NCF Nation: Mike Taylor

Chris Borland's new title (inside linebacker) might not carry as much flair as his old one (middle linebacker), but his role remains just as important for Wisconsin's defense.

Perhaps even more so.

Wisconsin's transition from a base 4-3 defense to a 3-4 with multiple looks under its new coaching staff places a premium on up-the-middle play. The nose tackle spot carries extreme importance because of the two gaps it must cover. The safety positions also are critical -- a big reason why the new coaches have moved players from other positions to address a lack of safety depth.

[+] EnlargeChris Borland
Brace Hemmelgarn/US PresswireChris Borland and the Badgers defense are transitioning this spring from a base 4-3 defense to a 3-4 with multiple looks.
But the defense run by head coach Gary Andersen and coordinator Dave Aranda hinges heavily on interior midsection, Borland's new home.

"It's important in any defense to be stout up the middle, but especially in this defense because the philosophy is to force the offense to go sideways," Borland told ESPN.com. "If you're getting pushed around at nose tackle, or overrunning and misreading things [at linebacker], there'll be a seam up the middle. So you need to take on blocks up front and then still correct it in the second level."

Borland will be instrumental in a scheme Aranda describes as "inside-out." The 5-foot-11, 248-pound fifth-year senior will enter the 2013 season as the Big Ten's most decorated and productive defender. His career numbers not only underscore his yield but his versatility: 308 tackles, 41.5 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, 13 forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries, three interceptions and 16 passes defended.

A two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection, Borland won Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2009 and will be on the radar for multiple national awards (Bednarik, Butkus, Nagurski) this fall.

"He is a big, big part of our success as we're moving forward," Andersen said.

Borland began his career as an outside linebacker before moving to the middle in 2011, when he recorded 143 tackles, including 19 for loss and five forced fumbles. An extremely effective blitzer, Borland has had to work on being a bit more patient in the new scheme, where he has to cover multiple gaps and can't flow downhill as quickly as he did in the 4-3.

While Borland has to ensure the middle doesn't open up to the opposing offense, his natural ball-hawking skills have shown up early in spring practice.

"The times that we do see lead plays or iso plays, there's a violent ending to all that when Chris is in there," said Aranda, who coaches the Badger linebackers. "He's got a great feel for being inside the core and being the running back per se, finding the daylight that the running back finds. And then when he's in space, he's able to drop his hips and match running backs and tight ends in terms of explosiveness and burst."

Andersen and Aranda knew plenty about Borland when they arrived at Wisconsin. Even before spring practice started, Borland caught Andersen's eye when the team had a dodgeball event as part of its offseason competition.

"I don’t know if a ball came within three yards of hitting the kid in 20 minutes," Andersen said with a laugh.

Borland filed paperwork to the NFL draft advisory board in December but did so feeling 70 percent certain he would return for his senior season. He received a late-round grade from the board and decided to stay and play for the new staff.

After forming arguably the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem with Mike Taylor the past few seasons, Borland is working this spring alongside young and/or less proven players (returning starter Ethan Armstrong is sidelined following shoulder surgery). Derek Landisch, a reserve linebacker the past two years, is among those who have caught Borland's eye.

"I can tell those guys are eager, they want to know how to have success," Borland said.

There's no one better to show them than No. 44. Simply getting others lined up correctly is "very important to him," Andersen said.

"He's a dynamic guy, very explosive player, has got a ton of pop in his hips," Aranda said. "Every day, we look at who is productive, and Chris has led in however many days.

"I don't know if there's one day he hasn't."

Wisconsin keys for the Rose Bowl

January, 1, 2013
1/01/13
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Three keys for Wisconsin in today's Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio:

1. Open it up: Wisconsin is Wisconsin, so of course the Badgers are going to do everything they can to run the ball. But even their offensive line is going to have trouble simply lining up and ramming the ball down Stanford's throat. The Cardinal are one of the most physical, fundamentally sound teams in the country and had the third-best run defense in the FBS. Wisconsin does not want to get into third-and-long situations in this game, because that's when Stanford -- which led the nation in sacks and tackles for loss -- can really wreak havoc. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada drew up a dynamic, diverse game plan for the Big Ten championship game and will need to do so again to keep the Cardinal guessing. Is there anything left in the playbook after that Nebraska game? "There's always more left," Canada said last week. "We can draw up plays for days and days." It's quite likely that quarterback Curt Phillips will have to make more plays and probably will have to throw more than the eight pass attempts he had against the Huskers. And Joel Stave, now healthy, could factor in as well. Wisconsin's bread and butter remains the running game, with Montee Ball, James White and X factor Melvin Gordon. But the Badgers will likely need more than that to solve the Stanford defense.

2. Stop Stepfan: Stanford's offense is more than just running back Stepfan Taylor. The emergence of Kevin Hogan at quarterback late in the season made the Cardinal more multidimensional, and you have to always watch out for their tight ends, especially Zach Ertz. But Taylor is still the engine that drives the offense, and Wisconsin would much rather see Hogan throw the ball around than deal with Stanford's powerful running game all day. The good news: The Badgers were very good against the run this year as well, ranking 22nd in the nation in stopping the rush. They are stout in the middle of the defensive line, though star linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland will have their hands full with those tight ends. Wisconsin also does a good job of making opponents earn every yard down the field; in Big Ten play, opponents had only four total plays of 30 or more yards versus Chris Ash's defense. In Stanford's two losses, Taylor averaged just 3.6 yards per carry, more than a yard below his average. If the Badgers can make him work that hard for yards today, they will have a great chance.

