NCF Nation: Jeff Duckworth

Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.

Weekend rewind: Big Ten Week 13

November, 26, 2012
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For one last (regular-season) time, let's do the rewind:

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesOhio State's Ryan Shazier ran his season sack total to five with this takedown of Michigan's Devin Gardner.
Team of the week: Ohio State, naturally. The Buckeyes finished a perfect 12-0 season by beating their archrival, Michigan, at home. That's a pretty good week. Lots of people want to knock Ohio State for its schedule, and understandably. According to the NCAA, the Buckeyes have played only the 65th-toughest schedule in the country. That's not far off from Georgia (No. 60), which is getting an awful lot of love from some pollsters.

Game of the week: It was an emotional day at Penn State, as the school honored the seniors and the season by putting a 2012 sign on Beaver Stadium and paid tribute to injured linebacker Michael Mauti by placing his No. 42 on the team's helmets. We figured Wisconsin might have a hard time matching the Nittany Lions' energy level, but instead the Badgers took a 14-7 halftime lead. Penn State rallied, but Wisconsin tied the game with 18 seconds left in regulation on a Curt Phillips pass to Jeff Duckworth. But the Nittany Lions prevailed in overtime, giving this special team a final celebration that it definitely earned.

Biggest play: Nebraska led Iowa 13-7 in the fourth quarter with the Legends Division title on the line, and the Hawkeyes had just pinned the Huskers inside their own 1 on a punt. Luckily for Big Red, Superman Returns is not just a mediocre movie. After a quarterback sneak for one yard, senior Rex Burkhead -- playing for the first time in a month -- took an inside-zone handoff and somehow muscled his way through a pile of would-be tacklers for an improbable nine yards. That first down got Nebraska out of trouble and helped the Huskers hold on for the win and a spot in Saturday's Big Ten title game.

Gutsiest play: After throwing one of the weirdest, most-pinball-like interceptions you'll ever see, Purdue's quarterback found himself as the last line of defense against Indiana's Greg Heban. Marve, despite playing on a torn ACL, ran more than 60 yards to chase down Heban and make a touchdown-saving tackle. "It was kind of like one of those we're-going-to-see-where-my-body's-at-very-quickly kind of things," Marve said. "It was a funny play. My dad played some linebacker for a whole bunch of years, so he was proud of me." Marve's refusal to give up on the play despite only having one good knee is indicative of how the Boilermakers hung tough to win their final three games and make a bowl.

Best call: Penn State couldn't have played its finale without one more fourth-down gamble by Bill O'Brien. And this was one of his best. Early in the fourth quarter, O'Brien went for it on fourth-and-6 from the Wisconsin 41. Quarterback Matt McGloin scrambled and found tight end Jesse James for a touchdown, giving the Nittany Lions their first lead of the game. Penn State finished the season 19-of-34 on fourth-down conversion attempts. Air Force and Army, which both run the option offense, are the only two FBS teams that have gone for it on fourth down more than the Lions.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell nearly tripled Minnesota's total yardage all by himself. The junior running back shredded the Gophers for career-high 266 yards and a touchdown on 35 carries for his third 200-yard game of the season. Bell leads the Big Ten in rushing and ranks third nationally at 1,648 yards. His 350 carries (that's an average of 29 per game, folks) are more than any other FBS player.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill (12 tackles, three TFLs, two sacks) was absolutely dominant and helped make up for the loss of Mauti. The senior's final college performance probably earned him some extra NFL money.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Nebraska's Brett Maher made a pair of crucial field goals in the Huskers' 13-7 win, including a 52-yarder on a windy day. He also had a 61-yard punt that was downed inside the Iowa 5.

Biggest hangover: You can justify Michigan's 8-4 record by noting the Wolverines have lost to teams ranked No. 1 (Notre Dame), No. 2 (Alabama), No. 4 (Ohio State -- in the AP Top 25) and No. 12 (Nebraska). But this is Michigan, fergawdsake. The Maize and Blue are supposed to win big games, and instead they fell flat in every one, ending with some bizarre offensive playcalling in the second half at Ohio State. The Wolverines again ended up without a Big Ten title, and unless they can beat what will probably be a very good SEC opponent in a bowl, they'll finish a year that began with a top-10 ranking as a five-loss disappointment.

