NCF Nation: Treyvon Green

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 14

December, 2, 2013
12/02/13
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There were two huge rivalry games Saturday, with BCS national title implications at stake. What were the odds that both underdog home teams would score a touchdown to get within one point with 32 seconds left in the game?

That was the scenario in both the Ohio State-Michigan and Alabama-Auburn games. You know what happened. Brady Hoke went for the two-point conversion and didn't get it. Auburn chose to kick the extra point for the tie and won on a heaven-sent final play.

[+] EnlargeMichael Bennett
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesOhio State survived a scare from Michigan after the Wolverines failed on a two-point conversion to win the game.
Of course, the Tigers and Wolverines were in vastly different situations. Auburn had much more on the line, while Michigan's season would have been made by beating Ohio State. Auburn also knew that Alabama had a dicey kicking situation. Yet Michigan also was at home, where it had lost only once under Hoke, and it already had played in two overtime games this season. The Wolverines could have given themselves a chance to win on a miracle in regulation or in overtime.

Ultimately, I had no problem with Hoke's call, though the two-point play itself was uninspiring. Sometimes it's not the decision but how it unfolds.

Consider that in the biggest play calls for both Penn State and Northwestern on Saturday, both coaches went with a run up the middle on third down. The Nittany Lions' surprise draw play on third-and-9 from their 19 resulted in a 61-yard gain by Zach Zwinak that put Wisconsin away. Northwestern went with a basic running play on third-and-6 at Illinois and got 11 yards from Treyvon Green, allowing the Wildcats to then run out the clock.

Had those runs been stuffed, both coaches would have been criticized for being too conservative and playing not to lose. It's a tough world, coaching. Unless you are blessed with Guz Malzahn's luck.

Take that and rewind it back ...

Team of the week: Penn State. Absolutely no one saw the Nittany Lions' 31-24 win at Wisconsin coming, especially because PSU had played so poorly on the road in Big Ten play. But coach Bill O'Brien led his team to another victory in a season finale, and recording two straight winning seasons under heavy NCAA sanctions is wildly impressive.

Worst hangover: BCS for Wisconsin? Yes, if that stands for Badgers Caught Sleepwalking. Instead of earning a possible Orange Bowl bid, the Badgers laid a giant egg. A tremendously successful large senior class somehow went out on the worst possible note at Camp Randall Stadium.

Big Men on Campus (offense): It has been a tough year for Northwestern, but the Wildcats finally got a Big Ten win at Illinois. And quarterback Trevor Siemian and receiver Christian Jones were big reasons why. Siemian threw for 414 yards and four touchdowns, while Jones had two of those scores during a 13-catch, 182-yard career day.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Iowa linebacker Christian Kirksey was named Walter Camp national defensive player of the week after recording 11 tackles, including three for loss, plus a sack and a forced fumble against Nebraska. Really, you could just as easily single out fellow linebackers James Morris and Anthony Hitchens, who also had great games to cap tremendous seasons by all three. The Hawkeyes will really miss all three seniors next year.

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Eric Francis/Getty ImagesIowa's Mark Weisman scored two touchdowns in the win over the Cornhuskers.
Big Man on Campus (special teams): Chris Davis. Sure, he plays for Auburn. But his incredible 109-yard kick-six touchdown against Alabama just might allow a Big Ten team to play for the national title for the first time since the 2007 season. Buckeye Nation is a big fan of Davis.

Strangest moment: Penn State's hurry-up offense clearly confused Wisconsin's defense several times. The most obvious moment came early in the third quarter, when the Badgers had only nine men on defense when the Nittany Lions ran a play. Somehow, Wisconsin got out of that power-play situation when Tanner McEvoy broke up an underthrown deep ball.

Pointing the thumb or the finger? Coaches always talk a good game about accountability, and Bo Pelini usually is one to take blame for a poor performance by his team. But the Nebraska coach looked everywhere but in the mirror on his 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Iowa. Pelini said the call was chicken manure -- I'm paraphrasing -- and even brought Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz's own sideline demeanor into the conversation.

But where was the personal responsibility for Pelini nearly hitting an official in the face with his hat? In what other sport -- or walk of life -- would that be acceptable? Even Prop Joe and Avon Barksdale ("The Wire" nerd alert) knew better than to accost the ref in their annual basketball game. Pelini is lucky to still be employed by Nebraska after Friday's meltdowns.

A Bucket load of offense: Indiana took out a little offensive frustration on Purdue. After being bottled up on offense by Wisconsin and Ohio State, the Hoosiers unleashed a school record 692 yards and 42 first downs to win the Old Oaken Bucket for the first time in three years. Tre Roberson, D'Angelo Roberts and Stephen Houston all rushed for more than 100 yards for Indiana, the first time in school history the team produced a trio of 100-yard rushers in the same game.

Zero sum game: Minnesota failed to score an offensive touchdown in its final 10 quarters of the regular season. The lack of an explosive/entertaining offense could hurt the Gophers come bowl selection time. Meanwhile, Michigan State has held six opponents without an offensive TD and pitched shutouts in six of its eight Big Ten games.

