Penn State Nittany Lions: Venric Mark

Big Ten Friday mailblog

March, 21, 2014
Mar 21
4:30
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Brackets still intact? Didn't think so. Be sure to follow us on Twitter.

Let's check the mail ...

Husker Jeff from Lincoln Park writes: Adam, can we get some decent weather here in the Windy City? ... Anyway, a conference that is always known for its running backs looks to have some salty returners for the 2014 season. What's your top five at the RB position for this upcoming season?

Adam Rittenberg: Jeff, this winter can't end soon enough. Just brutal. ... Yes, the Big Ten once again will be a running back's league in 2013, despite losing standouts such as Carlos Hyde and James White.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsNebraska's Ameer Abdullah is the top returning running back in the Big Ten.
Here's my top five entering the fall:

1. Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: Most consistent back in the league and helps his team in so many ways. Needs to score more touchdowns.

2. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: Has the most star potential and could be on the Heisman Trophy radar. Must show more consistency in Big Ten play.

3. Venric Mark, Northwestern: Recent injury history is a concern, but his speed and willingness to mix it up between the tackles makes him stand out. Also a huge threat on returns.

4. Tevin Coleman, Indiana: Explosive player who averaged 7.3 yards per carry as a sophomore. Must show he can handle more touches this season.

5. Jeremy Langford, Michigan State: Solid back who gets stronger as games go on. Yards-per-carry average isn't exceptional, but he gets the job done.

Also in the mix: David Cobb, Minnesota; Josh Ferguson, Illinois; Mark Weisman, Iowa


Alex from York, Neb., writes: Is it me, or does it seem like nobody is favoring Nebraska to win the West Division this year? It seems like most everyone favors Wisconsin, Iowa or Minnesota. Nebraska's young defense, which improved greatly at the end of last year, only loses a few starters in the secondary, but secondary is always a strength here regardless who's in it. Gregory is back, Abdullah is back and QB play should improve this year. Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Nebraska is definitely in the conversation, Alex, and you can make a case (as you have) for the Huskers being the front runner. But there's no clear favorite in the West, and all five of the top contenders -- I'd throw Northwestern in there, too -- have potential flaws. When a group of teams is about even on paper, you look to factors such as schedule to separate them. And that's where both Wisconsin and Iowa have a huge edge.

Neither team faces Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan nor Penn State in crossover games. Iowa gets both Wisconsin and Nebraska at home. Nebraska, meanwhile, must visit both Wisconsin and Iowa, as well as Michigan State and Northwestern. The Huskers must be good away from Lincoln, perfect at home and avoid the blowout losses that have plagued them.


Dan from Cleveland writes: Adam, by now I'm sure you are exhausted of explaining how next year's Wisconsin squad has to replace essential starters on both sides of the ball. My question is, as of right now, what should we expect from LSU? Will they be SEC contenders? Rebuilding? Underdogs in this matchup? (I know the last one is far-fetched, but one can dream, right?)

Adam Rittenberg: LSU has lost 18 underclassmen to the NFL draft in the past two seasons, including five offensive players from the 2013 squad. For that reason it's difficult to label the Tigers as an SEC title contender, especially with Auburn and Alabama in the same division. But LSU always has talent, especially on defense, and one of the nation's best defensive coordinators in John Chavis. The Tigers also bring in running back Leonard Fournette, the nation's No. 1 recruit. They'll be the favorite in Houston.


Matt from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Hi, Adam, I have to wonder if Penn State is being severely overlooked in the Big Ten East race this coming fall? Their schedule appears to be the easiest of all those in the East Division by far. Weak out-of-conference games. Crossover games against Northwestern and Illinois should be easy wins. The they get both MSU and OSU at home, while traveling to Michigan. If they can find a away to win in Ann Arbor, a split with MSU and OSU might just be enough to win the division.

Adam Rittenberg: Penn State has some schedule advantages, although UCF is hardly a pushover and Northwestern should be a tough game, as the Wildcats easily could have won seven or eight contests last year. The Lions still have some potentially major depth issues, especially along both lines. Their starting 11s on both sides could be better than they were in 2013, but they can't afford many injuries. As coach James Franklin told me last month, the longer you're in a limited scholarship situation, the harder it is to manage. But if Penn State is salty at home with MSU and OSU coming in, anything can happen in the East.


Adam from Baltimore writes: I know we at MSU are talking about the playoff and national championship, and I think those expectations are justified. But I get the sense from the media that the season will be somewhat defined by the Oregon game. I understand that it is a huge chance to prove that we belong in the national conversation against a big dog, but what if the game is a blowout one way or the other?

Adam Rittenberg: A blowout certainly hurts the loser's playoff chances, although Oregon would be hurt more by any loss than Michigan State. The Spartans would face an uphill climb if they lose and would need to run the table and likely need help elsewhere to make the top four. But an early season loss, especially a fairly close one on the road, can be forgiven. Michigan State would want Oregon to keep winning. An Oregon loss, meanwhile, could knock the Ducks out of the playoff picture.
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

Spring position breakdown: RBs

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
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Spring practice is off and running in the Big Ten, as Michigan took the field Tuesday and Northwestern followed on Wednesday. We're taking snapshots of where each team stands at each position group.

We've already discussed the quarterbacks -- and will have much more on the way -- so the series begins with the running backs.

Illinois: The Illini are in a bit better shape here than they were the past two springs, as veterans Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young both return. Ferguson averaged 5.5 yards per carry and added 50 receptions for 535 yards as the primary playmaker for Illinois' revamped offense. Young added 376 yards on 93 carries. The Illini are looking for others behind the top two, and Dami Ayoola is back with the team after being dismissed in September for a rules violation.

