NCF Nation: Michael Carter

Brock VereenAP Photo/Paul BattagliaThanks to a solid 2012 season, Brock Vereen has excelled as a starting safety for the Gophers.
Anyone could see that Minnesota's secondary took a major step in 2012, helping the defense finish 12th nationally in pass yards allowed and 23rd in pass efficiency.

But could anyone identify the most invaluable piece of the Gophers' back four? Probably not.

The natural inclination is to pick one of the cornerbacks, Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, both of whom earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors (Carter should have been a second-team selection). Safety Derrick Wells put up impressive numbers (74 tackles, two interceptions, 10 pass breakups, one fumble recovered) in his first season as the starter.

But any of those players would be the wrong answer.

"Yeah, we had Troy Stoudermire, yeah, we had Michael Carter, and Michael Carter had a really good year," Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel told ESPN.com. "But Brock was the most valuable of all our DBs last year. ... Just from a calming influence, from maturity, from a steadiness of play.

"When he wasn't out there, we weren't the same."

Sawvel can't stop raving about Brock Vereen, the Gophers' senior safety who started seven games last season (including each of the final six) and recorded 64 tackles, two interceptions and nine pass breakups. Although Minnesota must replace both Carter and Stoudermire this season, Vereen is back to anchor the secondary and the defense, which loses two starting linebackers and top pass rusher DL Wilhite.

"I need to step up and accept that leadership role," Vereen said. "That comes with confidence. It's definitely been a focus this spring. I've never been a vocal leader, so that aspect is something new, but I've always felt comfortable having guys look up to me.

"I know that I need to talk more, but at the same time, I also know some of the younger guys can learn just by watching me."

Vereen can educate Minnesota's young safeties and cornerbacks because he has played both positions for the Gophers. He spent his first two seasons at cornerback, starting four games in 2010 and all 12 as a sophomore the following year.

The 6-foot, 202-pound Vereen immediately bought in to Sawvel and the coaching staff that arrived with Jerry Kill after the 2010 season. He told Sawvel he wished he had been redshirted in 2010, as he had received little guidance as a true freshman.

"His first thing was, 'I can't wait to be coached. I can't wait to learn what a new staff is going to do,'" Sawvel said.

Vereen had a strong finish to the 2011 campaign, limiting talented receivers like Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis (two catches, 27 yards) and Illinois' A.J. Jenkins (four catches, 30 yards). In hindsight, Sawvel wished he had flipped Vereen from side to side rather than leaving him in one spot because he evolved into Minnesota's top cover corner.

But after the season, the coaches moved Vereen to safety. They had brought in several cornerbacks through recruiting, and Sawvel saw a higher ceiling for vereen at safety.

"He doesn’t have the hips of an elite corner," Sawvel said. "That doesn't mean he couldn’t play it. He could or play it on a short-term basis, but by the same token, he's extremely smart and he's a physical guy. We thought with his skill set, he has a better chance to become an elite safety."

[+] EnlargeBrock Vereen
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsBrock Vereen is in a football family, parents who travel to his games and a brother who plays for the New England Patriots.
The coaches appear to be on the right track. Vereen sat out last spring with an injury and began the season as a reserve safety, in part because Sawvel knew Vereen was mature enough to handle coming off of the bench.

The turning point came in Week 4 against Syracuse, when Vereen and the defense shut down Ryan Nassib and the Syracuse offense in a 17-10 victory.

"After that game, it was clear," Sawvel said. "It was like, 'Brock's the starter. He needs to be on the field all the time.'"

More like all over the field. Vereen can cover slot receivers, square up running backs in the hole and even play a nickel safety/linebacker hybrid role, like he did against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, when he led Minnesota with 10 tackles.

"Somebody asked me, 'What is he? Is he a strong safety? Is he a free safety?'" Sawvel said. "He's a field safety. That allows him to cover people a lot. But when we played Michigan State, they're lining up in two-back and he plays a really good game, and there’s several times where we get the ball bounced to him, and it's him and [running back] Le'Veon Bell and he won all of them.

"That's a big luxury to have, that you have a guy who can do that much."

A native of Valencia, Calif., Vereen wanted "something new" for his college experience. His older brother, Shane, had starred for Cal at running back, and Brock drew interest from several Pac-12 schools in recruiting. He ended up picking his farthest suitor, Minnesota.

Although Vereen has family ties in the Midwest -- grandparents in Illinois, cousins in Indiana, an uncle living minutes away from Minnesota's campus -- life in Minneapolis provided a bit of a shock.

"I've never been more homesick than that first winter," Vereen said. "That definitely was something I needed to adjust to. But it's been great."

Vereen's parents, Venita and Henry, spend every fall and winter weekend on the road, attending their sons' games. Typically, one watches Brock with Minnesota and the other watches Shane play for the New England Patriots. If there's enough time between the two games, they'll attend both.

"I don’t know how they do it, home and away," Brock said. "They have their little system worked out, and I just love 'em for it, all of their sacrifices for me."

Brock attends any of Shane's games that he can -- it helps that the Patriots are a perennial playoff team -- and Shane spends his bye weekend at a Gophers game. The two brothers talk daily, often about football, and Brock keeps close tabs on his brother.

"When I was in high school and he was in college, he was at the level I wanted to get to, so I wanted to know everything he did," Brock said. "And it's the same situation now. I've learned not necessarily from him telling, but just from watching him. That goes back to when we were kids. I've always been very observant of him. He's been very successful in everything that he’s done, so I've been trying to do what he did to get to the level he's at."

Sawvel thinks Brock Vereen has NFL potential, although he'll need to "put out more good video" as a senior.

If NFL talent evaluators see what Minnesota's coaches do in Vereen, he could follow his brother's path a year from now.

"He's just very valuable to us," Sawvel said. "He really is."
It's awards season in Hollywood, as the film industry lines up to congratulate itself again and again until we're all sick of it before the Oscars.

But, hey, some performances do need recognition. With that in mind, we're listing the Top 10 individual performances by Big Ten players from the 2012 season today. Degree of difficulty is a factor here, so we'll reward those players who shined against tough opponents over those who piled up stats vs. cupcakes. And, ideally, the performance came in a victory for the player's team.

Enough with the intro. A drum roll, please, for our Top 10:

10. Penn State's Michael Mauti vs. Illinois: Mauti was very vocal with his displeasure at Illinois' attempt to poach Nittany Lions players last summer. The senior linebacker backed up his words with six tackles and a pair of interceptions, including a 99-yard return to end the first half. He came up inches short of a touchdown on that pick but definitely proved his point.

9. Ohio State's John Simon vs. Wisconsin: In what would turn out to be his final college game, the Buckeyes defensive end went out with a bang against the Badgers in Madison. He had four sacks, which set a school record and were the most by a Big Ten player since Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan registered four vs. Michigan in 2010.

8. Ohio State's Braxton Miller vs. Michigan State: Miller had better statistical days than the one he turned in against the Spartans, but none were grittier. Hit over and over again, he somehow kept answering the bell and finished with 136 hard-earned rushing yards and 179 passing yards in Ohio State's 17-16 road win. Teammates said after the game that their quarterback was in a tremendous amount of pain, but he earned he even more respect from them.

