Penn State Nittany Lions: Big 10


STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The young and curious are approaching Christian Hackenberg more often these days, peppering the Penn State quarterback with questions about game speed and other topics.

It will slow down, Hackenberg tells his teammates. Just keep working. Everything's going to be alright.

Hackenberg is the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year. He's in the spring semester of his freshman year. He celebrated his 19th birthday on Valentine's Day.

He's also a graybeard at Penn State, as crazy as it sounds.

"The guys look at me as one of the older guys, especially the early enrollees," Hackenberg told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "'I still look at myself as the just-turned-19-year-old freshman."

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Dan Sanger/Icon SMIEven though he's merely a rising sophomore, Christian Hackenberg has become a player that his younger Penn State teammates look up to.
That a Penn State quarterback going through his first spring practice -- remember, Hackenberg was in high school at this time last year -- could be labeled an old guy seemed laughable not long ago. In 2010, Rob Bolden became the first true freshman quarterback at Penn State to start the season opener since Shorty Miller in 1910. Future Nittany Lions coach Rip Engle was four years old at the time. Joe Paterno wouldn't be born for another 16 years.

Now the Lions have had two freshman opening-game starters in four seasons. Hackenberg's accelerated ascent isn't a huge surprise given the hype that surrounded him in high school. Anyone who watched him last season, especially in his final performance in an upset win at Wisconsin on the Badgers' senior day (339 pass yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs), knew he was no ordinary freshman.

But after starting all 12 games for the Lions in 2013, Hackenberg has both the credentials and the credibility to claim a larger leadership role in an offense facing significant depth challenges along the line and at wide receiver.

"It's tough to try and claim that as a sophomore, but I'm one of the most experienced guys returning on this offense," said Hackenberg, who passed for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last fall. "What I went through last year has prepared me to be able to step into that role more than if I would not have played or just played a little bit.

"I'm trying to be a leader through my actions."

His actions this spring include absorbing a new offense described as personnel-driven, pro-style. There are similarities to the system Hackenberg operated under former coach Bill O'Brien, especially the protections and some terminology.

But there's also a lot to learn.

"Some games we may come out in heavy tight end sets, some games we might come out in empty sets," Hackenberg said. "It's more multiple."

Hackenberg boasts the strongest arm in the Big Ten and is lauded for being able to make just about any throw. But it's the simple throws -- the underneath routes, which he "babied" at times last season, or the comeback routes -- where he wants greater consistency.

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound sophomore-to-be has formed a quick connection with new Lions offensive coordinator John Donovan, whose approach reminds him of O'Brien's. Hackenberg also has been in touch with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr., with whom he worked at the Elite 11 high school camp. Whitfield has tutored other Big Ten quarterbacks such as Michigan State's Connor Cook and Ohio State's Braxton Miller in the offseason.

Nothing is set yet, but if Hackenberg seeks outside assistance, he'd pick Whitfield.

"He's worked with the best of the best the past couple years coming out," Hackenberg said, "so being able to get comparisons to that and see what they did to prepare, that would be good."

Hackenberg also must vary his targets in 2014. Wide receiver Allen Robinson, who had more than three times as many receptions (97) as any other Penn State player last season, is preparing for the NFL draft. There are capable options like tight end Jesse James, who shined during Wednesday's practice, as well as tight ends Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman and wideout Geno Lewis, but none likely can come close to Robinson's production.

"Allen was a guy I really leaned on because I honestly didn't know what to expect a lot of the times last year," Hackenberg said. "I was seeing things for the first time -- going to the Horseshoe for the first time, going against Ohio State’s defense for the first time, seeing Michigan here in a whiteout for the first time. So when you're in those situations, you tend to lean on guys you’ve worked with, and Allen and I worked really hard in the summer together.

"Now I look at myself as filling in Allen's shoes because we have a lot of guys coming in. I just want to be a guy who can help put those guys in situations to succeed. I really want to spread the ball around this year."

New PSU coach James Franklin sees Hackenberg as a smart, demanding player who brings more athleticism to the field that many believe. Hackenberg clocked a 4.7 in the 40-yard dash during Penn State's recent testing.

Franklin and his staff face plenty of challenges on offense, primarily a line with glaring experience and depth issues. But the Lions undoubtedly have their centerpiece.

