This was a season that could only be classified as a disaster for the Illini.
From the opening game of the season against Missouri to the last game of the year vs. Northwestern, the Illini turned in miserable effort after miserable effort.
The result was a 1-11 season that included an 0-8 mark in the Big Ten.
Expectations were rather high for this team at the start of the year. Even though Illinois had been 5-7 in 2002, they had won four of their last six games, and one of those losses came in overtime against eventual national champion Ohio State.
Head coach Ron Turner felt his team was ready to pick up where it left off and that QB Jon Beutjer was the right man to have behind center. Beutjer had some success — he completed 162-of-257 passes for 1,597 yards with a 10-9 TD-interception ratio — but his season ended after seven games because of a back injury.
Even when Beutjer was playing, the Illini had a hard time mustering a consistent offense — and whatever they were able to produce could not overcome their porous defense.
Once the Illini got into the Big Ten portion of the schedule, the defense became a rumor. They gave up 38 points to Wisconsin, 43 points to Purdue, 49 points to Michigan State and 56 points to Michigan before they finally stopped playing "Can You Top This?"
The biggest problem was a run defense that offered virtually no resistance.
The season finale against Northwestern was probably the best example. The Wildcats — an overachieving team that finished with a .500 record — ran for 444 yards against a defense that showed neither the will nor the skill to tackle. Northwestern scored 30 points in the second half and did not throw the ball once after halftime.
Rumors surrounded Turner throughout the second half of the Big Ten season. Athletic director Ron Guenther said he was bringing Turner back in 2004. However, defensive coordinator Mike Cassity was let go less than two weeks after the season finale.
Illinois ranked 10th in the Big Ten in overall defense and was last in rushing defense this season. ''I needed to take my time and evaluate the situation, and at this time I feel this is best for the team,'' Turner said.
Cassity had been with Illinois two years. He had served as Oklahoma State's defensive coordinator prior to his stint in Champaign.
Can the Illini improve next season? Of course. They couldn't get any worse. But to play competitive football, they need a defense that will show far more heart and grit than it has the past two years. That's the first step toward being a respectable team.
GAME OF THE YEAR: The only game the Illini won came against Division I-AA Illinois State. Their most competitive game was against Indiana. The Illini held a 14-10 lead in the fourth quarter and appeared to clinch the game when Christian Morton returned an interception for a score. However, the return was wiped out by a penalty and then the Illini were pushed 15 yards further down field when Morton was flagged for excessive celebration. Ultimately, Indiana QB Matt LoVecchio scored on a short scramble in the final minute for a 17-14 win.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: WR Kelvin Hayden — He showed plenty of heart and athleticism and was the receiver that head coach Ron Turner looked to in third-down situations. He caught 52 passes for 592 yards and three touchdowns in his junior season.
RAPID REVIEW: The 2003 season was an unmitigated disaster. The Illini started the season with decent hopes and visions of a bowl game. Instead, the Illini could not register one win over a Division I-A opponent. At 1-11, the coaching staff drew plenty of criticism.
FAST FORWARD: The most notable area to build on is at running back. E.B. Halsey has plenty of speed and quickness and was quite productive with 537 rushing yards. Pierre Thomas and Morris Virgil also have the potential to be breakaway backs. QB Chris Pazan got some experience this year — 49-of-82 for 511 yards with a 2-2 TD-interception ratio — and may get the call from Turner if he can show some improvement in spring football. The defense needs a complete makeover.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You try to stay optimistic about your chances, but there was a lot of pain this season. I'm glad it's over at this point." — Ron Turner on the 2003 season that ended with a 37-20 loss to Northwestern.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2004: RB E.B. Halsey — He showed terrific running ability as a freshman and has the potential to be one of the strongest backs in the Big Ten. Halsey ran for 537 yards and is also a talented receiver, catching 37 passes for 303 yards and four touchdowns. If the Illini can give him a good supporting cast, he could be one of the most improved players in the Big Ten next season.
LB Matt Sinclair — On a defense that was abominable, Sinclair was one of the few players who showed up every week. He led the team with 129 tackles and also had four sacks. Sinclair showed excellent range and while he did not have a lot of highlight-film type hits, he does know how to wrap up and bring the ballcarrier down. Few of his teammates can say the same thing.
INJURY IMPACT: Injuries had a huge impact on the Illini this season. While they still would have had a losing record, the injury to QB Jon Beutjer (back) had the biggest impact. Beutjer, who had transferred from Iowa, has petitioned the NCAA to grant him an extra year of eligibility due to a previous injury (concussion) that he had suffered while at Iowa. If he is allowed to play next season, he should be the starting quarterback. If not, Chris Pazan likely will have the inside track on the starting job.
