Nebraska Cornhuskers: Jordan Westerkamp

Michigan's defense controlled play throughout the spring game Saturday at Michigan Stadium, echoing a theme throughout most of the league that day.

Several Big Ten squads held scrimmages or open practices, and the defenses had the edge in most of them. The offenses stepped up in a few, and several quarterbacks appear to be separating themselves.

Let's recap the weekend scrimmages. (Note: Scrimmages that were closed to the media and had no available statistics.)

WISCONSIN

Despite a new-look front seven and several position changes, Wisconsin's defense dominated Saturday's scrimmage. Cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary both had good days against an undermanned receiving corps, and coach Gary Andersen called the quarterback play very average. "We have a long way to go in the throw game, and that's disappointing," Andersen said. "If we want to be a good team, we have to figure that out." The defense also shined against the run, even against top backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement.

PURDUE

Technically, the Boilers' offense won Saturday's jersey scrimmage at Ross-Ade Stadium. But the defense looked stronger for much of the day, recording seven sacks and two takeaways. Unofficially, five Boilers recorded sacks, including two from tackle Michael Rouse III, who finished with three tackles for loss. Coach Darrell Hazell said of the defensive line, "They played in the [offensive] backfield."

Top quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby struggled, combining to complete 21 of 42 passes for 205 yards with a touchdown (Etling) and an interception (Appleby). Running back Raheem Mostert highlighted the offense with 134 yards and two touchdowns on only nine carries. Mostert is making a strong push this spring to be Purdue's No. 1 running back.

MINNESOTA

The Gophers' defense loses top performers Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen from last fall's unit, but it controlled play on Saturday. Minnesota's D held the offense without a point on its first seven possessions in the scrimmage. Safety Cedric Thompson had an excellent interception off a deflection on the first drive. The offense picked it up later in the scrimmage, as quarterback Mitch Leidner found KJ Maye for a 50-yard touchdown strike, and both Leidner and Berkley Edwards had long touchdown runs.

NEBRASKA

Here's one offense that flexed its muscles on Saturday after being subdued earlier in the week. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. had an "efficient" performance, according to coach Bo Pelini, as he continues to look like the team's top signal-caller. Armstrong ran for two touchdowns. Sophomore Terrell Newby received a lot of work at running back as Ameer Abdullah sat out, and receiver Jordan Westerkamp turned a short pass into a long gain. Defensive tackle Aaron Curry left the field with a neck injury, but Pelini thinks he'll be fine.

MICHIGAN STATE

The offense recorded a 27-25 win against the defense in MSU's first spring jersey scrimmage, as quarterback Connor Cook completed 15 of 21 passes for 187 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Wide receiver DeAnthony Arnett, who has been relatively quiet since transferring from Tennessee, had five receptions for 67 yards and a touchdown. Tyler O'Connor, competing for the backup quarterback job, had a good day (10-for-15 passing, 132 yards, TD).

After allowing a touchdown on the opening possession, the defense forced four consecutive stops. Standouts included safety Kurtis Drummond (six tackles, 1 TFL, interception), end Shilique Calhoun (two sacks) and linebacker Chris Frey, an early enrollee, who had two sacks and three tackles for loss.

ILLINOIS

The Illini had their second off-site practice of the spring, traveling to Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield for a controlled scrimmage on Friday night. Quarterback Wes Lunt continues to look like Illinois' starter. According to Rivals.com's Doug Buchson, Lunt completed his first 14 pass attempts against the second-string defense for about 250 yards and two touchdowns. Freshman wideout Mike Dudek continues his strong spring, and receiver Geronimo Allison had a 45-yard touchdown catch from Lunt.

Defensive linemen Kenny Nelson and DeJazz Woods stood out against the second-team offensive line, consistently penetrating the backfield. Cornerback Caleb Day also looked good.

RUTGERS

The most important thing coming out of Rutgers' first spring scrimmage was some clarity at quarterback, as Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano all worked with the first-team offense. Although a rash of injuries made it tough to get a true gauge, Bimonte had the best day, leading two touchdown drives. Coach Kyle Flood said all three signal-callers will continue to work with the top offense. Flood singled out defensive linemen Darius Hamilton and Kemoko Turay for their play during the scrimmage.

NORTHWESTERN

Like several other Big Ten teams, Northwestern can't have full-blown scrimmages because of its injury situation. But the Wildcats had their top units match up for stretches of Saturday's practice on the lakefront. Trevor Siemian entered the spring as the No. 1 quarterback and appears to be ending it the same way. Siemian looked sharp on his first series, completing all three of his attempts. Dropped passes were a problem for much of the day, but wide receiver Kyle Prater, a USC transfer who has battled injuries for much of his career, had a one-handed grab on a pass from Zack Oliver. Cornerback Matt Harris and safety Kyle Queiro both made plays for the defense.

OHIO STATE

The Buckeyes invited students inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for Saturday's practice, creating some cool scenes. Several young players stood out, namely cornerback Eli Apple, who had two interceptions and a big hit. Running back Curtis Samuel, an early enrollee, also sparked the crowd with a 50-yard touchdown run. Linebacker has been an area of concern for Ohio State, but Darron Lee and Chris Worley both made some plays on the outside. Ezekiel Elliott is looking more like Ohio State's top running back, as he showed his size and versatility during the practice.
LINCOLN, Neb. – Spring is for competition. Preparation can largely wait until August. Now is the time to wage battles on the practice field.

Nebraska is 60 percent finished with spring practice. Just five workouts remain until the April 12 Red-White game, for which more than 41,000 tickets have been sold.

At some positions, this time has served only to more deeply entrench top players. I-back Ameer Abdullah, receiver Kenny Bell, cornerback Josh Mitchell, defensive end Randy Gregory and left guard Jake Cotton need not worry about losing their starting jobs.

[+] EnlargeSam Burtch
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesSam Burtch, who Bo Pelini says is headed for a scholarship, continues to impress after three touchdown catches in 2013.
Others, such as left tackle Alex Lewis, nickelback Charles Jackson and safety LeRoy Alexander, have made strong moves to win positions.

