NCF Nation: Joe Gaglione

Big Ten's best assistants in 2012

December, 12, 2012
Head coaches are like quarterbacks. They get too much credit and too much blame.

Assistant coaches are like nose tackles. They don't get nearly enough credit despite playing vital roles.

Today, we'll change it up and give some recognition to Big Ten assistant coaches who did exemplary jobs with their position groups or, in some cases, units in 2012. Each of these coaches fostered improvement this season. Some took units in bad shape and made them better. Others took units in decent shape and made them very good. Some entered the season with skeptics and quieted them.

We came up with 13 assistants who deserve recognition. Yes, we realize we're leaving out some quality folks, but we had to cap it somewhere and wanted to spread the love around to the different teams.

Here's the rundown in alphabetical order:

Chris Ash, Wisconsin, defensive coordinator/secondary: All the attention on the offense's turbulent season took the spotlight away from the good things happening on the defensive side. Wisconsin finished in the top 25 nationally in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense. The Badgers held nine opponents to 21 points or fewer and gave an inconsistent offense chances to win every time out. Ash will be missed as he joins ex-Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema at Arkansas.

[+] EnlargeTim Beck, Bo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati Harnik, FileTim Beck, right, coordinated Nebraska's Big Ten-leading offense for head coach Bo Pelini.
Tim Beck, Nebraska, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks: The second-year play caller oversaw the Big Ten's top offense, which averaged 462.2 yards per game (24th nationally) and 35.1 points per game (28th nationally). Junior quarterback Taylor Martinez made significant strides under Beck's watch, and Nebraska survived the loss of star running back Rex Burkhead for most of the season thanks to contributions from Ameer Abdullah and others.

Tracy Claeys, Minnesota, defensive coordinator: An improved defense sparked Minnesota to a 4-0 start and eventually to bowl eligibility for the first time since the 2009 season. The Gophers pass rush showed life for the first time in years as senior end D.L. Wilhite and others put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Minnesota was especially good against the pass, ranking 11th nationally and 20th in pass defense efficiency. Although the offense remains a work in progress, Minnesota should be pleased with the direction on defense under Claeys.

Adam Cushing, Northwestern, offensive line: Cushing's recruiting ability always has stood out, but his coaching skills had been questioned as Northwestern struggled to convert promising line prospects into powerful blockers. The Wildcats went from a finesse offense to a power offense this season, blasting off of the line to the tune of 230.9 rush yards per game. Red zone offense went from a weakness to a strength as Northwestern tied for 17th nationally. Cushing's line paved the way for star running back Venric Mark.

Rich Fisher, Nebraska, wide receivers: Nebraska isn't known for its wide receiver play, but things are changing under Fisher's watch. Led by standout sophomore Kenny Bell, the Huskers' top three receivers combined for 1,657 yards and 11 touchdowns on 115 receptions. Just as important, the receiving corps helped Nebraska's bread-and-butter run game with effective blocking throughout the season. Fisher's hiring after the 2010 season raised some eyebrows, as he had taken a break from college coaching, returned to the high school ranks and also served as a golf instructor in Massachusetts. But he definitely looks like a great addition to Bo Pelini's staff.

Patrick Higgins, Purdue, wide receivers: Higgins played a significant role in Purdue's late-season surge, as he took over the offensive play-calling duties after coordinator Gary Nord suffered a severe back injury. Purdue won its final three games with Higgins and head coach Danny Hope handling the play calls. Higgins also did a nice job with Purdue's wide receiving corps, despite the fluctuating quarterback situation. Three veteran Boilers receivers eclipsed 40 catches and 300 receiving yards, and redshirt freshman Dolapo Macarthy showed promise.

Seth Littrell, Indiana, offensive coordinator/tight ends/fullbacks: Head coach Kevin Wilson brought in Littrell to boost Indiana's passing attack, and Littrell delivered despite losing starting quarterback Tre Roberson in Week 2. Indiana went from 80th nationally in pass offense to 19th, leading the Big Ten with 311.2 yards per game. With help from assistant offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kevin Johns, Littrell managed the quarterback situation pretty well as both Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld had success. Littrell will go largely unnoticed because of Indiana's low profile and 4-8 record, but he was one of the Big Ten's best coaching additions for 2012.

Curt Mallory, Michigan, secondary: Michigan's defensive line dominates the spotlight because that's where coordinator Greg Mattison and head coach Brady Hoke put their primary focus, but Mallory has done a really nice job with a secondary that struggled mightily under the previous regime. Despite losing promising cornerback Blake Countess to a torn ACL in the season opener, Michigan still finished second nationally (behind Nebraska) in pass defense (155.2 ypg allowed). Safety Jordan Kovacs has blossomed under Mallory's watch, and while the depth in the secondary isn't where it will be eventually, Mallory has managed things well.

[+] EnlargeBart MIller
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsBart Miller went from grad assistant to coach of a Wisconsin O-line that pummeled its way to Pasadena.
Bart Miller, Wisconsin, offensive line: Miller began the season as a graduate assistant and moved into one of the team's top assistant roles in Week 3 after the surprising dismissal of veteran line coach Mike Markuson. Although Wisconsin's line didn't have its typical dominant performances every time out, Miller fostered obvious improvement and cohesion during the course of the season. The finished product showed up in the Big Ten championship game against Nebraska, as Wisconsin bullied the Huskers to the tune of 70 points, 539 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns.

