Penn State Nittany Lions: Tommy Armstrong

Big Ten Monday mailbag

May, 19, 2014
May 19
5:00
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I'm back from my Italian adventure (10 days, nine cities and about 25 extra pounds). Let's catch up, shall we?

Brutus from The Ninth Circle writes: Brian, what are you looking forward to the most this coming season? Seeing a team coached by James Franklin? Seeing Maryland and Rutgers play their first games in the B1G? Seeing more night games at Michigan? Personally, I can't wait to see Maryland's games in the B1G. The eastward expansion should play havoc on my Saturday TV scheduling, but bring it on!

Brian Bennett: From a big-picture perspective, what I'm most excited about is the new playoff system, and in particular the semifinals on New Year's Day. That could be one of the best days in college football history. From, um, a B1G-picture perspective, I'm really interested in how Maryland and Rutgers fit into the league, how Franklin's Penn State debut will go and how the new division alignment shakes out. But I'm probably most excited about an upgraded nonconference schedule that includes games like Michigan State-Oregon, Wisconsin-LSU and Ohio State-Virginia Tech. There's nothing like high-profile out-of-league games early on to get a read on just how strong the Big Ten might be in 2014.


Grant from San Francisco writes: Hey, Brian. As a lifelong Spartan fan, I am becoming increasingly weary of all the unbridled optimism surrounding the program this coming season. I have experienced this before and know just how fast the wheels can come off. You guys spent some time with the team, so maybe you can provide some insight. With a huge match-up in Week 2 against Oregon, what exactly is Mark Dantonio doing now that the team is starting at the top with everything to lose, rather than starting unranked with nothing to lose? Quotes keep coming out about "we are hungry" ... "We are tired of talking about last year" ... but how exactly are they preventing complacency?

Brian Bennett: Grant, I wrote about this a lot in a piece last month following a visit to East Lansing. Dantonio started warning about complacency in the first team meeting back home after the Rose Bowl, and he pushed the start of spring practice back to late March so he could have the players go through grueling, early-morning winter conditioning longer. That's one way to deflate big heads. I also thought it was an encouraging sign that Michigan State players like Connor Cook told me they were sick of talking about the Rose Bowl and 2013 this offseason and that they wanted to create their own legacy. Add in the fight for playing time at several defensive positions and along the offensive line and other spots, and there is reason to believe this team won't rest on its '13 accomplishments. You never really know. But that Week 2 showdown against the Ducks on the road should be enough to get these Spartans focused on the here and now, or else they're going to learn that lesson the hard way.


Art from Columbus, Ohio, writes: I wanted to get your thoughts on James Franklin's recruiting approach of dominating the state (PA) and Northeast vs. Urban Meyer's approach of recruiting the best players in the country. My feeling is that Coach Franklin has the better long term approach to build a program and wish Meyer would take an approach of getting the best players in Ohio first and then meet other needs from the rest of the country. My thinking is that if you don't put Ohio first, you will start to turn Ohio kids and high school coaches off to the program. What do you think?

Brian Bennett: Meyer does collect top talent from Ohio -- he signed nine players from the Buckeye State in the 2014 class, for example -- but he doesn't just rely on homegrown players. Ohio State wants to compete for national titles, and the way to do that is to get the best players, no matter where they're from. Fact is, Big Ten country doesn't produce as many elite athletes as it once did, and many of those guys are in the South, in Texas and California. Any Big Ten program with legitimate national title aspirations has to recruit outside its region, as well as protecting its own backyard.


Husker from Tucson, AZ, writes: While considering the football playoffs, a thought came to mind. A team which gets a tough loss early in the season but then wins out gets hurt in the rankings (case in point: MSU and the Notre Dame game). This essentially eliminated them from the championship game but they probably would have gotten into the playoffs in the new system. However, it's conceivable to me that there will be teams like this in the future who miss out on even the playoffs. It would be nice if we could somehow reduce the emphasis on numbers like 11-1 vs. 12-0 especially when that one loss comes early in a season before players have really had a chance to develop (Connor Cook to name one for MSU). Do you think we could ever see college football have games "pre-preseason" which have no effect on teams' records? I worry that if this was the case we would get what are essentially spring games as teams rest their best players and go at half-speed, but it might be nice to consider. Any thoughts on this?

Brian Bennett: I firmly believe that one of the absolute best things about college football is the supreme importance of the regular season. Every week, in essence, becomes a playoff. Having a four-team playoff at the end will dilute that slightly but not enough, in my opinion, to hurt the sport. So I'm against any idea that would make games in any part of the season lose their significance.

Michigan State's problem last year was not so much its loss at Notre Dame but the fact that it really didn't play another marquee game until the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State. That's why upgraded schedules for the league are so important. A loss (or possibly even two, in some years) will be much easier to forgive if a team has played a grueling schedule and collected impressive wins throughout. I do hope the selection committee pays particular attention to schedule strength and does not get caught up on picking teams who might have simply coasted to a 12- or 11-win season. The in-season polls that the committee will release seem problematic to me, but everything they have said so far indicates they will judge teams on the quality of their résumés.


Luke from Ord, Neb., writes: Brian, first I hope that your vacation is going well for you. I wanted your thoughts on how much will Nebraska's WRs benefit with a quarterback that will be able to deliver the ball with more accuracy and consistency than the past 3.5 years. In my opinion Quincy Enunwa was hurt in draft status because he didn't have QB that could consistently get him the ball in stride and let him move. I think guys like Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner can do wonders if they can get a quarterback with short and intermediate passing accuracy.

Brian Bennett: Thanks, Luke. It was a dream trip, and I highly recommend it. As for Nebraska, I've thought for a while that guys like Bell and Turner could do even more with a consistent passing game. Taylor Martinez was actually pretty solid in 2012, throwing for 2,871 yards and 23 touchdowns, though his 62 percent completion rate wasn't spectacular. It's no coincidence that Bell had by far his best season in 2012. There was too much turnover and inexperience under center last year for Nebraska once Martinez got injured. Tommy Armstrong simply has to improve on his 51.9 percent completion rate from a year ago, and he's got the playmakers to make big things happen.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

May, 7, 2014
May 7
5:00
PM ET
By the time you read this, I'll be somewhere over the Atlantic. (Where are the best Big Ten bars in Italy?). But before my Euro trip, I had time to answer your postcards ... er, emails:

Rob from New York writes: Brian, a lot of the Big Ten rivalry games aren't really rivalries anymore (or maybe ever). Not sure anyone is really getting up for the Illibuck, Governor's Victory Bell or the Old Brass Spittoon, not to mention lesser games like the Land Grant or Little Brown Jug. In your opinion, which games (A) deserve to be recognized rivalry games, (B) deserve to be trophy games, and (C) which ones should be retired and/or have their trophies burned to the ground? (Hint: the unanimous ugliest of them all.) My vote goes to Wisconsin/Michigan State becoming a rivalry AND trophy game, with a brass penalty flag as the trophy, since the series is littered with controversial calls and Michigan State fans whining about them (yeah, I'm biased). A non-trophy rivalry game could be Indiana and Michigan State, since it's not really a rivalry anymore. And a rivalry game that needs to die is Minnesota and Penn State (honestly, would anyone notice?).

