How PSU seniors adapted to change

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
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James FranklinChristopher Weddle/MCT/Zuma PressPenn State coach James Franklin has the Nittany Lions off to a hot start in 2014.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's October 13 Cleveland Issue. Subscribe today!

THREE HEAD COACHES in four years, unprecedented scholarships lost and a postseason ban are not the typical building blocks to success. But with NCAA sanctions suddenly lifted, Penn State is off to a 4-1 start and can make a surprise push for the Big Ten crown. We asked the team's seniors how they've adapted to the constant changing of the guards.


PRACTICE

Under Joe Paterno, practice might as well have been a game: "Hitting every day," says fifth-year senior linebacker Mike Hull. Then Bill O'Brien's NFL-like approach (lower impact equals fresher legs) became a necessity with the loss of scholarships. As for new head man James Franklin, he's only added more levity -- like the water bottle. The 42-year-old squirts senior kicker Sam Ficken while he's taking reps, then makes the team run laps based on the number of Ficken's misses. Sometimes he simply cancels practice in favor of bowling. "People respect that a lot," Hull says.


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Watch: B1G live chat

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
1:28
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Join Big Ten reporters Josh Moyer, Dan Murphy, Mitch Sherman and Austin Ward as they look around the conference heading into Week 5, including Michigan's future, a look at the Big Ten's playoff hopes and some intriguing Saturday matchups.

Penn State, Northwestern very far apart

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
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There might not be two teams in the Big Ten that are more opposite than Northwestern and Penn State.

The Wildcats have struggled to bounce back and win close games; the Nittany Lions' trademark has become late-game rallies. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald’s practices lacked energy early on, while James Franklin’s players lauded their intensity. Fitzgerald labeled his team’s lack of toughness an "embarrassment," while Franklin has praised his squad’s resiliency.

Around this time last season, a lot of that was flipped. Northwestern was the team on the rise, one that reached No. 16 in the polls. Penn State remained a conference question mark, one with a suspect secondary and a true freshman at quarterback.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
AP Photo/Gene J PuskarLate comebacks led by Christian Hackenberg are becoming the norm at Penn State.
It’s amazing how quickly fortunes can change. Now, the Lions are on the cusp of being ranked. And the Wildcats are trying to avoid being labeled the worst team in the Big Ten.

"I can’t speak for Northwestern," Penn State linebacker Brandon Bell said, when asked about the difference. "For us, everybody is just resilient. We don’t put our head down for anything. We just keep fighting."

Penn State and Northwestern will meet at noon Saturday in Beaver Stadium. Here is an overview of just how far apart these two teams have grown:

Close games: Of Northwestern’s past 11 games, seven were decided by a single score. The Wildcats won just one of those close games. Of Penn State’s past 11 games, six were decided by a single score. The Lions lost just one of those close games.

During that span, quarterback Christian Hackenberg has led Penn State to four game-tying or game-winning drives, all scores that occurred within the last 90 seconds of regulation. Northwestern hasn’t been able to make the best of similar opportunities. A few examples: Against Iowa last season, the Wildcats fumbled in Iowa territory late in the fourth quarter and lost in overtime. Against Michigan in 2013, Northwestern lost in overtime when it was sacked 14 yards on second down and then tossed a pick on the final play. And against Cal three weeks ago, Northwestern found itself 27 yards from a game-tying touchdown -- but but threw an interception with about 90 seconds remaining.

Current injuries/depth: Penn State lacks depth but, so far, the only injury that has significantly impacted the team this season is the one suffered by offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach. Another injury to the line -- or to the linebackers or quarterback -- could be devastating. But Penn State has been able to stay relatively healthy. Northwestern, on the other hand, has basically faced a nightmare scenario when it comes to injuries and departures.

Tailback Venric Mark, who averaged 6.0 yards a carry in 2012, transferred elsewhere in a surprise preseason move. Top wideout Christian Jones is out for the season. No. 2 wideout Tony Jones missed two games with a leg injury and is not on this week’s depth chart. All-Big Ten talent Ibraheim Campbell, a safety, and senior linebacker Collin Ellis are day-to-day. And quarterback Trevor Siemian is battling an ankle injury.

Starting off: Both teams have actually tended to start slow, but Penn State’s defense has started on the right foot in each of the past four games. So far, Penn State has yet to allow a point in the first quarter and is outscoring the competition 20-0. On the other end, Northwestern has yet to score any points in the first quarter against an FBS team, although it did manage to score a TD against Western Illinois.

Northwestern started 0-2 for the first time since 2004. Penn State is 4-0 for the first time since 2008.