Reese Morgan, Iowa, defensive line: Iowa didn't have much to cheer about in 2012, and some of the staff changes Kirk Ferentz made led to some growing pains. Morgan faced a significant challenge in moving from offensive line to defensive line, which returned only a handful of players who had logged field time in 2011. Given the youth and inexperience along the Hawkeyes' defensive front, Morgan did a nice job in Year 1. Joe Gaglione had a nice senior season (9 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles) and young players like Louis Trinca-Pasat showed promise. The line held its own in the first half of the season before struggling late.

Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State, defensive coordinator: Many of these assistants took questionable units and improved them. Narduzzi led an elite defense that entered the season with high expectations and met them. Make no mistake: Michigan State's defense is the only reason the team found itself in every game this season. The Spartans had a few standouts, namely linebacker Max Bullough, but their overall team defense and stinginess stood out. Narduzzi is one of the nation's premier coordinators and should land a head-coaching job in the near future.

John Strollo, Penn State, tight ends: Although O'Brien's offense is a tight end's dream, Strollo did a terrific job of developing young and unproven players this season. Redshirt freshman Kyle Carter emerged into one of the Nittany Lions' top passing threats, and junior Matt Lehman and true freshman Jesse James also stepped up at times. Of Penn State's top five receiving-yards leaders this season, three players are tight ends (Carter, Lehman and James).

Ed Warinner, Ohio State, offensive line/co-offensive coordinator: Warinner took an underachieving Buckeyes offensive line with serious depth questions and turned it into quite possibly the best line in the league. The Buckeyes' front five turned a corner in Big Ten play and created lanes for Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde and the Big Ten's top scoring offense. Warinner was the Big Ten's best assistant hire of the last offseason and earns our vote as the league's top assistant in 2012.
Joe Gaglione and Matt McGloinUS PresswireJoe Gaglione and Iowa's staunch defense will try to stop Matt McGloin's surprisingly effective offense.
Image No 1: Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin dives into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter against Northwestern, his fifth rushing score in six games, as the Lions score 22 fourth-quarter points to rally for a 39-28 win. McGloin celebrates with the Aaron Rodgers championship belt move ... also known as the discount double check.

Image No. 2: After forcing two overtimes behind the strength of its defense, Iowa seals a 19-16 win against Michigan State when sophomore defensive lineman Louis Trica-Pasat deflects an Andrew Maxwell pass, and cornerback Greg Castillo comes down with it for an interception.

If you predicted either of these things happening two months ago, you might put Miss Cleo out of business. Or just hop the first plane to Vegas.

Expectations for both Penn State's offense and Iowa's defense were tempered before the season.

Penn State had the nation's 110th-ranked scoring offense in 2011 and this summer saw its top running back (Silas Redd) and top receiver (Justin Brown) transfer to other schools. Rob Bolden, the team's opening-day starting quarterback in each of the past two seasons, also transferred. The Lions' leading returning receivers were a running back (Curtis Dukes) and a fullback (Michael Zordich), who each had five catches in 2011. Their leading returning rusher, Dukes (237 yards), missed spring practice for academic reasons -- the time when new coach Bill O'Brien installed his NFL-style scheme. Penn State had zero proven offensive weapons entering the season.

Iowa's defense also featured more no-names than usual. The Hawkeyes, who had four defensive linemen selected in the NFL draft the past two years, turned to two seniors with limited production (Steve Bigach and Joe Gaglione) and another coming off of a serious knee injury (Dominic Alvis) to lead their front four. Freshman and sophomore defenders filled Iowa's preseason depth chart, particularly at the line positions. "This is our youngest team," Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said at preseason media day.

Yet midway through the season, both Penn State's offense and Iowa's defense are two of the more pleasant surprises in the Big Ten. The two units have been instrumental in Penn State's and Iowa's 2-0 starts to league play, and they'll match up against each other Saturday night when the Lions visit Kinnick Stadium.

"I'm not really surprised at all," McGloin told "I knew we had the talent on this team, and guys who were willing to put in the work to get the job done and learn this offense. I'm not really surprised at what I've done, or what Kyle Carter has done, or Allen Robinson or [Zach] Zwinak or [Michael] Zordich or the line."

McGloin leads the Big Ten in passing average (249.8 ypg) and is tied for the league lead in touchdown strikes with 12, four more than he had all of last season as Penn State's primary quarterback. With 1,499 pass yards through the first six games, he needs just 73 more to eclipse his season total from 2011.

Robinson, who had a grand total of three receptions as a true freshman for Penn State last fall, leads the Big Ten in receptions per game (6.8) and touchdown receptions. Penn State's other offensive standouts include Carter, a redshirt freshman tight end with 23 catches for 279 yards; and Zwinak, a former walk-on who had three carries for seven yards last year and now leads the team in carries (68) and rush yards (320). Zordich, a senior fullback, is a more familiar name but someone who hasn't had much of a chance to contribute until this season (37 carries, 167 yards, 10 receptions).

