NCF Nation: MarQueis Gray

Denard RobinsonAP Photo/Dave MartinMichigan's Denard Robinson impressed with his speed at the combine.

Michigan's Denard Robinson boasted last year that he could beat Usain Bolt in the 40-yard dash.

If that's true, than the Olympic sprint champion wouldn't be one of the fastest 10 men in this year's NFL draft. While Robinson's claim might have been too bold, he still put up a predictably fast time in the 40 during NFL combine workouts on Sunday. The former Wolverine ran an official 4.43-second 40 in Indianapolis, tying him for ninth among all players who have worked out so far. Bolt might need to worry more about Texas receiver Marquise Goodwin, who ran a 4.27.

There are always some interesting finds in the combine numbers. Who would have guessed, for instance, that the creator of the Le'Veon Leap, Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell, would record the same number on the vertical jump (31.5 inches) as Wisconsin offensive tackle Ricky Wagner? The same Wagner who was listed at 317 pounds this season for the Badgers. Strange but true.

The quarterbacks, wide receivers, running backs, tight ends, offensive linemen and specialists have all had their turn under the microscope at the combine. Defensive linemen and linebackers will work out today, with defensive backs wrapping things up on Tuesday.

Let's take a look at how Big Ten players rank among the top overall performers so far:

  • Nebraska's Rex Burkhead, not surprisingly, tested well in several areas. The Huskers running back was fifth overall in the vertical leap at 39 inches, tied for 8th in the broad jump at 10 feet, five inches, was 10th in the 20-yard shuttle at 4.09 seconds, 14th in the three-cone drill at 6.85 seconds and 14th in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.51 seconds.
  • In addition to his 40 time, Robinson tied for 13th in vertical jump at 36.5 inches.
  • Illinois defensive tackle Akeem Spence is third in the bench press so far at 37 reps at 225 pounds.
  • Ohio State offensive lineman Reid Fragel is ninth in the bench press with 33 reps.
  • Michigan State's Bell is ninth in the three-cone drill at 6.75 seconds. Bell, by the way, weighed in at 230 pounds.
  • Ohio State tight end Jake Stoneburner tied for 12th in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.5 seconds.

Now let's examine the position groups and see how Big Ten players stacked among their peers at their positions:

Quarterbacks

  • Iowa's James Vandenberg was third among quarterbacks in the vertical jump at 32 inches, second in the three-cone drill, fourth in the broad jump at 116 inches, seventh with a 4.92 in the 40-yard dash, and tied for 10th in the 20-yard shuttle.
  • Minnesota's MarQueis Gray was fourth with a 4.73-second 40-yard dash, seventh in vertical jump at 30 inches, tied for in the ninth broad jump (111 inches ), 10th in three-cone drill and tied for fourth in the 20-yard shuttle.
Running backs

  • Who was the fastest among big-time Big Ten backs? Bell ran a 4.60, just ahead of Wisconsin's Montee Ball at 4.66, while Burkhead posted a 4.73.
  • Bell was also ninth in the 225-pound bench press at 24 reps, third in the three-cone drill and 10th in the 20-yard shuttle.
  • Burkhead was behind only Texas A&M's Christine Michael in vertical jump, tied for second in broad jump, placed fourth in the three-cone drill, second in the 20-yard shuttle and fifth in the 60-yard shuttle. He tied for 13th with 22 reps on the bench press.
  • Ball talked last week about not being known for doing any one thing great. His combine numbers were a reflection of that. His 40 time was 19th among running backs, and his only Top 15 finish in any workout was his seventh-place showing in the three-cone drill.
  • Ohio State fullback Zach Boren tied for seventh in bench press at 25 reps.
Receivers

  • Robinson was the only Big Ten player to be invited as a receiver. In addition to his numbers mentioned earlier, Robinson tied for 10th among wideouts in the broad jump at 123 inches and tied for 12th in the 20-yard shuttle.
Tight ends

  • Michigan State's Dion Sims tied for third among tight ends in the bench press at 22 reps, was third in the vertical leap (35 inches) and finished second in both the three-cone and 60-yard shuttle drills. He was 12th in the 40-yard dash at 4.75 seconds and 12th in broad jump at 112 inches.
  • Ohio State's Stoneburner was third among tight ends in the 40-yard dash at 4.6 seconds. He was fifth in vertical leap (34.5 inches), tied for fourth in the broad jump (116 inches) and sixth in the three-cone drill. He placed ninth in bench at 18 reps.
Offensive line

  • Ohio State's Fragel was fourth among offensive linemen with 33 reps on the 225-pound bench press. He was fifth in vertical leap at 30 inches and third in the broad jump at 113 inches.
  • Wisconsin tackle Ricky Wagner was third in the vertical jump at 31.5 inches. He did 20 reps on the bench press and ran a 5.17 40-yard time.
  • Badgers center Travis Frederick ran a 5.58 40-yard time and did 21 reps on the bench press.
  • Illinois' Hugh Thornton was 10th in the 20-yard shuttle drill. His 40 time was 5.11 seconds, and he did 27 reps on the bench.
  • Penn State center Matt Stankiewitch did 27 reps on the bench and ran a ran a 5.43 in the 40.
The NFL scouting combine kicks off Saturday in Indianapolis, and we'll have plenty of updates on how the Big Ten contingent fares in Underwear Olympics.

Taking a page from my pal Chris Low, I wanted to look at the recent lists of combine invitees and compare the Big Ten teams. Thirty-two Big Ten players received invitations to this year's event.

Ohio State leads the Big Ten group with seven combine invitees, followed by Michigan State, Illinois, Penn State and Wisconsin each with four players in Indy.

The Big Ten had 45 players invited to last year's event. Wisconsin led the way with eight selections, followed by Penn State and Iowa with seven each.

Let's look at the invite totals from the past three scouting combines (2013, 2012 and 2011). These are going by the official invite lists ...
  • Ohio State: 20 total (7 in 2013, 4 in 2012, 9 in 2011)
  • Wisconsin: 19 total (4 in 2013, 8 in 2012, 7 in 2011)
  • Iowa: 18 total (2 in 2013, 7 in 2012, 9 in 2011)
  • Nebraska: 16 total (3 in 2013, 4 in 2012, 9 in 2011)
  • Michigan State: 14 total (4 in 2013, 6 in 2012, 4 in 2011)
  • Penn State: 13 total (4 in 2013, 7 in 2012, 2 in 2011)
  • Illinois: 11 total (4 in 2013, 4 in 2012, 3 in 2011)
  • Michigan: 6 total (1 in 2013, 3 in 2012, 2 in 2011)
  • Purdue: 5 total (2 in 2013, 1 in 2012, 2 in 2011)
  • Indiana: 3 total (0 in 2013, 0 in 2012, 3 in 2011)
  • Northwestern: 1 total (0 in 2013, 1 in 2012, 0 in 2011)
  • Minnesota: 1 total (1 in 2013, 0 in 2012, 0 in 2011)

What do we make of these numbers? It's no surprise to see Ohio State and Wisconsin on top. The Buckeyes and Badgers have been the Big Ten's dominant teams the past few seasons, and though Wisconsin doesn't gain the same recruiting accolades as Ohio State, it has produced NFL-caliber players for quite some time, especially along the offensive line.

Iowa is another program that rarely cracks the recruiting rankings but produces plenty of NFL players. The scouts love Kirk Ferentz and his program. But Iowa's combine numbers dropped quite a bit from 2012 to 2013.

Michigan's low total certainly jumps out. The Wolverines' on-field performance and recruiting dipped during the Rich Rodriguez era, and so did their number of next-level players. But all signs point to things turning around under Brady Hoke, who runs a pro-style offense and has upgraded recruiting.

Michigan State and Illinois have steady numbers of combine invites. The big difference is that the Spartans have translated next-level players into a success on the field, while the Illini have not. Illinois' success on draft day and struggles on Saturday simply don't add up. Talent isn't the issue in Champaign.

Which Big Ten team is getting the most out of its talent? Northwestern. The Wildcats have won 23 games the past three seasons and sent only one player to the combine. That's a bit of a concern going forward, as Northwestern produced a few more pros under Randy Walker. But Pat Fitzgerald is gradually upgrading recruiting, and if he continues to win, the total should increase.

It'll be interesting to see if Minnesota's numbers go up as MarQueis Gray is the first Gopher at the combine since three players went in 2010.

Curious about the future Big Ten members? Rutgers had a team-record six players receive combine invites to this year's event -- the most in the Big East -- while Maryland is sending one player.