7. Northwestern's Kain Colter vs. Indiana: Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald sprung a surprise on the Hoosiers by repeatedly lining Colter up at receiver. Colter caught nine passes for 131 yards and also ran for 161 yards and four touchdowns on just 14 carries.

6. Penn State's Matt McGloin and Allen Robinson vs. Indiana: We're cheating a bit here by including both players, but it's hard to separate the two from this record-setting performance. McGloin shredded the Hoosiers' defense for 395 passing yards and four touchdowns, while Robinson was as usual the main recipient of his throws. The sophomore grabbed 10 catches for 197 yards and three scores in the best day for a Big Ten receiver in 2012.

5. Michigan's Denard Robinson vs. Air Force: How's this for an individual feat: Robinson accounted for more than 100 percent of his team's offense vs. the Falcons, a statistical oddity we may not see again any time soon. He totaled 426 yards -- 218 rushing, 208 passing -- while a couple of late kneel downs left Michigan's team total for the day at 422. Robinson also scored four touchdowns in the 31-25 win.

4. Michigan's Devin Gardner vs. Iowa: In just his second start at quarterback, Gardner wrote his name in the Michigan record books. He accounted for six touchdowns -- three passing, three rushing -- in becoming the first Wolverines quarterback to do that since Steve Smith in 1983. He also threw for 314 yards and let everyone know Robinson wasn't getting his old job back.

3. Wisconsin's Montee Ball vs. Purdue: Ball finished his career with all sorts of NCAA and school records, but he never had as many rushing yards as he did in West Lafayette this fall. He ran for 247 yards on 29 carries and and scored three times to establish himself as the Big Ten's all-time leader in touchdowns.

2. Nebraska's Taylor Martinez vs. Northwestern: Martinez's best statistical showing came in the opener against Southern Miss (354 passing yards, five TDs), but that was against a team that finished 0-12. His signature performance was in the comeback win at Northwestern. He threw for 342 yards and three scores and ran for another touchdown while leading two 75-plus yard scoring drives in the final six minutes. Of course, he also threw two passes in the fourth quarter that should have been intercepted, but that's just part of the ride with Martinez.

1. Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell vs. Boise State: In just the second game of the season featuring a Big Ten team, Bell set a bar that could not be cleared. He was Superman against the Broncos, rushing for 210 yards and two touchdowns on 44 carries and catching six passes for 55 yards. The unbelievable 50 touches in the opener was both a testament to Bell's strength and a flashing red warning sign of Michigan State's dearth of playmakers.

Honorable mention: Bell vs. Minnesota and TCU; Miller vs. California; Ball and James White vs. Nebraska in the Big Ten title game; Robinson vs. Purdue; Ohio State's Ryan Shazier vs. Penn State; Ohio State's Carlos Hyde vs. Nebraska; Indiana's Cody Latimer vs. Iowa; Penn State's Jordan Hill vs. Wisconsin; Northwestern's Venric Mark vs. Minnesota; Michigan's Jeremy Gallon vs. South Carolina; Iowa's Mark Weisman vs. Central Michigan; Minnesota's Michael Carter vs. Purdue and Texas Tech; Purdue's Kawann Short vs. Notre Dame.

The Big Ten's All-Bowl team

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
11:00
AM ET
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.


This Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas wasn't a pretty one. A fun first half gave way to a lackluster second half until the final minutes, when Texas Tech's offense shook awake and rallied for a 34-31 victory over Minnesota with a Ryan Bustin field goal in the final seconds.

Tempers boiled for much of the game, which is pretty rare in a contest between two teams with absolutely no history and few if any links among players on the rosters. Officials didn't do a great job of keeping the peace.

The Big 12 moved to 2-0 in bowl games, and the Big Ten fell to 0-1 with the loss in its postseason opener.

It was over when: Bustin busted a 28-yard field goal through the uprights to complete an unlikely comeback in the final minutes, much as Texas Tech did back in the 2006 Insight Bowl. This one was a whole lot less dramatic than the FBS bowl-record 31-point, second-half comeback of that postseason meeting with the Golden Gophers, but Seth Doege made it a ballgame when he hit Eric Ward on a short slant that turned into a 35-yard, game-tying score when the safety help went absent.

Game ball goes to: Red Raiders wide receiver Darrin Moore. There weren't a ton of truly standout performances, but Moore caught a game-high 11 balls for 84 yards.

Stat of the game: This game was chippy from start to finish. A few media members on hand reported that there was some simmering tension after a contentious rodeo contest earlier in the week (which is just as silly as it sounds) -- and it showed up on the field. Nine personal fouls (five for Texas Tech, four for Minnesota) were handed out, and at one point, Minnesota faced a third-and-49 because of personal fouls. Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro was also ejected for throwing a punch. More on that later.

Stat of the game II: Texas Tech's interception on third down in the final minute to set up the game-winning score was its first forced turnover since Oct. 20. Before that, Texas Tech had been minus-12 in turnover margin in its previous five-plus games.

Unsung hero of the game: Cornerback Michael Carter, Minnesota. He picked off Doege twice and made five tackles to help Minnesota's defense pitch a shutout in the first 28 minutes and 50 seconds of the second half.

Second-guessing: Amaro's decision-making. Texas Tech's Jakeem Grant fumbled what was nearly a go-ahead touchdown out of bounds, but Amaro made it worse by punching a defender he had pinned on the ground. Even worse? He did so right in front of an official, who flagged him for a 15-yard penalty and forced Tech into a third-and-goal from the 16. The eventual result was a blocked field goal; Minnesota took a 31-24 lead with a touchdown on the ensuing drive. Amaro didn't help his case by clearly complaining on the sideline and leaving the field while signaling "Guns Up" to the fans.

What Texas Tech learned: New coach Kliff Kingsbury has his work cut out for him. Texas Tech's offense struggled in the second half and the team looked undisciplined for all 60 minutes. The Red Raiders didn't score in the second half until the final 70 seconds. Kingsbury is right when he says the program is far from broken, but it obviously needs to be broken of some bad habits developed down the stretch in 2012. It struggled to turn red zone opportunities into touchdowns, and silly penalties hurt Texas Tech all night. The Red Raiders were clearly the better team and showed it with the victory, which came despite a very poor performance and mistakes throughout. A few minutes of solid offense in the second half were enough to win this one, but it won't be enough to win many games in the Big 12 once Kingsbury takes over.

What Minnesota learned: Bowl games mean even more pain and another rough finish for the Golden Gophers, who lost their final three games of the season. Quarterback Philip Nelson showed a lot of promise for the future, but his late interception set up the Red Raiders' winning field goal. Minnesota has now lost five consecutive bowl games, and hasn't won one since the 2004 Music City Bowl.
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.
Tyrone Carter flew into Minneapolis last winter for an emergency rescue mission.

The mission was his cousin, Michael, a talented but troubled defensive back for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. As they walked around campus together, they were stopped by fans who wanted to talk about Tyrone's star-studded days at the school more than a decade earlier. No one seemed to even recognize Michael.

