I normally save my Big Ten awards endorsements for after the regular season, but one race has already been decided.
Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan should be the 2010 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
End of discussion.
Kerrigan leads the nation in tackles for loss (23.5) and ranks second in both sacks (11.5) and forced fumbles (5). With two forced fumbles last week against Michigan, Kerrigan increased his career total to 14, breaking the Big Ten mark of 13 shared by Simeon Rice and Bob Sanders and tying the FBS record shared by Terrell Suggs (Arizona State, 2000-02), Antwan Peek (Cincinnati, 2000-02) and Kenechi Udeze (Southern California, 2001-03).
The 6-4, 263-pound senior is soaring up the draft boards after recording at least one sack in eight games and at least two tackles for loss in seven contests this season.
"I've been around a lot of All-American players, and he's playing his position at a higher level than just about any player I've ever been around," Purdue coach Danny Hope said. "His numbers speak for themselves. If we're talking about performance in 2010, Ryan Kerrigan's the best defensive player in the Big Ten."
So why bring this up now? Won't the Big Ten awards recognize the best players?
Not always. Forgive me for lacking faith in the Big Ten media or the coaches to get this one right.
Let's look back to last year and the case of Brandon Graham.
The Michigan defensive end was the single most dominant player in the Big Ten. He led the nation in tackles for loss (26) and ranked 14th in sacks average (10.5, .88 per game). Graham had nine games with multiple tackles for loss and recorded two forced fumbles, two blocked kicks, a fumble recovery and a blocked punt return for a touchdown.
"For a guy as strong as he is and as fast as he is, he was virtually unblockable," Kerrigan told me this week. "You could really take a lot from his game and apply that to yours. I've really tried to do that. He's probably the best defensive end I've seen since I've been in college."
Despite Graham's incredible production, he wasn't named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, an award instead shared by Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones and Penn State defensive tackle Jared Odrick. Graham shared the Silver Football but was largely overlooked for postseason awards. Odrick also was named the league's Defensive Lineman of the Year by the coaches.
Why did Graham get snubbed? Simple. He played for a lousy defense on a losing team. It had nothing to do with his individual accomplishments.
That brings us back to Kerrigan. Purdue needs to win its last two games to reach a bowl, a tall order. And Purdue's defense ranks a middling 57th nationally in yards allowed and 70th in points allowed.
Kerrigan faces an uphill battle to be recognized because of Purdue's struggles. He was inexplicably left off of the lists of finalists for both the Rotary Lombardi Award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy.
"Even though we don't have a winning record," Hope said, "we've had a chance to win some games against some of the best teams in the country, and a lot of it has to do with Ryan Kerrigan’s performance on defense, to keep our football team alive.
"That speaks volumes, more so than being a good player on a great team when a lot of things are going well.”
Kerrigan clearly has gained respect around the Big Ten. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, whose team faces Purdue this week, called Kerrigan "one of the premier players in the country, not just the conference."
Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt, Kerrigan's primary competitor for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, acknowledged Kerrigan on Twitter after last Saturday's games: "@RyanKerrigan94 jeeez man, you wanna save some sacks for the rest of us? Lol. congrats on the big game."
Kerrigan saw the tweet and holds the Wisconsin star in extremely high regard, saying Watt is "certainly deserving of any recognition he gets for the award as well." Although Kerrigan is about as selfless as they come about individual recognition, the possibility of being named the Big Ten's top defender isn't lost on him.
"That would be a great honor," he said. "With all the great players we have in this league, to be mentioned like that would certainly mean a lot to me."
I don't vote for the Big Ten postseason awards, but I implore the media members and the coaches to do the right thing this time.
Put No. 94 at the top of your ballots.