"He's got a chance to be a special player," Franklin said of Hackenberg. "We're just going to have to keep developing him here over the next three years."

Phase 2 begins this fall.

Big Ten's lunch links

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
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What you know about roses, bro?

Big Ten lunchtime links

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
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I need my football fix. Someone should consider resurrecting the XFL ...
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- James Franklin hasn't even spent one night in Happy Valley, but Penn State's new head coach has already thrown down the recruiting gauntlet against Pittsburgh and other teams in the northeast.

"Our recruiting philosophy," Franklin said Saturday afternoon during his introductory press conference, "we are going to dominate the state. We are going to dominate the region.

"I'm going to call all the high school coaches. I'm calling all the people in the state that we need to come together like never before."

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsJames Franklin didn't mince words when talking about recruiting, say that it's his mission for the Nittany Lions to dominate within the state of Pennsylvania.
Franklin emphasized every line about recruiting and spoke passionately during his first-ever news conference as the Penn State head coach. He's been widely regarded as an incredible recruiter -- he reeled in 22 four-star commits during his time at Vanderbilt -- and he didn't hesitate when asked about his high recruiting hopes.

The new coach's bold statement comes after years of PSU routinely losing out in western Pennsylvania. Sure, Penn State has earned commitments of some prospects such as wideout Troy Apke, but it's missed more than it's hit. PSU fell out of favor with ESPN 300 targets such as WR Tyler Boyd (2013 commit; Pitt), ATH Dravon Henry (2014 commit; West Virginia) and DB Montae Nicholson (2014 commit; Michigan State).

Beating Pitt out for recruits in its own backyard is a daring statement. So, a few minutes after answering his first recruiting question, Franklin was given a chance to soften his words. This time, he was asked where his recruiting focus lay -- but he again wasted no time in reinforcing his original point.

"I don't know if I mentioned this before, but we're going to dominate the state," he said matter-of-factly. "That's the first thing we're going to do."

And after that? Well, Franklin said next comes the region, in such states and areas as New Jersey, New York, New England, Virginia and Delaware. And, then, comes the nation.

"I think you sell yourself short when you don't do that," said the coach who got three commitments from California in Vanderbilt's last class.

Of course, Franklin never specifically mentioned Pitt at that point in the press conference. Maybe he'd back down if that was spelled out to him, maybe he'd try to soften up all this talk of dominating and controlling. It was an interesting thing to say, after all, for his first day on the job.

But Franklin just doubled-down on those statements when Pitt was specifically mentioned in one reporter's question.

"When I say Pennsylvania, when I say Penn State, that's the whole state," he said. "That is the whole state. We will recruit every corner of this state, every school of this state, every neighborhood of this state.

"And when I say recruit, not only just the student-athletes. I mean the people of the great state of Pennsylvania. We will recruit everybody, and that is with tremendous respect for the University of Pittsburgh. But we are ... Penn State."

Past motivating RB Belton's future

November, 21, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill Belton still remembers what everyone said about him last season -- about how he was nothing more than a bust, an offensive disappointment, a tailback who just didn't have what it takes.

He's no longer the same player now. He leads Penn State in rushing (796 yards) and cuts upfield with purpose, as if he's running from a swarm of bumblebees. But he still finds it difficult to forget last season's disappointment. As a matter of fact, he makes sure he doesn't forget.

He's saved all those negative articles -- the ones that alluded to him as a below-average player -- on his cell phone. So whenever he finds himself growing complacent or feels like sleeping in an extra 15 minutes, he reaches into his pocket and clicks one of those saved stories.

[+] EnlargeBill Belton
Randy Litzinger/Icon SMIBill Belton's resurgence was capped by a 201-yard game against Illinois -- the best PSU rushing performance since 2002.
"I don't know who wrote them, but they're everywhere if you go out there and look," Belton said. "I read them from time to time, and that's what's motivating me to finish this season."

It's difficult to blame reporters or fans for prematurely writing off Belton, whom Big Ten readers recently named the most surprising tailback of the conference season. Bill O'Brien gathered around a circle of reporters in August 2012 and confidently stated how the former receiver was capable of carrying the pigskin 20-25 times a game. Belton firmly believed that number; everyone did.

