NCF Nation: Joel Stave

Five questions about LSU-Wisconsin

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
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One of college football’s most anticipated openers will kick off Saturday night in Houston, with No. 13 LSU taking on No. 14 Wisconsin -- two programs that might reside in different conferences, but share similar philosophies about playing mean-spirited, physical football.

Both teams have aspirations of competing in the inaugural College Football Playoff, and Saturday’s outcome might eventually rank among the top determining factors in whether they make it into the four-team field.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at five questions facing the two teams as their matchup approaches.

[+] EnlargeTerrence Magee
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsSenior Terrence Magee should be a key piece to LSU's running game this season.
1. Who gets the most carries?

Those around the LSU program say it looks like it’s only a matter of time before freshman running back Leonard Fournette shows why he was the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit. But will Fournette’s time come in this game? LSU coach Les Miles has praised veterans Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard throughout August. The seniors have earned their touches, too, so it will be intriguing to observe how LSU distributes the carries between the vets and the young phenom.

2. How will LSU fare in the passing game?

Wisconsin has plenty of holes to fill on defense, but the one area with a veteran presence is its secondary (and the Badgers were 17th nationally against the pass last season, allowing 202.5 yards per game). That would seem like an advantage against an LSU offense that must replace not only its quarterback, but the only receivers who did much of anything last fall, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry.

The Tigers have some super-talented youngsters like freshmen Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, but many of the team’s wideouts will be playing their first college games. Keep an eye on whether LSU uses its talented group of tight ends and running backs in the passing game. The tight ends will almost certainly get more looks as pass-catchers in 2014 while the young quarterbacks and receivers settle into their roles.

3. Can either team stop the opponent’s run?

Wisconsin obliterated South Carolina’s run defense for 293 yards in its last outing, a 34-24 loss in the Capital One Bowl. Heisman Trophy contender Melvin Gordon ran 25 times for 143 yards in that game. So it would probably be misguided to assume that LSU’s reconstructed front seven is going to completely shut down a Badgers running game that includes Gordon, Corey Clement and four returning starters on the offensive line.

Likewise, Wisconsin lost its entire starting front seven on defense, so the Badgers will probably have some difficulty against an LSU line that also returns four starters -- particularly since backs like Fournette, Magee and Hilliard will be running behind them.

4. How will Wisconsin look up front on D?

Let’s say this one more time: Wisconsin lost every single starter along the defensive line and at linebacker from one of the nation’s best defenses in 2013. We’re talking about standouts like Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Chris Borland and defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer who helped Wisconsin finish as the nation’s No. 7 defense overall (305.1 ypg) and No. 5 against the run (102.5).

It’s not like the cupboard is bare, though. ESPN Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett listed sophomore linebacker Vince Biegel as a potential playmaker, and the Badgers have others back like linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch and defensive linemen Warren Herring and redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih who should keep defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4 defense clicking.

Asking that many new players to function adequately against a veteran LSU front will be asking a lot, though. Wisconsin’s production along the defensive front might be the determining factor in this game.

5. Who FINISHES at quarterback?

Never mind who starts, who’s going to finish this game at quarterback for either team? That might have a much greater impact on this season than who takes the first snaps for either Wisconsin or LSU.

Miles and Wisconsin’s Gary Andersen have tiptoed around questions asking whether the starting quarterback will be Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris at LSU or Joel Stave or Tanner McEvoy at Wisconsin. But if this is a close game, their choices on who leads their offenses in the fourth quarter -- and how those players perform in such a situation -- might tell us much more about where these competitions are headed.
For years, the job description for Wisconsin quarterbacks has read: game manager, adept at handoffs and play-action, accurate passer in limited opportunities, careful with the ball at all times, mobility not required, playmaking skills optional.

The gig is about to change.

[+] EnlargeTanner McEvoy
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesTanner McEvoy, who will open the season as the starting QB, has played wide receiver and made three starts at safety last season.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Badgers will start Tanner McEvoy in next week's season opener against LSU in Houston, and the choice signals an important shift in offensive philosophy under coach Gary Andersen. The Badgers are asking more from the quarterback position.

McEvoy's athleticism is undeniable. The guy played wide receiver and made three starts at safety last season after briefly competing for the top quarterback job in camp. Questions remain about his passing skills, and he has no experience as an FBS quarterback after transferring to Wisconsin from Arizona Western College last winter.

If Wisconsin wanted experience, it would have picked Joel Stave, who has made 19 starts the past two seasons and boasts 3,598 pass yards and 28 touchdown passes. If Wisconsin wanted the status quo at quarterback, Stave would be the obvious choice. And based on most practice reports, picking Stave over McEvoy based on performance would have made sense, too.

But McEvoy was coach Andersen's guy all along. Andersen wants more mobility and playmaking skills from the quarterback spot, and the 6-foot-6, 222-pound McEvoy provides it. Andersen wants more than one ball-carrying option in the backfield along Melvin Gordon or Corey Clement.

Tom Minnick, who coached McEvoy at Arizona Western in 2012, said Andersen had seen what a mobile quarterback could do at Utah State (Chuckie Keeton) and wanted McEvoy for the same reason.

McEvoy must prove himself as a passer, especially with a mostly anonymous receiving corps. He struggled throwing the ball last summer, but showed improvement this spring and in camp.

"He's got a weird throwing motion, but he was very accurate," Minnick said. "He got the ball there, and his arm’s very strong."

Before camp, I was fairly certain McEvoy would be the starter for the LSU game. But Stave's performance seemed to change the narrative, and you wouldn't have blamed the coaches for going with experience against LSU.

But this is about Wisconsin's future on offense, not its past. In McEvoy and dynamic freshman D.J. Gillins, Andersen has made it clear that the days of the statuesque quarterback at Wisconsin are over.

The key for McEvoy is to replicate some of the things his predecessors delivered -- namely limiting turnovers -- while adding a dual-threat element to the offense. His first assignment undoubtedly will be a tough one, and few would be surprised if Stave also sees the field against LSU.

Wisconsin always will be a haven for running backs and offensive linemen, but the quarterbacks should be a bigger factor going forward. McEvoy is the first of the new Badgers quarterbacks, but he won't be the last.

Wisconsin Badgers season preview

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
10:30
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video 

» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Wisconsin Badgers:

2013 overall record: 9-4 (6-2 Big Ten)

Key losses: RB James White, WR Jared Abbrederis, TE Jacob Pedersen, OG Ryan Groy, DE Pat Muldoon, DT Beau Allen, LB Chris Borland, S Dezmen Southward

Key returnees: RB Melvin Gordon, OT Rob Havenstein, OG Kyle Costigan, OT Tyler Marz, CB Sojourn Shelton, S Michael Caputo

Instant impact newcomer: Safety Lubern Figaro. If you're from outside the Badger State, you're probably asking, "Who?" After all, Figaro was just a three-star recruit and enrolled over the summer -- but he's already projected to start in the opener. Part of the reason is reportedly an injury to safety Leo Musso, but Figaro has already done plenty to separate himself. In the first scrimmage this preseason, he returned a pick for a touchdown. DB Sojourn Shelton made an impact last season when he was a true freshman; now it looks as if it's Figaro's turn.

