NCF Nation: Ryan Donahue

Our preseason position ranking series comes to an end today with everybody's favorite group: special teams.

For this ranking, we're going to consider punters, kickers and returners only. No offense to the long-snappers or the punt-team gunners, but things like kickoff coverage units are hard to forecast. We'll give a little extra weight to teams that have returning and proven players at these spots, because it's difficult to know how new punters and kickers will fare when the pressure of real games begin.

As the guys in these positions would say, let's kick it:

[+] EnlargeDan Conroy
Andrew Weber/US PresswireDan Conroy was nearly perfect on his field goal attempts last season.
1. Michigan State: Kicker Dan Conroy made 14 of his 15 attempts last year, and Keshawn Martin led the league in punt return average. They will miss punter Aaron Bates and will have to improve their kickoff return game. And you know you always have to watch out for the fake when the Spartans line up for a kick.

2. Wisconsin: The Badgers are set at both punter and kicker, with seniors Brad Nortman and Philip Welch, respectively. Both are third-year starters who can be relied upon. Wisconsin will need to find a replacement for primary return man David Gilreath.

3. Penn State: The Nittany Lions bring back punter Anthony Fera and punt returner Devon Smith, who finished just behind Martin in yards per attempt last season. Chaz Powell and Stephfon Green are dangerous kick returners. Fera could move over to handle field goals this season if incoming freshman Sam Ficken doesn't win the job.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have a veteran punter in senior Ben Buchanan and two threats to take a kick to the house in Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry. Sophomore Drew Basil is expected to take over at place-kicker. Special teams are almost always a force in Columbus.

5. Purdue: No one in the league has a bigger leg than Carson Wiggs; the questions is whether he can consistently harness it. Punter Cody Webster averaged 43.3 yards per attempt last season, second best among returning punters. The Boilermakers' return game needs to improve.

6. Illinois: Derek Dimke was a Lou Groza semifinalist last season and broke the school record for points by a kicker. He nailed two 50-plus yarders. Ray Guy semifinalist Anthony Santella is gone, though return man Troy Pollard is back.

7. Northwestern: Brandon Williams improved at punter as his freshman year went along last season. The Wildcats at long last have an elite return option in Venric Mark. But place-kicker was a concern this spring, with Jeff Budzien and Steve Flaherty competing for the job.

8. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz's teams usually find a way to be good on special teams, so odds are the Hawkeyes will climb these rankings. But they lost a lot from 2010, including Ray Guy finalist and four-year starter Ryan Donahue, plus both primary return men. Eric Guthrie held the edge at punter after the spring. Place-kicker Mike Meyer returns after taking over that role for the final 10 games and doing a solid job.

9. Indiana: Mitch Ewald was named to the Groza watch list after a strong freshman year in which he made 16 of 19 field goals. Chris Hagerup needs to increase his punting average of 39.4 yards. The Hoosiers should have enough athletes to replace Tandon Doss on returns.

10. Minnesota: Dan Orseske's 36.1-yard average was worst among starting Big Ten punters in 2010, so that must get better. Jerry Kill must also find a new place-kicker -- NC State transfer Chris Hawthorne looks like the top option. Troy Stoudermire, one of the league's top return specialists, is back for his senior year.

11. Nebraska: Like Iowa, this is a team that will almost assuredly outperform this ranking. But boy did the Huskers lose a lot of talent and experience. It will be difficult to match the value that punter/kicker Alex Henery brought -- Brett Maher and freshman Mauro Bondi will battle to replace him -- and Adi Kunalic was a secret weapon as kickoff specialist. Top returner Niles Pau is gone, too. The Cornhuskers will likely reload, but nobody has bigger shoes to fill at these positions in the Big Ten.

12. Michigan: The kicking game looked like a disaster this spring, with neither Seth Broekhuizen nor Brendan Gibbons inspiring confidence. Incoming freshman Matt Wile might win the job this summer. This could prove to be an Achilles' heel for the Wolverines, as it was a year ago. On the plus side, Will Hagerup is the leading returning punter in the Big Ten, though he had only 33 attempts last season.
Iowa has never been the type of team that draws motivation from outside forces.

That's probably a good thing this week. There's a lot of doom and gloom in the Hawkeye State.

The talk around the program has centered on unfilled expectations after the Hawkeyes dropped their third game last Saturday. Many had raised the bar for Iowa after an 11-2 season in 2009 that culminated with an Orange Bowl championship.

[+] EnlargeRicky Stanzi
David Purdy/Getty ImagesRicky Stanzi and the Iowa seniors will take aim at Ohio State in their final home game.
Undoubtedly the biggest reason for the optimism was a sizable and decorated senior class that included players like defensive end Adrian Clayborn, quarterback Ricky Stanzi, defensive tackle Karl Klug, receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and punter Ryan Donahue.

Saturday's game against No. 9 Ohio State was pegged to be much more than Senior Day before the season. Most figured the Hawkeyes and Buckeyes would be playing for a Big Ten title, like they did last year, and possibly even a trip to the BCS championship game. While Ohio State is in the thick of the league championship hunt, No. 20 Iowa has dropped back after another loss to its recent nemesis, Northwestern.

"We're just playing for the seniors, for ourselves and just the last game at Kinnick," Clayborn told reporters this week. "We're pretty much out of the title race, but that's the least of our worries."

Senior Day will have to suffice for the Hawkeyes, but all is not lost. Far from it.

"We had a good year last season," Stanzi said. "That put us up there, and people were talking about us competing for the Big Ten championship, which is fine. Now that we're out of that picture, we're not happy about it, obviously it's not something we want to do. … At the same time, it's still a football game we have to get ready for. It's us against them.

"We're not throwing in the towel or anything like that."

Iowa still has plenty at stake Saturday, especially the 26 players who will make their final appearance at Kinnick Stadium.

Ohio State is the lone Big Ten team the Hawkeyes' seniors haven't beaten in their four years. If Iowa wins out, it will claim consecutive 10-win seasons for just the third time and record the second-best three-year stretch in team history (30 wins, trailing only the 31-victory surge between 2002-04).

And if things fall right with both Wisconsin and Michigan State, Iowa could climb back into the league title race.

"There's always something to play for," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "We were 1-9 back in '99, and those seniors in our last game against Minnesota thought that was an extremely important game. Our season's not over yet, we have not surrendered. The chances of us being in the title talk are basically reduced to a very slim percentage.

"And that's not our focus right now."

Stanzi certainly isn't focused on last year's game against Ohio State, which he missed with an ankle injury. Backup James Vandenberg performed admirably at Ohio Stadium, and the Hawkeyes took Ohio State to overtime before falling.

"To say that we're thinking about last year or trying to get revenge is kind of nonsense," Stanzi said. "It's not really how we operate."

