Penn State Nittany Lions: Sam Ficken


STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – James Franklin kept many of his skill players off the field for most of Penn State's annual scrimmage, but there were certainly still other aspects to glean from the game.

Christian Hackenberg played in just three series, and Michael O’Connor took over for the rest of the game for the Blue team. Blue, which consisted mostly of starters, ended up with the 37-0 victory -- some players even tugged the victory bell -- as we learned a few more things about the Nittany Lions:

[+] EnlargeDe'Andre Thompkins
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicPenn State freshman De'Andre Thompkins caught one pass and had a 22-yard rush in the spring game.
1. This is an offense that’s willing to do different things. Bill O’Brien hated the Wildcat. Absolutely loathed it. But fans were treated to quite a bit of it Saturday afternoon. The direct snaps to the tailback actually seemed the most effective, as the longest run in the first quarter -- a 19-yard run by Cole Chiappialle -- came from that formation. Franklin was asked whether he had a new, catchy name for the formation. “Yeah, I think we’re going to go with,” he said, pausing slightly for dramatic effect, “Wildcat.”

In the game’s longest play, wideout Geno Lewis took a reverse and threw a ball to a wide-open Matt Zanellato, who sprinted in untouched for a 56-yard touchdown. Lewis said they didn’t run the play once in practice. But Franklin didn’t mind calling Lewis’ name out of the blue -- and Lewis didn’t mind much, either.

2. The offensive line could really be in trouble. Penn State implemented a running clock from the second quarter on, but the gray-jerseyed offensive line gave up nine sacks. The running game also had trouble taking off in the beginning, as both the Blue and White teams combined for 21 yards on their first 16 carries. At one point, Penn State had 12 completions to 10 punts. And it was 0-for-12 on the first dozen third-down attempts. They fared better in the second half, but there was obviously still cause for concern.

Center Wendy Laurent went down with an injury in the second quarter and did not re-enter the game. The severity of Laurent’s injury is unknown and, with Franklin’s policy to not discuss injuries, clarity probably won’t be lended to the situation anytime soon. Offensive guard Anthony Alosi, who is facing criminal charges, is also "suspended indefinitely," according to Franklin.

3. Penn State could utilize more nickel this season. Minutes after the game, Franklin said the Nittany Lions could often operate under a “star” defense, which is similar to the nickel. Basically, he wants to use two true linebackers and a “big safety.” It’s something Franklin said he and the staff are going to evaluate over the offseason -- and that might be a reason why Von Walker moved to linebacker this spring. Walker could earn a role there, possibly as a backup, and he made a nice play in the third quarter by tipping a pass and then making a critical block once it was intercepted.

Defensive line coach Sean Spencer previously said the defense could use some four-DE looks this season, so fans could see some unique things on this unit. Overall, the defense appears to be in good shape. Franklin praised the defensive line several times this spring, and he said Saturday that it’s certainly a little ahead of the offense right now.

4. Kicking game still needs some work. Sam Ficken missed an extra point and Chris Gulla averaged just 39.2 yards a punt on a dozen punts. Assistant Charles Huff said the return game has shown a lot of improvement since the spring, but that was one area that wasn’t showcased Saturday. During punts, for example, the entire return team consisted of just one player making a fair catch. Penn State’s special teams should still be improved from last season, as there’s nowhere to really go but up. Huff wasn’t sure what happened on the missed extra point. Regardless, the kicking game obviously needs to show consistency.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Last Thursday morning, a barefoot James Franklin exited his office and walked -- Franklin's walk is most people's jog -- through the Penn State football lobby.

Asked about his footwear situation, Franklin explained he had a speaking engagement and needed to change. Moments later, he returned to the lobby and opened a side door filled with shirts and suits.

"That's what happens," Franklin said after selecting his outfit, "when you live in the office."

A lot of football coaches say they live in their offices. It fits the round-the-clock, pedal-down, never-stop-working-'cause-the-other-guy-won't culture of their chosen profession. But at some point, they actually go home, if only for a few hours.

Franklin is actually living in his office at Penn State. He hasn't left for weeks. He recently drove around town simply to get away from the building.

His nights end on couches or on a faulty air mattress. Makes it tougher to do those back handsprings out of bed that Franklin famously begins his days with.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
MCT via Getty ImagesEven while sleeping in the office, James Franklin has not lacked for energy in his first few months on the job at Penn State.
"Every night when you leave, you see him pushing couches together," Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer said. "You're like, 'You're not staying here again, are you?' And he just shuts his door.

"If he wasn't in here, he'd be in at 5 in the morning and probably leave at 10 or 11 at night anyway. So I guess for the six hours he's going to take a nap, he'll just stay."

There's a somewhat reasonable explanation for Franklin's living situation: His family remains in Nashville, Tenn., and they've yet to secure a new home here. On the other hand, Franklin could easily spring for a hotel room. After signing a contract with Penn State that will pay him $4.25 million annually, he could buy out the entire hotel.

This is more his style. Franklin's corner office is more luxurious than the spare room he lived in while working at Kutztown University, where he earned a $1,200 salary and made ends meet by filling soda machines and tending bar on Sundays. But his approach to coaching -- total immersion, relentless energy -- is the same.

At Franklin's introduction Jan. 11, he delighted Penn State fans with talk of dominating the state in recruiting and unifying the community. He didn't win the news conference. He crushed it.

But his performance left some people wondering two things:

1. Is this guy for real?

2. Is he always like this?

According to Franklin's new players, the answer to both is a resounding yes. Franklin doesn't downshift and neither does his staff. They're propelling Penn State through another potentially treacherous transition -- Franklin is the Lions' fourth coach since November 2011 -- and they aren't slowing down.

"I've never lacked for energy, I've never lacked for enthusiasm," Franklin said. "I'm a realist and see the challenges and issues, but we're going to find ways to overcome 'em."

