Penn State Nittany Lions: Fitz Toussaint

Big Ten's lunch links

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13
12:00
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Hoops, hoops everywhere. Here's some football:

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

October, 16, 2013
10/16/13
5:00
PM ET
It's mail time. I'll warn you in advance, it's going to get weird at the end.

Jason from Columbus writes: Brian, Iowa is the only FBS team in the country that has not allowed a rushing touchdown in the country this season. Ohio State is 12th in the country with 17 rushing touchdowns in only 6 games. Who comes out on top this weekend, Iowa's rush defense or Carlos Hyde, Dontre Wilson, Jordan Hall, and the rest of the Buckeyes who can run through a defense?

Brian Bennett: Good question. Urban Meyer is so impressed with Iowa's front seven that he mentioned them in the same sentence as Alabama this week. Not sure I'd go that far, but the improvement of the Hawkeyes' defense up front has been one of the pleasant surprises this season. However, as you mentioned, Ohio State has a great running game. And that all starts with what has been the best offensive line in the Big Ten for the past two years. The Buckeyes' blockers are big, physical and smart, and they pave the way for the speed of Hall, Wilson and Braxton Miller as well as the power of Hyde. That's going to be tough for any defense to stop, including one playing as well against the run as Iowa.

The bigger concern I'd have if I were Kirk Ferentz and Phil Parker is Miller taking shots down the field. Ohio State is not a consistently good passing team but does connect at times on the deep ball, and the Hawkeyes are more vulnerable on the back end.

David K. from Oxnard, Calif., writes: First off, I'm biased: I've been a Badger football fan since November 1962, when I attended the UW-Minnesota game, which the Badgers won with a great comeback, led by Ron Vanderkelen and Pat Richter. And I attended the UW, off and on, from 1966 to 1974. Biases admitted, why the heck isn't Melvin Gordon even being mentioned in the discussions regarding the 2013 Heisman Trophy? He's the 3rd-leading rusher in the BCS division with a 9.7 YPC average. Every time he touches the football, everybody holds their breath. I mean, c'mon, guys, what does he have to do? Leap tall buildings in a single bound?

Brian Bennett: I love watching Gordon, and we named him our midseason offensive player of the year as well as an ESPN.com first half All-American. So he's on the radar for the Heisman, but there are a few things really working against him. One is that Wisconsin has two losses. For better or worse, the Heisman usually goes to players on national title contenders, although Robert Griffin III and Tim Tebow both won it on teams with multiple losses. Another problem is that in the Badgers' signature game, at Ohio State in primetime, Gordon has his lowest output of the season and got injured to boot. Wisconsin simply doesn't have any marquee games left on the schedule, so he won't get the opportunity to make up for it. Gordon would have to put up insane numbers to get back in the conversation. He is, of course, capable of doing just that.

Alex H. from Bloomington, Ill., writes: Watching that Michigan-PSU game was a bummer, I will not lie. Can we not act like the sky is falling for a moment? The defense played opportunistic despite that last-minute 4th quarter drive, and even on those throws coverage wasn't bad. I was impressed with Gardner's 2nd half. The biggest concern is Lewan out, the run game stalling. This loss doesn't hinder there Big Ten championship goals as they still play Neb, NU, MSU in November. I'd still put them near the top of the Legends, am I being too optimistic in thinking Indy?

Brian Bennett: Michigan certainly can still win the Legends Division. But the Wolverines are going to have to fix some major problems first. You mentioned the running game, and it is abysmal. It's going to be hard to win those big games in November if Michigan cannot effectively run the ball. The turnovers by Gardner are of course another massive problem. The defense, meanwhile, has been decent but not overpowering, though Jake Ryan's return should help. As I've written and asked, what exactly is the strength of this Michigan team? I can't seem to find one. And so it's hard to envision a team like putting together a long winning streak, especially once the schedule toughens up in November.

John K. from Austin, Texas, writes: You and Adam noted that Brady Hoke "played for the safe field goal instead of going for the touchdown in overtime" as if that is a bad thing. Now, I can understand if he was just going for the tie, but each time it was for the win. He has a good kick (or at least at that point no reason not to believe that). With a good kicker and 42 yards for the win... I'm taking that every day of the week!