"I remember telling him, 'Look, they don't even know who you are,'" Tyrone Carter told ESPN.com. "'What are you doing here? You're wasting your talent.'"

Michael Carter could easily have finished his Minnesota career not being known for anything but disappointment if not for the intervention of his cousin, a second chance given to him by coach Jerry Kill and, at long last, his own maturation and focus. He turned in one of the great redemption stories in the Big Ten this season, developing into one of the top cornerbacks in the league as a senior and helping the Gophers revive their passing defense.

[+] EnlargeMichael Carter
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY Sports Michael Carter finsihed the season with 14 passes defensed, tied for 14th-most in the country.
He'll be a key figure when Minnesota takes on Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas on Friday. A little more than a year ago, however, Kill very nearly kicked him off the team for repeated transgressions.

"Oh, man, it was close," Carter told ESPN.com this month. "Very, very close."

Carter was one of the top defensive back recruits in the country and played in the same high school secondary as former LSU star Patrick Peterson at Blanche Ely High School in Pompano Beach, Fla. But he arrived at Minnesota as if he, well, had already arrived.

There was an alcohol-related arrest as a freshman. A three-game academic suspension as a sophomore. He played only five games in 2010 for Kill, who made Carter go to study hall instead of practice. Carter said he was never one to skip class, but he wasn't exactly a great student. He didn't work hard in practice and showed up late for meetings.

"I kind of felt like I had it all wrong coming out of high school," he said. "I just had to get more mature and leave all the other things alone and focus more on school and football."

Kill enlisted Tyrone Carter for help late last year. The two cousins have always been close, and Tyrone could speak with the authority of success. He was a two-time All-American at Minnesota who won the 1999 Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back. He also set an NCAA record for tackles and played 11 years in the NFL. As soon as he heard from Kill, Tyrone snapped into action, flying up from his home in Palm Beach, Fla., to confront his cousin.

"I cussed him out," he said. "I got in his face. I told him what he was doing wrong."

You're disgracing the Carter name, he told Michael. If you don't shape up, you'll end up back home in Pompano Beach with nothing to do, just another former Florida high school star talking about how he could have played in the NFL.

To Michael's credit, he received the message and did something about it. He shored up his school work. Then he took Tyrone up on his offer to come train at his house during the summer. Tyrone made him run wind sprints with parachutes and do other drills to get into shape. Then he taught him the fundamentals of playing cornerback, from pad level to footwork to route recognition. The rule was Michael had to train in Palm Beach all week in order to go home to Pompano on the weekend.

"I know nobody in the country worked harder than we did," Tyrone said.

The cousins still talk several times per week on the phone. Every game week this season, Tyrone would quiz Michael on the upcoming opponent. What's their favorite formation? Their favorite route? Who's their go-to receiver? Tyrone said Michael had trouble answering some of those questions early on. But when they talked the night before the Oct. 27 Purdue game, something was different. Michael was finishing Tyrone's sentences before he could even get the words out of his mouth.

"I told him, 'OK. You ready,'" Tyrone said.

The next day, Carter tied a school record with six pass breakups in the 44-28 win over the Boilermakers. Included in that was one virtuoso, five-play sequence where he knocked away three passes and intercepted the final one for a touchdown. Kill said he'd never before seen a cornerback have a series like that.

Carter ended the season ranked third in the Big Ten in both passes defended and broken up. He had a large hand in improving Minnesota's pass defense from a total liability last year to No. 11 in the nation in 2012.

He and the secondary will be put to the test Friday against one of the top passing offenses in the country. Texas Tech threw for more than 361 yards per game this season and boasts a pair of top-flight receivers in Eric Ward (75 catches, 974 yards, 11 touchdowns) and Darrin Moore (81, 948 and 13). This could serve as an NFL audition for the 5-foot-11, 189-pound Carter.

"It’s a great showcase for him," Kill told ESPN.com. "They’ve got great, big, tall receivers. It’s a very important game for our program, but for a young man like him, who had a great year, there will be a lot of people watching, and it will be a great opportunity.”

It's an opportunity that Carter nearly threw away. Luckily, he turned out to be a mission worth rescuing.

B1G bowl primer: Meineke Car Care Bowl

December, 18, 2012
12/18/12
10:00
AM ET
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.

Ranking the Big Ten's bowl games

December, 12, 2012
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The Big Ten bowl season kicks off Dec. 28 in Texas, continues the following day in Arizona and wraps up with five games on New Year's Day. Seven Big Ten teams appear in the postseason, and the number would have been larger had Ohio State and Penn State been eligible. Although most would describe the Big Ten's bowl lineup as more daunting than exciting, it's always fun to rank the games based on intrigue. Which games will be the most entertaining, and which will put you to sleep?

Here's my take:

1. Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO, Wisconsin vs. No. 6 Stanford (Jan. 1, ESPN, 5 p.m. ET, Rose Bowl Stadium, Pasadena, Calif.) -- The first Rose Bowl featuring a 5-loss team doesn't sound too appetizing, but Wisconsin finished the season with a 70-point performance in the Big Ten title game and has a lot of stylistic similarities to Stanford. But who are we kidding. The real reason to watch is Barry Alvarez, the former Wisconsin coach who won three Rose Bowls and has taken over the head-coaching duties for the game following the sudden departure of Bret Bielema. Barry's back, and he's going for a 4-0 mark in Pasadena.

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesDenard Robinson will play his final college game in the Outback Bowl.
2. Outback Bowl, No. 18 Michigan vs. No. 10 South Carolina (Jan. 1, ESPN, 1 p.m. ET, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa) -- Record-setting Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson plays his final game in Maize and Blue, and likely will spend most of it at running back as the Wolverines face a fearsome South Carolina defense led by star end Jadeveon Clowney. Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan matches up against Clowney in a battle of likely future first-round picks. Michigan has plenty of "good" losses on its résumé, but this is the last chance for the Wolverines to record a signature win.

3. TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, No. 20 Northwestern vs. Mississippi State (Jan. 1, ESPN2, noon ET, EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Fla.) -- Everyone knows about Northwestern's bowl drought -- the team hasn't won a bowl since the 1949 Rose -- but bad matchups certainly have played a role. Northwestern finally gets a more evenly matched opponent in Mississippi State, which started strong but faded late. The Wildcats return almost all of their key players in 2013, including star running back/returner Venric Mark and quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, so this game could be a springboard for bigger things ahead if Northwestern comes out on top. Cowbell, anyone?

4. Capital One Bowl, No. 16 Nebraska vs. No. 7 Georgia (Jan. 1, ABC, 1 p.m. ET, Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando) -- This game usually ranks higher on the intrigue-o-meter, but it's tough to get too excited about a matchup featuring two teams that would much rather be elsewhere. Nebraska comes off of its worst performance in years, a complete clunker at the Big Ten title game. Georgia performed much better at the SEC championship, but once again couldn't get over the hump. There are some exciting individual players like Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead, and Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and linebacker Jarvis Jones. Nebraska needs to significantly upgrade its performance to have a chance against the Dawgs.

5. Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Michigan State vs. TCU (Dec. 29, ESPN, 10:15 p.m. ET, Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.) -- If your entertainment gauge is based entirely on number of points scored, this probably isn't the game for you. But if you enjoy fast, physical defenses, be sure and tune in as the Spartans and Horned Frogs square off. Michigan State ranks fourth nationally in total defense, and TCU ranks 18th. It's likely the last chance to catch Spartans star running back Le'Veon Bell in Green and White, and Michigan State could shake some things up on offense with some extra time to prepare.

6. Heart of Dallas Bowl, Purdue vs. Oklahoma State (Jan. 1, ESPNU, noon ET, Cotton Bowl Stadium, Dallas) -- It's a coin flip for the last spot in the Big Ten bowl rankings, but at least this contest should feature some points. Oklahoma State ranks fourth nationally in scoring and fifth in total offense. While Purdue's offense had its ups and downs, the Boilers finished on a good note behind quarterback Robert Marve and play-caller Patrick Higgins, averaging 482 yards in the final three games. Oklahoma State is a heavy favorite, but Purdue, playing with an interim coach (Higgins) and a large senior class, has nothing to lose and should have some surprises.

7. Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, Minnesota vs. Texas Tech (Dec. 28, ESPN, 9 p.m. ET, Reliant Stadium, Houston) -- Again, there's not much separating this game from the one above it, but Texas Tech has an interim head coach after Tommy Tuberville's surprising exit, and Minnesota really struggled offensively late in the season as injuries piled up. It will be interesting to see how cornerback Michael Carter and Minnesota's improved secondary handles a Texas Tech offense ranked second nationally in passing. But unless Minnesota's offense makes major strides in bowl practices, it's tough to see this one being close.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 15

December, 5, 2012
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Only one Big Ten game took place since the last edition of the power rankings, but the surprising result left quite a conundrum.

How should we rank teams 2 through 6 after Wisconsin smashed Nebraska by 39 points in the Big Ten championship game? Wisconsin had a truly great night in Indy and looked like a different team than we've seen all season, but the Badgers still have more losses than Nebraska, Northwestern, Michigan and Penn State.

Oh, the decisions. In the end, this version of the power rankings takes into account the totality of the season. It's a little different from the weekly ones in that sense. Plus, we want to remain consistent with how we voted in the ESPN.com power rankings. As a result, Wisconsin stays at 6 (commence hate mail).

Let's get to it ...

1. Ohio State (12-0, last week: 1): Get used to the Buckeyes occupying the top spot under coach Urban Meyer, who guided Ohio State to its sixth unbeaten and untied season in team history. The big keys entering the offseason are addressing depth issues on the defensive side, finding more consistent playmakers to surround quarterback Braxton Miller and maintaining the standard set this season on the offensive line.

2. Michigan (8-4, last week: 3): Jadeveon Clowney and the South Carolina Gamecocks await Michigan at the Outback Bowl, giving the Wolverines one final chance at a signature victory. Clowney and Wolverines tackle Taylor Lewan face off in a battle of future NFLers. Michigan should benefit from bowl practices as it continues to adjust to having both Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson in the backfield.

3. Penn State (8-4, last week: 4): Penn State won't soon forget the 2012 season or the 2012 senior class, but it's now time to look ahead to an uncertain future. Bill O'Brien and his assistants must be extremely selective with the 2013 recruiting class and future classes, as they can ill afford to miss on more than a few prospects. Penn State loses a lot of star power on defense but has a nice piece to build around at defensive end in Big Ten Freshman of the Year Deion Barnes.

4. Nebraska (10-3, last week: 2): On the cusp of its first league title since 1999, Nebraska tumbled down the mountain yet again. Saturday's loss was an all-time stinker, the worst in team history, according to veteran columnist Tom Shatel. The defense allowed more rushing yards (539) than it ever has, and the offense turned over the ball and didn't find a rhythm until it was far too late. Nebraska will try to rebound against Georgia in the Capital One Bowl.

5. Northwestern (9-3, last week: 5): Will Northwestern finally get the bowl monkey off of its back this year? Pat Fitzgerald's crew has a potentially favorable matchup against slumping Mississippi State in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. A young Wildcats squad should benefit from bowl practices, as players such as cornerback Nick VanHoose can fully heal. Northwestern's formidable rushing attack faces a Bulldogs defense ranked 70th nationally against the run.

6. Wisconsin (8-5, last week: 6): Yes, we saw what you saw Saturday night. The Badgers were brilliant. And if they follow it up against Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, they'll make a serious move up the power rankings. Still, this has been an inconsistent team that now must deal with the stunning departure of coach Bret Bielema to Arkansas. After dealing with so much adversity this season, can the Badgers rally again?

7. Michigan State (6-6, last week: 7): The good news for both the Spartans and their Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl opponent, TCU, is that their upcoming matchup is at a neutral site. Both squads failed to win a conference home game this season. Both squads are also very good on defense and inconsistent on offense. It'll be interesting to see Mark Dantonio and Gary Patterson match wits, and how Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell performs against a stout Frogs defense.

8. Purdue (6-6, last week: 8): The Boilers have a new head coach in Darrell Hazell, but his impact won't be felt until 2013. An extremely tough matchup against Oklahoma State awaits Purdue in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Cornerbacks Josh Johnson and Ricardo Allen will be tested early and often, and quarterback Robert Marve and the offense will need to put up big numbers for the Boilers to have a chance against the heavily favored Pokes.

9. Minnesota (6-6, last week: 9): Like Purdue, Minnesota heads to Texas for a bowl matchup in which it is a sizable underdog. And like the Boilers, Minnesota needs its cornerbacks (Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire) to step up against a very good passing offense in Texas Tech (second nationally). The Red Raiders allowed 111 points in their final two games, but Minnesota's offense has been banged up and struggling and must get healthy this month.

10. Indiana (4-8, last week: 10): It's all about improving the defense in Bloomington, and Indiana has upgraded its recruiting, most recently adding a commitment Insider from defensive tackle Darius Latham, an ESPN 300 prospect who had originally pledged to Wisconsin. The Hoosiers need more depth and more talent on defense to complement what will be a very explosive offense in 2013.

11. Iowa (4-8, last week: 11): Offensive coordinator Greg Davis is staying, and he'll be tasked to upgrade an offense that took a significant step back in his first season. Jake Rudock is expected to step in at quarterback, and Iowa should have good depth at running back (famous last words, I know). The defense returns most of its key pieces and showed the ability to take the ball away this season (23).

12. Illinois (2-10, last week: 12): As expected, coach Tim Beckman will get at least another season to get things right after a miserable first go-round. Staff changes probably are coming as Illinois tries to get back on its feet before spring practice. The Illini lose several NFL-caliber defensive players, but the bigger concerns are with an offense that finished 119th nationally this season.
The 2012 All-Big Ten teams and individual award winners will be revealed at 7 p.m. ET tonight on the Big Ten Network. We'll post the full lists shortly thereafter as well as reaction.