Here’s a look at the three battles that have only intensified as the spring progressed:

  • Cornerback opposite Mitchell. With the departure of Stanley Jean-Baptiste, junior Jonathan Rose appeared poised to win a starting spot this spring. Rose had the advantage of two years in the program after transferring in 2012 from Auburn. A former elite recruit out of Alabama, he worked primarily with the top defense early in spring. But as Jackson emerged at nickel, the Huskers felt comfortable shifting newcomer Byerson Cockrell to cornerback. Now, Rose, at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, and the 6-foot, 185-pound Cockrell, who played safety last year in junior college, look nearly interchangeable at corner. “I like everything about Byerson Cockrell,” coach Bo Pelini said on Monday. “I think he’s physical. I think he’s really picked things up well. He’s fast. He competes. He can change direction. He plays with an attitude. He’s going to help us.”
  • Middle linebacker. Sophomore Michael Rose began the spring with a sizable edge over the competition to remain as the Huskers’ No. 1 option in the heart of the defense. Rose, who recorded a Nebraska freshman-record 66 tackles last year, figures hold his starting job, but he has competition. Classmate Josh Banderas took snaps ahead of Rose with the first-team defense on Monday, Pelini said. He said the Huskers want to continue to “tweak” the spot and ensure versatility. More than likely, they also want to push Rose, who made 40 tackles in the Huskers’ final four regular-season games, including 17 against Iowa. Banderas, who played well at time as a freshman last fall, had worked primarily at Buck linebacker this spring. The shifts Monday, as Nebraska returned from a 10-day break, no doubt, reminded all among a young group of linebackers that the competition remains fierce.
  • Wide receiver. Aside from Bell, who is on track to leave Nebraska after next season with an armful of career records, competition continues at slot receiver between sure-handed sophomore Jordan Westerkamp and senior big-play threat Jamal Turner. The other starting spot, though, looks just as intriguing as juniors Taariq Allen and Sam Burtch compete for snaps. It has been a breakout spring for Allen, who was slowed by injury and caught just three passes last year. But the development of Burtch, who walked on out of Murdock, Neb., is just as notable. He caught 12 passes last fall, including three touchdowns, and keeps getting better, Pelini said. “The guy understands how to play football. He’s big. He’s physical. He’s fast. There’s a lot of different things he does to help our football team. On top of that, he’s a great character kid and a big-time leader.” Burtch has developed into a favorite option of Armstrong in practice. Asked if Burtch has been placed on scholarship, Pelini said, “If he’s not, he will be soon.” Congrats in advance, Sam.
LINCOLN, Neb. – Randy Gregory doesn’t like to talk about his goals -- or his weight.

Rest assured, Nebraska’s All-Big Ten defensive end thinks plenty about both, drawing motivation from the bid to add size and improve upon a breakout sophomore season to fuel his efforts this spring.

[+] Enlargenebraska
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsRandy Gregory is looking for more production, and more weight, as he builds on an all-Big Ten season in 2013.
Gregory collected 10» sacks and 19 tackles for losses last fall in his first season at Nebraska out of junior college. He’s likely to gain preseason All-America recognition.

For now, Gregory is concerned only with bettering himself.

“You always have something you can work on,” he said Wednesday after the third of 15 Cornhuskers practices this spring.

Coach Bo Pelini said Gregory has a chance to be a “great player” in Lincoln. Last season, though, the coach said Gregory was so raw he “didn’t even know what he didn’t know.”

“He’s a lot better football player these first three days than he was a year ago,” Pelini said. “I think he’s more comfortable than he was a year ago. He’s more technically sound. He’s getting bigger. He’s getting stronger.

“He’s got a lot ahead of him and a long way to go to reach what he can be.”

At 6-foot-6, Gregory dipped to about 230 pounds at the end of last season. He said he wants to play next season at close to 250. He’s added weight since January, but he declined to give a number.

“It’s going up,” he said. “The coaches are pleased with what I’m doing.”

Gregory is a picky eater, he said. He avoids pasta and gets full quickly. Even as he works to add weight in the offseason, he said, he’s not getting enough calories.

But he remains confident he’ll hit his goals -- on the scale and on the field.

“The goal is to be on the field as much as possible,” Gregory said, “so if I’ve got to put on weight to do that, that’s what I’ve got to do.”

Other news and notes from Nebraska’s practice on Wednesday:
  • Safety Harvey Jackson and defensive linemen Tobi Okuyemi and Jay Guy will not return to the team, Pelini said, after graduating prior to next season.
  • Junior cornerback Jonathan Rose, playing with the top defense opposite Josh Mitchell, was held out of practice on Wednesday because of a class issue, Pelini said. Redshirt freshman Boaz Joseph saw increased time in Rose's place. “I thought Boaz did a good job. Believe me, he’s got a long way, but I think he’ll learn a lot from the reps that he got.”
  • Jamal Turner, after working at quarterback in the first two practices of spring, took reps on Wednesday only at receiver, the position he’s played for the past three seasons. Turner struggled at QB on Monday, but Pelini said the senior remains an option at both positions. “He’s worked at quarterback before,” Pelini said. “He’s a receiver that we could have a package for if we choose to.”
  • Sophomore receiver Jordan Westerkamp sat out as protocol after banging his head on the turf on Monday.
  • Colorado transfer Alex Lewis, a junior, has shared time with freshman David Knevel as the first-team left tackle. The 6-6, 290-pound Lewis started 12 games with the Buffaloes in 2012. He was not with the Huskers in the fall because of legal issues but has made his presence felt quickly this week. “He’s picked things up pretty good,” Pelini said. “He plays with a good motor. He has experience, which obviously helps. He likes to compete, which is a good thing.” On Wednesday, as Nebraska donned full pads for the first time this spring, Lewis and Gregory got especially competitive in drills. Gregory described their matchup as a “battle” and spoke highly of Lewis. “He’s got the body for it. He’s built for the position. He can move.”
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
It’s getting close now. Spring practice starts on Saturday at Nebraska. Can you feel it?

