NCF Nation: Jeff Horton

Ra'Shede HagemanCourtesy of Eric HagemanRa'Shede bounced around foster homes before being adopted by Jill Coyle and Eric Hageman.

They keep coming back to that one word: structure. Those who best know Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman say it's the thing he needs most to reach his prodigious potential.

Which is hard to believe when you look at him.

Few Big Ten football players have bodies more structurally sound than Hageman's. Most defensive tackles are boxy in build; Hageman is long and lean at 6-foot-6 and 311 pounds. Muscles bulge from his No. 99 jersey, seemingly the only Gophers garment that can contain his freakish frame.

He runs a 4.9 in the 40 and has a vertical leap between 36-40 inches. He led his high school basketball team to a state title and showed off his blocking skills last week at Northwestern, knocking down three third-down passes to stifle drives (he also had an interception). At 7, Hageman did backflips on demand, making his adoptive father wonder what a kid who had never participated in organized athletics could do on a ball field.

Ra'shede Hageman
Courtesy of Eric Hageman As a basketball player and tight end in high school, Hageman showed off his immense athleticism.
"Talent's no issue," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill told ESPN.com this summer. "He can 360 dunk. Athleticism's not an issue. It's just having structure and buying into structure, the growing up part of it.

"Catching the mind up with the body, so to speak."

Hageman has had to catch up because he began so far behind. That he's even in the race is a testament to him and to the many around him who provided the structure he needed along the way.

Born Ra'Shede Knox, he and his younger brother, Xavier, spent much of their early years living in foster homes or with their mother, who battled drug and alcohol abuse. Ra'Shede never knew his father.

The brothers bounced between a dozen foster homes before being adopted by Eric Hageman and Jill Coyle, two attorneys living in Minneapolis. While in law school, Coyle had worked for an organization that dealt with hard-to-place adoption candidates, and she and Eric decided to adopt before having their own kids.

"We were young and idealistic," Eric Hageman recalled. "We adopted Ra’Shede and Xavier when they were 7 and 6 years old. We were ready to meet that kind of challenge. At least we thought we were."

They provided the foundation that Ra'Shede needed. Eric, noticing Ra'Shede's size and athletic ability, immediately introduced sports -- football, basketball, baseball, even golf -- where he quickly blossomed.

Ra'Shede calls Eric and Jill his "No. 1 supporters since Day 1," but his transition to living with them didn't come without challenges.

"You had the normal issues all parents deal with, and then you layer on top of that the adoption issue, and also the racial identity issue," Eric Hageman said. "It was not always easy for Ra'Shede in particular to be a young, black kid with white lawyers for parents. I remember many times when he was younger where we'd be walking somewhere and he'd walk ahead or behind us, just to show he was not identified with us or something."

Like any teenager, Ra'Shede rebelled. As Eric puts it, "He sought out a rougher crowd to establish his bona fides." When Giovan Jenkins first met Ra'Shede, he saw an incredibly gifted eighth grader who could play varsity football or basketball as soon as he set foot at Washburn High School.

But he also saw a boy in a man's body, struggling to find himself.

"He was still dealing with the neighborhood pressures, the fact he looked different than his parents and things like that," said Jenkins, the football coach at Washburn. "So we caught him at a very volatile period of maturity and growth."

Talent's no issue. He can 360 dunk. Athleticism's not an issue. It's just having structure and buying into structure, the growing up part of it. Catching the mind up with the body, so to speak.

-- Minnesota coach Jerry Kill
on Ra'Shede Hageman
An admitted "knucklehead" in high school, Ra'Shede enjoyed chasing girls, hanging out with the boys and playing sports. Classes didn't fit into his itinerary.

He needed someone to provide structure.

"Coach G just took me under his wing and made me understand I have opportunities that are different from other people," Ra’Shede said.

As a tight end for Washburn, Hageman had 12 touchdown catches as a junior and 11 as a senior. The scholarship offers flowed in from schools like Ohio State, Oklahoma, Florida, Nebraska and Wisconsin, but Hageman opted to stay home and play at Minnesota.

After redshirting in 2009, Hageman reached another crossroads the following season. Minnesota had fired coach Tim Brewster in mid-October. In early November, interim coach Jeff Horton suspended Hageman for the rest of the season for academic reasons. Hageman was hardly alone. When Kill arrived as coach in December, he inherited more than 25 players on academic probation.

"I was a procrastinator," Hageman said. "It wasn’t that I didn’t like school. At that time, it wasn’t exciting. I was just lazy. I used to hate going to study hall because it took away from my nap time."

Kill provided a wake-up call for Hageman the day before a final exam. After Hageman didn't show up for a study session, Kill frantically called Eric Hageman and stayed on the line as he marched across campus to Ra'Shede's dorm room.

He banged on the door, only to find Ra'Shede asleep.

"He basically dragged him back to the football office and had one of the coaches do flash cards with him for four or five hours to get him ready," Eric Hageman said.

Added Ra'Shede: "Coach Kill was like, 'Obviously, you’re a better person than you are right now. Focus on your school and football, rather than focusing on the college party life and all that. You only get one shot at this.' He was real blunt that day. Ever since then, I’ve had my head on straight.”

Hageman left the "old Ra'Shede" behind. He's now in good academic standing, taking his final class for a degree in youth studies. His education continues on the field, too, as he goes through his fourth season at defensive tackle after switching from offense.

[+] EnlargeRa'Shede Leeb
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsNow a senior, Hageman could eventually become an early round NFL draft pick.
His production spiked from his sophomore to junior year, when he recorded six sacks and a forced fumble. The growth is continuing this fall, as Hageman already has 6.5 tackles for loss, two blocked kicks, an interception and six pass breakups.

"It's still a new position," said Hageman, who bypassed the draft after last season to complete his degree and improve at his position. "Jadeveon Clowney and other defensive players, they've been playing their whole life. I'm still learning so many new things about the position every day.

"My better days are still ahead of me."

Hageman wants to be a combination of Ndamukong Suh and J.J. Watt, which is fitting as one plays 4-3 tackle and the other 3-4 end, two positions Hageman could play at the next level. Minnesota acting head coach and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys thinks the NFL will benefit Hageman, who will face fewer exotic blocking schemes (mostly zone), taller offensive lineman (right now, his pad level is often too high against smaller players) and fewer double teams, at least initially.

"At the next level, he'll continue to get even better," Claeys said. "There's no guarantees, but once he gets to the combine, they'll see how good he is. He's just an extremely powerful kid, and he continues to mature. The structure part of it, whoever he plays for, if they put a pretty decent structure in place, Ra'Shede will continue to grow and be fine."

Kill likens Hageman to Brandon Jacobs, his former player at Southern Illinois who left school with rawness and promise. The New York Giants provided the structure Jacobs needed, and he played a key role on two Super Bowl-winning teams.

So many have provided structure for Hageman, from his parents to Jenkins to Kill to his academic advisor, Jacki Lienesch, to his older brother, Lazal. Now he's ready to stand on his own two massive feet.

