Michigan Wolverines: Ron Kellogg III

The last two seasons have shown that two-quarterback systems can work in the Big Ten.

Northwestern recorded 10 wins in 2012 while rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Indiana led the Big Ten and ranked ninth nationally in total offense last fall while alternating between Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa, Connor Cook
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAfter taking over the quarterback job in Week 5, Connor Cook led the Spartans to 10 consecutive wins.
Given the recent success, my next statement might surprise you: Every Big Ten team would be best served picking one quarterback and sticking with him in 2014. That includes Indiana and Northwestern.

Quarterback rotations can be successful in the short term, but they are rarely sustainable or desirable. We saw this at Northwestern last fall, as the Wildcats never established a consistent offensive rhythm and operated with a reduced playbook, in part because of injuries but also because the unit lacked a clear identity. Northwestern finished 10th in the league in scoring.

Minnesota alternated between quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner during several games, including the Texas Bowl against Syracuse. Although the Gophers had a nice surge during Big Ten play and recorded eight wins, they also finished 11th in the league in scoring and last in passing.

Nebraska had some success using two quarterbacks (Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III) last season but did so out of necessity following Taylor Martinez's injury. The Huskers also struggled to pass the ball, finishing 11th in the league.

The strongest argument for picking a quarterback and sticking with him comes from the Big Ten's best team in 2013. Michigan State's offense was a train wreck in non-league play as the Spartans used three quarterbacks. After a Week 4 loss to Notre Dame, the coaches decided Connor Cook would be their guy. You all know what happened next, but what struck me was Cook's mindset at the time.

"We went through spring ball competition and fall camp competition, it was the most stressed out I've ever been in my entire life just trying to be the quarterback," Cook said last month before the Rose Bowl. "After I got the starting job and started a couple of games, the stress went away and it turned to focus, me being focused and knowing they're not going to use other quarterbacks in the game and not stress too much that go if I make a bad play I'm going to be pulled.

"That's when the stress went out the window."

Players like Northwestern's Siemian and Indiana's Roberson and Sudfeld are more accustomed to sharing time than Cook was, but each of them, like any quarterback, would rather be the clear-cut starter.

Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase is another good example of a player who benefited from an unambiguous role. He struggled from the middle of the 2011 season through all of 2012, raising the possibility of a rotation last season. Instead, Scheelhaase started every game and led the Big Ten in passing (3,272 yards).

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAfter playing well in place of Taylor Martinez, sophomore signal-caller Tommy Armstrong Jr. is the favorite to start for the Cornhuskers in 2014.
I'm all for competition at quarterback, and the Big Ten will feature plenty of it this spring and summer. Only five quarterbacks -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, Michigan State's Cook, Iowa's Jake Rudock and Michigan's Devin Gardner -- can feel pretty secure about their starting roles. Gardner has been mentioned as a possible rotation candidate with Shane Morris -- some Michigan fans wouldn't mind seeing Gardner line up at wide receiver, a position of need -- but I'd be surprised if Morris leapfrogs the senior.

I'm also OK with teams employing change-up quarterbacks for a package of plays, be it the Wildcat or something else. Michigan State could be a candidate for this in 2014 with dynamic redshirt freshman Damion Terry possibly spelling Cook from time to time.

The first few games also provide a platform to use multiple quarterbacks in settings that can't be replicated on the practice field. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel often did this with his younger quarterbacks, giving them a first-half series or two. It makes sense. But by Week 4, roles must be identified.

The offseason is full of Big Ten quarterback questions:

  • Will Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt take the reins at Illinois?
  • How will Gardner and Hackenberg fare with new offensive coordinators?
  • After Nelson's transfer, who emerges at Minnesota among Leidner, Chris Streveler and possibly a young quarterback such as Dimonic McKinzy?
  • Nebraska's Armstrong went 6-1 as a freshman starter, but can he hold off Johnny Stanton?
  • Can Gary Nova retain his job at Rutgers?
  • Will Danny Etling keep the top job at Purdue, or will Austin Appleby and possibly early enrollee David Blough enter the mix?
  • How does Siemian bounce back at Northwestern, and do the Wildcats look at Matt Alviti and Zack Oliver?
  • Will either Roberson or Sudfeld finally separate himself at IU?

Ultimately, these questions must be answered. The teams that avoid prolonged rotations should be better off for it.

Big Ten's best of 2013

January, 14, 2014
Jan 14
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We're starting to wrap up the 2013 Big Ten season, which included the rise of Michigan State to elite status, more accolades for Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, Iowa's mini-renaissance, Northwestern's backslide, Jerry Kill's health-related absence and Minnesota's impressive response, up-and-down seasons from Michigan and Nebraska and much more. The league's national title drought reached its 11th year, but Michigan State brought home a Rose Bowl championship to the frosty Midwest.

