Michigan Wolverines: David Santos

This is the end, our friends. The last stop on our ultimate Big Ten road trip for 2014.

For those just joining us, we're each selecting one Big Ten game to attend each week during the forthcoming season. This almost assuredly isn't our actual schedule because of travel budgets or editors' decisions. But we can and did pretend with this fantasy itinerary, and it was a lot of fun.

Let's close it out with the Week 14 options:


Nov. 28-29

Illinois at Northwestern
Nebraska at Iowa
Michigan at Ohio State
Michigan State at Penn State
Minnesota at Wisconsin
Purdue at Indiana
Rutgers at Maryland

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Michigan at Ohio State

This wasn't a slam-dunk choice as there are potentially good options in Iowa City, Madison and State College. But after attending last year's 42-41 thriller in Ann Arbor, I'm not passing up another edition of The Game. The rivalry has become much more interesting since Brady Hoke came to Michigan. He beat Ohio State in his first year and nearly pulled off a significant upset in last year's contest, where defense was most certainly optional. It's a big year for Hoke, whose wins total has declined from 11 to eight to seven, and while he's not on the hot seat now, he could be on Nov. 29. A Michigan win at Ohio Stadium for the first time since 2000 would be a major boost for the Wolverines and their coach.

Braxton Miller will try to prevent it in his final home game for the Buckeyes. Miller has been productive in his first three games against Michigan, especially on the ground with 301 rush yards and four touchdowns. The quarterback could be closing in on an unprecedented third Big Ten offensive player of the year award, and possibly the Heisman Trophy, but OSU will need a stronger defensive performance, especially in the secondary, after allowing Devin Gardner to go nuts last season. Gardner will be aiming for a signature win.

The Ohio State-Michigan matchup in the Big Ten title game never came to fruition, but the teams could be competing for a spot in Indy, and maybe more in 2014. No better place for me to end this road trip than The Shoe.

Brian Bennett's pick: Nebraska at Iowa

I strongly considered The Game, which is always a great choice. But since we'll both be in Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game, that would mean five straight weeks in the same city as Rittenberg. I'm afraid we'd start bickering like an old married couple.

So instead, I'll spend a second straight weekend in Iowa City, this time on Black Friday. Maybe I'll just stay there for the full seven days, crash on Kirk Ferentz's couch. The Heroes Game hasn't really reached liftoff as a must-watch rivalry yet, but the Hawkeyes' upset win in Lincoln last year added some ignition fluid to the series. Perhaps the West Division title will be on the line here, which would really start to make this rivalry combustible.

Iowa's 2014 season could well be made or broken by its final two games as it hosts Wisconsin and these Huskers at Kinnick. Nebraska limped into last year's meeting while dealing with an assortment of injuries and couldn't deal with the Hawkeyes' senior linebacker trio of James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. This time around, the Huskers could have a dominant defense if its young linebackers like Michael Rose, David Santos and Josh Banderas continue to develop over the course of the season. It will also be Ameer Abdullah's final regular season game, and I'd expect him to leave everything on the field, which he always does.

My ultimate road trip began in Ireland, and it ends with me spending Thanksgiving in Iowa. Sounds just about perfect.

Road trip itinerary

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
Week 4: Adam at Miami-Nebraska; Brian at Miami-Nebraska
Week 5: Brian at Cincinnati-Ohio State; Adam at Minnesota-Michigan
Week 6: Adam at Nebraska-Michigan State; Brian at Nebraska-Michigan State
Week 7: Brian at Penn State-Michigan; Adam at Northwestern-Minnesota
Week 8: Adam at Iowa-Maryland; Brian at Nebraska-Northwestern
Week 9: Brian at Michigan-Michigan State; Adam at Ohio State-Penn State
Week 10: Adam at Northwestern-Iowa; Brian at Wisconsin-Rutgers
Week 11: Brian and Adam at Ohio State-Michigan State
Week 12: Adam and Brian at Nebraska-Wisconsin
Week 13: Brian and Adam at Wisconsin-Iowa

 

Big Ten Monday mailbag

March, 17, 2014
Mar 17
5:00
PM ET
Let's round out this Monday with another edition of the ol' mailbag. Remember to keep those emails coming or to hit us up on Twitter.

