Penn State Nittany Lions: Reilly O'Toole

Big Ten lunch links

May, 20, 2014
May 20
12:00
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You cannot give up on the gravy.
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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.
Spring football kicks off earlier than normal in the Big Ten, as Michigan takes the field Tuesday, Northwestern follows Wednesday and eight other squads begin their sessions by March 8.

The accelerated schedules seem appropriate in a league filled with players, coaches and teams itching for fresh starts.

New assistants get their first chance to repair struggling units, whether it's Doug Nussmeier with Michigan's offense, Brian Knorr with Indiana's defense or Chris Ash and Larry Johnson with a once-feared Ohio State defense. Quarterback competitions begin or resume at nine places, as new faces such as Illinois' Wes Lunt, Nebraska's Johnny Stanton and Minnesota's Chris Streveler enter the mix, while veterans like Wisconsin's Joel Stave and Michigan's Devin Gardner try to retain their starting jobs.

Happy Valley continues to buzz about new Penn State coach James Franklin, who seems to galvanize everyone whom he encounters. But Franklin barely has been around his new players and finally begins the real work with a team facing very real challenges.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes his team can start a rebound from a disappointing, injury-riddled 2013 season.
Spring also allows teams such as Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue and Indiana to look forward after disappointing seasons. Michigan State, meanwhile, continues to bask in the Rose Bowl glow but looks toward its next goal -- a national championship -- as spring ball kicks off March 25.

"It's big-picture stuff, building relationships with the players and everyone associated with the program," Franklin told ESPN.com. "The other thing is laying a really good foundation with the philosophies and schemes of how we're going to do things. That's going to happen naturally over time, but I'm not the most patient person. I wish it would have happened yesterday."

Franklin doesn't water down his goals for Penn State, especially in recruiting, but he's also realistic about the challenges of a reduced roster. The Nittany Lions return strong pieces such as quarterback Christian Hackenberg and defensive back Adrian Amos, but the two-deep has some holes that Franklin and his assistants must address, while installing new schemes.

"It's one thing when you get put in this situation in the first place with limited scholarships," Franklin said, "but the longer you're in it, the more effect it has. We've got some depth issues, there's no doubt about it, across the board. We're going to have to get creative."

Northwestern also is focused on depth after being hit hard by key injuries in 2013. Pat Fitzgerald blames himself and his staff for failing to get enough second-stringers ready, which proved costly in close Big Ten losses.

After their first bowl-less winter in six years, the Wildcats responded well in the weight room, as more than 50 players recorded personal bests. Although 11 players will miss spring practice, including standout running back/returner Venric Mark, the depth should be better in areas like the secondary.

"We're really emphasizing taking ownership of the finish," Fitzgerald said. "Finishing your technique, finishing the call, finishing the route. There's a lot of disappointment in the way the program didn't take the next step forward."

Michigan coach Brady Hoke restructured the roles of his defensive assistants for 2014, but the Wolverines' offense will be in the spotlight this spring after a wildly inconsistent season. Gardner, who continues to recover from a foot injury and likely won't be 100 percent until midway through the spring, will compete with Shane Morris, Russell Bellomy and midyear enrollee Wilton Speight.

But other positions, such as offensive line, figure to be just as important as Michigan tries to achieve Hoke and Nussmeier's vision.

"We had good intentions as far as what we wanted our identity to be, but obviously I don't think it came out the way we'd like it to," Hoke said. "The quarterback position is as important as any, and we have a guy [Gardner] who is very talented and had some really good games and games where we had to protect him better, have a better run game and take pressure off of him, and I don't think we did."

While Michigan turns the page on offense, Ohio State focuses on a defense that allowed 115 points in its last three games and finished 110th nationally in pass yards allowed (268 YPG). The Buckeyes lost top defenders Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby, but they also added two accomplished assistants.

Johnson, who churned out NFL linemen during 18 years at Penn State, chose Ohio State instead of remaining in State College. Ash leaves a sole coordinator role at Arkansas for a co-coordinator role at Ohio State, where he'll work with the embattled Luke Fickell and others to mend the defense through a simplified scheme.

