Big Ten: Illinois Fighting Illini

Best of Big Ten Week 9 conference call

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
3:00
PM ET
Questions were asked. Coaches had answers. Here are a few of the highlights from this week's Big Ten conference call ...

By the way, if you’re not following us on Twitter, what are you waiting for? Follow along at @ESPNRittenberg, @BennettESPN, @ESPNJoshMoyer, @DanMurphyESPN, @MitchSherman and @AWardESPN.

Planning for success: Illinois

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
9:00
AM ET
Illinois coach Tim Beckman believes a two-quarterback system is the path to success. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit doesn’t seem so sure.

On Monday, the two seemed to share different philosophies. Beckman stated that utilizing two quarterbacks was more difficult for defenses to prepare for than one. Cubit intimated this week’s opponent, Minnesota, now has that film -- so it won’t be caught off-guard by dual-threat Aaron Bailey spelling pocket-passer Reilly O’Toole. Not like the Wisconsin Badgers were.

“Wisconsin, they were practicing against a certain offense,” Cubit said. “And I noticed first-hand because it was told to me afterward, and the other thing [dual-threat quarterback] gave them conflicts. Well, now it’s on tape so they’re going to game-plan against that.”

But, Cubit was asked, isn’t this at least the right week to try such a system since they’ve had two weeks to prepare? Doesn’t the bye help to formulate the game plan?

“No,” he told reporters Monday. “No.”

“Are you OK with using two QBs?” one reporter followed up.

“If it helps us win,” Cubit said with an unconvincing shrug.

Starting quarterback Wes Lunt broke his leg Oct. 4 against Purdue and only recently moved from crutches to a boot. He’ll be out until next month and, until then, there doesn’t seem to be an agreement on how to best handle his absence. There's no consensus on Illinois' plan for success.

Beckman said fans will see both quarterbacks Saturday afternoon against Minnesota. He also said he doesn’t necessarily plan to go with the hot-hand; he prefers giving each player a heads-up when he’s entering the game. Against Wisconsin, however, Bailey was told he was coming in late in the second quarter -- or the third quarter -- but plans shifted when O’Toole was successful.

So how would Cubit go about rotating them?

“I don’t know,” he said to open the interview. “I’ll be honest with you, I’ve never done it before, and they both got pretty good qualities. So we’ll figure it all out.”

That wasn’t the only time Cubit rested on, “I don’t know,” either. Right after his shrug, he was asked whether Beckman’s two-quarterback system was the best option.

“I don’t know. I’ll be honest with you, the playbook gets really expanded for one guy. How much can he handle?” Cubit said. “There’s a lot that’s involved with this. … It’s not as easy as everybody thinks it is.”

Illinois’ defense has surrendered at least 34 points in every game against an FBS team this season, so a lot of pressure is placed upon the offense. If Illinois stands any chance at a win, it usually comes during a shootout. Lunt was able to eke out three wins because of his consistency and accuracy; he completed 66 percent of his passes and tossed 13 touchdowns to just three picks.

O’Toole saw considerable time in the past three games and appeared to be the answer. But Bailey added another dimension to this offense in his first time under center against Wisconsin, when he finished 2-of-5 with an interception -- but also carried the ball 12 times for 75 yards and a score.

This isn't a system the Illini are accustomed to. But Beckman thinks it's worth the risk. If it helps his team win, maybe Illinois' plan for success won't be so controversial.

"I mean, I really haven't done that since freshman year but, I mean, whatever helps the team," O'Toole added. "I think we're both capable quarterbacks."

Big Ten morning links

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
8:00
AM ET
Three bite-sized opinions, with links below, to start off your morning:

1. Larry Johnson deserves cheers, not jeers from Penn State fans. The longtime Nittany Lions assistant, now an Ohio State coach, is returning to Happy Valley for a Saturday night game. One fan tweeted at me, referring to LJ as “Larry Judas.” He’s not the only PSU fan that still harnesses some bitterness toward Johnson. But that really misses the mark. Johnson knew James Franklin was big on defensive line coach Sean Spencer -- he admitted as much Monday -- so Johnson simply stepped aside. This is the same man who declined a defensive coordinator position with Illinois in 2008 which would’ve reportedly doubled his salary. And who, in 2011, declined to put his name in for Maryland’s next coordinator job because he already promised Penn State’s recruiting class he’d coach them the next season. Just because a coach leaves somewhere doesn’t mean he’s “disloyal.” I’m not 100 percent certain what kind of reception he’ll receive Saturday night, but a standing ovation seems much more appropriate than any boos.

