NCF Nation: Max Shortell

Pregame: Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas

December, 28, 2012
Minnesota (6-6, 2-6 Big Ten) vs. Texas Tech (7-5, 4-5 Big 12)

WHO TO WATCH: Texas Tech receivers Eric Ward and Darrin Moore. They are big targets in the red zone and caught 24 of quarterback Seth Doege's 38 touchdowns this season. Only two other teams have two receivers with double-digit touchdown catches. Tech's offense runs as Doege, Ward and Moore run. Additionally, tight end Jace Amaro has been cleared to play after missing the final six games of the season with a rib injury. He adds another dangerous asset to Texas Tech's offense, which ranked 12th nationally this year. West Virginia's Geno Smith is the only quarterback with more touchdown passes than Doege.

WHAT TO WATCH: Can Minnesota compete? The two-touchdown line is one of the largest of the bowl season, but the Golden Gophers will have an opportunity to log their best win of the season since knocking off 7-5 Syracuse back on Sept. 22. The Golden Gophers lost three of their final four games of the season -- all by at least 16 points -- but all three losses came to bowl teams. Also, how will both teams handle the loss of big contributors -- wide receiver A.J. Barker (transfer) for Minnesota and cornerback Cornelius Douglas (suspension) for Texas Tech?

WHY TO WATCH: You might find a piece of the answer to the eternal question of how important quarterback play is. Tech's Doege has had his share of struggles, but he has been the guy all season for the Red Raiders and racked up 3,934 passing yards and is 12th nationally in passer rating. Minnesota, meanwhile, has played musical chairs with its quarterbacks all season long and sophomore Max Shortell was frustrated enough to transfer. Philip Nelson will get the start for Minnesota, but will he stay there? Texas Tech fans also can tune in to see how much screen time new coach Kliff Kingsbury gets during the game.

PREDICTION: Texas Tech 34, Minnesota 17. I don't think the Gophers can keep up with the speed and efficiency of Texas Tech's offense. The Red Raiders will have some defensive issues of their own, too, even though Minnesota ranks 111th nationally in total offense. Too much Red Raiders, though. Amaro returns in a big way, and Moore is a pest in the red zone for the Golden Gophers.

Bonus picks! Here's what Big Ten colleagues Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett have to say by way of a prediction:

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 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

B1G bowl primer: Meineke Car Care Bowl

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


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

Where: Houston, Reliant Stadium

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


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 Bowl) at the Astrodome and again in 2003 (then named the 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 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."

Precocious Nelson has Gophers on move

October, 31, 2012
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 "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."

Wisconsin running back James White could start for almost any team in the country.

When Montee Ball said he was coming back for his senior season, White, a junior in line to start only one season, could have looked to play elsewhere. No one would have blamed him for transferring. But the option never entered his mind. He couldn't wait to back up one of his best friends and help Wisconsin try to win another Big Ten title.

White's opportunity arrived Saturday against Minnesota, both before and after Ball briefly left the game with an ankle injury in the third quarter. The junior delivered in a big way, racking up 175 rush yards and three touchdowns on only 15 carries as Wisconsin beat Minnesota 38-13 to retain Paul Bunyan's Axe for a record ninth consecutive time. Ball wasn't too shabby himself with 166 rush yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries, but White carried the offense for stretches.

The Badgers' run game was too much for a Gophers team led by quarterback Philip Nelson, who made his collegiate debut and started the game. With MarQueis Gray (knee) still hobbled and Max Shortell ineffective in Big Ten games, Gophers coach Jerry Kill burned Nelson's redshirt in Week 8, a debatable decision that looked a bit better by the end of the day.

Nelson not surprisingly had mixed results, racking up 149 pass yards, 67 rush yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions. He made some nice throws into traffic and showed good mobility in an offense that requires it. Nelson also made some freshman mistakes, like a fourth-quarter pass picked off by linebacker Ethan Armstrong. Minnesota went 1-for-10 on third down. Still, the Gophers' quarterback of the future certainly could be the quarterback of the present, at least until Gray gets healthier.

But Wisconsin had too much firepower, even on the day where the offense looked choppy at times. Once again, the Badgers turned it on in the fourth quarter, as Ball returned from injury to cap an 11-play, 60-yard drive with a 14-yard touchdown run. After Nelson's second interception, Ball raced in from 44 yards out -- game, set, axe. Wisconsin's offensive production has steadily increased during the course of the season, and especially as recent games have worn on.

White and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis kept Wisconsin's offense afloat in the first half. White had seven rushes for 98 yards and two touchdowns, while Abbrederis had two leaping receptions for 68 yards. The rest of the team accounted for just 34 yards, as Minnesota consistently put pressure on freshman quarterback Joel Stave, who looked good on play-action passes but not much else.

Wisconsin took another step toward Indianapolis, and Bret Bielema's team seems to be getting stronger as the year goes on. Minnesota, meanwhile, dropped its third straight league game. The Gophers try to regroup next week against Purdue.
When Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray initially hurt his knee and ankle in Week 3, coach Jerry Kill maintained that the team would keep the redshirt on heralded quarterback Philip Nelson.

Recent events have led Kill to change his mind.

From the Star Tribune:
Nelson will make his collegiate debut in Camp Randall Stadium as the Gophers' starting quarterback on Saturday, barring a last-minute change of plans by Minnesota's coaches, a source close to the football program told the Star Tribune. Nelson, who spent the week taking most of the snaps with Minnesota's first-team offense, will replace Max Shortell, who has been inconsistent in three starts. MarQueis Gray, the source said, remains hobbled by a sprained left ankle, and will play only at receiver, if at all.

It's an interesting move, to say the least, as Minnesota is already halfway through the season. Camp Randall Stadium is a tough place to make your collegiate debut, and Minnesota has several key injuries at wide receiver and along the offensive line.

