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CHICAGO -- When the ACC's coordinator of officials, Doug Rhoads, suggested that South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney's resounding hit on Michigan tailback Vincent Smith might have led to Clowney being ejected from the game under the new "targeting'' rules, it sent shockwaves through college football.
Some washed ashore here Wednesday at the Big Ten Media Days.
"I was shocked by that (Rhoads' interpretation),'' said Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland. "If that warrants an ejection maybe they should put flags in the running back's belt and we'll pull them out instead of playing tackle football. That was a perfect tackle.''
Others felt the same way, including Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner, who handed the ball to Smith on the play in question. "It was a good football play,'' he said of Clowney's memorable tackle in the Outback Bowl. "I don't think he could have been ejected at all.
"They're trying to make football kind of a soft game if that's the case.''
Offering the running back's perspective, UW senior James White joined the chorus. "I thought it was a clean hit,'' he said. "It looked like a pretty good form tackle to me. But they're trying to look out for player safety. You just hope they're consistent with it.''
That was also Gardner's take on how games might be officiated. "I was watching a roundtable with (South Carolina's) Steve Spurrier,'' he noted. "He was saying it would be hard to implement it if not everyone was calling it the same way. I just hope it's fair.''
The objective is to penalize those players who launch (or leave their feet) to deliver a hit above the shoulders, especially when they use the crown of their helmet to strike an opponent. Purdue defensive tackle Bruce Gaston didn't see Clowney's hit in that light.
"From a defensive point of view, it was a good hit,'' Gaston said. "It was a hard hit, it was a hit that every D-lineman, I can safely say, would love to get. As far as the rules, I can't comment because at the end of the day I don't have anything to do with them.
"I always think there's the need for greater safety. But the sport we play is football. It's a very physical sport and everyone knows that once they put the pads on in the Big Ten.''
Obviously, the intent is to protect defenseless players. Such as Smith? "He's getting the ball so he may be defenseless,'' Gardner said. "But the goal for the defense is to get the ball (Smith fumbled on the play). He (Clowney) did what he had to do to get the football.''
Although ejections would be reviewable by the replay official in the press box, the new guidelines on targeting -- or high hits -- has stirred much discussion and debate, particularly because it's so subjective in nature, maybe too much so.
"It puts a huge amount of pressure on the officials and there's such a very fine line to be drawn,'' said Wisconsin Director of Athletics Barry Alvarez. "I understand the intent of the rule. But, boy, you can't take the aggressiveness out of the game.
"You're trying to eliminate someone going for the head, the kill shots. But an ejection for just a clean hit, a hard hit, I would really question that. You have to send a message some way. I just don't know if this is the right way. But it's sure going to send a strong message.''
Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini, a defensive architect, voiced his concerns Wednesday. "The scary thing for me is the application part of it,'' he said. "I don't think it's an easy thing to call. In my opinion, it's going a little bit overboard right now.
"I understand where it's coming from,'' he continued. "It's about the safety of the players and we're all for that. We just have to make sure that we're not messing with the integrity of the game or the sport and how it's supposed to be played.''
Borland echoed that sentiment. "You can't change the game too much,'' he said. Yet, he recognized the need for change given the severity of the penalty. "Ejection is a strong word. You can't afford that, especially if you're a starter and key player.''
Does a defensive player have to condition himself to tackle differently? "I don't think you can afford to do that,'' Borland said. "A fundamentally sound tackle isn't going to warrant an ejection, so you have to focus on being fundamentally sound.''
Borland is well aware of the increased sensitivity to head injuries, concussions.
"Our athletic training staff does a great job with it,'' he said. "We appreciate them taking care of the players and caring about safety. Obviously it's an issue (nationally) with some of the things that have been going on with former NFL players (i.e. lawsuits).
"That said, it's a risk that you take on when you play football. It's up to you to be responsible if you sustain a concussion to take yourself out of the game or let someone know. The issues arise when guys try to tough it out.
"You can't play around with your brain.''
You can't play tentative or hold back on defense, either. "You've heard all of your life as an athlete, if you're trying not to get hurt, you're likely to get hurt,'' Borland said. "You have to play hard. And if you play sound, you should avoid most injuries.''
Sporting a shiner, the result of a broken nose that he sustained during a 7-0n-7 passing drill Monday night on campus, UW wide receiver Jared Abbrederis pointed out, "You want to make sure you keep the players safe. But it is football and we signed up.''
Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen doesn't want to get anyone hurt nor does he want to "take a game away from a kid if we don't have to.'' He cited the need to educate players on big hit opportunities and called the targeting rules a work in progress.
