Big Ten: Illinois Fighting Illini

Best of the visits: Big Ten

January, 25, 2015
Jan 25
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It was a huge recruiting visit weekend in the Big Ten, as eight commitments had taken place in the conference by Sunday morning. With a little more than a week left until signing day (Feb. 4), programs have put their recruiting efforts into overdrive to try to close out their classes strong.

These visits were crucial to help get some of those big targets to make final decisions, so here's a look at some of the best social posts from those recruiting visits.

PENN STATE:

The Nittany Lions had a ton of visitors on campus, mostly comprised of current commitments. Offensive line commit Steven Gonzalez took a picture with all the visitors and his future offensive line coach, Herb Hand.


The Penn State coaches did land a commitment from one of their visitors in defensive tackle Robert Windsor on Sunday morning. The staff had a few uncommitted prospects on hand, including defensive end Shareef Miller.

MICHIGAN:

The Michigan staff was hoping this weekend would produce a few commitments, and it did just that. The Wolverines had six 2015 commitments prior to the weekend but ended up flipping former Texas quarterback commit Zach Gentry during the Michigan basketball game.


Gentry is an ESPN 300 prospect and the No. 9-ranked pocket passer in the 2015 class. He joins fellow quarterback commit Alex Malzone in Michigan’s class and will help bolster much-needed competition at the position.

Florida defensive end Reuben Jones also committed to the Wolverines on his visit and happens to fill another need on the depth chart.


The Wolverines are still hoping the weekend produces a few more commitments from some of the visitors, including defensive back Chris Williamson.

ILLINOIS:

Illinois had some big visitors on campus, including defensive tackle Jamal Milan and running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn. Both prospects would be huge additions to the class, so it was only the finest ice sculptures and cake that came out for the visitors.

MARYLAND:

The Terps have been on a nice streak of landing commitments, and the coaches continued that this weekend by getting 2016 wide receiver D.J. Turner.

OHIO STATE:

The Buckeyes had an excellent weekend for big visitors, as the visit weekend coincided with the national championship celebration. It gave the recruits a chance to see all the trophies Ohio State won this season while seeing what else the Buckeyes have to offer.

Danny Clark, a 2017 quarterback commit for Ohio State, was on campus doing some recruiting for his future team.


The coaches were doing a ton of recruiting themselves, especially with the 2015 official visitors. Wide receiver K.J. Hill showed off the cookie cake he received on his visit.


Since the 2015 class only has a few pieces left to fill, Ohio State also had a junior day of sorts with some of the top 2016 targets on campus. ESPN Junior 300 receiver Austin Mack stopped to take a selfie with the head man himself on the trip.

INDIANA:

If you haven’t noticed that cookie cakes and desserts are a common theme of recruiting, then here's another reminder. Hoosiers quarterback commit Austin King tweeted a picture of his cookie cake on his visit to Indiana.

WISCONSIN:

The Badgers had a successful weekend of their own by landing two big commitments. The first was defensive tackle Kraig Howe from Ohio, who tweeted his announcement.


The second was 2015 running back Bradrick Shaw, who also took to Twitter to announce his decision.



Howe fills a need for the Badgers and Shaw gives Wisconsin three running back commits ranked as four-star prospects between the 2015 and 2016 classes. The Wisconsin staff is reloading at running back to continue the excellent tradition at the position.

MICHIGAN STATE:

The Spartans didn’t have a ton of big-name visitors on campus this weekend, but the coaches were hosting a very important target for the 2015 class. ESPN 300 linebacker Quart’e Sapp took his visit to Michigan State and took to Twitter to show off his time on the trip.


Sapp would be a huge get for the Spartans, who find themselves in his top four along with Miami, Missouri and Tennessee.

NEBRASKA:

Nebraska’s new staff has hit a groove in recruiting and hosted a big visitor list this weekend, including plenty of the Cornhuskers’ commitments. Offensive lineman Christian Gaylord shared a picture of some of the offensive linemen on the visit in uniform.


Linebacker Tyrin Ferguson also took to Twitter to show his time in Lincoln.


The staff did also have a few targets on campus who were not committed to Nebraska, including Kansas State commit Mohammed Barry.