Iowa has responded well from its previous two losses, crushing Ball State 45-0 and ending Michigan State's perfect season with a 37-6 thrashing on Oct. 30. The Hawkeyes expect a much tougher challenge from Ohio State, which has won 11 of the teams' past 12 meetings.

Stanzi allowed himself to reminisce a bit Wednesday, calling it "an honor" to merely receive a scholarship offer from Iowa. He acknowledged that Senior Day is important but doesn't expect the true significance to sink in until several years down the road.

"For them to be the memories you want them to be," Stanzi said, "it's important to take care of business right now."
Let's take a look back at Week 11 before spinning it forward to Week 12.

Team of the Week: Northwestern. There are two guarantees with Northwestern football in the last decade or so. Every season, the Wildcats drop a game they shouldn't and pull off an upset, usually against Iowa. After stumbling against short-handed Purdue in early October, the Wildcats continued their trend by upsetting then-No. 13 Iowa on Saturday. Northwestern blew an early lead, which is nothing new this season, but this time Pat Fitzgerald's crew rallied in the fourth quarter behind star quarterback Dan Persa and others. Persa led two fourth-quarter scoring drives and Northwestern held on to beat Iowa for the fifth time in the teams' last six meetings. The victory ensures that Northwestern will record three consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1958-60.

[+] EnlargeDan Persa
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhNorthwestern quarterback Dan Persa rallied the Wildcats to a win over Iowa before leaving the game with a season-ending injury.
Best game: Iowa at Northwestern. The Wildcats controlled play for the first half but led just 7-3 at halftime as both defenses stepped up. Iowa surged throughout the third quarter as the Hawkeyes controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and twice reached the end zone. But an interception by Northwestern's Brian Peters changed momentum and gave the home side new life. Northwestern ran its up-tempo offense to perfection behind Persa on two scoring drives, and Iowa's veteran defenders seemed to wear down at the end. The final minutes featured plenty of drama as Persa fired the game-winning touchdown pass with 1:22 left but ruptured his Achilles' tendon on the play. Iowa had one final chance but couldn't get the ball in the end zone. Northwestern celebrated a bittersweet win, as Persa underwent season-ending surgery Saturday night. The Minnesota-Illinois game also deserves a mention as the Gophers rallied from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to snap their nine-game losing streak.

Biggest play: Several come to mind, including Persa's 20-yard touchdown pass to Demetrius Fields to give Northwestern the lead for good. Minnesota's Troy Stoudermire gave his team new life in the fourth quarter with a 90-yard kickoff return that set up a touchdown. But my pick took place at The Shoe. Ohio State led Penn State 17-14 early in the fourth quarter when Terrelle Pryor heaved a deep pass to receiver DeVier Posey, who couldn't haul it in but tipped the ball. Fellow wideout Dane Sanzenbacher swooped in to grab the deflection for a 58-yard touchdown. Ohio State went on to a 38-14 romp.

Specialist spotlight: Minnesota's much-maligned special teams units deserve credit after Saturday's win. Stoudermire's kick return was huge, and the Gophers also got a 45-yard field goal from Eric Ellestad and three punts placed inside the Illinois 20-yard line by Dan Orseske. Northwestern and Iowa both were brilliant on kickoffs and punts, as Stefan Demos and Michael Meyer combined for eight touchbacks and Brandon Williams and Ryan Donahue combined to place four punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Both teams finished with zero return yards. Purdue's Carson Wiggs continued his strong season by going 3-for-3 on field goal attempts, while Wisconsin's Philip Welch went 2-for-2. Punters Anthony Fera of Penn State and Ben Buchanan of Ohio State both had good performances at Ohio Stadium.

Power surge: Wisconsin turned in a historic offensive performance in crushing Indiana on Saturday. The Badgers' 83 points marked the most against a Big Ten team in team history and the highest total in a game during the modern era. It was the most since the Badgers defeated Marquette 85-0 on Oct. 8, 1915. The 83 points scored tied the Big Ten record for scoring in the modern era, as Ohio State put up 83 against Iowa in 1950.

Game balls (given to players on winning or losing teams who didn't receive helmet stickers)

  • Wisconsin DEs Louis Nzegwu and J.J. Watt: It wasn't all about the Badgers' offense Saturday, as Nzegwu and Watt combined for four tackles for loss, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and a sack against Indiana.
  • Ohio State CB Devon Torrence: After getting picked on in the first half, Torrence responded with a pick-six in the third quarter to give Ohio State its first lead against Penn State. He had six tackles, one for loss, in the game.
  • Minnesota QB Adam Weber: It hasn't been an easy road for the Gophers senior quarterback, but he had a big role in snapping the team's losing streak Saturday. Weber threw for 225 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions at Illinois. Also meriting a mention is running back DeLeon Eskridge, who rushed for three touchdowns.
  • Michigan LB Obi Ezeh: It has been a bumpy road for Ezeh the last two seasons, but the senior stepped up along with several other Michigan defenders at Purdue. Ezeh recorded a team-high eight tackles, including two for loss and a sack against the Boilers.
  • Northwestern S Brian Peters: After some struggles in recent weeks, Peters made several big plays against Iowa, none bigger than an interception early in the fourth quarter that set up Northwestern's rally. He led the Wildcats with 10 tackles and recorded a forced fumble and two pass breakups.
  • Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien: The running backs always get top billing at Wisconsin, but Tolzien was nearly flawless against Indiana, completing 15 of 18 passes for 181 yards and three touchdowns.
  • Illinois RB Mikel Leshoure: The talented junior running back continues to do his part for the now-slumping Illini. After recording five touchdowns last week at Michigan, Leshoure racked up 141 rush yards and two touchdowns on only 18 carries against Minnesota.

Now here's a quick look at Week 12.

[+] EnlargeIndiana head coach Bill Lynch
AP Photo/Morry GashPerhaps no coach in the league needs a win like Indiana's Bill Lynch.
Penn State (6-4, 3-3 Big Ten) vs. Indiana (4-6, 0-6) at Landover, Md.: Embattled Hoosiers coach Bill Lynch could really use a win right about now, but the schedule does him no favors. Lynch signed off on moving this home game to FedEx Field, but he and his team have to anticipate a road-game atmosphere as Penn State fans will pack the place. Indiana must win to maintain hope of becoming bowl eligible, while Penn State tries to ensure a winning season.

Purdue (4-6, 2-4) at No. 12 Michigan State (9-1, 5-1): After an open week, the Spartans resume play with a chance to reach 10 wins for the first time since 1999. It marks the final home game for All-American linebacker Greg Jones, who will take aim at a patchwork Purdue offense. Two of the Big Ten's top defenders share the field in Jones and Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, whose team must win its final two games to become bowl eligible.

No. 7 Wisconsin (9-1, 5-1) at Michigan (7-3, 3-3): The Badgers are riding a five-game win streak and put up 83 points in their last game, but they have really struggled in the state of Michigan and especially at the Big House. Wisconsin hasn't won in Ann Arbor since 1994 and hasn't won in the state since beating Michigan State in 2002 at Spartan Stadium. Michigan has won back-to-back games but needs a much cleaner performance in all three phases to record the upset.

