Ohio State Buckeyes: Tommy Armstrong

Michigan's defense controlled play throughout the spring game Saturday at Michigan Stadium, echoing a theme throughout most of the league that day.

Several Big Ten squads held scrimmages or open practices, and the defenses had the edge in most of them. The offenses stepped up in a few, and several quarterbacks appear to be separating themselves.

Let's recap the weekend scrimmages. (Note: Scrimmages that were closed to the media and had no available statistics.)

WISCONSIN

Despite a new-look front seven and several position changes, Wisconsin's defense dominated Saturday's scrimmage. Cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary both had good days against an undermanned receiving corps, and coach Gary Andersen called the quarterback play very average. "We have a long way to go in the throw game, and that's disappointing," Andersen said. "If we want to be a good team, we have to figure that out." The defense also shined against the run, even against top backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement.

PURDUE

Technically, the Boilers' offense won Saturday's jersey scrimmage at Ross-Ade Stadium. But the defense looked stronger for much of the day, recording seven sacks and two takeaways. Unofficially, five Boilers recorded sacks, including two from tackle Michael Rouse III, who finished with three tackles for loss. Coach Darrell Hazell said of the defensive line, "They played in the [offensive] backfield."

Top quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby struggled, combining to complete 21 of 42 passes for 205 yards with a touchdown (Etling) and an interception (Appleby). Running back Raheem Mostert highlighted the offense with 134 yards and two touchdowns on only nine carries. Mostert is making a strong push this spring to be Purdue's No. 1 running back.

MINNESOTA

The Gophers' defense loses top performers Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen from last fall's unit, but it controlled play on Saturday. Minnesota's D held the offense without a point on its first seven possessions in the scrimmage. Safety Cedric Thompson had an excellent interception off a deflection on the first drive. The offense picked it up later in the scrimmage, as quarterback Mitch Leidner found KJ Maye for a 50-yard touchdown strike, and both Leidner and Berkley Edwards had long touchdown runs.

NEBRASKA

Here's one offense that flexed its muscles on Saturday after being subdued earlier in the week. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. had an "efficient" performance, according to coach Bo Pelini, as he continues to look like the team's top signal-caller. Armstrong ran for two touchdowns. Sophomore Terrell Newby received a lot of work at running back as Ameer Abdullah sat out, and receiver Jordan Westerkamp turned a short pass into a long gain. Defensive tackle Aaron Curry left the field with a neck injury, but Pelini thinks he'll be fine.

MICHIGAN STATE

The offense recorded a 27-25 win against the defense in MSU's first spring jersey scrimmage, as quarterback Connor Cook completed 15 of 21 passes for 187 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Wide receiver DeAnthony Arnett, who has been relatively quiet since transferring from Tennessee, had five receptions for 67 yards and a touchdown. Tyler O'Connor, competing for the backup quarterback job, had a good day (10-for-15 passing, 132 yards, TD).

After allowing a touchdown on the opening possession, the defense forced four consecutive stops. Standouts included safety Kurtis Drummond (six tackles, 1 TFL, interception), end Shilique Calhoun (two sacks) and linebacker Chris Frey, an early enrollee, who had two sacks and three tackles for loss.

ILLINOIS

The Illini had their second off-site practice of the spring, traveling to Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield for a controlled scrimmage on Friday night. Quarterback Wes Lunt continues to look like Illinois' starter. According to Rivals.com's Doug Buchson, Lunt completed his first 14 pass attempts against the second-string defense for about 250 yards and two touchdowns. Freshman wideout Mike Dudek continues his strong spring, and receiver Geronimo Allison had a 45-yard touchdown catch from Lunt.

Defensive linemen Kenny Nelson and DeJazz Woods stood out against the second-team offensive line, consistently penetrating the backfield. Cornerback Caleb Day also looked good.

RUTGERS

The most important thing coming out of Rutgers' first spring scrimmage was some clarity at quarterback, as Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano all worked with the first-team offense. Although a rash of injuries made it tough to get a true gauge, Bimonte had the best day, leading two touchdown drives. Coach Kyle Flood said all three signal-callers will continue to work with the top offense. Flood singled out defensive linemen Darius Hamilton and Kemoko Turay for their play during the scrimmage.

NORTHWESTERN

Like several other Big Ten teams, Northwestern can't have full-blown scrimmages because of its injury situation. But the Wildcats had their top units match up for stretches of Saturday's practice on the lakefront. Trevor Siemian entered the spring as the No. 1 quarterback and appears to be ending it the same way. Siemian looked sharp on his first series, completing all three of his attempts. Dropped passes were a problem for much of the day, but wide receiver Kyle Prater, a USC transfer who has battled injuries for much of his career, had a one-handed grab on a pass from Zack Oliver. Cornerback Matt Harris and safety Kyle Queiro both made plays for the defense.

OHIO STATE

The Buckeyes invited students inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for Saturday's practice, creating some cool scenes. Several young players stood out, namely cornerback Eli Apple, who had two interceptions and a big hit. Running back Curtis Samuel, an early enrollee, also sparked the crowd with a 50-yard touchdown run. Linebacker has been an area of concern for Ohio State, but Darron Lee and Chris Worley both made some plays on the outside. Ezekiel Elliott is looking more like Ohio State's top running back, as he showed his size and versatility during the practice.

Big Ten lunch links

March, 10, 2014
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How 'bout Nebrasketball? Impressed with what's happening in Lincoln.
The last two seasons have shown that two-quarterback systems can work in the Big Ten.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The offseason is full of Big Ten quarterback questions:

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

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

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 13

November, 21, 2013
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Storylines to watch in the Big Ten this weekend:

1. Let’s settle this: Yes, four teams remain in the running to play in the Big Ten title game. But seriously, it’s going to be Ohio State and Michigan State. OK, crazy things can happen, but the third-ranked Buckeyes, who welcome Indiana to the Ohio Stadium on Saturday, must lose twice. Same goes for the No. 13 Spartans, who visit Northwestern and host Minnesota to close. It’s time to end the uncertainty and start booking travel to Indy. Who are we kidding, it’s already started.

