Nebraska Cornhuskers: Big 10

The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today’s offerings: In case you missed it, the ESPN Class Rankings recently expanded to 25 teams Insider and this week’s update gave us the additions of both Ohio State and Oregon. But Nebraska, TCU, Duke and Arizona State are a few teams just outside the top 25 that could join the list in the future.

The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today’s offerings: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini brought his lucky charm with him on the recruiting trail Wednesday; while a lot of fans are focused on Adoree' Jackson and John Smith, schools haven’t forgotten about Damien Mama; and Notre Dame’s upgrades to its facilities will help on the trail.

Hope recruits don’t have allergies


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Injuries impacted UGA, Nebraska seasons

December, 23, 2013
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This season's similarities are striking for the combatants in this season's TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Georgia and Nebraska. Perhaps the most notable similarity between the Bulldogs (8-4) and Cornhuskers (8-4), though, is the numerous injuries that helped prevent them from playing up to their potential.

ESPN.com's David Ching and Mitch Sherman discussed how injuries affected the teams' seasons and what might have been if not for all the physical ailments.

1. Out of all of the injuries they sustained this season, which one was the costliest and why?

Ching: There are a lot of directions you could go here, but Todd Gurley's ankle injury and ensuing three-and-a-half-game absence probably hurt the most. Gurley is one of the biggest difference-makers in the country, and Georgia's potent offense simply wasn't as good without him in the lineup -- particularly when fellow tailback Keith Marshall suffered a season-ending knee injury the week after Gurley went down against LSU. It's not a coincidence that Georgia bounced back from a two-game losing streak upon Gurley's return, nor that the Bulldogs went 4-1 down the stretch once he was back. He totaled 755 yards and 10 touchdowns in those five games.

Sherman: Taylor Martinez began this season as most indispensable Husker -- and by November, we saw why. Without the fifth-year senior, who started a school-record 43 games at quarterback, including four this season, the Nebraska offense shifted from the strength of this team to a liability. The Huskers failed to gain 400 yards in each of their final four games. Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III performed admirably, but their numbers paled in comparison to the production expected from a healthy Martinez. In good position to become the second QB in FBS history to surpass 9,000 career passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards, he suffered the fateful foot injury in Nebraska’s season opener. By mid-September, his limitations were painfully apparent, stamped into the record books with losses to UCLA and Minnesota in Martinez’s final two starts.

2. Which position group dealt with the most injury issues?

Sherman: Problems on the offensive line began on the opening series of the sixth game against Purdue as All-Big Ten right guard Spencer Long went down with a season-ending knee injury. Long was the leader of the line and a motivating force for the entire team as a senior captain and former walk-on turned solid NFL prospect. As soon as his linemates began to wear Long’s jersey No. 61 as a tribute, the injury bug spread. First, it was left guard Jake Cotton. Tackles Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale, despite staying in the lineup, dealt with injuries, too, as did center-turned-guard Cole Pensick. Long’s replacement, Mike Moudy, missed the final four games. The injuries hurt most in practice, and Long’s injury got the snowball rolling. Before the Purdue game, Nebraska rushed for 285 yards or more in four of five games. After Purdue, it never topped 195 on the ground.

Ching: Georgia's safeties could make a reasonable argument here, but let's go with the receivers. Malcolm Mitchell suffered perhaps the most bizarre injury of the season when he tore an ACL while leaping into the air to celebrate Gurley's 75-yard touchdown run against Clemson on the Bulldogs' second offensive possession of the fall. Justin Scott-Wesley, who essentially caught the game-winning touchdown passes in the fourth quarter against South Carolina and LSU, tore an ACL while covering a punt against Tennessee. Michael Bennett and Chris Conley also missed multiple games with midseason injuries, and junior college transfer Jonathon Rumph didn't play until Game 8 against Florida after injuring his hamstring in August. Because of the regular lineup shuffling, six Bulldogs have at least 20 catches this season.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIGeorgia went 4-1 after sophomore RB Todd Gurley returned to the lineup, and the only loss was the 'Miracle at Jordan-Hare.'
3. What do you think this team might have accomplished if health hadn't become such a factor?

Ching: I hesitate to say Georgia would have been a BCS title contender because its defense was probably not championship caliber. But it's hard to predict what might have been with any certainty since the Bulldogs started losing key contributors in the first quarter of the first game. I'll go so far as to say the Bulldogs at least would have won a third straight SEC East title and been in the running for an at-large BCS bowl spot. With Aaron Murray, who suffered a season-ending knee injury of his own against Kentucky, at the trigger and an impressive array of skill talent, this had the potential to be the scariest offense Georgia has ever put on the field, but we never saw the full complement for even one full game.

Sherman: It’s difficult to quantify in wins and losses, considering the other problems that plagued these Huskers, notably with turnovers and on special teams. Nebraska could have outscored Minnesota with a healthy Martinez and Long. And it’s likely that the second-half meltdown against UCLA never would have happened if Martinez was operating at full strength. The Huskers moved the ball well in a 41-28 loss to Michigan State. Injuries weren’t the issue against the Spartans; turnovers were, but freshmen committed all five. And Martinez, while turnover-prone since his freshman season, torched the Spartans a year ago. But even at 10-2, Nebraska would have missed a repeat trip to the Big Ten title game.

