NCF Nation: Sean Fisher
Here are the honorees:
- Rex Burkhead, RB, Nebraska
- Pete Massaro, DE, Penn State
- Adam Replogle, DT, Indiana
- John Urschel, OL, Penn State
- Patrick Ward, OL, Northwestern
Burkhead, Ward and Massaro earned first-team honors for the second time, becoming three of just five players nationally to achieve that distinction.
- Brian Arnfelt, DL, Northwestern
- Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State
- Sean Fisher, LB, Nebraska
- Mike Sadler, P, Michigan State
To be eligible for the academic All-America honors, a player must be in at least his second year of athletic eligibility, be a starter or key performer, and carry a cumulative 3.30 grade point average.
The Big Ten's five first-team selections were more than any other conference. The league has now led all FBS conferences in academic All-Americans for eight straight seasons, with 64 total honorees over that span.
Congrats to these players for this outstanding achievement.
- Northwestern QB Kain Colter: A few days after saying his team lacked an identity on offense, Colter provided one himself. Taking almost all of the reps at quarterback, Colter ran 26 times for 166 yards and three touchdowns and threw for another 80 yards and a touchdown to account for all the scoring in Northwestern's 28-17 win over Iowa. Give credit to Colter's backfield running mate, Venric Mark, who went over 1,000 yards for the season with 162 yards on 16 carries. He is the Wildcats' first 1,000-yard back since 2006.
- Ohio State QB Braxton Miller: After a one-week hiatus, Miller returns to the helmet stickers after lifting Ohio State past Penn State at raucous Beaver Stadium. Miller made some mistakes, especially early in the game, but once again he was the best player on the field and the biggest reason why Ohio State won 35-23 in Happy Valley. A week after leaving Ohio Stadium in an ambulance following a scary neck injury, Miller had 25 rushes for 134 yards and two touchdowns. He struggled with his passing early but found Jake Stoneburner for a 72-yard touchdown to seal the win midway through the fourth quarter. Miller became the first quarterback in Ohio State history to eclipse 1,000 rush yards in a season -- and he still has three games left.
- Nebraska's defense: After a solid performance against Northwestern, the Huskers completely shut down Michigan in Saturday night's 23-9 victory. They contained Denard Robinson before his injury and allowed just 44 yards in the final two-plus quarters after Robinson left the field. Nebraska recorded three interceptions, nine tackles for loss, two sacks and three quarterback hurries, surrendering just 188 yards in the win. Individual standouts included Ciante Evans, Sean Fisher, David Santos and P.J. Smith.
- Michigan State DE William Gholston and LB Max Bullough: We could have given the sticker to the entire Spartans' defense, which once again kept the game close until an anemic offense came alive. But Gholston and Bullough stood out in a big way, combining for seven tackles for loss, three sacks and a pass breakup. Gholston knocked Wisconsin starting quarterback Joel Stave from the game early in the second half, in what proved to be the pivotal play in deciding the outcome. The pair helped Michigan State limit Wisconsin to 19 net rush yards on 37 carries in a potential season-turning win in overtime.
- Indiana QB Nate Sudfeld: The true freshman came off the bench to relieve Cameron Coffman after Coffman threw a first-half interception, and Sudfeld led the Hoosiers to their first Big Ten win since 2010 with a 31-17 victory at Illinois. Sudfeld completed 10-of-15 passes for 107 yards and two touchdowns, with no turnovers. Props also go to running back Stephen Houston, who ran for two scores and caught another, and the IU defense, which held Illinois without a touchdown for the final 42 minutes of the game.
- Minnesota QB Philip Nelson: The Gophers' true freshman looks like a future star -- or maybe a current one. He played beyond his years in his first home start -- and just his second-ever college game -- in Minnesota's much-needed 44-28 win over Purdue. Nelson completed 15 of 22 passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns, two to A.J. Barker, who merits a mention here after recording five catches for 135 yards. He led Minnesota on four consecutive touchdown drives during one stretch and added 37 rush yards. Cornerback Michael Carter also deserves some love with an interception return for a touchdown and six pass breakups.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- After Nebraska forced 10 three-and-outs and held Northwestern's offense in check last week, coach Bo Pelini made his defenders an offer.
It was an offer they could refuse. And they did. The Huskers turned down their coveted blackshirts.
"They didn't want them," Pelini said. "They didn't think they'd earned them yet. It shows the character of our kids and the type of standards that they have. They said they hadn't earned them, and [that] we'll revisit it after the Michigan game.
"I think they earned them."
Nebraska's defenders donned the blackshirts in a joyous locker room late Saturday night following a 23-9 win against Michigan. The Huskers earned them by keeping Michigan in check before Denard Robinson left the game with a right elbow injury, and they earned them by slamming the door on backup signal caller Russell Bellomy in the second half. Nebraska held Michigan to just 44 yards after Robinson's injury.
It received big performances from linebacker Sean Fisher (7 tackles, 2 TFLs), linebacker David Santos (10 tackles, 1 TFL), nickel back Ciante Evans (2 TFLs, 1 sack), safety Daimion Stafford (interception, tackle for loss), safety P.J. Smith (53-yard interception return) and many others.
The blackshirts, while meaningful, aren't Nebraska's garb of choice this fall. Five weeks from Saturday, they want to be donning Big Ten championship T-shirts at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
The Big Ten is a weak league that actually seemed to get weaker in Week 9, but some team is going to wear those shirts in Indiana. Some coach is going to hoist the championship trophy. Some group of players will celebrate on the field with roses in their mouths.
Why not Nebraska? Three weeks after getting pounded by Ohio State, the Huskers (6-2, 3-1) have steadied themselves and regained control in the Legends Division.
"We want to control our own future, and winning tonight took us one step closer to that."
After getting pummeled in Columbus, Pelini challenged his team to win out. A cross-division loss, as painful as it was, wouldn't hurt if Nebraska ran the table in the Legends Division. Following an off week, the Huskers rallied from 12 points down in the fourth quarter to beat Northwestern by a point last Saturday.
