With the conclusion of Big Ten media days, The World-Herald looks back at some of the memorable moments, quotes and people.
6 points with Montee Ball
1. Mon-TEE is now Mon-TAY: Ball is pronouncing his name differently this year. He says Mon-TAY is how it was meant to be said.
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema is still getting used to it. Almost every time he mentioned his running back at Big Ten media days, Bielema said the name wrong, then immediately caught himself.
Ball's game is more important than his name. The Heisman finalist led the nation in 2011 with 1,923 rushing yards and 33 touchdowns.
The Wisconsin athletic department has started a Heisman campaign. The slogan: “This Fall Belongs to Ball.''
“I love the attention because it's not just for me, it's for all the players working hard behind me,'' Ball said. “It's an honor that the university is spending time and money to make something for you.
“I'm going to play my game and just play in my own shoes and not try to force big plays. If I do that, things will fall into place.''
2. The finisher: Last season, Ball scored 39 touchdowns, including six receiving. That tied Barry Sanders' 23-year-old record. Ball scored more touchdowns than 42 FBS teams in 2011.
Is Ball's success a function of skill or opportunity? Depends on the situation, he told The World-Herald.
Friends joked last year that Wisconsin receivers always seemed to get tackled inside the 5-yard line, giving Ball a chance for the score. But Ball has also scored when other backs wouldn't have.
“What I like to say is the touchdowns show I can finish.”
3. Fumble-free: Ball's trademark statistic is touchdowns. But Bielema likes to point out a different number. One.
“He's had one fumble in three years,” Bielema said. “For a guy that touches the football as much as he does — we didn't even lose that fumble — that's just an amazing stat.”
4. A crossroads moment: Ball is a bona fide superstar now. But two years ago, he nearly left the program.
After he split action with John Clay and James White in September 2010, Ball's playing time dipped. He had two carries against Michigan State. Three against Minnesota. Then came No. 1 Ohio State, the biggest Wisconsin home game in years.
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The Badgers rode Clay and White to victory. Ball didn't get a single carry. After the game, “I caught Montee's eyes in the postgame locker room,” Bielema said. Coach knew something was wrong.
Indeed, Ball almost left the Badgers. His dad persuaded him to stick it out.
The next Saturday, White got hurt. Ball scored the game-winning touchdown against Iowa.
Then Clay got hurt. And during a four-game stretch in November, Ball went crazy, rattling off rushing outputs of 127, 167, 173 and 178. In those four games, he had 13 touchdowns.
Suddenly, he was the man.
5. Rex Watcher: Ball loves to watch other running backs. He follows Marcus Lattimore at South Carolina and Knile Davis at Arkansas. He also likes Nebraska's Rex Burkhead.
“That man will take 35-40 carries in a game,” Ball said. “His 40th carry is just as strong as his first. His tenacity is incredible.”
As for the NFL, Ball studies Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore. Lately, he's been hearing comparisons to Ray Rice.
“So I'm going to watch a lot more of Ray Rice and see what we have in common.”
6. Movin' on up the draft board:If Ball had left Wisconsin after his junior year, he likely would've been chosen in the third round of the NFL draft, he said.
He came back, in part, because he promised his parents that he'd get his degree, or at least walk away within a few credits. He also wanted to improve his pass protection.
“I believe that's the best way a running back can keep his position in the NFL.”
How high can he go in next April's draft?
“Obviously I'm shooting for first round.”
BUBBLE UNDER WRAPS
Greg Davis, who spent 13 years as offensive coordinator at Texas under Mack Brown, is the new play-caller at Iowa.
During Davis' days with the Longhorns, UT threw approximately one million bubble screens.
At least it seemed that way to cranky burnt orange fans who didn't like all of the short passes to flankers and wide receivers.
How many bubble screens has Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg thrown since Davis' arrival?
“Zero,'' he said.
You're kidding, right?
