NCF Nation: Randy Gregory

If the preseason All-America teams are any indication, the Big Ten will have a very good year in the offensive backfield -- both carrying the ball out of it and penetrating it.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Reese Strickland/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon has averaged a gaudy 8.1 yards per rushing attempt during his career.
Running back and defensive line appear to be the league's two strongest position groups -- possibly by a wide margin -- entering the 2014 season. Athlon on Monday came out with its preseason All-America teams, following up Phil Steele, who released his last week. Three Big Ten players made Athlon's first team: Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett and Michigan State punter Mike Sadler. Four other defensive linemen -- Nebraska's Randy Gregory (second team), Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun (second team), Ohio State's Joey Bosa (fourth team) and Iowa's Carl Davis (fourth team) -- made one of the remaining three teams, and two other running backs -- Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah (second team) and Michigan State's Jeremy Langford (fourth team) -- also appear.

Steele had Bennett and Calhoun on his first team, Gregory and Bosa on his second team and Davis on his third team. Like Athlon, he lists Gordon as a first-team running back and Abdullah on the second team. It's interesting to see Calhoun getting a bit more love than Gregory, even though Gregory led the Big Ten in sacks and is projected as a higher draft pick.

Not sure about you, but I can't wait for Calhoun and Gregory to share the field Oct. 4 at Spartan Stadium, or for longtime friends Gordon and Abdullah to match up on Nov. 15 at Camp Randall Stadium. Both matchups should be fun to watch all season.

It's not unusual for defensive line and running back to headline the Big Ten. Both positions historically are strong in the league, especially defensive line. A potential concern is that only one quarterback -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller -- and zero wide receivers make any of Athlon's teams. Steele has two Big Ten wideouts, Maryland's Stefon Diggs and Michigan's Devin Funchess (has played tight end but listed as a receiver), on his third team. Still, it's clear these are two positions where the Big Ten continues to need upgrades.

Other Athlon preseason All-America selections include: Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff (second team), Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman (third team), Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond (third team), Ohio State punter Cameron Johnston (third team), Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan (fourth team), Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes (fourth team) and Northwestern punt returner Venric Mark (fourth team).

The Big Ten is tied with the Pac-12 for third among overall Athlon All-America selections with 18, trailing both the ACC (27) and SEC (26).
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Let’s face it, the Nebraska defense played at an average level in 2013.

Early in the season, the Huskers were below average. Remember the 38 consecutive points scored by UCLA and the 465 yards surrendered to South Dakota State? Later, Nebraska rated better than the norm, winning away from home against Michigan, Penn State and Georgia largely on the back of the Blackshirts.

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesRandy Gregory expects the Nebraska defense to reach new heights this fall.
But in 12 of 15 key defensive categories, Nebraska ranked no higher than third in the Big Ten and no lower than ninth.

So yes, as a whole, the group was average.

All-league defensive end Randy Gregory and his teammates want a new label for 2014.

Dominant or suffocating -- either is fine. How about being the strength of coach Bo Pelini’s seventh team?

“Definitely,” Gregory said. “Let’s be physical. We can dominate. If we play our game, we can play with anybody.”

The defensive performance and growth this spring appear to substantiate Gregory’s claim. This Nebraska defense looks stronger, deeper and more physical than any of the past few seasons.

Pelini’s defenses at Nebraska in 2009 and as coordinator in 2003 stand out as the best of the post-championship era in Lincoln. Both units ranked among the top two nationally in scoring and passing yardage allowed. They both featured a play-making All-American among the front seven. And both units surrendered fewer than 300 yards per game. They were the only Nebraska defenses of the past 12 seasons to reach the threshold that was commonly crossed in the 1990s, when the Huskers contended for five national titles, winning three.

“I think we can be a top-10 defense,” linebacker Zaire Anderson said. “If we keep working and making progress, we can be a great defense.”

Why such optimism? Well, first of all, it’s spring; positive energy abounds in April. But such talk did not flow from Nebraska camp a year ago as the Huskers attempted to replace several key pieces.

“They learned a lot last year,” linebacker Trevor Roach said.

Through the growing pains emerged a mix of experience and athleticism from front to back. Much like its dynamic mixture at I-back on the offensive side, the Huskers did not necessarily concoct the diversity of this defensive lineup.

It just kind of happened, with Gregory, an All-America candidate in his second season at Nebraska, anchoring a front four that has turned the heads of many observers this spring. At linebacker, seniors Anderson and Roach and junior David Santos have grown into the elders, but youth still rules.

In the secondary, where the Huskers need it most, cornerback Josh Mitchell is the vocal leader of the entire defense. And perhaps more than anywhere else on the field, the maturity of young safeties LeRoy Alexander and Nathan Gerry -- in the absence of injured veteran Corey Cooper -- has rated as a key surprise.

At all three levels, positive storylines have emerged this spring.

The evidence of defensive chemistry was on display Wednesday in Nebraska’s 10th practice of the spring.

Late in the workout in a sequence between the top offense and the Blackshirts, defensive tackle Vincent Valentine, Anderson and Gregory pressured quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. on three consecutive plays, the last of which resulted in a Gerry interception that had the whole defense abuzz.

“As much as I’ve seen, I know we’ve got a lot of upside right now,” said cornerback Jonathan Rose, who is competing with newcomer Byerson Cockrell for a top job opposite Mitchell. “We’ve got a lot to prove. It’s like a whole 'nother defense coming out this year.”

Gregory said he liked what he saw, too, on Wednesday, but the junior warned that a few practices in the spring can mark only the beginning.

Even early in the season last fall, the defense possessed plenty of talent, he said. It just wasn't making plays.

“We have a clear mind coming into this year,” Gregory said. “Tackling for us was a problem last year, but I don’t think we were a bad tackling team. It’s just all mental.

“It all starts, really, in the film room.”

Gregory notices more teammates studying film. They’re “taking it upon themselves to put in the work,” he said.

The Huskers could use a highly rated defense to help ease pressure on the offense, which will work with a reconstructed line and an inexperienced group at quarterback. Behind third-year sophomore Armstrong, who started eight games as a substitute for the injured Taylor Martinez in 2013, no quarterback has handled a collegiate snap.

"We have faith in our offense, certainly,” Roach said, “because we have a ton of weapons. But we have to focus on us. We have to worry about what we’re doing. I get the vibe that we have the potential to do great things.”
If Minnesota continues to ascend, its coaches will start bringing in more recruits who resemble Ra'Shede Hageman.

Until then, the staff will continue to find prospects who resemble Theiren Cockran -- and then go to work.

"We're in the department of development," Minnesota defensive line coach Jeff Phelps said.

