Nebraska Cornhuskers: Cole Pensick

Thirty Big Ten players heard their names called during the 2014 NFL draft, but many others received phone calls immediately after the event. The undrafted free-agent carousel is spinning, and players from around the Big Ten are hopping aboard.

Unlike the draft, the UDFA list is somewhat fluid, and other players could get picked up later today or in the coming days. To reiterate: This is not the final list.

Here's what we know right now from various announcements and media reports:

ILLINOIS
  • LB Jonathan Brown, Arizona Cardinals
  • WR Ryan Lankford, Miami Dolphins
  • TE Evan Wilson, Dallas Cowboys
  • WR Steve Hull, New Orleans Saints
  • WR Spencer Harris, New Orleans Saints
Notes: Illini OT Corey Lewis, who battled knee injuries throughout his career, told Steve Greenberg that several teams are interested in him if he's cleared by doctors.

INDIANA
  • WR Kofi Hughes, Washington Redskins
  • RB Stephen Houston, New England Patriots
Notes: S Greg Heban and K Mitch Ewald have tryouts with the Chicago Bears.

IOWA
  • LB James Morris, New England Patriots
  • OT Brett Van Sloten, Baltimore Ravens
  • G Conor Boffeli, Minnesota Vikings
  • WR Don Shumpert, Chicago Bears
  • LS Casey Kreiter, Dallas Cowboys
MARYLAND
  • LB Marcus Whitfield, Jacksonville Jaguars
  • CB Isaac Goins, Miami Dolphins
MICHIGAN
  • LB Cam Gordon, New England Patriots
  • S Thomas Gordon, New York Giants
Notes: RB Fitzgerald Toussaint (Baltimore), DT Jibreel Black (Pittsburgh), LS Jareth Glanda (New Orleans) and DT Quinton Washington (Oakland) will have tryouts.


MICHIGAN STATE
  • LB Denicos Allen, Carolina Panthers
  • S Isaiah Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals
  • T/G Dan France, Cincinnati Bengals
  • WR Bennie Fowler, Denver Broncos
  • LB Max Bullough, Houston Texans
  • DT Tyler Hoover, Indianapolis Colts
  • DT Micajah Reynolds, New Orleans Saints
  • OL Fou Fonoti, San Francisco 49ers
Notes: LB Kyler Elsworth has a tryout scheduled with Washington.

MINNESOTA
  • LB Aaron Hill, St. Louis Rams
NEBRASKA
  • QB Taylor Martinez, Philadelphia Eagles
  • OT Brent Qvale, New York Jets
  • CB Mohammed Seisay, Detroit Lions
  • DE Jason Ankrah, Houston Texans
  • C Cole Pensick, Kansas City Chiefs
  • OT Jeremiah Sirles, San Diego Chargers
Notes: CB Ciante Evans has yet to sign but will do so soon. DB Andrew Green has a tryout with the Miami Dolphins.

NORTHWESTERN
  • WR Kain Colter, Minnesota Vikings
  • K Jeff Budzien, Jacksonville Jaguars
  • WR Rashad Lawrence, Washington Redskins
  • DE Tyler Scott, Minnesota Vikings
OHIO STATE
  • S C.J. Barnett, New York Giants
  • K Drew Basil, Atlanta Falcons
  • WR Corey Brown, Carolina Panthers
  • G Andrew Norwell, Carolina Panthers
  • G Marcus Hall, Indianapolis Colts
  • WR Chris Fields, Washington Redskins
PENN STATE
  • OT Garry Gilliam, Seattle Seahawks
  • LB Glenn Carson, Arizona Cardinals
  • S Malcolm Willis, San Diego Chargers
Notes: OT Adam Gress will have a tryout with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

PURDUE
  • DE Greg Latta, Denver Broncos
  • S Rob Henry, Oakland Raiders
  • G Devin Smith, San Diego Chargers
  • DT Bruce Gaston Jr., Arizona Cardinals
Notes: P Cody Webster will have a tryout with Pittsburgh.

RUTGERS
  • WR Brandon Coleman, New Orleans Saints
  • WR Quron Pratt, Philadelphia Eagles
  • LB Jamal Merrell, Tennessee Titans
  • DE Marcus Thompson, Miami Dolphins
  • S Jeremy Deering, New England Patriots
Notes: According to Dan Duggan, DE Jamil Merrell (Bears) and G Antwan Lowery (Baltimore) will have tryouts.

WISCONSIN
  • G/T Ryan Groy, Chicago Bears
  • TE Jacob Pedersen Atlanta Falcons
  • TE Brian Wozniak, Atlanta Falcons
  • DE Ethan Hemer, Pittsburgh Steelers
Quick thoughts: Martinez's future as an NFL quarterback has been heavily scrutinized, but Chip Kelly's Eagles are a fascinating destination for him. Whether he plays quarterback or another position like safety, Kelly will explore ways to use Martinez's speed. ... The large Michigan State contingent is still a bit startling. The Spartans dominated the Big Ten, beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl, use pro-style systems on both sides of the ball and had just one player drafted. Bullough, Allen and Lewis all were multiple All-Big Ten selections but will have to continue their careers through the UDFA route. ... Colter certainly looked like a draft pick during Senior Bowl practices in January, but that was before his ankle surgery and his role in leading the unionization push at Northwestern. I tend to think the injury impacted his status more, but NFL teams have been known to shy away from so-called locker-room lawyers. ... Other Big Ten standouts like Jonathan Brown, Morris and Pedersen were surprisingly not drafted. Morris should be a great fit in New England. ... Coleman's decision to leave Rutgers early looks questionable now that he didn't get drafted.

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
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Coming at ya from Happy Valley. Dropping in on James Franklin and the Nittany Lions on Wednesday.

To the inbox ...

Ken from Kansas City, Mo., writes: Hey Adam! I loved the "dictator for the day" thread. I just have one suggestion ... since everyone was worried about some teams getting five home games and other teams getting four in a nine-game schedule, and with two bye weeks now due to extending games beyond Thanksgiving, how about every team has one of their conference games played internationally each year, following a bye week? This would: increase international exposure for the B1G, be a cool perk when it came to recruiting -- "your son will get to visit four or five foreign countries during their years at our university" -- and leave everyone with an even 4-4-1 split on conference game locations and make for some cool travel options for the fans.

