NCF Nation: P.J.Hill

Rose Bowl regrets? Wisconsin's Montee Ball has a few.

On the very first play from scrimmage against TCU, Ball raced 40 yards before being tracked down by safety Tejay Johnson. Most saw the run as an emphatic opening statement against the nation's No. 1 defense.

Ball saw it as a missed opportunity.

"Now," he said, "I'd probably take it to the house."

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMontee Ball spent the offseason working to improve on a breakout 2010 season.
He had another opening on a run in the third quarter, but was tripped up when a TCU defender swiped at his legs. TCU went on to win 21-19.

"I felt like I left a lot of yards on the field," Ball told ESPN.com. "I had a bunch of shoestring tackles because I was top-heavy. I would just tumble right over."

Arguably no running back in America finished the season hotter than Ball. He recorded 777 rush yards and 14 touchdowns in his final five games. He racked up 127 rush yards or more in each of the last five contests and reached the end zone multiple times in all but one game -- the Rose Bowl, where he scored once.

Despite all the success, Ball knew he needed to change. After topping out at 233 pounds, Ball transformed his body. He cut his weight considerably and went through preseason camp in the 207-208 range.

"I feel so much better," he said. "It's a complete difference. I just didn't feel comfortable being that big, a big back. I love to make faster cuts and all that stuff, and be a lot faster."

No one asked Ball to lose weight. Wisconsin is a haven for bigger backs, from former Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne to former Big Ten Freshman of the Year P.J. Hill to 2009 Big Ten Offensive Player John Clay.

And after the way Ball finished the 2010 season, he didn't exactly need to be fixed.

"I saw him as a guy who was in shape," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "[Head strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert] had some discussions with him, and he just took the initiative upon himself. He knew what he could be.

"Sometimes the elite athletes can feel what their body needs before anybody else."

Ball's premonition seems to be paying off. He performed well throughout the offseason, showing better burst on his runs without losing his power.

The junior will showcase his new physique Thursday night when No. 11 Wisconsin opens the season against UNLV at Camp Randall Stadium.

Ball and sophomore James White are listed as co-starters on the Week 1 depth chart. Bielema plans to "pick one, flip a coin" as games evolve, but Ball looks like he could have a slight edge to be the featured back.

"I feel a lot stronger than last year," he said. "I still have the power, and now I have a lot more speed. Just put both of them together and make it happen."

Opposing defenders should get a sense of the new Ball starting Thursday. Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland provides this preview.

"The angles you have to take on Montee have changed in the last year," Borland said. "He's a step faster for sure, hits the hole, and more so than just physically, it's been a mental boost for him, knowing that he's probably a bit more elusive, a little more explosive."

White's emergence last season also motivates Ball.

It was White, after all, who leapfrogged Ball in the preseason to become Wisconsin's No. 2 running back behind Clay. White brought a new element to Wisconsin's rushing attack with his speed and elusiveness and went on to earn Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors after racking up 1,052 yards on the ground with 14 touchdowns. Only after Clay and White suffered injuries against Iowa did Ball get an opportunity, which he seized.

"My personal goal is to be the starter and to keep James off the field as much as possible," Ball said. "I want more carries than him, he wants more carries than me. That's the healthy competition we have."

Like Ball, White didn't accept the status quo during the offseason and worked on improving his lower-body strength. But White knows he's competing with a different type of player.

"He can do a little bit of everything," White said. "He still has the power, and now he's able to make those cuts in the open field to make people miss.

"There's a big difference between Montee Ball last year and Montee Ball this year."

If Ball and the Badgers exceed what they did last year, they could return to the Rose Bowl with a chance for redemption.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


John Clay's body is both a blessing and a curse.

Not many college running backs look like Clay. Not many 6-foot-1, 248-pound men boast the combination of speed, agility and power that he has. Clay is an impressive specimen. But he's also just a kid.
 
 Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire
 John Clay has rushed for 326 yards in the Badgers' last two games.


"When you met John Clay when he was a sophomore in high school," Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said, "he looked like he should be a sophomore in college."

Clay is now a sophomore in college, but he has a hard time convincing people of that fact. He has a grown man's body, and the grown man's expectations that come with it.