They never truly lost control against Michigan, keeping the Wolverines out of the end zone and capitalizing against Bellomy, a freshman who misfired on his first 11 pass attempts and had three interceptions. Pelini made a few defensive calls he didn't expect with Robinson out of the game, but Nebraska didn't change much schematically. It loaded up at the line and made Bellomy make throws he couldn't deliver.
"Obviously, you notice," Fisher said of Robinson's absence. "He's such a threat. I hope he's OK, I don't know what happened, and obviously, you don't want to see anybody get injured. But we weren't upset about it."
Robinson aggravated a nerve in his throwing elbow that he initially hurt Oct. 13 against Illinois. He only missed about a quarter against the Illini but didn't return Saturday, as he had trouble gripping the ball.
Coach Brady Hoke is optimistic the senior will return soon, possibly next week against Minnesota, and Michigan's hopes to challenge Nebraska in the division could hinge on it.
The Robinson injury was among several key developments in the Big Ten, a league no eligible team seems to want to win.
Wisconsin lost starting quarterback Joel Stave early in the third quarter of Saturday's overtime loss to Michigan State. Stave reportedly has a broken collarbone, which would cost him his season. A Badgers team that had regained its mojo after early-season struggles, now has a murky future on offense, as backup Danny O'Brien struggled mightily against Michigan State. Who could challenge the Badgers in the Leaders? How about Indiana, a team that has been in every game this season and finally got over the hump Saturday at Illinois.
Iowa has tumbled out of the race after consecutive blowout losses, while Northwestern, like Nebraska, has new life after a strong performance. Michigan State is in position to shape the race after the win in Madison, but with three league losses already, Mark Dantonio's squad must win out and get a lot of help to return to Indy.
Ohio State separated itself as the Big Ten's best team Saturday, but the Buckeyes won't be going to Indy because of NCAA sanctions. Neither will Penn State, a good team, but one that didn't measure up against Urban Meyer's squad.
The Big Ten has become the league of second chances. Michigan might get one. The Huskers certainly have theirs, and they don't intend to squander it.
"This is a big step for us," Pelini said. "I told the team, when you're winning, as the season goes on, the stakes get higher and higher every week."
Huskers players have embraced the urgency of the league race as they chase their first conference title since 1999. Claiming the tiebreakers against both Michigan and Northwestern could loom large in the coming weeks.
"In the end, it may be a big deal, but we have to make sure we take care of us the rest of the way, or none of that's going to matter," tight end Ben Cotton said. "We know we've got to stay in control."
To do so, Nebraska must win next week in East Lansing, where Michigan State already has lost three times, but returns with some confidence. Control has been fleeting in this league.
Don't tell Pelini about being in the driver's seat for Indianapolis.
"I don't buy into all that crap," he said.
His players didn't buy into the blackshirt offer, either. And in a few weeks, the Huskers might have the look of a champion.
Penn State's Killer Zs: Zach Zwinak was no better than the fifth-string tailback for the Nittany Lions this summer. But in the last two games, the 230-pound sophomore has rushed for 94 yards against Temple and an even 100 versus Illinois. "He's got good speed, but he's not a scat back," head coach Bill O'Brien said. "He's a physical, downhill guy that likes to press the line of scrimmage." Penn State's second-leading rusher is Michael Zordich, a senior whose 30 carries this year are just five shy of his previous career total. Don't sleep on these Zs.
Jordan Cotton: The Iowa receiver came to campus as a well-regarded in-state recruit but spent two years doing not much of anything after a redshirt season. Cotton is finally emerging, with four catches in the Hawkeyes' last two games, including a 47-yard touchdown grab on a flea flicker last week against Minnesota. Cotton is averaging 20.2 yards per catch this season.
Nate Sudfeld: The Indiana quarterback didn't arrive on campus until this summer but looks like he should be starting going into Week 6. Sudfeld replaced an injured Cameron Coffman against Ball State and led a rally that nearly won the game for the Hoosiers. Last week, after IU fell behind Northwestern 20-0 in the first half, Sudfeld came on right before halftime and gave the offense a spark, leading a comeback that ultimately came up short. Sudfeld is still competing in practice with Coffman for the starting job, but his needle is definitely pointing up.
Blackshirts' seniors: When Nebraska needed to make a defensive stand after falling 17 points down to Wisconsin last week, its seniors stepped up. Defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler and linebackers Will Compton, Alonzo Whaley and Sean Fisher combined for eight tackles for loss and two sacks to stymie the Badgers and lead the comeback effort. Compton in particular had a terrific game. The Huskers veterans haven't always performed at an elite level, and they'll need to carry that Wisconsin effort over to this weekend and beyond in order to win the Big Ten.
Minnesota's safeties: Jerry Kill said one big reason his team couldn't stop the Iowa running game last week is that his safeties missed too many tackles in run support. Even Derrick Wells, who's had a fantastic season, turned in a poor performance, Kill said. The Gophers will spend much of the bye week working on improving that with their safeties, and getting Brock Vereen back fully healthy should help.
Michigan's road production: As Kyle Meinke writes, the Wolverines are averaging 20.9 points per game on the road the past two seasons, compared with more than 40 at home. This year, Michigan has scored just 20 total points in its two games away from Ann Arbor (albeit against outstanding defenses in Alabama and Notre Dame). Denard Robinson's numbers are much worse away from the Big House as well. It's an issue the team must resolve before going to Purdue this week
Ex-Iowa running backs: The grass isn't always greener, even if it's FieldTurf. As Mike Hlas points out, former Hawkeyes running backs Marcus Coker and Mika'il McCall aren't exactly flourishing after leaving Iowa City. Coker is the second-leading rusher on his team at FCS Stony Brook and ranks 66th in the division in rushing yards. McCall has 8 fewer yards than Coker at Southern Illinois. Neither of them have come close to walk-on Mark Weisman's 507 yards, which he's accomplished in a mere three games. So maybe it's not the player, but the system.
