B1G roundtable: Week 9 bold predictions

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
4:40
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OK, so we didn't exactly go out on the limb with our Week 9 scoring predictions this week. For once, we actually all agreed.

So we thought we'd take it a step further this week. Instead of just predicting the winner, which seems like a relatively easy exercise this week, we each took a crack at making a bold prediction for Week 9.

Here are those bold predictions:

Adam Rittenberg: Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Gary Nova combine for 550 pass yards

I expect a big day for both quarterbacks in Lincoln. Rutgers is very vulnerable to long passes -- 52.5 percent of opponents' completions against the Scarlet Knights go for 10 yards or longer -- and Nebraska features a big-play passing attack. I'm also not sold on the Huskers secondary, which will be tested by Rutgers deep threat Leonte Carroo. Maybe Randy Gregory inhales Nova and it's another rough day on the road for Rutgers, but I see a lot of pass yards in this one.

Brian Bennett: Penn State breaks out something new

The Nittany Lions know they can't simply line up and run the ball in conventional ways (or protect Christian Hackenberg) because of their porous offensive line, and the talent level isn't going to change this season. But the team had a bye week in which James Franklin said it spent working on those issues. Expect the coaching staff to throw some new wrinkles at Ohio State, a la the 2011 game when Penn State broke out the Wildcat. It probably still won't be enough to beat the surging Buckeyes, but Ohio State had better be ready to adjust for something different.

Austin Ward: The Badgers will look competent throwing the football

The two-quarterback system barely made an appearance the last time Wisconsin stepped on the field, though it hardly made any difference against Illinois and its pillow-soft defense. Melvin Gordon might still be enough on his own against another unit that doesn’t usually put up much of a fight on the ground, but Maryland does have better athletes on that side of the ball and the Badgers will likely need to show more balance to get the win they need to remain a factor in the West. Coming off a bye week to tinker with the rotation and fine-tune some packages for both Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy, expect to see more production from those passers -- maybe even the first 200-yard passing performance since Week 2 against Western Illinois.

Josh Moyer: The Illini will look incompetent with a two-QB system

Tim Beckman was adamant he wants to play both dual-threat Aaron Bailey and pocket-passer Reilly O'Toole. Bad move, Tim -- and even your offensive coordinator doesn't seem sold on the idea. Bill Cubit just shrugged earlier this week when asked if Beckman's two-QB idea was the best plan: "I don't know. I'll be honest with you, the playbook gets really expanded for one guy." The two-quarterback system worked against Wisconsin because the Badgers didn't expect Bailey to run. That element of surprise is gone now; Minnesota knows what's coming. And we think we know, too: Another Illinois loss.

Dan Murphy: Three players will reach 200 rushing yards

Despite Tevin Coleman -- the country's second most productive running back -- taking the week off for a bye, the Big Ten will see three 200-yard rushing performances this Saturday. Illinois allows 271 yards per game on the ground (125th nationally). Minnesota workhorse David Cobb will fill the majority of that quota this week. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, the only player with more rushing yards than Coleman, faces a Maryland defense with its own issues stopping the run. The regular cast of characters finishes with Ameer Abdullah from Nebraska, who is likely headed for a high-scoring affair with Rutgers in Lincoln.

Mitch Sherman: Michigan will rush for positive net yardage

Believe it. Michigan State mauled the Wolverines last year, sacking QB Devin Gardner seven times as the Wolverines finished with minus-48 rushing yards -- the lowest figure in program history. It’ll go better for Michigan on Saturday, though well not enough to beat the Spartans. Or come close. Michigan ranks 64th nationally in rushing offense, a significant improvement over last year, and the Spartans have slipped to eighth against the run, allowing 100.3 yards per game. The Wolverines won’t get to triple digits, especially without injured back Derrick Green. But Brady Hoke has said he wants to get Gardner more involved in the ground game. They had a bye week to prepare. Let’s see it.
It was a game that most fans and players want to forget -- but they just can’t. Not with this final score.

Ten years ago today, Iowa traveled to a muggy field at Penn State to take part in a game that most remember for its struggling offenses and unique score: Iowa 6, Penn State 4. The Hawkeyes wound up with a pair of 27-yard field goals, the Nittany Lions with two safeties.

“If you love defense, it was the greatest game you could ever see,” Penn State defensive end Matthew Rice said. “If you love offense, it was the greatest game you’d never want to see.”

