Big Ten: Brandon Williams
The final week of the college football regular season has arrived, and still nothing has been officially decided in the top-heavy Big Ten East. Michigan State has the inside track to the league championship game against Iowa, but the Spartans must first take care of business at Penn State. Otherwise, the Ohio State-Michigan winner would advance to the title game.
Those aren't the only games with serious postseason implications. Iowa will try to remain unbeaten and angle its way toward a College Football Playoff spot with a win against Nebraska. Indiana, Minnesota, Illinois and Nebraska all are sitting on five wins and need one more victory to assure a bowl bid.
Here's a full rundown on all the Big Ten games:
3:30 p.m. ET
Iowa (11-0, 7-0 Big Ten) at Nebraska (5-6, 3-4): The Hawkeyes can move one step closer to reaching the promised land in this dream season, but you'd better believe the Cornhuskers will be as fired up as they have been all season. Nebraska has won two straight games, is coming off a bye week and can officially become bowl-eligible with a victory. Iowa is already guaranteed a spot in the Big Ten title game as the West Division champion, but the Hawkeyes have their eyes on a bigger prize.
Indiana (5-6, 1-6) at Purdue (2-9, 1-6): The Hoosiers will try to capture the Old Oaken Bucket for a third consecutive season, and a bowl bid is on the line. Indiana struggled to put away the Big Ten's big boys, but its victory against Maryland last week has the Hoosiers one game from reaching their first bowl since 2007. Purdue has played well the past two weeks in losses to Northwestern and Iowa. School officials plan to retain head coach Darrell Hazell next season, but the Boilermakers would feel a lot better about that decision if they can enter the offseason with a victory.
Maryland (2-9, 0-7) at Rutgers (4-7, 1-6): Two of the most disappointing teams in the Big Ten collide in the regular-season finale, and it remains to be seen whether both head coaches will still be around next season. Maryland interim coach Mike Locksley hasn't won a game since taking over for Randy Edsall. Rutgers coach Kyle Flood, meanwhile, will miss out on a bowl for the first time in his four seasons there (barring a bunch of potential 5-7 teams sneaking in). The Big Ten East is brutal, and both teams have seen why this season.
Ohio State (10-1, 6-1) at Michigan (9-2, 6-1): These teams have suffered excruciating losses to Michigan State, but hope of winning the Big Ten East remains. Penn State must beat Michigan State after this game is completed. If that happens, the Ohio State-Michigan winner would advance to the league title game against Iowa. Right now, the Buckeyes look to be in some disarray, particularly after tailback Ezekiel Elliott blasted the offensive play calling last Saturday. Michigan has won four straight and will be feeling good in the Big House as we begin the Jim Harbaugh-Urban Meyer portion of this long-standing rivalry.
3:30 p.m. ET
Wisconsin (8-3, 5-2) at Minnesota (5-6, 2-5): Former Gophers coach Jerry Kill began talking about winning back Paul Bunyan's Axe before the season even started. It's the one game that means more than any other in Minnesota, and Wisconsin has won 11 straight in the series. Could this be the year the streak ends? Wisconsin's offense turned the ball over five times Saturday in a loss to Northwestern and has been anemic. Minnesota has put up 67 points the past two weeks and is fighting to become bowl-eligible.
Northwestern (9-2, 5-2) vs. Illinois (5-6, 2-5) at Soldier Field: After a rough two-week stretch against Michigan and Iowa, Northwestern has rallied to win four straight games and could be in the midst of its first 11-win season in program history. Illinois can still become bowl-eligible, but the Illini will have to play better than they did during Saturday's 32-23 loss to Minnesota. A win, and it seems difficult to believe interim coach Bill Cubit wouldn't be retained.
Penn State (7-4, 4-3) at Michigan State (10-1, 6-1): The path to the Big Ten title game for the Spartans is simple: win and they're in. What Michigan State accomplished without injured quarterback Connor Cook against Ohio State was simply amazing. Penn State has lost two straight to Northwestern and Michigan but can play the role of spoiler.
Each team receives a grade for offense, defense, special teams and overall play.
Up next: Northwestern.
After several big performances in non-league play and a 437-yard output in the Big Ten opener against Ohio State, Northwestern's offense slid significantly and became a liability for most of the fall. A new-look line struggled to protect, quarterback Trevor Siemian made costly mistakes and the rhythm and occasional explosiveness that defined the unit for years disappeared. Northwestern finished 11th in the league in both scoring (26.2 ppg) and sacks allowed (36), and it committed 20 turnovers.
Injuries played a significant role in Northwestern's struggles. Venric Mark, a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2012, played only one full game because of myriad injuries. Quarterback Kain Colter also was banged up throughout the season, and head coach Pat Fitzgerald revealed after the season that Siemian played through a heel injury during the Big Ten slate. The injury bug hit the running back spot especially hard as Stephen Buckley suffered a season-ending injury against Nebraska, and Treyvon Green also was slowed.
