Penn State Nittany Lions: John Butler

Non-Minnesota fans might have missed Friday's official announcement that Mike Sherels has been promoted to Gophers linebackers coach after serving on the team's recruiting staff. Sherels is the first new assistant Jerry Kill has hired in his Minnesota tenure, but the move likely signified -- likely being the operative word -- something bigger for the Big Ten.

The end of the coaching carousel for 2014.

This post always includes a reminder that additional coaching changes still can happen, even though most of the Big Ten has started spring practice. It's the nature of the business.

Despite two new teams in the Big Ten, the number of overall changes in the league dropped for the second consecutive year, going from 32 in 2013 to 27 this year. There was only one complete staff overhaul, at Penn State, and four programs -- Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State and Northwestern -- kept all of their coaches from last season. After replacing more than half of his staff in the last offseason, Illinois' Tim Beckman hopes continuity pays off in what likely will be a make-or-break 2014 campaign. Iowa is back to its stable self after two years of coaching flux, while Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hasn't made a staff change since after the 2010 season. Michigan State made a major commitment to Mark Dantonio and his assistants after the Spartans' Rose Bowl win, but it's still impressive that Dantonio retained the entire staff after such a great season.

Both Rutgers and Maryland have some new faces on staff before their inaugural season of Big Ten play. Rutgers has two new coordinators (one outside hire, one promotion), while Maryland has new assistants overseeing both lines.

[+] EnlargeLarry Johnson
Michael R. Sisak/Icon SMILongtime Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson moved to Ohio State this offseason after James Franklin was hired as the Nittany Lions' head coach.
Other than Penn State, Indiana and Rutgers are the only teams featuring two new coordinators in 2014. Although IU assistant Kevin Johns previously held the co-offensive coordinator title, he'll be the main man, as he takes over for Seth Littrell.

For the most part, the coaches leaving Big Ten programs did so voluntarily and for potentially better positions. Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien took the same role with the Houston Texans, while two assistants -- Ohio State's Everett Withers and Maryland's Greg Gattuso -- left to become FCS head coaches at James Madison and Albany, respectively. The Big Ten lost several assistants to the NFL, as O'Brien brought four assistants with him from Penn State (John Butler, Stan Hixon, Charles London and Anthony Midget) and swiped another from Ohio State's staff (Mike Vrabel). Wisconsin also lost running backs coach Thomas Hammock to the Baltimore Ravens.

Arguably the most interesting move took place within the league, as longtime Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson replaced Vrabel at Ohio State.

OK, let's get to it already.

Here's the rundown of coaching changes (head coach and full-time assistants only; number of new coaches in parentheses):

INDIANA (3)

Who's gone?

Doug Mallory, defensive coordinator/safeties
Seth Littrell, offensive coordinator/QBs
Jon Fabris, defensive line

Who's in?

Brian Knorr, defensive coordinator/defensive ends/outside linebackers
Larry McDaniel, defensive line
Noah Joseph, safeties


Other moves

Promoted Kevin Johns to main offensive coordinator. Johns also now coaches quarterbacks in addition to wide receivers.
Moved James Patton from assistant defensive line/special teams to tight ends and fullbacks

MARYLAND (3)

Who's gone?

Tom Brattan, offensive line
Lee Hull, wide receivers
Greg Gattuso, defensive line

Who's in?

Greg Studwara, offensive line
Keenan McCardell, wide receivers
Chad Wilt, defensive line

MICHIGAN (1)

Who's gone?

Al Borges, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks

Who's in?

Doug Nussmeier, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks

Other moves

Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is overseeing linebackers instead of defensive linemen
Mark Smith moves from linebackers to defensive line
Roy Manning moves from outside linebackers to cornerbacks
Curt Mallory will coach only safeties rather than the entire secondary

MINNESOTA (1)

Who's gone?

Bill Miller, linebackers/assistant head coach

Who's in?

Mike Sherels, linebackers (promoted from recruiting staff)

Other moves

Pat Poore moves from wide receivers to running backs
Brian Anderson moves from running backs to wide receivers


NEBRASKA (1)

Who's gone?

Terry Joseph, secondary

Who's in?

Charlton Warren, secondary

OHIO STATE (2)

Who's gone?

Everett Withers, co-defensive coordinator/safeties
Mike Vrabel, defensive line

Who's in?

Chris Ash, co-defensive coordinator/safeties
Larry Johnson, defensive line/assistant head coach

PENN STATE (10)

Who's gone?

Bill O'Brien, head coach/offensive playcaller
John Butler, defensive coordinator/cornerbacks
Charlie Fisher, quarterbacks
Stan Hixon, wide receivers/assistant head coach
Larry Johnson, defensive line
Charles London, running backs
Mac McWhorter, offensive line
Ron Vanderlinden, linebackers
John Strollo, tight ends
Anthony Midget, safeties

Who's in?

James Franklin, head coach
John Donovan, offensive coordinator/tight ends
Bob Shoop, defensive coordinator/safeties
Charles Huff, running backs/special teams
Brett Pry, co-defensive coordinator/linebackers
Josh Gattis, wide receivers/assistant special teams
Herb Hand, offensive line
Ricky Rahne, quarterbacks
Sean Spencer, defensive line
Terry Smith, cornerbacks

PURDUE (1)

Who's gone?

Jon Heacock, defensive backs

Who's in?

Taver Johnson, defensive backs

RUTGERS (4)

Who's gone?

Dave Cohen, defensive coordinator/linebackers
Ron Prince, offensive coordinator
Rob Spence, quarterbacks
Damian Wroblewski, offensive line

Who's in?

Ralph Friedgen, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
Bob Fraser, linebackers/special teams
Mitch Browning, offensive line
Ben McDaniels, wide receivers

Other moves

Promoted special teams coordinator Joe Rossi to defensive coordinator
Anthony Campanile is coaching only tight ends after overseeing both tight ends and wide receivers

WISCONSIN (1)

Who's gone?

Thomas Hammock, running backs/assistant head coach

Who's in?

Thomas Brown, running backs
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr. has been named the Nittany Lions’ interim head coach until a replacement is found, a source with knowledge of the situation told ESPN.com.

The move is hoped to add at least some stability after news broke late Tuesday night about Bill O'Brien's decision to take the Houston Texans' head coaching job. Johnson Sr. is the last remaining assistant from Joe Paterno's tenure and is not expected to follow O'Brien.

The other assistants, however, were handpicked by O'Brien and it's not yet known who might be joining the Texans staff. PennLive.com already reported that wideouts coach Stan Hixon plans to join O'Brien, but the futures of the other assistants are still undetermined.

Other assistants that could potentially follow O'Brien include running backs coach Charles London, who spent time as a scout, offensive assistant and quality control coach with three NFL teams, and defensive coordinator John Butler.

Johnson Sr. will primarily be charged with keeping the recruiting class together, the source said, until a new head coach is found. Johnson Sr. could not be reached for comment.