But Shortell has struggled in two Big Ten games, completing 29 of 52 passes for 300 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. While Gray did some good things against Northwestern before re-aggravating his knee injury, he's clearly not an every-down option at quarterback for the Gophers.

Nelson stood out at times during fall camp and had some Gophers fans buzzing about whether he would be used this fall. The 6-foot-2, 222-pound Nelson was a standout high school player in the state, being named Mr. Football as a senior and also earning ESPN Gatorade Minnesota Player of the Year and Associated Press Minnesota Player of the Year honors.

Shortell is still listed as the starter on Minnesota's depth chart, while both Gray and Nelson appear as backups. The Gophers certainly need a spark on offense, as they rank ninth in the Big Ten in both scoring and total yards.

Perhaps Nelson provides it against the surging Badgers as Minnesota tries to snap an eight-game losing streak to its rival.

He's definitely Minnesota's quarterback of the future. Maybe he'll be the Gophers' quarterback of the present, too.

Big Ten predictions: Week 8

October, 18, 2012
We're past the midway point and headed for the home stretch of the 2012 season. Brian Bennett cut into Adam Rittenberg's lead in Week 7, although Rittenberg maintains a three-game edge in the season standings. At stake: a steak -- and other delicacies -- at St. Elmo's in Indianapolis before the Big Ten championship game.

Week 8 brings us six matchups, five league games and the final nonleague contest (Indiana at Navy) of the regular season. Both of us are searching for our first perfect week of predictions for the season.

Let's do this ...


Brian Bennett: The Boilermakers might have beaten the Buckeyes last year, but this is a different Ohio State team. And Purdue hasn't looked like it can beat anyone the past couple of weeks. Expect Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde to shred a suddenly weak run defense to the tune of 250 combined yards, and Ohio State gets to 8-0. ... Ohio State 38, Purdue 17

Adam Rittenberg: I saw all I needed to see from Purdue the past two weeks. Miller, Hyde, Rod Smith and the Buckeyes run all over the Boilers, piling up 300 yards on the ground. Miller and Hyde combine for four touchdowns and Luke Fickell's defense buckles down in the second half, holding Purdue to 315 total yards. ... Ohio State 42, Purdue 17


Adam Rittenberg: If the Gophers were healthy, they'd keep this close and have a chance to pull off the upset. But too many key injuries, combined with a Wisconsin team that has regained its mojo, lead to another fairly easy win for Bret Bielema's crew. Montee Ball goes for 150 yards and two touchdowns, and James White and Melvin Gordon each add a rushing score. Minnesota hangs around for the first half, but Wisconsin surges early in the third quarter. ... Wisconsin 38, Minnesota 20

Brian Bennett: Minnesota has had trouble stopping the run the past two games, and that's not a good sign going against a Badgers offensive line that is getting back to form. Ball drops the axe on the Gophers with three scores, and an underrated Wisconsin defense keeps Max Shortell & Co. at bay. ... Wisconsin 34, Minnesota 17


Brian Bennett: On the road, against a spread offense and a running quarterback? Reads like a horror story for Nebraska. But the Huskers have had two weeks to lick their wounds and figure out something defensively. More important, Northwestern's young defense is going to have trouble slowing down Taylor Martinez, Ameer Abdullah and all those Big Red weapons. Huskers in a shootout. ... Nebraska 38, Northwestern 31

Adam Rittenberg: Nebraska certainly has a lot of firepower, and Northwestern never seems to win games like this, when its program is in the spotlight. Kain Colter will give Nebraska trouble again, and he and Venric Mark combine for four touchdowns. But I haven't loved Northwestern's offensive game plan recently, and the Wildcats, while good at stopping the run, will need to put up points to win Saturday. Ultimately, Rex Burkhead refuses to let Nebraska lose and the Huskers prevail with a big fourth quarter. ... Nebraska 34, Northwestern 28


Adam Rittenberg: The Spartans' season is on the brink and Mark Dantonio always gets his guys up for the Michigan game. Michigan State takes an early lead behind its salty defense, but Michigan and senior quarterback Denard Robinson won't be denied this time. Robinson breaks off a long touchdown run late in the first half and finishes with 120 rushing yards and two scores. Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell also records 100 rushing yards, but Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs records a second-half takeaway as the Wolverines end their losing streak in the series. ... Michigan 24, Michigan State 16

Brian Bennett: I see a major slugfest coming. The Spartans know how to slow down Robinson, who doesn't have a lot of help right now with Fitz Toussaint struggling. Meanwhile, Michigan State would have trouble scoring on air, much less Michigan's improving defense. Michigan State's defense comes up with a couple of turnovers but can't do much with them. The hero of this game? Wolverines kicker Brendan Gibbons, who makes three big field goals. ... Michigan 16, Michigan State 9


Brian Bennett: Going to Navy and facing that option attack in the middle of the season is a scary proposition. The Midshipmen will make Indiana's defense look foolish at times. But the Hoosiers have shown great firepower and are getting closer and closer to notching a respectable win. Their passing attack is too much for Navy, as Shane Wynn breaks off two long touchdown catches. ... Indiana 24, Navy 21

Adam Rittenberg: Only 45 total points? Give me the over, Bennett. I'm definitely impressed with Indiana and what Kevin Wilson is doing with the offense, but the Hoosiers can't defend the run (109th nationally), which spells trouble against Navy. The Mids have righted the ship (bad puns galore!) the past two weeks and have home field on their side. Receivers Cody Latimer and Wynn will give Navy problems, but the triple option gives Indiana more, especially in the second half. ... Navy 38, Indiana 35


Adam Rittenberg: History is working against Penn State, which doesn't play well at Kinnick Stadium. But this is a new team with a new offense, and the Lions will get over the hump in Iowa City behind Matt McGloin and his receiving corps. Iowa will have a hard time running on Penn State, with or without Mark Weisman, and I haven't seen enough from the Hawkeyes' passing game to suggest they'll attack the Lions enough. McGloin fires two touchdown passes and linebacker Michael Mauti has another big night as Penn State wins its fifth straight -- and its first in Kinnick since 1999. ... Penn State 21, Iowa 17