Fun with numbers: Because the debate is about to take over our lives, some key comparisons between Ohio State and Auburn:

  • Scoring margin: Plus-27.9 per game for Ohio State, plus-16.1 for Auburn
  • Rushing yardage: 321.3 per game for Ohio State, 318.3 for Auburn
  • Total yards: 530.5 per game for Ohio State, 491 for Auburn
  • Team adjusted QBR: 83.8 for Ohio State, 81.0 for Auburn
  • Yards allowed per game: 355.8 for Ohio State, 414.3 for Auburn
  • Sagarin strength of schedule rating: 61st for Ohio State, 26th for Auburn
  • Wins over ranked teams: One for Ohio State (Wisconsin), three for Auburn (Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M)
Bill Belton Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsBill Belton's emergence has been a major boost for the Penn State offense.
The Big Ten returned seven of its top 10 rushers from the 2012 season, so it seemed likely that familiar names would fill this year's rushing chart. It hasn't worked out like that.

Only two players ranked in last year's top 10 -- Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Iowa's Mark Weisman -- are among the league's current top 10 ground gainers. The list features five backs who didn't enter the season as starters but have stepped up for injured teammates or simply because they were the best options. Today's poll question asks: Which Big Ten running back has been the biggest surprise so far this season?

You won't see Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon on the list because we don't consider his success surprising at all.

Here are the candidates, listed alphabetically:

Bill Belton, Penn State (Big Ten rushing rank: 7): Lions fans waiting for Belton to blossom are finally getting their wish. Zach Zwinak led Penn State's rushing attack in 2012 with 1,000 rush yards on 203 carries. But Zwinak's fumbling issues created an opening for Belton, who has cashed in during Big Ten play. Belton recorded the decisive fourth-down run in Penn State's four-overtime win against Michigan, quietly had a nice game against Ohio State and last week went for 201 yards and a touchdown in an overtime win against Illinois, the Lions' first 200-yard rushing performance since Larry Johnson in 2002.

SportsNation

Which Big Ten running back has been the biggest surprise so far this season?

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    41%
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    24%
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    4%
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    4%
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    27%

Discuss (Total votes: 6,514)

David Cobb, Minnesota (Big Ten rushing rank: 5): The Gophers had every intention of establishing their ground game this season, but they pegged Donnell Kirkwood to do most of the heavy lifting. But an ankle injury in the opener slowed Kirkwood and Cobb, who had only one carry last season as a sophomore, is blossoming in a featured role. He established himself with 125 yards and two touchdowns in a non-league win against San Jose State. During Minnesota's current three-game Big Ten win streak, Cobb has three 100-yard rushing performances and 429 total yards on 80 carries.

Tevin Coleman, Indiana (Big Ten rushing rank: 4): After pushing Stephen Houston throughout the offseason, Coleman has emerged as one of many dangerous weapons on Indiana's offense. He has scored in every game this season, averaged 6.4 yards per carry and 131.6 all-purpose yards per game. Primarily a big-play run threat, Coleman also has contributed as a receiver (18 receptions, 164 yards) and as a kick returner.

Treyvon Green, Northwestern (Big Ten rushing rank: 9): Green has been a bright spot for an injury-plagued and inconsistent Wildcats offense this season. Top back Venric Mark has played only one full game because of injuries, but Green has filled the void with 612 rush yards and eight touchdowns on only 95 carries. Green has three 100-yard rushing efforts, including last Saturday at Nebraska, where he gashed the Huskers for 149 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries.

Jeremy Langford, Michigan State (Big Ten rushing rank: 6): The Spartans entered the season with a pretty desperate situation at running back. They had moved backup middle linebacker Riley Bullough to the position in spring practice, and seemed likely to use several true freshmen at the position. But Langford took charge Oct. 12 against Indiana, racking up 109 rush yards and three touchdowns. He has eclipsed 100 yards on the ground in each of the past four games, scoring six touchdowns during the span. Along with quarterback Connor Cook and an improved offensive line, Langford is a big reason for the offense's turnaround.

Now it's time to vote. Let us know who is the Big Ten's surprise back.
On occasion Saturday night, Ohio State lined up with quarterback Braxton Miller in the shotgun, flanked by running back Carlos Hyde and receiver Dontre Wilson.

If you're a defensive coordinator, that might qualify as a special kind of torture. Think of all the possibilities with that trio. There's Hyde, the 235-pound power back who at times couldn't be tackled by Wisconsin. There's Wilson, still just a freshman but already one of the fastest players in the Big Ten who's fulfilling the Percy Harvin role for Urban Meyer's offense. Then of course there's Miller, who can beat you with his arms or his legs.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsCarlos Hyde's full-time return added another dimension to an already diverse Ohio State offense.
That particular offensive grouping didn't create a ton of damage in the Buckeyes' 31-24 victory. But it showed that, like sideline observer LeBron James, Ohio State now can do a little bit of everything now when it has the ball.

In fact, Meyer's biggest lament about the offense after Saturday's game was that he couldn't find playing time for Jordan Hall and Kenny Guiton. Hall, who leads the team with 427 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, got one carry against the Badgers. Guiton -- who leads the Big Ten in passing touchdowns with 13 -- never saw the field.

Miller quickly showed why the "debate" over whether he or Guiton should start was always silly, because he simply can do so many more things. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman said Monday that Miller still made some mental mistakes and needs to do a better job scrambling straight up the field. But Herman praised Miller's back-shoulder throw to Devin Smith for a touchdown, and Ohio State has now incorporated a vertical passing game to go along with its strong rushing attack. Receivers Smith, Corey "Philly" Brown and Evan Spencer are drawing praise not scorn from Meyer these days, and the trio has combined for 13 touchdown catches.