Brian Bennett: To be clear, I'm not saying Hoke should have been going for it on fourth down when all he needed was a field goal to win. I have a major problem with the playcalling on first and second down, when Michigan gained two total yards after Sam Ficken missed a field goal in the first overtime. I know Brendan Gibbons has been a very good kicker, but a 40-yard field goal on the road in overtime is by no means a sure bet for most college kickers. And then you run the risk of having it blocked, which is exactly what happened.

It's only fair to also point out that Michigan did throw a pass in the third overtime after Allen Robinson's fumble, and it gained nine yards. But then on third and one, I hated the call to have Fitzgerald Toussaint run it when Michigan's running game had been terrible all game.

We saw the same thing late in the fourth quarter, when Michigan had the ball at Penn State's 28-yard line with 3:10 left, leading by seven. The next three plays were Toussaint runs, which ended up losing two yards, plus a delay of game penalty, to take the Wolverines out of field-goal range.

I understand playing it safe with the lead on the road, but Toussaint had 27 rushes for 27 yards in last week's game. Why would you go to that well 27 times when it clearly isn't working, especially when the game is on the line? You might as well just kneel. And how many times over the years have we seen teams stop being aggressive and then lose?

Sam from East Lansing writes: First time, long time. Brian, as we progress through the season and my Spartan offense has appeared to return to average (very, very average), I have a scenario question for you. If a Legend' team plays an undefeated Ohio State team in the B1G Championship and loses, possibly putting the Buckeyes in the National Championship, does that mean the loser of B1G Championship game is put in the Rose Bowl automatically or would the bowl committee go back and look at win-loss records, including the B1G Championship lose? Should Legends contender teams who miss Ohio State on the schedule (ie. Michigan State, Nebraska) be rooting for Ohio State to go undefeated? Thoughts of Michigan 2012 Sugar Bowl mishap are dancing in my head. Please calm them.

Brian Bennett: Not sure you'll like my answer, Sam. If Ohio State goes to the BCS title game, then the Rose Bowl is free to choose any team that qualifies in the BCS standings as its replacement pick. That means the Rose could go outside the Big Ten for its choice, but with this being the 100th edition of the game and the last one before the playoff could disrupt things, I think the Rose Bowl will make every attempt to stage a classic Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup.

The problem is that, historically, losers of conference championship games don't get selected for at-large spots. Bowls prefer teams who are riding winning streaks rather than ones coming off a loss. And Michigan State's issue could be a lack of signature wins. A team like Wisconsin, should it go 10-2, or a Legends runner-up like Nebraska or Michigan could leapfrog the Big Ten runner-up in such a scenario.

As an aside, I know Michigan State is dying to get back to the Rose Bowl. If the Spartans lost to Ohio State in the championship game but still got picked for the Rose, would it feel ... earned? Or does just getting to the Rose Bowl any way possible enough?

Glenn from Florida writes: Brian, aside from your's, Adam's, and all of ESPN's love for OSU, how can you justify the PSU-Michigan game as not the best and biggest game?

Brian Bennett: I guess you're talking about our choice of Ohio State-Northwestern as the top game of the first half. You know, just because games go to multiple overtimes does not mean they're great. Michigan-Penn State was very sloppy, and some of the continued failures in overtime was ugly to watch. Northwestern-Ohio State was a far better game aesthetically, in my opinion.

Barry M. from Sheboygan, Wis., writes: I'm guessing we will not see any Purdue players on [your fantasy teams] this season. You could make it interesting and add a rule that you must take a player from each team for at least one week during the season.

Brian Bennett: It's nothing personal, Barry, it's just that I want to beat Adam much more than I want to have every school represented on my fantasy team. This isn't the baseball all-star game. Purdue does not have a player in the top 10 in rushing or passing and is starting a true freshman quarterback. There's just not much to choose from. But I'll make you this promise, Barry. If I have either wrapped up the championship or am out of it in the final week, I will pick up a Boilermaker for my team. Even if it's just the kickers.

Bart from Waverly, Neb., writes: I see how you and Adam both voted Wisconsin in the 17-18 spot. My question is, how do you justify ranking them that high when they have two losses? Granted, one was to OSU, but the other was to a (currently) unranked ASU. I am just curious as the Huskers have had their defensive troubles, but our single loss was to a top-10 team in UCLA, and only Adam was generous enough to include Big Red in his rankings.

