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2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Return specialists

Friday, August 8th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-ReturnSpecialists

This week, as part of our summer-long preview of Michigan football in 2014, we at Maize and Go Blue are ranking who will be the top special-teams performers in the Big Ten this upcoming season. The players listed here are whom we believe will be the most successful in 2014, not necessarily those who have performed the best in previous years. On Wednesday, we ranked who will be the five best kicking specialists—placekickers or punters—in the conference. Today, we reveal who will be the five best return specialists in the Big Ten this fall.

Previously

Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two | Running Backs: Part One, Part Two | Wide Receivers: Part One, Part Two
Tight Ends: Part One, Part Two | Offensive Line: Part One, Part Two | Defensive Line: Part One, Part Two
Linebackers: Part One, Part Two | Cornerbacks: Part One, Part Two | Safeties:Part One, Part Two |
Special Teams: Kicking Specialists,

5. Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa (WR) | 5th-yr Senior – 6’0”, 205 lbs
Kick Ret Yds/Ret Long TD Punt Ret Yds/Ret Long TD
2013 0 0 0 0 20 15.7 83 2
2012 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
2011 4 20.5 23 0 0 0 0 0
2011 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 4 20.5 23 0 20 15.7 83 2
(Denny Medley, US Presswire)

(Denny Medley, US Presswire)

So what criteria should be used to determine who will be the best return specialists in the Big Ten? Are the better returners the ones that are more likely to break one for a touchdown on any given return, even if they have fewer returns because they field either only kickoffs or only punts, like Nebraska’s Kenny Bell and Purdue’s Akeem Hunt? Or should players that are not only explosive but also expected to pull double duty and return both kickoffs and punts, such as Ohio State’s Dontre Wilson and Wisconsin’s Kenzel Doe, be given priority? Although all four of the aforementioned players were not ranked on this list, we decided to focus more on the latter group because they will have a larger overall impact on special teams. But this does not mean that a player that specializes in only one type of return cannot crack the top five.

Iowa’s Kevonte Martin-Manley has made a name for himself as a premier punt returner, but this was not the case until recently. After redshirting in 2010, his first two seasons spent on the field were devoted to his true position of wide receiver, where he was quite productive. Martin-Manley turned in a 30-catch, 323-yard campaign as a freshman before becoming Iowa’s leading receiver with 52 receptions for 571 yards as a sophomore. But, during these first two years, he took zero reps as a punt returner, playing only sparingly as a kickoff returner as a freshman. Instead, at that time, the punt returner job belonged to defensive back Micah Hyde, who fielded 29 of the 30 punts Iowa returned in 2011 and 2012. However, Hyde graduated after the 2012 season, and Iowa needed to locate his successor for the following season. Martin-Manley was the choice.

So how did Martin-Manley perform as a punt returner despite having not played the position since he was a high-school senior in 2009? Pretty, pretty good. He led the Big Ten with 314 yards on 20 punt returns for an average of 15.70 yards per punt return. Not only was his average the second-best in the Big Ten, it was the eighth-best nationally. These praiseworthy numbers can mostly be attributed to one spectacular performance against Western Michigan early in the season. In that matchup, he returned four punts for an astonishing 184 yards, averaging 46 yards per return. But the most remarkable feat of the day was Martin-Manley scoring two touchdowns on back-to-back punt returns about a minute apart—an 83-yarder and a 63-yarder. He became the first Big Ten player to ever return back-to-back punts for touchdowns and just the second player in the past decade to return two punts for touchdowns in the same quarter. This achievement alone was sufficient to earn himself a spot as a specialist on last year’s All-Big Ten first team by multiple media outlets.

As a fifth-year senior this fall, Martin-Manley should resume his role as Iowa’s punt returner. Although it is unlikely that he again will have the type of performance he had against Western Michigan, he should still be one of the most feared punt returners in the Big Ten. What makes Martin-Manley such a dangerous returner is not his speed—even head coach Kirk Ferentz admits that Martin-Manley is not a “burner”—but his vision. He is a smart runner that can see the hole before it materializes and set up his blocks accordingly. This is a valuable trait for any returner to have, yet so few possess it. This is why it would not be a surprise to see Martin-Manley return one or two more punts for a touchdown in 2014.

4. Marcus Jones, Minnesota (DB) | Senior – 5’8”, 173 lbs.
Kick Ret Yds/Ret Long TD Punt Ret Yds/Ret Long TD
2013 25 24.9 98 1 11 10.5 65 1
2012 4 18.8 22 0 3 15.7 22 0
2011 13 28.5 92 1 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 42 25.4 98 2 14 11.6 65 1
(Tim Fuller, US Presswire)

(Tim Fuller, US Presswire)

It takes time for some football players to discover their niche on a team. Minnesota’s Marcus Jones is a great example. In all honesty, he should have found his niche as a true freshman. Notwithstanding his status as a former two-star cornerback recruit, Jones impressed the Minnesota staff as a wide receiver the moment he stepped on campus, which led to him starting in the opener against USC. After seeing Jones’ athleticism in action, the staff asked him to start returning kickoffs as conference play began. In his first three Big Ten contests, Jones electrified the crowds in that role. He returned 13 kickoffs for 370 yards, including a 92-yard touchdown against Purdue. If he had maintained his average of 28.46 yards per kickoff for the remainder of the season, it would have been the third-best in the Big Ten. Jones may have been a productive receiver, but his potential as a special-teams star was enormous.

The potential seemed like it would never be fulfilled, though. In a practice after that third Big Ten contest, Jones blew out his left knee, tearing an ACL, which forced him to miss the rest of his freshman year. Then, he had far less of an impact on offense and special teams the following season. The staff rarely utilized him as a returner—he fielded only seven total kicks in the first 11 games—and he played many fewer snaps at wideout. To compound matters, Jones then tore his other ACL near the end of his sophomore campaign, creating another significant setback he would need to overcome. Many began to question whether Jones would lose a step after two serious knee injuries or ever regain the form he had early as a freshman.

Those questions were answered quite swiftly in 2013. In Minnesota’s season opener against UNLV, Jones caught a kickoff at his own two-yard line and exploded through a hole for a 98-yard sprint to pay dirt. The following week, Jones proved that his return touchdown in the opener was not a fluke. In the second quarter against New Mexico State, he hauled in a punt, broke a tackle as soon as he secured the football, and sped 65 yards for his second special-teams touchdown in as many weeks. Jones’ status as Minnesota’s starting kickoff and punt returner was cemented. He finished the season with an average of 10.45 yards per punt return—the third-highest among Big Ten players that returned at least 10 punts—and 24.88 yards per kickoff return. Not too shabby for a player coming off two knee surgeries in successive seasons.

In 2014, there are no more concerns, questions, or doubt about Jones and what is capable of performing on special teams. Although Minnesota has some talented speedsters on its roster, such as Antonio Johnson, KJ Maye, and Berkley Edwards, none of them will supplant Jones as the starting kickoff and punt returner. For the first time since he arrived in Minneapolis as a true freshman, Jones will not be beginning the season after suffering a significant injury the year prior. Accordingly, he should be able to shine more than ever as a special-teams specialist. He may not have the shiftiness that some of the others on this list have, but he will thrive as a cut-and-go returner. This will be his only role for Minnesota this season. It took three years, but Jones finally found his niche.

3. William Likely, Maryland (DB) | Sophomore – 5’7″, 175 lbs
Kick Ret Yds/Ret Long TD Punt Ret Yds/Ret Long TD
2013 28 26.0 51 0 16 12.8 63 1
Career Totals 28 26.0 51 0 16 12.8 63 1
(G. Fiume, Getty Images)

(G. Fiume, Getty Images)

This is William Likely’s second appearance in the 2014 Big Ten Position Rankings series. Two weeks ago, Likely was ranked as the No. 9 cornerback in the Big Ten after recording 70 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, and eight passes defended in 11 starts as a true freshman last year. He is expected to make a sophomore leap like many have before him and shore up a Maryland secondary that, quite frankly, was only mediocre in 2013. However, this is not the only area where Likely will contribute this season.

In 2013, before he was inserted into the starting lineup as a cornerback, Likely made his debut on special teams, starring as Maryland’s kickoff returner. He proved immediately how exhilarating he could be in that role for the Terrapins, taking the first career kickoff he fielded 43 yards against Old Dominion. He then followed that up with a 45-yard kickoff return versus Connecticut, a 50-yard kickoff return versus Boston College, and a career-long 51-yard kickoff return versus North Carolina State. With the help of four 40-plus-yard kickoff returns, Likely averaged 26.04 yards per kickoff return, which was the third-best in the ACC and would have been the fourth-best in the Big Ten. Likely’s performance as a kickoff returner, along with limited assistance from Stefon Diggs before he suffered a season-ending injury, propelled Maryland to the sixth-best Kickoff Return Efficiency rating nationally according to FEI. But Likely’s impact on special teams did not end there.

Likely’s abilities as a punt returner were just as effective. He returned 16 punts for 205 yards and an average of 12.81 yards per return. His per-punt-return average was the fourth-highest in the ACC and would have been the third-highest in the Big Ten. This can be credited to returning three punts 20-plus yards, including a 63-yarder that he took to the house against Virginia Tech after one shifty juke and a burst of speed. It was not all sunshine and rainbows, though. Likely did muff one punt in the opener against Florida International and admitted he had trouble tracking very high punts. Nonetheless, Likely improved throughout the season and finished as one of the most dynamic returners in the ACC.

Likely should reassume his duties as Maryland’s kickoff and punt returner this fall. As a sophomore, he should be as productive in the return game as he was last season. Not only does Likely possess great speed and lateral quickness, his 5’7” stature makes him a small target for coverage units to bring down. However, the reason he is not higher on this list is because Maryland may rotate other players at both positions. Diggs, a former five-star athlete that averaged 28.52 yards per kickoff and returned two kickoffs for a touchdown as a freshman in 2012, is healthy again, although it is unclear how much he will play there because he took a backseat to Likely before the injury last year. Other options also include brothers Levern and Taivon Jacobs, the latter of which was a member of the United States Junior Olympic Track and Field team. While Maryland has lots of pieces with which to work, ultimately, Likely should be featured at both return positions and continue to produce on both defense and special teams.