Nebraska was also hosting a few commitments it is trying to hang onto and convince to stay on board come signing day. That included defensive lineman Daishon Neal, who became that much more important with the decommitment of Reuben Jones.

Big Ten morning links

January, 23, 2015
Jan 23
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Wrapping up the first full week since August without college football. Just 30 more weeks until the games start again:

Oregon State coach Gary Andersen confirmed, in an interview with Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports, that he left Wisconsin last month in large part over frustration with the school's admission standards.

No surprise there, though it was interesting to read Andersen's explanation and the matter-of-fact nature with which he -- and Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez -- spoke about the situation.

"I don't expect anybody to understand it," Andersen told Dodd in reference to making the move to Oregon State. "I don't expect any one person to look at me and say, 'I get it.' But I get it."

Alvarez offered no apologies or even a suggestion that Wisconsin would relax its standards.

Sounds like Andersen and Alvarez were at odds to stay over admissions. The blowout loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game likely provided the push Andersen needed to act sooner rather than later. And Oregon State, after Mike Riley's move to Nebraska, found itself in the right place at the right time to land the coach.

As a result of Riley's decision to leave Corvallis, Andersen, Paul Chryst at Wisconsin and Pat Narduzzi at Pittsburgh all landed in positions to better succeed on their terms ...

The quarterback situation at Michigan is tenuous, with little experience of note among the four quarterbacks on the roster. In fact, Shane Morris, the most experienced of the bunch, is known best for his place at the center of a controversy last September as he returned to play against Minnesota after suffering a concussion.

It appears that Jim Harbaugh is interested in adding another QB to the mix. The new U-M coach, according to reports, visited 6-foot-7 signal caller Zach Gentry in Albuqerque, New Mexico, this week, and Gentry looks set to set visit Ann Arbor this weekend.

Gentry, rated 118th in the ESPN 300, has been committed to Texas since May. (Texas, for what it's worth, is trying at the same time to flip No. 1-rated QB Kyler Murray from his pledge to Texas A&M.)

As for Gentry, it makes great sense for him to consider Michigan. Harbaugh's work with Andrew Luck at Stanford speaks for itself. The coach, a successful QB at the college and NFL level, will be a recruiting force with the nation's top quarterbacks for as long as he remains at Michigan. Meanwhile, Texas represents much more of a crapshoot for Gentry ...

As you may have heard, this happened over the past couple days at Pitt and Penn State.

Fun stuff. In spite of the prevalence of mediocre teams in the state of Pennsylvania, it's great to see the old rivals sparring on social media. Nothing brings out the feistiness in college coaches quite like recruiting, by the way.

Let's allow this episode to mark the start of an unofficial countdown to the renewal of the PSU-Pitt rivalry. They'll play for the first time in 16 years in September 2016 at Heinz Field, then in 2017 at Beaver Stadium, followed by a repeat of the home-and-home arrangement in 2018 and 2019.

The arrival of Narduzzi at Pitt comes at the right time for this. He is, of course, familiar with the Nittany Lions as former defensive coordinator at Michigan State. And with excitement on the rise at both schools, no better time exists than now for a little stoking of the flames.

And how about Herb Hand, the Penn State offensive line coach, with a barrage of Twitter barbs? We won't make more than a quick reference to the 44 sacks for which his position group was largely responsible in 2014. You can bet Pitt fans will take note -- now and for the next 19 months.

Around the rest of the league:
We've been counting down our postseason Top 25 player rankings for the Big Ten's 2014 season all week. There's still a ways to go until we get to No. 1, and I won't spoil who topped the list (it's not that hard to figure out).

These postseason rankings are fun because we base them on actual performance in the previous season, not projections or expectations. But let's do a little bit of those latter things here and look ahead to who might top the player rankings in 2015.

It should be an exciting race, full of star power. Let's start with what I'll call the Buckeye 5, a quintuplet of Ohio State stars all returning to Columbus:

Joey Bosa: The league's reigning defensive player of the year is just a true junior, and after leading the Big Ten in sacks and tackles for loss and nearly winning some national awards, he could be ready for another leap forward. Which is truly a scary thought.

