Penn State Nittany Lions: Bill Belton

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.
Spring practice in the Big Ten has sadly come to an end, and we're both back home after some trips around the conference. Wednesday, we shared out thoughts on the Big Ten's West Division, and now it's time to turn our focus to the beast known as the East.

Brian dropped in on Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana, and Adam stopped by Penn State.

Adam Rittenberg: Let's begin with your trip to the Mitten State. You made your first stop in Ann Arbor, where Michigan was wrapping up its first spring with new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Michigan's top priority is the offense and fixing the line. What did you gather about the unit, and how are the changes on the defense -- player positions and coaching roles -- working out?

[+] EnlargeDoug Nussmeier
AP Photo/Tony DingNew OC Doug Nussmeier's top priority is fixing Michigan's offensive line.
Brian Bennett: Things definitely seem a lot smoother on defense. Jake Ryan adopted quickly to playing middle linebacker, and James Ross III is talented enough to play anywhere. Mark Smith picked a good time to take over the defensive line, as he'll have a pair of senior ends in Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer and some nice young talent to work with in Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Willie Henry, etc. Throw Jabrill Peppers into the mix in the back end this summer, and this has a chance to be a very solid defense.

It's just a matter of whether the offense can keep up. The Wolverines are very young on that side of the ball, and the line is full of redshirt freshmen and sophomores right now. Mason Cole enrolled in January and was starting at left tackle in spring ball, which said a lot about the state of the position. Michigan's season likely depends on whether that O-line can come together and raise its collective level of play. There are some good-looking athletes at receiver and running back, but not many of them are proven. Many big questions remain in Ann Arbor.

AR: There are fewer questions at Michigan State. How did the defending Big Ten/Rose Bowl champs seem to be handling their success? And how are they replacing defensive standouts such as cornerback Darqueze Dennard?

BB: Several players told me they were sick of talking about the Rose Bowl, which is a good sign. I saw a team that could definitely repeat as Big Ten champions. The offense brings back most of its major pieces and will add new weapons suchas tight end Jamal Lyles and quarterback/athlete Damion Terry. The early-season scoring droughts of years past should not happen again this fall.

No doubt Pat Narduzzi's crew lost a lot -- four All-Big Ten defenders, plus both starting defensive tackles. Michigan State has a big experience gap to make up, especially at linebacker. But this is a program that just seems to reload on defense now and has recruited so well to its system. Guys like defensive tackle Joel Heath, defensive end Demetrius Cooper and safety Jalyn Powell all came on strong this spring. Three of the corners vying to replace Dennard had interceptions in the spring game. I have supreme confidence that Narduzzi will have this defense dominating again in 2014.

AR: Ohio State's defense has many more question marks after a rough 2013 campaign. The line should be terrific but how did the back seven look during your trip to Columbus? And how are new assistants Chris Ash and Larry Johnson fitting into the mix? What else stood out about the Buckeyes?

BB: In my eyes, this is one of the most intriguing teams anywhere. The Buckeyes are almost frightfully young on offense outside of Braxton Miller and are breaking in lots of new players at linebacker and in the secondary. Yet they also have some impressive looking athletes and more overall explosiveness than the previous two seasons under Urban Meyer. Ash is installing a quarters coverage look, but maybe even more important is the fact that the safeties can really run and cover now. The revamped offensive line is a big question mark, as is the inexperience at receiver and the linebacker spot. But when you see young guys like linebacker Raekwon McMillan and tailback Curtis Samuel running around, you realize there aren't a lot of Big Ten teams that look like the Buckeyes.

Adam, you made it up to State College to check in on Penn State and new coach James Franklin. What's the vibe like up there?