Strangest moment: What else could possibly go wrong for Illinois coach Tim Beckman?

During Saturday's 50-14 loss to Northwestern, Beckman was penalized for sideline interference twice in the first quarter. On the second one, he was run over by an official after a Wildcats' interception. Northwestern scored one play later after the 15-yard flag.

“The first one was on me," Beckman said. "I was running out there getting involved in the game. The second time I was behind the ball, as I always am because usually you’re behind the ball and the officials are all in front. Interception and they were running the other way. I’ll take the blame. That’s my fault. Not good on my part.”

There has been a whole lot of not good in Champaign this year.

Top 10 moments of the Big Ten season

January, 12, 2012
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Now that the season is over, it's time to take a look back at our Top 10 moments of the year in Big Ten football, on and off the field:

No. 1

"Rocket" men (Oct. 22)


[+] EnlargeMichigan State Spartans wide receiver Keith Nichol
Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIREMichigan State Spartans wide receiver Keith Nichols' (right) catch to defeat the Wisconsin Badgers was the top play of the 2011 Big Ten season.
Michigan State's 44-yard Hail Mary pass from Kirk Cousins to Keith Nichol (via B.J. Cunningham's facemask) stands as the most memorable play of the Big Ten season and, we would argue, the top play of the college football year. The Spartans' 37-31 win over Wisconsin derailed the Badgers' national title hopes and helped propel Michigan State to a Legends Division title. And that set up another fantastic moment ...

No. 2

Badgers get revenge (Dec. 3)

The first Big Ten championship game couldn't have asked for much more drama, as Wisconsin and Michigan State staged a highly-anticipated rematch of their earlier classic. This one played out in almost the same fashion, with each team trading huge plays in a thrilling game. This time, the Badgers completed a desperation heave, as Russell Wilson found Jeff Duckworth on a long pass in the fourth quarter to set up the go-ahead touchdown. A running-into-the-punter penalty ended the Spartans' chances of winning in the final minute again. Wisconsin clinched a second straight Rose Bowl appearance with its 42-39 victory, and another Spartans-Badgers epic duel made the inaugural title game a smashing success.

No. 3

Michigan's miracle (Sept. 10)

If not for those Michigan State-Wisconsin games, Michigan's 35-31 win over Notre Dame would likely be remembered as the most exciting game of the Big Ten season. The Wolverines trailed 24-7 after three quarters and couldn't get much going offensively. But then Denard Robinson took over. The two teams scored three touchdowns in the final 1:12, until Robinson ended matters with a 16-yard scoring strike to Roy Roundtree with two seconds left. That kind of magic would stay with Michigan all season long, right through its equally improbable Allstate Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech.

No. 4

Braxton's bomb (Oct. 29)

A week after losing on that Hail Mary in East Lansing, Wisconsin had its guts ripped out all over again in Columbus. Precocious Ohio State freshman quarterback Braxton Miller scrambled and nearly crossed the line of scrimmage before firing a 40-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Devin Smith with 20 seconds left as the Buckeyes won 33-29. Little did we know then that it would be Ohio State's last great moment of the season, or that the Badgers would somehow regroup to still win the league championship.

No. 5

The fall of an icon (Nov. 9)

No story in the Big Ten, or in all of sports, was bigger than the child sex abuse scandal that erupted at Penn State in November. The rape allegations against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, as well as charges that school administrators failed to stop him and/or lied under oath, became international news. And on Nov. 9, that scandal led to the firing of legendary head coach Joe Paterno, who won 409 games while leading the program since 1966. Everything about that week in State College, from students rallying on Paterno's front lawn to the bizarre, circus-like atmosphere at the Board of Trustees news conference announcing his dismissal, was and remains surreal.