Brian Bennett: How does Iowa win this game without a healthy Weisman? I'm not sure. But I'm also not entirely sure how the Hawkeyes are tied for first place in the Legends Division. I do know that Iowa is the best defense that Penn State has faced, and the Lions will pay for not being able to run the ball effectively. Kirk Ferentz continues his mastery of Penn State, a new running back hero emerges (Greg Garmon, anyone?) and James Vandenberg actually throws a TD pass in the Hawkeyes' win. ... Iowa 19, Penn State 17

Season records

Adam Rittenberg: 48-14 (.774)

Brian Bennett: 45-17 (.726)

For the second consecutive week, Northwestern's defense looked to be on the ropes in the fourth quarter, trying to protect a lead on the road.

This time, the Wildcats stood their ground.

In a sloppy game where Northwestern's offense started fast on Saturday and then disappeared, the defense stepped up in the clutch and prevented Minnesota from scoring the potential game-tying touchdown. Northwestern survived 21-13 to improve to 6-1, becoming bowl-eligible for the sixth consecutive season. Minnesota (4-2, 0-2 Big Ten) dropped its second straight Legends Division game and remains two wins away from bowl eligibility.

Northwestern had no pass rush to speak of last week at Penn State, but the front four stepped up in the fourth quarter. Defensive end Tyler Scott had a pair of sacks, including a forced fumble on the game's final play, and fellow end Quentin Williams also stepped up with a pass deflection that led to an interception. Northwestern gave up more yards (327-275) and first downs (21-13) but not points.

It could have been a different ending had Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray remained healthy. Gray returned from a high-ankle sprain that had kept him out two games and performed well in the first half, but he re-injured his left knee on a third-quarter run and didn't return. Max Shortell never really got in a rhythm, starting the game but exiting quickly for Gray before re-entering in the second half. He missed several open receivers, including Isaac Fruechte in the end zone, and held the ball way too long in crunch time.

The game looked like a shootout early, as Northwestern scored on the first play from scrimmage on a Venric Mark touchdown run after Minnesota fumbled the opening kickoff. Mark was masterful once again, racking up 151 rush yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries in the first half. Northwestern scored 21 points in the first 18 minutes but then began stumbling, committing a host of penalties and curious play calls. The quarterback rotation that worked well earlier in the season seemed to fizzle Saturday, as Northwestern couldn't convert third downs (1-for-9), its former trademark, and offensive coordinator Mick McCall didn't trust Kain Colter on any downfield throws. Colter certainly looked like the better option Saturday, going 10-for-10 on pass attempts and adding 26 rush yards and a touchdown.

Mark finished with 182 rush yards on 20 carries.

Northwestern definitely went conservative at the end, taking a delay of game penalty on third down, clearly concerned about the weather. While the approach paid off against a Minnesota team that made too many mistakes, it likely will cost the Wildcats down the line.

It rained for most of the game, and the outcome came down to key mistakes. Minnesota had two first-half turnovers that Northwestern converted for touchdowns. The Wildcats, while committing an uncharacteristic 11 penalties, didn't have a turnover.

Northwestern remains very much alive in the Legends Division race and returns home for two division contests (Nebraska and Iowa). The Wildcats need to be a lot better than they were Saturday but can take some positives with Mark and the defense.

Minnesota is a different team with Gray on the field and hopes the senior can return for next week's rivalry game at Wisconsin.

Friday Q&A: Minnesota WR A.J. Barker

October, 12, 2012
Minnesota junior A.J. Barker ranks fifth in the Big Ten in receiving yards per game, with 19 catches for 357 yards and four scores. If you saw that kind of success coming for Barker this year, you must be a psychic. He was a little known commodity coming into the season, having played in only six games and boasting one career catch before 2012. And he's a walk-on.

I recently caught up with the St. Paul, Minn., native to find out his story for this week's Friday Q&A:

How have things been going up there with the bye week last week?

A.J. Barker: It was good. We've gotten a lot of fresh legs under us, gotten healed up and are ready to go.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Barker
Marilyn Indahl/US PresswireA.J. Barker has made a name for himself at Minnesota this season, racking up more than 300 yards receiving and four TDs.
How quickly were you able to bounce back from the loss to Iowa before the bye?

AB: It was tough. You never want to lose any game but we've got a really good, consistent coaching staff, and they got us refocused really quickly and the guys just bought into that. We had a great week of practice last week and a great week of practice this week, so I think we bounced back real well.

Let's talk about your background. Did you grow up a Gophers fan?

AB: Yep. With it being the only D-I school in Minnesota, it's kind of tough not to.

What kind of recruiting interest did you draw out of high school?

AB: I had some lower Division I schools, some FCS schools, that showed some interest. But I made it pretty clear early on that I was going to try and walk on in the Big Ten, and when I got that opportunity I wasn't going to miss it.

So did you have any actual scholarship offers from FBS schools?

AB: It's hard to say whether any would have offered me or not. I was pretty honest in the process and told them, "Hey, I'm going to come to Minnesota." And once I got into school that's what I did. Around my junior year, I was thinking about whether I wanted to try to play basketball or football in college. I thought I could be a great football player, and I wanted to go after it. I wanted to stay home and come to Minnesota. And I was able to execute that plan, which has been awesome.

You redshirted your first year, played a little the next year and then got hurt, right?

AB: Yeah, last year, my redshirt sophomore season, I tore my hamstring in camp. It set me back. It was a slower recovery than I wanted it to be.

So it's safe to say that you were a little under the radar coming into this season.

AB: I knew people had no idea who I was. I know this is a little thing, but I remember seeing a poll about Gophers receivers, and there were 12 receivers listed and I wasn't even listed as one of the 12. So I was like, "Huh. All right, well, we've got to prove them wrong."