[+] EnlargeSojourn Shelton
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsSojourn Shelton and the Badgers' defense will have their hands full against teams in the West Division.
Projected starters

Offense: QB: Joel Stave, RS Jr., 6-5, 220; RB: Melvin Gordon, RS Jr., 6-1, 213; FB: Derek Watt, RS Jr., 6-2, 236; WR: Alex Erickson, RS So., 6-0, 196; WR: Reggie Love, RS So., 6-3, 214; TE: Sam Arneson, Sr., 6-4, 244; OT: Tyler Marz, RS Jr., 6-5, 321; OG: Dallas Lewallen, RS Sr., 6-6, 321: C: Dan Voltz, RS So., 6-3, 311; OG: Kyle Costigan, RS Sr., 6-5, 319; OT: Rob Havenstein, RS Sr., 6-8, 333

Defense: DE: Chikwe Obasih, RS Fr., 6-2, 268; DT: Warren Herring, RS Sr., 6-3, 294; DE: Konrad Zagzebski, RS Sr., 6-3, 277; OLB: Joe Schobert, Jr., 6-2, 240; ILB: Marcus Trotter, RS Sr., 6-0, 226; ILB: Derek Landisch, Sr., 6-0, 231; OLB: Vince Biegel, RS So., 6-4, 244; CB: Darius Hillary, RS Jr., 5-11, 188; CB: Sojourn Shelton, So., 5-9, 178; S: Michael Caputo, RS Jr., 6-1, 212; S: Lubern Figaro, Fr., 6-0, 179

Specialists: P: Drew Meyer, RS Jr., 6-3, 187; PK: Rafael Gaglianone, Fr., 5-11, 231

Biggest question mark: Can this front seven recover from so many key departures? Of the seven players who started in the Badgers' bowl game last season, only one returns. That leaves quite a few holes, especially when considering the departures of Big Ten defensive player of the year Chris Borland and two All-Big Ten honorable mentions (Beau Allen, Pat Muldoon). Wisconsin's front seven dominated in 2013, as they helped the Badgers rank No. 5 nationally in rush defense (102.5 yards per game) and No. 6 in scoring defense (16.3 points per game). Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is solid, but he's not a magician. Those defensive numbers will almost certainly drop from last season -- but just how much?

Most important game: Nov. 15 versus Nebraska. It's basically a three-team race in the West Division, so this is a must-win if Wisconsin wants a spot in the Big Ten championship game. There's no Ohio State or Michigan State on the schedule this season, so the Huskers and Iowa Hawkeyes are the teams to beat. Iowa is just as important, but that contest comes a week later, and that won't mean a thing if Wisconsin first can't get past this contest.

Upset special: Nov. 29 versus Minnesota. A lot could be on the line when the Badgers square off against Minnesota in the final game of the regular season. And, depending how Wisconsin's defense progresses, this could be an interesting one. Wisconsin's run defense is a wild card right now, and the Gophers could boast the second-toughest rushing attack on Wisconsin's schedule (outside of Nebraska). No team held Wisconsin to fewer points (20) last season than Minnesota, so there is some potential here. Plus, one has to think the Gophers will be able to manage better than a seven-point offensive effort this time around.

Key stat: Sure, everyone knows the departure of Jared Abbrederis will hurt Wisconsin. But the Badgers actually lost their top four targets, and only one (Jordan Fredrick) recorded catches in the double-digits. And he had just 10. Overall, Wisconsin lost 81 percent of its receiving production, as this year's returners had just 42 combined receptions last season compared with the 217 total catches.

What they're wearing: Wisconsin has come a long way since 2010, because it basically went from rotating between two uniform combinations to doing photo shoots with more than 20 combinations.

One possible new look includes an all-red, jersey-pant combo (not to be confused with Nebraska's all-red getup):

Team's top Twitter follows: Head coach Gary Andersen (@UWCoachAndersen) joined Twitter just a few weeks ago, but he pumps out unique tweets and is a great follow. The official Wisconsin football account (@BadgerFootball) tweets like crazy and is always on the ball. As far as players, running back Melvin Gordon (@Melvingordon25) is a no-brainer, while cornerback Sojourn Shelton (@SDS1_) definitely deserves a few more follows. There are quite a few good follows for your coverage needs -- besides us, of course -- including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Jeff Potrykus (@jaypo1961) and SB Nation blog Bucky's 5th Quarter (@B5Q).

They said it: "No question there's a temptation to run him every time." – Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen on running back Melvin Gordon

Stats & Info projection: 9.29 wins

Wise guys over/under: 9.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Ten wins. Wisconsin has a lot of question marks, but it also has a lot of talent. The rushing offense should be one of the nation's best and, while this defense will undoubtedly take a step back from last season, it shouldn't free-fall with Dave Aranda at the helm. Wisconsin's schedule is pretty favorable, as it doesn't play any of the big names from the East, and it's possible it could be favored in every game from Week 2 on. Wisconsin's getting the benefit of the doubt here, but if it can manage a win against LSU in the opener, that bandwagon is going to get big in a hurry.
Football practice is underway, and we're just weeks away from kickoff. To get you ready, we're bringing back our series looking at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for each Big Ten team in 2014.

Do not view these as predictions in any way shape or form. They are meant to illustrate the realistic potential highs and lows for a team's season, and any game-by-game breakdowns are more of a means to an end than anything else. And we're trying to have some fun here.

Let's get things started with the Wisconsin Badgers:

Best case

"This," Melvin Gordon tells a throng of media, "is why I came back to school."

Gordon utters these words in Arlington, Texas, at the press conference leading up to the 2015 national title game. It's been a dream season for the Badgers and Gordon, who won the Heisman Trophy a few weeks earlier after rushing for 2,000 yards.

Wisconsin's season fittingly begins and ends in Texas. The year starts with an upset win over LSU in Houston, as the running game and revamped defense were enough to nip the young Tigers by a score of 28-27. That Week 1 victory propelled the Badgers into the Top 10. And from there, as expected, Gary Andersen's team waltzes through the next couple months of its schedule.

Gordon follows up his 150-yard, three-score performance against LSU with four 200-yard days, while backfield mate Corey Clement piles up over 1,000 yards on the season as well. Quarterbacks Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy form a productive tandem, with McEvoy providing a new running threat from under center.

Wisconsin is barely tested until Nebraska comes to Madison on Nov. 15, and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig unleashes a new game plan on the Huskers that leads to a second straight 70-point showing vs. Big Red. The Big Ten title is on the line the following week at Kinnick Stadium, and the hard-fought contest brings back memories of 2010 when a perfectly-executed fake punt leads to a clinching Gordon touchdown. The Badgers roll past Minnesota yet again and then oust Michigan State in the Big Ten title game on a Hail Mary touchdown pass from McEvoy to Kenzel Doe.

Barry Alvarez doesn't need to convince the selection committee that a 13-0 Wisconsin deserves a spot in the four-team field, especially since LSU has gone on to win the SEC title. Seeded No. 2 in Pasadena, the Badgers are matched up against surprise Pac-12 champions Arizona State. The game is tied when Stave is tackled at the Sun Devils' 10-yard line with what appears to be no time left. But the officials huddle and decide that one second should be put back on the clock. Jack Russell kicks the game-winning field goal. The dog from "Frazier" barks in celebration from his spot on the Rose Bowl sideline.

Few are giving the Badgers much of a shot to beat defending champion Florida State in the title game. But it hardly matters. The program has already taken a major step forward and announced itself as elite, and five-star recruits are eager to sign on for Andersen. Also, Arkansas goes 0-12 and fires Bret Bielema.

Worst case

The preseason hype around the Badgers -- which includes a No. 14 ranking in the coaches' poll -- seems unjustified considering the heavy personnel losses in the defensive front seven, the questions at quarterback and receiver and the lack of depth on the offensive line. And those issues are quickly exposed.

A young but athletically gifted LSU blows out Wisconsin by three touchdowns in the opener. The Tigers load up against the running game and hold Gordon to just 70 yards; the Badgers passing game can't make the defense pay, as Stave throws a pair of interceptions and McEvoy is ineffective.

