Michigan Wolverines: Michael Geiger

We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. The series wraps up with the specialists.

Illinois:The Illini might not be exceptional in the kicking game, but they're in better shape than they were when coach Tim Beckman arrived. Punter Justin DuVernois returns after a solid junior season, while Taylor Zalewski looks for a bit more consistency in his second full season as the placekicker. Zalewski made 12 of 17 field-goal attempts last fall. The return game is the real plus, as V'Angelo Bentley provides a major threat, especially on punt returns.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana brings back a dynamic returner in Shane Wynn, who averaged 14 yards on punt run-backs despite limited work. Punter Erich Toth also is back for his third season as the starter. Toth placed 18 of 52 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. IU suffers a big loss at kicker as Mitch Ewald, the team's career field goals and field-goal percentage leader, departs. Aaron Del Grosso and Griffin Oakes will compete at kicker, and Jake Shake (shake and bake!) could enter the mix this summer.

Iowa: Here's another Big Ten team that looks very strong on returns, as Iowa boasts the Big Ten's most dynamic tandem in Kevonte Martin-Manley (punts) and Jordan Cotton (kickoffs). Martin-Manley had two punt-return touchdowns in 2013. Punter Connor Kornbrath ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in average, but placed 27 of 65 attempts inside the opponent's 20. Iowa loses kicker Mike Meyer, a four-year starter. Junior Marshall Koehn seems likely to step up, but could be pushed by incoming freshman Mick Ellis and others.

Maryland: Notice a theme so far? Most Big Ten teams are strong in the return game, and Maryland is no exception. If Stefon Diggs returns at full strength from his leg injury, he'll be a dangerous man with punts and kickoffs in his hands. Will Likely performed extremely well in Diggs' spot, averaging 26 yards on kickoff returns and 12.8 yards on punt returns. Maryland brings back an excellent kicker in Brad Craddock (21-for-25 on field goals last year), and punter Nathan Renfro enters his third season as the starter.

Michigan: Matt Wile has done a bit of everything for Michigan, but could settle into the starting placekicker role this fall. Wile handled kicking duties late last season and also served as Michigan's punter after Will Hagerup was suspended for the season. Hagerup, the Big Ten's punter of the year in 2012, will reclaim the role if he can avoid off-field problems that have surfaced throughout his career. Wile then could focus on kicking, as Kenny Allen is the only other option there. Michigan is still waiting for big things from kick returner Dennis Norfleet and must find someone to handle punts. Top recruit Jabrill Peppers could help.

Michigan State: Special teams once again should be a strength for MSU, which returns All-Big Ten punter Mike Sadler, a Ray Guy award semifinalist who will contend for All-America honors in 2014. Kicker Michael Geiger also is back after connecting on 15 of 16 field-goal attempts as a true freshman. Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Andre Sims Jr. both put up good numbers on punt returns. Michigan State had by far the fewest kick returns (18) in the Big Ten last year and will look for a boost from R.J. Shelton and others.

Minnesota: After an above-average year on special teams in 2013, Minnesota again should be good in the third phase. Punter Peter Mortell didn't get as many accolades as Sadler or Purdue's Cody Webster, but he had an excellent sophomore season, averaging 43.3 yards per attempt with 15 of 50 yards or longer. Marcus Jones is a major threat on returns after bringing back both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last fall. Redshirt freshman kickers Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte will compete as the Gophers lose Chris Hawthorne.

Nebraska: The Huskers are looking for some upgrades on special teams, particularly on punt returns, as Nebraska ranked 123rd in the FBS last fall. Primary returner Jordan Westerkamp is back, but he'll face some competition. Nebraska brings back punter Sam Foltz, who had a solid freshman season, averaging 41.6 yards per boot. Mauro Bondi is set to step in at kicker as Pat Smith departs. If Bondi struggles, incoming freshman Kris Brown could get a look this summer. Kenny Bell, who led the Big Ten in kick return average (26.5 yards per return), is back.

Northwestern: The Wildcats lose a huge piece in Jeff Budzien, named the Big Ten's top kicker in each of his final two seasons. Hunter Niswander can handle both kickoffs and punts but seems likely to slide into Budzien's spot. Northwestern's punting was a mess in 2013, ranking 118th nationally in net average (33.2 ypp). Brandon Williams departs and Chris Gradone or Niswander will take over. The big news is Northwestern brings back Venric Mark , an All-America punt returner in 2012. Primary kick returner Matt Harris is back after a solid freshman season.

Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie. Indeed, the Aussie is back at punter as Cameron Johnston returns after an excellent debut season (I refuse to call a 21-year-old a freshman). Ohio State hopes for similar results from another first-year specialist in kicker Sean Nuernberger, an early enrollee expected to step in for the departing Drew Basil. Sophomore Dontre Wilson will continue to have a big role on returns after handling kickoffs last year. Ohio State must replace Corey Brown on punt returns and could look to redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall or true freshmen Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon.

