NCF Nation: Mike Meyer

Big Ten predictions: Week 13

November, 21, 2013
11/21/13
9:00
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The predictions race is all square, and Week 13 brings a full slate of Big Ten action, as every team will be on the field Saturday afternoon.

Will Brian Bennett inch back in front, or will Adam Rittenberg gain the edge entering the final week? Loser buys dinner in Indy.

Let's begin …

MICHIGAN STATE at NORTHWESTERN

Bennett: Let's see … in which heartbreaking manner can Northwestern lose this week? The Wildcats can't be counted out here, as they've come close to knocking off several teams in recent weeks, and it is senior day in Evanston, Ill. But Northwestern doesn't have enough offensive versatility to counter Michigan State's defense. Jeremy Langford goes over 100 yards again, and the Spartans clinch their Big Ten championship berth … Michigan State 20, Northwestern 10


Rittenberg: The Spartans can taste a trip to the Big Ten championship game and will get there, though not without a fight from Northwestern, which has continued to play hard during a nightmarish stretch. Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook starts slowly but gets hot in the third and finishes with two touchdown passes. Kain Colter makes some plays on senior day but Northwestern once again can't find the end zone enough and drops another one in single digits. Sparty on to Indy. … Michigan State 23, Northwestern 16

MICHIGAN at IOWA

Rittenberg: Michigan will actually need touchdowns in regulation to win this week and faces a better defensive line in Iowa. Neither offense does much in the first two and a half quarters before Iowa's run game starts to stir behind Jordan Canzeri and Mark Weisman, both of whom reach the end zone. The Hawkeyes break a tie early in the fourth quarter and seal the win on a B.J. Lowery interception of Devin Gardner. … Iowa 20, Michigan 13

Bennett: A very cold, potentially windy day in Iowa City favors the team that can run the ball, and Michigan is not that team. It won't be pretty, but the Hawkeyes' offensive line and Mike Meyer (three field goals) get the job done. … Iowa 16, Michigan 13


ILLINOIS at PURDUE

Bennett: The Streak is dead. Illinois snaps the 20-game Big Ten losing skid against a Purdue team that is bad enough to build its own lamentable streak. At least we know the Illini can score. I'm still not sure what the Boilers are good at. Nathan Scheelhaase throws for four scores. … Illinois 35, Purdue 21


Rittenberg: This game features two bad defenses, one improving, but still weak, offense and one potent offense. Illinois breaks The Streak behind Scheelhaase, who piles up 350 pass yards and three touchdowns. Josh Ferguson adds a rushing touchdown as Illinois holds off Purdue, which receives a good performance (220 pass yards, two TDs) from Danny Etling. … Illinois 34, Purdue 24

WISCONSIN at MINNESOTA

Rittenberg: Minnesota is looking a lot more like Wisconsin these days, which is a good thing, but the Badgers still are the superior version. The Gophers jump ahead early behind a David Cobb touchdown run, but Wisconsin's defense buckles down and James White and Melvin Gordon get rolling, combining for three touchdowns. Minnesota hangs tight, but Wisconsin retains the axe for a 10th consecutive season. … Wisconsin 28, Minnesota 20

Bennett: The Minnesota mojo makes it tempting to pick the home team. But as well as the Gophers are playing, Wisconsin is on even more of a roll. The Wisconsin run game will take its toll and help the Badgers break through with a pair of touchdown runs by White in the fourth quarter, chopping down the Gophers. … Wisconsin 31, Minnesota 17


INDIANA at OHIO STATE

Bennett: Indiana has played Ohio State tough the past two seasons, but pair the Hoosiers' terrible defensive efforts with this hyper-explosive Buckeyes offense and the potential for a rout is high. IU can't stop the run, so Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde will enjoy the open lanes for a combined 350 yards and five touchdowns before sitting out the fourth quarter. A mad Ohio State defense records a pair of interceptions, including a pick-six. … Ohio State 59, Indiana 17

Rittenberg: Shield your eyes, Hoosiers fans, as this one will get ugly early. Ohio State builds a 28-7 lead at the end of the first quarter as Hyde eclipses 1,000 yards for the season on a touchdown run and finishes with 210 yards and three scores. Indiana's offense shows up and wideout Cody Latimer records two long scoring passes, but Ohio State gets contributions from everyone against the overmatched Hoosiers defense. … Ohio State 63, Indiana 24

NEBRASKA at PENN STATE

Rittenberg: Both teams are flawed, and, while Penn State is much better on its home field, Nebraska's run game and improving defense will be the difference. Ameer Abdullah rushes for 140 yards and a touchdown, and Tommy Armstrong Jr. bounces back. Penn State gets some production from Zach Zwinak (120 yards, two TDs) and its run game as well, but Nebraska mounts a game-winning drive in the closing seconds for the victory. … Nebraska 31, Penn State 28

Bennett: Don't count out Penn State on what should be an emotional senior day. But Nebraska just has more athletes right now. Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa exploit a shoddy Nittany Lions pass defense for a couple of touchdown catches, while Randy Gregory makes life miserable for Christian Hackenberg. … Nebraska 24, Penn State 17

You've seen our predictions. Now it's time to hear from one of you. As a reminder, throughout the season, we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please), hometown and a brief description of why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.

This week's guest is Ali Tomek from Evanston, Ill. Ali, take it away …
I should be the guest picker for this week because I love the blog and B1G football! I grew up in Omaha and have attended nearly every home game at Nebraska's Memorial Stadium since I was in elementary school. I'm definitely one of those football-obsessed Husker fans: I still feel bitter about that 13-12 loss to Texas in the 2009 B12 Championship. I've also attended games in five B1G stadiums: Nebraska, Northwestern, Michigan, Iowa and Penn State. OH, AND I'm an undergrad at Northwestern! Unfortunately for the Wildcats, though, my true loyalties will always lie with the Cornhuskers. Go Big Red!

Let's hope Ali's professors don't read this note before final exams. Ouch.

Here are her picks:

Michigan State 27, Northwestern 10
Michigan 17, Iowa 13
Illinois 35, Purdue 17
Wisconsin 31, Minnesota 17
Ohio State 56, Indiana 14
Nebraska 24, Penn State 17

SEASON RECORDS

Brian Bennett: 68-14
Adam Rittenberg: 68-14
Guest pickers: 65-19

Big Ten predictions: Week 9

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
9:00
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Who are these guys? We're the real American pickers, and we're sifting through the Big Ten rubble to make our selections for Week 9. Thankfully, this is the final Saturday with a measly four games on the docket, as all 12 teams will be in action Nov. 2.

Adam clings to a one-game lead in the season standings, as the race for a dinner at St. Elmo in Indianapolis remains at steak. Our Week 8 picks mirrored one another. Will it be the same in Week 9?

