Three Big Ten teams (Michigan State, Minnesota and Nebraska) have reached the six-win threshold, ensuring bowl placement for this year. Four other squads -- Ohio State, Maryland, Rutgers and Iowa -- are one win away.
The projections don't change much this week after a Saturday where things more or less went according to plan. One debate among the Big Ten reporting team was whether to remove Northwestern, which lost its second consecutive game and continued to struggle offensively. Yet with four winnable Big Ten games left -- Iowa (road), Michigan (home), Purdue (road) and Illinois (home) -- we think Pat Fitzgerald's team can finish well.
Another factor is the Big Ten taking more control of the game assignments this year, rather than leaving it up to the bowls, who often prioritize brand name and size of fan base over on-field results. The league wants better, fresher matchups and no repeat appearances, if at all possible.
Would the Holiday Bowl rather have Wisconsin than Maryland? No doubt. But Maryland has earned its way into the Holiday Bowl slot on the field, so we're giving the Terrapins the nod. Fortunately, Wisconsin and Maryland can settle things on the field this week in Madison.
Should Michigan State or Ohio State be projected into the College Football Playoff? Not yet. But the winner of their Nov. 8 showdown at Spartan Stadium could move into elite company.
Iowa takes a tumble after its loss in College Park. The Hawkeyes have to take care of business at home in November to move up again.
OK, enough rambling. The projections ...
Chick-fil-A Peach/AT&T Cotton/Fiesta/Capital One Orange: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/AT&T Cotton/Fiesta/Capital One Orange: Ohio State
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus: Nebraska
National University Holiday: Maryland
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City: Wisconsin
San Francisco: Rutgers
New Era Pinstripe: Iowa
Quick Lane: Penn State
Heart of Dallas: Northwestern
Not only did we complete our league's first-ever trade -- listed below -- but Austin Ward's time atop the standings proved to be a short one. After his lowest-scoring week of the season, he dropped from first to third. So it's still anybody's championship ... well, almost anybody's.
Your results this week:
Coal Crackers (Josh Moyer): 132
Legendary Leaders (Brian Bennett): 108
The Trombone Shorties (Adam Rittenberg): 89
Massive Attack (Austin Ward): 58
Sherman Tanks (Mitch Sherman): 57
And the overall standings:
The Trombone Shorties: 843
Coal Crackers: 841
Massive Attack: 813
Legendary Leaders: 720
Sherman Tanks: 585
Trade Alert: Bennett's Legendary Leaders traded Indiana RB Tevin Coleman to Moyer's Coal Crackers in exchange for Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong and Iowa RB Mark Weisman.
Trade analysis: Bennett needed a quarterback badly, and put the word out he was willing to make a deal. The quarterbacks on his roster heading into this week -- Joel Stave and Reilly O'Toole -- are both on bye, and he literally had no starters. So it was either take zeroes, hope to get lucky on the waiver wire, or make a trade. Sherman offered Gary Nova, but I sweetened the deal by adding a running back. My other QBs aren't great, but it was difficult to turn down the prospect of having Melvin Gordon and Coleman on the same team.
Waiver-wire: If your heads are swirling from all the moves, know that you're not alone. This season is getting harder, and it's difficult to find starters at key spots -- so there was once again a lot of shuffling. Ward focused on Ohio State players, while Rittenberg added two solid wideouts.
Sherman adds Maryland QB C.J. Brown and drops Michigan QB Devin Gardner
Bennett adds Ohio State WR Devin Smith and drops Penn State WR Geno Lewis
Ward adds Ohio State RB Rod Smith and drops Indiana QB Nate Sudfeld
Moyer adds Maryland WR Stefon Diggs and drops Illinois WR Mike Dudek
Rittenberg adds Rutgers WR Leonte Carroo and drops Northwestern WR Dan Vitale
Sherman adds Purdue RB Akeem Hunt and drops Michigan RB De'Veon Smith
Bennett adds Nebraska WR Kenny Bell and drops Illinois WR Geronimo Allison
Ward adds Ohio State WR Michael Thomas and drops Illinois WR Martize Barr
Moyer adds Nebraska WR Jordan Westerkamp (drops no one due to 2-for-1 trade)
Rittenberg adds Maryland kickers and drops Wisconsin kickers
Sherman adds Iowa WR Kevonte Martin-Manley and drops Penn State WR DaeSean Hamilton
Bennett adds Maryland QB Caleb Rowe and drops Illinois QB Reilly O'Toole and Wisconsin RB Corey Clement (drops two due to 2-for-1 trade)
Ward adds Ohio State TE Jeff Heuerman and drops Michigan State WR Macgarrett Kings
Moyer adds Maryland RB Brandon Ross and drops Indiana WR Shane Wynn
Rittenberg adds Indiana WR Shane Wynn and drops Indiana RB D'Angelo Roberts
Sherman adds Ohio State defense and drops Wisconsin defense
Bennett adds Ohio State kickers, drops Minnesota kickers
Ward adds Nebraska defense, drops Michigan defense
Rittenberg adds Northwestern defense and drops Penn State defense
Sherman adds Nebraska kickers and drops Penn State kickers
Ward adds Rutgers kickers and drops Indiana kickers