The longtime assistant coach was hired by Paterno in 1996 and quickly earned a reputation as a hard-nosed recruiter. He developed seven first-team All-Americans and 14 first-team All-Big Ten selections.

He played a critical role in the commitment of several Penn State recruits in the current class, including ESPN 300 DT Thomas Holley (Brooklyn, N.Y./Lincoln).

What we learned: Week 13

November, 24, 2013
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Lessons learned from Penn State's 23-20 overtime loss to Nebraska in Week 13:

1. Running-back-by-committee is nice -- but not required. Bill Belton missed the game with an undisclosed illness and stood on the sideline in street clothes, so it was the "Zach Zwinak Show" on Saturday -- and he came through just fine. Zwinak carried the ball 35 times for 149 yards. But it wasn't the first time a Penn State tailback has been asked to carry the full load. Belton had 36 carries against Illinois while Zwinak was in the midst of his fumbling phase (at least we think it was a phase). So it's clear these tailbacks are conditioned enough to handle a heavy load. Obviously, neither guy can do this every game over a full season. But if one guy is injured for a week or two? Definitely not time to hit the panic button. Having two guys who can run like that definitely has to make the staff feel better about its depth at the position.

2. Special teams needs more than just coaching to improve. Bill O'Brien said last Saturday, following the win against Purdue, that maybe he needed to find hungrier players to put on the kick-coverage team. On Tuesday, he changed his mind and said he just needed to coach better. Well, Bo Pelini said the players were coached just fine, but PSU's special-teams units still had their worst combined performance of the season. Kenny Bell ran back a kick 99 yards for a TD, a punt return was fumbled, a punt was blocked, and an extra point was missed. It was a day to forget for the special teams and, clearly, something has to give there. Maybe O'Brien and Co. need to coach better, but maybe they also need to find more athletic run-ons for special teams, too.

3. Tight ends could be the answer next season. Senior Brandon Felder and redshirt freshman Eugene Lewis had games to forget for Penn State as wideouts. But, outside of Allen Robinson, the tight ends really showed up to play. Six-foot-7 TE Jesse James flashed some speed on a swing pass that turned into a 46-yard touchdown. TE Adam Breneman caught a nice touchdown pass. And Kyle Carter looked good at times, as well. If Robinson doesn't return next season -- and that's looking more and more like an inevitability -- then these tight ends might just be the future. Saturday's game could've been a glimpse of that.

4. There could be some hope for this defense after all. It's not time to break open the champagne or anything, but true freshman linebacker Brandon Bell played well. And the secondary didn't look completely lost against a receiving corps that Jordan Lucas called the best it would face all season. The defense surrendered just one touchdown -- special teams allowed the other -- and, if it can string together more bend-don't-break games like that, then fewer fans are sure to call for the head of defensive coordinator John Butler. It was a positive step. The defensive line got great pressure on Nebraska, and that seemed to be key.

Penn State CB Lucas finding 'swagger'

November, 11, 2013
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Jordan Lucas' father and friends huddled around the basement television and leaned forward as if they were drawn to a warming campfire.

One man pointed at the No. 9 on TV, cackling while the Penn State sophomore walked to the sideline. "Oh God," a Corona-sipping man said to Lucas' father, Vincent, pointing and laughing away like old friends are wont to do. "There goes that Lucas swagger! Look -- he's walking with that bounce you walk with!"

[+] EnlargeJordan Lucas
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsSophomore Jordan Lucas has emerged as a leader in the Penn State secondary.
Vincent Lucas, 60, smiled and offered a hearty laugh. He knew that walk, that swagger, the way Jordan bobbed his head and seemed to glide while the defensive linemen plodded. He hadn't seen that walk all last season, but it was so obvious this time -- during PSU's 24-17 overtime victory against Illinois -- that even his friends picked up on it.

"Yeah," Vincent told him. "There he goes. He's in a zone right now; I can tell by the way he walks."

That walk was different last season, back when the cornerback mainly played special teams. Fans knew him only as the kid from prep school, if they knew him at all. But everyone knows Jordan Lucas and that swagger now.

He's a vocal leader on the secondary, the kid who'd toss on a winter jacket in high school and run on the sidewalks in December, even when flurries hit the streets of New Rochelle, N.Y. He's the defensive back who leads the team in interceptions (two), forced fumbles (two) and boasts 4.5 tackles for loss. He's one of the lone bright spots on an otherwise struggling defense, one of the first players to sprint out of the Beaver Stadium tunnel every home game.

"Jordan Lucas is one of the better football players on our team," Bill O'Brien said. "He brings a competitive toughness to our football team that I really like."

O'Brien leaned against the railing last year and overlooked the weight room on some days, as Lucas and former cornerback Stephon Morris took turns lifting barbells while most of their teammates slept. Morris awoke stiff on some mornings, tempted to pull the sheets over his head or hit "snooze," but he'd always receive a text or call from Jordan: "What're we doing today, Steph?"

"He just wouldn't stay away," Morris said with a laugh. "And I couldn't say no to him; I had to set an example. And he never missed a workout -- never. That's rare."

Jordan added to his work ethic, one he borrowed from a father who grew up on a North Carolina farm and fed the family pigs two hours before the school bell sounded. He evolved into one of the Nittany Lions' gym rats, a player who has still never missed a single optional workout. But teammate Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, who grew up 5 minutes from Lucas in the Bronx, knew something was amiss last year. So did Morris.

"I'm not going to lie," Morris said. "He didn't have any confidence."

Jordan saw time at cornerback on the final game of the year last season. Morris remembers his big eyes while Jordan can still recall standing on the sideline, growing more overwhelmed with every shoulder pat and motivating word his teammates would utter: "Get ready!" "You ready for this?" "C'mon, it's your turn!"

On a recent fall afternoon, when red and yellow leaves littered the pavement in front of the football building, Jordan at first insisted he didn't feel lost last season. After all, he was the talkative guy now. He was the player that true freshman Jordan Smith looked up to like a big brother; he was a big reason Penn State's defense wasn't in total disarray.

But, a few minutes later, he relented. With a varsity jacket zipped up near his chin, he admitted -- despite how far along he is today -- that he was overwhelmed at times last year. He had lost that swagger, misplaced somewhere between the transition of college and watching his work ethic exceed his production.

"I've always been the same dude but, freshman year, it just didn't feel like I was playing high school football again. It actually felt like college football," Lucas said. "Now? The college game has slowed down a bit. It feels closer to the high school game again. I didn't feel like that same Jordan last year; I do now."

Added Vincent: "He was a little bit intimidated about the whole thing [last year], more than he let on."

[+] EnlargeJordan Lucas
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAYJordan Lucas has two interceptions and 4.5 tackles for loss in 2013.
But there was a bridge between the Lucas of today and the Lucas of last year, and it was built on a heartfelt talk with his father on a nippy January morning. At Jordan's request, Vincent had awoken while the moon still hung in the sky and drove four hours to The Waffle Shop, a Penn State staple with salmon-trimmed tables and fliers taped in columns over the windows.