"Back in the day when Ohio State played great defense, you knew what you were going to get," Ash said. "They played with swagger, played with confidence, played with toughness. We have to get back to that. The simplicity of the things we're going to do will lead to faster players, more plays made and a more aggressive defense.

"I wasn't here [in 2013], but I can tell you what Coach Meyer has told me, what Luke Fickell has told me and what I watch on film. I can see there's some hesitation, there's some uncertainty. Why that is, I don't know. But it's my job to get it fixed."

Purdue has plenty to fix after a 1-11 season, and players not surprisingly are wearing T-shirts with the word "FORWARD" on the backs. Maryland and Rutgers move forward to a new conference after an offseason that saw several staff changes, including new coordinators at Rutgers (Ralph Friedgen, Joe Rossi).

There's a fresh start of sorts at Wisconsin, as a large and decorated senior class departs. Coach Gary Andersen's markings will be more obvious with his second team, which begins practice March 7.

Wisconsin is just one of many places where the top quarterback job is at stake. Lunt, who sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma State, competes with Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey at Illinois.

"Competition's competition, no matter where it's at," said Lunt, who has added about 15 pounds since his arrival and checks in at 225. "It's different because it’s different people, different coaches, but I'm excited for it."

He's not alone in the Big Ten. Spring ball can't start soon enough.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 12

November, 18, 2013
11/18/13
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Twelve seconds.

That's how much time remained in regulation at Northwestern after Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner hit Jeremy Gallon on a 16-yard pass. The clock was running. What happened next was what Wolverines coach Brady Hoke said "might be the best single play I've ever seen."

The Michigan field goal unit sprinted onto the field. Holder Drew Dileo, who had run a pattern as a wide receiver, ran in from the other side of the field and slid into position. The snap came with one second to go, and kicker Brendan Gibbons made a 44-yarder to send the game into overtime, where the Wolverines eventually won.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was upset that his team didn't get a chance to substitute its block team in. The Wildcats were in disarray as the field goal try went up. Referee Bill LeMonnier explained to a pool reporter afterward that on the final play of the half, teams aren't automatically given the right to substitute on field goal defense.

That play goes down as the second-craziest finish to regulation of a Big Ten game this year. In the Wisconsin-Arizona State game, there were 18 seconds left when Joel Stave downed the ball. The Badgers never got to run another play.

Take that and rewind it back ...

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsMark Dantonio and the Spartans control their own destiny to reach the Big Ten title game.
Team of the week: Michigan State. It was not a vintage defensive performance for the Spartans, who allowed 28 points to a Nebraska offense that turned the ball over five times and played with a stitched-together line. But Mark Dantonio's team still won by double digits on the road in Lincoln for its first win over the Huskers while clinching at least a share of the Legends Division title. Then there's this: Through 10 games, the Spartans are averaging 30.9 points per contest.

Worst hangover: Northwestern finds more ways to lose than anybody. The Wildcats had a dominant defensive effort against Michigan in allowing no touchdowns in regulation. But they had a 7-yard shank punt that set up a Michigan first-and-goal, Ibraheim Campbell dropped an easy interception on the Wolverines' final drive, and they couldn't pounce on a fumble in overtime. Northwestern has lost twice in overtime, once on a Hail Mary and in games that went down to the final drives against Minnesota and Ohio State. Sheesh.

Best call: Nebraska had to be ready for some Michigan State tomfoolery, right? We've seen it so many times from Dantonio in a big game.

And it worked again on Saturday. The Spartans lined up for a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Nebraska 27, leading 27-21 in the fourth quarter. Punter Mike Sadler, who serves as the holder on field goals, took the snap and pushed his way forward for 3 yards. The play was called "Charlie Brown," evoking memories of Lucy snatching the ball away in "Peanuts." But Sadler was actually supposed to check out of the play because of the way Nebraska was set up, and the play was never designed to go up the middle where he ran.

"That was the last thing going through my mind," said Sadler, who went up the middle on a successful punt fake at Iowa last month. "I was just trying to think of my touchdown dance."

