NCF Nation: Travis Beckum

When you think Big Ten football, what usually comes to mind is big, corn-fed Midwestern players and bruising offenses. The kind of place that would be perfect for a tight end.

But the 2011 season was a little lackluster for that position in the league, at least as far as the passing game goes. Sure, Northwestern's Drake Dunsmore and Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen were Mackey Award semifinalists, but those two and Michigan State's Brian Linthicum were the only two tight ends in the conference to record more than 25 catches. Some guys we expected to have big years, like Nebraska's Kyler Reed, Minnesota's Eric Lair and Indiana's Ted Bolser, were nearly invisible on the stat sheet. And there was certainly no one who rose the level of recent Big Ten stars like Dallas Clark, Matt Spaeth, Travis Beckum, Lance Kendricks or Dustin Keller.

[+] EnlargeJacob Pedersen
AP Photo/Matt SaylesJacob Pedersen led the Big Ten's tight ends with eight touchdown catches last season.
Dunsmore, who won the league's inaugural Kwalick-Clark tight end of the year award, and Linthicum have both graduated. Yet 2012 is shaping up as a potentially big season for tight ends across the league.

Some of it has to do with changing offenses and playcallers who love utilizing the tight end. Urban Meyer made a star out of Aaron Hernandez at Florida and could do the same with Jake Stoneburner, who started off blazing hot last year before the Ohio State offense forgot about him. With the Buckeyes searching for playmakers, expect Stoneburner to be utilized heavily in 2012.

"Seeing Hernandez make all those plays makes someone like me pretty happy," Stoneburner told Adam Rittenberg last month. "It's something I've been waiting for since I graduated high school, being able to go out there knowing you're going to get the opportunity to get the ball more than once or twice a game. "

Bill O'Brien coached Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski as offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, which featured the tight end as much as anybody in football. Now O'Brien is at Penn State, where tight ends have mostly been an afterthought. That will change quickly.

"That’s a very important part of what we’re going to do offensively,” O’Brien told reporters in March. “Obviously, the last two years in New England taught me a lot about the use of a tight end, multiple tight ends.”

At Iowa, new offensive coordinator Greg Davis is raving about sophomore C.J. Fiedorowicz, a 6-foot-7, 265-pounder who began to emerge late last season as a weapon. With an uncertain running game and an excellent passer in quarterback James Vandenberg, Fiedorowicz could follow in the footsteps of Clark and Tony Moeacki as breakout Hawkeyes tight ends. Coincidentally, Iowa's new offensive line coach is Brian Ferentz, who coached the tight ends with the Patriots last year.

“You’ll see the tight ends playing outside sometimes,” Davis told the Des Moines Register during spring practice. “Used to seeing them in motion, but there will be motion in wide receiver sets in some situations because they’re tough match-ups.”

Wisconsin returns one of the best tight ends in the country in Pedersen, who had led Big Ten tight ends with eight touchdown catches a year ago. Bret Bielema is also excited about the depth at the position, with veterans Brian Wozniak and Sam Arneson, redshirt freshmen Austin Traylor and Austin Maly and Pittsburgh transfer Brock DeCicco. Given the inexperience at receiver outside of Jared Abbrederis, the Badgers could look to throw to their tight ends even more this season.

Indiana's Bolser had only 14 catches last year, but he was one of the stars of the spring for the Hoosiers. An improved passing game should help him become more of a factor. Purdue likes the depth it has at tight end, led by Gabe Holmes and Crosby Wright.

“A year ago it was one of the leanest positions on our football team," Boilers coach Danny Hope told reporters in the spring, "and now I think going into the season that the tight end position is going to be one of our strengths.”

Reed's numbers dropped last year, but he still led Nebraska with an average of 17.1 yards per catch. He and fellow senior Ben Cotton form a nice tandem of targets for Taylor Martinez. Michigan State must replace Linthicum but is optimistic about 6-foot-5, 280-pound Dion Sims, who practiced this spring with a cast on his hand. Sims could provide a safety valve for new quarterback Andrew Maxwell early on as the Spartans break in some green receivers.

Minnesota's Moses Alipate will at least be a curiosity as a former quarterback who grew to 290 pounds. Michigan needs Brandon Moore or someone else to step in for Kevin Koger, while Illinois' Jon Davis could have a different role in the team's new spread offense after a promising freshman campaign. Whoever replaces Dunsmore for Northwestern should get a lot of touches.