Wisconsin regroups to win its next three at home against overmatched opponents, but a resurgent Northwestern squad pulls off an upset win on Oct. 4 in Evanston. Andersen's team continues to juggle quarterbacks and seek receiving threats until Maryland uses its high-powered offense to register its first marquee Big Ten victory in Madison on Oct. 25.

The Badgers rebound to beat Rutgers and Purdue on the road, but Nebraska proves too fast and too motivated in a two-touchdown Huskers win on Nov. 15. Now staggering, Wisconsin loses the next week on the road at Iowa and finally falters against Minnesota. The Gophers are so happy that they don't just chop down one Camp Randall goal post. They keep going until they've turned State Street Brats into mere kindling. Minnesota goes on to win the Big Ten title.

A 6-6 record and that rough finish puts Wisconsin in Detroit for bowl season. Arkansas makes a startling turnaround to win the SEC title, as Bielema claims national coach of the year honors. LSU buys out of its return game to Lambeau Field. New Glarus closes its doors, relocating to Minneapolis.
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If Ron Burgundy coached college football -- the San Diego Border Terriers, perhaps? -- he would only need to learn two lines to survive spring practice.

1. "I like my team."

2. "I'm glad we don't have a game tomorrow."

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesPat Fitzgerald's Wildcats had to deal with a lot off the field this spring.
College coaches have recited those phrases in spring ball for decades. The 14 men leading Big Ten programs are no exceptions. But the standard spring sentiments apply to the league more this year than most.

There are reasons to believe the Big Ten will be better this fall, but the work is far from over on most campuses. This isn't a league of finished products, and the coming months take on added importance before the 2014 season kicks off in late August.

"I don't think we're that far behind; it's just painfully obvious that we're not there," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "This next phase will be the most important phase of this team's life. It's always important, but with a lot of things we've gone though, we've got to come together."

Northwestern went through a lot in the spring, mostly away from the field, as the campaign for a player union gained national media attention, especially after players were declared employees of the school in March. The team held a historic vote Friday, after Fitzgerald had expressed his opposition to unionizing. Some players expressed concern that the vote could split the team.

It will be months before we know if the union plan goes through, but the Wildcats continue preparing for a pivotal season. They found their quarterback this spring in senior Trevor Siemian and an offensive identity based around the passing game. But questions along both lines remain.

The spring also produced quarterback answers at Iowa (Jake Rudock) and Minnesota (Mitch Leidner). Michigan's Devin Gardner had a rough spring game but still seems likely to retain his job. Another senior signal-caller, Rutgers' Gary Nova, is a good bet to remain atop the depth chart. Although Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong lacks Nova's or Gardner's experience, he exited spring just as he entered it: as the Huskers' top quarterback.

Indiana's platoon system of Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson frustrates some, but not coach Kevin Wilson, who has given every indication that he'll continue to use both for another season.

Other quarterback races have been reduced but not resolved. Illinois will pick between Wes Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer who impressed for much of the spring, and veteran backup Reilly O'Toole. Coach Tim Beckman wants a resolution before two-a-day practices in August.

Purdue's Danny Etling, who started the final seven games of his freshman season, appeared to have a slight lead coming out of the spring, but coach Darrell Hazell isn't ready to declare a starter. So Austin Appleby and David Blough remain alive.

Wisconsin reduced its candidate pool from four to two as Joel Stave, who boasts 19 career starts but also a nagging throwing shoulder injury, will compete with dual-threat Tanner McEvoy in camp.

"It will be a fight," coach Gary Andersen said.

Quarterback is just one spot where Wisconsin has questions. The Badgers went through much of the spring with only four healthy wide receivers. They've also revamped their defensive front seven, which returns only one starter from 2013.

[+] EnlargeRaekwon McMillan
Miller Safrit/ESPNEarly enrollee Raekwon McMillan could make an immediate impact for Ohio State's defense this fall.
Ohio State didn't have star quarterback Braxton Miller for spring ball because of shoulder surgery, but the Buckeyes focused on bolstering a defense that struggled last fall. Freshman Raekwon McMillan, an early enrollee, is pushing for the starting middle linebacker spot, and competition will continue at the cornerback spot opposite Doran Grant. Chris Ash, the Buckeyes' new co-defensive coordinator, worked to simplify the scheme this spring.

"We only have about six defensive calls," safety Tyvis Powell said after the spring game. "We had too many last year."

Offensive line remains Michigan's focal point coming out of the spring. A sloppy spring game didn't ease fears about the Wolverines' front five, although coach Brady Hoke saw positive signs in earlier practices. A critical summer awaits new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, tasked with resurrecting Michigan's run game.

At Penn State, new coach James Franklin continues to energize both players and fans. But he's also realistic about the depth challenge his team faces, particularly along the offensive line.

"When you don't have a two-deep of scholarship players, you've got issues that you're going to have to overcome," Franklin said. "We don't."

Like Rutgers, Maryland began its Big Ten transition this spring and welcomed running back Wes Brown and wideout Marcus Leak after absences from the team. If the Terrapins finally stay healthy, they could be worth watching in a loaded East Division.

Sitting atop the division is defending Big Ten champ Michigan State. The Spartans had a relatively stress-free spring, but they must fill key spots on defense, especially at linebacker and cornerback, where players like Taiwan Jones and Darian Hicks step in.

The returning pieces for teams like Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin fuel optimism around the league. But in spring, optimism is always tempered by what lies ahead.

"We're improving," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday, "but we're hardly ready to play."

They won't have to for 132 days.

Until then, stay classy, Big Ten fans.

MADISON, Wis. -- Gary Andersen's current job description looks a lot like that of a first-year coach. Here's the thing: Andersen is entering his second season at Wisconsin.

Andersen's inheritance with the Badgers last year, in coaching currency, rivaled that of a Walton, a Bloomberg or Prince George. Most new coaches are saddled with teams plagued by youth, discontent or a culture of losing. Andersen stepped into a locker room filled with 25 seniors, including stars such as Chris Borland and Jared Abbrederis. Wisconsin had won three consecutive Big Ten championships. It had an identity and a proven path to success.

The Badgers needed a leader after Bret Bielema spurned them for Arkansas, but Andersen's primary task could be reduced to four words: Don't screw it up. To his credit, he didn't, guiding Wisconsin to a 9-2 start before the year ended with losses to both Penn State and South Carolina. He also provided a calm, stabilizing presence that resonated both with players and Badgers fans. Wisconsin has recorded better seasons, but Andersen's first made a strong enough impression on the Cleveland Browns, who reached out to him about their coaching vacancy, and on Barry Alvarez, who awarded Andersen a raise and a new contract.

But it's fair to wonder about Andersen. Program maintenance, while challenging, isn't the same as program building. Wisconsin doesn't lack a foundation -- Alvarez provided one and Bielema kept it from cracking -- but there's a lot of hard labor ahead for Andersen and his assistants as their roster turns over significantly.

"We are a very youthful crew," Andersen told ESPN.com. "It's like my second year at Utah State. We were youthful, we were excited, but our coaching was so important to be able to put the kids in the proper positions, which is the ultimate goal. It's not how much offense you have or how much defense you have. It's how well you’re performing the basics: how many missed assignments, how are we tackling, how are our administrative penalties.

"You want to do everything you can to make sure you're teaching them how to play football the right way."

Utah State went 4-7 in Andersen's second year before reaching bowls the next two seasons. Wisconsin's expectations are much higher despite its new-look depth chart.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
Keith Gillett/Icon SMIGary Andersen sees the opener against LSU as a factor that should push his team through the summer and fall camp.
The Big Ten West Division is a collection of flawed teams and Wisconsin, with more recent success than the others and a favorable cross-division schedule -- no Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State -- will be a popular pick to reach Indianapolis. Running back Melvin Gordon turned down the NFL draft for a chance to lead the Badgers to the initial College Football Playoff.