“No, zero,'' Vandenberg said. “At Texas, they were throwing to track stars. One guy literally is in the Olympics.
“I'm not saying we don't have speed. But Texas was throwing bubble screens for a reason. Wow! We see the Michigans and Michigan States who have talent. But there are some guys at Texas who can run with anybody in the nation.
“So I don't think we'll be a huge bubble team.''
Michigan may be the Legends Division favorite. But the Wolverines have something to prove against two division rivals. They've lost four straight to Michigan State and three straight to Iowa. Both teams go to the Big House this fall.
Despite the losing streak, Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan likes facing the Hawkeyes.
“What you see is what you get,” Lewan said. “They're not going to try to trick you. It's basic defense, and that's where they're going to stay.”
EVERYONE KNOWS HIS NAME
|Michigan's Denard Robinson|
On Wednesday, en route to Big Ten media days, Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan noticed a stranger at the Chicago airport looking at him and teammate Jordan Kovacs. This guy must recognize us, Lewan thought. That's kinda cool. Then Denard Robinson walked out of the restroom.
“This guy's eyes just light up,” Lewan said. “We started walking away and Denard is just smiling, putting stuff in his bag. This guy is just staring at him the whole time.”
Robinson was the keynote speaker at Friday's kickoff luncheon.
“This year ... I became aware of how big our platform can be,” Robinson said. “I met the president of the United States. I met LeBron James. And they both knew who I was.”
Bret Bielema likes the new college football playoff. But he does have concerns about the selection committee.
“The No. 1 thing for me is I want to know who's going to be on that committee. I want to know who's going to make the decisions, and what are their guidelines? Are they going to meet for the first time Aug. 1 or Oct. 1? Is it someone that it's their job to watch what is really going on?”
Bielema said he'd put people like Barry Alvarez on the committee. But finding people without biases is difficult.
“You've got alma maters, you've got people from a certain region in the country.”
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer worries about players' families. How are they going to travel to a semifinal game one weekend, then fly across the country to the championship game the next?
“The higher-ups need to have that conversation,” Meyer said.
Of seven players asked about a playoff, all said they were in favor of it.
“It will be a pretty cool thing to see the top four teams go at it and really see who the actual No. 1 team is,” Northwestern's David Nwabuisi said.
Said Minnesota's Keanon Cooper: “It allows the athletes to decide their fate rather than computers or coaches or voters.”
Nebraska didn't meet its goals in 2011. But the Huskers did score big home wins over Ohio State and Michigan State. What happened in those games? We asked NU's opponents.
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“You've got to give it to Nebraska,” Ohio State defensive lineman John Simon said. “They came out the second half and played great football. Their atmosphere, their fans were into the game once they started scoring some points.
“Really, it was like we were a different team and they were a different team. We have a big emphasis this year to play complete games.”
Three weeks later, Nebraska knocked out Michigan State, which had just beaten Michigan and Wisconsin in consecutive weeks.
“I thought we just came out flat,” Spartans linebacker Max Bullough said. “It's not an excuse, but we had a tough few games before that. We didn't really know what to expect from Nebraska. To their credit, they did quite a few different things we hadn't seen before.”
HEAD GOPHER FEELING GOOD, SETTING SIGHTS HIGH
Last September, during a home loss to New Mexico State, Jerry Kill suffered a seizure on the sideline. The Minnesota coach had another seizure two weeks later.
Kill, who was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2005, said that he had no doubts about coaching in 2012. He's lost weight. He feels good. He tells his players all the time how to handle adversity. It wouldn't be right to quit, he said.
“If it was a situation where I wasn't going to be able to perform and not be able to coach and recruit and those kinds of things, then I would walk away. ... But I've been battling things for seven years. I'm a cancer survivor, and we won a helluva lot of games the last seven years.”
The crowd around Michigan at media days included dozens of reporters — and one Heisman winner. Desmond Howard, the ESPN analyst, wore a blue Michigan jacket and held out his phone, snapping photos of Brady Hoke in front of the microphone. Asked for an interview, Howard declined. “I want to watch this.”