We’ve spent the past three weeks counting down the position groups with most room to improve, the top players to watch and position battles. Now is the time for predictions.

Let’s get to it, with No. 5:

A receiver is going to break out

[+] EnlargeNebraska
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsNebraska has no worries about top returning WR Kenny Bell, but who will emerge as the No. 2 target?
Senior Kenny Bell is set to challenge school records next season for career receptions and receiving yardage. He’s the top target of Nebraska’s quarterback, for sure.

Bell can’t do it alone. And he won’t have to.

Though the Huskers lose Quincy Enunwa -- likely to be just the second Nebraska receiver to land in the NFL draft in the past decade -- plenty of talent exists to fill his shoes.

Candidates include sophomore Jordan Westerkamp, already etched in Nebraska history for his Hail-Mary grab last year to beat Northwestern; oft-injured senior Jamal Turner, who has game-breaking ability; junior Taariq Allen; junior Sam Burtch and redshirt freshman Kevin Gladney.

Sophomore Alonzo Moore, who started two games last season, is out this spring with an injury.

Rich Fisher in three seasons has earned his stripes as a receivers coach. He worked wonders with Bell and Enunwa. Westerkamp, too, shows promise and stands as the most likely of the prospects to take on a major role in the Nebraska passing game.

If Monte Harrison turns down pro baseball and makes it to practice in August as a freshman, he might jump into the lineup quickly and bolster what looks like an already strong group of receivers. For now, though, the Huskers go to work without him.

Six weeks from now, expect to find a solid second option behind Bell.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. The wide receivers and tight ends are up next.

Illinois: The Illini are looking for more from this group after losing top target Steve Hull, who exploded late in the season to finish just shy of 1,000 receiving yards. While running back Josh Ferguson (50 catches in 2013) will continue to contribute, Illinois could use a boost from Martize Barr, who arrived with high expectations but only had 26 receptions last fall. Another junior-college transfer, Geronimo Allison, could make an impact beginning this spring, but there's some mystery at wideout. Illinois looks more solid at tight end with seniors Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.

Indiana: Despite the somewhat surprising early departure of All-Big Ten selection Cody Latimer, Indiana should be fine here. Shane Wynn is the veteran of the group after recording 633 receiving yards on 46 catches last season. Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson also depart, so Indiana will be leaning more on Nick Stoner and Isaiah Roundtree. The Hoosiers have high hopes for early enrollee Dominique Booth, a decorated recruit who could fill Latimer's spot on the outside. Productive tight end Ted Bolser departs and several players will compete, including early enrollee Jordan Fuchs.

Iowa: Almost all the wide receivers are back from a group in which none eclipsed more than 400 receiving yards in 2013. Balance is nice, but separation could be nicer for the Hawkeyes this spring. Kevonte Martin-Manley is the most experienced wideout and has 122 career receptions. Tevaun Smith also returns, and Iowa fans are excited about big-play threat Damond Powell, who averaged 24.2 yards on only 12 receptions last season. Iowa loses its top red-zone target in tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and will need Jake Duzey to deliver more Ohio State-like performances.

Maryland: When the Terrapins get healthy, they might have the Big Ten's best wide receiving corps. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, both of whom sustained broken legs against Wake Forest last season, have the ability to stretch the field as both averaged more than 15 yards per reception before the injuries struck. Leading receiver Levern Jacobs also returns, alongside junior Nigel King and sophomore Amba Etta-Tawo, who averaged more than 16 yards per catch in 2013. Marcus Leak, who started seven games in 2012, rejoins the team after a year away. The Terps are unproven at tight end after losing Dave Stinebaugh.

Michigan: There's a reason why some Michigan fans want Devin Gardner to return to wide receiver for his final season. The Wolverines are thin on the perimeter after losing Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo. Redshirt sophomores Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh are both candidates to start, and Dennis Norfleet could be the answer in the slot. But there's plenty of opportunity for younger players like Drake Harris, an early enrollee. Michigan's best pass-catching option, Devin Funchess, is listed as a tight end but plays more like a receiver. The Wolverines will be without their second-string tight end, Jake Butt, who suffered an ACL tear in winter conditioning.

Michigan State: Remember all the justified angst about this group a year ago? It has pretty much gone away as the Spartans wideouts rebounded nicely in 2013. Bennie Fowler departs, but MSU brings back its top two receivers in Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings, who showed explosiveness down the stretch last fall. Aaron Burbridge had a bit of a sophomore slump but provides another option alongside veteran Keith Mumphery, who averaged 16.6 yards per catch in 2013. Josiah Price leads the tight end group after a solid freshman season.

Minnesota: Here's a group to watch during spring practice, particularly the wide receivers. Minnesota has proven it can run the ball and defend under Jerry Kill, but the passing game was putrid in 2013, ranking last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally. Youth is partly to blame, and while the Gophers still lack experience, they can expect more from promising players like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones. Senior Isaac Fruechte provides a veteran presence. Minnesota looks solid at tight end with sophomore Maxx Williams, the team's receiving yards leader (417) in 2013.

Nebraska: The Huskers lose a significant piece in Quincy Enunwa, who led the team in receiving yards (753) and had three times as many receiving touchdowns (12) as anyone else in 2013. Kenny Bell is set to recapture the No. 1 receiver role, which he had in 2012, and comes off of a 52-catch season as a junior. Nebraska must build around Bell this spring with players like the mustachioed Jordan Westerkamp, who had 20 catches as a freshman, including a rather memorable one to beat Northwestern. Will Jamal Turner turn the corner this offseason? Juniors Sam Burtch and Taariq Allen also return. Cethan Carter started six games at tight end last fall and should take over the top spot there as Jake Long departs.

