NCF Nation: Traye Simmons

Minnesota wants bowl to be springboard

December, 31, 2009
12/31/09
11:02
AM ET
This much is known: Tim Brewster will be back as Minnesota's head coach in 2010.

But we don't know who will be the Golden Gophers' starting quarterback next fall. We don't know who will emerge as the top ball carrier or the playmaking receiver. We don't know who will replace three outstanding linebackers, two solid defensive tackles and a top-level cornerback in Traye Simmons.

[+] EnlargeTim Brewster
Chris Gardner/Getty ImagesGophers coach Tim Brewster is hoping for a bowl win to springboard his team into next season.
Many of these answers won't come for several months, but we could have a better idea after Thursday's matchup against Iowa State in the Insight Bowl (NFL Network, 6 p.m. ET).

Every bowl-bound team hopes to use the extra game to get an idea of what to expect the following season. For Minnesota, today's game takes on added meaning before a pivotal 2010 campaign. Expectations will be higher then, and the pressure will be turned up on Brewster to produce better results.

"Every coach would love to be able to win the last game of the season because it springboards you," Brewster said. "It springboards you forward with positive momentum, positive energy. Not that a loss is going to determine your season the following season. I just think a last-game win certainly helps, particularly from a mental point of view, going into the offseason."

Though Minnesota loses more on defense, the offense will be the big question mark in the spring.

Quarterback Adam Weber is completing his third season as the starter, but he'll need to beat out talented backup MarQueis Gray and third-stringer Moses Alipate this spring to keep his job. Running backs Duane Bennett, Kevin Whaley and DeLeon Eskridge all return, but one of them needs to distinguish himself this spring, something that didn't happen during the season. The Gophers are also searching for the next Eric Decker at receiver and will be looking to players like Troy Stoudermire, Brandon Green and Da'Jon McKnight to step up.

The offense has been a unit of extremes, from the highs against Michigan State and Northwestern to the lows against Penn State, Iowa and Ohio State.

"The level of consistency has got to improve," Brewster said. "That's been our mindset in our preparation for the bowl game. 'Let's make good decisions with the ball, not turn the ball over, be able to run the football and take advantage of some strengths down the field.'

"I expect us to play well offensively, based on the practices we've had."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The home stretch begins Saturday, and here are 10 things you don't want to miss.

1. Iowa's quest for perfection continues: The Hawkeyes are halfway through one of the nation's toughest road schedules, and it doesn't get much easier Saturday night at Michigan State (Big Ten Network, 7 p.m. ET). Spartan Stadium recently has posed problems for the Hawkeyes, who have dropped four consecutive games there, including a 16-13 decision last year. A win Saturday night will convince any nonbelievers left that Iowa is for real and move the Hawkeyes to at least No. 5 in the BCS standings. Iowa has shown no fear of tough environments and tough situations so far, but the Hawkeyes are now the team to beat in the Big Ten, which can bring unique challenges.

2. Penn State enters (Big) House of Horrors: Iowa isn't the only Big Ten team trying to end its struggles in the state of Michigan on Saturday. Penn State can't buy a break in Michigan Stadium, where it has lost five consecutive games stretching back to 1995. Head coach Joe Paterno is still haunted by the 2005 loss in Ann Arbor, the lone blemish on his team's record. The jury remains out on this Penn State team, which has looked very impressive against weak competition and seems to be getting stronger each week. The Lions can validate their record and end a rough run at Stadium and Main with a victory Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).

3. Pryor under pressure: Ohio State's offense and sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor are under the gun after a mistake-filled loss to Purdue last week. Critics and fans are questioning the scheme, the coaching and Pryor. Head coach Jim Tressel said this week that no major changes are coming and Pryor's teammates remain in his corner. Pryor handled himself well in responding to his critics this week. Still, the offense must bounce back strong against Minnesota (ESPN, noon ET). The Gophers boast an improved defense led by three excellent linebackers (Lee Campbell, Nate Triplett and Simoni Lawrence) and a playmaking cornerback (Traye Simmons). If Ohio State's offense starts off slowly, it could be a rough afternoon.

4. Postseason implications in Evanston: Northwestern and Indiana bring identical 4-3 records into Saturday's game at Ryan Field, and quite frankly, it's tough to see both squads reaching the postseason. The winner of the game should be in good shape for at least an invitation to the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl, while the loser will have an uphill climb. Northwestern's banged-up yet improving defense faces a confident Indiana offense led by quarterback Ben Chappell and wide receivers Tandon Doss, Damarlo Belcher and Mitchell Evans. The series usually produces plenty of excitement, as the last five meetings all have been decided by seven points or fewer.

