Big Ten: Big 10
1. Michigan recruiting backlash. With all the Brady Hoke talk and the loss to Minnesota, you knew it was only a matter of time before something like this happened. Michigan commit and ESPN 300 tight end Chris Clark tweeted Sunday -- since deleted -- that if Hoke is fired then “that changes everything.” He likely just said what other recruits are thinking, and it'd be na´ve to think opposing coaches aren't going to exacerbate the situation by trying to use Hoke's lack of job security against Michigan. Recruiting could wind up being an uphill battle the rest of the season, despite the Wolverines' No. 19 ranking. They currently have 11 commits, and Clark is the highest-rated one.
2. Offensive line woes. Penn State offensive line coach Herb Hand has taken up the practice this season of tweeting out highlights of his Nittany Lions on Sundays. He doesn't do it every week, but he does it most of the time. Needless to say, he skipped the exercise this weekend -- but it's difficult to blame him. There were few highlights Saturday against Northwestern, and the clip of his linemen that most stuck out involved one of his offensive guards inadvertently blocking a teammate. Hand is a good coach, but he doesn't have depth or experience to work with here. He took the blame for Saturday's disastrous performance, but it's clearly not his fault. This is a young offensive line and, quite frankly, it just doesn't have much talent right now.
3. David Cobb's importance cannot be understated. The Minnesota running back has accounted for slightly more than 47 percent of the Gophers' offense. Not just rushing offense, mind you -- entire offense. That means he's a bigger part of the offense than Ameer Abdullah at Nebraska, Melvin Gordon at Wisconsin and Tevin Coleman at Indiana. Cobb has 722 rushing yards (5.8 ypc) and four TDs so far this season. He's worth watching.
Now, on to the links:
- The Harbaughs believe in Michigan's Brady Hoke.
- Mark Dantonio thinks fans might be a little spoiled from Michigan State's 2013 defense and that some mistakes are inevitable.
- Pass defense (or lack thereof) remains a hot topic for Ohio State.
- Penn State is hoping to improve over the bye week.
- Maryland is a 7.5-point underdog heading into the game against Ohio State.
- IU coach Kevin Wilson is seeking more consistency from the Hoosiers.
- No Big Ten team gives Michigan State's defense more trouble than Nebraska.
- Gary Andersen still sees room for improvement when it comes to his Badgers.
- Reflecting on Minnesota's win and reclaiming the Little Brown Jug.
- Let the Iowa quarterback controversy begin.
- Contrarian-in-chief Pat Fitzgerald focused on his team's foibles on Monday.
- In an all-too-familiar theme, Darrell Hazell hasn't yet made a decision on Purdue's starting quarterback.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Wideout Kyle Prater embraced one of his Northwestern teammates Saturday afternoon, while another player turned to the crowd and emptied his lungs: “We are … N-U!”
With more than a minute left, before the Wildcats’ 29-6 upset win over Penn State became official, Northwestern’s sideline erupted into joy. Players high-fived, at least a half-dozen patted quarterback Trevor Siemian on the shoulder pads, and smiles on the sideline might’ve eventually outnumbered the lingering Penn State fans.
“Yeah, baby!” superback Dan Vitale yelled.
For a full calendar year, Northwestern had waited for a win like this. Since Sept. 22, 2013, the Wildcats had beaten only one other FBS team -- Illinois -- and that was simply by a field goal. One disappointment had stacked upon another, and there was no telling when the Wildcats might lift that burden. Last season, they lost on a last-second Hail Mary and, two weeks later, fell in triple overtime. This season, they came up short in a comeback bid against Cal and felt the pang of disappointment in a 23-15 loss to Northern Illinois.
But, on Saturday afternoon, that chapter of close calls and mounting losses finally ended. For once, frustration gave way to the feeling of a win. A good win, one Northwestern has been searching for for more than 370 days.
But this game, this effort, wasn’t just about the win itself for Northwestern, it was about the overall performance. The Wildcats were finally able to increase the offensive tempo, they were finally able to overcome injuries (wideout Tony Jones played, and Collin Ellis’ replacement at linebacker returned an interception for a TD), and this finally looked like a Big Ten team capable of making a bowl game.
Even the demeanor of Pat Fitzgerald seemed different. Two weeks ago, he labeled his football team an “embarrassment.” On Saturday afternoon, inside a humid media room, he still cracked a few self-deprecating jokes (e.g. -- “I don’t know how many times you’ve seen us play this year -- yeah, we haven’t been very good.”), but every sentence was punctuated with a smile.
More importantly, he continued to voice just how proud he was of this team. That praise has been rare for these Wildcats over the past year.
“They’ve persevered, they’ve stayed together, and we’ve been hard on them because we need to be,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re an immature football team that’s maturing in front of our eyes, and I’m really pleased with our seniors. This is a senior-type statement win.”
This was the Wildcats' biggest margin of victory since Nov. 24, 2012, when they beat Illinois by 36 points. So the change was evident, even as the players deflected any talk of altering the scheme or gameplan. They simply chalked up any differences to an increased focus -- and attributed that to their head coach.
Fitzgerald was criticized for taking a soft approach to practice in August, but he changed his philosophy in September. Northwestern players were forced to practice in the rain at one point, and mistakes often met the ire of Fitzgerald’s whistle -- which would signal the dreaded “up-downs.” For the last two or three weeks, players said, this team was evolving and improving from that first uninspired performance. This win against Penn State wasn’t an anomaly; it was simply the end result.
“You could see the passion in everybody’s eyes,” Vitale said. “I think we didn’t have that the first couple weeks. But, with the way we’re practicing, we really turned it around out there.”