Brian Bennett: I've heard from a few Huskers fans who are miffed that I didn't rank Nebraska, and many of them try to use the loss to UCLA as some sort of justification. Sorry, but you don't get credit just for playing a highly-ranked team, especially if you lose to said team by 20 points at home while looking terrible in the second half. Nebraska just hasn't beaten anyone with a pulse. I won't rank the Huskers until they do, and if that happens, they'll climb up my ballot quickly.

It's a much different story for Wisconsin, whose two losses were on the road to very good teams, and one of those defeats was a direct result of some of the worst officiating incompetency I've ever seen. The Badgers played Ohio State, clearly the best team in the league, to within a touchdown on the road and smashed what was a Top 20 Northwestern team. There's no doubt in my mind that Wisconsin deserves a Top 20 ranking.

Tim P. from Port Washington, Wis., writes: It is maddening to me to keep hearing about Michigan's "winged" helmets. The markings on a wolverine are the alleged "wings" on its head and stripes down the rest of its body. The Michigan helmet is thus simply a representation of the markings on the wolverine animal. Of course, the Michigan athletic department gets away with calling these helmets "winged" because few, if any, Michiganders have ever actually seen a wolverine. Wolverines are not indigenous to Michigan as their habitat is prmarily alpine tundra and mountain forests; environments which are found only in North America in Canada and the Western U.S. It is estimated there are only 250 to 300 wolverines still living and they are found in Western Montana, Idaho and Eastern Washington and Oregon. So I don't know who started this myth that the Michigan helmets are "winged" but I am sick and tired of hearing about it.

Brian Bennett: OK, then. It appears we've reached the bizarre part of the mailbag. Proceed with caution...

SSG Smith, Justin from Ft Campbell Ky writes: Hey Brian, I am not by any means the most knowledgeable NCAA Football fan out there. I say this to humble my self before I ask this question. Were you bullied by a Nebraska fan as a child (or young adult)? ... How do you give so many teams the advantage over Nebraska. Your Biased is unprofessional and your over all hate for the Huskers is blinding. Why do you blog for the Big Ten without being biased?

Brian Bennett: Ho, boy. Yep, I hate Nebraska so much that I picked the Huskers to win the Legends Division in the preseason. And I picked them to win the Big Ten title game last year. What a hater! Justin also included in his email the records of the teams Nebraska has beaten this year, as if that somehow helped his case. But he did admit right up front that he wasn't knowledgeable, so I can forgive.

John F. from Mansfield, Ohio, writes: IF you represent the BIG, you should parlay this into BIG votes, I constantly watch "How You VOTED" and ALL I see is YOUR votes for the SEC not the BIG ... YOU cannot say you are BIG representatives, and continue to give other conferences your votes....... this makes you 2-faced and opinionated as well, that's great for people who choose to pencil whip a conference for being the best in the nation... It is press writers who have a vote that are destroying the BIG .......... NOT THE PLAYERS

Brian Bennett: I only included about half of John's email, which if there were any justice would have been cobbled together by random letters from magazines. I guess the ESPN.com power rankings ballots that Adam and I submit each week are what's holding the Big Ten back. Sure, makes sense. Also, covering a league as a reporter and "representing" a conference are two very different things. Until the Big Ten starts signing my checks, I'll report, write and vote with my conscience, thanks.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 19, 2013
8/19/13
1:14
PM ET
We are here to do a job, not channel Scrooge McDuck.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 12, 2013
8/12/13
12:00
PM ET
If that's true, if you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.

100-days checklist: Big Ten

May, 21, 2013
5/21/13
12:00
AM ET
Good news: We are just 100 days away from the start of college football.

To mark the occasion, we're pulling out a checklist today of things that Big Ten teams need to accomplish between now and the start of the season. It's not quite "The Final Countdown" (cue GOB Bluth), but we are inching ever so close to kickoff. Here's what needs to happen in the next 100 days:

1. Identify a starting quarterback at Iowa, Indiana, Michigan State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin: It seems as if there are an unusually high number of Big Ten teams who don't know for sure who their starting quarterbacks will be in the fall. (You could also add Illinois and Minnesota to this list, though it appears likely that Nathan Scheelhaase and Philip Nelson, respectively, would have to lose the job in the summer.) Iowa had a three-man race this spring that will probably come down to Jake Rudock and Cody Sokol in training camp. There's very little separation between Cameron Coffman, Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson at Indiana. Connor Cook continues to breathe down the neck of incumbent Andrew Maxwell at Michigan State. Tyler Ferguson claimed the starting job at Penn State during the spring, prompting Steven Bench to transfer, but highly touted recruit Christian Hackenberg will push for immediate time. Purdue will likely decide between senior Rob Henry and true freshman Danny Etling. Joel Stave and Curt Phillips separated themselves from the Wisconsin QB derby this spring, while incoming junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy could expand the race this summer. All these situations should work themselves out in August, but no team wants to be dealing with an unsettled quarterback competition once the season starts.

