NCF Nation: Ron Dayne

Big Ten all-BCS-era team

January, 13, 2014
Jan 13
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The BCS is dead. RIP. As we memorialize the BCS era throughout ESPN.com today, we're selecting All-BCS teams from each conference. As a reminder, the BCS era lasted from the 1998 season through the recently completed 2013 season. To narrow our selections a bit, players had to play at least two seasons in the BCS era to be eligible. Nebraska players are part of our list even though the Huskers played in the Big 12 until 2011.

Here's our Big Ten All-BCS team.

Coach: Jim Tressel, Ohio State -- Tressel led Ohio State to the 2002 national title, the Big Ten's only championship in the BCS era, as well as seven Big Ten titles (one vacated).

OFFENSE

QB: Drew Brees, Purdue (1997-2000) -- He led Purdue to the 2000 Big Ten championship and finished his career with league records for passing yards (11,792), touchdown passes (90), total offensive yards (12,693), completions (1,026), and attempts (1,678). Brees won the Maxwell Award in 2000.

RB: Ron Dayne, Wisconsin (1996-99) -- The 1999 Heisman Trophy winner set the NCAA's career rushing record with 6,397 yards (not including bowl games). He won all the major national individual awards in 1999 and became the first player to repeat as Rose Bowl MVP.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMontee Ball had 39 TDs for Wisconsin in 2011.
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin (2009-2012) -- The man nicknamed "MoneyBall" tied Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season touchdowns record with 39 in 2011 and set the mark for career touchdowns with 83. He won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back in 2012.

WR: Braylon Edwards, Michigan (2001-04) -- The Big Ten's most recent Biletnikoff Award winner holds the league record for career touchdown receptions (39) and ranks fourth in career receiving yards (3,541). He's the only Big Ten receiver to record 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.

WR: Lee Evans, Wisconsin (2000-03) -- Evans twice led the Big Ten in receiving yards, eclipsing 1,500 yards in 2001 before rebounding from an ACL tear to record 1,213 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2003.

TE: Dallas Clark, Iowa (1999-2002) -- Clark earned the John Mackey Award in 2002 after recording 43 receptions for 742 yards as Iowa went undefeated in the Big Ten.

OL: Greg Eslinger, Minnesota (2002-05) -- One of the more decorated Big Ten linemen in the BCS era, Eslinger won the Outland Trophy in 2005. He was a two-time first-team All-America selection and a three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection for one of the nation's top rushing offenses.

OL: Joe Thomas, Wisconsin (2003-06) -- Another Outland Trophy winner (2006), Thomas earned unanimous consensus All-America honors that year. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in each of his final two seasons and was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft.

OL: Dominic Raiola, Nebraska (1998-2000) -- In 1998, Raiola became the first Nebraska freshman offensive lineman to start a game in seven years. He went on to earn the Rimington Trophy as the nation's top center, first-team All-Big 12 honors in his final two seasons and consensus first-team All-America honors in 2000.

OL: Robert Gallery, Iowa (1999-2003) -- Gallery claimed the Outland Trophy in 2003 as well as first-team All-America honors. He twice earned first-team All-Big Ten honors as the anchor of a nationally elite offensive line.

OL: Jake Long, Michigan (2003-07) -- Although Long didn't win the Outland, he twice earned consensus first-team All-America honors (unanimous selection in 2007) and twice earned Big Ten offensive lineman of the year honors (beating out Thomas in 2006). Long was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft.

DEFENSE

DE: LaMarr Woodley, Michigan (2003-06) -- Woodley claimed the Rotary Lombardi Award in 2006 as the nation's top lineman. A first-team All-American that season, he finished his career with 10 forced fumbles, tied for seventh on the Big Ten's career list.

DE: Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue (2007-10) -- Unlike most of the men on this list, Kerrigan never played for any BCS bowl teams at Purdue but still had a remarkable career that ended with unanimous consensus first-team All-America honors in 2010. The Big Ten defensive player of the year tied the NCAA record for forced fumbles (14) and recorded 33.5 sacks and 57 tackles for loss.

DT: Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska (2005-09) -- The most dominant defender in recent years finished fourth in Heisman voting in 2009 (should have been higher) and earned several awards, including the Bednarik, Nagurski and Outland. Suh finished his career with 24 sacks, 57 tackles for loss, four interceptions, three forced fumbles and 41 quarterback hurries.

DT: Devon Still, Penn State (2008-11) -- Penn State produced a string of outstanding defensive tackles including Still, the Big Ten's defensive player of the year in 2011. Still earned consensus first-team All-America honors after recording 17 tackles for loss.

LB: James Laurinaitis, Ohio State (2005-08) -- Laurinaitis won major national awards in each of his final three seasons, including the Nagurski Trophy in 2006. The two-time Big Ten defensive player of the year became just the third Ohio State player to earn consensus All-America honors in three seasons.

LB: Paul Posluszny, Penn State (2003-06) -- Posluszny is one of only two players (Pat Fitzgerald) to twice win the Bednarik Award as the nation's top defender. He became the first Penn State linebacker to twice earn AP All-America honors.

LB: LaVar Arrington, Penn State (1997-99) -- A freakishly athletic linebacker at Linebacker U., Arrington twice earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and won the Bednarik and Butkus Awards as a junior in 1999. He was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft.

CB: Jamar Fletcher, Wisconsin (1998-2000) -- Fletcher claimed the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back in 2000, won Big Ten defensive player of the year honors that year and was a three-time first-team all-conference selection. He's tied for fourth in league history with 21 career interceptions and holds the league record for interception return yards (459).

CB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State (2010-13) -- Dennard also claimed the Thorpe Award as he helped Michigan State to its first outright Big Ten title in 26 years and a Rose Bowl victory against Stanford. The two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection recorded 10 career interceptions and led the "No Fly Zone" Spartans secondary.

S: Tyrone Carter, Minnesota (1996-99) -- The only Big Ten safety to win the Thorpe Award, Carter also twice earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and earned unanimous All-America honors in 1999. He set the FBS record for career tackles by a defensive back with 528.

S: Mike Doss, Ohio State (1999-2002) -- A three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection, Doss earned unanimous consensus All-America honors in 2002 as Ohio State won the national title.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Mike Nugent, Ohio State (2001-04) -- Nugent won the Lou Groza Award as the nation's top kicker in 2004 and claimed consensus All-America honors in both 2002 and 2004. He holds the Big Ten record for consecutive made field goals with 24.

P: Brandon Fields, Michigan State (2003-06) -- His name is on the Big Ten's punter of the year award for a reason. Fields earned consensus All-America honors in 2004, earned first-team All-Big Ten honors three times and twice led the league in punting, tying for third in career average (45 ypp).

Returns: Ted Ginn, Ohio State (2004-06) and Steve Breaston, Michigan (2003-06) -- Ginn holds the Big Ten single-season records for kick return average (25.6 ypr) and career punt return touchdowns (6), while Breaston claims the league mark for career punt return yards (1,599) and is tied for third in punt return touchdowns (4).

It's tough enough putting together these teams for one season, much less 16 seasons. You can't please everyone, and many exceptional players didn't make the cut.

We decided to go with five offensive linemen rather than a center, two guards and two tackles, in order to recognize the best overall players in the trenches.

There was some debate for a second receiver alongside Michigan's Edwards, as the Big Ten hasn't exactly mass-produced superstars at the position. Several players had great seasons like Michigan State's Charles Rogers in 2002, but we put more stock into overall career output and went with Wisconsin's Evans, who led the league in receiving in 2001 and 2003.

Cornerback created some debate among Fletcher, Dennard and Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins, also a Jim Thorpe Award winner. We faced another tough decision at safety between Ohio State's Doss and Iowa's Bob Sanders.

Surprisingly, the defensive tackle spot produced few bona-fide superstars. Nebraska's Suh, who played his entire career in the Big 12, was an obvious choice but a second choice proved to be tough.

Arguably the toughest choice came at kicker between Nugent and Iowa's Nate Kaeding. Both won Lou Groza Awards and set numerous records. We gave the nod to Nugent, but not by much.
Ndamukong SuhChristopher Hanewincke/US PresswireNdamukong Suh, the former Nebraska defensive tackle, wins the Big Ten blog's players tournament.
Unfortunately for us, Ndamukong Suh and Ron Dayne never met on a college football field. If they had, the Richter scale would have had to be functioning correctly.