[+] EnlargeMax Bullough, Denicos Allen
Mike Carter/USA TODAY Sports Michigan State seems to be on a collision course with Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game.
2. Big-time test for the Gophers: Minnesota, riding a once-in-40-years run of four straight Big Ten wins, faces a serious road block in its bid to keep streaking Saturday as No. 19 Wisconsin visits Minneapolis in the battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe. The 25th-ranked Gophers knocked off Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State, but the Badgers present a test with a new level of difficulty. Led by their pair of 1,000-yard rushers, Melvin Gordon and James White, Wisconsin steamrolled Indiana last week, gaining 554 yards on the ground.

3. A trophy game that's not worth a trophy: If the Purdue Cannon fails to launch and implodes inward Saturday, well, that would create a mess befitting of this battle of winless Leaders Division teams. Illinois, which has lost 20 straight Big Ten games, is favored by a touchdown on the road over the Boilermakers, who have fallen apart since playing Michigan State to within two touchdowns Oct. 19. Since then, Purdue has been outscored 139-35 by Ohio State, Iowa and Penn State. The Illini, meanwhile, have scored 35 points in back-to-back losses to Indiana and OSU. Something’s gotta give Saturday.

4. Freshman quarterbacks on display: Two of the league's top young QBs converge at Beaver Stadium. Nebraska redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong earns his seventh start, and true freshman Christian Hackenberg, looking to secure a winning record for Penn State on Senior Day, again gets the call for the Nittany Lions. Hackenberg has endured ups and downs, but his numbers are solid considering the circumstances. Armstrong has struggled with turnovers, but he's 5-1 as a starter and displaying impressive poise behind an injury-plagued Nebraska offensive line that might be without four season-opening starters Saturday.

5. Dark days continue for Wildcats: Northwestern has fallen so far off the map after a perfect nonconference season that it's not even visible from the top of the Legends Division as we reach late November. Who'd have thought these Wildcats would sit 0-6 in league play when "College GameDay" visited Evanston on Oct. 5 as Pat Fitzgerald’s team lost 40-30 to Ohio State? Each of the past four losses has come in excruciating fashion, from the Hail Mary defeat at Nebraska to overtime thrillers against Iowa and Michigan. These Wildcats might have forgotten how to win, and Michigan State, trying to secure an outright division title, appears likely to extend their misery.

6. Buckeyes and the BCS: It seems inevitable now that if Ohio State keeps winning and Baylor keeps winning, the Bears will pass OSU in the BCS standings and upend the Buckeyes' bid to reach the title game if Alabama or Florida State slips. No. 4 Baylor trails Ohio State this week by 13 thousandths of a point. The switch might occur Sunday as the Bears visit No. 10 Oklahoma State while Ohio State faces Indiana. No score against the Hoosiers or amount of Buckeyes lobbying is likely to reverse the Baylor climb. So expect all eyes in Columbus, Ohio, to be on Stillwater, Okla., Saturday night.

7. Could it be Braxton Miller’s finale at the Horseshoe? Ohio State's junior quarterback was understandably mum when asked this week if Saturday at home against Indiana might mark the final game of his collegiate career. Miller has made huge strides under coach Urban Meyer as a dual-threat QB, and his strengths fit the evolving style of NFL offenses, though he's far from a done deal to leave early. If this is the end, expect him to go out with a bang against the Hoosiers, who have lost four of five and rank among the bottom five nationally in total defense and rushing defense.

8. Tracking the top running backs: November brings out the best in Big Ten running backs. Six of the league's top individual rushing performances have occurred in the past three weeks, highlighted by a 246-yard effort from Ohio State's Carlos Hyde last week. White, Indiana's Tevin Coleman and Penn State's Bill Belton also have topped 200 yards in a game this month. Hyde and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, who has reached 100 yards in every conference game, rank among the leading candidates for Big Ten offensive player of the year. Hyde has rushed for 821 yards in the past five games. He needs 53 yards to become the first running back ever to top 1,000 yards under Meyer.

9. The at-large BCS watch: Michigan State jumped three spots to 13th in the BCS standings Sunday, promoting the Spartans into position to qualify for an at-large BCS bowl bid. But if it loses again -- even to Ohio State in Indy -- MSU might slide back out of contention. It would be well served to win impressively against Northwestern and Minnesota and root for losses this week from the likes of Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Missouri, which face challenging games. Wisconsin, at No. 19 in the BCS standings, still must jump into the top 14 to qualify for BCS consideration, though chaos is its best hope.

10. And then there's Iowa-Michigan: What's the compelling storyline here? Iowa has exceeded expectations this year, but the Hawkeyes are no longer fighting to get bowl eligible for the 12th time in 13 seasons after a win two weeks ago at Purdue. Michigan has failed to meet expectations but last week ended its skid with a win at Northwestern. Iowa has won three of the past four meetings, including two straight in Iowa City. And here's an interesting stat to close: The four teams to beat the Hawkeyes this season have a combined record of 37-3.

Wins reveal soft sides of OSU, Spartans

November, 16, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Michigan State all but punched its ticket to the Big Ten championship game on Saturday, defeating Nebraska 41-28 in opportunistic and efficient fashion here at Memorial Stadium.

Barring chaos over the next two weeks, the Spartans are set to face Ohio State on Dec. 7. The matchup may well pit MSU at 11-1 and the Buckeyes at 12-0.

