Penn State Nittany Lions: Zach Zwinak

It goes against the offensive lineman's credo to crave attention. Despite his size, he would rather go undetected, often a strong indicator that he's doing his job well.

Indiana's offensive linemen are no exception. They don't seek out the spotlight. But it's time to recognize what they've been doing the past few years, because few seem to notice.

[+] EnlargeIndiana Hoosies' offensive line
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsIndiana's offensive line has quietly become one of the premier units in the Big Ten.
Let's be as clear as possible: Indiana's offensive line is the most underrated unit in the Big Ten.

You might disagree, but I doubt you've actually paid attention to Indiana's line. Maybe because it's Indiana. Maybe it's because the Hoosiers run an up-tempo spread offense rather than a traditional, road-grading one that typically shines a brighter light on the five men up front. Whatever the reason, the Hoosiers line rarely gets much love.

But it's a huge reason why Indiana has had the Big Ten's No. 2 offense in each of the past two seasons. Despite two true freshman starters in 2012, Indiana led the Big Ten in fewest sacks allowed: one for every 31.8 pass attempts. Last season, the line overcame several major injuries -- IU started nine linemen and used seven different lineups -- and prevented sacks in six games. The offense averaged more than 300 pass yards and more than 200 rush yards for the first time in team history.

"When I came in with Coach [Kevin] Wilson, both of us having an offensive line background, we wanted to build a unit that has great flexibility, the ability to run the ball," Hoosiers offensive line coach Greg Frey told ESPN.com "Our goal, as it is with any offensive line, is to control the game. We’re going to pick up that third-and-1. If you need more time to throw, we're going to give you more time."

Strong offensive lines are normally stocked with veterans, but Indiana has excelled with youth. Five Hoosiers linemen have earned freshman All-Big Ten honors since 2011, including two in each of the past two seasons. Tackle Jason Spriggs and guard Dan Feeney both earned freshman All-America honors in 2012, when they set team freshman records by starting all 12 games.

Indiana lost Feeney to a foot injury days before the 2013 season and lost two other starters, Peyton Eckert and David Kaminski, to season-ending injuries in October. But others stepped up, players such as Collin Rahrig, a former walk-on who started 10 games at center, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Ralston Evans, who suffered a major knee injury before the 2011 season and appeared in only one game in 2012, started all 12 games at right tackle last season.

"When we were at Michigan, coaches came up and said, 'Who the hell is this right tackle you’ve got?'" Frey said. "I said, 'Don't tell me. Tell him he did a good job.' These guys work hard. There’s a good culture there."

Indiana returns 130 career offensive line starts, most in the Big Ten and third most in the FBS behind Appalachian State and UTSA. Frey, who previously coached lines at Michigan, West Virginia and South Florida, thinks this could be his deepest group.

It's a close group, too, one that spends a lot of time together off of the field. If a Bloomington restaurant offers a food special, the Hoosiers' linemen are quick to find it.

Frey doesn't change his expectations for the line in 2014. They've always been high.

"The ability to be a leader or a presence on the team, that part of it changes," he said. "There’s some credentials there, a little bit of background, some personal expectations.

"We have more voices there who are respected."

But will the group gain respect? It will take more than yards and points.

"They realize the more you’re winning in college football, the more people know about you," Frey said. "Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things, but you'd like to see the fruits of their labor be recognized. Everybody likes to be recognized a little bit.

"Hopefully as we go on, that will naturally happen."

Indiana's offensive line tops my list of the Big Ten's most underrated position groups. Here are four others ...

Minnesota's secondary: Jay Sawvel does an excellent job with Minnesota's back four. Fourth-round draft pick Brock Vereen will be tough to replace, but safety Cedric Thompson had a good spring and Eric Murray could become an elite cornerback this season. Derrick Wells adds a playmaking presence at corner and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who opened last season as a starting cornerback, returns from injury.

Penn State's running backs: Quarterback Christian Hackenberg grabs the headlines and justifiably so, but he'll need help in the backfield from a talented group of ball-carriers. How many people know Zach Zwinak has nearly 2,000 career rush yards? Bill Belton had an excellent spring and could be the offense's top playmaker, and junior Akeel Lynch has a nice speed-power mix.

Northwestern's receivers/tight ends: I've stumped for this group and while it hasn't quite blossomed, a two-quarterback system and a shift from a pass-heavy attack didn't help. Northwestern should be much more pass-heavy with Trevor Siemian as its sole signal caller. Christian Jones and Tony Jones are proven veterans, Rutgers transfer Myles Shuler fills a void in the slot and Kyle Prater is finally healthy. Tight end Dan Vitale is poised for a breakout season.

Maryland's linebackers: The Terps return three of four starters who combined for 233 tackles last season. Cole Farrand is a strong leader, and Matt Robinson provides a spark on the outside. Maryland will miss the disruptive Marcus Whitfield but returns five of its top six linebackers from 2013. If the group stays healthy -- a big if given Maryland's recent misfortune -- it could be very good.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State has a new offensive coordinator, a new running backs coach and a new (inexperienced) offensive line. But not everything has changed -- both of its starting running backs return for their final seasons.

As seniors, Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton are among the Nittany Lions' most experienced players. Zwinak has led the team in rushing the past two seasons, but Belton was widely regarded as the team's most improved player last fall. He finished his junior campaign with 803 rushing yards and edged Zwinak with 5.1 yards per carry.

Belton has earned a reputation as one of Penn State's hardest workers and, if you don't know his name yet, he's hoping you will by the end of this season. ESPN.com checked in with him earlier this week.

[+] EnlargeBill Belton
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsPenn State RB Bill Belton rushed for 803 yards (5.1 ypc) and 5 TDs last season, and is expecting even more of himself this year.
It's June, so the football season's creeping up. How are you preparing yourself for your senior year, and what's been the focus this offseason?