Big Ten: November stretch run

November, 1, 2013
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October was a miserable month.

Byes were aplenty Oct. 12 and 26 when only four games were played. No currently ranked teams played one another. (Although, OK, the Northwestern-Ohio State game was good at the time.) And only three of the 18 Big Ten matchups were decided by single digits.

But divvy up those Halloween treats, toss that costume to the back of the closet and rejoice. Boring, old October is no more. And the month of November is sure to be a much, much more entertaining one for the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesBrady Hoke and Michigan will face the heart of their schedule.
The Legends Division remains a three-team race for Michigan State, Michigan and Nebraska. And those three teams all play one other over the next three weeks, starting with the MSU-UM contest this weekend. Anything can still happen there.

Of course, there's also The Game to look forward to, while Buckeyes fans have plenty of other football to keep track of since they'll need outside help to rise to No. 2 in the BCS standings. There are plenty of other storylines, too. Nebraska and Northwestern are trying to reclaim their lost magic, Wisconsin is trying to prove it still deserves a major bowl bid, and other teams such as Iowa and Minnesota are trying to show they're capable of pulling the upsets.

October was a month to forget. File that away. Pretend it never happened. And enjoy November.

Team with the most to prove: Michigan. Are the Wolverines the kind of team that wins championships or just talks about them? We're still not entirely sure what their identity is. Their signature win, against Notre Dame, happened in Week 2 when Devin Gardner was a 14-to-1 Heisman wager. Oh, how things have changed. They slipped past nonconference cupcakes Akron and UConn before dropping a quadruple-overtime game against PSU that they never should've lost. UM's identity will be formed this month; its season will be remembered based on what it does in November. Look at the slate: MSU, Nebraska, Northwestern, Iowa, Ohio State. This is the heart of the Wolverines' schedule, and we're still awaiting the verdict of just how good this team is. It still has the potential to finish near the top and spoil Ohio State's season -- or finish in the middle of the pack and be a nonfactor.

Team with the most to lose: Ohio State. This answer is obvious for obvious reasons. The Buckeyes are riding a national-best 20-game winning streak right now. With some outside help -- we're looking at you, Alabama, Oregon and Florida State -- the Buckeyes could play in the national championship. When the title's on the line, that's a lot to gain -- and it's certainly a lot to lose. One loss is all it's going to take to crush the Buckeyes' hopes.

Three players to keep an eye on: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller, Penn State WR Allen Robinson and Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon. Let's touch on each one. Miller finally appears to be a quarterback doubling as an athlete instead of the other way around. Said Urban Meyer: "Braxton is officially a quarterback at Ohio State now. He wasn't last year." Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien called him one of the five best players in the nation and, now that he's healthy, he could be in for quite the month.

So could one of O'Brien's top players, Robinson. The junior wideout could leave early for the NFL, but not before breaking some more single-season records at Penn State. He's on pace to shatter Bobby Engram's record for receiving yards (1,084), as he needs just 207 yards over the next five games. And he needs just 23 receptions to break the single-season receptions record, which is held by a pretty good PSU wideout in, well, Robinson himself. (He set it last year with 77.)

And Gordon? Well, he has a shot to be the nation's leading rusher as he currently sits fifth (1,012 yards). And he already boasts the nation's best yards-per-carry average at 9.5, more than 2 yards better than Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah. Gordon is the best running back in the Big Ten and belongs in the conversation as the best overall player.

Biggest trap game: Indiana vs. Ohio State on Nov. 23. It's the week before The Game, so it's a conference contest that could easily be overlooked. The Hoosiers are a 3-4 team right now and don't exactly strike fear into the Buckeyes. They're not balanced, not great and not defensively good. But, if the Buckeyes have an Achilles' heel, it's their pass defense. And Indiana has the most up-tempo passing offense in the conference. The Hoosiers might be able to match the Buckeyes' penchant for scoring. And, if the defense can string together a few big plays, maybe -- just maybe -- Indiana has a shot. At the very least, it's a trap game.

Fearless November prediction: Michigan State and Ohio State will end up playing each other in the Big Ten title game. The Buckeyes are the easy pick, and the Spartans' Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford have taken big steps forward since the beginning of the season. Michigan State's defense is easily the best in the Big Ten, maybe in the country, and the offense is no longer anemic. The Buckeyes are the best team in the conference, no doubt. But the Spartans are No. 2. And they'll face OSU in the conference championship.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Play calls in football have unusual names. Coaches assign the words to ensure clarity in the language barked at the line of scrimmage, to offer a reminder of the formation or personnel.

Rarely does their strategy involve the opponent. This one did: Shift Husker Bob Y-Go.

Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover called it for the first time on Saturday as the Gophers opened their second drive of the third quarter.

Ahead by four points, they sent 6-foot-6, 302-pound freshman Ben Lauer wide like a receiver. He settled into a stance at the snap, providing a distraction just long enough for tight end Drew Goodger to flash open and snag a pass from Philip Nelson that gained 21 yards.

Four plays later, Nelson scored. Minnesota went back to the 6-5, 265-pound Goodger twice more in the third quarter for a total of 68 yards -- more than double his receiving yardage total in six games this year prior to Saturday.

