Big Ten morning links

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
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How is it possible that half of the season is already gone? Why does it seem like time is dragging until Saturday every week? Life and football are truly mysteries.

1. Quarterback quandary: Narrowing the field seemed like it could be a blessing in the summer, with Indiana coach Kevin Wilson quick to point out the benefits of no longer needing to juggle practice reps as much now that Nate Sudfeld was the last man standing in what was once a three-man battle. But there was an obvious downside that didn't receive nearly as much attention in July as perhaps it should have, and now that an injury has struck their starter, it's clear how much the transfers of Tre Roberson and Cameron Coffman hurt the Hoosiers. Roberson, experienced and proven in the Big Ten, is off putting up big numbers at Illinois State. Coffman is waiting for his chance to play for Wyoming while he sits out the season. And back at Indiana, the Hoosiers are scrambling to find somebody to put behind center this week with Michigan State's vaunted defense coming to town. The chance to focus on one guy and potentially unleash more of Sudfeld's ability was a nice silver lining, but it was apparently just a distraction from a huge storm cloud that was poised to wipe out Indiana's season.

2. Something special: There's any easy way to get Urban Meyer to gush about his team these days. All it takes is one mention of his kickoff coverage unit, and the Ohio State coach turns downright giddy by his standards. The Buckeyes have reason to be pleased with what they're getting on special teams lately, and they lead the Big Ten in net yardage on kickoffs thanks to a combination of well-positioned kicks, an aggressive scheme and a roster loaded up with speedy players willing to fly down the field and hit somebody. Meyer has always had a fondness for special teams, and he's fostered a competition for "starting positions" on the units that makes even first-teamers on offense and defense proud to contribute on punts and kickoffs. It may not draw much attention, but the Buckeyes are racking up some hidden yardage and subtly altering the field-position battle each week thanks in large part to Meyer's cover guys.

3. Best Bye: No program seems too thrilled with the double-bye schedule in place this season, but there appear to be obvious benefits for all four teams sitting out with an off date Saturday. Penn State's offensive line remains in disarray, and while it can't suddenly turn its inexperienced blockers into veterans, some extra reps and game-planning won't hurt heading into the stretch run that starts against Ohio State's tenacious defensive line next week. Wisconsin and Illinois both could use some time to work out kinks in the passing attack, with the former toying with a two-quarterback rotation and the latter trying to find the best option with Wes Lunt on the sideline. And after finally getting back in the win column, Brady Hoke might be able to take a deep breath at Michigan and enjoy at least a few moments of peace after a victory over the weekend. Out of all those options, maybe the Wolverines needed a bye the most -- unless the regents decide to stir the pot up again.

East Division
  • Michigan may have another candidate emerging for a redshirt, but since it's an injury issue, all that Brady Hoke is providing is a hint.
  • Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun might have a future as a professional wrestler if he keeps fine-tuning his suplexes on the field.
  • Darius Hamilton rarely comes off the field for Rutgers now that he's emerged as a complete defensive lineman.
  • Ohio State has been roaring out of the gates lately, and Urban Meyer made sure to thank his coaching staff for that positive development.
  • Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown is ready to go again after the bye week.
  • Penn State might be getting closer to having an experienced veteran back in action to help that suspect offensive line.
  • Meet Zander Diamont, who has earned some glowing praise ahead of a likely start for Indiana.
West Division
  • Kenny Bell is starting to feel right again and is hoping to give Nebraska a lift at wide receiver.
  • Iowa has seven different players making a homecoming trip to Maryland this weekend, including safety Jordan Lomax.
  • Wisconsin could be welcoming back some key contributors soon.
  • Northwestern's success against Nebraska could be determined in the red zone.
  • A closer look at Tim Beckman's recruiting classes at Illinois and how they are panning out.
  • Minnesota senior wide receiver Isaac Fruechte has caught balls from four different quarterbacks during his career.
  • Purdue might have finally found an offensive identity.
We're winding down our midseason overview with a look at five storylines to watch in the second half of the Big Ten season:

The nation's best group of running backs. The Big Ten has taken its share of lumps this season, and often rightfully so, but no league can claim a better trio of running backs than Indiana junior Tevin Coleman, Wisconsin junior Melvin Gordon and Nebraska senior Ameer Abdullah. Gordon and Coleman may join Abdullah in the NFL draft next spring. Each is a sight to savor, and for different reasons, but they share an ability to handle a heavy load of carries. Even among a deep group of backs in the league that includes David Cobb of Minnesota, Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Ezekiel Elliott of Ohio State, the top three stand out, staying on pace to give the league its first threesome to average more than 140 rushing yards since 2000.

