NCF Nation: Nick Tow-Arnett

Instant analysis: ISU 14, Minnesota 13

December, 31, 2009
12/31/09
10:19
PM ET
Iowa State pushed the Big 12's bowl record to 3-2 with an upset victory over Minnesota in the Insight Bowl.

Here's how the Cyclones pulled off the victory.

How the game was won: Minnesota was driving for a winning score when quarterback MarQueis Gray fumbled at the Iowa State 20. Cornerback Ter’ran Benton made the recovery to kill the Gophers’ final possession with 4:03 left in the game.

It’s notable: ISU’s victory snapped a 21-game winless streak against Minnesota. It was ISU’s first victory over the Gophers since notching a 6-0 triumph over the Gophers on Oct. 22, 1898.

Turning point: After struggling offensively through the beginning of the game, the Cyclones scored touchdowns on back-to-back possessions late in the first half to account for all of their scoring. ISU went 71 yards on 10 plays on the first touchdown and executed offensive coordinator Tom Herman’s no-huddle offense to perfection on the following drive. Austen Arnaud completed all four passes on that 89-yard drive drive, capping it with a 38-yard strike to Jake Williams that boosted them to a 14-3 halftime advantage.

Alexander Robinson
AP Photo/Matt YorkAlexander Robinson dominated the match with a game-high 137 rushing yards.
Player of the game: ISU running back Alexander Robinson dominated with a game-high 137 rushing yards and a key 26-yard reception that helped tilt field position in the fourth quarter.

Stat of the game: 168:51. The amount of time between offensive touchdowns for Minnesota. Nick Tow-Arnett’s 23-yard touchdown pass from Adam Weber in the third quarter snapped a touchdown drought for the Gophers’ offense that dated to their game against Illinois on Nov. 7 - a stretch of more than 11 quarters.

Best call: Despite some earlier struggles, Arnaud’s 38-yard TD strike to Williams gave the Cyclones a comfortable halftime lead they were able to barely maintain for the rest of the game.

What it means: The 7-6 Cyclones finished a remarkable turnaround in Coach Paul Rhoads’ first season, improving by five games over their 2-10 record last season. It enabled them to finish with a winning record for the first time since 2005 as they claimed only the third bowl victory in the 118-season history of the program. And while 2009 made the Cyclones one of the biggest surprises in the Big 12, Rhoads will be hard-pressed to duplicate this season’s surprising success. The Cyclones schedule will become much harder next year with Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Northern Illinois and Utah added to the schedule. It will be a huge challenge for the Cyclones to duplicate their first-season success with Rhoads.
Minnesota's second-half rally fell short as a mistake-prone offense made one too many in the closing minutes. The Big Ten fell to 1-1 in bowls with three more teams in action New Year's Day.

How the game was won: The teams combined for six turnovers, and Iowa State had four of them, but Minnesota committed the most damaging giveaway in the closing minutes as backup quarterback MarQueis Gray fumbled in the red zone. Minnesota's defense turned in a terrific performance, and quarterback Adam Weber had some nice moments at times, but the offense squandered too many scoring opportunities. Iowa State rode running back Alexander Robinson and a stout red-zone defense to victory.

Turning point: After taking over at its own 1-yard line, Minnesota drove downfield behind a revived offense. Coordinator Jedd Fisch effectively mixed personnel and play calls, and Gray had been stepping up as both a quarterback and a wide receiver. But on first-and-10 from the Iowa State 17-yard line, Gray coughed up the ball and the Cyclones recovered with 4:03 left. Iowa State then ran out the clock.

Stat of the game: Minnesota had seven drives reach Iowa State territory but only scored three times (one touchdown, two field goals).

[+] EnlargeKyle Theret
AP Photo/Matt YorkKyle Theret had two interceptions and a 40-yard reception on a fake punt.
Player of the game: For Iowa State, Robinson went for 140 rush yards on 23 carries. But I've got to give this to Minnesota safety Kyle Theret, who recorded two interceptions and had a 40-yard reception on a fake punt in the third quarter. The senior really stepped up in his final collegiate game.

