shape to challenge for the Legends division championship. They'll need some signature road wins at Penn State and the following week at Michigan to stay alive.

Jason Voorhees (team that won't die): Ohio State. Written off after a Week 3 loss at Miami and left for dead after its collapse at Nebraska, Ohio State has sprung back to life following back-to-back Leaders division wins. Luke Fickell's team stepped up in every phase against Wisconsin and remained very much in the division race. The Buckeyes have no margin for error, but they seem to embrace the adversity and everyone counting them out.

Witchcraft: Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson haunted Notre Dame for the second consecutive year, lifting his team to a dramatic win against the Fighting Irish. After racking 502 yards of total offense last year in South Bend, Robinson helped Michigan rally from a 24-7 fourth-quarter deficit to beat Notre Dame 35-31 in Week 2. Michigan scored 28 fourth-quarter points and won on Robinson's touchdown strike to Roy Roundtree with two seconds left.

Cursed team: Wisconsin. No team in America has experienced back-to-back losses in more heartbreaking fashion than Bret Bielema's Badgers. Wisconsin has mounted impressive comebacks on the road the past two weeks, only to lose on a Hail Mary at Michigan State and Miller's on-the-run heave at Ohio State. The Badgers have made enough mistakes to lose both games, but they have to be questioning the football gods. Iowa certainly feels cursed after its second consecutive loss to Minnesota on Saturday, a game in which Hawkeyes running back Marcus Coker racked up 252 rush yards and two touchdowns.

Halloween costumes

Spartans-Huskers pregame notes

October, 29, 2011
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Greetings from Memorial Stadium, where a chilly morning has given way to sunny skies and what should be very pleasant conditions for an important Big Ten football game. Temperatures could reach the 60s by the second half.

With defensive tackle Thad Randle out with a knee injury and Jared Crick done for the year, Nebraska is very young in its interior defensive line. Two redshirt freshman -- Chase Rome and Jay Guy -- are in the top four of the rotation there. Guy made his career debut last week at Minnesota.

For Michigan State, safety Jairus Jones is dressed and went through warm-ups. He has missed the entire season with a torn Achilles tendon. And of course, William Gholston is back at defensive end after serving a one-game suspension. He could play a key role, not only in getting pressure but using his height to bat down passes from Taylor Martinez.

It's almost time for kickoff ...
The last time Nebraska took on a ranked Big Ten contender, things didn't end so well. The Cornhuskers, of course, got spanked 48-17 at Wisconsin in their official league debut.

So you can imagine the reaction when the players returned home from last week's game at Minnesota in time to catch the end of Michigan State's win over those same Badgers.

"I think we all kind of realized what we've got ahead of us this week," defensive end Cameron Meredith said.

The Huskers, though, think they're better equipped to deal with their next Big Ten challenge when the No. 11 Spartans come into Memorial Stadium on Saturday. That Wisconsin loss caused lots of second-guessing and criticism of the team and quarterback Taylor Martinez in particular. Nebraska then fell behind 27-6 at home against Ohio State in its next game out before mounting a huge comeback to beat the Buckeyes and to possibly save their season.

[+] EnlargeRex Burkhead
Jesse Johnson/US PresswireRunning back Rex Burkhead proved to be a workhorse for Nebraska this past season.
"We rallied around each other," offensive lineman Marcel Jones said. "We told ourselves that we're better than what we showed the country. I feel that we've come together a lot closer since then, and we've been able to overcome adversity. We learned not to panic, and that if we keep steering the course we'll be just fine."

The Cornhuskers need to bring their best effort this week, because they can't afford a loss and still realistically hope to win the Legends Division. Michigan State is already one game ahead of Nebraska in the standings, and if the Huskers lose Saturday, they'd need the Spartans to lose two more times just to have a chance to tie for the division lead. And Nebraska still must play at Michigan and Penn State this season. That's why receiver Kenny Bell called this a must-win this week.

