Big Ten: Penn State Nittany Lions

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 4

September, 20, 2014
Sep 20
8:00
AM ET
The chances to bolster the leaguewide résumé are running low, and the Big Ten already has squandered almost all of them. Can it turn things around today before conference action picks up in earnest next week? Or is more of the same from the past couple of Saturdays on tap starting at noon?

There's only one way to find out, and here’s the blueprint for following all the action (all times Eastern):

Noon games

[+] EnlargeJames Conner
Gregory J. Fisher/USA TODAY SportsIowa's schedule doesn't get any easier, as it comes off the loss to Iowa State with a tough matchup at Pittsburgh.
Iowa (2-1) at Pittsburgh (3-0), ESPNU: So much for that supposedly easy schedule. The Hawkeyes have strangely been unable to run the football, which made their conservative play calling a problem in last week’s loss to Iowa State. The Panthers are more talented and Iowa must travel to play them, which could present a real test for coach Kirk Ferentz.

Eastern Michigan (1-2) at No. 11 Michigan State (1-1), BTN: The Spartans had some extra time to regroup after the loss at Oregon, and that doesn’t bode well heading into the last two weeks of nonconference action for their opponents. First up is Eastern Michigan, which will have its hands full with Connor Cook and what so far seems to be a much more dangerous offense for the reigning conference champs.

Western Illinois (2-1) at Northwestern (0-2), ESPNews: The bye week was definitely not a time to rest for the Wildcats or Pat Fitzgerald, who certainly wasn’t expecting to be in this early hole as the nightmare year for the program continued with two early losses. If Northwestern didn’t find some answers ahead of the visit from Western Illinois, there’s not much left to look forward to this fall.

Southern Illinois (3-0) at Purdue (1-2), BTN: There were signs of life from the Boilermakers in the loss against Notre Dame, though in the end they didn’t have the talent to hang around for four quarters. Purdue’s non-Big Ten slate wraps up this weekend, and it could surely use a confidence boost before hosting Iowa next weekend.

Bowling Green (2-1) at No. 19 Wisconsin (1-1), ESPN2: The Badgers are still something of a mystery at this point thanks to an off date last week following a relatively uneventful win over FCS-member Western Illinois. The Falcons already have a win over a Big Ten team and can wear defenses out with their up-tempo attack, which might make this a good time for Melvin Gordon and the Wisconsin running game to get rolling.

Maryland (2-1) at Syracuse (2-0), 12:30 p.m., GamePlan: This matchup might be better suited for the hardwood, but the Terrapins and Orange could put on a pretty good show in pads at the Carrier Dome. Maryland has proved capable of putting up points in bunches while Syracuse relies on its defense, leaving an intriguing contrast of styles before Randy Edsall’s team dives into its first Big Ten action.

Midafternoon games

Utah (2-0) at Michigan (2-1), 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2 mirror: Brady Hoke usually takes care of business at the Big House, but this could be a difficult matchup with Utah scoring at least 56 points in each of its first two games. If this turns into a shootout, the Wolverines and quarterback Devin Gardner will have to protect the football much better than they have so far this season to build some momentum for Minnesota’s visit next week.

Rutgers (2-1) at Navy (2-1), 3:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network: Even in a losing effort, the Scarlet Knights impressed in their Big Ten debut last week against Penn State. Rutgers can create problems with its stout defense and nearly won last week despite getting almost no offensive help, though Navy could easily pose problems with its tricky triple-option rushing attack.

Massachusetts (0-3) at Penn State (3-0), 4 p.m., BTN: The wins may not be all that overpowering, but the Nittany Lions are undefeated -- and for now, that’s enough to make them contenders in both the Big Ten and nationally until the outcomes change. Christian Hackenberg should have some chances to add to his résumé again this week as he faces a UMass defense allowing 35 points per game.

San Jose State (1-1) at Minnesota (2-1), 4 p.m., BTN: Uncertainty continues to swirl around the quarterback position for the Gophers, but whether or not Mitch Leidner plays again this week, the rushing game figures to be front and center. The two programs met last season, and Minnesota exploded for 353 rushing yards and won easily while completing just five passes.

Texas State (1-1) at Illinois (2-1), 4 p.m., ESPNews: The Illini and their high-powered offense hit a stumbling block last week at Washington, but they’re back home again Saturday afternoon and looking to unleash Wes Lunt again through the air. If Illinois is serious about making a push for bowl eligibility this season, this is a game the Illini can’t afford to overlook with a trip to Nebraska looming.

Indiana (1-1) at No. 18 Missouri (3-0), 4 p.m., SEC Network: Bowl projections for the Hoosiers almost certainly banked on a victory last week at Bowling Green, but that one slipped away and Kevin Wilson’s program now is a bit behind schedule in the win column. A soft defense continues to plague Indiana, and that could be an issue against a Missouri offense that has scored at least 38 points in each of its three wins so far.

Night game

Miami (2-1) at No. 24 Nebraska (3-0), 8 p.m., ESPN2: The latest polls might not reflect it, but this is still a prestigious matchup packed with historical significance. Having already lost and coming in unranked, the Hurricanes aren’t as close to competing for college football’s top prize as the Huskers. But if Bo Pelini and his team can knock off Miami to stay unbeaten, that might be a victory that resonates as the season progresses.

Bye week

Ohio State

Required reading
First it was dominate the state. Now ... dominate the airwaves?

Penn State coach James Franklin found himself in the backyard of Penn State's rival, Pittsburgh, on Friday morning for a recruiting trip and decided to call in to the local sports morning talk show, 93-7 The Fan. It didn't seem like the call was entirely expected -- since the producer hung up when he called the first time.

