Michigan Wolverines: Ciante Evans

The official invite list for the 2014 NFL combine is out, and 36 Big Ten players will try to impress pro scouts during workouts in Indianapolis from Feb. 22-25. In case you were wondering, that's fourth most among conferences behind the SEC (71 invitees), the ACC (48) and the Pac-12 (45).

Here are the Big Ten players who were invited, broken down by position:

Quarterbacks (0)

Running backs (2)

Wide receivers (8)

Tight ends (2)

Offensive linemen (8)

Defensive linemen (2)

Linebackers (7)

Defensive backs (7)

Specialists (0)

Breakdown
It's a strong list of players, but were there any snubs. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen and Iowa cornerback B.J. Lowery jump out right away as missing, though Martinez has injury (and position) concerns, while Allen's small frame means he'll have to prove to scouts he can play at the next level.

I'm also a bit surprised not to see Indiana's Ted Bolser on this list; he's not a traditional blocking tight end, but his receiving skills would seem to translate to the NFL. Only nine kickers and punters were invited to Indy, yet it's a little disappointing that Purdue's Cody Webster and Northwestern's Jeff Budzien weren't included in the specialists.

Others who could have gotten an invite include Purdue defensive tackle Bruce Gaston, Ohio State guard Andrew Norwell and Nebraska defensive back Ciante Evans.

That doesn't mean those guys won't play in the NFL. But their path to the league might be a little more winding.

Big Ten lunch links

December, 26, 2013
12/26/13
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There are no more presents under the tree. Hopefully these links can fill the void.
  • Michigan State will be without star linebacker Max Bullough after the program suspended the senior for the Rose Bowl, ending a decorated career and leaving a hole in the middle of the elite defense.
  • Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan defended himself against accusations that he attacked an Ohio State fan last month after a loss in The Game.
  • Devin Gardner is still not practicing for the Wolverines, making it even more likely that Shane Morris will be the starting quarterback in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
  • Leading Minnesota to a surprising season was a team effort by the coaching staff, and Jerry Kill's wife, Rebecca, offers an insider's account of what was behind it all.
  • Nebraska asks a lot of its nickelback, and a senior filling that role is in turn asking a lot of the younger players on the team around him as Ciante Evans sees his career wind down.
  • After another successful year and with salaries going up around the country, Urban Meyer could be in line for a raise with Ohio State.
  • Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano denied a report that he had his eye on the Penn State job should Bill O'Brien decide to leave the program.
  • Reggie Love made the tough decision to redshirt as a sophomore, and the Wisconsin wide receiver is expecting it to pay off down the road.
  • The trip to Florida is a homecoming for Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock.
  • Inside Northwestern takes a look into the future and speculates on if a true freshman could provide an instant lift for the Wildcats next season.
Ohio State hasn't been dominant or error-free the past two weeks, but the Buckeyes keep finding ways to win. Urban Meyer remains unbeaten in Columbus after an extremely hard-fought game at Northwestern, as Ohio State had to rally from halftime and fourth-quarter deficits.

Knock the Buckeyes if you'd like, but they've won 18 consecutive games, the longest streak in the nation.

It could turn out that the Buckeyes' past two opponents, Wisconsin and Northwestern, both could make cases for being the league's No. 2 squad. We've been more impressed with the one-loss Wildcats than undefeated Michigan, which gets its own shot at Ohio State on Nov. 30 at the Big House. Not much separates Northwestern, Michigan and Wisconsin right now.

Michigan State and Indiana make positive moves in the rankings, while Iowa, Penn State and Minnesota fall.

Let's take one final look at the Week 5 Power Rankings.

Here's this week's rundown ...

1. Ohio State (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): For a while it looked like Ohio State's run of perfection would come to an end Saturday night. Quarterback Braxton Miller looked rattled, and Northwestern moved the ball well against the Buckeyes' defense. But Ohio State regrouped midway through the third quarter and made enough plays on both sides of the ball to survive another tough test. Meyer stuck with Miller after considering Kenny Guiton, running back Carlos Hyde had a big night and the young Buckeyes defense stopped the run when it needed to in the fourth quarter.

