Big Ten Weekly Football Release - August 29

Wisconsin running back Montee Ball will lead the Badgers against UNLV on Thursday night.

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Aug. 29, 2011

That Time of Year Again: Big Ten football will open its 116th season of play when conference squads open the 2011 campaign, beginning the first weekend of September. For the third straight season, a conference team will open the new year in primetime as Wisconsin hosts UNLV at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday on ESPN. On Friday, Michigan State welcomes Youngstown State for a 7:30 p.m. ET contest to be televised by BTN. The remaining 10 conference teams will begin the new season on Saturday.

Welcome to the Big Ten: The University of Nebraska-Lincoln officially became a conference member on July 1, 2011. The Huskers become the conference’s 12th member institution and bring with it a rich football history. Nebraska boasts five national championships (1970, 1971, 1994, 1995, 1997), 107 All-Americans, three Heisman Trophy winners and numerous other national honors.

A Winning Tradition: The Big Ten boasts four of the six winningest college football programs in history, including Michigan with its national-best 884 triumphs. Additionally, only eight teams have won 800 or more games in history, giving the Big Ten half of the nation’s programs to have reached the milestone. Among the top eight, Nebraska ranks third all-time with 836 wins, Ohio State is fifth with 819 triumphs and Penn State is sixth all-time with 818 victories.

Where We Rank: Eight Big Ten teams received at least one vote in the preseason Associated Press (AP) and USA Today coaches poll, with two teams earning top-10 status. Nebraska and Wisconsin each appeared at No. 10, the Cornhuskers in the AP poll and the Badgers in the USA Today rankings. Ohio State checked in at No. 16 in USA Today’s rankings, while Michigan State was ranked 17th in both polls. Penn State is the fifth team voted into USA Today’s top 25, rounding out the list of ranked squads. Iowa, Michigan and Northwestern are among other squads also receiving votes in the preseason polls.

Keep a Close Watch: This season, the Big Ten debuted its Players to Watch list, honoring 12 players with preseason recognition. Five standouts were selected from the Legends Division, while a tie in the Leaders Division resulted in seven players earning the honor. Michigan’s Denard Robinson, Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins, Nebraska’s Jared Crick and Lavonte David and Northwestern’s Dan Persa were selected from the Legends Division. Illinois’ Nathan Scheelhaase, Indiana’s Damarlo Belcher, Ohio State’s Mike Brewster and John Simon, Penn State’s Michael Mauti and Wisconsin’s Montee Ball and James White earned preseason honors in the Leaders Division.

Legends and Leaders: A new era of Big Ten football starts this fall with divisional play. With the addition of Nebraska, the conference’s 12 teams will now play in two divisions. The Big Ten football division alignments include the Legends Division featuring Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern, and the Leaders Division featuring Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin. Each school will play the other five schools within its division and will also face three teams from the other division, including one cross-division matchup guaranteed on an annual basis. The guaranteed cross-division matchups are Iowa-Purdue, Michigan-Ohio State, Michigan State-Indiana, Minnesota-Wisconsin, Nebraska-Penn State and Northwestern-Illinois.
A First Time for Everything: The inaugural Big Ten Football Championship Game will begin at 8:17 p.m. ET on December 3, 2011, and will be held at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The champion of the Legends Division will meet the champion of the Leaders Division, with the winner earning the Big Ten Championship and a chance to play in either the Rose Bowl Game or Bowl Championship Series National Championship Game. FOX Sports will serve as the official broadcast partner of the Big Ten Football Championship Games from 2011-16 and Lucas Oil Stadium will host the title games from 2011-15.

Keeping an Eye Out For Big Ten Standouts: More than 70 Big Ten student-athletes appear on 18 preseason watch lists that have been announced during the course of the summer. Each conference institution has two or more players named to the watch lists.

CLASS-y Group: The Big Ten leads all conferences with eight candidates for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award, given annually to a senior with notable achievements in four areas of excellence - community, classroom, character and competition. The Big Ten’s eight nominees are twice as many as any other conference. Big Ten candidates for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award are Illinois’ Jeff Allen, Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins, Nebraska’s Jared Crick, Northwestern’s Dan Persa, Ohio State’s Michael Brewster, Penn State’s Nate Stupar, Purdue’s Joe Holland and Wisconsin’s Aaron Henry. The 30 candidates for the 2011 laurel will be narrowed to 10 finalists midway through the regular season.

