Penn State Nittany Lions: Mitch Leidner

Big Ten lunch links

June, 9, 2014
Jun 9
12:00
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Get well soon, Tracy Morgan.
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If Ron Burgundy coached college football -- the San Diego Border Terriers, perhaps? -- he would only need to learn two lines to survive spring practice.

1. "I like my team."

2. "I'm glad we don't have a game tomorrow."

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesPat Fitzgerald's Wildcats had to deal with a lot off the field this spring.
College coaches have recited those phrases in spring ball for decades. The 14 men leading Big Ten programs are no exceptions. But the standard spring sentiments apply to the league more this year than most.

There are reasons to believe the Big Ten will be better this fall, but the work is far from over on most campuses. This isn't a league of finished products, and the coming months take on added importance before the 2014 season kicks off in late August.

"I don't think we're that far behind; it's just painfully obvious that we're not there," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "This next phase will be the most important phase of this team's life. It's always important, but with a lot of things we've gone though, we've got to come together."

Northwestern went through a lot in the spring, mostly away from the field, as the campaign for a player union gained national media attention, especially after players were declared employees of the school in March. The team held a historic vote Friday, after Fitzgerald had expressed his opposition to unionizing. Some players expressed concern that the vote could split the team.

It will be months before we know if the union plan goes through, but the Wildcats continue preparing for a pivotal season. They found their quarterback this spring in senior Trevor Siemian and an offensive identity based around the passing game. But questions along both lines remain.

The spring also produced quarterback answers at Iowa (Jake Rudock) and Minnesota (Mitch Leidner). Michigan's Devin Gardner had a rough spring game but still seems likely to retain his job. Another senior signal-caller, Rutgers' Gary Nova, is a good bet to remain atop the depth chart. Although Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong lacks Nova's or Gardner's experience, he exited spring just as he entered it: as the Huskers' top quarterback.

Indiana's platoon system of Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson frustrates some, but not coach Kevin Wilson, who has given every indication that he'll continue to use both for another season.

Other quarterback races have been reduced but not resolved. Illinois will pick between Wes Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer who impressed for much of the spring, and veteran backup Reilly O'Toole. Coach Tim Beckman wants a resolution before two-a-day practices in August.

Purdue's Danny Etling, who started the final seven games of his freshman season, appeared to have a slight lead coming out of the spring, but coach Darrell Hazell isn't ready to declare a starter. So Austin Appleby and David Blough remain alive.

Wisconsin reduced its candidate pool from four to two as Joel Stave, who boasts 19 career starts but also a nagging throwing shoulder injury, will compete with dual-threat Tanner McEvoy in camp.

"It will be a fight," coach Gary Andersen said.

Quarterback is just one spot where Wisconsin has questions. The Badgers went through much of the spring with only four healthy wide receivers. They've also revamped their defensive front seven, which returns only one starter from 2013.

[+] EnlargeRaekwon McMillan
Miller Safrit/ESPNEarly enrollee Raekwon McMillan could make an immediate impact for Ohio State's defense this fall.
Ohio State didn't have star quarterback Braxton Miller for spring ball because of shoulder surgery, but the Buckeyes focused on bolstering a defense that struggled last fall. Freshman Raekwon McMillan, an early enrollee, is pushing for the starting middle linebacker spot, and competition will continue at the cornerback spot opposite Doran Grant. Chris Ash, the Buckeyes' new co-defensive coordinator, worked to simplify the scheme this spring.

"We only have about six defensive calls," safety Tyvis Powell said after the spring game. "We had too many last year."

Offensive line remains Michigan's focal point coming out of the spring. A sloppy spring game didn't ease fears about the Wolverines' front five, although coach Brady Hoke saw positive signs in earlier practices. A critical summer awaits new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, tasked with resurrecting Michigan's run game.

At Penn State, new coach James Franklin continues to energize both players and fans. But he's also realistic about the depth challenge his team faces, particularly along the offensive line.

"When you don't have a two-deep of scholarship players, you've got issues that you're going to have to overcome," Franklin said. "We don't."

Like Rutgers, Maryland began its Big Ten transition this spring and welcomed running back Wes Brown and wideout Marcus Leak after absences from the team. If the Terrapins finally stay healthy, they could be worth watching in a loaded East Division.

Sitting atop the division is defending Big Ten champ Michigan State. The Spartans had a relatively stress-free spring, but they must fill key spots on defense, especially at linebacker and cornerback, where players like Taiwan Jones and Darian Hicks step in.

The returning pieces for teams like Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin fuel optimism around the league. But in spring, optimism is always tempered by what lies ahead.

"We're improving," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday, "but we're hardly ready to play."

They won't have to for 132 days.

Until then, stay classy, Big Ten fans.
We're just about at the halfway point of our 2014 ultimate Big Ten road trip, and this is when all those nights in a hotel room and bad eating habits start to take their toll. But we press on -- at least in our minds.

For those just joining in, we're each selecting one Big Ten game to attend each week during the 2014 season. We aren't tied down by a travel budget or nagging editors. If we want to attend a game -- depending on matchup, location, culinary offerings or any other factors -- we can go.

Let's check out the options for Week 7:

Oct. 11

Illinois at Wisconsin
Indiana at Iowa
Michigan State at Purdue
Northwestern at Minnesota
Penn State at Michigan

Open date: Maryland, Nebraska, Ohio State, Rutgers

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Northwestern at Minnesota

It has been nearly five years since I last witnessed a game at TCF Bank Stadium, one of the nation's more picturesque college football venues. Sure, Penn State and Michigan are bigger names, but I've already seen Michigan twice and Penn State once. I'll be getting my fill of the Gophers after covering them in two of three weeks, but Northwestern is an intriguing team and I'm all about the destination here as Minneapolis offers a lot to do and see.

The game should be a competitive one, if not a good one. Five of the teams' last seven meetings -- and 13 of the past 20 -- have been decided by eight points or fewer. Northwestern has won three straight in Minneapolis, and Minnesota upset the Wildcats last year in Evanston to kick off a nice surge in league play. Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian had a very rough day against the Gophers last October and looks for a stronger performance on the road. The Wildcats likely will attack a Minnesota secondary led by cornerback Eric Murray. Minnesota will pound away with the run game, using a talented group of backs and a big, athletic quarterback in Mitch Leidner.

The West Division is wide open, and while both these teams play tougher schedules than both Wisconsin and Iowa -- Minnesota's slate is especially challenging -- they could be in the title mix with certain improvements (Minnesota's passing game, Northwestern's offensive production). Week 7 isn't a great platter of games, but the trip to Minneapolis sounds very appetizing.

Brian Bennett's pick: Penn State at Michigan

Not exactly the most tantalizing set of games, although if Minnesota and Northwestern get off to hot starts, or teams such as Illinois and Indiana are better than expected, it could be more interesting. Still, it's tough not to choose the Nittany Lions-Wolverines matchup out of this group.

We both agree that Michigan State and Ohio State are the clear-cut East Division favorites in 2014, but Michigan and Penn State should be factors. The winner here will have a major upper hand (remember, Penn State technically can win the division, and it's possible the program could be ruled eligible for the 2014 postseason). I saw the Lions in Week 1 of this ultimate trip, but this would be my first time getting an up-close look at the Wolverines.

Give me a game 75 percent as wild as last year's four-overtime thriller in State College, and I'll be very happy I made this pick. With Christian Hackenberg and Devin Gardner involved, the potential for fireworks is ample. I always look forward to a trip to Ann Arbor and the Big House, and a game like this on tap would make things even more exciting.