And now for a look at our rosters this week:
The Trombone Shorties (Rittenberg)
Purdue QB Austin Appleby
Michigan State QB Connor Cook
Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah
Northwestern RB Justin Jackson
Rutgers WR Leonte Carroo
Indiana WR Shane Wynn
Bench: Michigan WR Devin Funchess (on bye)
Coal Crackers (Moyer)
Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner
Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian
Indiana RB Tevin Coleman
Maryland RB Brandon Ross
Maryland WR Stefon Diggs
Nebraska WR Jordan Westerkamp
Michigan State kickers
Michigan State defense
Bench: Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon (on bye)
Massive Attack (Ward)
Iowa QB Jake Rudock
Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett
Ohio State RB Rod Smith
Minnesota RB David Cobb
Ohio State WR Michael Thomas
Ohio State TE Jeff Heuerman
Bench: Illinois RB Josh Ferguson (on bye)
Legendary Leaders (Bennett)
Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong
Maryland QB Caleb Rowe
Iowa RB Mark Weisman
Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott
Nebraska WR Kenny Bell
Ohio State WR Devin Smith
Ohio State kickers
Bench: Wisconsin QB Joel Stave (on bye)
Sherman Tanks (Sherman)
Maryland QB C.J. Brown
Rutgers QB Gary Nova
Purdue RB Akeem Hunt
Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford
Iowa WR Kevonte Martin-Manley
Michigan State WR Tony Lippett
Ohio State defense
Bench: Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg (on bye)
Berringer was 17 months older than me. The few times I interviewed him for the school newspaper, I thought he seemed much older than that, probably because he somehow stayed above the fray -- especially late in his career as a quarterback that happened to coincide with the most controversial and successful period in Nebraska football history.
Because of my own youth and lack of awareness, I failed at the time to recognize the impact of Berringer on people in Nebraska.
I saw him as just another guy with a good story. That is, until April 20, 1996, two days after Berringer died when the small plane he piloted crashed in a field north of Lincoln.
At Nebraska’s spring game, instead of celebrating consecutive national championships or another batch of Cornhuskers drafted into the NFL -- Berringer likely would have been among them -- the school and state mourned its fallen hero by playing a video tribute on the big screens.
Sports are often emotional. But not like that. That was not about sports. The stadium went completely silent. It remains the only time I’ve shed tears while sitting in a press box. I was far from alone.
The Big Ten Network documentary, “Unbeaten,” a 54-minute production on the life and death of Berringer, set to premier after the Nebraska-Northwestern game on Saturday, will similarly stir emotions for those who remember Berringer, and it will educate a generation of fans too young to have watched him play.
This fall marks the 20-year anniversary of his greatest football achievement, leading Nebraska to eight wins in place of injured star Tommie Frazier.
The documentary, directed by Matthew Engel and Kevin Shaw with Bill Friedman, BTN coordinating producer for original programming, hits all the right notes on Berringer.
It features no narration, only sound from a diverse lineup of former Berringer teammates and testimony from others, including Nebraska assistant Ron Brown, who recruited Berringer to Lincoln, and Kyle Orton, who has worn No. 18 since high school as a tribute to the QB.
An archived Berringer interview away from the field is particularly haunting. Forgotten audio from Keith Jackson lends important historical perspective.
“We wanted Brook to have a voice,” Engel said.
For Nebraska fans, the first half of the film largely serves as review of the 1994 and ’95 seasons, with impressive insight into the complicated dynamic of the Frazier-Berringer relationship. The final 25 minutes includes powerful reporting on the plane crash and its aftermath, poignant footage and a final sequence certain to move viewers like that April Saturday 18 years ago in Lincoln.
“He’s a guy who represents all that’s good about a college football player,” Friedman said. “He was a symbol of how Nebraskans want their football to be portrayed.”
Berringer’s impact is lasting, memorialized with a statue of the quarterback in uniform with his coach, Tom Osborne, that stands outside the entrance Nebraska’s athletic offices on the north side of Memorial Stadium.
Shaw said he visited Lincoln prior to documenting Berringer and saw the statue without knowing its significance. In learning about Berringer and remembering the statue, Shaw said, it was a “wow moment.”
“It was like, that’s that guy,” he said.
With “Unbeaten,” BTN succeeded in creating a film that will touch Nebraskans and teach others across the Big Ten about a quarterback who’s worth remembering for another 20 years and beyond.
Let’s go around the league:
- Michigan State's defense prepares for anything and everything against Indiana.
- Is Zander Diamont the answer for Indiana?
- Rutgers coach Kyle Flood talks to his team about ebola as the Scarlet Knights prepare to travel.
