@BennettESPN thoughts on the offensive play calling by Penn State so far and maybe how it could be improved?— John F. Niz (@BitOfNiz) October 23, 2014
Brian Bennett: I know this: Penn State just doesn't have the talent on the offensive line to field a strong conventional running game or to consistently protect Christian Hackenberg. Actually, we all know this, after watching the Nittany Lions' games.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I wonder if doing some new things -- have Hackenberg in the shotgun a lot more for quick throws, go to more spread concepts and hurry up, etc. -- would help matters. We've seen how Michigan has tried and failed to run a pro-style offense with a bad O-line and only has had any real success by spreading things out. James Franklin and John Donovan are much smarter than me, however, and I'm sure they know why this would or wouldn't work. Ultimately, there may not be too much you can do to overcome offensive line issues as problematic as Penn State's. But I wouldn't be surprised to see them try some new things.
@BennettESPN Is the real problem with Wisconsin the lack of QB & young receivers or is it an OC with predictable/unimaginative playcalling?— Chris Hoell (@MNBadgerDad) October 23, 2014
Brian Bennett: Ah, yes. It's the old blame-the-coordinator game. Well, if you're going to say the Badgers' passing-game problems lie at the feet of Andy Ludwig, then you also have to give Ludwig credit for a rushing attack that's averaging 343 yards per game and a ridiculous 7.4 yards per carry, which is currently .01 yards per carry off the FBS record.
Of course, Ludwig has Melvin Gordon to call on when running the ball compared to a pair of up-and-down quarterbacks and wildly inexperienced receivers when he wants to throw the ball. I'm not saying Wisconsin coaches shouldn't take criticism for not having built a reliable passing game in what amounts to a season-and-a-half now; at some point, we're going to need to see some strides being made there in both recruiting and development. But let's just agree that for now, Russell Wilson isn't walking through that door.
Adam J. from Leesburg, Va., writes: As a Rutgers fan, I wonder if I am wrong in thinking the brutal schedule they have this year isn't a good thing. They needed to know just how hard it is to be an elite football program, and not think that they are in the AAC anymore. By getting smoked for the next year or two, it will help them commit to recruiting and updating their facilities down the road. What do you think?
Brian Bennett: That's an interesting way of looking at it, though I don't think the increased competition level in the Big Ten is a news flash to Kyle Flood and his staff. The Scarlet Knights have been very competitive in every game save for last week's blowout loss at the Horseshoe, a place where a lot of teams will have some bad days. Going from there to Nebraska this week should serve as an eye-opener for sure, and Rutgers still has to travel to Michigan State later this season. Those three games, more than anything else, should provide Flood's program with the measuring stick it will need. But Rutgers hasn't looked any worse, for sure, than other mid-tier Big Ten teams this season.
@BennettESPN Between Gordon, Abdullah, Coleman, and Cobb...how can anyone pick an All-Conference running back without leaving someone out?— Matthew Krier (@matthewkrier) October 23, 2014
Brian Bennett: It's an impossible task, and that's why we voted three backs -- Coleman, Gordon and Abdullah -- on our midseason All-Big Ten team. I suspect the All-Big Ten first team will have more than two running backs on it because of ties in the voting. And the guy who is in most danger of getting left out is Cobb, because his numbers are a little lower than the other three. That's a shame, because he's having a spectacular season.
Matt from Colorado Springs, Colo., writes: When the playoff selection committee announces its first rankings next week, should we expect to see similarities with the AP/Coaches poll or something that will cause an uproar? I think both polls are useless and should be taken out of publication. ... Also, what role do you think "bad" losses will have on the committee? MSU and 'Bama have "good" losses. While Oregon, Georgia, and Ohio State have "bad losses." I hope this is taken into consideration as much as out of conference schedule and "good" wins.
Brian Bennett: It's all a guessing game at this point, but I expect the selection committee's poll to be stronger than the two major ones we have now. That's because sportswriters and especially coaches simply don't have time to watch all the games on Saturday because of their own jobs and often vote in a hurry on Sunday morning after reading scores or watching a few highlights. The committee has been tasked with closely following the sport all season, and a well-informed, smaller group of voters should make better decisions than, say, having Oregon ranked behind Michigan State (looking at you, coaches).
