Big Ten morning links

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
8:00
AM ET
Hitting on the hottest topics in the Big Ten before sweeping through the league ahead of another critical non-conference Saturday.

1. Minnesota's QB quandary: There's not exactly a controversy under center, since the Gophers have made it quite clear that Mitch Leidner is the top option to lead the offense. But for the second week in a row, there have been questions about his health, and therein lies the uncertainty that could turn this into a more pressing issue for Jerry Kill. The Minnesota coach pegged Leidner at 100 percent on his injured knee last week, but Saturday something else popped up with his foot -- though Kill shot down reports of a broken bone and seemed puzzled by where they came from. Backup Chris Streveler has appeared in all three games and was needed to finish the last two, and at some point if he keeps handling himself well and if Leidner's bumps and bruises remain a weekly topic of conversation, perhaps the Gophers may find themselves in the midst of a real controversy. This week it probably won't matter given the way Minnesota ran the ball all over San Jose State last year. But Michigan is looming next week, and the Gophers would likely be better off if they didn't have to keep answering questions about their starting quarterback.

2. Waiting game for Buckeyes: From the outside, the case seems pretty open and shut regarding Noah Spence's latest failed drug test and what figures to be permanent ineligibility for the All-Big Ten defensive end. But there hasn't yet been an official verdict handed down, so Ohio State coach Urban Meyer confirmed after practice Wednesday night that Spence was still practicing with the team while "doing things to get healthy." Given what would seem to be a long-shot appeal combined with the serious tone from the Spence family when they addressed a "medical illness" to the Columbus Dispatch last week, it is somewhat surprising that the star junior would be back on the field at all right now while each of those separate, but related, issues are sorted out. Meyer stressed that Ohio State was doing what it could to support him, and if Spence is eventually cleared for a return, everybody involved would surely want him ready to play again. So unless or until the Big Ten tells him otherwise, Spence is still working out with the Buckeyes and waiting for the next update on his status.

3. Heat is on Hawkeyes: The running game is struggling. The kicking game looked like a fire drill even when the field-goal unit hit a clutch attempt last weekend. Kirk Ferentz is under fire with his clock management skills being questioned. And after dealing with all that in the aftermath of the loss to Iowa State, the Hawkeyes have to hit the road to play unbeaten Pittsburgh before diving into conference play. Maybe Iowa could actually use that traveling time to bond and rally against the odds that seem to be stacking up against the program, because it's pretty clear the team needs a spark. The Hawkeyes were a trendy dark horse pick to win the West, and no matter what happens at Pitt it should be fine next week at home to open conference play against Purdue. But it's time for them to show they really have what it takes to contend this fall.

East Division
  • Brady Hoke explained the reasoning behind his unwillingness to address injuries.
  • Michigan State right guard Connor Kruse could be back in the lineup as early as next week.
  • Keys for Penn State as it looks to move to 4-0 to open the season.
  • The secondary has been key for Rutgers defensively so far this season, and it will need its safeties to play a big role against Navy.
  • Fixing problems on third down has been a top priority for Maryland this week.
  • Indiana receiver J-Shun Harris II is developing into another weapon for the uptempo offense.
  • Just more than a year after believing his football career might be over, Donovan Munger is providing depth at defensive tackle for Ohio State.
West Division
  • Danny Etling knows how to prepare. The Purdue quarterback might be overdoing it though.
  • Nebraska defensive backs are preparing for "the fastest receivers" they've ever gone against.
  • It doesn't appear Pat Fitzgerald is easing off the intensity at all coming off the bye week and as kickoff draws closer.
  • Injuries are dominating the headlines at Minnesota, but the offensive line is coordinator Matt Limegrover's biggest concern.
  • A look at the Texas State defense, which has some athletes who can provide a test for the Illinois offense.
  • Pressing questions for Wisconsin as it gets back to work against Bowling Green.
  • Iowa linebacker Quinton Alston said the Hawkeyes needed a "kick in the butt" after losing to Iowa State.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
5:00
PM ET
You've got questions, I've got answers. Let's move along to the Big Ten mailbag ...