Forgive us, though, for wondering, after Saturday, about exactly what we’ll see in Indianapolis -- a heavyweight battle worthy of national-title implications or a pillow fight representative of the Big Ten’s overall strength?

[+] EnlargeMichigan State
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesJeremy Langford and Michigan State ran past Nebraska, but are the Spartans good enough to top Ohio State and change perceptions about the Big Ten?
Both of the league’s title contenders showed their soft sides in Week 12.

The third-ranked Buckeyes lost focus as Ilinois, en route to a 20th straight Big Ten loss, played Urban Meyer’s team nearly even over the final three quarters in a 60-35 Ohio State win.

And here in Lincoln, No. 16 Michigan State, for all the buzz over its top-ranked defense, looked ordinary against Nebraska’s MASH unit of an offense. The Huskers averaged 5.7 yards per rush and outgained MSU 392-361.

Nebraska committed five turnovers, including three inside its own 25-yard line.

Credit Michigan State for taking what was there, but the Huskers were plenty generous, handing two of their four fumbles to MSU without so much as taking a hit. And Tommy Armstrong Jr. threw his lone interception straight to safety Kurtis Drummond, ending Nebraska’s second possession of the afternoon just like its first -- with an unforced error on the third play.

“You’re not always going to get opportunities to get the ball like we did today,” Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough said. “We know that, but hey, if they’re there, we’re going to take them.

“We’re not going to apologize for it either way.”

Armstrong, Nebraska’s freshman quarterback in his sixth career start, worked behind an offensive line with four of five guys playing positions they hadn’t started at this year until last week. The one starter at his normal spot, right tackle Jeremiah Sirles, missed the second half because of a knee injury suffered a week ago.

When the Huskers tried to avoid trouble before halftime and get to the locker room trailing by six points despite a minus-3 turnover margin, Armstrong fumbled. When they seized momentum in the second half but needed room to operate after Michigan State’s Mike Sadler dropped a punt on the 1-yard line, Armstrong fumbled again.

“We were our own worst enemy,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said.

As Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said, it’s “almost impossible” to win like that.

The Spartans did some good stuff, too. They converted 11 of 21 third downs, including a 27-yard dagger of a touchdown pass from Connor Cook to Keith Mumphery on third-and-13 with less than eight minutes to play.

Four plays earlier, Michigan State had executed a gutsy fake field goal as Sadler, the punter and holder, rumbled for 3 yards on fourth-and-1 with the Spartans up 27-21.

Michigan State calls it the Charlie Brown play, named for the famous gag that Lucy pulls on her little brother’s best friend in the cartoon strip. The Huskers were equally fooled, which is great for Michigan State, but what does it really tell us about the Spartans?

“We can sit here and talk about how they gashed us in the run game or they made a few plays, but we won,” Bullough said. “And that’s the difference between being 7-6 and competing for that championship at the end of the year.”

The Spartans need not apologize. They capitalized on Nebraska errors on Saturday like a good team ought to do.

But the MSU hallmark, its defense, did not perform in Lincoln as advertised.

Can they serve as an accurate gauge of greatness for Ohio State, trying to swim upstream toward a berth in the BCS championship game? And are the Buckeyes even deserving of consideration over the other title contenders after feasting on the bottom of the Big Ten since the first week of October?

This Big Ten season started with a flash of hope seven weeks ago as OSU beat Wisconsin by a touchdown in a thriller at the Horseshoe.

Since then, the dust has settled on a conference season void of much intrigue outside of Big Ten borders.

Atop both divisions, the events of Saturday did little to revive hope of a Big Ten renaissance.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 11

November, 11, 2013
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Brady Hoke might turn out to be a legendary coach who has a long and storied career at Michigan.

But Hoke will be bucking some trends in order to get that done. In his third year in Ann Arbor, Hoke's Wolverines have taken a major step backward. After Saturday's 17-13 home loss to Nebraska, they're 6-3 with some challenging games ahead, and they're probably lucky not to have one or two more losses already.

Most of the truly great college football coaches in recent times have had their programs up and running by the third year. Alabama's Nick Saban and LSU's Les Miles won BCS titles in their third years at their current schools. Pete Carroll won an AP national title in his third season at USC.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesBrady Hoke's third season hasn't gone as anyone associated with the Michigan program hoped.
Brian Kelly led Notre Dame to a 12-0 regular season and BCS title game appearance in Year 3. Ohio State's Urban Meyer won a national title his second year at Florida, while Bob Stoops did the same in his second year at Oklahoma. Jim Tressel led Ohio State to a national title his second year and then went 11-2 with a Fiesta Bowl win in Year 3.

The same is true for some legends. Joe Paterno guided Penn State to an undefeated record in his third season as head coach. Bear Bryant went 8-1-2 at Alabama in Year 3. And it's the case for revered Michigan Men. Bo Schembechler was 11-1 and had an undefeated Big Ten record in his third year at the helm of the Wolverines, while the third season for Lloyd Carr resulted in the undefeated 12-0 campaign of 1997.

Hoke did have to revamp the program and rebuild for a new system after Rich Rodriguez left, but several of the coaches mentioned in the preceding paragraphs also had to make major transitions. And any argument preaching patience for Hoke loses some steam when you look at Minnesota, where Jerry Kill and his staff have an 8-2 record in Year 3.

There is hope, but Hoke would have to find precedent in two places he'd probably rather not look. Woody Hayes was just 6-3 in his third year at Ohio State before going undefeated and winning the Rose Bowl the following year. Michigan State took a step back in Mark Dantonio's third year with a disappointing 6-7 mark; the Spartans would win 11 games and a share of the Big Ten title the next season.

So maybe Hoke, who is just 6-5 in his last 11 games, will get things rolling after this difficult third season. But history shows that most truly great coaches have done so by this point.

