NCF Nation: Marcus Trotter

Melvin GordonJeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsBy winning the Paul Bunyan Axe for the 11th straight time, Wisconsin reaches the Big Ten title game for the third time the event's four-year history.

MADISON, Wis. -- The celebrations might have felt a little familiar for Wisconsin, but that didn't take away any of the enthusiasm.

The Badgers beat Minnesota 34-24 on Saturday to win the Paul Bunyan Axe trophy for the 11th straight year. They also clinched the West Division title and a spot in next week's Big Ten championship, which is also a recurring theme. Wisconsin will be playing in that game for the third time in the event's four-year history.

Still, players and coaches giddily ran around Camp Randall Stadium with the axe after grinding out a physical, hard-fought win over the No. 18 Gophers. And they put on hats and T-shirts declaring themselves the West Division champs following an on-field, postgame presentation that seemed more fitting for a postseason game.

"That was a cool feeling for us, a cool experience," quarterback Joel Stave said. "Being under the lights, on the stage, the crowd sticking around -- it was just very cool."

The No. 14 Badgers might not be done hoisting trophies or standing on triumphant platforms, either. Not long ago, they would have been considered significant underdogs against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. But with Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett out for the season after he suffered a broken ankle against Michigan, Wisconsin just might be the favorite in Indianapolis.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Melvin Gordon
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon earned every bit of his 151 yards rushing against Minnesota.
At the very least, Buckeyes backup quarterback Cardale Jones will have his hands full trying to deal with what has statistically been the best defense in the Big Ten, one that offers confusing looks with its aggressive 3-4 scheme.

"If he hasn't played that much, maybe we can get him flustered and get him off balance," Wisconsin linebacker Joe Schobert said. "But we've got to prepare like we're playing J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller. You can't take a guy lightly, because they have a lot of good athletes over there."

Badgers players expressed empathy about Barrett's injury -- "He's such a valuable asset, and you always want to play against the best players," linebacker Marcus Trotter said -- and they can relate to the need to overcome adversity.

This is a team that had to replace eight defensive starters in the offseason and whose starting quarterback battled a case of the yips in August and September. They blew a big lead in a loss to LSU in the opener and dropped a head-scratcher against Northwestern early in conference play.

Yet they won their final seven games of the regular season and might be peaking here at the end.

"It's been a heck of a journey," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. "I feel great about taking this team to Indy. They're resilient and tough-minded."

Wisconsin needed that resiliency to clear its final hurdle toward a division title.

For the second time in three weeks, it let a road opponent go ahead 17-3 in the first half. Unlike Nebraska, however, Minnesota was not going to let Melvin Gordon simply run wild all over the place. The Gophers kept their safeties in the box and hit Gordon early and often with sure tackling. The Badgers' Heisman Trophy candidate finished with 151 yards but had to earn every bit of it. He had only two 20-plus-yard runs (none longer than 24) and did his most impressive work turning nothing into 4- or 5-yard gains.

"I knew I was going to have to grind it out today," said Gordon, who pronounced himself healthy despite limping off the field late. "The games that you have to push out and grind out, those are the games you love the best. You get hit, you get knocked down to the ground and you get back up and you keep fighting.

Andersen said offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig knew he'd have to dial up some downfield throws to loosen up the Gophers' defense. That's been a shaky proposition for Wisconsin's offense for a couple of years. But Stave, getting better every week after overcoming those mental issues at the beginning of the season, turned in an efficient performance in going 11-for-18 for 218 yards and 2 touchdowns, with no interceptions.

The Badgers also got a career day from receiver Alex Erickson (5 catches for 160 yards) and clinched the victory on Stave's 17-yard touchdown strike to Robert Wheelwright, who had only two career catches and none this season before Saturday. It was those kinds of unlikely contributions -- plus an 89-yard effort from backup tailback Corey Clement, who was playing with one healthy shoulder -- that Andersen said made him the proudest.

Wisconsin wasn't perfect against Minnesota and committed a lot of mistakes in the first half, allowing the Gophers some short fields and quick scoring drives. Despite dealing with a hamstring injury that made him doubtful for the game, Minnesota's David Cobb ripped off some big runs in the first half. Many more offensive playmakers will confront the defense next week, even with Barrett out.