Wisconsin is not rebuilding, but it faces an unusually high number of questions on a depth chart that shouldn't be written in anything permanent.

"It's a reset, you're starting at ground zero," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "Even with the veteran O-line, a couple guys are out, you're mixing and matching, so you can't assume or take anything for granted. Even with [quarterback Joel Stave], it's a chance to reteach things that he's had hundreds of reps on, because there's always a new way to look at it."

Stave is part of the mystery at Wisconsin. Despite starting 19 games the past two seasons, he must outshine Tanner McEvoy in camp to keep his job, especially after missing much of the spring with a pesky throwing shoulder injury. McEvoy, a gifted athlete who played both safety and wide receiver last season, could represent a shift in what Wisconsin wants from its quarterbacks.

Andersen's first two quarterback recruits, McEvoy and D.J. Gillins, both are true dual threats.

"He's got a tremendous skill set, obviously," Ludwig said of McEvoy. "An athletic guy, starting as a safety last year. The weapons he brings to the quarterback position, it's a huge asset for us."

The quarterback run threat, when paired with dynamic backs in Gordon and Corey Clement, becomes even more critical if Wisconsin can't bolster the wide receiver spot. The team's leading returning receiver, Jordan Fredrick, had only 10 receptions in 2013. Fredrick, Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright all missed part or all of the spring with injuries.

Wisconsin had only four receivers for most of the 15 practices.

"It's pretty tiring," senior Kenzel Doe said. "You're basically taking every rep."

The Badgers defense had fewer injuries this spring but went through a more substantial facelift. Inside linebacker Derek Landisch is the only returning starter in the front seven.

Most defenders spent spring ball working at multiple positions as the coaches looked for ways to upgrade speed. Michael Caputo, a starting free safety last season, went to linebacker and then back to safety before the spring ended.

"We definitely wanted to see how guys fit in other places," Caputo said. "The goal is to be a mean, aggressive, fast defense. We're slowly getting to that, but it's definitely a transition with a lot of the younger guys and playing different positions."

There have been positive developments already. Andersen points to players such as Chikwe Obasih, a redshirt freshman who ended the spring as a starting defensive end.

Andersen When you've got young kids, you've got to get them reps if you want them to get better.

-- Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen
"You look how far Chikwe has come," Andersen said. "If you put on Day 1 of spring ball and Day 13 of spring ball, it's an unbelievable difference in his pad level, the use of his hands, his understanding and knowledge of the defense.

"When you've got young kids, you've got to get them reps if you want them to get better."

The summer takes on added importance for these Badgers. As Ludwig said, Wisconsin's first workout in August must be Practice 16, not Practice 1.

If all the uncertainty and opportunity in practice doesn't drive players, the season opener against LSU certainly will. Last year, Wisconsin thumped Massachusetts and Tennessee Tech to open the season before its infamous trip to Arizona State. This time, the test comes sooner.

"I really like that opener for this team," Andersen said. "It's got to be a driving force."

Which Badgers team shows up at Houston's NRG Stadium remains to be seen. But it will have more of Andersen's fingerprints on it.

The big reveal at Wisconsin is still to come.
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MADISON, Wis. -- Spring practice has provided some answers at quarterback in places like Nebraska, Northwestern, Illinois and Minnesota. Other competitions, while potentially narrowing a bit, remain unresolved as summer approaches.

Wisconsin certainly belongs in the latter category. A program that is no stranger to quarterback races has another that should last well into fall camp.

Junior Joel Stave has started for the better part of the past two seasons. But an AC joint injury to his throwing shoulder sustained in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina has limited him throughout spring and ended his session prematurely following Saturday's scrimmage. Stave won't participate in Saturday's spring game. Although Andersen admits the injury is a concern and further evaluation is needed, Stave should be fine for summer workouts.

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesA recurring injury suffered in Wisconsin's bowl game might have put Joel Stave behind in Wisconsin's QB race.
Even if Stave had been healthy, he likely still would have to beat out Tanner McEvoy in fall camp. McEvoy, a junior college transfer who briefly competed for the starting quarterback job last summer before moving to wide receiver and eventually to safety, has spent the entire offseason as a signal-caller. He took most of the reps with the top offense in Tuesday's practice and will do the same Saturday.

"There's definitely a separation between those two and the rest of the pack," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen told ESPN.com. "I see D.J. [Gillins] and Bart [Houston] fighting in different ways and different situations and scenarios."

Stave's injury and a wave of others to an already inexperienced wide receiving corps have made it tough to get an accurate gauge on the passing game this spring. Senior Kenzel Doe is the only wideout with substantial experience who is fully participating in the spring. Alex Erickson is sitting out the spring following a knee injury in the bowl game, Jordan Fredrick suffered an arm injury midway through the session and Robert Wheelwright, pegged by many to emerge as Wisconsin's top wideout, has been slowed by a knee issue.

The Badgers will be healthier at receiver in fall camp, and most likely better as five wide receiver recruits arrive, led by Dareian Watkins.

"We need a couple of them to produce for us," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "To say all five are going to step in and produce right away, that would be a little bit of a stretch. But we're looking for two guys: one that can provide a vertical stretch for us and the next guy to see what his strengths are and design around him.

"We need a player to take the top off the coverage."

Another subplot is where Andersen, Lugwig and the staff truly want to take the offense. In recruiting McEvoy and Gillins, the coaches made it clear they want more athleticism under center. Andersen wants "the threat of the run" at quarterback to complement backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement.

Wisconsin has incorporated more zone-read plays this spring, and McEvoy said the speed option was introduced in Tuesday's practice.

"Me being mobile gives some more elements that hopefully I can use," McEvoy said. "It seems to be working, but it's the same playbook as before. We've just got to execute."

Ludwig considers both Gillins, a freshman early enrollee, and McEvoy, as "brand-new players" this spring. He's pleased with the way both have learned the system but wants to see better execution from all the quarterbacks.

"Recently, I've had happy feet when I'm in the pocket," McEvoy said. "The next couple of days, I'm going to focus on really staying in there, taking my steps and throwing the ball, and running it when I really need to run it."

Gillins is ahead of where the coaches thought he would be and, with a strong summer, could push both Stave and McEvoy when camp begins. Andersen said if it appears Gillins won't contribute much at quarterback this fall, he'll likely redshirt rather than play another position.

Houston has the arm strength but lacks mobility and needs to show greater consistency to factor in the race.

"With Joel not being 100 percent, it's kind of tweaked our thought process a little bit," Ludwig said. "The guys are all competing well and learning. We've got to be a lot more productive at the QB spot. Spring football, it's about being productive and laying a foundation for the summer workouts, and putting yourself in position to come back in fall camp as Practice 16 rather than Practice 1."

Video: B1G West top returning players

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
10:00
AM ET

As the college football world gets ready for spring football, Toni Collins and ESPN Big Ten reporter Mitch Sherman look at some of the top returning players in the new Big Ten West Division.
Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

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

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

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

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

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

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

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

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

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

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

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

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.
Spring football kicks off earlier than normal in the Big Ten, as Michigan takes the field Tuesday, Northwestern follows Wednesday and eight other squads begin their sessions by March 8.

The accelerated schedules seem appropriate in a league filled with players, coaches and teams itching for fresh starts.

New assistants get their first chance to repair struggling units, whether it's Doug Nussmeier with Michigan's offense, Brian Knorr with Indiana's defense or Chris Ash and Larry Johnson with a once-feared Ohio State defense. Quarterback competitions begin or resume at nine places, as new faces such as Illinois' Wes Lunt, Nebraska's Johnny Stanton and Minnesota's Chris Streveler enter the mix, while veterans like Wisconsin's Joel Stave and Michigan's Devin Gardner try to retain their starting jobs.

