Big Ten: Nebraska Cornhuskers

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
5:00
PM ET
You've got questions, I've got answers. Let's move along to the Big Ten mailbag ...


Josh Moyer: Let's see here. Heisman-worthy candidate? Check. Two solid wideouts? Check. Best defensive player in the conference when healthy? Check. But there are a few things Nebraska needs to tweak, or sustain, to really put together a solid run. Let me give you my three key points. For one, the Huskers need to find ways to gain more turnovers. They have just one so far -- and it was an interception against McNeese State on a Hail Mary to end the game. Nebraska is dead-last in the nation in creating turnovers. So it needs to continue to take care of the ball but find ways to get that ball back, especially when it's on the road. Two, Tommy Armstrong needs to continue to make smart decisions -- but he has to understand he can't rely on the big play as much as before. This team is really living and dying on those big plays, instead of constructing sustained drives, so it'll have to adapt against better defenses. And three, if there's a part of the defense that hast to step up, it's the linebackers. They need to be more active and create more plays. If Nebraska does those things, I think you'll be seeing the Huskers in the B1G title game.

Andy from Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, writes: My biggest concern is that Jake Rudock is one of the leading rushers for Iowa. That's not a good thing! My impression is that he is taking off running on passing plays way too often. Is this a problem of the receivers not getting open or is it Rudock not giving the play enough time to develop?

Josh Moyer: There are all sorts of problems on Iowa's offense, but I don't think quarterback Jake Rudock is even close to being near the top of those concerns. He's completing 68 percent of his passes and has thrown one pick in 117 attempts. The offensive line bears some of the blame, but these issues also have to do with the play-calling. Opponents are loading the box against Iowa and, rather than airing it out or making opponents pay for that, offensive coordinator Greg Davis has opted to stick with a horizontal passing attack. Iowa's offensive gameplan is predictable and conservative, and that seems to be a big reason this offense is so out of whack. Rudock is simply taking off when he sees an opening, and he's done a relatively good job of that. You could argue he's taking off too much, but his unscripted running plays are more effective than the scripted runs: Rudock is averaging 4 yards a carry, more than a yard better than Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock. So you're right, it is concerning that Rudock is one of the leading rushers. But that's more a product of the concerning offense, rather than a concerning Rudock.


Josh Moyer: Realistically, I feel as if the most likely Penn State outcome is still an eight-win regular season, give or take a victory. But you specifically asked about the ceiling -- about the best-case scenario -- so I'll put that at 10. Yes, the Big Ten is down as a whole. And, yes, outside of Michigan State, there are really no "unwinnable" games. But as James Franklin said Saturday, winning tends to minimize issues while losing magnifies them. And Penn State still has quite a few issues -- namely the young offensive line. If you could substitute Wisconsin's offensive line here, I think PSU could realistically go 11-1 or better. But left tackle Donovan Smith appears to be the only above-average lineman, since center Angelo Mangiro really struggled Saturday against Rutgers. Christian Hackenberg has no time in the pocket, and there's virtually no run game of which to speak. I said this before and I'll say it again: Penn State's ceiling is capped by its offensive line. Ohio State should give PSU plenty of problems, and Michigan's defense is much more aggressive compared to last season. PSU fans should approach this conference season with cautious optimism.

Leland Buss rom Burlington, Wisconsin, writes: Why is Wisconsin trending downward? I thought the loss to LSU was a good loss. Am I wrong? The win against Western Illinois was solid if not spectacular, so why are they now being dismissed as contenders in the West?

Josh Moyer: Leland is referring to our Big Ten power rankings, where we dropped Wisconsin to No. 5 this past week. And it's a good question. But the Badgers' move had less to do with Wisconsin and more to do with how the teams above them performed. Nebraska dominated Fresno State, and Penn State turned in another solid defensive effort. Both teams are undefeated, and they deserve credit for that. Michigan State is the easy No. 1 and the Buckeyes ... well, their loss to Virginia Tech looks worse now than before. But Ohio State's passing game gives me a lot less pause than Wisconsin's. No one's discounting Wisconsin as a division contender. Iowa has looked pretty bad so far, and it sure seems as if the race in the West is between Nebraska and Wisconsin. If the Badgers can shore up their passing game, they'll be back near the top in no time.

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 3

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
2:00
PM ET
Three weeks' worth of games are in the book. That's not enough to decide the individual award races in the Big Ten, but it won't stop us from figuring out where those races stand.

Our Big Ten reporters are voting weekly on the races, with players receiving five points for a first-place vote, four for a second-place nod, etc. Also, we try hard to base these standings on 2014 season results only, not any preconceived notions or a player's previous track records.

Here's how things shake out:

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah (Five first-place votes): Abdullah gets the unanimous nod on offense as he continues to power up the Huskers attack.

2. Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: He has become the master of the two-minute drive, and he leads the Big Ten in passing.

3. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: He leads the Big Ten in rushing yards (437) and rushing touchdowns (five) despite having played just two games. He's averaging 9.3 yards per carry.

4. Michigan State QB Connor Cook: His completion rate is over 68 percent, and Cook can build on his stats against Eastern Michigan and Wyoming the next two weeks.

5. Illinois QB Wes Lunt: He wasn't able to summon late-game magic at Washington in Week 3 but still is among the league's top passers.

Also receiving votes: Michigan RB Derrick Green; Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon; Minnesota RB David Cobb; Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong Jr.

