NCF Nation: Mike Markuson

New Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen on Thursday announced five assistant coaches for the 2013 season.

Several of these names have already been reported but they're now official. Here's the rundown:
  • Andy Ludwig, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
  • Dave Aranda, defensive coordinator
  • Bill Busch, secondary
  • Chad Kauha'aha'a, defensive line
  • T.J. Woods, offensive line

Andersen is retaining two assistants from the previous Badgers staff: running backs coach Thomas Hammock and Ben Strickland, who coached the secondary in 2011 and will assist Busch.

Andersen worked with Ludwig at Utah, and Kauha'aha'a worked on Andersen's staff at Utah State before joining Utah's last year. The other three assistants -- Aranda, Busch and Woods -- served on Andersen's staff at Utah State this past season.

The notable absence here is Bart Miller, who coached Wisconsin's offensive line this season after being promoted from his graduate-assistant role to replace the fired Mike Markuson. Miller fostered improvement with the line and gained the respect of the players, but Andersen opted to go with Woods, who coached four first-team All-WAC selections the past two seasons, as his line coach. Miller mentioned before the Rose Bowl that he could be auditioning for a spot on Andersen's staff. Ironically, Woods helped tutor Miller at New Mexico as an offensive graduate assistant there.

Andersen still has two assistant coaches to hire, so we'll see if Miller ends up filling one of those spots. Tight ends/H-backs coach is a possibility for Miller.
"I have previously worked with the five coaches we are bringing in and I have gotten to know Thomas and Ben in the last few weeks so that familiarity will be beneficial," Andersen said in a prepared statement. "Both on offense and defense, these coaches have shown a lot of flexibility within their systems, and their main goal is to get the best 11 players on the field and build around their strengths. Our style on offense will be very familiar to Wisconsin fans while on defense I am confident that we can continue the great tradition of tough and physical units that has been established here."

Although most of the new additions spent most of their careers on the West Coast, Busch has ties to Wisconsin after serving as a graduate assistant for former Badgers coach Barry Alvarez in 1993-94.

Thoughts on Andersen's staff additions?

Big Ten's best assistants in 2012

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

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

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

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

Here's the rundown in alphabetical order:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ed Warinner, Ohio State, offensive line/co-offensive coordinator: Warinner took an underachieving Buckeyes offensive line with serious depth questions and turned it into quite possibly the best line in the league. The Buckeyes' front five turned a corner in Big Ten play and created lanes for Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde and the Big Ten's top scoring offense. Warinner was the Big Ten's best assistant hire of the last offseason and earns our vote as the league's top assistant in 2012.
Bret Bielema was born in Illinois at a place called Illini Hospital. He played his college football at Iowa and has a tattoo of a tiger hawk on his leg.

Except for a two-year stint at Kansas State as co-defensive coordinator, Bielema spent his entire career in the Big Ten and was groomed by Barry Alvarez to take over Wisconsin. In February, after he objected to some of Ohio State coach Urban Meyer's aggressive recruiting tactics, Bielema said this: “We at the Big Ten don’t want to be like the SEC -- in any way, shape or form.”

Now, less than a year later, Bielema is leaving for a middle-of-the-pack SEC job at Arkansas. And that's a bitter pill to swallow not only for Badgers fans, but for the entire Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsBret Bielema is heading to Arkansas just days after celebrating a Big Ten title with Wisconsin.
Bielema is a Midwest guy, through and through, a coach who seemed sent straight out of central casting to lead a Big Ten program. He had a close-knit relationship with Alvarez, who became his athletic director, and on Saturday night he clinched his school-record third straight Rose Bowl trip with a surprisingly easy 70-31 Big Ten title game upset win over Nebraska. Bielema had received some minor criticism for dumping new offensive line coach Mike Markuson just two weeks into this season, but nobody was questioning that bold move after the offense steamrolled for 539 yards against the Huskers. Standing on the Lucas Oil Stadium field an hour after the win Saturday night, he looked as happy and contented as anyone in the often-deranged profession of coaching could be.

That's why Tuesday afternoon's news was so stunning. While coaches switch jobs all the time and are smart to stay one step ahead of the ax, Bielema had as much security and control over his team as he could possibly wish. Despite a 7-5 regular season, the program still appeared to be at its zenith. Bielema told me in the spring that while he liked his chances in 2012, he thought 2013 would be the best team he would ever have in Madison, which was saying a lot for a guy who'd averaged nearly 10 wins a season and all but made Pasadena his winter home.

So this raises two obvious questions: Why would Bielema leave? And if the Big Ten can't hold on to this coach, in this situation, does it have any prayer of actually competing with the SEC?

Arkansas isn't Alabama or Florida. It's a step behind the top SEC powers, but has a fan base that expects to win national titles. Wisconsin, meanwhile, is easily one of the Big Ten's best four or five jobs, though the arrival of Meyer has definitely made life much more difficult in the Leaders Division. Of course, if Bielema didn't want to deal with tough division rivals or intense recruiting wars, he picked a funny way of showing it by leaving for the SEC West.

Wisconsin presented its own share of challenges. The state does not annually produce a lot of Division I prospects, so the Badgers have to do a great job of evaluating and developing players. It said a lot that the team's starting quarterback and top receiver in the middle of this season both were walk-ons. But starting with Alvarez and continuing with Bielema, Wisconsin made a habit of churning out NFL starters from non-scholarship or lightly recruited players. It had a system, based first on dominant offensive lines and the running game, and that system worked like a factory line.

At Arkansas, Bielema will have much more access to blue-chip talent, but also far more competition for it. Simply getting to BCS games, as he has in Madison, won't cut it in Fayetteville. Bielema will also find that certain flaws that left him unloved by some Badgers fans -- some questionable late-game management, a personality that bordered on cocky at times -- are about to be magnified exponentially in the maniacal SEC.

The biggest advantage the Razorbacks can offer, besides a mascot that will remind Bielema of his family's hog farm, is money. Bielema was making more than $2.6 million at Wisconsin, ranking as the 18th-highest paid coach in the country. Early reports indicate that he will be paid more than $3 million by Arkansas. It's not just his own pay, though, that makes a difference. Six assistants departed Bielema's staff last offseason, and while Paul Chryst understandably left for a head-coaching opportunity at Pitt, the others all took jobs that were not major steps up.

The Badgers, like many Big Ten teams, have lagged behind other power leagues in pay for assistant coaches. In June, the Lansing State Journal reported that Wisconsin ranked only seventh among 10 Big Ten schools who reported their salaries for assistants, with a total pool of just under $2 million. Matt Canada and Chris Ash were among the lowest-paid coordinators in the league. Wisconsin also has dealt with some outdated facilities, though the school is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar improvement project.

The money angle is the most concerning for the Big Ten. Even though the conference ranks as the richest conference thanks to its successful cable network, it is still losing one of its top coaches over what appears to be mostly a pay issue. Decry the out-of-control salaries and never-ending arms race all you want. Just don't complain when the SEC is winning national titles and the Big Ten is not.

Only Pat Fitzgerald, who became Northwestern's head coach the same year Bielema took over the Badgers, and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz had been in their chairs as long as Bielema. The dean of coaches in the Leaders Division is now Indiana's Kevin Wilson, who just completed his second season.

Bielema had all the characteristics of a Big Ten lifer. Instead, like the college football world in general, he's moving to the South. Score another victory for the SEC, this one a disheartening upset.


INDIANAPOLIS -- They came in droves, as family members, friends and colleagues embraced Wisconsin offensive coordinator Matt Canada on what had become a field of dreams at Lucas Oil Stadium.

"That," Canada told one group of well-wishers, "was fun."

It hasn't been a fun season at times for Canada, his staff or the Badgers' players. Of the six assistants Wisconsin lost following the 2011 season, four were on the offensive side, including longtime coordinator Paul Chryst. Another staff change occurred after Week 2 this fall, as Wisconsin dismissed offensive line coach Mike Markuson and promoted a graduate assistant, Bart Miller, to the crucial role.

