NCF Nation: Jeff Budzien

Northwestern Wildcats season preview

August, 14, 2014
8/14/14
10:30
AM ET
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Northwestern Wildcats:

2013 overall record: 5-7 (1-7 Big Ten)

Key losses: QB Kain Colter, RB Venric Mark, DE Tyler Scott, LB Damien Proby, K Jeff Budzien

Key returnees: QB Trevor Siemian, WR Tony Jones, SB Dan Vitale, C Brandon Vitabile, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, S Ibraheim Campbell

Instant impact newcomer: WR Miles Shuler. He arrived on campus last year but was forced to sit out a season following a transfer from Rutgers. With Christian Jones' season-ending knee injury, he’ll definitely get some reps at the position -- and, with his speed, he should compete for the one of the spots at returner. After all, he did win the New Jersey high school state titles in the 55- and 100-meter dash events.

Projected starters

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesThe Wildcats are hoping senior QB Trevor Siemian can get them more wins in the Big Ten this season.
Offense: QB: Trevor Siemian, Sr., 6-3, 210; RB: Treyvon Green, Sr., 5-10, 215; SB: Dan Vitale, Jr., 6-2, 225; OT: Paul Jorgensen, Sr., 6-6, 295; OG: Geoff Mogus, Jr., 6-5, 295; C: Brandon Vitabile, Sr., 6-3, 300; OG: Matt Frazier, Jr., 6-4, 290; OT: Jack Konopka, Sr., 6-5, 300; WR: Tony Jones, Sr., 6-0, 195; WR: Cameron Dickerson, Jr., 6-3, 200; WR: Kyle Prater, Sr., 6-5, 225

Defense: DE: Dean Lowry, Jr., 6-6, 265; DT: Sean McEvilly, 6-5, 290; DT: Chance Carter, Sr., 6-3, 295; DE: Deonte Gibson, Jr., 6-3, 260; OLB: Jimmy Hall, Sr., 6-2, 205; MLB: Collin Ellis, Sr., 6-2, 230; OLB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Sr., 6-3, 235; CB: Nick VanHoose, Jr., 6-0, 190; CB: Matthew Harris, So., 5-11, 180; S: Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., 5-11, 205; S: Traveon Henry, Jr., 6-1, 200

Special teams: K: Hunter Niswander, RS Fr., 6-5, 210; P: Chris Gradone, Jr., 6-2, 190

Biggest question mark: Can Northwestern overcome the sudden losses of leading wideout Christian Jones and top tailback Venric Mark? It was one surprising Wednesday, as the Wildcats discovered Jones would miss the season with a knee injury and that Mark would transfer elsewhere. Before the news, the big question was whether Northwestern could win those tight games. Now it’s just whether Northwestern can win -- period -- without some of its biggest offensive names. This preseason has already gone above and beyond Pat Fitzgerald’s worst-case scenario ... so can the Wildcats overcome it?

Most important game: Sept. 27 at Penn State. It may not be the most anticipated game of the season but, as the conference opener, it’ll set the tone for a Wildcats team that won just a single Big Ten game last season. A win here could propel Northwestern to a 4-0 start and should give the Cats a boost of confidence heading into the heart (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan) of their conference schedule. They'll need it without Jones and Mark.

Upset special: Oct. 18 vs. Nebraska. Motivation shouldn’t be in short supply for Northwestern here, as it would’ve come away with the win last season if it weren't for a last-second Hail Mary. Now the Cornhuskers have a few more question marks on their team -- and Northwestern could be poised to take advantage.

Key stat: In conference play last season, Northwestern was outscored by its opponents 66-30 in the fourth quarter. Actually, building off a number first calculated by WNUR’s Michael Stern, opponents have outscored Northwestern in the fourth quarter by 703-580 during the Pat Fitzgerald era.

What they’re wearing: The Wildcats have purple, white and black Under Armour jerseys, pants and helmets in nine different combinations. But there's no telling yet what Northwestern will wear, since Fitzgerald and the student-athlete leadership council determine, week-to-week, what the Wildcats will be sporting on game day. According to a spokesman, there could also be a surprise in store this season, although nothing official has yet been announced.

All that being said, there are still two new definite additions to this year's uniforms: a new glove and cleat design.



Team’s top Twitter follows: The official accounts to follow include both Northwestern sports (@NU_Sports) and Wildcats' football (@NUFBFamily). Head coach Pat Fizgerald (@coachfitz51) is an active tweeter, but you'll find he mostly just retweets others. Ditto for offensive coordinator Mike McCall (@McCallMick). One Northwestern employee worth following, though, is director of player personnel Chris Bowers (@NU_Bowers) who mixes it up between work and other things. Running back Warren Long (@larrenwong) keeps it light, and freshman cornerback Parrker Westphal (@Optimus_22HB) is also very active. As far as news coverage, you'll find plenty from blogs Lake The Posts (@LakeThePosts) and SB Nation's Inside NU (@insidenu). The award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern (@thedailynu), is also a good bet.

They said it: "Today is a difficult day for our football family and, most importantly, for Venric. We love him, and there is no doubt we're going to miss him as both a person and player. But this is unquestionably what is best for Venric and those closest to him." -- Head coach Pat Fitzgerald, on Mark's Wednesday announcement he's transferring due to personal reasons

Stats & Info projections: 6.59 wins

Wise guys over/under: 7.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Six wins. If you would've asked this question 24 hours ago, the answer likely would've been seven wins. Now, with the absence Jones and Mark, it's no stretch to think the Cats will drop at least one extra game. Depending on Siemian's performance, Northwestern still has a shot to be the surprise of the West. But that chance has obviously become more of a long-shot with the recent news. With 16 returning starters, Northwestern should still improve upon last season's finish. But Wednesday's news and last season's performance still has us a bit jittery in picking the Cats to beat out teams such as Penn State and Michigan. That could change, but right now, we're going to play it safe and say Northwestern rebounds -- slightly -- by finishing at .500.
The Big Ten released its all-conference teams as selected by coaches and the media earlier this month. We didn't have a vote for the media teams, and we don't pretend to know as much about football as the league's coaches.

But we can also say with confidence that we watched more Big Ten football here at the blog than anyone else. So here are our picks for the 2013 ESPN.com All-Big Ten team:

Offense

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesBraxton Miller is one of six Buckeyes on ESPN.com's All-Big Ten team.
QB: Braxton Miller, Ohio State
RB: Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
WR: Allen Robinson, Penn State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan
OL: Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
OL: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OL: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OL: Corey Linsley, Ohio State
OL: Ryan Groy, Wisconsin

Defense

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
DT: Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota
DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State
LB: James Morris, Iowa
DB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
DB: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
DB: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
DB: Brock Vereen, Minnesota

Specialists

K: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska
PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa

OK, so we cheated just a bit on positions, going with three tackles on our offensive line and a 3-4 defense. But considering the coaches had six defensive backs and two punters on their first team, we don't feel too bad about it. ... We wanted to include Scherff, Lewan and Mewhort on the first team, because we thought they were the three best linemen in the league. If we had to field an actual team with these guys, we're sure we could figure it out. It was a tough call between Groy and Penn State's John Urschel, whom we love for his on- and off-the-field accomplishments. We just felt Wisconsin had the better overall season as an offensive line, so we went with Groy. ... We went with the 3-4 because linebacker was such a deep position in this league -- so deep that we had to leave off some deserving players, like Michigan State's Denicos Allen -- while defensive line wasn't nearly as strong. ... The defensive backfield was a tough call (no wonder the coaches had an, ahem, pick six there). Dennard was a lock, and we felt that Drummond was the league's best safety in a year when that position was a bit weak conference-wide. We like what Vereen did in providing versatility and leadership for the Gophers, and Roby overcame a slow start to do his usual fine work. We had to leave off very good cornerbacks like Michigan's Blake Countess, Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Iowa's B.J. Lowery -- but that's what a second team is for. Stay tuned. ... Ohio State leads the way with six selections, followed by Michigan State with five. It's almost as if those were the two best teams in the league or something.