Northwestern: The passing game fell short of expectations in 2013, but there's reason for optimism as Northwestern returns its top three pass-catchers in Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Dan Vitale. The two Joneses (no relation), who combined for 109 catches in 2013, lead the receiving corps along with junior Cameron Dickerson. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler provides a playmaking spark, possibly at slot receiver. Vitale, who had a somewhat disappointing sophomore season, has All-Big Ten potential at the superback (tight end) spot. Although Northwestern rarely plays true freshmen, superback Garrett Dickerson, Cameron's brother, could see the field right away.

Ohio State: A group that drew heavy criticism from coach Urban Meyer two springs ago is stockpiling talent. Devin Smith is the familiar name, a big-play senior who has started each of the past two seasons and boasts 18 career touchdowns. Ohio State must replace top wideout Corey Brown and will look for more from Evan Spencer. Michael Thomas has stood out in practices but must translate his performance to games. This could be a breakout year for H-back Dontre Wilson, who averaged nine yards per touch as a freshman. Buckeyes fans are eager to see redshirt freshmen Jalin Marshall and James Clark, and incoming players like Johnnie Dixon could make a splash right away. Ohio State returns an elite tight end in Jeff Heuerman.

Penn State: The Lions have very different depth situations at receiver and tight end. They're looking for contributors on the perimeter after losing Allen Robinson, the Big Ten's top wide receiver the past two seasons, who accounted for 46 percent of the team's receiving production in 2013. Brandon Felder also departs, leaving Geno Lewis as the likeliest candidate to move into a featured role. Richy Anderson also returns, but there will be plenty of competition/opportunity at receiver, a position new coach James Franklin targeted in recruiting with players like Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. Things are much more stable at tight end as the Lions return three talented players in Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman.

Purdue: If you're looking for hope at Purdue, these spots aren't bad places to start. There are several promising young players like receiver DeAngelo Yancey, who recorded a team-leading 546 receiving yards as a freshman. Cameron Posey also had a decent freshman year (26 catches, 297 yards), and Danny Anthrop averaged 18.4 yards as a sophomore. A full offseason with quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby should help the group. Tight end also should be a strength as Justin Sinz, who led Purdue with 41 catches last season, is back along with Gabe Holmes, who returns after missing most of 2013 with a wrist injury.

Rutgers: The good news is tight end Tyler Kroft returns after leading Rutgers in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last season. Kroft will immediately contend for All-Big Ten honors. Things are murkier at wide receiver, where top contributors Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt both depart. Leonte Carroo took a nice step as a sophomore, averaging 17.1 yards per catch and enters the spring as the frontrunner to become the team's No. 1 wideout. Ruhann Peele is another promising young receiver for the Scarlet Knights, who boast size with Carlton Agudosi (6-foot-6) and Andre Patton (6-4).

Wisconsin: The quarterback competition will gain more attention this spring, but Wisconsin's receiver/tight end situation could be more critical. The Badgers lose Jared Abbrederis, their only major threat at receiver the past two seasons, as well as top tight end Jacob Pedersen. Players like Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe must translate their experience into greater production, and Wisconsin will look for more from young receivers like Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright. Help is on the way as Wisconsin signed five receivers in the 2014 class, but wideout definitely is a position of concern right now. Sam Arneson is the logical candidate to step in for Pedersen, but there should be competition as the Badgers lose a lot at the position.
Tags:

Big Ten Conference, Illinois Fighting Illini, Indiana Hoosiers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan State Spartans, Michigan Wolverines, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Northwestern Wildcats, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Purdue Boilermakers, Wisconsin Badgers, Football Recruiting, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, Alex Erickson, Jared Abbrederis, Jordan Fredrick, Kenzel Doe, Allen Robinson, Quincy Enunwa, Kenny Bell, Jamal Turner, Garrett Dickerson, Shane Wynn, Devin Smith, Jeremy Gallon, Drake Harris, Geronimo Allison, Sam Burtch, Cethan Carter, Tony Jones, Danny Anthrop, Dontre Wilson, Christian Jones, Kofi Hughes, Ted Bolser, Jalin Marshall, james clark, Gabe Holmes, Josh Ferguson, Kevonte Martin-Manley, Justin Sinz, Nick Stoner, Adam Breneman, Richy Anderson, Steve Hull, Johnnie Dixon, Cameron Posey, Damond Powell, Danny Etling, Corey Brown, Jordan Westerkamp, MacGarrett Kings, Cody Latimer, Devin Funchess, Jacob Pedersen, DeAngelo Yancey, Chris Godwin, Jake Duzey, C.J. Fiedorowicz, Kyle Carter, Maxx Williams, Dan Vitale, Keith Mumphery, Drew Dileo, Dominique Booth, Donovahn Jones, Drew Wolitarsky, Josiah Price, Martize Barr, Tony Lippett, Austin Appleby, Saeed Blacknall, Brandon Coleman, Robert Wheelwright, Tevaun Smith, B1G spring positions 14, Aaron Burbridge, Amara Darboh, Amba Etta-Tawo, Andre Patton, Brandon Felder, Cameron Dickerson, Carlton Agudosi, Dave Stinebaugh, Deon Long, Duwyce Wilson, Evan Spencer, Geno Lewis, Isaac Fruechte, Isaiah Roundtree, Jehu Chesson, Jesse James, Jon Davis, Jordan Fuchs, Leonte Carroo, Levern Jacobs, Marcus Leak, Matt LaCosse, Michael Thomas, Miles Shuler, Nigel King, Quron Pratt, Ruhann Peele, Sam Arneson, Stefon Diggs, Taariq Allen, Tyler Kroft

Best B1G games of 2013: No. 4

January, 30, 2014
Jan 30
5:00
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We're continuing our countdown of the top 10 games from the Big Ten in 2013. Remember that we're taking into account the stakes in the game, the excitement level, the quality of the performances and the atmosphere.