"You look at him, you see this big man, and you kind of forget he’s only 20 and still a young guy, so to speak," Badgers running backs coach John Settle said. "You forget he hasn’t been here four years, and there’s some development that needs to take place. Some guys mature and grow faster than others. He was just a guy I felt like needed to come in and have some success early.

"Right now, he's playing with a lot of confidence."

Clay is starting to complement his physical gifts with greater maturity, and the Badgers are benefiting. Big time. The sophomore has combined for 326 rush yards and four touchdowns in his last two games, recording 32 carries in both contests.

He earned Big Ten offensive player of the week honors after exploding for 184 yards and three scores last Saturday at Minnesota. More impressive was the fact that 159 yards came in the second half, as he pounded away at the Gophers' defense.

"I used to focus on running away from people instead of just punishing them," said Clay, who leads the Big Ten and ranks fourth nationally in rushing yards with 584. "But now I’m doing it vice versa, trying to punish them and wear them down and then use my speed to get away."

Clay's emergence comes at the perfect time for Wisconsin, which puts its perfect record on the line Saturday against No. 9 Ohio State in Columbus (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

For better or for worse, Bret Bielema became a college football coach last season. He faced his first real bout with adversity and criticism, guided Wisconsin back to a bowl game and finished on a sour note against Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.

 
  David Stluka/Getty Images
  Things didn't go as planned for Bret Bielema and the Badgers in 2008.

After a charmed 17-1 start at Wisconsin, Bielema has gone just 11-10 since and comes off a very disappointing campaign last fall. He has earned his own fire-me Web site, a rite of passage for coaches these days, and needs to show progress in Year 4. The 39-year-old made several key offseason changes in hopes of getting Wisconsin back on track.

I caught up with Bielema while the coach was driving back from a brief vacation in Wisconsin Dells. Here are his thoughts on 2008, his outlook for spring ball and the 2009 season.

Is this an exciting time for you, especially after the way things ended last fall?

Bret Bielema: It is. You keep saying to yourself all the time during the fall that you always have next week, you get another game to go out and prove, another opportunity. But when you end the bowl game in a way that doesn't sit well with you, as coaches you can't wait to get back out in spring ball. I really have enjoyed the players. I sat down with all of them, 98 guys went through my office. There have been some changes in the weight room and the strength and conditioning department, and those guys are all very eager to see the rewards.

Ever since I've been here, we've always had spring ball before and after spring break. But as I've witnessed as a coach, you get your biggest gains during the summer. So we tried to create two summers. When we got back from winter break, we gave our guys a seven-week window, just like we do during the summer. We started off with very little running. We emphasized more on strength and speed and size. And that period took us up all the way until last Friday.

And did you make those changes because the strength and speed last year wasn't up to your standards?

BB: More than anything, after the season we took a look at where we were. All the guys in my staff room have worked in all different parts of the country, and they all had a preconceived notion about Wisconsin before they came here and started working. I said, 'What is it? What made Wisconsin tick?' And they always said, 'Physical, tough, a mental toughness, do things right, do things harder than the other guy.' We just want to get back to those core basics of Wisconsin football.

Did you guys get away from some of those fundamental values last year, and can you pinpoint why?

BB: It wasn't so much getting away from the fundamentals. The things that were getting us, any time we had a penalty before the snap, offense or defense, it wouldn't put ourselves in a positive light. We've always prided ourselves at Wisconsin on doing things right consistently, and a lot of that gets down to self discipline and mental toughness. That's really what we tried to emphasize during these winter conditioning months.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Former Wisconsin running back P.J. Hill was arrested during the weekend on a drunken driving charge after allegedly leading police on a chase before crashing his car in Madison, Wis.

Hill, who decided to forgo his senior season at Wisconsin to enter the NFL draft, faces tentative charges of drunken driving, fleeing police, second-degree reckless endangerment, driving without headlights and reckless driving. He spent two nights in jail after his arrest early Saturday and will formally be charged in the next few weeks.

Hill, ranked No. 3 on Wisconsin's all-time rushing list, surprised some by not running the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine. This latest arrest can't help his already shaky draft stock.

"Hill also has charges pending against him in Scottsdale, Ariz., including drunken driving, unreasonable speed and making unsafe lane changes, Arizona court records indicate. He is due back in court in Arizona on Thursday.