Big Ten predictions: Week 14

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
9:00
AM ET
Is it rivalry week already? Indeed it is. Where did this season go?

There's no drama in the Big Ten division races as Ohio State and Michigan State have secured spots in the league championship game next week. But the season-long predictions race is all square entering Week 14. The winner buys dinner in Indy before the title game. It's white-knuckle time.

Here we go …

Friday

IOWA (7-4, 4-3) at NEBRASKA (8-3, 5-2)

Brian Bennett: This could be a black-and-blue Friday as two teams that love to run could make this a physical, low-scoring game. I think Nebraska has a bit too much speed for the Hawkeyes, and it's hard to bet against the Huskers, given how they keep pulling out victories in tight games. Nebraska grabs the lead early on an Ameer Abdullah run and holds on late when Stanley Jean-Baptiste picks off Jake Rudock. … Nebraska 21, Iowa 17


Adam Rittenberg: Our first game might be the toughest to predict. Both defenses perform well and turn this into a field-goal fest. Iowa takes the lead in the third quarter on a Rudock touchdown pass, but Abdullah won't be denied in what could be his final game as a Husker. Abdullah rushes for 130 yards and a score, mostly in the second half, as Nebraska rallies once again for a win. … Nebraska 19, Iowa 16

Saturday

MINNESOTA (8-3, 4-3) at MICHIGAN STATE (10-1, 7-0)

Rittenberg: Minnesota's offense failed to score last week and will have another tough game against the nation's No. 1 defense. Spartans running back Jeremy Langford rushes for two more touchdowns as Michigan State uses another big fourth quarter to strengthen its chances for a BCS bowl bid, no matter how things turn out in Indy. … Michigan State 24, Minnesota 10

Bennett: Minnesota really has trouble throwing the ball. That will equal problems against the nation's No. 1 defense. The Gophers' defense gums things up enough to keep the score within reach, but Connor Cook connects on a pair of touchdown passes and the Spartans' defense does the rest. … Michigan State 17, Minnesota 6

OHIO STATE (11-0, 7-0) at MICHIGAN (7-4, 2-4)

Bennett: The Game isn't much of one this year. Even at home, Michigan just doesn't have enough offensive ability to hang with Ohio State. The Wolverines' defense puts up a valiant effort and slows down Carlos Hyde, but Braxton Miller converts several key third downs and throws three touchdown passes. … Ohio State 35, Michigan 14


Rittenberg: Rivalry games can spark surprises at times, but Ohio State is so much better than Michigan and has much more on the line. Plus, the Buckeyes' defensive line is rapidly improving and will become the latest group to infiltrate Michigan's backfield. Miller puts himself back on the Heisman radar with three touchdowns (two pass, one rush), and the Buckeyes record a second-half pick-six against Devin Gardner and rout Michigan. … Ohio State 42, Michigan 13

PURDUE (1-10, 0-7) at INDIANA (4-7, 2-5)

Rittenberg: Ah, the Bucket game. I thought Indiana would be playing for a bowl berth, but it's not to be. The Hoosiers still should have little trouble putting up points against Purdue. Wide receivers Cody Latimer and Shane Wynn combine for three touchdowns as Indiana holds off a nice rally led by Danny Etling (250 pass yards, 2 TDs). … Indiana 38, Purdue 28

Bennett: The Hoosiers are much better than the Boilermakers, but both will be staying home for the holidays. With nothing but pride at stake, Indiana lets it fly on offense and works out some frustration on its rivals by putting up 550 yards. … Indiana 51, Purdue 24


PENN STATE (6-5, 3-4) at WISCONSIN (9-2, 6-1)

Bennett: A wildly accomplished group of Wisconsin seniors will go out on a high note and give BCS bowls one more thing to think about. The Badgers smash the school record for rushing early and keep piling it up as both James White and Melvin Gordon gain more than 100 yards together again. Allen Robinson has a nice Penn State sendoff, but Sojourn Shelton comes up with an interception in the second half. … Wisconsin 38, Penn State 14


Rittenberg: Wisconsin is inching closer to a BCS at-large berth, and Penn State has been really bad on the road. This one gets ugly, folks, as White rushes for 200 yards and two scores on senior day and Gordon breaks off a 65-yard touchdown run. The Lions move the ball decently early before Wisconsin's defense adjusts and buckles down. … Wisconsin 45, Penn State 17

NORTHWESTERN (4-7, 0-7) at ILLINOIS (4-7, 1-6)

Rittenberg: There's only one way for this miserable Northwestern season to end. If the Wildcats had a healthy Kain Colter and some explosiveness at running back, I might pick the Purple. But Illinois' offense has it rolling right now, and the Illini will strike with big plays to Steve Hull (!) and Josh Ferguson, rallying in the second half. Northwestern will have one final chance to win but falls when a fourth-down option to Mike Trumpy falls a yard short. … Illinois 24, Northwestern 20

Bennett: Fitting that the season picks contest should come down to a game involving Northwestern, a team that has cost both of us some wins this season. It makes perfect sense to pick Illinois, which shed the Big Ten losing streak monkey off its back last week and has to be feeling better about itself than the Wildcats, who just want the season to end. But I can't reconcile that this Northwestern team will (A) actually finish 0-8 in league play or (B) lose to a team it beat 50-14 last year. So to the likely detriment of my wallet, I'll side with the purple here and say Trevor Siemian helps the Wildcats exploit the Illini defense, and Jeff Budzien wins it at the end. … Northwestern 27, Illinois 24


Those are our picks. Now it's time to hear from one of you. As a reminder, throughout the season, we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. We have one game left to pick -- the Big Ten championship -- before the bowls, so if you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please), hometown and a brief description of why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.

This week's guest is Jarrod Reese from Sioux City, Iowa. Jarrod, the floor is yours. …
I live in Sioux City, right on the border of Nebraska and South Dakota. I'm a lifelong Hawkeyes fan and have had to endure the taunts from the Huskers faithful the last two years. I think we can finally do it this year (I need the bragging rights). As a bonus, I just got engaged last Thursday. How about a nice engagement gift from my favorite B1G Blog?

You got it, Jarrod, and congrats on the engagement. We're sending you a gift.

Here are Jarrod's Week 14 picks:

Iowa 23, Nebraska 17
Michigan State 28, Minnesota 6
Ohio State 52, Michigan 17
Wisconsin 35, Penn State 13
Indiana 45, Purdue 17
Northwestern 17, Illinois 14

SEASON RECORDS

Brian Bennett: 76-14
Adam Rittenberg: 76-14
Guest pickers: 70-20

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Jordan Westerkamp grew up in the western Chicago suburbs, about 25 miles from Evanston and the Northwestern campus.

Pat Fitzgerald knew all about him two years ago at Montini Catholic. Westerkamp was one of the top prospects in the state of Illinois’ 2012 high school class. Fitzgerald and Northwestern recruited him, but Westerkamp, the son of a former Illinois wide receiver, picked Nebraska early in the process.

On Saturday, at last possible moment, he buried a dagger in the hearts of the Wildcats and their head coach.

“You can never let somebody get behind the pile,” Fitzgerald said.

His words echoed hollow in the aftermath of this improbable, 27-24 Nebraska victory at Memorial Stadium.

With his snag of a 49-yard Hail Mary from backup quarterback Ron Kellogg III as time expired, Westerkamp assured Northwestern of a losing Big Ten season. And in the most unlikely of moments, his catch pumped life into an almost-deflated season at Nebraska.

Jubilance masks all kinds of trouble. As celebratory music rained down on Tom Osborne Field while thousands above screamed with joy and disbelief, the problems of Saturday and last week and the season’s first half seemed momentarily insignificant to the Cornhuskers.

[+] EnlargeJordan Westerkamp
AP Photo/Nati HarnikNebraska wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp catches the game-winning touchdown, a desperation heave from quarterback Ron Kellogg III.
Can one play reverse the momentum of a football season? The Huskers hope so.

