NCF Nation: Jason Ford

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl: Keys for UCLA

December, 30, 2011
12/30/11
7:30
PM ET
What are the three keys for UCLA against Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on New Year's Eve? Glad you asked.

1.Care: The first step toward winning this game is really caring about winning this game. Both teams fired their coaches. Both teams had extremely disappointing seasons. Both teams looked awful late in the year. Both teams suspended players for various reasons after the season ended. Many of the players on the field are going to play hard because that is who they are: Competitors caught in a tough situation who never mail it in because competitors never do. But some won't. If you watch closely, in fact, you'll be able to say, "Did you see that? He didn't even try!"

2. Run and stop the run: Neither team passes the ball well. In fact, neither team is very good on offense period. But both teams' best weapon is running the ball, even if the Illini's leading rusher, Jason Ford, is academically ineligible. If one team is decisively better running the ball -- and doesn't turn the ball over a bunch -- it's going to win this game.

3. Block Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus: Illinois has a good defense that is led by a great player in defensive end Whitney Mercilus. He led the nation in sacks (14.5) and forced fumbles (9). He's a beast and fun to watch. And guess what? One of the guys who will try to block him much of the night -- along with senior tackle Mike Harris -- will be a former walk-on making his first career start: junior Brett Downey. The Bruins' offensive line, in fact, has issues with sophomore guard Alberto Cid academically ineligible and Chris Ward and Wade Yandall out with injuries. Have Mercilus!
Let's take a look at three keys for Illinois heading into Saturday's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl matchup against UCLA.

1. Establish the run early: Top running back Jason Ford is out (academics), but Illinois still can establish the ground game against a UCLA defense ranked 95th nationally against the rush. The Bruins have surrendered more than 200 rush yards in seven games, including 352 in the Pac-12 championship against Oregon. Illinois freshman Donovonn Young has impressed in stretches and gets an opportunity to establish himself as the team's back of the future after missing the regular-season finale with an ankle injury. With fullback Jay Prosch also out (staph infection), Illinois really needs its offensive line to show up from the get-go. The line was supposed to be a strength for Illinois but has fallen short of expectations. If the Illini can get the ground game going early behind Young, Troy Pollard and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, they'll open up the pass attack with A.J. Jenkins.

2. Maintain motivation and composure: Both Illinois and UCLA are dealing with coaching transitions, suspensions and other turmoil. UCLA players recently skipped a practice. Many question how motivated the teams will be to play a minor bowl game before moving forward with new leading men (Tim Beckman and Jim Mora Jr., respectively). Illinois players say practice has gone well, and they will be playing for interim coach Vic Koenning, fired coach Ron Zook and themselves on Saturday. The Illini didn't handle adversity well down the stretch of the regular season and must keep their composure if things don't go well Saturday. Illinois must continue to limit penalties after tying for 22nd nationally in penalties per game (4.83). UCLA hasn't been nearly as disciplined, ranking 91st in penalties per game (6.85).

3. Contain UCLA's ground game: Illinois' defense will be the best unit on the field Saturday in San Francisco, but the Illini need a strong effort against the run. UCLA's rushing attack is the strength of its team, ranking 29th nationally (190.7 ypg). The Bruins have three players with more than 450 rushing yards, including quarterback Kevin Prince, who had 163 yards in a win against Cal earlier this season. Illinois struggled against the run down the stretch and needs a strong performance from a talented line featuring Whitney Mercilus, Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence. Defensive tackle Corey Liuget had a huge performance against Baylor in last year's bowl victory. It will be interesting to see if Spence can do the same against UCLA.
One team lost its final six games and fired its coach. The other team finished with a losing record and fired its coach. Still, they're both going to play a bowl game in San Francisco, and one team has to win it. Let's take a look at the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl essentials:

WHO TO WATCH: Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus. The junior leads the nation with 14.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles. He showed up on everybody's All-America team and will almost certainly head to the NFL after this game. So he may be primed to go out with a bang against a UCLA offensive line that is decent but not overpowering. Bruins tackle Jeff Baca may need some help containing the explosive Mercilus off the edge.

WHAT TO WATCH: The Illini defense has been strong all season, but can the offense generate anything? After starting the season well, Illinois averaged just 11 points per game in its six straight losses to end the year. The offensive line was a mess, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase appeared to lose his confidence -- not surprising, considering how little time he was given to throw. Leading rusher Jason Ford is academically ineligible for the bowl, and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino bolted for Arkansas, leaving quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm in charge of the playcalling. If Scheelhaase can get some protection, he has one of the top receiving threats in the country in A.J. Jenkins. But that's a big if.

