Penn State Nittany Lions: Greg Mattison

The "hype" -- if you can call it that -- surrounding this game isn't exactly where most people thought it would be during the preseason. But like last year's matchup, this still has the potential to be pretty entertaining.

Here's a look at some of the specific things you should keep an eye on:

1. Michigan pass-rush vs. Penn State offensive line: This is the game's key matchup. If Christian Hackenberg has time to throw, like Rutgers' Gary Nova did last week, then chalk up another win for the Nittany Lions. But Greg Mattison dared Rutgers to beat him through the air ... and Mattison isn't so foolish as to try that same game plan against a talent like Hackenberg. This is an aggressive defense that, for the most part, has played well this season. (U-M ranks No. 19 nationally in yards allowed.) If it pressures Hackenberg enough, there's a good chance U-M either picks up its first conference win or that this game comes down to the wire. Northwestern, Rutgers and Central Florida all sent plenty of blitzers after Hackenberg, and all of those games were tight heading into the last quarter.

2. Can Devin Gardner build off last week's performance? Only three teams have turned the ball over more than Michigan, and a big reason for that is Gardner's penchant for fumbles and interceptions. Still, he turned the ball over just once last week and played relatively well. He rushed for 40 yards and two TDs and turned in a QBR of 65.6. If Gardner plays more like that -- and less like his performances against Notre Dame and Utah -- then the Wolverines might actually be able to move the ball against maybe the toughest defense they've played all season. This is a turning point for Gardner.

3. Impact of Derrick Green's absence: Green is out for the season, so U-M will have to find another way to run against the nation's second-best rush defense. De'Veon Smith should take on most of the workload, but Brady Hoke also plans to use a rotation involving both Justice Hayes and Drake Johnson. Smith's running style is more similar to Green's, but Smith has never before carried the ball more than 10 times in a game. He might Saturday.

4. Penn State linebacker health/rotation: Without OLB Nyeem Wartman two weeks ago, the defense clearly took a step back. Wartman is expected to play Saturday night, but he's not yet at 100 percent so it's unknown just how effective he'll be. Penn State is thin at the position, and the Jason Cabinda-Von Walker experiment didn't go so well in his absence. Wartman is a big part of this defense, and there's a big dropoff between him and his backups. A healthy Wartman means a healthy Penn State defense. An unhealthy Wartman, on the other hand ...

5. Crowd at the Big House: Calls for a boycott have been dialed back, but it'll be interesting to see just how lively the Big House is Saturday night. Fans haven't had much good football to watch and, after the Michigan State fiasco, more eyes than usual will be on whether the student section stays until the end. Hoke had to address the home crowd booing him a few weeks ago, and the boo birds could come out in full force if Michigan starts off slow. Just how intimidating will Michigan Stadium be?
Nearly all of the Big Ten’s top freshmen have reported to their respective schools, but ESPN.com caught up with a few players days before to pick their brains on an array of topics.

You can read the first installment here. To recap, the participants included Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson, ranked No. 157 in the 2014 class; Penn State WR Chris Godwin, one of the top 25 receivers in the class; Michigan LB Jared Wangler, one of 11 linebackers invited to the UA Game; Iowa WR Jay Scheel, one of two four-star players in the Hawkeyes’ class; and Maryland LB Jesse Aniebonam, the second-best prospect in the state behind OL Damian Prince.

Here’s what the freshmen had to say:

Outside of your team, what B1G freshmen are you most looking forward to watching and/or playing against?

Thorson: Hmmm. Trying to think. So there’s obviously Raekwon McMillan at Ohio State. I know we don’t play them this season, but I heard he’s a great player, so it’ll be fun going against him in future years. And it’s just guys like Zack Darlington; he’s at Nebraska at quarterback and I’ve gotten to know him over the past the few months, so it’ll be cool to go against him. And, at Michigan State, Madre London and I played at the Semper Fi [All-American] Bowl together, and he’s a great athlete.

[+] EnlargeChris Godwin
Miller Safrit/ESPNChris Godwin said his goal is not only to start this year but to be the Big Ten freshman of the year.
Godwin: I’m looking forward to seeing Freddy Canteen. I know him pretty well and, with his footwork, I think he’ll have a really good year at Michigan.

Wangler: I want to watch Byron Bullough for Michigan State. We played in this Michigan all-star game [‘Border Classic’ on June 14], and we got along pretty good. So I’m excited to see how he does. I know he’s got a good history -- his father and brother were successful for Michigan State -- so I feel like Byron is going to be successful, too.