Hill said earlier this month that he had been training in Arizona to improve his draft prospects."

Meanwhile, the Big Ten might want to send out a memo to its future NFL draft hopefuls after both Hill and former Ohio State tackle Alex Boone were arrested during the highly scrutinized pre-draft period.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Paul Chryst isn't trying to skirt his responsibilities as a well-paid decision maker, but he also knows that the easier his choices are, the better off Wisconsin should be this fall.

The Badgers' offensive coordinator is gearing up for another quarterback competition, which begins March 24 as the team opens spring practice. Chryst will be evaluating four players -- senior Dustin Sherer, junior Scott Tolzien, redshirt freshman Curt Phillips and true freshman Jon Budmayr -- aiming to lead a Badgers offense that ranked third in the Big Ten last fall but flat-lined at key times.

 
  David Stluka/Getty Images
  Dustin Sherer helped lead Wisconsin to wins in four of its final five regular-season games.

"When you're deciding who your starters are at quarterback or any other position, there really aren't a lot of hard calls," Chryst said. "If you've got a good team, it's pretty clear to see who your guys are. What was hard about last year was there wasn't a lot of separation and there was inconsistency. That's what makes hard decisions."

Chryst didn't make any decisions on the quarterback spot last spring and expressed disappointment about the lack of separation. Allan Evridge eventually claimed the job late in fall camp, but Chryst didn't enter the season feeling great about the position.

"That was my biggest concern, and it was because there wasn't separation, because there was inconsistent play," he said. "That's your worst-case scenario. I remember in camp, a couple times pleading for someone to take the job and also talking to them about [the fact that] this is a position that's got a big question mark on it. And I kind of challenged them, 'Who's going to take the question mark off and put an exclamation point on it?'

"If you look back and if you're truly honest with yourself, it was a question mark and at times, a negative behind that position. We, as a group, have got to take that personal and don't want that spot to be the weak link on the offense."

Quarterback play hurt Wisconsin during a disappointing 2008 campaign that began with legit BCS bowl aspirations. Evridge started the first five games, throwing as many touchdowns as interceptions (5), before giving way to Sherer, who helped Wisconsin to wins in four of its final five regular-season games but struggled in the Champs Sports Bowl against Florida State.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Very light day in link land. Can spring ball start already? Please? 

"Toledo -- with an average home-football attendance of 17,000 and athletic department revenues of $18 million -- could make between $4 million and $5 million off this game, depending on its expenses for using Cleveland Browns Stadium.

Ohio State, a school with an average attendance of 105,000 per home game and athletic department revenues of $118 million, could be looking at making less than $1 million off this game."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
  Scott A. Miller/US Presswire
  Iowa running back Shonn Greene's production will not be easy to replace.

As we continue to preview Big Ten spring football, which begins March 14 at Michigan, it's time to look at five key replacements around the conference.

The Big Ten took the biggest hit at running back with the departures of Shonn Greene, Javon Ringer, Chris "Beanie" Wells, P.J. Hill, Tyrell Sutton and Kory Sheets, among others. There also were key losses on both lines (Mitch King, A.Q. Shipley, Aaron Maybin, Willie VanDeSteeg) and in the secondary (Malcolm Jenkins, Vontae Davis, Otis Wiley), though the quarterback crop returns mostly intact.

The league's lone head-coaching change was pre-planned, as Danny Hope takes over for Joe Tiller at Purdue. But several key assistants depart the league, creating some holes to fill.

Here's a look at five sets of shoes to fill before Sept. 5.

Big shoes: Iowa running back Shonn Greene

The replacement: Sophomore Jewel Hampton

All Greene did last fall was win the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top back, set Iowa's single-season rushing record (1,850 yards) and eclipse 100 yards in all 13 games. As the team switched quarterbacks, identified playmakers at wide receiver and jelled up front, Greene was the constant. Hampton earned high marks as Greene's backup, rushing for 463 yards and seven touchdowns as a true freshman, but he'll take on a much bigger load this fall. The 5-9, 200-pound Hampton lacks Greene's brute strength and size, but he provides a different look for an Iowa offense that will always be based around the run game.