Of course, there will be controversy. But the most interesting thing to come out of next week will be finding out what the committee truly values. Do "good" losses matter more than "bad" losses, as you suggest? Will conference leaders get rewarded more? How much will it be about who you beat, rather than who you played? We don't have the answers yet, but I can't wait to find out.
Austin Ward is in second and I've dropped to third after my trade (Mark Weisman and Tommy Armstrong for Tevin Coleman) didn't go quite as well as I had hoped. It's still a tight race for the top three.
Your results this week:
The Trombone Shorties (Adam Rittenberg): 143
Massive Attack (Austin Ward): 120
Coal Crackers (Josh Moyer): 90
Legendary Leaders (Brian Bennett): 76
Sherman Tanks (Mitch Sherman): 59
And the overall standings:
The Trombone Shorties: 986
Massive Attack: 934
Coal Crackers: 931
Legendary Leaders: 796
Sherman Tanks: 644
Waiver-wire: We've had more than 20 waiver-wire moves in each of the last two weeks, so it was a nice reprieve this week. Four Big Ten teams have byes Saturday, but none is loaded with fantasy players: Indiana, Purdue, Iowa, Northwestern. So we had half as many moves as a result.
Sherman adds Wisconsin RB Corey Clement and drops Purdue RB Akeem Hunt
Bennett adds Rutgers RB Desmon Peoples and drops Maryland QB Caleb Rowe
Moyer adds Michigan QB Devin Gardner and drops Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian
Ward adds Penn State WR DaeSean Hamilton and drops Ohio State TE Jeff Heuerman
Rittenberg adds Illinois QB Reilly O'Toole and drops Purdue QB Austin Appleby
Sherman adds Illinois WR Geronimo Allison and drops Iowa WR Kevonte Martin-Manley
Bennett adds Wisconsin defense and drops Minnesota defense
Moyer adds Michigan State RB Nick Hill and drops Maryland RB Brandon Ross
Ward adds Wisconsin QB Tanner McEvoy, drops Ohio State RB Rod Smith
Rittenberg adds Maryland RB Wes Brown, drops Indiana WR Shane Wynn
Rittenberg adds Minnesota defense and drops Northwestern defense
The Trombone Shorties (Rittenberg)
Illinois QB Reilly O'Toole
Michigan State QB Connor Cook
Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah
Maryland RB Wes Brown
Rutgers WR Leonte Carroo
Michigan WR Devin Funchess
Bench: Northwestern RB Justin Jackson (on bye)
Massive Attack (Ward)
Wisconsin QB Tanner McEvoy
Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett
Illinois RB Josh Ferguson
Minnesota RB David Cobb
Ohio State WR Michael Thomas
Penn State WR DaeSean Hamilton
Bench: Iowa QB Jake Rudock (on bye)
Coal Crackers (Moyer)
Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner
Michigan QB Devin Gardner
Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon
Michigan State RB Nick Hill
Maryland WR Stefon Diggs
Nebraska WR Jordan Westerkamp
Michigan State kickers
Michigan State defense
Bench: Indiana RB Tevin Coleman (on bye)
Legendary Leaders (Bennett)
Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong
Wisconsin QB Joel Stave
Rutgers RB Desmon Peoples
Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott
Nebraska WR Kenny Bell
Ohio State WR Devin Smith
Ohio State kickers
Bench: Iowa RB Mark Weisman (on bye)
Sherman Tanks (Sherman)
Maryland QB C.J. Brown
Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg
Wisconsin RB Corey Clement
Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford
Illinois WR Geronimo Allison
Michigan State WR Tony Lippett
Ohio State defense
Bench: Rutgers QB Gary Nova (at Nebraska)
It actually turned out to be an ingenious move to set the stage for kicker Ryan Santoso to become a hero.
Maybe the Minnesota redshirt freshman would have preferred a simpler script. The team almost surely would have been better off avoiding the late-game drama they were facing last weekend against Purdue.
"Oh yeah, I had a lot of ups and downs,” Santoso joked to ESPN.com. “A lot of learning opportunities. But you just have to come back and take it one kick at a time, hit the restart button, reset your mindset. I knew that I would have to kick again.