"It doesn't matter where you start out," Eric Hageman said. "It's where you end up."

At times, Hageman reflects on his unique path. This summer, he shared his story with kids around Minneapolis.

Jenkins, who often has Hageman talk to his players, calls Hageman "an example for everybody, everywhere."

"Not everybody comes from a silver spoon," Hageman said. "If you really want something, you have to work hard for it, no matter what type of person you are. I'm definitely a product of that. Having my trials of me being adopted and me being in different situations, I just stayed focused on my prize and kept working toward it."

He'll continue working. But he's already won.
Jerry Kill is moving from Northern Illinois to Minnesota, and he's bringing his coordinators with him.

Kill will keep two of his longtime aides in the same roles with the Gophers according to a report in the (St. Paul) Pioneer Press. Matt Limegrover will serve as Minnesota's offensive coordinator, and Tracy Claeys will coordinator the Gophers' defense.

Both Limegrove and Claeys have served on Kill's staff for more than a decade, so no surprise here.
"My offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator have been with me a long time and are with me right now," Kill told the Pioneer Press. "Then we're going to go from there. I'm working through it, making sure I put the best staff together available for the University of Minnesota."

Kill told me this week that he would wait and see how Northern Illinois would proceed in forming its coaching staff for the upcoming Humanitarian Bowl. Tom Matukewicz, the Huskies' linebackers coach under Kill, is serving as NIU's interim head coach.

I'll never fault a coach for sticking with assistants who make him comfortable. The big challenge for Kill and his staff remains recruiting to a higher level with the Gophers. It'll be interesting to see if Kill retains any of Tim Brewster's assistants. Limegrover's appointment probably means Minnesota's previous offensive coordinator, Jeff Horton, will end up elsewhere.

Limegrover started his coaching career at the University of Chicago and served as a graduate assistant at Northwestern in 1995-96, as the Wildcats won back-to-back Big Ten championships. Claeys hasn't coached in the Big Ten before.
Jeff Horton won't win Big Ten Coach of the Year. That honor will deservedly go to Michigan State's Mark Dantonio or Wisconsin's Bret Bielema.

But Horton deserves a ton of credit for keeping Minnesota on track through a very tough time. And today, the Gophers got a big reward.

The Floyd of Rosedale.

Minnesota's 27-24 upset of No. 24 Iowa allowed the Gophers to hoist a rivalry trophy for the first time since 2006. And you could tell how excited the Minnesota players were as they raced over to grab the bronze pig on Iowa's sideline.

Those of us who know Gophers quarterback Adam Weber are happy for him Saturday. He has endured a ton of losing in his college career, and to win a rivalry trophy in his final game is something he'll never forget. Weber had a so-so day passing the ball, but he got plenty of help from running backs DeLeon Eskridge (95 rush yards, TD) and Duane Bennett (63 rush yards, TD).

Backup quarterback MarQueis Gray also provided a lift with 39 rush yards and a score, including a huge third-down conversion to set up the winning touchdown.

What a letdown for Iowa, which dropped its final three Big Ten games by a total of 10 points. The Hawkeyes once again seemed to wear down on defense and recorded only 218 offensive yards against the nation's No. 88 defense.

I expected a lot more from a senior-laden Iowa team that needs to refocus itself for a bowl game.
Minnesota's open week came at the perfect time, but only because of what the Gophers had done on the preceding Saturday.

A win at Illinois snapped a nine-game losing streak and an eight-game Big Ten slide stretching back to last season. The emotion-charged triumph momentarily parted the clouds and left the Gophers feeling good and relaxed as they went through practice last week.

[+] EnlargeFloyd of Rosedale trophy
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallThe Floyd of Rosedale trophy is on the line when Iowa faces Minnesota.
"You could definitely tell we had a different feel around here," interim coach Jeff Horton said. "You could actually smile and laugh and not be fake."

More than a week after the victory, Horton wasn't about to minimize what it meant.

"The old monkey had grown into a gorilla, it was King Kong on our backs, losing that many in a row," Horton said. "So obviously, it was an awesome feeling to get that off of you."

Minnesota is undoubtedly the looser team heading into Saturday's season finale at TCF Bank Stadium. But Iowa is still the better team.

The Hawkeyes simply need to play like it. Although they've fallen well short of preseason expectations, they can still secure a Jan. 1 bowl berth and retain the Floyd of Rosedale with a win in Minneapolis.

Iowa's biggest challenge could be the mental hurdle of bouncing back from consecutive losses in which it blew fourth-quarter leads.

"I'd have concerns either way," Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said. "If we were coming off two big, euphoric-type wins, I'd be concerned probably the other direction. So it's like in any game. ... The mental state of the team is always an issue that you think about and try to do your best to manage. Circumstances change, but you're always trying to anticipate how the team's thinking and what things you might have to cover."

Iowa has held Minnesota scoreless in each of the teams' last two meetings, and the Hawkeyes have surrendered a combined 39 points in five of their wins this season. While Ferentz has struggled with Iowa's previous two opponents, Ohio State and Northwestern, he's 8-3 against Minnesota.

"It is a huge rivalry game," Horton said. "In the last 10 years, we're 2-8, so we’ve got to do our part to rekindle that. We don't want Iowa to feel comfortable about just coming in expecting to win."
For the first time in 72 days, the Minnesota Golden Gophers entered a locker room with smiles on their faces.

What happened after their 38-34 win against Illinois was to be expected.

"It was definitely insane," Gophers running back DeLeon Eskridge told ESPN.com. "I wish we had cameras in there or something because we just went crazy. It was wild, and we just enjoyed it."

[+] EnlargeAdam Weber
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanAdam Weber tossed a pair of touchdown passes in the Gophers' win on Saturday.
Minnesota had waited a long time to celebrate something after a season filled with disappointment.

The Gophers came to Illinois as losers of nine consecutive games. Their head coach, Tim Brewster, had been fired Oct. 17 after the team dropped its sixth consecutive contest. The team had struggled mightily in all three phases, and most assumed Minnesota would finish 1-11 for the second time in four years.

Motivating Minnesota to play out the string wasn't an easy task, but interim coach Jeff Horton saw no quit in the players.

"The easy thing to do is walk away or believe what everybody's saying, 'You've got no chance,'" Horton said. "That's human nature. And I thought in the second half [against] Ohio State, it got away from us. The turning point was against Michigan State last week at the half, when they scored on the last play. They had all the momentum, but we came back out in the second half, played really well and it carried over into [Saturday]."

Minnesota jumped out to a 17-7 halftime lead, but as has been the case all season, the good times didn't last. Illinois stormed back to claim a 34-24 edge with 8:14 to play, as the Gophers had no answer for running back Mikel Leshoure.

Another defeat seemed certain, but Minnesota got some life when Troy Stoudermire returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards.

"The main thing that was being said was, 'We can still win this, don't give up, it's still a close game, keep going,'" Eskridge said. "We definitely did that."