Nagurski Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Penn State DT Anthony Zettel (5): Another unanimous pick, Zettel has been a monster in the early going for the Lions. He leads the Big Ten in tackles for loss, with seven, to go along with three sacks.

2. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa: He's tied for the league lead with two forced fumbles, in addition to 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.

3. Iowa DT Louis Trinca-Pasat: His strong start to the season continues, as he has four tackles for loss along Iowa's strong defensive front.

4. Wisconsin S Michael Caputo: He and the Badgers were off last week but should get a test from Bowling Green's fast-paced offense.

Also receiving votes: Penn State LB Mike Hull; Rutgers DE Kemoko Turay; Minnesota LB Damien Wilson; Michigan State DE Marcus Rush; Ohio State LB Joshua Perry.
Nebraska and Miami met five times in bowl games from 1984 to 2002, with the winner staking claim to the national title four times. Here’s a look inside the series at three of the most memorable games from an era gone past in college football:

1984 Orange Bowl: Miami 31, Nebraska 30


Turner Gill, Kevin FaganAP Photo/John RaouxKevin Fagan hounded Turner Gill in the '84 Orange Bowl as Miami won its first national title.


December 1983 rated as one of the coldest months on record in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The high temperature was 36 degrees on Dec. 8. The low? Minus-24 on Dec. 22, part of a weeklong stretch when the thermometer did not reach zero while the top-ranked Cornhuskers readied to play Miami in the Orange Bowl.

At the time, Nebraska practiced outdoors on frozen grass and AstroTurf. Four years later, the school built an indoor facility, spurred in part by the horrendous conditions of that month. When the Huskers arrived in Miami, players and coaches exited the plane in their winter coats. The heat and humidity hit them hard -– which was a factor as the Hurricanes jumped to a 17-0 lead on Jan. 2.

The 1983 Huskers averaged 50.3 points and 370.8 rushing yards per game behind quarterback Turner Gill and Heisman Trophy-winning I-back Mike Rozier. But in that Orange Bowl, Nebraska sputtered offensively as Rozier left in the second half with an ankle injury.

The Huskers pulled within one, but Gill’s two-point conversion pass failed in the final minute as Kenny Calhoun knocked the ball away from Nebraska I-back Jeff Smith.

The whole scenario couldn’t have worked any better for Howard Schnellenberger, the Hurricanes’ showman of a head coach who, in buildup to the bowl game, landed a helicopter on the Nebraska practice field in Miami, jumping out with a pipe in his mouth.

A wayward program just five years prior when Schnellenberger took charge, Miami won its 11th consecutive game to earn the school its first national title and first of four in a nine-year period.

And the Huskers, again under Tom Osborne, were left out in the cold.



1995 Orange Bowl: Nebraska 24, Miami 17


Warren SappAP Photo/Jeffrey BoanMiami's Warren Sapp was chatty, but Tommie Frazier and Nebraska got the last word and the win.


The story is part of Nebraska lore. Not the two-touchdown comeback or the prescient halftime vow to his team by Osborne that Miami would tire late -– well, that’s all legendary, too -– but Tommie Frazier’s version of the trash talk shared with Warren Sapp perhaps best symbolizes Nebraska’s rise to surpass Miami in this once-lopsided postseason series.

Osborne had replaced Frazier with Brook Berringer early, the arrangement in place for much of the 1994 regular season as blood clots sidelined Frazier for eight games.

When Frazier returned to field late in the fourth quarter, the Huskers trailed 17-9. Sapp, the Hurricanes’ boisterous defensive tackle, shot jabs at the junior quarterback.

“Where you been, Tommie,” Sapp shouted, according to Frazier.

“It’s not where I’ve been,” Frazier said in 2009, recounting the exchange. “It’s where I’m going, fat ass.”

With fresh legs, Frazier, the Florida native who came up two points short against Florida State a year earlier in the same stadium, gashed Miami on the option. With less than eight minutes to play, fullback Cory Schlesinger burst through middle for a 15-yard score. Frazier found tight end Eric Alford for a two-point conversion to tie it.

Less than five minutes later, with Frazier at the helm, Schlesinger scored again from 14 yards out. The victory secured Osborne’s first national title and one of three in his final four seasons as coach.

As usual in his college career, which concluded with 33 wins in 36 starts, Frazier had the final word.



2002 Rose Bowl: Miami 37, Nebraska 14


Andre Johnson, Daryl Jones, Carl Walker, Ken DorseyAP Photo/Mark J. TerrillMiami had 38 players go to the NFL, including Daryl Jones (L), Andre Johnson (C) and Ken Dorsey (R).


Six years before this most recent Nebraska-Miami meeting, the Cornhuskers fielded a team in 1995 that was considered by some as the greatest in history. Its average margin of victory approached 40 points. And true to form, Osborne’s team crushed Florida 62-24 in the Fiesta Bowl.

If only the 1995 Huskers could have met 2001 Miami. Because this Nebraska team had no chance. The Hurricanes, loaded with 16 future first-round NFL draft picks, blitzed the Huskers for 27 second-quarter points en route to a 34-0 halftime lead. Miami could have named its score, but coach Larry Coker showed mercy in the second half as the championship celebration began early.

The star power at Miami in 2001 was incredible, featuring running backs Clinton Portis and Frank Gore, quarterback Ken Dorsey, offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, tight ends Jeremy Shockey and Kellen Winslow, safeties Ed Reed and Sean Taylor, linebackers Jonathan Vilma and D.J. Williams, receiver Andre Johnson, cornerbacks Phillip Buchanon and Mike Rumph, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork -- the list seems never-ending. In all, 38 players from that team were drafted. They accumulated more than 40 appearances in the Pro Bowl.