To put a bow on the season, here are some Big Ten superlatives:

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio and Connor Cook
Harry How/Getty ImagesMark Dantonio made seemingly all of the right moves in 2013, including sticking with Connor Cook at QB.
Best coach: Mark Dantonio, Michigan State. Dantonio helped the Spartans find the inches that separated them in 2012, when they lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points. He made the right calls on offense after a shaky start, and the Spartans ended up winning their final nine games, including their first outright Big Ten title and first Rose Bowl championship in 26 years.

Best player, offense: Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller. No player dominates the scouting report for opposing defenses like the Buckeyes signal-caller, who complemented premier rushing skills with a more accurate arm, despite some late struggles. He won Big Ten MVP honors and league offensive player of the year honors for the second consecutive season, had 3,162 yards of offense and 36 touchdowns (24 pass, 12 rush). Miller led Ohio State to a second straight undefeated regular season and will be back as a senior in 2014.

Best player, defense: Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard. The nation's No. 1 defense had several standouts, but Dennard tops the list after leading the "No Fly Zone" secondary and earning the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back. A first-team All-American, Dennard recorded four interceptions and 10 pass deflections, and repeatedly shut down opposing wide receivers. He was a finalist for the Nagurski Trophy.

Best moment: Many wondered how Michigan State would fare in the Rose Bowl without star middle linebacker and co-captain Max Bullough, suspended a week before the game. Turns out the Spartans were just fine as Kyler Elsworth and Darien Harris filled in well. Fittingly, MSU sealed its victory on a fourth-down stop of Stanford, where Elsworth leaped over the pile to stuff Ryan Hewitt. The play epitomized a team that overcame every obstacle and a defense that slammed the door on the opposition all year long. Elsworth was named Rose Bowl defensive player of the game.

Best rivalry game: Ohio State at Michigan. We haven't been able to say this very often about The Game in recent years, but the Wolverines and Buckeyes provided plenty of drama on Nov. 30 at the Big House. Neither defense had answers for the opposing offense and the teams combined for 83 points, 74 first downs and 1,129 total yards. Michigan went for the win with 32 seconds left, but its 2-point conversion attempt failed and Ohio State survived.

Best play: Nebraska's season hung in the balance Nov. 2 as the Huskers, coming off of a road loss to Minnesota, trailed Northwestern 24-21 with four seconds left at the Wildcats' 49-yard line. Huskers quarterback Ron Kellogg III, the team's third-stringer entering the season, evaded the rush and launched a Hail Mary to the end zone, which freshman wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp caught following a deflection for the winning touchdown. It saved Nebraska's season and possibly coach Bo Pelini's job.

Best coaching decision: Connor Cook didn't do much in a loss to Notre Dame to separate himself from the other Spartans quarterbacks. But after going to Andrew Maxwell for the final drive against the Irish, Dantonio and the staff decided to stick with Cook for the Big Ten season. It gave Cook the confidence he needed to lead MSU's offense to a Big Ten title.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Gallon
AP Photo/Lon HorwedelMichigan WR Jeremy Gallon had a game for the ages against Indiana.
Best individual performance: Michigan wide receiver Jeremy Gallon against Indiana. Sure, the Hoosiers' defense has been abysmal forever, but you just don't see too many wide receivers rack up 369 receiving yards, much less in a league game. Gallon set a Big Ten record for receiving yards and recorded the second-highest total for a receiver in FBS history. He had 14 receptions, two for touchdowns. Quarterback Devin Gardner had a team-record 503 passing yards. Ohio State's Miller had big performances against both Penn State and Iowa, Christian Hackenberg lit up Wisconsin's defense, and Cook recorded his first two career 300-yard passing performances in the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl.

Best freshman: Penn State's Hackenberg. New Lions coach James Franklin inherits a future superstar under center, as Hackenberg backed up his recruiting hype in his first season. Hackenberg finished third in the Big Ten in passing (246.2 YPG) and threw 20 touchdown passes against 10 interceptions. He completed the season by connecting on 70 percent of his passes for 339 yards and four touchdowns against Wisconsin.

Best newcomer: Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory. The junior-college transfer excited Nebraska fans when he came to Lincoln and left them even happier after his first season. Gregory led the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks and tied for second in tackles for loss with 17. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and triggered Nebraska's improvement on defense down the stretch.

Best new coaching hire: Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. The Illini improved their win total from two to four this season, but things would have been worse if not for Cubit, who helped Illinois improve from 119th in 2012 to 46th this year. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was the Big Ten's only 3,000-yard passer. Cubit might have saved head coach Tim Beckman's job for another year, as the Illini now look for a similar jump on defense.
There's only one debate in the Power Rankings: Who's No. 2?

