Big Ten: Northwestern Wildcats

Big Ten morning links

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
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It's Week 6 already, so we have some catching up to do. Here are some notes and observations before we get to the links:

1. Michigan recruiting backlash. With all the Brady Hoke talk and the loss to Minnesota, you knew it was only a matter of time before something like this happened. Michigan commit and ESPN 300 tight end Chris Clark tweeted Sunday -- since deleted -- that if Hoke is fired then “that changes everything.” He likely just said what other recruits are thinking, and it'd be na´ve to think opposing coaches aren't going to exacerbate the situation by trying to use Hoke's lack of job security against Michigan. Recruiting could wind up being an uphill battle the rest of the season, despite the Wolverines' No. 19 ranking. They currently have 11 commits, and Clark is the highest-rated one.

2. Offensive line woes. Penn State offensive line coach Herb Hand has taken up the practice this season of tweeting out highlights of his Nittany Lions on Sundays. He doesn't do it every week, but he does it most of the time. Needless to say, he skipped the exercise this weekend -- but it's difficult to blame him. There were few highlights Saturday against Northwestern, and the clip of his linemen that most stuck out involved one of his offensive guards inadvertently blocking a teammate. Hand is a good coach, but he doesn't have depth or experience to work with here. He took the blame for Saturday's disastrous performance, but it's clearly not his fault. This is a young offensive line and, quite frankly, it just doesn't have much talent right now.

3. David Cobb's importance cannot be understated. The Minnesota running back has accounted for slightly more than 47 percent of the Gophers' offense. Not just rushing offense, mind you -- entire offense. That means he's a bigger part of the offense than Ameer Abdullah at Nebraska, Melvin Gordon at Wisconsin and Tevin Coleman at Indiana. Cobb has 722 rushing yards (5.8 ypc) and four TDs so far this season. He's worth watching.

Now, on to the links:

East Division
West Division

Northwestern win a big step forward

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Wideout Kyle Prater embraced one of his Northwestern teammates Saturday afternoon, while another player turned to the crowd and emptied his lungs: “We are … N-U!”

With more than a minute left, before the Wildcats’ 29-6 upset win over Penn State became official, Northwestern’s sideline erupted into joy. Players high-fived, at least a half-dozen patted quarterback Trevor Siemian on the shoulder pads, and smiles on the sideline might’ve eventually outnumbered the lingering Penn State fans.

“Yeah, baby!” superback Dan Vitale yelled.

For a full calendar year, Northwestern had waited for a win like this. Since Sept. 22, 2013, the Wildcats had beaten only one other FBS team -- Illinois -- and that was simply by a field goal. One disappointment had stacked upon another, and there was no telling when the Wildcats might lift that burden. Last season, they lost on a last-second Hail Mary and, two weeks later, fell in triple overtime. This season, they came up short in a comeback bid against Cal and felt the pang of disappointment in a 23-15 loss to Northern Illinois.

But, on Saturday afternoon, that chapter of close calls and mounting losses finally ended. For once, frustration gave way to the feeling of a win. A good win, one Northwestern has been searching for for more than 370 days.

[+] EnlargeDan Vitale
MCT via Getty ImagesDan Vitale posted seven receptions for 113 yards in Northwestern's upset of Penn State.
“It’s been a while since we felt that,” Vitale said, less than a half-hour after the on-field celebration.

But this game, this effort, wasn’t just about the win itself for Northwestern, it was about the overall performance. The Wildcats were finally able to increase the offensive tempo, they were finally able to overcome injuries (wideout Tony Jones played, and Collin Ellis’ replacement at linebacker returned an interception for a TD), and this finally looked like a Big Ten team capable of making a bowl game.

Even the demeanor of Pat Fitzgerald seemed different. Two weeks ago, he labeled his football team an “embarrassment.” On Saturday afternoon, inside a humid media room, he still cracked a few self-deprecating jokes (e.g. -- “I don’t know how many times you’ve seen us play this year -- yeah, we haven’t been very good.”), but every sentence was punctuated with a smile.

More importantly, he continued to voice just how proud he was of this team. That praise has been rare for these Wildcats over the past year.

“They’ve persevered, they’ve stayed together, and we’ve been hard on them because we need to be,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re an immature football team that’s maturing in front of our eyes, and I’m really pleased with our seniors. This is a senior-type statement win.”

This was the Wildcats' biggest margin of victory since Nov. 24, 2012, when they beat Illinois by 36 points. So the change was evident, even as the players deflected any talk of altering the scheme or gameplan. They simply chalked up any differences to an increased focus -- and attributed that to their head coach.

Fitzgerald was criticized for taking a soft approach to practice in August, but he changed his philosophy in September. Northwestern players were forced to practice in the rain at one point, and mistakes often met the ire of Fitzgerald’s whistle -- which would signal the dreaded “up-downs.” For the last two or three weeks, players said, this team was evolving and improving from that first uninspired performance. This win against Penn State wasn’t an anomaly; it was simply the end result.

“You could see the passion in everybody’s eyes,” Vitale said. “I think we didn’t have that the first couple weeks. But, with the way we’re practicing, we really turned it around out there.”