Added Siemian: “I think we put three weeks together. As bad as it is to say, those first two weeks we kind of lulled through.”
If Northwestern was asleep before its matchup against Penn State, it was certainly awake by the end. Once the clock finally ticked down to zero, after Northwestern patiently waited for Penn State to finish singing its alma mater, the Wildcats sprinted about 30 yards to celebrate with the smattering of purple shirts left in the crowd.
If it wasn’t for a post-game performance by the band, Northwestern might’ve stayed on that field for a half-hour. They jumped, hugged, yelled and clapped right as the band director made his way to the stand. It was a moment they awaited for far too long.
Even after that emotional win, the Wildcats still haven’t arrived. But, instead of taking one step forward and 10 steps back, they finally took a giant leap in the right direction. They finally look like a team that doesn’t belong in the West’s cellar.
“Are we there yet? Not even close,” Fitzgerald said. “But that, to me, is what’s most encouraging -- how much better we can be in all three phases.”
Josh Moyer: It's not exactly a well-kept secret whom Michigan would like to get - Jim Harbaugh or Les Miles - but I would still label both candidates as "serious," too. Usually, successful NFL coaches don't take a step back down to college. But Harbaugh doesn't have a great relationship with the San Francisco 49ers' general manager, and Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio is already predicting a Harbaugh-to-Michigan move. If Harabugh would be willing to jump to the Wolverines, Michigan would be crazy not to take him. As for Miles, he's already twice been passed over for the Michigan job. But, even this summer, it sure didn't sound as if he held a grudge: "It's certainly a place I hold very near and dear to my heart." Miles to Michigan? ESPN's own Travis Haney believes there's smoke to that one. Either hire would be a slam dunk for Michigan. It'd be up to either head coach if he wants to keep Doug Nussmeier, but I wouldn't be surprised if he stayed.
@ESPNJoshMoyer Who do you think are some serious Michigan head coach replacements if Hoke gets the boot? And will Nuss stay?— Steve Crank (@stephencrank) September 24, 2014
Josh Moyer: It shows the Hoosiers are on the right track, but it's premature to start calling them a serious contender, or even a dark horse. Let's not forget, Indiana also just lost to Bowling Green in a shootout two weeks ago. You want a dark horse right now? Maybe Penn State. But Indiana still needs to show consistency, that it can string together solid some solid performances. Until the Hoosiers do that, they may be a team on the rise, but I hesitate to call them anything more. Maryland will be a good test Saturday.
@ESPNJoshMoyer I know it's still early but does Indiana's win over Missouri show that the they can actually be a dark horse conf. contender?— Paul Shen (@Pianopunster10) September 24, 2014
Josh Moyer: In this week's power rankings, we listed Ohio State as No. 4 while Wisconsin was listed at No. 5. And it's a good question -- but you know what? I absolutely agree with you. We don't agree on everything here on the Big Ten blog, so we each do our own rankings and then add them all up to get the Big Ten Power Rankings that you see. This week, two of us ranked the Badgers ahead of the Buckeyes. I was one of them. Wisconsin's lack of a vertical passing game definitely works against it - and I'd wager that's probably what's holding back some of my colleagues - but Ohio State hasn't exactly been impressive, either. The Navy game was a lot closer than the score indicated, and the Virginia Tech loss looks a lot worse now after losses to East Carolina and Georgia Tech. These teams still have a lot to prove, and that's why these rankings are so fluid. If OSU struggles against Cincinnati and Wisconsin dominates USF, you'll probably see our overall rankings flip-flop.
@ESPNJoshMoyer Why so high on Ohio st in your rankings. They struggled with harder teams and low with Wisconsin who has a good defense front— johnsg20 (@stevegred17) September 24, 2014
Josh Moyer: This has to be a Nebraska fan fishing for compliments, right? Because, right now, it's pretty clear the Cornhuskers are the team to beat. At 4-0, they're the Big Ten's best hope for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Ameer Abdullah could be part of the Heisman ceremony at the end of the year, the passing game is doing just fine, and the Huskers rank No. 31 in the nation in total defense. The Badgers appear to be the West's No. 2 team but, if Iowa's offense continues to play like it did against Pitt, then the Hawkeyes certainly have the potential to move up. Minnesota needs to get some kind of passing game going to legitimately compete in the West and the other three teams - Ilinois, Purdue, Northwestern - are just a mess.
@ESPNJoshMoyer who is the top team in the West right now?— Adam Boben (@abobes7) September 24, 2014
Brent Clarke writes: I'm a diehard PSU fan/alum. Based on the play this season and with the noted issues on the O-line and rushing (Umass game notwithstanding), I think they are an above-average B1G team. I think they could achieve 9ish wins. With that said, what do you think has to happen for Penn State to crack into the polls (Top 25)? Can they do it this week if they win against Northwestern?
Josh Moyer: I'm with you there, Brent. I said before that Penn State was likely capable of between seven and nine wins but, if this offensive line can show marked improvement, that ceiling rises. Regardless, the Nittany Lions are already receiving the 27th-most votes in both polls -- so a win against Northwestern should definitely vault them into the Top 25. That was my thinking before the season, so that obviously remains my thinking now. There's a decent chance Penn State might be 6-0 heading into its Oct. 25 matchup against Ohio State. If that's the case, PSU could be ranked in the teens. That's a game Penn State fans like to circle every year, and that could wind up being an incredibly important one.