Big Ten's top NFL combine storylines

February, 20, 2013
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The first group of players arrives in Indianapolis today to start the 2013 NFL combine. The event begins with interviews, and the first on-field workouts begin Saturday with the tight ends, offensive linemen and specialists.

The Big Ten is sending 32 players to the combine this year. Here are some of the top storylines to watch when the league's contingent auditions for pro scouts:
  • Denard Robinson presents arguably the most intriguing case of the Big Ten players, if not the the entire combine. The former Michigan quarterback should put up some of the best numbers around in the 40-yard dash -- remember, he once said he could beat Usain Bolt in the 40. But will that be enough to convince teams to take him as a wide receiver prospect? He'll have to display better hands than he did in the Senior Bowl, but Robinson has had a few more weeks to practice since then. It only takes one team to fall in love with his potential.
  • Three of the most productive running backs in college football will represent the Big Ten at the combine, but where will they land? Wisconsin's Montee Ball already knows he probably won't wow scouts with his workout numbers or physicality, but all he did was score more touchdowns than any other FBS player in history. Meanwhile, Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell will have to answer questions about his speed, which he could begin to do with solid times in the 40-yard dash and other drills. It will be interesting to see at what weight Bell, who was officially listed at 237 pounds last season, tips the scales in Indy. And what about Rex Burkhead? The Nebraska star has always been a better athlete than casual observers realize and could turn some heads at the combine if his knee, which caused him to miss the senior all-star games, is fully healed.
  • Some excellent defensive tackle prospects from the league will be at the combine, but they do come with question marks attached. Johnathan Hankins has been projected as an early first-round pick but will have to back up the hype with a strong showing in Indy. Hankins and Purdue's Kawann Short will be scrutinized both for their conditioning and their motors. Short has first-round talent if he can prove that he doesn't take plays off. No one would accuse Penn State's Jordan Hill of lacking energy, but scouts wonder if he can hold up in the NFL at a listed 294 pounds. He'll need to prove his strength on the bench press. Illinois' Akeem Spence skipped his senior year despite a lack of buzz about his performances, but he could make an impression this week with his athleticism.
  • How will scouts view Ohio State's John Simon? The Buckeyes defensive end was the Big Ten defensive player of the year but will likely be asked to move to outside linebacker because of his size. Simon has always been known as a workout warrior, so he could put up some explosive numbers on the bench press and elsewhere if his shoulder, which caused him to miss the season finale and the Senior Bowl, is back in full working order. Urban Meyer praised Simon's leadership skills to anyone who would listen, but will those traits come out this week?
  • Speaking of leadership skills, Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti will be limited in the physical workouts because of the knee injury he suffered late in the year. But Mauti -- who wrote a letter to every NFL GM about his love for the game -- should shine in the interview sessions. Teams will want extensive information on his knees before they consider drafting him. He'll have a lot of people rooting for him to make it.
  • Michigan State's William Gholston didn't dominate on the field as much as general managers would like, but his 6-foot-7, 270-pound frame will certainly have scouts leaning forward in their seats. Gholston will need to show explosion out of his stance and answer questions about his work ethic. But his freakish physical skills could see him rise up draft boards.
  • Speaking of physical freaks, Minnesota's MarQueis Gray is another interesting draft candidate. At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, he can fill a lot of different roles, and he played both quarterback and receiver for the Gophers. He's officially grouped with the quarterbacks at the combine, but some teams may see him as a receiver or even tight end.
  • Michigan State's Johnny Adams was viewed as a possible first-round pick coming into the season but saw his draft stock drop during an up-and-down senior year. He missed the Spartans' bowl game and the Senior Bowl while dealing with a case of turf toe. Can he get back on track with a strong combine showing?
Way back in the heady days of the 2012 preseason, we ranked every Big Ten position group from No. 1 through 12. We had to base our thoughts on previous performance and a lot of projections in August.

We're going back now and issuing a final, postseason ranking for each position group, and these will be far less subjective now because we have an actual full season's worth of data on hand.

Quarterbacks, naturally, are up first. (Those guys hog all the glory). You can take a look back and see how we ranked this group in the preseason here. Depth is an important factor in these position rankings, but having a standout main guy under center (or in the shotgun) is the most overriding concern with this group.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteThanks to consistent play by QB Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes finished the 2012 season unbeaten.
1. Ohio State (Preseason rank: 5): We figured Braxton Miller would improve greatly in his second year of starting and in Urban Meyer's system. We didn't know he'd become the Big Ten offensive player of the year or finish fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. While he didn't always throw the ball with precision, Miller made all the big plays and led his team to a 12-0 record. The biggest preseason worry was what would happen if he got hurt. Kenny Guiton answered that in the Purdue comeback.

2. Penn State (Preseason: 12): The Nittany Lions were dead last in our preseason rankings, and with good reason considering their past performances at the position. But I did write at the time: "Call me an optimist, but I believe Matt McGloin will be more effective at quarterback now that he's got a more modern offensive system and peace of mind that he's the starter." Uh, yeah. McGloin led the Big Ten in passing yards (3,266) and passing touchdowns (24) while throwing only five interceptions. And he stayed healthy, keeping Penn State's youthful backups from getting exposed.

3. Nebraska (Preseason: 3): Taylor Martinez led the Big Ten in total offense and completed a career-best 62 percent of his passes. When he was good, he was as good as there was in the league. But he still struggled with turnovers in key games, including 12 interceptions and numerous fumbles. If he can eliminate the mistakes, the sky's the limit.

4. Michigan (Preseason: 2): The Wolverines are a hard to team to peg in these rankings. Do we rank them based on Denard Robinson's poor showings in big games against Alabama and Notre Dame? Do we rank them based on Devin Gardner's strong finish to the season, when he was as productive as any Big Ten QB? How much do we factor in the team's lack of a solid backup plan in the Nebraska loss when Robinson got hurt early? You have to weigh the good with the bad, which makes this spot feel about right.

5. Northwestern (Preseason: 9): Starting quarterback Kain Colter threw for 872 yards, which was nearly 450 yards less than nominal backup Trevor Siemian. But Colter also rushed for 894 yards and kept defenses off balance with his versatility. Meanwhile, the Wildcats could use Siemian when they needed to stretch the field. The next step for Northwestern is developing a more consistent downfield passing attack.

6. Indiana (Preseason: 11): Who would have guessed in the preseason that the Hoosiers would actually exhibit the best depth at quarterback? After starter Tre Roberson went down in Week 2, Indiana was able to plug in juco transfer Cameron Coffman and true freshman Nate Sudfeld to sustain the league's top passing offense. The three combined to throw for more than 3,700 yards. Coffman got the bulk of the work but needed a better touchdown-to-interception ration than his 15-to-11 mark.

7. Purdue (Preseason: 1): We overrated the Boilermakers' depth in the preseason. It turned out that only one of the trio of former starters performed at a high level, and Robert Marve didn't play enough because of a torn ACL and Danny Hope's misguided insistence on sticking with Caleb TerBush. Purdue actually led the Big Ten in passing touchdowns (30) and finished third in passing yards, but much of that was because the team often had to throw the ball a lot after falling way behind. This ranking could have been higher with a full season of Marve.

8. Wisconsin (Preseason: 8): Danny O'Brien quickly showed that he was not the next Russell Wilson, but luckily the Badgers had some depth. Redshirt freshman Joel Stave showed major promise before his season was derailed by a broken collarbone, and Curt Phillips turned in a nice comeback story by managing the team well down the stretch. Still, Wisconsin ranked last in the Big Ten in passing yards.

9. Michigan State (Preseason: 10): It was not exactly a season to remember for first-year starter Andrew Maxwell, who was benched late in the Spartans' bowl game. But for all his struggles, Maxwell still finished No. 4 in the league in passing and had some nice games in the middle of the year.

10. Minnesota (Preseason: 6): What could MarQueis Gray have done if he hadn't hurt his ankle, prompting an eventual move to receiver? True freshman Philip Nelson took over the reins midseason and broke out with a huge first half against Purdue. However, he failed to throw for more than 80 yards in the team's final three regular season games. Nelson led the team with just 873 passing yards on the season, and the Gophers threw 15 interceptions.

11. Iowa (Preseason: 4): Nobody took a bigger tumble than the Hawkeyes, as James Vandenberg went from a 3,000-yard passer as a junior to often looking lost as a senior. He completed only 57.3 percent of his passes and tossed only seven touchdowns, with eight interceptions, and Iowa showed almost no ability to go vertical. And no other Hawkeye attempted a pass all season.

12. Illinois (Preseason: 7): The Illini had experience at the position with Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole, but they were both part of a wildly dysfunctional offense. Illinois was next-to-last in passing yards in the Big Ten and also had just 11 touchdown passes versus 14 interceptions. In fairness, both QBs were often running for their lives and had very little help.