5. Desperation at Boiler Station: The Big Ten's bottom two teams meet at Ross-Ade Stadium with very different mindsets. Purdue comes off an energizing upset of Ohio State, its first win against a ranked opponent since 2003. The Boilermakers hope the victory springboards them into a big second half as they try to turn those near misses into wins. Illinois, meanwhile, seems to be falling apart after its fourth consecutive double-digit loss and its fifth this season. The Illini remain undecided at quarterback and might soon need to make a decision about head coach Ron Zook's future at the school unless things turn around fast, beginning Saturday.

6. Jones vs. Sash: Two of the leading contenders for Big Ten defensive player of the year will be on the same field Saturday night in East Lansing. Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones had a monster first half, leading the nation with 85 tackles, including 8.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. He'll try to slow down Iowa's young running backs and put pressure on quarterback Ricky Stanzi. Hawkeyes safety Tyler Sash hopes to build on his Big Ten interceptions lead against Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has thrown only four picks in 156 attempts. Sash leads the most opportunistic secondary in the country, which faces a talented crop of Michigan State tight ends and wide receivers.

7. Wolverines offense vs. Lions defense: Something's got to give as the Big Ten's top scoring offense (37.3 ppg) takes on the nation's No. 2 scoring defense (8.7 ppg). Both units are getting healthier, as Michigan freshman quarterback Tate Forcier has recovered from head and shoulder injuries, while Penn State star outside linebacker Sean Lee should see his reps increase despite tweaking his knee against Minnesota. The Wolverines will use multiple quarterbacks and mix personnel behind an offensive line that gained confidence from the Iowa game. Penn State hasn't faced an FBS offense ranked higher than 79th nationally, but the Lions are receiving excellent play from their front four and linebackers Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull.

8. Gophers offense looks for a spark: Pryor isn't the only quarterback feeling the heat in Columbus on Saturday. Minnesota junior Adam Weber has struggled in recent weeks, and some are calling for backup MarQueis Gray to get more playing time. Weber could certainly use some help from his running backs, but it won't be easy against a dominant Ohio State defensive front. The Buckeyes undoubtedly will gear their defense toward Minnesota star wideout Eric Decker, so Weber must find other targets and do a better job of freelancing to make plays. Ohio State already owns two shutouts this season, and the Gophers were blanked last week at Penn State.

9. League title race taking shape: It's pretty easy to size up the Big Ten title race right now, with Iowa as the league's lone unbeaten team and in the driver's seat for the Rose Bowl and possibly more. But if Michigan State knocks off the Hawkeyes, things could really get interesting. You could have four one-loss teams by the end of play Saturday (Iowa, Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State), and an Iowa loss would open the door for some two-loss teams as well. Michigan State has a favorable schedule down the stretch and could legitimize itself as a league title contender. Losses by Penn State and Ohio State could really turn things around in the standings, given the preseason forecast for the league.

10. Star search on offense: The Big Ten is clearly a defense-oriented league this season, but the lack of stars on offense is really stunning. Things weren't much better in 2008, but at least the league boasted the nation's best group of running backs. As the stretch run begins, who will emerge at quarterback, running back or wide receiver? Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark has played well since the Iowa loss and needs a big performance at Michigan. Forcier, Stanzi, Purdue's Joey Elliott, Northwestern's Mike Kafka and Chappell also have had their good moments. I'm interested to see if the league's unheralded wide receivers (Keith Smith, Zeke Markshausen, Doss, Blair White) can keep up their strong play.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten lacks an official preseason all-conference team, which would be interesting to see but prevents situations like Tebow-gate. We're a little more bold here at ESPN.com, so here's my All-Big Ten squad. There will be time for debate later. For now, enjoy the names.