2. V’Angelo Bentley, Illinois (DB) | Junior – 5’10″, 190 lbs
Kick Ret Yds/Ret Long TD Punt Ret Yds/Ret Long TD
2013 10 663 100 1 10 189 67 1
2012 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 10 663 100 1 10 189 67 1
(Anthony Souffle, Chicago Tribune)

(Anthony Souffle, Chicago Tribune)

Similar to Maryland’s William Likely, Illinois’ V’Angelo Bentley is a cornerback and a return specialist. Dissimilar to Likely, though, Bentley is not near being one of the best cornerbacks in the Big Ten. Last season was the first time Bentley saw extensive action in the defensive backfield, starting eight games at cornerback. He tallied an impressive four tackles-for-loss but recorded only 22 tackles and three passes defended. Although fewer tackles is not necessarily a slight against cornerback play, Bentley still was a starting defensive back for what advanced statistics considered to be the 108th-ranked pass defense in the country. Bentley has much upon which to improve when it comes to his performance as a cornerback. As a return specialist, though? Not so much.

Last season, Bentley was one of, if not the, best punt returners in the Big Ten. Among all Big Ten players that returned a minimum of 10 punts, no one had a better per-punt-return average than Bentley’s 15.75 yards, which was also the seventh-highest in the nation. It certainly helped that 25 percent of his 12 punt returns gained at least 25 yards. He had a 26-yarder against Cincinnati and a 50-yarder against Miami (OH), but none compared to his 67-yard touchdown return against Ohio State. Not only was the return itself a dandy, but it is even more impressive that he did it against the Buckeyes. Ohio State’s punt coverage unit was exceptional last season. Through its first nine games, it allowed only two punts to be returned for three yards. That is it. But Bentley just shrugged that off and returned three punts for 82 yards against the Buckeyes, scoring the only punt-return touchdown they allowed all season. This feat speaks to the type of talent Bentley has as a punt returner.

However, Bentley needs to work out some kinks as a kickoff returner. Whereas he had the highest per-punt-return average in the Big Ten, he had the second-lowest per-kickoff-return average among Big Ten players with a minimum of 10 kickoffs (21.39 yards). Too many times he would receive the kickoff at the goal line or just in front of it and fail to bring the ball out past the 20-yard line. While some of this is due to poor blocking by his teammates on the kickoff return unit, some of this also is due to Bentley dancing around in an attempt to reel off the big play. Although Bentley can provide that big play every once in a while, like this 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Southern Illinois that features an excellent cutback, he needs to be more patient when there is no hole and power forward for yards to give Illinois better starting field position. If Bentley can make this adjustment next season, he very well could be the best return specialist in the conference given his prowess as a punt returner.

1. Janarion Grant, Rutgers (WR) | Sophomore - 5’11″, 175 lbs
Kick Ret Yds/Ret Long TD Punt Ret Yds/Ret Long TD
2013 21 24.6 100 1 17 9.2 58 1
Career Totals 21 24.6 100 1 17 9.2 58 1
(Tom Ciszek, NJ Sports Photo)

(Tom Ciszek, NJ Sports Photo)

There are ridiculously few college football players that can honestly claim that they scored a touchdown the very first snap of their career. As all Michigan fans know, former quarterback Denard Robinson is one. What Michigan fans do not know—until now—is that Rutgers’ Janarion Grant is another. In Rutgers’ season opener against Fresno State last season, Grant made his collegiate debut when he stepped onto the gridiron to return a kickoff after Fresno State scored on its opening drive. Grant received the kickoff with the soles of his feet on the goal line, spotted a hole, and hit the turbo button as he sprinted 100 yards untouched into the end zone. In just 12 seconds, a special-teams stud was born.

As a true freshman, Grant was one of the best return specialists in the AAC last season. Among all AAC players that returned a minimum of 10 kickoffs or 10 punts, Grant had the second-best per-punt-return average (9.18 yards) and the fourth-best per-kickoff-return average (24.64 yards) in the AAC. While these yardage averages may not seem as impressive in comparison to the averages other returners on this list have earned, it is imperative to remember that not all coverage units that a returner faces are created equal. The AAC had some of the best punt and kickoff coverage units in the nation, and, unlike the specialists in the Big Ten, Grant had the challenge to return against all of them. Accordingly, notwithstanding Grant’s low yardage averages, Rutgers’ FEI rating for Punt Return Efficiency and Kickoff Return Efficiency was ranked second and 13th nationally, respectively. There were few schools, if any, that had a better overall return unit than Rutgers. And Grant was the star of the special-teams show.

Grant likely will produce even better numbers as a return specialist next season. First, Grant likely will face coverage units in the Big Ten that are not as strong as the one he went against in the AAC. The only exceptions are Ohio State, Michigan State, and maybe Michigan only if it scraps its traditional punting formation. Second, Grant should field more kickoffs and punts this season than last. In 2013, he shared his return responsibilities with then-senior Quron Pratt. With Pratt gone, the majority of those remaining returns should be allocated to Grant. This will provide him with more opportunities to score special-teams touchdowns like this punt he returned 58 yards for a touchdown against Arkansas. So Big Ten opponents should not be surprised if Grant breaks off a huge return when they face Rutgers this season. He demonstrated from the very first play of his career that he is a threat that cannot be taken lightly.

What do you think? Do you think Rutgers’ Janarion Grant will be the best return specialist in the Big Ten this season? Or do you think it will be someone else? Do you think it was unfair to leave returners like Nebraska’s Kenny Bell and Purdue’s Akeem Hunt off the list because they specialize in only one type of return? And do you think any of Michigan’s potential return specialists, whether it is Dennis Norfleet or Jabrill Peppers, should have cracked this top five? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Next week, we will bend our definition of the word “position” and rank the best Big Ten coaching staffs.

Big Ten Media Days: Word clouding the Big Ten coaches

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014


All 14 Big Ten coaches got 15 minutes apiece at the podium in front of the assembled media in the Hilton Chicago on Monday. Each delivered an opening statement and then fielded a few questions. Typically, there isn’t much news to come out of these sessions. It’s more of a time to drum up excitement about the upcoming season and tout all the things they’re excited about. Every coach has fantasies about Big Ten titles this time of year and doesn’t want to reveal too much, so to spice things up a bit we took an idea that we really liked from the SEC SB Nation blog Team Speed Kills and applied it to each of the Big Ten coaches’ speeches.

We used Wordle to spit out a word cloud for each coach based on the transcript from his 15 minutes at the podium. The bigger the word, the more often it was used, so you can get an idea of what each coach places the most emphasis on. As a Maize and Go Blue exclusive, we also scrubbed away the coach speak and translated what each coach was really saying.

Brady Hoke – Michigan

Hoke

There must be something wrong with this thing. “Tremendous” doesn’t fill the entire page. Neither does “Well…” or “Fergodsakes”. And contrary to popular belief in Columbus and East Lansing, although “think” was his most-used word today, Hoke does “think” about more than just donuts. He didn’t even mention them once in his 15 minutes. But I wouldn’t blame him if he did. There’s a great donut shop a short walk from the Hilton.

Urban Meyer – Ohio State

Urban

I THINK we’re GOING to be GOOD you GUYS. Good enough to have a grand total of zero Big Ten titles and zero bowl wins in my first two seasons. You know what else is good? This Chicago pizza. Have you guys ever had this stuff? It’s JUST so cheesy and…deep. So much better than that other stuff.

Mark Dantonio – Michigan State

Dantonio

You know, we had a GREAT season last YEAR and it was all because of that one GAME when we beat Michigan. The way THINGS are GOING, we’re number ONE in the state as far as FOOTBALL is concerned. Oh, we won the Rose Bowl? Well, we beat Michigan. Where’s the threat?

Bo Pelini – Nebraska

Pelini

I THINK my cat is enjoying himself up in the room. As soon as I’m done talking about FOOTBALL, I’m GOING to take him to see a LOT of Chicago THINGS. It will MAKE his day. You know, it’s LOOKING like he’s the secret ingredient to the TEAM’s success this season. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.

James Franklin – Penn State

Franklin

I’m REALLY EXCITED about this PROGRAM. I THINK it’s GOING to be much easier than it was in the SEC. THINGS aren’t really comparable as far as facilities are concerned, but hey, it’s an OPPORTUNITY and I can’t wait to meet Sandy Barbour woman.

Gary Andersen – Wisconsin

Andersen

I’m glad to begin my second YEAR at Wisconsin. We don’t hear much about Brigham YOUNG around here and that’s always a GOOD thing. These cheese-loving folks are about as GOOD as it GETs. You know, the Packers have that tradition where they let the KIDS give the PLAYERS bike rides, and with the YOUTH we have I THINK that’s a good POSITION to take with this TEAM.

Pat Fitzgerald – Northwestern

Fitzgerald

I THINK it’s so GREAT that you GUYS haven’t asked about unions yet. We just want to play FOOTBALL. I’m not GOING to talk about the WAY our former QUARTERBACK tried to hurt our PROGRAM last YEAR by trying to unionize. These guys are a TEAM, not employees. LOOK, I won’t talk about it at all.

Kirk Ferentz – Iowa

Ferentz

It’s CERTAINLY a GREAT YEAR for Big Ten Media Days with the addition of Rutgers and Maryland. I’ve been coming to this THING for 16 YEARS and it has gotten stale. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve GOT some GOOD coaches in this conference but I THINK Kyle and Randy have what it takes to spice things up a little bit, kind of like Greg Davis and Phil Parker did for me in Iowa City last season.