Adam Rittenberg: Ken, a couple things here. The double-bye thankfully won't be an annual occurrence in college football. It takes place only when Aug. 30 or Aug. 31 falls on a Saturday, as was the case last year and again this fall. Also, Big Ten schools don't want to part with home games, especially for an international site that, while appealing to some, prevents many others from attending. It also disrupts the players' schedule. I like the way you're thinking because exposure is the name of the game, and occasional international events like Penn State's opener this fall make sense. But not every year.


Brian from Baltimore writes: So far PSU and James Franklin are "walking the walk"' as far as dominating recruiting. How surprising is this? After this torrid pace of commitments slows down, how do you see Penn State faring overall for 2015 recruits?

Rittenberg: Brian, while the sheer number of early commits is noteworthy, Franklin's recruiting success certainly is not. He has been regarded as a nationally elite recruiter since his time as a Maryland assistant, and the enthusiasm he brings to Penn State -- and a region where he and several of his assistants already have familiarity -- translates on the trail. Franklin did really well with early commitments in Vanderbilt's 2013 class, as 16 players pledged before the season. If Penn State hangs onto all these recruits and continues to add solid pieces, Franklin will bring in a nationally elite class next February.


Brian from West Michigan writes: If the Northwestern unionizing efforts succeed, are they aware of the unintended consequences that are coming from their actions? For instance, now that they are considered "employees," their scholarship value (upwards of 50K/year depending on the school) is considered compensation and eligible to be taxed. You hear stories of kids being able to use athletics to get them a degree that otherwise they couldn't have afforded. How does a college kid who is now "making" $50K/year scrape up the cash to pay Uncle Sam?

Rittenberg: Brian, the tax question looms large in the debate, and there are different opinions on what the players would be required to pay. Kevin Trahan addresses it well here, quoting several tax experts who say the players will have to pay taxes on their scholarships. College Athletes Players Association president Ramogi Huma, meanwhile, cites a provision in the tax code that states scholarships for "degree candidates" are not taxable. It doesn't sound like tax status will factor into the NLRB's final ruling on whether players are employees, but it's certainly a significant factor for the players as they pursue this route.


Jim from Virginia writes: A lot is made of "skill" positions (top three backfield, etc). Yet, when looking at the offensive and defensive lines, Nebraska seems to be able to make a case for turning a four-loss year last year -- when the offensive line got experience through injuries and the defensive line matured -- into maybe Bo Pelini's best campaign.

Rittenberg: Jim, I agree that Nebraska's ceiling this season largely depends on line play. Randy Gregory provides a major edge-rushing threat for the defensive line, and if Nebraska can stay healthy and generate more from the inside tackles, it should be pretty stout up front. There are more questions along the offensive line, which loses key players such as Spencer Long, Cole Pensick and Jeremiah Sirles. Alex Lewis is a key addition because he brings experience from Colorado. Lewis and Jake Cotton should anchor the left side of the Husker line. Nebraska must build depth and chemistry with the group the rest of the spring and through fall camp. It likely needs younger players such as Givens Price to blossom.


Keith from Kunming, China, writes: Hey Adam,You didn't like the Premier League model for B1G and MAC, but I do. You said it's not realistic to move between leagues, but it is if the B1G and the MAC have a contractual relationship, and the MAC is essentially absorbed into the B1G as a sort of junior league. B1G doesn't "own" MAC programs but it effectively subsidizes them. Michigan will continue to fill its stadium when relegated (oh! the joy in East Lansing!), which will be financially great for the MAC opponents. My only change to the model proposed is that relegation should happen every years, as in England. Why wouldn't this work?

Rittenberg: Keith, first off, thanks for reading from so far away. Although the Big Ten and the MAC have a strong relationship when it comes to scheduling, officiating and other areas, your proposal requires the Big Ten to shoulder a major financial and structural burden, while embarrassing its members in the process. I'm not saying it wouldn't be fun for fans, but does the Big Ten want to be so closely tied with the MAC, which has schools with profiles that differ markedly from those in the Big Ten? Scheduling would be a huge headache because you wouldn't know where certain teams would be. Money would be a problem on several levels, from television audience to stadium size.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- For the first 2½ years of his career at Nebraska, Givens Price heard voices.

Voices at practice. Voices in the meeting room. Voices when he entered the playing rotation at guard in the second half of last season as injuries nearly decimated the offensive line.

Five senior offensive linemen in 2013 -- gone from Nebraska after starting a combined 127 games in their careers -- spoke to Price even when he stood alone on the sideline.

“We are the voices now,” Price said on Monday.

[+] EnlargeNebraska
Randy Litzinger/Icon SMIZach Sterup (57) and Ryne Reeves (65) are among those competing for spots on the Huskers O-line.
The Huskers are rebuilding the line this spring. Through six practices, improvement is steady, according to the linemen and the quarterback they protect, sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr.

“They’re going to get better,” Armstrong said. “We’re expecting that. At the same time, you’ve got to understand that sometimes mistakes are going to happen. They’re all out there to win a spot. They’re all out there to improve and push each other. They come out there and they’re ready to work.”

Despite the departures, Nebraska returns experience, primarily in left guard Jake Cotton, a senior who started 11 games last season. Others show notable promise, and the line, as a group, appears just as physically impressive as the 2013 cast.

Perhaps more impressive, in fact.

“We’ve got to get the mental side down,” Cotton said, “if we want the size to matter.”

Six practices into this spring, Cotton at left guard and junior Zach Sterup at right tackle appear most entrenched. Price has taken the majority of snaps at right guard, though senior Mike Moudy, out with a shoulder injury this spring, figures to compete for the job in August.

At center, senior Mark Pelini and junior Ryne Reeves are splitting time. And at left tackle, Colorado transfer Alex Lewis, a junior who has emerged as a top spring storyline, and redshirt freshman David Knevel, continue to compete.

“I think our whole room is full of competitors,” Cotton said “Some of the guys have come so far in [two weeks]. I wouldn’t have guessed it would go this fast.”