Next up on the list is the game that featured the craziest ending of 2013:

No. 4: Nebraska 27, Northwestern 24, Nov. 2

How it went down: With four seconds left, Northwestern called timeout. Nebraska had the ball on the Wildcats' 49, trailing by three. Barring a miracle, Pat Fitzgerald's team was going to get a big win in Lincoln to snap a four-game losing streak, and the Cornhuskers were going to face a lot of uncomfortable questions about Bo Pelini's job status.

[+] EnlargeJordan Westerkamp
AP Photo/Nati HarnikNebraska wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp catches the game-winning touchdown, a desperation heave from quarterback Ron Kellogg III.
But, of course, that miracle happened. Ron Kellogg III heaved the ball toward the end zone, and Jordan Westerkamp caught it off a tip for the improbable game-winning touchdown. Westerkamp had never caught a pass longer than 10 yards in his career and had no career touchdowns before that play, while the walk-on Kellogg came into the season as the third-string quarterback. So, yeah, it was crazy.

The game was also a pretty good one before the play that will live on in Huskers lore. Avery Moss' interception for a touchdown tied the game at 21-21 in the third quarter, while a Tyler Scott interception set up Northwestern for its go-ahead field goal with 1:20 left.

Ameer Abdullah had the unsung play of the game, catching a short pass on fourth-and-long and willing himself through tacklers to get the first down on the final drive. Abdullah's effort led to the play of the year in the Big Ten, helped introduce the public to Westerkamp's glorious mustache and added another chapter to Northwestern's misery.

Player of the game: Abdullah had 127 yards on 24 carries in addition to his key catch late in the game.

Stat of the game: Nebraska won despite losing the turnover battle 4-1. The Huskers' defense didn't allow a touchdown after early in the second quarter and held Northwestern to a field goal after the Wildcats had second-and-goal from the 1 with 1:34 to play.

They said it: “I didn’t even know I could throw it that far,” Kellogg said, “but thank God for Jordan Westerkamp.”

More best games

  • No. 10: Ohio State 31, Wisconsin 24
  • No. 9: Michigan 41, Notre Dame 30
  • No. 8: Arizona State 32, Wisconsin 30
  • No. 7: Ohio State 40, Northwestern 30
  • No. 6: Penn State 43, Michigan 40, 4 OT
  • No. 5: Michigan State 34, Ohio State 24

Season wrap: Nebraska

January, 15, 2014
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All paths lead back to the same place for Nebraska -- or so it seems after a sixth consecutive season under coach Bo Pelini with nine or 10 wins and four losses. This season, the Huskers finished 9-4, but the ride was anything but mundane as Nebraska lost starting QB Taylor Martinez for all but one game of Big Ten play.

It needed late-game heroics to escape at home against Northwestern and to win at Michigan and Penn State, an impressive double even in a down year for the traditional league powers. Freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong emerged. The defense showed solid improvement. And a TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl win over Georgia sent the Huskers into the offseason with a warm, fuzzy feeling.

Offensive MVP: I-back Ameer Abdullah. He stepped into a leadership role in Martinez's absence and at times carried the Huskers. Abdullah set an example with his work ethic. He rushed for 1,690 yards, the top total in the Big Ten this season and fourth on Nebraska’s single-season charts. And he’s coming back as a senior.

Defensive MVP: Defensive end Randy Gregory. The sophomore newcomer arrived in Lincoln only a month before the season opener but needed little time to acclimate. He was a force from the start off the edge as a pass-rusher, accumulating 10 sacks. Gregory, despite playing underweight most of the season, posed huge problems for opponents because of his athleticism.

Best moment: A 49-yard Hail Mary pass from senior quarterback Ron Kellogg III to freshman Jordan Westerkamp provided the winning points in Nebraska’s 27-24 defeat of Northwestern on Nov. 2 at Memorial Stadium. Things appeared decided in the waning minutes before Kellogg, a former walk-on, engineered an 83-yard drive. Only its final play, though, will live in Husker history.

Worst moment: Just a week before the miraculous finish against Northwestern, the Huskers lost 34-23 at Minnesota, marking the Golden Gophers’ first win in 17 tries against Nebraska, dating to 1960. More disheartening than the outcome, though, was the method through which Minnesota won: The Gophers pounded the Huskers, piling up 271 rushing yards against the Blackshirts.

Big Ten's best of 2013

January, 14, 2014
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We're starting to wrap up the 2013 Big Ten season, which included the rise of Michigan State to elite status, more accolades for Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, Iowa's mini-renaissance, Northwestern's backslide, Jerry Kill's health-related absence and Minnesota's impressive response, up-and-down seasons from Michigan and Nebraska and much more. The league's national title drought reached its 11th year, but Michigan State brought home a Rose Bowl championship to the frosty Midwest.

To put a bow on the season, here are some Big Ten superlatives:

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio and Connor Cook
Harry How/Getty ImagesMark Dantonio made seemingly all of the right moves in 2013, including sticking with Connor Cook at QB.
Best coach: Mark Dantonio, Michigan State. Dantonio helped the Spartans find the inches that separated them in 2012, when they lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points. He made the right calls on offense after a shaky start, and the Spartans ended up winning their final nine games, including their first outright Big Ten title and first Rose Bowl championship in 26 years.

Best player, offense: Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller. No player dominates the scouting report for opposing defenses like the Buckeyes signal-caller, who complemented premier rushing skills with a more accurate arm, despite some late struggles. He won Big Ten MVP honors and league offensive player of the year honors for the second consecutive season, had 3,162 yards of offense and 36 touchdowns (24 pass, 12 rush). Miller led Ohio State to a second straight undefeated regular season and will be back as a senior in 2014.

Best player, defense: Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard. The nation's No. 1 defense had several standouts, but Dennard tops the list after leading the "No Fly Zone" secondary and earning the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back. A first-team All-American, Dennard recorded four interceptions and 10 pass deflections, and repeatedly shut down opposing wide receivers. He was a finalist for the Nagurski Trophy.