"They use their weapons well at every position," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said Monday. "They can get the ball to anybody, and they can score on any given play."

Fitzgerald should know exactly what that looks like, because he has built the same thing with his team. In fact, when Northwestern hosts Ohio State on Saturday night in Evanston, we will see arguably the two most versatile offenses in the Big Ten.

The Wildcats, of course, employ a two-quarterback system with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, the former excelling as a runner and the latter serving as something like a designated passer. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall can use the option game with Colter or spread the field with Siemian and a deep group of wide receivers. The two quarterbacks are completing 69.8 percent of their passes.

In fact, Northwestern is fourth in the Big Ten in both passing and rushing yards, the only team to rank in the top four in each of those categories. The Wildcats have accomplished that almost entirely without star tailback Venric Mark, who has dealt with an unspecified lower body injury all season. But Mark, who ran for 1,371 and was an All-American punt returner last season, is listed as a co-starter on the team's depth chart this week.

Fitzgerald said Monday that if Mark gets through practice without issue, "we will have him in some capacity" on Saturday. Treyvon Green (404 rushing yards, five touchdowns) has filled in nicely for Mark and brings a bit more power, but Northwestern's offense takes on a different dimension with Mark's speed, especially when paired with Colter.

Northwestern will likely need every available weapon against Ohio State, which managed to shut down Wisconsin's running game on Saturday while allowing some big plays through the air.

All coaches talk about being "multiple" on offense, but the Wildcats and Buckeyes truly embody that this season. Nebraska can also do just about everything, though the Huskers' offense sputtered against UCLA, while Penn State can keep defenses guessing with many formations and plays. Just about everybody else in the league is looking for a consistent passing game (Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin), a dependable running attack (Indiana, Illinois) or both (Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue).

Ohio State and Northwestern both have inexhaustible options on offense. The trick will be finding which ones work best on Saturday night.

3-point-stance: Next men up

September, 19, 2013
9/19/13
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1. My All-Wally-Pipped offense is shaping up: Braxton Miller of Ohio State and Tre Roberson of Indiana at quarterback, Venric Mark of Northwestern at tailback, Colt Lyerla of Oregon at tight end. ... Do I believe Miller won’t get his job back from Kenny Guiton? No. But once Ducks freshman Johnny Mundt caught two touchdowns against Tennessee, it made me think of Guiton and Hoosiers quarterback Nate Sudfeld and Wildcats tailback Treyvon Green. I just need a few linemen, a couple of receivers ...

2. Since the beginning of last season, the Pac-12 has three of the top four defenses in sacks when sending four or fewer rushers. Stanford has 45, South Carolina has 39, USC 36 and UCLA 35 (thanks, ESPN Stats & Info). Can anyone in the Pac-12 block? Maybe not. Stanford guard David Yankey made consensus All-American in 2012, and Oregon guard Kyle Long went in the first round of the NFL Draft. But he was the only Pac-12 offensive lineman taken in the first three rounds. Only one Pac-12 tackle was drafted, and only five O-linemen overall.

3. Then there's Duke offensive tackle Perry Simmons, a fifth-year senior, who will make his 40th consecutive start Saturday when the Blue Devils play Pittsburgh. Last week against Georgia Tech, Simmons played his 3,000th collegiate snap. "Think about that for a second," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said this week. "That is an amazing stat." Not only has Simmons played well -- last season the Blue Devils allowed only one sack for every 29 pass attempts -- but he has a 3.8 GPA in civil engineering, with an emphasis in architecture. At Duke.
The debate is over, at least for now. Ohio State affirmed itself as the Big Ten's top team by putting on an offensive show against Cal, despite missing its top quarterback and top running back.

There's more doubt about whether Michigan or Northwestern is No. 2 after the Wolverines' surprising struggles Saturday against Akron. For now, we have Michigan ahead by a nose hair, thanks to its win against Notre Dame.

Wisconsin might have moved up to the No. 2 line if the officials had given the Badgers a chance to win the game against Arizona State. We like most of what we saw from Gary Andersen's crew on Saturday night. The same can't be said for Nebraska, which takes a tumble after folding the tent against UCLA, and Penn State, which caved defensively against UCF.

Week 3 was mostly rough for the Big Ten, but it had some bright spots. Michigan State found a quarterback, Indiana regained its footing on defense, and Iowa impressed on the ground against Iowa State.

There's not much separation in the league's bottom half, but as we noted Sunday, the Big Ten might not have a truly bad team.

Here's one last look at last week's rankings.

Now, let's get to the rundown ...

1. Ohio State (3-0, last week: 1): It'll take more than injuries and suspensions to slow down the Buckeyes' potent offense. Quarterback Braxton Miller didn't suit up against Cal, but backup Kenny Guiton once again stepped up with 276 pass yards and four touchdowns, to go along with 92 rush yards. Running back Jordan Hall (168 rush yards, 3 TDs) continued his brilliance filling in for the injured Carlos Hyde, who returns this week against Florida A&M.

2. Michigan (3-0, last week: 2): A week after looking like arguably the Big Ten's best team, Michigan backslid with a mistake-ridden performance against Akron. Brady Hoke's crew emerged with a win but also plenty of questions on both sides of the ball. As good as Devin Gardner has looked at times, the first-year starting quarterback must take better care of the football. Michigan also must patch up a vulnerable defense before Big Ten play.