No. 6

A time for healing (Nov. 12)

After all the events and controversy leading up to Penn State's home game against Nebraska, which included student riots in the streets of downtown a few days earlier, there was serious concern about what would happen at Beaver Stadium that Saturday. Security was on high alert. But the Nittany Lions and Huskers players helped diffuse the tension by meeting at midfield just before kickoff for a moving prayer. Nebraska won the game and won some admirers for how it handled the difficult situation.

No. 7

Urban renewal (Nov. 28)

Most of Ohio State's season, which featured a 6-7 record and a 2012 NCAA bowl ban handed down in December, was something its fans would like to forget. But Buckeyes fans can't wait for the future after the school hired Ohio native Urban Meyer as its next head coach. Meyer's first season will be hampered by the postseason ban. Still, for Ohio State to go through the mess it faced during 2011 and still end up with a coach of Meyer's stature and pedigree has to be considered a victory.

No. 8

Gophers go hog wild (Oct. 29)

Minnesota barely looked like an FBS team, much less a Big Ten one, during its 1-6 start. The Gophers had lost to North Dakota State and were outscored 144-31 in their first three league contests. But the rivalry game against Iowa brought out the best in them. Minnesota scored two touchdowns in the final 8:22 and pulled off a daring onside kick to stun the Hawkeyes 22-21 in the upset of the Big Ten season. The Gophers kept the Floyd of Rosedale trophy in Minneapolis for a second straight season.

No. 9



Huskers' historic comeback (Oct. 8)

Nebraska's first Big Ten home game was one to remember. The Huskers trailed Ohio State by 21 points in the second half before rallying for the biggest comeback victory in program history. Taylor Martinez, Rex Burkhead and Lavonte David all had huge nights as the team scored 28 straight points for a 34-27 victory. And by beating the league's reigning blue-chip program, Nebraska proved it belonged in the Big Ten.

No. 10

The Streak ends (Nov. 26)

Brady Hoke promised to "Beat Ohio" when he took the Michigan job. And he delivered with an exciting 40-34 victory that snapped an infuriating seven-game losing streak to the hated Buckeyes. Robinson accounted for five touchdowns as the Wolverines held off a big performance from Ohio State's Miller. With Hoke and Meyer now battling it out every year, The Game could resume its place as college football's top rivalry.

Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

Today's Take Two topic is inspired by user Lucas from NYC, who asked during Wednesday's Big Ten chat: Which is the more promising budding rivalry: Iowa-Nebraska or Wisconsin-Michigan State?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

[+] EnlargeKeith Nichol
AP Photo/Al GoldisBoth Michigan State-Wisconsin games this season were classics, the first of which was decided on a Hail Mary pass caught by MSU's Keith Nichol.
Before the season, I would have said Iowa-Nebraska for sure. And it still might turn out to be the more heated rivalry in the long term. The schools are from bordering states, the teams are in the same division and the fan bases have a natural distaste for one another. But after seeing the way the season played out, I'm going with Wisconsin-Michigan State. The teams played two epic matchups, first in East Lansing and then in Indianapolis at the inaugural Big Ten championship game. The first Iowa-Nebraska game was pretty much a snoozer, although things will get spicier in the coming years. Both MSU-Wisconsin games featured wild swings and unforgettable plays, from the game-winning Hail Mary from Kirk Cousins to Keith Nichol, to Russell Wilson's desperation heave to Jeff Duckworth on fourth down. Not surprisingly, the two fan bases saw the game-deciding punt penalty on Michigan State's Isaiah Lewis in Indy a bit differently. Wisconsin fans can't stand their team repeatedly losing in East Lansing. Michigan State fans aren't too fond of Bret Bielema and remain steamed about the way the title game ended. Most important, both programs are on the rise in the Big Ten and becoming new powers in the league. Need more evidence? I present the Mitten State debate. It all adds up to an excellent budding rivalry between Michigan State and Wisconsin.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

