NCF Nation: Mitch Leidner

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 13

November, 23, 2014
11/23/14
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Recognizing the best and brightest from the penultimate week of the Big Ten regular season:
  • Ohio State WR/PR Jalin Marshall: A week after he was nearly the goat at Minnesota, Marshall saved the Buckeyes' bacon in a sluggish 42-27 win over Indiana. Marshall gave Ohio State the lead late in the third quarter with a 54-yard punt return, then added three more touchdowns in the fourth quarter, all on catches from J.T. Barrett. Marshall became the first Power 5 player with at least three receiving touchdowns and a punt return score in the same game since Justin Blackmon in 2010, and he was the first to do all that in the same half in the past 10 seasons.
  • Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: The Hoosiers lost the game, but we just have to single out Coleman for yet another brilliant performance. He ran 27 times for 228 yards and three touchdowns, including a 90-yard score and a 52-yarder, to become Indiana's single-season rushing leader. He deserves to be a Doak Walker Award finalist.
  • Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner: With David Cobb sidelined in the second half with a leg injury, Leidner had to carry the offensive load for the Gophers at Nebraska. And he did just that, rushing for 111 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries in a crucial 28-24 victory that kept the Gophers alive for the West Division title. That included the game-winning 2-yard score with 3:25 left. Leidner also also completed 8-of-17 passes for 135 yards, none bigger than a 38-yard strike to KJ Maye in the fourth quarter.
  • Michigan State WR Tony Lippett and RB Jeremy Langford: These two guys went out in style on Senior Day. Lippett, who played cornerback earlier in his career, played there and at wideout during a 45-3 blasting of Rutgers. Lippett had a pair of pass breakups on defense and caught five passes for 72 yards and a touchdown. Langford, meanwhile, carried the ball 16 times for 126 yards and two scores. He now has rushed for at least 100 yards in his last 15 games against Big Ten opponents, with one more to go.
  • Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon: Iowa did a great job most of the day bottling up the Badgers star. But Gordon is so good that he still finished with 200 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries in the 26-24 road win. With the game in the balance, Gordon showed off his receiving with two big catches (including a 35-yarder on 3rd-and-13, with Kinnick Stadium coming unhinged) and finished it off with the game-winning, 23-yard touchdown run. Even on a day when he somehow lost his FBS single-game rushing record after just a week, Gordon was truly Heisman-worthy.

Welcome to the new normal at Nebraska

November, 22, 2014
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska lost 28-24 to Minnesota on Saturday, blowing a two-touchdown lead in the Golden Gophers’ first win at Memorial Stadium in eight tries since 1960 and their first win on the road over a ranked team in 21 attempts, dating to 2000.

For Minnesota, it marked a major hurdle cleared and set it up to play in a Big Ten West title game next week in Madison, Wisconsin. Heady stuff for Jerry Kill’s team.

And for Nebraska? It changed nothing.

A victory on Senior Day would have felt nice and looked good. It would have made for a more enjoyable Nebraska Thanksgiving before the regular season ends Friday at Iowa.

Nothing changed here, though. This is the new normal at Nebraska, and even the coach won't argue.

“We don’t play very smart,” Bo Pelini said after the game in matter-of-fact fashion.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsWith Saturday's loss, winning critical games in November continued to be an issue for Bo Pelini.
He criticized the Huskers’ defensive execution and lamented fumbles after the catch by freshman De’Mornay Pierson-El in the closing seconds of the second and fourth quarters, both within grasp of the end zone.

“We had some good things happen,” Nebraska quarterback Tommy Amstrong Jr. said. “We had some bad things happen. Bad things happened at the wrong time.”

This is what you get now with Pelini’s program. There’s no way around it.

As Nebraska stands one defeat from a seventh straight four-loss season -- it merits mention alongside the streak of six consecutive nine-win seasons -- fans and school administration must ask these questions:

Are the Huskers in a good spot? And are they moving in the right direction?

Nebraska has lost three of its past four November home games. Pelini is 10-6 in the money-making month since the Huskers joined the Big Ten in 2011, including a 4-0 finish in 2012 before they fell off a cliff on Dec. 1. Remember that 70-31 Big Ten title game whooping by Wisconsin?

I don’t pretend to know what athletic director Shawn Eichorst thinks about this cycle of painful late-season weekends. Many people failed last year to forecast his moves.

When Eichorst, in August, last discussed football in public, he said Pelini’s program was “stable.”

The possibility exists that nothing has changed in Eichorst’s evaluation.

The Huskers lost by five touchdowns a week ago at Wisconsin, their 10th loss by 20 points or more since 2008. Minnesota didn’t break any all-time records in Lincoln, but the Gophers rushed for 281 yards and four touchdowns.

And even if Minnesota hadn’t exposed the Huskers on defense again or if Pierson-El hadn’t lost those fumbles, it wouldn’t have provided any answers about Nebraska’s direction.

Last week was about answering those questions. Not Saturday.

Pelini said he saw signs in practice for weeks of the defensive meltdowns that occurred the past two weeks. Before November, the breakdowns in execution had not hurt the Huskers badly.

“Last two weeks, they hurt us,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Nebraska drilled repeatedly in practice on Minnesota’s zone-heavy rushing attack. The Gophers did not hurt Nebraska with new tricks.

“They were things that we covered, went over, executed, and then [when] we got into the game, it was like we never saw them before,” Pelini said. “It’s a bad recipe.”

According to safety Nate Gerry, the Huskers did not realize Minnesota would rely so much on QB Mitch Leidner in the run game. He carried 22 times for 111 yards.

All of it speaks to a disconnect. Either the Huskers aren’t coaching it right or they’ve got the wrong players in place. Regardless, Pelini is tasked to find the fix.

Will he? Can he?

Nebraska lost starting center Mark Pelini and star receiver Kenny Bell to injury on the first offensive series. For Minnesota, standout tailback David Cobb went down in the second half.

The Gophers simply responded better, getting tough play from backups Rodrick Williams and Donnell Kirkwood.

Williams burned Nebraska with a 19-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, bouncing to the outside on fourth-and-1 as the Huskers sold out to the inside. It was a gutsy call by Kill.

Minutes later as Nebraska led by three points, Pelini told offensive coordinator Tim Beck to look for a big play on second-and-1. A wasted down, Pelini said. Theiren Cockran sacked Armstrong to kill the drive.

“You know what, you live and learn,” Pelini said. “That call isn’t why we lost the game. Trust me on that.”