"To beat Ohio State, we can't miss as many tackles as we did today," Trotter said.

But much the way their season has gone, the Badgers finished out strong, scoring 31 of the game's final 38 points. Now they have a solid chance to derail Ohio State's playoff chase and claim the Big Ten title for themselves.

"We don't want to just go there," Gordon said, "we want to win it."

Don't be surprised if they're celebrating on an even bigger stage next Saturday night.
Like most people, Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen wasn't sure what to expect from his linebackers coming into this season.

[+] EnlargeVince Biegel
AP Photo/Morry GashWisconsin's Vince Biegel makes up part of a group of linebackers that flew under the radar to lead the nation's top defense.
The Badgers had to replace all four starters from their 3-4 scheme, including Big Ten defensive player of the year Chris Borland. There was good athleticism in the group but precious little experience and no household names.

Well, it's way past time to get to know these Wisconsin linebackers, because they've formed the core of the nation's No. 1 defense and are a major reason why the Badgers could clinch the Big Ten West Division as early as Saturday if they beat Iowa and Minnesota loses to Nebraska.

"They've been over the top, as far as my expectation level," Andersen said this week.

They are inside linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch and outside linebackers Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert. Or you can just call them the "Chevy Bad Boys."

That's the nickname that Trotter bestowed on the group at the beginning of the season as a nod to their rural roots -- all are from smallish towns in Wisconsin -- and their unflashy dependability.

"We have a lot of guys from the country," Trotter said. "We love Chevys and country music and wear only flannel all day long."

It took some time for the nickname to stick, but now the players are embracing it. So much so, in fact, that Biegel got a Chevy logo shaved into the side of his head this week, bookending the motion "W" on the other side of his Mohawk/mullet.

The linebackers are starting to get more national recognition, too, as Wisconsin's defense keeps piling up impressive numbers. But that's not really what this group is about.

"Not a lot of people really looked at us as being a big-time defense going into the season," Biegel said. "Being able to have that chip on our shoulder and approach every game with that chip has been the difference for us this year.

"We're a bunch of smart football guys who weren't necessarily four- and five-star recruits. We're just hard-working Wisconsin dudes."

Biegel, who leads the team with 6.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss, was actually a four-star recruit out of high school. But Trotter and Schobert, the latter of whom was named Big Ten defensive player of the week for his performance against Nebraska, walked on to the Badgers. The 5-foot-11 Landisch was lightly recruited, with interest from MAC schools, and viewed by some as too small to stay at linebacker.

All four bided their time while waiting for the opportunity to become full-time starters, especially seniors Trotter and Landisch.

"We were all very eager for our chance," Trotter said. "We were excited to finally prove people wrong."

Each of the four have different personalities, but that meshes into a cohesive bond. Trotter is the motormouth leader who wears bear-themed shirts and sometimes only answers to the name "Mookie Blaylock."

Biegel is also talkative and energetic. "If you looked inside his mind," Trotter said, "you'd see a hamster spinning on a wheel. He's just all over the place, all the time. He's a goofy guy who likes to mess with people."

Landisch, who has six sacks and 12 tackles for loss, is quiet and often needs his nerves calmed before games. "I feel like I'm his psychiatrist sometimes," Trotter said.

Schobert is also reserved but in a much more relaxed way. Trotter said while the Nebraska game was still close last week, Schobert cracked a joke to him about missing a fumble recovery right before the snap.

"I was like, 'Joe, be quiet, I'm trying to get the call,'" Trotter said. "But he's just very calm and confident in his technique."

What the quartet lacked in starting experience, they have made up for in pass-rushing ability and football savvy. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda uses his linebackers in all sorts of ways, lining them up in different spots and bringing pressure from a variety of angles. As Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said this week, Wisconsin's defense looks pretty normal on first and second downs. On third down, though, "who knows what you're going to get," Ferentz said.

Andersen said he wasn't confident that the group would be able to master the complicated scheme and take the information from the meeting room to the field. But the Chevy Bad Boys have had no trouble doing just that.

"I've played all kinds of positions this year -- with my hand in the dirt, at standup outside linebacker, even inside linebacker in a couple different packages," Biegel said. "Coach Aranda asks a lot of us mentally. It's fun, because you never know what you'll be doing each week, what your technique and assignment will be."

