Big Ten: Iowa Hawkeyes
Get those polling fingers ready because we've reached the final game of Round 2.
After a first round short on upsets, we're down to our own version of the Elite 8 in best game-day atmospheres in the Big Ten. But this is where it starts to get tricky and where fans might disagree with our seedings.
Before we dive head-first into the final matchup, let's recap the other games this round:
And now ...
No. 3 Wisconsin vs. No. 6 Iowa
Wisconsin: Where to begin? The bratwursts are big, the crowds are loud, and the atmosphere is electric. The marching band performs a pregame concert at Union South -- listen for "On Wisconsin" -- an hour before every game. Regent Street/Breese Terrace are packed with fans and bars blaring House of Pain before and after the game, and the entire downtown takes on a football flavor. Inside Camp Randall, the excitement really picks up. The most famous tradition is "Jump Around," when the song sends the entire stadium rocking between the third and fourth quarters. But there’s also the wave, singing along to "Build Me Up Buttercup," and remaining seated after the game listen to the marching band perform once more. And after all that? It’s time to take that energy back downtown to continue the party.
Iowa: Rich history, good food, loud crowds -- there’s plenty to like about Iowa City’s game day atmosphere. Like most destinations, the real atmosphere starts in the parking lots, where fans buy turkey legs on Melrose Avenue before heading to the pregame concert inside the Rec Building. Players and coaches will touch the 20-foot statue of football legend Nile Kinnick before entering Kinnick Stadium, where fans will listen to Kinnick’s moving 1939 Heisman acceptance speech on the big screen before every home game. Inside, fans will line up behind the visitors’ bench -- so close they can reach out and grab the opponents -- to make the stadium a truly intimidating venue. They’ll chant I-O-W-A after every touchdown, sit entranced at the pregame intro and hope to hear the Hawkeye Victory Polka at game’s end. Plus, opponents are still treated to a pink visitors’ locker room.
Jake Rudock isn't officially gone from Iowa, but the Rudock era is most certainly over for the Hawkeyes.
A Rudock transfer has been rumored for several weeks, with Michigan being one of the most likely landing spots for the quarterback. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz spoke publicly about the situation for the first time Wednesday during his spring practice preview media availability. Ferentz said Rudock remains a member of the program, is on the roster and is still working out in the team facility. But the player who started under center for the Hawkeyes the past two seasons is not listed on the team's depth chart, and all indications are he will leave as soon as the spring semester ends.
And even if Rudock somehow, against long odds, decided to remain in Iowa City for his senior season?
"It's always a competition," Ferentz said. "But just like we were committed to Jake when we started the season last year, it would be just the [opposite]."
In other words, Iowa is completely committed to going with C.J. Beathard as its starting quarterback, something Ferentz indicated when he put Beathard No. 1 on a rare January depth chart.
Why the Hawkeyes decided to dump Rudock -- who started every game he was healthy to play in the past two years -- in favor of Beathard when they did remains a minor mystery. Ferentz said he opened up the quarterback competition after Iowa's final regular-season game, a come-from-ahead loss to Nebraska, but the team still started Rudock in the TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Tennessee. Beathard certainly outplayed Rudock in that game, going 13-for-23 for 145 yards, two touchdowns and an interception vs. Rudock's 2-for-8, 32-yard showing. But it seems odd that a decision like that would be made after one game when there was an entire season and a month of bowl practices on which to judge both guys. Ferentz's only answers on the subject Wednesday were that he just felt it was the right time to make a change.
Yet it's also true that Iowa's offense just had more of a spark when Beathard came in the game last season. The junior has a big arm (and great hair), and the Hawkeyes are able to push the ball down the field better when he's in command. Rudock looked tentative and too ready to take the dump-off route at times, and Iowa's improved speed at wide receiver was wasted by that.
Still, not all the blame for the Hawkeyes' offensive struggles can be placed on Rudock's shoulders. He did a nice job protecting the ball -- with a 16-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio -- and had a respectable 61.7 completion percentage. Iowa's inability to mount a consistent run game or get crucial stops on defense is as much at fault as anything for the team losing four of its final five games last season.
Rudock could wind up at Michigan this summer and join that growing quarterback derby, though he'd be no lock to start for Jim Harbaugh. Ferentz said Iowa had signed all the appropriate release papers and wouldn't try to block him from going anywhere, including in the Big Ten (though as a presumed graduate transfer, Rudock shouldn't face any restrictions other than intra-conference transfer rules). There would be no reason for Ferentz to complain if Rudock ended up at another league school, since Rudock did everything right on and off the field and lost his job because of a coach's decision.
"If he chooses to leave, I want him to have his opportunities," Ferentz said. "That's the only fair way to do this."
This is all Beathard's show now, as the only other scholarship quarterback on the roster this spring is redshirt freshman Tyler Wiegers. Ferentz had better hope his trust in Beathard is repaid, because there just aren't many other good options available.