WHY TO WATCH: Well, you need something to do while getting ready to go out for New Year's Eve, right? We can't pretend this isn't one of the least appealing bowl matchups, given the complete lack of momentum or enthusiasm on either side. But, hey, it's still a Pac-12 vs. Big Ten meeting in California, even if this is about as far away from the Rose Bowl as you can get. Both teams have talent and tradition, and both will be looking to impress their new incoming head coaches.

PREDICTION: Illinois 17, UCLA 9. I have little confidence in the Illini's ability to do much offensively. But the Illinois defense will be the best unit on the field and should be motivated to play for Vic Koenning, the defensive coordinator/interim head coach who is leaving after the game. It probably won't be pretty -- except for the background shots of San Francisco.

Final: Michigan 31, Illinois 14

November, 12, 2011
11/12/11
7:17
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Most expected Michigan's defense to improve this season, but few believed the unit would carry the team.

That's exactly what has happened as Michigan trudges through the second half of its season. Greg Mattison's defense continues to make significant strides, cover up the offense's mistakes and give the offense enough time to get things on track.

Michigan thumped hapless Illinois 31-14 on Saturday, and the margin should have been much bigger. The Wolverines outgained Illinois 249-30 in the opening half but led by only 14 points because of repeated mistakes by the offense. Denard Robinson fumbled twice in the half and Michigan couldn't fully take advantage of 134 first-half rush yards from Fitz Toussaint.

But all the Wolverines' errors didn't matter because their defense stifled Illinois, which has something seriously wrong on offense. The Illini failed to score in the first half for the FOURTH consecutive game, a recipe for disaster against a Michigan team that improves as games go on. Michigan held Illinois to 37 rush yards on 33 carries.

Wolverines senior defensive tackle Mike Martin continued to wreak havoc, helping to stuff Illinois' rushing attack. Michigan also received a huge interception from J.T. Floyd early in the fourth quarter.

The concern for Michigan going forward is the offense and specifically the quarterback position. Robinson looks a bit lost right now and completed just 6 of 10 passes before leaving the game in the fourth quarter. He appeared to get banged up late in the game. Devin Gardner led Michigan's final two scoring drives and fired a 27-yard touchdown pass to Martavious Odoms.

Offensive coordinator Al Borges has some decisions to make before next week's game against Nebraska, both with personnel and with his scheme. Although Toussaint was fabulous with 192 rush yards and a touchdown, the Wolverines can't expect to keep making so many mistakes and win.

Illinois has much bigger problems to worry about. Ron Zook's squad dropped its fourth consecutive game and seemed to backslide on both sides of the ball. The run game simply isn't there and Jason Ford, one of few offensive bright spots the past three contests, had just 26 rush yards and a lost fumble. I really expected more from Illinois' offensive line, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has backslid after a blistering start.

The Illini defense is doing what it can, but the unit clearly needs more help. Illinois also suffered yet another mishap on a punt return.

After recording its best start since 1951 (6-0), Illinois finds itself in serious trouble entering the final two weeks. The calls for Zook's job likely will intensify, particularly if the Illini lose out to finish a once-unfathomable 6-6.
Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino entered the season brimming with confidence, and for good reason.

His unit had set team records for scoring (423 points) and points per game (32.5) in 2010 and returned most of its key pieces, namely quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Most of the questions about Illinois rested with a defense that had lost three players to the NFL draft, including first-round pick Corey Liuget.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
Jerry Lai/US PresswireQB Nathan Scheelhaase, 2, and the Illinois offense have struggled the past three games.
"We're always going to set our expectations high," Petrino told ESPN.com in August. "We set the school record last year, and we're going to break it this year."

Petrino looked prophetic through the first six games, as Illinois averaged 34.7 points and 447.7 yards. The Illini recorded 32 plays of 20 yards or longer. Scheelhaase and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins formed the Big Ten's most dangerous passing connection, as Jenkins soared to the top of the national receiving chart with 815 yards and seven touchdowns.

A surprisingly effective defense complemented the offense, and Illinois swept its first six games to get off to its best start since 1951.

But the Illini since have backslid, dropping three straight games. While the defense continues to perform well, the offense has disappeared.

Illinois has scored only 28 points during the losing streak, including none in the first half and only seven before the fourth quarter. Amazingly, the Illini had more yards and more first downs than any of its past three opponents -- Ohio State, Purdue and Penn State -- and dropped all three contests.

What's wrong with the Illini offense? It's not complicated, according to Petrino.

