Penn State Nittany Lions: Donnell Kirkwood

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
5:00
PM ET
First of two this week. Send your Big Ten football questions here. And follow us on Twitter.

To the inbox ...

AIS from Madison, Wis., writes: I seem to remember that Minnesota had a returning 1,000-yard rusher last year in Donnell Kirkwood, before he was limited by injuries. David Cobb put together a great season in his time as the featured back but had to split carries for a while before separating from Rodrick Williams. I'm not a Minnesota fan, but I believe that all three of the runners I mentioned will be back in 2014. Is Jeff Jones that good to expect immediate contributions with a healthy stable of more experienced (and to varying degrees, capable) backs?

Adam Rittenberg: We'll soon find out, AIS, but running back is a position in which freshmen can contribute immediately, and Jones arrives at Minnesota with more fanfare than any of the other backs. You bring up a good point about Kirkwood, who had 926 rushing yards in 2012 but was largely forgotten after his injury and with Cobb's emergence last year. Williams also quietly averaged 5.5 yards per carry last year. Jones clearly won't walk into a major role. He'll have to earn it. But he had a great senior year and has the talent to produce right away and push older players.




Todd from The Land of Chief Illiniwek writes: On Friday, you said "no thanks" to the idea of a standing major nonconference rivalry game between Nebraska and Missouri, but your counterargument raised an alternative that supports the idea. Nebraska shouldn't play Missouri but rather Big 12 Oklahoma every year. Illinois should play SEC Missouri every year (with hopefully better results than during the Zook era). Iowa should play Big 12 Iowa State. Michigan should play Pac-12 USC. Purdue should play Notre Dame. Penn State should play Pitt. Indiana should play a basketball rival like North Carolina or Kansas? Have Ohio State play Alabama. Maryland and Rutgers should play their biggest rivals from their old conferences, or maybe an annual replay of the Rutgers vs. Harvard birth of American football played on a rugby pitch without pads ...

Adam Rittenberg: Todd, it's not that simple, and you're missing my larger point. First, trying to get all those schools on board with what amounts to an exclusive nonconference scheduling agreement -- few of them would play another marquee nonleague opponent because of minimum home-game requirements -- is very tough. Remember the ill-fated Big Ten-Pac-12 scheduling alliance? You would run into similar issues, especially with a school such as USC, which isn't giving up its annual series against Notre Dame for one with Michigan. The larger point is this model prevents variety in scheduling. Wouldn't fans rather see different marquee opponents every few years than the same group (non-con rival, MAC opponent, other small-conference opponent)? I know I would.




Dan from Scottsdale, Ariz., writes: Adam, what's your take on Tress [Jim Tressel] being included or excluded in the Hall of Fame? As a Buckeyes fan, I enjoy whenever Tress is a topic. He was so dominant in his 10 years and I get a kick when all the haters get worked up. (You, Michigan. 9-1. That's right, 9). And, do you think he will be a head coach again?

Adam Rittenberg: It's interesting to see him on the ballot, Dan, and it's largely because of his accomplishments at Youngstown State. He's actually listed under "divisional coaches" on the ballot, and they're highlighting his achievements at YSU more than those at OSU. Tressel's overall achievements in coaching merit a spot in the Hall of Fame, regardless of how things ended in Columbus. Will he coach again? Many of those close to him think he will, but he also really enjoys his administrative position at Akron. I think it all depends on what opportunities come his way.




Jeff from Cleveland writes: Dear Abby (Adam), I am a huge Cats fan, and early reports from spring practice suggest that Trevor Siemian has pulled ahead in the QB competition. Recent reports also suggest that Siemian's inconsistent play during last season was largely attributable to injury. While I would like to forget last season and look ahead to the fall, I am still haunted by Siemian's unforgivable pick 6s (Ohio State, Nebraska, Minnesota). Should I forgive and forget, or do I have reason to worry about Siemian's ability to consistently deliver top-level Big Ten QB play?

Adam Rittenberg: You can't completely forget the past when judging a player, Jeff, but the injury, which made an impact on his footwork on throws, along with poor offensive line play, must be factored into the equation. Siemian has been pretty solid when given time to throw and a system that puts him in position to succeed. Northwestern's two-quarterback system worked in 2012, but I think you'll see a more confident Siemian as the clear starter, especially if the offense goes back to what we saw from 2007-10 (pass heavy). Northwestern has veteran receivers, a good tight end and plenty of options at running back. If the offensive line holds up, Siemian should be improved this fall.




Scott from Lebanon, Pa., writes: I'm a Penn State fan and especially like the trophy games (e.g., Paul Bunyan's Ax, Floyd of Rosedale, etc.) that are played in the B1G. Now that Maryland and Rutgers joined the B1G, I have an idea for two trophy games when they play Penn State. The trophy for PSU vs. Maryland would be the Surveyor's Transit (Mason-Dixon Line) and when PSU plays Rutgers, the trophy would be Washington's Tricorn (Washington crossed the Delaware River, The Battle of Trenton). What do you think?

Adam Rittenberg: Much bigger fan of Washington's tricorn than the other one, Scott, mainly because I'm not sure many people know what the surveyor's transit actually is (not a bad-looking item, though). Imagine the pictures players would get wearing that headgear after victories. Maybe Penn State and Maryland could just play for the right to own Delaware?

Spring position breakdown: RBs

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
1:00
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Spring practice is off and running in the Big Ten, as Michigan took the field Tuesday and Northwestern followed on Wednesday. We're taking snapshots of where each team stands at each position group.

We've already discussed the quarterbacks -- and will have much more on the way -- so the series begins with the running backs.

Illinois: The Illini are in a bit better shape here than they were the past two springs, as veterans Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young both return. Ferguson averaged 5.5 yards per carry and added 50 receptions for 535 yards as the primary playmaker for Illinois' revamped offense. Young added 376 yards on 93 carries. The Illini are looking for others behind the top two, and Dami Ayoola is back with the team after being dismissed in September for a rules violation.