2. Northwestern (4-1, 0-1; last week: 2): The talent differential that plagued Northwestern for years isn't there as much anymore, as the Wildcats can keep pace with any team in the league. The problem: They still struggle to finish big games. They might have been a yard away from upsetting Ohio State but couldn't convert a fourth-and-1 in plus territory. The inability to finish drives cost Pat Fitzgerald's crew, which held Ohio State's offense out of the end zone for nearly three quarters. Venric Mark provided a big boost in his return from injury.

3. Michigan (5-0, 1-0; last week: 4): Michigan needed a clean game and got one against Minnesota, as the Wolverines had zero turnovers in a 42-13 victory. Quarterback Devin Gardner was efficient in the pocket, and tight end Devin Funchess had career highs in both catches (seven) and receiving yards (151). Michigan's defense settled down nicely after allowing an early touchdown, as Minnesota couldn't get the explosion plays it needed to hang around. The Wolverines head back on the road this week in Happy Valley.

4. Wisconsin (3-2, 1-1; last week: 3): The Badgers had an extra week to think about their missed opportunities at Ohio State before resuming play with another big game against Northwestern. Standout running back Melvin Gordon is expected back from a knee injury, and the off week came at a good time to boost the team's overall health. Wisconsin's defense had some struggles against Ohio State's spread offense and faces another spread team this week in Northwestern.

5. Nebraska (4-1, 1-0; last week: 5): Although the Huskers didn't move up in the rankings, we feel better about their ability to rise up after seeing their defense step up against a big-play Illinois offense. Young defenders like Jared Afalava, Michael Rose and Randy Gregory performed well, and veteran nickelback Ciante Evans had two tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Nebraska's biggest issue might be at quarterback, as freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. delivered in place of the hobbled Taylor Martinez. Armstrong received plenty of help from running back Ameer Abdullah (225 rush yards, 2 TDs).

6. Michigan State (4-1, 1-0; last week: 7): We knew the Spartans had a defense, which showed up big in the second half at Iowa, especially against the run. The big news is the Spartans also have a quarterback in Connor Cook, who passed for 277 yards and two touchdowns, finding both Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Bennie Fowler for big plays. Cook was visibly upset at Notre Dame, questioning the coaches' faith in him after being pulled on the final drive. He restored that faith Saturday and put Michigan State in position to challenge for a division title.

7. Iowa (4-2, 1-1; last week: 6): Mark Weisman and the power run game had been Iowa's identity through the first five weeks. But Michigan State stopped Weisman (seven carries, 9 yards) and completely shut down Iowa's offense in the second half. The Hawkeyes once again fell victim to a special-teams fake and couldn't stop big pass plays from Michigan State. Several injuries mounted up for Iowa, and while most don't appear to be serious, the open week comes at a good time before a trip to Ohio State.

8. Indiana (3-2, 1-0; last week: 11): The off week clearly paid off for Kevin Wilson's crew, which breathed life back into its bowl hopes with an excellent performance against Penn State. Quarterback Nate Sudfeld (321 pass yards, 2 TDs) bounced back nicely from his struggles against Missouri, wide receiver Cody Latimer (nine catches, 140 yards, fumble recovery) had a huge day and the defense contained Penn State's run game. Indiana's offense faces a much bigger test this week at Michigan State, but the Hoosiers head to East Lansing with some confidence.

9. Penn State (3-2, 0-1, last week: 8): Bill O'Brien's team has some serious problems after falling to Indiana for the first time in team history. The defense didn't show up against a spread offense for the second time in three games, and Indiana completely dominated the fourth quarter. Penn State has something special with Christian Hackenberg and wide receiver Allen Robinson, but the defense clearly has taken a step back. Things only get tougher with Michigan and Ohio State up next.

10. Illinois (3-2, 0-1; last week: 9): There's no doubt Illinois has improved this season, but by how much? The Illini never mounted a serious challenge against Nebraska, even though the Huskers played without Martinez, as Tim Beckman's crew fell behind 30-5 early in the third quarter. Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has gone from great (Cincinnati) to shaky (Washington) to great (Miami University) to shaky (Nebraska). But the bigger issue is a defense that surrendered 335 rush yards to the Huskers. Illinois is off this week before a critical home stretch against Wisconsin and Michigan State.