After Minnesota stopped Illinois with 2:44 left, the Gophers took the ball at their own 20-yard line, trailing 34-31. Horton approached senior quarterback Adam Weber, telling him to enjoy the moment: his last road game in college, trying to run the 2-minute drill to win the game.

Weber also had received some encouragement from Brewster, who sent him a text message Friday that read: "Call me after you beat them." Weber came through, making plays with both his feet and his arm as Minnesota reached the end zone in 10 plays.

"He puts up with so much crap and never complains," Horton said of Weber. "All he does is do the right thing all the time, say the right thing, so it was really rewarding for him."

The emotion in Horton's voice was still there hours after the game, as Minnesota waited to board its flight home.

"Just the circumstances, all the uncertainty, coaches, players, all we've been through," Horton said. "I don't think people realize how hard this is. It's a daily grind to try to keep moving forward. To see it pay off for the kids and the coaches was awesome."

Big Ten power rankings: Week 12

November, 15, 2010
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Power Rankings: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

I'll be the first to admit this installment of the power rankings went easy on some teams. Although Iowa lost to Northwestern, I still have a hard time dropping the Hawkeyes below the No. 4 spot. Same thing for Penn State at No. 5.

Should Michigan vault both the Hawkeyes and Nittany Lions after two somewhat shaky wins? Let's remember that Michigan lost to both Iowa and Penn State. And while Northwestern finally put it all together against Iowa, I have a hard time placing the Wildcats ahead of both Iowa and Penn State.

Basically, Iowa and Penn State get a bit of a pass this week. But both teams had better get things in gear this coming Saturday.

1. Wisconsin (9-1, 5-1 Big Ten): The Badgers flexed their muscles in a historic offensive performance Saturday against Indiana. Some felt Bret Bielema went too far, but he can't tell his players to stop playing the game. Wisconsin has the easiest closing slate of the three league title contenders, but it must find a way to get over the hump in the state of Michigan.

2. Ohio State (9-1, 5-1): After a lackluster first half, Ohio State looked like the team we've come to know under Jim Tressel in the month of November. The Buckeyes overpowered Penn State with Dan Herron and the run game, and an always opportunistic defense recorded two interception returns for touchdowns. Things get tougher this week with a trip to Iowa City.

3. Michigan State (9-1, 5-1): The open week came at a good time for Michigan State, which had to be pleased seeing Iowa stumble at Northwestern. The Spartans now become big Hawkeyes fans as they want Iowa to beat Ohio State and increase the likelihood of a two-team tie atop the Big Ten between Michigan State and Wisconsin, which the Spartans would win.

4. Iowa (7-3, 4-2): Sure, the Hawkeyes didn't drop in the power rankings, but they took a major step back in the Big Ten title race. Iowa would need a lot to go wrong elsewhere to have any chance to catch both Wisconsin and Michigan State in the final two weeks. Given the preseason expectations and all the seniors coming back, Iowa should be disappointed with how things have turned out.

T-5. Penn State (6-4, 3-3): This is another team that shouldn't feel good about being in the same spot in the rankings. Penn State did a lot of good things in the first half at Ohio State but completely fell apart in the final 30 minutes. Quarterback Matt McGloin's hot start abruptly ended, and it will be interesting to see how things play out under center in the final two weeks. Penn State should bounce back this week against Indiana.

T-5. Northwestern (7-3, 3-3): The Wildcats recorded a season-affirming win against Iowa but unfortunately lost star quarterback Dan Persa to a season-ending injury. No Big Ten player has meant more to his team than Persa this fall, so expectations have to be tempered the rest of the season. Redshirt freshman Evan Watkins will need to grow up fast, and he'll need help from the offensive line and the run game.

6. Michigan (7-3, 3-3): Kudos to the much-maligned Michigan defense for bailing out Denard Robinson and the offense Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium. Michigan played a very sloppy game and made several questionable decisions, but it found a way to beat a banged-up Purdue team and ensure its first winning season since 2007. Things get a lot tougher the final two weeks with Wisconsin and Ohio State.

8. Illinois (5-5, 3-4): Only a few plays separate Illinois from a 7-3 mark, but the team's inability to beat both Michigan and Minnesota suddenly puts bowl eligibility in jeopardy. The Illini must beat a shorthanded but fired-up Northwestern squad this week at Wrigley Field or knock off Fresno State on the road Dec. 3 to reach the six-win plateau. If not, the heat will rise for coach Ron Zook.

9. Purdue (4-6, 2-4): Despite having the Big Ten's best defensive player in end Ryan Kerrigan, the Boilers are too injured and too limited on offense to beat decent teams. Purdue's defense has made several big plays the past two weeks, but the Boilers simply haven't converted enough opportunities and have made too many major mistakes of their own. It doesn't get any easier this week with a trip to Michigan State.

10. Minnesota (2-9, 1-6): It would have been easy for Minnesota to give up weeks ago, and especially after falling behind by 10 points midway through the fourth quarter. But interim coach Jeff Horton and his players didn't relent and mounted an impressive come-from-behind win on the road. You had to feel happy for quarterback Adam Weber and the other seniors who have endured so many losses in their careers.

11. Indiana (4-6, 0-6): Until Saturday, the Hoosiers could hang their hats on competing hard in Big Ten games. But they couldn't generate any defensive stops against Wisconsin, even after the Badgers put their second- and third-stringers into the game. Allowing 83 points is simply unacceptable, and Bill Lynch needs to get more out of his team the last two weeks to ensure he's back in 2011.
Minnesota just showed why you should never give up in college football. Kudos to Jeff Horton and his team.

Meanwhile, Illinois fans might be ready to give up on Ron Zook once again.

Minnesota ended its nine-game losing streak with a 38-34 come-from-behind win against Illinois. It marked the Gophers' first win since Sept. 2 and their first conference victory since Oct. 31, 2009, against Michigan State.

The most impressive thing from Minnesota was its resiliency after getting down 34-24 with 8:14 remaining. Think about it: you're 1-9, your coach has been fired, you're on the road and a bye week beckons. But the Gophers didn't quit, mounting two touchdown drives and scoring the game-winner on DeLeon Eskridge's third touchdown run, with 16 seconds left.

Adam Weber passed for 225 yards and two touchdowns for a well-deserved win.

This is crushing for Illinois and it once again raises serious questions about Zook's leadership. It's not merely that the Illini have lost two straight, but how they did. Defense and special teams have been Illinois' hallmarks this season, but both areas have let down in the past two losses.

Illinois had everything to play for today on Senior Day but came out flat. And after taking control late, the Illini let up and gave Minnesota new life.

Bowl eligibility seemed like a foregone conclusion two weeks ago. Now Illinois needs to beat Northwestern in Chicago or Fresno State on the road to get it done. Won't be easy.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 11

November, 11, 2010
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Ten items to track in the Big Ten heading into Week 11:

1. 'Eyes face final hurdles before showdown: Most folks believe that no remaining regular season game will impact the Big Ten title race more than No. 9 Ohio State at No. 13 Iowa on Nov. 20 at Kinnick Stadium. But for that game to truly mean something, both the Buckeyes and the Hawkeyes must take care of business this week. Ohio State faces a Penn State squad riding a wave of confidence following three consecutive Big Ten victories. Iowa goes up against its recent nemesis, Northwestern, which has beaten the Hawkeyes in four of the teams' last five games.