Preseason practice: The mood at Northwestern’s practices was clearly different than past years. Maybe Fitzgerald was worried about the potential for injuries and wanted to take it a bit easier, seeing as 13 key players were injured last November. Regardless, Adam Rittenberg said the most energy shown in an August workout was a watermelon-eating contest, and that the atmosphere mimicked a "a country club."

Fitzgerald has since turned up the intensity, forcing his team to do up-down drills (something he hasn’t really done in the past) and even having his team practice outside in the rain. But that early tone was far different from Franklin’s.

In August, Franklin took the opposite approach. After one practice, he yelled at a freshman to jog off the field faster. Recruits told ESPN.com there was more energy than the year before. And Franklin even invited reporters to watch the infamous "Lions Den" drill, where the energy was palpable. It seemed as if the coaches had two very different philosophies back in August.

Big Ten Week 5 predictions

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
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Can Michigan bounce back? Can Indiana build off last week's big upset win over Missouri? Our experts make their Week 5 picks.

 

Why Maryland will win: Our best chance for an offensive shootout in the conference this weekend will be in Bloomington. Indiana's up-tempo offense took down reigning SEC East champ Missouri last weekend. Maryland has the firepower to keep pace. Quarterback C.J. Brown has gotten consistently stronger in the passing game over the past few weeks and has a handful of big-play targets surrounding him. The Terps sounded geeked to make their Big Ten debut during the week of preparation, which should help them outlast Indiana in a close one. Maryland 38, Indiana 33 -- Dan Murphy

Why Indiana will win: Because these Hoosiers are different. They're not going to disappoint their fans, as is customary for IU football. They're not going to follow a big win with a deflating loss before a home crowd itching for something about which to get excited. These Hoosiers are different because of running back Tevin Coleman, the do-it-all junior who might rank as the most underrated player in college football. Indiana has momentum after its road upset at Missouri and motivation to continue to prove that a loss two weeks ago at Bowling Green was an aberration -- that this is a team ready to play in the postseason. And if all that isn't enough, the Hoosiers aren't playing Michigan State; they're simply good enough to outscore Maryland. Indiana 35, Maryland 27 -- Mitch Sherman

 

Why Minnesota will win: Michigan's generosity with the football has been well documented, and it doesn't even seem to matter who plays quarterback as those woes continued even after Devin Gardner was removed from last week's loss to Utah. On the flip side, only one team in the nation has more takeaways than Minnesota's defense, and that combination doesn't seem like a great recipe for the Wolverines to hold on to the Little Brown Jug. The Gophers have had their own problems protecting the football, but a powerful rushing attack and stout defense should put them in position to make Brady Hoke's life even more difficult. Minnesota 20, Michigan 13 -- Austin Ward

Why Michigan will win: The season is really on the line for the Wolverines and coach Brady Hoke. If U-M loses, a bowl berth suddenly seems unlikely and Hoke's seat would be hotter than ever with some tough games remaining in a competitive East Division (Penn State, Michigan State, Ohio State). I don't think Michigan is done yet, and the Wolverines seem to always find a way to beat Minnesota, even with their weaker teams (see: 2008). Michigan's defense matches up well against a one-dimensional Gophers offense. Minnesota's ability to take the ball away scares me, but I think Michigan grinds out a win in a low-scoring game to keep Hoke alive. Michigan 13, Minnesota 10 -- Adam Rittenberg

Unanimous selections

Michigan State over Wyoming 42-6: A tuneup for the Spartans, who host Nebraska next week. The Cowboys have fared well this year without scoring many points. They won't score many in East Lansing, either, though it comes with a less favorable outcome.

Ohio State over Cincinnati 45-17: The Buckeyes, off a bye week, continue to take steps forward by stopping Cincinnati QB Gunner Kiel, who has thrown 10 touchdowns in two games. Ohio State puts up a big rushing number.

Penn State over Northwestern 24-10: The Nittany Lions continue to get it done with defense -- especially up front, where breakout senior tackle Anthony Zettel makes life miserable for the punchless Wildcats, who average 4.54 yards per play, 116th nationally.

Nebraska over Illinois 48-24: The Huskers avoid a letdown, between big games against Miami and Michigan State, behind strong performances again from running back Ameer Abdullah and QB Tommy Armstrong Jr. as another slow start dooms the Illini.

Iowa over Purdue 28-20: More signs of improvement from the Boilermakers, but for a second straight week, QB C.J. Beathard rallies the Hawkeyes in the second half as Iowa starts to find an identity by getting its talented cast of receivers more involved.

Wisconsin over USF 56-14: That big soft spot in the schedule allows for another easy win as the Badgers run wild again. More important, QB Tanner McEvoy enjoys a solid game, and the Wisconsin defense surges forward, hinting at the capabilities of this team in a few weeks.