2. Purdue fans have a reason to be excited -- finally. Danny Etling was heralded as Purdue's savior before he ever took a snap last season. And when he did finally step under center for the first time, against Northern Illinois, the crowd offered him a standing ovation. Well, it turns out the quarterback to turn this Boilermakers team around might just be the lesser-known Austin Appleby. At least, he was lesser-known until a few weeks ago. In his last three starts, the Boilermakers are averaging 35.7 points a game. Before Appleby, that number was 23.8. He has some weapons on offense and, if this defense can step up, Purdue could really be a good team. Seriously. Appleby stuck with it after Etling twice beat him out for the starting job, and Appleby still has no shortage of confidence. He said last week that Purdue "could've hung 40" on Michigan State.

3. Illinois’ “Gray Ghost” uniforms deserve a thumbs-up. Maybe it’s just because I’m a sucker for history, but I really dig the uniforms the Fighting Illini plan to wear this weekend for Homecoming. It’s not necessarily how they look -- and they look fine -- but it’s the story behind them that really gets me. Ninety years ago, during Illinois’ Homecoming against Michigan, Red Grange scored four touchdowns in the first 12 minutes of the game. He ended up with six TDs as the Illini became the first team to beat Michigan in two years. After that game, famous sportswriter Grantland Rice referred to Grange as a “gray ghost.” So, that’s the idea behind Illinois’ uniforms. Wish more teams would honor history like that. Seems like fans are embracing the new design, too. The jerseys have already sold out online.

Now, on to the links ...

East Division
West Division

B1G early look: Setting up Week 9

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
2:00
PM ET
Curse the double bye, as we have another week coming up with just five Big Ten games. But there are a few good ones on tap, including a couple intriguing rivalries. Here's your early look at the storylines for Week 9:

1. Can Michigan close the Bunyan-sized gap with Michigan State? Based simply on this year's performances, Saturday's game between Michigan and Michigan State could be one of the most lopsided in the history of the Paul Bunyan Trophy series. The Spartans are riding high, having won 13 straight Big Ten contests, while the Wolverines are just 3-4. Michigan State has won five of the past six in this rivalry, including three straight in East Lansing. The inability to beat his rivals is a big reason Brady Hoke is fighting for his job right now. Maybe the Wolverines can rally behind their embattled coach. If not, this has a chance to get ugly.

2. Will Ohio State keep it rolling? The Buckeyes have scored 50 or more points in each of their past four games to build their case for the College Football Playoff. This week brings their toughest road test of the season to date, a night game at Penn State. Beaver Stadium will be decked in white, and Nittany Lions fans will do their best to rattle young quarterback J.T. Barrett. Penn State's defense is probably the best one Ohio State has played in at least a month as well. Of course, the Lions have lost their first two Big Ten games and are having all sorts of issues with their offensive line, which they spent last week's bye week trying to solve. Don't be surprised if James Franklin and his staff throw out some new wrinkles this Saturday night.

3. Make-or-break game in Madison: Is Maryland for real? Is Wisconsin a serious contender? The season has failed to adequately answer these questions thus far. The Terrapins are 2-1 in their first year in the league and are coming off a solid win over Iowa. They've been up and down (the down includes a home blowout loss to Ohio State), but they also have a lot of explosive playmakers. Wisconsin has a Heisman Trophy candidate in Melvin Gordon but hasn't figured much else out on offense, especially in the passing game. The Badgers already have one conference loss and likely can't afford another one if they want to win the West Division. Can Wisconsin keep pace with Maryland's skill players like Stefon Diggs? Can the Terps' shaky defense slow down Gordon? One team will be left standing as a serious division contender after Saturday.

4. Beckman's last stand? Illinois coach Tim Beckman may well have to make a bowl game to save his job this season. That means the 3-4 Illini probably have to win this week at home against Minnesota, because the rest of the schedule isn't kind. The Gophers sit atop the West Division at 3-0 but looked vulnerable to a big-play passing offense on Saturday against Purdue. Illinois will have to follow the Boilermakers' game plan, though either Aaron Bailey or Reilly O'Toole must make a big jump at quarterback. Here's the best reason to predict that Minnesota will come away with the road win in Champaign: Beckman's defense is surrendering a Big Ten-worst 271.1 rushing yards per game. David Cobb could run all day.

5. Rutgers' mettle being tested: You really wanted to join the Big Ten, Rutgers. Well, here you go. After dealing with the piping-hot cauldron of the Horseshoe last week -- where the Scarlet Knights got scalded in a 56-17 loss to Ohio State -- Kyle Flood's team jumps back into the fire this week with a trip to Nebraska. It's harder to imagine many more difficult back-to-back road challenges than that in the Big Ten, and it highlights the difficulty of Rutgers' second-half schedule (a November trip to Michigan State still awaits). Nebraska looked terrific last week in the second half at Northwestern and must simply avoid complacency before the big West Division showdowns arrive the final three weeks (at Wisconsin, Minnesota, at Iowa). For the Scarlet Knights right now, this is mostly about survival and not letting a promising season go up in flames

Big Ten morning links

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
8:00
AM ET
video
Good morning. A few thoughts before we get to the links:

1. Quarterback J.T. Barrett is receiving loads of attention as Ohio State continues its incredible offensive surge. And rightly so, because Barrett's numbers (20 total touchdowns, five interceptions, 65.2 percent completion rate) are astounding. He has the highest ESPN QBR score in the country since Sept. 6, the date of the Buckeyes' loss to Virginia Tech.