AR: Electric. The charismatic staff has quickly formed bonds with the players, some of whom knew Franklin from the recruiting process. The defense should be better under Bob Shoop's leadership, as long as the starters stay healthy. There's decent depth up front and safety Adrian Amos and cornerback Jordan Lucas anchor the secondary. Linebacker Mike Hull is embracing his role as the unit's leader. Christian Hackenberg can really spin the ball -- very impressive. But can PSU protect him? No Big Ten team, including Ohio State, has bigger issues along the offensive line. Running back Bill Belton looked great, and I like the depth at tight end. Franklin is realistic about the depth issues and knows his team can't afford many more injuries.

You also visited Indiana this spring. How did the Hoosiers look, especially on defense with new coordinator Brian Knorr?

BB: You know the drill. Indiana could make some real noise if it could actually, you know, stop anybody. Knorr has them playing a 3-4, and hey have some major beef inside with the defensive tackles in 325-pounders Darius Latham and Ralph Green III. Ten starters are back and some promising recruits are on the way, so there's more depth on defense than before. But it's still a major construction project, and the offense might lose a little of its big-play ability as it tries to replace three of its top four receivers from a season ago.

OK, lightning-round finish. I still see Michigan State and Ohio State as the heavy favorites here, with Penn State a dark horse if its O-line issues can be solved. What about you?

AR: MSU is the team to beat because of the quarterback and the track record on defense. Ohio State definitely is in that mix, too. Michigan remains young at spots but could contend with a serviceable run game. Offensive line is a huge issue in this division. Sleeper-wise, I wouldn't count out Penn State, Indiana or Maryland, which could be dynamic on offense if it finally stays healthy.
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 finally reached the end of this week’s countdown, which involves five predictions for the spring.

Up today is a look at who’s going to step up into a leadership role …

[+] EnlargeJordan Lucas
Zuma Press/Icon SMIThe evolution of Jordan Lucas' game at Penn State has been evident.
CB Jordan Lucas emerges as the defense’s vocal leader

Jordan Lucas lacked confidence as a freshman. His friend and teammate, Stephon Morris, knew it. His father knew it. And he knew it.

But when Morris graduated, Lucas stepped up as a sophomore and put together the strongest season out of the defensive backs. (Sorry, Adrian Amos fans, those games at safety didn’t help.) Lucas is a charismatic person, not unlike his head coach, and his evolution has been pretty evident.

If there was any doubt about his work ethic or his confidence, that was put to rest in the last month. Not only did Bill Belton name Lucas as one of the team’s hardest workers last October, but strength coach Dwight Galt also praised the corner about a week ago for being a gym rat.

As for that confidence? Fans were treated to a glimpse of that during a memorable exchange at coach James Franklin’s signing day pep rally. Lucas was handed the microphone and skipped the usual “Thanks-for-coming” cliché by turning to PSU great LaVar Arrington and asking the crowd, “LaVar said it’s What-U?”

“LBU,” Arrington responded.

“You guys like that, LBU?” Lucas asked. “What about LBU and DBU?”

Lucas carried himself well, while Arrington and Franklin joked about the light-hearted exchange. “Jordan likes the microphone,” Franklin said. Added Arrington: “Jordan came out with his muscles and his tattoos, and he lost his mind.”

Safety Malcolm Willis was regarded as the secondary’s leader last season, and middle linebacker Glenn Carson stepped into a team leadership role. With those two gone, a new leader has to emerge -- and Lucas certainly seems ready for the role. Both Amos and Ryan Keiser aren’t very vocal, so the secondary needs someone in that department. And, as the defense searches for someone new to help lead, Lucas isn’t one to shy away from the task.

More predictions:

No. 5: A more public, eager-to-please coach
No. 4: Blue-White attendance more than doubles from 2013
No. 3: OL struggles surpass secondary as biggest concern
No. 2: Tarow Barney and De'Andre Thompkins make immediate impact
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.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Spring practice is still several weeks away, so we're bringing you a different countdown every week to try to make that time tick a little faster.

This week's countdown involves a look back at the past decade of recruiting classes, from 2004 on, and figuring out the five most impactful groups. Up today is a more recent class, so the names here will definitely ring a bell ...