Miami outscored its opponents in 2001 by 33.2 points per game. Its offense, defense and special teams units each could lay claim to a ranking as the nation’s best.

And for all the work Nebraska accomplished in the '90s to close the gap on Miami’s dynasty of the previous decade, it looked wider than ever on Jan. 3, 2002.
They were told they would never have a chance against Nebraska, the fiercest, most powerful team in America.

Looking across the line, safety Kenny Calhoun and his Miami teammates saw big boys all right. But Miami had speed, and it had confidence, and it had its own toughness, too. Calhoun showed as much when he batted down Turner Gill’s two-point conversion pass attempt in the 1984 Orange Bowl, delivering the defining moment in one of the most memorable national championship games ever played.

Their rivalry only grew from there, Tom Osborne on the Nebraska sideline with his plodding, ball-control offense, trying to figure out a way to neutralize the warp-speed Hurricanes. Their national championship battles became referendums on strength and toughness versus speed and athleticism. Speed won twice. Then Tommie Frazier came along, trash talkin’ Warren Sapp and putting on the moves to back it up, delivering Osborne his first national championship in the 1995 Orange Bowl.

But the advantages they once used to build their dynasties seemingly have disappeared as the college football landscape has changed. The last time they met, Miami routed Nebraska for a fifth national title in the 2002 Rose Bowl.

Since then, neither school has replicated the success they had when their paths met during the 1980s and 1990s. When they play Saturday in Lincoln, their matchup will serve as another reminder that college football has moved on without them.

"Those two teams, those two decades are moments in time and I seriously doubt that they can ever be duplicated," Calhoun said. "Just basically because of recruiting, the bowl structure now, the playoff system and the NCAA regulations and rules on how they govern the game."

[+] EnlargeHoward Schnellenberger and Al Golden
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeHoward Schnellenberger, left, led Miami to the 1983 national title. The college football landscape has changed for current Miami coach Al Golden.
So much has changed in the 30 years since the two teams met in the Orange Bowl. At the time, Nebraska had built a strength and conditioning program that was the envy of everybody across the country. The Huskers had perfected the option offense and had a strong coaching lineage, big draws for players growing up in the Plains.

Miami, meanwhile, began to focus on recruiting the South Florida area. Coach Howard Schnellenberger coined the term "State of Miami," hoping to lock down the best athletes from the three counties surrounding the school. He also brought a pro-style offense with him from his days as an NFL assistant. After Miami began having success, other programs started to follow the Hurricanes’ blueprint.

Their advantages were no longer a secret. Schools from across the country now recruit in South Florida, and are looking for speed. That includes Nebraska. Plus, there are more FBS programs in state looking for a piece of the recruiting pie. South Florida, Central Florida, Florida International and Florida Atlantic were not part of the equation during the dynasty years.

As for Nebraska, the Huskers no longer own an edge in strength and conditioning. The option offense is virtually obsolete, negating another edge it used to have. They no longer have rivalries with Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma to sell. Their closest conference "rivals" are Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

And recruiting has changed for the Huskers, too.

[+] EnlargeNebraska's Tom Osborne
AP Photo/Hans Deryk"One thing that we did have in common is, if you looked at our recruiting classes, we were usually -- Miami and Nebraska -- ranked around 20th or 30th, 35th," Tom Osborne said.
"One thing that we did have in common is, if you looked at our recruiting classes, we were usually -- Miami and Nebraska -- ranked around 20th or 30th, 35th," Osborne said. "They seemed to get a lot of players out of South Florida that lots of people didn’t know about. And we got a lot of kids out of Nebraska and other places that people didn’t know much about. We developed talent. We didn’t have as many blue-chip players, but we certainly had guys who could play."

Former Miami defensive end Kevin Fagan echoes that sentiment, believing Miami can win again with the right group of players -- a group that shows the same characteristics that his 1983 championship team showed.

"Throw away the five-star stuff and go out there and look at kids," Fagan said. "Put on the film against really good opponents. When they’re getting beat, do they have character? Look beyond the speed and vertical jump and bench press. ... Schnellenberger, that was something he was really, really good at. He looked for those tough kids that other people didn’t want. Who finds a Jim Burt, or Jim Kelly? No one thinks he’s a quarterback, but Schnellenberger did."

Since the 2001 season, only Miami has played for another national championship, in 2002. Since 2004, neither team has won a conference championship. The highest final ranking for Miami was No. 11 in 2004; for Nebraska, it was No. 14 in 2009.

"Football is still a developmental game," Osborne said. "People go about it in different ways. Every place has an offseason plan and a sophisticated strength program. I agree that we might have had an edge for a period of time, but by the '90s, I think that was pretty well gone. ... But you always look for things -- whether it’s nutrition, whether it’s academic support, whether it’s schemes -- things to give you an edge."

Miami and Nebraska are still looking.

Big Ten reporter Mitch Sherman contributed to this report.

Big Ten morning links

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
8:00
AM ET
Nebraska-Miami occupies a special place in my heart and mind. Their games of the 1980s and ‘90s symbolized an era of college football. It was power versus speed, stability matched against flash.

The programs' styles stood in perfect contrast. Yet in four Orange Bowl meetings over 11 years, they made for the game's best of unlikely rivalries. Though Nebraska slipped from the top in the midst of that decade, by the end, it had supplanted Miami like the Hurricanes did to Tom Osborne's team after the 1983 season.

