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  • Colorful Two Days In Chicago

    The Windy City is known for its popular and colorful Chicago-based ball teams – Cubs blue, Bulls red and the familiar black worn by the Bears.

    On Thursday and Friday the town was painted scarlet and gray in that the discussions during the 2011 Big Ten Football Media Days there always seemed to circle back to Ohio State.

    The Buckeyes, of course, are the perennial power team of the conference after winning six straight league crowns. However, head coach Jim Tressel and quarterback Terrelle Pryor are gone because of scandal while several other key players have been suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season.

    And new coach Luke Fickell inherits a team that needs to rebuild its core on defense and will have to deal with varying expectations and distractions throughout the fall.

    So as the 12 coaches took the podium individually on Thursday and delved into their team outlook, the questions still managed to pertain to OSU.

    Perhaps most interesting were the comments by Michigan’s Brady Hoke, who, like Fickell, enters the rivalry for the first time as a head coach.

    A former UM assistant who opened eyes heading up the programs at Ball State and San Diego State, Hoke already has Wolverine fans fired up and Buckeye fans disliking the portly new head coach. In Woody Hayes-like fashion, Hoke has showed extra attention to the rivalry by referring to the enemy with a slighted title. But in this case, instead of Hayes calling Michigan “that school up north” Hoke simply refers to OSU as “Ohio.”

    He did it repeatedly in Chicago.

    “You know, we're really fortunate at Michigan,” Hoke said at the mic. “We have a national rivalry. We play Notre Dame. We have an in-state rivalry with Michigan State, obviously. Then the rivalry with Ohio is as big a rivalry as there is in sport.”

    Fickell didn’t react to Hoke’s reference to the Buckeyes but he made sure to tell reporters in Chicago that he doesn’t intend to let UM suddenly get the upper hand in The Game.

    “Nobody will overlook that,” Fickell said. “I know that's not something that will ever be overlooked at Ohio State. Obviously (we) look forward to that rivalry, continuing that great tradition.”

    Hoke also admitted he has a special feeling for the late November matchup.

    “It’s fun,” said Hoke, who last participated in the rivalry as an assistant at Michigan in 2002.

    “I mean, if you can’t get geared up for that and get goosebumps and all those things for that game, then you may not be human.”

    Hoke grew up in the Dayton area but claims he rooted for Michigan as a kid. His father, John Hoke, played for Hayes and Bo Schembechler at Miami (Ohio).

    Hoke eventually found himself on the sidelines for the rivalry but doesn’t expect to be part of the spotlight when the series is renewed this fall.

    “It never has been who the coach is,” he said. “It’s always about those two great institutions.

    “Playing at the end of November is tradition and some traditions you don’t mess with,” Hoke added.

    And some you start yourself – like calling your bitter rival by its first name.

    Similarly, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema seemed to both crack Ohio State and show the program major respect throughout his two-day appearance in Chicago.

    Bielema, who was selected by the media as the conference’s best coach in a preseason poll, has made no bones about putting Ohio State in his gun scope and he sounded like a man hell-bent on the opportunity to catch the Buckeyes during his media address. He also reminded reporters that the Badgers ruined OSU’s otherwise perfect season – even if sanctions take away the 12 wins.

    “We’ve been knocking on the door of Ohio State for a couple of years, but to finally go through last year in the way that we did, there wasn’t any question about who won that football game,” he said of the 31-18 upset of No. 1 OSU last October.

    “The only bad part about Terrelle leaving was he said the week after it was a fluke, that they’d beat us nine out of 10 times. So to me, we really wanted to play that game against him, but unfortunately we won’t.”

    The two teams will meet again in Columbus this year – a Halloween (Oct. 29) treat that is sure to stir up more emotion. The Buckeyes are expected to wear replica uniforms for that contest and the national spotlight will shine brightly. Considering Bielema’s obsession with surpassing OSU in the conference race, that some consider the Badgers as Ohio State’s biggest rival, and that the two teams are now in opposing divisions, setting up a possibly December rematch in the conference’s first-ever championship game, Bielema was asked to respond to the Buckeyes’ recent NCAA hot water.

    “I understand why you ask the question, but I don’t spend one day at the University of Wisconsin worrying about what’s going on at Ohio State,” he said.

    Sure you don’t, Coach.

    “Ohio State still has a lot of real good football players,” he continued. “Luke (Fickell) is a very good football coach. He’s a great assistant coach and my guess is he’s going to be a good head coach, but it doesn’t change what we do at Wisconsin.”

    Bielema also seemed to reference Tressel, saying, “If you’re trying to be competitive, you’re trying to win a football game, all those things, maximize all your opportunities, do what you have to do,” he said at the podium.

    “But when you consciously break an NCAA rule, to me the only way to deter that is to get rid of people, or seriously hold programs accountable. That’s probably the number one thing I would love to see happen in the world of college football.”