The good news is that Iowa's offense, which has often cured insomnia the past few years, should be a lot more interesting and entertaining to watch with Beathard at the helm. Whether that actually leads to better results than what Rudock managed remains to be seen.
If you just awoke from a 15-year nap and heard that Iowa posted a 26-25 record over the past four years with three bowl losses, you might assume little had changed around the program since the late years under Hayden Fry.
In fact, Iowa has endured plenty of change under coach Kirk Ferentz, entering his 17th season in 2015. And the Hawkeyes anticipate more movement – progress, actually, as spring practice opens in Iowa City on Wednesday.
For an additional spring primer, check out our report on the state of the Iowa program and three key position battles.
Schedule: The Hawkeyes open drills Wednesday. For a third consecutive year, Iowa will take its show on the road to West Des Moines for an open practice on April 11. The conclusion of spring is set for April 25 at Kinnick Stadium with another workout open to the public.
What’s new? In the wake of discontent after its TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Tennessee, Iowa broke from the norm, releasing a January depth chart that featured a change at quarterback, movement at linebacker and on the offensive line. Additionally, Ferentz promoted his son, offensive line coach Brian Ferentz, to run game coordinator, added nickels and cornerbacks to responsibilities of recruiting coordinator Seth Wallace and moved LeVar Woods from coaching linebackers to tight ends.
Biggest question: What’s the status of Jake Rudock? An answer figures to arrive on Wednesday afternoon as Ferentz meets with the media. All indications point toward the exit of Iowa’s two-year starter, who is scheduled to graduate this spring and may be eligible to play immediately at another school in 2015. Junior C.J. Beathard, after replacing Rudock in the TaxSlayer Bowl, sits atop the depth chart. Rudock, who completed 61.7 percent of his passes last season for 2,436 yards, 16 touchdowns and five interceptions, has displayed interest in Michigan. But will Iowa grant him a release, and can Rudock maneuver the Big Ten transfer rules? We’ll likely know soon.
Three things we want to know:
1. Signs from Beathard that he was the right choice. Iowa effectively made its QB choice for 2015 in January by vaulting Beathard over Rudock. If Ferentz intended for this race to play out over the spring and summer, it was a miscalculation to demote his most-experienced signal caller. So for better or worse, Beathard it is. He played well off the bench last year at Pitt and started in place of the injured Rudock at Purdue, struggling in a 24-10 win. Beathard is a dual threat. His leadership will be key.
2. Clarity on the O-line. Gone are Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal, Iowa’s reliable pair of bookends. The line, under the Ferentz’s solid guidance, has long served as a stabilizing force for the Hawkeyes. Iowa appears set to turn to Boone Myers and Ike Boettger, a pair of sophomores, at tackle. Also on the line, Iowa needs leadership from Austin Blythe, who is returning to center after playing guard for much of last season.
3. Continued development at linebacker. The front four, featuring Drew Ott and the departed Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, rated as the strength of the Iowa defense last year. Traditionally, Iowa has produced linebackers worthy of that label. Next season should bring a return to tradition, but the work starts now. With Woods’ shift to coach on the offensive side, Jim Reid handles the whole group, featuring Josey Jewell – prepared to take over in the middle for Quinton Alston – Bo Bower and Ben Niemann.
Urban Meyer makes news when he thinks about the quarterback decision that he faces before next season. He actually talked about it Tuesday.
Meyer said the dilemma has started to "eat away" at him.
In this report by Tim May of the Columbus Dispatch, Meyer praised the Ohio State quarterbacks for their positive attitude in spring practice, specifically mentioning a compliment offered by Braxton Miller to Cardale Jones. Miller and J.T. Barrett talked a little football at practice, he said.
These are insignificant details, though they remain fascinating in the context of the OSU QB race, especially when offered by Meyer. The battle won't actually hit its stride until August of course, when all three accomplished players presumably will enter preseason camp in good health.
Meyer said Tuesday that he was moved to feel this way about the quarterbacks because he has "such great respect for all three guys."
He also offered a dose of reality. "The negative: Two people are going to have to watch."
This storyline has already taken on a life of its own. It's in danger of spinning out of control at some point before August, at least in the uncontrolled environment away from the Ohio State campus. Twelve practices remain for the Buckeyes this spring -- more time for the media and fans to anticipate and overanalyze every minor twist.
And if Meyer is already feeling a burden now, imagine how he'll feel in August.
Let's get to the links:
- Five pressing questions ahead of spring practice at Rutgers, which opens work Monday, and at Iowa, which starts Wednesday.
- A spring preview of the Indiana wide receivers.
- Maryland’s backup QB competition is back on track after a hiatus from practice for spring break.
- Previewing Penn State's spring and the importance of the improvement on the offensive line.
- Poignant words from former Michigan center Jack Miller.
- Receiver Macgarrett Kings Jr. and running back Delton Williams are not listed on Michigan State’s spring roster or depth chart.
- Purdue will play the Big Ten’s toughest schedule in 2015, according to the NCAA formula and listed by Phil Steele.