"It's an NFL offense," McGloin said. "This offense definitely gives guys an opportunity to showcase their ability and gives them a lot more recognition."

O'Brien's arrival has modernized Penn State's offense. Iowa, meanwhile, hasn't gone through dramatic scheme schedules defensively, although secondary coach Phil Parker moved into the coordinator role in the offseason following Norm Parker's retirement.

The defense has been better than expected from the start, holding Northern Illinois to 12 first downs and 201 total yards in the season opener. Iowa has surrendered 17 points or fewer in five of six games and allowed fewer than 350 yards in five of six games. While Penn State's offense isn't the strongest unit on its team, Iowa's defense undoubtedly deserves the label as the Hawkeye offense is still finding its identity.

"We're making progress," Ferentz said. "We were hopeful that we could during the course of the season. Some weeks have been a lot better than others, obviously, but the group's growing."

The defensive line, a major area of concern in August, has been a strength. Gaglione boasts eight tackles for loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles, while other linemen like Trinca-Pasat (three tackles for loss, two quarterback hurries) and Bigach (one sack, one forced fumble) have contributed.

Iowa has surrendered just five rushing touchdowns in six games.

"I knew they were going to go in there and be a help to the defense," linebacker Christian Kirksey told "Coach Ferentz always talks about the next man in. As soon as Joe Gaglione and Steve Bigach jumped in, they were just eager and hungry to help out the defense."

The linebackers also have done their part. Veterans James Morris and Kirksey have combined for two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, three sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. Anthony Hitchens, a converted safety in his first season as a starting linebacker, leads the nation with 13 tackles per game (78 total).

"Iowa defense is built on one thing," Kirksey said. "Way back when Bob Sanders was here, way back when Adrian Clayborn was here, it was all still the same focus. We all grew around the tradition and we just took it to the field.

"We're a new group, but Iowa teaches the same lessons throughout the years."

McGloin sees it, too, calling the young Hawkeyes "a typical Iowa defense." O'Brien's system certainly isn't a typical Penn State offense, but that has been a good thing.

Although McGloin expected the unit to perform, his contributions as a rushing threat -- he had no rushing touchdowns in 2011 and just two in his career before this season -- are a bit of a surprise.

The only bad news: the discount double check is probably a thing of the past.

"I think I'm done with that," McGloin said, laughing. "That was just a one-time thing."

The Legends Division race just got a lot more interesting.

Iowa, a team many wrote off after an inexcusable home loss to Central Michigan on Sept. 22, rallied for its third straight win, outlasting Michigan State 19-16 in two overtimes in a game offensive football forgot. After stumbling offensively for most of the game, Iowa scored the tying touchdown with 55 seconds left in regulation and secured the win when cornerback Greg Castillo picked off a deflected pass by Andrew Maxwell in the second overtime.

The Hawkeyes did it with defense at Spartan Stadium, and they did it in overtime without star running back Mark Weisman, who suffered an injury after scoring the tying touchdown. A defensive line that entered the season with major question marks once again stepped up, as Joe Gaglione played well and Louis Trinca-Pasat had the deflection that led to Castillo's pick. Kicker Mike Meyer once again was fabulous for Iowa, going 4-for-4 on field goals to make it 13 in a row.

Both offenses were hard to watch most of the game, repeatedly running pass plays short of the marker on third downs and showing little continuity. In a play that epitomized the game, Michigan State entered field goal range late in the first half and couldn't get the right personnel on the field ... to spike the football. The teams combined for just two touchdowns, 26 first downs and 12 third-down conversions on 37 attempts.

Michigan State's Maxwell, who appeared to make strides last week at Indiana, completed just 12 of 31 pass attempts. Iowa's James Vandenberg wasn't much better, averaging a meager 3.7 yards per completion. But Iowa's defense bought the offense enough time, holding Michigan State to a short field goal midway through the fourth quarter. Weisman, who had been held in check, finally came alive late and finished with 116 rush yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. Michigan State star Le'Veon Bell had 140 rush yards and a touchdown but couldn't get in the end zone in overtime.

The loss cemented Michigan State as the Big Ten's biggest disappointment of the first half and one of the biggest in the country. Picked by many, including both Big Ten bloggers, to win the league in August, the Spartans now have lost three games at Spartan Stadium, where they won every game they played in both 2010 and 2011. Michigan State lacks the quarterback and the killer instinct it had the past two seasons and now faces a brutal stretch -- Michigan (road), Wisconsin (road) and Nebraska (home). The Spartans could be out of the race by the end of October.

Kirk Ferentz's squad, meanwhile, is the only Legends Division team with two division victories as it returns home to face Penn State in prime time. Iowa still must visit Northwestern and Michigan but can make a strong push if it takes care of business as home.

Ferentz, by the way, recorded his 100th win at Iowa. It's one he'll surely savor.

Iowa bottoms out in loss to CMU

September, 22, 2012
This we know about Iowa: the Hawkeyes would be very competitive in the MAC this year. Win the league? Probably not, but competitive.

We knew Iowa had issues and that nothing would come easy for this team, but we did not expect a 32-31 loss to Central Michigan at home. That's the same Central Michigan team that lost 41-7 to Michigan State on its own field just one week ago.