The Hoosiers didn't make progress this season from a win-loss point of view, but did play hard, discovered a running attack and might have laid the groundwork for a more successful 2004 season.
While impatient fans might blame Gerry DiNardo for the Hoosiers' 2-10 season, the team played much more effective football than conference tail-ender Illinois. The Hoosiers beat Illinois Nov. 15 and then played a solid game in losing to Purdue 24-16 in the finale.
The Purdue game could have ended up as a one-sided rout, but the Hoosiers played solid defense in the second half. After Kyle Orton threw a 33-yard TD pass to John Standeford with 5:14 gone in the third quarter, the Boilermakers didn't get on the board again until Ben Jones connected on a short field goal late in the fourth quarter.
The defensive effort caught the attention of the offense, especially WR Courtney Roby.
"Our defense played their hearts out, and when opportunities are there, we have to take advantage of them," Roby said. "We didn't do that a lot of times today, but it's something we have to learn from and get better."
If the defense can pick up where it left off and the offense can take a couple of steps up the ladder, DiNardo may have a team that can approach .500 in 2004.
GAME OF THE YEAR: The Hoosiers got their only Big Ten win of the season against Illinois on Nov. 15. Trailing 14-10 late in the fourth quarter, QB Matt LoVecchio led the Hoosiers down the field and scored on a short run in the final minute for a 17-14 victory. The Hoosiers played hard for 60 minutes and took the game away from an Illinois team that was also desperate for a victory.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis — The freshman had a sensational season, running for 938 yards and seven touchdowns. Green-Ellis has plenty of power and can also break the long run when he gets into the secondary.
RAPID REVIEW: The Hoosiers were clearly in over their heads in the Big Ten, recording just one win — against Illinois. They got overwhelmed at home vs. Ohio State and on the road vs. Minnesota and Michigan State. However, they stayed within 14 points of Michigan at the Big House, held Purdue to 24 points and pushed Northwestern to overtime. The Hoosiers played hard and made some progress.
FAST FORWARD: The Hoosiers will not be a power next year, but QB Matt LoVecchio and RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis give head coach Gerry DiNardo a decent offensive base. If the defense can pick it up where it left off against Purdue — just 222 passing yards allowed — the Hoosiers should be better.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Hold the Hall of Fame ballots. He's a good back, he's a young back, and he has a long way to go." — Head coach Gerry DiNardo on RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2004: QB Matt LoVecchio — The former Notre Damer had an up-and-down year with the Hoosiers, but should be improved in 2004. He completed 155-of-291 passes for 1,778 yards with three TDs and nine interceptions. Job No. 1 is improving that TD-interception ratio.
RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis — He's the bright hope for the offense. He ran for 938 yards this season and could show significant improvement if he can continue to apply himself in the offseason and become a stronger player.
INJURY IMPACT: The Hoosiers should be relatively healthy going into the offseason.
As the Hawkeyes prepare for their New Year's Day Outback Bowl against Florida, head coach Kirk Ferentz has to do more than just put together a game plan.
He is also fending off job rumors.
Ferentz is one of the most attractive coaching candidates at the major-college level. Ferentz's name has been associated with the Nebraska opening ... and he been cited as a first-class candidate with both the Falcons' and Giants' openings in the NFL.
Ferentz has gone out of his way to deny that he is pursuing any other job.
"I have been challenged and energized in my first five years at Iowa and I feel like we are building something pretty solid and strong," Ferentz said. "This is where I am now and this is where I plan to be.
"I can say this: I anticipate being contacted. I know that's going to happen. I anticipate saying no. I'm happy where I'm at."
Ferentz would not completely shut the door on him taking another job, but why would he? If a professional team made an offer in the multi-million dollar range, he would have to give it every consideration. That's why he refused to speak in absolutes.
"What do they say, 'Never say never and never say always?' " Ferentz said. "I'm not planning on going anywhere."
But he might be tempted, and if the Hawkeyes can find a way to get past Florida on New Year's Day, whatever offers he may receive will be that much sweeter.
BY THE NUMBERS: 313.67 — Total yards allowed by Iowa per game, which ranks 15th in the nation. It's a solid and physical group that allowed more than 22 points only once this season — against Michigan in a 30-27 victory.