3. Northwestern (3-0, last week: 3): Take away a lackluster first quarter against Western Michigan, and the Wildcats looked impressive on their home field. The offense clearly has improved despite the continued absence of star running back Venric Mark, as stand-in Treyvon Green (158 rush yards, 2 TDs) looks more than capable. Northwestern's defense remains too leaky but covers up yards with takeaways. The Wildcats have positioned themselves well for an Oct. 5 showdown with Ohio State.

4. Wisconsin (2-1, last week: 4): What is there left to say about the Arizona State ending? Wisconsin was far from perfect Saturday night, struggling to protect Joel Stave or stop back-shoulder throws from Arizona State's Taylor Kelly. But the Badgers fought hard in all three phases and received another huge boost from sophomore running back Melvin Gordon. They deserved better. It'll be interesting to see how they bounce back in the Big Ten opener against Purdue.

5. Michigan State (3-0, last week: 8): Look, an offense! And a quarterback! The Spartans finally start moving in the right direction in the rankings after a scoring explosion against Youngstown State. Connor Cook solidified himself as the team's starting quarterback with four touchdown passes and no interceptions, as Michigan State scored 35 first-half points. Sure, it's Youngstown State, but Michigan State needed a starting point on offense. It has one before a tough test at Notre Dame.

6. Nebraska (2-1, last week: 4): The collapses are no longer surprising because they seem to happen so often for Bo Pelini's teams. Sure, Nebraska normally keeps it together at home, and Saturday's third quarter was one of the worst in team history. But this is who these Huskers are under Pelini, a fragile team prone to blowout losses in big games. Nebraska falls off the national radar for a while but still could contend in the mediocre Big Ten.

7. Minnesota (3-0, last week: 7): It was a rough Saturday for the Gophers, who lost starting quarterback Philip Nelson to a hamstring injury and head coach Jerry Kill to another seizure. Minnesota also had a slow start against FCS Western Illinois until the offense caught fire in the fourth quarter behind running back David Cobb and backup quarterback Mitch Leidner, who was efficient in relief of Nelson. The Gophers face a test this week as San Jose State comes to town.

8. Penn State (2-1, last week: 6): It'll be a long week for defensive coordinator John Butler and a unit that surrendered 507 yards in the loss to UCF and had no answers for Knights quarterback Blake Bortles. After a final non-league tuneup against Kent State, Penn State opens Big Ten play against four potent offenses: Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois. Wide receiver Allen Robinson is a beast, but Penn State needs more balance.

9. Indiana (2-1, last week: 10): The Hoosiers forced a punt against Bowling Green, and they did much, much more in one of their better defensive performances in recent memory. Bowling Green didn't score an offensive touchdown as defensive end Nick Mangieri and the Hoosiers bent but didn't break. Indiana had more than enough offense from quarterback Nate Sudfeld (335 pass yards, 2 TDs) and running backs Tevin Coleman (129 rush yards, 2 TDs) and Stephen Houston (155 rush yards), pulling away for an impressive win.

10. Illinois (2-1, last week: 9): Missed scoring opportunities in the first half doomed Illinois in the final 30 minutes against Washington, which repeatedly gashed a young Illini defense. But Illinois showed plenty of fight, even in the fourth quarter when the outcome seemed decided. Illinois has playmakers on both sides of the ball -- QB Nathan Scheelhaase, RB/WR Josh Ferguson, WR Ryan Lankford, LB Jonathan Brown -- and could surprise some Big Ten teams.

11. Iowa (2-1, last week: 11): There's an argument that Iowa should handle Iowa State rather easily, which is what happened Saturday in Ames. But Iowa hasn't handled the Cyclones nearly as often as they should, which is what made Saturday's performance so important. The Hawkeyes needed to win this one to generate some positive vibes, and thanks to a Mark Weisman-led run game and a solid defense, they got it done.

12. Purdue (1-2, last week: 12): The Boilers remain at the bottom, but we feel a lot better about them after the Notre Dame game. Quarterback Rob Henry and the offense looked more comfortable, and the defense contained the Irish run attack. There were still too many mistakes down the stretch, but coach Darrell Hazell can build on this. The problem is the schedule simply doesn't let up, as Purdue visits Wisconsin this week.
After several mostly speculative versions of the Big Ten power rankings, we finally had a chance to evaluate these teams in games. The Week 1 competition mostly wasn't great, and the Big Ten's overall performance left something to be desired. We'll learn a lot more about most of these teams in the coming weeks.

We try to keep these rankings consistent with our ESPN.com national power rankings, so Ohio State remains No. 1, ahead of Michigan, even though the Wolverines looked more impressive against their MAC opponent than Ohio State did. But a Michigan win against Notre Dame this week could change things.

Wisconsin and Nebraska trade places in the rankings, and so do Penn State and Michigan State.

Here's one last look at the preseason power rankings.

Let's get to the rundown ...

1. Ohio State (1-0, preseason: 1): The Buckeyes had a flawless record in 2012, but they were a flawed team. They still are, and they showed some warts during the final three quarters of a 40-20 win against a plucky Buffalo squad. Quarterback Braxton Miller has improved and has a much better supporting cast, including running back Jordan Hall, but the Buckeyes need to take better care of the ball. A soft schedule should give Ohio State's young defense time to develop.