Added Siemian: “I think we put three weeks together. As bad as it is to say, those first two weeks we kind of lulled through.”

If Northwestern was asleep before its matchup against Penn State, it was certainly awake by the end. Once the clock finally ticked down to zero, after Northwestern patiently waited for Penn State to finish singing its alma mater, the Wildcats sprinted about 30 yards to celebrate with the smattering of purple shirts left in the crowd.

If it wasn’t for a post-game performance by the band, Northwestern might’ve stayed on that field for a half-hour. They jumped, hugged, yelled and clapped right as the band director made his way to the stand. It was a moment they awaited for far too long.

Even after that emotional win, the Wildcats still haven’t arrived. But, instead of taking one step forward and 10 steps back, they finally took a giant leap in the right direction. They finally look like a team that doesn’t belong in the West’s cellar.

“Are we there yet? Not even close,” Fitzgerald said. “But that, to me, is what’s most encouraging -- how much better we can be in all three phases.”

B1G early look: Setting up Week 6

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
2:00
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Is it almost Saturday yet?

Five Big Ten games are on tap this weekend, in addition to Indiana taking on North Texas. Plenty of entertainment and intrigue await, so let's get to it.

Five things to watch in Week 6

1. Top-two B1G teams square off. Michigan State is still widely regarded as the best team in the conference, but Nebraska is the last remaining undefeated team. So, regardless of the winner, this game should determine a lot. If Michigan State wins, there's no more question about the best Big Ten team. If Nebraska comes away with the victory, it should launch itself into the College Football Playoff discussion. This game also has the potential to provide a preview of the Big Ten title game; a lot is on the line here.

2. "Hot-Seat Watch: Brady Hoke" continues. Will he be fired by midseason? Can the Wolverines finally bounce back? Can a U-M quarterback actually turn in a good performance? Plenty of questions are swirling around this program, and there aren't a lot of answers right now. Michigan is even a four-point underdog to Rutgers -- which really shows just how far the Wolverines have fallen. Hoke is still clinging on to hope, as he said Saturday this team is still capable of winning the Big Ten title. But that optimism won't stick if it loses another B1G game. Another loss, and the "Fire Hoke" chatter will only magnify. It looks as if he's already gone -- but another loss could move up that timetable.

3. Maryland and Rutgers' surprising starts. Both teams are just one play away from perfect 5-0 records. Instead, they've had to settle for surprising 4-1 starts. After a bad game against Penn State, Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova has appeared to put it behind him. And a close loss to West Virginia hasn't slowed down the Terrapins' offense. Big Ten fans weren't quite sure what to make of these additions before the season, but both teams have proved their mettle so far. If Maryland can somehow knock off Ohio State, it instantly throws its hat into the Big Ten title race. If Rutgers can beat a reeling Michigan, it's all but assured of a bowl game.

4. Heisman hype. If Nebraska tailback Ameer Abdullah isn't trending upward on your Heisman list then you're doing it wrong. His least-impressive game (McNeese State) still led to his most-impressive play, and he's on pace for more than 2,100 rushing yards. He looked good again this past week, when he rushed for 196 yards by halftime. Wisconsin tailback Melvin Gordon is also back on track after running for 434 yards and seven touchdowns in just the last two weeks. Oh, and let's not forget about Indiana's Tevin Coleman. He won't be invited to the ceremony, and his team isn't on the same level as Nebraska or Wisconsin. But he's showing he deserves to be in the same conversation as those two other running backs. He actually leads the conference -- yes, even over Abdullah and Gordon -- in rushing yards per game (172.75).

5. Is Northwestern finally back? The Wildcats' 29-6 win over Penn State was their largest margin of victory since 2012, and it was their best win in at least a full calendar year. Players said they lacked focus those first two weeks but that everything's changed now. One game doesn't signify a trend, but another win should certainly have the Wildcats feeling better about themselves. A victory won't come easy against Wisconsin, but it'd be a huge statement if it actually happened. In a weak Big Ten, the Wildcats could still end up as a bowl-eligible team.

Weekend Rewind: Big Ten

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
10:00
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Time for some clarity in the Big Ten.

Pretenders and contenders will be more easily defined at the open of October than during the mayhem of the early weeks, when next to nothing went right for the Big Ten. Even just last week, confusion reigned after the league went 12-1 with four wins over Power 5 foes.

Well, Saturday was more down to Earth. Week 5 offered a better look at the Big Ten’s true colors than we’ve seen at any time this season.

The verdict: The talent on display in offensive outbursts on Saturday can take Michigan State and Ohio State far in this league. Wisconsin and Iowa might have to win ugly all year. Penn State is not as good as it looked through four games; Northwestern is better than it appeared through three.

Indiana still isn’t consistent enough to pencil into a bowl game. Minnesota and Maryland should not be overlooked.

And Nebraska, the league’s lone unbeaten, gets its chance this week to prove it belongs in the national conversation with MSU and OSU. The Huskers visit Spartan Stadium on Saturday.

We’ll get to that soon enough. First, let’s rewind.