But the New Jersey kid would average only five carries a contest that season. He would wait patiently on the sideline some afternoons, hoping to hear his name called. And in some games, such as Indiana, the staff never once called upon his number. He'd walk back to his on-campus apartment afterward, wondering what he'd have to do to live up to expectations.

"The toughest thing to do was to come back after a game and hear them talk about the game, knowing you didn't help the team do anything," Belton said, referring to his three starting roommates. "It was something they didn't see at all. I was happy for them; it was something moreso my parents saw. "

O'Brien and assistant coach Charles London pulled him aside every now and then to remind him they still believed in him, that one day he could be one of the best backs they ever coached. But that time did not come last season, when Belton stuttered in the backfield. And the media wondered aloud what had happened to the same player whom O'Brien heaped praise upon before his first start.

It wouldn't come until the offseason, when Belton drove three-and-a-half hours home to Sicklerville, N.J., reclined in his living room, and watched one taped Big Ten game after another.

"I watched all these games and I was like, 'What do I have to do to be at the top in the Big Ten, to be the top in the country?' " Belton asked. "I was like, OK, all the other stuff doesn't matter. If I want to be the best I can be, I need to focus on football and school."

The recipe for success, Belton figured, wasn't so much a recipe as it was just a single ingredient: Hard work. Success wasn't going to tackle him in the home opener; he'd have to work on finding it in empty weight rooms and summer football fields over the offseason.

So, from that point on, he looked at 2013 as a new chapter -- even if the media didn't catch on right away. He spent three or four afternoons every week on the practice field sprinting through cones, pushing sleds and then heading in the weight room.

Sometimes, he was alone. Other times, he trained there with five others. Whenever he found himself in the weight room, his arms aching and his face straining for one last rep, strength coach Craig Fitzgerald would be there to yell in his ear: "Do you want to be the best running back -- or do you want to go back to sleep?" Fitzgerald never needed to wait on an answer.

And when Belton jogged to the football field himself, alone with his thoughts and without Fitzgerald's motivation, his mind raced from one old news article to another -- about how he wasn't ready, how he was no good, how he was too slow.

"That bothered me," Belton admitted. "When I came back, it was more so I wanted to prove these people wrong. I want to make them eat every word they said about me. That's where my motivation came from."

He sat in on the film room with O'Brien and London, putting in extra time with those two whenever compliance allowed. They'd freeze a frame, a single picture of an opposing defensive line, and Belton would call aloud where the right cut would be. Then they'd go faster. And faster.

Different looks, different blocking schemes. It didn't matter. Little by little, he had gone from running on pure instinct to making quick decisions based on coaching.

"He's making good cuts, he's making smart cuts, and he's not dancing in the hole," offensive guard John Urschel said. “And, as offensive linemen, we love that.”

His accomplishments this season are slowly starting to outnumber last year's negative stories. So far he's crossed the 200-yard mark against Illinois -- the first time a Nittany Lion has done that since 2002. He ran in for the game-ending touchdown against Michigan in the longest game in conference history (4 OT), and he rushed for the most yards (98) that Ohio State has allowed all season.

But he shifted his weight uncomfortably in his chair when asked about his high point this season. He paused for a few moments and glanced up as if maybe the ceiling had an answer waiting for him.

"I'm not where I want to be. I want to be on a level, let's say for instance, where Montee Ball was," Belton said. "That's where I want to be. That was one of the best running backs that I've seen since I've been here. He received a lot of attention for the stuff he did on the field, and I want to reach that point where, if you say my name, you know who I am.

"But I'm not at that point. I still got a lot more work to do."

Big Ten: November stretch run

November, 1, 2013
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October was a miserable month.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fearless November prediction: Michigan State and Ohio State will end up playing each other in the Big Ten title game. The Buckeyes are the easy pick, and the Spartans' Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford have taken big steps forward since the beginning of the season. Michigan State's defense is easily the best in the Big Ten, maybe in the country, and the offense is no longer anemic. The Buckeyes are the best team in the conference, no doubt. But the Spartans are No. 2. And they'll face OSU in the conference championship.

Big Ten Week 9: Did you know?