[+] EnlargeNebraska vs Minnesota
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota took a page out of Nebraska's playbook to pull out the victory against the No. 24 Huskers.
Yes, Minnesota went big against 24th-ranked Nebraska in this 34-23 victory at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers beat the Huskers at their own once-dominant game, punishing the Blackshirts in a way Nebraska has for 50 years trounced Minnesota.

The Gophers rushed for 271 yards, the most allowed by Nebraska in an already disappointing defensive season, and they did it by running downhill. Few big gains; just a consistent, powerful, deflating attack that stung Nebraska in ways the Huskers never imagined might happen at this venue.

You see, Minnesota has long served as a Nebraska doormat, like an out-of-conference version of Kansas or Iowa State before the Huskers' 2011 Big Ten entry. The victory on Saturday snapped a 16-game Nebraska winning streak in the series.

Minnesota last beat the Huskers in 1960. Nebraska won the past 12 games by an average of more than 40 points.

“Those games have no meaning to us,” said Tracy Claeys, the Gophers’ acting coach and defensive coordinator under Jerry Kill before the Minnesota coach took a medical leave to undergo treatment for his epileptic seizures.

Kill watched again on Saturday from the press box. He attended practice last week and spoke to the Gophers before the game. He came to the locker room again at halftime and told the other coaches to leave him with the players.

Claeys said he’s never spent time around a coach as competitive and caring as Kill, a rare mix.

“To have him around just means so much,” Claeys said. “We want to make sure we do him well.”

They sure did, storming back from a 10-0 deficit with 17 straight points in the first half, then burying the Huskers with a late defensive stand and a 34-yard touchdown march to ice it in the final minute.

Minnesota completed just eight passes. But it controlled the line of scrimmage. It forced two turnovers and committed none. It sacked Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez four times.

A small army of Huskers limped off the field.

“We know who we are,” Minnesota running back David Cobb said, “and we know what we like to do.”

Cobb rushed for 138 yards on 31 carries. The junior from Killeen, Texas, talked to the Huskers in the recruiting process, he said, but Nebraska didn’t offer a scholarship.

“If you’re going to win Big Ten football games,” Claeys said, “you’ve got to run the ball and stop the run.”

It stings for Nebraska, because that plan, for decades, epitomized Nebraska. So much of what happened on Saturday stings for the Huskers. The name of the jumbo formation, the method through which Minnesota inflicted misery.

And then there’s this: Limegrover said the Gophers pored over film of Wisconsin’s 70-31 victory over the Huskers last year in the Big Ten championship game. Some of Minnesota’s misdirection and sweep plays came straight from that film.

You mean, the Huskers haven’t fixed that yet?

“This game comes down to blocking and tackling,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said, “and we didn’t do that very well.”

Really, it’s about more than that for Nebraska. It’s about a painful loss on Saturday that harkened images of an era in this program that began a decade ago with defeats to programs like Kansas and Iowa State and ended with the 2007 hiring of Bo Pelini that was supposed to stop such madness.

Claeys said after the game that “there are bigger wins out there for us.”

Painful words again for Nebraska, but the coach is right. Minnesota, after consecutive Big Ten wins for the first time since 2010, is bowl eligible in October and plays Indiana and Penn State before a tough finishing stretch against Wisconsin and Michigan State.

The Gophers celebrated Saturday on the field with Minnesota students, but they're not ready to rest on this success.

“Whatever we’re doing right now is working,” sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson said, who replaced starter Mitch Leidner after three possessions.

It’s an odd mix, for sure, the quarterback rotation and uncertain coaching situation.

“On the inside, as a staff, we could see it getting better,” Claeys said. “But the kids needed something to give them belief.”

Saturday gave them belief.

Claeys said he was a freshman in high school when Nebraska visited Minnesota 30 years ago and won 84-13. Some old-timers at Minnesota bitterly remember that game. None of the current Gophers, of course, were alive.

The Huskers also played UCLA and Wyoming out of conference in 1983, winning by a total of 68 points -- opponents that combined to outscore Nebraska by 17 points this season.

It’s a new age at Nebraska.

At Minnesota, too, and for the better here.

Big Ten Week 9: Did you know?