Penn State faces many challenges in Franklin's first season. The program is only halfway through the four-year period of severe NCAA sanctions.

The scholarship penalties were reduced last year, but the Lions are thin in several spots: offensive line, wide receiver and linebacker. The Lions return an excellent centerpiece in quarterback Christian Hackenberg and other potential All-Big Ten players, but they have to keep them all healthy. Franklin said of the offense: "We're probably going to spend our first two years here solving problems, hiding deficiencies, rather than attacking the defense."

One thing that will never be deficient: Franklin's drive. Penn State players he recruited at past stops see the same full-throttle approach from the coach.

"He's that person all the time," safety Adrian Amos said. "That's very important. It builds a little bit of trust. You know what you're getting."

Added offensive tackle Donovan Smith: "Being a big recruit, coaches would tell you things just because. Coach Franklin always kept it real. Genuine since day one."

Franklin and his assistants, eight of whom he brought to PSU from Vanderbilt, needed to create trust with a team that has endured more recent adversity than any in the country. Although Hackenberg said he's never been on a team so close, players needed to open themselves up to new coaches and schemes.

"Any time there's transition, the players are anxious," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. "Sometimes the relationships get tested because you're challenging and pushing them. But [Franklin] always says we can demand a lot as long as we show them how much we care."

During the recruiting rush after Franklin's hiring, Shoop sent late-night text messages to his players, introducing himself and commenting on their play. If he rides a player during practice, he'll send an encouraging text afterward (We're critiquing the performance, not the performer).

Spencer and special teams coordinator Charles Huff use symbolism such as wild dogs and nektonic sea predators to inspire their players. As the team practiced the two-minute drill Wednesday, Franklin called a timeout, clapped his hands in front of kicker Sam Ficken's face and screamed, "I'm icing your ass!" Not only did Ficken make the ensuing field goal, but he drilled a 55-yarder to prevent a team run. Players mobbed Ficken and Franklin.

"I always talk [to players] about matching my intensity," Spencer said. "And as coaches, we have to match the intensity of the head coach, which is hard to do. Ever walk behind that guy? I've never seen anything like it. It's a full-on sprint."

Shoop calls the staff's spirit "our secret sauce," but enthusiasm and hard work don't guarantee wins in the fall.

The Lions have only two healthy offensive linemen (Smith and Angelo Mangiro) who lettered last year. Their leading returning wide receiver, Geno Lewis, had 18 catches in 2013. They lose their only All-Big Ten defender, tackle DaQuan Jones, from a unit that, by Penn State's standards, really struggled. They enter a division featuring Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan.

PSU needs versatile players, walk-on contributions and good fortune on the injury front.

But after the most turbulent period in team history, the Lions also need consistency. Franklin and his staff intend to provide it.

"The coaches the players see the first week are the same guys they're going to see when they show up here for the 20-year reunion," Franklin said. "It's going to be the same energy and the same personality."
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. The series wraps up with the specialists.

Illinois:The Illini might not be exceptional in the kicking game, but they're in better shape than they were when coach Tim Beckman arrived. Punter Justin DuVernois returns after a solid junior season, while Taylor Zalewski looks for a bit more consistency in his second full season as the placekicker. Zalewski made 12 of 17 field-goal attempts last fall. The return game is the real plus, as V'Angelo Bentley provides a major threat, especially on punt returns.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana brings back a dynamic returner in Shane Wynn, who averaged 14 yards on punt run-backs despite limited work. Punter Erich Toth also is back for his third season as the starter. Toth placed 18 of 52 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. IU suffers a big loss at kicker as Mitch Ewald, the team's career field goals and field-goal percentage leader, departs. Aaron Del Grosso and Griffin Oakes will compete at kicker, and Jake Shake (shake and bake!) could enter the mix this summer.

Iowa: Here's another Big Ten team that looks very strong on returns, as Iowa boasts the Big Ten's most dynamic tandem in Kevonte Martin-Manley (punts) and Jordan Cotton (kickoffs). Martin-Manley had two punt-return touchdowns in 2013. Punter Connor Kornbrath ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in average, but placed 27 of 65 attempts inside the opponent's 20. Iowa loses kicker Mike Meyer, a four-year starter. Junior Marshall Koehn seems likely to step up, but could be pushed by incoming freshman Mick Ellis and others.

Maryland: Notice a theme so far? Most Big Ten teams are strong in the return game, and Maryland is no exception. If Stefon Diggs returns at full strength from his leg injury, he'll be a dangerous man with punts and kickoffs in his hands. Will Likely performed extremely well in Diggs' spot, averaging 26 yards on kickoff returns and 12.8 yards on punt returns. Maryland brings back an excellent kicker in Brad Craddock (21-for-25 on field goals last year), and punter Nathan Renfro enters his third season as the starter.

Michigan: Matt Wile has done a bit of everything for Michigan, but could settle into the starting placekicker role this fall. Wile handled kicking duties late last season and also served as Michigan's punter after Will Hagerup was suspended for the season. Hagerup, the Big Ten's punter of the year in 2012, will reclaim the role if he can avoid off-field problems that have surfaced throughout his career. Wile then could focus on kicking, as Kenny Allen is the only other option there. Michigan is still waiting for big things from kick returner Dennis Norfleet and must find someone to handle punts. Top recruit Jabrill Peppers could help.

Michigan State: Special teams once again should be a strength for MSU, which returns All-Big Ten punter Mike Sadler, a Ray Guy award semifinalist who will contend for All-America honors in 2014. Kicker Michael Geiger also is back after connecting on 15 of 16 field-goal attempts as a true freshman. Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Andre Sims Jr. both put up good numbers on punt returns. Michigan State had by far the fewest kick returns (18) in the Big Ten last year and will look for a boost from R.J. Shelton and others.