Bill Belton: I'm doing a lot of the same things, but I'm going two times harder than I did last season, just to improve on some things and take my game to the next level. I'm getting in the weight room, building more strength because, oftentimes, you hear things like, 'He's too small. He can't play all three downs.' So I've just been trying to build up my strength and conditioning at all times to help my team win and put my team in the best position.

You told me last season you save online articles where you receive criticism, that it gives you motivation. Is that where you got the "he's too small" stuff from?

BB: Yeah. I mean, I read stuff to see what people are saying. I see some crazy stuff out there, but it doesn't affect me whatsoever. Basically, I'm just coming to get the respect I deserve, be the best player I can, push myself and hold myself to a high standard -- and become one of those players that people talk about.

How is 2014 Bill Belton different from the 2013 or 2012 version?

BB: A better teammate, a more vocal person. Just being not only a good player but a great player that helps his teammates when they need it. Not just standing off and allowing things to happen but stepping up in situations and making sure everyone's on the same page and, basically, just being a model teammate and giving the younger guys someone to come to when they need advice.

So you're finding yourself talking to or mentoring younger running backs, like Akeel Lynch, a bit more this offseason?

BB: Not just him. A kid that I really see a lot of potential in is [wideout] DaeSean Hamilton. We've been doing two-a-days, running in the morning and working out later on with the team in the afternoon and doing work. So it's not only just the running backs, but it's the receivers and DBs and whoever needs help and wants to work to get better.

It's no secret there are some concerns with the offensive line since it basically returns one starter. It seems fair to say that your job will be a little harder. Has that changed your approach at all?

BB: All we got to do is keep working and we'll be just fine ... And, no, you just got to continue to prepare the way you were before. Like I said before, I've been working my behind off to be known throughout the Big Ten and throughout the country. That doesn't really change anything; it's going to work. We're happy; none of us are upset with what's going on. That's the hand we were dealt, and we want to continue to work and we're going to be good come Aug. 31.

Let's talk a little bit about your head coach, James Franklin. What are your impressions of him, and how does he compare to Bill O'Brien?

BB: Every guy is different; every head guy who comes here is different. They have ways they do things. Franklin came in, and he was a fiery guy. He instilled that competitive spirit throughout our team so, whatever we're doing, we're competing and trying to get better and take this team to where it has been before and just return it to that prominence in the Big Ten. O'Brien and Franklin, they have a relationship, so things they do are pretty similar.

Including interim guys, you've had five head coaches over your college career. That's unprecedented at Penn State. What kind of adjustment has that been, and is there any good that comes from having that many coaches?

BB: The good coming from it is, if you think about all the guys from our team, everyone wants to take the step to the next level. And we learned a lot of systems, and the systems we learned can help us at the next level. And with the coaching situation, it's just something we have to deal with. It's not something we asked for, but we had a chance to play under a few different guys and every time it was different. There was nothing, like, terrible to come out of it. It was just a learning experience.

One player who's been alongside you for the entire ride is Zwinak. What's your relationship like off the field, and what's it been like splitting carries with one another? Last season, you had 36 carries against Illinois and then seven the week after.

BB: We have a good relationship off the field. It's basically the same thing -- we're total opposites, but sometimes opposites get along. And that's what it's been like. We have fun with each other, and we compete with each other. But, at the end of the day, we both know we're going to need each other. I'm going to feed off him, and he's going to feed off me.

When one guy gets going, we support. It's not something like, 'I'm against you and you're against me.' At the end of the day, we're on the same team and we're all trying to accomplish the same thing.

Final question. Franklin likes the Wildcat. You were an all-state high school quarterback. So, I'm curious -- any chance we see you throwing the ball a little, or at least lining up at quarterback for a few plays?

BB: I don't know, I don't know. Maybe. I don't know. We'll just have to wait and see. [Laughs]
On Wednesday, we outlined some of the possible 1,000-yard rushers in the Big Ten for the 2014 season.

Now, we want your take on which guys will join that exclusive club. Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Michigan State's Jeremy Langford, Minnesota's David Cobb, Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Penn State's Zach Zwinak and Northwestern's Venric Mark all have had at least one 1,000-yard season in their careers.

SportsNation

Which of these players is most likely to rush for 1,000 yards in 2014?

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    30%
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    8%
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    33%
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    11%
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    18%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,517)

Which of these five players is most likely to get there this season?
  • Mark Weisman, Iowa: The senior has gotten extremely close to 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons, finishing just 25 yards shy in 2013. He will have to share carries with Jordan Canzeri and others, but he could be running behind the Big Ten's top offensive line.
  • Tevin Coleman, Indiana: Coleman was well on his way to 1,000 yards last year before he missed the final three games because of an ankle injury. The Hoosiers could lean on their running game a bit more this season as they look to replace three of their top four receiving targets from 2013.
  • Corey Clement, Wisconsin: The Badgers have Gordon but have made a habit of producing more than one 1,000-yard rusher in the same backfield. Clement steps into a much bigger role this season after the graduation of James White and should see plenty of opportunities after a tantalizing freshman campaign.
  • Paul James, Rutgers: James ran for 573 yards in the first four games last year before missing the next four games because of injury. With better health, he could make a major run at the 1K mark.
  • Bill Belton, Penn State: The Nittany Lions have three excellent tailbacks with Zwinak, Belton and Akeel Lynch. But with some offensive line questions, it might be hard for any one of those backs to reach 1,000 yards. Belton, however, has often looked like the most physically gifted of the trio and appears to be a player on the rise.
Most would agree New Year's Day bowl games don't mean what they used to. You could say the same thing about rushing for 1,000 yards. There are more games and more plays in the sport today, and it's hardly uncommon for a player to reach four digits on the ground, as 51 FBS players got there in 2013.

Still, the 1,000-yard rushing mark is no small feat, and it's a good gauge for assessing players, teams and leagues. The Big Ten had seven 1,000-yard rushers in 2013, one fewer than it had in 2012.