The Hurricanes visit Lincoln on Saturday night. The thought of those two helmets together again stirs emotions. It feels big -- bigger, apparently, than it is.

ESPN's matchup-quality metric ranks games on a zero-to-100 scale, based on the team's spots in the Football Power Index and the expected competitiveness. It was jarring this week not to find Nebraska-Miami among the top five matchups in Week 4.

It's Nebraska-Miami, after all. When these two have met historically, it's not just the biggest game of the week; it's the biggest of the year.

But today in college football, Florida-Alabama (91.6 matchup quality), Clemson-Florida State (90.5), Mississippi State-LSU (90.1), Oklahoma-West Virginia (87.2) and Auburn-Kansas State (87.0) earn higher billing than the Huskers and Hurricanes.

I heard an intriguing question this week: What program is better positioned, Nebraska or Miami, to make a run at the top again? I can't say definitively. Nebraska's infrastructure and internal resources favor it; Miami's natural resources are a big advantage.

But until Nebraska-Miami cracks the top five most important games on a September weekend, neither team is in position to join the national conversation.
  • Another interesting question: What Big Ten team on Saturday matched against a Power 5 opponent is most in need of a win this week? Other than Nebraska-Miami, Iowa visits Pittsburgh, Maryland visits Syracuse, Utah plays at Michigan and Indiana visits Missouri. While I'm tempted to pick Iowa, but my answer is Michigan. A loss by the Wolverines against the high-flying Utes, who won at the Big House in 2008, would serve to draw another parallel between this staff and the previous regime. And that's not good for Brady Hoke. Neither are all these turnovers.
  • Columnist Rick Brown of the Des Moines Registers urges Iowa fans upset with Kirk Ferentz to be careful what they wish for. I understand the sentiment and agree that Iowa does more with less better than several Big Ten counterparts. But have you watched the Big Ten lately? Why use Illinois and Minnesota as the measuring stick? It's OK to set the bar high. Fans ought to be upset with the Hawkeyes' offensive play. Don't apologize for reasonable expectations.

Around the rest of the league:

East Division
West Division

Big Ten Monday mailbag

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
5:00
PM ET
Let's cut through the pleasantries -- it wasn't really a pleasant weekend for the Big Ten -- and get right to the mailbag questions. As always -- more than ever, in fact -- thanks for your submissions.

Mitch Sherman: Nothing has changed in the East, where Michigan State remains the team to beat. The Spartans look like the best team in the league, and I don't think you will get much of an argument from logical fans of other Big Ten teams. If anything, the results of the past two weeks -- even the Michigan State setback at Oregon -- has solidified MSU atop its division. It's murky in the West, where the schedule says Iowa is the favorite. The Hawkeyes' play does not. Wisconsin also plays a favorable slate, and we will see if the week off has allowed the Badgers to flip momentum. If so, they are a co-favorite with Nebraska, which, despite a near disaster against McNeese State, has produced two of the league's top performances this seasons in wins against Fresno State and Florida Atlantic.

Mitch Sherman: Joel Stave, fighting a football version of the yips, returned to team drills in some form last week, though coach Gary Andersen has not declared anything in regard to his senior quarterback. Sounds like it remains an extended process with Stave, who has sought some outside attention in dealing with his throwing issues. It's good to hear that Stave has maintained a healthy approach in practice, though I have concerns about his effectiveness even after he clears the hurdles necessary to get back on the field. What happens when adversity strikes in a game? How will it impact his play to perform in front of tens of thousands of people who know about his struggles? For that reason, expect the Badgers to move slowly with Stave. The schedule is on their side, staying soft through October.

Mitch Sherman: Well, considering that the Boilermakers tanked this year before playing Notre Dame, I don't know if parallels exist to be drawn. It seems that Purdue does a nice job of getting up for the Irish, or maybe it's something about the matchup that works well. Or maybe Notre Dame is disinterested. Regardless, the Boilers have a good shot on Saturday against unbeaten FCS foe Southern Illinois. If it doesn't happen, another one-win season enters the realm of possibility. As bad as the Big Ten looks, I still don't see that as likely. Quarterback Danny Etling showed improvement against Notre Dame, and hey, Northwestern visits Ross-Ade Stadium this year. Realistically, if Purdue can build on the good things from Saturday in Indianapolis, as many as four games in the Big Ten could be competitive.

Mitch Sherman: That question wins the award, Matt, for most intriguing of the day. I'm not sure J.T. Barrett and the Buckeyes would have defeated Kent State 66-0 if it had been the opener. But it would have been an easy victory that could have provided the young quarterback and his offensive line with the confidence it lacked against Navy and Virginia Tech. I'm convinced that by the end of this season, Virginia Tech could not come into the Horseshoe and dominate Ohio State in any way close to what happened in Week 2. By the same token, the Buckeyes might have had even more trouble with Navy if that game came later in the season. But to answer your question, no; Ohio State would have fared better in its bid to escape this nonconference season with a perfect mark intact if the order of games had been arranged differently..

One and ten. Get to know those numbers because they'll be shoved down your throat all week.

After the Big Ten's worst two-week stretch in nonconference play since, well, ever, the league sits with a 1-10 record against Power 5 teams and Notre Dame. The season looked so promising when Rutgers upset Washington State in Seattle on college football's opening night.

Since then: bupkis.