Iowa finished with 42 rushing yards on 40 carries and had just 168 total yards -- an average of 2.4 yards per play. Penn State fumbled the ball three times -- losing one -- and tossed four interceptions. Kicker Robbie Gould also missed two field goals, including a 25-yard attempt.

It was a game and score that might never happen again. Iowa players remember it as an emotional back-and-forth affair that came days after the death of Kirk Ferentz’s father. Penn State remembers it as the epitome of defensive frustration. Even to this day, whenever PSU’s offense struggles and the defense shines, that 6-4 game is brought up tongue in cheek.

“For the defense, it was a dream come true, to win a game 6-4,” Iowa safety Sean Considine said.

Said Penn State punter Jeremy Kapinos: “I just remember it being extremely boring, dull -- and being a lot of work for special teams.”

Click here to read about the 6-4 game, and the oral history from the former players and coaches.
Christian Hackenberg was the big name as a Big Ten freshman in 2013. Now, that torch has been passed to Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett.

The Buckeyes' redshirt freshman appears to be on the rise, while Penn State's sophomore has struggled to repeat the success from his first season. They’ll meet Saturday night in Beaver Stadium. So, in the meantime, here’s a look at both quarterbacks -- the good, the bad and the ugly.

Barrett

The good: He’s performed so well since Week 3 that he’s started to enter the Heisman conversation. Just take a look at the numbers in his last four games: 86-of-120 (71.7 percent), 1,170 yards, 17 touchdowns and one interception. He’s recorded a QBR of at least 75.8 in the last four games, and he posted a 98.8 QBR in his last game, against Rutgers. His improvement has been well-documented, whether it’s in the running game, his poise or his ability through the air. Said Penn State linebacker Mike Hull: “He doesn’t turn the ball over, he makes smart throws, he’s a great runner -- so he really has been the whole package for them so far.”

The bad: Barrett has been praised for his production in the last four games, but his opponents haven’t exactly been challenging. Kent State currently ranks No. 97 in total defense, Cincinnati is No. 120, Maryland is No. 99 and Rutgers is No. 82. The two best defenses he’s played -- Navy (No. 70) and Virginia Tech (No. 20) -- both came in his first two starts when the playbook was limited. And that’s where he fared his worst. So at this point, there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg argument. Barrett is undoubtedly talented, but just how much did his opponents’ bad defenses influence his numbers?

The ugly: There’s very, very little from Barrett that can be classified as “ugly.” Really, only one game -- and that was the loss against the Hokies. Virginia Tech blitzed mercilessly, and Barrett just couldn’t adjust. He finished 9-of-29 with three picks and took seven sacks. Statistically, Barrett will face only one better pass defense this regular season than Virginia Tech: Michigan State.

Hackenberg

The good: Going back to last season, Hackenberg has had a penchant for the comeback. In his last 13 games, he’s engineered four last-minute game-tying or game-winning drives: Illinois and Michigan in 2013 and UCF and Rutgers this season. He is widely regarded as a future first-round NFL draft pick -- if not the No. 1 pick overall -- and several Big Ten coaches have sung his praises. Michigan’s Brady Hoke and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald both said this season that he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer: “Obviously, we got a lot of respect for that big quarterback, Hackenberg.”

The bad: By any measure, this season has been a disappointment for Hackenberg so far. He’s thrown more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (5). But a lot of his struggles can be traced back to a patchwork offensive line that features one returning starter and two former defensive tackles at offensive guard. He’s been sacked 20 times so far this season -- the most in the Big Ten -- while he was sacked just 21 times all of last year. He also has little run support, as only seven teams in the nation are averaging fewer rushing yards per game. He’s starting to develop bad habits, and frustration appears to be setting in.

The ugly: There’s a lot more to write under this section than for Barrett. For one, Hackenberg’s QBR this season right now sits at 38.0 -- a decrease in 18.6 points from last season, the largest decrease for any Big Ten quarterback. And there have been quite a few other lowlights. Early in the season, Hackenberg's frustrations boiled over on TV and resulted in a gif that made the rounds on sports blogs. As was mentioned before, his offensive line also hasn’t done him any favors, and they made national headlines when one blocker closed his eyes and mistakenly blocked a teammate. And James Franklin can’t seem to make up his mind as to whether to have offensive coordinator John Donovan in the booth or on the field.