We begin a series of statistical projections for the 2014 season with 1,000 rush yards, and our analysis begins with the five men who got there last fall and who return to their teams this year.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsNebraska's Ameer Abdullah is looking to post his third season of rushing for over 1,000 yards.
Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska (1,690 rush yards in 2013): Abdullah was one of the most consistent backs in the country last fall, eclipsing 100 rush yards in 11 of 13 games, including a streak of eight consecutive 100-yard performances. He will try to become the first Husker with three seasons of 1,000 rush yards or more. Although it might be tough for Abdullah to match last year's overall rushing numbers, barring injury, he should have little trouble reaching the 1,000-yard mark.

Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin (1,609 yards): Gordon surged out of the gate with 140 rush yards or more in each of his first four games last season, as he topped the FBS rushing chart. Despite sharing time with fellow 1,000-yard back James White and never logging more than 22 carries, Gordon had eight games with at least 140 rush yards and averaged 7.8 yards per carry. He's arguably the nation's top big-play ball-carrying threat and should easily eclipse 1,000 rush yards as he steps into a bigger role.

Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State (1,422): It's impossible to quietly rush for 1,400 yards in a season, but Langford slipped under the radar as his teammates on defense and at quarterback received more attention. Still, his consistency should not be overlooked: He set a team record with eight consecutive 100-yard rushing performances and led the Big Ten with 18 rushing touchdowns. He did much of his damage late in games. Although Langford likely won't get 292 carries again, he should easily get to 1,000 rush yards.

David Cobb, RB, Minnesota (1,202) Arguably no Gophers player benefited more from the team's commitment to the power run on offense. Cobb logged 237 carries -- second in the Big Ten behind Langford and Abdullah -- and had five 100-yard rushing performances, the most by a Minnesota player since Marion Barber III in 2003. Cobb did much of his damage in Big Ten play, recording four consecutive 100-yard rushing performances. Another 1,000-yard season is possible, but Cobb faces arguably more competition than any back on this list and will have to keep progressing.

Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State (1,068): Miller is poised to finish his career as one of the Big Ten's most productive offensive players. The league's reigning two-time offensive player of the year needs just 842 rush yards to move into second place on the Big Ten's all-time quarterback rushing list. More impressive, he needs 715 yards to claim second place on Ohio State's all-time rushing list (all players). Miller certainly is capable of a third 1,000-yard season, but a revamped line and his goal of improving as a passer could make it challenging.

Now let's take a look at eight other players who could challenge that 1,000-yard mark in 2013, in order of likelihood:

Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana (958 rush yards in 2013): Coleman finished ahead of Langford, Cobb and Miller in rushing average (106.4 ypg) and easily would have reached four digits had he played in more than nine games. A big-play threat who averaged a Gordon-like 7.3 yards per carry last season, Coleman should have no trouble surging past 1,000 yards this season.

[+] EnlargeMark Weisman
David Purdy/Getty ImagesIowa's Mark Weisman has just missed 1,000 yards in the past two years, but this could be the season he tops that magic number.
Mark Weisman, RB, Iowa (975): Weisman has been close to 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons and should get there as a senior. He will be sharing carries with Jordan Canzeri and others, and Iowa likely will balance out Weisman's touches a bit more. But if Weisman can break off a few more big runs behind a good offensive line, he'll get to 1,000.

Zach Zwinak, RB, Penn State (989): Some would argue Zwinak isn't the best running back on his team (Bill Belton), but the fact remains he reached 1,000 yards in 2012 and nearly got there last season. The carries balanced between Zwinak and Belton could make it tougher for either back to reach the milestone, and the offensive line is a concern.

Paul James, RB, Rutgers (881): Know the name, Big Ten fans. James rushed for 881 yards on only 156 carries last season. His rushing total through the first four games (573 yards) trailed only Gordon for the FBS lead. Health is a concern here, but if James stays on the field, a 1,000-yard season is easily within reach.

Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern: Projecting Mark is tricky as he rushed for 1,371 yards in 2012 but missed most of last season with injuries and remains prone to more health issues. He's an excellent candidate to gash defenses for big yards if he remains on the field, and he should play behind an improved offensive line.

Josh Ferguson, RB, Illinois (779): It all comes down to opportunities for Ferguson, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season but also finished second on the team in receptions with 50. A true big-play threat, Ferguson is capable of getting to 1,000 yards but likely needs at least 25 more carries.

Bill Belton, RB, Penn State (803): Like Zwinak, Belton faces some challenges: sharing carries and playing behind a potentially leaky line. But he has shown superstar potential at times and turned in a strong spring for the new coaching staff.

Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin (547): Like Gordon, Clement makes the most of his opportunities. He averaged 8.2 yards per carry as a freshman, and while he's Gordon's backup now, he could become a 1A player by midseason. Gordon and White set an NCAA record for single-season rush yards by teammates. Gordon and Clement could challenge it.

Who do you think reaches 1,000 rush yards this fall? Let us know.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 15, 2014
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Heading to Hawkeye Country later today. Any recommendations?
The best offenses can threaten defenses at the quarterback, running back and wide receiver positions. Brian Bennett on Tuesday examined the triple-threat combinations from the Big Ten's new West Division.

Now let's turn our attention to the East Division and rank the triple-threat combinations. The division is strong at quarterback but lacking elite wide receivers.

1. Indiana

QB Nate Sudfeld, RB Tevin Coleman, WR Shane Wynn

The Hoosiers featured the league's No. 2 offense in 2013 and top this list even though top receiver Cody Latimer bolted for the NFL draft. They have two options at quarterback, but Sudfeld, who had nearly 1,400 more passing yards than teammate Tre Roberson, gets the nod here. Coleman brings explosiveness to the backfield after rushing for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns in only nine games. Wynn finished near the top of the league in receiving touchdowns (11) and had 46 receptions for 633 yards.

2. Ohio State

QB Braxton Miller, RB Ezekiel Elliott, WR Devin Smith

You would think a team with the back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the year at quarterback would be rated higher, but the Buckeyes lose a huge piece at running back in Carlos Hyde, as well as top receiver Corey Brown. Elliott, who had 262 rushing yards last season, is competing for the starting position this spring. Smith has been Miller's big-play target throughout his career and had eight touchdown catches and averaged 15 yards per reception last fall. Tight end Jeff Heuerman provides another weapon in the pass game.