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesEzekiel Elliott could become the Big Ten's top star in 2015 after shining down the stretch this season.
Ezekiel Elliott: The MVP of both the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T, Elliott caught fire down the stretch and finished with more than 1,800 yards. With the Big Ten's plethora of star backs moving on, he could become the new face of the league. Unless it's one of his teammates in the backfield like ...

Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones: Miller finished No. 1 on our player rankings the previous two years, so he'd be an obvious choice ... if we were sure that he'd A) stay at Ohio State, B) resume full health in his throwing shoulder and C) reclaim his old starting job. Barrett was No. 5 in the Heisman Trophy voting this season after a record-breaking campaign, while Jones merely led the team to victory in all three postseason games. No one can say for sure at this point who the Buckeyes' main QB will be in the fall, but whoever it is figures to put up massive numbers for what could be a truly great team.

Ohio State is stuffed full of contenders, and our money is on one of them. But what if they all cancel each other out? Here are a few other candidates:

Michigan State QB Connor Cook: He needs to eliminate some of his careless throws, but no one shakes off a mistake and bounces back with a great play like Cook. Getting him back for his senior season was huge for the Spartans, and he'll have an excellent supporting cast around him.

Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: OK, so much of his sophomore season was miserable. But he reminded everyone of his talent with a 371-yard, four-touchdown performance against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. If the Nittany Lions can block for him, watch out.

Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong: Is Armstrong ready to carry the Huskers' offense without Ameer Abdullah? He threw for 381 yards and had four total touchdowns against USC in the Holiday Bowl, and new coach Mike Riley has a reputation as a strong developer of quarterbacks.

Illinois QB Wes Lunt: A bit of a reach, perhaps, but Lunt missed five games because of a broken leg and battled hurt through others while still passing for 1,763 yards and 14 touchdowns. A healthy, second year of starting in Bill Cubit's system, with top-notch receiving target Mikey Dudek, could equal big numbers.

Wisconsin RB Corey Clement: Melvin Gordon is gone, but the Badgers aren't going to stop running the ball at a highly successful rate. Clement, who ran for 949 yards and nine touchdowns as Gordon's understudy, should see a huge spike in carries and is a leading candidate to top the Big Ten in rushing this year.

Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun: His reputation outpaced his 2014 production from a pure statistical stretch (eight sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss), but Calhoun still is one of the most feared pass-rushers around. The 2013 Big Ten defensive lineman of the year surprised many by returning for his senior year, and he could be in line for a monstrous final go-round in East Lansing.

Big Ten morning links

January, 21, 2015
Jan 21
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Tuesday brought an end to questions about the final spots on the coaching staffs at Michigan and Nebraska.

Both are now full, though at Michigan, the addition of Mike Zordich as secondary coach and Jay Harbaugh as tight ends coach came as no surprise. Nebraska, more than two weeks after Mike Riley unveiled additions to bring his staff to eight, tabbed a receivers coach, Keith Williams, from Tulane.

An official announcement is forthcoming after Williams, 42, spent time Tuesday in Lincoln.



The highlight of the Jay Harbaugh hire came as the head coach’s 25-year-old son revealed that his dad once poured Gatorade on his cereal.

Excuse me, what? Way to set the bar high on your first official day, Jay; we’ll definitely expect more where that came from that in future interviews.

Fact is, Jim Harbaugh could have hired daughters Grace, Addie or Katie, ages 14, 6, and 4, respectively, to fill a spot on this staff, and Michigan fans would have leapt with joy. Such is their level of excitement with Harbaugh, as it should be.

And that’s no knock against Jay, 25, who worked for his uncle, John, the past three seasons as an offensive quality control coach for the Baltimore Ravens. The young Harbaugh looks like a fine pick, especially paired with Jedd Fisch and Tyrone Wheatley on the offensive side and veteran special teams coordinator John Baxter.

If Jay brings a fraction of his father’s enthusiasm, he’ll be a big hit on the recruiting trail.

Back to Jay Harbaugh. It’s interesting that he worked on Riley’s staff at Oregon State as an undergraduate assistant for four years. Not surprising, though, that Jim’s son got his foot in the door with Riley.