Kevin Wilson – Indiana

Wilson

Wait, we can’t JUST PLAY offense in the Big Ten? Why didn’t you GUYS tell me that three YEARs ago? My boy Rich Rod told me that’s how you succeed in this conference. I’m starting to THINK he was just pulling my chain. I had to bring in a new defensive coordinator this offseason and he’s GOING to have to get the job done. Go big or go HOME, right?

Jerry Kill – Minnesota

Kill

I’ve GOT this program trending in the right direction, getting BETTER each YEAR, and I THINK that will continue. Have you guys seen that brown jug thing? My KIDS were asking about it, but I’ve GOTTA say, I don’t think that thing actually exists. If it does, our PLAYERS are going to GET it DONE this season. Oh, who am I kidding?

Randy Edsall – Maryland

Edsall

Crabcakes and football. That’s what MARYLAND does! We’re GOING to win the BIG East…I mean ACC…I mean American Athletic Conf…wait, what conference am I in now? Big TEN! That’s right. I THINK I’m gonna need Kirk to show me around.

Tim Beckman – Illinois

Beckman

FOOTBALL! We’ve got lots of PLAYERS, man. But with Scheelhaase gone we need a new QUARTERBACK, so this offseason I set up shop in Tallahassee when I heard Famous Jameis might be in trouble. I really WANT that guy. But it didn’t work out. Anyone else have sanctions going on this YEAR?

Kyle Flood – Rutgers

Flood

This is a cute city you midwestern folks have out here. I mean, REALLY, it’s cute, but it doesn’t compare to the BIG city we have in my part of the country. Chicago has one FOOTBALL team, New York have two, and you know what: they play in Jersey, home of RUTGERS, the school that started football.

Darrell Hazell – Purdue

Hazell

Alright you GUYS. THINGS are GOING just RIGHT for us this YEAR. Have you heard about our 6-foot-8, 400-pound PLAYER? We’ve got the biggest drum and now the biggest FOOTBALL player in the conference. That should guarantee us at least two wins this year.

Big Ten Media Days primer

Sunday, July 27th, 2014


B1G Media Days(@B1GFootball)

Big Ten Media Days are upon us, which means two days of speeches, interviews, roundtables, predictions, and more, and Maize and Go Blue will be there to cover it first hand. For those watching at home — or tuning in from work — we’ve got you covered with a full rundown of what to expect.

Overview

This year marks the 43rd year of Big Ten Media Days. The event will be held at the Hilton Chicago on Monday and Tuesday. In attendance will be 42 players — three from each team — and all 14 coaches, in addition to Big Ten personnel and other special guests. The two-day event will conclude with the annual Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon, which will feature an autograph session for all fans in attendance as well as more interviews and speeches. ESPN’s Rece Davis will emcee the Luncheon and Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah will deliver the keynote speech.

Big Ten Network and ESPNU will air coverage of the event. Beginning at 9:30 a.m. CT, BTN will air the opening media sessions with coaches (schedule below), as well as BTN president Mark Silverman, College Football Playoff COO Michael Kelly, and Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany. Gerry DiNardo and Rick Pizzo will anchor the network’s coverage, which will also re-air at 6 p.m. CT. BTN will also air a Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon special at 6 p.m. CT on Wednesday.

ESPNU will air the 14 head coaches’ press conferences between noon and 3 p.m. on both Monday and Tuesday, as well as those by Kelly and Delany. Some Big Ten coaches will also appear on other ESPN shows, such as SportsCenter and College Football Live, throughout the day.

The schedule - Monday, July 28

Opening media session with coaches
Time Name School
9:30 a.m. – 9:45 a.m. Pat Fitzgerald Northwestern
9:45 a.m. – 10:00 a.m. Darrell Hazell Purdue
10:00 a.m. – 10:15 a.m. Gary Andersen Wisconsin
10:15 a.m. – 10:30 a.m. Tim Beckman Illinois
10:30 a.m. – 10:45 a.m. Brady Hoke Michigan
11:00 a.m. – 11:15 a.m. Kyle Flood Rutgers
11:15 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. Jerry Kill Minnesota
11:30 a.m. – 11:45 a.m. Mark Dantonio Michigan State
12:00 p.m. – 12:15 p.m. Bo Pelini Nebraska
12:15 p.m. – 12:30 p.m. Randy Edsall Maryland
12:30 p.m. – 12:45 p.m. Urban Meyer Ohio State
1:00 p.m. – 1:15 p.m. James Franklin Penn State
1:15 p.m. – 1:30 p.m. Kevin Wilson Indiana
1:30 p.m. – 1:45 p.m. Kirk Ferentz Iowa
Media session for BTN, College Football Playoff, and Big Ten
Time Name Affiliation
1:45 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. Mark Silverman BTN President
2:00 p.m. – 2:15 p.m. Michael Kelly College Football Playoff
2:15 p.m. – 2:45 p.m. Jim Delany Big Ten Commissioner
One-on-one podium interviews
Time Name School
10:00 a.m. – 10:30 a.m. Pat Fitzgerald, Ibraheim Campbell, Collin Ellis, Trevor Siemian Northwestern
10:15 a.m. – 10:45 a.m. Darrell Hazell, Raheem Mostert, Sean Robinson, Ryan Russell Purdue
10:30 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. Gary Andersen, Melvin Gordon, Rob Havenstein, Warren Herring Wisconsin
10:45 a.m. – 11:15 a.m. Tim Beckman, Simon Cvijanovic, Jon Davis, Austin Teitsma Illinois
11:00 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. Brady Hoke, Devin Gardner, Jake Ryan, Frank Clark Michigan
11:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. Kyle Flood, Michael Burton, Darius Hamilton, Lorenzo Waters Rutgers
11:45 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. Jerry Kill, David Cobb, Mitch Leidner, Cedric Thompson Minnesota
12:00 p.m. – 12:30 p.m. Mark Dantonio, Shilique Calhoun, Connor Cook, Kurtis Drummond Michigan State
12:30 p.m. – 1:00 p.m. Bo Pelini, Ameer Abdullah, Kenny Bell, Corey Cooper Nebraska
12:45 p.m. – 1:15 p.m. Randy Edsall, C.J. Brown, Stefon Diggs, Jeremiah Johnson Maryland
1:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m. Urban Meyer, Braxton Miller, Michael Bennett, Jeff Heuermann Ohio State
1:30 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. James Franklin, Bill Belton, Sam Ficken, Mike Hull Penn State
1:45 p.m. – 2:15 p.m. Kevin Wilson, David Cooper, Nate Sudfeld, Shane Wynn Indiana
2:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. Kirk Ferentz, Carl Davis, Brandon Scherff, Mark Weisman Iowa

As you can see, the Michigan coach and player interviews will happen between 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. and we will have news and reactions from this sessions afterward. You can watch Hoke’s session live at 10:30 on BTN.

The schedule - Tuesday, July 29

One-on-One Round Table Interviews
8:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m. All coaches and players available
Autograph session
10:00 a.m. – 10:50 a.m. Coaches and former players sign autographs with fans attending the Luncheon
43rd Annual Kickoff Luncheon
11:30 a.m. Interviews and keynote speech, emceed by ESPN’s Rece Davis

Follow @maizeandgoblue on Twitter for live Michigan-related updates throughout the day and check back here for more coverage. You can also follow @B1GFootball for updates about every team in the conference and other happenings.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Tight ends (part one)

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-TE

This is the fourth installment of Maize and Go Blue’s series that ranks the best Big Ten football players at each position for the upcoming season. Each week until Michigan’s opener, one position will be previewed, looking at the players who will excel in 2014, not necessarily the ones who did so in previous seasons. The analysis provided is thorough and in-depth, so each position preview will be split into two parts. I have already covered who will be the best Big Ten quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers. This week, I rank the last offensive skill position: tight end. Here is Part One:

Previously
Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two.
Running Backs: Part One, Part Two.
Wide Receivers: Part One, Part Two.

10. Matt LaCosse, Illinois | Senior – 6’6”, 245 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 20 237 3 11.9 45 19.8
2012 3 32 0 10.7 12 2.9
2011 1 11 0 11.0 11 1.1
Career Totals 24 280 3 11.7 45 8.5
(Chris Howell, Herald-Times)

(Chris Howell, Herald-Times)

The Big Ten is a conference that has a longstanding reputation for playing football with a “three yards and a cloud of dust” mentality. It is a mentality that often involves multiple tight ends and jumbo formations. However, most of the Big Ten, like the rest of college football, is transitioning—or has transitioned already—away from this towards the spread offense, whether it is a read-option spread or a passing spread. These modern offenses want to spread out their fastest, nimblest, and best athletes and give them the ball in space to expose defenses.

Yet, most tight ends do not fit these criteria. When lined up adjacent to an offensive tackle, tight ends fail to spread out the defense horizontally, bringing more defenders inside the box. When they line up in the slot, most do not have the speed or athleticism to make plays in space, even if their size makes them desirable targets in the middle of the field. Accordingly, a residual effect of this offensive transition is the de-emphasis of the importance of most tight ends, and thus, makes filling out a top 10 of the best tight ends in the Big Ten a challenging exercise.

Nonetheless, the list will start with Illinois’ Matt LaCosse. LaCosse will be a senior in 2014 and should have his best season in what has been a relatively quiet collegiate career. LaCosse played in 33 games in his three seasons at Illinois, but did not become a factor in Illinois’ passing game until last year. And, even then, he was not much of a factor. LaCosse was targeted 29 times, recording a target rate of 6.7 percent. This was only the sixth-highest target rate on the roster. LaCosse did make the most of his opportunities, though. Although LaCosse was not explosive, and to be fair, most tight ends are not, he caught 20 passes for 237 yards, 11.85 yards per catch, and three touchdowns. It was a big step in the right direction for a tight end that had caught only four passes total the previous two seasons.