Indiana: Tevin Coleman quietly put together a superb sophomore season and leads the Hoosiers' running backs in 2014. Coleman provides big-play ability after averaging 7.3 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns on only 131 attempts in 2013. Indiana loses Stephen Houston but brings back veteran D'Angelo Roberts, who will play behind Coleman. Younger players such as sophomore Laray Smith could get a look here.

Iowa: Not only did the Hawkeyes toss AIRBHG to the side and get through the season without any major injurie, but they bring back everyone for 2014. Senior Mark Weisman leads the contingent after rushing for 975 yards and eight touchdowns last fall. Jordan Canzeri came on strong late in the season and is showing no effects from his ACL tear in 2012. Veteran Damon Bullock also returns to the mix, and Iowa has talented younger backs such as LeShun Daniels Jr. at its disposal. Good situation here.

Maryland: The Terrapins wide receivers tend to get more attention, but the team also returns its top three running backs from 2013 in Brandon Ross, Albert Reid and Jacquille Veii. Maryland also regains the services of Wes Brown, who finished second on the team in rushing as a freshman in 2012 before being suspended for all of last season. Joe Riddle is back in the fold as well. The group brings different strengths, from power (Brown) to speed (Veii) to a mixture of both (Ross, Reid).

Michigan: Sophomore Derrick Green enters the spring as the frontrunner to be Michigan's lead back, although coach Brady Hoke wants to ramp up competition everywhere. The Wolverines struggled to consistently run between the tackles, but the 240-pound Green could change things. Hoke also is excited about another sophomore, De'Veon Smith. Michigan moved Ross Douglas from cornerback to running back, and Justice Hayes and Wyatt Shallman also are in the mix. "We've got more depth," Hoke said.

Michigan State: Things look much more promising than they did last spring, when the Spartans ended the session with a linebacker (Riley Bullough) as their top back. Jeremy Langford emerged as a very solid option during the season, rushing for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. He's back as the clear-cut starter, and Nick Hill also returns. It will be interesting to see if Gerald Holmes makes a push, or whether Delton Williams remains on offense.

Minnesota: Here's another team that finds itself in very good shape at running back entering the spring. David Cobb leads the group after rushing for 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. Veterans Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr. are still around, and highly touted redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards will take the field after missing last fall because of knee and ankle injuries. Perhaps the best news will come in the summer as decorated recruit Jeff Jones arrives.

Nebraska: Notice a theme here? Nebraska is yet another Big Ten squad that can feel very good about its running backs entering the spring. Ameer Abdullah elected to bypass the NFL draft for one final season at Nebraska, where he led the Big Ten with 1,690 yards on 281 carries as a junior. Abdullah will contend for national awards in the fall. Imani Cross, who rushed for 10 touchdowns last year, is one of the nation's top backups. Terrell Newby and others add depth behind the top two.

Northwestern: Top back Venric Mark (ankle) will miss spring practice following surgery, and reserve Stephen Buckley (knee) also is rehabbing, but Northwestern has no reason to panic. Treyvon Green, who filled in well for Mark last season with 736 rushing yards, will get much of the work. Warren Long also is in the mix after appearing in seven games as a true freshman. Northwestern also loaded up at running back in recruiting to solidify the position for years to come.

Ohio State: This will be a position to watch in the spring as Ohio State must replace Carlos Hyde, who was nearly unstoppable during Big Ten play last fall. Veteran Jordan Hall also departs, and Rod Smith will be the veteran of the group despite only 83 career carries. The Buckeyes have some talented young backs, from Dontre Wilson, who saw significant playing time last fall, to Bri'onte Dunn, Ezekiel Elliott and Warren Ball. Keep an eye on Elliott, who averaged 8.7 yards per carry in limited work last season but could emerge this spring.

Penn State: If it feels like Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton have been competing for carries forever at Penn State, it's because they have. Zwinak and Belton have been part of Penn State's running back rotation for the past two seasons and enter another competition this spring with talented sophomore Akeel Lynch, who rushed for 358 yards on only 60 carries last season. It will be interesting to see how much Lynch can push Zwinak and Belton in the team's first spring under a new coaching staff. Penn State has depth issues at several positions, but running back isn't one of them.

Purdue: The Boilers finished 122nd nationally in rushing offense last season, so the fact all of their running backs return might not spark mass celebration. Senior Akeem Hunt leads the group after recording 123 of the team's 319 rushing attempts in 2013. Other veteransBrandon Cottom and Raheem Mostert also are back, along with younger ball-carries such as Dayln Dawkins and three backs -- Keyante Green, David Yancey and Keith Byars II -- who redshirted last fall and could have much bigger roles.

Rutgers: Here's yet another team that returns basically its entire stable of running backs for spring ball. Paul James is the name to watch, as he rushed for 573 yards in the first four games last season before suffering a leg injury. James' health is a concern for Rutgers, which could also turn to Justin Goodwin, who showed some flashes following James' injury. Savon Huggins, who entered last season as the starter before losing ground, is in the mix as he looks to re-establish himself on the depth chart.

Wisconsin: How many teams can lose a 1,400-yard rusher and still claim to have the best running back group in the Big Ten? James White is gone, but Wisconsin remains in very good shape in the backfield. Melvin Gordon bypassed the NFL draft for another year in Madison after rushing for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 206 carries. Gordon should move into more of a featured role beginning this spring, although he'll be pushed by Corey Clement, who had 547 yards and seven touchdowns on only 67 carries. Jeff Lewis provides another option behind the top two.
Bill Belton Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsBill Belton's emergence has been a major boost for the Penn State offense.
The Big Ten returned seven of its top 10 rushers from the 2012 season, so it seemed likely that familiar names would fill this year's rushing chart. It hasn't worked out like that.