Welcome Back: The 2011 Big Ten campaign will feature 29 All-Conference players from last season, with 13 first-team honorees and 16 second-team selections, including four Nebraska standouts that earned All-Big 12 accolades in 2010. In addition, 41 honorable mention honorees also return to campus. Along with the all-conference honorees returning in 2011, four individual award winners from 2010 will hit the fields again this fall. Michigan’s Denard Robinson won the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year award, while Wisconsin’s James White reeled in Freshman of the Year laurels. Nebraska’s Lavonte David won Big 12 Newcomer of the Year honors, while teammate Taylor Martinez picked up Offensive Freshman of the Year accolades.

New Men in Charge: The Big Ten will feature five new head coaches roaming the sidelines in 2011, including four in their first year at their respective schools. Indiana’s Kevin Wilson, Michigan’s Brady Hoke, Minnesota’s Jerry Kill, Nebraska’s Bo Pelini and Ohio State’s Luke Fickell will all enter their first seasons as Big Ten head coaches. Wilson joins the Hoosiers after spending nine seasons as an assistant coach, most recently as the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma. Hoke returns to Ann Arbor after serving as an assistant coach for the Wolverines from 1995-2002. Hoke spent the last eight seasons as the head coach at Ball State (2003-08) and San Diego State (2009-10). Kill became the Gopher general after three seasons as the head coach at Northern Illinois and has 17 years of head coaching experience under his belt. Pelini, who played at Ohio State from 1987-90, enters his fourth season with the Huskers and first in the Big Ten. Fickell, also a former player at Ohio State from 1992-96, became the head coach after serving as a Buckeye assistant since 2002. It is his first head coaching experience.

Robinson Looks To Double Up: Michigan’s Denard Robinson returns to Ann Arbor for his junior season after reeling in Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2010. Robinson amassed 2,570 passing yards and a Big Ten-leading 1,702 rushing yards in 2010, making him the first quarterback in NCAA history to rush and pass for over 1,500 yards in a season. Along with earning top offensive honors in the conference, Robinson won the Chicago Tribune Silver Football Award as the conference’s Most Valuable Player and was named an All-American. Robinson was the eighth Wolverine to be named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and just the second Michigan quarterback to be selected. If he earns the honor again in 2011, he would be just the second offensive player to do so in back-to-back seasons, joining former Indiana tailback Anthony Thompson (1988-89). Including Thompson, just four players have successfully defended their Player of the Year award. Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis won consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2007 and 2008, while Northwestern linebacker Pat Fitzgerald earned the same honor in 1996 and 1997. Illinois linebacker Dana Howard was tabbed the conference’s top defensive player in 1993 and 1994. Other two-time Big Ten Players of the Year include Michigan State running back Lorenzo White (1985, 1987) and Purdue quarterback Drew Brees (1998, 2000).

Doubly Dangerous: A bevy of dual-threat quarterbacks will take the field for Big Ten teams during the 2011 season. In the Legends Division, Michigan’s Denard Robinson returns under center after setting Big Ten records with 4,072 yards of total offense, including a conference-best 1,702 rushing yards. Northwestern’s Dan Persa set a Big Ten record by completing 73.5 percent of his passes last season while ranking second on the team with 519 rushing yards. Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez was named the Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year after compiling 2,596 yards of total offense, including 965 on the ground. Minnesota’s MarQueis Gray returns under center after catching 42 passes for 587 yards and five touchdowns as a wideout last season. In the Leaders Division, sophomores Nathan Scheelhaase of Illinois returns after producing 868 rushing yards.