Minnesota: After an above-average year on special teams in 2013, Minnesota again should be good in the third phase. Punter Peter Mortell didn't get as many accolades as Sadler or Purdue's Cody Webster, but he had an excellent sophomore season, averaging 43.3 yards per attempt with 15 of 50 yards or longer. Marcus Jones is a major threat on returns after bringing back both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last fall. Redshirt freshman kickers Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte will compete as the Gophers lose Chris Hawthorne.

Nebraska: The Huskers are looking for some upgrades on special teams, particularly on punt returns, as Nebraska ranked 123rd in the FBS last fall. Primary returner Jordan Westerkamp is back, but he'll face some competition. Nebraska brings back punter Sam Foltz, who had a solid freshman season, averaging 41.6 yards per boot. Mauro Bondi is set to step in at kicker as Pat Smith departs. If Bondi struggles, incoming freshman Kris Brown could get a look this summer. Kenny Bell, who led the Big Ten in kick return average (26.5 yards per return), is back.

Northwestern: The Wildcats lose a huge piece in Jeff Budzien, named the Big Ten's top kicker in each of his final two seasons. Hunter Niswander can handle both kickoffs and punts but seems likely to slide into Budzien's spot. Northwestern's punting was a mess in 2013, ranking 118th nationally in net average (33.2 ypp). Brandon Williams departs and Chris Gradone or Niswander will take over. The big news is Northwestern brings back Venric Mark , an All-America punt returner in 2012. Primary kick returner Matt Harris is back after a solid freshman season.

Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie. Indeed, the Aussie is back at punter as Cameron Johnston returns after an excellent debut season (I refuse to call a 21-year-old a freshman). Ohio State hopes for similar results from another first-year specialist in kicker Sean Nuernberger, an early enrollee expected to step in for the departing Drew Basil. Sophomore Dontre Wilson will continue to have a big role on returns after handling kickoffs last year. Ohio State must replace Corey Brown on punt returns and could look to redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall or true freshmen Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon.

Penn State: The kicking game continues to be an area of concern.Sam Ficken owns the team record for consecutive field goals (15) and started strong last season but ended with just 15 of 23 conversions, including four misses inside 40 yards. Penn State needs a new punter after losing Alex Butterworth, and will turn to Chris Gulla. Jesse Della Valle did a good job on punt returns, but Penn State needs a boost on kickoffs after finishing last in the league (19.1 yards per return). The Lions could stick with Geno Lewis or look for a newcomer such as De'Andre Thompkins to emerge. PSU also must shore up its coverage units.

Purdue: As if the Boilers didn't have enough to address on offense and defense, the kicking game needs attention. Punter Cody Webster finished his spectacular career with All-America honors, and the Boilers finished second nationally in net punting (41.7 yards per punt). Incoming freshman Austin McGehee will take over for Webster. Paul Griggs and Thomas Meadows continue to work at kicker, as Griggs made only 50 percent of his attempts (6 of 12) last season. The kick return game is strong with Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, but Purdue must replace punt returner Ricardo Allen. B.J. Knauf could be a good fit there.

Rutgers: The kicking game historically is a strength for Rutgers, which has a knack for blocking kicks and pulling off fakes. Rutgers loses a productive piece in punter Nick Marsh, who also handled kickoffs. The Scarlet Knights will turn to Joseph Roth as their replacement. Kicker Kyle Federico finished the season well, particularly in the Pinstripe Bowl, and returns for his junior season. Rutgers has a major weapon on returns in Janarion Grant, who brought back both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown during his freshman season.

Wisconsin: The kicking game has held back Wisconsin in the past, so it's definitely an area to watch during the offseason. Kicker Jack Russell converted 9 of 13 field-goal attempts after taking over for Kyle French. He'll try to hold off incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone. Andrew Endicott, who handled kickoffs last fall, also returns. Wisconsin is looking for more from punter Drew Meyer, who averaged just 38.6 yards per attempt in 2013. Top returner Kenzel Doe is back and should handle both punts and kickoffs, although Wisconsin could look to others for help, such as newcomers Serge Trezy and Natrell Jamerson.

More position breakdowns
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- It’s Monday, so you know what that means: the start of another countdown to help the offseason tick by a little faster.

Every day this week, we’ll be looking at another position battle to keep an eye on this spring. Up Monday is a battle that returns one of the most inconsistent players Penn State has had in the last decade.

[+] EnlargeFicken
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesSam Ficken struggled down the stretch last season.
No. 5 position battle: Kicker

Departures: None

Returning players: Sam Ficken (15-of-23 field goals), Chris Gulla (one game played), Troy Stivason (incoming freshman), Joe Julius (incoming freshman)

Breaking it down: Ficken is a two-year starter, but his job isn’t exactly secure right now. It seemed like he had things figured out by Week 4 last season, making 15 consecutive field goals dating to 2012, but then his maddening inconsistency returned. He converted just half of his eight field goals in the last five games, and no attempt was longer than 37 yards.

When Penn State entered the red zone, there was no guarantee -- no matter how close -- that it would come away with three points. And, this summer with the addition of two walk-ons, there’ll be more competition for Ficken than there has ever been. That being said, Gulla will be the man to challenge Ficken this spring. Gulla is a sophomore who boasted other walk-on offers from the likes of South Carolina, and he’ll likely be the starting punter this season. However, field-goal kicking was Gulla’s specialty when he first arrived at Penn State. He should at least push Ficken this offseason. The main key here, though? Consistency. If a kicker here can find consistency -- at any range -- it would go a long way in deciding this race.

Pre-camp edge: Ficken. He has the experience, and Gulla’s attention right now has to be focused on punting. Both he and his high school coach said at this time last season that punting was what Gulla had to work on the most, so James Franklin might not want to divide his attention -- as long as Ficken is serviceable. Ficken is truly a wild card; he could nail a 55-yard field goal on one possession and shank a 24-yard kick on the next. He holds the Penn State record for most consecutive made field goals (15), but he also has managed to record a career 65.2 percent field goal rate. If he finds his groove, just as he did during those 15 field goals, he could be an All-Big Ten kicker. Or he could be buried on the depth chart by August. There might not be a bigger question mark on the team, when it comes to performance, than Ficken.
It's never too late -- or too early -- to see what we learned from this past season and also look ahead to next season. So, we've started breaking down each position and unit on the Nittany Lions.

