OSU Buckeyes: Matt McGloin
We're going back now and issuing a final, postseason ranking for each position group, and these will be far less subjective now because we have an actual full season's worth of data on hand.
Quarterbacks, naturally, are up first. (Those guys hog all the glory). You can take a look back and see how we ranked this group in the preseason here. Depth is an important factor in these position rankings, but having a standout main guy under center (or in the shotgun) is the most overriding concern with this group.
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteThanks to consistent play by QB Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes finished the 2012 season unbeaten.
2. Penn State (Preseason: 12): The Nittany Lions were dead last in our preseason rankings, and with good reason considering their past performances at the position. But I did write at the time: "Call me an optimist, but I believe Matt McGloin will be more effective at quarterback now that he's got a more modern offensive system and peace of mind that he's the starter." Uh, yeah. McGloin led the Big Ten in passing yards (3,266) and passing touchdowns (24) while throwing only five interceptions. And he stayed healthy, keeping Penn State's youthful backups from getting exposed.
3. Nebraska (Preseason: 3): Taylor Martinez led the Big Ten in total offense and completed a career-best 62 percent of his passes. When he was good, he was as good as there was in the league. But he still struggled with turnovers in key games, including 12 interceptions and numerous fumbles. If he can eliminate the mistakes, the sky's the limit.
4. Michigan (Preseason: 2): The Wolverines are a hard to team to peg in these rankings. Do we rank them based on Denard Robinson's poor showings in big games against Alabama and Notre Dame? Do we rank them based on Devin Gardner's strong finish to the season, when he was as productive as any Big Ten QB? How much do we factor in the team's lack of a solid backup plan in the Nebraska loss when Robinson got hurt early? You have to weigh the good with the bad, which makes this spot feel about right.
5. Northwestern (Preseason: 9): Starting quarterback Kain Colter threw for 872 yards, which was nearly 450 yards less than nominal backup Trevor Siemian. But Colter also rushed for 894 yards and kept defenses off balance with his versatility. Meanwhile, the Wildcats could use Siemian when they needed to stretch the field. The next step for Northwestern is developing a more consistent downfield passing attack.
6. Indiana (Preseason: 11): Who would have guessed in the preseason that the Hoosiers would actually exhibit the best depth at quarterback? After starter Tre Roberson went down in Week 2, Indiana was able to plug in juco transfer Cameron Coffman and true freshman Nate Sudfeld to sustain the league's top passing offense. The three combined to throw for more than 3,700 yards. Coffman got the bulk of the work but needed a better touchdown-to-interception ration than his 15-to-11 mark.
7. Purdue (Preseason: 1): We overrated the Boilermakers' depth in the preseason. It turned out that only one of the trio of former starters performed at a high level, and Robert Marve didn't play enough because of a torn ACL and Danny Hope's misguided insistence on sticking with Caleb TerBush. Purdue actually led the Big Ten in passing touchdowns (30) and finished third in passing yards, but much of that was because the team often had to throw the ball a lot after falling way behind. This ranking could have been higher with a full season of Marve.
8. Wisconsin (Preseason: 8): Danny O'Brien quickly showed that he was not the next Russell Wilson, but luckily the Badgers had some depth. Redshirt freshman Joel Stave showed major promise before his season was derailed by a broken collarbone, and Curt Phillips turned in a nice comeback story by managing the team well down the stretch. Still, Wisconsin ranked last in the Big Ten in passing yards.
9. Michigan State (Preseason: 10): It was not exactly a season to remember for first-year starter Andrew Maxwell, who was benched late in the Spartans' bowl game. But for all his struggles, Maxwell still finished No. 4 in the league in passing and had some nice games in the middle of the year.
10. Minnesota (Preseason: 6): What could MarQueis Gray have done if he hadn't hurt his ankle, prompting an eventual move to receiver? True freshman Philip Nelson took over the reins midseason and broke out with a huge first half against Purdue. However, he failed to throw for more than 80 yards in the team's final three regular season games. Nelson led the team with just 873 passing yards on the season, and the Gophers threw 15 interceptions.
11. Iowa (Preseason: 4): Nobody took a bigger tumble than the Hawkeyes, as James Vandenberg went from a 3,000-yard passer as a junior to often looking lost as a senior. He completed only 57.3 percent of his passes and tossed only seven touchdowns, with eight interceptions, and Iowa showed almost no ability to go vertical. And no other Hawkeye attempted a pass all season.
12. Illinois (Preseason: 7): The Illini had experience at the position with Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole, but they were both part of a wildly dysfunctional offense. Illinois was next-to-last in passing yards in the Big Ten and also had just 11 touchdown passes versus 14 interceptions. In fairness, both QBs were often running for their lives and had very little help.
The four major awards -- Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and Freshman of the Year -- will be revealed Tuesday night. We will have our official blog endorsements for each of these throughout Tuesday, so be sure to check in.
To clarify, we don't have official votes for All-Big Ten (not like we cover the league closer than anyone year-round or anything, but we're not bitter), but we will reveal our own all-conference team at a later date.
For now, we're going to give our opinions on some of the key debates surrounding this year's all-conference team.
1. Ballin' for history: Thirteen years after Ron Dayne broke the NCAA career rushing record, another Wisconsin running back is on the doorstep of a major milestone. Badgers senior Montee Ball, who, unlike Dayne, spent a year and a half as a reserve, needs one more touchdown Saturday against Ohio State to tie the NCAA career mark of 78 held by former Miami (Ohio) star Travis Prentice. Ball has scored 13 touchdowns in his past six games and is averaging 179.1 yards and three touchdowns in his past nine November games. A big performance against the unbeaten Buckeyes will once again put Ball on the radar for top national honors. Ball's next rushing touchdown will mark his 72nd, moving him past Dayne for the Big Ten career record.
