The September All-Conference Team MVP puts on a Show
One month into the Big Ten football season means the beginning of conference play, and it is a perfect time to look back and honor those players heading towards All-Conference awards at the end of the season.
Non-conference play has been littered with cupcake and glazed donut games, but the Big Ten has escaped unscathed for the most part—outside the state of Indiana, anyway. Purdue scuffled to 1-4 and Indiana has started 2-2.
The series against the Pac-12 went poorly as well, but it's time to forget about that and jump into the meaningful games in Big Ten play. Although some athletes have played up to expectations, others have been a huge surprise in the first month of play.
As a result, the September All-Conference Team features some of the same players from the pre-season prognostications mixed in with many new stars. The next two months will likely make most of the country forget about the achievements of September, but a great season must be built off a good start.
Each of the following players has done just that.
Here is your Big Ten All-Conference Team for September.
Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois
Illinois has already surpassed the two wins from the 2012 season and the largest reason for this resurgence is senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.
Although Scheelhaase showed signs of brilliance at times over the past three seasons, having new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit take over the offense has been the best thing possible for the Fighting Illini.
Scheelhaase leads the conference with 1162 passing yards for a 290.5 per-game average. Add to that a ratio of 12 touchdowns to just three interceptions, and the Illini quarterback leads the conference in pass efficiency rankings as well.
With the exception of Kenny Guiton (who only played three games but still threw 13 touchdowns), nobody has been more efficient or a better leader for a team that needs it. The reports of Tim Beckman's demise at Champaign are largely overrated thanks to the September play of this quarterback.
If Scheelhaase keeps up this pace in Big Ten play, the Illini should be bowl-bound.
That would be a great season, even if he doesn't hold off the likes of Taylor Martinez or Braxton Miller for end-of-season honors.
Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
Remember Montee Ball? Wisconsin fans are quickly forgetting, as Gordon has been nothing short of sensational in leading the Badger rushing attack in September. Until Saturday night against Ohio State, nobody had come close to containing Gordon and his burst for 8-to-10 yards per carry.
Even with the struggles against the Buckeyes, Gordon finishes the month atop the conference with 698 yards on just 68 carries, a shocking 10.3 average. Gordon's seven touchdowns trails only Jordan Hall of OSU and Zach Zwinak of PSU (eight touchdowns each) for the conference lead.
His explosiveness is simply unmatched. As long as Wisconsin continues to open holes for Gordon, he will roll to the rushing lead and All-Conference honors at the end of the season.
Mark Weisman, Iowa
Although the AIRBHG running back curse may be over in Iowa City, the remnants of those dark years has become the leader of a stacked running back corps in Mark Weisman. Weisman was a fullback who took over the job last season and excelled, and he has not disappointed so far in 2013.
The only question with Weisman is whether he will be able to keep up this pace, after running for 615 yards on an impressive 119 carries. Weisman has ground down the defenses of Minnesota and Iowa State in the biggest two wins for the Hawkeyes so far, and that pushes Iowa to as many wins in September (four) as all of last season.
Look for Iowa to keep on riding Weisman as long as it keeps working. The schedule does get much tougher, but this team is a couple plays away from 5-0. The confidence is back in Iowa City, and the Hawkeyes may just be Legends Division title contenders thanks largely to Weisman.
Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
Just call him Jared Abracadabra or Mr. Incredible. Joel Stave may not have many other players to throw to on a consistent basis, but he does not need anybody else with Abbrederis breaking openings against even the best Big Ten corners (Bradley Roby on Saturday night, for example).
Abbrederis raced to the conference lead in receiving yards after going for more than 200 yards against OSU, and he has 572 receiving yards and four touchdowns on the season to date.
Wisconsin may have two close losses in September, but there is no indication this offense will slow down thanks to the 1-2 punch of Melvin Gordon running and Abbrederis busting open big pass plays.
Even with double teams, Abbrederis is a nightmare to contain. It will be a joy to watch this senior play out his final two months against Big Ten competition.
Allen Robinson, Penn State
The best freshman and receiver in the conference from 2012 has not dropped off in production as a sophomore. Just like Abbrederis making Joel Stave look much better than he would otherwise, Robinson is a great asset to help Bill O'Brien get freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg up to speed.
Robinson has 448 receiving yards and three touchdowns in his four games in 2013, which puts him on pace to be well over 1000 yards for the second straight season. Although he appears to have some competition for the conference lead with Abbrederis, Robinson has breakaway instincts after catching the ball that are unmatched in the Big Ten.