But the Chippewas simply outplayed the Hawkeyes for most of the game. They led 23-14 at halftime and could have been up more had they converted red-zone chances into touchdowns. After Iowa controlled most of the second half and went ahead 31-23 with 2:31 left, Central Michigan rallied to score a touchdown with 45 seconds to go. After missing the two-point conversion, the Chippewas had two chances to get the onside kick, and on the second one Iowa's players acted like they were afraid of the ball.

[+] EnlargeMark Weisman
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa Hawkeyes fullback Mark Weisman has rushed 100 times for 631 yards and eight touchdowns in six games this season.
A big Hawkeyes personal foul penalty on Joe Gaglione -- Iowa's fourth personal foul of the game -- helped lead to the game-winning 47-yard field goal by David Harman with three seconds to go. And the boos came raining down at Kinnick Stadium for the 2-2 home team.

This is as bad a loss as Kirk Ferentz has had in a long time. His team beat Northern Illinois by a point in the opener, so it has played two MAC teams even this year, along with beating an FCS squad (Northern Iowa) and losing to Iowa State at home while not scoring a touchdown. That sure doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in Iowa City with Big Ten play beginning next week; if Minnesota comes to Kinnick and wins the Floyd of Rosedale trophy again, Hawkeyes fans will be completely apoplectic, at least the ones who are not already there.

The only good news for Iowa was Mark Weisman's performance. The walk-on fullback came out of nowhere to run for 113 yards and three touchdowns last week against Northern Iowa, and that made for a nice story. But there were questions whether he could keep it up. Well, in his first career start, Weisman did even better than last week in rushing 27 times for 217 yards and three more scores. There's very little wiggle to Weisman, but he's a lot of fun to watch. His 5-yard touchdown run in the third quarter was a thing of smashmouth beauty, as he simply pushed his defender into the end zone like a tackling sled.

Weisman isn't just a fill in. He should be the starter going forward even when Damon Bullock, Greg Garmon and Jordan Canzeri are healthy. He gives the Iowa offense an identity. It's almost inconceivable that the Hawkeyes could have a player rush for over 200 yards and yet still lose to a MAC outfit.

They had their passing game clicking early, as James Vandenberg was on fire in the first quarter and threw his first touchdown pass of the season. He couldn't keep that hot start going, however, ending up 16-for-25 for 215 yards. Iowa and Vandenberg continue to settle for too many underneath routes.

Central Michigan's Ryan Radcliff was better, completing 26-of-35 passes for 283 yards and two scores. The Chippewas were able to pick apart Iowa's defense at times in the passing game. Iowa also hurt itself with nine penalties for 106 yards, compared to just four for 26 yards for the Chippewas.

It's going to be another long, ugly week for Ferentz and the Hawkeyes. This was a terrible loss, both for them and the Big Ten, and if they don't get things turned around they won't be very competitive in the league race. At least not as competitive as they'd be right now in the MAC.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

September, 7, 2012
Should be a fun Saturday of games. Hope you enjoy 'em.

Victor 614 from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Whats up with all this hate on the Big Ten? I know Michigan got killed by alabama, but I think everyone knew they were overrated. And I know that the rest of the teams struggled, but Wisconsin is breaking in a new QB, Iowa isn't the Iowa of 4 years ago, and Northwestern has always been shaky at best. Michigan State beat Boise State, who all of a sudden is a bad team without Kellen Moore and Doug Martin, even though they've proven to be a consistent program. I know Michigan was expected to compete for a Big Ten title in the preseason, but it was just that, preseason. The Big Ten isn't on SEC level or even USC or Oregan's level, but this is really a rebuilding year for the conference as a whole. Am I wrong to think that there is alot of unfair animosity toward the Big Ten compared to other conferences?

Adam Rittenberg: Victor, I agree that any win against Boise State means something, and while I think some go too far in using Michigan's performance to paint the entire Big Ten, you can't spin Week 1 as a positive one for the league. Other than Nebraska and, to a certain extent, Illinois, no team notched a truly impressive win. Part of that was the schedule, but the week would have been a bit better had Wisconsin pounded Northern Iowa, Northwestern held onto its big lead at Syracuse and Penn State beaten Ohio. That said, it's way too soon to say the Big Ten is down or a bad conference this year. The league clearly can't compete with the nation's elite at the very top, and its recent record against top 5 teams is downright shameful. But as I've written many times, it's all about building depth in the Big Ten. I see progress there with Ohio State on the rise again, Michigan State and Wisconsin racking up wins, Nebraska stabilizing and Michigan recruiting really well. The overall depth in the league could turn out to be decent this year, although we'll likely only find that out when the bowl season rolls around.

Decker from Hastings, Neb., writes: Adam, Haven't heard much about DeAnthony Arnett so far, after quite the buzz during the offseason. What can you tell me about his status right now and also whether you expect the Spartan wideouts to pick up their game. I know Maxwell was rushed on plenty of throws on Friday but we saw a handful of miscues from the receivers. This weekend should be good for Maxwell and the rest of his offensive squad to find their rhythm. Your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Decker, I was really surprised not to see more of Arnett against Boise State, especially given the Spartans' struggles in the pass game. Michigan State receivers coach Terry Samuel said this week that Arnett should have a bigger role Saturday against Central Michigan. While Arnett might not have had the best offseason as far as standing out among the receiver group, he seems to be picking things up now. Plus, the guy had 24 catches last year in the SEC as a freshman. Can't hurt to make him a bigger part of the game plan this week.