Many of the new candidates to start received an unexpected jump start last season.

With seniors Spencer Long, Jeremiah Sirles, Brent Qvale, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick set to anchor the line, all appeared settled.

But after Long, an offensive captain and All-Big Ten pick in 2012, went down with a knee injury in early October, the injuries mounted. Moudy started three games in place of Long at right guard before the shoulder injury hit.

Cotton missed two games with a knee injury. Sirles and Pensick also missed practice time, forcing position shifts among the experienced linemen and youngsters like Reeves, Sterup, Pelini and Price into action.

Production suffered. Nebraska averaged 42.4 points and 291.6 rushing yards in the five games before Long’s injury; after, it was 25.4 and 168.2.

Still, Armstrong credits the veteran linemen, especially Cotton, with easing the quarterback's transition into the lineup.

“They all sat me down and said, ‘Hey, this is your time,’” Armstrong said. “’We saw how you practiced. Just go out there and have fun. We’re going to have your back 100 percent of the way.’ Jake Cotton said, ‘You’re the guy we want right now, and you’re the guy we need.'

“He told me we were going to win games, and that’s what we did.”

Armstrong finished 7-1 as a starter last season, including a win over Georgia in the Gator Bowl.

Now it’s his turn to help nurture the young linemen.

The play of Lewis at left tackle grabbed Armstrong’s attention this spring. At 6-foot-6 and 290 pounds, Lewis, who started 12 games at Colorado in 2012, has meshed well with Cotton to help protect the QB’s blind side.

Lewis and Cotton, to put in nicely, make their presence known on the practice field.

“That’s double trouble right there,” Armstrong said. “They work hard. They’re outgoing. They’re rowdy. They just keep going.”

Cotton said the group is quickly developing a chemistry.

“You go the extra step to make sure guys are on the same page,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. There’s just something about having open spots, with nothing guaranteed, that’s fun, because the competition is heated. Guys are gunning for spots.”

It will, no doubt, intensify in August as Moudy returns. Also set to join the mix are Nick Gates, D.J. Foster and Tanner Farmer, the most heralded group of linemen signees in coach Bo Pelini’s seven years at Nebraska. Another rookie, Mick Stoltenberg, could fit on the offensive or defensive line.

Regardless of the personnel, they’ll work without the guidance of veterans like Long and Sirles.

“Nothing stops,” Price said. “We’ve got to pick up from where they left off. The dream they had is still the dream we have -- that’s to make it to the Big Ten championship and win the Big Ten championship. It starts in spring football.”
Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.

Big Ten all-bowl team

January, 9, 2014
Jan 9
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The Big Ten went 2-5 in bowl games for the second consecutive season, but there were notable performances around the league, even in losing efforts.

Here's a look at ESPN.com's Big Ten all-bowl squad:

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook threw for 332 yards and two TDs to lead the Spartans to a Rose Bowl win over Stanford.
QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State: He followed his first career 300-yard passing performance in the Big Ten championship with his second in the Rose Bowl against Stanford. Cook overcame an ugly pick-six to pass for a career-high 332 yards and two touchdowns on 22 of 36 attempts. He earned offensive player of the game honors.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: The Badgers featured Gordon, who will return next year, in the Capital One Bowl and received good production, as the sophomore rushed for 143 yards on 25 carries. His fumble in the closing minutes allowed South Carolina to run out the clock, but he showed his typical explosiveness as well as durability that should help him in the 2014 season.

RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: Abdullah ended a tremendous junior season with his 11th 100-yard rushing performance as Nebraska upset Georgia in the Gator Bowl. He finished with 122 rush yards and a touchdown on 27 carries.

WR: Quincy Enunwa, Nebraska: Enunwa ended his Huskers career with his best performance, recording a career-high 129 receiving yards and two touchdowns, including a 99-yarder in the third quarter that proved to be the winner. He broke Nebraska's single-season record with 12 touchdowns and earned bowl MVP honors.

WR: Tony Lippett, Michigan State: MSU leaned on its passing game to open up the deep middle, and Lippett repeatedly attacked Stanford's vulnerable secondary. He had five receptions for a career-high 94 yards, and his 25-yard touchdown reception early in the fourth quarter ended up being the winner. His five receptions marked the most by a Spartans receiver in a Rose Bowl.

TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota: The Gophers' offense wasn't pretty in a disappointing Texas Bowl loss to Syracuse, but Williams again provided a bright spot in a mostly meek passing attack. The freshman led Minnesota with five receptions for 76 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

C: Cole Pensick, Nebraska: Pensick returned to the center spot after playing several games at guard and helped Nebraska to a win. Georgia had only one sack, and the Huskers rushed for 144 yards.

OL: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: Costigan and his fellow linemen held up well against Jadeveon Clowney and Co., as the Badgers racked up 293 rush yards on 43 attempts.

OL: Blake Treadwell, Michigan State: The Spartans' co-captain graded out well in the Rose Bowl as MSU had success moving the ball against a strong Stanford defense.

OL: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin: Like Costigan, Havenstein helped Gordon and James White both eclipse 100 rushing yards against South Carolina, which recorded only one sack in the game.

OL: Jack Allen, Michigan State: Allen was among three Spartans linemen not to allow a sack and aided an offense that racked up 21 first downs and 24 points against Stanford.

DEFENSE

DE: Jason Ankrah, Nebraska: Another Husker who shined in his final college game, Ankrah recorded two sacks, a forced fumble and two quarterback hurries as the line applied good pressure on Georgia backup quarterback Hutson Mason. It marked the first multi-sack performance of Ankrah's career.

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesOhio State's Joey Bosa made plenty of big hits in the Orange Bowl, including this one on Clemson's Tajh Boyd that resulted in a safety after Boyd was called for intentional grounding.
DE: Joey Bosa, Ohio State: If you're looking for reasons to feel optimistic about Ohio State's beleaguered defense, Bosa certainly provides a big one. The freshman made his presence known in the Orange Bowl despite an ankle injury, combining with linebacker Joshua Perry to force a first-quarter safety. He finished with five tackles, including a sack.