October, 25, 2013
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Four games are on the slate in Big Ten play this week as Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Purdue take a break. Here's a dose of fact and figures to preview the final weekend of October:
  • A victory for Nebraska on Saturday over Minnesota would make the Huskers eligible to participate in a bowl game. And not just any bowl game. It would be the Huskers' 50th. Only Alabama and Texas have appeared in 50 bowl games. The Huskers have outscored three opponents 142-46 since losing to UCLA on Sept. 14. That's an average victory margin of 32 points. Impressive, but it's not as dominant as the Huskers' recent history against Minnesota. Nebraska has won 16 straight in the series -- the last 12 by an average margin of 40.2 points.
  • Minnesota, meanwhile, needs a win, too, to gain bowl eligibility, a milestone that hasn't exactly been kind to the Gophers over the past decade. They've lost five straight bowl games since 2004. Still, the progress in Minneapolis is difficult to ignore. Minnesota has won 11 of its past 20 games, averaging 24.7 points. In its previous 20 games, it was 5-15 and scored 19.7 points per game. Much of the improvement can be traced to growth in the Gophers' ground game. Four players this year have rushed for 100 yards or more in a game -- a feat Minnesota last accomplished in 1967.
  • Michigan State, attempting to start 7-1 or better for the second time in seven seasons and third time in the past 46, is on some kind of a roll defensively. The Spartans rank first nationally in total defense, yards per play, rush defense and yards per rushing attempt. MSU has won 11 of the past 12 meetings with Illinois, and all but two of those 11 victories have come by 10 points or more.
  • Defensively, Illinois could not present more of a stark contrast to the Spartans. The Illini, in the same categories mentioned above, rank 104th, 110th, 106th and 111th nationally. Not good. Neither are the Illini's 16 straight Big Ten losses. That's the worst run in school history. But Illinois must do a lot more work to reach Northwestern's Big Ten record of 38 consecutive league losses, set from 1978 to 1982.
  • Penn State has defeated Ohio State in two of the team's past three meetings at the Horseshoe -- wins in 2008 and 2011 that were later vacated. Since 2004, the Nittany Lions are the only team with more than one win in Columbus. The rest of the Big Ten, in fact, has combined for just three over that time.
  • Ohio State has won a national-best 19 straight games since Urban Meyer's arrival. A victory on Saturday over Penn State would make Meyer the sixth coach in major-college history to open his tenure at a school with 20 consecutive wins. Pop Warner holds the all-time record with 30 straight to open his time at Pitt from 1915 to 1918. Others ahead of Meyer include Fielding Yost (Michigan), Walter Camp (Yale), Larry Coker (Miami) and Terry Bowden, who won his first 20 games at Auburn in 1993 and 1994. Meyer has won 20 straight games, including his final contest at Florida, for the third time in his career. He is among nine coaches ever to record more than one 20-game winning streak. None of the others are active.
  • The best barometer through which to gauge Northwestern's success, aside from injuries, might be turnovers. Last week in losing 20-17 to Minnesota, perhaps the most disappointing of three consecutive defeats for the Wildcats, Northwestern failed to force a turnover for the first time since a win over Iowa one year ago this weekend. The Wildcats rank first in the conference and 14th nationally this year with 17 takeaways. Before last week, they had snagged an interception in 10 consecutive games. Northwestern has converted its 17 turnovers into 72 points on nine touchdowns and three field goals.
  • Want to believe Iowa can't lose on Saturday -- or for that matter, to another Big Ten team this season? The Hawkeyes' three losses this year have come against teams with a combined record of 20-1; its five remaining foes are 21-13. Iowa's defense has held every opponent this season under its rushing average. Iowa foes have scored four red-zone touchdowns, the fewest of any team in the country. The two rushing touchdowns it has allowed ties Iowa with Alabama and Florida State for the fewest nationally. Last one: Iowa has allowed just five sacks this season, the seventh-lowest total nationally.


LINCOLN, Neb. -- You’d never guess it now, but a time existed in his college career when Stanley Jean-Baptiste couldn’t get on the field.

In 2011, his second year at Nebraska and fourth since his final season at Miami Central High School after one year in prep school and another at junior college, Jean-Baptiste sat buried on the depth chart behind talented receivers, both newcomers and veterans.

He’d yet to contribute to a meaningful situation at the school, and already, as a sophomore, his chance appeared to be fading.

Jean-Baptiste was almost a bust.

Funny, now, looking back, perhaps no Husker has made more of a single opportunity -- by definition, the opposite of a bust.

[+] Enlarge Stanley Jean-Baptiste
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsCornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste's size is helping make him an attractive NFL draft prospect.
His four interceptions lead the team. But it’s more than that: the 6-foot-3, 220-pound defender brings a knack for making the big play at the right moment, a trait he displayed in the infancy of his defensive development but only this fall harnessed consistently.

“He’s always had the talent to play whatever position he wanted on the field,” said senior receiver Kenny Bell, among the players who blocked Jean-Baptiste’s path early in their careers. “But just the way he’s learned our defense is most impressive to me.”

Jean-Baptiste has learned, all right. After a midseason switch from receiver to cornerback two years ago, he’s grown up in the Nebraska system. Jean-Baptiste progressed from a struggling member of the secondary to one of its most indispensable pieces.

His beginnings at Nebraska only sweeten the feelings of success this year.

A 2010 transfer from Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College, Jean-Baptiste made a big splash in the first game after his move from offense to defense, intercepting a Joe Bauserman pass to help complete Nebraska’s three-touchdown comeback win over Ohio State in 2011.

From there, Jean-Baptiste floundered.

When Terry Joseph arrived in Lincoln to coach the secondary after that 2011 season, he said, he saw Jean-Baptiste and figured he knew how to play corner.

The coach was wrong.

“He didn’t have any foundation of playing the position,” Joseph said. “So he was out there, but he was kind of just surviving. I didn’t know, but he probably should have been treated like he was a freshman in going back to the very basics of it.”

The struggles continued last year as Jean-Baptiste started six games in Big Ten play. He filled a serviceable role, but Joseph and coach Bo Pelini expected more. So they called a sit-down with Jean-Baptiste last spring.

“It wasn’t a very delightful conversation,” Joseph said. “But to his credit, he left that meeting and started working on the things we pointed out to him.”

Primarily, Jean-Baptiste didn’t understand his role in the big picture of the Nebraska defense. He knew how to cover a receiver and how to read a quarterback. He intercepted Russell Bellomy in the Huskers’ win over Michigan last year and accumulated five pass breakups in a 29-28 Nebraska victory at Northwestern.