Jerry Kill said a couple of weeks ago that you play with a chip on your shoulder. Do you agree?

AB: Oh yeah. I'm a hungry competitor. I feel like I've played that way my whole life. Yeah, I do feel like I play with a chip on my shoulder but I've always really competed with a chip on my shoulder.

How much does being a walk-on and not getting much recognition motivate you?

AB: It's a big driver. You know, not having anyone in the outside world -- my family and my friends trust me -- but in the outside world, you're really kind of ridiculed. It's kind of like, "Oh, you're a walk-on. Good luck." You just sit there, and you really can't say anything either, because the reality is that most [walk-ons] don't pan out. You just bite your tongue and let it fuel you. Just go to work and chip away. The hardest part is when you're going to work, you don't see those rewards. Even when you're doing good things, you don't get that positive feedback. It's a struggle. But luckily for me, it just kept fueling and fueling me. I got angrier and more aggressive about it and was able to control that aggression through it. So it's paid off.

You went out in the opener and had a 100-yard game against UNLV. How good did it feel to do that?

AB: It felt real good. It's what I thought I could do. I'm not going to say I never doubted myself. But getting to the point where it was actually happening, it was awesome. It was awesome for me, awesome for my family It just seemed like there was so much time where you were like, "Man, I want to believe it will work out but it doesn't look right." You can't really see the light at the end of the tunnel. Then it comes on quickly like that, because it really comes on fast. I mean, we're flying to UNLV and I don't know if I'm even going to play and all of a sudden, I'm making plays and it's like,"boom." This is what I had hoped for, and now it's here, so now you've got to run with it. It's been a rollercoaster.

How has that changed things for you? Are you recognized a lot more on campus now?

AB: I get a lot more texts, from tons of people. But I like to be pretty low key when I'm going to class, so I don't get much attention. I prefer it that way.

What parts of your game have improved the last couple of years?

AB: I just think in terms of processing the game, everything goes hand in hand. You can't just process, and you can't just be fast. So the combination of my game speed, my strength and my processing has all been able to raise. Just getting everything to come up is what's brought me up the most.

There were lots of questions about the offense and the receivers in particular this offseason. How do you think you guys have come along so far this season?

AB: I think the offense is coming along really well. We're developing and getting a feel for what we can do and what some of our limitations may be, and I feel really confident about what we're going to be doing going forward. There have been some rough patches, but you chip away and right now we're in a very good position going forward with the offense. I think we can do a lot of damage.

MarQueis Gray got hurt and Max Shortell came in at quarterback. Gray might be back this week. What's it going to be like when both guys are healthy?

AB: It will be interesting to see. It's not a secret that it's been tough for schools in the past to handle two quarterbacks, and that's for the coaches to decide which one plays or whether they both play. I think we as a team need to take that on as a new challenge, as if we have to discover the answer, discover a positive answer. That's going to be a huge sign of our team's maturity. Hopefully, we take that on and run with it.

Finally, has there been much discussion about putting you on scholarship?

AB: No, it doesn't come up. I've read some things in the newspaper, but other than that, no. I'm just here to go to work.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 7

October, 11, 2012
Ten items to track around the Big Ten in Week 7:

1. Follow the Leaders: Neither Wisconsin nor Purdue is the best team in the Leaders Division -- that'd be Ohio State -- and the two squads own just one Big Ten win between them. But since both Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible for postseason play, it's a good bet that the Badgers or Boilers will represent the Leaders Division at the Big Ten championship game Dec. 1 in Indianapolis. That likelihood puts an added emphasis on Saturday's game at Ross-Ade Stadium. "It's a huge game for both teams," Purdue coach Danny Hope said. Wisconsin has dropped both of its road games this season, while Purdue comes off of a feeble performance at home against Michigan.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Andrew Weber/US PresswireTwo of the league's best backs will be on display this Saturday when Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell (pictured) faces off with Iowa's Mark Weisman.
2. Big backs on display: The Big Ten has become a spread league, but Iowa-Michigan State games turn the clock back a few decades to the league's glory days. Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell and Iowa's Mark Weisman both resemble some of their Big Ten predecessors at the running back spot. Both are power backs in the truest sense who have bulldozed defenders in their path. Bell leads the Big Ten in rushing yards (776), while both average more than 100 rush yards per game and have been MVPs of offenses that have struggled with the pass game. More than 650 pounds of running back will be on display Saturday at Spartan Stadium, and the defense that best slows down the boulder coming its way likely records a victory.

3. Northwestern's blueprint: Coach Pat Fitzgerald said Northwestern got away from its blueprint in last week's loss to Penn State, as the Wildcats ran far fewer plays than the Lions and wore out the defense with too many three-and-outs. Northwestern is still getting the hang of an offense that features two quarterbacks, one of whom is also an outstanding receiver (Kain Colter), as well as multiple threats in the run and pass game. Northwestern needs to do a better job of staying on the field and getting the ball to its top playmakers -- Colter and running back Venric Mark -- against a Minnesota team that has shown improvement throughout its defense.

4. Buckeye 'backers: Ohio State coach Urban Meyer didn't downplay the loss of senior linebacker Etienne Sabino to a leg injury, calling it a "tremendous blow." The Buckeyes lack veteran depth at linebacker and will need to lean on younger players for the next month. Although Ohio State is heavily favored at Indiana, the Hoosiers' dynamic spread offense provides a good test for a defense that has mediocre numbers on the season (60th nationally in yards allowed, 34th in points allowed). Indiana will make Ohio State's linebackers tackle in space, and it'll be interesting to see how freshman Joshua Perry performs as he fills in for Sabino.