Illinois (5-5, 3-4) vs. Northwestern (7-3, 3-3) at Chicago: Football is back at Wrigley Field for the first time since 1970 and the Illini and Wildcats will play the first college game at the Friendly Confines since 1938. The pageantry takes center stage Saturday, but Illinois still needs a win to become bowl eligible and turn down the heat on coach Ron Zook. Northwestern redshirt freshman Evan Watkins makes his first career start at quarterback.

No. 9 Ohio State (9-1, 5-1) at No. 20 Iowa (7-3, 4-2): The Buckeyes must win out to give themselves a chance at a record-tying sixth consecutive Big Ten title. To do so, they must play better on the road after losing at Wisconsin and struggling at Illinois. Iowa gave Ohio State all it could handle last year in Columbus, and this time the Hawkeyes will have starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi available. It's Senior Day at Kinnick Stadium, where Iowa aims for a signature win to salvage an otherwise disappointing season.

Bye: Minnesota (2-9, 1-6).
Time to press the rewind button on Week 9 before looking ahead to this week's games.

Team of the week: Iowa. After two close losses filled with what-ifs, the Hawkeyes left nothing to chance Saturday afternoon at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa obliterated Michigan State from the opening kickoff, storming out to a 30-0 halftime lead. The Hawkeyes did it with offensive execution, as quarterback Ricky Stanzi put himself on the Heisman radar, completing 11 of 15 passes for 190 yards and three touchdowns. They also did it with opportunistic defense, recording three interceptions against the typically poised Kirk Cousins, returning one for a touchdown. Iowa received major contributions from many players and avoided a special-teams miscue. The win tightened the Big Ten race heading into November.

Evan Royster
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPenn State running back Evan Royster ran for 150 yards and two touchdowns against Michigan.
Best game: Michigan-Penn State. It was a Saturday of blowouts around the Big Ten, but two traditional powerhouses provided an entertaining offensive shootout at Beaver Stadium. Michigan's Denard Robinson had another huge night, rushing for 191 yards and three touchdowns to go along with 190 passing yards and a score. But "Shoelace" got upstaged by Penn State's Evan Royster and Matt McGloin. Royster, the former All-Big Ten running back who entered Saturday with just one 100-yard rushing performance in seven games, went for 150 rushing yards and two scores. McGloin sizzled in his first career start, passing for 250 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. Michigan rallied late to cut Penn State's lead to seven points before the Lions answered. The teams combined for 72 points and 858 offensive yards. Northwestern-Indiana also had some late drama before the Wildcats held on to win 20-17.

Biggest play: Iowa led Michigan State 10-0 late in the first quarter, but the Spartans had entered Hawkeyes territory and had first-and-10 from the 41. Safety Tyler Sash read Cousins perfectly and made an easy interception on a pass to B.J. Cunningham. The exciting part came next, as Sash ran six yards before lateraling the ball over Cunningham's head to teammate Micah Hyde. Hyde raced 66 yards and dived inside the pylon for a touchdown. Iowa went up 17-0 and never looked back. "It's like the point guard that pulls up from 40 feet deep and shoots a 3-pointer," said Sash, a former basketball star in high school. "If he makes it, it's alright. But if he misses it, what are you doing?"

Specialist spotlight: Penn State's Collin Wagner went 2-for-2 on field goals, including a 42-yarder that gave the Lions a 10-point cushion in the fourth quarter. He also ran seven yards on a fake field goal to seal the victory in the final minutes. Northwestern's Stefan Demos has had an up-and-down senior season, but he came up huge at Indiana with two field goals, including a 45-yarder to make it a two-score game with 6:51 left. Both punters in the Michigan State-Iowa game performed well, as Iowa's Ryan Donahue placed three punts inside the 20-yard line and Michigan State's Aaron Bates averaged 48.5 yards per boot. Ohio State recorded a special-teams touchdown as Jonathan Newsome blocked a Minnesota punt and Zach Domicone recovered in the end zone. The Buckeyes also had a 70-yard punt return by Jordan Hall. Illinois' Anthony Santella averaged 43.7 yards on seven punts, and teammate Clay Nurse blocked a Purdue punt.

Game balls (given to players on winning or losing teams who didn't receive helmet stickers)

  • Ohio State's Dan Herron, DeVier Posey and Terrelle Pryor: All three turned in big performances as Ohio State blew out Minnesota. Herron continued to establish himself as the Buckeyes' No. 1 running back with 114 rushing yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. Pryor once again was efficient, completing 18 of 22 passes for 222 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Posey had six catches for 115 yards and a score.
  • Iowa DL Mike Daniels: It's probably a combination of Daniels' emergence and the way opponents are double-teaming Adrian Clayborn, but the junior continues to have a huge season. He recorded two more tackles for loss against Michigan State, bringing his season total to 10.
  • Northwestern QB Dan Persa and WR Jeremy Ebert: They've formed one of the Big Ten's top passing connections and hooked up five times for 98 yards and two touchdowns against Indiana. Persa completed 18 of 28 passes for 212 yards with two touchdowns and no picks, and he added 19 rush yards before being shaken up late in the game.
  • Michigan QB Denard Robinson: Robinson single-handedly kept Michigan alive at Penn State with 191 rush yards and three touchdowns and 190 pass yards and a score. He accounted for 381 of Michigan's 423 offensive yards at Beaver Stadium.
  • Indiana DE Darius Johnson: Johnson applied steady pressure to Persa and consistently beat Northwestern's offensive line for 11 tackles, including two for loss and a sack.
  • Ohio State LB Brian Rolle: With fellow 'backer Ross Homan still sidelined by injury, Rolle stepped up against Minnesota with 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in the win.

Now let's spin it forward and look at Week 10.

No. 16 Iowa (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) at Indiana (4-4, 0-4): The Hawkeyes are riding high after their dominant win against Michigan State, but they'll have to take care of business on the road the next two weeks before the Ohio State showdown. Indiana dominated Iowa last Halloween for three quarters as Stanzi threw five interceptions. But it was all Iowa in the fourth, as the Hawkeyes exploded for 28 unanswered points. Indiana quarterback Ben Chappell will throw the ball a ton, so Iowa's defensive linemen will have their ears pinned back for this one.

Minnesota (1-8, 0-5) at No. 14 Michigan State (8-1, 4-1): Despite Saturday's ugly loss, the Spartans remain very much alive in the Big Ten title race and can get well against the league's worst team. Look for Michigan State to reignite its ground game against a Minnesota team that allows a league-worst 201.8 rush yards per game. Minnesota's Adam Weber torched Michigan State for 416 pass yards and five touchdowns in last year's wacky game in Minneapolis, but he'll face a much tougher challenge this time around.