1. Michigan should look to backup QB: Shane Morris doesn’t deserve to start, per se, but Devin Gardner has shown he’s not the answer to Michigan’s woes. Actually, he’s a big contributing cause. Against two Power-5 opponents, Gardner has led the Wolverines offense to exactly zero touchdown drives. Can Morris possibly fare any worse? Hoke should announce the starter later Tuesday. If he picks Gardner, this has to be the dual-threat’s last chance. But if U-M wants to turn things around now, maybe it should stop starting the same guy over and over again and expecting different results. You know what they call that ...
2. Ameer Abdullah still the best back in the Big Ten: Apologies to Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, who made enough highlight-worthy plays just on Saturday to fill up a season-long reel. But Abdullah has still had the more impressive season by far. Gordon put up video game numbers against Bowling Green, but Abdullah grinded it out against a good Miami run defense for 229 yards. Abdullah’s “worst” game came against McNeese State when he turned in this play. Don’t worry; you really don’t have to click that link because you’ve probably seen that crazy play -- where he breaks at least five tackles en route to a 58-yard TD -- at least a dozen times already. Gordon is great but, so far this season, Abdullah is better.
3. NCAA president Mark Emmert can’t admit when he’s wrong: Can we make something clear here? Whether or not you agreed with the NCAA’s initial move of sanctioning Penn State, it seems as if we can all agree that the NCAA handled the situation in a manner that was far from ideal. But, of course, the NCAA’s tone-deaf president was asked Monday about his handling of it all -- and, of course, disagreed. Emmert’s response: “I think that has gone really well.” It looks as if we need to talk, Mark. If you dole out a punishment and reduce said punishment twice in two years, then you probably missed the mark initially. Heck, you’re basically admitting you missed the mark with actions instead of words. ESPN.com’s own Ivan Maisel wrote something to that effect as well -- nearly a full year ago. The more Emmert talks, the more it becomes harder to believe him.
Now on to the links ...
- The Michigan job is too big for Brady Hoke, writes The Detroit News' Terry Foster.
- Despite improvements, Ohio State is still "not sure of" of its best offensive line rotation.
- Michigan State QB Connor Cook said he hasn't made a decision on the NFL and he's focused on this season.
- Penn State is starting to receive votes in the top 25 -- but who's not voting for the Nittany Lions?
- Rutgers coach Kyle Flood doesn't believe in "trap games."
- Injuries have forced quite a few changes on Maryland's depth chart.
- Indiana coach Kevin Wilson knows his team has to back up the win against Missouri.
- Nebraska's back seven needs to do some cleaning up.
- Jake Rudock was listed as the starter on Iowa's depth chart Monday morning, but Kirk Ferentz will undoubtedly be asked about the brewing QB controversy Tuesday.
- Despite Illinois 3-1 record, the Fighting Illini are still searching for consistency.
- Minnesota needs a sharper passing game in its Big Ten opener.
- An early preview package on Purdue's matchup against Iowa.
Today's Take Two topic: Who has the best receiving tandem in the Big Ten?
Dan, Dan, Dan -- let's not overthink this. Michigan has the Big Ten's best receiver in Devin Funchess, but there's really no No. 2 there. Stefon Diggs is an elite talent, but Deon Long hasn't made a huge impact this season. So, let's not get cute with this pick. The answer is really simple: Penn State's Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton.
Now, before the season, I wouldn't have guessed this. Lewis was inconsistent last season, and Hamilton missed his true freshman season with an injury. But you can't argue with their production this season. Only four receivers in the Big Ten are averaging at least 100 yards a game, and Lewis and Hamilton are two of them. Lewis leads the conference in receiving yards (462) and is second in receptions (25); Hamilton leads the conference in receptions (30) and is second in receiving yards (402). How's that for complementary?
But you know what, Dan? Let's forget about the stats. You want a deep threat with great focus and athleticism? Lewis has made several highlight-worthy catches, including a tipped ball he pulled down for a 41-yard gain against UCF. You want consistency and a target on more underneath routes? Hamilton caught a pass in 13 of this season's first 14 quarters. You want clutch plays? Well, on PSU's game-winning drive against Rutgers, Lewis accounted for 76 yards on the Nittany Lions' 80-yard drive. You want a guy who has the potential to grow a lot more just this season? Hamilton was called "one of the biggest sleepers in the Big Ten" in the preseason by his receivers coach and, despite an 11-catch performance in Week 1, Hamilton said he didn't feel 100 percent.
This is a young tandem -- Hamilton is a redshirt freshman, Lewis a redshirt sophomore -- but their ability is not in doubt. We'll probably see these guys a few times on "SportsCenter"'s top 10 plays, and it certainly doesn't hurt that they have Christian Hackenberg throwing to them. So the answer here is an easy one: It has to be Penn State's tandem.
Take 2: Dan Murphy
To make this list, though, he'll need a partner. That's where junior MacGarrett Kings Jr. comes in. The 5-foot-10 speedster has only four catches through three games this season, but he has the physical skills to complement Lippett when he reaches his potential.
Kings missed the majority of spring practice after a DUI arrest and has been playing catch up ever since. Spartans coach Mark Dantonio made Kings scrape his way back toward the top of the depth chart during fall camp. His day against Eastern Michigan was short as well, but he did flash his big-play ability with a 43-yard punt return to set up the first of many scores.
Lippett is averaging six receptions and 115 yards per outing after three games, one of which came against a talented Oregon team that boasts one of the best cornerbacks in the country in Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. He has reached the end zone in every game this season, more than doubling his career touchdowns after starting the year with only four to his name.
Penn State's Lewis owns the Big Ten passing play of the year so far with his 53-yard catch-and-run to help take down Rutgers two weeks, but we're only four weeks (and one league game) into the season. Lewis and Hamilton rank among the top three receivers in the conference in catches per game and yards per game, but small sample sizes make it hard to extrapolate in September.