OFFENSE

QB: Daryll Clark, Penn State
RB: Evan Royster, Penn State
RB: John Clay, Wisconsin
WR: Eric Decker, Minnesota
WR: Arrelious Benn, Illinois
OT: Bryan Bulaga, Iowa
OG: Jon Asamoah, Illinois
C: Stefen Wisniewski, Penn State
OG: Justin Boren, Ohio State
OT: Kyle Calloway, Iowa
TE: Garrett Graham, Wisconsin

DEFENSE

DE: Brandon Graham, Michigan
DT: Jared Odrick, Penn State
DT: Mike Neal, Purdue
DE: Corey Wootton, Northwestern
LB: Greg Jones, Michigan State
LB: Navorro Bowman, Penn State
LB: Pat Angerer, Iowa
CB: Amari Spievey, Iowa
CB: Traye Simmons, Minnesota
S: Kurt Coleman, Ohio State
S: Brad Phillips, Northwestern

SPECIALISTS

P: Zoltan Mesko, Michigan
PK: Brett Swenson, Michigan State
KR: Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota
PR: Ray Small*, Ohio State

*-Currently not with team

Penn State leads the way with five selections, followed by Iowa (4), Ohio State (3), Minnesota (3), Illinois (2), Wisconsin (2), Northwestern (2), Michigan (2), Michigan State (2) and Purdue (1).

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

When it came to the cornerback position in the Big Ten in 2008, only two names mattered: Malcolm Jenkins and Vontae Davis. 

Not only were Jenkins and Davis regarded as the class of the conference, but some considered them the top two corners in the country. Both men delivered solid seasons and were picked in the first round of April's NFL draft.

Without Jenkins and Davis, the face of the Big Ten cornerback is a mystery heading into the fall.

Traye Simmons plans to corner the market. 

The Minnesota senior boasts strong statistics from 2008 -- four interceptions, 14 pass breakups, 18 passes defended, one forced fumble. He also has a catchy nickname, Big-Play Traye, which headlines his MySpace page.

Perhaps most important, Simmons oozes confidence. 

"Last year, Malcolm and Vontae had the pressure on them to produce and perform week in and week out," Simmons said. "For me, it was more I had to prove myself to the league and just play like I know how to play. But this year, people respect me. I will be one of the top returning corners in the league, so it's up to me to live up to it.

"I feel I perform well under pressure." 

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

  • Ohio State starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor can be hit in two quarters during the team's spring game Saturday, Doug Lesmerises writes in The Cleveland Plain Dealer. 
"It's a gamble, yeah," head coach Jim Tressel said of putting his star on the line. "But we need to get better. If we don't get better, that's a gamble as well."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

If the first step toward growing for the future is not dwelling on the past, Northwestern quarterback Mike Kafka could do big things this fall.

 
  Harry How/Getty Images
  Mike Kafka posted a 217-yard rushing performance last season against Minnesota.

Big Ten fans might remember Kafka from a Nov. 1 game at Minnesota, when he delivered one of the league's top individual performances of the season. Making his first start in more than two years, Kafka led Northwestern to a 24-17 upset of the 17th-ranked Gophers and made Big Ten history in the process.

He set a Big Ten quarterback record with 217 rushing yards on 27 carries (8 ypc). Kafka had runs of 53, 38, 30 and 28 as a Wildcats team playing without its starting backfield survived in the Metrodome and finished the season 9-4.

And yet, when prodded about his season-saving performance, Kafka struggles to deliver the details.

"If the offensive line wasn't out there and the receivers weren't out there, I definitely wouldn't have rushed for however many yards I rushed for," he said.

You don't remember the exact number? It's not your new cell phone area code? It's not painted all over your bedroom?

"No, I don't know," he said. "I don't really care. We won. That's all that matters to me."

Kafka still gets plenty of attention for his season-saving performance at the Hump Dome, but he's fixated on the future as Northwestern prepares to open spring drills March 30.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

After a lengthy hiatus, What to Watch is back as we take a look at the first three Big Ten bowl games.

  • Champs Sports -- Wisconsin vs. Florida State, Dec. 27
  • Valero Alamo -- Northwestern vs. Missouri, Dec. 29
  • Insight -- Minnesota vs. Kansas, Dec. 31

Here are some things to keep an eye on as you watch the games (in order).

1. Wisconsin's power run game -- The Champs Sports Bowl will feature strength vs. speed, and Wisconsin needs to overpower a swift Florida State defense with 473 pounds of running back. P.J. Hill and John Clay form a bruising rushing tandem, and Wisconsin will have to control the clock and wear down the Seminoles. The Hill-Clay attack seemed to surge in the final five games.