Let's get started …

NEBRASKA at MINNESOTA


Brian Bennett: This is a good spot to bring back Taylor Martinez, so he can shake off some rust before the telling November stretch begins. I think Nebraska will still want to be a bit careful with its quarterback, however, and not risk any further harm to his turf toe. So Martinez doesn't run much but throws a pair of touchdowns to Quincy Enunwa, and the improving Huskers defense has a strong showing against a rather one-dimensional Minnesota attack. … Nebraska 28, Minnesota 16


Adam Rittenberg: A healthy Martinez makes the difference for the Huskers as the senior quarterback breaks off a long touchdown run in the first quarter and finishes with three combined scores. Philip Nelson rallies Minnesota in the second quarter with touchdown passes to Maxx Williams and Derrick Engel, but the Huskers' offense proves to be too much in the second half as Ameer Abdullah records another 100-yard game. … Nebraska 35, Minnesota 24

NORTHWESTERN at IOWA


Adam Rittenberg: Iowa has played better than its record shows, while Northwestern is in a major tailspin. So why am I picking Northwestern? Kain Colter's likely return gives Northwestern the ingredients it has been missing on offense the past two weeks. Colter will convert key third downs like he did last year against Iowa, and while the Hawkeyes take an early lead behind Mark Weisman's rushing and their tight-end play, Northwestern finds its offense again in the second half and rallies for a win at Kinnick. … Northwestern 31, Iowa 28

Brian Bennett: I've picked against Iowa a lot this season, with some successes (Northern Illinois, Michigan State) and some failures (Iowa State, Minnesota). I might give Hawkeyes fans a complex if I pick against them at home against a team that's 0-3 in the Big Ten. I'm still tempted to go with Northwestern because of the Wildcats' recent success against Iowa and the return of Colter. But I also really liked the way the Hawkeyes played at Ohio State on offense and think they can keep it up by using those big tight ends. It's going to be a close one, but Mike Meyer hits the game-winner with 90 seconds to go. … Iowa 27, Northwestern 24


MICHIGAN STATE at ILLINOIS


Brian Bennett: The Illini are at home, and Michigan State might get caught peeking toward Michigan. But the Illinois defense is really struggling right now, too much so to foresee an upset here. I think Connor Cook will get back on track a bit with 200 yards passing and a TD, and the Michigan State defense will force three turnovers against Nathan Scheelhaase & Co., including another one for a score. … Michigan State 24, Illinois 12


Adam Rittenberg: This could be a trap game for the Spartans before next week's home showdown against rival Michigan, but I think Michigan State's offense received its wakeup call against Purdue. Illinois' struggles against the run continue as Jeremy Langford goes for 120 yards and two touchdowns. The Illini strike first with a long scoring pass to Ryan Lankford and move the ball well at times, but Michigan State clamps down and records another defensive touchdown in the third quarter. … Michigan State 27, Illinois 16

PENN STATE at OHIO STATE


Adam Rittenberg: Get ready for another fun one at the Horseshoe, as both offenses can put up points and stretch the field. Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg looks nothing like a freshman in the first half with two touchdown passes before showing his youth late in the game, as he's picked off by Buckeyes cornerback Bradley Roby. As we've seen in the past few games, Ohio State's offensive line takes control in the second half. Carlos Hyde goes for 120 yards and a score as the Buckeyes use a big fourth quarter to win. … Ohio State 38, Penn State 28

Brian Bennett: Yeah, I think this has a chance to be a wild one. So wild that I'm calling for … overtime. With a week off to prepare, I expect Bill O'Brien to throw the kitchen sink at the Buckeyes' defense, and for Hackenberg to hook up with Allen Robinson for three scores. Ohio State mounts its patented comeback, ties the score on a Braxton Miller heave to Corey Brown, and wins it on a Hyde run in the second OT. … Ohio State 51, Penn State 48


That's how we see things playing out on Saturday. Now it's time to hear from our guest picker. As a reminder, throughout the season we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please), hometown and a brief description of why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.

This week's guest picker is Nick Galea from Normal, Ill. What'cha got, Nick?
Hey guys, I should be the guest picker because my life revolves around Big Ten football. I currently hold two degrees from Big Ten schools (MSU undergrad/Illinois law), and I've watched Big Ten football in 7 different venues in my life. This week is of special significance to me, as my two alma maters square off in Champaign. I'd love to have a prediction on the line while I'm in Memorial Stadium watching Nate Scheelhaase test the league's No. 1 defense. Thanks!

Here are Nick's Week 9 picks ...

Nebraska 38, Minnesota 24
Iowa 28, Northwestern 27
Michigan State 27, Illinois 10
Ohio State 45, Penn State 38

SEASON RECORDS

Adam Rittenberg: 55-9
Brian Bennett: 54-10
Guest pickers: 49-15
video
My eyes are burning after watching the Nebraska-Iowa game, but Husker eyes are smiling, and they should be.

Nebraska will represent the Legends Division next week at the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis. The Huskers (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten) earned the right to face Wisconsin after outlasting Iowa 13-7 in a sloppy game in frigid conditions at Kinnick Stadium. Coach Bo Pelini's team fulfilled his "win-out" pledge in Columbus in claiming its final six conference contests.

Everyone expected Nebraska to win Friday, but how it happened came as a surprise. The Big Ten's top offense marched 75 yards on its first possession before settling for a field goal, and then did very little after that point. In between the opening drive and Nebraska's 43-yard touchdown march late in the third quarter, the offense had only 48 total yards.

This win was all about the defense and running back Rex Burkhead, who returned from injury to give the sputtering Huskers attack a boost in the second half. Iowa's inept offense and hyper-conservative coaching staff also deserves an assist in Nebraska's win. Hawkeyes fans deserve better (more on this later).

Nebraska defensive end Eric Martin quietly had put together an all-conference caliber season -- 7.5 sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss -- but most Big Ten fans probably didn't notice him until today. Martin was the single most dominant player on the field at Kinnick Stadium, constantly harassing quarterback James Vandenberg and disrupting pass plays. Martin's stats are impressive (seven tackles, three tackles for loss, one forced fumble, two quarterback hurries) but hardly tell the full story of how much he impacted the game. He's a lock for at least second-team All-Big Ten honors and improved his case to be a first-team selection.

Other members of the Blackshirts stepped up as Nebraska overcame two first-half turnovers and several short fields. Safety Daimion Stafford had a terrific interception after a pass breakup by cornerback Ciante Evans, and linebacker Alonzo Whaley sealed the win by jumping a short pass route -- does Iowa have any other kind? -- in the closing minutes.

