Big Ten Football: One Player Each Coach Fears Most
Whether by consistent good performances or a tough matchup for a team, each coach has a small handful of opposing players that keep him awake at night. These players are the potential kryptonite that can derail a run for a division championship or even an undefeated season.
Many of these players are a tough nut to crack for most conference teams, but for whatever reason, there's always a team or two that really gets torched by the best players more than other teams.
These are the players who each Big Ten coach will already be scheming against this spring, as that will be the only way to be ready for the games this autumn. Let's take a look at the most scary player for each of the conference bosses.
Gary Andersen: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
For new Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen, there are probably a lot of players who will make life difficult during his first campaign at the helm. However, no player stands out as quite the devastating force that Ryan Shazier was against UW last year.
Shazier flew all over the field, affecting many more plays than his 12 tackles would indicate.
However, the key play of the entire game and perhaps Ohio State's season came when Wisconsin went for a touchdown when down seven in the fourth quarter. Montee Ball exploded into a dive over the offensive line and was met at the point of attack by a diving Shazier.
Result: Ohio State ball, turnover on downs. Wisconsin would tie the game later but would still lose as a result of Shazier's big plays. He will continue to be tough as the lone Buckeye in the defensive front seven returning this season.
Tim Beckman: Stephen Houston, Indiana
Stephen Houston enters his senior season without much fanfare, as the running back for Indiana frequently gets overlooked even in a higher-octane Kevin Wilson offense.
However, Houston had some big bright moments in his junior season. The top of these was producing three touchdowns in a game against Illinois that was one of the few games the Illini competed closely in during the 2-10 season last year.
Houston produced even more yards than the 87 total yards from 2012 a year earlier in Bloomington, as Houston tore off 68 rush yards and 70 passing yards on only three receptions.
Make no mistake about it: Houston knows how to bust a big play against the Illini. With Beckman struggling to find a first win in conference play, this is a player he cannot afford to let loose again in 2013.
Mark Dantonio: Everett Golson, Notre Dame
Notre Dame had a magical season in 2012 out of nowhere, but there were many close calls along the way to the BCS Championship Game. However, Michigan State was not one of these close calls as the Irish stomped the Spartans 20-3 in the most lopsided loss for Mark Dantonio in 2012.
The problems revealed in this game for Dantonio's Spartans would continue throughout the season, as a sometimes shaky defense was not helped at all by a mediocre offense.
Golson took full advantage of a strong defense, throwing for 178 yards and a touchdown while rushing for another touchdown. With many of the top players for the Spartan defense gone, one wonders how much better Golson will be this year in South Bend.
If you insist on this being a Big Ten player, I'd pick Andrew Maxwell. Although there are more options behind Maxwell, the biggest fear for Mark Dantonio is probably having wasted an entire year trying to get Maxwell to be a good quarterback only to start over.
Plus Maxwell can wreck more than just one game for MSU this year. Scary!
Kirk Ferentz: Kain Colter, Northwestern
Iowa fans had grown accustomed to having their hearts broken by Northwestern over the past few seasons, especially with the comeback power of quarterbacks like Dan Persa.
Last year the tables were turned, as Northwestern had much more on the line while Iowa was struggling to remain relevant in the Big Ten Legends Division race. In the 2012 version of this rivalry, Iowa fell short in stopping the run, which was a shocking development.
The key player to this dominance was QB Kain Colter, who ran for 166 yards and three touchdowns while hitting on 6-of-9 passes for 80 yards and another touchdown. When combined with the 162 rushing yards from RB Venric Mark, Iowa was simply worn down by the athleticism of the Northwestern backfield.
Colter will be back with Mark for another run in 2013. That's bad news for Kirk Ferentz, who still struggles to knock off the purple power team in the Big Ten.
Pat Fitzgerald: Taylor Martinez, Nebraska
Since Nebraska joined the Big Ten, Northwestern has basically had the number of the other NU. After pulling a gigantic upset in Lincoln in 2011, the Wildcats likely should have won again in Evanston last year before choking a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter.
The catalyst for this choke job was Taylor Martinez, who would not be denied while trying to keep Nebraska close to Michigan for the division title race.
Martinez has put up two of his biggest games passing in his career against Northwestern, including 289 yards and two touchdowns on 76 percent passing in 2011 and 342 passing yards and three touchdowns to go with a rushing touchdown and 65 yards on the ground in 2012. When Taylor Martinez can pass, Nebraska is an unstoppable force.
If Pat Fitzgerald wants to take the next step towards Indianapolis, he will need to find a way to get the Wildcats to stop Martinez and Nebraska, the reigning Legends Division champions.
Darrell Hazell: Kenny Guiton, Ohio State
If there is one team which seems to have Ohio State's number over the past decade, it is Purdue. While this has led to some dramatic escapes like the Holy Buckeye play in 2002, more often the trips to West Lafayette end in a season-crushing loss for the Buckeyes.
Purdue had pushed Ohio State to overtime in Columbus back in 2004 but had never come closer to winning there in multiple decades. Until last year, when Braxton Miller was bottled up all game and then injured and taken to the hospital.
That brought in Kenny Guiton, who turned out to be full of sweet jazz compared to the droll tones and overthrows from the most recent backup Joe Bauserman. Guiton only produced 61 yards the rest of the year, but he generated 71 yards and the game-tying touchdown to force overtime, where the Buckeyes won.