Tight ends could play an important part of many Big Ten teams' attacks this fall. Just as it should be.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


After Wednesday's practice, Wisconsin defensive end O'Brien Schofield was having a hard time charging his cell phone.

"Aw, man, terrible," Schofield said. "You know phone chargers these days die out real fast."
 
 David Stluka/Icon SMI
 Changing positions from linebacker to defensive end has worked out for O'Brien Schofield (50) and the Wisconsin Badgers.


Fortunately for the Badgers, the same can't be said for Schofield. His battery is fully charged this season, and he provides a major jolt to the Wisconsin defense every time he steps on the field.

After a fairly quiet career, Schofield has been the Big Ten's biggest surprise on defense this fall, not to mention one of the nation's true breakout performers. The senior from Great Lakes, Ill., leads the nation in tackles for loss with 14.5, 2.5 more than any other defender, and leads the Big Ten with 6.5 sacks, 2 more than anyone else. Schofield has recorded at least 2.5 tackles for loss in four games and could challenge Tom Burke's amazing single-season school record of 31.5 tackles for loss in 1998.

Not bad for a guy who entered the season with only five sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss in 31 games during his first three seasons.

"Did I expect it? Yes. Did I know it was really going to happen? Didn't really know until we saw the bullets start flying," Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said. "He's playing as high a level as anybody that I've been around since I've been here at Wisconsin.

"To be leading the nation in tackles for loss, that doesn't just come about by luck. He worked very hard to get there."

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It's nearly August, and Wisconsin tight end Garrett Graham still doesn't know who will be throwing him passes this season.

What else is new?

 
  Tim Larson/Icon SMI
  Garrett Graham led Wisconsin in receptions (40), receiving yards (540) and receiving touchdowns last season.

"You get used to it, I guess," Graham said. "It seems like the same thing happens every year in our program. But I don't think a lot of guys worry about it. The best guy is going to play and you can't argue with that."

Graham has grown accustomed to Wisconsin's revolving door at quarterback. He worked with John Stocco in 2006, Tyler Donovan in 2007 and both Allan Evridge and Dustin Sherer last year.

The uncertainty under center will create some concern among Badgers fans heading into the fall, but they have no such worries about the personnel turnover among the tight ends/H-backs.

Former All-American Travis Beckum has moved on, but Graham leads a formidable group that should once again be a strong point for the team.

Beckum's injury woes in 2008 created increased opportunities for Graham, who led Wisconsin in receptions (40), receiving yards (540) and receiving touchdowns (5). Graham enters the fall as a candidate for the Mackey Award and will be backed up by veterans Lance Kendricks and Mickey Turner.

"We have to put the offense on our shoulders this year," Graham said.

Beckum put up big numbers in 2006 and 2007 at the H-back position, a place where Graham could see increased time this season. Graham and Turner both can move seamlessly between the tight end and H-back spots, and Kendricks, listed primarily as an H-back, is starting to gain the same versatility.

"I'm comfortable being on the line and motioning into the backfield, dropping back into a fullback position every once in a while," Graham said. "Then again, I'm fine with being split out on a single side."

Graham will be an asset to Wisconsin's quarterback no matter where he lines up. After earning first-team All-Big Ten honors last season, the 6-foot-4, 248-pound Graham filed paperwork with the NFL to check his draft status before opting to return.

Graham declined to say where he was projected in April's draft but "never really seriously considered" leaving Wisconsin. He spent the offseason developing his speed and quickness to complement his sturdy frame.

"We incorporated a lot more speed and agility this year, and I feel as fast as I ever had and as agile," he said. "It definitely paid off."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

There are some positions on the depth chart that make Big Ten coaches cringe. There are other spots that make them smile and nod their heads.

Let's take a look at several fully loaded positions in the Big Ten.

Ohio State's defensive line: There is talk the Buckeyes' front four could be the best since the 2002 national championship squad. Ohio State is stacked at defensive end with All-Big Ten candidate Thaddeus Gibson, Cameron Heyward and Lawrence Wilson, who can be effective if healthy. Tackle Doug Worthington brings a ton of experience to the interior line, and Dexter Larimore and Todd Denlinger add depth there.