Peace, love and understanding between Spartans, Buckeyes: Mark Dantonio wasn't the biggest fan of Urban Meyer during recruiting season last winter. Ohio State defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins said before last week's game that he would try to rip Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell's head off. Hankins nearly had his eyes gouged out by the Spartans in a scrum. And defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi complained that the Buckeyes didn't send over the proper game film. Can't we all just get along?
Illinois' offense: Weren't the Illini supposed to be more explosive with Tim Beckman's spread attack? The team ranks 97th in the country in scoring at just 22.6 points per game and 96th in total offense. And those totals include a stat-padding 44-0 win over a truly awful FCS opponent (Charleston Southern). Not much has gone right for Illinois this year, but if the program wants to start building interest among its fans, scoring some points would be a nice way to start.
There's no shuffling at the top and very little separation throughout the rankings. Although both Wisconsin and Michigan State fall, while Penn State rises, you can slide a sheet of paper between these teams. Ohio State remains at the top but will be tested this week by Nebraska.
Let's get to the rundown ...
1. Ohio State (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten, last week: 1): It's not easy to overcome three turnovers on the road, but the Buckeyes received enough magic from quarterback Braxton Miller and solid play along both lines at Michigan State. Linebacker Etienne Sabino stepped up in a big way for the defense. Urban Meyer's team has its flaws, but it can still win a lot of games in a flawed Big Ten. Ohio State showed it can win a big road game. Nebraska provides a nice test this week.
2. Nebraska (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten, last week: 2): After a miserable start against Wisconsin, Nebraska rallied from 17 points down in the third quarter to record a win it absolutely had to have. It tied the second-largest comeback in team history, and provided Taylor Martinez and the offense some confidence heading to Ohio State. The Huskers are loaded with offensive weapons and received terrific linebacker play from Will Compton, Alonzo Whaley and Sean Fisher. They still put the ball on the ground too much, though, and can't afford another slow start in Columbus.
3. Northwestern (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten, last week: 3): Thanks to Kain Colter, Northwestern remained perfect on the season and starts 5-0 for the third time in five years. The concern is that the Wildcats once again couldn't finish off a team after storming out to a 27-0 lead. No lead is truly safe with Northwestern, and while the defense has been very good most of the season, it needs to limit bad quarters like the third on Saturday. This is a young, maturing team that continues to win, but the tests get tougher beginning this week at red-hot Penn State.
4. Michigan (2-2, last week: 5): In this year's sputtering Big Ten, sometimes it pays off not to play. Michigan moves up in the rankings after Purdue struggled to hold off Marshall on Saturday. There's not much separating the Wolverines and the Boilers, and we'll find out the superior team this week when they meet at Ross-Ade Stadium. Michigan's defense took a nice step at Notre Dame, but as usual, the team's fortunes likely rest on how quarterback Denard Robinson performs.
5. Purdue (3-1, last week: 4): After storming out to a 42-14 halftime lead, Purdue had to hold on to win a shootout against Marshall and thus drop a spot. Although the Boilers won't face another passing offense quite like Marshall's this season, they have to be a bit concerned about their defense, which surrendered 439 passing yards and 534 total yards. Purdue faces another spread-ish offense -- and certainly a spread-ish quarterback in Michigan's Robinson -- this week in West Lafayette. The Michigan game begins a defining stretch for Danny Hope's crew.
6. Penn State (3-2, 1-0, last week: 9): The Big Ten's hottest team makes the biggest move of the week, rising three spots after another impressive win against Illinois. Linebacker Michael Mauti is leading a revived defense, while quarterback Matt McGloin continues to perform well in the new offense. You can't say enough about the job Bill O'Brien has done in his first season as Lions coach. Penn State faces its biggest test since the season opener this week against Northwestern before a challenging stretch with three of four on the road.
7. Michigan State (3-2, 0-1, last week: 5): The Spartans lost to Ohio State by only a point and were burned by a premature whistle that killed a potential fumble return for a touchdown. Then again, Michigan State had numerous opportunities to beat Ohio State and held a plus-3 turnover margin on its home field. The offense simply isn't coming together well enough, as good passing Saturday was offset by an invisible Le'Veon Bell. We still think the Spartans can make a run for the Big Ten title, but they haven't looked impressive in the early going.
8. Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1, last week: 8): For a half and change, it looked like Wisconsin would make a major move up the power rankings. The Badgers came out hot against Nebraska and took a big lead behind the inspired play of linebacker Chris Borland and the poise of quarterback Joel Stave in his first career road start. But the same problem that plagued the Badgers in the first four weeks -- flimsy offensive line play -- coupled with a defense that couldn't keep pace with Martinez led to a crushing defeat. Wisconsin still can take some pluses from Saturday night. It needs to take another step this week against Illinois before next week's showdown at Purdue.
9. Iowa (3-2, 1-0, last week: 11): Besides maybe Illinois, no team needed a win in Week 5 more than the Hawkeyes, and they delivered in a big way. Iowa took control from the get-go against Minnesota and brought home the bacon to fill its long-empty trophy case. Running back Mark Weisman continues to be one of the Big Ten's best early season stories, and the Hawkeyes' defense responded well from a poor performance against Central Michigan, receiving great play from the linebackers. An open week comes at a good time before Iowa resumes play at Michigan State.
10. Minnesota (4-1, 0-1, last week: 7): Week 5 brought a reality check of sorts for Minnesota, which never really challenged Iowa and lost the Floyd of Rosedale for the first time since 2009. As coach Jerry Kill said Sunday, the Gophers really need top quarterback MarQueis Gray (ankle) to get healthy, as backup Max Shortell had three interceptions at Iowa. More unsettling was the play of Minnesota's defense, which couldn't stop Weisman. The Gophers can regroup during the bye week before their league home opener against Northwestern.
11. Indiana (2-2, 0-1, last week: 10): Credit the Hoosiers for fighting back at Northwestern and making it a one-possession game in the fourth quarter. Indiana has some serious talent at wide receiver with Kofi Hughes and Cody Latimer, both of whom made circus catches Saturday. The Hoosiers also saw some good signs in their run game. But again, the defense continues to struggle mightily, surrendering more than 700 yards to the Wildcats. Until IU can defend like a Big Ten team, it won't win a Big Ten game.
