NCF Nation: Kevonte Martin-Manley

Preseason All-Big Ten team

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
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There is no official preseason all-conference team in the Big Ten (or official predicted order of finish, etc.). But we here at ESPN.com have got you covered with our preseason all-league picks on offense, defense and special teams.

And here they are:

Offense

QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State: Braxton Miller's injury opened up this spot on the first team. Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Indiana's Nate Sudfeld were potential choices here too, but Cook's Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl MVP finish earn him the nod.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: Well, sure. He could lead the nation in rushing, unless ...

RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: ... Abdullah, his good friend, beats him to it. In a league blessed with great running backs, these two stand out the most.

WR: Stefon Diggs, Maryland: There is a lot of uncertainty in the Big Ten at receiver heading into 2014. This much is certain: If Diggs can stay healthy, he'll be one of the nation's best.

WR: Shane Wynn, Indiana: Wynn scored more touchdowns than any other Big Ten receiver the past season, and now he steps into a more featured role.

TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan: Funchess might play wide receiver almost exclusively, in which case this should be viewed as a third wide receiver spot on the team. The matchup nightmare looks poised for a big season.

OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa: He might just be the best left tackle in college football in 2014. He's definitely got NFL scouts drooling.

OT: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin: An enormous road grader at right tackle. Trying to shed him and catch Melvin Gordon is just not fair.

OG: Kaleb Johnson, Rutgers: He thought about leaving for the NFL after the past season but instead gave the Scarlet Knights a boost by returning. He has started 37 straight games.

OG: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: He could be the next rising star in Wisconsin's offensive lineman factory.

C: Jack Allen, Michigan State: A second-team All-Big Ten pick the past season, the former high school wrestling champion has no let up in his game.

Defense

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: He’s the returning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year and could become the conference’s defensive player of the year in 2014, unless ...

DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska: ... Gregory edges him out for the honor. The pass-rush specialist outpaced Calhoun in sacks (10.5) the past season, and Bo Pelini said Gregory has “only scratched the surface of what he’s going to be down the line.”

DT: Michael Bennett, Ohio State: He anchors the best defensive line in the conference and was named to the All-Big Ten’s second team last season.

DT: Carl Davis, Iowa: He still thinks Scherff would get the best of him if they squared off, but Athlon thought highly enough of Davis to make him a fourth-team preseason All-American.

LB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Northwestern: The quiet Ariguzo likes to let his play do the talking, and it chatted up a storm this past season -- to the tune of 106 tackles and four interceptions.

LB: Mike Hull, Penn State: He was a coin-flip from transferring to Pittsburgh during the sanctions, but now he’s the leader of this revamped defense.

LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan: Ryan shocked onlookers last season by taking less than seven months to go from ACL surgery to playing in a Big Ten game. Hopes are higher now for the healthy redshirt senior, as he has registered a stop in the backfield in 25 of his past 30 games.

CB: Trae Waynes, Michigan State: He’s taking over at Darqueze Dennard's boundary cornerback position, but he’s up for the challenge. He’s already on the watch lists for the Bednarik and Thorpe awards.

CB: Blake Countess, Michigan: He tied for the Big Ten lead in interceptions (6) the past season -- despite battling lower abdominal pain most of the year.

S: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: The blue-collar DB started 21 straight games and was a Sports Illustrated All-American the past season.

S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: A smart and instinctive player, Campbell has been remarkably consistent for the Wildcats. He’s a three-time all-academic B1G player and has eight career interceptions.

Special teams

K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State: As a freshman in 2013, he made 15 of his 16 field-goal attempts.

P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State: An ESPN.com All-American in 2013, Sadler combines with Geiger to give the Spartans the best 1-2 kicking tandem in the league.

KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska: He led the Big Ten in return yardage the past season (averaging 26.5 yards per kick) and took one 99 yards for a touchdown at Penn State.

PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa: He averaged 15.7 yards per return in 2013 and scored on two punt returns in the same game.

Selections by school:

Michigan State: 7
Iowa: 3
Michigan: 3
Nebraska: 3
Wisconsin: 3
Northwestern: 2
Indiana: 1
Maryland: 1
Ohio State: 1
Penn State: 1
Rutgers: 1
Illinois: 0
Minnesota: 0
Purdue: 0

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- No Big Ten coach takes the temperature of his team in spring practice quite like Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. No Big Ten coach has lived in as many different climates.

The dean of the league's coaches knows the sunniness that surrounds teams after redemptive seasons such as the ones the Hawkeyes had in 2001, 2008 or last fall, when Iowa improved its wins total by four. He also knows the polar vortex that exists, at least outside Iowa's football complex, after poor performances like the ones the team delivered in 2007 and 2012.

Ferentz also understands how quickly the weather changes, like it often does on spring afternoons in the Midwest.

So at a recent team meeting, Ferentz detoured from the typical spring minutia -- replacing seniors, creating depth, finding leaders, building identities -- and addressed a macro item: the preseason polls.

"He said we might be ranked," running back Jordan Canzeri told ESPN.com, "and even if we are, no one is to keep that in their head. There were several teams that were ranked and didn't get to go to a bowl game this past year. You never want to be cocky. Even if the stats show you're good, you still want to prepare as you would with any other team, so you don't get satisfied and complacent."

Iowa likely will be ranked when the preseason polls come out. The Hawkeyes appear in some way-too early versions. They return eight offensive starters, including left tackle Brandon Scherff, a preseason All-America candidate, along with three of four starting defensive linemen from a team that flipped its regular-season record in 2013.

The quarterback uncertainty that hovered over the program last spring, when no signal-caller had taken a snap in a game, is no longer there, as junior Jake Rudock has established himself. An unprecedented stretch of running back maladies has subsided as Iowa returns three veteran options (Mark Weisman, Canzeri and Damon Bullock) and two promising young players (LeShun Daniels Jr. and Barkley Hill). There's more explosiveness at wide receiver, and the defensive line, led by senior tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, looks more like the elite units Iowa produced for most of Ferentz's tenure.

[+] EnlargeCarl Davis
David Purdy/The Des Moines Register via USA TODAY SportsWith Carl Davis and others back, Iowa's defensive line should be the team's strongest unit.
"We are a more experienced unit, probably the most experienced unit on the team," defensive line coach Reese Morgan said.

There are enough internal reasons to indicate Iowa will take another step this season, but the biggest factors in the Hawkeyes favor are external. Their new division, the Big Ten West, lacks a clear-cut favorite or a flawless team. And their schedule is undoubtedly the most favorable in the league.

Not only does Iowa miss Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State from the East Division, but it hosts both Wisconsin and Nebraska. The Hawkeyes' toughest league road game should be a Nov. 8 visit to Minnesota.

"It's a pretty favorable schedule for us," wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley said, "but every week is going to be a challenge. Nothing that happened last year really matters."

Davis looks forward to visiting Big Ten newcomer Maryland, but he had hoped to play more of the league's traditional powers. The only way Iowa sees Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan is in the Big Ten championship game.

"When the Big Ten started, those are the teams that dominated," Davis said. "You want to be able to play those teams and beat those teams. I really look forward to it.

"I definitely feel we're in contention for a Big Ten championship. Every team says it, but we're hungry."

Ferentz has seen Iowa go from good to great in 2002 and again in 2009. He also has seen the program fall short of expectations, as it did in 2006 and 2010.

The first step to building upon success, Ferentz said, is not taking it for granted. Take Iowa's group of linebackers, which loses three multiyear starters from last year's squad: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens.

"If we're waiting for Morris, Kirksey and Hitchens to give us 300 tackles, that ain't gonna happen," Ferentz said. "Two years ago, we had a disappointing season. Last year was a new year and this year was the flip record-wise, but it's a new year again. This team has to form its own identity, and it starts with our experienced players. We're going to need them to play their absolute best, which is what those seniors did last year."