Indiana: Tevin Coleman quietly put together a superb sophomore season and leads the Hoosiers' running backs in 2014. Coleman provides big-play ability after averaging 7.3 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns on only 131 attempts in 2013. Indiana loses Stephen Houston but brings back veteran D'Angelo Roberts, who will play behind Coleman. Younger players such as sophomore Laray Smith could get a look here.

Iowa: Not only did the Hawkeyes toss AIRBHG to the side and get through the season without any major injurie, but they bring back everyone for 2014. Senior Mark Weisman leads the contingent after rushing for 975 yards and eight touchdowns last fall. Jordan Canzeri came on strong late in the season and is showing no effects from his ACL tear in 2012. Veteran Damon Bullock also returns to the mix, and Iowa has talented younger backs such as LeShun Daniels Jr. at its disposal. Good situation here.

Maryland: The Terrapins wide receivers tend to get more attention, but the team also returns its top three running backs from 2013 in Brandon Ross, Albert Reid and Jacquille Veii. Maryland also regains the services of Wes Brown, who finished second on the team in rushing as a freshman in 2012 before being suspended for all of last season. Joe Riddle is back in the fold as well. The group brings different strengths, from power (Brown) to speed (Veii) to a mixture of both (Ross, Reid).

Michigan: Sophomore Derrick Green enters the spring as the frontrunner to be Michigan's lead back, although coach Brady Hoke wants to ramp up competition everywhere. The Wolverines struggled to consistently run between the tackles, but the 240-pound Green could change things. Hoke also is excited about another sophomore, De'Veon Smith. Michigan moved Ross Douglas from cornerback to running back, and Justice Hayes and Wyatt Shallman also are in the mix. "We've got more depth," Hoke said.

Michigan State: Things look much more promising than they did last spring, when the Spartans ended the session with a linebacker (Riley Bullough) as their top back. Jeremy Langford emerged as a very solid option during the season, rushing for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. He's back as the clear-cut starter, and Nick Hill also returns. It will be interesting to see if Gerald Holmes makes a push, or whether Delton Williams remains on offense.

Minnesota: Here's another team that finds itself in very good shape at running back entering the spring. David Cobb leads the group after rushing for 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. Veterans Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr. are still around, and highly touted redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards will take the field after missing last fall because of knee and ankle injuries. Perhaps the best news will come in the summer as decorated recruit Jeff Jones arrives.

Nebraska: Notice a theme here? Nebraska is yet another Big Ten squad that can feel very good about its running backs entering the spring. Ameer Abdullah elected to bypass the NFL draft for one final season at Nebraska, where he led the Big Ten with 1,690 yards on 281 carries as a junior. Abdullah will contend for national awards in the fall. Imani Cross, who rushed for 10 touchdowns last year, is one of the nation's top backups. Terrell Newby and others add depth behind the top two.

Northwestern: Top back Venric Mark (ankle) will miss spring practice following surgery, and reserve Stephen Buckley (knee) also is rehabbing, but Northwestern has no reason to panic. Treyvon Green, who filled in well for Mark last season with 736 rushing yards, will get much of the work. Warren Long also is in the mix after appearing in seven games as a true freshman. Northwestern also loaded up at running back in recruiting to solidify the position for years to come.

Ohio State: This will be a position to watch in the spring as Ohio State must replace Carlos Hyde, who was nearly unstoppable during Big Ten play last fall. Veteran Jordan Hall also departs, and Rod Smith will be the veteran of the group despite only 83 career carries. The Buckeyes have some talented young backs, from Dontre Wilson, who saw significant playing time last fall, to Bri'onte Dunn, Ezekiel Elliott and Warren Ball. Keep an eye on Elliott, who averaged 8.7 yards per carry in limited work last season but could emerge this spring.

Penn State: If it feels like Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton have been competing for carries forever at Penn State, it's because they have. Zwinak and Belton have been part of Penn State's running back rotation for the past two seasons and enter another competition this spring with talented sophomore Akeel Lynch, who rushed for 358 yards on only 60 carries last season. It will be interesting to see how much Lynch can push Zwinak and Belton in the team's first spring under a new coaching staff. Penn State has depth issues at several positions, but running back isn't one of them.

Purdue: The Boilers finished 122nd nationally in rushing offense last season, so the fact all of their running backs return might not spark mass celebration. Senior Akeem Hunt leads the group after recording 123 of the team's 319 rushing attempts in 2013. Other veteransBrandon Cottom and Raheem Mostert also are back, along with younger ball-carries such as Dayln Dawkins and three backs -- Keyante Green, David Yancey and Keith Byars II -- who redshirted last fall and could have much bigger roles.

Rutgers: Here's yet another team that returns basically its entire stable of running backs for spring ball. Paul James is the name to watch, as he rushed for 573 yards in the first four games last season before suffering a leg injury. James' health is a concern for Rutgers, which could also turn to Justin Goodwin, who showed some flashes following James' injury. Savon Huggins, who entered last season as the starter before losing ground, is in the mix as he looks to re-establish himself on the depth chart.

Wisconsin: How many teams can lose a 1,400-yard rusher and still claim to have the best running back group in the Big Ten? James White is gone, but Wisconsin remains in very good shape in the backfield. Melvin Gordon bypassed the NFL draft for another year in Madison after rushing for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 206 carries. Gordon should move into more of a featured role beginning this spring, although he'll be pushed by Corey Clement, who had 547 yards and seven touchdowns on only 67 carries. Jeff Lewis provides another option behind the top two.
Spring football kicks off earlier than normal in the Big Ten, as Michigan takes the field Tuesday, Northwestern follows Wednesday and eight other squads begin their sessions by March 8.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Big Ten Power Rankings

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
1:00
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Before we close the book on the 2013 season, here's the final version of the Big Ten power rankings. Bowl performances were factored in, as well as how teams finished the season, although there aren't too many changes from the previous version of the power rankings.