Aniebonam: Big Ten-wise, that one guy -- Peppers, Jabrill Peppers -- he’s a solid athlete. I want to see how he does. He was in the Under Armour Game; we watched it right before our game [U.S. Army All-American Bowl] and he did pretty well. So, let’s see how he does at Michigan.

Why did you decide to commit to your school, and what do you think separates it from others in the conference?

Thorson: I always knew I wanted to play in the Big Ten. My family is from Ohio and Illinois, so I always just wanted to be around them so they could see me play – so that’s kind of how I narrowed it down. And then visiting different schools like Penn State, Illinois, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa – after looking at all those schools, I decided Northwestern was the best fit for me. I jelled with the guys on the team, and the coaching staff is just awesome. I thought that was the best fit for me both academically and athletically.

Godwin: I chose Penn State because I felt really comfortable on campus and with the team. It was also the right fit for me academically and socially, and I think the tradition and fan base really separate it from other teams in the conference.

Wangler: Michigan has always been my dream school to go to, and there aren’t many universities out there that offer such a great degree and a great football experience. Plus, I feel really comfortable with Coach [Brady] Hoke and Coach [Greg] Mattison. It’s a great fit. It’s close to home, my dad played there. ... It’s almost too good to be true.

Scheel: Well, personally, it’s just been a dream to play there. So, really, any other school that decided it was going to offer me was nice, but it was always my dream to go to Iowa. I’ve only heard good things about them. Playing for Iowa is really an honor. And what makes them different is they’re not known for getting big recruits -- I know that -- but they take two- and three-star recruits and turn them into NFL players.

Aniebonam: Maryland just really stood out to me. Not just because it’s my hometown team and all my friends and family will be around me, but every time I went to the campus I was just pulled in and attracted to it more and more. If you asked me in the beginning of my junior season if I wanted to go to Maryland, I would’ve said, ‘Heck no.’ But it just grew on me; it just felt right. … [What separates Maryland] is they’re well-known -- but still underdogs. I think it’s a team that is going to be really watched because people want to know what happens here.

What are your expectations for this season -- and your career?

Thorson: The coaches always say to prepare each week as if you’re going to start the game, so I’m going to do that every week. I just want to get better at leading the team and knowing the playbook and everything. The Lord has a plan for me and, whether that’s starting this year or next year, whatever happens happens. I’m just really looking forward to getting on campus and playing with these guys.

Godwin: I would consider them goals more than expectations because I haven’t done anything yet. But, this season, my goal is to earn a starting spot by UCF then continually improve as a player and a teammate and, hopefully, be Big Ten freshman of the year. As a team, a goal of mine is to go undefeated, but who doesn’t want that, right?

Wangler: I expect to win. I think this next season we have a lot of people coming back and, after having kind of a mediocre season last year, I think we’re going to come out with a lot of hunger and the team is going to do a lot better. I think that’s going to set the pace for the four years after that. I feel like I’m going to have a successful career at Michigan.

Scheel: Personally, going in, I just want to get to know the playbook better and get to know the offense as soon as I can. I pretty much think I’m going to redshirt because starting right away might be difficult. If it does work, that’d be great. But I’m just trying to do my best. With my career, I’m trying to make a big impact on Iowa football, and I just want to have fun and get on the field.

Aniebonam: I just want to make a name for myself early. I want to get myself out there and really, really put my stamp on the school and into the minds of the coaches as early as I can. … Hopefully, that’ll come quick, but nothing is ever promised. You have to work.
Spring practice in the Big Ten has sadly come to an end, and we're both back home after some trips around the conference. Wednesday, we shared out thoughts on the Big Ten's West Division, and now it's time to turn our focus to the beast known as the East.

Brian dropped in on Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana, and Adam stopped by Penn State.

Adam Rittenberg: Let's begin with your trip to the Mitten State. You made your first stop in Ann Arbor, where Michigan was wrapping up its first spring with new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Michigan's top priority is the offense and fixing the line. What did you gather about the unit, and how are the changes on the defense -- player positions and coaching roles -- working out?