Illinois (5-3, 3-2) at Michigan (5-3, 1-3): Don't be fooled by the matching records; these teams are headed in opposite directions. Illinois is surging after back-to-back blowout victories and looks for its third consecutive win against the Maize and Blue. Michigan has dropped three consecutive league contests as its defense and special teams continue to regress. Embattled coach Rich Rodriguez needs this one in a big way, and the winning team will be bowl eligible.

No. 9 Wisconsin (7-1, 3-1) at Purdue (4-4, 2-2): After an open week, the Badgers return to action against a Purdue team coming off of back-to-back ugly losses. Speaking of one-sided games, Wisconsin crushed Purdue 37-0 last year in Madison. This game features Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year front-runners Ryan Kerrigan from Purdue and J.J. Watt from Wisconsin. The two defensive ends have combined for 12.5 sacks and 32 tackles for loss this season.

Northwestern (6-2, 2-2) at Penn State (5-3, 2-2): A pretty obvious story line here as Joe Paterno goes for win No. 400. The Nittany Lions' legend would be just the third college coach to record 400 victories -- John Gagliardi and Eddie Robinson are the others -- and the first to do so in Division I-A/FBS. Standing in the way of history is Northwestern, which brings a 4-0 road record this season to Happy Valley. Wildcats star quarterback Dan Persa returns to his home state for the game.

Bye: No. 11 Ohio State (8-1, 4-1)
Let's press the rewind button on Week 8 before fast-forwarding into Week 9.

[+] EnlargeScott Tolzien
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallWisconsin's Scott Tolzien made some clutch throws in the fourth quarter at Iowa.
Team of the Week: Wisconsin. The Badgers get the nod for the second consecutive week after their second consecutive signature win, this time on the road against rival Iowa. Bret Bielema's squad had to overcome several key injuries -- running back James White, tight end Lance Kendricks -- and a red-hot Ricky Stanzi, but thanks to a gutsy fake punt call from Bielema, some clutch play by quarterback Scott Tolzien and the emergence of third-string back Montee Ball, Wisconsin rallied for a 31-30 victory. Wisconsin still needs some help to reach a BCS bowl, but it has survived the toughest part of its schedule and will be favored in its final four contests.

Best game: I give a slight edge to Wisconsin-Iowa, but Michigan State-Northwestern also provided plenty of drama. Both games featured fake punts with fun names -- "Mousetrap" and "Chain" -- that led to come-from-behind victories by the road team. We saw tremendous quarterback play in both contests -- Michigan State's Kirk Cousins and Northwestern's Dan Persa in Evanston, Iowa's Stanzi and Wisconsin's Tolzien in Iowa City -- and surprising players stepping up in the clutch (Wisconsin's Ball, Michigan State's Bennie Fowler). A ton of good stuff in both games.

Biggest play: The two fake punts are the obvious choices here, especially Wisconsin's on a fourth-and-4 from its own 26-yard line with about six minutes to play. But there were others as well. Tolzien made a huge throw to Ball for a 7-yard completion on fourth-and-5 in the closing minutes, and Michigan State receiver B.J. Cunningham came up huge on the game-winning touchdown, which he caught after Northwestern safety Brian Peters deflected the ball.

Specialist spotlight: Michigan State punter Aaron Bates and his Wisconsin counterpart Brad Nortman have received plenty of credit, and deservedly so, for executing the fake punts Saturday. Illinois continued to shine on special teams as punter Anthony Santella averaged 45.6 yards on five punts, Derek Dimke added two more field goals and Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey both blocked Indiana punts. Penn State punter Anthony Fera was outstanding, averaging 45.2 yards a punt with four placed inside the Minnesota 20-yard line. Purdue punter Cody Webster had another big day (six punts, 46.7-yard average), and Iowa's Ryan Donahue had a 71-yard punt. Northwestern kicker Stefan Demos rebounded with two field goals against Michigan State.

Game balls:

  • Michigan State DE Tyler Hoover: Hoover gave Northwestern's offensive line all sorts of trouble, recording two sacks and a forced fumble and tying Greg Jones for the team lead in tackles with nine. He tied a career high in tackles and set a personal best in sacks as he continues to blossom for the unbeaten Spartans.
  • Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt: The junior is making a serious push for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. He followed up a dominating performance against Ohio State with five tackles, including two for loss and a sack, and a huge blocked extra-point attempt that proved to be the difference in the game.
  • Illinois defenders Corey Liuget, Justin Staples, Terry Hawthorne, Patrick Nixon-Youman and Jonathan Brown: They'll have to share one game ball, but I doubt they'll mind after teaming up to shut down Indiana. Liuget recorded a sack and five quarterback hurries, while Staples had two tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Nixon-Youman and Brown both recorded pick-sixes, and Hawthorne had an interception and a tackle for loss in his first game back from injury.
  • Penn State CB D'Anton Lynn: Lynn stepped up in a big way at Minnesota, recording a game-high 10 tackles and a 58-yard interception return that turned the momentum in the second quarter.
  • Northwestern QB Dan Persa: Anyone who hadn't seen Persa before Saturday gained a ton of respect for the Wildcats' junior quarterback. He repeatedly sacrificed his body and made plays when they seemingly weren't there, recording three rushing touchdowns in the game.
  • Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien: Despite not having one of his top passing targets in Kendricks, Tolzien led Wisconsin to a huge road victory. He did have an ugly interception, but was otherwise brilliant, completing 20 of 26 passes for 205 yards and a touchdown.
  • Ohio State WRs Dane Sanzenbacher and DeVier Posey: One of the nation's top receiving tandems teamed up Saturday for eight receptions, 170 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Sanzenbacher had a 57-yard reception as he continues to improve his stock for the Biletnikoff Award.
  • Minnesota WR Da'Jon McKnight: The next Gophers coach will inherit a nice piece in McKnight, who continues to evolve as a go-to receiver. McKnight recorded eight receptions for 103 yards and three touchdowns against Penn State.
  • Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi: I put the poor clock management at the end of the game on the coaching staff, not Stanzi, who delivered another tremendous performance. The senior completed 25 of 37 passes for 258 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions against Wisconsin.

Now let's spin it forward for a quick look at Week 9.

Purdue (4-3, 2-1 Big Ten) at Illinois (4-3, 2-2): Purdue might have to start another new quarterback after Rob Henry's hand injury, and the timing doesn't favor the Boilers, as the Illinois defense is on fire. The game features two of the Big Ten's top pass-rushing groups, as Ryan Kerrigan leads Purdue, while Corey Liuget looks to keep his stellar season going. The winner moves one step closer to bowl eligibility.

Northwestern (5-2, 1-2) at Indiana (4-3, 0-3): This matchup features two similar teams dealing with similar senses of urgency. Northwestern aims to stop a two-game slide on the road, where it has been at its best under Pat Fitzgerald. Indiana probably needs to win this one to keep its bowl hopes alive, and the Hoosiers look to bounce back from a mistake-ridden performance at Illinois. The game also pairs two excellent quarterbacks -- Dan Persa and Ben Chappell -- and two vulnerable pass defenses. Expect a lot of points.