Big shoes: Penn State center A.Q. Shipley

The replacement: Junior Stefen Wisniewski

The defending Big Ten co-champs lose the undisputed leader of the league's best offensive line in Shipley, who won the Rimington Trophy as the nation's top center last year. Wisniewski started at guard in 2008, but he's expected to shift to center and replace Shipley in the heart of the Lions' line. Expectations will be high for Wisniewski, a talented junior whose father and uncle both were star offensive linemen for Penn State.

Big shoes: Michigan State running back Javon Ringer

The replacement(s): Senior A.J. Jimmerson, sophomores Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett, freshmen Edwin Baker and Larry Caper

No running back in the country had a heavier load than Ringer last fall. He led the nation with 390 carries and tied for the national lead with 22 rushing touchdowns. Michigan State benefited from his tremendous durability, but the coaches didn't develop a reliable backup. The competition to replace Ringer features several young players, including two heralded incoming freshmen. The Spartans could use more of a committee system in 2009, blending speed (Anderson, Caper, Baker, Jimmerson) with size (Leggett). The freshmen should help the situation, but head coach Mark Dantonio wouldn't mind if Anderson, Jimmerson or Leggett emerged in spring ball.

Big shoes: Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley

The replacement: Mike Schultz

Not only was Locksley one of the best recruiters in the country, but he had a strong bond with quarterback Juice Williams, wide receiver Arrelious Benn and other key members of the Illinois offense. Despite a very disappointing 5-7 season, Illinois still led the Big Ten in passing and ranked second in total offense. Schultz comes from a program (TCU) known for defense, but his system produced several standout quarterbacks and running backs. He needs to gain Williams' trust right away and maintain the explosiveness Illinois featured at times last season. There also will be pressure for Schultz to bring in top high school players from Texas and other areas.

Big shoes: Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins

The replacement: Sophomore Chimdi Chekwa

Some will point to the oft-injured Wells or hyped linebacker James Laurinaitis as Ohio State's biggest losses, but Jenkins was the team's most consistent performer the last two seasons. Shutdown corners don't come around very often, and Jenkins' play-making skills helped him win the Thorpe Award last year. Chekwa beat out Donald Washington for a starting job in 2008 but will take on a greater load this fall as he'll be assigned to mark top opposing wideouts. He had an interception and four pass breakups last year.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The recruiting classes are in, several underclassmen are out (preparing for the NFL draft) and coaching changes have been made. It's time to re-examine the Big Ten power rankings, which project forward to the 2009 season but take into consideration the way a team finished up 2008.

1. Ohio State -- The Buckeyes lost juniors Chris "Beanie" Wells, Brian Hartline and Donald Washington to the NFL draft and said goodbye to a large senior class, but they performed well in the Fiesta Bowl and brought in the league's best recruiting class. The youth movement has begun in Columbus, and Ohio State likely will surround Terrelle Pryor with more dynamic skill players on offense. There are some holes in the defensive two-deep, but Ohio State rarely misses a beat on that side of the ball.

2. Penn State -- The somewhat surprising early departures of defensive ends Aaron Maybin and Maurice Evans create questions in an area where Penn State dominated last season. Linebacker should be a major strength, but Penn State must replenish the secondary and find a stud pass rusher or two. Wide receiver should be the most interesting position to watch during the spring and summer, and if Penn State avoids a drop-off on the offensive line, it should be in good shape for another league title push. A large recruiting class will play a key role in the Lions' quest to repeat.

3. Iowa -- Shonn Greene surprised absolutely no one by declaring for the NFL draft, and the Doak Walker Award winner leaves a major void in production. But backup running back Jewel Hampton showed promise last year, and Iowa has fewer question marks on offense than most Big Ten teams. Arguably the bigger questions come at defensive tackle, where four-year starters Mitch King and Matt Kroul depart. Avoiding a major drop-off in the interior line is crucial, but Iowa returns most of its key players from a 9-4 team.

4. Michigan State -- Several key seniors depart, including running back Javon Ringer and safety Otis Wiley, but Michigan State brings back most of its key contributors and adds its best recruiting class in recent memory. The competition at both running back and quarterback will set the course for the 2009 season, but the Spartans should be deeper and better on defense.