So Purdue needs to avoid knocking Braxton Miller out again. It can only end in more embarrassment as Kenny G rolls over the Boilermakers.
Brady Hoke: Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
Carlos Hyde was dinged up a couple of times during 2012, but he seemed to get stronger as others wore down near the end of the season. With a one-game losing streak to Michigan now on the books, Hyde had his signature performance of his junior season against the Wolverines.
Hyde kept demanding the ball, and he racked up 176 yards rushing and a touchdown to average 5.6 yards per carry. He just became an unstoppable force that kept moving the chains for the Buckeyes in the second half.
The Wolverines were worn down from a grinding Big Ten season, and they will be in the same shape every year they play Carlos Hyde. Thankfully for Hoke, he only has one more year of eligibility left.
Look for Hyde to be the X-factor once again for determining if Ohio State can win again in Ann Arbor just like in the Tressel days.
Jerry Kill: Mark Weisman, Iowa
It is hard to imagine that the Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God would allow a Hawkeye running back to become the nemesis of a Big Ten rival. Nevertheless, Mark Weisman pulled together a successful 2012 when he was forced to start instead of using his skills as a fullback.
His top accomplishments came during a three-game stretch at the end of non-conference play and the beginning of conference play. Iowa looked like a competent competitor for a division title in blowing out Minnesota 31-13 behind the efforts of Weisman.
The fullback had 177 rushing yards on 21 carries, which averages out to a surprising 8.4 yards per carry. Weisman also added three receptions and a touchdown in this game, which helped the Hawkeyes flirt with bowl eligibility late into the season.
If Minnesota wants to be taken seriously in the Legends Division, the Gophers have to handle players like Weisman on largely bad teams like Iowa.
Urban Meyer: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
Taylor Lewan surprised everyone by avoiding a trip into the NFL draft this year. Instead, Lewan will hone his craft more under the experienced offensive line coaches at Michigan, hoping to further improve his first-round draft stock.
After proving his worth against the best defensive lineman in college football Jadeveon Clowney in the bowl game, Lewan should have the upper hand in all line battles this season. That means lesser defensive lines will have trouble getting pressure on Michigan's quarterbacks or slowing the rushing attack.
Ohio State will not be one of the weakest defensive lines in the conference, but four new starters will be stepping into these positions to start 2013. With perhaps a national championship on the line when the Buckeyes head to Ann Arbor, these young replacements may not be ready to push back the likes of a great lineman like Taylor Lewan.
If Lewan wins the battle in the trenches, Michigan can more than stay with the high-powered Buckeye offense. Michigan can actually outscore the Buckeyes and bring the honeymoon of the Urban Renewal to an abrupt end.
Bill O'Brien: Braxton Miller, Ohio State
Braxton Miller has produced two efficient games against Penn State, and he knows how to make the big plays that Terrelle Pryor sometimes missed against the Nittany Lions. The most impressive play was the one-yard touchdown run shown in this video.
When not making half the Penn State defense look silly, Miller was passing for 143 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 134 more yards in 2012. Back in 2011, he had one of the more impressive outings of his freshman campaign, racking up 83 yards passing and 105 yards rushing and another two touchdowns.
With his passing mechanics improving more and more and Penn State becoming more thin in depth, Bill O'Brien cannot be looking forward to the third dose of Miller in 2013.
If Miller improves his numbers once again with the home-field advantage, then Ohio State may have a rare easy win over the Nittany Lions this season.
Bo Pelini: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
Darqueze Dennard started with a quiet game overall against Nebraska in 2011, only producing six tackles from his position in the backfield. Then he busted out with a signature performance in 2012.
Dennard grabbed two interceptions and had 46 return yards on those interceptions against the Cornhuskers. These plays, along with four other tackles and numerous pass break-ups, caused the Nebraska passing offense to sputter like many others against Michigan State.
With most of the defensive stars gone to the NFL, Dennard remains as the last major threat with a lot of experience in the Michigan State defense. While that may make teams throw away from him, Taylor Martinez is just hard-headed enough to try and beat one of the best cover corners in the conference.
If Nebraska continues to allow those major momentum-swinging interceptions, then Michigan State could be looking down at Nebraska again in the standings. There's nothing scarier for the pressure Bo Pelini is currently under.
Kevin Wilson: James White, Wisconsin
James White has been around forever in Madison, and there's one team that he has been able to absolutely dominate despite being a backup for his first three seasons behind the likes of Montee Ball. That team is Indiana.
In 2010, White started his run against the Hoosiers with 144 yards and two touchdowns, a 7.6 yards per carry average. 2011 brought slightly lower numbers with 87 yards and one touchdown. This trend reversed itself in 2012, as White led the team with 161 rushing yards and two more touchdowns with an astounding 11.5 yards per carry average.
White is just the type of elusive yet powerful running back that Indiana's defense cannot seem to bring down. Whether it is fundamental tackling or better run containment, the Hoosiers need to do much better now that White will be a starter.
If that does not happen, then Indiana will suffer yet another embarrassing loss when desiring to reach the next level right behind Ohio State in the conference standings.
Thanks for reading! If you have other players Big Ten coaches should be terrified of, please bring them up in the comments. Please also follow me on Twitter @DA_Fitzgerald