David BradleyAP Photo/Carolyn KasterPunter David Bradley's safety was one of the scoring highlights in Iowa's 6-4 win over Penn State.

Ten years ago, on Oct. 23, 2004, Iowa and Penn State kicked off at two minutes after noon in front of more than 108,000 at Beaver Stadium. It was a muggy day after recent rain, 55 degrees, and cloud cover gave way to sunshine in the second half.

Penn State entered after four losses in five games, none by more than two scores and none in which it allowed more than 21 points. A week before Iowa came to Happy Valley on this Saturday, the Nittany Lions lost at home to Purdue and Kyle Orton, 20-13.

Iowa entered on the opposite trajectory, ranked No. 25 after consecutive home wins over Michigan State and Ohio State.

The week of the Penn State game, though, was unlike most for the Hawkeyes. Iowa practiced for two days and traveled east without its sixth-year coach, Kirk Ferentz, who flew home to Pittsburgh on Wednesday after the death of his father.

It made for an emotional week and an emotional afternoon as Ferentz rejoined his team.

On the field, sophomore quarterback Drew Tate was an emerging star, on his way to first-team All-Big Ten honors. But Tate struggled at Beaver Stadium. Frankly, everyone on offense - for both teams - struggled.

And that's why this game is memorable.

Iowa won 6-4, its lowest score in a victory since 1957.

Penn State mustered only a pair of safeties -- the second conceded by the Hawkeyes in the fourth quarter.

Here's a look back, through the eyes of Iowa and Penn State players and coaches:


(Read full post)


STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- James Franklin was off recruiting in Connecticut last Saturday afternoon when Ohio State’s offense exploded -- again -- against Rutgers. He caught a few highlights here and there, but he didn’t need to see much.

He already knew this defense was in for a challenge.

"They’ve recruited well, they’ve got really good depth, they’ve got really good talent, they’ve got really good speed," Franklin said Wednesday evening, recalling his initial thoughts. "It’s the best team I think so far -- from a talent and depth standpoint -- that we’ve seen this year."

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsPenn State coach James Franklin on Ohio State: "It's the best team I think so far -- from a talent and depth standpoint -- that we've seen this year."
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Franklin’s first impressions were dead-on. Since its loss to Virginia Tech, Ohio State has scored at least 50 points in a school-record four straight games. It has also gained at least 500 yards of total offense in four straight games -- the first time that has happened since 1998 -- and it has boasted the most efficient offense in the country during that span.

Penn State’s offense, on the other hand, hasn’t scored even two touchdowns against any of its three Big Ten opponents. So it’s no surprise to hear Nittany Lions linebacker Mike Hull say this defense boasts the mentality that it’s "going to put every single game on our shoulders." Especially with Ohio State on the horizon.

"It’s going to be a challenge this week to stop these guys," Hull said. "We’re going to have to have a great effort. But I think we’re going to be up for the challenge, and we’re going to do everything in our power to hold them in check."

Hull watched the film. He knows how Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett "has gotten so much better in the last four, five games." What Hull might not know: Since Week 3, no quarterback in the country has boasted a higher QBR than Barrett (90.0), not Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott (89.7) or Oregon’s Marcus Mariota (87.9). Hull knows what a challenge running back Ezekiel Elliott will be. What he might not know: Ohio State gains at least five yards on more than half of its rushes, the best among FBS teams.

Penn State hasn’t seen an offense quite like Ohio State's; Franklin and his players admitted as much. But, then again, the Buckeyes haven’t faced a defense quite like Penn State's.

No defense in the country has been better than Penn State at stopping the run. And, besides Virginia Tech, the highest-ranked total defense Ohio State played is No. 70 Navy. Penn State is No. 6.

"Very well-coached up front. Good personnel up front," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. "It’s a much different defense right now. That’s a really good rush defense we’re facing."

Penn State’s defense is a big reason 812 students have pitched tents outside Beaver Stadium’s Gate A in preparation of a sold-out, white-out crowd of more than 107,000. Franklin’s squad isn’t built to survive shootouts and, for PSU to have a shot at the upset, it needs this defense to control the tempo.

The defense didn’t achieve that last season and fell to Ohio State, 63-14, in the Horseshoe. It was the Nittany Lions’ worst loss since a 64-5 game against Duquesne in 1899, the year Walter Camp first published his All-America football team.