Here's how the second, successful, call opened:
Let’s go to James, who’s calling from State College. What’s going on, James?

Franklin: What’s going on guys?

This voice sounds familiar. Who is this?

Franklin: Well, I tried to call in. I just landed in Pittsburgh this morning to run around and do some work, and I tried to call in and your producer hung up on me.

Wait a second -- is this James Franklin?

Franklin: Yeah, man, good morning.

Franklin remained on the line for several minutes to briefly touch on recruiting, UMass and the sanction reduction. Penn State’s head coach also explained how he tried to call in earlier, but the show’s producer didn’t believe he was actually James Franklin.

“He said, 'How can we verify it's you?'" Franklin told 93-7 The Fan. "I'm like, 'I don't know. I can't give you my license number over the phone.'"

Franklin ended the conversation over the radio by asking if it was OK for him to call in whenever he’s in Pittsburgh again. The show’s hosts seemed just fine with the prospect.

You can listen to the entire segment right here.

Comparing Hackenberg to past elite QBs

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
3:00
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Christian Hackenberg has made just 15 starts, but there is no shortage of hype surrounding the Penn State quarterback: One AFC scout recently called him the top quarterback in college football, and The Sporting News asked months ago whether he would go No. 1 in the 2016 NFL draft.

So, right now, how does Hackenberg stack up with the top quarterbackss of past years?

To find out, we looked at the first 15 starts of the past five quarterbacks who were taken first at their position in the NFL draft. The lone exception was the 2011 draft, where we skipped over Cam Newton since he made starts in junior college and instead went with the second drafted quarterback.

So far, Hackenberg has thrown for more yards than any of those past quarterbacks -- 310-of-519 passing (59.7 percent) for 4,037 yards, 24 TDs and 15 INTs -- although he’s also received the least amount of run support.

Here’s a closer look at those past quarterbacks:


Sam Bradford, Oklahoma, started from 2007 to 2009

No. 1 overall NFL draft pick (2010) by St. Louis Rams

Bradford
Bradford
The stats (in first 15 starts): 254-of-363 passing (70 percent), 3,304 yards, 38 TDs, 8 INTs; 31 rushes for 7 yards and no TDs

The run-game support (in first 15 starts): Oklahoma averaged slightly more than 41 carries a game for 190 yards (4.6 ypc). The Sooners ran the ball on about 59 percent of their offensive plays.

The highlights (in first 15 starts): Bradford didn’t come into Oklahoma as a highly touted recruit, but he stepped up in a big way when he won the job as a redshirt freshman. In his first career game, against North Texas, he set a school record for most passing yards in a half by going 20-of-22 for 350 yards. He won the Big 12 championship as a redshirt freshman and broke the NCAA freshman record for passing TDs.


Jake Locker, Washington, started from 2007 to 2010

No. 8 overall NFL draft pick (2011) by Tennessee Titans

Locker
The stats (in first 15 starts): 200-of-412 passing (48.5 percent), 2,523 yards, 15 TDs, 15 INTs; 218 rushes for 1,149 yards and 16 TDs.

The run-game support (in first 15 starts): Washington averaged 40 carries a game for 175 yards (4.4 ypc), but Locker was a big reason for that. Including Locker’s runs, this offense ran the ball 56 percent of the time.

The highlights (in first 15 starts): He went 3-12 in his first 15 games, but he was named the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year in addition to making some freshman All-American teams. His best game, statistically, came against Arizona in 2007 when he passed for 336 yards, rushed for another 157 yards and scored four total TDs. An injury derailed his sophomore season during the 16th game of his career.


Andrew Luck, Stanford, started from 2009 to 2011

No. 1 overall NFL draft pick (2012) by Indianapolis Colts

Luck
The stats (in first 15 starts): 207-of-358 passing (57.8 percent), 3,249 yards, 23 TD, 4 INT; 74 rushes for 494 yards and 3 TDs

The run-game support (in first 15 starts): Stanford averaged 41 carries a game for 228 yards (5.5 ypc), although Stanford aired it out the more Luck progressed. This offense ran the ball 63 percent of the time in Luck’s first 15 games.

The highlights (in first 15 starts): In back-to-back weeks as a redshirt freshman, Luck helped knock off two top-15 teams -- No. 7 Oregon, 51-42, and No. 11 USC, 55-21. He threw four touchdown passes and no interceptions in those two games. But this was a run-first team; Luck threw more than 29 passes just four times in those first 15 games, and it was no coincidence that all four were losses since Stanford was trying to mount a comeback. He led the Pac-10 in pass efficiency as a redshirt freshman, but really made a name for himself in 2010.


EJ Manuel, Florida State, started from 2009 to 2012

No. 16 overall NFL draft pick (2013) by Buffalo Bills

Manuel
The stats (in first 15 starts): 260-of-380 passing (68 percent), 3,251 yards, 18 TDs, 14 INTs; 144 rushes for 441 yards and 6 TDs

The run-game support (in first 15 starts): Florida State averaged 35 carries a game for 150 yards (4.3 ypc). The Seminoles also ran the ball 56 percent of the time.

The highlights (in first 15 starts): Manuel’s first 15 starts came over the span of three seasons, but he always had a high completion percentage. He posted a 3-1 record as a redshirt freshman and was the Gator Bowl MVP. Against Maryland, to keep FSU bowl-eligible, he led a game-winning touchdown drive with 2:31 left. He also started two games as a redshirt sophomore and won the job as a redshirt junior, when he really burst onto the scene.