Iowa's linebacker reset has been a top spring storyline. Quinton Alston has stepped into the lead role, earning high marks from teammates and coaches. Travis Perry and Reggie Spearman, who played as a 17-year-old freshman last fall and doesn't turn 18 until August, are likely starters alongside Alston.

The biggest challenge could be replacing Kirksey, a converted safety who brought defensive back speed to outside linebacker.

"Chris had a different skill set than the guys we have out there now," defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. "It's been a long time since we had a guy who could run that fast and still have the power and explosion to play in the box, too, or at least on the tight end. We have three or four guys we're trying to look at with that position."

Other uncertainties include the cornerback spot opposite dynamic sophomore Desmond King, free safety and the second-string offensive line, which coordinator Greg Davis lists as the unit's biggest concern.

Iowa players understand that their margin for error remains slim.

"The determining factor is going to be winning those close games," Martin-Manley said.

Iowa won several such contests in 2009, its last truly special season. The 2014 team also could reach rarefied air, but Hawkeyes won't get caught with their heads in the clouds.

"That's what we do here; we work hard," Davis said. "That's something you get used to the longer you're in this program. The grind becomes normal, and I feel like all our hard work will be able to pay off."

TAMPA, Fla. -- How did Jeremy Hill get so good at closing out wins? Years of practice.

The junior tailback hasn't just been an effective clock-eater at the end of a victory since he arrived at LSU. He's been doing this since his days at Redemptorist High School in Baton Rouge, La.

“It's just something that I took way back in high school. Our coaches just put it in my hands and just told me to go win the football game,” Hill said after putting away Iowa in the Tigers' 21-14 victory in Wednesday's Outback Bowl. “You just have to have that mentality. Great players have that mentality. When everyone's looking for someone to make a play, just being in a tight game the whole time ... I just took it on my shoulders that I needed to make plays to win this football game, and that's exactly what happened.”

If Wednesday's performance -- 28 carries, 216 yards, two touchdowns -- was Hill's last as a college player, he made it one to remember. Hill is among a host of draft-eligible players on the Tigers' roster who could leave for the NFL. LSU coach Les Miles said afterward that “there's a chance” star receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham could declare for the draft, but Hill said while accepting bowl MVP honors that he still must weigh his decision.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Hill
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesLSU's Jeremy Hill earned Outback Bowl MVP honors, rushing for 216 yards and two touchdowns.
Among the factors he said he will consider: the NFL draft advisory board's feedback on where he might be drafted, his family's input and his role within the LSU offense, should he opt to return.

“There's a lot that goes into it. It's a big decision, but like I said, I'm not thinking about it right now,” Hill said. “I'm just enjoying this win, and when we get back to Baton Rouge, we'll figure all that out.”

His role on Wednesday was as a battering ram. By becoming the first LSU back since Alley Broussard in 2004 to crack the 200-yard mark in a game, Hill finished the season with 1,401 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, totals that rank second and fourth, respectively, on LSU's single-season lists.

And it was his tackle-breaking, 37-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, putting LSU ahead 21-7, that all but sealed the victory.

“Given the opportunity to close out a game, he knows what to do,” Miles said. “He made some nice cuts, and you get him that spot, that opportunity to extend the play, he can score. And he did.”

LSU's offensive production mirrored the soggy, dreary weather in Tampa on Wednesday, with first-time starting quarterback Anthony Jennings struggling to generate much in the passing game. But Hill and a dominant defense were the sledgehammers that put away pesky Iowa, particularly on LSU's first and final full possessions.

The Tigers pounded the run early, keeping it on the ground for the first 12 plays before an incomplete pass. Jennings capped the game-opening 77-yard drive, which started with a 42-yard Hill run, with a 2-yard touchdown dive.

Hill capped a 39-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter, capitalizing on a lost fumble by Iowa punt returner Kevonte Martin-Manley, with a 14-yard scoring run that put the Tigers ahead 14-0.

The Hawkeyes rallied to make it 14-7 when Mark Weisman pounded in a 2-yard touchdown after John Lowdermilk returned a Jennings interception to the LSU 1. And they nearly tied it before LSU's Craig Loston intercepted a C.J. Beathard pass at the LSU 8 with 5:04 remaining.

Hill and the Tigers made Iowa pay for its miscue. The Tigers kept it on the ground for all six plays on a touchdown drive that nearly iced the win -- including Hill runs of 28 yards, 20 yards and the scoring run of 37 yards -- with its backfield closer playing the leading role.

“They started adjusting and it just became a chess match,” Hill said. “I think we won when on that last drive we got a checkmate and we made the right calls, made the right checks and we won the game.”

Instant Analysis: LSU 21, Iowa 14

January, 1, 2014
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Chilly, wet conditions bogged down Wednesday's Outback Bowl, but No. 16 LSU used Jeremy Hill's tough running and a stifling defense to outlast Iowa 21-14 and earn its 10th win of the season for a school-record fourth straight season.

Here's how the Tigers earned the win:

It was over when: Jeremy Hill broke three long runs -- including a 37-yard touchdown -- on LSU's final possession, allowing the Tigers to run three minutes off the clock and go up 21-7 with 2:02 to play. Hill finished with 216 yards, becoming the first LSU back since 2004 to crack the 200-yard mark in a game.

Game ball goes to: Jamie Keehn and LSU's punt coverage team. While neither team's offense was able to get it in gear consistently, Keehn's overall consistency kept Iowa deep in its own territory. The Tigers' James Wright recovered Kevonte Martin-Manley's muffed punt at the Iowa 39, setting up a Hill touchdown run that made it 14-0 LSU in the second quarter.

Stat of the game: Three. Iowa's three turnovers -- the fumbled punt, Tre'Davious White's second-quarter interception and Craig Loston's fourth-quarter interception deep in LSU territory -- were the difference in the game. The offenses combined to generate just 535 yards (302 by LSU and 233 by Iowa), so the turnover battle played a major role on Wednesday.

To watch the trophy presentation of the Outback Bowl, click here.
The Big Ten released its all-conference teams as selected by coaches and the media earlier this month. We didn't have a vote for the media teams, and we don't pretend to know as much about football as the league's coaches.

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

Offense

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

Defense

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

Specialists

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

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

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 4

September, 23, 2013
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The constant talk about the Big Ten's national perception and performance against other conferences can get a bit tiresome.

But there's also no denying that the league has an image problem that stems from a lack of noteworthy wins. And with nonconference play all but wrapped up (three nonleague games remain -- Illinois versus Miami (Ohio) and Purdue versus Northern Illinois this week, and BYU at Wisconsin in November), we can make a few judgments.

[+] EnlargeKevonte Martin-Manley
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley returned two punts for touchdowns in the Hawkeyes' rout of Western Michigan.
The good news is that there weren't many total embarrassments, though Michigan certainly flirted with a couple the past two weeks. The not-so-good news: The Big Ten finished an underwhelming 9-8 against BCS AQ teams. That record is even less impressive when you consider the caliber of the competition.

The best win remains Michigan's Week 2 triumph over Notre Dame, which is the conference's only victory over a ranked opponent for now. Other BCS AQ scalps include California (twice), Cincinnati, Connecticut, Iowa State, South Florida and Syracuse (twice). The losses were to Arizona State (allegedly), Cincinnati, Notre Dame (twice), Missouri, UCF, UCLA and Washington.

The Big Ten went 3-2 against the AAC, 2-0 against the ACC (Syracuse), 1-0 against the Big 12 (Iowa State), 2-3 against the Pac-12, 0-1 against the SEC (Missouri) and 1-2 against Notre Dame. As you can tell, the league didn't exactly play the cream of the crop in the ACC, Big 12 or SEC. The Big Ten's slate was low on marquee games, and the conference didn't win any of the ones that were there, save for going 1-for-3 against what looks like a decent but not great Notre Dame team.