Trust in Pelini is waning, a reality unchanged by the result on Saturday.

No, this game didn’t change anything for Nebraska, which is perhaps more disturbing than the alternative.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Minnesota stopped a streak of 20 consecutive road losses to ranked foes that dated to 2000, coming from two touchdowns behind to upset Nebraska 28-24 on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

The victory keeps the Gophers in control of their destiny in the Big Ten West and secures a second straight eight-win season for just the second time in 50 years.

Nebraska lost center Mark Pelini and receiver Kenny Bell to injuries on the opening drive. Minnesota tailback David Cobb left with an injury in the fourth quarter, but coach Jerry Kill’s club made plays to win at the end.

How the game was won: Minnesota cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun stripped Nebraska freshman De'Mornay Pierson-El of the ball at the Minnesota 2-yard line after the freshman receiver grabbed a 28-yard third-down pass from Tommy Armstrong Jr. with 1:19 to play. The Gophers ran out the clock to earn their first victory in Lincoln since 1960.

Game ball goes to: Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner, who carried a heavy load before and after Cobb left with an apparent leg injury. The sophomore completed 8 of 17 passes for 135 yards and rushed 22 times for 110 yards and two touchdowns, including the game winner from 3 yards out with 3:25 left. Leidner led the decisive 80-yard, 10-play march, highlighted by his 38-yard strike to KJ Maye on third down to the Nebraska 25.

What it means: Another long week ahead for the Cornhuskers, who are mired in a second straight troublesome November. A year ago, Iowa piled on at the end. The mood this time around might grown even more ugly in Nebraska as speculation figures to grow about Bo Pelini’s job security. For the Gophers, it's another landmark moment in Kill's fourth season.

Best play: Nebraska safety Nathan Gerry used a convoy of blockers to go 85 yards after Randy Gregory blocked a Ryan Santoso 30-yard field goal attempt with five minutes to play in the first half. The touchdown put the Huskers ahead 21-7.

video What’s next: It only gets more difficult for the Gophers (8-3, 4-2), who close the regular season next week at Wisconsin. With a win, Minnesota would earn a rematch with Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. Nebraska (8-3, 4-3) visits Iowa on Friday.

What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 9

October, 26, 2014
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Observations from an illuminating Saturday in the Big Ten:

Shake up the West: The leader going into the weekend might have been exposed as a pretender. A preseason favorite written off after an early loss turned in perhaps the most impressive overall performance in the league all year. Sandwiched between Minnesota’s stumble at Illinois and Wisconsin’s rebirth against Maryland, Nebraska simply handled its business without incident as the West Division came into somewhat clearer focus, as we head into what could be a crazy November in that half of the conference. As Wisconsin’s ability to right the ship proved, it can be dangerous to discount any program in the West after they lose just once. But the Gophers have a murderous slate ahead of them after their bye next week, and falling to the Illini doesn’t leave much reason to consider them a legitimate contender down the stretch now. On the flip side, with some improvements in the passing game, the Badgers are rounding into form offensively and can be a truly terrifying matchup when a defense can’t just focus on Melvin Gordon. Nebraska might not be thrilled to allow 24 points to Rutgers, but it was never really threatened -- and the stage might be set for a huge clash with the Badgers on Nov. 15.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsJ.T. Barrett and the Buckeyes can learn from their mistakes after squeaking by Penn State on Saturday.
Buckeyes not a finished product just yet: J.T. Barrett is resilient, tough and mature enough as a redshirt freshman to go on the road and win in a hostile environment in overtime. All of those are positives for the Ohio State quarterback, obviously, but maybe it was a bit premature to think he and his young counterparts on offense were all grown up after they rolled over Rutgers and Maryland. Penn State’s tenacious defense gave Urban Meyer’s attack all it could handle, and though Barrett appeared slowed at times by a knee injury, he struggled for the first time since the loss to Virginia Tech with his decision-making and his accuracy, as a 17-point lead vanished and put Ohio State’s chances of climbing back into the College Football Playoff on the ropes. The end result is all that ultimately matters heading into November, and in some ways Ohio State might feel it has two weeks to get ready for Michigan State, given the weakness of the Illinois defense. But the Buckeyes are going to face another tough test on the road against the Spartans, and they’ll need to be sharper with the football.

Michigan State keeps rolling: A sluggish start had to be overcome, and an ejection actually needed to be overturned to ensure the roster stayed in one piece, but the Spartans ultimately stayed right on track for the Nov. 8 showdown with Ohio State. Jeremy Langford relentlessly pounded away at Michigan on the ground, the opportunistic defense chipped in another touchdown and Michigan State appeared to stay relatively healthy heading into a bye week that comes at a good time with the de facto East Division title game looming. The Wolverines aren’t the stoutest competition, at least not for a College Football Playoff contender, but Mark Dantonio and his club kept their focus and emotions in check to keep the train rolling along into the final month of the regular season.

Flying Illini: The writing appeared to be on the wall a few weeks ago, but Tim Beckman applied a fresh coat of paint to his tenure with an upset win at home over Minnesota. The Illini coach might not be completely in the clear, given that was just the second Big Ten victory of his career, but he deserves credit for the gutty defensive effort his team turned in and the way the offense has responded without Wes Lunt available at quarterback. Even the loss to Purdue doesn’t look quite so bad as it once did, thanks to improvement from that team as well. And now, with a .500 record through eight weeks, earning a bowl bid isn’t out of the question for Illinois. One win doesn’t magically fix everything, but it might help Beckman buy more time with the program.

Gophers grounded: Minnesota isn’t suddenly going to become a pushover down the stretch, not with its stout defense and a powerful rushing attack led by David Cobb at its disposal. With every team in the West Division having lost a game, it can’t be ruled out quite yet as a contender, either. But if it’s going to navigate a closing stretch that includes home games with Iowa and Ohio State followed by consecutive road trips to Nebraska and Wisconsin, Jerry Kill’s team is going to need to find some consistency through the air. Mitch Leidner has proven his toughness while battling injuries this season, and on occasion Saturday, the quarterback looked more than capable of making difficult throws against the Illini. But he didn’t do it often enough, and completing 12 of 30 passes isn’t going to be good enough for the Gophers late in the year. Finding some answers will no doubt be an emphasis during the upcoming bye week.