Between bites of pancakes, bacon and homefries, Jordan told his father he just didn't feel the same. He did what he always did -- running in the snow, training on the field over the offseason, reclining in his usual film-room seat -- but he was no longer the strongest or fastest or most athletic. Vincent leaned in and whispered that his only enemies were time and experience, not skill or talent. With Morris' departure, now was the time to step up. Now was the time to to put that mindset behind him, work even harder and let his talent catch up with his work ethic.

"You may not be the best, but you can always be the hardest worker," Jordan told ESPN.com. "That's what Coach [John] Butler -- and my dad -- always tell me."

By June, Jordan had become the unquestioned starter at cornerback. By October, that swagger had strolled on back to Jordan's step; he had become one of the defense's top players. He has recorded interceptions in two of the last four games, and Morris still calls him every week to remind him he's the team's top defensive back right now -- and to keep acting like it.

Just like Vincent and his friends, Morris notices that swagger to his step now. And now that the walk, that confidence, has returned, Jordan is looking forward. When asked about what's next, Jordan looked directly ahead and spoke with the conviction of a man who already has seen his future.

"I'm not going to stop. I look at it like this, there's no ceiling for me," he said. "I want to keep going and, hey, maybe one day there will be a ceiling. But, even then, I'm never going to tell myself that. Each day I'm going to get better. Each day I'm going to give my best."

What we learned: Week 10

November, 3, 2013
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Lessons learned from Penn State's 24-17 overtime win against Illinois in Week 10:

1. You can never count this team out. Surviving unprecedented sanctions? Check. Trailing by a touchdown against Michigan in the final minute and coming back? Check. Trailing by a field goal against Illinois in the final two minutes and coming back? Check. Winning overtime games? Check and check. Penn State might not be the best team, but it sure has to be one of the most resilient. The Nittany Lions are making plays when they need to so, although the wins aren't the best looking, they're still wins. Most people predicted PSU to finish 7-5 or 8-4 and, right now, that's not out of reach. Its record should meet expectations this season.

2. This secondary is incredibly soft. Put Adrian Amos at cornerback, bench Trevor Williams, change the personnel packaging so that those two are on the field with Jordan Lucas. It doesn't matter. Penn State's secondary is playing poorly. Defensive coordinator John Butler is taking heat but, with slow safeties, it's difficult to press because big plays could become even more commonplace. Butler is handicapped by the lack of talent in the secondary. If there's one thing Illinois coach Tim Beckman did right, it was passing on nearly seven out of 10 plays. If you thought a few adjustments would improve this defense Saturday, you were wrong. Adjustments or not, it's going to be a long November for the the Nittany Lions defensive backs.

3. Zach Zwinak is slowly changing his ball-carrying habits. The 240-pound tailback with the fumbling problems wore gloves Saturday, the first time in his college career he has opted to do that. But Zwinak was also clearly mindful, during every carry, not to turn the ball over. He tightly gripped the ball with two hands and made sure to protect it. Illinois, almost comically, kept trying to strip the ball on Zwinak's first carry -- but he held on to it. It's too early to say he's out of the woods, but he's taking the right steps. Bill Belton is the top guy, but he can't carry the pigskin 36 times every game. Zwinak should see more time as the season progresses, as long as those fumbling issues evaporate.

4. Christian Hackenberg is the comeback kid. Three games, two comeback drives, two overtime wins. He played it relatively conservatively Saturday, but he bounced back from his worst game of the season in a big way. He drove his Nittany Lions downfield -- twice -- to tie up the game in the final five minutes of regulation. If there was any doubt Hackenberg lacked poise, file that away. He'll be just fine.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 10

October, 31, 2013
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Storylines to watch this week in the Big Ten:

1. The long October is over. Has it really been five weeks since Ohio State and Wisconsin played? In some ways, it feels like 10. The Big Ten's October schedule was downright scary -- and not in a Happy Halloween kind of way. Well, the league slate turns interesting again this week as No. 21 Michigan visits No. 22 Michigan State and No. 24 Wisconsin visits resurgent Iowa. Even Minnesota's visit to Indiana holds some intrigue. So long to mismatches like Ohio State-Purdue. That's this week, too? OK, they can't all look good.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsJeremy Langford and Michigan State can all but run away with the Legends division with a win over Michigan on Saturday.
2. Michigan State might run away with the Legends division. We'll find out this week. If the Spartans beat Michigan and Northwestern snaps its four-game skid at Nebraska, MSU can book its tickets to Indy. With five straight wins, Michigan State is clearly playing the best football in the Legends. Other than the Spartans, only Minnesota has won consecutive games to enter November. And really, looking at Nebraska's schedule and the way it played last week, it's hard to consider the Huskers a contender at this stage.

3. Let's go bowling. Friday is Nov. 1, so it's OK to discuss bowl lineups. Taking a peak at the Big Ten, Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Minnesota are bowl eligible. Wisconsin or Iowa will join the mix Saturday, as can Nebraska with a victory over Northwestern. As for the Wildcats, after going 0 for October, it will be getting late in their bid to get back to the postseason without a victory in Lincoln. Indiana has some serious work to do, and Illinois ... the Illini just need to win for the first time in 18 Big Ten games.

4. That's offensive. Five Big Ten teams rank among the top 16 nationally in scoring. Thirty-six times this year, a Big Ten team has scored 40 or more points -- already up from 27 times all of last season. This week, two of the league's best offensive units face stern tests. Notably, Michigan, which averages 42.4 points, faces a Michigan State defense that allows only 12.3 points, third nationally. Wisconsin, averaging 39.9, visits Iowa and its 12th-ranked scoring defense, giving up 18.1. What will give? Answer that, and you've got your story of the weekend.

5. Braxton Miller needs to do something for an encore. The Ohio State quarterback is playing the best football of his career after a super-efficient effort last week in the Buckeyes' stomping of Penn State. Miller accounted for 320 yards and five touchdowns on only 35 total-offense attempts in less than three quarters. Up next, Purdue. You've got to wonder when the Boiler D caves, getting no help from the dismal Purdue offense. Maybe it's this week against an Ohio State juggernaut that's scoring 47.3 points per game.

6. Nebraska is searching for defensive answers. The Huskers expected growing pains with this defense, but they did not expect to be remain so unsettled in the 10th week of the season. Particularly at linebacker, Nebraska has developed little consistency. This week, apparently, freshmen Josh Banderas and Michael Rose return as starters. Coach Bo Pelini stripped the top-unit players of their Blackshirt practice jerseys. Juggling personnel won't work, though, if the Huskers can't develop a more physical presence.