"Blocking, protecting, throwing and catching -- the basics," Petrino told ESPN.com. "You've got to block people. You've got to hit people when they're open. You've got to catch the ball. And then you've got to run through some tackles. Just the basic stuff we've got to do better. We've kind of hurt ourselves from that standpoint in the last three games.

"We've got to do it better."

They need to start Saturday against No. 24 Michigan at Memorial Stadium. Illinois' once-promising season could go down the drain if the offense doesn't resurface.

A potential turnaround for the Illini starts with the offensive line, considered one of the Big Ten's best before the season. Illinois boasts experience up front and continuity, as there has been only one change in the starting lineup all season.

But Illinois' front five has struggled against some of the Big Ten's best defensive linemen, allowing too many negative-yardage plays. Opposing teams have recorded 24 tackles for loss and eight sacks during Illinois' losing streak.

"A lot of times we've been getting beat up front," Petrino said. "That doesn't necessarily mean it's always the O-line. Sometimes it's the tight end or the back, [and the] quarterback a couple times needed to get the ball out of his hands quicker."

Petrino also is looking for more big plays. Jenkins and Scheelhaase provided a bunch of them early in the season, but defenses have done better at limiting Jenkins' effectiveness the past three games.

Illinois has recorded just three plays of 20 yards or longer in the past three games -- all passes from Scheelhaase to Jenkins.

"Some of the other guys have got to do it, too," Petrino said. "Darius Millines did it early in the year and he was hurt for a while, but I think he's getting back, being closer to being 100 percent, so that will help. Jon Davis, our freshman tight end, has made some plays for us. Ryan Lankford has got to start making some plays.

"And then in the running game, we've got to bust through the holes and get some long runs, also."

Senior running back Jason Ford has been a bright spot, recording 183 rush yards on 34 carries in the past two games. But Ford's longest run this season is just 18 yards.

"Bottom line, defenses are too good this day and age if you go three, four yards the whole time," Petrino said. "You've got to get some big plays."

Illinois also needs to start games better, especially against a Michigan team that has improved as games go along. The Illini averaged 17.5 points in the first half through the first six games, but they've since limped out of the gate.

"We haven't played worth a darn in the first quarter of the last three games," Petrino said. "It's something we take pride in. We script our opening plays and we work on them all week.

"So we've got to go out and play fast and definitely get going early."

Saturday would be a good time for a better start.

Halftime: Penn State 0, Illinois 0

October, 29, 2011
10/29/11
5:26
PM ET
U-G-L-Y.

That pretty much sums up the first half in State College, where it's snowing and neither offense has shown up. Will this be first to 10? First to score?

Illinois appeared ready to make the scoreboard operator finally do his job late in the first half as Derek Dimke lined up for a 26-yard field-goal try. Dimke has been perfect on seven attempts this season. But the Illini botched the snap and then threw an interception to Penn State's Sean Stanley, who turned in a nice half.

Illinois might have botched the game winner at the rate this contest is going.

The teams combined for nine first downs, two third down conversions on 17 attempts, four turnovers and 176 total yards. While both teams boast solid defenses, the two offenses have been downright painful to watch.

Both teams have played two quarterbacks, although Illinois looks much more justified to do so than Penn State. Joe Paterno and his staff continue to trot out Rob Bolden, who clearly hasn't developed the way anyone had hopes. While Matthew McGloin made his second start and struggled, Bolden failed to complete a pass on four attempts and twice fumbled. Fans seemed to boo the sophomore late in the half.

Nittany Lions sophomore RB Silas Redd has been solid as usual (14 rushes, 74 yards), but the lack of production at quarterback is infuriating. Will McGloin be the guy in the second half like he has the past few games? You never know with this staff.

Illinois' Reilly O'Toole completed 3 of 4 passes in relief of Nathan Scheelhaase, who has struggled mightily for the third consecutive game. The Illini can't abandon their run game with Jason Ford, especially in a contest where few points will be scored.

Here's hoping for some excitement in the final 30 minutes. Strange, strange day in the Big Ten.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Braxton Miller has yet to complete a pass for Ohio State, but the Buckeyes have a two-score lead. That's the kind of day it has been at Memorial Stadium.