Nebraska held Iowa to 200 yards, 13 first downs and just 5-of-15 on third-down conversions.

Quarterback Taylor Martinez had his least effective performance of the season in the poor conditions (63 pass yards, 36 rush yards, one lost fumble), and the Huskers needed something to spark their offense. Enter Superman.

[+] EnlargeRex Burkhead
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallThe Nebraska offense was stuck in neutral much of a the game, but running back Rex Burkhead (22) provided a much-needed spark.
Burkhead, out since Oct. 20 after aggravating a knee injury that has limited him all season, returned to the field with Nebraska trailing 7-3 in the third quarter. Pelini said it was Burkhead's decision to play, and the senior delivered. He had 16 carries for 69 yards and Nebraska's only touchdown, and his biggest play was a 9-yard run for a first down from the Nebraska 2-yard line. I'm still not sure how Burkhead stayed on his feet so long.

The game encapsulated Iowa's miserable 2012 campaign and some of the season-long issues that never got fixed.

Two examples of ineptitude:

  • After dropping an interception, Iowa drove to the Nebraska 19 late in the first half. After Vandenberg was dropped for no gain, Iowa let a bunch of time tick away before calling a timeout. The Hawkeyes then proceeded to earn an illegal substitution penalty (after a timeout, mind you). Moments later, Mike Meyer hooked a field goal and Iowa wasted a perfect opportunity to tack onto a lead in a game where points were at a premium.
  • Facing a third-and-4 near midfield midway through the fourth quarter, Iowa handed the ball to Mark Weisman, who was easily smothered short of the marker. First-year coordinator Greg Davis has had a lot of head-scratching calls this season, but this might have been the worst. The height of conservatism. Pathetic.

I didn't even mention the punt from the Nebraska 31-yard line in the first half.

Iowa's defense deserves better than what it got from the offense this season. The Hawkeyes must have set a record for most takeaways not converted into points. Or third-down pass routes run short of the marker.

Kirk Ferentz won't be fired because he makes too much money. So unless he leaves for the NFL, he'll be tasked to fix this mess. Vandenberg regressed as a senior and Davis left Hawkeyes fans banging their heads against the wall. I've defended Ferentz before, and his overall success at Iowa can't be denied, but the program has completely lost momentum, dropping its final six games. Iowa went 4-8 despite a very easy schedule that didn't include Ohio State or Wisconsin and had Penn State at home.

This is unacceptable for a program that won a BCS bowl game three years ago. It's certainly unacceptable for a coach making what Ferentz makes.

Nebraska, meanwhile, might be the sloppiest good team I've ever seen. The Huskers still make a lot of mistakes, but they've found ways to win since the Ohio State debacle.

And if the Blackshirts play like this and Burkhead continues to get healthy and contribute, Nebraska could win two more times this season, including Jan. 1 in Pasadena.

It's game day at Kinnick Stadium

October, 20, 2012
10/20/12
6:20
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IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Week 8 in the Big Ten wraps up under the lights at Kinnick Stadium, where Penn State and Iowa meet in a matchup of two somewhat surprising unbeaten teams in Big Ten play.

Despite 2-2 marks in non-league play, both Penn State and Iowa have made strides in Big Ten games. Penn State scored 22 points to rally past Northwestern in its last game two weeks ago, while Iowa comes off of a road upset against Michigan State in two overtimes. Iowa has won four straight against Penn State at Kinnick, while Penn State won last year's meeting in State College.

Expect a truly electric atmosphere, as Iowa fans, like many in the Big Ten, love their night games. The tailgating scene around Kinnick looks fabulous, and I spotted a dude dressed like Waldo on my drive in.

Penn State is the healthier team following an open week and should have running back Bill Belton, hobbled by an ankle sprain for most of the season, in a bigger role. Iowa running back Mark Weisman, who has recorded four consecutive 100-yard games since claiming the featured role, is cleared to play with an ankle sprain and should be in there. How much? That's the key. The Hawkeyes will lean on true freshman Greg Garmon and junior Jordan Canzeri, who has made an incredible recovery from a torn ACL sustained in spring practice. Still, without much from Weisman, you have to wonder how Iowa will score against a solid Penn State defense led by All-America candidate Michael Mauti at linebacker.

Although Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin predicted a shootout this week, expect a low-scoring, physical game. Field position will be huge, and one key difference could be the kickers. Iowa's Mike Meyer has been fabulous, converting his last 13 field-goal attempts, including four in last week's win. Penn State, meanwhile, has little confidence in sophomore Sam Ficken.

Follow us on Twitter and keep it here for coverage of Penn State-Iowa throughout the night.

Big Ten stock report: Week 8

October, 17, 2012
10/17/12
1:00
PM ET
Fire up the ticker ...

Stock up

Montee Ball's YAC: The Wisconsin running back said he focused on getting yards after contact last week after realizing that he wasn't getting the same big holes to run through. His YAC was anything but whack against Purdue, as Ball was credited by team officials with gaining 194 of his career-best 247 yards after getting hit. Ball has had an illustrious career, but that may have been his most impressive performance.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
AP Photo/Michael ConroyMontee Ball rushed for 247 yards in Saturday's win over Purdue.
Nick VanHoose: The Northwestern cornerback had a tough game earlier this season against Indiana but came up with three pass breakups in the end zone to help preserve a 21-13 victory last week. That earned him Big Ten freshman of the week honors. "He's a dynamic athlete," Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "He brings athleticism. He brings explosiveness. He's fearless. He's physical." Fitzgerald says VanHoose reminds him of a young Sherrick McManis, who's now playing for the NFL's Chicago Bears.

Denard Robinson's ball security: We knocked Robinson's passing in a stock down item not too long ago. But since the Notre Dame debacle, Robinson has not turned the ball over in two games. He has also run the ball 35 times and thrown it 27 times in those two wins, indicating that Michigan is now playing more to his strengths.

Mike Meyer: Iowa wouldn't be 4-2 right now without a reliable kicker. Luckily, Meyer has been one of the most reliable in the nation. Only two players in the FBS have made more than his 14 field goals, and he has only one miss on the season, way back in the opener. "He had a great spring and a great August, and every week at practice, he just continues to perform," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "I think we all have confidence in Mike right now. He's done such a good job." Meyer should be in the mix for the Lou Groza Award.

Stock down

Luke Fickell's popularity: The Ohio State defensive coordinator said Monday that he actually agreed with the pizza delivery guy who told his wife that the Buckeyes' defense needs to play better. Heck, anyone can see that after Ohio State allowed 49 points to Indiana. Urban Meyer is getting more involved in the defensive meetings, and more fans are critical of Fickell as the defense is serving up 400 yards per game. "If you can put more pressure on me than I put on myself, I don’t know how you could,” Fickell told reporters. “So the outside pressures, I don’t know, I don’t feel it. If they’re harder or stronger than what I put on myself, then maybe I should read about it.”