The four major awards -- Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and Freshman of the Year -- will be revealed Tuesday night. We will have our official blog endorsements for each of these throughout Tuesday, so be sure to check in.

To clarify, we don't have official votes for All-Big Ten (not like we cover the league closer than anyone year-round or anything, but we're not bitter), but we will reveal our own all-conference team at a later date.

For now, we're going to give our opinions on some of the key debates surrounding this year's all-conference team.

1. The Big Ten has three elite running backs -- Wisconsin's Montee Ball, Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell and Northwestern's Venric Mark -- and only two spots on the first-team All-Big Ten team. Who makes it and who doesn't?

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell, Etienne Sabino
Mike Carter/US PRESSWIRELe'Veon Bell was the workhorse for the Michigan State offense this season.
Brian Bennett: This is an extremely difficult decision. I was prepared to go with Ball and Mark before Bell put up his huge, 266-yard performance against Minnesota last week. Someone very deserving is going to get left off this list, and in my book that is Mark. It's hard to ignore Bell, who's leading the Big Ten and is No. 3 nationally in rushing while carrying it a ridiculous 29 times per game. The Spartans might have only won a couple of games without him. And Ball turned it up big time in conference play, leading his team to the Big Ten title game. So I'll take those two guys, with sincere apologies to Mark, who had a wonderful season in his own right.

Adam Rittenberg: All three of these players were so valuable to their respective offenses. Ball struggled early but came on strong during Big Ten play and set the NCAA's all-time touchdowns mark. Bell is arguably the nation's top workhorse back, racking up an insane 350 carries. And yet neither impacted games quite as much as Mark, who broke off more long runs and also was brilliant on returns. He transformed a Northwestern offense that had been reliant on the pass for years and had no dynamic run threat. It's really a shame the All-Big Ten team doesn't have a return specialist, as that would be a way to get all three men on the first team. I have no issue with Ball and Bell, but it's a little hard to ignore the running back for the best team of the three. While it's tough not to have Bell on the first team, I'm going to go with Ball and Mark here.

2. Arguably no Big Ten position has more elite players than linebacker. The first-team All-Big Ten squad includes only three selections. Who makes the cut?

Adam Rittenberg: While I'd love to officially vote for All-Big Ten, this position group would drive me nuts because there are so many good choices. Penn State's Michael Mauti and Ohio State's Ryan Shazier have to be there. They're the two leading candidates for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Mauti triggered Penn State's effort on defense, while Shazier put up insane numbers in Big Ten games (15 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 1 interception, 8 pass breakups, 2 forced fumbles). The big decision is the third linebacker -- we'll likely have four LBs on our All-Big Ten squad. It's between Michigan's Jake Ryan and Wisconsin's Mike Taylor for me, and I'm going to go with Ryan, who made a few more impact plays during the Big Ten season (5 forced fumbles, 13 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks). Taylor, Michigan State's Max Bullough and Penn State's Gerald Hodges also were terrific, but I'm happy with these three.

Brian Bennett: I'm in agreement here. No two defensive players were more valuable to their teams than Mauti and Shazier. In addition to their great performances, Shazier held a thin linebacking corps together, while Mauti helped an entire program stay together. And Ryan simply made more impact plays at crucial times than the other outstanding linebackers who are All-Big Ten candidates. It seemed like every time you looked up during a Michigan game, the guy with the flowing blond locks was creating havoc. Linebacker was a major strength in the league, and even picking a second team here between Taylor, Bullough, Hodges and Chris Borland is no easy task.

3. Ohio State's Braxton Miller is a likely Heisman Trophy finalist and the leading candidate for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. It would be a surprise if he isn't the first-team All-Big Ten quarterback. Who should be the second-team QB, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez or Penn State's Matt McGloin?

Brian Bennett: Take nothing away from McGloin, who led the Big Ten with 3,271 passing yards and 24 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Just an amazing year for the fifth-year senior, who would win the most improved player award if the league had such a thing. The choice here, though, is Martinez. Yes, he still gets a little careless with the ball sometimes. But he was in complete command of the Big Ten's best offense, carrying it after star running back Rex Burkhead went down. He improved greatly as a passer, completing 63.3 percent of his throws while compiling nearly 2,500 passing yards and 21 touchdowns. He also averaged 5.4 yards per carry in conference play and finished No. 1 in the league in total offense. His ability to lead Nebraska on wild comebacks and get the Cornhuskers into the Big Ten title game can't be overlooked.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesTaylor Martinez led Nebraska to the Big Ten title game.
Adam Rittenberg: Yep, agree with you on this one. Both players are vastly improved from 2011 -- McGloin more so than Martinez -- but Martinez's running ability really sets him apart in my mind. He had 833 rush yards and eight touchdowns, spurring a ground attack that didn't have Burkhead for most of the season. Like his Nebraska team, Martinez got sloppy at times and played really poorly in the loss to Ohio State. But you can't discount what he did in all of those comebacks, which turned out to be Nebraska's hallmark in reaching the Big Ten championship game. I absolutely love what McGloin did this season in Bill O'Brien's NFL-style offense, leading the league in pass yards and pass touchdowns and setting team records in the process. There'd be no major outcry here if he appears on the second-team All-Big Ten squad ahead of Martinez. But if I had to choose, I'd go with Martinez.

4. Cornerback has been a bit of a pleasant surprise this year in the Big Ten. The All-Big Ten team only designates four "defensive backs," so conceivably four corners could make it. Which Big Ten corners deserve to be on the first team this season?

Brian Bennett: Ohio State's Bradley Roby is the no-brainer here. The redshirt sophomore developed into arguably the best cover corner in the league this year and is a lock for one of the first-team All-Big Ten spots. My second choice would be Nebraska's Ciante Evans. Though Evans plays nickel, the Huskers ask a lot out of nickelbacks in their scheme, and Evans was their best coverage guy for the nation's No. 2-ranked pass defense. I'd prefer to have two corners and two safeties on the team, but if we went with three cornerbacks, I'd probably turn next to Purdue's Josh Johnson, who eclipsed Ricardo Allen as his team's best defensive back this year.

Adam Rittenberg: There's no doubt cornerback is a stronger group than safety this season. I'm going to go with three first-team All-Big Ten corners, starting with Ohio State's Roby. The sophomore has been the best defensive back in the league this season, tying for second nationally in passes defended with 19, recording two interceptions and scoring three touchdowns. The play he made at Wisconsin covering two different players in the end zone was one of the best I've seen in recent years. I also like Evans as a first-team selection, as he made a bunch of plays for the league's top pass defense. My third choice comes down to Johnson and Minnesota's Michael Carter. I love what Johnson did, but Carter was more noticeable during Big Ten play and seemed to blossom at the end of his career. I'd go with Johnson and Northwestern's Nick VanHoose on the second team.

5. All of the position awards will be passed out tonight. Let's dissect two of them: the Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year and the Smith-Brown Defensive Lineman of the Year. Who wins?