DT: Micajah Reynolds, Michigan State: The 307-pound Reynolds clogged the middle and helped Michigan State shut down Stanford's running attack for the final three quarters of the Rose Bowl. He recorded a team-high two tackles for loss and finished with four solo tackles in his final college game.

DT: Thad Randle, Nebraska: Like several Huskers on this list, Randle saved arguably his best performance for his final game. He recorded eight tackles as Nebraska held Georgia to 2.2 yards per rush and only 12 points on six trips inside the red zone.

LB: Kyler Elsworth, Michigan State: Thanks to Elsworth, Max Bullough's absence had little bearing on the Spartans' defense, which limited Stanford to 13 offensive points. Elsworth recorded 1.5 tackles for loss and was the first man in on the decisive fourth-down stop of Stanford's Ryan Hewitt. He earned Rose Bowl defensive player of the game honors.

LB: James Morris, Iowa: Morris ended an excellent senior season with 2.5 tackles for loss, including two sacks, as the defense kept Iowa alive for much of the Outback Bowl against LSU. He finished the season with a team-high eight sacks and eclipsed 400 career tackles.

LB: Denicos Allen, Michigan State: Allen also stepped up in Bullough's absence and sparked Michigan State with 1.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. He helped Michigan State hold Stanford to only three offensive points in the final three quarters.

CB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State: You didn't hear Dennard's name called much during the Rose Bowl because he shut down Stanford's Ty Montgomery and one side of the field. He finished with a tackle for loss and made sure Stanford didn't attack the No Fly Zone in his final game.

CB: Josh Mitchell, Nebraska: Mitchell made two plays to set up Nebraska touchdowns against Georgia: a second-quarter fumble recovery and a third-quarter interception on the first series of the second half. He hadn't had a takeaway all season before the bowl but stepped up at the right time.

S: John Lowdermilk, Iowa: He gave Iowa new life in the third quarter of the Outback Bowl with a 71-yard interception return. It should have been a touchdown, as Lowdermilk dropped the ball short of the goal line, but Iowa scored three plays later to cut LSU's lead in half. Not a bad time for Lowdermilk's first career interception.

S: Cedric Thompson, Minnesota: Thompson recorded a career-high 14 tackles in the Texas Bowl as Minnesota held Syracuse to only 188 pass yards. He also recovered a fumble in Gophers territory in the first quarter as the defense kept Minnesota in the game.

SPECIAL TEAMS

P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie (Oi Oi Oi). Ohio State's Australian import ended a tremendous debut season with a big performance in the Orange Bowl. He averaged 48.2 yards on five punts, with a long of 63 yards, and placed three punts inside Clemson's 20-yard line, including one downed at the Tigers' 1 that set up an Ohio State safety. There were a lot of good choices here (MSU's Mike Sadler and Minnesota's Peter Mortell also were terrific), which says something about the Big Ten's bowl showing.

K: Matt Wile, Michigan: Not many great choices here, but Wile was the only Big Ten kicker to convert multiple field-goal attempts in a bowl. Wile did a nice job filling in for starter Brendan Gibbons in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and also handled punts and kickoffs.

Returner: Kenzel Doe, Wisconsin: Doe kept Wisconsin's hopes alive in the Capital One Bowl with a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown after the Badgers had fallen behind by 10 points. It marked Wisconsin's first kickoff return touchdown in a bowl game and its first since David Gilreath's 97-yard runback on the opening play of the Badgers' win against No. 1 Ohio State in 2010.

Injuries impacted UGA, Nebraska seasons

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
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This season's similarities are striking for the combatants in this season's TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Georgia and Nebraska. Perhaps the most notable similarity between the Bulldogs (8-4) and Cornhuskers (8-4), though, is the numerous injuries that helped prevent them from playing up to their potential.

ESPN.com's David Ching and Mitch Sherman discussed how injuries affected the teams' seasons and what might have been if not for all the physical ailments.

1. Out of all of the injuries they sustained this season, which one was the costliest and why?

Ching: There are a lot of directions you could go here, but Todd Gurley's ankle injury and ensuing three-and-a-half-game absence probably hurt the most. Gurley is one of the biggest difference-makers in the country, and Georgia's potent offense simply wasn't as good without him in the lineup -- particularly when fellow tailback Keith Marshall suffered a season-ending knee injury the week after Gurley went down against LSU. It's not a coincidence that Georgia bounced back from a two-game losing streak upon Gurley's return, nor that the Bulldogs went 4-1 down the stretch once he was back. He totaled 755 yards and 10 touchdowns in those five games.

Sherman: Taylor Martinez began this season as most indispensable Husker -- and by November, we saw why. Without the fifth-year senior, who started a school-record 43 games at quarterback, including four this season, the Nebraska offense shifted from the strength of this team to a liability. The Huskers failed to gain 400 yards in each of their final four games. Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III performed admirably, but their numbers paled in comparison to the production expected from a healthy Martinez. In good position to become the second QB in FBS history to surpass 9,000 career passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards, he suffered the fateful foot injury in Nebraska’s season opener. By mid-September, his limitations were painfully apparent, stamped into the record books with losses to UCLA and Minnesota in Martinez’s final two starts.

2. Which position group dealt with the most injury issues?

Sherman: Problems on the offensive line began on the opening series of the sixth game against Purdue as All-Big Ten right guard Spencer Long went down with a season-ending knee injury. Long was the leader of the line and a motivating force for the entire team as a senior captain and former walk-on turned solid NFL prospect. As soon as his linemates began to wear Long’s jersey No. 61 as a tribute, the injury bug spread. First, it was left guard Jake Cotton. Tackles Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale, despite staying in the lineup, dealt with injuries, too, as did center-turned-guard Cole Pensick. Long’s replacement, Mike Moudy, missed the final four games. The injuries hurt most in practice, and Long’s injury got the snowball rolling. Before the Purdue game, Nebraska rushed for 285 yards or more in four of five games. After Purdue, it never topped 195 on the ground.

