Penn State Nittany Lions: Big Ten

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Christian Hackenberg flexed like a prizefighter at midfield, tilted his head back and let out a scream as his sideline erupted into smiles and chest-bumps.

Penn State’s quarterback had just transformed Saturday night from a potentially historic one for Rutgers -- what could have been its first win in its first-ever Big Ten game -- into a footnote of his own, by leading his fourth career game-winning drive in a 13-10 win. His teammates couldn’t hide their relief or delight, either: Defensive end Deion Barnes turned to the crowd and waved good-bye, wideout DaeSean Hamilton flung his gloves into the front row, and linebacker Brandon Bell leaped around with a grin.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Jim O'Connor/USA TODAY SportsChristian Hackenberg led Penn State's late comeback win against Rutgers.
Maybe this is a rivalry; maybe not. But don’t say this wasn’t a big game -- and don’t think players didn’t take some things personally from this past week.

"I just felt they didn’t respect us," Bell, a New Jersey native, said matter-of-factly.

Added PSU tailback Bill Belton, also from New Jersey: "They asked for a big-time game, and they got one."

This was Rutgers’ chance at respect, for showing up that team from Pennsylvania and proving wrong the opposing fans who sneered at their (lack of) tradition. The importance of this game can’t be minimized; Rutgers wideout Leonte Carroo told the Asbury Park Press a win could "change New Jersey and Rutgers football forever."

Instead, the contest sold out in record time, but question marks are now swirling around whether quarterback Gary Nova should remain the starter after throwing five interceptions. Instead, the crowd set the school’s attendance record, but lingering Rutgers fans were forced to hear "We Are … Penn State!" chants after the final whistle. Instead of putting Rutgers atop the Big Ten East and halfway to bowl-eligibility, it’s more of the same for a team that boasts the hardest schedule in the conference.

"This hurts. It should hurt," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. "But I will not allow them to be defined by their losses."

Bass from the loudspeakers thumped so hard you couldn’t feel your own heartbeat, and the pageantry surrounding High Point Solutions Stadium served as the tinsel to what could have been an unprecedented Rutgers victory. One large, stenciled sign read, "Enemies of the State" and listed all the New Jersey natives on Penn State’s roster. (Bell said word of the sign made its way around the locker room before the game.) And Penn State coach James Franklin added that Rutgers fans greeted the Nittany Lions’ buses by waving their middle fingers.

There were plenty of similar ingredients here for a future rivalry -- disrespect, a close game, proximity -- but both teams walked off the field with completely different mindsets. Flood referred to this loss as "devastating," and Franklin summed everything up by saying he felt "really, really proud."

This could have been a dream start for Rutgers but, instead, it’s a dream one for Penn State. Several thousand PSU fans spilled into the street last Monday, some crowd-surfing on mattresses, after the NCAA announced this team was once again postseason-eligible. Now it’s nearly on the cusp of a bowl berth.

The Nittany Lions are playing for more than just dignity now, and Hackenberg and these Lions now stand -- improbably -- atop the Big Ten East. They are the only undefeated team in their division and just one of two undefeated teams left in the conference (Nebraska). If it wasn’t for that final touchdown against Rutgers, all that could have been flipped upside down. And Hackenberg and these Lions knew it.

Hackenberg seemed to exorcise all that emotion and those "what-ifs" with that one, long yell on the field. Once he reached the postgame media room, his demeanor had already reverted back to its normal, calm self. He spoke as if the game had ended days before; he didn't even so much as grin while recounting his game-winning drive that came about 30 minutes prior.

You ever take time to enjoy these wins, Christian? It seems like you always just talk about how you guys have a long way to go.

"It’s just one of those things, man. We do," he said, stone-faced. "Looking at that film after a win feels a lot better than looking back on that film after a loss. ...

"This is huge because a win’s a win’s a win. We’re 3-0 right now, and we’re confident. We haven’t played our best ball yet."

Big Ten lunch links

July, 22, 2014
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Oppressive heat returns to the Midwest. Must be almost time for the start of football practice.
The offseason can be a time of rest and relaxation. Or maybe it’s a perfect time for some team building. Or working a camp. Or raising some money for charity. Or just having fun.