- Backup running back Rod Smith enjoys a breakout season for Ohio State.
- Iowa presents a new set of challenges for the Maryland defense.
- Survival mode is here for Penn State, writes David Jones.
- Michigan's Board of Regents plans a extensive review of athletic director Dave Brandon.
- Northwestern's defensive line prepares for another top Big Ten running back.
- A look back at the Nebraska Hail Mary that beat Northwestern a year ago.
- Purdue quarterback Austin Appleby on facing Minnesota.
- Officials at Minnesota are among those searching for answers about poor student attendance at football games.
- Iowa cornerback Desmond King looks forward to facing Maryland receiver Stefon Diggs.
- Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon says he's hoping for a positive resolution to the autograph controversies surrounding Florida State QB Jameis Winston and Georgia running back Todd Gurley.
- An examination of the recruiting successes and failures under coach Tim Beckman.
1. Quarterback quandary: Narrowing the field seemed like it could be a blessing in the summer, with Indiana coach Kevin Wilson quick to point out the benefits of no longer needing to juggle practice reps as much now that Nate Sudfeld was the last man standing in what was once a three-man battle. But there was an obvious downside that didn't receive nearly as much attention in July as perhaps it should have, and now that an injury has struck their starter, it's clear how much the transfers of Tre Roberson and Cameron Coffman hurt the Hoosiers. Roberson, experienced and proven in the Big Ten, is off putting up big numbers at Illinois State. Coffman is waiting for his chance to play for Wyoming while he sits out the season. And back at Indiana, the Hoosiers are scrambling to find somebody to put behind center this week with Michigan State's vaunted defense coming to town. The chance to focus on one guy and potentially unleash more of Sudfeld's ability was a nice silver lining, but it was apparently just a distraction from a huge storm cloud that was poised to wipe out Indiana's season.
2. Something special: There's any easy way to get Urban Meyer to gush about his team these days. All it takes is one mention of his kickoff coverage unit, and the Ohio State coach turns downright giddy by his standards. The Buckeyes have reason to be pleased with what they're getting on special teams lately, and they lead the Big Ten in net yardage on kickoffs thanks to a combination of well-positioned kicks, an aggressive scheme and a roster loaded up with speedy players willing to fly down the field and hit somebody. Meyer has always had a fondness for special teams, and he's fostered a competition for "starting positions" on the units that makes even first-teamers on offense and defense proud to contribute on punts and kickoffs. It may not draw much attention, but the Buckeyes are racking up some hidden yardage and subtly altering the field-position battle each week thanks in large part to Meyer's cover guys.
3. Best Bye: No program seems too thrilled with the double-bye schedule in place this season, but there appear to be obvious benefits for all four teams sitting out with an off date Saturday. Penn State's offensive line remains in disarray, and while it can't suddenly turn its inexperienced blockers into veterans, some extra reps and game-planning won't hurt heading into the stretch run that starts against Ohio State's tenacious defensive line next week. Wisconsin and Illinois both could use some time to work out kinks in the passing attack, with the former toying with a two-quarterback rotation and the latter trying to find the best option with Wes Lunt on the sideline. And after finally getting back in the win column, Brady Hoke might be able to take a deep breath at Michigan and enjoy at least a few moments of peace after a victory over the weekend. Out of all those options, maybe the Wolverines needed a bye the most -- unless the regents decide to stir the pot up again.
- Michigan may have another candidate emerging for a redshirt, but since it's an injury issue, all that Brady Hoke is providing is a hint.
- Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun might have a future as a professional wrestler if he keeps fine-tuning his suplexes on the field.
- Darius Hamilton rarely comes off the field for Rutgers now that he's emerged as a complete defensive lineman.
- Ohio State has been roaring out of the gates lately, and Urban Meyer made sure to thank his coaching staff for that positive development.
- Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown is ready to go again after the bye week.
- Penn State might be getting closer to having an experienced veteran back in action to help that suspect offensive line.
- Meet Zander Diamont, who has earned some glowing praise ahead of a likely start for Indiana.
- Kenny Bell is starting to feel right again and is hoping to give Nebraska a lift at wide receiver.
- Iowa has seven different players making a homecoming trip to Maryland this weekend, including safety Jordan Lomax.
- Wisconsin could be welcoming back some key contributors soon.
- Northwestern's success against Nebraska could be determined in the red zone.
- A closer look at Tim Beckman's recruiting classes at Illinois and how they are panning out.
- Minnesota senior wide receiver Isaac Fruechte has caught balls from four different quarterbacks during his career.
- Purdue might have finally found an offensive identity.
The nation's best group of running backs. The Big Ten has taken its share of lumps this season, and often rightfully so, but no league can claim a better trio of running backs than Indiana junior Tevin Coleman, Wisconsin junior Melvin Gordon and Nebraska senior Ameer Abdullah. Gordon and Coleman may join Abdullah in the NFL draft next spring. Each is a sight to savor, and for different reasons, but they share an ability to handle a heavy load of carries. Even among a deep group of backs in the league that includes David Cobb of Minnesota, Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Ezekiel Elliott of Ohio State, the top three stand out, staying on pace to give the league its first threesome to average more than 140 rushing yards since 2000.