The Wisconsin offense -- one that had a whole lot of fun the previous few seasons -- stopped and started. It looked great against weaker opponents (Purdue, Illinois, Indiana) and inefficient against better ones (Oregon State, Michigan State). At times, it showed both of its faces in the same game (Nebraska Part 1, Ohio State, Penn State). Canada, the primary playcaller, took his share of heat, even in recent weeks.

"It's been a long year," Canada said. "I'm just really proud of the way our guys stuck together. ... We kept working and kept grinding, and our players kept believing."

The work and the belief culminated Saturday night, as Wisconsin put on a clinic in dismantling Nebraska 70-31 in the league title game. Wisconsin (8-5) is heading back to the Rose Bowl for the third consecutive year -- the Badgers will be the first five-loss team to play in the game -- and the Badgers punched their ticket in style.

Wisconsin racked up a team-record eight rushing touchdowns and 539 rushing yards, 25 shy of the team record set in the Badgers' previous trip to the Hoosier State (Nov. 10 at Indiana). The Badgers had three running backs eclipse 100 rushing yards for the first time in team history, with freshman Melvin Gordon (9 carries, 216 yards, 1 TD), senior Montee Ball (21 carries, 202 yards, 3 TDs) and junior James White (15 carries, 109 yards, 4 TDs). They averaged 10.8 yards per carry (11.8 yards through the first three quarters).

"I'm just happy they're with us," a beaming Thomas Hammock, the Badgers' running backs coach, said on the field afterward. "They compete hard, and they kept the same level of intensity all season. It obviously showed today."

[+] EnlargeChris Borland, Montee Ball
AP Photo/Michael ConroyLinebacker Chris Borland, left, and running back Montee Ball get their hands on the Big Ten hardware.
Although Wisconsin's 70 points tied for the second most in team history in the modern era, the Badgers aren't strangers to big numbers, even in this rocky season. What made Saturday night's performance unique is the variety of plays Canada called and the players executed to perfection.

It started with Gordon, an immense talent from whom Badgers fans have clamored for more, lining up at wide receiver to begin the game. Wisconsin ran both runs and a pass -- White connecting with Sam Arneson for a touchdown -- out of its "Barge" formation. Canada put his spin on the swinging-gate play in the first quarter as quarterback Curt Phillips found fullback Derek Watt while seven of their teammates lined up on the other hashmark. Wisconsin also hit on a wide receiver pass as Jared Abbrederis found a wide-open Phillips to set up a second-quarter touchdown.

"We practiced 99 percent of what they showed us today," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said.

It certainly didn't look like it, as Wisconsin repeatedly used its standard plays -- like the jet sweep -- to set up its exotic ones.

"We've been practicing this stuff," Canada said. "That was the beauty of where we were. We felt like we had a chance to run some plays. We really didn't add a lot of plays this week."

Phillips insisted Wisconsin hadn't held back its creativity in recent games against Ohio State and Penn State. But the Badgers were determined to give Nebraska a vastly different look than the one it saw Sept. 29 in Lincoln.

"It was fun," Phillips said. "We practiced a lot of that stuff all season long. We just hadn't necessarily had an opportunity to use it. We had no reason to hold anything back."

Wisconsin undoubtedly was the looser team, in part because no one expected much from a squad that had lost five games and found itself in the title game only because both Ohio State and Penn State had been hit with NCAA sanctions. But no Big Ten team has been in more big games in recent years than the Badgers, who met the moment, especially on offense.

"The expectations were extremely high coming in, no doubt about it," Canada said. "If you want to do it, jump in the deep water with the big sharks and go get it."

Even a freshman such as Gordon understood the magnitude of Saturday's game.

"I kept telling myself, 'This is a big game,'" said Gordon, who averaged 24 yards a carry. "I wanted to install some trust in my coaches and teammates. All practice, all week, I told myself, 'Go hard, go hard, go hard. Something good is going to come out of it. This is a big stage. Make something happen.'"

Although Gordon had much of Badger Nation buzzing, Ball turned in another signature performance, setting the NCAA career rushing touchdowns record (76 total) and tying the NCAA mark for multiple-touchdown games (25). He eclipsed 190 rushing yards for the third time in four games and eclipsed 5,000 rushing yards for his career.

"Hopefully, this performance propels him to the top of the Doak Walker [Award]," head coach Bret Bielema said, "because he's a guy that deserves it in every way."

Many will say Wisconsin doesn't deserve a third straight trip to Pasadena, a first in the Big Ten since Michigan went from 1977 to '79. Some will say Saturday night's offensive explosion was an aberration and that Stanford's defense will provide a reality check Jan. 1.

Wisconsin's response?

"We're better than what our record shows," Gordon said. "We know that. We just came up short a couple times. I hope this puts any critics to rest about us being a bad team."

The criticism won't go away, but neither will Wisconsin. The Badgers are headed back to Pasadena.

Fun times, indeed.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- When Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema addressed his team Friday night, he read a list of approximately 20 teams that recently had been among the nation's elite but had fallen on hard times.

Teams like Wisconsin. Teams with worse records than the Badgers.

"The one thing I've constantly got to be aware of as a head coach is the temperature of my team, what are they feeling," Bielema said. "They were unranked and lost a heartbreaker to Michigan State. But what I was trying to stress was the character of this room would show [Saturday]. ... I rattled off a bunch of BCS teams that are in the thick of it but are 6-3 or [worse]. I wanted to remind them that teams either quit, or they battle forward.

"Obviously, they answered the bell today."

Wisconsin's road back to Indianapolis has been filled with obstacles this season, but the final leg proved to be surprisingly easy as the Badgers ensured they'll be back at Lucas Oil Stadium on Dec. 1. Behind a dominant offensive line and a stable of dominant running backs, led by Montee Ball, Wisconsin crushed Indiana 62-14 at Memorial Stadium.

A program known for its ground game piled up more rushing yards (564) than it ever has before, tying for the sixth-highest total in Big Ten history and the highest in a league game since 1975 (Michigan, 573 yards). Little about Wisconsin's offense resembled the record-setting units of 2010 and 2011, but it felt like old times Saturday as the Badgers, despite playing with their third starting quarterback (Curt Phillips), took control immediately and never looked back.

Wisconsin (7-3, 4-2) looked like Wisconsin. And Indiana (4-6, 2-4) looked like Indiana.

"It did a little bit," said tight end Sam Arneson, who recorded his first career touchdown on his second career catch on Wisconsin's second possession. "When you're rolling and they can't really slow you down, it feels pretty good."

As much turmoil as Wisconsin has been through this season -- nearly being shut out at Oregon State, firing offensive line coach Mike Markuson after two games, enduring a miscommunication at the end of the Nebraska game, losing top quarterback Joel Stave in the Michigan State loss -- the Badgers found a way to fulfill the consensus preseason expectation of reaching Indianapolis. They've lost three games by a total of nine points, dominated the teams they were supposed to beat and, at times, looked like the team we'd grown accustomed to seeing the past two years.

Wisconsin beat Indiana 83-20 in 2010 and 59-7 last year. The Hoosiers, while exposed Saturday, are undoubtedly a better team, and Wisconsin still rolled.

"This is the group I've coached for seven years," Bielema said. "I know this record may not be as high as it has in years past, or our ranking, but we're a really good football team."

[+] EnlargeCurt Phillips
AP Photo/Darron CummingsQuarterback Curt Phillips did his share to help Wisconsin in his first career start on Saturday.
The Badgers looked like it Saturday, mounting eight-play touchdown drives on their first two possessions. Even when Indiana showed some life in the second quarter, Wisconsin removed any doubt as James White raced in from 69 yards out on third-and-16.

And while Wisconsin didn't put too much on Phillips' shoulders, the senior made some nice contributions in his first career start, namely a fourth-down conversion early in the second quarter and a 52-yard run to set up a field goal. Phillips has overcome three ACL surgeries since the spring of 2010.

"The plan was to not put a lot on Curt," Bielema said. "And obviously it worked very, very well."

After finishing with 19 net rush yards in the Michigan State loss, Wisconsin averaged 8.8 yards per attempt Saturday, nearly setting another team mark (8.91 yards per carry against Hawaii in 1996).