Those breakaways turn short pass plays into big first downs and conversions. Even with Penn State dropping a game to a tough UCF squad, Robinson will see some spotlight time in big games against Michigan and Ohio State next month.
Devin Smith, Ohio State
The Buckeyes have experienced a resurgence in the passing game for multiple reasons, including the split time between Kenny Guiton (a good passer) and Braxton Miller (who is improving in that field).
The young wide receivers that were not trusted to do anything in 2011 have emerged into real receiving threats for defenses to worry about.
The best of those receivers is junior Devin Smith, who has made numerous highlight-reel plays each season in Columbus. Smith has five touchdowns this season and the best of those was a 90-yard touchdown reception to start the scoring at California a few weeks ago.
Look for Smith to continue to rack up the touchdowns as teams struggle with the conundrum of staying home against Braxton Miller while staying in good coverage. A tough riddle to solve.
Look at that helmet at your own risk
Ted Bolser, Indiana
Although Kyle Carter and C.J. Fiedorowicz looked to be the stars at this position heading into the season, and Devin Funchess keeps being targeted often by Devin Gardner, the one standout for September was Ted Bolser of Indiana.
Who, you might ask, is Ted Bolser? He serves as a great safety valve for the Indiana passing offense and Nate Sudfeld. Although Bolser only has 14 receptions on the season, four of those have gone for touchdowns.
On a team with plenty of offensive talent, Bolser is becoming the next star. This is exactly the type of accomplishment that should be expected from a senior like this tight end.
Taylor Lewan, Michigan
Lewan came into the season as one of the top prospects for the NFL draft, and he had done little to dissuade teams from drafting him next April. However, he is a lone man anchoring a very young and inexperienced Michigan offensive line.
That line has made it nearly impossible to run up the middle and continuously puts pressure on Devin Gardner to rush his throws. However, Lewan has kept this line from becoming a full-on dumpster fire and he may train his teammates to be good by the end of the season. If so, Michigan can still achieve the goals of a division and a Big Ten title.
Ryan Groy, Wisconsin
Another future professional football player prowls the line in Madison as Ryan Groy has been dominant in September. A large reason for James White and Melvin Gordon having so much success is the offensive line and Groy is the best on this talented offensive front.
Look for more busted plays along the left side of the line and through the boundaries thanks to the solid play provided by this lineman. He may not be quite as naturally talented as Lewan, but his offensive line may make him look better by the end of the year.
Corey Linsley, Ohio State
Just like the 2012 season, Linsley has missed some time with injury and has struggled to stay in the line-up. However, one only has to look at the difference in offensive production and efficiency with Corey under center to understand the importance of his play on the line.
Put simply, the Buckeyes are a much better team running the ball with Linsley in the game. The offense appears to avoid timing penalties with the best center in the conference in place. If he becomes injured again this season, keep an eye on OSU's offense.
Andrew Norwell, Ohio State
The man who anchored the OSU line during Linsley's absence was Norwell, and he has lived up to expectations so far this season. The Buckeyes are blowing opposing defenses off the line of scrimmage, which allows everybody in the offensive backfield to gain five yards per rush on many occasions.
Look for additional development from the experienced OSU offensive line throughout the 2013 season. Once the Michigan and Big Ten Championship games arrive, this could easily be one of the best lines in the country thanks to Norwell and Linsley, assuming both stay healthy.
Brandon Scherff, Iowa
It is actually difficult to pick out a standout player on the Iowa offensive line, but this may be the most improved unit in the entire conference. Thus, the only great player (Scherff) from a season ago makes the list as a leader of this offensive line in Iowa City.
Like all of the others on this list, Scherff is headed for a big payday playing football on Sundays. Not bad for a kid from Dennison, Iowa.
The Hawkeyes have provided new quarterback Jake Rudock with plenty of time to make good reads and pass efficiently, while Mark Weisman is powering through openings in the line. Scherff may not be the only Iowa lineman to make the All-Conference list at end of season if positive results keep up during Big Ten play.
Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota
The most imposing freak of an athlete in the Big Ten may be Hageman, who towers over many offenive linemen and uses that leverage to break through lines. Although Hageman has struggled a bit with being double-teamed and stunted out of plays, the fact that offenses must plan for him is reason enough to put him on the list.