Road trip itinerary

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
Week 4: Adam at Miami-Nebraska; Brian at Miami-Nebraska
Week 5: Brian at Cincinnati-Ohio State; Adam at Minnesota-Michigan
Week 6: Adam at Nebraska-Michigan State; Brian at Nebraska-Michigan State
It took Brian Bennett just two weeks to rack up more frequent-flyer miles than most people accrue in a year. After trips to Dublin and Eugene, what's next on Bennett's itinerary? Any teams playing in Dubai?

For those just joining us, we're picking one game featuring a Big Ten team to attend throughout the 2014 season. There's no travel budget or nagging editors. We can go where we want to see who we want. Our choices are based on matchup quality, how often we've seen certain teams play, location and other factors.

Here are the options for Week 3:

Sept. 13

Indiana at Bowling Green
West Virginia at Maryland
Miami (Ohio) at Michigan
Kent State at Ohio State
Penn State at Rutgers
Illinois at Washington
Iowa State at Iowa
Minnesota at TCU
Nebraska at Fresno State
Purdue at Notre Dame (at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis)

Open week: Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Penn State at Rutgers

Sticking with my history theme, I'm parking myself in Piscataway, N.J., for Rutgers' debut as a Big Ten member. Much of the Big Ten remains lukewarm, if not ice cold, about Rutgers' arrival to the league, but the folks at HighPoint Solutions Stadium will be very excited for this one. I expect a very strong turnout from Penn State fans, who finally have a somewhat easily accessible Big Ten road game to attend. The teams haven't played since 1995, despite their proximity. Lions quarterback Christian Hackenberg made his college debut in the Garden State last season at MetLife Stadium and hopes his winning ways continue. Rutgers' quarterback situation is more unsettled as Gary Nova tries to retain his job.

The game reunites Rutgers offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen and Penn State coach James Franklin, who were coach and coach-in-waiting, respectively, at Maryland in 2010. It's also a big moment for Rutgers coach Kyle Flood, whose team has a tough opener at Washington State and needs to start off Big Ten play with a strong performance. Rutgers struggled against the pass in 2013, ranking 120th nationally, so Hackenberg will test a defense led by new coordinator Joe Rossi.

There are some other options in Week 3, including an always appealing trip to Seattle and a Minnesota-TCU matchup that could be surprisingly interesting. But I'm interested to see how the Big Ten's first truly East Coast conference game takes place, and it's always good to have a league game this early. The interest and attendance are important to the league as it makes a push to become bi-regional. See you at the birthplace of college football.

Brian Bennett's pick: Minnesota at TCU

Rutgers' Big Ten debut should be fun, and I'm tempted to join you in Jersey. But there are some other interesting games on the slate as well. Illinois-Washington intrigues me, but I'm not sure my body clock could handle another flight across multiple time zones. There's the Cy-Hawk game, a Purdue-Notre Dame clash, a good old neighborly battle between West Virginia and Maryland and even a potentially competitive game between Nebraska and Fresno State.

But I'm headed to Fort Worth, Texas, to see the Gophers take on TCU. The Horned Frogs did not fare well in the Big 12 last season but aren't far removed from being a national power, a team that beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, no less. Minnesota is coming off an eight-win season and brings back the core of its 2013 team. Will Jerry Kill's crew continue its upward mobility? For sure, the passing game will have to improve behind quarterback Mitch Leidner, especially while taking on Gary Patterson's usually stingy defense. This game should tell us a lot about where Minnesota is heading in 2014 and gives the Big Ten another chance for an impressive early nonconference win if the Gophers can come through.

Road trip itinerary

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
The last two seasons have shown that two-quarterback systems can work in the Big Ten.

Northwestern recorded 10 wins in 2012 while rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Indiana led the Big Ten and ranked ninth nationally in total offense last fall while alternating between Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa, Connor Cook
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAfter taking over the quarterback job in Week 5, Connor Cook led the Spartans to 10 consecutive wins.
Given the recent success, my next statement might surprise you: Every Big Ten team would be best served picking one quarterback and sticking with him in 2014. That includes Indiana and Northwestern.

Quarterback rotations can be successful in the short term, but they are rarely sustainable or desirable. We saw this at Northwestern last fall, as the Wildcats never established a consistent offensive rhythm and operated with a reduced playbook, in part because of injuries but also because the unit lacked a clear identity. Northwestern finished 10th in the league in scoring.

Minnesota alternated between quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner during several games, including the Texas Bowl against Syracuse. Although the Gophers had a nice surge during Big Ten play and recorded eight wins, they also finished 11th in the league in scoring and last in passing.

Nebraska had some success using two quarterbacks (Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III) last season but did so out of necessity following Taylor Martinez's injury. The Huskers also struggled to pass the ball, finishing 11th in the league.

The strongest argument for picking a quarterback and sticking with him comes from the Big Ten's best team in 2013. Michigan State's offense was a train wreck in non-league play as the Spartans used three quarterbacks. After a Week 4 loss to Notre Dame, the coaches decided Connor Cook would be their guy. You all know what happened next, but what struck me was Cook's mindset at the time.

"We went through spring ball competition and fall camp competition, it was the most stressed out I've ever been in my entire life just trying to be the quarterback," Cook said last month before the Rose Bowl. "After I got the starting job and started a couple of games, the stress went away and it turned to focus, me being focused and knowing they're not going to use other quarterbacks in the game and not stress too much that go if I make a bad play I'm going to be pulled.

"That's when the stress went out the window."

Players like Northwestern's Siemian and Indiana's Roberson and Sudfeld are more accustomed to sharing time than Cook was, but each of them, like any quarterback, would rather be the clear-cut starter.

Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase is another good example of a player who benefited from an unambiguous role. He struggled from the middle of the 2011 season through all of 2012, raising the possibility of a rotation last season. Instead, Scheelhaase started every game and led the Big Ten in passing (3,272 yards).

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAfter playing well in place of Taylor Martinez, sophomore signal-caller Tommy Armstrong Jr. is the favorite to start for the Cornhuskers in 2014.
I'm all for competition at quarterback, and the Big Ten will feature plenty of it this spring and summer. Only five quarterbacks -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, Michigan State's Cook, Iowa's Jake Rudock and Michigan's Devin Gardner -- can feel pretty secure about their starting roles. Gardner has been mentioned as a possible rotation candidate with Shane Morris -- some Michigan fans wouldn't mind seeing Gardner line up at wide receiver, a position of need -- but I'd be surprised if Morris leapfrogs the senior.

I'm also OK with teams employing change-up quarterbacks for a package of plays, be it the Wildcat or something else. Michigan State could be a candidate for this in 2014 with dynamic redshirt freshman Damion Terry possibly spelling Cook from time to time.

The first few games also provide a platform to use multiple quarterbacks in settings that can't be replicated on the practice field. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel often did this with his younger quarterbacks, giving them a first-half series or two. It makes sense. But by Week 4, roles must be identified.

The offseason is full of Big Ten quarterback questions:

  • Will Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt take the reins at Illinois?
  • How will Gardner and Hackenberg fare with new offensive coordinators?
  • After Nelson's transfer, who emerges at Minnesota among Leidner, Chris Streveler and possibly a young quarterback such as Dimonic McKinzy?
  • Nebraska's Armstrong went 6-1 as a freshman starter, but can he hold off Johnny Stanton?
  • Can Gary Nova retain his job at Rutgers?
  • Will Danny Etling keep the top job at Purdue, or will Austin Appleby and possibly early enrollee David Blough enter the mix?
  • How does Siemian bounce back at Northwestern, and do the Wildcats look at Matt Alviti and Zack Oliver?
  • Will either Roberson or Sudfeld finally separate himself at IU?