"It absolutely puts more emphasis on judgment by officials,'' he said. "That's the hard part for me as a coach. Those decisions are going to be made in a bang-bang emotional time. And you just have to hope that they are made right.''
Ben Brust was shown a map of the Road America track at Elkhart Lake and prodded to pinpoint his location during last Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series race, the Johnsonville Sausage 200.
Using a pen to identify where he was standing on the winding 14-turn, 4-mile circuit that winds through scenic Kettle Moraine, he jabbed at the map and said, "I'm near a hamburger stand right here."
X marked the spot -- or in this case -- the spotter, who just happened to be the leading scorer on last season's Wisconsin basketball team. That would be Brust, a passionate NASCAR devotee.
Brust was spotting for Brendan Gaughan, a 37-year-old driver for Richard Childress Racing and a former walk-on basketball player at Georgetown University.
"Boom, right there," said Brust, pointing to the Road America map, "I had him (Gaughan) coming out of (turn) 6, the slight right at 7 and then I had a really good view of 8 from my angle."
If necessary, he could also partially follow the No. 26 car (Gaughan's car) through turns 9 and 10, otherwise known as the "Carousel" -- a lengthy tight-turning stretch that curves into a straightaway.
Whereas one full-time spotter is standard for oval racing, multiple spotters are necessary on a road course to see everything. Brust, a volunteer, was one of Gaughan's three spotters at Elkhart Lake.
Armed with a two-way radio, he might alert Gaughan to a driver that had spun out ahead of him by merely saying, "Spin in front, spin in front. Check up, check up. All clear, no pressure."
Short is sweet for Brust who has had some experience as a race fan monitoring scanners. "It's got to be precise and to the point," he said, "to make sure he (Gaughan) knows what's going on."
Less can be more. As such, there were some situations where Brust had to use his best judgment on what to say or not say. "Brendan trusted me," he said. "He knew I'd be able to handle it."
Brust and Gaughan were brought together by fate, resolve and racing.
A couple of years ago, ESPN basketball analyst Steven Bardo alerted Brust to Gaughan.
"He (Bardo) said, 'Hey, I heard you're into NASCAR, if you get a chance, you should check out Brendan,'" Brust recounted. "He put the name into my head and I went on Twitter and looked him up."
Brust learned that Gaughan, a Las Vegas native, was a 5-foot-9 walk-on guard at Georgetown; a practice player that wound up befriending Allen Iverson and seeing action in 25 career games.
Gaughan was also a placekicker on the Hoyas' football team, which competes within the NCAA's Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). In 1994, he converted on 39 of 40 extra points.
As a driver, Gaughan has steadily evolved from off-road to NASCAR. There had been some Twitter dialogue between Brust and Gaughan before meeting at the Chicagoland Speedway last year.
"I got a chance to talk with him," Brust said, "and hang out with him a little bit."
Following the UW's elimination from the NCAA tournament, Brust and two of his teammates, Jared Berggren and Dan Fahey, headed to Las Vegas, where Brust again crossed paths with Gaughan.
The Gaughan family has strong Vegas roots and resources, including the South Point Hotel and Casino, a sponsor for Brendan Gaughan, a veteran of the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series.
When Brust was at Road America last year, he was talking with one of Elliott Sadler's spotters, who suggested that if he had the time next year that he might look into spotting for a driver.
"It was kind of joking, kind of serious," Brust said. "But it gave me the idea."
Brust ran it past Gaughan during spring break in Las Vegas.
"When it came up," Brust related, "he said, 'Do you want to do it?' I said, 'Of course.' As it got closer (to the Elkhart Lake event), he texted, 'Still want to do it?' And I replied, 'Yeah, of course.'"
Gaughan made it happen. "Spotting isn't athletic," Gaughan told The Sporting News, "but you have to use your brain, you have to make decisions on the fly, which he (Brust) is used to (doing)."
Brust admitted to having some pre-race anxiety, not unlike the feeling prior to an opening tipoff.
"I was a little nervous," he said. "A nervous excitement, because I knew that I could do it. It's the same type of thing (in basketball); I'm there to help the team be successful.
"So I wanted to do my job and do it right."
As part of his pre-race preparation, Brust viewed a YouTube video featuring a road course driver, Ron Fellows, whose on-board camera taped laps 13-34 during a Road America event.
"I used it to memorize the track -- it's braking points and what are good passing zones -- just to give me some familiarity," said Brust, who had previously watched the race as a spectator from turn 5.
"That's where a lot of the action was, but I didn't know the whole track."