The Michigan mess. The first half of the season could not have gone much worse in Ann Arbor, featuring three September losses and the troubling ordeal that surrounded Shane Morris' head injury in a Sept. 27 loss to Minnesota. What will the second half bring? The Wolverines, after a bye week, play their final game of October with a bit of momentum gained from a 18-13 win against Penn State. But Michigan State awaits. Another loss would only turn up the heat on coach Brady Hoke, already facing intense scrutiny. Short of a miraculous turnaround, Hoke may not be able to save his job. Regardless, the final five games merit attention.

Ohio State's resurgence. The Buckeyes didn't go away, of course, but they slipped under the radar a bit in September after the two-touchdown loss to Virginia Tech. In the three games since, Urban Meyer's team has scored 168 points as freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett made major leaps. Ohio State, as it enters the second half, looks like a new kind of challenge altogether for its upcoming opponents. The biggest game, Nov. 8 at Michigan State, likely offers the Big Ten its only realistic shot land a team in the College Football Playoff. And while OSU didn't look worthy in early September, the selection committee may soon receive a new set of trends to ponder on Ohio State.

The West Division scramble. To enter Week 8, it's a jumbled mess, with Minnesota atop the heap. The Gophers look poised to stay in control into November, with upcoming games against Purdue and at Illinois. Things get dicey for Minnesota, though, next month with a finishing stretch against Iowa and Ohio State, followed by trips to Nebraska and Wisconsin. Northwestern, with one loss in the league, remains in a decent spot, as do the preseason division favorites, Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska. As projected in August, the race may still come down to schedules. And the schedule, despite Minnesota's strong play and stumbles elsewhere, still favors the Badgers and Hawkeyes.

The path of Rutgers and Maryland. The Scarlet Knights, in particular, have made the transition to the Big Ten look easy this fall. For a group picked by many to finish last in the league, it's been a stunning start, fueled by a stingy defense and the strong play of quarterback Gary Nova. Rutgers is a failed defensive stand in the final minute from a perfect record. Maryland, too, has looked strong at times, particularly on offense. But the road is about to get much more difficult for the league's new members, starting on Saturday as the Scarlet Knights visit Ohio State and Maryland hosts Iowa. Rutgers' schedule is downright brutal over the next month, and it doesn't look much more inviting for the Terrapins. But they've already proved us wrong, so why not again?

Big Ten morning links

October, 15, 2014
Oct 15
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It's the halfway point of halfway week in the college football season. My goodness, it's going fast.

1. The Big Ten season's switch from waxing to waning this week gives a reason to take stock of the first seven weeks of the year. The Big Ten blog was peppered with summations and projections Tuesday (highlights, lowlights, all-conference performers and more). The Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein had his own superlative review that is worth checking out. The general sentiment around the league this year has been one of disappointment and mockery, but halfway home it appears that a one-loss conference champion has a fighting change to land in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Would a better nonconference showing in early September have changed anything? The outlook probably wouldn't be any different had the Big Ten rolled through nonconference play.

2. The Pac-12 might host more movie stars at its home games, but the Big Ten had a couple Hollywood moments this week. Michigan kick returner Dennis Norfleet's dance moves and music selection landed him on George Clinton's radar Tuesday. The Prime Minister of Funk was impressed. Not to be outdone, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio showed his hip side Tuesday, at least among the pre-teen crowd. Dantonio nicknamed his ill-fated fake punt attempt from over the weekend "Frozen" and said the team should probably "Let it go," referencing the animated Disney mega-hit. Apparently it's not just game film that makes it on the projection screen in the Spartans' new state-of-the-art facility.

3. Speaking of Dantonio in the film room, he said he had to go all the way back to high school tape this week to prepare for Indiana quarterback Chris Covington. The freshman is taking over for Nate Sudfeld, who separated his shoulder last Saturday. While Sudfeld's injury is a blow to the Hoosiers' teetering bowl chances, it might be a hidden blessing for head coach Kevin Wilson. Our Brian Bennett suggested on Twitter that having a rookie quarterback might shield Wilson from the blowback of missing a bowl game for the fourth straight year, and I tend to agree. Wilson might not be on the hook no matter what happens this year, but now he's got an excuse if things go south.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the Big Ten...