11. Minnesota (4-2, 0-2; last week: 10): It has been a rough few weeks both on and off the field for the Gophers, who dropped their second straight game and played without head coach Jerry Kill, who remained in Minneapolis after suffering another seizure Saturday morning. Minnesota enters an off week, which will put more attention on Kill and his health. The Gophers once again lack enough explosiveness on offense to do much damage against Big Ten defenses. Minnesota resumes play Oct. 19 at Northwestern.

12. Purdue (1-4, 0-1; last week: 12): The open week gave Darrell Hazell's crew a chance to regroup. Unfortunately, an off-field issue surfaced involving wide receiver B.J. Knauf, who has been suspended for the next two games. It will be interesting to see how freshman quarterback Danny Etling performs after some time to practice as the starter. Purdue's struggling defense will be tested again as the high-powered Nebraska Cornhuskers visit Ross-Ade Stadium.
The top half of the Power Rankings remains exactly the same, but some interesting story lines are starting to develop.

Is Ohio State or Michigan the Big Ten's best team? Michigan made its case Saturday night against Notre Dame, while Ohio State's bigger tests await in Weeks 5 and 6 (Wisconsin and Northwestern). For now, we're keeping the Buckeyes at No. 1, but we'll need to see a strong performance this week on the road against Cal's high-powered offense.

Northwestern and Wisconsin held steady, and both Nebraska and Penn State looked better in Week 2. Illinois is the big mover after Saturday's dominant win against Cincinnati, while Indiana, Michigan State and Iowa fall. There's some separation after the top six, and Nos. 7-9 really could appear in any order.

These are consistent with our rankings in the ESPN.com power poll.

Here's one last look at the previous Big Ten rankings.

To the rundown …

1. Ohio State (2-0, last week: 1): Braxton Miller's knee injury created some tense moments in Columbus, but Ohio State fans settled down and settled in to the smooth sounds of Kenny G (Guiton, that is). One of the nation's best backup quarterbacks torched San Diego State for three touchdowns as a Buckeyes team that sleepwalked through the second half in Week 1 took charge from the get-go. Ohio State's young defense will be tested much more this week by the "Bear Raid" offense at Cal.

2. Michigan (2-0, last week: 2): Debate the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry all you want, but it mattered a lot for quarterback Devin Gardner and the Wolverines. Gardner proved he's a big-game quarterback and triggered an impressive offensive performance against Notre Dame's physical defense. Although Michigan's defense had some issues, it made timely plays against the Irish. The Wolverines have the look of a BCS bowl team and possibly a Big Ten champion.

3. Northwestern (2-0, last week: 3): Week 1 was all about survival for Northwestern. Saturday night, the Wildcats showed why they should contend for the Legends Division title this season. Quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian had their way with Syracuse's defense, and wideout Tony Jones had a huge night as Northwestern easily improved to 2-0. The Wildcats should be 4-0 in three weeks when Ohio State visits Evanston, and star running back Venric Mark should be healthy by then.

4. Wisconsin (2-0, last week: 4): The run game has been dominant, the defense suffocating and the competition level horrendous. What do we make of these Badgers after two not surprisingly dominant performances against lowly Massachusetts and Tennessee Tech? Wisconsin deserves credit for handling its business with few if any mistakes, recording back-to-back shutouts to open a season for the first time since 1958. Quarterback Joel Stave looks comfortable. But the competition goes up -- way, way up -- this week at Arizona State.

5. Nebraska (2-0, last week: 5): The Huskers defense doesn't deserve the "Blackshirts" label quite yet, but at least the unit avoided less-flattering terms for a week. Cornerbacks Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans set the tone for a rebound performance with pick-sixes in the first quarter, and junior-college transfer Randy Gregory applied pressure all game. The defense needs a better performance this week against UCLA, potentially the only team that can beat the Huskers during the first two months of the season.

6. Penn State (2-0, last week: 6): After a rough start, freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg settled down in his Beaver Stadium debut. He also got a ton of help from the run game, which had struggled in the opener but broke out for 251 yards and five touchdowns. Tackle DaQuan Jones triggered a suffocating Lions defense, which will be tested much more this week when Blake Bortles and Central Florida visit Happy Valley.