The Michigan mess. The first half of the season could not have gone much worse in Ann Arbor, featuring three September losses and the troubling ordeal that surrounded Shane Morris' head injury in a Sept. 27 loss to Minnesota. What will the second half bring? The Wolverines, after a bye week, play their final game of October with a bit of momentum gained from a 18-13 win against Penn State. But Michigan State awaits. Another loss would only turn up the heat on coach Brady Hoke, already facing intense scrutiny. Short of a miraculous turnaround, Hoke may not be able to save his job. Regardless, the final five games merit attention.
Ohio State's resurgence. The Buckeyes didn't go away, of course, but they slipped under the radar a bit in September after the two-touchdown loss to Virginia Tech. In the three games since, Urban Meyer's team has scored 168 points as freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett made major leaps. Ohio State, as it enters the second half, looks like a new kind of challenge altogether for its upcoming opponents. The biggest game, Nov. 8 at Michigan State, likely offers the Big Ten its only realistic shot land a team in the College Football Playoff. And while OSU didn't look worthy in early September, the selection committee may soon receive a new set of trends to ponder on Ohio State.
The West Division scramble. To enter Week 8, it's a jumbled mess, with Minnesota atop the heap. The Gophers look poised to stay in control into November, with upcoming games against Purdue and at Illinois. Things get dicey for Minnesota, though, next month with a finishing stretch against Iowa and Ohio State, followed by trips to Nebraska and Wisconsin. Northwestern, with one loss in the league, remains in a decent spot, as do the preseason division favorites, Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska. As projected in August, the race may still come down to schedules. And the schedule, despite Minnesota's strong play and stumbles elsewhere, still favors the Badgers and Hawkeyes.
The path of Rutgers and Maryland. The Scarlet Knights, in particular, have made the transition to the Big Ten look easy this fall. For a group picked by many to finish last in the league, it's been a stunning start, fueled by a stingy defense and the strong play of quarterback Gary Nova. Rutgers is a failed defensive stand in the final minute from a perfect record. Maryland, too, has looked strong at times, particularly on offense. But the road is about to get much more difficult for the league's new members, starting on Saturday as the Scarlet Knights visit Ohio State and Maryland hosts Iowa. Rutgers' schedule is downright brutal over the next month, and it doesn't look much more inviting for the Terrapins. But they've already proved us wrong, so why not again?
1. The Big Ten season's switch from waxing to waning this week gives a reason to take stock of the first seven weeks of the year. The Big Ten blog was peppered with summations and projections Tuesday (highlights, lowlights, all-conference performers and more). The Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein had his own superlative review that is worth checking out. The general sentiment around the league this year has been one of disappointment and mockery, but halfway home it appears that a one-loss conference champion has a fighting change to land in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Would a better nonconference showing in early September have changed anything? The outlook probably wouldn't be any different had the Big Ten rolled through nonconference play.
2. The Pac-12 might host more movie stars at its home games, but the Big Ten had a couple Hollywood moments this week. Michigan kick returner Dennis Norfleet's dance moves and music selection landed him on George Clinton's radar Tuesday. The Prime Minister of Funk was impressed. Not to be outdone, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio showed his hip side Tuesday, at least among the pre-teen crowd. Dantonio nicknamed his ill-fated fake punt attempt from over the weekend "Frozen" and said the team should probably "Let it go," referencing the animated Disney mega-hit. Apparently it's not just game film that makes it on the projection screen in the Spartans' new state-of-the-art facility.
3. Speaking of Dantonio in the film room, he said he had to go all the way back to high school tape this week to prepare for Indiana quarterback Chris Covington. The freshman is taking over for Nate Sudfeld, who separated his shoulder last Saturday. While Sudfeld's injury is a blow to the Hoosiers' teetering bowl chances, it might be a hidden blessing for head coach Kevin Wilson. Our Brian Bennett suggested on Twitter that having a rookie quarterback might shield Wilson from the blowback of missing a bowl game for the fourth straight year, and I tend to agree. Wilson might not be on the hook no matter what happens this year, but now he's got an excuse if things go south.
Meanwhile, in the rest of the Big Ten...
Defensive coordinator Chris Ash explains why his Buckeye defensive backs aren't getting their hands on wide receivers.
Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg is doing a good job of dealing with frustrating losses.
Michigan State is finding out how hard life can be at the top.
Nate Sudfeld’s injury is the worst case scenario for Indiana football this fall.
Michigan kicker Matt Wile thinks he’s solved his early-season problems from the right hash.
Rutgers is getting ready for the noise of six figures worth of fans at the Horseshoe this weekend.
The 10 numbers you should know about Maryland’s first six games in the Big Ten.
