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Wrapping up the Big Ten regular season

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten entered the fall with a reputation to repair after some damaging BCS bowl performances the last two seasons.

Despite several bright spots and surprises, the league continues to search for national respect.

Penn State undoubtedly became the Big Ten's guiding light this fall. After an offseason filled with disciplinary issues and questions about coach Joe Paterno's ability to maintain control, the Nittany Lions quieted their critics by going 11-1 and earning their first Rose Bowl berth since 1994. They were a 1-point road loss away from a national title appearance but didn't get their due nationally, most likely because of the Big Ten's sagging reputation.

Paterno won Big Ten Coach of the Year honors, but Michigan State's Mark Dantonio and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald got the most out of their teams, both of which went 9-3. Iowa overcame its crunch-time blues to finish 8-4, and Ohio State still managed to win another Big Ten co-championship despite a shaky September.

Still, the Buckeyes' 32-point loss against USC on Sept. 13 stained the Big Ten for much of the fall. Michigan didn't help matters by having the worst season in team history in head coach Rich Rodriguez's first go-round in Ann Arbor. Illinois went from Rose Bowl to no bowl, Wisconsin fell far short of expectations and Purdue coach Joe Tiller's final season gave him his worst record (4-8) in West Lafayette.

Yet it wasn't all bad. The Big Ten boasted the nation's best crop of running backs, led by Iowa's Shonn Greene and Michigan State's Javon Ringer. Minnesota made a 6-win improvement and several Big Ten defenders emerged for national awards.

The league's image still could use a boost, and a strong bowl season would go a long way toward restoring the Big Ten's place among the elite.

Offensive MVP -- Iowa running back Shonn Greene

Greene's amazing comeback story can't be told enough. A year ago, the Hawkeyes junior was working in a furniture warehouse, totally out of football after academic shortcomings. He returned to the field and eclipsed 100 rushing yards in all 12 games, finishing second nationally in rushing average (144.1 ypg) and setting Iowa's single-season rushing record (1,729 yards).

Defensive MVP -- Penn State defensive end Aaron Maybin

Maybin wasn't even supposed to be a starter, but injuries, suspensions and dismissals on Penn State's defensive line thrust him into the spotlight. The sophomore didn't flinch and recorded a league-leading 12 sacks (all solo) and 19 tackles for loss. The Big Ten's next superstar pass-rusher improved as a run stopper and recorded sacks in nine of 12 games. Iowa defensive tackle Mitch King also deserves a mention here.

Newcomer of the Year -- Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor

It's rare when a heralded recruit actually lives up to his overwhelming hype, but Pryor performed as advertised after becoming Ohio State's starter in Week 4. His smooth and seemingly effortless running ability complemented passing skills that improved during the season. Pryor became the starter after the USC debacle and led Ohio State to an 8-1 record and another BCS bowl appearance.

Coach of the Year -- Michigan State's Mark Dantonio

This is extremely close between Dantonio and Pat Fitzgerald, but Michigan State's ability to finish third in the league with so-so talent affirms what many have felt about Dantonio's coaching ability. The Spartans overcame their struggles in close games, snapped their losing streak to archrival Michigan and avoided the prolonged losing streaks that have doomed them in the past. Paterno deserves a mention here, but his assistants took on the lion's share of the work. Minnesota's Tim Brewster also did an excellent job.

Biggest surprise -- Minnesota

After a 1-11 season marred by the worst defense in team history, the Gophers had to get better. But few foresaw a 7-1 start built on opportunistic defense (league-high 30 takeaways) and disciplined offense. Tim Brewster effectively blended a group of junior college transfers and elicited improvement from holdovers like Adam Weber, Willie VanDeSteeg and Marcus Sherels. Northwestern also deserves some recognition after recording its highest victories total since Fitzgerald was a senior linebacker in 1996.

Biggest disappointment -- Illinois

Sustaining success has been a problem in Champaign before, but no one could have imagined Illinois going from the Rose Bowl to no bowl. The Illini were a preseason top 20 team with an improved quarterback (Juice Williams) and loads of talent at the skill positions. Illinois didn't have many major injuries but could never find consistency, winning consecutive games only once and making inexcusable errors at the wrong time. A Wisconsin team with BCS bowl aspirations also falls under this category after a 7-5 season. Michigan also shouldn't be absolved after sinking to new lows this fall.

Game of the Year -- Iowa 24, Penn State 23, Nov. 8

This one had drama, Big Ten weather, elation and heartbreak. Iowa was seen as Penn State's toughest remaining hurdle to the national title game, and the Nittany Lions couldn't hold onto a nine-point, fourth-quarter lead. After limiting damage for three quarters, Iowa rallied behind quarterback Ricky Stanzi in the fourth. It all led to the game-winning field goal by Daniel Murray, a walk-on from Iowa City who hadn't attempted a kick since Sept. 20. Other notable games include Penn State-Ohio State, Northwestern-Minnesota and Wisconsin-Michigan.