Adam Rittenberg: Ah, two goodies. The tight end award comes down to two players who missed portions of the season with injuries: Penn State's Kyle Carter and Michigan State's Dion Sims. Both produced at a high rate, with Carter recording 36 receptions for 453 yards and two touchdowns, while Sims, Michigan's only reliable pass-catching threat, recorded 33 receptions for 451 yards and two scores. Man, that's close, but Carter gets the nod from me. He gave Penn State such a boost on offense. The defensive lineman award comes down to Ohio State defensive end John Simon and Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill. Both are sure-fire first-team All-Big Ten selections, but I'm going with Simon, who led the Big Ten in sacks (9) and ranked third in tackles for loss (14.5). He would have had a big final game, like Hill did, had he been healthy.

Brian Bennett: Can I combine all the Penn State tight ends into one? Call them Kyle James Lehman, and then you'd really have something. It is another razor-thin call, but I'll take Michigan State's Sims. He played two fewer games than Carter, but remember that Sims played through injuries at times this year and wasn't always 100 percent. When he was healthy, he was the best big-play threat at tight end in the league and the Spartans' only real go-to guy in the passing game. He's a physical specimen unlike any other Big Ten tight end. As for defensive linemen, you named the probable two leading contenders. I'd also throw Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins in there, as he was a dominant run-stuffer. But I'm with you on Simon. He not only put up some great stats, but he played through a lot of pain this year and was unquestionably the emotional leader for the 12-0 Buckeyes.
Like the rest of his Minnesota teammates, running back Donnell Kirkwood surged out of the gate in nonleague play, racking up 361 rush yards and two touchdowns.

Not surprisingly, the Gophers went 4-0.

It has been more of a struggle for Minnesota and Kirkwood during Big Ten play. The Gophers dropped four of their first five league contests, and Kirkwood averaged just 61.2 yards per game (including a 134-yard surge against Purdue) and zero touchdowns. If Minnesota intended to get bowl-eligible, it likely would need a big performance from No. 20 and the offensive line at Illinois.

Kirkwood delivered in a big way in Minnesota's 17-3 win over Illinois, ensuring that the Gophers will go bowling for the first time since the 2009 season. The sophomore racked up 152 rush yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries. Boosted by Kirkwood and a stingy defense, Minnesota (6-4, 2-4) had just enough to get past Illinois at Memorial Stadium. Second-year Gophers coach Jerry Kill recorded his first road win as the Gophers won in Champaign for the fourth straight time.

The game was hard to watch at times, particularly in the first half when the teams combined for just six points, one fumble and seven punts. Minnesota held Illinois to 13 first downs and 276 yards, and forced two Nathan Scheelhaase fumbles, including one in the closing minutes as the Illini quarterback tried to stretch the ball for a first down. Kirkwood sealed the win moments later with his second touchdown run, from 12 yards out.

The Gophers' defense once again stepped up, whether it was cornerback Michael Carter knocking down a third-down pass in Minnesota territory or linebacker Mike Rallis forcing Scheelhaase's fumble. Carter has been brilliant in Big Ten play.

Quarterback Philip Nelson had limited numbers (9-for-15 passing, 78 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs), but he made several key plays on third and fourth down, converting two fourth downs to set up the Gophers' first touchdown.

Illinois' defense kept it in the game most of the way, but the Illini have so many problems on offense that it didn't matter. Tim Beckman's crew had just 101 rush yards and couldn't mount a drive of longer than 11 yards in the second or third quarter. The Illini wrap up their home schedule next week against Purdue before finishing at Northwestern.

For Kill and the Gophers, this is one to celebrate. Few envisioned Minnesota would be bowling in Kill's second year. Despite some tough moments in Big Ten play, the Gophers are climbing back toward respectability.
There's no more debate. Quarterback Braxton Miller and the Ohio State Buckeyes made sure everyone knows they're the best team in the Big Ten.

The so-called Ineligi-bowl on Saturday night in State College paired the top two teams in the most recent power rankings. Penn State came in brimming with confidence following five straight wins, but it missed several big opportunities early in the game. Ohio State took over behind Miller and a surprisingly good defense, showing that it remains the class of the Big Ten.

Nebraska moves up to the No. 2 spot after keeping Michigan out of the end zone, while Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State and Iowa all drop. Wisconsin looks very shaky without top quarterback Joel Stave, and Iowa is a mess after being outclassed for the second straight week. Aside from Wisconsin's and Iowa's drops, and Minnesota's and Indiana's rises, there's not a ton of movement. Purdue and Illinois remain at the bottom of the barrel.

As a reminder, the power rankings are a snapshot of a team's current state -- how it is performing in real time. Injuries are considered.

Here's the rundown ...

1. Ohio State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten, last week: 1): The Buckeyes have the Big Ten's best player in Miller and the league's best team, period. They racked up 234 rush yards and three touchdowns against a stout Penn State defense and controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Ohio State's defense had one of its best efforts, keeping Penn State out of the end zone for more than three quarters. Urban Meyer's squad had looked shaky the previous two weeks, but it cranked things up in the second and third quarters and never looked back. A perfect season seems much more realistic with three games to play.

2. Nebraska (6-2, 3-1, last week: 5): Three weeks after being crushed by Ohio State in Columbus, Nebraska has new life and control of the Legends Division. The Huskers have regained their swagger on defense and capitalized on a Denard Robinson-less Michigan team in the second half Saturday night, allowing just 52 yards. Nebraska has survived almost two full Big Ten games without top running back Rex Burkhead, who should be back this week at Michigan State. Bo Pelini challenged his team to win out after Ohio State, and the players have responded. Another test awaits this week against the Spartans.

3. Penn State (5-3, 3-1, last week: 2): Bill O'Brien's team had been efficient and opportunistic in its first three Big Ten games. The Lions were neither against Ohio State, failing to build a bigger first-half lead and making too many mistakes in the middle part of the game. Penn State had too many penalties, not enough third-down conversions, not enough in the run game and not enough third-down stops against Ohio State. The Lions took a big step up in class but couldn't match the Buckeyes despite an electric atmosphere in State College. They aim to get back in the win column this week at Purdue.

4. Michigan (5-3, 3-1, last week: 3): No Robinson equaled big, big problems for Michigan against Nebraska. Backup quarterback Russell Bellomy struggled mightily, and Michigan could have a tough time in the coming weeks if No. 16 doesn't return to the field. The defense still performed well against Nebraska, at least until the fourth quarter, but Michigan is too invested in Robinson on offense and has very few answers without him. The Jug Game becomes a lot more interesting as Michigan visits a Minnesota team coming off of its best performance in Big Ten play.

5. Northwestern (7-2, 3-2, last week: 6): After three very shaky weeks on offense, Northwestern finally established its identity behind junior quarterback Kain Colter and the option game. Iowa had no answers for Colter and the Wildcats' ground attack, as Northwestern piled up 349 rush yards, averaging 7.1 yards per attempt. Northwestern's defense once again allowed some yards but limited points and big plays, making Iowa work for every point it scored. Pat Fitzgerald's team got through October, a month when it typically struggles, at 2-2, and enters November with some momentum.