"It’s obviously disappointing to go in there and lose like we did, but it’s a new season, a new year," safety Ryan Keiser said. "We both have different teams."

Said Hull: "We got it handed to us on national TV, and that wasn’t the Penn State team I knew we were. I knew we were better than that."

Penn State is still trying to carve out an identity on offense, but this defense has shown so far that it’s like the PSU teams of old: Stop the run, carry the team, frustrate the opposing offense. It has done that nearly every game this season -- but the Buckeyes present a unique challenge.

And the entire defense knows it, from the secondary (Keiser) to the linebackers (Hull), to the defensive line.

"This is probably the biggest test we have faced to date," defensive tackle Austin Johnson said. "It’s going to be an interesting game."

Big Ten Week 9 predictions

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
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Is it a full moon or something? First, we have three people -- Brian Bennett, Josh Moyer and Mitch Sherman -- who notched perfect weeks last week. And now, all of our experts agreed on the games this week. Yes, strange days indeed.

Anyway ... here are the breakdowns:

Unanimous selections

Minnesota 31, Illinois 20: The Big Ten's worst run defense will get a heavy dose of David Cobb, the nation's carries leader (189) and No. 4 rusher (1,013). Like Purdue, Illinois will try to attack Minnesota with its speed and will have some success, but Minnesota remains perfect in league play.

Wisconsin 38, Maryland 30: Expect a ton of handoffs from Wisconsin's quarterbacks, who should want no part of Will Likely. But Maryland allows nearly 200 rush yards per game, which doesn't bode well against a rested Melvin Gordon.

Nebraska 41, Rutgers 27: Can the Huskers avoid a slow start? If so, they should be able to pull away from a Rutgers team that had no answers for Ohio State's offense. Quarterbacks Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Gary Nova both put up big numbers in this one.

Michigan State 24, Michigan 13: The Wolverines' points totals against MSU have dropped every year since 2004. They exceed last year's woeful production but can't stop the Spartans' Connor Cook and Tony Lippett, who connect for two touchdown strikes.

Ohio State 27, Penn State 16: J.T. Barrett won't go nuts against an improved Penn State defense that can shut down the run. But his counterpart, Christian Hackenberg, could be in real trouble if he's not protected from Joey Bosa and Ohio State's fearsome defensive line.

Our records:

Mitch Sherman: 62-13 (.827)
Brian Bennett: 60-15 (.800)
Austin Ward: 59-16 (.787)
Adam Rittenberg: 58-17 (.773)
Josh Moyer: 56-19 (.747)
Dan Murphy: 28-10 (.737)

Big Ten morning links

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
8:00
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Working for the weekend -- and the return of Big Ten football? Let's pass the time together.

1. Buzz-building weekend: For all the problems generating much hype for teams in the Big Ten early in the season, it doesn’t seem to really be slowing down individuals in the league heading into the final weekend of October. In fact, the next couple weeks could be critical for launching a few stars into the conversation for the stretch run, beginning with Melvin Gordon and a campaign that appears to be back on track. Just like Wisconsin collectively, Gordon was a bit slow out of the gates and became something of a forgotten man. But coming off a bye week with another opportunity to potentially put up big numbers against Maryland and its soft rush defense, he could be right back in the thick of a few trophy races. Ameer Abdullah takes on a Rutgers defense that was just gashed by J.T. Barrett, and the Nebraska rusher could use an impressive outing to recapture some hype that slowed down considerably after the loss at Michigan State and an off date of his own. Then there’s Barrett, who is flying up the charts with his eye-popping numbers. The Ohio State quarterback is also in position to capture more attention if he adds a solid Penn State defense to his list of recent victims.

2. Position under fire: The problems the Penn State offensive line have had are no secret, and Christian Hackenberg surely has the bruises to prove it. But if the Nittany Lions are going to bounce back and regain some of the winning swagger they had during the four-game winning streak that opened the season, they’re going to need to show some marked improvement in a hurry. Coming off a bye week to work out a few kinks, Penn State is certainly going to be put to the test to see what it accomplished with the extra practice time on Saturday night against the Buckeyes. Count Joey Bosa among those who has noticed the guys in charge of blocking him next have had issues at times this season, pointing out some “struggles” and noting their youth after practice on Wednesday. The Ohio State pass-rusher also made clear, however, that he is expecting Penn State's best shot this weekend and won’t take anything for granted, though he was obviously fired up to hit the road after practice. The Nittany Lions had certainly better be energized and ready for the sensational sophomore’s top effort as well.