A few thoughts at the end of three quarters, as Ohio State leads No. 16 Illinois 10-0.
  • Ohio State's defense has been absolutely brilliant today. Linemen Johnathan Hankins and John Simon are consistently beating Illinois’ veteran offensive line. The back seven also has stepped up, and freshman CB Bradley Roby provided the biggest play of the game, intercepting a Nathan Scheelhaase pass and returning the ball to the Illini 12-yard line. Ohio State scored on the next play. Coach Luke Fickell has to love what he's seeing from the defense.
  • While the Buckeyes offense hasn't been pretty, Dan Herron continues to provide a huge boost in his return from suspension. The senior already has eclipsed 100 yards rushing and scored the touchdown on a 12-yard scamper. He has run with both speed and power and looks very much like a guy with fresh legs.
  • Illinois started to pass the ball better in the third quarter but can't hit on the big play. Scheelhaase has looked jittery at times, fumbling several snaps, although he made a big throw to A.J. Jenkins for a third-and-15 conversion at the end of the quarter.
  • Illini RB Jason Ford left the game with a left shoulder injury early in the quarter. It looked pretty bad at first but Ford trotted to the locker room for further evaluation. His return is uncertain.

1Q update: Both defenses dominating

October, 15, 2011
10/15/11
4:12
PM ET
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- It has been all about the defenses after 15 minutes of play at Memorial Stadium. Ohio State leads No. 16 Illinois 3-0 after the first quarter.

A few notes and thoughts:
  • Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller is moving around fine, and coordinator Jim Bollman hasn't been afraid to send Miller on the move. Miller ran the option on the first play from scrimmage and leads Ohio State with six rushes. He hasn't attempted a pass, twice running on obvious passing situations, so he looks a little gun-shy so far.

  • Illinois' defense likely has something to do with it. Illini DE Whitney Mercilus continued his spectacular season with a hit on Miller that jarred the ball loose (Ohio State C Mike Brewster recovered). Fellow defensive linemen Michael Buchanan also has been impressive.
  • Ohio State's defense has rebounded nicely from its late-game flop at Nebraska. The Buckeyes are tackling well and preventing Illinois from stretching the field. Illini star WR A.J. Jenkins has only one catch for two yards.
  • Jason Ford has been the bright spot for Illinois' offense, running with good power, as he should with his frame. Ford has three carries for 21 yards and should get the ball more in the second quarter.
  • Dan Herron definitely makes a difference for Ohio State's offense. The senior racked up 27 rush yards and showed some good moves with the ball. The Buckeyes will need a big game from "Boom" today.
I don't know if we'll see a wilder Big Ten game all season than the one that just took place in Champaign.

Pick a story line -- Dan Persa's return for Northwestern, Illinois' struggles in the red zone, Northwestern's defensive woes, Nathan Scheelhaase's guts, A.J. Jenkins' brilliance -- and this game had it.

Ultimately, Scheelhaase and Jenkins prevailed with an incredible second-half performance as Illinois outlasted Northwestern 35-31 at Memorial Stadium. Jenkins had a record-setting day with 12 catches, 268 receiving yards and three touchdowns. He found enormous gaps in Northwestern's secondary, which had no answer for the Illini star all afternoon.

Scheelhaase rebounded from a shaky first half to finish with 391 pass yards and three touchdowns, and he added the game-winning rushing touchdown with 13 seconds remaining. The sophomore showed tremendous poise in rallying Illinois from deficits of 28-10 and 35-31.

Illinois definitely needs to clean things up, as two turnovers led to Northwestern touchdowns, including an inexcusable fumble by Jason Ford in the final minutes. The penalties also are a problem, but Ron Zook's squad is finding ways to win games.

Moving on to Persa. You have to feel for the Northwestern quarterback, who threw a career-high four touchdown passes and completed 11 of 15 attempts in his return, but then left the game. He appeared to aggravate his right Achilles'/ankle, which kept him out the first four games. We'll have to see about the extent of his injury. Northwestern looked like a different team with No. 7 on the field. The Wildcats also lost top running back Mike Trumpy to what looked like a serious knee injury.

But quarterback isn't the biggest issue for Northwestern. Pat Fitzgerald has to completely reassess his defense: the players, the scheme and the coaching. After being shredded by Army's run game, Northwestern had no answer for Jenkins and the Illinois passing attack. Illinois' second-half scoring drives were far two easy, as Northwestern put no pressure on Scheelhaase and seemed to sit back on its heels.

Illinois would have piled up more points if not for some first-half miscues in the red zone.

Fitzgerald has done a lot of good things in his tenure at Northwestern, but as a former All-America linebacker, he can't have a team that plays defense like this. And he can't have teams that consistently blow huge leads, as Northwestern has for the past year and a half.

For Illinois, the good times continue. The Illini are 5-0. While there's a lot to fix, Illinois is finding ways to win.

Big Ten stock report: Week 5

September, 28, 2011
9/28/11
1:00
PM ET
Let's pause and take stock.

