Big Ten: Ohio State Buckeyes
The height is the same, but Ezekiel Elliott is about 20 pounds lighter than the guy who came before him.
The unique mentality requires a bit more of an explanation.
The offensive system isn't even exactly the same now, either, with the Buckeyes dialing up the tempo to unprecedented levels and rotating through their personnel at the skill positions instead of largely relying on two main guys to carry the load.
But for all the ways he might not fit the mold Carlos Hyde left behind, it looks clear that the two share at least one key trait after Elliott tallied 112 yards after contact last week in a performance that would have made his old mentor proud.
"Well, yeah, I'm not as big of a back as Carlos," Elliott said. "I can't take as many hits as him. He's more of a bruiser-type back, and I have a little more finesse to me.
"But just being a running back, you've got to be tough. You have to have some bruise to you."
Elliott might not pack quite the same punch, but Cincinnati certainly left Ohio Stadium black and blue last weekend after the sophomore relentlessly pounded away at its defense. He unofficially announced himself as a worthy heir to Hyde in the backfield.
He also showed the same ability to handle a healthy workload while appearing to gain strength as a game goes on. Elliott wore down the Bearcats with his 28 carries for 182 yards while adding 51 more on 5 catches. The record-setting outing with 45 first downs and 710 yards was sparked largely by Elliott and the rushing attack, a throwback to last season ago when Braxton Miller was teaming with Hyde and posting eye-popping statistics at nearly every turn.
That explosive dynamic was notably absent during the Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech, with redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett and Elliott struggling to make an impact. The defeat put Ohio State's playoff candidacy on the ropes quickly. Elliott finished with just 32 yards on 8 carries against the Hokies, and there certainly wasn't much happening after contact in that game.
But like seemingly everybody else on an inexperienced offense, the improvement every week has been pretty evident as Elliott grows more comfortable with his role and responsibilities. The Buckeyes figure to only grow more dangerous as a result.
"On Saturday, he did the job you would want a Carlos Hyde to do," co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said. "But he's a different runner than Carlos. He's playing with very low pad level, he plays with great energy, he's explosive and he finishes runs with great pad level. He doesn't want to make direct contact. He wants to edge defenders, which always allows you to finish runs and come out the other end.
"He's developed, and here we go starting to show that on the field."
Against the Bearcats, Elliot left a lot of defenders having to pick themselves back up while he kept moving down the field.
That's been a familiar sight for Ohio State opponents over the last few seasons. While the guy doing it now has a different method, it's already shaping up to be just as effective.
"That's definitely one of our core values in the running back room," Elliott said. "Get those yards after contact, fight with that extra effort.
"You can't just be all outside, you know? You've got to have a downhill aspect to you."
After a bit of a slow start, Elliott has the ball rolling that way now and Ohio State is building momentum again in the process.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer addressed reporters Monday and expressed his commitment to Braxton Miller, who still plans to return for a final season. So, no matter how well J.T. Barrett performs, Miller is the clear starter in 2015.
Is that a surprise? Not at all. It’s a no-brainer. Miller was on pace for an unprecedented third Big Ten offensive-player-of-the-year award. And, while Barrett has shown flashes this season, he still has a long way to go before fans start forgetting about the quarterback who twice finished within the top-10 of the Heisman voting.
If anything, it’s a smart move by Meyer to get out ahead of any foreseeable controversy. Barrett is progressing every week, and this pre-emptive statement should put to rest any future murmurs on the subject. The fact is, even at Barrett’s best, he’s still no Braxton Miller. And even he knows that.
“I’m not Braxton,” Barrett said matter-of-factly back in August. “I’m J.T.”
That being said, the redshirt freshman is still on pace for a solid season. He’s thrown for 1,087 yards -- along with 13 TDs to five INTs -- and only Illinois’ Wes Lunt and Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg have passed for more yards per game. Sure, he’s padded his stats against some suspect defenses like Kent State. But he’s only going to get better.
As long as Miller remains a part of the Buckeyes, this will always will be his team. Meyer’s statement just reinforced that. Miller was always expected to be the starter next season. But, on the bright side, Barrett has shown he’ll make for one capable backup in 2015.
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:
- The Harbaughs believe in Michigan's Brady Hoke.
- Mark Dantonio thinks fans might be a little spoiled from Michigan State's 2013 defense and that some mistakes are inevitable.
- Pass defense (or lack thereof) remains a hot topic for Ohio State.