3. Under-the-radar matchup: The coaches may have taken notice and started ranking them in their poll, but the Gophers still aren’t drawing much of a spotlight despite sitting on top of the West Division. There might not really be any incentive to pay attention to Illinois at this point, but it’s a program that still has something to play for as its coach fights for his job and a bowl game remains mathematically in reach. So despite the justifiably low intrigue there might be nationally for Minnesota’s trip to Illinois, the outcome figures to be plenty relevant in the Big Ten. If the Gophers win again, they’re halfway through the league schedule without a loss and on the inside track in the divisional race heading into their second and final bye week. Should the Illini pull an upset, they’d be right back at .500, Tim Beckman’s seat would be considerably cooler and they could once again start entertaining the idea of playing in the postseason. Maybe that’s a stretch to make the game itself worth watching for casual fans, but the final score will carry weight for both teams.

East Division
  • Michigan State center Jack Allen has returned to practice and will be in the starting lineup on Saturday.
  • Michigan offensive linemen were "deer in the headlights" last year against the Spartans, and they'll have to be better this time around.
  • Penn State has flip-flopped about its plans for offensive coordinator John Donovan this week.
  • Rutgers still has faith in up-and-down receiver Janarion Grant.
  • Ohio State knows what to expect from the road crowd this week at Penn State, and it can't wait for the opportunity to play in front of it.
  • Another tough task for Maryland's defensive front is on tap against Wisconsin.
  • A look at the upbringing for new Indiana starting quarterback Zander Diamont, the son of a soap-opera star.
West Division
video Dwayne Haskins is the second-ranked QB in the 2016 class, but he's not letting the pressure of recruiting get to him. Don't sleep on Arizona State with ESPN 300 linebacker Osa Masina.

Big Ten mailbag

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
5:00
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We're on the back side of the wait for Week 9 in the Big Ten. Let's get to the latest batch of questions. As always, thanks for the submissions.
Mitch Sherman: Every game is a big one for the Badgers at this point. Since the promising first 30 minutes of the year against LSU, something has seemed constantly amiss with Wisconsin. It is far from out of the running in the wide-open West Division, but with the loss at Northwestern, the Badgers are climbing uphill again. It's reminiscent, somewhat, of the 2012 path, when Wisconsin scuffled through the first half of the season, then dropped three of its final four before backing into the conference title game and clobbering Nebraska. The quarterback situation is just strange. Gary Andersen said this week it's not a competition but that Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy will both play. I don't entirely get that, though I recognize, considering Stave's unusual season, that it's likely been one of the most difficult situations a coaching staff could face with two healthy quarterbacks.
Sherman: Let me direct you to the weekly Playoff Eliminator, which puts into context the contenders that remain for the main event in January. Context is the all-important factor here. Without it, no one can say if a Big Ten team has a shot to make the playoff. At this point, even the league's top-ranked teams, when the committee's first poll is unveiled next week, will need help in order to reach the top four. But with highly ranked SEC teams falling each week in conference play and so many big games left before the playoff is set, it makes sense to believe that any Big Ten team would stand a reasonable chance to fit into the playoff picture at 12-1.
Sherman: Well, that's going to depend on the next coach. Since we're dealing in hypotheticals, let's say the Wolverines hit a home run -- no a grand slam -- in finding their next guy. If a proven NFL coach takes the job or a big-name guy from college who understands the recruiting game, I think Michigan can be competitive immediately. It could be a real contender nationally in the second year, simply because the talent is there. Hoke has recruited well; he and his staff have just struggled to develop talent in Ann Arbor and, to some degree, attract the right mix of recruits. The right coach could fix all of that in a short time.
Sherman: The short answer is no. The long answer? Not against Michigan State if the U-M played the Spartans every week between now and the end of the season. You saw what happened last year when Michigan State made even Ohio State fans feel sorry for Gardner. (OK, probably not.) The Spartans will be up for this game like they were to face Nebraska on Oct. 4, looking to pound another nail into the coffin of Michigan's season. Gardner, of course, is plenty talented. He's the right choice to run Michigan's offense, considering the roster of quarterbacks, but probably not this offense. Hoke suggested before the Penn State game that Gardner might play to his strength and run the football more. He carried 10 times for 18 yards in the 18-13 U-M win. With a week off to prepare for the Spartans, maybe the offense has undergone a transformation, though it's doubtful a philosophical change could dig Michigan out of this hole.