What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
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Five observations from Saturday in the Big Ten:

1. Ohio State and Michigan State are widening the gap over the rest of the league. The Spartans and Buckeyes continued their march toward Nov. 8 in East Lansing with resounding wins by identical scores of 56-17 over Indiana and Rutgers, respectively. The Buckeyes topped 50 points in four consecutive games for the first time in school history and dealt the Scarlet Knights their worst loss in 12 years with an introduction to the big-time side of Big Ten football. MSU was slow at the start, as Indiana’s Shane Wynn and Tevin Coleman scored on long runs, but Michigan State blanked the Hoosiers in the second half. Just as importantly, both Big Ten powers climbed closer to consideration for the College Football Playoff as two top-10 unbeatens went down.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsJ.T. Barrett is playing at a high level as Ohio State's offense continues to roll.
2. J.T. Barrett is a Heisman Trophy darkhorse. No, we’re not kidding. The same redshirt freshman who struggled mightily in the Buckeyes’ loss to Virginia Tech the past month has played better than any quarterback in the country as of late. He ran for 107 yards and two scores and threw for 261 and three touchdowns against Rutgers. Under his guidance, Ohio State has averaged 614 yards over its past four games, albeit against suspect defensive competition, though Rutgers appeared set to pose a challenge. Barrett won’t be considered a serious candidate unless he can play like this, without a blip, for the rest of the season.

3. Minnesota might never win pretty, but it almost always wins. The Golden Gophers beat Purdue 39-38 behind two interceptions of Austin Appleby by safety Cedric Thompson, including the game-clincher with 2:28 to play. Minnesota is 3-0 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1990. It was a typical Gopher effort, with 194 rushing yards from David Cobb and just nine completions from quarterback Mitch Leidner, who threw two touchdowns. Give credit to fast-improving Purdue, for sure, but this game deviated from Minnesota form only in that the Gophers trailed at halftime -- they earned the first win in 23 such occasions under Jerry Kill -- and needed a 52-yard field goal by Ryan Santoso for the decisive points with 4:59 left.

4. In spite of Minnesota’s start, Nebraska still looks like the best in the West. The Huskers beat Northwestern 38-17 at Ryan Field and outscored the Wildcats 24-0 in the second half to move to 6-1. Barring an upset win in Lincoln by Rutgers or Purdue over the next two weeks, Nebraska will be 8-1 on Nov. 15 when Bo Pelini’s team travels to Wisconsin for a final stretch that includes Minnesota and Iowa. In bouncing back from a loss to Michigan State, Nebraska displayed new depth at the line of scrimmage against Northwestern and found new ways to feature spark-plug freshman De'Mornay Pierson-El, who threw a touchdown pass to QB Tommy Armstrong Jr.

5. It might be November (if even then) before we understand Maryland and Iowa. The Terrapins overcame a slow start to beat the Hawkeyes 38-31. Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown returned from a back injury, suffered in the second half, and receiver Stefon Diggs and cornerback Will Likely contributed their usual big plays. But is Maryland really a threat to get to nine wins and a New Year’s Day bowl? Maybe, in the watered-down Big Ten. What about Iowa, still a player in the West Division with its favorable schedule but unable to break through in a winnable game Saturday? Just as the Hawkeyes’ offense appears to have gained speed, the defense took a step back in College Park.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 7

October, 12, 2014
10/12/14
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Reassessing the B1G after six weeks

October, 7, 2014
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If you spent Sunday looking at your spouse, your kids or your dog with raised eyebrows, you're not alone. Blame college football. After weeks like this past one, everyone is reassessing everything.

That's what happens when five of the top eight teams lose on the same week for the first time in the history of the AP poll.

Rather than bolting to the divorce lawyer, the adoption agency or the pound, realize this is probably just a football issue. In that spirit, let's reassess the Big Ten teams six weeks into the season.

Illinois (3-3): Unfortunately for embattled coach Tim Beckman, the Illini are what we thought they were. It's bad but somewhat understandable to allow 458 rush yards to Nebraska on the road. It's inexcusable to allow 349 to Purdue at home. The offense is fun, but top quarterback Wes Lunt is out 4-6 weeks with a fractured leg. Beckman Watch has begun.

Indiana (3-2): We've seen what Indiana can be (road upset of Missouri) and what Indiana still is (disappointing losses to Bowling Green and Maryland). Kevin Wilson's team is halfway to bowl eligibility but must pull off an upset or two to get there. Running back Tevin Coleman (841 rush yards, 8 TDs) might be the nation's best-kept secret. It will remain that way unless Indiana starts winning more.

Iowa (4-1): The record is nice, but Iowa has played well for about six quarters this season. The defense is fine, but an inconsistent run game remains baflfling. The two-quarterback system will be fascinating theater. C.J. Beathard makes Iowa's offense more interesting, but does he make it better? The West Division is wide open, and Iowa has an advantageous home slate (Northwestern, Wisconsin, Nebraska).

Maryland (4-2): The most recent performance notwithstanding, Maryland's first half exceeded expectations. The Terrapins delivered big plays, which covered up some general sloppiness (12 giveaways, 53.7 penalty yards per game). We are finally seeing what a relatively healthy Maryland team can do. The Terrapins are 3-0 on the road, so if they can take care of business at home, they'll secure a nice bowl trip.

Michigan (2-4): Most of us, if not all of us, were wrong to varying degrees about this team. Doug Nussmeier hasn't fixed the offense. The defense remains unremarkable. Brady Hoke's days as coach seem numbered. Whether it's the talent evaluation, the talent development or the schematic vision, something went dreadfully wrong. It looks like a lost season.

Michigan State (4-1): The Spartans remain the class of the Big Ten. If they had held a lead at Oregon, they would be in the thick of the playoff discussion. They still can get to the final four but must run the table in Big Ten play for the second straight year. Quarterback Connor Cook is better and so is an offense that leads the Big Ten in scoring (45.6 ppg). The Spartan Dawgs aren't quite as dominant but showed against Nebraska that they can still stifle good offenses.

Minnesota (4-1): This is a similar, potentially better version of recent Minnesota teams. Tracy Claeys' defense once again looks very solid. The offense is extremely run-heavy (67 percent of yards), although quarterback Mitch Leidner provides a small passing threat. Minnesota has a real chance to make some noise in the West Division, although its closing schedule will tell a lot about the state of the program.

Nebraska (5-1): We knew Ameer Abdullah was great. but he's still exceeding expectations. The offense can light up the scoreboard against soft defenses but struggled for most of the Michigan State game. Nebraska has the most overall talent in the West Division, but the road schedule (Northwestern, Wisconsin, Iowa) could prevent a trip to Indy.