2. Holding serve in the Legends: Nebraska and Michigan are tied atop the Legends Division at 5-1, and on paper, they should stay that way after Week 12. Both teams are favored to take care of Minnesota and Iowa, respectively, on senior day in Lincoln and Ann Arbor. Nebraska's magic number (wins and Michigan losses) to punch its ticket to Indianapolis is 2. A Huskers loss and a Michigan win puts the Wolverines in control of their own fate in the division. One senior day subplot is whether face-of-the-program stars like Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson will play after missing time with injuries. Burkhead (knee) returned to practice this week and seems closer to a return, while Robinson (elbow) remains day-to-day.
Andrew Weber/US PresswireLe'Veon Bell and the Spartans plan to finish strong against Northwestern on Saturday.
4. Hope and a prayer: There's growing talk that Purdue will make a head-coaching change after the regular season no matter what happens in the final two games. But can fourth-year boss Danny Hope save himself with a three-game win streak to become bowl-eligible? It's reason enough to tune in for an otherwise off-the-radar game between Purdue and slumping Illinois on Saturday. A loss to the Illini would prevent Purdue from getting bowl-eligible and likely seal Hope's fate, while a Purdue win adds intrigue to next week's Bucket game against Indiana. The Boilers' offense got on track last week behind quarterback Robert Marve and running back Ralph Bolden, while defensive tackle Kawann Short had his best game of the season at Iowa.
5. Rivalry renewed: Saturday's game at Camp Randall Stadium won't decide which Leaders Division team goes to the Big Ten title game, as Wisconsin already punched its ticket last week. But Ohio State can lock up the Leaders Division championship -- the only title it can win this season -- while Wisconsin can legitimize its trip to Indy by handing Urban Meyer's Buckeyes their first loss of the season. Looking ahead, the Ohio State-Wisconsin game likely will be the signature contest in the division for years to come. Illinois is a mess, Purdue has backslid this season, Indiana is still building and Penn State still has three more years of postseason bans. "I hate Wisconsin just as much as Michigan," Ohio State wide receiver Corey Brown said this week. While Meyer and Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema say their post-signing day spat is a thing of a past, it could bubble up Saturday depending on how the game goes.
6. Taking a pass: The Big Ten might not be flush with elite quarterbacks and high-powered offenses this season, but a few of its teams can sling the ball a bit, and two of them meet at Beaver Stadium. Indiana and Penn State are the Big Ten's top two pass offenses, ranking 26th and 40th nationally, respectively. They'll share the field Saturday as they try to rebound from different types of losses. Indiana quarterback Cameron Coffman struggled with his accuracy (25-for-46) in last week's loss to Wisconsin and looks for a sharper afternoon. Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin wasn't a happy guy after the Nebraska loss and will try to take it out on IU. The game features two of the Big Ten's top receivers in Penn State's Allen Robinson and Indiana's Cody Latimer.
7. Hawkeye hex: Iowa has been in a funk for much of the season and particularly in the past month, dropping four consecutive Big Ten contests. Perhaps a date with Michigan can put the Hawkeyes back on track. See, Iowa has won three straight against Michigan for the first time in team history and five of its past eight against the Wolverines. Michigan's seniors are anxious to finally get over the hump against Iowa, one of two Big Ten teams (Penn State the other) they have yet to beat. But maybe it works the other way and Iowa finally shows a spark on offense and stiffens its defense. If not, the Hawkeyes won't be going bowling for the first time since the 2006 season, and it'll be a very long winter for Kirk Ferentz. "It doesn't hurt, obviously," Ferentz said of his team's Michigan win streak, "but it doesn't guarantee us anything."
8. Backs of different sizes: Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell is the biggest featured running back in the Big Ten, checking in at 6-2 and 244 pounds. Northwestern's Venric Mark is the smallest, checking in at 5-8 and 175 pounds. But both have been extremely effective this season with the ball in their hands. Bell leads the Big Ten in rushing yards (1,249), while Mark ranks third in rushing yards (1,181) and first in all-purpose yards (1,917). Each has been the MVP of his respective offense, and it'll be interesting to see them on the same field at Spartan Stadium. Both Michigan State and Northwestern defend the run well, too, both ranking in the top 25 nationally.
9. Illini look for a spark: Illinois ranks last in the Big Ten in scoring, rushing and total offense, and lingers near the bottom of the FBS in all the significant categories. The Illini need some sort of boost on offense or a 2-10 season is a virtual certainty. Head coach Tim Beckman, whose background is defense but who had a high-powered offense at Toledo the past few years, took a more active role with the offense this week in an effort to get things going. Beckman also noted that co-offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales call plays on different downs. Hmmm. Starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne took more reps with the wide receivers this week and could see an increased role against Purdue. Illinois aims to win on senior day for the first time since 2007.
10. Bowl picture taking shape: We learned a little more about the Big Ten bowl contingent last week as Minnesota became bowl-eligible, Purdue took a big step toward the postseason and both Iowa and Indiana took a step toward a winter at home. There should be some more answers in Week 12. Michigan State aims for its sixth win to go bowling for the sixth consecutive season under coach Mark Dantonio. Purdue must keep its bowl hopes alive at Illinois, while both Iowa and Indiana must win on the road to avoid loss No. 7. It won't be easy for the Hawkeyes or Hoosiers. Indiana never has won at Beaver Stadium in 15 previous meetings with Penn State. Iowa never has won consecutive games at Michigan Stadium.