No. 5 most impactful class: Class of 2011

Top prospects: DB Adrian Amos, DE Deion Barnes, RB Bill Belton, TE Kyle Carter, LB Ben Kline, OG Angelo Mangiro, WR Allen Robinson, OT Donovan Smith, DL Anthony Zettel

[+] EnlargeAllen Robinson
AP Photo/John BealeAllen Robinson came to Penn State as a two-star prospect. He left as one of the greatest wide receivers in school history.
Biggest surprise: Robinson. He came in as a two-star prospect with the second-lowest grade of the class, behind only OL Anthony Alosi. Three years later, he's leaving Penn State early as one of its greatest wide receivers ever. He set the single-season school records for both catches (97) and yards (1,432), and accounted for more than 46 percent of the Nittany Lions' passing offense in 2013. He was the team's best player this past season and the offense's top threat in 2012.

Impact player: Besides Robinson? Amos. There's some good variety to choose from here -- hence why this class is No. 5 -- and, although Amos struggled some as a sophomore, he's still the team's most athletic defensive back. He's going to finish his career as a four-year starter and, if he sticks with cornerback or starts off hot at safety, he should bounce back from that sophomore "slump." He's got a high ceiling and has the ability to to be an All-Big Ten player.

Why the class is important: Depth was not a strength for PSU in 2012 or 2013, and this class hit just where it needed to when it needed to. Take a look at who's currently behind some of the key players from this class. Imagine a 2013 receiving corps without Robinson or a 2013 offensive line that was forced to start Adam Gress and Garry Gilliam every game. How about a 2012 secondary led by Stephon Morris and ... Da'Quan Davis? Or a defensive line without Barnes and Zettel? If this class was a bust like 2010, the Nittany Lions would not have bounced back quite so strongly after the sanctions.

This was the class of the "Supa Six," and although that nickname's now gone along with A-Rob, there are plenty of players who'll turn out to be three- or four-year starters. Amos, Barnes, Carter and Smith are among them. This wasn't a flashy class when it signed -- only two ESPN 150 prospects were included -- but it's more than made up for that with its production and potential.

Penn State positions to improve: No. 2

February, 13, 2014
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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.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

January, 29, 2014
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Coming at you from the United Mailbaggers Local 40205 …

David from Nashville writes: All Players United! Well except walk-ons, that is. I'm sorry, but Kain Colter is losing me. Personally, I completely understand wanting medical coverage for football injuries sustained while representing the university. But excluding walk-ons from having a ”'voice at the table,” as Colter calls it? Do they not sustain injuries, get concussions or have medical bills? And they don't even get the free education from a very prestigious, and expensive, school like Northwestern! Or perhaps, just like the NCAA, Kain Colter just wants “his,” and including your walk-on teammates will hurt his legal argument to get “his.”

Brian Bennett: Clearly, there are more questions than answers right now about the Northwestern labor union movement. Can students at a university really be classified as "employees?" How would such a union arrangement work with Title IX? How long would medical benefits last, and who would decide whether a former player's injury was football-related?

The issue of walk-ons is another one, although a minor point, in my opinion. Only those who are receiving scholarships can really argue that they are being compensated like an employee, and any walk-on who plays enough to merit post-career benefits would likely be put on scholarship at some point. It's also not fair to say Colter is looking to "get his" when he has already completed his eligibility and likely would not see any personal gain from leading this movement. On the contrary, he's risking a lot by agreeing to become the public face of this movement.

I question whether a labor union is the right way for the players to go, and it certainly was odd to see college football players standing alongside steelworkers' union members at Tuesday's news conference. But I also think it's way past time for players to organize in some way and make sure their rights and concerns are being considered. College football is a multibillion-dollar industry that's only going to get richer with the new playoff system, and everybody from head coaches to assistants to athletic directors are getting rich off the sport. Everybody except the players, who put their bodies at risk for our enjoyment, that is.