Lippett and Kings should be able to pass Lewis and Hamilton as the conference's top receiving tandem once they get up to full speed.
The battle for wide receiver duo supremacy is likely to remain between these two programs this season for one main reason -- both pairs have the luxury of a quality quarterback. The league has other talented receivers such as Diggs, Funchess, and Kenny Bell and Jordan Westerkamp in Nebraska, but no one from that group has a proven consistent passer to feed them the ball.
1. The hits keep on coming for Northwestern: First, it lost its star running back due to transfer. Then its top two wideouts came down with injuries, as Christian Jones is out for the season. Now? Quarterback Trevor Siemian is coming off a "minor" leg injury, and DT C.J. Robbins will miss the next game after the Big Ten suspended him for throwing a punch Saturday. He'll only miss the Western Illinois contest, so the Wildcats shouldn't be affected much. But, every week, it seems as if there's more bad news for Pat Fitzgerald's squad. Northwestern continues to make the kinds of headlines it wants to avoid, and it keeps getting harder for the Cats to stop this downward spiral. Maybe that finally ends next week?
2. RU should remove Ray Rice's art from campus -- and be open about it: Yes, Rutgers has been asked about whether it plans to scrub Rice's photos completely. No, it's declined to come out and say exactly what it plans to do, although you can probably read between the lines when a spokesman says the university plans to change "all the art around our program." Here's an idea: Let's just be transparent and direct about this. It's difficult to celebrate Rice's on-field feats at Rutgers after watching that video. And it would be a huge misstep if Rice's photos remained at the football building through all this. Although, as it's been pointed out, at least Rutgers announced such photos would not be at the football stadium ... several hours after it wouldn't say for sure.
3. Oh say, did you see Maryland's jerseys? I don't care how you feel about the Terps, you have to admit these are pretty cool. The new uniforms, which were inspired by the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore and the writing of the Star-Spangled Banner, are now the most patriotic in all of sports. The helmet and jersey even feature the words to Francis Scott Key's "Defense of Fort McHenry," a poem that was transformed into the national anthem. That's the best part, in my opinion. These jerseys would look incredibly out of place at, say, Michigan or Penn State ... or, really, just about any other team in the Big Ten. But at Maryland? It's obviously a perfect fit.
Now, onto the links ...
- Michigan State has proved before that it can bounce back from early-season losses.
- James Franklin and LB Mike Hull weigh in on the large student celebration that happened Monday night after Penn State's bowl ban was lifted.
- Ohio State's pass defense remains a work in progress.
- DT Willie Henry entered Michigan without much fanfare, but he's one of the defense's bright spots now.
- Several Pennsylvania natives on Rutgers' squad felt mostly overlooked by their in-state school, Penn State, and they're using that as motivation for Saturday's game.
- The Hoosiers are looking to "exorcise their road demons" against Bowling Green this weekend.
- Maryland QB C.J. Brown needs to relax and stop overanalyzing, Randy Edsall said.
- Nebraska gives the Big Ten its best chance at being represented in the College Football Playoff, according to the Chicago Sun-Times' Seth Gruen.
- Wisconsin's run game has hit a speed bump.
- Without left tackle Brandon Scherff, Iowa will need to find success running the ball by adopting the "Next Man In" philosophy.
- Purdue's Austin Appleby is ready for his turn at quarterback, if the coaches decide to plug him in Saturday.
- Minnesota TE Maxx Williams has "no doubt" Mitch Leidner will play against TCU.
- A look at how Northwestern is struggling in five critical areas.
- Wes Lunt's slow starts can't follow Illinois to Washington.
- The Detroit Free Press' Drew Sharp thinks shifting demographics -- like the population shift to the Sun Belt -- are what's leading to the Big Ten's failures.
Anthony from New York, N.Y., writes: Who had the worst weekend, Michigan State, Ohio State, or Michigan?
Josh Moyer: That’s a tough one, but I have to go with Michigan. The Buckeyes had a freshman signal-caller up against a strong defense, while the Spartans played arguably the best team in the nation. To me, those outcomes weren’t nearly as surprising as with the Wolverines. This was the final contest in the series against Notre Dame, and the entire game was an absolute embarrassment as U-M failed to score a point and lost 31-0. At least MSU led in the second half, and OSU kept the game close. This was the first time Michigan was shut out in 365 games – that’s 30 years – and it was the most lopsided victory for Notre Dame in a series that dates back to 1887. Michigan State and Ohio State didn’t help themselves with those losses, but those games weren’t historically bad. Michigan’s was.
@ESPNJoshMoyer so, OSU line showed reason 4 concern. Any chance Warriner can get them right this season? D was bad, but O lost that game— Matt Pacholski (@Mpachol) September 8, 2014
Josh Moyer: I was more down on Ohio State after its Navy win than most people, so maybe this answer will surprise you: Yes. Sure, this offensive line still has a ways to go. But it showed improvement in the second half of the Navy game - and the unit didn't perform as badly as the Virginia Tech game indicated. On 43 of J.T. Barrett's dropbacks, the Hokies brought five or more pass-rushers on 34 of them. Frank Beamer blitzed mercilessly all night, and Ohio State just didn't have an answer. Any offensive line would've struggled under that kind of pressure. As Barrett matures and Urban Meyer opens the playbook, they'll be able to make teams pay with that kind of aggressive scheme. But it's just not in the cards right now. This line will get better, and Ed Warinner will get them "right." But it's going to take time.