3. Finish: Wisconsin knows all about coming up a play short in the Rose Bowl. A failed two-point conversion made the difference in a 21-19 loss to TCU two years ago, while last year's 45-38 setback against Oregon ended with Russell Wilson begging for another second on the Ducks' 25. But the Badgers don't even have to remember that far back to know close-game heartache. Of course, they lost four games by exactly three points, five by a total of 19 points and three in overtime. They probably would have lost every meaningful close game had Utah State made an easy field goal. It's highly unlikely that Wisconsin will blow out Stanford like it did against Nebraska, so any victory will probably have to include finishing off a close game for the first time since September. It doesn't help that the team's kicking game has been pretty bad; the Badgers were a Big Ten-worst 10-of-18 on field goals this year, and Kyle French missed key tries in the overtime losses to Ohio State and Penn State to end the regular season. But here is why Wisconsin fans have hope that a close game might finally go their way in Pasadena: Barry Alvarez will be making the late-game decisions.

Badgers could go higher with Andersen

December, 20, 2012
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In the six years before Gary Andersen took over as head coach at Utah State, the Aggies went 15-54. Their last winning season was in 1996.

Andersen went 4-8 each of his first two years in Logan, Utah, but then guided the team to a 7-6 mark that included the program's first bowl appearance in 14 years and a near upset at Auburn. This past season, Utah State went 11-2 and will finish in the Top 25 for the first time since 1972.

So we know this: Andersen can build a winner from scratch. We also know this: He won't have to do that at Wisconsin.

When the Badgers tapped Andersen to succeed Bret Bielema, it was a mutually beneficial decision. Wisconsin gets a coach who was skilled enough to turn a historically dormant program that's the No. 3 school in a sparsely populated state into a winner. Andersen gets the reins to a program that's already set up to win at a high level.

It's rare for a coach not currently on the staff to inherit a Big Ten power that needs no rebuilding or re-branding. Brady Hoke had to undo the failed Rich Rodriguez experiment. Ohio State had plenty of talent when Urban Meyer came on board but had just gone 6-7 and was on probation. You know the deal that awaited Bill O'Brien at Penn State.

Bielema was already on the Badgers' staff when Barry Alvarez handed him the keys after the 2005 season, and Bielema promptly went 12-1 his first year as head coach. Andersen is walking into a similarly advantageous situation, grabbing the wheel of a team that has won three straight Big Ten championships and is on its way to Pasadena, Calif., for a third straight happy new year.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
Douglas C. Pizac/USA TODAY SportsGary Andersen turned the third highest-profile school in Utah into a Top 25 team.
Remember, Bielema said in the spring that he thought 2013 would be the best team he ever had. Though Wisconsin will lose stars like running back Montee Ball, linebacker Mike Taylor and left tackle Ricky Wagner, this year's team had only a handful of seniors. The quarterback position will be, for once, loaded with depth if Curt Phillips receives a sixth year from the NCAA. James White will be a senior, and Melvin Gordon showed off his superstar ability in a dazzling Big Ten title-game performance.

So Andersen shouldn't have too much trouble maintaining the Badgers' recent success, even though he'll have to battle the emerging monster that is Meyer's Ohio State. The question Wisconsin fans want to know is if Andersen can take things to an even higher level.

For all his success, Bielema had trouble winning the big game, most notably falling a play short in each of the past two Rose Bowls. Last year's Badgers team set all kinds of offensive records and had no real business losing three times. I wrote after the Rose Bowl loss to Oregon that a lack of an elite defense was holding Wisconsin back. This year's defense has performed exceptionally well, though it hasn't faced too many elite offensive clubs.

No wonder, then, that Alvarez said he wanted to find a defensive-minded coach, and that's exactly what he got in Andersen. Utah State ranks No. 15 nationally in total defense this season and held the Badgers to just one offensive touchdown in the Aggies' 16-14 loss in Madison, Wis., in September. Andersen was also the defensive coordinator on the 2008 Utah team that went undefeated and smoked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. He knows what it takes to field a championship-caliber defense.

And no matter what you think about the Big Ten, this is still a defense-first league. You don't win league titles without controlling the trenches and stopping the running game. Ask Nebraska.

Some concerns remain about this hire, including if Andersen will continue the Wisconsin tradition of basing its offense around the power running game. Utah State was more of a spread team this year, though running back Kerwynn Williams rushed for more than 1,500 yards. Andersen would be foolish not to take advantage of the Badgers' built-in recruiting advantage: dairy-fed Midwestern road graders on the offensive line. Paul Chryst and Russell Wilson proved that the Wisconsin offense can add some other razzle-dazzle once that running game is established.

Andersen also has no Midwest ties. But if he could find and convince players to come to Logan, he can certainly bring them to Madison. He has a reputation as a topflight recruiter and could potentially get Wisconsin involved with more blue-chip prospects.

The Big Ten is a step up from the WAC and even the Mountain West Conference, so Andersen still will have to prove himself at this level. But the Badgers are getting a guy who has already shown he can do great things with limited resources. They can't wait to find out what happens when he starts from a position of strength.
Rather than the normal Friday Q&A, we decided to reach out to two coaches who faced both Big Ten championship game participants -- No. 12 Nebraska and Wisconsin -- earlier this season. Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio and Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien were nice enough to oblige. Both Michigan State and Penn State beat Wisconsin and lost to Nebraska (both in somewhat controversial fashion). Michigan State rallied to beat Wisconsin 16-13 in overtime Oct. 27 at Camp Randall Stadium, and fell to Nebraska 28-24 the following week in East Lansing. Penn State lost 32-23 at Nebraska on Nov. 10 and finished its season with a 24-21 overtime win against Wisconsin last Saturday in Happy Valley.

Dantonio's Spartans played in last year's Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin and have had several exciting games against the Badgers in recent years.

Here's what Dantonio and O'Brien had to say about the title game participants.

On the challenges the two offenses present ...


[+] EnlargeNebraska's Taylor Martinez
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesQuarterback Taylor Martinez helped rally Nebraska past Wisconsin in September.
Dantonio: They're two different types of offenses. You have Nebraska, which is a no-huddle and a more running-spread type thing, and it incorporates option, zone read and different things. Wisconsin is more power-oriented, more pro-style-attack. Both of them play to their strengths. You have marquee players in [Taylor] Martinez from Nebraska, and then also Montee Ball and even James White with Wisconsin. And with Nebraska, you combine it with having [Ameer] Abdullah back there, he's an outstanding player as well, a powerful runner relative to his size.