[+] EnlargeLittle Brown Jug
Leon Halip/Getty ImaesMinnesota throttled Michigan in the Big House to claim the Little Brown Jug for just the second time since 1987.
Team of the week: How can it be any group other than Minnesota? As I was reminded in the wake of the Gophers’ 30-14 throttling of Michigan at the Big House, even my preseason best-case scenario for Minnesota did not include a win over the Wolverines. Clearly, I forgot to account for the possibility of a full-blown Michigan meltdown. But that’s not what led to the Gophers’ second win in the past 24 years of this series; Minnesota earned this. David Cobb rushed for 183 yards against a defense that entered the game ninth nationally against the run. Minnesota held Michigan to 171 yards. Fans greeted the Gophers upon their return to the Twin Cities. Apparently, they all wanted a look at the Little Brown Jug. Enjoy it, Minnesota.

Biggest play: Down 20-10 to Wisconsin, South Florida QB Mike White hit Kennard Swanson for a 52-yard gain that looked set to get the Bulls in position for a touchdown that could cut the Badgers’ lead to three points. But a lunging hit by Wisconsin freshman Lubern Figaro jarred the football loose from Swanson. Linebacker Vince Biegel recovered at the 10-yard line, and Wisconsin drove 90 yards in 18 plays for the backbreaking score. Without that turnover, it might have ended differently.

Big Man on Campus (offense): Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova fired four touchdowns in the Scarlet Knights’ 31-6 win over Tulane. Nova was notably efficient in the first half, hitting 9 of 9 throws for 195 yards and three scores. In the process, he moved his career total to 61 touchdown passes, passing Mike Teel for the school record.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory is officially back. The intimidating junior, who missed the Huskers’ first two games with a knee injury, recorded 2.5 sacks among his seven tackles and three quarterback hurries in a 45-14 Nebraska thumping of Illinois. Gregory looks more dangerous than ever, often lining up at the second level as a linebacker hybrid. He even delivered a devastating block on Nate Gerry’s 53-yard interception return.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Maryland place-kicker Brad Craddock connected on three field goals, including two from 48 yards in the Terrapins’ 37-15 win over Indiana, to stay perfect for the season on 10 attempts.

Biggest faceplant: Aside from Michigan -- no repeat winners -- it’s Indiana. What happened to the Hoosiers? They followed the groundbreaking win at Mizzou by failing to show at home as Maryland looked solid in its inaugural league game. So much for the Hoosiers' triple threat on offense. The Terps’ quarterback duo of C.J. Brown and Caleb Rowe teamed with receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long to steal the show.

Facts and numbers to know: Michigan ranks last nationally in turnover margin at minus-12 and 90th in offensive efficiency, according to ESPN Stats and Info. ... Nebraska I-back Ameer Abdullah rushed for 208 yards, moving his nation-leading season total to 833 yards. The Huskers, as a team, rushed for 458 yards against Illinois, totaling 190 on the ground, with no passing yards, in the first quarter. ... Rutgers has recorded 21 sacks in five games. ... Wisconsin remains the only team nationally not to surrender a red-zone touchdown. ... Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz earned his 65th conference victory to tie former Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez for 10th all time. ... Ohio State’s 710 yards of offense against Cincinnati came within 8 yards of the school record and marked its highest output since totaling 715 against Utah in 1986. ... Michigan State has scored 174 points in three home games and 50 in back-to-back games for the first time since 1978. ... Northwestern held Penn State to 18 rushing yards in the first three quarters of its 29-6 win.

Big Ten morning links

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
8:00
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Things are bad enough for Brady Hoke and Michigan just given the performance of the team. On top of the Wolverines' struggles, Hoke has faced heavy criticism for how he handled the injury to quarterback Shane Morris in Saturday's loss to Minnesota.

[+] EnlargeMichigan's Brady Hoke
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsBrady Hoke had no real reason to leave Shane Morris in against Minnesota.
Some fans and pundits called for Hoke to be fired now for leaving an obviously badly limping and potentially seriously injured Morris in the game too long, and then for putting him back in the game for one snap after Devin Gardner lost his helmet. MGoBlog wrote this scathing piece accusing Hoke of disregarding player safety, especially given his policy of not discussing injuries.

Some of the critics, I thought, went too far in saying that Morris was obviously concussed after he got hit by Minnesota's Theiren Cockran. Morris was having trouble standing after that hit, for sure, but I'm not comfortable in making that kind of medical evaluation from afar. No one but the team's medical staff and Morris really know the severity of his injuries. It certainly didn't help appearances that Morris was carted off the field after the game.

On Sunday, Michigan issued a statement from Hoke on the Morris situation. In it, Hoke says his quarterback was removed from the game after "further aggravating an injury to his leg that he sustained earlier in the contest. He was evaluated by our experienced athletic trainers and team physicians, and we're confident proper medical decisions were made." The statement went on to say the team trainers and physicians are solely responsible for determining a player's physical ability to play and that "our coaches have no influence or authority to make determinations if or when an injured player returns to competition."