Brian Bennett: Rob, Adam and I did a full assessment of the state of the Big Ten rivalries last year as the conference was working on realigning the division. You can find that post here. There's a difference between rivalries and trophy games. You can hand out a trophy for any game, but rivalries reveal themselves. For example, Wisconsin and Michigan State had grown into a rivalry without a trophy, while hardly anybody thinks the Old Brass Spittoon game is an actual rivalry. Alas, the Badgers and Spartans will be in different divisions now, didn't play last year and won't meet in 2014 or '15, so it's going to be hard to keep that going as a rivalry. I like the trophies, because many of them are goofy and fun and have some interesting history. But it will be worth tracking how the new division alignment and expansion affect actual rivalries.




 

Ben from Omaha writes: OK, I'm going to do my best to not be a homer here, but I'm a little shocked Nebraska isn't a favorite over Wisconsin in the West Division. Nebraska returns almost all of its D and as long as Tommy Armstrong just plays consistently and doesn't turn it over, our offense will be great again. Wisconsin, on the other hand, loses a ton of its D and O, and its only returning contributors are Joel Stave and Melvin Gordon. I get that Nebraska can be tough to trust, but I'd still take them based off returning players. Am I being a homer here or am I on to something?

Brian Bennett: First, Ben, I'd have to ask where you're getting the idea that there's a favorite in the West. I think the division is pretty wide open, and it's only early May. Colleagues Mark Schlabach and Brian Fremeau do have Wisconsin ranked higher than Nebraska right now, but I don't believe there's any real consensus. I am higher on the Huskers than the Badgers, because I think Gary Andersen's team has too many question marks. But the schedule is a real factor here. Wisconsin and Iowa have much easier roads to Indianapolis than does Nebraska, which has to go to Michigan State as one of its crossovers and plays the Badgers and Hawkeyes on the road. I think sometimes we overrate schedules in the preseason, though.




 

MonsterHunter via Twitter writes: Did the Big Ten do any due diligence about Rutgers before handing them their Golden Ticket? Strictly amateur hour in N.J.

Brian Bennett: Rutgers can't seem to get out of its own way when it comes to bad PR. moves, the latest being the flap over the Eric LeGrand speech. I don't think the LeGrand incident is that big of a deal in its own right, but it adds to the string of poor decisions and tin-eared communication skills of the administration. The school has a lot of different political factions tugging it in many directions, so it can often be hard to get everybody on the same page. But for the sake of the Scarlet Knights and the Big Ten, Rutgers really needs to get its house in order and stop creating controversy. Playing good football would make a lot of this stuff go away.




 

Alex from York, Neb., writes: Hi, Brian. My question is why do I get the feeling from the media that the Nebraska QB battle has already been won? It's only spring. I know Tommy Armstrong is the incumbent starter but that's no reason to end a position battle. Tommy is going to look better in practices because he's been around longer, but in the spring game, the closest to a real game situation we've seen so far, Johnny Stanton and ever Ryker Fyfe looked much better than TAJR. I'm not saying he won't win the battle, but why do people seem to think the battle is over already?

Brian Bennett: Armstrong has such an experience edge that I think he would have had to do something to lose the job this offseason. And by all accounts, he played well and took on a bigger leadership role this spring. I don't put much stock in spring game performances. Armstrong can't rest on his laurels, and if he doesn't play well early this season, he has a chance to get passed by. But I'd be really surprised if he weren't the starter in September.




 

Kevin from Fairfax writes: Seriously, someone has Michigan ranked in the top 25? Michigan is going to be lucky to break .500 this year. As for Sparty, they were one of the two best teams in the country last year, while the defense might take a half step back, the offense should help. Right now there are five Big Ten teams that deserve to be ranked: Michigan State, Ohio State, a Penn State team that was far closer to an 11-win team than most admit, Wisconsin and Nebraska.

Brian Bennett: I don't quite get ranking Michigan either, though the Wolverines clearly have some talent if they can figure things out. But based on what we saw last year and given some of the issues on the offensive line, this is a team that will have to show me something before I consider it as a Top 25-caliber club. I disagree with you about Penn State. While the Nittany Lions definitely have some upper-echelon players and a pretty good schedule, there are depth questions and an offensive line that might be even more problematic than the one in Ann Arbor. With a new staff in place, this is another show-me team (and I'd like you to show me how a team that lost by double digits to Indiana and Minnesota and by 49 points to Ohio State was almost an 11-win team). The five teams I think should be ranked are, in order, Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin.

That's it for me and the mailbag for a bit as it's vacation time. Arrivederci!
Everybody is a draftnik this week, and we're putting our own Big Ten spin on things. Rather than looking at the players leaving the league -- don't worry, we'll do that, too -- we're speculating on how a draft within the conference would play out.

To recap: All current Big Ten players are eligible to be drafted (incoming recruits are not). The teams will pick in reverse order of regular-season finish last year. Picks are based on factors like position need, remaining eligibility, scheme, previous players lost in the draft.

Check out the first half of the first round here. It gets a bit messy with teams swiping each other's top players, but that makes it fun.

Now, for the final seven picks ...

Pick No. 8: Penn State

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesConnor Cook's Rose Bowl-winning resume makes him a popular choice in the second half of the first round of the Big Ten draft.
Adam Rittenberg says the Lions select ... Michigan State QB Connor Cook

The offensive line is Penn State's shakiest position group, but Christian Hackenberg (selected No. 5 by Rutgers) leaves a massive hole at quarterback. Cook, a pro-style signal-caller with a big arm and more experience than Hackenberg, makes a lot of sense as he fits the system and comes off top performances in the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl.

Brian Bennett says the Lions select ... Ohio State OT Taylor Decker

Penn State does need help on the offensive line, but it can afford to be patient. Decker was playing as well as any Ohio State offensive lineman late last season, when he was only a redshirt freshman. He can come to State College and offer help now and for the next three years, seeing the Lions through probation.

Pick No. 9: Minnesota

Rittenberg says the Gophers select ... Maryland WR Stefon Diggs

Minnesota loses some star power on defense, but I expect coordinator Tracy Claeys to produce a solid unit. The bigger issue is boosting a pass offense that ranked 115th nationally last season. Diggs comes off an injury-shortened season, but he's an explosive playmaker with 88 career receptions and two years of eligibility left. He would complement promising young wideouts like Drew Wolitarsky.

