NCF Nation: Willie VanDeSteeg

D.L. Wilhite has been at Minnesota long enough to remember Willie VanDeSteeg.

Wilhite's first season with the Gophers, in 2008, was VanDeSteeg's last. Although Wilhite redshirted that fall, he worked alongside VanDeSteeg at practice, and VanDeSteeg took him under his wing. That season, VanDeSteeg recorded 10.5 sacks, tied for second in the league, and 19 tackles for loss en route to earning first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media.

But since VanDeSteeg's departure, Minnesota hasn't had a pass rusher close to his caliber. The team hasn't had a player record more than four sacks in each of the past three seasons. Minnesota's sacks leaders had just three sacks in both 2009 and 2010, while the late Gary Tinsley, a linebacker, led the team with four last year.

After finishing 24th nationally in sacks in 2008, largely thanks to VanDeSteeg, Minnesota slipped to 78th in 2009, 120th (last in FBS) in 2010 and 86th last season.

[+] EnlargeD.L. Wilhite
AP Photo/Cal Sport MediaD.L. Wilhite knows Minnesota's pass-rush has to help the young secondary.
"Coming up, Willie was my role model," Wilhite told ESPN.com. "He was the one I looked up to. When he left, I looked Willie in the eye and told him I was going to be better than him, and I feel like I haven't shown that up until this point."

Wilhite has one last chance to ensure his promise to VanDeSteeg. And what a boost he could provide to a defense sorely needing one from the front four in 2012.

He leads a group of young defensive ends who have made the pass rush their peak priority this spring. Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys is open to turning his linemen loose, but they have to show they can finish in the backfield.

Ben Perry, who started all 12 games as a redshirt freshman in 2011, feels the line is getting closer and points to the season finale against Illinois, where Minnesota recorded a season-high five sacks in a 27-7 victory. But the group needs to upgrade its fundamentals, which are being stressed this spring.

"We can't be taking inefficient moves," said Perry, who recorded 15 tackles and a sack last season. "We've got to keep our hips toward the quarterback, stay low and keep leverage. We do drills, making sure we stay under the chute and keeping not just our pad level low but our legs bent."

Minnesota's defensive linemen recognize the urgency to upgrade their play, not just for the team but in a league like the Big Ten. The Gophers return most of their linebackers and should be solid there, but they once again have question marks in the secondary after finishing 11th in the league and 107th nationally in pass defense in 2011.

"If we're getting pressure, it alleviates stress on a lot of different people," said Wilhite, who had three sacks and a forced fumble last season. "The DBs aren't having to cover as long, the linebackers aren't having to cover as long. We're not having to bring people to blitz, so we can drop more people off in coverage."

The team's declining pass rush is more pronounced in a league like the Big Ten, which regularly boasts four or five top 20 defenses. The league produces many more elite NFL draft prospects from the defensive line than from any other position.

"Year in and year out, the team that's going to win the Big Ten championship probably is going to have the best D-line," Wilhite said. "In the past years, Iowa's had great D-lines, Ohio State's had great D-lines. So if we want to win, it has to start with us."

Although Wilhite is a fifth-year senior with 20 starts the past two seasons, Minnesota remains fairly young at defensive end. Perry is a redshirt sophomore, while Michael Amaefula, a true sophomore, made four starts last fall. Thieren Cockran, who redshirted last fall, should be in the rotation this year.

Wilhite singled out Amaefula's play this spring, noting that they try to mimic each other's pass-rush moves. Perry also is showing more confidence on the practice field.

"You learn so much more in a game than you ever could in a practice, just stepping on that field each play," he said. "The experience, it's incomparable."

Wilhite's college experience won't be complete without a big senior season. As the leader of the defensive ends, he still plans to fulfill his pledge to VanDeSteeg, who attends one or two Minnesota games per season.

"I want to see him one more time," Wilhite said, "and be like, 'OK, Willie, you had 10 sacks your senior year, but I had 11.'"
National Signing Day is just about a week away, so let's take a look at the recruiting needs for each Big Ten team.