In no way do I think Hoke would willfully ignore a player's personal safety. But the part in the statement about coaches deciding a player's availability strikes a false note. Any one watching the game could see that Morris was not physically right, and leaving him in the game subjected him to potential further injury. And here's the thing: There was no real reason to have him in there playing hurt. Morris was not effective at all in the game, Michigan had no real chance to mount a meaningful comeback and the veteran Gardner was ready. In fact, Gardner immediately brought a small spark to what had been a listless offense (which only reinforced the notion that the Wolverines' best offensive option is still spreading the ball out and taking advantage of Gardner's mobility.). Surely Russell Bellomy could have come in for the handoff after Gardner lost his helmet.

Hoke's vague answers Saturday night about not seeing Morris look wobbly on the field did not help the image many fans already have of a guy who does not wear a headset on the sidelines. Fairly or unfairly (and it's far more likely the latter), Hoke is looking more and more like someone who is not on top of all the details in his program. Add that to the more obvious on-field problems and it's hard to see how he'll remain the head coach in Ann Arbor much longer.

Michigan's problems all lie at Hoke's feet, Shawn Windsor writes. It's time for Hoke to go, George Schroeder says.

More links ...

East Division
West Division

Big Ten bowl projections: Week 5

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
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How far will Michigan fall?

We'll find out during the next two months, but for now, the Wolverines have fallen out of the bowl projections. Brady Hoke's team sits at 2-3, and the offense has shown no signs of a turnaround. It's hard to envision Michigan winning one Big Ten game right now, much less the four it will need in its final seven to qualify for a bowl berth.

Indiana also falls out of the projections after a 37-15 home loss to Maryland. After seemingly turning a corner the week before at Missouri, the Hoosiers struggled to build on the victory as a normally potent offense did next to nothing against the Terrapins. Kevin Wilson's team has the talent to go bowling but must show it can handle success better going forward.

Penn State tumbles a bit in the projections after being exposed in a 29-6 home loss to Northwestern. We're not quite ready to put Northwestern back in the projections, but another big win would change that.

Nebraska and Maryland are among this week's risers. We still have both Michigan State and Ohio State heading to top bowls. Minnesota is another team to watch as the Gophers try to build on a strong performance at the Big House.

Without further ado ...

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

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 5

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
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Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 5

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
9:00
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Recognizing the best and the brightest from Week 5 in the Big Ten:
  • Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon: After a sluggish first half by Gordon and the entire Badgers offense, the junior tailback finally got going in a big way. He finished with 181 yards -- 131 of them coming in the second half -- and two touchdowns on a career-high 32 carries in Wisconsin's 27-10 win over South Florida.
  • Northwestern LB Anthony Walker: He led all Wildcats defenders with eight tackles, and his 49-yard pick six in the second half helped break the game open in Northwestern's stunning 29-6 win at Penn State. Pat Fitzgerald's defense held the Nittany Lions to just 266 total yards and no touchdowns.
  • Minnesota RB David Cobb: The Gophers workhorse ran for 183 yards on 32 carries and had three catches for 50 yards as Minnesota beat Michigan 30-14 to regain the Little Brown Jug. Cobb outgained the Wolverines' entire offense (171 yards) by himself.
  • Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: The redshirt freshman is growing up quickly as the Buckeyes' leader. In Ohio State's 50-28 win over Cincinnati, Barrett completed 26-of-36 passes for 330 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions. He also ran for 79 yards on 14 carries. He finished just three yards shy of Art Schlichter's single-game school record for total offense.
  • Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: If it seems like Abdullah appears here every week, well, that's just how well he has played this season. He did almost all of his damage against Illinois in the first half and finished with 208 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries in the 45-14 victory. Abdullah has eclipsed 200 yards three times already this year and is on pace for a 2,000-yard season.
Five lessons from an interesting Saturday in the Big Ten:

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook and Michigan State's offense rolled again in a win over Wyoming on Saturday.
1. Offenses surging in East Lansing and Columbus: OK, so the opposing defenses haven't exactly been stout. Still, it's hard not to notice the huge offensive numbers Michigan State and Ohio State are putting up. The Spartans scored 56 points in a win against Wyoming on Saturday, a week after posting 73 against Eastern Michigan. They're averaging 50.3 points per game for the season, which is ridiculous when you consider the state of the MSU offense a year ago. Connor Cook is in complete command of the game plan, and Jeremy Langford had his first 100-yard day of the season. "We have never exploded like this out of the gate with our offense," head coach Mark Dantonio said. Meanwhile, Ohio State has bounced back nicely after predictably struggling early with a new quarterback and revamped offensive line. The Buckeyes briefly set a school record for total yards against Cincinnati before losing 20 yards on the penultimate play; still, they finished with 710 yards and a school record 45 (!) first downs in a 50-28 victory. Quarterback J.T. Barrett, who threw for 330 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions, is growing up quickly, and Ezekiel Elliott shows signs of becoming a star tailback. That's 116 points in the past two weeks for Urban Meyer's team. The competition will improve very soon, but both teams could pull away from the pack in the East Division if their offenses build off these performances.