Rutgers over Tulane 37-17: The Scarlet Knights get a week before Big Ten play resumes to devise a way to replace injured running back Paul James. Against the Green Wave, who struggle to stop the run, Justin Goodwin and Desmon Peoples fill in nicely.

Our records:

Adam Rittenberg: 40-10 (80 percent)
Mitch Sherman: 40-10 (80)
Brian Bennett: 39-11 (78)
Austin Ward: 39-11 (78)
Josh Moyer: 36-14 (72)
Dan Murphy: 9-4 (69)

Big Ten morning links

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
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With every team in action for just the second weekend this season, there's plenty to get to in the links this morning. Before diving into that, three thoughts on hot topics in the Big Ten as an important Saturday draws closer.

1. What's the secret?: Chalk it up as gamesmanship or protecting the offensive plan, but there's really no reason for Brady Hoke to be trying to hide his starting quarterback at this point. For one thing, Minnesota coach Jerry Kill has already made it clear that he won't waste time preparing for a "ghost," which means he's already gearing his team up for Devin Gardner. Considering Gardner's multipurpose abilities, it would seem far easier for the Gophers to adjust to Shane Morris if the Wolverines elect to start him, so there doesn't seem to be much gained there. And from a Michigan standpoint, if Hoke is sticking by Gardner, wouldn't he be better served with a public vote of confidence from his coach instead of leaving open the debate about which option is really best to lead the attack? Hoke surely has enough to worry about at this point elsewhere, and he's never seemed all that concerned about public perception when it comes to his news conferences. But it's hard to think guarding a secret about his starting quarterback is worth the effort, and there's a chance it might actually be doing damage.

2. Sneaky-good game of the weekend: Before the season started, it was easy to overlook the matchup. Even now with both teams bringing a loss into the weekend, it might still not stand out as worth watching. But Maryland visiting Indiana for the Big Ten opener for both promises to be entertaining, and it may also have the benefit of being a worthwhile win for the victor down the road. The Hoosiers put themselves back on track for a possible bowl bid with their win at Missouri last weekend, and the Terrapins have emerged as something of a dark horse threat in the East Division with their only loss coming in a shootout against a tough West Virginia squad. There's much more on the line than might have been guessed before the season when it just looked like the conference debut for Maryland, and it certainly will be worth watching on Saturday afternoon.

3. Buckeyes scrambling to replace Spence: Ohio State already had to rely on Steve Miller to fill the void at defensive end left by Noah Spence's suspension before his second failed drug test, so it hasn't had to come up with a new solution since a second failed drug test made it unlikely they would ever get the All-Big Ten pass-rusher back on the field. But what would happen now if Miller goes down or the Buckeyes need to expand the rotation back to eight or nine guys up front as they originally planned? It's possible Adolphus Washington might again be forced to move back outside after seemingly finding a spot to settle once and for all on the interior, and Urban Meyer admitted there have been discussions about making that adjustment. But he indicated it won't happen this week, which could put freshmen Tyquan Lewis and Jalyn Holmes in line for action against Cincinnati. That definitely wasn't what Ohio State had in mind before the season when the line was touted as perhaps the nation's best unit, but that's now the reality of its situation.

East Division
West Division
  • From trash talk to cheap shots, Nebraska's Randy Gregory is getting plenty of attention this season.
  • Purdue has already doubled its win total from last season and Darrell Hazell believes things are pointing in the right direction.
  • Minnesota isn't planning to win any Big Ten games with just 7 passing yards. In the past, the Gophers have actually won with less.
  • A look at everything that goes into handling a weather delay like Illinois had last weekend.
  • Fullbacks may be falling by the wayside nationally, but the position is still alive and well at Iowa.
  • Northwestern has the speakers blaring at practice and is ready to hit the road to take on Penn State.
  • Blitzing is all about effort, and that's no problem for Wisconsin's Derek Landisch.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