No. 5 Michigan State (8-0, 4-0) at No. 18 Iowa (5-2, 2-1): If the Spartans can get out of Iowa City with a victory, they can really start thinking about a run to the national title game. Michigan State certainly has the magic that Iowa had last year but is lacking this year after two fourth-quarter letdowns. Two outstanding quarterbacks meet in the Spartans' Kirk Cousins and the Hawkeyes' Ricky Stanzi, and the game also features defensive stars like Adrian Clayborn and Greg Jones. Iowa can't afford to lose and stay in the Big Ten race.

No. 11 Ohio State (7-1, 3-1) at Minnesota (1-7, 0-4): This one could get ugly. Ohio State's offense has carved up weak defenses all season, and Minnesota ranks 90th nationally in yards allowed (406.4 ypg) and 100th in points allowed (31.9 ppg). Quarterback Terrelle Pryor is licking his chops. Minnesota will need a huge performance from quarterback Adam Weber to keep pace against a banged-up Buckeyes defense that rebounded last week.

Michigan (5-2, 1-2) at Penn State (4-3, 1-2): Simply put, this is the biggest game of Rich Rodriguez's Michigan tenure. Rodriguez and the Wolverines come off of a bye week and need a win to stem talk of a 2009 redux. Penn State got the win it needed at Minnesota, but surrendered 433 yards. The Lions will be tested by Denard Robinson and co., while their quarterback situation remains unsettled after Rob Bolden's apparent concussion.

Bye: No. 10 Wisconsin (7-1, 3-1)
It's time to look back at the first Saturday of Big Ten play before peeking ahead at Week 6.

Note: I've adjusted the Game Balls section to include players from losing teams who deliver exceptional performances. Helmet stickers will continue to go to players only from winning teams -- that's been my policy since Day 1 -- but the game balls section is a way to recognize guys who stepped up even though their teams didn't get the job done. You really need to do something special to make the list if your team loses, but it's now possible.

[+] EnlargeKirk Cousins
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioKirk Cousins and the Spartans overcame early mistakes to knock off the Badgers.
Team of the Week: Michigan State. The Spartans overcame three first-half turnovers and the absence of head coach Mark Dantonio to record a convincing win against then-No. 11 Wisconsin on Saturday. A program that has struggled with adversity and mental toughness in the past demonstrated plenty of it throughout the Wisconsin game. Kirk Cousins grew as a quarterback, Don Treadwell grew as a playcaller/future head coach and Michigan State grew into a Big Ten title contender. The Spartans ended John Clay's 10-game streak of 100-yard rushing performances, and their third-down execution was sharp on both sides of the ball. The fake field goal against Notre Dame provided an emotional lift, but Michigan State will draw a lot more confidence from a 15-play, 84-yard drive to seal the Wisconsin win.

Best game: Michigan at Indiana. The game played out as many had forecast, as both quarterbacks surged and both defenses struggled to stop anyone. Quarterbacks Denard Robinson (Michigan) and Ben Chappell (Indiana) both produced historic numbers, and the teams combined for 77 points and 1,142 offensive yards. Neither team led by more than a touchdown and the game featured five ties before Robinson scored the game-winning touchdown from 4 yards out with 17 seconds left. Northwestern at Minnesota also produced some drama as the Wildcats rallied from eight points down in the fourth quarter to win 29-28.

Biggest play: Robinson provided several possible selections with both his legs and his arm, but I'm going with Jeremy Ebert's 25-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter for Northwestern against Minnesota. Northwestern trailed 28-20 at the time and faced third-and-7. Quarterback Dan Persa already had committed two turnovers in the red zone and appeared to make another ill-advised throw on Ebert's touchdown. But Ebert wrestled the ball away from Minnesota's Ryan Collado on the jump ball and Northwestern ended up rallying for the win. Another play worth mentioning is Cousins' fourth-down touchdown pass to B.J. Cunningham to put Michigan State up 10 points with 2:43 left. Cousins had wanted to run the play in two other games, only to be turned down. "I guess this was the moment to have it," he said afterward.

Specialist spotlight: Michigan State's Keshawn Martin made the biggest special-teams play around the league Saturday when he returned a Brad Nortman punt 74 yards to the end zone. Wisconsin led 10-6 in the second quarter before Martin's electrifying runback. Martin, who ranked in the league's top five in both kick returns and punt returns last season, appears to be the league's top return man. Iowa punter Ryan Donahue had a nice night, placing three punts inside the Penn State 20-yard line with a long of 53 yards. Illinois punter Anthony Santella continued his stellar season (47-yard average against Ohio State), and Michigan punter Will Hagerup made the most of limited opportunities at Indiana. Northwestern's Stefan Demos converted the game-winning 27-yard field goal.

Coolest image: Iowa fans deserve a shoutout after making Kinnick Stadium look like this Saturday night. The black and gold stripes were well coordinated and well executed.

Game balls (given to players not selected for helmet stickers):

  • Indiana QB Ben Chappell: Chappell set school records with 45 completions, 64 attempts, 480 pass yards and 475 yards of total offense against Michigan. He became just the second Indiana player to eclipse 400 pass yards in a game and tied for the third most completions in Big Ten history. Chappell set a team record with his sixth career 300-yard passing performance and tossed three touchdowns to extend his streak of games with multiple touchdown passes to eight.
  • Michigan State LB Greg Jones: A week after recording the first two interceptions of his college career, Jones returned to his blitzing role against Wisconsin and recorded three tackles for loss, eight total tackles and a quarterback hurry in the 34-24 win.
  • Ohio State DE Nathan Williams: The Buckeyes' defense showed up in a big way in the second half at Illinois, and Williams recorded nine tackles, including 1.5 sacks and two tackles for loss. He also had a quarterback hurry as the Buckeyes pressured Nathan Scheelhaase.
  • Iowa CB Shaun Prater: Prater recorded his fourth career interception against Penn State and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown to make any thought of a Penn State rally obsolete. He shares the game ball with fellow defenders Tyler Nielsen (four passes defended), Karl Klug (two tackles for loss) and James Morris.
  • Michigan WRs Roy Roundtree and Junior Hemingway: The Wolverines wideouts share a game ball after combining for eight receptions, 255 yards and two touchdowns against Indiana. Roundtree had a 32-yard touchdown grab and a 74-yard gain, while Hemingway recorded a 70-yard touchdown grab in the third quarter.
  • Indiana WR Tandon Doss: The junior recorded career highs in both receptions (15) and receiving yards (221) in the loss to Michigan. He had the fourth-highest receiving yards total in team history and set a career high in all-purpose yards with 363, which included 111 on kick returns.
  • Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt: Watt continued his push for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors Saturday in East Lansing. He was all over the field and recorded a game-high 10 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack and a tipped pass that wound up as an interception for teammate Devin Smith. Watt has been a beast this season.
  • Minnesota CB Michael Carter: The Gophers didn't deliver a great defensive performance against Northwestern, but Carter came up with several huge plays. He recorded a team-high 11 tackles with an interception, a forced fumble near the goal line and a tackle for loss.