7. Minnesota coach Jerry Kill is moving toward a return. Kill, since taking a medical leave of absence following his fifth game-day seizure on Oct. 5, has resumed more coaching responsibilities over the past two weeks. He watched from the press box as the Gophers beat Northwestern, and coached a bit from the booth in Minnesota's upset win over Nebraska. On the road against Indiana on Saturday, Kill plans to do more of the coaching, though he continues to leave control of the sideline to Tracy Claeys, acting head coach and defensive coordinator.

8. Big test for Iowa. It's time to find out if the Hawkeyes are just a nice story, with their competitive play against Michigan State and Ohio State, followed by an overtime win over Northwestern, or if coach Kirk Ferentz's club is going to make some real noise this fall. Wisconsin presents a stiff challenge, but Iowa's solid rush defense and physical offensive play might make this a good matchup for the Hawkeyes. The schedule sets up well this month for Iowa to turn into perhaps the Big Ten's biggest surprise.

9. Penn State needs to find a fast defensive fix. The past two losses have turned ugly for the Nittany Lions, who surrendered more points to Ohio State last week than in any game since the 19th century. In its other October games, PSU allowed 84 points, splitting with Michigan and Indiana. All of it has led to scrutiny of defensive coordinator John Butler, defended adamantly this week by coach Bill O'Brien. The Nittany Lions get some relief Saturday against Illinois. Butler shifted a few bodies in the secondary, but he can only work with the talent on hand, and it's not great after key losses to graduation and low numbers because of probation.

10. Michigan is trying to shake its road woes. Even with that forgettable escape at Connecticut in September, Michigan remains just 6-8 away from the Big House under coach Brady Hoke. He's 19-0 at home, but that won't do any good on Saturday in East Lansing, where Michigan State sacked Michigan quarterbacks seven times in a 28-14 win two years ago. The Wolverines said this week they embrace the hostile environments at their rivals' stadiums. Numbers tell a different story.

Planning for success: Penn State

October, 31, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- There's been a lot of talk about forgetting Saturday's 63-14 loss to Ohio State. About maybe pretending like the worst defeat in 114 years never happened, that the embarrassment should be shrugged off and discarded like an empty Gatorade bottle.

"You've got to get back to work and forget about the past," offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach offered.

But Dieffenbach altered that statement when pressed. Can you really forget about something like that? Isn't there a difference between forgetting and moving on?

"You can't forget," Dieffenbach admitted, nodding.

[+] EnlargeBill O'Brien
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsBill O'Brien tried to provide his players with some perspective after the loss to Ohio State.
"It's always going to be in the back of your mind. But we know what type of guys we have on the team, and we know what type of coaches we have. And we're not going to let that affect our outcome on the rest of the season."

Those words were remarkably similar to those by players on the 1994 Ohio State team, which lost to Penn State by that same score -- 63-14 -- on the road. Nineteen years later, and those Buckeyes still remember. Former defensive end Matt Finkes won't even wear black socks anymore because he still recalls wearing the color during the October game that's "etched in my memory."

There's no remedy to forgetting a 63-14 game. There's no way to erase it from the record books or pretend like it was never played. But there is a way to move past it -- while still remembering, of course.

"You get another win under your belt," former Ohio State DT Matt Bonhaus said, "and that feeling, that loss, goes away."

Added PSU safety Jesse Della Valle: "That's our goal, obviously, just to rebound and get back on track."

Penn State will get its chance at noon on Saturday against an Illinois team that started off hot and has cooled almost as fast the Lions' defense. The Illini boast a middle-of-the-road offense now, ranking No. 73 in total offense (400.7 ypg) and No. 58 in scoring offense (30.7 ppg).

But those numbers and rankings mean little this week -- and they'll mean even less if John Butler's defense repeats its performance from Saturday. Few questions this week revolved around the ability of Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase or the style of Illinois' offense. Many, many more revolved around the mindset of Penn State.

Dwell on the last game, and lose the next game. Play like the last game, and lose the next game. Bill O'Brien crossed arms in a gray sweatshirt Tuesday and explained that his staff would simplify the defense this week, maybe make fewer checks at the line, and "just let them go play."

The reigning coach of the year gathered the Nits around 2:45 p.m. Monday and preached focus, about the 63-14 loss not being the worst thing that will happen in their lifetimes. He again emphasized taking it one game at a time -- which sounded a lot like advice from the Ohio State staff back in 1994, long before replays of painful losses were repeatedly streamed online and fans vented on message boards 24/7.

Said Finkes: "The coaching staff just sat us down and said we still have a lot of goals to accomplish -- and let's not lose this whole season just because of one game."

The only way for PSU to move past that game isn't forgetting. Della Valle had it right on Tuesday; it's about focus.

"We have a lot more to play for this season," he said. "So we're going to move on and focus on what we need to do."

Said '94 OSU guard LeShun Daniels: "It's a new week. You need to focus on a new team. You need to get back to what you're doing. You need to move on."

Ohio State rebounded against Wisconsin in 1994, and its defense limited the Badgers to a field goal a week after surrendering nine touchdowns. Penn State is planning for success against Illinois on Saturday, a game in which it's still favored by double digits, by simplifying and focusing.

A win over Illinois digs the Lions out of the past and reinforces that focus on the future. Another big loss?

Then there'll really be no forgetting.

O'Brien, Della Valle defend coordinator

October, 29, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien remained calm and poised for much of Tuesday afternoon, but Penn State's head coach showed some fire when asked about the recent criticism of defensive coordinator John Butler.

The first-year coordinator took some heat over popular Penn State fan boards and on social media after PSU's 63-14 loss to Ohio State. It was the defense's worst performance since 1899, and it was the third straight game the Nittany Lions surrendered 40 or more points.

[+] EnlargeJohn Butler
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsDefensive coordinator John Butler has come under fire after the 63-14 loss at Penn State.
"John Butler is our defensive coordinator, works his tail off. The kids respect him. He's doing a hell of a job," O'Brien said, his voice rising. "I don't care what the scoreboard says or what the yardage says. This guy is our defensive coordinator. He's my defensive coordinator. I'm proud to coach with him.

"If anybody should take heat, it's Bill O'Brien -- not John Butler. I don't know where that's coming from but, hopefully, that will get squelched. That's a bunch of crap that he's taking heat."

About 10 minutes after O'Brien stepped off the dais, safety Jesse Della Valle took his place. The first question centered around Butler, and Della Valle echoed his head coach's sentiment.

"Coach Butler is a guy that's always working with us as players to develop us every single week, every single day," Della Valle said. "He's extremely passionate about what he does and his profession. And I think I speak for every player on our team when I say everyone has a lot of respect for him and really respects the work he does for our team."

Butler has been forced to operate a defense this season that's without former All-Big Ten talents Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill. Butler wasn't made available to the media Saturday and isn't scheduled to speak this week, but O'Brien said they plan to simplify the defense in preparation for Illinois.

There have been quite a few changes on defense since last season. Last year's starting safety, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, is now at linebacker. And Trevor Williams, a wideout last season, has started at cornerback -- although O'Brien said that Adrian Amos will reclaim his old CB position instead of playing safety.