- Adam Weber, Minnesota’s most prolific all-time quarterback, is back with the Golden Gophers to help tutor Mitch Leidner.
- A highly motivated walk-on is headed to Nebraska from Loveland, Colorado.
- Should Illinois and Tim Beckman be happy about a 6-7 record? Spencer Hall makes the case.
- Paul Chryst has confidence in Corey Clement to replace Melvin Gordon in the Wisconsin backfield.
The picture? A photoshopped rendition of a black-and-red Ohio State uniform, something not yet in the Buckeyes' repertoire. "How Sick Would This Be," Jones wrote.
A special uniform like that would be long (and somewhat) overdue for the Buckeyes. Rumors of a black alternate uniform circulated last season before Urban Meyer halted the fun by saying there were no such plans. Still, Meyer said he would be fine with it "somewhere down the road."
It's definitely pretty slick. But, for whatever reason, it just seems like black is a great choice for a uniform. (Just ask Iowa fans.) Twitter was aflutter just three months ago for a similar wardrobe change at Penn State. Defensive back Jordan Lucas and running back Akeel Lynch excited the fan base with this Photoshop, and James Franklin was eventually asked about the possibility. The answer? Possibly, but time moves slow on uniform changes.
Maybe we'll see something similar in The Horseshoe soon enough. Or maybe schools should open up some sort of concept contest to fans because there's been some cool-looking mock-ups floating around. (Hint, hint, Maryland.)
Now, on to the links ...
- If Nebraska DE Joe Keels was a bust last season, he had his reasons -- he learned his brother and father were killed in separate incidents on back-to-back days.
- Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott is one of seven finalists for the Sullivan Award, which goes to the nation's top amateur athlete.
- Retired ex-Wisconsin LB Chris Borland will return three-fourths of his signing bonus to the San Francisco 49ers.
- Illinois QB Wes Lunt is welcoming the pressure.
- Michigan WR Devin Funchess says he's still not 100 percent because of a severe toe injury that occurred during the season.
- Quarterback Jake Rudock could still transfer to Michigan, and his former high school coach called him a "tremendous leader."
- Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford wants to remain in-state at the next level by landing with the Detroit Lions in the NFL.
- Redshirt freshman DeAndre Thompkins is one of a handful of standouts early on in Penn State's spring practice, according to coach James Franklin.
- One blog believes Minnesota RB David Cobb could be a "mid-to-late round steal" in the NFL draft.
- Several former Rutgers football players took part in a charity basketball game over the weekend, hosted by ex-LB Antonio Lowery.
Our very own tournament marches on with the final game of the afternoon, in a rivalry that dates all the way back to 1899: Iowa vs. Illinois.
The winner of this game will move on to face the victor of the No. 3 Wisconsin-No. 14 Indiana matchup. Vote early and often; polls close midnight Wednesday.
No. 6 Iowa vs. No. 11 Illinois
Iowa: Rich history, good food, loud crowds -- there’s plenty to like about Iowa City’s game day atmosphere. Like most destinations, the real atmosphere starts in the parking lots where fans buy turkey legs on Melrose Avenue before heading to the pregame concert inside the Rec Building. Players and coaches will touch the 20-foot statue of football legend Nile Kinnick before entering Kinnick Stadium, where fans will listen to Kinnick’s moving 1939 Heisman acceptance speech on the big screen before every home game. Inside, fans will line up behind the visitors’ bench -- so close they can reach out and grab the opponents -- to make the stadium a truly intimidating venue. They’ll chant I-O-W-A after every touchdown, sit entranced at the pregame intro and hope to hear the Hawkeye Victory Polka at game’s end. Plus, opponents are still treated to a pink visitors’ locker room.
Illinois: Memorial Stadium was home to one of the greatest college football players who ever lived, Red Grange, and Illinois celebrates that. Players will touch the “Grange Rock,” which was dedicated in 1994, on their way to the field. And fans can snap a photo of the 12-foot Grange statue outside the stadium. Inside, Illinois is known for their Block I’s card stunts -- although it’s sometimes difficult to do with the scarce student crowd. The Marching Illini’s pregame show remains a fan favorite and it’s difficult to go long without hearing someone yell “I-L-L” and someone else returning, “I-N-I.” The stadium was about two-thirds full for the average game last season.
We're coming ... to your cit-ayyy.
Well, at least in our own minds right now. This is our Big Ten ultimate road trip for 2015, where we pick the game each week we'd most like to attend if budgets and editorial decisions were no obstacle. Each of us can only select one game per week.
Our road trip now moves into October and the start of full-bore conference action:
Saturday, Oct. 3
Nebraska at Illinois
Ohio State at Indiana
Michigan at Maryland
Purdue at Michigan State
Minnesota at Northwestern
Iowa at Wisconsin
Army at Penn State
Unanimous pick: Iowa at Wisconsin
Josh Moyer: Two of these teams' last three meetings were decided by two points or less, and it should be another close one this season. Plus, one glance at the rest of the schedule and all the potential blowouts, and this decision became a lot easier for me. Honestly, this game could've been in Iowa City or Madison, and I still would've picked it -- but I have a soft spot for the Badger State.