LaCosse should take another step in the right direction in 2014, although a breakout year should not be presumed. LaCosse should benefit from Wes Lunt taking the reins of Illinois’ offense at quarterback. Nathan Scheelhaase was more of a pocket passer than a dual threat, but Lunt better fits the mold of quarterback offensive coordinator Bill Cubit desires for his passing spread. This means airing it out even more. Consequently, LaCosse should be targeted more frequently this season than last, even if he still is splitting snaps with fellow senior tight end Jon Davis. The Fighting Illini lost their four most-productive wide receivers to graduation. The only returning Illinois player with more than 300 receiving yards last year is running back Josh Ferguson. There are question marks abound at wide receiver and very few answers for Illinois. Someone must replace that production. Even though tight ends rarely were featured in Cubit’s offenses at Western Michigan, LaCosse likely will have a more prominent role this season and should be one of Lunt’s favorite targets.

9. Adam Breneman, Penn State | Sophomore – 6’4”, 235 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 15 186 3 12.4 68 16.9
Career Totals 15 186 3 12.4 68 16.9
(John Beale, AP)

(John Beale, AP)

No Big Ten school will rely more on its tight ends to produce this season than Penn State. The Nittany Lions have no apparent perimeter threats at outside receiver. They said goodbye to arguably the best wide receiver in the Big Ten in Allen Robinson, who declared early for the NFL Draft after leading the conference in targets (150), receptions (97), and receiving yards (1,432). Wideout Brandon Felder departed, too, after recording 28 catches for 312 yards and three touchdowns his senior season. Unfortunately, for Penn State, there is very little experience remaining at wide receiver. No other Nittany Lion wide receiver had more than 20 catches or 250 receiving yards last year. There may be some talented freshmen waiting in the wings, but it seems unlikely they will make an immediate impact. However, Penn State has three very talented players returning at tight end and will need them to replace the production that Robinson and Felder provided.

Two of those tight ends will be competing for the second spot on the depth chart. Those players are Adam Breneman and Kyle Carter. Breneman was considered a top-50 prospect nationally and one of the two best tight ends in the 2013 class. He actually had loftier rankings until he suffered an ACL injury entering his senior season of high school. Nonetheless, Breneman was expected to recover and contribute as soon as he arrived on campus in State College. Although he had a slow start as a true freshman, he began to impress by the end of the year. Breneman caught a touchdown in each of his of final three contests and finished the season with 15 receptions for 186 yards.

On the other hand, Kyle Carter is a tight end that has proven more on the field despite much lower recruiting accolades. Carter was a generic three-star recruit when he signed his letter of intent with Penn State in 2012. Yet, as a true freshman, he was the second-best receiver on the team with 36 receptions for 453 yards and two touchdowns. For his efforts, Carter was a consensus first-team Freshman All-American and named to the All-Big Ten first team by the media. However, last season, Carter did not have quite the same impact. He posted only 18 catches for 222 yards and one touchdown. This was the result of a new quarterback under center in then-freshman Christian Hackenberg, the presence of Breneman, and the emergence of Jesse James—who will be discussed later.

Ultimately, both Breneman and Carter will see significant playing time this season. It is not as if the loser of this competition will be stuck to the bench all season, especially when Penn State may need its tight ends to compensate for its deficiency at wide receiver. So, while either Breneman or Carter could be No. 9 in these rankings, the edge goes to Breneman because of his potential. Although Carter has had better numbers, Breneman has the tools to be special. In his limited playing time last season, Breneman recorded a 78.9-percent catch rate while averaging 12.40 yards per catch. These are excellent numbers and a rare combination for a tight end. They suggest that Breneman is a tight end that either can make defenders miss after catching the ball near the line of scrimmage or has superb hands down the field. Additionally, Breneman seems to have better chemistry on the field with Hackenberg, which is no surprise when the two were roommates last year. Breneman is a solid bet to be one of the Big Ten’s best tight ends in 2015 and 2016. However, No. 9 is a good spot for him in 2014 when he will be Penn State’s second-string tight end and have his targets cannibalized by Carter and James.

8. Justin Sinz, Purdue | 5th-Yr Senior – 6’4”, 251 lbs.
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 41 340 4 8.3 28 28.3
2012 4 48 1 12.0 16 4.0
2011 3 25 0 8.3 9 2.1
2010 0 0 0 N/A N/A N/A
Career Totals 48 413 5 8.6 28 11.5
(247)

(247)

Purdue’s offense was an abomination last season. There were 123 college football teams in the FBS division last year. Yet, the Boilermakers were ranked in the bottom five nationally in scoring offense (No. 119), total offense (No. 119), and rushing offense (No. 122). There were very few positives to glean from Purdue’s offensive woes. One of them, though, was the production of its tight end, Justin Sinz.

Sinz was the safety valve for Purdue’s quarterback, whether it was for then-freshman Danny Etling or then-senior Rob Henry. Purdue’s quarterbacks struggled with their accuracy all season, completing a miserable 55.2 percent of their passes. Due to their inability to throw pinpoint passes to their wide receivers, Etling and Henry often would check down to Sinz near the line of scrimmage. Accordingly, Sinz had the second-most targets on the roster and the fourth-most among Big Ten tight ends with 55. Because most of these throws were check downs, Sinz caught a high percentage of them—74.5 percent to be exact. This allowed Sinz to lead the Boilermakers with 41 receptions last season, turning them into 340 yards and four touchdowns, and be one of the more productive tight ends in the Big Ten.

Notwithstanding his productivity in 2013, Sinz was the beneficiary of a broken offense more than anything else. Purdue could neither run the football nor throw it down the field. So one of the very few options the Boilermakers had to move the football was Sinz near the line of scrimmage. And, when Sinz did catch the football, he did very little with it. He averaged only 8.29 yards per catch, which was one of the lowest such averages among Big Ten tight ends. Further, only one of his 41 receptions gained 25 yards or more. The last term anyone would use to describe Sinz’s game is playmaker.

The best case scenario for Sinz in 2014 is that Etling, who received decent praise as a high-school recruit, makes a sophomore leap with the help of an offensive line that cannot be any worse than last year. If Etling is allowed more time in the pocket, Sinz may be able to get open down field and make more plays rather than acting solely as a safety valve near the line of scrimmage. However, there is very little reason to be optimistic about Purdue’s offense next season. The outlook is similarly dreadful to last year. This means Sinz could load up on receptions again even if little excitement happens after the catch. But Sinz may split snaps with senior tight end Gabe Holmes, who was the starter before missing most of 2013 with a wrist injury. Fewer targets in the same caliber offense? Sinz very likely may see a dip in his production in 2014.

7. Jake Butt, Michigan | Sophomore – 6’6”, 250 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 20 235 2 11.8 37 18.1
Career Totals 20 235 2 11.8 37 18.1
(MGoBlue.com)

(MGoBlue.com)

Next on the list is Michigan’s Jake Butt—a man with a last name that could not be more fitting for his position. Similar to Penn State’s Adam Breneman, Butt is a young tight end that has the tools and potential to be a special player down the road. In fact, it initially appeared that Butt would be able to fulfill much of this potential as a sophomore in 2014. As a true freshman last year, Butt’s playing time increased once Michigan shifted starting tight end Devin Funchess to wide receiver. Soon thereafter, Butt found his groove, catching 13 passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns in the last five contests. His highlight of the season was against archrival Ohio State when he set career highs for receptions (five) and receiving yards (85) while adding a touchdown. It was the first glimpse of what could be a future All-Big Ten tight end. And there was some talk that Butt could do it this year with Funchess remaining on the perimeter and no other experienced receivers returning for Michigan.

However, an unfortunate and unlucky incident eliminated that talk swiftly. In February 2014, Butt tore his ACL while participating in conditioning drills. When the injury occurred, there was speculation about whether he would heal in time for this season like Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan did last year or would need to sit out for all of 2014. As of now, according to head coach Brady Hoke, all signs point to Butt making his return in late September or early October. The best guess would be that Butt would miss Michigan’s four non-conference contests and make his season debut on September 27, 2014, in the Wolverines’ Big Ten opener versus Minnesota.

While there are reports that Butt already is running and ahead of schedule in his rehab, there still are lots of questions about how effective Butt will be when he returns. Will Butt still have the same athleticism, agility, and strength in his leg to produce at a high level for Michigan? And, even if Butt’s knee is fully recovered, will he mentally have recovered from the injury? There are times when athletes are mentally conscious of their prior injury when they return, which prevents them from playing instinctively and causes them to play hesitant. The odds are that Butt will be fine, physically and mentally, when he suits up. Nevertheless, Butt still likely will play no more than nine games this season. It is difficult to rank a player high than No. 7 when it is known he will miss a portion of the season with a significant injury, even if he comes back stronger than ever.

6. Ray Hamilton, Iowa | Senior – 6’5”, 250 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 8 95 0 11.9 21 7.3
2012 2 20 0 10.0 20 1.8
2011 1 15 0 15.0 15 1.5
Career Totals 11 130 0 11.8 21 3.8
(Brian Ray, Hawkeyesports.com)

(Brian Ray, Hawkeyesports.com)

Since Kirk Ferentz became Iowa’s head coach prior to the 1999 season, the Hawkeyes have had an influx of talent at tight end. There has been Dallas Clark, who was a consensus All-American and the John Mackey Award winner in 2003. There also has been Brandon Myers and Tony Moeaki, who were named to the All-Big Ten first team in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Then, there was Erik Jensen and Scott Chandler, who, in addition to the Clark, Myers, and Moeaki, were selected in the NFL Draft.

Unsurprisingly, Iowa has made tight ends a staple of its offense. Just look at C.J. Fiedorowicz last season. Fiedorowicz was an all-around tight end that not only was a solid blocker, but an above-average receiver. He earned the third-most targets on the roster with 44 and converted them into 30 receptions for 299 receiving yards and a team-high six touchdowns. Although Fiedorowicz was not an explosive tight end, which is not a trait common in many players stuck in offensive coordinator Greg Davis’ system, he was a beast near the end zone. All six of his touchdown receptions were in the red zone. For his performance, Fiedorowicz was handed All-Big Ten first-team honors and chosen in the NFL Draft.

