Big Ten: Ohio State Buckeyes

Watch: B1G Show, 2 p.m. ET

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
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Join Big Ten reporters Brian Bennett, Dan Murphy, Josh Moyer and Austin Ward as they look around the conference heading into Week 9.

Christian Hackenberg was the big name as a Big Ten freshman in 2013. Now, that torch has been passed to Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett.

The Buckeyes' redshirt freshman appears to be on the rise, while Penn State's sophomore has struggled to repeat the success from his first season. They’ll meet Saturday night in Beaver Stadium. So, in the meantime, here’s a look at both quarterbacks -- the good, the bad and the ugly.

Barrett

The good: He’s performed so well since Week 3 that he’s started to enter the Heisman conversation. Just take a look at the numbers in his last four games: 86-of-120 (71.7 percent), 1,170 yards, 17 touchdowns and one interception. He’s recorded a QBR of at least 75.8 in the last four games, and he posted a 98.8 QBR in his last game, against Rutgers. His improvement has been well-documented, whether it’s in the running game, his poise or his ability through the air. Said Penn State linebacker Mike Hull: “He doesn’t turn the ball over, he makes smart throws, he’s a great runner -- so he really has been the whole package for them so far.”

The bad: Barrett has been praised for his production in the last four games, but his opponents haven’t exactly been challenging. Kent State currently ranks No. 97 in total defense, Cincinnati is No. 120, Maryland is No. 99 and Rutgers is No. 82. The two best defenses he’s played -- Navy (No. 70) and Virginia Tech (No. 20) -- both came in his first two starts when the playbook was limited. And that’s where he fared his worst. So at this point, there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg argument. Barrett is undoubtedly talented, but just how much did his opponents’ bad defenses influence his numbers?

The ugly: There’s very, very little from Barrett that can be classified as “ugly.” Really, only one game -- and that was the loss against the Hokies. Virginia Tech blitzed mercilessly, and Barrett just couldn’t adjust. He finished 9-of-29 with three picks and took seven sacks. Statistically, Barrett will face only one better pass defense this regular season than Virginia Tech: Michigan State.

Hackenberg

The good: Going back to last season, Hackenberg has had a penchant for the comeback. In his last 13 games, he’s engineered four last-minute game-tying or game-winning drives: Illinois and Michigan in 2013 and UCF and Rutgers this season. He is widely regarded as a future first-round NFL draft pick -- if not the No. 1 pick overall -- and several Big Ten coaches have sung his praises. Michigan’s Brady Hoke and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald both said this season that he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer: “Obviously, we got a lot of respect for that big quarterback, Hackenberg.”

The bad: By any measure, this season has been a disappointment for Hackenberg so far. He’s thrown more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (5). But a lot of his struggles can be traced back to a patchwork offensive line that features one returning starter and two former defensive tackles at offensive guard. He’s been sacked 20 times so far this season -- the most in the Big Ten -- while he was sacked just 21 times all of last year. He also has little run support, as only seven teams in the nation are averaging fewer rushing yards per game. He’s starting to develop bad habits, and frustration appears to be setting in.

The ugly: There’s a lot more to write under this section than for Barrett. For one, Hackenberg’s QBR this season right now sits at 38.0 -- a decrease in 18.6 points from last season, the largest decrease for any Big Ten quarterback. And there have been quite a few other lowlights. Early in the season, Hackenberg's frustrations boiled over on TV and resulted in a gif that made the rounds on sports blogs. As was mentioned before, his offensive line also hasn’t done him any favors, and they made national headlines when one blocker closed his eyes and mistakenly blocked a teammate. And James Franklin can’t seem to make up his mind as to whether to have offensive coordinator John Donovan in the booth or on the field.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- James Franklin was off recruiting in Connecticut last Saturday afternoon when Ohio State’s offense exploded -- again -- against Rutgers. He caught a few highlights here and there, but he didn’t need to see much.

He already knew this defense was in for a challenge.

"They’ve recruited well, they’ve got really good depth, they’ve got really good talent, they’ve got really good speed," Franklin said Wednesday evening, recalling his initial thoughts. "It’s the best team I think so far -- from a talent and depth standpoint -- that we’ve seen this year."