Gophers' future strength-of-schedule numbers: Minnesota announced Tuesday that it is backing out of a planned series with North Carolina and had added home games with Kent State and South Dakota State. The Gophers do not have a single nonconference game scheduled from 2013-2016 against a current BCS AQ team, and the toughest opponents include Colorado State, UNLV and Ohio (though there is one slot still to be filled in '13 and '14). These schedules should allow Minnesota to pile up wins and get close to bowl eligibility, but they sure won't do much to inspire bigger crowds at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers don't need to bash their heads in against teams like USC in the nonconference slate, but they should at least challenge themselves.

Purdue's run defense: In their first two Big Ten games, the Boilermakers have given up an alarming 771 combined rushing yards to Michigan and Wisconsin. Head coach Danny Hope said that the defense was lined up in the right spots against Michigan but just got beat by Robinson. Against Wisconsin, he said, the team made all kinds of mental errors and it "was the worst we've tackled around here in a long time." The Boilers better find some answers before going up against Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde on Saturday.

Michigan State's decision-making: The Spartans opted not to go for it on a pair of fourth-and-1s last week against Iowa, choosing a field goal from the Iowa 7 and punting from the Iowa 48. The Hawkeyes drove for a field goal after the punt, and of course, a potential four more points could have made all the difference in the overtime loss. And then there was the train wreck at the end of the first half, when a pass to the Iowa 32-yard line set up a potential long field goal try. Instead, mass confusion led to players and coaches shuffling on and off the field and no snap getting off before time expired. Hindsight is 20-20, and the fourth-down decisions were perfectly justifiable at the time. But when the offense is struggling like it is for the Spartans, scrutiny on every decision is heightened, and these were not popular with a frustrated fan base.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 7

October, 15, 2012
10/15/12
10:13
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Upon further review ...

Team of the week: Iowa. Well, look at who's tied atop the Legends Division standings. Many people had written off the Hawkeyes after they lost at home to Central Michigan (a team which has followed up that upset in Iowa City by losing to Northern Illinois, Toledo and Navy, all by double digits). But give credit to the resiliency of Kirk Ferentz's team. On Saturday, Iowa outslugged Michigan State on the road and won in double-overtime 19-16. It wasn't a pretty game, but the Hawkeyes showed toughness and grit. Don't count them out of the Big Ten race just yet.

Best game: Hope you stayed up late to catch Ohio State's 52-49 win over Indiana, the Big Ten's version of Big 12 football. There were blocked punts, onside kicks, a 15-point Indiana rally in the final minutes, 1,059 total yards and way more tension than we usually associate with Buckeyes-Hoosiers matchups. You might have liked Iowa-Michigan State more if you enjoy, you know, actual tackling. But this kind of game is fun every once in a while, too.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Sandra Dukes/US PresswireBadgers RB Montee Ball had one of his best games of the season on Saturday against Purdue.
Biggest play: Let's go back to East Lansing and the second overtime period, when defensive lineman Louis Trinca-Pasat deflected a pass from Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell, causing the ball to sail through receiver Keith Mumphery’s hands and into the waiting embrace of an Iowa cornerback. That was a fitting end to a game that was all about defense.

Best play: The play of the day in the Big Ten happened around midnight, when Indiana's Nick Stoner leaped out of bounds to grab an onside kick and toss it back into the field of play. Stoner showed off the athleticism that allows him to star on Indiana's track team. D’Angelo Roberts recovered, and the Hoosiers went in for a score and two-point conversion for the game's final margin. Indiana's final onside kick was also brilliantly executed and conceived, but Ohio State's Corey Brown made a game-saving catch as he was all alone on his side of the field.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Wisconsin's Montee Ball has had quite a career, so when he sets a career high, that's saying something. His 247 yards (on 29 carries) versus Purdue were a personal best. His three touchdowns also gave him 72 for his career, moving him past Ron Dayne as the Big Ten's all-time leading touchdown maker. He needs seven more to break the NCAA record. If he keeps playing like he did Saturday, he'll smash it.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Michigan's Jake Ryan collected 11 tackles, including 3.5 for loss and a sack, and forced a fumble in the Wolverines' 45-0 annihilation of Illinois. We'd say he's playing like his hair is on fire, but his golden locks are so long it might take him a while to feel any follicular conflagration.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Iowa's Mike Meyer was 4-for-4 on field goals, including two in overtime and the 42-yard game winner against Michigan State. Meyer has made 14 out of 15 this year and has connected on his past 13 attempts. For a team that struggles to score, Meyer has been extra valuable.

Worst hangover: Michigan State. Adam and I are frantically going back through all our offseason blog posts and erasing the word "State" every time we picked Michigan State to win the Big Ten in 2012. At this point, the Spartans are not even guaranteed of making a bowl game, sitting at 4-3 with tough games left against Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern, plus a trip to Minnesota. How'd we miss so bad on the Spartans? Neither of us thought their offense would be this dreadful. And while their defense has been very good, it has had to be heroic to carry the entire team, and that's asking too much every week. Michigan State has somehow lost three home games this year after it had won 15 in a row at Spartan Stadium. The Notre Dame and Ohio State losses were forgivable to a degree. Losing to an Iowa team that had only 257 total yards and one touchdown? Not so much.