TOUGH ACT TO FOLLOW
For the second straight year, Wisconsin's starting quarterback will likely be a transfer from the ACC.
Russell Wilson, who came from North Carolina State, led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl. Danny O'Brien, immediately eligible because he earned his degree at Maryland, will try to do the same.
Athletic Director Barry Alvarez doesn't like to compare the two.
“We may never have another Russell Wilson,” Alvarez told The World-Herald.
“They have two things in common. They're transfers and they play quarterback. I haven't seen him play. To have expectations that he's going to play as well as Russell, that's just not fair.”
A WOODHEAD FAN
Not every Nebraska question at Big Ten media days centered on the Huskers.
Penn State coach Bill O'Brien, an offensive assistant with the New England Patriots the past five years, talked to The World-Herald about Danny Woodhead, Patriots running back and former Chadron State All-American.
“He's awesome,'' O'Brien said. “When we brought him in, I'll never forget how quickly he picked things up. ... He was a really fun guy to coach and be around every day.''
O'Brien said it was a pleasure to script plays for Woodhead.
“He's a major match-up problem,'' the coach said. “We got him matched up on linebackers so often, and they can't cover him. He's so quick and such a good route runner.''
The past two years, O'Brien was quarterbacks coach to All-Pro Tom Brady. O'Brien said Brady liked to see Woodhead in the game.
“Danny was a big check-down guy the last couple of years for Tom,'' he said. “And he was a good pass protector.
“He's a three-down back. I'm not talking about a third-down back. I mean a guy who can play first and second down, too, because he is such a good runner.
“He doesn't have height. But he is power-packed. He has big legs. Just because he's short doesn't mean he doesn't play big.”
WHERE'S THE TOUGHEST PLACE TO PLAY IN THE BIG TEN?
|Iowa's Kinnick Stadium|
• “When we lost to Iowa two years ago, that was one of the craziest, loudest places I've been. They're very close to the field. They've got the pink locker room, which is more funny than anything. But the fans are dedicated and they're right up next to you.” — Max Bullough, Michigan State linebacker
• “The Michigan fans are horrible. They get into your head. They talk to you a lot and can get you off your game. Wisconsin is just so loud. Every time they make a play, you know they made that play.” — Ricardo Allen, Purdue cornerback
• “Ohio State. The fans are crazy. They sell out almost every game. It's hard to win there.” — Keanon Cooper, Minnesota linebacker
• “Probably Michigan. That was my first Big Ten game back in '09. Sold-out crowd, it came down to the wire. It was definitely the loudest place I've played.”— Will Matte, Indiana center
• “Penn State. It's just such a huge stadium and fans are pretty loud.” — Graham Pocic, Illinois center
• “Iowa. They have great fans out there. They're hovering over you all game.” — David Nwabuisi, Northwestern linebacker
• “Probably Wisconsin with the ‘Jump Around' thing.” — Ed Olson, Minnesota tackle
WHAT BIG TEN COACH, ASIDE FROM YOUR OWN, WOULD YOU WANT TO PLAY FOR?
• “The Michigan State coach. Just how he carries himself and how he carries his team.” — Allen, Purdue
• “I really like Kirk Ferentz and what he does at Iowa. He's the most tenured coach in the Big Ten and he's built a great program.” — Bullough, Michigan State
• “Either Coach Bo Pelini or Mark Dantonio. Bo Pelini had Lavonte David last year, who was a smaller linebacker, and they did a lot of great things with him. And same thing for Coach Dantonio with Denicos Allen.” — Cooper, Minnesota
• “Pat Fitzgerald. He just seems like a good, hard-nosed guy. Just seems like a class act.” — Matte, Indiana
• “Probably Urban Meyer. I also watched Tim Tebow when I was in high school. I always loved the Florida Gators. It'd be cool just to meet him.” — Olson, Minnesota
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WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE BIG TEN UNIFORM?