GAME OF THE YEAR: Iowa 30, Michigan 27 — After absorbing their first loss of the season at Michigan State, the Hawkeyes bounced back with a tremendous win over the Wolverines. Trailing by 10 points late in the first half, the Hawkeyes turned things around when QB Nathan Chandler threw a TD pass to Calvin Davis with 17 seconds left in the half. Iowa scored the next 13 points and then held off the Wolverines' comeback bid.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: SS Bob Sanders vs. TE Ben Troupe — The Hawkeyes will have to control Troupe if they want to win this game. He is a tight end who can make the possession catch or go up the seam and make a big play. Sanders (leads Big Ten with six forced fumbles) is a smart, aware player whose best asset is his ability to make the lights-out hit. If Sanders can get Troupe thinking about the hit instead of making a play, that would help the Hawkeyes immensely.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I've read all about them on the internet. They won at LSU and they are one tough team." — Iowa RB Fred Russell, on Outback Bowl opponent Florida.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
BOWL AT A GLANCE: Iowa vs. Florida, Outback Bowl, Tampa, Jan. 1
PLAYERS TO WATCH: RB Fred Russell — The heart and soul of the Hawkeye offense. Nathan Chandler does a nice job at quarterback, but he is not the threat that Brad Banks was a year ago. Chandler can be effective against Florida, but he almost certainly needs Russell to take the pressure off of him with a good day running the football. Russell ran for 1,205 yards this season and his greatest asset is his consistency.
WR Ramon Ochoa — When Mo Brown was slowed by injuries this season, Ochoa stepped in and got the job done. He can run, make the tough catch over the middle and has grown in confidence this season. "He's very resourceful and will do everything you ask him to," said head coach Kirk Ferentz.
PRO POTENTIAL: PK Nate Kaeding — Perhaps the best pro kicking prospect in this year's draft. Kaeding topped off a sensational career by scoring 87 points and connecting on 17-of-18 FG attempts in the regular season.
OT Robert Gallery — Coach Kirk Ferentz knows how to coach offensive linemen, and Gallery is one of the nation's best. He could be the first offensive linemen selected in the 2004 draft.
SS Bob Sanders — While he needs work in coverage to be successful at the pro level, the 5-8, 202-pound Sanders is a big hitter that loves contact.
INJURY IMPACT: Running back Albert Young (leg), center Brian Ferentz (knee) and defensive lineman Jonathan Babineaux (ankle) are expected to miss the bowl game vs. Florida.
Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr knows that his team faces a difficult assignment when it lines up against top-ranked USC on New Year's Day. But for as much respect as he has for the Trojans, he won't be voting them No. 1.
While a few head coaches — including South Carolina's Lou Holtz and Illinois's Ron Turner — have said that they might consider voting for USC as the nation's No. 1 team at the conclusion of the bowl season, Carr is not among them. The coaches' poll has an agreement to automatically select the winner of the BCS title game as the national champion ... although there might be some breaking of ranks this season.
Even if the Trojans beat the Wolverines, Carr said that he would vote for the winner of the Oklahoma-LSU Sugar Bowl as the national champion.
"We as coaches agreed that we would support the winner of the BCS championship game as the national champion, and that's what I intend to do," Carr said. "Regardless of how it ends up. I think as coaches it's certainly not something that we envisioned.
"It's not something I would like to do. I certainly would like to vote for the team that I feel deserves the national championship. But by the same token, we agreed to this system. Until it's changed, I think that's what we should do."
If any Trojans try to make something out of Carr's attitude, it might be a bit of a reach. He has been expansive in his praise of USC and has said that "they are the best team we have seen this year."
Carr, of course, would just as soon make USC a non-issue in the national championship race. The Wolverines were playing their best football at the end of the regular season and believe that they have the diverse attack needed to cause problems for the Trojans.
BY THE NUMBERS: 26 — Yardage total on 11 carries for Chris Perry against Oregon earlier this season, his worst performance — by a long shot — this season. He'll try to do better against another Pac-10 team in the Rose Bowl. Other than that game, Perry topped 100 yards nine times and never had less than 89 in a game.
GAME OF THE YEAR: Michigan 35, Ohio State 21 — After the Wolverines got off to a relatively slow start by losing two of their first six games, they surged during the second half of the season. They finished with a 10-2 record and culminated the regular season with a brilliant win over Ohio State. The Wolverines moved the ball up-and-down the field and took a commanding lead and then held off a gutsy Buckeye charge that was led by QB Craig Krenzel.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: RB Chris Perry vs. USC front seven — Perry ran for 1,589 yards this season, won the Doak Walker Award and was a Heisman Trophy finalist. The USC defense is one of the fastest in the nation. Perry has responded to almost every challenge this season, but the Trojans' ability to punish and run sideline to sideline may cause the most difficult moments he has seen this season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "People might say it's pressure. We want that pressure. We want that challenge." — Michigan QB John Navarre on the matchup with top-ranked USC in the Rose Bowl.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
BOWL AT A GLANCE: Michigan vs. USC, Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Jan. 1
PLAYERS TO WATCH: RB Chris Perry — The Wolverines have a sensational offensive team and Perry is their best player. He ran for 1,589 yards and scored 17 rushing touchdowns, and is a 220-pound stud who can push the pile and get key yards up the middle. However, he runs very well and has moves to make linebackers and defensive backs miss once he gets in space. His favorite move is to fake right and cut left.