Yes, the players receive scholarships, and at a place like Northwestern, the value of that can exceed $250,000 over the course of a player's career. But the players in this movement aren't asking for cash. They're asking for things such as medical treatment beyond their playing days, better concussion prevention and care and a trust fund that can allow players to continue their schooling following their careers. (Many of their demands, by the way, are not that different from Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany's own collegiate reform plan). Mostly, they are asking for a larger voice and a seat at the table in a system that too often treats them like disposable indentured servants. That seems a highly reasonable request to me.


[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsNebraska's Ameer Abdullah is a good role model for running backs looking to improve next season.
Zach from Southgate, Mich., writes: Brian, who will be 2014's Carlos Hyde in the B1G? By that, I mean a player who showed flashes of talent early in his career but blossoms into an all-conference type of performer his final season. Guys like Ohio State CB Doran Grant, PSU RB Bill Belton, and Northwestern LB Chi Chi Ariguzo come to my mind as possibilities.

Brian Bennett: I'm not sure Hyde blossomed as much as he was healthier in 2013 and got plenty of opportunities after his early-season suspension. He did run for 995 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2012 despite some injury problems, after all. I think a better example of someone who went from very good player to all-out beast in 2013 is Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah. Belton could be a guy who takes a similar path, though he has some competition for carries with Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch around. Indiana's Tevin Coleman is another running back who could take it to the next level after running for 958 yards in his first season starting. Maybe Iowa's Jordan Canzeri, if he can get more reps (and stay healthy).

On defense, I'd say Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes could follow Darqueze Dennard's path into superstardom. And Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa could go bonkers on the league.


Dane from Akron, Penn., writes: Really, Brian? PSU/Michigan, 4-OT game at No. 6? This game had it all. A freshman QB drives 60-plus yards in like 40 seconds (two unbelievable catches on that drive), a clutch kicker missing three field goals... I repeat, 4 OTs!

Brian Bennett: The game had it all except quality of play, as I explained in my post. Just because a game goes long does not mean that it was well-played. You mentioned the missed field goals. The two teams each failed to score in two of the overtimes and there was only one touchdown in all four of the extra periods, which led to a lot of national writers poking fun at the Big Ten on Twitter during the game. There were also seven combined turnovers. It was exciting, no doubt, and a great win for Penn State after a tremendous regulation comeback. But it was also very sloppy.


John R. from Dubuque, Iowa, writes: Brian, am I the only Illini fan that's thrilled to see a new QB take the reins in Illinois? Sure the numbers were great, but the predictable interception always happened! I can't wait for Wes Lunt to play. The way the defense talked about his skills when he ran the scout team's offense is enough make any humbled Illini fan excited of something. Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: You're definitely not alone, John. There's a big buzz about Lunt taking over and running Bill Cubit's spread offense. At 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, he looks more like a classic quarterback than Nathan Scheelhaase did, and Lunt was a blue-chip stud coming out of high school. I'd caution you not to view him as the savior yet; remember that Lunt struggled a bit as a freshman at Oklahoma State, a program that usually makes quarterbacks look great. There are also questions at receiver for Illinois, and don't discount what Scheelhaase did last year in passing for more than 3,000 yards. Still, the talent is definitely there, and I'm also excited to see what Lunt can do in that offense.


Brutus from The Ninth Circle writes: I don't know about other people, but I've long held the opinion that Penn State underachieves. By this I mean that they are a national power in terms of fan base, facilities, revenue and name brand appeal. Just not a national power on the field. I felt this was certainly true for the last 10-15 years under Paterno. Under O'Brien, you had the sense that the game and team were being upgraded, but he himself didn't have a catchy personality. And I didn't even think it was important until I'm seeing Franklin and his recruiting. It's way too early to tell if that translates to success on the field. But it appears that the foundation is (hopefully) being laid for better results in the future. What I see is someone putting energy into the whole program. It certainly would seem like the program might actually start taking advantage of its assets and capability. Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: I think you can make some parallels between Penn State and Florida State. Both programs were probably held back a little because their legendary coaches stayed on too long. Remember when Joe Paterno was doing his recruiting via Skype from his office? Now you have the almost manic energy of James Franklin, who along with his aggressive assistants will likely kill it on the recruiting trail. Of course, the toll of the NCAA sanctions can't be overstated, and Franklin has to prove that A) he's a championship-caliber head coach; and B) that he's willing to stick around Penn State for a long time. But you're right in that the marriage of Penn State's resources and Franklin's particular skills should prove very fruitful for the Nittany Lions.


