NCF Nation: Louis Trinca-Pasat

The 2014 season is in the books, and it's time to reflect back on the best players in the Big Ten before moving on to next year.

The countdown will roll along all week, and it starts right here with a heavy dose of defense.

No. 21: Louis Trinca-Pasat, DT, Iowa

The senior was a force in the trenches for the Hawkeyes, and he consistently found ways to disrupt opposing offenses, often by slicing into the backfield and stuffing rushers before they could get back to the line of scrimmage. Trinca-Pasat finished the season with 11.5 tackles for loss among his 69 total hits, impressive totals considering all the dirty work he had to do as well that doesn’t show up on the stats sheet.

No. 22: Leonte Carroo, WR, Rutgers

The Scarlet Knights were perhaps the most pleasant surprise in the Big Ten, and the junior wideout’s big-play ability unexpectedly made him one of the most productive players in the league. Carroo averaged nearly 20 yards per reception and found the end zone 10 times, but maybe the most shocking part of his season came when it was over and he announced his intention to return to Rutgers for one more year. The expectations for him will be much higher in 2015.

No. 23: Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska

The junior might not have lived up to the hype that swirled around him in the offseason, but there certainly wasn’t much for Gregory to be embarrassed about during a campaign that still included seven sacks and 10 tackles for loss. He’s still expected to be one of the first players off the board in the upcoming NFL draft. Even without posting the kind of numbers he might have hoped for during his final season with the Huskers, he still rated among the best defenders in the Big Ten.

No. 24: Derek Landisch, LB, Wisconsin

Few defenses in the country were more stout than the unit the Badgers rolled out this season, and their senior linebacker was seemingly always in the middle of locking down an opponent. Plenty of defenders made more tackles than Landisch, but he had a knack for making his plays count, racking up 16 tackles for loss and finishing third in the league with nine sacks. Wisconsin is certainly going to miss his presence in the lineup.

No. 25: Vonn Bell, SAF, Ohio State

The turnaround the Buckeyes made defensively in 2014, particularly against the pass, was nothing short of remarkable, and it was obviously invaluable on the run to a national title. The emergence of the dynamic sophomore patrolling the secondary for Ohio State was critical in the rise of that unit, and Bell left no doubt about why he was such a coveted recruit for the program as he thrived in his first season as a starter. Nobody in the league had more interceptions than the Bell’s six picks for the Buckeyes. Couple that with his 92 tackles and his performances raises the bar for his junior campaign.

ESPN.com's All-Big Ten team

December, 12, 2014
12/12/14
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The Big Ten unveiled its official all-league teams last week, but we have our own thoughts and choices. Here is the ESPN.com All-Big Ten team for 2014:

Offense

QB: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: Barrett broke the Big Ten single-season record for touchdowns produced with 45. He would have added to that total if not for a broken ankle in the regular-season finale vs. Michigan.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: All he did was lead the FBS in rushing, break the Big Ten single-season rushing record and earn the Big Ten’s offensive player of the year honors.

RB: Tevin Coleman, Indiana: Coleman joined Gordon as the only other player in the country to top 2,000 yards; he would have been a serious Heisman contender in another year or on a more successful team.

WR: Tony Lippett, Michigan State: The Big Ten’s receiver of the year led the league with 1,124 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns.

WR: Leonte Carroo, Rutgers: Carroo joined Lippett at over 1,000 yards and averaged 19.7 yards per catch.

TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota: A John Mackey Award finalist, Williams was the Golden Gophers’ top receiver and crucial cog in their run game.

OT: Taylor Decker, Ohio State: Anchored a Buckeyes offensive line that developed into one of the league’s best over the course of the season.

OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa: He was named the Big Ten offensive lineman of the year and is a surefire NFL first-round draft pick.

C: Jack Allen, Michigan State: The Spartans gave up fewer sacks (10) than any Big Ten club and had one of the league’s top offenses with Allen at the point of attack.