O'Brien: Both teams are really good. Offensively, it comes down to, in my opinion, how well Wisconsin will be able to run the ball with Montee Ball. For the Nebraska offense, how well does Taylor Martinez play? Those two guys are the focal points of their offenses.

On the two defenses ...

Dantonio: Two very systematic approaches, but two different styles. Nebraska is a 4-3 and more man-conscious. Even when they're zone-conscious, they'll play a lot of man coverage with a downfield safety and different combinations. Wisconsin's going to be a little more zone-oriented. They will get in Cover 1 and man coverage, but you get a little more zone pressure out of Wisconsin than Nebraska. With Nebraska, it's a little more man pressure. You have two defensive coaches by trade [Wisconsin's Bret Bielema and Nebraska's Bo Pelini], and both have been very successful defensive coordinators. Both programs are built on toughness, and both have big-play ability. They have marquee defensive players with [Chris] Borland and [Mike] Taylor on Wisconsin, and then with Nebraska, 51 [Will Compton] and [Eric] Martin stand out, and their secondary is very, very good as well. But I think Wisconsin's secondary can play, too.

O'Brien: I believe Wisconsin has a very, very physical defense, and Nebraska on defense is also very physical and they do a very good job on third down. They disrupt the timing of the passing game. They hit your receivers at the line of scrimmage and do a really good job of that. And like I said, they make it really difficult for you on third down, and I think that's because they are a game-plan, third-down team. They don't just do what they did in previous weeks on third down; they're going to have something new for you. I think a lot of the credit goes to their players and to Bo Pelini for that.

On Wisconsin quarterback Curt Phillips (only Penn State faced him) ...

O'Brien: I thought he was a very poised player. Beaver Stadium is not the easiest place to play, and our front four is not the easiest to play against. But he kept his poise and played a good game and brought them back down the field for a tying touchdown. He knows their offense and is obviously a bright kid and a poised guy.

On which Wisconsin and Nebraska players Michigan State prepared the most for ...

Dantonio: Martinez, because it all goes through him, and we felt [wide receiver] Kenny Bell was excellent. We thought Nebraska really had as good a group of wide receivers as there are in the league. And we had a great deal of respect for Abdullah -- obviously for [Rex] Burkhead, but felt like he probably wasn't going to play against us. We saw Abdullah making a lot of plays. And then for Wisconsin, obviously it's Ball. They're on their third quarterback, which makes a difference, but I thought [Phillips] played pretty well against Ohio State. So Ball and the type of power-oriented attack they have, they get a lot of people to the point of attack with their runs. They create some different things with different formations. And White is another guy, and Gordon can make some plays, too. They have three very good running backs.

On what the game could come down to ...

Dantonio: When you look from afar, you see this league having a lot of parity. Any week, anybody can rise up and play. I know what Wisconsin's record is, and I know what Nebraska's record is, but you can throw out the records as far as I'm concerned. The game always comes down to who makes the least amount of mistakes. I looked at our game last year [against Wisconsin in the league championship] and how it flowed back and forth. Whoever can really regain momentum once they lose it will have an edge. If you can eliminate the big play and eliminate turnovers, or get the big play and eliminate turnovers, then you've got a great chance to win. I think it'll be a great football game.

O'Brien: Both teams are really good. Like every game, it could come down to special teams and a play in the kicking game. Any time you get into a championship game and have two good teams and two really, really good head football coaches, it's going to go right down to the wire.
The 2012 All-Big Ten teams and individual award winners will be revealed at 7 p.m. ET tonight on the Big Ten Network. We'll post the full lists shortly thereafter as well as reaction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Borland sustained the injury last week against Indiana. He had planned to test out the leg in warmups but isn't dressed for the game. Conor O'Neill will get the start at outside linebacker alongside senior Mike Taylor, while Ethan Armstrong slides inside for the Badgers.

The hope is Borland returns in time for the Big Ten title game Dec. 1. He ranks in the top 11 in the Big Ten in tackles (82), sacks (4.5), tackles for loss (9) and forced fumbles (3). Big loss for the Badgers.
All the major stories out of Wisconsin this year have come from the offensive side of the ball. The early offensive line troubles and the switching of position coaches early on. The quarterback shuffling. Montee Ball's slow start and then resurgence.

Hardly anybody every talks about the Badgers' defense. But then again, what else is new?

"We just have a workmanlike mentality, and we're comfortable with that," linebacker Chris Borland told ESPN.com. "We don't need to be in the limelight."

A quick glance at the numbers shows that we ought to be paying more attention to the oft-overlooked unit. Wisconsin is in the top half of the Big Ten in every defensive category and ranks in the top 17 nationally in such key stats as points allowed (17.6), yards allowed (311.3), rush defense (108.1) and third-down conversion defense (30.7 percent).

Of course, the Badgers also had good numbers last year. But one major difference between that defense and the 2012 model has been the lack of back-breaking big plays given up. Everyone remembers the Hail Mary versus Michigan State, the Braxton Miller miracle at Ohio State and the Oregon juggernaut from last season. There have been few such memorable breakdowns this year, aside from a couple of long touchdown passes allowed in games Wisconsin has won.

"The first thing we did in fall camp was, our coach took us through all the big plays we gave up in 2011," defensive back Marcus Cromartie said. "We told ourselves that we weren't going to do that this year. We feel like we're good enough that a team can't just nickel and dime us down the field."

Better depth and experience in the secondary has paid off, as has a surprisingly strong defensive line, which head coach Bret Bielema calls "as thick and as deep as we've had since I've been here." The front four has been able to apply pressure without much blitzing and be stout against the run. And having one of the best linebacker duos in the country with Borland and Mike Taylor makes everything work better.

For as good as the defense has been most of the year, though, it still smarts over its performance last time out. Michigan State drove 75 yards to tie the game near the end of regulation two weeks ago before winning in overtime, 16-13, at Camp Randall Stadium. That snapped the Badgers' 21-game home winning streak.