In compiling these lists, I tried to look at positions that have depth issues for 2011 and/or 2012.

Let's start off with the Legends division.

IOWA

Running back: Marcus Coker's breakout performance in the Insight Bowl got Iowa fans excited for the future, but there's still a significant depth issue here. If Adam Robinson can't get reinstated, the Hawkeyes will be looking for No. 2 and No. 3 options behind Coker. As we've seen the past two seasons, freshmen backs will see the field at Iowa.

Linebacker: Iowa felt the losses of Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds this season, and it must continue to rebuild the depth at the three linebacker spots. Multiyear starter Jeremiha Hunter departs along with players like Jeff Tarpinian and Troy Johnson. Iowa needs to build around rising star James Morris.

Wide receiver/tight end: Iowa loses Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Allen Reisner and Colin Sandeman this year. Also, receiver Marvin McNutt and tight end Brad Herman depart after the 2011 season. Although the Hawkeyes boast young talent at both positions, they need to build depth with this class.

MICHIGAN

Secondary: The Wolverines couldn't find many answers here in 2010, and though the return of players like cornerbacks Troy Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd will help, there are opportunities for freshmen to make an immediate impact. Michigan simply needs more options at both secondary spots in 2011.

Defensive line: It's crucial for coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison to begin building depth up front. Future NFL player Mike Martin departs after 2011 along with Ryan Van Bergen, so Michigan needs to solidify both line positions.

Kicker: Field goals were an adventure in 2010, and Michigan simply can't have so much uncertainty at kicker going forward. The Wolverines need a reliable leg here ASAP.

MICHIGAN STATE

Linebacker: I like some of the young linebackers the Spartans bring back in 2011, but you can't overlook the losses of multiyear starters Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, not to mention reserve Jon Misch. Michigan State should have a decent group of first-string 'backers, but wants to build depth in the defensive midsection.

Offensive line: Not only do the Spartans lose three starters from the 2010 line, but they're still not where they need to be depth-wise up front to become a consistent top-tier Big Ten program. Michigan State wants to become like Iowa and Wisconsin. The big step is to keep fortifying both lines, especially on the offensive side.

MINNESOTA

Pass rusher: Minnesota finished last in the Big Ten in sacks last season (9) and hasn't had an intimidating pass rusher since Willie VanDeSteeg in 2008. The recent departure of defensive tackle Jewhan Edwards, who led the team in both sacks and tackles for loss in 2009, underscores this need.

Offensive line: The Gophers lose three starters up front, and while they boast some promising young linemen like tackle Ed Olson, the depth just isn't there yet. Minnesota's best teams had powerful offensive lines, and new coach Jerry Kill must continue to create competition up front.

NEBRASKA

Running back: The Huskers lose standout Roy Helu Jr., and while Rex Burkhead quickly will become one of my favorite Big Ten players, he might not be an every-down back for Nebraska going forward. You always want options in the backfield, and Nebraska must continue to address its run game with the 2011 class.

Wide receiver: Nebraska loses Niles Paul and wants to identify playmakers to surround Taylor Martinez or whomever starts at quarterback. Brandon Kinnie departs after the 2011 season, and while Burkhead helps in the receiving department, Nebraska needs others to emerge.

NORTHWESTERN

Running back: Although Mike Trumpy and Adonis Smith emerged as possible answers late in the 2010 season, Northwestern needs to create real competition here. The Wildcats have lacked a dominant back during the Pat Fitzgerald era and need a dangerous rushing option to complement Dan Persa.

Defensive line: The Wildcats lose only one starter (Corbin Bryant) from the 2010 squad, but four more rotation players (Vince Browne, Jack DiNardo, Kevin Watt and Niko Mafuli) depart after 2011. Fortifying the pass rush is a major priority going forward.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

CHICAGO -- Minnesota defensive tackle Garrett Brown isn't the type to back away from change. 

He grew up playing hockey and lacrosse, spending 10 years on the ice and eight on the lax field. When Brown started high school in Fairfield, Conn., he seemed intent on pursuing one of those sports in college.   