Blake Bortles, Central Florida, started from 2012 to 2013

No. 3 overall NFL draft pick (2014) by Jacksonville Jaguars

Bortles
The stats (in first 15 starts): 269-of-423 passing (63.5 percent), 3,373 yards, 28 TDs, 7 INTs; 93 rushes for 287 yards and 8 TDs

The run-game support (in first 15 starts): Central Florida averaged 38 carries a game for 180 yards (4.7 ypc). The Knights also ran the ball 56 percent of the time.

The highlights (in first 15 starts): He redshirted, then played in 10 games as a redshirt freshman -- but didn’t start until his redshirt sophomore season. The Knights fell in the Conference USA title game, but Bortles was still named to the all-conference team and earned MVP honors in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl.

Big Ten morning links

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
8:00
AM ET
Let's take a look at some of the more interesting quarterback situations this week ...

1. Will the real Gary Nova please stand up?: The Rutgers quarterback has reached a turning point. Again. In 2013, he started off hot with 13 touchdowns to four picks through the first five games – and finished the rest of the season with five TDs to 10 interceptions. In 2012, he started off hot with 15 TDs to three picks through the first seven games – and finished the rest of the season with seven touchdowns to 13 interceptions. It seems as if that leash gets shorter and shorter ever year. Because, this season, he started off well the first two games – with six TDs to one pick – before throwing five interceptions and no touchdowns against Penn State. Throughout his career, Nova has been the model for inconsistency. And this is his final year; this is his final turning point. NJ.com’s Steve Politi wrote this past week that Kyle Flood risks losing the team if keeps starting Nova. Well, Nova is starting again. If he can’t rebound this week, then it’s about time Nova sees the bench. It’s boom or bust for Nova this week. We’ll see whether he can actually bounce back now that he’s a veteran.

2. Weird Wiscy QB situation: So, Joel Stave still has the “yips,” and Tanner McEvoy is still the starter. Regardless, we really don’t know what to expect from McEvoy yet. McEvoy looked as if he rebounded from an awful, awful opener by going 23-of-28 last Saturday. But that was against FCS team Western Illinois -- and the Badgers led by a score of just 9-3 at halftime. Western Illinois dared Wisconsin to pass by stacking the box and, yes, McEvoy fared well there. But I’m not convinced. And you shouldn’t be either. Bowling Green is a better team than the Leathernecks, and this game should help prove what contest for McEvoy was an anomaly: The first against LSU, where he went 8-of-24, or the second one. Teams are going to keep daring Wisconsin to pass, and 23-of-28 performances likely aren’t going to be the norm for this quarterback. We’ll see.

3. Purdue’s Danny Etling deserved the start: Remember last season when Purdue’s depressed crowd rose to its feet when Etling entered a game for the first time, despite trailing 27-7 against Northern Illinois? Well, needless to say, that excitement’s since been a bit tempered. Etling didn’t look so great against Central Michigan two weeks ago, and his job was in jeopardy last week. Darrell Hazell stuck with him against Notre Dame, and Etling looked good in the first half. This isn’t breaking news: Purdue is not a good team. But I’m inclined to believe that Etling’s performance against Notre Dame was the norm, as opposed to CMU. Etling has grown a lot since his true freshman season, and teammates raved about the good decisions he was making in the spring -- as opposed to practice a few months before. Etling is a talented quarterback without much talent around him. Like it or not, he gives the Boilermakers the best chance to win … even if that “win” ceiling stands at about four right now.

Now, on to the links ...

East Division
West Division
  • Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong said he'd give his play so far this season a grade of a "C."
  • Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian said he wants to play Saturday but, ultimately, it's "up to the trainers."

Big Ten Week 4 predictions

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
9:00
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Week 4 features a new voice in the predictions mix as our new Big Ten reporter Dan Murphy jumps into the fray. It also features a handful of games our writers disagree on, including games involving programs that desperately need to rebound with a win this week.

 

Why Iowa will win: Call me a contrarian if you'd like (I've been called much worse), but Iowa seems to rise up at the unlikeliest of times. Pitt has looked way better than the Hawkeyes this season. The Panthers can run the ball (James Conner has 544 rush yards and eight touchdowns), while Iowa can't (393 rush yards, four touchdowns). Panthers coach Paul Chryst, the former Wisconsin assistant, knows the Hawkeyes well. So of course I'm going with Iowa, which will discover its run game and force two second-half turnovers to rally for the win. Iowa 21, Pitt 20 -- Adam Rittenberg

Why Pitt will win: Adam did a pretty good job of making my argument for me. This game hinges on who wins the battle between Iowa’s front seven and the Panthers’ running game. Conner's 214 rushing yards against Boston College in a 30-20 win look a lot more impressive this week after the Eagles held USC's entire offense to 20 rushing yards. Pitt also has some good experience in the secondary (CB Lafayette Pitts and S Ray Vinopal) that could put a dent in the strong completion percentage Jake Rudock has put together thus far. Pitt 27, Iowa 17 -- Dan Murphy

 

Why Syracuse will win: Beating MAC teams isn't easy, as the Big Ten can attest. Well, Syracuse went on the road last week and crushed Central Michigan, one of the better MAC squads, by 37 points, looking nothing like the team that was extremely fortunate to get by Villanova in its opener. The Orange are a different offense with quarterback Terrel Hunt at the helm, and they're stout in defending the run (opponents average just 2.7 yards against them). Maryland makes too many mistakes to get this win on the road. Syracuse 28, Maryland 24 -- Adam Rittenberg

Why Maryland will win: Maryland has shown an explosiveness on offense and special teams, but the Terrapins have lacked consistency. They will need to avoid the turnovers and wild mood swings on the road at Syracuse. Former Orange quarterback Randy Edsall's team has enough playmakers to get the job done. Maryland 31, Syracuse 27 -- Brian Bennett

 