Alas, Suh and Dayne could only match up in our fictional Big Ten players tournament, which included stars from the past 15 seasons from the 12 current members of the conference. Suh, the former Nebraska defensive tackle, and Dayne, the record-setting former Wisconsin running back, reached the tournament championship last week. Voting took place the past three-plus days, and the verdict was convincing: Suh in a landslide. Arguably the most dominant defensive player in the past decade received a whopping 67 percent of the vote with about 8,500 votes cast.

Many have stated the obvious about Suh: he didn't play in the Big Ten. So why did we include him in the players tournament? We weren't going to exclude Nebraska and its fans from the fun, just like we didn't in last year's champions tournament, which also went the Huskers' way. If Big Ten fans had such a problem with Suh's inclusion, they should have rallied around Dayne in the voting, which they clearly didn't. Nebraska's fan base brings it like none other, but Big Red could have been toppled by the rest of the league's fans.

Here's more from those who voted:
AShap from Phoenix: Both are fantastic and deserving, but I voted Suh because his level of dominance versus competition was greater than Dayne's. Dayne was great and is an all-timer, but Suh's teams were undermanned and he still, sometimes single-handedly, kept that Nebraska D as top ten in the nation.

Tony from Merrimack, N.H.: I voted Suh over Dayne because as great as Dayne was, he never made me think "he's redefining what great football looks like." Suh did that from a position that usually doesn't get noticed, hence he's the #1 "Big Ten" player to me.

Brian from Milwaukee: One incredible fact about Ron Dayne that is often overlooked is that he ran for over 2000 yards his freshman year (including bowl game), and he didn't even start until the fifth game of the season. And this was back when the season was only 11 games long, plus the bowl game. He also broke 2000 yards again his senior year, when everybody and their brother was keying on him every single game. In between, he had two pretty outstanding seasons as well, and it all culminated in the Heisman Trophy. But two 2,000-yard seasons (if you include the bowl game, which you should...It makes no sense that the NCAA started counting bowl stats at some point but doesn't go back and count bowl stats before that point. Can someone explain the logic behind that?) is incredible. Dayne's all-time rushing record, which still stands whether you count bowls or not, was a little underplayed at the time because Ricky Williams had just broken the same record the season before, but Dayne is the most dominant college running back since Herschel Walker. His combination of size, speed and agility were amazing. Suh will no doubt win the poll since Nebraska fans clearly take these things seriously, and he was an outstanding college player, but my vote goes to Dayne.

Matt from Rockford, Ill.: Suh ate Heisman finalists for breakfast for two years. If even 15 percent of past heisman winners were defensive players Suh deservedly takes it home. I lost a degree of respect for the heisman trophy as a result of the voting that year. Anything with that heavy a bias lacks legitimacy. So to answer why did i vote for Suh over a Ron Dayne? If Suh would've won the heisman as a defensive lineman who would you be casting your vote for? I rest my case.

Geoff from Omaha: As a Nebraska fan (and Suh fan) it's hard for me to not vote for Suh. With that said, I voted for Ron Dayne. Nebraska has had many incredible running backs over the years, but none that have been as productive over four years. The shear brilliance that Ron Dayne performed on the field, week in and week out, over his entire career, notably the Rose Bowls, is just too much, in my mind, for Suh to overcome. Not only did Suh NOT play in the B1G, but he had a lackluster career before Pelini arrived in Lincoln. As incredible as Suh was, Dayne earned my vote.

Dan from Dallas: There is no doubt that Suh was a truly dominant player, but the reason he's leading this poll is more a testament to the Husker faithful and short-term memory than anything else. I mean, Ron Dayne ran for more yards than anyone (anyone!) in college football history. Ever. Let that sink in. Of the hundreds of thousands of people who have carried a football in the sport over the past 130 years, Ron Dayne topped them all. Suh was great, but he can't make such a strong argument for being the greatest at his position ever.

Thanks again to all who voted throughout the players tournament. Next March, it'll be back in some form or another.

UW's Montee Ball deserving of Doak

December, 7, 2012
12/07/12
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The Big Ten once again had a quiet night at the Home Depot College Football awards -- with one notable exception.

Ball
Wisconsin senior Montee Ball took home the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back. Ball finished seventh nationally in rushing average (133.1 ypg) with 21 touchdowns, and he eclipsed 100 rush yards in seven of his final eight games (three 200-yard performances). He became the NCAA's all-time touchdowns king by breaking Travis Prentice's mark of 78 and set several other records along the way. Ball holds the NCAA records for total touchdowns (82) and rushing touchdowns (76).

Oregon's Kenjon Barner and UCLA's Johnathan Franklin were the other two finalists for the Doak.

Ball's season didn't quite measure up to 2011, when he was a Heisman Trophy finalist but didn't win the Doak Walker Award (it went to Alabama's Trent Richardson). He faced some adversity after being attacked by a group of men in the preseason and suffering a concussion during non-league play. But no FBS back finished the season better than Ball, who had 702 rush yards and eight touchdowns in his final four games. He turned in a signature performance in the Big Ten championship game, and we endorsed him as the nation's top running back in Sunday's lessons.

Ball, who might have won best dressed Thursday if such an award were given, is the second Big Ten player to win the Doak Walker Award as former Badgers star Ron Dayne took home the hardware in 1999. He's the sixth Big Ten back to win it, the first since Iowa's Shonn Greene in 2008.

Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller also was up for the Davey O'Brien award (nation's top quarterback), which went to Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel. Penn State's Matt Stankiewitch was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy (nation's top center), which went to Alabama's Barrett Jones.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

November, 16, 2012
11/16/12
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Wishing you a good weekend. I'll be here. Fired up.

David from Chicago writes: Adam, are you having long term memory issues? All the articles this week reference the 564 rushing yard by the Badgers but you seem to have forgotten about the 19 rushing yards against MSU the week before that or the 56 rushing yards against Nebraska. But when talking about the Buckeyes Defense your memory seems fine because you reference the Purdue and Indiana games that were a month or longer ago. You feeling OK?

Adam Rittenberg: Ha, I think I'm OK, David, but thanks for checking. Wisconsin's offense has been all over the map this season -- great against Indiana and Purdue, terrible against Michigan State and Oregon State, good in the first half at Nebraska, bad in the second half at Nebraska. Listen, I don't expect Wisconsin to rush for 564 yards against Ohio State, which, as you point out, has improved defensively in recent weeks. If the Buckeyes play like they did at Penn State, they'll keep Wisconsin's one-dimensional offense in check. Getting Etienne Sabino back at linebacker is huge, as you don't want a thin LB corps against Wisconsin, regardless of the Badgers' ups and downs. I actually expect a fairly high-scoring game, as Montee Ball will step up on senior day, but Ohio State has too much firepower and will prevail.


Dave from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., writes: Adam, you picked Zwinak to go for 130 yards and three scores in your predictions, but your fantasy team doesn't reflect your prediction. I think a guy who goes for 130 and 3TD's would be a good pickup for a fantasy team.Lack of confidence in your ability to predict a game I presume? I'm just looking for an explanation. Also- I will LOL if he does actually bust through the Indiana defense for 3 scores and you don't have him this week.

Adam Rittenberg: Dave, you got me on this one a bit. I gave a lot of thought to adding Zwinak on my fantasy team, but I also was looking ahead to next week a bit and didn't want Bennett to pick up Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde, who has put up a lot of points since moving into a featured role. I thought about dropping Northwestern's Venric Mark against a good MSU defense, but Mark leads the league in all-purpose yards and gets points both as a running back and on returns, so I couldn't drop him. The Zwinak move likely would have been a one-week deal just for Indiana. Hey, I might pay the price, as many of my waiver moves haven't been good. But I just felt having Hyde for the last two weeks was more important after Bennett picked up Le'Veon Bell, who I assume he'll keep next week, too.


Caleb from Los Angeles writes: Adam, I find this talk about Hawkeye fans wanting Kirk Ferentz extremely rash. Are the Hawks having a great year? By no means, but there has been a lot of problems all coming to a head for them this year and I think that Kirk has built a reputation to try and fix things. Is he a perfect coach? No, but he is also not the slouch that many seem to think he is now. He's lost 4 close games this year that could have gone another way so it's not like every game they're getting blown out. Brian pointed out in his mailbag how much it would cost the program to get rid of him but even beyond that Hawk fans have to be realistic. This isn't Alabama, or Ohio State, or Oklahoma. We don't have the tradition to justify firing a good coach during a bad year and aim for an exceptional coach like Nick Saban or Urban Meyer. Rather I would see Iowa falling down the same path as Colorado. Look at their history and how unwatchable they are now, it all started when they fire Gary Barnett. So I say to Hawk fans, be patient, let Ferentz do his job and he'll right the ship, the grass is definitely not always greener.