2. Wisconsin linebacker Culmer St. Jean -- He appeared in every game this fall and racked up 16 tackles, but the Badgers sophomore linebacker takes on a much bigger role against the 'Noles. St. Jean will start at middle linebacker as Jaevery McFadden moves to the weak side to replace the injured Jonathan Casillas. Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said St. Jean has been peaking in practice heading into the bowl.

3. Wisconsin wide receiver David Gilreath -- The sophomore could be an X-factor in this game. He took on a bigger role in the rushing attack late in the season, but Wisconsin has to find better ways to use his speed. It's baffling that Wisconsin ranks last nationally in kickoff returns despite having Gilreath as the return man. If offensive coordinator Paul Chryst finds creative ways to use Gilreath, Wisconsin could surprise Florida State.

4. The Badgers' offensive line -- Sure, they're big, and at times they've played well as a unit, but few things have gone according to plan for the Wisconsin offense this season. The next task is a daunting one -- finding a way to block Florida State defensive end Everette Brown. Sophomore left tackle Gabe Carimi receives the undesirable task of trying to keep Brown from digesting quarterback Dustin Sherer.

5. C.J. Bacher and Northwestern's passing attack -- Northwestern was able to win nine games without summoning superhuman performances from Bacher, who delivered a couple of them last season. But to get win No. 10, Bacher will need to be at his best. Missouri's high-powered offense probably can't be held down for 60 minutes, but the Tigers' pass defense is miserable. Bacher can put up big numbers with a veteran receiving corps, but he must avoid interceptions, his bugaboo, and make more plays in the red zone.

6. Northwestern defensive end Corey Wootton -- There's some talk that Northwestern's all-conference end could enter the NFL draft after a stellar junior season. He can showcase his ability on a national stage against Chase Daniel and Missouri. Northwestern will have to generate a strong pass rush against Daniel, and Wootton leads a defense that led the Big Ten in sacks (33) this fall.

7. Northwestern running back Tyrell Sutton -- Northwestern likely will get its best all-around player back for the Alamo Bowl, but how he responds from left wrist surgery is a big question. Sutton, who typically carries the ball in his right arm, will wear a cast for the game and expects to be fine. The Wildcats struggled to generate a consistent run game without him and need one to control the clock against Missouri.

8. Minnesota's offensive line -- Head coach Tim Brewster acknowledged his team got beat up down the stretch, and no unit suffered more than the offensive line. Brewster brought in veteran line coach Tim Davis after the regular season, and it will be interesting to see what impact Davis has on a young group. The Gophers need to reduce the pressure on quarterback Adam Weber and find a way to run the ball against Kansas.

9. Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker -- The first-team All-Big Ten selection underwent left knee surgery after the regular season but is expected to be fine for the Insight Bowl. Minnesota seemed to lose its consistency on offense after Decker sprained his ankle Nov. 1, and Weber undoubtedly will be thrilled to have his top target healthy again. If Weber and Deck regain their rhythm and keep Todd Reesing and the Kansas offense off the field, Minnesota should have a shot in this one.

10. Gophers secondary and forcing turnovers -- Minnesota built its 7-1 start on amazingly opportunistic defense, particularly from the secondary. The Gophers' four starting defensive backs -- Traye Simmons, Tramaine Brock, Marcus Sherels and Kyle Theret -- have combined for 10 interceptions, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. The group also owns a whopping 47 pass deflections. Minnesota's secondary has to force mistakes from Reesing, who has thrown 12 interceptions this season.

Dec. 31, 5:30 p.m., (NFL Network)

Minnesota take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: The two teams couldn't have been farther apart a year ago, as Kansas was headed to the Orange Bowl while Minnesota completed arguably the worst season in team history at 1-11. Now they meet at Sun Devil Stadium with a chance to finish strong.

Minnesota improved its record by six wins from 2007, but four consecutive losses to close the season tapered optimism in the Twin Cities. Head coach Tim Brewster trumpets his team's one-year improvement but acknowledges some obvious deficiencies along the offensive line.

Quarterback Adam Weber and the Gophers' offense will need to show up against a Kansas team that averages 32.7 points per game. The passing connection between Weber and star wideout Eric Decker fueled Minnesota's early season success, and Kansas, like most Big 12 teams, is susceptible to the pass.

Kansas' passing attack provides arguably the biggest challenge Minnesota has faced all season with quarterback Todd Reesing and wide receivers Kerry Meier and Dezmon Briscoe. Led by All-Big Ten cornerback Traye Simmons, Minnesota's defense racked up a Big Ten-leading 30 turnovers this season and will need to force Jayhawks mistakes to hang around in this one.