Iowa's offensive line: This group is well on its way to restoring the tradition established during the early part of coach Kirk Ferentz's tenure. Iowa boasts the league's top tackles tandem in Bryan Bulaga and Kyle Calloway, and there are a host of experienced interior linemen. Julian Vandervelde developed nicely in 2008, and Andy Kuempel, Rafael Eubanks and Dan Doering all are solid options at guard. The emergence of oft-injured Dace Richardson this spring adds another body to the mix. Aside from the center spot, Iowa looks extremely solid up front.

Michigan State's secondary: Despite losing All-Big Ten safety Otis Wiley, Michigan State should be even stronger in the back half. Three starters return in the secondary, including corners Chris L. Rucker and Ross Weaver. Michigan State boasts depth with corners Jeremy Ware and Johnny Adams and safeties Kendell Davis-Clark and Marcus Hyde. And the breakout performance of the spring came from another safety, Trenton Robinson, who certainly will see playing time this season.

Penn State's linebackers: Linebacker U. is back in 2009. Penn State boasts one of the nation's top linebacker tandems in Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman, both of whom will contend for All-America honors. And it doesn't stop there, as sophomore Michael Mauti is poised for a big year on the outside. Penn State also boasts veteran depth with Josh Hull, Chris Colasanti and Bani Gbadyu.

Illinois' wide receivers: Juice Williams will have no shortage of options in the passing game this fall. All-America candidate Arrelious Benn leads the Big Ten's deepest receiving corps, which features Jeff Cumberland, Chris Duvalt, A.J. Jenkins, Cordale Scott and Jack Ramsey. Florida transfer Jarred Fayson worked his way into a starting spot this spring and will draw opposing defenders away from Benn.

Michigan's running backs: Whoever wins the starting quarterback job in Ann Arbor will have plenty of help in the backfield. Hopes are extremely high for senior Brandon Minor, who finished strong last season despite battling several injuries, including one to his right (ball-carrying) wrist. Backing up Minor will be Carlos Brown and Michael Shaw, both of whom will be more accustomed to Rich Rodriguez's offense. Bite-size back Vincent Smith emerged this spring to provide another option with breakaway speed.

Northwestern's secondary: One of the league's weakest units a few years ago has transformed into a major strength for the Wildcats. All four starters return from 2008, and safety Brad Phillips and cornerback Sherrick McManis are strong candidates for All-Big Ten honors. Safety Brendan Smith and cornerback Jordan Mabin both are natural playmakers, and Northwestern boasts depth in players like Brian Peters, Justan Vaughn and David Arnold.

Wisconsin's H-backs/tight ends: Travis Beckum's star-crossed senior season opened opportunities for other players in 2008, and the result is a multitude of options at tight end for 2009. Mackey Award candidate Garrett Graham leads the way at the H-back spot, and senior Mickey Turner and junior Lance Kendricks provide reliable options in the passing game.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 29, 2009
4/29/09
12:43
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

MADISON, Wis. -- The music catches you off guard.

Ringback tones are common with cell phones these days. If you call several of Nick Toon's coaches at Wisconsin, you'll hear House of Pain's "Jump Around" -- Wisconsin's unofficial fight song between the third and fourth quarters -- before they answer.

 
  David Stluka/Getty Images
  Nick Toon caught 17 passes for 257 yards in 2008.

If you call Toon's cell, you hear ... Michael Jackson's "Black or White." Really?

"Oh, yeah, I love Michael Jackson," Toon says after answering.

Toon is his own man with his own unique tastes in music, food and other subjects. These facts need to be pointed out because he will always be fighting an uphill battle for independence at Wisconsin.

Here's his problem: He plays wide receiver for Wisconsin and has "Toon" on the back of his jersey. Most Badger fans don't struggle to name that Toon.

Nick's father, Al ,starred for the Badgers from 1982-84, setting school records for career receiving yards (2,103), career receptions (131), career receiving touchdowns (19), single-season receptions (54 in 1984) and single-season receiving yards (881 in 1983). Al Toon's marks have since been eclipsed by Lee Evans and others, but the three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver leaves a lasting legacy at the school.

Now another Toon is forging his own path in Madison.