Only two players ranked in last year's top 10 -- Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Iowa's Mark Weisman -- are among the league's current top 10 ground gainers. The list features five backs who didn't enter the season as starters but have stepped up for injured teammates or simply because they were the best options. Today's poll question asks: Which Big Ten running back has been the biggest surprise so far this season?

You won't see Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon on the list because we don't consider his success surprising at all.

Here are the candidates, listed alphabetically:

Bill Belton, Penn State (Big Ten rushing rank: 7): Lions fans waiting for Belton to blossom are finally getting their wish. Zach Zwinak led Penn State's rushing attack in 2012 with 1,000 rush yards on 203 carries. But Zwinak's fumbling issues created an opening for Belton, who has cashed in during Big Ten play. Belton recorded the decisive fourth-down run in Penn State's four-overtime win against Michigan, quietly had a nice game against Ohio State and last week went for 201 yards and a touchdown in an overtime win against Illinois, the Lions' first 200-yard rushing performance since Larry Johnson in 2002.

SportsNation

Which Big Ten running back has been the biggest surprise so far this season?

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    41%
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    24%
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    4%
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    4%
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    27%

Discuss (Total votes: 6,514)

David Cobb, Minnesota (Big Ten rushing rank: 5): The Gophers had every intention of establishing their ground game this season, but they pegged Donnell Kirkwood to do most of the heavy lifting. But an ankle injury in the opener slowed Kirkwood and Cobb, who had only one carry last season as a sophomore, is blossoming in a featured role. He established himself with 125 yards and two touchdowns in a non-league win against San Jose State. During Minnesota's current three-game Big Ten win streak, Cobb has three 100-yard rushing performances and 429 total yards on 80 carries.

Tevin Coleman, Indiana (Big Ten rushing rank: 4): After pushing Stephen Houston throughout the offseason, Coleman has emerged as one of many dangerous weapons on Indiana's offense. He has scored in every game this season, averaged 6.4 yards per carry and 131.6 all-purpose yards per game. Primarily a big-play run threat, Coleman also has contributed as a receiver (18 receptions, 164 yards) and as a kick returner.

Treyvon Green, Northwestern (Big Ten rushing rank: 9): Green has been a bright spot for an injury-plagued and inconsistent Wildcats offense this season. Top back Venric Mark has played only one full game because of injuries, but Green has filled the void with 612 rush yards and eight touchdowns on only 95 carries. Green has three 100-yard rushing efforts, including last Saturday at Nebraska, where he gashed the Huskers for 149 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries.

Jeremy Langford, Michigan State (Big Ten rushing rank: 6): The Spartans entered the season with a pretty desperate situation at running back. They had moved backup middle linebacker Riley Bullough to the position in spring practice, and seemed likely to use several true freshmen at the position. But Langford took charge Oct. 12 against Indiana, racking up 109 rush yards and three touchdowns. He has eclipsed 100 yards on the ground in each of the past four games, scoring six touchdowns during the span. Along with quarterback Connor Cook and an improved offensive line, Langford is a big reason for the offense's turnaround.

Now it's time to vote. Let us know who is the Big Ten's surprise back.

Big Ten lunch links

September, 27, 2013
9/27/13
12:00
PM ET
Enjoy the fact that your royal overlords are a frail old woman and a tiny baby.
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football:

1. Wisconsin-Ohio State could be the Big Ten's game of the year: In recent years, the Badgers-Buckeyes matchups have been more significant than Ohio State-Michigan or any other conference pairing. This week's showdown at Ohio Stadium could be just as significant. Ohio State is the Big Ten's best team, and Wisconsin might be No. 2 after another dominant rushing performance against Purdue. Both teams ascribe to the power run game but do it in vastly different yet equally entertaining ways. Although the Kenny G show has been terrific for the Buckeyes, top quarterback Braxton Miller should be back for the Big Ten opener. Miller might not be the biggest offensive star on the field, as Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon has performed as advertised, racking up 624 rush yards and seven touchdowns in the first four games. The game features first-year Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen going up against his former boss, Urban Meyer. One of these teams has held at least a share of the past eight Big Ten titles. The winner takes control of the Leaders Division. Should be a great one.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner, Jefferson Ashiru
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesMichigan quarterback Devin Gardner had another three turnovers in the Wolverines' close win over UConn.
2. Michigan has real problems: It was tempting to write off Michigan's struggle to beat Akron last week as a hangover from the high-stakes Notre Dame game. But no hangovers the past two weeks. The Wolverines found themselves down two touchdowns in the second half Saturday night at UConn, the same Huskies team that lost at home by 15 to Towson in the opener. Michigan rallied for the 24-21 win, and at least Brady Hoke's team has shown grit at the end of games the past three weeks. But quarterback Devin Gardner committed three more turnovers (two interceptions, one fumble), and he has devolved from potential Heisman candidate to a potential problem spot in just a fortnight. An even thornier issue is the continued inability of the Michigan offensive line to open consistent holes for the running game. If the Wolverines are having trouble running the ball against Akron and UConn, what's going to happen in Big Ten play? There's plenty of time for Hoke & Co. to right the ship, and the upcoming bye week is a welcome sight. But right now, Michigan does not look like the top-15 team we thought it was two weeks ago.

3. The Iowa-Minnesota game has added meaning: We love the pig, but there's a lot more than the Floyd of Rosedale at stake (steak?) this week as Iowa and Minnesota open Big Ten play in Minneapolis. Both teams have shown improvement, especially with their power running games, and enter the matchup with momentum. Iowa exploded for 38 first-half points Saturday against Western Michigan and finished with 59, its highest total since 2002. The Hawkeyes received contributions in all three phases, including two punt return touchdowns from receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley and two pick-sixes from cornerback B.J. Lowery. Iowa's defense has yet to allow a rushing touchdown. After a miserable offensive performance in 2012, Iowa is starting to establish an identity behind its line and a stable of running backs. Minnesota is doing the same, finally showing it can control the line of scrimmage and dominate on the ground. Despite not having its starting quarterback (Philip Nelson) or starting running back (Donnell Kirkwood), Minnesota racked up 353 yards and six rushing touchdowns, including four by backup signal-caller Mitch Leidner, in an impressive win against San Jose State. The Gophers are 4-0 for the second straight season. Both teams have very challenging league schedules, so getting off to a 1-0 start is huge. Big one at TCF Bank Stadium this week.