Stock up

Illinois running back depth: The Illini have three backs who have rushed for at least 210 yards this season. Fifth-year senior Troy Pollard surprisingly leads the team with 260 yards -- including his first two career 100-yard days -- while averaging a whopping 10.4 yards per carry. Freshman Donovonn Young is averaging 7.9 yards per attempt. They make nice complements to Jason Ford, who has four rushing touchdowns this season.

Devin Smith: The Ohio State passing game hasn't exactly been firing on all cylinders lately. But true freshman Devin Smith looks impressive. The 6-foot-3 receiver made two touchdown grabs last week against Colorado despite playing only about 30 snaps. "Devin can make plays," head coach Luke Fickell said. "He's a guy that can get on top of you, have some speed. Obviously good balls were thrown to him and he made the plays. We need that."

Tom Nardo: It was neat to see the Iowa senior defensive lineman win Big Ten defensive player of the week honors after his 12-tackle performance against Louisiana Monroe. That's because Nardo was a walk-on his whole career until being awarded a scholarship this spring. He's tied for the team lead with three tackles for loss this season.

Rex Burkhead: The Nebraska I-back has run for 290 yards and four touchdowns his past two games, averaging nearly eight yards per carry. He now ranks third in the Big Ten in rushing, just one yard behind teammate Taylor Martinez. So much for those who doubted whether Burkhead could be a star without Roy Helu Jr.

James Vandenberg: The Iowa quarterback has been a man on fire since late in the third quarter of the Pitt game. He has thrown for 669 yards his past two games, with six touchdowns. For the season, the junior has tossed for 10 scores and just one interception, and he's on pace to throw for well over 3,000 yards. Not bad for a first-year, full-time starter.

Stock down

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireMichigan quarterback Denard Robinson is having a fantastic season on the ground, but is struggling in the passing game.
Denard's passing: Denard Robinson is a joy to watch when running the ball -- and right now often painful to watch throwing it. He was just 8 of 17 for 93 yards with two interceptions against San Diego State, and many of the misfires weren't close. That followed a 7-for-18 passing day against lowly Eastern Michigan. Brady Hoke says the passing problems aren't all Robinson's fault, but clearly this area has to improve for Michigan to compete for a division title.

The Illinois band's timing: Western Michigan was flagged for a false start on Saturday, but the head official waved it off and explained that the Marching Illini Band didn't stop playing in time for the Broncos to call out their snap count. At least he didn't criticize their rhythm.

Indiana kickoff returns: Frankly, the stock is very low on most things Hoosiers-related. But here's one glaring stat: Indiana is second-to-last nationally in kickoff return average, getting a little more than 15 yards per return. Considering the one strength IU seemingly has is some speedy skill players, this is surprisingly bad.

Minnesota's pass rush: The Gophers had one of the worst pass rushes in the country last year with only nine sacks for the season. Things aren't much better this year; in fact, Minnesota is on pace for an even worse year for getting to the quarterback. It is tied for last nationally with only one sack so far in four games (Indiana also only has one). The Gophers' secondary gets a lot of blame for the team's problems defending the pass, but that futility is a group effort.

Predictions: Big Ten Week 4

September, 22, 2011
9/22/11
9:00
AM ET
Bennett might be the new guy around here, but you wouldn't know it from the predictions. At this rate, Rittenberg might want to find a new conference home. I hear the Big East needs bodies.

Week 4 brings both bloggers a chance to pad their stats, only one opponent from a major conference, Colorado, is on the docket.

Let's get to the predictions!

CENTRAL MICHIGAN at MICHIGAN STATE

Brian Bennett: The first of our many directional Michigan school games this week. The Chippewas don't have enough firepower to counteract a tough Spartans' D. ... Michigan State 31, Central Michigan 13

Adam Rittenberg: The Chips are no longer the world beaters they were under Brian Kelly. Michigan State's defense performs well and a patchwork offensive line does enough to help Kirk Cousins have a big day. ... Michigan State 28, Central Michigan 14

SAN DIEGO STATE at NO. 22 MICHIGAN

Adam Rittenberg: Ah, the Brady Hoke Bowl. The Aztecs will be fired up for this one, and they'll give Michigan a very good test before Big Ten play begins. Ronnie Hillman makes some plays, but Denard Robinson makes more as Michigan survives. Michigan 31, SDSU 27

Brian Bennett: Michigan better avoid its slow starts this week, because the last thing it wants is a confident, revenge-minded bunch of Aztecs on its hands. Robinson does his thing, though, and the Wolverines get a couple of key turnovers to stay unbeaten. ... Michigan 28, SDSU 23