Michael from Remsen, Iowa, writes: Do you think that NEBRASKA's young but very talented linebackers will take that step up this year and be the best linebacking group in the Big Ten? Also, who do you think wins the starting left tackle spot?

Brian Bennett: Michael, the potential is certainly there. Not all of the linebackers are young; the coaches have loved senior Zaire Anderson's talent and potential for some time, but he's just got to stay healthy and in the lineup. Michael Rose looks like a rising star, Josh Banderas has turned some heads in spring practice so far, and David Santos gained a lot of experience last year. Throw in newcomers like Marcus Newby and Courtney Love, and this is a deep group with loads of athleticism. Best in the Big Ten? I'm not so sure about that, but the league did lose an abundance of star linebackers to the NFL draft. I still need to see the Huskers' defense deliver consistently, but the future looks really bright in that front seven.

As for left tackle, Alex Lewis has been getting reps with the No. 1 unit so far this spring. Lewis transferred in after playing two years at Colorado and withstood some legal troubles. The reshuffling of Nebraska's offensive line remains a big story to watch this offseason.


Ol' Red from Sandusky, Ohio, writes: In your "Ultimate B1G 2014 road trip: Week 9" pick of the Michigan-Michigan State game, you pointed out that Michigan has only scored 32 combined points the last three seasons. Just another tidbit I'd like to throw your way... Although Michigan has won four, the Spartans have held U of M to less points than the preceding year for 9 straight games (45, 34, 31, 28, 21, 20, 17, 14, 12, 6). If that trend continues, it will be awfully tough for the Spartans to lose giving up less than 6 points. This really shows the improvement in Mark Dantonio's defense year-to-year. I expect the Wolverines to score only three this upcoming season and be shut out in 2015.

Brian Bennett: A Rose Bowl victory followed by a Big Ten tournament title and seemingly every expert picking them to win the NCAA tournament understandably has Spartans fans feeling a bit chesty. Michigan State's defense has locked things down against Michigan the past few years. You need some bulletin board material, Doug Nussmeier?


Jase from Nebraska writes: I imagine most networks are doing something very similar to your fantasy trip planning, but on a much larger scale. My worry is at all the *meh* weeks we're racking up will mean few televised game and less exposure.

Brian Bennett: The return of the dreaded double-bye does make for some less-than-stellar weeks on the 2014 schedule. But the nonconference opponents this year are much better than they were in 2013, and there are still some excellent heavyweight matchups sprinkled throughout the conference season. Ohio State-Michigan State, Nebraska-Wisconsin, Penn State-Michigan, Michigan State-Michigan, Ohio State-Penn State are just a few of those. The biggest question from the broadcast side is how many games will be picked up for primetime, especially in November? But the Big Ten isn't exactly hurting for exposure.


Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes: I see that in the West Division poll, Minnesota is rated a distant fourth, barely over Northwestern. I guess most consider Minnesota's performance in 2013 to be a one-time occurrence. I think the team may have a difficult time improving on last year's win-loss totals though the team may be better than last year's.

Brian Bennett: No doubt there are still some doubters on Minnesota (and polls like that tend to favor the biggest fan bases). The Gophers had a great run in the 2013 season but have yet to really break through as serious division contenders. It's going to be tough to do that without some major improvement in the passing game, something the team is emphasizing this spring for sure. Minnesota has a tougher schedule this year with a road game at TCU, crossover games against Ohio State and Michigan and intra-division road trips to Wisconsin and Nebraska. Still, a solid core returns from last year's team, and the arrow is pointing up in Minneapolis. I'm guessing Jerry Kill doesn't mind being the underdog right now.


Scott from Marinette, Wis., writes: Why is no one talking about Vince Biegel this year for Wisconsin on defense? I truly believe he will make a big difference for the Badgers on the front seven this year. He is an absolute animal and will create havoc for opposing offenses this coming year.

Brian Bennett: Biegel ... animal ... Jack Russell ... nope, I'm going to stay strong. Biegel made an impact as a redshirt freshman at outside linebacker in the 3-4 and will step into a much bigger role this season. He needs to because the Badgers lost so much talent and experience in that front seven, including linebackers Chris Borland, Ethan Armstrong and Brendan Kelly. At 6-foot-4 and 233 pounds, Biegel has great size and a good chance to make some plays from that pass-rushing position. He's still a young guy, but he'll have to be an anchor for this rebuilt defense.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.

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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