So prepare for 1-10 fever. Many of you would expect nothing else from evil ESecPN and its Big Ten-hating agenda. But 1-10 is a fact, and in a playoff-first environment where conferences will be constantly compared until Dec. 7, the Big Ten finds itself in a miserable spot.

So, you ask, is there hope for a turnaround? Sure. There's a lot of season left, and as we saw Saturday night at Boston College, anything can happen in college football. The biggest measuring-up opportunities -- Wisconsin-LSU, Michigan State-Oregon, even the Notre Dame games -- are finished, but the baby-step opportunities remain.

There are several of those for the Big Ten in Week 4. It's not the end of nonleague play, but it's the last full Saturday before conference play kicks off.

No one will confuse Missouri, Pitt, Syracuse, Utah and Miami for world beaters, although Mizzou is pretty darn good (Big Ten expansion miss?). But the Big Ten's Week 4 opponents provide chances for that 1-10 mark to look a little bit better ... or much worse.

Fans have to understand that in the playoff environment, everything is connected. Teams can be both playoff contenders and enhancers for league brethren who carry genuine playoff hopes.

For example: If Maryland beats West Virginia on Saturday, and WVU later knocks off a Big 12 heavyweight or two, Maryland suddenly carries more cache, even in subsequent defeats. If Michigan State beats Maryland later this season in College Park, the Spartans would get more playoff credit for that road win.

The problem for the Big Ten is when you lose almost all of your games against comparable conferences, your league race becomes devalued. Conference wins that could make the difference between getting into the playoff and just missing the cut aren't as impressive because of the opponent's nonleague struggles.

And don't kid yourself: it's all about the playoff now. Don't imprison yourself in a Big Ten bubble and pretend like the national race is secondary. You can still enjoy league play and all the twists and turns from now until Dec. 6 in Indianapolis. But you should ultimately judge this league on whether it's in or out on Selection Sunday. Some of you will disagree, but expecting less than the best is part of the reason why the Big Ten finds itself in this position.

That brings us to Week 4. On paper, it should be a better week for the Big Ten, but the last two weeks have shown us nothing is guaranteed.

Nebraska will beat Miami in Lincoln if it plays like it did Saturday night at Fresno State. But if the Huskers revert to McNeese State form against a Hurricanes team that never lacks talent, things could turn sour for one of the Big Ten's last two remaining unbeatens.

Michigan also gets its Power 5 foe at home, where it has been 11-0 in nonconference games under Brady Hoke (21-2 overall). But Utah leads the nation in sacks per game (5.5) and is tied for first in tackles for loss (10.5 per game), which could be a problem for a still-shaky Michigan offensive line.

Other than Rutgers, Big Ten teams have been dreadful in nonleague road games against the Power 5 -- not just losing but losing big (average margin of defeat: 24.5 points). This week, Iowa travels to Pitt, Indiana travels to Missouri and Maryland visits Syracuse.

Pitt is off to a very good start behind bruising back James Conner, while Iowa hasn't played particularly well in any of its three games. Indiana just lost to an undermanned Bowling Green team on the road, as the Falcons ran 115 plays and racked up 39 first downs. Maryland and Syracuse look fairly comparable, but Syracuse comes off an impressive win at Central Michigan, while Maryland surrendered 694 yards in the West Virginia loss.

A 4-1 or a 5-0 record in these games won't transform the national narrative about the Big Ten. But it will keep the league out of the crosshairs. After all, 6-10 sounds a lot better than 1-10.

But another bad day -- 1-4 or 0-5 -- would make the Big Ten's playoff path even trickier. And the way this season is going, expect the worst.

The Big Ten can't repair its reputation in Week 4, but it can begin the patching-up process and take some baby steps toward respectability.

Weekend Rewind: Big Ten

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
10:00
AM ET
There they go again.

Just when it looked like it was safe to start kicking around some other leagues, the Big Ten tripped all over itself and bumbled away its handful of chances to claim wins over teams from Power 5 conferences.

Minnesota and Illinois were blown out. Purdue fought hard but was ultimately overmatched. A shootout slipped away from Maryland. It’s probably best not to mention what happened to Iowa at all.

The conference obviously has nobody else it can blame for the lack of respect nationally when it keeps coming up short in its biggest opportunities to earn it around the nation. There may still be a College Football Playoff contender or two at the top of the league, but if there’s a logjam for the third and fourth spots in December, the Big Ten’s best may look back at September games it wasn’t even involved in as the reason it gets left out of the playoff field.

There were a few bright spots Saturday scattered among the wreckage. Reflect on those and start turning the page to Week 4.

Team of the week: Struggling mightily to find the end zone for 58 minutes, Penn State didn’t look much like the program about to pick up the most valuable win of the weekend. But Christian Hackenberg again delivered when it mattered most, calmly leading the game-winning drive in the closing minutes and staking the Nittany Lions to an early lead in the East Division with a rivalry win over Rutgers.

Game of the week: The game tape won’t be sent to the Hall of Fame and the outcome didn’t go the Big Ten’s way, but the battle for the Cy-Hawk Trophy was still an entertaining affair -- though certainly not because of the offenses. The emotions were high, the score was close from start to finish and the closing minutes leading up to Iowa State’s go-ahead field goal also provided a seemingly endless amount of opportunities to question the clock-management skills of Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. There were high-scoring, competitive games elsewhere, but this was pretty solid theater that will still be worth dissecting all week.