Northwestern operated with a limited playbook and never showcased the scheme that propelled it to 10 wins in 2012. The unit struggled to score touchdowns in the red zone -- a strength from the previous season -- and couldn't overcome costly penalties. Ultra conservative play calls also cropped up in Big Ten games, and a unit that had sparked Northwestern since 2000 became hard to watch.
In most seasons, Northwestern's defense would have been good enough to help the team to at least eight wins. The Wildcats have had an offense lean since installing the spread before the 2000 campaign, while their defense had been a liability, especially against the pass. The defense held up in most games, although it could have secured wins against both Nebraska and Iowa with one more stop.
Northwestern was extremely opportunistic, recording 23 takeaways, including four for touchdowns. The Wildcats finished fifth in the league in sacks, thanks to effective rushers Tyler Scott, Dean Lowry and Ifeadi Odenigbo. The unit struggled against elite running backs like Carlos Hyde, Ameer Abdullah and Melvin Gordon, and fell victim to some big pass plays, most notably the Hail Mary at Nebraska. Northwestern missed cornerback Daniel Jones, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener at Cal.
The defense can't be absolved from the team's failure this season, but it put the offense in position to win all but two Big Ten games (Wisconsin and Michigan State). If Northwestern had been slightly more efficient in scoring points, it finishes 7-5 or 8-4. This is a unit that returns most of its key players in 2014 and could be pretty good.
Special teams: C
Jeff Budzien proved to be Northwestern's most consistent offensive threat, connecting on 23 of 25 field-goal attempts and all 35 of his extra-point tries en route to winning his second consecutive Big Ten kicker-of-the-year award. The coverage teams also were satisfactory, but Northwestern really missed Mark, who was an All-America punt returner in 2012. Northwestern only attempted nine punt returns all season and didn't get anything special from its kick returners. Punter Brandon Williams struggled and was replaced late in the season.
Northwestern fell significantly short of expectations, as it returned the core from a 10-win team and has a realistic shot at the Legends Division title. The team was snakebitten with injuries and bad luck and easily could have won three-to-four more games, but it repeatedly couldn't make the key plays in close contests. Personnel losses along both lines, especially the offensive front, cost Northwestern during Big Ten play, as the Wildcats endured their longest losing streak (seven games) since the 1998 season. Fitzgerald and his staff have a lot to evaluate in their first extended offseason in six years.
More report cards
Team of the week: Minnesota. The Golden Gophers are a golden 4-0 for the first time in four years. And while the team still has many strides to make, 4-0 is 4-0. A bowl game is not just a possibility now; it's a realistic option, especially if Minnesota continues to play defense like it did in a 17-10 win over Syracuse. The Gophers just need to win two Big Ten games to get to the postseason, and they might do even better than that.
Game of the week: It wasn't much fun for the majority of the crowd in Iowa City, but Central Michigan's 32-31 win over Iowa had the most drama of the day. The Chippewas scored nine points in the last 45 seconds, recovering an onside kick and making a 47-yard field goal with three seconds left to stun the Hawkeyes.
Best call: Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees checked into a play at the line of scrimmage on third-and-4 with less than three minutes left. Turned out to be checkmate. Rees found Tyler Eifert for a 38-yard catch in one-on-one coverage, effectively letting the Irish run out the clock and keep the ball away from miracle-maker Denard Robinson in the 13-6 win. Brian Kelly's decision to sub Rees in after Everett Golson threw two early interceptions was also a great call. Worst call definitely goes to Michigan for somehow thinking diminutive halfback Vincent Smith throwing a halfback pass over the towering Irish front seven on the Notre Dame 10-yard line was a good idea. The entire complexion of that game could have changed if Michigan got points there instead of that interception.
Best blunt assessment: Urban Meyer, after his Ohio State team had another wobbly win, this time over UAB: "You've got to think about where this team was now. This is not a finely tuned machine right now, and it hasn't been for a while. We've got to develop a finely tuned machine. Obviously there's some growing pains and it's not as easy. I thought we'd be further ahead."
Big Man on Campus (offense): Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin has had a rocky career, but he might have turned in his finest effort on Saturday against Temple. The senior finished 24-of-36 for a career-high 318 yards and a touchdown with an interception, and he also had the Lions' first two rushing scores of the season in the 24-13 win. Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell (36 rushes, 253 yards, one touchdown) also had a monster game, but he did it against the worst rushing defense in the nation.
Big Man on Campus (defense): How's this for dominant? Nebraska's Eric Martin had five tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks against Idaho State, and he didn't even play a full three quarters. In games against opponents with a pulse, Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland collected 12 tackles, including 3.5 for loss and 2 sacks, plus two pass breakups, in the Badgers' 37-26 win over UTEP.
Big Man on Campus (special teams): Northwestern's Brandon Williams averaged 56.7 yards per punt, including a long of 61, in the Wildcats' 38-7 win over South Dakota. Two of his three punts were downed inside the 20. Special shoutout also to Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, who had an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown.