Bennett says the Gophers select ... Nebraska WR Kenny Bell

The Gophers might just be a downfield receiving threat away from being actual division contenders. Bell is a senior but offers two things Jerry Kill wants: leadership and toughness as a blocker. Bell would also deliver some explosiveness while guiding Minnesota's young wideouts along.

Pick No. 10: Iowa

Rittenberg says the Hawkeyes select ... Indiana LT Jason Spriggs

Brandon Scherff (selected No. 1 by Purdue) is a major loss for Iowa, which now needs a replacement to anchor its offensive line. Spriggs might not be as big a name as Scherff, but he has quietly started the first 24 games of his college career and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors the past two seasons. He also has two years of eligibility left.

Bennett says the Hawkeyes select ... Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

True, Iowa has about 37 tailbacks right now. But the pure speed and playmaking ability of Gordon is tough to pass up here, especially for an offense seeking more home-run plays. Plus, he originally committed to the Hawkeyes, so this is a way for them to finally get Gordon in black and gold.

Pick No. 11: Nebraska

Rittenberg says the Huskers select ... Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Running back Ameer Abdullah (selected No. 6 by Maryland) is a significant loss, but the Huskers have good depth behind him. They need a replacement for All-Big Ten end Randy Gregory (selected No. 4 by Indiana), and Bosa, who ended his freshman season in beast mode, is an easy choice. He should keep the expectations high for the Huskers' defensive front seven. And he has at least two seasons left.

[+] EnlargeDevin Funches
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsDevin Funchess would give Nebraska an athletic, versatile playmaker in the passing game.
Bennett says the Huskers select ... Michigan WR/TE Devin Funchess

Nebraska doesn't seem to have a lot of gaping holes but could use a playmaker in the passing game after losing Bell (selected No. 9 by Minnesota). Funchess would make a nice safety valve for Tommy Armstrong and is a destroyer of red zone defenses. Tim Beck lobbies hard for this pick and would get two years to deploy Funchess in a variety of ways.

Pick No. 12: Wisconsin

Rittenberg says the Badgers select ... Ohio State DL Michael Bennett

Like Nebraska, Wisconsin has lost an elite running back (Melvin Gordon, selected No. 7 by Michigan), and like the Huskers, the Badgers have enough to get by without him. Wisconsin has an even bigger need to upgrade its defensive front seven after losing six starters to graduation. Bennett, a junior who could play either line spot and had seven sacks last season, is a really good fit for Wisconsin.

Bennett says the Badgers select ... Michigan State QB Connor Cook

The passing game remains a sore spot for Wisconsin, and no clear starter under center emerged this spring. Cook knows how to run a pro-style offense and would have two years left in Madison.

Pick No. 13: Ohio State

Rittenberg says the Buckeyes select ... Michigan QB Devin Gardner

Well, this should be interesting. Ohio State needs a quarterback after losing Braxton Miller to Northwestern (pick No. 3), and there aren't too many proven options out there. The Buckeyes likely can get by with a one-year player to allow younger guys to develop. Gardner is a good fit in a true spread offense, and he showed at times last year that he can put up huge numbers.

Bennett says the Buckeyes select ... Indiana QB Tre Roberson

I had Rutgers snagging Miller earlier in the first round. Roberson might be the closest facsimile to Miller in the league right now, a guy with good wheels who can also sling it around the field. He has plenty of game experience and two years of eligibility left.

Pick No. 14: Michigan State

Rittenberg says the Spartans select ... Iowa QB Jake Rudock

OK, the quarterback swapping is getting a little silly, but Michigan State needs one after losing Cook (selected No. 8 by Penn State), and Rudock brings experience to the Spartans backfield. Rudock comes from a pro-style system at Iowa and should take another step this season. Plus, he has two years of eligibility left.

Bennett says the Spartans select ... Ohio State S Vonn Bell

You can't convince me that Mark Dantonio wouldn't go defense first in a draft like this. And I think the prospect of a stud defensive back would prove too hard for him to resist. Bell showed real promise in his brief exposure last year with the Buckeyes and has three years left to help fortify the No-Fly Zone.


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.

Big Ten lunch links

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
12:00
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How 'bout Nebrasketball? Impressed with what's happening in Lincoln.
The last two seasons have shown that two-quarterback systems can work in the Big Ten.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The offseason is full of Big Ten quarterback questions:

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

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

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
5:00
PM ET
Mail time ...

Ed S. from Belleville, Ill., writes: Please ask James Franklin how he can justify going after kids he recruited for Vanderbilt and whether he is going out of his way to try to wreck the Vanderbilt football program. What happened to his "fierce loyalty" to the Commodores and what does he now think of recruits who renege on their commitments to other schools?

Brian Bennett: Ed, those are fair questions. Some coaches say they won't recruit players who committed to their previous school when they switch jobs. There are a couple of things to keep in mind here. One, the better players in Vanderbilt's class almost certainly committed to the Commodores because of Franklin, so it makes sense that they'd be interested in following him to another school. Given Penn State's scholarship limitations, he may feel an even bigger need to flip some of those Vandy recruits. And this is who Franklin is, a guy who's going to be aggressive in everything he does, especially so in recruiting. He's going to push the envelope and ruffle some feathers.


Glenn K. from Leesburg, Fla., writes: Brian, regarding your article about BIG ticket sales for bowl games, don't you think attendance might also have been affected by the economy and the weather? If you want to enjoy the whole enchilada with your team before the actual game, including airfare, hotel, parties, tours, etc., you're looking at thousands of dollars (I know from experience), plus thousands more if you're taking your whole family. I wouldn't think that the weather in the Midwest and East helped much, either, as far as traveling goes.

Brian Bennett: The economy absolutely plays a factor, Glenn, and I mentioned the costs in my post. Airfare and hotel rates have gone up, and I was astounded at how expensive hotels in south Florida were over New Year's. These are not cheap trips, for the most part, especially because the majority of Big Ten bowl sites are located more than a comfortable driving distance away from campuses. I doubt very much that weather played a role in keeping people away, since you really need to book these kinds of trips a couple of weeks in advance to have any success finding good deals. If anything, the weather fosters more travel as Midwesterners love any excuse to escape the winter. But there's little question that bowl trips are becoming more difficult for the average fan, and it will be interesting to see how fans travel if their team can make it to a Big Ten championship game, national semifinal and national title game all in about a month's time under the new playoff system.