Up today: Special teams

REWIND

[+] EnlargeFicken
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesPenn State kicker Sam Ficken made 15-of-23 field goals this season.
Expectations entering the 2013 season: Despite kicker Sam Ficken's strong end to the season before, confidence wasn't exactly brimming after the kicker's sub-par performance in the Blue-White Game. Punter Alex Butterworth's limited ceiling didn't exactly inspire excitement, and it was simply hoped Penn State's special teams wouldn't cost the team any games. It wouldn't be good in 2013 ... but it couldn't possibly be worse than 2012, right?

How they fared: Ficken started off hot, broke the school record for consecutive made field goals (15), and then promptly cooled off and returned to his inconsistency from the season before. Butterworth had a marginally better year.

If this unit improved from 2012, it wasn't by much. Poor special teams cost Penn State a win against Nebraska, as Ficken missed a field goal and an extra point and Kenny Bell returned a kickoff for a 99-yard touchdown. PSU lost in overtime, 23-20. It was another season to forget for special teams.

What we learned: Ficken remains inconsistent. After nailing 15 straight field goals, it was pretty easy to jump on the kicker's bandwagon. But he still finished the season by making just 15-of-23 field goals (65 percent). He shortened up his approach, spent a year fine-tuning his new technique, succeeded and then ... well ... it just seemed to fall apart. It'll be difficult for fans or coaches to trust Ficken again, even if he remains the starting kicker.

Grading the position: D-minus. Butterworth downed 17 of 51 punts inside the 20, and Jesse Della Valle averaged a respectable 8.7 yards on punt returns. But there's not a lot of good to say outside of that. PSU finished near the bottom in just about every other special-teams category, such as kick return average (19.14 yards -- 100th in nation). If it wasn't for minor improvements by those two, this position would've easily gotten a failing grade. Heck, the argument could be made that it still probably deserves one.

FAST FORWARD

Key losses: Butterworth. He averaged 39.2 yards a punt, so it's not as if he's irreplaceable. Rising sophomore run-on Chris Gulla looks as if he'll take over punting duties since, well, there's just no one else. Gulla was groomed as Butterworth's replacement.

Position stock watch: On hold. Can special teams really fare much worse? Penn State added a kicker to its 2014 class in Troy Stivason and Gulla is more accustomed to field-goal kicking than punting anyway, so Penn State certainly has options there. It shouldn't be too difficult to match Butterworth's production; it just really comes down to the other areas like kickoff coverage, kickoff returns, etc. PSU will have more scholarships to work with in 2014, so it won't be forced to use players on special teams who just aren't ready -- or at least not as much as before. It's a wait-and-see approach with this unit as there's still plenty of question marks, but there should be some cautious optimism here.

Key to next season: Field-goal kicking. Penn State needs to put points on the scoreboard when it has the ability, so that's clearly the priority on all the special teams. Sure, it'll be breaking in a new punter ... but what's more costly -- a punter who averages 35 yards a kick or a kicker who makes 60 percent of his FGs? If Ficken picks up where he left off, the staff might not have much patience left over. Gulla has a year under his belt, and Stivason might be able to push as well. Ficken needs to improve, or someone else needs to step up.

Few surprises for PSU on B1G teams

December, 2, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- As expected, Allen Robinson was once again the big Penn State winner when it came to the Big Ten's All-Conference Selection Show on Monday night.

He was the Big Ten's lone semifinalist for the national Biletnikoff Award so it wasn't much of a surprise when he was named a unanimous All-Big Ten first-team selection and earned the conference's Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year Award for the second straight season. He finished his junior campaign with a PSU-record 97 catches and 1,432 yards.

There weren't many surprises for Penn State, and there was just one pick that could've been perceived as a snub. Here's a closer look at how it all played out for Penn State (all players are first-team selections unless otherwise noted):

COACHES' TEAM

WR Robinson
OG John Urschel
DT DaQuan Jones

Honorable mention: DB Adrian Amos, LB Glenn Carson, QB Christian Hackenberg, C Ty Howle, CB Jordan Lucas, DE C.J. Olaniyan, LT Donovan Smith

MEDIA'S TEAM

WR Robinson
OG Urschel
DT Jones (second-team)

Honorable mention: LB Carson, K Sam Ficken, QB Hackenberg, C Howle, TE Jesse James, CB Lucas, DE Olaniyan, LT Smith

Really, the only perceived snub could be on Jones making the second-team on the media's list. Ohio State DL Noah Spence earned the spot over him, but it was a pretty tight race. Jones had more overall tackles (33 solo, 56 total) than Spence (20 solo, 46 total) and helped stop the run and clog up the middle.

Spence rushed the passer and finished with 13.5 tackles-for-loss, eight sacks and four quarterback hurries. Jones had 11.5 tackles-for-loss, three sacks and no hurries. Spence also had his hand in more turnovers.

Outside of that, there didn't appear to be anyone who was really left off the list. If anything, the list of honorable mentions might've raised a few eyebrows for opposite reasons.

Amos played relatively well at corner, but most of his season was spent playing not-so-well at safety. He earned a nod from coaches but not from the media. It's clear this season was a step down from 2012.

The biggest surprise came from the media's list, however, with the inclusion of Ficken. That pick would've made sense had this season ended around Week 6, but he struggled in the second half. He finished the season by making 15-of-23 (65 percent) field goals and by missing an extra point. In the last five games, he made just half of his kicks -- and he was just 1-of-5 on field goals longer than 30 yards during that stretch.