But let's not forget the improvement of Ohio State's offensive line. The young group with four new starters looked like a liability in the first couple of games. Since then, it has become a source of strength. The Buckeyes allowed no sacks on Saturday against Rutgers, whose defense came into the game leading the Big Ten in that category. The Scarlet Knights only had two tackles for loss and just one quarterback hurry. Ed Warriner's group showed similar dominance against Maryland, whose defensive front caused Iowa's offensive line all kinds of problems on Saturday.

Urban Meyer had his players give the assistant coaches a standing ovation after the Rutgers win. It's hard to tell just how good the Buckeyes are right now, Bob Hunter writes. But they look pretty darn good.

2. As great as Ameer Abdullah is, I thought Nebraska needed one more weapon to take its offense to a truly elite level. The Huskers might have found that extra option on Saturday at Northwestern.

De'Mornay Pierson-El, who to this point had done most of his damage on punt returns, had three catches and even threw a touchdown pass to Tommy Armstrong Jr., evoking memories of a famous trick play from Nebraska's past. The speedy true freshman gives Armstrong another target along with Kenny Bell and Jordan Westerkamp. The Huskers were dominant offensively in the second half against a pretty good Northwestern defense, and Pierson-El was a big reason why.

"De’Mornay and Ameer and Kenny, when does it end?” offensive coordinator Tim Beck told the Omaha World-Herald. “You want those guys on the field, because now you've got to guard them all.”

3. Indiana just can't seem to sustain any kind of positive momentum. The Hoosiers were a trendy pick to make a bowl this season, especially after winning at Missouri on Sept. 20.

But since then, Kevin Wilson's team has gone just 1-3 (with the lone win over North Texas). And as IU showed in Saturday's 56-17 loss to Michigan State, it's highly doubtful that there is another win left on the schedule.

True freshman quarterback Zander Diamont clearly isn't ready, as his 5-for-15, 11-yard performance vs. the Spartans confirmed. He should be redshirting, but season-ending injuries to Nate Sudfeld and Chris Covington thrust him into action. Even with Tevin Coleman having a season for the ages, the Hoosiers don't have much of a chance without a passing attack and with a defense that can't win Big Ten games on its own. There's much to like about the young talent Wilson has brought to Bloomington, but Indiana continues to be stuck in program quicksand. The last five games will test the resolve of Wilson and his players.

West Division
East Division
And finally ...

Ohio State's band put on another amazing halftime show. Rock out to it. The Pinball Wizard part is my favorite.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
2:00
PM ET

Big Ten morning links

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
8:00
AM ET
I went to college with Brook Berringer. I did not know him well.

Berringer was 17 months older than me. The few times I interviewed him for the school newspaper, I thought he seemed much older than that, probably because he somehow stayed above the fray -- especially late in his career as a quarterback that happened to coincide with the most controversial and successful period in Nebraska football history.

Because of my own youth and lack of awareness, I failed at the time to recognize the impact of Berringer on people in Nebraska.

I saw him as just another guy with a good story. That is, until April 20, 1996, two days after Berringer died when the small plane he piloted crashed in a field north of Lincoln.

At Nebraska’s spring game, instead of celebrating consecutive national championships or another batch of Cornhuskers drafted into the NFL -- Berringer likely would have been among them -- the school and state mourned its fallen hero by playing a video tribute on the big screens.

Sports are often emotional. But not like that. That was not about sports. The stadium went completely silent. It remains the only time I’ve shed tears while sitting in a press box. I was far from alone.

The Big Ten Network documentary, “Unbeaten,” a 54-minute production on the life and death of Berringer, set to premier after the Nebraska-Northwestern game on Saturday, will similarly stir emotions for those who remember Berringer, and it will educate a generation of fans too young to have watched him play.

This fall marks the 20-year anniversary of his greatest football achievement, leading Nebraska to eight wins in place of injured star Tommie Frazier.

The documentary, directed by Matthew Engel and Kevin Shaw with Bill Friedman, BTN coordinating producer for original programming, hits all the right notes on Berringer.

It features no narration, only sound from a diverse lineup of former Berringer teammates and testimony from others, including Nebraska assistant Ron Brown, who recruited Berringer to Lincoln, and Kyle Orton, who has worn No. 18 since high school as a tribute to the QB.

An archived Berringer interview away from the field is particularly haunting. Forgotten audio from Keith Jackson lends important historical perspective.

“We wanted Brook to have a voice,” Engel said.