WR Braylon Edwards — Because Michigan is so talented, Edwards is somewhat underrated. He caught 75 passes for 1,031 yards and 14 touchdowns this season and excels in the red zone. Edwards needs double coverage or he will tear up opposing defenses.
PRO POTENTIAL: QB John Navarre — He has put great numbers on the board the last two years and that gets him to the next level. His performance this year — 243-of-410 for 3,060 yards with 23 touchdowns — was a real plus for head coach Lloyd Carr. Navarre has also shown improvement in the confidence department and does an excellent job on third downs. Navarre can make all the throws, but he lacks great mobility in the pocket.
RT Tony Pape — Michigan's best offensive lineman the last two years. Pape has great size and range at 6-6 and 305 pounds and is a tremendous run blocker with the athletic skills to become a fine pass blocker at the next level.
OG David Baas — At 6-4 and 299 pounds, Baas has the size, strength and athleticism to advance to the next level. Scouts say he shows some nastiness and flashes quick feet.
CB Jeremy LeSueur — A very fine cover corner who has the prototype size the scouts are looking for at 6-1 and 200 pounds. LeSueur runs a 4.5 40-yard dash and had 10 passes defended and two passes broken up this season. He came back from a torn ACL in 1999 to become one of Lloyd Carr's best defensive players.
RB Chris Perry — Put it all together as a senior, showing toughness and improved speed. His draft stock is rising.
INJURY IMPACT: WR Jason Avant is back at practice after suffering knee and ankle injuries in the regular-season-ending win over Ohio State
The Spartans have looked sharp in pre-Alamo Bowl practices as the team gets prepared to play a Nebraska team that is still without a permanent head coach.
There was some speculation that the Cornhuskers would have a new head coach in place by the time the two teams meet in the Alamodome on Dec. 29, but that is not yet the case. Nebraska interim head coach and defensive coordinator Bo Pelini was thought to be a possible candidate, but it now appears that he has no chance to get the job.
The indecision at the head coaching position for the Cornhusker is not having any effect on the Spartans' preparations. As Nebraska considers possible candidates, Spartan head coach John L. Smith gets his team ready for a top-notch effort.
After a two-week break, Smith saw his players come out with a very sharp effort in their first time back on the practice field. The passes from Jeff Smoker were crisp and receivers were also looking ready to go. Smith had a pleasant surprise when RB Jaren Hayes returned from a foot injury and looked nearly 100 percent.
Smith was especially impressed with the moves that the 5-foot-9, 178-pound Hayes showed — making tacklers miss and avoiding contact.
"He's making people miss, rather than getting hit in the face," Smith told the Detroit Free Press. "That's not very good when you're that small and can't avoid traffic."
BY THE NUMBERS: Plus-14 — The Spartans lead the Big Ten with a plus-14 in turnover margin. They had 14 fumble recoveries and 15 interceptions during the regular season. Amazingly, the Spartans lost just three fumbles all season.
GAME OF THE YEAR: Michigan State 20, Iowa 10 — The Spartans got off to a shockingly good 7-1 start and no win was more impressive than this late-September decision over the Hawkeyes. Michigan State played tremendous defense and QB Jeff Smoker was sharp as he dissected a strong Iowa defense by completing 28-of-44 passes for 218 yards with two TDs and no interceptions.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: QB Jeff Smoker vs. Nebraska FS Josh Bullocks — Smoker threw for 3,239 yards and 21 TDs, while Bullocks is one of the smartest and most aware DBs in the country. Bullocks led the nation with 10 interceptions and nicely reads a quarterback's body language.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The idea is to finish the season on a great note. We want to play our best game and feel proud of what we accomplished." — Michigan State QB Jeff Smoker on the matchup with Nebraska.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
BOWL AT A GLANCE: Michigan State vs. Nebraska, Alamo Bowl, San Antonio, Dec. 29
PLAYERS TO WATCH: QB Jeff Smoker — Just a tremendous story because of his comeback from off-the-field issues that include an admitted substance-abuse problem. Smoker was suspended from the team at the end of the 2002 season and then worked hard in the offseason to prove to John L. Smith that he had rededicated himself to football. He did, had a tremendous year and rejuvenated his career.
WR Agim Shabaj — A speedy wideout who has the ability to make the big play. Shabaj caught 53 passes for 661 yards and five touchdowns during the regular season. Shabaj is not afraid to go over the middle and can accelerate to top speed in a half stride.