2. Michigan (1-0, preseason: 2): This year's opener went just a tad better than last year's for Brady Hoke's Wolverines. Michigan made big plays in all three phases and received contributions from many different players, delivering the most impressive debut in the league. Quarterback Devin Gardner (162 pass yards, 52 rush yards, three total touchdowns, two interceptions) can build off of this performance before facing a talented Notre Dame defense under the lights next week.

3. Northwestern (1-0, preseason: 3): The Wildcats remain in the three hole but solidified themselves after a resilient performance on the road against Cal. They played most of the game without their dynamic backfield of quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark, which fundamentally changed the offense. Thanks to unlikely heroes such as linebacker Collin Ellis and running back Treyvon Green, Northwestern remained perfect in openers under Pat Fitzgerald. Up next, Syracuse.

4. Wisconsin (1-0, preseason: 5): Fortunately, Wisconsin's next three openers (LSU twice, Alabama) will provide a lot more clues about the Badgers than Saturday's laugher against FBS bottom-feeder UMass. But you play the team across the field, and to Wisconsin's credit, it completely dismantled the Minutemen on both sides of the ball. The three-headed rushing attack of James White, Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement sparkled, combining for 388 yards and three touchdowns on 40 carries.

5. Nebraska (1-0, preseason: 4): The concerns about Nebraska's young defense weren't merely confirmed in the opener against Wyoming. They grew. Nebraska surrendered 35 first downs and 602 yards and nearly blew a 16-point fourth-quarter lead before surviving 37-34. Coach Bo Pelini didn't sound too discouraged Monday, but defensive coordinator John Papuchis said the defense has "nowhere to go but up." Nebraska needs a crisper performance this week against Southern Miss.

6. Penn State (1-0, preseason: 7): Like Northwestern, Penn State fought through some adversity to beat another major-conference team away from its home stadium. Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg backed up the hype for the most part, and tackle DaQuan Jones and safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong sparked the defense. The Lions must get better on third down (1-of-15) before Central Florida comes to town in Week 3.

7. Michigan State (1-0, preseason: 6): As dominant as the Spartan Dawgs were against Western Michigan -- and could be the entire season -- the big concern here is an offense that appears to have regressed, if that's even possible. The quarterbacks remain the focus, but Michigan State isn't getting enough from any part of its offense. If things don't change, expect another season of games that can go either way. MSU has a chance to get well this week against slumping South Florida.

8. Minnesota (1-0, preseason: 8): Credit defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and the Gophers for making big plays in all three phases in their opener against UNLV. But the 51-23 final score masked some of the issues Jerry Kill's team must address before the competition level improves. Minnesota needs a more physical effort from its offensive line, and it has to get off the field on defense after allowing UNLV to go 4-for-4 on fourth down. The Gophers need to clean things up this week on the road against New Mexico State.

9. Indiana (1-0, preseason: 9): A loaded Hoosiers offense set a Memorial Stadium record with 73 points against Indiana State, and Indiana has multiple weapons at quarterback, running back and wide receiver. But we've seen big offense from Indiana before. Can the Hoosiers' defense improve enough to boost the win total to bowl eligibility? IU's discipline will be tested this week against Navy's tricky triple-option offense.

10. Iowa (0-1, preseason: 11): Yes, the Hawkeyes actually move up a spot despite a loss (it has more to do with Purdue's plunge). Iowa in some ways looked like a better team against Northern Illinois, surviving a sluggish start to take control behind quarterback Jake Rudock, linebacker Christian Kirksey and a physical defense. But breakdowns on both sides of the ball doomed Iowa down the stretch, and Rudock's interception led to NIU's game-winning field goal. Iowa really needed a win and must regroup this week against Missouri State.

11. Illinois (1-0, preseason: 12): Senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase looks much more comfortable in Bill Cubit's offense and threw for a career-high 416 yards and two touchdowns against Southern Illinois. That's the good news. Illinois still has many areas to fix, especially on defense after nearly blowing a 22-point third-quarter lead. We'll learn a lot more about this team the next two weeks against Cincinnati and Washington.

12. Purdue (0-1, preseason: 10): What a mess. Nothing went right for the Boilers in coach Darrell Hazell's debut. The defense couldn't get off of the field on third down or fourth down. Rob Henry struggled and the offense committed three turnovers. Aside from a Cincinnati special-teams blunder, Saturday was a nightmare for the Boilers, who fell 42-7. Fortunately, Indiana State is next, but there's a lot of work to do.
Northwestern's offense has been rooted in the same philosophy -- players, formations, plays -- since coordinator Mick McCall arrived in 2008. McCall shapes his scheme around the players first before choosing formations and plays that maximize their skills.

In the first four seasons under McCall, most of the players ended up being wide receivers and quarterbacks. Most of Northwestern's formations highlighted the wideouts and most of the plays were passes. Northwestern's offense had a clear passing lean, especially in 2009, when the Wildcats ranked 13th nationally in pass offense. The Wildcats didn't neglect the ground game, but when it came time to identify the best players, the running backs didn't make the cut.

[+] EnlargeNorthwestern's Venric Mark
Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY SportsLast season Venric Mark became the first Northwestern running back to eclipse 1,000 yards in a season since Tyrell Sutton in 2006.
"There's been some times in the past at Northwestern in the running back room where there was one guy, and that was it," Matt MacPherson, the team's running backs coach since 2006, told ESPN.com.

MacPherson clearly has his one guy in senior Venric Mark, who earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2012 after rushing for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns. Mark, who earned All-America honors as a return man, was Northwestern's first 1,000-yard rusher since Tyrell Sutton in 2006.