Let's get started ...

1. Michigan State (13-1, previously: 1): The Spartans rallied to beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO to record their team-record 13th victory. Thanks to stifling defense and improved quarterback play, Michigan State had its best season since the mid-1960s. The Spartans return QB Connor Cook and most of the skill players on offense, but must replace a lot of production on defense.

2. Ohio State (12-2, previously: 2): After winning 24 consecutive games to open the Urban Meyer era, Ohio State dropped consecutive games on big stages. The Buckeyes' defense couldn't slow down Clemson's pass game in the Discover Orange Bowl, and turnovers doomed Ohio State in the second half. Meyer's defensive staff will have a different look with new assistants Chris Ash and Larry Johnson.

3. Wisconsin (9-4, previously: 3): Like Ohio State, Wisconsin ended its season with a thud and a sloppy bowl performance against South Carolina. The Badgers received big performances from running backs Melvin Gordon and James White but couldn't stop South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw or hang on to the football.

4. Nebraska (9-4, previously: 6): All roads lead to 9-4 for Bo Pelini's team, but the Huskers are much happier to be there after an upset victory over Georgia in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. An improved defense did a nice job of keeping the Bulldogs out of the end zone, and seniors such as wide receiver Quincy Enunwa stepped up in their final college game.

5. Iowa (8-5, previously: 4): A stout Hawkeyes defense kept the team in the Outback Bowl, but the offense never truly got going and lost starting quarterback Jake Rudock to injury. Iowa had its chances for a quality bowl win, but has to settle for a strong regular-season improvement and raised expectations entering the 2014 season.

6. Penn State (7-5, previously: 7): An impressive victory at Wisconsin marked the final game of the Bill O'Brien era. New coach James Franklin has brought a lot of enthusiasm to Happy Valley and should sparkle on the recruiting trail. His management of talented quarterback Christian Hackenberg and an undermanned defense will loom large this fall.

7. Minnesota (8-5, previously: 5): The Gophers had by far the most favorable bowl matchup but didn't reach the end zone for more than three quarters against Syracuse. Although a special-teams play ultimately doomed Minnesota, the Gophers' inability to establish a better passing game was a key element in a very disappointing loss. Minnesota should expect more in 2014.

8. Michigan (7-6, previously: 8): You knew it would be tough for Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl when quarterback Devin Gardner hobbled off of the plane on crutches. But the Wolverines never gave themselves a chance in the game, caving defensively against Kansas State's Jake Waters and Tyler Lockett. A blowout loss ended Michigan's highly disappointing season and marked the end for offensive coordinator Al Borges. Can coach Brady Hoke get things turned around in 2014?

9. Northwestern (5-7, previously: 9): Northwestern is awaiting confirmation that running back Venric Mark can return for a fifth season, and should get it in the next few weeks. Mark will help an offense that never truly got on track last fall and might need to be more of a pass-first unit if Trevor Siemian remains the starting quarterback. The defense returns nine starters.

10. Indiana (5-7, previously: 10): It took a little longer than expected, but coach Kevin Wilson fired defensive coordinator Doug Mallory last week as Indiana again will try to upgrade a perennially porous unit. The Hoosiers will be more experienced throughout the roster this fall, but the defense must change the script under new leadership as they enter the brutal East Division.

11. Illinois (4-8, previously: 11): While Wilson made a change at defensive coordinator, coach Tim Beckman is sticking with Tim Banks and the rest of his staff for a pivotal 2014 season. Like Indiana, Illinois will be more experienced on defense but must replace Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback. A favorable schedule gives Illinois a chance to make a bowl game.

12. Purdue (1-11, previously: 12): No Big Ten team is more excited to start working this offseason than the Boilers, who are rebuilding through the quarterback spot with Danny Etling and early enrollee David Blough, who officially arrived this week. Purdue must improve along both lines and replace veteran defenders such as cornerback Ricardo Allen and tackle Bruce Gaston Jr.

2013 Big Ten regular-season wrap

December, 16, 2013
12/16/13
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The talk that Big Ten football has never been worse is still there, but it's just that: talk.

History will show that the league truly reached rock bottom in 2012, when it combusted in nonleague play, sent an 8-5 team to the Rose Bowl, had no postseason-eligible top-15 teams in the final polls and absorbed body blows from September to January. The results this season won't prompt the league office to print "B1G is back" banners, and few would label the Big Ten as the nation's No. 1 or No. 2 conference. Until the Big Ten wins a national championship, it won't win any perception prizes, and the league's crystal-ball drought will reach 11 seasons.

But if you're looking for progress, even minimal progress, the Big Ten provided some in 2013.

Just look at the league's signature event Dec. 7 in Indianapolis. A record crowd and a large media contingent watched two top-10 teams deliver an entertaining game with wild momentum swings and national championship implications on the line. A year earlier, Lucas Oil Stadium was one-third empty as 7-5 Wisconsin blasted Nebraska to go to its third consecutive Rose Bowl only because Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible for postseason play.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State chased down Braxton Miller and Ohio State in a memorable Big Ten championship game.
This season undoubtedly brought more bright spots. Michigan State and Ohio State each went 8-0 in league play and finished in the top seven of the final BCS standings. The Spartans and Buckeyes formed a small but strong elite class with Wisconsin, despite the Badgers' loss to Penn State in the regular-season finale. Minnesota endured the midseason health absence of head coach Jerry Kill and responded by winning four consecutive Big Ten games for the first time in 40 years en route to an 8-4 record. Iowa flipped its record from 4-8 to 8-4, surging behind an underrated defense with an exceptional linebacker corps and an offense that found its identity. Penn State showed the effects of its scholarship losses, but Bill O'Brien's bunch of, er, fighters found a way to post another winning record, capped by a signature win in Madison.