1. A Wisconsin-Nebraska title game looks very likely: Wisconsin and Nebraska opened the Big Ten season under the lights in Lincoln on Sept. 29. The Badgers and Huskers probably will close out the conference season Dec. 1 in Indianapolis. Wisconsin punched its ticket for the Big Ten title game Saturday by crushing Indiana 62-14. Montee Ball and the Badgers rushed for a team-record 564 yards -- the highest total in Big Ten play since 1975 -- and completed a rough road back to Indy with a very easy final leg. Nebraska and Michigan remain tied atop the Legends division, but the Huskers hold the head-to-head tiebreaker and took a big step toward Lucas Oil Stadium with another come-from-behind victory Saturday against Penn State. Nebraska once again overcame mistakes and turned in a big second half to remain perfect at home this season. If the Huskers take care of Minnesota at home and Iowa on the road, they'll head to Indianapolis, regardless of what Michigan does in its final two games. These two teams provided plenty of excitement in their first meeting, and it looks as though they'll be reuniting in three weeks.
ESPN Watch List junior D’Andre Payne (Washington, D.C./Woodson) took an unofficial visit to Penn State and saw Ohio State beat the Nittany Lions 35-23. A group that has come under fire recently, the Buckeyes’ secondary played well in the eyes of the 5-foot-9, 169-pound cornerback.
While Ohio State did give up 327 yards to quarterback Matt McGloin, for the most part it kept Penn State in check, giving up two touchdowns through the air, with one coming in the last two minutes of the game.
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- This was supposed to be Penn State's return to the big time.
Nearly a year to the day from Joe Paterno's last game, the Nittany Lions geared up to show the world that they were back from 12 months of turmoil. A soldout Beaver Stadium roared on its red-hot team, just like the old days.
But Ohio State ruined the celebration. The Buckeyes, in fact, might just be the nation's most unwanted party crasher.
After their 35-23 victory in the Ineligi-Bowl, it's time to start planning for the inevitable. This team is now on a collision course with a 12-0 season after acing its toughest road challenge of the year.
You can quibble with the Buckeyes' schedule -- which includes no wins over current Top 25 teams -- or their various shortcomings. You can't argue with the record.
"Let's focus on the positive," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said after the game, objecting to a question about his team's flawed performances. "We're 9-0. It's good to be 9-0. Maybe you can help me, but how many other teams are 9-0?"
The answer is none. Which might also be the answer to the question: Who can beat this team the rest of the way?
The Buckeyes play 2-6 Illinois next week in a virtual bye week, then get a real week off to heal up. Then comes a trip to Wisconsin, which just lost at home to Michigan State and lost its starting quarterback. They end the year, of course, with the showdown against Michigan. That game, as you probably know, is in Columbus. Perfection could be on the line.
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarOhio State receiver Jake Stoneburner scored a 72-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach.
"We think we're definitely a top team in the country," receiver/tight end Jake Stoneburner said. "People underestimate us. But there's something about this team."
Ohio State has had some shaky wins, like last week's overtime great escape against Purdue. But every time it needs to make a play, that play gets made.
"It was the same thing with the  national championship team," defensive end Nathan Williams said. "They seemed to [find a] way to win the game at the very end, whether it be the last play or the last drive. I think we have a great chemistry as a team going on right now, and we're just going to continue to feed off it."
Nobody, not even Williams, is suggesting that this Ohio State club is as good as that 2002 team. But it does have a similar knack for winning.
On Saturday that winning effort started, surprisingly, on defense. A unit that had been battered and bruised most of the season held Penn State without an offensive touchdown until the final 10 minutes and allowed only 32 rushing yards. The game plan called for more blitzing than the Buckeyes normally do in order to fluster Nittany Lions quarterback Matt McGloin. Ohio State sacked him four times.
In maybe the key sequence of the game, linebacker Ryan Shazier dashed through the middle untouched to tackle McGloin early in the third quarter. Then he picked McGloin off for a 17-yard interception return touchdown on the very next play.
Shazier has struggled with missed tackles most of the year, but played inspired on Saturday while wearing a new jersey number, 48, in honor of his deceased high school friend Gary Curtis.
"It almost felt like a dream," Shazier said. "I was thinking about him the whole game. I felt like he was playing there with me."
Quarterback Braxton Miller was lying in a hospital room last Saturday after suffering a neck injury against Purdue. Early in the game, in the words of Stoneburner, Miller looked "a little bit jittery." Miller completed just six of his first 18 passes and overthrew a sure touchdown to Corey Brown.
But as he has done so often, Miller turned up his game when it mattered most. He threaded a perfect pass to Stoneburner on third down for a 72-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, after Penn State had cut the lead to 28-16. And even though Miller used more caution while running in deference to his body, he still managed to control the game with 134 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
The Nittany Lions' defense was visibly gassed trying to chase Miller in the second half after Ohio State went to its hurry-up offense. And Miller turned in maybe the prettiest 1-yard run in history for his first touchdown run, avoiding two tacklers and somehow adjusting his body mid-leap to slide past safety Malcolm Willis into the end zone.
"We have a drill where you make seven people miss," Meyer joked. "I was on the sideline, so I didn't really see it. But the conversation on the headset was, 'Oh, my god.'"