5. Northwestern -- Much like Michigan State, Northwestern must replace its starting offensive backfield for the 2009 campaign. Mike Kafka steps in at quarterback after a solid junior season, but there will be plenty of competition at both running back and wide receiver. The offensive line should be much improved, and as long as star defensive end Corey Wootton recovers from knee surgery, the Wildcats will boast one of the Big Ten's best defenses.

6. Illinois -- As expected, cornerback Vontae Davis entered the NFL draft, leaving some questions in an Illini secondary that struggled at the safety spot in 2008. Improving the defense will be Illinois' top priority entering the fall, especially with so much talent back on the offensive side. Ron Zook's recruiting class drew mixed reviews after several committed prospects went elsewhere, but Illinois held onto wide receiver Terry Hawthorne and addressed several of its needs.

7. Minnesota -- The Gophers welcome two new coordinators (Jedd Fisch and Kevin Cosgrove) and a different offensive approach heading into spring practice, but they bring back most of the pieces from a 7-6 team. Tim Brewster continued to improve the defensive secondary with his recent recruiting haul, and both lines return virtually intact. If Minnesota can adjust to the changes in coaching and scheme, it should take another step forward in 2009.

8. Wisconsin -- Underappreciated running back P.J. Hill surprised some by declaring for the NFL draft, and Wisconsin also said goodbye to a large senior class. John Clay looks more than capable of becoming a featured back for the Badgers in 2009, but unless some significant progress is made at the quarterback position, it's hard to see improvement. A very solid recruiting class featuring quarterback Jon Budmayr and wide receiver Kraig Appleton could bolster the passing attack and move Wisconsin up the rankings.

9. Michigan -- Despite a 3-9 season, Michigan landed a top 10 recruiting class that features several players likely to contribute right away. Brandon Graham stayed for his senior year, giving the Wolverines a dominant pass rusher. The Wolverines very well could make a major move up this list, but they first must find a solution at the quarterback spot and fill holes on the defensive line and in the secondary. The recruiting class provides a major boost, but the program remains in a transition phase.

10. Purdue -- The Boilermakers are the Big Ten's mystery team, as they welcome a new head coach (Danny Hope) and most likely a different type of player. Hope landed 14 recruits from Florida in hopes of upgrading Purdue's speed and athleticism, and he also must replace starters at all the offensive skill positions (quarterback, running back, wide receiver). If the defense avoids a drop-off and Hope's recruits contribute immediately like he thinks they will, the Boilers will be a much-improved team.

11. Indiana -- Wide receiver Andrew Means declared for the NFL draft, but Indiana doesn't lose a whole lot from last year's team, which could be good or bad. Head coach Bill Lynch didn't make any staff changes, hoping that continuity and improved health will lead to better results in 2009. Indiana boasts two experienced quarterbacks (Kellen Lewis and Ben Chappell), two proven pass rushers (Greg Middleton and Jammie Kirlew) and some promising young players, but if the defense doesn't improve, it could be another long season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The college football season is over, but the links will never die.

"Remove, in your minds, Larry Johnson from the last few years of the picture and watch the George Bailey-like ripple effect that absence would have had on the 2008 Nittany Lions.

No Aaron Maybin or Maurice Evans at defensive end. No Navorro Bowman at linebacker. No Evan Royster at tailback. No Derrick Williams at wide receiver."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Let's take a spin around the league ...

"Cosgrove, 53, and Brewster have been friends since the early 1980s, when Brewster was playing at Illinois and Cosgrove was a graduate assistant. Cosgrove's son, Clint, just finished his second season as a defensive graduate assistant with the Gophers."
"Three current Illinois commitments have indicated they've been in contact with Michigan State and it is believed they are considering taking official visits to East Lansing."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
 AP Photo/Rob Carr
 Wisconsin's Dustin Sherer, shown here getting sacked by Florida State's Toddrick Verdell, struggled in the Badgers' 42-13 Bowl loss on Saturday.

The Champs Sports Bowl marked Wisconsin's final chance to take the sting off an extremely disappointing season.

After a 42-13 loss to Florida State, the Badgers' pain won't go away for some time.

As expected, Florida State was the faster and more athletic team. But speed wasn't the main reason why Wisconsin got torched in Orlando, Fla.