Northwestern (3-2): Woeful the first two weeks, wonderful the past two, these Wildcats are hard to identify. Pat Fitzgerald's tough talk seems to be hitting its mark, and the emergence of young defenders like Anthony Walker and Godwin Igwebuike is encouraging. The offense still struggles to score. A win Saturday at Minnesota validates Northwestern as a threat in the West.

Ohio State (4-1): The forecast looks a lot brighter now than after a stunning Week 2 home loss to Virginia Tech. J.T. Barrett development at quarterback is the biggest reason for optimism, and Ohio State is generating first downs and points at a dizzying pace. The defense's development remains the big question mark. The Nov. 8 showdown at Michigan State looms.

Penn State (4-1): The Lions have found ways to win despite obvious flaws exposed in their lone loss. If the offensive line doesn't make strides, it could be a tough second half for James Franklin's team. A solid defense should win PSU some games, and the pass game has potential with young wideouts Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton. The next two games (Michigan, Ohio State) will be telling.

Purdue (3-3): Improvement was expected as Purdue couldn't get much worse than last season. The Boilers finally found a spark on offense last week thanks to speed backs Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert and new quarterback Austin Appleby. Wins could be scarce the rest of the way, but Purdue is on the uptick.

Rutgers (5-1): The biggest surprise in the B1G, at least outside the Garden State. Rutgers is a play or two away from being undefeated. Kyle Flood's staff changes have paid off, quarterback Gary Nova has made obvious strides, and the defense is holding its own, especially up front. Rutgers is more than holding its own in its new league.

Wisconsin (3-2): I'm not as surprised as some, as Wisconsin never looked like a top-15 team, not with its problems at quarterback and receiver. Melvin Gordon has been as good as advertised, but teams still need some semblance of a passing attack to win consistently, especially away from home. Wisconsin isn't out of the West race but likely can't afford another slip-up.
There may be uncertainty at quarterback for Minnesota, but it's only temporary.

The Gophers aren't short on confidence in backup Chris Streveler, who they've already seen win a game as the starter, piling up rushing yards and showing more than a few similarities to starter Mitch Leidner in the process.

But whenever Leidner is healthy, coach Jerry Kill has made it quite clear that his pecking order won't change -- and he'll get no argument from Streveler.

[+] EnlargeChris Streveler
Andy Clayton-King/AP PhotoChris Streveler, who ran for 161 yards against San Jose State, could see more action as the Gophers' starting quarterback.
"Quarterback controversy? There's no positive in something like that for a team in a season like this," Streveler told ESPN.com. "Mitch has done a great job, great guy, great quarterback, great leader, so that's why it's easy to stand behind him.

"All the guys stand behind him, and if he's ready to go, he's going to lead us. But if he can't go, then I'm going to step in there and do the best job I can."

The Gophers have needed Streveler to come off the bench a couple times already this season with Leidner dealing with turf toe and a knee issue, including those same injuries forcing him to the sideline for all of last week's 24-7 win against San Jose State.

That opened the door for Streveler to make his first start, and while the passing attack was almost nonexistent with just one completion in seven attempts, the rushing game didn't miss a beat as the redshirt freshman racked up 161 yards and a touchdown to claim his first victory.

That outing could have been the beginning of a case to compete for the first-team job if he wanted to campaign, but the selfless Streveler has unfailingly deferred to Leidner despite impressing with his chance to run the offense last weekend. And either way, the Gophers figure to need him given the uncertainty swirling around Leidner's health, which could easily keep him out of action again this week for a critical Big Ten opener at Michigan.

"[Last week] doesn't change anything," Kill said. "First of all, we've got to get Mitch healthy, and right now that's not the case. Chris has done a great job, and I'm sure he'll have a strong preparation for this week and we'll go from there.

"They're both very similar quarterbacks, and there's not a lot we change for either one. ...It's a great situation for us to be in."

The scenario would be even more appealing if both quarterbacks were at full strength, but having a reliable, trustworthy backup capable of picking up where the starter left off is invaluable for the Gophers, particularly because of their similar skill sets.

Neither quarterback is going to light up defenses through the air, and Minnesota barely even tried to pass with Streveler under center against San Jose State. But first and foremost, Minnesota's strength is rushing the football, and Streveler shined with his playmaking ability in the zone-read and zone-power schemes while averaging nearly 9 yards per carry.

That doesn't mean he can't use his arm, and the Gophers are quick to point out there won't be many victories in conference play that include just one completed pass. But there is a belief they can keep winning games even if Leidner isn't able to quickly reclaim the starting position that's waiting for him.

And just like the depth chart, Streveler is on the same page there as well.

"It just feels good to get the win, to be honest, but it isn't a one-man effort out there," Streveler said. "Gosh, my teammates helped me out so much, the offensive line played great, [running back David] Cobb had a monster game, so I was just happy to get the 'W.'

"I don't even know if I'm going into this week as the starter. But nothing really changes for me mentally or preparation-wise. If I am starting, running with the 1s this week in practice, the only difference is reps with the No. 1 huddle. But if not, I'll be in with the No. 2 huddle and taking some mental reps. Either way, I'll be ready to go."

And whenever Leidner comes back, the Gophers will have an even more experienced backup on their hands and no threat of him stirring up a controversy.

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 4

September, 20, 2014
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The chances to bolster the leaguewide résumé are running low, and the Big Ten already has squandered almost all of them. Can it turn things around today before conference action picks up in earnest next week? Or is more of the same from the past couple of Saturdays on tap starting at noon?

There's only one way to find out, and here’s the blueprint for following all the action (all times Eastern):

Noon games

[+] EnlargeJames Conner
Gregory J. Fisher/USA TODAY SportsIowa's schedule doesn't get any easier, as it comes off the loss to Iowa State with a tough matchup at Pittsburgh.
Iowa (2-1) at Pittsburgh (3-0), ESPNU: So much for that supposedly easy schedule. The Hawkeyes have strangely been unable to run the football, which made their conservative play calling a problem in last week’s loss to Iowa State. The Panthers are more talented and Iowa must travel to play them, which could present a real test for coach Kirk Ferentz.

Eastern Michigan (1-2) at No. 11 Michigan State (1-1), BTN: The Spartans had some extra time to regroup after the loss at Oregon, and that doesn’t bode well heading into the last two weeks of nonconference action for their opponents. First up is Eastern Michigan, which will have its hands full with Connor Cook and what so far seems to be a much more dangerous offense for the reigning conference champs.