Ultimately, these questions must be answered. The teams that avoid prolonged rotations should be better off for it.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
4:30
PM ET
Wishing you a good weekend. We'll wrap up the East-West Shrine Game and NFLPA Bowl on Monday.

Be sure to follow us on Twitter.

To the inbox …

Brent from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, writes: So Iowa blasts Nebraska in Lincoln on the final Friday in November, plays a more difficult bowl opponent in LSU, and Nebraska finishes higher in your power rankings. That's par for the course.

[+] EnlargeZaire Anderson
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesIt was impossible to ignore what the Cornhuskers did to Georgia in the Gator Bowl when it came time to do the power rankings.
Adam Rittenberg: Both teams played SEC teams playing without their starting quarterbacks. LSU wasn't the same team without Zach Mettenberger. We do power rankings after the bowl games to factor in what happened in the bowl games. Otherwise, there's no point in doing another version. Nebraska improved during bowl practice and played well against a heavily favored Georgia team. Iowa couldn't mount a scoring drive of more than 5 yards against LSU. You can't solely do power rankings based on head-to-head results. Otherwise, Michigan would be ahead of Minnesota and Indiana would be ahead of Penn State. It's a what-have-you-done-lately type of deal.

Kellen from Duluth, Minn., writes: Given Nelson' transfer, do you see the Gophers trying to pick up JUCO or potentially a graduate transfer (Brewer from Tech?) to help fill in the depth and push the QB competition?

Rittenberg: Kellen, it's possible the Gophers try to add another quarterback. They could be fine with Mitch Leidner and Chris Streveler, who generated some positive buzz during his redshirt year, but you'd like to have more than two options at quarterback. Incoming recruit Dimonic McKinzy, who has enrolled early, could have the skill set to run Minnesota's offense. "They want a playmaker at the quarterback position," McKinzy told the (St. Paul) Pioneer Press. I'm not sure Michael Brewer is a great fit as he'd be going from a pass-heavy offense at Texas Tech to one built more around the run game at Minnesota.

Jeremy from the Cornfields of South Carolina writes: Adam, we are already hearing how stacked the future East Division is going to be compared to the West and how the West programs will need to step up to match. I do not claim to be a conference fan, I am a die-hard Husker fan born and raised in the cornfields. That being said Nebraska has fared very well over the course of the last three years against our new conference rivals; 3-0 vs PSU, 2-1 vs Michigan, 2-1 vs MSU, 2-1 vs NW, 2-1 vs Iowa, 1-1 vs OSU, and 1-2 vs Wisconsin. The losses didn't look good for sure, but under Pelini Nebraska has found ways to beat the elite teams within the conference. To me the West needs to look to Iowa, Northwestern and Minnesota to step up and Nebraska and Wisconsin to at least maintain. There is no guarantee that Michigan or PSU contribute to the strength of the East in the near future. I don't see the potential imbalance that people are talking about.

Rittenberg: I agree with some of your points, Jeremy. There are no guarantees that Michigan or Penn State boosts the East Division, as both programs face some challenges right now. What works against the West is a lack of historic powers. Although Wisconsin has been very good in the past two decades, Nebraska is undoubtedly the most decorated program in the West Division. The Huskers have fared well against Penn State and Michigan, but it's debatable whether Nebraska can get it done in the biggest games. It beat a very weak Ohio State team in 2011 and flopped against Big Ten champ Wisconsin in 2011 and 12-0 Ohio State in 2012. I don't think Nebraska belongs with Wisconsin yet but could soon get there. The bigger point is that Iowa, Northwestern, Minnesota, Purdue and Illinois must elevate their play and sustain it to improve the strength of the division.

Kenny from Hastings, Neb., writes: Am I missing something with Wisconsin this year? How is a 9-4 Wisconsin team better than a 9-4 Nebraska team? Wisconsin lost its final two games while the Huskers went 1-1, winning their bowl game (one of only two Big Ten teams to do so) and being the only team in the Big Ten to beat an SEC team. What gives?

Rittenberg: Don't push your luck, Kenny. You're somewhat fortunate to be ranked ahead of Iowa. Wisconsin ended the season poorly but had a better, more consistent squad than Nebraska for much of the season. If the two teams played after the bowls, I'd still take Wisconsin (and so would Brian). Nebraska is where it should be after a nice bowl win, but the Huskers weren't the Big Ten's third-best team this year.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Brown
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyC.J. Brown provided a lot of excitement for Maryland in 2013.
John from Washington D.C. writes: Adam; I know this was the "final" Big Ten Power Rankings for the year, but any chance of getting an 'amended' rankings with Maryland and Rutgers? Just a glimpse of what's to come, so to speak?

Rittenberg: John, we'll almost certainly have Rutgers and Maryland as part of the first 2014 power rankings, as they'll soon transition to the Big Ten blog. I need to study both teams a little more closely, but both are going through some staff turnover, especially Rutgers, which must replace both of its coordinators. Neither team was overly impressive in its bowl game, and both will be transitioning to a new league and a very tough division. Both teams struggled with turnovers this past season and will have to limit mistakes entering 2014.

Jason from B1G West writes: I think it is kind of interesting the amount of players from the SEC leaving school early for the draft, compared to the Big Ten. Would it be the different recruits the Big Ten gets, or more of a commitment to education from our conference, or maybe it's just the way things went down this year?

Rittenberg: Jason, several Big Ten fans have mentioned this to me after seeing the discrepancy in early entries between the leagues. There are certainly some Big Ten draft hopefuls like Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah who could have jumped to the NFL but wanted to finish his degree. But the SEC has players like that, too. It's too simplistic to argue that all SEC players only want to go pro and all Big Ten players care more about education than the NFL draft. There are examples of both in each league, but the bottom line is the SEC has more players who are capable of making the jump early than the Big Ten. That speaks to talent.

Ben from Ann Arbor, Mich., writes: Adam,In 2016-1019, the first four years the Big Ten will have a nine-game schedule, Michigan plays Wisconsin four times, Nebraska once, Northwestern once, and Minnesota once. I get that this is the result of parity based scheduling, but even so, wouldn't Wisconsin, the obvious top program in the West, then play Michigan State or OSU four times?

Rittenberg: Ben, keep in mind the Big Ten is trying to satisfy multiple objectives with the schedule. There's the parity-based component, which will pair teams like Michigan and Wisconsin more often than not, but the league also wants to make sure every matchup takes place once every four years. Michigan and Wisconsin haven't played since 2010, and the fact they'll play in four consecutive seasons won't be the norm for parity-based scheduling. Wisconsin plays both Michigan State and Ohio State twice between 2016-19, which is a little more typical of what you'll see with parity-based scheduling.
Earlier today, we presented our All-Big Ten team. Now it's time to honor the top freshmen from 2013 with our Big Ten all-freshman team.

