Big Ten

Big Ten preview: Will defense key Harbaugh's turnaround job at Michigan?

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Big Ten preview: Will defense key Harbaugh's turnaround job at Michigan?

As Michigan's season spiraled out of control last year, there was rightful focus on an offense that was struggling to do much of anything. Brady Hoke lost his job, and Jim Harbaugh — the offensive guru that he is — is now running the show in Ann Arbor.

But as poor as that offense was, it took focus away from what was actually one of the best defenses in the Big Ten. It was one of the best defenses in the country.

Don't believe that a five-win team could boast one of America's best defenses? Michigan ranked seventh in the FBS in total defense, allowing opponents to amass just 311.3 total yards of offense per game. That was better than Michigan State, better than Alabama, better than national champion Ohio State. Only Penn State and Wisconsin had better numbers among Big Ten teams. No team that made one of the New Year's Six bowl games ranked higher in that stat category than Michigan.

If there's something that provides hope that Harbaugh's first year is going to be much different than Hoke's last, that's it.

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Will Jim Harbaugh buzz equal wins for Michigan in 2015?]

But while the defense would like to keep those 2014 numbers the same, the influx of energy from the new coaching staff is breeding some excitement, too.

"Enthusiasm, just like coach Harbaugh. It's crazy, everyone around us from the D-coordinator to the D-line coach, just enthusiasm all over the place," defensive end Chris Wormley said last week during the team's media day. "It's what we need, I think it's what we all wanted all along is just someone that puts a fire under us and gets us going."

Though the most productive member of last year's defense is now gone — the Green Bay Packers made Jake Ryan a fourth-round draft pick in the spring — the Wolverines' linebacking unit is still in good hands. Joe Bolden wasn't far off Ryan's team-leading 112 tackles, making 102 stops of his own. And though he made more headlines for planting a stake in the turf at Michigan State, he figures to give Michigan a second straight season of a dominant linebacker.

The secondary will demand some attention, too, with Jabrill Peppers getting to play a full season and Jarrod Wilson and Jourdan Lewis back after combining for 89 tackles a season ago.

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Can Michigan's Jabrill Peppers dominate three phases?]

“Our defense, we’ve got a lot of guys who do what they do and do it well, with an attitude and to the best of their ability,” Peppers said. “When you've got a group of guys who are hungry, aggressive and intense, things definitely look on the up and up.

“We have a surplus amount of potential, I don’t even know where to begin. It’s competition at every position. We have a great secondary that is complemented very well by a great linebacking crew and a great D-line. We need the big guys up front to get that push, get that pressure to make our job a lot easier. We make their job a lot easier, as well.”

Harbaugh's new defensive coordinator is a good one, too. D.J. Durkin comes over from Florida, where in two seasons as defensive coordinator there, the Gators were eighth and 15th in the country in total defense, despite their underwhelming win totals. 

While offense still remains a mystery with position battles at the quarterback and running back positions, if the defense can do what it did last season, that will go a long way toward getting Michigan back to the postseason in Harbaugh's first year at the helm.

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

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USA TODAY

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

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USA TODAY

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.