[+] EnlargeDoug Nussmeier
AP Photo/Tony DingNew OC Doug Nussmeier's top priority is fixing Michigan's offensive line.
Brian Bennett: Things definitely seem a lot smoother on defense. Jake Ryan adopted quickly to playing middle linebacker, and James Ross III is talented enough to play anywhere. Mark Smith picked a good time to take over the defensive line, as he'll have a pair of senior ends in Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer and some nice young talent to work with in Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Willie Henry, etc. Throw Jabrill Peppers into the mix in the back end this summer, and this has a chance to be a very solid defense.

It's just a matter of whether the offense can keep up. The Wolverines are very young on that side of the ball, and the line is full of redshirt freshmen and sophomores right now. Mason Cole enrolled in January and was starting at left tackle in spring ball, which said a lot about the state of the position. Michigan's season likely depends on whether that O-line can come together and raise its collective level of play. There are some good-looking athletes at receiver and running back, but not many of them are proven. Many big questions remain in Ann Arbor.

AR: There are fewer questions at Michigan State. How did the defending Big Ten/Rose Bowl champs seem to be handling their success? And how are they replacing defensive standouts such as cornerback Darqueze Dennard?

BB: Several players told me they were sick of talking about the Rose Bowl, which is a good sign. I saw a team that could definitely repeat as Big Ten champions. The offense brings back most of its major pieces and will add new weapons suchas tight end Jamal Lyles and quarterback/athlete Damion Terry. The early-season scoring droughts of years past should not happen again this fall.

No doubt Pat Narduzzi's crew lost a lot -- four All-Big Ten defenders, plus both starting defensive tackles. Michigan State has a big experience gap to make up, especially at linebacker. But this is a program that just seems to reload on defense now and has recruited so well to its system. Guys like defensive tackle Joel Heath, defensive end Demetrius Cooper and safety Jalyn Powell all came on strong this spring. Three of the corners vying to replace Dennard had interceptions in the spring game. I have supreme confidence that Narduzzi will have this defense dominating again in 2014.

AR: Ohio State's defense has many more question marks after a rough 2013 campaign. The line should be terrific but how did the back seven look during your trip to Columbus? And how are new assistants Chris Ash and Larry Johnson fitting into the mix? What else stood out about the Buckeyes?

BB: In my eyes, this is one of the most intriguing teams anywhere. The Buckeyes are almost frightfully young on offense outside of Braxton Miller and are breaking in lots of new players at linebacker and in the secondary. Yet they also have some impressive looking athletes and more overall explosiveness than the previous two seasons under Urban Meyer. Ash is installing a quarters coverage look, but maybe even more important is the fact that the safeties can really run and cover now. The revamped offensive line is a big question mark, as is the inexperience at receiver and the linebacker spot. But when you see young guys like linebacker Raekwon McMillan and tailback Curtis Samuel running around, you realize there aren't a lot of Big Ten teams that look like the Buckeyes.

Adam, you made it up to State College to check in on Penn State and new coach James Franklin. What's the vibe like up there?

AR: Electric. The charismatic staff has quickly formed bonds with the players, some of whom knew Franklin from the recruiting process. The defense should be better under Bob Shoop's leadership, as long as the starters stay healthy. There's decent depth up front and safety Adrian Amos and cornerback Jordan Lucas anchor the secondary. Linebacker Mike Hull is embracing his role as the unit's leader. Christian Hackenberg can really spin the ball -- very impressive. But can PSU protect him? No Big Ten team, including Ohio State, has bigger issues along the offensive line. Running back Bill Belton looked great, and I like the depth at tight end. Franklin is realistic about the depth issues and knows his team can't afford many more injuries.

You also visited Indiana this spring. How did the Hoosiers look, especially on defense with new coordinator Brian Knorr?

BB: You know the drill. Indiana could make some real noise if it could actually, you know, stop anybody. Knorr has them playing a 3-4, and hey have some major beef inside with the defensive tackles in 325-pounders Darius Latham and Ralph Green III. Ten starters are back and some promising recruits are on the way, so there's more depth on defense than before. But it's still a major construction project, and the offense might lose a little of its big-play ability as it tries to replace three of its top four receivers from a season ago.

OK, lightning-round finish. I still see Michigan State and Ohio State as the heavy favorites here, with Penn State a dark horse if its O-line issues can be solved. What about you?

AR: MSU is the team to beat because of the quarterback and the track record on defense. Ohio State definitely is in that mix, too. Michigan remains young at spots but could contend with a serviceable run game. Offensive line is a huge issue in this division. Sleeper-wise, I wouldn't count out Penn State, Indiana or Maryland, which could be dynamic on offense if it finally stays healthy.