3. Michigan State

QB Connor Cook, RB Jeremy Langford, WR Tony Lippett

The skinny: A year ago, Michigan State's offense looked like a mess. Cook began the season as the backup but emerged to lead the Spartans to nine Big Ten wins, all by double digits, and a Rose Bowl championship. Langford answered Michigan State's running back questions with 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. There's no true No. 1 receiver on the roster, and while Macgarrett Kings (513 receiving yards in 2013) could claim the role, Lippett gets the nod after leading the team in receptions (44) and finishing second in receiving yards (613) last year.
4. Penn State

QB Christian Hackenberg, RB Zach Zwinak, TE Jesse James

The Lions have the Big Ten's top pocket passer in Hackenberg, the league's freshman of the year in 2013. But Hackenberg loses his favorite target in Allen Robinson, and wide receiver is a major question entering the fall. The tight end position looks much stronger with James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman. Penn State also has options at running back, but Zwinak has led the team in rushing in each of the past two years, finishing with 989 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall.

5. Maryland

QB C.J. Brown, RB Brandon Ross, WR Stefon Diggs

Don't be surprised if Maryland finishes higher on the postseason triple-threats list as long as their top players stay healthy, which is hardly a guarantee after the past two seasons. Brown is a veteran dual-threat player who had 2,242 passing yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Ross leads a potentially deep group of running backs after leading the team with 776 rushing yards. Although Levern Jacobs led Maryland in receiving last year and returns, Diggs is the team's top threat after averaging 17.3 yards per catch before a season-ending injury in October.

6. Michigan

QB Devin Gardner, RB Derrick Green, TE/WR Devin Funchess

Gardner is capable of putting up some big numbers, as he showed last year, but he loses top target Jeremy Gallon. The run game is a major question mark for new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, although hopes are high for Green, a heralded recruit who had 270 rushing yards as a freshman. At 6-5 and 230 pounds, Funchess is a tight end who plays like a wide receiver. He finished second on the team in receptions (49), receiving yards (748) and touchdowns (6).

7. Rutgers

QB Gary Nova, RB Paul James, TE Tyler Kroft

New coordinator Ralph Friedgen tries to spark an offense that finished 77th nationally in scoring and 95th in yards last season. Nova is competing this spring to retain the starting job, which he has held since the middle of the 2011 season. James averaged 5.6 yards per carry last season and can be very effective when healthy. Rutgers is scrambling at bit at the wide receiver position but returns a solid option at tight end in Kroft, who led the team in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last fall.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The first week of Penn State’s spring practice is underway so a lot of eyes will be on different position battles and rising starters. But what about those under-the-radar players?

Every year, coach James Franklin said there are at least one or two surprise players who jump into the spotlight. So here’s a look at five current backups who could make an impact:

1. RB Akeel Lynch
2013 stats: 9 games played, 60 carries, 358 yards, 1 TD
Currently behind: Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton

[+] EnlargeAkeel Lynch
Randy Litzinger/Icon SMIAkeel Lynch is primed to have a breakout season for Penn State.
Synopsis: He’s on quite a few reporters’ breakout lists this fall -- and for good reason. He has made an impression every time he has received a sizable workload. He was the star of the spring scrimmage in 2013, rushing 13 times for 83 yards, and he twice surpassed the 100-yard mark during the nonconference season. He’s a speedy runner who clocked a 4.48-second 40 last spring, and he could evolve into a nice spark plug. He needs to become more well-rounded, as he saw limited time last season due to blocking and similar concerns. However, he’s clearly excellent at carrying the ball.

Running backs coach Charles Huff said in January that a good system needs three good options on the ground. So Lynch will see an increased workload, and Franklin will have the ability to discover whether he has the talent to be the primary ball-carrier in 2015.

2. DE Brad Bars
2013 stats: Missed season due to injury
Currently behind: C.J. Olaniyan, Deion Barnes

Synopsis: Bars stood inside the Lasch Building last February and told the media that he felt 2013 would be a breakout year for him. He felt he could start or, at the very least, contribute heavily. But in July, Bars ruptured his Achilles’ tendon and was forced to miss the season. Franklin has repeatedly declined to address such injuries, but Bars’ initial rehabilitation plan was expected to end -- at the latest -- sometime in January. And the senior seemed fine on Monday when he sprinted during drills and took direction from the staff.

Bars won’t end up as a starter in 2014, but he could still see considerable playing time. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer likes to utilize a lot of different looks and rotations, and Franklin once again alluded to a scheme that would sometimes feature four defensive ends. With Anthony Zettel moving inside on a permanent basis, the Nittany Lions need some quality depth -- and Bars could be that answer. It might turn out that his prediction was just a year off.

3. S Malik Golden
2013 stats: 12 games played, 8 tackles, 1 pass breakup
Currently behind: Adrian Amos, Ryan Keiser

Synopsis: There are two ways this could go for Golden, and either way is significant. The redshirt sophomore could challenge Keiser for playing time this season -- or he could lose out. But, even if he doesn’t start, this season is no less important for his future. Both Amos and Keiser are seniors, so Penn State will need someone to step up in 2015.

There are plenty of freshman safeties enrolling over the summer, but Golden will obviously be the most experienced of that crew. He’s in a somewhat similar situation as Lynch, in that his play this season will determine whether he’s a future starter or just a career backup. He appears to be the next man up at safety, though, so he will see the field in 2014 -- it’s just a matter of how much and whether he can challenge Keiser.

4. CB Jordan Smith
2013 stats: 12 games played, 5 tackles
Currently behind: Jordan Lucas, Trevor Williams

Synopsis: Williams may be the projected starter at cornerback for now, but this position battle is far from decided. Lucas has taken Smith under his wing, not unlike Stephon Morris did for him, and Smith isn’t afraid to work. When he battled with insomnia in high school, he often did a couple hundred push-ups to pass the time. Also, it didn’t hurt that he trained with former NFL great Troy Vincent, either.