As Minnesota says goodbye to Hageman, a freakish defensive tackle who achieved his prodigious potential in his final college season, it turns to Cockran, the latest developmental discovery for the Gophers' coaches. Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun and Nebraska's Randy Gregory are the launching points for any discussion of Big Ten defensive ends entering the 2014 season. Ohio State's Joey Bosa and Noah Spence inserted themselves into the conversation with impressive sack totals last season.

[+] EnlargeTheiren Cockran
AP Photo/Kevin TanakaDefensive end Theiren Cockran will command a lot more attention from Minnesota's opponents in 2014.
But Cockran belongs as well, even if many around the league haven't heard of the Minnesota junior. He led the Big Ten in forced fumbles per game (four in 13 contests) and finished third in the league in sacks per game (7.5) and 10th in tackles for loss (10). Cockran had three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in league games.

"His development is coming along as we thought it would," Phelps said. "We knew it wasn't going to be in Year 1. Year 2 was a learning experience for him, and he's been able to become a better football player because of that."

Opinions differ on how much Cockran weighed when he made traveled from Homestead, Fla., to Minneapolis. Cockran says he was around 215 pounds, but Phelps admits, "That might be stretching it a little bit."

Minnesota listed the 6-foot-6 Cockran at 210 pounds in its announcement of the 2010 recruiting class. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said Cockran was only about 190 pounds when the staff, then at Northern Illinois, first started recruiting him.

"We thought, hey, that's a kid we might have a chance to [sign]," Claeys recalled, "because he won't have the size that some of the big boys are looking for. Some of those you hit on. Some don't get big enough to help you and some do."

Despite Cockran's size, the Minnesota coaches always pegged him as a defensive end, even in the Big Ten. They rarely shy away from lighter ends, especially if they have superior speed to rush the passer.

Cockran had both speed and length, thanks to a wingspan of 6 feet, 9.5 inches, which helps keep offensive tackles away. But he needed to get bigger.

"I didn't want to rush it because I wanted to be able to keep my speed," Cockran said. "After a while, I just had the weight come to me naturally through the weight training and things like that, eating healthy and trying to stay healthy."

He now weighs about 250 pounds. Phelps would like to see him around 255 when the season kicks off, and Cockran's long-term target weight is between 260-265 pounds.

Cockran knew he didn't come in as a finished product. He also knew what can happen with the right development. Minnesota coaches often talk about Larry English, a defensive end who added about 30 pounds during his time at Northern Illinois, won consecutive MAC defensive player of the year awards and was a first-round pick in the 2009 NFL draft.

"I've definitely watched him on film," said Cockran, who redshirted in 2011 and appeared in all 13 games as a reserve in 2012, recording six tackles and a sack. "He didn't take any plays off. He chased plays down from the back side; he chased plays down on the field. That's what made him a great player."

Cockran also benefited from being around Hageman, a former high school tight end and basketball star who used his length, athleticism and strength at defensive tackle, a spot typically reserved for boxier players. Hageman was one of the first players Cockran met after arriving at Minnesota.

"I was wondering to myself, 'Who is this guy?'" Cockran recalled. "Ever since, I watched him. He plays with aggression. He loves the game. He showed me how to be physical, how to train in the offseason, how to work hard in the weight room.

"I took a lot from him."

[+] EnlargeRa'Shede Hageman
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota defensive standout Ra'Shede Hageman has been a mentor to Theiren Cockran the last three years.
Hageman led off every opponent's scouting report. His size helped him knock down eight passes, second-most on the team, and he led the Gophers with 13 tackles for loss.

Without Hageman commanding double-teams in the middle, Cockran figures to get more attention this fall.

"He opened some people's eyes a little bit around the conference," Phelps said. "With Ra'Shede's departure, who might be the next big threat? T.C. might be that guy, but he's got to continue to be that threat off the edge of a guy who can beat you with speed and power."

Cockran had some contact with the University of South Florida during the recruiting process, but few in-state schools showed much interest. It didn't bother him, as he wanted to leave Florida and experience "something new."

After Jerry Kill moved from Northern Illinois to Minnesota, Cockran visited campus just before signing day.

A late January trip to Minneapolis might not be an ideal recruiting tool, especially for a player from sun-splashed Florida. But for Cockran, it worked.

"It was love at first sight," he said. "Compared to places I've been, people here in Minnesota are very nice, very welcoming. They have great attitudes here. They welcome you with open arms."

Cockran will be a fan favorite this fall if he builds on his strong sophomore season. The skinny recruit from Florida is now a fourth-year junior who boasts a unique mix of height, length, speed and power.

He also knows what it takes to be great after being around Hageman and studying defensive ends such as English and Aldon Smith, the long-armed San Francisco 49ers star who Cockran tries to mimic in games.

"He's really on a true timeline," Claeys said, "in developing as a player."

Video: B1G West top returning players

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
10:00
AM ET

As the college football world gets ready for spring football, Toni Collins and ESPN Big Ten reporter Mitch Sherman look at some of the top returning players in the new Big Ten West Division.

Big Ten's best of 2013

January, 14, 2014
Jan 14
10:00
AM ET
We're starting to wrap up the 2013 Big Ten season, which included the rise of Michigan State to elite status, more accolades for Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, Iowa's mini-renaissance, Northwestern's backslide, Jerry Kill's health-related absence and Minnesota's impressive response, up-and-down seasons from Michigan and Nebraska and much more. The league's national title drought reached its 11th year, but Michigan State brought home a Rose Bowl championship to the frosty Midwest.

To put a bow on the season, here are some Big Ten superlatives:

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio and Connor Cook
Harry How/Getty ImagesMark Dantonio made seemingly all of the right moves in 2013, including sticking with Connor Cook at QB.
Best coach: Mark Dantonio, Michigan State. Dantonio helped the Spartans find the inches that separated them in 2012, when they lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points. He made the right calls on offense after a shaky start, and the Spartans ended up winning their final nine games, including their first outright Big Ten title and first Rose Bowl championship in 26 years.

Best player, offense: Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller. No player dominates the scouting report for opposing defenses like the Buckeyes signal-caller, who complemented premier rushing skills with a more accurate arm, despite some late struggles. He won Big Ten MVP honors and league offensive player of the year honors for the second consecutive season, had 3,162 yards of offense and 36 touchdowns (24 pass, 12 rush). Miller led Ohio State to a second straight undefeated regular season and will be back as a senior in 2014.

Best player, defense: Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard. The nation's No. 1 defense had several standouts, but Dennard tops the list after leading the "No Fly Zone" secondary and earning the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back. A first-team All-American, Dennard recorded four interceptions and 10 pass deflections, and repeatedly shut down opposing wide receivers. He was a finalist for the Nagurski Trophy.