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsPenn State coach James Franklin on Ohio State: "It's the best team I think so far -- from a talent and depth standpoint -- that we've seen this year."
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Franklin’s first impressions were dead-on. Since its loss to Virginia Tech, Ohio State has scored at least 50 points in a school-record four straight games. It has also gained at least 500 yards of total offense in four straight games -- the first time that has happened since 1998 -- and it has boasted the most efficient offense in the country during that span.

Penn State’s offense, on the other hand, hasn’t scored even two touchdowns against any of its three Big Ten opponents. So it’s no surprise to hear Nittany Lions linebacker Mike Hull say this defense boasts the mentality that it’s "going to put every single game on our shoulders." Especially with Ohio State on the horizon.

"It’s going to be a challenge this week to stop these guys," Hull said. "We’re going to have to have a great effort. But I think we’re going to be up for the challenge, and we’re going to do everything in our power to hold them in check."

Hull watched the film. He knows how Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett "has gotten so much better in the last four, five games." What Hull might not know: Since Week 3, no quarterback in the country has boasted a higher QBR than Barrett (90.0), not Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott (89.7) or Oregon’s Marcus Mariota (87.9). Hull knows what a challenge running back Ezekiel Elliott will be. What he might not know: Ohio State gains at least five yards on more than half of its rushes, the best among FBS teams.

Penn State hasn’t seen an offense quite like Ohio State's; Franklin and his players admitted as much. But, then again, the Buckeyes haven’t faced a defense quite like Penn State's.

No defense in the country has been better than Penn State at stopping the run. And, besides Virginia Tech, the highest-ranked total defense Ohio State played is No. 70 Navy. Penn State is No. 6.

"Very well-coached up front. Good personnel up front," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. "It’s a much different defense right now. That’s a really good rush defense we’re facing."

Penn State’s defense is a big reason 812 students have pitched tents outside Beaver Stadium’s Gate A in preparation of a sold-out, white-out crowd of more than 107,000. Franklin’s squad isn’t built to survive shootouts and, for PSU to have a shot at the upset, it needs this defense to control the tempo.

The defense didn’t achieve that last season and fell to Ohio State, 63-14, in the Horseshoe. It was the Nittany Lions’ worst loss since a 64-5 game against Duquesne in 1899, the year Walter Camp first published his All-America football team.

"It’s obviously disappointing to go in there and lose like we did, but it’s a new season, a new year," safety Ryan Keiser said. "We both have different teams."

Said Hull: "We got it handed to us on national TV, and that wasn’t the Penn State team I knew we were. I knew we were better than that."

Penn State is still trying to carve out an identity on offense, but this defense has shown so far that it’s like the PSU teams of old: Stop the run, carry the team, frustrate the opposing offense. It has done that nearly every game this season -- but the Buckeyes present a unique challenge.

And the entire defense knows it, from the secondary (Keiser) to the linebackers (Hull), to the defensive line.

"This is probably the biggest test we have faced to date," defensive tackle Austin Johnson said. "It’s going to be an interesting game."

Big Ten Week 9 predictions

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
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Is it a full moon or something? First, we have three people -- Brian Bennett, Josh Moyer and Mitch Sherman -- who notched perfect weeks last week. And now, all of our experts agreed on the games this week. Yes, strange days indeed.

Anyway ... here are the breakdowns:

Unanimous selections

Minnesota 31, Illinois 20: The Big Ten's worst run defense will get a heavy dose of David Cobb, the nation's carries leader (189) and No. 4 rusher (1,013). Like Purdue, Illinois will try to attack Minnesota with its speed and will have some success, but Minnesota remains perfect in league play.

Wisconsin 38, Maryland 30: Expect a ton of handoffs from Wisconsin's quarterbacks, who should want no part of Will Likely. But Maryland allows nearly 200 rush yards per game, which doesn't bode well against a rested Melvin Gordon.

Nebraska 41, Rutgers 27: Can the Huskers avoid a slow start? If so, they should be able to pull away from a Rutgers team that had no answers for Ohio State's offense. Quarterbacks Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Gary Nova both put up big numbers in this one.

Michigan State 24, Michigan 13: The Wolverines' points totals against MSU have dropped every year since 2004. They exceed last year's woeful production but can't stop the Spartans' Connor Cook and Tony Lippett, who connect for two touchdown strikes.

Ohio State 27, Penn State 16: J.T. Barrett won't go nuts against an improved Penn State defense that can shut down the run. But his counterpart, Christian Hackenberg, could be in real trouble if he's not protected from Joey Bosa and Ohio State's fearsome defensive line.