- Penn State is hoping to improve over the bye week.
- Maryland is a 7.5-point underdog heading into the game against Ohio State.
- IU coach Kevin Wilson is seeking more consistency from the Hoosiers.
- No Big Ten team gives Michigan State's defense more trouble than Nebraska.
- Gary Andersen still sees room for improvement when it comes to his Badgers.
- Reflecting on Minnesota's win and reclaiming the Little Brown Jug.
- Let the Iowa quarterback controversy begin.
- Contrarian-in-chief Pat Fitzgerald focused on his team's foibles on Monday.
- In an all-too-familiar theme, Darrell Hazell hasn't yet made a decision on Purdue's starting quarterback.
Let's dive in.
Austin Ward: While the rest of the nation seems intent on installing the spread and airing the football out, there's really no reason for the Big Ten to stray from its traditional reliance on running backs to carry the load this season because it is absolutely loaded at that position from top to bottom, with Ameer Abdullah, Melvin Gordon and David Cobb. It's not just those three tailbacks that make for such an impressive stable, because that doesn't include Indiana's Tevin Coleman or Michigan State's Jeremy Langford, just for starters. As for some historical perspective, I think it's probably the best group at the top since 2002 when Larry Johnson led the league in yardage at Penn State with Wisconsin's Anthony Davis behind him and Maurice Clarett making his splash at Ohio State. But even then, I don't think there was nearly as much depth in the league at tailback as there is now.
@AWardESPN Is the trio of Abdullah, Gordon, and Cobb the best stable of RB's the Big Ten has had in quite some time?— Matthew Krier (@matthewkrier) September 29, 2014
Austin Ward: It's taken some time for Randy Gregory to get rolling, but now that he appears to be setting in, opposing quarterbacks better get used to seeing him in the backfield. After dealing with a knee injury that slowed him down early, Gregory has 4.5 sacks in the past two games, and Nebraska will definitely need him to make an impact against a Michigan State offense that is gaining confidence every week. Shilique Calhoun hasn't yet had his true breakout game with just 2 sacks at this point, although he was probably only really needed in the loss at Oregon. Taking nothing away from Gregory, I anticipate Calhoun will be highly motivated to deliver against Nebraska to keep his team in the playoff chase -- and to put himself back in contention for defensive player of the year.
@AWardESPN Who's going to have the better game Saturday? Huskers DE Randy Gregory or Spartans DE Shilique Calhoun?— BlackFlash41Reverse (@Black41Reverse) September 29, 2014
@AWardESPN if game were to b rematched, would OSU handle VT better if VT played same way?— Matt Pacholski (@Mpachol) September 29, 2014
Austin Ward: The Ohio State coaching staff was still referencing the unique defensive scheme the Hokies threw at them in Week 2 as recently as this afternoon. But as recent opponents have tried to duplicate that game plan, the Buckeyes have two critical things working in their favor now -- "Bear-beater" plays they've installed and a quarterback and offensive line with more experience to operate them and adjust on the field. It seemed pretty clear the schedule wasn't going to work in Ohio State's favor with the offense opening with tough, well-coached opponents such as Navy and Virginia Tech instead of easing in new faces with warmups such as Kent State and, to a lesser extent, Cincinnati. With J.T. Barrett and his group of blockers showing signs of significant progress every week, it's fair to wonder if things would be different if the Hokies had been on the schedule last week, and my guess is they would have been. I also don't think a few of those fluky plays Michael Brewer pulled off at quarterback would have gone Virginia Tech's way again, but in the end it doesn't matter. The loss isn't going away, and if Ohio State continues to build and improve each week, it could still wind up back in the playoff mix.
@AWardESPN I know this question is moot, but in your opinion, of OSU played VT again...outcome?— Robbie Hendricks (@roberthendricks) September 29, 2014
Austin Ward: This is a tricky one, because it would seem logical having an undefeated team as long as possible would be best for the Big Ten. But in this instance, maybe it wouldn't be if the Spartans suddenly found themselves out of contention for the four-team field with a second loss in the first weekend in October. The general consensus is the Spartans are the most talented team in the conference, and they could still win the league, even with a loss to the Huskers. But they almost certainly wouldn't be in the College Football Playoff. Nebraska, too, could go on to win the league without a perfect regular season, and there's a chance that if it was a one-loss league champ with it's only defeat coming on the road against Michigan State, it could make a case that it deserved a crack at the national championship as well. So, in this case, it may actually be better in the long run for the Big Ten if the Spartans defend their home turf on Saturday, potentially leaving two teams alive for the national championship instead of eliminating one for good.