East Division

Defensive coordinator Chris Ash explains why his Buckeye defensive backs aren't getting their hands on wide receivers.

Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg is doing a good job of dealing with frustrating losses.

Michigan State is finding out how hard life can be at the top.

Nate Sudfeld’s injury is the worst case scenario for Indiana football this fall.

Michigan kicker Matt Wile thinks he’s solved his early-season problems from the right hash.

Rutgers is getting ready for the noise of six figures worth of fans at the Horseshoe this weekend.

The 10 numbers you should know about Maryland’s first six games in the Big Ten.

West Division

Fifth-year walk-on Tommy Gaul got to lead the Hawkeyes in their fight song after Saturday’s win.

Minnesota’s attention to detail on special teams paid off big in its win over Northwestern.

Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro weighed in on his favorite Wildcats player and his impressions of the season so far.

Nebraska’s De'Mornay Pierson-El has reinvigorated a punt return unit that was a weak link for the Cornhuskers a year ago.

Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon might get an invite to the Heisman ceremony, but recent trends suggest he won’t bring home the hardware.

Purdue might test out a new-look secondary this week against the run-heavy Golden Gophers

Illinois assistant Ryan Cubit will be reprimanded after he was arrested for driving under the influence Sunday.
The DMV (D.C./Maryland/Virginia) has developed into one of the most competitive areas in the country, so what recruiters do the best job in Washington D.C.? Plus, can Minnesota keep one of the top juniors in the country at home?

Best of Big Ten Week 8 conference call

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
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Questions were asked. Coaches had answers. Here are a few of the highlights from the Big Ten conference call ...

By the way, if you’re not following us on Twitter, what are you waiting for? Follow along at @ESPNRittenberg, @BennettESPN, @ESPNJoshMoyer, @DanMurphyESPN, @MitchSherman and @AWardESPN.

B1G Roundtable: Lowlights from first half

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
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We’ve already looked at the highlights to the first half of the season. So, naturally, we also thought we’d take a look at the lowlights.

What were the worst moments the Big Ten had to offer so far this season? What were some of the worst plays? The worst trends? Here’s a look at some of the things that won’t be making highlight videos any time soon, the lowlights to the first half of the season:

Brian Bennett: Night games in Week 2

The night time was not the right time for the Big Ten in Week 2. A highly-anticipated trio of prime-time games all ended up duds for the league, as Michigan State lost by 19 points at Oregon, Ohio State fell by 14 points at home to Virginia Tech and Michigan capitulated in a 31-0 loss at Notre Dame. You could almost feel the air drain out of the conference's playoff hopes on just the second Saturday of the season. The Spartans' loss didn't sink their College Football Playoff hopes, and the young Buckeyes have bounced back strongly (sorry, we can't say the same about Michigan). But the results of Week 2 will reverberate for a long time, and quite possibly inside the playoff selection committee war room on the first weekend in December.

[+] EnlargeMorris
AP Photo/Tony DingMichigan's lack of communication continued into the week following Shane Morris' concussion.
Adam Rittenberg: The broken record with Michigan's offense

Yes, the Wolverines had a nice reprieve Saturday night, but it has more to do with their defense and Penn State's offensive ineptitude. Michigan is tied for 104th nationally in sacks allowed (17), 110th in first downs per game (18) and tied for 119th in turnovers (16). New coordinator Doug Nussmeier hasn't fixed the problems, and things don't get any easier with Michigan State up next.

Josh Moyer: Penn State offensive lineman blocking a teammate

The struggles of this offensive line are well-documented: Only eight teams in the FBS have allowed more sacks and only nine teams have rushed for fewer yards per game. This is the worst offensive line in the Big Ten and possibly the worst in the Power Five. But it reached a new low against Northwestern when one offensive guard blindly blocked a fellow offensive tackle on a 4th-and-1 play. (Needless to say, that rush went for minus-2 yards.) The video went viral and served as the symbol for just poorly this unit has played. No reprieve is in sight.

Dan Murphy: Michigan's Shane Morris mistakes

Allowing a potentially concussed player back on to a football field in 2014 isn't acceptable, but it's at least somewhat understandable that signals could be crossed on a hectic sideline to create such a blatant blunder. It's much harder to understand how those signals remained crossed for the better part of the week that followed while Michigan's athletic department tried to explain how woozy quarterback Shane Morris returned to action in a loss to Minnesota. Inconsistent reports and middle-of-the-night press releases exacerbated the problem and revealed at least a temporary level of dysfunction inside the proud program's athletic operations.