Absolutely in the short term, Michigan State and Wisconsin is the more promising rivalry. The two teams have played six really good games since 2007, capped of course by the two thrillers this season. I'm already looking forward to next Oct. 27, when the Spartans and Badgers hook up again in Madison. Wisconsin looks like the overwhelming 2012 Leaders Division favorite, while Michigan State will certainly contend in the Legends and could repeat if it adequately replaces Cousins. So another Big Ten title game match next year is not out of the question. But here's the problem with getting too smitten by the Mitten Game: the two teams are not permanent cross-division rivals, so they're not guaranteed to play every year. A true rivalry needs annual repetition. Iowa-Nebraska has that, not to mention a fixed date on the calendar in Black Friday. The Hawkeyes have yet to turn this into an interesting series, but the apparent defection of Iowa defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski to the same position with the Cornhuskers could add a little hot sauce into the mix. Eventually, the neighboring state battle will become the bigger of the two. But for the near future, Michigan State-Wisconsin has the juice.

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

December, 5, 2011
12/05/11
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Let's review Week 14 in the Big Ten. If you don't know what the team of the week and the game of the week were, then I can't help you.

Biggest play: Russell Wilson's 36-yard prayer was answered by Jeff Duckworth on fourth-and-six from the Michigan State 43 with about four minutes left in the Big Ten title game. Duckworth had two defenders around him but still managed to come down with the ball. Duckworth had only 12 catches in the regular season but hauled in three passes for 53 yards and a touchdown in the championship game.

Biggest call: Obviously, the 5-yard running-into-the-punter penalty on Isaiah Lewis that gave Wisconsin a first down and allowed the Badgers to go into the victory formation. Adam Rittenberg broke it all down here. What really stings for Michigan State is that Keshawn Martin returned the punt all the way inside the Wisconsin 5, though we'll never know if that return plays out the same way without Wisconsin players seeing the flag on the carpet.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireThe question of the season: Where would the Badgers be without quarterback Russell Wilson?
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said it was his call to go after the punt, a totally understandable decision given the Badgers' problems with punt protection this year. But Wisconsin was also punting from its own 26 with 1:57 left, and the Spartans had their most dangerous player ready for the return. Even if Martin doesn't get much yardage, he caught Brad Nortman's punt on his own 34. Michigan State would have needed to go about 30 yards with no timeouts left to get in position for a long field goal try. There's no guarantee of that happening, but Kirk Cousins and the offense had moved the ball well all night.

It's a play that will haunt the Spartans all offseason. And it's another reason why I'm glad I'm not a coach.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Russell Wilson. The Wisconsin quarterback capped a spectacular season by earning Big Ten championship game MVP honors. Once again, he showed great poise in a crucial spot, completing 12 of his 15 passes in the second half for 157 yards and two touchdowns. Where would the Badgers be without him?

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen. The sophomore had a career-high three sacks, four tackles for loss and nine total tackles in an impressive performance. He should enter 2012 as one of the top linebackers in the Big Ten.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Nortman. He was big in flipping field position for Wisconsin, averaging 45 yards on five punts, including a 54-yarder. And his little extra acting on the penalty sure didn't hurt.

Best bowl matchup: Wisconsin vs. Oregon. These are two teams that are talented enough to be playing for the national title and have to be considered the best two-loss teams in America. Both have ridiculous offenses, including two of the top running backs in the country in LaMichael James and Montee Ball. The news conferences with Bret Bielema and Chip Kelly alone make it worth going to Pasadena.

Best non-BCS bowl matchup: Nebraska vs. South Carolina. A sneaky good game between the 9-3 Huskers and the 10-2 Gamecocks. Both teams have flaws -- Nebraska's defense doesn't always show up, and South Carolina's offense is likewise inconsistent at best -- but both also have a lot of athletes and speed. The Cornhuskers can prove their worth to the Big Ten by beating an SEC team.

Dumbest matchup: Michigan vs. Virginia Tech. The Hokies in a BCS game? Really? They beat no one of value in the nonconference schedule and were blown out twice by the best team they played, Clemson. Virginia Tech never wins BCS games unless it can play a mediocre Big East team. The Allstate Sugar Bowl had a chance to match Michigan up with Boise State or Kansas State or Baylor to create some buzz but chose to go with a game few will care about.