Josh Moyer: Careful about comparing scores like that, Cal. Those don't mean much. And my view of Rutgers has changed quite a bit since the preseason. The Knights have proved they're far from a pushover. Paul James belongs with the group of B1G backs who sit a notch below the elite ones. Gary Nova has looked good, and Leonte Carroo provides a speedy threat at receiver. So I'd be surprised if Penn State plowed right through this team. I still think the Lions will - and should - be favored, but I do expect a close one. Sure, on paper, the Howard game looked tighter than it should've been - but it was 31-7 at halftime, and Howard scored only when the game didn't matter anymore. (It was 21-0 at Akron-Howard halftime, if you're curious.) Penn State has a better defense than Rutgers' first two opponents, but Rutgers should provide the biggest offensive test for PSU since UCF's Pete DiNovo struggled in the opener. Rutgers will need to force turnovers in this one, while Christian Hackenberg needs to remain calm and not force the ball. It should be a good one.
@ESPNJoshMoyer What should B1G fans do now? I am thinking about learning a foreign language or something.— John Babri (@JohnBabri) September 8, 2014
Josh Moyer: I hear knitting's a relaxing hobby. Or maybe B1G fans could adopt an NFL team or take to watching hockey? No doubt, it's difficult to be a Big Ten fan right now. I wish I could tell you that better times are ahead, but ... ummm ... it can't get any worse? That's the best I can do right now. It's basically impossible for this conference to prove itself the rest of the regular season. It missed its big chance. So the hope has to be this conference can regroup, solidify those weak points (e.g. Wisconsin - QB, Penn State/OSU - OL) and have a strong bowl season. That's quite a while away, but what more can I tell you? In the words of Jeremy Fowler, the whole Big Ten had an "Urban-Meyer-eating-pizza-outside-the-locker-room kind of day." And it won't get any better until the conference can change minds by beating better nonconference opponents, an opportunity that really won't present itself until bowl season. A team like Michigan State needs to win out, gain a playoff spot and put up a solid showing for outsiders' minds to change about the conference.
Here are a few different things to watch for as the Ducks and Spartans take the field at 6:30 p.m. ET.
Michigan State offensive player to watch: RB Jeremy Langford. The Spartans hope to use their running game to eat some clock and keep Oregon's offense on the sidelines, and Langford is key to that. But Langford is dealing with an ankle issue, and Michigan State's rushing attack was a little off in the opener against Jacksonville State.
Oregon offensive player to watch: QB Marcus Mariota. The Heisman candidate has been a model of efficiency for the Ducks over the past few seasons and against the Spartan defense, he’s going to need to be at his best. He’s going to have some tougher matchups with his younger wide receivers. Look for him to get the ground game going -- along with Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman -- for Oregon.
Michigan State defensive player to watch: LB Taiwan Jones. The senior gets his first big test as the team's starting middle linebacker. The responsibility for getting the defense organized and aligned against the Ducks' hurry-up attack falls on him. He also needs to provide plenty of help against the Oregon zone-read. The outside linebackers have to control the edge, where Oregon is so dangerous, but they'll look to Jones for leadership.
Oregon defensive player to watch: CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. He’s going to be crucial for the Duck defense. If Connor Cook chooses to throw at him, he needs to make him pay -- or at least make sure Cook doesn’t make a big play. The Ducks like to blitz Ekpre-Olomu from the corner, so look for him to contribute all over the field.
Michigan State wins if: It can win first down, on both sides. A big key to slowing down Oregon's offense is to get it in third-and-long situations that force the Ducks to pass the ball. The Spartans' defense, which has been so good against the run in the past few years, needs to be at its best on early downs. On the flip side, if Michigan State's offense can put itself in manageable down-and-distance scenarios, it can stick with the running game and control the tempo.
Oregon wins if: Mariota can connect with his young wide receivers and the Duck defense can get off the field in crucial situations. They weren’t happy with their defensive performance against South Dakota last weekend and they struggled with tackling. That can’t be the case if the Ducks are going to pick up a win over MSU.
Outlook with a Spartans win: Michigan State immediately becomes a top College Football Playoff contender. With its most difficult remaining games at home -- Nebraska and Ohio State -- the Spartans would have a real chance to run the table.
Outlook with a Ducks win: Mark Helfrich gets that signature win as a head coach, Mariota is provided some Heisman fuel and Oregon is an early favorite to play in the College Football Playoff.
Outlook with a Spartans loss: As long as they don't get blown out, the Spartans aren't necessarily toast if they go down in Autzen. Remember last year, they lost in September at Notre Dame but would still have been in position to make the playoff at the end, had one been in place. But they would need a lot of help and would have to hope Oregon goes on to have a great season.
Outlook with a Ducks loss: They’ll need to run the table convincingly in the Pac-12 conference if they want to be considered for a spot in the playoffs. Even an early loss could lessen the chances for Oregon depending on how other conferences shake out. The Ducks best bet is to leave nothing to chance and not even have to consider that alternative.
Jacobs started four games last season and led Maryland in both receptions (47) and receiving yards (640), while recording three touchdowns. Hendy made three starts in 2013 and had 32 tackles, two fumbles recovered and an interception.
Jacobs faces second-degree assault charges stemming from a July 19 incident where two Maryland students were allegedly assaulted. Another Terrapins player, linebacker Alex Twine, also was charged. Hendy has not been charged in the incident.
To continue reading this story, click here.
We talked about Illinois’ Red Grange and Minnesota’s Bronko Nagurski. We even mentioned modern players like Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne and Purdue’s Drew Brees. But there’s one guy I feel we skipped over, one player who has never really gotten the due he deserves.
Michigan running back Willie Heston (1901-1904).
Maybe you’ve heard of him; maybe not. BTN’s Dave Revsine wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal earlier this week and mentioned player compensation and past precedents like “Willie Heston Cigars.” Adam Rittenberg recently alluded to the same anecdote, as well. But Heston is not exactly a household name.