OK, deep breath. Now let's take a quick look at Week 6.

Indiana (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten) at No. 2 Ohio State (5-0, 1-0): It'll be strength vs. strength as Indiana brings the Big Ten's top pass offense against the league's top pass defense in Ohio State, which begins life without safety/linebacker Tyler Moeller. Chappell and his receivers provide a very good test for the Buckeyes defense, while Ohio State's running backs should gain some confidence against an Indiana D that can't stop the run.

Illinois (2-2, 0-1) at Penn State (3-2, 0-1): This game looks a little more interesting than it did before the season. Illinois has upgraded its defense under new coordinator Vic Koenning, while Penn State's offense continues to struggle with inconsistency and red zone inefficiency. After falling out of the national rankings, Penn State can't afford another step back. Keep an eye on the matchup between two promising young quarterbacks, Illinois' Scheelhaase and Penn State's Rob Bolden.

Minnesota (1-4, 0-1) at No. 20 Wisconsin (4-1, 1-0): The coolest trophy in college sports is at stake, which adds to an otherwise uninspiring matchup. Minnesota's season is on life support after failing to claim a game pretty much handed to it by Northwestern. An upset victory in a trophy game would mean a lot for coach Tim Brewster and seniors like Adam Weber. Wisconsin must rebound from a poor road showing against Michigan State and get more from its experienced offensive players.

No. 17 Michigan State (5-0, 1-0) at No. 18 Michigan (5-0, 1-0): I'm so excited for this one. The in-state rivalry is spicy enough, but this year's meeting brings new storylines like two top-20 rankings, Heisman Trophy candidate Robinson and the health situation involving Dantonio. Michigan State aims for its first three-game win streak in the series since 1965-67. Robinson faces his biggest test of the season with Jones.

Purdue (2-2, 0-0) at Northwestern (5-0, 1-0): After surviving a mistake-ridden game at Minnesota, Northwestern will be favored to record its first 6-0 start since 1962. The Wildcats face an injury-ravaged Purdue team that turns to redshirt freshman Rob Henry at quarterback. The Boilers come off of a much-needed bye week but will need a strong performance from Ryan Kerrigan and the defense to slow down Persa and the Wildcats' attack.

Bye: No. 15 Iowa (4-1, 1-0)
The position rankings finish with the special-teams units. For this list, I examine kickers, punters, return men and coverage units and look at each team's overall picture in the all-important third phase. The Big Ten loses several elite specialists, including punter Zoltan Mesko and kicker Brett Swenson. It's a little odd not to see Ohio State near the top, but if there's a hole on Jim Tressel's team this year, it might be on special teams.

Here are my top five:

[+] EnlargeDerrell Johnson-Koulianos
Aaron Josefczyk/Icon SMIDerrell Johnson-Koulianos ranked second in the Big Ten in kick return average (31.5 ypr) in 2009.
1. Iowa: The Hawkeyes boast one of the league's top punters in Ryan Donahue, who has averaged more than 40 yards per punt in each of his first three seasons. Iowa also brings back Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, who ranked second in the Big Ten in kick return average (31.5 ypr) in 2009. There's competition at kicker (big surprise), but Daniel Murray and Trent Mossbrucker both boast experience. Colin Sandeman quietly ranked second in the league in punt return average last year.

2. Michigan State: Swenson is undoubtedly a major loss, but Michigan State should improve in the other phases of special teams. Punter Aaron Bates was extremely solid in 2009, averaging 41.6 yards despite a league-high 63 attempts. Look out for Keshawn Martin, who averaged 28.9 yards on kick returns last fall. Martin could be the league's top return man by season's end. The Spartans need to upgrade their kickoff coverage unit.

3. Ohio State: Despite question marks at both specialist spots, Ohio State's history as an elite special-teams squad under Tressel can't be overlooked. Hopes are high for Ben Buchanan at punter, and Devin Barclay has a very big kick on his résumé against Iowa last year. The Buckeyes must replace return man Ray Small, but there's enough talent there. The coverage teams are always good in Columbus.

4. Minnesota: The Gophers' strengths are their return teams, led by Troy Stoudermire and Bryant Allen. Minnesota led the Big Ten in punt return average, although it had only nine runbacks all year, and finished fifth in kick return average. Eric Ellestad was perfect on PATs and had a decent year on field goals. The Gophers need Dan Orseske to step in at punter for Blake Haudan.

5. Wisconsin: There are some concerns about the Badgers' special-teams units, but everyone is back and should be better. Punter Brad Nortman averaged 42 yards per punt last year, and while kicker Philip Welch took a mini step back, he still booted 17 field goals. David Gilreath is one of the league's most experienced return men, and linebacker Chris Borland proved to be a difference-maker on special teams last year.

More rankings ...

ESPN's NFL draft expert Mel Kiper recently addressed a question Insider I get all the time: Where does Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor project for the NFL?

[+] EnlargeTerrelle Pryor
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireTerrelle Pryor's draft stock should soar if improves his footwork and decision-making.
Kiper drops the dreaded name -- Tim Tebow -- but points out an important difference between the former Florida star and quarterbacks like Pryor and Vince Young.
"While Tebow was in a system that asked him to run and he liked to run, Young and Pryor don't need to run, but they can run. It's a big distinction. Part of Young's growth and value as an NFL quarterback is his knowledge of his physical skills allowing him to run, but he doesn't have to just to have value. What Pryor will need to prove is that he has footwork, not just good feet, an accurate arm, not just a cannon, and that he can read plays and deliver with anticipation, not just find open receivers."

As I've written before, Pryor likely never will have textbook mechanics. But if he can improve in other areas, namely footwork and decision-making, he can be a heck of a college quarterback, and possibly a great pro quarterback. This spring, I saw improved footwork from Pryor, and if he can make smart decisions -- and anticipate the right throws, as Kiper says -- he should have a great junior season.

Kiper also weighs in on former Penn State quarterback Pat Devlin, now at Delaware, as well as former Michigan defensive end Brandon Graham, the first-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles.

I also missed this from last week, but Kiper has come out with his position rankings (top 5) for the 2011 NFL draft Insider. These are seniors only, so draft-eligible juniors like Pryor and Wisconsin's John Clay aren't on the list.

