Now that the Big Ten is headed toward bowl season, with 9 teams set to play this month and next, let’s take a look back at the best defenders the league had to offer in 2021.

Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the Defensive MVP for each Big Ten squad:

Illinois: Kerby Joseph

The only thing Kerby Joseph did this season was become the only player in the country who recorded 5 interceptions and 3 recovered fumbles. Not bad. The junior defensive back, a first-team All-Big Ten media selection, accounted for 8 turnovers himself, including a run of at least 1 turnover in 5 straight games. The Fighting Illini were better than almost anyone could have expected this season, and Joseph’s ability to give the offense an extra possession each game was a big reason why.

Indiana: Micah McFadden

Perhaps the only bright spot on what was an otherwise miserable season for the Hoosiers, McFadden was outstanding, recording team-highs in tackles (77), tackles for loss (15.5), sacks (6.5) and forced fumbles (2). But more than the numbers, the senior second-team All-Big Ten member was the heart and soul of the Hoosiers, and any chance they had to pull off a victory — especially as the offense faltered so badly — rested with the ability of No. 47. Sadly, it too often seemed like he was IU’s only chance for a positive outcome, not fair to him but telling of both his abilities and Indiana’s struggles.

Iowa: Riley Moss

A great player’s impact is felt when he’s on the field. It can also be felt when he’s not. That’s exactly the case for Iowa cornerback Riley Moss, who was a game-changer when he was on the field for Iowa this season — he had a team-high 4 interceptions in his 9 starts — and was hard to replace when he wasn’t. Moss, the Big Ten’s Defensive Back of the Year and a first-teamer, missed Weeks 7-9, when the Hawkeyes lost back-to-back games to Purdue and Wisconsin, their only 2 regular-season losses, and then eked out a win over Northwestern.

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Maryland: Sam Okuayinonu

Too often this season, Maryland needed a big defensive play to stay in the game. When the Terrapins got one, it frequently came from versatile defensive lineman Sam Okuayinonu, who tallied 6 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss this season. When Maryland picked up a big early-season victory at Illinois — it was win No. 3 as the Terps started 4-0 — the 280-pound defensive lineman, a third-team All-Big Ten member, had a couple of sacks. As it turns out, the victory might have been the biggest of the season for Maryland, as it squeaked out 6 wins to get back into the postseason.

Michigan: Aidan Hutchinson

As a defensive end, Aidan Hutchinson is highly unlikely to win the Heisman Trophy, but it’s telling of how great he’s been to simply be invited to New York as a finalist. Hutchinson, the conference’s Defensive Lineman of the Year and an All-Big Ten first-teamer, finished with a robust 13.5 sacks and he was even better when the bright lights were on. Against Ohio State, the 6-6, 265-pound senior turned in a 3-sack, Heisman-moment-type performance. And then he turned around and added another QB takeaway vs. Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game. Hutchinson won’t win the Heisman, but it’s hard to find a player who has been more impactful.

Michigan State: Jacub Panasiuk

The senior defensive end had a one-track mind for the Spartans this season, and he did it extremely well: get after the opposing quarterback. Jacub Panasiuk finished with a team-high 6 sacks but additionally he was officially credited with 11 quarterback hurries. He definitely had the signal-caller’s attention and was named second-team All-Big Ten.

Minnesota: Boye Mafe

A 6-4, 265-pound defensive lineman, Boye Mafe had some huge games for Minnesota, recording 5 sacks over 3 consecutive weekends in the first half of the season: 2 each against Colorado and Bowling Green — Gopher fans would prefer to forget everything else in that game — and then 1 against Purdue, which turned out to be potentially one of Minnesota’s biggest wins of the season. Mafe, a second-team All-Big Ten member, cooled a bit in the second half of the season, with only a couple tackles for loss, yet was still influential on a Minnesota defense that was one of the best in the nation.

Nebraska: Cam Taylor-Britt

Had Cam Taylor-Britt only been able to turn some of his pass-breakups — he had 11 — into interceptions, he would have had an outstanding season. Instead, he had a very good one. The Nebraska cornerback, a second-team All-Big Ten DB, frequently slowed down some of the best wide receivers in the Big Ten, and he was a big reason why the Cornhuskers came so close in so many games. His best outing came against Minnesota, when he had his interception plus a couple tackles for loss.

Northwestern: Chris Bergin

A tackle machine for Northwestern, Chris Bergin accumulated 141 in 12 games this season, 4 of them for losses, with a half sack, an interception, a forced fumble and a recovered one. Undersized at 5-11, 223 pounds, Bergin has to use his speed, athleticism and will to make plays, and he does, able to roam sideline-to-sideline at linebacker. The All-Big Ten second-teamer had 16 tackles against Michigan, as the Wildcats tried to keep the Wolverines’ running game in check.

Ohio State: Haskell Garrett

For a man his size — 6-2, 300 pounds — Haskell Garrett can move, and it makes him a menace for opposing offensive lines. The fifth-year senior finished the season with 5.5 sacks and 7 tackles for loss; he also had a couple fumble recoveries and blocked a kick. Garrett’s ability to take on blockers, and occupy more than one, is impressive, as is his ability to shed the blocks and make a play for himself, the characteristic that often separates good defensive tackles from great ones. He was on the All-Big Ten first team.

Penn State: Arnold Ebiketie

Arnold Ebiketie could track guys down behind the line of scrimmage: Quarterbacks, running backs, anybody with the football. The 6-3, 250-pound 5th-year senior defensive end, an All-Big Ten first-team selection, finished his season with 9.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss. He had at least 1 TFL in all but 1 game this season, being blanked only in the Week 3 win over Auburn, when he otherwise had 5 solo tackles and was credited with 3 quarterback hurries. 

Purdue: George Karlaftis

The junior defensive end finished the season with 5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss, good numbers for sure but not even close to indicative of his impact on the Boilermakers’ defense. When Jeff Brohm flipped his defensive staff in the offseason, he wanted the new group — it was led by co-coordinator and play-caller Brad Lambert — to focus on building a defense around the talents of its best player. And George Karlaftis was terrific. The All-Big Ten first-teamer made everyone around him so much better, because he drew so much attention from opposing offenses.

Rutgers: Olakunle Fatukasi

Considering Olakunle Fatukasi missed the final 3 games of the season with an apparent hamstring injury, it makes his impact in his 9 games as a starter even more impressive. While making only 9 starts, Fatukasi, an All-Big Ten third-teamer, led the Scarlet Knights in tackles with 89 — while missing 3 games, he still had 11 more tackles than any other teammate — plus had a team-high 3.5 sacks. Rutgers stomped Indiana without the 240-pound linebacker but then lost to Penn State and Maryland in the final 2 weeks, seeing its quest for a postseason berth end at 5 total wins.

Wisconsin: Leo Chenal

Leo Chenal’s numbers speak for themselves: The junior linebacker had 106 tackles, including 17 behind the line of scrimmage. And if you’re a Big Ten quarterback, you had to always account for where Chenal was on the field, because the Big Ten’s Linebacker of the Year and All-Big Ten first-teamer was likely to be in on the play. And the 6-2, 261-pound inside linebacker brought down opposing quarterbacks 7 times this season. Chenal is just such a versatile player: He’s big and physical between the tackles, and able to help shut down an opponent’s rushing game, but speedy and quick enough to get after the quarterback too and knock the passing game out of sync.