We’re taking a look at how teams have been spending their offseasons. We start with the teams in the East Division, with the West Division teams coming a little later.

Indiana Hoosiers tackle a hamburger eating contest White T-shirt dinner in Maryland Youth campers too much for Michigan State Spartans players Michigan Wolverines coach Brady Hoke serves up breakfast Ohio State Buckeyes go paint-balling Penn State Nittany Lions set a "Lift for Life" record Rutgers' Scarlet Knight beefing up  

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July, 2, 2014
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Lots to digest here.

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June, 27, 2014
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So, the USA outlasts Spain, Italy and England? Losing never felt so good.
Although there’s been plenty of good news on the recruiting trail for James Franklin and the Nittany Lions, injuries and depth issues sure seem to be stacking up for the program this offseason.

According to a report from Lions 247, linebacker Ben Kline is the latest to succumb to a serious injury -- a torn Achilles tendon that should make him miss “significant time,” according to the outlet’s sources.

[+] EnlargePenn State's Ben Kline
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsBen Kline's reported injury further depletes a thin group of Penn State linebackers.
The injury comes about seven months after Kline suffered a torn pectoral that required surgery. He also underwent a second shoulder surgery shortly after that. At the time of those surgeries, then-coach Bill O’Brien remained hopeful that Kline would be ready in time for kickoff this season.

Now? Well, with Franklin’s philosophy to not discuss injuries, it’s anyone’s guess as to when -- or whether -- Kline will return for his redshirt junior season.

Regardless of the severity, the injury obviously sets Penn State back. Depth issues along the offensive front have been well-documented, but the corps of linebackers are also extremely thin. Penn State now has just four linebackers who played last season and entered the university on scholarship: Mike Hull, Nyeem Wartman, Brandon Bell and Gary Wooten.

Kline, a team leader who penned an articulate open letter in January about the program, could’ve challenged for a starting job had he been healthy. At the least, he would’ve played a crucial role as a backup. Last season, he battled through injuries but eventually won the starting job later in the season -- before the torn pectoral ended his year.

Kline offered this team a safety blanket of sorts at his position. He was a solid player who would’ve contributed in some manner -- but now that production will have to come from elsewhere, which likely either means a lot more Wooten, time split among non-scholarship players or an immediate impact from the two true freshmen, Jason Cabinda and Troy Reeder.

Linebacker for Penn State just went from a potential issue to a real concern. The rest of these players need to stay healthy -- or Penn State’s defense could end up being in almost as much trouble as the offensive line.

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June, 24, 2014
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The World Cup's been great, but I'd still take football over fútbol any day.
Nearly all of the Big Ten’s top freshmen have reported to their respective schools, but ESPN.com caught up with a few players days before to pick their brains on an array of topics.

You can read the first installment here. To recap, the participants included Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson, ranked No. 157 in the 2014 class; Penn State WR Chris Godwin, one of the top 25 receivers in the class; Michigan LB Jared Wangler, one of 11 linebackers invited to the UA Game; Iowa WR Jay Scheel, one of two four-star players in the Hawkeyes’ class; and Maryland LB Jesse Aniebonam, the second-best prospect in the state behind OL Damian Prince.

Here’s what the freshmen had to say:

Outside of your team, what B1G freshmen are you most looking forward to watching and/or playing against?

Thorson: Hmmm. Trying to think. So there’s obviously Raekwon McMillan at Ohio State. I know we don’t play them this season, but I heard he’s a great player, so it’ll be fun going against him in future years. And it’s just guys like Zack Darlington; he’s at Nebraska at quarterback and I’ve gotten to know him over the past the few months, so it’ll be cool to go against him. And, at Michigan State, Madre London and I played at the Semper Fi [All-American] Bowl together, and he’s a great athlete.

[+] EnlargeChris Godwin
Miller Safrit/ESPNChris Godwin said his goal is not only to start this year but to be the Big Ten freshman of the year.
Godwin: I’m looking forward to seeing Freddy Canteen. I know him pretty well and, with his footwork, I think he’ll have a really good year at Michigan.