Here are the Big Ten players who made it:

  • Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi, No. 2 offensive tackle
  • Ohio State's Justin Boren, No. 2 offensive guard
  • Michigan's Stephen Schilling, No. 3 offensive guard
  • Wisconsin's John Moffitt, No. 5 offensive guard
  • Penn State's Stefen Wisniewski, No. 2 center (note: Wisniewski practiced at guard this spring and likely will stay there this season)
  • Iowa's Adrian Clayborn, No. 2 defensive end
  • Ohio State's Cameron Heyward, No. 4 defensive end
  • Michigan State's Greg Jones, No. 3 inside linebacker
  • Iowa's Ryan Donahue, No. 1 punter

A solid list of players there. I was a little surprised not to see Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan or Ohio State linebacker Ross Homan, but the others look to be in the right places.

Kiper on Jones: "Jones is one of the purest tacklers you'll see in college football. His stock could rise next season on a potentially underrated Michigan State team, but he'll need to overcome questions about his size. I wouldn't be surprised to see him come into camp with 10 more pounds on that frame, which should help solidify his stock."

Kiper on Clayborn and Heyward: "Heyward came on strong this past season and should be an anchor of a top-five defense next season. Clayborn was a beast down the stretch, and it's huge for coach Kirk Ferentz to get him back as an anchor point for that defense, which loses significant talent elsewhere."

Kiper on Boren and Moffitt: "Moffitt is the only guy to be added to this list; Wisconsin should have an elite line next season with Moffitt and OT Carimi. RB John Clay will enjoy running behind them. Justin Boren isn't No. 1 here yet, but could jump [Rodney] Hudson with a dominant season for a Big Ten power."

Big Ten all-bowl team

January, 12, 2010
1/12/10
11:00
AM ET
A strong Big Ten bowl season leaves me with some tough choices for the All-Bowl team. We can certainly debate some of these, but here are my selections.

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeTerrelle Pryor
Harry How/Getty ImagesTerrelle Pryor acccounted for more Rose Bowl yards than Oregon's team did.
QB Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State
He came of age in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Citi, delivering a complete performance as both a passer and a runner. Pryor accounted for 338 total yards; Oregon had 260.

RB John Clay, Wisconsin
Clay gave Miami a taste of Big Ten football by bulldozing the Hurricanes for 121 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries in the Champs Sports Bowl.

RB Brandon Wegher, Iowa
It seemed like no running back could stay healthy for Iowa this year, but Wegher came up huge in the FedEx Orange Bowl. The true freshman had 113 rush yards on 16 carries, including the clinching 32-yard touchdown run with 1:16 left.

WR DeVier Posey, Ohio State
I saw a future NFL receiver when I watched Posey in the Rose Bowl. He had eight receptions for 101 yards, including a leaping 17-yard touchdown that all but sealed Ohio State's victory.

WR Andrew Brewer, Northwestern
Brewer saved his best game for last, hauling in eight receptions for 133 yards and scoring on receptions of 35 and 39 yards in the Outback Bowl.

TE Drake Dunsmore, Northwestern and Lance Kendricks, Wisconsin
Dunsmore had nine receptions for 120 yards, including an electrifying 66-yard touchdown dash through the Auburn defense. Garrett Graham might be the first-team All-Big Ten selection, but Kendricks stole the show in the Champs Sports Bowl with seven receptions for 128 yards.

C John Moffitt, Wisconsin
Moffitt moved back to center because of a teammate's injury and helped the Badgers overpower Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl. Wisconsin racked up 430 total yards and held the ball for 39:15.

G Justin Boren, Ohio State
Boren led a big and nasty Buckeyes line that generated push for the run game and helped Pryor attempt a career high 37 passes in the win against Oregon.

G Joel Foreman, Michigan State
The Spartans' offensive line stepped up nicely in the Valero Alamo Bowl, helping to generate 148 rush yards and allowing only one sack against a Texas Tech team that rushes the passer extremely well. Foreman, an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection, deserves some props.

OT Bryan Bulaga, Iowa
Bulaga showed why he's jumping to the NFL draft with a terrific performance against Georgia Tech star defensive end Derrick Morgan in the FedEx Orange Bowl.

OT Dennis Landolt, Penn State
Landolt and his linemates did a good job against LSU's blitz and protected Daryll Clark on a muddy field in Orlando. Penn State allowed only one sack and rushed for 124 yards.

DEFENSE

DL Adrian Clayborn, Iowa
Clayborn was an absolute beast in the Orange Bowl, recording nine tackles (all solo) and two sacks as he disrupted Georgia Tech's triple option attack.

DL J.J. Watt, Wisconsin
Watt led an aggressive Badgers defensive front with a sack, two tackles for loss, two pass breakups, a quarterback hurry and a fumble recovery against Miami.

DL O'Brien Schofield, Wisconsin
Schofield was disruptive all season and showed it in the bowl game, recording two sacks and forcing a fumble that led to a crucial field goal in the fourth quarter.

DL Thaddeus Gibson, Ohio State
The Buckeyes defensive front made life miserable for Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, and Gibson stepped up with two tackles for loss in what proved to be his final collegiate game.

LB Navorro Bowman, Penn State
Bowman had a game-high nine tackles, including 1.5 for loss, and forced LSU into a critical penalty in the final minute as the Lions preserved a Capital One Bowl win.

LB Ross Homan, Ohio State
Homan ended the season as one of the Big Ten's top linebackers and turned in a terrific performance in Pasadena with 12 tackles and an interception that set up a field goal just before halftime.

LB Pat Angerer, Iowa
The triple option will test a middle linebacker, but Angerer stepped up for Iowa with a game-high 10 tackles, including one for loss, against Georgia Tech.

DB Kyle Theret, Minnesota
Theret was the Gophers' MVP in the Insight Bowl, recording seven tackles (all solo), two interceptions, a tackle for loss and a 40-yard reception on a fake punt that set up the team's first touchdown.

DB Ross Weaver, Michigan State
The Spartans' secondary struggled against Texas Tech, but Weaver recorded a team-high seven solo tackles and had a forced fumble and an interception that led to 10 Michigan State points in the second half.

DB Kim Royston, Minnesota
Royston recorded a career-high 15 tackles, tying the Insight Bowl record, including 14 solo stops against Iowa State. He also forced a fumble that turned into a Minnesota field goal.

DB Sherrick McManis, Northwestern
McManis made plays throughout his career and finished it in typical fashion with an interception and a fumble recovery, both occurring in Northwestern's end of the field.

SPECIALISTS

K Collin Wagner, Penn State
The horrible field conditions didn't bother Wagner, who went 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts and drilled the game winner with 57 seconds left in the fourth quarter.

P Blake Haudan, Minnesota
Haudan averaged 49.6 yards on five punts and completed a 40-yard pass to Theret on a well-timed fake in the third quarter.

Returner Keshawn Martin, Michigan State
Martin blossomed as the Big Ten's most dangerous kick return man this fall and averaged 24.8 yards per runback with a long of 36 against Texas Tech.