 
  Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
  Garrett Brown is playing for his fourth defensive coordinator in as many seasons.

"That definitely changed quickly once I found out what a cheeseburger and weights were," Brown said. 

Brown went through a major growth spurt between his freshman and sophomore years, sprouting four inches and adding 50 pounds. He entered high school as a 230-pound freshman but checked in around 280 as a sophomore.

"I became a D-lineman really quickly," he said. 

Brown didn't start playing football until his sophomore year but took little time to adjust. He immediately earned a starting job on the varsity squad and played both ways as a left tackle and a defensive tackle.  

Though he didn't put down his hockey skates and continued to compete as a center and a defenseman, his focus gradually shifted more toward the gridiron.

"I've always been a contact sport kind of guy," Brown said. "This is as contact as you get, unless it's rugby. So I immediately was drawn to the game. Football's definitely my sport now."

Brown's keen ability to acclimate has been tested at Minnesota, where last fall he turned in a strong season with 34 tackles, seven stops for loss, three sacks, three pass breakups, a forced fumble and three fumble recoveries. The 6-foot-2, 310-pound senior will be playing for his fourth defensive coordinator in as many years as Big Ten veteran Kevin Cosgrove takes over in Minneapolis this season.

The Gophers' defense made strides last year under Ted Roof, improving 39 spots in the national rankings after setting team records for futility in 2007. But Roof left for Auburn in January and head coach Tim Brewster brought in Cosgrove, who had success at Wisconsin in the late 1990s. 

The front four loses rush end Willie VanDeSteeg but returns an experienced tackles tandem in Brown and Eric Small. 

"Coach Cosgrove has put a system in that is very, very simplified and lets us play fast," Brown said. "I'm used to that transition of, 'OK, now I have to learn a new system.' I think I learned the system in a week and a half."

There's no doubt Brown is a quick study, a trait that will come in handy as he goes through another transition after his playing days. He wants to become a sports agent and plans to enroll in law school when he's through on the field. 

"I pick up most things pretty quickly," he said. "That's just the way I am."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
  Scott A. Miller/US Presswire
  Iowa running back Shonn Greene's production will not be easy to replace.

As we continue to preview Big Ten spring football, which begins March 14 at Michigan, it's time to look at five key replacements around the conference.

The Big Ten took the biggest hit at running back with the departures of Shonn Greene, Javon Ringer, Chris "Beanie" Wells, P.J. Hill, Tyrell Sutton and Kory Sheets, among others. There also were key losses on both lines (Mitch King, A.Q. Shipley, Aaron Maybin, Willie VanDeSteeg) and in the secondary (Malcolm Jenkins, Vontae Davis, Otis Wiley), though the quarterback crop returns mostly intact.

The league's lone head-coaching change was pre-planned, as Danny Hope takes over for Joe Tiller at Purdue. But several key assistants depart the league, creating some holes to fill.

Here's a look at five sets of shoes to fill before Sept. 5.

Big shoes: Iowa running back Shonn Greene

The replacement: Sophomore Jewel Hampton

All Greene did last fall was win the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top back, set Iowa's single-season rushing record (1,850 yards) and eclipse 100 yards in all 13 games. As the team switched quarterbacks, identified playmakers at wide receiver and jelled up front, Greene was the constant. Hampton earned high marks as Greene's backup, rushing for 463 yards and seven touchdowns as a true freshman, but he'll take on a much bigger load this fall. The 5-9, 200-pound Hampton lacks Greene's brute strength and size, but he provides a different look for an Iowa offense that will always be based around the run game.

Big shoes: Penn State center A.Q. Shipley

The replacement: Junior Stefen Wisniewski

The defending Big Ten co-champs lose the undisputed leader of the league's best offensive line in Shipley, who won the Rimington Trophy as the nation's top center last year. Wisniewski started at guard in 2008, but he's expected to shift to center and replace Shipley in the heart of the Lions' line. Expectations will be high for Wisniewski, a talented junior whose father and uncle both were star offensive linemen for Penn State.