Wangler: I want to watch Byron Bullough for Michigan State. We played in this Michigan all-star game [‘Border Classic’ on June 14], and we got along pretty good. So I’m excited to see how he does. I know he’s got a good history -- his father and brother were successful for Michigan State -- so I feel like Byron is going to be successful, too.

Aniebonam: Big Ten-wise, that one guy -- Peppers, Jabrill Peppers -- he’s a solid athlete. I want to see how he does. He was in the Under Armour Game; we watched it right before our game [U.S. Army All-American Bowl] and he did pretty well. So, let’s see how he does at Michigan.

Why did you decide to commit to your school, and what do you think separates it from others in the conference?

Thorson: I always knew I wanted to play in the Big Ten. My family is from Ohio and Illinois, so I always just wanted to be around them so they could see me play – so that’s kind of how I narrowed it down. And then visiting different schools like Penn State, Illinois, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa – after looking at all those schools, I decided Northwestern was the best fit for me. I jelled with the guys on the team, and the coaching staff is just awesome. I thought that was the best fit for me both academically and athletically.

Godwin: I chose Penn State because I felt really comfortable on campus and with the team. It was also the right fit for me academically and socially, and I think the tradition and fan base really separate it from other teams in the conference.

Wangler: Michigan has always been my dream school to go to, and there aren’t many universities out there that offer such a great degree and a great football experience. Plus, I feel really comfortable with Coach [Brady] Hoke and Coach [Greg] Mattison. It’s a great fit. It’s close to home, my dad played there. ... It’s almost too good to be true.

Scheel: Well, personally, it’s just been a dream to play there. So, really, any other school that decided it was going to offer me was nice, but it was always my dream to go to Iowa. I’ve only heard good things about them. Playing for Iowa is really an honor. And what makes them different is they’re not known for getting big recruits -- I know that -- but they take two- and three-star recruits and turn them into NFL players.

Aniebonam: Maryland just really stood out to me. Not just because it’s my hometown team and all my friends and family will be around me, but every time I went to the campus I was just pulled in and attracted to it more and more. If you asked me in the beginning of my junior season if I wanted to go to Maryland, I would’ve said, ‘Heck no.’ But it just grew on me; it just felt right. … [What separates Maryland] is they’re well-known -- but still underdogs. I think it’s a team that is going to be really watched because people want to know what happens here.

What are your expectations for this season -- and your career?

Thorson: The coaches always say to prepare each week as if you’re going to start the game, so I’m going to do that every week. I just want to get better at leading the team and knowing the playbook and everything. The Lord has a plan for me and, whether that’s starting this year or next year, whatever happens happens. I’m just really looking forward to getting on campus and playing with these guys.

Godwin: I would consider them goals more than expectations because I haven’t done anything yet. But, this season, my goal is to earn a starting spot by UCF then continually improve as a player and a teammate and, hopefully, be Big Ten freshman of the year. As a team, a goal of mine is to go undefeated, but who doesn’t want that, right?

Wangler: I expect to win. I think this next season we have a lot of people coming back and, after having kind of a mediocre season last year, I think we’re going to come out with a lot of hunger and the team is going to do a lot better. I think that’s going to set the pace for the four years after that. I feel like I’m going to have a successful career at Michigan.

Scheel: Personally, going in, I just want to get to know the playbook better and get to know the offense as soon as I can. I pretty much think I’m going to redshirt because starting right away might be difficult. If it does work, that’d be great. But I’m just trying to do my best. With my career, I’m trying to make a big impact on Iowa football, and I just want to have fun and get on the field.

Aniebonam: I just want to make a name for myself early. I want to get myself out there and really, really put my stamp on the school and into the minds of the coaches as early as I can. … Hopefully, that’ll come quick, but nothing is ever promised. You have to work.
The Big Ten’s top freshmen will soon run on to their teams’ practice fields for the first time with the hope of making names for themselves. Nearly all of them have reported, so what is their mindset? And what do they think about their respective teams?

Before they reported, ESPN.com caught up with a handful of the conference’s elite freshmen – all were ranked within the ESPN 300 or earned an invite to the Under Armour Game – and asked them several questions to get a better idea of where they stand.