JT from West Coast Hawk Town writes: You and Brian both picked Iowa over Iowa State this weekend. That gives me some relief. The clones seem overly confident in this game. The clone fanbase is usually delusional, but I'm still not confident in my Hawks yet. What do you guys see, aside from the game being in Kinnick, that gives Iowa the edge?

Adam Rittenberg: Playing at Kinnick obviously benefits Iowa. Only two of the Hawkeyes' seven losses to Iowa State under Kirk Ferentz have happened at home and none since 2002. Iowa usually takes care of its turf, even against the dreaded Cyclones. Also, I was pleasantly surprised with the defensive line play against Northern Illinois. Steele Jantz had his way with Iowa last year, and the Hawkeyes must put more pressure on him Saturday. I feel better about that happening after seeing what Joe Gaglione, Dom Alvis and co., did against NIU. I also don't think Iowa State can handle Iowa's rushing attack for four quarters, especially if Damon Bullock duplicates what he did in the opener, getting stronger as the game goes on. It'll be close, but Iowa should prevail.

Ben from Ann Arbor, Mich., writes: Adam, today you posted an article saying that Penn State and OSU ARE eligible to be named Leaders Division champs. If this is true, and, say, Wisconsin finishes second or third in the standings behind them yet beats the Legends Division champion in the B10 championship, Wisconsin would officially be named Big Ten Champion, but not a division champion. That, like Alabama being National Champions but not Conference Champions, just doesn't sound right. Penn State and OSU are banned from the postseason and B10 championship, they shouldn't be a champion of their division.

Adam Rittenberg: I hear ya, Ben, and it sets up some potentially embarrassing situations, like having to present a team on postseason probation an official Big Ten trophy for winning the division. The Big Ten's rationale is that because Ohio State's and Penn State's games count in the division race, they should be part of that race. It would be odd to have a division champion go against a division "representative" in Indianapolis and for that representative to win the title. But that's the path the Big Ten has chosen to go down with two of its marquee programs on postseason probation.

Brian from Portland, Ore., writes: Adam, Longtime Northwestern football fan, which I know seems like an oxymoron (don't worry, Illini fans; it's OK that you don't know what that word means). Given the incredible disparity between the offense and the defense for the past few seasons, is it legitimate to question whether Fitz should replace Hankwitz? I know we had a good defensive season or two, but the recruiting is getting better and the results don't show on the field. I know Fitz is loyal, but there has to be a limit, right?

Adam Rittenberg: Brian, while I'm not in favor of coaches making rash changes whenever things start to go downhill, everyone on a staff needs to be held accountable. I think this is an important season for Hankwitz and the rest of Northwestern's defensive staff. Hankwitz boasts a ton of experience, but he has been dumped before (Wisconsin) and is far from foolproof. It's more than fair to question whether Fitzgerald is too loyal to certain folks, whether they be moderately talented veteran players or assistants who aren't getting the job done well enough in the Big Ten. I think Fitzgerald has a lot of great qualities as a head coach and clearly represents Northwestern well. But part of the job is making tough decisions with personnel and assistants, and if the defense doesn't improve, Fitz will face some difficult choices after the season.

Amit from New York writes: Adam, as a Michigan fan I'm deeply disappointed (although not unexpected) with the outcome of the Alabama game. It really seemed like Denard regressed during the game. I know you guys read MGoBlog, so I wanted to pass along the play-by-play analysis that Brian Cook did for the game: Interesting enough, he deduced that Denard actually played well, and the stagnancy/regression on offense was more so a combination of poor OL play, playcalling from Borges, inconsistency and lack of separation from the WRs, and simply fantastic DB play (from Milliner in particular).Thoughts? Passing it along not b/c it's making excuses for Denard, but it's actually insinuating that Denard played well (which I haven't heard anyone in the MSM contend).

Adam Rittenberg: Amit, good stuff. Brian and the MGoBlog crew do an excellent job, especially with play breakdowns like these. I think it's a stretch to say Denard played "well," but the game definitely showed me bigger issues at offensive line and running back than it did at quarterback. If you get dominated up front like Michigan did, you can't execute the majority of your game plan and either have to scrap it entirely or go with a limited set of plays. I'm not absolving Borges, either, but it's hard to scheme your way through an ineffective line. Michigan had to be a lot better up front in order to hang with Alabama. While it doesn't excuse some of the bad decisions Denard made, he doesn't deserve the bulk of the blame for the loss. He didn't have much of a chance to attack the Tide.

Travis from St. Louis writes: Adam- I recently located a summary B1G football schedule and noticed a trend. Four teams (Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, and MSU) get two weeks to prepare for Northwestern. Several teams in the B1G (most notably OSU and Nebraska) do not have to worry about teams getting two weeks to prepare for them at all. I realize it is not absolute that teams will win if they get two weeks to prepare for an opponent, but don?t you think there is a distinct schedule disadvantage Northwestern has to overcome?