Take that and rewind it back:

Team of the week: Nebraska. Say what you want about Michigan's troubles, the Huskers still went into the Big House and snapped the Wolverines' 19-game home winning streak. And the Big Red offense is being held together by spit and string, at times. All-America guard Spencer Long is out for the season and senior quarterback Taylor Martinez is unavailable. Starting guard Jake Cotton is also out, and on Saturday, starting tackle Jeremiah Sirles went down with a knee injury. The Huskers turned to little-used Zach Sterup to replace Sirles. Take away a pick-six and a Hail Mary against Northwestern, and the Nebraska offense has scored just 30 points total in its last two games. With two victories.

Worst hangover: The nightmare continues for Michigan. If the Wolverines don't win at Northwestern this week -- and the Wildcats are coming off a bye -- then a 6-6 finish with a five-game losing streak becomes a real possibility.

Best play: For the second straight week, a late Nebraska play involving Ameer Abdullah takes this honor. This time, it was quarterback Tommy Armstrong's pitch to Abdullah on third-and-goal from the 5 for the winning touchdown.

Armstrong was ready to run on the option play until Michigan defensive end Frank Clark committed to him, and just before he got flattened, Armstrong had the presence of mind to flip the ball forward to Abdullah. The running back did the rest by diving into the end zone, helped by a nice block on the perimeter from receiver Alonzo Moore. It was one of the stranger-looking option plays and went down in the box score as a pass, but it couldn't have been any prettier for Nebraska fans.

Big Men on Campus (offense): Wisconsin's James White ran for 147 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries against BYU, and he added a receiving touchdown. Indiana receiver Cody Latimer had a career day versus Illinois, catching 11 passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory recorded three sacks and a quarterback hurry as part of a dominating effort by the Blackshirts (and yes, they've earned that nickname again).

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Minnesota punter Peter Mortell helped the Gophers hang on in the second half of a 24-10 win. He had punts downed at the Penn State 1, 2 and 12 while averaging 46 yards on four attempts.

[+] EnlargeMinnesota
Brad Rempel/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota ran its record to 8-2 with a trophy win over Penn State on Saturday.
Break-dancing: Forgive Minnesota for being a little new to the whole winning trophies thing. The Gophers captured the Governor's Victory Bell by beating Penn State for the first time since 2004, and in their postgame sideline celebration, they actually broke part of the trophy. “I think we were more worried about keeping [the trophy] together, so we could celebrate with it first,” tight end Maxx Williams told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. It's not like there is a lot of great history with that trophy, which has been around since only 1993.

The best part of the Gophers' victory celebration was clearly Jerry Kill's locker room dance. Watch it here.

Back to a bowl: Iowa can officially chalk up last year's 4-8 season as an aberration. The Hawkeyes pounded Purdue 38-14 on the road to earn their sixth win and ensure they will be back in a bowl game this season.

“Obviously, it’s not our endgame, but that’s one nice byproduct of winning,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s something we don’t take for granted. All you have to do is look back to last year. So it’s great to get that accomplished.”

With an off week to get ready for the final two games, Iowa should give Michigan and Nebraska all they can handle.

The Indiana effect: We are thinking of adding a separate helmet sticker post each week just for games involving Indiana. The Hoosiers put up big numbers and allow opponents to do the same in their weekly shootouts. Against Illinois, IU got huge games from Latimer and running back Tevin Coleman (215 yards on 15 carries, two touchdowns). Illini receiver Steve Hull caught nine passes for 224 yards and two scores. Nathan Scheelhaase threw for 450 yards in a losing effort. The two teams combined for 1,262 total yards, which sounds like a lot until you remember that Indiana and Michigan went for 1,323 last month.

The winning team has scored at least 41 points in every one of the Hoosiers' nine games, and an average of 80.5 points has been scored in each of those contests. Don't expect that to change, as Wisconsin and Ohio State are next up on the schedule.

Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Information):

  • In the past two weeks, Michigan lost a combined 49.2 expected points on rushing plays. Expected points added is a metric that measures the contributions of each unit to its team’s net scoring margin. Therefore, Michigan lost almost 50 net points as a results of its rushes and sacks. An average EPA is 0, so if Michigan had had an average rush offense, and all else remained equal, the Wolverines would have been about even with Michigan State and would have beaten Nebraska by about 22 points.
  • Against Nebraska, Michigan gained zero or negative yards on 21 of its 36 rushes (58.3 percent). It was the Wolverines’ second-most rushes and second-highest percentage of rushes that gained zero or negative yards in a game in the past 10 seasons.
  • Overall, Michigan added minus-26.3 expected points towards its net scoring margin on rushes (including sacks). That is the lowest rushing EPA for a team in an FBS game this season.
  • Coleman and his Indiana backfield mate Stephen Houston make an efficient pair. Houston is averaging 7.34 yards per rush, while Coleman is at 7.31. That ranks 10th and 11th, respectively, in the FBS among qualified rushers. They have combined for nearly 1,500 rushing yards despite averaging a little more than 22 rushes per game.
  • There are 123 FBS teams. Here are some of Purdue's national rankings: Points per game (120), rushing (122), passing yards per attempt (121), yards per play (121), points allowed (109), rushing yards allowed (111), third-down defense (122).
  • Minnesota is 8-2 and is passing the ball just 31.3 percent of the time. But that can definitely be a winning formula. Ranking right ahead of the Gophers is Stanford (35.5 percent of total plays are passes), while just below them is Auburn (30.8 percent).

Big Ten Week 10 primer

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

Noon ET

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

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

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

3:30 ET

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

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

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

Weather

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

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

Top Week 10 stories

What to watch in the Big Ten | Predictions | Did you know?