Best moment: Many wondered how Michigan State would fare in the Rose Bowl without star middle linebacker and co-captain Max Bullough, suspended a week before the game. Turns out the Spartans were just fine as Kyler Elsworth and Darien Harris filled in well. Fittingly, MSU sealed its victory on a fourth-down stop of Stanford, where Elsworth leaped over the pile to stuff Ryan Hewitt. The play epitomized a team that overcame every obstacle and a defense that slammed the door on the opposition all year long. Elsworth was named Rose Bowl defensive player of the game.

Best rivalry game: Ohio State at Michigan. We haven't been able to say this very often about The Game in recent years, but the Wolverines and Buckeyes provided plenty of drama on Nov. 30 at the Big House. Neither defense had answers for the opposing offense and the teams combined for 83 points, 74 first downs and 1,129 total yards. Michigan went for the win with 32 seconds left, but its 2-point conversion attempt failed and Ohio State survived.

Best play: Nebraska's season hung in the balance Nov. 2 as the Huskers, coming off of a road loss to Minnesota, trailed Northwestern 24-21 with four seconds left at the Wildcats' 49-yard line. Huskers quarterback Ron Kellogg III, the team's third-stringer entering the season, evaded the rush and launched a Hail Mary to the end zone, which freshman wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp caught following a deflection for the winning touchdown. It saved Nebraska's season and possibly coach Bo Pelini's job.

Best coaching decision: Connor Cook didn't do much in a loss to Notre Dame to separate himself from the other Spartans quarterbacks. But after going to Andrew Maxwell for the final drive against the Irish, Dantonio and the staff decided to stick with Cook for the Big Ten season. It gave Cook the confidence he needed to lead MSU's offense to a Big Ten title.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Gallon
AP Photo/Lon HorwedelMichigan WR Jeremy Gallon had a game for the ages against Indiana.
Best individual performance: Michigan wide receiver Jeremy Gallon against Indiana. Sure, the Hoosiers' defense has been abysmal forever, but you just don't see too many wide receivers rack up 369 receiving yards, much less in a league game. Gallon set a Big Ten record for receiving yards and recorded the second-highest total for a receiver in FBS history. He had 14 receptions, two for touchdowns. Quarterback Devin Gardner had a team-record 503 passing yards. Ohio State's Miller had big performances against both Penn State and Iowa, Christian Hackenberg lit up Wisconsin's defense, and Cook recorded his first two career 300-yard passing performances in the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl.

Best freshman: Penn State's Hackenberg. New Lions coach James Franklin inherits a future superstar under center, as Hackenberg backed up his recruiting hype in his first season. Hackenberg finished third in the Big Ten in passing (246.2 YPG) and threw 20 touchdown passes against 10 interceptions. He completed the season by connecting on 70 percent of his passes for 339 yards and four touchdowns against Wisconsin.

Best newcomer: Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory. The junior-college transfer excited Nebraska fans when he came to Lincoln and left them even happier after his first season. Gregory led the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks and tied for second in tackles for loss with 17. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and triggered Nebraska's improvement on defense down the stretch.

Best new coaching hire: Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. The Illini improved their win total from two to four this season, but things would have been worse if not for Cubit, who helped Illinois improve from 119th in 2012 to 46th this year. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was the Big Ten's only 3,000-yard passer. Cubit might have saved head coach Tim Beckman's job for another year, as the Illini now look for a similar jump on defense.
A man wearing a newsboy cap approached Kirk Cousins and offered congratulations to the former Michigan State quarterback, who held court with reporters in the Rose Bowl tunnel moments after the Spartans beat Stanford.

Jim Delany wasn't easy to spot in the headgear, and one could argue that the Big Ten commissioner wisely disguised himself on a day that hasn't been kind to his league in recent years. But for the first time in four years, and for just the second time in 14 years, Delany walked out of the Rose Bowl with a smile on his face.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesConnor Cook and Michigan State gave the Big Ten plenty to celebrate.
For Delany and the Big Ten, the Rose Bowl sits on a pedestal. And after just one Big Ten win in the previous 10 tries, Michigan State's 24-20 triumph in the game's 100th edition was cause for celebration. MSU's victory doesn't dull the pain of the Big Ten's second consecutive 2-5 bowl season, but it certainly helps to prevail in the most important postseason game on the biggest stage against the best opponent.

The Spartans won a team-record 13 games and completed the best season for a Big Ten team in recent memory, finishing No. 3 in the final polls. Nebraska provided the other bright spot, upsetting Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl thanks to a stingy red-zone defense and several standout performances from seniors.

Elsewhere, the Big Ten felt the familiar postseason sting of what might have been. The league easily could have had a better record in the Florida bowls, but Wisconsin and Ohio State had sloppy performances and Iowa's offense never got on track against LSU.

Wisconsin never punted in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina and had two 100-yard rushers in Melvin Gordon and James White, but the Badgers committed four turnovers and scored just 17 offensive points. A team that had been so solid through the first 11 games unraveled in the regular-season finale against Penn State and in the bowl, failing to capitalize on a great chance to build on a 17-13 third-quarter lead. Dave Aranda's defense was shredded for the second straight game as South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw accounted for five touchdowns (3 pass, 1 rush, 1 receiving). A decorated Wisconsin senior classes ended 0-4 in Jan. 1 bowls.

Ohio State also finished the season on a surprising losing streak, squandering two second-half leads in a 40-35 loss to Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl. Like Wisconsin, the Buckeyes also were doomed by turnovers, particularly a muffed punt by Corey Brown in the third quarter with a nine-point lead. A depleted Ohio State defense couldn't stop Clemson's big-play receivers, the coaches once again avoided running back Carlos Hyde in crunch time, and a banged-up Braxton Miller committed turnovers on Ohio State's final two possessions.

Injuries and personnel issues were a theme throughout the Big Ten during the bowl season. Wisconsin and Iowa saw their starting quarterbacks hurt during games, while Michigan's top signal-caller, Devin Gardner, showed up in Arizona on crutches and didn't play in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Michigan State overcame the loss of starting middle linebacker and co-captain Max Bullough, as Kyler Elsworth and Darien Harris filled in well. Ohio State played without top cornerback Bradley Roby (injury) and top pass-rusher Noah Spence (suspension).

A little more offense could have put Iowa and Minnesota over the top in their bowl games. Minnesota didn't reach the end zone for three quarters in the Texas Bowl, eventually falling 21-17 to a mediocre Syracuse team. Iowa's only touchdowns came on drives of 1 and 4 yards, as the Hawkeyes had just 11 first downs and 233 total yards against LSU.

It wouldn't have taken much for the Big Ten to post a winning record in the bowls. The league had only one non-competitive performance, coming from Michigan in the Wings Bowl, as the Wolverines ended a disappointing season on a down note. The defense never gave first-time starting quarterback Shane Morris much of a chance, allowing touchdowns on Kansas State's first three possessions. Morris held his own but Michigan didn't reach the end zone until the 58th minute in what proved to be the final game for beleaguered offensive coordinator Al Borges.