Adam Rittenberg: Interesting observation, Travis. I'll check with the Big Ten about this and see if there are rules to prevent potential disadvantages for certain teams. That said, I think the bye week is vastly overrated as something that helps teams. We've seen examples here and here of teams struggling quite a bit following open weeks. While these breaks in the schedule allow teams to rest and recharge, the evidence doesn't show that they give teams huge edges as far as preparation.

Michael from Columbus, Ohio, writes: With Oregon State game cancelled this past weekend, how much of a disadvantage is Wisconsin at for preparing for OSU with no game tape available. I know this team needs to works on things and Wisconsin doesn't play to well on the road against Pac-12 opponents. What must the Badgers do to stymie the upset on the road?

Adam Rittenberg: It's always nice to have tape on your opponent, Michael, but I think Wisconsin just needs to play its game and not get too wrapped up in Oregon State. The Badgers destroyed this team last year and had a terrific performance on the defensive side. If Wisconsin can establish the run and the play-action pass, and generate a good pass rush up front, I don't think Oregon State can hang with the Badgers for four quarters. The Oregon State program is trending downward, and even in good seasons, Mike Riley's teams get better as the fall goes along. While I'm sure Oregon State will have some schematic things to throw off Wisconsin, it's a four-quarter game and the better team should win if it plays its game.

Big Ten stock report: Week 2

September, 5, 2012
With a week's worth of games now in the bank, it's time to take stock of who's up and who's down in the Big Ten:

Stock Up

Iowa's defensive line: The most surprising thing about the Hawkeyes' win over Northern Illinois wasn't that Damon Bullock emerged as a solid running back or that the team struggled to win. It was that the much-questioned defensive line played better than expected. Joe Gaglione had three tackles for loss and a sack, Dominic Alvis added two TFLs and a sack and the Huskies didn't do much offensively beyond quarterback Jordan Lynch's 73-yard run. The D-line is not great yet but showed it can be competent.

[+] EnlargeMinnesota Golden Gophers defensive back Derrick Wells
Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE Minnesota displayed an improved pass defense against UNLV, including two interceptions from Derrick Wells.
Minnesota's pass defense: Let's not get carried away by a performance against UNLV. But the Gophers had major troubles defending the pass in 2011 and showed some improvement in the opener. They are tied for third nationally in interceptions with three after recording only four all of last season. Derrick Wells had a pair of those. Minnesota will face much better passing teams down the road by at least has some reason for optimism.

Allen Robinson: One bright spot for Penn State in its opening loss to Ohio was the play of Robinson, their sophomore wide receiver. He had more catches (nine) than any other Big Ten player and totaled 97 receiving yards. The Nittany Lions receiving corps was a real question mark coming into the season, especially after Justin Brown transferred. But Robinson showed he has the tools to be a star.

Frankie Williams: Purdue coach Danny Hope has said he wished he hadn't redshirted Williams last season. Williams showed why in his first collegiate game against Eastern Kentucky, notching six tackles, a tackle for loss and a pass breakup. The Boilers were looking for playmakers at safety, and Williams looks like he can be just that.

Nebraska's offensive depth: The impressive thing about the Huskers' 49-20 win over Southern Miss was how many different players contributed to the offense. Even with Rex Burkhead missing most of the game with a knee injury, Nebraska had little trouble moving the ball. Ten different players caught at least one pass and nine different players took at least one carry. I picked the Cornhuskers to lead the Big Ten in scoring back in March. They have a chance to prove that right.

Stock Down

Iowa's pass protection: The Hawkeyes couldn't get much of anything going in the passing game against Northern Illinois, mostly because James Vandenberg couldn't stay upright. He was sacked six times as the Huskies' repeated blitzing on third downs wreaked havoc. The offensive line returned only two starters and lost a pair of NFL draft picks, so some early-season confusion was to be expected. But Iowa currently ranks last in the nation in sacks allowed, which is an odd sight for a program used to strong line play.

Penn State's defense: We thought the Nittany Lions' defense would carry the team early on as it did for most of last season. But despite having one of the top front sevens in the Big Ten, on paper, Penn State served up 499 total yards to Ohio and could not get stops when it needed them the most. Injuries and an underperforming offense played a role, but new defensive coordinator Ted Roof is already hearing some criticism from fans accustomed to outstanding defensive play.

Michigan's passing game: The word all offseason was that Denard Robinson had improved his mechanics as a passer. Granted, Alabama's defense will make a lot of quarterbacks look bad. But it's also true that Robinson and his receivers looked out of sync most of the night in Texas. Robinson went just 11-for-26 with two interceptions, and the fact that he targeted converted quarterback Devin Gardner so frequently makes you wonder about the receiving corps' depth.

Michigan State's penalties: The Spartans like to play aggressively, which will lead to some penalties. But getting flagged 10 times for 90 yards, as Michigan State was in the opener against Boise State, is way too much for a team with designs on a Big Ten championship and more. Many of those infractions came at key times to either extend a Broncos drive or short-circuit one for the home team. It was just the first game, but the Spartans need to clean that up.