For Nebraska fans, the first half of the film largely serves as review of the 1994 and ’95 seasons, with impressive insight into the complicated dynamic of the Frazier-Berringer relationship. The final 25 minutes includes powerful reporting on the plane crash and its aftermath, poignant footage and a final sequence certain to move viewers like that April Saturday 18 years ago in Lincoln.

“He’s a guy who represents all that’s good about a college football player,” Friedman said. “He was a symbol of how Nebraskans want their football to be portrayed.”

Berringer’s impact is lasting, memorialized with a statue of the quarterback in uniform with his coach, Tom Osborne, that stands outside the entrance Nebraska’s athletic offices on the north side of Memorial Stadium.

Shaw said he visited Lincoln prior to documenting Berringer and saw the statue without knowing its significance. In learning about Berringer and remembering the statue, Shaw said, it was a “wow moment.”

“It was like, that’s that guy,” he said.

With “Unbeaten,” BTN succeeded in creating a film that will touch Nebraskans and teach others across the Big Ten about a quarterback who’s worth remembering for another 20 years and beyond.

Let’s go around the league:

East Division
West Division

Big Ten morning links

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
8:00
AM ET
How is it possible that half of the season is already gone? Why does it seem like time is dragging until Saturday every week? Life and football are truly mysteries.

1. Quarterback quandary: Narrowing the field seemed like it could be a blessing in the summer, with Indiana coach Kevin Wilson quick to point out the benefits of no longer needing to juggle practice reps as much now that Nate Sudfeld was the last man standing in what was once a three-man battle. But there was an obvious downside that didn't receive nearly as much attention in July as perhaps it should have, and now that an injury has struck their starter, it's clear how much the transfers of Tre Roberson and Cameron Coffman hurt the Hoosiers. Roberson, experienced and proven in the Big Ten, is off putting up big numbers at Illinois State. Coffman is waiting for his chance to play for Wyoming while he sits out the season. And back at Indiana, the Hoosiers are scrambling to find somebody to put behind center this week with Michigan State's vaunted defense coming to town. The chance to focus on one guy and potentially unleash more of Sudfeld's ability was a nice silver lining, but it was apparently just a distraction from a huge storm cloud that was poised to wipe out Indiana's season.

2. Something special: There's any easy way to get Urban Meyer to gush about his team these days. All it takes is one mention of his kickoff coverage unit, and the Ohio State coach turns downright giddy by his standards. The Buckeyes have reason to be pleased with what they're getting on special teams lately, and they lead the Big Ten in net yardage on kickoffs thanks to a combination of well-positioned kicks, an aggressive scheme and a roster loaded up with speedy players willing to fly down the field and hit somebody. Meyer has always had a fondness for special teams, and he's fostered a competition for "starting positions" on the units that makes even first-teamers on offense and defense proud to contribute on punts and kickoffs. It may not draw much attention, but the Buckeyes are racking up some hidden yardage and subtly altering the field-position battle each week thanks in large part to Meyer's cover guys.

3. Best Bye: No program seems too thrilled with the double-bye schedule in place this season, but there appear to be obvious benefits for all four teams sitting out with an off date Saturday. Penn State's offensive line remains in disarray, and while it can't suddenly turn its inexperienced blockers into veterans, some extra reps and game-planning won't hurt heading into the stretch run that starts against Ohio State's tenacious defensive line next week. Wisconsin and Illinois both could use some time to work out kinks in the passing attack, with the former toying with a two-quarterback rotation and the latter trying to find the best option with Wes Lunt on the sideline. And after finally getting back in the win column, Brady Hoke might be able to take a deep breath at Michigan and enjoy at least a few moments of peace after a victory over the weekend. Out of all those options, maybe the Wolverines needed a bye the most -- unless the regents decide to stir the pot up again.

East Division
  • Michigan may have another candidate emerging for a redshirt, but since it's an injury issue, all that Brady Hoke is providing is a hint.
  • Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun might have a future as a professional wrestler if he keeps fine-tuning his suplexes on the field.
  • Darius Hamilton rarely comes off the field for Rutgers now that he's emerged as a complete defensive lineman.
  • Ohio State has been roaring out of the gates lately, and Urban Meyer made sure to thank his coaching staff for that positive development.
  • Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown is ready to go again after the bye week.
  • Penn State might be getting closer to having an experienced veteran back in action to help that suspect offensive line.
  • Meet Zander Diamont, who has earned some glowing praise ahead of a likely start for Indiana.
West Division
  • Kenny Bell is starting to feel right again and is hoping to give Nebraska a lift at wide receiver.
  • Iowa has seven different players making a homecoming trip to Maryland this weekend, including safety Jordan Lomax.
  • Wisconsin could be welcoming back some key contributors soon.
  • Northwestern's success against Nebraska could be determined in the red zone.
  • A closer look at Tim Beckman's recruiting classes at Illinois and how they are panning out.
  • Minnesota senior wide receiver Isaac Fruechte has caught balls from four different quarterbacks during his career.
  • Purdue might have finally found an offensive identity.