Big Ten's lunch links

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
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I'll make a deal with you, Warren Buffett. You cut me a check for $10 million right now, and I'll spare you the embarrassment of acing your little challenge.

Big Ten lunch links

March, 10, 2014
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How 'bout Nebrasketball? Impressed with what's happening in Lincoln.

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 5, 2014
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So Nick Saban is saying you shouldn't smoke while playing football?

Big Ten lunchtime links

February, 27, 2014
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Cold, cold, go away.
As the coach hiring season nears an end, we're examining the Big Ten coaching landscape and some recent trends. Today we take a look at the rising salaries for assistants and whether a $1 million coordinator is on the horizon in the league.

In the days leading up to the Discover Orange Bowl earlier this month, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris received nearly as much attention as the head coaches in the game.

That was because of Morris' ties to Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and the high-powered Tigers offense he engineered. Plus, Morris was already being paid like a head coach.

In part because of Meyer's reported interest in hiring Morris in December 2011, Morris is the nation's highest-paid assistant coach at $1.3 million annually. But he's not alone in the $1 million coordinator club. LSU's John Chavis and Alabama's Kirby Smart also made more than seven figures as assistants in 2013, and Louisville recently lured defensive coordinator Todd Grantham away from Georgia with a five-year contract worth $1 million annually.

[+] EnlargeKyle Flood
Frank Victores/USA TODAY SportsAt incoming Big Ten program Rutgers, head coach Kyle Flood barely makes more than at least one Big Ten coordinator.
The Big Ten has yet to take the plunge and cross the $1 million mark for an assistant coach. But there's little doubt that the pay for top coordinators is on the rise, and so is the league's investment in them.

"I think it’s imminent," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "I don’t know when, but I think it’s imminent. Whether that's two years from now or four years from now, it’s highly possible you'll see that in our league."

Some are not that far away now. Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is the Big Ten's highest-paid assistant at $851,000 per year. The Wolverines recently hired Doug Nussmeier away from Alabama as their offensive coordinator, and while his salary hasn't been disclosed yet, athletic director Dave Brandon has said it won't exceed Mattison's. Nussmeier was making $681,500 at Alabama.

Those numbers are compiled through open records requests and public information. But Brandon told ESPN.com that because contracts often include things like performance and longevity bonuses and deferred payments, "under certain scenarios, we've got coordinators now who could make over $1 million [in 2014]."

The $1 million mark is an arbitrary one in many ways. Brandon does not see an issue with surpassing it.

"Coordinator positions are very important, and when you look at what they are being paid in the pro ranks and in other conferences, the market has taken those positions up," he said. "If you're going to make a big investment in your head coach, you’ve got to back that investment up with the people around him to really bring it all together."

The arms race in college sports used to center on facilities. But now that just about every campus has upgraded every building imaginable and the construction crews are running out of projects, pay for assistant coaches seems to be the new frontier.

Consider that in 2010, the highest-paid Big Ten assistant coach was Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, at just more than $475,000. The increased commitment can really be seen at Ohio State, where in 2008, the Buckeyes did not pay a single Jim Tressel assistant more than $275,000. Now, Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell makes $610,000 and offensive coordinator Tom Herman earns $555,000. The Buckeyes just hired Chris Ash away from Arkansas as their co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach at a salary of $520,000, and they're paying new defensive line coach Larry Johnson $400,000.

"It’s crazy," Smith said. "Stakes are higher. The revenue’s gotten bigger. So you see those assistant coaches who are extremely talented being compensated consistent with their skills. It’s blown up. And I’m not so sure it’s going to slow down.

"It’s just market-driven. It's really not unlike any other industry. Any industry or large corporation is going to pay whatever the market is for their top CFO or top COO or whatever the top positions are that they're trying to fill on their executive team. A head football coach is a CEO. And his executive team is his assistants."

That's fine for rich programs such as Ohio State and Michigan. Or Nebraska, which paid offensive coordinator Tim Beck $700,000 last year. But can every Big Ten school afford to reward its assistants like captains of industry? Consider that Clemson's Morris made more in base pay in 2013 than two Big Ten head coaches (Minnesota's Jerry Kill and Indiana's Kevin Wilson). Incoming Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood makes only $9,000 more per year than Mattison.