EASTERN MICHIGAN at PENN STATE

Brian Bennett: The Eagles hung tough for a half at the Big House last week, and Penn State's offense will let a lot of teams hang around. But the talent gap is still too large, and Silas Redd goes for more than 100 yards on the ground. ... Penn State 27, E. Michigan 3

Adam Rittenberg: I think this is the week when Penn State gets clarity at the quarterback position. Just don't ask me which guy separates himself. Either way, the Lions' defense rolls, recording at least two takeaways. ... Penn State 30, E. Michigan 7

LOUISIANA-MONROE at IOWA

Adam Rittenberg: ULM isn't a bad defensive team (38th nationally in yards allowed), but Iowa has some confidence in the passing game as several options emerged last week alongside Marvin McNutt. James Vandenberg tosses two touchdown strikes in this one. ... Iowa 31, ULM 14

Brian Bennett: The Warhawks got off to a great start last week at TCU before fading. Iowa should have some momentum from last week's comeback, though. ... Iowa 35, ULM 17

COLORADO at OHIO STATE

Brian Bennett: My boldest prediction: the Buckeyes complete more than four passes. Braxton Miller starts and has an up-and-down day, but the Silver Bullets clamp down the Buffs. ... Ohio State 21, Colorado 10

Adam Rittenberg: Wow, you truly are a gambler, BB. It definitely sounds like Miller time in Columbus. Can't see Ohio State lighting up anyone right now, but the Buckeyes do enough in the second half to win this one. Ohio State 19, Colorado 12

SOUTH DAKOTA at NO. 6 WISCONSIN

Adam Rittenberg: Bucky Badger had better bulk up this week. He'll be doing plenty of push-ups in this one as Wisconsin keeps it on the ground with Montee Ball and James White. ... Wisconsin 66, South Dakota 10

Brian Bennett: I actually feel kind of sorry for the Coyotes. Since Bret Bielema was still passing up 49-7 on Northern Illinois last week, this one could get real ugly. ... Wisconsin 70, South Dakota 13

WESTERN MICHIGAN at NO. 24 ILLINOIS

Brian Bennett: Trap Game Alert! Sandwiched between the Arizona State upset and the Big Ten opener against Northwestern, I think the Illini are due for a letdown. But the defense showed me last week that it's better than I thought, and it will slow Alex Carder and the Broncos just enough. ... Illinois 31, Western Michigan 23

Adam Rittenberg: I agree on the letdown front. Illinois has some holes in the secondary that Carder will exploit, but Western Michigan won't be able to stop a revived run game from Jason Ford, Nathan Scheelhaase and Donovonn Young. ... Illinois 35, Western Michigan 24

NORTH DAKOTA STATE at MINNESOTA

Adam Rittenberg: The Gophers have no reason to overlook North Dakota State after their recent struggles against FCS foes. Jerry Kill will make sure his team is ready. That doesn't mean it won't be close, but MarQueis Gray again shows why he's the best athlete on the field. ... Minnesota 28, North Dakota State 23

Brian Bennettt: As I said in my chat, it's not a good idea to sleep on the Bison, figuratively or literally. This is a very good FCS team that will be highly motivated. But I liked what I saw from the Gophers last week, and they win on a late field goal. ... Minnesota 24, NDSU 21

INDIANA at NORTH TEXAS

Brian Bennett: The Polite Green rank No. 6 in our Bottom 10 this week and are about as big a pushover as it gets in the FBS. But it's not like Indiana can just show up and beat anyone, especially on the road. The Hoosiers offense is getting a little better, though, and Ed Wright-Baker comes through in the fourth quarter. ... Indiana 35, North Texas 24

Adam Rittenberg: I worry about Indiana's young offensive line on the road, especially after false start fever last week at home. But North Texas is truly abysmal, and Indiana will find a way to prevail in Denton. ... Indiana 27, North Texas 21

NO. 9 NEBRASKA at WYOMING

Adam Rittenberg: Wyoming is undefeated but hasn't faced any team close to Nebraska's level. The Pokes hold their own in the first quarter or so before Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead run away with this one. ... Nebraska 38, Wyoming 14

Brian Bennett: The Huskers offense will have a field day, and I also see a bounce back for the Blackshirts against Wyoming's true freshman quarterback. ... Nebraska 44, Wyoming 13

Byes: Northwestern, Purdue

Yes, it's lame that we agree on every game, but given this sorry slate, what did you expect?

SEASON RECORDS

Rittenberg: 25-11 (.694)

Bennett: 28-8 (.778)
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- It's fitting that Illinois' defense had to seal a statement win for the program.