"It's the same formula we've had any time we've run the ball successfully," guard Ryan Groy said. "It's getting on blocks, being assignment-sound, and it's finishing. It's simple concepts, but it's everybody doing their part."

Ball certainly did his share Saturday, rushing for 198 yards and three touchdowns on 27 attempts in three quarters of work. The senior passed Ricky Williams and moved into sole possession of second place on the NCAA's all-time touchdowns list with 77, one shy of Miami University's Travis Prentice.

The 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist has been at his best during the stretch run, averaging 179.1 yards and three touchdowns in his past nine November games. He has been pretty good in the Hoosier State -- 445 rush yards, six touchdowns against Purdue and Indiana -- and gets one final opportunity Dec. 1 in Indy.

"I didn't even think about that," Ball said, smiling. "Yeah, glad to get back to Indianapolis."

Wisconsin will return to Lucas Oil, but it'll have an asterisk if it doesn't beat Ohio State and Penn State to share the Leaders Division title. If you think the Badgers will pack it in these last two weeks, you're sadly mistaken. Despite Saturday's result, Ball said Wisconsin is "still searching" for a statement win.

Next week against undefeated Ohio State would be the perfect time.

"Certain teams are handicapped, but we want to make sure that we go to Indy because we won every game," Ball said. "That's what we're going to try to fight for."

Indiana is left to fight for bowl eligibility and needs two road wins (Penn State, Purdue) to get there. Despite a very real chance to reach Indianapolis, Indiana showed how far it still must go on both sides of the ball.

Quarterback Cameron Coffman struggled with overthrows and Indiana had just two first downs in the first quarter, the kiss of death for an up-tempo spread offense. The defense showed a bit of life in the second quarter but had no answer for Ball, White (161 rush yards, 2 TDs) and Melvin Gordon (96 rush yards, 1 TD).

"They are a great team," Hoosiers defensive lineman Adam Replogle said. "We knew what they were. It's Wisconsin."

The Wisconsin of old showed up Saturday.

If the same product shows up in the coming weeks, the Badgers' difficult road could lead back to Pasadena.
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema isn't publicly naming his starting quarterback for the Indiana game, and he even declined to say if he's voting today.

You know, being in a battleground state and all.

But Bielema did offer a strong endorsement for interim offensive line coach Bart Miller, who he appointed in Week 3 after dismissing first-year line coach Mike Markuson. Bielema promoted Miller from a graduate assistant role, a move that raised eyebrows at the time.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Bart Miller
AP Photo/David StlukaBrett Bielema has been impressed with interim offensive line coach Bart Miller.
Wisconsin's offensive production since has improved, particularly in the run game, although the entire unit struggled mightily against Michigan State in its last outing Oct. 30, finishing with just 19 net rush yards. After averaging 16.7 points in the first three games, Wisconsin has averaged 30.7 points in the last six, which includes a 13-point effort against Michigan State. Some of the Badgers' offensive hallmarks -- red zone touchdown efficiency, big-play runs, overpowering play in the second half and particularly in the fourth quarter -- are starting to return.

It sounds as if Miller will return, too, in a permanent role in 2013.

"We'll kind of take that whole thing under consideration at the end of the year," Bielema said Tuesday, "but he has given me every indication that he can handle the job. I really like the results that we've been able to see on a daily basis."

Bielema, who himself skyrocketed up the coaching ladder despite his young age, saw potential in Miller that he believes has been fulfilled so far this season.

"I wouldn't have put him in there if I didn't think he could handle it," Bielema said. "Bart had demonstrated to me over the last several years that he's a guy that could handle a lot of things coming at him. He has definitely got the respect of his players. Just because they put 'coach' on your shirt doesn't mean they've got to respect you. He's earned their respect."

After Wisconsin lost six assistants during the last offseason, it makes sense to stick with a guy who has fostered improvement. Bielema said Miller has brought an aggressive mentality to the line and improved pass-protection techniques.

"The No. 1 thing was probably communication, just getting everybody on the right page, on the same page," Bielema said. "If you get beat and you know what you're doing and you know the task, that's one thing. But if you're unaware of what your role or your responsibility or your rule is, we've got issues.

"He's really cleaned up the language and the verbiage of offensive line play very, very well."

2012 Big Ten midseason report

October, 15, 2012
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After a historic offseason of transition, the Big Ten endured a historic first half of ineptitude.

The league entered the fall under unique circumstances, as two of its premier programs (Ohio State and Penn State) couldn't compete in the postseason because of NCAA sanctions. But with a surging Michigan State program, a Michigan team coming off of a Sugar Bowl championship, a Wisconsin team that had made consecutive Rose Bowl appearances and a veteran-laden Nebraska squad, the Big Ten had ample reasons for optimism. Those soon vanished.

Things got off to a rocky start at JerryWorld, as Michigan was stomped 41-14 by defending national champ Alabama. It only got worse in Week 2, the Big Ten's worst regular-season Saturday in recent memory. Big Ten teams went 6-6, including three losses at Pac-12 venues, including two by ranked teams (Wisconsin and Nebraska) against unranked foes (Oregon State and UCLA). The Big Ten went 6-9 against teams from BCS automatic-qualifying conferences plus Notre Dame, with three wins coming from one team (Northwestern). Although Ohio State hasn't lost a game under new coach Urban Meyer, the Big Ten removed itself from the national title talk earlier than anyone expected.

[+] EnlargeBill O'Brien
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPenn State coach Bill O'Brien and quarterback Matt McGloin have earned accolades through the midpoint of the season.
The league endured several weeks without a top-10 team. Last week, the Big Ten failed to have a team ranked in the coaches' poll for the first time (the coaches aren't ranking Ohio State and Penn State). The Big Ten also was shut out of the initial BCS standings.

It hasn't been all gloom and doom, though. The Buckeyes are 7-0 and quarterback Braxton Miller is a bona fide Heisman Trophy candidate. Penn State has rebounded from an 0-2 start to rattle off four consecutive wins, as new coach Bill O'Brien has transformed the offense and particularly senior quarterback Matt McGloin. Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa also have bounced back from shaky performances in the nonleague portion, while a young Northwestern team sits at 6-1. Minnesota started 4-0, eclipsing its wins total from the past two years, while Indiana has competed well in each game. Surprise stars have emerged, such as Iowa running back Mark Weisman, Northwestern running back Venric Mark, Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson and Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan.

Perhaps the Big Ten will be a second-half league, complete with a better-than-expected showing in the bowls. Michigan is eyeing its first outright league title since 2003 and has the defense to win it. Wisconsin has stabilized nicely after a rocky three weeks that saw a shocking drop in offensive production and the firing of assistant Mike Markuson after just two games.

But there's no masking the disappointment of the first seven weeks. Michigan State already has lost three games at Spartan Stadium, where it was perfect in both 2010 and 2011, and faces significant issues at offensive line, receiver and quarterback. Purdue entered its defining stretch of the season with Big Ten play but flopped in consecutive weeks on its home field. An Illinois program that has won back-to-back bowl games is in complete disarray under new coach Tim Beckman, getting outscored 163-45 in the past four games.

Many longtime league observers say they've never seen the Big Ten so weak. The good news: It only can get better.

Offensive MVP: Ohio State's Miller. Although many pegged him to be a natural fit in Meyer's spread offense, he exceeded all expectations in the first half of the season. Miller ranks third in the Big Ten and seventh nationally in rushing average (130.3 ypg); ranks 34th nationally in passer rating (145.3); and has accounted for 20 touchdowns (11 passing, nine rushing). Miller has had four runs of 55 or more yards and five 100-yard rushing performances in the first seven games. Ohio State certainly wouldn't be undefeated without Miller, who is very much on the Heisman Trophy radar.

Defensive MVP: Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti. The most vocal Nittany Lion in the wake of the NCAA sanctions is making the most of his final season in Happy Valley. Mauti has been a beast, winning two Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week awards and a national defensive player of the week honor for his efforts against Illinois. The numbers are impressive -- 57 tackles, 2 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovered, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 2 pass deflections -- but they don't fully show the impact Mauti has had on a surging Penn State team. The senior is showing how good he can be when finally healthy.