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No room for QB gray area at Nebraska

Minnesota rouses at unlikeliest of times

Freeman at home on sideline with Boilers

MSU’s Connor Cook thrives under pressure

U-M hopes to survive mayhem on the road

Time for Hoke, Michigan to take next step

Dynamic frosh has opponents’ attention

O’Brien, Della Valle defend coordinator

Q&A: Wisconsin NT Beau Allen

Video: Big Ten Game of the Week

Wildcats aim for another Lincoln revival

Michigan-Michigan State roundtable

Happy Halloween in the Big Ten

Big Ten Week 10: Did you know?

November, 1, 2013
11/01/13
10:00
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A full slate of Big Ten games awaits on Saturday. Here’s a look at facts and figures to preview the opening week of November football in the league:
  • The short-yardage run game is clicking for Minnesota. And we’re talking very short yardage. The Gophers’ past eight touchdowns on the ground have covered 1 yard. Eleven of their 19 touchdowns this season were punched in from the 1, and 15 covered 5 yards or fewer. Minnesota rushed for just 14 touchdowns last year. The Gophers are 13-10 under coach Jerry Kill when they score a rushing TD and 2-8 when they don’t.
  • Indiana’s offense is doing its part in the program’s bid for a winning season. The Hoosiers have scored 28 or more points in eight consecutive games, a first at the school. They’ve passed for more than 300 yards six times season in seven games. Indiana receivers Cody Latimer, Shane Wynn, Kofi Hughes and tight end Ted Bolser have all surpassed 100 career receptions and 1,000 yards in the past four weeks. Indiana is the only team nationally and the first in the Big Ten since Northwestern in 2008 with four 100-1,000 players.
  • Despite scoring just three points last week against Michigan State, Illinois’ offense remains one of the most improved units nationally. From last season, the Illini have jumped more than 60 spots in the national rankings in passing efficiency, big plays (20 yards or more), first downs per game, passing yardage per game, turnovers lost and scoring offense. Illinois averages 400.7 yards of total offense, up 46 spots from last year, when it ranked 119th at 296.7 yards per game.
  • Penn State, under coach Bill O’Brien, has not lost consecutive games since it opened last season 0-2. Its Oct. 12 win over Michigan, 43-40 in four overtimes -- the longest game in Big Ten history -- prevented a two-game skid on the heels of a loss at Indiana. Penn State needs a win on Saturday over Illinois to prevent consecutive defeats in the wake of a 63-14 loss last week to Ohio State. O’Brien is 5-1 at PSU in games after a loss.
  • Senior Jeremy Gallon’s 369 yards on 14 catches last week against Indiana set Michigan and Big Ten records for receiving yardage in a game. It was the second-highest figure ever posted by an FBS receiver, and the 14 receptions were the second most at Michigan in one game. Gallon has recorded a reception in 33 straight games, with nine touchdown receptions over his past eight. He ranks second in the Big Ten in receiving yardage per game at 118.7.
  • A win for Michigan State on Saturday over Michigan would keep the Spartans in control of the Legends Division and mark their third consecutive victory over the Wolverines at Spartan Stadium, which has never happened in the 105-game series. Michigan is 19-12-2 against Michigan State in East Lansing, but under Brady Hoke, the Wolverines are 6-8 away from Michigan Stadium. A win for the Spartans would also be their fifth in six games over Michigan. That hasn’t happened since MSU won six of seven from 1956 to 1962.
  • No team in the Big Ten feels quite like Northwestern about October. The Wildcats went 0-3 to even their record at 4-4 as November arrives. This final month of the regular season has proven much more kind to Northwestern. It is 12-6 in November since 2008, with five victories over teams ranked in the top 20, including a 28-25 upset in Lincoln over No. 9 Nebraska in 2011. The Wildcats’ lone November loss a year ago came at Michigan in overtime.
  • Redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong, set to start for the fourth time this season on Saturday, has guided Nebraska to scores on 12 of 24 possessions in his previous three starts. Armstrong again replaces senior Taylor Martinez, out after he suffered a hip pointer last week in his return at Minnesota after a three-game absence because of a foot injury. A fourth start by Armstrong would mark the first time at Nebraska since 1998, when Bobby Newcombe and Eric Crouch split time, that two quarterbacks started more than three games in the same season.
  • Ohio State has remained unbeaten this year to extend its nation-leading winning streak to 20 games in large part because of its success at running the football. OSU, after a season-best 408-yard rushing effort against Penn State -- the first 400-yard day at the school since 1995 -- ranks second in the Big Ten and ninth nationally with a 295.6-yard rushing average. Senior Carlos Hyde has rushed for 464 yards and seven touchdowns in the past three games. Hyde and senior Jordan Hall have combined to rush for 1,038 yards and 15 touchdowns.
  • Purdue has taken Ohio State to overtime in the past two meetings, losing 29-22 a year ago at Ohio Stadium after a 26-23 victory by the Boilermakers in 2011 that marked the program’s second straight home win over the Buckeyes. Saturday appears to set up differently as Purdue starts one of the youngest teams nationally. Offensively, four true freshmen, including quarterback Danny Etling, and three redshirt freshmen have participated on the same play in the past two games.
  • Wisconsin needs one victory to become bowl eligible for the 12th consecutive season. Its run of 11 straight bowl appearances ranks as the longest in the Big Ten and ties the Badgers for the eighth-longest streak nationally. A win would also give Wisconsin an edge in the all-time series against Iowa. It is currently equal at 42-42-2. The Badgers have won six straight games that fall after a bye week, including a 35-6 win three weeks ago over Northwestern.
  • Iowa cornerback Desmond King is averaging 7.2 tackles in Big Ten games, according to the school, more than any other true freshman in the league. King, who has started seven of the Hawkeyes’ eight games, recorded a season-best 12 tackles at Ohio State on Oct. 19 and 11 against Michigan State on Oct. 5. King is the first true freshman to start in the Iowa secondary since Jovon Johnson in 2002. His third-down pass breakup last week against Northwestern negated a potential first down in overtime, helping lead to the Iowa win.
Astronomers have made some fascinating discoveries recently while studying dying stars. In the Big Ten, we've merely been captive observers as some of the league's biggest stars have seen their brightness dim this season.