He didn't score, but Connor Cook delivered a touchdown pass three plays later to all but seal the victory.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde piled up five total touchdowns while rushing for 246 yards on just 24 carries versus Illinois. He had touchdown runs of 51 and 55 yards in the final four minutes to put the game on ice.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): In a game that didn't feature a whole lot of defense, Ohio State's Ryan Shazier still managed an impressive stat line at Illinois: 16 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. He had the safety on Reilly O'Toole that gave the Buckeyes some breathing room. And while he had a chance to turn that into a touchdown had he not celebrated a bit too soon, Shazier still had an outstanding performance considering Ohio State's other two starting linebackers were out with injuries.

[+] EnlargeBrendan Gibbons
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhBrendan Gibbons hit a 44-yard field goal as time expired to put Michigan into overtime at Northwestern.
Big Men on Campus (Special teams): This goes to the entire Michigan field goal unit, including Gibbons, Dileo, snapper Jareth Glanda, special-teams coordinator Dan Ferrigno and everyone else involved in that unbelievable play at the end of regulation at Northwestern. That was a team effort, and if one guy was a half-second late, the Wolverines lose. (Tips of the cap also go out to Purdue's Raheem Mostert and Illinois' V'Angelo Bentley, who both scored on returns).

Sideline interference: Illinois coach Tim Beckman had to be separated from offensive coordinator Bill Cubit on the sidelines after quarterback Reilly O'Toole was sacked in the end zone. Both coaches later said it was just a heat-of-the-moment thing, and Cubit added, "You'd be shocked at how many times" that happens during games. But it's still not a good look for Beckman, whose sideline mishaps the past two years include getting called for interference penalties and getting caught using chewing tobacco.

Who needs tickets?: Want to see a Big Ten game, but you don't have more than 50 cents in your pocket? Then this week's Illinois-Purdue Basement Bowl is for you. On StubHub this morning, several tickets to Saturday's game at Ross-Ade Stadium could be had for as little as 39 cents. Get 'em while they're hot!

Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Info):

  • Wisconsin ran for 554 yards Saturday versus Indiana. It was the second most in school history, behind the 564 the Badgers compiled against the Hoosiers last year. So in the past two games against IU, Wisconsin has rushed for 1,118 yards and 13 touchdowns; on Saturday the Badgers had three 100-yard rushers (James White, Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement) and an 86-yard rusher (Jared Abbrederis, on reverses). The Badgers' running game added 35.8 expected points to their net scoring margin; two of the top 10 rushing EPA games in the FBS the past 10 years were posted by Wisconsin against Indiana. The Badgers still fell far short of the Big Ten rushing record of 832 yards, set by Minnesota in 1905. But they do get Indiana again next year, so you never know.

  • ESPN's strength of schedule rankings (out of 126 FBS teams):
Alabama: 48th
Florida State: 60th
Ohio State: 88th
Baylor: 95th
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.
Every day this week, NittanyNation will continue taking a closer look at a different game this season and how the matchup stacks up for PSU. Up today: Illinois.

For as long as Tim Beckman remains the Illinois coach, Bill O'Brien and the Penn State fan base aren't going to forget about last summer -- or how Beckman and Co. arrived on campus in an attempt to "poach" players.

Of course, Beckman might not be the Illinois coach much longer.
Way back in the heady days of the 2012 preseason, we ranked every Big Ten position group from No. 1 through 12. We had to base our thoughts on previous performance and a lot of projections in August.

We're going back now and issuing a final, postseason ranking for each position group, and these will be far less subjective now because we have an actual full season's worth of data on hand.

Quarterbacks, naturally, are up first. (Those guys hog all the glory). You can take a look back and see how we ranked this group in the preseason here. Depth is an important factor in these position rankings, but having a standout main guy under center (or in the shotgun) is the most overriding concern with this group.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteThanks to consistent play by QB Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes finished the 2012 season unbeaten.
1. Ohio State (Preseason rank: 5): We figured Braxton Miller would improve greatly in his second year of starting and in Urban Meyer's system. We didn't know he'd become the Big Ten offensive player of the year or finish fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. While he didn't always throw the ball with precision, Miller made all the big plays and led his team to a 12-0 record. The biggest preseason worry was what would happen if he got hurt. Kenny Guiton answered that in the Purdue comeback.