Wisconsin now knows that it will get elite production from its linebackers every week. And it's way past time that everyone else gets to know who these guys are.

Five questions about LSU-Wisconsin

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

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

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

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

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

2. How will LSU fare in the passing game?

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

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

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

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

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

4. How will Wisconsin look up front on D?

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

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

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

5. Who FINISHES at quarterback?

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

Miles and Wisconsin’s Gary Andersen have tiptoed around questions asking whether the starting quarterback will be Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris at LSU or Joel Stave or Tanner McEvoy at Wisconsin. But if this is a close game, their choices on who leads their offenses in the fourth quarter -- and how those players perform in such a situation -- might tell us much more about where these competitions are headed.

Wisconsin Badgers season preview

August, 21, 2014
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» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Wisconsin Badgers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stats & Info projection: 9.29 wins

Wise guys over/under: 9.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Ten wins. Wisconsin has a lot of question marks, but it also has a lot of talent. The rushing offense should be one of the nation's best and, while this defense will undoubtedly take a step back from last season, it shouldn't free-fall with Dave Aranda at the helm. Wisconsin's schedule is pretty favorable, as it doesn't play any of the big names from the East, and it's possible it could be favored in every game from Week 2 on. Wisconsin's getting the benefit of the doubt here, but if it can manage a win against LSU in the opener, that bandwagon is going to get big in a hurry.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 10

November, 4, 2013
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We have true separation in the Big Ten, and not just with Ohio State at the No. 1 spot. Although the Buckeyes remain the league's kingpin, both Wisconsin and Michigan State also belong in the Big Ten's upper crust.

The big debate in these rankings concerns the No. 2 spot, which Wisconsin has occupied for several weeks. The Badgers handled Iowa on the road and delivered a salty defensive performance even without superstar linebacker Chris Borland. Michigan State smothered Michigan, complementing a dominant defense with timely passes from Connor Cook. Both teams have won at Iowa and at Illinois. Michigan State has the best win between the bunch but has played the easier schedule.

For now, we're keeping Wisconsin at No. 2. We realize we're in the minority there, but Wisconsin hasn't done much to move down since the Northwestern game. It's too bad the Badgers and Spartans can't play this season to decide the second spot.

Elsewhere, Nebraska avoids another drop thanks to its Hail Mary against sad-sack Northwestern. We debated whether to move Minnesota higher, and we will if the Gophers keep winning. Iowa falls down a few spots, and the bottom of the rankings remains unchanged.

Here's one last look at the Week 9 rankings.

Now, the new rundown ...

1. Ohio State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): Ross-Ade Stadium is no longer a graveyard for the Buckeyes, who buried Purdue in a matter of minutes Saturday. Ohio State scored 28 first-quarter points and 42 in the first half, as the tight ends got involved, quarterbacks Braxton Miller and Kenny Guiton both had jump-pass touchdowns and the defense blanked Purdue. Whether style points matter, Ohio State is finally getting them. The Buckeyes are off this week before visiting Illinois on Nov. 16.

2. Wisconsin (6-2, 4-1; last week: 2): The offense struggled and top defender Borland watched from the sideline with a hamstring injury, but Wisconsin found a way to beat Iowa. Marcus Trotter was fabulous filling in for Borland, as the Badgers' defense repeatedly turned Iowa away in plus territory. Running back James White came alive late as Wisconsin pulled away. The Badgers will need a stronger performance this week as they step out of league play against a good BYU squad.

3. Michigan State (8-1, 5-0; last week: 3): Not only did the Spartans reclaim their superiority against in-state rival Michigan, but they looked like a worthy competitor for Ohio State in a potential Big Ten championship game matchup. If Nebraska falls this week at Michigan, MSU would have a two-game lead on the rest of the division with three weeks to go. An elite defense had its best performance under Pat Narduzzi, as end Shilique Calhoun and linebackers Denicos Allen and Ed Davis combined for seven sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. Cook made some impressive throws as the Spartans pounded Michigan. They'll have some extra time to celebrate during an open week before visiting Nebraska on Nov. 16.

4. Nebraska (6-2, 3-1; last week: 7): One play makes all the difference between another Power Rankings drop for Big Red and a three-spot gain. Nebraska had defensive problems early and turnover problems late against Northwestern, but the Huskers never gave up and won a game on a Hail Mary to Jordan Westerkamp for the first time in team history. Credit running back Ameer Abdullah for keeping a potentially splintering team together. The young defense also shut down Northwestern's offense in the second half. Nebraska must beat Michigan on the road this week to stay in the Legends Division race.