"We have a lot of good players on both sides of the ball, but I think we just need to let them go play," O'Brien said. "That's what I talked to the staff about on Sunday -- just let them go play."

Christian Hackenberg OK: The true freshman missed most of Saturday's second half with a shoulder injury, but O'Brien said he was a full participant in Monday's practice.

"He's good to go, as we sit here today," O'Brien said.

Hackenberg didn't need any extra braces on Monday. PSU's head coach intimated he was just fine and will start again Saturday.

Starting tailback: Bill Belton started on Saturday night, and O'Brien said the shifty runner is now the team's starting running back over Zach Zwinak.

"He's a much improved player, he really is," O'Brien said. "He's more patient in the running game. I think he understands how to watch film better. I think he's a better teammate."

The move came on the heels of Zwinak's renewed fumbling issues. Zwinak has fumbled eight times since last season, including twice in the last two games, on just 11 carries.

"If there's one guy making mistakes, obviously, the other two guys are going to play more," O'Brien added. "Right now, Zach has got a little bit of a fumble issue. I do think it's a little bit mental. I talked to him for a long time yesterday."

Midseason power rankings: Penn State

October, 17, 2013
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It's the halfway point of the season, and that can only mean one thing. It's time for the midseason Penn State power rankings.

Each player was ranked based on his production, performance and importance to the team. Here's the top 10:

1. WR Allen Robinson: Does this one really need to be explained? Without Robinson, there might not be much of a passing attack. He's been incredibly dependable, he can turn short receptions into long passes, and he can make huge catches when the game calls for it. It's debatable whether he's the best overall offensive player in the conference, but it's clear he's the MVP to his team. He might just be the best receiver in school history.

2. DT DaQuan Jones: He entered the season with quite a bit of fanfare, as Gil Brandt named him the nation's best senior defensive tackle. But he's lived up to those expectations -- actually, he might have even surpassed them. He leads the conference in tackles-for-loss (8.5), and he's second on the team in tackles (31.5). And, get this, no one on Penn State -- not even the linebackers -- boasts more solo tackles than his 24. He stepped up after Jordan Hill's departure, and he's a big reason why teams have struggled to run inside.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsSo far, Penn State true freshman Christian Hackenberg has lived up to the status he arrived with as the nation's No. 1 quarterback prospect.
3. QB Christian Hackenberg: For a player who's been on campus for about four months, he's done a remarkable job. Heck, for a player who would have enrolled early, this would be a great job. True freshmen historically struggle in this first season, but Hackenberg has thrown nearly twice as many TDs (11) as interceptions (6) so far. He's on pace to break Matt McGloin's single-season record for passing yards, and he'll likely leave Happy Valley with every meaningful school passing record. He's shown poise beyond his years, and he's an easy pick for this spot.

4. LB Glenn Carson: There hasn't been a lot of consistency on the defense, and that's what makes Carson so important. He's not the flashiest player to ever don the Blue and White, but he gets the job done week in and week out. He leads the team in tackles (34.5), and he's one of the leaders on this defense. He won't end up on the semifinalist list for the Bednarik Award, but he deserves credit for helping shore up the middle of this defense. He's a big reason why PSU has the nation's No. 19 run defense.

5. RB Bill Belton: Let the debate begin. Who's been more valuable to this team -- Belton or ZZ? Belton gets the slight edge right now after a strong game against Michigan, which saw him make a key fourth-and-1 run in addition to the game-winning touchdown. He's made some nice catches this season, has averaged 5.3 yards a carry -- a full yard per carry more than the other guy -- and come up big in clutch situations. Belton looks like the surprise of the offense so far this season.

6. RB Zach Zwinak: OK, OK, let's address the elephant in the room. He did not have a good game against Michigan. At all. But point to another Penn State player who has had six strong games. It's not easy. He's been the workhorse, the player who can pick up short yardage and wear a defense down. He's had eight rushing touchdowns so far this year, and he's played no small role in PSU's No.17-ranked red-zone offense. He still leads the team with 393 rushing yards.

7. LB Stephen Obeng-Agyapong: Think about just how important he's been this season, especially when Mike Hull went down. Maybe he's not the best linebacker in recent memory, but he gets bonus points for switching positions and exceeding expectations. The Nittany Lions could've walked away with a Week 1 loss had Obeng-Agyapong not stepped up, especially considering that Syracuse targeted him constantly that game. He's already run the gamut of football stats -- he has a sack, a pick, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery so far this season. He's obviously good in pass coverage, and he's been a speedy blitzer when called upon. The safety-turned-linebacker has helped hold this thin corps of LBs together.

8. WR Brandon Moseby-Felder: If we were just going off the U-M game, Moseby-Felder might be as high as second or third. But he missed the Indiana game due to injury and went a span of three weeks with four catches for 39 yards. He's clearly important to this team, as evidenced by that game against the Hoosiers, and he made several critical catches against the Wolverines -- including a back-shoulder grab for a touchdown. If he can keep that up, he'll undoubtedly make his way up this list by the end of the season.

9. CB Jordan Lucas: The secondary has not been a strong point for PSU, but Lucas seems to have had the best season so far. He's a first-year starter, but defensive coordinator John Butler has used him in quite a few ways. He's blitzed off the edge a bit, has been decent in run support and has made some nice plays as cornerback. He leads the team with eight pass deflections, seven pass breakups and an interception. Also, believe it or not, he's second on the team with 4.5 stops in the backfield. He hasn't played error-free football, but he's done well.

10. DE C.J. Olaniyan: He obviously had a monster game against Michigan, as he was named the Big Ten defensive player of the week. But even before that, he was doing pretty well. He's first in sacks (3.5), second in tackles for loss (6.5), fifth in tackles (21.5), and he also has a forced fumble and two pass breakups. If Olaniyan can string together more games like that, he'll earn quite a reputation for himself in the Big Ten. For now, though, his stock is on "hold" because he needs to show he can consistently perform like that.

Bye week to-do list: Penn State

October, 16, 2013
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Sure, Penn State's bye week comes just three weeks after its first one. But it certainly comes at a good time.

PSU played Michigan to a four-hour, 11-minute 4 overtime classic Saturday night that caused several members of its thin roster to tweet about how sore they were -- on Monday. As a result, coach Bill O'Brien said he held a scrimmage Monday with the younger players and only had the veterans work on conditioning.

[+] EnlargePenn State
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarReceiver Brandon Felder caught six passes for 97 yards and two touchdowns in the Nittany Lions' win over Michigan.
After the quadruple-OT win, the Nittany Lions are looking to make a splash in the Big Ten. Here are three things they'll have to do to achieve that:

1. Heal up, and forget about Michigan. There's no question this is at the top of PSU's priorities. The atmosphere at Beaver Stadium was about as electric as any home game since the PSU-OSU game in 2005, so it's difficult to blame players if they dwelled on the win a bit longer. Many were still tweeting about it early in the week. And, as a result of the back-and-forth game, PSU is obviously nursing quite a bit of strains and soreness. Said O'Brien: "The biggest goal for us this week is to get healthy." The week off should certainly help out safety Ryan Keiser, who's still recovering from a hand injury. But everyone could use some extra time to rebound after an energy-draining contest like that, especially considering the Nittany Lions only boast approximately 61 scholarship players.

2. Shore up the secondary. Some things never change, and the Nittany Lions' DBs have been a glaring question mark since last season. That isn't going change over the bye, but something clearly has to be done here. Michigan's players dropped several balls -- including at least one touchdown pass -- and wideout-turned-cornerback Trevor Williams has to show more improvement. Defensive coordinator John Butler made a few tweaks to the defensive line, and that seemed to pay dividends. Maybe it's time to take a closer look at the secondary now.

3. Find playmakers not named Allen Robinson. Michigan could be a turning point for several players. Brandon Felder was the leading receiver Saturday -- the first time all season -- and made one back-shoulder catch that really got fans talking. The Nittany Lions have needed another receiving target to step up and, if Felder can continue to perform like that, quarterback Christian Hackenberg should take a giant step forward in the conference season. It's not just at wideout, though. Running back Zach Zwinak committed a critical fumble in the third quarter, and he has been hindered by those turnovers since he took over last season. Bill Belton filled in nicely for him and, if Zwinak can't get those problems under control, Belton might be the answer. Even if Zwinak can, Belton might be the answer anyway. He's more of a home-run threat than Zwinak, and he could wind up being an offensive playmaker. PSU needs more of those.

Emotional win comes at key time for PSU

October, 13, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Defensive coordinator John Butler scanned the sideline after the referees signaled touchdown, finally bringing to end an instant classic that'll be talked about five years from now.

He watched as more than 100 Penn State players erupted in ecstasy -- spinning around, hugging, pumping their fists -- as they sprinted to the end zone to join their offensive teammates, who clinched a 43-40 win. In quadruple overtime. Against Michigan.

Two seconds after the game had ended, no one was left on the sideline. Maybe Butler was just looking for an assistant coach to embrace after the season-defining win. But he couldn't find one; they had already started a celebration that's sure to last until morning. He instead looked around, turned to the person closest to him and said one line before jogging off.

"We're going to be fine," he said, with no smile on his face but a sense of conviction in his voice. "Write that -- we're going to be fine."

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times via Getty ImagesChristian Hackenberg passed for 305 yards and 3 TDs in the upset of Michigan.
Beaver Stadium was filled with a sold-out crowd of more than 108,000 -- but it was also filled with question marks. Had Penn State's magic run out? Could this team really come away with a big win? Would this defense collapse again when it counted? Was there anyone on this offense besides Allen Robinson who could make plays?

The Nittany Lions didn't punctuate each answer with an exclamation mark. But they won. With dozens of lettermen on the sideline for homecoming, the Nittany Lions did to UM what it did to PSU in 2005: put an end to a perfect season.

"You can't really compare this to anything else; it's pretty much indescribable," quarterback Christian Hackenberg said. "It's just one of those things where if you're fortunate enough to be in this type of game and you experience it -- it's something that's going to stick with you for the rest of your life."

Added tailback Bill Belton: "Oh, I'm going to remember this. Ten years from now? Yeah."

This wasn't a game that anyone "deserved" to win. Then again, maybe no one deserved to lose. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner paced the sideline, with a headset over his ears, as Brendan Gibbons' 40-yard attempt was blocked in the first overtime. Then, in the third overtime, Michigan's players stared at the ground -- tight end Khalid Hill yelled, "Damn!" -- when Gibbons' missed a 33-yarder.

Both teams had plenty of opportunities to win. Michigan came into this game always making plays when it needed to, while Penn State always seemed to watch the ball bounce in a bad direction. The roles were reversed this time around. Call it luck, call it skill, call it whatever -- but, whatever it was, it couldn't have come at a better time for Penn State.

"I would just say that in a lot of situations, God was on our side today," Robinson said. "We were able to make some plays down the stretch to keep this game alive."

Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong promised after the UCF loss that a game like that wouldn't happen again. Then Indiana happened. And wideout Eugene Lewis took to Twitter to let everyone know PSU was better than that. If PSU loses this game? Well, at some point, you stop believing it gets better. Those words don't have meaning if the losses pile up.

Bill O'Brien usually heads into every game by taking the dais and telling the media that every game is important. This week, he said he'd be crazy to say this was just another game. It wasn't. Win or lose, this was going to be a turning point for the Lions.

And, for the first time this season, it turned out the right way for Penn State.

"I'm just so jacked-up and so happy because you're putting it out on the line every single play," linebacker Mike Hull said. "This says we're a resilient bunch of guys."

Offensive tackle Garry Gilliam lingered beneath the tunnel and slapped hands with the fans. Linebacker Glenn Carson jumped around as if he were at a track meet. And fans, many of whom wore the same color for a stadium-wide "White Out," didn't move from their seats minutes after the game had ended and the Wolverines had already retired to their locker room.

Penn State had answered the questions by scoring 10 points in the final seven minutes of the fourth quarter to force overtime; then enduring a swing of emotions -- unlike any game either team has played this season -- and coming out with a win.

But, overall, the answers all revolved one simple theme. And it's one these fans can head home through snarled traffic with in mind.

These Nittany Lions are going to be just fine.

Five things: Michigan at Penn State

October, 12, 2013
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The Wolverines haven't been perfect, but they've made plays when necessary to remain undefeated. Penn State has been a different story. Still, with a sold-out home crowd, this won't be the kindest of environments for Michigan. Here are five things to keep an eye on:

Which Devin Gardner will show up? After the Michigan quarterback tossed four touchdowns to one pick against Notre Dame -- along with throwing for 294 yards and rushing for another 82 -- his Heisman stock reached a peak. According to Bovada, at that point, Gardner was a 14-to-1 underdog. Now? Well, let's just say all that stock has since been sold off, because he's no longer even listed as an option. Gardner was a turnover machine against Akron and UConn, and he has been wildly inconsistent this season. After last week's game against Minnesota, it's not yet time to say he has turned a corner. But, if the same Gardner shows up that played in Week 2, then the Wolverines should have something to celebrate. If the Week 3 and and Week 4 Gardner shows up? Say good-bye to that perfect record.

[+] EnlargeAllen Robinson
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerAllen Robinson, PSU's best receiver, likely will be challenged by Michigan corner Blake Countess.
Potential matchup of Allen Robinson vs. Blake Countess. This could be a pretty entertaining battle, as Robinson is the reigning Big Ten receiver of the year, and Countess already has come down with four interceptions this season. They're two All-Big Ten talents, and Penn State hasn't shown it has a receiving threat outside of A-Rob. If U-M decides to match Countess up with Robinson and Countess can get the best of him, there goes a player who has accounted for 45 percent of the PSU passing offense. It's certainly not going to be easy, however. Robinson is on pace for nearly 1,500 receiving yards. Even if the two don't match up against each other every play, they'll undoubtedly bump helmets throughout the game.