[+] EnlargeMcGloin
Charles LeClaire/US PresswireMatt McGloin has earned the starting quarterback job at Penn State.
2. Matt McGloin at the controls: Once an afterthought in Penn State's quarterback competition, McGloin has earned the starter's tag, and deservedly so, for Saturday's game in Columbus. The former walk-on has a distinct swagger and confidence about him that seems to be rubbing off on his teammates. McGloin has 475 pass yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in his last two games. He faces a much tougher test Saturday in Ohio State, which is tied for sixth nationally in interceptions (16) and will challenge Penn State's improving offensive line with steady blitzing.

3. Hope, Rodriguez reunite: Purdue coach Danny Hope and his Michigan counterpart Rich Rodriguez had an awkward interaction after Purdue's historic win last year at Michigan Stadium. Hope called out Rodriguez for allegedly alerting the Big Ten about a play that resulted in the league suspending Boilers offensive lineman Zach Reckman. The post-game exchange surprised Rodriguez (and most of us, quite frankly). Both Hope and Rodriguez say the issue is in the past, but keep an eye on how the two coaches conduct themselves Saturday, especially if the score is lopsided.

4. Illinois aims to secure bowl eligibility: There's no time for Illinois to wallow in what might have been last week at the Big House. It's never easy to lose in triple overtime, much less when you've scored 65 points and have a plus-4 turnover margin. But Ron Zook must get his team to refocus for last-place Minnesota, as a win will make Illinois bowl eligible for the first time since 2007. Illinois' final two games -- vs. Northwestern at Wrigley Field, and at Fresno State -- are no gimmes, so the Illini must take care of business against the hapless Gophers. Look for big things from Mikel Leshoure, Nathan Scheelhaase and the Illinois ground attack against a Minnesota defense that ranks 106th nationally against the run (200.5 ypg).

5. Wisconsin's running back rotation: After providing a huge lift in Wisconsin's last two victories, Montee Ball is expected to get the start at running back Saturday against Indiana. Ball performed well last year against the Hoosiers, racking up 115 rush yards and two touchdowns in a 31-28 win. James White, who leapfrogged Ball for the backup job in the preseason, is getting healthy from a sprained knee and should get a nice chunk of carries as well. Coach Bret Bielema has gone back and forth on the status of starter John Clay (sprained knee), and I wouldn't expect to see much of No. 32 unless Wisconsin finds itself in real trouble.

6. Northwestern returns to finishing school: In two of the last three weeks, Northwestern has gotten away from a hallmark of its program -- the importance of finishing. The Wildcats squandered leads of 17-0 and 24-14 against Michigan State and watched a 21-0 lead against Penn State vanish quickly. Coach Pat Fitzgerald counted 27 missed tackles in the Penn State game, and a young defense seems to be showing its cracks against the play-action pass. Northwestern will need a much stronger performance from the defense against Ricky Stanzi and the dangerous Iowa offense.

7. Offensive Player of the Year race: There's still no clear favorite for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year as we enter crunch time. Stanzi has been extremely effective and efficient, but he'll need a strong finish to hold off both Denard Robinson and Terrelle Pryor. Robinson, the nation's No. 2 rusher, goes up against Purdue star defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, the frontrunner for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Pryor has completed better than 75 percent of his passes in five games this season, and he tries to make strides before the showdown against Stanzi and Iowa.

8. Gray day for Minnesota: Interim coach Jeff Horton finally used MarQueis Gray at quarterback last week against Michigan State and likely will do so in a limited role for the rest of the season. Most Minnesota fans consider Gray the team's quarterback of the future, and it's good that he's getting some reps at quarterback before the end of a lost season. Horton isn't going to have Gray run a large package of plays, but the talented sophomore could provide a much-needed spark for an offense that can't seem to get over the hump with Adam Weber at the controls.

9. Robinson vs. Robinson: You shouldn't have trouble remembering the names of the starting quarterbacks Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium. Denard Robinson will start his 10th consecutive game for Michigan despite leaving last week's game against Illinois with concussion-like symptoms. Purdue once again will turn to true freshman Sean Robinson at quarterback, as both Rob Henry and Justin Siller are still recovering from injuries. Purdue's Robinson provided an early spark last week against Wisconsin and could do some damage against a suspect Michigan defense if he can avoid turnovers.

10. Backing up Belcher: Indiana receiver Damarlo Belcher "felt like a failure" after he dropped the potential game-winning touchdown in the final minute last Saturday against Iowa. Fortunately, Belcher's teammates have picked him up this week, unanimously voting him one of the game captains for the Wisconsin contest. For Indiana to have any shot at a monumental upset, the Hoosiers' passing attack must be on point and Belcher is a huge part of it. Coach Bill Lynch has seen a positive response in practice from Belcher, who leads the Big Ten with 65 receptions.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 8

October, 21, 2010
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Ten items to track in a five-pack of Big Ten games on Saturday.

1. Lines collide in Iowa City: If you love line play and power football, pay attention Saturday afternoon at Kinnick Stadium. Wisconsin boasts the nation's No. 12 rushing attack and an offensive line boasting 130 career starts among its top six players. Iowa ranks seventh nationally against the run and has 100 career starts among its top five defensive linemen. Two future first-round draft picks match up in Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn and Wisconsin left tackle Gabe Carimi. The Richter scale had better be working in Iowa City because there could be a few tremors.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Clayborn
Chris Morrison/US PresswireFuture first-round pick Adrian Clayborn of Iowa, above, will match up with future first-round pick Gabe Carimi of Wisconsin.
2. Spartans head across state lines: Michigan State is off to its best start since 1966, but all seven Spartans wins have taken place within the confines of the state. Some see this as a bigger deal than it really is -- an impressive win at Michigan should count for something -- but the Spartans can help their case for national respect with a good performance against 5-1 Northwestern in Evanston. Plenty of Michigan State fans should turn up at Ryan Field as the Spartans try to maintain perfection before another big road test at No. 15 Iowa.

3. Gophers resume play without Brewster: The Tim Brewster era is over at Minnesota, but the Gophers still have five games left to play. Interim coach Jeff Horton leads Minnesota in its first game without Brewster as it hosts Penn State. How will the Gophers respond? Perhaps more importantly, how will their fans respond after booing regularly during five consecutive home losses? "We're coming into two home football games, and I don't think it's fair for the kids to be booed," Minnesota AD Joel Maturi said Sunday in announcing Brewster's firing. "Quite frankly, it's why I have my plea out to our fans, don't boo our kids."