September, 24, 2014
Sep 24
5:00
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Happy National Punctuation Day! Now on to the mailbag ...
Josh Moyer: It's not exactly a well-kept secret whom Michigan would like to get - Jim Harbaugh or Les Miles - but I would still label both candidates as "serious," too. Usually, successful NFL coaches don't take a step back down to college. But Harbaugh doesn't have a great relationship with the San Francisco 49ers' general manager, and Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio is already predicting a Harbaugh-to-Michigan move. If Harabugh would be willing to jump to the Wolverines, Michigan would be crazy not to take him. As for Miles, he's already twice been passed over for the Michigan job. But, even this summer, it sure didn't sound as if he held a grudge: "It's certainly a place I hold very near and dear to my heart." Miles to Michigan? ESPN's own Travis Haney believes there's smoke to that one. Either hire would be a slam dunk for Michigan. It'd be up to either head coach if he wants to keep Doug Nussmeier, but I wouldn't be surprised if he stayed. Josh Moyer: It shows the Hoosiers are on the right track, but it's premature to start calling them a serious contender, or even a dark horse. Let's not forget, Indiana also just lost to Bowling Green in a shootout two weeks ago. You want a dark horse right now? Maybe Penn State. But Indiana still needs to show consistency, that it can string together solid some solid performances. Until the Hoosiers do that, they may be a team on the rise, but I hesitate to call them anything more. Maryland will be a good test Saturday. Josh Moyer: In this week's power rankings, we listed Ohio State as No. 4 while Wisconsin was listed at No. 5. And it's a good question -- but you know what? I absolutely agree with you. We don't agree on everything here on the Big Ten blog, so we each do our own rankings and then add them all up to get the Big Ten Power Rankings that you see. This week, two of us ranked the Badgers ahead of the Buckeyes. I was one of them. Wisconsin's lack of a vertical passing game definitely works against it - and I'd wager that's probably what's holding back some of my colleagues - but Ohio State hasn't exactly been impressive, either. The Navy game was a lot closer than the score indicated, and the Virginia Tech loss looks a lot worse now after losses to East Carolina and Georgia Tech. These teams still have a lot to prove, and that's why these rankings are so fluid. If OSU struggles against Cincinnati and Wisconsin dominates USF, you'll probably see our overall rankings flip-flop. Josh Moyer: This has to be a Nebraska fan fishing for compliments, right? Because, right now, it's pretty clear the Cornhuskers are the team to beat. At 4-0, they're the Big Ten's best hope for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Ameer Abdullah could be part of the Heisman ceremony at the end of the year, the passing game is doing just fine, and the Huskers rank No. 31 in the nation in total defense. The Badgers appear to be the West's No. 2 team but, if Iowa's offense continues to play like it did against Pitt, then the Hawkeyes certainly have the potential to move up. Minnesota needs to get some kind of passing game going to legitimately compete in the West and the other three teams - Ilinois, Purdue, Northwestern - are just a mess.

Brent Clarke writes: I'm a diehard PSU fan/alum. Based on the play this season and with the noted issues on the O-line and rushing (Umass game notwithstanding), I think they are an above-average B1G team. I think they could achieve 9ish wins. With that said, what do you think has to happen for Penn State to crack into the polls (Top 25)? Can they do it this week if they win against Northwestern?

Josh Moyer: I'm with you there, Brent. I said before that Penn State was likely capable of between seven and nine wins but, if this offensive line can show marked improvement, that ceiling rises. Regardless, the Nittany Lions are already receiving the 27th-most votes in both polls -- so a win against Northwestern should definitely vault them into the Top 25. That was my thinking before the season, so that obviously remains my thinking now. There's a decent chance Penn State might be 6-0 heading into its Oct. 25 matchup against Ohio State. If that's the case, PSU could be ranked in the teens. That's a game Penn State fans like to circle every year, and that could wind up being an incredibly important one.

UA jersey tour: OL Sterling Jenkins

September, 24, 2014
Sep 24
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video
Penn State recruiting is on a roll under new coach James Franklin, and it doesn’t look like the momentum will slow down any time soon. Prospects are quick to point out the energy and charisma of Franklin and the coaches on his staff as one of the many reasons for the team’s success.

Under Armour All-American offensive lineman Sterling Jenkins is included on that list of recruits who believe Franklin’s personality gives him an edge on the recruiting trail.

[+] EnlargeSterling Jenkins
Tom Hauck for Student SportsMichigan was an early leader for Sterling Jenkins, but Penn State coach James Franklin has kept the Pittsburgh native from leaving the state.
“When Coach (Bill) O’Brien was there, I liked Penn State, but I still wanted to see what was out there. When Coach Franklin came, I knew there was nowhere else I wanted to go,” said Jenkins, from Pittsburgh's Baldwin High School. “His energy made it apparent that was where I wanted to be. I feel like that helps you believe in his dream and goal to make Penn State a power again, since he’s so passionate and upbeat.”

Jenkins was presented with his Under Armour All America jersey on Wednesday and reflected on the fact that he didn’t always have the Nittany Lions atop his list. Early on in his recruitment, Jenkins admits that he was leaning toward Michigan. That changed, though, once Franklin and his staff took over.

Offensive line is a big need for Penn State, so Jenkins is a big part of what the coaches were hoping to add to the roster. With a 4-0 start to the season, Jenkins believes Franklin’s efforts to build the Nittany Lions into a national power again will be a fast one.

The 6-foot-8, 305-pound prospect, ranked No. 103 in the ESPN 300, had more to say about himself and his recruitment, including a few fun facts about his first football memories and who he’s looking forward to competing against at the Under Armour All America Game on Jan. 2.