2. Penn State (Preseason: 12): The Nittany Lions were dead last in our preseason rankings, and with good reason considering their past performances at the position. But I did write at the time: "Call me an optimist, but I believe Matt McGloin will be more effective at quarterback now that he's got a more modern offensive system and peace of mind that he's the starter." Uh, yeah. McGloin led the Big Ten in passing yards (3,266) and passing touchdowns (24) while throwing only five interceptions. And he stayed healthy, keeping Penn State's youthful backups from getting exposed.

3. Nebraska (Preseason: 3): Taylor Martinez led the Big Ten in total offense and completed a career-best 62 percent of his passes. When he was good, he was as good as there was in the league. But he still struggled with turnovers in key games, including 12 interceptions and numerous fumbles. If he can eliminate the mistakes, the sky's the limit.

4. Michigan (Preseason: 2): The Wolverines are a hard to team to peg in these rankings. Do we rank them based on Denard Robinson's poor showings in big games against Alabama and Notre Dame? Do we rank them based on Devin Gardner's strong finish to the season, when he was as productive as any Big Ten QB? How much do we factor in the team's lack of a solid backup plan in the Nebraska loss when Robinson got hurt early? You have to weigh the good with the bad, which makes this spot feel about right.

5. Northwestern (Preseason: 9): Starting quarterback Kain Colter threw for 872 yards, which was nearly 450 yards less than nominal backup Trevor Siemian. But Colter also rushed for 894 yards and kept defenses off balance with his versatility. Meanwhile, the Wildcats could use Siemian when they needed to stretch the field. The next step for Northwestern is developing a more consistent downfield passing attack.

6. Indiana (Preseason: 11): Who would have guessed in the preseason that the Hoosiers would actually exhibit the best depth at quarterback? After starter Tre Roberson went down in Week 2, Indiana was able to plug in juco transfer Cameron Coffman and true freshman Nate Sudfeld to sustain the league's top passing offense. The three combined to throw for more than 3,700 yards. Coffman got the bulk of the work but needed a better touchdown-to-interception ration than his 15-to-11 mark.

7. Purdue (Preseason: 1): We overrated the Boilermakers' depth in the preseason. It turned out that only one of the trio of former starters performed at a high level, and Robert Marve didn't play enough because of a torn ACL and Danny Hope's misguided insistence on sticking with Caleb TerBush. Purdue actually led the Big Ten in passing touchdowns (30) and finished third in passing yards, but much of that was because the team often had to throw the ball a lot after falling way behind. This ranking could have been higher with a full season of Marve.

8. Wisconsin (Preseason: 8): Danny O'Brien quickly showed that he was not the next Russell Wilson, but luckily the Badgers had some depth. Redshirt freshman Joel Stave showed major promise before his season was derailed by a broken collarbone, and Curt Phillips turned in a nice comeback story by managing the team well down the stretch. Still, Wisconsin ranked last in the Big Ten in passing yards.

9. Michigan State (Preseason: 10): It was not exactly a season to remember for first-year starter Andrew Maxwell, who was benched late in the Spartans' bowl game. But for all his struggles, Maxwell still finished No. 4 in the league in passing and had some nice games in the middle of the year.

10. Minnesota (Preseason: 6): What could MarQueis Gray have done if he hadn't hurt his ankle, prompting an eventual move to receiver? True freshman Philip Nelson took over the reins midseason and broke out with a huge first half against Purdue. However, he failed to throw for more than 80 yards in the team's final three regular season games. Nelson led the team with just 873 passing yards on the season, and the Gophers threw 15 interceptions.

11. Iowa (Preseason: 4): Nobody took a bigger tumble than the Hawkeyes, as James Vandenberg went from a 3,000-yard passer as a junior to often looking lost as a senior. He completed only 57.3 percent of his passes and tossed only seven touchdowns, with eight interceptions, and Iowa showed almost no ability to go vertical. And no other Hawkeye attempted a pass all season.