5. Michigan (6-2, 2-2; last week: 4): That Notre Dame win feels like years ago as Michigan's warts were exposed in Saturday's loss at Michigan State. The Wolverines are either too young or simply not tough enough, as they were pushed around the field at Spartan Stadium. Michigan had a program-low rushing total (minus-48 yards) and couldn't protect quarterback Devin Gardner. The program's Big Ten championship drought almost certainly will reach nine years, and it's fair to question where things are really headed under third-year coach Brady Hoke. At least Michigan returns home, where it has never lost under Hoke, to face Nebraska this week.

6. Minnesota (7-2, 3-2; last week: 6): The Minnesota mojo continues, thanks in large part to an inexcusable crunch-time blunder by Indiana. Minnesota blew a 22-point third-quarter lead but rallied behind Philip Nelson, who established himself as the team's offensive leader with 298 pass yards and four touchdowns. It was a rough second half for the defense, but linebacker Aaron Hill came up with the decisive play late as the Gophers got out of Bloomington with their third consecutive league win. Minnesota is a factor in the Legends Division race but must keep winning this week against Penn State.

7. Iowa (5-4, 2-3; last week: 5): Sure, the Hawkeyes are improved this season, but some of the same maddening offensive traits remain, like being unable to finish drives. Iowa should have been up at halftime rather than down 7-6 to Wisconsin, and although quarterback Jake Rudock's injury impacted the game, the Hawkeyes' second-half struggles on offense are nothing new. The defense is good enough to get Iowa a few more wins, but can the offense start scoring? Iowa visits Purdue this week.

8. Penn State (5-3, 2-2; last week: 8): It isn't always pretty with Penn State, but the Lions don't quit, especially on their home field. Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg once again rallied his team from a late deficit and stepped up in overtime as Penn State avoided what would have been a bad loss to Illinois. Bill Belton established himself as the team's top running back with 201 yards and a touchdown. The defense remains far too vulnerable to big passing plays. Penn State will need to be better on both sides of the ball this week as it visits surging Minnesota.

9. Indiana (3-5, 1-3; last week: 9): Coach Kevin Wilson's crew doesn't quit, but the Hoosiers still don't know how to win. They were 9 yards away from completing a huge second-half comeback against Minnesota and moving a step closer to bowl eligibility. At worst, they were in position to send the game to overtime. Instead, everything fell apart on a dropped backward pass to Tevin Coleman, who had a big game (108 rush yards, TD). The quarterback race took another turn with Nate Sudfeld outplaying Tre Roberson, and the defense had a wildly inconsistent performance. Indiana hosts Illinois this week but will need a road win at Ohio State or Wisconsin to become bowl eligible.

10. Northwestern (4-5, 0-5; last week: 10): The former Cardiac Cats are only giving their fans heartache at this point as they've forgotten how to perform in the clutch. Northwestern had another golden opportunity for a road win, but let it slip away when it couldn't finish off Nebraska on either side of the ball, leading to the Hail Mary touchdown to Jordan Westerkamp. Injuries continue to mount in a snakebitten season for the Wildcats, who likely won't make a bowl. Northwestern has an off week to regroup before hosting Michigan on Nov. 16.

11. Illinois (3-5, 0-4; last week: 11): The Big Ten losing streak has reached 18 games, and arguably no defeat stung more than Saturday's at Penn State. Illinois wasted opportunities early, took the lead late and still couldn't hold on for a victory. Tim Beckman's team performed better than expected and can take some positives from its performance in Happy Valley, but there's still too much inconsistency on both sides of the ball, as the defense allowed 250 rush yards. Illinois visits Indiana this week.