Worst hangover: Ay, Ay, Ay for the two U. of I's. Iowa's loss brought about a long week of hand-wringing and sports talk show phone-ringing in Hawkeye nation. Already on Twitter after the game Saturday, many fans were complaining about Ferentz and his salary, as if they were responsible for footing the bill. At least the Hawkeyes almost won. Illinois got blasted on its own field by Louisiana Tech, 52-24. The Illini imploded in the second half, setting up two Bulldogs scores with turnovers and giving the ball away six times on the night. Illinois looked like a mystery team coming into the season; now the mystery is, just what are this team's strengths? Too bad Illinois and Iowa aren't playing each other. They both could use a winnable game.
Strangest moment: Michigan's final five pass attempts in the first half against Notre Dame were all intercepted. That, my friends, is hard to do. And it's a good way to sum up the Big Ten nonconference season.
For this ranking, we're going to consider punters, kickers and returners only. No offense to the long-snappers or the punt-team gunners, but things like kickoff coverage units are hard to forecast. We'll give a little extra weight to teams that have returning and proven players at these spots, because it's difficult to know how new punters and kickers will fare when the pressure of real games begin.
As the guys in these positions would say, let's kick it:
2. Wisconsin: The Badgers are set at both punter and kicker, with seniors Brad Nortman and Philip Welch, respectively. Both are third-year starters who can be relied upon. Wisconsin will need to find a replacement for primary return man David Gilreath.
3. Penn State: The Nittany Lions bring back punter Anthony Fera and punt returner Devon Smith, who finished just behind Martin in yards per attempt last season. Chaz Powell and Stephfon Green are dangerous kick returners. Fera could move over to handle field goals this season if incoming freshman Sam Ficken doesn't win the job.
4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have a veteran punter in senior Ben Buchanan and two threats to take a kick to the house in Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry. Sophomore Drew Basil is expected to take over at place-kicker. Special teams are almost always a force in Columbus.
5. Purdue: No one in the league has a bigger leg than Carson Wiggs; the questions is whether he can consistently harness it. Punter Cody Webster averaged 43.3 yards per attempt last season, second best among returning punters. The Boilermakers' return game needs to improve.
6. Illinois: Derek Dimke was a Lou Groza semifinalist last season and broke the school record for points by a kicker. He nailed two 50-plus yarders. Ray Guy semifinalist Anthony Santella is gone, though return man Troy Pollard is back.
7. Northwestern: Brandon Williams improved at punter as his freshman year went along last season. The Wildcats at long last have an elite return option in Venric Mark. But place-kicker was a concern this spring, with Jeff Budzien and Steve Flaherty competing for the job.
8. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz's teams usually find a way to be good on special teams, so odds are the Hawkeyes will climb these rankings. But they lost a lot from 2010, including Ray Guy finalist and four-year starter Ryan Donahue, plus both primary return men. Eric Guthrie held the edge at punter after the spring. Place-kicker Mike Meyer returns after taking over that role for the final 10 games and doing a solid job.
9. Indiana: Mitch Ewald was named to the Groza watch list after a strong freshman year in which he made 16 of 19 field goals. Chris Hagerup needs to increase his punting average of 39.4 yards. The Hoosiers should have enough athletes to replace Tandon Doss on returns.
10. Minnesota: Dan Orseske's 36.1-yard average was worst among starting Big Ten punters in 2010, so that must get better. Jerry Kill must also find a new place-kicker -- NC State transfer Chris Hawthorne looks like the top option. Troy Stoudermire, one of the league's top return specialists, is back for his senior year.
11. Nebraska: Like Iowa, this is a team that will almost assuredly outperform this ranking. But boy did the Huskers lose a lot of talent and experience. It will be difficult to match the value that punter/kicker Alex Henery brought -- Brett Maher and freshman Mauro Bondi will battle to replace him -- and Adi Kunalic was a secret weapon as kickoff specialist. Top returner Niles Pau is gone, too. The Cornhuskers will likely reload, but nobody has bigger shoes to fill at these positions in the Big Ten.
12. Michigan: The kicking game looked like a disaster this spring, with neither Seth Broekhuizen nor Brendan Gibbons inspiring confidence. Incoming freshman Matt Wile might win the job this summer. This could prove to be an Achilles' heel for the Wolverines, as it was a year ago. On the plus side, Will Hagerup is the leading returning punter in the Big Ten, though he had only 33 attempts last season.
Team(s) of the Week: Wisconsin and Illinois. Both teams get the nod for different reasons. The Badgers overcame their Michigan misery and won in Ann Arbor for the first time since 1994. After Wisconsin's red-hot offense surged out to a 24-0 lead, the Badgers survived a mini scare in the third quarter before steamrolling Michigan with 28 consecutive designed run plays. Running backs James White and Montee Ball combined for 354 rush yards and six touchdowns in the win. Speaking of the ground game, no back in America had a bigger day than Illinois' Mikel Leshoure, who racked up a team-record 330 rushing yards against Northwestern. Behind Leshoure's brilliance, Illinois piled up 519 rush yards and claimed a must-win game against Northwestern at Wrigley Field to become bowl eligible.