The Riley-Harbaugh connections run deep. New Nebraska running backs coach Reggie Davis came to Riley from Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers.

And oh, yes, Harbaugh played on Riley’s San Diego Chargers in 1999 and 2000.

When Nebraska and Michigan meet again in 2018 -- if both coaches last that long and they don’t meet first in a Big Ten title game -- it’s going to feel a little like a family reunion.

Around the rest of the Big Ten:

East Division
West Division

Big Ten morning links

January, 20, 2015
Jan 20
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A week ago, the Big Ten was waking up to a national championship.

1. Defensive end Noah Spence couldn't take part in Ohio State's title run after being declared ineligible from the team because of two failed drug tests. But Spence's college career will continue at FCS Eastern Kentucky, his father told me Monday night. A first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2013, Spence had eight sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss with the Buckeyes. But the first of two failed drug tests sidelined him for the Orange Bowl, and the second effectively ended his Buckeyes career.

The good news: Spence is doing well, according to his father, Greg, and "continues to be open and receptive to all of the guidance that has been provided professionally and non-professionally in regards to those areas of concern." He considered entering the NFL draft and received projections in the third to fifth round, but ultimately elected for one more year at the college level to mature both on and off the field. Greg Spence repeatedly praised Urban Meyer and the Ohio State coaches and athletic department for standing by his son during a trying time.

"He's extremely excited to play football again as well as grateful for another opportunity," Greg Spence said.

Best of luck to Noah Spence at EKU. He's an incredibly talented player. Here's hoping his story takes a positive turn and results in an long NFL career.

2. Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour on Monday night apologized for a recent tweet that characterized the #409 displays worn by Lions teams as "inappropriate and insensitive." Barbour told WBLF-AM radio in State College that the restoration of Joe Paterno's wins total is a moment to celebrate for Penn State fans. She also defended hockey coach Guy Gadowsky, who had been criticized after his team wore 409 decals during Friday's game.

"I don't want him to beat up about this," Barbour told WBLF. "He also got killed by the advocate's side of this, and I think just as we have to understand and be sensitive to the victim side, there also has to be some understanding of why we would celebrate."

Barbour also said Paterno would be honored "over time" but that Penn State would need to be "deliberate" in figuring out the right approach. This is delicate ground for Barbour, who can use her status as an outsider to her advantage in trying to strike the right chord with PSU fans but also project the right image nationally. It's still not an easy task.

3. An early signing period is coming closer to reality as a committee has recommended a 72-hour period in December when prospects can sign with colleges. The early period would begin with the class of 2016, and would coincide with the current signing period for junior-college players. Former Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen supported this schedule when we talked in the spring, and it makes sense to give long-committed recruits a chance to make things official.

Still, the more important piece for Big Ten teams -- and the one league coaches should push -- is earlier official visits. A small window in May or June when Big Ten teams could pay for recruits and their families to visit campus would be huge in expanding the league's recruiting reach. The SEC coaches seem united on everything. Why don't the Big Ten coaches stand together and make their voices heard?

Time for the division dish ...

East Division
West Division

And, finally, the Cleveland Cavaliers should invite Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes at every game. It sure worked Monday night.

Offseason to-do list: Illinois

January, 19, 2015
Jan 19
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The seemingly endless offseason is sadly upon us, so it's time for each Big Ten team to see what needs to be upgraded (yes, even you, Ohio State). During the next week or so we'll examine three items on each Big Ten team's to-do list before the 2015 season kicks off in September.

Illinois leads things off.

1. Establish a vision on defense: Tim Beckman's background is on defense, but his team has struggled to consistently stop anyone during his Illini tenure. Illinois has finished last in the Big Ten in rush defense in each of the past two seasons, allowing nearly 240 rush yards per game in both years. Beckman could hire a co-defensive coordinator to assist Tim Banks, who has been the sole coordinator since 2012. Whatever Beckman decides, his defense needs to have a clear vision and identity. There is some talent and experience there with players like Mason Monheim, Jihad Ward and V'Angelo Bentley, but a unit that can't stop the run in the Big Ten has no chance.