The Buckeyes are probably making a lot of people say that these days. Just wait until they win three more games.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The Ineligi-Bowl turned into an indelible moment for Ohio State.
The Buckeyes came into a frenzied Beaver Stadium and sliced up a red-hot Penn State team 35-23, leaving no doubt which team is the best in the Leaders Division and the entire Big Ten. Ohio State improved to 9-0 and inched one step closer to its goal of a perfect 12-0 season under first-year coach Urban Meyer.
Here's how it went down:
It was over when: Braxton Miller squeezed a third-down pass into the hands of Jake Stoneburner, who had nothing but daylight in front of him for a 72-yard touchdown catch with 6:11 remaining. That made it 35-16 and extinguished any hope of a Penn State comeback.
Game ball goes to: The Ohio State defense. Penn State's offense came into the night on a roll, but the Buckeyes applied pressure to quarterback Matt McGloin all night and didn't allow an offensive touchdown by the Nittany Lions until there was 9:49 left in the game.
Stat of the game: Ohio State had 233 rushing yards to just 32 for Penn State. Miller piled up 134 of those, along with two scores. He was able to dominate the game in the second half despite completing just 7-of-19 passes.
Second-guessing: Bill O'Brien's gambles have mostly paid off this season. But one backfired on fourth-and-nine from the Ohio State 43 in the third quarter. Penn State went for the fake punt, and Alex Butterworth's pass was broken up on a nice play by the Buckeyes' Adam Griffin (son of two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin). Penn State's defense had been playing really well, and the flipping of field position helped Ohio State drive in for a touchdown to make it 21-10.
What it means: It was an odd meeting of two good teams who can't play in a bowl game, so no result was going to have any postseason implications. But both teams are eligible to win the Leaders Division title, and now Ohio State has a virtual two-game lead in that race with three games left. Hey, it's something.
More importantly, it continued the Buckeyes' impressive march through the Big Ten in Meyer's first year. If Ohio State keeps on winning, Associated Press voters are going to have an interesting time figuring out to do with this team, which hasn't lost but also hasn't beaten a team currently ranked in the Top 25.
For Penn State, the loss halted some serious momentum as the team had won five straight coming into Saturday. The Nittany Lions had hoped for a dominating performance to impress recruits, more than 100 of whom attended the game. This was as close to a bowl game as Penn State is going to play over the next few years. Still, one loss doesn't erase what this team is accomplishing this year.
These might be our most challenging picks of the season, which could be a good thing for Brian Bennett, who trails Adam Rittenberg by a whopping five games in the season standings.
Without further ado, let's get to the picks ...
IOWA at NORTHWESTERN
Brian Bennett: Both teams are searching for some answers on defense, but the Wildcats are much healthier than the Hawkeyes, who are banged up at offensive line and running back. I think we'll see Northwestern get back to running the ball more with Kain Colter and Venric Mark this week, which works well enough to hold back an Iowa team whose quarterback is under fire. ... Northwestern 23, Iowa 17
Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern does have some injury issues of its own at cornerback, but James Vandenberg hasn't been able to take advantage of much this season. I like this matchup for Northwestern, even though the Wildcats have an identity crisis on offense right now. Iowa takes the early lead, but Northwestern finally puts the ball in Colter's hands, and he rushes for two second-half touchdowns. Mark Weisman bullies his way to 100 rush yards, but Northwestern gets it done on Homecoming. ... Northwestern 24, Iowa 20
INDIANA at ILLINOIS
Adam Rittenberg: I really think Illinois will be better following the open week -- the Illini can't get much worse -- and should capitalize on Indiana's defensive woes. But Indiana's spread offense matches up very well against an Illinois defense that, while talented, struggles mightily against spread teams. Hoosiers receivers Shane Wynn, Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes each catch touchdowns and Indiana finally finds a way to hold on for its first Big Ten win under Kevin Wilson. ... Indiana 31, Illinois 27
Brian Bennett: I guess I can't pick both to lose this week, huh? The Hoosiers have been much more competitive for the past several weeks than Illinois has, and their offense is better than any unit the Illini can put out there right now. Expect some new wrinkles from Tim Beckman after the bye week, but Indiana's passing game is too much as Nate Sudfeld comes off the bench for a pair of second-half touchdown passes. ... Indiana 28, Illinois 27
PURDUE at MINNESOTA
Brian Bennett: One of these teams has to get itself off the mat, and I think it's going to be Minnesota. Purdue has to be feeling a bit of a hangover from last week's heartbreaking loss to Ohio State, and another week of experience will do wonders for Gophers freshman quarterback Philip Nelson. He throws a key touchdown pass to MarQueis Gray, and a late field goal wins it. ... Minnesota 20, Purdue 19
Adam Rittenberg: This game is all about Purdue's demeanor after last week's heartbreaker. If we see the team that showed up in Columbus, the Boilers will win. If not, Nelson and the Gophers will get it done. I've been burned before, but I don't think Purdue is finished just yet. The Boilers' defense pressures Nelson, forces some takeaways and limits a low-scoring Gophers offense to 17 points. Purdue hits on some big plays to Gary Bush and Antavian Edison and gets a win it absolutely has to have. ... Purdue 23, Minnesota 17
MICHIGAN STATE at No. 25 WISCONSIN
Adam Rittenberg: I nearly went with the Spartans here, as I just can't believe Mark Dantonio's squad is on the verge of falling below .500. Then again, Wisconsin doesn't lose at Camp Randall Stadium, especially to teams that have no offense. This game follows a familiar script for Michigan State, which hangs around for a while behind its defense but allows a late score. Le'Veon Bell has 120 rush yards, but both Montee Ball and James White score in the second half as Wisconsin prevails. ... Wisconsin 20, Michigan State 13
Brian Bennett: Pretty simple here: Michigan State can't score, and I don't see how that changes this week against an underrated Wisconsin defense that's playing well. Ball & Co. won't find as much running room as normal against this Spartans defense, so quarterback Joel Stave will have to play well. He does well enough to get the win, hitting big passes to Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pedersen to set up scores in a close one. ... Wisconsin 17, Michigan State 14
OHIO STATE at PENN STATE
Brian Bennett: I learned my lesson in picking against Penn State last week. Ohio State is getting thinned by injuries, and quarterback Braxton Miller might not be at full strength after last week's brief hospitalization.