12. Illinois (2-3, 0-1, last week: 12): Oy vey. If we could drop Illinois to 13th, we would. Tim Beckman's program is in complete disarray just five weeks into his first season. From the turnovers to the special teams miscues to a supposedly elite defense showing cracks each week, Illinois is in a tailspin. The Illini really needed to build some confidence at home. Instead, they're going to have to get it together on the road against Wisconsin and then Michigan. There's a lot of talent in Champaign, but once again, it doesn't seem to matter.
His forced fumble Oct. 8 against Ohio State set the stage for the biggest comeback in Nebraska history, as the Huskers rallied for a potentially season-saving 34-27 win. Nebraska resumes play Saturday at Minnesota, and the defense will lean on David more than ever as star tackle Jared Crick is out for the season.
What things did you focus on as a defense during the bye week?
Lavonte David: Just getting better. Everybody had a chance to go in and watch film and try to correct some mistakes everybody's been messing up on. We've got a chance to correct those and take it over to the games now.
What was it like hearing about Jared being out for the season?
LD: It was real tough, real tough. He's a leader on our defense, a guy who has been here for five years. He put his work in. You're just sorry to see a guy go down like that. I talked to him. I just told him to keep his head up. I said, 'We're going to play for you.'
With him out, how much more of the leadership load is put on a guy like you?
LD: All our guys. We've got a great, mature group of guys. Guys are stepping up to fill the void. I'm just continuing to do what I do, keep everybody's heads up and keep everybody motivated.
You spoke up at halftime of the Ohio State game. How have you evolved as a leader on that team?
LD: Somebody needed to say something at that time, and I felt like I needed to. That's just what happened, and I just took over. The coaches just told me I've put in my time and it's time for me to step up. I'm not a talkative guy or a vocal guy. I lead by example, by it's the time where I'm a senior and I have to go out there with an attitude and just start talking.
How has the adjustment to the Big Ten been for you so far?
LD: It hasn't been hard at all. It's a mind thing. You've just got to get yourself prepared for it every week.
I know you put on some weight in the offseason. How has that affected you so far?
LD: It doesn't matter to me. I just love to play football. They told me to get up to a decent weight (225), and I did, on their behalf. We have a great strength and conditioning staff and also a great nutrition staff. The goal is to put weight on and still keep my speed and everything. I just took their word for it and just went by what they told me.
How did going to a junior college first shape you as a player?
LD: Junior college is rough, man. It teaches you a lot of responsibility. It makes you become a man. We had a good coaching staff over at [Fort Scott] junior college. They did a good job preparing me for the role I'm at now.
How did you end up in a juco?
LD: I was sitting around the house, waiting to qualify out of high school, but it didn't work out. Then I got this phone call from Fort Scott Junior College and I just took it from there.
Did you have to regroup mentally at all, not being able to go to a big school coming out of high school?
LD: It wasn't a big deal. I felt like God had a plan for me and I just stuck with his plan and just worked hard.
How did you get to Nebraska?
LD: [Former Fort Scott coach Jeff Sims] knew some of the coaches here. I already knew about the program, knew they had a great program, already knew about coach [Bo] Pelini and what he does on the defensive side. So it was a great fit for me.
How motivated were you to show what you could do at this level?
LD: I was real motivated. Guys coming from junior college, they expect you to play right away, so I had that mentality, and I came out and tried to do the best I can, contribute in any way I can.
Did you surprise yourself with how well you played in your first season?
LD: No, not really. I had help from great guys like Will Compton and Sean Fisher when I came over. Those guys helped me every step of the way. I take my hat off to those guys. They just prepared me for it.
You have half a season to play. How far away are you guys from being the defense you talked about being before the year?
LD: We're getting better as the weeks go on. Guys are just working hard. Guys are really trying to get after it, getting in the film room and trying to better themselves.
What would it mean to get to the Big Ten championship game?
LD: It would mean a lot. It would show our hard work and how we've dealt with adversity and kept fighting. It would show we didn't give up and we kept working hard, and then everything just paid off for us.
The Huskers fully intend to break down the door.
But the time for pleasantries is over. The Huskers aren't just happy to be here.
"We have all the pieces to win it all this year," senior defensive tackle Jared Crick said. "Not just the Big Ten championship, but the whole thing."
Bold words from arguably the Big Ten's best player. But there's evidence to back it up.
While moving to a new conference brings unique challenges for Nebraska coach Bo Pelini and his players, they fully believe they can win the Big Ten in Year 1. It would be quite an accomplishment for a program that, despite its storied history, last won a conference title in 1999 and hasn't recorded a top 10 finish in a decade.
Nebraska's case for a Big Ten title begins with its players, particularly on defense. Crick is one of three All-America candidates -- linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard are the others -- headlining a unit that ranked among the top 15 nationally in each of the past two seasons. Crick and David both earned second-team All-America honors in 2010, while Dennard recorded four interceptions for a secondary filled with NFL prospects.
But Nebraska is about more than star power. Veterans Baker Steinkuhler and Cameron Meredith join Crick on one of the nation's top defensive lines, while safety Austin Cassidy quarterbacks the unit and Sean Fisher returns from injury to assist David.
Despite losing first-round draft picks in each of the past two years (Ndamukong Suh, Prince Amukamara), the Blackshirts are setting the bar even higher in a league where elite defenses rise to the top.
"We have more talent than we've had in the past," said Crick, who has recorded 9.5 sacks in each of the past two seasons. "We have depth coming out of our ears. It's a great thing to know, that if you want a breather, you can come out and the next guy will come in and he won't let down. That's true across the board."
The Big Ten's best teams, namely Ohio State, boast elite defenses nearly ever year, and Nebraska brings a strong track record.
"Look at who coaches them," Huskers wide receiver Brandon Kinnie said. "You've got two defensive brainiacs."