Mitch Sherman: Nebraska's first half at Michigan State

The Huskers went to Spartan Stadium on Oct. 4 with an opportunity to show the Big Ten, if not the nation, that they were on the road to reclaim attention, if not establish position as a darkhorse for the College Football Playoff. Nebraska did none of that in the first 30 minutes, falling behind 17-0 as it failed three times to capitalize on turnovers in Michigan State territory. The Huskers were tentative on offense as with nine first-half drives ended in seven punts, one interception and one fumble. Six of those possessions netted 6 yards or fewer. For the game, Nebraska's high-powered rushing attack gained just 47 yards. It did, though, stage a serious comeback in fourth quarter, falling 27-22 and left to wonder how a decent first half might have altered the outcome.

Austin Ward: Quarterbacks sabotaging Melvin Gordon and Wisconsin

The ultimate backfield weapon doesn’t need much help, but imagine what Melvin Gordon might be capable of with even an average passing game to complement his otherworldly rushing ability. The star running back is still gashing defenses on the ground, but any chance of dragging Wisconsin into the College Football Playoff was erased with Joel Stave catching a case of the yips, Tanner McEvoy throwing an interception for every 20 attempts and defenses responding by loading up the box. The Badgers could have been truly dangerous on offense, but instead they have almost entirely squandered what should be their last season with Gordon before the calendar even flips to November.

ESPN's midseason All-Big Ten team

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
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The regular season is at its halfway point, so we're presenting our selections for the midseason All-Big Ten team.

Offense

QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
RB: Tevin Coleman, Indiana
WR: Tony Lippett, Michigan State
WR: DaeSean Hamilton, Penn State
OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OT: Jack Conklin, Michigan State
C: Jack Allen, Michigan State
G: Zac Epping, Minnesota
G: Pat Elflein, Ohio State

Defense

DE: Joey Bosa, Ohio State
DE: Marcus Rush, Michigan State
DT: Anthony Zettel, Penn State
DT: Carl Davis, Iowa
LB: Mike Hull, Penn State
LB: Damien Wilson, Minnesota
LB: Derek Landisch, Wisconsin
CB: Desmond King, Iowa
CB: Eric Murray, Minnesota
S: Frankie Williams, Purdue
S: Michael Caputo, Wisconsin

Special teams
PK: Brad Craddock, Maryland
P: Justin DuVernois, Illinois
KR: Stefon Diggs, Maryland
PR: De'Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska

Thoughts: The first thing you probably notice is an unconventional offense featuring three running backs and no tight ends. Sure, it's a little bit of a cheat, but how do you leave any of those three tailbacks off? Coleman, Gordon and Abdullah rank 1, 2 and 4 nationally in rushing yards. Though there are some excellent tight ends in the league -- Minnesota's Maxx Williams and Penn State's Jesse James come to mind -- we would rather reward the outstanding tailbacks. Heck, we probably could have gone four or five deep at that position, given how loaded it is right now. ... The toughest call came at cornerback, where you might be surprised by our choices. We love King's shutdown ability for the Hawkeyes, and Murray gets the slight nod over teammate Briean Boddy-Calhoun for the Gophers' excellent secondary. Michigan State's Trae Waynes might be the best player at the position in the league, but he has given up some big plays this season. Same goes for Maryland's Will Likely, who has been explosive at times and torched (see: West Virginia and Ohio State) at others. It's only midseason, remember; these choices could change by the end of the season. ... Speaking of surprised, the steady Rush makes the team over more heralded position mate Shilique Calhoun. It's a close call, but Rush has been consistently terrific so far this season. ... Some pretty fresh names at linebacker, especially after so many stars at the position departed after last season. Michigan's Jake Ryan just missed there. ... Two freshmen made the team in Hamilton and Pierson-El. Ohio State's J.T. Barrett is also pushing Cook for No. 1 status at quarterback.

The breakdown by team:

Michigan State: 5
Iowa: 3
Minnesota: 3
Penn State: 3
Wisconsin: 3
Maryland: 2
Nebraska: 2
Ohio State: 2
Illinois: 1
Indiana: 1
Purdue: 1
Michigan: 0
Northwestern: 0
Rutgers: 0

Big Ten midseason overview

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
10:30
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The Big Ten entered 2014 with a few high-profile opportunities to raise its flailing image.