Nebraska started New Year's Day on a good note as wide receiver Quincy Enunwa triggered the win with a 99-yard touchdown reception, while defensive linemen Jason Ankrah, Randy Gregory and Thad Randle limited Georgia's offense. Michigan State capped the afternoon by rallying past Stanford behind a suffocating defense and quarterback Connor Cook, who collected another postseason MVP honor and his second straight 300-yard passing performance.

The Spartans boost hope for the future after another Big Ten postseason rife with missed opportunities. The league has another team capable of competing for a national championship.

The playoff arrives in 2014, along with a more palatable Big Ten bowl lineup and most likely more bowl-eligible teams. The Big Ten took a small step in the postseason after a historically bad 2012 campaign, but more progress must be made for the rest of college football to start tipping its cap.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Five thousand or so Nebraska fans still sat in their soaked seats at EverBank Field about 15 minutes after the Huskers wrapped up a 24-19 win on New Year’s Day over No. 22 Georgia in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. They chanted, “Bo, Bo, Bo,” as hugs and handshakes ruled the day below around the trophy stand.

Coach Bo Pelini took the mike. He thanked TaxSlayer.com, the sponsor. (So polished, that Bo.)

He lauded MVP Quincy Enunwa, who caught the longest pass in college football history in the third quarter. Pelini said he’s never been more proud of a group of players.

“We’re looking forward to some championships in the near future,” the coach said.

Where were we? Did someone hit the reset button on the season or transport everyone here five years into the future or past?

[+] EnlargeQuincy Enunwa
AP Photo/Stephen B. MortonQuincy Enunwa caught two touchdown passes in Nebraska's victory over Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla.
This is not the Nebraska football team we last saw on Nov. 28, losing by three touchdowns on its home turf to Iowa as Pelini ranted in the postgame circus as if he had his bags packed in the office upstairs.

The Huskers were fundamentally sound Wednesday. They tackled exceptionally well. They were smart, making good decisions under duress. They adjusted well at halftime. They won the turnover battle. They scored twice after takeaways. They were ultra-efficient in the red zone -- on both sides.

Nebraska did not botch a punt return. The Huskers won a game against an SEC team despite being outgained by more than 100 yards.

This is what Nebraska football can be.

Pelini said he doesn’t believe the solid performance will have a carryover effect in Lincoln. The Huskers won’t reconvene on the practice field until March. They don’t play again for almost eight months. So much will change before the meat of the next nonconference season against Fresno State and Miami.

The Huskers ought to remember what they can from Wednesday, though.

“I think what it does is serve as an example for your football team,” Pelini said.

Nebraska, in October and November, was minus-16 in turnover margin. That ranked dead last in the nation; no other program was worse than minus-12. Since 2008, Nebraska is minus-31 in turnover margin -- 106th nationally, the worst by 42 spots among programs that won 70 percent of their games.

Nebraska couldn’t get out of its own way this season. When penalties struck, the timing was often bad. When they missed tackles, it happened in bunches.

In other words, the Huskers operated regularly like the opposite of a championship team.

Pelini said the Nebraska coaches talked with their players before the Gator Bowl about the areas that hurt the Huskers this season. They’ve been talking for six years.

Did it finally sink in? If so, run with it.

“It’s the first game of the new year,” defensive end Randy Gregory said. “I think we intend on taking this momentum through the rest of the year.”

Gregory got tangled early with Georgia left tackle Kenarious Gates, and it got worse from there. Twice, fights nearly erupted. Gregory said he liked it.

“I haven’t really been a fan of the SEC,” Gregory said. “To go out there and play against these guys, I think it was big for all of us.”

He contributed a sack on Wednesday, his 10th of the season. Gregory is an SEC-caliber defender. He said after the game that he’s definitely set to return as a fourth-year junior in 2014.

“I’m here,” he said. “I’m behind Bo.”

I-back Ameer Abdullah wasn’t so certain. He’ll soon make a decision on the NFL after rushing for 122 yards against Georgia -- his 11th triple-digit game – to reach 1,690 yards this season. That total is fourth in school history.

Beyond Gregory and Abdullah, the Huskers aren’t stocked with SEC-type talent. This isn’t the 1990s. The dynamic has changed drastically since that championship era, a reality Nebraska and its fans can accept.

What they shouldn’t accept is mistake-filled football. The Huskers beat Georgia largely by avoiding mistakes. In the Big Ten, they can win big that way.

After the Bulldogs scored their lone touchdown to pull within five points on the first play of the fourth quarter and the teams traded punts, freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong gathered his teammates on the sideline.

“We’re in control of this game,” Armstrong said he told them. “The defense is going to get stops. Just stay calm and run our offense.”

The Huskers won as Georgia stalled at the Nebraska 16-yard line with less than 30 seconds to play. Armstrong was right. He was calm and cool, as usual, in the aftermath.

"I think he’s going to lead this team to a championship,” offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles said after his final game.

Sounds kind of simple, the formula of strong leadership and fundamental, opportunistic play.

Six years in the making -- three years after a seismic shift to the Big Ten -- the Huskers saw on Wednesday what they can be. Where from here? We’ll know in about nine months.
video

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Nebraska extended its streak of nine-win seasons to six under coach Bo Pelini with a 24-19 upset victory over No. 22 Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. Here's a quick recap:

It was over when: The Bulldogs (8-5) turned it over on downs with 25 seconds to play as tight end Arthur Lynch dropped a fourth-and-3 pass from quarterback Hutson Mason inside the Huskers' 10-yard line. Nebraska linebacker David Santos received credit for a breakup, but it appeared to bounce straight off the hands of Lynch, who was the top receiving target all afternoon for Mason.

Game ball goes to: Tommy Armstrong. The Huskers' redshirt freshman quarterback was cool under pressure in his return after missing most of the season's final two games with an ankle injury. Armstrong threw a pair of touchdown passes and had another dropped. He made smart decisions in the run game and largely avoided mistakes.

Stat of the game: Twelve. That's the touchdown catch total for Nebraska senior Quincy Enunwa after his two scores on Wednesday, including a 99-yard reception from Armstrong in the third quarter. Enunwa's total breaks a Nebraska record set in 1971 by Johnny Rodgers, one year before he won the Heisman Trophy. A physical force in the run and pass game, Enunwa, by the way, didn't make it on the Big Ten's all-conference list, even at honorable mention. With the likes of Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis and Penn State's Allen Robinson, it was an exceptional season for receivers in the league. But Enunwa deserves some recognition.