2. Defenses carrying Wisconsin, Iowa: Things are going the other way in Madison and Iowa City. Other than the past week's shredding of Bowling Green, Wisconsin has yet to play an impressive, full game offensively. The Badgers had only three points at halftime against South Florida before they finally got on track in the second half of a 27-10 win. But Wisconsin's defense has been stout all season. Gary Andersen's team is the only FBS squad yet to give up a red zone touchdown this season, and the defense forced two turnovers against the Bulls. Iowa fans found out Saturday that C.J. Beathard isn't going to single-handedly transform an at times frustrating offense. But the Hawkeyes' D held Purdue without an offensive touchdown and allowed only 156 total yards -- and only 82 in the final three quarters -- in a 24-10 road win. If the offenses ever get revved up, both Wisconsin and Iowa will be very dangerous. Right now, at least, both are winning with defense.

3. Minnesota and Maryland are stealth contenders: Neither the Gophers nor the Terrapins generated much buzz this preseason as possible division contenders -- understandably so, given their recent histories. But both will at the very least be factors in the race to Indianapolis. Maryland is a play or two against West Virginia from being 5-0 and has shown explosive playmaking ability on both sides of the ball. Even with quarterback C.J. Brown injured in the first half at Indiana, Randy Edsall's team kept rolling behind Caleb Rowe in an easy 37-15 win -- the Terps' second straight, double-digit road victory. Minnesota thoroughly dominated Michigan in the Big House 30-14 and -- in a refreshing change -- displayed at least some competency in the running game. With their defense and the running of David Cobb, the Gophers can make some noise in the West despite a challenging final four games (Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska, at Wisconsin). Meanwhile, Maryland could have a big say in the East as division powers Michigan State and Ohio State (next week) have to go to College Park.

4. Bill comes due for Penn State's issues: It's never been any secret the Nittany Lions had serious deficiencies on their offensive line and, consequently, in the running game. James Franklin and his staff did a great job covering those in the first four games, all Penn State wins. But it's hard to win with those weaknesses in Big Ten play, and Northwestern -- despite its own problems of late -- exploited them in a big way during Saturday's stunning 29-6 win at Beaver Stadium. Penn State ran for only 50 total yards, and Christian Hackenberg was sacked four times while being pressured all game. Hackenberg had one of the worst games of his short career, but it was unreasonable to expect him to carry the entire offense the entire season. The Nittany Lions' problems aren't easy to fix, but at least they have a bye week coming up to search for answers.

5. Ameer Abdullah deserves to be a leading Heisman contender: Nebraska's senior running back is putting together a potential season for the ages. Against Illinois, he ran for 208 yards and three touchdowns while barely playing in the second half of a 45-14 win. That's the third 200-plus yard game for Abdullah this season, and he's on pace for 2,000 yards. The Cornhuskers are the lone remaining unbeaten Big Ten team, and they wouldn't be if not for their leader. Abdullah gets a spotlight opportunity next week at Michigan State, but he deserves all the Heisman love you can throw at him right now.
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- For the first time in a long time, the Northwestern Wildcats can finally celebrate.

Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian opened up hot, and the defense clamped down for all four quarters as the Wildcats won 29-6, pulling off the upset against the Penn State Nittany Lions. It’s just Northwestern’s second win in its past 10 games against FBS opponents.

With the victory, Northwestern improves to .500 (2-2, 1-0 Big Ten), and Penn State drops its bid for perfection (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten).

How the game was won: Siemian started off on a hot streak, completing 11-of-15 for 150 yards in the first quarter. He capped two first-quarter drives with identical 1-yard rushing touchdowns. From there, the Wildcats' defense took charge, and Penn State made too many mistakes as the game wore on.

Game ball goes to: Northwestern’s defensive line. Ifeadi Odenigbo really led the charge here, but it wasn’t just Odenigbo who dominated. This entire line outmuscled PSU, pressured quarterback Christian Hackenberg and bottled up the run. The Wildcats finished with four sacks and nine tackles for loss.

It was over when ... : Linebacker Anthony Walker, in his first career start, made an easy interception on a pass from Hackenberg in the fourth quarter and returned it 49 yards for a critical touchdown. PSU’s offense was starting to gain some momentum, but that halted it. Northwestern led 20-6 at that point.

What it means: Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald asked two weeks ago what came first -- success or confidence? Well, his team has to feel pretty confident after its best win in a full calendar year. The only other win that Northwestern had against an FBS team since Sept. 22, 2013, came against Illinois. Fitzgerald is undoubtedly hoping this marks the end of those struggles.

Playoff implications: Entering the game at 4-0, Penn State still had an outside shot of gaining a playoff spot if it ran the table. Obviously, those hopes have all but ended now. Nebraska is the only remaining unbeaten team in the Big Ten.

What’s next: Penn State has a bye week before it travels to the Big House to face Michigan. The Wildcats face a stiffer test next week when they take on Wisconsin at home.

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 5

September, 27, 2014
Sep 27
8:00
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After a banner Saturday a week ago, what does the Big Ten have planned for an encore? It can't win as many games as it did last week since conference play is set to kick off with five matchups inside the league. But there are still a handful of opportunities on the table that can bolster the Big Ten reputation -- and, in one case, a chance to right the ship after a disastrous performance last week.