The Big Ten went 10-8 against teams from BCS automatic-qualifying conferences as well as independents Notre Dame and BYU, and Wisconsin could have had another big win against Pac-12 South champion Arizona State before Pac-12 officials intervened.

There was star power on both sides of the ball, not only at some expected positions such as linebacker and running back but also at wide receiver, an incredibly thin spot in 2012 that produced more playmakers this season.

Make no mistake, the Big Ten had its share of disappointments. After a 4-0 record in nonleague play, Northwestern suffered through its longest losing streak in 15 years and fell out of bowl contention. Michigan didn't capitalize on a strong start and its run game reached historic lows in early November. Nebraska couldn't hop off of the roller coaster, and Illinois' Big Ten losing streak reached 20 games before the Illini beat Purdue, one of the worst teams in recent Big Ten history. Indiana missed a bowl despite eight home games and an explosive offense.

Star players such as Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez and Northwestern running back Venric Mark missed most of the season, and a knee injury took Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller out of the Heisman Trophy race.

But the overall picture is a little sunnier for the Big Ten. Now it's time to brighten things further with a decent bowl performance.

Time for some superlatives ...

Offensive MVP: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. He missed time with injury and had some inconsistent passing performances, but he's still the league's most dynamic and dangerous player with the ball in his hands. Miller eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards for the second consecutive season, averaged 6.8 yards per carry, improved his completion percentage from 58.3 to 63.2 and fired 22 touchdown passes against just five interceptions.

Defensive MVP: Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard. Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland won Big Ten defensive player of the year honors, and the Big Ten blog endorsed Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier for the award before the title game. Both are fine choices, but after watching the Big Ten championship, the pick here is Dennard, quite possibly the nation's best cornerback. He shut down opposing receivers all season and recorded four interceptions, 10 pass breakups, two forced fumbles and five quarterback hurries in leading the "No Fly Zone" secondary.

Newcomer of the year: Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg. It's a close call between Hackenberg, the league's top freshman, and Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory, a junior-college arrival. Hackenberg gets the nod after backing up the immense recruiting hype he received. The wunderkind passed for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns and delivered his best performance in the finale against Wisconsin's top-10 defense.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
David Banks/USA TODAY SportsPat Fitzgerald and Northwestern endured a frustrating season in which nothing seemed to go right.
Biggest surprise: Iowa. The Hawkeyes' preseason forecast looked gloomy after they posted their worst record in 12 years and lacked a quarterback with any collegiate game experience. But Kirk Ferentz's squad found its way, particularly down the stretch with wins in four of its final five games. Iowa's four losses came against ranked teams with a combined record of 45-6.

Biggest disappointment: Northwestern. On Oct. 5, the Wildcats had a 4-0 record, a top-20 ranking, ESPN "College GameDay" on campus and a fourth-quarter lead against Ohio State. On Nov. 23, they were blown out 30-6 by Michigan State on the same field, ending their hopes of a sixth consecutive bowl appearance. In between, Northwestern endured several injuries, a loss on a Hail Mary at Nebraska, overtime defeats against both Iowa and Michigan and plenty of heartache. Just a miserable year for Pat Fitzgerald's crew.

Best game: The Game -- Ohio State 42, Michigan 41, Nov. 30 at Michigan Stadium. Michigan once again proved the adage that rivalry games are different, delivering its best performance in months and pushing Ohio State to its limit. Woody and Bo wouldn't recognize the teams that combined for 83 points, 54 first downs and 1,129 total yards. The teams traded scores all afternoon, culminating with a two-point conversion attempt with 32 seconds left that Ohio State snuffed out to preserve its perfect season.
The Big Ten's best two teams played Saturday night in Indianapolis, and Michigan State proved that it belongs on top. Ohio State had occupied the No. 1 spot throughout the season, but Mark Dantonio's team outclassed the Buckeyes, scoring the game's first 17 points and its final 17 points after Ohio State surged midway through the contest.

Both teams are headed to BCS bowls, but the Spartans earned their way to Pasadena for the first time since the 1987 season.

There are no changes in the final 10 spots.

Here's one final look at the Week 14 rankings.

Now, for the fresh rundown …

1. Michigan State (12-1, last week: 2): We knew the Spartans had a nationally elite defense and a much-improved offense, but we didn't know whether they could put it all together against a team that hadn't lost a game in two seasons. Quarterback Connor Cook, linebacker Denicos Allen and others provided the answers against Ohio State. Cook passed for a career-high 304 yards and three touchdowns, while Allen and the Spartan Dawgs limited Ohio State to 25 yards in the fourth quarter. Next stop: the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio.

2. Ohio State (12-1, last week: 1): It's odd to see a "1" in the loss column, but Meyer's Buckeyes looked shaky both early and late in their biggest test since the 2011 Sugar Bowl. Penalties and poor pass defense, as well as a one-dimensional offense that didn't sustain a rhythm, doomed Ohio State against Michigan State. Quarterback Braxton Miller and his teammates squandered a chance to play for a national title. They'll try to finish the season strong with a win against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.

3. Wisconsin (9-3, last week: 3): No Big Ten team wants to get on the field more than the Badgers, who delivered their worst performance of the season at the worst time against Penn State. Linebacker Chris Borland and a proud and decorated group of seniors should be much better in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina. Quarterback Joel Stave tries to bounce back after throwing a career-high three interceptions against PSU.