Watch B1G Show: Week 8

October, 15, 2014
Oct 15
5:30
PM ET
Join Big Ten reporters Brian Bennett, Mitch Sherman, Tom VanHaaren and Austin Ward as they look around the conference heading into Week 8.

We're winding down our midseason overview with a look at five storylines to watch in the second half of the Big Ten season:

The nation's best group of running backs. The Big Ten has taken its share of lumps this season, and often rightfully so, but no league can claim a better trio of running backs than Indiana junior Tevin Coleman, Wisconsin junior Melvin Gordon and Nebraska senior Ameer Abdullah. Gordon and Coleman may join Abdullah in the NFL draft next spring. Each is a sight to savor, and for different reasons, but they share an ability to handle a heavy load of carries. Even among a deep group of backs in the league that includes David Cobb of Minnesota, Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Ezekiel Elliott of Ohio State, the top three stand out, staying on pace to give the league its first threesome to average more than 140 rushing yards since 2000.

The Michigan mess. The first half of the season could not have gone much worse in Ann Arbor, featuring three September losses and the troubling ordeal that surrounded Shane Morris' head injury in a Sept. 27 loss to Minnesota. What will the second half bring? The Wolverines, after a bye week, play their final game of October with a bit of momentum gained from a 18-13 win against Penn State. But Michigan State awaits. Another loss would only turn up the heat on coach Brady Hoke, already facing intense scrutiny. Short of a miraculous turnaround, Hoke may not be able to save his job. Regardless, the final five games merit attention.

Ohio State's resurgence. The Buckeyes didn't go away, of course, but they slipped under the radar a bit in September after the two-touchdown loss to Virginia Tech. In the three games since, Urban Meyer's team has scored 168 points as freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett made major leaps. Ohio State, as it enters the second half, looks like a new kind of challenge altogether for its upcoming opponents. The biggest game, Nov. 8 at Michigan State, likely offers the Big Ten its only realistic shot land a team in the College Football Playoff. And while OSU didn't look worthy in early September, the selection committee may soon receive a new set of trends to ponder on Ohio State.

The West Division scramble. To enter Week 8, it's a jumbled mess, with Minnesota atop the heap. The Gophers look poised to stay in control into November, with upcoming games against Purdue and at Illinois. Things get dicey for Minnesota, though, next month with a finishing stretch against Iowa and Ohio State, followed by trips to Nebraska and Wisconsin. Northwestern, with one loss in the league, remains in a decent spot, as do the preseason division favorites, Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska. As projected in August, the race may still come down to schedules. And the schedule, despite Minnesota's strong play and stumbles elsewhere, still favors the Badgers and Hawkeyes.

The path of Rutgers and Maryland. The Scarlet Knights, in particular, have made the transition to the Big Ten look easy this fall. For a group picked by many to finish last in the league, it's been a stunning start, fueled by a stingy defense and the strong play of quarterback Gary Nova. Rutgers is a failed defensive stand in the final minute from a perfect record. Maryland, too, has looked strong at times, particularly on offense. But the road is about to get much more difficult for the league's new members, starting on Saturday as the Scarlet Knights visit Ohio State and Maryland hosts Iowa. Rutgers' schedule is downright brutal over the next month, and it doesn't look much more inviting for the Terrapins. But they've already proved us wrong, so why not again?

Best of Big Ten Week 8 conference call

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
2:45
PM ET
Questions were asked. Coaches had answers. Here are a few of the highlights from the Big Ten conference call ...

By the way, if you’re not following us on Twitter, what are you waiting for? Follow along at @ESPNRittenberg, @BennettESPN, @ESPNJoshMoyer, @DanMurphyESPN, @MitchSherman and @AWardESPN.

ESPN's midseason All-Big Ten team

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
11:00
AM ET
The regular season is at its halfway point, so we're presenting our selections for the midseason All-Big Ten team.

Offense

QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
RB: Tevin Coleman, Indiana
WR: Tony Lippett, Michigan State
WR: DaeSean Hamilton, Penn State
OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OT: Jack Conklin, Michigan State
C: Jack Allen, Michigan State
G: Zac Epping, Minnesota
G: Pat Elflein, Ohio State

Defense

DE: Joey Bosa, Ohio State
DE: Marcus Rush, Michigan State
DT: Anthony Zettel, Penn State
DT: Carl Davis, Iowa
LB: Mike Hull, Penn State
LB: Damien Wilson, Minnesota
LB: Derek Landisch, Wisconsin
CB: Desmond King, Iowa
CB: Eric Murray, Minnesota
S: Frankie Williams, Purdue
S: Michael Caputo, Wisconsin