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


STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Braxton Miller might no longer be on the short list of Heisman candidates, but Bill O'Brien said Tuesday afternoon that he's still one of the nation's five best players.

"It's a very difficult challenge playing a guy like Braxton Miller -- in my opinion one of the top five players in the country," the Penn State head coach said. "He's improved immensely since being in the system."

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsPenn State coach Bill O'Brien says Ohio State QB Braxton Miller is "a dangerous guy."
O'Brien praised the Ohio State quarterback throughout his weekly 30-minute news conference, saying it takes a special player to lead a team to a 19-game winning streak and to a No. 4 ranking in the BCS.

PSU will travel to Columbus, Ohio, for an 8 p.m. showdown against Miller and the Buckeyes on Saturday.

"I don't know Braxton Miller, but I do know that he's throwing the ball very well," O'Brien said. "He's accurate. He's making plays on third down in the passing game. He obviously understands coverage, and he's just doing a really, really good job of running that offense in all facets of that offense. It's a very difficult challenge."

O'Brien received a close look at Miller last season, when he strolled into Beaver Stadium and wreaked havoc on the Nittany Lions' defense. The dual-threat signal-caller accounted for nearly three-quarters of the offense, rushing for 134 yards and two TDs and throwing for another 143 yards and a score. (Tailback Carlos Hyde managed just 55 yards on 22 carries.)

The Buckeyes won that game, 35-23, and O'Brien knows it won't be any easier this weekend since Miller's enjoyed another year in Urban Meyer's system. And, on the flip side, O'Brien has fewer defensive players to work with this season.

"I thought they played really well offensively against Iowa. And, if he gets outside of the pocket, he's a dangerous guy," O'Brien said. "We've got to play hard and play with great effort and do the best we can to keep him in there and, when he gets out, we have to make sure that we understand our scramble rules."

Miller missed two games this season after suffering an MCL sprain in Week 2. He's completed nearly 70 percent of his passes, thrown for 831 yards and has eight touchdowns compared to two picks. On the ground, he has 335 yards and is averaging 4.5 yards a carry.

He boasts the highest quarterback rating (160.0) and completion rate (69.6) in the Big Ten.

Big Ten Week 8: Did you know?

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

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midseason report: Penn State

October, 15, 2013
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Bill O'Brien has once again breathed new life into these Nittany Lions.

No, they're not the best in the Big Ten -- they're more of a middle-of-the-road team -- but it will be difficult to count them out of any game going forward. PSU has embraced the underdog role since O'Brien took over, and it should feel pretty good heading into this bye week at 4-2.

PSU dropped its first game in school history against Indiana, in ugly 44-24 fashion, but rebounded with a classic game against Michigan that lasted four overtimes and resulted in an emotional 43-40 victory. That was a critical win for PSU, especially considering what it's up against this season.

O'Brien has said PSU has just 61 scholarship players, and it's clear the talent level on defense is far from ideal. Luckily for PSU, Christian Hackenberg has more than lived up to expectations as a true freshman who's been on campus about four months now.

It will get better for PSU, especially now that future sanctions have been reduced, but it'll be an uphill battle the rest of this season. Future games against Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin will especially be a big challenge for a team short on numbers.

But, if there's one thing PSU's shown the last year and a half, it's that you can never completely write it off.

Offensive MVP: WR Allen Robinson. He's the best receiver in the Big Ten, and his route-running and athleticism are second to none. In four of six contests this season, he's caught at least seven balls for at least 125 yards. And the offense has had a hard timing moving without him. Against Michigan, he ended up with Sportscenter's top play -- and that was during a "down" game, statistically. His 37-inch vertical leap has given defenders fits this season, and he's on pace to break the school's single-season record for receptions (again) and receiving yards. He leads the conference with 43 catches for 705 yards and five TDs. He's only a junior, but he could wind up taking his talents to the NFL early.

Defensive MVP: DT DaQuan Jones. Usually, linebacker is the position of focus at Penn State. But Jones' performance so far has made him difficult to ignore. He's second on the team in tackles (31.5), leads the Big Ten in tackles for loss (8.5) and has already produced two sacks and a fumble recovery. He's a big reason the Nittany Lions' run defense has been mostly stingy and, at 318 pounds, it's pretty incredible to note that no PSU player has more solo tackles than him. He made a statement in the first two games and was a constant force in PSU's quadruple-overtime victory against Michigan.