Western Illinois (2-1) at Northwestern (0-2), ESPNews: The bye week was definitely not a time to rest for the Wildcats or Pat Fitzgerald, who certainly wasn’t expecting to be in this early hole as the nightmare year for the program continued with two early losses. If Northwestern didn’t find some answers ahead of the visit from Western Illinois, there’s not much left to look forward to this fall.

Southern Illinois (3-0) at Purdue (1-2), BTN: There were signs of life from the Boilermakers in the loss against Notre Dame, though in the end they didn’t have the talent to hang around for four quarters. Purdue’s non-Big Ten slate wraps up this weekend, and it could surely use a confidence boost before hosting Iowa next weekend.

Bowling Green (2-1) at No. 19 Wisconsin (1-1), ESPN2: The Badgers are still something of a mystery at this point thanks to an off date last week following a relatively uneventful win over FCS-member Western Illinois. The Falcons already have a win over a Big Ten team and can wear defenses out with their up-tempo attack, which might make this a good time for Melvin Gordon and the Wisconsin running game to get rolling.

Maryland (2-1) at Syracuse (2-0), 12:30 p.m., GamePlan: This matchup might be better suited for the hardwood, but the Terrapins and Orange could put on a pretty good show in pads at the Carrier Dome. Maryland has proved capable of putting up points in bunches while Syracuse relies on its defense, leaving an intriguing contrast of styles before Randy Edsall’s team dives into its first Big Ten action.

Midafternoon games

Utah (2-0) at Michigan (2-1), 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2 mirror: Brady Hoke usually takes care of business at the Big House, but this could be a difficult matchup with Utah scoring at least 56 points in each of its first two games. If this turns into a shootout, the Wolverines and quarterback Devin Gardner will have to protect the football much better than they have so far this season to build some momentum for Minnesota’s visit next week.

Rutgers (2-1) at Navy (2-1), 3:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network: Even in a losing effort, the Scarlet Knights impressed in their Big Ten debut last week against Penn State. Rutgers can create problems with its stout defense and nearly won last week despite getting almost no offensive help, though Navy could easily pose problems with its tricky triple-option rushing attack.

Massachusetts (0-3) at Penn State (3-0), 4 p.m., BTN: The wins may not be all that overpowering, but the Nittany Lions are undefeated -- and for now, that’s enough to make them contenders in both the Big Ten and nationally until the outcomes change. Christian Hackenberg should have some chances to add to his résumé again this week as he faces a UMass defense allowing 35 points per game.

San Jose State (1-1) at Minnesota (2-1), 4 p.m., BTN: Uncertainty continues to swirl around the quarterback position for the Gophers, but whether or not Mitch Leidner plays again this week, the rushing game figures to be front and center. The two programs met last season, and Minnesota exploded for 353 rushing yards and won easily while completing just five passes.

Texas State (1-1) at Illinois (2-1), 4 p.m., ESPNews: The Illini and their high-powered offense hit a stumbling block last week at Washington, but they’re back home again Saturday afternoon and looking to unleash Wes Lunt again through the air. If Illinois is serious about making a push for bowl eligibility this season, this is a game the Illini can’t afford to overlook with a trip to Nebraska looming.

Indiana (1-1) at No. 18 Missouri (3-0), 4 p.m., SEC Network: Bowl projections for the Hoosiers almost certainly banked on a victory last week at Bowling Green, but that one slipped away and Kevin Wilson’s program now is a bit behind schedule in the win column. A soft defense continues to plague Indiana, and that could be an issue against a Missouri offense that has scored at least 38 points in each of its three wins so far.

Night game

Miami (2-1) at No. 24 Nebraska (3-0), 8 p.m., ESPN2: The latest polls might not reflect it, but this is still a prestigious matchup packed with historical significance. Having already lost and coming in unranked, the Hurricanes aren’t as close to competing for college football’s top prize as the Huskers. But if Bo Pelini and his team can knock off Miami to stay unbeaten, that might be a victory that resonates as the season progresses.

Bye week

Ohio State

Required reading
The Big Ten went 8-5 in Week 2, and we learned some things in the process. Brace yourself; this won't be pretty.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah's heroics helped Nebraska escape what would have been an embarrassing loss to McNeese State.
1. The Midwest misery index is at an all-time high: Don't completely count out the Big Ten from the College Football Playoff; we're a long, long way until the first Sunday in December, after all. But the road to getting a team in the four-team field became extremely difficult after a disappointing and dispiriting Week 2 showing by the conference. In the three marquee night games, Michigan State lost by 19 points to Oregon, Michigan got embarrassed in a 31-0 shutout at Notre Dame and Ohio State lost by 14 at home to an unranked Virginia Tech squad. Meanwhile, Nebraska needed Ameer Abdullah's heroics in the final minute just to squeak past FCS McNeese State, and Iowa had to pull off a huge comeback to escape at home against Ball State. Two other MAC teams took down Purdue and Northwestern (Central Michigan and Northern Illinois, respectively). This is as bad a weekend as the Big Ten has had since Week 2 in 2012, and the league was supposed to be improved this season. Instead, it took another savage beating in terms of national perception, with almost no opportunities to turn that around the rest of the regular season.

2. (Almost) anyone can win the mild, mild West: We knew the West Division would feature plenty of parity this season. But can anyone identify a favorite in this division now? Iowa could be 0-2 just as easily as it is 2-0 right now. Wisconsin has major passing game issues. Nebraska is dealing with injuries, barely beat an FCS team Saturday and still has the toughest schedule of any division contender. Minnesota actually had the best day of any West team in Week 2, and its defense looks legitimately strong. But the Gophers still have problems throwing the ball and are holding their breath that quarterback Mitch Leidner didn't get hurt late against Middle Tennessee. Illinois at least can score in bunches behind Wes Lunt and might have a puncher's chance. At this point, it seems you can count out Northwestern (0-2) and Purdue. But who knows how things will eventually shake out in a division that appears to lack any great teams.