But little had changed since that notable defensive debut against the Buckeyes. Jean-Baptiste had a flair for the dramatic, but he didn’t perform as well at the routine responsibilities.

Oh, and he played too slowly, according to Joseph.

“He’s probably a 4.5 (40-yard dash) guy,” Joseph said, “but he was playing at 4.7, 4.8. When he got the mental of it, started getting reads and paying attention to the little things, it allowed him to play fast -- to make more plays.”

Jean-Baptiste noticed the change.

“I think it’s a start,” he said. “There’s always more work to put in.”

His work this fall has placed Jean-Baptiste among the Big Ten’s best in the secondary. He intercepted passes in each of the Huskers’ four nonconference games. All four picks led to touchdowns, including his own 43-yard return to open the scoring against Southern Miss.

In Nebraska’s Big Ten opener against Illinois, Jean-Baptiste’s crushing hit on receiver Steve Hull thwarted a fourth-down throw into the red zone to preserve a 14-0 Husker lead. It ranks as his favorite play of the season, Jean Baptiste said, because the breakup shows more discipline than simply jumping a route to intercept a pass.

“What I like about Stanley more than anything is his improved intensity level,” Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown said. “He’s always had the ability. He’s always had the potential. He’s always been pretty. But to see that added dimension of heart, you put all that together, he’s a special guy.”

When Nebraska plays Saturday at Minnesota (noon ET, ESPN), it will mark Jean-Baptiste’s first action since he was ejected for targeting on a hit of running back Dalyn Dawkins in the first half at Purdue on Oct. 12.

He sat out the third and fourth quarters, listening from the locker room as the crowd told him the story of the Huskers’ 44-7 win.

Pelini and a few Huskers stood up in defense of Jean-Baptiste. Bell referred to the decision to eject his teammate as “embarrassing.” Such calls are “trashing the game,” Bell said.

Jean-Baptiste is moving forward.

“I just had to let it go,” he said. “If it was a bad call or not, I just had to move forward and not let it bother me … I think I did everything right. I came with the right form, and I just tried to make a play on the ball.”

Jean-Baptiste said he won’t change his approach. Nebraska teammates and coaches don’t want him to change.

From two years ago, he’s changed plenty. It’s likely to land him a long future in football.

“He’s a special player because of his size and skills,” Joseph said, “and now he’s put the mental part of it with that. His best ball is still ahead of him.”
LINCOLN, Neb. -- The second half starts in four days for Nebraska.

The first six games of the schedule featured just one real test of the team's progress under Bo Pelini, and the Huskers failed that exam on Sept. 14 with a 20-point home loss to UCLA. Sure, Wyoming pushed Nebraska. South Dakota State scared them for 15 minutes. Purdue forced freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong into a few mistakes. Really, though, anything worse than 5-1 would have ranked as something close to a disaster.

And while the meat of the second-half lineup previously did not appear set to start until November, let’s power up the truth machine a week early in honor of Minnesota’s upset win over Northwestern and the uncertainty that still hovers around the QB spot at Nebraska.

So here are three truths that could lead the Huskers to a successful second half:

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesTommy Armstrong has gained valuable experience in place of an injured Taylor Martinez. What will it mean for Nebraska when Martinez returns?
A healthy Taylor Martinez is set to return soon. The most optimistic of Nebraska fans envision that Martinez, out since the UCLA game with turf toe, will return to the field and finish his career with a fantastic flurry similar to the stretch that marked its beginning in 2010, when he ran wild for five games. More realistic, Martinez will be fresh for November, and his backups, Amstrong and senior Ron Kellogg III, have earned valuable experience that can help the Huskers down the stretch. If Martinez goes down again, there’s no reason to panic.

The defense is starting to gel. Let’s hold off on placing too much emphasis on the vast statistical improvement and near shutout delivered against Purdue. The Boilermakers are awful on offense. But look deeper, and the Huskers have shown growth since bottoming out in that forgettable first quarter on Sept. 21 against South Dakota State. This unit had nowhere to go but up; nonetheless, improvement is evident at all three levels, and veterans have emerged in leadership roles -- the point of Pelini’s preseason captain-naming, Blackshirt-awarding tactics.

The Legends Division is there for taking. Yes, Minnesota and Iowa are better, and the winning percentages look good for Michigan and Michigan State. But let’s be real, this is not the SEC West. Or even the Leaders Division, which showcases the league’s top two teams in Ohio State and Wisconsin. If Nebraska played in the old Big 12 with this team, a four- or five-loss season would loom as a real possibility. And while the gimmes of the past month are gone, basic, week-to-week improvement should earn the Huskers a second straight ticket to Indianapolis.

And now here are three truths that could doom the Huskers between now and the day after Thanksgiving:

A quarterback controversy is dangerously near: All looks good on the surface as Martinez nears a return. Pelini appears set to hand all control back to his fourth-year starter; no more rotating QBs, which is typically akin to playing with fire. But what happens when Martinez twists his ankle or bangs his shoulder on the cold turf? Or if his turnover troubles resurface? Armstrong is a competitor, and his mood this week is easy to read. He wants to keep playing. If Martinez slips, others – inside and outside of the program -- are likely to share the freshman’s feelings.