Our records:

Mitch Sherman: 62-13 (.827)
Brian Bennett: 60-15 (.800)
Austin Ward: 59-16 (.787)
Adam Rittenberg: 58-17 (.773)
Josh Moyer: 56-19 (.747)
Dan Murphy: 28-10 (.737)

Big Ten morning links

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
8:00
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Working for the weekend -- and the return of Big Ten football? Let's pass the time together.

1. Buzz-building weekend: For all the problems generating much hype for teams in the Big Ten early in the season, it doesn’t seem to really be slowing down individuals in the league heading into the final weekend of October. In fact, the next couple weeks could be critical for launching a few stars into the conversation for the stretch run, beginning with Melvin Gordon and a campaign that appears to be back on track. Just like Wisconsin collectively, Gordon was a bit slow out of the gates and became something of a forgotten man. But coming off a bye week with another opportunity to potentially put up big numbers against Maryland and its soft rush defense, he could be right back in the thick of a few trophy races. Ameer Abdullah takes on a Rutgers defense that was just gashed by J.T. Barrett, and the Nebraska rusher could use an impressive outing to recapture some hype that slowed down considerably after the loss at Michigan State and an off date of his own. Then there’s Barrett, who is flying up the charts with his eye-popping numbers. The Ohio State quarterback is also in position to capture more attention if he adds a solid Penn State defense to his list of recent victims.

2. Position under fire: The problems the Penn State offensive line have had are no secret, and Christian Hackenberg surely has the bruises to prove it. But if the Nittany Lions are going to bounce back and regain some of the winning swagger they had during the four-game winning streak that opened the season, they’re going to need to show some marked improvement in a hurry. Coming off a bye week to work out a few kinks, Penn State is certainly going to be put to the test to see what it accomplished with the extra practice time on Saturday night against the Buckeyes. Count Joey Bosa among those who has noticed the guys in charge of blocking him next have had issues at times this season, pointing out some “struggles” and noting their youth after practice on Wednesday. The Ohio State pass-rusher also made clear, however, that he is expecting Penn State's best shot this weekend and won’t take anything for granted, though he was obviously fired up to hit the road after practice. The Nittany Lions had certainly better be energized and ready for the sensational sophomore’s top effort as well.

3. Under-the-radar matchup: The coaches may have taken notice and started ranking them in their poll, but the Gophers still aren’t drawing much of a spotlight despite sitting on top of the West Division. There might not really be any incentive to pay attention to Illinois at this point, but it’s a program that still has something to play for as its coach fights for his job and a bowl game remains mathematically in reach. So despite the justifiably low intrigue there might be nationally for Minnesota’s trip to Illinois, the outcome figures to be plenty relevant in the Big Ten. If the Gophers win again, they’re halfway through the league schedule without a loss and on the inside track in the divisional race heading into their second and final bye week. Should the Illini pull an upset, they’d be right back at .500, Tim Beckman’s seat would be considerably cooler and they could once again start entertaining the idea of playing in the postseason. Maybe that’s a stretch to make the game itself worth watching for casual fans, but the final score will carry weight for both teams.

East Division
  • Michigan State center Jack Allen has returned to practice and will be in the starting lineup on Saturday.
  • Michigan offensive linemen were "deer in the headlights" last year against the Spartans, and they'll have to be better this time around.
  • Penn State has flip-flopped about its plans for offensive coordinator John Donovan this week.
  • Rutgers still has faith in up-and-down receiver Janarion Grant.
  • Ohio State knows what to expect from the road crowd this week at Penn State, and it can't wait for the opportunity to play in front of it.
  • Another tough task for Maryland's defensive front is on tap against Wisconsin.
  • A look at the upbringing for new Indiana starting quarterback Zander Diamont, the son of a soap-opera star.
West Division