4. Bo Pelini is still standing, but needs time to regroup: The open week couldn't come at a better time for Nebraska's coach and his team, which ended an emotional week with a 59-20 thumping of FCS South Dakota State. The firestorm from audio-gate should die down, at least a little, as Pelini got through Saturday's game without any further controversy, and received mostly support from Huskers fans. Pelini is hardly out of the woods, though, and must turn his attention to a defense that needs a ton of work before Big Ten play begins Oct. 5 against Illinois. The Huskers surrendered 465 yards to the Jackrabbits, who had a balanced attack (238 yards passing, 227 yards rushing). Pelini called it the defense's worst performance in a season filling up with them. Whether it's youth, talent, scheme or attention to detail, Nebraska's defense must get back on track soon. Although the schedule remains favorable the next month or so, it's hard to see the Huskers repeating as Legends Division champs without some significant upgrades on D.

5. Indiana still hasn't arrived: Indiana entered the year with high hopes for a bowl game this year, and with a warp-speed offense averaging 50 points a game through three weeks, the Hoosiers didn't appear to be deluding themselves. But after an impressive showing last week against Bowling Green, Kevin Wilson's team found itself right back in a familiar spot: unable to defend a good team. Missouri racked up 623 yards -- the most in Memorial Stadium history -- in a 45-28 win in Bloomington on Saturday. The game wasn't even as close as the final score, as Indiana tacked on a touchdown and two-point conversion with 10 seconds to go, and Missouri had three turnovers in the first half to kill promising drives. The Hoosiers' vaunted offense failed to score from the 6:31 mark of the second quarter until there was 11:24 left in the game, and IU punted nine times after punting only five times in the first three games combined. The loss to Navy now hurts even more, as Wilson's team would have to go 4-4 in Big Ten play to become bowl eligible. That seems like an awfully tall order. Penn State comes in next after a bye for both teams, and the Nittany Lions just righted their defense in a 34-0 shutout of Kent State. Penn State has never lost to Indiana and will be favored soundly again on Oct. 5. It might be wait for next year time again in Hoosierland.

Big Ten lunchtime links

September, 13, 2013
9/13/13
12:00
PM ET
Don't go camping near a lake today ...
Ten items to track around Big Ten football in Week 2:

1. House party: If the second night game at Michigan Stadium is anything like the first, we'll all be thrilled (well, except for those Notre Dame folks). Michigan and Notre Dame delivered the drama two years ago under the lights, and the spectacle Saturday night in Ann Arbor should once again be incredible. The teams' past four meetings have all been decided by seven points or fewer (19 points total). The series sadly disappears after the 2014 meeting in South Bend, so enjoy it while it lasts.

2. Rees vs. Gardner: Notre Dame-Michigan features another appetizing quarterback matchup. While Tommy Rees remains a polarizing figure for some Notre Dame fans, it's hard to argue with what he has done against Michigan. Before last Saturday's opener against Temple, Rees' only 300-yard passing performance came against Michigan two years ago, and he led Notre Dame to victory last fall. Rees can stretch the field, as he had more passes of 20 yards or longer against Temple (7) than Everett Golson had in any game last season. Devin Gardner was Michigan's leading receiver last year against Notre Dame, but he's firmly entrenched as a quarterback. Gardner has been deadly in the red zone for the Wolverines, converting 19 touchdowns in 22 red zone trips as the starter.

3. Spartans looking for a spark: Michigan State basically has two more weeks to get its offense right before facing one of the nation's top defenses on the road at Notre Dame. The unit's opening act was highly disappointing, as Michigan State averaged just 3.8 yards per play against a Western Michigan defense that ranked 61st nationally in 2012. Head coach Mark Dantonio has kept mostly quiet about his quarterback situation this week as four players continue to get reps in practice. The Spartans need a solution there and at other offensive spots against South Florida, which allowed 56 points to McNeese State in its opening loss.

4. Illini aim to continue big-play ways: One of the nation's most feeble offenses in 2012 broke out last week against Southern Illinois, as Illinois recorded six plays of 30 yards or longer -- matching its total from all of last season! Senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase recorded a career-high 416 pass yards and featured weapons like Josh Ferguson and Ryan Lankford. The question is whether the Illini can come close to that type of production against a much, much tougher opponent in Cincinnati, which held Purdue to one short scoring drive and only 226 yards last week. We'll get a much better gauge about Illinois' offensive progress against Tommy Tuberville's defense.

5. Northwestern's health: After a mostly injury-free season in 2012, Northwestern already has been bitten by that pesky bug early this fall. The Wildcats will be without starting cornerback Daniel Jones (knee) for the rest of the season, putting redshirt freshman Dwight White in the spotlight against Syracuse. Top quarterback Kain Colter (head) and running back Venric Mark (leg) both are questionable for the game. If Northwestern can survive again like it did last week against Cal, it has a chance to get healthy in the next two weeks against weaker opponents before a two-week prep for Ohio State.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesQuarterback Devin Gardner was 10-of-15 passing for 162 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions in Michigan's season-opening rout of Central Michigan.
6. Roby watch in Columbus: After playing nine new defensive starters in last week's opener against Buffalo, Ohio State regains a very big piece in All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby, who returns from suspension. Coach Urban Meyer wanted Roby to re-prove himself as a starter this week in practice, but it's only a matter of time before the junior distinguishes himself. Ohio State is looking for a cleaner performance in all three phases against struggling San Diego State, and it will be interesting to see how Roby performs.