Kevin from Saline, Mich., writes: What is it that has made this 2013 MSU football team so much more successful than the 2011 Spartans? Every skill position on that 2011 team was terrific, the defense was still elite, and the chemistry and leadership with Kirk Cousins at the helm was extremely good as well. Is it just finding the inches, as Mark Dantonio always says? I was convinced that 2011 team was destined to be the team to break our Rose Bowl drought. I couldn't be happier with this season and this team, but when I compare them side-by-side with the 2011 version, that 2011 version seems more talented to me.

Brian Bennett: Kevin, you're right that the 2011 Michigan State team was awfully good and probably still a bit underrated in hindsight. The offense was much more experienced in 2011 with Cousins and B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin at receiver. The defense was very good, though not quite as elite as the 2013 team. The 2011 team turned in a couple of clunkers, however, including an 18-point loss at Notre Dame and a 24-3 defeat at Nebraska in which the Spartans looked completely flat a week after beating Wisconsin on the Hail Mary.

Still, that team was extremely close to making the Rose Bowl, losing a back-and-forth Big Ten championship game to Russell Wilson's Wisconsin team that turned on a late running-into-the-punter penalty. And those Spartans went on to beat Georgia in the Outback Bowl. This year's team might have benefited from an easier schedule leading up to the Big Ten title game -- the 2011 squad, for example, played three teams ranked in the top 15 in the regular season, while the 2013 squad faced none. But this year's Spartans turned it on when it really mattered and "found the inches," as Dantonio said. That last step from being a very good team to a championship one is sometimes the steepest.


David K. from New Haven, Ind., writes: Brian, any chance that IU might actually spend what it takes to get a proven defensive coordinator? I think Kevin Wilson has the program going in the right direction, but unless they get somebody in there who knows what he is doing and has been with a winning program, I fear he is doomed to fail because of the awful defense. You get what you pay for, and if they go that way, then the Hoosiers and Wilson are doomed.

Brian Bennett: David, every Big Ten team has money. It's good to see teams like Michigan State, Penn State and Michigan making major commitments to coaching salaries this winter, because that is what it's going to take to win at the big-boy table. Indiana doesn't have quite the deep pockets as some other schools, mainly because of the Hoosiers' attendance problems. Wilson's highest-paid assistant is offensive coordinator Seth Littrell, who is making $356,500 -- and earning it, based on IU's offensive numbers in 2013. I doubt you would see Indiana go much higher than that on the defensive side. Just how many superstar coordinators would be interested in coming to a program that has struggled on defense for so long and now has an offense-first mentality? That remains a major question. There's nothing wrong with finding an up-and-comer to run the defense. Indiana's challenge will be to keep top assistants such as Littrell when they become hot commodities.


Samuel from Iowa City, Iowa, writes: Hey, Brian. Some big coaching moves in the East got me wondering about Iowa. Kirk Ferentz is one of the best-paid head coaches. But what about the assistants? Did I read correctly last week that Iowa is once again one of the most valuable football programs in the country? Does Iowa have the resources the make some big assistant coaching moves like OSU is doing?

Brian Bennett: Iowa does have strong resources. Not quite Ohio State or Michigan level, but certainly in the upper half of the Big Ten. Much of those resources are going to pay Ferentz close to $4 million per year. Neither defensive coordinator Phil Parker nor offensive coordinator Greg Davis are among the top 10 in salary among assistants in the Big Ten. That has been the pattern under Ferentz, who promoted Parker from within and hired Davis after he had been out of football for a year. Perhaps whenever Ferentz retires, the pay scale between the Iowa head coach and his assistants will tilt a little.


Andrew from San Ramon, Calif., writes: Hi, Brian. I've done some research, and the Huskers have an OK schedule coming up this year. Notable teams like Fresno State and Miami lose a lot of key players to the draft. Seven home games and five away games. With the win of the Gator Bowl on their shoulders and new recruits coming in, what do you think the Huskers' chances are at going possibly 10-2 or 11-1? (Losses might be @ Wisconsin and/or Michigan State.)

Brian Bennett: It's entirely too soon to start predicting team records for 2014. I do like Nebraska right now as the early favorite to win the West Division, but I think the conference schedule is a little harder than you make it out to be. The Huskers not only have to travel to Michigan State and Wisconsin but also to Northwestern -- which has played Nebraska extremely tough and should bounce back from an abysmal 2013 -- and Iowa, which just won in Lincoln to close out the recently completed regular season. Compare that to new division rival Wisconsin, which does not play Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State from the East and whose hardest conference road games are Iowa and Northwestern.

I like the potential for Nebraska's young defense in 2014, and if quarterback Tommy Armstrong makes a significant jump in the offseason, the offense could be really good, too. But Bo Pelini's team is going to have to get some work done on the road in league play to get back to the Big Ten championship game.

Week 13 helmet stickers

November, 24, 2013
11/24/13
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Recognizing the best and brightest from the Nittany Lions in Week 13:

Tailback Zach Zwinak. When the Penn State offense started moving, it was usually because of Zwinak. He carried 35 times for 149 yards -- and he was never once tackled behind the line of scrimmage. His longest carry was only 11 yards -- and he still averaged 4.3 yards per carry -- so he was certainly consistent. He routinely carried a Nebraska defender or two. He has had quite the last three games. His rushing totals? 150, 149, 149. Give the man a helmet sticker.

Wideout Allen Robinson. Seriously, can we just move on with A-Rob's helmet sticker? He's Penn State's best player, so it's pretty self-explanatory what he's doing on this list. He came up with eight of Christian Hackenberg's 16 completions, and he wound up with a game-high 106 yards. He's good, really good, and if his inclusion on this list surprises you then, well, maybe you should just go back to watching soccer.

Tight end Jesse James. He makes this list mainly because of one dazzling play in which he turned a short pass into a 46-yard touchdown. He stiff-armed a Nebraska player, managed to stay in-bounds, and flashed some uncanny speed for a 6-foot-7 receiving target. Outside of Robinson, James had the most receptions (three) and receiving yards (56) on Penn State.

Penn State front-seven. OK, this is kind of cheating by including so many players, but it's deserved. The Nittany Lions got intense pressure on Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III all day and really helped to throw off their timing. Plus, when it was third-and-4 (or shorter) the defense really stepped up. The Cornhuskers were faced with third-and-short on five occasions and converted zero -- zero! -- of those attempts, including a trio of third-and-1 attempts. It made a huge goal-line stand on third-and-goal at the 5 to force overtime, and this was one of its best games of the season, especially when considering the opponent. It allowed quite a few yards and bent quite a bit, but it never really broke. It surrendered just one touchdown and three field goals. (Special teams allowed the other TD.)

Safety Malcolm Willis. It was Senior Day for the safety, and he came up with the first forced fumble of his career. He stripped the ball from Ameer Abdullah near the goal line, and Jesse Della Valle fell on it for the touchback. If not for that play, it could've been a completely different game. Willis also wound up with nine tackles and, although that's something you usually don't want to see from a DB, only one of his stops came on a pass. He was the last line of defense for a lot of Nebraska's runs.