Northwestern's defense: Pat Fitzgerald was tired of hearing about how bad his team's defense was in 2011. Well, he isn't about to hear the end of that. The Wildcats have up 41 points and 596 yards to Syracuse, a team that ranked 84th in the country in scoring last season. What was really disheartening is how the Northwestern defense repeatedly gave up huge plays despite being blessed with a 35-13 lead. A prevent defense wasn't necessarily in order, but Fitzgerald's team needed to make the Orange work a little harder to score their four straight touchdowns.
One week of Big Ten action is in the books, and we finally have some on-field evidence to judge these teams.

Michigan State remains the class of the league after a hard-fought win against Boise State that shouldn't have been as close as the final score (17-13). The Spartans boast an elite defense and an elite running back (Le'Veon Bell), but they have work to do if they want to remain No. 1. Michigan only moves down a spot despite its blowout loss, in large part because Wisconsin let off the gas against FCS Northern Iowa. There's very little separating the teams 2-5 , and we'll get a better read on Ohio State when the competition improves.

Purdue and Illinois look like the best of the next tier, and Penn State moves down a few notches after its season-opening loss to Ohio. But again, teams 6-10 are very, very close.

Here we go ...

1. Michigan State (1-0): The defense can take the Spartans a long way, and so can Bell, although it's unrealistic to expect him to have 44 carries and 50 touches each game. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell must make strides this week against Central Michigan before another home showdown against Notre Dame on Sept. 15. Maxwell needs to better handle the pass rush and show more touch on his passes. If he can do so, Michigan State's ceiling is very high.

2. Nebraska (1-0): All eyes were on Taylor Martinez after all the offseason talk of improved mechanics and football, and the Huskers' junior quarterback delivered. Martinez looked much more comfortable throwing the ball en route to a career-high 354 pass yards in an easy win against Southern Miss. His progress offset the loss of top running back Rex Burkhead. We'll learn more about Nebraska after it hits the road this week to visit UCLA, but so far, so good.

3. Michigan (0-1): Alabama makes a lot of teams look bad, and most of Michigan's Big Ten brethren would have difficulties hanging with the Tide. But Saturday's 41-14 loss exposed Michigan's weaknesses, particularly at the line of scrimmage, as well as a lack of depth at key positions. The injury fallout doesn't help the Wolverines, who lost starting cornerback Blake Countess to a season-ending ACL tear. They'll need young and unproven players to step up during a tortuous schedule.

4. Wisconsin (1-0): Rather than the typical September laugher at Camp Randall Stadium, Wisconsin found itself in a major scrap Saturday against Northern Iowa. The Badgers nearly squandered a 19-point lead in the fourth quarter and looked shaky at times in defending the pass. The good news: new quarterback Danny O'Brien played an efficient game (19-for-23 passing, 219 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs). But this was far too close for comfort against an FCS foe, especially at a place where Wisconsin has been so dominant.

5. Ohio State (1-0): To repeat: there's very little separating Ohio State from Wisconsin and the other top Big Ten squads. We were very impressed with Braxton Miller and the debut of the new Buckeyes offense in Columbus. But Miami (Ohio) didn't provide much of a test for Urban Meyer's crew, which might not get one until Week 5 at Michigan State (although this week's opponent, Central Florida, could be tricky).

6. Purdue (1-0): Despite the suspension of top quarterback Caleb TerBush, Purdue made quick work of Eastern Kentucky and looked like a team that could take the next step this season. Robert Marve is capable of leading the offense and should push TerBush this week in practice, and Purdue did what it had to do against inferior competition, piling up 547 yards of offense and converting 12 of 15 third-down chances. But the Boilers move up several classes this week against Notre Dame, and we'll know much more about Danny Hope's squad in four days.

7. Illinois (1-0): The combination of a banged-up Illini secondary and a prolific opposing quarterback (Alex Carder) suggested a potentially rough debut for coach Tim Beckman. But Illinois took control of the game and never really let Western Michigan in it. The Illini defensive line still looks very strong despite losing first-round draft pick Whitney Mercilus, and it held WMU to minus-6 rush yards. Illinois' main concern is the health of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and an offense that didn't produce much and will need a stronger effort Saturday night at Arizona State.

8. Iowa (1-0): Although many folks expected Iowa's opener to be close, few saw things going the way they did Saturday afternoon at Soldier Field. Iowa's two shakiest positions, defensive line and running back, both delivered with nice performances, as Joe Gaglione (3 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble) and Dom Alvis (2 tackles for loss, 1 sack) sparked the line and Damon Bullock piled up 150 rush yards. Senior quarterback James Vandenberg struggled and Iowa trailed most of the way, but it's a win and an opportunity to build.

9. Northwestern (1-0): Credit the Wildcats for another season-opening road win against a major-conference opponent, but their blown lead and defensive breakdowns create unease going forward. Northwestern never looks comfortable playing with a lead, although it never gives up, either, and received a big boost down the stretch from backup quarterback Trevor Siemian. Still, the defense showed major weaknesses that future opponents will expose, beginning this week with Vanderbilt.

10. Penn State (0-1): After a strong start to the Bill O'Brien era, Penn State faded on both sides of the ball in the second half Saturday. The offense needs to finish drives and create a better run-pass balance, which could be tough if Bill Belton is sidelined for an extended period. A big concern is a Lions defense that surrendered 499 yards to Ohio and struggled to get off of the field, allowing 13 of 21 third-down conversions. The defense must respond in a hurry as the nonconference schedule has no sure-fire wins.