Biggest play: After the Nittany Lions beat their heads against the wall for more than three quarters, Hackenberg had one final shot at a breakthrough as he took a snap with three minutes left on the clock. His strike to Geno Lewis on first down went for 53 yards, instantly flipping the field position and setting the stage for Penn State’s breakthrough. Lewis would also grab another 23-yarder on the drive, but it was the initial hookup that generated the momentum that finally carried the Nittany Lions to the end zone.

Big Man on Campus (offense): The opponent clearly didn’t provide much of a challenge, and looking back now, Ohio State surely wishes it could have shuffled around its schedule to get J.T. Barrett a chance to tune up against a team like Kent State instead of throwing him into the fire against Navy and Virginia Tech. Who knows if it would have changed anything, but the redshirt freshman quarterback certainly left Saturday’s blowout with more confidence after tying a school record with six touchdown passes and throwing for more than 300 yards -- two things Braxton Miller has never done with the Buckeyes.

Big Man on Campus (defense): The Nittany Lions might need to split this award up after that impressive second-half shutout and only allowing one touchdown total on the way to their road win. Anthony Zettel was again a fixture in the backfield with three tackles for loss, C.J. Olaniyan forced a fumble and tallied a sack, and four different defenders intercepted Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova. But Trevor Williams doubled down with a pair of picks and finished second on the team with five tackles, giving him the slight nod.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): The Huskers might have finally found the solution for the problem that has been plaguing them over the last couple seasons on special teams. De'Mornay Pierson-El provided a jolt of energy to Nebraska’s punt return unit, dazzling with an 86-yard scamper for a touchdown and following that up with a 51-yarder as an encore shortly after to set up another score in the rout of Fresno State.

Biggest face plant: The Hawkeyes are tempting, but Indiana’s loss at Bowling Green figures to be far more damaging to Kevin Wilson’s club and its bid to get back to a bowl game. The defense is still a weakness that no amount of production from running back Tevin Coleman can consistently overcome, and the Hoosiers will probably be kicking themselves over this loss in November.

Numbers and facts to know: Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah moved up to No. 5 on the school’s all-time rushing list, posting his 19th 100-yard rushing performance to move his career total up to 3,373. ... Officially, Barrett’s 300-yard outing through the air was Ohio State’s first since Troy Smith in 2006. Terrelle Pryor threw for 334 yards against Indiana in 2010, but those statistics were vacated. ... Michigan held Miami (Ohio) to 33 rushing yards, its lowest rushing total allowed since 2010.

Best B1G tweets from game day

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
9:00
AM ET
As part of a new weekly feature, we're now bringing you a look back at Saturday's best game-day tweets.

And, in case you're not following us on Twitter yet (seriously?), check out: @ESPNRittenberg, @BennettESPN, @ESPNJoshMoyer, @DanMurphyESPN, @MitchSherman and @AWardESPN.

Big Ten morning links

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
8:00
AM ET
A few thoughts after a wild weekend of football:

1. The revival of Gary Nova under offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen had become a popular narrative, and the Rutgers quarterback did have a decent opening game at Washington State. But Nova's bad tendencies cropped backed up in the 13-10 loss to Penn State, as he had five interceptions and only 15 completions. What I thought was his worst throw of the night -- a ridiculous, on-the-move, throw-across-his-body toss to the crowded middle of the field -- could have easily been picked off for interception No. 6.

Simply put, a senior quarterback with Nova's experience shouldn't still be making those mistakes, and the Scarlet Knights played well enough in just about every other facet to win that crucial game Saturday night. But the same old issues are there with Nova, and Rutgers risks losing the entire team if something doesn't change, Steve Politi writes. That's a harsh assessment, but inconsistent quarterback play has kept the program from reaching its full potential the past few years.

2. I've written it before, but it's beyond past time to eliminate the "ice the kicker" timeout. For one, it's poor sportsmanship, which the Big Ten supposedly treasures. A coach should not be able to call a timeout when no one on the field knows it's happening and just a split-second before the ball is snapped just to make a kicker think more. And the tactic doesn't even work that well, as Kirk Ferentz painfully found out against Iowa State. If the kicker misses the try just before the timeout, he gets another chance, and you're essentially giving him a practice kick.

Ferentz, whose clock management skills have been questioned before, should have used his timeouts more productively. The Hawkeyes let too much time slip off the clock before calling their second timeout during the final Iowa State drive. They could have preserved some time for a possible comeback instead of giving Cole Netten a second life. Netten thanked Iowa for the freeze attempt.

3. Randy Edsall used part of his news conference following Maryland's 40-37 loss to West Virginia to complain about the length of games. The Mountaineers ran 108 plays on the day, and Edsall said it's a safety problem.

“When you continually stop the clock for moving the first downs, I think there’s issues," Edsall said. "All these things that you hear with the health and welfare and safety of the student athlete, I think something has to be looked into and something has to change."

There's probably a decent point in there; for example, I agree that stopping the clock after first downs isn't really necessary, except perhaps at the end of halves. But raising those concerns after a loss isn't the right time. The Terrapins' defense could have cut down the number of plays by stopping West Virginia's offense a few more times and not giving up 694 yards. Bowling Green, by the way, ran a whopping 113 plays in its win over Indiana.

East Division
West Division

And finally, my favorite moment from Saturday ...

Big Ten bowl projections: Week 3

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
8:00
PM ET
The major development in this week's bowl projections isn't that the Big Ten suddenly looks poised for a breakthrough postseason. If anything, things went from bad to worse for the league in Week 3 with a 3-6 record in nonconference games.