“You know, everything happens for a reason, and everything played out well, I guess.”
There’s certainly no reason for Santoso or the Gophers -- the leaders in the West Division -- to complain about the way things worked out in the end, and his 52-yard game-winner clearly overshadowed the earlier missteps.
The long-range field goal also turned him into something of a celebrity, earning him a shout-out from Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and making him more recognizable around campus after bouncing back to protect Minnesota’s perfect start in league play.
Perhaps because his reputation could have easily gone a completely different direction, Santoso was quick to shrug off the publicity that has come with a clutch performance for a conference contender. And despite what his field goal might mean down the stretch for the Gophers, he also stressed repeatedly that it was a team win and he wasn’t looking for any extra credit for the part he played.
Both reflect the mental approach that allowed Santoso to move on from a couple points left on the field. His physical tools have never really been in doubt at 6-foot-6, 245 pounds with a powerful leg that has banged in kicks from 60 yards on the practice field.
“His personality doesn’t change any and his work habits won’t change any,” Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. “He’s worked hard since he’s been here and he handles things well.
“I don’t usually say too much to him. I’m like most coaches with kickers and just leave them alone. But he’s done a good job, he’s done a good job in practice and he’s transferring that into the game.”
That work is mostly paying off now in Big Ten games after a sluggish start to the season.
Santoso only had 3 attempts in 4 matchups outside the league, and he missed a pair of them. But since then, and not counting the extra point he drilled off the post, Santoso has been perfect. He’s hit on all six of his attempts in conference play, and more important, he delivered when the Gophers absolutely needed him -- regardless of how that make-or-break situation came to be.
“Coach Kill wouldn’t put you out there if he didn’t believe in you, so I just had to do my part for the team,” Santoso said. “The team has confidence in me and I have confidence in my ability, I just had to go out there and stick it for them.”
Maybe that hero moment wasn’t a product of some brilliant design, and it easily could have gone another way. But neither Santoso nor the Gophers have to worry about the alternative now.
On the other, only one of the conference's five games is expected to be close. Four of the underdogs are picked to lose by double digits this week, and the closest game isn't exactly a hot ticket: Minnesota at Illinois.
For the first time all season, we Big Ten writers all picked the same winners. But will there be an upset? Can someone surprise in the Big Ten? Let's take a closer look at the matchups:
Minnesota (6-1) at Illinois (3-4), ESPNU: The Gophers are still fighting for respect, as they appear at No. 24 in the USA Today poll -- but they're still left out of the Associated Press' top 25. They've quietly put together a solid season, with their only loss coming against TCU, and running back David Cobb could be the most underrated player in the conference. Illinois coach Tim Beckman is fighting for his job, and he and his offensive coordinator can't even seem to agree on whether a two-quarterback system is best for the team. The Illini have a plethora of defensive problems, and they can't afford to have their offense stumble.
Maryland (5-2) at Wisconsin (4-2), BTN: Melvin Gordon is one of the most dynamic backs in all of college football, and the Terrapins are one of the worst rushing defenses in all of college football. That's not exactly a recipe for success for the Terps. That being said, Wisconsin's woes through the air have been well-documented, and it would be no surprise to see the Terps dare Wisconsin to throw. Randy Edsall needs to get his own house in order, too. Maryland has a lot of firepower on offense, but C.J. Brown needs to find more consistency for this team to hang with the Badgers. Backup Caleb Rowe is out for the season, so it's Brown or bust. And Brown has thrown three picks to zero touchdowns in the last two games.
Rutgers (5-2) at Nebraska (6-1), ESPN2: The Scarlet Knights just can't catch a break with their schedule. They were dismantled by Ohio State 56-17 on Saturday and they play Wisconsin next week. Rutgers was the surprise team of the conference in the first half of the season, but it will have to show something in this second half to retain that title. It won't be easy. Like the Buckeyes, Nebraska boasts a balanced offense -- and Ameer Abdullah is the best back the Knights have seen since ... well ... it's been years. With one Big Ten loss already, Nebraska can't afford a slip-up. But it might just have the most talented team, overall, in the West.