Josh Moyer: Let's see here. Heisman-worthy candidate? Check. Two solid wideouts? Check. Best defensive player in the conference when healthy? Check. But there are a few things Nebraska needs to tweak, or sustain, to really put together a solid run. Let me give you my three key points. For one, the Huskers need to find ways to gain more turnovers. They have just one so far -- and it was an interception against McNeese State on a Hail Mary to end the game. Nebraska is dead-last in the nation in creating turnovers. So it needs to continue to take care of the ball but find ways to get that ball back, especially when it's on the road. Two, Tommy Armstrong needs to continue to make smart decisions -- but he has to understand he can't rely on the big play as much as before. This team is really living and dying on those big plays, instead of constructing sustained drives, so it'll have to adapt against better defenses. And three, if there's a part of the defense that hast to step up, it's the linebackers. They need to be more active and create more plays. If Nebraska does those things, I think you'll be seeing the Huskers in the B1G title game.

Andy from Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, writes: My biggest concern is that Jake Rudock is one of the leading rushers for Iowa. That's not a good thing! My impression is that he is taking off running on passing plays way too often. Is this a problem of the receivers not getting open or is it Rudock not giving the play enough time to develop?

Josh Moyer: There are all sorts of problems on Iowa's offense, but I don't think quarterback Jake Rudock is even close to being near the top of those concerns. He's completing 68 percent of his passes and has thrown one pick in 117 attempts. The offensive line bears some of the blame, but these issues also have to do with the play-calling. Opponents are loading the box against Iowa and, rather than airing it out or making opponents pay for that, offensive coordinator Greg Davis has opted to stick with a horizontal passing attack. Iowa's offensive gameplan is predictable and conservative, and that seems to be a big reason this offense is so out of whack. Rudock is simply taking off when he sees an opening, and he's done a relatively good job of that. You could argue he's taking off too much, but his unscripted running plays are more effective than the scripted runs: Rudock is averaging 4 yards a carry, more than a yard better than Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock. So you're right, it is concerning that Rudock is one of the leading rushers. But that's more a product of the concerning offense, rather than a concerning Rudock.


Josh Moyer: Realistically, I feel as if the most likely Penn State outcome is still an eight-win regular season, give or take a victory. But you specifically asked about the ceiling -- about the best-case scenario -- so I'll put that at 10. Yes, the Big Ten is down as a whole. And, yes, outside of Michigan State, there are really no "unwinnable" games. But as James Franklin said Saturday, winning tends to minimize issues while losing magnifies them. And Penn State still has quite a few issues -- namely the young offensive line. If you could substitute Wisconsin's offensive line here, I think PSU could realistically go 11-1 or better. But left tackle Donovan Smith appears to be the only above-average lineman, since center Angelo Mangiro really struggled Saturday against Rutgers. Christian Hackenberg has no time in the pocket, and there's virtually no run game of which to speak. I said this before and I'll say it again: Penn State's ceiling is capped by its offensive line. Ohio State should give PSU plenty of problems, and Michigan's defense is much more aggressive compared to last season. PSU fans should approach this conference season with cautious optimism.

Leland Buss rom Burlington, Wisconsin, writes: Why is Wisconsin trending downward? I thought the loss to LSU was a good loss. Am I wrong? The win against Western Illinois was solid if not spectacular, so why are they now being dismissed as contenders in the West?

Josh Moyer: Leland is referring to our Big Ten power rankings, where we dropped Wisconsin to No. 5 this past week. And it's a good question. But the Badgers' move had less to do with Wisconsin and more to do with how the teams above them performed. Nebraska dominated Fresno State, and Penn State turned in another solid defensive effort. Both teams are undefeated, and they deserve credit for that. Michigan State is the easy No. 1 and the Buckeyes ... well, their loss to Virginia Tech looks worse now than before. But Ohio State's passing game gives me a lot less pause than Wisconsin's. No one's discounting Wisconsin as a division contender. Iowa has looked pretty bad so far, and it sure seems as if the race in the West is between Nebraska and Wisconsin. If the Badgers can shore up their passing game, they'll be back near the top in no time.

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 3

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
2:00
PM ET
Three weeks' worth of games are in the book. That's not enough to decide the individual award races in the Big Ten, but it won't stop us from figuring out where those races stand.

Our Big Ten reporters are voting weekly on 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 records.

Here's how things shake out:

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah (Five first-place votes): Abdullah gets the unanimous nod on offense as he continues to power up the Huskers attack.

2. Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: He has become the master of the two-minute drive, and he leads the Big Ten in passing.

3. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: He leads the Big Ten in rushing yards (437) and rushing touchdowns (five) despite having played just two games. He's averaging 9.3 yards per carry.