Best call: Trailing 14-3 in the third quarter, Minnesota called a fake punt on fourth-and-4 from its own 37-yard line. Punter Blake Haudan found Theret, who raced 40-yards. The Gophers scored their first touchdown on the next play, as Weber found Nick Tow-Arnett.

What it means: Minnesota drops to 6-7 on a season that began with elevated expectations and an experienced roster. Athletic director Joel Maturi said earlier this week that Brewster is safe and will receive a contract extension. And though the team didn't look great on offense at times, it's not Brewster's fault that Gray fumbled. On the other hand, Mike Leach is available, right? The Gophers head into the offseason with questions on offense, and Weber and Gray will compete for the starting job this spring. There will be pressure on Brewster and his staff to win more than six games in 2010.

Big Ten picks: Week 11

November, 12, 2009
11/12/09
9:00
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Thanks to a 2-4 performance last week, I'm now south of 70 percent for the season, which is sort of like hitting below the Mendoza line. I'm sure my colleague Chris Low, who's doing better than 80 percent on picks, is laughing at me from his home in Knoxville. Last year's success seems like eons ago. And to top it off, two games this week are among the toughest picks of the season.

Here's a stab at better results.

Penn State 34, Indiana 17: The Nittany Lions start slow after last week's letdown and Indiana takes an early lead on a touchdown pass to standout wide receiver Tandon Doss. But with a BCS at-large berth still a decent possibility, Penn State turns it on in the second and third quarters as quarterback Daryll Clark and running back Evan Royster put up big numbers against the IU defense.

Wisconsin 31, Michigan 20: Some are calling for a blowout and I could see it that way, but Michigan has moved the football on most teams and will find running room with Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor. But Wisconsin running back John Clay and the powerful Badgers offensive line will once again take control in the second half and wear down Michigan's weak defense. Defensive ends Brandon Graham (Michigan) and O'Brien Schofield (Wisconsin) both have their moments.

Minnesota 24, South Dakota State 21: I'm a little worried about the Gophers after last week's lackluster first half. South Dakota State boasts a strong defense and a win against mighty Northern Iowa, and Minnesota's offense will struggle early. But the Gophers find a way on Senior Day and win their sixth game to get bowl eligible. Backup quarterback MarQueis Gray makes a big play or two, and tight end Nick Tow-Arnett hauls in two touchdowns from Adam Weber.

Michigan State 27, Purdue 26: I'll be honest, this game drove me nuts all week. Both quarterbacks are hot, and both defenses are inconsistent but boast star players. Michigan State has been pretty bad on the road, but the Spartans play well in November under Mark Dantonio. Purdue is playing very well in Big Ten play and boasts a lot of playmakers. This reminds me of 2007, when Michigan State needed a win at Ross-Ade and got one. The Spartans win on a Brett Swenson field goal.

Northwestern 24, Illinois 20: The Illini are playing looser and with more confidence, and they could certainly continue their win streak Saturday. But Northwestern almost always wins as a slight road underdog, and the Wildcats seem to be jelling on defense. Illinois quarterback Jacob Charest throws two touchdown passes, but a critical interception leads to Northwestern's game-winning drive. Quarterback Mike Kafka is now two weeks removed from a hamstring injury and will be more effective.

Ohio State 21, Iowa 10: The Hawkeyes keep this one close for a while as their opportunistic defense generates a turnover or two to set up the offense in good field position. But Ohio State's dominating defense proves to be the difference as Iowa redshirt freshman quarterback James Vandenberg struggles to move the ball in his first career start. Terrelle Pryor scores two second-half rushing touchdowns as the Buckeyes win to reach their first Rose Bowl since 1997.

Week 10 record: 2-4

Season record: 51-23 (.689)

Big Ten picks: Week 10

November, 5, 2009
11/05/09
9:10
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Who's going to win? Keep reading.

Iowa 27, Northwestern 17: Both teams tend to start slow, so expect a close game for most of the way. Northwestern quarterback Mike Kafka plays and does some good things in the second and third quarters, but Iowa once again takes control in the fourth, when it has dominated and Northwestern has struggled this season. Both defenses are improved and the Wildcats always save their best for Iowa, but the Hawkeyes prevail behind Ricky Stanzi and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos.