Minnesota makes its second trip to the Insight in three seasons. In 2006, the Gophers blew a 28-point halftime lead in what turned out to be Glen Mason's final game as head coach.


Kansas take by Big 12 blogger Tim Griffin: The Insight Bowl doesn't have many good memories for Minnesota fans and players. And Kansas would like to add some more misery to cap a disappointing finish.

The Gophers limped into a bowl with a four-game losing streak, capped by a humiliating 55-0 home loss to Iowa to cap the season. But a bowl trip is still something to be cherished, considering the Gophers are coming off a 1-11 record last season.

Kansas didn't finish much better, dropping four losses in their final six games. But gritty quarterback Todd Reesing directed a dramatic comeback victory over Missouri in Kansas' regular-season finale that help end the season on a positive note. And their post-season action this season marks the first time in Kansas' 119-season football history where the school has had back-to-back bowl trips.

Reesing keys a potent passing attack that ranks eighth nationally in passing and has a pair of top-20 receivers in Kerry Meier and Dezmon Briscoe. The defense has struggled against the better Big 12 offenses, having difficulties getting off the field because of a lack of a consistent pass rush.

After starting the season 7-1, Minnesota has struggled down the stretch offensively, scoring 17 points or less in five of their final seven games. And the blame can be tossed everywher as the Gophers rank 104th in rushing, 91st in total offense and 81st in scoring offense.

Wide receiver Eric Decker has emerged as the Gophers' major offensive threat, ranking 13th nationally in receptions.

It will also bear watching to see if Kansas can protect Reesing after ranking 92nd in sacks allowed. Minnesota has one of the Big Ten's premier pass rushers in fifth-year senior defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg, who ranks among the top 20 nationally in both sacks and tackles for losses.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
 Harry How/Getty Images
 Minnesota's Adam Weber thought Northwestern's defense was vulnerable Saturday but his interception at the end of the game gave the Wildcats a 24-17 victory.

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota's amazing rise this season has followed a pattern, and Saturday's game against Northwestern seemed to be falling right in line.

Despite a slow start, the 17th-ranked Gophers showcased the opportunistic play that fueled their 7-1 start. Cornerback Traye Simmons gave Minnesota its first lead in the second quarter with a 23-yard interception return for a touchdown. It marked the Gophers' nation-leading 25th turnover and their third defensive touchdown of the season.

From there, quarterback Adam Weber went to work, as he has all season, methodically moving the offense downfield. As Northwestern tried to take away top target Eric Decker and stuff the run, Weber went elsewhere, and five other receivers had multiple receptions. The Gophers converted 8-of-18 third downs. They held the ball for more than 10 minutes in both the second and third quarters.

Most important, Minnesota avoided major mistakes.

Until the final minute.

Northwestern safety Brendan Smith's 48-yard return of a tipped Weber pass proved to be the difference in a 24-17 Wildcats victory. After making opponents pay the entire season, the Gophers came up short in their type of game.

"It was like a punch to the stomach, but what can you do?" Gophers linebacker Lee Campbell said. "They made the play they needed to make to win the game."

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

MINNEAPOLIS -- Both of these teams have credited their strong seasons to major improvements on the defensive side. It showed in a scoreless third quarter.

Minnesota safety Traye Simmons intercepted his second pass of the game to snuff out a Northwestern drive into Gophers territory. Moments earlier, the Gophers mounted a 92-yard drive but got nothing out of it as Northwestern held near the goal line and kicker Joel Monroe missed a chip-shot field goal attempt.

So here we are, one quarter to play. Northwestern's conservative scheme hasn't prevented turnovers, but the Wildcats remain in the game and have a good track record in close contests. They'll need to force a turnover to win.

Minnesota holds the momentum, and quarterback Adam Weber has been fabulous today, both with his arm and his feet. Unlike Northwestern's quarterbacks, who run virtually the same offense, Weber avoids turnovers and finds the holes in opposing defenses. Weber has done an excellent job utilizing all of his weapons.

Northwestern quarterback Mike Kafka threw the two picks, but he also has set a school record for quarterback rushing with 15 carries for 149 yards. He has read the field well and found lanes to run, but his interceptions are proving costly.