 
What one player are you looking forward to competing against?: Jashon Cornell. I’d like to go against him again. We went against each other at a camp in Columbus, Ohio. I didn’t know who he was, and then I found out who he was and I was trying to recruit him. I think he beat me, but I wasn’t doing very well that day.

If you could start a team with any other player in your class who would it be?: George Campbell. I already know him and I think he’s a good guy. I also know he’s a really good athlete, and I know he can put some points on the board. He recruited me to Michigan when he was committed there, but then he decommitted, so I haven’t talked to him in awhile.

What was your earliest football memory?: Probably when I was in first grade and I was playing on a team with a bunch of fifth-graders. I couldn’t even play with the fifth-graders because I was too heavy. The max was around 120 pounds; I don’t remember how much I weighed, but they wouldn’t let me play. I was a lineman, but I’m not sure which one, though. I think I was around 5-foot-4 back then, so I was taller than everyone.

Which football player did you idolize or want to be like when you were a kid?: I didn’t grow up watching football. I would watch it but I never really knew the names, so I didn’t really have anyone I idolized. Everyone used to say I look like Jonathan Ogden, and I think he’s a cool guy to look up to.

If you could take on any pro player in their sport who would it be?: I would probably want to go against Kobe Bryant to see how good he is. I know I would get beat, but I think it would be funny to do it.

Why do you wear your number?: I wear 72, and it was between 72 and 75. In my school, those two are the only triple extra large jerseys, and 72 happened to be my dad’s birth year, my old line coach’s high school number and Penn State’s offensive line coach, Coach (Herb) Hand, it was his old college number.

What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?: Brennan Williams plays for the Texans, and on his Twitter he talks a lot about anime and wrestling. I don’t know him, but we both like games and anime. Back in the day there was a movie on Cartoon Network and me and my brother were watching it. It wasn’t like Pokemon or anything -- it was a high-quality anime movie and we just thought it was crazy and we started watching it ever since.

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 4

September, 24, 2014
Sep 24
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A few teams have already played a third of the season. The nonconference action is winding down. Big Ten play is about to really kick off in earnest this weekend -- and the battles for individual awards are starting to come into better focus.

There is still plenty of football to be played and more than enough opportunities to shake up the ballots. But our Big Ten reporters are voting weekly on the races to take the pulse of the races, with players receiving five points for a first-place vote, four for a second-place nod, etc. Also, we try hard to base these standings on 2014 season results only, not any preconceived notions or a player's previous track record.

Here's where it stands after Week 4:

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah (six first-place votes): Another prolific performance in a win for the unbeaten Huskers and another unanimous selection as the top offensive player in the league. Abdullah has set the bar high in the early going and could be tough to chase down if Nebraska keeps rolling.

2. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: Still something of an unknown nationally, Coleman helped get his name out last weekend in the upset at Missouri. He's actually averaging more rushing yards per game than Abdullah.

3. Michigan State QB Connor Cook: Fresh off a bye, Cook was able to take even more time off after carving up Eastern Michigan early and and then calling it a day after six attempts last weekend. He's completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and is clearly building on his strong finish to last season.

4. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon: One of the preseason favorites has finally arrived in the rankings after a slow start. Gordon made up for some lost time with a ridiculous outing against Bowling Green, steamrolling to 5 touchdowns and 253 yards on just 13 carries.

5. Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: Massachusetts didn't pose much of a threat to the Nittany Lions, and the sophomore didn't need to do much to secure another victory. He still leads the Big Ten in passing yardage, but he has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns at this point.

Also receiving votes: Minnesota RB David Cobb and Michigan State WR Tony Lippett.

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Penn State DT Anthony Zettel (six first-place votes): The clear-cut leader for the second week in a row, the defensive tackle continues to lead the league in tackles for loss. His emergence has been invaluable during the perfect start for the Nittany Lions.

2. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa: The Buckeyes were off this week, but that didn't hurt the pass-rushing dynamo any in the rankings. Bosa isn't likely to get his sidekick Noah Spence back any time soon, so his production will be even more critical moving forward for Ohio State.

T-3. Maryland CB Will Likely: The talented defensive back is breaking up at least one pass per game, and he's already nabbed a pair of interceptions and returned one for a touchdown. Even better for the Terrapins, he's a willing tackler averaging nearly 7 takedowns from his spot in the secondary.

T-3. Minnesota LB Damien Wilson: The senior sits on top of the tackling leader board after four games having already piled up 44 of them. The Gophers could use another solid outing as they head to Michigan with a chance to claim the Little Brown Jug.