All the top teams held serve in Week 13, and the Big Ten championship matchup is set for Ohio State and Michigan State to meet Dec. 7 in Indianapolis. The Buckeyes remain atop the league, but which team comes next: Wisconsin or Michigan State?

Although most polls have Michigan State ahead of Wisconsin, we've been keeping the Badgers at No. 2. It's extremely close between the two, and it's too bad the Spartans and Badgers won't face one another this season, especially given their recent history.

We're actually split on the No. 2 spot. Brian is keeping Wisconsin ahead of MSU on his ESPN.com power rankings ballot, while Adam has flipped the two this week, noting Michigan State's superior quarterback and special-teams play.

A second-place tie doesn't really work in the Big Ten rankings, so Wisconsin remains at No. 2 by the slimmest of margins.

Elsewhere, Iowa and Minnesota trade places, and so do Illinois and Northwestern.

Here's one last look at the Week 12 rankings.

Now, for the newest rundown …

1. Ohio State (11-0, 7-0; last week: 1): Another easy afternoon at The Shoe for Urban Meyer's Buckeyes, who set a program record with their 23rd consecutive victory. Quarterback Braxton Miller (144 rush yards, 160 pass yards, 4 TDs) and running back Carlos Hyde (117 rush yards, two TDs) both hurt Indiana early and often, and linebacker Ryan Shazier (20 tackles) sparked a stout defensive effort. Ohio State is very much in the national-title hunt as it prepares to visit rival Michigan this week.

2. Wisconsin (9-2, 6-1; last week: 2): A BCS at-large appearance looks likelier for the Badgers, who won their fifth consecutive game Saturday and their 10th straight against Minnesota. The running backs might grab the spotlight, but it's time Wisconsin's defense received some credit for an exceptional season. Linebacker Chris Borland led the way Saturday with his NCAA record-tying 14th career forced fumble and two fumble recoveries, as the Badgers shut out Minnesota's offense. Wisconsin finishes the regular season against Penn State at Camp Randall Stadium.

3. Michigan State (10-1, 7-0; last week: 3): Quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford continue to sparkle in Big Ten play, as both men performed well in a win at Northwestern. The defense surrendered 224 yards but shut out Northwestern in the second half and recorded two takeaways. Michigan State is headed back to Indianapolis for the second time in three seasons to face Ohio State on Dec. 7. Can't wait.

4. Iowa (7-4, 4-3; last week: 5): Thanks to linebacker Anthony Hitchens and a much-improved defense, Iowa overcame four turnovers to rally past Michigan. Quarterback Jack Rudock (two TDs, three INTs) had an erratic day, but Iowa dominated the second half, erasing a 21-7 deficit to win 24-21. The Hawkeyes will be going to a decent bowl game, and they have a chance for a very nice finish if they can beat Nebraska on the road this Friday.

5. Minnesota (8-3, 4-3; last week: 4): The Gophers are modeling themselves after Wisconsin, which is good, but they're simply not there yet. Minnesota's flaws on offense, especially at wide receiver, showed up Saturday as the Gophers scored no offensive points on their home field. The defense kept the game relatively close, but Minnesota never seriously challenged Wisconsin in the second half. Things don't get any easier this week, when the Gophers visit Michigan State.

6. Nebraska (8-3, 5-2; last week: 6): A horrendous personal-foul call didn't doom the Huskers, who found a way to beat Penn State in overtime and showed some grit along the way. Running back Ameer Abdullah had his typical brilliant game, and quarterback Ron Kellogg III did a nice job in relief of Tommy Armstrong Jr. Kicker Pat Smith stepped up in the clutch as Nebraska won for the third time in four games. The Huskers host Iowa on Black Friday.

7. Michigan (7-4, 3-4; last week: 7): We'd normally move Michigan lower, but there's no place to put the Wolverines because Penn State and Indiana both lost, too. Linebacker Jake Ryan and the defense came to play at Iowa, forcing four turnovers and converting one into points. But the offense remains embarrassingly bad, especially in the run game. Michigan finished with 10 first downs, 60 rush yards and 158 total yards as the heat continues to rise on coordinator Al Borges. Things will likely get worse this week, when Ohio State storms into the Big House.

8. Penn State (6-5, 3-4; last week: 8): This time, Penn State had no late-game heroics because special-teams miscues and other problems resulted in an overtime loss on senior day. The Lions received a big performance from running back Zach Zwinak (149 rush yards) and quarterback Christian Hackenberg accounted for three touchdowns, but the team's limitations in all three phases showed up in the loss. Penn State ends the season with a trip to Wisconsin, which likely won't be pretty.