Injuries have hit both teams, especially Northwestern. The Wildcats lost guard Desmond Taylor to an injury and star defensive end Corey Wootton went to the locker room with what looked like a right leg cramp. Minnesota standout wide receiver Eric Decker appeared to injure his left ankle on a 24-yard gain. Decker is receiving treatment on the Gophers sideline.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

MINNEAPOLIS -- Now we know how No. 17 Minnesota got to this point.

After a slow start, the Gophers rallied in the second quarter and showcased the characteristics that have led to their 7-1 start. Minnesota's opportunistic defense came up with a game-changing turnover, and quarterback Adam Weber and the offense continue to play mistake-free football. But undermanned Northwestern is hanging in there, and it's been an entertaining game so far.

The Wildcats have to feel good to be tied after their worst fears came true. With a new starting offensive backfield, Northwestern's game plan focused on limiting turnovers. It worked for a litte more than a quarter. But after failing to get good first-down yardage, backup quarterback Mike Kafka showed his inexperience on a hitch pass to Ross Lane. Minnesota cornerback Traye Simmons read the route, stepped in for the interception and took it 23 yards to the end zone.

But Kafka responded nicely and sparked a touchdown drive with a 53-yard run to the Minnesota 2-yard line. The Gophers are clearly trying to take away running back Omar Conteh, which has opened up lanes for Kafka, who has 97 rushing yards on nine carries. Kafka completed his first eight pass attempts before slowing down a bit in the second quarter.

Minnesota's offense settled in nicely in the second quarter. Weber's ability to scramble and make throws on the run has spurred the Gophers. And though junior wide receiver Eric Decker broke his own single-season school record with his 68th reception, Weber is getting other receivers involved (Nick Tow-Arnett, Ben Kuznia, Brandon Green, Jack Simmons), completing 15 of 23 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown.

Both offensive lines have looked suspect at times, but Northwestern likely needs to force a turnover from Weber to pull out the upset.

It's game day at the Metrodome

November, 1, 2008
11/01/08
11:23
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

MINNEAPOLIS -- Greetings from the Metrodome, or, as I affectionately call it, the Hump Dump. Sorry, but after touring TCF Bank Stadium on Friday afternoon, I can't wait to see Minnesota move out of this place.

  

It isn't all bad, though. Going through the revolving doors is fun, and the football press box has some of the best sightlines around.

Kind of a sleepy atmosphere around the stadium today, largely due to the 11 a.m. local time kickoff. Minnesotans take Halloween seriously, folks. There were some interesting costumes around my hotel last night. A guy dressed up as an Olympic speed skater gets high marks. It takes a real man to wear Spandex in public.

I stayed in the same hotel as Northwestern and rode the elevator with about 15 players this morning. Despite concerns about the weight limit, we made it safely, and running back Omar Conteh looked ready to go.

Conteh and junior quarterback Mike Kafka are expected to start for the Wildcats, who enter the game at 6-2 but come off a devastating loss at Indiana. A source told me quarterback C.J. Bacher (hamstring) will play only in an emergency situation. Bacher is on the field warming up, though. The key for Northwestern's new-look starting backfield will be ball security, as Minnesota leads the nation in both takeaways (24) and turnover margin (plus-1.88).

Minnesota comes in at 7-1 and is quite possibly the biggest surprise in the country after a 1-11 campaign in 2007. The Gophers look for their second victory against a team with a winning record and try to march closer toward a once-unthinkable January bowl game.

Here are some things I'll be watching today:

  • Minnesota's defense. How do the Gophers do it? The nation's worst unit in 2007 has led the turnaround this fall. The Gophers emphasize takeaways at every Tuesday practice, and I'm interested to see how these guys consistently make plays. Junior college transfers Tramaine Brock and Traye Simmons will be on my radar, and defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg likely will be applying the pressure on Kafka.
  • Both offensive lines. In many ways, both teams have survived problems with these groups. Minnesota has been banged up pretty much all season but continues to protect quarterback Adam Weber and move the ball. Northwestern has the youngest and least experienced line in the Big Ten, which has made Mick McCall's play calling more conservative. Both teams boast strong pass-rushers (VanDeSteeg, Corey Wootton and John Gill for Northwestern), so the line that protects better likely wins the game.
  • Coaching. Northwestern will have to tweak its offensive scheme for Kafka and likely will use more option and designed quarterback runs. Wildcats defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz might have some surprises today as he tries to force mistakes from the very disciplined Gophers offense. It wouldn't shock me if Minnesota defensive coordinator Ted Roof heavily blitzes Kafka, forcing him to make quick decisions.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
 Frank Victores-US PRESSWIRE
 DeLeon Eskridge is one of several freshmen making an impact for the 7-1 Golden Gophers.

