Big Ten: Wisconsin Badgers

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 9

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
10:00
AM ET
It's an interesting weekend for the Big Ten. On one hand, we have an intra-state rivalry on tap along with a nationally televised night game at one of the best atmospheres in the country.

On the other, only one of the conference's five games is expected to be close. Four of the underdogs are picked to lose by double digits this week, and the closest game isn't exactly a hot ticket: Minnesota at Illinois.

For the first time all season, we Big Ten writers all picked the same winners. But will there be an upset? Can someone surprise in the Big Ten? Let's take a closer look at the matchups:

Noon

Minnesota (6-1) at Illinois (3-4), ESPNU: The Gophers are still fighting for respect, as they appear at No. 24 in the USA Today poll -- but they're still left out of the Associated Press' top 25. They've quietly put together a solid season, with their only loss coming against TCU, and running back David Cobb could be the most underrated player in the conference. Illinois coach Tim Beckman is fighting for his job, and he and his offensive coordinator can't even seem to agree on whether a two-quarterback system is best for the team. The Illini have a plethora of defensive problems, and they can't afford to have their offense stumble.

Maryland (5-2) at Wisconsin (4-2), BTN: Melvin Gordon is one of the most dynamic backs in all of college football, and the Terrapins are one of the worst rushing defenses in all of college football. That's not exactly a recipe for success for the Terps. That being said, Wisconsin's woes through the air have been well-documented, and it would be no surprise to see the Terps dare Wisconsin to throw. Randy Edsall needs to get his own house in order, too. Maryland has a lot of firepower on offense, but C.J. Brown needs to find more consistency for this team to hang with the Badgers. Backup Caleb Rowe is out for the season, so it's Brown or bust. And Brown has thrown three picks to zero touchdowns in the last two games.

Rutgers (5-2) at Nebraska (6-1), ESPN2: The Scarlet Knights just can't catch a break with their schedule. They were dismantled by Ohio State 56-17 on Saturday and they play Wisconsin next week. Rutgers was the surprise team of the conference in the first half of the season, but it will have to show something in this second half to retain that title. It won't be easy. Like the Buckeyes, Nebraska boasts a balanced offense -- and Ameer Abdullah is the best back the Knights have seen since ... well ... it's been years. With one Big Ten loss already, Nebraska can't afford a slip-up. But it might just have the most talented team, overall, in the West.

3:30 p.m.

Michigan (3-4) at Michigan State (6-1), ABC: Since 2008, this rivalry has basically been owned by the Spartans. Mark Dantonio's team has won five out of the last six, with the Wolverines winning only once in a 12-10 game in 2012. Michigan is coming off a bye week -- and actually won its last Big Ten game, against Penn State -- but the Spartans are on another level. If U-M can pull off this upset, maybe Brady Hoke has an outside chance to save his job and the Wolverines really have sparked a turnaround. If not, expect the same Michigan storyline that you've heard since Week 2.

8 p.m.

Ohio State (5-1) at Penn State (4-2), ABC: The Buckeyes have scored at least 50 points in four straight games, but they haven't faced a defense quite like Penn State's. On the flip side, the Nittany Lions haven't faced any offense resembling Ohio State's, either. The key to an upset here is two-fold: Penn State's weak offensive line must somehow keep one of the nation's best front fours at bay (unlikely), or Penn State's defense has to play out of its mind and force turnovers (more likely). Ohio State pounded Penn State 63-14 last season, and the Lions would like nothing more than to avenge the worst loss in program history since 1899 (a 64-5 loss to Duquesne). This game will act as a good measuring stick for both J.T. Barrett and the PSU defense.

Required reading

Big Ten Friday mailbag

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
4:00
PM ET
It's been too long since I answered your emails, but there's no better way than that to start off the weekend. What's on your mind, B1G boys and girls?