He wasn’t ready for a big role as a true freshman last season, but he’s definitely a player to watch as a sophomore. And he has the potential to follow in Lucas’ footsteps. As a sophomore, Lucas beat out a more-experienced player (Da’Quan Davis) for the starting job. Now, as a sophomore himself, Smith is hoping for the same.

5. OT Albert Hall
2013 stats: 5 games played
Currently behind: Donovan Smith, Andrew Nelson

Synopsis: Hall isn't just on this list because he’ll see a lot of playing time this season, or even in the future. There's more to him. He’s a converted tight end and a walk-on and is one of just four offensive tackles currently on the roster, and Franklin offered him a lot of praise on Monday.

“That guy is going to find a role on this team somehow,” Franklin said. "I’ve called him out in front of the team a number of times because I’ve been so impressed with him: His approach, his demeanor, his attitude.”

Hall should, at the very least, be an important member of the scout team -- and will likely see plenty of time on special teams. It’s not necessarily Hall's play that’s going to be important to this team. It’s the intangibles. There are a lot of walk-ons on this team, and Franklin only singled out Hall. So he’s definitely worth a second look.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We’ve reached the middle of this week’s countdown, which involves five predictions for the spring.

Up Wednesday is an issue that has been talked about a lot but is even more serious than it seems ...

OL struggles surpass secondary as biggest concern

Forget about the offensive line’s three new starters for a moment. Forget about the fact Penn State will likely start two redshirt freshmen, Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon, who have never played in a college game. And forget about the fact they’ll all be learning new schemes from a new assistant coach.

That’s all been talked about before. But take a closer look at this lack of depth; just look at the second-string offensive line. This should be the most this unit struggles since at least the "dark years" of the early 2000s.

[+] EnlargeLarry Johnson, Derek Dowrey
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsFormer Penn State assistant Larry Johnson talks with Derek Dowrey during the 2013 spring game. Dowrey might be moving to the offensive line, where there's a big need for players.
Backups Wendy Laurent and Anthony Alosi have had very limited playing time, playing in 16 combined contests but receiving even less experience than that number suggests. And that’s the strong part of this backup offensive line. The other three spots this spring will be taken up by an early enrollee (Chasz Wright) and two walk-on underclassmen. The defensive line should dominate in the Blue-White Game.

That’s not to say the weakness with this unit is just depth; inexperience is the biggest issue among the starters. But that’s been pretty well documented. The mess behind them hasn’t been.

More position switches are bound to happen -- defensive tackle Derek Dowrey has already been linked to a move to the offensive line, contrary to the updated published roster -- and the big problem with this line is that it’s one injury away from disaster. It’s akin to the linebacker issue last season except this might be even worse. Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong was able to briefly make up for his size at linebacker with his speed, but there’s no hiding a weak link on the offensive line.

If Mahon or Nelson falters, this line falters. If one of the five starters suffers an injury, this line falters. With Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak returning, this is the best stable of running backs that Penn State has fielded in at least three seasons, and Christian Hackenberg has one of the strongest arms in Penn State history. But that won’t mean much if this line can’t jell by August. And while this staff tries to figure it all out this spring, it’s not going to be pretty.

More help will come over the summer in the form of three more signees, but this line will undoubtedly struggle even then. Still, it won’t get any worse than it will this spring.

More predictions:

No. 5: A more public, eager-to-please coach
No. 4: Blue-White attendance more than doubles from 2013

Spring position breakdown: RBs

February, 26, 2014
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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.

Penn State positions to improve: No. 2

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We've arrived at the top two in our countdown of the positions with the biggest question marks for Penn State.

The top pick will be unveiled Friday. But up today is a group that wouldn't be a bad choice for No. 1 either ...

No. 2: Offensive line

[+] EnlargeMiles Dieffenbach
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarMiles Dieffenbach (65) is one of Penn State's veterans along the O-line.
The players: Donovan Smith (10 starts), Miles Dieffenbach (11 starts), Angelo Mangiro (11 games played), Andrew Nelson (redshirted), Brendan Mahon (redshirted), Wendy Laurent (five games played), Anthony Alosi (six games played), Tanner Hartman (one game played), Chasz Wright (early enrollee), Noah Beh (incoming freshman), Brendan Brosnan (incoming freshman), Chance Sorrell (incoming freshman)

Last season: This group started off slow and struggled picking up the heavy blitz, but it really improved as the season wore on. Tailbacks Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton combined for just two 100-yard rushing performances in the first seven games but finished the last five games with five -- and Penn State even outplayed Wisconsin's mammoth line in the finale. John Urschel was a first-team All-Big Ten selection, while three substitutes -- Garry Gilliam, Eric Shrive and Mangiro -- saw considerable time.

What's missing: Experience and depth. Eight players saw a lot of time last season and five are now gone. PSU has just one returning offensive tackle on scholarship with any kind of game experience, and new coach James Franklin will be forced to plug in two rookies on the starting line. Health is obviously paramount here.

Moving forward: Former coach Bill O'Brien raved about Nelson, who redshirted last season as a freshman, and Nelson will almost certainly take over the starting right tackle position. There's really no one else to consider, outside of incoming freshmen and walk-ons. But the big question comes from the interior. At guard and/or center, Dieffenbach and Mangiro will be a part of some kind of combination, but there's no telling who else fits into Franklin's plans. Laurent could be the center. Or Mangiro could take over that position and Franklin could slide in Mahon at one of the guard positions. Or maybe Franklin decides to move a defensive tackle to the offensive side of the ball. There are a lot of moving pieces right now, and a lot has to go right for this group to start off smoothly. The question marks surrounding this position likely won't be answered by Week 1.

Looking to the past & future: OL

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
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It's never too late -- or too early -- to see what we learned from this season and also look ahead to next season. So, we've started breaking down each position on the Nittany Lions.

Up today: Offensive line.