Big shoes: Michigan State running back Javon Ringer

The replacement(s): Senior A.J. Jimmerson, sophomores Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett, freshmen Edwin Baker and Larry Caper

No running back in the country had a heavier load than Ringer last fall. He led the nation with 390 carries and tied for the national lead with 22 rushing touchdowns. Michigan State benefited from his tremendous durability, but the coaches didn't develop a reliable backup. The competition to replace Ringer features several young players, including two heralded incoming freshmen. The Spartans could use more of a committee system in 2009, blending speed (Anderson, Caper, Baker, Jimmerson) with size (Leggett). The freshmen should help the situation, but head coach Mark Dantonio wouldn't mind if Anderson, Jimmerson or Leggett emerged in spring ball.

Big shoes: Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley

The replacement: Mike Schultz

Not only was Locksley one of the best recruiters in the country, but he had a strong bond with quarterback Juice Williams, wide receiver Arrelious Benn and other key members of the Illinois offense. Despite a very disappointing 5-7 season, Illinois still led the Big Ten in passing and ranked second in total offense. Schultz comes from a program (TCU) known for defense, but his system produced several standout quarterbacks and running backs. He needs to gain Williams' trust right away and maintain the explosiveness Illinois featured at times last season. There also will be pressure for Schultz to bring in top high school players from Texas and other areas.

Big shoes: Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins

The replacement: Sophomore Chimdi Chekwa

Some will point to the oft-injured Wells or hyped linebacker James Laurinaitis as Ohio State's biggest losses, but Jenkins was the team's most consistent performer the last two seasons. Shutdown corners don't come around very often, and Jenkins' play-making skills helped him win the Thorpe Award last year. Chekwa beat out Donald Washington for a starting job in 2008 but will take on a greater load this fall as he'll be assigned to mark top opposing wideouts. He had an interception and four pass breakups last year.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
 Jon Lemoine/US Presswire
 Minnesota wideout Eric Decker had a big night with 149 receiving yards but the Gophers did not have enough offense to counter Kansas.

The first eight games showed how far Minnesota has come from its 1-11 disaster in 2007.

The last five games showed how far the Golden Gophers still need to go.

Minnesota's 42-21 loss to Kansas in the Insight Bowl capped a five-game slide to close a season that began with so much promise. This looked like a mismatch heading in, and unfortunately for the Gophers, it was. A seasoned Kansas team led by do-it-all quarterback Todd Reesing overwhelmed Tim Brewster's squad.

To have any shot at an upset, Minnesota's defense had to force turnovers, something it did better than any Big Ten team this season. Either the defensive line or the secondary needed to disrupt Reesing's rhythm, and both units could not get it done. Jayhawks wideout Dezmon Briscoe torced the Gophers for 201 receiving yards and three touchdowns, and teammate Kerry Meier added 113 receiving yards and a touchdown. Meier also threw a touchdown to Briscoe.

First-year Gophers defensive coordinator Ted Roof did a nice job with a revamped unit for two-thirds of the season, but Minnesota (7-6) looked more like last year's defense down the stretch, allowing 97 points in the final two games. Though rush end Willie VanDeSteeg is a key loss, most of the defense returns for 2009 and should be improved.

As expected, Minnesota emphasized the power run game after bringing in new offensive line coach Tim Davis in late November. The Gophers had some early success and took a 14-7 lead on two touchdown plunges by new fullback Jon Hoese. Brewster clearly has the right idea in restoring Minnesota's traditional run game, but it will take more time for the system to fully take shape.

With Reesing and his receivers doing whatever they pleased, Minnesota was forced to pass to stay in the game. Gophers wideout Eric Decker had a big night (149 receiving yards), but Minnesota simply doesn't have enough weapons to win an offensive shootout right now.

Despite a very disappointing finish, Minnesota still has some positive momentum after a six-win improvement from 2007 and TCF Bank Stadium opening in September. Brewster is recruiting well and brings the enthusiasm and high expectations this program needs. Led by quarterback Adam Weber, he nucleus is back for 2009.