Strangest moment: There are helmet-to-helmet hits, and then there are, apparently, shoulder-to-decal hits. That's what happened in Saturday's Northwestern-Minnesota game. Wildcats safety Ibraheim Campbell collided with Gophers tailback Donnell Kirkwood so solidly that most of the gold "M" on one side of Kirkwood's helmet came off on the play. Campbell got the worst of that hit, but Northwestern got the 21-13 road win.
Recognizing the best and the brightest around the Big Ten in Week 7.
  • Wisconsin RB Montee Ball: He's back. After a big finish last week against Illinois, Ball ran all over Purdue in Saturday's blowout 38-14 win at Ross-Ade Stadium. Ball racked up a career-high 247 rush yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries, highlighted by a 67-yard scoring dash early in the third quarter. The Badgers senior set the Big Ten career record for touchdowns and moved into third place on the NCAA's all-time list with 72. This fall definitely can still belong to Ball.
  • Iowa's defense: We debated giving this to kicker Mike Meyer, who tied a career best with four field goals to continue a brilliant season. But Iowa's collective effort on defense won the game at Michigan State. Standouts included tackling machine Anthony Hitchens (15 tackles), defensive lineman Joe Gaglione (10 tackles, sack), linebacker Christian Kirksey (7 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 1 pass breakup), cornerback Greg Castillo (game-clinching interception) and linebacker James Morris (10 tackles, 1 tackle for loss). Iowa's defense has rebounded well from the Central Michigan debacle and put the team in a tie for first place in the Legends division.
  • Northwestern RB Venric Mark: Where would Northwestern's offense be without Mark? The junior has come out of nowhere to put himself in the race for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors. Mark scored a 26-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage against Minnesota and finished with a career-best 182 rush yards and two scores, 151 yards in the opening half. Mark had 213 all-purpose yards in the Wildcats' 21-13 win. He has four 100-yard rushing performances this season and eight rushing touchdowns.
  • Michigan LB Jake Ryan: Aside from Penn State's Michael Mauti, no Big Ten defender is playing as well as Ryan right now. The Wolverines sophomore has blossomed during the past month and turned in another terrific performance against Illinois, recording team highs in tackles (11), tackles for loss (3.5) and sacks (1.5). He also had a forced fumble that led to a Michigan touchdown in the 45-0 win. Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson (128 rush yards, 159 pass yards, 4 total TDs) also merits a mention after eclipsing the 10,000-yard mark for his career.
  • Ohio State QB Braxton Miller: It's big news when Miller doesn't receive a helmet sticker. The sophomore continues to impress with both his feet and his arm. He had 23 carries for 149 yards and a touchdown and completed 13 of 24 passes for 211 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in a 52-49 win at Indiana. Although the interception was bad, Miller's passing numbers should have been a lot better as Devin Smith had some key drops. Running back Carlos Hyde merits a mention after his second consecutive 100-yard rushing performance (22 carries, 156 yards, 1 TD).

The Legends Division race just got a lot more interesting.

Iowa, a team many wrote off after an inexcusable home loss to Central Michigan on Sept. 22, rallied for its third straight win, outlasting Michigan State 19-16 in two overtimes in a game offensive football forgot. After stumbling offensively for most of the game, Iowa scored the tying touchdown with 55 seconds left in regulation and secured the win when cornerback Greg Castillo picked off a deflected pass by Andrew Maxwell in the second overtime.

The Hawkeyes did it with defense at Spartan Stadium, and they did it in overtime without star running back Mark Weisman, who suffered an injury after scoring the tying touchdown. A defensive line that entered the season with major question marks once again stepped up, as Joe Gaglione played well and Louis Trinca-Pasat had the deflection that led to Castillo's pick. Kicker Mike Meyer once again was fabulous for Iowa, going 4-for-4 on field goals to make it 13 in a row.

Both offenses were hard to watch most of the game, repeatedly running pass plays short of the marker on third downs and showing little continuity. In a play that epitomized the game, Michigan State entered field goal range late in the first half and couldn't get the right personnel on the field ... to spike the football. The teams combined for just two touchdowns, 26 first downs and 12 third-down conversions on 37 attempts.

Michigan State's Maxwell, who appeared to make strides last week at Indiana, completed just 12 of 31 pass attempts. Iowa's James Vandenberg wasn't much better, averaging a meager 3.7 yards per completion. But Iowa's defense bought the offense enough time, holding Michigan State to a short field goal midway through the fourth quarter. Weisman, who had been held in check, finally came alive late and finished with 116 rush yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. Michigan State star Le'Veon Bell had 140 rush yards and a touchdown but couldn't get in the end zone in overtime.

The loss cemented Michigan State as the Big Ten's biggest disappointment of the first half and one of the biggest in the country. Picked by many, including both Big Ten bloggers, to win the league in August, the Spartans now have lost three games at Spartan Stadium, where they won every game they played in both 2010 and 2011. Michigan State lacks the quarterback and the killer instinct it had the past two seasons and now faces a brutal stretch -- Michigan (road), Wisconsin (road) and Nebraska (home). The Spartans could be out of the race by the end of October.

Kirk Ferentz's squad, meanwhile, is the only Legends Division team with two division victories as it returns home to face Penn State in prime time. Iowa still must visit Northwestern and Michigan but can make a strong push if it takes care of business as home.

Ferentz, by the way, recorded his 100th win at Iowa. It's one he'll surely savor.

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 5

September, 27, 2012
9/27/12
3:00
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Players don't win individual awards in nonconference play. They do it by starring in Big Ten games Still, let's look at where the leaders for some award stand with non-conference play all but wrapped up.

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: Through four games, Miller is the Big Ten MVP, leading the league in scoring, ranking second in rushing and bailing out the Buckeyes in their four wins. But this week, he goes on the road for the first time and faces the powerful Michigan State defense. So stay tuned.

2. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska: It's hard to overstate just how good Martinez has been. He leads the league in pass efficiency and is completing more than 70 percent of his passes, with a 9-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He has a chance to erase some demons this week against Wisconsin.

3. Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State: Bell is second in the FBS in total rushing yards and has two 200-yard games. But after just a so-so showing against Notre Dame, he'll need to step it up versus Ohio State.

4. Matt McGloin, QB Penn State: Don't laugh. McGloin leads the Big Ten in passing yards and has a 9-to-2 TD-to-INT ratio. He's on pace for a 3,000-yard season. No, really.

5. Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State: McGloin's favorite target, Robinson has nearly 150 more yards than the next best Big Ten wide receiver, and he leads the league with five touchdown catches.

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State: The Nittany Lions defense is playing really well, and Mauti is its leader. He's second in the league in tackles and has to be pretty close to first in effort.

2. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue: Short drops a spot simply because he didn't play last week. He'll face a dangerous passing offense versus Marshall this week but will really make his bones in league play.

3. D.L. Wilhite, DE, Minnesota: Wilhite leads the league in sacks with 4.5, and with an extra tackle for loss, he's second in that category as well. He's a big key to a vastly improved Gophers pass rush.

Bakken–Andersen Kicker of the Year

1. Jeff Budzien, Northwestern: Budzien is a perfect 8-for-8 on field goal tries this season, and the 4-0 Wildcats needed them in their wins over Vanderbilt and Boston College.

2. Mike Meyer, Iowa: No kicker in the country has made more than Meyer's nine field goals, which also says something about the Hawkeyes' offense. Meyer is 9-for-10 on the season, including a 50-yarder in his team's one-point win over Northern Illinois. Reigning kicker of the year Brett Maher from Nebraska is just 4-for-8 this season.

Predictions: Big Ten Week 3

September, 13, 2012
9/13/12
9:00
AM ET
Redemption Saturday is nearly upon us. That certainly goes for the Big Ten, which went 6-6 in a miserable Week 2, and for the Big Ten bloggers, who didn't fare much better (Rittenberg went 8-4; Bennett went 7-5).