3. Running games disappearing: We've talked a lot about poor quarterback play being a reason for the Big Ten's recent decline. But we've almost always been able to count on league teams lining up and pounding the ball on the ground, especially against supposedly weaker competition. That hasn't been the case for far too many league teams. Iowa, which figured to have one of the league's best offensive lines and rushing attacks, is averaging just 4.1 yards per carry and had 113 yards on 29 rush attempts versus Ball State. We underestimated the difficulties Ohio State would have with four new starters on its offensive line; the Buckeyes have done very little on the ground outside of quarterback J.T. Barrett's scrambles. Penn State has basically abandoned the run in its first two games, while Michigan's apparent gains in the rushing attack against overmatched Appalachian State in Week 1 proved a mirage in South Bend. Oregon mostly stuffed Michigan State's attempts to run the ball. Heck, even Wisconsin failed to have a running back gain more than 57 yards against FCS Western Illinois, and Melvin Gordon was held to 38 yards on 17 carries. Big Ten teams can't expect to win big games if their main calling card is bankrupt.

4. The best program in Illinois isn't in Champaign or Evanston: Nope, it's located in DeKalb, home of Northern Illinois. The Huskies went into Northwestern and won 23-15 on Saturday. That shouldn't come as a surprise, as NIU has won 48 games since the start of the 2010 season and showed Saturday that life without Jordan Lynch will be OK. As for Northwestern, the Wildcats never should have bought that monkey's paw before the Ohio State game last year. They're 1-9 since, with no end to the misery in sight. Illinois has more reason for optimism, especially given Lunt's potential at quarterback and some big-play ability. But the Illini have had to sweat out home wins over Youngstown State and Western Kentucky in the first two weeks. The top team in the Land of Lincoln plays in the MAC, a conference that came within one great Iowa comeback of notching three wins over the Big Ten on Saturday.

5. Field goals are an adventure: Iowa was 1-of-4 on field goals against Ball State, with none longer than 37 yards, and it almost cost the Hawkeyes the game. Ohio State's Sean Nuernberger missed both his field-goal attempts in the first half against Virginia Tech, while Illinois' Taylor Zalewski also went 0-for-2. Not that it would have changed the outcome, but Michigan's Matt Wile missed two attempts in the first half at Notre Dame, too. With the margin for error so small for many Big Ten teams, field-goal units need to improve significantly.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 1

September, 2, 2014
9/02/14
2:00
PM ET
 
Brian Bennett, Josh Moyer, Adam Rittenberg, Mitch Sherman and Austin Ward contributed to these rankings.
 
It's well known that Minnesota needs to make major improvements in its passing game this fall and that the Gophers' young receivers need to develop. Luckily, they had a chance to learn from one of the best in the business this summer.

NFL star wideout Larry Fitzgerald used Minnesota's facilities to train this offseason, as he has done for the past several years. The Arizona Cardinals' Pro Bowler was born and raised in Minneapolis and continues to call the area home.

Though he played at Pitt and not his home-state school, Fitzgerald has become an honorary Gopher. He first approached former Minnesota coach Tim Brewster about working out on campus about seven years ago.

"It's been a dream come true for me," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com.

Fitzgerald began working out with other Minnesota natives in the NFL, like tight end John Carlson and receiver Eric Decker. Over the years, he has expanded his crew by inviting more players to join him. Among the pro receivers who showed up in Minneapolis this summer were the Kansas City Chiefs' Dwayne Bowe, the Washington Redskins' Andre Roberts and Tiquan Underwood of the Carolina Panthers. Fitzgerald decided they needed an NFL quarterback to throw to them, so he called up Ryan Mallett of the New England Patriots.

"He’s created his own team," Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said. "It’s kind of like the Larry Fitzgerald school. I think it’s neat that he does that, and that he happens to do it at our school."

Opening up their facilities to Fitzgerald and friends also brings benefits to the Gophers.

Sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner spent time this summer throwing alongside Mallett. Like the one-time Michigan Wolverines and current Tom Brady backup, Leidner is a tall quarterback with a big arm, but he needs work on the finer points of the position. Leidner said he learned a lot from Mallett and that the two watched film together deep into the night this summer.

"We hung out a lot and went and watched film. Everything," Mallett told ESPN.com. "[Leidner] has a live arm. He's one to look out for.

"He's still young, but he's smart, he studies the game and he loves the game."

 
Leidner also got to throw to Fitzgerald and the other NFL receivers, which he called an invaluable experience. Young Gophers wideouts like sophomore Donovahn Jones also rushed out to the practice fields to catch balls next to the stars.

"It was just a good experience to see how NFL receivers work and see how they run their routes," Jones said. "Larry taught me a few key pointers to help me get more separation in my routes. That will help me."

Minnesota defensive backs Cedric Thompson, Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray got to try to cover Fitzgerald & Co. a couple of times this summer.

"You could tell they’re professionals," Thompson said. "They’re running 18-yard digs, and in college, you usually only run 12-yard digs. But their 18-yard digs look like 12-yard digs because they’re so fast. It’s amazing. It’s another level.

Fitzgerald is there to get himself ready for the grind of an NFL season. But the potential future Hall of Famer, who turns 31 at the end of this month, also takes time to mentor the college guys.

"I like to think I have a positive influence," he said. "I remember when I was 18, 19, 20 years old, and my thought process was completely different than it is now.

"If they have questions for me, I try to answer them honestly. And they’ve all got my number if they want to talk to me during the season."

Though Fitzgerald didn't attend Minnesota, he has built close relationships with the program and follows the progress of the football team. He said he has great respect for Kill, whom he called "a tremendous man." He played golf with Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino this summer. He says he calls strength coach Eric Klein and assistant Chad Pearson throughout the year to catch up.

The Cardinals play an exhibition game against the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, and Fitzgerald said he's looking forward to reconnecting with everyone from the school.

The Gophers will welcome him back every summer for more training that benefits both him and their players.

"It certainly ain’t hurting any when people know Larry is doing his thing on our campus," Kill said.
 

» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC 

Previewing the 2014 season for the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

2013 overall record: 8-5 (4-4 Big Ten)

Key returnees: David Cobb, RB; Maxx Williams, TE; Theiren Cockran, DE; Mitch Leidner, QB; Josh Campion OT.

Key losses: Phillip Nelson, QB; Ra'Shede Hageman, DT; Brock Vereen, CB; Ed Olson, LT; Aaron Hill, LB.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cobb
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhDavid Cobb, who rushed for 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns last season, returns to lead an improved Gophers' offense out of the backfield.
Instant impact newcomer: Melvin Holland Jr. wasn't technically the highest-rated recruit in Minnesota's 2014 signing class, but the four-star receiver looks like a smart bet to make his mark the quickest for the program this fall. The Gophers are still trying to build their passing attack and add weapons around Leidner, and Holland has already made a strong impression on teammates and coaches with his quick adjustment to the college game and a 6-foot-3 frame that could make him an intriguing target.