"It’s challenging, especially for a program like Indiana, where we have a smaller stadium, we don’t fill it," Indiana athletic director Fred Glass told ESPN.com. "So it’s tough to compete."

"I guess one of the questions is, where does it level off?," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner told ESPN.com. "It depends on the revenue structure. If the revenue goes up and the investment causes a return that’s worthwhile, maybe things do continue to escalate, and particularly at schools that are able to financially support their programs so that it’s not a burden on the general funds."

Then again, few investments can have a more direct impact on the actual football product than paying top dollar for a truly elite coordinator. Michigan State surely doesn't regret the $558,000 it paid to defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi last year; one could argue he would be underpaid even at $1 million.

It won't be long until a Big Ten assistant gets there.

"We’re going to see it," Smith said. "Especially at places like Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State -- the big stadiums, so to speak. It’s going to end up being here at some point. "

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 30, 2013
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The head of state has called for me by name. But I don't have time for him. It's going to be a glorious day. I feel my luck could change.

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September, 18, 2013
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I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords.

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September, 11, 2013
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Never forget.

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August, 28, 2013
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Happy football eve!

Big Ten's best assistants in 2012

December, 12, 2012
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Head coaches are like quarterbacks. They get too much credit and too much blame.

Assistant coaches are like nose tackles. They don't get nearly enough credit despite playing vital roles.

Today, we'll change it up and give some recognition to Big Ten assistant coaches who did exemplary jobs with their position groups or, in some cases, units in 2012. Each of these coaches fostered improvement this season. Some took units in bad shape and made them better. Others took units in decent shape and made them very good. Some entered the season with skeptics and quieted them.

We came up with 13 assistants who deserve recognition. Yes, we realize we're leaving out some quality folks, but we had to cap it somewhere and wanted to spread the love around to the different teams.

Here's the rundown in alphabetical order:

Chris Ash, Wisconsin, defensive coordinator/secondary: All the attention on the offense's turbulent season took the spotlight away from the good things happening on the defensive side. Wisconsin finished in the top 25 nationally in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense. The Badgers held nine opponents to 21 points or fewer and gave an inconsistent offense chances to win every time out. Ash will be missed as he joins ex-Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema at Arkansas.

[+] EnlargeTim Beck, Bo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati Harnik, FileTim Beck, right, coordinated Nebraska's Big Ten-leading offense for head coach Bo Pelini.
Tim Beck, Nebraska, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks: The second-year play caller oversaw the Big Ten's top offense, which averaged 462.2 yards per game (24th nationally) and 35.1 points per game (28th nationally). Junior quarterback Taylor Martinez made significant strides under Beck's watch, and Nebraska survived the loss of star running back Rex Burkhead for most of the season thanks to contributions from Ameer Abdullah and others.

Tracy Claeys, Minnesota, defensive coordinator: An improved defense sparked Minnesota to a 4-0 start and eventually to bowl eligibility for the first time since the 2009 season. The Gophers pass rush showed life for the first time in years as senior end D.L. Wilhite and others put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Minnesota was especially good against the pass, ranking 11th nationally and 20th in pass defense efficiency. Although the offense remains a work in progress, Minnesota should be pleased with the direction on defense under Claeys.

Adam Cushing, Northwestern, offensive line: Cushing's recruiting ability always has stood out, but his coaching skills had been questioned as Northwestern struggled to convert promising line prospects into powerful blockers. The Wildcats went from a finesse offense to a power offense this season, blasting off of the line to the tune of 230.9 rush yards per game. Red zone offense went from a weakness to a strength as Northwestern tied for 17th nationally. Cushing's line paved the way for star running back Venric Mark.

Rich Fisher, Nebraska, wide receivers: Nebraska isn't known for its wide receiver play, but things are changing under Fisher's watch. Led by standout sophomore Kenny Bell, the Huskers' top three receivers combined for 1,657 yards and 11 touchdowns on 115 receptions. Just as important, the receiving corps helped Nebraska's bread-and-butter run game with effective blocking throughout the season. Fisher's hiring after the 2010 season raised some eyebrows, as he had taken a break from college coaching, returned to the high school ranks and also served as a golf instructor in Massachusetts. But he definitely looks like a great addition to Bo Pelini's staff.