Why Utah will win: Unless Brady Hoke’s unwillingness to talk about injuries is based around a desire to spring a surprise by unleashing a healthy secondary on the Utes, the Wolverines could have their hands full with Travis Wilson, the nation’s No. 2 quarterback in terms of passing efficiency. The jury is still out on Michigan’s offense as well, particularly since it was shut out at Notre Dame, its only true test so far, and has shown signs that issues protecting the football haven’t been solved. That’s not a good combination against a program that appears to be on the rebound and actually has prior experience winning at the Big House under Kyle Whittingham. Utah 34, Michigan 27 -- Austin Ward

Why Michigan will win: Utah is good, but it's no Notre Dame. The Utes' success so far this season has come against two lowly opponents -- Idaho State and Fresno State -- so they might be getting a little bit more credit than they deserve. Devin Gardner is a wild card, but I can't see him committing another four turnovers, at least not in the Big House. Michigan 31, Utah 28 -- Josh Moyer

 

Why Rutgers will win: Rutgers is actually an underdog against Navy, and this game has serious letdown potential after the Scarlet Knights got sky high for Penn State. Yet the Scarlet Knights have been very good against the run and have the defensive front to disrupt the Navy option. That will be enough to pull it out -- provided Gary Nova doesn't throw another five interceptions. Rutgers 24, Navy 21 -- Brian Bennett

Why Navy will win: The Scarlet Knights said there would be no letdown after the loss last week to Penn State. But Rutgers invested so much energy in the program’s first meeting in nearly two decades with the Nittany Lions that, yes, there will be a letdown. And be sure of this, Navy requires Rutgers’ full attention. Quarterback Keenan Reynolds is expected back from injury on Saturday to lead the nation’s No. 1-ranked rushing offense, which averages more than 400 yards. Rutgers looks equipped up front to defend the triple option with Darius Hamilton and a solid line, but Navy’s offensive efficiency will prove too much to overcome. It has won eight straight true home games dating to 2012. Make it nine. Navy 31, Rutgers 21 -- Mitch Sherman

Unanimous decisions

Illinois over Texas State, 38-21: The Illini running game finally emerges and opens things up for Wes Lunt to have a big second half in Champaign.

Missouri over Indiana, 42-27: The Hoosiers couldn’t help the Big Ten’s nonconference record against the MAC’s Bowling Green last week. They aren’t likely to turn that around against an undefeated SEC opponent.

Michigan State over Eastern Michigan, 52-3: Former Penn State quarterback Rob Bolden's last crack at the Big Ten doesn't go any better than the first time around. Mark Dantonio calls off his dogs after halftime to keep this one from getting uglier than it could.

Minnesota over San Jose State, 27-13: David Cobb and the Gophers show they are still headed in a good direction despite a disappointing showing against TCU last Saturday.

Nebraska over Miami, 34-31: The Canes have the talent to make it close, but they don’t have the quarterback to steal a game from a big-time opponent on the road yet.

Northwestern over Western Illinois, 24-10: Pat Fitzgerald keeps it simple and forces his team to play the bully role while trying to develop a new toughness in Evanston.

Penn State over UMass, 44-14: The Christian Hackenberg hype machine continues its crescendo toward a primetime matchup in the Big House in early October.

Purdue over Southern Illinois, 28-20: The Salukis put up a fight, but Danny Etling builds on a strong performance against Notre Dame to pull the Boilermakers to 2-2.

Wisconsin over Bowling Green, 33-7: Bowling Green won’t be able to sneak up on a well-rested Badgers team at Camp Randall Stadium.

Our records:

Mitch Sherman: 31-6
Adam Rittenberg: 29-8
Austin Ward: 29-8
Brian Bennett: 28-9
Josh Moyer: 27-10

Big Ten morning links

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
8:00
AM ET
Hitting on the hottest topics in the Big Ten before sweeping through the league ahead of another critical non-conference Saturday.

1. Minnesota's QB quandary: There's not exactly a controversy under center, since the Gophers have made it quite clear that Mitch Leidner is the top option to lead the offense. But for the second week in a row, there have been questions about his health, and therein lies the uncertainty that could turn this into a more pressing issue for Jerry Kill. The Minnesota coach pegged Leidner at 100 percent on his injured knee last week, but Saturday something else popped up with his foot -- though Kill shot down reports of a broken bone and seemed puzzled by where they came from. Backup Chris Streveler has appeared in all three games and was needed to finish the last two, and at some point if he keeps handling himself well and if Leidner's bumps and bruises remain a weekly topic of conversation, perhaps the Gophers may find themselves in the midst of a real controversy. This week it probably won't matter given the way Minnesota ran the ball all over San Jose State last year. But Michigan is looming next week, and the Gophers would likely be better off if they didn't have to keep answering questions about their starting quarterback.

2. Waiting game for Buckeyes: From the outside, the case seems pretty open and shut regarding Noah Spence's latest failed drug test and what figures to be permanent ineligibility for the All-Big Ten defensive end. But there hasn't yet been an official verdict handed down, so Ohio State coach Urban Meyer confirmed after practice Wednesday night that Spence was still practicing with the team while "doing things to get healthy." Given what would seem to be a long-shot appeal combined with the serious tone from the Spence family when they addressed a "medical illness" to the Columbus Dispatch last week, it is somewhat surprising that the star junior would be back on the field at all right now while each of those separate, but related, issues are sorted out. Meyer stressed that Ohio State was doing what it could to support him, and if Spence is eventually cleared for a return, everybody involved would surely want him ready to play again. So unless or until the Big Ten tells him otherwise, Spence is still working out with the Buckeyes and waiting for the next update on his status.