Adam Rittenberg: The Buckeyes' slow starts, Miller's injury issues and Ohio State's lack of depth at linebacker are real concerns here. Penn State tight ends Kyle Carter and Jesse James find enough gaps in Ohio State's defense, and Bill Belton racks up 115 rush yards and two scores. Miller plays and keeps his team in the game, but Penn State has too much offense and a huge edge with the Beaver Stadium crowd. Buckeyes go down for the first time. ... Penn State 27, Ohio State 24
No. 22 MICHIGAN at NEBRASKA
Adam Rittenberg: I know Nebraska plays much better at home, and quarterback Taylor Martinez has made obvious improvement this season. But Michigan is the steadier team right now, and the better defensive squad. The Wolverines got over the hump last week against rival Michigan State, and they'll find a way to record a signature road win. Linebacker Jake Ryan recovers two Nebraska fumbles and Denard Robinson breaks off a long touchdown run in the fourth quarter as the Wolverines silence the Sea of Red. ... Michigan 26, Nebraska 24
Brian Bennett: The Legends Division race could get pretty boring if Michigan wins in Lincoln. One thing this league has not been this year is predictable. The Wolverines' recent conservative ways on offense will play into the hands of a Huskers defense that plays better when it knows what to expect. Martinez will pick on Michigan cornerbacks and turn in one of the finest moments of his career as Nebraska roars back from an early double-digit deficit to win. ... Nebraska 28, Michigan 23
Adam Rittenberg: 54-14 (.794)
Brian Bennett: 49-19 (.721)
On the line: There might not be a postseason appearance waiting for either team, but the Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions have set themselves up for the biggest game in the regular season and enter the weekend as perhaps the two best teams in the Big Ten. Wisconsin has put itself back in the division picture, but with both Ohio State and Penn State unbeaten in the league right now, the winner will be in prime position for some hardware -- even if it can't represent the Leaders Division when the regular season ends.
Hold on tight: Neither team has much of an affinity for easing off the pedal, and the breakneck, uptempo offenses both teams will employ could lead to some fireworks. The Nittany Lions have completely rebuilt their passing game under coach Bill O'Brien, who was worked wonders with Matt McGloin at quarterback and watched him develop into the leading passer in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes have taken a different approach, focusing on their running game and averaging nearly 250 yards on the ground. But rushing or passing, neither team will make it easy for a defense to catch a breather.
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The regular season is halfway over. Where did the time go? It's getting late early in the Big Ten race for some teams, which makes this a big week. Here's a quick preview of the Week 8 storylines:
Michigan State (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten) at No. 23 Michigan (4-2, 2-0), 3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network: Where's the threat? Or maybe we should say, are the Spartans still a legitimate threat to Michigan's Big Ten ambitions? This game has lost a lot of luster thanks to Michigan State's stumbles, but there's still plenty on the line. The Wolverines need to break a four-game losing streak in this rivalry, while MSU would be in danger of a losing season with a defeat here and Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern up next. All eyes will be on Denard Robinson and a Spartans defense that has shut him down the last two years.
Penn State (4-2, 2-0) at Iowa (4-2, 2-0), 8 p.m., BTN: Raise your hand if you had these two teams atop their respective divisions midway through October. They're both doing it with defense, as Penn State is No. 2 and Iowa No. 3 in the Big Ten in points allowed, and some surprising contributors on offense (Mark Weisman for the Hawkeyes, a surging Matt McGloin and Allen Robinson for the Nittany Lions). Expect a slugfest, but hopefully one with more points than last year's 13-3 Penn State win.
Nebraska (4-2, 1-1) at Northwestern (6-1, 2-1), 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2: The Cornhuskers will have had two weeks to try and figure out their defensive problems against spread teams and on the road. They will need to have answers versus a Wildcats team that beat them in Lincoln last season. Kain Colter had a great game at Nebraska last year and is the kind of mobile quarterback that has given Bo Pelini's defense fits. The loser of this one could find themselves two games back in the Legends standings.
Minnesota (4-2, 0-2) at Wisconsin (5-2, 2-1), Noon, ESPNU: It's Axe season. But can the Gophers accrue better dividends in this ancient rivalry? Wisconsin has won eight straight in the series, including the last two by a combined 47 points. The Badgers' offense also looked rejuvenated on Saturday against Purdue, which could mean this is bad timing for Minnesota. Questions about the status of head coach Jerry Kill and quarterback MarQueis Gray could linger this week for the Gophers.