9. Indiana (4-7, 2-5; last week 9): The lingering defensive issues are there, but Indiana has a new problem: The offense isn't showing up. IU once again felt the absence of injured running back Tevin Coleman against Ohio State, recording just 122 rushing yards. Indiana actually had more first downs than the Buckeyes (24 to 22) but didn't score for three and a half quarters and couldn't stop Ohio State's big-play offense. Kevin Wilson's team finishes the season against Purdue at home.

10. Illinois (4-7, 1-6; last week: 11): Tim Beckman and his Illini players can finally stop talking about The Streak, as Illinois won a Big Ten game for the first time in 777 days (Oct. 8, 2011). There was some typical sloppiness, and the defense struggled early, but Illinois made enough plays down the stretch to get out of Purdue with a four-point win. The Nathan Scheelhaase-Steve Hull connection produced 169 yards and two touchdowns as the close friends are ending their careers on a good note.

11. Northwestern (4-7, 0-7; last week: 10): The unthinkable has happened, the worst-case scenario amazingly eclipsed: Northwestern's bowl streak is over at five seasons after a 4-0 start and a fourth-quarter lead against Ohio State on Oct. 5. The Wildcats actually moved the ball well against Michigan State but repeatedly stalled in plus territory and took no risks despite a winless mark in Big Ten play. Northwestern has its longest losing streak since 1998, and Pat Fitzgerald has some serious work to do in the offseason, which will begin next week.

12. Purdue (1-10, 0-7; last week: 12): Darrell Hazell is looking for any sign of progress and saw some against Illinois, as the Boilers played their first competitive game in the Big Ten. Purdue finally ran the ball a little, as Akeem Hunt eclipsed 100 yards on the ground, and the defense forced four turnovers. Ultimately, Purdue couldn't do enough offensively or slow down Illinois' pass game. The Boilers wrap up the season this week with the Bucket game in Bloomington, Ind.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 10

November, 4, 2013
11/04/13
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We had our first, full six-game conference day on Saturday, and half of those games came down to the absolute wire.

If you're not at the top end of the Big Ten (hello, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State) or the bottom (sorry, Purdue), chances are you're going to find yourself in a very tight game in November. That's why execution at the end of halves and end of games is so big, and why some of what we saw Saturday was troubling.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesAmeer Abdullah rushed 24 times for 127 yards in Nebraska's thrilling win over Northwestern.
Take Illinois, for example. The Illini moved the ball almost at will at Penn State and had several chances to grab a lead. At the end of the first half, coach Tim Beckman's team displayed atrocious clock-management skills after getting a first-and-goal opportunity. Illinois would have gone to halftime with no points had Penn State not committed a personal-foul penalty with no time left that led to a field goal. The Illini would eventually lose when Nathan Scheelhaase threw an interception on the first play of their overtime possession.

Indiana's transgression was even worse. The Hoosiers had the ball on the Minnesota 9-yard line, trailing 42-39, in the final minute. They then called for a swing pass to running back Tevin Coleman that Nate Sudfeld appeared to deliver a little early. Coleman hadn't yet turned around for the ball and was still behind Sudfeld, making it a lateral. Coleman didn't catch the ball and didn't immediately realize it was live, while the Gophers scooped it up to save the win.

IU coach Kevin Wilson said the swing pass was "not an ideal call." Uh, yeah. It wasn't going to result in a touchdown, and the risk of a backward pass made it a curious choice. Wilson also made another questionable decision earlier, going for the two-point conversion after the Hoosiers had scored to take a 39-35 lead. He explained his reasoning later that Indiana would have a chance to remain tied by blocking a PAT in the event Minnesota scored a touchdown. But what are the odds of that? Had Wilson simply kicked the extra point for the 40-35 lead, the Hoosiers could have later kicked a short field goal for the win.

And then there was the ending of the Northwestern-Nebraska game. By now, you know what happened, with the Huskers winning on a play they call "Geronimo." Ron Kellogg III heaved the ball about 55 yards in the air, where it was tipped by a Northwestern defender into the waiting arms of Jordan Westerkamp.

A crazy fluke of a play? OK, maybe. But the Wildcats -- who say they practice against the Hail Mary every Thursday -- made the unpardonable mistake of not accounting for the deepest receiver in the end zone.

"You can never let someone get behind the pile," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "That's pretty much it."

Northwestern could have avoided the pain of the play if, after reaching the Nebraska 1-yard line on second down in the final two minutes, it had scored a touchdown instead of settling for a field goal.

It's the little things at the end of halves and games that could decide the outcome of some more November Saturdays.