3. Heat is on Hawkeyes: The running game is struggling. The kicking game looked like a fire drill even when the field-goal unit hit a clutch attempt last weekend. Kirk Ferentz is under fire with his clock management skills being questioned. And after dealing with all that in the aftermath of the loss to Iowa State, the Hawkeyes have to hit the road to play unbeaten Pittsburgh before diving into conference play. Maybe Iowa could actually use that traveling time to bond and rally against the odds that seem to be stacking up against the program, because it's pretty clear the team needs a spark. The Hawkeyes were a trendy dark horse pick to win the West, and no matter what happens at Pitt it should be fine next week at home to open conference play against Purdue. But it's time for them to show they really have what it takes to contend this fall.

East Division
  • Brady Hoke explained the reasoning behind his unwillingness to address injuries.
  • Michigan State right guard Connor Kruse could be back in the lineup as early as next week.
  • Keys for Penn State as it looks to move to 4-0 to open the season.
  • The secondary has been key for Rutgers defensively so far this season, and it will need its safeties to play a big role against Navy.
  • Fixing problems on third down has been a top priority for Maryland this week.
  • Indiana receiver J-Shun Harris II is developing into another weapon for the uptempo offense.
  • Just more than a year after believing his football career might be over, Donovan Munger is providing depth at defensive tackle for Ohio State.
West Division
  • Danny Etling knows how to prepare. The Purdue quarterback might be overdoing it though.
  • Nebraska defensive backs are preparing for "the fastest receivers" they've ever gone against.
  • It doesn't appear Pat Fitzgerald is easing off the intensity at all coming off the bye week and as kickoff draws closer.
  • Injuries are dominating the headlines at Minnesota, but the offensive line is coordinator Matt Limegrover's biggest concern.
  • A look at the Texas State defense, which has some athletes who can provide a test for the Illinois offense.
  • Pressing questions for Wisconsin as it gets back to work against Bowling Green.
  • Iowa linebacker Quinton Alston said the Hawkeyes needed a "kick in the butt" after losing to Iowa State.

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 3

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
2:00
PM ET
Three weeks' worth of games are in the book. That's not enough to decide the individual award races in the Big Ten, but it won't stop us from figuring out where those races stand.

Our Big Ten reporters are voting weekly on the races, with players receiving five points for a first-place vote, four for a second-place nod, etc. Also, we try hard to base these standings on 2014 season results only, not any preconceived notions or a player's previous track records.

Here's how things shake out:

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah (Five first-place votes): Abdullah gets the unanimous nod on offense as he continues to power up the Huskers attack.

2. Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: He has become the master of the two-minute drive, and he leads the Big Ten in passing.

3. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: He leads the Big Ten in rushing yards (437) and rushing touchdowns (five) despite having played just two games. He's averaging 9.3 yards per carry.

4. Michigan State QB Connor Cook: His completion rate is over 68 percent, and Cook can build on his stats against Eastern Michigan and Wyoming the next two weeks.

5. Illinois QB Wes Lunt: He wasn't able to summon late-game magic at Washington in Week 3 but still is among the league's top passers.

Also receiving votes: Michigan RB Derrick Green; Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon; Minnesota RB David Cobb; Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong Jr.

Nagurski Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Penn State DT Anthony Zettel (5): Another unanimous pick, Zettel has been a monster in the early going for the Lions. He leads the Big Ten in tackles for loss, with seven, to go along with three sacks.

2. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa: He's tied for the league lead with two forced fumbles, in addition to 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.

3. Iowa DT Louis Trinca-Pasat: His strong start to the season continues, as he has four tackles for loss along Iowa's strong defensive front.

4. Wisconsin S Michael Caputo: He and the Badgers were off last week but should get a test from Bowling Green's fast-paced offense.

Also receiving votes: Penn State LB Mike Hull; Rutgers DE Kemoko Turay; Minnesota LB Damien Wilson; Michigan State DE Marcus Rush; Ohio State LB Joshua Perry.

Big Ten morning links

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
8:00
AM ET
Nebraska-Miami occupies a special place in my heart and mind. Their games of the 1980s and ‘90s symbolized an era of college football. It was power versus speed, stability matched against flash.

The programs' styles stood in perfect contrast. Yet in four Orange Bowl meetings over 11 years, they made for the game's best of unlikely rivalries. Though Nebraska slipped from the top in the midst of that decade, by the end, it had supplanted Miami like the Hurricanes did to Tom Osborne's team after the 1983 season.

The Hurricanes visit Lincoln on Saturday night. The thought of those two helmets together again stirs emotions. It feels big -- bigger, apparently, than it is.

ESPN's matchup-quality metric ranks games on a zero-to-100 scale, based on the team's spots in the Football Power Index and the expected competitiveness. It was jarring this week not to find Nebraska-Miami among the top five matchups in Week 4.

It's Nebraska-Miami, after all. When these two have met historically, it's not just the biggest game of the week; it's the biggest of the year.

But today in college football, Florida-Alabama (91.6 matchup quality), Clemson-Florida State (90.5), Mississippi State-LSU (90.1), Oklahoma-West Virginia (87.2) and Auburn-Kansas State (87.0) earn higher billing than the Huskers and Hurricanes.

I heard an intriguing question this week: What program is better positioned, Nebraska or Miami, to make a run at the top again? I can't say definitively. Nebraska's infrastructure and internal resources favor it; Miami's natural resources are a big advantage.