"I've grown up with this pressure," Nick Toon said. "I was born into the situation I'm in, which is not a bad thing. It feels normal to me because I don't know any different. I guess you argue that the pressure may be a little bit different at Wisconsin because my dad did play here, but I don't think it'll be any different anywhere else in the country.

"My dad is a pretty widely known athlete. He's a great receiver. The comparisons are going to be made. I just try to do my own thing."

And he's doing it well this spring.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Bret Bielema won 17 of his first 18 teams as a head coach, took his first two teams at Wisconsin to January bowl games and entered the fall with a squad poised for a BCS run.

Charmed certainly would be a term to describe Bielema's salad days in Madison. But in the back of his mind, he knew things wouldn't always go well for him.

 
 David Stluka/Getty Images
 Bret Bielema and the Badgers won their final three games of the regular season.

"If you don't, you've just got your head in the sand," Bielema said Wednesday while on a recruiting trip. "You realize that tough days are just beyond tomorrow."

The tough days arrived for Wisconsin after a 3-0 start and an ascent to the top 10 in the national polls. After building a 19-0 halftime lead, the Badgers fell victim to the biggest comeback in Michigan Stadium history and fell, 27-25, on Sept. 27.

They lost their dominance at Camp Randall Stadium with consecutive losses to Ohio State and Penn State, dropped four games in a row and five out of six to sit at 4-5 in early November. Injuries to key players such as All-American tight end Travis Beckum, backup tight end Garrett Graham and left tackle Gabe Carimi stung, as did poor quarterback play and fundamental lapses on both sides of the ball.

Criticism swelled for Bielema, who earned the ever-popular fire-me Web site and questions about his decisions. Throughout the dark period, the 38-year-old tried to embrace his core beliefs more than ever.

"If I had the entire season to do over again, I would definitely make changes to what we did," Bielema said, "not only during games, but also in preparation as well as postgame, being able to critique and move forward. Obviously, when we don't have success, it brings up a lot of critiques and a lot of analysis from the outside world. But on the same account, you really have to understand the reason you've had success over your career is because you understand what football's about, what schemes are about, what execution is about.

"It still gets down to basic principles of if you do things right and play hard and execute without mental errors, you're going to win football games."

Bielema still recites a famous quote -- "Adversity introduces a man to himself" -- as he reflects on a season that began with great promise, quickly spun out of control but finished with three consecutive wins and a postseason berth, most likely to the Champs Sports or Insight bowl.

Wisconsin was one of only three Big Ten teams -- Ohio State and Iowa were the others -- to win its final three games.

"Everybody can do well when things are going right," he said. "Anybody can coach, anybody can have success. But when adversity strikes, when you hit a bump in a road, you have to right the ship. That's probably the best thing I took from the season.

"It gave an indication of the resolve this team has to get themselves in a position where they are right now. For us as coaches, it was huge to face adversity and respond positively."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

TGIF. Here's your extra helping of links. 

"One Internet message-board story has Paterno announcing his retirement at halftime and then handing the team over to defensive coordinator Tom Bradley for the bowl game. Because Paterno is expected to have 100 members of his family in attendance, including all five of his children, a leap was naturally made.

"'Everybody is looking for some kind of sign that something's going on. There isn't,' said Jay Paterno, Joe's son and quarterbacks coach."

"Do you plan on coaching again?

"I haven't really made myself available for that kind of stuff. If I were going to do it, this would be the year. I've been away from coaching for three years, but I've been around the game. I miss it a lot and still have a lot to contribute. If the right thing came up, I'd do it. I don't have any expectations, though."

  • Wisconsin tight end Travis Beckum keeps a picture of his gruesome season-ending leg injury on his cell phone as motivation, Tom Mulhern writes in the Wisconsin State Journal. Despite playing sparingly this season, Beckum hopes to boost his NFL draft stock at the scouting combine.
  • The Big Ten Network's Dave Revsine runs down the key numbers that reflect each Big Ten team's success or failure this season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Here's our weekly look inside five Big Ten teams.