Special teams
PK: Brad Craddock, Maryland
P: Justin DuVernois, Illinois
KR: Stefon Diggs, Maryland
PR: De'Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska

Thoughts: The first thing you probably notice is an unconventional offense featuring three running backs and no tight ends. Sure, it's a little bit of a cheat, but how do you leave any of those three tailbacks off? Coleman, Gordon and Abdullah rank 1, 2 and 4 nationally in rushing yards. Though there are some excellent tight ends in the league -- Minnesota's Maxx Williams and Penn State's Jesse James come to mind -- we would rather reward the outstanding tailbacks. Heck, we probably could have gone four or five deep at that position, given how loaded it is right now. ... The toughest call came at cornerback, where you might be surprised by our choices. We love King's shutdown ability for the Hawkeyes, and Murray gets the slight nod over teammate Briean Boddy-Calhoun for the Gophers' excellent secondary. Michigan State's Trae Waynes might be the best player at the position in the league, but he has given up some big plays this season. Same goes for Maryland's Will Likely, who has been explosive at times and torched (see: West Virginia and Ohio State) at others. It's only midseason, remember; these choices could change by the end of the season. ... Speaking of surprised, the steady Rush makes the team over more heralded position mate Shilique Calhoun. It's a close call, but Rush has been consistently terrific so far this season. ... Some pretty fresh names at linebacker, especially after so many stars at the position departed after last season. Michigan's Jake Ryan just missed there. ... Two freshmen made the team in Hamilton and Pierson-El. Ohio State's J.T. Barrett is also pushing Cook for No. 1 status at quarterback.

The breakdown by team:

Michigan State: 5
Iowa: 3
Minnesota: 3
Penn State: 3
Wisconsin: 3
Maryland: 2
Nebraska: 2
Ohio State: 2
Illinois: 1
Indiana: 1
Purdue: 1
Michigan: 0
Northwestern: 0
Rutgers: 0

Big Ten midseason overview

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
10:30
AM ET
The Big Ten entered 2014 with a few high-profile opportunities to raise its flailing image.

Things started out well enough, as Wisconsin took a 24-7 lead on LSU in the third quarter on opening weekend. And it was pretty much all downhill from there for the Badgers, who wound up losing 28-24, and the rest of the league. Other early-season losses by Michigan State (at Oregon), Ohio State (Virginia Tech) and Iowa (Iowa State) relegated the Big Ten to its same old status as a middle-of-the-pack (at best) power conference.

As a result, the league needs some breaks just to get a team into the four-team College Football Playoff. Yes, conversation about the inaugural playoff has dominated the sport a little too much so far. Then again, when's the last time you heard anybody talking about who might play in this year's Orange Bowl?

The Big Ten might not place a team in the Rose Bowl -- site of a national semifinal this year -- unless Michigan State and Ohio State run the table the rest of the way, or if a team from the wide-open West Division like Nebraska or Minnesota really surprises.

Not everything, of course, revolves around the playoff, and there have been some good stories in the Big Ten during the first half. The conference boasts three of the top four rushers in the nation. The oft-mocked addition of Maryland and Rutgers doesn't look so bad as the two teams are a combined 9-3. Purdue has already tripled its win total from a year ago. The NCAA sanctions at Penn State were lifted -- though no relief was provided for the Nittany Lions' offensive line. Five teams sit at 5-1, setting up an interesting race toward ... wherever the league champion might wind up in the postseason. (Hey, how about that Orange Bowl?)

So reasons for hope remain in the Big Ten for the second half. Though maybe not so much in Ann Arbor and Champaign.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Mary Langenfeld/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon has already topped 1,000 yards and has 13 touchdowns halfway through the season.
Offensive MVP: Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon. It's so hard to choose between the fantastic running backs in this league, as Indiana's Tevin Coleman leads the FBS in rushing and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah has been a warrior. Gordon has received very little help from his team's passing game, yet he has piled up 1,046 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, including four straight games of at least 175 yards.

Defensive MVP: Ohio State DE Joey Bosa. There's no runaway winner of this award yet, but Bosa has built on his impressive freshman campaign of a year ago to become one of the most disruptive pass-rushing forces around. He has seven tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.

Biggest surprise: Few people gave Rutgers much of a chance to contend in the school's first year in the Big Ten, especially given the Scarlet Knights' murderous schedule. But with an improved Gary Nova at quarterback and a stout defense, Rutgers sits at 5-1 at the halfway point. The back half is still treacherous, including games against Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State, but Kyle Flood's team has shown it can't be taken lightly.

Biggest disappointment: Michigan, naturally. The Wolverines (3-4) beat Penn State last week at home, finally ending a streak of seven straight losses against Power 5 teams. Blowout losses against Notre Dame, Utah and Minnesota, and the Shane Morris concussion controversy have put Brady Hoke squarely on the hot seat.