As the head coach of arguably the nation's most opportunistic team, Tim Brewster knows that timing and momentum can be everything in college football.

Brewster has a good thing going at Minnesota right now. The Gophers are 7-1 and ranked 17th in the BCS standings after a historically bad 1-11 season in 2007. Their new outdoor, on-campus facility, TCF Bank Stadium, is set to open next September. They have a ton of talented underclassmen. The enthusiasm around the program is building at a rapid rate.

Minnesota's next phase seems clear. Accelerate and improve recruiting. Go after the top prospects while the team is winning. Canvass the state for top talent and tap into familiar spots like Texas and California.

Slam on the gas.

Thing is, when it comes to recruiting, Brewster has always been ahead of the curve. If there was a sixth gear, he would have found it.

"You seize every moment that you can," Brewster said, "but also understanding that we recruited at an extremely high level last year. Recruiting is something that really doesn't change with us, regardless of the now, the moment. We're going to recruit 24-7, 365. That's just kind of our thing."

(Read full post)

Big Ten midseason report

October, 15, 2008
10/15/08
12:01
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Before the season, the Big Ten landscape looked fairly straightforward.

Best team: Ohio State

Heisman candidate: Chris "Beanie" Wells

The rest: Did anyone really care?

Midway through the season, the scene looks quite different.

Ohio State lost Wells in the opener to a right foot/toe injury, which became the dominant story of college football the next two weeks before the star was ruled out of the much-anticipated USC game. The Buckeyes had another mainstage flop, and the 35-3 disaster had consequences. Senior quarterback Todd Boeckman lost his job, wunderkind Terrelle Pryor stepped in and Ohio State tweaked its offense, with limited success. Four wins have followed, but the Buckeyes are no longer the team in the spotlight.

That would be No. 3 Penn State, which has stormed onto the national title radar in dominant fashion, winning its first seven games by an average of 34.3 points. The Spread HD offense has been a smashing success, as first-year starting quarterback Daryll Clark and his arsenal mass-produce touchdowns and big plays. An underrated defense survived suspensions, injuries and dismissals, and the team's success has added to the drama surrounding 81-year-old coach Joe Paterno, whose coaching future beyond the season is unknown. A hip injury has forced Paterno to walk with a cane and coach from the press box, but his team looks like it runs on autopilot.

With Wells sidelined, Michigan State running back Javon Ringer has emerged as the league's top Heisman candidate. Ringer's incredible workload is almost as impressive as his production, and he leads a Michigan State team that backed up its preseason hype with a 6-1 start, its best since 2003. The Spartans find themselves in the league title mix along with Ohio State and Penn State.

The league has had its share of disappointments and surprises. Wisconsin went from a top 10 team on Sept. 27 to 0-3 in the league. The transition at Michigan has been tumultuous, as Rich Rodriguez's offense ranks 109th nationally and the Wolverines are on pace for their first losing season since 1967. Illinois has backslid despite impressive play from quarterback Juice Williams. The Big Ten also features arguably the nation's biggest surprise in Minnesota, which went from 1-11 last fall to bowl eligible and 6-1 after last Saturday's win at Illinois. Northwestern also made history with a 5-0 start, its best since 1962.

The next two weeks should reveal a lot, as Ohio State visits Michigan State before hosting Penn State. The Lions' BCS title hopes and Ringer's Heisman candidacy will dominate the headlines heading into the home stretch.

Biggest surprise -- Minnesota

No one outside the Twin Cities thought the Gophers would be bowl eligible by Oct. 11, not after a 1-11 season dragged down by the nation's worst defense. But an influx of junior college players on defense and, more important, the improvement of several returning players (Willie VanDeSteeg, Adam Weber, Marcus Sherels) has spurred Minnesota's renaissance behind second-year coach Tim Brewster. An aggressive defense leads the nation in takeaways with 20, and Weber and Eric Decker have formed one of the nation's top passing combinations.