Luckily, conference play is almost here, and that will consume us for the next couple of months. But if the Big Ten wants to earn more respect nationally, it will have to wait until bowl season for another shot.

Take that and rewind it back ...

Team(s) of the week: It's a tie between Iowa and Minnesota. The Hawkeyes beat Western Michigan 59-3 in their most complete performance in ages, while the Gophers dismantled San Jose State and its NFL-caliber quarterback 43-24. Bring on Floyd of Rosedale!

Worst hangover: Michigan State hoped that maybe, just maybe, it had found a solution to its passing game woes when Connor Cook and the offense rolled against Youngstown State two weeks ago. Instead, the Spartans' passing game looked just as bad as last year in a 17-13 loss at Notre Dame. And the quarterback controversy is not even over, as coach Mark Dantonio strangely went with Andrew Maxwell on Michigan State's final possession -- which unfolded just as you would have expected, with three incomplete passes, two penalties and a Maxwell scramble that came up far short of the first-down marker on fourth-and-long.

The Spartans also killed the small momentum they had going in the second half by calling for a halfback pass from R.J. Shelton, who threw an interception into tight coverage. Apparently, Michigan State failed to learn from its rival last year, but how about everyone in the Big Ten agree not to call halfback passes in South Bend for a while? Dantonio said he made the Shelton pass call, and he likes to name his trick plays after kids' movies. Call that one "The NeverEnding Story," because that's what MSU's offensive disaster has become.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner made his first career start in place of the injured Philip Nelson, and he didn't disappoint. Leidner ran for 151 yards and four touchdowns against San Jose State. The 6-foot-4, 233-pounder showed off some speed when going around the edge and lots of toughness as he continually pushed forward for more yards after first contact.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Iowa cornerback B.J. Lowery had a pair of pick-sixes against Western Michigan.

Big Man on Campus (Special Teams): This one's an easy call: Iowa's Kevonte Martin-Manley returned a pair of punts for touchdowns in the second quarter, piling up 184 total punt return yards. He became the third Big Ten player to have two punt return touchdowns in the same game and the first since 1983 (Ohio State’s Garcia Lane).

Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Information): Your new Big Ten leader in Total QBR: Ohio State's Kenny Guiton, who's No. 10 nationally with an 86.7 rating (based on a 100-point scale). A fan asked on Twitter on Saturday night whether the Buckeyes' Guiton and Braxton Miller might be the best two quarterbacks in the league. A strong case could be made for that. ... Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon leads the nation in rushing with 624 yards. What's crazy is that the No. 2 rusher, Rutgers' Paul James, trails Gordon by 51 yards and has 25 more carries on the season. Gordon is still averaging just over 13 rushes per game. ... Michigan State in a nutshell: The Spartans rank third nationally in total expected points added by the defense at 74.32; the offense, meanwhile, has contributed negative-six expected points added. ... Four Big Ten teams (Wisconsin, Ohio State, Minnesota and Nebraska) rank among the top five in the FBS in rushing yards. Five league teams (Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Northwestern and Ohio State) rank in the top 10 in number of total rush attempts, with the Hawkeyes leading the way at 218 (third nationally). ... Problem not solved: Nebraska has fumbled eight times this year, more than every team except Idaho. The only good news is that the Huskers have lost only four of them. ... Penn State's defense has allowed only 12.8 first downs per game, ranking fourth in the FBS, just behind Michigan State. ... An overlooked part of Minnesota's early success: Gophers opponents have started their possessions inside their own 25-yard line after a kickoff 17 times this season, the most in the nation. Thank kicker Chris Hawthorne and the coverage unit for that. By comparison, Michigan's opponents have started a drive after a kickoff inside their 25-yard line just five times this season.

Stern discipline: Five days after the Pac-12 reprimanded the officials who botched the ending of the Wisconsin-Arizona State game and promised "additional sanctions" for that crew, the same group worked the Utah-BYU game on Saturday night. Yep, that's some punishment, having those officials call an intense in-state rivalry featuring a Pac-12 team on the road. BYU fans didn't like the calls that went against their team in the 20-13 Utes win and pelted the officials with trash after they left the field. That was deplorable by those fans, but as far as we can tell, it was the only real punishment those refs received. The Pac-12 refs aren't the only ones who mess up, though. That was a Big Ten unit hosing Michigan State on those pass interference calls at Notre Dame.

Strangest moment(s): San Jose State's Harrison Waid tried to get revenge for battered punters everywhere after he got pancaked on a block by Minnesota's Derrick Wells. Waid hopped up and tried to go after Wells. Alas, that's a battle a punter will never win, and he got ejected from the game. Yes, a punter was kicked out for fighting.

Meanwhile in Columbus ... as if Ohio State needed any extra help against Florida A&M, running back Jordan Hall used umpire Jim Krogstad as a blocker and then a bowling pin on his way to a touchdown. Maybe FAMU could let Krogstad wet his beak on some of the $900,000 Ohio State paid the school for that 76-0 steamrolling.

Say what?: Remember when Penn State coach Bill O'Brien called his team a bunch of "fighters" on national TV at the end of last year's Wisconsin finale, but several people thought he said a different "F" word? Well, O'Brien appeared to almost use another "F" word during his postgame news conference Saturday before catching himself. O'Brien was then asked if he was going to say "fighters" again. "We do have a bunch of fighters," he said. "I don't know anyone who debates me on that. It's like my mom -- she still doesn't believe I said 'fighters.' Do I look like the type of guy who swears?"

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 4

September, 23, 2013
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Remember two weeks ago when we were debating Ohio State versus Michigan as the Big Ten's top team? Well, the Buckeyes have created some separation from Michigan and the rest of the league with two dominant offensive performances. Michigan, meanwhile, either has a massive hangover from beating Notre Dame or a lot of issues to sort out.

We gave the Wolverines the benefit of the doubt after the Akron game and kept them at No. 2. After Saturday night's slopfest at Connecticut, we can no longer keep Michigan in the second slot. Northwestern looked lackluster for the second straight week but avoided the major scare Michigan has endured. Wisconsin, meanwhile, might be the league's second-best squad. We'll find out a lot about the Badgers this week in Columbus.

Minnesota and Iowa make nice moves this week, while Indiana takes a tumble.

As a reminder, we keep these rankings consistent with how we vote in the ESPN.com Top 25. Here's one final look at last week's power poll.

Let's get to the rundown ...

1. Ohio State (4-0, last week: 1): We'll finally get a gauge on these Buckeyes as they open Big Ten play Saturday night against Wisconsin, but the recent results have been encouraging. Braxton Miller's absence once again didn't faze Ohio State, which scored 34 points in the first quarter and received a nice boost from running back Carlos Hyde in his season debut. Backup signal-caller Kenny Guiton continued his surge with a school-record six touchdown passes. Miller likely returns this week, but the Buckeyes' offense clearly is more than just one man this season.

2. Northwestern (4-0, last week: 3): For whatever reason, Northwestern looks worse against weaker nonleague foes than seemingly stronger ones. The Wildcats had more positives against Cal and Syracuse than Western Michigan and Maine, although they were never in serious danger of losing in the past two weeks. Linebacker Damien Proby sparked a takeaway-driven defense Saturday. Quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian struggled but have two weeks to prepare for Ohio State, when running back Venric Mark is expected back.