“I hope it keeps them believing,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said, “keeps them up.”

Pelini stopped to correct himself. His players would never stop believing, he said.

But the message lingered. Pelini didn’t need to say it; things were beginning to look bleak in Lincoln. Without the miracle in the south end zone, Nebraska was headed to Michigan next week -- with Michigan State on tap a week later -- off two consecutive bad losses.

Pelini’s critics were sharpening their knives even as the Huskers drove to near midfield before the final, fateful play.

Face it: The offense, for much of Saturday, was a mess of injuries and inefficiency. After an impressive opening drive, Nebraska sputtered throughout. Before the final play, Nebraska’s only score in the second half came on Avery Moss’ pick-six of a Trevor Siemian throw.

When the Huskers twice neared scoring range in the second half, they committed drive-killing penalties.

Freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. threw three interceptions, including a seemingly deadly pick by Tyler Scott that led to a Jeff Budzien field goal with 80 seconds left, placing the Wildcats on top.

And these are Nebraska’s cards. Taylor Martinez, the injured veteran quarterback who started 43 games over four seasons and set the school’s all-time total-offense mark, does not look set to return soon, if at all.

Martinez watched from the press box on Saturday. Asked after the game about the senior’s status, Pelini danced around the question. The coach didn’t even bother to list Martinez’s ailments. He was sick, too, this week, Pelini said, for whatever that’s worth.

“I’m going to stick with the way it went today,” Pelini said.

The defensive performance was equally confounding. The Blackshirts, shoved around a week ago in a loss at Minnesota, allowed three touchdowns on Northwestern’s first four possessions. The Wildcats led 21-7.

Then, as if to throw their arms skyward in despair, Pelini and defensive coordinator John Papuchis asked the defenders what they wanted to do differently. The players voted to scrap the game plan, which called for a three-man front.

The Huskers went back to their traditional look with four linemen. They stopped Northwestern on 11 consecutive possessions before the fourth-quarter field goal, which ought to count as another stop. It came after the Wildcats reached the 1-yard line on the first down after Scott’s interception return.

“We’re going to need that type of energy going into Michigan,” said Moss, the defensive end who tied the score at 21 with the 25-yard interception return midway through the third quarter.

Maybe it’ll work. Maybe it started on the last drive. Nebraska took over at its 17-yard line with 74 seconds to play. Pelini summoned Kellogg. The senior, who hadn’t played since the second quarter, said he felt “extremely nervous” before taking the field.

A former walk-on who’s never started a game, Kellogg found Ameer Abdullah for a 16-yard gain on fourth-and-15 to the Nebraska 40 with 21 seconds left. The signal-caller completed two short throws to the sideline before an incompletion and a prayer into the end zone.

“I didn’t even know I could throw it that far,” Kellogg said, “but thank God for Jordan Westerkamp.”

The kid snuck behind the pile, just a couple of yards deep in the end zone as Kellogg let it go toward Nebraska receiver Quincy Enunwa and a mess of defenders. Enunwa said he never touched the ball. It bounded off a Northwestern player and right to Westerkamp.

“I was just fortunate to be there,” Westerkamp said.

Kellogg didn’t see it. He got hit in the head at the line of scrimmage, he said, and lost his helmet on the field. Pelini missed it, too. He saw Westerkamp flash and heard the crowd roar. The coach wore a look of incredulity as he left the field.

Important lessons apply, he said.

“It’s about attitude,” Pelini said. “It’s about character.”

Don’t give up, no matter how dire the situation.

“Whether we caught that ball or didn’t catch that ball,” Pelini said, “we’re still the same team tomorrow.”

Perhaps, but as sure as Northwestern’s heartbreak after a fifth consecutive defeat, this one at the hands of a home-state kid, the Huskers got a reprieve Saturday. Another shot to show they’re not done yet.
What we learned from the seven Big Ten bowl games:

1. Need for speed (and skill): The narrative about the Big Ten being slow is tiresome and oversimplified. But the bowls showed it's not entirely inaccurate. Whether it was Michigan struggling to contain South Carolina's Ace Sanders, Minnesota getting burned by Texas Tech's passing game, Wisconsin desperately lacking a game-breaker versus Stanford or whatever it was Purdue attempted to do against Oklahoma State, the bowl games exposed a need for several teams to increase their overall athleticism at the skill positions. Big Ten teams came close to winning in four of the league's five postseason losses. The difference in those games often comes down to one or two playmakers, and the league could use a few more.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsIs there more success in store for Northwestern and coach Pat Fitzgerald ? He said he'll have his fastest team ever in 2013.
2. Northwestern has become a complete team: The Wildcats have often brought good offenses into their bowl games. They usually have not been as good on defense or suffered from special-teams problems. Northwestern won its first bowl game since 1949 because Pat Fitzgerald finally crafted a complete team this season. The defense limited Mississippi State to just 106 passing yards and intercepted Tyler Russell four times in a 34-20 victory in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. The offense featured a balanced attack between its rushing and passing games, and Northwestern had one of the best punt returners (Venric Mark) and field goal kickers (Jeff Budzien) in the business. In a season when many Big Ten teams lacked essential elements (defense at Nebraska, running game at Michigan, passing game at Michigan State, etc.), the Wildcats managed to put it all together for the league's best bowl win.

3. Quarterback competitions are on for Spartans, Badgers: The biggest surprise of the league's bowl season might have been that Connor Cook led Michigan State's game-winning drive against TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Cook, a redshirt freshman, hadn't played since Week 2, and it appeared that Andrew Maxwell had the quarterback job locked down despite an inconsistent season. But after a poor performance by Maxwell and the spark provided by Cook, the Spartans now have an open competition at quarterback that will be fascinating to watch this offseason. The competition is also on at Wisconsin, where Curt Phillips is expected to get a sixth year from the NCAA and battle with sophomore Joel Stave, who appeared for two plays in the Rose Bowl after breaking his collarbone against Michigan State. Stave is a better passer, while Phillips showed some good wheels versus Stanford. There's a new coaching staff in place to give each a clean slate. Who wins at each school is important, because both the Spartans and Badgers need to improve their passing attacks to contend for division titles in 2013.

4. Minnesota is on the way up: The Gophers suffered a heartbreaking loss against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, where they led 31-24 with less than 90 seconds to play but somehow lost 34-31. Yet the overall takeaway remains a positive one for Jerry Kill's team. After struggling mightily to move the ball down the stretch of the Big Ten season, Minnesota pounded the Red Raiders for 222 rushing yards, while freshman Philip Nelson threw two touchdown passes. Kill must find and develop more wide receivers, but Minnesota showed the physical style the team is capable of when its offensive line is healthy. The Legends Division will be deep in 2013, but the Gophers should continue to make gains.

5. Darrell Hazell and Bo Pelini need to focus on defense: New Purdue coach Hazell saw just how much work awaits him in the Boilermakers' 58-14 thrashing by Oklahoma State in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Purdue gave up at least 34 points seven times in 2012 and loses its best player in defensive tackle Kawann Short. There's no doubt where Hazell's focus must be in his first spring in West Lafayette. The same goes for Nebraska, which surrendered 115 points in its final two games and a staggering average of 53.5 points in its four losses. Pelini will replace eight defensive starters and is optimistic that some young, athletic players will step into those roles and restore the Blackshirts' honor. The Huskers -- which scored 31 points in a little more than three quarters against Georgia in the Capital One Bowl -- should again field one of the most prolific offenses in the country next season. It won't matter if that defense doesn't figure out some answers.

Big Ten predictions: Bowl picks

December, 27, 2012
12/27/12
10:00
AM ET
Big Ten bowl season officially arrives tomorrow night when Minnesota kicks off the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas against Texas Tech.

Heavens knows I need a new season to begin after a horrible showing in the regular season, when I finished a full five games behind Rittenberg. My pride suffered, and so did my bank account when I was forced to pick up his steak at St. Elmo's in Indy.