The quarterback position plagued the Badgers all season, and Dustin Sherer's struggles Saturday encapsulated the inconsistency under center. Sherer looked overmatched against Florida State's defense, and his two fumbles that led to Seminoles touchdowns prevented Wisconsin from hanging around. It wasn't all Sherer's fault, but the offense couldn't sustain drives despite gashing Florida State for several big plays.

Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst must do a better job of identifying a capable quarterback in the offseason. The answer might very well be Sherer, but other players certainly deserve a look. Quarterback simply cannot be a liability for a team that shapes its identity around the run game.

Special teams also doomed Wisconsin, thanks to Florida State superstar kicker/punter Graham Gano, who pinned the Badgers back deep throughout the first half. Wisconsin couldn't do much about Gano, but special teams must be upgraded going into 2009.

The Badgers' defense put pressure on Christian Ponder in the first half but didn't make any game-changing plays.

You would never know by the final score, but Wisconsin actually played a pretty good first half. P.J. Hill found running room and Florida State's offense couldn't capitalize on favorable field position. The Badgers moved the ball well despite not fully committing to the run. But Derek Nicholson's head's-up play to return a Sherer lateral for a touchdown combined with Wisconsin's inability to manage the clock led to a 14-3 Florida State lead at the break.

I actually picked Wisconsin to win (head banging against wall), but when a team has been disappointing for the better part of 12 games, things usually don't change in a bowl.

This is a significant blow for Wisconsin, a senior-laden team which entered the season with BCS aspirations after four straight January bowl appearances. The Badgers had more than their share of injuries, but they looked poorly coached at times and seemed to lose confidence in a hurry. Head coach Bret Bielema needs to rebound in 2009.

Wisconsin's loss won't change many opinions about the Big Ten. Six games remain, but if the Champs Sports Bowl is any indication, it could be a rough postseason for Big Ten teams.

Champs Sports Bowl preview

December, 27, 2008
12/27/08
11:29
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten bowl season finally kicks off today as Wisconsin (7-5) faces Florida State (8-4) in the Champs Sports Bowl (ESPN, 4:30 p.m. ET). Here's a quick look at the matchup.

WHO TO WATCH: Wisconsin running backs P.J. Hill and John Clay

The Badgers' upset hopes rest on the burly backs of Hill and Clay, who respectively rank 48th and 62nd nationally in rushing. The plan calls for Wisconsin to pound the ball and overpower Florida State's speedier defense with a rushing attack that led the Big Ten and ranks 14th nationally (212 yards per game). Wisconsin had a 100-yard rusher (Hill or Clay) in each of its final four games, and both backs hit triple digits against Michigan State and Indiana.

WHAT TO WATCH: Wisconsin's offensive line against Everette Brown

Sacks have been a problem at times for quarterback Dustin Sherer, and the Badgers' mammoth offensive line must keep Brown out of the pocket. Florida State ties for sixth nationally in sacks (3 sacks per game), with Brown and Neefy Moffett leading the way. The Badgers' line entered the season as one of the team's strengths. Today is the time to prove it.

WHY TO WATCH: It's the first Big Ten bowl game

You've waited 35 days to see a Big Ten team in action again, longer than any other fan base in college football. Wisconsin isn't as big an underdog as many of its Big Ten brethren, and despite a disappointing regular season, the Badgers could get the league off to a positive start in the postseason. The game also pits power versus speed, which is always entertaining.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

After a lengthy hiatus, What to Watch is back as we take a look at the first three Big Ten bowl games.

  • Champs Sports -- Wisconsin vs. Florida State, Dec. 27
  • Valero Alamo -- Northwestern vs. Missouri, Dec. 29
  • Insight -- Minnesota vs. Kansas, Dec. 31

Here are some things to keep an eye on as you watch the games (in order).

1. Wisconsin's power run game -- The Champs Sports Bowl will feature strength vs. speed, and Wisconsin needs to overpower a swift Florida State defense with 473 pounds of running back. P.J. Hill and John Clay form a bruising rushing tandem, and Wisconsin will have to control the clock and wear down the Seminoles. The Hill-Clay attack seemed to surge in the final five games.