Next on the list of Iowa tight ends under Ferentz to forward this legacy is senior Ray Hamilton. Despite being a four-star recruit that committed to Iowa over high-major programs, Hamilton was overshadowed the past three seasons by Fiedorowicz. While Fiedorowicz shined in the spotlight, Hamilton stuck to the dirty work in the trenches with his nasty blocking as Iowa’s backup tight end. Consequently, Hamilton was more of a sixth offensive lineman on the field than receiver. He caught only 11 passes for 130 yards in his first three seasons. But, with Fiedorowicz off to the NFL, it is finally time for Hamilton to demonstrate why he was so highly regarded in high school. Although his receiving skills may not be to the same standard as Fiedorowicz’s, as the starting tight end this season, Hamilton should be targeted much more frequently this season than he ever has. Further, there is strong potential for Hamilton to be a touchdown magnet in the red zone. All in all, Hamilton should be a key member of Iowa’s aerial attack, especially when the Hawkeyes do not have a standout wide receiver.

However, there is one wild card in this picture. His name is Jake Duzey. Unlike Hamilton, Duzey does not fit the mold of the traditional Iowa tight end. Duzey has shown more ability as a receiver, but struggles with the blocking element of the position. It remains to be seen just how much Iowa will try to utilize Duzey’s skill set this season. Duzey could be a dynamic threat in the passing game for the Hawkeyes, which would cut into Hamilton’s targets and relegate Hamilton back into a blocking tight end. But, in the past, Ferentz has shied away from relying on tight ends that cannot block because his offense emphasizes the power running game. This is even the case for his No. 2 tight end, which is used almost exclusively for blocking in Iowa’s scheme. Will Ferentz and Davis add some creativity to their offense to get Duzey more involved? Or will Duzey struggle to get on the field because he cannot block effectively? These are questions to keep an eye on as Iowa’s season progresses. But, either way, expect one of Hamilton or Duzey to make a sizeable contribution for the Hawkeyes this season, just like every other Iowa tight end before them.

What do you think so far? Do you agree with where the foregoing players have been ranked? What about Michigan’s Jake Butt? Do you believe he is ranked too high, too low, or just right? Who do you think will the best tight end in the Big Ten in 2014? Please let us know in the comments below because, tomorrow, we will reveal who will be the five top tight ends in the conference.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Running backs (part one)

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-RB

Last week, we introduced Maize and Go Blue’s series that will rank the best Big Ten football players at each position in 2014. Each week until Michigan’s season opener in late August, one position will be previewed. The analysis provided will be thorough and in-depth, not just a brief summary, so each position preview will be split into two parts. I kicked off the series last week by ranking the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten. If you missed it, you can catch up with Part One and Two here. This week, I take a look at the quarterbacks’ buddies in the backfield: the running backs.

10. Mark Weisman, Iowa | 5th-yr Senior – 6’0”, 240 lbs
Rushing Yds YPC Rush TDs YPG Rec Yds Rec TD
2013 975 4.3 8 75.0 41 0
2012 815 5.1 8 81.5 90 1
2011 0 0 0 NA 0 0
Career Totals 1,790 4.6 16 77.8 131 1
(Iowa Athletic Communications)

(Iowa Athletic Communications)

The Big Ten will have a deep stable of running backs this upcoming season, making the cuts for this list particularly difficult. One running back that was a candidate for this spot was Rutgers’ Paul James. In 10 games last year, James earned 156 carries for 881 yards, an above average 5.65 yards per carry, and nine touchdowns. James actually was well on his way to a much better season, rushing for 573 yards and six touchdowns in his first four games, before missing several weeks with a leg injury. James is a back who can raise eyebrows in his Big Ten debut, but health concerns and a lackluster Rutgers offensive line kept him off the list.

This created a duel for the final spot between Iowa’s Mark Weisman and Penn State’s Zach Zwinak. Weisman and Zwinak had very similar numbers last season. Weisman posted 226 carries for 974 yards—4.31 yards per carry—and eight touchdowns, while Zwinak had 210 carries for 989 yards—4.71 yards per carry—and eight touchdowns. Not only were their statistics similar, their running styles are similar, too. Both are built like fullbacks, listed at 6’0” or 6’1” and 240 pounds. Both compensate for their lack of agility and lateral quickness with their strength and ability to push the pile forward consistently. Neither has the breakaway speed to be a touchdown threat on any given play, but they are scoring machines once they are in the red zone. All 20 of their combined touchdown runs last year were no longer than 12 yards. They are bulldozers. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Despite having fewer rushing yards, yards per carry, and touchdowns than Zwinak in 2013, Weisman has the edge here in 2014. Weisman always starts the season on a strong note. In 2012, he totaled 98 carries for 623 yards, 6.36 yards per carry, and eight touchdowns in his first four games of extensive action. The next year, in the first five contests of the season, he recorded 119 carries for 615 yards, 5.17 yards per carry, and three touchdowns. Early in the season, Weisman is at full strength and uses his power to punish defenses.

However, Weisman was unable to maintain his power throughout the course of the 2012 and 2013 seasons. After the first four to five games of each season, his carries began to have diminishing returns. In 2012, Weisman produced only 3.12 yards per carry in Iowa’s final six games, two of which he missed due to an ankle injury. In 2013, Weisman managed only 3.36 yards per carry in the Hawkeyes’ final eight contests. His body could not handle the sustained beatings he took week in and week out, and wore out by the end of the year. For Weisman to remain effective for an entire season, he must share the load.

Weisman finally will have that opportunity. For the first time in what feels like an eternity, Iowa has a talented and, most importantly, healthy corps of running backs. Fellow Iowa backs Jordan Canzeri and Damon Bullock will take much of the pressure off of Weisman. This may mean fewer carries for Weisman, but he will be as much of an effective bruiser at the end of the season as he generally is at the start. This will not drop Weisman below Zwinak on this list either because Zwinak also shares carries with two other running backs at Penn State. Additionally, Zwinak will be lined up behind an offensive line with only one returning starter, while Weisman will be lined up behind arguably the Big Ten’s best offensive lineman in Brandon Scherff. Then, once Iowa’s commitment to pounding the rock under head coach Kirk Ferentz is considered, all signs point to Weisman having his best season yet in Iowa City.

9. Corey Clement, Wisconsin | Sophomore – 5’11”, 210 lbs
Rushing Yds YPC Rush TDs YPG Rec Yds Rec TD
2013 547 8.2 7 68.4 9 0
Career Totals 547 8.2 7 68.4 9 0
(Jeff Hanisch, USA Today Sports)

(Jeff Hanisch, USA Today Sports)

There are very few places in the nation where a second-string running back can produce a 1,000-rushing-yard season, but one of those places certainly is Wisconsin. Since 2009, only four times has a school had two running backs each gain 1,000 yards on the ground. To be clear, this is not two 1,000-yard rushers, but two 1,000-yard running backs. Quarterbacks are excluded. Of those four times, Wisconsin is the only school to achieve the feat twice, doing it in 2010 and 2013, while Alabama and Kent State both accomplished it in 2012. Further, in 2010, Wisconsin was only four yards away from having a third running back top 1,000 yards. Absurd. With the evolution of the read-option and advanced passing schemes, this type of production from the depths of the running back position nearly is extinct in this day and age. Currently, there are only two locations where it remains alive and well. One is Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The other is Madison, Wisconsin.

In the offseason, last year’s starting running back, James White, graduated, taking his 221 carries, 1,444 rushing yards, and 13 rushing touchdowns with him. Accordingly, Melvin Gordon, whom we will discuss a bit later on this list, was promoted from second string to the top of the depth chart. Given Wisconsin’s inclination to run the football and even feed the backup tailbacks, there are about 125 to 175 carries available for the Badgers’ second-string running back this fall. Enter: Corey Clement.

Last season, as a true freshman, Clement capitalized on the few touches he received as Wisconsin’s third-string running back by showcasing his speed and big-play ability. Despite toting the rock only 67 times in 11 games, he still gained 547 yards. In fact, Clement’s 8.16 yards per carry were the best in the Big Ten among players who averaged a minimum of four rush attempts per game played. Additionally, Clement crossed the goal line seven times for touchdowns. His touchdown rate of 10.45 percent was the second-best in the conference among those who averaged four carries per game played, behind only Nebraska’s Imani Cross. Do not forget that Clement did all of this with only 67 carries. Imagine what he can do with 100 more carries behind an offensive line that returns four starters.

Yet, despite this glowing report and the situation Clement will enter in 2014, he is only No. 9 in these rankings. Why? His 547 rushing yards and 8.16 yards per carry are a mirage to a certain extent. He received almost all of his carries when Wisconsin already had secured a victory. Of Clement’s 67 carries last season, 65 were in the second half and 64 were when Wisconsin led by no less than 15 points. At that point, the opposing defense had either little left to fight for or had substituted in the second-stringers. Clement has yet to prove he can be effective against a first-string defense in a competitive contest. If he cannot, Wisconsin will not feel pressured to continue to feed him the ball regularly. Instead, those carries will be allocated to Gordon. This is why Clement sits so low on this list, even though he likely will be part of the third Wisconsin running back duo in the past five seasons to have each member rush for 1,000 yards in the same year.

8. Josh Ferguson, Illinois | RS Junior – 5’10”, 195 lbs
Rushing Yds YPC Rush TDs YPG Rec Yds Rec TD
2013 779 5.5 7 64.9 535 4
2012 312 4.2 0 31.2 251 0
2011 52 3.7 0 17.3 14 0
Career Totals 1,143 5.0 7 45.7 800 4
(Pat Lovell, USA Today Sports)

(Pat Lovell, USA Today Sports)

If there is one running back that has been unfairly left off of multiple preseason All-Big Ten lists or Big Ten running back rankings, it is Illinois’ Josh Ferguson. He is one of the best all-around running backs in the conference, and, yet, no one seems to notice. The reasons for his exclusion are not difficult to decipher. Illinois had the third-worst rushing offense in the Big Ten last season, averaging only 139 yards per game and 4.06 yards per carry. Naturally, as the starting running back, much of the blame for these woes is shifted to Ferguson. His 779 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns are viewed as not being enough for Illinois to have a successful ground game. Fans and media alike want to see Ferguson up those rushing statistics before they consider him to be one of the better Big Ten running backs.