3. Wisconsin (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten; last week: 4): Credit Gary Andersen's players for not letting last week's unfortunate ending linger as they opened Big Ten play against Purdue. Wisconsin went back to what it does best, overpowering opponents with the run game, as Melvin Gordon and James White combined for 292 rush yards and four touchdowns. The Badgers' defense bottled up Purdue, surrendering only 12 first downs, 45 rush yards and 180 total yards. You have to like how Wisconsin is performing before this week's showdown in Columbus.

4. Michigan (4-0, last week: 2): The Akron game could be forgivingly dismissed as a letdown. But when many of the same issues surface for the second straight week against a poor opponent, it's reason to be concerned. Michigan won't stay perfect much longer if quarterback Devin Gardner keeps turning over the ball (he leads the nation with 10 turnovers) and the offensive line endures periods of inconsistent play. Coach Brady Hoke and his staff have plenty of items to address this week before the Jug game against potentially undefeated Minnesota.

5. Nebraska (3-1, last week: 6): After a turbulent eight days, Bo Pelini wanted his players to have some fun in their final nonleague tuneup. The offense had plenty despite playing without top quarterback Taylor Martinez, eclipsing 300 pass yards and 300 rush yards. Reserve quarterbacks Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg III both performed well. The defense had a lot less fun, however, surrendering 465 yards in a performance that Pelini labeled its worst of the season. Nebraska has to get a handle on its defense this week before opening Big Ten play against Illinois.

6. Minnesota (4-0, last week: 7): Knock San Jose State if you must, but the Spartans provided the biggest test for Minnesota to date, and the Gophers passed it with flying colors. Minnesota showed the physical dominance coach Jerry Kill has been waiting for, piling up 353 rush yards and six touchdowns behind quarterback Mitch Leidner and running back David Cobb. Although San Jose State's David Fales showed why he's an NFL prospect, the Gophers continued to force turnovers. Minnesota hosts Iowa this week in a game that has more than bacon on the line.

7. Michigan State (3-1, last week: 5): The Spartans looked like the better team for much of Saturday's game at Notre Dame. But many of the same issues that surfaced in close losses last season -- stalled drives, dropped passes, not enough takeaways and missed field goals -- surfaced in a 17-13 setback. Coach Mark Dantonio and his players say this feels different, and that they can overcome their errors to make some noise in a wide-open Legends Division. The defense remains championship-level, but there are other issues to sort out, namely quarterback.

8. Penn State (3-1, last week: 8): Kent State's woeful offense turned out to be the perfect cure for a Nittany Lions defense that struggled mightily in a Week 3 loss to Central Florida. Safety Ryan Keiser and cornerback Jordan Lucas helped trigger Penn State's first shutout since 2010, as the Lions allowed only nine first downs and 190 total yards. The run game once again surged behind Akeel Lynch (123 rush yards) and others. Penn State's defense will face much greater tests when Big Ten play begins in two weeks.

9. Iowa (3-1, last week: 11): Kirk Ferentz's crew is clearly on the rise after its most complete performance in recent memory. Iowa received numerous contributions on offense, two punt return touchdowns from Kevonte Martin-Manley and a pick-six from B.J. Lowery -- all during a 38-point first half against Western Michigan. Lowery added another pick-six in the second half and stomped the Broncos. After a rough start to the season, Iowa has the momentum it needs heading into a pivotal Big Ten opener against Minnesota.

10. Illinois (2-1, last week: 10): The Illini sat back and watched the rest of the Big Ten in Week 4, enjoying the first of two open weeks. They'll have an excellent chance to improve to 3-1 this week against an 0-3 Miami (Ohio) squad that was shut out Saturday against Cincinnati and has scored just 21 points in its first three games. This is the perfect opportunity for Illinois' defense to rebound after getting gashed by Washington in Week 3. Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase tries to bounce back after completing just 9 of 25 pass attempts.

11. Indiana (2-2, last week: 9): Just when Indiana appears ready to turn a corner, it becomes Indiana again. For the second time in three games, Indiana limped out of the gate and fell behind, never finding a good offensive rhythm and struggling to stop Missouri's balanced attack. Missouri piled up 623 yards, a Memorial Stadium record for an Indiana opponent. The Hoosiers' defense remains far too vulnerable, and quarterback Nate Sudfeld struggled, throwing three interceptions. There's a lot to fix in the open week before Penn State comes to town.

12. Purdue (1-3, 0-1 Big Ten; last week: 12): Trips to Madison haven't been kind to the Boilers, and Saturday's proved to be no exception as Darrell Hazell's team took a step back after an encouraging performance against Notre Dame. When you can't run the ball or stop the run, you have no chance, and Purdue struggled mightily in both areas. Hazell admits Purdue must do some "soul searching" following a rough start, and things don't get any easier this week against Jordan Lynch and Northern Illinois.
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football:

1. Wisconsin-Ohio State could be the Big Ten's game of the year: In recent years, the Badgers-Buckeyes matchups have been more significant than Ohio State-Michigan or any other conference pairing. This week's showdown at Ohio Stadium could be just as significant. Ohio State is the Big Ten's best team, and Wisconsin might be No. 2 after another dominant rushing performance against Purdue. Both teams ascribe to the power run game but do it in vastly different yet equally entertaining ways. Although the Kenny G show has been terrific for the Buckeyes, top quarterback Braxton Miller should be back for the Big Ten opener. Miller might not be the biggest offensive star on the field, as Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon has performed as advertised, racking up 624 rush yards and seven touchdowns in the first four games. The game features first-year Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen going up against his former boss, Urban Meyer. One of these teams has held at least a share of the past eight Big Ten titles. The winner takes control of the Leaders Division. Should be a great one.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner, Jefferson Ashiru
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesMichigan quarterback Devin Gardner had another three turnovers in the Wolverines' close win over UConn.
2. Michigan has real problems: It was tempting to write off Michigan's struggle to beat Akron last week as a hangover from the high-stakes Notre Dame game. But no hangovers the past two weeks. The Wolverines found themselves down two touchdowns in the second half Saturday night at UConn, the same Huskies team that lost at home by 15 to Towson in the opener. Michigan rallied for the 24-21 win, and at least Brady Hoke's team has shown grit at the end of games the past three weeks. But quarterback Devin Gardner committed three more turnovers (two interceptions, one fumble), and he has devolved from potential Heisman candidate to a potential problem spot in just a fortnight. An even thornier issue is the continued inability of the Michigan offensive line to open consistent holes for the running game. If the Wolverines are having trouble running the ball against Akron and UConn, what's going to happen in Big Ten play? There's plenty of time for Hoke & Co. to right the ship, and the upcoming bye week is a welcome sight. But right now, Michigan does not look like the top-15 team we thought it was two weeks ago.

3. The Iowa-Minnesota game has added meaning: We love the pig, but there's a lot more than the Floyd of Rosedale at stake (steak?) this week as Iowa and Minnesota open Big Ten play in Minneapolis. Both teams have shown improvement, especially with their power running games, and enter the matchup with momentum. Iowa exploded for 38 first-half points Saturday against Western Michigan and finished with 59, its highest total since 2002. The Hawkeyes received contributions in all three phases, including two punt return touchdowns from receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley and two pick-sixes from cornerback B.J. Lowery. Iowa's defense has yet to allow a rushing touchdown. After a miserable offensive performance in 2012, Iowa is starting to establish an identity behind its line and a stable of running backs. Minnesota is doing the same, finally showing it can control the line of scrimmage and dominate on the ground. Despite not having its starting quarterback (Philip Nelson) or starting running back (Donnell Kirkwood), Minnesota racked up 353 yards and six rushing touchdowns, including four by backup signal-caller Mitch Leidner, in an impressive win against San Jose State. The Gophers are 4-0 for the second straight season. Both teams have very challenging league schedules, so getting off to a 1-0 start is huge. Big one at TCF Bank Stadium this week.