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."

5 things: Nebraska at Penn State

November, 23, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State is trying to send its seniors out with a win, and Bo Pelini is hoping to make a stronger case to keep his job. It should be an entertaining one at Beaver Stadium.

Here are five things to keep an eye on:

1. Offensive sparkplugs Allen Robinson and Ameer Abdullah. Two of the better players in the Big Ten will be featured in Saturday's game, and they could both be in for big performances. Robinson already owns Penn State's single-season records for receiving yards (1,204) and catches (81) with two contests left, and nearly half of his yards are coming after the catch. Abdullah has rushed for at least 98 yards in every game this season and is averaging 6.5 yards a carry. Both respective offenses lean heavily on these two players, and whoever has the bigger day could wind up leading his team to victory.

2. Plenty of emotion on Senior Day. Ask any Penn State player to describe this team, and the term "resilient" is bound to pop up. These seniors have been through a lot -- unprecedented sanctions, a scandal, the death of a longtime head coach -- and this is their final chance to leave a mark inside Beaver Stadium. There's no question the Nittany Lions will be motivated Saturday. Tears will be shed, players will embrace, and this game is sure to be a memorable one no matter the final outcome. But the 17 players who'll be honored in their final home game want to go out as winners, and they'll leave it all out there this afternoon.

3. PSU offense on third downs. The Nittany Lions have had an up-and-down season with third downs -- but it's been a lot more down than up. PSU is No. 94 in the country in converting just 35.9 percent of their third downs (52-of-145), and it's going to have an even harder time against Nebraska. The Cornhuskers' defense is No. 7 in third-down conversion percentage, as their opponents have gotten first downs just 30.9 percent of the time. To contrast that number, PSU converted just 1-of-9 third downs against Minnesota -- and the Gophers are ranked No. 62 in the country in that category. This will be a key area to watch again against Nebraska.

4. Freshman quarterbacks playing beyond their years. Tommy Armstrong Jr. has played relatively well in place of Taylor Martinez, but the Huskers haven't leaned on him that much. He's 5-1 as a starter, but he's only had one game with more than 21 pass attempts. Hackenberg has thrown at least 23 passes in every game, and he's playing better right now than Armstrong. Both quarterbacks will be asked to pick up the slack, and both could be the future of the Big Ten.

5. Fumbling issues. Only seven teams in the country have lost fumbles (12) more often than Penn State and, for the Lions to experience success, they'll have to get turnover-free games from Hackenberg and their running backs. Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak have both played well at times this season, but they've also lost three fumbles apiece. The average NCAA tailback fumbles about once every 91 carries, while those two are fumbling about once every 51 carries. They'll play a big role in the game, so those mistakes have to be non-existent.
Among the celebrated history of the Nebraska-Penn State series, Saturday in State College marks, well, the 16th game. This meeting of storied programs arrives without much of the drama that has accompanied prior clashes. The Cornhuskers are Nittany Lions are both unranked and out of contention for The Big Ten title.

Regardless, plenty of pride remains at stake. Let’s talk about it:

Considering the circumstances, what are the mindsets at Nebraska and Penn State as Saturday nears?

[+] EnlargeZach Zwinak
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsFor Zach Zwinak and the rest of the Penn State seniors, this final home game is sure to be an emotional one.
Josh Moyer: Believe it or not, even without a postseason, the future is not on the minds of these Nittany Lions. This is the final home game for Penn State's seniors, and there's more on the line Saturday than usual. The Lions can't play for any bowl games because of the sanctions but, in the words of cornerback Jordan Lucas, these final two games are Penn State's bowl games. These seniors have endured more than most in the country -- the death of a longtime coach, a scandal heard 'round the nation, unprecedented sanctions, etc. -- and this is their final opportunity to leave a mark. Expectations this season hovered around eight wins, so a win here -- getting past .500 -- would be huge for Penn State. This game will be an emotional one for PSU, and a win surely means a lot to this team.

Mitch Sherman: The Huskers are a prideful bunch. And despite the many goals that vanished this year earlier than ever in coach Bo Pelini's six seasons, Nebraska shows no signs of playing with less than 100-percent effort. The Penn State name and setting at Beaver Stadium figures to stir some emotions with Huskers who understand the history of these programs. Nebraska is young on both sides of the football after injuries decimated the veteran offensive line. Young players tend stay focused more easily on the future. And once you get past pride and the incentive to again win nine games, the future serves a primary motivational factor for the Huskers.



What do you envision as the role in this game of Penn State's star receiver, Allen Robinson?

JM: He's the Penn State X-factor, as he's being targeted around every third throw. He's accounted for nearly half of the Penn State passing offense this season, and he's one of the top wideouts in school history. For PSU to experience any kind of success through the air, Robinson will need to have a big game. Minnesota had the right idea when it shadowed Robinson with two defenders on nearly every play – Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said you could count on one hand the number of times Robinson experienced single-coverage -- but, even in that game, Robinson came away with seven of Christian Hackenberg's 14 completions. It's boom-or-bust for Robinson and the passing game.

MS: The Huskers are confident in their ability to cover with cornerbacks Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, but they'll be hard-pressed to stay with Robinson. Jean-Baptiste is a playmaking NFL prospect, but he's not a lockdown corner on the level of, say, Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard -- or even Evans. Nebraska will mix its coverages in an attempt to confuse Hackenberg. Still, the freshman QB will find a way to get the football to Robinson. But just how much and in what position to gain yards after the catch? The answer figures to loom large in determining a winner.

Nebraska and Penn State feature freshmen quarterbacks. How do you expect them to play?

MS: Tommy Armstrong has shown excellent poise and resilience in his six starts as a replacement for injured senior Taylor Martinez. Armstrong has also displayed a streak of carelessness and a tendency to make mistakes. He threw three interceptions against both Purdue and Northwestern, then committed three more costly turnovers against Michigan State. In between, he led the Huskers on a game-winning drive at Michigan. Look for Nebraska to utilize Armstrong's athleticism against Penn State and rely on a heavy dose of Ameer Abdullah in an attempt to beat the Nittany Lions in the perimeter run game. The less Nebraska can place Armstrong in high-pressure spots, the better.

JM: Unlike Armstrong, Hackenberg has had the luxury of starting since Week 1. He's shrugged off mistakes, led PSU to two comeback wins (Michigan, Illinois) and has progressed every week. Despite his strong arm, he's been most dangerous on short-to-intermediate throws, and he's attempted at least 23 passes every game. Bill O'Brien isn't afraid to air it out but, like Nebraska, we'll likely see quite a bit of Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak in the backfield. Outside of Robinson, Hackenberg doesn't really have a key receiving target, and O'Brien has really been emphasizing the running game lately.