REWIND

Expectations entering the 2013 season: OL coach Mac McWhorter's group was expected to start fast, as it returned three primary starters and several other players who saw significant time in 2012.

[+] EnlargeDonovan Smith
AP Photo/Kevin TanakaOffensive tackle Donovan Smith was expected to be a breakout star, but he didn't quite live up to his potential this season.
LT Donovan Smith was a favorite on projected breakout lists, and John Urschel often said that center Ty Howle was the most underrated lineman on the team. The real question mark surrounded right tackle, and whether Adam Gress or Garry Gilliam could step up. With an extra year under McWhorter and strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, many believed this line would be as good -- or better -- than 2012.

How they fared: They didn't quite get off to the start they wanted -- even Urschel admitted that. Consistency was difficult to come by early in the season, and Smith certainly didn't live up to his potential. Bill O'Brien didn't start him for a game -- and that certainly appeared to send a message -- but this line played its best football at the end of the year.

Zach Zwinak rushed for 563 yards in the last four games. And, overall, PSU allowed 22 sacks on the season -- which isn't too bad considering a rookie was standing in the pocket and sometimes taking too long to throw the ball. This line played as expected in the second half of the season, but it was a different story in the first half.

What we learned: This line is pretty versatile. Left tackle and right tackle were relatively interchangeable, Angelo Mangiro could play anywhere along the interior and Eric Shrive could play anywhere outside of center. We saw this in 2012, but 2013 just reinforced it. When some players found themselves injured or in slumps, this line showed it was pretty flexible and able to adjust.

Grade: B. This a little tricky because the grade in the first six games would've been markedly different than the last six games. Overall, though, this line played above-average. Urschel was an All-Big Ten player who was selected as a third-team All-American by the AP. Gilliam was a pleasant surprise, Smith a disappointment, and everyone else played close to as expected.

FAST FORWARD

Key losses: OG Urschel, C Howle, OT Gress. Gilliam still hasn't made up his mind on whether to stay. First, he was staying, then leaving ... and then he wasn't sure. His decision will have quite an impact on this group, however. If he leaves, PSU has to plug three openings on the line -- and right tackle will be the biggest concern of all since three of PSU's top four tackles would then graduate.

Position stock watch: Trending downward. Even if Gilliam stays, the offensive line is going to have a lot of question marks to overcome. Mangiro will be able to fill one spot along the interior, but who else will start? Wendy Laurent, who played in five games? And just think about that hole at right tackle if Gilliam does leave. It seems as if freshman Andrew Nelson might have to take over out of necessity. Depth is a thing of the past for this group.

Key to next season: Finding key contributors to add depth. For the last two seasons, PSU hasn't had to search long to find players who could give the starters a quick breather. But it's going to be a bit more difficult this offseason. Laurent, Anthony Alosi and Tanner Hartman have to add weight to their frames before they become viable options. (No lineman under 290 pounds saw significant time last season, and those three are all under 290.) And players who look the part -- such as 6-foot-4, 305-pound OG Brendan Mahon or 6-5, 297-pound OT Nelson -- haven't yet played a single snap. PSU is likely going to have to play some linemen who aren't quite ready, so they're ability to overcome the obvious learning curve will be paramount.

Looking to the past & future: RBs

December, 19, 2013
12/19/13
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It's never too late -- or too early -- to see what we learned from this past season and also look ahead to next season. So, over the next two weeks, we'll break down each position on the Nittany Lions.

Up today: Running backs.

REWIND

Expectations entering the 2013 season: Zach Zwinak became a household name in Pennsylvania after running for 1,000 yards in 2012, and he was expected to be the bellcow again in 2013. Zwinak was the fifth-string tailback in 2012 but gradually proved himself and was a near-lock to reach the 1,000-yard plateau once again.

Bill Belton was expected to contribute more than last season, as he was listed as the backup in the preseason. But a lot of people believed the younger tailback with the seemingly higher upside -- Akeel Lynch -- would overtake him on the depth chart. Some went so far as to say that Belton's No. 2 spot on the depth chart was just a formality.

How they fared: In the beginning, Zwinak fell well short of expectations. In his first eight games, he crossed the 100-yard mark just once. And he was finally pulled at the season's midpoint because of his fumbling issues. (He was giving up the ball at more than twice the rate of the average college running back.)

Belton took over with strong games against Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois. Big Ten readers even voted him the most surprising tailback in the conference. But he then fumbled in three straight games, fell ill and watched as Zwinak took back his starting job. Zwinak finished the last four games with 150, 149, 149 and 115 rushing yards. Lynch was merely an afterthought.

What we learned: Fumbling is clearly the biggest issue for this group. Zwinak finished strong and showed he's still a good running back, but he'll have to prove he can consistently hold on to the ball. Ditto for Belton. We also learned Lynch needs to understand the playbook more and become more well-rounded before Bill O'Brien plugs him in -- but he's clearly a good runner.

Grading the position: B. On one hand, the Lions finished strong and even saw Belton rumble for 201 yards against Illinois. But they started off slowly and fumbled six times. If they didn't play such an important role in key wins over Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin, this grade would've been lower. But they played well when PSU needed them the most.

FAST FORWARD

Key losses: None. The three top backs -- Zwinak, Belton, Lynch -- all return next season.

Position stock watch: Trending upward. How could this group not have a bright outlook? Belton showed huge strides since last season when it came to his style (fewer cuts now) and his vision. If he has that same type of improvement this offseason, he could push Zwinak for a bigger chunk of the carries.

Zwinak seems to have solidified his role as the top RB, but that obviously has the potential to change under a head coach who prefers to go with the hot hand. With the pair graduating after next season, though, expect to see more Lynch as O'Brien needs to prepare him. Next season should certainly be an interesting one for this group.

Key to next season: Limiting the fumbles. Pick a game this season, any game. There's a 50 percent chance that either Belton or Zwinak fumbled in it. If either tailback gets a case of the fumbles next season, Lynch has the potential to replace him as the No. 2 guy. Fumble-itis could bury someone on the depth chart next year.