Biggest play: Three immediately come to mind. Pryor's scramble on fourth-and-10 likely saved Ohio State's season. Michigan State's Denicos Allen blocked a Purdue punt late in the fourth quarter to set up the game-winning touchdown as the Spartans rallied from a 28-13 deficit. And Penn State's Andrew Dailey and James Van Fleet teamed up for a punt block and a touchdown return that broke a 24-24 tie against Indiana at FedEx Field.
Specialist spotlight: The two punt blocks by Michigan State and Penn State loomed large in both teams' victories. Michigan State punter Aaron Bates had another big game, averaging 43.4 yards per punt and placing three inside the Purdue 20-yard line. After not attempting a punt the week before against Indiana, Wisconsin's Brad Nortman made the most out of his only chance against Michigan, pinning the Wolverines at their 1-yard line. Ohio State's Devin Barclay kicked a clutch field goal against Iowa for the second straight year, this time a 48-yarder in the fourth quarter. Both punters looked comfortable at Wrigley, as Illinois' Anthony Santella averaged 53.5 yards per punt and Northwestern's Brandon Williams had a 45.2-yard average. Northwestern's Venric Mark had a 58-yard punt return that set up a Wildcats touchdown against Illinois.
Best sign: The Big Ten's last-minute decision to primarily use one end zone at Wrigley Field became the top story in college football heading into Saturday. But just in case players from Northwestern and Illinois didn't hear about the rule changes, a fan sitting behind the dreaded East end zone provided a reminder. He held up a sign that read: "Wrong Way!" Nice.
Game balls (given to players on winning or losing teams who didn't receive helmet stickers)
- Penn State QB Matt McGloin: The sophomore racked up a career-high 315 pass yards and two touchdowns against Indiana, completing 22 of 31 attempts in the win. His 315 pass yards tie for the 10th most in team history.
- Illinois LB Martez Wilson: The Chicago native sparkled in his hometown Saturday, recording three tackles for loss, two sacks, two quarterback hurries and a forced fumble in the win against Northwestern.
- Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien: He completed his first 13 pass attempts against Michigan and showed good toughness, absorbing several hits before releasing the ball. Tolzien finished the game 14-for-15 for 201 yards and an interception.
- Michigan State WR Mark Dell: Dell made Senior Day a memorable one by recording eight receptions for 108 yards and two touchdowns against Purdue. The senior receiver hauled in scoring passes of 24 yards and nine yards to match a career high for touchdowns.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Nick WassPenn State quarterback Matt McGloin had a career day in a win over Indiana.
- Michigan QB Denard Robinson: He started slowly against Wisconsin but came on strong in the second half. Robinson racked up 121 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, breaking the FBS single-season record for quarterback rushing. He also had 239 pass yards and two touchdowns with an interception.
- Purdue CB Ricardo Allen: Any postseason awards list of top freshmen should include Allen, who recorded his second pick-six in as many weeks against Michigan State. He tied Mike Rose's single-season record for interceptions returned for touchdowns. Allen now leads Purdue with three interceptions this season.
- Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins: The junior played through pain and overcame an early miscue to record four touchdowns (3 pass, 1 rush) and 276 pass yards. Cousins completed passes to 10 different receivers in the come-from-behind win against Purdue.
- Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor: It's not how you start in football, and Pryor finished extremely strong against Iowa. He led two fourth-quarter scoring drives, racked up 78 rush yards against a stout Iowa defense and passed for 195 yards.
- Indiana WR Tandon Doss: The dynamic junior led Indiana in both receiving yards (90) and rushing yards (61) against Penn State. Doss had seven receptions and five rushes on the day. He also shined as a return man and finished the game with 293 all-purpose yards, tied for the seventh-best effort in team history.
Now let's look ahead to rivalry week.
Michigan (7-4, 3-4 Big Ten) at No. 8 Ohio State (10-1, 6-1): If the Buckeyes win, they will tie a Big Ten record with their sixth consecutive league title (won or shared). They also aim for their seventh consecutive win against their archrival. Michigan can spoil it all for Ohio State and take the heat off of third-year coach Rich Rodriguez, but a Wolverines win would qualify as a major upset. Pryor takes aim at a Wolverines defense that ranks 99th nationally in points allowed (33.6 ppg).
No. 10 Michigan State (10-1, 6-1) at Penn State (7-4, 4-3): A special season for the Spartans comes down to this, the biggest game in recent team history. Michigan State can record a team record for wins if it beats Penn State, and a victory ensures the Spartans of at least a share of the Big Ten title for the first time since 1990. McGloin and the Nittany Lions look to spoil the party and end the regular season with wins in five of their final six games.