Michigan (3-4) at Michigan State (6-1), ABC: Since 2008, this rivalry has basically been owned by the Spartans. Mark Dantonio's team has won five out of the last six, with the Wolverines winning only once in a 12-10 game in 2012. Michigan is coming off a bye week -- and actually won its last Big Ten game, against Penn State -- but the Spartans are on another level. If U-M can pull off this upset, maybe Brady Hoke has an outside chance to save his job and the Wolverines really have sparked a turnaround. If not, expect the same Michigan storyline that you've heard since Week 2.
Ohio State (5-1) at Penn State (4-2), ABC: The Buckeyes have scored at least 50 points in four straight games, but they haven't faced a defense quite like Penn State's. On the flip side, the Nittany Lions haven't faced any offense resembling Ohio State's, either. The key to an upset here is two-fold: Penn State's weak offensive line must somehow keep one of the nation's best front fours at bay (unlikely), or Penn State's defense has to play out of its mind and force turnovers (more likely). Ohio State pounded Penn State 63-14 last season, and the Lions would like nothing more than to avenge the worst loss in program history since 1899 (a 64-5 loss to Duquesne). This game will act as a good measuring stick for both J.T. Barrett and the PSU defense.
Michigan and Michigan State are on two different paths this season. The Spartans are fighting for a spot in the first College Football Playoff and Michigan is fighting to keep Brady Hoke’s job.
Despite the difference in the state of the two programs, in-state prospects say their opinions haven’t changed much on how they view the schools.
1. Last season, we all wondered how in the world Stanford was good enough to defeat six ranked opponents during the regular season, but couldn’t beat Utah on the road.
The Utes, who finished 5-7 in 2013, upset the Cardinal 27-21 in Salt Lake City, an ugly loss that might have prevented Stanford from being selected for a four-team playoff if it had been around a year earlier.
After watching Virginia Tech lose to Miami 30-6 at home Thursday night, the Hokies’ stunning 35-21 upset of then-No. 8 Ohio State on the road Sept. 6 looks like the biggest head-scratching result of 2014.
Since upsetting the Buckeyes, the Hokies have dropped four of their past six games and have looked terrible on offense. Miami outgained the Hokies 255-36 in the first half to build a 24-0 lead, and then forced them to fumble on their first three possessions of the second half.
Virginia Tech’s 250-game streak of scoring even seemed to be very much in doubt, until backup quarterback Mark Leal threw a 14-yard touchdown to Isaiah Ford with 1:30 to go.
Sure, the Buckeyes have looked much better since losing to Virginia Tech, scoring more than 50 points in four straight victories. But OSU had better hope the College Football Playoff selection committee wasn’t paying attention to the Hokies on Thursday night.
The early list of candidates being mentioned for the not-yet-open UF job include Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze, Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez and Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops.
Florida has contacted Stoops about its openings in the past, but he has always been reluctant to leave the Sooners. Mullen, who was Florida’s offensive coordinator under former coach Urban Meyer, seems like an obvious choice. But Mullen and UF athletics director Jeremy Foley didn’t always see eye-to-eye during their previous working relationship, so those past differences would have to be worked out.
I don’t think Foley, one of the most respected ADs in the country, can afford to make another mistake. With Muschamp’s tenure seemingly headed to a disappointing end, Foley is batting 1-for-3 in football coaching hires since legendary coach Steve Spurrier left. Foley struck out on former UF coach Ron Zook and hit a home run with Meyer. He can't be wrong again.
3. Here’s a great stat from ESPN Stats & Info, which says a lot about the current state of affairs in Michigan: According to Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, Michigan State is a 17-point favorite against Michigan this weekend. According to historical lines data from The Gold Sheet going back to 1957, it is the highest betting line in the rivalry in the past 57 years. Before this week’s game, the most points Michigan State was favored by in the rivalry was 13 in 1966 (MSU won 20-7).
4. Given Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel’s play the past two seasons, it’s hard to believe that he was actually the last quarterback to defeat Florida State. Driskel led the Gators to a 37-26 victory over the Seminoles on the road on Nov. 24, 2012, completing 15 of 23 passes for 147 yards with one touchdown. The Seminoles were undone by five turnovers in that loss, including three interceptions thrown by former quarterback EJ Manuel.