Happy Valley continues to buzz about new Penn State coach James Franklin, who seems to galvanize everyone whom he encounters. But Franklin barely has been around his new players and finally begins the real work with a team facing very real challenges.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes his team can start a rebound from a disappointing, injury-riddled 2013 season.
Spring also allows teams such as Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue and Indiana to look forward after disappointing seasons. Michigan State, meanwhile, continues to bask in the Rose Bowl glow but looks toward its next goal -- a national championship -- as spring ball kicks off March 25.

"It's big-picture stuff, building relationships with the players and everyone associated with the program," Franklin told ESPN.com. "The other thing is laying a really good foundation with the philosophies and schemes of how we're going to do things. That's going to happen naturally over time, but I'm not the most patient person. I wish it would have happened yesterday."

Franklin doesn't water down his goals for Penn State, especially in recruiting, but he's also realistic about the challenges of a reduced roster. The Nittany Lions return strong pieces such as quarterback Christian Hackenberg and defensive back Adrian Amos, but the two-deep has some holes that Franklin and his assistants must address, while installing new schemes.

"It's one thing when you get put in this situation in the first place with limited scholarships," Franklin said, "but the longer you're in it, the more effect it has. We've got some depth issues, there's no doubt about it, across the board. We're going to have to get creative."

Northwestern also is focused on depth after being hit hard by key injuries in 2013. Pat Fitzgerald blames himself and his staff for failing to get enough second-stringers ready, which proved costly in close Big Ten losses.

After their first bowl-less winter in six years, the Wildcats responded well in the weight room, as more than 50 players recorded personal bests. Although 11 players will miss spring practice, including standout running back/returner Venric Mark, the depth should be better in areas like the secondary.

"We're really emphasizing taking ownership of the finish," Fitzgerald said. "Finishing your technique, finishing the call, finishing the route. There's a lot of disappointment in the way the program didn't take the next step forward."

Michigan coach Brady Hoke restructured the roles of his defensive assistants for 2014, but the Wolverines' offense will be in the spotlight this spring after a wildly inconsistent season. Gardner, who continues to recover from a foot injury and likely won't be 100 percent until midway through the spring, will compete with Shane Morris, Russell Bellomy and midyear enrollee Wilton Speight.

But other positions, such as offensive line, figure to be just as important as Michigan tries to achieve Hoke and Nussmeier's vision.

"We had good intentions as far as what we wanted our identity to be, but obviously I don't think it came out the way we'd like it to," Hoke said. "The quarterback position is as important as any, and we have a guy [Gardner] who is very talented and had some really good games and games where we had to protect him better, have a better run game and take pressure off of him, and I don't think we did."

While Michigan turns the page on offense, Ohio State focuses on a defense that allowed 115 points in its last three games and finished 110th nationally in pass yards allowed (268 YPG). The Buckeyes lost top defenders Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby, but they also added two accomplished assistants.

Johnson, who churned out NFL linemen during 18 years at Penn State, chose Ohio State instead of remaining in State College. Ash leaves a sole coordinator role at Arkansas for a co-coordinator role at Ohio State, where he'll work with the embattled Luke Fickell and others to mend the defense through a simplified scheme.

"Back in the day when Ohio State played great defense, you knew what you were going to get," Ash said. "They played with swagger, played with confidence, played with toughness. We have to get back to that. The simplicity of the things we're going to do will lead to faster players, more plays made and a more aggressive defense.

"I wasn't here [in 2013], but I can tell you what Coach Meyer has told me, what Luke Fickell has told me and what I watch on film. I can see there's some hesitation, there's some uncertainty. Why that is, I don't know. But it's my job to get it fixed."

Purdue has plenty to fix after a 1-11 season, and players not surprisingly are wearing T-shirts with the word "FORWARD" on the backs. Maryland and Rutgers move forward to a new conference after an offseason that saw several staff changes, including new coordinators at Rutgers (Ralph Friedgen, Joe Rossi).

There's a fresh start of sorts at Wisconsin, as a large and decorated senior class departs. Coach Gary Andersen's markings will be more obvious with his second team, which begins practice March 7.

Wisconsin is just one of many places where the top quarterback job is at stake. Lunt, who sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma State, competes with Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey at Illinois.

"Competition's competition, no matter where it's at," said Lunt, who has added about 15 pounds since his arrival and checks in at 225. "It's different because it’s different people, different coaches, but I'm excited for it."

He's not alone in the Big Ten. Spring ball can't start soon enough.
The Big Ten's best two teams played Saturday night in Indianapolis, and Michigan State proved that it belongs on top. Ohio State had occupied the No. 1 spot throughout the season, but Mark Dantonio's team outclassed the Buckeyes, scoring the game's first 17 points and its final 17 points after Ohio State surged midway through the contest.

Both teams are headed to BCS bowls, but the Spartans earned their way to Pasadena for the first time since the 1987 season.

There are no changes in the final 10 spots.

Here's one final look at the Week 14 rankings.

Now, for the fresh rundown …

1. Michigan State (12-1, last week: 2): We knew the Spartans had a nationally elite defense and a much-improved offense, but we didn't know whether they could put it all together against a team that hadn't lost a game in two seasons. Quarterback Connor Cook, linebacker Denicos Allen and others provided the answers against Ohio State. Cook passed for a career-high 304 yards and three touchdowns, while Allen and the Spartan Dawgs limited Ohio State to 25 yards in the fourth quarter. Next stop: the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio.

2. Ohio State (12-1, last week: 1): It's odd to see a "1" in the loss column, but Meyer's Buckeyes looked shaky both early and late in their biggest test since the 2011 Sugar Bowl. Penalties and poor pass defense, as well as a one-dimensional offense that didn't sustain a rhythm, doomed Ohio State against Michigan State. Quarterback Braxton Miller and his teammates squandered a chance to play for a national title. They'll try to finish the season strong with a win against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.

3. Wisconsin (9-3, last week: 3): No Big Ten team wants to get on the field more than the Badgers, who delivered their worst performance of the season at the worst time against Penn State. Linebacker Chris Borland and a proud and decorated group of seniors should be much better in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina. Quarterback Joel Stave tries to bounce back after throwing a career-high three interceptions against PSU.

4. Iowa (8-4, last week: 4): Coach Kirk Ferentz sees similarities between his current team and the 2008 version, which also finished strong after a so-so start. The 2008 squad finished with an Outback Bowl victory, and the Hawkeyes will try to do the same when they face LSU in a rematch of the 2005 Capital One Bowl. Linebacker James Morris and an improved defense will be tested, and Iowa will try to control the clock with its power run game.

5. Minnesota (8-4, last week: 5): The season will be a success no matter what, but Minnesota would like to end on a positive note after dropping its final two regular-season games to ranked opponents. The Gophers return to the Texas Bowl, where coach Jerry Kill thinks they set the foundation for this year with a good effort last December against Texas Tech. Minnesota's defense will show up against Syracuse, but can the offense find a passing game?

6. Nebraska (8-4, last week: 6): Barring a surprise, Bo Pelini will get another chance to bring a championship to Lincoln next season. It would be nice to end this year on a positive note, however, especially after a blowout home loss to Iowa on Black Friday. Nebraska's young team has a chance to grow up the next few weeks before a matchup against Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, a rematch of last year's Capital One Bowl.

7. Penn State (7-5; last week: 7): The season is over but Penn State can feel optimistic about the future, particularly on offense with Big Ten Freshman of the Year Christian Hackenberg at quarterback. Hackenberg completed a strong debut with 2,955 passing yards and 20 touchdowns, and he'll have most of his weapons back for 2013. Last week brought the somewhat surprising departures of two assistants, including longtime linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden. It will be interesting to see where Bill O'Brien goes with his replacements.

