Big Ten: Wisconsin Badgers

Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

1. The Big Ten can step up in key games: After two weeks of justified bashing, the Big Ten deserves some credit for bouncing back nicely in the last meaningful Saturday of nonconference play. The league went 3-0 against the ACC and recorded a huge road win against a ranked SEC opponent as Indiana stunned No. 18 Missouri in Columbia. Iowa finally found its swagger -- and, potentially, its new quarterback (C.J. Beathard) -- in rallying to beat Pitt. Nebraska didn't lose its composure in a chippy game against Miami and outlasted the Canes behind star back Ameer Abdullah. And both games against MAC teams -- Michigan State-Eastern Michigan and Wisconsin-Bowling Green -- turned into routs by the Big Ten squads. Michigan remains a black eye for the league, but everyone else took a step forward and the Big Ten bolstered its record against Power 5 opponents. It doesn't erase the damage done the previous two weeks, but the Big Ten can feel a little better as league play cranks up next week.

[+] EnlargeRalston Evans
Ed Zurga/Getty ImagesIndiana had plenty of reason to celebrate on Saturday after notching a signature win over No. 18 Missouri.
2. Indiana is back on track: Same old Hoosiers. That's what everyone said in Week 2 when an Indiana defense that hasn't stopped anyone for two decades let Bowling Green march downfield for the game-winning score. The loss made bowl eligibility seem unlikely and raised questions about the program's direction under fourth-year coach Kevin Wilson. And then Indiana did the most un-Indiana-like thing imaginable: beat Missouri on the road, 31-27, thanks in large part to its defense. The Hoosiers limited Missouri to one second-half touchdown, and Tevin Coleman (132 yards rushing, one touchdown) showed why he's one of the nation's best big-play backs. It added up to the biggest win of the Wilson era and the biggest in recent memory for IU. The coaches and players deserve a ton of credit for rebounding from the Bowling Green setback. IU has teased us before, but a win like this suggests the program is truly turning a corner under Wilson.

3. Michigan's offense is just getting worse: Brady Hoke hired Doug Nussmeier to fix Michigan's offense and save his job as head coach. But Michigan's offensive woes clearly run deeper than the playcaller, as the unit has amazingly managed to backtrack this year. The Wolverines have yet to reach the red zone in 23 drives against Power 5 opponents (Notre Dame and Utah). The turnover troubles that plagued them in the past have only intensified, as four more giveaways against Utah leave Michigan with 12 on the season and a minus-10 turnover margin. There was a rock-bottom feeling about the 26-10 Utah loss, which ended at a mostly empty, waterlogged Michigan Stadium following a weather delay. Athletic director Dave Brandon repeatedly gave Hoke a vote of confidence before the season, but if the offense doesn't improve in Big Ten play, Hoke could be in serious trouble.

4. B1G's newcomers are better than expected: The Big Ten might have added Maryland and Rutgers because of their favorable locations, but the league is getting an added bonus so far this season. Both programs could be undefeated and both have won two games away from home in the first three weeks. Maryland responded from a last-second loss to West Virginia and beat Syracuse, 34-20, behind big plays in all three phases. Will Likely continued his excellent season with an 88-yard pick-six, while quarterback C.J. Brown and running back Brandon Ross connected on a 90-yard score on a screen pass. Rutgers beat an always-tricky Navy team, 31-24, in Annapolis, Maryland, despite losing star running back Paul James in the first half. Quarterback Gary Nova responded from his five-interception debacle with a clean performance (12-of-15 passing, no interceptions), and running backs Justin Goodwin and Desmon Peoples picked up the slack with James sidelined.

5. Melvin Gordon is going to be just fine: Until Saturday, things had not gone as expected this season for the Wisconsin star. He barely saw the field in the second half of a Week 1 loss to LSU and was held to 38 rush yards on 17 carries against FCS opponent Western Illinois in Week 2. But after an early fumble against Bowling Green, Gordon could not be stopped. He rushed for a career-high 253 yards, the most by an FBS back this season, and tied the team record with five touchdowns in a 68-17 win. And he did it on only 13 carries, recording the best single-game yards-per-carry average (19.5) in team history by a wide margin (14.5 was next best). Gordon even put himself in the company of the great Glenn Davis, as he's tied with the Army star for the NCAA career yards-per-carry record (8.26). Although Gordon will face better defenses this season, he appears to be just fine for Big Ten play. "The unselfishness of Melvin Gordon ... has been incredible," Badgers coach Gary Andersen said. "I'm so proud of the way that he's handled it. Today was his day."