Since that loss, the Seminoles have won 22 games in a row. Meanwhile, the Gators have dropped 11 of their past 18 games.
5. More than a few athletic directors around the country had to cringe when Texas AD Steve Patterson suggested earlier this week that the Longhorns were budgeting $6 million annually to pay student-athletes $10,000 in cost-of-attendance and likeness stipends per year.
Patterson said the Longhorns are prepared to pay each of their student-athletes $5,000 for full cost of attendance (which would cover educational expenses that a full scholarship doesn’t currently pay) and $5,000 in compensation for the university’s use of the player’s name, image and likeness.
Patterson said Texas is prepared to provide the stipends if the NCAA doesn’t win its appeals of its current legal battles concerning student-athlete compensation.
The bottom line: Paying an additional $6 million to student-athletes is a drop in the bucket for an athletic department such as Texas. In fact, it’s only 3.6 percent of the Longhorns’ annual operating budget for athletics. But for smaller (and poorer) FBS programs such as Iowa State, Purdue, Wake Forest and Washington State, the additional costs will be significant.
This is shaping up to be an important weekend for the Big Ten, with rivalry games and big recruiting visitors on tap.
Plenty of recruits are making their way to Big Ten games this weekend, so here is a look at some of the top prospects who will be on hand.
Ohio State vs. Penn State
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Michigan might stage a watershed moment at Spartan Stadium. Hey, stranger things have happened. Yeah, Michigan State has been good in winning five straight, but it’s not without holes. The Spartans have overcome struggles on the defensive side in each of the past four games. And Michigan has the athletes to burn the MSU defense. If the Wolverines can gain some confidence, no better time exists to inject life back into a seemingly lost season than in this rematch of the Spartans’ domination a season ago. Perhaps, Michigan can find some inspiration from its predecessors’ huge comeback 10 years ago to beat the Spartans -- a triple-overtime win that appeared more unlikely in the fourth quarter than even a victory this week. Michigan had last week off to get healthy and concoct a plan to attack its rival as if there's no tomorrow in Ann Arbor. Even Brady Hoke sounds ready to rumble, admitting that he’s “not a big fan of the Spartans.” More than likely, though, this game will follow script and end with an MSU win, thanks in no small part to its tendency to create turnovers -- and Michigan’s habit of losing the football.
Wisconsin might get it together. It’s almost November, and, if it’s going to happen, now is the time for the Badgers to make a move. After an off week, with extra practice to bring clarity to the quarterback puzzle in Madison, this game looks like a good one to start playing like a cohesive unit, especially on offense. Maryland gives up points and yards. And the Badgers appear set to welcome diverse fullback Derek Watt back from injury in addition to defensive tackle Warren Herring, who injured a knee right as things went downhill in the season opener against LSU. Maybe offensive guard Rob Havenstein can help bring some focus to the Badgers as he goes against his homestate school. Or perhaps what we’ve seen through six games is Wisconsin -- a team with a solid defense, a great running back and no answer at quarterback.
Rutgers might neutralize the Nebraska pass rush. It seems Kaleb Johnson believes that Ohio State star defensive end Joey Bosa was avoiding the Scarlet Knights' decorated left guard last week in Columbus. Johnson and left tackle Keith Lumpkin want a chance to stack up against the best defensive linemen in the Big Ten. And apparently, Ohio State attacked the right side of the Rutgers offensive line. Sounds like an odd thing about which to complain after a 56-17 loss. The Buckeyes sacked Gary Nova four times. Johnson and Lumpkin are anxious this week to face Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory and defensive tackle Maliek Collins. The Scarlet Knights might want to be careful what they wish for. Gregory is a one-on-one nightmare for any offensive lineman. Collins and Vincent Valentine on the interior are a handful. And the Huskers are developing depth up front on defense. But I like the attitude of Johnson and Lumpkin. Nebraska’s pass rush, while solid and full of promise, has overwhelmed only Fresno State and Illinois this season. And if Nova stays clean, he can do damage.
Around the league:
- Maryland defensive coordinator Brian Stewart goes way back with Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen.