Newcomer of the year: Losing Braxton Miller did not end Ohio State's playoff chances, largely because of the rapid growth of freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett. After struggling in a Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech, Barrett has blossomed into one of the top players in the Big Ten. He leads the league in total offense, pass efficiency and passing touchdowns (17).

Best coach: Jerry Kill, Minnesota. With apologies to Flood, no coach has maximized his talent more than the head Gopher. Minnesota is 5-1 and tied atop the Big Ten West Division, with its only loss coming at TCU. Kill's team finds ways to win without an overpowering offensive attack.

Best game: Indiana 31, Missouri 27. This game had a little bit of everything, with both teams combining for nearly 1,000 yards of offense and the Hoosiers scoring the winning touchdown with 22 seconds left after Missouri had hit what looked like the game-winning field goal. The road win in SEC country was also one of the league's few bright spots in nonconference play. Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, they haven't been able to duplicate that performance.

Biggest games of the second half: Armageddon arrives on Nov. 8 in East Lansing, Michigan, when Ohio State travels to Michigan State in a possible playoff eliminator. Other big B1G games are mostly in the wide-open West, including: Iowa at Minnesota (Nov. 8), Northwestern at Notre Dame (Nov. 15), Nebraska at Wisconsin (Nov. 15), Wisconsin at Iowa (Nov. 22) and Nebraska at Iowa (Nov. 28).

Big Ten Monday mailbag

October, 13, 2014
Oct 13
5:00
PM ET
So, the streak of Monday mailbags from me leading to chaotic Saturdays ended last week at one, but I still think we should give it another test. If nothing else, it's a great way to keep the time moving until football returns in the Big Ten again.

Austin Ward: There's no question that Nate Sudfeld's injury was a significant blow to the Hoosiers after they had climbed back into the game last weekend at Iowa, but I don't think it can realistically be pointed to as the reason Kevin Wilson's club dropped another decision in the league. The defense, quite frankly, is still too big of an issue for Indiana to be a consistent winner, and it's pretty likely going to keep it out of a bowl game now that Sudfeld is out for the rest of the year. The passing game already hadn't been quite as effective as in years past for the Hoosiers even with Sudfeld healthy, although Tevin Coleman's incredible production has done a pretty good job of offsetting those troubles. But as long as the Hoosiers keep forcing themselves into shootouts, even against offenses that had previously struggled like Iowa had early in the year, they just can't be taken seriously as a threat in the Big Ten. And especially now after going from a surplus of quarterbacks down to essentially none with the experience needed to operate the spread at a high level, the second half could be pretty rough for the program.
Austin Ward: If the matter is solely based on what a player does on the field and not a popularity contest or a tribute to the starting quarterback of the nation's No. 1 team, there's really no case against Melvin Gordon being at the Heisman Trophy ceremony. Maybe the Wisconsin star is unlikely to win it because his team has struggled to a couple losses even while he's piled up eye-popping numbers, but if anything, what he's done in rolling up more than 1,000 yards with 13 touchdowns through six games is even more impressive because of the limitations of the offense he's playing in this season. Illinois was loading up the box with seemingly every defender on the roster last weekend because the Badgers posed virtually no threat to pass at all, and Gordon still sliced it up for 175 yards and four scores. The things Gordon is capable of blow the mind, and the Badgers would be a truly frightening team if they were even average at quarterback this season. But perhaps if voters look close enough at that weakness for Wisconsin, Gordon's candidacy could get a boost and ensure that he does win up in New York City at the end of the year.
Austin Ward: The Michigan State safety certainly wasn't at his best on Saturday against Purdue, but he wasn't alone in blowing some assignments in a game that may have prompted some second thoughts about a team that is presumed to be the class of the Big Ten again after winning it all last season. Giving up a bunch of points to Oregon is one thing. Getting burned for 31 points against Purdue is quite another, and the most troubling thing for coach Mark Dantonio should be the plays that were giving the Spartans fits last weekend are the same ones Ohio State will run with much better athletes during the East Division showdown on Nov. 8. As for Drummond, he has let a couple interceptions slip through his hands and he may be pressing to do too much at times, but he has the experience and knowledge of the system to snap out of a recent funk. And after the near meltdown against Nebraska and the breakdowns at Purdue, the sooner the better for the Spartans.
Austin Ward: On the pace the redshirt freshman is currently on, all Barrett needs right now is to keep doing what he's been doing over the past few weeks. The Buckeyes are gaining confidence every week at the same time Barrett is becoming more comfortable in the offense, and the progress is clear to see as he delivers accurate passes, manages the run game like a veteran and wins over teammates with his leadership in the huddle. The path to the kind of recognition Braxton Miller earned over the past two years is a bit more complicated now that Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman and Ameer Abdullah are posting huge individual numbers. But if the Buckeyes run the table and win the Big Ten with Barrett continuing to account for multiple touchdowns every week, he's going to be tough for people to ignore when the ballots are cast for the league Offensive Player of the Year, even if a national trophy might be out of reach thanks to memories of the Virginia Tech loss.
Austin Ward: There could be two interesting test cases for that theory coming up soon at Michigan and Illinois. I agree that schools have to invest in the product if Big Ten teams are going to compete for national championships, and the SEC has proven that paying top dollar for coaches, facilities and anything else remotely tied to football usually leads to results. If Michigan, for example, wants to ensure that it remains on even footing with the game's elite, it shouldn't let anything financially stand in its way when it goes shopping for the next coach to lead the program. And that's not just at the top -- the best coordinators in the country or the top position coaches should all be compensated that way also, or else they'll go work for a program that will pay them accordingly. The Big Ten schools can certainly afford to pony up.