The Big Ten's All-Bowl team

January, 10, 2013
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The Big Ten won only two bowl games this season, but several players stood out around the league.

Let's take a look at ESPN.com's Big Ten All-Bowl squad ...

OFFENSE

QB: Devin Gardner, Michigan -- There weren't many good choices around the league, but Gardner fired three touchdown passes and racked up 214 pass yards. He has accounted for at least two touchdowns in all five of his starts at quarterback for the Wolverines.

RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State -- The nation's ultimate workhorse running back did his thing in his final game as a Spartan. Bell had 32 carries for 145 yards and a touchdown, recording his eighth 100-yard rushing performance of the season. He also threw a 29-yard pass on a pivotal third-down play.

RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska -- Another back who stood out in his final collegiate game, Burkhead racked up 140 rush yards and a touchdown on 24 carries, and added four receptions for 39 yards. It's really too bad we didn't get to see what Burkhead could have done all season when healthy.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Gallon
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJeremy Gallon celebrates one of his two touchdown catches against South Carolina.
WR: Jeremy Gallon, Michigan -- Gallon recorded career highs in receptions (9) and receiving yards (145), and scored two touchdowns against a strong South Carolina defense in the Outback Bowl. It was his third 100-yard receiving performance of the season.

WR: Derrick Engel, Minnesota -- Along with quarterback Philip Nelson, Engel provided some hope for Minnesota's future on offense with 108 receiving yards on four receptions in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. His 42-yard reception marked the third longest of Minnesota's season.

TE: Dan Vitale, Northwestern -- The freshman provided offensive balance Northwestern needed against a Mississippi State team that focused on taking away Venric Mark and the run game. Vitale recorded team highs in both receptions (7) and receiving yards (82) as Northwestern ended the nation's longest bowl losing streak in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

OL: Taylor Lewan, Michigan -- Everyone remembers Jadeveon Clowney's near decapitation of Michigan's Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl -- which resulted from a miscommunication between Lewan and tight end Mike Kwiatkowski -- but the Wolverines' left tackle did a good job overall against college football's most dominant defensive lineman. Lewan anchored a line that helped Michigan put up decent numbers against an elite defense.

OL: Zac Epping, Minnesota -- Minnesota's offensive line showed flashes of the dominance it displayed for much of the Glen Mason era against Texas Tech. The Gophers racked up 222 rush yards and two touchdowns on 54 carries, as Epping and his linemates opened up holes for Donnell Kirkwood, Rodrick Williams and MarQueis Gray.

OL: Brian Mulroe, Northwestern -- Mulroe made his 40th career start and helped Northwestern finally get over the hump in a bowl game. The Wildcats had a balanced offensive attack, avoided the penalty flag and didn't allow a sack against Mississippi State.

OL: Cole Pensick, Nebraska -- Stepping in for the injured Justin Jackson at center, Pensick helped the Huskers find success running the ball against Georgia, especially up the middle. Nebraska had 239 rushing yards in the Capital One Bowl.

OL: Travis Frederick, Wisconsin: The Badgers rushed for 218 yards against Stanford, which came into the Rose Bowl with the nation's No. 3 rush defense. They also gave up only one sack to a defense which led the FBS in that category. Frederick played very well at center and announced he would skip his junior year to enter the NFL draft a few days later.

DEFENSE

DL: Quentin Williams, Northwestern -- Williams set the tone for Northwestern's win with an interception returned for a touchdown on the third play from scrimmage. He also recorded two tackles for loss, including a sack, in the victory.

DL: William Gholston, Michigan State -- Another player who stood out in his final collegiate game, Gholston tied for the team lead with nine tackles, including a sack, and had a pass breakup in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win against TCU. The freakishly athletic defensive end stepped up in a bowl game for the second straight season.

DL: Tyler Scott, Northwestern -- Scott and his fellow linemates made life tough for turnover-prone Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell in the Gator Bowl. The Wildcats junior defensive end recorded three tackles for loss, including two sacks, and added a quarterback hurry in the win.

DL: Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota -- The big man in the center of Minnesota's defensive line stood out against Texas Tech, recording six tackles, including a sack, and a pass breakup. Gophers fans should be fired up to have Hageman back in the fold for the 2013 season.

LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State -- Bullough once again triggered a strong defensive performance by Michigan State, which held TCU to just three points in the final two and a half quarters of the Wings bowl. The junior middle linebacker tied with Gholston for the team tackles lead (9) and assisted on a tackle for loss.

LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin -- The Badgers' defense clamped down against Stanford after a slow start, and Borland once again stood out with his play at middle linebacker. The standout junior led Wisconsin with nine tackles as the defense kept the Badgers within striking distance in Pasadena.

LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan -- Ryan capped a breakout season with another strong performance in the bowl game, recording 1.5 tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and half a sack. He'll enter 2013 as a top candidate for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.

CB: Michael Carter, Minnesota -- Carter finished off a strong senior year with two interceptions, a pass breakup and seven tackles in the 34-31 loss to Texas Tech.

CB: Nick VanHoose, Northwestern: The redshirt freshman picked off a Mississippi State pass and returned it 39 yard to set up the game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter.

S: Jared Carpenter, Northwestern: The senior was named MVP of the Gator Bowl win with a game-high 10 tackles and a near interception late in the game.

S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: The Wildcats dominate our all-bowl team secondary for good reason. Campbell had an interception and a pass breakup against the Bulldogs.

Specialists

P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State -- The punters took center stage in Tempe as both offenses struggled, and Sadler provided MSU with a huge lift in the field-position game. He set Spartans bowl records for punts (11) and punting yards (481), averaging 43.7 yards per punt with three inside the 20-yard line. His booming punt inside the TCU 5 helped lead to a game-turning fumble by the Horned Frogs' Skye Dawson.

K: Brendan Gibbons and Matt Wile, Michigan -- Both kickers share the honors after combining to go 3-for-3 on field-goal attempts in the Outback Bowl. Gibbons, the hero of last year's Sugar Bowl, connected from 39 yards and 40 yards in the first half. Wile hit a career-long 52-yard attempt in the third quarter, setting an Outback Bowl record.

Returner: Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota -- It took a bit longer than expected, but Stoudermire finally set the NCAA record for career kick return yards with a 26-yard runback on the opening kickoff against Texas Tech. The senior cornerback finished the game with 111 return yards, including a 37-yard runback, on four attempts.
Three keys for Minnesota in tonight's Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas game against Texas Tech:

1. Get creative offensively: The Gophers had major trouble finding the end zone for large parts of the season. Injuries at quarterback, receiver and on the offensive line kept the Minnesota offense stuck in neutral; it averaged just 13.3 points per game in every Big Ten game except an outlying 44-point outburst against Purdue. The month off has given time for those nicks and bruises to heal and should help senior quarterback/receiver MarQueis Gray be as effective as he was early in the season. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover needs to maximize ways to use the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Gray along with true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson and lead tailback Donnell Kirkwood. The Gophers are still limited at receiver, with A.J. Barker quitting and Andre McDonald suspended. Limegrover must be creative in finding ways to move the ball and somehow keep up with Texas Tech's wide-open offense.

2. Control the skies: Texas Tech had the No. 2 passing attack in the country, averaging 362 yards per game in the air this season. That's no surprise, given the recent history in Lubbock. The good news for Minnesota is that defending the pass is the Gophers' strength -- they had the No. 11 pass defense in the country this season. Cornerbacks Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire must turn in great games, along with safety Derrick Wells, against standout receivers Eric Ward and Darrin Moore. That won't be enough against a team likely to line up four and five wide receivers every snap, so defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman and D.L. Wilhite will have to get pressure on Seth Doege and find ways to disrupt his rhythm. At the very least, the Gophers must take a bend-but-don't-break attitude and force the Red Raiders to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns.

3. Do all the little things right: Let's be honest: Minnesota is a huge underdog in this game and would probably be playing a much easier opponent if Ohio State and Penn State were bowl eligible. It's a tough matchup for a team that doesn't score a whole lot in what is almost a road game. But the Gophers still have a chance against a Texas Tech squad that lost four of its final five and saw its head coach bolt for Cincinnati after the season. They just have very little margin for error. Special teams have to come up big. They can't afford many penalties. And they absolutely must win the turnover battle and keep the Red Raiders offense off the field as much as possible. They're going to need some luck and to play nearly a perfect game. The good news: Minnesota should be far more excited to be in this game than the Red Raiders.