7. Minnesota (2-0, last week: 8): Although Aggie Vision was the real highlight Saturday night, Minnesota provided a few of its own in an easy win against New Mexico State. The Gophers continue to find creative ways to score, adding a special teams touchdown and a defensive touchdown in a 44-21 romp. Despite being short-handed at running back, Minnesota got the ground game going behind Rodrick Williams (148 yards, 1 TD), David Cobb (56 yards, 1 TD) and quarterback Philip Nelson (122 rush yards, 1 TD). The Gophers have another tuneup this week before their first real test Sept. 21 against San Jose State.

8. Michigan State (2-0, last week: 7): Can Shilique Calhoun play quarterback? The sophomore defensive end has been Michigan State's best offensive weapon in the first two games, scoring one more touchdown than the entire Spartans offense. Michigan State's defense has added a dynamic playmaking element early this season. Unfortunately, the problems on offense only seem to be worsening and the quarterback situation is anyone's guess right now.

9. Illinois (2-0, last week: 11): Surprise, surprise, the Illini are unquestionably on the rise. Few saw it coming, but Illinois walloped Cincinnati behind another impressive performance by quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and the offense. One of the nation's worst offenses has surged under coordinator Bill Cubit, scoring 87 points in the first two games. Linebacker Mason Monheim and the defense rebounded nicely after a shaky Week 1 effort. Can the Illini pull off another upset this week against Washington at Chicago's Soldier Field?
10. Indiana (1-1, last week: 9): Kevin Wilson's words last week proved prophetic as Indiana's offense lacked the efficiency it needed early on against Navy's ball-control offense. But eventually a defense has to make some stops and Indiana's once again couldn't, especially in the closing minutes. The Hoosiers surrendered 444 rush yards in a 41-35 loss, once again showing that this program hasn't turned a corner. Things get tougher this week as a very good Bowling Green squad comes to Memorial Stadium.

11. Iowa (1-1, last week: 10): Some Iowa fans undoubtedly felt better about their team after last week's loss to Northern Illinois than Saturday's win against FCS Missouri State. The Hawkeyes had just seven points through the first 37 minutes before Mark Weisman (180 rush yards, 2 TDs) took over down the stretch. Quarterback Jake Rudock showed good mobility but also threw a pick-six. Iowa faces a must-win this week as it hits the road to face rival Iowa State.

12. Purdue (1-1, last week: 12): The Boilers got a win Saturday, but they won't win many more if they don't clean up their problems on offense. If Purdue can't punch the ball into the end zone against Indiana State from inside the 5-yard line, what's going to happen against Big Ten defenses? Defensive tackle Bruce Gaston had a big day, but the Boilers need many others to elevate their play as Notre Dame visits Ross-Ade Stadium this week.
Lessons learned from Week 2 in the Big Ten:

1. Ohio State has company at the top: The widely-accepted thought going into the season was that the Big Ten would be Ohio State and everybody else. Well, after two weeks, it's fair to say the Buckeyes have company from the team they dare not name: Michigan. The Wolverines have looked mighty impressive in their first two games, especially in Saturday's 41-30 win over Notre Dame.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDevin Gardner wore No. 98 to honor Michigan great Tom Harmon, then played great against Notre Dame.
Devin Gardner has made Michigan's offense truly balanced, and he is as dynamic a playmaker as Ohio State's Braxton Miller. Greg Mattison's defense gave up some yards and points to Notre Dame but is always going to be solid, more so if Jake Ryan returns this year.

Ohio State was also very good in a 42-7 win over San Diego State, especially considering Miller got hurt early on and was replaced more than adequately by Kenny Guiton. The Buckeyes have yet to play good competition or reach their peak with their full lineup available. Their ceiling might remain higher than the Wolverines', but Ohio State still has to go to the Big House, where Brady Hoke has never lost as a head coach. Having both of these teams reach superpower status this year ultimately will be good for the league. It's early, but it looks like we're on our way toward that, though those two teams are not the only ones to consider in the conference race. Speaking of which ...

2. Northwestern is a legitimate contender: Ohio State and Michigan are the Big Ten's top two teams, but Northwestern isn't far behind. Pat Fitzgerald's team needed some offense from its defense to survive a tough opener at Cal last week. The offense needed no such help Saturday as top quarterback Kain Colter returned to the field and, along with quarterback Trevor Siemian, wide receiver Tony Jones and others, shredded Syracuse's defense to the tune of 48 points and 581 total yards. Colter and Siemian combined to go 30-of-37 passing for 375 yards with four touchdowns, no interceptions and 91 rush yards.