But bowl season offers a chance at redemption, not just for me but for the Big Ten as a whole after the league took some beatings in the fall. Here are our picks for the seven bowl games involving conference teams:

Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas

MINNESOTA vs. TEXAS TECH (Dec. 28)

Brian Bennett: The Red Raiders have an interim coach, and Minnesota has had a month to heal the many injuries that ravaged its offense late in the season, both of which are positives for the Gophers. I think Matt Limegrover will find some creative ways to use MarQueis Gray. Still, Minnesota lacks the weapons to go up and down the field against a high-scoring Big 12 team. Michael Carter and the Gophers secondary will make some plays but not enough to stop Texas Tech, which pulls away after a close first two-and-half quarters. ... Texas Tech 31, Minnesota 17.

Adam Rittenberg: The Gophers' defense is much improved in Year 2 under Tracy Claeys, but you need a decent amount of offensive firepower to keep pace with Texas Tech. Like you, my concern is the lack of playmakers surrounding Philip Nelson and Gray. Both men will see time at quarterback and help the Gophers take a first-half lead, but a Minnesota turnover changes the game and Texas Tech strikes for two fourth-quarter passing touchdowns to win. ... Texas Tech 34, Minnesota 21

Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl

TCU vs. MICHIGAN STATE

Adam Rittenberg: This figures to be a close, low-scoring game that likely comes down to how much progress Michigan State's offense has made in the past month or so. TCU is loaded with young talent and could contend for the Big 12 title next year, but I saw the Frogs' regular-season finale against Oklahoma and wasn't overly impressed. A heavy dose of Le'Veon Bell combined with a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Andrew Maxwell to Dion Sims gives Michigan State just enough, as the Spartans' defense rises to the occasion once more. ... Michigan State 21, TCU 17


Brian Bennett: I've been wrong about Michigan State most of the year, so what's one more? The extra 15 practices must have helped the Spartans' sluggish passing game at least a little bit, and TCU will have to adapt to a more physical style of play than it saw in the Big 12. Johnny Adams' turf toe injury worries me, but I like Bell to rush for 150 yards in probably his final college game, while Maxwell provides optimism for 2013 with 200 yards passing. Max Bullough makes a defensive stop at the end of the game to seal it. ... Michigan State 20, TCU 16


Heart of Dallas Bowl

PURDUE vs. OKLAHOMA STATE (Jan. 1)

Brian Bennett: There's a reason why the Boilers were the biggest underdog on the board in bowl season. They've got an interim coach in Patrick Higgins and have been exposed by some of the better offenses on their schedule, which is a frightening prospect against the high-flying Cowboys. I believe a healthier defensive line will give Purdue a chance in this one, and Oklahoma State is not going to be really pumped up to be in this game a year after playing in a BCS bowl. Robert Marve tosses a couple of scores and Akeem Shavers runs for 135 yards. But in the end, the Pokes -- led by 175 receiving yards from Josh Stewart -- have a little too much for Purdue in a wild one. ... Oklahoma State 31, Purdue 27


Adam Rittenberg: Again, the Big Ten team might be more motivated than the Big 12 squad, but can Purdue keep up on the scoreboard? I don't think so. Although cornerbacks Josh Johnson and Ricardo Allen give the Boilers' a chance against the pass-happy Pokes, Purdue isn't consistent enough or dangerous enough on offense to pace Oklahoma State. I agree Marve has a nice performance in his final college game and Antavian Edison scores twice, but Purdue will be playing catch up after a rough first half and falls short. ... Oklahoma State 38, Purdue 28


TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl

MISSISSIPPI STATE vs. No. 20 NORTHWESTERN (Jan. 1)

Adam Rittenberg: Is this the year Northwestern ends the bowl losing streak? I think it is for several reasons. Northwestern has its most complete team under coach Pat Fitzgerald. The Wildcats can run the ball effectively and perform well for the most part on special teams. Plus, they ended the season playing better than Mississippi State. Northwestern never makes it easy and will have some tense moments in this one, but Venric Mark and Kain Colter will find room, combining for 175 rush yards and two scores. Backup quarterback Trevor Siemian comes in to throw a third-quarter touchdown and linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo seals the win with an interception. ... Northwestern 27, Mississippi State 24


Brian Bennett: No more monkeying around. Northwestern finally has a more manageable bowl matchup, though it's certainly still not an easy assignment. The month off should help refresh the legs of Colter and Mark, who work their option magic against a mediocre Mississippi State run defense. Mark scores twice on the ground and also returns a punt for a touchdown. The Bulldogs' Tyler Russell shreds the Northwestern defense for 300 passing yards, but Jeff Budzien hits a game-winning field goal with no time left. Fitzgerald and his players party like it's 1949. ... Northwestern 28, Mississippi State 27


Outback Bowl

No. 10 SOUTH CAROLINA vs. No. 18 MICHIGAN (Jan. 1)

Brian Bennett: I like this matchup a lot and think Michigan can get some things done on offense with a month to prep the Devin Gardner/Denard Robinson combo. But South Carolina's fearsome defense has shut down better attacks in wins against Clemson and Georgia this season and will soon enough figure out Al Borges' bag of tricks. Michigan jumps ahead early on a long Robinson run and a Gardner touchdown pass. Jadeveon Clowney & Co. lock things down in the second half, and Connor Shaw runs for a pair of scores for the Gamecocks. ... South Carolina 24, Michigan 17


Adam Rittenberg: It'll be a lot of fun to watch Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan match up against Clowney. Two potential first-round draft picks going at it. I agree Borges will get really creative in this one, but Michigan's offensive line won't be able to stop the Gamecocks for four quarters. The Wolverines make a nice rally in the third quarter as Gardner finds Robinson on a touchdown strike, but South Carolina controls the ball and the clock in the fourth. ... South Carolina 21, Michigan 16


Capital One Bowl

No. 7 GEORGIA vs. No. 16 NEBRASKA (Jan. 1)

Adam Rittenberg: It's hard to have much faith in Nebraska after what we witnessed in Indianapolis. Great teams don't let down on defense like the Huskers did. Great teams don't play such a chaotic brand of football with so many turnovers. Maybe the Huskers face a napping Bulldogs team, jump ahead behind their dynamic offense and hold on for the win. But I don't see it. Georgia will be sluggish early, but I get the sense Aaron Murray wants to make a statement after the way the SEC championship game ended. Murray and the Bulldogs light up the Huskers in the second half, while Taylor Martinez commits two costly turnovers. ... Georgia 38, Nebraska 23

Brian Bennett: Does either team want to be here? Can either defense stop the other? Those are the main questions leading into this game. I'm not too worried about the disappointment angle but am concerned about Nebraska's ability to slow down Murray, Todd Gurley and a well-balanced Bulldogs offense. The Huskers and Taylor Martinez absolutely must hang onto the football in this one, but I see Jarvis Jones forcing a couple of costly turnovers. Nebraska will do a good job against the pass but will give up too much in the running game, as Gurley goes for 150 and a pair of scores. Martinez compiles 300 total yards but is pressured more often than he's used to and forces a couple of bad throws. Georgia owns the fourth quarter. ... Georgia 35, Nebraska 24.


Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO

WISCONSIN vs. No. 6 STANFORD (Jan. 1)

Brian Bennett: These two teams share a lot of similar traits, as Stanford is the most Big Ten-like Pac-12 team imaginable. The line of scrimmage will be for grown men only. I'd like Wisconsin's chances a lot better if the team didn't have to deal with the distraction of the coaching turmoil. No matter what the Badgers say, that had to hurt their preparation at least a little bit. Plus, the Cardinal seem a little better equipped to throw the ball if the rushing game gets stuffed, while Wisconsin is a little more one-dimensional and will face one of the best run defenses in America. Never count out Barry Alvarez in Pasadena, but I think Montee Ball will have to work a little too hard for his yards in this one. Stanford beats the Badgers at their own game, running the clock out late with a physical rushing attack as Wisconsin goes 0-for-Pasathreena. ... Stanford 24, Wisconsin 21.