Brian Bennett: I know this: Penn State just doesn't have the talent on the offensive line to field a strong conventional running game or to consistently protect Christian Hackenberg. Actually, we all know this, after watching the Nittany Lions' games.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I wonder if doing some new things -- have Hackenberg in the shotgun a lot more for quick throws, go to more spread concepts and hurry up, etc. -- would help matters. We've seen how Michigan has tried and failed to run a pro-style offense with a bad O-line and only has had any real success by spreading things out. James Franklin and John Donovan are much smarter than me, however, and I'm sure they know why this would or wouldn't work. Ultimately, there may not be too much you can do to overcome offensive line issues as problematic as Penn State's. But I wouldn't be surprised to see them try some new things.

Brian Bennett: Ah, yes. It's the old blame-the-coordinator game. Well, if you're going to say the Badgers' passing-game problems lie at the feet of Andy Ludwig, then you also have to give Ludwig credit for a rushing attack that's averaging 343 yards per game and a ridiculous 7.4 yards per carry, which is currently .01 yards per carry off the FBS record.

Of course, Ludwig has Melvin Gordon to call on when running the ball compared to a pair of up-and-down quarterbacks and wildly inexperienced receivers when he wants to throw the ball. I'm not saying Wisconsin coaches shouldn't take criticism for not having built a reliable passing game in what amounts to a season-and-a-half now; at some point, we're going to need to see some strides being made there in both recruiting and development. But let's just agree that for now, Russell Wilson isn't walking through that door.


Adam J. from Leesburg, Va., writes: As a Rutgers fan, I wonder if I am wrong in thinking the brutal schedule they have this year isn't a good thing. They needed to know just how hard it is to be an elite football program, and not think that they are in the AAC anymore. By getting smoked for the next year or two, it will help them commit to recruiting and updating their facilities down the road. What do you think?

Brian Bennett: That's an interesting way of looking at it, though I don't think the increased competition level in the Big Ten is a news flash to Kyle Flood and his staff. The Scarlet Knights have been very competitive in every game save for last week's blowout loss at the Horseshoe, a place where a lot of teams will have some bad days. Going from there to Nebraska this week should serve as an eye-opener for sure, and Rutgers still has to travel to Michigan State later this season. Those three games, more than anything else, should provide Flood's program with the measuring stick it will need. But Rutgers hasn't looked any worse, for sure, than other mid-tier Big Ten teams this season.

Brian Bennett: It's an impossible task, and that's why we voted three backs -- Coleman, Gordon and Abdullah -- on our midseason All-Big Ten team. I suspect the All-Big Ten first team will have more than two running backs on it because of ties in the voting. And the guy who is in most danger of getting left out is Cobb, because his numbers are a little lower than the other three. That's a shame, because he's having a spectacular season.


Matt from Colorado Springs, Colo., writes: When the playoff selection committee announces its first rankings next week, should we expect to see similarities with the AP/Coaches poll or something that will cause an uproar? I think both polls are useless and should be taken out of publication. ... Also, what role do you think "bad" losses will have on the committee? MSU and 'Bama have "good" losses. While Oregon, Georgia, and Ohio State have "bad losses." I hope this is taken into consideration as much as out of conference schedule and "good" wins.

Brian Bennett: It's all a guessing game at this point, but I expect the selection committee's poll to be stronger than the two major ones we have now. That's because sportswriters and especially coaches simply don't have time to watch all the games on Saturday because of their own jobs and often vote in a hurry on Sunday morning after reading scores or watching a few highlights. The committee has been tasked with closely following the sport all season, and a well-informed, smaller group of voters should make better decisions than, say, having Oregon ranked behind Michigan State (looking at you, coaches).

Of course, there will be controversy. But the most interesting thing to come out of next week will be finding out what the committee truly values. Do "good" losses matter more than "bad" losses, as you suggest? Will conference leaders get rewarded more? How much will it be about who you beat, rather than who you played? We don't have the answers yet, but I can't wait to find out.