4. Iowa (8-4, last week: 4): Coach Kirk Ferentz sees similarities between his current team and the 2008 version, which also finished strong after a so-so start. The 2008 squad finished with an Outback Bowl victory, and the Hawkeyes will try to do the same when they face LSU in a rematch of the 2005 Capital One Bowl. Linebacker James Morris and an improved defense will be tested, and Iowa will try to control the clock with its power run game.

5. Minnesota (8-4, last week: 5): The season will be a success no matter what, but Minnesota would like to end on a positive note after dropping its final two regular-season games to ranked opponents. The Gophers return to the Texas Bowl, where coach Jerry Kill thinks they set the foundation for this year with a good effort last December against Texas Tech. Minnesota's defense will show up against Syracuse, but can the offense find a passing game?

6. Nebraska (8-4, last week: 6): Barring a surprise, Bo Pelini will get another chance to bring a championship to Lincoln next season. It would be nice to end this year on a positive note, however, especially after a blowout home loss to Iowa on Black Friday. Nebraska's young team has a chance to grow up the next few weeks before a matchup against Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, a rematch of last year's Capital One Bowl.

7. Penn State (7-5; last week: 7): The season is over but Penn State can feel optimistic about the future, particularly on offense with Big Ten Freshman of the Year Christian Hackenberg at quarterback. Hackenberg completed a strong debut with 2,955 passing yards and 20 touchdowns, and he'll have most of his weapons back for 2013. Last week brought the somewhat surprising departures of two assistants, including longtime linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden. It will be interesting to see where Bill O'Brien goes with his replacements.

8. Michigan (7-5, last week: 8): Michigan's performance in The Game left many wondering where that team was all season. The Wolverines hope to follow up with another strong effort -- and a win -- as they take on Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. It's important for Michigan to end a disappointing season on a positive note, especially for the offense, which surged behind Devin Gardner, Jeremy Gallon, Jake Butt and others against Ohio State.

9. Indiana (5-7, last week: 9): It's a pivotal offseason for the Hoosiers, who should in no way be satisfied with a five-win season that includes three Big Ten victories. Indiana should have made a bowl this season with such an explosive offense and must make the necessary upgrades -- coaching, talent and elsewhere -- to get to the postseason in 2014. Kevin Wilson has some work ahead to ensure he's not the latest offensive-minded coach to flame out in Bloomington.

10. Northwestern (5-7, last week: 10): Here's another team bitterly disappointed with its 2013 season that has some work to do this winter. Coach Pat Fitzgerald's first priority is keeping together or perhaps enhancing the strongest recruiting class in his tenure. Northwestern also must evaluate its offensive vision after enduring quarterback injuries in three of the past four seasons. The Wildcats should get a big boost at running back if Venric Mark is granted a fifth year, as expected.

11. Illinois (4-8, last week: 11): Tim Beckman will lead the Illini for a third season, athletic director Mike Thomas confirmed earlier this week. Like Indiana's Wilson, Beckman will focus on improving a defense that slipped to 110th nationally in total defense and 104th in scoring defense. He fixed the offense after the 2012 season by bringing in coordinator Bill Cubit. If he can do the same on defense, Illinois should go bowling next fall. If not, it could be the end for Beckman in Champaign.

12. Purdue (1-11, last week: 12): After a historically poor season, Purdue begins the rebuilding process on the recruiting trail, where it must get better in a lot of areas. The Boilers lose some of their top defenders like Bruce Gaston Jr. and Ricardo Allen, and must build a lot more depth on that side of the ball. Offensive line also is a target area as the Boilers allowed a league-worst 38 sacks this fall.
Bill Belton Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsBill Belton's emergence has been a major boost for the Penn State offense.
The Big Ten returned seven of its top 10 rushers from the 2012 season, so it seemed likely that familiar names would fill this year's rushing chart. It hasn't worked out like that.

Only two players ranked in last year's top 10 -- Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Iowa's Mark Weisman -- are among the league's current top 10 ground gainers. The list features five backs who didn't enter the season as starters but have stepped up for injured teammates or simply because they were the best options. Today's poll question asks: Which Big Ten running back has been the biggest surprise so far this season?

You won't see Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon on the list because we don't consider his success surprising at all.

Here are the candidates, listed alphabetically:

Bill Belton, Penn State (Big Ten rushing rank: 7): Lions fans waiting for Belton to blossom are finally getting their wish. Zach Zwinak led Penn State's rushing attack in 2012 with 1,000 rush yards on 203 carries. But Zwinak's fumbling issues created an opening for Belton, who has cashed in during Big Ten play. Belton recorded the decisive fourth-down run in Penn State's four-overtime win against Michigan, quietly had a nice game against Ohio State and last week went for 201 yards and a touchdown in an overtime win against Illinois, the Lions' first 200-yard rushing performance since Larry Johnson in 2002.

SportsNation

Which Big Ten running back has been the biggest surprise so far this season?

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    41%
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    24%
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    4%
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    4%
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    27%

Discuss (Total votes: 6,514)

David Cobb, Minnesota (Big Ten rushing rank: 5): The Gophers had every intention of establishing their ground game this season, but they pegged Donnell Kirkwood to do most of the heavy lifting. But an ankle injury in the opener slowed Kirkwood and Cobb, who had only one carry last season as a sophomore, is blossoming in a featured role. He established himself with 125 yards and two touchdowns in a non-league win against San Jose State. During Minnesota's current three-game Big Ten win streak, Cobb has three 100-yard rushing performances and 429 total yards on 80 carries.

Tevin Coleman, Indiana (Big Ten rushing rank: 4): After pushing Stephen Houston throughout the offseason, Coleman has emerged as one of many dangerous weapons on Indiana's offense. He has scored in every game this season, averaged 6.4 yards per carry and 131.6 all-purpose yards per game. Primarily a big-play run threat, Coleman also has contributed as a receiver (18 receptions, 164 yards) and as a kick returner.