Illinois -- Eddie McGee showed promise last year when he spelled Juice Williams at quarterback. But with Williams entrenched under center for the rest of this season and 2009, Illini coaches aren't letting McGee's talents go to waste. McGee made his debut as a wide receiver last Saturday against Iowa and caught two passes for 14 yards, including a critical 9-yarder that helped to set up the game-winning field goal. McGee will remain Williams' primary backup at quarterback, but he won't be spending much time holding a clipboard. "We all know when he gets the ball in his hands he can fly," head coach Ron Zook said. "We'll be able to expand on that. He's a heck of an athlete."

Iowa -- Linebacker Dezman Moses returned to practice during the bye week after being suspended four games. Moses was charged Sept. 21 with public intoxication. He played in Iowa's first few games and will be available Saturday when the Hawkeyes face Penn State. Senior safety Harold Dalton's future looks grim after an arrest early Sunday for his role in an Iowa City bar fight. Head coach Kirk Ferentz said its "very doubtful" Dalton will return this year. "The common denominator, alcohol, is so often involved," Ferentz said. "That's a common denominator. Our uncommon denominator in this case is that [Dalton is] an older player. We've talked about that before. I'm a little more understanding with younger guys. But it's really disappointing."

Northwestern -- The Wildcats likely will use two quarterbacks Saturday against Ohio State, but the prospect of using both players on the field at the same time is highly unlikely. Backup Mike Kafka showcased his dynamic running skills at Minnesota with a Big Ten quarterback-record 217 rushing yards. Kafka might be an effective weapon in the backfield with starter C.J. Bacher or lined up as a wide receiver, but head coach Pat Fitzgerald doesn't want to take the risk with his second-string quarterback. Third-stringer Dan Persa, who already is being used on special teams, would be a likelier candidate to see playing time elsewhere. "We're not opposed to doing that," Fitzgerald said, "but not necessarily with the second quarterback."

Ohio State -- The starting offensive line from the Buckeyes' Oct. 25 loss to Penn State will remain intact Saturday at Northwestern, but the second unit could have a different makeup. Ben Person, who has started games this season at left guard, might need surgery for a leg injury and likely will miss Saturday's game. True freshman J.B. Shugarts -- previously ruled out for the season with a shoulder injury -- will be available in reserve duty if needed. Another freshman, Mike Adams, remains out with a foot injury.

Wisconsin -- Tight end is one of the most important positions in Wisconsin's offense, but it's a spot where injuries have hit especially hard. After losing Garrett Graham earlier this season, the Badgers have seen Travis Beckum and Lance Kendricks sustain broken left legs in consecutive weeks. Graham and Mickey Turner now will share the duties at tight end for Saturday's game at Indiana. Turner is more of a blocking tight end but can be effective as a receiver, an area where Graham shines. Wisconsin will continue to emphasize double tight end sets in the offense. "Can you get out of it what you need? Yeah," offensive coordinator Paul Chryst told the Wisconsin State Journal. "Can you get out of it what you got in the past? No."

Big Ten power rankings

October, 27, 2008
10/27/08
11:42
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten hierarchy is beginning to clear up. It wouldn't surprise me if the rundown below remains more or less the same at the end of the season. Then again, college football wouldn't be so great without surprises, so things could change.

1. Penn State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten) -- The Nittany Lions cleared their biggest hurdle to date and won in Ohio Stadium for the first time as a member of the Big Ten. Adversity arrived and Penn State found a different way to win, relying on a dominant defensive performance and poised play from backup quarterback Pat Devlin in the fourth quarter. The Lions are in prime position for a national title run heading into the bye week.

2. Ohio State (7-2, 4-1) -- Head coach Jim Tressel got beat at his own game, as a tightly contested contest characterized by hard-hitting defense, field position and special teams went to Penn State following Terrelle Pryor's fourth-quarter fumble. Ohio State's defense continues to play well, but an underachieving offensive line has held back this team.

3. Minnesota (7-1, 3-1) -- Opportunistic defense continues to spark Minnesota's renaissance under Tim Brewster. The Gophers forced four turnovers and held Purdue to 109 passing yards in Saturday's victory. They enter a manageable closing stretch with a chance to reach a New Year's Day bowl game after going 1-11 last season.

4. Michigan State (7-2, 4-1) -- Little brother no more, the Spartans traveled to Ann Arbor and won in Michigan Stadium for the first time since 1990. They overcame a disappointing effort last week and a bad call that gave Michigan a first-quarter touchdown, and they rallied to score the game's final 21 points. A New Year's Day bowl remains possible entering the final three games.