12. Purdue (1-7, 0-4; last week: 12): The misery continues for Darrell Hazell's crew, which is on its way to its worst season since 1993 (1-10) and might be one of the worst squads in recent Big Ten memory. Young quarterback Danny Etling had another rough outing as Purdue never challenged Ohio State and had no answers for the Buckeyes' offense. Purdue has been shut out in consecutive games and has scored just 17 points in four Big Ten contests. The remaining schedule is a little more favorable, but Purdue has to show something positive by season's end.
Recognizing the best and the brightest around the Big Ten in Week 10:
  • Michigan State LBs Ed Davis and Denicos Allen, and DE Shilique Calhoun: We could have given a sticker to the entire Spartans defense after its 29-6 dismantling of Michigan. But these three stood out, combining for seven sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. Calhoun now leads the Big Ten in sacks, Allen continued his dominant stretch and Davis stood out, filling in for the injured Jairus Jones, with his first breakout performance.
  • Wisconsin LB Marcus Trotter: Filling in for the injured Chris Borland (hamstring), Trotter made sure the Badgers defense didn't miss a beat. He recorded nine tackles, including 1.5 for loss, and put a hit on Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard that forced a key second-half interception. Wisconsin did not allow a touchdown in its 28-9 road win. James White provided most of the offense with 132 yards and two touchdowns, though most of his damage came late.
  • Penn State RB Bill Belton: He could have been the goat after fumbling at the Illinois goal line late in the game. But the Nittany Lions overcame that miscue and probably wouldn't have been able to pull out the 24-17 overtime win without Belton. He carried the ball 36 times for 201 yards and a touchdown and had an 11-yard run in the overtime period to help set up the game-winning score. It marked Penn State's first 200-yard rushing performance since Larry Johnson in 2002.
  • Ohio State QB Braxton Miller: The Buckeyes junior had as many incompletions (four) as he did touchdown passes, as he went 19 for 23 for 233 yards. And all of that came in the first half, as Miller got an early breather in Ohio State's ridiculously easy 56-0 win over Purdue.
  • Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: Everyone will talk about Jordan Westerkamp's Hail Mary touchdown catch off Ron Kellogg III's desperation heave to beat Northwestern. But it was Abdullah that kept the Huskers in the game. He ran 24 times for 127 yards, and on fourth-and-15 from the Nebraska 24 on the game's final drive, he caught a short pass and willed himself forward for a first down. He's the heart and soul of the Huskers right now.
  • Minnesota QB Philip Nelson: The Gophers are firmly Nelson's team now. Starting for the first time in a few weeks, Nelson completed 16 of 23 passes for 298 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in a 42-39 win at Indiana. Nelson's final throw went for 50 yards to Maxx Williams for the winning touchdown. Running back David Cobb added 188 rushing yards and a score on 29 carries.
A few injury-related notes from around the league ...
  • Wisconsin could be without its top defensive playmaker against Ohio State as junior linebacker Chris Borland could miss the game with a hamstring injury. Borland, who sustained the injury last week against Indiana, isn't running at full speed but will test the hamstring in pregame warm-ups. Sophomore Marcus Trotter will start at middle linebacker if Borland can't go. Borland leads the Badgers with 4.5 sacks, is tied for third in the league with three forced fumbles and has 82 tackles and nine tackles for loss. He ranks in the top 15 in the Big Ten in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks and forced fumbles.
  • Northwestern will be without its top corner for the third straight game as Nick VanHoose will sit out against Michigan State with a shoulder injury. VanHoose's absence has proved costly as teams have attacked Demetrius Dugar and the secondary. Reserve linebacker Collin Ellis also is out with an undisclosed injury.
  • Minnesota top wideout A.J. Barker (ankle) will miss his third straight game Saturday at Nebraska. The Gophers also will be without defensive tackle Roland Johnson (knee) and reserve linebacker Lamonte Edwards. Senior defensive end D.L. Wilhite, tied for the Big Ten sacks lead with 7.5, is listed as questionable on the team's injury report but also remains the starter on the depth chart. Center Jon Christenson, injured last week at Illinois, also is questionable.
  • Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead (knee) will be a game-time decision against Minnesota, coach Bo Pelini said Thursday. Burkhead, who twice has aggravated the knee in Big Ten play and has missed the past three games, tested out the knee this week in practice. Wide receiver Tim Marlowe also is a game-time decision.
It's time to jump back into our preseason position group rankings. We've made our way through the offenses and the front line of the defenses. Now it's time to take a look at the linebackers.

As always, this is a ranking of the entire position group, so depth matters in addition to individual star players.