Big Ten mailbag

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
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We're on the back side of the wait for Week 9 in the Big Ten. Let's get to the latest batch of questions. As always, thanks for the submissions.
Mitch Sherman: Every game is a big one for the Badgers at this point. Since the promising first 30 minutes of the year against LSU, something has seemed constantly amiss with Wisconsin. It is far from out of the running in the wide-open West Division, but with the loss at Northwestern, the Badgers are climbing uphill again. It's reminiscent, somewhat, of the 2012 path, when Wisconsin scuffled through the first half of the season, then dropped three of its final four before backing into the conference title game and clobbering Nebraska. The quarterback situation is just strange. Gary Andersen said this week it's not a competition but that Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy will both play. I don't entirely get that, though I recognize, considering Stave's unusual season, that it's likely been one of the most difficult situations a coaching staff could face with two healthy quarterbacks.
Sherman: Let me direct you to the weekly Playoff Eliminator, which puts into context the contenders that remain for the main event in January. Context is the all-important factor here. Without it, no one can say if a Big Ten team has a shot to make the playoff. At this point, even the league's top-ranked teams, when the committee's first poll is unveiled next week, will need help in order to reach the top four. But with highly ranked SEC teams falling each week in conference play and so many big games left before the playoff is set, it makes sense to believe that any Big Ten team would stand a reasonable chance to fit into the playoff picture at 12-1.
Sherman: Well, that's going to depend on the next coach. Since we're dealing in hypotheticals, let's say the Wolverines hit a home run -- no a grand slam -- in finding their next guy. If a proven NFL coach takes the job or a big-name guy from college who understands the recruiting game, I think Michigan can be competitive immediately. It could be a real contender nationally in the second year, simply because the talent is there. Hoke has recruited well; he and his staff have just struggled to develop talent in Ann Arbor and, to some degree, attract the right mix of recruits. The right coach could fix all of that in a short time.
Sherman: The short answer is no. The long answer? Not against Michigan State if the U-M played the Spartans every week between now and the end of the season. You saw what happened last year when Michigan State made even Ohio State fans feel sorry for Gardner. (OK, probably not.) The Spartans will be up for this game like they were to face Nebraska on Oct. 4, looking to pound another nail into the coffin of Michigan's season. Gardner, of course, is plenty talented. He's the right choice to run Michigan's offense, considering the roster of quarterbacks, but probably not this offense. Hoke suggested before the Penn State game that Gardner might play to his strength and run the football more. He carried 10 times for 18 yards in the 18-13 U-M win. With a week off to prepare for the Spartans, maybe the offense has undergone a transformation, though it's doubtful a philosophical change could dig Michigan out of this hole.
The awards race tracker took a break last week, as we named our midseason MVPs on both sides of the ball. We're back to give you a checkup on how the major Big Ten individual award races are going.

Since we didn't include a tight end on our midseason All-Big Ten team, we'll give that position some love as our bonus category of the week.

Here we go ...

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon (six first-place votes): The Badgers were off last week, but we named Gordon our midseason offensive MVP.

2. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: He bounced back from a rough game at Michigan State to score four touchdowns at Northwestern. Expect a big finish to his college career.

3. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: Even though Michigan State knew Indiana couldn't pass the ball last week, Coleman still managed 132 rushing yards. What a player.

4 . Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: He's sneaking up on the competition. The Buckeyes' freshman has 20 total touchdowns and just one interception in his past four games, and he leads the league in total offense and pass efficiency.

5. Michigan State WR Tony Lippett: Brady Hoke called him the league's best wideout this week, and we agree wholeheartedly. Lippett's eight receiving touchdowns lead the league, as does his 112.3 receiving yards per game.

Also receiving votes: Minnesota RB David Cobb

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa (six first-place votes): The guy who leads the league in tackles for loss and ranks second in sacks had his best game against Rutgers last week, according to Urban Meyer. Bosa is getting better, which is scary.

2. Minnesota LB Damien Wilson: He leads the league in tackles, with 76. That ranks 15th in the FBS.

3. Maryland CB Will Likely: If you pass the ball on the Terps, he will likely intercept it. And maybe score. Likely had another pick-six vs. Iowa, his second of the year and his Big Ten-best fourth interception overall.

4. Penn State LB Mike Hull: The Nittany Lions' defense remains stout, and Hull is an anchor. He's right behind Wilson for the Big Ten tackles lead.

5. Iowa DE Drew Ott: He started off the Maryland game with an interception, and Ott now leads the league in sacks with seven in as many games.

Also receiving votes: Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun; Nebraska DE Randy Gregory; Michigan LB Jake Ryan

Kwalick–Clark Tight End of the Year

1. Maxx Williams, Minnesota (six first-place votes): In an offense that doesn't pass much, Williams has become the go-to target. He has 15 catches for 247 yards and four touchdowns and has made some spectacular plays.