Take that and rewind it back:

Team of the week: Michigan State. The Spartans bullied, battered and bruised Michigan in one of the most impressive defensive performances we've seen in a while. They should be favored in their final three games, even though the next two (at Nebraska and at Northwestern) are on the road. Michigan State fans might actually root for Michigan this week, because a Wolverines' victory over Nebraska this week would give Mark Dantonio's team a two-game lead over everybody in the Legends Division.

Worst hangover: Michigan. This may be a literal, physical hangover for the Wolverines, who were beaten up all day in East Lansing. Devin Gardner looked shell-shocked as his jersey was covered with mud after taking so many hits. At least this week's game is at home. Brady Hoke is just 5-7 in true road games in three years.

Best play: Nothing more needs to be said about Westerkamp's Hail Mary catch. Just enjoy the video again.

Biggest unsung play: The Westerkamp catch would never have happened if not for Ameer Abdullah's heroics earlier on the final Nebraska drive. The Huskers faced fourth-and-15 when Kellogg scrambled and threw a dump-off pass to his running back. Abdullah caught the ball at the 34-yard line and needed to get just past the 39 for a first down. Two Northwestern defenders barreled in on him. But Abdullah shook off a tackle at the 36, got hit near the 38 and then lunged forward with the ball to just cross the first-down marker. Abdullah has left no doubt this season who Nebraska's best player is.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Penn State's Bill Belton ran for 201 yards and a touchdown on 36 carries versus Illinois. All that was nearly forgotten when he fumbled near the goal line late in the fourth quarter. But all was forgiven as the Nittany Lions came back to win in OT.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin/Iowa
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallRB Melvin Gordon was kept in check (17 rushes, 62 yards), but the Badgers rolled Iowa 28-9.
Big Man on Campus (Defense): We could pick just about every Michigan State defender here. We'll single out linebacker Denicos Allen, who had nine tackles, two sacks and another tackle for loss. Allen is having a tremendous season and putting himself in the conversation for first-team All-Big Ten honors at the league's deepest position.

Big Men on Campus (Special teams): Michigan State's Michael Geiger drilled all three of his field goal attempts in a game where offense was at a premium for three quarters, and punter Mike Sadler helped keep Michigan pinned in bad field position by averaging 40.8 yards on five kicks. The Wolverines started three of their drives from the 10-yard line or worse. No surprise there. Michigan State leads the country in punts downed inside the opponent 10, with 15.

A rule that needs review: Wisconsin's Jack Russell appeared to make a 54-yard field goal at the end of the first half, but Iowa had called a timeout just before the snap. The Hawkeyes then proceeded to call two more timeouts in a row, and Russell would finally miss the attempt after several minutes of waiting. Credit Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz for using the ploy, since there is no sense in saving first-half timeouts. But can anyone argue this is good for the game? I don't think teams should be allowed to call more than two consecutive timeouts without a play happening. It disrupts the flow of the game and certainly doesn't embody the spirit of sportsmanship and collegiality the Big Ten claims to prioritize.

Again, that's not a criticism of Ferentz, just the rule. (And am I the only one who thinks of this when discussing whether to put Jack Russell in a timeout situation? Yeah, I probably am).

Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Info):

  • After holding Michigan to minus-48 rushing yards on Saturday, Michigan State's defensive numbers have gone from outstanding to other-worldly. The Spartans are now allowing an average of just 43 rushing yards per game. The next best team in the FBS is Louisville at 82 yards per game. MSU is also giving up just 1.61 yards per rush attempt, which is a full yard lower than any other team in the country. Opponents are gaining zero or negative yardage on 36.5 percent of their attempts against the Spartans, also the highest number in the land, and only 22.7 percent of rushes versus that defense have gone for 5 yards or more. We could go on and on, but you get the point.
  • With its 56-0 win over Purdue following a 63-point effort versus Penn State, Ohio State registered its third back-to-back 50-plus point performance in two seasons under Urban Meyer. The program did that only four times total in the previous 122 seasons. The offense has been incredibly productive, as 38.4 percent of the Buckeyes' plays have gone for either a first down or a touchdown and 53.9 percent of those plays have gone for at least 5 yards. That latter figure is the highest in the FBS.
  • Do bye weeks help? Wisconsin would say yes. The Badgers have won last their past seven games following a bye week, including Saturday's win over Iowa. All of those victories have come by at least 19 points.
  • Penn State's Allen Robinson now ranks second in the nation in receiving yards per game, at 130.4. He trails only Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, who is averaging 149.3 yards per game. What might hurt Robinson come awards time is that he has only six touchdown catches. Cooks, by comparison, has 14. (And remember that Robinson missed half of the season opener because of a suspension).
  • Since October began, Michigan is averaging just 2.69 yards per rush attempt, which is 116th out of 123 teams in that span. (Purdue is dead last at 1.45 yards per attempt). In that same time period, the Wolverines have 63 rushes for zero or negative yards, more than any other FBS team.