7. Indiana's offensive efficiency: Kevin Wilson's Hoosiers scored touchdowns on five of their first six offensive possessions in last week's opener against Indiana State, en route to a Memorial Stadium-record 73 points. If Indiana can come close to that type of efficiency Saturday against Navy, it will improve to 2-0. Possessions likely will be limited against the Midshipmen, as Indiana found out last year when it had only 10 offensive drives in a 31-30 loss. The Hoosiers had to settle for three field goals of 30 yards or less and need to be better about punching it in against Navy. "You don't get as many at-bats," Wilson said.

8. Second chances: Purdue and Iowa didn't get off to the starts they wanted in Week 1, and neither did Nebraska's defense, which surrendered 35 first downs and 602 yards to Wyoming in the opener. Fortunately, all three teams should redeem themselves against weaker competition on Saturday. The Boilermakers need to boost quarterback Rob Henry's confidence and fix their communication problems on offense against Indiana State. Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock must rebound from his late interception against Missouri State. The Huskers defense, meanwhile, aims to clean things up against a Southern Miss team that has lost 13 straight and scored just 15 points against Texas State last week.

9. Wolverines' youth put to test: Don't be surprised if Michigan-Notre Dame comes down to how well the Wolverines' young interior offensive line performs against an elite Fighting Irish defensive front led by nose guard Louis Nix III and end Stephon Tuitt, two potential first-round picks in next April's NFL draft. Michigan will start redshirt freshman Kyle Kalis at right guard, true sophomore Jack Miller at center and redshirt sophomore Graham Glasgow at left guard. They'll be challenged all night long (especially Miller) as they try to create running room for Fitzgerald Toussaint and protect Gardner.

10. Hack's home debut: Penn State fans have been waiting more than a year and a half to watch quarterback Christian Hackenberg take snaps at Beaver Stadium. They'll finally get their chance Saturday as the Lions face Eastern Michigan in their home opener. Hackenberg had a few expected hiccups in his collegiate debut against Syracuse but also showed why he can be such a special player for Penn State's offense. Head coach Bill O'Brien vows to put Hackenberg in better positions to succeed this week. Hackenberg also will have top weapon Allen Robinson at his disposal from the start, which should make a big difference.

Big Ten picks rewind: Week 1

September, 3, 2013
9/03/13
3:00
PM ET
Every Monday or Tuesday, I'll take a look back at our Big Ten predictions and poke fun at Brian, our guest picker and myself. Unfortunately, Brian is the big winner after Week 1, going a perfect 12-0 in picks to lead me by a game.

To review, the Week 1 predictions made by the reporters and guest picker Ryan Stitt of Litchfield, Ill.

WEEK 1/SEASON RECORD

Brian Bennett: 12-0 (1.000)

Adam Rittenberg: 11-1 (.917)

It's rewind time …

Indiana State at Indiana
  • Bennett's pick: Indiana 38, Indiana State 14
  • Rittenberg's pick: Indiana 42, Indiana State 20
  • Actual score: Indiana 73, Indiana State 35
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both underestimated the prowess of Indiana's offense, which set a stadium record for points scored. Bennett correctly pegged Tre Roberson to start at quarterback for the Hoosiers and Nate Sudfeld to take over and play plenty. My prediction of three combined rush touchdowns for Tevin Coleman and Stephen Houston fell one score short.
UNLV at Minnesota

  • Bennett's pick: Minnesota 31, UNLV 16
  • Rittenberg's pick: Minnesota 27, UNLV 14
  • Actual score: Minnesota 51, UNLV 23
  • 20-20 hindsight: Again, we didn't expect such a scoring explosion from the Big Ten team. I correctly predicted Minnesota would record several takeaways (it had two). Bennett's pick to click, Gophers running back Donnell Kirkwood, had his night cut short by an ankle injury.
Western Michigan at Michigan State

  • Bennett's pick: Michigan State 28, Western Michigan 6
  • Rittenberg's pick: Michigan State 31, Western Michigan 10
  • Actual score: Michigan State 26, Western Michigan 13
  • 20-20 hindsight: Both of us correctly pegged the Spartan Dawgs defense for a big night, although their pick-six came from a safety (Kurtis Drummond), not a cornerback, as I predicted. Bennett had the better forecast on the offense, writing that the quarterback competition wouldn't be settled in Week 1.
Buffalo at Ohio State

  • Bennett's pick: Ohio State 42, Buffalo 14
  • Rittenberg's pick: Ohio State 49, Buffalo 13
  • Actual score: Ohio State 40, Buffalo 20
  • 20-20 hindsight: Bennett came closer on the score prediction, but we both had the wrong Buckeyes going for long touchdowns as running back Jordan Hall and wide receiver Devin Smith did their thing. Defensive end Noah Spence had a sack, but neither Adolphus Washington nor Ryan Shazier recorded one, as I had predicted.
Massachusetts at Wisconsin

  • Bennett's pick: Wisconsin 38, UMass 7
  • Rittenberg's pick: Wisconsin 48, UMass 10
  • Actual score: Wisconsin 45, UMass 0
  • 20-20 hindsight: This was one of our easier and better predictions of Week 1. Bennett's combined yards prediction of 275 for James White and Melvin Gordon came extremely close -- they had 287 -- and I correctly pegged Badgers quarterback Joel Stave to twice find Jared Abbrederis for touchdowns.
Southern Illinois at Illinois

  • Bennett's pick: Illinois 31, Southern Illinois 13
  • Rittenberg's pick: Illinois 27, Southern Illinois 17
  • Actual score: Illinois 42, Southern Illinois 34
  • 20-20 hindsight: Sense a theme? We both undervalued the offenses of several second-division Big Ten squads in Week 1. Brian came close with his predictions of 35 pass attempts (Illinois had 37) and three Nathan Scheelhaase touchdown passes (he had two).
Purdue at Cincinnati