@AWardESPN For the B1G playoff hopes, what would be better, Neb staying undefeated, or MSU winning as thats everyone's only hope for B1G?— Wesley Demke (@WesleyDemke) September 29, 2014
Passenger Delany in seat 1A, please stop ringing your call button. I told you we can't go back to Nov. 18, 2006. Yes, yes, I realize that is when the Big Ten sat atop the college football world with its two most recognizable programs ranked 1 and 2. I know you would give it all up -- the money, BTN's success, the expansion moves -- to relive that magical day in Columbus. Not happening, pal. Here is another bag of peanuts.
Our destination is the more recent past, although for some it feels like a long time ago. We are rewinding exactly one year to Sept. 29, 2013. Here we go!
Now meet the Michigan Wolverines. They are 4-0 and ranked No. 19. They have just had two shaky wins against inferior opponents (Akron and Connecticut), but they previously beat Notre Dame 41-30 behind quarterback Devin Gardner, who put up the ninth-best single-game yards total (376) in team history. They are a rising program under third-year coach Brady Hoke with tremendous momentum on the recruiting trail. The growing feeling is that the Big Ten soon will revert to the Big Two (Ohio State and Michigan) and everyone else.
Speaking of those Buckeyes, they have yet to lose a game under second-year coach Urban Meyer. Yesterday, quarterback Braxton Miller returned from injury to spark Ohio State to a 31-24 win against Wisconsin. The fourth-ranked Buckeyes are loaded at quarterback with Miller and beloved backup Kenny Guiton. Their first Big Ten title since 2009 seems likely, and they could be headed for the BCS title game.
And here we have Maryland and Rutgers. They are still nine months away from becoming official Big Ten members, but most Big Ten fans wish their arrival date could be pushed to, you know, never. Maryland is 4-0 and ranked No. 25 and Rutgers is 3-1 after a win against Bret Bielema's Arkansas Razorbacks, but few expect either team to truly boost the Big Ten. Legends and Leaders had a stronger approval rating than these two.
OK, now we're heading back to the present. Aaaand ... we're back.
It's only been a year, but the Big Ten landscape has dramatically shifted, particularly in the state of Michigan.
Since Sept. 29, 2013, Michigan State is 13-1 with a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl championship. The Spartans have outscored their opponents 497-223. Cook has thrown 26 touchdowns against eight interceptions. MSU's lone loss came in a place (Oregon's Autzen Stadium) where most suffer the same fate. Mark Dantonio is considered one of the nation's premier coaches, and his team remains alive for the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Fifty miles away, the Michigan program is in utter disarray. The Wolverines are 2-3. They ended the Notre Dame series by suffering their first shutout since 1984. They failed to score an offensive touchdown against Utah. They suffered their largest home loss to Minnesota (30-14) since 1962. Hoke has lost eight of his past 11 games but said after the Minnesota game that he still thinks Michigan can win the Big Ten. Um ...
(Just a reminder: there's no smoking of anything in the Big Ten time machine.)
If losing isn't bad enough, Hoke faces more heat for leaving quarterback Shane Morris in the game despite Morris wobbling after absorbing a helmet-to-helmet hit. Perhaps the only Michigan employee less popular than Hoke right now is his boss, athletic director Dave Brandon, whose department was mocked following last week's Coca-Cola/free tickets fiasco.
Things aren't nearly as bleak in Columbus, but Ohio State isn't the juggernaut it was a year ago. The Buckeyes haven't beaten a Power 5 team since Michigan in The Game last November. Miller is out for the season with a shoulder injury. The secondary remains vulnerable. Young quarterback J.T. Barrett is improving, but struggled against the only top-90 defense he has faced so far (Virginia Tech).
Maryland and Rutgers, meanwhile, are a combined 8-2, each with a 3-point loss as the lone setback. The Terrapins lead the East Division, and Rutgers looks much improved on both sides of the ball. The Big Ten hasn't had many bright spots this season, but Maryland and Rutgers are two of them.
"College football," Dantonio said, "is such a changing landscape."
Expect the unexpected, especially in the Big Ten. The past year in this league shows that the only guarantee is that the future won't resemble the present.
Perhaps there is hope for Michigan. Michigan State, meanwhile, can't get complacent. No one knows what the coming weeks will bring.