Third-down offenses. The Wolverines have had some inconsistencies on offense, but they've been just fine consistently keeping drives alive. They're atop the conference when it comes to third-down conversions, and they rank No. 11 nationally with a 53.7 percent conversion rate. Penn State, on the other hand, is near the bottom -- ranked No. 112 in the country -- with a 29.7 percent conversion rate. Central Florida got the best of PSU because the defense couldn't get it off the field, and the Lions are hoping to avoid a repeat.

Lack of depth. This will be a recurring issue for PSU until it returns to full strength in 2016. For this season, it has about 61 scholarship players -- 24 fewer than Michigan. Bill O'Brien didn't want to talk about that this week, but it undoubtedly will have an impact on the game. Linebacker Mike Hull is still recovering from an injury and isn't quite 100 percent. Safety Ryan Keiser is also questionable for the game, and that severely handicaps the personnel decisions of defensive coordinator John Butler. Lack of depth on defense could lead to a tired defense in the fourth quarter.

DaQuan Jones vs. U-M interior. If there's one bright spot to the Nittany Lions' defense, it's their 318-pound defensive tackle. And if there's one big concern on the U-M offense -- besides Gardner's inconsistency -- it's the interior of the offensive line. Center Graham Glasgow made his first career start last week and, with all the noise inside Beaver Stadium, it's no stretch to think there might be a few communication problems between him and his quarterback. Jones has the ability to take over a game, so he'll either be routinely double-teamed -- freeing up teammates -- or he could have a standout statistical performance. It's definitely a matchup to watch.

Penn State arrives at critical juncture

October, 11, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The Nittany Lions have found themselves at a crossroads early on this season.

Expectations last year were low. Students walked around campus with "We Still Are ..." plastered on their T-shirts and in their minds. The team, held together by shoestrings and their dimple-chinned coach, came out of nowhere to capture the admiration of Big Ten coaches and the respect of many who sat in front of their couches on Saturday afternoons and watched the Nittany Lions pummel teams that many thought they'd get pounded by.

[+] EnlargeBill O'Brien
Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times via Getty ImagesBill O'Brien has seen more growing pains with his young team this season.
That's changed this season. Eight to 10 wins were expected. Christian Hackenberg was heralded as a savior before he moved in to a dorm. The group of tight ends smiled and referred to themselves as "TEU." The sanctions were wrongly thought to be behind them. And PSU has come out wheezing like a short-distance runner asked to run a marathon.

The defense, without Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti, isn't the same. The tremendous story of a determined Matt McGloin has given way to a talented true freshman trying to find his footing. The lack of scholarships, whether or not O'Brien wants to keep discussing them, has impacted the team.

The narrative has clearly shifted. And it sure seems as if O'Brien and the rest of these Lions are aware of that.

Last October, on the Tuesday before the Ohio State game, O'Brien took the dais like he has every week and discussed the upcoming opponent. He was asked about the importance of the home game, just as he's always been. And this was his response on Oct. 27, 2012: "I think every game we play is a very important game here at Penn State. I would say that for every team. ... And this year we only get the chance to lay it on the line 12 times; 12 Saturdays. So every game for us is a very, very big game."

Contrast that with what a feisty O'Brien said on Tuesday before this weekend's contest against Michigan. A reporter asked if he needed to emphasize to this team not to buy into the hype, that this is just another game.

"No," O'Brien said. "We tell them, 'Look, this is an exciting opportunity. Penn State-Michigan. ESPN. 5 o'clock. 108,000 [fans]. You got Nittanyville going crazy over there.'

"It'd be crazy to think this is just another game."'

It would be crazy. This isn't just another game because this isn't last season. Fans' memories are shorter than coaching tenures nowadays and some of same ones who wait around at Damon's every Thursday in hopes for O'Brien's autograph after his radio show have logged onto message boards and spit venom about how Joe Paterno never would've lost to Indiana. And how defensive coordinator John Butler should be fired.

Penn State is 3-2 right now. That has to be stated because, by the looks of the record alone, it seems as if it might be premature to inch closer to the proverbial panic button. Well, it's not.

Stephen Obeng-Agyapong said after the UCF loss that the defense's performance was just a one-time mistake, a bad day. It wouldn't happen again. Then Indiana happened. And Eugene Lewis said on Twitter, "We going to be better promise that."

You can only believe so many times that it's going to get better. And that's why Saturday's contest against Michigan is paramount to the Nittany Lions. Win; and all the concern, all the message-board fodder, all the doubt -- that can be looked back upon and labeled an overreaction. Lose, and those generalizations and critiques seem about right, especially with a tougher Ohio State team up next.

O'Brien likes to say he's not a genie. He also said Tuesday he's no psychologist or psychiatrist. Well, he's no magician either. Different reporters, fans and analysts have their own ideas about why Penn State has struggled. It's the lack of leadership or the lack of talent or maybe a play-calling problem. Maybe it's a combination of the three.

But, whatever the exact issues are, the only panacea is winning. And O'Brien isn't the only one who knows that.

"Penn State vs. Michigan has always been a big-time game," safety Malcolm Willis said. "And I'd be lying to you to tell you it wasn't."
Five lessons learned from a full week of conference play on Saturday:

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesCarlos Hyde carried 26 times for 168 yards and scored three second-half touchdowns Saturday.
1. Ohio State can handle adversity; will it be enough? Ohio State hadn't trailed all season before finding itself in a dogfight at Northwestern in which it had to come from behind in the fourth quarter on the road. In the end, Carlos Hyde and the Big Ten's best offensive line proved too much for the Wildcats. The Buckeyes are now 6-0, halfway to another undefeated regular season heading into a bye week and riding an 18-game winning streak under Urban Meyer. Yet Ohio State has shown some weaknesses, particularly with a pass defense that Northwestern exploited for 343 yards the week after safety Christian Bryant was lost for the season. A win is a win, and 18-0 is 18-0, but Meyer's team hasn't produced a lot of style points that would distinguish it in what looks like -- for now, anyway -- a very crowded BCS title chase. The good news is that the Buckeyes have cleared two of their biggest hurdles of the season with back-to-back wins over Wisconsin and the Wildcats, and they might not be challenged again until the season finale at Michigan, if even then. We wouldn't mind seeing a Northwestern-Ohio State rematch in Indianapolis, as Pat Fitzgerald's team looks like the best in a muddled Legends Division scrum, but the remaining schedule is tough. Someone from the Big Ten is probably going to have to play a near-perfect game to beat the Buckeyes; it remains to be seen whether perfection will be enough for Ohio State to get into the national title game.