Fifth-year walk-on Tommy Gaul got to lead the Hawkeyes in their fight song after Saturday’s win.
Minnesota’s attention to detail on special teams paid off big in its win over Northwestern.
Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro weighed in on his favorite Wildcats player and his impressions of the season so far.
Nebraska’s De'Mornay Pierson-El has reinvigorated a punt return unit that was a weak link for the Cornhuskers a year ago.
Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon might get an invite to the Heisman ceremony, but recent trends suggest he won’t bring home the hardware.
Purdue might test out a new-look secondary this week against the run-heavy Golden Gophers
Illinois assistant Ryan Cubit will be reprimanded after he was arrested for driving under the influence Sunday.
By the way, if you’re not following us on Twitter, what are you waiting for? Follow along at @ESPNRittenberg, @BennettESPN, @ESPNJoshMoyer, @DanMurphyESPN, @MitchSherman and @AWardESPN.
Hoke admits that, yes, the mood is a bit different now: "It's a heck of a lot nicer for everybody when the work day before was successful."— Josh Moyer (@ESPNJoshMoyer) October 14, 2014
RT @MikeWScout: Dantonio on fake punt name: "Frozen. I guess we froze. Gotta let it go, I guess."— Dan Murphy (@DanMurphyESPN) October 14, 2014
Tim Beckman says his players still fighting and working to "move this program forward" despite negativity.— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) October 14, 2014
Dantonio asked about player autographs. Says he hopes amount of attention on that now "I think would give our players pause."— Josh Moyer (@ESPNJoshMoyer) October 14, 2014
Pelini, asked to revisit MSU clapping: "I've moved past that. I can tell you this, we didn't 't lose the football game because of any clap."— Mitch Sherman (@mitchsherman) October 14, 2014
Kill on slowing down in world of up-tempo offense: "You are who you are throughout the years. ...Sometimes it's not bad to be different."— Dan Murphy (@DanMurphyESPN) October 14, 2014
Ferentz's reaction when Tevin Coleman ran by Iowa's bench on Sat.? "Holy Smokes." Says Coleman even more impressive in-person than on film.— Josh Moyer (@ESPNJoshMoyer) October 14, 2014
What were the worst moments the Big Ten had to offer so far this season? What were some of the worst plays? The worst trends? Here’s a look at some of the things that won’t be making highlight videos any time soon, the lowlights to the first half of the season:
Brian Bennett: Night games in Week 2
The night time was not the right time for the Big Ten in Week 2. A highly-anticipated trio of prime-time games all ended up duds for the league, as Michigan State lost by 19 points at Oregon, Ohio State fell by 14 points at home to Virginia Tech and Michigan capitulated in a 31-0 loss at Notre Dame. You could almost feel the air drain out of the conference's playoff hopes on just the second Saturday of the season. The Spartans' loss didn't sink their College Football Playoff hopes, and the young Buckeyes have bounced back strongly (sorry, we can't say the same about Michigan). But the results of Week 2 will reverberate for a long time, and quite possibly inside the playoff selection committee war room on the first weekend in December.
Yes, the Wolverines had a nice reprieve Saturday night, but it has more to do with their defense and Penn State's offensive ineptitude. Michigan is tied for 104th nationally in sacks allowed (17), 110th in first downs per game (18) and tied for 119th in turnovers (16). New coordinator Doug Nussmeier hasn't fixed the problems, and things don't get any easier with Michigan State up next.
Josh Moyer: Penn State offensive lineman blocking a teammate
The struggles of this offensive line are well-documented: Only eight teams in the FBS have allowed more sacks and only nine teams have rushed for fewer yards per game. This is the worst offensive line in the Big Ten and possibly the worst in the Power Five. But it reached a new low against Northwestern when one offensive guard blindly blocked a fellow offensive tackle on a 4th-and-1 play. (Needless to say, that rush went for minus-2 yards.) The video went viral and served as the symbol for just poorly this unit has played. No reprieve is in sight.
Dan Murphy: Michigan's Shane Morris mistakes
Allowing a potentially concussed player back on to a football field in 2014 isn't acceptable, but it's at least somewhat understandable that signals could be crossed on a hectic sideline to create such a blatant blunder. It's much harder to understand how those signals remained crossed for the better part of the week that followed while Michigan's athletic department tried to explain how woozy quarterback Shane Morris returned to action in a loss to Minnesota. Inconsistent reports and middle-of-the-night press releases exacerbated the problem and revealed at least a temporary level of dysfunction inside the proud program's athletic operations.
Mitch Sherman: Nebraska's first half at Michigan State
The Huskers went to Spartan Stadium on Oct. 4 with an opportunity to show the Big Ten, if not the nation, that they were on the road to reclaim attention, if not establish position as a darkhorse for the College Football Playoff. Nebraska did none of that in the first 30 minutes, falling behind 17-0 as it failed three times to capitalize on turnovers in Michigan State territory. The Huskers were tentative on offense as with nine first-half drives ended in seven punts, one interception and one fumble. Six of those possessions netted 6 yards or fewer. For the game, Nebraska's high-powered rushing attack gained just 47 yards. It did, though, stage a serious comeback in fourth quarter, falling 27-22 and left to wonder how a decent first half might have altered the outcome.