Things started out well enough, as Wisconsin took a 24-7 lead on LSU in the third quarter on opening weekend. And it was pretty much all downhill from there for the Badgers, who wound up losing 28-24, and the rest of the league. Other early-season losses by Michigan State (at Oregon), Ohio State (Virginia Tech) and Iowa (Iowa State) relegated the Big Ten to its same old status as a middle-of-the-pack (at best) power conference.

As a result, the league needs some breaks just to get a team into the four-team College Football Playoff. Yes, conversation about the inaugural playoff has dominated the sport a little too much so far. Then again, when's the last time you heard anybody talking about who might play in this year's Orange Bowl?

The Big Ten might not place a team in the Rose Bowl -- site of a national semifinal this year -- unless Michigan State and Ohio State run the table the rest of the way, or if a team from the wide-open West Division like Nebraska or Minnesota really surprises.

Not everything, of course, revolves around the playoff, and there have been some good stories in the Big Ten during the first half. The conference boasts three of the top four rushers in the nation. The oft-mocked addition of Maryland and Rutgers doesn't look so bad as the two teams are a combined 9-3. Purdue has already tripled its win total from a year ago. The NCAA sanctions at Penn State were lifted -- though no relief was provided for the Nittany Lions' offensive line. Five teams sit at 5-1, setting up an interesting race toward ... wherever the league champion might wind up in the postseason. (Hey, how about that Orange Bowl?)

So reasons for hope remain in the Big Ten for the second half. Though maybe not so much in Ann Arbor and Champaign.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Mary Langenfeld/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon has already topped 1,000 yards and has 13 touchdowns halfway through the season.
Offensive MVP: Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon. It's so hard to choose between the fantastic running backs in this league, as Indiana's Tevin Coleman leads the FBS in rushing and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah has been a warrior. Gordon has received very little help from his team's passing game, yet he has piled up 1,046 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, including four straight games of at least 175 yards.

Defensive MVP: Ohio State DE Joey Bosa. There's no runaway winner of this award yet, but Bosa has built on his impressive freshman campaign of a year ago to become one of the most disruptive pass-rushing forces around. He has seven tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.

Biggest surprise: Few people gave Rutgers much of a chance to contend in the school's first year in the Big Ten, especially given the Scarlet Knights' murderous schedule. But with an improved Gary Nova at quarterback and a stout defense, Rutgers sits at 5-1 at the halfway point. The back half is still treacherous, including games against Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State, but Kyle Flood's team has shown it can't be taken lightly.

Biggest disappointment: Michigan, naturally. The Wolverines (3-4) beat Penn State last week at home, finally ending a streak of seven straight losses against Power 5 teams. Blowout losses against Notre Dame, Utah and Minnesota, and the Shane Morris concussion controversy have put Brady Hoke squarely on the hot seat.

Newcomer of the year: Losing Braxton Miller did not end Ohio State's playoff chances, largely because of the rapid growth of freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett. After struggling in a Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech, Barrett has blossomed into one of the top players in the Big Ten. He leads the league in total offense, pass efficiency and passing touchdowns (17).

Best coach: Jerry Kill, Minnesota. With apologies to Flood, no coach has maximized his talent more than the head Gopher. Minnesota is 5-1 and tied atop the Big Ten West Division, with its only loss coming at TCU. Kill's team finds ways to win without an overpowering offensive attack.

Best game: Indiana 31, Missouri 27. This game had a little bit of everything, with both teams combining for nearly 1,000 yards of offense and the Hoosiers scoring the winning touchdown with 22 seconds left after Missouri had hit what looked like the game-winning field goal. The road win in SEC country was also one of the league's few bright spots in nonconference play. Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, they haven't been able to duplicate that performance.

Biggest games of the second half: Armageddon arrives on Nov. 8 in East Lansing, Michigan, when Ohio State travels to Michigan State in a possible playoff eliminator. Other big B1G games are mostly in the wide-open West, including: Iowa at Minnesota (Nov. 8), Northwestern at Notre Dame (Nov. 15), Nebraska at Wisconsin (Nov. 15), Wisconsin at Iowa (Nov. 22) and Nebraska at Iowa (Nov. 28).

Weekend recruiting wrap: Big Ten 

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
10:00
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There weren't too many big games within the Big Ten this past weekend, but that doesn't mean there wasn't any recruiting news. Offers were extended, commitments were made and decommitments were contemplated.

We take a look at the week that was and what could happen in the future within the conference.