Unsung heroes: Thad Randle and Jason Ankrah, the seniors up front on the Nebraska defense. Randle has never been healthy in college, and Ankrah was without help on Wednesday from Avery Moss, who didn't travel to Florida. They formed an important part of the front seven, which was as usual led by Randy Gregory at defensive end. They slowed Todd Gurley and pressured Mason on Wednesday. In the red zone, the Huskers were especially strong.

What Nebraska learned: It's got a gamer in Armstrong, the quarterback who started eight games this year and will enter spring practice as the leader to start in 2014. He'll get pushed by Johnny Stanton and possibly incoming freshman Zack Darlington, but Armstrong might be tough to unseat after the poise he showed Wednesday. If I-back Ameer Abdullah and Gregory return, the building blocks exist for Nebraska (9-4) to break through in 2014. It would help mightily to use Wednesday as a springboard to play fundamental football in the new year and capitalize on opponents' errors.

What Georgia learned: Transition from the Aaron Murray era won't be easy. When a program has played with one quarterback for four seasons, the offensive system morphs to reflect his strengths. Under Mason, the Bulldogs must find the right balance. It wasn't going to happen in this bowl season. The problems in the secondary on Wednesday can't be explained away by injuries. While Georgia has the talent to field an elite defense, it never came together over the past four months.

To watch the trophy presentation of the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, click here.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Nebraska seeks to avenge its loss in the Capital One Bowl from a year ago against No. 22 Georgia on Wednesday at noon ET on ESPN2. Here’s a preview:

Who to watch: The quarterbacks are a good place to start. They won't be Taylor Martinez and Aaron Murray, the record-setting senior duo who led these teams to a combined 76 points last year in Orlando; rather freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. is expected to start for the eighth time this season for Nebraska, and junior Hutson Mason gets the call for the Bulldogs for a second straight game. Also, keep an eye on Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory, an SEC-caliber star with size, speed and strength. If he’s not the best player on the field, it might be Georgia running back Todd Gurley.

What to watch: Statistically, it’s difficult to identify too many spots at which one team might exploit the other. Remember, though, Georgia was challenged by a schedule that featured five teams arguably as good or better than Nebraska’s best foe. So the numbers matter little in gauging matchups. Here’s a hunch that the Huskers, who couldn’t stop Minnesota or, for one quarter, South Dakota State, will struggle to contain Gurley. He was in contention for the title of best SEC back before the midseason injury. And watch the matchup of UGA receivers Chris Conley and Michael Bennett against Nebraska defensive backs Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste. It should be good.

Why to watch: The trio of Big Ten-SEC clashes on New Year’s Day is always entertaining -- at least, it is for fans of the SEC teams. Seriously, the Big Ten is 0-2 in bowls (0-4 if you count 2014 newcomers Rutgers and Maryland), and the SEC is 3-0. Perhaps this game presents the Big Ten with its best chance to win on Wednesday. If that doesn’t get you, tune in to see if Nebraska's Bo Pelini can join the likes of Mack Brown, Tom Osborne, Steve Spurrier and Barry Switzer as the eighth BCS-conference coach in history to win nine games in each of his first six years at a school.

Prediction: Georgia 34, Nebraska 24. A big day for Gurley and a typical turnover or two will spell doom for the Huskers. Look for Ameer Abdullah to keep the Huskers close for a while, but like last year, the Bulldogs will make plays when necessary late.

Big Ten players to watch in the bowls

December, 19, 2013
12/19/13
9:00
AM ET
Big Ten bowl season is rapidly approaching. With that in mind, today we offer you five players to watch during the league's seven bowl games:

Michigan State QB Connor Cook
Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO vs. Stanford

The Spartans developed into a different team when Cook started playing well at quarterback. Ohio State forced Michigan State's offense to become one dimensional for most of the Big Ten title game, and Cook responded with a career-high 304 passing yards and three touchdowns to win MVP honors. Stanford stuffs opponents' running games and can really get after the quarterback with guys like Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov, so the Spartans will likely need another big game out of Cook to prevail in Pasadena.

[+] EnlargeBradley Roby
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesBradley Roby will have his hands full against Clemson.
Ohio State CB Bradley Roby
Discover Orange Bowl vs. Clemson

Roby did not have the kind of season he envisioned when he decided to come back for his redshirt junior year. But after some early-season struggles, he again rounded into shape as one of the country's top defensive backs. He'll have his hands full against Clemson star receiver Sammy Watkins, or even if he gets matched up with Martavis Bryant. Both are explosive wideouts who are capable of going the distance every snap. Given the weaknesses surrounding the rest of the Buckeyes' pass defense, Roby really has to bring his best effort. NFL scouts will be watching closely.

Wisconsin LT Tyler Marz
Capital One Bowl vs. South Carolina

The Badgers' sophomore didn't get the kind of attention and rave reviews that previous Wisconsin left tackles have received. He also got benched in the season finale against Penn State for doing a poor job in pass protection. Well, he'd better be working overtime on that during bowl practice, because he's about to get a spotlight matchup against Jadeveon Clowney. The Gamecocks defensive end has had an up and down season and has mostly lived off his reputation this year, but he's capable of making a game-changing play in a heartbeat. Just ask Michigan and Vincent Smith. Marz needs to be on point for four quarters.

Iowa LB James Morris
Outback Bowl vs. LSU

As the fourth-year starter at middle linebacker, Morris has been the leader of the Hawkeyes defense. He needs to remain strong in the run game against the Tigers, who figure to rely heavily on 1,000-yard back Jeremy Hill. And with true freshman Anthony Jennings expected to start at quarterback for LSU, Morris can help Iowa disguise coverage and confuse the rookie with his checks. He's also the Hawkeyes' leading sack producer, so getting some pressure on Jennings will be big, too.

Nebraska DE Randy Gregory
TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl vs. Georgia

The Huskers' best chance of slowing down a Bulldogs offense that averaged 38 points in the regular season is to get pressure on the quarterback. Especially since that quarterback is Hutson Mason, not the injured Aaron Murray. (Nebraska is happy to see that, as Murray torched them for 427 passing yards and five touchdowns in last year's Capital One Bowl win). Enter Gregory, who led the Big Ten in sacks this season with 9.5. Gregory is athletic enough to play in the SEC and to give the 'Dawgs fits. He'll also have to be stout against the run since Todd Gurley is one of the most talented backs in the country.

2013 Big Ten regular-season wrap

December, 16, 2013
12/16/13
10:00
AM ET
The talk that Big Ten football has never been worse is still there, but it's just that: talk.

History will show that the league truly reached rock bottom in 2012, when it combusted in nonleague play, sent an 8-5 team to the Rose Bowl, had no postseason-eligible top-15 teams in the final polls and absorbed body blows from September to January. The results this season won't prompt the league office to print "B1G is back" banners, and few would label the Big Ten as the nation's No. 1 or No. 2 conference. Until the Big Ten wins a national championship, it won't win any perception prizes, and the league's crystal-ball drought will reach 11 seasons.