Ching: Georgia's safeties could make a reasonable argument here, but let's go with the receivers. Malcolm Mitchell suffered perhaps the most bizarre injury of the season when he tore an ACL while leaping into the air to celebrate Gurley's 75-yard touchdown run against Clemson on the Bulldogs' second offensive possession of the fall. Justin Scott-Wesley, who essentially caught the game-winning touchdown passes in the fourth quarter against South Carolina and LSU, tore an ACL while covering a punt against Tennessee. Michael Bennett and Chris Conley also missed multiple games with midseason injuries, and junior college transfer Jonathon Rumph didn't play until Game 8 against Florida after injuring his hamstring in August. Because of the regular lineup shuffling, six Bulldogs have at least 20 catches this season.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIGeorgia went 4-1 after sophomore RB Todd Gurley returned to the lineup, and the only loss was the 'Miracle at Jordan-Hare.'
3. What do you think this team might have accomplished if health hadn't become such a factor?

Ching: I hesitate to say Georgia would have been a BCS title contender because its defense was probably not championship caliber. But it's hard to predict what might have been with any certainty since the Bulldogs started losing key contributors in the first quarter of the first game. I'll go so far as to say the Bulldogs at least would have won a third straight SEC East title and been in the running for an at-large BCS bowl spot. With Aaron Murray, who suffered a season-ending knee injury of his own against Kentucky, at the trigger and an impressive array of skill talent, this had the potential to be the scariest offense Georgia has ever put on the field, but we never saw the full complement for even one full game.

Sherman: It’s difficult to quantify in wins and losses, considering the other problems that plagued these Huskers, notably with turnovers and on special teams. Nebraska could have outscored Minnesota with a healthy Martinez and Long. And it’s likely that the second-half meltdown against UCLA never would have happened if Martinez was operating at full strength. The Huskers moved the ball well in a 41-28 loss to Michigan State. Injuries weren’t the issue against the Spartans; turnovers were, but freshmen committed all five. And Martinez, while turnover-prone since his freshman season, torched the Spartans a year ago. But even at 10-2, Nebraska would have missed a repeat trip to the Big Ten title game.
Running back Ameer Abdullah and defensive end Randy Gregory were consensus first-team All-Big Ten picks, the league announced on Monday.

Abdullah, a junior, and the sophomore Gregory were selected by Big Ten coaches and media.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
AP Photo/Nati HarnikJunior Ameer Abdullah, who has gained 1,568 yards rushing, was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten pick.
Ciante Evans also was named to the first team by the coaches. Evans and fellow senior cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste were second-team honorees by the media.

Senior center Cole Pensick made the coaches' second team.

Abdullah leads the Big Ten and ranks seventh nationally with 1,568 rushing yards. The total ranks him fifth all time on Nebraska's single-season list. He was a second-team all-conference pick by the coaches last year after rushing for 1,137 yards. He could become the first player in Nebraska history next year to reach 1,000 yards in three seasons.

Gregory, in his first year at Nebraska, leads the Big Ten with 9½ sacks and ranks second to Ryan Shazier in tackles for loss with 15½. A former Purdue recruit, Gregory transferred to Nebraska before this season from Arizona Western Community College.

Abdullah and Gregory are both eligible to enter the NFL draft this season. They have not indicated plans to leave school early.

Evans earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from ESPN.com a year ago and was named honorable mention by the coaches. He set a Nebraska record for a defensive back with 10½ tackles for loss this season and intercepted four passes.

Jean-Baptiste also recorded four interceptions and ranked fifth in the league with 11 pass breakups.

Honorable-mention recognition from the coaches went to defensive end Jason Ankrah, receiver Kenny Bell, safety Corey Cooper and offensive linemen Jeremiah Sirles and Andrew Rodriguez. Media honorable mention went to Ankrah, Bell, Pensick, Rodriguez, Sirles and place-kicker Pat Smith.

Five things: Iowa-Nebraska

November, 29, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Iowa hasn't beaten Nebraska at Memorial Stadium since 1943 as it visits for the second time as a Big Ten foe on Saturday (noon ET, ABC.) Here's what we'll be watching:

[+] EnlargeRon Kellogg
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesSenior Ron Kellogg III, a former walk-on, could be in line for his first career start on Saturday.
1. The Nebraska quarterback: Who will it be? The Huskers never made an announcement on a starter this week, perhaps because they're simply not sure if freshman Tommy Armstrong is healthy enough to go on his injured ankle. Or maybe it's because Nebraska wanted to build the suspense on Senior Day before handing former walk-on Ron Kellogg III his first career start. We're going with the latter. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck said redshirt freshman Ryker Fyfe would be ready if needed, which might mean Armstrong is hurt worse than we know.

2. The Senior Day effect: The fifth-year guys among Nebraska's 23 seniors -- players like linemen Brent Qvale, Cole Pensick and Jeremiah Sirles, quarterback Taylor Martinez and defensive back Andrew Green -- were part of the first group scouted and signed by Nebraska coach Bo Pelini after a full year to recruit. In other words, they were his kind of guys. And say what you want about Nebraska's fall from the national radar, these seniors were tough. They've led the Huskers to eight straight wins in games decided by seven points or fewer, including the overtime victory last week at Penn State. Emotions will run high before kickoff.

3. Ameer Abdullah's durability: The Huskers' junior I-back has answered every question through 11 games. But he has averaged 24.5 carries per game over the past four weeks. If he's getting tired, this is not the right opponent to face. Iowa's rushing defense ranks 20th nationally, allowing 123.6 yards per game. Abdullah needs 17 yards to record the fifth 1,500-yard season in Nebraska history. As long as he has plenty of gas in the tank, Abdullah is a good bet to get to 1,600 on Friday.

4. Iowa's downhill running attack: Led by bruiser Mark Weisman, the Hawkeyes do nothing fancy in the running game. They'll line up and pound it at the Huskers. It worked with decent success for Penn State a week ago, but Nebraska stiffened after halftime. The Blackshirts continue to show improvement and climb the charts statistically as the young linemen and linebackers grow into their roles. Iowa has been especially potent in the first half this year, so the importance of a good start defensively for Nebraska is magnified. One way to set the tone? Get ahead in the turnover department, a problem for both teams this year.