Big Ten predictions: Bowl picks

December, 27, 2012
12/27/12
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Big Ten bowl season officially arrives tomorrow night when Minnesota kicks off the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas against Texas Tech.

Heavens knows I need a new season to begin after a horrible showing in the regular season, when I finished a full five games behind Rittenberg. My pride suffered, and so did my bank account when I was forced to pick up his steak at St. Elmo's in Indy.

But bowl season offers a chance at redemption, not just for me but for the Big Ten as a whole after the league took some beatings in the fall. Here are our picks for the seven bowl games involving conference teams:

Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas

MINNESOTA vs. TEXAS TECH (Dec. 28)

Brian Bennett: The Red Raiders have an interim coach, and Minnesota has had a month to heal the many injuries that ravaged its offense late in the season, both of which are positives for the Gophers. I think Matt Limegrover will find some creative ways to use MarQueis Gray. Still, Minnesota lacks the weapons to go up and down the field against a high-scoring Big 12 team. Michael Carter and the Gophers secondary will make some plays but not enough to stop Texas Tech, which pulls away after a close first two-and-half quarters. ... Texas Tech 31, Minnesota 17.

Adam Rittenberg: The Gophers' defense is much improved in Year 2 under Tracy Claeys, but you need a decent amount of offensive firepower to keep pace with Texas Tech. Like you, my concern is the lack of playmakers surrounding Philip Nelson and Gray. Both men will see time at quarterback and help the Gophers take a first-half lead, but a Minnesota turnover changes the game and Texas Tech strikes for two fourth-quarter passing touchdowns to win. ... Texas Tech 34, Minnesota 21

Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl

TCU vs. MICHIGAN STATE

Adam Rittenberg: This figures to be a close, low-scoring game that likely comes down to how much progress Michigan State's offense has made in the past month or so. TCU is loaded with young talent and could contend for the Big 12 title next year, but I saw the Frogs' regular-season finale against Oklahoma and wasn't overly impressed. A heavy dose of Le'Veon Bell combined with a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Andrew Maxwell to Dion Sims gives Michigan State just enough, as the Spartans' defense rises to the occasion once more. ... Michigan State 21, TCU 17


Brian Bennett: I've been wrong about Michigan State most of the year, so what's one more? The extra 15 practices must have helped the Spartans' sluggish passing game at least a little bit, and TCU will have to adapt to a more physical style of play than it saw in the Big 12. Johnny Adams' turf toe injury worries me, but I like Bell to rush for 150 yards in probably his final college game, while Maxwell provides optimism for 2013 with 200 yards passing. Max Bullough makes a defensive stop at the end of the game to seal it. ... Michigan State 20, TCU 16


Heart of Dallas Bowl

PURDUE vs. OKLAHOMA STATE (Jan. 1)

Brian Bennett: There's a reason why the Boilers were the biggest underdog on the board in bowl season. They've got an interim coach in Patrick Higgins and have been exposed by some of the better offenses on their schedule, which is a frightening prospect against the high-flying Cowboys. I believe a healthier defensive line will give Purdue a chance in this one, and Oklahoma State is not going to be really pumped up to be in this game a year after playing in a BCS bowl. Robert Marve tosses a couple of scores and Akeem Shavers runs for 135 yards. But in the end, the Pokes -- led by 175 receiving yards from Josh Stewart -- have a little too much for Purdue in a wild one. ... Oklahoma State 31, Purdue 27


Adam Rittenberg: Again, the Big Ten team might be more motivated than the Big 12 squad, but can Purdue keep up on the scoreboard? I don't think so. Although cornerbacks Josh Johnson and Ricardo Allen give the Boilers' a chance against the pass-happy Pokes, Purdue isn't consistent enough or dangerous enough on offense to pace Oklahoma State. I agree Marve has a nice performance in his final college game and Antavian Edison scores twice, but Purdue will be playing catch up after a rough first half and falls short. ... Oklahoma State 38, Purdue 28


TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl

MISSISSIPPI STATE vs. No. 20 NORTHWESTERN (Jan. 1)

Adam Rittenberg: Is this the year Northwestern ends the bowl losing streak? I think it is for several reasons. Northwestern has its most complete team under coach Pat Fitzgerald. The Wildcats can run the ball effectively and perform well for the most part on special teams. Plus, they ended the season playing better than Mississippi State. Northwestern never makes it easy and will have some tense moments in this one, but Venric Mark and Kain Colter will find room, combining for 175 rush yards and two scores. Backup quarterback Trevor Siemian comes in to throw a third-quarter touchdown and linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo seals the win with an interception. ... Northwestern 27, Mississippi State 24


Brian Bennett: No more monkeying around. Northwestern finally has a more manageable bowl matchup, though it's certainly still not an easy assignment. The month off should help refresh the legs of Colter and Mark, who work their option magic against a mediocre Mississippi State run defense. Mark scores twice on the ground and also returns a punt for a touchdown. The Bulldogs' Tyler Russell shreds the Northwestern defense for 300 passing yards, but Jeff Budzien hits a game-winning field goal with no time left. Fitzgerald and his players party like it's 1949. ... Northwestern 28, Mississippi State 27


Outback Bowl

No. 10 SOUTH CAROLINA vs. No. 18 MICHIGAN (Jan. 1)

Brian Bennett: I like this matchup a lot and think Michigan can get some things done on offense with a month to prep the Devin Gardner/Denard Robinson combo. But South Carolina's fearsome defense has shut down better attacks in wins against Clemson and Georgia this season and will soon enough figure out Al Borges' bag of tricks. Michigan jumps ahead early on a long Robinson run and a Gardner touchdown pass. Jadeveon Clowney & Co. lock things down in the second half, and Connor Shaw runs for a pair of scores for the Gamecocks. ... South Carolina 24, Michigan 17


Adam Rittenberg: It'll be a lot of fun to watch Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan match up against Clowney. Two potential first-round draft picks going at it. I agree Borges will get really creative in this one, but Michigan's offensive line won't be able to stop the Gamecocks for four quarters. The Wolverines make a nice rally in the third quarter as Gardner finds Robinson on a touchdown strike, but South Carolina controls the ball and the clock in the fourth. ... South Carolina 21, Michigan 16


Capital One Bowl

No. 7 GEORGIA vs. No. 16 NEBRASKA (Jan. 1)

Adam Rittenberg: It's hard to have much faith in Nebraska after what we witnessed in Indianapolis. Great teams don't let down on defense like the Huskers did. Great teams don't play such a chaotic brand of football with so many turnovers. Maybe the Huskers face a napping Bulldogs team, jump ahead behind their dynamic offense and hold on for the win. But I don't see it. Georgia will be sluggish early, but I get the sense Aaron Murray wants to make a statement after the way the SEC championship game ended. Murray and the Bulldogs light up the Huskers in the second half, while Taylor Martinez commits two costly turnovers. ... Georgia 38, Nebraska 23

Brian Bennett: Does either team want to be here? Can either defense stop the other? Those are the main questions leading into this game. I'm not too worried about the disappointment angle but am concerned about Nebraska's ability to slow down Murray, Todd Gurley and a well-balanced Bulldogs offense. The Huskers and Taylor Martinez absolutely must hang onto the football in this one, but I see Jarvis Jones forcing a couple of costly turnovers. Nebraska will do a good job against the pass but will give up too much in the running game, as Gurley goes for 150 and a pair of scores. Martinez compiles 300 total yards but is pressured more often than he's used to and forces a couple of bad throws. Georgia owns the fourth quarter. ... Georgia 35, Nebraska 24.


Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO

WISCONSIN vs. No. 6 STANFORD (Jan. 1)

Brian Bennett: These two teams share a lot of similar traits, as Stanford is the most Big Ten-like Pac-12 team imaginable. The line of scrimmage will be for grown men only. I'd like Wisconsin's chances a lot better if the team didn't have to deal with the distraction of the coaching turmoil. No matter what the Badgers say, that had to hurt their preparation at least a little bit. Plus, the Cardinal seem a little better equipped to throw the ball if the rushing game gets stuffed, while Wisconsin is a little more one-dimensional and will face one of the best run defenses in America. Never count out Barry Alvarez in Pasadena, but I think Montee Ball will have to work a little too hard for his yards in this one. Stanford beats the Badgers at their own game, running the clock out late with a physical rushing attack as Wisconsin goes 0-for-Pasathreena. ... Stanford 24, Wisconsin 21.