Season report card: Penn State

December, 19, 2013
12/19/13
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Final exams are either ongoing or all wrapped up around the Big Ten, and we're passing out grades for each team's regular-season performance.

Each team receives a grade for offense, defense, special teams and overall play.

Up next: Penn State.

Offense: B

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/Getty ImagesChristian Hackenberg steadily improved throughout his freshman season, boosting Penn State's offense.
The Nittany Lions weren't dominant in any one category here, as they ranked No. 59 nationally in rushing and No. 38 in passing. But they were a balanced team that relied on quick decisions by Christian Hackenberg, yards-after-the-catch by Allen Robinson and whomever had the hot hand at running back.

Penn State naturally started off slow with a rookie quarterback and an offensive line that struggled early, but this group showed progress as the season went on. Bill O'Brien opted to keep his star quarterback on a short leash in the opener against Syracuse, as he called for runs on third-and-long and rarely called a pass over 10 yards. But O'Brien had unleashed Hackenberg by the season finale -- and the freshman led an aggressive attack against then-No. 15 Wisconsin to the tune of 339 passing yards, four TDs and no interceptions.

Robinson accounted for 46 percent of the passing offense over the season, and he was -- by far -- the most valuable player on this team. He was named the Big Ten's receiver of the year for the second straight season, while his quarterback was named B1G freshman of the year.

This offense never really had a No. 2 receiving threat, and the running backs struggled with holding onto the ball, as Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak combined for a half-dozen fumbles. But Penn State ended the season on a high note and showed it wasn't one-dimensional.

Defense: C

Penn State has become accustomed to great defenses, as it's ranked within the top 20 in yards allowed seven times since 2004. But that certainly wasn't the case this season.

The secondary was a constant liability. Third-and-long was no shoo-in for a punt the next down, and pass-first teams tormented the Lions -- just take a look at UCF and Indiana. The historic 63-14 loss to Ohio State certainly stands out as one of the worst-ever defensive performances by Penn State, as it was the worst PSU loss in 114 years.

So, why isn't this grade lower then? Well, in the Lions' last five conference games, they held all but Purdue -- whom they beat 45-21 -- to less than their season average in points scored. DT DaQuan Jones finished with 11.5 tackles-for-loss and led a stout run defense that plugged the middle in just about every game outside of Ohio State. For example, Wisconsin managed just 120 total rushing yards on 30 carries. Penn State also finished fourth in the Big Ten in sacks (28) and ranked No. 49 nationally in total defense.

This wasn't a great defense. It was an average one -- with a below-average secondary and an above-average front-seven -- that failed big against Ohio State but grabbed high marks against Wisconsin.

Special teams: D-minus

There's really not a whole lot of good to say here. Jesse Della Valle returned 18 punts and averaged a respectable 8.7 yards a return, while Alex Butterworth had 17 of his 51 punts wind up inside the 20.

And that's where the highlights end.

The Nittany Lions ranked last in the Big Ten in kick return average, 10th in punting average and second-to-last in both field goal percentage and kickoff coverage. Kicker Sam Ficken cooled off by the halfway point, and special teams cost Penn State a win against Nebraska.

Ficken missed a 37-yard field goal and an extra point against the Cornhuskers, while Kenny Bell returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. Penn State lost in overtime, 23-20.

Overall: B

Sixty-one scholarship players? A quarterback who was on campus for just two months before the opener? A defense short on individual talent? There were plenty of question marks surrounding this team before the season, but the Nittany Lions once again overcame the odds to finish with a winning record. They picked up a win on the road against a top-15 opponent, Wisconsin, for the first time since 2008. And they pulled out two wins in a conference record-tying three overtime games this season. Penn State might have had more odds stacked against it this season than last, and it showed once again you can never totally count this team out.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 14

December, 2, 2013
12/02/13
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There were two huge rivalry games Saturday, with BCS national title implications at stake. What were the odds that both underdog home teams would score a touchdown to get within one point with 32 seconds left in the game?

That was the scenario in both the Ohio State-Michigan and Alabama-Auburn games. You know what happened. Brady Hoke went for the two-point conversion and didn't get it. Auburn chose to kick the extra point for the tie and won on a heaven-sent final play.

[+] EnlargeMichael Bennett
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesOhio State survived a scare from Michigan after the Wolverines failed on a two-point conversion to win the game.
Of course, the Tigers and Wolverines were in vastly different situations. Auburn had much more on the line, while Michigan's season would have been made by beating Ohio State. Auburn also knew that Alabama had a dicey kicking situation. Yet Michigan also was at home, where it had lost only once under Hoke, and it already had played in two overtime games this season. The Wolverines could have given themselves a chance to win on a miracle in regulation or in overtime.

Ultimately, I had no problem with Hoke's call, though the two-point play itself was uninspiring. Sometimes it's not the decision but how it unfolds.

Consider that in the biggest play calls for both Penn State and Northwestern on Saturday, both coaches went with a run up the middle on third down. The Nittany Lions' surprise draw play on third-and-9 from their 19 resulted in a 61-yard gain by Zach Zwinak that put Wisconsin away. Northwestern went with a basic running play on third-and-6 at Illinois and got 11 yards from Treyvon Green, allowing the Wildcats to then run out the clock.

Had those runs been stuffed, both coaches would have been criticized for being too conservative and playing not to lose. It's a tough world, coaching. Unless you are blessed with Guz Malzahn's luck.

Take that and rewind it back ...

Team of the week: Penn State. Absolutely no one saw the Nittany Lions' 31-24 win at Wisconsin coming, especially because PSU had played so poorly on the road in Big Ten play. But coach Bill O'Brien led his team to another victory in a season finale, and recording two straight winning seasons under heavy NCAA sanctions is wildly impressive.

Worst hangover: BCS for Wisconsin? Yes, if that stands for Badgers Caught Sleepwalking. Instead of earning a possible Orange Bowl bid, the Badgers laid a giant egg. A tremendously successful large senior class somehow went out on the worst possible note at Camp Randall Stadium.