5. Iowa (5-3, 2-2) -- The idle Hawkeyes move up a spot and can continue to climb with a road win against Illinois this week. Shonn Greene faces a vulnerable run defense and can fuel his long-shot Heisman Trophy campaign. Iowa needs a win to become bowl eligible and two to secure a postseason spot. With Penn State and Minnesota left on the schedule, Saturday's game is huge.

6. Northwestern (6-2, 2-2) -- Disaster struck for the Wildcats at Indiana, as they lost an extremely winnable game and saw their starting offensive backfield go down with injuries. Running back Tyrell Sutton will undergo wrist surgery this week and likely miss the rest of the season. Quarterback C.J. Bacher also could miss time with a hamstring injury. The defense needs to step up to avoid a major slide.

7. Wisconsin (4-4, 1-4) -- The bleeding finally stopped in Madison as Wisconsin ended its four-game losing streak with an impressive performance against Illinois. Quarterback Dustin Sherer stepped up in his second career start, and the defense intercepted Juice Williams three times. The season-ending loss of star tight end/H-back Travis Beckum puts a damper on things, but Wisconsin should be able to get bowl eligible.

8. Illinois (4-4, 2-3) -- Head coach Ron Zook would certainly take consistency over talent right now. Despite playmakers on both sides of the ball, Illinois has become the Big Ten's biggest mystery: great one week, terrible the next. To be fair, the Illini were facing a desperate Wisconsin team Saturday, but turnovers and spotty run defense led to a loss. Saturday's game against Iowa is critical.

9. Michigan (2-6, 1-3) -- This is an atypical year for Michigan, but the team keeps delivering typical performances: solid for a half or three quarters, but never for an entire game. The Wolverines squandered a second-half lead and saw their hope for a winning season fade away. Another loss will ensure a losing season and no bowl for the first time since 1974.

10. Indiana (3-5, 1-4) -- Credit the Hoosiers for being opportunistic against Northwestern and pulling out a nice upset. Backup quarterback Ben Chappell avoided major mistakes and the defense prevented big plays. Northwestern gift-wrapped this one to a certain extent, but Indiana had a solid game plan on both sides of the ball and picked up its first league win.

11. Purdue (2-6, 0-4) -- You have to feel for Joe Tiller, who could endure his worst season at Purdue in his final year as Boilermakers coach. More disturbing is the fact that Tiller's trademark offense has been the primary reason for the team's struggles. Purdue had its lowest passing total (109) yards in Tiller's 12 seasons as coach and dropped its fifth straight game.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Before I head over to The Shoe, here are some observations from the three early Big Ten games.

NORTHWESTERN-INDIANA

This was a disastrous 21-19 loss for the Wildcats, one that could change the complexion of a very promising season. Not only did Northwestern lose to arguably the Big Ten's worst team, but it lost starting quarterback C.J. Bacher (hamstring) and starting running back Tyrell Sutton (wrist) to injuries. Much like the Michigan State loss, the Wildcats were hamstrung by turnovers (5), bad red-zone play-calling and poor special teams play. The defense did a nice job aside from forcing no turnovers, but the offense never attacked a banged-up Indiana team down the field, as Illinois did last week. If Sutton and Bacher miss extended time, the Wildcats should struggle in their remaining games.

Indiana backup quarterback Ben Chappell played a terrific game, committing no turnovers and converting several big-play opportunities. Head coach Bill Lynch really liked this guy in the preseason, and the sophomore showed us why. Wide receivers Tandon Doss and Damarlo Belcher stepped up, and the defense came up with big plays in the fourth quarter. The heat on Lynch should go down a bit, and with a manageable closing stretch aside from Penn State, Indiana could salvage its season.

ILLINOIS-WISCONSIN

Illinois might be one of the Big Ten's most talented teams, but it's also arguably the most inconsistent. Quarterback Juice Williams had his first poor performance of the season, tossing three interceptions in a 27-17 loss. Heralded sophomore linebacker Martez Wilson missed several tackles, and the defense remains vulnerable against the run. This will be a better team next year, but getting bowl eligible could be a challenge with a tough closing stretch.