Projected starters

Offense: QB: Mitch Leidner, So., 6-4, 237; RB: David Cobb, Sr., 5-11, 229; WR: Donovahn Jones, So., 6-3, 200 ; WR: Drew Wolitarsky, So., 6-3, 226; WR: KJ Maye, Jr., 5-10, 195; TE: Maxx Williams, So., 6-4, 250; LT: Ben Lauer, So., 6-7, 315; LG: Zac Epping, Sr., 6-2, 318; C: Tommy Olson, Sr., 6-4, 306; RG: Foster Bush, Jr., 6-5, 304; RT: Josh Campion, Jr., 6-5, 317.

Defense: DE: Theiren Cockran, Jr., 6-6, 255, ; DT: Scott Ekpe, Jr., 6-4, 293; DT: Cameron Botticelli, Sr., 6-5, 281, ; DE: Michael Amaefula, Sr., 6-2, 249 ; LB: De'Vondre Campbell, Jr., 6-5, 226; LB: Damien Wilson, Sr., 6-2, 249; LB: Jack Lynn, So., 6-3, 238; CB: Derrick Wells, Sr., 6-0, 201; CB: Eric Murray, Jr., 6-0, 195; S: Cedric Thompson, Sr., 6-0, 208; S: Damarius Travis, Jr., 6-2, 211.

Specialists: K: Ryan Santoso, Fr., 6-6, 245; P: Peter Mortell, Jr., 6-2, 192.

Biggest question mark: The offense is his alone to run, and, fair or not, how successful this season turns out for the Gophers will be tied to the development of their sophomore quarterback. Minnesota didn't ask Leidner to do all that much as a passer when he was on the field last season, but he was generally efficient and avoided many major mistakes while throwing just one interception in 78 attempts. That workload figures to increase dramatically, and the Gophers are going to need him to keep defenses honest by bumping up his completion percentage from 55 and stretching the field with some deep shots to prevent opponents from loading up the box to stop Cobb and the rushing attack.

Most important game: Nov. 8 at home against Iowa. If the Gophers are going to go from preseason dark horse to actual contender in the West division, taking care of the Hawkeyes entering the stretch run in November will be absolutely critical. Minnesota has to play all three of its divisional foes, which are currently tabbed as the favorites in the West in the final month of the season, but it gets Iowa at home only before playing Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road. If the Gophers can't defend TCF Bank Stadium against the Hawkeyes, the brutal back-to-back trips to take on the Huskers and Badgers might not mean much for them in the standings.

Upset special: Sept. 13 at TCU. The Horned Frogs have no shortage of defensive talent and will be much more comfortable in the September conditions in Texas. But Minnesota's rushing attack combined with a TCU offense undergoing a bit of transition could allow the Gophers to shorten the game and keep the score down, which might allow them to sneak out with a nonconference victory that would be meaningful for both them and the rest of the Big Ten.

Key stat: Only eight teams in the nation threw for fewer yards per game than Minnesota did a year ago, when the Gophers averaged 148.1 per game through the air. They averaged just more than 10 completions per game, dragging down an offense that collectively finished No. 11 in the Big Ten and put a ton of pressure on the defense on a weekly basis.

What they're wearing: The Gophers haven't gone overboard with multiple sets of uniforms since the redesign in 2012, but they have on occasion switched up their helmets. The school reached a new deal over the summer that will keep the team in Nike gear, and the lucrative contract will if nothing else allow the Gophers to still have plenty of options presented to them when they want to switch up the style.

Team's top Twitter follows: The face of the program has an account, and Leidner (@MitchLeidner7) has recently been helpful in providing some behind-the-scenes looks at the team as it goes through training camp. Thompson (@cedjunior2) is a humorous follow and could become a friend if you have a drill he can borrow. Cockran (@TCockran55) is worth an add as well, although it might be best to wait since he vowed not to use any social media until the end of August. The team account (@GopherFootball) does a fantastic job providing video and audio updates.

They said it: "I think there's no question we want to continue to improve on what we did last year. We won eight games, and I think anytime you go into the Big Ten and if you don't have a mission to win the Big Ten, then why play?" -- Gophers coach Jerry Kill.

Stats & Information projection: 5.48 wins.

Wise guys over/under: 6.5 wins.

Big Ten blog projection: Six wins. The Gophers were one of the most surprising teams in the league a year ago thanks in large part to a defense that was capable of handling such a heavy load all season long. And while there are seven starters back for that unit, and the offense should take a step forward with eight first-team returners back this fall, the schedule might hide the improvements Minnesota figures to make this season. The Gophers are going to be a tough out for every opponent, but getting back to another bowl game should be considered a success against this slate.
It's getting closer, folks. The 2014 season will be here before you know it, and Big Ten media days are less than three weeks away.

The league today released the list of players who will be on hand at the Hilton Chicago on July 28-29 for media days and the kickoff luncheon.

Here they are ...

EAST DIVISION

INDIANA

David Cooper, Sr., LB
Nate Sudfeld, Jr., QB
Shane Wynn, Sr., WR*

MARYLAND

C.J. Brown, Sr., QB
Stefon Diggs, Jr., WR*
Jeremiah Johnson, Sr., DB

MICHIGAN

Frank Clark, Sr., DE*
Devin Gardner, Sr., QB*
Jake Ryan, Sr., LB*

MICHIGAN STATE

Shilique Calhoun, Jr., DE*
Connor Cook, Jr., QB*
Kurtis Drummond, Sr., FS*

OHIO STATE

Michael Bennett, Sr., DL*
Jeff Heuerman, Sr., TE*
Braxton Miller, Sr., QB*

PENN STATE

Bill Belton, Sr., RB
Sam Ficken, Sr., PK*
Mike Hull, Sr., LB

RUTGERS

Michael Burton, Sr., FB
Darius Hamilton, Jr., DL
Lorenzo Waters, Sr., DB

WEST DIVISION

ILLINOIS

Simon Cvijanovic, Sr., OT
Jon Davis, Sr., TE
Austin Teitsma, Sr., DL

IOWA

Carl Davis, Sr., DT*
Brandon Scherff, Sr., OL*
Mark Weisman, Sr., RB

MINNESOTA

David Cobb, Sr., RB
Mitch Leidner, So., QB
Cedric Thompson, Sr., S

NEBRASKA

Ameer Abdullah, Sr., RB*
Kenny Bell, Sr., WR*
Corey Cooper, Sr., S*

NORTHWESTERN

Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., S*
Collin Ellis, Sr., LB
Trevor Siemian, Sr., QB

PURDUE

Raheem Mostert, Sr., RB
Sean Robinson, Sr., LB
Ryan Russell, Sr., DE

WISCONSIN

Melvin Gordon, Jr., RB*
Rob Havenstein, Sr., RT*
Warren Herring, Sr., DL

* indicates previous all-conference selection

I really like this list. The main reason: the number of non-seniors. Nothing against the graybeards, but too often Big Ten teams have brought only seniors to media days even if other players were better, more marketable, strong team leaders and more charismatic with reporters. Yes, I'm incredibly biased about this event: I want the best talkers.