  • Bennett's pick: Cincinnati 28, Purdue 27
  • Rittenberg's pick: Cincinnati 27, Purdue 24
  • Actual score: Cincinnati 42, Purdue 7
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both expected much more from Purdue in coach Darrell Hazell's debut. Cincinnati quarterback Munchie Legaux made big plays early, not late, as Brian predicted. I had Purdue quarterback Rob Henry committing a key fourth-quarter turnover, but he threw picks in the first and third quarters in a poor performance.
Central Michigan at Michigan

  • Bennett's pick: Michigan 35, Central Michigan 17
  • Rittenberg's pick: Michigan 38, Central Michigan 14
  • Actual score: Michigan 59, Central Michigan 9
  • 20-20 hindsight: We had similar score predictions and both turned out to be way off, at least when it comes to Michigan's offensive output. Michigan receiver Jeremy Gallon had one touchdown catch, not two as I had predicted. Wolverines running back Fitzgerald Toussaint had 57 rush yards, falling short of Brian's prediction (95).
Penn State vs. Syracuse


  • Bennett's pick: Penn State 27, Syracuse 23
  • Rittenberg's pick: Penn State 24, Syracuse 21
  • Actual score: Penn State 23, Syracuse 17
  • 20-20 hindsight: One of our better score predictions, as we both expected a fairly low scoring close game and got one. Penn State had zero rushing touchdowns, not the two I had predicted.
Northern Illinois at Iowa

  • Bennett's pick: Northern Illinois 23, Iowa 21
  • Rittenberg's pick: Iowa 24, Northern Illinois 23
  • Actual score: Northern Illinois 30, Iowa 27
  • 20-20 hindsight: Our lone disagreement of Week 1 went Bennett's way, even though I was in good shape for most of the second half. Iowa running back Mark Weisman (100 rush yards) came 50 yards and two touchdowns shy of my prediction. NIU got a big lift late in the fourth quarter from a Jordan Lynch touchdown pass, not a Lynch scoring run, which was Bennett's forecast.
Wyoming at Nebraska

  • Bennett's pick: Nebraska 49, Wyoming 21
  • Rittenberg's pick: Nebraska 52, Wyoming 17
  • Actual score: Nebraska 37, Wyoming 34
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both expected a stress-free night for the Huskers and a much better performance from the young Nebraska defense. Neither happened. I correctly pegged Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez to find Quincy Enunwa for two touchdown passes. Brian's prediction of five combined touchdowns for Martinez and Ameer Abdullah came up short as Imani Cross had Nebraska's two rushing touchdowns.
Northwestern at California

  • Bennett's pick: Northwestern 30, Cal 24
  • Rittenberg's pick: Northwestern 33, Cal 24
  • Actual score: Northwestern 44, Cal 30
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both came up short with our score predictions, although Bennett's forecast of Northwestern recording two timely interceptions proved spot on as linebacker Collin Ellis had a pair of pick-sixes in the second half. Injuries prevented the big night I predicted for Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark.

And now for our guest picker …

Indiana 21, Indiana State 13
UNLV 21, Minnesota 17
Michigan State 28, Western Michigan 17
Ohio State 45, Buffalo 13
Wisconsin 38, UMass 14
Southern Illinois 20, Illinois 17
Cincinnati 27, Purdue 21
Michigan 28, Central Michigan 17
Penn State 28, Syracuse 23
Iowa 24, Northern Illinois 13
Nebraska 27, Wyoming 16
Northwestern 24, California 21

Record: 9-3

Assessment: Not too shabby, Ryan, although you've clearly lived in Big Ten country too long with some of those low score predictions. You came close with Michigan State-Western Michigan but, like the two of us, underestimated the offensive prowess of teams like Michigan, Northwestern, Indiana, Minnesota and Illinois. That UNLV pick doesn't look too good, but not a terrible first effort.

Who's next?

Big Ten lunch links

September, 2, 2013
9/02/13
12:00
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I labored to put these links together. Get it? Get it? Enjoy the holiday.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 5, 2013
8/05/13
12:00
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It's a terrible love, and I'm walking with spiders.

Early look at Minnesota Golden Gophers 

July, 30, 2013
7/30/13
9:00
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Every day this week, NittanyNation will continue taking a closer look at a different game this season and how the matchup stacks up for PSU. Up today: Minnesota.

With Jerry Kill at the helm, the Golden Gophers are poised to become bowl regulars -- and could become one of the bigger surprises in the Big Ten this season.

Minnesota was 3-9 in 2010 before Kill took over. Then the former Northern Illinois coach equaled that record in 2011 before doubling the win total in 2012. It's Year 3 for Kill now, and this third year is the one in which Minnesota could take off.

Kill loves to run the ball, but his hopes are inextricably linked with sophomore quarterback phenom Philip Nelson, Minnesota's Mr. Football in 2011 who received recruiting interest from the likes of Nebraska and Wisconsin. Nelson experienced a rough rookie campaign, but Minnesota's hopes for a breakout season are tied to just how much he can improve this season.

Minnesota isn't a lock on the Nittany Lions' schedule. Not anymore. It's a wild card, and it's one PSU can't take for granted.

The Big Ten's All-Bowl team

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
11:00
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The Big Ten won only two bowl games this season, but several players stood out around the league.

Let's take a look at ESPN.com's Big Ten All-Bowl squad ...

OFFENSE

QB: Devin Gardner, Michigan -- There weren't many good choices around the league, but Gardner fired three touchdown passes and racked up 214 pass yards. He has accounted for at least two touchdowns in all five of his starts at quarterback for the Wolverines.

RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State -- The nation's ultimate workhorse running back did his thing in his final game as a Spartan. Bell had 32 carries for 145 yards and a touchdown, recording his eighth 100-yard rushing performance of the season. He also threw a 29-yard pass on a pivotal third-down play.

RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska -- Another back who stood out in his final collegiate game, Burkhead racked up 140 rush yards and a touchdown on 24 carries, and added four receptions for 39 yards. It's really too bad we didn't get to see what Burkhead could have done all season when healthy.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Gallon
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJeremy Gallon celebrates one of his two touchdown catches against South Carolina.
WR: Jeremy Gallon, Michigan -- Gallon recorded career highs in receptions (9) and receiving yards (145), and scored two touchdowns against a strong South Carolina defense in the Outback Bowl. It was his third 100-yard receiving performance of the season.

WR: Derrick Engel, Minnesota -- Along with quarterback Philip Nelson, Engel provided some hope for Minnesota's future on offense with 108 receiving yards on four receptions in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. His 42-yard reception marked the third longest of Minnesota's season.

TE: Dan Vitale, Northwestern -- The freshman provided offensive balance Northwestern needed against a Mississippi State team that focused on taking away Venric Mark and the run game. Vitale recorded team highs in both receptions (7) and receiving yards (82) as Northwestern ended the nation's longest bowl losing streak in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

OL: Taylor Lewan, Michigan -- Everyone remembers Jadeveon Clowney's near decapitation of Michigan's Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl -- which resulted from a miscommunication between Lewan and tight end Mike Kwiatkowski -- but the Wolverines' left tackle did a good job overall against college football's most dominant defensive lineman. Lewan anchored a line that helped Michigan put up decent numbers against an elite defense.

OL: Zac Epping, Minnesota -- Minnesota's offensive line showed flashes of the dominance it displayed for much of the Glen Mason era against Texas Tech. The Gophers racked up 222 rush yards and two touchdowns on 54 carries, as Epping and his linemates opened up holes for Donnell Kirkwood, Rodrick Williams and MarQueis Gray.

OL: Brian Mulroe, Northwestern -- Mulroe made his 40th career start and helped Northwestern finally get over the hump in a bowl game. The Wildcats had a balanced offensive attack, avoided the penalty flag and didn't allow a sack against Mississippi State.

OL: Cole Pensick, Nebraska -- Stepping in for the injured Justin Jackson at center, Pensick helped the Huskers find success running the ball against Georgia, especially up the middle. Nebraska had 239 rushing yards in the Capital One Bowl.

OL: Travis Frederick, Wisconsin: The Badgers rushed for 218 yards against Stanford, which came into the Rose Bowl with the nation's No. 3 rush defense. They also gave up only one sack to a defense which led the FBS in that category. Frederick played very well at center and announced he would skip his junior year to enter the NFL draft a few days later.

DEFENSE

DL: Quentin Williams, Northwestern -- Williams set the tone for Northwestern's win with an interception returned for a touchdown on the third play from scrimmage. He also recorded two tackles for loss, including a sack, in the victory.

DL: William Gholston, Michigan State -- Another player who stood out in his final collegiate game, Gholston tied for the team lead with nine tackles, including a sack, and had a pass breakup in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win against TCU. The freakishly athletic defensive end stepped up in a bowl game for the second straight season.

DL: Tyler Scott, Northwestern -- Scott and his fellow linemates made life tough for turnover-prone Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell in the Gator Bowl. The Wildcats junior defensive end recorded three tackles for loss, including two sacks, and added a quarterback hurry in the win.

DL: Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota -- The big man in the center of Minnesota's defensive line stood out against Texas Tech, recording six tackles, including a sack, and a pass breakup. Gophers fans should be fired up to have Hageman back in the fold for the 2013 season.

LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State -- Bullough once again triggered a strong defensive performance by Michigan State, which held TCU to just three points in the final two and a half quarters of the Wings bowl. The junior middle linebacker tied with Gholston for the team tackles lead (9) and assisted on a tackle for loss.

LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin -- The Badgers' defense clamped down against Stanford after a slow start, and Borland once again stood out with his play at middle linebacker. The standout junior led Wisconsin with nine tackles as the defense kept the Badgers within striking distance in Pasadena.

LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan -- Ryan capped a breakout season with another strong performance in the bowl game, recording 1.5 tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and half a sack. He'll enter 2013 as a top candidate for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.

CB: Michael Carter, Minnesota -- Carter finished off a strong senior year with two interceptions, a pass breakup and seven tackles in the 34-31 loss to Texas Tech.

CB: Nick VanHoose, Northwestern: The redshirt freshman picked off a Mississippi State pass and returned it 39 yard to set up the game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter.

S: Jared Carpenter, Northwestern: The senior was named MVP of the Gator Bowl win with a game-high 10 tackles and a near interception late in the game.

S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: The Wildcats dominate our all-bowl team secondary for good reason. Campbell had an interception and a pass breakup against the Bulldogs.

Specialists

P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State -- The punters took center stage in Tempe as both offenses struggled, and Sadler provided MSU with a huge lift in the field-position game. He set Spartans bowl records for punts (11) and punting yards (481), averaging 43.7 yards per punt with three inside the 20-yard line. His booming punt inside the TCU 5 helped lead to a game-turning fumble by the Horned Frogs' Skye Dawson.

K: Brendan Gibbons and Matt Wile, Michigan -- Both kickers share the honors after combining to go 3-for-3 on field-goal attempts in the Outback Bowl. Gibbons, the hero of last year's Sugar Bowl, connected from 39 yards and 40 yards in the first half. Wile hit a career-long 52-yard attempt in the third quarter, setting an Outback Bowl record.

Returner: Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota -- It took a bit longer than expected, but Stoudermire finally set the NCAA record for career kick return yards with a 26-yard runback on the opening kickoff against Texas Tech. The senior cornerback finished the game with 111 return yards, including a 37-yard runback, on four attempts.