Others have stopped short of applying that label to this game, but there's little doubt about its importance. The Huskers, after all, are the only Big Ten team used to how division play works from their Big 12 days.

"We understand what have we ahead of us and the opportunity," Meredith said. "We can't go too all-in to the hype, but we do understand what's on the line. Coach [Bo Pelini] has emphasized and made it real noticeable that this is a very important game, but we're still preparing just as we have all season."

Michigan State is led by its ferocious defense, a formula Nebraska was supposed to utilize this season. The Blackshirts, though, have been disappointing and now lack the services of defensive tackle Jared Crick, who's out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Meredith said he saw improvement during the team's bye week two weeks ago as the team focused on fundamentals. The Huskers allowed only 14 points and 254 yards to Minnesota last week while scoring a defensive touchdown, but the Gophers are hardly a worthy measuring stick this year.

One thing that might help the defense is that the Spartans don't have a running quarterback. Nebraska has faced a lot of mobile signal-callers this season, including Washington's Keith Price, Wisconsin's Russell Wilson, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and even Minnesota's MarQueis Gray. Kirk Cousins isn't likely to burn the Blackshirts with a long scramble or deep pass on the run.

"He's a great football player, but he's more of a pocket passer," Meredith said. "That should allow us to rush the passer a little more freely."

On the flip side, the Huskers offense hopes to slow down Michigan State's aggressive defense with Martinez and Rex Burkhead. The Spartans will have to focus on containing the edge, especially when Nebraska goes to its option plays. And with a no-huddle offense and a deep rotation of offensive linemen, perhaps the home team can wear out Jerel Worthy and the other Michigan State defensive linemen.

"It's very important to bring in fresh legs," Jones said. "We come at the defense with wave after wave."

Nebraska had better perform a whole lot better than it did in its last test against a ranked Big Ten team. Or else it can probably wave its league title hopes goodbye.
Nebraska's defense has yet to hit its stride in 2011, but one Husker seems to be playing in fifth gear. Senior linebacker Lavonte David has been the brightest spot on a unit that thus far has fallen short of expectations. A second-team AP All-American who was named the Big 12's Defensive Newcomer of the Year in 2010, David has seamlessly transitioned to the Big Ten. He leads Nebraska in both total tackles (58) and tackles for loss (6), and ranks second on the team in sacks (2).

His forced fumble Oct. 8 against Ohio State set the stage for the biggest comeback in Nebraska history, as the Huskers rallied for a potentially season-saving 34-27 win. Nebraska resumes play Saturday at Minnesota, and the defense will lean on David more than ever as star tackle Jared Crick is out for the season.

[+] EnlargeLavonte David
Brace Hemmelgarn/US PresswireNebraska linebacker Lavonte David leads Nebraska in tackles (58) and tackles for loss (6).
David recently took some time to talk about his season, his journey, the move to the Big Ten and what lies ahead.

What things did you focus on as a defense during the bye week?

Lavonte David: Just getting better. Everybody had a chance to go in and watch film and try to correct some mistakes everybody's been messing up on. We've got a chance to correct those and take it over to the games now.

What was it like hearing about Jared being out for the season?

LD: It was real tough, real tough. He's a leader on our defense, a guy who has been here for five years. He put his work in. You're just sorry to see a guy go down like that. I talked to him. I just told him to keep his head up. I said, 'We're going to play for you.'

With him out, how much more of the leadership load is put on a guy like you?

LD: All our guys. We've got a great, mature group of guys. Guys are stepping up to fill the void. I'm just continuing to do what I do, keep everybody's heads up and keep everybody motivated.

You spoke up at halftime of the Ohio State game. How have you evolved as a leader on that team?

LD: Somebody needed to say something at that time, and I felt like I needed to. That's just what happened, and I just took over. The coaches just told me I've put in my time and it's time for me to step up. I'm not a talkative guy or a vocal guy. I lead by example, by it's the time where I'm a senior and I have to go out there with an attitude and just start talking.

How has the adjustment to the Big Ten been for you so far?