This week's slate certainly looks a lot more manageable for the Big Ten, and several teams -- looking at you, Wisconsin, Iowa and Penn State -- definitely need a W.

It's prediction time ...

WESTERN MICHIGAN at MINNESOTA

Brian Bennett: The Gophers improve to 3-0 -- barely. Jordan Wettstein nails his second game winner of the young season after MarQueis Gray leads the team down the field in the final two minutes. Minnesota overcomes three turnovers to escape at home. ... Minnesota 27, Western Michigan 24

Adam Rittenberg: Broncos quarterback Alex Carder provides the first real test for Minnesota, which gives up two early touchdowns before settling down. It'll be a close one, but Gray and the run game do enough as Minnesota goes to 3-0. ... Minnesota 30, Western Michigan 24

ARKANSAS STATE at NEBRASKA

Adam Rittenberg: It'll take more than a week for Nebraska to fix its defensive woes against fast-paced, spread-ish offenses. Gus Malzahn's team makes some plays, but Arkansas State can't stop anyone, and both Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah rush for more than 100 yards. ... Nebraska 41, Arkansas State 21

Brian Bennett: I think the Huskers come out angry after the loss to UCLA and take it out on Malzahn's team. The defense gives up some big plays but keeps Arkansas State under 400 total yards. Martinez has four touchdowns, including two scoring tosses to Kenny Bell. ... Nebraska 45, Arkansas State 24

CALIFORNIA at No. 12 OHIO STATE

Brian Bennett: No rest this week for Braxton Miller, but he'll enjoy running and passing against Cal's shaky defense. The Golden Bears hang around for a while, but two more picks by an opportunistic Buckeyes defense kills any upset thoughts ... Ohio State 35, Cal 21

Adam Rittenberg: I grew up in Berkeley going to Bears games, and it's sad to say the Cal program is in free fall under coach Jeff Tedford. Ohio State has some initial trouble figuring out the Cal defense, but Miller gets going eventually and accounts for three touchdowns. Cornerback Bradley Roby records his first interception of the season as Ohio State pulls away in the third quarter. ... Ohio State 31, Cal 17

CHARLESTON SOUTHERN at ILLINOIS

Adam Rittenberg: We ranked this as the worst Big Ten nonconference game, and it won't disappoint (not sure if that's possible). Josh Ferguson eclipses 200 rushing yards, and at least two Illinois quarterbacks fire touchdown passes as the Illini roll. ... Illinois 45, Charleston Southern 3

Brian Bennett: I'd be more interested in watching the Illini stage an intrasquad scrimmage than this yawner. Doesn't matter if Nathan Scheelhaase or a line cook from Nathan's Famous starts at quarterback. Illinois will win in a rout, and we won't learn a thing. ... Illinois 49, Charleston Southern 0

EASTERN MICHIGAN at PURDUE

Adam Rittenberg: Eastern Michigan looks like the perfect opponent for Purdue's offense to recharge against. Akeem Shavers rushes for 150 yards and three scores against the nation's No. 118 rush defense, and Caleb TerBush fires two touchdown passes. ... Purdue 38, Eastern Michigan 14

Brian Bennett: The Boilers, still smarting from the Notre Dame loss and the Robert Marve injury news, get off to a slow start. But their defense and running game take over and wear down Eastern Michigan. Shavers runs for 100 yards and two scores. ... Purdue 42, Eastern Michigan 17

BOSTON COLLEGE at NORTHWESTERN

Brian Bennett: I love the way the Northwestern defense stepped up against Vandy, and Venric Mark is becoming a star. But ... history tells us the Cats usually slip up after good things happen. So I'm picking the mild upset here, with Chase Rettig throwing the winning score late in the fourth quarter. ... BC 31, Northwestern 28

Adam Rittenberg: Toughest game of the week to predict. (I haven't been right on Northwestern yet.) I like Pat Fitzgerald's approach to ward off a letdown, and while Boston College jumps ahead early and attacks Northwestern's secondary more, I don't think the Eagles can slow down Mark and the run game for four quarters. Expect another Trevor Siemian-led rally as Northwestern improves to 3-0. ... Northwestern 28, Boston College 27

MASSACHUSETTS at No. 17 MICHIGAN

Adam Rittenberg: This isn't the same UMass team that nearly stunned Michigan in the Big House in 2010. The Minutemen are awful. Fitz Toussaint gets back in the groove with three rushing touchdowns, and Denard Robinson puts up more sick stats in a total laugher. ... Michigan 65, UMass 0

Brian Bennett: If Brady Hoke wanted Robinson to get 700 yards in this game, he could. Instead, Robinson puts up 100 yards rushing and three total touchdowns before sitting in the third quarter, while Toussaint finally gets going against what is likely the nation's worst FBS team. ... Michigan 55, UMass 3

NAVY at PENN STATE

Brian Bennett: OK, I incorrectly picked the Nittany Lions to win the first two weeks (although they won everywhere but the scoreboard at Virginia). I'm guaranteeing that Penn State gets off the schneid against the Midshipmen. The Lions' problems on defense have revolved around stopping the pass, which won't be an issue against the option. Matt McGloin helps PSU find the end zone three times. ... Penn State 24, Navy 14

Adam Rittenberg: Penn State has played well enough to win, and the Lions finally get over the hump this week. I like the matchup for Penn State's defense, which doesn't have to worry too much about the pass. McGloin fires two touchdown passes, and Sam Ficken connects on a 50-yarder as Penn State finally celebrates. ... Penn State 17, Navy 13

NORTHERN IOWA at IOWA

Adam Rittenberg: I've wanted to pick against Iowa twice now and hesitated, getting burned last week. This time, I'm going against the Hawkeyes, even though the opponent is Northern Iowa. The FCS Panthers have nothing to lose, while Iowa continues to play tight on offense. UNI nearly beat a good Iowa team in 2009. It beats a bad one this year. ... Northern Iowa 17, Iowa 16

Brian Bennett: The Hawkeyes fail to score a touchdown yet again, but get by on four Mike Meyer field goals. Iowa blocks a three-point try by the Panthers on the final play to survive. ... Iowa 12, Northern Iowa 9

BALL STATE at INDIANA

Brian Bennett: The 2-0 start for Indiana is a nice story, but the schedule hasn't been very good. Ball State is a major step up, and with Cameron Coffman getting his first start at quarterback, this is a dangerous assignment for the young Hoosiers. They lead early but can't control the Cardinals' running game in the fourth quarter. ... Ball State 35, Indiana 28