4. Bo Pelini is still standing, but needs time to regroup: The open week couldn't come at a better time for Nebraska's coach and his team, which ended an emotional week with a 59-20 thumping of FCS South Dakota State. The firestorm from audio-gate should die down, at least a little, as Pelini got through Saturday's game without any further controversy, and received mostly support from Huskers fans. Pelini is hardly out of the woods, though, and must turn his attention to a defense that needs a ton of work before Big Ten play begins Oct. 5 against Illinois. The Huskers surrendered 465 yards to the Jackrabbits, who had a balanced attack (238 yards passing, 227 yards rushing). Pelini called it the defense's worst performance in a season filling up with them. Whether it's youth, talent, scheme or attention to detail, Nebraska's defense must get back on track soon. Although the schedule remains favorable the next month or so, it's hard to see the Huskers repeating as Legends Division champs without some significant upgrades on D.

5. Indiana still hasn't arrived: Indiana entered the year with high hopes for a bowl game this year, and with a warp-speed offense averaging 50 points a game through three weeks, the Hoosiers didn't appear to be deluding themselves. But after an impressive showing last week against Bowling Green, Kevin Wilson's team found itself right back in a familiar spot: unable to defend a good team. Missouri racked up 623 yards -- the most in Memorial Stadium history -- in a 45-28 win in Bloomington on Saturday. The game wasn't even as close as the final score, as Indiana tacked on a touchdown and two-point conversion with 10 seconds to go, and Missouri had three turnovers in the first half to kill promising drives. The Hoosiers' vaunted offense failed to score from the 6:31 mark of the second quarter until there was 11:24 left in the game, and IU punted nine times after punting only five times in the first three games combined. The loss to Navy now hurts even more, as Wilson's team would have to go 4-4 in Big Ten play to become bowl eligible. That seems like an awfully tall order. Penn State comes in next after a bye for both teams, and the Nittany Lions just righted their defense in a 34-0 shutout of Kent State. Penn State has never lost to Indiana and will be favored soundly again on Oct. 5. It might be wait for next year time again in Hoosierland.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 4

September, 22, 2013
9/22/13
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Recognizing the best and the brightest from Week 4 in the Big Ten:

Iowa PR/WR Kevonte Martin-Manley and CB B.J. Lowery: Here's one way to ring up a bunch of points: Get four combined special teams and defensive scores. Martin-Manley scored on back-to-back punt returns in the second quarter, from 83 yards and 63 yards out, and Lowery brought a pair of interceptions to the house, from 35 and 13 yards away, in the Hawkeyes' 59-3 blasting of Western Michigan.

Ohio State QB Kenny Guiton: OK, it was only Florida A&M, which was wildly overmatched in the Horseshoe. Still, we have to acknowledge Guiton's unbelievable run as Braxton Miller's replacement. He set a Buckeyes' record with six touchdown passes while completing 24-of-34 passes for 215 yards in the 76-0 whitewashing. And now it's probably back to being the backup when Miller returns.

Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner: Subbing for the injured Philip Nelson (hamstring), Leidner set a Gophers quarterback record with four touchdown runs in a 43-24 win over San Jose State. He piled up 151 yards on 24 rushing attempts and was virtually impossible to bring down on first contact. Leidner only completed five passes for 71 yards, but Minnesota hardly needed to throw, as its ground game dominated.

Wisconsin RBs Melvin Gordon and James White: The Badgers' dynamic backfield duo was at it again versus Purdue. Gordon ran 16 times for 147 yards and three touchdowns, while White added 145 yards on 16 carries, as both averaged better than nine yards per attempt. White also had three catches for 49 yards in the 41-10 conference victory.

Michigan LB Desmond Morgan: He gets a sticker for just one play, but it was a big one. Morgan picked off UConn's Chandler Whitmer early in the fourth quarter and returned it 29 yards to set up the tying touchdown in Michigan's 24-21 escape in East Hartford. That might go down as a season-saving play for the Wolverines.

Legends Division race looks wide open

September, 22, 2013
9/22/13
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The Big Ten Leaders Division race could very well be decided next week when Wisconsin goes to Ohio State. With Penn State ineligible for the conference championship game and Illinois, Indiana and Purdue all looking at least a step behind, the winner of that Saturday showdown in Columbus will occupy the inside lane on the road to Indianapolis.

As for the Legends race? Well, it might take all season to sort out that scrum.

A little more than a week ago, Michigan looked like the division favorite. That was before the Wolverines barely got by Akron at home, and then -- as if to prove that wasn't merely a post-Notre Dame letdown -- they struggled mightily in a come-from-behind, 24-21 squeaker at winless UConn in Week 4. Brady Hoke's team has some serious issues, including an unreliable running game and Devin Gardner's sudden inability to keep the ball from going to the other team.

[+] EnlargeB.J. Lowery
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallB.J. Lowery had a pair of pick-sixes in Iowa's win and the improved Hawkeyes are showing signs of life in the conference race.
Northwestern remains a major threat, but the Wildcats' tendency to play down to their competition surfaced again in an unimpressive 35-21 win over Maine. It sure seemed as though Pat Fitzgerald's team was playing with one eye on the calendar, which presents a bye week in Week 5 followed by possibly the biggest regular-season game in school history: Ohio State's visit to Evanston on Oct. 5.

In South Bend, Michigan State showed it is exactly what we thought -- a great defense saddled by continual ineptitude on offense. The Spartans will be in every game because of that defense; how many they can actually pull out is a big question mark. Nebraska weathered the storm of the Bo Pelini controversy but still hasn't ironed out its problems on defense, which is priority No. 1 for Pelini for the upcoming bye week.

But the real reason the Legends has become so unpredictable is because the bottom has risen up.

Two of the most eye-opening performances of Week 4 in the Big Ten belonged to Iowa and Minnesota. The Hawkeyes smothered Western Michigan 59-3, getting four non-offensive scores on a pair of punt return touchdowns by Kevonte Martin-Manley and two pick-sixes by cornerback B.J. Lowery. Head coach Kirk Ferentz called it a "doubledouble victory" because for once the Hawkeyes got to empty their bench and didn't have to lean too hard on workhorse back Mark Weisman. Iowa is now 3-1 and starting to develop toughness in the trenches, the leading trait of all Ferentz's teams.

"We're pleased with the win, don't get me wrong, but I think everybody realizes we're still very much a work in progress," Ferentz said after the game. "But I think we improved today. There's no question I felt better today than I did two weeks ago sitting here. We're on the right track, but it's daytoday, weektoweek, and I know our older guys understand that."

The Hawkeyes are by no means a juggernaut, but they're turning into the type of team no one will want to play. The same goes for Minnesota, which pounded San Jose State 43-24 behind 353 rushing yards and only 12 passing attempts. The Gophers improved to 4-0 against an admittedly weak schedule, but they have a definite identity.

"They are Midwest, Big Ten football," San Jose State head coach Ron Caragher said in what must have been music to Jerry Kill's ears. "It is about the power run game for four yards and eat up the clock."

Iowa and Minnesota will knock heads for the Floyd of Rosedale next week in what should be one of the most evenly-matched editions of the pig game in several years. While it's unlikely that either will win the Legends, both teams appear much better equipped to compete physically with their division opponents than they did a year ago.

That's why the Legends race should be fun to follow, long after the Leaders' frontrunner is determined next week.



Diagnosing the Big Ten

September, 18, 2013
9/18/13
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The doctor is in. Three weeks into the 2013 season, it's my job to diagnose any ailments in the Big Ten. After last Saturday's results, it's not hard to find some.

Let's begin ...

What's ailing the Big Ten?