But until Nebraska-Miami cracks the top five most important games on a September weekend, neither team is in position to join the national conversation.
  • Another interesting question: What Big Ten team on Saturday matched against a Power 5 opponent is most in need of a win this week? Other than Nebraska-Miami, Iowa visits Pittsburgh, Maryland visits Syracuse, Utah plays at Michigan and Indiana visits Missouri. While I'm tempted to pick Iowa, but my answer is Michigan. A loss by the Wolverines against the high-flying Utes, who won at the Big House in 2008, would serve to draw another parallel between this staff and the previous regime. And that's not good for Brady Hoke. Neither are all these turnovers.
  • Columnist Rick Brown of the Des Moines Registers urges Iowa fans upset with Kirk Ferentz to be careful what they wish for. I understand the sentiment and agree that Iowa does more with less better than several Big Ten counterparts. But have you watched the Big Ten lately? Why use Illinois and Minnesota as the measuring stick? It's OK to set the bar high. Fans ought to be upset with the Hawkeyes' offensive play. Don't apologize for reasonable expectations.

Around the rest of the league:

East Division
West Division

PSU's 'mad scientist' a boost to defense

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
4:00
PM ET
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State linebacker Brandon Bell broke out in a big smile Tuesday afternoon when asked to describe his defensive coordinator. He knew he’d offer the same two-word answer that another teammate used.

"Mad scientist."

“That hits it on the head,” Bell said. “He’s a guy who knows what he’s talking about. And that confidence is instilled in us.”

[+] EnlargeBob Shoop
MCT via Getty ImagesBob Shoop's unit ranks among the nation's best in scoring defense.
Call defensive coordinator Bob Shoop what you will. But, by any measure, you’d have to call him a success. Penn State’s defense was inconsistent at best, and poor at worst, last season. The Nittany Lions ranked No. 48 in total defense and No. 59 in scoring defense, while PSU fans everywhere were forced to take a deep breath on third-and-long with those passes over the middle. Now, despite preseason question marks, the defense is soaring as one of the nation’s best.

The Lions are No. 13 in total defense and No. 11 in scoring defense. Sure, there’s a lot of time left in this season, but players are noticing a big difference. And a lot of that starts with Shoop and his penchant for calling the right play at the right time.

“I don’t know if we’re doing that much different,” linebacker Nyeem Wartman said, comparing this season to 2013. “It just seems like the play-calling and the timing is right. There are no more than two or three plays that seem new.”

Said James Franklin: “I’ve been on the headset on defense where Bob’s calling out 75 percent of the plays before they’re being run. He’s calling out, ‘We’re going to get an interception here,’ and things like that. It’s impressive, it really is.”

Shoop literally broke out a pack of Icebreaker breath mints last week and told his defense they were going to “break the ice” with some turnovers. It was a silly move, one that drew laughs, but Shoop followed that up by saying this defense would force five turnovers against Rutgers on Saturday.

On Saturday, Penn State wound up with five interceptions against the Scarlet Knights. In several different interviews, within an hour after the game, Penn State’s defensive players swore that Shoop called those five picks. He knew the Nittany Lions would have opportunities, and he told his squad five turnovers is what it would take for a win.

“It’s crazy,” linebacker Mike Hull said, half in disbelief. “It’s crazy it worked out that way. You never think about that kind of stuff; you just do your job and hope things take care of themselves.”

It’s premature to call this a defensive renaissance for the Nittany Lions. But it’s not too early to call this a dramatic improvement over last season. The secondary in 2013 was the Achilles’ heel of the team, and cornerback Trevor Williams struggled so mightily that PSU shuffled the lineup to bench him midway through the season. On Monday, Williams was named the Big Ten defensive player of the week after pulling down two picks against Rutgers.

The offseason graduation of defensive tackle DaQuan Jones -- whom NFL.com’s Gil Brandt once rated as the top senior DT -- was supposed to prove problematic. But now first-year starter Anthony Zettel could be on pace for Big Ten defensive player of the year. These linebackers were also supposed to struggle with their depth and inexperience outside, but they’ve been just fine.

When problems become strengths, and question marks evolve into exclamations, that’s a definite sign of progress. And it has been a mark of Shoop and this staff.

“He’s like a mad scientist the way he figures out defenses and tendencies of the offenses,” Wartman said. “He’s the one who predicted the five turnovers, and he’s the one who said we were going to come out and not give up 14 points. He’s just phenomenal.”

Conference call: Best of the Big Ten

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
3:00
PM ET
Another week, another Big Ten coaches' teleconference. Here are some of the highlights from today's session featuring all 14 league coaches:









Weekend recruiting wrap: Big Ten 

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
11:15
AM ET
video
Penn State picked up some good news from the NCAA, which resulted in more positive news on the recruiting trail this weekend. Ohio State solidified its spot in a top target's list, and a few new offers were extended this week.

Here is a look at the latest happenings on the recruiting trail within the Big Ten.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
5:00
PM ET
Let's cut through the pleasantries -- it wasn't really a pleasant weekend for the Big Ten -- and get right to the mailbag questions. As always -- more than ever, in fact -- thanks for your submissions.

Mitch Sherman: Nothing has changed in the East, where Michigan State remains the team to beat. The Spartans look like the best team in the league, and I don't think you will get much of an argument from logical fans of other Big Ten teams. If anything, the results of the past two weeks -- even the Michigan State setback at Oregon -- has solidified MSU atop its division. It's murky in the West, where the schedule says Iowa is the favorite. The Hawkeyes' play does not. Wisconsin also plays a favorable slate, and we will see if the week off has allowed the Badgers to flip momentum. If so, they are a co-favorite with Nebraska, which, despite a near disaster against McNeese State, has produced two of the league's top performances this seasons in wins against Fresno State and Florida Atlantic.