Adam Rittenberg: I really think the Hoosiers are getting better, but I agree with you about the schedule. Ball State is a significant jump in competition, and while Coffman fires two touchdown passes, he also fires two interceptions in his first start. The Cardinals rally to make it three straight against the Hoosiers. ... Ball State 31, Indiana 30

No. 20 NOTRE DAME at No. 10 MICHIGAN STATE

Adam Rittenberg: Get ready for another defensive struggle at Spartan Stadium. Michigan State's defense has been as advertised, and coordinator Pat Narduzzi told me this week that the unit is nowhere near its potential. Isaiah Lewis and the Spartans make it a rough night for Notre Dame's quarterbacks, and Le'Veon Bell rushes for two scores as MSU improves to 3-0. ... Michigan State 17, Notre Dame 10

Brian Bennett: This one will come down to defense, as Michigan State hasn't allowed an offensive touchdown all year and the Irish front seven will give Andrew Maxwell some problems. The Spartans' D is just better, however, and creates one score off a turnover. Bell does the rest with two touchdowns. ... Michigan State 21, Notre Dame 17

UTAH STATE at WISCONSIN

Brian Bennett: No Badgers assistant coaches will lose their jobs after the team gets back in the winning column. But it won't be easy against an Aggies team that just beat Utah. The Wisconsin offensive line looks a bit better, and Montee Ball runs for 125 yards and two scores. ... Wisconsin 23, Utah State 14

Adam Rittenberg: If Wisconsin's offensive linemen have any pride, they come out angry in this one. And a bunch of angry 300-pounders means bad things for the Aggies. The Badgers start quickly and get their swagger back, racking up 250 rush yards. ... Wisconsin 31, Utah State 17

SEASON RECORDS

Rittenberg: 18-6 (.750)

Bennett: 17-7 (.708)

Iowa squeaks by Northern Illinois

September, 1, 2012
9/01/12
7:15
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Running-back curse? It sure didn't look like it for Iowa, which barely avoided getting upset by Northern Illinois thanks to a play from tailback Damon Bullock.

Starting mostly because so many other players at the position have left, Bullock ran 30 times for 150 yards for the Hawkeyes. The one everyone will remember came with 2:15 left and Iowa facing 3rd and nine. Bullock went around the left side untouched for a 23-yard touchdown, the Hawkeyes' only trip to the end zone all day in an 18-17 nailbiter.

It was the perfect play call, because Northern Illinois had had so much success bringing pressure on third downs against James Vandenberg all day long. The Huskies brought the blitz again, and Iowa countered with the run call. Eat that, AIRHBG.

The winning drive was set up by a great special-teams play that saw Iowa down a punt on the Northern Illinois 1-yard line with 5:36 to go. But even the excellent ensuing field position didn't guarantee anything, as the Hawkeyes offense repeatedly bogged down in the red zone, settling for four Mike Meyer field goals.

The Hawkeyes' young defensive line played as well as could have been expected. That wasn't the problem as much as the passing game's inability to slow down Northern Illinois' defense. Vandenberg completed 21 of 33 passes but had only 129 yards, averaging a mere 3.9 yards per completion. He was sacked six times.

Some problems were to be expected as Iowa replaces a lot on both lines, breaks in two new coordinators and deals with turnover at the skill positions. The Huskies are a good team that played well enough to win.

But the Hawkeyes escaped in the end while finding a new starting running back. Nothing about that seems cursed.
Our series ranking each position group from the 2011 Big Ten season comes to a close today with the final group, and one that is often overlooked but is always important: special teams.

Special teams is a broad spectrum, so we're combining performances in punting, kickoffs and field goals to come up with each team's position on this list.

And away we go:

1. Nebraska: Boy, did we mess this up in the preseason by ranking the Huskers 11th out of 12. Though we wrote at the time that Nebraska would almost certainly outperform its low rankings, we thought replacing star punter/kicker Alex Henery would be tough. Not really, as Brett Maher was one of the best punters and kickers in the league and the country. Freshman Ameer Abdullah was a star in kick returns, finishing ninth nationally in that category. So just remove one of the ones from that preseason number, and then we've got it right.

[+] EnlargeRaheem Mostert
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesRaheem Mostert took a kickoff return back 99 yards for a score in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
2. Purdue: The Boilermakers were mostly mediocre on offense and defense but did some great work on special teams. Freshman Raheem Mostert led the nation in kickoff returns, while sophomore Cody Webster finished second in punting. The strong-legged Carson Wiggs tied Maher for most field goals made in the league, though he still needs to improve his accuracy. Blocked kicks helped secure wins over Middle Tennessee and Ohio State, but Purdue lost on a blocked field goal try at Rice.

3. Penn State: When Anthony Fera returned from suspension and took over field goal duties, the Nittany Lions' special teams became truly special. Fera hit 14 of 17 field goals after Penn State had looked very shaky in that area early in the year, and he was also one of the league's top punters. Chaz Powell and Justin Brown were dangerous return men.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes ranked among the top third of Big Ten teams in just about every special-teams category. Field goal kicker Drew Basil made a dozen in a row at one point, and Ben Buchanan was solid at punter. Jordan Hall added some big returns.

5. Michigan State: We ranked the Spartans No. 1 in the preseason, and they came up with some game-changing plays, particularly in the first game against Wisconsin and in the Outback Bowl win over Georgia. But statistically speaking, Michigan State was average in most aspects of the kicking game. But Mike Sadler had some big moments punting, and Keshawn Martin did excellent work on punt returns.

6. Wisconsin: A tough team to rank, as there was both good and bad here. Jared Abbrederis led the nation in punt return average at 15.8 yards per attempt. Brad Nortman was a very reliable punter, while Philip Welch made five of his six attempts at field goals, something the Badgers didn't need very much with Montee Ball assaulting the end zone. But we can't ignore the big special-teams breakdowns against Michigan State and Ohio State that had as much as anything to do with ruining a potential undefeated season.

7. Michigan: The Wolverines weren't outstanding at any one area on special teams, but they proved much better than the No. 12 ranking we saddled them with in the preseason. Brendan Gibbons solidified what looked like a scary place-kicker situation and played a large role (along with brunette girls) in the Sugar Bowl victory. Michigan was also strong in punt returns and kick coverage, though its punting and kickoff returns left much to be desired.

8. Iowa: The good news first: Iowa led the league in net punting, thanks to a strong showing by senior Eric Guthrie in his first year starting. Now the bad: The Hawkeyes ranked second-to-last in kickoff coverage, and Mike Meyer missed six of his 20 field goal attempts, including both tries in the humbling loss to Minnesota.

9. Minnesota: Even without premier return man Troy Stoudermire, who missed most of the year with an injury, the Gophers ranked fifth in the league in kickoff returns, and they led the league in kickoff coverage. But a team that punted as much as Minnesota did in 2011 needed to do better than 11th in the conference in that category. Bonus point for the perfectly executed onside kick in the Iowa win.