Those would be Bo Pelini and his brother Carl, Nebraska's defensive coordinator. Bo Pelini has coached a top 15 defense in seven of the eight seasons since returning to the college ranks from the NFL.
Their intricate scheme asks a lot of the players but can suffocate opponents.
"There’s not one defense that’s comparable to ours," Crick said. "Very complex, and that's what makes it unique. As a defensive lineman, I have five responsibilities, where other defensive linemen, all they've got to do is shoot their gap. We want it that way."
Nebraska might have a championship-level defense this season, but questions swirl around an offense that has been unreliable. After the unit stumbled late last season, Pelini switched gears, promoting Tim Beck to coordinator.
Beck's system is designed to provide greater freedom for players and not bog them down in details.
"We're getting it down every day in practice," Kinnie said. "We haven't scratched the surface of what we can do."
The offense likely will hinge on sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez, whose inconsistent 2010 season mirrored that of the entire unit.
He sizzled during the first seven games, eclipsing 100 rushing yards five times and lighting up Oklahoma State for five touchdown passes. But an ankle injury suffered against Missouri derailed his season, which got ugly both on and off the field.
Martinez has earned high marks from his coaches and teammates during the offseason, both for his play and for displaying greater maturity.
"He's much more confident playing," Beck recently told reporters of his quarterback. "I'm really proud of his leadership, the way he's handling everything."
The Huskers are also a hungry bunch after dropping back-to-back Big 12 championship games by a combined four points. While the rest of the Big Ten gets adjusted to division play, Nebraska knows what it takes to reach a championship game, and the pain that comes with falling just short.
"We were really close, and we had some disappointments," Pelini said. "As a whole program, we've got to get over the top."
Despite a new league, 11 new opponents and a much-discussed schedule that makes stops in Madison, State College and Ann Arbor, there's a belief among the Huskers and the supporting evidence that they can take the next step.
"All over, we’ve got a good team, and we can do big things," Dennard said. "Last year, we ended up very bad, so we're going to try and go out there and show the world that Nebraska is a better team."
The first and second team All-Big Ten linebackers from both the coaches and media selections last season are all gone. The league isn't flush with established stars at the position, and it's time for a crop of new standouts to emerge. In fact, the top player on our board didn't even play in the Big Ten last season.
Here are how we see them right now:
2. Michael Mauti, Penn State, Sr: If Mauti can just stay healthy, he should challenge for All-Big Ten and perhaps All-America honors. But he missed all of 2009 with a torn ACL and was only able to finish nine games last season because of ankle and shoulder problems. He has been highly productive when not hampered by injuries and should be the leader of a deep and talented bunch for the Nittany Lions.
3. Chris Borland, Wisconsin, Soph.: Much like Mauti, Borland just needs to stay on the field. He was the 2009 Big Ten freshman of the year after recording 10.5 tackles for loss and five sacks as a rookie. But he missed most of last season and this spring with shoulder problems. The Badgers need him at full strength to live up to their considerable promise this season.
4. James Morris, Iowa, Soph.: As a true freshman in 2010, Morris had 70 tackles and started six games at middle linebacker. He starred in the Insight Bowl victory against Missouri with seven tackles. Morris looks like a rising star in this league.
5. Gary Tinsley, Minnesota, Sr.: Tinsley led the Gophers and finished ninth in the Big Ten with 90 stops a year ago in his first season as a starter. He's experienced and productive and should be a leader for a Minnesota defense that's looking to become tougher.
6. Andrew Sweat, Ohio State, Sr.: Overshadowed by Brian Rolle and Ross Homan, Sweat is now the veteran in the Buckeyes' linebacker corps. He had 41 tackles a year ago, and that number should only rise this season as he takes on more of a leadership role.
7. Ian Thomas, Illinois, Sr: With Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey moving on to the pro ranks, Thomas needs to hold down the fort. He's got the tools to do so. A starter for the past 25 games, he led the Illini with 95 tackles in 2009 before dipping down to 67 a year ago. He'll have plenty of opportunities to make stops this season.
8. Gerald Hodges, Penn State, Jr.: We're at the point in this list where it's time to make some projections. Hodges, a converted safety, has shown glimpses of serious potential in limited time. He had a good spring and could be primed to really take off this season. Also watch out for Khairi Fortt among the Nittany Lions linebackers.
9. Jeff Thomas, Indiana, Sr: Thomas was second on the Hoosiers with 82 tackles a year ago and will be counted on to lead the defense this season. A 100-tackle season is well within reach.
10. Mike Taylor, Wisconsin, Jr.: Like Borland, Taylor emerged as a star his freshman year in 2009. He has started all 19 games he has played in his career and finished second on the team last season with eight tackles for loss and two interceptions. Getting him and Borland healthy and on the field together would be big for the Badgers.
Just missed: Iowa's Tyler Nielsen, Michigan State's Chris Norman and Max Bullough, Nebraska's Sean Fisher, Michigan's Kenny Demens, Minnesota's Mike Rallis and Ohio State's Etienne Sabino.
As always, this is a ranking of the entire position group, so depth matters in addition to individual star players.
Away we go:
2. Penn State: Is this the return of Linebacker U? The Nittany Lions technically only return one starter at the position but have plenty of talent. The unit got hit by injuries last year, including one that knocked Michael Mauti out of the lineup for several games. He's one of the best in the Big Ten when healthy, which he should be in 2011. Senior Nate Stupar led the team in tackles last year. Sophomores Gerald Hodges and Khairi Fortt are among the skilled youngsters battling for playing time. This could wind up as the deepest linebacking corps in the league.
3. Ohio State: The Buckeyes lost two starters, including leading tackler Brian Rolle. But the Silver Bullets usually reload at linebacker. Senior Andrew Sweat should emerge as the unit's leader, and hopes are high for Etienne Sabino after he took a redshirt year in 2010. Sabino showed promise this spring and locked down a starting job. The battle is on for the third starting position. Incoming freshman Curtis Grant could make a sudden impact.