Best moment: Many wondered how Michigan State would fare in the Rose Bowl without star middle linebacker and co-captain Max Bullough, suspended a week before the game. Turns out the Spartans were just fine as Kyler Elsworth and Darien Harris filled in well. Fittingly, MSU sealed its victory on a fourth-down stop of Stanford, where Elsworth leaped over the pile to stuff Ryan Hewitt. The play epitomized a team that overcame every obstacle and a defense that slammed the door on the opposition all year long. Elsworth was named Rose Bowl defensive player of the game.

Best rivalry game: Ohio State at Michigan. We haven't been able to say this very often about The Game in recent years, but the Wolverines and Buckeyes provided plenty of drama on Nov. 30 at the Big House. Neither defense had answers for the opposing offense and the teams combined for 83 points, 74 first downs and 1,129 total yards. Michigan went for the win with 32 seconds left, but its 2-point conversion attempt failed and Ohio State survived.

Best play: Nebraska's season hung in the balance Nov. 2 as the Huskers, coming off of a road loss to Minnesota, trailed Northwestern 24-21 with four seconds left at the Wildcats' 49-yard line. Huskers quarterback Ron Kellogg III, the team's third-stringer entering the season, evaded the rush and launched a Hail Mary to the end zone, which freshman wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp caught following a deflection for the winning touchdown. It saved Nebraska's season and possibly coach Bo Pelini's job.

Best coaching decision: Connor Cook didn't do much in a loss to Notre Dame to separate himself from the other Spartans quarterbacks. But after going to Andrew Maxwell for the final drive against the Irish, Dantonio and the staff decided to stick with Cook for the Big Ten season. It gave Cook the confidence he needed to lead MSU's offense to a Big Ten title.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Gallon
AP Photo/Lon HorwedelMichigan WR Jeremy Gallon had a game for the ages against Indiana.
Best individual performance: Michigan wide receiver Jeremy Gallon against Indiana. Sure, the Hoosiers' defense has been abysmal forever, but you just don't see too many wide receivers rack up 369 receiving yards, much less in a league game. Gallon set a Big Ten record for receiving yards and recorded the second-highest total for a receiver in FBS history. He had 14 receptions, two for touchdowns. Quarterback Devin Gardner had a team-record 503 passing yards. Ohio State's Miller had big performances against both Penn State and Iowa, Christian Hackenberg lit up Wisconsin's defense, and Cook recorded his first two career 300-yard passing performances in the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl.

Best freshman: Penn State's Hackenberg. New Lions coach James Franklin inherits a future superstar under center, as Hackenberg backed up his recruiting hype in his first season. Hackenberg finished third in the Big Ten in passing (246.2 YPG) and threw 20 touchdown passes against 10 interceptions. He completed the season by connecting on 70 percent of his passes for 339 yards and four touchdowns against Wisconsin.

Best newcomer: Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory. The junior-college transfer excited Nebraska fans when he came to Lincoln and left them even happier after his first season. Gregory led the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks and tied for second in tackles for loss with 17. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and triggered Nebraska's improvement on defense down the stretch.

Best new coaching hire: Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. The Illini improved their win total from two to four this season, but things would have been worse if not for Cubit, who helped Illinois improve from 119th in 2012 to 46th this year. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was the Big Ten's only 3,000-yard passer. Cubit might have saved head coach Tim Beckman's job for another year, as the Illini now look for a similar jump on defense.

Season report card: Nebraska

December, 20, 2013
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We continue our delivery of the regular-season report cards with Nebraska.

It was an odd year in Lincoln, shaped by injuries and controversy but growth and promise, and it ended with a fan base largely divided. For every member of Husker Nation ready to hand out passing grades, there’s another who saw it in just the opposite way.

So at the risk of just adding to the confusion, here it goes:

Offense: B-minus

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah, who ran for 1,568 yards, was one of the bright spots for the Nebraska offense this year.
Considering the bevy of injuries on the offensive line and the loss of quarterback Taylor Martinez for all but one game in Big Ten play, Nebraska gets the benefit of the doubt. Its replacements played well enough to keep the Huskers in every game -- if not for the turnovers.

Oh, the turnovers. Nebraska lost the football 28 times, most in the Big Ten, and often turnovers came at the worst times. There’s likely not a team in the country that could have handled four fumbles and an interception against Michigan State better than the Huskers did on Nov. 16. But it was still a 13-point loss.

Before the injuries hit, the Huskers’ running game was a force. And I-back Ameer Abdullah still finished with 1,568 yards, arguably the best season by a Huskers back since 1997. Freshman QB Tommy Armstrong enjoyed some nice moments. Receivers Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa did their jobs well.

Nebraska badly missed a playmaker at tight end. But no one will soon forget the Ron Kellogg-to-Jordan Westerkamp Hail Mary that beat Northwestern, a play that single-handedly nudges this grade upward.

Defense: C

Remember the fourth quarter against Wyoming and the first 15 minutes against South Dakota State? Too much bad stuff happened to bump this grade past the point of average.

Sure, the Huskers were young. They needed time to grow into their roles. Why is that, though? How did Nebraska find itself, six years into the coach Bo Pelini regime, in a spot that required a rebuilding job? In year two or three, we’d understand more easily.

There was also debacle in Minneapolis as Minnesota rushed for 271 yards and basically punched the Blackshirts in the face.

Nebraska responded well late. It played a great defensive game in the win at Michigan and a good one to win at Penn State. Even against Iowa, despite losing 38-17, the defensive play was decent.

When factoring the promise for next year -- with emerging stars like Randy Gregory, Avery Moss and Michael Rose -- this defense is better than average. But production doesn’t always meet potential.

Special teams C-minus

Bell on kickoff returns and place-kicker Pat Smith, who was solid all year and hit a game-winning field goal in overtime at Penn State, prevented a failing grade here.

Just too many mistakes and lack of adjustments.

Nebraska averaged 3.04 yards per punt return -- better nationally than only Mississippi State and 1-11 Cal. More than that, the Huskers fumbled a pair of punt returns and erred too often on decisions in the return game.

