Notebook: NU's Burkhead in rare territory
By JESSE TEMPLE
CHICAGO — Purdue football coach Danny Hope didn't exactly stir the masses Thursday with his opening statement at the Big Ten media days.
"For the first time since I became the head coach at Purdue," Hope said, "we potentially have a very good football team coming back."
Consider Hope's remarks to be more like tempered optimism.
With traditional powers Penn State and Ohio State each facing postseason bans this season, the Big Ten's Leaders Division is up for grabs. Outside of Wisconsin, Purdue has the best opportunity to break through and is considered the wild card in a bunch that also includes Illinois and Indiana.
The Boilermakers finished last season with a winning record for the first time in Hope's three seasons in charge. Purdue edged Western Michigan, 37-32, in the Little Caesers Pizza Bowl to close the season 7-6. It marked Purdue's first bowl appearance since 2007.
Stability at the quarterback position could provide a substantial lift for Purdue in 2012.
Caleb TerBush returns after completing 171 of 277 passes (61.7 percent) for 1,905 yards with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. TerBush played last season after quarterback Robert Marve battled knee problems and quarterback Rob Henry tore his ACL. Marve threw for 633 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions last season.
Hope declared TerBush the starter on Thursday with fall practice set to begin in early August.
Hope, who is 16-21 at Purdue and 10-14 in conference play, won't allow himself or his players to think the Boilermakers suddenly have an easier path to a Big Ten title game appearance, even if it is now a four-team race.
"Rather than complicate it and assume that it may be an easier road, I think that we certainly have to grasp the idea that you have to win," Hope said.
"We have to beat the teams that are eligible for the division championship, and also the teams that aren't eligible in order to be the team that goes. So I don't think it changes the big picture all that much."
Invigorated rivalry: It's not exactly Michigan-Ohio State, but the rivalry between Illinois and Northwestern was ratcheted up a notch Thursday.
First-year Illinois coach Tim Beckman acknowledged that he was making the annual game between the two in-state foes a priority for his program, and — in the same vein as Michigan and Ohio State — refused to call Northwestern by name.
"Being around college football for my whole life, rivalries are something that make college football so unique," Beckman said. "And even in the Big Ten, I've been in those big rivalry football games, and I think it's something that you breed through your program.
"We call it the team upstate. And I'm not scared to say that. That's the school we're going to call it. We're going to make it a rivalry and we're going to make it a very, very important part of our football season."
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald fired a playful jab back, again not referring to Illinois by name during his remarks on Thursday.
"We've got the utmost respect for the school down there in Champaign, and I've got a ton of respect for Tim," Fitzgerald said. "We've known each other for a while. It's a great rivalry that we've been a part of."
Last season, Illinois edged Northwestern, 38-35, on Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase's one-yard touchdown run with 13 seconds remaining. The teams play this season on Nov. 24 in the regular-season finale in Evanston, Ill.
Burkhead breakout: If not for the return of Wisconsin Heisman trophy finalist Montee Ball, Nebraska's Rex Burkhead would be the cream of the running back crop in the Big Ten.
The Big Ten announced its preseason football players to watch Thursday, and Burkhead was among a group of five players selected from the Legends Division. Ball, from the Leaders Division, was the only other running back chosen.
Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini raved about Burkhead's ability on Thursday.
"Rex is a pretty special football player and a special kid," Pelini said. "He's tough. He can do it all on the field. He's multi-talented. He has all the intangibles. But beyond that, what he does for your football team and your program is tremendous. …
"I wouldn't trade him for another player in the country. That's how much I think of Rex and what he is to our program and the University of Nebraska."
Burkhead, a 5-foot-11, 210-pound senior, rushed for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. He has amassed 2,654 rushing yards in his career and could become the school's No. 2 all-time leading rusher by the end of the season.
Mike Rozier holds the school record for career rushing yards with 4,780.
Players honored: In addition to Burkhead and Ball, the Big Ten chose eight other players for the preseason watch list.
Legends Division representatives were: Burkhead, Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, Michigan State cornerback Johnny Adams and Michigan State defensive end William Gholston.
Leaders Division honorees were: Ball, Ohio State defensive lineman John Simon, Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short and Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland.
The list of honorees includes the last two Big Ten Offensive Players of the Year in Robinsion (2010) and Ball (2011), as well as two Big Ten Freshman of the Year honorees in Borland (2009) and Miller (2011).
Ball, Borland, Robinson, Short and Simon have each been named All-Americans in previous seasons.
Moore update: Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio addressed the loss of long snapper Steve Moore, whose football career ended when he broke a vertebra in his neck while diving off a boat on Saturday.
"He will be getting out of the hospital very soon," Dantonio said. "Our thoughts and our prayers are with him in that respect."
Moore made the Spartans' team as a walk-on and was supposed to be a starter this season as a junior. Freshman Taybor Pepper is expected to handle long snapping duties for Michigan State this season.
Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter.