Ohio State Buckeyes: Cameron Johnston

If the preseason All-America teams are any indication, the Big Ten will have a very good year in the offensive backfield -- both carrying the ball out of it and penetrating it.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Reese Strickland/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon has averaged a gaudy 8.1 yards per rushing attempt during his career.
Running back and defensive line appear to be the league's two strongest position groups -- possibly by a wide margin -- entering the 2014 season. Athlon on Monday came out with its preseason All-America teams, following up Phil Steele, who released his last week. Three Big Ten players made Athlon's first team: Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett and Michigan State punter Mike Sadler. Four other defensive linemen -- Nebraska's Randy Gregory (second team), Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun (second team), Ohio State's Joey Bosa (fourth team) and Iowa's Carl Davis (fourth team) -- made one of the remaining three teams, and two other running backs -- Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah (second team) and Michigan State's Jeremy Langford (fourth team) -- also appear.

Steele had Bennett and Calhoun on his first team, Gregory and Bosa on his second team and Davis on his third team. Like Athlon, he lists Gordon as a first-team running back and Abdullah on the second team. It's interesting to see Calhoun getting a bit more love than Gregory, even though Gregory led the Big Ten in sacks and is projected as a higher draft pick.

Not sure about you, but I can't wait for Calhoun and Gregory to share the field Oct. 4 at Spartan Stadium, or for longtime friends Gordon and Abdullah to match up on Nov. 15 at Camp Randall Stadium. Both matchups should be fun to watch all season.

It's not unusual for defensive line and running back to headline the Big Ten. Both positions historically are strong in the league, especially defensive line. A potential concern is that only one quarterback -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller -- and zero wide receivers make any of Athlon's teams. Steele has two Big Ten wideouts, Maryland's Stefon Diggs and Michigan's Devin Funchess (has played tight end but listed as a receiver), on his third team. Still, it's clear these are two positions where the Big Ten continues to need upgrades.

Other Athlon preseason All-America selections include: Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff (second team), Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman (third team), Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond (third team), Ohio State punter Cameron Johnston (third team), Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan (fourth team), Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes (fourth team) and Northwestern punt returner Venric Mark (fourth team).

The Big Ten is tied with the Pac-12 for third among overall Athlon All-America selections with 18, trailing both the ACC (27) and SEC (26).
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Almost as soon as it arrived, spring camp at Ohio State wrapped up. Time isn't likely to fly by quite as quickly in the offseason with the summer months sure to drag by until the 2014 campaign finally opens in August. The Buckeyes have plenty of work to do to get ready for their debut against Navy on Aug. 30, and to help pass the time, we're looking at some of the most pressing positional questions they'll have to answer to make another run at a championship.

Who is going to replace Drew Basil?

[+] EnlargeKyle Clinton
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesKyle Clinton was 3 of 3 on extra points against Florida A&M in 2013.
Considering the little regard Urban Meyer seems to have for kicking field goals, maybe it won't actually make any difference who emerges as the top candidate to fill the job Basil left behind.

Even as much as the Ohio State coach raved about his starting kicker last year, Basil actually only attempted 10 field goals and was only called on once in the last four games. There certainly appears to be a trend emerging there for the ultra-aggressive Meyer, who only tried 11 field goals in the 2012 season, his first with the Buckeyes.

So will it really matter whether veteran walk-on Kyle Clinton or early enrollee Sean Nuernberger claims the job for Ohio State in a battle that couldn't be decided during spring practice? Perhaps not when it comes to 3-pointers, but finding somebody capable of placing kickoffs to set up the blitzkrieg coverage style preferred by Meyer might make the race a bit more important for the Buckeyes in terms of establishing field position.

Nuernberger appears to have a decided edge in leg strength, and he arrived on campus as the odds-on favorite to claim the gig, given his athleticism and the simple fact that Ohio State gave him a scholarship, knowing it would likely have to replace the steady veteran. Clinton is accurate, though, and there were times during camp in March and April where he might have been the leader in the head-to-head competition, a credit to a work ethic that hasn't gone unnoticed by the coaching staff.

Either way, Meyer isn't likely to put all that much work on the shoulders of either kicker, based on his track record with the program. But with the punter position locked up thanks to the booming leg of Cameron Johnston and a deep pool of candidates ready to return punts and kickoffs, the kicker spot would seem to be the only one in the third phase in which there's really anything to worry about heading into training camp.

The impact Clinton or Nuernberger might have on Ohio State's title hopes is another matter entirely.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. The series wraps up with the specialists.

Illinois:The Illini might not be exceptional in the kicking game, but they're in better shape than they were when coach Tim Beckman arrived. Punter Justin DuVernois returns after a solid junior season, while Taylor Zalewski looks for a bit more consistency in his second full season as the placekicker. Zalewski made 12 of 17 field-goal attempts last fall. The return game is the real plus, as V'Angelo Bentley provides a major threat, especially on punt returns.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana brings back a dynamic returner in Shane Wynn, who averaged 14 yards on punt run-backs despite limited work. Punter Erich Toth also is back for his third season as the starter. Toth placed 18 of 52 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. IU suffers a big loss at kicker as Mitch Ewald, the team's career field goals and field-goal percentage leader, departs. Aaron Del Grosso and Griffin Oakes will compete at kicker, and Jake Shake (shake and bake!) could enter the mix this summer.

Iowa: Here's another Big Ten team that looks very strong on returns, as Iowa boasts the Big Ten's most dynamic tandem in Kevonte Martin-Manley (punts) and Jordan Cotton (kickoffs). Martin-Manley had two punt-return touchdowns in 2013. Punter Connor Kornbrath ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in average, but placed 27 of 65 attempts inside the opponent's 20. Iowa loses kicker Mike Meyer, a four-year starter. Junior Marshall Koehn seems likely to step up, but could be pushed by incoming freshman Mick Ellis and others.