PRO POTENTIAL: QB Jeff Smoker — While his problem with substance abuse may turn off some teams, he has many of the measurables scouts look for in a quarterback and is worthy of a draft pick, although one that isn't real high.
DE Greg Taplin — While he in not huge — 6-6 and 257 pounds — Taplin has a very quick first step and excels at getting to the quarterback.
INJURY IMPACT: OT Stefon Wheeler is has recovered well from his neck injury. He is practicing with the Spartans, but head coach John L. Smith is not planning to overload him with work. There is a good chance he will be able to play against Nebraska. ... RB Jaren Hayes has recovered from a sore foot that troubled him throughout much of the season.
Now that Northwestern slipped into the postseason, it is going to have to come up with a sensational game to beat Bowling Green in the GMAC Bowl.
The Wildcats might have to come up with one of their better games of the year just to avoid embarrassment. The Falcons are a talented offensive team led by QB Josh Harris, and the idea of beating a Big Ten team is a great motivation for this solid Mid-American representative.
Northwestern will try to control the clock with its running game since the Wildcats don't have the kind of all-around offense needed to trade points with the Falcons. Jason Wright might give the Wildcats an edge with the running game, but Brett Basanez has not demonstrated the talent or consistency to make things happen in the passing game.
That lack of offensive balance is likely to cause big problems. In order to stay in the game, the Wildcats will have to make big plays with their defense in order to dictate the pace of the game.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: This is where head coach Randy Walker is going to have to come up with some kind of magic. While the Wildcats run well and have a solid offensive line, the passing game has been a major disappointment. Brett Basanez has thrown for 1,848 yards with a painful 4-12 TD-interception ratio. As a result, it's going to be the running of Jason Wright and Noah Herron that gets the job done.
Wright is one of the most underrated players in the country. He can run, catch and block very well. Wright was troubled by a slew of nagging injuries this season, but still scored 19 touchdowns and was the hub of the offense. Herron became an important factor in the second half of the season, as he can move the pile with his strength.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Wildcats were 3-9 a year ago because they were largely pitiful on the defensive side of the ball. They gave up 313 yards a game against the run, but they managed to trim that figure to 170 yards per game this season. LBs Tim McGarigle and Pat Durr are the keys to this improvement. McGarigle led the team with 106 tackles while Durr had 88. However the defense will be at a bit of a loss because head coach Randy Walker suspended senior DB Torri Stuckey for violating unspecified team rules a week before the bowl game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's an internal violation of team rules. I am not going to get into specifics, but suffice it to say that Torri Stuckey will not be playing against Bowling Green." — Head coach Randy Walker on senior DB Torri Stuckey.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Northwestern vs. Bowling Green, Motor City Bowl, Detroit, Dec. 25 — Falcons QB Josh Harris has thrown for 3,427 yards with 24 TDs and just 10 interceptions this season, also running for 762 yards and 12 TDs. Casual college football fans might not know who he is, but the pro scouts do, and he will be looking to make a name for himself in the bowl ... so, Wildcats beware.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: RB Jason Wright — He is clearly the best player on the field for the Wildcats. He has 1,159 yards on the ground and ran for 19 touchdowns this season. More than the numbers, Wright is a fine all-around player who can run, block and catch passes.
LB Pat Durr — The emotional leader of the team and the best player on the defense. Durr has been on a mission this season and has cherished every moment on the field. A year ago, he was injured on the first series of the first game and missed the entire season. He has rarely gotten off the field this year.
DE Loren Howard — While he still has a ways to go, Howard had 6.5 sacks and knows how to get to the quarterback. He has a very quick first step and has some nice moves to get into the pocket.
INJURY IMPACT: The Wildcats should be relatively healthy for the bowl game vs. Bowling Green, although DB Torri Stuckey has been suspended and will not play because of an unspecified violation of team rules.
The Buckeyes have one of the nation's finest defenses — just like last season when they won the national championship — but this year's defense has rarely been tested the way it will be in the Fiesta Bowl.
Kansas State has an explosive offense and went into the postseason off a tremendous upset over previously unbeaten Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game.
Kansas State loves to run the ball with RB Darren Sproles and QB Ell Roberson. The Wildcats ran the ball more than twice as often as they passed it ... and that would appear to play into the Buckeyes' strength. Ohio State allowed just 1.9 yards per rush.
But if Sproles can run through the Oklahoma defense for 235 yards ... he can do the same to the Buckeyes. He leads the nation in total rushing yards, with 1,948 in 14 games.
Meanwhile, Roberson ran for 78 yards per game during the regular season and also threw 24 TD passes. WR James Terry is very fast and very dangerous. He caught 13 TD passes during the regular season.