Big Ten's top recruiting visits 

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
9:00
AM ET
video
This is shaping up to be an important weekend for the Big Ten, with rivalry games and big recruiting visitors on tap.

Plenty of recruits are making their way to Big Ten games this weekend, so here is a look at some of the top prospects who will be on hand.

Ohio State vs. Penn State

Big Ten morning links

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
8:00
AM ET
Three things that might happen in the Big Ten this week, but probably won't:

Michigan might stage a watershed moment at Spartan Stadium. Hey, stranger things have happened. Yeah, Michigan State has been good in winning five straight, but it’s not without holes. The Spartans have overcome struggles on the defensive side in each of the past four games. And Michigan has the athletes to burn the MSU defense. If the Wolverines can gain some confidence, no better time exists to inject life back into a seemingly lost season than in this rematch of the Spartans’ domination a season ago. Perhaps, Michigan can find some inspiration from its predecessors’ huge comeback 10 years ago to beat the Spartans -- a triple-overtime win that appeared more unlikely in the fourth quarter than even a victory this week. Michigan had last week off to get healthy and concoct a plan to attack its rival as if there's no tomorrow in Ann Arbor. Even Brady Hoke sounds ready to rumble, admitting that he’s “not a big fan of the Spartans.” More than likely, though, this game will follow script and end with an MSU win, thanks in no small part to its tendency to create turnovers -- and Michigan’s habit of losing the football.

Wisconsin might get it together. It’s almost November, and, if it’s going to happen, now is the time for the Badgers to make a move. After an off week, with extra practice to bring clarity to the quarterback puzzle in Madison, this game looks like a good one to start playing like a cohesive unit, especially on offense. Maryland gives up points and yards. And the Badgers appear set to welcome diverse fullback Derek Watt back from injury in addition to defensive tackle Warren Herring, who injured a knee right as things went downhill in the season opener against LSU. Maybe offensive guard Rob Havenstein can help bring some focus to the Badgers as he goes against his homestate school. Or perhaps what we’ve seen through six games is Wisconsin -- a team with a solid defense, a great running back and no answer at quarterback.

Rutgers might neutralize the Nebraska pass rush. It seems Kaleb Johnson believes that Ohio State star defensive end Joey Bosa was avoiding the Scarlet Knights' decorated left guard last week in Columbus. Johnson and left tackle Keith Lumpkin want a chance to stack up against the best defensive linemen in the Big Ten. And apparently, Ohio State attacked the right side of the Rutgers offensive line. Sounds like an odd thing about which to complain after a 56-17 loss. The Buckeyes sacked Gary Nova four times. Johnson and Lumpkin are anxious this week to face Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory and defensive tackle Maliek Collins. The Scarlet Knights might want to be careful what they wish for. Gregory is a one-on-one nightmare for any offensive lineman. Collins and Vincent Valentine on the interior are a handful. And the Huskers are developing depth up front on defense. But I like the attitude of Johnson and Lumpkin. Nebraska’s pass rush, while solid and full of promise, has overwhelmed only Fresno State and Illinois this season. And if Nova stays clean, he can do damage.

Around the league:

East Division
West Division

B1G roundtable: Week 9 bold predictions

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
4:40
PM ET
OK, so we didn't exactly go out on the limb with our Week 9 scoring predictions this week. For once, we actually all agreed.

So we thought we'd take it a step further this week. Instead of just predicting the winner, which seems like a relatively easy exercise this week, we each took a crack at making a bold prediction for Week 9.

Here are those bold predictions:

Adam Rittenberg: Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Gary Nova combine for 550 pass yards

I expect a big day for both quarterbacks in Lincoln. Rutgers is very vulnerable to long passes -- 52.5 percent of opponents' completions against the Scarlet Knights go for 10 yards or longer -- and Nebraska features a big-play passing attack. I'm also not sold on the Huskers secondary, which will be tested by Rutgers deep threat Leonte Carroo. Maybe Randy Gregory inhales Nova and it's another rough day on the road for Rutgers, but I see a lot of pass yards in this one.