The young defense is sure to encounter adversity: That much we know, whether it happens on Nov. 2 at home against the Wildcats, or more likely, in 60 minutes that could turn crazy -- don’t all Michigan games? -- at the Big House a week later. The Blackshirts, particularly that youthful front seven, have yet to prove they can avoid collapse at a time of stress against a quality opponent. The Nebraska offense is good, but it also remains turnover prone, especially with Martinez in command. What if momentum turns against the defense and carries from one game to the next? It’s a scary thought.

That schedule, on second thought, is a grind: Despite the absence of a team ranked in the top 20 of the BCS standings in Nebraska’s next six weeks, it is, for any school, a tough set of games. Notably, you’ve got the volatility of Michigan, a stout defense from the Spartans and foes in Penn State and Iowa that want revenge on the Huskers for two seasons of tough defeats. The Big Ten, if not on the skill level of other leagues, will beat you up. And this stretch for Nebraska rates as a serious challenge. Injuries are already taking a toll in Lincoln. And this run of games taxed the Huskers in 2012. If they make it to Indy, will they even remain in physical condition to contend for a Rose Bowl berth?

Big Ten Week 8: Did you know?

October, 18, 2013
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Another week, another list of interesting Big Ten facts:
  • Melvin Gordon isn't the only tailback to watch for Wisconsin. As a team, the Badgers are setting some precedent here with their success on the ground. They're currently averaging a national-best 7.07 yards per rush, which is the third-highest average -- through six games -- in the last decade. Only 2011 Oregon (7.24) and 2008 UL-Lafayette (7.55) have fared better.
  • Northwestern is hoping to get back on track following back-to-back losses. But what's the big reason for those losses? Take a look at the points per drive. The Wildcats scored 2.6 points per drive in the first four games. In the last two, that number decreased to 1.2. More than one-third of their drives against Ohio State and Wisconsin also resulted in a three-and-out. The defense isn't a strength, but the offense needs to do better for Northwestern to rebound.
  • If the Golden Gophers win and climb to 5-2, this would be their best start since the 2008 season, when they sat at 7-1 and found themselves at No. 20 in the AP poll. Back in 2008, though, Northwestern closed the chapter on Minnesota's success. The Wildcats beat the Gophers, and Minnesota then dropped five straight games to finish the year at 7-6.
  • Braxton Miller has been absolutely key for the Buckeyes ever since he took over in 2011, and his success has also dictated OSU's success in large part. Ohio State is 13-1 when Miller reaches the 200-yard mark in total yards. When he is held to less than 200 yards? The Buckeyes are 7-5.
  • We knew the Hawkeyes' defense was good -- they're No. 9 nationally in total defense -- but their red-zone defense has been just ridiculous. Opponents are scoring touchdowns on just 11.1 percent of their red zone trips, the best margin in the nation. By far. Oregon is second at 33.3 percent. Iowa's percentage is the best for an FBS team through six games in ... let's see here ... the last 10 years.
  • Michigan has several streaks to keep an eye on this week. Wideout Jeremy Gallon has posted a reception in 32 straight games, the defense hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in seven straight games, and linebacker Desmond Morgan has recorded at least four tackles in 21 straight regular-season games.
  • Illinois' Josh Ferguson probably isn't the first name that jumps to mind when thinking about versatile running backs. But he currently leads the nation in receiving yards by a tailback with 344 yards on 20 receptions.
  • True freshman quarterback Danny Etling is the starter for Purdue now -- but he's hardly the only freshman to get playing time. The Boilermakers started six freshmen on offense alone last week, 17 freshmen earned playing time, and 34 of Purdue's 70 players on the travel roster are underclassmen. The Boilermakers don't have much to celebrate right now, but they're certainly young.
  • Offenses don't stay on the field long when they're playing Michigan State. The Spartans boast the nation's top defense, statistically, when it comes to yards allowed -- but there's a much more interesting stat behind that one. Mark Dantonio's squad has forced opponents to three-and-outs on 40 of 82 possessions, which is also the nation's best. Teams are averaging 6.7 three-and-outs per game when they're forced to go up against Michigan State.
  • The Hoosiers' up-tempo offense is setting all sorts of records this season. Here's just a few notable records and stats: Indiana has scored 28 points in a program-best seven straight games; IU's school record of seven 300-yard passing games ended last week; Ted Bolser leads the nation's tight ends with five TDs; and 20 of the Hoosiers' 60 scoring drives have taken five or fewer plays.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 8

October, 17, 2013
10/17/13
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Ten things to keep your eyes on in the five Big Ten games on Saturday:

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCan Braxton Miller and Ohio State's high-powered offense move the ball against Michigan State's stingy defense?
1. Can Iowa's defense slow down Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes? The Hawkeyes boast a solid group of linebackers, and the Hawkeyes are ranked ninth in the country in total defense and 12th in scoring defense. Still, they haven't faced an offense anywhere close in talent to Ohio State, and it'll be interesting to see how Kirk Ferentz's squad matches up. For Ohio State, it hasn't mattered who's lined up under center or in the backfield. The Buckeyes have posted at least 31 points in every game -- and 40 points in five out of six. Iowa hasn't allowed more than 30 points all season. Something has to give.

2. Big injuries at Northwestern: The Wildcats' read-option could be in trouble Saturday. Both quarterback Kain Colter and tailback Venric Mark are nursing injuries, and they're both listed as questionable. Even if they do return, neither will be at 100 percent -- and both are crucial to a team that's been forced to rely on a high-scoring offense to win.