Big Men on Campus (offense): It has been a tough year for Northwestern, but the Wildcats finally got a Big Ten win at Illinois. And quarterback Trevor Siemian and receiver Christian Jones were big reasons why. Siemian threw for 414 yards and four touchdowns, while Jones had two of those scores during a 13-catch, 182-yard career day.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Iowa linebacker Christian Kirksey was named Walter Camp national defensive player of the week after recording 11 tackles, including three for loss, plus a sack and a forced fumble against Nebraska. Really, you could just as easily single out fellow linebackers James Morris and Anthony Hitchens, who also had great games to cap tremendous seasons by all three. The Hawkeyes will really miss all three seniors next year.

[+] EnlargeWeisman
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesIowa's Mark Weisman scored two touchdowns in the win over the Cornhuskers.
Big Man on Campus (special teams): Chris Davis. Sure, he plays for Auburn. But his incredible 109-yard kick-six touchdown against Alabama just might allow a Big Ten team to play for the national title for the first time since the 2007 season. Buckeye Nation is a big fan of Davis.

Strangest moment: Penn State's hurry-up offense clearly confused Wisconsin's defense several times. The most obvious moment came early in the third quarter, when the Badgers had only nine men on defense when the Nittany Lions ran a play. Somehow, Wisconsin got out of that power-play situation when Tanner McEvoy broke up an underthrown deep ball.

Pointing the thumb or the finger? Coaches always talk a good game about accountability, and Bo Pelini usually is one to take blame for a poor performance by his team. But the Nebraska coach looked everywhere but in the mirror on his 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Iowa. Pelini said the call was chicken manure -- I'm paraphrasing -- and even brought Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz's own sideline demeanor into the conversation.

But where was the personal responsibility for Pelini nearly hitting an official in the face with his hat? In what other sport -- or walk of life -- would that be acceptable? Even Prop Joe and Avon Barksdale ("The Wire" nerd alert) knew better than to accost the ref in their annual basketball game. Pelini is lucky to still be employed by Nebraska after Friday's meltdowns.

A Bucket load of offense: Indiana took out a little offensive frustration on Purdue. After being bottled up on offense by Wisconsin and Ohio State, the Hoosiers unleashed a school record 692 yards and 42 first downs to win the Old Oaken Bucket for the first time in three years. Tre Roberson, D'Angelo Roberts and Stephen Houston all rushed for more than 100 yards for Indiana, the first time in school history the team produced a trio of 100-yard rushers in the same game.

Zero sum game: Minnesota failed to score an offensive touchdown in its final 10 quarters of the regular season. The lack of an explosive/entertaining offense could hurt the Gophers come bowl selection time. Meanwhile, Michigan State has held six opponents without an offensive TD and pitched shutouts in six of its eight Big Ten games.

Fun with numbers: Because the debate is about to take over our lives, some key comparisons between Ohio State and Auburn:

  • Scoring margin: Plus-27.9 per game for Ohio State, plus-16.1 for Auburn
  • Rushing yardage: 321.3 per game for Ohio State, 318.3 for Auburn
  • Total yards: 530.5 per game for Ohio State, 491 for Auburn
  • Team adjusted QBR: 83.8 for Ohio State, 81.0 for Auburn
  • Yards allowed per game: 355.8 for Ohio State, 414.3 for Auburn
  • Sagarin strength of schedule rating: 61st for Ohio State, 26th for Auburn
  • Wins over ranked teams: One for Ohio State (Wisconsin), three for Auburn (Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M)

Week 14 helmet stickers

December, 1, 2013
12/01/13
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Recognizing the best and the brightest from the Nittany Lions in Week 14's season finale:

QB Christian Hackenberg: This was easily his best game of the season and certainly should provide PSU some hope moving forward. He was 21 of 30 for 339 yards with four TDs and no interceptions. He played especially well in the first half -- throwing just one or two bad balls -- and was the driving force behind the Penn State offense. He was able to spread the field, showed composure when Wisconsin called for a heavy blitz, and was the biggest reason for PSU's huge upset win over the Badgers.

DE C.J. Olaniyan and the PSU defensive line: The average Wisconsin offensive lineman weighs 321 pounds, which is about 8 pounds heavier than the average Green Bay Packers' lineman. But PSU still managed to pressure Joel Stave and limit the rushing attack to only 120 yards. The entire line played well, but Olaniyan deserves special consideration after finishing with three quarterback hurries and returning an interception 33 yards. Anthony Zettel added two stops in the backfield, Kyle Baublitz (1 TFL) and Austin Johnson led all PSU linemen with four tackles apiece, and Deion Barnes deflected a critical third-and-3 pass.

WR Allen Robinson: No explanation is needed here. Seriously. He caught eight passes for 122 yards. You know how good he is by now. He's on this list every week, and he's one of the best receivers in Penn State history. He showed that yet again against Wisconsin.

RB Zach Zwinak: The 240-pound back gets this award mainly because of one play, his 61-yard rush on a draw with less than 4 minutes left in regulation. Had he not picked that up, Wisconsin would've had great field position and plenty of time left to score the tying touchdown. That was a critical play, and Zwinak played especially well in the second half. He carried 22 times for 115 yards, with more than half of his yardage coming off that one play. Wisconsin players vowed revenge earlier this week after Zwinak ran all over them last season -- but he once again quieted the Badgers.

WR Eugene Lewis and TE Adam Breneman: These two freshmen -- Lewis a redshirt; Breneman a true -- will be looked upon a lot in the future, so their performances were good to see for PSU fans. Breneman caught three balls for 78 yards and a touchdown. But his big play came early in the game when he took a short pass, broke a tackle and rumbled 45 more yards for the score. Lewis also finished with three catches but came down with 91 yards and two touchdowns. Every catch he made was a big one. The first was a 29-yard catch that came on third-and-7, the second was a 3-yard TD and the third was a 59-yard TD bomb that acted as a nice bookend to his Week 1 TD catch.

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