The Big Ten will continue with the major awards being named Tuesday night. But there shouldn't be too many surprises there, either. Expect Penn State to pick up its second straight freshman-of-the-year honor.

What we learned: Week 14

December, 1, 2013
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Lessons learned from Penn State's 31-24 upset win over No. 15 Wisconsin in the season finale, its first win over a top-15 team since the Capital One Bowl victory over LSU in 2010:

1. Don't underestimate Penn State. You think we would've learned that by now. But after seeing the Buckeyes absolutely dominate Penn State, 63-14, it seemed as if PSU would be in for another flogging. Everyone counted them out -- Vegas put the line at 24 points -- but the Nittany Lions seem to do best when everyone else thinks they have no chance. They came out of absolutely nowhere to not just slip past the Badgers, but to totally outplay them. Penn State's defense stopped one of the nation's best rushing attacks, and freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg picked on the Wisconsin secondary. If there's one thing we should learn from this game, it's that we should never count these Nittany Lions out.

2. The future looks bright. Next season should have its share of question marks, but even look past that. Hackenberg is playing beyond his years, freshman LB Brandon Bell garnered his first start (and grabbed six tackles), and PSU dressed 23 total freshmen. Adam Breneman and Eugene Lewis still have three years left and had terrific performances on Saturday. And then there are other freshmen such as Akeel Lynch, Richy Anderson, Nyeem Wartman, Austin Johnson and Malik Golden who have seen quite a bit of time this season.

3. Sam Ficken's struggles aren't behind him, after all. Ficken had a miserable stretch last season before he seemingly turned it all around -- but those issues are most certainly back. He has made just seven of his last 13 field goals (54 percent) and also missed a PAT last week. He went 1-of-3 against Wisconsin, missing a 31-yarder and 34-yarder, and he'll need to find more answers over the offseason. He's bounced back once already, but he'll need to find a way to do it again. Otherwise, freshman Chris Gulla could push him for time.

4. The offensive line needs to be more disciplined, as far as penalties. Either it wasn't prepared for Wisconsin's defensive linemen moving around or it wasn't focused. Whatever the reason, it was one of the odder sights during Saturday afternoon's game. Penn State was called for at least eight motion penalties, with left tackle Donovan Smith responsible for four of those. Offensive line coach Mac McWhorter was clearly frustrated on the sideline and, although the line played well overall, it certainly needs to concentrate more on the snap count and less on what the opposition is doing. Those mistakes nearly lost PSU the game.

5. Secondary, bad; front seven, good. Joel Stave had difficulty locating quite a few open targets, and that came as a big break for Penn State. The secondary still struggled, but it came up with key interceptions off Stave mistakes to somewhat atone. It's still clearly the weak link of this defense, but the front-seven -- especially the defensive line -- played very well yet again Saturday. They finished with five quarterback hurries and three sacks, and the line really limited the Badgers' rushing attack. Wisconsin was held to its second-lowest rushing total of the season (120 yards), and defensive coordinator John Butler deserves a lot of the credit. That should bode well moving forward.

Nebraska win keeps questions at bay

November, 23, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Ameer Abdullah nervously chewed on his mouthpiece like a stick of gum, seconds before Nebraska's kicker would attempt the game-winning field goal in overtime.

The Cornhuskers I-back watched from the sideline, backtracking to a space heater when PSU called a timeout to ice the kicker as flurries swirled around. Then Abdullah inched closer to the sideline, again backtracking -- shaking his head and rolling his eyes -- when his team was flagged for a false start.

But the Huskers' short-term frustration -- and the long-term questions -- gave way to players leaping in the air when Pat Smith booted the game-winning 42-yard field goal. Some players turned toward hecklers in the crowd and waved. Others sprinted on the field and embraced after the 23-20 overtime victory.

Nebraska fell short of expectations early this season and rumors about Bo Pelini's job security have swirled around the coach more often than the squalls around Happy Valley. But this win, this comeback, offered the Huskers a few days of relief.

It allowed fans to back away from the panic button, at least for now, and for the Huskers to inch closer to a better bowl.

[+] EnlargePat Smith
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsPat Smith and his teammates celebrate his game-winning kick in overtime.
"I'm proud of our team. Our kids, once again, they showed a lot of heart," Pelini said. "There's a lot of things we had to overcome."

For Nebraska, this contest was more of the same. It hasn't quite experienced the season it envisioned, but it won yet another close game. It's the eighth straight game decided by seven points or fewer that Nebraska's won. And it now has won three of four -- all three by four points or less.

First came the Hail Mary vs. Northwestern then a game-winning TD with 2 minutes left against Michigan -- and then this.

Tommy Armstrong Jr. injured his ankle early, and an energized Ron Kellogg III entered the game and threw an unordinarily high 34 passes. The Huskers escaped a near-safety in the closing minutes and then converted a third-and-long play from its own 1, thanks to a PSU pass interference. Then they watched as Penn State kicker Sam Ficken, who missed a PAT earlier in the contest, booted a 37-yard overtime field-goal attempt wide right. It was a bizarre game with plenty of miscues -- and opportunities -- for both teams.

But, once again, the Huskers overcame themselves and triumphed. And Penn State's seniors were forced to jog past the victory bell in their final home game without giving it one final tug.

"What's amazing about our team," said Smith, who went 3-for-3 on field goals in the game of his career, "is our ability to keep fighting no matter how much negativity comes our way."

For much of the season, the Nittany Lions have been able to say the same. PSU outlasted Michigan in a quadruple-overtime thriller and then sneaked past Illinois, 24-17, in overtime earlier in the month. This was the third overtime in the last six weeks for Penn State.

But, like Nebraska, PSU has come up short of expectations this season. And the Nittany Lions were unable to give their frost-bitten fans a victory for the long drives home.