8. Michigan (7-5, last week: 8): Michigan's performance in The Game left many wondering where that team was all season. The Wolverines hope to follow up with another strong effort -- and a win -- as they take on Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. It's important for Michigan to end a disappointing season on a positive note, especially for the offense, which surged behind Devin Gardner, Jeremy Gallon, Jake Butt and others against Ohio State.

9. Indiana (5-7, last week: 9): It's a pivotal offseason for the Hoosiers, who should in no way be satisfied with a five-win season that includes three Big Ten victories. Indiana should have made a bowl this season with such an explosive offense and must make the necessary upgrades -- coaching, talent and elsewhere -- to get to the postseason in 2014. Kevin Wilson has some work ahead to ensure he's not the latest offensive-minded coach to flame out in Bloomington.

10. Northwestern (5-7, last week: 10): Here's another team bitterly disappointed with its 2013 season that has some work to do this winter. Coach Pat Fitzgerald's first priority is keeping together or perhaps enhancing the strongest recruiting class in his tenure. Northwestern also must evaluate its offensive vision after enduring quarterback injuries in three of the past four seasons. The Wildcats should get a big boost at running back if Venric Mark is granted a fifth year, as expected.

11. Illinois (4-8, last week: 11): Tim Beckman will lead the Illini for a third season, athletic director Mike Thomas confirmed earlier this week. Like Indiana's Wilson, Beckman will focus on improving a defense that slipped to 110th nationally in total defense and 104th in scoring defense. He fixed the offense after the 2012 season by bringing in coordinator Bill Cubit. If he can do the same on defense, Illinois should go bowling next fall. If not, it could be the end for Beckman in Champaign.

12. Purdue (1-11, last week: 12): After a historically poor season, Purdue begins the rebuilding process on the recruiting trail, where it must get better in a lot of areas. The Boilers lose some of their top defenders like Bruce Gaston Jr. and Ricardo Allen, and must build a lot more depth on that side of the ball. Offensive line also is a target area as the Boilers allowed a league-worst 38 sacks this fall.
Rivalry week in the Big Ten left no doubt: The conference's top two teams will meet in the league championship.

Wisconsin's shocking home loss to Penn State ends the debate over whether the Badgers or Michigan State should be at No. 2 behind front-runner Ohio State. Although the Buckeyes and, to a lesser extent, the Spartans had some struggles Saturday, they found ways to win. The Badgers had their worst performance of the season, and it cost them a potential BCS at-large berth.

That doesn't take away from Penn State, which received big boosts from quarterback Christian Hackenberg and others.

Our big dilemma this week was what to do with the 6-8 spots. Penn State had by far its best showing of the season, and Michigan had its best showing in months, even in defeat, against archrival Ohio State. Nebraska didn't show up at home on Black Friday, however, the Huskers have road wins against both the Lions (six days before the Iowa clunker) and Michigan.

After some spirited debate, we ultimately went with body of work to determine the rundown, especially since these are the final regular-season rankings. We understand it devalues the Week 14 performances a bit.

Here's one last look at the Week 13 rankings.

Now for the new rundown, final regular-season version.

1. Ohio State (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten: last week: 1): The Buckeyes lost their composure early and nearly lost their perfect season late. They were faced with adversity for the first time in six weeks, but they made enough plays on both sides of the ball to win. Running back Carlos Hyde (226 yards, one TD) and quarterback Braxton Miller (five total TDs) led a virtually unstoppable offense, which helped overcome some shoddy pass defense. The Buckeyes now await Michigan State in the Big Ten title game.

2. Michigan State (11-1, 8-0; last week: 3): There weren't many style points against Minnesota, but the Spartans came away with another double-digit Big Ten win. The defense kept Minnesota out of the end zone, as linebacker Denicos Allen led the way. Running back Jeremy Langford (134 rush yards, TD) had another big day as Michigan State moved closer to a BCS bowl berth, regardless of the result in Indianapolis.

3. Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2; last week: 2): It's only a one-spot drop for Wisconsin, but what a downer in Mad City. A team that had been so dominant since falling at Ohio State never showed up on Senior Day against a plucky Penn State team that took control from the onset. Quarterback Joel Stave threw three interceptions in the loss, and one of the Big Ten's better defenses allowed a slew of big plays as Penn State racked up 465 yards. It led to Wisconsin's most surprising home loss in recent memory.

4. Iowa (8-4, 5-3; last week: 4): Kirk Ferentz's crew entered the regular season as a popular pick to finish last in the Legends Division. The Hawkeyes emerged as one of the better teams not only in the division but the entire Big Ten. They've flipped their 2012 regular-season record behind a salty rush defense, led by an outstanding group of linebackers, and a functional offense. After two lackluster showings in the Heroes Game, Iowa outclassed Nebraska in Lincoln and should move up the bowl pecking order.

5. Minnesota (8-4, 4-4; last week: 5): It doesn't take a doctor at the Mayo Clinic to diagnose what's wrong with Minnesota. The Gophers' defense keeps them in every game, and Saturday's matchup at Michigan State proved to be no exception. But the offense simply can't score or consistently pass the football. Minnesota failed to reach double digits for the third time this season despite multiple opportunities in Spartans territory. It's still a great season for Jerry Kill's team, but there's a lot of work to do on offense before a bowl appearance.

6. Nebraska (8-4, 5-3; last week: 6): No one would dispute Bo Pelini that this has been a difficult season in Husker Country. No one would argue with Nebraska's ability to keep fighting. But when the same problems (namely turnovers) surface year after year, the bigger picture of the program becomes more depressing. The Huskers and their head coach self-destructed for much of the Iowa game and fell for the third time on their home field. Fortunately for Pelini, it didn't cost him his job, and he should get another chance to compete for an elusive league title in 2014.

7. Penn State (7-5, 4-4; last week: 8): The Lions had a better team in Bill O'Brien's first season, but they didn't have a better win than Saturday's stunning upset of Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium. After losing their first three road games by a combined score of 131-48, Penn State dominated Wisconsin for much of the afternoon at a place where the Badgers rarely lose. Hackenberg ended his freshman season with a signature performance (339 pass yards, 4 TDs) as the offense repeatedly gashed Wisconsin. A much-maligned defense held the Badgers' run game in check as Penn State ended an up-and-down season on a very good note.

8. Michigan (7-5, 3-5; last week: 7): After plummeting to historic lows earlier in the month, Michigan's offense looked like a completely different unit against Ohio State. Quarterback Devin Gardner played brilliantly, coordinator Al Borges called a good game and several others -- Jeremy Gallon, Jake Butt and De'Veon Smith -- stepped up in a 603-yard effort. It wasn't enough, as Michigan fell by a point and the defense had no answers for Ohio State, but the Wolverines played their best game in months and can feel a bit better entering the postseason.

9. Indiana (5-7, 3-5; last week: 9): Oh, what might have been for Indiana. A team with such an explosive offense and eight home games should have made a bowl game, period, but the Hoosiers couldn't get it done. At least they reclaimed the Old Oaken Bucket as quarterback Tre Roberson (six TD passes, 273 pass yards, 154 rush yards) torched Purdue and received help from Stephen Houston, D'Angelo Roberts, Cody Latimer and others. It's clear the Hoosiers have to make upgrades on defense. They can't keep wasting such explosiveness on offense.

10. Northwestern (5-7, 1-7; last week: 11): A season to forget for Northwestern ended on a positive note, as Pat Fitzgerald's team avoided a winless Big Ten season and recorded another victory against its in-state rival. Quarterback Trevor Siemian enters the offseason with some confidence after passing for a career-high 414 yards and four touchdowns against Illinois. Wide receiver Christian Jones (13 catches, 182 yards, two TDs) also stepped up as Northwestern twice rallied from deficits against Illinois. Fitzgerald said afterward that Northwestern "will be back" in 2014. The work begins now.