Purdue (3-3, 0-2) at No. 8 Ohio State (7-0, 3-0), Noon, ABC/ESPN2: At what point do we really start to worry about the Buckeyes' defense? Probably not this week against a Purdue team that is a mess on both sides of the ball right now. The Boilermakers did beat Ohio State last year in West Lafayette, but their own defense has major issues after surrendering an average of 41 points and 385 rushing yards in their first two Big Ten contests. And now comes Braxton Miller and Co., who have scored 115 points the past two weeks. The Boilers are staring down the barrel of an 0-3 conference start, while the Buckeyes look to get to 8-0 before a showdown at Penn State.
Indiana (2-4, 0-3) at Navy (3-3), 3:30 p.m., CBS College Sports: The Hoosiers are doing a lot of things well -- especially on offense -- and have been right in every game. Yet all they have to show for it is a four-game losing streak. Maybe stepping out of conference will help, especially against a not-so-classic Midshipmen squad. Defending the option on the road presents its challenges, but Navy was shut out at home by San Jose State a few weeks ago.
The league entered the fall under unique circumstances, as two of its premier programs (Ohio State and Penn State) couldn't compete in the postseason because of NCAA sanctions. But with a surging Michigan State program, a Michigan team coming off of a Sugar Bowl championship, a Wisconsin team that had made consecutive Rose Bowl appearances and a veteran-laden Nebraska squad, the Big Ten had ample reasons for optimism. Those soon vanished.
Things got off to a rocky start at JerryWorld, as Michigan was stomped 41-14 by defending national champ Alabama. It only got worse in Week 2, the Big Ten's worst regular-season Saturday in recent memory. Big Ten teams went 6-6, including three losses at Pac-12 venues, including two by ranked teams (Wisconsin and Nebraska) against unranked foes (Oregon State and UCLA). The Big Ten went 6-9 against teams from BCS automatic-qualifying conferences plus Notre Dame, with three wins coming from one team (Northwestern). Although Ohio State hasn't lost a game under new coach Urban Meyer, the Big Ten removed itself from the national title talk earlier than anyone expected.
Bring that beat back.
Team(s) of the week: Ohio State and Michigan share top billing this week. The Buckeyes turned in an attention-grabbing 63-38 blowout of Nebraska on national TV and have climbed up to No. 8 in The Associated Press poll. An undefeated season remains a strong possibility. Michigan was also very impressive, going on the road to clobber Purdue 44-13 in a must-have win. Anybody else already looking forward to The Game this year?
Best game: Even though Northwestern led Penn State 28-17 in the fourth quarter, you just knew it wasn't over. In fact, the Nittany Lions were just getting started. They reeled off 22 fourth-quarter points in a game that featured several wild momentum swings and fourth-down plays.
Darron Cummings/AP PhotoMichigan State wide receiver Aaron Burbridge makes a reception while being defended by Indiana linebacker Forisse Hardin.
Best call: No one can accuse Bill O'Brien of playing it safe. Even though Penn State's kicking game is very shaky, most coaches would have settled for the field goal on fourth-and-4 from the other team's 5-yard line when trailing by three points in the fourth quarter. O'Brien is not most coaches. He rolled the dice and went for it, and Matt McGloin scrambled into the end zone for what turned out to be the winning score. Penn State was 5-of-6 on fourth-down conversion attempts against Northwestern.
Second guessing: Indiana was humming along in the first half against Michigan State but got strangely conservative right before halftime. Kevin Wilson gambled and pulled off an onsides kick after going up 24-14 late in the half. But after driving to the Michigan State 6-yard line, the Hoosiers ran three straight running plays and gained only 4 yards. Wilson elected to kick the field goal instead of going for it on fourth down, even though Michigan State was on the ropes and a touchdown might have provided a knockout blow. That's not the reason Indiana lost, because the Spartans pitched a shutout in the second half. But I bet Wilson would at least throw a pass into the end zone if he had to do that over again. Maybe he and O'Brien should compare notes.
Big men on campus (offense): It's all about the quarterbacks. Michigan's Denard Robinson ran for 235 yards (more than Purdue's entire offense generated) and threw for 105 more in the win over the Boilermakers. Ohio State's Braxton Miller ran for 186 yards and threw for 127 more in the pasting of Nebraska. And McGloin threw for 282 yards and accounted for three touchdowns while leading the Nittany Lions' fourth-quarter comeback.
Big man on campus (defense): Ohio State's Bradley Roby had a pair of interceptions against Nebraska and returned the first one 49 yards for a touchdown to open the Buckeyes' scoring onslaught. Props also to Roby's teammate John Simon, who had five tackles for loss versus the Huskers.
Big men on campus (special teams): Northwestern's Venric Mark and Ohio State's Corey Brown each scored on punt returns. Mark went for 75 yards against Penn State, while Brown took his 76 yards to the house.
Worst hangover: Purdue. Yes, Nebraska isn't going to enjoy the next two weeks after getting steamrolled by Ohio State. But the Cornhuskers always knew that was going to be a tough road game they could lose and still win the Big Ten. The Boilermakers were fired up after a solid start to the season, and many around the team believed a breakthrough was coming for Danny Hope's program. Instead, Michigan waltzed into Ross-Ade Stadium, rolled out to a 28-3 first-half lead and put Purdue back in its place. Now there are questions again about whether the Boilers will ever turn the corner under Hope. A win over Wisconsin this week now becomes paramount.
Strangest moment(s): It was a painful day for some of the officials in the Big Ten on Saturday.
In the Northwestern-Penn State game, line judge Michael Mahouski suffered a ruptured quad tendon while avoiding a hit on the sideline and had to be carted off. Another line judge was carted off in the Illinois-Wisconsin game. Forget replacement refs. Big Ten officials might need some replacement hips at this rate.