Brian Bennett: Penn State breaks out something new

The Nittany Lions know they can't simply line up and run the ball in conventional ways (or protect Christian Hackenberg) because of their porous offensive line, and the talent level isn't going to change this season. But the team had a bye week in which James Franklin said it spent working on those issues. Expect the coaching staff to throw some new wrinkles at Ohio State, a la the 2011 game when Penn State broke out the Wildcat. It probably still won't be enough to beat the surging Buckeyes, but Ohio State had better be ready to adjust for something different.

Austin Ward: The Badgers will look competent throwing the football

The two-quarterback system barely made an appearance the last time Wisconsin stepped on the field, though it hardly made any difference against Illinois and its pillow-soft defense. Melvin Gordon might still be enough on his own against another unit that doesn’t usually put up much of a fight on the ground, but Maryland does have better athletes on that side of the ball and the Badgers will likely need to show more balance to get the win they need to remain a factor in the West. Coming off a bye week to tinker with the rotation and fine-tune some packages for both Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy, expect to see more production from those passers -- maybe even the first 200-yard passing performance since Week 2 against Western Illinois.

Josh Moyer: The Illini will look incompetent with a two-QB system

Tim Beckman was adamant he wants to play both dual-threat Aaron Bailey and pocket-passer Reilly O'Toole. Bad move, Tim -- and even your offensive coordinator doesn't seem sold on the idea. Bill Cubit just shrugged earlier this week when asked if Beckman's two-QB idea was the best plan: "I don't know. I'll be honest with you, the playbook gets really expanded for one guy." The two-quarterback system worked against Wisconsin because the Badgers didn't expect Bailey to run. That element of surprise is gone now; Minnesota knows what's coming. And we think we know, too: Another Illinois loss.

Dan Murphy: Three players will reach 200 rushing yards

Despite Tevin Coleman -- the country's second most productive running back -- taking the week off for a bye, the Big Ten will see three 200-yard rushing performances this Saturday. Illinois allows 271 yards per game on the ground (125th nationally). Minnesota workhorse David Cobb will fill the majority of that quota this week. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, the only player with more rushing yards than Coleman, faces a Maryland defense with its own issues stopping the run. The regular cast of characters finishes with Ameer Abdullah from Nebraska, who is likely headed for a high-scoring affair with Rutgers in Lincoln.

Mitch Sherman: Michigan will rush for positive net yardage

Believe it. Michigan State mauled the Wolverines last year, sacking QB Devin Gardner seven times as the Wolverines finished with minus-48 rushing yards -- the lowest figure in program history. It’ll go better for Michigan on Saturday, though well not enough to beat the Spartans. Or come close. Michigan ranks 64th nationally in rushing offense, a significant improvement over last year, and the Spartans have slipped to eighth against the run, allowing 100.3 yards per game. The Wolverines won’t get to triple digits, especially without injured back Derrick Green. But Brady Hoke has said he wants to get Gardner more involved in the ground game. They had a bye week to prepare. Let’s see it.

Big Ten Week 9 predictions

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
9:00
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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
AM ET
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

Watch: B1G Show

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
6:30
PM ET
Join Big Ten reporters Brian Bennett, Dan Murphy, Josh Moyer and Austin Ward as they look around the conference heading into Week 9.

Big Ten mailbag

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
5:00
PM ET
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.
Wisconsin has a storied tradition of producing star offensive linemen. But even among that historic group, Rob Havenstein stands out.

"He's nothing short of amazing," says his current position coach, T.J. Woods.

"Rob is one of a kind," sahys his former high school coach, Rick Conner.

Havenstein's measurements alone leave many people gasping for proper descriptions. His block-out-the-sun frame is officially listed at 6-foot-8 and 333 pounds, and that's after he lost nearly 50 pounds since first stepping on campus. Yet he's athletic and nimble enough to have started 33 straight games at right tackle for the Badgers while being one of the Big Ten's best linemen.