4. Michigan State QB Connor Cook: His completion rate is over 68 percent, and Cook can build on his stats against Eastern Michigan and Wyoming the next two weeks.

5. Illinois QB Wes Lunt: He wasn't able to summon late-game magic at Washington in Week 3 but still is among the league's top passers.

Also receiving votes: Michigan RB Derrick Green; Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon; Minnesota RB David Cobb; Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong Jr.

Nagurski Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Penn State DT Anthony Zettel (5): Another unanimous pick, Zettel has been a monster in the early going for the Lions. He leads the Big Ten in tackles for loss, with seven, to go along with three sacks.

2. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa: He's tied for the league lead with two forced fumbles, in addition to 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.

3. Iowa DT Louis Trinca-Pasat: His strong start to the season continues, as he has four tackles for loss along Iowa's strong defensive front.

4. Wisconsin S Michael Caputo: He and the Badgers were off last week but should get a test from Bowling Green's fast-paced offense.

Also receiving votes: Penn State LB Mike Hull; Rutgers DE Kemoko Turay; Minnesota LB Damien Wilson; Michigan State DE Marcus Rush; Ohio State LB Joshua Perry.
video

Adam Rittenberg explains what's wrong with the Big Ten conference and whether or not the conference is doing anything to reverse its downward trajectory.
video

ESPN's Heather Dinich and Brad Edwards take a look at the current woes of the Big Ten conference.

Recruits weigh in on the Big Ten 

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
10:00
AM ET
video
It’s a vicious cycle. You have to win to get the right recruits, and you have to get the right recruits to win. That’s the merry-go-round the Big Ten conference is currently on, and depending on who you ask, recruits have varying opinions on the conference.

Prospects from the North tend to believe the conference is still in the upper echelon, while a good amount of Southern recruits would say quite the opposite.

The Big Ten has an overall record of 24-14 with only two undefeated teams left, compared to the SEC with eight undefeated teams. The Big Ten also has the lowest winning percentage (63 percent) this season for any Power 5 conference, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

You could argue that there is a direct correlation to those wins and losses when comparing the number of big-name commitments as well. The SEC currently has 87 ESPN 300 prospects committed where the Big Ten has 27.

An ESPN 300 prospect from the South who wished to remain anonymous believes part of the Big Ten’s problems on the field and recruiting have to do with geography and coaching.

“The recruiting areas from the North and Midwest aren’t really a hotbed for recruiting. Plus, other than Ohio State or maybe Michigan, there’s not really any big cities or things you can sell recruits on outside of the university,” he said. “Like what does a kid from Florida do at some of those places? Plus, getting a well-known coach like Urban Meyer is a big reason why kids down here like Ohio State.

“They know he can turn things around there and they’ll win. They need to get bigger-name coaches where kids can say, 'Yeah, I know him and I know he’ll get me ready for the NFL.'"

That isn’t the sentiment for every prospect, but plenty of other Southern ESPN 300 recruits agreed with this thinking.

The Northern prospects interviewed did believe the conference is top-heavy with a few teams in the national championship conversation every year, but they had different thoughts on the outlook as a whole.

PSU's 'mad scientist' a boost to defense

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
4:00
PM ET
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State linebacker Brandon Bell broke out in a big smile Tuesday afternoon when asked to describe his defensive coordinator. He knew he’d offer the same two-word answer that another teammate used.

"Mad scientist."

“That hits it on the head,” Bell said. “He’s a guy who knows what he’s talking about. And that confidence is instilled in us.”

[+] EnlargeBob Shoop
MCT via Getty ImagesBob Shoop's unit ranks among the nation's best in scoring defense.
Call defensive coordinator Bob Shoop what you will. But, by any measure, you’d have to call him a success. Penn State’s defense was inconsistent at best, and poor at worst, last season. The Nittany Lions ranked No. 48 in total defense and No. 59 in scoring defense, while PSU fans everywhere were forced to take a deep breath on third-and-long with those passes over the middle. Now, despite preseason question marks, the defense is soaring as one of the nation’s best.

The Lions are No. 13 in total defense and No. 11 in scoring defense. Sure, there’s a lot of time left in this season, but players are noticing a big difference. And a lot of that starts with Shoop and his penchant for calling the right play at the right time.