Sure, you’ve heard plenty about other old-time legends, like Yale’s Walter Camp and Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne. But what about Heston? Why should you care? Well, Camp named him to four of his All-American teams (two on his first team). And Heston was so good, give a listen as to what Rockne had to say about him:
“Willie Heston gets my vote as the greatest back of all-time. Since those days many wonderful backs have flashed on the gridiron, including Red Grange and my own Four Horsemen of 1924, and my choice is still Heston.”
That’s right – one of college football’s coaching legends just said Heston was better than Grange. That’s high praise. But look at the numbers. In Grange’s career, which spanned from 1923 to 1925, he finished with 2,071 rushing yards, 5.3 yards a carry and 34 total touchdowns. Heston? 2,339 rushing yards, 8.4 yards a carry and 72 touchdowns.
Still not impressed? Well, did I mention most of Heston's rushing stats only came from 17 – let me emphasize that again, 17 – of Heston’s career games, since the NCAA couldn’t confirm numbers from them all? Some estimate Heston actually rushed for 5,000 yards in his career; others go as high as 7,000 yards.
Heston’s on-field exploits read like a comic book hero's. He could reportedly outrun gold medalist Archie Hahn in short races, he helped Michigan win four national titles and outscore opponents – this isn’t a typo – during his career by 2,326 to 40. He went 43-0-1 in four years and was just as tough on defense.
I’ll stop listing details before you start accusing me of hyperbole. But I’m sure by now you’re wondering why on earth you don’t know the Wolverines’ Superman. Well, when Heston played, we were still nearly 20 years away from the official start to the NFL. Heston tried his hand at coaching following his U-M career, then went into law and real estate.
In many ways, his football career – at least the most important part of it – lasted just four seasons. That counts for something when it comes to seeping into the national consciousness. If that's incorrect, Penn State linebacker Dennis Onkotz – who played incredible college ball but sparingly in the NFL due to an injury --would still be mentioned in the same breath as Jack Ham.
My point is simply this: There are a lot of great players in the Big Ten, and there are a lot of unsung heroes. None tower above Heston. And he deserves to be remembered.
Who do you think is an unsung hero? List him in the comments. But let’s move on to more current football now …
- Maryland coach Randy Edsall voiced disappointment with his receiving corps last week. Now? It's a different story in Week 2 of practice.
- Alabama transfer and current Ohio State Buckeye Chad Lindsay is competing for a starting spot at center.
- Michigan State boasts about seven offensive linemen who can be a part of the rotation, but assistant coach Mark Staten wants more.
- Indiana coach Kevin Wilson says this has been the Hoosiers' best summer and believes his team could be poised to break out.
- A closer look at Rutgers' Thursday practice, from the opening song (Jackson 5's "ABC") to highlights of the day.
- Observations from Penn State's practice and who's standing out so far.
- Michigan's Saturday scrimmage will likely have an impact on how the starting offensive line turns out.
- Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda wants to play up to his players' intelligence by asking them to be more versatile. The Badgers' freshman class is already starting to make an impression.
- Northwestern is remaining mum on the surprise transfer of Venric Mark but, the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein writes, "it seems apparent Mark would have faced more discipline beyond the two-game suspension ..."
- Who's going to be Minnesota's No. 2 tailback? Good question -- because the Gophers are still trying to figure that out.
- Purdue hasn't named Danny Etling the starting quarterback quite yet. Right now, it's an "equal opportunity" for all the signal-callers.
- Nebraska junior Givens Price might have found a home as the starting right tackle.
- True freshman wideout Mike Dudek is already impressing on-lookers at Illinois' practices, and one teammate called him the "most consistent wide receiver this camp."
- Without three of last season's top linebackers, the Hawkeyes have plenty of questions at the position -- but they also have plenty of depth.
- Our friends over at Grantland previewed the Big Ten.
Previewing the 2014 season for the Northwestern Wildcats:
2013 overall record: 5-7 (1-7 Big Ten)
Key losses: QB Kain Colter, RB Venric Mark, DE Tyler Scott, LB Damien Proby, K Jeff Budzien
Key returnees: QB Trevor Siemian, WR Tony Jones, SB Dan Vitale, C Brandon Vitabile, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, S Ibraheim Campbell
Instant impact newcomer: WR Miles Shuler. He arrived on campus last year but was forced to sit out a season following a transfer from Rutgers. With Christian Jones' season-ending knee injury, he’ll definitely get some reps at the position -- and, with his speed, he should compete for the one of the spots at returner. After all, he did win the New Jersey high school state titles in the 55- and 100-meter dash events.
Defense: DE: Dean Lowry, Jr., 6-6, 265; DT: Sean McEvilly, 6-5, 290; DT: Chance Carter, Sr., 6-3, 295; DE: Deonte Gibson, Jr., 6-3, 260; OLB: Jimmy Hall, Sr., 6-2, 205; MLB: Collin Ellis, Sr., 6-2, 230; OLB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Sr., 6-3, 235; CB: Nick VanHoose, Jr., 6-0, 190; CB: Matthew Harris, So., 5-11, 180; S: Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., 5-11, 205; S: Traveon Henry, Jr., 6-1, 200
Special teams: K: Hunter Niswander, RS Fr., 6-5, 210; P: Chris Gradone, Jr., 6-2, 190
Biggest question mark: Can Northwestern overcome the sudden losses of leading wideout Christian Jones and top tailback Venric Mark? It was one surprising Wednesday, as the Wildcats discovered Jones would miss the season with a knee injury and that Mark would transfer elsewhere. Before the news, the big question was whether Northwestern could win those tight games. Now it’s just whether Northwestern can win -- period -- without some of its biggest offensive names. This preseason has already gone above and beyond Pat Fitzgerald’s worst-case scenario ... so can the Wildcats overcome it?