4. Wisconsin: Much depends on the health of Chris Borland, who missed nearly all of 2010 and sat out the spring with a shoulder injury. The 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year will move to middle linebacker and should anchor the unit if he's sound. Mike Taylor finished second on the team in tackles for loss and interceptions last year, and Kevin Claxton is expected to take over at the strongside spot. The Badgers like what they have seen from redshirt freshman Marcus Trotter.
5. Iowa: The Hawkeyes lost a lot of experience from the 2010 team, including leading tackler Jeremiha Hunter. While there's some concern about the leadership void, Iowa has good young building blocks here. James Morris was pressed into service as a true freshman and was terrific; another year of development should only make him better. Tyler Nielsen was missed down the stretch when he suffered a neck injury, and the senior provides a veteran presence. Players like Bruce Davis, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens need to take on bigger roles.
7. Minnesota: An experienced linebacker group could be the strength of the Gophers defense this season. All three starters -- leading tackler Gary Tinsley, Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis -- are back. Rallis needs to stay healthy after only appearing in 12 games the past two years because of injuries. Florida transfer Brendan Beal should provide a boost.
8. Purdue: The Boilermakers are led by senior Joe Holland, who has 35 career starts under his belt. Junior Dwayne Beckford finished second on the team with 85 tackles a year ago. Will Lucas could break out after an excellent true freshman campaign. Senior Chris Carlino adds veteran depth.
9. Michigan: The Wolverines struggled defensively last year, and the linebackers shouldered some of the blame. They lost Jonas Mouton to the NFL. Cam Gordon moves down from safety and adds some playmaking ability. Kenny Demens had 82 tackles last year at middle linebacker. Freshman Jake Ryan should contribute right away. This group still has a lot to prove.
10. Illinois: The Illini have to rebuild after losing a pair of NFL draft picks at the position in Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey. Senior Ian Thomas now becomes the veteran leader. Sophomores Johnathan Brown and Houston Bates -- who had a strong spring -- will be counted on to step forward.
11. Indiana: Fifth-year senior Jeff Thomas could be the centerpiece of the Hoosiers defense. Another fifth-year senior is Leon Beckum, though he lacks top-end speed. Overall, there isn't a lot of depth here.
12. Northwestern: Linebacker play was a sore spot last season, and starters Nate Williams and Quentin Davie are gone. Bryce McNaul needs to recover all the way from shoulder surgery and has to stay healthy. Pat Fitzgerald thinks he has some talented young players at the position; they'll need to grow up fast.
A lot of those reasons for interest were positive for the program. Others were negative. But I would argue that no team had more headline-worthy happenings on campus than the Huskers in the past year.
I hear the arguments for USC (coaching change, sanctions), Notre Dame (coaching change, student death, anticlimactic realignment) and Florida (Urban Meyer postseason flip-flop, "You're a bad guy" media incident, offensive collapse, coaching change).
A refresher course on the past 12 months in Nebraska football, for those who have forgotten:
Spring 2010: Starting quarterback Zac Lee is forced to sit out spring practice, and rumors about the progress of a redshirt freshman, Taylor Martinez, start to emerge. Martinez validates those rumors with a memorable spring game performance that leaves fans buzzing.
May-June 2010: Realignment rumors build into reality, and days after Big 12 spring meetings close, Nebraska leaves the Big 12 for the Big Ten, by far the biggest move of the summer's realignment. It becomes official on July 1, 2011.
August 2010: During fall camp, linebacker Sean Fisher (broken leg) and cornerback Anthony Blue (torn ACL) were injured during a closed practice, and rumors of their injuries leaked onto message boards. As a result, media members tried to reach family members, at one point, while Fisher was undergoing surgery. As a result, coach Bo Pelini banned the media from accessing his team for three days.
Sept. 4, 2010: No starter was officially announced before the season opener against Western Kentucky, but the speedy Martinez was announced during starting lineups to a raucous reception from the fans. He becomes the first freshman to start a season opener in Nebraska history. On his first career career carry, he runs for a 46-yard touchdown. Nebraska wins 49-10.
Oct. 7, 2010: Martinez had considerable buzz after rushing for 496 yards and eight scores in his first four games, but his coming out party was a nationally-televised, Thursday night game against Kansas State. He ran for four touchdowns, 241 yards and led the Huskers to a 48-13 road conference win over the bowl-bound Wildcats. That's Heisman-type stuff, and for the first time, he realistically threw his name into the Heisman race (alongside shoo-in Heisman winner Denard Robinson) and then-No. 5 Nebraska was looking like a very real national championship contender. Martinez would not score another rushing touchdown the rest of the season.
Oct. 16, 2010: Nine days later, they hit the first of many speed bumps. Texas' free fall lessened the impact of what looked like the biggest game of the year, but the Longhorns, who finished 5-7, were still able to remind Nebraska of the mysterious mojo they have over the Huskers. Martinez struggled, was benched in the fourth quarter and Nebraska suffered its first loss, 20-13, at home, in a shocker. The loss moved Nebraska to 1-9 against Texas since the Big 12 began in 1996.
Oct. 30, 2010: Roy Helu Jr. runs for 307 yards to help beat Missouri and gives the Huskers control of the Big 12 North. Martinez suffers a sprained ankle late in the first half and doesn't play in the second half. It eventually proves as one of the biggest moments of Nebraska's season.
Nov. 6, 2010: Martinez sits against Iowa State with an injured ankle, and the Cyclones erase a 24-10 lead to send the game into overtime. The Huskers score first, but intercept a wobbly pass on a fake punt to win the game, 31-30, and maintain control of the Big 12 North, which they eventually win.
Nov. 20, 2010: Nebraska is flagged a school-record 16 times, compared to Texas A&M's two. The worst of the 16 flags is a phantom roughing the passer call that extends Texas A&M's game-winning drive in the 9-6 win.
The biggest news, though, has little to do with the on-field action that resulted in a second loss.
Martinez starts, but re-injures the ankle early and heads to the locker room. There, he returns a call from his father in violation of team rules. Upon learning this information, Pelini screams inches away from a stone-faced Martinez while jabbing his chest with a finger. ESPN's cameras catch the controversial interaction, which re-airs countless times over the following days.