• “Northwestern. I just like the weird colors.” — Allen, Purdue
• “I kinda like Nebraska's, just because they're old school. What they represent is pretty cool.” — Bullough, Michigan State
• “The Michigan State ones they wore last year. The combat jerseys.” — Pocic, Illinois
• “Michigan is a school I grew up watching. Those wings are pretty iconic. That maize, they style it really well.” — Cooper, Minnesota
Nebraska knows the value of Braxton Miller to Ohio State. After the quarterback got hurt, the Buckeyes' offense collapsed last year in Lincoln.
The sophomore is expected to be even better in Urban Meyer's offense. So far, Meyer has been pleased with Miller's willingness to learn.
“Great probably isn't a strong enough word as far as absorbing, wanting to be a leader and doing it the right way.”
GREAT IDEA, COACH
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald proposed a “When Pigs Fly” plan for the Big Ten title game.
Because two teams from the Leaders Division are ineligible for the conference championship, Fitzgerald said, the Leaders champion shouldn't automatically qualify for Indianapolis.
Reserve one spot for the Legends champion. Then put a committee together — 12 athletic directors and Commissioner Jim Delany — to select the other team.
“That would make a little bit of sense to me,” Fitzgerald said. “I like the idea maybe having two guys from our division in.”
Hmmm, wonder if he'd feel that way if Northwestern were in the Leaders Division.
Two years ago, MarQueis Gray was primarily a wide receiver at Minnesota. Last year, he was the starting quarterback.
“His first four or five games, he was still trying to figure out what to do,” coach Jerry Kill said.
“I really think the Big Ten will be surprised. If we play as good up front, I think he'll have a breakout year in the Big Ten, I really do. Because he's a very gifted athlete.”
A TALE OF TWO TACKLES
Taylor Lewan came to Michigan as one of the top offensive line recruits in the country. Ricky Wagner came to Wisconsin as a walk-on tight end.
Both are now standout left tackles, projected as first-round picks in next April's NFL draft.
Wagner, from the Milwaukee area, had a few scholarship offers from small Division I schools, but chose to walk on in Madison. When he was a freshman, coaches moved him to tackle. In 2010, he earned a scholarship and started. Now he's almost 100 pounds heavier than his freshman weight of 235.
“Some people have trouble putting on weight,” Wagner said. “I don't find that to be a problem.”
Wisconsin's list of left tackles includes Joe Thomas and Gabe Carimi. Both won the Outland Trophy and became first-rounders.
“He's hopefully going to live up to the same standards,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said.
Lewan, a 6-foot-8, 310-pound redshirt junior, said he's worried only about Michigan.
“I'm actually reading Bo Schembechler's book right now,” Lewan said. “He said if you can just focus on the job you have right now to the best of your abilities, then other jobs will come. That's what I'm trying to do right now.”
A LION'S DOWNFALL
At 2011 Big Ten media days, Penn State coach Joe Paterno was asked about scandals in college football. He said this:
“I used to get a telephone call from one of the campus cops. He would say, ‘Hey, coach, you better come up here and get ahold of Mike. Too much to drink, making a lot of noise.'
“I'd go up at 2 in the morning, grab Mike, put him in bed, get him up at 5 in the morning, run his rear end off for a week. You guys never heard about it.”
Every once in awhile, Paterno said, he'd hear an old-timer shake his head at “kids today.”
“They ought to go back and read Socrates. Socrates, 400 years BC, said, ‘The kids today are terrible, tyrants. They don't pay attention.'
“That's 2,500 years ago, OK?”
Four months later, scandal ended Paterno's career. His demise was hard to ignore at the 2012 media days.
“Driving in here (Wednesday) night put things in perspective,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “You come here and just think about a year ago, how everything looked (at Penn State), as opposed to the way things look right now. It's just kind of a life lesson that things can look very, very different. The whole thing to me is just hard to comprehend.”