Austin Ward: Quarterbacks sabotaging Melvin Gordon and Wisconsin
The ultimate backfield weapon doesn’t need much help, but imagine what Melvin Gordon might be capable of with even an average passing game to complement his otherworldly rushing ability. The star running back is still gashing defenses on the ground, but any chance of dragging Wisconsin into the College Football Playoff was erased with Joel Stave catching a case of the yips, Tanner McEvoy throwing an interception for every 20 attempts and defenses responding by loading up the box. The Badgers could have been truly dangerous on offense, but instead they have almost entirely squandered what should be their last season with Gordon before the calendar even flips to November.
QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
RB: Tevin Coleman, Indiana
WR: Tony Lippett, Michigan State
WR: DaeSean Hamilton, Penn State
OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OT: Jack Conklin, Michigan State
C: Jack Allen, Michigan State
G: Zac Epping, Minnesota
G: Pat Elflein, Ohio State
DE: Joey Bosa, Ohio State
DE: Marcus Rush, Michigan State
DT: Anthony Zettel, Penn State
DT: Carl Davis, Iowa
LB: Mike Hull, Penn State
LB: Damien Wilson, Minnesota
LB: Derek Landisch, Wisconsin
CB: Desmond King, Iowa
CB: Eric Murray, Minnesota
S: Frankie Williams, Purdue
S: Michael Caputo, Wisconsin
PK: Brad Craddock, Maryland
P: Justin DuVernois, Illinois
KR: Stefon Diggs, Maryland
PR: De'Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska
Thoughts: The first thing you probably notice is an unconventional offense featuring three running backs and no tight ends. Sure, it's a little bit of a cheat, but how do you leave any of those three tailbacks off? Coleman, Gordon and Abdullah rank 1, 2 and 4 nationally in rushing yards. Though there are some excellent tight ends in the league -- Minnesota's Maxx Williams and Penn State's Jesse James come to mind -- we would rather reward the outstanding tailbacks. Heck, we probably could have gone four or five deep at that position, given how loaded it is right now. ... The toughest call came at cornerback, where you might be surprised by our choices. We love King's shutdown ability for the Hawkeyes, and Murray gets the slight nod over teammate Briean Boddy-Calhoun for the Gophers' excellent secondary. Michigan State's Trae Waynes might be the best player at the position in the league, but he has given up some big plays this season. Same goes for Maryland's Will Likely, who has been explosive at times and torched (see: West Virginia and Ohio State) at others. It's only midseason, remember; these choices could change by the end of the season. ... Speaking of surprised, the steady Rush makes the team over more heralded position mate Shilique Calhoun. It's a close call, but Rush has been consistently terrific so far this season. ... Some pretty fresh names at linebacker, especially after so many stars at the position departed after last season. Michigan's Jake Ryan just missed there. ... Two freshmen made the team in Hamilton and Pierson-El. Ohio State's J.T. Barrett is also pushing Cook for No. 1 status at quarterback.
The breakdown by team:
Michigan State: 5
Penn State: 3
Ohio State: 2
Things started out well enough, as Wisconsin took a 24-7 lead on LSU in the third quarter on opening weekend. And it was pretty much all downhill from there for the Badgers, who wound up losing 28-24, and the rest of the league. Other early-season losses by Michigan State (at Oregon), Ohio State (Virginia Tech) and Iowa (Iowa State) relegated the Big Ten to its same old status as a middle-of-the-pack (at best) power conference.
As a result, the league needs some breaks just to get a team into the four-team College Football Playoff. Yes, conversation about the inaugural playoff has dominated the sport a little too much so far. Then again, when's the last time you heard anybody talking about who might play in this year's Orange Bowl?
The Big Ten might not place a team in the Rose Bowl -- site of a national semifinal this year -- unless Michigan State and Ohio State run the table the rest of the way, or if a team from the wide-open West Division like Nebraska or Minnesota really surprises.
Not everything, of course, revolves around the playoff, and there have been some good stories in the Big Ten during the first half. The conference boasts three of the top four rushers in the nation. The oft-mocked addition of Maryland and Rutgers doesn't look so bad as the two teams are a combined 9-3. Purdue has already tripled its win total from a year ago. The NCAA sanctions at Penn State were lifted -- though no relief was provided for the Nittany Lions' offensive line. Five teams sit at 5-1, setting up an interesting race toward ... wherever the league champion might wind up in the postseason. (Hey, how about that Orange Bowl?)
So reasons for hope remain in the Big Ten for the second half. Though maybe not so much in Ann Arbor and Champaign.
Defensive MVP: Ohio State DE Joey Bosa. There's no runaway winner of this award yet, but Bosa has built on his impressive freshman campaign of a year ago to become one of the most disruptive pass-rushing forces around. He has seven tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.