Adam Rittenberg: We can't agree on every pick, can we? Nah. Barry's back and I'm a believer. Stanford's defense is as good as advertised, but the Badgers' offense is confident after the Big Ten title game and once again will empty the playbook. The Badgers score early on some razzle-dazzle, and receive a strong performance from Ball (150 rush yards, 2 TDs) in his final collegiate game. Stanford's pressure forces a turnover in the third quarter that changes momentum, but Wisconsin's underrated defense will be the difference, as Chris Borland forces a Stepfan Taylor fumble in crunch time. Alvarez improves to 4-0 in the Rose. ... Wisconsin 24, Stanford 23


Season records

Adam Rittenberg: 76-21 (.784)
Brian Bennett: 71-26 (.732)

ESPN.com's All-Big Ten team

December, 10, 2012
12/10/12
9:00
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As you may have noticed, we weren't exactly big fans of the official All-Big Ten teams that were announced last month.

We don't claim to know more about football than the league's coaches, not for a second. But after watching every Big Ten game all season long, we found ourselves scratching our heads at some choices that didn't seem to jibe with what we were seeing. Well, it's time to put our money where our mouths are and offer our official ESPN.com picks for the 2012 All-Big Ten team. Now you can argue with our choices, which look like this:

Offense

QB: Braxton Miller, Ohio State
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin
RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State
WR: Allen Robinson, Penn State
WR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska
TE: Kyle Carter, Penn State
OT: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OG: Spencer Long, Nebraska
C: Matt Stankiewitch, Penn State
OG: Brian Mulroe, Northwestern
OT: Jack Mewhort, Ohio State

Defense

DL: John Simon, Ohio State
DL: Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State
DL: Jordan Hill, Penn State
LB: Michael Mauti, Penn State
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
DB: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
DB: Ciante Evans, Nebraska
DB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
DB: Daimion Stafford, Nebraska

Special teams

PK: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
All-purpose: Venric Mark, Northwestern

The first thing you might notice with our team is that we're lining up as a 3-4 defense. We decided to go with only three defensive linemen and four linebackers because linebacker was such a strong position for the league this year. And even with four, we still left off very worthy players such as Wisconsin's Mike Taylor, Penn State's Gerald Hodges and Michigan State's Max Bullough. Going with three down linemen meant we excluded Purdue's Kawann Short, a great player who was slowed by injuries during the heart of the Boilers' schedule. ... One of our toughest calls was at tight end. You can make a great case for either Carter or Michigan State's Dion Sims, and their numbers are incredibly close. ... We chose four defensive backs instead of two corners and two safeties, just as the Big Ten does with its official teams. And we were happy to do so since we thought the safety position was a little lacking this year overall. And since Evans is a nickelback, it kind of works, anyway. ... We went with Michigan State's Bell in a close call over Northwestern's Mark but still got Mark on our team as the all-purpose player, which fits his skills since he is a top-flight punt returner. ... Ohio State leads the way with six selections, followed by Penn State with five and Nebraska with four.

Weekend rewind: Big Ten Week 12

November, 19, 2012
11/19/12
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Time to reflect ...

Team of the week: Ohio State became the first team to clinch a division title, winning the Leaders outright despite a postseason ban. The Buckeyes also moved to 11-0 while yet again defying defeat, this time on the road in overtime at a frenzied stadium after Wisconsin had seized all the momentum at the end of regulation. As Johnathan Hankins said after the 21-14 win, "We can't be beat. We're not settling for a loss."

Game of the week: There wasn't a whole lot of scoring at Camp Randall Stadium, but there was plenty of drama. You had Montee Ball getting stuffed at the goal line on his attempt to break the all-time FBS touchdowns record. You had the Badgers scoring to tie the game with eight seconds left. You had Ohio State's quest for perfection hanging over it all. These two teams have become division rivals, and Saturday's game provided more fuel to that fire.

Best call: Northwestern was clinging to a 23-20 lead when it took possession at its 12-yard line with 2:46 left at Michigan State. Wildcats fans must have been thinking: Here we go again. They have lamented how their team has gone conservative late in games with leads, only to end up with a loss. Not so Saturday, as Northwestern came out firing. A pass interference call on Johnny Adams resulted in a first down, and the Cats picked up a second first down with another pass. They eventually punted, but not before flipping field position and making the Spartans burn their timeouts. Perhaps not coincidentally, Northwestern held on for the win.

"I had our FBI guys to give me all those complaints from of our fans, so I changed," head coach Pat Fitzgerald cracked after the game.

Actually, the decision to pass had less to do with a philosophy shift then it did personnel. Kain Colter and Venric Mark were out with injuries, so there wasn't much running game to speak of. Still, many times you see teams do little to try to pick up a first down there, especially from that spot of the field. It was good -- and refreshing -- to see Northwestern stay aggressive.

[+] EnlargeTom Osborne
AP Photo/Dave WeaverRetiring Nebraska AD Tom Osborne joined Bo Pelini in leading the Cornhuskers out of the tunnel and on to the field one last time.
Best moment: Nebraska found the perfect way to honor outgoing athletic director and all-around legend Tom Osborne in his 500th -- yes, 500th -- home game as a Husker at Memorial Stadium. Osborne led the team out of the locker room and through the famous tunnel walk, wearing a red Huskers jacket and hat. (You can watch it here). Bo Pelini, who has been doing just about everything right the past several weeks, came up with the idea. "He was reluctant to do it," Pelini said. "But it's the way it should be. It meant a lot to me and the football team. I think the fans wanted to see him walk out there one more time."

Worst moment: Football just isn't fair sometimes. That's all you could say after watching Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti go down with another apparently serious knee injury early in the team's win over Indiana. Mauti had battled back from two ACL tears and had given everything he had to the program. It's wildly unfair that he won't get to play on Senior Day, and that his pro career could be in jeopardy. "If I could give him one of my knees, I would, man,'' fellow linebacker Gerald Hodges said. "He's the heart and soul of this team. I hate the fact that I had to see that.'' The only good to come of the injury was the outpouring of support for Mauti at the game and around the country on Twitter afterward. But it still seems wildly unfair.

Best attempt: Speaking of unfair, Purdue's Ralph Bolden has gone through three ACL injuries to make it back on the field. He ran for 100 yards in Week 11 and was about to go over 100 on Saturday on what looked like an easy, 78-yard touchdown run at Illinois. But Bolden felt his hamstring give out along the way. He ran as far as he could on one leg, getting 63 yards before hobbling out of bounds. Bolden tore his ACL in the finale last year against Indiana and couldn't play in a bowl. Hopefully, he'll make it back this year if the Boilermakers reach the postseason. Danny Hope awarded him the game ball Saturday.

"We are so proud of him," Hope said. "He had one leg left and he was giving all he had, and I think that exemplifies what being a Boilermaker is and what college football is all about."

Big Men on Campus (Offense): Three players had spectacular offensive performances Saturday. Michigan's Devin Gardner piled up six touchdowns while throwing for 314 yards in a 42-17 scorching of Indiana. At Penn State, quarterback Matt McGloin (395 passing yards, four touchdowns) and wide receiver Allen Robinson (10 catches, 197 yards, three touchdowns) each had career days against Indiana, setting school records in the process.

Big Men on Campus (Defense): Ohio State turned in a vintage Silver Bullets defensive performance for maybe the first time all season in holding Wisconsin to two touchdowns. Linebacker Ryan Shazier (12 tackles, three tackles for loss, forced fumble) and defensive end John Simon (four sacks) stood out the most on that defense. After some early-season mistakes, Shazier has been so good in the second half of the season that he's a legitimate defensive player of the year candidate. Simon now leads the league in sacks (nine), while he and Shazier are tied for the most tackles for loss in the Big Ten (14.5).