Hageman also lives up to the hype statistically, having 5.5 tackles-for-loss already on the season. Look for his numbers to continue being near the top of the defensive stats throughout the year.
Tyler Scott, Northwestern
Although the Wildcats have not been anywhere near as dominant on defense as the fans and coaches hoped heading into 2013, Tyler Scott has held up his end of the bargain on the defensive line.
Scott has become one of the most disruptive forces in the Big Ten, which bodes well for Northwestern trying to slow down other high-octane offensive attacks in the next two months.
Scott leads the conference with three sacks and he has also added four tackles-for-loss so far. But the big plays are not the only contribution, as Scott gives the consistent and reliable effort that Wildcats coaches are craving on this side of the ball.
Noah Spence, Ohio State
Of the super sophomores taking over the defensive front for the Buckeyes, Noah Spence has stood out in September as the best of the new faces. Spence has 2.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles-for-loss, showing his big play capability and breakout speed after getting around offensive linemen.
Even though Spence did not get to Joel Stave much in the biggest game of the season to date, Spence was pushing the line back on his edge and forcing running plays to be modified mid-route.
In addition, Stave could not feel comfortable rolling the pocket in the direction of Spence because this pushback was so noticeable. This could be the next great lineman of the Big Ten.
Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
Calhoun grabbed a starting spot at the beginning of the month and immediately garnered some national accolades, winning national defensive player of the week in Week 2. Calhoun won the award after having two fumble recoveries for touchdowns to go with an interception return for touchdown.
Although there may be some bigger stars on the Michigan State defense than young Calhoun, none have had as good a start with big defensive plays in the month of September.
That puts Calhoun among an elite group with the remainder of players listed above. As good as Michigan State has been on defense, at least one player has to make All-Conference.
Hugs are the best!
Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
Hard to believe the only returning starter in the Buckeye front seven could live up to his amazing statistics in 2012, but Ryan Shazier is doing just that thus far in 2013. Shazier continues to make big plays and be active all over the field, regardless of whether opposing offenses are running or passing the ball.
Shazier leads the conference far-and-away in September with seven tackles-for-loss.
Although his 37 tackles are not on pace for another 150 tackle season, the impact he is having on games is clear with all the other defensive talent still learning how to fly around the field. Look for Shazier to continue to lead this defense to bigger and better results.
Jonathan Brown, Illinois
Illinois has relied heavily on two linebackers, Jonathan Brown and Mason Monheim.
Although Monheim is growing into a star as a sophomore, Brown is flexing his muscle as a senior to lead the Illini defense. Just like the man before him on this list, Brown is proving he can lead a young defense to better play and much better results for the team compared to the 2-10 season last year.
Brown leads the conference with 47 tackles, despite playing just four games while others teams have played five. Brown has also added 1.5 sacks on blitz plays that have kept some bad offenses out of synch in non-conference play.
Though the competition steps up in a big way for conference play, look for Brown to continue being a conference leader in defensive categories.
Chris Borland, Wisconsin
Although Ryan Shazier gets the headlines thanks to being on a national-title contender, Chris Borland proved why he is the best linebacker in the conference on Saturday night.
Borland was credited with 16 tackles in the biggest game of the season for the Badgers, but it felt like he shared most of those (meaning he was in on the stop for about 30 plays).
Borland has totaled 46 tackles and should remain among the league leaders throughout the 2013 season. Wisconsin has adjusted well to the different style of defense Gary Andersen wants to run, and Borland thankfully has not missed a beat despite the scheme change.
Collin Ellis, Northwestern
Just like Shilique Calhoun on the last slide, Collis Ellis won the national defensive player of the week award during the month of September. Ellis capped off a great fall practice and won his starting linebacker job by returning two interceptions for touchdowns in the opener against Cal.
The two pick-sixes made the difference in a 44-30 victory.
Northwestern may not be the strongest defensive unit, but young talents like Ellis are filling the gaps necessary to make the Wildcats a serious title contender. The real test comes with the month change to October, as Ohio State comes to Evanston for the biggest NU home game in quite some time.
B.J. Lowery, Iowa
Lowery made some major headlines for the Hawkeyes in the middle of September, showing his skills with a ridiculous one-handed interception against Iowa State. Then he outdid himself the following week against Western Michigan, returning two interceptions for touchdowns.
Then the Hawkeyes followed that up by completely shutting down Minnesota on the road in a critical rivalry and division game. As long as Lowery continues to make big plays, Iowa will stay right in the thick of the Big Ten championship chase.
Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska
The leader in the month of September for interceptions is Jean-Baptiste with four, including one return for touchdown. He was certainly expected to be among the conference elite in the backfield this season, and the results to date have not disappointed.
Of course, the total defensive lapse against UCLA and the struggles against the likes of Wyoming and South Dakota State make the defense look like it is moving backwards instead of progressing. Even "SJB" could use a bit more consistency in his play at times. It will take leaders like him to move this defense through the tough times and back to a respected unit in the Big Ten.
Blake Countess, Michigan
Considering the competition faced thus far by the Wolverines, one would expect that Countess having three interceptions should be expected against inferior competitions. However, the defensive line has not provided much pass rush and that has left Countess and his defensive backfield out to dry for very long plays.
His interceptions have come at critical times, perhaps saving the game against Akron, for example. Countess has added 20 tackles as well.
Big-time players make plays when they are absolutely necessary, so Countess has distinguished himself on a defense that is struggling in the month of September.
Bradley Roby, Ohio State
Roby missed the opening game against Buffalo, and it could easily be seen that Ohio State is pretty mediocre against the pass without their best player in the backfield.
Since he has returned, the Buckeyes have been better. There's still room to grow though, considering how many yards California and Wisconsin put up passing against the Buckeyes.
Roby has defended or broken up eight passes and added two interceptions in the four games played. That puts him among the leaders in both of those categories in the Big Ten, living up to the expectations coming into 2013.
Especially with his teammate senior Christian Bryant being lost for the season with a broken ankle against Wisconsin, the impetus will be on Roby to pick up this unit in the run to a title.
Sam Ficken, Penn State
For a field goal kicker, the key is keeping mental composure and avoiding big mistakes that lose your team's momentum. Sam Ficken melted down against Virginia last year and caused Penn State to be hesitant to use the kicking game throughout the remainder of 2012. But he's bounced back in a big way in 2013.
Ficken has hit 7/8 field goal attempts to lead the conference in field goal percentage (for those kickers with at least seven kicks in September) and also has not missed any of his 16 extra-point attempts. That is contributing in a big way while allowing Penn State to rely on the kicking game once again.
Ficken's positive impact cannot be understated.
Cody Webster, Purdue
While it may seem hard to believe that there is anything going right for Purdue in 2013, Cody Webster ironically has been a beast in the punting game. The senior has booted 27 punts, which leads the conference, but he also leads in punting average yards per punt with a 45.3 average.
Keeping that high average is hard to do when he has to punt so much!
The good news is that Webster is helping the Boilermakers by flipping the field position whenever he can. But merely flipping field position is not enough if the offense and defense do not begin to play better.
The bad news is that Webster is a senior and will not be around to continue rebuilding this program under Darrell Hazell.
Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa
Not only has KMM put together one of the most memorable weeks in recent history by returning two punts for touchdown against Western Michigan, he has become the most feared returner in the Big Ten.
Those two touchdowns have helped him elevate his punt return average to 25.8 yards per return, a number that nobody else can even come close to so far this season.
He also came within a few yards of breaking a return record held by school legend Nile Kinnick, who you may know as the guy who UI named the stadium after.
Pretty good company to keep in Iowa City. If he can add even one or two more of those touchdowns during Big Ten play, Iowa could steal a game or two that nobody expected Kirk Ferentz's team to win heading into the 2013 season.
Akeem Hunt, Purdue
With so many teams kicking into the endzone now on kickoffs and the touchback coming all the way out to the 25 yard line, nobody with a kick return average of less than 25.0 yards should be considered great in this part of the game anymore.
The instincts to know when to attempt a return are hard to find, but Akeem Hunt has those instincts for the Boilermakers.
As a result, the junior returner leads the league with 352 yards and a touchdown on 12 kick returns, which is a 29.3 average. This kick return yardage also makes Hunt the all-purpose yardage leader in September for the conference, netting 743 yards overall thanks to nearly 200 yards of rushing and receiving while on offense.
Purdue has some of the best special teams in the conference and that good unit will be wasted if the poor results continue.
Thanks for reading! Please comment on any players you think deserve All-Conference honors through the month of September below. I can also be found on Twitter (@DA_Fitzgerald for sports only and article links, @BuckeyeFitzy for personal and game-day commentary purposes).
See you later this week with more analysis and stories, including live game grades for the big showdown of Ohio State vs. Northwestern next Saturday.