Adam Rittenberg: Caleb, thanks for your perspective. When a team struggles, we tend to only hear the loudest opinions demanding coaching changes, while a portion of folks quietly remain supportive of Ferentz. It's always good to get the other side. The bottom line, as Brian pointed out and as you know, is that Iowa can't get rid of Ferentz because of the buyout and probably shouldn't despite this terrible season. It's always refreshing when fans know what their program truly is -- rather than what they think it should be -- and you seem to have that understanding with Iowa. Here's the thing, though. The one thing that doesn't match what Iowa football is, is Ferentz's high salary. People have a hard time grasping how a program like Iowa pays what it pays for a head coach who wins six to nine games most seasons. Could Iowa be a six- to nine-win program with a coach who makes $2 million a year? Or would Iowa, as you point out, become like Colorado if it parts ways with Ferentz? I think Iowa's program will improve with better facilities, but there are always inherent challenges. Ultimately, you can't be scared of change, and it doesn't make sense to pay so far above market value unless you're consistently winning eight or more games. These are some of the questions Iowa must grapple with going forward. But unless he leaves for the NFL, Ferentz will be back in 2013.


Bopa from Lincoln, Neb., writes: At this point in the season do you think there's any way that Taylor can surpass Braxton as the B1G Offensive Player of the Year?

Adam Rittenberg: Bopa, it would take two strong performances from Taylor Martinez against Minnesota and Iowa, which is extremely possible given how he has been playing. But a bigger factor in my view is how Braxton Miller performs against Wisconsin and Michigan. Aside from maybe Purdue, a game he didn't finish, Miller hasn't had a really bad performance all season. He's a big-game player who could put himself in the Heisman mix with strong efforts against the Badgers and Wolverines, arguably the two best teams Ohio State has seen all season. Keep in mind that Miller outplayed Martinez when Ohio State beat Nebraska, and while I don't vote for Offensive Player of the Year, those who do won't forget that night. So I think it'll take some poor efforts from Miller the next two weeks to give the award to Martinez, as good as he has been recently.


Zane from Chicago writes: My question is about the Rose Bowl selection process. I think I have the underlying restrictions down. If Oregon qualifies for the BCS Championship game, then only a Pac 12 team that finishes in the top 14 in the BCS qualifies for an at large bid to the Rose Bowl. Correct? If so, is the Rose Bowl required to pick this Pac 12 team? If not, what do you think are the chances they do pick this Pac 12 team in the name of tradition rather than picking another team? What if two Pac 12 teams are eligible? Do they have to pick the higher rated one or do they have the choice? Also, assuming it is a KSU/Oregon NC game, who do you think finishes #1 and therefore determines which bowl gets the first at large pick? Do you think Notre Dame gets picked 1st no matter which bowl gets that at large pick? From some discussion it seems that the Fiesta does not have to keep its ties to the Big 12 with OU if it doesn't want to. It seems the Rose Bowl favors tradition more and is more likely to take that Pac 12 at large pick if there is a 2nd team eligible. Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: If the Rose Bowl loses its Pac-12 champion to the title game, it's not obligated to select another eligible Pac-12 team (top 14). It would be able to select any Pac-12 team in the top 14, and I would be surprised if it didn't select the higher-rated team, although it depends on the circumstances. Regarding Notre Dame, as appealing as the Irish are to any bowl game, I would be shocked if the Rose Bowl picked the Irish ahead of an eligible Pac-12 team. The Rose Bowl is so loyal to the Big Ten and the Pac-12, which have protected it in BCS negotiations during the years. The other bowl games aren't as loyal to their tie-in conferences as the Rose Bowl is to the Big Ten/Pac-12. If the Fiesta gets the first replacement pick for Kansas State, I'd expect Notre Dame to go to Glendale. But if the Rose has a chance and no Pac-12 team is eligible, it will pick ND, no doubt.


Phil from Minneapolis writes: Adam -Quick question. Per your latest "What to Watch in B1G Ten", Can you clarify Ball's rushing touchdown requirements and the records he'll break? You say he needs 2 on Saturday to break Prentice's record of 77, but only needs 1 to break Ron Dayne's Big Ten Record of 72? Please explain, something's off there

Adam Rittenberg: Sure, Phil, as I know it can be a bit confusing. Ball is two total touchdowns away from breaking Travis Prentice's NCAA record for total touchdowns. Remember that Ball had six receiving touchdowns last season. Ron Dayne's Big Ten record is for rushing touchdowns only. So Ball needs one rushing touchdown to break the Big Ten record and two touchdowns -- rushing or receiving -- to break Prentice's mark. Hope that clears it up.


Harry from East Lansing, Mich., writes: It's entertaining to watch your (and Brian's) score predictions, but sometimes it gets a little absurd. "...and for the second consecutive year he finds Devin Smith for the game-winning touchdown to beat the Badgers". I think any reasonable person would think the chance of this happening is slim, so are you writing this because you seriously think the will happen or just for the sake of entertaining readers? I think it's the latter and I appreciate that as a reader, but at the same time I'm sure a lot of readers would like to know what you guys are really thinking.

Adam Rittenberg: Harry, it's definitely for entertainment value. We try to make the predictions more fun and more entertaining than just a score, and while we try to predict yards and touchdowns for individual players, the Devin Smith thing is just a nod to last year's game. Do I really think it's going to happen? Probably not. But if it does, I'll take full credit as Nostradamenberg!

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 12

November, 15, 2012
11/15/12
10:15
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Ten items to track around the Big Ten entering Week 12:

1. Ballin' for history: Thirteen years after Ron Dayne broke the NCAA career rushing record, another Wisconsin running back is on the doorstep of a major milestone. Badgers senior Montee Ball, who, unlike Dayne, spent a year and a half as a reserve, needs one more touchdown Saturday against Ohio State to tie the NCAA career mark of 78 held by former Miami (Ohio) star Travis Prentice. Ball has scored 13 touchdowns in his past six games and is averaging 179.1 yards and three touchdowns in his past nine November games. A big performance against the unbeaten Buckeyes will once again put Ball on the radar for top national honors. Ball's next rushing touchdown will mark his 72nd, moving him past Dayne for the Big Ten career record.

2. Holding serve in the Legends: Nebraska and Michigan are tied atop the Legends Division at 5-1, and on paper, they should stay that way after Week 12. Both teams are favored to take care of Minnesota and Iowa, respectively, on senior day in Lincoln and Ann Arbor. Nebraska's magic number (wins and Michigan losses) to punch its ticket to Indianapolis is 2. A Huskers loss and a Michigan win puts the Wolverines in control of their own fate in the division. One senior day subplot is whether face-of-the-program stars like Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson will play after missing time with injuries. Burkhead (knee) returned to practice this week and seems closer to a return, while Robinson (elbow) remains day-to-day.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Andrew Weber/US PresswireLe'Veon Bell and the Spartans plan to finish strong against Northwestern on Saturday.
3. Finishing school: Northwestern and Michigan State easily could be playing for a Legends Division title Saturday. Instead, both teams' inability to finish against the likes of Nebraska and Michigan has left them looking for a full 60-minute performance. Michigan State's four Big Ten losses have come by a combined 10 points. Northwestern held double-digit second-half leads in all three of its Big Ten losses. Something's gotta give Saturday as the teams meet at Spartan Stadium. "Their problem, just like ours, has been closing out games," Spartans linebacker Chris Norman told ESPN.com this week. "... It's going to come down to who can finish the best. Saturday is going to be interesting."

4. Hope and a prayer: There's growing talk that Purdue will make a head-coaching change after the regular season no matter what happens in the final two games. But can fourth-year boss Danny Hope save himself with a three-game win streak to become bowl-eligible? It's reason enough to tune in for an otherwise off-the-radar game between Purdue and slumping Illinois on Saturday. A loss to the Illini would prevent Purdue from getting bowl-eligible and likely seal Hope's fate, while a Purdue win adds intrigue to next week's Bucket game against Indiana. The Boilers' offense got on track last week behind quarterback Robert Marve and running back Ralph Bolden, while defensive tackle Kawann Short had his best game of the season at Iowa.