But if you're looking for progress, even minimal progress, the Big Ten provided some in 2013.

Just look at the league's signature event Dec. 7 in Indianapolis. A record crowd and a large media contingent watched two top-10 teams deliver an entertaining game with wild momentum swings and national championship implications on the line. A year earlier, Lucas Oil Stadium was one-third empty as 7-5 Wisconsin blasted Nebraska to go to its third consecutive Rose Bowl only because Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible for postseason play.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State chased down Braxton Miller and Ohio State in a memorable Big Ten championship game.
This season undoubtedly brought more bright spots. Michigan State and Ohio State each went 8-0 in league play and finished in the top seven of the final BCS standings. The Spartans and Buckeyes formed a small but strong elite class with Wisconsin, despite the Badgers' loss to Penn State in the regular-season finale. Minnesota endured the midseason health absence of head coach Jerry Kill and responded by winning four consecutive Big Ten games for the first time in 40 years en route to an 8-4 record. Iowa flipped its record from 4-8 to 8-4, surging behind an underrated defense with an exceptional linebacker corps and an offense that found its identity. Penn State showed the effects of its scholarship losses, but Bill O'Brien's bunch of, er, fighters found a way to post another winning record, capped by a signature win in Madison.

The Big Ten went 10-8 against teams from BCS automatic-qualifying conferences as well as independents Notre Dame and BYU, and Wisconsin could have had another big win against Pac-12 South champion Arizona State before Pac-12 officials intervened.

There was star power on both sides of the ball, not only at some expected positions such as linebacker and running back but also at wide receiver, an incredibly thin spot in 2012 that produced more playmakers this season.

Make no mistake, the Big Ten had its share of disappointments. After a 4-0 record in nonleague play, Northwestern suffered through its longest losing streak in 15 years and fell out of bowl contention. Michigan didn't capitalize on a strong start and its run game reached historic lows in early November. Nebraska couldn't hop off of the roller coaster, and Illinois' Big Ten losing streak reached 20 games before the Illini beat Purdue, one of the worst teams in recent Big Ten history. Indiana missed a bowl despite eight home games and an explosive offense.

Star players such as Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez and Northwestern running back Venric Mark missed most of the season, and a knee injury took Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller out of the Heisman Trophy race.

But the overall picture is a little sunnier for the Big Ten. Now it's time to brighten things further with a decent bowl performance.

Time for some superlatives ...

Offensive MVP: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. He missed time with injury and had some inconsistent passing performances, but he's still the league's most dynamic and dangerous player with the ball in his hands. Miller eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards for the second consecutive season, averaged 6.8 yards per carry, improved his completion percentage from 58.3 to 63.2 and fired 22 touchdown passes against just five interceptions.

Defensive MVP: Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard. Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland won Big Ten defensive player of the year honors, and the Big Ten blog endorsed Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier for the award before the title game. Both are fine choices, but after watching the Big Ten championship, the pick here is Dennard, quite possibly the nation's best cornerback. He shut down opposing receivers all season and recorded four interceptions, 10 pass breakups, two forced fumbles and five quarterback hurries in leading the "No Fly Zone" secondary.

Newcomer of the year: Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg. It's a close call between Hackenberg, the league's top freshman, and Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory, a junior-college arrival. Hackenberg gets the nod after backing up the immense recruiting hype he received. The wunderkind passed for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns and delivered his best performance in the finale against Wisconsin's top-10 defense.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
David Banks/USA TODAY SportsPat Fitzgerald and Northwestern endured a frustrating season in which nothing seemed to go right.
Biggest surprise: Iowa. The Hawkeyes' preseason forecast looked gloomy after they posted their worst record in 12 years and lacked a quarterback with any collegiate game experience. But Kirk Ferentz's squad found its way, particularly down the stretch with wins in four of its final five games. Iowa's four losses came against ranked teams with a combined record of 45-6.

Biggest disappointment: Northwestern. On Oct. 5, the Wildcats had a 4-0 record, a top-20 ranking, ESPN "College GameDay" on campus and a fourth-quarter lead against Ohio State. On Nov. 23, they were blown out 30-6 by Michigan State on the same field, ending their hopes of a sixth consecutive bowl appearance. In between, Northwestern endured several injuries, a loss on a Hail Mary at Nebraska, overtime defeats against both Iowa and Michigan and plenty of heartache. Just a miserable year for Pat Fitzgerald's crew.

Best game: The Game -- Ohio State 42, Michigan 41, Nov. 30 at Michigan Stadium. Michigan once again proved the adage that rivalry games are different, delivering its best performance in months and pushing Ohio State to its limit. Woody and Bo wouldn't recognize the teams that combined for 83 points, 54 first downs and 1,129 total yards. The teams traded scores all afternoon, culminating with a two-point conversion attempt with 32 seconds left that Ohio State snuffed out to preserve its perfect season.
The Big Ten released its all-conference teams as selected by coaches and the media earlier this month. We didn't have a vote for the media teams, and we don't pretend to know as much about football as the league's coaches.

But we can also say with confidence that we watched more Big Ten football here at the blog than anyone else. So here are our picks for the 2013 ESPN.com All-Big Ten team:

Offense

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesBraxton Miller is one of six Buckeyes on ESPN.com's All-Big Ten team.
QB: Braxton Miller, Ohio State
RB: Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
WR: Allen Robinson, Penn State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan
OL: Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
OL: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OL: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OL: Corey Linsley, Ohio State
OL: Ryan Groy, Wisconsin

Defense

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
DT: Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota
DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State
LB: James Morris, Iowa
DB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
DB: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
DB: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
DB: Brock Vereen, Minnesota

Specialists

K: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska
PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa

OK, so we cheated just a bit on positions, going with three tackles on our offensive line and a 3-4 defense. But considering the coaches had six defensive backs and two punters on their first team, we don't feel too bad about it. ... We wanted to include Scherff, Lewan and Mewhort on the first team, because we thought they were the three best linemen in the league. If we had to field an actual team with these guys, we're sure we could figure it out. It was a tough call between Groy and Penn State's John Urschel, whom we love for his on- and off-the-field accomplishments. We just felt Wisconsin had the better overall season as an offensive line, so we went with Groy. ... We went with the 3-4 because linebacker was such a deep position in this league -- so deep that we had to leave off some deserving players, like Michigan State's Denicos Allen -- while defensive line wasn't nearly as strong. ... The defensive backfield was a tough call (no wonder the coaches had an, ahem, pick six there). Dennard was a lock, and we felt that Drummond was the league's best safety in a year when that position was a bit weak conference-wide. We like what Vereen did in providing versatility and leadership for the Gophers, and Roby overcame a slow start to do his usual fine work. We had to leave off very good cornerbacks like Michigan's Blake Countess, Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Iowa's B.J. Lowery -- but that's what a second team is for. Stay tuned. ... Ohio State leads the way with six selections, followed by Michigan State with five. It's almost as if those were the two best teams in the league or something.