2. Wisconsin linebacker Culmer St. Jean -- He appeared in every game this fall and racked up 16 tackles, but the Badgers sophomore linebacker takes on a much bigger role against the 'Noles. St. Jean will start at middle linebacker as Jaevery McFadden moves to the weak side to replace the injured Jonathan Casillas. Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said St. Jean has been peaking in practice heading into the bowl.

3. Wisconsin wide receiver David Gilreath -- The sophomore could be an X-factor in this game. He took on a bigger role in the rushing attack late in the season, but Wisconsin has to find better ways to use his speed. It's baffling that Wisconsin ranks last nationally in kickoff returns despite having Gilreath as the return man. If offensive coordinator Paul Chryst finds creative ways to use Gilreath, Wisconsin could surprise Florida State.

4. The Badgers' offensive line -- Sure, they're big, and at times they've played well as a unit, but few things have gone according to plan for the Wisconsin offense this season. The next task is a daunting one -- finding a way to block Florida State defensive end Everette Brown. Sophomore left tackle Gabe Carimi receives the undesirable task of trying to keep Brown from digesting quarterback Dustin Sherer.

5. C.J. Bacher and Northwestern's passing attack -- Northwestern was able to win nine games without summoning superhuman performances from Bacher, who delivered a couple of them last season. But to get win No. 10, Bacher will need to be at his best. Missouri's high-powered offense probably can't be held down for 60 minutes, but the Tigers' pass defense is miserable. Bacher can put up big numbers with a veteran receiving corps, but he must avoid interceptions, his bugaboo, and make more plays in the red zone.

6. Northwestern defensive end Corey Wootton -- There's some talk that Northwestern's all-conference end could enter the NFL draft after a stellar junior season. He can showcase his ability on a national stage against Chase Daniel and Missouri. Northwestern will have to generate a strong pass rush against Daniel, and Wootton leads a defense that led the Big Ten in sacks (33) this fall.

7. Northwestern running back Tyrell Sutton -- Northwestern likely will get its best all-around player back for the Alamo Bowl, but how he responds from left wrist surgery is a big question. Sutton, who typically carries the ball in his right arm, will wear a cast for the game and expects to be fine. The Wildcats struggled to generate a consistent run game without him and need one to control the clock against Missouri.

8. Minnesota's offensive line -- Head coach Tim Brewster acknowledged his team got beat up down the stretch, and no unit suffered more than the offensive line. Brewster brought in veteran line coach Tim Davis after the regular season, and it will be interesting to see what impact Davis has on a young group. The Gophers need to reduce the pressure on quarterback Adam Weber and find a way to run the ball against Kansas.

9. Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker -- The first-team All-Big Ten selection underwent left knee surgery after the regular season but is expected to be fine for the Insight Bowl. Minnesota seemed to lose its consistency on offense after Decker sprained his ankle Nov. 1, and Weber undoubtedly will be thrilled to have his top target healthy again. If Weber and Deck regain their rhythm and keep Todd Reesing and the Kansas offense off the field, Minnesota should have a shot in this one.

10. Gophers secondary and forcing turnovers -- Minnesota built its 7-1 start on amazingly opportunistic defense, particularly from the secondary. The Gophers' four starting defensive backs -- Traye Simmons, Tramaine Brock, Marcus Sherels and Kyle Theret -- have combined for 10 interceptions, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. The group also owns a whopping 47 pass deflections. Minnesota's secondary has to force mistakes from Reesing, who has thrown 12 interceptions this season.

What to watch in the ACC bowls

December, 24, 2008
12/24/08
10:42
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Here are a few things to watch in the pre-New Year's Day ACC bowls:

1. The ACC's win-loss record. With seven of the 10 games being played between Dec. 27-Dec. 31, this is the conference's chance to make a statement and show how far it has come since last year's two-win postseason. So far, so good, as Wake Forest got the ACC off to a 1-0 start.

2. North Carolina's defense against Pat White. The Tar Heels couldn't beat Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor, and White is even more dangerous. In addition to his 135.64 pass efficiency rating, White has also accounted for 83.5 rushing yards per game.

3. Wisconsin's time of possession. The Badgers best chance of winning this game is by running the ball repeatedly, wearing out FSU's defense and controlling the clock. It's what they've done all season, as Wisconsin is No. 22 in the nation in time of possession with 31:22. If the Seminoles can contain P.J. Hill, they should come out on top.