2. Get Wes Lunt healthy and on track: Lunt had 1,569 pass yards and 11 touchdowns in his first five games with the Illini, but he wasn't the same after returning from a broken leg. The sophomore quarterback had just one touchdown pass, struggled with his accuracy, and couldn't stretch the field in his final three appearances. It's important that Lunt gets back to 100 percent and re-establishes the rhythm he had in September. He's still the team's best quarterback option. Illinois' offense will be its strength with weapons like Mikey Dudek, Josh Ferguson, Geronimo Allison, and Malik Turner back in the fold. If Lunt recaptures his early form, the Illini will be tough to stop this fall.

3. Make special teams a strength: Beckman said the special teams units he inherited at Illinois were "as bad as there was in this country, probably." The improvement hasn't been sufficient, as he fired special teams coach Tim Salem after the season. Illinois needs to identify a reliable kicker -- David Reisner and Taylor Zalewski combined to go 9-for-17 on field-goal attempts in 2014 -- and replace standout punter Justin DuVernois. The Illini boast one of the Big Ten's top returners in Bentley, but coverage teams need to be upgraded. Illinois simply isn't good enough elsewhere to have the kicking game hold it back.

Best of the visits: Big Ten

January, 18, 2015
Jan 18
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We are in the final contact period before signing day, which means official visits are upon us. This weekend was an important one for the Big Ten, as plenty of top targets were on campuses. The visiting prospects took to Twitter and social media to document their trips.

Here is a look at the visits from the eyes of the recruits:

It wouldn’t be a visit weekend without cookie cakes, so to kick this post off properly, Northwestern commit Simba Short shared his cookie cake spread while on his visit to see the Wildcats.


Cookie cakes are the way to any recruit’s commitment.

Michigan State doesn’t have much to fill in the 2015 class, but linebacker Anthony McKee is one prospect the coaches would still like to land. McKee took a visit to see the Spartans this weekend and is slated to make it out to Wisconsin and Minnesota as well.


Maryland only had a few official visitors on campus in commit Adam McLean and Oseh Saine, who committed on his visit this weekend.


Offensive lineman Quarvez Boulware also committed to Maryland this weekend, but he came up on an unofficial visit.

McLean took to Twitter to show off the entertainment side of his visit at a restaurant.


While the Terps gained the most from their visit weekend, there is no denying Michigan had the biggest prospects on campus.

The Wolverines hosted ESPN 300 prospects Roquan Smith and Chris Clark as well as South Carolina commit Damon Arnette and defensive end Shelton Johnson.

Smith is the No. 29-ranked prospect in the country and became immediately interested when Michigan hired defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin. The Wolverines vaulted into his top list, and Smith set up this visit to see what Michigan has to offer.


Smith will decide on signing day, and as of right now Michigan will be on his short list for that decision.

The Wolverines are also on the short list for Clark, who was committed at one point. He has UCLA and Michigan in his top two and still has a visit to see the Bruins next weekend before deciding.


The two uncommitted prospects were joined on the visit by a few Michigan commitments, including safety Tyree Kinnel.


The visit was just as important for Kinnel as the uncommitted prospects because Kinnel got a chance to help recruit, but he also got the opportunity to build a relationship with the new coaching staff in person.

Penn State’s big visit weekend won’t be until next weekend, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an exciting weekend for the Nittany Lions. Coach James Franklin posed with Flavor Flav at Penn State's basketball game. Flav later tweeted he has a cousin on Penn State’s basketball team.


Illinois had a good opportunity to get a few 2016 prospects on campus as it waits for a few big 2015 visitors next weekend. Offensive lineman Nik Urban made the trip and tweeted he was too small for his car, a problem most offensive linemen likely have.


Iowa also hosted a 2016 target in running back Toren Young, who took to Twitter to express his feelings on the visit.


Minnesota still has a few big 2015 targets left in this class, and one was on campus this weekend in defensive tackle Jamal Milan. Milan still has a visit to Illinois on Jan. 23 and will make his decision on signing day between the Gophers, Illinois, Indiana and Iowa State.

==To The Airport  for my official visit= at the University of Minnesota ==(=

A photo posted by @bigmanmal on

Big Ten morning links

January, 15, 2015
Jan 15
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Good morning, fans of the conference that's home to the national champs. That's fun to say.