[+] EnlargeDeion Barnes
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsBig Ten defenses would get better with pass-rushers like Penn State's Deion Barnes getting more heat on opposing QBs.
Leaky defenses: Defense hasn't been the Big Ten's biggest problem in recent years, but there are some troubling signs this fall. Four teams are allowing more than 400 yards a game against mostly weak competition. Half of the league's teams are surrendering more than 250 passing yards a game. Only one Big Ten team (Michigan State) ranks in the top 40 nationally in sacks, and only one squad (Minnesota) ranks in the top 40 in tackles for loss. Minnesota end Theiren Cockran is the only Big Ten player with at least three sacks.

What's the cure?

Develop the pass rush: Certain position groups have gone downhill in the Big Ten in recent years, but the league has had no problems producing elite defensive linemen. More players need to emerge in the coming weeks to put some heat on opposing quarterbacks and help out some young defensive backs. I'm looking at you, Deion Barnes, Tyler Scott, Frank Clark and all of Wisconsin's down linemen (the team has only one sack, from linebacker Chris Borland).

And, now, for Part II ...

What's ailing the Big Ten?

Limited pass games: This is hardly a new problem for the Big Ten, which had only one team (Indiana) finish among the top 30 in pass offense last season. There has been a dearth of elite wide receivers throughout the Big Ten, which has been reflected in recent NFL drafts. While certain pass offenses have improved this fall -- Northwestern, Illinois, Michigan -- the league still has four teams averaging fewer than 200 pass yards per game. Minnesota has only 28 completions in three games.

What's the cure?

Develop No. 2 options at receiver: The No. 1 receivers around the Big Ten are pretty strong, from Penn State's Allen Robinson to Michigan's Jeremy Gallon, Nebraska's Kenny Bell to Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis and Iowa's Kevonte Martin-Manley. But not enough teams have found second and third options early this season. The ones who have -- Indiana, Northwestern, Illinois -- are seeing good results through the air. It's important for teams like Iowa, Penn State and Wisconsin to find complementary pieces for the pass game.

Big Ten predictions: Week 2

September, 5, 2013
9/05/13
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We went a combined 23-1 in our first week of predictions, so let's see if we can keep that robust pace going. And how will our Week 2 guest picker fare?

Let's get to it:

Eastern Michigan at Penn State

Brian Bennett: Not much to see here, as Eastern Michigan has long been a Big Ten sacrificial lamb. This is a good opportunity for Christian Hackenberg to work out some kinks, and the kid throws three TD passes. ... Penn State 35, Eastern Michigan 9.

Adam Rittenberg: The Hackenberg-Allen Robinson connection will link up for two touchdowns, and Penn State coach Bill O'Brien will keep to his word and call better plays, sparking the run game to 175 yards and two scores. Lions roll. ... Penn State 31, Eastern Michigan 10

Indiana State at Purdue

Adam Rittenberg: Rob Henry gets the confidence boost he needs and Purdue fixes its communication issues on offense as running back Akeem Hunt goes for 135 yards and two touchdowns. The Boilers come out fast and get a first-quarter forced fumble from big Bruce Gaston. ... Purdue 38, Indiana State 14

Brian Bennett: The FCS just had a great weekend, so maybe we should take the three Big Ten games against FCS opponents seriously on Saturday. Nah. A team that just got done giving up 73 points to Indiana is just what the sputtering Purdue offense needs. ... Purdue 45, Indiana State 17.

Missouri State at Iowa

Brian Bennett: Iowa finally snaps its seven-game losing streak, using its superior beef to run for 200 yards, and getting a special-teams score. ... Iowa 31, Missouri State 13.

Adam Rittenberg: Yeah, this game has Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock written all over it. The tandem combines for three rushing touchdowns and Jake Rudock adds two more through the air to C.J. Fiedorowicz and Kevonte Martin-Manley. ... Iowa 38, Missouri State 10

Tennessee Tech at Wisconsin

Adam Rittenberg: James White rushing touchdown, Melvin Gordon rushing touchdown, Corey Clement rushing touchdown. Rinse and repeat. ... Wisconsin 63, Tennessee Tech 3

Brian Bennett: Yawn. Are we done with the FCS games yet? ... Wisconsin 56, Tennessee Tech 7.

South Florida at Michigan State

Brian Bennett: If the Spartans can't move the ball against a Bulls team that gave up 53 points to McNeese State last week, they've got even bigger problems than we realized. Three different QBs play for MSU, and two of them throw for TDs. ... Michigan State 30, South Florida 10.

Adam Rittenberg: I agree that Michigan State can't be much worse on offense than it was in the opener and will move the ball better, especially on the ground. Jeremy Langford and Riley Bullough both reach the end zone, and Tyler O'Connor makes the quarterback race a little more interesting. ... Michigan State 34, South Florida 3

Cincinnati at Illinois

Adam Rittenberg: The Illini start quickly and jump ahead on a Nathan Scheelhaase touchdown pass to Josh Ferguson. But reality begins to set in as a superior Cincinnati team takes charge behind its athletic defense. ... Cincinnati 28, Illinois 17

Brian Bennett: Illinois will put up a more respectable showing against the Bearcats than Purdue did. Scheelhaase throws for 300 yards and the game is close until midway through the third quarter. But there's just too much Munchie Legaux (I can't help myself). ... Cincinnati 42, Illinois 27.

San Diego State at Ohio State

Brian Bennett: I was interested in this game until San Diego State gagged against Eastern Illinois. The Buckeyes turn in a better overall effort than in Week 1, and Bradley Roby has a pick in his first game back. ... Ohio State 45, San Diego State 20.

Adam Rittenberg: My concern is Ohio State might be less interested than you are, BB. The Buckeyes overcome a sluggish start as Braxton Miller fires two second-quarter touchdown passes. Freshman Dontre Wilson scores his first touchdown for the Scarlet and Gray. ... Ohio State 41, San Diego State 13

Southern Miss at Nebraska

Adam Rittenberg: After a passionate postgame speech last week, emerging leader Ameer Abdullah takes matters into his own hands. The Huskers running back piles up 200 yards and three touchdowns. The defense has its typical hiccups early before settling down. ... Nebraska 42, Southern Miss 17

Brian Bennett: I expect -- and would hope -- that the Nebraska offense comes out mad after not finishing key drives last week. The Huskers go for the jugular this week behind Taylor Martinez's five total TDs, and the defense makes slight improvements. ... Nebraska 49, Southern Miss 24.

Navy at Indiana

Brian Bennett: It's never easy or fun to play Navy, but the Hoosiers got some experience against the option last year. The Midshipmen will shorten the game and frustrate the IU offense some, but Nate Sudfeld throws a fourth-quarter TD pass to Kofi Hughes to seal it. ... Indiana 28, Navy 20.


Adam Rittenberg: Sudfeld and the Hoosiers will finish drives better than they did last year against Navy, as Tevin Coleman twice reaches the end zone. IU forces a key third-quarter fumble and pulls away midway through the fourth quarter. Tre Roberson sees more field time in this one. ... Indiana 34, Navy 23

Syracuse at Northwestern

Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern's injury issues are worth monitoring, but the Wildcats have enough weapons on offense to outscore a Syracuse team that didn't impress me much last week against Penn State. Trevor Siemian connects with Dan Vitale on two touchdowns, and the defense comes up big again with a fourth-quarter takeaway. ... Northwestern 28, Syracuse 20

Brian Bennett: Hard to know what to expect from Northwestern because of the iffy status of both Venric Mark and Kain Colter. But Syracuse looked limited offensively last week, and I think Siemian rescues the 'Cats once again. ... Northwestern 31, Syracuse 24.

Minnesota at New Mexico State

Brian Bennett: It was a tough call between Ann Arbor and Las Cruces for the "GameDay" crew this week -- seriously, what is Minnesota doing here? Are the Gophers just big "Breaking Bad" fans who are planning a side trip to Albuquerque? Anyway, it's close for a half but the defense comes up with another score to send the Aggies to Belize. ... Minnesota 37, New Mexico State 20.