Newcomer of the year: Iowa RB Mark Weisman. Few had heard of the walk-on fullback who had transferred from Air Force before the season, but he's now a cult hero in Iowa City. He also has rescued the Hawkeyes at a position that has seen stunning attrition in recent years. Injuries forced Weisman into the fold in Week 3, and he has been nothing short of spectacular, recording four consecutive 100-yard rushing performances and totals of 623 yards and eight rushing touchdowns in that span. He showcased his power against Northern Iowa, Central Michigan and Minnesota and turned in his grittiest effort in Saturday's come-from-behind win at Michigan State. It's hard to imagine where Iowa's offense would be without Weisman.

Biggest surprise: Penn State. After the midsummer roster reduction and an 0-2 start, Penn State was largely written off. But the Lions have rebounded with four consecutive wins and remain one of just four teams still unbeaten in league play. An offense that returned almost no proven players has held its own, ranking in the middle of the league, while Mauti and others have energized a defense that has surrendered just 16 points per game. A young Northwestern team merits a mention at 6-1, and Iowa's strong start to Big Ten play has been a bit surprising after its September struggles.

Biggest disappointment: Michigan State. There are two other possibilities here -- Purdue and Illinois -- but no team has performed worse, relative to expectations, than the Spartans. After back-to-back 11-win seasons and a Legends Division title in 2011, Michigan State entered the season pegged by some, including both of us, to win the league and reach its first Rose Bowl since 1987. But the personnel losses on offense -- not just at quarterback and receiver, but also the offensive line -- have been extremely hard to overcome. Michigan State already has dropped three home games and now enters a difficult stretch -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Northwestern.

Best game: Nebraska 30, Wisconsin 27. After being blown out in its Big Ten debut last year in Madison, Nebraska faced a similar fate after Wisconsin stormed out to a 27-10 lead early in the third quarter at Memorial Stadium. But Huskers quarterback Taylor Martinez, who had thrown three interceptions against Wisconsin the year before, led a furious comeback in the final 25 minutes. Nebraska scored the game's final 20 points to tie for the second-largest comeback in team history. Martinez racked up 181 pass yards, 107 rush yards and three touchdowns (2 passing, one rushing) in the win.

Best coach: Penn State's O'Brien. The first-year boss has kept his team focused despite the rocky offseason and the 0-2 start. He has modernized the offense and helped McGloin transform his game. He has worked around depth issues and identified new standouts such as Robinson. This season easily could have gotten away after all Penn State had been through, but O'Brien has things stabilized as the Lions chase the Leaders Division title. Ohio State's Meyer and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald also merit mentions.
When Wisconsin players enter the field at Camp Randall Stadium, they pass under this sign.

Coach Bret Bielema has drilled home a 1-0 mentality with his players since he took the top job. And, for the most part, it works.

The approach doesn't change this week. Purdue is the next opponent. Wisconsin has to go 1-0 on Saturday afternoon at Ross-Ade Stadium. It then must go 1-0 against Minnesota, and Michigan State, and so on ...

"It's the next game on the schedule," Bielema told ESPN.com.

[+] EnlargeDanny Hope
Pat Lovell/US PresswireDanny Hope's Boilermakers look to rebound from an ugly loss to Michigan last week.
But the next game means a little more because of the unique circumstances surrounding it. Wisconsin and Purdue make up 50 percent of a four-team race to represent the Leaders division at the Big Ten championship game Dec. 1 in Indianapolis. Ohio State and Penn State are both ineligible, while both Indiana and Illinois are 0-2 in league play (Illinois lost to Wisconsin last week).

Although the Boilers and Badgers are a combined 1-2 in Big Ten play and still both have more than half their league schedules left to play, it's hard to envision a scenario where neither team ends up in Indy. The team that prevails Saturday not only gets a division win, but the head-to-head tiebreaker, which could loom large in late November.

"It's not a one-game season, obviously, but it's certainly a game that can impact our team and our season and would be a great springboard opportunity for our program in a lot of ways," Purdue coach Danny Hope said. "A huge game."

It's big for both teams, but a bit bigger for Purdue. The Boilers are in the middle of their defining stretch of the season -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State. They opened it with a thud last week against the Wolverines, falling behind 21-0 and 28-3 to put a damper on the most anticipated home game in recent memory.

A loss Saturday puts Purdue in danger of starting league play at 0-3, as they next visit unbeaten Ohio State. Although Purdue has claimed its past two home games against the Buckeyes, the Boilers haven't won in Columbus since 1988. Wisconsin at least has a Big Ten win within the division under its belt. As weak/unique as the Leaders is this season, it would be extremely tough for Purdue to climb out of an 0-3 hole.

If Purdue plans to turn a corner under Hope, whose approval rating among fans is shaky at best, now is the time.

"It means a lot," junior cornerback Ricardo Allen told ESPN.com. "There's not too many who can go on our side of the division, and Wisconsin's one of those top people. It's going to be a big game. We really need this one."

Allen chalks up Purdue's poor showing against Michigan to a lack of focus. Although none of Purdue's units performed particularly well, Allen said the defense shoulders the loss after failing to contain Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson (235 rush yards, 105 pass yards).

After allowing just 42 points in its first three games, Purdue has seen opponents rack up 85 the past two weeks.

"A lot of people on the defense stood up and said, 'We put that game on us,'" Allen said, referring to the Michigan loss. "If we make up for it and we do well in this game and we keep doing well going forward, everybody will start believing in us again."

Wisconsin's offense is starting to believe as well after a rocky start to the season that saw Bielema dump offensive line coach Mike Markuson after a Week 2 loss at Oregon State. The Badgers still haven't put together a complete performance, but they've had stretches where they look like their former selves: the second and fourth quarters against UTEP, the first half at Nebraska, the fourth quarter against Illinois.

"If you compare our first three games offensively to our last three games, it's been night and day," Bielema said. "Just the points per game, the production, the yards per play, the efficiency in the red zone. All those things have been very, very positive the last three games.

"It's not where everybody wants it to be overnight, but they're definitely getting better."

Despite Purdue's recent defensive struggles, its front four should provide the biggest test for Wisconsin's offensive line since Oregon State. Bielema this week called the Boilers' line, led by senior tackle Kawann Short, arguably the best in the Big Ten.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave has held his own since being named the Badgers' starter -- 678 pass yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions in the last three games -- and didn't seem intimidated Sept. 29 at Nebraska. But he'll need protection from the offensive line and help from running backs Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon.

"Purdue's strength is in their front four, for sure," Bielema said. "They're very talented at the corner position as well. To win on the road in this league is extremely difficult, and Purdue has always played us tough at home.

"This is going to be a great test to find out exactly where we're at."

And where they could be on Dec. 1.
U.S. Sen. Al Franken might want to cancel his weekend plans.

Don't be surprised if Franken gets a call from Illinois coach Tim Beckman or Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema to come to Madison, Wis. Both Beckman's Illini and Bielema's Badgers could use a pep talk from Stuart Smalley (played by Franken, of course) before their game Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.

Hey, it worked for Michael Jordan, and the locker rooms at Camp Randall should have enough mirrors.

Both Illinois and Wisconsin are dealing with adversity five games into the 2012 season. Both teams have units -- Illinois' defense, Wisconsin's offense -- that have seen surprising drops in production. Both are enduring some inevitable growing pains that come with coaching change. Both have faced some key injuries early on. And both are looking for a confidence boost after two very different types of losses last week to open Big Ten play.

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
Bradley Leeb/US PresswireComing off a 35-7 home loss against Penn State, Illinois and coach Tim Beckman will try to regroup at Wisconsin.
"That's what we're dealing with each and every day," said Beckman, the first-year Illini boss. "... There's things that have happened the last two weeks that have really bitten us. We've been our own worst enemy throughout these last two weeks with turnovers and putting our defense's back to the wall, and just not performing the way that we're capable of, pressing a little bit too much."