Here it is:

OFFENSE
QB: Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (captain)
RB: Corey Clement, Wisconsin
WR: DeAngelo Yancey, Purdue
WR: Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska*
TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota*
TE: Jake Butt, Michigan
OL: Dan Voltz, Wisconsin*
OL: Ben Lauer, Minnesota*
OL: Jack Conklin, Michigan State*
OL: Jacob Bailey, Indiana*
OL: Kyle Kalis, Michigan*

DEFENSE
DL: Joey Bosa, Ohio State (captain)
DL: Austin Johnson, Penn State*
DL: Avery Moss, Nebraska*
DL: Willie Henry, Michigan*
LB: Michael Rose, Nebraska*
LB: Nyeem Wartman, Penn State*
LB: T.J. Simmons, Indiana
DB: Sojourn Shelton, Wisconsin
DB: Desmond King, Iowa
DB: Tyvis Powell, Ohio State*
DB: Matthew Harris, Northwestern

SPECIALISTS
K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State
P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State
All purpose: Dontre Wilson, Ohio State

* -- redshirt freshman

It was a pretty strong year for freshmen in the league, highlighted by Hackenberg and Bosa. Shelton was terrific as well. ... Tight end is a promising position for the future. Penn State's Adam Breneman just missed, but he looks like a future star. And Michigan State's Josiah Price had a big impact in the Big Ten title game. ... Nebraska's young defense could really turn into something special. We also considered defensive lineman Vincent Valentine and linebackers Jared Afalava, Nathan Gerry and Josh Banderas. ... It was also a good year for rookie QBs, as beyond Hackenberg there was Purdue's Danny Etling, Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong and Minnesota's Mitch Leidner. ... Ohio State's Wilson didn't have a true position, but he did a lot of things and was a good return man, so that's why he gets our all-purpose slot. ... Some others we considered included Penn State receiver Geno Lewis and linebacker Brandon Bell, Purdue offensive lineman Jason King and Indiana defensive lineman Ralphael Green.
Five lessons from the final weekend of Big Ten regular-season play:

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Tony DingQB Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes weren't perfect vs. Michigan but they survived in Ann Arbor.
1. Ohio State is imperfect, but a perfect record might be good enough: There they are, the team America loves to hate, on the doorstep of the national championship game. Ohio State didn't look like the No. 2 team in America during its one-point win against unranked Michigan, allowing 41 points, 31 first downs and 603 total yards to an inspired Wolverines team that managed just 158 yards the week before against Iowa. But Ohio State handled its first brush with adversity in six weeks, as running back Carlos Hyde bulldozed his way to 226 rushing yards and Tyvis Powell snuffed out Michigan's potential game-winning two-point conversion attempt with 32 seconds to play. The Buckeyes walked out of the Big House with a win, which is more than Alabama could say at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Alabama's loss should move Ohio State up to No. 2 in tonight's BCS standings, although Auburn is now a threat to leapfrog the Scarlet and Gray. This is an imperfect, perfect Ohio State team, which might be headed to play for a crystal football if it can get past Michigan State in the Big Ten championship.

2. It's Michigan State or bust for a second BCS bid: There's no good way to explain Wisconsin's 31-24 loss to Penn State at home on Saturday. The Badgers had been so sound on both sides of the ball all season long, and so dominant the past two months. But Wisconsin made uncharacteristic mistakes all game against a Penn State team that delivered by far its best road performance of the season. Whatever the reason for that stink bomb from Gary Andersen's team, it removed all doubt about a fourth straight BCS game for the Badgers, and it left Michigan State as the clear No. 2 team in the Big Ten. The Spartans weren't especially impressive in a 14-3 win over Minnesota, but an 11-1 season should get the Spartans in the top 10 of the BCS standings tonight. Michigan State can erase all doubt by beating Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game, sending the Buckeyes to an at-large spot in the process. If not, the Spartans no longer have to worry about competition from within their own league for a BCS at-large spot. Saturday was a very good day to be a Spartan, and a very bad one to be a Badger.

3. You can't kill the Hawkeyes: Just when it seems safe to write off the Iowa Hawkeyes and Kirk Ferentz, the Big Ten's longest-tenured coach, they rise again. Iowa smacked Nebraska 38-17 in Lincoln to record a statement victory and flip its 2012 record from 4-8 to 8-4. It looks like there will be a third act in Iowa under Ferentz, who oversaw strong stretches from 2002 to '04 and 2008 to '09. Picked by many (cough, cough) to finish last in the Legends Division, Iowa ended up finishing second with a 4-1 mark in division play. James Morris and his fellow senior linebackers have sparked a defensive resurgence, and the offense has found its identity in Year 2 under coordinator Greg Davis. Iowa's four losses all came against teams ranked in the top 20. The talk about Ferentz's hefty salary and whether he's worth all that dough will never go away, but he has successfully facilitated another turnaround at Iowa, which should end up in a decent bowl game. Unlike many of its Big Ten brethren, Iowa typically shines in the postseason, going 6-4 in bowls under Ferentz.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioMichigan tailback Derrick Green rushed for 47 yards in the loss to Ohio State.
4. Minnesota is a passing game away from being a real contender: The Gophers lost their last two games of the regular season but earned respect for how they played against Wisconsin and Michigan State. The Badgers came away talking about how they needed to match Minnesota's physicality, which was something that hadn't been said in a long time. At Michigan State on Saturday, the Gophers became just the second team to rush for more than 100 yards against the Spartans this season, and they held an improving MSU offense to just two scoring drives. Yet Minnesota won't be a true Big Ten contender until it develops a passing game. Bad things tend to happen when the offense is forced to throw, like when Philip Nelson threw two interceptions (and should have had a third) or when Mitch Leidner was sacked for a fumble in the red zone on Saturday. The two quarterbacks combined for just nine completions in 25 attempts in East Lansing. Receiving targets Donovahn Jones, Drew Wolitarsky and Maxx Williams all have promising ability, but all are freshmen who are getting baptized by fire right now. If Minnesota can maintain its gains on defense and in the trenches while becoming competent in the passing game, it will be hard to handle next season.

5. Indiana missed a big opportunity this year: It's hard not to look at Indiana's score against Purdue in the Old Oaken Bucket Game and wonder how this team is staying home for the holidays. The Hoosiers had one of the most explosive offenses in all of the BCS -- except when they played Wisconsin and Ohio State -- and eight home games. Yet they finished 5-7 and still have just one bowl appearance under their belt since 1993. All they had to do was beat Navy at home or not mess up the ending of the game against Minnesota and they would have gotten to six wins. Of course, it's easy to pinpoint the reason why Indiana did not get there: an atrocious defense that has not made nearly enough strides in Kevin Wilson's three years. The Hoosiers should be potent on offense again next year, with quarterbacks Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld, running back Tevin Coleman and receivers Cody Latimer and Shane Wynn still owning eligibility. But if Wilson doesn't make major changes on defense, it might not matter -- again.

Five things: Penn State at Minnesota

November, 9, 2013
11/09/13
7:00
AM ET
While Penn State is trying to finish the season strong, Minnesota is seeking its fourth consecutive Big Ten win for the first time since 1973.

The Governor's Victory Bell is on the line, and here are five things to keep an eye on:

1. Allen Robinson nearing another school record. The Penn State receiver is just 42 yards shy of breaking the single-season school record for receiving yards (1,084), a mark set in 1995 by Bobby Engram. Robinson is averaging 10 catches and 149 yards in each Big Ten contest, so it seems almost certain that he will break the record against Minnesota. Of course, there's also an outside shot he'll break another record in the afternoon -- the single-season receptions record. Robinson is at 66 catches right now, and he needs 12 more to break his record from last season. He has twice grabbed a dozen receptions in Big Ten games this season.

2. Stopping quarterbacks on the run. In the last three games, quarterbacks have run for 247 yards (82.3 per game) against Penn State. Minnesota quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner are both dual-threats -- Leidner tends to run the most -- and have averaged a combined 75 rushing yards a game. The Nittany Lions have been mostly good against the run, outside of the Ohio State game, but they haven't fared well against running quarterbacks. Penn State's ability to limit both quarterbacks on the run will be paramount to stopping Minnesota.