After the game, Pelini chases an official off the field while screaming inches away from his face as well, a scene seen on the sideline during the game. As Texas A&M fans storm the field, his brother, defensive coordinator Carl Pelini, throws down a cameraman's camera, breaking off a few detachable pieces, but doing no permanent damage to the equipment.
After the game, Pelini makes his players off-limits and briefly addresses media.
Nov. 21, 2010: Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman publicly criticizes Pelini's actions during the game. Pelini later apologizes, saying he "let it get personal" toward officials.
Throughout the day, rumors that Martinez planned transfer swirl after the freshman misses a team workout. Later, it's revealed that Martinez also suffered turf toe on his left foot to pair with his sprained right ankle. Pelini denies rumors that Martinez planned to transfer.
Nov. 23, 2010: Top receiver/kick returner Niles Paul suffers a broken foot in practice. He misses the season-ending, Big 12 North-clinching win over Colorado and the Big 12 title game but returns for the bowl game. (That's a wholly terrible four-day stretch, no?)
Dec. 4, 2010: Nebraska closes its run in the Big 12 by reviving one of the league's great rivalries, one final game against Oklahoma. The Huskers' early 17-0 lead is erased, Martinez takes seven sacks and the Huskers lose, 23-20, to land in the Holiday Bowl for the second consecutive season against Washington, a team it beat in Seattle 56-21 in September.
Dec. 30, 2010: Nebraska, 17-point favorites, suffers a shocking loss to Washington, 19-7. They finish 10-4, and lose three of their final four games.
Jan 5, 2011: Martinez's father, Casey Martinez, confirms to ESPN.com that Taylor will return to Nebraska for the 2011 winter semester, ending rumors of a transfer.
Jan. 11, 2011: Defensive tackle Jared Crick announces he'll return to Nebraska for his senior season.
Jan 26, 2011: Nebraska ends its licensing agreement with Corn Fed, Inc., Casey Martinez's apparel company. The deal paid Nebraska 10 percent royalties on all merchandise sold and began in June 2007.
Feb. 3, 2011: In Indiana, new Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson announces that his assistant, Corey Raymond, is leaving for Nebraska to coach the secondary. Huskers secondary coach Marvin Sanders is still employed.
Pelini hasn't spoken with the media in five weeks.
Later, during his signing day teleconference, Pelini refuses to answer any questions about his staff, and says no staff members have been hired or fired yet.
Nebraska signs 20 players and four ESPNU recruits for the nation's No. 14 recruiting class, which ranks No. 3 in the Big 12 and No. 2 in the Big Ten.
Later that night, Sanders, receivers coach Ted Gilmore and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson are absent from an Omaha recruiting dinner.
Feb. 4, 2011: Sanders announces his resignation for "family and personal reasons" amid reports of possible disciplinary action toward the coach for a nonfootball issue.
Feb. 5, 2011: Charles Jackson, Nebraska's only cornerback signee, tells the Omaha World-Herald he found out about Sanders' departure from a stranger via Facebook, and expresses discontent at not being notified that any moves had occurred or that they would follow his signing. He also adds he probably would have signed with Nebraska if he had been told.
Later in the day, his father goes on Omaha radio to diffuse the situation, and says his son is content and excited to start his career.
Feb. 7, 2011: Former Huskers star Scott Frost elects to stay at Oregon as receivers coach, rather than join his alma mater, who was reportedly unwilling to offer him playcalling duties.
Today: Gilmore and Watson are still employed, and Pelini says he knew nothing of an ad posted on Nebraska's website last week looking for an offensive assistant.
Now that, folks is a whole lot of stuff that's happened in the last year. We can only assume 2011 will offer plenty more headlines in the Big Ten.
Can anybody top that? I say absolutely no way.
But plenty has been resolved in camps so far. Here's the best of what we know:
1. Three quarterback battles have been won. Two (Kansas State and Nebraska) have yet to be decided, but Tyler Hansen won the job over Cody Hawkins at Colorado. Kale Pick beat out Jordan Webb at Kansas. Taylor Potts beat out Steven Sheffield in an epic duel at Texas Tech between two seniors who could start for about anyone in the conference.
3. Gill: What have you done for me lately? Turner Gill cares not about your recruiting stars, Jayhawks. Toben Opurum was the Jayhawks leading rusher as a freshman, with 554 yards. As one of the nation's best fullbacks, he came to Kansas because Mark Mangino planned to let the 6-foot-1, 240-pounder play running back. He was injured in the spring, but returned to full strength by preseason camp. Unable to crack the depth chart at running back, he's been moved to linebacker to help solve the Jayhawks' depth problems at the position. Meanwhile, two-year starter at center Jeremiah Hatch was sent to the bench in favor of senior captain Sal Capra, who played both guard positions last year.
4. Iowa State is even more huggable. The team rallied behind rookie head coach Paul Rhoads in 2009 and raced to a seven-win season after just five wins in the previous two seasons combined. This fall, one of the teams practices was canceled so the players could sandbag the athletic facility to prevent damage from a major flood in Central Iowa. To do the team's laundry, team managers had to travel nearly 20 miles to the nearest source of fresh water.
5. Robert Griffin's arm isn't rusty. The Bears sophomore quarterback has strung together two masterful scrimmages through the air, completing 33 of his 44 passes for three touchdowns and one interception. He has yet to prove he can run with the same explosiveness he showed as a freshman, but coach Art Briles isn't going to be getting Griffin hit many more times than is necessary.
6. Texas is talking up its defense. Coach Mack Brown isn't keeping quiet about his expectations for his defense in 2010. ""I do think this could be our best defense," Brown told the Dallas Morning News last week, noting health and depth as variables. "We should be really, really good on defense." The Longhorns already ranked No. 3 nationally in total defense last year, but bring back one of the nation's best secondaries and perhaps the best and deepest group of defensive ends anywhere.