B1G high school performers 

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

Illinois

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

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 11, 2013
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Bow ties are cool.

Big Ten Week 7: Did you know?

October, 11, 2013
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You know what's better than regular old trivia? Big Ten trivia. So take a look at this week's crazy numbers and interesting facts:
  • The Badgers boast two standout players on offense who pile on the yards, which puts them in pretty elite company. Wisconsin is one of just three teams in the country who have a player averaging 100 rushing yards a game (Melvin Gordon, 139.6) and another player averaging 100 receiving yards a game (Jared Abbrederis, 114.4). Those other two teams? LSU and Baylor.
  • Northwestern has scored at least 30 points in every game this season. Actually, going back to last year, the Wildcats have done that in seven straight games -- the longest such streak in school history. Only one team in the FBS currently boasts a longer streak, and that's the Baylor Bears who have scored between 69 and 73 points in four games this season.
  • Wisconsin's Gordon has played the role of home-run threat this season and, outside of averaging more than a first down every carry, he also leads the FBS in rushes of 25 yards or more. He's broken long runs like that seven times already this season, including a nation-best four TD runs of 25 yards or more. He didn't have one such long rush against Ohio State last week, the first time all season.
  • Devin Gardner obviously hasn't been the most consistent of quarterbacks, but the Michigan offense has been pretty steady at keeping drives alive thanks to its incredible third-down numbers. Last season, it was sixth in the nation -- and first in the Big Ten -- when it converted just over half (87-of-173) of its third-down attempts. This season so far? It's even better. U-M is converting 54 percent (36-of-67) of its third-down attempts and still ranks atop the conference.
  • Michigan's defense hasn't allowed a rushing touchdown all season -- and that's pretty rare. The Wolverines are one of only two teams that can say that; the other is Iowa. On the flip side, Penn State has rushed for 11 scores already this year and is averaging a little more than two a game.
  • Penn State wideout Allen Robinson was asked this week about whether he'd declare early for the NFL -- he said it's not yet on his mind -- but that opportunity really shouldn't have been a surprise. He's currently on pace for the best receiving performance ever by a Penn State player. By far. He currently owns the school's single-season receptions record with 77 catches (from last year), and Bobby Engram boasts the single-season receiving yards record with 1,084 yards (from the 1995 season). Well, if you take Robinson's current numbers (38 catches, 621 yards) and average them out to the course of a season, A-Rob is on pace for a record-breaking 91 catches and 1,490 yards.
  • Indiana coach Kevin Wilson takes pride in his uptempo offense, and the numbers certainly seem like cause for satisfaction. Twenty-six of the Hoosiers' 32 scoring drives -- which went for 23 TDs -- have taken three minutes or less. Eleven scoring drives, all of which went for TDs, have taken under 60 seconds. And Indiana runs one play, on average, every 19.9 seconds. That's enough to tire out just about any defense.
  • Where do we even begin when it comes to putting into words and numbers how dominant Michigan State's defense has been? Well, first of all, it ranks No. 1 in total defense (203.8 yards per game), rushing defense (51.2 yards per game), passing efficiency defense (81.16 rating) and opponent third-down conversions (22 percent; 17-of-77). Oh, and it's also near the top of the nation, within the top 10, in scoring defense (13.4 ppg) and passing defense (152.6 yards per game). Basically, think up a defensive stat and there's a pretty good chance the Spartans are ranked at the top of the Big Ten.
  • True freshman quarterback Danny Etling will grab his first career start for Purdue this weekend, but he's hardly the only young player seeing time for the Boilermakers. Just look at the roster to begin with -- Purdue has 52 freshmen (29 true, 23 redshirt) on the roster, while there are just 60 sophomores, juniors and seniors. Sixteen freshmen have already played this season, including five true freshmen. So it seems as if it should only get better in West Lafayette, Ind., in the coming seasons.
  • Most offenses try to strike a nice balance, and no team in the Big Ten has done a better job in the last two years -- at least statistically -- than Nebraska. Yes, the running game has been its forte in the early going. But its part of an exclusive club that has thrown for at least 200 yards a game while also running for more than 200. Last season, it was one of just 19 teams in the country to join the 200-200 club. So far this season, it's one of 31 schools in the country.
Michigan will travel to Happy Valley on Saturday for its 17th meeting against Penn State. So, in preparation of the game, Michigan beat writer Chantel Jennings and Penn State beat writer Josh Moyer sat down to discuss four key questions surrounding the contest.