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has followed the coverage. He's read the Freeh Report.
“I can't get past the victims,” Meyer said. “Every time I try to get past it, that's where my thoughts and my prayers are every night. I had an incredible relationship with Coach and his family. That was not the Joe Paterno I knew.”
|Northwestern's Kain Colter|
When Northwestern and Illinois tangle in their Thanksgiving weekend rivalry game, there may not be a Nebraska fan in the whole stadium.
But both starting quarterbacks came close to being Huskers.
Growing up in Denver, Northwestern's Kain Colter was Kenny Bell's best friend. They almost chose the same college. But Nebraska was also recruiting quarterback Brion Carnes for the 2010 class.
“I didn't really want to go in there and be uncertain about where they wanted me to play,” said Colter, who led Northwestern to victory last fall against Nebraska.
Illinois' quarterback, Nathan Scheelhaase, looked even harder at the Huskers.
Bill Callahan offered Scheelhaase a scholarship after his sophomore year at Rockhurst High in Kansas City. The prospect attended a sold-out spring game and NU's showdown with No. 1 USC in 2007.
“I can remember walking down on the field before the game, thinking to myself, ‘Wow, this is one of the most amazing sights I've ever seen.'”
But Scheelhaase didn't connect with Callahan.
“I think a lot of players at that time didn't really get a good feel for that staff.”
Bo Pelini continued recruiting him, and Scheelhaase liked NU's new coaching staff. But by that point, he'd built a relationship with Illinois.
Nebraska signed a different quarterback for the 2009 class: Cody Green.
Ohio State-Michigan is the best rivalry in the Big Ten. But the past two years, no games have meant more than Michigan State-Wisconsin.
In 2010, the Spartans dealt the Badgers their only regular-season loss. Last October, Michigan State won on a last-second Hail Mary. Wisconsin got its revenge at the Big Ten championship game, winning a thriller, 42-39.
When Bret Bielema and Mark Dantonio were defensive coordinators at Kansas State and Ohio State, they shared defensive ideas. Now they're preparing for another duel on Oct. 27, this time in Madison.
“Our players just have so much respect for the Michigan State players and the way they compete,” Bielema said. “The intensity that they bring obviously is second to none.”
QB FAVORITE ROUTES
Every quarterback has a favorite pass route. Maybe it fits his eye. Maybe it suits his receiver. They often differ from QB to QB.
Andrew Maxwell, Michigan State: “There's something about fitting the seam route in there.” That's where a slot receiver bolts into the interior gap of a two-deep zone or a tight end beats a linebacker in one-one-one coverage.
James Vandenberg, Iowa: “Glance route.” Vandenberg got technical with the reporter, explaining how he'd use a five-step drop or modify it with a play-action fake. The goal is to get the defender looking into the backfield while the receiver slips inside. “It's a difficult timing route,” Vandenberg said.
Kain Colter, Northwestern: “The corner.” Especially against a two-deep zone, when the receiver attacks the space behind the corner, who stays in the shallow flat, and the safety, who has responsibility over the top. It's one of the hardest throws to make consistently.
MarQueis Gray, Minnesota: “Fade route.” Preferably to the end zone. But he did enjoy the 53-yard flea-flicker pass to Dajon McKnight during a 41-14 loss to Nebraska. “That brought a smile to everyone's face.”
Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois: “We throw a lot of posts.” Both of the deep variety, 30 yards down the middle of the field, and the skinny post that's more of a timing route. Scheelhaase's former target, NFL first-round draft pick A.J. Jenkins, made a killing on this play.
Denard Robinson, Michigan: “The square-out.” A receiver looks to go deep, breaks off his route and cuts hard for the sideline. “If you get the timing right, it's pretty much impossible to defend.”
Caleb TerBush, Purdue: “The deep ones.” Here's why. “Half of the crowd is yelling ‘no!' and the other half is yelling, ‘yes!'” Good enough for us.