Adam Rittenberg: We can't agree on every pick, can we? Nah. Barry's back and I'm a believer. Stanford's defense is as good as advertised, but the Badgers' offense is confident after the Big Ten title game and once again will empty the playbook. The Badgers score early on some razzle-dazzle, and receive a strong performance from Ball (150 rush yards, 2 TDs) in his final collegiate game. Stanford's pressure forces a turnover in the third quarter that changes momentum, but Wisconsin's underrated defense will be the difference, as Chris Borland forces a Stepfan Taylor fumble in crunch time. Alvarez improves to 4-0 in the Rose. ... Wisconsin 24, Stanford 23


Season records

Adam Rittenberg: 76-21 (.784)
Brian Bennett: 71-26 (.732)

B1G bowl primer: Meineke Car Care Bowl

December, 18, 2012
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Our snapshots of each bowl featuring a Big Ten team continue.

MEINEKE CAR CARE BOWL OF TEXAS

Minnesota (6-6) vs. Texas Tech (7-5)

Where: Houston, Reliant Stadium

When: Dec. 28, 9 p.m. ET (8 p.m. CT)

TV: ESPN

About Minnesota: The Gophers return to a bowl game for the first time since the 2009 season after doubling their wins total from 2011 in coach Jerry Kill's second year. Thanks to an improved defense, Minnesota surged to a 4-0 start before struggling in Big Ten play. Injuries forced Minnesota to use three different starting quarterbacks: senior MarQueis Gray, sophomore Max Shortell and freshman Philip Nelson, who lost his redshirt midway through the season and started the final six contests. The Gophers finished 11th nationally in pass defense and bolstered their pass rush behind senior end D.L. Wilhite and junior tackle Ra'Shede Hageman. Nelson showed some flashes of potential in a home victory against Purdue, but injuries piled up for the Gophers' offense, which scored just 54 points in the final four games.

About Texas Tech: Like Minnesota, the Red Raiders saw most of their gains in the first half of the season. They won their first four games and six of their first seven before dropping four of their final five. The poor finish combined with mounting criticism led to the somewhat surprising departure of coach Tommy Tuberville to Cincinnati following the regular season. Texas Tech acted quickly in naming rising star Kliff Kingsbury as head coach, although offensive line Chris Thomsen will coach the Red Raiders in the bowl. The passing tradition at Tech is alive and well as Seth Doege triggers the nation's No. 2 pass offense (361.9 yards per game), and the Red Raiders also rank in the top 20 nationally in both scoring and total offense. The defense performed well through the first half, shutting down then-Heisman Trophy favorite Geno Smith and West Virginia, but the unit struggled late, surrendering more than 50 points in four of the final six contests.

Key players, Minnesota: Gray is set to play his final game in a Gophers uniform, and as has been the case for much of his career, his position is somewhat of a mystery. Gray started at quarterback last season and opened this fall as the team's top signal-caller, but knee and ankle injuries forced him to wide receiver. The extended break before the bowl has allowed Gray to get healthy, and both he and Nelson are practicing at quarterback. Although running back Donnell Kirkwood has been good at times, Minnesota lacks offensive playmakers. Senior cornerback Michael Carter headlines the secondary after recording two interceptions and 14 pass breakups this fall. Wilhite tied for second in the Big Ten with 8.5 sacks.

Key players, Texas Tech: Doege ranks 14th nationally in pass efficiency (156.6 rating) and ninth in total offense (331.1 ypg), having eclipsed 300 pass yards in nine of 12 games with a 499-yard effort against West Virginia and a 476-yard performance against Kansas. He has two excellent targets in wide receivers Darrin Moore and Eric Ward, both of whom rank in the top 20 nationally in receptions and in the top 30 nationally in receiving yards. Junior defensive end Kerry Hyder triggers Texas Tech's pass rush with five sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. Senior safety Cody Davis leads the unit in tackles (91) and interceptions (3), and ranks second in pass breakups (7).

Did you know: The teams' only previous meeting was a memorable one, as Texas Tech made a huge comeback to force overtime and eventually beat Minnesota in the 2006 Insight Bowl. The blown lead led to Minnesota's firing of longtime coach Glen Mason the next day. ... Texas Tech is bowl-eligible for the 19th time in the past 20 seasons. ... Minnesota will be looking for its first bowl win since the 2004 Music City Bowl, when it defeated Alabama 20-16. ... Minnesota is 5-9 all-time in bowls and has dropped four straight. ... Texas Tech makes its third appearance in what's now known as the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. Texas Tech played in the inaugural game in 2000 (then named the galleryfurniture.com Bowl) at the Astrodome and again in 2003 (then named the EV1.net Houston Bowl) at Reliant Stadium. Texas Tech's last appearance resulted in a 38-14 win over Navy on Dec. 30, 2003.
Minnesota freshman quarterback Philip Nelson is one of the many young Gophers players benefiting from bowl practices this month.

But he's not the only player taking reps under center.

Senior MarQueis Gray, who started the season at quarterback before ankle and knee injuries forced a move to wide receiver, is "healthier right now than he's been since the start of the season," Gophers head coach Jerry Kill told ESPN.com on Friday. Gray is practicing at quarterback alongside Nelson and could take some snaps against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.

"Both those kids are working at quarterback," Kill said. "It's a great time to polish up your skills and get fresh legs underneath you. Both of those guys have done very well in practice."

Gray had 464 pass yards and five touchdowns with two interceptions, and added 331 rush yards and four touchdowns at quarterback for the Gophers this season. He ran the zone option well, and the offense moved the ball well at times with Gray in the backfield. Gray came to Minnesota as a quarterback but played mostly wide receiver in 2010 and during the second half of this season.

Nelson stepped in midway through the season after injuries to both Gray and Max Shortell, who recently opted to transfer. Nelson showed impressive poise for a true freshman and had a huge performance in a Oct. 27 win against Purdue, although he struggled down the stretch.

Injuries piled up for Minnesota's offense, especially along the line. Although Kill doesn't expect to get everyone back, the Gophers will have center Jon Christenson for the bowl game, which allows Zac Epping to move back to guard.

"Being able to get some stability in there will certainly help the continuity and will help us be able to move the ball better offensively," Kill said. "That was our struggle at the end of the year. We were just so beat up. We just didn't have very many kids left on the offensive side of the ball."

Best case/worst case: Big Ten bowls

December, 13, 2012
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If you recall, we presented our best-case/worst-case scenario for each Big Ten team's 2012 campaign during the preseason.

We'll leave it to you to decide which teams came closest to the best- or worst-case outlook this season. We're turning our attention to bowl season and offering a best-case/worst-case scenario for each league team in the postseason.

True, the best case for any team includes a bowl victory, while the worst case includes a loss. But there are different ways to win and lose, some better -- or worse -- than others.

So here's the potential zenith and nadir for each Big Ten bowl team:

Minnesota

Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas vs. Texas Tech, Dec. 28, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best Case: The month off works wonders for the Gophers' injury-plagued offense, as true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson gets fans daydreaming about the future by throwing for 350 yards and three touchdowns, two of them to newlywed MarQueis Gray. Minnesota's highly rated pass defense shines against a Texas Tech team thrown into turmoil by coaching changes, and Jerry Kill leads one of the big upsets of bowl season.

Worst Case: Playing a high-scoring Big 12 opponent in Texas is not a good matchup for a Minnesota team that struggled to put up points late in the season. Tommy Tuberville may be gone, but the Red Raiders have a system that works and it's much too powerful for the Gophers in a three-touchdown rout.

Purdue

Heart of Dallas Bowl vs. Oklahoma State, Jan. 1, Noon, ESPNU

Best Case: The Boilers have some positive mojo after winning their final three games. With nothing to lose, they turn in a big bowl performance. Interim coach Patrick Higgins empties the playbook, making Oklahoma State attack look old-fashioned by comparison. Kawann Short and the rest of Purdue's healthy defensive line dominate the line of scrimmage and push around the Cowboys, which are disappointed to be here a year after going to a BCS game.

Worst Case: There's a reason Purdue fired Danny Hope, which included the team's inability to win big games this season. Oklahoma State manhandles the Boilers much as Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State did in Big Ten play. Mike Gundy yells, "I'm a man. I win by 40," and his team follows suit.

Michigan State

Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl vs. TCU, Dec. 29, 10:15 p.m., ESPN

Best Case: Being away from home does wonders for the Spartans, as does an extra month of practice for Andrew Maxwell and the team's young receivers. Michigan State comes out looking like a new team in the desert, flinging the ball around with ease while Le'Veon Bell runs for 175 yards. The defense locks down TCU, and after the big victory, Bell, tight end Dion Sims and the other draft-eligible underclassmen all say they're coming back in 2013.