Big Ten morning links

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
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Trophy games and rivalries will be a regular occurrence from now until the end of the Big Ten season. This week features one of the nastiest in-state showdowns, but the build-up to this year’s version has been comparatively tame.

1. Michigan and Michigan State have never been shy about their mutual distaste for one another. This year’s pregame volley of words has been far more civil than in the past decade. Maybe it’s because Michigan State no longer has to ferociously refute the “little brother” tag. Maybe it’s because Michigan limps into Saturday’s game with a 3-4 record and doesn’t have much of a trash-talking leg on which to stand. The sentiment behind closed doors is probably a little more hostile. The boring “it’s a big game because it’s the next game” lines are probably the proper do-your-talking-with-your-pads rhetoric. Nonetheless, it makes rivalry week a little too PR-scrubbed and professional for my liking.

2. Is J.T. Barrett at the top of your Big Ten quarterbacks list yet? If not, he should be. The Buckeyes rookie has the best quarterback rating in the nation since the third week of the season. He has Ohio State’s spread offense running as smoothly as former two-time conference MVP Braxton Miller ever did. If Barrett continues to roll and leads Ohio State to a league title, Urban Meyer is going to have a difficult decision to make between two healthy preseason Heisman contenders next August.

3. Death, taxes and Minnesota games being decided by halftime. Those used to be the safe bets during Jerry Kill’s first three-plus seasons with the Gophers. On Saturday, Kill’s team won for the first time when trailing at half. They have still never lost when leading after two quarters. Coming from behind against Purdue was a significant step forward for Kill’s rebuilt program, which is built to play with a lead. Long completions on play-action passes beat the Boilermakers and added to the Gophers’ case as a legitimate West Division contender.

East Division
  • Amid all the niceties dished out Tuesday, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook reminded reporters that Saturday’s game will be “a bloodbath.”
  • Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has tapped into the recruiting power of Ohio’s prodigal son, LeBron James.
  • Maryland hopes its relationship with Under Armour will make the Terps the Oregon of the East.
  • Rutgers athletic director Julie Hermann, a Nebraska native, gives the Scarlet Knights an emphatic vote of approval as they prepare for the Cornhuskers.
  • Penn State’s defense likes the pressure that comes from low-scoring games.
  • Devin Gardner has dealt with some unnecessary abuse on and off the field in his time as Michigan’s starting quarterback.
  • Zander Diamont – teen model, son of a man once voted as the No. 1 sexiest soap opera star and the unexpected freshman starter at Indiana – says he had a normal upbringing in southern California.
West Division

 
video Adam McLean picked Penn State in April, but Ole Miss, Tennessee and others haven't stopped recruiting him, and his high school coach knows exactly why. DeMatha Catholic's 2016 class is shaping up to be one of the best ever in school history, and that's saying a lot.


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Big Ten morning links

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
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Three bite-sized opinions, with links below, to start off your morning:

1. Larry Johnson deserves cheers, not jeers from Penn State fans. The longtime Nittany Lions assistant, now an Ohio State coach, is returning to Happy Valley for a Saturday night game. One fan tweeted at me, referring to LJ as “Larry Judas.” He’s not the only PSU fan that still harnesses some bitterness toward Johnson. But that really misses the mark. Johnson knew James Franklin was big on defensive line coach Sean Spencer -- he admitted as much Monday -- so Johnson simply stepped aside. This is the same man who declined a defensive coordinator position with Illinois in 2008 which would’ve reportedly doubled his salary. And who, in 2011, declined to put his name in for Maryland’s next coordinator job because he already promised Penn State’s recruiting class he’d coach them the next season. Just because a coach leaves somewhere doesn’t mean he’s “disloyal.” I’m not 100 percent certain what kind of reception he’ll receive Saturday night, but a standing ovation seems much more appropriate than any boos.