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Weekend Rewind: Big Ten

October, 13, 2014
Oct 13
10:00
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video
It was a banner weekend for resilient quarterbacks in the Big Ten.

Junior Jake Rudock wrenched Iowa’s plans for a balanced, two-quarterback system by completing nine of his first 11 passing attempts en route to 28 points in the first quarter. Michigan’s Devin Gardner, who has had to fight for his job during a 2-4 start to the season, returned from an ankle injury to lead the Wolverines to an 18-13 win over Penn State. And in West Lafayette, a new face is emerging under center. Purdue sophomore Austin Appleby kept Michigan State’s defense on its toes for much of a 45-31 Spartans win.

The Big Ten won’t be confused for anything but a running back’s league this season, but this past weekend was a relatively strong showing for their backfield mates.

Rudock earns the top honor there for helping the Hawkeyes to their fifth win of the season. Minnesota has done most of the head-turning in the West Division during the past couple weeks, but Iowa has quietly compiled an identical record (5-1 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) and is tied with the Gophers for the division lead. Both teams have two winnable games before facing each other Nov. 8, which brings us to our choice for the team of the week ...

Team of the Week: Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Iowa’s offense was downright explosive at times during a 45-29 win over Indiana Saturday. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz’s decision to go for it on fourth down pushed Iowa’s lead to 38-21 on the final play of the first half. The offense, led by the sharpest version of Rudock to date, had topped its previous season-high point total by the end of the first quarter.

Biggest Play: Speaking of Minnesota, the Gophers kept their Big Ten record unblemished Saturday thanks to Jalen Myrick's 100-yard kickoff return for a game-winning touchdown. Northwestern had just tied the game 17-17 with 7:32 to play on an impressive 13-play, 97-yard scoring drive. Myrick went a little farther in far less time, darting past midfield untouched before slipping away from the Wildcats' kicker on his way to a big score.

Big Man on Campus (offense): It may have come in a losing effort, but Indiana’s Tevin Coleman dazzled again with big plays and big numbers. Coleman finished Saturday’s game with 219 yards on just 15 carries. He scored three times on runs of 83, 45 and 69 yards to keep the Hoosiers within striking distances even after starting quarterback Nate Sudfeld left the game before halftime. Coleman leads the nation in rushing yards and is on pace for 2,120 yards in his junior season.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Stellar defense was hard to find this weekend in the Big Ten. The biggest play on that side of the ball belonged to Michigan State linebacker Darien Harris, who clinched the Spartans’ win over Purdue with a pick-six in the fourth quarter. Harris added six tackles, one of them behind the line of scrimmage, for a defense that looked uncharacteristically average against the Boilermakers and their sophomore quarterback, Appleby.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Myrick certainly deserves mention here for his big return, but placekicker Matt Wile beats him out by being the difference for a Michigan team that desperately needed a victory. Wile connected on all three of his field goal attempts, from 45, 42 and 37 yards out. He bailed out an offense that has yet to find a way to move the ball consistently, accounting for 10 points in an 18-13 win over Penn State.

Biggest face plant: The Nittany Lions' offensive line did its part to make field goals the difference against Michigan. Sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg was under constant siege at the Big House Saturday. He was sacked six times and pressured into poor decisions on a regular basis. The running game managed only 54 yards. The crumbling of Penn State’s promising September begins and ends with its struggle in the trenches.

Facts and numbers to know: Purdue’s 31 points against Michigan State is the most a Big Ten opponent has scored on Sparty since Wisconsin hung 42 on them in December 2011. ... Myrick’s kickoff return for a touchdown was the first such play for anyone in the Big Ten this season. ... Ten teams in the country allow less than 100 rushing yards per game. Three of them (Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan) are in the Big Ten. ... Coleman’s 176.67 rushing yards per game leads the nation. Melvin Gordon (174.33) and Ameer Abdullah (146.33) are second and fourth, respectively, in that category. ... Ten different Iowa players caught passes in the win over Indiana. The Hawkeyes are 4-0 this season when completing throws to at least 10 receivers. ... Gordon became the fastest Wisconsin player to 1,000 yards rushing by accomplishing the feat in his sixth game of the season.

Big Ten morning links

October, 13, 2014
Oct 13
8:00
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Good morning. Can you believe the regular season is halfway over already? Kicking the second half off with a few thoughts:

1. I'm legitimately worried about Christian Hackenberg. Penn State's sophomore quarterback is a superlative talent who has a long future playing professionally ahead of him. That's if the the Nittany Lions' tragic offensive line doesn't ruin him.