Brust arrived over an hour before the race to get his spotting directions from Team Gaughan and stake out his territory. He estimated that there were nearly 30 spotters in the same area.
"Everybody minds their own business and does their job," said Brust, who was originally scheduled to work out of the "Canada Corner" before a change in assignments.
Late in the race, when Gaughan encountered some difficulty in that corner, Brust fielded some disparaging tweets on Twitter from fans who mistakenly thought that he was responsible.
It was nothing that he couldn't handle; after all, he has played in Big Ten road venues.
Although none of the Childress cars were exceptional last Saturday -- Gaughan finished 11th -- Brust sounded like he was truly in his element. "I would do it again in a heartbeat," he said.
But that will have to wait.
"Right now, I have to focus on what's ahead," said Brust, whose eyes are fixed on his senior year at Wisconsin and the summer training phase in Madison. "I'm here to lift, get stronger and get better.
"Getting better in every category possible is one of my goals every year. We have a lot of young guys (six freshmen) so it's my job to set a good example for them and help them get better each day."
The thought of another Big Ten season, his final one, had his heart racing, as you might expect.
Jeff Lewis will be asked to make the transition from the offensive backfield to the defensive backfield when the Badgers convene for fall camp in August.
Gary Andersen played a hunch during his first year as Utah State's head coach, and it paid dividends for the Aggies and Curtis Marsh, a running back that Andersen converted into a cornerback.
Prior to Andersen's arrival, Marsh started three games in each of his first two seasons at Utah State and finished as the team's third leading rusher in 2007 and 2008.
Overall, Marsh had 124 carries for 487 yards. He also had 28 catches. Upon taking over the program, Andersen was looking to plug some holes and shifted Marsh to the secondary in 2009.
"It was maybe my idea,'' Andersen said, "but it was his athleticism and his God-given ability and his want-to that made him able to turn himself into a very good corner in two short years.''
Marsh was a quick study. As a senior, he was Utah State's sixth-leading tackler and earned second-team All-WAC recognition. In the 2011 draft, he was taken in the third round by Philadelphia.
During his first two seasons in the National Football League, the 6-foot-1, 197-pound Marsh has appeared in 22 games, mostly on special teams for the Eagles. He owes it all to a position change.
During a Wednesday radio interview, Andersen said, "It has worked for me in the past -- very well sometimes and sometimes it doesn't work so well moving a running back over there (defense).''
In 2007, Andersen was the defensive coordinator at Utah and got considerable mileage out of cornerback Sean Smith, a converted wide receiver. He was Miami's second-round pick in the 2009 draft.
Citing such personnel moves in general, Andersen said, "You have to be creative sometimes. Every team in the country has holes, they have issues, they have scenarios they go through.''
The Badgers, for example, are seeking to replace three starting defensive backs: Marcus Cromartie, Devin Smith and Shelton Johnson. Safety Dez Southward is the lone returning starter.
During spring practice, Reggie Mitchell, a converted cornerback, got most of the reps opposite Southward. But Mitchell, a redshirt freshman from Pittsburgh, Pa., has since opted to transfer.
Additionally, a potential safety candidate, junior college transfer Donnell Vercher (Fresno City College), will not be attending Wisconsin, prompting Andresen to get "creative'' with his depth chart.
"I have great respect for Reggie and I have great respect for Donnell,'' Andersen said. "We'll move on, we'll still turn on the lights and we'll still jump out there the first day of fall camp. There are a couple of pieces to the puzzle. Dez is the foundation of that safety group and he will continue to be and we will continue to build some young men there (around Southward).''
The first order of business was moving tailback Jeff Lewis to safety. Lewis is a 6-2, 212-pound redshirt junior from Brookfield Central. Last season, he had four rushes for 13 yards while serving as an understudy to Montee Ball and James White. In 2011, he had 33 carries for 187 yards and one score.
"We're going to experiment with that (move) and see how that goes through the summer for him (Lewis) as he prepares himself to play some safety,'' said Andersen, who obviously won't be able to fully evaluate the switch until fall camp. "He's excited and we'll just see how it goes.
"It doesn't always work,'' he reiterated, "but Jeff was unbelievably receptive. He's a tough young man. I don't know how many times he got tackled in the spring. But it was a lot. He played the last practice with a broken thumb and he just kept on banging because he knew the team needed him.''
Andersen also feels comfortable with some of his other options.
"We'll be OK, we'll be just fine at that spot,'' he said. "We didn't really have a starter at the safety position (opposite Southward). As we went through (spring), Reggie did some good things; some other kids did some good things. Trotter and the gang will handle it well and we'll play well back there.''