5. Rutgers DE Kemoko Turay: The defensive race has been relatively wide open and full of surprising names, perhaps none as head-turning as Turay. Through four games, the freshman's four sacks are tied for the league lead.

Also receiving votes: Michigan LB Jake Ryan, Iowa DE Drew Ott and Wisconsin LB Joe Schobert.

B1G 1/4 season review: Bold predictions

September, 24, 2014
Sep 24
2:00
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With a quarter of the season in the books, we’re taking a quick look back at what we’ve learned. We started with the biggest surprise team, then looked at the biggest surprise players, and now offer a prediction for the rest of the season.

Brian Bennett: Wisconsin wins the West
I picked the Badgers before the season, and though Nebraska is the hotter team in the West Division right now, the Cornhuskers still have to go to Madison (not to mention East Lansing). Meanwhile, Gary Andersen's team is starting to find its stride on offense, as evidenced by the Big Ten record rushing total last week vs. Bowling Green, and the defense remains steady. The young Badgers will continue to get better throughout the fall.

Josh Moyer: Christian Hackenberg sets a new Big Ten record in passing yards
This really isn’t a stretch, considering he’s already on pace to break it. Former Purdue QB Curtis Painter holds the record with 3,985 passing yards in 2006, and Hackenberg is on pace for nearly 4,100. Assuming a bowl game for the 4-0 Nittany Lions, Hackenberg needs to average just 302.7 yards per game to set the record, and that seems pretty likely with Penn State’s one-dimensional offense. Hackenberg will have a few big defensive tests -- such as Michigan State and Ohio State -- but half of Penn State's remaining eight regular-season games come against passing defenses ranked outside the top 90.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin's Melvin Gordon has rushed for 431 yards in three games and is averaging 9.4 yards per carry.
Dan Murphy: Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon becomes the league's top back
Ameer Abdullah and Tevin Coleman have grabbed much of the early attention in Big Ten backfields this season, but Gordon is built to surpass both and leave no doubt as to who is the top running back in the conference. Gordon's absence during the second half of a loss to the tough LSU defense was puzzling, but if he stays healthy, he should able to run for at least 1,800 yards behind an offensive line that is used to clearing the way for workhorses. Gordon (6-foot-1, 207 pounds) is better suited for the weekly battles with loaded Big Ten boxes than his counterparts at Indiana and Nebraska.

Adam Rittenberg: Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah gets to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony
He not only has been the best player in the league but the best leader, and this is shaping up to be a special season for No. 8. The Heisman Trophy has become a quarterback award and a lot of people think if a running back wins, it will be Georgia's Todd Gurley. But Abdullah has enough opportunities (against Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa) to showcase his skills. Eventually, he'll get enough national attention and earn a selection as a Heisman finalist.

Mitch Sherman: The Wisconsin offensive backfield, marked by confusion in early September, will resemble something of a monster by Week 10
Quarterback Joel Stave will return to the mix for the Badgers in October during a stretch of home games against Illinois and Maryland, separated by a bye. But instead of going solely with Stave, Wisconsin will use the junior in addition to senior Tanner McEvoy, sometimes together, alongside its dangerous duo of running backs. With help from a friendly schedule, Stave will successfully negotiate his return in time to gear up for a finishing stretch that features Nebraska and Minnesota at Camp Randall and a trip to Iowa. What began as a mess for the Badgers will end with a group of versatile weapons.

Austin Ward: The Big Ten will still be a factor in the College Football Playoff
The conference might have been a punch line for the first few weeks, but it will still be represented in the four-team field when the season comes to a close. Nebraska is unbeaten and a threat to every team it plays when Ameer Abdullah is on the field. Michigan State dropped a game, but it handled itself well in the loss at Oregon and looks like the league’s most talented team. Ohio State lost early also, but that young team has time to develop and enough pieces to make a run itself -- though it would have to beat the Spartans on the road to earn a playoff bid. Even Penn State is a factor after its perfect start and the repeal of its sanctions, leaving the Big Ten with enough options on the table to expect an appearance in the first year of the playoff.

B1G 1/4 season review: Surprise player

September, 24, 2014
Sep 24
1:00
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With a quarter of the season in the books, we're taking a quick look back at what we've learned. We started with the biggest surprise team and now move on to the biggest surprise player.

Brian Bennett: Purdue DT Ryan Watson
Watson is the only Big Ten player to register four unassisted sacks this season. If you're saying, "Who's that?" don't feel too bad. Watson started only four games for Purdue last season and was pretty much an unknown coming into 2014. His four sacks are already more than any Boilermakers player managed last season. It remains to be seen if he can keep it up in conference play, but the junior defensive tackle has been a pleasant surprise.