Mitch Sherman: Joel Stave, fighting a football version of the yips, returned to team drills in some form last week, though coach Gary Andersen has not declared anything in regard to his senior quarterback. Sounds like it remains an extended process with Stave, who has sought some outside attention in dealing with his throwing issues. It's good to hear that Stave has maintained a healthy approach in practice, though I have concerns about his effectiveness even after he clears the hurdles necessary to get back on the field. What happens when adversity strikes in a game? How will it impact his play to perform in front of tens of thousands of people who know about his struggles? For that reason, expect the Badgers to move slowly with Stave. The schedule is on their side, staying soft through October.

Mitch Sherman: Well, considering that the Boilermakers tanked this year before playing Notre Dame, I don't know if parallels exist to be drawn. It seems that Purdue does a nice job of getting up for the Irish, or maybe it's something about the matchup that works well. Or maybe Notre Dame is disinterested. Regardless, the Boilers have a good shot on Saturday against unbeaten FCS foe Southern Illinois. If it doesn't happen, another one-win season enters the realm of possibility. As bad as the Big Ten looks, I still don't see that as likely. Quarterback Danny Etling showed improvement against Notre Dame, and hey, Northwestern visits Ross-Ade Stadium this year. Realistically, if Purdue can build on the good things from Saturday in Indianapolis, as many as four games in the Big Ten could be competitive.

Mitch Sherman: That question wins the award, Matt, for most intriguing of the day. I'm not sure J.T. Barrett and the Buckeyes would have defeated Kent State 66-0 if it had been the opener. But it would have been an easy victory that could have provided the young quarterback and his offensive line with the confidence it lacked against Navy and Virginia Tech. I'm convinced that by the end of this season, Virginia Tech could not come into the Horseshoe and dominate Ohio State in any way close to what happened in Week 2. By the same token, the Buckeyes might have had even more trouble with Navy if that game came later in the season. But to answer your question, no; Ohio State would have fared better in its bid to escape this nonconference season with a perfect mark intact if the order of games had been arranged differently..

B1G QBs fare well in Sunday's NFL games

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
12:00
PM ET
We interrupt your regular feeling of Big Ten doom-and-gloom to bring you a positive conference announcement for once.

Sorry, B1G fans, it has nothing to do with this current college football season ... which probably doesn't come as a surprise. But at least it's something, right? In the NFL on Sunday, the Big Ten fared pretty darn well -- specifically at quarterback:

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Let me help you out with the names since two of these players aren't regular starters: First, of course, you have New England's Tom Brady (Michigan) with a win against Minnesota. And you have the names that should make Spartans fans smile: Washington's Kirk Cousins (Michigan State) against Jacksonville, Cleveland's Brian Hoyer (Michigan State) against New Orleans, and Arizona's Drew Stanton (Michigan State) against the New York Giants.

Stanton and Cousins were both filling in because of injuries to the regular starter. But Cousins performed so well he might start a quarterback controversy once Robert Griffin III returns, and Stanton sparked a fourth-quarter comeback.

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Granted, it's possible -- possible -- that only Brady will still be starting by year's end. But it's positive news for now, and the Big Ten does still have some current talent at the position.

One AFC veteran scout recently called Penn State's Christian Hackenberg the "top QB in college football." And, as long as Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller returns as planned, the Big Ten should once again boast at least one Heisman front-runner.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves here. It might not have been a good weekend for the Big Ten (again), but at least the conference had a good showing in the NFL. At least it's something.
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Christian Hackenberg flexed like a prizefighter at midfield, tilted his head back and let out a scream as his sideline erupted into smiles and chest-bumps.

Penn State’s quarterback had just transformed Saturday night from a potentially historic one for Rutgers -- what could have been its first win in its first-ever Big Ten game -- into a footnote of his own, by leading his fourth career game-winning drive in a 13-10 win. His teammates couldn’t hide their relief or delight, either: Defensive end Deion Barnes turned to the crowd and waved good-bye, wideout DaeSean Hamilton flung his gloves into the front row, and linebacker Brandon Bell leaped around with a grin.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Jim O'Connor/USA TODAY SportsChristian Hackenberg led Penn State's late comeback win against Rutgers.
Maybe this is a rivalry; maybe not. But don’t say this wasn’t a big game -- and don’t think players didn’t take some things personally from this past week.

"I just felt they didn’t respect us," Bell, a New Jersey native, said matter-of-factly.

Added PSU tailback Bill Belton, also from New Jersey: "They asked for a big-time game, and they got one."

This was Rutgers’ chance at respect, for showing up that team from Pennsylvania and proving wrong the opposing fans who sneered at their (lack of) tradition. The importance of this game can’t be minimized; Rutgers wideout Leonte Carroo told the Asbury Park Press a win could "change New Jersey and Rutgers football forever."

Instead, the contest sold out in record time, but question marks are now swirling around whether quarterback Gary Nova should remain the starter after throwing five interceptions. Instead, the crowd set the school’s attendance record, but lingering Rutgers fans were forced to hear "We Are … Penn State!" chants after the final whistle. Instead of putting Rutgers atop the Big Ten East and halfway to bowl-eligibility, it’s more of the same for a team that boasts the hardest schedule in the conference.

"This hurts. It should hurt," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. "But I will not allow them to be defined by their losses."

Bass from the loudspeakers thumped so hard you couldn’t feel your own heartbeat, and the pageantry surrounding High Point Solutions Stadium served as the tinsel to what could have been an unprecedented Rutgers victory. One large, stenciled sign read, "Enemies of the State" and listed all the New Jersey natives on Penn State’s roster. (Bell said word of the sign made its way around the locker room before the game.) And Penn State coach James Franklin added that Rutgers fans greeted the Nittany Lions’ buses by waving their middle fingers.