4. Miami quarterback Jacory Harris. He won when starter Robert Marve was suspended in the season opener and will have to do it again, as Marve is suspended for the Emerald Bowl. Harris has proven before he can win games, as he came off the bench and accounted for five touchdowns against Duke. But he has also looked cold and uncomfortable at times in the formula Randy Shannon has used him in. He has completed 60.8 percent of his passes for 1001 yards, six interceptions and 10 touchdowns.

5. Miami's run defense. The Hurricanes will need to play better than they did against NC State, when they allowed 219 yards on the ground. Cal running back Jahvid Best finished the regular season with 1,394 rushing yards and will be playing about six miles from his campus.

6. NC State quarterback Russell Wilson vs. Rutgers quarterback Mike Teel. Both have led their teams to impressive late-season rallies, and one will be the difference in this game. Wilson has a 134.28 passer rating and has thrown just one interception this season. Teel is 16th in the nation in passing efficiency at 148.53.

7. Georgia Tech's rushing offense vs. LSU's rushing defense. This is the key statistical matchup in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, as the Yellow Jackets rank third in the nation with 282.3 rushing yards per game, and LSU is No. 17 in the nation in rushing defense, with 105.7 yards per game and just 3.3 yards per carry.

8. Boston College quarterback Dominique Davis. He's trying to rebound from a subpar performance in the ACC championship game and has been working hard to improve his pocket presence. He'll face a tough Vanderbilt defense.

9. BC's non-offensive touchdown streak. The Eagles are tied for first in the country with eight non-offensive touchdowns, and have scored on either defense or special teams in seven straight games, the longest streak in the nation. Can they keep it going until the end?

10. UNC's record-setting receiver, Hakeem Nicks. Nicks needs one more touchdown to set the school record with 10. One more would also equal the career record of 19. He also needs five more receptions to break the UNC career record of 177, and is just 58 yards shy of moving into 12th place on the ACC's career receiving list.

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

It's not quite the holiday vacation yet, and there are still plenty of ACC bowls to talk about. Today we'll focus on the Champs Sports Bowl and the Emerald Bowl. Let's start with the Seminoles.

Here are three reasons why Florida State will win:

1. Speed. The Seminoles have it, and Wisconsin isn't used to seeing it. Badgers quarterback Dustin Sherer, who replaced Allan Evridge as the starter in October, will get up close and personal with FSU defensive end Everette Brown, one of the best pass-rushers in the country. And the Badgers' scoring defense has been friendly, allowing 25 points per game. FSU has plenty of speedy playmakers ready to take advantage of a veteran defensive line that has underperformed this season.

2. Home turf. Florida State has never lost a game in Orlando (6-0-2), and is 2-0 in bowl games there. Bobby Bowden played -- and won -- the first bowl game of his career in Orlando, a 40-17 win over Texas Tech in the 1977 Tangerine Bowl.

3. Special teams. The Seminoles have Lou Groza award winner Graham Gano, and Wisconsin has the worst kickoff return unit in the country. FSU's Michael Ray Garvin leads the country in kickoff returns, and Gano leads the country in field goals. Gano is averaging 41.1 yards per punt, and Wisconsin is 48th in the country in punt returns.

Here are three reasons why FSU won't win:

1. Momentum. Wisconsin enters this game on a three-game winning streak while Florida State is trying to regroup after losing two of its last three, including that pounding the Noles took from Florida.

2. The Big Ten's No. 1 rushing offense. This is obviously the Badgers' strength, as they lead the Big Ten with 212 rushing yards per game, good for 14th in the country. It's the best the program has been on the ground since 1999. Junior P.J. Hill and redshirt freshman John Clay combined to run for 1,866 yards this season. Over the past four games, Hill and Clay each went over the 100-yard mark three times and combined to total 773 yards (an average of 193.3 ypg). They also scored 13 touchdowns over that span. Wisconsin will try to pound the ball and control the clock.

3. Wisconsin's secondary. Niles Brinkley, Allen Langford and Shane Carter have combined for eight interceptions this season, and Jay Valai has developed a reputation as a hard hitter. If the Badgers can force quarterback Christian Ponder to throw the ball, this group is capable of making game-changing plays.

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