Journey to Big Ten championship game begins early

By Etheria Modacure

The road to the first annual Big Ten Conference Championship game on Dec. 3 hasn’t started yet, but programs have already begun implementing new offensive and defensive schemes and working to sustain cohesion throughout the summer.

Without the sound of roaring fans and a marching band, all 12 Big Ten teams are practicing in the milder weather to get acclimated to the new season in September.

The conference will welcome the University of Nebraska on July 1 as its newest member since Penn State University in 1990. For The Ohio State University, the path to a national championship beckons once again as they try to ignore negative fallout from infractions made by players last fall.

“We always talk about how you can’t win a championship in the spring, but you can lose it if you don’t progress at the level you need to in 15 practices,” said Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel. “You hate to have guys sitting on the sidelines, when they could be practicing football.”

Tressel and the Ohio State Buckeyes will start the season with five players suspended for the first five contests. Each player was handed the suspension before the Sugar Bowl because they sold jerseys, championship rings and shoes, which is a violation of NCAA’s improper benefits infraction. They were forced to pay back some of the money they received.

The tentative date for the return of Terrelle Pryor and his suspended teammates will be on Oct. 1 against Nebraska. The Cornhuskers went 10-4 last season in their final tilt in the Big XII conference. They will be returning 14 starters this year.

Nebraska Coach Bo Pelini said his team isn’t working on any schemes in the spring to prepare for Big Ten opponents because they aren’t oriented around that philosophy this early in the season. He said his players are looking to improve with their fundamentals and techniques during practice.

“We’re doing some work as a staff to prepare ourselves for what we have going in the future,” Pelini said. “We’re always looking to tweak things and change up a little bit on both sides of the football. That process has been working [as we’ve been] going forward.”

While Nebraska makes adjustments to playing in the new two-division Big Ten conference, one player who missed the final two games of the regular season after a record-setting year has begun to rehabilitate from his injury.

Northwestern Wildcats quarterback Dan Persa ruptured his Achilles tendon on Nov. 13, 2010, in a contest against the University of Iowa. It was in the team’s game-winning drive where he injured himself on a touchdown pass. The team went winless without him in its final three games.

Persa said he hasn’t practiced in full-contact drills, but he is doing running drills and expects to return to full-hitting at the end of May. He said doubts about whether he could return haven’t entered his mind, and he plans to revive his playing style throughout the summer to reach his peak performance of last season.

“The biggest thing I didn’t want to do [with rehab] is I didn’t want to rush back into throwing,” Persa said. “I felt like if I rushed back and try to overcompensate my arm with my Achilles, I would mess up my motion.”

Two quarterbacks who surprised the conference last season were Nathan Scheelhaase, of the University of Illinois, and Rob Henry, of Purdue University. Scheelhaase had 22 total touchdowns for the Fighting Illini en route to a Texas Bowl victory. Henry had 12 total touchdowns after being inserted as the starter last October.

Scheelhaase said the team is trying to build upon last season’s success and sustain consistency while playing its second consecutive season under the same offensive schemes. He said the balance of the offense helped in their bowl game and the spring where Coach Ron Zook has changed practices to mornings because of class schedule conflicts.

“As a quarterback, I really feel like I can make strides in the passing game,” Scheelhaase said. “I think that’s what we showed in the bowl game, and it helped going up into the spring. Our passing game has been going a whole lot better. If we make big strides, I think our offense can really do damage this year.”

Henry said this season the Boilermakers are looking to have a winning record, would like to win a bowl game and possibly the conference championship. Henry was a redshirt freshman last season and named Big Ten player of the week on Oct. 16, 2010.

He said he wants to improve in both areas of his offensive game—rushing and passing.

Purdue hasn’t played in a postseason game since 2007 when they won the Motor City Bowl in Detroit against Central Michigan University.

With a lengthy absence from a bowl game, Henry acknowledged the confidence within the locker room to not only have a solid season, but to capture a championship for the Boilermakers.

“We want to definitely get to a bowl game, and we have enough talent to do that,” Henry said. “I know everybody on our team didn’t sign [a letter of intent] hoping to just go to a bowl game. We want to do something special, and we’re working hard toward that goal.”