But those weren't even the weirdest circumstances involving an official on Saturday. In that Illinois-Wisconsin game, Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase tried to high-five back judge Mike Brown after scoring on a short touchdown run. Brown was not having any of it.
"Our deal is to hand the ball to the official," Scheelhaase explained. "But somehow the ball got loose -- I probably, like, threw it a little bit -- and in apology, I tried to give him a high-five. I almost knocked him over. He almost tripped.
“I don’t think they can [high-five players]. One of the refs told me they weren't able to do that.”
At least Mahouski got a handshake from Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald as he left the field on the cart.
- Penn State QB Matt McGloin: McGloin misfired on some of his throws early in the game against Northwestern, but he was on point when it mattered. He led a comeback from a 28-17 fourth-quarter deficit and ran for the go-ahead score in a 39-28 Nittany Lions victory. McGloin finished 35-of-51 for 282 yards and two touchdowns, plus that running score. Props also to Allen Robinson, who caught both of McGloin's touchdown throws, and running back Zach Zwinak, who had 121 yards rushing and 52 receiving yards.
- Michigan State WR Aaron Burbridge: The true freshman got his first career start against Indiana, and it came at just the right time for the Spartans. With star tight end Dion Sims injured, Michigan State needed someone to step forward in the passing game, and Burbridge finished with eight catches for 134 yards. The Spartans' 31-27 victory wouldn't have been possible without him.
- Michigan QB Denard Robinson: Shoelace doesn't owe anybody any apologies for this one. Coming off maybe his worst game ever against Notre Dame two weeks ago, Robinson looked more like his old self in a 44-13 victory at Purdue. That old self included an emphasis on running, and he finished with 235 rushing yards on 24 carries. He also completed 8 of 16 passes for 105 yards and a touchdown -- and no interceptions! -- as the Wolverines dominated in a must-have win. Robinson became the Big Ten's all-time leader in rushing yards by a quarterback, surpassing Indiana's Antwaan Randle El.
- Wisconsin's defensive line: The Badgers' front four got several key players back on the field and delivered its best collective performance of the season. Pat Muldoon returned to the lineup after missing three games with a broken thumb and recorded 2.5 tackles for loss, including a sack. Four different defensive linemen recorded sacks, and the group combined for six tackles for loss, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a quarterback hurry in holding Illinois to 14 points and 284 total yards in the 31-14 win.
- Ohio State QB Braxton Miller: We're afraid Miller is running out of room on his helmet for all these stickers. But slap another one on there after he ran for 186 yards on just 16 carries -- that's 11.6 yards per carry -- and threw for 127 yards in the 63-38 romp over Nebraska. He simply looks unstoppable through six games. Give at least half a sticker to backfield mate Carlos Hyde, who ran for 140 yards and four scores so Miller didn't have to do it all.
Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year
1. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: The leader in the clubhouse after September, Miller continues to be the main reason why the Buckeyes are undefeated. He's averaging 115 rushing yards and 186 passing yards per game, though he'll have to cut down on both his turnovers and the big hits he's taken.
2. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska: If Miller hadn't been so valuable the first five weeks, Martinez would be the clear choice so far. He's leading the league in pass efficiency, has an 11-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and is the engine that drives the Big Ten's top offense.
3. Matt McGloin, QB, Penn State: McGloin still leads the Big Ten in passing yards, and his 10 passing touchdowns are second to only Martinez. He's also added four rushing scores. He has had a hand in all but two of Penn State's 16 touchdowns this season.
4. Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State: Bell continues to lead the conference in rushing, but two supbar games in losses to Notre Dame and Ohio State hurt his cause in this race. He can still pile up the stats in the next couple of months, however.
5. Mark Weisman, RB, Iowa: The Hawkeyes' walk-on has an incredible story and has been playing incredibly the past three games, racking up 507 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Not playing much the first two games put him behind the leaders for individual honors, but if he can keep this up he'll catch them in the end.
Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year
1. Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State: There might not be a better linebacker in the country right now than Mauti, who is the heart and soul of the Nittany Lions' defense. His two-interception performance against Illinois sealed his status as the Big Ten defensive MVP of September.
2. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue: The senior had another sack against Marshall, giving him four this season. But the Boilers' overall defensive effort wasn't very good last week. Purdue will need Short to stand tall against Michigan this week. The next three weeks will be make-or-break time for his candidacy and his team's season.
3. Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin: Borland was all over the place against Nebraska last week, and is having an outstanding season (43 tackles, three sacks, four pass breakups, one forced fumble).
4. D.L. Wilhite, DE, Minnesota: Wilhite paced the Big Ten in sacks (4.5), but the Gophers' poor overall defensive showing against Iowa last week dented his chances.
5. Will Compton, LB, Nebraska: Compton might have played his best game as a Husker in leading his team's second-half comeback against Wisconsin. He leads Nebraska in tackles (44) and has three sacks, along with two quarterback hurries.
Richter–Howard Receiver of the Year
1. Allen Robinson, Penn State: Robinson has more receiving yards (439) than anyone in the league and is tied for tops in the Big Ten in catches (32) and touchdowns (five). He might also be the league's most improved player after catching three balls as a freshman.
2. Antavian Edison, Purdue: The Boilermakers have a lot of weapons, but Edison is their clear go-to guy in the passing game. He has as many touchdown catches as Robinson in one less game.
3. Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin: Abbrederis' value to the Badgers' offense is immense. He's leading the league in receiving yards per game (99.8) and might be ahead of Robinson had he not missed a game and a half with a chest injury/concussion.
4. Devin Smith, Ohio State: No receiver in the league has more highlights than Smith, who has caught game-winning bombs against Cal and Michigan State. Urban Meyer said after the Michigan State game that Smith is blossoming into a great player right before our eyes.
1. Miller Time, T-Magic on display: Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez might not be traditional Big Ten quarterbacks, but they're the faces of the quarterback position in the league these days. Both are dynamic dual threats who have made significant strides from the 2011 season. Miller aims to continue his Heisman Trophy campaign Saturday night against a Nebraska defense that struggled to contain him last year before he left the game with an ankle injury. Martinez led the biggest comeback in Huskers history last year against Ohio State and has accounted for eight touchdowns (6 pass, 2 rush) in his past three games.
2. Boiling point: Purdue coach Danny Hope says he already knows a lot about his team after three non-league wins and a 3-point road loss at Notre Dame. The rest of us aren't quite as sure about what the Boilers will be this season. The good news: Everyone will find out in the next three weeks, as Purdue opens Big Ten play with its defining stretch of the season. Before hosting Wisconsin and visiting Ohio State, Purdue hosts Michigan on Saturday in its most anticipated game since perhaps Wisconsin in 2004. The Boilers average 51 points per game on their home field, where they open league play against the Wolverines for the first time since 1970.
3. Oktoberfest: Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald made October a major point of emphasis as far back as the summer, mindful of his team's struggles in the season's middle month. The Wildcats have done well in September (20-9) and November (13-8) under Fitzgerald, but they've had their difficulties in October (10-15), including a 1-4 mark in 2011. Northwestern is 5-0 for the third time in five seasons and takes a national ranking to Happy Valley, where it faces a streaking Penn State squad. It's a good chance for Northwestern to change its October fortunes against its most challenging opponent to date.
4. Seeking mojo in Mad City: Austin Powers would steer clear of the Illinois-Wisconsin game Saturday. Both teams are looking for their mojo after the first five weeks. Illinois tries to find it in a very tough place (Camp Randall Stadium) after being embarrassed on its home field in back-to-back weeks. Asked this week about boosting team morale, first-year coach Tim Beckman said, "That's what we're dealing with each and every day." Wisconsin appeared to make strides last week against Nebraska before collapsing down the stretch. Coach Bret Bielema is encouraged with his team's progress amid transition, but Wisconsin can't start Big Ten play at 0-2. Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis called the Illinois game a must-win for Wisconsin.
5. MSU offense looks for green flag: After puttering around the track in the first five games, Michigan State's offense heads to the Crossroads of America (Indiana) hoping to finally shift into fifth gear. Coach Mark Dantonio shuffled the depth chart a bit this week, as freshman wide receiver Aaron Burbridge will start and other young players like freshman receiver Macgarrett Kings Jr. should see increased time. Michigan State can't neglect the run game, though, as it boasts a 15-1 record when Le'Veon Bell scores at least one rush touchdown. Indiana surrendered 704 yards to Northwestern last week (394 rushing). Saturday is the time for Michigan State to finally put it all together on offense.
Chris Williams/Icon SMIDenard Robinson and Michigan look to break out of their away-from-home scoring malaise at Purdue.
7. Whiteout in Happy Valley: Sparked by their team's three-game win streak, Penn State students are planning a whiteout at Beaver Stadium for Saturday's game against Northwestern. The Lions aim for their first home win against a ranked opponent since the 2008 season, and several players called the contest a must-win. Senior quarterback Matt McGloin has owned Northwestern in his career (417 pass yards, 6 TDs, 0 INTs in two games), and McGloin is a much better quarterback in Bill O'Brien's offense. After an ominous start, Penn State can enter an off week with a ton of momentum with a victory.
8. Bo heads home: While his team aims for a signature road win in the Big Ten, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini makes a homecoming of sorts Saturday at Ohio Stadium. Pelini played safety for the Buckeyes from 1987 to '90 and hails from Youngstown, Ohio. Not surprisingly, the Huskers' boss downplayed his Ohio State roots this week, saying he's "at a different time in my life, a different place" and "has a job to do." It's wise for Pelini to keep himself out of the spotlight as much as possible, but he'll likely experience some emotion when Nebraska takes the field at The Shoe. And a victory against his alma mater will mean a little extra.
9. Two Hoosiers take aim: Indiana coach Kevin Wilson doesn't see much separating quarterbacks Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld, and he'll likely use both against Michigan State. Coffman has started the past two games, while Sudfeld has finished them, providing a spark down the stretch. Wilson likes the competition and plays down the other C-word (controversy), but the picture could clear up Saturday as the two quarterbacks face by far the best defense they've seen this season. Whoever better commands the IU offense -- and gets the ball to talented receivers Kofi Hughes and Cody Latimer -- will take a step closer to locking up the top job.
10. Badgers' 2-minute drill: Joel Stave is Wisconsin's starting quarterback, and he looked the part last week against Nebraska in his first career road start. But in crunch time, after Stave got a bit shaken up, the Badgers followed their plan and went with veteran Danny O'Brien under center rather than Stave. O'Brien moved Wisconsin to midfield but botched the call on a fourth-and-1 play, leading to a fumble that clinched the victory for the Huskers. It'll be interesting how the Badgers proceed should a two-minute situation come up against Illinois. Will they turn to O'Brien or give Stave a shot? Stay tuned.