6. Michigan State (5-4, 2-3, last week: 7): There's new life in Sparta as Michigan State's beleaguered offense showed up just in time and helped the Spartans rally past Wisconsin in Madison. Pat Narduzzi's defense has been elite for most of the season but cranked things up a notch at Camp Randall Stadium, limiting Wisconsin to 10 first downs and 19 net rushing yards, and racking up five sacks and 12 tackles for loss. Defensive end William Gholston finally had a breakout game, and linebacker Max Bullough and others were fabulous. The Spartans now return home to play the spoiler role as they host Legends Division front-runner Nebraska.

7. Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2, last week: 4): The Badgers lost their first home game since 2009 and also their top quarterback, Stave, to injury. All the mojo generated from three consecutive impressive wins is gone, as Wisconsin's offense reverted to its early September form under backup Danny O'Brien. Wisconsin still has the inside track to represent the Leaders Division in Indianapolis, but Indiana is now in the running, too, and the Badgers must get things together offensively during a much-needed open week before heading to Bloomington.

8. Minnesota (5-3, 1-3, last week: 10): The future is now, and his name is Philip Nelson. Minnesota's freshman quarterback dazzled before the home faithful Saturday against Purdue, firing three first-half touchdown passes and finishing with 246 pass yards, 37 rush yards and no interceptions. With Nelson at the controls, Minnesota scored more points (44) against Purdue than it had in its first three Big Ten contests (39). An improved defense shut down Purdue until garbage time and received a nice lift from cornerback Michael Carter. Minnesota looks to make a major statement and regain the Little Brown Jug this week against Michigan.

9. Indiana (3-5, 1-3, last week: 11): Kevin Wilson and his team finally celebrated a Big Ten win Saturday, and several more could be coming in the next few weeks. Indiana -- yes, Indiana -- controls its own fate in the Leaders Division and has two huge home games coming up against Iowa and then Wisconsin, the only other team that can represent the Leaders in Indianapolis. The Hoosiers made fewer mistakes than Illinois, received a nice lift from their defense at times and seemed to identify their top quarterback in freshman Nate Sudfeld. IU has been in every game this season and could be tough to beat down the stretch.

10. Iowa (4-4, 2-2, last week: 8): The frustration is mounting in Hawkeye Country as Iowa received a thorough beating for the second straight week. The Hawkeyes lost by only 11 at Northwestern, but they never stopped the Wildcats' rushing attack and couldn't attack a shorthanded secondary down the field. The offense piled up 336 yards but couldn't translate them into nearly enough points. A bigger concern is a defense that has surrendered 937 yards the past two weeks. If Iowa can't rebound this week against Indiana, it could be staring at a bowl-less season.

11. Purdue (3-5, 0-4, last week: 11): The Boilers' season is on life support, and Danny Hope's tenure as head coach could be, too. Billed by Hope as his best team, Purdue hasn't shown up for three of its first four Big Ten contests. The Boilers' defense, featuring several future NFL players, let Minnesota's Nelson have his way with them Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. Caleb TerBush clearly isn't the answer at quarterback, but it has taken too long for Hope to figure that out. Purdue has replaced Michigan State as the Big Ten's biggest disappointment, and it'll be tough for the Boilers to get bowl-eligible with four games to play.

12. Illinois (2-6, 0-4, last week: 12): Illinois had more first downs (23-14) and total yards (372-292) than Indiana, and held the ball for more than 33 minutes Saturday. But a flurry of mistakes -- penalties, turnovers, sacks, you name it -- allowed Indiana to score 24 of the game's final 27 points. Nathan Scheelhaase did some good things and Donovonn Young (124 rush yards) provided a boost in the ground game, but Illinois makes far too many errors to win games right now. It only gets tougher for Tim Beckman's crew as it heads to Columbus.
Lessons learned from Week 9 in the Big Ten:

1. The Big Ten is the league of second chances: Nebraska's season seemed headed down the tubes after it allowed 63 points to Ohio State on Oct. 6 in Columbus. The Huskers also were on life support down 12 points to Northwestern midway through the fourth quarter on Oct. 20. Look at them now: tied for the lead in the Legends division but holding tiebreakers against both of their top two challengers, Michigan and Northwestern. The Big Ten is a bad league in 2012, but it's also a league of second chances. Nebraska has capitalized on its new life but must keep it going this coming Saturday at Michigan State, which finally showed an offensive pulse in rallying past Wisconsin. Michigan and Wisconsin got knocked down after losing their starting quarterbacks, and it'll be challenging for both teams in the coming weeks. But to write anyone off -- aside from Illinois and Purdue -- seems silly in this silly league. Nebraska is control for now. Wisconsin's grasp on the Leaders division could be loosening a bit. Northwestern is still hanging around. So are others. Aside from Ohio State, every Big Ten team has been knocked to the mat a few times this season. But entering the season's most important month, most are still standing.

2. Ohio State is the best team in the Big Ten: There was a shred of doubt about this, at least outside Columbus, as Ohio State came to State College, Pa., after two shaky wins against the Indiana schools and took on a red-hot Penn State team that had captured five wins in a row. But on a big stage in a hostile environment, Braxton Miller and the 9-0 Buckeyes made it clear that they're the best team in a flawed Big Ten. Ohio State overcame a slow start and a special-teams miscue and took control thanks to Miller and a stout defense that received big plays from linebacker Ryan Shazier and others. Urban Meyer's team made its loudest statement of the season against a surging team playing before a raucous crowd. It's too bad the Buckeyes won't be playing in Indianapolis or Pasadena this season -- the OSU administration has itself to blame for that -- but the chase for a perfect regular season shifts into high gear. Ohio State should handle Illinois easily next week before closing the season with Wisconsin (road) and Michigan (home). The push for perfection and Miller's Heisman campaign should be fun to watch the rest of the way.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Mary Langenfeld/US PresswireMontee Ball and heretofore-resurgent Wisconsin lost some luster Saturday but still look good for Indy.
3. Forget a marquee matchup in Indy: Hope had started to flicker lately that the Big Ten championship game could actually feature a pretty appealing matchup, thanks to Wisconsin's recent resurgence. Well, Michigan State put the brakes on that talk by going into Madison and winning in overtime while holding the Badgers to just one touchdown. Now 6-3 overall and 3-2 in the conference, Wisconsin doesn't deserve to be ranked, yet it still almost certainly will reach Indianapolis by default in the probation-riddled Leaders division. With reports that quarterback Joel Stave (collarbone) could be lost for the season, this team could struggle in its final three games at improving Indiana, versus Ohio State and at Penn State. In fact, it's not outrageous to suggest that Wisconsin could wind up 6-6 and make it to Indy. The Badgers may still finish strong, and they basically have a one-game season to go to the Rose Bowl. There just isn't much hope of the Big Ten title game staging a marquee matchup.