Maryland: Notice a theme so far? Most Big Ten teams are strong in the return game, and Maryland is no exception. If Stefon Diggs returns at full strength from his leg injury, he'll be a dangerous man with punts and kickoffs in his hands. Will Likely performed extremely well in Diggs' spot, averaging 26 yards on kickoff returns and 12.8 yards on punt returns. Maryland brings back an excellent kicker in Brad Craddock (21-for-25 on field goals last year), and punter Nathan Renfro enters his third season as the starter.

Michigan: Matt Wile has done a bit of everything for Michigan, but could settle into the starting placekicker role this fall. Wile handled kicking duties late last season and also served as Michigan's punter after Will Hagerup was suspended for the season. Hagerup, the Big Ten's punter of the year in 2012, will reclaim the role if he can avoid off-field problems that have surfaced throughout his career. Wile then could focus on kicking, as Kenny Allen is the only other option there. Michigan is still waiting for big things from kick returner Dennis Norfleet and must find someone to handle punts. Top recruit Jabrill Peppers could help.

Michigan State: Special teams once again should be a strength for MSU, which returns All-Big Ten punter Mike Sadler, a Ray Guy award semifinalist who will contend for All-America honors in 2014. Kicker Michael Geiger also is back after connecting on 15 of 16 field-goal attempts as a true freshman. Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Andre Sims Jr. both put up good numbers on punt returns. Michigan State had by far the fewest kick returns (18) in the Big Ten last year and will look for a boost from R.J. Shelton and others.

Minnesota: After an above-average year on special teams in 2013, Minnesota again should be good in the third phase. Punter Peter Mortell didn't get as many accolades as Sadler or Purdue's Cody Webster, but he had an excellent sophomore season, averaging 43.3 yards per attempt with 15 of 50 yards or longer. Marcus Jones is a major threat on returns after bringing back both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last fall. Redshirt freshman kickers Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte will compete as the Gophers lose Chris Hawthorne.

Nebraska: The Huskers are looking for some upgrades on special teams, particularly on punt returns, as Nebraska ranked 123rd in the FBS last fall. Primary returner Jordan Westerkamp is back, but he'll face some competition. Nebraska brings back punter Sam Foltz, who had a solid freshman season, averaging 41.6 yards per boot. Mauro Bondi is set to step in at kicker as Pat Smith departs. If Bondi struggles, incoming freshman Kris Brown could get a look this summer. Kenny Bell, who led the Big Ten in kick return average (26.5 yards per return), is back.

Northwestern: The Wildcats lose a huge piece in Jeff Budzien, named the Big Ten's top kicker in each of his final two seasons. Hunter Niswander can handle both kickoffs and punts but seems likely to slide into Budzien's spot. Northwestern's punting was a mess in 2013, ranking 118th nationally in net average (33.2 ypp). Brandon Williams departs and Chris Gradone or Niswander will take over. The big news is Northwestern brings back Venric Mark , an All-America punt returner in 2012. Primary kick returner Matt Harris is back after a solid freshman season.

Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie. Indeed, the Aussie is back at punter as Cameron Johnston returns after an excellent debut season (I refuse to call a 21-year-old a freshman). Ohio State hopes for similar results from another first-year specialist in kicker Sean Nuernberger, an early enrollee expected to step in for the departing Drew Basil. Sophomore Dontre Wilson will continue to have a big role on returns after handling kickoffs last year. Ohio State must replace Corey Brown on punt returns and could look to redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall or true freshmen Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon.

Penn State: The kicking game continues to be an area of concern.Sam Ficken owns the team record for consecutive field goals (15) and started strong last season but ended with just 15 of 23 conversions, including four misses inside 40 yards. Penn State needs a new punter after losing Alex Butterworth, and will turn to Chris Gulla. Jesse Della Valle did a good job on punt returns, but Penn State needs a boost on kickoffs after finishing last in the league (19.1 yards per return). The Lions could stick with Geno Lewis or look for a newcomer such as De'Andre Thompkins to emerge. PSU also must shore up its coverage units.

Purdue: As if the Boilers didn't have enough to address on offense and defense, the kicking game needs attention. Punter Cody Webster finished his spectacular career with All-America honors, and the Boilers finished second nationally in net punting (41.7 yards per punt). Incoming freshman Austin McGehee will take over for Webster. Paul Griggs and Thomas Meadows continue to work at kicker, as Griggs made only 50 percent of his attempts (6 of 12) last season. The kick return game is strong with Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, but Purdue must replace punt returner Ricardo Allen. B.J. Knauf could be a good fit there.

Rutgers: The kicking game historically is a strength for Rutgers, which has a knack for blocking kicks and pulling off fakes. Rutgers loses a productive piece in punter Nick Marsh, who also handled kickoffs. The Scarlet Knights will turn to Joseph Roth as their replacement. Kicker Kyle Federico finished the season well, particularly in the Pinstripe Bowl, and returns for his junior season. Rutgers has a major weapon on returns in Janarion Grant, who brought back both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown during his freshman season.

Wisconsin: The kicking game has held back Wisconsin in the past, so it's definitely an area to watch during the offseason. Kicker Jack Russell converted 9 of 13 field-goal attempts after taking over for Kyle French. He'll try to hold off incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone. Andrew Endicott, who handled kickoffs last fall, also returns. Wisconsin is looking for more from punter Drew Meyer, who averaged just 38.6 yards per attempt in 2013. Top returner Kenzel Doe is back and should handle both punts and kickoffs, although Wisconsin could look to others for help, such as newcomers Serge Trezy and Natrell Jamerson.

More position breakdowns
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The next wave of talent is coming, set to unleash all the hype and speculation about which signees are going to instantly transform Ohio State before the signatures are even dry on the letters of intent.

Few programs or coaches have had as much success landing blue-chip athletes as the Buckeyes and Urban Meyer, and while attracting the most coveted recruits in the nation helps make for big parties on national signing day, it's worth remembering that few of those players are going to make a significant splash during the first year on campus.

Even last year's heralded group of signees, despite joining a roster with noticeable deficiencies at some key positions, wasn't quite able to contribute nearly as much right away as might have been expected when the Class of 2013 was finally signed, sealed and ultimately delivered.

Maybe this year's class will be different for the Buckeyes. But that answer won't be known for months, so before the faxes arrive and that speculation begins, let's take a look back at the true freshmen who did leave a mark for Ohio State last season, in order of their on-field impact.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDE Joey Bosa might have been overlooked heading into the season, but by the end of it there was no denying how big of an impact he had.
1. DE Joey Bosa

  • By the numbers: 44 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and a fumble recovery
  • Recruiting ranking: Four stars, No. 7 defensive tackle
  • Freshman impact: There was never any question about Bosa's athleticism, but heading into training camp, he was rarely mentioned as a potential game-changer right away for the Buckeyes on defense. But after initially being overlooked by flashier players at skill positions, Bosa blossomed into one of the most terrifying young pass rushers in the country, quickly moving into Ohio State's starting lineup and ensuring that the spotlight won't miss him again moving forward.
2. RB/WR Dontre Wilson

  • By the numbers: 31 carries for 250 yards and a touchdown; 22 receptions for 210 yards and 2 touchdowns
  • Recruiting ranking: Four stars, No. 5 athlete
  • Freshman impact: Wilson certainly did some damage with the football in his hands, and his speed lived up to its advance billing when he was able to find some open field. But he might have been at his most dangerous merely serving as a decoy late in the season, as opposing defenses stayed on high alert any time Wilson was on the field, opening up play-action passes deep down the field or huge running lanes between the tackles that the Buckeyes were more than willing to exploit. Moving forward, Wilson is set to see far more touches in the hybrid role Meyer envisions.
3. P Cameron Johnston

  • By the numbers: 49 punts for an average of 44 yards per attempt, 31 downed inside the 20-yard line
  • Recruiting ranking: None
  • Freshman impact: One of the most valued contributors of the 2013 class didn't even join it on signing day a year ago, with the Buckeyes working overtime to find a punter. They also had to expand their search to another continent. But by summer, they had their man in Johnston, and the Australian exploded on the scene thanks to his powerful leg, incredible hang time and a knack for pinning opponents deep in their own territory. That a punter would qualify as one of the top contributors right away would have been a major surprise at this time a year ago, but it also speaks to the amount of talent the Buckeyes held in reserve with redshirts -- starting with guys like linebacker Mike Mitchell, wide receiver Jalin Marshall and cornerbacks Eli Apple and Gareon Conley.

Big Ten all-bowl team

January, 9, 2014
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The Big Ten went 2-5 in bowl games for the second consecutive season, but there were notable performances around the league, even in losing efforts.

Here's a look at ESPN.com's Big Ten all-bowl squad:

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook threw for 332 yards and two TDs to lead the Spartans to a Rose Bowl win over Stanford.
QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State: He followed his first career 300-yard passing performance in the Big Ten championship with his second in the Rose Bowl against Stanford. Cook overcame an ugly pick-six to pass for a career-high 332 yards and two touchdowns on 22 of 36 attempts. He earned offensive player of the game honors.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: The Badgers featured Gordon, who will return next year, in the Capital One Bowl and received good production, as the sophomore rushed for 143 yards on 25 carries. His fumble in the closing minutes allowed South Carolina to run out the clock, but he showed his typical explosiveness as well as durability that should help him in the 2014 season.

RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: Abdullah ended a tremendous junior season with his 11th 100-yard rushing performance as Nebraska upset Georgia in the Gator Bowl. He finished with 122 rush yards and a touchdown on 27 carries.

WR: Quincy Enunwa, Nebraska: Enunwa ended his Huskers career with his best performance, recording a career-high 129 receiving yards and two touchdowns, including a 99-yarder in the third quarter that proved to be the winner. He broke Nebraska's single-season record with 12 touchdowns and earned bowl MVP honors.

WR: Tony Lippett, Michigan State: MSU leaned on its passing game to open up the deep middle, and Lippett repeatedly attacked Stanford's vulnerable secondary. He had five receptions for a career-high 94 yards, and his 25-yard touchdown reception early in the fourth quarter ended up being the winner. His five receptions marked the most by a Spartans receiver in a Rose Bowl.

TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota: The Gophers' offense wasn't pretty in a disappointing Texas Bowl loss to Syracuse, but Williams again provided a bright spot in a mostly meek passing attack. The freshman led Minnesota with five receptions for 76 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

C: Cole Pensick, Nebraska: Pensick returned to the center spot after playing several games at guard and helped Nebraska to a win. Georgia had only one sack, and the Huskers rushed for 144 yards.

OL: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: Costigan and his fellow linemen held up well against Jadeveon Clowney and Co., as the Badgers racked up 293 rush yards on 43 attempts.

OL: Blake Treadwell, Michigan State: The Spartans' co-captain graded out well in the Rose Bowl as MSU had success moving the ball against a strong Stanford defense.

OL: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin: Like Costigan, Havenstein helped Gordon and James White both eclipse 100 rushing yards against South Carolina, which recorded only one sack in the game.

OL: Jack Allen, Michigan State: Allen was among three Spartans linemen not to allow a sack and aided an offense that racked up 21 first downs and 24 points against Stanford.

DEFENSE

DE: Jason Ankrah, Nebraska: Another Husker who shined in his final college game, Ankrah recorded two sacks, a forced fumble and two quarterback hurries as the line applied good pressure on Georgia backup quarterback Hutson Mason. It marked the first multi-sack performance of Ankrah's career.

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesOhio State's Joey Bosa made plenty of big hits in the Orange Bowl, including this one on Clemson's Tajh Boyd that resulted in a safety after Boyd was called for intentional grounding.
DE: Joey Bosa, Ohio State: If you're looking for reasons to feel optimistic about Ohio State's beleaguered defense, Bosa certainly provides a big one. The freshman made his presence known in the Orange Bowl despite an ankle injury, combining with linebacker Joshua Perry to force a first-quarter safety. He finished with five tackles, including a sack.

DT: Micajah Reynolds, Michigan State: The 307-pound Reynolds clogged the middle and helped Michigan State shut down Stanford's running attack for the final three quarters of the Rose Bowl. He recorded a team-high two tackles for loss and finished with four solo tackles in his final college game.

DT: Thad Randle, Nebraska: Like several Huskers on this list, Randle saved arguably his best performance for his final game. He recorded eight tackles as Nebraska held Georgia to 2.2 yards per rush and only 12 points on six trips inside the red zone.

LB: Kyler Elsworth, Michigan State: Thanks to Elsworth, Max Bullough's absence had little bearing on the Spartans' defense, which limited Stanford to 13 offensive points. Elsworth recorded 1.5 tackles for loss and was the first man in on the decisive fourth-down stop of Stanford's Ryan Hewitt. He earned Rose Bowl defensive player of the game honors.

LB: James Morris, Iowa: Morris ended an excellent senior season with 2.5 tackles for loss, including two sacks, as the defense kept Iowa alive for much of the Outback Bowl against LSU. He finished the season with a team-high eight sacks and eclipsed 400 career tackles.

LB: Denicos Allen, Michigan State: Allen also stepped up in Bullough's absence and sparked Michigan State with 1.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. He helped Michigan State hold Stanford to only three offensive points in the final three quarters.

CB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State: You didn't hear Dennard's name called much during the Rose Bowl because he shut down Stanford's Ty Montgomery and one side of the field. He finished with a tackle for loss and made sure Stanford didn't attack the No Fly Zone in his final game.

CB: Josh Mitchell, Nebraska: Mitchell made two plays to set up Nebraska touchdowns against Georgia: a second-quarter fumble recovery and a third-quarter interception on the first series of the second half. He hadn't had a takeaway all season before the bowl but stepped up at the right time.

S: John Lowdermilk, Iowa: He gave Iowa new life in the third quarter of the Outback Bowl with a 71-yard interception return. It should have been a touchdown, as Lowdermilk dropped the ball short of the goal line, but Iowa scored three plays later to cut LSU's lead in half. Not a bad time for Lowdermilk's first career interception.

S: Cedric Thompson, Minnesota: Thompson recorded a career-high 14 tackles in the Texas Bowl as Minnesota held Syracuse to only 188 pass yards. He also recovered a fumble in Gophers territory in the first quarter as the defense kept Minnesota in the game.

SPECIAL TEAMS

P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie (Oi Oi Oi). Ohio State's Australian import ended a tremendous debut season with a big performance in the Orange Bowl. He averaged 48.2 yards on five punts, with a long of 63 yards, and placed three punts inside Clemson's 20-yard line, including one downed at the Tigers' 1 that set up an Ohio State safety. There were a lot of good choices here (MSU's Mike Sadler and Minnesota's Peter Mortell also were terrific), which says something about the Big Ten's bowl showing.

K: Matt Wile, Michigan: Not many great choices here, but Wile was the only Big Ten kicker to convert multiple field-goal attempts in a bowl. Wile did a nice job filling in for starter Brendan Gibbons in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and also handled punts and kickoffs.

Returner: Kenzel Doe, Wisconsin: Doe kept Wisconsin's hopes alive in the Capital One Bowl with a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown after the Badgers had fallen behind by 10 points. It marked Wisconsin's first kickoff return touchdown in a bowl game and its first since David Gilreath's 97-yard runback on the opening play of the Badgers' win against No. 1 Ohio State in 2010.

Season report card: Ohio State

December, 20, 2013
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Final exams are either ongoing or all wrapped up around the Big Ten. We're passing out grades, too, for each team's regular-season performance.

Each team receives a grade for offense, defense, special teams and overall play.

Up next: The No. 7 Buckeyes.

Offense: A-

[+] EnlargeHyde/Miller
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesCarlos Hyde and Braxton Miller proved to be nearly unstoppable in the running game.
A somewhat sloppy final exam brought down the overall grade, but it's hard to find fault with the most prolific scoring attack in the Big Ten and one of the most explosive offenses Ohio State has ever had in its decorated history. The rushing game was close to unstoppable, clear strides were evident when the football was in the air and the offensive line proved itself to be one of the best units in the country as the Buckeyes rolled their way to more than 46 points per game.

For all the talk about trying to balance out the spread offense this season, though, the Buckeyes weren't quite able to trust the passing game when it mattered most against the best defense they faced all year. Michigan State made them pay in the Big Ten title game as Braxton Miller struggled with his accuracy and his receivers put a few catchable throws on the ground, making rushing lanes harder to come by down the stretch and ultimately building to a failed fourth-down rush with a chance to play for the crystal football hanging in the balance.

But, obviously, the Buckeyes had 12 wins on the resume before that, and Carlos Hyde's wildly productive senior season finally gave Urban Meyer a 1,000-yard running back. Despite missing three games due to suspension to open the year, Hyde still led the Big Ten in rushing yardage during league play and finished with 1,408 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground as the Buckeyes bullied through the regular season thanks to his terrifying partnership with Miller in the backfield.

Defense: B-

At their best and fully healthy, the Buckeyes appeared to be on their way to living up to the high standards of the Silver Bullets and ranking among the nation's best defenses with a developing front, a game-changing linebacker and a veteran secondary filled with playmakers. Without the full complement of starters and against some solid offensive game plans, the Buckeyes at times looked completely lost and were exposed in the back end, particularly late in the season as injuries revealed the lack of depth at critical positions.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJoey Bosa had a stellar freshman season with 6.5 sack and six QB hurries.
The good certainly outweighed the bad for Ohio State, as it showed a knack for regrouping and making critical adjustments after some shaky starts, notably against Iowa and Northwestern. Ryan Shazier came up short in his bid for a couple of individual trophies, but the junior linebacker sent his NFL stock soaring with another stats-stuffing season that was downright spectacular at times. After needing to replace the entire defensive line, Noah Spence, Joey Bosa and Michael Bennett all proved more than capable of wreaking havoc in the offensive backfield and will return next season.