Most important game: Sept. 27 at Penn State. It may not be the most anticipated game of the season but, as the conference opener, it’ll set the tone for a Wildcats team that won just a single Big Ten game last season. A win here could propel Northwestern to a 4-0 start and should give the Cats a boost of confidence heading into the heart (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan) of their conference schedule. They'll need it without Jones and Mark.
Upset special: Oct. 18 vs. Nebraska. Motivation shouldn’t be in short supply for Northwestern here, as it would’ve come away with the win last season if it weren't for a last-second Hail Mary. Now the Cornhuskers have a few more question marks on their team -- and Northwestern could be poised to take advantage.
Key stat: In conference play last season, Northwestern was outscored by its opponents 66-30 in the fourth quarter. Actually, building off a number first calculated by WNUR’s Michael Stern, opponents have outscored Northwestern in the fourth quarter by 703-580 during the Pat Fitzgerald era.
What they’re wearing: The Wildcats have purple, white and black Under Armour jerseys, pants and helmets in nine different combinations. But there's no telling yet what Northwestern will wear, since Fitzgerald and the student-athlete leadership council determine, week-to-week, what the Wildcats will be sporting on game day. According to a spokesman, there could also be a surprise in store this season, although nothing official has yet been announced.
All that being said, there are still two new definite additions to this year's uniforms: a new glove and cleat design.
Team’s top Twitter follows: The official accounts to follow include both Northwestern sports (@NU_Sports) and Wildcats' football (@NUFBFamily). Head coach Pat Fizgerald (@coachfitz51) is an active tweeter, but you'll find he mostly just retweets others. Ditto for offensive coordinator Mike McCall (@McCallMick). One Northwestern employee worth following, though, is director of player personnel Chris Bowers (@NU_Bowers) who mixes it up between work and other things. Running back Warren Long (@larrenwong) keeps it light, and freshman cornerback Parrker Westphal (@Optimus_22HB) is also very active. As far as news coverage, you'll find plenty from blogs Lake The Posts (@LakeThePosts) and SB Nation's Inside NU (@insidenu). The award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern (@thedailynu), is also a good bet.
They said it: "Today is a difficult day for our football family and, most importantly, for Venric. We love him, and there is no doubt we're going to miss him as both a person and player. But this is unquestionably what is best for Venric and those closest to him." -- Head coach Pat Fitzgerald, on Mark's Wednesday announcement he's transferring due to personal reasons
Stats & Info projections: 6.59 wins
Wise guys over/under: 7.5 wins
Big Ten blog projection: Six wins. If you would've asked this question 24 hours ago, the answer likely would've been seven wins. Now, with the absence Jones and Mark, it's no stretch to think the Cats will drop at least one extra game. Depending on Siemian's performance, Northwestern still has a shot to be the surprise of the West. But that chance has obviously become more of a long-shot with the recent news. With 16 returning starters, Northwestern should still improve upon last season's finish. But Wednesday's news and last season's performance still has us a bit jittery in picking the Cats to beat out teams such as Penn State and Michigan. That could change, but right now, we're going to play it safe and say Northwestern rebounds -- slightly -- by finishing at .500.
Next up in our series: Maryland.
Key stretch: at Indiana (Sept. 27), Ohio State (Oct. 4), Iowa (Oct. 18)
Breakdown: The Terrapins, if healthy, could end up as a surprise team in their inaugural Big Ten season, but they're likely going to need to get off to a good start in conference play.
Their historic moment arrives in Bloomington, a game that could turn into a real shootout given the offensive firepower both teams boast. Maryland's first Big Ten home game comes a week later with a visit from the Buckeyes. (How much Scarlet and Gray gets into Byrd Stadium that Saturday? Hunch: a lot). Randy Edsall's team figures to be major underdogs there, but there's no better way to make a statement to the rest of the league than by knocking off Ohio State, and the Terps might just have the passing game to challenge Urban Meyer's defense.
Finally in this stretch is another home game, this time against Iowa after a bye week. Maryland has to believe it has as much talent as the Hawkeyes, and winning this one is crucial. Why? Because the next four games -- at Wisconsin, at Penn State, vs. Michigan State and at Michigan.
Prediction: Maryland's schedule is by no means easy -- the nonconference portion includes road games at South Florida and Syracuse and a visit from West Virginia -- so coming out on top in the swing games is vital. Indiana and Iowa are two of those coin-flip contests. I like the Terps to be a little feisty early on in Big Ten play, and I'm going to go out on a limb and say they win both of those games and lose to Ohio State. Whether Maryland can build on that -- and keep its star players healthy down the stretch -- is another story.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The young and curious are approaching Christian Hackenberg more often these days, peppering the Penn State quarterback with questions about game speed and other topics.
It will slow down, Hackenberg tells his teammates. Just keep working. Everything's going to be alright.
Hackenberg is the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year. He's in the spring semester of his freshman year. He celebrated his 19th birthday on Valentine's Day.
He's also a graybeard at Penn State, as crazy as it sounds.
"The guys look at me as one of the older guys, especially the early enrollees," Hackenberg told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "'I still look at myself as the just-turned-19-year-old freshman."
Now the Lions have had two freshman opening-game starters in four seasons. Hackenberg's accelerated ascent isn't a huge surprise given the hype that surrounded him in high school. Anyone who watched him last season, especially in his final performance in an upset win at Wisconsin on the Badgers' senior day (339 pass yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs), knew he was no ordinary freshman.