5. The white elephant in the room: We can't finish without mentioning the uncertain status of Pelini, who has taken the Huskers within one win of a sixth straight nine-win season. Still, Nebraska appears no closer to the nation's elite than three years ago, and the school's administration, given ample opportunities, has offered little public support for the coach. It's policy for first-year athletic director Shawn Eichorst to stay quiet on personnel matters, but there's a tense moment or two on tap for Nebraska in the wake of this regular-season finale, win or lose.

Five things: Nebraska-Penn State

November, 23, 2013
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Nebraska returns to State College, Pa., for its first visit since a three-point win in the days after Joe Paterno was fired in November 2011. Much different circumstances exist this time.

Here’s what to watch:

Nebraska’s attempt to slow Allen Robinson: With apologies to Nebraska I-back Ameer Abdullah and defensive end Randy Gregory, Penn State’s junior wideout is the best player in this game. Robinson leads the Big Ten in receptions and receiving yards and forms a dynamic duo with freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg. The Nittany Lions will find a way to create favorable matchups for Robinson. It’s up to the Huskers' much-improved defense to play well in coverage and make tackles when Robinson gets the ball.

The turnover battle: Nebraska has struggled to take care of the football over its past five games, committing 16 turnovers. Nearly as troubling, it’s forced only three for a minus-13 margin that ranks last nationally over that period. Five turnovers last week in Lincoln cost Nebraska a chance to beat Michigan State. Penn State isn’t much better in this area, ranking 99th in turnover margin to the Huskers’ 106th. This sounds like the mantra week after week for the Huskers, but they need to play a clean game offensively and on special teams.

The O-line woes: More trouble struck the Nebraska offensive line this week as Cole Pensick, the Huskers’ center turned guard, missed practice time because of a knee injury suffered against the Spartans. Pensick, tackle Jeremiah Sirles, and guards Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy are all questionable to play in State College. That leaves a patchwork group that might include sophomores Givens Price, Ryne Reeves and Zach Sterup in addition to junior Mark Pelini and senior Brent Qvale. At this point, it’s amazing that the Huskers’ pass protection and run game have held up. Credit O-line coach John Garrison and his men for their fight.

Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s mindset: To date, the Huskers’ redshirt freshman quarterback has proven resilient at handling everything from a flurry of turnovers to hostile crowds and uncertainty over his playing time. But in five starts before last week, he never dealt with a loss. As Armstrong heads back into a huge stadium on the road, his confidence and poise might have taken a hit, considering that two of his fumbles against the Spartans led directly to touchdowns. Keep an eye on how he rebounds.

The Huskers’ mood: Nebraska players and coaches said all the right things this week. The Huskers are eliminated from contention for a league title with two games left for the first time since 2007. Pride remains a key source of motivation. It’s been a tough week in Nebraska, though, with negativity swirling and speculation at an six-year high over the job status of the head coach. Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst is predictably quiet about Bo Pelini. The Huskers are adopting a bunker mentality, but if adversity strikes again, how will they respond, knowing the climate back home is ripe for controversy?

Planning for success: Nebraska

November, 21, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- When your dreams are dashed and most of your goals gone, there’s just one way to react, according to Nebraska I-back Ameer Abdullah.

"Move on,” he said. “That’s part of college football.”

Nebraska finds itself out of position to win a conference title with two regular-season games to play for the first time since 2007.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsNebraska's Ameer Abdullah is looking to post his third season of rushing for over 1,000 yards.
The Cornhuskers said the situation makes no difference in their preparation for a visit Saturday to Penn State. Nebraska faces Iowa next week with incentive still to win nine games for a sixth consecutive season.

Actually, a 10-win season -- bowl game included -- remains possible.

The plan for Nebraska success in State College involves tapping a strong reserve of pride.

“We have too high character of guys to have a letdown,” senior offensive tackle Brent Qvale said. “I think we’ll be doing just fine. But if there is any lull, it’s going to be up to myself and the rest of the seniors to really push everyone along and make sure we are executing in finishing out the season the right way.”

Nine wins is a big deal.

“It’s the No. 1 thing we’re working for right now,” linebacker David Santos said.

It helps that the Huskers match in these final two weeks against the Nittany Lions and Hawkeyes.

Nebraska and Penn State share a notable history as nonconference foes. In Big Ten play, the Huskers won the first two meetings, including an emotional-wrapped 17-14 victory at Beaver Stadium two years ago in the wake of Joe Paterno's firing.

Iowa and Nebraska share a border and a Big Ten-assigned, post-Thanksgiving rivalry.

The Huskers continue to deal with injuries. Another starter on the offensive line is doubtful for Saturday as center-turned-guard Cole Pensick fights a knee injury suffered last week in Nebraska’s 41-28 loss to Michigan State.

Pensick’s injury brings to four the number of top-unit offensive linemen who are not healthy. All-Big Ten guard Spencer Long went down against Purdue with a season-ending knee injury. He was followed to the sideline by guard Jake Cotton, tackle Jeremiah Sirles and Long’s replacement, Mike Moudy.

Still, Nebraska found a way rush for 182 yards against the Spartans, nearly twice as many as any foe had gained against MSU this season.

“There’s a lot of character on this football team,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said.

Individually, many goals remain. Abdullah is a semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award, presented to the nation’s top running back. He’s also in contention to be named the Big Ten’s offensive player of the year.

But the junior, who has rushed for more than 100 yards in nine of the Huskers’ 10 games, is more concerned about his team.

“I feel like, as a team, we’re a pretty prideful bunch,” Abdullah said. “We want to win, and we want to get the bad taste of a loss out of our mouths. We are going to do everything we can this week to ensure that we can do that.”

What we learned: Week 12

November, 17, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska dropped from contention in the Big Ten Legends Division race with a 41-28 loss to Michigan State on Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Here’s what we learned:

1. The Huskers can’t get out of their own way. The turnover problems of past seasons began to emerge in October. But nothing suggested Nebraska would fall apart like this. The Huskers fumbled on their third offensive play. Tommy Armstrong Jr. threw an interception on the sixth play. When it was over, Nebraska committed five turnovers, moving to minus-13 over its past five games -- dead last among 126 FBS teams. All five turnovers on Saturday occurred in Nebraska territory, including three inside the 25-yard line.