The situation seems dire in Champaign as Illinois has suffered blowout losses in three of the past four weeks (combined score: 132-45), including back-to-back beat downs at home. Although the points allowed totals jump out for a defense that ranked 15th nationally in scoring in 2011 (19.6 ppg), Illinois' offense and special teams units repeatedly have put the defense in tough situations.

After struggling mightily in the kicking games in 2011, Illinois once again has endured breakdowns, particularly in last Saturday's 35-7 loss to Penn State. Only three FBS teams have committed more turnovers than Illinois (14), and the Illini are tied for 90th nationally in average turnover margin. Not only is Illinois giving away the ball too much, but it's not scoring nearly enough, as the team ranks 97th nationally in scoring (22.7 ppg). Remove a 44-0 win against a woeful Charleston Southern team, and Illinois averages just 18.3 points a game.

"We just haven't had that spark offensively," Beckman said.

Wisconsin appeared to find it -- finally -- in the first 35 minutes last week against Nebraska, as it stormed out to a 27-10 lead. Freshman quarterback Joel Stave showed good poise in his first career road start and connected with star receiver Jared Abbrederis for several long gains. Running back Montee Ball was doing what he does best -- score touchdowns -- and the much-maligned offensive line seemed to be keeping the Huskers at bay. Star linebacker Chris Borland, meanwhile, triggered a strong defensive effort.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireIn Bret Bielema, Arkansas players know they have a coach who isn't lacking confidence.
Then it all fell apart as Nebraska scored the final 20 points to prevail, 30-27. Wisconsin's short-yardage woes resurfaced -- along with confusion on the game's decisive play -- and the defense couldn't slow down Taylor Martinez and the Huskers. Rather than record a potential turning-point win, Wisconsin suffered its second 3-point road loss of the young season.

"Our guys took a plane ride over to Lincoln, and they expected to have success, expected to win the football game," Bielema said. "When we fail to do that, that should hurt. It should make them feel the pain of losing a football game. Not just that night, but I needed to see it on Sunday, and I did."

Wisconsin since has turned the page to Illinois, the Badgers' first Leaders Division game.

"We've moved on," Abbrederis told ESPN.com. "That was last week's game. We took those corrections and got over it. We're ready to play Illinois. It's huge. It's a must-win for us, and that's how we're approaching it this week in practice."

The Badgers already have seen an assistant coach (Mike Markuson) fired and a change at quarterback (Danny O'Brien to Stave). Bielema on Tuesday noted the youth on the roster -- Wisconsin has 50 freshmen (true and redshirt) and only nine seniors -- and acknowledged that the coaching staff transformation (six new assistants were hired during the offseason) has created some challenges.

"Our kids, they aren’t making mistakes on purpose," he said. "The effort has been 100 percent. We've made progress. If we were going the other direction, I'd be worried. But it's been a year of some transition, it's been a year of changes, and the good news is every one of those has moved us forward."

Wisconsin hopes to get well at home, where, despite some struggles earlier this year against Utah State and Northern Iowa, it hasn't lost a game since the 2009 season. The Badgers' 19-game home win streak (second longest nationally behind LSU's 21) includes 10 consecutive victories against Big Ten foes.

Illinois' task is quite a bit tougher. After flopping at home, the Illini need to right the ship at two of the Big Ten's toughest venues (Camp Randall Stadium and Michigan Stadium).

"Whatever the atmosphere's going to be," Beckman said, "we're still going to have to control the things that we can to control, if it's at home, if it's on the road.

"We're going to have to bond together as a football team."

Big Ten: Looking back and forward

October, 1, 2012
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Check your calendar. It's Oct. 1, which means the first month of the college football season is in the books. As you know, it hasn't been a great one for the Big Ten.

Let's take a quick look back at the Big Ten's September before spinning it forward.

Best of September

1. Miller time: Braxton Miller came to Ohio State to play for Jim Tressel, but the Buckeyes sophomore quarterback is meant to play in an offense like the one Urban Meyer has brought to Columbus. While more accomplished Big Ten offensive stars (Denard Robinson, Montee Ball) have struggled, Miller has been spectacular through the first month, recording 577 rush yards, 933 pass yards and 15 touchdowns (8 pass, 7 rush). He's very much on the Heisman Trophy radar entering the October.

2. Purple reign: Aside from Ohio State, Northwestern is the only other Big Ten team to truly take care of business in the early going. The Wildcats accounted for three of the Big Ten's six wins (Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Boston College) against teams from automatic-qualifying conferences and recorded their third 5-0 start in the past five seasons. The coaches have used quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter well and received improved play in both rushing offense and rushing defense. Northwestern exits September ranked in both major polls for the first time since 2008.

3. Surprise stars: September didn't bring too many positives from the team level, but the Big Ten saw its share of surprise stars around the league. Mark Weisman came out of nowhere -- actually, the Air Force Academy -- to rescue Iowa's rushing attack in Week 3, and he has piled up 507 rush yards and seven touchdowns in the past three games. Penn State's Allen Robinson, who entered the year with just three career receptions, has been the Big Ten's top wide receiver (32 receptions, 439 yards, 5 TDs). Other surprise standouts include Northwestern running back Venric Mark, Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin and Minnesota defensive end D.L. Wilhite.

Worst of September

1. Big-game woes: The Big Ten flunked its nonleague exam, failing in nearly every big-game opportunity through the first four weeks. Things got off to an ominous start when Alabama crushed Michigan 41-14 in Week 1. Things only got worse the following Saturday, as the Big Ten went 6-6, including three road losses to Pac-12 foes. The Big Ten went 0-3 against Notre Dame, and its members suffered ugly losses against teams like Central Michigan and Louisiana Tech. Aside from Michigan State's season-opening win against Boise State and Northwestern's triumphs, there was nothing to celebrate in nonleague play.

2. The thin red line: No one doubts Wisconsin lost a game-changer in quarterback Russell Wilson, now starting for the Seattle Seahawks. But the Badgers still returned a Heisman Trophy finalist in Ball at running back, an NFL prospect in tackle Ricky Wagner and other solid pieces of an offense that set records each of the past two seasons. Few could have seen Wisconsin's rapid drop in offensive production. Coach Bret Bielema already has replaced offensive line coach Mike Markuson, made a quarterback change and seen Ball sustain a concussion. Although the unit is showing a bit of life lately, its short-yardage struggles at Nebraska reconfirmed that Wisconsin isn't Wisconsin right now.

3. No offense: With a few exceptions, Big Ten teams were pretty brutal to watch on offense during the season's first month. Only four league squads rank among the nation's top 50 in total offense, and just five rank in the top 50 in scoring. Wisconsin's decline has been the most shocking, but Michigan State hasn't replaced the production it lost in the pass game. Iowa couldn't reach the end zone until Weisman came along. Illinois has scored just 21 points in its two games against major-conference opponents and has yet to form an identity under its new coaching staff.

Three storylines for October

1. Search for separation: If the recent power rankings and bowl projections haven't made it clear, the Big Ten is a muddled mess after the first month of the season. There's very little separation among the top eight teams. Fortunately, four more Saturdays of league play -- and particularly key division matchups -- should identify the teams to beat in each division. Almost every Big Ten squad looks capable of making a run to Indy right now, particularly in the wide-open Leaders Division. The pool of teams that can make this claim in a month will be reduced.

2. Penn State's progress: Written off by many after a 0-2 start, Penn State has turned its season around with three consecutive wins. First-year coach Bill O'Brien has done a tremendous job of keeping his players focused on the present, rather than the program's uncertain future. O'Brien has molded McGloin into a solid Big Ten signal-caller, while the defense has turned things around after a rough opener, as senior linebacker Michael Mauti leads the way. It'll be interesting to see if Penn State can keep up its winning ways and continue to surprise folks who saw the program falling apart immediately after the NCAA imposed severe sanctions in July.