Dan Murphy: Iowa could be the best team in the Camp Randall visiting locker room this fall. The Badgers play a relatively dull home schedule in Paul Chryst's first year back in Madison. By early October, his program should have most of its new-staff wrinkles ironed out and provide a good idea of what to expect when Wisconsin visits Nebraska the following week for a pivotal division match-up.
Week 1: Bennett and Murphy at Ohio State-Virginia Tech; Ward at Michigan-Utah; Moyer at Wisconsin-Alabama
Week 2: Unanimous: Oregon at Michigan State
Week 3: Sherman and Murphy at Rutgers-Penn State, Bennett and Ward at Nebraska-Miami
Week 4: Bennett and Ward at Maryland-West Virginia, Sherman and Moyer at BYU-Michigan
Throughout this week, all sorts of columnists and experts have chimed in with their opinions on Chris Borland's decision to retire. It's either the start of a trend, or the start of nothing. A significant and symbolic move, or a trivial decision in the grand scheme.
I'm not going to share my opinion -- every stance has already been expressed -- but I will pass on one that I feel deserves to be read.
Take a look at this essay by ex-Penn State offensive guard John Urschel: "Why I Play Football." Maybe no one in the NFL has more on the line than him. He's been published in major journals, graduated with a 4.0 GPA, and is intent on earning a chess title. Basically, by all accounts, he boasts a brain that seems more befitting a brain surgeon than a brawny ballplayer.
He doesn't need football. He says as much. He could make a living in mathematics instead of hitting grown men for a living. So, why does someone with so much on the line keep playing? Why does he keep risking his future on the present? His words:
"What my mother and a great majority of my friends, family, and fellow mathematicians don’t understand is that I’m not playing for the money. I’m not playing for some social status associated with being an elite athlete. No, the media has not brainwashed me into thinking this is what real men do. ... I play because I love the game. I love hitting people. There’s a rush you get when you go out on the field, lay everything on the line and physically dominate the player across from you. This is a feeling I’m (for lack of a better word) addicted to, and I’m hard-pressed to find anywhere else."
You can call him idealistic, but don't call him dishonest. Maybe no player's take is more relevant.
Urschel's words might not hold true for all players. Heck, maybe that truth is different for each player. But it's a take worth reading.
He ends with: "Simply put, right now, not playing football isn’t an option for me. And for that reason, I truly envy Chris Borland."
Now, on to the links ...
- Tanner McEvoy is ready to make an impact at safety for Wisconsin. Barry Alvarez discusses Borland's decision to retire.
- Defensive line coach Greg Mattison is fitting in just fine with the new Michigan staff.
- Indiana tight end Jordan Fuchs joined the basketball team in February and has been a physical presence at practice.
- Former Penn State tight end Matt Lehman worked at a pizza shop while preparing for one more shot at the NFL.
- The Hawkeyes' recruiting spending mushroomed between 2009 and 2013, from $240K to $477K, and only Penn State experienced a greater increase.
- Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones improved on his combine numbers and said he felt relaxed "back at home."
- The Nebraska freshman who blocked a punt in the Holiday Bowl, Kieron Williams, is intent on earning the starting job at safety.
- Ex-Rutgers star Brian Leonard said his NFL future remains "up in the air."
Here in the throes of March Madness, football takes a temporary backseat, especially for the Big Ten schools involved in the NCAA tournament.
(In 30 seconds, name the league’s seven men’s basketball teams vying for the big prize. Scroll down for the answer.)
They’re still talking football in Iowa, even as the state’s three basketball programs compete in the tournament. The cost of football recruiting, to be more exact.
The Des Moines Register examined recruiting costs associated with campus visits and coaches’ travel, finding that Iowa nearly doubled its spending over a five-year period that ended in 2013. The 98.7-percent increase ranked second in the Big Ten to Penn State over that same time.
Interestingly, the Hawkeyes still trailed rival Iowa State by more than $100,000 on recruiting expenditures in 2013, and spent 35 percent less than ISU over the five years.
Of the spending increase, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz told the Register: "It’s really a national trend. I think everybody’s being a little more aggressive than they used to be."
It’s a good sign for Iowa that it’s trying to keep pace. The Hawkeyes and Ferentz, entering his 17th season, are too often slow to adjust at times. Over the five years of gathered data, Iowa ranks 10th in the Big Ten in total spending on recruiting.
To reverse its current trajectory on the field, Iowa would be well served to rank higher than 10th over the next five years.
Here’s the full list of schools nationally, as compiled by USA Today. Just wondering, but how did Auburn spend nearly $1.4 million on recruiting in 2013 when more than 80 percent of its signees in 2013 and 2014 lived within the SEC footprint?
A final aside on recruiting expenses: Though they offer an excellent window into these programs, be careful about comparisons.