“I don’t know if we’re doing that much different,” linebacker Nyeem Wartman said, comparing this season to 2013. “It just seems like the play-calling and the timing is right. There are no more than two or three plays that seem new.”

Said James Franklin: “I’ve been on the headset on defense where Bob’s calling out 75 percent of the plays before they’re being run. He’s calling out, ‘We’re going to get an interception here,’ and things like that. It’s impressive, it really is.”

Shoop literally broke out a pack of Icebreaker breath mints last week and told his defense they were going to “break the ice” with some turnovers. It was a silly move, one that drew laughs, but Shoop followed that up by saying this defense would force five turnovers against Rutgers on Saturday.

On Saturday, Penn State wound up with five interceptions against the Scarlet Knights. In several different interviews, within an hour after the game, Penn State’s defensive players swore that Shoop called those five picks. He knew the Nittany Lions would have opportunities, and he told his squad five turnovers is what it would take for a win.

“It’s crazy,” linebacker Mike Hull said, half in disbelief. “It’s crazy it worked out that way. You never think about that kind of stuff; you just do your job and hope things take care of themselves.”

It’s premature to call this a defensive renaissance for the Nittany Lions. But it’s not too early to call this a dramatic improvement over last season. The secondary in 2013 was the Achilles’ heel of the team, and cornerback Trevor Williams struggled so mightily that PSU shuffled the lineup to bench him midway through the season. On Monday, Williams was named the Big Ten defensive player of the week after pulling down two picks against Rutgers.

The offseason graduation of defensive tackle DaQuan Jones -- whom NFL.com’s Gil Brandt once rated as the top senior DT -- was supposed to prove problematic. But now first-year starter Anthony Zettel could be on pace for Big Ten defensive player of the year. These linebackers were also supposed to struggle with their depth and inexperience outside, but they’ve been just fine.

When problems become strengths, and question marks evolve into exclamations, that’s a definite sign of progress. And it has been a mark of Shoop and this staff.

“He’s like a mad scientist the way he figures out defenses and tendencies of the offenses,” Wartman said. “He’s the one who predicted the five turnovers, and he’s the one who said we were going to come out and not give up 14 points. He’s just phenomenal.”

Conference call: Best of the Big Ten

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
3:00
PM ET
Another week, another Big Ten coaches' teleconference. Here are some of the highlights from today's session featuring all 14 league coaches:









Weekend recruiting wrap: Big Ten 

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
11:15
AM ET
video
Penn State picked up some good news from the NCAA, which resulted in more positive news on the recruiting trail this weekend. Ohio State solidified its spot in a top target's list, and a few new offers were extended this week.

Here is a look at the latest happenings on the recruiting trail within the Big Ten.


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Big Ten morning links

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
8:00
AM ET
Concerns about the new College Football Playoff and its impact on how we watch games have made their way into the national conversation this week. What took so long?

After three weeks of trying to place even the most meaningless wins and losses into the context of how they might affect which four teams will battle for a national championship in January, some are starting to worry that the new system might be sucking the joy out of Saturdays in the fall.

Is the cycle of playoff-centric predictions and analysis stripping the magic away from upsets and heroic moments? Will fans lose interest once they’re told their team no longer has a title shot? Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio felt it necessary to tell his followers that not all hope was lost after a Week 2 defeat in Oregon.

While it’s probably a good thing that the setters of national storylines are treading cautiously around the long-awaited change to the postseason, it’s not time to yearn for the good ole days of the BCS quite yet. Part of the overemphasis on playoff discussion can be blamed on the system still being a new, shiny mystery. No one knows how the 13-person committee will weigh each contender yet. Some of that will fade in future years when the college football court develops a precedent.

Another part of the saturation comes from the heavy slate of inter-conference competition that occurs each September. With only four playoff spots available to five conferences, the battle to establish a positive perception before falling into league play is intense. That posturing is less likely to fade, making the future of college football a more tribal affair. The SEC won’t be the only fanbase chanting for its conference after big wins, and that doesn’t sound like a bad byproduct of the playoff hype.

Even in our unsettled present state, a crowd of red bandana-wearing Boston College students didn’t seem bothered by the fact that they aren’t playoff contenders while storming the field to celebrate their upset of USC Saturday night. Iowa’s last-second loss to in-state rival Iowa State was neither more nor less gut-wrenching than it would have been in the BCS era. Fear not, the magic isn’t gone. There’s still plenty to play for without the hope of a College Football Playoff berth.