Adam Rittenberg: Maybe the Gophers can take a side trip to Roswell and check out the UFOs. Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson will provide a few identified flying objects in this one, firing two touchdown passes in the second half. It's not a pretty game, but it's a win as Minnesota improves to 2-0. ... Minnesota 34, New Mexico State 21

Notre Dame at Michigan

Adam Rittenberg: Can't wait to witness this one under the lights at the Grande Casa. Although Michigan struggles early with Notre Dame's fearsome defensive front, the offense settles down late as Devin Gardner and Jeremy Gallon connect for two second-half touchdowns, including the game-winner in the final minutes. Tommy Rees' mastery of Michigan ends with two second-half interceptions. ... Michigan 24, Notre Dame 21

Brian Bennett: I just keep remembering how Michigan mostly outplayed Notre Dame last year except for all those picks, and I don't think Gardner will make the same mistakes. Gardner finds Gallon for a pair of scores, and Blake Countess intercepts Tommy Rees on Notre Dame's final series to turn the lights out on the Irish. ...Michigan 27, Notre Dame 24.

Now it's time to hear from our guest picker. As we announced last week, we'll be choosing 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) and hometown and a brief description 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 them easily.

The response so far has been overwhelming. This week's guest picker is Nick Schmit from West Des Moines, Iowa. The floor is yours, Nick:
"As a graduate of the University of Iowa, I have been following the conference and teams for as long as I can remember. I have plenty of insight and knowledge to offer. Besides, my wife is due with our first daughter on 10/19 (Iowa vs. OSU). Other than her birth, I need something to be excited about in what looks to be another long, depressing, mediocre (or worse) season for the Hawks."

Nick's picks:


Penn State 28, Eastern Michigan 13
Purdue 28, Indiana State 21
Iowa 34, Missouri State 10
Wisconsin 70, Tennessee Tech 3
Michigan State 35, South Florida 10
Cincinnati 31, Illinois 21
Ohio State 42, San Diego State 6
Nebraska 51, Southern Miss 17
Indiana 41, Navy 31
Northwestern 42, Syracuse 20
Minnesota 33, New Mexico State 21
Notre Dame 27, Michigan 24


SEASON RECORDS

Brian Bennett: 12-0
Adam Rittenberg: 11-1
Guest picker: 9-3
Iowa fans, know this: Greg Davis felt your pain about last year's offense.

"It obviously wasn't the season we wanted, and it was frustrating for all of us," the second-year Hawkeyes offensive coordinator told ESPN.com. "It was frustrating for me."

Iowa finished 11th in the Big Ten in scoring in 2012 and averaged just 16.7 points in the final six games of a dismal 4-8 season. So Davis, along with head coach Kirk Ferentz and the rest of the offensive staff, set about trying to fix things this offseason. The problems weren't hard to pinpoint when they gathered together to go over what went wrong.

"Everybody came in with a list of things that was pretty similar," Davis said. "There were a lot of things that were on everybody's sheet."

[+] EnlargeMark Weisman
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallMark Weisman led the Hawkeyes in rushing last season with 815 yards.
The lack of a downfield passing game checked in very high on that list. One of the indelible images of the Hawkeyes' season was watching quarterback James Vandenberg throw horizontal passes to receivers well short of the first-down marker.

Davis wants to use the vertical passing game a lot more this year, but that is easier said than accomplished.

"We had to look at, how do we get the ball deep?" he said. "We're not all of a sudden going to have Jerry Rice and John Taylor on the outside."

The Hawkeyes' lack of playmakers at receiver became painfully obvious last season. Though Davis likes the progress of slot receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley and the speed of Jordan Cotton and Don Shumpert, Iowa still looks a little athletically challenged on the perimeter.

So Davis' plan is to use one of the team's main strengths -- its running game -- to shore up a weakness.

"Because of our ability to run the ball, we've really worked hard on play-action shots," he said. "Hopefully, many of our big plays will come off play-action."

With the healthy return of Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal, Davis thinks the offensive line will perform like a typical group of Iowa mashers up front. The Hawkeyes -- dare we tempt fate by saying it -- are now flush with running backs, led by bulldozer Mark Weisman and the speedier Damon Bullock. Building pass plays out of run looks should both improve the protection for the quarterback and give receivers more time to get 15 yards or so downfield and read the defense.

"There's more of a threat all around," running back Jordan Canzeri said. "We have some new plays where we're taking more shots downfield, different routes."

Davis also wants the offense to simply have more opportunities, period. Iowa averaged only 66 offensive snaps per game last year, running the fewest plays in the Big Ten. Part of that, of course, is converting third downs and staying on the field. But Davis also hopes to incorporate more no-huddle, which the Hawkeyes used in stretches last year.

"We want to play faster, we want to get more snaps and we want to stress the defense more," Davis said. "We do so much at the line of scrimmage anyway, so why huddle?"

That doesn't mean that Iowa is about to become a spread team by any means. But having both Bullock and Weisman, who were almost never healthy at the same time last year, adds more options. Weisman can line up as the fullback in the I-formation, or the Hawkeyes can use him as a single back with Bullock splitting out as a receiver. If they do that without huddling, that should create some favorable matchups against defenses.

Of course, first and foremost, the Hawkeyes need to identify a starting quarterback, and they're not much closer to doing so with spring practice set to end Saturday. Davis said the three contenders for the job -- Jake Rudock, Cody Sokol and C.J. Beathard -- are still "too close to call."

"They've all done some things where you say, 'Wow, this is really pretty good,'" he said. "They've also all done some things where you say, 'Wow, this is really not very good.' I'm pretty sure won't know until [preseason] camp."

Throughout the spring, Iowa has rotated the three quarterbacks every two plays. Last Saturday, for the first time, each was given a chance to lead a drive until its completion during team drills. Yet, there's still not much separation.

Davis said it reminded him a little of when he was at Texas and the quarterback race was so close that the Longhorns began the season alternating freshmen Colt McCoy and Jevan Snead. McCoy didn't show he was the guy until he actually had to make plays with defenders chasing him and without the comfort of a no-contact jersey.

Iowa fans -- and Davis -- just hope that whoever starts ends up running an offense that makes many more plays than last year.
Big Ten spring football is finally in full swing as Iowa on Wednesday became the 12th and final league team to hit the practice field. The return to the gridiron can't come a moment too soon for the Hawkeyes, who went 4-8 in 2012, their worst record since coach Kirk Ferentz's second season at the helm (2000). It has been another offseason of transition for Iowa as Ferentz welcomes three new full-time assistants (Chris White, Bobby Kennedy and Jim Reid) for a second consecutive year. Finding a quarterback tops Iowa's spring agenda, and the team also needs to identify a center and more playmakers on both sides of the ball.

ESPN.com caught up with Ferentz on Wednesday to discuss the spring.

What are the main objectives for you guys this spring?

Kirk Ferentz: Like any spring, you've got a lot of players on a lot of different levels. You've got experienced players, and we're certainly counting on them improving and developing into leaders. You've got younger guys who have played, and you're hoping they're ready to play more proficiently. And then you've got other guys who, in some cases, are special-teams guys who have a chance to become offensive and defensive role players, or guys who haven't been on the field yet. So you have a lot of layers of players at different levels. The biggest thing is trying to gauge where they're at, and at the same time, you're trying to find out what they can do and pull a team together. It's always a fun period and a really interesting period.

How has the transition on the staff this year gone so far, especially in relation to last year? You had quite a long period without any changes on your staff.