4. Buckeyes boiling: Don't expect Ohio State to overlook Purdue like it did last year. For starters, most Buckeyes players were on the field at Ross-Ade Stadium when Ryan Kerrigan and the 1-5 Boilermakers recorded the upset. Add in the fact that Ohio State comes off of a humbling loss to Wisconsin, and Jim Tressel's crew should be locked and loaded. Tressel has been masterful at exacting revenge, but his team faces some obstacles Saturday. The offensive line must keep Kerrigan away from Terrelle Pryor, and a banged-up defense will be without star linebacker Ross Homan and nickel safety Christian Bryant.

5. Bowling in Champaign: There's still time left for both Indiana and Illinois, but the loser of Saturday's game in Champaign could face an uphill battle to reach six wins and a bowl game. Indiana recorded its only Big Ten win of 2009 against the Illini, and Bill Lynch's crew needs two more wins to qualify for its second bowl game in four seasons after going 14 years without making the postseason. Illinois has survived its toughest stretch at 3-3, but this is a game the Illini need on their home field to show that things really are turning around.

6. Penn State faces must-win: Joe Paterno keeps stiff-arming the "must-win" label, but everyone knows it applies for Penn State on Saturday. If the Lions stumble against 1-6 Minnesota, they'll have a hard time reaching a bowl game and getting Paterno his 400th career win. This week, Paterno scoffed at a suggestion of in-fighting among the coaching staff, and Penn State players know they need to play with greater passion after a lackluster performance against Illinois. Rob Bolden and the offense need to step up against the Big Ten's worst scoring defense, especially since Penn State's own D continues to deal with some key injuries.

7. Wildcats back to being underdogs: The Northwestern Wildcats are underdogs for the first time this season, and that could spell good things Saturday against No. 7 Michigan State. Northwestern has been at its best as an under-the-radar, unranked underdog since 2003, recording eight wins against ranked opponents, including two last season. But Michigan State is executing at an extremely high level in all three phases, so Northwestern needs to clean up its mistakes, particularly with penalties and special-teams meltdowns.

8. Norm chant: Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker still hasn't returned to the team following foot amputation surgery last month, but Hawkeye Nation is keeping him in their thoughts Saturday. Every time Wisconsin's offense faces a third down on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium, Iowa fans are being encouraged to chant "Norm! Norm! Norm!" This is a great idea to honor a great coach, and you can find out more about it here.

9. Opportunity knocks again for Purdue: No one outside Mollenkopf Athletic Center expected Purdue to be 2-0 in Big Ten play after a rash of injuries claimed starting quarterback Robert Marve and other key players. And no one expects the Boilers to be 3-0 in the conference after Saturday's trip to No. 10 Ohio State. Danny Hope's team has no pressure and once again gets a great opportunity to showcase itself on the national stage. Much like Illinois, Purdue typically plays Ohio State tough: the Boilers are 3-5 against the Buckeyes since 2000 with two losses by a combined seven points and only one loss by more than 16 points.

10. Rough road for Badgers: Bret Bielema and the Wisconsin Badgers overcame their big-game bugaboo against Ohio State. But if they intend to remain in the Big Ten title race, they need to back it up with a signature road win. Bielema still needs more of those, especially after Wisconsin's Oct. 2 loss at Michigan State. He has a 2-2 record against his alma mater, Iowa, but has dropped back-to-back games. Divisional alignment puts the Wisconsin-Iowa series on a two-year hiatus, so Saturday's game has extra meaning. "I graduated from Iowa," Bielema said. "They treat me very badly when I go down there. So it’s a hostile environment."
Let's take a look back at a pivotal weekend in the Big Ten before peeking ahead to Week 8.

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AP Photo/Andy ManisRunning back James White and Wisconsin overpowered previously unbeaten Ohio State.
Team of the Week: Wisconsin. Through the first six weeks, Wisconsin provided little evidence to suggest it could knock off the nation's No. 1 team. But the Badgers put it all together in impressive fashion Saturday night against Ohio State. For the first time in recent memory, Ohio State's defense got humbled by a Big Ten opponent as Wisconsin's offensive line steamrolled the Buckeyes, creating huge running lanes for both John Clay and James White. Although the Buckeyes rallied in the third quarter and the early fourth, Wisconsin was too powerful on offense and received enough stops from J.J. Watt and the defense to keep Terrelle Pryor and the Ohio State attack in check. Wisconsin overcame its big-game bugaboo and now hits the road for a huge rivalry game against No. 15 Iowa.

Best game: Ohio State at Wisconsin. The atmosphere at Camp Randall Stadium was absolutely electric, and the game began with a bang as Wisconsin's David Gilreath returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. Wisconsin and Ohio State were mirror images in the first and third quarters, as each team dominated play and put together extensive touchdown drives (19 plays, 89 yards for Wisconsin; 19 plays, 94 yards for Ohio State). The Buckeyes had all the momentum as they closed to within three points early in the fourth quarter, but Wisconsin answered with the defining drive of its season, marching 73 yards in 10 plays and mixing up the play calls perfectly. The Iowa-Michigan game also brought some drama as Michigan rallied behind Tate Forcier, and Indiana-Arkansas State turned into a shootout.

Biggest play: We go back to Madison, as Wisconsin faced third-and-3 from its own 34-yard line early in the fourth quarter after Ohio State had rallied to within three points. Rather than pound away with the run game, Wisconsin took to the air and Scott Tolzien fired a bullet to receiver Nick Toon near the east sideline for a 20-yard gain. The Badgers didn't face another third down on the drive and went on to score a touchdown. "Huge catch in a crucial point of the game," Toon said. "But that's my job." Iowa faced a similar situation against Michigan, up 35-28 in the fourth quarter but facing third-and-9 from its own 41. Ricky Stanzi found Marvin McNutt for 17 yards, and the Hawkeyes went on to score.

Specialist spotlight: Michigan State kicker Dan Conroy really is starting to blossom as the successor to superstar Brett Swenson. Conroy went 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts against Illinois, connecting from 37, 34, 32 and 18 yards. The Spartans really needed him on a day when the offense struggled for stretches. Indiana kicker Mitch Ewald also had an impressive performance in relief of the injured Nick Freeland. Ewald went 3-for-3 on field-goal attempts, including a 46-yarder in the fourth quarter. Gilreath doesn't technically qualify as a specialist, but his return against Ohio State is notable. It marked Wisconsin's first kick return touchdown since Lee Evans in 2000, and the team's longest since Aaron Stecker's 100-yarder against Minnesota in 1995.

Most futile call: Making my way through the Camp Randall Stadium concourse to Wisconsin's media room Saturday night, I kept hearing the public-address announcer pleading with the Wisconsin students and other Badgers fans not to rush the field. Um, good luck with that one. I understand the safety issue and the past problems at Camp Randall, but you're just not going to keep people off the field when their team has just defeated No. 1.