The Buckeyes have not had a similar type of offense this season.
They have sorely missed RB Maurice Clarett. RBs Lydell Ross and Maurice Hall are both quick backs with better-than-average moves, but neither brings the speed, power or explosiveness that Clarett brought to the table. As a result, Ohio State has struggled with offensive consistency.
QB Craig Krenzel is a solid leader who is as tough and gutsy as they come, but he simply does not have the passing skills to overcome Clarett's absence. In the bowl — as was the case most of the season — the Buckeyes must win the turnover battle and play unbelievable defense to win.
BY THE NUMBERS: 1.9 — The Ohio State defense was sensational, allowing only 1.9 yards per rush this season. Ohio State has an excellent front four that gets penetration on a regular basis and a linebacking crew that tackles extremely well. So, beware, Darren Sproles and Ell Roberson.
GAME OF THE YEAR: Michigan 35, Ohio State 21 — If the Buckeyes had won this game and beaten the Wolverines for a third straight year, they would have won the Big Ten title and possibly been in the national championship game for a second year in a row. Instead, the Buckeyes fell behind early and could not overtake Michigan on the road.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Kansas State RB Darren Sproles vs. LB A.J. Hawk — Sproles is coming off a spectacular 235-yard effort against Oklahoma and ran for 1,948 yards during the regular season. Hawk is the Buckeyes leading tackler with 96 tackles, including four sacks. He is very strong and quick, but Sproles represents a significant challenge.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The most important conclusion, in my mind, is that the university's academic integrity is sound. The [internal faculty investigative] committee found no breaches of institutional integrity, nor evidence to support the allegations." — Ohio State president Karen Holbrook after an investigation determined that there was no academic misconduct by athletes.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
BOWL AT A GLANCE: Ohio State vs. Kansas State, Fiesta Bowl, Tempe, Ariz., Jan. 2.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: PK Mike Nugent — The Buckeyes are going to have to do a lot of things well to beat Kansas State, and that includes take advantage of its FG opportunities. Nugent was super once again for the Buckeyes, connecting on 16-of-19 attempts this season.
WR Michael Jenkins — He is the go-to receiver for Ohio State, catching 50 passes for 738 yards and five touchdowns during the regular season. Jenkins can go down the field to make plays but will also go over the middle and pick up a tough third down.
PRO POTENTIAL: DE Will Smith — He is a big-time pass rusher who has the speed to dominate. While he's not huge at 6-4 and 250 pounds, Smith had 10.5 sacks this season and has one of the quickest first steps in the Big Ten.
FS Will Allen — Great instincts and awareness. Allen had 79 tackles this season and is always around the ball. Allen is a big hitter who can turn a game around when he sticks his head in there.
CB Chris Gamble — Only a junior, but has the skills and raw skills coveted by the NFL, which would likely make him a first-rounder.
WR Michael Jenkins — Needs to get stronger to handle NFL corners, but he's considered a top WR prospect who might be getting more respect from pro scouts than he got in college.
INJURY IMPACT: Ohio State looks to be in decent shape in preparations for Kansas State.
Penn State's season was the worst in Joe Paterno's legendary career.
Not only did the Nittany Lions finish with a painful 3-9 record, they had a slew of off-the-field problems.
The last of those was the arrest of WR Maurice Humphrey on an assault charge Nov. 22, the day after Penn State took a 41-10 beating at the hands of Michigan State.
Among the other off-the-field problems the Nittany Lions had was the DUI arrest of WR Tony Johnson and his subsequent suspension for two games. Backup OL Tom McHugh was dismissed from the team earlier this year after allegedly slapping a woman.
There were several other incidents that tended to take the focus away from winning games on Saturdays.
"When things don't go well, they don't go well," junior quarterback Zack Mills told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
"We had our share of discipline problems even last year. When you're winning, good vibes are going around, confidence is up. When the ball rolls downhill, there's that snowball effect. Plus, there's a lot of guys who are young. They don't know what to do and when not to do things."
At least the season is over. The worst season of Penn State football is now in the history books. Paterno can gear up to try to make another stab at glory in 2004.
GAME OF THE YEAR: The high point of the season — from a competitive point of view — was not the 52-7 win over Indiana, the Lions' lone Big Ten win of the season. Instead, it was their 21-20 loss to Ohio State on Nov. 1. After holding the Ohio State offense in check, the Nittany Lions had a chance to win on the final play when strong-legged PK David Kimball attempted a 60-yard field goal. Kimball's attempt was just short and a bit wide ... and the Nittany Lions had another painful loss.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: LB Gino Capone — The senior was one of the better tacklers in the Big Ten. He had 100 tackles for the season and was one of the few Nittany Lions who appeared hungry to play football for the full season.