G: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: An ESPN All-American, Costigan helped pave the way for Gordon’s record-breaking runs.

G: Pat Elflein, Ohio State: He was a sturdy performer all season on the Buckeyes’ line as the offense scored at a rapid pace.

Defense

DE: Joey Bosa, Ohio State: The Big Ten defensive player of the year led the league in sacks (13.5) and tackles for loss (20) and tied for the lead with four forced fumbles.

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: After a quiet start, Calhoun got back to his dominating ways and finished with 6.5 sacks.

DT: Anthony Zettel, Penn State: With eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss from the defensive tackle position, Zettel was the most disruptive interior lineman in the conference.

DT: Louis Trinca-Pasat, Iowa: LTP was a pleasant surprise for the Hawkeyes, leading the team with 11 tackles for loss and adding 6.5 sacks.

LB: Mike Hull, Penn State: Hull was the Big Ten linebacker of the year and led the league with 134 tackles.

LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan: Ryan turned in a strong senior season with 112 tackles and 14 tackles for loss.

LB: Derek Landisch, Wisconsin: Any one of the Badgers’ four “Chevy Bad Boys” linebackers could have made the first team, but Landisch led the team with nine sacks and 16 tackles for loss.

DB: William Likely, Maryland: A big-play machine, Likely grabbed six interceptions and scored touchdowns on two of them.

DB: Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Minnesota: Like Likely, he was always in the middle of the action with four picks and a key strip late to seal the Nebraska win.

DB: Trae Waynes, Michigan State: Probably the best pure cover guy in the league, Waynes is asked to do a whole lot as the point man in the Spartans' "No Fly Zone."

DB: Michael Caputo, Wisconsin: Caputo was the leader from his safety spot for a defense that was the best in the league during the regular season; he finished with 99 tackles.

Specialists

K: Brad Craddock, Maryland: The Big Ten kicker of the year made his first 18 field goals this season, including a 57-yarder and a game-winner at Penn State.

P: Peter Mortell, Minnesota: Mortell was a field-position weapon for the Gophers, leading the league with a 45.5-yard average per attempt

PR: De'Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska: The freshman scored three touchdowns on punt returns and had a preposterous 17.8 yard average for the season.

All-purpose: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: We had to find a spot for Abdullah on the team, and since he returned kicks and was extremely versatile as a running back, this seemed like a good spot.

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 2

September, 10, 2014
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We're only two weeks into the season, but we're taking a weekly look at how the major Big Ten individual awards races are shaping up.

All five of our Big Ten reporters are voting weekly on the races, with players receiving five points for a first-place vote, four for a second-place nod, etc. Also, we try hard to base these standings on 2014 season results only, not any preconceived notions or a player's previous track records. That's why you might see some names here you likely did not expect in the preseason.

Away we go:

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year


1. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah (five first-place votes): A unanimous pick right now, and understandably so given his game-winning catch and run vs. McNeese State. Abdullah is ranked No. 6 in the latest ESPN Heisman Watch.

2. Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: The sophomore leads the Big Ten with 773 passing yards through two games, though his 4-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio could stand to improve.

3. Illinois QB Wes Lunt: The Oklahoma State transfer has been a big hit in Champaign, especially after he threw for 456 yards last week in a win against Western Kentucky.

4. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: Coleman and the Hoosiers were off this week, so he'll look to build on his huge Week 1 performance (247 yards, two touchdowns) on Saturday at Bowling Green.

5. Michigan State QB Connor Cook: He threw for 343 yards and two scores in the loss at Oregon, though he also had two picks. Cook is completing 68.3 percent of his passes through two games.

Also receiving votes: Rutgers RB Paul JamesPaul James

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Iowa DT Louis Trinca-Pasat (1): A surprise early leader. Trinca-Pasat has four tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks as Iowa's defensive line has carried the team in two close wins.

2. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa: Bosa already has two forced fumbles, including one against Virginia Tech last weekend. Will he be even more effective when Noah Spence returns on the other side of the Buckeyes' line?

3. Penn State DT Anthony Zettel (2): Zettel is tied with Trinca-Pasat for the most tackles for loss in the league through two weeks, and he owns two quarterback sacks. The Nittany Lions' defense has done a great job of bending but not breaking.

4. Penn State LB Mike Hull (2): Hull has been the leader of the Penn State defense as expected, and he has the second-most tackles in the league, with 22.

5. Wisconsin S Michael Caputo: After registering 15 tackles in the opener against LSU, Caputo grabbed an interception last week vs. Western Illinois.

Also receiving votes: Iowa DE Drew Ott; Indiana DL Bobby Richardson; Illinois S Taylor Barton

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."
The Week 11 power rankings begin with a mea culpa.

Upon further review, we botched last week's rankings, when we had Minnesota behind both Michigan and Nebraska, largely because of the Gophers' loss to Michigan on Oct. 5. We should have had Minnesota in the No. 4 spot and Nebraska at No. 5. That's where we have the Gophers and Huskers after the Week 11 results. Both teams recorded big wins, but Minnesota's head-to-head win against Nebraska on Oct. 26 gives the Gophers the edge.

So, Nebraska fans, don't freak out when you see Big Red one spot below last week's rankings. That's on us. Both teams basically retain their positions.

Michigan, meanwhile, drops down the list, while both Iowa and Indiana move up. Penn State and Indiana trade places after the Hoosiers' come-from-behind win against Illinois.

Here's one final look at the Week 10 rankings.

Now for the new rundown ...

1. Ohio State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): The Buckeyes had the week off and watched their national championship stock improve a bit with Oregon's loss to Stanford. Style points should come into play from here on out, so the Buckeyes need to continue their dominant play this week at Illinois. Quarterback Braxton Miller attempted only four passes in his last game in Champaign. Just a hunch he'll have a few more this time.

2. Wisconsin (7-2, 4-1; last week: 2): Spurred by running back James White and a salty defense, the Badgers continue to impress as they angle for a potential BCS at-large berth. Wisconsin had a surprisingly easy time with BYU to complete non-league play at 3-1*, as White finished with 194 all-purpose yards (147 rush, 47 receiving) and three touchdowns. The defense held Taysom Hill and the Cougars in check for most of the game. Wisconsin remains at home this week as Indiana visits Camp Randall Stadium.

3. Michigan State (8-1, 5-0; last week: 3): Mark Dantonio's squad had an extra week to glow after a dominant performance against rival Michigan. The Spartans remain in the driver's seat in the Legends Division but face a Nebraska team that has beaten them each of the past two seasons. Running back Jeremy Langford, a big part of the Spartans' Big Ten surge, takes aim at a Huskers defense that has tightened up lately. A win in Lincoln moves Michigan State much closer to Indianapolis.

4. Minnesota (8-2, 4-2; last week: 6): What looked like a lost season for Minnesota in early October has turned into a special one. The Gophers have won four consecutive Big Ten games for the first time in 40 years. David Cobb continues to spark the power run game, and the defense limited Penn State to 10 points on Saturday. This isn't just a team using its coach's health situation for motivation. Minnesota is legit and could be a serious factor in the Legends race.

5. Nebraska (7-2, 4-1; last week: 4): Again, we had this wrong in last week's rankings, so we're not trying to punish a Huskers team that has revived its season the past two weeks. Nebraska's young defense is blossoming right now after recording season highs in both sacks (seven) and tackles for loss (15) in Saturday's dramatic win at Michigan. Running back Ameer Abdullah continues to sizzle, and defensive end Randy Gregory is a force. The Legends Division title could come down to this week's game in Lincoln, as Michigan State comes to town.