[+] EnlargeChris Borland
Brace Hemmelgarn/US PresswireChris Borland and the Badgers defense will face a stiff test this week against the prolific Hoosiers offense.
"I haven't really known what it's like to lose at home," Cromartie said. "So we're looking forward to a chance for us to get back on track."

That starts Saturday in a crucial Leaders Division game at Indiana, which figures to put as much pressure on the Wisconsin defense as anybody has all season. The Hoosiers have scored at least 24 points in each of their past 10 games, are averaging 33.1 points per game and boast the Big Ten's top passing offense.

Indiana often runs a no-huddle style that is designed to get defenses out of position and prevent them from substituting.

"Watching them on film from last week, some of the Iowa players would be standing straight up or not be in their stance, and [Indiana] lined up quickly to run a play," Cromartie said.

The Badgers got a taste of what it's like to prepare for that style of offense when they got ready for Oregon last year. The Ducks ended up not using too much no-huddle in the Rose Bowl, but Wisconsin's players learned a lesson.

"The main thing is just getting aligned," Borland said. "I've got to set the fronts and call the play, but after that it's on everybody else as far as getting aligned and getting their eyes in the right place quickly. I know that sounds simple, but that's what these hurry-up teams prey on."

With a new quarterback guiding the offense -- multiple reports have Curt Phillips making his first career start -- Wisconsin might not want to get into a track meet with the Hoosiers. So the defense will be under pressure to keep the score manageable. That's something the Badgers should get used to, because their final three games of the season -- Indiana this week, followed by Ohio State at home and then at Penn State -- come against some of the Big Ten's highest-scoring and most creative offenses.

How they stand up against those offenses may determine whether they make a second straight Big Ten championship game appearance. So the overlooked Badgers defense could be about to receive much more attention.

"The last three games -- and most importantly, this week against Indiana -- represent a big challenge for our defense," Borland said. "We're going to do everything we can, and we're excited for the challenge. This is how you'd want it."

Poll: Big Ten's best running mates

November, 6, 2012
11/06/12
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It's election day, and we certainly couldn't let that go by without having our own little voting party in the Big Ten.

Of course, in the presidential election, you're actually voting for a ticket. That got us thinking about running mates in the Big Ten this season. There are some very good duos in the league on both sides of the ball. Which one is the best? Here are our five candidates:

SportsNation

Who are the Big Ten's best running mates?

  •  
    24%
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    17%
  •  
    46%
  •  
    6%
  •  
    7%

Discuss (Total votes: 10,062)

Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde: The Buckeyes' backfield duo has brought the thunder (Hyde) and lightning (Miller) to the field this season. Miller has been a legitimate Heisman candidate all year long, and Hyde's emergence as a big-time power back (737 yards and 13 touchdowns in just eight games) has taken Ohio State's offense to new levels. This ticket is guaranteed to carry the all-important swing state of Ohio.

Penn State's Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges: This ticket is strong on defense, as the two Nittany Lions' senior linebackers bring the pain. Mauti is a leading candidate for Big Ten defensive player of the year, while Hodges has come on strong in conference play. Together, they've combined for 159 tackles and untold bruises. Their platform: pain.

Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah: The Martinez-Rex Burkhead ticket looked like a winner in the preseason, but Burkhead has been hobbled all year with a knee injury. Abdullah has lessened that loss by running for 826 yards and eight touchdowns, while Martinez has evolved into one of the best -- and most clutch -- quarterbacks in the league. The Nebraska voting bloc figures to turn out in force for these candidates.

Wisconsin's Chris Borland and Mike Taylor: From Paul Ryan's home state come these running mates, who have a proven track record after being two of the best linebackers in the Big Ten last year as well. Their approval rating rivals that of Mauti-Hodges for all they do for the Badgers defense. They've combined for 166 tackles and appear on their way to each eclipsing 100 tackles for a second straight year.

Northwestern's Kain Colter and Venric Mark: Chicago politics can be complicated, but it's pretty clear that this Evanston duo deserves strong consideration. Both Colter, a do-it-all player who can line up at quarterback, receiver or running back, and the diminutive but speedy Mark -- Northwestern's first 1,000-yard back since 2006 and a dangerous return man -- can fly like Air Force One. They've combined for more than 2,400 all-purpose yards this season.

Let your voice be heard by voting for one of these tickets now. After all, it's your constitutional right.

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 9

October, 25, 2012
10/25/12
3:00
PM ET
Last week, we presented our choices for the Big Ten midseason awards. It's time to check back in on the races as the second half is in full swing:

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: The Buckeyes' season looked to be in danger when Miller was taken away in an ambulance in the fourth quarter last week against Purdue. But Miller appears to be OK for this week's showdown between the top two candidates for the offensive MVP award.

2. Matt McGloin, QB, Penn State: The Nittany Lions have had only one 3,000-yard passer in their history -- Darryl Clark, who threw for 3,003 in 2009. McGloin is currently on pace for 3,065 yards.

3. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska: The Huskers' junior had another huge game last week, leading his team to a comeback victory at Northwestern. Would you have believed before the season that Martinez would lead the Big Ten in pass efficiency and touchdown throws (15) after eight weeks?

4. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin: Ball got off to a slow start this season, but in conference play he leads all players with 155 rushing yards per game and 10 rushing touchdowns. And isn't how you play in league action the most important thing?

5. Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern: Would the Wildcats have held on last week against Nebraska if Mark had not left the game with an injury? We'll never know. But we do know he's been one of the league's most valuable players and that he's still on pace for a 1,000-yard season.

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State: Mauti has simply been a force of nature for the Nittany Lions, leading them on and off the field. He's among the league leaders in tackles, fumbles forced and interceptions.

2. Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan: Ryan rockets up the list after an outstanding last few weeks. He is giving the Wolverines a much-needed pass-rushing presence and is leading a defense that keeps getting better every week.

3. Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State: The Spartans are just 4-4, but you can't blame the Big Ten's top defense, which didn't allow a touchdown in last week's loss to Michigan. Bullough is the leader of that defense and is having a great year.