Penn State: The kicking game continues to be an area of concern.Sam Ficken owns the team record for consecutive field goals (15) and started strong last season but ended with just 15 of 23 conversions, including four misses inside 40 yards. Penn State needs a new punter after losing Alex Butterworth, and will turn to Chris Gulla. Jesse Della Valle did a good job on punt returns, but Penn State needs a boost on kickoffs after finishing last in the league (19.1 yards per return). The Lions could stick with Geno Lewis or look for a newcomer such as De'Andre Thompkins to emerge. PSU also must shore up its coverage units.

Purdue: As if the Boilers didn't have enough to address on offense and defense, the kicking game needs attention. Punter Cody Webster finished his spectacular career with All-America honors, and the Boilers finished second nationally in net punting (41.7 yards per punt). Incoming freshman Austin McGehee will take over for Webster. Paul Griggs and Thomas Meadows continue to work at kicker, as Griggs made only 50 percent of his attempts (6 of 12) last season. The kick return game is strong with Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, but Purdue must replace punt returner Ricardo Allen. B.J. Knauf could be a good fit there.

Rutgers: The kicking game historically is a strength for Rutgers, which has a knack for blocking kicks and pulling off fakes. Rutgers loses a productive piece in punter Nick Marsh, who also handled kickoffs. The Scarlet Knights will turn to Joseph Roth as their replacement. Kicker Kyle Federico finished the season well, particularly in the Pinstripe Bowl, and returns for his junior season. Rutgers has a major weapon on returns in Janarion Grant, who brought back both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown during his freshman season.

Wisconsin: The kicking game has held back Wisconsin in the past, so it's definitely an area to watch during the offseason. Kicker Jack Russell converted 9 of 13 field-goal attempts after taking over for Kyle French. He'll try to hold off incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone. Andrew Endicott, who handled kickoffs last fall, also returns. Wisconsin is looking for more from punter Drew Meyer, who averaged just 38.6 yards per attempt in 2013. Top returner Kenzel Doe is back and should handle both punts and kickoffs, although Wisconsin could look to others for help, such as newcomers Serge Trezy and Natrell Jamerson.

More position breakdowns

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 10

November, 4, 2013
11/04/13
11:00
AM ET
We had our first, full six-game conference day on Saturday, and half of those games came down to the absolute wire.

If you're not at the top end of the Big Ten (hello, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State) or the bottom (sorry, Purdue), chances are you're going to find yourself in a very tight game in November. That's why execution at the end of halves and end of games is so big, and why some of what we saw Saturday was troubling.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesAmeer Abdullah rushed 24 times for 127 yards in Nebraska's thrilling win over Northwestern.
Take Illinois, for example. The Illini moved the ball almost at will at Penn State and had several chances to grab a lead. At the end of the first half, coach Tim Beckman's team displayed atrocious clock-management skills after getting a first-and-goal opportunity. Illinois would have gone to halftime with no points had Penn State not committed a personal-foul penalty with no time left that led to a field goal. The Illini would eventually lose when Nathan Scheelhaase threw an interception on the first play of their overtime possession.

Indiana's transgression was even worse. The Hoosiers had the ball on the Minnesota 9-yard line, trailing 42-39, in the final minute. They then called for a swing pass to running back Tevin Coleman that Nate Sudfeld appeared to deliver a little early. Coleman hadn't yet turned around for the ball and was still behind Sudfeld, making it a lateral. Coleman didn't catch the ball and didn't immediately realize it was live, while the Gophers scooped it up to save the win.

IU coach Kevin Wilson said the swing pass was "not an ideal call." Uh, yeah. It wasn't going to result in a touchdown, and the risk of a backward pass made it a curious choice. Wilson also made another questionable decision earlier, going for the two-point conversion after the Hoosiers had scored to take a 39-35 lead. He explained his reasoning later that Indiana would have a chance to remain tied by blocking a PAT in the event Minnesota scored a touchdown. But what are the odds of that? Had Wilson simply kicked the extra point for the 40-35 lead, the Hoosiers could have later kicked a short field goal for the win.

And then there was the ending of the Northwestern-Nebraska game. By now, you know what happened, with the Huskers winning on a play they call "Geronimo." Ron Kellogg III heaved the ball about 55 yards in the air, where it was tipped by a Northwestern defender into the waiting arms of Jordan Westerkamp.

A crazy fluke of a play? OK, maybe. But the Wildcats -- who say they practice against the Hail Mary every Thursday -- made the unpardonable mistake of not accounting for the deepest receiver in the end zone.

"You can never let someone get behind the pile," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "That's pretty much it."

Northwestern could have avoided the pain of the play if, after reaching the Nebraska 1-yard line on second down in the final two minutes, it had scored a touchdown instead of settling for a field goal.

It's the little things at the end of halves and games that could decide the outcome of some more November Saturdays.