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Northwestern scored only one offensive touchdown in its win over Michigan State, but luckily it has Jeff Budzien. He made all three of his field goal attempts and is now 15-of-16 on the year, with his only miss a 53-yard attempt against Nebraska. The Spartans would like to have a kicker with Budzien's accuracy, as they have missed a field goal in four of their narrow losses.

Worst hangover: No one really expected Iowa to win at Michigan. But the Hawkeyes got embarrassed by a 42-17 score, losing for the fifth straight time. For much of the season, their defense played well while the offense struggled to score. Now, nothing is working. Iowa will miss a bowl for the first time since 2007 and will finish with fewer than six wins for the first time since 2000. A 4-8 record is likely with Nebraska coming to Iowa City next week, followed by a long offseason of questions for Kirk Ferentz.

Strangest moment: In terms of strangeness, little can top news breaking on a football Saturday that the Big Ten is about to add Maryland and Rutgers. But as far as on-the-field moments go, Denard Robinson opening the game at tailback for Michigan was a surprise. Even the Wolverines' official Twitter feed was momentarily confused, announcing Robinson as the starting quarterback as he jogged onto the field for his team's first possession. Instead, he lined up behind Gardner, took a pitch and began a new chapter of his Michigan career while saying goodbye to the Big House.

Big Ten predictions: Week 7

October, 11, 2012
10/11/12
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Will lucky Week 7 bring out a perfect set of predictions from the Big Ten bloggers? Both of us are still searching for perfection in this highly imperfect Big Ten season.

After a pair of identical 4-1 marks in Week 6, Adam Rittenberg maintains a four-game lead against Brian Bennett in the season standings. Those shrimp cocktails at St. Elmo's in Indianapolis -- on Brian's dime -- are sounding pretty good right now, but there's still a long way to go and time for Brian to catch up.

It's prediction time ...

IOWA at MICHIGAN STATE

Brian Bennett: Get ready for a classically rugged Big Ten game between two teams who love to pound the rock and play defense. Neither team will be able to sustain many long drives against strong defenses. But home-field advantage and a key turnover forced by the Spartans' defense will make the difference. Le'Veon Bell contributes two scores as he outduels Mark Weisman. ... Michigan State 17, Iowa 14

Adam Rittenberg: While I'm tempted to pick Iowa in the upset, Michigan State matches up well against the Hawkeyes on both sides of the ball. The Spartans' defense holds Weisman to 90 rushing yards and records a key second-half interception against James Vandenberg. Bell records 100 yards and two scores as Michigan State grabs the early lead and holds on for its second straight win. ... Michigan State 21, Iowa 17

NORTHWESTERN at MINNESOTA

Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern can't afford another poor start on offense, and I think the Wildcats come out of the gates a little stronger and take an early lead. Minnesota's Max Shortell makes some plays in the pass game, firing two touchdown passes, but Northwestern gets the ball in the hands of playmakers Venric Mark and Kain Colter a lot more often this week than last. Mark and Colter combine for three touchdowns and Northwestern survives a late scare to improve to 6-1. ... Northwestern 28, Minnesota 24

Brian Bennett: If the Gophers had a fully healthy MarQueis Gray, I'd be more likely to pick them here. As it stands, I don't think a gimpy Gray gives them enough firepower to get past Northwestern. Minnesota struggled against the run last time out against Iowa, and will do the same against Colter and Mark. A Jeff Budzien field goal provides the difference. ... Northwestern 31, Minnesota 28

WISCONSIN at PURDUE

Brian Bennett: It's practically do-or-die time for the Boilermakers, and I expect them to play as if their Leaders Division lives depend on this effort. In fact, they will lead most of the way after a couple of quick-strike scores early. But an improving Wisconsin offense chips away until Joel Stave hits Jared Abbrederis for a long touchdown in the fourth quarter, and the Badgers' defense hangs on late. ... Wisconsin 23, Purdue 20

Adam Rittenberg: You touched on the sense of urgency for Purdue and coach Danny Hope, and I think that'll be the difference in this game. A Boilers defense hungry to avenge last week's poor showing records an early takeaway against Stave. Both Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve play and fire touchdown passes. Although Wisconsin's Montee Ball records two rushing scores, the kicking game is the difference as Raheem Mostert breaks off a long return to set up the game-winning touchdown. ... Purdue 27, Wisconsin 24

ILLINOIS at No. 25 MICHIGAN

Adam Rittenberg: Little is going right for the Illini right now, and they catch Michigan at the wrong time. After a quiet first quarter, Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson turns in another big performance (150 rushing yards, 175 pass yards, 2 rushing TDs, 2 passing TDs), and linebacker Jake Ryan records his first interception of the season. Versatile running back Josh Ferguson has a nice game for the Illini, but Michigan has far too much firepower and pulls away in the second quarter. ... Michigan 37, Illinois 14

Brian Bennett: The Illini's problems defending the spread and finding any kind of offensive rhythm don't bode well for this week's game in Ann Arbor. Robinson will throw for three touchdowns this week, and Michigan's defense holds Illinois to under 250 yards. ... Michigan 34, Illinois 10

No. 8 OHIO STATE at INDIANA

Brian Bennett: The Hoosiers are getting closer and closer to finally winning a Big Ten game. But it won't happen this week, as their shaky run defense is going to have a lot of trouble containing Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde. Those two combine for four touchdowns, and Bradley Roby picks off another pass to stymie Indiana's mild second-half charge as the Buckeyes move to 7-0. ... Ohio State 42, Indiana 24

Adam Rittenberg: I've also been impressed with Indiana's ability to compete, but this is just a tough matchup against Big Bad Brax. Miller runs for 150 yards and two touchdowns, and Hyde records his second straight 100-yard rushing performance. Quarterbacks Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld both play and have some success in the first half, and receiver Cody Latimer tests the Buckeyes' defense, but Ohio State shifts into fifth gear late in the second quarter and cruises to 7-0. ... Ohio State 45, Indiana 21

Nebraska and Penn State are off this week.

Season records

Adam Rittenberg: 45-12 (.789)

Brian Bennett: 41-16 (.719)

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 5

September, 27, 2012
9/27/12
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Players don't win individual awards in nonconference play. They do it by starring in Big Ten games Still, let's look at where the leaders for some award stand with non-conference play all but wrapped up.

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: Through four games, Miller is the Big Ten MVP, leading the league in scoring, ranking second in rushing and bailing out the Buckeyes in their four wins. But this week, he goes on the road for the first time and faces the powerful Michigan State defense. So stay tuned.

2. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska: It's hard to overstate just how good Martinez has been. He leads the league in pass efficiency and is completing more than 70 percent of his passes, with a 9-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He has a chance to erase some demons this week against Wisconsin.

3. Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State: Bell is second in the FBS in total rushing yards and has two 200-yard games. But after just a so-so showing against Notre Dame, he'll need to step it up versus Ohio State.

4. Matt McGloin, QB Penn State: Don't laugh. McGloin leads the Big Ten in passing yards and has a 9-to-2 TD-to-INT ratio. He's on pace for a 3,000-yard season. No, really.

5. Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State: McGloin's favorite target, Robinson has nearly 150 more yards than the next best Big Ten wide receiver, and he leads the league with five touchdown catches.

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State: The Nittany Lions defense is playing really well, and Mauti is its leader. He's second in the league in tackles and has to be pretty close to first in effort.

2. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue: Short drops a spot simply because he didn't play last week. He'll face a dangerous passing offense versus Marshall this week but will really make his bones in league play.

3. D.L. Wilhite, DE, Minnesota: Wilhite leads the league in sacks with 4.5, and with an extra tackle for loss, he's second in that category as well. He's a big key to a vastly improved Gophers pass rush.

Bakken–Andersen Kicker of the Year

1. Jeff Budzien, Northwestern: Budzien is a perfect 8-for-8 on field goal tries this season, and the 4-0 Wildcats needed them in their wins over Vanderbilt and Boston College.