But MacPherson thinks Northwestern's options in the backfield go beyond Mark.

"I feel like we have four or five guys in my room right now that we can go win Big Ten football games with," MacPherson said. "That gives you a lot of flexibility, and it allows you to do a lot of different things. I came out of spring very pleased with the way they performed."

Mark remains the undisputed starter and will get the lion's share of the carries in the fall. He sat out most live-tackling drills this spring as a precaution, which allowed the other backs -- Mike Trumpy, Treyvon Green, Stephen Buckley and Malin Jones -- to get more reps.

Trumpy racked up 349 yards and three touchdowns on 76 carries as Mark's primary backup in 2012. Green endured a tough season with injuries and personal issues but bounced back and "had a great spring," MacPherson said. Both Buckley and Jones redshirted in 2012 but likely worked their way into the carries rotation with good springs.

"Our running back room has gotten deeper," McCall said. "We've got some guys that can play in a lot of different situations there. We've continually gotten better in that room."

Northwestern made a noticeable shift toward the run last fall behind Mark and dual-threat quarterback Kain Colter. After finishing no better than 45th nationally in rushing in McCall's first four seasons as coordinator, Northwestern surged to 19th nationally last year (225.4 ypg).

The rushing focus should continue as long as more running backs meet the first principle of McCall's philosophy. MacPherson thinks they will, and Northwestern might go with a two-back formation, which it used for 10-12 plays per game in 2012, more often this season.

"In my room, those eyes light up when they know we're going to start running the ball a bunch," MacPherson said, "and we're going to have two running backs on the field at the same time. That's something for them to get excited about. That just gives another aspect of competition, knowing that, OK, Venric may be the guy, but when we get into the two-back set, who's going to be the other guy?"

It's a question MacPherson is glad to be asking.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern running back Venric Mark stands just 5-foot-8 and weighs only 171 pounds, but he has a nose tackle-sized chip on his shoulder.

It's why his favorite run play is the inside zone. It's why he often gets in the face of defenders half a foot taller after between-the-tackles runs. It's why he runs to contact rather than away from it, like many backs his size.

"There's no question on Venric's toughness," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "He's a tough, tough guy."

But is he a durable Big Ten running back? Mark suffered some minor injuries during the second half of the 2012 season, in which he rushed for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns and led the Big Ten with 2,171 all-purpose yards.

[+] EnlargeVenric Mark
AP Photo/Matt QuinnanNorthwestern running back Venric Mark led the Big Ten with 2,171 all-purpose yards last season.
Although Mark started all 13 games at running back for the Wildcats, he got banged up against Boston College, Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State and eclipsed 18 carries just once in the final six games. Some question whether Mark -- with his size and style of play -- is built to last, even though he tied for fourth in the Big Ten in carries (226) last fall.

Mark greets the durability doubts much like he does those bigger, seemingly badder defenders -- head on.

"They're always talking about, 'Is he durable? Is he durable?'" Mark told ESPN.com. "That was my first year playing running back. People see that I played my freshman and sophomore year. Yeah, but I wasn't an every-down back. So this year, I know what to expect from myself, being my last year, and everybody's going to say, 'Can he last? Can he last?'

"I'm going to let them do their job and talk. I'm just going to play."

He also won't forget what has been said or written.

"It gets on my nerves," he said.

Mark also isn't na´ve about the wear and tear his body will take this coming season. Just because he has been through a season as a No. 1 back doesn't mean he'll last through another. And he can't do a whole lot about his size. This winter, he has gained seven pounds to check in at 171 after losing some weight because of injury during the season. He hopes to play this season around 175 pounds.

To prepare himself for the pounding, Mark has been running and cutting with a 20-pound weight vest. Mark wants to emulate how Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter uses his vision to scan the field while still keeping his shoulders square when running between the tackles.

"For instance, if Kain and I, we're running 2-Knife, and I'm running inside zone, and a defender sticks his arm to turn me, [the vest] will help me keep my shoulders square," said Mark, a second-team All-Big Ten selection at running back and an All-American at punt returner. "That way, if a linebacker comes to my right or left, I can plant and still cut instead of running like this [shows his shoulders turning] where I can't make that move."

Mark also talks about the need to play smarter.

"Instead of trying to always run over people, at my size, I need to dip and drive, I need to sometimes cut back, juke," Mark said. "That will help me last longer, of course."

Mark averaged 17.4 carries per game in 2012 and had 20 carries or more just four times. He said 16 carries is the "minimum, minimum" amount he'd like to have in 2013 and would "prefer to get close to 20."

Wildcats offensive coordinator Mick McCall puts a greater value on overall touches than carries. This especially applies to a player like Mark, who averaged 18.7 yards on punt returns with two touchdowns, also serves as Northwestern's primary kick returner and had 20 receptions last season. And McCall doesn't just look at total touches, but what types of plays are being run.

"If it's inside zone 16 or 17 times, that might be a little high for Venric," McCall said. "If it's 20-25 touches but half of those are out in space, that's not bad. So we've got to manage him, how many touches he gets but more so, where he touches the ball.

"Some of it's got to be inside, there's no doubt. He does a great job in there. And as much as you want to manage it, he's still going to get dinged up. If he was a 225-pound back, look at the big backs from a year ago in our conference, they still get dinged up. That's part of that position."