How do you expect the game to unfold?

JM: It's really going to come down to Penn State's hit-or-miss defense. The secondary has struggled, the entire unit is slow, and missed tackles have become a common occurrence. I could see this game following a similar path as the Minnesota contest, in that PSU will aim to stop the run. But even if that works early on -- just as it did against the Gophers -- there's no guarantee PSU will be able to stop a so-so passing attack. A good early indicator to PSU's defense will be how many long runs it allows and just how it fares on third downs. When the defense struggles, those seem to be the places where it really falls apart. That being said, the defense has played poorly all season -- and I think Nebraska has the advantage. I'm calling for the Huskers in a mild upset.

MS: For Nebraska, it's the same story, new chapter. Much like every game since the Huskers visited Minnesota on Oct. 26, the opportunity to win is right there, but Nebraska must limit its turnovers and special teams mistakes. Don't discount the emotion in play for Penn State on Senior Day. These Nittany Lions have endured so much in State College, and they've failed to beat Nebraska in two tries, a reality that ought to stoke the fires additionally for PSU players and fans. Still, Nebraska has the edge in talent and depth. And with a week to replay all the mental errors that spelled doom against Michigan State, look for the Huskers, by comparison, to play a clean game. Pull it off, and I like Nebraska to win a one-score contest.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 13

November, 21, 2013
11/21/13
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Storylines to watch in the Big Ten this weekend:

1. Let’s settle this: Yes, four teams remain in the running to play in the Big Ten title game. But seriously, it’s going to be Ohio State and Michigan State. OK, crazy things can happen, but the third-ranked Buckeyes, who welcome Indiana to the Ohio Stadium on Saturday, must lose twice. Same goes for the No. 13 Spartans, who visit Northwestern and host Minnesota to close. It’s time to end the uncertainty and start booking travel to Indy. Who are we kidding, it’s already started.

[+] EnlargeMax Bullough, Denicos Allen
Mike Carter/USA TODAY Sports Michigan State seems to be on a collision course with Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game.
2. Big-time test for the Gophers: Minnesota, riding a once-in-40-years run of four straight Big Ten wins, faces a serious road block in its bid to keep streaking Saturday as No. 19 Wisconsin visits Minneapolis in the battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe. The 25th-ranked Gophers knocked off Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State, but the Badgers present a test with a new level of difficulty. Led by their pair of 1,000-yard rushers, Melvin Gordon and James White, Wisconsin steamrolled Indiana last week, gaining 554 yards on the ground.

3. A trophy game that's not worth a trophy: If the Purdue Cannon fails to launch and implodes inward Saturday, well, that would create a mess befitting of this battle of winless Leaders Division teams. Illinois, which has lost 20 straight Big Ten games, is favored by a touchdown on the road over the Boilermakers, who have fallen apart since playing Michigan State to within two touchdowns Oct. 19. Since then, Purdue has been outscored 139-35 by Ohio State, Iowa and Penn State. The Illini, meanwhile, have scored 35 points in back-to-back losses to Indiana and OSU. Something’s gotta give Saturday.

4. Freshman quarterbacks on display: Two of the league's top young QBs converge at Beaver Stadium. Nebraska redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong earns his seventh start, and true freshman Christian Hackenberg, looking to secure a winning record for Penn State on Senior Day, again gets the call for the Nittany Lions. Hackenberg has endured ups and downs, but his numbers are solid considering the circumstances. Armstrong has struggled with turnovers, but he's 5-1 as a starter and displaying impressive poise behind an injury-plagued Nebraska offensive line that might be without four season-opening starters Saturday.

5. Dark days continue for Wildcats: Northwestern has fallen so far off the map after a perfect nonconference season that it's not even visible from the top of the Legends Division as we reach late November. Who'd have thought these Wildcats would sit 0-6 in league play when "College GameDay" visited Evanston on Oct. 5 as Pat Fitzgerald’s team lost 40-30 to Ohio State? Each of the past four losses has come in excruciating fashion, from the Hail Mary defeat at Nebraska to overtime thrillers against Iowa and Michigan. These Wildcats might have forgotten how to win, and Michigan State, trying to secure an outright division title, appears likely to extend their misery.

6. Buckeyes and the BCS: It seems inevitable now that if Ohio State keeps winning and Baylor keeps winning, the Bears will pass OSU in the BCS standings and upend the Buckeyes' bid to reach the title game if Alabama or Florida State slips. No. 4 Baylor trails Ohio State this week by 13 thousandths of a point. The switch might occur Sunday as the Bears visit No. 10 Oklahoma State while Ohio State faces Indiana. No score against the Hoosiers or amount of Buckeyes lobbying is likely to reverse the Baylor climb. So expect all eyes in Columbus, Ohio, to be on Stillwater, Okla., Saturday night.

7. Could it be Braxton Miller’s finale at the Horseshoe? Ohio State's junior quarterback was understandably mum when asked this week if Saturday at home against Indiana might mark the final game of his collegiate career. Miller has made huge strides under coach Urban Meyer as a dual-threat QB, and his strengths fit the evolving style of NFL offenses, though he's far from a done deal to leave early. If this is the end, expect him to go out with a bang against the Hoosiers, who have lost four of five and rank among the bottom five nationally in total defense and rushing defense.

8. Tracking the top running backs: November brings out the best in Big Ten running backs. Six of the league's top individual rushing performances have occurred in the past three weeks, highlighted by a 246-yard effort from Ohio State's Carlos Hyde last week. White, Indiana's Tevin Coleman and Penn State's Bill Belton also have topped 200 yards in a game this month. Hyde and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, who has reached 100 yards in every conference game, rank among the leading candidates for Big Ten offensive player of the year. Hyde has rushed for 821 yards in the past five games. He needs 53 yards to become the first running back ever to top 1,000 yards under Meyer.

9. The at-large BCS watch: Michigan State jumped three spots to 13th in the BCS standings Sunday, promoting the Spartans into position to qualify for an at-large BCS bowl bid. But if it loses again -- even to Ohio State in Indy -- MSU might slide back out of contention. It would be well served to win impressively against Northwestern and Minnesota and root for losses this week from the likes of Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Missouri, which face challenging games. Wisconsin, at No. 19 in the BCS standings, still must jump into the top 14 to qualify for BCS consideration, though chaos is its best hope.

10. And then there's Iowa-Michigan: What's the compelling storyline here? Iowa has exceeded expectations this year, but the Hawkeyes are no longer fighting to get bowl eligible for the 12th time in 13 seasons after a win two weeks ago at Purdue. Michigan has failed to meet expectations but last week ended its skid with a win at Northwestern. Iowa has won three of the past four meetings, including two straight in Iowa City. And here's an interesting stat to close: The four teams to beat the Hawkeyes this season have a combined record of 37-3.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 11

November, 11, 2013
11/11/13
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Brady Hoke might turn out to be a legendary coach who has a long and storied career at Michigan.