- Is Penn State's Christian Hackenberg the next star quarterback to struggle against the Ohio State defense?
- The biggest recruiting weekend of the year has arrived at Penn State.
- A midseason report card for Iowa.
- Purdue quarterbacks want to go deep.
- A history lesson on Minnesota football from Patrick Reusse, and what it means about the direction of these Gophers.
- The compelling story of Northwestern's Dwight White, who learned this year that he had been playing football with one kidney.
- Check out these names who should be on the Illinois coaching radar, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
We now know. Minnesota's specialists have provided a peek inside their practice regimen, via their Twitter page.
Today's specialist practice schedule: pic.twitter.com/nD6RwEA13Q— Gopher Specialists (@MinnSpecialists) October 23, 2014
The Gophers' schedule begins, predictably, with "Drill Field Goals" and "Nuke Punts," whatever nuke means. But they also have their time-fillers, like, "Watch 'Jeopardy' in the Locker Room."
My favorite practice activity: complain about the wind.
Kickers. Gotta love 'em.
So we thought we'd take it a step further this week. Instead of just predicting the winner, which seems like a relatively easy exercise this week, we each took a crack at making a bold prediction for Week 9.
Here are those bold predictions:
Adam Rittenberg: Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Gary Nova combine for 550 pass yards
I expect a big day for both quarterbacks in Lincoln. Rutgers is very vulnerable to long passes -- 52.5 percent of opponents' completions against the Scarlet Knights go for 10 yards or longer -- and Nebraska features a big-play passing attack. I'm also not sold on the Huskers secondary, which will be tested by Rutgers deep threat Leonte Carroo. Maybe Randy Gregory inhales Nova and it's another rough day on the road for Rutgers, but I see a lot of pass yards in this one.
Brian Bennett: Penn State breaks out something new
The Nittany Lions know they can't simply line up and run the ball in conventional ways (or protect Christian Hackenberg) because of their porous offensive line, and the talent level isn't going to change this season. But the team had a bye week in which James Franklin said it spent working on those issues. Expect the coaching staff to throw some new wrinkles at Ohio State, a la the 2011 game when Penn State broke out the Wildcat. It probably still won't be enough to beat the surging Buckeyes, but Ohio State had better be ready to adjust for something different.
Austin Ward: The Badgers will look competent throwing the football
The two-quarterback system barely made an appearance the last time Wisconsin stepped on the field, though it hardly made any difference against Illinois and its pillow-soft defense. Melvin Gordon might still be enough on his own against another unit that doesn’t usually put up much of a fight on the ground, but Maryland does have better athletes on that side of the ball and the Badgers will likely need to show more balance to get the win they need to remain a factor in the West. Coming off a bye week to tinker with the rotation and fine-tune some packages for both Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy, expect to see more production from those passers -- maybe even the first 200-yard passing performance since Week 2 against Western Illinois.
Josh Moyer: The Illini will look incompetent with a two-QB system
Tim Beckman was adamant he wants to play both dual-threat Aaron Bailey and pocket-passer Reilly O'Toole. Bad move, Tim -- and even your offensive coordinator doesn't seem sold on the idea. Bill Cubit just shrugged earlier this week when asked if Beckman's two-QB idea was the best plan: "I don't know. I'll be honest with you, the playbook gets really expanded for one guy." The two-quarterback system worked against Wisconsin because the Badgers didn't expect Bailey to run. That element of surprise is gone now; Minnesota knows what's coming. And we think we know, too: Another Illinois loss.
Dan Murphy: Three players will reach 200 rushing yards
Despite Tevin Coleman -- the country's second most productive running back -- taking the week off for a bye, the Big Ten will see three 200-yard rushing performances this Saturday. Illinois allows 271 yards per game on the ground (125th nationally). Minnesota workhorse David Cobb will fill the majority of that quota this week. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, the only player with more rushing yards than Coleman, faces a Maryland defense with its own issues stopping the run. The regular cast of characters finishes with Ameer Abdullah from Nebraska, who is likely headed for a high-scoring affair with Rutgers in Lincoln.