Michael B. from East Lansing, Mich., writes: The East Division next season seems to be Michigan State's to lose. I understand that Ohio State will be in the picture, but can we really place Michigan in that race with their lackluster performances over the past few years? Seems to me that Penn State would be the next best in the division going into the season.

Brian Bennett: Michigan State and Ohio State appear to be the clear co-favorites for the East next season. While I expect Michigan to improve on its 2013 showing, the Wolverines still have a lot more question marks in my view than the Spartans or Buckeyes, and they have to play both those teams on the road in '14. Penn State is an intriguing contender because it gets both Ohio State and Michigan State at home, where the Nittany Lions played much better than on the road last year. But I think the Buckeyes and Spartans still have the commanding edge in talent and depth, and we should see one of those two in Indianapolis in December.

Best B1G games of 2013: No. 6

January, 28, 2014
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We're continuing our countdown of the Top 10 games from the Big Ten in 2013. Remember that we're taking into account the stakes in the game, the excitement level, the quality of the performances and the atmosphere.

Quality might not have been the keystone of this next game, but it had everything else as one of the wildest contests of the year ...

No. 6: Penn State 43, Michigan 40, 4 OT, Oct. 12

[+] EnlargePenn State
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPenn State staged a late rally to tie the game then later celebrated a 4-OT win over Michigan.
How it went down: A week after an embarrassing 20-point loss at Indiana, Penn State came out of the gates strong at Beaver Stadium against the Wolverines, running out to a 21-10 halftime lead.

The momentum swung Michigan's way in the second half, beginning with a Frank Clark fumble return for a touchdown just 10 seconds into the third quarter. A pair of Devin Gardner touchdown passes put the Maize and Blue ahead 34-24 early in the fourth quarter, and the Wolverines had a first down on the Penn State 28-yard line with 3:10 left while nursing a seven-point lead. Some questionably conservative play-calling and a five-yard delay of game penalty then prompted Brady Hoke to have his team punt from the Nittany Lions' 35, leaving just 50 seconds on the clock.

Christian Hackenberg needed just five plays to lead his offense down the field, tying the score on his own 1-yard rush with 23 seconds left. Penn State scored so fast that Michigan had a chance to win the game in regulation, but Brendan Gibbons missed a 52-yard field goal. Then the real craziness began.

It was a sloppy game that got sloppier in overtime, as neither team even managed to score in the first or third overtime. Penn State's defense held Michigan out of the end zone for all four extra periods, and Bill Belton's 2-yard touchdown run finally ended things. Belton had converted a fourth-and-1 three plays earlier.

The two teams combined to go 7-of-34 on third downs and committed seven turnovers. So, yeah, not so much quality. But Nittany Lions fans were still giddy with the outcome.

Player of the game: Hackenberg wasn't perfect by any means, but he threw for 305 yards and three touchdowns and ran for that score after a supremely clutch game-tying drive. We might look back on that as the start of his legend.

Stat of the game: How even was this game? Michigan had 389 yards of offense, while Penn State had 390.

They said it: "Nothing should amaze you," then-Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said. "There's going to be twists and turns. These are tough kids. They love Penn State. They love playing for each other. The locker room is such a great scene right now because these kids really believe in each other."