2. Purdue fans have a reason to be excited -- finally. Danny Etling was heralded as Purdue's savior before he ever took a snap last season. And when he did finally step under center for the first time, against Northern Illinois, the crowd offered him a standing ovation. Well, it turns out the quarterback to turn this Boilermakers team around might just be the lesser-known Austin Appleby. At least, he was lesser-known until a few weeks ago. In his last three starts, the Boilermakers are averaging 35.7 points a game. Before Appleby, that number was 23.8. He has some weapons on offense and, if this defense can step up, Purdue could really be a good team. Seriously. Appleby stuck with it after Etling twice beat him out for the starting job, and Appleby still has no shortage of confidence. He said last week that Purdue "could've hung 40" on Michigan State.

3. Illinois’ “Gray Ghost” uniforms deserve a thumbs-up. Maybe it’s just because I’m a sucker for history, but I really dig the uniforms the Fighting Illini plan to wear this weekend for Homecoming. It’s not necessarily how they look -- and they look fine -- but it’s the story behind them that really gets me. Ninety years ago, during Illinois’ Homecoming against Michigan, Red Grange scored four touchdowns in the first 12 minutes of the game. He ended up with six TDs as the Illini became the first team to beat Michigan in two years. After that game, famous sportswriter Grantland Rice referred to Grange as a “gray ghost.” So, that’s the idea behind Illinois’ uniforms. Wish more teams would honor history like that. Seems like fans are embracing the new design, too. The jerseys have already sold out online.

Now, on to the links ...

East Division
West Division
A lot of talent has already come off the board, but there’s still quality at the top of the ESPN 300 that could give at least 10 teams a shot at the second-best class. Plus, Penn State's James Franklin continues to be the most talked about coach in the Washington D.C. metro area.

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Big Ten Monday mailbag

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
5:00
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Let's get this week started off right with a good, old-fashioned Big Ten mailbag ...

Josh Moyer: Why not both? Adam is still right -- there's really not a lot of separation over in the West. Minnesota is the only team that has yet to drop a conference game, but three others (Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin) are within striking distance with only one loss. At the same time, we've been saying for quite a few weeks now that Nebraska clearly boasts the edge, talent-wise, in the division. Heck, I picked the Huskers to win the West in the preseason. Nebraska is the only balanced team here. Minnesota and Wisconsin really don't have much in the way of passing games, and the Hawkeyes haven't exactly been models of consistency. But one misstep in this division could cost the crown. That's why the “Wild, Wild West” may have become slightly clearer, but it's still pretty muddled. We'll know how the East shakes out when Michigan State takes on Ohio State in two weeks. But the West? We might not know until the final week. Take a look at the Huskers' final three opponents: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa. Now that's wild.

Mike from Grand Rapids, Minnesota, writes: Does Brady Hoke need to win out to save his job? As much as I'm in the minority, I don't want to see Michigan go through another coaching search. This team, their O-line in particular, is pretty young.

Moyer: See, that's a tough question, Mike -- only because there's about a zero percent chance Hoke wins out. Listen, he's gone. Even he has to know he's gone. Michigan has looked worse every season, and player development seems to be an ongoing issue. I'll even give you the offensive line since it's young. But why is Devin Gardner regressing? And why couldn't U-M adjust when Rutgers nailed them for 404 passing yards? As far as player development/recruiting, let me share kind of an eye-opening fact here: Michigan's usual starting lineup features seven players who were on the ESPN 300; Rutgers has recruited seven total ESPN 300 players since 2006. How about resources? For every dollar Rutgers' athletic department spends, Michigan spends $1.82. Yet, Rutgers was the Vegas favorite earlier this season -- and won. So it's clear Michigan is not on the right track. If Hoke somehow turns this team around and beats Michigan State and Ohio State, sure, he'll keep his job. But we might as well talk about what happens to Tim Beckman if Illinois wins out. Because neither is very likely to happen.

Moyer: Let's get the obvious out of the way first: Expect lots and lots of yards for Melvin Gordon. The Terrapins are ranked No. 102 nationally in rush defense and the Badgers are ranked No. 1 in rushing offense. That's a big reason the Badgers are favored by double digits. Before the injury to Indiana's Nate Sudfeld, Maryland's offense also kind of reminded me of the Hoosiers without Tevin Coleman – you saw all this potential through the air … but you wondered when it was going to materialize. With C.J. Brown struggling, you still wonder. Maryland hasn't faced a top-25 defense yet this season, and it should struggle against Wisconsin. As far as Wisconsin's quarterback situation, both players are still splitting reps with the first team. Joel Stave has seen more time than Tanner McEvoy the last two games and, unless McEvoy practices better this week, I'd expect more of the same.