6. Iowa (6-4, 3-3; last week: 7): After a one-year hiatus, the Hawkeyes will go bowling again this season after a businesslike performance against Purdue in which they racked up 318 rushing yards, including 165 by Jordan Canzeri. Defense linemen Mike Hardy, Drew Ott and Louis Trinca-Pasat triggered a stout defensive effort as Iowa reached the six-win threshold. The Hawkeyes now have an opportunity to turn a decent season into a good one. They're off this week before hosting struggling Michigan on Nov. 23.

7. Michigan (6-3, 2-3; last week: 5): Two weeks ago, Michigan looked like the shakiest 6-1 team in the country. Now the Wolverines simply look shaken. They've endured the worst two-week stretch of rushing offense for any FBS team in the past decade, and quarterback Devin Gardner, who looked so confident after the Notre Dame win, has backslid. Whether it's growing pains with a young offensive line or a group not playing anywhere near its talent level, Michigan has some major issues right now. Fortunately for the Wolverines, their upcoming opponent Northwestern might be more of a mess.

8. Indiana (4-5, 2-3; last week: 9): The formula for success hasn't changed at Indiana, which can strike quickly and often on offense and win shootouts with just about anyone. Wide receiver Cody Latimer (11 receptions, 189 yards, three touchdowns) and running backs Tevin Coleman (215 rushing yards, two TDs) and Stephen Houston (150 rushing yards, two TDs) sparked Indiana to its highest points total (52) against a Big Ten opponent at Memorial Stadium and tying the school record for total yards (650). Who needs defense with an offense like IU's? But the Hoosiers still need a major upset on the road to become bowl-eligible and visit Wisconsin this week.

9. Penn State (5-4, 2-3; last week: 8): The grittiness Bill O'Brien's team has shown on its home field simply isn't there when Penn State leaves the comforts of Happy Valley. Things started poorly in Minneapolis with a Bill Belton fumble and didn't get much better, as Penn State couldn't contain Minnesota's offense or generate much from its own. Christian Hackenberg looked like a freshman at TCF Bank Stadium, completing just 14 of 25 passes with a fumble at the Minnesota 1-yard line. The Lions are fortunate to have any Big Ten wins at this point. They should get another this week as slumping Purdue comes to Beaver Stadium.

10. Northwestern (4-5, 0-5; last week: 10): The off week came at a good time for Northwestern, and not just because of its five-game slide. Coach Pat Fitzgerald listed 13 key players that would have been out if the team played on Saturday. Northwestern should be a little healthier when Michigan comes to town this week. The Wildcats are still trying to get their offense on track, as they must win two of their final three to become bowl-eligible.

11. Illinois (3-6, 0-5; last week: 11): For the second consecutive week, Illinois appeared on the brink of its first Big Ten win since 2011. And once again the Illini fell short, this time in a fourth-quarter collapse as Indiana scored the final 17 points to pull away. Illinois wasted huge performances from wide receiver Steve Hull (224 receiving yards, two touchdowns) and Nathan Scheelhaase (450 pass yards) as the defense couldn't stop Indiana when it counted. The losing streak likely will last another week as Illinois hosts Ohio State on Saturday.

12. Purdue (1-8, 0-5; last week: 12): First, the positives: Purdue scored a touchdown for the first time since Oct. 12 and ended a 200-play drought of no plays in the opposing red zone against Iowa. But the Boilers' offense didn't do much else, as the line continues its season-long struggles and the run game did nothing against a stout Iowa defense. Purdue couldn't stop Iowa's ground game, which piled up 318 yards. Darrell Hazell's crew visits Penn State this week.
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.

(Read full post)

Big Ten's best assistants in 2012

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

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

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

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

Here's the rundown in alphabetical order:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iowa has surrendered just five rushing touchdowns in six games.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 7

October, 15, 2012
10/15/12
10:13
AM ET
Upon further review ...