Game balls:

  • Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt: Watt tormented Ohio State's offensive line all night and recorded three tackles for loss and two sacks of Pryor. It felt like he had four or five sacks with all the trouble he caused. Watt also was credited with a quarterback hurry and has a team-leading 11.5 tackles for loss this year.
  • Indiana WRs Damarlo Belcher and Tandon Doss: The Hoosiers' star tandem combined for 14 receptions, 224 yards and two touchdowns in the win against Arkansas State. Belcher and Doss became the first Indiana wideouts to both eclipse 100 yards in a game since Ray Fisher and James Hardy in 2007.
  • Michigan State LB Greg Jones: The senior is well on his way to another All-America type season for Michigan State. He recorded a season-high 14 tackles to go along with a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry in Saturday's win against Illinois. Jones has led MSU in tackles in 27 of the past 33 games.
  • Ohio State WR Dane Sanzenbacher: If there's a tougher wide receiver in America, feel free to send me his name because Sanzenbacher is my pick, hands down. Sanzenbacher never shies away from contact and making gutsy catches. He had six of them for 94 yards against Wisconsin. Sanzenbacher is playing like a first-team All-Big Ten receiver.
  • Iowa WR Derrell Johnson-Koulianos: DJK became Iowa's all-time leading receiver Saturday after recording four receptions for 70 yards and three touchdowns. He now has seven touchdown receptions this season. DJK, who added a 40-yard kick return against Michigan, should share the game ball with quarterback Ricky Stanzi, who continues to put up Heisman-caliber numbers (17-for-24 passing, 248 pass yards, 3 TDs).
  • Purdue QB Rob Henry: The young fella looks like a winner, folks. Henry accounted for four touchdowns (3 rush, 1 pass) against Minnesota and completed more than twice as many passes (13) on just two more attempts (20) than he did the previous week at Northwestern.
  • Illinois DL Corey Liuget: It's always notable when a defensive lineman leads the team in tackles, and Liuget had another big performance Saturday at Michigan State. The junior recorded 11 tackles, one for loss, and two quarterback hurries as Illinois limited the Spartans' rushing attack.

OK, enough with Week 7. Let's take a quick look at Week 8.

No. 7 Michigan State (7-0, 3-0 Big Ten) at Northwestern (5-1, 1-1): The Spartans are 7-0 for the first time since 1966, but they have yet to win a game outside the state of Michigan. They head to Evanston and face a Northwestern team coming off of a bye week. Michigan State's playmaking defense has recorded 12 interceptions this fall; Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa has thrown only two in 177 pass attempts.

Penn State (3-3, 0-2) at Minnesota (1-6, 0-3): Interim coach Jeff Horton leads Minnesota for the first time against a Penn State team coming off of a much-needed bye week. It will be interesting to see if Penn State can regroup a bit and get its offense going against a Gophers defense that allows a Big Ten-high 31.7 points a game. Gophers quarterback Adam Weber takes aim at a Penn State defense missing several starters because of injury.

Purdue (4-2, 2-0) at No. 10 Ohio State (6-1, 2-1): Purdue is one of those teams that always plays Ohio State tough, but the Buckeyes might have steam coming out of their ears for this one. Ohio State won't overlook Purdue again after last year's loss in West Lafayette, and the Buckeyes are doubly mad after stumbling last week at Wisconsin. Henry is 2-0 as Purdue's starter, but he'll be tested at The Shoe.

Indiana (4-2, 0-2) at Illinois (3-3, 1-2): Illinois has gotten through the toughest stretch of its season, but it still needs three more wins to become bowl eligible. Indiana notched its only Big Ten victory against the Illini last year and has really struggled to get over the hump in league play. Ben Chappell and Indiana's high-powered pass attack goes up against an improved Illinois defense.

No. 13 Wisconsin (6-1, 2-1) at No. 15 Iowa (5-1, 2-0): Two rivals with a lot of similarities meet in a showcase game at Kinnick Stadium. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema recorded the signature win he needed against Ohio State, but he also must show he can beat elite teams away from Camp Randall Stadium. Bielema heads back to his alma mater and faces an Iowa team that begins a stretch of marquee matchups on its home field.

Bye: Michigan (5-2, 1-2)
Tim Brewster came to Minnesota talking big and dreaming bigger.

I can't remember how many times I heard Brewster mention Minnesota's 18 Big Ten championships and six national championships, never mind the fact that neither event had happened since 1967.

Brewster knew the bar needed to be raised in Minneapolis. You couldn't blame him for aiming high. Why else would the school fire a coach (Glen Mason) who consistently made bowl games?

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Bruce Kluckhohn/US PresswireTim Brewster went 15-30 as Minnesota's head coach.
But Brewster couldn't make Minnesota into a championship program. In fact, he couldn't get the Gophers to the level Mason had them at the time of his termination following the 2006 Insight Bowl. Brewster never won a trophy game and went 1-9 in November games, with his lone win coming against FCS South Dakota State. His teams have been outscored 67-0 in their past two meetings with rival Iowa.

When he stopped winning in September and October this season, his days became numbered. And after Minnesota lost its sixth consecutive game Saturday at Purdue, dropping to 1-6 on the season, the school pulled the plug on the Brewster era.

Brewster went 15-30 at Minnesota and 7-18 since November 2008.
"While I appreciate the passion and commitment that Coach Brewster has shown, it is clear that a change in the leadership of Gopher football is necessary," athletic director Joel Maturi said in a prepared statement. "We have high aspirations for our football program and we are not satisfied with its current direction. The results so far this season have been unacceptable and the program has simply not shown enough improvement over the past three and a half years to continue with the status quo."

Co-offensive coordinator Jeff Horton will take over for Brewster on an interim basis. I hate to see lame-duck coaches in college sports, so this seems like the right move.

Firing Brewster only cost Minnesota $600,000, a buyout lowered in his recent contract extension.

Brewster never lacked passion, and his recruiting abilities as a former Mack Brown assistant showed at Minnesota. I loved the way he upgraded Minnesota's schedule, which had been a joke during the Mason era, and added showcase nonconference games against teams like USC.

But he also showed too many signs of a first-time college head coach.

His decision to replace veteran offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar and switch from the spread to a pro-style offense didn't pay off. He replaced Dunbar with an NFL assistant in Jedd Fisch whose complex concepts flew over the players' heads. Brewster kept shuffling his staff, a formula that rarely works in a sport where sticking to your guns usually is the way to go.

Minnesota is the first FBS program to make a coaching change in 2010, and the school now begins what could be an extensive coaching search. There are some dream candidates Minnesota can pursue (alum Tony Dungy, former assistant Kevin Sumlin, Mike Leach) and some more realistic ones (Montreal Alouettes coach Marc Trestman, former Iowa State coach Dan McCarney).

It will be interesting to see how much control Maturi has in the search since he was the one who hired Brewster.

Minnesota is a challenging job, but it's a better job now with a beautiful on-campus stadium to sell.

There are no excuses why Minnesota shouldn't be a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team, building toward the high bar Brewster set but never could reach.
Minnesota has new life, thanks in large part to Northwestern.

After coming out very shaky, the Gophers have rallied to take a 21-14 lead at halftime, handing Northwestern its first deficit of the season.

Both teams have made a lot of mistakes, but Tim Brewster's squad has avoided the really big ones and looked very good on offense in the second quarter. DeLeon Eskridge and Duane Bennett both are running the ball well, and coordinator Jeff Horton has called an exceptional game with several trick plays.