4. Mike Taylor, LB, Wisconsin: Taylor led the league in tackles last year and is up to his old tricks, currently ranking second in the league with 84 stops and topping the Big Ten with 10 tackles for loss on an underrated defense.

5. Tyler Scott, DE, Northwestern: The Wildcats' defensive front is much-improved, and a large portion of the credit goes to Scott, who leads the Big Ten in sacks (six) and forced fumbles (three).

Kwalick–Clark Tight End of the Year

1. Dion Sims, Michigan State: Sims was one of the Spartans' top (only?) weapons before he injured his ankle. For the season, he has 24 catches for 313 yards and two touchdowns, and his team needs him to get healthy.

2. Kyle Carter, Penn State: The redshirt freshman is coming on, and the Nittany Lions are not surprisingly featuring the tight end under Bill O'Brien. Carter has 29 catches for 364 yards and a score and had a big game at Iowa last week.

3. Devin Funchess, Michigan: Another freshman, Funchess has only 11 receptions, but they have gone for 186 yards and three touchdowns as he has become a big-play weapon.

4. Jacob Pedersen, Wisconsin: Pedersen struggled early in the season but has come on of late. He's got 15 catches for 199 yards and two scores and is being targeted more often in the passing game.
Chris Borland and his fellow Wisconsin defenders have been overshadowed so far this season, as most of the attention has been on the Badgers' transitioning offense.

Wisconsin's offensive production has dipped and spiked, while the defense once again has been steady. The Badgers rank in the top 30 nationally in total defense, scoring defense and rushing defense, and Borland, a fourth-year junior, not surprisingly is leading the way.

A first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2011 who won the league's Freshman of the Year honor in 2009, the 5-foot-11, 242-pound Borland once again is among the Big Ten's top defensive playmakers. He leads Wisconsin in sacks (4), forced fumbles (2) and fumbles recovered (2) and trails only fellow 'backer Mike Taylor in tackles (60) and tackles for loss (7.5). Although he has yet to record an interception this season -- he had two last year -- he ranks second on the team in pass breakups with five. Wisconsin has rebounded from a shaky start to record back-to-back Big Ten wins.

ESPN.com caught up with Borland before Wisconsin's home showdown with Minnesota.

What's the team's mood like now versus a month ago, when things weren't going so well?

[+] EnlargeChris Borland
Brace Hemmelgarn/US PresswireAfter getting off to a slow start to the season, Chris Borland and the Badgers are 5-2 and look back on track.
Chris Borland: I think guys are a little more comfortable. We've strung together some wins. Things around the locker room are a little different than when we struggled early on.

Being on the defense, what was it like to see the offense go through the transition it did earlier this year?

CB: We didn't feel sorry for them or anything, and I don't think they felt sorry for themselves. We knew it'd be a transition with all the new coaches and some new players stepping up in new roles. We knew it was a matter of time [before they turned it around]. Too many good players, too many good coaches, and obviously, it's taken on that identity these last two games.

What have been the main points of emphasis for the defense this season, and where are you in terms of reaching them?

CB: We always start with stopping the run, and we've been doing a pretty good job of that this season. We've let up some long run plays that have hurt the stat book, but for the most part, we've stopped the run well. And then creating takeways, that was slow coming early on this season, but over the last few games those have started to pick up, too, so I think we're on track. We have a lot of potential, but we aren't close to being where we could be by the end of the season.

How would you evaluate yourself here through the first half of the season?

CB: I've done a decent job so far, been struggling with a few things injury-wise, but I've played through that pretty well and been able to make some plays. It was just my knee, but I'm getting healthy again, so hopefully I can make some jumps the rest of the season. I feel pretty good. For seven games in, I'm pretty healthy. I was kind of frustrated with how the beginning of the season went, but I'm starting to feel pretty good.

You've played alongside Mike [Taylor] for a long time. What has that been like, playing linebacker together all these years?

CB: The familiarity is off the charts. We're both really comfortable with one another out there, and we both see things pretty well. We've been under the same tutelage for the last three years, so we communicate well and work well off one another. It's great to play next to him. He's a really instinctual and intelligent player, and it helps me a lot.

Are you two competitive?

CB: Yeah, we are. I think Mike had me by seven tackles last year, and he's got a lead on me this season [Taylor has 72 stops]. We know exactly where we stand with one another, so it's a friendly competitiveness.

Do you put any extra emphasis on the forced fumbles or stats where you've shined in your career?

CB: That's my contention. I always tell him, whenever he starts to brag about tackles, is our defense funnels some tackles to the [weak-side] linebacker, so he should have more than me. I ask him where his TFLs are at or where his sacks are at, just some good ribbing going back and forth.

You've played multiple linebacker positions at Wisconsin. Where are you most comfortable?

CB: I've felt comfortable doing it all. Each one's different, and it took some time to adjust to [middle linebacker], but I feel like I could fill all three of the linebacker spots comfortably. I love coming off the edge, too.

You often get described as a throwback. Do any older fans come up to you and compare you to players 40 or 50 years ago?

CB: I haven't gotten any people saying I remind them of anybody. I do get the old guy who puts his hand on your shoulder and says something nice. You always like to see that from someone who's been around the game for a while.

Any chance we see any more kicking exhibitions [Borland, who comes from a soccer family, made three extra points as a freshman at Hawaii]?

CB: Coach B [Bret Bielema] promised I would if I scored a touchdown, but I haven't been able to get in the end zone during my career. The knee's better, so I'll be champing at the bit if that ever happens.

You're going to hold him to that promise, right?

CB: [Laughs] Well, I'll see where we are in the game. I don't want to take away from our kickers.

You have Minnesota this week. How important is it to keep the axe another year?

CB: It's huge. We have a little history lesson of the game every Tuesday of game week. I think we've had the axe for eight straight years now. Most importantly, it represents a win, so we'll go out there to keep the axe, keep it in our locker room for another year.

As a defense, where are you looking to get better down the stretch as some of the competition gets a little tougher?