Big Ten Week 10 primer

November, 2, 2013
11/02/13
7:00
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Get ready for a full set of Big Ten games, and it should all be all over in time for dinner. That’s November in the Big Ten. Here’s a preview:

Noon ET

No. 4 Ohio State (8-0, 4-0) at Purdue (1-6, 0-3), Big Ten Network: For more than a decade, the trip to West Lafayette has served as a Buckeyes stumbling block. Forget it this time. Ohio State, winners of 20 straight, is rolling. Purdue, with freshman QB Danny Etling, is struggling mightily on offense. And the Boilermakers defense, despite a few bright moments, doesn’t figure to have an answer for Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde.

[+] EnlargeJames Morris
Stephen Mally/Icon SMIJames Morris and the Iowa defense will have their work cut out for them against Wisconsin's dynamic rushing attack.
No. 24 Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1) at Iowa (5-3, 2-2), ABC/ESPN2: There’s much more than bowl eligibility at stake in the Hawkeyes’ annual “Blackout” game. Both teams appear to have hit their strides at the right time, and a major battle is brewing here between the Badgers’ powerful run game, led by Melvin Gordon, and Iowa’s stout run defense. The Hawkeyes have led at halftime in every game this season and have allowed a nation-low two rushing touchdowns. Gordon alone has scored a league-best 11 TDs.

Illinois (3-4, 0-3) at Penn State (4-3, 1-2), ESPN: Negative energy all around. Penn State is coming off a once-in-a-century rout at the hands of Ohio State. Illinois entered league play with buoyed hopes, but losses by 20, 24, and 39 points have only served to extend the Fighting Illini’s Big Ten losing streak to 17 games. Who can better shake the bad vibe? Signs point to Penn State, which has responded to six straight losses under Bill O’Brien with wins in the next game. Count on production from the Christian Hackenberg-to-Allen Robinson connection.

3:30 ET

No. 21 Michigan (6-1, 2-1) at No. 22 Michigan State (7-1, 4-0), ABC: While the polls favor Michigan, the computers like Michigan State this season over its in-state rival. We’ll see who’s smarter, man or machine. Don’t discount the home-field factor, which was huge for the Spartans two years ago in this series. The Wolverines have struggled this season, and the two before that, on the road. And Michigan State sophomore Connor Cook is making solid progress at quarterback.

Minnesota (6-2, 2-2) at Indiana (3-4, 1-2), BTN: The Golden Gophers seek a three-game, Big Ten winning streak for the first time since they opened the 2008 conference season with victories over Indiana, Illinois and Purdue. The two-QB system with Mitch Leidner and Philip Nelson is working for Minnesota. Indiana just needs one guy to put up huge numbers. But can Nate Sudfeld do enough for the Hoosiers, who have dropped two straight despite scoring 75 points?

Northwestern (4-4, 0-4) at Nebraska (5-2, 2-1), BTN: It’s put-up-or-shut-up time for these Legends Division foes. Northwestern is already out of title contention, but its season has nearly slipped away as offensive anchors Venric Mark and Kain Colter continue to fight injuries. Colter will play this week, but his counterpart at Nebraska, quarterback Taylor Martinez, won’t. Freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. gets his fourth start. Expect senior Ron Kellogg III to again assist and keep an eye on Huskers I-back Ameer Abdullah, bothered this week by an ankle injury.

Weather

We’ve made it to November, so all things considered, not a bad day on tap. It’ll be chilly before early kickoffs in Iowa City and West Lafayette. Both games call for temperatures warming into the low 50s and some wind. For the other noon start, there’s a slight chance of showers in State College, though it should be comfortable.

Looks like a nice day in Lincoln, with a high temperature near 60 and sunny skies. Similar conditions appear set for Bloomington. East Lansing gets the worst weather of the day for the best game -- overcast, a slight chance of rain and temps that won’t reach 50.

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What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 6

October, 3, 2013
10/03/13
10:15
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Ten items to track around Big Ten football in Week 6:

1. Will the real Devin Gardner please stand up: The Michigan quarterback has been an anomaly in the last three weeks. He exceeded expectations against Notre Dame, the toughest test so far this season, but struggled against two cupcake opponents. He competed 64 percent of his passes against the Irish; he went 11-of-23 against UConn. He threw four touchdowns to one interception against Notre Dame; he posted three picks against Akron. He's going up against a middle-of-the-road Minnesota defense Saturday, and no one's quite sure what Gardner is going to show up. Is he finished struggling against mediocre competition? Or is this just the new normal?