Big Ten stock report: Week 12

November, 14, 2012
11/14/12
9:00
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We take a look inside the Big Ten trends, with no insider trading needed.

Stock up

James White: While Montee Ball understandably is getting all the attention right now, don't forget the job Wisconsin's No. 2 back is doing. White rushed for 161 yards on just 14 carries last week at Indiana, including the back-breaking 69-yard touchdown at the end of the first half. White has run for at least 100 yards in three of his last four games.

Baker Steinkuhler: The Nebraska defense has played much better in recent weeks -- particularly in the second halves -- and senior defensive tackle Steinkuhler is a reason why. A one-time highly decorated recruit, Steinkuhler is living up to that reputation by playing the best football of his career the past few weeks, coach Bo Pelini said this week. He had six tackles and a sack against Penn State last week. “Baker’s a stud," Pelini said. "He’s a leader. He’s everything you want.”

Purdue's ACL trio:
Take a knee, gentlemen. The Boilermakers' backfield trio of Robert Marve, Rob Henry and Ralph Bolden -- who have seven torn ACLs between them -- had a big day at Iowa last week. Marve threw for 266 yards and led the final drive for the winning field goal. Henry continued to play his jack-of-all trades role, including a flip to Akeem Shavers on a double option for a touchdown. Maybe most encouragingly, Bolden eclipsed 100 rushing yards for the first time since the beginning of last season. "That was very special for our whole football family," head coach Danny Hope said.

(Read full post)

Big Ten stock report: Week 3

September, 12, 2012
9/12/12
3:45
PM ET
Investor confidence in the Big Ten neared an all-time low in Week 2. But past performance does not necessarily indicate future results. Let's check the stock market:

Stock up

Chi Chi Ariguzo: The Northwestern linebacker moved into a starting role for the first time this season, and the move has gone very well for the redshirt sophomore. Ariguzo -- whose actual first name is Ikechi -- was named the Big Ten defensive player of the week after collecting 10 tackles, including three for loss, against Vanderbilt. In Week 1 at at Syracuse, he had an interception and returned a botched lateral for a touchdown. He currently leads the Big Ten with 4.5 tackles for loss.

Devin Funchess: The Michigan true freshman tight end was outstanding against Air Force, hauling in four catches for 106 yards and a touchdown. The athletic 6-foot-5, 229-pounder showed receiving skills, and could provide a much needed target for Denard Robinson. He has future star written all over him.

[+] EnlargeDonnell Kirkwood
AP Photo/Tom OlmscheidRunning back Donnell Kirkwood has sparked an improved rushing attack for Minnesota.
Minnesota's running game: The Gophers currently rank fourth in the Big Ten at 224.5 rushing yards per game, a marked improvement over last season's 160 yards per game. It hasn't just been quarterback MarQueis Gray, either, as sophomore Donnell Kirkwood has rushed for at least 70 yards in the first two games. Head coach Jerry Kill says better play out of the receivers is opening some things up for the running game. Minnesota must prove it against better defenses than UNLV and New Hampshire, but is off to a good start in building a more complete offense.

Iowa's linebackers: Not much has gone right for the Hawkeyes' offense, but the linebackers have done their part. Head coach Kirk Ferentz said James Morris, who had 12 tackles and a key interception late against Iowa State, played tremendously last week. Christian Kirksey has been doing his part as well, which Ferentz said has opened opportunities for Anthony Hitchens. A first-year starter, Hitchens tallied an eye-popping 19 tackles last week. Now, if the defense could just get some help ...

Purdue in the red zone: Boiler up inside the 20. Purdue is currently tied for the national lead in red-zone offense, scoring on all nine drives inside the opponent's 20-yard line. That includes eight touchdowns. The Boilermakers also rank 13th nationally in red-zone defense, having surrendered just four scores -- and only two touchdowns -- during their opponents' seven trips inside their 20.

Stock down

Iowa in the red zone: The Hawkeyes, of course, have scored only one touchdown all season, and that came from outside the red zone on a 23-yard run by Damon Bullock against Northern Illinois. Iowa has been in the red zone on offense six times in two games -- and come away with only five field goals.

Wisconsin's running game: You knew the Badgers' offensive output was atrocious, which led to offensive line coach Mike Markuson being dumped this week. Wisconsin has only 203 rushing yards as a team after two games, an average of 101.5 yards per game. To put that in perspective, Montee Ball alone only had three games all of last season when he failed to gain at least 115 yards, and he exceeded 203 yards against both Purdue (223) and Illinois (224).

Quarterback fears vs. Spartans, Buckeyes: There was near universal agreement this preseason that Michigan State and Ohio State would field the best defensive lines in the Big Ten this season. While they haven't been bad, it's somewhat shocking to see that the Spartans and Buckeyes have combined for only four total sacks this season. Urban Meyer has stressed the need for a better pass rush from his team. Michigan State has gotten decent pressure, but has only sack to show for it, and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi says he's not happy with the play of the defense overall. Sack numbers can be overrated, but it's also true that both lines can do a better job bringing down quarterbacks.

Illinois' defense: The Illini defense looked terrific in the opener against Western Michigan, continuing a string of great performances dating to last season. Which is why it was so shocking to see Arizona State move the ball at will against Illinois in last week's 45-14 shellacking. Players said this week that they had mix-ups in communication and were caught off guard by the Sun Devils' tempo. The latter doesn't make much sense since Todd Graham's teams have always played up-tempo, and the Illini defenders practiced against their own spread offense all preseason. We'll see if this was just one bad showing or an alarm bell.

Big Ten expansion candidates: With Notre Dame off the chessboard and the ACC going to a $50 million exit fee, who's left if the Big Ten ever decides to expand again? Rutgers? UConn? Louisville? None of those are very appealing, and it means that the league will be better off staying at 12 for the foreseeable future -- or at least until the next big seismic conference shift.

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