This isn't the end for either team. PSU needs to win one next week, against Wisconsin, to have a winning season. And the Cornhuskers have to beat Iowa next week to continue keeping that negativity at bay.

Those questions aren't ending just because of this game. But this was an important step for Nebraska.

"It was a big victory for us on the road, especially at Penn State," Kellogg said. "It's a loud crowd, there's a lot of emotions, but we stuck together as a team and we came through. Even though it was overtime, we came through with a victory.

"I think it's a good kick-start for us to get ready for Iowa."

What we learned: Week 12

November, 17, 2013
11/17/13
10:00
AM ET
Lessons learned from Penn State's 45-21 win against Purdue in Week 12:

1. Fumbling issues aren't behind Zach Zwinak ... or Bill Belton: Zwinak fumbled for the fourth time this season Saturday -- even with the gloves -- while Belton lost his third fumble of the season. The Nittany Lions are among the most fumble-prone teams in the country and, despite constant emphasis on holding onto the ball, it's obvious that still remains an issue. They've both been great for PSU this season -- but with one large asterisk. Fumbles.

2. Changes could be coming on the kickoff team: The Lions surrendered a 100-yard kick return TD, the first time that's happened since Michigan State's Derek Mason pulled it off in 1994. And then it nearly happened again but, luckily for the Lions, Sam Ficken stepped up to take down the returner. As a result, Bill O'Brien said the staff will look into making some changes on that special-teams unit this week. Maybe, he mused, some guys just aren't hungry enough.

3. "Complementary football" isn't out of reach: O'Brien's squad performed the opposite of "complementary football" against Minnesota last week. But against Purdue? PSU forced three turnovers, and the offense converted each of those into a touchdown. When the offense needed the defense to step up, it did -- and vice versa. That's why, even when this game was just a one- or two-score game, it felt so out of reach for Purdue. PSU played a below-average opponent, but it still played relatively well. It should reach at least seven wins this season if it can keep that up.

4. The freshman linebackers still have quite a way to go: Redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman missed a few tackles -- again -- and he's looked lost at times this season. True freshman Brandon Bell also saw more time than usual against Minnesota, and he's trying to get his feet wet because he could compete for a starting job next season. With Ben Kline's injuries, which require two separate surgeries, only Mike Hull, Wartman and Bell will be the returning linebackers with considerable playing time under their belts. Bell and Wartman are more important than ever now, and they could see more time in the final two games.

Week 12 helmet stickers

November, 17, 2013
11/17/13
9:00
AM ET
Recognizing the best and the brightest from the Nittany Lions in Week 12:

RBs Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton: Zwinak rumbled for 26 carries, 149 yards and three touchdowns. Belton started and ran 19 times for 81 yards and a score. Numbers don't always tell the full story ... but does anything else really have to be said after those stats? Penn State ran all over Purdue on Saturday, and those two were the most valuable players on the offense. Belton gained extra yards after eluding defenders on ankle-spraining cuts, and Zwinak routinely carried a defender or two for a few extra yards every attempt.

WR Allen Robinson: It wasn't his best game, but he was still Christian Hackenberg's top target by accounting for half of PSU's 16 completions. He also broke yet another single-season school record by hauling in eight catches for 98 yards. He now has a record 81 catches on the season and is the first Penn State player to ever reach the 80-catch plateau. Then again, he's also the only Penn Stater to reach the 70-catch mark, too.

CBs Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas: OK, the secondary as a whole didn't play great -- and these two probably aren't going to make the All-Big Ten teams as a result of these performances. But they both made plays when Penn State needed, and they both played a big role in stopping the Purdue offense on several drives. Lucas came up with a key interception -- and nearly came away with two others -- while Amos finished with 1.5 sacks, 2.5 tackles-for-loss and a game-high eight stops.

LB Mike Hull: He forced one fumble and recovered another, and the recovery led to a Nittany Lions' touchdown. He finished with a respectable six tackles, which was the most by a player in the front seven and only one of his tackles came more than three yards upfield. He also added a stop in the backfield

K Sam Ficken: Ficken is stickin' the returners now. The kicker converted six PATs and a 29-yard FG, but the most memorable part Saturday was when he took down Purdue tailback Akeem Hunt during a 37-yard kickoff return. There was enough green ahead for Hunt that he might've had a touchdown, but Ficken dove and took the tailback down. The kicker -- excuse the pun -- of it all? Ficken had a pulled groin and still made the play. Said Bill O'Brien: "He laid his body out for that."

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O'Brien pushes limits on fourth down

October, 14, 2013
10/14/13
4:30
PM ET
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien's gutsy decision to go for it Saturday on fourth-and-1 in the fourth overtime still has this town talking.

Punter Alex Butterworth tweeted Monday morning that everyone in his classes was still chatting about the season-defining win over Michigan. Defensive tackle Derek Dowrey said he was watching highlights in class -- and getting "hyped all over again."

[+] EnlargeBill O' Brien
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarNo coach in a BCS conference has gone for it on fouth down more since 2012 than Bill O'Brien.
Monday's conversations could have been markedly different had O'Brien decided to play it safe and instead try for the 33-yard field goal to force a fifth overtime. But there has been nothing safe about O'Brien's play-calling since he arrived in Happy Valley.

Since O'Brien took over, only two other coaches -- Air Force's Troy Calhoun and Army's Rich Ellerson -- have decided to go for it more often. Both coaches have left their kickers twiddling their thumbs on the sideline 57 times since the start of last season, while O'Brien has done it 51 times.

Penn State players were asked about all sorts of things Saturday night -- their surprise over the blocked field goal, their emotions after the game-winning TD, exactly when their shock gave way to joy -- but absent were any questions about whether they were surprised to see O'Brien march the offense out on the field in place of the field-goal unit.

No one asked because this was normal by O'Brien standards. There was no bewilderment from the players, the media or the fans. This was just Bill O'Brien. In fact, the head coach was thinking of gambling well before the game hit a Big Ten-record fourth OT.