Michael Trotter, a redshirt junior from Racine, Wis., started three games at safety last season after Shelton Johnson was injured at Oregon State. Michael Caputo, a redshirt sophomore from Imperial, Pa., also received some playing time. Andersen expects other candidates to emerge at safety and corner.
One could be freshman Keelon Brookins, a mid-term high school graduate. Brookins didn't get on the field during the spring because he was rehabbing from a knee injury. The 5-11, 201-pound Brookins, who's from St. Paul, Minn., blew out his ACL during his senior year at Tartan High School.
Cornerback Sojourn Shelton, who's from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and came early in with Brookins, had a solid spring game. "I expect Sojourn to compete and be on the field in the fall in some areas,'' Andersen said. "As far as how much he's involved in special teams and the defense, time will tell.''
Andersen stressed that Shelton needs "to take a step forward in the summer'' phase of training or what Andersen likes to refer as the Third Quarter. On his calendar, the First Quarter is winter conditioning, the Second Quarter is spring ball and the Fourth Quarter is the season.
"I really believe that you win games in the third quarter -- it's the time that team comes together,'' said Andersen, noting the importance of developing leaders from "being together in those situations when the coaches aren't around and they have to coach each other for running practices.''
The Badgers are in the midst of their summer camp season. On Saturday, they will play host to their youth camp-- kindergarten through eighth grade -- at Camp Randall Stadium. The one-day only session will run from 10:30 a.m. through 4 p.m. Parents are welcome to attend.
Registration must be completed online at UWCamps.com.
Wisconsin softball coach Yvette Healy can measure how far her program has grown by merely taking an inventory on the number of players the Badgers have put on All-Big Ten teams.
In 2010, her first season, Healy had three on the third team: Letty Olivarez, Jennifer Krueger and Shannel Blackshear. It was the most since the UW had four players on the third team in 2005.
In 2011, Karla Powell became only the third player in school history - the first since 2002 - to be named first-team All-Big Ten. Mary Massei was on the second team and Krueger the third team.
This season, the Badgers had three players recognized on the first team: Massei, Cassandra Darrah and Whitney Massey. Kendall Grimm and Meghan McIntosh were honored on the second team.
"It's huge," Healy said of the progress that has been made in this area. "You want, of course, to get national attention and have All-Americans in the program. But this is the stepping stone.
"You've got to be able to do it within the conference first. When we took over a few years ago, we talked about how many first-team all-conference players there were in the history of the program.
"They had two."
The next step is the most challenging - garnering All-American recognition.
"What you do down the stretch will have a lot to do with it," said Healy, a two-time All-American at DePaul during her playing days. "I think we have players who will at least get a look.
"When you get to this win-or-go-home postseason-type of play, you have to be able to perform against the best teams when it counts the most. The most important games are the games to come."
The best marketing tool is performance, especially on the bigger stages, like this weekend's Big Ten tournament in Lincoln, Neb. The Badgers earned a first-round bye and open play on Friday.
If nothing else, they won't need a GPS to find Bowlin Stadium.
Wisconsin has played three games there in each of the last two seasons.
In 2012, the Badgers upset Nebraska, 3-1, in the series opener; snapping a 16-game home winning streak for the Huskers. Darrah allowed just six hits.
In mid-April, Darrah again limited Nebraska to six hits and only two runs and received even more offensive support from her teammates. The Badgers won 5-2 on the strength of a four-run sixth inning.
The fact that Wisconsin has won at least one game on each of its last two trips to Lincoln is something that Healy is hoping to build on and it starts with the pitching, Darrah and McIntosh.
"We're thrilled Cassandra got first-team all-conference,' Healy said. "But she still has a long ways to go to become the player that she has the ability to be.
"To have nine wins in the conference is a big deal and to win at Nebraska last year and this year just shows that she's had some really clutch Big Ten wins for us."
Can there be any application of muscle memory for Darrah? "We hope," Healy said. "There are not many pitchers who can say they know what it's like to win at Nebraska."
McIntosh struggled against Michigan State but Healy is counting on her resiliency.
"We do expect her to bounce back," she said. "She's got a bunch of big wins, especially in conference. To throw a no-hitter against Minnesota at their place shows what kind of pitcher she is."
Having thrown a no-hitter earlier in the season, McIntosh joined Andrea Kirchberg as the only pitchers in program history with two no-hitters to their credit. Darrah also had a no-hitter this spring.
Healy believes Massey, a converted infielder-outfielder, deserves some of the credit not only for making a seamless transition this season to catcher, but in managing the pitchers.