KF: Last year was probably a little more dramatic with two new coordinators. Norm [Parker] and Ken [O'Keefe] were here 13 years, so they were big departures. We've got Phil [Parker] and Greg [Davis] both in their second years, and they're both tremendous coaches. What's unusual is how long we were all together at one time. Usually staffs don't stay in one place for 13, 14 years. Normally they move to the next channel and you have a new group of folks coming in. So it's a natural series of transitions. The way I look at it, we've had six new members join the staff in the last two years, and it's a matter of pulling everything together. But I'm really excited about all the guys who have joined. They're outstanding coaches, and it looks like they're all going to be great fits here at Iowa. At the same time, I'm very appreciative of the guys who had been here and helped us move things.

Is the transition harder for the players or the new coaches?

KF: There's learning on both sides. The players to have learn their coaches, certainly, and the coaches have a lot to learn about the players. That can be a healthy thing, too. It's a clean slate and a fresh beginning for everybody. For players, it's a whole new opportunity.

Offensively, it wasn't what you were hoping for last year. Is it a total reset this year with some new faces, or are there some things you can continue from last year?

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Byron Hetzler/USA TODAY SportsThough Kirk Ferentz lost his starting quarterback and center, he said he's more optimistic about Iowa's offense than he was a year ago.
KF: It may be ironic. We feel more comfortable and more optimistic right now than we did a year ago about the offense. The part that's ironic is we lost a two-year starter at quarterback [James Vandenberg]. We had James play a lot at quarterback and James Ferentz played like 38 games at center, so you have two guys right in the middle of things who aren't going to be there. But I look around at other positions and we've got a lot of guys coming back who have played in the system and who I think are more capable now of playing at a higher level than they were a year ago. That's got us excited. That being said, we've got to find replacements for both Jameses. We've got to find a replacement for Keenan Davis and Matt Tobin, to start with. But I look at the group coming back and as recent as late last August, we didn't know if Damon Bullock could play in this conference successfully, and we had no idea Mark Weisman could run the ball. So I think we're a lot further down the road than we were even eight months ago, 10 months ago.

When you and Greg looked at things, did you identify areas to target for the spring?

KF: Greg came in, this was all new to him, the players were all new to him. His knowledge of our personnel is a lot more extensive than it was a year ago at this time. And that was one of the reasons I was so attracted to Greg in the hiring process, his ability historically to work with a lot of different types of players and different types of offenses. He wasn't married to one system. There's nothing like experience, and he's got a real good grip on who our players are, what they can do and what we can do to help them be more productive.

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Big Ten predictions: Week 11

November, 8, 2012
11/08/12
9:00
AM ET
What time is it? Prediction time, whoop.

Three weeks remain in the regular season, and Brian Bennett needs them to be very good ones. He trails Adam Rittenberg by four games in the season standings. If Bennett can't mount a late surge, Rittenberg promises to make him a poor man at St. Elmo in Indianapolis the eve of the Big Ten title game.

Five games are on the slate this week, so let's begin.

WISCONSIN at INDIANA

Brian Bennett: It's the biggest Indiana game in almost 20 years. Unfortunately, the Badgers are about to turn the Cinderella Hoosiers back into a pumpkin. Wisconsin will struggle to get much going in the passing game under new quarterback Curt Phillips, but it won't matter as Montee Ball and James White lead a 300-yard rushing effort and Bret Bielema's team clinches a berth in Indy. ... Wisconsin 31, Indiana 24

Adam Rittenberg: Hoosier Nation should be fired up for this one, and Indiana will ride the momentum to an early lead on a Cody Latimer touchdown catch. But Wisconsin eventually will settle down and start controlling the line of scrimmage, displaying the necessary sense of urgency. The line will wear down the Hoosiers in the second half, and Ball and White will combine for 210 rush yards and three scores. Phillips will make some key throws down the stretch as Wisconsin prevails to secure a spot in Indy. ... Wisconsin 34, Indiana 27

No. 24 NORTHWESTERN at MICHIGAN

Adam Rittenberg: This one will be closer than the oddsmakers think, as Northwestern matches up decently and should be a bit healthier following the open week. But Michigan's defense will do enough to slow down Kain Colter and Venric Mark, who will combine for two first-half touchdowns but not much after that. The Wolverines' big-play pass game will come alive behind Devin Gardner, who will fire two more touchdown passes as Michigan remains perfect at home under Brady Hoke. ... Michigan 23, Northwestern 17

Brian Bennett: Denard Robinson will play some but split time with Gardner at quarterback. Both are effective enough to lead Michigan to a victory because the Wolverines' defense knows how to slow down a running team. Jake Ryan will force a key second-half fumble, and Michigan will keep its Legends hopes alive. ... Michigan 30, Northwestern 21

PURDUE at IOWA

Brian Bennett: Somebody has to win between these two scuffling teams, and I've got more confidence in Iowa than a dysfunctional Purdue outfit right now. James Vandenberg and Kevonte Martin-Manley will hook up for a pair of scores, and the Hawkeyes' defense will shut down the Boilers after their usual early score. ... Iowa 24, Purdue 13

Adam Rittenberg: I guess we're contractually obligated to pick a winner here, huh? OK, well here it goes. Purdue will have its typical great first drive and jump ahead on an Antavian Edison touchdown catch from Robert Marve. But Iowa eventually will take control on its home field behind Damon Bullock, who will record 120 rush yards and two scores. Vandenberg will start slowly but come alive in the second half as Iowa hands Purdue a sixth Big Ten loss and ensures the Boilers won't be bowling for the second straight year. ... Iowa 27, Purdue 19

PENN STATE at No. 18 NEBRASKA

Adam Rittenberg: This will be a good one, as a Penn State team that has been very good on the road faces its toughest test against a Nebraska squad eying Indianapolis (and maybe Pasadena). The Lions will jump ahead early, as they typically do, when Zach Zwinak completes a long scoring drive with a touchdown run. Nebraska will respond and the teams will trade leads during the second half, but the Huskers' spread will prove to be too much for Penn State. Kenny Bell will bounce back from last week with two scoring receptions, and Matthew McGloin will throw a costly interception in the fourth quarter. ... Nebraska 30, Penn State 28

Brian Bennett: It's a matchup of the top two passers in the Big Ten in Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and McGloin. I have to keep repeating that sentence to believe it. Nebraska is the smart pick here, especially at home, but I am down in the picks contest and need to come up with a Hail Mary. So I'll go with the Penn State upset, thinking the Cornhuskers could be due for a letdown after three straight emotional games. The Lions will get up early on a couple of McGloin touchdown passes, and Nebraska will be unable to complete one of its patented comebacks as Penn State grinds out the clock with the power running game and some safe throws to its tight ends. ... Penn State 27, Nebraska 24

MINNESOTA at ILLINOIS

Brian Bennett: My picks have been pretty bad this year, but going against Illinois has served us both well all season. Even at home against a banged-up Minnesota offense, I just don't see how the Illini can get over the hump. Philip Nelson will hit John Rabe for a pair of scores, and the Gophers will get the road win to clinch bowl eligibility. ... Minnesota 24, Illinois 14

Adam Rittenberg: I'm tempted to pick Illinois, as Minnesota hasn't scored well in Big Ten play at all. But the Illini have too many problems right now, and I don't think they can put it together against a Gophers team that needs to secure bowl eligibility before a tough closing stretch. After stubbing their toe in the red zone on their first drive, the Gophers finally will get it together behind running back Rodrick Williams. Illinois will respond and take a fourth-quarter lead, but a roughing-the-passer penalty will set up Minnesota's game-winning drive as Nelson finds Isaac Fruechte in the end zone. ... Minnesota 23, Illinois 20

Michigan State and Ohio State are both off.

Season Records

Adam Rittenberg: 61-18 (.772)

Brian Bennett: 57-22 (.722)

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