Big Ten bright spots appear in bumpy 2012

Raise your hand if you’re positively sick and tired of hearing all of the negativity about the Big Ten? I’m not saying the criticism isn’t deserved, because it is, and in the end it’s the football teams that can do the most about it. The Big Ten is 6-9 combined against schools from Automatic Qualifying conferences and Notre Dame, and Northwestern provided three of those wins.

I never envisioned the Wildcats doing the heavy lifting for the Big Ten through one month of the 2012 season, but there you go.

I’ve watched some of every Big Ten game so far this season, and I’ve written plenty about the shortcomings to date. But believe or not, there have been some bright spots in the season so far. Let’s be thorough and touch on the disappointments as we enter the Big Ten Conference games this weekend, but then let’s look at some good news, too.

The league has just one win over a ranked team, that coming when Michigan State beating No. 24 Boise State 17-13 on the first weekend of the season. Seems like ancient history, doesn’t it? The ugly losses? Take your pick. There was Central Michigan shocking Iowa, Ball State dumping Indiana, Ohio clipping Penn State,  and Louisiana Tech crushing Illinois.

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Those are just the ugly defeats against schools from non-AQ leagues. Some games against AQ conference schools were equally as galling. Drubbings by Alabama (Michigan) and Arizona State (Illinois) remain fresh, as do missteps against UCLA (Nebraska), Iowa State (Iowa), Oregon State (Wisconsin) and Virginia (Penn State). Oh, and don’t forget that Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan combined to go 0-3 against a resurgent Notre Dame program.

And I’m not even gonna get into the near-miss defeats against the likes of Utah State, Northern Illinois, Air Force, Indiana State and UNLV. The fact is that no Big Ten team ranks higher in the Associated Press poll than No. 14 Ohio State, and the Buckeyes can’t go to a bowl game due to NCAA probation.

I’ll stop there. That’s more than enough to fill Jim Delany’s dustpan. And if your team has struggled this season, your disappointment has been growing through the first four weeks.

Still, having sifted through the carnage of the first four weeks, let’s shine a light on some of the positives in the Big Ten. And yes, there really have been some positives amid the rubble pile that has been the Big Ten’s non-conference season.

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C’mon, smile. It’s OK. Here are 12 positively positive aspects of the first four weeks of Big Ten action. And I mean it.

Minnesota. The Golden Gophers are 4-0 and aiming for the school’s first 5-0 start since 2004 when then-coach Glen Mason ended the season with a Music City Bowl win over Alabama. It wasn’t Nick Saban’s Alabama but it was still Alabama. And – surprise – the Gophers are doing it with defense, ranking third in the Big Ten and 21st in the nation (307.5 ypg). Minnesota is also first in the Big Ten in takeaways with 10. The surprise player on this surprise unit? End D.L. Wilhite.

D.L. Wilhite, Minnesota. I have to give him his own slot since he’s been “Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year” good. The senior leads the Big Ten in sacks (1.13 pg) and is third in tackles for a loss (1.38 pg).

Northwestern. Like the Gophers, the Wildcats are 4-0. And like the Gophers, they are doing it with defense. Northwestern is No. 2 in the Big Ten and No. 11 in the nation vs. the run (73.4 ypg). The surprise player on this surprise unit? Linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo.

Mark Weisman, Iowa. Mark who? Exactly. Injuries created an opportunity for the sophomore walk-on who transferred from Air Force. And he has produced like an All-Big Ten player, running 53 times for 338 yards (6.4 ypg) and six touchdowns in just two games. He is also a master of the stiff arm move.

Matt McGloin, Penn State. Remember when some Nittany Lion fans wanted Danny O’Brien to transfer from Maryland over the offseason? You know the story now. O’Brien opted for Wisconsin and already has lost his job. Meanwhile, McGloin leads the Big Ten with 1,006 yards passing and nine touchdowns for a 2-2 Nittany Lion team that is hot. And I get the feeling the best is yet to come from the gritty senior.