3. Can Bill Belton continue playing at this level? The junior tailback rushed for 201 yards last week, the first time a Penn State running back gained 200 yards in a game since Larry Johnson in 2002. Belton has been the most improved player on the offense, and he's solidified his status as the starter. But, after carrying 36 times last week, can he keep carrying such a heavy load? This game, against the No. 39 run defense, would go a long way in helping cement him as a top player. Big Ten Blog readers already voted him as the most surprising tailback in the conference.

4. More aggressive Minnesota passing offense. In the first six games of the season, the Golden Gophers averaged just 116.8 passing yards a game and amassed a total of just nine completions of 20 yards or longer. In the last three games? It's been completely different. Nelson has helped guide Minnesota to an average of 202.3 yards per game and the Gophers have accounted for 13 big passing plays. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover has opened up the playbook, and it will be a challenge for Penn State's secondary.

5. PSU defense vs. Minnesota offense in the red zone. The Gophers aren't the highest-scoring team in the Big Ten. But when they get inside the red zone, they're almost automatic. Minnesota ranks third in the nation by recording scores on 29 of 30 red-zone trips, with 22 touchdowns and seven field goals. Penn State is a middle-of-the-road team when it comes to bending and not breaking. The defense was able to come up with big plays when it needed against Illinois, but it will have to be even better against Minnesota. The Gophers have a penchant from running it in within five yards; 11 rushing touchdowns have been from 1 yard out.

Big Ten Week 10 primer

November, 2, 2013
11/02/13
7:00
AM ET
Get ready for a full set of Big Ten games, and it should all be all over in time for dinner. That’s November in the Big Ten. Here’s a preview:

Noon ET

No. 4 Ohio State (8-0, 4-0) at Purdue (1-6, 0-3), Big Ten Network: For more than a decade, the trip to West Lafayette has served as a Buckeyes stumbling block. Forget it this time. Ohio State, winners of 20 straight, is rolling. Purdue, with freshman QB Danny Etling, is struggling mightily on offense. And the Boilermakers defense, despite a few bright moments, doesn’t figure to have an answer for Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde.

[+] EnlargeJames Morris
Stephen Mally/Icon SMIJames Morris and the Iowa defense will have their work cut out for them against Wisconsin's dynamic rushing attack.
No. 24 Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1) at Iowa (5-3, 2-2), ABC/ESPN2: There’s much more than bowl eligibility at stake in the Hawkeyes’ annual “Blackout” game. Both teams appear to have hit their strides at the right time, and a major battle is brewing here between the Badgers’ powerful run game, led by Melvin Gordon, and Iowa’s stout run defense. The Hawkeyes have led at halftime in every game this season and have allowed a nation-low two rushing touchdowns. Gordon alone has scored a league-best 11 TDs.

Illinois (3-4, 0-3) at Penn State (4-3, 1-2), ESPN: Negative energy all around. Penn State is coming off a once-in-a-century rout at the hands of Ohio State. Illinois entered league play with buoyed hopes, but losses by 20, 24, and 39 points have only served to extend the Fighting Illini’s Big Ten losing streak to 17 games. Who can better shake the bad vibe? Signs point to Penn State, which has responded to six straight losses under Bill O’Brien with wins in the next game. Count on production from the Christian Hackenberg-to-Allen Robinson connection.

3:30 ET

No. 21 Michigan (6-1, 2-1) at No. 22 Michigan State (7-1, 4-0), ABC: While the polls favor Michigan, the computers like Michigan State this season over its in-state rival. We’ll see who’s smarter, man or machine. Don’t discount the home-field factor, which was huge for the Spartans two years ago in this series. The Wolverines have struggled this season, and the two before that, on the road. And Michigan State sophomore Connor Cook is making solid progress at quarterback.

Minnesota (6-2, 2-2) at Indiana (3-4, 1-2), BTN: The Golden Gophers seek a three-game, Big Ten winning streak for the first time since they opened the 2008 conference season with victories over Indiana, Illinois and Purdue. The two-QB system with Mitch Leidner and Philip Nelson is working for Minnesota. Indiana just needs one guy to put up huge numbers. But can Nate Sudfeld do enough for the Hoosiers, who have dropped two straight despite scoring 75 points?

Northwestern (4-4, 0-4) at Nebraska (5-2, 2-1), BTN: It’s put-up-or-shut-up time for these Legends Division foes. Northwestern is already out of title contention, but its season has nearly slipped away as offensive anchors Venric Mark and Kain Colter continue to fight injuries. Colter will play this week, but his counterpart at Nebraska, quarterback Taylor Martinez, won’t. Freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. gets his fourth start. Expect senior Ron Kellogg III to again assist and keep an eye on Huskers I-back Ameer Abdullah, bothered this week by an ankle injury.

Weather

We’ve made it to November, so all things considered, not a bad day on tap. It’ll be chilly before early kickoffs in Iowa City and West Lafayette. Both games call for temperatures warming into the low 50s and some wind. For the other noon start, there’s a slight chance of showers in State College, though it should be comfortable.

Looks like a nice day in Lincoln, with a high temperature near 60 and sunny skies. Similar conditions appear set for Bloomington. East Lansing gets the worst weather of the day for the best game -- overcast, a slight chance of rain and temps that won’t reach 50.

Top Week 10 stories

What to watch in the Big Ten | Predictions | Did you know?

Iowa-Wisconsin are common enemies

Miller getting better one pass at a time

No room for QB gray area at Nebraska

Minnesota rouses at unlikeliest of times

Freeman at home on sideline with Boilers

MSU’s Connor Cook thrives under pressure

U-M hopes to survive mayhem on the road

Time for Hoke, Michigan to take next step

Dynamic frosh has opponents’ attention

O’Brien, Della Valle defend coordinator

Q&A: Wisconsin NT Beau Allen

Video: Big Ten Game of the Week

Wildcats aim for another Lincoln revival

Michigan-Michigan State roundtable

Happy Halloween in the Big Ten

Big Ten Week 9 primer

October, 26, 2013
10/26/13
7:00
AM ET
The Big Ten menu is extremely light today (gee thanks, double bye). But there should be some tasty morsels, plus an appetizing main course at night in Columbus.

Press start:

Noon ET

Nebraska (5-1, 2-0 Big Ten) at Minnesota (5-2, 1-2), ESPN: The Huskers have won 16 straight against the Gophers, though the two have played infrequently in the past 40 years. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez could make his return from turf toe, while Minnesota will have to decide again between Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner at quarterback. Jerry Kill is expected to attend but not coach the game for the Gophers, who need one more win for bowl eligibility and are looking for a signature victory.

Northwestern (4-3, 0-3) at Iowa (4-3, 1-2), Big Ten Network: It's getting late early for both these teams in conference play and in the chase for a bowl bid. With tough schedules remaining for both, this could be a key swing game. Northwestern looks to snap a three-game losing streak and hopes getting quarterback Kain Colter back will help in that quest. Iowa has lost four of its last five to the Wildcats but has home-field advantage and possibly a new-look, tight-end heavy attack on offense.

3: 30 p.m. ET

Michigan State (6-1, 3-0) at Illinois (3-3, 0-2), ABC/ESPN2: The league's best defense goes to Champaign to face an Illinois offense that's averaging 35.3 ppg this season. Will the Spartans be looking ahead to Michigan next week, or will they focus on the task at hand this week? And were Michigan State's struggles on offense versus Purdue last week a blip or a troubling regression? Meanwhile, the Illini look to break a 16-game Big Ten losing streak.

8 p.m. ET

Penn State (4-2, 1-1) at No. 4 Ohio State (7-0, 3-0), ABC: The Buckeyes will put their 19-game winning streak on the line against a team with nothing to lose. Lots of interesting matchups in this one, including Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby vs. Penn State star receiver Allen Robinson, the Buckeyes' secondary in general vs. quarterback Christian Hackenberg and the Nittany Lions' defensive front against the best offensive line in the league. This should be a fun way to end the Big Ten's Saturday.