Northwestern hasn't even been at full strength yet -- star running back/return man Venric Mark continues to nurse an injury -- and still looks like a superior team to the 2012 version, which won 10 games. Although the defense remains vulnerable to the big play, it also generates takeaways, continuing a theme from last season. The tough part of the non-league slate is over, as Northwestern has only Western Michigan and Maine left before two weeks to prepare for an Oct. 5 showdown with Ohio State, which should be the most-anticipated game of Fitzgerald's tenure. Northwestern's league schedule isn't easy, but it should be in the thick of the Legends Division race when November rolls around.

3. Song remains the same for Michigan State, Indiana: What good is it being outstanding on one side of the ball if the other side can't hold its own weight? Michigan State and Indiana have changed a lot of names in an effort to shore up their crummy offense and defense, respectively, but the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Spartans' quarterback picture is becoming an absurd theater; Mark Dantonio gave Connor Cook his first career start and Tyler O'Connor his first collegiate action but had to go back to incumbent starter Andrew Maxwell to start the second half against USF after both struggled. The three quarterbacks combined to go just 12-of-24 for 94 yards and did nothing to clear up the picture, while the offense managed only one score against a Bulls team that gave up 53 to McNeese State a week earlier. Thank goodness for the MSU defense, but it can't carry everything on its back all season again.

It's the opposite story at Indiana, which supposedly practiced all offseason to prepare for the Navy option but then looked as if it had never seen such a thing before in a dispiriting 41-35 loss. The Hoosiers have added some talented freshmen to the defensive mix, but they couldn't prevent the Midshipmen from rolling up 444 rushing yards. Indiana can still throw it and score with anybody and has put up 108 points in two games, but Kevin Wilson's team isn't going bowling unless the defense becomes competent. If only the Spartans and Hoosiers could combine into an all-star team, we'd really have something.

4. Mystery lingers around Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota: We're still waiting to learn something about the Badgers, Huskers and Gophers, who are a combined 6-0 but have yet to face a true test (sorry, Wyoming).

Wisconsin has posted back-to-back shutouts to open a season for the first time since 1958, and the run game looks as strong as ever with James White, Melvin Gordon and even Corey Clement, each of whom has rushed for more than 100 yards in the first two games. But few teams have faced weaker competition (Massachusetts, Tennessee Tech).

Nebraska's defense performed much better in Week 2, as cornerbacks Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans both had pick-sixes. But the Huskers' performance came against a Southern Miss team that now has lost 14 straight.

Minnesota continues to find creative ways to score, adding touchdowns on both defense and special teams in an easy win at New Mexico State. Then again, who have the Gophers faced? Fortunately, we'll find out a lot more next week as Wisconsin travels to Arizona State and Nebraska hosts UCLA. The wait will be a little longer for Minnesota, which hosts high-powered San Jose State in Week 4.

5. Illini are cellar-dwellers no more: Illinois has held pretty steady at or near the bottom of our Big Ten power rankings for about a year. But while the Illini are still far from league contenders, they no longer can be viewed as the conference's worst team after Saturday's stunning 45-17 win over Cincinnati improved their record to 2-0. The Bill Cubit-directed offense looks legit, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is playing as well as he has in his career.

The Big Ten's No. 12 team now has to be Purdue, which lost to that same Cincinnati squad, 42-7, in the opener and needed a pair of late defensive stops to hold off Indiana State 20-14. Yes, the same Indiana State team that Indiana destroyed 73-35 in the Hoosiers' opener. The Boilermakers once again were plagued by communication issues and an ineffective offense that got outgained by nine yards by an FCS opponent. Darrell Hazell's team figures to be a heavy underdog in its next six games, beginning with Notre Dame this weekend.