Wisconsin 28, Indiana 16: I don't know how much the Hoosiers have left in the tank after back-to-back crushing defeats. Plus, Wisconsin has totally dominated Indiana under head coach Bret Bielema and seems to be getting better on defense as the season goes along. The Hoosiers' standout wide receivers make plays early, but running back John Clay and the Wisconsin defense led by O'Brien Schofield and Chris Borland blossom in the second half.

Michigan State 31, Western Michigan 10: It's an absolute must-win for Mark Dantonio's team, and they will be prepared to play. Quarterback Kirk Cousins picks apart the Broncos secondary as wide receiver Blair White and Keshawn Martin turn in big performances. Michigan State's defense keeps Tim Hiller in check and keeps its bowl hopes alive heading into a crucial game at Purdue.

Minnesota 30, Illinois 24: Both offenses got some much needed confidence last week and will continue to make plays early in this one. Adam Weber turns in another good performance and finds tight end Nick Tow-Arnett for two touchdown passes. Illinois runs the ball well with backs Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford, but Minnesota's defense clamps down in the red zone as the Gophers become bowl-eligible.

Michigan 37, Purdue 31: I'm hesitant to pick the Wolverines, but they're in a must-win game against a Purdue team that totally imploded last week. Plus, running back Brandon Minor is getting healthier, and he can change the game. Both offenses make plays, but Minor and teammate Carlos Brown lead a potent rushing attack that proves to be the difference as the Wolverines get bowl-eligible.

Penn State 21, Ohio State 17: Expect a defensive struggle early as two of the nation's premier units take the field in Happy Valley. The game closely resembles the Iowa-Michigan State clash, as defense rules until the final 10 minutes, when both offenses come alive. Quarterbacks Daryll Clark and Terrelle Pryor both make plays, but Clark's leadership in a more cohesive Nittany Lions offense proves to be the difference.

Week 9 record: 4-2

Season record: 49-19 (.721)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Kudos and criticisms from around the league. Remember, players or coaches acknowledged in helmet tickers or Players of the Week don't appear here.

 
 Andrew Weber/US Presswire
 Illinois' Jason Ford rushed for 128 yards and one touchdown in Saturday's victory.
Thumbs up, Illinois RBs Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford: LeShoure has quietly had a solid season and continued to produce Saturday against Michigan, while Ford joined in the act as well. The two sophomore running backs combined for 278 rush yards and two touchdowns as the Fighting Illini notched their first Big Ten win and ran all over the Wolverines.

Thumbs down, Purdue's offense: The unit had a complete meltdown at Wisconsin after several solid performances. It wasn't just the turnovers that held Purdue back this time. Quarterbacks Joey Elliott and Caleb TerBush combined to complete only 27 percent of their passes, a statistic impacted by a ton of drops by their wide receivers.

Thumbs up, Chris Borland: The Wisconsin linebacker deserves consideration for Big Ten freshman of the year. He has meant that much to the Badgers' turnaround this fall. Borland continued to produce in his first career start at outside linebacker, forcing a fumble and recovering two fumbles against Purdue to earn Big Ten co-defensive player of the week honors.

Thumbs down, Greg Robinson: After an impressive performance in the season opener against Western Michigan, Robinson's unit has declined sharply. I heard a lot about improved communication and better cohesion before the season, but the defense endures multiple major breakdowns in every game. Whether it's pass defense against Notre Dame and Penn State or run defense against Illinois, the defense has been a disaster and it falls in his lap.

Thumbs up, Jedd Fisch: The Minnesota offensive coordinator produced his best game plan in his first game without his best player, wide receiver Eric Decker. Fisch was extremely creative and aggressive, and he received big plays from Duane Bennett, Nick Tow-Arnett, Da'Jon McKnight, Brandon Green and Troy Stoudermire.

Thumbs down, Minnesota's discipline: The Gophers notched a big win against Michigan State, but their 17 penalties tied a Big Ten single-game record set by Michigan State way back in 1957. It seemed like flags were flying on almost every play, and Minnesota won't win many more games if it doesn't improve its discipline.