2. The injury problems aren’t going away: Nebraska’s offensive line remains a mess. On Saturday, only right tackle Jeremiah Sirles started at his normal position. And Sirles, hurt last week against Michigan, sat out the second half. Otherwise, we saw tackle Andrew Rodriguez at guard, center Cole Pensick at center and backup Mark Pelini in the middle. Brent Qvale started at left tackle for the second straight week. Mike Moudy and Jake Cotton missed the game in addition to Spencer Long, who’s out for the year. Quarterback Taylor Martinez and receiver Jamal Turner sat out again.

3. Nebraska’s special teams still aren’t special: As if the turnovers weren’t bad enough, Michigan State decisively won the kicking game. The Huskers’ return game is non-existent. Jordan Westerkamp muffed another punt. His first-quarter gaffe gave Michigan State possession at the Nebraska 8-yard line, leading to a touchdown. In coverage, the Huskers allowed a 26-yard punt return to Macgarrett Kings Jr. and were flagged for a kick-catch interference penalty. Additionally, Michigan State’s game-icing touchdown came after the Spartans executed a fake field goal as punter Mike Sadler followed a blocker through the middle of the Nebraska line on a fourth-and-1 early in the fourth quarter.

Five things: Michigan State-Nebraska

November, 16, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Sparty comes calling for Nebraska at Memorial Stadium on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET. It’s time to learn if the Legends Division race is all but over, or if it'll stretch to the weekend after Thanksgiving. Here’s what to watch:

Tommy Armstrong Jr.'s composure. We’ve talked for much of the past two months about Nebraska’s uncertainty at the quarterback position. So why stop now, with all drama seemingly set aside? Armstrong is entrenched as the starter, and he produced a performance last week at Michigan that looked like a coming-of-age moment, particularly the winning drive. The freshman is poised beyond his years, but the Michigan State defense poses a test unlike any that he’s faced.

Nebraska’s surging defense. Is it for real? The Blackshirts’ progress over the past two weeks looks real. You don’t keep two foes out of the end zone on 17 straight drives with smoke and mirrors. But the Huskers defense has teased us before. Remember Purdue? That near shutout came before Minnesota punched Nebraska in the mouth. Consider the level of competition the past two weeks; it’s not great. But neither are the Spartans on offense, so perhaps the Huskers will extend their strong defensive play another week.

The Spartans D: No doubt, these guys are for real. Michigan State brought nearly half of this starting group to Lincoln two years ago, losing 24-3. Last year in East Lansing, the Huskers scored in the final seconds to win 28-24. Some wondered this week if the Spartans might lack for confidence because of the past two years. Unlikely. If anything, the Michigan State defense will come out hungrier, more angry and aggressive.

The Huskers’ O-line: Who’s going to play and where? First, guards Spencer Long and Jake Cotton went down with knee injuries. Then left tackle Jeremiah Sirles suffered the same fate. Now, replacement guard Mike Moudy is doubtful with a shoulder injury. That’s four starters at three positions, if you’re counting. Cotton might try to come back, but the fact remains that Nebraska will field a patchwork group, led by Cole Pensick, the center who may have to play guard, tackle-turned-guard Andrew Rodriguez and tackle Brent Qvale, who has flipped from the right to left side.

Special teams and turnovers: Michigan State has developed into an efficient offensive team since its September loss to Notre Dame. The Spartans rank second in the Big Ten in turnover margin. They execute well on special teams. Nebraska, meanwhile, has fallen into old habits over the past four games after posting a positive turnover margin in the season’s first five games. It’s minus-8 since Oct. 12. That won’t be good enough against the Spartans. The Huskers must also find a way to at least break even in the punting game.

Five things: Nebraska-Michigan

November, 9, 2013
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The time is over for Nebraska to revel in last week’s Hail Mary win. As the Huskers visit Michigan on Saturday, here’s what we’ll be watching:

Road woes: We all remember what happened the last time the Huskers left home. They lost to Minnesota for the first time since 1960. Nebraska’s last loss to Michigan came way back in 2011 in the Huskers’ most recent trip to the Big House. The Wolverines won 45-17, part of their FBS-best 19-game home winning streak. The Huskers, over that same time, are 7-8 away from Lincoln.

The QB situation: Tommy Armstrong Jr. will start for the fifth time this year, but look for Ron Kellogg III to spell him early if the redshirt freshman plays like you’d expect a rookie to play in the Big House. Armstrong has thrown three interceptions in each of his past two starts. Kellogg, of course, delivered the big throws in the Huskers’ potentially season-changing, comeback win over Northwestern. Nebraska likely must rely on others around Armstrong -- notably I-back Ameer Adbullah -- to carry a heavy load.

Still hurting: Injuries have hit the Huskers hard, especially on the offensive side. Receiver Jamal Turner will sit again, but Kenny Bell is back at the position. Tight end Jake Long is also set to return. Left guard Jake Cotton, who went down last week, remains out, forcing Andrew Rodriguez inside. The line is a patchwork group, with Mike Moudy in for Spencer Long, who’s out for the year. Center Cole Pensick has spent time at guard, too. Nebraska has surrendered eight sacks in two games, and pass protection is still a top concern.

Defensive momentum: Nebraska started poorly last week, a continuation of its showing from the Minnesota game. But the change to a simplified scheme midway through the first half provided good results against Northwestern. Nebraska stopped the injury-hampered Wildcats on 11 straight possessions, then produced a defensive stand in the final minutes to force a field goal and enable Kellogg’s game-winning march. Was it an anomaly or a sign of things to come? Answers arrive on Saturday.

The first of many?: If Nebraska escapes Ann Arbor, another big moment is set for next week as Michigan State visits Lincoln. That game won’t mean much to the Legends Division race if Michigan dispatches the Huskers. And if the Huskers manage to beat Michigan and Michigan State for a second straight year, the high-wire act continues at Penn State. We're getting way down the road, but you get the point. The margin for error is slim in November -- Saturday included.
The numbers don’t look good for Nebraska.