But much, much more was expected of the secondary with Bradley Roby returning for at cornerback to team with senior safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett. The loss of Bryant in September to a fractured ankle was a blow the Buckeyes were never able to truly recover from, and finishing No. 11 in the Big Ten in pass defense is never going to be acceptable at a program with so much defensive pride. Those issues were balanced out by a stout rush defense and an opportunistic unit. While there are certainly programs that would be happy with a grade like this on defense, Ohio State isn't one of them.

Special teams: B+

Freshman Cameron Johnston turned out to be an invaluable recruiting pickup late in the game a year ago, bursting on the scene with his powerful leg and a unique ability to dial it back when needed to switch field position. A coverage unit stocked with starters willing to lend a hand in the kicking game certainly didn't hurt, either.

The Buckeyes also made life miserable on opposing punters, a calling card of an Urban Meyer team, with Roby blocking a pair and Doran Grant throwing in another. Drew Basil was solid kicking the football, though Ohio State didn't call on the senior all that much has he attempted just 10 field goals, making nine.

There was a spark missing on kickoff and punt return, which will no doubt frustrate Meyer heading into next season. Dontre Wilson broke a 51-yard kickoff return and Philly Brown had a long of 65, but neither was able to break a touchdown.

Overall: A-

Everything was set up for the Buckeyes to make a run at the national championship, and despite all the hand-wringing about the BCS standings and OSU's schedule, all the dominoes had fallen into place ahead of the conference title game. And while that loss to the Spartans left them one game short of playing for the national crown, the Buckeyes still won 12 and are headed to the Discover Orange Bowl, which is a respectable consolation prize in what should again go down as a successful season.
There's only one game on tap this week, but it's a very big one. Let's take a look at five things to watch in Saturday night's Big Ten championship game between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 10 Michigan State:

1. Something's gotta give: The nation's No. 1 defense in Michigan State goes up against the nation's No. 3 scoring offense in Ohio State. But has either unit really been tested? The Spartan Dawgs have been pretty special, but they've yet to face an offense ranked in the top 50 in yards. Ohio State's attack also looks the part, and the Buckeyes have faced two top-10 defenses (Wisconsin, Iowa), but no others in the top 35. Behind running back Carlos Hyde and quarterback Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes lead the nation in yards per rush (7.1) and runs of 10 yards or longer (130). Michigan State leads the nation in fewest rush yards allowed (64.4 per game), fewest yards per rush (2.2) and fewest rushes of 10 or more yards (19). Who will gain the edge at the line of scrimmage?

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCan Braxton Miller and Ohio State's high-powered offense move the ball against Michigan State's stingy defense?
2. Buckeyes back on the big stage: It has been a while since Ohio State played a game of this significance on a stage as big as Lucas Oil Stadium. Miller has been brilliant the past two seasons, but he has yet to play in the postseason with a spot in the national championship on the line. Nebraska came into last year's title game tight and it showed in a disastrous performance against Wisconsin, which played loose and ran the Huskers up and down the field. Although no one expects Ohio State to lay an egg, Michigan State has been here before, and the Spartans are likely heading to the Rose Bowl no matter what happens in the game. MSU is the first top-15 team Ohio State will play since its win streak began under Meyer. Are Miller and the Buckeyes ready for the challenge?

3. Shutdown showcase: The title game features two of the nation's elite cornerbacks in Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard and Ohio State's Bradley Roby. Both have the ability to shut down a side of the field and make game-changing plays if quarterbacks dare to throw their way. Dennard, a likely first-round draft pick, will press Ohio State's receivers and try to eliminate the deep passing game. Roby is playing his best football and can be a difference-maker not only on defense but on special teams. Dennard has four interceptions and a forced fumble in an All-American-caliber senior season, while Roby has a pick-six, a fumble return for a touchdown, and a blocked punt and recovery for a touchdown.

4. Cook's big moment: Asked to make a brief opening statement on a media teleconference earlier this week, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said, "Hello, I'm Connor Cook." The Spartans sophomore will introduce himself to the nation Saturday night and can make a strong statement about himself and the MSU offense. No one pegged Cook to be in this position before the season, but he has taken control in Big Ten play, passing for 1,708 yards with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions in eight league contests. Cook said that after Ohio State's defensive struggles, "you're licking your chops" about Saturday's game. He hasn't played in a game this big, but he doesn't lack confidence. It will be interesting to see how he fares.

5. Special attention: Michigan State's first appearance in the Big Ten title game came down to a special-teams play, and it didn't end well for the Spartans as Isaiah Lewis was flagged for running into Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman. Don't be surprised if the kicking game once again plays a big role in determining Saturday's winner. Both teams have excellent punters (MSU's Mike Sadler, OSU's Cameron Johnston), and Roby has been a special-teams star with three blocked punts and two recoveries for touchdowns. Kickers Michael Geiger (MSU) and Drew Basil (OSU) both have shown good accuracy on field goals with limited opportunities. Lewis' performance as he returns home to Indianapolis also is worth monitoring.
You've had a chance to check out the 2013 All-Big Ten teams and individual award winners. The four major award winners -- Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and Freshman of the Year -- will be unveiled Tuesday.

Let's dive into today's selections ...