Treyvon Green, Northwestern (Big Ten rushing rank: 9): Green has been a bright spot for an injury-plagued and inconsistent Wildcats offense this season. Top back Venric Mark has played only one full game because of injuries, but Green has filled the void with 612 rush yards and eight touchdowns on only 95 carries. Green has three 100-yard rushing efforts, including last Saturday at Nebraska, where he gashed the Huskers for 149 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries.

Jeremy Langford, Michigan State (Big Ten rushing rank: 6): The Spartans entered the season with a pretty desperate situation at running back. They had moved backup middle linebacker Riley Bullough to the position in spring practice, and seemed likely to use several true freshmen at the position. But Langford took charge Oct. 12 against Indiana, racking up 109 rush yards and three touchdowns. He has eclipsed 100 yards on the ground in each of the past four games, scoring six touchdowns during the span. Along with quarterback Connor Cook and an improved offensive line, Langford is a big reason for the offense's turnaround.

Now it's time to vote. Let us know who is the Big Ten's surprise back.

Big Ten Week 10 primer

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

Noon ET

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

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

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

3:30 ET

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

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

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

Weather

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

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

Top Week 10 stories

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

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Miller getting better one pass at a time

No room for QB gray area at Nebraska

Minnesota rouses at unlikeliest of times

Freeman at home on sideline with Boilers

MSU’s Connor Cook thrives under pressure

U-M hopes to survive mayhem on the road

Time for Hoke, Michigan to take next step

Dynamic frosh has opponents’ attention

O’Brien, Della Valle defend coordinator

Q&A: Wisconsin NT Beau Allen

Video: Big Ten Game of the Week

Wildcats aim for another Lincoln revival

Michigan-Michigan State roundtable

Happy Halloween in the Big Ten
Some items to keep your eye on this weekend in Big Ten action:

1. Whether Taylor Martinez plays: The Nebraska quarterback returned to practice this week after being out more than a month with a turf toe injury. Bo Pelini said Martinez looked good in Sunday’s practice but whether that translates into getting game snaps Saturday at Minnesota remains to be seen. With Martinez out, senior Ron Kellogg III has stepped in and played well. The Cornhuskers have picked up three consecutive wins since the UCLA loss, but they definitely aren’t the same team without Martinez calling the shots. Nebraska has a favorable schedule to run the table in conference play, but the Cornhuskers will have to make sure they don’t slip up anywhere, and those kind of slip-ups seem much more probable with Martinez on the sideline. If he’s 100 percent, he should play this weekend, so it’ll be interesting to see if and how he takes the field.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State's Jeremy Langford scored four touchdowns against Indiana.
2. Opportunities for big nights: There are a few matchups this weekend that provide interesting pairings and could produce big nights for a few individuals. Michigan State faces Illinois, the second-worst rushing defense in the Big Ten. Of late, MSU running back Jeremy Langford has really come into his own (two consecutive 100-yard games). Northwestern has the No. 9 rushing defense in the Big Ten, and Iowa running back Mark Weisman -- who has had a few disappointing games in a row but is looking for a chance to rebound -- will have the opportunity to face a defense that he could tear apart. But it’s not just Weisman who could have a big night. Northwestern also has the No. 11 pass defense in the Big Ten, so QB Jake Rudock could look to take shots of his own downfield.

3. Young QBs with road trips: Michigan State redshirt sophomore Connor Cook and Penn State freshman Christian Hackenberg are two years apart, but they’re both in their first full seasons of commanding their offenses. This weekend, the two will look for big wins on the road. Cook has gone 1-1 in the Spartans’ road games (lost at Notre Dame, won at Iowa), while Hackenberg’s task in Columbus will be a bit more difficult. The true freshman has never played in an environment quite like The Horseshoe. Penn State’s only road game this season was three weeks ago at Indiana. This weekend, he’ll be thrown into a very hostile environment. He’ll have the chance to see and feel what every opposing QB has to go through when they come to Beaver Stadium.

4. Northwestern looking to pick up its first Big Ten win: Did anyone bet on the Wildcats going through the first month of their conference schedule without a single win? Bueller? Bueller? It has definitely been a surprise to see how flat the Wildcats have fallen after their Big Ten opening loss to Ohio State. The way in which they lost to Wisconsin and the fact they lost to Minnesota came as big shocks and so now, a month after the conference season began, we’re still waiting on the Wildcats to pick up that elusive first win. They’ll play at Iowa, which is a difficult environment as the fans are basically on top of the players. But the Buckeyes took care of business against Iowa last weekend, so if Northwestern can replicate that kind of play (or the play the Cats had against Ohio State), we might see a mark in the W column.

5. Relapse or improvements -- it could go either way for some teams: Northwestern isn’t the only team that wants to improve on its most recent performance(s). Add the Buckeyes and Michigan State to that list as well. Ohio State trailed Iowa at the half last weekend in Columbus. The Buckeyes offense got off to a bit of a slow start as it scored only 10 first-half points, and Carlos Hyde rushed for just 43 yards. Michigan State suffered similar issues but worse. The defense scored its fifth touchdown of the season, but the Spartans offense didn’t score until the fourth quarter and it was on a trick play. Michigan State heads to Illinois. The Illini are giving up more than 32 points per game and are winless in Big Ten play. So it’ll be interesting to see how the Spartans, Buckeyes and Wildcats respond after performances that were less than inspiring.