What's the X-factor for the Michigan-PSU game?

Jennings: Whether Michigan can get control early. If this is close going into the fourth quarter, I don’t like Michigan’s chances. It should come as no surprise -- especially with a young QB like Christian Hackenberg -- that Penn State gets better as the game goes on. The Nittany Lions have scored 21 first-quarter points but 65 fourth-quarter points. The crowd will be behind Hackenberg and his offense so if it comes down to a fourth-quarter stand from the Michigan D I just don’t see it happening.

Moyer: Turnovers. I know, I know -- they're an X-factor in every game. But bear with me here. Neither of these teams often finds itself on the right side of the turnover battle -- both are tied for 97th this season in turnover margin -- and they've both managed to win in spite of that. And it's a toss-up Saturday to see who'll take advantage. Michigan is turning the ball over, on average, a little bit more than twice a game. Only 17 FBS teams are worse. On the flip side, only a dozen teams in the FBS have forced fewer turnovers than Penn State. Something has to give. For either team to finish even plus one would be big.

Which player is the most important?

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesThe maddening inconsistency of Devin Gardner will play a major role on Saturday in State College.
Jennings: Michigan QB Devin Gardner. This could be a high-scoring game depending on how Michigan’s defense handles Hackenberg and whether Gardner is himself or just a shell of himself. If the Gardner who showed up against Akron and UConn is on the one who takes the field this Saturday, things could get ugly fast. Penn State isn’t the friendliest of environments, and we’ve seen how mistakes pile up on the road. The offense hinges on his performance and if Michigan wants to win, Gardner needs to take care of the ball and run this offense like he can.

Moyer: Gardner. The opponent's passing games have dictated a lot for PSU. Just look at their two losses: Blake Bortles was the key in the UCF-PSU game, and Indiana's passing game posted 336 yards. Gardner might not be a better passer than Bortles, but he's easily the best athlete under center that PSU has faced. If he escapes the pocket, Penn State is in trouble. If Gardner plays like he did against Akron and UConn, Penn State wins. If he plays like he did against Notre Dame and Minnesota, Penn State loses.

What's the matchup to watch?

Jennings: Penn State’s secondary against wide receiver Devin Funchess. After the Minnesota game, teams are going to key in on Funchess. Physically, I can’t really see many defensive backs in the country having the inherent advantage in this battle, but I think it’ll be very interesting to see how the sophomore handles the added pressure and coverage.

Moyer: DT DaQuan Jones vs. U-M interior. The 318-pound tackle is Penn State's most dominant defensive player, and the Wolverines' interior isn't exactly a strength. Graham Glasgow made his first start at center last week, and Jones has the ability to take over a game. He's second -- yes, second -- on the team in tackles with 30, and he leads PSU with two sacks and 6.5 stops in the backfield. If Penn State's defensive line gets a good push Saturday, or U-M's tailbacks have difficulty running up the middle, it'll almost certainly be due to Jones.

Which team has the advantage?

Jennings: If all things were equal and it just came down to each team playing to its potential, I’d say Michigan would have the advantage. However, the Wolverines have not played well on the road and Beaver Stadium is going to provide a huge challenge. Communication issues are going to pop up and considering this will be just the second start for this group as a unit on the offensive line -- and just the second start with Glasgow and Gardner together -- I have to believe mistakes will be made that will heavily favor Penn State.

Moyer: Michigan. The main issue surrounding the Wolverines seems to be which Gardner will show up. The main issue surrounding Penn State is ... well ... there's a lot more than one issue. That's the problem. There has been no No. 2 receiving threat, the running game has been inconsistent, the linebackers have looked lost at times, and the secondary remains a weakness. To me, that seems to be too many question marks against a ranked team. Inconsistent or not, the Wolverines have made the plays when they've needed to. The same cannot be said of Penn State. Could Penn State pull this one out? Absolutely. But it would most certainly be an upset.

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BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12