But make no mistake -- the Gophers aren't there yet. Late-season collapses are far too common for this program, and Brewster has to end the trend immediately.

As for the Big Ten, yuck. Aside from Northwestern's impressive effort Monday, the bowl season has been a disaster. The Big Ten is the only BCS conference without a win, while other leagues, particularly the Pac-10, have made major strides. Perhaps the new year will bring better outcomes for the league.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Ah, bowl time. I feel like I've missed out on a lot of the early fun from a lot of great games already.

The Big 12 finally starts on Monday night when Missouri faces Northwestern in the Valero Alamo Bowl in San Antonio.

We'll have Oklahoma State and Oregon Tuesday in the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl in San Diego and Kansas and Minnesota in the Insight Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., on Dec. 31.

  • How Missouri handles the stinging disappointment of another Big 12 championship game loss: The Tigers say they are intent on finishing strong, becoming the first team to win 10 games in back-to-back seasons in school history. But they have struggled defensively at the end of the season, allowing 102 points in losses to Kansas and Oklahoma. Northwestern's offense shouldn't prove troublesome, considering the Wildcats scored at least 28 points in a game only once in their final nine games of the season. What Missouri defense will show up in its bowl game?
  • The end of an era at Missouri: Chase Daniel and Chase Coffman will end illustrious careers with the Tigers, along with offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, who is off to his new job as head coach at Wyoming. Jeremy Maclin likely could be playing his final college game. This potent offensive mix has been the most productive offense in the school's recent history. Could they have one more huge outburst left in them in their final game together?
  • Better health for the Jayhawks: Key players like Kerry Meier, Jake Sharp and Todd Reesing were banged up most of the second half of the season for Kansas. After a month of rest and playing in the warm Arizona climate, will the potent Kansas trio be ready to take advantage of slumping Minnesota? The Gophers arrive with a four-game losing streak, compared to Kansas' excitement after a thrilling upset victory over Missouri in the Jayhawks' season finale.
  • Can the Jayhawks protect Reesing?: When Kansas was at its most successful offensively this season, Reesing was afforded protection and Sharp was a consistent runner. But the Wildcats often struggled to do that against the Big 12's power teams. It will be critical for Kansas redshirt freshman tackle Jeff Hatch to protect Reesing's blind size from Minnesota defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg, who led the Gophers with nine sacks.
  • Oklahoma State's defense without Tim Beckman: The Cowboys' former defensive coordinator left immediately for his new job as head coach at Toledo, leaving Mike Gundy without a coordinator for the bowl game against Oregon. First-year defensive line coach Glenn Spencer takes over Beckman's job of coaching linebackers. A game plan has been formulated with his work along with that of cornerbacks coach Jason Jones and safeties coach Joe DeForest. It could provide a big challenge against an Oregon offense that ranks fourth nationally in rushing, seventh in scoring and eighth in total offense.
  • A Holiday Bowl of points: Want to see a bowl game where the two teams combine for triple digits in points and into the thousands in yards between them? This could be your game. Oklahoma State features a talented array of offensive weapons like quarterback Zac Robinson, wide receiver Dez Bryant, running back Kendall Hunter and tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Oregon will counter with quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, running backs Jeremiah Johnson and LeGarrette Blount and tight end Ed Dickson. Considering that both teams have scored at least 40 points six times apiece this season, brace for a shootout in San Diego. Who needs a San Diego delicacy like fish tacos when you can gorge yourself on a delicacy like this?

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten entered the fall with a reputation to repair after some damaging BCS bowl performances the last two seasons.

Despite several bright spots and surprises, the league continues to search for national respect.

 
 AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
 Shonn Greene rushed for at least 100 yards in all of Iowa's games this season.

Penn State undoubtedly became the Big Ten's guiding light this fall. After an offseason filled with disciplinary issues and questions about coach Joe Paterno's ability to maintain control, the Nittany Lions quieted their critics by going 11-1 and earning their first Rose Bowl berth since 1994. They were a 1-point road loss away from a national title appearance but didn't get their due nationally, most likely because of the Big Ten's sagging reputation.