It has been a trying, and in some cases troubling, first half of the season for several players we thought would make the biggest impact in the conference. In fact, I seem to recall someone writing in the preseason that a trio of quarterbacks -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Michigan's Devin Gardner -- would be the marquee names in the league. (Who was that dummy, anyway?)

If the season ended today, none of the three would get my vote for even first-team All-Big Ten honors. And I'd have to think hard about including Miller on the second team. None of them, in fact, rank in the top four in the Big Ten in passing yards or the top six in passer efficiency rating.

The reasons for this are varied and well-known, but let's review anyway:

• Martinez did not look like himself in the UCLA loss in Week 3 as he appeared hesitant to run. We later found out why: he'd been battling a case of turf toe. The Huskers senior hasn't played since that loss to the Bruins, giving way to freshman Tommy Armstrong. Martinez is "doing better," according to coach Bo Pelini, but whether he'll play next week against Minnesota remains a question mark.

"He can run straight ahead," Pelini said Tuesday. "It's when he feels he can push off."

Remember, this is a guy who'd made 42 career starts before the turf toe hit. It's got to be killing him to be missing so many games in the middle of his senior season.

"He is frustrated like anybody would be," Pelini said. "He's a competitor who wants to be out there, but he's also smart and knows his body. He knows what he can do and what he can't do at this point. He's spending a lot of time in the training room, and hopefully he will turn a corner here soon."

• Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner had far less experience than the other two members of the trio, but he showed off some exciting skills at the end of last season. And when accounted for five touchdowns in a primetime win over Notre Dame in Week 2, he even started getting some Heisman buzz.

Since then, though, it has been a rough go of things for New No. 98. His 10 interceptions -- including two more in a loss at Penn State last week -- are tied for third-worst among all FBS quarterbacks. His best attribute appears to be his running ability, but the Wolverines are hesitant to run him too much for fear of injury. Still, his coach is backing Gardner.

"If I had no confidence in our quarterback, with the interceptions that we’ve had, he wouldn’t be our quarterback," Brady Hoke said Monday. "I have all the confidence in the world in Devin Gardner."

• Finally, there's Miller. He has faced less adversity than the other two, but it's still been a bumpy road for the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year.

Miller was hurt early in the San Diego State game in Week 2. In his absence, backup Kenny Guiton played like a Heisman Trophy candidate for three games, creating an actual debate on whether Guiton should keep the job when Miller's knee healed. Miller quieted that talk with a big performance against Wisconsin, but a week later at Northwestern, Urban Meyer admitted he almost pulled Miller for Guiton after some first-half struggles. The sample size is small, but Miller has not thrown for more than 203 yards in a game this season or run for more than 83 yards in one.

Fans at all three schools have at some point questioned whether their star quarterback should be benched. That's something we certainly didn't see coming in the summer.

And the quarterbacks are not alone. Northwestern running back Venric Mark was an All-America punt returner last year who also ran for 1,366 yards. But a leg injury kept him out of almost all of the Wildcats' first four games. He returned against Ohio State and ran for 60 yards on 17 carries, but he hurt his ankle last week at Wisconsin and had to sit out most of the game.

So Mark, who seemed poised for a big senior year, has played in one full game this year and has a total of 97 rushing yards. His status for this week's game vs. Minnesota is uncertain.

"I don't want to speak for him on how hard it's been," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "From my perspective and the conversations he and I have had, it's been very difficult. But from the standpoint of what he's brought to the team, he's been phenomenal. His attitude has been outstanding. He wants to play so bad, and it's got to be eating at him. But it hasn't shown in his attitude."

The good news for all four players is that there is still half a season left. If they can get healthy and in some cases iron out some issues, they have plenty of time to remind us of their brilliance, especially since their teams all remain in contention. And maybe we'll just remember the first half of 2013 as an interesting way of looking at the stars.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 7

October, 10, 2013
10/10/13
10:15
AM ET
Ten things to keep your eyes on in the four Big Ten games on Saturday:

1. Strength vs. strength for the Spittoon: The Indiana-Michigan State game might not be the most-hyped matchup of the weekend, but if you like irresistible force/immovable object conflicts, this one's for you. The Spartans lead the FBS in total defense, rush defense and passing efficiency defense. The Hoosiers, meanwhile, are ninth nationally in total offense, 10th in passing yards and 11th in scoring. Indiana scored the first 17 points of the game last year in Bloomington before falling 31-27. This year's Old Brass Spittoon winner will go to the team that better parlays its strengths and its corresponding weaknesses (Michigan State's defense, Indiana's offense).

2. Inexperienced travelers: Both Indiana and Nebraska have had comfortable early-season schedules, as each has played its first five games at home. Both teams go on the road for the first time this week, with the Hoosiers in East Lansing and Nebraska visiting Purdue. Bo Pelini said the schedule worked out well for his young defense to gain some less stressful experience, but he still will be leaning on youthful players both on defense and at quarterback with redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said his team uses a lot of hand signals on offense, so he's not too worried about crowd noise. Michigan also gets easily its toughest road test at Penn State, which should be a much more intimidating atmosphere than UConn's Rentschler Field.