Northwestern appeared to be on its way to a blowout as the offense easily moved the ball downfield against the Gophers. But two turnovers, the second in the red zone, led to Minnesota points and completely changed the complexion of the game. First-half penalties have really hurt Pat Fitzgerald's crew for the second straight week, as the Wildcats have been flagged seven times. Fitzgerald's teams typically are among the nation's most disciplined, but not this year.

The Wildcats have been a second-half team this year, while Minnesota's troubles have typically come after halftime.

This one should go down to the wire.
The Big Ten is still perfect in 2010. All three teams in action Thursday night came out victorious. You've already seen my thoughts on Ohio State-Marshall.

Let's take a look at the other two games:

Minnesota 24, Middle Tennessee 17: It wasn't a masterpiece, but Minnesota took a big step toward establishing its offensive identity. Coach Tim Brewster has talked about "pound the rock" for a while, but until Thursday night, the Gophers hadn't been that power-run, clock-killing offense. They achieved both of those goals in a big way at Middle Tennessee, rushing for 281 yards and holding the ball for 45:34. That's exactly what new offensive coordinator Jeff Horton wants to do with this unit. Running back Duane Bennett had a huge night (30 carries, 187 yards), and I couldn't be happier for fullback Jon Hoese, who scored all three Minnesota touchdowns, including the game-winner in the fourth quarter. Hoese nearly didn't make the trip after his father suffered a severe stroke this week. He ends up playing, scoring three touchdowns and recovering a fumble on a kickoff return. He'll be getting a helmet sticker Saturday night. Minnesota's defense looked shaky at times in the middle quarters but did enough to win, and senior quarterback Adam Weber completed 10 of 17 passes. Most important, Minnesota played a more disciplined game, committing no turnovers and had just four penalties. The Gophers had to take advantage of Middle Tennessee without Dwight Dasher, and they did with a second-half rally.

Indiana 51, Towson 17: Tandon Doss' absence clearly didn't slow down the Indiana offense, which surged both through the air and, more importantly, on the ground. As I expected, Damarlo Belcher picked up the slack for the injured Doss and came up big with eight receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown. Ben Chappell did what senior quarterbacks are supposed to do against poor FCS teams and delivered an efficient performance (17-for-24 passing, 186 yards, 2 touchdowns). But the big story was Willis and the run game. Coach Bill Lynch introduced the pistol formation to spark the rushing attack, but Indiana has been inconsistent and Willis has struggled to stay healthy. The junior back looked great Thursday with 102 rush yards and two touchdowns on only 13 carries. Linebacker Tyler Replogle led the defense, and two defensive backs who used to play receiver, Mitchell Evans and Matt Ernest, both recorded interceptions. Indiana has to capitalize on a very soft nonconference slate, and Thursday night was the first step.

Recapping the Big Ten scrimmages

August, 23, 2010
8/23/10
9:07
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Scrimmages took center stage around the Big Ten this weekend as teams moved closer to the end of camp and the start of game preparations. I have links and a few thoughts on each scrimmage below, but only on the teams that put out information about what happened or had media in attendance. Those teams are: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State and Wisconsin.

I'll do my best with Michigan's scrimmage, which oddly was open to fans but not media.

ILLINOIS

The Illini broke camp in Rantoul, Ill., and scrimmaged Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Check out what happened here and here and here and here.

Quick hitters
  • Illinois' coaches can talk all they want about running back by committee, but it's clear that junior Mikel Leshoure is the team's top option. As he did throughout the second half of last season, Leshoure showcased his big-play ability Saturday with a 49-yard touchdown run. Leshoure finished with 102 rush yards and two scores on only 12 carries. Jason Ford also had a nice day Saturday, but Leshoure is the guy to watch out for this fall.
  • After struggling in the first camp scrimmage, Illinois' first-team defense rebounded nicely Saturday. According to Mark Tupper, the first-team defense allowed only 59 net yards in 41 plays in the scrimmage. Defensive end Michael Buchanan and linebacker Martez Wilson were among the standouts.
  • Although starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase had a shaky day, Illinois might have found another capable wide receiver in Eddie McGee, the team's former backup quarterback. McGee beat cornerback Miami Thomas on a jump ball in the end zone to record a touchdown and finished with three receptions for 56 yards.
INDIANA

The Hoosiers held a 96-play Saturday at Memorial Stadium, and you can read all about it here, here (subscription required) and here.

Quick hitters
  • Redshirt freshman Dusty Kiel has established himself as the team's backup quarterback in camp. Kiel, who has been competing with Edward Wright-Baker, had an excellent scrimmage, completing 14 of 16 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown.
  • Indiana used the scrimmage to assess its offensive line depth and limited the participation for sure-fire starters like center Will Matte and right tackle James Brewer. Coach Bill Lynch wanted to get a better read on his backup center and had Jordan Marquette, Chris Ahlfeld and Steve Fiacable take reps in the scrimmage. Ted Bolser stepped up nicely at tight end with five catches for 46 yards and a touchdown.
  • The Hoosiers' already-shaky secondary suffered a blow as safety Chris Adkins had to be carried off the field because of an ankle injury. The extent of Adkins' injury is unclear at this point.
MICHIGAN

Michigan held a scrimmage Saturday at Michigan Stadium. It was open to some fans but not media, and while I love fan reports, I'm relying mostly on this video from the school's official website.
  • I really like what I've seen from freshman running back Stephen Hopkins, both in Saturday's scrimmage and during the Big Ten Network's tour stop. He gives the Wolverines a different look in the backfield at 6-foot, 227 pounds. Michigan boasts plenty of speed backs, but Hopkins provides the type of downhill, between-the-tackles running you need in the Big Ten.
  • Quarterback Denard Robinson looked pretty smooth in the scrimmage video, both as a passer and a runner. He hit his receivers in stride and broke off a long touchdown run, juking safety Jared Van Slyke before reaching the end zone. All signs continue to point toward Robinson being named the starter, but we'll see.
MICHIGAN STATE

The Spartans held a 130-play controlled scrimmage Saturday at Spartan Stadium, closed to the media. The defense prevailed 45-32 as the team used a modified scoring system. Recaps can be found here and here.

Quick hitters
  • It was a good day for the defense and a great day for the linebackers, who should be Michigan State's strongest unit this fall. Eric Gordon recorded a scrimmage-best nine tackles, while Greg Jones added eight, including two for loss. Jon Misch had 2.5 tackles for loss and a quarterback hurry, and Chris Norman had six tackles and a pass breakup. "The linebackers were very active," coach Mark Dantonio said.
  • Wide receiver B.J. Cunningham is having a very strong camp, and he continued it Saturday with five receptions for 67 yards, including a 30-yard touchdown from Kirk Cousins. Cousins and Cunningham hooked up for two touchdowns in the team's first fall scrimmage. It's a pretty crowded mix at receiver, but Cunningham has put himself in a great position.
MINNESOTA

Minnesota held an open scrimmage Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, and you can read all about it here, here and here.