The fun is set to really begin now. Here's the full rundown of the day (all times Eastern):

Noon games

South Florida (2-2) at No. 19 Wisconsin (2-1), ESPNU: The Badgers and star running back Melvin Gordon roared to life last week, and they've got a chance to continue building momentum heading into Big Ten play. If Gordon keeps up the eye-popping yards per carry he posted in the win over Bowling Green, he could be right back in the Heisman Trophy conversation after a slow start.

Tulane (1-3) at Rutgers (3-1), ESPNEWS: The Scarlet Knights have a chance to run the table outside of the Big Ten, which would be pretty useful in helping them qualify for a bowl game in their first year in the league. The loss of running back Paul James to a season-ending injury is a big blow, but he probably won't be missed against the Green Wave.

Iowa (3-1) at Purdue (2-2), BTN: The Hawkeyes might not technically have a quarterback controversy, but they were clearly energized last week when C.J. Beathard came in to relieve an injured Jake Rudock. If Rudock is healthy, Iowa might play both of them against the Boilermakers, who haven't won a conference game since the last week of the 2012 regular season.

Wyoming (3-1) at No. 9 Michigan State (2-1), ESPN2: The Cowboys have been impressive under new coach Craig Bohl, even trading a few early punches with Oregon before getting blown out. Michigan State stood toe-to-toe into the second half with the Ducks and look like the most talented team in the Big Ten, which is clearly a significant advantage over the Pokes.

Northwestern (1-2) at Penn State (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten), BTN: After struggling in a pair of losses before a bye week, the Wildcats didn't look much better in an ugly win over Western Illinois. That doesn't bode well for a trip to Penn State, which is brimming with confidence and in position to build on its fast start in the East Division.

Maryland (3-1) at Indiana (2-1), 1:30 p.m., BTN: Despite a loss for each team, both the Terrapins and Hoosiers have been pleasant surprises during the season's first month. Indiana bounced back with an impressive defensive outing to upset Missouri on the road, and that unit will be put to the test by a Maryland attack loaded with playmakers.

Mid-afternoon game

Minnesota (3-1) at Michigan (2-2), 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2 mirror: Brady Hoke's seat is warm enough as it is, but it would be scorching if the Gophers come into the Big House and leave with the Little Brown Jug. Minnesota's defense is capable of making Michigan's turnover woes worse, and no matter who plays quarterback for the Gophers, the running game is a handful.

Night games

Cincinnati (2-0) at No. 22 Ohio State (2-1), 6 p.m., BTN: The Buckeyes used their bye week to gear up for Cincinnati quarterback Gunner Kiel and his lethal receiving corps, which will provide the first real test for a revamped secondary. After already dropping one game outside of the Big Ten, Ohio State can't afford to lose a second if it's going to climb back into the playoff picture.

Illinois (3-1) at No. 21 Nebraska (4-0), 9 p.m., BTN: For whatever it's worth, the pollsters still aren't showing much love to the Huskers. But as long as they keep winning, they're going to be tough for the selection committee to ignore. Wes Lunt and a high-flying Illinois offense are entertaining to watch, and with Ameer Abdullah lining up against a suspect defense, this prime-time matchup should feature plenty of fireworks.

Required reading

Week 5 predictions

Tracking our B1G fantasy teams

Take Two: Is Michigan or Florida in better shape for a turnaround?

"Wow moments" arriving for Ohio State's Michael Thomas

Indiana defense more confident than ever

C.J. Beathard ready when the call comes

Uncertainty not an issue for Minnesota QBs

The Miracle at Michigan: 20 years later

Cincinnati knows Ohio State game is huge

Big Ten awards race tracker

B1G 1/4 season review: Bold Predictions | Surprise player | Surprise team

For Tanner McEvoy, actions louder than words

True test coming for revamped Ohio State defense

B1G running backs deserve place in Heisman race

Planning for success: Indiana

No easy fix coming for Michigan offense

Take Two: B1G's best receiving tandem

Penn State, Northwestern very far apart

Big Ten morning links

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
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Week 5 in the Big Ten is nearly upon us, with five conference matchups to digest. As the preparation comes to a close, here’s a peek inside my mind in advance of Saturday.

If it looks like a quarterback controversy, and it sounds like a quarterback controversy . . . Look, coaches would often rather talk about injuries -- and they hate to talk about injuries -- than an uncertain situation at quarterback. But that’s just what Brady Hoke and Kirk Ferentz face this week. Based on recent play of the Michigan offense, neither Shane Morris nor Devin Gardner appear likely to resurrect the Wolverines. But Hoke and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, as a visit nears from Minnesota, continue to keep their strategy under wraps. At Iowa, Jake Rudock has a leg injury. C.J. Beathard has a live arm, showcased in the second half last week as he led the Hawkeyes back on the road to beat Pittsburgh. So what you do? My suggestion: Give the backups a shot. Morris might provide a spark at the Big House. As for Iowa, it should win at Purdue with either guy. The Hawkeyes know what they’ve got in Rudock. Beathard has never started a game. Let's see what he can do.

What Big Ten team most needs a win on Saturday? This made for a fun discussion last week as Iowa, Northwestern, Maryland and Rutgers faced important bounce-back opportunities. They all won, as did Indiana, which didn’t even receive much consideration in this discussion before its trip to Missouri. I chose Michigan last week as the team most in need of a win. And you know what happened against Utah. Well, this week, I’m eliminating U-M as a candidate here, because I think a victory over Minnesota simply delays the inevitable crash and burn. Wisconsin, Michigan State, Nebraska and Ohio State also don’t get a chance in this category; as favorites of more than two touchdowns, their situations are clear. Same goes for Rutgers, which ought to roll against Tulane. I’m going with Indiana, amazingly. The Hoosiers face a tough test at home against Maryland in what looks like an entertaining matchup. After the win at Mizzou, IU needs to validate its legitimacy as a bowl contender and continue to distance itself from the loss to Bowling Green.

Setting the table. Don’t look now, but if things go according to form in Lincoln and East Lansing on Saturday, there's a big one on tap next week at Spartan Stadium. A visit from the undefeated Cornhuskers would rank Nebraska-Michigan State as the marquee early-season conference game in the league and likely the best intra-division matchup of the season -- if not the game of the year in the Big Ten. Nationally, next week isn’t exactly the best day in college football history, but it’s pretty good, with Alabama-Ole Miss, Arizona State-USC, Texas A&M-Mississippi State, Stanford-Notre Dame and LSU-Auburn. The Huskers and Spartans can give the Big Ten a seat at the table.

Around the league:

East Division
West Division

Watch: B1G live chat

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
1:28
PM ET
Join Big Ten reporters Josh Moyer, Dan Murphy, Mitch Sherman and Austin Ward as they look around the conference heading into Week 5, including Michigan's future, a look at the Big Ten's playoff hopes and some intriguing Saturday matchups.

Penn State, Northwestern very far apart

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
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There might not be two teams in the Big Ten that are more opposite than Northwestern and Penn State.

The Wildcats have struggled to bounce back and win close games; the Nittany Lions' trademark has become late-game rallies. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald’s practices lacked energy early on, while James Franklin’s players lauded their intensity. Fitzgerald labeled his team’s lack of toughness an "embarrassment," while Franklin has praised his squad’s resiliency.

Around this time last season, a lot of that was flipped. Northwestern was the team on the rise, one that reached No. 16 in the polls. Penn State remained a conference question mark, one with a suspect secondary and a true freshman at quarterback.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
AP Photo/Gene J PuskarLate comebacks led by Christian Hackenberg are becoming the norm at Penn State.
It’s amazing how quickly fortunes can change. Now, the Lions are on the cusp of being ranked. And the Wildcats are trying to avoid being labeled the worst team in the Big Ten.

"I can’t speak for Northwestern," Penn State linebacker Brandon Bell said, when asked about the difference. "For us, everybody is just resilient. We don’t put our head down for anything. We just keep fighting."

Penn State and Northwestern will meet at noon Saturday in Beaver Stadium. Here is an overview of just how far apart these two teams have grown:

Close games: Of Northwestern’s past 11 games, seven were decided by a single score. The Wildcats won just one of those close games. Of Penn State’s past 11 games, six were decided by a single score. The Lions lost just one of those close games.

During that span, quarterback Christian Hackenberg has led Penn State to four game-tying or game-winning drives, all scores that occurred within the last 90 seconds of regulation. Northwestern hasn’t been able to make the best of similar opportunities. A few examples: Against Iowa last season, the Wildcats fumbled in Iowa territory late in the fourth quarter and lost in overtime. Against Michigan in 2013, Northwestern lost in overtime when it was sacked 14 yards on second down and then tossed a pick on the final play. And against Cal three weeks ago, Northwestern found itself 27 yards from a game-tying touchdown -- but but threw an interception with about 90 seconds remaining.

Current injuries/depth: Penn State lacks depth but, so far, the only injury that has significantly impacted the team this season is the one suffered by offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach. Another injury to the line -- or to the linebackers or quarterback -- could be devastating. But Penn State has been able to stay relatively healthy. Northwestern, on the other hand, has basically faced a nightmare scenario when it comes to injuries and departures.

Tailback Venric Mark, who averaged 6.0 yards a carry in 2012, transferred elsewhere in a surprise preseason move. Top wideout Christian Jones is out for the season. No. 2 wideout Tony Jones missed two games with a leg injury and is not on this week’s depth chart. All-Big Ten talent Ibraheim Campbell, a safety, and senior linebacker Collin Ellis are day-to-day. And quarterback Trevor Siemian is battling an ankle injury.

Starting off: Both teams have actually tended to start slow, but Penn State’s defense has started on the right foot in each of the past four games. So far, Penn State has yet to allow a point in the first quarter and is outscoring the competition 20-0. On the other end, Northwestern has yet to score any points in the first quarter against an FBS team, although it did manage to score a TD against Western Illinois.

Northwestern started 0-2 for the first time since 2004. Penn State is 4-0 for the first time since 2008.

Preseason practice: The mood at Northwestern’s practices was clearly different than past years. Maybe Fitzgerald was worried about the potential for injuries and wanted to take it a bit easier, seeing as 13 key players were injured last November. Regardless, Adam Rittenberg said the most energy shown in an August workout was a watermelon-eating contest, and that the atmosphere mimicked a "a country club."