Patrick Higgins, Purdue, wide receivers: Higgins played a significant role in Purdue's late-season surge, as he took over the offensive play-calling duties after coordinator Gary Nord suffered a severe back injury. Purdue won its final three games with Higgins and head coach Danny Hope handling the play calls. Higgins also did a nice job with Purdue's wide receiving corps, despite the fluctuating quarterback situation. Three veteran Boilers receivers eclipsed 40 catches and 300 receiving yards, and redshirt freshman Dolapo Macarthy showed promise.

Seth Littrell, Indiana, offensive coordinator/tight ends/fullbacks: Head coach Kevin Wilson brought in Littrell to boost Indiana's passing attack, and Littrell delivered despite losing starting quarterback Tre Roberson in Week 2. Indiana went from 80th nationally in pass offense to 19th, leading the Big Ten with 311.2 yards per game. With help from assistant offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kevin Johns, Littrell managed the quarterback situation pretty well as both Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld had success. Littrell will go largely unnoticed because of Indiana's low profile and 4-8 record, but he was one of the Big Ten's best coaching additions for 2012.

Curt Mallory, Michigan, secondary: Michigan's defensive line dominates the spotlight because that's where coordinator Greg Mattison and head coach Brady Hoke put their primary focus, but Mallory has done a really nice job with a secondary that struggled mightily under the previous regime. Despite losing promising cornerback Blake Countess to a torn ACL in the season opener, Michigan still finished second nationally (behind Nebraska) in pass defense (155.2 ypg allowed). Safety Jordan Kovacs has blossomed under Mallory's watch, and while the depth in the secondary isn't where it will be eventually, Mallory has managed things well.

[+] EnlargeBart MIller
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsBart Miller went from grad assistant to coach of a Wisconsin O-line that pummeled its way to Pasadena.
Bart Miller, Wisconsin, offensive line: Miller began the season as a graduate assistant and moved into one of the team's top assistant roles in Week 3 after the surprising dismissal of veteran line coach Mike Markuson. Although Wisconsin's line didn't have its typical dominant performances every time out, Miller fostered obvious improvement and cohesion during the course of the season. The finished product showed up in the Big Ten championship game against Nebraska, as Wisconsin bullied the Huskers to the tune of 70 points, 539 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns.

Reese Morgan, Iowa, defensive line: Iowa didn't have much to cheer about in 2012, and some of the staff changes Kirk Ferentz made led to some growing pains. Morgan faced a significant challenge in moving from offensive line to defensive line, which returned only a handful of players who had logged field time in 2011. Given the youth and inexperience along the Hawkeyes' defensive front, Morgan did a nice job in Year 1. Joe Gaglione had a nice senior season (9 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles) and young players like Louis Trinca-Pasat showed promise. The line held its own in the first half of the season before struggling late.

Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State, defensive coordinator: Many of these assistants took questionable units and improved them. Narduzzi led an elite defense that entered the season with high expectations and met them. Make no mistake: Michigan State's defense is the only reason the team found itself in every game this season. The Spartans had a few standouts, namely linebacker Max Bullough, but their overall team defense and stinginess stood out. Narduzzi is one of the nation's premier coordinators and should land a head-coaching job in the near future.

John Strollo, Penn State, tight ends: Although O'Brien's offense is a tight end's dream, Strollo did a terrific job of developing young and unproven players this season. Redshirt freshman Kyle Carter emerged into one of the Nittany Lions' top passing threats, and junior Matt Lehman and true freshman Jesse James also stepped up at times. Of Penn State's top five receiving-yards leaders this season, three players are tight ends (Carter, Lehman and James).

Ed Warinner, Ohio State, offensive line/co-offensive coordinator: Warinner took an underachieving Buckeyes offensive line with serious depth questions and turned it into quite possibly the best line in the league. The Buckeyes' front five turned a corner in Big Ten play and created lanes for Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde and the Big Ten's top scoring offense. Warinner was the Big Ten's best assistant hire of the last offseason and earns our vote as the league's top assistant in 2012.
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

1. The Ineligibles overachieved under great coaches: We won't see Ohio State or Penn State until next fall, but both teams went out on positive notes to end seasons in which they overachieved. Aside from die-hard Buckeyes believers, who expected Ohio State to go 12-0 and record just the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history? Even fewer people expected Penn State to go 8-4 after a tumultuous offseason that featured the exodus of running back Silas Redd and other key players. And when the Lions started 0-2, most folks wrote them off. But Bill O'Brien and his team never lost faith and surged through most of the Big Ten season. It was fitting that kicker Sam Ficken, whose struggles at Virginia led to Penn State's loss, had the game-winning field goal Saturday as the Lions beat Wisconsin in overtime. O'Brien exceeded all expectations in his first season as a head coach, recording the most wins ever by a first-year Lions boss. Will he be Big Ten Coach of the Year? The only other worthy candidate is Urban Meyer, who took a seven-loss Buckeyes team with significant depth issues and transformed it into one of the nation's best.