Mitch Sherman: Michigan will rush for positive net yardage
Believe it. Michigan State mauled the Wolverines last year, sacking QB Devin Gardner seven times as the Wolverines finished with minus-48 rushing yards -- the lowest figure in program history. It’ll go better for Michigan on Saturday, though well not enough to beat the Spartans. Or come close. Michigan ranks 64th nationally in rushing offense, a significant improvement over last year, and the Spartans have slipped to eighth against the run, allowing 100.3 yards per game. The Wolverines won’t get to triple digits, especially without injured back Derrick Green. But Brady Hoke has said he wants to get Gardner more involved in the ground game. They had a bye week to prepare. Let’s see it.
Ten years ago today, Iowa traveled to a muggy field at Penn State to take part in a game that most remember for its struggling offenses and unique score: Iowa 6, Penn State 4. The Hawkeyes wound up with a pair of 27-yard field goals, the Nittany Lions with two safeties.
“If you love defense, it was the greatest game you could ever see,” Penn State defensive end Matthew Rice said. “If you love offense, it was the greatest game you’d never want to see.”
Iowa finished with 42 rushing yards on 40 carries and had just 168 total yards -- an average of 2.4 yards per play. Penn State fumbled the ball three times -- losing one -- and tossed four interceptions. Kicker Robbie Gould also missed two field goals, including a 25-yard attempt.
It was a game and score that might never happen again. Iowa players remember it as an emotional back-and-forth affair that came days after the death of Kirk Ferentz’s father. Penn State remembers it as the epitome of defensive frustration. Even to this day, whenever PSU’s offense struggles and the defense shines, that 6-4 game is brought up tongue in cheek.
“For the defense, it was a dream come true, to win a game 6-4,” Iowa safety Sean Considine said.
Said Penn State punter Jeremy Kapinos: “I just remember it being extremely boring, dull -- and being a lot of work for special teams.”
Click here to read about the 6-4 game, and the oral history from the former players and coaches.
It didn’t include many changes in personnel. There weren’t a lot of adjustments that could be made as the Buckeyes focused largely on doing just a few things well instead of risking the possibility of spreading themselves too thin.
Fast forward half a season and nearly every part of that formula has changed dramatically, most notably starting with the playbook the Buckeyes now have at their disposal that is making it seemingly more difficult to prepare for them every week.
“Just look at the play sheet against Navy compared to now,” coach Urban Meyer said. “There’s 70 percent more there than what it was.
“I think the quarterback, offensive line, the receivers have all opened up the playbook because they're much more mature. They’ve grown up fast.”
That has challenged the coaches to keep pace with the rapid development. And they’ve responded by continually adding new wrinkles, expanding the personnel rotation and then watching as the young Buckeyes soak it all up and wring out an offensive deluge on helpless opponents, scoring 50 points or more in four straight games.
A first-time starter in that disjointed win over Navy and a subsequent loss to Virginia Tech, redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett is now brushing elbows statistically with the top quarterbacks in the nation. Perhaps most impressively, he’s rewriting the record books that have Braxton Miller’s name all over them and arguably playing at an even higher level than the injured two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year thanks to an accurate arm, good decision-making and underrated athleticism as a rusher.
The offensive line that moved its only returning starter to a new position while breaking in four first-time contributors has now established chemistry and is once again blowing open holes for the spread attack. And behind those blockers, Ohio State is cutting loose a host of speedy threats at running back and wide receiver, trusting them with both the football and new assignments just about every game -- like the sparkling new Wildcat package that Dontre Wilson unveiled in another blowout last weekend against Rutgers.
That may just be the tip of the iceberg on the expanded play sheet, which offensive coordinator Tom Herman isn’t afraid to keep building on as long as the Buckeyes prove they can keep handling it.
“It’s the same offense,” Herman said. “It’s just different adjustments, different usage of personnel and better developed players. We’re better up front, we’re better at quarterback, we’re better at the skill positions. The sign of a good team is continual improvement, and I think we’re on that track right now. To say it’s a different offense, it’s not, but the players are certainly coming into their own.
“We’ll keep growing, obviously. But I think right now we’re in a good place.”
The Buckeyes have certainly come a long way in a hurry since that early loss, and the journey has been so dizzyingly quick, it can be easy to forget that the roster is still young.