Moyer: Haha ... well, I can't argue with that logic. Here's another fact to chew on: Penn State beat Ohio State, 63-14, in 1994. The next season, the Buckeyes won 28-25. Of course, do I really think the Nittany Lions will win Saturday after getting demolished last season by that same 63-14 score? Of course not. This is one of the worst offensive lines in the Power 5, while the Buckeyes have one of the best defensive lines. If Penn State can even keep this close -- Saturday night's game is the hot PSU ticket this season -- then it should be a boost. The Nittany Lions' defense is much improved from last season, but it really hasn't yet played a good quarterback. And J.T. Barrett has been great this season. This needs to be a low-scoring affair for PSU to really stand a chance. But I'd be surprised if Penn State really threatened.
For nearly two decades, former Penn State assistant Larry Johnson jogged through the tunnel at Beaver Stadium and turned right -- past the cheering student fans, past the Nittany Lions' mascot -- to the home sideline.

On Saturday night, for the first time in his career, Johnson will be standing across from that sideline.

The 18-year Penn State assistant is now the defensive line coach at Ohio State, and his new team will face his old Saturday night in State College. Urban Meyer scooped Johnson up after he left Happy Valley in January -- making the Buckeyes just the second college team he’s ever coached -- and Johnson said he’s not quite sure what emotions to expect when he returns.

[+] EnlargeLarry Johnson
AP Photo/Jay LaPrete"I had a great time there for 18 years." said ex-Penn State assistant Larry Johnson, now the D-line coach at Ohio State.
“It’ll be different,” Johnson said Monday afternoon. “You spend 18 years in one place for a long time and then you walk back in there on a different sideline. But I’m looking forward to going back, and I’m looking forward to going back with Ohio State University.

“I’m looking forward to going back home and being excited to play in the stadium.”

Johnson’s departure was an emotional one for Penn State fans. He was the final Joe Paterno holdover, the last assistant with a direct connection to the no-name jerseys and the rolled-up khakis. While unprecedented change swept through Happy Valley, Johnson was the lone constant.

He was promoted to co-defensive coordinator when Paterno was fired. Then he was relegated to defensive line coach with Bill O’Brien’s arrival. Two seasons later, when O’Brien left, he kept this team together as the interim head coach. Then, with James Franklin’s hiring, he left.

“I didn’t have any bitterness when I left. It was my decision to leave, it was my time to move on,” he said Monday. “I just felt that Coach Franklin was coming in with a new staff, and I knew he had a guy he really liked a lot. I just felt it was the best thing to do.”

Now, instead of addressing the media behind a blue and white backdrop, he talks to reporters behind a scarlet and gray one. On Monday afternoon, in a dark Ohio State jacket, the even-tempered coach kept a soft tone as if he were in a library while reflecting on his time in State College.

He spoke highly of his past stop throughout the news conference. About how past “White Outs,” where the crowd wears all white, jump-started his players. About the “great friends, great players” he coached. About how blessed he feels with PSU and now OSU on his resume. Though he remained stoic for much of the time, he smiled when asked if -- in his 18 years -- he ever caught a peek of the visitors’ locker room.

“I have not,” he said.

But have you heard about it?

“I have heard about it,” he said with a slight grin. “It’s very small.”

Besides Monday’s location -- and the color of his shirt -- Johnson said not all that much has changed in his life. He still tends to his flowers in the offseason -- “That’s kind of my style,” he added -- he still preaches player development and relationships, and he’s still a top recruiter. He built a new house near Ohio State, and his son, former Penn State wideout Tony Johnson, moved closer to him.

He sold his old house in State College and doesn’t plan to stop by once he returns. He doesn’t plan to swing by the Creamery for some Peachy Paterno ice cream, or see much of anything other than the walls to his hotel and the inside of Beaver Stadium. He said he simply doesn’t have the time.

He remains in touch with his pastor from Penn State, along with some members of the congregation, so he plans to see some familiar faces in the crowd Saturday night. He’ll shake hands with his former players after the game, and it’s sure to be a surreal experience for the coach whom Paterno plucked from the high school ranks back in 1996.

“I had a great time there for 18 years,” Johnson said. “I got to be part of their lives for a long time. It’s a new job, a new place and a new school, so I’m looking forward to coming back.”

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