RAPID REVIEW: It was one painful loss after another for the Nittany Lions. They went winless on the road for the first time since the 1936 season and didn't pick up a Big Ten win until they beat Indiana in the next-to-last game of the season.
FAST FORWARD: Joe Paterno has said he will come back for his 39th season. There is a lot of pressure on him to retire, but Paterno is intent on coming back. Paterno may decide to go with athletic Michael Robinson at quarterback next year because he is so difficult to defend. RB Austin Scott rushed for 436 yards before being slowed by mononucleosis. He has quickness and surprising strength.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm glad this game is over. Nothing ever quite worked the way we had hoped it would work." — Penn State coach Joe Paterno after the Nittany Lions lost to Michigan State in the season finale.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2004: QB Michael Robinson — He is one of the best athletes in the Big Ten. He can pass, run and catch passes. Head coach Joe Paterno has used him in a "slash" type role but he could become the starting quarterback next season.
CB Alan Zemaitis — The sophomore turned in a fantastic effort this season with 18 passes defensed and four interceptions. He also had 71 tackles.
INJURY IMPACT: The Nittany Lions were troubled by off-the-field issues throughout the season. Head coach Joe Paterno hopes Penn State can clean up its act and avoid these problems next year.
If the Boilermakers are going to slow down the Georgia attack in the Capital One Bowl, they will need a first-rate performance by the defense. One of the keys to that unit is LB Niko Koutouvides' return to full health.
The Boilermakers' top linebacker injured his knee in the regular-season finale against Indiana and has not started practicing yet, but Koutouvides expects to start taking part in drills when the Boilermakers get to Orlando.
According to coach Joe Tiller, the Boilermakers are just trying play it conservatively. Why risk a pulled muscle or further injury by practicing in cold and dank West Lafayette, when conditions will be so much more favorable in Florida.
"If we're going to err, we're going to side on being too conservative," Tiller told the Indianapolis Star. "We know we're going to be at the (bowl) site longer than in previous years and we're going to practice and play on grass."
Meanwhile, the Georgia offense might remind Tiller a bit of the Purdue attack.
Which is to say, it is solid in a lot of areas.
Georgia QB David Greene is an accomplished leader with a nice arm, while the Bulldogs also have a solid running game. Freshman RB Michael Cooper ran for 672 yards and does a good job of keeping the chains moving. Greene know how to buy time with his feet while his receivers break open. He threw for 2,980 yards and is capable of going on a major hot streak.
BY THE NUMBERS: 16.0 — The Boilermakers are one of the most consistent teams in the nation on defense. They gave up 16.0 ppg during the regular season, second-best in the Big Ten behind Michigan at 15.9 ppg.
GAME OF THE YEAR: Purdue 27, Iowa 14 — While the Boilermakers would have had a shot at the Big Ten title if they could have beaten Michigan or Ohio State, they demonstrated their consistency and their all-around strength in their win over Iowa. The Boilermakers jumped to a 27-0 lead as Kyle Orton picked apart the Hawkeye defense and Jerod Void gained 120 yards on the ground.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Georgia QB David Greene vs. FS Stuart Schweigert — Greene has a solid arm and has been one of the big keys to Georgia's success the past two seasons. He likes to lull the defense to sleep and then try to go over the top. Schweigert is Purdue's all-time leading interceptor and had four this season for 64 yards.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I certainly wouldn't commit to doing that today. But if I'm not coaching at Purdue, I won't be coaching anywhere else. I think this is it for me." — Head coach Joe Tiller, on whether he would complete his contract, which takes him through the 2010 season.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
BOWL AT A GLANCE: Purdue vs. Georgia, Capital One Bowl, Orlando, Jan. 1
PLAYERS TO WATCH: QB Kyle Orton — Head coach Joe Tiller has shown faith in Orton all season and he had a very solid year. Orton completed 231-of-380 passes for 2,655 yards with a 14-6 TD-interception ratio. Orton manages a game very well and has the arm strength needed to go deep.
RB Jerod Void — When Joey Harris was unable to qualify academically before the start of the season, Void got the call. He fulfilled the role of the No. 1 running back by 889 yards and 13 touchdowns. While he's not spectacular, Void was effective at running to the outside and also making key yards between the tackles.
WR John Standeford — He is a big, strong wide receiver capable of making big plays over the middle and also downfield. He caught 70 passes for 1,048 yards and four touchdowns during the regular season.
PRO POTENTIAL: FS Stuart Schweigert — He figures to be one of the top free safety candidates available in the draft, and his size (6-3, 217) will be an asset.