Worst Case: Michigan State fans suffer through yet another abysmal offensive showing by their team, as the Spartans struggle to generate anything in the passing game and continually punt. The defense is unable to close the game out in a repeat of many of this season's losses. The Spartans lose a low-scoring game on the final play of regulation. Worse, the stadium runs out of wings in the first quarter.

Northwestern

TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl vs. Mississippi State, Jan. 1, Noon, ESPN2

Best Case: Shock the monkey. Northwestern finally gets a favorable postseason matchup and knocks off the Bulldogs for its first bowl win since 1949. Venric Mark and Kain Colter, healed from bumps and bruises, lead a powerful rushing attack that wears down the SEC defense. Cornerback Nick VanHoose records two interceptions as the Wildcats finish 10-3 and set themselves up as a top-20 team for 2013.

Worst Case: More monkey business. Mississippi State's SEC athletes are too much for Northwestern and overwhelm the smallish duo of Mark and Colter. The Wildcats' suspect passing game becomes a liability, and their secondary is exposed time and again. The Bulldogs win the game on a last-second long touchdown pass, giving Pat Fitzgerald's team another heartbreak.

Michigan

Outback Bowl vs. South Carolina, Jan. 1, 1 p.m., ESPN

Best Case: The Devin and Denard Show takes over Tampa, Fla., as a month of practice allows Michigan the time to figure out how to best use the talents of Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson. With both guys running and throwing out of the backfield, South Carolina's defense is hopelessly lost, especially after Taylor Lewan holds Jadeveon Clowney in check. The Wolverines began the year with a blowout loss to the SEC (Alabama). They end it with a blowout win against the SEC.

Worst Case: Clowney's 2013 Heisman Trophy bid begins in earnest here. He wrecks Lewan's draft status and blows up every cute Al Borges play call, as the Gamecocks -- much like Ohio State in the second half -- figure out pretty easily what Michigan is doing with Robinson and Gardner. The season ends much as it was characterized throughout: with a disappointing loss in a big game.

Nebraska

Capital One Bowl vs. Georgia, Jan. 1, 1 p.m., ABC

Best Case: Just as it did in the regular season, Nebraska shows its resiliency by bouncing back from a bad performance in the Big Ten title game. The defense buckles up against a Georgia team disappointed not to be in the national title game, while Taylor Martinez holds onto the ball and befuddles the Dawgs defense. Rex Burkhead rushes for three touchdowns in his final college game as the Huskers finish a highly respectable 11-3 and in the top 15.

Worst Case: The Bulldogs study that Big Ten title game film closely and unleash their own hell on the Blackshirts. Aaron Murray & Co. pile up another 70 points on a Nebraska team not wanting to be in Orlando, Fla., for the second straight year. Martinez turns it over three times, and the game isn't close. The grumbling about Bo Pelini builds into an offseason roar, making 2013 a critical year for the Cornhuskers.

Wisconsin

Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio vs. Stanford, Jan. 1, 5 p.m., ESPN

Best Case: Barry's back, and all he does is win Rose Bowls. Inspired by their coaching legend's return, the Badgers build off their monstrous Big Ten title game performance and break their two-year losing streak in Pasadena, Calif. Montee Ball caps a spectacular career with 200 yards rushing and three touchdowns, while the underrated Wisconsin defense holds down Stanford. Alvarez is so energized by the victory that he names himself permanent coach.

Worst Case: Barry's back, but the game has changed. The turmoil of Bret Bielema's departure and assistants' uncertain futures creates too many distractions. Stanford's terrific run defense takes care of the rest, shutting down Ball and the running game and making the Badgers reluctantly turn to a shaky passing attack. The Cardinal are simply too physical for Wisconsin, and "Pasathreena" becomes a third-straight loss for Wisconsin, which faces an uncertain future after an 8-6 season.

Precocious Nelson has Gophers on move

October, 31, 2012
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Minnesota coach Jerry Kill knew he was getting a special player when he recruited quarterback Philip Nelson. He just didn't expect to reap the benefits so soon.

The Gophers had planned to redshirt Nelson this season. But after MarQueis Gray injured his ankle and the offense stalled a bit under Max Shortell, those plans changed quickly.

[+] EnlargePhilip Nelson
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireMinnesota freshman Philip Nelson has made a strong early impression on the Gophers.
"We were missing something," Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover told ESPN.com. "We're not good enough right now as an offense, particularly up front, to say 'OK, we're going to have a quarterback manage the game and not ask him to do anything with his legs, and we're just going to mash people.' We just can't do that right now."

So in came Nelson two weeks ago to start at Wisconsin. And after his jaw-dropping home debut last week against Purdue, suddenly the entire outlook for Minnesota has changed.

The 19-year-old stunned the Boilermakers by completing 13 of his first 14 and threw three touchdowns with no interceptions as the Gophers zoomed out to a 34-7 halftime lead. We named him our Big Ten player of the week for that effort.

How does a true freshman in only his second collegiate game perform like that? Minnesota coaches say Nelson isn't your average freshman quarterback.

"Through 30 years of coaching, I've been fortunate to always get a quarterback that has the 'It' factor," said Kill, who recruited Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch to Northern Illinois. "Philip is along those lines. He's just got that knack for playing the game."

"When all his DNA was put together," Limegrover says, "it was put together to be a quarterback."

Nelson's father, Pat, was a quarterback at Wisconsin in the 1970s. Philip was Minnesota's Mr. Football out of Mankato West High school, where he set state passing records and learned how to command a no-huddle offense. Nelson enrolled at Minnesota last spring to get a jump on his college career.

"You could see that development start right away, almost literally the first day he came to campus," Limegrover said. "By the time he got to fall camp, it wasn't like he was a kid showing up for the first time. He already kind of had a veteran presence about him when we started."

So why did it take until Week 6 for the Gophers to play Nelson? Well, they had Gray, who came on strong at the end of last season and who is a dangerous dual threat. Nelson had a hamstring injury in fall camp that set him back a little bit. And remember, Minnesota started 4-0.

"There wasn't a sense that we had to push the urgency button," Kill said. "You wish you had a crystal ball to make all the predictions of what has happened the last four or five weeks, but we don't. ... I think the best thing about Philip is that he's learned a lot through this process the whole time."

Nelson didn't learn until late in the week before the Wisconsin game that he would be starting, but he took the decision in stride. Listen to him in interviews, and he already sounds like a polished veteran. He told reporters that he prepared every week as if he would be the starter "just to make sure that my opportunity wouldn't embarrass me." And he has made the wise move of rooming with three offensive line starters -- Josh Campion, Caleb Bak and Marek Lenkiewicz -- to build a bond with his most important supporting cast members.

Limegrover praises Nelson's unflappability, accuracy and smarts, in addition to his quick release and mobility at 6-foot-2, 222 pounds. In last week's game against Purdue, Nelson threw away a few passes where it looked like Minnesota might have been able to make a play. Limegrover thought those were wasted opportunities -- until he watched the film.

"When you look at, you're like, 'Oh, my, I see exactly why he did what he did,'" Limegrover said. "He didn't want to turn ball over or he didn't want to take a sack or maybe he knew we were already in field goal range. That's something that is really underestimated in quarterbacks in general and especially young quarterbacks, that kind of decision-making."

Minnesota (5-3) is now just one win away from bowl eligibility with Michigan coming to TCF Bank Stadium this week. The Wolverines, who beat the Gophers 58-0 in Ann Arbor last season, will provide a stiff test for the young quarterback with their disciplined defense. But Kill's team has now found its new leader on offense, along with another weapon at receiver in the multi-talented Gray. So Minnesota is thinking big.

"Last year, we talked about there were two embarrassing games for us, against Purdue and Michigan," Nelson said. "We made one of them right, and we're ready to go make another one right this week."

Big Ten predictions: Week 9

October, 25, 2012
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Some weeks are better than others, and Week 9 in the Big Ten is a very good one. All six games pair fairly evenly matched teams, and there's something at stake in all six contests (yes, even Indiana-Illinois).

These might be our most challenging picks of the season, which could be a good thing for Brian Bennett, who trails Adam Rittenberg by a whopping five games in the season standings.

Without further ado, let's get to the picks ...