Paterno won Big Ten Coach of the Year honors, but Michigan State's Mark Dantonio and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald got the most out of their teams, both of which went 9-3. Iowa overcame its crunch-time blues to finish 8-4, and Ohio State still managed to win another Big Ten co-championship despite a shaky September.

Still, the Buckeyes' 32-point loss against USC on Sept. 13 stained the Big Ten for much of the fall. Michigan didn't help matters by having the worst season in team history in head coach Rich Rodriguez's first go-round in Ann Arbor. Illinois went from Rose Bowl to no bowl, Wisconsin fell far short of expectations and Purdue coach Joe Tiller's final season gave him his worst record (4-8) in West Lafayette.

Yet it wasn't all bad. The Big Ten boasted the nation's best crop of running backs, led by Iowa's Shonn Greene and Michigan State's Javon Ringer. Minnesota made a 6-win improvement and several Big Ten defenders emerged for national awards.

The league's image still could use a boost, and a strong bowl season would go a long way toward restoring the Big Ten's place among the elite.

Offensive MVP -- Iowa running back Shonn Greene

Greene's amazing comeback story can't be told enough. A year ago, the Hawkeyes junior was working in a furniture warehouse, totally out of football after academic shortcomings. He returned to the field and eclipsed 100 rushing yards in all 12 games, finishing second nationally in rushing average (144.1 ypg) and setting Iowa's single-season rushing record (1,729 yards).

Defensive MVP -- Penn State defensive end Aaron Maybin

Maybin wasn't even supposed to be a starter, but injuries, suspensions and dismissals on Penn State's defensive line thrust him into the spotlight. The sophomore didn't flinch and recorded a league-leading 12 sacks (all solo) and 19 tackles for loss. The Big Ten's next superstar pass-rusher improved as a run stopper and recorded sacks in nine of 12 games. Iowa defensive tackle Mitch King also deserves a mention here.

Newcomer of the Year -- Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor

It's rare when a heralded recruit actually lives up to his overwhelming hype, but Pryor performed as advertised after becoming Ohio State's starter in Week 4. His smooth and seemingly effortless running ability complemented passing skills that improved during the season. Pryor became the starter after the USC debacle and led Ohio State to an 8-1 record and another BCS bowl appearance.

Coach of the Year -- Michigan State's Mark Dantonio

This is extremely close between Dantonio and Pat Fitzgerald, but Michigan State's ability to finish third in the league with so-so talent affirms what many have felt about Dantonio's coaching ability. The Spartans overcame their struggles in close games, snapped their losing streak to archrival Michigan and avoided the prolonged losing streaks that have doomed them in the past. Paterno deserves a mention here, but his assistants took on the lion's share of the work. Minnesota's Tim Brewster also did an excellent job.

Biggest surprise -- Minnesota

After a 1-11 season marred by the worst defense in team history, the Gophers had to get better. But few foresaw a 7-1 start built on opportunistic defense (league-high 30 takeaways) and disciplined offense. Tim Brewster effectively blended a group of junior college transfers and elicited improvement from holdovers like Adam Weber, Willie VanDeSteeg and Marcus Sherels. Northwestern also deserves some recognition after recording its highest victories total since Fitzgerald was a senior linebacker in 1996.

Biggest disappointment -- Illinois

Sustaining success has been a problem in Champaign before, but no one could have imagined Illinois going from the Rose Bowl to no bowl. The Illini were a preseason top 20 team with an improved quarterback (Juice Williams) and loads of talent at the skill positions. Illinois didn't have many major injuries but could never find consistency, winning consecutive games only once and making inexcusable errors at the wrong time. A Wisconsin team with BCS bowl aspirations also falls under this category after a 7-5 season. Michigan also shouldn't be absolved after sinking to new lows this fall. 