5. Rivalry renewed: Saturday's game at Camp Randall Stadium won't decide which Leaders Division team goes to the Big Ten title game, as Wisconsin already punched its ticket last week. But Ohio State can lock up the Leaders Division championship -- the only title it can win this season -- while Wisconsin can legitimize its trip to Indy by handing Urban Meyer's Buckeyes their first loss of the season. Looking ahead, the Ohio State-Wisconsin game likely will be the signature contest in the division for years to come. Illinois is a mess, Purdue has backslid this season, Indiana is still building and Penn State still has three more years of postseason bans. "I hate Wisconsin just as much as Michigan," Ohio State wide receiver Corey Brown said this week. While Meyer and Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema say their post-signing day spat is a thing of a past, it could bubble up Saturday depending on how the game goes.

6. Taking a pass: The Big Ten might not be flush with elite quarterbacks and high-powered offenses this season, but a few of its teams can sling the ball a bit, and two of them meet at Beaver Stadium. Indiana and Penn State are the Big Ten's top two pass offenses, ranking 26th and 40th nationally, respectively. They'll share the field Saturday as they try to rebound from different types of losses. Indiana quarterback Cameron Coffman struggled with his accuracy (25-for-46) in last week's loss to Wisconsin and looks for a sharper afternoon. Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin wasn't a happy guy after the Nebraska loss and will try to take it out on IU. The game features two of the Big Ten's top receivers in Penn State's Allen Robinson and Indiana's Cody Latimer.

7. Hawkeye hex: Iowa has been in a funk for much of the season and particularly in the past month, dropping four consecutive Big Ten contests. Perhaps a date with Michigan can put the Hawkeyes back on track. See, Iowa has won three straight against Michigan for the first time in team history and five of its past eight against the Wolverines. Michigan's seniors are anxious to finally get over the hump against Iowa, one of two Big Ten teams (Penn State the other) they have yet to beat. But maybe it works the other way and Iowa finally shows a spark on offense and stiffens its defense. If not, the Hawkeyes won't be going bowling for the first time since the 2006 season, and it'll be a very long winter for Kirk Ferentz. "It doesn't hurt, obviously," Ferentz said of his team's Michigan win streak, "but it doesn't guarantee us anything."

8. Backs of different sizes: Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell is the biggest featured running back in the Big Ten, checking in at 6-2 and 244 pounds. Northwestern's Venric Mark is the smallest, checking in at 5-8 and 175 pounds. But both have been extremely effective this season with the ball in their hands. Bell leads the Big Ten in rushing yards (1,249), while Mark ranks third in rushing yards (1,181) and first in all-purpose yards (1,917). Each has been the MVP of his respective offense, and it'll be interesting to see them on the same field at Spartan Stadium. Both Michigan State and Northwestern defend the run well, too, both ranking in the top 25 nationally.

9. Illini look for a spark: Illinois ranks last in the Big Ten in scoring, rushing and total offense, and lingers near the bottom of the FBS in all the significant categories. The Illini need some sort of boost on offense or a 2-10 season is a virtual certainty. Head coach Tim Beckman, whose background is defense but who had a high-powered offense at Toledo the past few years, took a more active role with the offense this week in an effort to get things going. Beckman also noted that co-offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales call plays on different downs. Hmmm. Starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne took more reps with the wide receivers this week and could see an increased role against Purdue. Illinois aims to win on senior day for the first time since 2007.

10. Bowl picture taking shape: We learned a little more about the Big Ten bowl contingent last week as Minnesota became bowl-eligible, Purdue took a big step toward the postseason and both Iowa and Indiana took a step toward a winter at home. There should be some more answers in Week 12. Michigan State aims for its sixth win to go bowling for the sixth consecutive season under coach Mark Dantonio. Purdue must keep its bowl hopes alive at Illinois, while both Iowa and Indiana must win on the road to avoid loss No. 7. It won't be easy for the Hawkeyes or Hoosiers. Indiana never has won at Beaver Stadium in 15 previous meetings with Penn State. Iowa never has won consecutive games at Michigan Stadium.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 8

October, 18, 2012
10/18/12
10:15
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Ten items to track around the Big Ten in Week 8 ...

1. Clock ticking for Michigan seniors: Quarterback Denard Robinson and his fellow Michigan seniors have been through a lot in their careers -- some historic lows from 2008 to '10, a rebound 2011 season under current coach Brady Hoke, a Sugar Bowl championship and a streak-snapping win against Ohio State last November. But the fourth-year seniors never have beaten Michigan State. Hoke puts countdown clocks for Michigan State and Ohio State in the football complex and has emphasized the need to beat the Spartans since the preseason. Robinson has struggled in two starts against Michigan State (4 interceptions, 2 touchdowns) and tries to turn the tide against a stout Spartans defense. Michigan can nudge Michigan State farther out of the division race with a victory.

2. Blackshirts versus Blackshirts: Northwestern will don all-black uniforms Saturday at Ryan Field for one of its more anticipated home games in recent memory. Some are joking the Wildcats' threads will be the first blackshirts Nebraska has seen this season. The Huskers' defense has a lot to prove after Ohio State put 63 points on the board against Bo Pelini's squad Oct. 6 in Columbus. Spread offenses have given Nebraska trouble in recent years, and Northwestern quarterback/receiver Kain Colter led his team's upset win last year in Lincoln (2 rush TDs, 1 pass TD). Pelini wants to see an "angry" Nebraska team in Evanston and feels like he has one. The fifth-year coach has stressed winning out, which would put Nebraska in the Big Ten title game. A Northwestern win, meanwhile, means the Wildcats are serious contenders in the Legends Division.

[+] EnlargeMark Weisman
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa's Mark Weisman has four consecutive 100-yard rushing performances, including eight touchdowns during the span.
3. Weisman watch: There's no doubt Mark Weisman is Iowa's top offensive weapon, and for much of the past four games, he has been the Hawkeyes' only threat. The Air Force transfer has recorded four consecutive 100-yard rushing performance and a total of 623 yards and eight touchdowns during the span. But Weisman's status for Saturday night's showdown against Penn State is very much in doubt because of an ankle sprain he suffered last week at Michigan State. Weisman is cleared to play, and an MRI done Monday didn't show major damage, but Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz didn't sound overly optimistic about having the sophomore, noting that he "would have a lot of progress to make to be able to play." While Weisman might sit, Jordan Canzeri, who tore his ACL this spring, should return for Iowa at running back. Either way, the Hawkeyes are facing arguably the Big Ten's best defensive front seven and need more from a passing attack that ranks 99th nationally.

4. An ax to grind: The Big Ten's best rivalry trophy is at stake at Camp Randall Stadium as Wisconsin and Minnesota play for Paul Bunyan's Axe. Wisconsin has won eight straight in the series and can match the longest win streak by either squad with a victory Saturday. Minnesota senior linebacker Mike Rallis acknowledged this week, "If you don't ever win, it's not really a rivalry." The detest for the Badgers runs deep with Minnesota's roster, though, and while the Gophers will be short-handed, they can record a signature win and a significant upset Saturday. They'll have to beat a Wisconsin team that seems to have found its bearings after a slow start, especially along the offensive line.

5. Getting defensive in Columbus: Both Ohio State and Purdue are looking for better results from their defenses Saturday at The Shoe. The Buckeyes' defensive woes against Indiana (49 points allowed, 481 yards) and for much of the season prompted their offensive-minded head coach, Urban Meyer, to take a more hand's-on role with the defense this week. Ohio State is banged up on defense and had to move starting fullback Zach Boren to linebacker last week (he'll stay there for a while). Meyer stressed the need to finish plays within 4-6 seconds and tackle better. Tackling has been a huge issue for Purdue the past two weeks, as it has allowed 82 points and 771 rush yards in losses to Wisconsin and Michigan. Standout tackle Kawann Short and the Boilers' defensive line needs a dramatic improvement against Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde and Co., or Saturday's game will get ugly in a hurry. Purdue hasn't won in Columbus since 1988 and hasn't beaten an AP Top 10 team on the road since 1974.

6. Spartans' season on the brink: Michigan State has been the Big Ten's biggest disappointment this season. The Spartans already have lost three home games, including two league home games, meaning they'll need signature road wins to have any chance to repeat as Legends Division champs. Losses this week in Ann Arbor and next week in Madison would eliminate Michigan State from the race. Coach Mark Dantonio does a masterful job of embracing the Michigan rivalry, and his players have responded, winning four straight. Michigan State aims for its first five-game win streak against Michigan in program history Saturday. The Spartans will be geared up, but they can't expect to commit 13 penalties and win, like they did last year in East Lansing. "There's no question that both teams are going to go after each other," Dantonio said. "I don't think there's any question about that. But we've got to keep the game under control. We can't let it get out of control." All eyes will be on the William Gholston-Taylor Lewan matchup after their dust-ups last year.