Biggest surprise: Few people gave Rutgers much of a chance to contend in the school's first year in the Big Ten, especially given the Scarlet Knights' murderous schedule. But with an improved Gary Nova at quarterback and a stout defense, Rutgers sits at 5-1 at the halfway point. The back half is still treacherous, including games against Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State, but Kyle Flood's team has shown it can't be taken lightly.
Biggest disappointment: Michigan, naturally. The Wolverines (3-4) beat Penn State last week at home, finally ending a streak of seven straight losses against Power 5 teams. Blowout losses against Notre Dame, Utah and Minnesota, and the Shane Morris concussion controversy have put Brady Hoke squarely on the hot seat.
Newcomer of the year: Losing Braxton Miller did not end Ohio State's playoff chances, largely because of the rapid growth of freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett. After struggling in a Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech, Barrett has blossomed into one of the top players in the Big Ten. He leads the league in total offense, pass efficiency and passing touchdowns (17).
Best coach: Jerry Kill, Minnesota. With apologies to Flood, no coach has maximized his talent more than the head Gopher. Minnesota is 5-1 and tied atop the Big Ten West Division, with its only loss coming at TCU. Kill's team finds ways to win without an overpowering offensive attack.
Best game: Indiana 31, Missouri 27. This game had a little bit of everything, with both teams combining for nearly 1,000 yards of offense and the Hoosiers scoring the winning touchdown with 22 seconds left after Missouri had hit what looked like the game-winning field goal. The road win in SEC country was also one of the league's few bright spots in nonconference play. Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, they haven't been able to duplicate that performance.
Biggest games of the second half: Armageddon arrives on Nov. 8 in East Lansing, Michigan, when Ohio State travels to Michigan State in a possible playoff eliminator. Other big B1G games are mostly in the wide-open West, including: Iowa at Minnesota (Nov. 8), Northwestern at Notre Dame (Nov. 15), Nebraska at Wisconsin (Nov. 15), Wisconsin at Iowa (Nov. 22) and Nebraska at Iowa (Nov. 28).
We take a look at the week that was and what could happen in the future within the conference.
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It was a banner weekend for resilient quarterbacks in the Big Ten.
Junior Jake Rudock wrenched Iowa’s plans for a balanced, two-quarterback system by completing nine of his first 11 passing attempts en route to 28 points in the first quarter. Michigan’s Devin Gardner, who has had to fight for his job during a 2-4 start to the season, returned from an ankle injury to lead the Wolverines to an 18-13 win over Penn State. And in West Lafayette, a new face is emerging under center. Purdue sophomore Austin Appleby kept Michigan State’s defense on its toes for much of a 45-31 Spartans win.
The Big Ten won’t be confused for anything but a running back’s league this season, but this past weekend was a relatively strong showing for their backfield mates.
Rudock earns the top honor there for helping the Hawkeyes to their fifth win of the season. Minnesota has done most of the head-turning in the West Division during the past couple weeks, but Iowa has quietly compiled an identical record (5-1 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) and is tied with the Gophers for the division lead. Both teams have two winnable games before facing each other Nov. 8, which brings us to our choice for the team of the week ...
Team of the Week: Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Iowa’s offense was downright explosive at times during a 45-29 win over Indiana Saturday. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz’s decision to go for it on fourth down pushed Iowa’s lead to 38-21 on the final play of the first half. The offense, led by the sharpest version of Rudock to date, had topped its previous season-high point total by the end of the first quarter.
Biggest Play: Speaking of Minnesota, the Gophers kept their Big Ten record unblemished Saturday thanks to Jalen Myrick's 100-yard kickoff return for a game-winning touchdown. Northwestern had just tied the game 17-17 with 7:32 to play on an impressive 13-play, 97-yard scoring drive. Myrick went a little farther in far less time, darting past midfield untouched before slipping away from the Wildcats' kicker on his way to a big score.
Big Man on Campus (offense): It may have come in a losing effort, but Indiana’s Tevin Coleman dazzled again with big plays and big numbers. Coleman finished Saturday’s game with 219 yards on just 15 carries. He scored three times on runs of 83, 45 and 69 yards to keep the Hoosiers within striking distances even after starting quarterback Nate Sudfeld left the game before halftime. Coleman leads the nation in rushing yards and is on pace for 2,120 yards in his junior season.
Big Man on Campus (defense): Stellar defense was hard to find this weekend in the Big Ten. The biggest play on that side of the ball belonged to Michigan State linebacker Darien Harris, who clinched the Spartans’ win over Purdue with a pick-six in the fourth quarter. Harris added six tackles, one of them behind the line of scrimmage, for a defense that looked uncharacteristically average against the Boilermakers and their sophomore quarterback, Appleby.