Byes: Indiana, Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin

Weather

Brrr. Bundle up out there, especially in Columbus, where the temperatures could dip into the 30s by the end of the game. It should be warmer elsewhere, but the forecast calls for winds up to 25 mph in Iowa City, Champaign and Minneapolis.

Top Week 9 stories

What to watch | Predictions | Did you know?

Ohio State-Penn State roundtable

Gophers' Ra'Shede Hageman structured for success

Stanley Jean-Baptiste shifts into starring role

Buckeyes' offense remains power source

Bradley Roby gets another crack at primetime

Penn State finds its own motivation

Hackenberg to face biggest test to date

Big year brewing for Big Ten receivers

Take Two: Big Ten bowl hopefuls

Fitzgerald's targeting plan worth exploring
The top half of the Power Rankings remains virtually unchanged, as Big Ten kingpin Ohio State rallied to beat Iowa, Wisconsin stomped Illinois, and the Michigan schools held serve in vastly different ways (all defense for Michigan State, all offense for Michigan).

The changes come in the league's second tier, as Northwestern continues its shocking tumble after a home loss to Minnesota, which moves up three spots. Iowa actually moves up despite a loss, as we liked the Hawkeyes' game plan and execution against Ohio State. Indiana also holds steady after nearly winning a shootout at the Big House.

Let's take one final look at the Week 7 rankings.

Now for the fresh rundown ...

1. Ohio State (7-0, 3-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): Another test passed for Ohio State, which overcame a plucky Iowa team with a stellar second half behind quarterback Braxton Miller (222 pass yards, 2 TDs, 102 rush yards) and running back Carlos Hyde (149 rush yards, 2 TDs). The Buckeyes also survived the ejection of star cornerback Bradley Roby in the first quarter and limited Iowa's offense to one big play in the second half. The defense once again will be challenged this week as Christian Hackenberg, Allen Robinson and Penn State visit Columbus.

2. Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1; last week: 2): Ohio State retains its spot atop the rankings with a perfect record, but Wisconsin has looked like the Big Ten's most dominant team of late. After crushing Northwestern at Camp Randall Stadium, the Badgers went on the road and steamrolled Illinois, as running backs Melvin Gordon (142 rush yards, 3 TDs) and James White (98 rush yards, 2 TDs, 29 receiving yards, 1 TD) did their thing and Joel Stave had an extremely efficient performance (16 of 21 passing, 189 yards, 2 TDs). The second open week comes at a good time as linebacker Chris Borland must get healthy for the stretch run, which features some tricky games.

3. Nebraska (5-1, 2-0; last week: 3): The Huskers might be the Legends Division favorite at this point, as they get Michigan State at home. Quarterback Taylor Martinez should make his return from turf toe this week against Minnesota as Nebraska tries to keep building momentum before the season's defining month. Martinez needs some work before the schedule gets tougher, and the Huskers' offensive line plays its first game without standout guard Spencer Long.

4. Michigan State (6-1, 3-0; last week: 4): A shutout of Purdue wasn't surprising. Neither was another defensive touchdown, Michigan State's fifth of the season, courtesy of linebacker Denicos Allen. But Michigan State's offense took a step backward, as the line struggled to control Purdue's defensive front and Connor Cook completed only 13 passes for 107 yards. The Spartans will need to be sharper this week against Illinois and particularly when the schedule gets tougher in November.

5. Michigan (6-1, 2-1; last week: 5): We think Jeremy Gallon just caught another long pass. Gallon set a Big Ten single-game record with 369 receiving yards (second most in FBS history), while quarterback Devin Gardner set team records for pass yards (503) and total yards (584) and accounted for five total touchdowns. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint added 151 yards and four touchdowns. Michigan needed all the offense to win a shootout with Indiana at the Big House. As for the defense? A problem for another day. Michigan has two weeks to prepare for its Nov. 2 showdown at Michigan State.

6. Penn State (4-2, 1-1; last week: 7): The off week came at a good time for Penn State after a physically and emotionally draining four-overtime win against Michigan. The Lions had more diversity in their passing game against the Wolverines and will need the same -- as well as strong run production -- to keep pace with Ohio State on Saturday in Columbus. Penn State has won two of its past three games at Ohio Stadium and could play spoiler down the stretch in Leaders Division play.

7. Iowa (4-3, 1-2; last week: 8): Credit Iowa for an excellent game plan coming off the open week. The Hawkeyes racked up 17 first-half points against Ohio State and controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Ultimately, better talent won out as Iowa couldn't keep pace with Miller, Hyde and the Buckeyes, but the Hawkeyes certainly could make some noise down the stretch in the wide-open Legends Division. Sophomore tight end Jake Duzey (6 receptions, 138 yards, 1 TD) gives Jake Rudock another weapon in the passing game. Iowa returns home this week to face sputtering Northwestern.

8. Minnesota (5-2, 1-2; last week: 11): The bye week clearly paid off for Minnesota, and so did a halftime pep talk from coach Jerry Kill, who made his presence felt at Ryan Field without being on the sideline. Minnesota dominated the line of scrimmage, as defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, running back David Cobb and quarterback Philip Nelson, who relieved Mitch Leidner, stepped up in the final three quarters. The Gophers took advantage of a short-handed Northwestern team and overcame several bad calls to record a big road win. Up next: Nebraska at home.

9. Indiana (3-4, 1-2; last week: 9): The Hoosiers are high on entertainment value, boasting the Big Ten's best quick-strike offense and quite possibly the league's best group of wide receivers. But all those highlights and points still aren't translating to enough wins. It's the same movie with IU, with an A-plus offense and a D-minus defense, which surrendered an unacceptable 63 points and 751 yards to Michigan on Saturday. Tre Roberson was brilliant at Michigan and seemed to pass by Nate Sudfeld in the quarterback pecking order. But the defense remains the team's top priority entering the open week.

10. Northwestern (4-3, 0-3; last week: 6): The free-fall continues for a Wildcats team that was No. 2 in the power rankings just two weeks ago. Remember when Northwestern held a fourth-quarter lead against Ohio State? Key injuries certainly have played a role in Northwestern's downfall, but quarterback Trevor Siemian seems to be regressing and so is the offensive line. A bowl game suddenly is no guarantee for the Wildcats, who need to get Kain Colter and Venric Mark healthy and refocus for the stretch run. They visit Iowa this week.

11. Illinois (3-3, 0-2; last week: 10): The Illini needed a fast start coming off the open week against Wisconsin but stumbled out of the gate, falling behind 21-0 on their home field before course-correcting in the second quarter. Quarterback play wasn't the issue, as Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole combined to complete 25 of 32 passes for 318 yards, but two fumbles led to Wisconsin touchdowns and Illinois' defense couldn't slow down the Badgers. The Illini need at least one upset down the stretch to have a chance to reach six wins and a bowl.