3. Mitten fight: The Big Ten's two members from the Mitten State -- Michigan and Michigan State -- entered the season as the most popular picks to win the league, but the first month hasn't gone as planned for either squad. The teams are a combined 5-4 with two losses to Notre Dame. It'll be interesting to see if both the Wolverines and Spartans can get back on course during the first two weeks of the month before they meet Oct. 20 in Ann Arbor in a game that could decide the Legends Division. The in-state rivalry had been designated a potential Big Ten game of the year before the season. We'll soon find out how significant it will be.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 4

September, 20, 2012
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Ten items to track around the Big Ten as Week 4 kicks off Saturday.

1. Notre Dame's nightmare: Few college players have tormented a rival like Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson has tormented Notre Dame the past two years. After a record-setting performance in South Bend in 2010 -- 502 yards of total offense -- Robinson led an incredible comeback last season as Michigan stunned the Irish in the first night game ever played at the Big House. Robinson returns to South Bend on Saturday, and Michigan likely needs another special effort from its senior to knock off No. 11 Notre Dame. The Irish come off of a stifling defensive effort against Michigan State, and their offense should test a young Michigan defense. Notre Dame looks like the more complete team in this contest, but if the game is close and Robinson has a chance for fourth-quarter magic, the Irish should start to worry.

2. Penn State protects its house: NCAA sanctions have limited Penn State's goals this season, but a few remain on the table. The Lions can still win a Leaders Division title. They also want to keep their winning streak against Temple alive, particularly at Beaver Stadium, where the Owls have never won. Penn State hasn't lost to Temple since 1941 (seven PSU victories between 2003-2011 were vacated). Although Temple clearly has improved in recent years, Nittany Lions seniors like linebacker Michael Mauti don't want to be the ones who let the win streak end. Penn State finally got a chance to celebrate last week against Navy and looked strong on both sides of the ball. It's important to keep the momentum going before Big Ten play kicks off with a spicy matchup at Illinois.

[+] EnlargeMax Shortell
Marilyn Indahl/US PresswireReserve QB Max Shortell has made a solid impact to help Minnesota to a 3-0 start.
3. Minnesota takes it to the Max: Life is good in Gopher Country, as Minnesota sits at 3-0 with a chance to sweep its nonconference slate Saturday night against Syracuse at TCF Bank Stadium. Backup quarterback Max Shortell stepped up in a big way last week after starter MarQueis Gray suffered a high ankle sprain. Now Shortell makes his first start of the season -- third of his career -- against a Syracuse team that has performed better than its record (1-2) would indicate. Shortell and his pass-catchers take aim at a Syracuse defense that hasn't been efficient against the pass (97th nationally, 145.1 rating). He'd be helped by a boost from Donnell Kirkwood and the run game, but Minnesota likely will need to put up points as Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib will challenge the Gophers' defense.

4. Badgers' offense looks for leadership: Wisconsin's offensive downturn has been the most surprising story in the Big Ten through the first few weeks. Line play was in the spotlight after Week 2 as Bret Bielema dumped assistant Mike Markuson, and now the attention shifts to quarterback. Wisconsin benched Danny O'Brien in favor of Joel Stave in the second half of last Saturday's win against Utah State, and both men are listed as co-starters on this week's depth chart. Bielema has made his decision on the starter, but he isn't revealing it publicly. Stave, the former walk-on, reportedly took most of the first-team reps this week in practice. Ranked 116th nationally in total offense, the Badgers need to iron out a lot of things, including their quarterback situation, before Big Ten play begins next week at Nebraska.

5. Comm studies in Champaign: Illinois attributed some of its defensive struggles at Arizona State to poor communication against the Sun Devils' fast-paced offense. Despite allowing 45 points and 510 yards to ASU, Illinois isn't losing its swagger, and linebacker Jonathan Brown declared last week, "We've got the best front seven in the country. I firmly believe that." Brown and his teammates can back up that claim Saturday night in a tricky game against Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs rank third nationally in scoring (56 ppg), fifth in total offense (603.5 ypg), ninth in rushing (289 ypg) and 17th in passing (314.5 ypg). They provide a very tough challenge for an Illinois team that says it has sorted out its communication issues. The Illini offense is banged up and still finding its identity, so Brown and the defense need a big effort Saturday night.

6. Buckeyes get back to basics: Ohio State has had quite a few highlights on defense through the first three games, but the Buckeyes' fundamentals aren't up to their typical standards. Missed tackles nearly cost Ohio State last week against Cal, and while the Buckeyes shouldn't have too much trouble with UAB on Saturday, Urban Meyer and his staff are looking for a more polished performance from the silver bullets. Meyer calls Ohio State's tackling woes "not acceptable," and he planned to double the amount of time his players spent on tackling this week in practice. As good as quarterback Braxton Miller has been, the Buckeyes need to tighten up on defense before Big Ten play begins.

7. Weisman for Heisman: Despite an inexplicable run of personnel problems at running back, Iowa always seems to find someone to step up and carry the rock. The latest back to emerge might be the most surprising: Mark Weisman, a walk-on fullback who transferred from Air Force and recorded 113 rush yards and three touchdowns in Iowa's much-needed win against Northern Iowa last week. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz quipped that Weisman "must have not liked having guys bounce quarters off his bed" at Air Force and left for Iowa, where he got the staff's attention in the spring and really stood out during fall camp. Iowa likely won't have top backs Damon Bullock (head) and Greg Garmon (elbow) for Saturday's game against Central Michigan, and Weisman is expected to get his first career start. Weisman is quickly earning cult hero status at Iowa, and it'll be interesting to see if he can follow up last week's performance with another big one.

8. Northwestern's quarterback rotation: If there's such thing as a functional quarterback rotation, Northwestern seems to have found it with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, neither of whom has thrown an interception this season. After Siemian led fourth-quarter drives in the Wildcats' first two wins, Colter was at the helm last week as the Wildcats put away Boston College. Coach Pat Fitzgerald seems content to stick with the rotation, go with the hotter hand when necessary and use matchups to his advantage. But in most of these cases, some separation occurs. Colter is a top-shelf athlete who extends drives with his feet but misses key throws at times. Siemian has better field vision and pure passing skills but isn't the natural playmaker Colter can be. Both men will play Saturday against South Dakota, and we could get some more clues about who will be leading the offense more as Big Ten play beckons. Despite a 3-0 start, Northwestern needs to start finishing more drives with touchdowns. The quarterback who does it best likely will be in a bigger role going forward.

9. MSU receivers look for green light: Mark Dantonio said Michigan State's staff would face some "tough decisions" after the team failed to score a touchdown or stretch the field in last week's loss to Notre Dame. Although the Spartans' depth chart for Eastern Michigan shows no adjustments at the wide receiver spots, Dantonio planned to evaluate the wideouts throughout the practice week and make no public announcements about changes. He noted that wide receiver is one of several positions where Michigan State has youth and equal ability level. If that's the case, we might see some new players in bigger roles Saturday, including Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett, who has barely played, and possibly freshmen Andre Sims Jr., Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Aaron Burbridge. Dantonio hinted that a lower-pressure game could help the young receiving corps. "We'll have to go through some of those growing pains," he said. "I think we have a lot of talent at that position, and it will show itself before the season is over. That talent will show itself."

10. Wolverines get nasty: If Michigan intends on beating Notre Dame for the fourth straight season, it must have season-best performances from both its offensive and defensive lines. Alabama overwhelmed the Wolverines at the line of scrimmage in the opener, and Michigan looks like a team missing its stars from 2011 (David Molk, Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen). Standout left tackle Taylor Lewan challenged the offensive line this week, saying, "You have to be physical, you've got to play angry, play nasty." The line faces a Notre Dame defensive front seven that overwhelmed Michigan State last week and has 11 sacks in the first three games. Coach Brady Hoke admits Michigan's defensive line remains a work in progress and doesn't generate enough push into the opposing backfield. It'll need to Saturday night against a Notre Dame team that Hoke says has superior speed to past Irish squads.
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

1. Void at the top: Throughout the offseason and up until 8 p.m. Saturday, we insisted that Michigan State was the Big Ten's top team. That title is totally up for grabs after the Spartans were pushed around by Notre Dame in a 20-3 loss. Who's No. 1 now? Is it Ohio State, which is 3-0 but looked awfully shaky against Cal in a game it probably should have lost? Is it Michigan, which shouldn't be punished too heavily for losing to a potentially great Alabama team? How about Purdue, which played Notre Dame much tougher on the road than Michigan State did at home, or Nebraska, which bounced back from the UCLA loss to thump Arkansas State? Or maybe Michigan State just doesn't match up well with the Irish, since it got beat soundly in South Bend a year ago but still won the Legends Division. We can't discount Northwestern, which is 3-0 with wins over three BCS AQ teams, and, yes, Minnesota is also undefeated. Ohio State likely will be the league's top team in the Associated Press poll this week. But the truth is, there's a major power void at the top of the conference.