The worst thing that can happen to a young quarterback is for him to succumb to unrelenting pressure. I've seen it before; suddenly, he starts looking at the pass rush instead of keeping his eyes downfield. He develops happy feet. He throws the ball away too quickly, or holds onto it while bracing for a hit.

I saw some of those things in Hackenberg during Saturday night's 18-13 loss at Michigan, and so did PennLive.com's David Jones, who wrote:
"Hackenberg is, by [James] Franklin's own estimation, 'frustrated,' due to obvious factors. He took a pounding again against the Wolverines, bringing his sacks-absorbed total to a whopping 20 just halfway through the season. His body language is awful; he spent much of the second half slouching on the bench in apparent despondence."

Penn State's inability to block for its star quarterback is clearly taking its toll and forcing Hackenberg into some bad habits -- to say nothing of the injury risk. Those bad habits can be hard to shake off. The Nittany Lions have to figure out a way to protect him in the second half of the season, because it would be a shame if the offensive line issues caused permanent damage.

2. Is it time to worry about Michigan State? The Spartans keep winning and still look like the Big Ten's best team. But for the second straight game, they let a big lead slip away, and Purdue had the ball with a chance to tie the score late.

This isn't even about the College Football Playoff, though Mark Dantonio's team is squandering opportunities to impress the selection committee. No, it's about whether some of Michigan State's obvious mental lapses -- Connor Cook throwing needlessly into coverage, for example, or the defense uncharacteristically giving up big plays -- will result in a loss before December. Last year's Spartans were masters at closing out games, but this year's edition has neither the shutdown defense nor the physical running game to impose its will in fourth quarters, at least not yet. As a result, Michigan State is flirting with disaster, as Drew Sharp writes.

3. Let's all marvel at Minnesota, which is winning in a way that's different than just about anybody else.

The Gophers had only 274 yards on Saturday yet turned away a solid, confident Northwestern team at home. Even with a rushing attack that by their standards was held in check (just 3.1 yards per carry), they continued to maximize every opportunity, KO'ing the 'Cats on a 100-yard KO return by Jalen Myrick.

Jerry Kill's team knows its identity, is too well-coached to beat itself with mistakes and will make you fight every down. That style might not always work against high-scoring, hyper-athletic opponents (see: TCU), but nobody in the Big Ten is looking forward to playing Minnesota in the second half. The Gophers showed resolve on Saturday.

More links:

East Division
West Division

Big Ten bowl projections: Week 7

October, 12, 2014
Oct 12
8:00
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Michigan is back on the winning track but not quite back in the bowl projections.

Brady Hoke's team ended its three-game slide Saturday night by grinding out an 18-13 win against Penn State at Michigan Stadium. The Wolverines' defense locked down Penn State, but many of Michigan's problems remain, and three more wins still seems like a tall order.

We considered dumping Penn State from the projections as the Nittany Lions' offensive woes up front could be unfixable this season. But James Franklin's team needs only two wins to qualify for postseason play, and with games left against Indiana, Temple and Illinois, the Lions should get there.

The favorites held serve around the Big Ten in Week 7, but we have a bit of shuffling as Minnesota continues to make strides and deserves more love in the projections. It's also important to project non-repeat destinations, so Iowa moves out of the Outback Bowl (for now) and Minnesota moves up.

Melvin Gordon is a stud, but Wisconsin continues to look faulty and falls down a spot.

Big Ten newcomers Rutgers and Maryland have excellent opportunities to rise in the projections this week as they take on Ohio State and Iowa, respectively.

The winner of the Ohio State-Michigan State game on Nov. 8 will be in decent shape for College Football Playoff selection, as long as it runs the table. But for now, we have both the Buckeyes and Spartans in contract bowls.

Enough rambling. Projection time ...

Chick-fil-A Peach/AT&T Cotton/Fiesta/Capital One Orange: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/AT&T Cotton/Fiesta/Capital One Orange: Ohio State
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus: Nebraska
Outback: Minnesota
National University Holiday: Iowa
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City: Wisconsin
San Francisco: Rutgers
New Era Pinstripe: Maryland
Quick Lane: Penn State
Heart of Dallas: Northwestern

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 7

October, 12, 2014
Oct 12
2:00
PM ET

Michigan lights up the Big House

October, 12, 2014
Oct 12
1:35
AM ET
video 

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- An electric crowd, a stifling defense, modern-day trappings blended in proper proportion with an old-school Big Ten result. This was the vision that has danced in the heads of Michigan coach Brady Hoke and athletic director Dave Brandon for the better part of the past four years. For at least one night, they got to watch it play out.