12. Purdue (1-6, 0-3; last week: 12): Darrell Hazell's squad can build on Saturday's road performance against Michigan State, especially a Boilers defense that allowed just one score and repeatedly penetrated the backfield. The offense had several chances but couldn't finish drives in Spartans territory. Purdue needs to clean up its pass protection after allowing five sacks, but if Bruce Gaston Jr. and the defensive front continues to step up, a win could be coming down the stretch. The Boilers have a week off before hosting Ohio State.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 8

October, 17, 2013
10/17/13
10:15
AM ET
Ten things to keep your eyes on in the five Big Ten games on Saturday:

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCan Braxton Miller and Ohio State's high-powered offense move the ball against Michigan State's stingy defense?
1. Can Iowa's defense slow down Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes? The Hawkeyes boast a solid group of linebackers, and the Hawkeyes are ranked ninth in the country in total defense and 12th in scoring defense. Still, they haven't faced an offense anywhere close in talent to Ohio State, and it'll be interesting to see how Kirk Ferentz's squad matches up. For Ohio State, it hasn't mattered who's lined up under center or in the backfield. The Buckeyes have posted at least 31 points in every game -- and 40 points in five out of six. Iowa hasn't allowed more than 30 points all season. Something has to give.

2. Big injuries at Northwestern: The Wildcats' read-option could be in trouble Saturday. Both quarterback Kain Colter and tailback Venric Mark are nursing injuries, and they're both listed as questionable. Even if they do return, neither will be at 100 percent -- and both are crucial to a team that's been forced to rely on a high-scoring offense to win.

3. Different head coach, different starting quarterback: A lot has changed for Minnesota in the past few weeks. In Week 1, it looked as if Philip Nelson was the quarterback of the future and head coach Jerry Kill would lead this team to continued improvement. Now? Well, Mitch Leidner has been promoted to starting quarterback, while Kill has taken a leave of absence due to seizures. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will take over for Kill on Saturday, and Claeys will be coaching from the sideline -- he usually coaches from the press box -- against Northwestern. Claeys still plans to call the defensive plays, so he'll have to spend some time committing those play calls to memory. He won't have those charts in front of him anymore.

4. Michigan's response: The Wolverines suffered a heartbreaker in Happy Valley, as they couldn't put the game away despite several chances. They're now set to face the team, Indiana, that bounced the Nittany Lions. Michigan may have five wins already on the season, but it's been extremely shaky. A convincing win against the Hoosiers -- and their Big Ten-best passing attack -- could go a long way in showing this team is still a contender. And, of course, that all starts with Devin Gardner.

5. Inexperience no problem for this defensive line: The Buckeyes had to rebuild their defensive line from scratch this season as no starters returned, but these young players have stepped up in a big way. They slowed down Wisconsin's running attack and have contributed to the sixth-best run defense in the nation. True freshman DE Joey Bosa is listed as the starter against Iowa this week, and he already has four tackles for loss and a touchdown listed next to his name. Mark Weisman and the Hawkeyes will face a stiff test Saturday.

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
Keith Gillett/Icon SMIIllinois coach Tim Beckman says the players believe and are no longer saying "Can we do it" but instead are now saying "When we do it."
6. Illini still riding a conference-worst streak: Illinois has dropped 15 straight Big Ten games, which means it last won a conference game on Oct. 8, 2011, against Indiana. Illinois plays Purdue on Nov. 23 but, before then, there will be no easy victories. The Illini will play Wisconsin this weekend, followed by Michigan State, Penn State, Indiana and Ohio State. Luckily for Tim Beckman's crew, it's still nowhere close to the Big Ten record for the worst conference losing streak. That unfortunate record-holder would be Northwestern, which lost 38 straight Big Ten games between 1978 and 1982.

7. Spartans' offense in the midst of a turnaround: Early on, it seemed as if Michigan State's offense would be a liability all season. After all, in the first two games, the defense scored more touchdowns while Mark Dantonio couldn't settle on a quarterback. But Connor Cook has since taken over and the running game has taken off. Cook's QBR has taken a step up each week against the FBS, from 17.1 to 27.8 to 68.1 and, last Saturday, to 83.1. Jeremy Langford is also starting to make a name for himself, with four touchdowns this past week. The Spartans are trending upward, and they might be difficult to stop. It won't be easy for Purdue.

8. MGIII might be unstoppable the rest of the way: Yes, the Buckeyes limited Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon to 74 yards on 15 carries -- but he'll face just one more top-10 defense the rest of the regular season. He's third in the FBS with 870 rushing yards, ranks second nationally in yards per carry (9.7) among tailbacks and is 10th in the nation in rushing touchdowns (8). He's one of the most exciting players in the Big Ten, and every team going forward will likely struggle stopping him. His next opponent, Illinois, is allowing nearly 200 rushing yards a game.

9. Can Purdue do anything right? Nothing's been easy for Darrell Hazell's Boilermakers. They just scooted past FCS team Indiana State 20-14, and four of their five losses were decided by 31 points or more. Purdue's future hopes are pinned to true freshman quarterback Danny Etling. But, for now, there's no guarantee that Purdue will escape the 2013 season with another win. It's ranked No. 118 in scoring offense and, in scoring defense, it's ranked No. 114. At this point, Purdue would just be fortunate to hang in tough against Michigan State.

10. Home of inconsistent quarterbacks and good defenses: Welcome to the Big Ten! The conference boasts three teams (Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin) that are nationally ranked in the top 10 in total defense, and three more (Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State) that are within the top 20. Still, the passing offenses haven't exactly taken off as planned. The Big Ten's top QBs entering this season -- arguably Taylor Martinez, Gardner and Miller -- have either missed time due to injury or have been on the receiving end of some quarterback controversy.

Youth being served at QB in Big Ten

October, 9, 2013
10/09/13
2:15
PM ET
Freshman Danny Etling will make his first career start at quarterback for Purdue this weekend, two weeks after making his college debut vs. Northern Illinois.

Boilermakers fans are excited about the future of their young signal-caller, and in that they have company in the Big Ten. Though quarterback is generally viewed as a position that takes experience and maturity to handle, several Big Teams have gone with a youth movement under center.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesRedshirt freshman signal-caller Tommy Armstrong has shown he has a bright future at Nebraska while filling in for Taylor Martinez.
In fact, Etling can look across the field on Saturday and see another young player in his position: Nebraska redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong, who is expected to fill in for the injured Taylor Martinez for the third straight game. Etling will be the fourth freshman quarterback to start for a Big Ten program this season, meaning a full third of the league has trusted its offense to a player in his first year of college competition.

What happened to making guys wait their turn and hold clipboards for a few years? The explosion of offense throughout the sport has helped speed the development for quarterbacks.

"I think they are more prepared earlier with all the 7-on-7s and everything that's going on," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "There's been more of an opportunity for guys to go out and throw all summer long."

"Some of these kids are playing year round football," Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "They're coming in more prepared, and the talent's better. I think the offensive game has gotten to where maybe it's helping quarterbacks."

Freshman quarterbacks aren't a new phenomenon. Minnesota started freshman Philip Nelson last year, while Wisconsin started turned to redshirt freshman Joel Stave. Indiana's Nate Sudfeld didn't start but saw a lot of time last season as a freshman. Two years ago, Braxton Miller started for Ohio State his first year of playing, while Indiana played freshman Tre Roberson. Current seniors Martinez and Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase both started as redshirt freshman.

Still, the crop of young quarterbacks seems especially large this year, and it's one that could impact the Big Ten for years to come.

The headliner of the group is Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, who was ranked as the nation's No. 1 pro-style quarterback recruit last year. Despite not arriving on campus until the summer, Hackenberg has started since the opener. He ranks second in the league in passing yards with 1,367 while throwing for eight touchdowns and four interceptions.

"When you see a guy with [Hackenberg's] body language and how he handles himself, I think it's very impressive," said Hoke, whose Wolverines play at Penn State on Saturday. "I think he looks very composed and he has handled different situations very well. A lot of things impress me about him, like the way he moves up in the pocket and I think he throws a great football."