However, Ferguson’s rushing totals are down not because he was ineffective, but because he had so few opportunities to run the football. Last year, Illinois was one of only three Big Ten teams that attempted more passes than runs. Naturally, Ferguson did not have as many carries as the other starting tailbacks in the Big Ten. In fact, Ferguson’s average of 11.75 carries per game was the second-fewest among starting running backs in the conference. Yet, he performed very well when given the opportunity. Ferguson’s 5.52 yards per carry was more than solid and the eighth-best among Big Ten players with a minimum of 100 carries last year. Ferguson actually was the one bright spot in Illinois’ ground game in 2013. The reasons why Illinois struggled running the ball were its reliance on the pass and then-starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase earning the second-most carries on the team despite averaging only 2.40 yards per carry. Ferguson does not deserve the blame here.

Further, not only is Ferguson much better at running the football than a quick glance at his numbers would indicate, he is by far the best receiving tailback in the conference. Last season, in offensive coordinator Bill Cubit’s first year at Illinois, Ferguson led all Big Ten running backs in receptions (50), receiving yards (535), and receiving touchdowns (four). No other Big Ten running back approached those totals. The second-most catches by a Big Ten running back was 39; the second-most receiving yards by a Big Ten running back was 382. Ferguson is a completely different breed of running back.

Ferguson’s ability to make plays with both his feet and his hands propelled him to 1,314 yards from scrimmage, 6.88 yards per carry or reception, and 11 total touchdowns last season. These are the statistics that one of the best running backs in the Big Ten produces. Expect him to do it again in Year 2 of Cubit’s passing spread offense. Not only will Ferguson continue to catch three to six passes out of the backfield every week, he will see more carries, too. No longer will Ferguson need to worry about his quarterback cannibalizing his rush attempts. With pocket passer Wes Lunt replacing the graduated Scheelhaase, Scheelhaase’s carries will be given to Ferguson, not Lunt. These additional carries will give Ferguson the chance to generate 1,500 yards from scrimmage next season. Ferguson would be one of the best playmakers in the Big Ten, even if he does it a bit differently than his running back-brethren.

7. David Cobb, Minnesota | Senior – 5’11”, 225 lbs
Rushing Yds YPC Rush TDs YPG Rec Yds Rec TD
2013 1,202 5.1 7 92.5 174 0
2012 8 8.0 0 8.0 3 0
2011 57 5.7 0 19.0 0 0
Career Totals 1,267 5.1 7 74.5 177 0
(Hannah Foslien, Getty Images)

(Hannah Foslien, Getty Images)

Entering the 2013 season, David Cobb was an unknown commodity. In high school, Cobb was an unheralded recruit to say the least. According to 247’s Composite Rankings for the 2011 class, he was ranked outside the top 1,000 nationally and the No. 72 running back. With these (lack of) recruiting accolades, very little was expected of Cobb once he arrived on campus at Minnesota. And Cobb produced very little in his first two seasons, running the ball only 11 times for 65 yards and zero touchdowns. Cobb seemed to be a running back who would ride the pine most of his career except during garbage time.

However, when Minnesota’s starting running back  Donnell Kirkwood went down with an ankle injury in the season opener, it gave Cobb the opportunity to share meaningful snaps with second-string running back Rodrick Williams, Jr. Cobb capitalized on the opportunity and slowly began to assert himself as the best tailback on the roster. By the second half of the season, Cobb was Minnesota’s go-to back, earning no less than 17 carries in each of the Gophers’ final seven games. During that seven-game stretch, he had 169 carries for 828 yards, 4.90 yards per carry, and two touchdowns, and posted five games with 100 yards rushing. Cobb did not do it with speed, but with a physical running style that slammed away three to six yards at a time. By the later stages of games, defenses were worn out, as his yards per carry jumped from 4.40 in the first half to 5.69 in the second half. With this surge in the second half of the season, Cobb finished with 237 carries, 1,202 rushing yards, and seven touchdowns, and became Minnesota’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Amir Pinnix in 2006.

Cobb is no longer an unknown commodity. He now is one of the better tailbacks in the Big Ten and will have a splendid chance to duplicate last season’s performance. Minnesota has established an offensive identity under head coach Jerry Kill that it will pound the football, pound the football, and pound it some more. This will not change next year. In the offseason, quarterback Philip Nelson transferred to Rutgers, where he then was dismissed from the program due to legal troubles, thrusting Mitch Leidner into the starting role. Leidner is a rudimentary passer, but a skilled runner for a quarterback. Working behind an offensive line that loses only one starter from last year, the Gophers will once again rely on Cobb and Leidner to carry the offense each week. Although there is the possibility that Cobb will have less room to work with because defenses will stack the box against Minnesota, Cobb’s running style still likely will allow him to churn out four to five yards each play en route to another 1,000-yard season.

6. Venric Mark, Northwestern | 5th-Yr Senior – 5’8”, 175 lbs
Rushing Yds YPC Rush TDs YPG Rec Yds Rec TD
2013 97 3.1 0 32.3 48 0
2012 1,366 6.0 12 105.1 104 1
2011 104 6.9 1 8.0 4 0
2010 63 7.9 0 4.8 43 0
Career Totals 1,630 5.8 13 38.8 199 1
(Dave Stephenson, Icon SMI)

(Dave Stephenson, Icon SMI)

There is no Big Ten running back more difficult to rank on this list than Venric Mark. There are rational arguments for him to be the second-best running back in the conference. There are also rational arguments for him not to even be in the top 10. Let me explain. In 2012, Mark put together a wonderful season. In 13 games played, he accumulated 226 carries for 1,366 yards, 6.04 yards per carry, and 12 rushing touchdowns. His 1,366 rushing yards were the third-most in the Big Ten that season. He also added 104 yards through the air and a receiving touchdown. Mark was a scatback that thrived in the read-option offense with Kain Colter and used his elusive speed to gain yards in a flash. Mark has proven that he has the ability to be an elite running back not only in the Big Ten, but also the nation.

However, it is unknown if we will ever see the 2012 version of Mark again. He was plagued with injuries all of last season that rendered him ineffective. A hamstring injury limited Mark in Northwestern’s season opener against California and forced him to miss the next three non-conference games. Mark then returned for the conference opener against Ohio State. But, one week later, he suffered a broken ankle against Wisconsin which sidelined him for the remainder of the 2013 season. Mark finished with only 97 rushing yards and lots of questions about his health for 2014. Because Mark sat out Northwestern’s spring practice to continue rehabbing his ankle, very few of those questions have been answered.

So where to rank Mark for 2014? Will he return from his injuries with a vengeance and take the Big Ten by storm like he did in 2012? Or will he still be hampered by the lower-body injuries he suffered in 2013? The odds are in Mark’s favor that he will be ready to go for Northwestern’s opener in Week 1. Yet, even if so, Mark will be splitting carries with Treyvon Green, who filled in for Mark last year with 736 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. Green will not be relegated to the bench just because Mark is back. Plus, there will be less read-option for Mark with Trevor Siemian at quarterback. Mark will not have the same space to operate without the speedy Colter by his side and may see his production suffer consequently. All scenarios are realistic, so I split the difference and listed Mark at No. 6. Although it is hard to discount a player who was on the All-Big Ten second team in 2012, no player recovering from a serious ankle injury can be considered one of the top five tailbacks in this year’s Big Ten.

Part Two of Maize and Go Blue’s preview of the best Big Ten running backs in 2014 will be posted tomorrow. We will unveil the five top running backs in the conference. Which running back do you think will be No. 1? Do you agree or disagree with the ranks of the five running backs listed in Part One? Do you think a Michigan running back will be in the top five? Do you think a Michigan running back should be in the top 10? Please let us know in the comments.

Countdown to kickoff: 85 days

Friday, June 6th, 2014


Countdown to kickoff-85

New in Blue: Running back Ty Isaac

Thursday, June 5th, 2014


Ty Isaac(USA Today Sports)

Ty Isaac – RB | 6-3, 225 | Joliet, Ill. – Joliet Catholic
ESPN: 4-star, #13 RB Rivals: 5-star, #4 RB 247: 4-star, #5 RB Scout: 5-star, #7 RB
Other top offers: USC, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Auburn, Clemson, Michigan State, Georgia, Notre Dame

Michigan missed out on a key transfer earlier this spring when Alabama center Chad Lindsay chose Ohio State, but the Wolverines landed an even bigger transfer today when USC running back Ty Isaac announced via Twitter that he would sign with Michigan.

If the name sounds familiar, it should. Michigan was one of the finalists  to land Isaac before he decided to attend Southern Cal in the 2013 recruiting class. At USC, the Joliet, Ill. native rushed for 236 yards on 40 carries — an average of 5.9 yards per carry — and two touchdowns during the 2013 season as a true freshman. He also caught four passes for 57 yards. Isaac battled for playing time in a crowded backfield that included senior Penn State transfer Silas Redd. When he got extended playing time against California on Nov. 9, Isaac showed what he is capable of, rushing for 87 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries.

(David Cleveland, AP)

(David Cleveland, AP)

Isaac announced his transfer in mid-May because of a longing to be closer to his mother, who is dealing with medical complications related to a procedure. Under NCAA rules, a player can receive a hardship waiver in these types of circumstances, which would make him eligible to play right away instead of sitting out a year. However, in 2012, the NCAA refined the rule to institute a 100-mile radius from the immediate family member’s home. Ann Arbor is approximately 250 miles away, so it would be up to the NCAA to grant leniency in this case.