INDIVIDUAL AWARDS

The overall list isn't bad, although some of the selections certainly are debatable.
  • Ohio State's Carlos Hyde takes home the Ameche-Dayne Running Back of the Year award after bulldozing the competition in Big Ten play (1,249 rush yards, 14 touchdowns). Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah has a strong case for the honor after his consistent success, eclipsing 100 rush yards in 10 of 12 games. But Hyde certainly finished on a stronger note with 226 rush yards against Michigan, the most ever for an Ohio State player in The Game. He was unstoppable in the most important games.
  • Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan claims Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year honors for the second consecutive season. Lewan had a very good season, and a great season, if you believe Wolverines coach Brady Hoke. But he anchored a line that struggled for much of Big Ten play. Ohio State tackle Jack Mewhort probably has a case here, as he led the league's best front five.
  • Wisconsin's Chris Borland gets the nod for Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year, ahead of fellow standouts like Ohio State's Ryan Shazier, Michigan State's Max Bullough and Iowa's James Morris. Borland did it all in his four seasons as a Badger, constantly swarming to the ball and making plays. But he missed some time with a hamstring injury this season, and Shazier's overall numbers are more impressive. It will be interesting to see who wins Defensive Player of the Year honors. There are so many great linebackers in this league.
  • Purdue's Cody Webster won Eddleman-Fields Punter of the Year ahead of Michigan State's Mike Sadler, Ohio State's Cameron Johnston and others. Webster is the Big Ten's only finalist for the Ray Guy Award, but Sadler should have been on there as well. It's a really close call between Webster and Sadler, who successfully executed two fakes and played for a much better team.
  • Four players are repeat winners from 2012: Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson, Lewan and Northwestern kicker Jeff Budzien.
ALL-BIG TEN TEAMS

Overall, these looked a little better than the 2012 version, which contained several glaring problems in our view. The coaches' team continues to surprise us (not in a good way) with six defensive backs and two punters because of ties in the voting, and no Mewhort on the first team is hard to believe. But this was a slight step up.

(By the way, the Big Ten still doesn't have either of us vote for the media team, so direct your blame elsewhere).
  • Lewan, Mewhort and Iowa's Brandon Scherff all are terrific tackles, but we would have gone with Mewhort and Lewan on the first team, which the coaches did not.
  • Although Michigan's Devin Funchess claimed Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year honors, the coaches went with Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz as their first-team tight end. We can debate whether Funchess actually is a tight end or not, but his receiving numbers (47 catches, 727 yards, six touchdowns) are way better than Fiedorowicz's (26 catches, 253 yards, six TDs).
  • The coaches had six first-team defensive backs but didn't find room for Michigan's Blake Countess, who tied for the league lead in interceptions, or Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who had four picks and 11 pass breakups. Maybe only one Michigan State safety (our pick would be Kurtis Drummond) should be there.
  • Michigan wide receiver Jeremy Gallon had some huge performances, but he probably belongs on the second team behind Penn State's Robinson and Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis, who were more consistent as the season went along. The coaches went with Ohio State's Corey Brown as their other second-team wideout, while the media went with Indiana's Cody Latimer. We like Latimer there.
  • One player the coaches and media differed on is Minnesota safety Brock Vereen, a first-team selection by the coaches but just an honorable mention selection by the media. He probably belongs right in between, on the second team, after leading a stout Gophers defense.
  • Another big difference between the coaches and media involved Iowa's B.J. Lowery. The media voted him as a first-team defensive back, while the coaches did not have Lowery among their eight choices on the first and second teams. Lowery is a nice player, but we're scratching our heads a bit as to why he was a first-team pick by the media.
  • Both Wisconsin back, Melvin Gordon and James White, made the second team. It says a lot about the depth at running back this year that Michigan State's Jeremy Langford, who ran for 1,200 yards and 16 touchdowns, couldn't crack the first or second teams.
  • We sure wish the league had a process for breaking ties on the coaches' team. Six defensive backs and two punters? That's just strange, though we'd like to see that two-punter formation in real life.
  • Connor Cook or Nathan Scheelhaase as the second-team quarterback? The coaches and media split on that. Scheelhaase has the better numbers, but Cook won all eight Big Ten starts. No wonder that latter fact probably impressed the coaches more.
  • The major awards -- offensive and defensive players of the year, freshman of the year and coach of the year -- will be announced on Tuesday.

Planning for success: Ohio State

November, 14, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A strong leg is only a start.

Cameron Johnston's ability to launch the football down the field or place it in a precise location is invaluable, and Ohio State's late recruiting strike to even find him in Australia has been critical given the pressing need it had at punter.

But getting off a booming punt is merely the beginning of a successful play on special teams for the Buckeyes. And while Johnston, a freshman, has earned the attention he has received as a Ray Guy Award semifinalist, it's the collective work of the coverage unit around him which has made Ohio State so dangerous in the third phase as it executes its plan every week to win the battle for field position.

[+] EnlargeSmith
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesReceiver Devin Smith is also a big part of the Buckeyes' punt coverage team.
"That is much more a function of Devin Smith," special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs said. "It's the way they run down the field and cover and eliminate returns and kill the ball inside the 5-yard line and all that stuff. Not that Cam hasn’t had a good year, he has -- Cam has had a great year.

"But that punt team, that group of guys and the way they cover and the way they get down the field to eliminate the opportunity for the other team to return the ball is special. We are all the beneficiaries of that."

The Buckeyes, like any other team, would obviously prefer never to call on that unit in the first place. And for the most part, their high-powered offense has lightened the load for Johnston and the guys flying down the field since the Buckeyes have only punted 26 times.

But when Ohio State does get stopped and has to flip the field position around, its been among the most effective teams in the country at maximizing the yardage Johnston provides with his right foot. Through nine games, Johnston has averaged 40.9 yards per attempt, and thanks to Smith and his buddies, the Buckeyes are netting an even 40 yards on those punts while allowing a grand total of 3 return yards.

"When you watch Devin Smith, I’m telling you, put the clips of the film on," Coombs said. "You’re talking about your starting wide receiver getting down the field to cover a punt and keeping the other guy [trapped], making him fair catch again and again and again.

"It’s extraordinary."

Johnston has been no slouch either, and he's certainly holding up his end of the bargain by generating enough hang-time to let Smith and the gunners beat double teams on the perimeter or by putting backspin on his kicks to allow them to down the ball in the red zone.