But Hoke will be bucking some trends in order to get that done. In his third year in Ann Arbor, Hoke's Wolverines have taken a major step backward. After Saturday's 17-13 home loss to Nebraska, they're 6-3 with some challenging games ahead, and they're probably lucky not to have one or two more losses already.

Most of the truly great college football coaches in recent times have had their programs up and running by the third year. Alabama's Nick Saban and LSU's Les Miles won BCS titles in their third years at their current schools. Pete Carroll won an AP national title in his third season at USC.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesBrady Hoke's third season hasn't gone as anyone associated with the Michigan program hoped.
Brian Kelly led Notre Dame to a 12-0 regular season and BCS title game appearance in Year 3. Ohio State's Urban Meyer won a national title his second year at Florida, while Bob Stoops did the same in his second year at Oklahoma. Jim Tressel led Ohio State to a national title his second year and then went 11-2 with a Fiesta Bowl win in Year 3.

The same is true for some legends. Joe Paterno guided Penn State to an undefeated record in his third season as head coach. Bear Bryant went 8-1-2 at Alabama in Year 3. And it's the case for revered Michigan Men. Bo Schembechler was 11-1 and had an undefeated Big Ten record in his third year at the helm of the Wolverines, while the third season for Lloyd Carr resulted in the undefeated 12-0 campaign of 1997.

Hoke did have to revamp the program and rebuild for a new system after Rich Rodriguez left, but several of the coaches mentioned in the preceding paragraphs also had to make major transitions. And any argument preaching patience for Hoke loses some steam when you look at Minnesota, where Jerry Kill and his staff have an 8-2 record in Year 3.

There is hope, but Hoke would have to find precedent in two places he'd probably rather not look. Woody Hayes was just 6-3 in his third year at Ohio State before going undefeated and winning the Rose Bowl the following year. Michigan State took a step back in Mark Dantonio's third year with a disappointing 6-7 mark; the Spartans would win 11 games and a share of the Big Ten title the next season.

So maybe Hoke, who is just 6-5 in his last 11 games, will get things rolling after this difficult third season. But history shows that most truly great coaches have done so by this point.

Take that and rewind it back:

Team of the week: Nebraska. Say what you want about Michigan's troubles, the Huskers still went into the Big House and snapped the Wolverines' 19-game home winning streak. And the Big Red offense is being held together by spit and string, at times. All-America guard Spencer Long is out for the season and senior quarterback Taylor Martinez is unavailable. Starting guard Jake Cotton is also out, and on Saturday, starting tackle Jeremiah Sirles went down with a knee injury. The Huskers turned to little-used Zach Sterup to replace Sirles. Take away a pick-six and a Hail Mary against Northwestern, and the Nebraska offense has scored just 30 points total in its last two games. With two victories.

Worst hangover: The nightmare continues for Michigan. If the Wolverines don't win at Northwestern this week -- and the Wildcats are coming off a bye -- then a 6-6 finish with a five-game losing streak becomes a real possibility.

Best play: For the second straight week, a late Nebraska play involving Ameer Abdullah takes this honor. This time, it was quarterback Tommy Armstrong's pitch to Abdullah on third-and-goal from the 5 for the winning touchdown.

Armstrong was ready to run on the option play until Michigan defensive end Frank Clark committed to him, and just before he got flattened, Armstrong had the presence of mind to flip the ball forward to Abdullah. The running back did the rest by diving into the end zone, helped by a nice block on the perimeter from receiver Alonzo Moore. It was one of the stranger-looking option plays and went down in the box score as a pass, but it couldn't have been any prettier for Nebraska fans.

Big Men on Campus (offense): Wisconsin's James White ran for 147 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries against BYU, and he added a receiving touchdown. Indiana receiver Cody Latimer had a career day versus Illinois, catching 11 passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory recorded three sacks and a quarterback hurry as part of a dominating effort by the Blackshirts (and yes, they've earned that nickname again).

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Minnesota punter Peter Mortell helped the Gophers hang on in the second half of a 24-10 win. He had punts downed at the Penn State 1, 2 and 12 while averaging 46 yards on four attempts.

[+] EnlargeMinnesota
Brad Rempel/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota ran its record to 8-2 with a trophy win over Penn State on Saturday.
Break-dancing: Forgive Minnesota for being a little new to the whole winning trophies thing. The Gophers captured the Governor's Victory Bell by beating Penn State for the first time since 2004, and in their postgame sideline celebration, they actually broke part of the trophy. “I think we were more worried about keeping [the trophy] together, so we could celebrate with it first,” tight end Maxx Williams told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. It's not like there is a lot of great history with that trophy, which has been around since only 1993.

The best part of the Gophers' victory celebration was clearly Jerry Kill's locker room dance. Watch it here.

Back to a bowl: Iowa can officially chalk up last year's 4-8 season as an aberration. The Hawkeyes pounded Purdue 38-14 on the road to earn their sixth win and ensure they will be back in a bowl game this season.

“Obviously, it’s not our endgame, but that’s one nice byproduct of winning,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s something we don’t take for granted. All you have to do is look back to last year. So it’s great to get that accomplished.”

With an off week to get ready for the final two games, Iowa should give Michigan and Nebraska all they can handle.

The Indiana effect: We are thinking of adding a separate helmet sticker post each week just for games involving Indiana. The Hoosiers put up big numbers and allow opponents to do the same in their weekly shootouts. Against Illinois, IU got huge games from Latimer and running back Tevin Coleman (215 yards on 15 carries, two touchdowns). Illini receiver Steve Hull caught nine passes for 224 yards and two scores. Nathan Scheelhaase threw for 450 yards in a losing effort. The two teams combined for 1,262 total yards, which sounds like a lot until you remember that Indiana and Michigan went for 1,323 last month.

The winning team has scored at least 41 points in every one of the Hoosiers' nine games, and an average of 80.5 points has been scored in each of those contests. Don't expect that to change, as Wisconsin and Ohio State are next up on the schedule.

Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Information):

  • In the past two weeks, Michigan lost a combined 49.2 expected points on rushing plays. Expected points added is a metric that measures the contributions of each unit to its team’s net scoring margin. Therefore, Michigan lost almost 50 net points as a results of its rushes and sacks. An average EPA is 0, so if Michigan had had an average rush offense, and all else remained equal, the Wolverines would have been about even with Michigan State and would have beaten Nebraska by about 22 points.
  • Against Nebraska, Michigan gained zero or negative yards on 21 of its 36 rushes (58.3 percent). It was the Wolverines’ second-most rushes and second-highest percentage of rushes that gained zero or negative yards in a game in the past 10 seasons.
  • Overall, Michigan added minus-26.3 expected points towards its net scoring margin on rushes (including sacks). That is the lowest rushing EPA for a team in an FBS game this season.
  • Coleman and his Indiana backfield mate Stephen Houston make an efficient pair. Houston is averaging 7.34 yards per rush, while Coleman is at 7.31. That ranks 10th and 11th, respectively, in the FBS among qualified rushers. They have combined for nearly 1,500 rushing yards despite averaging a little more than 22 rushes per game.
  • There are 123 FBS teams. Here are some of Purdue's national rankings: Points per game (120), rushing (122), passing yards per attempt (121), yards per play (121), points allowed (109), rushing yards allowed (111), third-down defense (122).
  • Minnesota is 8-2 and is passing the ball just 31.3 percent of the time. But that can definitely be a winning formula. Ranking right ahead of the Gophers is Stanford (35.5 percent of total plays are passes), while just below them is Auburn (30.8 percent).

Big Ten Week 10 primer

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

Noon ET

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

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

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

3:30 ET

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

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

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

Weather

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

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

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Big Ten Week 10: Did you know?

November, 1, 2013
11/01/13
10:00
AM ET
A full slate of Big Ten games awaits on Saturday. Here’s a look at facts and figures to preview the opening week of November football in the league:
  • The short-yardage run game is clicking for Minnesota. And we’re talking very short yardage. The Gophers’ past eight touchdowns on the ground have covered 1 yard. Eleven of their 19 touchdowns this season were punched in from the 1, and 15 covered 5 yards or fewer. Minnesota rushed for just 14 touchdowns last year. The Gophers are 13-10 under coach Jerry Kill when they score a rushing TD and 2-8 when they don’t.
  • Indiana’s offense is doing its part in the program’s bid for a winning season. The Hoosiers have scored 28 or more points in eight consecutive games, a first at the school. They’ve passed for more than 300 yards six times season in seven games. Indiana receivers Cody Latimer, Shane Wynn, Kofi Hughes and tight end Ted Bolser have all surpassed 100 career receptions and 1,000 yards in the past four weeks. Indiana is the only team nationally and the first in the Big Ten since Northwestern in 2008 with four 100-1,000 players.
  • Despite scoring just three points last week against Michigan State, Illinois’ offense remains one of the most improved units nationally. From last season, the Illini have jumped more than 60 spots in the national rankings in passing efficiency, big plays (20 yards or more), first downs per game, passing yardage per game, turnovers lost and scoring offense. Illinois averages 400.7 yards of total offense, up 46 spots from last year, when it ranked 119th at 296.7 yards per game.
  • Penn State, under coach Bill O’Brien, has not lost consecutive games since it opened last season 0-2. Its Oct. 12 win over Michigan, 43-40 in four overtimes -- the longest game in Big Ten history -- prevented a two-game skid on the heels of a loss at Indiana. Penn State needs a win on Saturday over Illinois to prevent consecutive defeats in the wake of a 63-14 loss last week to Ohio State. O’Brien is 5-1 at PSU in games after a loss.
  • Senior Jeremy Gallon’s 369 yards on 14 catches last week against Indiana set Michigan and Big Ten records for receiving yardage in a game. It was the second-highest figure ever posted by an FBS receiver, and the 14 receptions were the second most at Michigan in one game. Gallon has recorded a reception in 33 straight games, with nine touchdown receptions over his past eight. He ranks second in the Big Ten in receiving yardage per game at 118.7.
  • A win for Michigan State on Saturday over Michigan would keep the Spartans in control of the Legends Division and mark their third consecutive victory over the Wolverines at Spartan Stadium, which has never happened in the 105-game series. Michigan is 19-12-2 against Michigan State in East Lansing, but under Brady Hoke, the Wolverines are 6-8 away from Michigan Stadium. A win for the Spartans would also be their fifth in six games over Michigan. That hasn’t happened since MSU won six of seven from 1956 to 1962.
  • No team in the Big Ten feels quite like Northwestern about October. The Wildcats went 0-3 to even their record at 4-4 as November arrives. This final month of the regular season has proven much more kind to Northwestern. It is 12-6 in November since 2008, with five victories over teams ranked in the top 20, including a 28-25 upset in Lincoln over No. 9 Nebraska in 2011. The Wildcats’ lone November loss a year ago came at Michigan in overtime.
  • Redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong, set to start for the fourth time this season on Saturday, has guided Nebraska to scores on 12 of 24 possessions in his previous three starts. Armstrong again replaces senior Taylor Martinez, out after he suffered a hip pointer last week in his return at Minnesota after a three-game absence because of a foot injury. A fourth start by Armstrong would mark the first time at Nebraska since 1998, when Bobby Newcombe and Eric Crouch split time, that two quarterbacks started more than three games in the same season.
  • Ohio State has remained unbeaten this year to extend its nation-leading winning streak to 20 games in large part because of its success at running the football. OSU, after a season-best 408-yard rushing effort against Penn State -- the first 400-yard day at the school since 1995 -- ranks second in the Big Ten and ninth nationally with a 295.6-yard rushing average. Senior Carlos Hyde has rushed for 464 yards and seven touchdowns in the past three games. Hyde and senior Jordan Hall have combined to rush for 1,038 yards and 15 touchdowns.
  • Purdue has taken Ohio State to overtime in the past two meetings, losing 29-22 a year ago at Ohio Stadium after a 26-23 victory by the Boilermakers in 2011 that marked the program’s second straight home win over the Buckeyes. Saturday appears to set up differently as Purdue starts one of the youngest teams nationally. Offensively, four true freshmen, including quarterback Danny Etling, and three redshirt freshmen have participated on the same play in the past two games.
  • Wisconsin needs one victory to become bowl eligible for the 12th consecutive season. Its run of 11 straight bowl appearances ranks as the longest in the Big Ten and ties the Badgers for the eighth-longest streak nationally. A win would also give Wisconsin an edge in the all-time series against Iowa. It is currently equal at 42-42-2. The Badgers have won six straight games that fall after a bye week, including a 35-6 win three weeks ago over Northwestern.
  • Iowa cornerback Desmond King is averaging 7.2 tackles in Big Ten games, according to the school, more than any other true freshman in the league. King, who has started seven of the Hawkeyes’ eight games, recorded a season-best 12 tackles at Ohio State on Oct. 19 and 11 against Michigan State on Oct. 5. King is the first true freshman to start in the Iowa secondary since Jovon Johnson in 2002. His third-down pass breakup last week against Northwestern negated a potential first down in overtime, helping lead to the Iowa win.

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