Game of the Year -- Iowa 24, Penn State 23, Nov. 8

This one had drama, Big Ten weather, elation and heartbreak. Iowa was seen as Penn State's toughest remaining hurdle to the national title game, and the Nittany Lions couldn't hold onto a nine-point, fourth-quarter lead. After limiting damage for three quarters, Iowa rallied behind quarterback Ricky Stanzi in the fourth. It all led to the game-winning field goal by Daniel Murray, a walk-on from Iowa City who hadn't attempted a kick since Sept. 20. Other notable games include Penn State-Ohio State, Northwestern-Minnesota and Wisconsin-Michigan.

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)

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.

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

Big Ten lessons in Week 7

October, 12, 2008
10/12/08
2:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Week 7 had a bit of everything: surprise, shock, disappointment and domination. Here are five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football. 

1. Penn State should be in the national title discussion -- Their starting quarterback has been questioned. Their defensive depth has been questioned. Their road toughness has been questioned. But all the Nittany Lions do is continue to provide answers. They recorded a benchmark blowout of Wisconsin on Saturday night at Camp Randall Stadium, handing the Badgers their worst loss since 1989. Head coach Joe Paterno spent his second consecutive game in the press box and watched his team destroy the Badgers with aggressive offensive play-calling, hard-hitting defense and polished special teams. Few FBS teams have been as consistently dominant as Penn State, which validated itself as a national championship contender.

2. The Gophers are back -- A year after going 1-11 and setting team records for futility on defense, Minnesota became bowl eligible on Oct. 11. The impressive about-face was capped by a signature road win against Illinois, the alma mater of Gophers coach Tim Brewster. Behind first-year defensive coordinator Ted Roof, Minnesota forced three Illini turnovers, including a Juice Williams fumble that Simoni Lawrence returned to the end zone for the decisive touchdown. Senior defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg turned in a dominating performance as the Gophers locked up their first Big Ten road win since 2006.

3. Misery at Michigan -- Coach Rich Rodriguez's attempt to challenge his players by calling their previous performance "soft" clearly didn't work, as a team loaded with inexperience and the wrong type of personnel suffered one of the worst losses in program history. Michigan's sputtering spread offense imploded against 1-4 Toledo, and the Wolverines suffered their first defeat to a Mid-American Conference team in 25 tries. At 2-4, Michigan needs a miracle to avoid its first losing season since 1967. This is beginning to look a lot like Notre Dame of 2007.

4. Michigan State has turned a corner in October -- College football's biggest tease has found a new identity behind second-year coach Mark Dantonio. A Spartans team prone to September surges and October collapses turned in a near-spotless performance against mistake-prone Northwestern, winning its sixth straight and setting up a huge matchup Saturday against Ohio State. Dantonio has instilled greater discipline on both sides of the ball, and Michigan State is cashing in on its opponents' errors instead of the other way around.

5. Big Ten title could be decided in the next two weeks -- Minnesota could continue to surprise everyone, but it seems as though the league's top three teams (Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan State) have separated themselves from the pack. The next two Saturdays should reveal a lot, as Ohio State visits East Lansing after an unimpressive showing against Purdue. Penn State then visits Columbus, where it has never won as a Big Ten member. Should both the Spartans and Nittany Lions survive, the championship could come down to their meeting Nov. 22 in Happy Valley.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 7

October, 12, 2008
10/12/08
10:52
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It's time to recognize some of the Big Ten's best and brightest after a fascinating day of football.

Minnesota DE Willie VanDeSteeg -- The Gophers' junior college transfers have undoubtedly helped a new-look defense, but VanDeSteeg is setting the tone up front. After playing last season with a broken bone in his wrist, VanDeSteeg is proving that when healthy, he's one of the Big Ten's top pass rushers. VanDeSteeg recorded three sacks in the road win at Illinois, forced the Juice Williams fumble that Simoni Lawrence returned for a touchdown, and hit Williams as he threw a pass that Ryan Collado intercepted.