Iowa also still has a lot to prove after struggling to put away Missouri State at home until the fourth quarter. At least the Hawkeyes finally snapped their seven-game losing streak, though beating an FBS team would be nice.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 2

September, 8, 2013
9/08/13
9:00
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Recognizing the best and brightest from the Big Ten in Week 2:
  • Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase: The Illini senior had a big game for the second straight week, this time against strong competition. Scheelhaase completed 26 of 37 attempts for 312 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in his team's surprising 45-17 win over Cincinnati.
  • Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun: The Spartans sophomore has scored three defensive touchdowns in his first two games. Michigan State's offense, meanwhile, has produced only two touchdowns in the same span. Calhoun's incredible start to 2013 continued in a 21-6 win over South Florida, as he recovered a fumble and ran it into the end zone from 4 yards out in the first quarter and added a 56-yard interception return in the third quarter. Can Calhoun play quarterback?
  • Northwestern QBs Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter: No team has a more effective one-two punch at quarterback than the Wildcats. Returning after missing all but two plays of the Cal game with a concussion, Colter jumped right back into the flow of things, and Siemian continued his precision passing. Combined, the two of them completed 30 of 37 passes for 375 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions, in the 48-27 win over Syracuse. Colter added 87 yards rushing and a score on 11 carries.
  • Michigan QB Devin Gardner and WR Jeremy Gallon: The Killer G's had a huge night in a 41-30 win over Notre Dame under the lights at the Big House. Gardner completed 21 of 33 passes for 294 yards and four touchdowns while adding 82 rushing yards and a fifth score. He did make one giant mistake by throwing the ball from his own end zone to Stephon Tuitt to put the Irish back in the game, but for the most part he carved up the vaunted Notre Dame defense. And his favorite target was Gallon, who's only 5-foot-8 but plays so much larger than that on the big stage. Gallon hauled in eight catches for 184 yards and three touchdowns as the Irish secondary just couldn't slow him down.
  • Nebraska's secondary: The Huskers bounced back from Week 1's scary defensive performance with a fine showing on that side of the ball in a 56-13 win over Southern Miss. Give a lot of credit to the Nebraska defensive backs. Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste returned an interception 43 yards for a score less than two minutes into the game. Nickelback Ciante Evans added two interceptions, and safety Corey Cooper grabbed his first career pick. Corner Josh Mitchell chipped in with three tackles for loss. The Huskers will need that kind of effort again next week versus UCLA.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- While Michigan won’t see a ton of offensive stars in 2013, there is little question about the amount of elite defensive talent the Wolverines will face this season.

Six of the top defenders Michigan will play are in the top five of their respective positions for the 2014 NFL draft as rated by Mel Kiper Jr. The top three could all challenge to be drafted as high, if not higher, than Michigan star tackle Taylor Lewan next April as well.

It isn’t a surprise, either, that six of the 10 top defensive players Michigan will play come from the Wolverines’ three major rivals: Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan State.

The 2012 All-Big Ten teams and individual award winners will be revealed at 7 p.m. ET tonight on the Big Ten Network. We'll post the full lists shortly thereafter as well as reaction.

The four major awards -- Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and Freshman of the Year -- will be revealed Tuesday night. We will have our official blog endorsements for each of these throughout Tuesday, so be sure to check in.

To clarify, we don't have official votes for All-Big Ten (not like we cover the league closer than anyone year-round or anything, but we're not bitter), but we will reveal our own all-conference team at a later date.

For now, we're going to give our opinions on some of the key debates surrounding this year's all-conference team.

(Read full post)


LINCOLN, Neb. -- After Nebraska forced 10 three-and-outs and held Northwestern's offense in check last week, coach Bo Pelini made his defenders an offer.

It was an offer they could refuse. And they did. The Huskers turned down their coveted blackshirts.

"They didn't want them," Pelini said. "They didn't think they'd earned them yet. It shows the character of our kids and the type of standards that they have. They said they hadn't earned them, and [that] we'll revisit it after the Michigan game.

"I think they earned them."

Nebraska's defenders donned the blackshirts in a joyous locker room late Saturday night following a 23-9 win against Michigan. The Huskers earned them by keeping Michigan in check before Denard Robinson left the game with a right elbow injury, and they earned them by slamming the door on backup signal caller Russell Bellomy in the second half. Nebraska held Michigan to just 44 yards after Robinson's injury.