5. Hope floats: Saturday could be a defining game for Purdue's Hope, who appears to have his best team in West Lafayette but needs to show he can turn a corner in a season filled with opportunity. Hope's decision to stick with quarterback Caleb TerBush as his starter continues to upset a portion of Boilers fans, who want to see the bionic-armed, ACL-less Robert Marve get more opportunities to lead the offense. TerBush will start against Wisconsin, but Hope could rotate Marve or make changes depending on the flow of the game. One thing is certain: Purdue needs to come out a lot stronger than it did last week against Michigan.

6. Illini try to stop bleeding: The Tim Beckman era is off to a very rocky start as Illinois has dropped four consecutive games by double digits, and Beckman last week committed an NCAA secondary violation when cameras caught him chewing tobacco on the sideline at Wisconsin. Saturday's forecast calls for more pain as Illinois heads to Michigan as more than a three-touchdown underdog. The Illini played decently for three quarters at Wisconsin, and Beckman is stressing the need for a 60-minute effort from his team, which still needs more offensive playmakers to develop and must regain its swagger on defense after allowing a league-worst 28.3 points per game through the first half of the season.

7. Gray day: Minnesota fans are anxiously awaiting the return of quarterback MarQueis Gray from a high ankle sprain. Could it happen Saturday? Coach Jerry Kill says there's a chance, and Gray practiced at about 60 percent on Tuesday. It's unlikely Gray will have his typical mobility, but his presence, even in a limited role, could spark Minnesota in a critical division home game against Northwestern. Max Shortell has passed for 616 yards with five touchdowns and four interceptions in place of Gray in Minnesota's last three games.

8. Ferentz eyes 100: The dean of the Big Ten coaches aims for his 100th victory at Iowa as the Hawkeyes visit Michigan State on Saturday. Kirk Ferentz is 99-68 in 14 seasons at the helm in Iowa, and while it looked as though he'd reach the 100-win plateau a little faster back in 2009, it's still a significant achievement. In fact, Big Ten fans could be waiting awhile to see this again. After Ferentz, the coach with the second-most wins at a Big Ten school is Wisconsin's Bret Bielema with 64, followed by Nebraska's Bo Pelini with 42 (36 wins came in the Big 12). Ferentz is 13th on the all-time list of Big Ten victories with 58. He's 18th in all-time win percentage (.593) among coaches who spent at least 10 seasons in the Big Ten.

9. Toussaint's time: Michigan's Denard Robinson got back on track last week against Purdue (235 rush yards), but the Wolverines are still trying to spark top running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. After being suspended for the season opener, Toussaint has just 169 yards on 53 carries (3.2 ypc average) this season. Coach Brady Hoke continues to support Toussaint as the starter and wants to get the junior more opportunities with the ball. Toussaint has recorded no more than 17 carries in a game this season after recording 20 or more carries in four of the final five regular-season games in 2011. Illinois boasts a talented defensive front and has been strong against the run, but Wisconsin had success late in last week's game and Michigan hopes to replicate it with Toussaint.

10. Indiana's opportunity: The wins aren't coming yet, but Indiana is competing a lot better in Kevin Wilson's second year than it did last fall. The Hoosiers dominated the first half against Michigan State and played well during the second half against Northwestern. They need to put four quarters together to finally get over the hump in the Big Ten, where they have dropped 10 consecutive games. Indiana gets another big opportunity to measure up Saturday against Ohio State, which has won 16 straight against the Hoosiers. Although an upset seems tough to fathom, Indiana can hang around in the game because of its offense. A strong performance should boost the Hoosiers before they enter a much more manageable stretch (Navy, Illinois, Iowa).

Big Ten predictions: Week 7

October, 11, 2012
Will lucky Week 7 bring out a perfect set of predictions from the Big Ten bloggers? Both of us are still searching for perfection in this highly imperfect Big Ten season.

After a pair of identical 4-1 marks in Week 6, Adam Rittenberg maintains a four-game lead against Brian Bennett in the season standings. Those shrimp cocktails at St. Elmo's in Indianapolis -- on Brian's dime -- are sounding pretty good right now, but there's still a long way to go and time for Brian to catch up.

It's prediction time ...


Brian Bennett: Get ready for a classically rugged Big Ten game between two teams who love to pound the rock and play defense. Neither team will be able to sustain many long drives against strong defenses. But home-field advantage and a key turnover forced by the Spartans' defense will make the difference. Le'Veon Bell contributes two scores as he outduels Mark Weisman. ... Michigan State 17, Iowa 14

Adam Rittenberg: While I'm tempted to pick Iowa in the upset, Michigan State matches up well against the Hawkeyes on both sides of the ball. The Spartans' defense holds Weisman to 90 rushing yards and records a key second-half interception against James Vandenberg. Bell records 100 yards and two scores as Michigan State grabs the early lead and holds on for its second straight win. ... Michigan State 21, Iowa 17


Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern can't afford another poor start on offense, and I think the Wildcats come out of the gates a little stronger and take an early lead. Minnesota's Max Shortell makes some plays in the pass game, firing two touchdown passes, but Northwestern gets the ball in the hands of playmakers Venric Mark and Kain Colter a lot more often this week than last. Mark and Colter combine for three touchdowns and Northwestern survives a late scare to improve to 6-1. ... Northwestern 28, Minnesota 24

Brian Bennett: If the Gophers had a fully healthy MarQueis Gray, I'd be more likely to pick them here. As it stands, I don't think a gimpy Gray gives them enough firepower to get past Northwestern. Minnesota struggled against the run last time out against Iowa, and will do the same against Colter and Mark. A Jeff Budzien field goal provides the difference. ... Northwestern 31, Minnesota 28


Brian Bennett: It's practically do-or-die time for the Boilermakers, and I expect them to play as if their Leaders Division lives depend on this effort. In fact, they will lead most of the way after a couple of quick-strike scores early. But an improving Wisconsin offense chips away until Joel Stave hits Jared Abbrederis for a long touchdown in the fourth quarter, and the Badgers' defense hangs on late. ... Wisconsin 23, Purdue 20