Indiana (4-7, 0-7) at Purdue (4-7, 2-5): For the second straight year, the Bucket game will be played with just pride and bragging rights on the line. Neither Indiana nor Purdue will be going bowling this season, but both teams want to end 2010 on a good note. It could be a pivotal game for Hoosiers coach Bill Lynch, who has recorded just two Big Ten wins since his Hoosiers beat Purdue in 2007 to clinch a bowl berth.
No. 24 Iowa (7-4, 4-3) at Minnesota (2-9, 1-6): Iowa has shut out Minnesota in each of the last two seasons, and the Hawkeyes will come in angry after dropping back-to-back games. The Golden Gophers, meanwhile, come off of an open week after an uplifting win against Illinois and look for their first home victory of the season. It'll be the last game for quarterback Adam Weber, the other Minnesota seniors and probably most of the coaching staff. Iowa has won eight of the teams' last nine meetings.
Northwestern (7-4, 3-4) at Wisconsin (10-1, 6-1): The Badgers are playing for a share of their first Big Ten title since 1999 and most likely their first Rose Bowl appearance since that year. Barring an Ohio State loss, a Badgers win likely punches their ticket to Pasadena. Wisconsin's offense has been sensational as of late, and starting running back John Clay should be back in the fold. It likely spells bad news for Northwestern, which had no answer for Illinois' rushing attack at Wrigley.
Bye: Illinois (6-5, 4-4)
Team of the Week: Northwestern. There are two guarantees with Northwestern football in the last decade or so. Every season, the Wildcats drop a game they shouldn't and pull off an upset, usually against Iowa. After stumbling against short-handed Purdue in early October, the Wildcats continued their trend by upsetting then-No. 13 Iowa on Saturday. Northwestern blew an early lead, which is nothing new this season, but this time Pat Fitzgerald's crew rallied in the fourth quarter behind star quarterback Dan Persa and others. Persa led two fourth-quarter scoring drives and Northwestern held on to beat Iowa for the fifth time in the teams' last six meetings. The victory ensures that Northwestern will record three consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1958-60.
Biggest play: Several come to mind, including Persa's 20-yard touchdown pass to Demetrius Fields to give Northwestern the lead for good. Minnesota's Troy Stoudermire gave his team new life in the fourth quarter with a 90-yard kickoff return that set up a touchdown. But my pick took place at The Shoe. Ohio State led Penn State 17-14 early in the fourth quarter when Terrelle Pryor heaved a deep pass to receiver DeVier Posey, who couldn't haul it in but tipped the ball. Fellow wideout Dane Sanzenbacher swooped in to grab the deflection for a 58-yard touchdown. Ohio State went on to a 38-14 romp.
Specialist spotlight: Minnesota's much-maligned special teams units deserve credit after Saturday's win. Stoudermire's kick return was huge, and the Gophers also got a 45-yard field goal from Eric Ellestad and three punts placed inside the Illinois 20-yard line by Dan Orseske. Northwestern and Iowa both were brilliant on kickoffs and punts, as Stefan Demos and Michael Meyer combined for eight touchbacks and Brandon Williams and Ryan Donahue combined to place four punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Both teams finished with zero return yards. Purdue's Carson Wiggs continued his strong season by going 3-for-3 on field goal attempts, while Wisconsin's Philip Welch went 2-for-2. Punters Anthony Fera of Penn State and Ben Buchanan of Ohio State both had good performances at Ohio Stadium.
Power surge: Wisconsin turned in a historic offensive performance in crushing Indiana on Saturday. The Badgers' 83 points marked the most against a Big Ten team in team history and the highest total in a game during the modern era. It was the most since the Badgers defeated Marquette 85-0 on Oct. 8, 1915. The 83 points scored tied the Big Ten record for scoring in the modern era, as Ohio State put up 83 against Iowa in 1950.
Game balls (given to players on winning or losing teams who didn't receive helmet stickers)
- Wisconsin DEs Louis Nzegwu and J.J. Watt: It wasn't all about the Badgers' offense Saturday, as Nzegwu and Watt combined for four tackles for loss, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and a sack against Indiana.
- Ohio State CB Devon Torrence: After getting picked on in the first half, Torrence responded with a pick-six in the third quarter to give Ohio State its first lead against Penn State. He had six tackles, one for loss, in the game.
- Minnesota QB Adam Weber: It hasn't been an easy road for the Gophers senior quarterback, but he had a big role in snapping the team's losing streak Saturday. Weber threw for 225 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions at Illinois. Also meriting a mention is running back DeLeon Eskridge, who rushed for three touchdowns.
- Michigan LB Obi Ezeh: It has been a bumpy road for Ezeh the last two seasons, but the senior stepped up along with several other Michigan defenders at Purdue. Ezeh recorded a team-high eight tackles, including two for loss and a sack against the Boilers.
- Northwestern S Brian Peters: After some struggles in recent weeks, Peters made several big plays against Iowa, none bigger than an interception early in the fourth quarter that set up Northwestern's rally. He led the Wildcats with 10 tackles and recorded a forced fumble and two pass breakups.
- Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien: The running backs always get top billing at Wisconsin, but Tolzien was nearly flawless against Indiana, completing 15 of 18 passes for 181 yards and three touchdowns.
- Illinois RB Mikel Leshoure: The talented junior running back continues to do his part for the now-slumping Illini. After recording five touchdowns last week at Michigan, Leshoure racked up 141 rush yards and two touchdowns on only 18 carries against Minnesota.
Now here's a quick look at Week 12.
Purdue (4-6, 2-4) at No. 12 Michigan State (9-1, 5-1): After an open week, the Spartans resume play with a chance to reach 10 wins for the first time since 1999. It marks the final home game for All-American linebacker Greg Jones, who will take aim at a patchwork Purdue offense. Two of the Big Ten's top defenders share the field in Jones and Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, whose team must win its final two games to become bowl eligible.
No. 7 Wisconsin (9-1, 5-1) at Michigan (7-3, 3-3): The Badgers are riding a five-game win streak and put up 83 points in their last game, but they have really struggled in the state of Michigan and especially at the Big House. Wisconsin hasn't won in Ann Arbor since 1994 and hasn't won in the state since beating Michigan State in 2002 at Spartan Stadium. Michigan has won back-to-back games but needs a much cleaner performance in all three phases to record the upset.
Illinois (5-5, 3-4) vs. Northwestern (7-3, 3-3) at Chicago: Football is back at Wrigley Field for the first time since 1970 and the Illini and Wildcats will play the first college game at the Friendly Confines since 1938. The pageantry takes center stage Saturday, but Illinois still needs a win to become bowl eligible and turn down the heat on coach Ron Zook. Northwestern redshirt freshman Evan Watkins makes his first career start at quarterback.
No. 9 Ohio State (9-1, 5-1) at No. 20 Iowa (7-3, 4-2): The Buckeyes must win out to give themselves a chance at a record-tying sixth consecutive Big Ten title. To do so, they must play better on the road after losing at Wisconsin and struggling at Illinois. Iowa gave Ohio State all it could handle last year in Columbus, and this time the Hawkeyes will have starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi available. It's Senior Day at Kinnick Stadium, where Iowa aims for a signature win to salvage an otherwise disappointing season.
Bye: Minnesota (2-9, 1-6).
- Fitzgerald confirmed that the team will practice Aug. 23 at Naval Station Great Lakes, the U.S. Navy's headquarters for training. Details are coming, but check out my post earlier this summer for more about the event. Great Lakes used to be a powerhouse in college football, and there are a ton of football connections there. The team will leave its off-site training camp in Kenosha, Wis., and practice at Great Lakes before returning to Evanston the night of the 23rd. "Hopefully, a great tradition is going to be started," Fitzgerald said.
- I'll have more on All-Big Ten kicker Stefan Demos in the coming days, but his workload will be lighter this fall as Brandon Williams has emerged as a solid option at punter. Demos, who has battled hip problems, handled field goals, kickoffs and punting last season and also punted in 2007 and 2008. Although his rugby style worked at times, all involved are pleased to see Williams emerge. "Nobody wants me out there punting any more, that's for sure," Demos said. "Including me. ... I'm sure [Fitzgerald] is tired of being called the worst special-teams coach ever because he doesn't have a punter."
- Speaking of special teams, true freshman Venric Mark already is marking his mark on punt returns. Although safety Hunter Bates, cornerback Jordan Mabin, wide receiver Charles Brown and another freshman, receiver Tony Jones, are also in the mix, I'd be surprised if Mark wasn't the starter. Stephen Simmons and Jacob Schmidt will continue to handle kickoff returns, Fitzgerald said.
- Northwestern is much healthier now than it was a year ago and has been able to practice at a good clip. The team's slow start to 2009 could be attributed in part to being limited in preseason camp. "This will be my fifth year [as head coach], and this is the best-conditioned team we've had," Fitzgerald said. "We've pushed the tempo. We go six-minute periods, and we went in such a quick tempo, we finished with two and a half minutes left in our second set of team [drills]. That's going at it, especially with where the weather was at. ... It puts us in a position maybe to be a little more accelerated than we've been in the past." Fitzgerald added that the team's speed has been upgraded through recruiting.
- The secondary loses three multiyear starters but has two spots locked up with cornerback Jordan Mabin and safety Brian Peters. Justan Vaughn, Demetrius Dugar and Mike Bolden will compete at the other corner spot, while Jared Carpenter and David Arnold are the candidates to line up next to Peters. Other position battles include outside linebacker (Bryce McNaul and Ben Johnson), right tackle (Patrick Ward and Neal Deiters) and offensive guard, where Doug Bartels, Keenan Grant and Brian Mulroe are competing for two starting spots.
- The recent heat and humidity in northern Illinois is helping Northwestern prepare for nonconference road games in balmy Nashville (at Vanderbilt) and Houston (at Rice). Fitzgerald also said the team uses a service for potential hot-weather games that allows players to "plug in" to an air-conditioning unit on the sideline that provides cool air underneath their shoulder pads. Northwestern used the service for its game inside the Carrier Dome at Syracuse last September and at the Outback Bowl in Tampa on Jan. 1.