Best bet-the-over game: Northwestern vs. Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. Both teams have excellent quarterbacks -- Ryan Tannehill for Texas A&M and Dan Persa for the Wildcats -- and bad defenses. Whatever the over/under will be is probably not enough.

Toughest matchup: Iowa vs. Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl. The Hawkeyes did not prove this year that they could beat top-flight competition, especially away from home. They could have a very difficult time against the Sooners, who were overrated all year but still have a ton of talent. Iowa's best hope is that Oklahoma -- which was in the mix for a BCS bowl -- isn't motivated for this one.

Luckiest bowl team: Illinois. You could make a strong case for the Illini not going to a bowl, with their six-game losing streak, disinterested fans and unsettled coaching situation. Despite not getting included in the Big Ten's bowl lineup, Illinois will go to San Francisco to play a highly-beatable, 6-7 UCLA team. While it's very questionable how many Illinois fans will make the long trip out West for this game, would you rather be in San Francisco on New Year's Eve playing a Pac-12 team or be in Detroit on Dec. 27 against Western Michigan like Purdue?

Best quote to remember: "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it." Just keep repeating Clint Eastwood's line in "Unforgiven" whenever you complain about bowls. Did Michigan deserve a BCS bid over Michigan State, who finished ahead of the Wolverines in the Legends Division and thumped their rivals by two touchdowns? No. Did a 9-3 Penn State team deserve to slide all the way down to the TicketCity Bowl? Of course not. Did 6-6 Ohio State, which lost to Penn State, deserve to go to the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl? Heck no.

Always keep in mind that the BCS is set up only to pit the No. 1 vs. No. 2 teams (and it doesn't even get that right every time). Virtually every other bowl is an exhibition game put on by a city to boost tourism. That's it. Nothing more. It's preposterous that schools allow their most valuable property -- the postseason -- to be run by some chamber of commerce in a distant city and will eagerly agree to outrageous ticket guarantees that amount to little more than blackmail.

But that's the system we have. And deserve's got nothin' to do with it.
A Big Ten champion has been crowned and the league's bowl lineup is set. There was only one game on the docket in Week 14, but what a game it turned out to be as Wisconsin and Michigan State provided great theater in Indianapolis.

The Badgers move into the top spot by virtue of their 42-39 win, but as we saw Saturday night, there's not much separating the league's top two teams.

The final 10 spots in the rankings remain the same.

Let's get to it.

1. Wisconsin (11-2, 6-2): Outplayed for long stretches in Indy, Wisconsin found a way to win as senior quarterback Russell Wilson stepped up in the fourth quarter and unlikely heroes like receiver Jeff Duckworth and, yes, punter Brad Nortman made key plays. The Badgers will need a better defensive performance in Pasadena to slow down Oregon, but they get a chance to redeem themselves at the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO.

2. Michigan State (10-3, 7-1): The Spartans looked like the Big Ten's best team for much of the championship game, holding edges in almost every key statistical category except points. But a few critical mistakes cost Michigan State and prevented the team from reaching the Rose Bowl for the first time in 24 seasons. While the disappointment will sting, the Spartans need to shake it off and beat Georgia in the Outback Bowl to secure their first postseason win under coach Mark Dantonio.

3. Michigan (10-2, 6-2): Unlike Michigan teams of recent years, Brady Hoke's crew ended the season on a roll, winning the final three games. Quarterback Denard Robinson bounced back nicely against both Nebraska and Ohio State and will need another strong performance in the Allstate Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech.

4. Nebraska (9-3, 5-3): The Huskers will play a Florida bowl game for just the second time since facing Tennessee in the 1998 Orange Bowl. They have a chance to win 10 games for the third consecutive season, which hasn't been done since 1999-2001 and build some momentum for the 2012 campaign. Taylor Martinez and the Nebraska offense will be tested against a very good South Carolina defense.

5. Penn State (9-3, 5-3): Passed over by several bowl games, the Lions have a chance to show those groups what they missed with a strong performance against high-powered Houston in the TicketCity Bowl. The defense must rebound from its worst performance of the season, and RB Silas Redd should be well rested and able to reclaim his midseason form in the bowl game. A Lions bowl win gives them 10 or more wins for third time in the past four years.