I think they are more prepared earlier with all the 7-on-7s and everything that's going on. There's been more of an opportunity for guys to go out and throw all summer long.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke on freshmen quarterbacks playing in college football.
Minnesota's experience with a first-year quarterback didn't end with Nelson. Redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner stepped in earlier this season when Nelson was hurt and then got the start over Nelson last week at Michigan. At 6-foot-4, 230-pounds, he's a hard-nosed runner who ran for 151 yards and four touchdowns against San Jose State. Last week, he completed 14 of 21 passes for 145 yards and ran for 66 yards.

"I really thought he made some big plays with his legs and executed really pretty good,” acting coach Tracy Claeys said after the loss to Michigan.

Armstrong had to step in for Martinez, who continues to battle a case of turf toe. He has gotten Huskers fans excited by his play, completing 20 of 28 passes for 304 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in his first two games. The idea that he should replace a healthy Martinez is silly, but the future looks bright.

"He's still a work in progress," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "There are some mistakes he made that might not have been real apparent to the naked eye, but they're still there and he's still learning a lot. I think every time he goes out there, it gives him an opportunity to grow. Mistakes and things will happen to him, but he's a smart guy and he understands the offense and what's being asked of him."

Etling completes the quarter of first-year quarterbacks. Purdue fans were thrilled to see him throw for 241 yards and two touchdowns (along with two picks) in the otherwise disappointing loss to Northern Illinois. Etling was the most important recruit in Hazell's first signing class, and his ceiling is so high that former starter Rob Henry has been moved to safety for the rest of his senior year. While Hazell says Etling opens up the entire passing game for the Boilers, he won't put too much on his plate early.

"He's a very bright guy who works very hard, and he's one heck of a talent," Hazell said. "I'm really looking forward to his progress here in the next few years."

Several Big Ten fan bases are saying the same thing right now about their starting quarterback.
The first truly significant Big Ten game of 2013 is in the books, and Ohio State, thanks to the return of quarterback Braxton Miller and a stout run defense, found a way to prevail. As a reward, the Buckeyes remain atop the Big Ten power rankings heading into another showdown this week at Northwestern.

It's not much consolation to Wisconsin or its fans, but there might not be a better two-loss team in the FBS than the Badgers, who displayed a lot of fight in Columbus even after top running back Melvin Gordon injured his knee. We've been more impressed with Wisconsin than 4-0 Michigan or 3-1 Nebraska, so we're keeping the Badgers in the No. 3 hole for now.

Iowa makes a major move up the rankings after its impressive win in Minneapolis, while the Gophers take a tumble.

Half of the Big Ten spent Saturday on the couch, so there wasn't much movement in the power rankings.

One last look at last week's rankings.

And away we go ...

1. Ohio State (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): Welcome back, Mr. Miller. The Ohio State quarterback returned to the field with a bang Saturday night, firing four touchdown passes and completing 17 of 25. Carlos Hyde also seemingly has reclaimed his place atop the running back depth chart, and Ohio State's young defense took a step against Wisconsin's power run game Saturday night. The Buckeyes now must figure out how to replace standout safety Christian Bryant as they face another test this week at Northwestern.

2. Northwestern (4-0, last week: 2): After two uninspiring performances against weak competition, Northwestern knows it must elevate its play significantly against Ohio State in what will be the most anticipated game of the Pat Fitzgerald era. Expect running back Venric Mark to return against the Buckeyes, as Northwestern will need its zone-read game to be in top form to keep pace with Ohio State on the scoreboard.

3. Wisconsin (3-2, 1-1; last week: 3): Credit the Badgers for a strong effort in Columbus despite a shaky start, a disastrous end to the first half and the loss of running back Melvin Gordon to a knee injury. But Wisconsin once again came up just short on the road. Despite another single-digit loss, Wisconsin can take away some positives from Columbus, namely the play of quarterback Joel Stave and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis. But the Badgers, who are off this week, will need some help if they want to return to Indianapolis.

4. Michigan (4-0, last week: 4): No team needed the off week more than Michigan, which had plenty to clean up following near disasters against Akron and Connecticut. Quarterback Devin Gardner's decision-making skills will be under the microscope against Minnesota, and the Wolverines' line play also will be in the spotlight against a Gophers team that has improved up front.

5. Nebraska (3-1, last week: 5): No one wants to hear Bo Pelini talk about execution anymore. It's time for Nebraska's defense to show some improvement, or it will be a long Big Ten season in Lincoln. After an open week, the Blackshirts will face a good test from Nathan Scheelhaase and an Illinois offense that doesn't resemble the unit we saw last season. Quarterback Taylor Martinez's health will be an interesting story line this week.

6: Iowa (4-1, 1-0; last week: 9): We knew Iowa was an improved team, but we needed a little more validation. Kirk Ferentz's crew provided it Saturday with a dominant performance against Minnesota to ruin its rival's homecoming. The offense is significantly better behind quarterback Jake Rudock and running back Mark Weisman, and an opportunistic defense shut down Minnesota's run game and controlled the line of scrimmage. Iowa is minutes away from being undefeated and returns home to play Michigan State with a bunch of momentum.

7. Michigan State (3-1, last week: 7): The Spartans had a familiar to-do list during their open week -- fix the offense. Coach Mark Dantonio is sticking with Connor Cook as his starting quarterback, but Dantonio clearly wants to see more plays made from the signal-caller. Michigan State's offensive line can build off its performance at Notre Dame, but the Spartans need some chunk plays.

8. Penn State (3-1, last week: 8): Bill O'Brien once again has the offense moving, as the Nittany Lions' run game looks strong and freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg is performing beyond his years. The bigger questions remain on defense, as Penn State rebounded against a woeful Kent State offense but must show it can contain more explosive attacks. The good news is we'll find out as Penn State opens Big Ten play against four strong offenses, starting this week at Indiana.

9. Illinois (3-1, last week: 10): Here come the Illini. The biggest surprise in the Big Ten completed nonleague play at 3-1 and heads to Nebraska with a lot of confidence, particularly on offense. Scheelhaase takes aim at a vulnerable Huskers defense after firing five first-half touchdown passes and finishing with 278 pass yards on 19-of-24. The big question now is, can he follow it up against a major-conference team after struggling against Washington? Illinois already has exceeded last year's wins total.

10. Minnesota (4-1, last week: 6): The Gophers take a tumble after a horrendous performance on homecoming against Iowa. It seems like Minnesota was a product of a weak nonleague schedule, as some of the small problems that surfaced against weaker competition became big problems against Iowa, which dominated the Gophers at the line of scrimmage. Quarterback Philip Nelson struggled mightily and didn't get much help from the run game. After Mitch Leidner provided a spark in Week 4, it will be interesting to see what Jerry Kill does at quarterback going forward.

11. Indiana (2-2, last week: 11): A regrouping week was in order for Indiana after nearly nothing went right against Missouri. Quarterback Nate Sudfeld must rebound from his first real brush with adversity (three interceptions). Indiana's defense faces another balanced attack in Penn State after failing to stop Missouri on the ground or through the air. After sluggish starts in both of its losses, IU needs a strong first quarter against the Lions.

12. Purdue (1-4, 0-1; last week: 12): The misery continues for Darrell Hazell's crew, but there's a reason to watch the Boilers for the rest of the season. The Danny Etling era is underway, as Hazell opted to burn the quarterback's redshirt after Rob Henry continued to struggle. Etling showed some promise in Purdue's loss to Northern Illinois, as the offense racked up 524 yards. An open week comes at a good time for the beleaguered Boilers and their young quarterback.

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Christian Hackenberg threw for 454 yards to help Penn State survive Central Florida 26-24.
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