It received big performances from linebacker Sean Fisher (7 tackles, 2 TFLs), linebacker David Santos (10 tackles, 1 TFL), nickel back Ciante Evans (2 TFLs, 1 sack), safety Daimion Stafford (interception, tackle for loss), safety P.J. Smith (53-yard interception return) and many others.

The blackshirts, while meaningful, aren't Nebraska's garb of choice this fall. Five weeks from Saturday, they want to be donning Big Ten championship T-shirts at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

The Big Ten is a weak league that actually seemed to get weaker in Week 9, but some team is going to wear those shirts in Indiana. Some coach is going to hoist the championship trophy. Some group of players will celebrate on the field with roses in their mouths.

Why not Nebraska? Three weeks after getting pounded by Ohio State, the Huskers (6-2, 3-1) have steadied themselves and regained control in the Legends Division.

[+] EnlargeNebraska's David Santos
AP Photo/Nati HarnikDavid Santos and the Nebraska defense earned its blackshirts against Michigan.
"With the Big Ten standings, [Saturday's game] was kind of a must-have," Fisher said. "Not that it wasn't still possible to get to the Big Ten championship, but it was out of our control if we lost.

"We want to control our own future, and winning tonight took us one step closer to that."

After getting pummeled in Columbus, Pelini challenged his team to win out. A cross-division loss, as painful as it was, wouldn't hurt if Nebraska ran the table in the Legends Division. Following an off week, the Huskers rallied from 12 points down in the fourth quarter to beat Northwestern by a point last Saturday.

They never truly lost control against Michigan, keeping the Wolverines out of the end zone and capitalizing against Bellomy, a freshman who misfired on his first 11 pass attempts and had three interceptions. Pelini made a few defensive calls he didn't expect with Robinson out of the game, but Nebraska didn't change much schematically. It loaded up at the line and made Bellomy make throws he couldn't deliver.

"Obviously, you notice," Fisher said of Robinson's absence. "He's such a threat. I hope he's OK, I don't know what happened, and obviously, you don't want to see anybody get injured. But we weren't upset about it."

Robinson aggravated a nerve in his throwing elbow that he initially hurt Oct. 13 against Illinois. He only missed about a quarter against the Illini but didn't return Saturday, as he had trouble gripping the ball.

Coach Brady Hoke is optimistic the senior will return soon, possibly next week against Minnesota, and Michigan's hopes to challenge Nebraska in the division could hinge on it.

The Robinson injury was among several key developments in the Big Ten, a league no eligible team seems to want to win.

Wisconsin lost starting quarterback Joel Stave early in the third quarter of Saturday's overtime loss to Michigan State. Stave reportedly has a broken collarbone, which would cost him his season. A Badgers team that had regained its mojo after early-season struggles, now has a murky future on offense, as backup Danny O'Brien struggled mightily against Michigan State. Who could challenge the Badgers in the Leaders? How about Indiana, a team that has been in every game this season and finally got over the hump Saturday at Illinois.

Iowa has tumbled out of the race after consecutive blowout losses, while Northwestern, like Nebraska, has new life after a strong performance. Michigan State is in position to shape the race after the win in Madison, but with three league losses already, Mark Dantonio's squad must win out and get a lot of help to return to Indy.

Ohio State separated itself as the Big Ten's best team Saturday, but the Buckeyes won't be going to Indy because of NCAA sanctions. Neither will Penn State, a good team, but one that didn't measure up against Urban Meyer's squad.

The Big Ten has become the league of second chances. Michigan might get one. The Huskers certainly have theirs, and they don't intend to squander it.

"This is a big step for us," Pelini said. "I told the team, when you're winning, as the season goes on, the stakes get higher and higher every week."

Huskers players have embraced the urgency of the league race as they chase their first conference title since 1999. Claiming the tiebreakers against both Michigan and Northwestern could loom large in the coming weeks.

"In the end, it may be a big deal, but we have to make sure we take care of us the rest of the way, or none of that's going to matter," tight end Ben Cotton said. "We know we've got to stay in control."

To do so, Nebraska must win next week in East Lansing, where Michigan State already has lost three times, but returns with some confidence. Control has been fleeting in this league.

Don't tell Pelini about being in the driver's seat for Indianapolis.

"I don't buy into all that crap," he said.

His players didn't buy into the blackshirt offer, either. And in a few weeks, the Huskers might have the look of a champion.

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