2. Josiah Price, Michigan State: Price's numbers are very similar to Williams' (15 catches, 244 yards and four touchdowns) as the tight end has become much more of a weapon this season for the Spartans.
The College Football Playoff selection committee will release its first weekly top 25 national rankings next week.

It still eludes me why the committee needs to rank 25 teams when it is only picking the top 12 for the playoff spots and contract bowls. Nonetheless, the rankings will create much hoopla, hype and debate. And I can't wait.

We should learn a lot about what the committee values in that first top 25. Here are a five questions the selection committee will answer next week as it relates to the Big Ten (assuming no major upsets in the league during Week 9, of course):

1. What's the consensus on Ohio State?

To me, this is the most intriguing question. Based simply on who's playing well right now -- be it statistical metrics or the eye test -- the Buckeyes are nearing playoff status. According to ESPN's Football Power Index, Ohio State is tied at No. 5 right now with Mississippi State.

And yet Urban Meyer's team is ranked No. 12 in the USA Today coaches' poll, No. 13 in the Associated Press poll and No. 16 in the FWAA Grantland Rice Super 16. The reason is simple: The Buckeyes lost by two touchdowns at home in Week 2 against Virginia Tech.

It remains to be seen whether the committee will value full body of work over recency of performance, or whether it will give Ohio State something of a free pass because that loss to the Hokies came so early in the season before quarterback J.T. Barrett started to blossom. If the Buckeyes are ranked in the top 10, you'll know that their string of domination the past month is impressing the committee. If not, there might not be much else Ohio State can do to climb into the top four.

[+] EnlargeMacgarrett Kings
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsCan Macgarrett Kings and Michigan State eventually leap into the College Football Playoff?
2. How high can Michigan State climb?

Here's another vital question for the league. The Spartans can't erase that 19-point loss at Oregon in Week 2. But how much credit will the committee give to Michigan State for challenging itself by scheduling that game, and do the selectors believe that game was more competitive (remember, the Spartans led by nine points in the third quarter) than the final score indicated?

The voters in the coaches' poll like Mark Dantonio's team, ranking it No. 5 this week (two spots ahead of Oregon, which requires some serious pretzel logic). The Spartans are eighth in both the AP poll and Super 16, which seems like a more reasonable position. They just need to be in a spot where they can move up when teams ahead of them inevitably lose. The question is where the committee values them now, especially in relation to current conference leaders in the Big 12 and Pac-12, which could likely be the Big Ten champ's main competition, along with a second SEC team.

3. Where's Nebraska?

The Cornhuskers look like the only other potential playoff team out of the Big Ten, and even that would necessitate a lot of things breaking just right. Nebraska's most impressive nonconference win came against unranked Miami, and it lost on the road to Michigan State, using a huge fourth-quarter rally to keep the final score respectable.

The best hope for Bo Pelini's team is to win out and beat either Michigan State or Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. The Huskers are on the outer edge of striking distance right now, checking in at No. 16 in all three major polls. Will the committee see them the same way?

4. Are any other Big Ten teams ranked?

I'm not sure how teams in the bottom 10 spots of the initial poll are supposed to react, because it signifies nothing in the grand scheme of things. However, the rankings could give us an indication of how the committee views the Big Ten as a whole. For example, is Minnesota, which should be 7-1 after this weekend, a top 25 team? Is there another one lurking, such as Wisconsin or Maryland? If the committee has more than just the Spartans, Buckeyes and Huskers in the rankings, that could be an indicator of its perception of the Big Ten's overall strength. And that could come into play when trying to decide if the Big Ten champ deserves a spot in the four-team playoff field.

5. How in love with the SEC is the committee?

The nightmare scenario for fans outside of Dixie is three teams from the SEC gobbling up playoff spots. Four of the top five spots in the AP poll belong to the SEC West alone, and Georgia is also in the Top 10. The committee has said that winning a conference championship is supposed to matter, and obviously only one of those SEC teams can achieve that. But if the first rankings next week mirror the AP poll in its abundant adoration for all things SEC, then that increases the chances of two or more teams from the league eventually earning playoff bids. And that would be bad news for the Big Ten.
video
With a few weeks of senior film to evaluate, ESPN’s scouts have updated the ESPN 300. We are around the midpoint of the season as well, so teams are looking to finish off their classes and fill any remaining needs.