Away we go:

[+] EnlargeLavonte David
AP Photo/Nati HarnikNebraska's Lavonte David led the Big 12 last season with 152 tackles.
1. Nebraska: Lavonte David set the school record with 152 tackles last year, best in the Big 12. He also added 15 tackles for loss and six sacks on his way to second-team All-America honors. David was a one-man wrecking crew last year but should get more help this year. Will Compton returns after an injury-shortened season, and Sean Fisher is back after a broken leg cost him all of 2010. With an excellent defensive front leading the way, the Cornhuskers' linebackers should make plenty of impact plays.

2. Penn State: Is this the return of Linebacker U? The Nittany Lions technically only return one starter at the position but have plenty of talent. The unit got hit by injuries last year, including one that knocked Michael Mauti out of the lineup for several games. He's one of the best in the Big Ten when healthy, which he should be in 2011. Senior Nate Stupar led the team in tackles last year. Sophomores Gerald Hodges and Khairi Fortt are among the skilled youngsters battling for playing time. This could wind up as the deepest linebacking corps in the league.

3. Ohio State: The Buckeyes lost two starters, including leading tackler Brian Rolle. But the Silver Bullets usually reload at linebacker. Senior Andrew Sweat should emerge as the unit's leader, and hopes are high for Etienne Sabino after he took a redshirt year in 2010. Sabino showed promise this spring and locked down a starting job. The battle is on for the third starting position. Incoming freshman Curtis Grant could make a sudden impact.

4. Wisconsin: Much depends on the health of Chris Borland, who missed nearly all of 2010 and sat out the spring with a shoulder injury. The 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year will move to middle linebacker and should anchor the unit if he's sound. Mike Taylor finished second on the team in tackles for loss and interceptions last year, and Kevin Claxton is expected to take over at the strongside spot. The Badgers like what they have seen from redshirt freshman Marcus Trotter.

5. Iowa: The Hawkeyes lost a lot of experience from the 2010 team, including leading tackler Jeremiha Hunter. While there's some concern about the leadership void, Iowa has good young building blocks here. James Morris was pressed into service as a true freshman and was terrific; another year of development should only make him better. Tyler Nielsen was missed down the stretch when he suffered a neck injury, and the senior provides a veteran presence. Players like Bruce Davis, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens need to take on bigger roles.

[+] EnlargeGreg Jones
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesReplacing two-time All-American Greg Jones will be a tall order for the Spartans.
6. Michigan State: It would be difficult to overstate how much the Spartans will miss two-time All-American Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, who combined to start 95 games in their illustrious careers. But life goes on. The lone returning starter, Chris Norman, is a dependable veteran. The Spartans hope Max Bullough and Denicos Allen build on their potential, and TyQuan Hammock inspired confidence with his play this spring.

7. Minnesota: An experienced linebacker group could be the strength of the Gophers defense this season. All three starters -- leading tackler Gary Tinsley, Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis -- are back. Rallis needs to stay healthy after only appearing in 12 games the past two years because of injuries. Florida transfer Brendan Beal should provide a boost.

8. Purdue: The Boilermakers are led by senior Joe Holland, who has 35 career starts under his belt. Junior Dwayne Beckford finished second on the team with 85 tackles a year ago. Will Lucas could break out after an excellent true freshman campaign. Senior Chris Carlino adds veteran depth.

9. Michigan: The Wolverines struggled defensively last year, and the linebackers shouldered some of the blame. They lost Jonas Mouton to the NFL. Cam Gordon moves down from safety and adds some playmaking ability. Kenny Demens had 82 tackles last year at middle linebacker. Freshman Jake Ryan should contribute right away. This group still has a lot to prove.

10. Illinois: The Illini have to rebuild after losing a pair of NFL draft picks at the position in Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey. Senior Ian Thomas now becomes the veteran leader. Sophomores Johnathan Brown and Houston Bates -- who had a strong spring -- will be counted on to step forward.

11. Indiana: Fifth-year senior Jeff Thomas could be the centerpiece of the Hoosiers defense. Another fifth-year senior is Leon Beckum, though he lacks top-end speed. Overall, there isn't a lot of depth here.

12. Northwestern: Linebacker play was a sore spot last season, and starters Nate Williams and Quentin Davie are gone. Bryce McNaul needs to recover all the way from shoulder surgery and has to stay healthy. Pat Fitzgerald thinks he has some talented young players at the position; they'll need to grow up fast.