2. Sixteen tries, zero wins: Since 1993, Indiana has played Penn State 16 times. And, since 1993, the Hoosiers have beaten the Nittany Lions a grand total of … zero times. They've come close on six occasions -- losing by just one score -- but Indiana's hoping to reverse that trend this weekend. Redshirt senior Ted Bolser has watched his team fall to Penn State four times now, and he doesn't want to make it five. This will be the most up-tempo team PSU faces all season, and Indiana's hoping to catch the visitors off guard.

[+] EnlargeVenric Mark
Tony Ding/AP PhotoThe return of running back Venric Mark is a huge boost for Northwestern as it tries to upset No. 4 Ohio State on Saturday.
3. Venric Mark returns: The Wildcats' offense is about to get quite the boost, as Mark will return after sitting out the last three games with a leg injury. He rushed for more than 1,300 yards last season and he comes back at just the right time for Northwestern. He's a big part of the option attack, which just hasn't been the same without him. And he'll likely play a big role against the Buckeyes. It's great timing for Northwestern -- and terrible timing for OSU.

4. Epic defensive matchup: At the final whistle, the Michigan State-Iowa score might just end up looking like a baseball tally. The Spartans boast the nation's top-ranked defense, while Iowa isn't too far behind at No. 7. No other game so far this year has pitted two top-seven defenses against one another, and this should be an exciting one for fans who prefer low-scoring contests. The Spartans have come up with nine sacks and 24 tackles-for-loss in just four games, while Iowa ranks 12th in the country by forcing 11 turnovers.

5. Tailoring a game plan without Taylor Martinez: Martinez is still battling turf toe, and the Nebraska QB is questionable for Saturday's game against Illinois. If he can't go, offensive coordinator Tim Beck could opt to go with the same two-quarterback system he utilized against South Dakota State. That means redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. and fifth-year senior Ron Kellogg III would split reps. Martinez started 32 consecutive games before the streak ended two weeks ago, so neither backup is exactly a proven commodity. Martinez could still play but, if he doesn't, there'll be quite a few extra question marks for the Huskers on Saturday.

6. Can Nathan Scheelhaase keep up this pace?: The Illini have already surpassed last season's win total, and Scheelhaase has been a big reason for that. He leads the conference in passing yards (1,162) and quarterback rating (174.8). Plus, he's second in completion percentage (67.2), yards per attempt (9.5) and passing touchdowns (12). At this point, it certainly seems as if he belongs on the All-Big Ten team. And it'll be interesting to see if Scheelhaase's huge numbers can continue. He's going up against Nebraska's 105th-ranked passing defense this weekend.

7. Seventeen and counting Ohio State's 17-game winning streak is on the line against No. 16 Northwestern, and this matchup is once again the Big Ten game of the week. A convincing win here would help boost the Buckeyes' No. 4 ranking in the polls, while a Northwestern victory would help cement the Wildcats' status as a title contender. Pat Fitzgerald has been looking for his gritty team to take the next step, and this is the perfect opportunity. Urban Meyer, meanwhile, hopes to increase the nation's best winning streak and to pave the way to the national title game. Ohio State's the favorite, but no one's counting out the Wildcats.

8. Redeeming the secondary: OK, there are a few Big Ten teams that could fit under the title of "struggling secondary," but there's one team where that identity isn't quite clear yet -- Penn State. The Nittany Lions actually boast the No. 23 passing defense, BUT they were absolutely dominated by Blake Bortles and UCF. Indiana's eighth-ranked passing attack will be a tough test for the PSU secondary. And this will go a long way in determining whether UCF was an anomaly, or whether big passing numbers will be the new norm for Penn State's defense.

9. Forgetting the pig in favor of a jug: After starting out 4-0 and then losing the Floyd of Rosedale to Iowa, the Golden Gophers will get another chance at a trophy -- in the battle for the Little Brown Jug against Michigan. Of course, Minnesota has only won the trophy three times since 1968. Still, Jerry Kill keeps a replica of the trophy on his desk, and this would be a program-defining upset. The Gophers need one of those, as they have a difficult schedule coming up and a bowl berth certainly isn't guaranteed. Four of their next five opponents are Michigan, Northwestern, Nebraska and Penn State.