6. Iowa (7-5, 4-4): It was a rocky season for Kirk Ferentz's team, which never won more than two games in a row. Fortunately, the Hawkeyes are going bowling, where they've thrived under Ferentz, going 6-3 with wins in each of the past three contests. After a lousy performance at Nebraska, Iowa will look to finish strong against Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl.

7. Ohio State (6-6, 3-5): While Urban Meyer won't coach the Buckeyes in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, he'll be a central figure as Ohio State takes on his former team in Florida. It should be an interesting atmosphere to say the least. Luke Fickell tries to go out with a win as a head coach before returning to an assistant role, and it will be interesting to see how Braxton Miller performs on his first bowl stage.

8. Northwestern (6-6, 3-5): The Wildcats endured a disappointing regular season after returning a veteran-laden team, but they can still make history by winning their first bowl game since the 1949 Rose. Quarterback Dan Persa has another month to rest up before his final game. Northwestern will need a stronger effort from its defense to end its bowl losing streak against Texas A&M.

9. Purdue (6-6, 4-4): The bowl wait will end for Purdue on Dec. 27 when it faces Western Michigan in the Little Caesars Bowl. It's an important opportunity to finish with a winning record and finish the season with some momentum before what should be a pivotal 2012 season for coach Danny Hope.

10. Minnesota (3-9, 2-6): The Gophers ended a rough season on a high note for the second straight year. It's now about recruiting for Jerry Kill and his staff, and offseason development for the players, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Minnesota will be an improved team in 2012 but must build on the mini defensive surge we saw late in the season.

11. Illinois (6-6, 2-6): There was some talk early in the week that the Illini players might not want to play a bowl game after their second-half collapse, but the Orange and Blue are headed to San Francisco, where they'll face UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. It provides one final opportunity for a talented team to do something positive before beginning a new chapter under a coach yet to be named.

12. Indiana (1-11, 0-8): A vital recruiting period is under way for Kevin Wilson and his staff, who have to upgrade their talent on the defensive side of the ball. Indiana has a nice foundation in quarterback Tre Roberson and running back Stephen Houston, but the Hoosiers need to build depth and hope all the young players thrown to the fire this fall take steps in the winter months.

Badgers find uncommon route to title

December, 4, 2011
12/04/11
3:09
AM ET


INDIANAPOLIS -- Russell Wilson had barely arrived in Madison this past summer when he shared his vision for the season.

"I want to be part of something special," the NC State transfer announced upon meeting his new Wisconsin teammates. "I don't want to be common. I want to be uncommon."

Very little was common about the first Big Ten championship game. A league known for grinding it out in cold weather put on a thrilling, offensive pingpong contest at Lucas Oil Field. Michigan State and Wisconsin figured to have a hard time matching their Oct. 22 classic, but they came pretty close to repeating it note for note. And the Badgers won 42-39 despite getting outgained and outplayed most of the night before somehow finding a way to secure their second consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl.

"The adversity we faced this season helped us tonight, I believe," Wisconsin fullback Bradie Ewing said. "To be able to battle back like that is special. You remember a season like that more than you would a lot of other seasons."

A season that began with enormous expectations nearly came crashing down on consecutive October weekends, when Michigan State and Ohio State delivered last-minute, intestine-twisting, game-winning touchdowns. The Badgers had zero room for error after those two conference losses and needed help from other teams just to get to Indianapolis.

When they got here, they had to face a Spartans team that beat them in three of the previous four meetings. And the rematch began to play out in eerily similar fashion to Michigan State's 37-31 victory on Oct. 22 in East Lansing.

Just as in that game, the Badgers raced out to a two-touchdown lead in the first quarter, only to see the wheels come off. The Spartans outscored Wisconsin 23-0 in the second quarter of the first game; on Saturday, they ripped off 22 consecutive points to take a 29-21 halftime lead.

"For whatever reason, we don't play well in the second quarter against Michigan State," head coach Bret Bielema said. "So we survived it."