Quick hitters
  • Minnesota's first-string offensive line stepped up nicely in the scrimmage, keeping quarterback Adam Weber safe and allowing him to complete 7 of 9 passes for 70 yards and two touchdowns. There was, however, a significant drop-off when the second- and third-team offensive linemen entered the scrimmage. "I didn't feel like some of the [second and third team] took advantage of the opportunity to go play today," coach Tim Brewster told the (St. Paul) Pioneer Press.
  • Freshman running back Donnell Kirkwood has put himself in the mix for carries this fall alongside Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge. Kirkwood had 19 carries in Saturday's scrimmage with a long run of 14 yards. Offensive coordinator Jeff Horton praised Kirkwood when we talked a few weeks ago.
  • MarQueis Gray is still getting reps as a reserve quarterback, but it's coming clear his primary role this fall will be at wide receiver, as long as Weber stays healthy. Gray seems to be embracing the change, and his big frame could really help the Gophers after the loss of Eric Decker. "I am pretty sure I can find a hole somewhere to catch the ball and get upfield for Weber when he throws it to me," he told the Star Tribune.
NORTHWESTERN

The Wildcats ended their off-campus training in Kenosha, Wis., with an open scrimmage. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald held out a large group of starters on both sides, so second- and third-teamers got most of the work. Recaps can be found here and here.

Quick hitters
  • Freshman receiver Venric Mark will make an immediate impact this fall, especially for Northwestern's middling return teams. Mark had an excellent scrimmage, recording a 28-yard touchdown catch and breaking off several big returns. Generously listed at 5-8 and 165 pounds, Mark also threw a block that helped classmate Adonis Smith reach the end zone.
  • A battle could be brewing at backup quarterback. As starter Dan Persa watched from the sideline, true freshman Trevor Siemian completed 10 of 13 passes for 112 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Siemian could push redshirt freshman Evan Watkins, who completed only four of seven passes.
  • Freshman defensive end Will Hampton could work his way into the rotation this fall. Hampton recorded a tackle for loss in the scrimmage.
OHIO STATE

Ohio State held its jersey scrimmage Saturday at Ohio Stadium, as the offense prevailed 54-48 after 130-140 plays. The scrimmage was open to the media, and you can find recaps here, here and here.

Quick hitters
  • Quarterback Terrelle Pryor had a so-so day, although he wore a no-contact jersey and couldn't be the running threat he'll be after Sept. 4. Pryor completed only 10 of 24 pass attempts but did fire a 25-yard touchdown strike to Taurian Washington, considered the front-runner for the No. 3 wide receiver spot. He also found tight end Jake Stoneburner for a 25-yard gain and nearly threw an interception in the end zone.
  • Andrew Sweat appears to have a slight edge on Etienne Sabino for the third starting linebacker spot. Sabino entered camp as the favorite to start, but Sweat logged more time with the first-team defense Saturday and recovered a Brandon Saine fumble.
  • Coach Jim Tressel said he hopes to get defensive end Nathan Williams (knee) back by the Sept. 2 opener against Marshall. Meanwhile, several young defensive linemen stood out Saturday. Redshirt freshman Adam Bellamy recorded three sacks and true freshman Johnathan Hankins added one.
WISCONSIN

The Badgers scrimmaged Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. The session was open to the media, and you can read all about it here and here.
  • Wisconsin's offense moved the ball decently but struggled to finish drives, as Antonio Fenelus picked off a Scott Tolzien pass and safety Aaron Henry broke up a pass in the end zone. It was a theme throughout the scrimmage. There's little doubt Wisconsin can control the clock and keep moving the chains with its balanced attack, but it must execute in the red zone.
  • Freshman running back James White had a good day and could push Zach Brown for the No. 3 spot on the depth chart. White had runs of 29, 26 and 22 yards, the last for a touchdown, in the scrimmage. Starting tailback John Clay, by the way, had 11 carries for 51 yards.
  • Backup quarterback Jon Budmayr had a tough scrimmage, going 0-for-9 passing on his first three series with two near interceptions. He finished 9-for-27 for 107 yards for a touchdown and an interception. Wisconsin really can't lose Tolzien and would get a big boost if Curt Phillips can return from his knee injury early in the season.
After Minnesota ran a multitude of plays but very few of them well last season, new offensive coordinator Jeff Horton came in with a simple plan.

Step 1: Identify a feasible package of plays for the Gophers execute well.

Step 2: Stick to it!

In preseason camp, he's seeing the desired results.

"We’re really close to that point right now," Horton told me after Friday's practice. "They’re even calling the plays along with me. They’re anticipating what’s going to happen because they’ve seen a variety of looks from the defense to what we’re doing.

Adam Weber
AP Photo/Paul BattagliaMinnesota quarterback Adam Weber is a three-year starter.
"There’s still a lot we’ve got to clean up, but the effort is there and guys are working really hard to be good."

Minnesota didn't dramatically change its offense after Jedd Fisch returned to the NFL, but Horton spent most of the spring installing his plan. He needed the players to continue the process on their own in the summer to make sure they had it down for the season.

So far, Horton has seen "great carryover" in practice, thanks in large part to senior quarterback Adam Weber, a three-year starter who had to reclaim the top job this spring after beating out MarQueis Gray.

"He always approached it like he was going to be the starter, and he did a great job leading the workouts this summer, getting guys ready for camp," Horton said of Weber. "He gets a bad rap. I’m his fourth offensive coordinator in four years. I don’t know many people who can work for four bosses in four years. He’s doing a great job."

The easiest way for Minnesota's offense to keep it simple in 2010 is to effectively run the ball, something haven't done well in a while. One of the nation's premier rushing offenses just five years ago, Minnesota has finished 111th and 104th nationally in the past two seasons, ranking last in the Big Ten both times.

Horton expects to use multiple backs this season -- Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge can be considered co-starters, while Horton said freshman Donnell Kirkwood is performing well -- and he's thrilled to have fullback Jon Hoese back in the fold. But it won't matter who carries the ball if Minnesota's line doesn't markedly improve.

The experience is there, but Horton, head coach Tim Brewster and others have challenged the line to be tougher and more physical.

"They’ve played a lot of football for us, all five of them," said Horton, who singled out center D.J. Burris for his leadership. "I told them when we started camp, ‘It’s on you guys. You have to take charge.'"

Minnesota also has to survive without record-setting receiver Eric Decker, whose foot injury last fall coincided with the offense's nosedive. Horton joked that he almost expected Decker to be on the field for camp -- "That’s one of the reasons I took the job as offensive coordinator," he said -- but acknowledged the major production void left by No. 7.

Horton doesn't expect a receiver to catch 70-80 passes like Decker used to, but he likes the variety he has with players like Da'Jon McKnight, Troy Stoudermire and Bryant Allen.

“From what we put in in the spring, those guys worked on it in the summer, and you can see a big improvement running those plays in the fall," Horton said. "They’re not thinking as much. And if you’re thinking, you can’t play fast. They know what they’re doing, and that brings confidence."

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