Air travel, the most significant recruiting expense, is classified by programs in different ways. Some schools own planes, jetting coaches from coast to coast; others receive donated private air time; others rely solely on commercial travel.
And here is your answer to the above question: Ohio State and Purdue play Thursday. Michigan State, Indiana, Maryland, Iowa, and Wisconsin take the court Friday. Enjoy the basketball.
Let's go around the rest of the league:
- No school nationally can match Wisconsin's combined run of postseason appearances in football and basketball.
- Meet Scarlet Gray Victory, the baby girl named after Ohio State's national title.
- Pro day at Michigan State drew an impressive crowd and went well for projected first-rounder Trae Waynes.
- A spring assessment of the Michigan linebackers.
- Here is a guide to spring practice at Penn State.
- A 27-year-old former Rutgers fullback continues to chase his dream of playing in the NFL.
- A recruit with a familiar name joins the Minnesota class for 2016 at linebacker.
- No one will mistake him for Randy Gregory, but Nebraska defensive end Jack Gangwish plans to fill big shoes for the Huskers.
- Versatile athlete Gelen Robinson looks ready to step into a big role for Purdue as a defensive end.
- Illinois' young receivers are seeking more growth in spring practice.
Hitting the links before diving headfirst into the brackets ...
1. Penn State coach James Franklin offered a preview of spring practice on Tuesday, and one of the most interesting developments to come out of it was the official revelation that cornerback Jordan Lucas is moving to safety.
Lucas has started the past two years at corner and has been excellent at the position. But Franklin said that while Lucas has the talent to play cornerback in the NFL, he has a chance to "be special" at safety.
The move had been hinted at earlier this offseason. Penn State is light at safety after Adrian Amos, Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle all graduated, but it is flush with young talent at corner. Lucas should make a relatively smooth transition to safety, and at this point, you have to give Bob Shoop the benefit of the doubt on all matters pertaining to defense.
2. Michigan State's task of replacing ultra-productive running back Jeremy Langford might have gotten a little more difficult.
The team's leading returning rusher, sophomore Delton Williams, was suspended from all team activities on Tuesday by head coach Mark Dantonio. He was charged with brandishing a firearm in an apparent road rage incident on Monday night (side note: is the word brandishing ever used with anything else but a weapon?).
Williams reportedly had a permit for the handgun, and the charge is only a misdemeanor. However, Michigan State's code of conduct prohibits any guns on campus property, so some serious university sanctions could be coming as well.
Williams, who ran for 316 yards and five touchdowns last season, was seen as the early frontrunner to replace Langford. For at least the time being, sophomore Gerald Holmes is the most experienced returning back with 44 rushing yards last season. Redshirt freshman Madre London and true freshman L.J. Scott could also take on bigger responsibilities.
Another Michigan State player -- receiver Macgarrett Kings Jr. -- was arrested late last month on drunken and disorderly charges. The Spartans don't start spring practice until next week, and hopefully no more players will make bad decisions before then.
Around the Big Ten ...
- Wisconsin's Corey Clement is dealing with yet another coaching change. Former Badgers teammates react to Chris Borland's surprising decision to retire.
- Michigan passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch is excited about the Wolverines' returning wide receivers. John Baxter has a unique philosophy for Michigan's special teams.
- Minnesota likes its linebacker depth this spring.
- Nebraska offensive lineman Zach Hannon is making strides after dropping some pounds.
- The On Iowa podcast takes a look at the C.J. Beathard era.
- Previewing the offensive line this spring for Indiana.
- Some potential wide receiver recruits for Ohio State.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Historically, the Big Ten hasn’t been a great passing conference.
How bad has it been? Well, when it comes to producing 2,500-yard passers, we crunched the numbers and found that no Power 5 conference has had fewer -- either in 2014 or over the past five seasons -- than the ground-and-pound conference.
Over the past five years, there has been a wide gulf between the B1G and everybody else. Even when you take all the B1G realignment into account, a B1G team produces a 2,500-yard quarterback at less than a 40 percent clip. Compare that to the Pac-12 (68.3 percent) or even the SEC (48.6 percent), and it’s not too pretty.
But it’s not all doom-and-gloom for the Big Ten. This season should put an end -- at least temporarily -- to those poor passing numbers. Three returning Big Ten signal-callers reached the milestone last season and are near-locks to surpass 2,500 yards again: Michigan State’s Connor Cook, Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg, and Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong.
Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett also surpassed 2,500 yards in 2014, although there is no telling what his numbers might be with a crowded race under center. Still, boasting three NFL-caliber quarterbacks on the same roster should merit some extra credit.
On top of those four returners, healthy quarterbacks like Nate Sudfeld and Wes Lunt have great opportunities for 2,500 yards, and Iowa was just 64 yards shy last season after C.J. Beathard split time with Jake Rudock. With Rudock seeking a transfer, that passing mark seems more attainable this season. Maryland also would have achieved the feat last season if C.J. Brown had remained healthy, so Caleb Rowe could very well end the Terps’ seven-year drought this season.