7. Indiana drops anchor: Indiana coach Kevin Wilson isn't satisfied with being close, and neither are his players. The Hoosiers have had a chance to win all seven of their games this season, but they've only won two of them. "You are getting better and you should feel good about yourself, but you need to keep pushing," Wilson said Tuesday. The next push would be a win Saturday against Navy as Indiana wraps up non-league play for itself and for the Big Ten. Navy ranks 97th nationally in pass-efficiency defense, which should bode well for Hoosiers quarterbacks Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld, and their talented core of wide receivers. But the Midshipmen also have turned around their season a bit the past two weeks, and their triple option attack will test an Indiana defense that ranks 109th nationally against the run and has surrendered more than 350 rush yards in two of its past three games. Indiana could go on a nice second-half run, but it needs to get over the hump against Navy in a potential shootout.

8. On the Ball: After a rough few months both on and off the field, Wisconsin senior running back Montee Ball is back on track, racking up eight rushing touchdowns in Big Ten play and averaging 152 rush yards against league opponents. He broke the Big Ten career touchdowns record -- owned by former Badgers star Ron Dayne -- last week against Purdue and is six touchdowns shy of matching Travis Prentice's NCAA record of 78. He still needs five rushing touchdowns to match Dayne's Big Ten career record of 71. "I feel like I have my balance back, which is a huge part," Ball told ESPN.com this week. "My cuts are a lot better, a lot stronger. I just feel a lot more comfortable out there." Ball faces a Minnesota team that has been vulnerable against the run in Big Ten play. Wisconsin's offensive line seems to have turned the corner in the past five quarters. The Badgers' front five matches up against an improved Minnesota defensive front led by tackle Ra'Shede Hageman.

9. Lions enter their house of horrors: Kinnick Stadium hasn't been kind to Penn State, which hasn't won in Iowa City since 1999, Ferentz's first season as Hawkeyes coach. The Lions saw their national title hopes vanish at Kinnick in 2008 and managed just three points against the Hawkeyes in their last trip there in 2008. Despite his team's four-game win streak, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien made it clear that "the meat of the schedule" begins now, and Lions cornerback Stephon Morris tweeted this week, "This is a huge game, we hate them they hate us." A win keeps Penn State undefeated in Big Ten play and sets up next week's so-called Ineligi-bowl against Ohio State in Happy Valley. The game features an interesting coaching connection as Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz, Kirk's son, worked alongside O'Brien with the New England Patriots the past few years. Kirk Ferentz downplayed the impact of having Brian Ferentz on his staff.

10. Cat nap: After a sluggish start in a previous mid-afternoon kickoff against Boston College, Northwestern's team leaders decided to schedule a mandatory team nap before Saturday's game against Nebraska (3:30 p.m. ET kick). Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald greeted the decision with quasi-disgust, saying Monday, "Unbelievable. This is what I get paid to do. Seriously. Create nap time. It's pathetic." But the cat nap is definitely happening, as Fitzgerald confirmed later in the week, and it'll be interesting to see how Northwestern starts the game against the Huskers. Although the idea sounds silly, figuring out how to rest before games to produce peak performances is a subject that gets a lot of attention from sports teams at all levels. There will be some jokes if Northwestern sleepwalks through the first half against the Huskers. If the Wildcats win, expect to see the pregame nap adopted all over the country.

Before the season, no one would have predicted Wisconsin's offense to catch fire with neither Montee Ball nor Danny O'Brien on the field.

A nightmarish first three weeks for the nation's 116th-rated offense seemed to continue early in the second quarter Saturday when Ball, the Badgers' star running back, suffered a head injury on a 1-yard touchdown run. After being evaluated by trainers for a possible concussion, Ball was ruled out for the game, continuing a rough few months for the 2011 Hesiman Trophy finalist. Ball also had the first lost fumble of his career in the first quarter, taking a big shot on the play.

But without Ball, and with redshirt freshman Joel Stave making his first career start at quarterback, Wisconsin's offense surged for 23 first-half points and beat UTEP 37-26 at Camp Randall Stadium. Stave passed for 210 yards and a touchdown, and benefited from the return of top wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, who had six receptions for 147 yards and a touchdown. The Badgers finished with 423 yards.

After letting UTEP claw to within a touchdown, Wisconsin put away the game with a 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive capped by a 2-yard scoring run by backup running back James White. It was one of the few times this season Wisconsin's offense has looked like, well, Wisconsin's offense.

It wasn't the cleanest performance for the Badgers, who committed two turnovers and six penalties. UTEP went 4-for-4 on fourth down and found some holes in the Wisconsin secondary. The Badgers need to be a lot more polished in all three phases next week as they open Big Ten play at No. 25 Nebraska.

Still, Wisconsin's offense desperately needed a confidence boost after scoring just 49 points in the first three games. Coach Bret Bielema benched the turnover-prone O'Brien in favor of Stave, who stood out during spring practice and showed good knowledge of the offense despite his inexperience. Wisconsin piled up 250 yards in the first half, eclipsing its total from the past two games.

Ball looked fine on the sideline during the second half, and while the Badgers would love to have him for the Nebraska game, White and Melvin Gordon (8 carries, 112 yards, TD on Saturday) are more than capable. They'll make the trip feeling a bit better about their offense.
Ron Dayne US PresswireWisconsin's Ron Dayne capped off his senior season in 1999 earning several national awards.
On Monday we revealed our list of top five individual seasons by a Big Ten player in the past 50 years, and as Brian Bennett explained, the choices weren't easy. We omitted several incredible individual performances, and some of you let us hear about it.

Here's a list of 10 outstanding individual seasons that just missed the cut. As a reminder, these are performances from the past 50 seasons only (1962-2011). Although Nebraska has played only one season as a Big Ten member, we considered Huskers' performances from the time span, as well as those by Penn State players before the 1993 season, when Penn State joined the Big Ten. Again, this is a list of outstanding individual seasons, not individual careers.

Even with this list, we're leaving out many great performances.

Here's the rundown, in alphabetical order:

Brad Banks, QB, Iowa, 2002: Banks played only two seasons in Iowa City, but he left quite an impression in 2002. He led the nation in pass efficiency with a 157.1 rating and had 26 touchdown passes and just five interceptions, to go along with 423 rush yards and five touchdowns on 83 carries. Banks finished second for the Heisman Trophy but took home plenty of awards, including AP Player of the Year, Davey O'Brien and Big Ten MVP.

Kerry Collins, QB, Penn State, 1994: Penn State is known for producing star running backs, but Collins broke the mold in the team's second Big Ten season with an outstanding performance. He set team records for total offense (2,660), completions (176), passing yardage (2,679), completion percentage (66.7), yards per attempt (10.15) and passing efficiency (172.86). His efficiency mark ranks third in Big Ten history. Collins won the Maxwell and O'Brien awards and finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting. He led Penn State to an undefeated season and a Rose Bowl title.

Ron Dayne, RB, Wisconsin, 1999: It was a tough call between Dayne's 1999 campaign and his historic freshman year in 1996, but he capped his Badgers career by sweeping the major national awards (Heisman, Walter Camp, Maxwell, Doak Walker). Dayne rumbled for 1,834 yards and 19 touchdowns, averaging 6.1 yards per carry, as Wisconsin repeated as Big Ten and Rose Bowl champions.

Eddie George, RB, Ohio State, 1995: Like Wisconsin's Montee Ball, who made our top five list from Monday, George was a model of consistency at the running back spot. He eclipsed 100 rush yards in 11 consecutive games despite often playing sparingly in the fourth quarter, and he finished the season with 1,927 rush yards and 23 touchdowns. He edged Nebraska's Tommie Frazier for the Heisman Trophy and also won the Maxwell, Walter Camp and Doak Walker.

Desmond Howard, WR, Michigan, 1991: He's the only Big Ten wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy (Nebraska's Johnny Rodgers played in the Big Eight), and his Heisman pose after a punt return touchdown against Ohio State remains an iconic image. Howard had 62 receptions for 985 yards and 19 touchdowns that year. He averaged 27.5 yards per kick return with a touchdown, 15.7 yards per punt return with a touchdown and had 13 carries for 180 yards and two scores. He still holds the single-season record for receiving touchdowns in Big Ten games (13).