There is plenty to discuss at this point in the Big Ten. Here are five things to know within the conference:

Best of Big Ten Week 9 conference call

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

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

Big Ten morning links

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

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

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

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

Now, on to the links ...

East Division
West Division

Big Ten Monday mailbag

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
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Let's get this week started off right with a good, old-fashioned Big Ten mailbag ...

Josh Moyer: Why not both? Adam is still right -- there's really not a lot of separation over in the West. Minnesota is the only team that has yet to drop a conference game, but three others (Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin) are within striking distance with only one loss. At the same time, we've been saying for quite a few weeks now that Nebraska clearly boasts the edge, talent-wise, in the division. Heck, I picked the Huskers to win the West in the preseason. Nebraska is the only balanced team here. Minnesota and Wisconsin really don't have much in the way of passing games, and the Hawkeyes haven't exactly been models of consistency. But one misstep in this division could cost the crown. That's why the “Wild, Wild West” may have become slightly clearer, but it's still pretty muddled. We'll know how the East shakes out when Michigan State takes on Ohio State in two weeks. But the West? We might not know until the final week. Take a look at the Huskers' final three opponents: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa. Now that's wild.

Mike from Grand Rapids, Minnesota, writes: Does Brady Hoke need to win out to save his job? As much as I'm in the minority, I don't want to see Michigan go through another coaching search. This team, their O-line in particular, is pretty young.

Moyer: See, that's a tough question, Mike -- only because there's about a zero percent chance Hoke wins out. Listen, he's gone. Even he has to know he's gone. Michigan has looked worse every season, and player development seems to be an ongoing issue. I'll even give you the offensive line since it's young. But why is Devin Gardner regressing? And why couldn't U-M adjust when Rutgers nailed them for 404 passing yards? As far as player development/recruiting, let me share kind of an eye-opening fact here: Michigan's usual starting lineup features seven players who were on the ESPN 300; Rutgers has recruited seven total ESPN 300 players since 2006. How about resources? For every dollar Rutgers' athletic department spends, Michigan spends $1.82. Yet, Rutgers was the Vegas favorite earlier this season -- and won. So it's clear Michigan is not on the right track. If Hoke somehow turns this team around and beats Michigan State and Ohio State, sure, he'll keep his job. But we might as well talk about what happens to Tim Beckman if Illinois wins out. Because neither is very likely to happen.

Moyer: Let's get the obvious out of the way first: Expect lots and lots of yards for Melvin Gordon. The Terrapins are ranked No. 102 nationally in rush defense and the Badgers are ranked No. 1 in rushing offense. That's a big reason the Badgers are favored by double digits. Before the injury to Indiana's Nate Sudfeld, Maryland's offense also kind of reminded me of the Hoosiers without Tevin Coleman – you saw all this potential through the air … but you wondered when it was going to materialize. With C.J. Brown struggling, you still wonder. Maryland hasn't faced a top-25 defense yet this season, and it should struggle against Wisconsin. As far as Wisconsin's quarterback situation, both players are still splitting reps with the first team. Joel Stave has seen more time than Tanner McEvoy the last two games and, unless McEvoy practices better this week, I'd expect more of the same.

Moyer: Haha ... well, I can't argue with that logic. Here's another fact to chew on: Penn State beat Ohio State, 63-14, in 1994. The next season, the Buckeyes won 28-25. Of course, do I really think the Nittany Lions will win Saturday after getting demolished last season by that same 63-14 score? Of course not. This is one of the worst offensive lines in the Power 5, while the Buckeyes have one of the best defensive lines. If Penn State can even keep this close -- Saturday night's game is the hot PSU ticket this season -- then it should be a boost. The Nittany Lions' defense is much improved from last season, but it really hasn't yet played a good quarterback. And J.T. Barrett has been great this season. This needs to be a low-scoring affair for PSU to really stand a chance. But I'd be surprised if Penn State really threatened.
For nearly two decades, former Penn State assistant Larry Johnson jogged through the tunnel at Beaver Stadium and turned right -- past the cheering student fans, past the Nittany Lions' mascot -- to the home sideline.

On Saturday night, for the first time in his career, Johnson will be standing across from that sideline.