Adam Rittenberg: You touched on the sense of urgency for Purdue and coach Danny Hope, and I think that'll be the difference in this game. A Boilers defense hungry to avenge last week's poor showing records an early takeaway against Stave. Both Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve play and fire touchdown passes. Although Wisconsin's Montee Ball records two rushing scores, the kicking game is the difference as Raheem Mostert breaks off a long return to set up the game-winning touchdown. ... Purdue 27, Wisconsin 24


Adam Rittenberg: Little is going right for the Illini right now, and they catch Michigan at the wrong time. After a quiet first quarter, Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson turns in another big performance (150 rushing yards, 175 pass yards, 2 rushing TDs, 2 passing TDs), and linebacker Jake Ryan records his first interception of the season. Versatile running back Josh Ferguson has a nice game for the Illini, but Michigan has far too much firepower and pulls away in the second quarter. ... Michigan 37, Illinois 14

Brian Bennett: The Illini's problems defending the spread and finding any kind of offensive rhythm don't bode well for this week's game in Ann Arbor. Robinson will throw for three touchdowns this week, and Michigan's defense holds Illinois to under 250 yards. ... Michigan 34, Illinois 10


Brian Bennett: The Hoosiers are getting closer and closer to finally winning a Big Ten game. But it won't happen this week, as their shaky run defense is going to have a lot of trouble containing Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde. Those two combine for four touchdowns, and Bradley Roby picks off another pass to stymie Indiana's mild second-half charge as the Buckeyes move to 7-0. ... Ohio State 42, Indiana 24

Adam Rittenberg: I've also been impressed with Indiana's ability to compete, but this is just a tough matchup against Big Bad Brax. Miller runs for 150 yards and two touchdowns, and Hyde records his second straight 100-yard rushing performance. Quarterbacks Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld both play and have some success in the first half, and receiver Cody Latimer tests the Buckeyes' defense, but Ohio State shifts into fifth gear late in the second quarter and cruises to 7-0. ... Ohio State 45, Indiana 21

Nebraska and Penn State are off this week.

Season records

Adam Rittenberg: 45-12 (.789)

Brian Bennett: 41-16 (.719)
The Big Ten still is a mostly muddled mess after the first Saturday of league play. While Penn State made a statement and Iowa showed it shouldn't be counted out, few other squads looked truly impressive in Week 5. Wisconsin looked better than it has but still fell at Nebraska, and while Michigan State came close against Ohio State, the Spartans still haven't turned the corner on offense.

There's no shuffling at the top and very little separation throughout the rankings. Although both Wisconsin and Michigan State fall, while Penn State rises, you can slide a sheet of paper between these teams. Ohio State remains at the top but will be tested this week by Nebraska.

Let's get to the rundown ...

1. Ohio State (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten, last week: 1): It's not easy to overcome three turnovers on the road, but the Buckeyes received enough magic from quarterback Braxton Miller and solid play along both lines at Michigan State. Linebacker Etienne Sabino stepped up in a big way for the defense. Urban Meyer's team has its flaws, but it can still win a lot of games in a flawed Big Ten. Ohio State showed it can win a big road game. Nebraska provides a nice test this week.

2. Nebraska (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten, last week: 2): After a miserable start against Wisconsin, Nebraska rallied from 17 points down in the third quarter to record a win it absolutely had to have. It tied the second-largest comeback in team history, and provided Taylor Martinez and the offense some confidence heading to Ohio State. The Huskers are loaded with offensive weapons and received terrific linebacker play from Will Compton, Alonzo Whaley and Sean Fisher. They still put the ball on the ground too much, though, and can't afford another slow start in Columbus.

3. Northwestern (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten, last week: 3): Thanks to Kain Colter, Northwestern remained perfect on the season and starts 5-0 for the third time in five years. The concern is that the Wildcats once again couldn't finish off a team after storming out to a 27-0 lead. No lead is truly safe with Northwestern, and while the defense has been very good most of the season, it needs to limit bad quarters like the third on Saturday. This is a young, maturing team that continues to win, but the tests get tougher beginning this week at red-hot Penn State.

4. Michigan (2-2, last week: 5): In this year's sputtering Big Ten, sometimes it pays off not to play. Michigan moves up in the rankings after Purdue struggled to hold off Marshall on Saturday. There's not much separating the Wolverines and the Boilers, and we'll find out the superior team this week when they meet at Ross-Ade Stadium. Michigan's defense took a nice step at Notre Dame, but as usual, the team's fortunes likely rest on how quarterback Denard Robinson performs.

5. Purdue (3-1, last week: 4): After storming out to a 42-14 halftime lead, Purdue had to hold on to win a shootout against Marshall and thus drop a spot. Although the Boilers won't face another passing offense quite like Marshall's this season, they have to be a bit concerned about their defense, which surrendered 439 passing yards and 534 total yards. Purdue faces another spread-ish offense -- and certainly a spread-ish quarterback in Michigan's Robinson -- this week in West Lafayette. The Michigan game begins a defining stretch for Danny Hope's crew.

6. Penn State (3-2, 1-0, last week: 9): The Big Ten's hottest team makes the biggest move of the week, rising three spots after another impressive win against Illinois. Linebacker Michael Mauti is leading a revived defense, while quarterback Matt McGloin continues to perform well in the new offense. You can't say enough about the job Bill O'Brien has done in his first season as Lions coach. Penn State faces its biggest test since the season opener this week against Northwestern before a challenging stretch with three of four on the road.

7. Michigan State (3-2, 0-1, last week: 5): The Spartans lost to Ohio State by only a point and were burned by a premature whistle that killed a potential fumble return for a touchdown. Then again, Michigan State had numerous opportunities to beat Ohio State and held a plus-3 turnover margin on its home field. The offense simply isn't coming together well enough, as good passing Saturday was offset by an invisible Le'Veon Bell. We still think the Spartans can make a run for the Big Ten title, but they haven't looked impressive in the early going.

8. Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1, last week: 8): For a half and change, it looked like Wisconsin would make a major move up the power rankings. The Badgers came out hot against Nebraska and took a big lead behind the inspired play of linebacker Chris Borland and the poise of quarterback Joel Stave in his first career road start. But the same problem that plagued the Badgers in the first four weeks -- flimsy offensive line play -- coupled with a defense that couldn't keep pace with Martinez led to a crushing defeat. Wisconsin still can take some pluses from Saturday night. It needs to take another step this week against Illinois before next week's showdown at Purdue.

9. Iowa (3-2, 1-0, last week: 11): Besides maybe Illinois, no team needed a win in Week 5 more than the Hawkeyes, and they delivered in a big way. Iowa took control from the get-go against Minnesota and brought home the bacon to fill its long-empty trophy case. Running back Mark Weisman continues to be one of the Big Ten's best early season stories, and the Hawkeyes' defense responded well from a poor performance against Central Michigan, receiving great play from the linebackers. An open week comes at a good time before Iowa resumes play at Michigan State.

10. Minnesota (4-1, 0-1, last week: 7): Week 5 brought a reality check of sorts for Minnesota, which never really challenged Iowa and lost the Floyd of Rosedale for the first time since 2009. As coach Jerry Kill said Sunday, the Gophers really need top quarterback MarQueis Gray (ankle) to get healthy, as backup Max Shortell had three interceptions at Iowa. More unsettling was the play of Minnesota's defense, which couldn't stop Weisman. The Gophers can regroup during the bye week before their league home opener against Northwestern.

11. Indiana (2-2, 0-1, last week: 10): Credit the Hoosiers for fighting back at Northwestern and making it a one-possession game in the fourth quarter. Indiana has some serious talent at wide receiver with Kofi Hughes and Cody Latimer, both of whom made circus catches Saturday. The Hoosiers also saw some good signs in their run game. But again, the defense continues to struggle mightily, surrendering more than 700 yards to the Wildcats. Until IU can defend like a Big Ten team, it won't win a Big Ten game.

12. Illinois (2-3, 0-1, last week: 12): Oy vey. If we could drop Illinois to 13th, we would. Tim Beckman's program is in complete disarray just five weeks into his first season. From the turnovers to the special teams miscues to a supposedly elite defense showing cracks each week, Illinois is in a tailspin. The Illini really needed to build some confidence at home. Instead, they're going to have to get it together on the road against Wisconsin and then Michigan. There's a lot of talent in Champaign, but once again, it doesn't seem to matter.

Iowa's empty trophy case finally has some hardware.

After reaching a recent low point last week in gagging away a game against Central Michigan, the Hawkeyes brought home the bacon -- the Floyd of Rosedale trophy -- in dominating fashion against Minnesota. Kirk Ferentz's team took control from the get-go and crushed the Gophers 31-13, handing Minnesota its first loss of the season. Iowa ended a two-game slide against Minnesota and claimed a rivalry trophy for the first time since the 2010 season. Hawkeye fans chanted "We want Floyd!" in the closing seconds.

You can never count out a Ferentz-coached team, and Iowa was a fed-up bunch that took out its frustration on Minnesota. The Hawkeyes stormed out to a 24-0 halftime lead and outgained Minnesota 328-75 in the first 30 minutes. Iowa's Mark Weisman continued to pulverize defenders for 155 first-half yards (177 for the game), while quarterback James Vandenberg turned in by far his best half of the season (13-for-19 passing, 165 yards, 1 TD) and finished the game with 192 pass yards. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis, who took some justified criticism early this season, also deserves credit for a nicely called game.

Perhaps more important, Iowa's defense re-established itself after being shredded by Central Michigan last week. Safety Tanner Miller made a nice interception to stifle a trick play, and the Hawkeyes' defensive front overwhelmed a shorthanded Minnesota offensive line, surrendering only 48 rush yards in the opening half. Linebacker Christian Kirksey capped the day with a 68-yard interception return for a touchdown.

Saturday provided a reality check for Minnesota, which came off of a nice win against Syracuse and had folks buzzing in the Twin Cities. It's clear the Gophers haven't turned the corner yet, and while they faced a tough matchup on the road against a ticked-off team, they needed to perform better than this. Quarterback Max Shortell's struggles (20-for-33 passing, 197 yards, 2 TDs, 3 INTs) weren't entirely surprising in a tough road venue, but the Gophers' defense entered Saturday allowing just 307 yards per game. Minnesota's defense looked overwhelmed against Weisman and suffered several breakdowns in the secondary.

An open week comes at a good time for Minnesota to get healthy -- especially top quarterback MarQueis Gray (ankle) -- but the entire team, and particularly, the defense, needs to regain its swagger.

Iowa, meanwhile, can feel a lot better about itself after a very poor non-league performance. The Hawkeyes still have a favorable schedule and could make some noise in the Legends division.

Big Ten predictions: Week 5

September, 27, 2012
Prediction time is here again, and at last, we can start forecasting some Big Ten conference games.

League play opens up at five Big Ten venues Saturday, while Purdue returns from an open week to wrap up its nonleague slate against Marshall. Week 4 was a rough one for Brian Bennett, who went 6-4 in predictions and fell three games behind Adam Rittenberg in the season standings. The good news: The entire Big Ten slate remains, so Bennett, like most Big Ten teams, has time to improve his record.

Let's get started ...