2. Mike Meyer, Iowa: No kicker in the country has made more than Meyer's nine field goals, which also says something about the Hawkeyes' offense. Meyer is 9-for-10 on the season, including a 50-yarder in his team's one-point win over Northern Illinois. Reigning kicker of the year Brett Maher from Nebraska is just 4-for-8 this season.

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

September, 17, 2012
9/17/12
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Run it back ...

Team of the week: Penn State. No matter what you might think about the school and the football program after the Jerry Sandusky scandal, it was hard not to root for the current Nittany Lions players to finally get a win after so many obstacles. Penn State busted out with an easy, feel-good 34-7 win over Navy. The Midshipmen are hard to root against as well, but this one time was OK.

Game of the week: You might have missed it, because it ended late and was on at the same time as much bigger games. And, OK, it was Indiana. But the Hoosiers' game against Ball State was the most exciting Big Ten contest of the weekend. The teams traded touchdowns in the first half, with Ball State leading 25-24 at the break. Indiana looked done when it trailed 38-25 late in the fourth quarter and starting quarterback Cameron Coffman went out with a hip pointer. But freshman Nate Sudfeld threw a 70-yard touchdown pass and then led the team on another scoring drive with 49 seconds left. Ah, but the Hoosiers made the PlayStation mistake of scoring too fast. Ball State completed a controversial, hard-to-believe pass to the IU 25 with one second left, and Steven Schott booted the game-winner as time expired. It was a tough, tough loss for Kevin Wilson's team, but a fun game to watch.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Greg Bartram/US PresswireBuckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller tries to evade California linebacker Nathan Broussard on Saturday.
Biggest play: If it's late in a close game, the last thing a defense wants to see is Braxton Miller scrambling. The Ohio State quarterback burned Wisconsin with a long touchdown throw after things broke down last year, and he did so against Cal on Saturday with a 72-yard strike to an unbelievably open Devin Smith for the game with 3:26 left. Safeties have to respect Miller's explosive running ability, but they get can burned when they leave their receivers. That's why the Miller scramble is becoming one of the most dangerous late-game plays to defend.

Best call: Wisconsin was supposed to be in punt safe mode in the third quarter against Utah State, and its returners would usually call for a fair catch in the situation Kenzel Doe found himself in. But Doe, who was only returning punts because Jared Abbrederis was injured, saw a small opening on the sideline and decided to go for it. He was in the end zone 82 yards later, finally giving the Badgers the spark they needed to eventually beat the Aggies 16-14. Doe? More like Woo-Hoo!

Big Men on Campus (Offense): How about some love for the backups this week? Minnesota's Max Shortell stepped in for the injured MarQueis Gray and threw for 188 yards and three touchdowns, helping the Gophers fend off Western Michigan for a 3-0 start. And as Iowa's running back curse reached new, ludicrous heights, walk-on Mark Weisman came out of nowhere to run for 113 yards and three touchdowns as part of the Hawkeyes' much-needed win over Northern Iowa.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Minnesota cornerback Michael Carter had an 18-yard interception return to set up a touchdown early. He also broke up Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder's pass late to help preserve the 28-23 victory.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): It's hard to run 99 offensive plays before scoring your first touchdown, but that's what Northwestern did against Boston College. Luckily, they had kicker Jeff Budzien, who made all five of his field goal attempts to give the Wildcats all the points they'd need in a 22-13 victory.

Worst hangover: Michigan State, by a mile. The Spartans were carrying the banner for the Big Ten for one week before they tripped, broke the pole and set the flag on fire against Notre Dame. Although Michigan State bounced back from a bad loss to the Irish last year, Saturday's offensive showing was so inept that it makes you wonder if this team can overcome those limitations going forward. Just a bad, bad performance on a national stage.

Strangest moment: Playing UMass is good for your offense, and just about everyone got involved in Michigan's 63-13 win. That included left tackle Taylor Lewan, who got to live out an offensive lineman's dream by recovering a Denard Robinson fumble for a touchdown. Or did he? At least one teammate claimed that center Elliott Mealer actually recovered the ball. And Robinson said Lewan was mad about his score because the play broke down and he didn't get to complete his block. But the box score says it was a Lewan touchdown, and that's something we probably won't see again.

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Here’s a quick look at the Northwestern Wildcats' 22-13 win over the Boston College Eagles at Ryan Field on Saturday.

Boston CollegeNorthwesternHow it happened: Northwestern kicker Jeff Budzien tied a single-game school record with five field goals Saturday to lift the Wildcats to their third consecutive win. Budzien made field goals of 42, 20, 29 and 41 yards in the first half and hit one from 19 yards in the second half. Northwestern running back Mike Trumpy put the game out of reach with a 27-yard touchdown run with 1:37 left. The Wildcats totaled 560 offensive yards and were 12 of 19 on third down. Boston College accounted for the game’s first touchdown when Chase Rettig connected with Johnathan Coleman for a 31-yard score in the second quarter. Boston College kicker Nate Freese made field goals of 21 and 34 yards.

What it means: The Wildcats improved to 3-0 for the first time since 2010. Last season, Northwestern lost in Week 3 and went on to have a five-game losing streak.

Outside the box: Northwestern running back Venric Mark was on his way to his second consecutive 100-yard rushing game, putting up 77 yards before leaving the game with a lower-body injury in the second half. The last Northwestern running back to rush for back-to-back 100-yard games was Tyrell Sutton.

Up next: Northwestern will host South Dakota (1-1) next week. Boston College has next week off before playing Clemson on Sept. 29.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 2

September, 10, 2012
9/10/12
10:00
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Just about everyone in the Big Ten would like to forget Week 2. But those who fail to study history are ... well, you know. Let's take a quick look back, before hoping the future brings better things.

Team of the week: Northwestern. Pretty easy call here as the Wildcats were the only Big Ten team to defeat a BCS automatic-qualifier opponent in Week 2, helping the league avoid an 0-7 record in those contests. Pat Fitzgerald's team was also only one of two conference teams to play such an opponent at home (Iowa was the other). Still, the 23-13 victory over Vanderbilt was impressive because of how the defense played and how Northwestern secured a lead to finish out a game. Also: the Big Ten beat the SEC! How is this not a bigger story? (Ahem.)

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Richard Mackson/US PresswireIt was a tough night for Bo Pelini's defense, as the Cornhuskers surrendered 653 yards to UCLA.
Game of the week: Nebraska's 36-30 loss to UCLA provided the most entertainment, though Huskers fans might not have enjoyed the ending much. The two teams staged a classic West Coast shootout in the first half, going into intermission tied at 27 before things settled down a bit. They combined for 1,092 total yards, with the Bruins gobbling up 653 of them on Nebraska's defense.

Biggest play(s): Purdue needed one third-down stop in the final two minutes to give itself a chance to beat Notre Dame but couldn't come up with it on two tries. The Irish surprisingly put Tommy Rees into the game for the final drive, and he completed a 10-yard pass on third-and-6 near midfield under heavy duress. It looked like the play clock might have expired before the snap, but the Boilers did not get the call. Then, on third-and-10 from the Purdue 41, Reese found Robby Toma for 21 yards to set up the game-winning field goal. Michigan's defensive stops against Air Force late and James Vandenberg's costly interception to end Iowa's last drive against Iowa State also were huge.

Best call: Fitzgerald has seemingly figured out just how to juggle a pair of differently talented quarterbacks. He brought Trevor Siemian to end the Syracuse game, and Siemian led the team on a game-winning drive. Siemian also guided the Cats to two scoring drives against Vanderbilt, while starter Kain Colter sealed the deal with a touchdown run on third and long. Somehow, Fitzgerald has pulled this off so far without causing a quarterback controversy.

Worst call: There's no way the officials in the Oregon State-Wisconsin game should have overruled the call on the field that the Badgers recovered their own onside kick with 1:31 left. It was a beautifully executed play, as kicker Kyle French dribbled the ball forward and then performed a hook slide to secure it. Replay officials, however, overturned the call and said the ball did not go 10 yards. But the replays sure make it appear as though Oregon State's Tyrequek Zimmerman touched the ball before French did, making it a live ball. It's close, no doubt, but either way there was not indisputable evidence, so the call on the field should have stood. Those were Pac-12 replay officials, in case you were wondering. Karma is a funny thing, though. The Badgers should have gotten that call, but they didn't deserve to win after playing terribly most of the game.