12. Illinois (Preseason: 7): The Illini had experience at the position with Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole, but they were both part of a wildly dysfunctional offense. Illinois was next-to-last in passing yards in the Big Ten and also had just 11 touchdown passes versus 14 interceptions. In fairness, both QBs were often running for their lives and had very little help.

Big Ten stock report: Week 12

November, 14, 2012
11/14/12
9:00
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We take a look inside the Big Ten trends, with no insider trading needed.

Stock up

James White: While Montee Ball understandably is getting all the attention right now, don't forget the job Wisconsin's No. 2 back is doing. White rushed for 161 yards on just 14 carries last week at Indiana, including the back-breaking 69-yard touchdown at the end of the first half. White has run for at least 100 yards in three of his last four games.

Baker Steinkuhler: The Nebraska defense has played much better in recent weeks -- particularly in the second halves -- and senior defensive tackle Steinkuhler is a reason why. A one-time highly decorated recruit, Steinkuhler is living up to that reputation by playing the best football of his career the past few weeks, coach Bo Pelini said this week. He had six tackles and a sack against Penn State last week. “Baker’s a stud," Pelini said. "He’s a leader. He’s everything you want.”

Purdue's ACL trio:
Take a knee, gentlemen. The Boilermakers' backfield trio of Robert Marve, Rob Henry and Ralph Bolden -- who have seven torn ACLs between them -- had a big day at Iowa last week. Marve threw for 266 yards and led the final drive for the winning field goal. Henry continued to play his jack-of-all trades role, including a flip to Akeem Shavers on a double option for a touchdown. Maybe most encouragingly, Bolden eclipsed 100 rushing yards for the first time since the beginning of last season. "That was very special for our whole football family," head coach Danny Hope said.

(Read full post)

Previewing the Big Ten noon games

September, 29, 2012
9/29/12
10:00
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Happy start of Big Ten conference play.

League action officially begins in a couple of hours, starting with three intraconference noon games. Here's a quick preview of those early matchups:

Indiana (2-1) at Northwestern (4-0): Pat Fitzgerald said this week that Hoosiers-Wildcats games are usually close and entertaining. He's right. Before Northwestern’s 59-38 win in Bloomington last year, the previous seven meetings between these two were decided by a total of 26 points, including the Wildcats' three-point win in 2010, and huge comeback for a one-point victory in 2009. Indiana will have to try and stop a Northwestern rushing attack, led by Venric Mark, that has been one of the best in the Big Ten. Meanwhile, the Hoosiers have the league's top passing attack and remain dangerous with Cameron Coffman at quarterback.

Penn State (2-2) at Illinois (2-2): We've had this game circled since late July, when the Illini sent eight coaches to State College to try and recruit some Penn State transfers. Nobody on either side said anything inflammatory this week, but it clearly is a major subplot in this game. Illinois' defense has struggled against spread offenses, which doesn't really describe the Nittany Lions. But Matt McGloin and Allen Robinson are the leading passer and receiver in the league, respectively. Illinois has some quarterback questions. Nathan Scheelhaase is expected to start, but he was pulled early for Reilly O'Toole in last week's Louisiana Tech game when he didn't look completely healed from a Week 1 sprained ankle.

Minnesota (4-0) at Iowa (2-2): The Gophers are looking to win the Floyd of Rosedale trophy for the third straight year. That hasn't happened since 1998-2000. During that stretch (1999) was also the last time Minnesota won in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes should be an angry team after losing last week to Central Michigan, but James Vandenberg and his receivers must be on point against the No. 11 pass efficiency defense in the FBS. Max Shortell makes his second straight start at quarterback for the injured MarQueis Gray and will have to avoid turnovers like he did last week versus Syracuse.

Notebook: DT Hill adjusting to new role

September, 28, 2012
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Jordan Hill knew expectations for him were high entering this season. He couldn't forget. A tour bus features his mug, and his name is plastered on two awards lists.