Big Man on Campus (special teams): Myrick certainly deserves mention here for his big return, but placekicker Matt Wile beats him out by being the difference for a Michigan team that desperately needed a victory. Wile connected on all three of his field goal attempts, from 45, 42 and 37 yards out. He bailed out an offense that has yet to find a way to move the ball consistently, accounting for 10 points in an 18-13 win over Penn State.
Biggest face plant: The Nittany Lions' offensive line did its part to make field goals the difference against Michigan. Sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg was under constant siege at the Big House Saturday. He was sacked six times and pressured into poor decisions on a regular basis. The running game managed only 54 yards. The crumbling of Penn State’s promising September begins and ends with its struggle in the trenches.
Facts and numbers to know: Purdue’s 31 points against Michigan State is the most a Big Ten opponent has scored on Sparty since Wisconsin hung 42 on them in December 2011. ... Myrick’s kickoff return for a touchdown was the first such play for anyone in the Big Ten this season. ... Ten teams in the country allow less than 100 rushing yards per game. Three of them (Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan) are in the Big Ten. ... Coleman’s 176.67 rushing yards per game leads the nation. Melvin Gordon (174.33) and Ameer Abdullah (146.33) are second and fourth, respectively, in that category. ... Ten different Iowa players caught passes in the win over Indiana. The Hawkeyes are 4-0 this season when completing throws to at least 10 receivers. ... Gordon became the fastest Wisconsin player to 1,000 yards rushing by accomplishing the feat in his sixth game of the season.
1. I'm legitimately worried about Christian Hackenberg. Penn State's sophomore quarterback is a superlative talent who has a long future playing professionally ahead of him. That's if the the Nittany Lions' tragic offensive line doesn't ruin him.
The worst thing that can happen to a young quarterback is for him to succumb to unrelenting pressure. I've seen it before; suddenly, he starts looking at the pass rush instead of keeping his eyes downfield. He develops happy feet. He throws the ball away too quickly, or holds onto it while bracing for a hit.
I saw some of those things in Hackenberg during Saturday night's 18-13 loss at Michigan, and so did PennLive.com's David Jones, who wrote:
"Hackenberg is, by [James] Franklin's own estimation, 'frustrated,' due to obvious factors. He took a pounding again against the Wolverines, bringing his sacks-absorbed total to a whopping 20 just halfway through the season. His body language is awful; he spent much of the second half slouching on the bench in apparent despondence."
Penn State's inability to block for its star quarterback is clearly taking its toll and forcing Hackenberg into some bad habits -- to say nothing of the injury risk. Those bad habits can be hard to shake off. The Nittany Lions have to figure out a way to protect him in the second half of the season, because it would be a shame if the offensive line issues caused permanent damage.
2. Is it time to worry about Michigan State? The Spartans keep winning and still look like the Big Ten's best team. But for the second straight game, they let a big lead slip away, and Purdue had the ball with a chance to tie the score late.
This isn't even about the College Football Playoff, though Mark Dantonio's team is squandering opportunities to impress the selection committee. No, it's about whether some of Michigan State's obvious mental lapses -- Connor Cook throwing needlessly into coverage, for example, or the defense uncharacteristically giving up big plays -- will result in a loss before December. Last year's Spartans were masters at closing out games, but this year's edition has neither the shutdown defense nor the physical running game to impose its will in fourth quarters, at least not yet. As a result, Michigan State is flirting with disaster, as Drew Sharp writes.
3. Let's all marvel at Minnesota, which is winning in a way that's different than just about anybody else.
The Gophers had only 274 yards on Saturday yet turned away a solid, confident Northwestern team at home. Even with a rushing attack that by their standards was held in check (just 3.1 yards per carry), they continued to maximize every opportunity, KO'ing the 'Cats on a 100-yard KO return by Jalen Myrick.
Jerry Kill's team knows its identity, is too well-coached to beat itself with mistakes and will make you fight every down. That style might not always work against high-scoring, hyper-athletic opponents (see: TCU), but nobody in the Big Ten is looking forward to playing Minnesota in the second half. The Gophers showed resolve on Saturday.
- The Nate Sudfeld injury puts the rest of Indiana's season in jeopardy.
- A season-saving win for Michigan? Hardly. But at least there was some relief for the Wolverines
- Michigan State has a fourth-quarter problem. It's on the seniors, Dantonio says.
- Ohio State needs more than just Joey Bosa on the pass rush.
- New problems are mounting for Penn State, and the old ones are still there.
- Looking ahead to the second halves for Rutgers and for Maryland.
- Illinois will have to settle its quarterback situation over the next two weeks. An Illini staffer was arrested on DUI charges.
- Fourth-down tries are becoming a thing for Kirk Ferentz and Iowa.
- Mitch Leidner looked healthy and confident for Minnesota against Northwestern.
- Twins who have committed to Nebraska are dominating in high school.
- Northwestern was stunned late.
- What we learned about Purdue in its better-than-expected performance vs. Michigan State.
- Joel Stave was just functional enough for Wisconsin against Illinois.