[+] EnlargeWes Lunt
Bradley Leeb/AP PhotoQB Wes Lunt, a transfer from Oklahoma State, has settled into the Illinois offense surprisingly well through four games.
Josh Moyer: Rutgers DE Kemoko Turay
OK, so he's not technically a starter and he only has eight tackles on the season. Fair enough. But look at his other numbers and the impact he's had on games: A Big Ten-leading four sacks (for minus-30 yards), a conference-best two blocked kicks, a key sack on the final series against Washington State and a critical blocked field goal against Penn State. Go ahead and look at this photo of Turay blocking a field goal, and tell me it's not impressive. Maybe the redshirt freshman is a bit raw, and maybe he doesn't see a lot of time (yet), but that kind of athleticism sure surprised me.

Dan Murphy: Penn State DT Anthony Zettel
This might not be the most original pick -- even Zettel himself said he was surprised at the seven tackles for loss he posted in the first month of the season -- but it's hard to find anyone else who has emerged as fast and strong as the 6-foot-4, 282-pound defensive tackle. Zettel is a centerpiece for the nation's top rushing defense, a group that allows an average of 49.5 yards per game. He moved inside from a backup defensive end role this offseason and immediately became one of the conference's top defensive linemen.

Adam Rittenberg: Illinois QB Wes Lunt
I knew the Oklahoma State transfer had a big arm and seemed to be a good fit in Bill Cubit's pass-heavy offense, but I was concerned about a revamped wide receiver corps featuring mostly junior-college transfers and freshmen. But Lunt has been very good other than the first half at Washington, firing 11 touchdown passes against three interceptions and completing nearly 66 percent of his throws. He's spreading the ball around and getting it out quickly, which is so vital in Cubit's system.

Mitch Sherman: Maryland CB William Likely
Likely enjoyed a nice, true freshman season a year ago in the ACC. Still, it's correct to classify him as a breakout sophomore. At 5-7 and 175 pounds, Likely packs a powerful punch, often sparking the Terps on special teams and from his spot in the secondary. Last week in Maryland's win against Syracuse, he contributed a key, 88-yard interception return for a touchdown and nine solo tackles. The week prior against West Virginia, Likely had an interception, a fumble recovery and a 69-yard punt return for a TD. A solid recruit out of the Florida Everglades in 2013, the undersized Likely won't wow you with his straight-line speed. But this guy has Honey Badger tendencies. He simply makes big plays.

Austin Ward: Illinois QB Wes Lunt
The assumption all along was that Lunt would win the three-man battle to start at quarterback for Illinois, but the fact Tim Beckman took his sweet time making it official at least raised the possibility that maybe the touted transfer wasn't going to be a difference-maker if he couldn't pull ahead in the race. Those doubts are long gone now, and Lunt's huge arm has made the Illini more than just entertaining -- it's winning them some games. The schedule hasn't been that tough and league play is only starting this week for Illinois, but 1,237 yards and a league-best 11 touchdowns makes for a pretty eye-catching first month on the job.

B1G 1/4 season review: Surprise team

September, 24, 2014
Sep 24
12:00
PM ET
With a quarter of the season in the books, we're taking a quick look back, starting with the biggest surprise team.

Brian Bennett: Rutgers
Many, including me, pegged the Scarlet Knights as a three-win or four-win team in their first season in the Big Ten. But after good victories over Washington State and Navy on the road and a near-miss at home against undefeated Penn State, Rutgers looks very capable, barring more interception barrages, of competing with most teams in the league and making a bowl game despite a daunting remaining schedule. Apologies are in order to Kyle Flood's team.

Josh Moyer: Michigan
It might not be a positive surprise, but it’s a surprise nonetheless. This was supposed to be the season Michigan bounced back, when Devin Gardner finally found his footing and an aggressive defense shot up the rankings. Instead, it’s been a huge step backward for the Wolverines. In Brady Hoke’s last three games against Power 5 opponents in the Big House, he’s gone 0-3. That doesn’t cut it at Michigan. There’s still time to turn this around, but the loss to Notre Dame was historically bad. And the game against Utah was straight-up embarrassing. I expected a lot more from Michigan this season.

[+] EnlargePenn State
Patrick Bolger/Getty ImagesPenn State got things started with a victory in Ireland over UCF and is off to a 4-0 start.
Dan Murphy: Northwestern
In retrospect, the Wildcats had all sorts of things pointed in the wrong direction this offseason. A disastrous end to 2013 on the field fed into the distractions that came with some of the players' attempt to unionize during the spring. The ringleader of the union movement, former quarterback Kain Colter, is missed on the field as well. Despite all that, Pat Fitzgerald always gave the impression he would be able to pull his troops together in time for training camp and at least bounce back to mediocrity. The Cats, to be kind, haven't. Even their 24-7 victory over Western Illinois was uninspiring, leaving little hope that they will land anywhere but the basement in the Big Ten this season.