    However, a gaggle of reporters grabbed Bielema in thw hallway and he tried to clarify his statement.

    “You know what, those comments weren’t directed toward Ohio State,” he said.

    “I don’t know exactly what went on. More to those comments that I was referring to was recruiting. When you have people who knowingly are breaking rules or doing things that aren’t over the table, that is very frustrating. It’s very hard to trace. It’s just very, very upsetting when the people who are involved aren’t hammered the way they should be.”

    Bielema went on to say that Tressel was highly supportive of him and did admit regret that he is no longer in the conference.

    “Unfortunately, the situation arose there, but it doesn’t change my opinion about who he is or what he is or the program he built,” he said. “To win six Big Ten championships (in a row), that doesn’t just happen. You have a lot of good coaches and a lot of good football players that were able to do that, and he’s responsible for all of that.”

    Veteran Presence – Just prior to the Big Ten Football Media Days, the conference compiled a list of the top players and called it the league’s inaugural Preseason Players To Watch List. The intent was to honor five student-athletes each from the Legends Division and Leaders Division. The 2011 list was selected by a media panel and features additional honorees due to a tie.

    Representing the Legends Division are Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins, Nebraska defensive tackle Jared Crick and linebacker Lavonte David, and Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa.

    The Leaders Division honorees are Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, Indiana wide receiver Damarlo Belcher, Ohio State center Mike Brewster and defensive tackle John Simon, Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti and Wisconsin running backs Montee Ball and James White.

    All five Legends Division players received postseason recognition in 2010, with Robinson, Crick and David earning All-America honors and first-team All-Conference accolades. Robinson was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year while David was tabbed the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year. Persa was also named first-team All-Big Ten while Cousins was an honorable mention All-Conference choice.

    The group of Leaders Division standouts includes five All-Conference selections from 2010. Brewster earned All-America accolades and first-team All-Big Ten honors. White was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and a second-team All-Conference selection. Belcher, Simon and Ball were each All-Big Ten honorable mention selections.

    Hot Ticket – The conference opened up ticket sales for the inaugural Big Ten Football Championship Game to the general public on July 30 and the ducats reportedly sold out within a few hours. Tickets ranged from $50 to $125. Orders were limited to eight tickets.

    The championship game is slated to begin at 8:17 p.m. Eastern on Sat., Dec. 3 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis and will be televised by FOX Sports.

    Those individuals who purchased tickets through Ticketmaster or the Lucas Oil Stadium ticket office for the 2011 Big Ten Football Championship Game will have the opportunity at a later date to purchase tickets in a comparable location for the 2012 game. In addition, every Big Ten Football Championship Game ticket will include a ticket to Big Ten Fan Fest, to be held at the Indiana Convention Center from 10 a.m. Eastern until kickoff.

    The championship game will feature the champion of the Legends Division facing the champion of the Leaders Division, with the winner earning the Big Ten Championship and a chance to play in either the Rose Bowl Game or Bowl Championship Series National Championship Game.

    The Big Ten Conference and Indiana Sports Corporation have entered into an agreement to host Big Ten Football Championship Games at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis through 2015. FOX Sports will serve as the official broadcast partner of the Big Ten Football Championship Games through 2016.

    Looking Back – Just one year ago, Nebraska was not a part of the conference and the fraternity of Big Ten head coaches included the likes of Tressel, Rich Rodriguez, Tim Brewster and Bill Lynch.

    In fact, just last summer Lynch was talking about the strides his staff was making at Indiana and raving about the Hoosiers’ renovated stadium.

    “One, it shows a commitment to football at Indiana, and I think that’s really big,” he said at the time. “And then I think it’s more fun. There’s no question it’s more fun to play in a lively atmosphere. That’s why when you talk to our kids they talk about playing at Penn State or playing at Iowa, those places where it’s alive from the time you take the field to the time the game’s over.”

    Lynch, of course, wasn’t around long enough to see the full effect. But he was prophetic when he said the following: “Everybody can say what they want but I don’t care where they’re at, they don’t want to line up and play Ohio State.”

    A year ago, the league also had different players in starring roles, most notably defensive end. Sure enough, Ohio State’s Cameron Heyward, Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn and Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan all had big senior seasons and became top draft choices.

    “Those are good ones right there,” Tressel said of that trio last year. “When you have edge guys like that, those guys disrupt what you do. All of a sudden you’ve got to send your backs out to chip them, you get them out in routes and your quarterback’s timing is off because he’s used to the check-down being there with that coverage. I don’t think it’s a secret whether it’s our league or the league above us, D-linemen are impactful.”

    Meanwhile, a few tables away, Rodriguez was telling reporters that UM football was on the brink of returning to glory despite fan unrest.