2. MWC commissioner Craig Thompson said in a teleconference late Wednesday night that he will not make a pitch to BYU to keep the Cougars from leaving the league to pursue independence in football. “They know who we are,” Thompson said. He added that the league won’t make concessions to BYU to stay in the MWC, as Big 12 members did with Texas. If BYU intends to go national, there’s nothing the MWC can offer that would quench that thirst.
3. Three years in at Nebraska, Bo Pelini continues to spar with local reporters over issues that he should have settled his first week as head coach. Pelini closed practice to media this week because he didn’t like the reporting on the season-ending injury of linebacker Sean Fisher. Pelini changed his mind and re-opened practice. Most coaches don’t like the media. The smart ones make their peace with dealing with us and move on. Maybe Pelini will figure that out. Maybe not.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Credit Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit for being honest.
Cubit had a unique description for his mindset leading up to the Broncos' season opener Saturday at Nebraska.
"You kind of go in there blind," Cubit said, reflecting on his lack of knowledge about how new Nebraska coach Bo Pelini will operate his program during game situations.
Pelini has been a head coach for one previous game -- a 2003 Alamo Bowl victory over Michigan State as interim coach after Frank Solich was fired. So Cubit doesn't know much about what he'll be facing.
So he's preparing for just about anything.
"We just don't know," Cubit said on the Mid-American Conference's weekly teleconference. "You can talk to people about what coach Pelini did at LSU. But you've got different players and you're always trying to adapt your system to the players you've got, and what their strengths and weaknesses are.
"For us, it's just going to be more fundamentals. The unknown in the first game is always severe, but with the new coaching staff ... With our kids, you can't tell them exactly where people are going to be all the time."
Other coaches are facing similar problems across the country.
And that's why we're here. To provide enlightment about the Big 12 one link at a time.
Here are some of this morning's goodies.
- Baylor coach Art Briles has decided who his starting quarterback Thursday night will be against Wake Forest. He's just not telling anybody -- yet.
- Denver Post columnist Woody Paige provides a primer for visiting Democratic National Convention delegates about the upcoming season.
- The Kansas City Star's Mike DeArmond writes a strong piece about Missouri WR-KR Jeremy Maclin, who approaches the upcoming season knowing he'll likely be a marked man. And don't miss DeArmond's vlog on the same page, where he convinced somebody to put a dartboard on their back for a feeling like Maclin experiences on the football field. I'm just wondering who the brave soul was.
- New Kansas running back Jocques Crawford has a bold goal of rushing for 2,000 yards this season -- despite the fact he's not even the Jayhawks' starter at the position. J.Brady McCullough also has a vlog about his story.
- The Lawrence Journal-World's Eric Sorrentino provides an early look at the Big 12's games this weekend.
- Jeremy Maclin's first encounter with a mechanical bull wasn't too pleasant.
- Teammates joke that Nebraska T Mike Smith should consider a career as a kicker or a tight end, considering he weighs "only" 285 pounds.
- The leadership development of Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford has been dramatic, according to John Hoover of the Tulsa World. It's also helped Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops become more relaxed with Bradford in charge of his offense.
- Oklahoma State QB Zac Robinson decided to come to the Cowboys because of his family's assocation at the school. His mother is an OSU graduate and his father once wore the Pistol Pete suit of the school's mascot.
- No more boring football at Texas A&M as the Aggies debut a new offensive and defensive look, Dallas Morning News reporter Brandon George writes.
- The Dallas Morning News' Chuck Carlton has Oklahoma and Missouri among two teams he thinks can win the national title.
- The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal's Don Williams writes about how Texas Tech coach Mike Leach is using acupuncture to curb his need for smokeless tobacco and help treat his asthma.
- Kirk Bohls recalls watching the wishbone for the first time 40 years ago and wonders if it will ever return.
- The Austin American-Statesman's Alan Trubow profiles the passion of Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp.
- Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said his team will be facing a hostile crowd in what his research shows is the loudest stadium in the NFL when it faces Washington State in Seattle.
- Tulsa World columnist Dave Sittler calls Oklahoma's opener against Chattanooga its final scrimmage before they break fall camp.
- Starting Kansas State LB Ollu Hall was attracted to Kansas State after leaving Virginia, where his coaches included current Kansas State coach and former Cavaliers assistant Ron Prince. "It's the same thing," Hall told the Wichita Eagle's Jeffrey Martin. "Everything is done the same way. ... Virginia is the older brother, and K-State is the little brother."
- Des Moines Register beat writer Andrew Logue wonders if Iowa State fans are nervous about Thursday's opener against South Dakota State.
- Denver Post beat writer Tom Kensler blogs that his favorite players to typically interview are offensive linemen.
- Both Austen Arnaud and Phillip Bates expect to see action Thursday night for Iowa State at quarterback against South Dakota State.
- Colorado TB Demetrius Sumler's career has been marked with patience.
- The Kansas City Star's Blair Kerkhoff takes his video top 25 for No. 4 Missouri on the road to the parking lot of Arrowhead Stadium, site of the Big 12 championship game. Kerkhoff (nice sunglasses, Blair) says that Missouri S William Moore might have been the best defensive player in the country over the second half of last season.
- Stop the presses! Wichita Eagle columnist Bob Lutz goes out on a limb and picks Kansas and Kansas State both to win their openers on Saturday.
- Gary Pinkel is wary about first-game challenges in Missouri's opener Saturday against Illinois in St. Louis.
- Omaha World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel is glad that Bo Pelini is chintzy about awarding blackshirts. And so is Lincoln Journal-Star columnist Steve Sipple, too.
- The Oklahoman's John Helsey profiles Oklahoma TE Brody Eldridge, who Sooner offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson calls the team's best player.
- 6-foot-6, 225-pound freshman LB Sean Fisher should get a lot of playing time for Nebraska early in the season.
- Missouri redshirt freshman OT Elvis Fisher "isn't all shook up," even if he's protecting QB Chase Daniel's blind side against Illinois. Dave Matter of the Columbia Tribune also "Cuts to the Chase" with Daniel's weekly comments.