11. Illinois (4-8, 1-7; last week 10): The wins total doubled from two to four, which is nothing to celebrate. But Illinois clearly improved in Year 2 under coach Tim Beckman, who should receive another season in Champaign. Illinois has fixed the offense, and while quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will be tough to replace, several playmakers like Josh Ferguson return. A bigger issue is the defense, which had no answer for Northwestern's passing attack on Saturday and surrendered more than 40 points and more than 500 yards per game in Big Ten play.

12. Purdue (1-11, 0-8; last week: 12): The optimist sees a dynamic young quarterback in Danny Etling, who finished his freshman season with 485 pass yards and four touchdowns against Indiana, and a team that can only get better. The pessimist sees a Purdue squad that was the worst in recent Big Ten history and has much work to do on both sides of the ball to become competitive in coach Darrell Hazell's second season. A big offseason awaits Hazell and his staff as they can't go through another season like this one.

Badgers chopping their way to BCS bowl

November, 23, 2013
11/23/13
9:25
PM ET


MINNEAPOLIS -- It's tradition in the Paul Bunyan's Axe series for the winning team to grab the axe and hunt down both goal posts for some pretend chopping.

That tradition hit a slight snag on Saturday night. After No. 19 Wisconsin downed No. 25 Minnesota 20-7, the Badgers rushed to the west end zone at TCF Bank Stadium and attacked one of the goal posts. When they carried the axe to the opposite end zone, however, they found the Gophers' players and coaches blocking their path.

Some heated words were exchanged. There was some shoving. Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said a security officer pointed a finger in his face and told his team to leave. The Badgers never got to that goal post.

"It's happened for as long as I've been alive, going to both goal posts," Wisconsin senior linebacker Chris Borland said. "They kind of crashed our party."

[+] EnlargeBeau Allen
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsBeau Allen and Wisconsin chopped down Minnesota and the Badgers' BCS bowl hopes are looking up.
For the most part, though, the Badgers simply laughed off the Minnesota blockade. And why not? Nobody has stopped them when it has mattered in nearly two months.

Wisconsin (9-2) has won six straight games since a 31-24 loss at Ohio State on Sept. 28, with all of those wins coming by at least 10 points. If this keeps up, it might prove difficult to keep Andersen's team from crashing the BCS party.

After three straight Rose Bowl trips, the Badgers are left hoping for an at-large bid since Ohio State clinched the Leaders Division spot in the Big Ten championship game on Saturday. They still need a sizable bump in the BCS standings, but perhaps a road win over a ranked team will provide that boost. Oregon's loss on Saturday might have also helped, as the Pac-12 might not get a second bid now.

Andersen has declined to campaign for his team. But they are doing the important work for him.

"When you have nine wins, you're very close to being a great football team," Andersen said. "I'm not so sure we're not a great team right now. If the season were over, I'd probably say they were a great team. But I don't want to tell them that yet."

Saturday's win was more of an efficient bloodletting than a showcase. The Gophers, who had won four straight Big Ten games behind some inspired play, went toe-to-toe with Wisconsin in the trenches early. Borland said it took some time to adjust to Minnesota's physical style, and the sub-zero wind chill didn't make the shoulder-pad slamming any more pleasant.

But after Minnesota grabbed a second-quarter lead on Aaron Hill's pick-six and then threatened again in Badgers territory, the Wisconsin defense clamped down. Brendan Kelly forced a fumble from quarterback Philip Nelson that Borland recovered, leading to an eventual touchdown. Another quick three-and-out defensive series set up a field goal for a 13-7 halftime lead.

Wisconsin caused a season-high three turnovers and limited Minnesota to just 185 total yards and 3.4 yards per play. For the third straight Big Ten game and the sixth time in 11 games overall, the Badgers defense did not allow an offensive touchdown.

"It's been fun to see this defense develop into what it is," Borland said.

The offense didn't do a whole lot after Joel Stave's third-quarter touchdown throw to Jared Abbrederis for the game's final points. But it says a lot that Wisconsin seemed disappointed with a 197-yard rushing effort.

Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said earlier in the week that the Badgers had no weaknesses. That's not quite true, as special teams remain shaky. One of kicker Jack Russell's field goal tries took a dogleg left, and Andersen broke out a bizarre fourth-quarter fake-field goal play that lost 7 yards. He said he'd been holding on to that play for weeks, and that he would definitely scrap it now.

Everything else, however, has been going Wisconsin's way. Now it's a wait-and-see game with the BCS standings.

"I think this team has a lot of talent and deserves a little more recognition," defensive lineman Ethan Hemer said. "Hopefully, a win like this will put us in that spot."

On Saturday, the players were just happy to celebrate a 10th consecutive win over Minnesota, the longest by either side in the 123-year history of the rivalry. Borland hoisted freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton on his shoulders, and Shelton held up a whiteboard that read "10 straight." The many Badgers fans who made the trip chanted, "10 more years."

"Ten's a great number," Borland told ESPN.com. "That's a decade of dominance."

The Badgers have been dominating everybody for nearly two months. It remains to be seen whether they can chop their way through the BCS road blocks.

Big Ten predictions: Week 10

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
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Trick or treat, everyone. Ready for the scariest set of Big Ten predictions you've ever seen? What's truly scary is the fact that this marks the first week since Week 3 that all 12 league squads are playing. It's a full slate of Big Ten action, and with the predictions race all tied up, this is a big week.

At steak: dinner at St. Elmo in Indianapolis.

Let's begin ...

ILLINOIS at PENN STATE

Brian Bennett: The last time Illinois coaches came to State College ... OK, that's old news by now. Both defenses are really struggling right now, but the Fighting Illini have even more issues than Penn State. And I expect the Nittany Lions to be much better at home than on the road the rest of the way. Allen Robinson scores three times in a big Penn State win. ... Penn State 42, Illinois 20


Adam Rittenberg: The Lions get well this week against an Illinois defense that hasn't stopped anyone lately. Bill Belton racks up 130 rush yards and two scores in establishing himself as the Lions' top back. Penn State's tight ends get more involved in the pass game as the Lions pull away early in the third quarter. ... Penn State 38, Illinois 21

WISCONSIN at IOWA

Rittenberg: It's great to have this rivalry back on the slate, and I expect an extremely physical game at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa jumps ahead early on a Damon Bullock touchdown run, but Wisconsin's offense kicks into gear after another long scoring run by Melvin Gordon on a jet sweep. Badgers quarterback Joel Stave finds wideout Jared Abbrederis for a fourth-quarter touchdown that proves to be the difference. ... Wisconsin 28, Iowa 21

Bennett: Very excited for this one and tempted to pick Iowa, whose three losses are to teams that are a combined 23-1 this season. But I also saw how Northwestern shut down the Hawkeyes' offense after the first drive last week, and that scares me away from choosing the home team. Stave has a nice game and throws for three touchdown passes after Iowa stacks the box defensively. ... Wisconsin 30, Iowa 20


OHIO STATE at PURDUE

Bennett: Can you say cruise control? That's what Ohio State will be on after scoring 21 points in the first 10 minutes on Saturday. Carlos Hyde has four touchdowns in the first half of a romp. ... Ohio State 56, Purdue 13


Rittenberg: Like they say at Harry's Chocolate Shop, this one will go ugly early. Although Ross-Ade Stadium usually brings out the worst in Ohio State, I expect another big game from Braxton Miller, who picks apart Purdue's secondary for three touchdown passes. Purdue's offense looks better than it did against Michigan State as Danny Etling connects with B.J. Knauf for a touchdown, but it's way too much Ohio State in this one. ... Ohio State 48, Purdue 10

MINNESOTA at INDIANA

Rittenberg: Minnesota's recent surge has been incredibly impressive, but I just don't like the matchup here for the Gophers. Indiana is playing for its bowl life and must win this game at home coming off of a bye. Unlike Minnesota's past two opponents, Indiana is healthy on offense and will strike with big-play threats Cody Latimer and Shane Wynn for some early scores. Minnesota's run game shows up again, but the Hoosiers use a big fourth quarter to get the W. ... Indiana 35, Minnesota 31

Bennett: Does Vegas know something here? Indiana is a solid favorite despite how well Minnesota is playing. Seems weird. But ... maybe the wiseguys are on to something. Indiana has had two weeks to prepare and figure out something defensively, and this will be one of the best offenses the Gophers have seen. I predict a big day for Tre Roberson as the Hoosiers temporarily halt Minnesota's nice run. ... Indiana 33, Minnesota 30.