"We still have things to prove," Dantonio said. "Our reputation right now is built off of last year's success. It starts here.
"We have to play in the present."
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.
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.
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 ...
- Indiana reinforced its old stereotypes in the Maryland loss.
- Brandon Ross flashed his versatility for the Terrapins.
- Michigan State could get two defensive tackles back in time for Nebraska.
- Chris Ash explains how Ohio State's pass defense gave up three long touchdowns against Cincinnati.
- Penn State gets a week off to lick its wounds and prepare for Michigan.
- Rutgers QB Gary Nova set a record Saturday, but his legacy remains unsettled.
- Going behind the scenes with Illinois on the night before the Nebraska game.
- Iowa won because its defense smothered Purdue.
- The growth of Minnesota's program under Jerry Kill was evident in the Big House.
- Tommy Armstrong will be pivotal for Nebraska against Michigan State this week.
- Northwestern's win at Penn State was simply a stunner.
- What we learned about Purdue in the Iowa loss.
- Wisconsin needs a better sense of urgency.
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
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
Cincinnati vs. Ohio State:
The Buckeyes came away with the victory against the Bearcats and the Ohio State coaches are hoping they come away with a win with ESPN 300 linebacker Jerome Baker as well.
The Buckeyes also played host to several other big prospects, including ESPN Jr. 300 running back Elijah Holyfield. The 2016 back is very interested in Ohio State, so it was good to get him on campus for this game.
Illinois vs. Nebraska:
The Cornhuskers also came away with a victory on the field and off it on Saturday. The coaching staff was able to reel in two big 2016 prospects in John Raridon and Bryan Brokop.
Both prospects are huge for Nebraska as Raridon is the No. 69-ranked prospect in his class and Brokop is No. 226 overall.
After my 2016 season I will be attending the university of Nebraska. #ProudToBeaHusker— John Raridon (@hines_bittleman) September 28, 2014
There is some serious momentum happening right now for Nebraska, and that could continue if the team continues its stellar play on Saturdays.
Minnesota vs. Michigan:
The Wolverines have spiraled out of control and the loss to the Gophers could just be the start. Michigan hasn't lost any commitments yet, but if the play doesn't improve quickly there could be some movement in the near future.
ESPN 300 defensive end commit Darian Roseboro took an official visit to NC State this weekend.
Northwestern vs. Penn State:
The Nittany Lions didn't win the game against the Wildcats, but there was a big opportunity to impress some top prospects.
The main target on campus for the 2015 class was ESPN 300 defensive back Jordan Whitehead, who has Penn State among his favorites.
USF vs. Wisconsin:
The Badgers had one of the biggest weekends in the Big Ten in terms of official visitors.
Wisconsin had running backs Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Stevenson on campus. The weather was perfect to bring up a few southern prospects and the Badgers pulled off the win, too.
Another Jordan, Jordan Griffin, was scheduled to make the trip as well, but tweeted that complications at O'Hare airport in Chicago prevented the trip from happening.
My official to Wisconsin has been rescheduled due to the fire at Chicago O'hare airport— Jordan Griffin (@HawkStar40) September 27, 2014
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.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- An entertaining matchup at Ohio Stadium featured some of everything, but not all that much defense. Ohio State was able to weather all the punches Cincinnati threw its way in a high-scoring affair on Saturday night, eventually pulling away for a 50-28 win to close out its nonconference schedule.
How the game was won: As long as the Buckeyes didn’t hurt themselves with penalties, dropped passes or a fumble, there wasn’t anything that could slow down their offense. Cincinnati didn’t see much resistance when it had the ball, either, but it really had no answer for an Ohio State spread attack that is starting to look exactly like Urban Meyer envisioned by blending a powerful rushing game with dangerous play-action passes.
Game ball goes to: J.T. Barrett. The redshirt freshman is developing quickly for the Buckeyes, and he’s doing a pretty impressive Braxton Miller impression in the process. With Ohio State’s defense struggling to offer much support, Barrett proved more than capable of winning a shootout by throwing for 330 yards and four touchdowns and complementing that with 79 rushing yards.
What it means: The fatal flaw that ruined Ohio State’s bid for a national title last season doesn’t appear to have been fixed quite yet. The Bearcats picked apart the Buckeyes through the air with Gunner Kiel making them pay for every defensive breakdown with 352 yards and four touchdowns. That’s a troubling sign for Meyer, who brought in co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash in the offseason solely to address that issue.