The 18-year Penn State assistant is now the defensive line coach at Ohio State, and his new team will face his old Saturday night in State College. Urban Meyer scooped Johnson up after he left Happy Valley in January -- making the Buckeyes just the second college team he’s ever coached -- and Johnson said he’s not quite sure what emotions to expect when he returns.

[+] EnlargeLarry Johnson
AP Photo/Jay LaPrete"I had a great time there for 18 years." said ex-Penn State assistant Larry Johnson, now the D-line coach at Ohio State.
“It’ll be different,” Johnson said Monday afternoon. “You spend 18 years in one place for a long time and then you walk back in there on a different sideline. But I’m looking forward to going back, and I’m looking forward to going back with Ohio State University.

“I’m looking forward to going back home and being excited to play in the stadium.”

Johnson’s departure was an emotional one for Penn State fans. He was the final Joe Paterno holdover, the last assistant with a direct connection to the no-name jerseys and the rolled-up khakis. While unprecedented change swept through Happy Valley, Johnson was the lone constant.

He was promoted to co-defensive coordinator when Paterno was fired. Then he was relegated to defensive line coach with Bill O’Brien’s arrival. Two seasons later, when O’Brien left, he kept this team together as the interim head coach. Then, with James Franklin’s hiring, he left.

“I didn’t have any bitterness when I left. It was my decision to leave, it was my time to move on,” he said Monday. “I just felt that Coach Franklin was coming in with a new staff, and I knew he had a guy he really liked a lot. I just felt it was the best thing to do.”

Now, instead of addressing the media behind a blue and white backdrop, he talks to reporters behind a scarlet and gray one. On Monday afternoon, in a dark Ohio State jacket, the even-tempered coach kept a soft tone as if he were in a library while reflecting on his time in State College.

He spoke highly of his past stop throughout the news conference. About how past “White Outs,” where the crowd wears all white, jump-started his players. About the “great friends, great players” he coached. About how blessed he feels with PSU and now OSU on his resume. Though he remained stoic for much of the time, he smiled when asked if -- in his 18 years -- he ever caught a peek of the visitors’ locker room.

“I have not,” he said.

But have you heard about it?

“I have heard about it,” he said with a slight grin. “It’s very small.”

Besides Monday’s location -- and the color of his shirt -- Johnson said not all that much has changed in his life. He still tends to his flowers in the offseason -- “That’s kind of my style,” he added -- he still preaches player development and relationships, and he’s still a top recruiter. He built a new house near Ohio State, and his son, former Penn State wideout Tony Johnson, moved closer to him.

He sold his old house in State College and doesn’t plan to stop by once he returns. He doesn’t plan to swing by the Creamery for some Peachy Paterno ice cream, or see much of anything other than the walls to his hotel and the inside of Beaver Stadium. He said he simply doesn’t have the time.

He remains in touch with his pastor from Penn State, along with some members of the congregation, so he plans to see some familiar faces in the crowd Saturday night. He’ll shake hands with his former players after the game, and it’s sure to be a surreal experience for the coach whom Paterno plucked from the high school ranks back in 1996.

“I had a great time there for 18 years,” Johnson said. “I got to be part of their lives for a long time. It’s a new job, a new place and a new school, so I’m looking forward to coming back.”

B1G early look: Setting up Week 9

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

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

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

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

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

5. Rutgers' mettle being tested: You really wanted to join the Big Ten, Rutgers. Well, here you go. After dealing with the piping-hot cauldron of the Horseshoe last week -- where the Scarlet Knights got scalded in a 56-17 loss to Ohio State -- Kyle Flood's team jumps back into the fire this week with a trip to Nebraska. It's harder to imagine many more difficult back-to-back road challenges than that in the Big Ten, and it highlights the difficulty of Rutgers' second-half schedule (a November trip to Michigan State still awaits). Nebraska looked terrific last week in the second half at Northwestern and must simply avoid complacency before the big West Division showdowns arrive the final three weeks (at Wisconsin, Minnesota, at Iowa). For the Scarlet Knights right now, this is mostly about survival and not letting a promising season go up in flames
Programs like Ohio State are like Air Force One: They're never supposed to disappear from the radar screen.

There are several places in college football where the national spotlight fixates, and Ohio Stadium is one. When Urban Meyer is prowling the sidelines, the glare is even brighter.

But Ohio State has been somewhat of a forgotten team since 11:54 p.m. ET on Sept. 6. That's the moment when Virginia Tech completed a 35-21 win against the Buckeyes in Columbus.