Michigan (3-4) pounded its way to an 18-13 win Saturday over visiting Penn State (4-2) in front of the biggest crowd the Big House has seen this season. The 113,085 onlookers witnessed a dominant Michigan defensive line and a gutsy performance by its hobbled quarterback to seal the victory. Senior Devin Gardner returned from an ankle injury in the fourth quarter to push his offense just far enough for a game-winning field goal, ending the night’s drama in enough time to allow for a celebration and a collective sigh of relief.

“The environment, the crowd, there’s no place better in this country when you have a game like this than Michigan Stadium,” Hoke said.

Games like this have been hard to come by for Hoke and Brandon. Their Wolverines entered Saturday’s prime time matchup in a state of disarray. On the field, the team had lost four of its past five games and gave few reasons to be optimistic about a turnaround. Controversy and attempts to manufacture hype away from the field put the embattled coach and his boss on equally shaky ground in terms of job security.

[+] EnlargeDevin Funchess
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDevin Funchess helped spark Michigan with this first-quarter catch against Penn State's Ryan Keiser.
Hoke heaped praise on his players after the game for their resilience during the past month, but acknowledged the team was in desperate need of some validation.

“It certainly helps,” he said. “There’s no question about it.”

Michigan’s fortunes started to turn on its first possession. Gardner (16-for-24, 192 yards) lofted a pass down the middle of the field that looked destined to land in the arms of Penn State safety Ryan Keiser. Gardner was benched two weeks earlier largely because of turnover issues. Instead of another deflating mistake, though, wide receiver Devin Funchess stepped in front of Keiser and yanked the ball away to complete a 43-yard scoring play.

That would be Michigan's final trip to the end zone, but a fire blanket of a defense took the baton from there. Michigan’s front seven abused Penn State’s inexperienced offensive line and its star quarterback, Christian Hackenberg. The Wolverines sacked Hackenberg six times and pressured him into several other poor decisions.

Jourdan Lewis intercepted an ill-advised throw in the third quarter that set up a game-tying field goal. A three-and-out and shanked punt in the fourth quarter gave Michigan’s offense the ball in good position again. Gardner completed two passes to get place-kicker Matt Wile in range to give his team a 16-13 lead. More pressure backed Hackenberg up to his goal line in the final minutes and forced Penn State to snap a ball out of the back of its end zone for a safety. A defensive line missing its most effective interior rusher (tackle Willie Henry) played a major role in creating Michigan's final eight unanswered points.

The near sell-out crowd roared in approval. The week started with threats of a student boycott to show their disapproval with the direction of the program. The lure of a night game brought them out in full force, waving yellow pompoms and creating an atmosphere that Michigan Stadium hasn’t seen since its previous two “Under The Lights” affairs -- both wins against Notre Dame.

“That was awesome tonight,” center Jack Miller said. “We feed off that kind of stuff. We love it.”

The buzz inside the Big House continued during halftime with a well-orchestrated light show from the Michigan marching band. Former players lined the team's walk to its locker room earlier in a show of support. Brandon’s attempts to add new life to the storied old stadium finally struck the right chord with a student body and alumni that has grown tired with his previous gimmicks.

“We try to create a spectacle,” Brandon said following the game. “It’s a great stadium and when you light it up, that’s what it is -- a spectacle.”

When the sun rises Sunday morning, Michigan will still have a losing record. The prospects of a bowl game will still be dim. Its team will still be plagued with the same problems that have caused it to stumble more often that not this season. The offense still struggled to run the ball consistently against Penn State. Gardner still threw an interception. Hoke and Brandon will still be climbing a steep, uphill battle to restore their reputations and save their jobs.

Two weeks from now, after a bye, the Wolverines face in-state rival Michigan State -- a Big Ten power with the potential to wipe clean the memories of this weekend’s spectacle.

Still, Hoke and Brandon should savor the moment. Both men might not be around for more nights like this in Ann Arbor. If this is indeed their final season as Michigan men, at least they got a taste of what they expected at the start of a promising relationship. They showcased a tough team on a glitzy stage Saturday -- a vision realized if only for one night.

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Hoke Glad To Get Back To Winning
Brady Hoke reacts to Michigan shaking off the losing streak with a Big Ten win over Penn State.
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