Illinois, which is much closer to his home, was the other top contender for his services. He visited there last week before making a trip to Ann Arbor earlier this week. Notre Dame, which was also a finalist to land Isaac coming out of high school was initially not approved by USC since the Trojans play the Irish. Ohio State also sought approval to contact him, but it was for naught.

“I decided that I’m going to transfer to Michigan,” Isaac said this morning. “I had a good visit there, and it’s just the place where I feel the most comfortable. I didn’t want to drag all of this out and see a ton of schools. Michigan was in my final three when I committed to USC, and the reasons I liked Michigan are still very much in place.”

If the NCAA grants him the ability to play this fall, Isaac will battle for the starting job with Derrick Green and DeVeon Smith, who were also members of the 2013 class. Rivals rated Green the top running back in the class, Isaac fourth, and Smith 37th. Scout had Green first, Isaac seventh, and Smith 11th, while 247 Sports had Isaac fifth, Green eighth, and Smith 15th.

If Isaac does have to sit out the 2014 season, he will be able to take a redshirt and still have three years of eligibility remaining, which would put a year of separation between he and the other two.

During his senior year at Joliet Catholic in 2012, Isaac rushed for more than 1,500 yards and 22 touchdowns, but missed some games due to injury. As a junior in 2011, he racked up 2,629 yards and 45 touchdowns, including a 515-yard, six-touchdown performance in the Illinois Class 5A state championship game.

He is the first transfer Michigan has landed since quarterback Steven Threet transferred from Georgia Tech in 2007. Threet then transferred to Arizona State two years later.

Comparing returning production throughout the Big Ten

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014


maryland(Rob Carr, Getty Images)

As we count down the days and weeks until Michigan opens its season against Appalachian State on Aug. 30, we’re going to kick off our season preview series. The position previews and projections, opponent previews, Big Ten position rankings, staff roundtables, and mailbags that follow will carry us through the sports wasteland that is the summer. So as you take your summer vacations, enjoy cookouts and golf outings, and work on your tan, make sure to check in daily to get your maize and blue fix.

To get things started, we broke down the returning production from each team in the Big Ten. Michigan State won the conference last season, but will that success translate into 2014? Purdue went winless in conference play; are the Boilermakers headed for the same fate this fall? Michigan suffered a losing record in Big Ten play; do the Wolverines have any chance of winning their division this year?

While returning production certainly doesn’t answer any of those questions, it can be a strong indicator of how good or bad each team will be. Rather than simply looking at the number of returning starters, we broke down the yards gained, touchdowns scored, and tackles made by each of those returning starters in order to quantify the results and compare each team. Here are the results:

Offense

Returning offense
Team Percent Returning 2013 Total Off. Rank
Maryland 97.5 77
Iowa 92.8 85
Michigan State 90.9 81
Purdue 82.5 121
Penn State 76.4 43
Rutgers 74.4 96
Northwestern 71.9 73
Michigan 68.6 87
Indiana 67.3 9
Nebraska 66.5 59
Minnesota 65.9 107
Ohio State 59.8 7
Wisconsin 57.0 18
Illinois 34.3 46
Returning scoring offense
Team Percent Returning 2013 Scoring Off. Rank
Maryland 94.4 83
Michigan State 91.3 63
Iowa 89.3 79
Rutgers 86.9 77
Penn State 84.4 69
Purdue 80.6 121
Indiana 72.2 16
Northwestern 71.1 83
Michigan 63.8 46
Nebraska 59.5 48
Wisconsin 57.7 27
Minnesota 57.4 85
Ohio State 53.7 3
Illinois 40.0 60

As you can see, one of the conference newcomers, Maryland, has the most production returning in terms of both total offense and scoring offense. In fact, with nine starters returning on offense, the Terrapins lost only 204 receiving yards, seven rushing yards, and three touchdowns. In addition, Maryland returns three linemen that started all 13 games last season and have two others that have a combined 12 career starts. This is an offense that could make some noise this fall.

Iowa and Michigan State both return around 90 percent of both their total offense and scoring offenses from units that were pretty similar statistically in 2013. Iowa returns 100 percent of its passing and rushing yards while losing 21 percent of its receiving production and 31.6 percent of its receiving touchdowns from tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz. Michigan State returns all of its rushing production from running backs and all but one receiver, Bennie Fowler, who made up 21 percent of last season’s receiving yards and six of 17 receiving touchdowns.

Purdue, Penn State, and Rutgers make up numbers four through six in both categories, however, one of these is not like the others. While Purdue ranked 121st nationally in total offense and Rutgers 96th, Penn State was a respectable 43rd. The Nittany Lions have quarterback Christian Hackenberg back with a year under his belt and 100 percent of the running back production. The main loss is receiver Allen Robinson, who accounted for 108 more receiving yards than all returning receivers combined.

Northwestern and Michigan are pretty similar in terms of returning production. Northwestern has slightly higher returning numbers in both categories, but where the Wildcats ranked a few spots higher nationally in total offense, Michigan was much more adept at finding the end zone. Michigan returns 44 touchdowns compared to just 33 for Northwestern. Nebraska, which has the fifth-lowest returning production in the conference also returns 44 touchdowns from a scoring offense that was just two spots behind Michigan’s last season.

Indiana returns 67.3 percent of its total offense and 72.2 percent of its scoring offense from the Big Ten’s second-best unit. The Hoosiers have more touchdowns returning (70) than any other team in the conference even with the loss of their top two receivers, Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes, and top tight end, Ted Bolser, who combined for 22 touchdown grabs.

Ohio State was the Big Ten’s best offense in 2013, and despite having the third-lowest total offense and second-lowest scoring offense returning, the Buckeyes still have 65 touchdowns coming back, which is second only to Indiana. In addition, OSU lost 74.3 percent of last season’s starting offensive line and 87.7 percent of career starts along the line — and that includes the addition of Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay.

Wisconsin lost a lot of production from running back James White, but the Badgers do have leading running back Melvin Gordon back. The big loss was at receiver where Wisconsin lost its top four pass catchers, including White.

Defense

Returning defense
Team Percent Returning 2013 Total Def. Rank
Maryland 82.6 44
Indiana 79.1 123
Rutgers 77.8 74
Michigan 77.6 41
Northwestern 76.1 89
Illinois 75.8 112
Penn State 67.4 49
Minnesota 66.1 43
Nebraska 66.5 39
Purdue 63.3 105
Ohio State 60.3 47
Michigan State 50.1 2
Wisconsin 49.9 7
Iowa 44.4 6

The top three defensive teams in the Big Ten last season — Michigan State, Iowa, and Wisconsin — are the three that lost the most defensive production in terms of tackles, tackles, for loss, sacks, and interceptions. Iowa and Wisconsin both lost virtually their entire linebacker corps. For Iowa, that made up its top three tacklers, two of the top three in tackles-for-loss, sack leader, and interception leader. For Wisconsin, it was two of the top three tacklers, three of the top four in tackles-for-loss, and two of the top three in sacks. Michigan State’s lost production was more spread out among the entire defense rather than one position group. Ohio State also lost its top three tacklers and most of its defensive backfield, though the Buckeyes do return probably the most experienced and talented defensive line in the Big Ten.

Just like on the offensive side, Maryland leads the way in returning production with a whopping 82.6 percent returning. The Terps lost just four players that had double-digit tackles, although one, linebacker Marcus Whitfield, was the team leader with 15.5 tackles-for-loss and ranked second with nine sacks. Only Ohio State returns more sacks (34) than Maryland (25).

Indiana returns the second-most defensive production, but unlike its offense, the Hoosier defense was downright horrendous. It ranked 123rd nationally, so even with 13 of their top 14 tacklers back, they have a lot of work to do, especially since one of those lost was the team tackle-for-loss and sack leader.

Rutgers and Michigan both return the same amount of defensive production, but Michigan’s defense was a respectable 41st, while Rutgers’ was 33 spots lower. Both have solid linebacker groups returning. Northwestern and Illinois are right behind, but both ranked in the bottom third nationally in total defense.

Penn State, Minnesota, and Nebraska make up spots seven, eight, and nine, all with 66 to 67 percent production returning. In addition, all three were pretty similar in terms of total defense in 2013, ranking 49th, 43rd, and 39th, respectively. Penn State lost its leading tackler, linebacker Glenn Carson, and its leader in tackles-for-loss, defensive tackle DaQuan Jones. Minnesota lost quite a bit of production from its defensive backfield and its key cog in the middle of the line, while Nebraska lost three of the top four from its secondary.

Conclusion

When both offense and defense are combined, Maryland has far and away the most coming back, while Wisconsin has the least. Here’s the comparison chart.

Comparison chart

While it’s impossible to draw conclusions about this season’s performance based on these numbers alone, they can be used as part of the overall picture. In the days and weeks to come, these numbers will be expanded on in our individual opponent previews, position rankings, and other season preview content. Stay tuned.

Survive and advance: Michigan 64 – Illinois 63

Saturday, March 15th, 2014


Stauskas to Morgan vs Illinois 3-14-14(Dustin Johnson, UMHoops)

For a team like Michigan, which won the regular season Big Ten title outright by three games over Wisconsin and Michigan State, the conference tournament is somewhat of an unnecessary exercise before the Big Dance. There’s not much left to prove except perhaps bettering their seed in next week’s NCAA Tournament. There’s more to lose, from injury to loss of confidence to getting out of sync. But that doesn’t mean John Beilein’s squad wouldn’t try to win and that was evident on Friday afternoon when the Wolverines hung on to beat Illinois 64-63.

Illinois hung around for most of the first half, but in the final five minutes it seemed as if Michigan was about to flex its muscle and pull away. A Glenn Robinson III layup at the 4:48 mark put Michigan ahead 30-23 and prompted John Groce to call a timeout. But over the next two minutes, Illinois outscored Michigan 7-0 to tie the game before Nik Stauskas hit a three to end Michigan’s drought. Michigan took a 38-33 lead into the locker room.