Badgers, Spartans have huge days

September, 20, 2014
Sep 20
4:40
PM ET
Wisconsin and Michigan State ran wild in their wins today. Literally.

 

Video: Wisconsin 68, Bowling Green 17

September, 20, 2014
Sep 20
4:01
PM ET
video
Joey Galloway and Beth Mowins discuss Melvin Gordon and the Wisconsin Badgers' impressive 68-17 win against the Bowling Green Falcons.

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 4

September, 20, 2014
Sep 20
8:00
AM ET
The chances to bolster the leaguewide résumé are running low, and the Big Ten already has squandered almost all of them. Can it turn things around today before conference action picks up in earnest next week? Or is more of the same from the past couple of Saturdays on tap starting at noon?

There's only one way to find out, and here’s the blueprint for following all the action (all times Eastern):

Noon games

[+] EnlargeJames Conner
Gregory J. Fisher/USA TODAY SportsIowa's schedule doesn't get any easier, as it comes off the loss to Iowa State with a tough matchup at Pittsburgh.
Iowa (2-1) at Pittsburgh (3-0), ESPNU: So much for that supposedly easy schedule. The Hawkeyes have strangely been unable to run the football, which made their conservative play calling a problem in last week’s loss to Iowa State. The Panthers are more talented and Iowa must travel to play them, which could present a real test for coach Kirk Ferentz.

Eastern Michigan (1-2) at No. 11 Michigan State (1-1), BTN: The Spartans had some extra time to regroup after the loss at Oregon, and that doesn’t bode well heading into the last two weeks of nonconference action for their opponents. First up is Eastern Michigan, which will have its hands full with Connor Cook and what so far seems to be a much more dangerous offense for the reigning conference champs.

Western Illinois (2-1) at Northwestern (0-2), ESPNews: The bye week was definitely not a time to rest for the Wildcats or Pat Fitzgerald, who certainly wasn’t expecting to be in this early hole as the nightmare year for the program continued with two early losses. If Northwestern didn’t find some answers ahead of the visit from Western Illinois, there’s not much left to look forward to this fall.

Southern Illinois (3-0) at Purdue (1-2), BTN: There were signs of life from the Boilermakers in the loss against Notre Dame, though in the end they didn’t have the talent to hang around for four quarters. Purdue’s non-Big Ten slate wraps up this weekend, and it could surely use a confidence boost before hosting Iowa next weekend.

Bowling Green (2-1) at No. 19 Wisconsin (1-1), ESPN2: The Badgers are still something of a mystery at this point thanks to an off date last week following a relatively uneventful win over FCS-member Western Illinois. The Falcons already have a win over a Big Ten team and can wear defenses out with their up-tempo attack, which might make this a good time for Melvin Gordon and the Wisconsin running game to get rolling.

Maryland (2-1) at Syracuse (2-0), 12:30 p.m., GamePlan: This matchup might be better suited for the hardwood, but the Terrapins and Orange could put on a pretty good show in pads at the Carrier Dome. Maryland has proved capable of putting up points in bunches while Syracuse relies on its defense, leaving an intriguing contrast of styles before Randy Edsall’s team dives into its first Big Ten action.

Midafternoon games

Utah (2-0) at Michigan (2-1), 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2 mirror: Brady Hoke usually takes care of business at the Big House, but this could be a difficult matchup with Utah scoring at least 56 points in each of its first two games. If this turns into a shootout, the Wolverines and quarterback Devin Gardner will have to protect the football much better than they have so far this season to build some momentum for Minnesota’s visit next week.

Rutgers (2-1) at Navy (2-1), 3:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network: Even in a losing effort, the Scarlet Knights impressed in their Big Ten debut last week against Penn State. Rutgers can create problems with its stout defense and nearly won last week despite getting almost no offensive help, though Navy could easily pose problems with its tricky triple-option rushing attack.

Massachusetts (0-3) at Penn State (3-0), 4 p.m., BTN: The wins may not be all that overpowering, but the Nittany Lions are undefeated -- and for now, that’s enough to make them contenders in both the Big Ten and nationally until the outcomes change. Christian Hackenberg should have some chances to add to his résumé again this week as he faces a UMass defense allowing 35 points per game.