6. Minnesota picking up momentum ... sort of: It’s hard to say the Gophers are starting to put it together since their win against Northwestern came when the Cats were missing running back Venric Mark and quarterback Kain Colter. But it was a road win that brought Minnesota quite a bit of confidence. This weekend, they’ll welcome Nebraska to Minneapolis. The Cornhuskers might be without their QB, which would obviously benefit the Gophers defense and be another situation that could produce a “they won, but ...” situation.

Injury impact: Big Ten

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
8:00
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Injuries are an unfortunate part of the game. Every team must deal with them, but some teams get hurt harder than others. Today, we're taking a look at the teams that have been impacted the most this season. Here's our ranking of the top three:

1. Northwestern: Injuries have played a major role in the Wildcats' 0-3 start in Big Ten play. All-American kick returner and star tailback Venric Mark has been healthy enough to play exactly one full game -- against Ohio State. Quarterback Kain Colter has been banged up just about all season as well. Both were reinjured at Wisconsin and missed all of last week's loss to Minnesota. In addition, top defensive tackle Sean McEvilly has played in only three games, while starting cornerback Daniel Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener at Cal.

2. Penn State: The Nittany Lions had major depth issues to begin with because of NCAA sanctions. It hasn't helped that they have also dealt with a series of injuries. Tight ends Matt Lehman and Brent Wilkerson and defensive end Brad Bars were lost for the season. Linebacker Mike Hull was hurt for most of the first two months, as was tight end Kyle Carter. Wide receiver Brandon Felder missed the Indiana loss with an ankle problem. Linebacker Ben Kline has been limited after offseason shoulder surgery. Safety Ryan Keiser has been dealing with a hand injury since the Kent State game. This team can't afford many more injuries as it approaches the homestretch of the season.


3. Nebraska: The Huskers' injury problems haven't adversely affected them -- at least not yet. Still, it's never easy when you lose your four-year starting quarterback, and Taylor Martinez hasn't played since Week 3 versus UCLA because of turf toe. He could be back this week, but All-American guard Spencer Long was lost for the season in the last game against Purdue with a knee injury. He'll be tough to replace.
The top half of the Power Rankings remains virtually unchanged, as Big Ten kingpin Ohio State rallied to beat Iowa, Wisconsin stomped Illinois, and the Michigan schools held serve in vastly different ways (all defense for Michigan State, all offense for Michigan).

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

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

Now for the fresh rundown ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My team made it two in a row and four of the last five over Adam's Trombone Shorties with a decisive 119-79 victory last week. For that, I can thank quarterbacks Christian Hackenberg (30) and Devin Gardner (33) for putting up big point totals in their four-overtime game, as well as my timely pickup of the Nebraska defense, which registered 20 points in a near shutout of Purdue. Those three alone would have been enough to beat Adam's team, which got 23 points from Melvin Gordon and 18 from Ameer Abdullah but not enough anywhere else.

That gives me a 5-2 season edge, and I'm just three more wins from claiming the season championship. But once again, the double bye is making things interesting, so this thing is far from over. On to our Week 8 pickups …

Adam adds Ohio State QB Braxton Miller and drops Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian

Rationale: I need a second-half boost, and so does Miller, who had a big fourth quarter against Northwestern and faces an Iowa defense that still could be vulnerable to a dual-threat quarterback.

Brian adds Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde and drops Penn State RB Zach Zwinak

Rationale: Zwinak wasn't doing much for me and now is on a bye. Hyde will face a tough Iowa defense that hasn't allowed a rushing touchdown, but I'll take my chances with the Buckeyes' workhorse.

Adam adds Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford and drops Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah

Rationale: Abdullah is off this week, and Lankford faces a Purdue defense that has allowed a league-worst 16 rush touchdowns (four more than any other team). This might not be a long-term move, but Langford has elevated his game for an improving Spartans offense.

Brian adds Wisconsin RB James White and drops Northwestern RB Venric Mark

Rationale: Mark just can't stay healthy, while White could join teammate Gordon in having a big day at Illinois this week.

Adam adds Michigan TE/WR Devin Funchess and drops Northwestern WR Tony Jones

Rationale: Although Jones should improve on his 1-point total from last week against Minnesota, Funchess' production has surged in recent weeks. I like him going against a vulnerable Indiana defense.

Brian adds Michigan State QB Connor Cook and drops Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg

Rationale: Strictly a bye week move here. Going to gamble on Cook against a struggling Purdue defense.

Brian adds Ohio State defense and drops Nebraska's defense

Rationale: The Huskers served me well last week but go back on another bye. I'll take the Buckeyes at home against Iowa and hope for some big plays.

Brian add Michigan's kickers and drops Penn State's kickers

Rationale: Yet another bye week move. I'll bet on a bounce-back from Brendan Gibbons. Should be lots of scoring chances against Indiana.

Our complete rosters for Week 8:

The Trombone Shorties (Adam)

Ohio State QB Braxton Miller
Indiana QB Nate Sudfeld
Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon
Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford
Michigan WR Jeremy Gallon
Michigan WR/TE Devin Funchess
Michigan State kickers
Michigan State defense

The One Who Knocks (Brian)

Michigan QB Devin Gardner
Michigan State QB Connor Cook
Wisconsin RB James White
Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde
Wisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis
Penn State WR Allen Robinson
Michigan kickers
Ohio State defense

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wisconsin's impressive victory against lifeless Northwestern vaults the Badgers to No. 2, as we consider Gary Andersen's team the closest to Ohio State at this point in the season. Northwestern takes a significant tumble, and Michigan also falls after failing to pull off another escape against Penn State. Nebraska and Michigan State are taking care of business against weak competition, which helps both teams now but won't mean much when the schedule gets tougher in November.

Penn State makes a move in a positive direction following its dramatic win against Michigan in four overtimes. The bottom of the rankings holds steady as most teams were off.