Vic Koenning's unit performed masterfully most of the game, making play after to play to keep Arizona State out of the end zone. After struggling on third-and-long much of the night, the Illini forced four consecutive incomplete passes to cement a 17-14 win.

Illinois received a tremendous performance from its defensive front seven, particularly Whitney Mercilus and Jonathan Brown, and Koenning continued to dial up blitzes that worked. The offense struggled in the second half but got some nice running late from Jason Ford and Nathan Scheelhaase.

Despite a strong defensive effort, Arizona State still has trouble turning the corner and likely will fall out of the polls this week. Too many turnovers and penalties for the Sun Devils tonight.

Illinois, meanwhile, has announced itself as a contender in a very vulnerable Big Ten.

Arizona State-Illinois pregame

September, 17, 2011
9/17/11
6:57
PM ET
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Brock Osweiler really is that big.

That's my prevailing thought after watching the Arizona State quarterback warm up. The 6-foot-8 Osweiler should have no trouble seeing over the Illinois defense tonight. I'm also impressed with several of the Sun Devils receivers. It'll be a challenge for the Illini secondary.

Illinois running back Jason Ford stood out to me during warmups. He looks like he's gained a step or two, and he's always had the size to run with power.

The weather is still gorgeous, so let's get this thing going. Should be a good one.

Big Ten stock report, Week 3

September, 14, 2011
9/14/11
1:00
PM ET
Welcome back to the one stock report you can read without having to worry about your 401(k). Here's our look at the bulls and bears of the Big Ten:

Stock up

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireRussell Wilson rates as the second most efficient quarterback in the country through two games.
Passing efficiency: Four of the top 15 most efficient passers in the country reside in the Big Ten. Wisconsin's Russell Wilson ranks second, followed by Michigan's Denard Robinson at No. 7, Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase at No. 8 and Michigan State's Kirk Cousins at No. 15. Wilson has completed 79.4 percent of his passes through two games, while Cousins has connected on 79.1 percent and Scheelhaase is at 71 percent. In addition, Northwestern's Kain Colter is completing a Persa-esque 73 percent of his throws.

Illinois' rushing attack: Losing Mikel Leshoure hasn't hurt the Illini ground game yet this season. Ron Zook's team is averaging 283 yards rushing per game, tops in the Big Ten and tied for eighth in the FBS. It's been a balanced attack, with Scheelhaase, Jason Ford, Troy Pollard and Donovonn Young all churning out at least 100 yards through two games.

Nebraska's special teams: The departure of Alex Henery has barely caused a ripple in Lincoln. Brett Maher leads the FBS in punting with a 51.3 yards-per-kick average, and he has made all four of his field-goal attempts. Freshman Ameer Abdullah ranks second nationally in kick returns and 13th in punt returns. He brought a kickoff back for a 100-yard score in last week's Fresno State game. Whoever came up with these preseason position rankings was clearly insane.

Ohio State's pass protection: The Buckeyes are one of 10 teams in the country that has yet to allow a sack. They have a veteran offensive line, even without Mike Adams, so that stat is not too surprising after two games against MAC opponents. This week's game at Miami will provide a sterner test.

Nick Toon and Junior Hemingway: Both receivers had big days on Saturday. Wisconsin's Toon had an off year last season as a junior but seems re-energized so far as a senior. He had seven catches for 69 yards and a touchdown last week against Oregon State. Michigan's Hemingway had a patch honoring Desmond Howard affixed to his No. 21 jersey before the Notre Dame game. He responded with a Howard-esque performance, catching three balls for 165 yards and a score.

Stock down

Passing inefficiency: Not all the Big Ten quarterbacks are operating at high efficiency. Nebraska's Taylor Martinez ranks 84th nationally in passer efficiency and is completing just 48.8 percent of his passes. Minnesota's MarQueis Gray is 78th in efficiency and has a 52.3 completion percentage, while Purdue's Caleb TerBush is ranked 72nd and is completing 57.8 percent. Penn State's duo of Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin have combined to connect on just 40.7 percent of their throws, making the Nittany Lions the third-least efficient passing team in the country. And though Denard Robinson ranks high in efficiency because of his long throws and touchdowns, his completion rate is just 45.1 percent.

Illinois crowds: The Illini are off to a 2-0 start and have six more home games, but so far the fans haven't been clamoring to see them. They drew an announced crowd of 45,154 for the opener and just 42,212 last week. Memorial Stadium's official capacity is 60,670. The first two opponents -- Arkansas State and South Dakota State -- weren't exactly marquee draws. Let's see if Illinois fans respond better with a ranked team coming in this week in Arizona State.