Additionally, Michigan State converted a key fake field goal against the Huskers, and Pelini’s ill-advised decision to fake a punt against Iowa proved costly.

Overall: C-plus

Nebraska sits 8-4 as it prepares for the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl against Georgia, leaving it with a chance to again reach nine wins. A loss on New Year’s Day would mark Pelini’s first season with five defeats and make this the second Nebraska team not coached by Bill Callahan since 1968 to miss the nine-win benchmark. The absence of key players, youth on defense, turnovers and other mistakes factor in the Huskers’ overall grade. None of it weighs heavily enough to sink this team to great depths, yet Nebraska hasn’t done enough, either, to get far above the industry average.
Earlier today, we presented our All-Big Ten team. Now it's time to honor the top freshmen from 2013 with our Big Ten all-freshman team.

Here it is:

OFFENSE
QB: Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (captain)
RB: Corey Clement, Wisconsin
WR: DeAngelo Yancey, Purdue
WR: Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska*
TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota*
TE: Jake Butt, Michigan
OL: Dan Voltz, Wisconsin*
OL: Ben Lauer, Minnesota*
OL: Jack Conklin, Michigan State*
OL: Jacob Bailey, Indiana*
OL: Kyle Kalis, Michigan*

DEFENSE
DL: Joey Bosa, Ohio State (captain)
DL: Austin Johnson, Penn State*
DL: Avery Moss, Nebraska*
DL: Willie Henry, Michigan*
LB: Michael Rose, Nebraska*
LB: Nyeem Wartman, Penn State*
LB: T.J. Simmons, Indiana
DB: Sojourn Shelton, Wisconsin
DB: Desmond King, Iowa
DB: Tyvis Powell, Ohio State*
DB: Matthew Harris, Northwestern

SPECIALISTS
K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State
P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State
All purpose: Dontre Wilson, Ohio State

* -- redshirt freshman

It was a pretty strong year for freshmen in the league, highlighted by Hackenberg and Bosa. Shelton was terrific as well. ... Tight end is a promising position for the future. Penn State's Adam Breneman just missed, but he looks like a future star. And Michigan State's Josiah Price had a big impact in the Big Ten title game. ... Nebraska's young defense could really turn into something special. We also considered defensive lineman Vincent Valentine and linebackers Jared Afalava, Nathan Gerry and Josh Banderas. ... It was also a good year for rookie QBs, as beyond Hackenberg there was Purdue's Danny Etling, Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong and Minnesota's Mitch Leidner. ... Ohio State's Wilson didn't have a true position, but he did a lot of things and was a good return man, so that's why he gets our all-purpose slot. ... Some others we considered included Penn State receiver Geno Lewis and linebacker Brandon Bell, Purdue offensive lineman Jason King and Indiana defensive lineman Ralphael Green.

Tale of the tape: Georgia-Nebraska

December, 9, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- We learned on Sunday that No. 22 Georgia (8-4) would face Nebraska (8-4) in its bowl game for the second straight season. Let's take a closer look at the two teams in advance of the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, which will kick off at noon ET on New Year's Day and air on ESPN2.

Remembering last year: Georgia closed its 45-31 victory over the Cornhuskers in the Capital One Bowl with a 21-0 run -- featuring touchdown passes from Aaron Murray to Chris Conley of 49 and 87 yards, respectively. Murray torched a previously stellar Nebraska pass defense for 427 yards and five touchdowns and Todd Gurley ran for 125 yards and a score. Huskers running back Rex Burkhead (140 rushing yards and one TD plus 39 receiving and another score) and quarterback Taylor Martinez (204 passing yards, two touchdowns plus 46 rushing) had their moments, but Nebraska's porous defense let the its second-half lead slip away.

Who's under center?: Both of these teams featured a first-time starting quarterback in their last game. Hutson Mason led Georgia back from a 20-0 deficit to beat rival Georgia Tech in double overtime, passing for 299 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. The results weren't so positive for Ron Kellogg III in replacing Martinez. He passed for 199 yards, one touchdown and two picks and the Huskers lost 38-17 to Iowa.

Injury issues: The injuries to Murray and Martinez create perhaps the most glaring injury absences from last season's standouts, but both teams have struggled with physical ailments throughout the year. Martinez suffered a foot injury in the first game that hampered him initially and eventually shut him down by midseason. The Huskers also lost valuable offensive lineman Spencer Long and saw a number of other linemen deal with injuries, rendering a formerly dangerous offense ineffective. Sound familiar Georgia fans? Murray made it to the end of the season, but many of his most dangerous weapons did not. Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley and Keith Marshall all suffered season-ending knee injuries before midseason and All-SEC tailback Gurley led a big group of players who suffered multiple-game injuries.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIHow Georgia backup QB Hutson Mason does in comparison to Nebraska's backup QBs will be key in which team wins the Gator Bowl.
More similarities: It isn't just their matching 8-4 records, their having played in a bowl last season or their widespread injury problems that make these teams so similar. They have also dealt with similar problems throughout the season -- namely special teams ineptitude and ugly turnover margins. Nebraska is tied for 118th nationally with a minus-12 turnover margin (16 takeaways, 28 giveaways), while Georgia is not much better, tying for 97th with a minus-6 margin (14 takeaways, 20 giveaways).

Hailing Mary: Although it wasn't technically a “Hail Mary,” perhaps the most memorable play from Georgia's season came when Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall launched a 73-yard bomb into double coverage in the game's final minute, only to have Bulldogs safeties Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons converge and deflect the ball to Tigers receiver Ricardo Louis, who caught it for the game-winning touchdown. Likewise, Northwestern was on its way to a 24-21 win over the Cornhuskers before third-string quarterback Kellogg's Hail Mary deflected backward to Jordan Westerkamp for the game-winning score.