The participants were Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson, the No. 7 quarterback in the 2014 class; Penn State WR Chris Godwin, the top player in his state; Michigan LB Jared Wangler, one of 90 players selected to the UA Game; Iowa WR Jay Scheel, the headliner of the Hawkeyes’ class; and Maryland LB Jesse Aniebonam, the No. 98 player in the ESPN 300.

Part 2 with those same players will run on Tuesday. Here’s what they had to say in this first installment:

What game are you most looking forward to this season?

[+] EnlargeClayton Thorson
Tom Hauck for Student SportsNorthwestern signee Clayton Thorson is looking forward to the Wildcats' game at Notre Dame.
Thorson: Obviously, every game is important, so you can’t overlook any team. But I’d say the game I’m looking forward to is Notre Dame. That’ll just be a cool environment to play in. You see everything about how great their program and history are, so it’ll be fun to be inside the stadium and play on the field. It’ll be a cool experience.

Godwin: Honestly, right now, I’m looking forward to the UCF game because it’ll be my first game, and I don’t really want to look too far into the future. I just want to take everything one day at a time.

Wangler: To me, Michigan State kind of stands out the most. It’s an in-state rivalry, and last year we didn’t do well against them – and I feel like, this year, we have a lot to prove against them. I feel like Ohio State is the token answer, and I feel like that’s a big game. But, Michigan State, that’s an in-state game and they’ve been beating us the last few years. That’s not acceptable.

Scheel: I’m really just looking forward to the first game and heading out of Kinnick. I’m really looking forward to just experiencing it for the first time, because a lot of players have told me how special it was for them. So that’s something I’m really looking forward to, with the fan base and everything.

Aniebonam: That would be between Penn State and Ohio State, our conference home opener. Back in the day, I dreamed about playing against Penn State -- maybe even, back in the day, playing for them. But I’m looking forward to playing against them. I followed them, as well as Maryland, and it just seems like it would be a really exciting event, a game full of energy. We’re playing them up there, and I think it’s going to be a really close game. And Ohio State, that’s our first home game in the Big Ten. And that’ll really set the tone. So, those two are going to be really exciting.

Who’s one under-the-radar freshman -- outside of the ESPN 300 -- in your team’s class that we should be watching?

Thorson: I’d definitely say Justin Jackson, no question. He was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois two years in a row, rushed for like 6,000 or 7,000 yards in his career, and he’s a great guy. Obviously, the recruiting sites put up their view on what a guy is, and a lot said he wasn’t top-tier -- but he is. He’s the real deal. I think that’s one guy that will surprise people.

Godwin: If I had to pick one, it would be Troy Apke. I feel like he’s a guy that people aren’t really talking about but could really help us out a lot as a group of wide receivers.

Wangler: Freddy Canteen. I think he’ll be an immediate impact guy. I know he enrolled early, and he’s already turning heads. So Freddy Canteen. Everyone should keep an eye on him.

Scheel: The one guy I played against was Parker Hesse. He played both ways, at quarterback and linebacker, and they were a really good team. His legs are big, and he’s so fast and big that it was hard to bring him down. I think he’s going to be good for Iowa.

Aniebonam: I would say Will Ulmer. He was (Washington, D.C.) Saint John’s quarterback this year, and I believe he’s one of those underrated players that once people give him a chance – once he steps in – that he’ll show he’s an amazing athlete and an amazing player. I had the privilege of playing against him -- we butted heads for all four years -- and it was great to find out we were going to Maryland with each other. He’s going to surprise people.

If you could change one rule with the recruiting process, what would it be?

Thorson: The recruiting process comes so fast now, and guys don’t have a chance to grow into themselves. So I think one thing I would change is that the recruiting process would start a little later -- I would say coaches wouldn’t be allowed to contact guys until you’re going into your junior year of high school. I think that’s when you could make calls and stuff and talk to these coaches because guys are getting scholarships and letters when they’re in eighth grade. That’s crazy.

Godwin: Probably making official visits sooner, so that players don’t have to squeeze all of their visits in during the season.

Wangler: I think there should be an earlier signing day -- like maybe they should have two signing days. Just because it gets everything set in stone quicker because I know, when it gets closer to signing day, a lot of schools are pressuring kids and putting a lot of stress on them, and it’s kind of unfair to the kid. I feel if they really want to go somewhere, they should be able to.