10. Bradley Roby trying to get back on track: He gave up a few big plays against Cal and then, against Wisconsin, Jared Abbrederis lit him up to the tune of 207 yards for the biggest game a Badgers receiver has had in a decade. Roby wasn't made available to the media this week, but his teammates voiced confidence in the preseason All-American. He is -- was? -- considered one of the nation's top cornerbacks, but that title might be in jeopardy. He's undoubtedly looking for a big play or two to help silence the doubters. Northwestern doesn't have the most high-powered passing attack so, if Roby struggles this weekend, those critics will only get louder.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 4

September, 19, 2013
9/19/13
10:15
AM ET
Ten items to keep your eyes on around the Big Ten in week 4:

1. Ohio State with its full roster actually available … probably. If Braxton Miller is good to go (he practiced yesterday but didn’t go full speed), that means that Urban Meyer -- for the first time this season -- will have each of his starters at his disposal come game time. Between Miller’s knee injury, running back Carlos Hyde’s three-game suspension and cornerback Bradley Roby’s one-game suspension, Ohio State has been playing a man (or two) down at times. Florida A&M will be the first team to face the fully loaded Buckeyes.

2. Bo Pelini’s reception in Memorial Stadium. Less than a week after audio surfaced of Pelini saying less than kind things about the Nebraska fan base, he’ll take the field with his Cornhuskers for a 3:30 p.m. ET kick against South Dakota State. It sure doesn’t help that Nebraska failed to hold on for a win over UCLA after leading 21-3, but the Nebraska fans will likely have their own reactions for Pelini during Saturday’s game.

3. The opening game of 2013-14 Big Ten football. It’s finally here. Big Ten football is kicking off in Week 4. Purdue travels to No. 24 Wisconsin for a 3:30 ET kick off on Saturday. The two teams will open the 118th season of Big Ten football with the earliest conference opening game since 1996. The Badgers, who begin their quest for a fourth consecutive Big Ten title, will look to take down Purdue, a team that started the season 1-2.

4. The Spartans’ progress under Cook. Keep an eye on how redshirt sophomore QB Connor Cook -- in his second start for Michigan State -- continues to develop. The Spartan offense took major steps forward last week in a win over Youngstown State, but this will be Cook’s first real challenge with a stout defense on the road. In eight of the last 13 meetings between these two teams, the game has been decided by a late, fourth-quarter or overtime score. If that’s the case this season, Cook could be in for quite the challenge so early in his starting career.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin running back Melvin Gordon will face a challenge in Purdue's defense.
5. Big rushing performances. The conference’s top three rushers will all have big opportunities to make statements this weekend. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon has averaged 159 yards per game and will be up against Purdue’s defense, which has only given up 117 yards per game. It’s an opportunity for him to make a big statement against a defense that has contained pretty well. On the other hand, Iowa running back Mark Weisman -- who leads the nation in rushing attempts -- has averaged 142 yards per game and will face Western Michigan, whose defense has allowed 245 yards of rushing per game. It will also be interesting to see what happens with Ohio State running back Jordan Hall, who has averaged 134 yards per game this season without Hyde, facing Florida A&M’s defense, which has given up 201 yards of rushing per game.

6. Teams getting back on the horse. Michigan looked nothing like a top-25 team Saturday as it escaped a major upset against Akron. Wisconsin, on the other hand, had some interesting officiating decide the final margin. These two teams will take the field this week with something to prove and major chips on their shoulders.

7. Jerry Kill’s return to TCF Bank Stadium. Last weekend he suffered a game-day seizure and had to leave the game early. The Gophers went on to beat Western Illinois 29-12 and upon his return, Kill said he didn’t want to discuss his medical issues and that he only wanted to focus on San Jose State. It will be interesting to see how the fan base reacts to his return -- whether there’s more excitement, trepidation, uncertainty (or all the above) surrounding the Gophers’ head coach.

8. QBs battling injuries and the possibilities for their backups. Between Miller’s knee, Taylor Martinez’s turf toe and Philip Nelson’s hamstring, there is a chance that we could see some backup QBs taking some snaps this weekend. Buckeye backup Kenny Guiton has proven himself and would likely be fine to go against Florida A&M. Minnesota is in the same boat with redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner leading the Gophers on a 22-point run to take down Western Illinois last weekend. Martinez’s backup situation is a bit murkier. He has controlled the starting spot at Nebraska his entire career so Pelini would likely look to senior Ron Kellogg III or redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. against South Dakota State.

9. Iowa’s possibility of momentum. The Hawkeyes held out for a 27-21 win over Iowa State last weekend and with one of the toughest schedules in the Big Ten (Michigan State, Ohio State, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska) this might be one of their best chances for another win this season. But the question is: Can Jake Rudock and Weisman hold onto that momentum and carry it over to Western Michigan?

10. Indiana’s offense against SEC speed. Missouri might be one of the one of the lesser-respected SEC powers, but it still has to play against those SEC powers. Indiana’s offense is going to be facing a new speed level with Missouri and the Hoosiers will have to make their own luck. Missouri has given up 124 rushing yards and 218 passing yards per game, so it’s not an impossible game by any means, but it will be a test for Kevin Wilson and IU.

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