San Jose State (1-1) at Minnesota (2-1), 4 p.m., BTN: Uncertainty continues to swirl around the quarterback position for the Gophers, but whether or not Mitch Leidner plays again this week, the rushing game figures to be front and center. The two programs met last season, and Minnesota exploded for 353 rushing yards and won easily while completing just five passes.

Texas State (1-1) at Illinois (2-1), 4 p.m., ESPNews: The Illini and their high-powered offense hit a stumbling block last week at Washington, but they’re back home again Saturday afternoon and looking to unleash Wes Lunt again through the air. If Illinois is serious about making a push for bowl eligibility this season, this is a game the Illini can’t afford to overlook with a trip to Nebraska looming.

Indiana (1-1) at No. 18 Missouri (3-0), 4 p.m., SEC Network: Bowl projections for the Hoosiers almost certainly banked on a victory last week at Bowling Green, but that one slipped away and Kevin Wilson’s program now is a bit behind schedule in the win column. A soft defense continues to plague Indiana, and that could be an issue against a Missouri offense that has scored at least 38 points in each of its three wins so far.

Night game

Miami (2-1) at No. 24 Nebraska (3-0), 8 p.m., ESPN2: The latest polls might not reflect it, but this is still a prestigious matchup packed with historical significance. Having already lost and coming in unranked, the Hurricanes aren’t as close to competing for college football’s top prize as the Huskers. But if Bo Pelini and his team can knock off Miami to stay unbeaten, that might be a victory that resonates as the season progresses.

Bye week

Ohio State

Required reading

Big Ten morning links

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
8:00
AM ET
Let's take a look at some of the more interesting quarterback situations this week ...

1. Will the real Gary Nova please stand up?: The Rutgers quarterback has reached a turning point. Again. In 2013, he started off hot with 13 touchdowns to four picks through the first five games – and finished the rest of the season with five TDs to 10 interceptions. In 2012, he started off hot with 15 TDs to three picks through the first seven games – and finished the rest of the season with seven touchdowns to 13 interceptions. It seems as if that leash gets shorter and shorter ever year. Because, this season, he started off well the first two games – with six TDs to one pick – before throwing five interceptions and no touchdowns against Penn State. Throughout his career, Nova has been the model for inconsistency. And this is his final year; this is his final turning point. NJ.com’s Steve Politi wrote this past week that Kyle Flood risks losing the team if keeps starting Nova. Well, Nova is starting again. If he can’t rebound this week, then it’s about time Nova sees the bench. It’s boom or bust for Nova this week. We’ll see whether he can actually bounce back now that he’s a veteran.

2. Weird Wiscy QB situation: So, Joel Stave still has the “yips,” and Tanner McEvoy is still the starter. Regardless, we really don’t know what to expect from McEvoy yet. McEvoy looked as if he rebounded from an awful, awful opener by going 23-of-28 last Saturday. But that was against FCS team Western Illinois -- and the Badgers led by a score of just 9-3 at halftime. Western Illinois dared Wisconsin to pass by stacking the box and, yes, McEvoy fared well there. But I’m not convinced. And you shouldn’t be either. Bowling Green is a better team than the Leathernecks, and this game should help prove what contest for McEvoy was an anomaly: The first against LSU, where he went 8-of-24, or the second one. Teams are going to keep daring Wisconsin to pass, and 23-of-28 performances likely aren’t going to be the norm for this quarterback. We’ll see.

3. Purdue’s Danny Etling deserved the start: Remember last season when Purdue’s depressed crowd rose to its feet when Etling entered a game for the first time, despite trailing 27-7 against Northern Illinois? Well, needless to say, that excitement’s since been a bit tempered. Etling didn’t look so great against Central Michigan two weeks ago, and his job was in jeopardy last week. Darrell Hazell stuck with him against Notre Dame, and Etling looked good in the first half. This isn’t breaking news: Purdue is not a good team. But I’m inclined to believe that Etling’s performance against Notre Dame was the norm, as opposed to CMU. Etling has grown a lot since his true freshman season, and teammates raved about the good decisions he was making in the spring -- as opposed to practice a few months before. Etling is a talented quarterback without much talent around him. Like it or not, he gives the Boilermakers the best chance to win … even if that “win” ceiling stands at about four right now.