Wisconsin played an inspired game on both sides of the ball, and coach Bret Bielema deserves credit for igniting his team after a four straight losses. Dustin Sherer did what Badgers quarterbacks are supposed to do: limit mistakes and make plays here and there. He proved to valuable on the move (40 rush yards, TD), and he found David Gilreath for two touchdowns. A leg/ankle injury to All-American H-back Travis Beckum didn't look good, and his absence could sting down the stretch. But the defense regained its swagger as cornerbacks Allen Langford and Niles Brinkley and safety Chris Maragos snared interceptions.

MINNESOTA-PURDUE

The Gophers added another chapter to one of college football's great stories this season, improving to 7-1 with a 17-6 win at Purdue. I'm continually amazed by Minnesota's opportunistic play on defense, as the Gophers forced four Boilermakers turnovers in the win. Tim Brewster clearly found the magical bye-week formula as his team came out ready, though the coach won't be pleased with 13 penalties. I realize Duke had to fire Ted Roof, but this guy can coach defense.

Purdue has really played decent defense for most of the season, and coordinator Brock Spack deserves credit. But no matter who takes the snaps (Curtis Painter, Joey Elliott or Justin Siller), the Boilermakers offense simply can't find the end zone. Siller might be the starter next week against Michigan as Painter continued to struggle. But confidence has to be low right now, and outside of kicker Carson Wiggs, there aren't too many reasons for optimism.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Some final hot links before the games begin.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

MADISON, Wis. -- Any questions?

Right now, Penn State seems to have all the answers.

The Nittany Lions are doing what a national championship contender is supposed to do. They're dominating an inferior team in every aspect of the game. And it's been the same way all season. Joe Paterno is in the press box for the second straight week with what is now being called a right hip injury, but the 81-year-old could coach this team from just about anywhere.

Daryll Clark, Evan Royster (58 rush yards) and the Spread HD offense cranked it up in the second quarter, but Penn State's special teams have been the most impressive element of its play. Derrick Williams continues to reaffirm himself as a major threat, notching his first punt return for a touchdown this season after two scores on kick returns. The Lions' kickoff and punt coverage has been tremendous, and dangerous Badgers return man David Gilreath has paid the price every time he touches the ball.

Wisconsin finally showed a pulse midway through the quarter, as quarterback Allan Evridge used his legs to get the struggling offense in the end zone. The problem continues to be the passing game. Evridge has completed just 2 of 8 attempts, and his fumble deep in Wisconsin territory turned a manageable halftime deficit into a nearly insurmountable one. Penn State sophomore defensive end Aaron Maybin is for real (1.5 TFLs), and Badgers running backs P.J. Hill and John Clay aren't getting through for any big plays.

At least the Badgers band is back. But if the offense doesn't notch a big play or two, this could get even uglier.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It should be another revealing week of Big Ten football, particularly in Madison and Evanston. Here are 10 things to track as you watch the action Saturday.

Quarterbacks are popular on this week's rundown.

1. Quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and C.J. Bacher -- The man who plays better likely will determine the winner of the Michigan State-Northwestern game. Both players share backfields with capable running backs (Heisman Trophy candidate Javon Ringer and Tyrell Sutton), but both signal-callers have struggled with consistency this season. Bacher has dominated the Spartans in two meetings but faces a much-improved defense. Hoyer is starting to hit his stride but still owns an unsightly completion percentage (47.7).

2. Joe Paterno's whereabouts -- With questions looming about the 81-year-old's coaching future beyond this season, Paterno could end up in the press box for the second consecutive week because of a right leg injury. He also might tough it out on the Camp Randall Stadium field, where he suffered a broken left leg in 2006. Penn State has continued to win no matter where Paterno ends up, but the Nittany Lions face a big test against the browbeaten Badgers.

3. Wisconsin quarterback Allan Evridge -- Evridge remains the Badgers' starter, but head coach Bret Bielema hardly gave him a ringing endorsement this week. The fifth-year senior needs to improve his accuracy and limit mistakes. All-American Travis Beckum had six receptions last week against Ohio State, and Wisconsin could get talented tight end Garrett Graham back in the mix. Aaron Maybin and Penn State's talented defensive line likely will pressure Evridge, who needs to keep his poise.