Best wins: Nebraska doesn't have a win against a ranked team, but it beat Penn State (7-5) in overtime and edged Michigan (also 7-5) 17-13. Georgia started the season with wins against No. 9 South Carolina (10-2) and No. 16 LSU (9-3) in the first month. The Bulldogs also edged rivals Florida (4-8) and Georgia Tech (7-5).

Worst losses: No. 17 UCLA scored 31 unanswered points to beat Nebraska 41-21 in September. The Huskers also turned it over five times in a 41-28 loss to No. 4 Michigan State in mid-November. Georgia's narrow losses to No. 12 Clemson and No. 2 Auburn were painful, but the two-game midseason losing streak against No. 8 Missouri (41-26) and Vanderbilt (31-27) might have been worse because of the injuries that weakened the Bulldogs' offense in those games.

Offensive stars: Gurley (903 rushing yards, 10 TDs in nine games) and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah (ninth nationally with 1,568 and 8 TDs) create an intriguing rushing matchup between two of the nation's best backs.

Defensive stars: Georgia inside linebacker Ramik Wilson leads the SEC and is 10th nationally with 128 tackles, plus he's tied for the team lead with 11 tackles for a loss. Junior college transfer Randy Gregory is a force on Nebraska's defense, leading the Huskers with 17 tackles for a loss, 9.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hurries from his defensive end position.

X-factor: Quarterback composure will be worth watching. We know Mason will start for Georgia after leading the comeback against Georgia Tech, although he got off to a slow start in that game. Kellogg tossed two first-quarter interceptions in the disappointing loss to Iowa. Freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr., who has started seven games this season, could also get the starting nod against the Bulldogs. Regardless of who starts for the Huskers, the team whose inexperienced quarterback plays a steadier game could very well end up as the winner.

What we learned: Week 14

November, 30, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Iowa earned a 38-17 win on Friday over Nebraska, the Hawkeyes’ first at Memorial Stadium since 1943. Here’s what we learned about the Huskers:

Same old formula: Nebraska out-yarded Iowa, as it did Michigan State two weeks ago in Lincoln, yet the Huskers lost the two games by a combined 34 points. The culprit? Turnovers. Nebraska was minus-8 against the Spartans and Hawkeyes and minus-16 in eight Big Ten games. Special teams, as usual, played a role in Nebraska’s demise, too. Two costly errors by Jordan Westerkamp in the return game killed field position for the Huskers, and a failed fake punt in the third quarter handed the Hawkeyes another short field to help seal Nebraska’s fate.

It couldn’t last forever: Iowa snapped Ameer Abdullah’s streak of consecutive 100-yard rushing games at eight. Abdullah finished with 85 yards on 23 carries. The Hawkeyes’ stout rush defense limited him to a long rush of 12 yards and just 16 yards on 10 carries in the first half. Abdullah lost a fumble in the fourth quarter on the first play of a drive after the Huskers took possession down 24-17. Two plays after the fumble, Iowa scored to all but seal the win. Abdullah remains a leading contender for Big Ten offensive player of the year. His rushing total through 12 games of 1,568 ranks fifth in Nebraska history.

They’ll back their coach to the end: Nebraska player after player spoke in defense of Bo Pelini on Friday after the embattled coach dug himself a hole by lashing out in his postgame press conference. That followed Pelini’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the third quarter for nearly hitting an official in the face with his hat while arguing against a pass interference flag on linebacker Zaire Anderson. No doubt, it was a bad day for Bo, and his job status is uncertain this weekend. But from Kenny Bell to Michael Rose, Jeremiah Sirles and others, the Huskers spoke glowingly of their sixth-year coach. If Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst makes a change, it will be a hard sell, for sure, to the Huskers.

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.

Planning for success: Nebraska

November, 7, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- College football teams, when dealing with the weekly turns of momentum in an intense sport, have no choice but to accept the cards they’re dealt.

Nebraska, as it heads to Michigan on Saturday, holds something akin to a royal flush.

[+] EnlargeNebraska
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsNebraska is hoping the celebration from last weekend's Hail Mary victory over Northwestern gives it momentum moving forward.
The Huskers beat Northwestern in spectacular fashion last week at Memorial Stadium, scoring as time expired on a 49-yard Hail Mary from Ron Kellogg III to Jordan Westerkamp. It turned what would have been a dark time in Lincoln into a period of joy, relief and optimism -- for a few days, at least.

The Huskers hope the feelings persist. Their plan for success at Michigan Stadium? Keep it going.

“Honestly, that may have just defined the rest of our season,” senior offensive tackle Brent Qvale said. “It’s given us great motivation to move forward and be able to continue into this week and for the rest of the year.”

As a result of the victory over Northwestern, the Huskers remain in control of their destiny in the Big Ten's Legends Division. Nebraska needs a win on Saturday, two years after losing 45-17 at the Big House, then a victory next week over division leader Michigan State to remain in good position.

It’s possible.

“It’s just like last year,” junior I-back Ameer Abdullah said.

A year ago, momentum carried Nebraska from one comeback win to another. The Huskers staged rallies from double-digit, second-half deficits against Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan State and Penn State to reach the Big Ten championship game.

Adding to the momentum factor, Michigan is reeling after a 29-6 loss to the Spartans that all but eliminated it from Big Ten title contention. The Huskers are not expecting to find a troubled opponent, though. Not in Ann Arbor, where the Wolverines seek a 20th straight victory under third-year coach Brady Hoke.

“They’ve got a good scheme,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “They’re well coached. It’s going to be a dog fight.”

Abdullah agreed. And he’s not expecting an environment hospitable for Nebraska's momentum surge to continue.

“It’s going to be fun, man,” he said. “The Big House two years ago, they killed us up there. ... Michigan fans are nasty. They are ruthless. That’s Big Ten football. We’ve got a lot of young guys, and we’ve got to bring them down to planet Earth and make them realize just to stay with your techniques and do what you’re taught, and we’ll like the results.”

Last year, after the string of dramatic wins, all momentum disappeared in the title game as Wisconsin throttled Nebraska 70-31.

The cards can turn that fast.

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