And speaking of playing for more than a playoff spot, kudos to Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg and the rest of his Nittany Lions teammates who showed up or stayed in Happy Valley despite having the opportunity to back away penalty-free from a team that wasn’t eligible for any bowl games until a week ago.

That’s when the NCAA decided it wasn’t going to punish current players for the past sins of the program’s coaches and administrators. After leading a fourth-quarter comeback against Rutgers Saturday night, Hackenberg told reporters that the lack of a postseason goal helped bring his team closer together. Now that Penn State is atop the Big Ten East Division and eligible for bowl games, he says the camaraderie they built “is not going to change for a while.”

And now, without further ado, the links:

East Division
West Division

ESPN 300 OL Matt Burrell names a leader 

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
9:20
PM ET
video
ESPN 300 offensive lineman Matt Burrell Jr. has already taken an official visit to Ohio State, and that trip has resonated with the No. 61 ranked prospect. He still has four more official visits to take, but Burrell says he has his list in order as it stands.


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Big Ten Monday mailbag

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
5:00
PM ET
Let's cut through the pleasantries -- it wasn't really a pleasant weekend for the Big Ten -- and get right to the mailbag questions. As always -- more than ever, in fact -- thanks for your submissions.

Mitch Sherman: Nothing has changed in the East, where Michigan State remains the team to beat. The Spartans look like the best team in the league, and I don't think you will get much of an argument from logical fans of other Big Ten teams. If anything, the results of the past two weeks -- even the Michigan State setback at Oregon -- has solidified MSU atop its division. It's murky in the West, where the schedule says Iowa is the favorite. The Hawkeyes' play does not. Wisconsin also plays a favorable slate, and we will see if the week off has allowed the Badgers to flip momentum. If so, they are a co-favorite with Nebraska, which, despite a near disaster against McNeese State, has produced two of the league's top performances this seasons in wins against Fresno State and Florida Atlantic.

Mitch Sherman: Joel Stave, fighting a football version of the yips, returned to team drills in some form last week, though coach Gary Andersen has not declared anything in regard to his senior quarterback. Sounds like it remains an extended process with Stave, who has sought some outside attention in dealing with his throwing issues. It's good to hear that Stave has maintained a healthy approach in practice, though I have concerns about his effectiveness even after he clears the hurdles necessary to get back on the field. What happens when adversity strikes in a game? How will it impact his play to perform in front of tens of thousands of people who know about his struggles? For that reason, expect the Badgers to move slowly with Stave. The schedule is on their side, staying soft through October.

Mitch Sherman: Well, considering that the Boilermakers tanked this year before playing Notre Dame, I don't know if parallels exist to be drawn. It seems that Purdue does a nice job of getting up for the Irish, or maybe it's something about the matchup that works well. Or maybe Notre Dame is disinterested. Regardless, the Boilers have a good shot on Saturday against unbeaten FCS foe Southern Illinois. If it doesn't happen, another one-win season enters the realm of possibility. As bad as the Big Ten looks, I still don't see that as likely. Quarterback Danny Etling showed improvement against Notre Dame, and hey, Northwestern visits Ross-Ade Stadium this year. Realistically, if Purdue can build on the good things from Saturday in Indianapolis, as many as four games in the Big Ten could be competitive.

Mitch Sherman: That question wins the award, Matt, for most intriguing of the day. I'm not sure J.T. Barrett and the Buckeyes would have defeated Kent State 66-0 if it had been the opener. But it would have been an easy victory that could have provided the young quarterback and his offensive line with the confidence it lacked against Navy and Virginia Tech. I'm convinced that by the end of this season, Virginia Tech could not come into the Horseshoe and dominate Ohio State in any way close to what happened in Week 2. By the same token, the Buckeyes might have had even more trouble with Navy if that game came later in the season. But to answer your question, no; Ohio State would have fared better in its bid to escape this nonconference season with a perfect mark intact if the order of games had been arranged differently..

video

ESPN Big Ten reporter Josh Moyer discusses Rutgers athletic director Julie Hermann's public apology for the "classless display" of some fans against Penn State.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Drive Through: What's Wrong With The Big Ten?
Adam Rittenberg explains what's wrong with the Big Ten conference and whether or not the conference is doing anything to reverse its downward trajectory.
VIDEO PLAYLIST video

BIG TEN SCOREBOARD