Adam Rittenberg: Penn State
Penn State has been a pleasant surprise under first-year coach James Franklin. Although the Lions' schedule gets tougher in the coming months, the early returns, especially on defense, are very positive for a team that has been through more than its share of transition. This looks like a Penn State defense again, and coordinator Bob Shoop and his staff deserve credit for maximizing the talent there. The offense has been inconsistent at times, especially up front, which is to be expected with all the new faces. But young receivers Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton are blossoming, and Christian Hackenberg is putting up big numbers in the passing game.

Mitch Sherman: Rutgers
Perhaps it’s short-lived, or maybe Rutgers will continue to exceed expectations in its first year of Big Ten play. While the schedule still looks daunting after the next couple weeks, Rutgers stands a real chance to beat Michigan while the Wolverines are down. Coach Kyle Flood’s team has won three of its first four without any great statistical achievement. Rutgers is better than average at getting sacks, and save for a dreadful performance against Penn State, quarterback Gary Nova has been efficient. The loss of running back Paul James is big, but Rutgers has already won twice as a road underdog. If the first month has taught us anything about the Scarlet Knights, we’ve learned it’s not safe to doubt them.

Austin Ward: Michigan
The Wolverines never really had the look of a contender in the East Division, but it was hard to envision they would struggle this much during the first month of the season. The offense is in complete disarray, the issues with turnovers have sunk to unimaginable lows and Brady Hoke is even having problems winning news conferences as he snaps at reporters looking for injury information. This kind of meltdown was difficult to foresee at this stage in Hoke’s tenure with the program, but it could be over soon if he doesn’t regain control quickly -- like, by the time Minnesota arrives on Saturday for a Big Ten opener that could easily go against the Wolverines at this rate.

Big Ten morning links

September, 24, 2014
Sep 24
8:00
AM ET
  • Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah joined the growing contingent of people shaking their heads at the recent escapades of Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston this week. Abdullah, a Heisman contender in his own right, knows Winston from time spent at regional recruiting camps while growing up in Alabama. He said Winston needs to think before he acts and show “a higher level of maturity.” Be careful, though, Ameer. The last Heisman hopeful to dish on the behavior of a Heisman winner ended up eating his words.
  • Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio can see a potential future where the playoff or bust mentality in college football creates unhealthy expectations for a long list of programs. He said coaches and players will still value their conference championship rings, but it didn’t sound like he thinks that will be enough to appease the masses. In Dantonio’s world, a league championship would be a prerequisite for getting a shot at a national championship.
  • While just about everyone outside of Michigan’s locker room has expressed doubts about Brady Hoke’s job performance, those inside the locker room are still passionately behind their coach, at least in public. A day after defensive coordinator Greg Mattison got worked up talking about his close relationships with Hoke, junior receiver Dennis Norfleet chastised outsiders for taking shots at his coach. The Wolverines are closing ranks and attempting to rally around their beleaguered coach. The "us against the world" approach could be just what Michigan needs, but history shows another tough loss will start to eat away at that locker room solidarity.

And now, your daily links:

East Division

James Franklin wants to see better punt returns from Penn State this week.

Maryland see its Big Ten this debut this weekend as a historic moment for the program.

Indiana lost a pair of defensive role players for the season in its big win over No. 18 Missouri.

Michigan State's Macgarrett Kings Jr. learned that "nothing is promised" the hard way this offseason.

Tickets for this Saturday's Michigan-Minnesota game came at a massive discount for some lucky fans.

Urban Meyer introduced two very special members of his team ahead of a "Coach To Cure" weekend in college football.

Kemoko Turay wants to be more than a pass rush specialist for Rutgers this season.

West Division

Nebraska's younger offensive line is making a smooth transition early in the year.

Wes Lunt needs to put together a more consistent game against Nebraska.

C.J. Beathard is ready to go at quarterback for Iowa if he gets the call on Saturday.

Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner isn't healthy yet, but won't lose his job to an injury.

Third-down efficiency is a priority for Wisconsin moving forward.

Purdue's run defense has been impressive so far, but Iowa will put it to the test.

Northwestern has never had much success when going head-to-head with the Nittany Lions.

Conference call: Best of the Big Ten

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
3:00
PM ET
Another week, another Big Ten coaches' teleconference, and we offer up some of the highlights.

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

 

Weekend recruiting wrap: Big Ten 

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
10:30
AM ET
video 
The Big Ten went 12-1 this past weekend and hosted some big visitors on the recruiting side. Penn State and Nebraska both had big weekends, while Michigan is still looking for answers.

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