[+] EnlargeJordan Hill
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesJordan Hill's stats have diminished because he's the subject of constant double-teams, but the senior is embracing his new role.
He expected to take over for Devon Still, who was drafted in the second round by the Cincinnati Bengals, and build off last season. He didn't expect this. He didn't know he'd tackle just one ball-carrier in the backfield through four games.

"It's been really different to me, especially the first two games," Hill said. "I was really game-planned around. Teams were running away from me and double-teaming me. ... It's a little different from what I've been used to."

After Ohio, he shifted from the one-technique -- just outside of the center -- to his usual three-technique spot just outside the guard. He has recorded just five solo tackles this season, but he said he's becoming more accustomed to his role.

"I've come a long way, I would say. I'm just getting used to it and accepting it's going to happen," he said, referring to double teams.

Hill said he felt most comfortable this past week, and it showed. He finished second on the team in tackles with seven, forced a fumble and recorded a sack.

The senior DT said he's learned, when two linemen come at him, he just has to focus on one. He can't take on both players at once, and he knows he'll likely face double-teams throughout the season.

"Knowing that someone's game-planning against you is a good thing, I guess," he said. "It has to leave somebody open, whether it's another defensive tackle or a lineman or a linebacker, somebody has to be free. You can't be selfish."

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5 storylines: PSU vs. Illinois 

September, 27, 2012
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Every week, NittanyNation takes a look at five storylines that stand out: What should fans keep an eye on? What's the bigger picture? What might be on display Saturday?

Here are NittanyNation's Week 5 storylines:

1. "Poaching" PSU players: When Tim Beckman's staff stepped foot on Penn State's campus after the sanctions, animosity was instantly created between the Fighting Illini and the Nittany Lions. Players tried to deflect any talk of the rivalry this week, but tailback Derek Day admitted the team was offended. Ryan Nowicki was the lone Penn State player to transfer to Champaign, and PSU cornerback Stephon Morris called him a coward at media day.

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Tuesdays with O'Brien

September, 25, 2012
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Cornerback Adrian Amos is just fine, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said. He didn't suffer a concussion in Saturday's game; his helmet just became twisted.

"Adrian really didn't get his bell rung on that one," O'Brien added.

O'Brien said defensive end Pete Massaro will probably not play, but he listed Sean Stanley as "probable." Donovan Smith was also listed on the depth chart as the starting left tackle.

Punt returner: Jesse Della Valle returned three punts for 45 yards against Temple, and O'Brien called him the "special teams player of the week."

"He's got a little bit of a knack for that," O'Brien said, "and we're going to stick with him."

O'Brien said secondary coach John Butler noticed Della Valle making good catches during warmups against Virginia -- so they decided to go with him then. And, after Saturday's performance, he's cemented his position.

Defensive line: O'Brien showed a lot of respect for the Illini's defensive line, which features two players on a lot of watch lists.

Defensive end Michael Buchanan (Nagurski, Bednarik, Lombardi, Hendricks) and defensive tackle Akeem Spence (Lombardi, Outland) could give Penn State some trouble, and O'Brien said he gets a sense of deja vu when he watches them.

"They remind us of what we play against every day in practice," he said.

Preparing for ... who? Illinois coach Tim Beckman said Monday that Nathan Scheelhaase remains his starting quarterback, but Penn State appears to be preparing for both.

Scheelhaase is a dual-threat, while Reilly O'Toole is more of a pocket passer.

"Both guys bring two distinct styles to the offense," O'Brien said, "so preparing for this team is very, very difficult because you almost have to prepare for two types of offenses."

Sticking with it: Wideout Brandon Moseby-Felder made a critical drop Saturday that wound up as a Temple interception. O'Brien said he exchange some words with Moseby-Felder, mainly just telling Shawney Kersey's replacement he wouldn't bench him.

"Brandon Moseby-Felder is proably one of the more improved players on our football team," O'Brien said. "When he came here in the spring, he had some injuries -- a bit of a hamstring -- but he stuck with it."

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