CB: We've given up some big plays that are really going to hurt us if we do it against better teams. We've got to limit big plays against explosive players and teams, and we're going to be seeing that really in all five of our games remaining. There's guys who show up on film that are dangerous. So we've got to cut down on big plays. That goes a long way to helping us be a great defense.

It's not your last year, but are you getting a sense of urgency from guys like Mike or Montee [Ball] as their college careers wind down?

CB: To be honest, those guys have always had the same sense of urgency. We care about our senior class as a team, so guys are always working their hardest and putting everything on the line during games. I don't really see a change. We'll just continue what we've been doing the last few years.

It wasn't the start to the season that you wanted, but what would it mean to get back to the Big Ten title game with another shot at the Rose Bowl?

CB: That's our goal. It's not really how you start, it's how you finish. We've had a great opportunity. I think we control our own destiny, so if we just continue to work and get better like we have throughout the season, we'll be where we want to be at the end.
The Big Ten doesn't announce an official preseason all-conference team. But that doesn't mean we can't.

Here are our picks for the 2012 preseason All-Big Ten team:

Offense

QB: Denard Robinson, Michigan
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin
RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska
RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
OT: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OT: Ricky Wagner, Wisconsin
OG: Spencer Long, Nebraska
OG: Chris McDonald, Michigan State
C: Travis Frederick, Wisconsin

Defense

DE: John Simon, Ohio State
DE: William Gholston, Michigan State
DT: Kawann Short, Purdue
DT: Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State
LB: Gerald Hodges, Penn State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Jonathan Brown, Illinois
CB: Johnny Adams, Michigan State
CB: Ricardo Allen, Purdue
S: Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State
S: Jordan Kovacs, Michigan

Specialists

K/P: Brett Maher, Nebraska
KR: Raheem Mostert, Purdue
PR: Abbrederis

Thoughts: The first thing that likely jumps out at you is that we have three running backs and just one receiver on our first-team offense. No, we haven't forgotten the rules of football. It's just that we continue to feel the wide receiver crop is weak this season, and no great candidates for the second spot leap out at us. Perhaps Keenan Davis of Iowa or one of Northwestern's many receivers will have a great season, but no one has proved anything on a consistent basis. We'd rather have Bell -- who we believe is primed for a huge year -- on the team than any of the receiver candidates. Plus, isn't running the ball what Big Ten football is all about? ... Some of the toughest omissions came at linebacker, where Michigan State's duo of Denicos Allen and Max Bullough and Wisconsin's Mike Taylor were among those left out. At least we know we'd have an outstanding second-team unit at that position. ... Fiedorowicz is a bit of a projection pick, but we love the way he finished last season and how he fits into Greg Davis' new scheme. You certainly could make a strong case for Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen or Ohio State's Jake Stoneburner there as well. ... Some of these players won't live up to expectations, and others will explode on the scene this fall. But for now, we'd feel pretty good about throwing this team on the field.
The safest bet in the Big Ten for 2012 has become Wisconsin winning the Leaders Division.

If all things were equal, the defending Big Ten champion Badgers would be among the favorites in the division race, anyway. But all things are definitely not equal.

Monday's announcement of harsh NCAA penalties against Penn State -- including a ban from postseason play and the Big Ten championship game for the next four years -- eliminated another strong contender from the pack. Ohio State is already out of the running because of its one-year postseason ban.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesBret Bielema and the Badgers will try to win a third straight Big Ten title in 2012.
So now there are only four teams in the Leaders Division that can get to Indianapolis on Dec. 1 for the right to go to the Rose Bowl (or possibly the BCS title game). And with all due respect to Indiana, the Hoosiers are not a viable contender after failing to win a single game against FBS competition last year. So, barring an utter miracle out of Bloomington, we are realistically looking at three possible teams that can win the Leaders: Wisconsin, Illinois and Purdue.

It's clear why Wisconsin has to be the overwhelming favorite in that group, coming off back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances and Big Ten titles. The Badgers have some question marks on their defense, at receiver and on special teams and will need Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien to play well at quarterback. Otherwise, this is a strong team with star power in guys like running back Montee Ball, linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis.

The schedule was and is going to present some challenges. In particular, the season finale at Penn State looked tricky on paper. Now, who knows what type of team the Nittany Lions will field if players decide to transfer for free, or what kind of attitude Penn State will take into the season's final game without the possibility of a bowl? Even if Wisconsin loses in State College, it will have some wiggle room.

I could not have envisioned saying this several months ago, but the two biggest games in the Leaders Division in 2012 are now these:

Oct. 6: Illinois at Wisconsin
Oct. 13: Wisconsin at Purdue

Those back-to-back weeks might just determine the outcome of the Leaders race. If the Badgers win both, they're going to be awfully tough to catch.

This is also a huge opportunity for the Boilermakers and Illini, maybe the best chance they'll have to make the Big Ten title game in years. Purdue returns loads of experience and has its deepest team under Danny Hope. We've been telling you all offseason that the Boilers are a potential sleeper team; well, they've basically got a 1-in-3 chance to win a division championship. They'll get Wisconsin in West Lafayette and miss Michigan State and Nebraska -- arguably two of the top four teams in the Big Ten, at least -- in crossover games. Purdue is going to have to play cleaner and with more discipline than they have in the Hope era to get to Indy, but they have a chance.

Then there's Illinois, which could make a splash in new coach Tim Beckman's first season. The Illini have to go to Camp Randall Stadium, but they get Purdue at home. Like the Boilers, they don't have to play the Spartans or Huskers. Beckman inherited a strong defense; the question is whether he can improve the offense enough to make this team a true contender.

The bottom line is that it may not take perfection or anything close to it to get to the Big Ten championship game. A 5-3 conference record may be good enough for a trip to Indy. A team could theoretically finish third in the standings behind Ohio State and Penn State and still be just one win away from Pasadena.