"When you catch three no-hitters in one season, you're doing something right behind the plate," Healy said. "She gets a lot of calls for the pitchers by doing a great job of framing (pitches).
"She also brings a real calming nature to the pitchers. She kind of sets the tempo and keeps them under control and that has given them more confidence in throwing to her."
The lack of postseason experience is obviously a concern for Healy. "A lot of the Big Ten teams have players who have played in the NCAA tournament and won," she said.
That the Badgers drew a record crowd (2,007) to Goodman Diamond for last Sunday's doubleheader split against Michigan State was a "great warm-up" for the Big Ten tournament, she said.
"We didn't play as well as we would have liked, we didn't deliver," Healy admitted. "But at least we got experience playing in that atmosphere under our belt and we're hoping to improve on it."
Healy isn't sure what it will take to make the NCAA tournament. "We've done everything we can to put ourselves in a great position," she said. "The last RPI came out and we were still 26.
"I like where we're at."
Especially since Lincoln has become such a home away from home.
You didn't have to be drinking Kool-Aid from the Little Brown Jug to realize that geographical realignment was a most reasonable option for the Big Ten. And this was not about passing the Illibuck on competitive balance, even if a couple of trophy games will be taking a hit.
Competitive balance can be so fleeting.
Five short years ago, Michigan's storied football program was cycling south of the southern-most campus in the conference -- making for no stranger bedfellows than the Wolverines and Indiana Hoosiers -- while Iowa was cycling in the opposite direction.
|New Big Ten Divisional Alignment|
In 2008, Michigan finished with a 3-9 overall record, matching Indiana at the bottom of the Big Ten. At 2-6, the Wolverines were one game better than the Hoosiers in league games. In 2009, they both won just once in the conference with Michigan going 5-7 in all games. Indiana was 4-8.
Contrast and compare ...
In 2008, Iowa was one of three schools that won nine of 13 games, joining Michigan State and Northwestern. The Hawkeyes were 5-3 in the Big Ten; a springboard for 2009 when the Hawks ended up with 11 wins (as many overall as both Ohio State and Penn State) and played in the Orange Bowl.
Iowa was the seventh-best team in college football.
Michigan was the 10th-best team in the Big Ten.
That was four short years ago.
Granted, there has been a noteworthy reawakening in Ann Arbor under Ohio-bred (Dayton) head coach Brady Hoke, who has erased the taste of Rich Rodriguez's tenure and made the Wolverines dangerous again with back-to-back records of 11-2 and 8-5 (6-2 each year in the Big Ten).
By contrast, the Hawkeyes have been in need of realignment -- front wheel -- after running over potholes the last three seasons (19-19 overall). In 2012, Iowa may have bottomed out at 4-8 and 2-6 in the Big Ten; at least a beleaguered Kirk Ferentz is hoping that he has seen the worst.
Based on his track record, there's every reason to believe that Ferentz will get the Hawks back on track sooner than later -- assuming, of course, that the can keep a few running backs healthy during the grind of a long Big Ten season, which will get longer in 2016 with nine league games.
Over the last five seasons, Iowa is 39-25 (21-19) and Michigan is 34-29 (18-22).
During that same span, Northwestern is 40-25 (21-19) and Michigan State is 44-22 (27-13).
In Jim Delany's New World Order, the Hawkeyes and the Wildcats are in the Big Ten West and the Wolverines and the Spartans are in the Big Ten East. So maybe Iowa doesn't look like Michigan right now anymore than Northwestern looks like Michigan State, right? It's not as one-sided as you think.
The 'Cats are coming off a 10-3 season (and returning most of their best players) whereas Sparty is trying to bounce back from a 7-6 season (after winning 32 games over the previous three years). At the moment, there is not a significant competitive gap between these two programs.
Now consider the sum of the moving parts: Why can't the "Big 4'' in the West (Wisconsin, Nebraska, Northwestern, Iowa) compete against the "Big 4'' in the East (Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State), particularly with the uncertainty of the Nittany Lions' scholarship reductions?
Obviously, it's not a wash today unless you're talking about the current wild cards in the West (Minnesota, Purdue, Illinois) versus those in the East (Indiana, Maryland, Rutgers). Still, everything is subject to change on a year-to-year basis, including competitive balance in 2014.
So with the exception of a couple of trophy games that will no longer be staged annually -- the Little Brown Jug between Michigan and Minnesota and the Illibuck rivalry between Illinois and Ohio State (Rivalry? Who knew?) -- the Big Ten's geographical realignment can stand on its own merit.