Take that and rewind it back:

Team of the week: Michigan State. The Spartans bullied, battered and bruised Michigan in one of the most impressive defensive performances we've seen in a while. They should be favored in their final three games, even though the next two (at Nebraska and at Northwestern) are on the road. Michigan State fans might actually root for Michigan this week, because a Wolverines' victory over Nebraska this week would give Mark Dantonio's team a two-game lead over everybody in the Legends Division.

Worst hangover: Michigan. This may be a literal, physical hangover for the Wolverines, who were beaten up all day in East Lansing. Devin Gardner looked shell-shocked as his jersey was covered with mud after taking so many hits. At least this week's game is at home. Brady Hoke is just 5-7 in true road games in three years.

Best play: Nothing more needs to be said about Westerkamp's Hail Mary catch. Just enjoy the video again.

Biggest unsung play: The Westerkamp catch would never have happened if not for Ameer Abdullah's heroics earlier on the final Nebraska drive. The Huskers faced fourth-and-15 when Kellogg scrambled and threw a dump-off pass to his running back. Abdullah caught the ball at the 34-yard line and needed to get just past the 39 for a first down. Two Northwestern defenders barreled in on him. But Abdullah shook off a tackle at the 36, got hit near the 38 and then lunged forward with the ball to just cross the first-down marker. Abdullah has left no doubt this season who Nebraska's best player is.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Penn State's Bill Belton ran for 201 yards and a touchdown on 36 carries versus Illinois. All that was nearly forgotten when he fumbled near the goal line late in the fourth quarter. But all was forgiven as the Nittany Lions came back to win in OT.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin/Iowa
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallRB Melvin Gordon was kept in check (17 rushes, 62 yards), but the Badgers rolled Iowa 28-9.
Big Man on Campus (Defense): We could pick just about every Michigan State defender here. We'll single out linebacker Denicos Allen, who had nine tackles, two sacks and another tackle for loss. Allen is having a tremendous season and putting himself in the conversation for first-team All-Big Ten honors at the league's deepest position.

Big Men on Campus (Special teams): Michigan State's Michael Geiger drilled all three of his field goal attempts in a game where offense was at a premium for three quarters, and punter Mike Sadler helped keep Michigan pinned in bad field position by averaging 40.8 yards on five kicks. The Wolverines started three of their drives from the 10-yard line or worse. No surprise there. Michigan State leads the country in punts downed inside the opponent 10, with 15.

A rule that needs review: Wisconsin's Jack Russell appeared to make a 54-yard field goal at the end of the first half, but Iowa had called a timeout just before the snap. The Hawkeyes then proceeded to call two more timeouts in a row, and Russell would finally miss the attempt after several minutes of waiting. Credit Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz for using the ploy, since there is no sense in saving first-half timeouts. But can anyone argue this is good for the game? I don't think teams should be allowed to call more than two consecutive timeouts without a play happening. It disrupts the flow of the game and certainly doesn't embody the spirit of sportsmanship and collegiality the Big Ten claims to prioritize.

Again, that's not a criticism of Ferentz, just the rule. (And am I the only one who thinks of this when discussing whether to put Jack Russell in a timeout situation? Yeah, I probably am).

Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Info):

  • After holding Michigan to minus-48 rushing yards on Saturday, Michigan State's defensive numbers have gone from outstanding to other-worldly. The Spartans are now allowing an average of just 43 rushing yards per game. The next best team in the FBS is Louisville at 82 yards per game. MSU is also giving up just 1.61 yards per rush attempt, which is a full yard lower than any other team in the country. Opponents are gaining zero or negative yardage on 36.5 percent of their attempts against the Spartans, also the highest number in the land, and only 22.7 percent of rushes versus that defense have gone for 5 yards or more. We could go on and on, but you get the point.
  • With its 56-0 win over Purdue following a 63-point effort versus Penn State, Ohio State registered its third back-to-back 50-plus point performance in two seasons under Urban Meyer. The program did that only four times total in the previous 122 seasons. The offense has been incredibly productive, as 38.4 percent of the Buckeyes' plays have gone for either a first down or a touchdown and 53.9 percent of those plays have gone for at least 5 yards. That latter figure is the highest in the FBS.
  • Do bye weeks help? Wisconsin would say yes. The Badgers have won last their past seven games following a bye week, including Saturday's win over Iowa. All of those victories have come by at least 19 points.
  • Penn State's Allen Robinson now ranks second in the nation in receiving yards per game, at 130.4. He trails only Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, who is averaging 149.3 yards per game. What might hurt Robinson come awards time is that he has only six touchdown catches. Cooks, by comparison, has 14. (And remember that Robinson missed half of the season opener because of a suspension).
  • Since October began, Michigan is averaging just 2.69 yards per rush attempt, which is 116th out of 123 teams in that span. (Purdue is dead last at 1.45 yards per attempt). In that same time period, the Wolverines have 63 rushes for zero or negative yards, more than any other FBS team.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Picks Of The Week: Michigan-Michigan State
Trevor Matich makes his pick for an in-state rivalry when Michigan looks to pull off the upset at Michigan State.
VIDEO PLAYLIST video

BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 10/25