Fitzgerald has since turned up the intensity, forcing his team to do up-down drills (something he hasn’t really done in the past) and even having his team practice outside in the rain. But that early tone was far different from Franklin’s.

In August, Franklin took the opposite approach. After one practice, he yelled at a freshman to jog off the field faster. Recruits told ESPN.com there was more energy than the year before. And Franklin even invited reporters to watch the infamous "Lions Den" drill, where the energy was palpable. It seemed as if the coaches had two very different philosophies back in August.

Big Ten Week 5 predictions

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
9:00
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Can Michigan bounce back? Can Indiana build off last week's big upset win over Missouri? Our experts make their Week 5 picks.

 

Why Maryland will win: Our best chance for an offensive shootout in the conference this weekend will be in Bloomington. Indiana's up-tempo offense took down reigning SEC East champ Missouri last weekend. Maryland has the firepower to keep pace. Quarterback C.J. Brown has gotten consistently stronger in the passing game over the past few weeks and has a handful of big-play targets surrounding him. The Terps sounded geeked to make their Big Ten debut during the week of preparation, which should help them outlast Indiana in a close one. Maryland 38, Indiana 33 -- Dan Murphy

Why Indiana will win: Because these Hoosiers are different. They're not going to disappoint their fans, as is customary for IU football. They're not going to follow a big win with a deflating loss before a home crowd itching for something about which to get excited. These Hoosiers are different because of running back Tevin Coleman, the do-it-all junior who might rank as the most underrated player in college football. Indiana has momentum after its road upset at Missouri and motivation to continue to prove that a loss two weeks ago at Bowling Green was an aberration -- that this is a team ready to play in the postseason. And if all that isn't enough, the Hoosiers aren't playing Michigan State; they're simply good enough to outscore Maryland. Indiana 35, Maryland 27 -- Mitch Sherman

 

Why Minnesota will win: Michigan's generosity with the football has been well documented, and it doesn't even seem to matter who plays quarterback as those woes continued even after Devin Gardner was removed from last week's loss to Utah. On the flip side, only one team in the nation has more takeaways than Minnesota's defense, and that combination doesn't seem like a great recipe for the Wolverines to hold on to the Little Brown Jug. The Gophers have had their own problems protecting the football, but a powerful rushing attack and stout defense should put them in position to make Brady Hoke's life even more difficult. Minnesota 20, Michigan 13 -- Austin Ward

Why Michigan will win: The season is really on the line for the Wolverines and coach Brady Hoke. If U-M loses, a bowl berth suddenly seems unlikely and Hoke's seat would be hotter than ever with some tough games remaining in a competitive East Division (Penn State, Michigan State, Ohio State). I don't think Michigan is done yet, and the Wolverines seem to always find a way to beat Minnesota, even with their weaker teams (see: 2008). Michigan's defense matches up well against a one-dimensional Gophers offense. Minnesota's ability to take the ball away scares me, but I think Michigan grinds out a win in a low-scoring game to keep Hoke alive. Michigan 13, Minnesota 10 -- Adam Rittenberg

Unanimous selections

Michigan State over Wyoming 42-6: A tuneup for the Spartans, who host Nebraska next week. The Cowboys have fared well this year without scoring many points. They won't score many in East Lansing, either, though it comes with a less favorable outcome.

Ohio State over Cincinnati 45-17: The Buckeyes, off a bye week, continue to take steps forward by stopping Cincinnati QB Gunner Kiel, who has thrown 10 touchdowns in two games. Ohio State puts up a big rushing number.

Penn State over Northwestern 24-10: The Nittany Lions continue to get it done with defense -- especially up front, where breakout senior tackle Anthony Zettel makes life miserable for the punchless Wildcats, who average 4.54 yards per play, 116th nationally.

Nebraska over Illinois 48-24: The Huskers avoid a letdown, between big games against Miami and Michigan State, behind strong performances again from running back Ameer Abdullah and QB Tommy Armstrong Jr. as another slow start dooms the Illini.

Iowa over Purdue 28-20: More signs of improvement from the Boilermakers, but for a second straight week, QB C.J. Beathard rallies the Hawkeyes in the second half as Iowa starts to find an identity by getting its talented cast of receivers more involved.

Wisconsin over USF 56-14: That big soft spot in the schedule allows for another easy win as the Badgers run wild again. More important, QB Tanner McEvoy enjoys a solid game, and the Wisconsin defense surges forward, hinting at the capabilities of this team in a few weeks.

Rutgers over Tulane 37-17: The Scarlet Knights get a week before Big Ten play resumes to devise a way to replace injured running back Paul James. Against the Green Wave, who struggle to stop the run, Justin Goodwin and Desmon Peoples fill in nicely.

Our records:

Adam Rittenberg: 40-10 (80 percent)
Mitch Sherman: 40-10 (80)
Brian Bennett: 39-11 (78)
Austin Ward: 39-11 (78)
Josh Moyer: 36-14 (72)
Dan Murphy: 9-4 (69)

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