Big Man on Campus (offense): Any time you account for more than 100 percent of your team's offense, you're ... wait, what? Michigan's Denard Robinson pulled off that feat by totaling 426 yards even though the Wolverines finished with only 422 against Air Force. Because kneel downs are considered a team run, Robinson had more yards than his entire team. He ran for 218 and threw for 208 and had four touchdowns. Special mention goes to Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Minnesota's MarQueis Gray, as it was a pretty good week for quarterbacks who can run.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Purdue's Kawann Short had a pair of sacks and four tackles against Notre Dame, but that doesn't tell the full story of his dominance. The Irish netted only 52 rushing yards on 36 attempts against the Boilers as Short plugged up the middle of the line, aided by Ryan Russell, Bruce Gaston and others up front. Penn State's Michael Mauti also turned in a gutsy effort in the loss at Virginia.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Northwestern kicker Jeff Budzien was 3-for-3 on field goals against Vandy, drilling attempts from 40, 27 and 18 yards in the win.

Worst hangover: The collective hangover for the league is worse than a fraternity house after a raging kegger. Unless you're Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern or Ohio State, you weren't feeling too good about things on Sunday morning. Penn State received another gut punch, Wisconsin short-circuited, Purdue and Iowa came up short against rivals and Illinois didn't show up. Still, Nebraska probably feels the worst of all. This was a team boasting of playing for a national title in the preseason, and an opening week blowout of Southern Miss made it appear as though the Huskers had finally turned the corner. Except around that corner was an oncoming train. A Bo Pelini defense should not be as thoroughly shredded as it was against UCLA, and the offense reverted to some bad habits in the second half. It's not the end of the world for Big Red, but it does give cause for alarm.

Strangest moment: I guess we can excuse Penn State for not really understanding this whole names-on-the-back-of-jerseys things.

The Nittany Lions went through decades of player anonymity before Bill O'Brien decided to put names on the back of players this season. And it's clear this caught some people off guard, as Penn State's uniforms against Virginia suffered some wardrobe malfunction. Namely, the names were coming off the jerseys during the game. You could say Mauti left it all on the field, including a couple of letters. It has been that kind of year for the Lions so far.

Did Keon Lyn get too greedy, or did the officials overreact to Trevor Siemian's timely tumble?

Regardless, Syracuse's 13th and final penalty of the game was ultimately the one that did the Orange in during Saturday's opener at the Carrier Dome, where their 22-point comeback went for naught in a 42-41 loss to Northwestern.

Lyn was charged with a late hit on Siemian, the Wildcats' quarterback, with less than a minute left on a third-and-15 play deep in Syracuse territory. With new life, Siemian hit Demetrius Fields for a 9-yard touchdown pass with 44 seconds remaining, and Jeff Budzien's extra point accounted for the final and decisive points.

The miscues took away from a monster day by Orange quarterback Ryan Nassib, who set school records with 44 completions (on 64 attempts) and 472 yards passing. He tossed four touchdown passes and one interception, leading Syracuse back from a 35-13 deficit to take a 41-35 lead with 2:40 remaining.

The Wildcats had rattled off 28 unanswered points of their own before the Orange's comeback, but their secondary gave up big play after big play.

Syracuse had 596 yards of total offense to Northwestern's 337, but the Orange turned the ball over three times.

Venric Mark returned a punt 82 yards for a Northwestern touchdown in the first quarter, and Chi Chi Ariguzo recovered a Jerome Smith third-quarter fumble and brought it back 33 yards.

Nassib, whose four touchdown tosses all came in the second half, played exactly how you would expect from a senior. But miscues elsewhere proved too much to overcome for Syracuse, which won't have a chance next week against USC unless it shores up some of those loose ends.
Our preseason position ranking series comes to an end today with everybody's favorite group: special teams.

For this ranking, we're going to consider punters, kickers and returners only. No offense to the long-snappers or the punt-team gunners, but things like kickoff coverage units are hard to forecast. We'll give a little extra weight to teams that have returning and proven players at these spots, because it's difficult to know how new punters and kickers will fare when the pressure of real games begin.

As the guys in these positions would say, let's kick it:

[+] EnlargeDan Conroy
Andrew Weber/US PresswireDan Conroy was nearly perfect on his field goal attempts last season.
1. Michigan State: Kicker Dan Conroy made 14 of his 15 attempts last year, and Keshawn Martin led the league in punt return average. They will miss punter Aaron Bates and will have to improve their kickoff return game. And you know you always have to watch out for the fake when the Spartans line up for a kick.

2. Wisconsin: The Badgers are set at both punter and kicker, with seniors Brad Nortman and Philip Welch, respectively. Both are third-year starters who can be relied upon. Wisconsin will need to find a replacement for primary return man David Gilreath.

3. Penn State: The Nittany Lions bring back punter Anthony Fera and punt returner Devon Smith, who finished just behind Martin in yards per attempt last season. Chaz Powell and Stephfon Green are dangerous kick returners. Fera could move over to handle field goals this season if incoming freshman Sam Ficken doesn't win the job.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have a veteran punter in senior Ben Buchanan and two threats to take a kick to the house in Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry. Sophomore Drew Basil is expected to take over at place-kicker. Special teams are almost always a force in Columbus.

5. Purdue: No one in the league has a bigger leg than Carson Wiggs; the questions is whether he can consistently harness it. Punter Cody Webster averaged 43.3 yards per attempt last season, second best among returning punters. The Boilermakers' return game needs to improve.

6. Illinois: Derek Dimke was a Lou Groza semifinalist last season and broke the school record for points by a kicker. He nailed two 50-plus yarders. Ray Guy semifinalist Anthony Santella is gone, though return man Troy Pollard is back.

7. Northwestern: Brandon Williams improved at punter as his freshman year went along last season. The Wildcats at long last have an elite return option in Venric Mark. But place-kicker was a concern this spring, with Jeff Budzien and Steve Flaherty competing for the job.

8. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz's teams usually find a way to be good on special teams, so odds are the Hawkeyes will climb these rankings. But they lost a lot from 2010, including Ray Guy finalist and four-year starter Ryan Donahue, plus both primary return men. Eric Guthrie held the edge at punter after the spring. Place-kicker Mike Meyer returns after taking over that role for the final 10 games and doing a solid job.

9. Indiana: Mitch Ewald was named to the Groza watch list after a strong freshman year in which he made 16 of 19 field goals. Chris Hagerup needs to increase his punting average of 39.4 yards. The Hoosiers should have enough athletes to replace Tandon Doss on returns.

10. Minnesota: Dan Orseske's 36.1-yard average was worst among starting Big Ten punters in 2010, so that must get better. Jerry Kill must also find a new place-kicker -- NC State transfer Chris Hawthorne looks like the top option. Troy Stoudermire, one of the league's top return specialists, is back for his senior year.

11. Nebraska: Like Iowa, this is a team that will almost assuredly outperform this ranking. But boy did the Huskers lose a lot of talent and experience. It will be difficult to match the value that punter/kicker Alex Henery brought -- Brett Maher and freshman Mauro Bondi will battle to replace him -- and Adi Kunalic was a secret weapon as kickoff specialist. Top returner Niles Pau is gone, too. The Cornhuskers will likely reload, but nobody has bigger shoes to fill at these positions in the Big Ten.

12. Michigan: The kicking game looked like a disaster this spring, with neither Seth Broekhuizen nor Brendan Gibbons inspiring confidence. Incoming freshman Matt Wile might win the job this summer. This could prove to be an Achilles' heel for the Wolverines, as it was a year ago. On the plus side, Will Hagerup is the leading returning punter in the Big Ten, though he had only 33 attempts last season.

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