DE Shaun Phillips — Probably the best all-around defensive lineman in the Big Ten. He led the league in both sacks (13.5) and tackles for loss (21.5). Phillips has speed and tremendous leverage at the point of attack.
INJURY IMPACT: LB Niko Koutouvides injured his knee in the regular-season finale vs. Indiana, but he should be able to play vs. Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. ... Reserve tight end Jeff Bennett, a valuable blocker, has returned after missing the final three games with a dislocated hand. ... Wide receiver John Standeford returned to practice after being hobbled by a foot injury late in the season. ... Center Nick Hardwick also is practicing after being bothered by a neck injury in the final two regular-season games.
Dwayne Smith and Booker Stanley give Wisconsin a competent running attack, but what Wisconsin really wants to see is a healthy Anthony Davis darting all over the field.
Entering 2003, Davis was coming off a season in which he ran for 1,555 yards, 13 TDs and averaged 5.2 yards a carry. In a conference loaded with standout backs — Michigan's Chris Perry, Minnesota's Marion Barber, Iowa's Fred Russell — a strong case could be made that Davis was the most dangerous of them all.
But Davis was troubled by a nasty ankle sprain for much of the year and was quite limited for two-thirds of the season, able to carry the ball just 99 times. While he gained 605 yards and scored seven times — he averaged 6.1 yards a carry — he just didn't have enough game action to give the Wisconsin attack the consistency it needed.
But with Music City Bowl on the horizon — Dec. 31 vs. Auburn — Davis is feeling better than he has in months.
He is participating in practice and starting to cut the way he did during the early part of the season. However, missing so much action means that Davis is not as sharp as he'd like to be. Coach Barry Alvarez can tell that the Davis he is seeing in practice is not the same back he saw a year ago.
"I think he is a little rusty and I'd think he would tell you that," Alvarez said. "Just missing a cut here or there, maybe making a cut too soon. I see him getting better every day but I think he'd tell you he is a little rusty."
But with another week of preparation, there is every chance that Davis will be sharper by the time the Badgers take on the Tigers in Nashville. If he can continue to climb the ladder, look for the Wisconsin offense to be significantly stronger than it was at the end of the season.
BY THE NUMBERS: 251 — The Badgers are a strong offensive team who can keep the chains moving. They finished third in the Big Ten with 251 first downs and get it done on the ground or through the air.
GAME OF THE YEAR: Wisconsin 17, Ohio State 10 — The Buckeyes tied the score in the fourth quarter, and appeared to have all the momentum. However, backup QB Matt Schabert threw a picture-perfect 79-yard pass to Lee Evans with 5:20 remaining to give the Badgers a touchdown and a win.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: RB Anthony Davis vs. Auburn LB Karlos Dansby — While Davis has been slowed by injuries all year, he is an explosive back with speed and surprising power. Dansby is a super-athletic linebacker who can make big plays. Dansby leads the Tigers with 11 tackles for losses, including four sacks.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I never saw him looking rattled or nervous. I saw him looking upset when we didn't make plays, but that's something we can build off of." — Wisconsin QB coach Jeff Horton on QB John Stocco, who may emerge as the No. 2 quarterback behind Jim Sorgi. Stocco is battling Matt Schabert for the position.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
BOWL AT A GLANCE: Wisconsin vs. Auburn, Music City Bowl, Nashville, Dec. 31
PLAYERS TO WATCH: QB Jim Sorgi — While he has a tendency to get hurt, Sorgi can make all the throws. Sorgi has the arm strength to go downfield and also has the touch to drop it in over a linebacker. Sorgi has completed 127-of-226 passes for 2,082 yards with a 16-8 TD-interception ratio.
RB Anthony Davis — Troubled much of the season by a sprained ankle, Davis should be healthy against Auburn. He ran for just 605 yards this year, but his 6.1 yards per carry average shows what he can do.
LB Alex Lewis — He has a non-stop motor and can do everything his coaches ask. Lewis can cover, go sideline-to-sideline to make tackles and can also rush the quarterback. He finished with 79 tackles and eight sacks this season.
PRO POTENTIAL: WR Lee Evans — He came all the way back from a serious knee injury that kept him out of action throughout the 2002 season. Evans caught 60 passes for 1,162 yards and 12 touchdowns in the regular season and is a powerful runner after the catch. The knee injury might have cost him a first-round grade, but he's sure to get lots of workouts to show he deserves a high pick.
INJURY IMPACT: QB Jim Sorgi had to come out of the season finale after taking a head shot vs. Iowa. RB Anthony Davis has struggled with an ankle injury all season. Both players should be strong physically by the time the Badgers take on Auburn. However, they may not be as sharp as could be because of the missed playing time this season. ... DE Darius Jones, who injured his knee in the Iowa game, will not play in the bowl game.
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