Brian Bennett: The Hoosiers are apt to hang around in this one, and their passing game could give the Wildcats' still somewhat shaky secondary a big test. But Northwestern has shown too much toughness so far this season to slip up now. Venric Mark rushes for two scores and Kain Colter throws for two more as Pat Fitzgerald's team moves to 5-0. ... Northwestern 35, Indiana 21

Adam Rittenberg: These teams typically play close games, and Indiana's passing game, led by quarterback Cameron Coffman, will challenge Northwestern's secondary more than the Wildcats' past few opponents did. Northwestern's offensive line is in a good rhythm, though, and Mark will record another 100-yard rushing performance and two touchdowns. The Wildcats open up their passing game a bit in the second half and improve to 5-0. ... Northwestern 34, Indiana 26

PENN STATE (2-2) at ILLINOIS (2-2)

Adam Rittenberg: Penn State is hitting its stride under Bill O'Brien, and the Lions will be fired up to face poacher coach Tim Beckman and the Illini. Matt McGloin and Allen Robinson connect for two more touchdowns, and running back Bill Belton adds another score in his return. The Lions bottle up Illinois' run game in the second half and win their third straight. ... Penn State 21, Illinois 17

Brian Bennett: The Nittany Lions' offense isn't going to give the Illini defense as many fits as the spread teams have this season. But McGloin is slinging it pretty well, and I don't know what the offensive identity is for Beckman's club. This one won't be pretty, but Penn State gets out to an early lead and hangs on with a defensive stand in the fourth quarter. ... Penn State 17, Illinois 10

MINNESOTA (4-0) at IOWA (2-2)

Brian Bennett: Somehow, Iowa is favored in this game. But even though it's at Kinnick Stadium, all the good vibes belong to Minnesota going into Saturday. The Gophers' pass defense has been strong, while James Vandenberg and the Hawkeyes' passing attack has sputtered. Mark Weisman will batter his way to 160 yards, but the Gophers come up with two picks and a special teams score to hogtie the Hawks. ... Minnesota 21, Iowa 14

Adam Rittenberg: I went against the Gophers last week and paid the price. Not happening again. The Gophers' defense contains Weisman and forces some mistakes from Vandenberg, while the run game surges behind Donnell Kirkwood. It'll be an up-and-down day for Max Shortell, but he finds senior tight end and Iowa native John Rabe for the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. ... Minnesota 24, Iowa 20

MARSHALL (2-2) at PURDUE (2-1)

Adam Rittenberg: After dealing with a migraine in the Eastern Michigan game, Purdue quarterback Caleb TerBush bounces back nicely with a three-touchdown, zero-interception performance against the Thundering Herd. The Akeems run all over a woeful Marshall defense and Purdue pulls away in the second quarter and cruises to another easy win. ... Purdue 38, Marshall 21

Brian Bennett: The Thundering Herd lead the nation in passing, so they'll have a puncher's chance in West Lafayette. But they also have one of the worst defenses in the country, which should help TerBush and company enjoy a big day. Kawann Short and the Purdue defensive line are too much here, sacking Rakeem Cato five times. ... Purdue 48, Marshall 24

No. 14 OHIO STATE (4-0) at No. 20 MICHIGAN STATE (3-1)

Brian Bennett: At some point, the Spartans have to start catching balls thrown right at them. How about this week? This is a better matchup for the scuffling Ohio State defense, but I think Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi will devise a plan to contain Braxton Miller. An actual touchdown pass from Andrew Maxwell and a 100-yard day from Le'Veon Bell will be just enough for Michigan State to escape at home. Next prediction. ... Michigan State 19, Ohio State 17

Adam Rittenberg: Ohio State looks like a team waiting to be beaten one of these weeks, but Miller Time refuses to lose. Miller starts slowly but turns in a big fourth quarter and breaks free for two touchdown runs to rally Ohio State for the victory. Michigan State's passing woes continue, and the Buckeyes' defense forces a key third-quarter turnover and starts looking a bit more like the silver bullets again. ... Ohio State 20, Michigan State 17

WISCONSIN (3-1) at No. 22 NEBRASKA (3-1)

Adam Rittenberg: Although Wisconsin started to look like its old self a bit at the end of the UTEP game, I don't see how the Badgers win this one. Nebraska has more weapons on offense, the home-field advantage and no shortage of motivation after being embarrassed last year in Madison. Chris Borland and the Wisconsin defense keeps this close for a while, but Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez goes off in the second half, and Rex Burkhead adds another long touchdown run. ... Nebraska 34, Wisconsin 21

Brian Bennett: I don't like where this is headed for the Badgers. They've got a quarterback making his first start on the road, a banged-up Montee Ball and injuries on their defensive line. These are all bad signs against a Huskers team that is averaging 54 points per game at home this season. Martinez (three touchdowns) and the Nebraska defense get redemption by pulling away in the third quarter. Call it an early retirement gift for Tom Osborne. ... Nebraska 35, Wisconsin 17

Michigan is off this week.

Season Records

Rittenberg: 36-10 (.783)

Bennett: 33-13 (.717)
It might not matter the way Minnesota's defense is playing, but the Gophers likely will be without starting quarterback MarQueis Gray for this week's Big Ten opener against Iowa.

Gray is still working his way back from a left high-ankle sprain suffered Sept. 15 against Western Michigan. Minnesota coach Jerry Kill told reporters Sunday it would be a "minor miracle" if Gray returned this week against the Hawkeyes.
"I can't control the healing process, but right now, I'm not real optimistic [about] how quick that's going to come along," Kill said Sunday.

Kill mentioned that Gray couldn't keep up with him when they jogged out of the tunnel before Saturday night's game. For a quarterback who relies so much on mobility, that's not a great sign.

High-ankle sprains are significant injuries and typically take at least four weeks to heal. Minnesota fortunately has an open week after the Iowa game before hosting Northwestern on Oct. 13.

Backup quarterback Max Shortell completed 16 of 30 passes for 231 with no touchdowns and no turnovers in the win against Syracuse. If Shortell can continue to avoid turnovers, make plays when necessary and rely on his offensive line and run game, Minnesota should be in good shape against sputtering Iowa. The Gophers defense has been one of the surprise units through the first four weeks, ranking in the top 30 nationally in points allowed (16.8 ppg), pass efficiency (93.2 rating), takeaways (10) and sacks (11).