This situation is bad for competitive balance, as Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska must be wondering if they can get a one-year transfer to the weaker division. But it's great for the teams not on the NCAA hit list. And Wisconsin fans have more reasons than anybody to start shopping for hotel rooms near Lucas Oil Stadium.
After looking at the Legends Division's impact game (Michigan State at Michigan) earlier today, it's time to shift the focus to the Leaders Division.

Half of the matchup is fairly obvious. After winning back-to-back Big Ten titles and reaching back-to-back Rose Bowls, Wisconsin has to be there. The Badgers are the clear-cut favorite to win the Leaders, in part because Ohio State is banned from the postseason this year and both Penn State and Illinois are welcoming new coaches.

So which Wisconsin game will have the biggest impact?

My pick: Wisconsin at Penn State, Nov. 24

While it's tempting to pick Ohio State-Wisconsin, which could pair the division's two strongest teams, an impact game should have two participants competing for a championship, not one. So that game is eliminated. Penn State and Purdue appear to have the best chance to challenge Wisconsin for the division title, and the Badgers visit both State College and West Lafayette this season. It's a close call between the two road trips, but Penn State gets the nod for several reasons.

The Lions are going through a historic transition to new coach Bill O'Brien, but their schedule sets up well for a team that undoubtedly will be stronger in November than in September. The non-league portion isn't overly taxing, and Penn State likely won't face a ranked team until Ohio State visits Beaver Stadium in Week 9. If the defense and running game can carry the team -- as it did during the first two-thirds of the 2011 season -- Penn State could be in very good shape by the time the Buckeyes come to town. The schedule gets tougher after Ohio State with trips to Purdue and Nebraska, but don't be surprised if Penn State finds itself in the race.

It'd be surprising if any Leaders Division team runs the table, and the division champ could have two league losses, as Wisconsin did a year ago. Whether or not Penn State is the team pushing the Badgers at the end, Wisconsin could need a victory in State College to punch its return ticket to Indy. The matchup features two star running backs in Wisconsin's Montee Ball and Penn State's Silas Redd and two standout linebacker pairings (Penn State's Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti; Wisconsin's Mike Taylor and Chris Borland). The game could have an interesting subplot if quarterback transfer Danny O'Brien starts for Wisconsin, as he picked the Badgers over Penn State.

There should be several big Leaders Division games along the way, but the best could be the last.
Earlier this summer, I took a look at the Big Ten's top candidates to throw for 3,000 yards, to run for 1,000 yards and to compile 1,000 receiving yards this season. Well, offensive guys don't get to have all the fun.

Let's move to the defensive side of the ball now and see which guys might produce the top tackling numbers in the league in 2012. We'll start off by examining the leading returning 100-tackle men from last season and their outlook for the coming fall:

1. Mike Taylor, LB, Wisconsin: Taylor had a true breakthrough year in 2012, leading the league with 150 tackles in 14 games. His 10.7 tackles per game ranked 13th nationally. Taylor sat out this spring while dealing with a hip injury, but is expected to be fully healthy in time for training camp. And there's no reason to think he won't be among the league leaders in stops again this year, along with ...

[+] EnlargeMike Taylor
Andrew Weber/US PresswireWisconsin's Mike Taylor's 10.7 tackles per game ranked 13th nationally.
2. Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin: You'd be hard pressed to find two more productive returning linebackers than the Badgers' duo. Borland finished just behind Taylor with 143 tackles in '11, successfully making the transition to middle linebacker after missing a year due to injury. There's little question that Taylor and Borland are two defenders Wisconsin will heavily rely on to get stops. And speaking of dynamic duos, let's go ahead and lump the next two together ...

3-4. James Morris and Christian Kirksey, LB, Iowa: The Hawkeyes' pair didn't get as much attention as Borland and Taylor but were awfully good in their own right, as each one recorded 110 tackles (Morris did it in 12 games, Kirksey in 13) in 2011. Both will be counted on this fall as Iowa breaks in a very young defensive line in front of them. Considering both are juniors who have had two years of playing experience, the future appears bright for these two.

5. Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois: Brown was another guy who had a breakout sophomore year, making 108 tackles and a lot of plays in opposing backfields. He's got great speed and should only improve as he matures and continues to develop. He's a darkhorse candidate for Big Ten defensive player of the year honors.

6. Gerald Hodges, LB, Penn State: Hodges was a first-team All-Big Ten performer last year and enters this season as one of the top linebackers in the country after posting 106 tackles in 2011. He's a big-time playmaker who had a 19-tackle game last year against Illinois. The sky's the limit for Hodges, even in a new defensive scheme under first-year coordinator Ted Roof.

7. Ibraheim Campbell, S, Northwestern: Campbell was a pleasant surprise for the Wildcats, finishing with a team-best 100 tackles as a redshirt freshman. He's a hard-hitter who could help Northwestern's defense improve off a disappointing showing last year. Of course, any time your safety is getting 100 tackles, it usually indicates that the guys up front are giving up too much room. So it's probably a good thing if Campbell's tackle numbers go down in '12.

Those are the guys who hit triple digits last year and are coming back. Now here's a quick look at some other players who could reach the century mark this year.

Kenny Demens, LB, Michigan: Demens led the Wolverines with 94 stops last season, and Michigan's defensive line might not be quite as strong as last year's group, meaning he could meet more ball carriers himself.

Dwayne Beckford, LB, Purdue: Fully reinstated to the team last month, Beckford is the most experienced linebacker of the group. He had 91 tackles in '11 and won't have Joe Holland (94 stops as a senior in 2011) to pick up the slack next to him.

Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State: Bullough is the captain of a strong Spartans defense as the middle linebacker and had 84 tackles a year ago. But the players around him are all so good that the tackle numbers could be spread out.

Will Compton, LB, Nebraska: Now that tackling machine Lavonte David is off to the NFL, someone will have to carry the load. That could well be Compton, who had a nice year in 2011 with 82 tackles.

Mike Rallis, LB, Minnesota: Safety Kim Royston paced the Gophers with 123 tackles in 2011. But like Northwestern, Minnesota would rather not see a defensive back lead the way in stops again. Rallis (83 tackles last year) or fellow linebacker Keanon Cooper (77) might see an uptick in stats with a better Gophers' defensive effort.

Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State: The Buckeyes did not have a player record more than 75 tackles last year. That might change this season, and veteran linebacker Etienne Sabino could put up some big numbers. But I like Shazier -- who had 58 tackles in only 10 games as a freshman, including 15 against Penn State -- to emerge as the next Buckeyes linebacker star.

David Cooper, Indiana: The Hoosiers are high on this junior-college transfer and hope he can have an immediate, Lavonte David like impact. They need someone to make a big mark on a defense that really struggled a year ago.

Michael Mauti, Penn State: The Nittany Lions have Hodges and also Mauti, who can be a major factor if he's recovered from yet another devastating injury. He had 67 tackles two years ago in an injury-shortened season and was playing extremely well before he hurt his knee last September. If he's sound, Penn State could have a top tackling duo a la Wisconsin and Iowa.
We asked you Monday to weigh in on the Big Ten offensive player of the year race: specifically, which player had the best chance to challenge the 2011 winner, Wisconsin RB Montee Ball. As of noon ET today, it's a close race between Michigan QB Denard Robinson and Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead, with more than 6,300 votes cast.

It'll be interesting to see how the OPOY race unfolds, but I'm more interested in the candidate pool on the defensive side of the ball. The Big Ten always will be a defense-driven conference -- the league boasted six top-20 defenses in 2011 -- and the 2012 season presents an interesting group of standouts. There's not only a large pool of what I would describe as top contenders, but a nice group of secondary candidates as well. And as we've seen lately, a surprise player could emerge to win the award. Few pegged Penn State DT Devon Still to be the recipient entering the 2011 season.

Let's take a look at the top contenders:

William Gholston, DE, Michigan State, Jr., 6-7, 275


2011 statistics: 70 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 2 pass breakups
2011 awards: Second-team All-Big Ten (media and coaches)
Making a case: The freakishly athletic Gholston might be the Big Ten's most gifted player, and he appears ready for a huge junior season. Remember how Penn State's Still dominated the bowl game before his breakout 2011 season, which resulted in Big Ten defensive player of the year honors? Gholston delivered a similar performance in Michigan State's Outback Bowl win against Georgia, tying a team bowl record with five tackles for loss and recording two sacks and a fumble recovery. Don't be surprised if Gholston mirrors Still's route this coming fall. He boasts a unique combination of size and speed, and while he'll surely command more attention this year, he plays on a defense featuring several players who opponents must respect.

John Simon, DE, Ohio State, Sr., 6-2, 260

2011 statistics: 53 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, 1 forced fumbles, 3 pass breakups
2011 awards: First-team All-Big Ten (coaches), second-team All-Big Ten (media), third-team AP All-America
Making a case: The term most often associated with Ryan Kerrigan, the 2010 Big Ten defensive player of the year, is motor. Kerrigan never took plays off and consistently outworked his opponents. The same holds true for Simon, who had new Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer calling him "Tebowish" after just a handful of spring practices. Simon's motor never stops, and he makes up for a lack of ideal size with his work ethic and knowledge of the game. Like Gholston, Simon should benefit from the players around him. Pegged as a future superstar by older teammates when he played as a true freshman, Simon is primed to live up to those expectations this fall.

Gerald Hodges, LB, Penn State, Sr., 6-2, 233

2011 statistics: 106 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 interception, 4 pass breakups
2011 awards: First-team All-Big Ten (coaches and media)
Making a case: Hodges showed last season that when healthy, he's one of the most dynamic players in the Big Ten. This spring, he looked like the best player on the field during Penn State's practices. He's moving to the strong side, a position where some of Penn State's best linebackers have played during their senior seasons. With Michael Mauti returning from injury, Glenn Carson back and several others in the fold, Penn State could have the league's top linebacking corps in 2012. Expect Hodges to take his game to the next gear, and he could have a season much like Navorro Bowman in 2009.

Kawann Short, DT, Purdue, Sr., 6-3, 310

2011 statistics: 54 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, 2 blocked kicks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
2011 awards: First-team All-Big Ten (media), second-team All-Big Ten (coaches)
Making a case: The Big Ten recently has been a league of dominant defensive tackles, and two of them from Penn State, Jared Odrick and Still, have won defensive player of the year honors in the past three seasons. Purdue's Short looks like the next in line after a superb junior season that seemed to fly under the radar both regionally and nationally. He's consistently disruptive and also makes consistent plays in the backfield. Short has racked up 12.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss in the past two seasons, so he has been good for a long time. After turning down a chance to turn pro -- he received a third-round grade from the NFL draft advisory board -- Short could have a huge senior season.

Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin, Jr., 5-11, 250


2011 statistics: 143 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions, 5 pass breakups
2011 awards: First-team All-Big Ten (coaches and media)
Making a case: Like Short, Borland has been a consistent playmaker for multiple years with Wisconsin. The 2009 Big Ten freshman of the year returned from shoulder problems to turn in an incredibly productive 2011 season. Borland moved to middle linebacker last fall but still found ways to get in the backfield. His tackles for loss total marked the most for a middle linebacker in the FBS. Borland always has been strong against the pass and should help Wisconsin in that phase this fall. Along with Mike Taylor, Borland will lead the Wisconsin defense and look to add more numbers to a tremendously productive career.

Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois, Jr., 6-1, 235

2011 statistics: 108 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception, 2 fumbles recovered, 4 pass breakups
2011 awards: Second-team All-Big Ten (media)
Making a case: I put Brown in the same category with Gholston: an elite talent who could become a national superstar this coming season. Like Borland did in 2011, Brown will have to prove he can impact games at middle linebacker the way he did on the outside last season. Like Borland, Brown is an excellent blitzer who can get in a quarterback's face and wreak havoc in the backfield. He'll anchor the linebacking corps for an Illinois defense that should once again be strong in the front seven.

Others to watch
Dark horse candidates

While I can't include everyone at this early stage, there's a large and interesting group in the mix for this award. Should be a great race to watch.

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