2009 conference record: 5-3 (T-4th)
Offense: 8, defense: 5, kicker/punter: 1 (Stefan Demos handled both duties in 2009)
TE Drake Dunsmore, LT Al Netter, C Ben Burkett, LB Quentin Davie, LB Nate Williams, DT Corbin Bryant, DE Vince Browne, S Brian Peters, K/P Stefan Demos
QB Mike Kafka, WR Zeke Markshausen, WR Andrew Brewer, DE Corey Wootton, CB Sherrick McManis, S Brad Phillips, DT Adam Hahn
2009 statistical leaders (*-returners)
Rushing: Arby Fields* (302 yards)
Passing: Mike Kafka (3,430 yards)
Receiving: Andrew Brewer (925 yards)
Tackles: Quentin Davie* (90)
Sacks: Quentin Davie* and Vince Browne* (5)
Interceptions: Sherrick McManis (5)
1. Persa ready to lead at QB: There's no quarterback controversy in Evanston as junior Dan Persa has established himself as the undisputed leader of the offense despite his limited game experience. Persa still must prove himself this fall, but he has done all the right things to prepare to succeed All-Big Ten selection Mike Kafka.
2. Ebert back to top form: Jeremy Ebert never fully recovered from hip surgery last season, but the junior looked like a No. 1 wide receiver this spring. Ebert should fit into the Eric Peterman-Zeke Markshausen mold as a reliable possession receiver, though he can also stretch the field at times. He finished spring ball with a solid performance (4 receptions, 49 yards) in the spring game.
3. Depth at linebacker and defensive tackle: Coaches often stress the importance of up-the-middle defense, and Northwestern looks strong at two of the three spots. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald says the team's linebacker depth is the best it has been in recent memory, as Quetin Davie leads a strong group. Niko Mafuli turned in a strong spring at defensive tackle and should form a solid rotation with projected starters Corbin Bryant and Jack DiNardo. The safety spot is the only remaining question mark.
1. Running back: Northwestern can't expect to run the ball as poorly as it did last fall and win eight or more games again in 2010. Persa is still inexperienced and will need some help from the running backs. Arby Fields comes out of the spring as the No. 1 back, even though he didn't participate in any scrimmages because of his baseball responsibilities. The Wildcats need Fields or another candidate to create some clear separation in preseason camp.
2. Safety depth: The team loses two multiyear starters at safety in Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith, putting the position very much in the spotlight. Northwestern feels good about playmaking junior Brian Peters, who essentially served as a third starter in 2008 and 2009. But other than Peters, there are question marks. Jared Carpenter emerged from spring ball as the No. 2 starter, but converted linebacker David Arnold and Hunter Bates will compete for playing time.
3. Special teams: The kicking game must remain a top priority for Northwestern, which has lost or nearly lost quite a few games because of special teams. Stefan Demos is an All-Big Ten kicker, but he would really benefit if Brandon Williams could step up and become the starting punter. Northwestern also must improve its return and coverage teams. Stephen Simmons should help on kickoff returns if he can stay healthy.
A few nuggets of note:
- Sophomore Arby Fields is listed as the starting running back ahead of junior Jacob Schmidt. Fields, the team's leading rusher last year, had a good spring but missed all the spring scrimmages because he was playing baseball. I'd be somewhat surprised if he doesn't start the opener Sept. 4 at Vanderbilt.
- The Wildcats lose their top two wideouts from 2009, and they list Jeremy Ebert, Sidney Stewart and Demetrius Fields as the projected starters coming out of the spring. Ebert figures to be the No. 1 target, though NU needs to develop more depth.
- All five starters return on the offensive line, but sophomore Patrick Ward, who didn't start last year, is listed as the top right tackle. Also, Brian Mulroe appears as the starting left guard ahead of Keenan Grant, while Doug Bartels and Neal Dieters are listed as co-starters at right guard. Translation: there will be ongoing competition at both guard spots.
- Linebackers Quentin Davie and Nate Williams are set as starters, and Ben Johnson and Bryce McNaul are listed as co-starters in the third spot. McNaul had a nice spring and Johnson started early last season and brings some good athleticism, so this will be an interesting position battle to watch.
- Northwestern moved starting linebacker David Arnold to safety to fill a need there, but Jared Carpenter is listed ahead of Arnold on the depth chart. Another good battle brewing there opposite Brian Peters.
- Starting placekicker Stefan Demos is listed as a co-starter at punter with Brandon Williams. Northwestern really would be best served if Williams can win that job and lighten the load on Demos.
- Jordan Mabin and Hunter Bates are the two options at punt returner, a weak spot for NU in recent years. Incoming freshman Venric Mark also could compete here.
- Kicker: Second-team All-Big Ten selection Stefan Demos returns after connecting on 18 of 25 field goal attempts in 2009.