11. Minnesota (1-0): The Gophers found a way to leave Las Vegas with a victory, as they received a strong effort from the defense and the running backs. MarQueis Gray came alive in the overtime sessions, but the senior quarterback will have to be much more polished for Minnesota to beat better competition. The Gophers also must play more disciplined after being flagged 11 times in the opener. New Hampshire is a solid FCS program, and Minnesota can't take anyone lightly after falling to FCS North Dakota State by 13 points last season.

12. Indiana (1-0): Any win is valuable for the Hoosiers, who matched their victories total from 2011 on Saturday night, but they'll need to make significant strides going forward. IU has to shore up its rush defense after allowing Indiana State's Shakir Bell to rack up 192 yards Saturday night. The pass rush looked improved, though, as Indiana racked up five sacks. That's a nice building block, as is quarterback Tre Roberson's strong performance. Indiana aims for its first FBS win under Kevin Wilson this week against new FBS member Massachusetts.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 1

September, 3, 2012
The first week is in the books. And that means it's time for our first weekend rewind of the season.

Team of the week: Michigan State. The Spartans' 17-13 win over Boise State wasn't a thing of beauty. They turned the ball over four times, committed way too many penalties and needed a late score to eke out a victory in a game they statistically dominated. But the bottom line is this: Michigan State beat a ranked nonconference team. No other Big Ten team can say that, and outside of possibly the Notre Dame games, no other league team will even get the chance to do so.

Game of the week: In a week when six of the 12 Big Ten games were decided by a touchdown or fewer, Northwestern's 42-41 win over Syracuse still stood out. The wild affair featured lots of big plays -- such as Venric Mark's 82-yard touchdown on a punt return, Chi Chi Ariguzo's 33-yard fumble return for a score and Ryan Nassib's 50-yard touchdown pass to Jeremiah Kobena on the final play of the third quarter. There were also enormous momentum swings, as the Wildcats went from up 35-13 to down 41-35 in a little more than a quarter. And of course, it had the great finish, as Northwestern drove for the winning touchdown with 44 seconds left when Trevor Siemian found Demetrius Fields from 9 yards out.

[+] EnlargeDemetrius Fields
AP Photo/Hans PenninkDemetrius Fields' fourth-quarter touchdown won the game for Northwestern
Best play: Le'Veon Bell's hurdle was jaw-dropping. But Ohio State receiver Devin Smith's one-handed touchdown catch against Miami nudges Bell out for the top. Smith not only jumped high in the air for the grab but never needed his other hand to secure the ball. We're guessing Urban Meyer found that to be competent.

Best call: Trailing Northern Illinois 17-12 late in the fourth quarter, Iowa faced a third-and-9 from the Huskies' 23. All game long, Northern Illinois had blitzed on third downs and flustered quarterback James Vandenberg. This time, the Hawkeyes went with a running play. NIU brought the pressure as expected, and Iowa got seal blocks from Zach Derby, Brandon Scherff and Matt Tobin. Running back Damon Bullock ran untouched into the end zone for the game-winning score.

“I told Coach after, 'That was just a brilliant call,'" Bullock told reporters. "I wasn’t even expecting it. It was third down and I was ready to pass-block."

Big Man on Campus (offense): It's a tie between Michigan State's Bell, who had a superhuman performance against Boise State with 265 total yards on 50 touches, and Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, who had a career day with 354 passing yards and five touchdowns. Both should be getting some Heisman attention after Week 1.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Minnesota safety Derrick Wells had two interceptions against UNLV, both of which set up field goals in the Gophers' 30-27 triple-overtime victory. Wells' second pick allowed Minnesota to kick the game winner in the third extra period. Honorable mention to Illinois' Michael Buchanan (a sack and an interception against Western Michigan) and Iowa's Joe Gaglione (three TFL's versus Northern Illinois).

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Northwestern's Mark averaged 67 yards on two punt returns and had that key touchdown. Special recognition to Iowa's Greg Castillo, who made a great play to down a punt on the 1-yard line and change field position late, and Purdue's Kawann Short, who blocked a field goal and an extra point against Eastern Kentucky.

Worst hangover: It's tough to choose between Penn State and Michigan. The Nittany Lions lost their opener to Ohio, adding to what has already been an extraordinarily difficult year. They could be looking at a long season with little letup in the schedule. As for the Wolverines, they were major underdogs against Alabama. But they were thoroughly clobbered in every aspect against the Crimson Tide, and Brady Hoke's pained facial expressions in the second half said it all. If injured starters Blake Countess and Taylor Lewan have to miss significant time, the Alabama loss could add to Michigan's hangover in a big way.

Strangest moment: We're not questioning Bill O'Brien's judgment, and he came to Penn State from the New England Patriots, an organization that knows something about moving players into unexpected roles. Still, it was awfully strange seeing All-Big Ten linebacker Gerald Hodges returning kicks and punts against Ohio. The 237-pounder looked awkward doing so and fumbled a punt return at his own 13 to set up a Bobcats field goal. That's not what cost Penn State the game, but it sure was a weird and totally surprising sight that we might not see again this season.