Thumbs up, Penn State QB Daryll Clark: He should be the frontrunner for Big Ten offensive player of the year, with Wisconsin's John Clay as his only legitimate challenger. Clark turned in another strong performance against Northwestern, passing for 274 yards and a touchdown and scoring a rushing touchdown as well.

Thumbs down, Big Ten replay officials: Replay is supposed to ensure that the officiating crews get it right in these games, but the folks in the booth had a rough Saturday. The term "indisputable video evidence" definitely seemed a bit hazy in the Indiana-Iowa and Michigan State-Minnesota games.

Thumbs up, Terry Hawthorne: The Illinois freshman cornerback made arguably the play of the game against Michigan when he chased down wide receiver Roy Roundtree at the Illini 1-yard line. Illinois stopped Michigan on four straight plays and kept the Wolverines' lead at only six points, setting the stage for a second-half surge.

Thumbs down, Northwestern's fourth-quarter performance: The Wildcats have owned the fourth quarter in past seasons, but they are struggling in crunch time in 2009. After allowing 21 fourth-quarter points to Penn State in Saturday's loss, the Wildcats have been outscored 72-44 in the final 15 minutes.

And, for the first time ever ...

Thumbs up and thumbs down, Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi: Just having a little fun with this one, as Stanzi showed both his best and his worst on Saturday against Indiana. He threw a career high five interceptions, four in the third quarter, but once again responded in the fourth with two huge touchdown passes to notch his first career 300-yard passing performance and lift Iowa to another huge win.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

In a conference starved for offensive stars, Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker shined the brightest during the first part of the season.

He caught 43 passes for 639 yards in his first five games and drew some well-deserved national attention after a gutsy performance in Minnesota's loss to Cal on Sept. 19. For a Gophers offense going through a lot of transition this year, Decker was the one constant.
 
 Jack Rendulich/Icon SMI
 Minnesota's Eric Decker will miss the rest of the regular season with a strained left foot.


And now he'll be sidelined for the rest of the regular season with a strained left foot that may require surgery. Decker, who missed time late last season with a high ankle sprain, sustained the injury during Saturday's loss to No. 17 Ohio State.

You can't sugarcoat the significance of this loss for the Gophers.

Minnesota's offense ranks last in the Big Ten in both total yards (292.8 ypg) and rushing yards (105.9 ypg) and 10th in scoring (21.1 ppg). The Gophers' new pro-style system hasn't clicked consistently, as the offensive line is struggling and junior quarterback Adam Weber seems to be regressing.

Decker deserves to finish his spectacular college career in a bowl game. But will he get the chance?

Minnesota needs to win at least two of its final four games to reach the postseason. The Gophers begin a three-game homestand Saturday night against Michigan State (Big Ten Network, 8 p.m. ET) before hosting Illinois and South Dakota State. Though they should be favored in the latter two contests, they need to find some offense in a hurry.

The offensive line needs to protect Weber better, and wide receivers like Troy Stoudermire and Brandon Green have to step up. Tight end Nick Tow-Arnett has done his part, but Decker had 32 more receptions than any other Gophers wideout despite a drop in production the last three games.

An inconsistent run game also needs to improve, which won't be easy against Michigan State. Running backs Duane Bennett, DeLeon Eskridge and Kevin Whaley all have had their moments, but Minnesota lacks a bell cow in the backfield.

The Gophers are sticking with Weber as the starting quarterback, but they can't forget about talented freshman MarQueis Gray.

Decker could have pursued a pro baseball career after being drafted in June by the hometown Twins, but he returned to serve as a co-captain and set more records. He owns team records for career receptions, career receiving yardage, career 100-yard receiving games, single-season receptions and consecutive 100-yard games.

"It’s cumulative right now, all 11 guys on offense have to step up," head coach Tim Brewster said. "I really think he’s the most complete wide receiver in college football today. You don’t just replace that guy too easily. We’ll be fine. It’s kind of our mindset. Next man up. Our guys are going to respond well."

We'll find out on Saturday night.

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