Here's one last look at the Week 6 rankings.

Week 7 rankings in three, two, one …

1. Ohio State (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): After two hard-fought victories to open Big Ten play, the unbeaten Buckeyes had a well-deserved week off. Their young defensive front seven is starting to blossom, which should help against Iowa's power run game on Saturday at The Shoe. Running back Carlos Hyde takes aim at an Iowa defense that has yet to allow a rushing touchdown. Ohio State is halfway to another perfect regular season.

2. Wisconsin (4-2, 2-1; last week: 3): The Badgers looked refreshed, recharged and exceptionally prepared for Northwestern following their open week. Wisconsin's defense completely flustered Northwestern, particularly on third down, where the Wildcats typically excel. Melvin Gordon did his thing and Wisconsin moved the ball despite playing without top receiver Jared Abbrederis for most of the game. The schedule is favorable the rest of the way and a 10-2 mark is hardly out of the question. Wisconsin visits Illinois this week.

3. Nebraska (5-1, 2-0; last week: 5): Credit Nebraska for handling its business against inferior competition and not even flirting with a loss for the second consecutive Big Ten game. The defense once again took a step forward as one-time Purdue recruit Randy Gregory had two tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. Backup quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. struggled, but he had plenty of help from the run game, led by Ameer Abdullah (126 rush yards, 1 TD). The Huskers once again are off this week, which should allow top signal-caller Taylor Martinez to heal from his toe injury.

4. Michigan State (5-1, 2-0; last week: 6): Defense always will be the Spartans' bread and butter, but Michigan State is capable of winning games with its offense. Sure, Indiana's defense isn't a great barometer, but Spartans fans have to be encouraged by quarterback Connor Cook, running back Jeremy Langford and a unit that seems to be gaining more confidence by the week. Like Nebraska, Michigan State is handling its business during a favorable stretch of the schedule, which continues this week against flailing Purdue.

5. Michigan (5-1, 1-1; last week: 2): The Wolverines twice had flirted with losing in their first five games, only to find a way to pull through. They nearly pulled off another escape at Penn State after a strong second half, but breakdowns in all three phases led to a crushing loss in four overtimes. The defense broke down at the end of regulation, the offense couldn't find the end zone in overtime and the normally reliable Brendan Gibbons missed three attempts (one was blocked). Michigan will need to grow up in a hurry to challenge for the Legends Division title.

6. Northwestern (4-2, 0-2; last week: 2): It's a four-spot drop for the Wildcats, and that might be kind after the egg they laid Saturday in Madison. Northwestern clearly had a hangover from the Ohio State game, although there are some troubling trends on offense, namely the inability to covert manageable third downs, which has been a hallmark of past Wildcats teams. The injuries are piling up for Pat Fitzgerald's crew, as Venric Mark (ankle) barely played and Kain Colter (ankle) didn't do much at quarterback. Northwestern really needs to get well this week against Minnesota.

7. Penn State (4-2, 1-1; last week: 9): What do we make of Bill O'Brien's Lions? A week after Penn State's first loss to Indiana -- by 20 points, no less -- the Lions rebounded to outlast Michigan 43-40 in a four-overtime thriller. O'Brien played to win while Michigan's coaches went conservative, and freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg rebounded from some mistakes to lead the game-tying touchdown drive at the end of regulation. This Penn State team isn't as good as its predecessor, but it exhibits the same type of resilience and toughness. Penn State gets a well-deserved week off before heading to Ohio State.

8. Iowa (4-2, 1-1; last week: 7): The open week arrived at a good time for Iowa, which came out of the Michigan State loss with several injuries, although none of the long-term variety. The Hawkeyes need to reboot Mark Weisman and the run game after being shut down by the Spartans. Iowa's defense faces its first major test of the season in Ohio State, which will try to stretch the field. The Hawkeyes last won in Columbus in 1991.

9. Indiana (3-3, 1-1; last week: 8): The inconsistency that has plagued Indiana through the first half of the season showed up Saturday against Michigan State. The offense had more success against Michigan State's venerated defense than most opponents but still left points on the field. Indiana's defense, meanwhile, took a step back as the Spartans had success both on the ground and through the air. The Hoosiers' quarterback situation took another turn as Tre Roberson outperformed Nate Sudfeld. IU heads back to the Mitten State this week to face Michigan.

10. Illinois (3-2, 0-1; last week: 10): The Illini didn't play for the second time in four weeks after struggling on both sides of the ball at Nebraska. If Tim Beckman's squad intends to go bowling, it might need a home upset victory in the next two weeks as it hosts Wisconsin and then Michigan State. Illinois hopes to get defensive lineman Teko Powell back from injury before facing the dominant Wisconsin rush attack. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase must rebound after completing only 50 percent of his passes against Nebraska.

11. Minnesota (4-2, 0-2; last week: 11): Adversity continues for the Gophers as head coach Jerry Kill has taken a leave of absence as he tries to get his epilepsy under control. Although Minnesota assistants and players know how to adjust without Kill, it doesn't make the situation much easier. The big on-field concern for the Gophers is the schedule, which doesn't get any easier this week against Northwestern. The Gophers are still looking for more explosiveness on offense.

12. Purdue (1-5, 0-2; last week: 12): There will be better days ahead for Danny Etling and the Boilers, but it's very ugly right now. Purdue never challenged Nebraska at Ross-Ade Stadium, and the Boilers' problems on offense clearly go beyond the quarterback position as Etling couldn't get much going. Purdue didn't cross midfield until the fourth quarter. The defense had no answers for Nebraska, which piled up 435 yards. This is a really bad football team, folks, and things don't get easier with Michigan State and Ohio State to follow.

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