[+] EnlargePurdue's Caleb TerBush
Andrew Weber/US PresswireAre Caleb TerBush and the Boilermakers the class of the Leaders Division?
2. What now for Wisconsin? No Badgers assistants are likely to lose their jobs this week, but no one in the coaches' offices can feel too comfortable right now, either. Bret Bielema fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson after only two games in an attempt to fix a stalled running attack, but the Wisconsin ground game was still pedestrian against Utah State. Montee Ball ran for 139 yards but needed 37 handoffs to do so as the team averaged only 3.5 yards per carry. Bielema even benched quarterback Danny O'Brien, who completed just 5 of 10 passes for 63 yards. Wisconsin was extremely fortunate to escape with the 16-14 victory as the Aggies missed a 37-yard field goal in the closing seconds. A loss would have sent Badger Nation into full panic mode. But if the offense doesn't perform better than it has the first three weeks, Bielema's team will have a hard time winning many Big Ten games.

3. Purdue could be the best team in the Leaders Division: Danny Hope's Boilermakers are no longer just a sleeper team in a division that Wisconsin had been pegged to dominate. Purdue might be the best of the bunch in the Leaders, which isn't a huge compliment but an encouraging sign in West Lafayette. Ohio State barely escaped against Cal, Wisconsin is a shell of its former self, and Illinois, Penn State and Indiana all have some flaws. The Boilers are very strong defensively and might have the league's top defensive line, led by star tackle Kawann Short. They have some depth in the run game and a standout receiver in Antavian Edison. Although Caleb TerBush has his ups and downs at quarterback, Purdue could go a long way this season. Right now, the Boilers might be the team to beat in the quest to reach Indianapolis.

4. Not the same old Northwestern: The Wildcats played a truly odd game against Boston College. They piled up 560 yards, 34 first downs and 100 total offensive snaps, yet they didn't score their first touchdown until Mike Trumpy broke off a 27-yard run with 1:37 left. Still, the 22-13 win over the Eagles was in some way like last week's 23-13 triumph against Vanderbilt. Northwestern showed that its defense could hold down a respectable offense (BC came in averaging 33 points per game) and that it could grind out a game once it grabbed the lead. Those things haven't been common of late for Pat Fitzgerald's team, but this one seems to have good chemistry and grit, not to mention a bevy of offensive weapons. The Wildcats are off to a excellent start, and with South Dakota and Indiana at home in the next two games, they could easily finish September at 5-0.

5. Receivers are catching on: We've wondered for a while where the standout receivers were in this league outside of Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis. With Abbrederis out of commission this week because of an injury, several wideouts made statements on Saturday. Ohio State's Devin Smith continued his flair for the dramatic with a 72-yard, game-winning catch against Cal, part of a 145-yard, two-touchdown day. Penn State's Allen Robinson caught three touchdown passes and had 136 yards. Nebraska's Kenny Bell also caught a pair of scores, including a 42-yarder. Minnesota's A.J. Barker torched Western Michigan for 101 yards and three touchdowns. Illinois' Ryan Lankford broke out with seven catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns, albeit against Charleston Southern. Purdue's Edison is quietly putting together a strong season. Indiana's Cody Latimer had 115 yards and a pair of scores, including a 70-yarder late. Even Iowa, which struggled to throw the ball downfield in the first two weeks, got a 100-yard day from Kevonte Martin-Manley. Perhaps the new crop of Big Ten star receivers is starting to blossom.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 3

September, 13, 2012
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Ten items to track as you ingest a 12-pack of games involving Big Ten teams Saturday.

1. The green flag: After the Big Ten's Week 2 disaster, Michigan State is the league's only legitimate hope for a national title run. Coach Mark Dantonio wisely isn't thinking about carrying the Big Ten banner, and his Spartans face their second home test in the first three weeks as No. 20 Notre Dame visits East Lansing. It's another big game for new starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell, who rebounded nicely last week after tossing three interceptions in the opener against Boise State. If Maxwell performs well against Manti Te'o and a solid Irish defense, more folks might start taking Michigan State seriously as a dark-horse championship contender.

2. The thin red line: Dominant offensive line play has defined Wisconsin for the better part of two decades, but the program's hallmark position (along with running back) is suddenly under the microscope. A horrific performance against Oregon State, a game in which the Badgers finished with just 35 net rush yards, led to the dismissal of new line coach Mike Markuson after just two games. Head coach Bret Bielema has tabbed the unproven Bart Miller, a Bob Bostad disciple, to lead the group. "We're going to take some baby steps," Bielema said. "And my guess is we're going to have a great amount of change in a short amount of time." Wisconsin could use a bounce-back performance Saturday night against Utah State, which comes off of an upset of Utah.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State's Andrew Maxwell
Andrew Weber/US PresswireAndrew Maxwell and Michigan State should be tested by Notre Dame on Saturday night.
3. Casting call for Robinson, Miller: Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson and Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller did it all for their respective offenses in hard-fought Week 2 wins. Although both men can do special things with the ball in their hands, their coaches need other weapons to emerge, if only to protect the signal-callers from injury. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer wants to be "a little smarter" about Miller's carries after the sophomore logged 27 against UCF. The problem is that top running backs Jordan Hall (foot) and Carlos Hyde (knee) are banged up, and freshman Bri'onte Dunn should get the start Saturday against Cal. Robinson recorded his fourth career 200-yard rushing performance last week against Air Force, but running back Fitz Toussaint had just 7 yards on eight carries in his season debut. Michigan's offensive line wants to get Toussaint going and should get the chance Saturday against a woeful Massachusetts team.

4. Receiving orders for Wildcats: Northwestern's quarterback rotation seems to be functioning well so far, and while Trevor Siemian has led comebacks the first two weeks, Kain Colter will continue to start. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald seems more concerned with the guys catching passes than throwing them. The wide receivers, undoubtedly Northwestern's strongest position group entering the year, struggled with drops in last week's win against Vanderbilt. Fitzgerald challenged all his players this week but especially the receivers, saying, "I reminded them that it's a $60,000 scholarship. Catch the ball." As good as running back Venric Mark has been, the offense is driven by high-percentage passes. The receivers look to get back on track against Boston College, which ranks 11th nationally in pass-efficiency defense.

5. TerBush's time: Purdue coach Danny Hope loves his quarterback rotation, but another knee injury to Robert Marve has put Caleb TerBush in the spotlight. TerBush returned to the starting lineup last week and had mixed results, struggling early before relieving Marve and guiding the game-tying touchdown drive in the closing minutes. While most Purdue fans preferred Marve over TerBush, the Boilers will move forward with TerBush and Rob Henry calling signals. TerBush could really use a big performance against Eastern Michigan before an open week, a game against Marshall, and then a defining stretch to open Big Ten play (Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State).

6. Bo vs. Gus: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini called his team's performance against UCLA "embarrassing," and the criticism justifiably centered on a defense that surrendered 36 points, 26 first downs and a whopping 653 yards to the Bruins at the Rose Bowl. Pelini pointed to the need for better tackling and also indicated the defense has been geared more toward stopping pro-style teams than spread teams. Nebraska faces Arkansas State on Saturday. While Gus Malzahn doesn't like his offense to be labeled a spread system, he'll use the entire field, numerous formations, accelerated tempo, and plenty of trickery to keep defenses off balance. Malzahn, the first-year Arkansas State coach, brings his offense, rated seventh nationally in total yards this season (574.5 ypg), into Memorial Stadium on Saturday. "We will be tested," Pelini said. "...We need to get better against that offense. It comes kind of at the right time for us." It should be fun to watch Pelini and Malzahn match wits Saturday.