Larry Johnson, RB, Penn State, 2002: Johnson's numbers from 2002 are simply insane, as he averaged 183.1 yards per game and 7.7 yards per carry en route to leading the nation in rushing (2,087 yards). His yards total is the second highest in Big Ten history, and he had 54 fewer attempts than Dayne in 1996. Johnson won the Walter Camp, Maxwell and Doak Walker awards and finished third in Heisman Trophy voting.

Orlando Pace, OT, Ohio State, 1996: Offensive linemen shouldn't be excluded from a list like this, and Pace was one of the best in recent college football history. He capped his career with an outstanding senior season, finishing fourth in Heisman Trophy voting, the best total for a lineman (offense or defense) since 1980. He popularized the term "pancake block" and earned his first Outland Trophy and his second Lombardi Award that year. Pace also earned Big Ten MVP honors.

Ndamukong Suh, DT, Nebraska, 2009: Everyone around the country learned the name and the "Suuuuuuuh!" calls from Huskers fans. Suh turned into one of the more dominant seasons by a defender in college football history, racking up 12 sacks, 24 tackles for loss, 26 quarterback hurries, 10 pass breakups, three blocked kicks, a forced fumble and an interception. Suh won several national awards (Bednarik, Rotary Lombardi, Nagurski, Outland) and finished fourth in Heisman voting.

Anthony Thompson, RB, Indiana, 1989: Thompson capped a brilliant career with a flourish, winning the Walter Camp and Maxwell Awards in 1989 and earning his second consecutive Big Ten MVP honor. The Hoosiers star rushed for 1,793 yards and 24 touchdowns, and added 35 receptions for 201 yards. He recorded the top single-game rushing total (377 at Wisconsin) and set the Big Ten's career scoring record, which Dayne eclipsed a decade later.

Lorenzo White, RB, Michigan State, 1985: There are several work-horse efforts that could be included in this list, but none is more impressive than White's 1985 campaign. The Walter Camp Award winner set a Big Ten record with 419 carries and became the first Big Ten ball-carrier to eclipse 2,000 yards, piling up 2,066. He also ranks second in Big Ten Conference games in both rushing yards (1,470) and rushing average (183.7 yards per game).
MADISON, Wis. -- Even in video games, Montee Ball piles up the touchdowns.

During a friendly game of "Madden" on Friday, the Wisconsin running back uses the New York Giants to race out to a 21-0 lead over Badgers teammate Darius Feaster before the first quarter ends. Feaster quits in despair, saying he has to go to class, although he sticks around to watch Ball take on roommate Devin Smith in another game.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Brian Bennett/ESPN.comWisconsin running back Montee Ball (middle) hangs out in his apartment with teammates Devin Smith and Darius Feaster (background).
Ball's Giants then pour on 21 more first-half points against Smith's Pittsburgh Steelers, almost all on passing plays. Smith throws his controller in the air in disgust after giving up another long completion.

"Surprisingly, he can't run in this game," says Smith, a senior cornerback.

It's a scene probably playing out on hundreds of campuses the same way: three friends wasting away an afternoon talking trash over an Xbox game. The decor in the three-bedroom apartment Ball shares with Smith and another student looks like a typical college residence, too. A Wisconsin flag hangs on the living room wall above a decidedly dated, low-def RCA TV. "Hey, it was in my parents' garage," Ball says sheepishly.

Ball has few worries on this spring afternoon, but things could have been a lot different. The NFL draft is just a week away, and most people expected him to skip his senior season after he tied Barry Sanders' FBS record with 39 overall touchdowns and led the nation with 1,923 rushing yards last season. Instead, he became the only draft-eligible 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist to return to school.

Already, he has heard some media pundits say he made a mistake, that he could have been the second back taken after Alabama's Trent Richardson. Yet he remains content with his decision and happy to be a college student, zipping around campus on his scooter, enjoying the views of Lake Mendota at Memorial Union and walking down Madison's famous State Street on the way to his apartment.

"I'm savoring a lot," he said between bites of a turkey sandwich at Memorial Union. "I've been catching myself going and visiting the library, which I'd only been to a couple of times since we have our own [football academic] center. I'm making an effort to step out of my comfort zone and really explore the campus and mingle with people."

Ball made the call to return a few days before the Rose Bowl, after receiving his evaluation from the NFL draft advisory board. Although he produced one of the greatest offensive seasons in college football history, pro scouts shrugged and pegged him as a third-rounder.

"That shocked me a little bit," Ball said. "I didn't understand it, honestly. I was first in every single [rushing] stat last year."

So he huddled with his parents, who supported his decision to come back. Montee Sr. and Melissa Ball moved from Wentzville, Mo., to just outside of Madison shortly after their son enrolled to be around for his college days, and they wanted to see him earn a degree. Ball -- who's 35 credit hours short of graduating -- recently took out an insurance policy through the NCAA in case of an injury this year.

The word from NFL personnel was that Ball looked too light to play running back at the next level, which was a bit ironic because he dropped from 230 pounds as a sophomore to a playing weight of 203 last year. Standing next to the freakishly strong Richardson during the Heisman ceremony did make Ball feel a little too small, though. He's experimenting with his weight this spring and is up to about 213 now.

He may be a little heavier, but he's just as quick as ever during spring practice. Maybe even quicker.

"He's definitely gotten faster," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "It's hard to imagine. But I really think his explosiveness has increased."

Ball didn't believe that until he saw it on film. He said experience and a better understanding of the game are allowing him to make faster decisions on his cuts and moves, and hitting the hole decisively was already one of his strengths. He's also working hard this spring on improving his pass-protection skills that were lacking at times last year, most obviously in the first Michigan State game. And Wisconsin is finding new ways to use him as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.

So Ball could be a more complete running back this season. But will he be less appreciated?

He'll enter the season as a Heisman Trophy favorite, and expectations will be huge after his record-breaking 2011 season. After he scored 39 touchdowns last season, some will wonder what went wrong if he doesn't have 40 in 2012.

"The thing that's extremely unfortunate is, in a way I can only do worse than last year if you look at it statswise," Ball said. "If I come out this year and have 23 touchdowns and 1,400 yards, it's a really good season but nowhere near what I had last season.

"So I'm not as focused on stats. I'm just focused on being a better football player."

Wisconsin has had the luxury of holding Ball out of most contact work this spring. The Badgers have two very capable backups in James White and redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon, who is turning heads during practice. But coaches say Ball has set the tone for the whole team with how hard he is working every day despite his superstar status.

"He could have rested on his laurels," first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. "I've been impressed with the way he attacks every job, every drill."

Unlike some of his Heisman finalist counterparts, Ball is getting ready for Wisconsin's spring game this weekend instead of the NFL draft. He became friends with Richardson, Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck during the Heisman festivities in New York and texts with them often about their draft prospects.

Sure, part of him wishes he were in their shoes this week. But he has some goals left to accomplish in college. Ball needs just 18 rushing touchdowns and 23 total scores to tie the FBS career records held by Travis Prentice, who played at Miami (Ohio). He could challenge Ron Dayne for the title of best back in Wisconsin history. He'd also like another crack at a certain statue.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to get back to New York," he said. "I want to win the Heisman. I want to win as many awards as I can, personally. As a team, though, I want us to go undefeated and make it to the national championship game."

Ball is excited to watch the draft this weekend, but he's perfectly happy waiting another year to get there himself. For now, his NFL experience will involve only playing "Madden" with his friends on a lazy afternoon.
It has been a rough few days for the Wisconsin Badgers, who lost their second consecutive Rose Bowl on Monday and lost two more assistant coaches Wednesday.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesStandout running back Montee Ball is returning for another season at Wisconsin.
But the week is ending on a very good note: "MoneyBall" is waiting to cash in.

Translation: Montee Ball will remain at Wisconsin for his senior season.

Ball, the Badgers' star running back, announced his decision to stay at a Thursday afternoon news conference. Badgers fans have to be thrilled and also a bit surprised by Ball's choice.

While the Big Ten's NFL draft decisions so far have been as expected -- Illinois' Whitney Mercilus, Iowa's Riley Reiff and Michigan State's Jerel Worthy all were expected to forgo their senior seasons and did -- Ball raised a few eyebrows by opting to stay.

The biggest reason? His position. Running backs typically bolt for the NFL when their stock is high, and Ball's stock rose after a season when he led the nation in rushing (1,923 yards), matched Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season touchdowns record (39) and earned consensus All-America honors. Given the short span of pro careers for most running backs, Ball's choice to delay his NFL entry makes him unique.