He initially stuck two fingers in the air following Christian Hackenberg's improbable touchdown drive in the final minute of regulation. "I changed my mind and went with the PAT," he said.

So when that fourth-and-1 situation reared its head in overtime No. 4? When PSU found itself on the 16-yard line? When O'Brien had another chance to ditch the conservative play-calling? There was no question about what O'Brien wanted to do. He didn't hesitate.

"If you miss," one reporter told him, "you're going to get crucified by everybody."

"Of course I'm going to get crucified," O'Brien said, shrugging his shoulders. "That's part of the job. The thing is at that point in time, it was the fourth overtime and I felt like it was time for someone to win the game. We could sit here and keep trading field goals back and forth, but eventually it was time for someone to win the game -- and I had the opportunity to do it."

O'Brien, whose go-to play last season was the quarterback sneak, instead opted to call a handoff to his 205-pound tailback, Bill Belton. The junior didn't hit the hole right away, instead waiting for a block from his fullback -- pushing him forward with a left hand on his back -- and then diving forward for 3 yards.

"That was a heck of a run," O'Brien said.

It was a heck of a play-call, one that led to the game-winning score. But the decision was almost expected. O'Brien opted to go for it twice before in the game, including a curious first-quarter call when PSU found itself on its own 34. Against Indiana, PSU again kept kicker Sam Ficken on the sideline on a fourth-and-5 play from the IU 26. Pick out any random game, and you can find plenty of examples.

Conventional football knowledge dictates kicking the ball and, during Saturday's overtime, most coaches likely would've called upon their kicker for the 33-yard attempt -- especially considering Ficken hadn't missed a field goal under 40 yards since about 54 weeks ago. But there has been nothing conventional about these Nittany Lions ever since Jan. 7, 2012, when O'Brien became head coach and told a swarm of media, "I have a lot of confidence in my ability to lead us through what some say is a tough time."

He led Penn State to a tough win Saturday. And, although he was mostly reserved while fielding questions from reporters, he couldn't hide his emotions in the immediate aftermath of a 43-40 victory over Michigan. He jogged over to the student section, while fans leaned over the railing to pat his shoulder, arm, back, whatever they could get a hold of. He closed his eyes while thrusting his arms into the air.

At this rate, O'Brien will hit the century-mark for fourth down attempts by the final game of the 2014 season. He'll still be a gambler. But, out of all the fourth downs he has gone for or ever will go for, none might top this one.

"I've never been in a game like this," he said.

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 7

October, 9, 2013
10/09/13
1:00
PM ET
Conference play is in full swing, so it's time once again to gauge where players stand in the individual Big Ten awards races. Remember, there's still plenty of time left, and these will fluctuate quite a bit until we get deep into the season:

Graham–George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon (LW: 2): Gordon was off last week but moves back into the top spot after Mark Weisman was shut down by Michigan State. Gordon still leads the Big Ten in rushing but will have to prove he's healthy against Northwestern this week.

2. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah (LW: Not ranked): Abdullah makes a big jump after his huge game against Illinois. He's second in the league in rushing behind Gordon and leads the Big Ten in all-purpose yards.

[+] EnlargeAllen Robinson
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerPenn State receiver Allen Robinson caught a career-best 12 passes against Indiana.
3. Penn State WR Allen Robinson (LW: NR): The Nittany Lions lost to Indiana last week, but Robinson was spectacular in grabbing a career-best 12 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns. He's on pace to gain close to 1,500 yards receiving.

4. Wisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis (LW: 5): Abbrederis was also off last week but is right there with Robinson in the race for the league's Richter–Howard Receiver of the Year award.

5. Indiana QB Nate Sudfeld (LW: NR): Sudfeld helms the league's best passing attack and tops the Big Ten with 1,467 passing yards, to go along with 13 touchdowns. That puts him on pace for a 3,500-yard season.

Dropped out: Iowa RB Mark Weisman, Ohio State QB Braxton Miller, Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase

Waiting room: Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde

Nagurski–Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Wisconsin LB Chris Borland (LW: 1): He was off last week, but Borland still holds the belt for how he played the first five weeks. He's got a big challenge this week with Northwestern's versatile offense.

2. Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier (LW: 2): Although the Buckeyes were shaky defensively at Northwestern last week, Shazier came up with another 10 tackles and was right there on the punt block that Bradley Roby grabbed for a touchdown. He leads the Big Ten with eight tackles for loss.

3. Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard (LW: NR): Dennard showed what he could do when he's not being called for ticky-tack pass interference penalties, grabbing two interceptions against Iowa. He's our representative this week from the the ridiculous Spartan Dawgs, who lead the nation in total defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense.

4. Nebraska CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste (LW: NR): It's hard to imagine any Cornhuskers player winning defensive player of the year honors because of the perception/performance of that overall unit. But Jean-Baptiste is having quite the year. He -- along with Michigan's Blake Countess -- is tied for the national lead in interceptions (four). He's also second in the Big Ten in passes defended (10).

5. Northwestern DE Tyler Scott (LW: NR): Though Northwestern lost the game, it didn't surrender an offensive touchdown in the first half to Ohio State. Scott forced and recovered a fumble, and he leads the Big Ten in sacks with four.

Dropped out: Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun, Penn State DT DaQuan Jones, Iowa LB James Morris

Bakken–Andersen Kicker of the Year

1. Northwestern's Jeff Budzien: Last year's co-winner of this award, Budzien is 9-for-11 on field goals this year and nailed all three of his attempts versus Ohio State. He's perfect inside 40 yards in 2013.

2, Penn State's Sam Ficken: He continues to author a tremendous comeback story. Ficken is 8-of-10 this year, which includes a 54-yarder. One of his two misses was a Hail Mary attempt from 57 yards. He has become a reliable weapon for Bill O'Brien.