Honorable mention -- WISCONSIN: QB Scott Tolzien, RB Montee Ball, P Brad Nortman, LB Chris Borland, TE Garrett Graham, starting offensive line. MINNESOTA: WR Da'Jon McKnight, LB Lee Campbell. NORTHWESTERN: QB Mike Kafka, WR Zeke Markshausen, WR Sidney Stewart, CB Jordan Mabin, LB Quentin Davie. PENN STATE: QB Daryll Clark, RB Stephfon Green, TE Andrew Quarless, LB Sean Lee, DT Jared Odrick, CB A.J. Wallace, starting offensive line. OHIO STATE: DE Cameron Heyward, DT Doug Worthington, RB Brandon Saine, WR Dane Sanzenbacher, K Devin Barclay, K Aaron Pettrey, P Jon Thoma, starting offensive line. MICHIGAN STATE: RB Edwin Baker, WR Blair White, P Aaron Bates, LB Greg Jones, starting offensive line. IOWA: QB Ricky Stanzi, TE Tony Moeaki, P Ryan Donahue, DT Karl Klug, LB A.J. Edds, DE Broderick Binns, starting offensive line.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Derrell Johnson-Koulianos sensed something wasn't right as Iowa went through its final preparations before Saturday's game against Indiana.

 
 David Purdy/Getty Images
 Derrell Johnson-Koulianos caught three passes for 117 yards and a touchdown in Iowa's come-from-behind win over Indiana.
The Hawkeyes' star wide receiver felt sluggish, and he wasn't the only one.

"I was still tired," Johnson-Koulianos said. "I’m like, ‘I’ve got to wake up here. I’ve got to focus and concentrate a little more.’ I felt our whole team, guys were just a step slow or a step off or something. And [Indiana] got up on us and we’re like, ‘Oh, crap. All right guys, it’s time to wake up and let’s go.'"

Iowa snapped out of it with a dominant fourth quarter, scoring 28 unanswered points to turn out the lights on Indiana and maintain its perfect record. But no one wearing black and gold would characterize the win as easy, which has been the case week after week this fall.

There's not a team in college football that has exhibited greater mental toughness this season than Iowa. And there are few teams that have been in as many nail-biters as the Hawkeyes, who have rallied in eight of their nine wins.

With so many down-to-the-wire games and so much fourth-quarter drama, does mental fatigue ever become a concern?

"Mentally, that's what we've prepared for," Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "It's not easy, I can assure you. But that's just the way it is, so we've got to do the best with what we have and not think too much about how tough it is."

Iowa is, by nature, a "slow-start team," as Johnson-Koulianos put it after the Indiana win. But the Hawkeyes seemed unusually out of sorts on Saturday.

They committed four first-half penalties (Iowa leads the Big Ten in fewest penalties this season) and two special-teams blunders, a Ryan Donahue shanked punt and a fumbled return by Amari Speivey. Keep in mind, the Hawkeyes were coming off their third night game this season, an extremely physical contest against Michigan State that wasn't decided until the final play.

"We’ve played a handful of night games, and it’s getting late in the season, and we’re a little banged up," Johnson-Koulianos said. "So there’s a lot of things that are playing a role. ... But if we figure out how to come out of the gate fast, we’re going to be an amazing team. Right now, we’re 9-0, basically because of the second half.

"Thank God for second halves."

Linebacker A.J. Edds said the team's ability to "flush" wins and refocus for the next week has played a major role in the perfect season.

“We’ve played 60 minutes last week [at Michigan State]," he said. "It took 60 this week. We’ve got a resilient group of guys."

At Iowa, mental toughness isn't a choice. It's mandatory.

As Ferentz reiterated Tuesday, Iowa lacks the recruiting advantages of national powerhouse programs, which can cast a net around their state and bring in enough talent. Ferentz and his assistants can't afford to be sticklers for size, but they always look for players "motivated to do the most with what they have."

This season, the motivation hasn't wavered.

"If you're in a competitive conference, which the Big Ten is, you better have that mindset, or you better have a great team," Ferentz said. "There have been some teams that just steamroll their way through every game.

"That must be nice to be involved in one of those."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Iowa has built its reputation on rallying, and the Hawkeyes need to live up to it again. The Hawkeyes fell behind 14-0, which marked their largest deficit of the season, before responding with an impressive drive.

Indiana has dominated most of the first half, making big plays on both sides of the ball and beating Iowa at the line of scrimmage. Running back Darius Willis and wideout Mitchell Evans have been terrific on offense, and the IU defensive line is getting into the Iowa backfield.

Ben Chappell made a gutsy throw to put Indiana up by two touchdowns, finding Evans in the end zone despite three Hawkeyes defenders in the area.

Iowa has been sloppy in almost every aspect of the game. You know things are going bad when star punter Ryan Donahue shanks one for 9 yards. The Hawkeyes have committed penalties and missed blocks and coverage assignments.

Perhaps the 85-yard scoring march will light a fire under the nation's fourth-ranked team.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Football weather is here, folks. No snow yet at Kinnick Stadium, but the conditions are brutally cold.

Here are some points of emphasis for No. 3 Penn State and Iowa as they lock horns later today.

PENN STATE

Run to the edges -- Despite having the Big Ten's top center in A.Q. Shipley, the Nittany Lions might struggle to run between the tackles against Iowa standouts Mitch King and Matt Kroul. Primary running back Evan Royster prefers to run up the middle but would be better served on the edges. Penn State also should use Stephfon Green more and pressure Iowa's linebackers with the option.

Stack the box -- Shonn Greene has been Iowa's only consistent weapon on offense. The Lions need to make quarterback Ricky Stanzi beat them down the field. Expect eight and even nine men in the box to contain Greene, the nation's third-leading rusher (139.6) and a player defenders hate to tackle alone.

Make smart decisions in the passing game -- Daryll Clark comes off a concussion and enters a hostile environment with less-than favorable weather conditions. You can bet Iowa will key on Penn State's rushing attack. But the Lions have superior receivers and if there's a weakness to Iowa's defense, it's the secondary. Clark must recognizing downfield passing opportunities when they're available and use senior wideouts Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood.

IOWA

Go Greene -- Keeping Greene on the field and the Penn State offense off it it is paramount for the Hawkeyes. No defense has consistently slowed down the 235-pound junior running back. Iowa needs to control the clock and pound Penn State's front seven with Greene and freshman Jewel Hampton, limiting third-and-long situations.

Red zone execution -- The Hawkeyes are tied for ninth in the Big Ten in red zone offense, scoring only 20 touchdowns on 40 trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line. They won't get many chances today, so better execution is critical. Greene needs to be more of a weapon near the goal line, and Stanzi must make better decisions.

Win the field-position battle -- Iowa has been in every game this season, and the poor weather could keep the scoring down today. Punter Ryan Donahue needs to have a good day, pinning Penn State deep, so the crowd can get involved. The Hawkeyes have forced a decent amount of turnovers this season (20), and putting Clark in pressure situations is extremely important.

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