There were plenty of similar ingredients here for a future rivalry -- disrespect, a close game, proximity -- but both teams walked off the field with completely different mindsets. Flood referred to this loss as "devastating," and Franklin summed everything up by saying he felt "really, really proud."

This could have been a dream start for Rutgers but, instead, it’s a dream one for Penn State. Several thousand PSU fans spilled into the street last Monday, some crowd-surfing on mattresses, after the NCAA announced this team was once again postseason-eligible. Now it’s nearly on the cusp of a bowl berth.

The Nittany Lions are playing for more than just dignity now, and Hackenberg and these Lions now stand -- improbably -- atop the Big Ten East. They are the only undefeated team in their division and just one of two undefeated teams left in the conference (Nebraska). If it wasn’t for that final touchdown against Rutgers, all that could have been flipped upside down. And Hackenberg and these Lions knew it.

Hackenberg seemed to exorcise all that emotion and those "what-ifs" with that one, long yell on the field. Once he reached the postgame media room, his demeanor had already reverted back to its normal, calm self. He spoke as if the game had ended days before; he didn't even so much as grin while recounting his game-winning drive that came about 30 minutes prior.

You ever take time to enjoy these wins, Christian? It seems like you always just talk about how you guys have a long way to go.

"It’s just one of those things, man. We do," he said, stone-faced. "Looking at that film after a win feels a lot better than looking back on that film after a loss. ...

"This is huge because a win’s a win’s a win. We’re 3-0 right now, and we’re confident. We haven’t played our best ball yet."

Weekend Rewind: Big Ten

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
10:00
AM ET
There they go again.

Just when it looked like it was safe to start kicking around some other leagues, the Big Ten tripped all over itself and bumbled away its handful of chances to claim wins over teams from Power 5 conferences.

Minnesota and Illinois were blown out. Purdue fought hard but was ultimately overmatched. A shootout slipped away from Maryland. It’s probably best not to mention what happened to Iowa at all.

The conference obviously has nobody else it can blame for the lack of respect nationally when it keeps coming up short in its biggest opportunities to earn it around the nation. There may still be a College Football Playoff contender or two at the top of the league, but if there’s a logjam for the third and fourth spots in December, the Big Ten’s best may look back at September games it wasn’t even involved in as the reason it gets left out of the playoff field.

There were a few bright spots Saturday scattered among the wreckage. Reflect on those and start turning the page to Week 4.

Team of the week: Struggling mightily to find the end zone for 58 minutes, Penn State didn’t look much like the program about to pick up the most valuable win of the weekend. But Christian Hackenberg again delivered when it mattered most, calmly leading the game-winning drive in the closing minutes and staking the Nittany Lions to an early lead in the East Division with a rivalry win over Rutgers.

Game of the week: The game tape won’t be sent to the Hall of Fame and the outcome didn’t go the Big Ten’s way, but the battle for the Cy-Hawk Trophy was still an entertaining affair -- though certainly not because of the offenses. The emotions were high, the score was close from start to finish and the closing minutes leading up to Iowa State’s go-ahead field goal also provided a seemingly endless amount of opportunities to question the clock-management skills of Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. There were high-scoring, competitive games elsewhere, but this was pretty solid theater that will still be worth dissecting all week.

Biggest play: After the Nittany Lions beat their heads against the wall for more than three quarters, Hackenberg had one final shot at a breakthrough as he took a snap with three minutes left on the clock. His strike to Geno Lewis on first down went for 53 yards, instantly flipping the field position and setting the stage for Penn State’s breakthrough. Lewis would also grab another 23-yarder on the drive, but it was the initial hookup that generated the momentum that finally carried the Nittany Lions to the end zone.

Big Man on Campus (offense): The opponent clearly didn’t provide much of a challenge, and looking back now, Ohio State surely wishes it could have shuffled around its schedule to get J.T. Barrett a chance to tune up against a team like Kent State instead of throwing him into the fire against Navy and Virginia Tech. Who knows if it would have changed anything, but the redshirt freshman quarterback certainly left Saturday’s blowout with more confidence after tying a school record with six touchdown passes and throwing for more than 300 yards -- two things Braxton Miller has never done with the Buckeyes.

Big Man on Campus (defense): The Nittany Lions might need to split this award up after that impressive second-half shutout and only allowing one touchdown total on the way to their road win. Anthony Zettel was again a fixture in the backfield with three tackles for loss, C.J. Olaniyan forced a fumble and tallied a sack, and four different defenders intercepted Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova. But Trevor Williams doubled down with a pair of picks and finished second on the team with five tackles, giving him the slight nod.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): The Huskers might have finally found the solution for the problem that has been plaguing them over the last couple seasons on special teams. De'Mornay Pierson-El provided a jolt of energy to Nebraska’s punt return unit, dazzling with an 86-yard scamper for a touchdown and following that up with a 51-yarder as an encore shortly after to set up another score in the rout of Fresno State.

Biggest face plant: The Hawkeyes are tempting, but Indiana’s loss at Bowling Green figures to be far more damaging to Kevin Wilson’s club and its bid to get back to a bowl game. The defense is still a weakness that no amount of production from running back Tevin Coleman can consistently overcome, and the Hoosiers will probably be kicking themselves over this loss in November.

Numbers and facts to know: Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah moved up to No. 5 on the school’s all-time rushing list, posting his 19th 100-yard rushing performance to move his career total up to 3,373. ... Officially, Barrett’s 300-yard outing through the air was Ohio State’s first since Troy Smith in 2006. Terrelle Pryor threw for 334 yards against Indiana in 2010, but those statistics were vacated. ... Michigan held Miami (Ohio) to 33 rushing yards, its lowest rushing total allowed since 2010.

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