3. Different head coach, different starting quarterback: A lot has changed for Minnesota in the past few weeks. In Week 1, it looked as if Philip Nelson was the quarterback of the future and head coach Jerry Kill would lead this team to continued improvement. Now? Well, Mitch Leidner has been promoted to starting quarterback, while Kill has taken a leave of absence due to seizures. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will take over for Kill on Saturday, and Claeys will be coaching from the sideline -- he usually coaches from the press box -- against Northwestern. Claeys still plans to call the defensive plays, so he'll have to spend some time committing those play calls to memory. He won't have those charts in front of him anymore.

4. Michigan's response: The Wolverines suffered a heartbreaker in Happy Valley, as they couldn't put the game away despite several chances. They're now set to face the team, Indiana, that bounced the Nittany Lions. Michigan may have five wins already on the season, but it's been extremely shaky. A convincing win against the Hoosiers -- and their Big Ten-best passing attack -- could go a long way in showing this team is still a contender. And, of course, that all starts with Devin Gardner.

5. Inexperience no problem for this defensive line: The Buckeyes had to rebuild their defensive line from scratch this season as no starters returned, but these young players have stepped up in a big way. They slowed down Wisconsin's running attack and have contributed to the sixth-best run defense in the nation. True freshman DE Joey Bosa is listed as the starter against Iowa this week, and he already has four tackles for loss and a touchdown listed next to his name. Mark Weisman and the Hawkeyes will face a stiff test Saturday.

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
Keith Gillett/Icon SMIIllinois coach Tim Beckman says the players believe and are no longer saying "Can we do it" but instead are now saying "When we do it."
6. Illini still riding a conference-worst streak: Illinois has dropped 15 straight Big Ten games, which means it last won a conference game on Oct. 8, 2011, against Indiana. Illinois plays Purdue on Nov. 23 but, before then, there will be no easy victories. The Illini will play Wisconsin this weekend, followed by Michigan State, Penn State, Indiana and Ohio State. Luckily for Tim Beckman's crew, it's still nowhere close to the Big Ten record for the worst conference losing streak. That unfortunate record-holder would be Northwestern, which lost 38 straight Big Ten games between 1978 and 1982.

7. Spartans' offense in the midst of a turnaround: Early on, it seemed as if Michigan State's offense would be a liability all season. After all, in the first two games, the defense scored more touchdowns while Mark Dantonio couldn't settle on a quarterback. But Connor Cook has since taken over and the running game has taken off. Cook's QBR has taken a step up each week against the FBS, from 17.1 to 27.8 to 68.1 and, last Saturday, to 83.1. Jeremy Langford is also starting to make a name for himself, with four touchdowns this past week. The Spartans are trending upward, and they might be difficult to stop. It won't be easy for Purdue.

8. MGIII might be unstoppable the rest of the way: Yes, the Buckeyes limited Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon to 74 yards on 15 carries -- but he'll face just one more top-10 defense the rest of the regular season. He's third in the FBS with 870 rushing yards, ranks second nationally in yards per carry (9.7) among tailbacks and is 10th in the nation in rushing touchdowns (8). He's one of the most exciting players in the Big Ten, and every team going forward will likely struggle stopping him. His next opponent, Illinois, is allowing nearly 200 rushing yards a game.

9. Can Purdue do anything right? Nothing's been easy for Darrell Hazell's Boilermakers. They just scooted past FCS team Indiana State 20-14, and four of their five losses were decided by 31 points or more. Purdue's future hopes are pinned to true freshman quarterback Danny Etling. But, for now, there's no guarantee that Purdue will escape the 2013 season with another win. It's ranked No. 118 in scoring offense and, in scoring defense, it's ranked No. 114. At this point, Purdue would just be fortunate to hang in tough against Michigan State.

10. Home of inconsistent quarterbacks and good defenses: Welcome to the Big Ten! The conference boasts three teams (Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin) that are nationally ranked in the top 10 in total defense, and three more (Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State) that are within the top 20. Still, the passing offenses haven't exactly taken off as planned. The Big Ten's top QBs entering this season -- arguably Taylor Martinez, Gardner and Miller -- have either missed time due to injury or have been on the receiving end of some quarterback controversy.
News and notes from Nebraska’s practice on Wednesday:

Martinez nears return

Senior quarterback Taylor Martinez, out since Sept. 14 with turf toe, is “really close” to a return to practice, coach Bo Pelini said. The Huskers had planned for Martinez to run on Wednesday but opted to wait until a set of custom orthotics arrive.

Pelini said he was confident Martinez would play on Oct. 26 against Minnesota. The quarterback has missed three consecutive games after 42 starts over four seasons. Despite the injury, Pelini said, Martinez has remained in good condition.

“He’s been doing what he has to do,” Pelini said. “Conditioning has never been an issue for him, so he’ll be ready to roll. He’s been on the bike. Taylor’s a hard worker, so I don’t think that’ll be an issue.”

The Huskers spent most of Tuesday’s practice working at an up-tempo pace with the top defensive unit matched against the first-team offense. On Wednesday, the Huskers split time between more top-unit work and an introduction to Minnesota.