3. Heartbreak Hotel, aka Camp Randall Stadium: No team has suffered more gut-wrenching close losses in the past 2½ years than Wisconsin. But at least Northwestern can relate. Both teams might be playing for national titles if the NCAA shortened games to 55 minutes. On Saturday, Team 5:03 travels to the team that has yielded more Hail Marys than the pope's rosary beads. Both the Wildcats and Badgers are also coming off tough losses to Ohio State, with Wisconsin having two weeks to lick its wounds. The winner can still dream about a BCS bowl. The loser will be in serious catch-up mode. Is there any way it can end except on a key play in the final minute?

4. Northwestern's run defense vs. Wisconsin's rushing attack: The Wildcats had trouble stopping Ohio State's offensive line and bulldozing back Carlos Hyde as the Buckeyes racked up 248 rushing yards in last week's 40-30 win. Northwestern players and coaches say it was more a matter of tackling and execution than a size and strength issue. They will have to do a much better job this week against Wisconsin, which is averaging 300 rushing yards per game. By all accounts, star tailback Melvin Gordon's left knee is fine after he injured it against Ohio State two weeks ago, and James White ran for 134 yards the last time these two teams played, in 2010 (yes, he's been around a long time). The Badgers ran for 329 yards in that last meeting three years ago. The teams have changed, but Wisconsin's approach hasn't. Northwestern had better hope its run defense has improved.

[+] EnlargeAllen Robinson
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerPenn State wideout Allen Robinson has 38 catches for 621 yards this season, with five touchdowns.
5. Penn State's response: Bill O'Brien has been jovial in many of his news conferences this year, but he was clearly not a happy man on Tuesday. O'Brien was terse in his answers with the media and basically refused to address anything regarding the Indiana loss or the team's scholarship situation. It's understandable why he wouldn't want to relive the program's first-ever loss to the Hoosiers or dwell on problems, because he needs his team focused on 5-0 Michigan, which comes to Beaver Stadium for a 5 p.m. game. The game is sold out and will be a White Out, though the enthusiasm from the fans might be a little less than before last week's loss. It remains to be seen whether the team will match O'Brien's feistiness and come out with a much better effort this Saturday.

6. Allen Robinson vs. Blake Countess: Penn State's Robinson is the reigning Big Ten receiver of the year and is gunning for another trophy after his 12-catch, 173-yard day against Indiana last week. Michigan's top job on defense is to find a way to stop him, and that's where cornerback Countess should come in. Countess has four interceptions this year, tying him for the national lead. The Wolverines likely will need more than just Countess to slow down Robinson, and Penn State continues to search for a complementary weapon in the passing game for quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

7. Ryan's return? Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan has been itching to return from the torn ACL he suffered in the spring, and he has been medically cleared to play on Saturday in State College. Coach Brady Hoke appears hesitant to put his star back in there, fearing the risk of further injury. Hoke said Wednesday that Ryan has practiced as a backup. The Wolverines' defense has been light on big-play ability, which Ryan brings to the table in spades. Getting him back would provide a physical and emotional boost for Michigan.

8. Etling's big day: In what has been a sorry season so far for Purdue, at least quarterback Danny Etling provides reason for optimism. After making his college debut two weeks ago against Northern Illinois, the freshman gets his first start Saturday vs. Nebraska. Head coach Darrell Hazell says Etling's strong arm opens the whole field for the Boilermakers' passing game, and he hinted at offensive changes made during the bye week to suit Etling's skills. Nebraska's defense did a good job slowing down Illinois' passing attack last week but still has vulnerabilities. Etling had better watch out for cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who -- like Countess -- has four interceptions this season.

9. Two steps forward for Spartans' passing game? Michigan State had its most encouraging offensive performance of the season in last week's 26-14 win at Iowa. Quarterback Connor Cook made good decisions en route to a 277-yard day, and even better for the offense, receivers Bennie Fowler and Macgarrett Kings Jr. showed off excellent playmaking ability. While not exactly an Oregon-esque outburst, last week's offensive showing was the kind the Spartans and their fans had been waiting to see for more than a year. The key will be whether that is a repeatable performance, especially this week against a below-average Indiana defense.

10. Well, hello again (and for the first time): One of the most aggravating byproducts of conference expansion is the gap between games for some high-profile programs. Michigan hasn't played Penn State since 2010, while Northwestern and Wisconsin also haven't met in three years despite the short distance between the two schools. That's why it's good to see those two games on the schedule this weekend. With the new division alignment starting in 2014, the Wolverines and Nittany Lions will be paired in the East, while the Wildcats and Badgers will be in the West. Perhaps this will be the start of some renewed rivalry tensions in both series. Meanwhile, Nebraska plays Purdue for the first time as a Big Ten member. The schools have only played twice before and not since 1958 in West Lafayette. Scouting takes on added importance in all three of those games, as these teams have few players and coaches who have ever faced one another on the field.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Ten lunchtime links

September, 26, 2013
9/26/13
12:00
PM ET
Welcome back, Ron Swanson.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

August, 19, 2013
8/19/13
5:00
PM ET
Next Monday will be game week. So excited. For now, more of your Monday mail.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesDon't expect Nebraska's Taylor Martinez to play anywhere but the QB position this fall.
Jeremy from Jenison, Mich., writes: Which Big Ten team, outside of Ohio State, do you feel has the best chance to make the Rose Bowl? Personally, I think its either Michigan or Nebraska, or Michigan State could possibly sneak in. But what do you think?

Brian Bennett: Jeremy, I think it's between Michigan and Nebraska. The Huskers benefit because they don't have to play Ohio State in the regular season, while Michigan has the advantage of playing Nebraska in Ann Arbor. I wouldn't be shocked to see Michigan State, Wisconsin or Northwestern sneak up and get to Pasadena (and we are talking about this while assuming Ohio State doesn't go to the BCS title game), but I think the Wolverines and Huskers have better chances because of their talent and schedule. While I rank both below the Buckeyes, either of them could beat Ohio State in a one-game shot -- or in Michigan's case, a second-game-in-two-weeks shot.