It wasn't just the shock of the loss or that it marked Ohio State's third defeat in four games after a 24-0 start under Meyer. It was that Ohio State fulfilled the doom-and-gloom outlook many had after quarterback Braxton Miller's season-ending shoulder injury in August.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsJ.T. Barrett has really stepped up the past four games, throwing 17 TDs to one pick and rushing for 263 yards and three TDs.
The Buckeyes stalled against Bud Foster's complex, aggressive defense. Quarterback J.T. Barrett, making his first home start, completed 9 of 29 pass attempts with three interceptions and a touchdown. An offensive line featuring four new starters surrendered seven sacks, and the Buckeyes averaged just 2.7 yards per rush. The supposedly upgraded defense showed the same old warts against the pass and especially on third down (9 of 17 converted).

It was one of those worst-fears-fulfilled kinds of nights. The loss, while surprising, followed a narrative many had mapped out the moment Miller's labrum tore during an innocuous throw in practice.

So Ohio State became a forgotten team nationally and, to a degree, in the Big Ten -- as crazy as that sounds.

Well, it's time to take notice again. No Big Ten team is playing better than No. 13 Ohio State. And few quarterbacks nationally are playing better than Barrett.

Since the Virginia Tech loss, the Buckeyes' numbers are staggering. They've outscored their opponents 224-69. They set a team record with four consecutive games of 50 or more points and tied a team mark with four straight games of 500 or more yards.

Barrett's four-game line: 1,170 pass yards, 17 touchdowns, one interception (none in the past three games), 68.3 percent completions, 263 rush yards, three touchdowns.

"He's throwing it on time, throwing it early, trusting what he sees, directing traffic, going through his progressions, not getting freaked out with a little pressure," offensive coordinator Tom Herman recently told me.

He has accounted for at least four touchdowns in all four games, the longest active streak in the country and the longest for a Big Ten quarterback since former Purdue star Kyle Orton in 2004, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Offensive line coach Ed Warinner once again worked his magic, simplifying things so a group that looked like a liability in Week 2 has become a strength.

"Until you understand Algebra 1, you can't take Algebra 2," Warinner told me. "You just have to be patient and trust that playing hard and having good fundamentals will carry you through. Eventually, you can build on that with your changeups, your exceptions, your adjustments.

"People get caught up in thinking, 'I'm a really good coach. I've got these guys who never played and look at all this stuff I told them.' And you don't get anything done."

Ohio State also is getting it done on defense during the win streak: 12 sacks, 23 tackles for loss, eight interceptions. The Buckeyes held both Maryland and Rutgers well below their averages for yards and points. They suddenly rank in the top 25 nationally in points allowed (24th), opponent adjusted QBR (21st), pass yards allowed (16th) and first downs allowed (20th).

"We're playing at a pretty high level right now," Meyer said of his defense.

But what about the competition? Ohio State hasn't beaten a ranked team during its run. Unlike teams in the SEC, Pac-12 or Big 12, the Buckeyes' schedule has allowed them to regain their mojo. But you play who you play, and Ohio State has destroyed everything in its path.

It's all pointing to the Nov. 8 showdown at No. 8 Michigan State, which hasn't lost at home since 2012. Both teams won 56-17 on Saturday, but Ohio State seems to be playing at a higher level. The Buckeyes are No. 5 nationally in ESPN's Football Power Index, which measures team strength as a future predictor.

According to FPI, Ohio State has a 48.5 percent chance to win the Big Ten, the third-highest percentage of any Power 5 team and by far the highest percentage in the league, as defending champion Michigan State has just a 23.7 percent chance. Yes, we all know FPI has never been high on the Spartans, who remain the team to beat in this league until proved otherwise.

But the numbers favor Ohio State, which, according to FPI, is the one-loss team from a Power 5 conference with the best chance (27 percent) to finish with just the sole blemish.

So everyone must pay attention to the Buckeyes again, including the playoff selection committee. Virginia Tech is a bad loss that seems to be getting worse. But the circumstances surrounding Ohio State with Miller's injury should be considered, if the committee members stay true to their word.

Ohio State has few résumé-boosting opportunities left: trips to Michigan State and Minnesota, and the Big Ten title game.

But if the Buckeyes continue on this trajectory, they should be in a familiar spot: playing for championships.

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