10. Northwestern: The Wildcats' defense got the brunt of the blame in Northwestern's losses, but special teams didn't hold up its end of the bargain, either. Northwestern made only six field goals all year and ranked near the bottom of the conference in most categories. The bright spot was a league-best punt return unit.

11. Indiana: Mitch Ewald went 13-of-16 on field goals, but the Hoosiers weren't very good in most other areas. They returned more kickoffs than anyone in the Big Ten -- a product of a crummy defense -- but didn't do enough with them in finishing 108th nationally in that stat.

12. Illinois: Ron Zook didn't help his case to be retained as head coach through the performance of his special teams, a part of the game that was supposed to be his field of expertise. Illinois was simply dreadful in creating advantageous field position, finishing last in the nation in kickoff returns and third-to-last in punt returns. The Illini also weren't very good at kickoff coverage, though at least Derek Dimke made 10 of 12 field goals. Even that was marred by his missed 42-yarder at the end of a 10-7 loss at Penn State.

Iowa in a dogfight against Iowa State

September, 10, 2011
9/10/11
2:37
PM ET
No state corn farmers will be kneeling down for the fourth quarter of the Iowa-Iowa State game.

That's because the Cy-Hawk game has turned into a real tussle. The Cyclones have played much better in this one than they have in recent years, and quarterback Steele Jantz has been able to exploit the Iowa secondary for some big plays. A Jantz touchdown toss late in the third quarter has given Iowa State a 17-16 lead.

The Hawkeyes have only found the end zone once today and have relied on three Mike Meyer field goals. They need to get going offensively in the fourth quarter if they want to keep the Cy-Hawk trophy in Iowa City.

Iowa beating Iowa State big up front

September, 10, 2011
9/10/11
1:02
PM ET
Iowa State got left tackle Kelechi Osemele back on the field, but its slow start continues.

Iowa is dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and leads 10-0. Mike Meyer's field goal attempt clanged off the upright but slipped through.

The Hawkeyes have run for 61 yards on 13 carries and have converted 3 of 4 third downs.

On Iowa State's possession between the two Iowa touchdowns, it was stuffed on a third-and-1.

The Cyclones struggled along the defensive line last year, and it doesn't look much better so far. Defensive end Roosevelt Maggitt is out for the season with a torn ACL, but if Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg gets this much time in the pocket and that much push up front, the Hawkeyes' lead is only going to grow.

It's been a better start for Steele Jantz, though. He threw three picks early in last week's game, but he's 3-of-3 for 30 years early, with a nice called draw to earn a first down in the red zone on the opening drive.
Our preseason position ranking series comes to an end today with everybody's favorite group: special teams.

For this ranking, we're going to consider punters, kickers and returners only. No offense to the long-snappers or the punt-team gunners, but things like kickoff coverage units are hard to forecast. We'll give a little extra weight to teams that have returning and proven players at these spots, because it's difficult to know how new punters and kickers will fare when the pressure of real games begin.

As the guys in these positions would say, let's kick it:

[+] EnlargeDan Conroy
Andrew Weber/US PresswireDan Conroy was nearly perfect on his field goal attempts last season.
1. Michigan State: Kicker Dan Conroy made 14 of his 15 attempts last year, and Keshawn Martin led the league in punt return average. They will miss punter Aaron Bates and will have to improve their kickoff return game. And you know you always have to watch out for the fake when the Spartans line up for a kick.

2. Wisconsin: The Badgers are set at both punter and kicker, with seniors Brad Nortman and Philip Welch, respectively. Both are third-year starters who can be relied upon. Wisconsin will need to find a replacement for primary return man David Gilreath.

3. Penn State: The Nittany Lions bring back punter Anthony Fera and punt returner Devon Smith, who finished just behind Martin in yards per attempt last season. Chaz Powell and Stephfon Green are dangerous kick returners. Fera could move over to handle field goals this season if incoming freshman Sam Ficken doesn't win the job.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have a veteran punter in senior Ben Buchanan and two threats to take a kick to the house in Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry. Sophomore Drew Basil is expected to take over at place-kicker. Special teams are almost always a force in Columbus.

5. Purdue: No one in the league has a bigger leg than Carson Wiggs; the questions is whether he can consistently harness it. Punter Cody Webster averaged 43.3 yards per attempt last season, second best among returning punters. The Boilermakers' return game needs to improve.

6. Illinois: Derek Dimke was a Lou Groza semifinalist last season and broke the school record for points by a kicker. He nailed two 50-plus yarders. Ray Guy semifinalist Anthony Santella is gone, though return man Troy Pollard is back.

7. Northwestern: Brandon Williams improved at punter as his freshman year went along last season. The Wildcats at long last have an elite return option in Venric Mark. But place-kicker was a concern this spring, with Jeff Budzien and Steve Flaherty competing for the job.

8. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz's teams usually find a way to be good on special teams, so odds are the Hawkeyes will climb these rankings. But they lost a lot from 2010, including Ray Guy finalist and four-year starter Ryan Donahue, plus both primary return men. Eric Guthrie held the edge at punter after the spring. Place-kicker Mike Meyer returns after taking over that role for the final 10 games and doing a solid job.

9. Indiana: Mitch Ewald was named to the Groza watch list after a strong freshman year in which he made 16 of 19 field goals. Chris Hagerup needs to increase his punting average of 39.4 yards. The Hoosiers should have enough athletes to replace Tandon Doss on returns.

10. Minnesota: Dan Orseske's 36.1-yard average was worst among starting Big Ten punters in 2010, so that must get better. Jerry Kill must also find a new place-kicker -- NC State transfer Chris Hawthorne looks like the top option. Troy Stoudermire, one of the league's top return specialists, is back for his senior year.

11. Nebraska: Like Iowa, this is a team that will almost assuredly outperform this ranking. But boy did the Huskers lose a lot of talent and experience. It will be difficult to match the value that punter/kicker Alex Henery brought -- Brett Maher and freshman Mauro Bondi will battle to replace him -- and Adi Kunalic was a secret weapon as kickoff specialist. Top returner Niles Pau is gone, too. The Cornhuskers will likely reload, but nobody has bigger shoes to fill at these positions in the Big Ten.

12. Michigan: The kicking game looked like a disaster this spring, with neither Seth Broekhuizen nor Brendan Gibbons inspiring confidence. Incoming freshman Matt Wile might win the job this summer. This could prove to be an Achilles' heel for the Wolverines, as it was a year ago. On the plus side, Will Hagerup is the leading returning punter in the Big Ten, though he had only 33 attempts last season.

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