Big Ten heads into unusual season with PSU, OSU
Montee Ball has changed the pronunciation of his first name –
it’s Mon-tay instead of Mon-tee, if you don’t mind.
That’s OK with the Badgers as long as their hard-charging
tailback and Heisman finalist of a year ago keeps rolling up points
and finding the end zone as Wisconsin aims for a third straight Big
Denard Robinson should have Brady Hoke’s offensive scheme
figured out and after amassing more than 8,000 yards of total
offense in his career, the talented Michigan quarterback will set
sail on a senior season that got an enormous boost from a Sugar
Bowl victory last January.
In a normal year in the Big Ten, Ball and Robinson would be the
headline grabbers. But this is not a normal year in the Big Ten,
not by any stretch.
There are new faces with big names in the coaching ranks. Former
Florida coach Urban Meyer is back, trying to make Ohio State a
force again after a 6-7 season that followed a
But Meyer’s assignment pales when compared to what’s ahead for
Bill O’Brien, who left the NFL for Penn State. He is facing a
future that no coach would ever want, fighting to keep the Nittany
Lions afloat in the face of crippling NCAA sanctions following the
Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal. He lost standout running
back Silas Redd to USC on Tuesday.
”I’ll be myself. I’m a guy who’s always felt confident in my
ability to coach football. I’m confident in my relationships,”
O’Brien says of reaching out to his players during a trying time.
”I’m not into being a genie. … What I can tell you again is that
we have a good, tough, smart football team.”
Leaders Division foes Ohio State and Penn State are both
sidelined for the postseason by the NCAA, leaving only four teams
to compete for a spot in the Big Ten title game and making the
Ball-led Badgers heavy favorites. Wisconsin won the first league
championship game a year ago against Michigan State before losing
to Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
”I’m not blind and oblivious to the fact that we’re in a
division that has six teams. Only four of them are eligible for the
Big Ten championship game,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said.
”But it really won’t change our approach.”
Michigan State won 11 games in each of the last two seasons. But
the Spartans must move on without prolific quarterback Kirk
Cousins. And Nebraska has one of the top backs in the country in
Rex Burkhead as the Cornhuskers look to build on their first season
in the Big Ten.
Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, Northwestern, Indiana and Purdue all
hope to find their footing following disappointing finishes a year
ago. A look at the Big Ten:
IOWA – Key players: DB Micah Hyde, QB James Vandenberg, C James
Ferentz, LB James Morris, LB Christian Kirksey, WR Keenan Davis.
Returning starters: 6 offense, 5 defense.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, in his 14th season running the
Hawkeyes, is the dean of conference coaches. He needs six more
seasons to tie Hayden Fry for the longest tenure at Iowa. … The
Hawkeyes are 55-12 at home since the start of the 2002 season and
were 6-1 a year ago at Kinnick Stadium. But they are just 8-5 and
7-6 overall the last two seasons … Vandenberg completed 58.7
percent of his passes and threw for 3,022 yards last season.
MICHIGAN – Key players: QB Denard Robinson, WR Roy Roundtree, OT
Taylor Lewan, S Jordan Kovacs, LB Kenny Demens. Returning starters:
6 offense, 7 defense
Robinson has already set the NCAA single-season record for
rushing by a quarterback when he picked up 1,702 yards as a
sophomore. His numbers dropped off a bit – as did his carries – a
year ago but he still had 1,176 in Brady Hoke’s highly successful
first season that ended in a Sugar Bowl victory. Robinson has a
jaw-dropping 8,160 yards total offense for his career, most of it
over the last two seasons. … Kovacs has 266 tackles, five sacks,
five forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and four interceptions
in his career for the Wolverines.
MICHIGAN STATE – Key players: QB Andrew Maxwell, LB Max
Bullough, DE William Gholston, DB Johnny Adams, S Isaiah Lewis, RB
Le’Veon Bell. Returning starters: 5 offense, 8 defense
Notes: Michigan State has had back-to-back 11-win seasons for
the first time in school history. … The Spartans have won more
conference games (24) over the last four years than any other team
in the league. … Replacing three-year starter Kirk Cousins will
be a challenge. He set nearly every school passing record and the
Spartans were 22-5 during his last two seasons.
MINNESOTA – Key players: QB MarQueis Gray, LB Mike Rallis, WR
Brandon Green, OL Ed Olson, LB Keanon Cooper. Returning starters: 7
offense, 6 defense.
Coach Jerry Kill thanked a reporter for asking him how his
health was and then said he was feeling fantastic. Kill had a
seizure on the sideline of a game against New Mexico State last
season. … Gray’s dual threat abilities and athleticism give the
Golden Gophers hopes of improving on last year’s three-win season.