So what changed? Penn State is back. For good.

Not only did the Lions improve to 3-0 under new coach James Franklin, but they learned Monday that they once again are eligible for bowl games after two seasons of sanctions. So for the first time since the 2011 season, Penn State appears in the bowl projections. While the Lions have a lot to fix, especially on offense, they're a young, talented team that should improve throughout the season. They've posted two of the better wins (UCF and Rutgers) of any Big Ten team so far, and we like their potential to keep racking up W's.

Penn State is slotted for the Capital One Bowl, which knocks several teams down a peg. There's some shuffling at the bottom of the projections as Minnesota tumbles following its blowout loss at TCU, and Indiana falls out of the rankings entirely after an all-too-familiar-looking defeat at Bowling Green.

We continue to keep two teams in the major bowls as Ohio State rebounded nicely from the Virginia Tech loss to crush Kent State.

To the projections ...

Chick-fil-A Peach/Cotton/Fiesta/Orange: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/Cotton/Fiesta/Orange: Ohio State
Capital One: Penn State
Outback: Nebraska
National University Holiday: Wisconsin
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City: Iowa
San Francisco: Michigan
New Era Pinstripe: Maryland
Quick Lane: Minnesota
Heart of Dallas: Rutgers

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 3

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
9:00
AM ET
Recognizing the best and brightest from Week 3 in the Big Ten:
  • Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: A week after Barrett's tough night against Virginia Tech, the redshirt freshman bounced back in a big way. He completed 23 of 30 passes for 312 yards and a school-record tying six touchdowns (with one interception, off a tipped ball) in the Buckeyes' 66-0 laugher over Kent State.
  • Michigan RB Derrick Green: The Wolverines struggled with Miami (Ohio) for more than two quarters, but Green's hard running helped salt the game away. The sophomore finished with 22 carries for 137 yards and two touchdowns in Michigan's 34-10 victory.
  • Penn State DT Anthony Zettel: Perhaps the early frontrunner for Big Ten defensive player of the year, Zettel was terrific yet again in the Nittany Lions' 13-10 win over Rutgers. He led the defensive charge with three tackles for loss and a sack while helping control the line of scrimmage. "We couldn't handle him in the second half," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said.
  • Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: It wasn't easy most of the night for the Nittany Lions' sophomore signal caller. He was harassed under a heavy pass rush, and Penn State didn't score a touchdown for the first 58:47. But Hackenberg proved he's the king of clutch among current Big Ten quarterbacks by leading a two-minute drill that led to Bill Belton's game-winning touchdown. Hackenberg finished 25-of-44 for 309 yards and an interception.
  • Nebraska WR De'Mornay Pierson-El: The true freshman accumulated 136 yards on a pair of punt returns in the first half of the Huskers' 55-19 road win over Fresno State. Included was an 86-yarder for a touchdown, the longest ever by a Nebraska freshman. Pierson-El fills a key area of need for Nebraska, which amassed 70 yards all of last season on punt returns, averaging 3.04 yards on 23 returns to rank 121st nationally.

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 3

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
8:00
AM ET
Week 3 arrives with fresh reasons for optimism. There aren't any heavyweight tilts quite like the Week 2 night games, but there aren't many snoozers on this docket, either. And we get the start of Big Ten conference action. Huzzah!

Here's your rundown for the day (all times ET):

Noon games

[+] EnlargeClint Trickett
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsWVU QB Clint Trickett ranks No. 7 in the country in passing yards with 713.
West Virginia (1-1) at Maryland (2-0), Big Ten Network: This game is getting overlooked a bit nationally but could be a pretty good one between Eastern neighbors. West Virginia gave Alabama a solid run in the opener and should be better than it was in last year's 37-0 loss to the Terps.

Indiana (1-0) at Bowling Green (1-1), ESPNU: The Hoosiers come off their odd Week 2 bye to play their first FBS team of the year. This is the first of two straight Big Ten opponents for the Falcons, who take on Wisconsin next.

Kent State (0-2) at No. 22 Ohio State (1-1), ABC/ESPN2 mirror: The Buckeyes need to work out some kinks and let off some steam after last week's Virginia Tech loss, and this game provides that chance. Kent State has lost to Ohio (the other one, Brady Hoke) and South Alabama at home already this season.

Mid-afternoon games

Miami (Ohio) (0-2) at Michigan (1-1), 3:30 p.m., BTN: You think the Wolverines have struggled of late? The RedHawks have lost 18 straight games. If this one is even competitive, things are worse than we thought in Ann Arbor.

Iowa State (0-2) at Iowa (2-0), 3:30 p.m., ESPN: The Hawkeyes have won four of the past six in the Cy-Hawk series and face a scuffling Cyclones squad at home, although Iowa State did play Kansas State close last week. Iowa left tackle Brandon Scherff (knee) is not expected to play. (Oh, and I made it all week without mentioning this trophy. Whoops, I guess I just did. So close!)

Minnesota (2-0) at TCU (1-0), 4 p.m., Fox Sports 1: Good friends Jerry Kill and Gary Patterson square off in what should be a defensive battle. Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner is expected to play despite injuring his knee last week against Middle Tennessee.

Illinois (2-0) at Washington (2-0), 4 p.m., Fox: A rematch of the 1964 Rose Bowl or, more recently, last year's Huskies win in Soldier Field. Washington has a new coach in Chris Petersen and has had close calls with Hawaii and Eastern Washington the first two weeks. But the Illinois defense will need to make big-time improvements to give the team a shot.