Now, on to the links ...

East Division
West Division
  • Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong said he'd give his play so far this season a grade of a "C."
  • Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian said he wants to play Saturday but, ultimately, it's "up to the trainers."

Big Ten Week 4 predictions

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
9:00
AM ET
Week 4 features a new voice in the predictions mix as our new Big Ten reporter Dan Murphy jumps into the fray. It also features a handful of games our writers disagree on, including games involving programs that desperately need to rebound with a win this week.

 

Why Iowa will win: Call me a contrarian if you'd like (I've been called much worse), but Iowa seems to rise up at the unlikeliest of times. Pitt has looked way better than the Hawkeyes this season. The Panthers can run the ball (James Conner has 544 rush yards and eight touchdowns), while Iowa can't (393 rush yards, four touchdowns). Panthers coach Paul Chryst, the former Wisconsin assistant, knows the Hawkeyes well. So of course I'm going with Iowa, which will discover its run game and force two second-half turnovers to rally for the win. Iowa 21, Pitt 20 -- Adam Rittenberg

Why Pitt will win: Adam did a pretty good job of making my argument for me. This game hinges on who wins the battle between Iowa’s front seven and the Panthers’ running game. Conner's 214 rushing yards against Boston College in a 30-20 win look a lot more impressive this week after the Eagles held USC's entire offense to 20 rushing yards. Pitt also has some good experience in the secondary (CB Lafayette Pitts and S Ray Vinopal) that could put a dent in the strong completion percentage Jake Rudock has put together thus far. Pitt 27, Iowa 17 -- Dan Murphy

 

Why Syracuse will win: Beating MAC teams isn't easy, as the Big Ten can attest. Well, Syracuse went on the road last week and crushed Central Michigan, one of the better MAC squads, by 37 points, looking nothing like the team that was extremely fortunate to get by Villanova in its opener. The Orange are a different offense with quarterback Terrel Hunt at the helm, and they're stout in defending the run (opponents average just 2.7 yards against them). Maryland makes too many mistakes to get this win on the road. Syracuse 28, Maryland 24 -- Adam Rittenberg

Why Maryland will win: Maryland has shown an explosiveness on offense and special teams, but the Terrapins have lacked consistency. They will need to avoid the turnovers and wild mood swings on the road at Syracuse. Former Orange quarterback Randy Edsall's team has enough playmakers to get the job done. Maryland 31, Syracuse 27 -- Brian Bennett

 

Why Utah will win: Unless Brady Hoke’s unwillingness to talk about injuries is based around a desire to spring a surprise by unleashing a healthy secondary on the Utes, the Wolverines could have their hands full with Travis Wilson, the nation’s No. 2 quarterback in terms of passing efficiency. The jury is still out on Michigan’s offense as well, particularly since it was shut out at Notre Dame, its only true test so far, and has shown signs that issues protecting the football haven’t been solved. That’s not a good combination against a program that appears to be on the rebound and actually has prior experience winning at the Big House under Kyle Whittingham. Utah 34, Michigan 27 -- Austin Ward

Why Michigan will win: Utah is good, but it's no Notre Dame. The Utes' success so far this season has come against two lowly opponents -- Idaho State and Fresno State -- so they might be getting a little bit more credit than they deserve. Devin Gardner is a wild card, but I can't see him committing another four turnovers, at least not in the Big House. Michigan 31, Utah 28 -- Josh Moyer

 

Why Rutgers will win: Rutgers is actually an underdog against Navy, and this game has serious letdown potential after the Scarlet Knights got sky high for Penn State. Yet the Scarlet Knights have been very good against the run and have the defensive front to disrupt the Navy option. That will be enough to pull it out -- provided Gary Nova doesn't throw another five interceptions. Rutgers 24, Navy 21 -- Brian Bennett

Why Navy will win: The Scarlet Knights said there would be no letdown after the loss last week to Penn State. But Rutgers invested so much energy in the program’s first meeting in nearly two decades with the Nittany Lions that, yes, there will be a letdown. And be sure of this, Navy requires Rutgers’ full attention. Quarterback Keenan Reynolds is expected back from injury on Saturday to lead the nation’s No. 1-ranked rushing offense, which averages more than 400 yards. Rutgers looks equipped up front to defend the triple option with Darius Hamilton and a solid line, but Navy’s offensive efficiency will prove too much to overcome. It has won eight straight true home games dating to 2012. Make it nine. Navy 31, Rutgers 21 -- Mitch Sherman

Unanimous decisions

Illinois over Texas State, 38-21: The Illini running game finally emerges and opens things up for Wes Lunt to have a big second half in Champaign.