2. Nebraska's defense and Michigan State's offense provide hope: The Huskers' defensive struggles and the Spartans' offensive woes were the top storylines for each team through the first month of the season. Nebraska entered the open week needing to repair a defense that hadn't stopped anyone consistently, from nationally ranked UCLA to FCS foe South Dakota State. But the Blackshirts responded against an Illinois offense that had made a bunch of big plays through the first four games. Young defenders like Jared Afalava, Randy Gregory and Michael Rose all had big games, as did veteran nickelback Ciante Evans, as Nebraska held Illinois out of the end zone for two and a half quarters. Nebraska's offense did its thing behind running back Ameer Abdullah, but the defense's progress is encouraging for the future. Michigan State also saw an encouraging performance from its offense, as quarterback Connor Cook bounced back from his struggles at Notre Dame and got some help from not one, but two receivers in Macgarrett Kings Jr. (five catches, 94 yards, TD) and Bennie Fowler (nine catches, 92 yards, TD). Michigan State dominated possession time (37 minutes, 13 seconds) and scored the game's final 16 points. Nebraska will continue to lean on its offense, while Michigan State will rely on the Spartan Dawg D, but both teams looked more balanced Saturday, which is a great sign for their chances in the wide-open Legends division.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
AP Photo/Tony DingAfter a week off, Devin Gardner accounted for 252 yards and two touchdowns, with no turnovers.
3. Bye weeks can be helpful: Data doesn't support the notion that bye weeks are beneficial to a team's win-loss record. But when a team is struggling in a certain area and has a week to work on it, that can be very helpful. As mentioned above, Michigan State and Nebraska both showed much improvement on their underwhelming sides of the ball after being idle in Week 5. Michigan worked in two new starters on the offensive line and came out determined to run the ball versus Minnesota. While the yards per carry average (3.2) still wasn't great, the push was better and the Wolverines ran for four touchdowns. More importantly, quarterback Devin Gardner finally played a turnover-free game. Indiana, meanwhile, simplified things for its young defense, as coach Kevin Wilson said there "was less on their plate" against Penn State. That worked, as the Hoosiers were able to attack and play loose in a 44-24 win over the Nittany Lions, coming up with several key stops. Northwestern obviously used its bye to get Venric Mark healthy and to work on more plays with Kain Colter at receiver, both of which proved helpful, indeed. The only team that didn't show some improvement after a Week 5 holiday was Penn State, although that might be due because of depth and injury issues than anything else.

4. Pump the brakes on Iowa and Illinois: The Hawkeyes and Illini had been undoubtedly the league's two big surprises through September and had chances to keep the good vibes going on Saturday. But Iowa took a step back against Michigan State, unable to run the ball or prevent a typically pedestrian Spartans passing attack from stretching the field. Iowa didn't look like a Legends Division contender and paid a price on the injury front. Things don't get any easier after an open week, as Iowa visits Ohio State (Oct. 19). Illinois needed its high-powered offense to strike against a seemingly vulnerable Nebraska defense, but it never happened, as Nathan Scheelhaase struggled with his accuracy. The Illini defense had all sorts of trouble against Nebraska's backup quarterback and running back Ameer Abdullah. Illinois has another week off before home tests against Wisconsin (Oct. 19) and Michigan State (Oct. 26). Both Iowa and Illinois could make bowls, but neither looks like a serious division contender.

5. Magic might be gone for Penn State: There were few better stories in the Big Ten last year than the way Penn State played under the cloud of NCAA sanctions, especially as the Nittany Lions won eight of their last 10 games. But Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill aren't walking through that door. Not only does Penn State lack the incredible senior leadership of last year's group -- which is less a knock on the current players than a tip of the cap to last year's veterans -- but it is struggling to find speed and playmakers on a defense that looks like one of the weakest in years in State College. The only two decent passing attacks on the Lions' schedule -- UCF and Indiana -- shredded Penn State defensive coordinator John Butler's crew. Meanwhile, the offense is becoming too reliant on the individual greatness of receiver Allen Robinson and failed to dominate an Indiana rush defense that has been the Big Ten's worst for multiple years in a row. A 20-point loss to the Hoosiers, in a game in which his team trailed 42-17, is easily the worst defeat of the Bill O'Brien era. The team is down to 61 scholarship players, and not all of them are healthy. "I don't think in any stretch of anybody's imagination that this is a normal Penn State team," O'Brien said. Unfortunately, this might be the new normal for Penn State as the sanctions take their toll, and another 8-4 season might well require some magic at this point.

Bye week to-do list: Penn State

September, 27, 2013
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At 3-1, Penn State is feeling relatively good during the bye week. Sure, its record could be better -- but the Nittany Lions lost to a good UCF team and already are ahead of where they were last season.

This is the perfect time to shore up some weak spots, heal up and regroup before the Big Ten season begins. Here are a few things Penn State needs to work on to take a step forward:

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsFreshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg needs more pass catchers to step up.
1. Find a solid No. 2 receiving target. Allen Robinson is the most dangerous receiver in the Big Ten, but the Nittany Lions' passing attack can't rely just on him. When Kent State shut him down in the final three quarters, Christian Hackenberg went just 6-of-25 with an interception. And Big Ten opponents undoubtedly will focus on the receiver come passing downs. That means someone else -- anyone else -- needs to step up. Brandon Moseby-Felder had six catches in each of the first two weeks but had 39 yards combined in the last two weeks. Only one other target has caught more than three balls in a game, and that's true freshman Adam Breneman -- who has just five catches total this season but had four for 22 yards vs. UCF. Penn State has to hope Kyle Carter returns to his old self in a hurry, Eugene Lewis takes a giant step forward or Moseby-Felder can form more consistency. A-Rob can't do it all.

2. Tighten up the secondary. OK, sure, PSU shut out Kent State and limited Colin Reardon to a QBR of 9.4. But PSU's next opponent, Indiana, has a high-powered passing attack that more closely resembles UCF -- and the Lions did not fare well against the Knights. Wideout-turned-cornerback Trevor Williams was targeted repeatedly early in that game, as UCF threw short when he played off receivers and threw longer when he played tight. Defensive coordinator John Butler eventually benched Williams and slid safety Adrian Amos to his spot, and Butler again will have to gameplan around another good offense in Indiana. Williams isn't the only issue here -- the young corner certainly has had bright spots this season -- but the secondary as a whole has issues that need to be ironed out during the bye.

3. Continue to improve on third downs. For the first three weeks of the season, no team in college football was worse on third down than Penn State. The Lions converted just four of 34 third downs, and nothing they did seemed to work. Bill O'Brien played it conservative by mostly calling run plays in Week 1, and the third downs didn't go well. Then he passed on eight straight third downs in Week 2, and it didn't go well. And then he mixed it up in Week 3, and it still didn't go well. PSU did better against Kent State by converting 7-of-18 ... but the opponent was Kent State. Penn State still ranks 120 out of 123 teams in the third-down department, and it can't expect to live off big offensive plays in the conference season.

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BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12