That may mean mistakes may inevitably pop back up as the level of competition goes up against better defenses like Penn State’s on Saturday or in the huge showdown at Michigan State on Nov. 8. Of course, it might also suggest that the Buckeyes are only just scratching the surface of what they might be capable of doing offensively.
“As long as you have good checkers, you can keep going and going,” Meyer said. “That's where you just have to keep going.
“The better your checkers, [the options] are endless.”
And that is making the checkerboard increasingly difficult to defend.
The College Football Playoff selection committee will emphasize conference championships as a factor in selecting its four playoff teams. Eight weeks into the season, what teams are in control of their conference races, and which ones are best positioned to take home a conference title?
In a "man vs computer" breakdown, we will use ESPN's Football Power Index and the takes of various conference reporters to handicap the races in the five power conferences.
To see the breakdown of each conference race, click here .
The Buckeyes' redshirt freshman appears to be on the rise, while Penn State's sophomore has struggled to repeat the success from his first season. They’ll meet Saturday night in Beaver Stadium. So, in the meantime, here’s a look at both quarterbacks -- the good, the bad and the ugly.
The good: He’s performed so well since Week 3 that he’s started to enter the Heisman conversation. Just take a look at the numbers in his last four games: 86-of-120 (71.7 percent), 1,170 yards, 17 touchdowns and one interception. He’s recorded a QBR of at least 75.8 in the last four games, and he posted a 98.8 QBR in his last game, against Rutgers. His improvement has been well-documented, whether it’s in the running game, his poise or his ability through the air. Said Penn State linebacker Mike Hull: “He doesn’t turn the ball over, he makes smart throws, he’s a great runner -- so he really has been the whole package for them so far.”
The bad: Barrett has been praised for his production in the last four games, but his opponents haven’t exactly been challenging. Kent State currently ranks No. 97 in total defense, Cincinnati is No. 120, Maryland is No. 99 and Rutgers is No. 82. The two best defenses he’s played -- Navy (No. 70) and Virginia Tech (No. 20) -- both came in his first two starts when the playbook was limited. And that’s where he fared his worst. So at this point, there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg argument. Barrett is undoubtedly talented, but just how much did his opponents’ bad defenses influence his numbers?
The ugly: There’s very, very little from Barrett that can be classified as “ugly.” Really, only one game -- and that was the loss against the Hokies. Virginia Tech blitzed mercilessly, and Barrett just couldn’t adjust. He finished 9-of-29 with three picks and took seven sacks. Statistically, Barrett will face only one better pass defense this regular season than Virginia Tech: Michigan State.
The good: Going back to last season, Hackenberg has had a penchant for the comeback. In his last 13 games, he’s engineered four last-minute game-tying or game-winning drives: Illinois and Michigan in 2013 and UCF and Rutgers this season. He is widely regarded as a future first-round NFL draft pick -- if not the No. 1 pick overall -- and several Big Ten coaches have sung his praises. Michigan’s Brady Hoke and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald both said this season that he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer: “Obviously, we got a lot of respect for that big quarterback, Hackenberg.”
The bad: By any measure, this season has been a disappointment for Hackenberg so far. He’s thrown more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (5). But a lot of his struggles can be traced back to a patchwork offensive line that features one returning starter and two former defensive tackles at offensive guard. He’s been sacked 20 times so far this season -- the most in the Big Ten -- while he was sacked just 21 times all of last year. He also has little run support, as only seven teams in the nation are averaging fewer rushing yards per game. He’s starting to develop bad habits, and frustration appears to be setting in.
The ugly: There’s a lot more to write under this section than for Barrett. For one, Hackenberg’s QBR this season right now sits at 38.0 -- a decrease in 18.6 points from last season, the largest decrease for any Big Ten quarterback. And there have been quite a few other lowlights. Early in the season, Hackenberg's frustrations boiled over on TV and resulted in a gif that made the rounds on sports blogs. As was mentioned before, his offensive line also hasn’t done him any favors, and they made national headlines when one blocker closed his eyes and mistakenly blocked a teammate. And James Franklin can’t seem to make up his mind as to whether to have offensive coordinator John Donovan in the booth or on the field.