IOWA at NORTHWESTERN

Brian Bennett: Both teams are searching for some answers on defense, but the Wildcats are much healthier than the Hawkeyes, who are banged up at offensive line and running back. I think we'll see Northwestern get back to running the ball more with Kain Colter and Venric Mark this week, which works well enough to hold back an Iowa team whose quarterback is under fire. ... Northwestern 23, Iowa 17

Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern does have some injury issues of its own at cornerback, but James Vandenberg hasn't been able to take advantage of much this season. I like this matchup for Northwestern, even though the Wildcats have an identity crisis on offense right now. Iowa takes the early lead, but Northwestern finally puts the ball in Colter's hands, and he rushes for two second-half touchdowns. Mark Weisman bullies his way to 100 rush yards, but Northwestern gets it done on Homecoming. ... Northwestern 24, Iowa 20

INDIANA at ILLINOIS

Adam Rittenberg: I really think Illinois will be better following the open week -- the Illini can't get much worse -- and should capitalize on Indiana's defensive woes. But Indiana's spread offense matches up very well against an Illinois defense that, while talented, struggles mightily against spread teams. Hoosiers receivers Shane Wynn, Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes each catch touchdowns and Indiana finally finds a way to hold on for its first Big Ten win under Kevin Wilson. ... Indiana 31, Illinois 27

Brian Bennett: I guess I can't pick both to lose this week, huh? The Hoosiers have been much more competitive for the past several weeks than Illinois has, and their offense is better than any unit the Illini can put out there right now. Expect some new wrinkles from Tim Beckman after the bye week, but Indiana's passing game is too much as Nate Sudfeld comes off the bench for a pair of second-half touchdown passes. ... Indiana 28, Illinois 27

PURDUE at MINNESOTA

Brian Bennett: One of these teams has to get itself off the mat, and I think it's going to be Minnesota. Purdue has to be feeling a bit of a hangover from last week's heartbreaking loss to Ohio State, and another week of experience will do wonders for Gophers freshman quarterback Philip Nelson. He throws a key touchdown pass to MarQueis Gray, and a late field goal wins it. ... Minnesota 20, Purdue 19

Adam Rittenberg: This game is all about Purdue's demeanor after last week's heartbreaker. If we see the team that showed up in Columbus, the Boilers will win. If not, Nelson and the Gophers will get it done. I've been burned before, but I don't think Purdue is finished just yet. The Boilers' defense pressures Nelson, forces some takeaways and limits a low-scoring Gophers offense to 17 points. Purdue hits on some big plays to Gary Bush and Antavian Edison and gets a win it absolutely has to have. ... Purdue 23, Minnesota 17

MICHIGAN STATE at No. 25 WISCONSIN

Adam Rittenberg: I nearly went with the Spartans here, as I just can't believe Mark Dantonio's squad is on the verge of falling below .500. Then again, Wisconsin doesn't lose at Camp Randall Stadium, especially to teams that have no offense. This game follows a familiar script for Michigan State, which hangs around for a while behind its defense but allows a late score. Le'Veon Bell has 120 rush yards, but both Montee Ball and James White score in the second half as Wisconsin prevails. ... Wisconsin 20, Michigan State 13

Brian Bennett: Pretty simple here: Michigan State can't score, and I don't see how that changes this week against an underrated Wisconsin defense that's playing well. Ball & Co. won't find as much running room as normal against this Spartans defense, so quarterback Joel Stave will have to play well. He does well enough to get the win, hitting big passes to Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pedersen to set up scores in a close one. ... Wisconsin 17, Michigan State 14

OHIO STATE at PENN STATE

Brian Bennett: I learned my lesson in picking against Penn State last week. Ohio State is getting thinned by injuries, and quarterback Braxton Miller might not be at full strength after last week's brief hospitalization. Bill O'Brien's offense will pick apart the Buckeyes' questionable back seven as Matt McGloin throws three TD passes. That and a crazed home-field atmosphere are enough to ruin Ohio State's perfect season. ... Penn State 28, Ohio State 21


Adam Rittenberg: The Buckeyes' slow starts, Miller's injury issues and Ohio State's lack of depth at linebacker are real concerns here. Penn State tight ends Kyle Carter and Jesse James find enough gaps in Ohio State's defense, and Bill Belton racks up 115 rush yards and two scores. Miller plays and keeps his team in the game, but Penn State has too much offense and a huge edge with the Beaver Stadium crowd. Buckeyes go down for the first time. ... Penn State 27, Ohio State 24

No. 22 MICHIGAN at NEBRASKA

Adam Rittenberg: I know Nebraska plays much better at home, and quarterback Taylor Martinez has made obvious improvement this season. But Michigan is the steadier team right now, and the better defensive squad. The Wolverines got over the hump last week against rival Michigan State, and they'll find a way to record a signature road win. Linebacker Jake Ryan recovers two Nebraska fumbles and Denard Robinson breaks off a long touchdown run in the fourth quarter as the Wolverines silence the Sea of Red. ... Michigan 26, Nebraska 24

Brian Bennett: The Legends Division race could get pretty boring if Michigan wins in Lincoln. One thing this league has not been this year is predictable. The Wolverines' recent conservative ways on offense will play into the hands of a Huskers defense that plays better when it knows what to expect. Martinez will pick on Michigan cornerbacks and turn in one of the finest moments of his career as Nebraska roars back from an early double-digit deficit to win. ... Nebraska 28, Michigan 23

Season records

Adam Rittenberg: 54-14 (.794)

Brian Bennett: 49-19 (.721)
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill is looking to the future, both with his program and with his best player.

Injuries to top quarterback MarQueis Gray (knee/ankle) and backup Max Shortell (shoulder) prompted Kill to burn the redshirt of heralded incoming recruit Philip Nelson last Saturday at Wisconsin. With only five regular-season games remaining, Kill will keep Nelson, considered the team's quarterback of the future, in the starting role.

Gray, whose knee/ankle issues prevent him from being full strength at quarterback, will work at wide receiver, a position at which he likely projects well in the NFL. The 6-4, 250-pound Gray came to Minnesota as a quarterback but played mostly wide receiver in 2010 and split time between the two positions after returning from his initial injury Oct. 13 against Northwestern.

[+] EnlargePhilip Nelson
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireMinnesota is banking on freshman QB Philip Nelson to lead the way for the Gophers the rest of 2012.
"We made the commitment to pull the redshirt off Philip," Kill said Tuesday. "When you do that, you're going to play the youngster. We may play him and Max. I don't know, with our situation health-wise with MarQueis, when he'll be able to take some snaps. Right now, we just need to worry about keeping somebody healthy."

Kill didn't rule out using Gray at quarterback again this season, but said the fifth-year senior has missed valuable time and has more of a future at wide receiver. Gray finished second on the team in receiving in 2010, recording 42 receptions for 587 yards and five touchdowns. He has 52 receptions for 681 yards and six scores in his career.

Gray will sit out practice Tuesday, as Minnesota tries to get him ready for Saturday's pivotal home showdown against Purdue.

"I really feel bad for him, to be honest with you, because he's such a great talent," Kill said of Gray. "And he's a tough kid. A lot of kids wouldn't play through what he's trying to play through. I'm more concerned about him as a person and also his future. We talk all the time, and he understands where he's at. The most important thing is get him healthy."

Nelson completed 13 of 24 passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions in his collegiate debut, a 38-13 Minnesota loss to Wisconsin. He led Minnesota with 67 rush yards on 16 carries at Camp Randall Stadium, where his father, Pat, played fullback for the Badgers.

Nelson grew up in the Madison area before moving to Minnesota, and was heavily recruited by Wisconsin before choosing to play for his home-state school.

"It's kind of amazing, you take a true freshman, that's where his dad played, a tough place to play," Kill said. "I thought he was very composed. He made a mistake or two there, but we kind of put him in that situation because we were playing catchup.

"He did a really good job. I was very pleased with his effort."

Big Ten Week 9 preview

October, 22, 2012
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Oct. 27 was the date we had circled in the preseason as the best day in the Big Ten. While one of the marquee games has lost some luster, we still have two titanic tilts and other interesting matchups as all 12 teams are in action. Here's an early preview:

Michigan (5-2, 3-0 Big Ten) at Nebraska (5-2, 2-1), 8 p.m., ESPN2: The winner automatically becomes the Legends Division favorite, and if the Wolverines win, they will be tough to catch. Michigan's defense, which has been the best in the Big Ten in conference play, goes against the league's No. 1 offense. Taylor Martinez versus Denard Robinson. A night game at Memorial Stadium. What else do you need?

Ohio State (8-0, 4-0) at Penn State (5-2, 3-0), 5:3o p.m., ESPN: The Ineligi-Bowl. The shadow Leaders Division championship game. Whatever you want to call it, this game is big despite the lack of any postseason implications. The Nittany Lions are playing as well as anyone in the Big Ten and just got done destroying Iowa on the road. This looks like the toughest test to date for the undefeated Buckeyes, who may or may not have quarterback Braxton Miller. They will need him against a Penn State defense that's playing with a lot of emotion.