2. Solidify the defensive front sevens at Nebraska and Ohio State: The Huskers and Buckeyes stand out as two of the top Big Ten contenders in 2013, but both have serious questions at defensive line and linebacker. The issue is more dire at Nebraska, which struggled there last year and is replacing all but one starter from 2012. Summer arrivals, including junior college star Randy Gregory, could make an immediate impact, and players coming back from injury such as linebacker Zaire Anderson and defensive tackle Thad Randle will need to play up to potential. Ohio State is less concerned about its defense after the spring performance of defensive ends Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, but linebacker Ryan Shazier is still the only returning starter in the front seven. Curtis Grant must finally live up to his talent to provide help to Shazier, and someone must assume John Simon's leadership role.

3. Locate the next great receivers: A few Big Ten teams, such as Nebraska, Penn State and Indiana, don't have to worry too much about who will catch the ball this year. But just about everybody else needs to find playmakers in the passing game. The top of that list includes Iowa, which couldn't generate a downfield passing attack last year; Illinois, which needs receivers to make new coordinator Bill Cubit's spread system work; Michigan State, whose young wideouts must improve on last year's shaky performance; Minnesota, which doesn't have many proven weapons to surround Nelson; and Wisconsin, which still must find a complement to Jared Abbrederis. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is hoping some incoming freshmen augment a very thin receiver group, while Michigan needs to replace the production of Junior Hemingway and Roy Roundtree. Purdue and Northwestern have lots of speedy options but could use the emergence of a true No. 1 target. Receiver was a weak spot as a whole in the Big Ten in 2012, and hopefully some players will improve through offseason voluntary passing drills.

4. Strengthen the running game at Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana and elsewhere: It's a cliché to say that you have to run the ball to win, but in the case of the Big Ten, that's always been true. That's why it's so vital for the Wolverines and Spartans -- who both expect to contend in the Legends Division -- to find answers in their rushing attacks. Michigan is replacing its entire starting interior offensive line after struggling to get a running game going outside of Denard Robinson last year. Fitz Toussaint is hoping to bounce back from a disappointing season and a leg injury, while hotshot freshman Derrick Green could get lots of carries right away. Michigan State's efforts to replace workhorse extraordinaire Le'Veon Bell this spring ended up with converted linebacker Riley Bullough emerging as the top back in a mediocre field. Three incoming freshmen will compete for time right away this summer. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson put a heavy emphasis on the running game this spring, hoping for more balance after his team led the league in passing and finished last in rushing last season. Iowa has depth for once at running back but needs to stay healthy there, as the ground game is the key to the Hawkeyes' entire offensive philosophy. Nebraska also can't afford injuries, as Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross are the lone backs with any experience. Illinois averaged just 3.5 yards per carry as a team last year, a number that must improve. And while Purdue loved what it saw from Akeem Hunt this spring, he still must prove he can be an every-down back after attempting only 42 carries last season.

5. Mesh with new coaches: Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Purdue's Darrell Hazell are the fresh faces among head coaches in the league, and while they did a great job of connecting with their players this spring, they still need to get their new systems fully in place. The Badgers will be using some new, 3-4 looks on defense, while Hazell wants a more physical and disciplined team than we've seen from the Boilermakers of late. Michigan State has a new offensive playcaller in Dave Warner, while Cubit was one of many staff changes at Illinois. Penn State's John Butler takes over from Ted Roof as the Lions' defensive coordinator. With only 15 spring practices so far to implement their styles, those new coaches have had to rely on a lot of classroom time and players learning on their own. That will have to continue this summer during voluntary workouts and then will intensify when preseason practice begins. For new coaches, it's a race against the calendar -- and the calendar says there are only 100 days until kickoff.

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