- Punter: Demos also has handled the punting duties for Northwestern the last two seasons, although it's not his strong suit.
- Kick return: Primary return men Stephen Simmons and Jeravin Matthews both are back. Northwestern ranked ninth in the league last year (20.6 ypr).
- Punt return: Brendan Smith and Andrew Brewer both depart.
- Quick thoughts: Special teams have cost Northwestern key games in recent years and continue to be a priority for head coach Pat Fitzgerald. Despite Demos' Outback Bowl struggles, he remains a very solid option on field goals. Northwestern would be well served by identifying a punter to lighten Demos' load, and redshirt freshman Brandon Williams is an option. Simmons provides a good threat on kick returns when healthy, but NU must identify a few options for punt returns. Incoming freshman Venric Mark could be a factor there. The punt and kickoff coverage teams were average in 2009 and could use a boost.
- Kicker: Aaron Pettrey departs, but Devin Barclay, whose kick against Iowa sent Ohio State to the Rose Bowl, will be back.
- Punter: Jon Thoma departs after finishing 10th in the league in average (37.9 ypp) last fall. Sophomore Ben Buchanan has a big leg and will step in.
- Kick return: Primary return men Lamaar Thomas and Ray Small both depart. Ohio State ranked sixth in the league last fall (22.3 ypr).
- Punt return: Small leaves a pretty big void here after averaging 8.3 yards on a league-high 33 attempts last season.
- Quick thoughts: Jim Tressel's teams always will be strong in the kicking game, although there are some key spots to fill in 2010. Barclay did a really nice job in relief of Pettrey last fall, but whether he can provide the same long-range threat as Pettrey remains to be seen. Small is a big loss on both return teams, and it will be interesting to see who steps into his spot. Running back Brandon Saine and wideout DeVier Posey both are possibilities. Ohio State covered punts well last fall but finished a surprising 51st nationally in kickoff coverage (21.2 ypr) with a touchdown allowed against Iowa.
- Kicker: Collin Wagner is back after an excellent Capital One Bowl performance. He connected on 15 of 22 field goal attempts last fall.
- Punter: Second-team All-Big Ten selection Jeremy Boone departs after averaging 43.3 yards per punt in 2009. Ryan Breen's decision to leave the team creates some uncertainty here.
- Kick return: Chaz Powell, Devon Smith and Stephfon Green all are back for 2010. Powell averaged 23.2 yards per runback in 2009.
- Punt return: Graham Zug, Justin Brown, Evan Royster and Drew Astorino shared duties in 2009, and all are back.
- Quick thoughts: Penn State was surprisingly mediocre on special teams in 2009, and the kicking game should be a focal point this spring. Boone's graduation and Breen's departure leaves no true punter on the roster. The Lions finished 10th in the league in punt returns (5 ypr) last fall and need a true starter to emerge there. Punt coverage was a mess in 2009, as Penn State finished 117th nationally (15.4 ypr) out of 120 FBS teams. With several key personnel losses on both sides of the ball, Penn State can't afford to have the kicking game be a liability this fall.
- Kicker: Carson Wiggs has the strongest leg in the Big Ten and connected on 14 of 21 field goal attempts last fall. He's back for 2010.
- Punter: Chris Summers departs after averaging 39.5 yards per punt last fall. Wiggs had four punts in 2009, averaging 36.5 yards.
- Kick return: Al-Terek McBurse is back after averaging an impressive 24.6 yards per runback as a true freshman. Purdue must find a No. 2 option because Aaron Valentin departs.
- Punt return: Valentin was the primary return man, but wideout Waynelle Gravesande recorded 11 attempts last fall.
- Quick thoughts: Purdue made plenty of special-teams blunders in 2009, and for the Boilers to take the next step this fall, their kicking game must get better. Wiggs can boom field goals from anywhere on the field, giving Danny Hope a valuable weapon. McBurse could be a weapon on kick returns, although Purdue must address the punt return team. Kickoff coverage was miserable in 2009, as the Boilers ranked 112th nationally (24.7 ypr). The Boilers also must address their punter position.
- Kicker: Philip Welch is back after connecting on 17 of 24 field goal attempts as a sophomore.
- Punter: Brad Nortman returns after finishing fourth in the Big Ten in punting average last fall (42 ypp).
- Kick return: David Gilreath has been the man on returns for Wisconsin, and he's back. Isaac Anderson also could be an option here.
- Punt return: Gilreath averaged 5.6 yards and had a 68-yard touchdown as the primary punt returner.
- Quick thoughts: Welch and Nortman boast plenty of experience as the primary specialists. It'll be interesting to see if Wisconsin sticks with Gilreath as its top return man or opens things up to other players this spring. Bret Bielema likely will spend much more time worrying about the kickoff coverage team, which ranked 119th nationally out of 120 FBS teams last fall (26.4 ypr). Punt coverage was decent, but you can bet Wisconsin will spend a lot of time on special teams in spring ball.