On the other hand, Ball isn't projected to be a first-round pick, unlike the Big Ten's three early entrants. In fact, he received a third-round grade from the NFL draft advisory committee, which "really disappointed" him.

There have been concerns about his pass-blocking and even his size after he slimmed down considerably after the 2010 season. Ball said he plans to increase his weight to 215 on the recommendation of the NFL draft advisory committee.

"That's what I’m going to do this spring, see if my body can handle 215," he said.

It's hard to expect Ball to duplicate his 2011 performance in the fall, as star quarterback Russell Wilson departs and the team has major questions under center. The offense also will operate with a new coordinator and two new assistants after Paul Chryst, Bob Bostad and DelVaughn Alexander all departed for positions elsewhere.

"Obviously I’m taking a pretty huge gamble coming back," he said.

His decision is great news for Wisconsin and for those who love college football. He'll be the Big Ten's top Heisman Trophy candidate entering the 2011 season and one of the national front-runners. Ball's decision also solidifies Wisconsin as the Leaders division favorite in 2012, especially because Ohio State is ineligible to reach the Big Ten title game.

Ball also puts himself in position to finish as one of the greatest running backs in Big Ten history. He ranks fifth in the Big Ten in career rushing touchdowns with 51, 20 behind former Wisconsin star Ron Dayne, the 1999 Heisman Trophy winner. Although Ball won't catch Dayne on the career rushing list, he could move into the top five in the Big Ten with a strong senior season. He has 3,310 career rush yards -- former Michigan State star Lorenzo White is fifth with 4,887. And unlike most of the backs on the Big Ten's career chart, Ball won't be a four-year starter.

"These four years that I'll be here, I want to make sure I put a huge stamp on this university," he said.

It will take some time to know whether "MoneyBall" made a good business decision.

But Wisconsin fans have to be stoked. The rest of the Big Ten? Not so much.
Montee Ball, LaMichael JamesAP PhotoMontee Ball, left, and LaMichael James have put up stunning numbers in very different offenses.


LOS ANGELES -- Montee Ball had hoped to meet LaMichael James at "The Home Depot College Football Awards" show on Dec. 8. Alas, James had finals and couldn't attend.

It's no wonder Ball wanted to size up maybe the only running back in the country with numbers as impressive as his own. The two will save their meeting for Monday at the Rose Bowl, which seems like a worthy summit for these two stars.

Oregon's James leads the nation in rushing yards per game (149.6) and yards per carry (7.4). Meanwhile, Wisconsin's Ball has the most total rushing yards (1,759) and has scored more touchdowns in a season than every FBS player not named Barry Sanders (38).

They're both juniors who will likely jump to the NFL after this game. The similarities pretty much end there, however, as each is a different kind of runner, playing in a vastly different type of offense from his counterpart.

"What he brings to the table is speed, and I believe what I bring to the table is obviously a lot of power, strength and a little bit of speed as well," Ball said.

"You know, he's probably 215 pounds and I'm like 190," James said. "He runs in the I [formation]. I run in the spread. I don't really think there's a comparison between the two."

But they will be compared, both this week and beyond. When both are poked and prodded during the NFL evaluation process, scouts and others are likely to ask whether they succeeded because of the systems they play in.

In Ball's case, such questions are inevitable. Badgers running backs benefit from the program's traditionally strong offensive line and a run-first mentality. Few Wisconsin running backs have made a dent in the pros. This year, Ball became the first Badgers' Heisman Trophy finalist since Ron Dayne won the award in 1999, and Dayne -- who was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame this week -- is often held up as an example of a college star who was an NFL bust.

Of course, Ball isn't built anything like the rumbling Dayne. You'd be hard-pressed to find many flaws in his game right now.

"He's a bigger guy, but he has really great feet," James said. "And the physicality is pretty nifty, too."

James will face a different set of skepticism. He's a smaller back at 5-foot-9. He also plays in a spread offense and gets a lot of his yards out of the zone option, though Oregon has run that less this year than in the past. But he doesn't average nearly 7.5 yards per carry on the system alone.

"He's tough for a littler guy," Wisconsin defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. "He'll run between the tackles, and people will not get him down. He'll run through you, around you, beat you with speed, whatever he's got to do. Very rarely do you see one individual getting him down on the tape."

Which back is better? It's nearly impossible to say since they play such different styles. But it would be fun to imagine how each would do in the other's shoes.

Ball grew up outside of St. Louis but wasn't interested in going to Missouri because of the spread offense there. He wanted to play for a power-run team, which is why he looked hardest at Iowa and Wisconsin.

"I've thought about it a couple times, taking a lot of carries from the [shot]gun and stuff like that," Ball said. "It would be a lot of fun, obviously, getting the ball into open space."

Wisconsin has usually liked big backs. But can you imagine James hiding behind the Badgers' enormous front wall before exploding through the gaps?

"I know I would be successful in their offense," James said. "No. 67 [Wisconsin left tackle Josh Oglesby], I can just sit behind him all day."

Are James and Ball "system guys"? Well, aren't all football players indebted to the type of players and play calling that surround them?

"I think with any team, the running back obviously is a product of the system," Ball said. "But they do a great job of staying on his strengths, basically putting him in open space with the football. And the same with us. We do a great job of keeping me protected behind the big offensive linemen so I can weave my way around them and score a touchdown."

How much the system contributes to each player's success really doesn't matter. All we know is, no one has developed a defensive system to stop them yet.

"I think Montee Ball would flourish in a spread offense," Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. "He'd flourish in an I-offense. He'd flourish in a Wildcat offense. And I think LaMichael would be the same way."
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.
Five lessons from the 2010-11 Big Ten bowl season.

1. The Big Ten lacks depth. Not a real revelation here, but the Big Ten lacked the depth it displayed in the previous postseason. Although both Ohio State and Wisconsin held their own in BCS games, the Michigan schools melted down against the SEC and neither Penn State nor Northwestern could beat so-so opponents. If not for mini upsets by both Iowa and Illinois, the bowls would have been a total disaster.

2. The new bowl lineup might be tougher. The Big Ten does itself no favors in the bowls, and the new lineup isn't helping matters. Big Ten teams went 1-2 in the new bowls, winning the Texas Bowl but falling in both the Gator and the TicketCity. Placing two teams in BCS games every season means everyone moves up a slot, so it's unrealistic to expect the Big Ten to post too many winning records in postseason play.

3. Terrelle Pryor is a big-time bowl performer. It's certainly debatable whether Pryor and four Ohio State teammates should have been allowed to play in the Sugar Bowl, but Pryor stepped up his game for the second consecutive season. The Buckeyes junior quarterback blocked out the distractions and turned in an impressive performance, passing for 221 yards and two touchdowns and adding 115 rush yards. He earned MVP honors in a BCS bowl for the second straight year.

4. Michigan State isn't there yet. These aren't your same old Spartans. They proved otherwise during an unforgettable regular season. But with a chance to "measure up" against defending national champ Alabama, Michigan State crumbled in a humbling Capital One Bowl defeat. Although 'Bama wasn't your typical 9-3 squad this season, Michigan State learned it still has some steps to take to become an elite program.

5. Iowa's run game will be just fine. Adam Robinson's suspension and subsequent dismissal appeared to be the latest blow for Iowa's depth-deprived run game. But true freshman Marcus Coker made the concerns disappear and, in the process, raised hope for next season with a historic performance in the Insight Bowl. Coker rushed for 219 yards and two touchdowns -- the second-highest total by a Big Ten freshman in a bowl behind Wisconsin's Ron Dayne in the 1996 Copper Bowl -- as Iowa rallied past Missouri. The Hawkeyes know who they want carrying the load in 2011.
Ohio State has won or shared the last five Big Ten championships. According to the media, the Buckeyes will celebrate a sixth consecutive title in late November.

For the third straight year, Ohio State has been picked as the Big Ten preseason favorite. Led by All-America candidate Cameron Heyward, the Buckeyes aim to match a team record with their sixth consecutive Big Ten crown after doing so from 1972-77.

No one will be surprised by Ohio State's selection. The bigger drama came at the No. 2 spot, as media around the country seem to be split on Iowa and Wisconsin. Iowa got the nod from the Big Ten press corps, coming in at No. 2 after an Orange Bowl championship in January. Wisconsin rounds out the preseason poll at No. 3 (unlike other leagues, the Big Ten only reveals the top three teams in preseason voting).

The media's selections for preseason players of the year mirrored last year's choices: Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor (offense) and Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones (defense). It marks the first time this has happened since 1998, when Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne and Ohio State linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer received the honors.