While several Big Ten teams are taking the senior-only approach, others are bringing underclassmen who fill key roles. Minnesota will bring sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner because he's now the leader of the offense. The same goes for Indiana with junior signal-caller Nate Sudfeld. Michigan State is bringing juniors Connor Cook and Shilique Calhoun because they both played huge roles in last year's championship run. Stefon Diggs is the most recognizable Maryland player, even though he's a junior. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon isn't technically a senior, but barring injury this will be his last year as a Badger -- and his only chance to attend media days.

There's a decent contingent of quarterbacks -- seven in all -- that includes two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year Braxton Miller, Cook and Michigan's Devin Gardner. The only major omission is Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who could be one of the league's top players this season. The Lions throw us a bit of a curveball with kicker Sam Ficken. Interesting.

On behalf of all Big Ten media members, I'd like to thank Nebraska for bringing Bell. We are eternally grateful. And Kenny, I will make fun of you for being a Canucks fan.

Staying with the Huskers, senior running back Ameer Abdullah will speak on behalf of the players at the Big Ten kickoff luncheon on July 29. An excellent choice.


If Ron Burgundy coached college football -- the San Diego Border Terriers, perhaps? -- he would only need to learn two lines to survive spring practice.

1. "I like my team."

2. "I'm glad we don't have a game tomorrow."

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesPat Fitzgerald's Wildcats had to deal with a lot off the field this spring.
College coaches have recited those phrases in spring ball for decades. The 14 men leading Big Ten programs are no exceptions. But the standard spring sentiments apply to the league more this year than most.

There are reasons to believe the Big Ten will be better this fall, but the work is far from over on most campuses. This isn't a league of finished products, and the coming months take on added importance before the 2014 season kicks off in late August.

"I don't think we're that far behind; it's just painfully obvious that we're not there," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "This next phase will be the most important phase of this team's life. It's always important, but with a lot of things we've gone though, we've got to come together."

Northwestern went through a lot in the spring, mostly away from the field, as the campaign for a player union gained national media attention, especially after players were declared employees of the school in March. The team held a historic vote Friday, after Fitzgerald had expressed his opposition to unionizing. Some players expressed concern that the vote could split the team.

It will be months before we know if the union plan goes through, but the Wildcats continue preparing for a pivotal season. They found their quarterback this spring in senior Trevor Siemian and an offensive identity based around the passing game. But questions along both lines remain.

The spring also produced quarterback answers at Iowa (Jake Rudock) and Minnesota (Mitch Leidner). Michigan's Devin Gardner had a rough spring game but still seems likely to retain his job. Another senior signal-caller, Rutgers' Gary Nova, is a good bet to remain atop the depth chart. Although Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong lacks Nova's or Gardner's experience, he exited spring just as he entered it: as the Huskers' top quarterback.

Indiana's platoon system of Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson frustrates some, but not coach Kevin Wilson, who has given every indication that he'll continue to use both for another season.

Other quarterback races have been reduced but not resolved. Illinois will pick between Wes Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer who impressed for much of the spring, and veteran backup Reilly O'Toole. Coach Tim Beckman wants a resolution before two-a-day practices in August.

Purdue's Danny Etling, who started the final seven games of his freshman season, appeared to have a slight lead coming out of the spring, but coach Darrell Hazell isn't ready to declare a starter. So Austin Appleby and David Blough remain alive.

Wisconsin reduced its candidate pool from four to two as Joel Stave, who boasts 19 career starts but also a nagging throwing shoulder injury, will compete with dual-threat Tanner McEvoy in camp.

"It will be a fight," coach Gary Andersen said.

Quarterback is just one spot where Wisconsin has questions. The Badgers went through much of the spring with only four healthy wide receivers. They've also revamped their defensive front seven, which returns only one starter from 2013.

[+] EnlargeRaekwon McMillan
Miller Safrit/ESPNEarly enrollee Raekwon McMillan could make an immediate impact for Ohio State's defense this fall.
Ohio State didn't have star quarterback Braxton Miller for spring ball because of shoulder surgery, but the Buckeyes focused on bolstering a defense that struggled last fall. Freshman Raekwon McMillan, an early enrollee, is pushing for the starting middle linebacker spot, and competition will continue at the cornerback spot opposite Doran Grant. Chris Ash, the Buckeyes' new co-defensive coordinator, worked to simplify the scheme this spring.

"We only have about six defensive calls," safety Tyvis Powell said after the spring game. "We had too many last year."

Offensive line remains Michigan's focal point coming out of the spring. A sloppy spring game didn't ease fears about the Wolverines' front five, although coach Brady Hoke saw positive signs in earlier practices. A critical summer awaits new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, tasked with resurrecting Michigan's run game.

At Penn State, new coach James Franklin continues to energize both players and fans. But he's also realistic about the depth challenge his team faces, particularly along the offensive line.

"When you don't have a two-deep of scholarship players, you've got issues that you're going to have to overcome," Franklin said. "We don't."

Like Rutgers, Maryland began its Big Ten transition this spring and welcomed running back Wes Brown and wideout Marcus Leak after absences from the team. If the Terrapins finally stay healthy, they could be worth watching in a loaded East Division.

Sitting atop the division is defending Big Ten champ Michigan State. The Spartans had a relatively stress-free spring, but they must fill key spots on defense, especially at linebacker and cornerback, where players like Taiwan Jones and Darian Hicks step in.

The returning pieces for teams like Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin fuel optimism around the league. But in spring, optimism is always tempered by what lies ahead.

"We're improving," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday, "but we're hardly ready to play."

They won't have to for 132 days.

Until then, stay classy, Big Ten fans.

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