Russell Wilson
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesTo be able to battle back like that is special," Russell Wilson said. "You remember a season like that more than you would a lot of other seasons."
Wisconsin inched back into the game but still trailed 39-34 late in the fourth quarter and had little choice but to go for a fourth-and-6 from the 43-yard line. As he had been many times in the game, Wilson got flushed from the pocket by Michigan State's pressure. He flung a pass toward Jeff Duckworth, who had two Spartans covering him.

"I had to give him a shot," Wilson said. "It was pretty much the only thing I could do. I knew I had to throw it up and give it a chance."

Duckworth had broken his corner pattern to the inside -- "It was kind of a bad route, actually," he would say later. But the receiver who caught only 12 passes in the regular season went up and grabbed the ball for a first down at the 7. Montee Ball then did what he does best, scoring his 38th touchdown of the season, and Wilson scrambled until he could find Jacob Pedersen for the 2-point conversion.

The Duckworth pass brought back instant memories of Michigan State's Hail Mary pass to win in East Lansing on Oct. 22. That play started from 1 yard farther back on the field and also went toward the right corner of the end zone, although the degree of difficulty was higher. Karmic payback, perhaps?

"A common saying that we've been using quite a bit over the last three or four weeks is 'Those who are humbled will be exalted, and those who are exalted will be humbled,'" Bielema said. "And I thought that play right there gave justice to everything."

More weird turnarounds were at work. Special-teams breakdowns played a key role in both Badgers losses this season, as Michigan State and Ohio State each blocked a punt that was taken in for a score or directly led to a touchdown. Surely the Spartans considered that weak spot when they decided to go after a Wisconsin punt with less than two minutes left.

That proved disastrous when Isaiah Lewis was flagged for running into punter Brad Nortman, resulting in a first down and Wisconsin bringing on the victory formation. (It only adds to the irony that Lewis made headlines before the first game when he said Michigan State's defense was going to hurt Wilson.) Nortman had an excellent game, averaging 45 yards on five punts, and Wisconsin actually forced a turnover in the kicking game to score a touchdown.

"I preached special teams all week," Bielema said.

This was an uncommon way to win a championship. The Badgers were outgained 471 to 345 by the Spartans and had only 126 rushing yards to Michigan State's 190. Ball alone ran for 105 yards in the first quarter before the normally powerful ground game stalled. Michigan State took advantage of Wisconsin's lack of speed on the edge of its defense most of the night. Look at the stat sheet, and it's hard to figure out how the Badgers won. But their entire season was about not staying down.

"With the team we had, we were thinking national championship," safety Aaron Henry said. "For us to lose the way we did in those two games, it was definitely devastating. [But] our guys rallied, and it pretty much unfolded in front of your eyes."

In Wilson's case, an ear told the story. He tucked a rose over his right ear and kept it there long after the game was over, savoring his first chance to play in a BCS bowl. His vision from the summer had been fulfilled.

"We are definitely uncommon," he said.

INDIANAPOLIS -- The first Big Ten championship game was an exciting, memorable event. Especially for Wisconsin fans.

Despite getting outgained and often outplayed by Michigan State, the Badgers pulled out a 42-39 win to avenge an earlier loss this season and clinch a bid to the Rose Bowl for the second straight season.

Two key plays made the difference.

The Badgers faced a fourth and seven with 4:44 left, and quarterback Russell Wilson was under heavy pressure when he chucked it downfield to a well-covered Jeff Duckworth, just hoping something good would happen. It did, in the form of a 36-yard completion that might have been karmic payback for the Hail Mary on Oct. 22.

Montee Ball would go in for the touchdown -- his 38th on the year, one behind Barry Sanders' record -- and Wisconsin converted the two-point play as Wilson again scrambled before finding Jacob Pedersen in the end zone for an improbable 42-39 lead.

Michigan State went three and out and punted, then forced a Wisconsin punt with fewer than two minutes to go. But Isaiah Lewis was flagged for running into the punter, giving the Badgers a first down and effectively ending the game in heartbreaking fashion for the Spartans, whose Rose Bowl drought will now head into its 25th year.