Michigan is 19-0 at home under coach Brady Hoke in three years. Over that same time, Nebraska is 7-8 away from home, including a 6-4 mark in Big Ten opponents’ stadiums.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesTommy Armstrong Jr. struggled in his only road start, throwing three interceptions Oct. 12 at Purdue.
When the Huskers visit the Wolverines on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC), the visitors won’t take good memories of their last trip to Michigan Stadium -- a 45-17 loss in 2011.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., Nebraska’s expected starter, of course, wasn’t there two years ago. He’s started just one road game, Oct. 12 at Purdue, and threw three interceptions before he was replaced in the second half.

Northwestern also intercepted Armstrong three times last week in Lincoln.

So how will the Huskers and their young quarterback survive the mayhem of the Big House and more than 100,000 fans?

“We’ve just got to make sure we don’t turn the ball over and give our defense a chance,” Armstrong said. “They’re starting to click at the right time.”

The Blackshirts held Northwestern scoreless on 11 consecutive drives from midway through the second quarter until the Wildcats kicked a go-ahead field goal in the final two minutes. The Huskers will likely need a similar effort against Michigan, which is averaging 46.6 points in five home games this year.

“I guess I can’t really explain it,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said of the Wolverines’ elevated play at home. “I know I feel a lot more comfortable here, playing at home, because of our crowd and the energy they bring.

“I’m sure Michigan shares the same thing. I’ve played in Ann Arbor, and they’ve got a good fan base. The place will be loud. It’s 110,000 people, so obviously that gives them an advantage. We have to understand that going in.”

Another key for Nebraska involves stability on the offensive line. It lost All-Big Ten guard Spencer Long against Purdue last month. Guard Jake Cotton went down last week with a sprained knee ligament.

The Huskers may shift tackles Andrew Rodriguez or Brent Qvale to guard or move center Cole Pensick and play backup Mark Pelini at center.

Regardless, they must avoid mistakes like the three penalties that cost Nebraska a pair of scoring opportunities in the fourth quarter against Northwestern.

“We’ve got to find guys who can step up,” left tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. “And when they step up, they’ve got to step up with a purpose. We have a standard that we set. It stays the same, no matter who’s in there.”
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Only twice in its illustrious history has Nebraska averaged 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing in the same season.

Only once – last season – has it reached 250 rushing and 200 passing.

Through six games this fall, the Huskers sit at 285 rushing and 205 passing. Granted, three of the Big Ten’s top four rushing defenses – Michigan State, Iowa and Michigan – await Nebraska in November, and the other top unit against the run, Ohio State, might well be there for the Huskers in Indianapolis on Dec. 7 if things go as planned in Lincoln.

Regardless, credit the Nebraska offensive line, whose members talked in August of ranking as a vintage Huskers group. That’s a mouthful at a school that won six Outland Trophies and 13 NCAA rushing titles in the 1980s and 1990s alone.

[+] EnlargeSpencer Long
Reese Strickland/US PresswireSpencer Long will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury, forcing a shift on the Nebraska offensive line.
These guys have held their own, though, allowing a FBS-low three sacks in the season’s first half.

Now they meet their biggest challenge, the test the Nebraska linemen hoped they would never face: the loss of Spencer Long. How they respond will define the way they are remembered.

“From here on out, we’re playing for Spencer,” said junior Mike Moudy, Long’s likely replacement at right guard next Saturday when Nebraska visits Minnesota. “We’ve got the drive to compete for him. Without him, we wouldn’t be where we’re at. But everyone’s just taking that in stride and saying we’re going to give our all to Spence.”

Long meant so much to his teammates. He was a throwback to the great linemen of Huskers past – a walk-on from Elkhorn, Neb., who toiled on the scout team, earned his scholarship, then all-conference honors and a recognition as a captain in his fifth-year senior season.

He started 33 games. He remains a top student, majoring in pre-med. He’ll probably be a doctor, even if the NFL delays his continued studies.

He went down on the fifth play from scrimmage last week in the Huskers’ 44-7 win at Purdue. Long was hustling around the backside of a rush by Imani Cross and fell over the legs of defensive end Ryan Russell. Long’s left knee buckled.

Coach Bo Pelini was among the first to reach him on the ground. Long underwent surgery Thursday to repair a torn MCL. Don’t bet against his return in time to work for NFL scouts ahead of the May 8-10 NFL draft.

“What happened to Spencer sucks,” senior left tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. “There’s no way around it. His career got cut short here at Nebraska, but a lot of young guys have got great opportunities now.

“We’re going to honor Spencer with our effort. We’re going to honor Spencer with the way we play, because he was our captain. We followed him.”

Who will they follow now? Perhaps Sirles, a veteran of 34 starts, fellow seniors Andrew Rodriguez at right tackle and center Cole Pensick. With Moudy and junior Jake Cotton at left guard, the offensive line is still a seasoned group.

Coaches have talked this week of shifting Pensick, using untested Ryne Reeves or Givens Price or even pulling the redshirt from junior college transfer Chongo Kondolo.

It will work best if Moudy sticks. He fits the pedigree at 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, another top student who has worked in the program for four years. As recently as last season, Moudy spent time on the scout team. Pelini said he noticed a big jump in the spring.

What happened?

“Probably just wanting to play, “Moudy said. “The desire to play. I kind of got tired of sitting on the scout team. I had to take another step mentally.”

Long, with Cotton and offensive line coach John Garrison, aided Moudy in his ascent.

He began to prove himself at Purdue. Moudy allowed one sack but otherwise played well.

The other linemen chided him for the mistake.

“He did a great job,” Sirles said, “but he’s going to held to the same standard Spencer was held to. People are like, ‘Oh, that’s not fair.' But we all hold ourselves to a high standard. It doesn’t matter who’s out there playing.”

Injuries such as this one are all too common over the past two seasons at Nebraska. Senior defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler went down last year during the Huskers’ regular-season finale against Iowa.

The defense did not respond well as Wisconsin and Georgia gouged Nebraska for 115 points in subsequent games.

I-back Rex Burkhead, a leader and motivational figure in the same vein as Long, missed six games of his senior year with a knee injury last season. In his place, the Huskers found a new star, Ameer Abdullah, and hardly missed a beat.

Which path will the offensive line take over the next six weeks? It figures to define their legacy.

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