Jerry Fan from Minneapolis writes: Jerry Kill has stated his program needs a signature win this season. Do you think that will happen, and if so, what game do you think it would be?

Brian Bennett: That's been a consistent theme for Kill this summer, that Minnesota needs to notch a signature win. He hasn't defined exactly what that would look like, but these seem to be the best chances for the Gophers to accomplish that this fall:

Oct. 5: at Michigan
Oct. 19: at Northwestern
Oct. 26: Nebraska
Nov. 9: Penn State
Nov. 23: Wisconsin
Nov. 30: at Michigan State

You could argue whether beating Northwestern or probation-saddled Penn State is really a signature win, but I think Kill would gladly take either of those. Beating Wisconsin would be tremendous for the program because that rivalry has been so one-sided, and the same could be said about Michigan. I'll go out on a limb and say Kill's team does win one of those games, though it won't be against Michigan or Nebraska.

OblioCat from Andersonville, Chicago, writes: Northwestern wins the Legends Division. Win or lose in the Big Ten Championship Game, is the Big Ten down (even more), or is Northwestern actually a good team? Will the journalists wait for bowl game results to rip on the Big Ten? Granted, when NU beats LSU in its bowl game, part of the South will crumble.

Brian Bennett: Lot of ifs there, but I doubt too many people would criticize the league for being down if Northwestern wins the Legends Division, unless they finish 8-4 or something and everybody else tanks. The Wildcats are getting plenty of respect this offseason and are ranked in both major polls, so people know how good they are. Heck, the LA Times' Chris Dufresne ranked Northwestern No. 10. The Big Ten's reputation will be based on how the league performs in the nonconference games, but with so few marquee matchups, the Big Ten has more opportunities to reinforce negative perceptions by losing than it does to change them by winning.

Brian from Whiteman Air Force Base writes: So I was thinking about my Huskers' upcoming season, and thought about Taylor Martinez's future beyond Lincoln. I think it's pretty obvious he won't be drafted as a QB, but more likely as a WR. So I was thinking, how awesome would it be to see him line up at WR a bit for Nebraska, and let our young stub backup QBs (Tommy Armstrong and Johnny Stanton) get some game experience?? Tim Beck could have a field day with that much talent on the field at one time! That could make for some serious excitement and a terror for defenses!

Brian Bennett: I'd argue that Nebraska already has a serious amount of talent on offense, and one of the deepest and best receiving corps around. Taylor Martinez is so essential to the team's success that I would be stunned to see Beck risk anything by putting him at another position. But I do think playing one of the young guys is going to be important this season for the Huskers as they transition to the post-Martinez era next year. Luckily, the early schedule is such that Martinez could be getting some early rest in September and October, allowing one of those youngsters to get some in-game training.

Kevin from Fairfax writes: Brian, you missed the most obvious Heisman sleeper in the Big Ten: Akeel Lynch if he can get on the field early enough. Penn State has the best line in the Big Ten (and maybe the nation) blocking for its running backs, the Nittany Lions have the best collection of skill position players in the league pulling defenders off the line of scrimmage (No PSU back will see a seven or eight man front this year except for in short yardage situations) and the best offensive coaching in the nation.

Brian Bennett: Eh, sorry, I don't see it. Zach Zwinak had a really nice and surprising year last season for Penn State, but it wasn't anything that was remotely Heisman worthy, especially with a 4.9 yards per carry average and only six touchdowns. Plus, coach Bill O'Brien has said that he plans to get carries for Lynch and Bill Belton. If anybody is going to attract Heisman attention on the Nittany Lions -- and that in itself is a big question mark because of probation and the lack of roster depth -- I think it will be the quarterback. Allen Robinson might be the team's best player, but it's nearly impossible for receivers to win the award. If O'Brien can turn Matt McGloin into the Big Ten's top passer, imagine what he can do with a talent like Christian Hackenberg.

Jack from Illinois writes: While reading your last Big Ten mailbag, I saw your thoughts on Illinois, despite competing and being better, finishing the season at with a record of 3-9. I realize as an Illini fan that we may not be the best team, but should I really be expecting us to be that bad? As daunting as the Illini's schedule looks, it appears there are some games they can really pull an upset in (don't get me wrong though, I don't exactly have much hope in our game against Nebraska). I'm not saying we get bowl eligible, but is it crazy for me to think we get to a record like 5-7?

Brian Bennett: It's not completely crazy, but Illinois will have to make major strides on offense, defense and special teams to win five games. There are teams on the schedule that the Illini should be able to compete with, like Indiana and Purdue, and they should be favored against Southern Illinois and Miami. Win those four, and it only takes one upset to get to five wins. Still, it seems like an uphill battle given the lack of elite players and depth on the roster.

Dave from Marietta, Ohio, writes: Regarding the B1G football bucket list ... I've done all those. Does that mean I'm going to die tomorrow?

Brian Bennett: I sure hope not, Dave. But whenever you do kick the bucket, you should be pretty happy.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 7, 2013
8/07/13
3:08
PM ET
Happy Sea Serpent Day.

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In a conversation with ESPN's Antonietta Collins, national recruiting reporter Gerry Hamilton breaks down the recruiting momentum building at Auburn and offers predictions for where the top 10 recruits will commit.Tags: Trenton Thompson, Kerryon Johnson, Jeffery Holland, Martez Ivey, Torrance Gibson, Cece Jefferson, ESPN 300, RecruitingNation, high school football recruiting, Gerry Hamilton
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