Michigan State (4-4, 1-3) at Wisconsin (6-2, 3-1), 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2: We've been looking forward to this one since last December after the two teams finished the second of their two classic 2011 heavyweight fights. The Spartans, though, are stumbling into Round 3 and may need to win just to keep their bowl hopes flickering. The Badgers, meanwhile, are rounding back into form the past few weeks. Can Andrew Maxwell dress up as Kirk Cousins for Halloween?

Iowa (4-3, 2-1) at Northwestern (6-2, 2-2), Noon, ESPN2: Both teams saw their Legends hopes take a major hit on Saturday with home losses, so any margin of error is gone. Iowa ended three years of frustration against the Wildcats last year with a 41-31 victory in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes are banged up on offense now, and quarterback James Vandenberg has not been effective. Northwestern has its own issues in the passing game and will need a healthy Venric Mark.

Purdue (3-4, 0-3) at Minnesota (4-3, 0-3), 3:30 p.m. BTN: The math is pretty simple. There are five games left for both teams. Purdue needs three more wins to make a second straight bowl game, while Minnesota needs two victories for its first postseason appearance since 2009. You start playing the schedule game, and both sides look at this one as a game they can win. Somebody's going to break a three-game losing streak, while the other falls to 0-4 in the league. Jerry Kill has surprisingly committed to true freshman Philip Nelson as his quarterback, with MarQueis Gray going to receiver. Danny Hope's team just needs something positive now.

Indiana (2-5, 0-3) at Illinois (2-5, 0-3), Noon, Big Ten Network: We checked with both the NCAA and the Big Ten, which confirmed that one of these two teams will, in fact, earn a victory this week. It's the league's own version of a pillow fight, as the Hoosiers and Illini have combined to lose nine straight games. Of course, Indiana has put up more of a battle, losing four of its last five by four points or less, while the Illini haven't been close to a victory over an FBS opponent since the opener. But Illinois has had two weeks to prepare. We may need that long to recover from watching this one.
The power rankings nearly underwent an extreme makeover in Week 8, as top dogs Ohio State and Michigan had to rally for home wins against heavy underdogs. Nebraska recorded a potential season-saving win against Northwestern, and Penn State made the biggest statement of the day, crushing Iowa at Kinnick Stadium.

Bill O'Brien's team may or may not be the Big Ten's best, but it certainly is playing the best football right now (Wisconsin is a close second). The Lions rise to No. 2 in the power rankings after their destruction of Iowa, and we seriously considered putting them ahead of Ohio State, despite the Buckeyes' perfect record. The good news: We'll find out this week in State College which team is better.

Michigan barely hangs on to the No. 3 spot after beating Michigan State. We considered putting Wisconsin at No. 3 after another dominant win, and the Badgers are looking more and more like their former selves.

Let's get to the rundown ...

1. Ohio State (8-0, 4-0; last week: 1): It looked like the Buckeyes would relinquish the top spot after falling behind Purdue 22-14 in the fourth quarter and losing star quarterback Braxton Miller. But Miller's supporting cast -- namely backup quarterback Kenny Guiton and little-used wide receiver Chris Fields -- came up big in the clutch to keep these very imperfect Buckeyes perfect on the season. The only thing better than the win was the good news about Miller's health after a hospital trip. Urban Meyer's crew now marches on to Penn State.

2. Penn State (5-2, 3-0; last week: 3): Are you a Bill-iever? You should be after Penn State dismantled Iowa at Kinnick Stadium, a place where the Lions hadn't won since 1999. With two weeks to prepare, O'Brien put on a play-calling clinic as Penn State's offense surged behind quarterback Matt McGloin, tight end Kyle Carter, running back Bill Belton and others. The Lions' defense shut down Iowa and seems to be getting better by the week. Penn State has won five straight and returns home to face Ohio State for what should be an incredible setting at Beaver Stadium.

3. Michigan (5-2, 3-0; last week: 2): Like Ohio State, Michigan wasn't sharp on offense for most of Saturday's game, although Michigan State's defense had something to do with it. And like the Buckeyes, the Wolverines rallied late in regulation and survived behind the boot of Brendan Gibbons. Michigan's defense stepped up on third down and in the red zone, as linebacker Jake Ryan continues to play at an elite level. After an emotion-charged, physical game, Michigan will have to reload in a hurry for this week's Legends Division showdown at Nebraska.

4. Wisconsin (6-2, 3-1; last week: 4): One of the nation's best 1-2 punches at running back -- Montee Ball and James White -- propelled the Badgers to another easy win against rival Minnesota, as they retained Paul Bunyan's Axe for the ninth straight year. White carried the offense in the first half, and Ball once again came on strong in the fourth quarter. An underrated defense recorded two interceptions and Wisconsin won its third straight. It's hard not to see Wisconsin playing in Indy on Dec. 1. The Badgers host Michigan State this week in a rematch of the 2011 title game.

5. Nebraska (5-2, 2-1; last week: 6): Nothing comes easy for Bo Pelini's crew on the road, but the Huskers stepped up in the clutch after a flurry of mistakes put them in a 28-16 hole at Northwestern. Following two near interceptions, quarterback Taylor Martinez settled down and led two masterful scoring drives as Nebraska rallied for a win. The Huskers return home for a huge Legends Division showdown against Michigan. With road games left at both Michigan State and Iowa, a win Saturday is critical.

6. Northwestern (6-2, 2-2; last week: 4): For the second time in three weeks, Northwestern held a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter of a game in which it had been dominated on the stat sheet. And once again, the Wildcats couldn't hold on, as they watched a 12-point lead evaporate against Nebraska. Key injuries to star running back Venric Mark and several cornerbacks haunted Northwestern down the stretch, but a head-scratching offensive game plan that barely featured dynamic quarterback Kain Colter was the biggest reason for the loss. The Wildcats try to regroup against Iowa.

7. Michigan State (4-4, 1-3; last week: 7): Mark Dantonio's team came to play in Ann Arbor, and a ferocious defensive performance put the Spartans in position to win their record fifth straight against Michigan. But one-half of a championship formula isn't enough, and the Spartans' pathetic offense once again came up short. The personnel losses from last year's squad have been more dramatic than anyone expected. It has to be frustrating for coordinator Pat Narduzzi and his defense. Another tough road test awaits this week at Wisconsin.

8. Iowa (4-3, 2-1; last week: 7): What a buzz kill. After a gutsy road win at Michigan State, Iowa returned home to a packed house for the lone night game of the year at Kinnick Stadium. And the Hawkeyes laid an egg, never challenging Penn State in a 38-14 loss. Quarterback James Vandenberg and the Hawkeyes' offense sputtered again, and the defense was exposed by McGloin and his weapons. Iowa could still linger in the Legends Division race if it beats Northwestern this week, but the Hawkeyes don't look like they're for real.

9. Purdue (3-4, 0-3; last week: 11): It was right there for Danny Hope's squad -- a breakthrough win against Ohio State, life in the Leaders Division race -- and then it vanished. Credit Purdue for playing with a pulse, particularly on defense, but the mistakes that have cropped up all too often in Hope's tenure surfaced again at Ohio State. A blocked extra point and a blocked field goal attempt loomed large as Purdue should have been up more than eight points in the closing seconds of regulation. The schedule gets a bit easier, but how much do these Boilers have left after Saturday's heartbreaker?

10. Minnesota (4-3, 0-3; last week: 9): The Gophers got a glimpse of their future Saturday as freshman quarterback Philip Nelson made his collegiate debut, starting at Wisconsin. Nelson not surprisingly had mixed results but will continue to be the team's primary quarterback, at least until MarQueis Gray gets a bit healthier. The Gophers need a scoring spark on offense after averaging just 13 points in Big Ten play. Their improved pass rush seems to be offset by spotty rush defense. Their bowl hopes could hinge on this week's home game against Purdue.

11. Indiana (2-5, 0-3; last week: 10): Once again, Indiana found itself in position for a win, and once again, the Hoosiers made just enough mistakes to lose. The defense didn't play great, but this one was on an offense that settled for three short field goals instead of getting the ball in the end zone. Quarterback Cameron Coffman, who entered the game with just one interception for the season, had two picks, one of which was returned for a touchdown. Indiana still can't get over the hump. Maybe it'll happen this week at Illinois.

12. Illinois (2-5, 0-3; last week: 12): At least Tim Beckman's team got through a Saturday without another humbling setback. The week off also should help the Illini get a bit healthier as the injury bug has hit them hard in the first half. If Illinois has any plan to salvage its season, it needs to beat Indiana at home this week. The team's closing stretch isn't that difficult, but Illinois needs a lot of work, especially on offense, to have a chance to win a Big Ten game.

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