MICHIGAN at MICHIGAN STATE

Bennett: Bottom line here is I know what I'm getting from Michigan State. I have no real idea what to expect from either side of the ball from Michigan. The Wolverines could come out and play great or turn the ball over a bunch of times. I'll side with the elite defense and the home team. The Spartans will force three turnovers, including a pick-six from Denicos Allen, and they will emerge as the leaders of the Legends. ... Michigan State 17, Michigan 14


Rittenberg: Michigan needs this game more than Michigan State. It could be the most important game in coach Brady Hoke's tenure to date. But Mark Dantonio is masterful in getting Michigan State in the right mindset to play Michigan, and the Spartans defense is the best unit on the field. MSU cornerback Darqueze Dennard records a key fourth-quarter interception against Devin Gardner, and the Spartans get two more rushing touchdowns from Jeremy Langford to rally for a win. ... Michigan State 21, Michigan 17

NORTHWESTERN at NEBRASKA

Rittenberg: Both teams seem fragile at the moment, and it's hard to confidently pick one over the other. This is a better matchup for Northwestern's offense to finally get on track, and Kain Colter has given Nebraska problems before. Colter takes the team on his back and scores three second-half touchdowns, including the game-winner in the final minute. Nebraska wastes another 150-yard rushing performance from Ameer Abdullah as Pelini Watch really begins. ... Northwestern 27, Nebraska 24

Bennett: Northwestern has given Nebraska trouble the past two seasons, but the Wildcats don't seem able to get out of their own way right now. Taylor Martinez sits this one out and the Huskers rely heavily on the run game, overcoming two costly fumbles to win on a late field goal. ... Nebraska 24, Northwestern 21.


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

This week's guest is Andrew Schout from Kansas City, Mo. Andrew, the floor is yours.
I am a Michigan State grad who just happens to be getting married the same day as the biggest football game of the year. As a football fan, I know the frustration/annoyance of missing a game due to a wedding. Now I'm the guy causing those feelings in others. On what's sure to be a big day, for more reasons than just the game, I'd enjoy the chance to be your guest picker! Thanks, Andrew S., Michigan State University, Class of 2005.

Congrats, Andrew! Here's a prediction from us: "Twist and Schout" will play at your wedding. And we might crash the reception.

Here are Andrew's Week 10 picks:

Penn State 34, Illinois 24
Wisconsin 24, Iowa 17
Ohio State 48, Purdue 10
Indiana 41, Minnesota 38
Michigan State 27, Michigan 16
Nebraska 26, Northwestern 20

SEASON RECORDS

Adam Rittenberg: 57-11
Brian Bennett: 57-11
Guest pickers: 52-16
When Northwestern prepared for its game at Wisconsin earlier this month, one play the Wildcats knew to look out for defensively was the Melvin Gordon jet sweep package.

But like other teams before and after, Northwestern found out that knowing that play is coming and stopping it are two very different things.

“Most teams have game-planned for it, and so did we,” Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald said this week. “We went 0-for-2 on it.”

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY SportsArizona State is one of several teams that have been helpless against the Melvin Gordon jet sweep that Wisconsin runs.
Those two misses happened to come on the two biggest plays of Wisconsin’s 35-6 win on Oct. 12. In the first quarter, the Badgers used the sweep as part of a play-action, 63-yard touchdown pass to Jared Abbrederis. Gordon got the handoff in the second quarter and took it 71 yards for the score.

Halloween isn’t until tomorrow, but the Gordon jet sweep series has been terrorizing opponents for about a year now and ranks as arguably the single most devastating play in the Big Ten.

“It’s always fun running that play in a game,” Gordon told ESPN.com. “If teams don’t get the right guys in the right place, you can break it for a long one.”

What we describe as the jet sweep series is really an option play. The Badgers can go at least three different ways with it, and they’re often highly successful.

It all begins with Gordon, the Big Ten’s leading rusher, lining up as a wide receiver. Before the snap, he goes into motion. If the quarterback hands Gordon the ball, he already has a head of steam, and Wisconsin usually places two tight ends on the play side along with the other wide receiver, who becomes a downfield blocker.

“It comes down to you and the safety and the cornerback,” Gordon said. “And 95 percent of the time, the tight end or the receiver is going to get the block. There’s always one guy you’ve got to make guy miss, but as a running back, you’ve got to take pride in making that one guy miss.”

Gordon is one of the best in the Big Ten at doing just that. With his speed, elusiveness and vision, getting him on the edge with a convoy of blockers is a frightening proposition for defenses.

Gordon gained 113 of his 193 rushing yards at Arizona State earlier this season on jet sweep carries, including an 80-yard touchdown run. A week after the package worked for two big scores against Northwestern, it resulted in a 28-yard Gordon run to set up a touchdown at Illinois.

“He gets out on the perimeter right now,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “You have to try to read and get to the perimeter as fast as you can. If you don’t, you’re going to have problems with that play.”

If Gordon were solely running a glorified end-around, then defenses could easily stop it. But Wisconsin also can use Gordon as a decoy and either A) hand it to James White, one of the most accomplished running backs in Big Ten history or B) throw downfield in almost certain single coverage to Abbrederis. On the 63-yard touchdown throw to Abbrederis versus Northwestern, quarterback Joel Stave faked to Gordon and then to White before stepping up in the pocket for the throw. Abbrederis was running free behind the Wildcats’ safety.

“It’s not an option play, but there are three different options off of it, and you’ve got to play each one the same way,” Fitzgerald said. “You have to stay disciplined with your eyes on the back end. On the big play to Jared, we did not get our safety rotation the right way.”

The Badgers began incorporating the jet sweep in the middle of last season as a way to get Gordon -- then the third-string running back behind White and Montee Ball -- involved in the offense. Then they broke it out in a big way against Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game. Gordon opened Wisconsin’s flood of scoring with a 56-yard touchdown off the jet sweep and ended up with 216 yards on only nine carries.

When Gary Andersen took over as head coach following the Rose Bowl, he and new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig knew not to fix what wasn’t broken.

“Andy had that play in his system prior [to Wisconsin], and without question, we looked at the success it had,” Andersen said. “It’s something Melvin is very good at, and we try to use kids’ talents to give them the opportunity to succeed at the highest level.”

Gordon said he expected the package to remain in the playbook for the new coaches, but he’s been surprised at how much they’ve used it this season. Other teams are not surprised to see the formation.

“Since the beginning of year, every time I go out there I hear them yelling ‘25! 25!’” said Gordon, who wears that number. “They’re checking and they’re moving around. I’m hearing them, so obviously they’re preparing for it.”

But as teams keep finding out, preparing for the jet sweep play and stopping it are two very different things.

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