LD: It hasn't been hard at all. It's a mind thing. You've just got to get yourself prepared for it every week.

I know you put on some weight in the offseason. How has that affected you so far?

LD: It doesn't matter to me. I just love to play football. They told me to get up to a decent weight (225), and I did, on their behalf. We have a great strength and conditioning staff and also a great nutrition staff. The goal is to put weight on and still keep my speed and everything. I just took their word for it and just went by what they told me.

How did going to a junior college first shape you as a player?

LD: Junior college is rough, man. It teaches you a lot of responsibility. It makes you become a man. We had a good coaching staff over at [Fort Scott] junior college. They did a good job preparing me for the role I'm at now.

How did you end up in a juco?

LD: I was sitting around the house, waiting to qualify out of high school, but it didn't work out. Then I got this phone call from Fort Scott Junior College and I just took it from there.

Did you have to regroup mentally at all, not being able to go to a big school coming out of high school?

LD: It wasn't a big deal. I felt like God had a plan for me and I just stuck with his plan and just worked hard.

How did you get to Nebraska?

LD: [Former Fort Scott coach Jeff Sims] knew some of the coaches here. I already knew about the program, knew they had a great program, already knew about coach [Bo] Pelini and what he does on the defensive side. So it was a great fit for me.

How motivated were you to show what you could do at this level?

LD: I was real motivated. Guys coming from junior college, they expect you to play right away, so I had that mentality, and I came out and tried to do the best I can, contribute in any way I can.

Did you surprise yourself with how well you played in your first season?

LD: No, not really. I had help from great guys like Will Compton and Sean Fisher when I came over. Those guys helped me every step of the way. I take my hat off to those guys. They just prepared me for it.

You have half a season to play. How far away are you guys from being the defense you talked about being before the year?

LD: We're getting better as the weeks go on. Guys are just working hard. Guys are really trying to get after it, getting in the film room and trying to better themselves.

What would it mean to get to the Big Ten championship game?

LD: It would mean a lot. It would show our hard work and how we've dealt with adversity and kept fighting. It would show we didn't give up and we kept working hard, and then everything just paid off for us.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 8

October, 20, 2011
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Ten items to track on Saturday as you watch another set of Big Ten games.

1. Wisconsin offense vs. MSU defense: Two of the nation's elite units clash Saturday night at Spartan Stadium in a game that likely will determine the Big Ten's top team. The nation's top scoring offense (50.2 ppg) is pitted against a Michigan State defense ranked fourth in points allowed (10.8 ppg), second in yards allowed (186.2 ypg) and first against the pass (119.2 ypg). From terrific individual matchups -- Jerel Worthy vs. Peter Konz, Nick Toon vs. Johnny Adams -- to the chess game between the coordinators, these two units will easily hold your attention.

2. Life without Crick begins: After six shaky quarters in Big Ten play, Nebraska's defense regained its mojo in the final 23 minutes of a historic comeback victory against Ohio State on Oct. 1. But the Huskers received some bad news during the bye week, as star DT Jared Crick was ruled out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Coach Bo Pelini plans to use a four-man rotation at defensive tackle -- Chase Rome, Terrence Moore and Thaddeus Randle will see time alongside starter Baker Steinkuhler. Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said this week that Rome, a redshirt freshman, "plays like a madman" and has stood out. The Crick-less defensive line debuts Saturday against 1-5 Minnesota.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
AP Photo/Andy Manis Can Russell Wilson and the Badgers continue their torrid run when they visit East Lansing?
3. JoePa goes for No. 408: There's something about Joe Paterno, Northwestern and milestone victories. In 2001, Paterno tied Paul "Bear" Bryant's Division I-A record with his 323rd coaching victory after Penn State upset Northwestern in Evanston. Last year, JoePa earned win No. 400 after Penn State rallied past Northwestern in State College. Paterno can reach another plateau Saturday night as Penn State visits Northwestern. A victory gives Paterno 408 for his career, tying him with the late Eddie Robinson for the most in (formerly Division I) history.