Much, much more to come on this crazy game after postgame interviews ...
Wisconsin has good to great depth at several key positions, but wide receiver isn't one of them.

After projected starters Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis, the Badgers lack proven players and are hoping to build depth in camp. Sophomore Manasseh Garner looked like a good option for the No. 3 receiver role, but he'll miss the next 3-4 weeks following hernia surgery.

Garner will have surgery today and will miss the season opener Sept. 1 against UNLV but should be back for a Week 2 matchup against Oregon State. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Garner, considered a receiver-tight end hybrid, impressed me during spring ball and should provide a boost when he gets healthy.

Who steps up no alongside Toon and Abbrederis?
"Up for grabs," coach Bret Bielema told reporters Tuesday. "You’ve got [Jeff] Duckworth, you’ve got Kenzel Doe, I'm not ruling out any of the three freshmen. I haven’t seen somebody step forward that I would like to come out of the pack."

Doe, a 5-8 freshman projected to be a factor on returns, is an intriguing prospect who enrolled early and turned some heads this spring. Freshman Jordan Fredrick also is a name to watch.

But as good as quarterback Russell Wilson could be this fall, he'll need more options to develop in the passing game.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The spotlight remains on Iowa City, where the state Board of Regents held a special meeting Tuesday afternoon to discuss the University of Iowa's response to an alleged sexual assault involving two former Hawkeyes football players and a female student-athlete in October. The Regents unanimously voted to reopen their investigation in light of a letter sent by the mother of the alleged victim that was not received during the Board's initial investigation, the Iowa City Press-Citizen reported.

University president Sally Mason apologized for not releasing the letter, expressing "profound and sincere regret." She added that the university would fully cooperate with the new investigation. Regents president David Miles called the school's failure to release the letter a "serious breach of trust." The school might have committed another no-no by not seeking permission from the alleged victim before releasing her mother's letter to the public on Monday. A spokesman said that by releasing the letter to the Press-Citizen last week, the alleged victim's family was comfortable with it going public. Meanwhile, former Hawkeyes star Tim Dwight is bothered by the program's recent rash of off-field problems, but he places blame on the players, not Kirk Ferentz or the coaching staff.

All in all, not a good situation for the Hawkeyes.

Elsewhere:

  • Former USC quarterback Carson Palmer backed off his anti-Ohio State comments, Ken Gordon writes in The Columbus Dispatch. He's just fired up about the game. Who isn't?
  • ESPN.com's Bruce Feldman lists his top 10 must-see games for 2008. Not surprsingly, Ohio State-USC is No. 1, while Wisconsin's trip to Fresno State comes in at No. 9. I'd include Ohio State at Wisconsin on the list, but I'm Big Ten-biased.
  • Missed this one Monday from The Indianapolis Star's Terry Hutchens, who writes that Indiana's days of being at the bottom of the league's recruiting rankings will end in 2009. Also, Hoosiers standout defensive end Greg Middleton has been named to the Ted Hendricks Award watch list.
  • Wisconsin added a wide receiver (Jeff Duckworth) for its 2009 recruiting class but might be losing a commitment from tackle Jon Lechner, Mark Stewart writes on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Badgers Blog.
  • Jack Bogaczyk of the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail thinks Rich Rodriguez will shake up the Big Ten.
  • Ohio State has become the second Big Ten school, along with Penn State, to establish a chapter of Uplifting Athletes. Earlier this month I wrote about Penn State's Lift For Life event, which raises funds and awareness to fight kidney cancer. Ohio State's chapter will hold its first event, a college football video game tournament, on July 27 at Eddie George's Grille 27 in Columbus. The event also will benefit the Kidney Cancer Association. Buckeyes quarterbacks coach Joe Daniels has been battling kidney cancer since 2006.
  • The Detroit News' Angelique S. Chengelis lists her five favorite college football uniforms. Both Penn State and Ohio State make the rundown. As a Michigan beat writer, she'll probably take flack for including the Buckeyes, but I like the pick.

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