Dion Sims, Michigan State. The struggles of the Spartan passing game are well-documented. But don’t blame Sims. The massive junior has 22 catches for 277 yards and two touchdowns. Can you say “John Mackey Award”? No Big Ten tight end has been better. Heck, few, if any, tight ends in the nation have been better.

Taylor Martinez, Nebraska. We heard all offseason about his work with a quarterback tutor. Well, it seems to be paying off. I never envisioned the junior leading the Big Ten in passing efficiency, hitting 70.5 percent of his attempts for 878 yards with nine touchdowns and a pick. But, there is Martinez, looking down on every other signal-caller in the conference.

Penn State passing game. I talked about McGloin. But what about Allen Robinson? The sophomore leads the Big Ten with 29 catches for 404 yards and five scores. And redshirt freshman Kyle Carter looks like the real deal, too, in this tight end friendly offense.

Venric Mark, Northwestern. We all knew there was a gnawing need for big-play ability from the Wildcat running back corps. Well, the diminutive Mark is delivering. The junior leads the Big Ten in all-purpose yards (178.5 ypg). Mark also paces the Big Ten in punt returns (30.6 ypr). There is no more versatile or deadly player in the league.

A.J. Barker, Minnesota. The junior seemingly has come from nowhere to rank second in the Big Ten in receiving yards per game (70.7 ypg), making 14 grabs for 283 yards and four touchdowns. No one was talking about this guy back in August.

Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska. With Rex Burkhead out almost three games, the sophomore more than picked up the slack in running 69 times for 416 yards and five touchdowns. Abdullah could be starting for a lot of teams.

Anthony Hitchens, Iowa. As a first-year starter he is now the Big Ten’s No. 1 tackler (12.8 pg). Oh, that average ranks fourth in America for the junior.

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GRID BITS: The Badgers are riding a five-game winning streak in conference play that dates to 2011. That ties Baylor for the longest active conference victory streak among BCS league schools. … Purdue is 13-of-13 in the red zone, scoring touchdowns 12 times. … Wisconsin’s defense is one of only three in the nation that has yet to yield a run of 20 yards this year. Texas Tech and UConn are the others. … How off is Wisconsin RB Montee Ball? Last year, he ran for 1,923 yards, averaging 6.3 yards per tote and tallied 33 rushing touchdowns. He also nabbed 24 passes for 306 yards and six scores. In 2012, Ball has run 93 times for 360 yards and three touchdowns. His longest run is a mere 22 yards. … Michigan State has 28 players from Ohio on its roster, including seven starters … Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has started eight of his 11 seasons as a head coach with a 4-0 mark. … The Golden Gophers will try to retain the Floyd of Rosedale for a third consecutive season. That hasn’t happened since 1998-2000. But know this: Minnesota hasn’t won at Iowa since 1999. Since then, the Gophers have lost five in a row at Iowa City. … This marks just the 10th time since 1950 that Minnesota has started a season with a 4-0 mark. … Penn State has had a different leading rusher in each of its first four games—Bill Belton, Derek Day, Michael Zordich, Zach Zwinak. Blame injuries. … Penn State’s tight ends already have eclipsed their catch totals from 2011. … The Nittany Lions are 2-2 in their last four trips to Champaign. … Northwestern’s defense remains on the rise, yielding an average of only 11 points since permitting 41 to Syracuse in the season-opener. … The Boilermakers had 23 penalties through three games last year; they have 14 in 2012.

BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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Joe on 9/28/2012 @ 8:42pm EDT Said:

The boilermakers haven’t been a bright spot?? Sure they’re a mediocre 2-1 but both wins were very convincing and the loss to Notre Dame really was not a bad one.

Roni Dorris on 11/29/2012 @ 6:27pm EDT Said:

A triumph next weekend at Iowa and the Huskers will clinch the Legends Division title and face Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. WR Kenny Bell set a career-high with 136 receiving yards and two touchdowns and Taylor Martinez topped 300 yards passing for the third time this year.