4. Northwestern needs to stay grounded: We have grown accustomed to Northwestern slinging the ball around the gridiron with quarterbacks like Dan Persa and Mike Kafka. But that's not the best formula for success with this year's team. The Wildcats are most dangerous when they have Kain Colter and Venric Mark in the backfield together running wild. Coach Pat Fitzgerald mostly ditched the quarterback rotation with Trevor Siemian and gave Colter the ball on Saturday against Iowa. Colter and Mark combined to run for 328 yards on 42 carries (7.8 yards per carry), while Mark became the school's first 1,000-yard back since 2006 in the process. Northwestern threw only 10 passes all day yet won 28-17 in a game that shouldn't have been that close. You wonder whether the Wildcats would have been able to close out Penn State and Nebraska in the fourth quarter if they had stayed committed to the ground attack with their best two athletes. No sense looking backward now, but Northwestern should continue what worked Saturday as it moves forward.

5. The arrow is pointed up for Indiana, Minnesota: No one can get too excited about a win over Illinois or Purdue these days. Still, Indiana's road win against the Illini and Minnesota's home domination of the Boilers could be turning points for the respective programs. Both teams identified freshman quarterbacks -- Indiana's Nate Sudfeld, Minnesota's Philip Nelson -- who spark the offense and spread the ball to talented receivers like Minnesota's A.J. Barker (135 receiving yards, 2 TDs against Purdue) and Indiana's triple threat of Kofi Hughes, Cody Latimer and Shane Wynn. Indiana has competed well all season, losing four of its games by four points or fewer, and might have just needed the experience of finishing out a win. The offense is legit: IU has scored at least 27 points in all six games versus FBS competition and has eclipsed 30 points five times. Minnesota's improvement on defense has been noticeable this season, and cornerback Michael Carter came up big against Purdue (pick-six, 6 PBUs). But Nelson provided the biggest boost, firing three first-half touchdown passes and completing 15 of 22 passes for 246 yards. Minnesota's offense finally started to score after putting up 13 points in each of its first three Big Ten games. Jerry Kill's squad is a win from bowl eligibility, while Kevin Wilson's team has a lot of work left. But the future of both programs looks promising.

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

September, 17, 2012
9/17/12
10:00
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Run it back ...

Team of the week: Penn State. No matter what you might think about the school and the football program after the Jerry Sandusky scandal, it was hard not to root for the current Nittany Lions players to finally get a win after so many obstacles. Penn State busted out with an easy, feel-good 34-7 win over Navy. The Midshipmen are hard to root against as well, but this one time was OK.

Game of the week: You might have missed it, because it ended late and was on at the same time as much bigger games. And, OK, it was Indiana. But the Hoosiers' game against Ball State was the most exciting Big Ten contest of the weekend. The teams traded touchdowns in the first half, with Ball State leading 25-24 at the break. Indiana looked done when it trailed 38-25 late in the fourth quarter and starting quarterback Cameron Coffman went out with a hip pointer. But freshman Nate Sudfeld threw a 70-yard touchdown pass and then led the team on another scoring drive with 49 seconds left. Ah, but the Hoosiers made the PlayStation mistake of scoring too fast. Ball State completed a controversial, hard-to-believe pass to the IU 25 with one second left, and Steven Schott booted the game-winner as time expired. It was a tough, tough loss for Kevin Wilson's team, but a fun game to watch.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Greg Bartram/US PresswireBuckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller tries to evade California linebacker Nathan Broussard on Saturday.
Biggest play: If it's late in a close game, the last thing a defense wants to see is Braxton Miller scrambling. The Ohio State quarterback burned Wisconsin with a long touchdown throw after things broke down last year, and he did so against Cal on Saturday with a 72-yard strike to an unbelievably open Devin Smith for the game with 3:26 left. Safeties have to respect Miller's explosive running ability, but they get can burned when they leave their receivers. That's why the Miller scramble is becoming one of the most dangerous late-game plays to defend.

Best call: Wisconsin was supposed to be in punt safe mode in the third quarter against Utah State, and its returners would usually call for a fair catch in the situation Kenzel Doe found himself in. But Doe, who was only returning punts because Jared Abbrederis was injured, saw a small opening on the sideline and decided to go for it. He was in the end zone 82 yards later, finally giving the Badgers the spark they needed to eventually beat the Aggies 16-14. Doe? More like Woo-Hoo!

Big Men on Campus (Offense): How about some love for the backups this week? Minnesota's Max Shortell stepped in for the injured MarQueis Gray and threw for 188 yards and three touchdowns, helping the Gophers fend off Western Michigan for a 3-0 start. And as Iowa's running back curse reached new, ludicrous heights, walk-on Mark Weisman came out of nowhere to run for 113 yards and three touchdowns as part of the Hawkeyes' much-needed win over Northern Iowa.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Minnesota cornerback Michael Carter had an 18-yard interception return to set up a touchdown early. He also broke up Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder's pass late to help preserve the 28-23 victory.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): It's hard to run 99 offensive plays before scoring your first touchdown, but that's what Northwestern did against Boston College. Luckily, they had kicker Jeff Budzien, who made all five of his field goal attempts to give the Wildcats all the points they'd need in a 22-13 victory.

Worst hangover: Michigan State, by a mile. The Spartans were carrying the banner for the Big Ten for one week before they tripped, broke the pole and set the flag on fire against Notre Dame. Although Michigan State bounced back from a bad loss to the Irish last year, Saturday's offensive showing was so inept that it makes you wonder if this team can overcome those limitations going forward. Just a bad, bad performance on a national stage.

Strangest moment: Playing UMass is good for your offense, and just about everyone got involved in Michigan's 63-13 win. That included left tackle Taylor Lewan, who got to live out an offensive lineman's dream by recovering a Denard Robinson fumble for a touchdown. Or did he? At least one teammate claimed that center Elliott Mealer actually recovered the ball. And Robinson said Lewan was mad about his score because the play broke down and he didn't get to complete his block. But the box score says it was a Lewan touchdown, and that's something we probably won't see again.
Arguably the biggest question for Minnesota entering the season was whether the Gophers had any offensive weapons besides senior quarterback MarQueis Gray.

The Gophers showed Saturday they have plenty.

Despite losing Gray to a leg injury in the second quarter, Minnesota outlasted Western Michigan 28-23 to improve to 3-0 on the season. Max Shortell relieved Gray and fired three touchdown passes, two to emerging standout A.J. Barker, and got help from Donnell Kirkwood on the ground as the Gophers notched an important win.

The situation doesn't look good for Gray, who had to be taken to the locker room on a cart and had crutches on the sideline in the second half. His knee and ankle will be evaluated, and we'll have any updates on his status as they come in.

Shortell showed he can handle the offense, and engineered two touchdown drives at the end of the first half after Western Michigan reclaimed the lead at 10-7. The 6-foot-6, 237-pound Shortell completed 10-of-17 passes for 188 yards with the three scoring strikes and an interception. Barker had five catches, three of them touchdowns, for 101 yards, while Kirkwood added 110 rush yards on 23 carries.

Minnesota's defense wasn't as stifling as it had been in the first two games, but Michael Carter had an interception and Ra'Shede Hageman, who looked dominant again at times, nearly had another.

The Gophers gear up for their toughest non-league test next week against Syracuse before opening Big Ten play. Although Gray's status is a concern going forward, Minnesota is halfway to bowl eligibility and looks like it has enough to get back to the postseason.

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