Few teams in the country have been better in those two areas than the Buckeyes, who have forced 15 fair catches and pinned opponents inside the 10-yard line on 27 percent of their punts. And there is plenty of credit to go around.

"Special teams, we're much better this year," coach Urban Meyer said. "If you look at our punt team, our punt team has had the same players on it every week. Last year, we didn't know the guys. Guys were getting hurt, guys weren't good enough.

"We're just performing at a much higher level."

From start to finish.

OSU sticks to what works on ground

October, 7, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The cupboard is fully stocked, and Ohio State could put together a recipe with as many ingredients as it wants and shoot for something exotic.

But when it comes time to actually prepare the meal that gets the job done, simplicity and proven success has a way of looking more appealing. And the Buckeyes are in no hurry to mess with what works.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde, Dean Lowry, Ibraheim Campbell
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastCarlos Hyde has picked up right where he left off from last season.
Sprinkling in some Jordan Hall when he's healthy might provide the potential for danger on the perimeter in the option game and he can be a threat as a receiver out of the backfield. A pinch of Dontre Wilson's explosive speed can go a long way in a hurry, and his bright future certainly makes Ohio State want to start getting him involved.

But the meat and potatoes for the Buckeyes remain the same as they were a year ago, and there hasn't been any reason for them to try anything different when Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller are both on hand to shoulder the load for the rushing game. And as hungry as No. 4 Ohio State is for a national title, it's becoming increasingly clear that feeding those two as much as it possibly can remains the most fulfilling option heading into the second half of the season.

"[Hyde] is the horse right now, and I think he's a great player," Urban Meyer said after his 18th consecutive victory as the Buckeyes' coach on Saturday night. "It shows you how much I trust the kid to be able to do that. It was kind of him and Braxton Miller just trying to run that clock out."

The Buckeyes are obviously using the terrific running tandem to do more than kill off games down the stretch, and their workload in the 40-30 victory over Northwestern on Saturday made quite clear how integral the partnership between the bruising tailback and the versatile quarterback still is despite the extra talent around them this season.

Hyde was given the ball 26 times on the ground against the Wildcats, getting a steady diet of power rushes on the interior on the way to 168 yards and three touchdowns in a performance that gradually wore down a defense that tired of trying to bring down the 235-pound bruiser. Miller complemented that with 17 rushing attempts of his own, perhaps failing to deliver the kind of game-breaking runs he's known for, but providing 4 yards per carry anyway to keep the chains moving and the defense from keying on Hyde.

Excluding a rush for punter Cameron Johnston on a botched fake, that combination accounted for every carry but four for the Buckeyes a week after Miller and Hyde combined for all but three carries in a victory over Wisconsin. So while the offense has shown clear signs of improvement in the passing game, spreading around touches to receivers and tight ends a bit more often since Hyde's suspension ended and Miller's knee sprain healed, the basic formula on the ground remains almost identical to the one that produced an undefeated record last year.

And with it working just the same way against consecutive ranked opponents over the last two weeks, there doesn't appear to be any reason to make things more complicated.

"Coach [Meyer] told me [at halftime] that we were going to start riding me," Hyde said. "I get excited when they tell me that.

"I wanted it bad, and I like when games come down to the fourth quarter and coach will put the ball in my hands. He started off in the beginning of the game putting the ball in my hands. I was just trying to catch a rhythm, and I caught a rhythm."

Collectively the Buckeyes are back in an familiar pattern with their ground game, putting the football in the hands of their two best offensive players and keeping it there as much as possible.

A little variety might spice things up every now and then. But the Buckeyes obviously haven't grown tired of tasting success.

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 2, 2013
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We're driving Cadillacs in our dreams.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 5

September, 30, 2013
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How much heartburn can one team and one fan base take?

That's one of the lingering questions from Week 5 for Wisconsin, which dropped another close game Saturday in a 31-24 loss to Ohio State. That's 10 defeats by seven points or less since the start of 2011 for the Badgers, who have done this so much that we're starting to see reruns.

Prime example: Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller's 40-yard touchdown pass to Corey Brown with one second to go in the first half covered the same distance as Miller's game-winning heave in the last half Wisconsin played in the Horseshoe, back in 2011. This time, safety Dezmen Southward was late in providing help after cornerback Peniel Jean peeled off, making an inexcusable mistake by letting a receiver get free in the end zone on the half's final snap.

“It’s basically a play that shouldn’t ever happen,” Southward said afterward.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsGary Andersen couldn't pull out a win for Wisconsin against Ohio State.
The Badgers also had two potential Ohio State turnovers negated by penalties, one on a face-mask call that didn't look like a face-mask violation on replay and the other on an illegal punt formation. Kicker Kyle French also missed a 32-yard field goal -- the same distance he was being set up for at Arizona State.

The late-game problems can't really be blamed on the head coach's late-game management. Gary Andersen had his team in position to win at Arizona State until the officials botched the final seconds. On Saturday, he elected to have his team punt on fourth-and-1 from its own 17 with under seven minutes left, while trailing by 14 points. At the time, that looked like a potential mistake. But Wisconsin got the ball right back and scored a touchdown with 2:05 left.

The Badgers then tried a pooch onside kick that Bradley Roby had to knock out of bounds. In retrospect, with all three timeouts remaining, Andersen could have just kicked off and potentially gotten better field position after his defense held for a three-and-out. But it was a totally understandable call to try to get the ball back on the road.

Meanwhile, every decision seems to continue working out for Urban Meyer in his 17-game winning streak. I thought Meyer was a little more conservative than normal on Saturday night. It was very surprising, for instance, to see him not go for it on fourth and 2 from the Wisconsin 45 in the first half, instead trying the lame "Let's-try-to-draw-them-offside" technique before punting. Ohio State also played it safe in the fourth quarter instead of going for the kill shot. Miller's wounded duck pass before the touchdown at the end of the half should have been picked off.