McCall fully expects to play multiple running backs and multiple quarterbacks every year. And he has been pleased with the emerging depth this spring at running back with senior Mike Trumpy, junior Treyvon Green, and redshirt freshmen Malin Jones and Stephen Buckley.

But Northwestern's coaches have no doubts about their No. 1 back. And Mark expects to prove he's built to last this fall.

"He took some hits last year that he didn't need to take," Fitzgerald said. "It was similar to a quarterback going through his first year. V learned a lot on how he's got to take care of his body. The next step is just being smarter.

"He doesn't need to prove his toughness to anybody. That's always been his trademark."
EVANSTON, Ill. -- My Big Ten spring practice tour continues today at Northwestern, where I'm spending the day after making the short drive up Ridge Road. I watched most of Northwestern's morning practice -- the team's first full-pads workout since spring break -- and visited with head coach Pat Fitzgerald, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz and several players afterward.

The big moment in practice came when wide receiver Kyle Prater, Northwestern's coveted transfer from USC, caught a pass from Kain Colter before absorbing a massive hit from safety Jimmy Hall. Prater held onto the ball but spent several moments on the ground. Fortunately for the Wildcats, he only had the wind knocked out of him -- and some vomit -- but returned moments later and caught several more passes. Fitzgerald noted that Thursday marked just Prater's third practice with Northwestern and his first in full pads for quite some time, as injuries slowed him down during his two years at USC.

As Prater walked back to the huddle, Fitzgerald high-fived him and yelled, "Welcome back!"

"Kyle got welcomed to the Big Ten today," Wildcats linebacker David Nwabuisi said.

Should Prater become eligible for the 2012 season -- Northwestern has applied for an NCAA waiver -- he'll add to what might be the Big Ten's best receiving corps. The Wildcats are loaded at receiver with holdovers like Christian Jones, Demetrius Fields and Rashad Lawrence, along with the return of speedster Tony Jones and redshirt freshman Cameron Dickerson, who made several impressive catches Thursday.

The depth at receiver should help Colter, who split time between quarterback and receiver in 2011 but is practicing exclusively at quarterback this spring. Fitzgerald told me Colter would be his starter if the season began now, and he has been pleased with the junior's development. Colter, who has put on a bit of weight and checks in at 195 pounds, told me he worked on shoulder strengthening throughout the winter to improve his arm strength. Running back Treyvon Green has stood out for the offense and made some nice moves Thursday in practice.

There are more question marks on a young defense that struggled mightily in 2011. The unit had a few breakdowns Thursday, but there were some nice plays in the secondary, including an interception by redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose, who is right in the mix for a starting job. VanHoose also had a pass breakup during team drills, and safety Davion Fleming had a nice hit on Lawrence. Hankwitz said the mix of youth and older players on defense reminds him a bit of the 2008 team, which had the best defense during Fitzgerald's tenure.

I'll have more on the Wildcats later today and Friday, so stay tuned.
Adonis Smith's decision to transfer from Northwestern might not mean much come September.

But his exit adds to the questions surrounding a position that hasn't provided enough definitive answers in the past few seasons.

Smith appeared in 17 games the past two seasons, racking up 462 rush yards and three touchdowns. He might have evolved into the Wildcats' featured back, but he also might have been a career backup. It's tough to tell. Coach Pat Fitzgerald announced Smith's departure Wednesday.
[+] EnlargeAdonis Smith
Jerry Lai/US PRESSWIRERunning back Adonis Smith has decided to transfer from Northwestern.
"We're disappointed to see Adonis leave Northwestern," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "He is an outstanding young man and we wish him nothing but the best in his future endeavors."

Wildcats fans will forget about Smith if, say, Mike Trumpy returns from a torn ACL and surges as the starter. Or if true freshman Malin Jones emerges in preseason camp. Or if Treyvon Green builds on a freshman season in which he rushed for 362 yards and four touchdowns.

But if Northwestern can't identify a featured back and fails to generate a consistent rushing attack in 2012, Smith's name likely will be brought up.

While a struggling defense should be coach Pat Fitzgerald's top priority in the offseason, running back shouldn't be too far down his checklist. Northwestern's offense has made strides under Fitzgerald's watch, producing a steady stream of quarterbacks and wide receivers in recent years. But the running back position, once a program strong point, has declined.

Fitzgerald's predecessor at Northwestern, the late Randy Walker, left an indelible mark on the position he played in college. Walker had a 1,000-yard rusher in 25 of his 30 seasons in coaching, including each of his final four seasons as Northwestern's head coach (2002-05). Northwestern produced a 1,000-yard rusher in five of Walker's final six seasons.

But since Tyrell Sutton finished with exactly 1,000 yards in 2006, Fitzgerald's first season as Wildcats coach, Northwestern has failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher.

Here are the team's leading rushers the past five seasons:

  • 2007: Sutton, 451 yards
  • 2008: Sutton, 890 yards
  • 2009: Arby Fields, 302 yards
  • 2010: Trumpy, 530 yards
  • 2011: Kain Colter, 654 yards

Colter, by the way, plays quarterback for the Wildcats. Fields transferred following a disappointing 2010 season when he struggled to hang onto the ball or a favorable spot on the depth chart.

Why can't Northwestern produce featured backs anymore? An offense rooted in high-percentage passes and accurate quarterbacks has something to do with it. But the Wildcats have run the spread since 2000, and it didn't stop them from producing standout backs under Walker.