Penn State DE Aaron Maybin -- The sophomore has established himself as the Big Ten's top young pass rusher. Maybin, who entered the night with the Big Ten sacks lead, racked up another sack and 3.5 tackles for loss as Penn State stomped Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium. He forced two fumbles, including one just before halftime that set up Penn State's cleat-in-the-throat touchdown. Maybin leads Penn State and is tied for the league lead in tackles for loss with 12.5 this season.

Iowa RB Jewel Hampton -- Shonn Greene has been as consistent as they come, but Iowa boasts another ball-carrying option. Hampton, a true freshman, had 22 carries for 114 yards and three touchdowns in Iowa's much-needed rout of Indiana. Hampton set career highs in all three categories and became the first Iowa player to score three touchdowns in a game since tight end Tony Moeaki on Sept. 8, 2007.

Michigan State QB Brian Hoyer -- The oft-criticized senior epitomized Michigan State's mistake-free performance at Northwestern. Hoyer made Northwestern respect the passing game and completed 14 of 20 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns. His ability to manage the game and capitalize on Wildcats mistakes helped the Spartans win their sixth consecutive game and vault into league title contention.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

What a wild day in the Big Ten so far. Minnesota is back, Iowa might be on its way, Michigan looks down and out and Illinois can officially be labeled overrated. You've got to love the unpredictability of college football.

I'm about to head over to Camp Randall Stadium, but here are my thoughts on what has transpired in the Big Ten so far Saturday.

MINNESOTA-ILLINOIS

It seemed fitting that Minnesota sealed a defining road win against Illinois with big plays on defense. The Gophers' transformation behind first-year defensive coordinator Ted Roof has been truly stunning, as Illinois found out today. Defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg was draped over Illini quarterback Juice Williams all game long, and Simoni Lawrence scored what turned out to be the decisive touchdown. Illinois took too long to get its big-play offense going, and Williams' tendency to hold the ball in the pocket ended up hurting him on two fourth-quarter turnovers. Kudos to second-year coach Tim Brewster for bringing in the right type of talent to engineer a quick turnaround.

TOLEDO-MICHIGAN

Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez has not done well, despite his sparkling track record, in his first season at a new school. The troubling trend has continued, and Michigan suffered the worst loss in recent team history to Toledo, which came into the game at 1-4. Folks, this is worse than Appalachian State. The Wolverines entered the game with a 24-0 record against MAC teams, and Toledo's lone win had come against Eastern Michigan. Michigan's quarterback situation is a complete mess, with neither Steven Threet nor Nick Sheridan having any kind of success against the Rockets. Rodriguez has to stick to the system he believes in, but he should consider playing to his quarterbacks' strengths.

IOWA-INDIANA

Well, the Hawkeyes finally figured it out. This was a much, much better team than its 3-3 record indicated, and Iowa executed in all areas to pound Indiana 45-9. The Hawkeyes now boast a legit two-headed rushing attack, as freshman Jewel Hampton has joined junior Shonn Greene as a backfield threat. Both Hampton and Greene eclipsed 110 rushing yards against a soft Hoosiers defense, and Ricky Stanzi had an efficient, intelligent performance. But this game was won on the defensive side, as Iowa's ferocious front four contained Hawkeye-killer Kellen Lewis. Indiana continues to give away the football and really misses big-play wideout James Hardy.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

If you can be ripped away from the wildly entertaining Oklahoma-Texas clash, check out what's going on in Champaign, Ill., right now.

Minnesota is continuing its surprising rise by building a 14-6 third-quarter lead on Illinois. If a Big Ten Coordinator of the Year award can be handed out, it should go to Minnesota defensive coordinator Ted Roof. The ousted Duke coach has transformed a Minnesota defense that ranked last nationally in yards allowed (518.7 yards per game) and set team records for futility last season. The Gophers are clogging rushing lanes and leveling some big hits on Illinois' ball carriers.

Though I think defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg should be disciplined for throwing a punch at Illinois wideout Rejus Benn, you've got to admire the passion the Gophers are showing. Second-year coach Tim Brewster has his team fired up in his return to his alma mater.

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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