Biggest disappointment -- Wisconsin

It's easy to pick on Michigan, especially after last Saturday's disaster against Toledo, but we knew the transition would be tough in Ann Arbor. Wisconsin entered the year with BCS hopes, a veteran-laden defense and a powerful rushing attack. But after inexplicably blowing a 19-point halftime lead to the flawed Wolverines, Wisconsin has flat-lined, dropping three straight to fall out of the BCS mix and Big Ten title contention. After a blistering start, coach Bret Bielema is just 7-7 in his last 14 games, and merely getting bowl eligible could be a challenge for the Badgers.

Midseason Offensive MVP -- Javon Ringer

Michigan State makes no secret about its intentions on offense. The Spartans feed the ball to Ringer until somebody stops him. So far, no one has. The senior running back ranks second nationally in rushing (158.9 yards per game) and tied for third in scoring (12 points per game). He has 68 more carries than any other FBS back and does much of his best work in the fourth quarter, where Michigan State is outscoring its opponents 57-34. Daryll Clark, Shonn Greene and Juice Williams also deserve to be mentioned.

Midseason Defensive MVP -- Aaron Maybin

Joe Paterno wishes Maybin could put on more weight, but Big Ten quarterbacks are getting a steady diet of the Penn State sophomore defensive end. Thrust into a major role because of suspensions, dismissals and injuries on the defensive line, Maybin has stepped up to lead the Big Ten in sacks (8) and tie for the lead in tackles for loss (12.5). Other mentions go to Illinois linebacker Brit Miller (12.5 TFLs, 10.2 tackles per game, 2 forced fumbles) and Michigan State safety Otis Wiley (4 interceptions, 11 pass breakups).

Top newcomer -- Traye Simmons

This award really should be shared by several of the junior college players that have helped boost Minnesota's defense. Simmons leads the Big Ten and ranks 13th nationally in passes defended (13), and he's one of three Gophers defenders with two interceptions this season. His teammate Tramaine Brock (team-high 42 tackles) also deserved to be mentioned. Terrelle Pryor has shown great poise as Ohio State's starting quarterback, but the unit's struggles to score are becoming a major concern.

Midseason Coach of the Year -- Tim Brewster

Brewster arrived with big dreams for Minnesota, and the team is on its way to achieving them in his second season as head coach. He made a great hire in defensive coordinator Ted Roof and successfully blended a group of junior college players with the returnees on defense. After finishing 114th nationally in turnover margin last year, Minnesota now ranks second. That's a testament to the head coach. Paterno and Mark Dantonio also merit recognition.

Bowl bound: Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

No one would have blamed Tim Brewster or his players for turning their attention to Ohio State as soon as they left the Metrodome field Saturday afternoon.

The way the Gophers dominated Florida Atlantic, they could have started scheming for Terrelle Pryor and the possible return of Chris "Beanie" Wells early in the fourth quarter of a 37-3 romp.

 
 AP Photo/Paul Battaglia
 Marcus Sherels is part of a secondary that has racked up six interceptions and 23 pass deflections.

But Minnesota wasn't just another BCS team polishing off a fairly negotiable nonconference slate before getting its first major test in league play. In four weeks, the Gophers quadrupled their wins total from all of last season, Brewster's first as head coach.

The nation's worst defense in 2007 has become an opportunistic bunch of talented junior college transplants and holdovers who have upgraded their play. The offense has surged behind quarterback Adam Weber and Eric Decker, limiting mistakes and putting up points in Year 2 of the Spread Coast system.

For the Gophers to gloss over these accomplishments, regardless of the competition, would be a disservice to their fans and themselves.

"As coaches and players, we don't do a good enough job of savoring victory," Brewster said Monday. "We had a great victory over a really good football team on Saturday, and I wanted to make sure our players savored the victory."

So Minnesota celebrated Saturday before reconvening Sunday. Players went through their running and lifting. Then they studied the Florida Atlantic film and made corrections.

"Once we had all of that done," Brewster said, "we started talking about Ohio State."

The Gophers open Big Ten play on Saturday with a visit to the 14th-ranked Buckeyes. But before breaking down the matchup, here's a look at the reasons behind Minnesota's 4-0 start after a 1-11 clunker in 2007.

IMPROVED TURNOVER MARGIN

The Gophers were far too generous last season and ranked 114th nationally in average turnover margin (minus-1.25). This fall, Weber and the offense have safeguarded the football. More important, the defense is consistently taking it away.

(Read full post)

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