The second half started out all Michigan as the Wolverines scored nine of the first 11 points to take a 47-36 lead. Michigan maintained a double digit lead through the under-12 timeout, but Illinois, which was fighting for its NCAA Tournament life as a bubble team, wasn’t done yet. Seven straight points pulled the Illini within four.

Jordan Morgan atoned for a rough game with the game-winning basket (MGoBlue.com)

Jordan Morgan atoned for a rough game with the game-winning basket (MGoBlue.com)

After a Michigan time out and a missed Stauskas three, Tracy Abrams hit from downtown to bring Illinois within one. Robinson III answered, but it would be the last point Michigan would score for the next 4:21 of game time.

Illinois took its first lead of the second half at the 4:57 mark on a Rayvonte Rice layup and after the under-four time out, Kendrick Nunn scored to put the Illini up by three. But Michigan’s freshman, Derrick Walton Jr., answered with a three to tie the game. Rice followed with another layup to put Illinois ahead 63-61 and Beilein called time out.

On Michigan’s ensuing possession, Caris LeVert, Stauskas, and Walton all missed three-point attempts after Walton and Robinson III pulled down offensive boards. Illinois was unable to take advantage, however, missing a shot, and fouling Stauskas. The Canadian sophomore made one of two to bring Michigan within one with 55 seconds remaining.

Illinois turned the ball over on a shot clock violation to give Michigan the ball back with 11 seconds left, down by one. Stauskas came off a screen near the top of the key and pulled up to shoot. Instead, he hit a rolling Jordan Morgan in the paint and the lone senior who was honored last Saturday, and who had struggled with foul trouble for much of the game, laid the ball up on the rim and it rolled in.

Groce called time out to set up a play and Abrams drove the lane, pulled up and got off a great look from eight feet at the buzzer. But it came up short and Michigan got the win.

The loss likely bursts Illinois’ (19-14) razor-thin bubble hopes, sending them to the NIT. Michigan moves on to face fifth-seed Ohio State, which beat Nebraska 71-67 in the following game. The two faced off just once during the regular season with Michigan getting the better of the Buckeyes in Columbus on Feb. 11, 70-60.

Stauskas led all scorers with 19 points on just 4-of-12 shooting. He made just 2-of-10 three-pointers, but was able to get the the free throw line often and connect on 9-of-10. Robinson III scored 15 points and grabbed seven rebounds, while LeVert added 13 points, five rebounds, and four assists.

Michigan made just 10-of-30 three-pointers as a team, struggling to get much offense going against the Illinois zone defense — a much different outcome than when the two teams met a little over a week ago in Champagne.

Three Stars

***Nik Stauskas***
19 points (4-of-12 FG, 2-of-10 3PT, 9-of-10 FT), three assists, two rebounds, one block, two turnovers in 38 minutes

**Glenn Robinson III**
15 points (5-of-11 FG, 2-of-5 3PT, 3-of-4 FT), seven rebounds (two offensive), one assist in 37 minutes

*Caris LeVert*
13 points (5-of-10 FG, 3-of-7 3PT, 0-of-1 FT), five rebounds (one offensive), four assists, one steal, two turnovers in 37 minutes

Quick Hitters:

 

 

 


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Final Game Stats
# Name FG-FGA 3FG-3FGA FT-FTA OR DR TOT PF TP A TO BLK S MIN
01 Glenn Robinson III* 5-11 2-5 3-4 2 5 7 0 15 1 0 0 0 37
10 Derrick Walton Jr.* 2-5 1-3 0-0 1 2 3 3 5 3 1 0 1 27
11 Nik Stauskas* 4-12 2-10 9-10 0 2 2 2 19 3 2 1 0 38
52 Jordan Morgan* 2-2 0-0 0-0 1 5 6 4 4 0 0 1 1 23
23 Caris LeVert* 5-10 3-7 0-1 1 4 5 0 13 4 2 0 1 37
02 Spike Albrecht 2-3 1-2 0-0 0 1 1 2 5 0 2 0 0 13
15 Jon Horford 0-1 0-0 0-0 1 1 2 3 0 0 1 0 1 15
21 Zak Irvin 1-3 1-3 0-0 0 0 0 1 3 0 0 0 0 8
44 Max Bielfeldt 0-0 0-0 0-0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2
Totals 21-47 10-30 12-15 6 20 26 15 64 11 8 2 4 200
Illinois 24-53 5-17 10-12 10 23 33 14 63 10 9 2 4 200
Full Stats

Drew’s 3 thoughts: Illinois

Thursday, March 13th, 2014


Michigan-Illinois header_BTT

Michigan just wrapped up its first outright Big Ten regular season championship since 1986. Not only did Michigan win it outright, U-M won the conference by three games. The Wolverines are only the second Big Ten regular-season champion to win the conference by such a margin since 1999. There is no doubt that Michigan was the best team during the Big Ten regular season.

But there is no time for the Wolverines to pat themselves on the back. The regular season is over. Michigan’s march through the postseason begins tomorrow when it faces the streaking Illinois Fighting Illini in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals. The Fighting Illini have won five of their last six games, one of which was a 64-54 victory against Indiana in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday afternoon.

Illinois’ only loss during this hot streak? A 31-point thrashing by these Michigan Wolverines at the State Farm Center last week—Illinois’ worst home loss ever in that building. Will the Fighting Illini be able to exact their revenge against the Wolverines? Or will Michigan do as the past ten No. 1 seeds in the Big Ten Tournament have done and advance to the semifinals?

Here are my three keys to consider for Friday’s Michigan-Illinois quarterfinal matchup:

Tracy Abrams led Illinois past Indiana in the first round with a season-high 25 points (Victor Cortez, Illinois Athletics)

Tracy Abrams led Illinois past Indiana in the first round with a season-high 25 points (Victor Cortez, Illinois Athletics)

Don’t Waste Possessions

Illinois’ late-season surge has been keyed by an increased propensity to force its opponents to commit a plethora of turnovers. During this 5-1 stretch, Illinois’ opponents have turned the ball over 22.2 percent of the time. This is a significant bump from the defensive turnover rate of 17.8 percent that the Fighting Illini posted in its first 13 conference games, in which they earned a lowly 3-10 record.

Illinois may have the third-best defense in the Big Ten, but forcing turnovers is the only strength of its defense. The Fighting Illini are ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in both defensive rebounding and field-goal defense. If Illinois cannot force Michigan to commit turnovers, it will struggle to string together enough stops to compete with the Wolverines’ high-powered offense. Plus, fewer turnovers forced means less transition opportunities for the Illini, where they are more efficient than when in their half-court offense.

Therefore, Michigan cannot be sloppy offensively and waste possessions with unforced errors and turnovers. The good news for Michigan is that its explosive offensive rarely turns over the basketball. The Wolverines are second in the Big Ten and 10th in the nation in offensive turnover rate, committing a turnover on only about 15 percent of their possessions. If Michigan holds onto the basketball, it will routinely find itself wide open on jumpers outside and inside the three-point line. As long as Michigan knocks those down, the Wolverines’ offense will be very difficult to stop.

Lock Down the Perimeter

During the conference season, Michigan’s biggest weakness was its two-point defense. The Wolverines allowed Big Ten opponents to make 52.7 percent of their two-pointers. No Big Ten defense allowed opponents to make a higher percentage of their shots inside the arc. Opponents had this success because the Wolverines consistently failed to stay in front of opponents’ guards, allowing them to find open space in the paint easily.

Generally, this would be Michigan’s biggest defensive concern. But this is not the case against Illinois. The Fighting Illini had the second-worst offense in the Big Ten, and one the main reasons for this is that they were dead last in two-point shooting. Illinois made only 42.1 percent of its two-pointers against conference opponents. Although Michigan should do its best to stay in front of Illinois’ guards that attempt to penetrate, chances are that those guards will not be able to finish around the rim anyway.

Therefore, Illinois’ best chance to upset the Wolverines will be to find its stroke from beyond the three-point line. The Fighting Illini were not very efficient from there either, making only 30.4 percent of its threes in Big Ten play, but they need their shooters to get hot for only one game. The three Illini that Michigan need to focus on are Kendrick Nunn, Joseph Bertrand, and Jon Ekey. Nunn and Bertrand are Illinois’ two best outside shooters, converting 40 and 38.3 percent of their threes, respectively, while Ekey hangs around the three-point line with 62 percent of his shots coming from there. If Michigan can prevent these three Illini from finding their rhythm from three-point territory, points will be hard to come by for Illinois.

Don’t Expect a Repeat of Last Week

Last Tuesday, Michigan waltzed into the State Farm Center and bombed Illinois on its home court. Prior to that contest, the Fighting Illinois had held each of its previous four opponents to less than 50 points. So what did Michigan do? It piled on 52 points against Illinois. In the first half. With the help of 11 three-pointers. The Wolverines built a 22-point lead by halftime, and the second half was basically 20 minutes of conditioning for both teams. It ended with a 31-point rout for the Wolverines—the largest margin of victory for U-M against a Big Ten opponent since 1998.

This will not repeat itself tomorrow. Michigan may find itself just as open on its shots tomorrow as it did last week, but U-M cannot expect 69.6 percent of its three-pointers to drop once again. The odds are very likely that more of those shots will clang off the iron. Michigan will experience a regression to the mean at some point. It happens to everyone.

Therefore, Michigan cannot get down on itself if it fails to build another 20-point halftime lead. Last week’s blowout is fresh in the Illinois players’ minds, and they will do everything in their power to ensure nothing like that happens again. Chances are that tomorrow’s game will be much more difficult to win than last week. If the Wolverines start panicking, they will make more mental mistakes and give Illinois hope that it can pull off the upset. But, if the Wolverines maintain their composure and play their game, they should be able to show that they are the superior team and build a comfortable lead over time. And I believe that is exactly what will happen.

Prediction: Michigan 73, Illinois 64