Missouri over Indiana, 42-27: The Hoosiers couldn’t help the Big Ten’s nonconference record against the MAC’s Bowling Green last week. They aren’t likely to turn that around against an undefeated SEC opponent.

Michigan State over Eastern Michigan, 52-3: Former Penn State quarterback Rob Bolden's last crack at the Big Ten doesn't go any better than the first time around. Mark Dantonio calls off his dogs after halftime to keep this one from getting uglier than it could.

Minnesota over San Jose State, 27-13: David Cobb and the Gophers show they are still headed in a good direction despite a disappointing showing against TCU last Saturday.

Nebraska over Miami, 34-31: The Canes have the talent to make it close, but they don’t have the quarterback to steal a game from a big-time opponent on the road yet.

Northwestern over Western Illinois, 24-10: Pat Fitzgerald keeps it simple and forces his team to play the bully role while trying to develop a new toughness in Evanston.

Penn State over UMass, 44-14: The Christian Hackenberg hype machine continues its crescendo toward a primetime matchup in the Big House in early October.

Purdue over Southern Illinois, 28-20: The Salukis put up a fight, but Danny Etling builds on a strong performance against Notre Dame to pull the Boilermakers to 2-2.

Wisconsin over Bowling Green, 33-7: Bowling Green won’t be able to sneak up on a well-rested Badgers team at Camp Randall Stadium.

Our records:

Mitch Sherman: 31-6
Adam Rittenberg: 29-8
Austin Ward: 29-8
Brian Bennett: 28-9
Josh Moyer: 27-10

Big Ten morning links

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
8:00
AM ET
Hitting on the hottest topics in the Big Ten before sweeping through the league ahead of another critical non-conference Saturday.

1. Minnesota's QB quandary: There's not exactly a controversy under center, since the Gophers have made it quite clear that Mitch Leidner is the top option to lead the offense. But for the second week in a row, there have been questions about his health, and therein lies the uncertainty that could turn this into a more pressing issue for Jerry Kill. The Minnesota coach pegged Leidner at 100 percent on his injured knee last week, but Saturday something else popped up with his foot -- though Kill shot down reports of a broken bone and seemed puzzled by where they came from. Backup Chris Streveler has appeared in all three games and was needed to finish the last two, and at some point if he keeps handling himself well and if Leidner's bumps and bruises remain a weekly topic of conversation, perhaps the Gophers may find themselves in the midst of a real controversy. This week it probably won't matter given the way Minnesota ran the ball all over San Jose State last year. But Michigan is looming next week, and the Gophers would likely be better off if they didn't have to keep answering questions about their starting quarterback.

2. Waiting game for Buckeyes: From the outside, the case seems pretty open and shut regarding Noah Spence's latest failed drug test and what figures to be permanent ineligibility for the All-Big Ten defensive end. But there hasn't yet been an official verdict handed down, so Ohio State coach Urban Meyer confirmed after practice Wednesday night that Spence was still practicing with the team while "doing things to get healthy." Given what would seem to be a long-shot appeal combined with the serious tone from the Spence family when they addressed a "medical illness" to the Columbus Dispatch last week, it is somewhat surprising that the star junior would be back on the field at all right now while each of those separate, but related, issues are sorted out. Meyer stressed that Ohio State was doing what it could to support him, and if Spence is eventually cleared for a return, everybody involved would surely want him ready to play again. So unless or until the Big Ten tells him otherwise, Spence is still working out with the Buckeyes and waiting for the next update on his status.

3. Heat is on Hawkeyes: The running game is struggling. The kicking game looked like a fire drill even when the field-goal unit hit a clutch attempt last weekend. Kirk Ferentz is under fire with his clock management skills being questioned. And after dealing with all that in the aftermath of the loss to Iowa State, the Hawkeyes have to hit the road to play unbeaten Pittsburgh before diving into conference play. Maybe Iowa could actually use that traveling time to bond and rally against the odds that seem to be stacking up against the program, because it's pretty clear the team needs a spark. The Hawkeyes were a trendy dark horse pick to win the West, and no matter what happens at Pitt it should be fine next week at home to open conference play against Purdue. But it's time for them to show they really have what it takes to contend this fall.