4. Spartans' October grind continues: Michigan State is halfway through one of the more grueling months in recent Big Ten history and boasts a 2-0 mark. The Spartans already have made history with their first win at Ohio State since 1998 and their fourth consecutive win against archrival Michigan last Saturday. They now aim to make a national statement by recording their first win against a BCS top 10 team under coach Mark Dantonio. Although Wisconsin certainly gets Michigan State's attention, it'll be interesting to see how the Spartans perform after emotional games against Michigan and Ohio State. Oh, yeah, and a road trip to Legends division contender Nebraska awaits next week.

5. Badgers' road leads to house of horrors: Wisconsin's first true road game of the 2011 season takes place in a stadium that has been the program's house of horrors in recent years. The Badgers have dropped three consecutive games in Spartan Stadium, including a 34-24 defeat last year that proved to be their only regular-season loss. They blew a late lead in East Lansing in 2008 and suffered a 49-14 beating in 2004 when they were 9-0 and ranked No. 5 in the BCS standings. Quarterback Russell Wilson hasn't been part of the Badgers' stumbles in Sparta, and Wisconsin will lean on the transfer in what should be a raucous environment Saturday night.

6. Boiler crossing: The Illinois-Purdue game won't make waves nationally or even regionally, but it's absolutely huge for both teams. Illinois comes off of its first loss and knows the doubters are getting louder. The Illini also must regain their swagger on both sides of the ball after failing to score for 53 minutes last week and falling to an Ohio State team that completed only one pass (and attempted just four). This game might be even more important for Purdue, which did some good things last week at Penn State but once again made too many major mistakes to record a win. The Boilers' schedule following Illinois is very difficult -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Iowa -- so if they want to end their bowl drought, they had better start winning soon.

7. Iowa's McNutt eyes the record: After coming to Iowa City as a quarterback, Marvin McNutt will leave as one of the Hawkeyes' most prolific wide receivers. Last week he tied Tim Dwight and Danan Hughes for the team's career touchdown receptions record with 21. McNutt can set the record Saturday as he goes up against an Indiana defense that has surrendered 13 passing touchdowns this season. McNutt ranks fourth in the Big Ten in receptions (5.8 rpg) and third in receiving yards (95.5 ypg) this season.

8. Spartans getting defensive: Michigan State has been on the defensive about its defense since last week's penalty-filled win against Michigan. Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi on Tuesday clarified his "unnecessary roughness" quote and defended the unit against claims it played dirty against Michigan, in a game that featured several personal fouls. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has his team prepared, saying the Spartans, "do certain things, whether it be before the snap, during the snap or after the snap that can cause you to react." It will be interesting to see if Michigan State's defense can strike a balance between aggression and discipline against a Wisconsin team that rarely beats itself.

9. A close shave in Evanston: Northwestern has lost four consecutive games for the first time since 2006, and quarterback Dan Persa's senior season seems to be going down the drain. The Wildcats clearly need a shake-up ... or a shave-up? The day after throwing a pick-six at Iowa, Persa decided to shave his head. "Woke up on Sunday, felt like shaving it," Persa said Monday. "So I shaved it." Perhaps the new 'do will help Persa and the Wildcats in a must-win game Saturday night against Penn State at Ryan Field. It's a big one for Persa, a Pennsylvania native who was overlooked by the Lions during the recruiting process. The quarterback needs a strong effort against a Penn State defense ranked seventh nationally against the pass (161.1 ypg).

10. Hoosiers receivers under the gun: Indiana coach Kevin Wilson rarely holds back, and this week he unloaded on his wide receivers, a group that was supposed to be the team's strength. "Our receiver play's been very, very poor," Wilson said. "... We don't work with any sense of speed and urgency out there." Injuries have been a problem, but the wideouts need to help out their young quarterbacks, beginning Saturday afternoon at Iowa. The Hoosiers will be without Damarlo Belcher (knee), so Kofi Hughes and others must step up against the Iowa secondary.

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