Scheel: My recruiting process went pretty smoothly, so I don’t know if I would change anything about it. I guess, maybe being able to sign earlier -- just because you’re committed doesn’t mean that you’re really locked in to there. You need to sign. So if you want to sign right away, I think you should be able to do that.

Aniebonam: If I could change a rule -- I’m pretty sure you’re only allowed to take five officials -- I would change that. I know it’s probably a money thing because those cost money for the schools, but I don’t know where that rule came from. If you could take more visits than that, you’d get a better feel for more schools. I honestly don’t think anyone would need to take more than 10. But a lot of guys, those four- and five-stars, have a lot of options and they may be interested in a lot of schools. So, if they can get a few more solid official visits, that could make the difference.

Big Ten lunch links

June, 20, 2014
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If we hit that bull's-eye, the rest of the dominoes will fall like a house of cards. Checkmate.
Texas and Texas A&M might not be playing one another anytime soon.

But other schools around the league are interested in the prospects of rekindling rivalries that were destroyed by two rounds of conference realignment.

While the Longhorns and Aggies remain at odds, Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt told ESPN.com this week he’s optimistic that he’ll be able to get Texas A&M on the Red Raiders’ schedule down the line again. Hocutt said there has been interest from Texas A&M’s side, as well.

“Hopefully that’s a series that at some point in time that could start again,” Hocutt said. “Is that a game that won’t happen again? No. We’ve had discussions about it. Hopefully we can reengage that in the coming years.”

Oklahoma and Nebraska already have an agreement in place to play a home-and-home in 2021-22. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has reportedly said he thinks his school will play Kansas again someday.

And West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck, who has already added Penn State and Virginia Tech to future schedules, told ESPN.com he's hopeful he'll be able to revive the “Backyard Brawl” with Pitt at some point, as well.

“At some point we’ll get Pitt back on the schedule,” Luck said. “What I’m trying to do with our nonconference games is stay as regional as possible and rekindle some of our historical rivalries. Penn State is back on the schedule. Virginia Tech is back on the schedule. That game meant a lot to southern West Virginians. The Pitt game meant a lot to northern West Virginians. We’ve continued to play Pitt in many of the sports.

“We’ve both gone through transitions, so it’s tough schedule-wise for both of us. But I think at some point we’ll get Pitt back on the schedule. I see [Pitt athletic director] Steve Pederson every now and then at various conventions. And we’ve had some discussions about that. We just haven’t been able to really eyeball the proper time to get it going again.”
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner announced his plans to retire Tuesday afternoon, a move that should be looked upon as a positive by Nittany Lions fans.

We’ll skip over the past and focus on the future. But let’s just say that Joyner’s approval rating in Happy Valley was so low that, at times, it probably could have struck oil.

But forget all that. James Franklin knew when he took the coaching job that Joyner wouldn’t be around forever; now, stability is right around the corner. Penn State needed someone to pick it up by the bootstraps in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Joyner was there, but now the school needs someone to steer the athletic program -- especially football -- to a place Joyner couldn’t take it.

Joyner meant well but had no prior athletic director experience. He’s the lowest-paid AD in the conference, with a salary of $396,000, and oversaw an athletic program that raked in more than $104 million last year. Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Joyner reportedly promised previous coach Bill O’Brien a raise for his assistant coaches -- and then couldn’t deliver. Joyner simply hadn’t been in that position before. A new athletic director with experience would help with salaries and also with budgets and facility improvements.

As for former Sen. George Mitchell’s annual report, which is due in September, this move is only going to help. Penn State was told to search nationally for candidates to fill positions such as athletic director, and that’s exactly what it’s doing. PSU can check one more box off those 119 Freeh report recommendations. A further reduction of sanctions isn’t out of the question.

Yes, Joyner did make some great hires during his time at Penn State. But no matter what your opinion on his legacy, it’s time for Penn State to move on. It’ll only be better for it.

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June, 17, 2014
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You're next, Portugal.

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June, 13, 2014
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Tyrion will be OK ... right? Right?!

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June, 12, 2014
Jun 12
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Cows don't look like cows on film. You gotta use horses.

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