Waiting room: Iowa's Mike Meyer, Michigan's Brendan Gibbons, Michigan State's Michael Geiger

What we learned: Week 4

September, 22, 2013
9/22/13
10:00
AM ET
Every Sunday around this time, we’ll recap five lessons from the week that was Penn State football.

And away we go:

[+] EnlargeBill Belton
Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times via Getty ImagesBill Belton provides Penn State another weapon in the backfield to go along with Zach Zwinak.
1. This running game means business. Last season Penn State struggled to find one featured tailback -- and now, this year, it boasts three. Bill Belton didn't seem ready for the workload last season after transitioning from wideout, but he's been a pleasant surprise so far and has rushed for 63 yards a game. Zach Zwinak remains the lead ball-carrier, but Akeel Lynch and Belton have been giving him quite a bit of rest. This rushing attack is about as balanced as a three-pronged running attack can get. Each member of the trio has rushed for between 250 and 300 yards. They've combined for 813 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. And they're not showing any signs of slowing down.

2. Bill O'Brien isn't infallible. He's a great coach, no doubt, but fans surely questioned why -- at one point during the game -- the second-year head coach called three straight passing plays when PSU was controlling the game by running the ball. Those three straight passes led to a punt. Said O'Brien: "I should've been booed on that." He wasn't ... fans actually chanted "Bill O-Bri-en" after the game. But it's something that'll likely stick with him going forward.

3. Allen Robinson is paramount to the passing game -- and can be stopped. He's had his way with defenses up until lowly Kent State, so it was surprising to see him go catchless for the final three quarters. Flashes coach Paul Haynes said "there was nothing that we did special," but Robinson finished with just three catches for 43 yards. Without Robinson stepping up, PSU struggled. Christian Hackenberg started out 7-of-10, with Robinson catching three of those completions. Afterward? 6-of-25 with an interception. Between this and the first half of Week 1 without Robinson, it's safe to say the passing game is grounded without No. 8.

4. Sam Ficken has a strong, accurate leg. After four weeks like this, it's clearly no coincidence or mirage. Ficken narrowly missed a 57-yard field goal a week ago but nailed a 54-yard field goal this week that could've cleared another yard or two. His range last season didn't extend beyond 40 yards. This season, anything within 55 yards seems within reach -- and O'Brien isn't shy anymore about going for kicks a bit longer. He's gone from being a liability on this team to a strength. That doesn't happen too often.

5. This defense isn't as bad as it appeared last week. Granted, it's also not as good as it appeared against Kent State either. UCF and the Flashes are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to talent, but PSU's performance also fell on opposite ends of the spectrum. Players couldn't really pinpoint what changed, but Stephen Obeng-Agyapong felt the team had an off day last week. Missed tackles weren't a concern Saturday, and PSU executed better. PSU might not shut out its next opponent in Indiana, but it showed that it might not surrender 500 yards to the Hoosiers either.

Week 4 helmet stickers

September, 22, 2013
9/22/13
9:00
AM ET
Recognizing the best and the brightest from the Nittany Lions in Week 4:

Penn State's three-headed running attack: Take your pick -- this trio was unstoppable Saturday. Zach Zwinak played the role of goal-line back and Mr. Consistency. He finished with 65 yards and three touchdowns. Bill Belton was the spark plug in the first half who rushed for 90 yards and walked a tightrope for a 15-yard TD catch. And then there was Akeel Lynch, who played the role of closer by entering the second half with one carry and then going off. "Big Maple" Lynch peeled off one big run after another and compiled a game-high 123 rushing yards -- 116 of which came in just the final two quarters. Picking just one player here for a helmet sticker is like picking your favorite parent or child. They all played big roles at different times, so they all get that coveted sticker.

Safety Ryan Keiser: He entered Penn State as a preferred walk-on, but he earned a scholarship after last season -- and he showed just why he deserved one against Kent State. The Selinsgrove (Pa.) product came up with a sack and an interception, but that was just the effort that showed up on the stat sheet. He nearly came up with another pick and had three pass breakups on the day. He always seemed to be around the football, and PSU didn't skip a beat when it rotated him in for Adrian Amos. Keiser came up big, and he can likely expect a bigger portion of playing time after that.

Linebacker Glenn Carson: There may be questions marks at outside linebacker right now, but there's an exclamation mark who lines up in the middle. Carson isn't a flashy linebacker, but he's consistently played well each week. He came up with seven tackles -- two in the backfield -- against Kent State, and he helped limit the Kent State running game. The Flashes averaged just 2.3 yards a carry.

Defensive end Deion Barnes: He received some criticism for not getting a sack through the first three weeks and for compiling just five tackles, but he reversed that trend Saturday. The redshirt sophomore finished second on the team with six tackles, set the edge and also came up with a half-sack that was aided by Jordan Lucas. He twice assisted on tackles in the backfield, and this might've been his strongest game of the season. Barnes said he was pushing too hard for those sacks when he just has to let them come to him. He did that -- and, as a result, a helmet sticker is also coming his way.

Kicker Sam Ficken: Another appearance on the helmet sticker list? You bet. With the way Ficken's been playing, he might end up with more helmet stickers than the rest of his teammates by season's end. He nailed a career-long 54-yard field goal Saturday, which was the longest field made by a Nittany Lion since 1979. And it was the longest field goal ever made by a Nittany Lion in Beaver Stadium. Raise your hand if you thought Ficken would be breaking those kinds of records at this point last season. And, if you did just raise your hand, smack yourself for lying to a blog. He might've made the biggest one-year turnaround in the country, and he's missed just one field goal so far this season -- a 57-yard attempt that fell just short.

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One Thing To Know: Big Ten Recruiting
Recruiting reporter Tom VanHaaren discusses the top storyline to watch in 2015 college football recruiting within the Big Ten. Penn State leads the way and, despite sanctions, could finish atop the conference.
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