Other teams need to settle on their quarterbacks first. And no one is expecting Wisconsin or Minnesota to become pass-first teams overnight. But trends like this tend to happen in cycles, and it looks as if the Big Ten is finally on an upswing in 2015.
It’s basically the opposite message from last week, with the 1,000-yard rushing club. The Big Ten had a great 2014, and it likely won’t equal that rushing performance again in 2015. With passing, it saw only five of 14 starting quarterbacks surpass 2,500 yards last season -- again, the worst among the Power 5, by far -- but it would be a huge surprise if it didn’t improve upon that number.
Now, our most recent chart doesn’t necessarily measure passing success. Two- and three-quarterback systems, signal-caller battles and injured players tend to blur those numbers, but this should be a memorable year for the B1G through the air. If Purdue, Michigan, Northwestern or Rutgers can settle on a starter and get off to a quick start, it could be even better.
We've talked about it ad nauseam around here, but in case you need a refresher course, the league featured such star tailbacks as Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Minnesota's David Cobb, Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Northwestern's Justin Jackson. When you have two 2,000-yard rushers and five others go over 1,100 yards -- including the offensive MVP of two playoff games -- then there's no debate which position is the strongest.
The running back position isn't going to drop off a cliff this year, either, as Elliott and Jackson return and new stars like Wisconsin's Corey Clement will emerge. But 2015 is going to be the "Year of the Quarterback" in the Big Ten.
But the drought almost certainly will change with the 2016 draft. In fact, there's a good chance the Big Ten will have multiple quarterbacks taken in the first round next year -- and we're not just talking about all of Ohio State's guys.
The Buckeyes are a great place to start in this discussion, as one of their three candidates for this year's starting job -- Cardale Jones, Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett -- instantly will become a Heisman Trophy front-runner the second he earns the gig. Assuming all three stick around until the fall, that will be a continuing topic of conversation and curiosity in Columbus and beyond.
There's zero quarterback controversy in East Lansing, as Connor Cook decided to return to Michigan State for his senior year. He's got a 23-3 record as a starter (and is 16-1 in Big Ten games) and already has led the team to victories in the Rose and Cotton bowls. If Cook can shore up some of his footwork and decision-making, he could be the first quarterback off the board next year ... unless, that is, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg comes out as a junior.
Hackenberg had major struggles last season as a sophomore, owing a lot to an offensive line held together with spit and string. But his natural talent is undeniable, and he reminded everybody of that by throwing for 350 yards and four touchdowns against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. With better protection and more experience at receiver, Hackenberg could bounce back in a big way in 2015.
There aren't as many household names under center at other Big Ten campuses. But Indiana's Nate Sudfeld has long been viewed as a pro prospect. His 2014 season was cut short by a shoulder injury, and he should be fully healed by the start of 2015. Illinois' Wes Lunt also was hampered by injuries last year, but when he was healthy, he threw for at least 266 yards four times. Both Sudfeld and Lunt are listed at 6-foot-5 and have the classic quarterback builds.
Tommy Armstrong Jr. has the perfect last name for a quarterback and could take the next step in his development as a junior for Nebraska. He'll play in a more passer-friendly offense under Mike Riley, and Armstrong gave a hint of his potential with a 381-yard, three-touchdown showing against USC in the Holiday Bowl.
Questions abound at other places, like Wisconsin, Rutgers, Purdue, Northwestern and Michigan. But each team has talented options that could be unlocked. Mitch Leidner moves into his third year of starting for Minnesota and had one of his better games in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. C.J. Beathard appears to be the man moving forward for Iowa, and his big arm and fearlessness gave the offense a spark last year.
The Big Ten looks like it's on an upswing, especially after a strong showing in the postseason. Improved quarterback play is a big reason why. This will be the best crop of signal-callers throughout the league in a long time, which is why 2015 will be the Year of the Quarterback.
The former four-year starting quarterback at Rutgers ran the 40-yard dash in 4.61 seconds Wednesday at pro day in Piscataway, part of an overall solid performance before scouts from every NFL team.
Nova gained 141 rushing yards as a senior and lost 146. He was sacked 69 times in his career and was rarely known as a threat to escape the pocket.
Apparently, though, he can run. Nova clocked a 4.65 in his second shot at the 40. His best mark Wednesday would have ranked fourth among quarterbacks -- behind Marcus Mariota, Nick Marshall and Blake Sims -- at the NFL combine last month.
Nova was not among 15 quarterbacks invited to the combine after he threw for 9,258 yards and 73 touchdowns at Rutgers over four seasons. He measured 6-foot-1 and 222 pounds at pro day.
Mentored by former NFL QB Jay Fiedler, Nova is viewed as a likely free-agent signing after the draft. Clearly, if he makes a roster, Nova -- who turns 22 the week of the draft -- won't be asked to showcase that 4.6 speed at the next level.