Spring game recap: Wisconsin

April, 25, 2011
4/25/11
5:00
PM ET
Wisconsin wrapped up spring practice Saturday with it spring game at Camp Randall Stadium. Coach Bret Bielema shook things up this year and had the first-team offense compete against the starting defense. The defense ended up dominating, holding the offense out of the end zone, and posted a 29-27 victory in a scrimmage that used a modified scoring system.

Let's take a closer look:

Game coverage: Here and here and here and here.

Quotable: "We were without four, possibly five, offensive starters, so the continuity of that group was thrown off a little bit. I really like the offensive line depth we've been able to develop. On the back end, the defensive side, I was really concerned about the safety position, but Shelton Johnson, Aaron Henry and Dezmen Southward are three guys who can really give us some ability that I didn't know was going to be there." -- coach Bret Bielema

Highlights
  • It was a rough day for Wisconsin's quarterback position both on and off the field. The Badgers' top three signal-callers -- junior Jon Budmayr, redshirt freshman Joe Brennan and true freshman Joel Stave -- combined to complete just 22 of 61 pass attempts (36.1 percent) for 241 yards with no touchdowns, three interceptions and a fumble. The offense failed to reach the end zone and managed only one scoring drive, resulting in a field goal. Budmayr, the front-runner to be the starter this season, completed 10 of 23 passes for 113 yards with an interception and a lost fumble. "The three guys that got the majority of the reps today aren't anywhere where we need them to be for us to be a competitive team in the fall," Bielema said. "They need to continue to move forward." Bielema revealed after the game that quarterback Curt Phillips, a potential challenger to Budmayr, will miss the 2011 season following his third knee surgery.
  • Although the offense played without several starters, the top defense turned in an encouraging performance. The pass rush was solid as ends David Gilbert and Louis Nzegwu both recorded two tackles for loss and a sack. "Our D-line, we're winning," Gilbert said. "As long as we're winning, that’s what matters." Linebacker Marcus Trotter finished an impressive spring with five tackles and a forced fumble, and starting cornerback Devin Smith had an interception and four tackles.
  • The run game averaged only 2.6 yards per attempt, although Wisconsin's top two backs had their moments. James White led the way with 47 rush yards on eight carries, including gains of 22 yards and 17 yards. Montee Ball finished with 33 rush yards on eight carries, while third-stringer Zach Brown also had 33 rush yards. "Today probably wasn’t the best performance but we'll be even better come fall," White said. "We have a lot of confidence as an offense. We have a few people banged up and that can mess with things but we're still getting better."
  • Kicker Philip Welch had a mixed performance in the game. He went 8-for-8 during two separate kicking segments on attempts between 27-61 yards, hitting from 58 and 61 yards out. But during the team portion of the game, Welch missed attempts from 38, 49 and 52 yards. "He's got to be able to handle the pressure, he's got to be consistent with where we're at," Bielema said.
MADISON, Wis. -- A layer of snow or freezing rain or something yucky covered the Camp Randall Stadium field on Tuesday afternoon. Thankfully, Wisconsin held its practice inside the McClain Center, and I was there for most of it.