Replacing Long

Junior Mike Moudy continues to look like the most likely candidate to fill the starting spot at right guard held by All-Big Ten senior Spencer Long before he was hurt on Saturday at Purdue.

“We have confidence in him,” Pelini said. “He’s a big physical guy. He has good feet. I think he’s come a long way. He’s come a long way, really since spring ball on.”

The coach reiterated on Wednesday that Long’s injury was not as serious as feared. He is set to undergo surgery this week to repair a torn MCL in his left knee, hurt in the first quarter against the Boilermakers.

Nebraska trainers thought Long may have torn the MCL and PCL.

“God willing, it won’t affect his shot at the NFL,” Pelini said.

No clarity on ejection

Pelini said he had not received correspondence from the Big Ten office on the decision by officials to eject Nebraska cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste in the second quarter on Saturday.

Jean-Baptiste was flagged for targeting on a hit of Purdue running back Dalyn Dawkins. Replay officials upheld the ejection.

Pelini said he would seek to speak with the league about the play.

Nebraska coaches have discussed the play with Jean-Baptiste.

“I slow framed it,” he said. “I spent a lot of time looking at it, and it’s awareness thing. You try not to make it close. I thought he made a good football play, but you have to talk about it. And you’ve got to show it to him and keep educating him.

“Hopefully you don’t put yourself in that situation, try not to make it close. I didn’t feel any different about the play when I watched on film than when I saw it live and saw it on the big screen, but obviously [the officials] saw it different than I did.”
Michigan’s four-year absence from the Nebraska schedule, beginning next season, will end in 2018 as the Huskers open Big Ten play at the Big House on Sept. 22 of that year.

And then the Wolverines disappear again for the Huskers.

The 2018 and 2019 league schedules, released on Wednesday by the conference, show that Nebraska and Michigan -- which played as Legends Division opponents in 2011 and 2012 and will meet again this season on Nov. 9 in Ann Arbor -- are set to play just once in a six-season stretch from 2014 to 2019.

Meanwhile, after breaking from Ohio State for three years, the Huskers get the Buckeyes every season from 2016 to 2019.

The nine-game conference schedule, which begins in 2016, contributes to the creation of such oddities. The Big Ten’s current Legends and Leaders setup will shift to East and West divisions next season as Rutgers and Maryland join the league, pushing its membership to 14 programs.

In 2018, the Huskers are set to face a formidable Big Ten road lineup of Michigan, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Ohio State and Iowa. Nebraska gets Big Ten home games that season with Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan State. One nonconference slot remains unfilled for 2018, with home games set against Colorado and Troy.

In 2019, the Huskers will face Ohio State in Lincoln, plus Northwestern, Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa at home. They travel to Illinois (for the Big Ten opener), Minnesota, Purdue and Maryland, marking Nebraska’s first visit to the College Park campus. The nonconference lineup is complete for 2019, with South Alabama and Northern Illinois at Memorial Stadium, sandwiched around a trip to Colorado.

Midseason report: Nebraska

October, 15, 2013
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Nebraska squandered its lone shot to make a positive statement on a national level on Sept. 14, blowing an 18-point lead to lose 41-21 at home to still-unbeaten UCLA.

The Huskers have handled business well since the loss to the Bruins, and coach Bo Pelini’s squad has done it without fourth-year starting quarterback Taylor Martinez. He’s missed the past three games with turf toe. In his place, freshman Tommy Armstrong and senior Ron Kellogg III filled in nicely, relying on a strong stable of backs and receivers to carry the load for a talented offensive unit.

Nebraska ranks eighth nationally in rushing yards per game at 284.8, and it’s averaging nearly 500 yards of offense. Ameer Abdullah is the workhorse at I-back, and Quincy Enunwa has caught seven touchdowns among his 25 receptions.

Defensively, it’s been a wild ride from the start. Nebraska squandered a comfortable lead in the fourth quarter of the opener against Wyoming, holding on to win 37-34. The 38 consecutive points surrendered to UCLA ranked as the low point, though Pelini was equally upset with the first quarter a week later against South Dakota State.

The Huskers have bounced back well in Big Ten play, in particular last week at Purdue in a 44-7 victory. Nebraska nearly pitched a shutout and held the Boilermakers to 216 yards. Defenders Ciante Evans at cornerback, defensive end Jason Ankrah, and linebacker David Santos have emerged of late, while defensive end Randy Gregory and cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste have been solid from the start.

Offensive MVP: Adbullah, the junior I-back, has followed up his 1,100-yard season with a better campaign. He’s rushed for 816 yards, second in the Big Ten and sixth nationally, averaging 7.2 yards per carry. And he’s caught 14 passes for 137 yards.

Defensive MVP: Gregory, the sophomore newcomer out of Arizona Western Community College, burst on to the scene as a feared pass rusher and play-maker on the defensive line. His strong play helped spark the defensive improvement of the past two weeks. Gregory enters the second half with a team-high eight tackles for loss. More of the same is necessary in November, when the schedule turns difficult.

B1G high school performers 

October, 14, 2013
10/14/13
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Here are this week's top performances from Big Ten commits and targets:

Illinois

Mike Dudek: Seven receptions, 97 yards, one touchdown, 103 kick return yards and a touchdown in a 40-25 win over Waubonise Valley.

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Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 11, 2013
10/11/13
12:00
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Bow ties are cool.

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