But after starting all 12 games for the Lions in 2013, Hackenberg has both the credentials and the credibility to claim a larger leadership role in an offense facing significant depth challenges along the line and at wide receiver.
"It's tough to try and claim that as a sophomore, but I'm one of the most experienced guys returning on this offense," said Hackenberg, who passed for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last fall. "What I went through last year has prepared me to be able to step into that role more than if I would not have played or just played a little bit.
"I'm trying to be a leader through my actions."
His actions this spring include absorbing a new offense described as personnel-driven, pro-style. There are similarities to the system Hackenberg operated under former coach Bill O'Brien, especially the protections and some terminology.
But there's also a lot to learn.
"Some games we may come out in heavy tight end sets, some games we might come out in empty sets," Hackenberg said. "It's more multiple."
Hackenberg boasts the strongest arm in the Big Ten and is lauded for being able to make just about any throw. But it's the simple throws -- the underneath routes, which he "babied" at times last season, or the comeback routes -- where he wants greater consistency.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound sophomore-to-be has formed a quick connection with new Lions offensive coordinator John Donovan, whose approach reminds him of O'Brien's. Hackenberg also has been in touch with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr., with whom he worked at the Elite 11 high school camp. Whitfield has tutored other Big Ten quarterbacks such as Michigan State's Connor Cook and Ohio State's Braxton Miller in the offseason.
Nothing is set yet, but if Hackenberg seeks outside assistance, he'd pick Whitfield.
"He's worked with the best of the best the past couple years coming out," Hackenberg said, "so being able to get comparisons to that and see what they did to prepare, that would be good."
Hackenberg also must vary his targets in 2014. Wide receiver Allen Robinson, who had more than three times as many receptions (97) as any other Penn State player last season, is preparing for the NFL draft. There are capable options like tight end Jesse James, who shined during Wednesday's practice, as well as tight ends Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman and wideout Geno Lewis, but none likely can come close to Robinson's production.
"Allen was a guy I really leaned on because I honestly didn't know what to expect a lot of the times last year," Hackenberg said. "I was seeing things for the first time -- going to the Horseshoe for the first time, going against Ohio State’s defense for the first time, seeing Michigan here in a whiteout for the first time. So when you're in those situations, you tend to lean on guys you’ve worked with, and Allen and I worked really hard in the summer together.
"Now I look at myself as filling in Allen's shoes because we have a lot of guys coming in. I just want to be a guy who can help put those guys in situations to succeed. I really want to spread the ball around this year."
New PSU coach James Franklin sees Hackenberg as a smart, demanding player who brings more athleticism to the field that many believe. Hackenberg clocked a 4.7 in the 40-yard dash during Penn State's recent testing.
Franklin and his staff face plenty of challenges on offense, primarily a line with glaring experience and depth issues. But the Lions undoubtedly have their centerpiece.
"He's got a chance to be a special player," Franklin said of Hackenberg. "We're just going to have to keep developing him here over the next three years."
Phase 2 begins this fall.
- Northwestern's Mr. Everything, Kain Colter, is trying to impress scouts at the Senior Bowl. He assumes he'll be a slot receiver in the NFL.
- Here's a closer look at the two Big Ten defensive tackles at the Senior Bowl, Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman and Penn State's DaQuan Jones and where they're projected to go in the NFL draft.
- Iowa TE C.J. Fiedorowicz owes a lot to one specific person who helped nurture his NFL potential -- his assistant coach and the brother of former New England TE Aaron Hernandez.
- Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon played football for the Wolverines in the early 1970s, and that experience helped prepare him his current role.
- Vanderbilt's athletic director opened up about James Franklin moving to Penn State and reflected on their relationship.
- A 2015 Michigan State quarterback commit was charged with assault and battery for allegedly body-slamming a security guard at his high school. Video was captured of the incident.
- Four Michigan State walk-ons earned spring scholarships, including two redshirt freshman receivers.
- With Larry Johnson taking over assistant coaching duties at Ohio State, the Buckeyes' defensive line could end up being "real disruptive."
- A columnist for Ohio State's student newspaper says Jim Tressel would be a "perfect fit" for the NFL.
- The mystery surrounding Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez's injury is over: It's a "plantar plate tear," and it means Martinez won't lose his speed.
- Urban Meyer and James Franklin are building the "SEC North" in the Big Ten, writes Fox Sports' Clay Travis.
- Nebraska tailback Ameer Abdullah decided to stay in school for another season, and that comes as a huge boon to the Huskers.
- Philip Nelson's surprise transfer from Minnesota leaves the door wide open for quarterback Mitch Leidner.
- The son of Ohio State's new defensive line coach, Larry Johnson Sr., discusses the family's move from Penn State and why it was made.
- As part of an ongoing series on Rutgers' transition to the Big Ten, NJ.com's Dan Duggan talked to former coaches about welcoming the Scarlet Knights -- and the New York media market.
- James Franklin isn't right to poach his former Vanderbilt commits ... but he isn't wrong either.
- A way-too-early look at Michigan's depth chart on defense.
- Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard is a physical corner with a chip on his shoulder, and he "should be a good corner in the NFL for a long time."
- Athlon Sports offers early predictions for the 2014 Big Ten season.
- Maryland announced three new additions to its coaching staff, including two-time Pro Bowl wideout Keenan McCardell.
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
12:00 PM ET Purdue Illinois 12:00 PM ET 20 Ohio State Maryland 2:30 PM ET North Texas Indiana 3:30 PM ET 17 Wisconsin Northwestern 7:00 PM ET Michigan Rutgers 8:00 PM ET 19 Nebraska 10 Michigan State