Team of the week: Iowa. Well, look at who's tied atop the Legends Division standings. Many people had written off the Hawkeyes after they lost at home to Central Michigan (a team which has followed up that upset in Iowa City by losing to Northern Illinois, Toledo and Navy, all by double digits). But give credit to the resiliency of Kirk Ferentz's team. On Saturday, Iowa outslugged Michigan State on the road and won in double-overtime 19-16. It wasn't a pretty game, but the Hawkeyes showed toughness and grit. Don't count them out of the Big Ten race just yet.

Best game: Hope you stayed up late to catch Ohio State's 52-49 win over Indiana, the Big Ten's version of Big 12 football. There were blocked punts, onside kicks, a 15-point Indiana rally in the final minutes, 1,059 total yards and way more tension than we usually associate with Buckeyes-Hoosiers matchups. You might have liked Iowa-Michigan State more if you enjoy, you know, actual tackling. But this kind of game is fun every once in a while, too.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Sandra Dukes/US PresswireBadgers RB Montee Ball had one of his best games of the season on Saturday against Purdue.
Biggest play: Let's go back to East Lansing and the second overtime period, when defensive lineman Louis Trinca-Pasat deflected a pass from Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell, causing the ball to sail through receiver Keith Mumphery’s hands and into the waiting embrace of an Iowa cornerback. That was a fitting end to a game that was all about defense.

Best play: The play of the day in the Big Ten happened around midnight, when Indiana's Nick Stoner leaped out of bounds to grab an onside kick and toss it back into the field of play. Stoner showed off the athleticism that allows him to star on Indiana's track team. D’Angelo Roberts recovered, and the Hoosiers went in for a score and two-point conversion for the game's final margin. Indiana's final onside kick was also brilliantly executed and conceived, but Ohio State's Corey Brown made a game-saving catch as he was all alone on his side of the field.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Wisconsin's Montee Ball has had quite a career, so when he sets a career high, that's saying something. His 247 yards (on 29 carries) versus Purdue were a personal best. His three touchdowns also gave him 72 for his career, moving him past Ron Dayne as the Big Ten's all-time leading touchdown maker. He needs seven more to break the NCAA record. If he keeps playing like he did Saturday, he'll smash it.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Michigan's Jake Ryan collected 11 tackles, including 3.5 for loss and a sack, and forced a fumble in the Wolverines' 45-0 annihilation of Illinois. We'd say he's playing like his hair is on fire, but his golden locks are so long it might take him a while to feel any follicular conflagration.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Iowa's Mike Meyer was 4-for-4 on field goals, including two in overtime and the 42-yard game winner against Michigan State. Meyer has made 14 out of 15 this year and has connected on his past 13 attempts. For a team that struggles to score, Meyer has been extra valuable.

Worst hangover: Michigan State. Adam and I are frantically going back through all our offseason blog posts and erasing the word "State" every time we picked Michigan State to win the Big Ten in 2012. At this point, the Spartans are not even guaranteed of making a bowl game, sitting at 4-3 with tough games left against Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern, plus a trip to Minnesota. How'd we miss so bad on the Spartans? Neither of us thought their offense would be this dreadful. And while their defense has been very good, it has had to be heroic to carry the entire team, and that's asking too much every week. Michigan State has somehow lost three home games this year after it had won 15 in a row at Spartan Stadium. The Notre Dame and Ohio State losses were forgivable to a degree. Losing to an Iowa team that had only 257 total yards and one touchdown? Not so much.

Strangest moment: There are helmet-to-helmet hits, and then there are, apparently, shoulder-to-decal hits. That's what happened in Saturday's Northwestern-Minnesota game. Wildcats safety Ibraheim Campbell collided with Gophers tailback Donnell Kirkwood so solidly that most of the gold "M" on one side of Kirkwood's helmet came off on the play. Campbell got the worst of that hit, but Northwestern got the 21-13 road win.

The Legends Division race just got a lot more interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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