But the Buckeyes -- who scored only seven points in the second half -- again came away unscathed. They have become the anti-Wisconsin, having won six games by seven or fewer points since the start of last season.

Badgers fans have to wonder when their heartburn will finally be soothed.

Take that and rewind it back …

Team of the week: Ohio State. The Buckeyes got their first major challenge of the season and pulled through in a tough game against Wisconsin. The environment in the Horseshoe was electric from start to finish and included a visit from LeBron James and this amazing halftime show by TBDBITL (try not to be impressed by the formation around the 4:30 mark). Seventeen in a row and counting.

Worst hangover: Minnesota. The Gophers thought they had made progress in getting ready for the rigors of Big Ten play and that this year's 4-0 start meant more than last year's. Instead, they got manhandled by Iowa in game No. 5 just like last season, leading to questions about what really has changed for this program.

Big Man on Campus (offense): We usually don't single out players from teams who lost for this honor, but the best effort we saw this past weekend came from Wisconsin receiver Jared Abbrederis. Ohio State thought it could slow down the Badgers' only notable receiving threat by putting All-America cornerback Roby on him. Not close. Abbrederis finished with 10 catches for 207 yards and a touchdown. His Twitter handle is @abbrecadabra, and how he keeps getting so open might just be magic.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Iowa linebacker James Morris had an outstanding game against Minnesota, recording eight tackles, a sack and an interception and leading the defensive effort that limited the Gophers to just 165 total yards. "He plays the way I expect him to,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He’s a complete football player. Nobody prepares any harder, works any harder. He does things you would hope anybody would do. And he backs it up every Saturday." Ohio State's Ryan Shazier and Wisconsin's Chris Borland also had standout games, but what else is new in this star-studded linebacker league?

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Ohio State punter Cameron Johnston placed all six of his punts inside the Wisconsin 20-yard line and five of those inside the 10, helping the Buckeyes maintain great field position most of the night. The Badgers managed just three return yards on punts. "Our punt team is solid, and that's probably the star of our special teams," Meyer said.

Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Info): Ohio State’s Miller was 9-for-11 for 107 yards and had three of his four passing touchdowns off play-action Saturday. He has completed more passes off run fakes against Wisconsin (17) in his career than any other opponent. … Meanwhile, Badgers QB Joel Stave threw the ball 25 times without using play-action and completed just 13. It was only the third game in the last four seasons that a Wisconsin quarterback attempted at least 25 passes without a run fake; the Badgers have lost all three of them. … Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase has completed 21 passes that have gone for at least 20 yards. That's tops in the Big Ten and tied for eighth in the nation. … Remember how frustrating it was to watch Iowa continually come up short of the sticks on third down last season? That's not the case this year for the improved Hawkeyes. They're converting on 52.5 percent of their third-down tries, good for 13th best in the country. … Northwestern has scored 83 points off turnovers in four games, the most in the nation. … Purdue's opponents have committed just 12 penalties in five games, second fewest of any team in the FBS. The Boilers' penalty margin is the worst in the country, as they have committed 30 themselves for a minus-18 margin.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Observations and notes from a brief glimpse at the Ohio State freshmen during a split-squad practice that opened training camp on Sunday morning:

Meyer locked in

The Buckeyes coach made clear he was ready to turn the page from all the offseason chatter and get back to focusing on football, and he obviously enjoyed being on the field and working with his players.

Urban Meyer
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteUrban Meyer was energetic in working with the Ohio State newcomers in the first practice of training camp.
From the start, Meyer was energetic and engaged frequently with the young players he was finally getting to coach for the first time. And if for some reason the newcomers weren't aware of the high expectations and the standards for a program that will enter the season ranked second in the nation, Meyer called a pair of huddles in the first 20 minutes of the workout to impress upon them what he's looking for and expects in the buildup to the opener on Aug. 31 against Buffalo.

The message was hard to ignore, and Meyer certainly had been impatiently waiting to deliver it.

Speed it up

The periods open for media viewing didn't provide much of a look at the talented freshmen actually playing football, and because they were limited to just helmets and no pads as well, there's only so much that could be gleaned from their first morning on the practice fields at Ohio State.

But when they had a chance to dial it up and stretch their legs, the emphasis on acquiring more speed on signing day in February does appear to have paid off for the Buckeyes. Dontre Wilson seems to glide around and makes everything look smooth, and touted newcomers such as Vonn Bell, James Clark, Corey Smith and Gareon Conley all looked the part of burners capable of providing that upgrade Meyer and his staff were looking for on the recruiting trail.

They all still need to put pads on and compete against the veterans to show what they can truly do, but lack of speed shouldn't be an issue.

Special deliveries

Running backs coach Stan Drayton repeated himself over and over to drive home the point. Anybody looking to make an impact right away had better be ready to lend a hand in the kicking game.

"Fastest way you get on the field," Drayton said. "Special teams."

The Buckeyes give those units top priority and treat it as a responsibility earned instead of scraps for players not contributing on offense and defense. Drayton stressed that numerous times for anybody within earshot as the youngsters started practice. Ohio State appears to have already tabbed three guys as potential options to help out by getting their hands on the football, with Wilson, Clark and Jalin Marshall all taking turns simulating punt returns.

Missing in action

Donovan Munger wasn't on the field Sunday morning, and he might not be for a few more weeks as he apparently deals with an academic issue before he can report to the team. The Buckeyes still expect the 6-foot-3, 290-pound defensive lineman to be part of the squad this season and he was listed on the latest roster, but he'll likely have some ground to make up and will be missing valuable reps that could have potentially helped him push for a spot in the rotation.

New punter Cameron Johnston also didn't practice with the morning bunch, with Ohio State instead opting to have him work with the veterans in the afternoon. The Australian is expected to slide into the starting spot right away after his signing this summer, and working later would give him a opportunity to build a rapport with the returning long-snappers.

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