Nebraska's defense: Did the Huskers leave the Blackshirts in the Big 12? So far, the defense we heard so much about hasn't been very special. Fresno State gashed Nebraska for 444 total yards, including 169 rushing yards by running back Robbie Rouse. The Cornhuskers didn't manage a single sack in that game. "I think every now and then you need to get smacked in the face and get a wake-up call," head coach Bo Pelini told reporters Monday. "When people are telling you how good you are, sometimes you need a reality check. In this world, you get humbled in a hurry. Last week we were humbled."

Iowa's pass rush: Perhaps a step back was to be expected from a defensive line that saw three starters from last year's team get drafted in April. Regardless, the line had a tough day in Ames last weekend. The Hawkeyes struggled to get pressure on Iowa State quarterback Steele Jantz, and when they did, he was able to run away from them and keep plays alive. Iowa has only one sack in each of its first two games this season.

Kevin Wilson's fourth-down gambles: The Indiana coach has been aggressive early in his tenure, but it hasn't paid off the way he or the Hoosiers would like. With IU leading 17-14 and staring at a fourth-and-3 from the Ball State 9-yard line in the opener, Wilson decided to go for the touchdown instead of the easy field goal. Incomplete pass, Indiana eventually loses 27-20. Last week, down 23-10 to Virginia and at the Cavaliers' 8-yard line, Wilson called for the fake field goal on fourth down. Incomplete pass, Indiana eventually loses 34-31. If the calls work, Wilson looks like a genius. But they didn't. That's the nature of coaching.

Halftime updates from around Big Ten

September, 10, 2011
9/10/11
2:00
PM ET
We've reached the halfway point of the early games around the conference.

Let's check in.

Toledo-Ohio State: The dominance Ohio State displayed in its opener hasn't been there today, although the Buckeyes rallied to take a 21-15 lead at halftime. Tim Beckman has his Toledo squad geared up against his former team, and the Rockets are attacking Ohio State decently through the air. Buckeyes quarterback Joe Bauserman hasn't been nearly as sharp today (10-for-19 passing), but the coaches clearly want to get him comfortable before next week's trip to Miami. Unless the score widens, don't expect to see much of Braxton Miller. Tight end Jake Stoneburner and running back Carlos Hyde continue to be bright spots for Ohio State's offense, while breakdowns in the kicking game are also continuing to surface.

Oregon State-Wisconsin: Unlike the opener, where everything worked, Wisconsin has had to be creative to spark its offense today. That's where Russell Wilson comes in handy. Oregon State sold out against the run early on and had success stuffing the Badgers' backs. Wilson has responded by dissecting the Beavers' secondary. He has completed 12 of 14 passes for 124 yards and three touchdowns, including two to Jacob Pedersen. His accuracy continues to impress me, as I thought Wisconsin would have a drop-off after losing Scott Tolzien. The defense also has responded against a limited Oregon State team, which can't get anything going on the ground. Wisconsin appears to be in total control.

Iowa-Iowa State: After a strong start, Iowa finds itself deadlocked at 10-10 in a place (Jack Trice Stadium) where it has struggled under coach Kirk Ferentz. Marcus Coker's fumbling issues continued following a good first-quarter surge, and his turnover set up Iowa State's only touchdown. Coker can be one of the Big Ten's better backs, but he has to hold onto the football. Iowa's new-look defense seems to be struggling a bit against quarterback Steele Jantz (great name) and running back Shontrelle Johnson, who averaged 8.4 yards a carry in the first half. Stay tuned as this one should be very interesting.

South Dakota State-Illinois: Everything is clicking for the Illini, who look like they'll once again have one of the nation's top rushing attacks. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has been a greater threat on the ground, and he's getting help from Jason Ford, Troy Pollard and dynamic freshman Donovonn Young. An experienced offensive line deserves credit, too, as Illinois already has 227 rushing yards. The defense has held South Dakota State to two first downs and only 54 total yards.

Florida Atlantic-Michigan State: After a sloppy opener, the Spartans have cleaned up their act in a big way. What a half for Pat Narduzzi's defense, which held FAU to one first down and just 26 total yards. The defensive line has been stellar, and Michigan State is capitalizing on excellent field position and converting for touchdowns. It's already a big day for receivers B.J. Cunningham (5 catches, 73 yards) and Keshawn Martin (6 catches, 68 yards), and the run game has provided a spark. Up 27-0, Michigan State can get its reserves plenty of time in the second half.

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