Perhaps the knowledge that he's more athletic and mobile than his time at Rutgers indicated, though, will convince more organizations to give him consideration. It can't hurt.
David Jones of PennLive.com offered a thought-provoking comparison this week between Penn State football and Syracuse basketball, recently hit with sanctions by the NCAA for widespread violations.
Both programs achieved huge success under iconic coaches and built brands known nationally.
While it may not be the case for a variety of reasons at Syracuse, Jones suggests that PSU was well equipped to weather its sanctions because of the Nittany Lions’ reputation as a football power.
Even though the Sunbelt has transcended this area as the nation's talent honeypot, gifted athletes and players across the country know the brand name. They know it as a place where you can play with other great talents which means everything in this age of herding.
It takes a lot to undo that name recognition and resultant power. Even the Sandusky scandal, Joe Paterno's dismissal and NCAA sanctions could not unplug Penn State's cachet.
So the next question: Are some brands in college athletics too big to fail? It’s a sobering thought, but one worth considering as the powerful programs gain even more power in this era of autonomy.
We hit the final installment of the Omaha World-Herald's four-part series on Mike Riley Wednesday in the links with this story on the influence of the new Nebraska coach on the career of Paul Chryst.
The earlier articles, also worth a look, documented Riley's courtship at the college and pro levels of Tom Brady and the how the rise of Oregon’s money-driven powerhouse cast a shadow over Riley at Oregon State, playing a role in his departure.
Dirk Chatelain's anchor piece, which details Riley’s upbringing and his long path to Lincoln, is a must-read for those interested in learning more about the man in charge at Nebraska.
Riley’s hire in December stunned many observers, primarily those who knew little about the 61-year-old coach. Now, the more Nebraskans learn about Riley -- and nothing published in the past three months revealed more than a small fraction of the detail offered in this series -- the more this move makes sense.
On to the rest of the links:
- Tight end Tyler Kroft, Rutgers' top NFL prospect, also performed well at pro day.
- Also from the pro day circuit, former Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon showed off his receiving skills.
- Maryland ventures into Indiana to pursue a promising linebacker.
- SI.com's MMQB examines the legend of Brandon Scherff in Iowa.
- The rumors of quarterback Jake Rudock's transfer from Iowa are substantiated by this report, which links him to Michigan. Meanwhile, here are a few breakout candidates for the Wolverines this spring at receiver and tight end.
- A spring breakdown of the Indiana wide receivers.
- Northwestern is set to begin construction of a $220 million lakefront sports complex that will house the football team's practice facility.
- Penn State adds a support staffer who formerly worked as a graduate assistant at Rutgers and for James Franklin at Vanderbilt.
- This spring gives Cardale Jones a chance to get a big jump in the much-anticipated quarterback race at Ohio State. But can he end the battle before it starts?
- Nebraska quarterback Johnny Stanton is eager for the next chapter of his career.
- It's time for David Blough to take his shot to win the job as Purdue's quarterback.
- Pat Narduzzi said he's better positioned geographically to recruit at Pitt than he was as defensive coordinator at Michigan State.
- Who's going to play a backup role to quarterback Wes Lunt at Illinois?
1. The defending national champions opened spring ball on Tuesday. While everybody was understandably talking about the quarterback "battle" on the first day -- it's not much of a battle right now, of course, with J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller recovering from injuries -- that's more or less a sideshow.
Sure, it's going to be utterly fascinating to see whether Cardale Jones can hold off the previous starters for the job. In the long run, however, it won't matter if Jones, Barrett, Miller or even Stephen Collier or Stephen Colbert starts for the Buckeyes. Quarterback is really the least of Urban Meyer's concerns.
He doesn't actually have many on this loaded roster. Yet if there's anything that could hold back Ohio State from making a repeat trip to the College Football Playoff, it's the defensive line. That might sound funny, since we were singing the praises of that unit as a dominant one all last year. But the Buckeyes had very little depth on the line last year and lost senior All-America tackle Michael Bennett, as well as senior defensive end Steve Miller.
Incoming freshman defensive end Dre'Mont Jones, whom we'd tabbed as one of five instant impact signees in the Big Ten last month, may not be able to contribute at all this year because of a recent knee injury.
It's going to be extremely important that holdover players like Michael Hill, Tyquan Lewis, Donovan Munger and Jalyn Holmes make a difference to keep this defensive line playing at a high level. And it's telling that none of them made much of a dent on the team last year even though Meyer isn't afraid to play rookies.
"I'm very disappointed in the young defensive linemen we brought in here," Meyer said, according to Cleveland.com. "Not with what kind of people they are, just with performance."
Spring practice is just beginning in Columbus and the pads haven't even come on, so there's no good way to tell yet if some of those players have made improvement. But watching for that will be more critical to Ohio State's 2015 prospects than whatever happens with the quarterbacks.
2. Student attendance is an issue for several Big Ten schools and one Adam Rittenberg addressed in the blog a year ago. Recently, Iowa and Michigan lowered prices on their student season tickets in part to lure students back in.