East Division
  • Brady Hoke explained the reasoning behind his unwillingness to address injuries.
  • Michigan State right guard Connor Kruse could be back in the lineup as early as next week.
  • Keys for Penn State as it looks to move to 4-0 to open the season.
  • The secondary has been key for Rutgers defensively so far this season, and it will need its safeties to play a big role against Navy.
  • Fixing problems on third down has been a top priority for Maryland this week.
  • Indiana receiver J-Shun Harris II is developing into another weapon for the uptempo offense.
  • Just more than a year after believing his football career might be over, Donovan Munger is providing depth at defensive tackle for Ohio State.
West Division
  • Danny Etling knows how to prepare. The Purdue quarterback might be overdoing it though.
  • Nebraska defensive backs are preparing for "the fastest receivers" they've ever gone against.
  • It doesn't appear Pat Fitzgerald is easing off the intensity at all coming off the bye week and as kickoff draws closer.
  • Injuries are dominating the headlines at Minnesota, but the offensive line is coordinator Matt Limegrover's biggest concern.
  • A look at the Texas State defense, which has some athletes who can provide a test for the Illinois offense.
  • Pressing questions for Wisconsin as it gets back to work against Bowling Green.
  • Iowa linebacker Quinton Alston said the Hawkeyes needed a "kick in the butt" after losing to Iowa State.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 3

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

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

Here's how things shake out:

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nagurski Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

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

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

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

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

Also receiving votes: Penn State LB Mike Hull; Rutgers DE Kemoko Turay; Minnesota LB Damien Wilson; Michigan State DE Marcus Rush; Ohio State LB Joshua Perry.

Big Ten morning links

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Around the rest of the league:

East Division
West Division

Big Ten Monday mailbag

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

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

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

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

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

Weekend Rewind: Big Ten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Ten morning links

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

East Division
West Division

And finally, my favorite moment from Saturday ...

Big Ten bowl projections: Week 3

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

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

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

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

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

To the projections ...