Some quick thoughts and notes from the Badgers' 13th workout of the spring.
  • Quarterback Jon Budmayr had a live arm and he showcased it several times during the practice, especially in team drills. Budmayr made a nice throw to a leaping Kenzel Doe, and he also found Jared Abbrederis for a good gain. The downside is he often looked hesitant in the pocket, which will cost him in games. Although he moves decently and can extend plays, he needs to get rid of the ball faster. It's important to note that top receiver Nick Toon isn't practicing following offseason foot surgery, and Budmayr doesn't have a ton of options at his disposal. Some will point to Budmayr's lack of size as a concern, but he can get it done if his decision making gets a bit better.
  • I don't think Budmayr will be pushed much for the starting job. Although redshirt freshman Joe Brennan and true freshman Joel Stave both have nice size and can spin it, their youth shows up at times and both players threw interceptions. Unless Curt Phillips makes amazing progress by fall camp, this will be Budmayr's team.
  • Senior cornerback Devin Smith had a very impressive practice. Smith, who served as Wisconsin's nickelback last season after starting in 2009, stepped in front of a receiver to intercept a Stave pass. Moments later, he won a 50-50 ball against Abbrederis for another interception. The Badgers should have the Big Ten's top cornerback tandem this fall with Smith and All-Big Ten selection Antonio Fenelus. Aaron Henry enters his second full season at safety, while sophomore Dezmen Southward seemed to get the most time as the second first-team safety, while second-team cornerback Peniel Jean recorded an interception. The secondary could be Wisconsin's strongest unit on defense this fall.
  • Wisconsin likely will account for its lack of wide receivers with more tight ends on the field this fall. Toon and Abbrederis are the team's only proven receivers, and I didn't see a clear No. 3 option Tuesday. The good news: there are quite a few options at tight end. Sophomore Manasseh Garner stood out to me Tuesday. Listed as a tight end, the 6-foot-2, 213-pound Garner can play on the edges and made several nice catches. The Badgers will use him as a pass-catcher.
  • Speaking of tight ends, no player impressed me more Tuesday than senior tight end Jake Byrne. He made several nice plays on vertical passes in the middle of the field. Byrne can really stretch the defense. Wisconsin should feature multiple tight ends a lot this fall as Byrne, Jacob Pedersen and Garner all are good options.
  • The pass game only needs to be serviceable because Wisconsin's rushing attack once again should be scary good. Top backs Montee Ball and James White looked good Tuesday, along with the mammoth offensive line. Both Ball and White transformed their bodies during the winter -- Ball slimmed down to 214 pounds and White strengthened his lower body -- and the gains are noticeable when you see them.
  • For depth chart aficionados, the first-team defensive line typically consisted of Louis Nzegwu and Brendan Kelly at the end spots and Patrick Butrym and Ethan Hemer at the tackle spots. Defensive end David Gilbert seemed to be dealing with some sort of ailment. The top linebackers were Mike Taylor, Kevin Claxton and redshirt freshman Marcus Trotter, a star of the spring who made some nice plays.

Checking in on the Badgers ...

April, 19, 2011
4/19/11
1:00
PM ET
MADISON, Wis. -- Greetings from Madtown, where it feels more like late fall than late April. Snow is in the forecast. Badger weather.

I'll be spending the day with coach Bret Bielema and the Badgers, who come off of their first Big Ten title and first Rose Bowl appearance in 11 seasons. Wisconsin came up short in Pasadena, a loss that likely still stings around here, but it's time to turn the page.

We'll find out a lot about the Wisconsin program this coming season. No Big Ten team loses more star players than the Badgers, who say goodbye to five All-Americans -- defensive end J.J. Watt, tight end Lance Kendricks, tackle Gabe Carimi, guard John Moffitt and running back John Clay -- in addition to quarterback Scott Tolzien and other standouts. While Wisconsin has proved it can mass-produce running backs and offensive linemen, the team must show it can continue making strides despite the lost production. Bielema and his staff have recruited well as of late, and their player development skills will be put to the test.

Here are some of the items I'll be tracking today:
  • Quarterback Jon Budmayr's spring progress. After backing up Tolzien last season, Budmayr seems to have the inside track for the starting job. Curt Phillips is coming off a second ACL surgery, and Joe Brennan has no game experience. Is Budmayr separating himself? If not, what does he need to improve?
  • Wisconsin wasn't a lock-down defense in 2010, but the Badgers became a big-play unit and no one made more plays than Watt. Chris Ash takes over as coordinator after upgrading the secondary in his first season with the Badgers. He's looking for contributors this spring. Wisconsin should be solid in the secondary with Aaron Henry, Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith, but it needs to replace two starting linebackers and Watt, of course. I've heard a lot about the Trotter twins (Michael and Marcus) this spring. How do they factor in the mix and who else is stepping up?
  • Like most teams, the Badgers have been at their best when they boast strong leaders. They lose quite a few from the 2010 team, and it'll be interesting to see who is answering the bell along both lines, at linebacker and at the quarterback spot.
  • Despite losing Clay and three starting offensive linemen, Wisconsin's run game should once again be scary good this fall. No Big Ten player improved more throughout the season than Montee Ball, and Wisconsin also returns reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year James White. Fifth-year senior Zach Brown also has re-entered the mix. It'll be good to check in with the backs and see how they're doing this spring.

More to come from Badger country. Stay tuned.

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