The Cedar Rapids Gazette's Marc Morehouse has a look at student ticket prices throughout the league and how Iowa compares. After Michigan's reduction, Ohio State tops the conference at $272 for student season tickets, while Penn State is second at $218. Supply and demand appear to be at work here, as those two schools have the largest and most energetic student sections in the Big Ten.
Six other schools have remaining ticket packages that top $100 for the season. Maybe I'm old (check that: I am really old) but I don't remember having that kind of extra spending money lying around when I was a college student. Maybe we shouldn't criticize student for not turning out at some of these places but applaud the ones who make the effort and pay the expense to do so. Just a thought.
Around the league:
- Spring practice is likely over for Northwestern star running back Justin Jackson because of a leg injury.
- Michigan's Jabril Peppers did not make many feminist friends with his series of tweets.
- Former Illinois quarterback Aaron Bailey has transferred to Northern Iowa, where he can play right away.
- Minnesota's Hank Ekpe had to sit out last year with headaches; now the defensive lineman is causing them for would-be blockers.
- Purdue completed its first day of spring practice, and a message was delivered.
- Michigan State's Macgarrett Kings Jr. initially resisted arrest before being charged on Feb. 28, according to a police report.
- Paul Chryst says Mike Riley taught him nice guys can finish first in coaching.
- Lots of young players are poised to break through for Ohio State.
- An early look at the Penn State linebackers.
- Tim Beckman previewed Illinois spring practice.
- A Maryland defensive lineman will miss several months.
- Wisconsin has holes to fill on its offensive line, but the talent is there.
- Several Big Ten teams are vying for the title in CBSSports.com's helmet bracket.
But let's be bold. Here are 10 predictions for spring practice in the Big Ten:
1. Cardale Jones takes command: You might remember Jones from such previous performances as "Whipping Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game," "Mauling Alabama in the Sugar Bowl" and "Beating Oregon for the national championship." Now he'll be the headliner in Ohio State's star-studded quarterback battle as the only one of the three who will be healthy enough to participate fully in drills. Expect Jones to have a big spring and take the lead in the race, though J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller will have their say this summer.
2. Tommy Armstrong Jr. leads in Lincoln: Nebraska's starting quarterback will have to prove himself all over again to a new coaching staff. But while Johnny Stanton and, to a lesser extent, Ryker Fyfe have their supporters among the Big Red fan base, Armstrong's superior leadership skills and experience will ensure that he's the man for Mike Riley this spring.
3. Penn State finds some answers on the offensive line: The Nittany Lions can't possibly be as bad up front as they were last year, and now they have a lot more options. Junior college transfer Paris Palmer will win the right tackle job and Andrew Nelson will take a step forward in a move to left tackle. Throw in some promising youngsters, and QB Christian Hackenberg will be feeling more secure heading into this fall.
5. Joel Stave faces serious heat for his job at Wisconsin: Stave has a 20-6 career record as a starter, something few Big Ten quarterbacks can match. Yet, like Iowa, the Badgers need a jolt in their passing game. Either redshirt freshman D.J. Gillins or true freshman Austin Kafentzis will make this a real competition this spring, leaving the starting job up for grabs in fall camp.
6. Minnesota's receivers provide optimism: The passing games at Wisconsin and Iowa are prolific compared to the Gophers, largely because Minnesota has lacked playmaking wideouts the past few years. But Minnesota will emerge from the spring feeling much better about its options at the position as some redshirt freshmen make plays. Two names to watch: Isaiah Gentry and Jerry Gibson.
7. Hayden Rettig has a big spring for Rutgers: Chris Laviano has an edge in experience in the Scarlet Knights' quarterback competition, but Rettig has the pedigree. A former four-star recruit who transferred from LSU, Rettig's big arm will make a large impression this spring.
8. Indiana doesn't miss Tevin Coleman ... too much: Coleman put up the best rushing season in the Hoosiers' history, but his absence won't create a crater this spring. That's because UAB transfer Jordan Howard will step in and immediately replace most of that production. He might not match Coleman's pure explosiveness, but the offense won't suffer too much.
9. New defensive stars emerge at Michigan State: This happens every spring. Even with Pat Narduzzi gone, the Spartan Dawgs will remain strong behind new co-defensive coordinators Mike Tressel and Harlon Barnett. And they've always got a wave of players ready to step in for departed leaders. Some names to watch include Demetrious Cox, Malik McDowell, Riley Bullough, Montae Nicholson and Darian Hicks.
10. A couple of quarterbacks transfer: This has become a trend in college football -- a quarterback can be quick to bolt when he finds out he won't be the starter. Keep an eye on places where there are a lot of candidates bunched together, such as Purdue (Austin Appleby, Danny Etling, David Blough) or where the two-man competition is heated, such as Iowa. And, of course, Ohio State remains on high alert. But it's almost inevitable that there will be some quarterback transfers in the summer.