Playoff implications: The suspect secondary probably didn’t inspire much confidence around the country about Ohio State’s chances of climbing back in the race. But the Buckeyes survived a tough test from a motivated Cincinnati squad to at least keep hope alive if they can navigate the conference slate without a loss. For the Bearcats, any long-shot chance of crashing the party is gone.
What’s next: The Buckeyes wrapped up an interesting month outside of the Big Ten, a trying stretch that started during training camp with Miller’s injury, included the loss to Virginia Tech and then the indefinite suspension of defensive end Noah Spence. At least in the conference race, a new season starts next week with what should be a tough matchup at Maryland.
The fun is set to really begin now. Here's the full rundown of the day (all times Eastern):
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.
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.
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.
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Once out of every three snaps, something was going really wrong. Michael Thomas would blow an assignment, run a route wrong, or just go completely in the opposite direction.
A second play would be fine. Nothing out of the ordinary, a decent block or perhaps a solid reception but nothing for the Ohio State coaching staff to get too excited about.
Maybe the incredible athleticism, the strong hands or the physical presence wouldn’t show up in every sample from the practice field. But when it did, in the form of a ridiculous one-handed grab or a leaping touchdown in the end zone, the Buckeyes could see the bright future ahead for Thomas and what he could bring to the offense.
They just couldn’t get over that first play, which left Thomas on the sideline all of last season as a healthy, redshirting sophomore who could only show off his potential on the scout team.
“He’s always had the ability,” wide receivers coach Zach Smith said. “He’s always had those moment every now and then where you just go, ‘Wow!’
“You know, Mike’s biggest battle was consistency. It was extremely inconsistent, inconsistent, slightly inconsistent, then he started becoming more consistent. His issue has never been with the ‘wow’ moment. What’s really impressed me is all of a sudden it’s every play I’m seeing good things.”
That newfound reliability is now allowing Thomas to show a much larger audience what he can do, and he hasn’t disappointed Ohio State so far, blossoming into the most dangerous threat for a passing attack that needed a go-to target.
Thomas leads the Buckeyes in each of the major statistical categories with 11 catches, 214 yards and four touchdowns through three games, finally delivering on the hype that has swirled around him since exploding during a spring exhibition before his freshman season. He followed that up with a disappointing campaign that included just three receptions for 22 yards, then built the buzz back up with more head-turning plays the following spring.
But an uneven training camp, broken down a few plays at a time, kept the Buckeyes from putting him on the field last fall. And the challenge before him was clearly laid out, from absorbing the playbook to improving his practice habits and even just developing more maturity.
“I felt like, you know, life is not always going to be the way the you want it to go,” Thomas said. “Sometimes you have obstacles, and that was an obstacle that I had to overcome. I had to remain positive. I still had to keep a straight head.
“If I came out here negative and didn’t get better, then I’m hurting myself for next year when I have to go on the field. You can’t redshirt again. I couldn’t waste a year again.”
It’s clear now the year was put to good use, and even before it was over last fall, Smith was seeing signs that Thomas had turned the corner.
With Ohio State struggling to fill out the rotation at wide receiver and relying heavily on the rushing attack at the end of the season, there might have even been some temptation to pull the redshirt and promote Thomas off the scout team, where he had been testing himself against first-round NFL draft pick Bradley Roby.
“It was tough,” Smith said. “You don’t want to waste a year for one game. But you’re looking at some ‘wow’ moments, and not only that, by the end of the year he had developed a lot.
“It was really hard to walk into a game saying I’ve got a guy I’m starting to feel really confident about, but I can’t use him right now.”
That’s not a problem anymore, and the Buckeyes are certainly taking advantage of his availability now.
Thomas isn’t a finished product yet, and he hasn’t even turned in one of those jaw-dropping grabs that Ohio State has seen on the practice field. But with the errors and inconsistency largely in the past, Thomas should have plenty of chances to start making them.
“It's been a process,” Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said. “He was the mistake guy, every third play he would go the wrong way or make a mistake and come up with some excuse.
“He’s done a nice job. I know we did the right thing [last year], and so does he.”
The Buckeyes and Thomas are both reaping the benefits now, one three-play segment at a time.
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
12:00 PM ET Purdue Illinois 12:00 PM ET 20 Ohio State Maryland 2:30 PM ET North Texas Indiana 3:30 PM ET 17 Wisconsin Northwestern 7:00 PM ET Michigan Rutgers 8:00 PM ET 19 Nebraska 10 Michigan State