Night games

Purdue (1-1) at Notre Dame (2-0), 7:30 p.m., NBC: The last scheduled meeting between these old rivals until 2020. You'd need something more than 20/20 vision to foresee a Boilers victory here.

Penn State (2-0) at Rutgers (2-0), 8 p.m., BTN: The Big Ten opener. Rutgers' first league game as a Big Ten member. Penn State's first game since learning it can make a bowl this year. Yeah, it's a big one.

Nebraska (2-0) at Fresno State (0-2), 10:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network: Expect a wild atmosphere in Fresno that may lift the Bulldogs, who have gotten blown out by USC and Utah thus far. Nebraska should prevail, but the late kickoff and road environment could conspire to keep this one interesting.

Week 3 byes: Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin

Required reading
One of the joys of being a football writer is the unexpected things that arrive in the mail during the fall. Today, the mailman brought a special goodie from Nebraska:

That's right, the Huskers are promoting senior running back Ameer Abdullah by sending out AA batteries (labeled AA8, for Abdullah's initials and uniform number) to media members. As it says on the back of the package, "Like the batteries that power our many devices, Abdullah's reliable productivity often goes underappreciated." The box also contains a warning label with the following cautions:
"1) Performances can cause shock to opposing defenders. 2) Abdullah has been known to spark his team to victory. 3) Prolonged exposure could cause an explosion on the national scene. 4) Continued use will likely result in touchdowns."

The battery stunt is part of Nebraska's #FearAmeer campaign, which also includes this well-designed website in his honor.

It's a really clever promotion, and one that's well-timed after Abdullah's heroics to win the McNeese State game in Week 2. Unlike several promotional giveaways, the batteries are something that most recipients will actually keep around and use. I didn't need to be reminded of Abdullah's greatness. But I can always use some more AA batteries.

Tracking our B1G fantasy teams: Week 3

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
4:30
PM ET
I demand a redraft.

We’re hosting our league on the ESPN College Football Challenge, and The Trombone Shorties currently rank No. 3 overall – nationally – in points scored. It hasn’t been close yet, but hopefully that’s about to change. Your Week 2 results:

The Trombone Shorties (Adam Rittenberg): 160
Massive Attack (Austin Ward): 119
Coal Crackers (Josh Moyer): 91
Sherman Tanks (Mitch Sherman): 81
Legendary Leaders (Brian Bennett): 70

And your overall standings so far:

The Trombone Shorties (Rittenberg): 333
Massive Attack (Ward): 227
Legendary Leaders (Bennett): 206
Coal Crackers (Moyer): 195
Sherman Tanks (Sherman): 177

The Shorties have a big lead, but a lot can change in this league. We only have one bench spot, so bye weeks can be killer. The waiver wire is especially important, so here’s a look at our moves this week:

Sherman adds Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner and drops Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian

Moyer adds Penn State RB Bill Belton and drops Michigan State kickers

Bennett adds Illinois WR Martize Barr and drops Michigan RB Derrick Green

Rittenberg adds Purdue QB Danny Etling and drops Wisconsin RB Corey Clements

Sherman adds Michigan RB Derrick Green and drops Maryland WR Deon Long

Moyer adds Michigan kickers and drops Michigan State WR Tony Lippett

Bennett adds Michigan defense and drops Rutgers defense

Rittenberg adds Iowa defense and drops Minnesota defense

Moyer takes Penn State defense and drops Michigan State defense

Waiver-wire overview: Most of the moves this week were simply made because our players were on bye, but there were a few exceptions. The big switched happened on Bennett's team, where he tried to upgrade at wideout by picking up Barr and sliding Kenny Bell over to his bench. Bell has gotten off to a bit of a slow start, while Barr is sure to rack up some numbers with Wes Lunt under center. Both Bennett and Rittenberg also both substituted their defenses for more favorable matchups.

The Trombone Shorties (Rittenberg)
Purdue QB Danny Etling
Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong
Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah
Rutgers RB Paul James
Michigan WR Devin Funchess
Penn State WR Jesse James
Ohio State kickers
Iowa defense
Bench: Michigan State QB Connor Cook (on bye)

Massive Attack (Ward)

Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett
Indiana QB Nate Sudfeld
Illinois RB Josh Ferguson
Minnesota RB David Cobb
Ohio State WR Devin Smith
Penn State WR Geno Lewis
Nebraska kickers
Ohio State defense
Bench: Rutgers QB Gary Nova (vs. Penn State)

Legendary Leaders (Bennett)

Michigan QB Devin Gardner
Maryland QB C.J. Brown
Indiana RB Tevin Coleman
Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott
Illinois WR Martize Barr
Nebraska WR Jordan Westerkamp
Maryland kickers
Michigan defense
Bench: Nebraska WR Kenny Bell (at Fresno State)

Coal Crackers (Moyer)

Illinois QB Wes Lunt
Iowa QB Jake Rudock
Penn State RB Bill Belton
Iowa RB Mark Weisman
Maryland WR Stefon Diggs
Indiana WR Shane Wynn
Michigan kickers
Penn State defense
Bench: Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon (on bye)

Sherman Tanks (Sherman)

Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg
Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner
Michigan RB Derrick Green
Penn State RB Zach Zwinak
Penn State WR DaeSean Hamilton
Rutgers WR Leonte Carroo
Penn State kickers
Nebraska defense
Bench: Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford (on bye)

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