More best games

No. 10: Ohio State 31, Wisconsin 24
No. 9: Michigan 41, Notre Dame 30
No. 8: Arizona State 32, Wisconsin 30
No. 7: Ohio State 40, Northwestern 30
Here's a compilation of Twitter reaction from current players, former players and recruits regarding Bill O'Brien's decision to coach the Houston Texans:



STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Most Penn State players reacted with a stunned silence when told of the news that their head coach, Bill O'Brien, was heading to the NFL's Houston Texans.

The story broke about 90 minutes before the new year, and most players were either with friends or on their way to parties. Linebacker Brandon Bell was driving when he answered his buzzing cell phone.

"It's official?" he asked at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday night. "I don't have much to say. ... Yeah, I guess I'm surprised."

[+] EnlargeBelton
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsBill OBrien's departure caught Bill Belton and his teammates by surprise, but the players feel Penn State will be just fine moving forward.
He paused a few seconds and then continued on: "You can't worry about what you can't control. We got to do what we got to do."

Fifteen minutes later and defensive end C.J. Olaniyan said he hadn't heard anything about O'Brien heading elsewhere either. He seemed just as off-guard and even a bit reticent to believe the breaking story.

"Like I said, I haven't heard anything," Olaniyan said. "But no matter what happens, Penn State has shown -- everybody's shown -- that we're going to keep striving forward. No matter what happens."

The overwhelming sentiment from players on Tuesday and Wednesday was one of surprise, but not of betrayal. Their emotions were mixed but not polar -- they felt disappointed, but they were happy for their head coach. They seemed down, but they spoke with conviction about their university and the next season.

"As long as we have each other," wideout Jake Kiley said Wednesday, referring to his teammates, "we'll be fine. I think everyone's in the same mind-set."

Tailback Bill Belton wanted to enjoy the new year, forget about the coaching change and deal with it later. Wideout Allen Robinson hung up as soon as O'Brien's name was mentioned. Offensive guard John Urschel took to Twitter to congratulate his head coach.

Different players reacted differently. But everyone seemed to agree that Penn State's certainly been through worse, and that it would emerge once again just fine.

Those same players who congratulated their head coach first met O'Brien in January 2012 when the relative unknown landed in Happy Valley and told the media he was "thrilled to be the head football coach," months before the NCAA levied unprecedented sanctions against the school. O'Brien asked players for their commitment, their loyalty, and they overwhelmingly surrendered it.

Eugene Lewis, now a rising redshirt sophomore, was one of those players. The coveted four-star recruit arrived on campus a few weeks before those sanctions, and he could've chosen to transfer elsewhere without penalty. But he decided to stick with O'Brien in Happy Valley.

And, even now, Lewis doesn't regret his decision. Even now, he bristled at feeling even the slightest twinge of betrayal by his old coach.

"That's a strong word because you have to look at it from his point of view," Lewis said Wednesday. "He came into a position that was hard for his family, with the sanctions that we got. You have to look at what he did and how he did all he could. You can't really be mad at him for leaving after two years. I still really respect him."

Lewis was at a friend's house, watching ESPN, when he discovered the news of O'Brien's departure. His phone buzzed with calls and texts from his teammates shortly before midnight. They agreed they'd enjoy the night and then just see what happens.

But Lewis was adamant, whomever the next head coach turns out to be, that he'll still be all-in.

"At the end of the day, we all know we're family and we all know we still have to go out there and play for our school," he said. "You have to be able to fight through adversity, and this is just another obstacle. I'm not mad at Coach O'Brien, I'm happy with what he's done for me and this university.

"I know my team and everyone else there at Penn State -- everyone -- is going to be behind us, and we're going to greet the next coach the same way we greeted Coach O'Brien."

Defensive end Curtis Cothran echoed Lewis' words and succinctly summed up the message from Penn State's players: "We're going to be OK."

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Instant Awesome: Franklin's Daughter Dominates
Penn State football coach James Franklin posted a video of his daughter taking on the sleds and yelling, "We are Penn State!"
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