B1G early look: Setting up Week 8

October, 13, 2014
Oct 13
2:00
PM ET
Another weekend with four teams sitting on the couch is on tap, but there is still plenty of intrigue packed into the five Big Ten matchups slated for Saturday. With Week 7 in the books, let's peek ahead at what's in store.

1. Bucks back in business: Urban Meyer clearly was irritated with the scheduling quirk that produced two bye weeks this season, particularly because Ohio State appears to have overcome its early issues with growing pains and was building some frightening offensive momentum. But one benefit to the way the calendar worked out for the Buckeyes is that they're done with off dates and their stretch run to compete for a Big Ten title and attempt to fight back into the College Football Playoff conversation will be uninterrupted from here out. That effort resumes with a visit from Rutgers, which has been one of the league's most pleasant surprises so far. The Scarlet Knights could have their hands full with quarterback J.T. Barrett and the angry, restless Buckeyes, but a road win for them would certainly make the East Division take notice -- and earn them bowl eligibility.

2. Michigan State fireworks: The suddenly high-powered Michigan State offense rolled up points in the Hoosier state last weekend, and another explosion seems pretty likely in the back end of a two-game swing through Indiana. Spartans quarterback Connor Cook had some shaky moments against Purdue, but he still helped lead a 45-point outburst against Purdue to keep his team on top of the Big Ten leaderboard in points per game this season. Just a little bit further down the road this weekend, the Spartans will find a defense that was gashed from start to finish by a much more modest Iowa offense last weekend, and Indiana's woes on that side of the ball obviously still an issue. Michigan State has had a few problems of its own lately, thanks in large part to apparent lapses in concentration. But this weekend should be a prime opportunity to get rid of those kinks.

3. Sorting out the West: The picture might be just a little bit clearer than it was a week ago, but the only real certainty in the wild West Division is that nothing is going to be decided until late November. In the meantime, there may be something of an elimination game at Nebraska this weekend when Northwestern pays a visit with both teams already having lost a conference game. Certainly it's possible for the eventual champ to have lost a couple games in the league given the muddled race on that side of the Big Ten, but dropping another decision by the middle of October would make for a pretty steep hill to climb. The Wildcats opened conference play impressively with upsets at Penn State and against Wisconsin, but they showed some offensive limitations again last week in a loss at Minnesota, which could be a problem against Ameer Abdullah and the Huskers.

4. Gophers Golden? Speaking of the West race, the next two weeks certainly look manageable for Minnesota after already jumping out to a 2-0 start in the league. And handling its business starting Saturday against Purdue at home and then with a visit to Illinois would put it in great shape heading into November. But there are still plenty of improvements for the Gophers to make if they're going to parlay that fast start into something meaningful down the stretch, and finding a bit more offensive balance and developing the passing attack should be at the top of their priority list. Quarterback Mitch Leidner's various injuries early in the season have played a part in the lackluster numbers through the air, and running back David Cobb's willingness and ability to handle a heavy rushing load with success hasn't provided much incentive to tinker with the formula. But after these next two weeks, there are no more tune-ups on the schedule for the Gophers, so the clock is ticking to make sure everything is in working order.

5. Under the radar intrigue: Iowa might be the most overlooked team in the league at this point, a combination of its early loss and the pretty boring football it was playing even when it won. But Kirk Ferentz dialed up the offense in last week's win over Indiana, nearly setting a new season-high total in points scored by the end of the first quarter, showing off his new two-quarterback system and even rolling the dice with a fourth-and-goal call just before halftime. That performance makes the entire month of September for his program look even more puzzling in hindsight, but if this is the real version of the Hawkeyes, they can once again be considered the dark-horse contender in the West that some expected them to be in the offseason thanks to a favorable schedule. Hitting the road to take on Maryland is no easy trip, but the Terrapins were just blown out at home by Ohio State before their bye week last weekend. If Iowa gets to 3-0 in the league, it could be in great shape heading into November as well.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 10/25