Pryor is certainly more deserving of the honor this year than he was in 2009, when Big Ten media members got drunk in the hype surrounding the Buckeyes signal-caller. He comes off of his best career performance against Oregon in the Rose Bowl, winning the game's offensive MVP honors. I voted for Wisconsin junior running back John Clay, who won 2009 postseason Offensive Player of the Year honors and could be even better this fall. Clay is the better choice, but both he and Pryor are Heisman Trophy candidates entering the fall.

Jones lived up to the hype in 2009, sharing postseason Defensive Player of the Year honors with Penn State's Jared Odrick. The three-year starter ranked third nationally in tackles with 154 and fifth in the Big Ten in sacks with nine.

Both player of the year races should be very competitive, especially the defensive side, as Iowa's Adrian Clayborn and Heyward will challenge Jones.
Football strength training is the flavor this week on ESPN.com, as we attempt to pump ... you up! Sorry, couldn't resist.

Head coaches get most of the credit -- and, to be fair, most of the blame -- but strength coaches spend more time with players than anyone else on campus. They play major roles in developing personnel for the season.

So who are these guys? Here's a quick look at the Big Ten strength coaches.

ILLINOIS
Name:
Lou Hernandez
At Illinois since: 2005
The skinny: Hernandez made the transition from Florida to Illinois with Fighting Illini head coach Ron Zook, for whom he has worked since 2003. A native Texan, Hernandez received both his bachelor's and master's from the University of Houston, where he worked from 1992-2001 as both an assistant strength coach and the head man. Hernandez spent 2002 as the assistant strength and conditioning coach for the New York Jets. Despite being just 5-foot-8, Hernandez was a competitive power lifter who could bench 507 pounds and squat 720 in his heyday. He also consults Illinois players on nutrition and helped defensive end Will Davis add to his frame in 2008.

INDIANA
Name:
Mark Wateska
At Indiana since: 2002
The skinny: Wateska has spent nearly a quarter century as a strength and conditioning coach, including the last eight seasons with the Hoosiers football program. He played football at Penn State and was part of the 1986 national championship team. Wateska received both his bachelor's degree and his master's degree in exercise and sports science from Penn State and started his career there. He eventually left for Boston College, where he served as an assistant strength coach for four years before he took his first head job at Maine. Before Indiana, Wateska spent seven years as Stanford's head strength and conditioning coach. After his first year at The Farm, Wateksa was named Pac-10 Strength and Conditioning Professional of the Year by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NCSA).

IOWA
Name:
Chris Doyle
At Iowa since: 1999
The skinny: Doyle has been in Iowa City for every step of the program's resurgence under Kirk Ferentz. He made his mark right away, earning Big Ten Strength Coach of the Year honors from the NCSA in 1999. Doyle has helped 149 players who have reached the professional ranks in the NFL, NHL and NBA, including 24 Iowa players selected in the last six NFL drafts. A native of Quincy, Mass., who earned two degrees at Boston University, Doyle came to Iowa after a year at Utah but was no stranger to the Big Ten. He served as Wisconsin's assistant strength and conditioning coach from 1996-98. Doyle worked both the football and hockey teams in Madison.

MICHIGAN
Name:
Mike Barwis
At Michigan since: 2008
The skinny:
Barwis followed Rich Rodriguez to Michigan after spending 14 years at West Virginia, where he worked with the school's Olympic sports programs before taking over strength and conditioning for football in 2003. Rodriguez is extremely loyal to Barwis and gives Barwis a lot of credit for the Mountaineers' rise to national prominence from 2005-07. Barwis has coached 24 NCSA All-Americans since 1999 and received the Bronze Award from the NCSA certification commission in 2004. A former mixed-martial arts fighter, Barwis' workout regimes at West Virginia became legendary, and the Philadelphia native has developed quite a reputation among Michigan players and fans.

MICHIGAN STATE
Name: Ken Mannie
At Michigan State since: 1994
The skinny: Mannie made the transition with Nick Saban from Toledo to Michigan State in 1994, but while Saban moved on, Mannie remained a fixture in East Lansing. He has received numerous awards and honors during his Michigan State tenure, including being named Master Strength and Conditioning Coach by the NSCA in 2002 and being inducted into the Varsity S Club as an honorary member in 2007. Mannie, who oversees the strength and conditioning programs for all of Michigan State's sports, is a regular contributor to the Scholastic Coach and Athletic Director publication. He first met Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio at Ohio State, where they both served as graduate assistants in 1984.

MINNESOTA
Name:
Mark Hill
At Minnesota since: 2007
The skinny: A 1999 graduate of Tennessee-Chattanooga, Hill already has worked as a high-level strength coach in the Big 12, Pac-10 and Big Ten. He joined Minnesota's staff in head coach Tim Brewster's first season after spending three years as associate director of performance enhancement at Arizona. Hill worked closely with Antoine Cason at Arizona, helping the defensive back win the Thorpe Award. He has mentored six All-Big Ten players at Minnesota and helped coach 13 All-Americans and 28 NFL draft picks as the assistant strength and conditioning coach at Oklahoma from 2000-03. Hill was an All-Southern Conference wide receiver at Tennessee-Chattanooga.

NORTHWESTERN
Name: Larry Lilja
At Northwestern since: 1981
The skinny: Lilja is the dean of Big Ten strength coaches and counts current Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald among the many Wildcats players he tutored during his lengthy run in Evanston. He was a three-year starter at Northwestern from 1973-75, serving as a captain in 1974, before returning in 1981 to run the school's strength and conditioning center. Lilja played a major role in helping Northwestern transform its football program by winning Big Ten championships in 1995 and 1996. He earned Big Ten Conference Strength and Conditioning Professional of the Year honors in 1996. The Lilja family has deep roots in the Big Ten, as Larry and his brothers George (Michigan) and Dave (Indiana) are the only siblings in league history to serve as captains for three different teams.

OHIO STATE
Name: Eric Lichter
At Ohio State since: 2006
The skinny: Lichter built his reputation in the private sector by opening the Speed Strength Athlete Training Center in Euclid, Ohio, where he trained athletes in many sports, including Ohio State NFL draft prospects like Donte Whitner and Bobby Carpenter. He served as a consultant to Ohio State's 2002 national championship team and brought Power Plate technology to the program. Head coach Jim Tressel hired him in 2006 to oversee the strength and conditioning program. Lichter has trained six Top 10 NFL draft picks and has worked with LeBron James, Ron Dayne and others. His mother, Linda Lichter Witter, is Ohio State’s synchronized swimming coach, and Eric served as a consultant for the synchronized swimming team before joining Tressel's staff.

PENN STATE
Name: John Thomas
At Penn State since: 1992
The skinny: Like pretty much every member of Joe Paterno's staff, Thomas has been in State College for quite some time, making his mark on the Penn State program. In 2002, Thomas was named a Master of Strength and Conditioning Coach by the NSCA, one of only 27 people to carry the title at the time. He also was named National Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year in 1997. Thomas is a staunch supporter of the High Intensity Strength Training System (HIT), which early last decade created some discontent that has since subsided. Thomas came to Penn State from Army, where he served as head strength and conditioning coach in 1990-91. He played both offensive and defensive line at Muskingum College.

PURDUE
Name: Jim Lathrop
At Purdue since: 1998 (sixth year as director of strength and conditioning)
The skinny: Lathrop made the trek with Joe Tiller and Danny Hope from Wyoming to Purdue after being named the WAC's strength and conditioning coordinator professional of the year in 1996. He spent seven years as strength and conditioning coordinator before being promoted to oversee strength and conditioning for Purdue's entire athletic program. Lathrop designs specific training programs for football, wrestling, and men's and women's track. A former offensive guard for Northwest Missouri State, Lathrop served as both an assistant and a director of strength and conditioning at Georgia Tech from 1988-92. Georgia Tech won the 1990 national championship during his first year as director.

WISCONSIN
Name: Ben Herbert
At Wisconsin since: 2002 (named head strength and conditioning coach in January 2009)
The skinny: Herbert cut his teeth under longtime Wisconsin strength coach John Dettman before working his way into the top football job last winter. A two-year starter on the defensive line for the Badgers, Herbert helped Wisconsin reach back-to-back Rose Bowls in 1998 and 1999. He joined Wisconsin's strength and conditioning staff as an intern in 2002 before being promoted to an assistant the next year. Herbert shook things up after becoming the head strength coach, introducing position group workouts, innovative competitions and some unique motivational props, including a WWE replica belt and two potted plants.

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