Northwestern has run the ball better as a team the past two seasons, rising from 95th nationally in rushing in 2009 to 58th in 2010 and 45th in 2011. But the team had a league-low 3.8 yards-per-carry average last fall.

Jones, the team's first commit in the 2012 recruiting class, could be the answer, much like Sutton was in 2005, when he captured Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. Perhaps Trumpy bounces back from injury or Green takes steps in his development. Maybe a committee system is the best approach.

If not, you might hear some grumbling about Adonis Smith in September.
Michigan State doesn't need to win today against Northwestern. The Spartans are going to the Big Ten title game regardless of the outcome.

But they would like to guarantee themselves a second straight 10-win season. Thanks to a couple of big momentum swings late in the first half, they're in position to do just that.

Northwestern was doing a great job moving the ball down the field in short chunks and converting manageable third downs late in the second quarter. A 15-play drive led the Wildcats inside the Michigan State 5. But Treyvon Green fumbled at the 3, and the Spartans capitalized with a 97-yard drive capped by a Le'Veon Bell touchdown run.

Then with 33 seconds left in the half, Keshawn Martin returned a punt 57 yards for a touchdown. Martin has been on fire for the Spartans in the last few weeks, and his 46-yard reception helped set up Bell's touchdown run. Bell is also running hard and has 70 rushing yards already. When Michigan State can run the ball effectively, it is very difficult to beat.

Northwestern has to be kicking itself at halftime in a game it could very easily be leading. Remember that the Spartans trailed 17-0 in last year's game and came back to win, so perhaps the Wildcats can turn the tables this year. But it's a rainy day in Evanston that may make the passing game a bit more tough to keep going for Dan Persa & Co. Persa has completed nine throws but only has 50 passing yards as Northwestern has looked to dink and dunk against the Michigan State defense. The Wildcats will need their own big plays in the second half, or the Spartans will take some major momentum into Indianapolis.
After a blistering start by Northwestern's offense, this game has settled down a bit as Minnesota regained momentum late in the half.

Northwestern looked unstoppable in the first quarter, scoring touchdowns on each of its first three possessions. Wildcats quarterback Dan Persa fired touchdown passes to Demetrius Fields and Kain Colter, and Treyvon Green added a touchdown run as Northwestern's offensive line dominated play. But Minnesota turned things around when safety Kim Royston intercepted a Persa pass early in the second quarter.

The Gophers' defense seemed to get Northwestern out of its rhythm a bit, and Northwestern failed to score in the second quarter despite having the wind at its back. Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray is struggling to throw the ball for the second straight week, although he has found some running room. Duane Bennett turned in a nice half for the Gophers with 34 rush yards on seven carries. If Gray can limit turnovers and Bennett continues to run the ball well, this could be a close one down the stretch. Northwestern's defense is settling down a bit, as cornerback Jordan Mabin had a nice pass breakup in the end zone.
Northwestern has made no secret about its intention to establish the run game this season.

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they will have to do so without their most talented running back.

Sophomore Mike Trumpy will miss the rest of the season after suffering a torn ACL in Saturday's loss to Illinois. Trumpy suffered the knee injury early in the third quarter and had to be carted off the field.

Although Jacob Schmidt and Trumpy have shared the starting job through the first five games, Trumpy has been Northwestern's most effective ball-carrier aside from quarterback Kain Colter. Trumpy leads Northwestern in yards per carry (5.2) and ranks second in both carries (35) and rushing yards (182).

The Wildcats will turn to Schmidt, sophomore Adonis Smith and freshman Treyvon Green at running back.

It will be interesting to see how Trumpy's absence affects the carries distribution, and more important, how it affects the run-pass balance.

Northwestern got some good news Monday as starting quarterback Dan Persa practiced. Coach Pat Fitzgerald expects Persa, who missed the end of the Illinois game after aggravating his Achilles tendon, to play this week against No. 12 Michigan.

Persa provides the passing threat Northwestern has lacked this season, and he fired four touchdown passes on only 14 attempts against Illinois. Expect the Wildcats to air it out more this week and utilize their weapons at receiver and tight end to test Michigan's secondary.

Northwestern recruiting analysis

February, 3, 2011
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NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS

The class

Recruits: 17 (all high school seniors, no players enrolled early)

Top prospects: The Wildcats added a heralded recruit to arguably their deepest position group in wide receiver Christian Jones, an ESPNU 150 selection from Spring, Texas. Northwestern also boosted both lines with offensive tackles Jack Konopka and Shane Mertz and defensive ends Max Chapman and Deonte Gibson. Zack Oliver could be the team's quarterback of the future.

Needs met: Northwestern's defensive line underachieved in 2010, and the team tried to address the need with players like Chapman, Gibson and C.J. Robbins. Running back has been a problematic position during coach Pat Fitzgerald's tenure and the team hopes Treyvon Green and/or Jordan Perkins can help rectify the situation. Despite recruiting well to the offensive line in recent years, Northwestern added four more trailblazers up front.

Analysis: Fitzgerald's fondness for redshirting freshmen results in smaller recruiting class, but the coach noted that this year's crop might be the deepest Northwestern has had in some time, and he could be right. The recruiting analysts like the top one-third to two-thirds of the class, and players like Jones, Green and superback Mark Szott could see the field early. If this class produces some productive defensive linemen and a potential answer at running back, it will labeled a success.

ESPN Recruiting grade: C

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