Running Back For Another Year: Six of the Big Ten’s top 10 in rushing yards from a season ago will be joined by two Nebraska players that exceeded 900 yards on the ground last season. Michigan’s Denard Robinson led the Big Ten with 1,702 yards on the ground, while Michigan State’s Edwin Baker picked up 1,201 rushing yards, good for third in the conference and Ohio State’s Dan Herron rushed for 1,155 yards, the fourth most in the Big Ten. Wisconsin’s backfield tandem of James White and Montee Ball enters 2011 after White recorded 1,052 yards and Ball added 996 on the ground, both top-10 totals. Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase also finished in the top 10 in rushing, totaling 868 yards. The Cornhuskers return a pair of standouts that surpassed 900 rushing yards last season in quarterback Taylor Martinez (965 yards) and running back Rex Burkhead (951 yards).

Let’s Have A Catch: A talented corps of Big Ten wide receivers return to the fields in 2011, as all 12 conference squads welcome back at least one starting wideout. Nine players who ranked in the conference’s top 10 in either receptions or receiving yards per game return for the 2011 season, including last year’s leaders in receptions and receiving yards. Northwestern’s Jeremy Ebert topped the conference in receiving yards, racking up 953. Indiana’s Damarlo Belcher led the Big Ten in receptions per game last season, averaging 6.5 per contest. Joining Ebert among the best pass catchers in the Legends Division are Iowa’s Marvin McNutt, who rated among the top 10 in catches and yardage in 2010, Michigan’s Roy Roundtree, who ended last season among the top four in both categories, and Minnesota’s Da’Jon McKnight, who ranked second in the conference with 10 receiving touchdowns. Other returning starters including Michigan State’s B.J. Cunningham and Keith Nichol and Nebraska’s Brandon Kinnie. Joining Belcher among the top receivers in the Leaders Division are Illinois’ A.J. Jenkins, Ohio State’s DeVier Posey and Penn State’s Derek Moye, all of whom finished last season in the top 10 in yards or receptions. Purdue returns three receivers to the starting lineup, while Wisconsin’s Nick Toon enters 2011 as the Badgers’ top returning pass-catcher.

Tackling Machines: Five Big Ten defenders who racked up 90 or more tackles each are set to take the field this season. Nebraska’s Lavonte David led the Big 12 with 152 tackles in 2011, while Michigan’s Jordan Kovacs racked up 116 tackles, good for second in the Big Ten. Northwestern’s Brian Peters collected 107 tackles, the fifth-most in the conference, while Purdue’s Logan Link totaled 91 tackles and Minnesota’s Gary Tinsley racked up 90. Also among the conference’s top 20 last season were Purdue’s Dwayne Beckford (84 tackles), Indiana’s Jeff Thomas (82), Iowa’s Micah Hyde (82) and Michigan’s Kenny Demens (82).

Moving Backwards, In A Good Way: Two of the top sack artists in the Big 12 join five Big Ten standouts that ranked among the top 10 in quarterback drops last season. Nebraska’s Jared Crick recorded 9.5 sacks in 2010, while Northwestern’s Vince Browne tied for second in the Big Ten with 7.0 sacks. The Huskers’ Lavonte David and Purdue’s Kawann Short each finished the season with 6.0 sacks. Indiana’s Darius Johnson and Ohio State’s Nathan Williams return to their respective teams’ defensive line after accumulating 4.5 sacks each last season, while Michigan’s Ryan Van Bergen returns after sacking the quarterback four times in 2010. Browne and Short were also among the conference leaders in tackles for loss, as the Wildcat senior racked up 15.5 and the Boilermaker junior totaled 12.5, good for third and fourth in the Big Ten, respectively. Crick finished with 14.5 tackles for loss, while David racked up 12.5 in 2010.

No Plays: Based on an eight-game conference schedule, Big Ten teams will have three conference schools not on their 2011 schedule. This season’s list of no-plays is as follows:

School -- No Plays:   
Illinois -- Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska
Indiana -- Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska
Iowa -- Illinois, Ohio State, Wisconsin
Michigan -- Indiana, Penn State, Wisconsin
Michigan State -- Illinois, Penn State, Purdue
Minnesota -- Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State
Nebraska -- Illinois, Indiana, Purdue
Northwestern -- Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin
Ohio State -- Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern
Penn State -- Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota
Purdue -- Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern
Wisconsin -- Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern