My Big Ten individual and team awards for the 2018 regular season

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Sophomore defensive end A.J. Epenesa makes a big stop against Nebraska. Photo by Jeff Yoder

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa – With the regular season now over and the 8-4 Iowa football team waiting to learn its bowl destination, this seems like the right time to give out some awards.

So let’s get right to it.

Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year: Dwayne Haskins, sophomore, quarterback, Ohio State; runner-up: Jonathan Taylor, sophomore, running back, Wisconsin.

This was really a no-brainer, especially after watching Haskins shred Michigan’s vaunted defense for 396 passing yards and six touchdowns on Saturday. Haskins has thrown for a Big Ten record 42 touchdown passes and has 4,081 passing yards heading into Saturday’s Big Ten championship game against Northwestern.

As for Taylor, it is easy to overlook what he accomplishd due to Wisconsin's struggles this season. But he finished the regular season with 1,989 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns while averaging a whopping 7.1 yards per carry.

Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year: Devin Bush Jr., junior, linebacker; Michigan; runner-up: Paddy Fisher, sophomore, linebacker, Northwestern.

This was by far the toughest category to pick, and I’m not that comfortable with my selection because Devin Bush’s statistics hardly scream dominance. But who else is clearly more deserving?

Top Offensive Reserve of the Year: Mekhi Sargent, sophomore, running back Iowa.

Maybe I’m showing my Hawkeye bias, but he surpassed 100 rushing yards in each of Iowa’s last two games, including rushing for a career-high 173 yards against Nebraska on Black Friday. Sargent leads Iowa in rushing with 748 yards and with nine rushing touchdowns on 152 carries, which averages out to an impressive 4.9 yards per carry. He also has 16 receptions for 152 yards and one touchdown, and is easily Iowa’s best blocker amongst the running backs.

He started the last two games, but spent most of the season as Iowa's second and third option at running back.

“It's been fun and enjoyable to watch Mekhi continue to grow,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said after the Nebraska game. “You look at him, he doesn't look anything special, doesn't look that big, this or that, but the guy is a good player.

“I think he is deceptively good, deceptively strong when he runs the ball. On top of that, as good of a young guy we have on our football field.”

Top Defensive Reserve of the Year: A.J. Epenesa, sophomore defensive end, Iowa.

My Hawkeye bias has nothing to do with this pick. It was just like picking Haskins as the offensive player of the year, a no brainer.

Epenesa finished the regular season as Iowa’s leader in tackles for loss with 15.5, and is tied for the lead in sacks with Anthony Nelson at 9.5.

Epenesa's statistics are worthy of first-team All-Big Ten consideration. However, not being a starter might hurt the former five-star recruit and son of former Iowa defensive lineman Eppy Epenesa.

Top Newcomer of the Year: Rondale Moore, true freshman, receiver, Purdue; runner-up: Adrian Martinez, redshirt freshman, quarterback, Nebraska.

This was another easy pick due to Moore’s explosive playmaking and consistency. He has been a game changer since the season opener and finished the regular-season with over 1,000 receiving yards.

Big Ten Coach of the Year: Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern; runner-up: Matt Canada, Maryland.

Another easy pick because nobody has accomplished more with less than Fitzgerald has this season. His team could’ve unraveled after starting 1-3, but stayed the course and almost finished undefeated in conference play.

Northwestern fans are so lucky that Fitzgerald is incredibly loyal as a former Northwestern All-America linebacker because he would have schools lined up to hire him if he ever wanted to leave.

Matt Canada also was considered for how he dealt with a horrible situation at Maryland following the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair from heat stroke in June. McNair collapsed during a team conditional drill and never recovered.

His death led to the dismissal of Maryland’s strength coach, and to the eventual firing of former head coach D.J. Durkin after he had been briefly reinstated.

But despite all of this adversity, Maryland still won five games and nearly upset Ohio State.

Quote of the Year: “I can’t wait to beat Iowa. I really can’t.” Nebraska senior offensive lineman Jerald Foster.

His wait is now over, but only because Foster will have used up his eligibility after finishing 0-4 against Iowa.

Biggest overachiever as a team: Northwestern

It’s easy to forget that the Fighting Fitzgerald’s started the season 1-3, lost their starting running back for the entire season for a health-related matter and were winless in nonconference play, and yet, still finished 8-1 in the Big Ten. Northwestern has won 15 of its last 16 conference games dating back to last season, which is absolutely incredible.

Biggest underachiever as a team: Wisconsin

The Badgers performed woefully while losing to Minnesota on Saturday for the first time since 2003. The loss dropped Wisconsin’s record to 7-5 and it showed that Wisconsin has serious issues at quarterback, even with a healthy Alex Hornibrook.

Wisconsin Athletic Director and former head coach Barry Alvarez will not accept being average, so my advice to Paul Chryst is to fix things in a hurry because Barry is lurking.

Iowa's Most Valuable Player: Parker Hesse, senior, defensive end; runner-up: T.J Hockenson, sophomore, tight end. 

In addition to being arguably the best leader on the team, Hesse also has shown a knack for making big plays at pivotal times. The four-year starter and former two-star recruit leads the Iowa defensive lineman with 52 tackles and has nine tackles for loss and four sacks.

Iowa's most improved player: After showing glimpses of his potential as a redshirt freshman in 2017, tight end T.J. Hockenson became a force this season, finishing the regular season with a team leading 46 catches for 717 yards and six touchdowns. The Chariton native is one of three finalists for the John Mackey Award, which goes to the nation's top collegiate tight end.

Sophomore receiver Brandon Smith also was considered after increasing his number of catches from three in 2017 to 25 this season for 328 yards and two touchdowns.   

Best Play of the Year for Iowa: Nate Stanley’s 10-yard pass to Hockenson late in the fourth quarter on 4th-and-8 against Nebraska this past Friday. It gained a first-down that help to set up Miguel Recinos’ 41-yard game-winning goal.

Worst Play of the Year for Iowa:  Purdue quarterback David Blough kept alive what proved to be the game-winning drive in the fourth quarter by rushing for seven yards on 4th-and-2 from the Iowa 30-yard line.

Nate Stanley's goal-line interception in the fourth quarter at Penn State also was given serious consideration because it also greatly impacted the outcome of that game. But the Blough first-down conversion run happened a week later and there was even less hope of Iowa winning the Big Ten West Division title after the Purdue loss. The fact that Blough ran for the first down makes it seem even worse because he hardly is a running quarterback. Purdue executed the play perfectly and Iowa ultimately paid the price.  

Best media spread: The product on the field, and the game-day atmosphere in Champaign, Ill., both leave much to be desired, but this is one category where Illinois stands above the rest.

The feed wagon for the Iowa game on Nov. 17 started with beef brisket, steak fries, green beans with peppers and a salad, all of which I believe was catered from a local restaurant. It continued with hot dogs at halftime that looked pretty good by hot dog standards, although, I was too full to try one after having stuffed myself with brisket and steak fries. And it concluded with pizza that was also catered from a local establishment. And it was tasty pizza, made exactly how I like it with thin, crispy crust and a little spice. I ate three pieces despite not even being hungry, which I admit, is kind of pathetic.

And if that wasn’t enough for you, there was also a freezer in the press box filled with frozen yogurt, along with what seemed like an endless supply of popcorn, cookies and pop.

I spent most of the game feeling bloated and wishing that I had worn sweat pants or anything with an elastic waist band.