Chick-fil-A Peach/Cotton/Fiesta/Orange: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/Cotton/Fiesta/Orange: Ohio State
Capital One: Penn State
Outback: Nebraska
National University Holiday: Wisconsin
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City: Iowa
San Francisco: Michigan
New Era Pinstripe: Maryland
Quick Lane: Minnesota
Heart of Dallas: Rutgers
Another rough Saturday for the Big Ten, with just three wins in nine nonconference games. Here's what we learned:
    [+] EnlargeCole Netten
    Charlie Neibergall/Associated PressGiven a mulligan by Kirk Ferentz, Cole Netten nailed a last-second field goal to give Iowa State a win over Iowa.
  • Kirk Ferentz won’t soon live down that decision to call a timeout: Didn’t coaches learn long ago that if they want to ice the kicker with a timeout, call it before the snap so as to avoid the painful situation that bit Iowa in its 20-17 home loss to Iowa State? Ferentz signaled timeout just in time to negate Cole Netten's miss wide left from 42 yards with seconds to play. Thanks for the practice kick, Coach. Netten nailed it the second time. “We had one timeout left,” Ferentz said, “and that’s the reason I called it.” Not a good enough reason.
  • It doesn’t pay to be unbeaten in the Big Ten: Eight league teams began Saturday with perfect records. By early Sunday, it was two: Nebraska, which easily handled Fresno State 55-19, and Penn State, with a 13-10 win over Rutgers in a game that guaranteed the league an unbeaten team for one more week. Meanwhile, down went Maryland and Indiana, on last-second scores by West Virginia (40-37) and Bowling Green (45-42) in early games. Then down went the Hawkeyes, along with Minnesota and Illinois, which were blown out on the road by TCU (30-7) and Washington (44-19) after both West Division squads opened with consecutive home wins over non-Power 5 programs.
  • Ohio State has plenty of gas left in the tank: Left for dead by many after its 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech, Urban Meyer’s club produced an impressive 66-0 win over Kent State. Forget that the Hokies turned around and lost to East Carolina. And forget the opponent. (Kent State is not good.) The Buckeyes were playing against themselves. They answered the doubters, jumping to a 45-0 halftime lead behind five TD passes from J.T. Barrett in the opening 30 minutes. OSU’s young quarterback and offensive line needed this, and the schedule stays manageable for a while.
  • Penn State continues to live a charmed life: The Nittany Lions, after winning in Week 1 on a game-ending field goal and beating the Icelandic volcano eruption to get back home, led for all of 73 seconds on Saturday in spoiling Rutgers’ Big Ten debut. In its first game since getting its bowl eligibility restored, Penn State created some of its own good fortune with five interceptions of Gary Nova, and Christian Hackenberg was his usual late-game self in leading a six-play, 80-yard drive for the winning points. The Nittany Lions likely will enter October at 5-0 and need to be taken seriously as an East Division contender.
  • Nebraska starts to emerge in West: Shaky starts by Wisconsin and Iowa leave the Cornhuskers as the best-looking team in the division. But with visions still fresh of their escape against McNeese State, questions linger. Nebraska pounded Fresno State on the road Saturday night, ending the Bulldogs’ 13-game home winning streak. A nice showing, powered by a handful of big plays, but the offensive consistency was lacking, especially in the first half. Randy Gregory’s return at defensive end made a difference. The competition level rises with a visit from Miami in Week 4 and a trip to Michigan State looming. Time to learn a lot more about these Huskers.
Another rough Saturday for the Big Ten, with just three wins in nine nonconference games. Here's what we learned:
    [+] EnlargeCole Netten
    Charlie Neibergall/Associated PressGiven a mulligan by Kirk Ferentz, Cole Netten nailed a last-second field goal to give Iowa State a win over Iowa.
  • Kirk Ferentz won’t soon live down that decision to call a timeout: Didn’t coaches learn long ago that if they want to ice the kicker with a timeout, call it before the snap so as to avoid the painful situation that bit Iowa in its 20-17 home loss to Iowa State? Ferentz signaled timeout just in time to negate Cole Netten's miss wide left from 42 yards with seconds to play. Thanks for the practice kick, Coach. Netten nailed it the second time. “We had one timeout left,” Ferentz said, “and that’s the reason I called it.” Not a good enough reason.
  • It doesn’t pay to be unbeaten in the Big Ten: Eight league teams began Saturday with perfect records. By early Sunday, it was two: Nebraska, which easily handled Fresno State 55-19, and Penn State, with a 13-10 win over Rutgers in a game that guaranteed the league an unbeaten team for one more week. Meanwhile, down went Maryland and Indiana, on last-second scores by West Virginia (40-37) and Bowling Green (45-42) in early games. Then down went the Hawkeyes, along with Minnesota and Illinois, which were blown out on the road by TCU (30-7) and Washington (44-19) after both West Division squads opened with consecutive home wins over non-Power 5 programs.
  • Ohio State has plenty of gas left in the tank: Left for dead by many after its 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech, Urban Meyer’s club produced an impressive 66-0 win over Kent State. Forget that the Hokies turned around and lost to East Carolina. And forget the opponent. (Kent State is not good.) The Buckeyes were playing against themselves. They answered the doubters, jumping to a 45-0 halftime lead behind five TD passes from J.T. Barrett in the opening 30 minutes. OSU’s young quarterback and offensive line needed this, and the schedule stays manageable for a while.
  • Penn State continues to live a charmed life: The Nittany Lions, after winning in Week 1 on a game-ending field goal and beating the Icelandic volcano eruption to get back home, led for all of 73 seconds on Saturday in spoiling Rutgers’ Big Ten debut. In its first game since getting its bowl eligibility restored, Penn State created some of its own good fortune with five interceptions of Gary Nova, and Christian Hackenberg was his usual late-game self in leading a six-play, 80-yard drive for the winning points. The Nittany Lions likely will enter October at 5-0 and need to be taken seriously as an East Division contender.
  • Nebraska starts to emerge in West: Shaky starts by Wisconsin and Iowa leave the Cornhuskers as the best-looking team in the division. But with visions still fresh of their escape against McNeese State, questions linger. Nebraska pounded Fresno State on the road Saturday night, ending the Bulldogs’ 13-game home winning streak. A nice showing, powered by a handful of big plays, but the offensive consistency was lacking, especially in the first half. Randy Gregory’s return at defensive end made a difference. The competition level rises with a visit from Miami in Week 4 and a trip to Michigan State looming. Time to learn a lot more about these Huskers.

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