[+] EnlargeBill O'Brien
Evan Habeeb/US PresswireBill O'Brien faced tough questions from prospective recruits, but the Penn State coach and his staff kept a top-25 recruiting class together.
2. Michigan isn't really back: Sure, the Wolverines have dug themselves out from the Rich Rodriguez-created crater, and they had a charmed season end in a Sugar Bowl title last season. But in terms of beating really good teams, the ones that signify Michigan once again has a place among the nation's elite, Brady Hoke's crew is still looking for a breakthrough. Michigan won a respectable eight games, but its four losses in the regular season -- Alabama, Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State -- came against the best four teams it played. The Wolverines were extremely fortunate to beat a good Northwestern team and a mediocre Michigan State squad on their home field. While it was nice to end the losing streak against Ohio State last season, Michigan beat the worst Buckeyes team we've seen in more than a decade. The offense still seems hamstrung in some ways by the Denard Robinson era, though the emergence of Devin Gardner is promising for the future. There are signs Michigan is close, and the renaissance on defense under Hoke and Greg Mattison can't be denied. But it'll take a bit longer for Michigan to truly claim it is back, although a Jan. 1 bowl victory against an SEC foe would help.

3. Rex Burkhead still can make an impact: This hasn't been the season the Nebraska senior running back envisioned, but he can still play a major role in how it turns out for Big Red. Burkhead returned to the field in the second half Friday against Iowa after Nebraska's offense stumbled and fell behind 7-3. In his first appearance since Oct. 20, Burkhead racked up 69 yards and Nebraska's only touchdown on 16 carries. He might not be 100 percent, but he showed the skills that make him beloved in the Cornhusker State, particularly on a grinding 9-yard run to pick up a first down after Nebraska was pinned inside its own 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Nebraska had hoped to get through the Iowa game without Burkhead, but when the team needed him, he delivered. He likely will play a bigger role this week against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Burkhead had 86 rush yards against the Badgers in the Big Ten opener, the only full game he has played this season. He could be the boost Nebraska needs to win its first league title since 1999 and possibly win the Rose Bowl, too.

4. Danny Hope's players didn't quit on him: Many Purdue fans have seen enough of fourth-year coach Danny Hope, but Hope has plenty of allies in his locker room. The Boilers easily could have quit after dropping their first five Big Ten games -- four blowouts (three at home) plus the heartbreaker at Ohio State. Some teams projected to do much more would have gone in the tank. But Purdue rallied behind Hope and gutsy quarterback Robert Marve, who played despite a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and won its final three games to secure a bowl berth. The product rarely looked pretty, and even Saturday's Bucket game against Indiana featured some bang-your-head-against-the-wall moments. But Purdue's players never stopped fighting and will head somewhere warm for the holidays. Whether Hope joins them remains to be seen, but he deserves some credit for keeping the team afloat during such a difficult stretch.

5. Bowl practices will be crucial for Big Ten teams: We don't know the bowl matchups yet, but they will be daunting for the Big Ten, which will be without two of its best teams (Ohio State and Penn State) in the postseason. For the league to avoid another bad bowl performance, several teams must take significant steps during bowl practices. Michigan State has the defense and the running back (Le'Veon Bell) to win its bowl game, but it needs quarterback Andrew Maxwell and a young receiving corps to develop. Coach Mark Dantonio hinted this week that his offense needed an update to keep up with the times. Maybe that can start next month in earnest. Minnesota has to get healthy and re-establish its offensive identity behind true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson, who will benefit from the 15 practices. Wisconsin also will have a chance to iron out its offensive issues, while a young Northwestern team that made major strides this fall must make another before facing what should be a heavily favored SEC foe in Florida. Michigan also gets some extra time to figure out its vision on offense with Gardner and Robinson.

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Adam Rittenberg breaks down Saturday night's Big Ten matchup when surging Ohio State heads east to Happy Valley to face a dangerous Penn State team in an electric atmosphere.
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Saturday, 10/25