That's not really what sets him apart this year, however. The fifth-year senior has somehow managed to grow in stature on his own team, developing as one its top internal leaders. Star running back Melvin Gordon might be the face of the Badgers, but Havenstein is their voice. Even Gordon says he looks up to him (which, you know, would be hard not to do).

Head coach Gary Andersen has praised Havenstein's leadership skills since the summer and relayed a moment in practice this week that illustrated that point.

[+] EnlargeRob Havenstein, Wisconsin
David Stluka/AP IMagesWisconsin's Rob Havenstein has worked hard to keep optimal weight on his 6-foot-8 frame.
The Badgers were spending time working with their young reserve offensive linemen, teaching them the finer points of the game. Veteran starters such as Havenstein were allowed to take a break on the sidelines and just watch. Instead, Havenstein jumped in the middle of the group's huddle, dishing out pointers and advice like a coach.

"In my belief, that's the identification of a true leader," Andersen said.

Havenstein hopes to lead a strong Wisconsin effort this week in a pivotal Big Ten game against Maryland, which has a salty defensive front and is tied for third in the league in sacks. Maryland also happens to be the state where Haverstein's legendary athletic exploits began.

He didn't play football until the ninth grade, instead preferring lacrosse and especially basketball. (His twin brother, Jeff, recently finished a four-year Division I basketball career at Longwood (Va.) University). But Havenstein was an unstoppable force when he did join the football team at Linganore High School in Frederick, Md., wiping out both lines of scrimmage at 340 pounds. Or somewhere close to it.

Truth is, Havenstein was never really sure of his weight. The scale at his high school only went up to 300 pounds and the one at his local gym lost accuracy past 340. Conner, the coach at Linganore, said the coaches would say, "just pencil something in for Rob" at weigh-in days.

He had freakish agility for his size, however. Conner said Havenstein would dunk a basketball whenever college coaches came around on recruiting visits. One time, while West Virginia and Penn State assistants looked on, Havenstein was playing volleyball. He raced to the back line and did a full-on slide to dig out the ball for a teammate.

"The coaches went nuts," Conner said. "He was like a big cat. Rob's maybe the biggest guy you've ever seen in your life, but he never looked heavy. He was always light on his feet."

Havenstein had scholarship offers from across the country, including Maryland. He grew up less than an hour away from College Park in Mount Airy, Maryland, and attended Terrapins games as a kid. The Terps made his final list of three college choices. But Havenstein loved the power football of the Midwest -- his parents are from Michigan, and his extended family all still lives there -- and Wisconsin's tradition on the O-line sealed the deal.

When he arrived in Madison, though, he finally got an accurate read on his weight, and it wasn't pretty: 380 pounds.

"I moved great for 380 pounds, but I didn't move great for a college player," he said. "I've been on the five-year diet plan ever since.

"I've worked real hard the past couple summers to get it down and keep it down. It's not easy, when every time you look at the TV there's a Hardee's commercial about a double cheeseburger. But I'm like, 'No, I’m good. I'll just have a salad.'"

The Badgers coaching staff is fine with him playing between 330 and 340 pounds; they just wanted him to shape more of that bulk into muscle. Getting low pad level is key for any offensive lineman, and Havenstein remains flexible enough to create leverage against much shorter defenders.

"His ability to move that much mass is something very unique," Woods said. "He's a special player."

Woods said Havenstein has always been a copious note-taker in meetings and a student of the game who can recognize situations on the field instantly. Havenstein wanted to take a leadership role earlier with the Badgers but deferred to upperclassmen such as Chris Borland and Ryan Groy until this past offseason.

"I felt it was my turn," he said. "My time to step up and say something."

His teammates have been listening. Then again, would you say no to someone that size?
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.

Best of Big Ten Week 9 conference call

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
3:00
PM ET
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
8:00
AM ET
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
5:00
PM ET
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.

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