    “We’re at a place where they care,” Rodriguez said last August. “You want to coach and play at a place like that. I don’t know if you ever have 100 percent of the people happy no matter where you’re at. When we were having our good runs at West Virginia at the end there, when we lost two games it was tragic. But you build up to that point.

    “There’s nothing wrong with that. I want to get to that point. I want to get to that point where, boy, one or two losses is a bad, bad thing – and we can get there. It’s taken us longer than we wanted, that’s for sure, but we can get there.

    “We’re getting there. We wanted to have a fast team. It starts off with recruiting fast players. Now we’ve got to get them to play fast all the time, and that’s our job as coaches. We’ve got to put them in that position. We’ve got to teach them, educate them. And on both sides of the ball. Some people talk about the offense, but it’s defensively, too. We’ve got to play faster defensively. And in a couple years those fast guys playing fast will be juniors and seniors.”

    Michigan defensive back Troy Woolfolk also was talking about a turnaround – including Michigan’s results against Ohio State.

    “For us (the hatred of OSU) has been as high as it’s ever been because they’ve kind of dominated the last few years. I think it’s that time to finally get over the hill and end that winning streak. Everyone on the team, I can just see it in their eyes when everyone is telling them about Ohio State. Or even just on TV or even just an O-shaped figure I just get instantly angry. Cheerios, Froot Loops, Apple Jacks, none of that.”

    For the record, Woolfolk ended up suffering a season-ending injury and his Wolverines were bombed at Ohio State in November.

    Coachspeak – The Big Ten coaches checked in on a number of topics at the Media Days. Here are some of the more noteworthy comments:

    Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio on the demise of Tressel, his former boss and mentor – “To me, it’s tragic. He becomes a tragic hero in my respect, in my view. Usually tragic heroes have the ability to rise above it all in the end and that’s what I’ll look for in the end. It is very heart-wrenching for me and my family because we’re close to Coach Tress. He’s had a lot to do with my life as a mentor really since 1983, and that’s a long time. That’s a tough situation.”

    Illinois’ Ron Zook on Ohio State’s NCAA predicament – “You hate to see those things happen. Obviously it’s lessons that we as all coaches have to look at, maybe rethink, obviously help your players in education, learning what’s right and what’s wrong from that standpoint as well.”

    Zook on hanging onto his job – “Well, it’s hard to believe going into my seventh year and I’m actually third in seniority. Actually kind of mind-boggling.”

    Indiana’s Kevin Wilson on making the Hoosiers a contender – “If you talk to our three guys representing us today, we’re not trying to be good four, five, six years from now. The expectation, I think every game is going to be exciting, competitive, challenging in the Big Ten. That’s the niche in college football these days. That’s the beauty of BCS, fighting every week in your bowl situation.”

    Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz on Nebraska being added to the league – “First and foremost, I think it’s a fantastic thing for the conference. I was in the league for nine years back in the ’80s, gone for nine, now I’ve been back again. I was not here when Penn State joined the league. I think we’d agree that’s been a tremendous thing overall. I think this is a move that balances that out, if you will. In our case we have a border that we share. It’s certainly something that is going to be something very much of interest for the fans.”

    Nebraska’s Bo Pelini on QB Taylor Martinez – “We feel really good about where Taylor is. He’s had a great offseason. He had a tremendous spring. He’s had a phenomenal summer. I think he’s more engaged as a leader. I think he’s really taken it
    upon himself to grow in that area. I think he’s becoming a tremendous leader on our football team, holding his teammates accountable, holding himself accountable. I think he’s poised to have a great year.”

    Pelini, a former Buckeye, on how the Big Ten compares to the Big 12 – “When I think of the Big Ten, I think of class, I think of tremendous tradition. Like I said, I think of integrity. I think that’s what the Big Ten has represented for a very long time. You look a the academic accomplishments throughout the conference. To me it serves as a model, and it’s why I feel so great about us being a part of the conference. I think it serves as a model for the rest of college football. That’s why it’s such an honor for us as an institution for us to become a part of it.”

    Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald on Ohio State’s troubles – “There’s a lot that’s going on right now in college football that I think we need to wrap our arms around as a complete and total body. We will. We’ll make it better. There are going to need to be changes, tweaks, adjustments, to bylaws and rules, I would think so based on what we’ve seen in the last off-season. I don’t think there’s a coach or administrator in the country that doesn’t want to be a part of that solution.”

    Penn State octogenarian Joe Paterno on his health – “I feel a lot better than I did a year ago. I had two tough years physically. The kid from Wisconsin running into me in the sideline, when I broke my knee that time. Then I threw my hip out showing off, trying to show the kids how to kick a football. I couldn’t kick when I was healthy. I sure as hell couldn’t kick with a broken knee.”

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In our latest installment, we look at the state of the Big Ten men's basketball race, declare Michigan State as the winner on the women's side, begin to outline what lies ahead in football and more.

 
 
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