Big Ten predictions: Week 13

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

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

Let's begin …

MICHIGAN STATE at NORTHWESTERN

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


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

MICHIGAN at IOWA

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

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


ILLINOIS at PURDUE

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


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

WISCONSIN at MINNESOTA

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

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


INDIANA at OHIO STATE

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

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

NEBRASKA at PENN STATE

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

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

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

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

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

Here are her picks:

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

SEASON RECORDS

Brian Bennett: 68-14
Adam Rittenberg: 68-14
Guest pickers: 65-19
Bo Pelini does not throw around comparisons to Ndamukong Suh lightly. So it was notable this week when the Nebraska head coach mentioned his former all-world defensive tackle in the same breath as sophomore defensive end Randy Gregory.

"I’m not throwing him into Suh’s category yet," Pelini said Monday, "but I think he can have that type of impact on our program down the line."

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesRandy Gregory leads the Big Ten in sacks and tackles for loss.
While Gregory still has room to grow, he's already having a major impact for the Cornhuskers, who host Michigan State in Saturday's crucial Legends Division showdown.

The 6-foot-6, 255-pounder has been Nebraska's top defensive playmaker and one of the best pass rushers in the Big Ten. He leads the league in sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (11.5) and turned in his biggest game during last week's 17-13 win at Michigan. Gregory had three sacks, including his chase-down of a scrambling Devin Gardner with a little more than a minute to play.

The obvious question, and one Big Ten schools must be asking themselves, is where did this guy come from?

Gregory was a modest recruit out of high school in Fishers, Ind. ESPN.com ranked him as only the 238th best defensive end in the Class of 2011. He committed to Purdue and had offers from schools like Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota, but few elite programs came calling on the skinny prospect who never made the summer camp circuit.

"The schools who did offer me saw my athleticism and potential," he said. "But I think everybody else just saw a scrawny, 190-pound kid that could do a few things but needed to hit the weight room a little more."

What they might not have known was Gregory's lifelong connection and passion with the sport.

His father, Kenneth, played linebacker and defensive line for Northwestern in the early 1980s. When Randy was six, his parents drove past a park at night where lights were shining on a pee wee football game. Randy begged his parents to play but found out he was a year too young to sign up. He cried the rest of the night.

Later, he'd star at running back and linebacker. His last two years of high school, Gregory played both defensive tackle and wide receiver. But he neglected his studies and failed to qualify academically.

So Gregory headed off to play junior college football at Arizona Western. From there, his reputation grew quickly.

"Some people might say that he blossomed," Kenneth Gregory said. "I think that the player you see today is really what he always has been. If I had to describe him, it's endless motor and highly disruptive."

Gregory showed that as a freshman at Arizona Western, registering ridiculous numbers: 82 tackles, nine sacks and 21 tackles for loss. He helped lead his team to the junior college national title game.

"We knew he was going to special when he got here." Arizona Western coach Tom Minnick said. "He was coming off blocks, exploding into guy and chasing kids down. He was running kids down from the backside and making plays that make you say, 'This guy's unbelievable.'"

Gregory was so dominant as a freshman that Minnick changed his defense the following winter to a 3-4 so he could move his top pass rusher into a variety of positions. But Gregory broke his ankle in the first game of 2012.

Looking back, Gregory calls the injury "a blessing in disguise." He moved back to his parents' home in Michigan for the spring semester, taking online courses and focusing on adding weight. He put on nearly 35 pounds by eating a diet heavy in salmon, flank steak and yogurt.

"We almost went bankrupt feeding him," Kenneth Gregory joked.

The injury also gave Gregory an extra year of eligibility for four-year schools and a chance to shore up his academics.

"Randy's a very, very smart kid," Minnick said. "He can write an 'A' paper in 40 minutes. But we always said he has to be challenged real quick, to get in four- and five-week classes. He gets bored, I think, with stuff after a while."

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesGregory took a longer path to Nebraska, but is now a cornerstone of Bo Pelini's defense.
He remained committed to Purdue while taking other visits. But Gregory -- who grew up an Ohio State fan and always wanted to play in the Big Ten because of his dad -- was blown away by a trip to Nebraska last October, sitting in the stands when the Cornhuskers beat Michigan. When the Boilermakers fired coach Danny Hope a few weeks later, his decision was sealed.

"I was a really big fan of coach Hope," he said. "When he left, that made it really difficult for me to go there and play for a new coaching staff."

Gregory is still raw in a lot of ways, as you'd expect for someone who's played less than a year at the FBS level. But he makes up for that with his physical gifts and work ethic.

"A lot of people think of me as a real good pass rusher, and I think I am," Gregory said. "But if you sit in our meeting rooms or talk to [defensive line] coach [Rick] Kaczenski, he'll tell you I have a lot of things I need to work on. My instincts are pretty good, but as far as technique and things like that, I need to get a lot better."

He's pretty good right now, and his play is a big reason why Nebraska has turned things around defensively in the past six quarters -- the Huskers have allowed just one touchdown on their opponents' last 25 drives. Minnick compares Gregory to the New York Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul and predicts that "he'll be a top NFL draft pick when it's all said and done." Pelini said Gregory "has a chance to be a force in college football for the next couple years."

Maybe just like another former famous Husker.

"Any time you're mentioned in the same category with Suh, it’s a pretty big deal," Gregory said. "But I don’t want to just settle for that."

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 11

November, 11, 2013
11/11/13
11:00
AM ET
Brady Hoke might turn out to be a legendary coach who has a long and storied career at Michigan.

But Hoke will be bucking some trends in order to get that done. In his third year in Ann Arbor, Hoke's Wolverines have taken a major step backward. After Saturday's 17-13 home loss to Nebraska, they're 6-3 with some challenging games ahead, and they're probably lucky not to have one or two more losses already.

Most of the truly great college football coaches in recent times have had their programs up and running by the third year. Alabama's Nick Saban and LSU's Les Miles won BCS titles in their third years at their current schools. Pete Carroll won an AP national title in his third season at USC.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesBrady Hoke's third season hasn't gone as anyone associated with the Michigan program hoped.
Brian Kelly led Notre Dame to a 12-0 regular season and BCS title game appearance in Year 3. Ohio State's Urban Meyer won a national title his second year at Florida, while Bob Stoops did the same in his second year at Oklahoma. Jim Tressel led Ohio State to a national title his second year and then went 11-2 with a Fiesta Bowl win in Year 3.

The same is true for some legends. Joe Paterno guided Penn State to an undefeated record in his third season as head coach. Bear Bryant went 8-1-2 at Alabama in Year 3. And it's the case for revered Michigan Men. Bo Schembechler was 11-1 and had an undefeated Big Ten record in his third year at the helm of the Wolverines, while the third season for Lloyd Carr resulted in the undefeated 12-0 campaign of 1997.

Hoke did have to revamp the program and rebuild for a new system after Rich Rodriguez left, but several of the coaches mentioned in the preceding paragraphs also had to make major transitions. And any argument preaching patience for Hoke loses some steam when you look at Minnesota, where Jerry Kill and his staff have an 8-2 record in Year 3.

There is hope, but Hoke would have to find precedent in two places he'd probably rather not look. Woody Hayes was just 6-3 in his third year at Ohio State before going undefeated and winning the Rose Bowl the following year. Michigan State took a step back in Mark Dantonio's third year with a disappointing 6-7 mark; the Spartans would win 11 games and a share of the Big Ten title the next season.

So maybe Hoke, who is just 6-5 in his last 11 games, will get things rolling after this difficult third season. But history shows that most truly great coaches have done so by this point.

Take that and rewind it back:

Team of the week: Nebraska. Say what you want about Michigan's troubles, the Huskers still went into the Big House and snapped the Wolverines' 19-game home winning streak. And the Big Red offense is being held together by spit and string, at times. All-America guard Spencer Long is out for the season and senior quarterback Taylor Martinez is unavailable. Starting guard Jake Cotton is also out, and on Saturday, starting tackle Jeremiah Sirles went down with a knee injury. The Huskers turned to little-used Zach Sterup to replace Sirles. Take away a pick-six and a Hail Mary against Northwestern, and the Nebraska offense has scored just 30 points total in its last two games. With two victories.

Worst hangover: The nightmare continues for Michigan. If the Wolverines don't win at Northwestern this week -- and the Wildcats are coming off a bye -- then a 6-6 finish with a five-game losing streak becomes a real possibility.

Best play: For the second straight week, a late Nebraska play involving Ameer Abdullah takes this honor. This time, it was quarterback Tommy Armstrong's pitch to Abdullah on third-and-goal from the 5 for the winning touchdown.

Armstrong was ready to run on the option play until Michigan defensive end Frank Clark committed to him, and just before he got flattened, Armstrong had the presence of mind to flip the ball forward to Abdullah. The running back did the rest by diving into the end zone, helped by a nice block on the perimeter from receiver Alonzo Moore. It was one of the stranger-looking option plays and went down in the box score as a pass, but it couldn't have been any prettier for Nebraska fans.

Big Men on Campus (offense): Wisconsin's James White ran for 147 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries against BYU, and he added a receiving touchdown. Indiana receiver Cody Latimer had a career day versus Illinois, catching 11 passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory recorded three sacks and a quarterback hurry as part of a dominating effort by the Blackshirts (and yes, they've earned that nickname again).

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Minnesota punter Peter Mortell helped the Gophers hang on in the second half of a 24-10 win. He had punts downed at the Penn State 1, 2 and 12 while averaging 46 yards on four attempts.

[+] EnlargeMinnesota
Brad Rempel/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota ran its record to 8-2 with a trophy win over Penn State on Saturday.
Break-dancing: Forgive Minnesota for being a little new to the whole winning trophies thing. The Gophers captured the Governor's Victory Bell by beating Penn State for the first time since 2004, and in their postgame sideline celebration, they actually broke part of the trophy. “I think we were more worried about keeping [the trophy] together, so we could celebrate with it first,” tight end Maxx Williams told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. It's not like there is a lot of great history with that trophy, which has been around since only 1993.

The best part of the Gophers' victory celebration was clearly Jerry Kill's locker room dance. Watch it here.

Back to a bowl: Iowa can officially chalk up last year's 4-8 season as an aberration. The Hawkeyes pounded Purdue 38-14 on the road to earn their sixth win and ensure they will be back in a bowl game this season.

“Obviously, it’s not our endgame, but that’s one nice byproduct of winning,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s something we don’t take for granted. All you have to do is look back to last year. So it’s great to get that accomplished.”

With an off week to get ready for the final two games, Iowa should give Michigan and Nebraska all they can handle.

The Indiana effect: We are thinking of adding a separate helmet sticker post each week just for games involving Indiana. The Hoosiers put up big numbers and allow opponents to do the same in their weekly shootouts. Against Illinois, IU got huge games from Latimer and running back Tevin Coleman (215 yards on 15 carries, two touchdowns). Illini receiver Steve Hull caught nine passes for 224 yards and two scores. Nathan Scheelhaase threw for 450 yards in a losing effort. The two teams combined for 1,262 total yards, which sounds like a lot until you remember that Indiana and Michigan went for 1,323 last month.

The winning team has scored at least 41 points in every one of the Hoosiers' nine games, and an average of 80.5 points has been scored in each of those contests. Don't expect that to change, as Wisconsin and Ohio State are next up on the schedule.

Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Information):

  • In the past two weeks, Michigan lost a combined 49.2 expected points on rushing plays. Expected points added is a metric that measures the contributions of each unit to its team’s net scoring margin. Therefore, Michigan lost almost 50 net points as a results of its rushes and sacks. An average EPA is 0, so if Michigan had had an average rush offense, and all else remained equal, the Wolverines would have been about even with Michigan State and would have beaten Nebraska by about 22 points.
  • Against Nebraska, Michigan gained zero or negative yards on 21 of its 36 rushes (58.3 percent). It was the Wolverines’ second-most rushes and second-highest percentage of rushes that gained zero or negative yards in a game in the past 10 seasons.
  • Overall, Michigan added minus-26.3 expected points towards its net scoring margin on rushes (including sacks). That is the lowest rushing EPA for a team in an FBS game this season.
  • Coleman and his Indiana backfield mate Stephen Houston make an efficient pair. Houston is averaging 7.34 yards per rush, while Coleman is at 7.31. That ranks 10th and 11th, respectively, in the FBS among qualified rushers. They have combined for nearly 1,500 rushing yards despite averaging a little more than 22 rushes per game.
  • There are 123 FBS teams. Here are some of Purdue's national rankings: Points per game (120), rushing (122), passing yards per attempt (121), yards per play (121), points allowed (109), rushing yards allowed (111), third-down defense (122).
  • Minnesota is 8-2 and is passing the ball just 31.3 percent of the time. But that can definitely be a winning formula. Ranking right ahead of the Gophers is Stanford (35.5 percent of total plays are passes), while just below them is Auburn (30.8 percent).

SPONSORED HEADLINES