7. Iowa's search for the end zone: Iowa is one of just two FBS teams with just one touchdown in two games this season. The Hawkeyes failed to reach paydirt on their home field in last week's loss to rival Iowa State. Needless to say, this isn't the start Iowa had hoped for under new coordinator Greg Davis, and the struggles of senior quarterback James Vandenberg have been particularly baffling. Iowa looks for the end zone Saturday in a critical game against Northern Iowa, an FCS program that gave Wisconsin all it could handle in Week 1. Iowa considers itself the state's flagship program. It's a very tough claim to make if the Hawkeyes lose to Iowa State and Northern Iowa in consecutive weeks.

8. Hoosiers, Gophers face first real challenges: Indiana and Minnesota are two of the Big Ten's five undefeated teams through the first two weeks, and both squads looked impressive last week after shaky openers. Both squads also haven't played anyone, making it tough to accurately gauge their progress. Although Ball State and Western Michigan aren't powerhouses, both are legitimate FBS programs that can pull off victories Saturday. Indiana has dropped consecutive games to Ball State and turns to Cameron Coffman, who makes his first start at quarterback in place of Tre Roberson. Minnesota's defense has impressed to date, but Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder provides a nice test.

9. Opportunity knocks for Lions: Penn State has had ample opportunities in its first two games under coach Bill O'Brien, but the Nittany Lions repeatedly haven't cashed in and sit at 0-2. Questions about confidence resurfaced after a heartbreaking loss to Virginia, a game in which Penn State was plus-4 in turnover margin but missed four of five field goal attempts. It'll be interesting to see how sophomore kicker Sam Ficken performs in front of the home crowd Saturday against Navy. But Ficken, who still has the top place-kicking job, is just a piece of the puzzle, and Penn State has to start finishing drives and getting key second-half stops. The Lions have done some good things the first two weeks. They now need to finish the job and get a win, or the season will really begin to slip away.

10. Spartans' D prepares for two QBs: Michigan State's defense has been as advertised so far, ranking eighth nationally in yards allowed and 12th in points allowed. The Spartans' challenge changes this week as they must prepare for two Notre Dame quarterbacks after Tommy Rees led the game-winning drive last week against Purdue. Freshman Everett Golson will get the start for the Irish and coach Brian Kelly would like him to finish the game, too, but Kelly showed last week he isn't afraid to go with Rees, who has had been both the hero and the goat at times during his career.

Big Ten stock report: Week 3

September, 12, 2012
9/12/12
3:45
PM ET
Investor confidence in the Big Ten neared an all-time low in Week 2. But past performance does not necessarily indicate future results. Let's check the stock market:

Stock up

Chi Chi Ariguzo: The Northwestern linebacker moved into a starting role for the first time this season, and the move has gone very well for the redshirt sophomore. Ariguzo -- whose actual first name is Ikechi -- was named the Big Ten defensive player of the week after collecting 10 tackles, including three for loss, against Vanderbilt. In Week 1 at at Syracuse, he had an interception and returned a botched lateral for a touchdown. He currently leads the Big Ten with 4.5 tackles for loss.

Devin Funchess: The Michigan true freshman tight end was outstanding against Air Force, hauling in four catches for 106 yards and a touchdown. The athletic 6-foot-5, 229-pounder showed receiving skills, and could provide a much needed target for Denard Robinson. He has future star written all over him.

[+] EnlargeDonnell Kirkwood
AP Photo/Tom OlmscheidRunning back Donnell Kirkwood has sparked an improved rushing attack for Minnesota.
Minnesota's running game: The Gophers currently rank fourth in the Big Ten at 224.5 rushing yards per game, a marked improvement over last season's 160 yards per game. It hasn't just been quarterback MarQueis Gray, either, as sophomore Donnell Kirkwood has rushed for at least 70 yards in the first two games. Head coach Jerry Kill says better play out of the receivers is opening some things up for the running game. Minnesota must prove it against better defenses than UNLV and New Hampshire, but is off to a good start in building a more complete offense.

Iowa's linebackers: Not much has gone right for the Hawkeyes' offense, but the linebackers have done their part. Head coach Kirk Ferentz said James Morris, who had 12 tackles and a key interception late against Iowa State, played tremendously last week. Christian Kirksey has been doing his part as well, which Ferentz said has opened opportunities for Anthony Hitchens. A first-year starter, Hitchens tallied an eye-popping 19 tackles last week. Now, if the defense could just get some help ...

Purdue in the red zone: Boiler up inside the 20. Purdue is currently tied for the national lead in red-zone offense, scoring on all nine drives inside the opponent's 20-yard line. That includes eight touchdowns. The Boilermakers also rank 13th nationally in red-zone defense, having surrendered just four scores -- and only two touchdowns -- during their opponents' seven trips inside their 20.

Stock down

Iowa in the red zone: The Hawkeyes, of course, have scored only one touchdown all season, and that came from outside the red zone on a 23-yard run by Damon Bullock against Northern Illinois. Iowa has been in the red zone on offense six times in two games -- and come away with only five field goals.

Wisconsin's running game: You knew the Badgers' offensive output was atrocious, which led to offensive line coach Mike Markuson being dumped this week. Wisconsin has only 203 rushing yards as a team after two games, an average of 101.5 yards per game. To put that in perspective, Montee Ball alone only had three games all of last season when he failed to gain at least 115 yards, and he exceeded 203 yards against both Purdue (223) and Illinois (224).

Quarterback fears vs. Spartans, Buckeyes: There was near universal agreement this preseason that Michigan State and Ohio State would field the best defensive lines in the Big Ten this season. While they haven't been bad, it's somewhat shocking to see that the Spartans and Buckeyes have combined for only four total sacks this season. Urban Meyer has stressed the need for a better pass rush from his team. Michigan State has gotten decent pressure, but has only sack to show for it, and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi says he's not happy with the play of the defense overall. Sack numbers can be overrated, but it's also true that both lines can do a better job bringing down quarterbacks.

Illinois' defense: The Illini defense looked terrific in the opener against Western Michigan, continuing a string of great performances dating to last season. Which is why it was so shocking to see Arizona State move the ball at will against Illinois in last week's 45-14 shellacking. Players said this week that they had mix-ups in communication and were caught off guard by the Sun Devils' tempo. The latter doesn't make much sense since Todd Graham's teams have always played up-tempo, and the Illini defenders practiced against their own spread offense all preseason. We'll see if this was just one bad showing or an alarm bell.

Big Ten expansion candidates: With Notre Dame off the chessboard and the ACC going to a $50 million exit fee, who's left if the Big Ten ever decides to expand again? Rutgers? UConn? Louisville? None of those are very appealing, and it means that the league will be better off staying at 12 for the foreseeable future -- or at least until the next big seismic conference shift.
1. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema did the best job he could of explaining why he dumped offensive line coach Mike Markuson. But in the end, his explanation was little more than lipstick on a badger. Maybe, in the age of head coaches getting two or three years to prove themselves, we should expect that assistants will be on a short clock, too. But nine months? Two games? Was there really no way for Markuson to turn this around?

2. Ohio State coach Urban Mayer says that sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller is running too much (44 carries in two games), and Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez is looking to do the same with fifth-year senior Matt Scott (33 carries in two games). They have to stay healthy, not only because both have gotten off to impressive starts, but because neither school has any experience behind them. No offense is more vulnerable than one that asks its starting quarterback to get tackled.

3. Oregon coach Chip Kelly’s attitude toward injuries, like most coaches, is “next one up.” That’s good, motivational coachspeak. But you don’t replace a four-year starter and two-time All-Pac-10 first-teamer like free safety John Boyett so easily. Boyett, out for the year with chronic injuries to both knees, always seemed to be where the ball went. He led the Ducks with 108 tackles last season. Oregon's defensive line depth will sustain the defense, but the next one up won’t have Boyett’s combination of experience and savvy.

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