He set school records for single-game (174) and single-season
rushing yards by a quarterback (966). As a passer last season, Gray
– who had also been a wide receiver during his career – threw eight
TD passes and eight interceptions, while competing 51 percent
NEBRASKA – Key players: RB Rex Burkhead, QB Taylor Martinez, WR
Kenny Bell, LB Will Compton, DE Cameron Meredith. Returning
starters: 8 offense, 7 defense
Nebraska’s Blackshirt defense lost two of its best in linebacker
Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard, voted the league’s best
cornerback. … Burkhead had seven 100-yard rushing games last
season, including five against league opponents. … Nebraska went
9-4 – 5-3 in the conference – during its inaugural Big Ten
NORTHWESTERN – Key players: QB Kain Colter, S Ibraheim Campbell,
LB David Nwabuisi, OL Brian Mulroe, WR Demetrius Fields. Returning
starters: 5 offense, 6 defense.
The Wildcats must replace QB Dan Persa and the job will fall to
Colter, who rushed for 654 yards and nine TDs a year ago. … The
winless bowl run continues for the Wildcats, something they hope to
finally nix. They’re 1-9 in postseason games, including last year’s
loss to Texas A&M in the Car Care Bowl. Last bowl win – only
bowl win – was the 1949 Rose Bowl. That came a quarter of a century
before current NU coach Pat Fitzgerald was born.
ILLINOIS – Key players: QB Nathan Scheelhaase, LB Jonathan
Brown, DE Michael Buchanan, C Graham Pocic. Returning starters: 7
offense, 7 defense.
The Illini roared out of the gates with a 6-0 record last season
only to lose six straight in a head-shaking slide that cost Ron
Zook his job. The Illini did win the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl over
UCLA to finish 7-6. …. Scheelhaase has played in 26 games the
last two seasons, passing for nearly 4,000 yards and rushing for
another 1,492. … First-year coach Tim Beckman said some of his
coaches went to State College trolling for transfers shortly after
the Nittany Lions were hit with sanctions.
INDIANA – Key players: DT Adam Replogle, QB Tre Roberson, RB
Stephen Houston, C Will Matte, DT Larry Black, Jr. Returning
starters: 7 offense, 8 defense.
The Hoosiers won’t improve until their defense does. They gave
up 459 yards per game last season and had trouble stopping the run
during a 1-11 season. Indiana was winless in the Big Ten. … Coach
Kevin Wilson played 16 true freshmen and 16 redshirt freshmen last
season. The Hoosiers started 46 different players in 12 games.
OHIO STATE – Key players: QB Braxton Miller, WR Devin Smith, WR
Corey Brown, DT Johnathan Hankings, DL John Simon. Returning
starters: 7 offense, 8 defense.
Coming off a 6-7 season that followed the tattoos scandal, the
Buckeyes turned to Meyer, who brought two titles to Florida before
health issues sent him to the TV booth for a year. Meyer has been
tested already. The Buckeyes have had three players arrested this
summer. … Meyer’s first season in Columbus could be aided by a
favorable schedule that features eight home games, including five
of the first six.
PENN STATE – Key players: DT Jordan Hill, LB Gerald Hodges, QB
Matt McGloin, LB Michael Matui. Returning starters: 4 offense, 4
defense (as of July 30).
First-year coach Bill O’Brien says he got a boost from a
conversation with his former boss, Bill Belichick, when the New
England Patriots coach told him he doesn’t buy the talk that Penn
State football is dead. … After all the difficult times the
Nittany Lions have encountered answering questions about the
sanctions that followed the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal, O’Brien
said the Nittany Lions can’t wait for practice to start. O’Brien
promises they will have some fun, despite all the distractions,
though he lost star running back Silas Redd to USC.
PURDUE – Key players: QB Caleb TerBush, RB Ralph Bolden, CB
Ricardo Allen, LB Will Lucas, DT Kawann Short, KR/WR Raheem
Mostert. Returning starters: 9 offense, 10 defense.
Short made 17 tackles for losses last season and also had 6 1-2
sacks as Purdue registered its first winning season under Danny
Hope, who is entering his fourth season. … The Boilermakers
improved to 7-6 by beating Western Michigan in the Little Caesars
Pizza Bowl. … Mostert led FBS schools in kickoff returns last
season, averaging 33.5 yards.
WISCONSIN – Key players: RB Montee Ball, QB Danny O’Brien, LB
Mike Taylor, LB Chris Borland, OT Ricky Wagner. Returning starters:
5 offense, 6 defense.
Ball has 61 career TDs, even though he has only started 18 games
for the Badgers. … Wisconsin has made four Rose Bowl appearances
since 1998, the second most in that span to Southern Cal’s five.
… O’Brien is a transfer from Maryland, hoping to repeat the
success of Russell Wilson, who transferred to Madison from North
Carolina State for one season. … Coach Bret Bielema has done some
adding since last season. He got married and also has six new
assistant coaches on his staff. … Wisconsin is 60-19 under
Bielema in six seasons.