4. Eric Decker vs. Vontae Davis -- The nation's leading wide receiver goes up against one of the top cover corners in FBS. Decker and Minnesota have a great chance to validate a surprising start against Illinois, which comes off its best game of the year last week at Michigan. Ohio State and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins held Decker in check two weeks ago, and the talented Davis will try to do the same.

5. Purdue quarterback Curtis Painter -- After being replaced in the fourth quarter of last week's loss to Penn State, Painter gets the start against No. 12 Ohio State. Coach Joe Tiller wondered this week whether Painter has been trying too hard after seeing his completion percentage drop (57.6) and his touchdown-to-interception ratio balance out (5-5). Painter's career stats are impressive, but he struggles in big games and needs a strong showing against the Buckeyes.

6. Iowa offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe -- Head coach Kirk Ferentz has defended O'Keefe and shielded him from the media, but another poor offensive performance against Indiana will turn up the heat on both men. Fans are concerned that Iowa has fallen behind the times with its offensive structure and play calling. O'Keefe can quiet the critics -- momentarily, at least -- if the Hawkeyes capitalize on a Jekyll-and-Hyde Hoosiers defense and end a three-game slide.

7. Michigan's defense -- When Wolverines head coach Rich Rodriguez ripped his team for playing "soft" against Illinois, he was speaking directly to a veteran defense that had answered the bell before last week. Top pass rusher Brandon Graham (leg infection) could be sidelined, but Michigan needs to regain its defensive edge against Toledo, which has scored just 16 points the last two weeks after a 54-point effort against Fresno State.

8. Minnesota coach Tim Brewster -- He didn't play up his return to his alma mater, but you can bet Brewster would like nothing more than to beat Illinois. Illini players said Brewster wanted the Illinois head-coaching job that went to Ron Zook, and they expect a fired-up Golden Gophers squad on Saturday. Zook asked Illini fans to turn out in force this week -- and to bring their "Zook Zone" towels -- to cheer on a team that played its last two games in two tough environments (Michigan Stadium and Beaver Stadium).

9. Northwestern's coaching staff -- Pat Fitzgerald and his assistants have had two weeks to prepare for one of the more anticipated games in recent program history. The extra time should help veteran defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz figure out a way to contain Ringer, but Fitzgerald's ability to keep his players grounded will be the biggest key. Fitzgerald knows what it's like to play with expectations at Northwestern, something the team has struggled with since 2000.

10. Offensive play calling at Camp Randall -- Penn State fans hope the Lions offense went conservative in last week's unstylish win at Purdue and will open things up again against Wisconsin. Galen Hall and Jay Paterno likely will expand the playbook, particularly with top wideout Jordan Norwood back, but quarterback Daryll Clark must continue to play smart on the road. Wisconsin reserve running back John Clay has provided a lift in each of the team's last two losses. Clay has to touch the ball more for the Badgers to have a chance at an upset.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
 AP Photo/Andy Manis
 Lance Kendricks and the Badgers will likely miss out on a BCS bowl berth following a 20-17 loss to Ohio State on Saturday.

MADISON, Wis. -- Jaevery McFadden sighed as soon as the three letters were brought up, the ones that have dogged the Wisconsin football program despite sustained success since 1999.

A BCS bowl berth had been Wisconsin's top goal entering the season, and for good reason. The Badgers are one of only three FBS teams to play January bowl games in each of the last four years. But unlike the other two programs, USC and West Virginia, Wisconsin has fallen just short of the big bowls.

After dropping consecutive games to begin Big Ten play, the Badgers' BCS bugaboo likely will continue.

"A lot of stuff has just got to go our way," said McFadden, the junior linebacker who had eight tackles a fumble recovery in Saturday night's 20-17 loss to Ohio State. "We can't control what everybody else does. Honestly, we could control the last two losses we had.

"We had 'em, and we let 'em go."

Last week, Wisconsin experienced "extreme disappointment," according to head coach Bret Bielema, after blowing a 19-point halftime lead and falling to an inferior Michigan team in Ann Arbor. The Badgers lost their edge on defense in the fourth quarter, couldn't run the ball in the second half and wasted opportunities in the red zone.

Saturday night brought a different sort of distress. Wisconsin played well in many areas.

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