1. Iowa's Kirk Ferentz held an unusual, mid-January news conference on Wednesday because "it was just my sense that we needed to talk." Ferentz understands the negativity around the program after a very disappointing season, and he vowed to do something about it.

His proposed repairs might not be exactly what Hawkeyes fans want, as Ferentz doubled down on his team's offensive scheme and pledged to keep his staff intact (though some roles could change). Instead, Ferentz promised to get more active personally in the film room, something he said suffered a bit as he worked to raise funds for Iowa's facilities upgrade.

This was basically Ferentz saying he planned to roll up his sleeves and get to work, quite possibly armed with a new starting quarterback in C.J. Beathard. There's still not really much outside pressure on the man going into his 17th season as the head Hawkeye because of his massive contract. But it's good to know that the competitive fire still burns inside Ferentz and that he recognizes that things have to get better.

Everything is on the table for Ferentz and Iowa this offseason.

2. Nebraska added a big recruit on Wednesday, both literally and figuratively. Offensive lineman Jalin Barnett (from Lawton, Okla.) is 300 pounds and wears size 18 shoes, which must be a problem at the bowling alley. He's also ranked No. 43 in the ESPN 300 and had offers from all kinds of major schools, including his home-state Sooners, so it's quite the coup for new coach Mike Riley and his staff. My big question on the Riley hire was whether he would have the national recruiting presence necessary to succeed at Nebraska. It's too early to say one way or another, but Barnett's commitment is a great sign for Huskers fans.

3. Missed this from earlier in the week, but Minnesota's governor wants to ban all football kickoffs that happen before noon local time. Neither the governor nor Big Ten member schools have any say in this, of course, because kickoff times are dictated by TV. And the league is richly rewarded by its TV partners, so it has to take the good and the bad.

Still, he's on to something, because 11 a.m. is simply too early for a football game and much, much too early for a proper tailgate. The Big Ten loves its noon ET window on Saturdays, but as the league grows its presence to the East, it would be nice if the conference and its TV partners could throw the schools in the Central Time Zone a bone by letting them have more later start times.

West Division
East Division

Final 2014 Big Ten Power Rankings

January, 13, 2015
Jan 13
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» More Final 2014 Power Rankings: Top 25 | ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

» More 2015 Too-Early Rankings: Top 25 | ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

The 2014 season just ended, but we're already looking ahead to next season. Here are our way-too-early 2015 Big Ten power rankings, which are subject (and guaranteed) to change a lot between now and August.

 

Big Ten morning links

January, 13, 2015
Jan 13
9:20
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The sun rose Tuesday morning over Big Ten country to reveal a conference changed by the events of the past five weeks.

Ohio State’s amazing postseason run, capped off Monday with a 42-20 win over Oregon in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T, shines light on the league in a way unimaginable amid the popular post-Thanksgiving sentiment that the Big Ten did not belong on this stage.

Make no mistake, Monday night was about the Buckeyes, but it helps the entire Big Ten, which suffered from a serious perception problem as recently as two weeks ago.

Now, an offseason of positive momentum awaits. Commissioner Jim Delany celebrated alongside OSU at the sight of his league revalidated by the very playoff that he long opposed. We’ll have plenty of time to soak up the irony of that situation.

First, let’s review a few key points from Monday, with the help of ESPN & Information:

The Ezekiel Elliott storyline threatens to rise above all others from the playoff -- Urban Meyer and Cardale Jones included. Elliott completed his incredible postseason with 246 yards, the third-most in a single game at Ohio State.

The way in which he gained those yards is equally impressive. Elliott rushed for 213 yards between the tackles, the third-most by a Power 5 back in a game this season. He averaged 7.1 yards on inside rushes, gained 10 yards or more seven times and scored all four of his touchdowns between the tackles.

The sophomore gained 171 yards before Oregon touched him. And on 11 of his 36 carries, first contact was made 5 yards or further past the line of scrimmage. He lost yardage on just one rushing attempt.

In the Big Ten title game and two playoff wins, Elliott rushed for 696 yards and gained 20 yards or more on seven carries, equal to his number of long runs in the first 12 games.

What happened to the physically-dominant group of Ducks who pounded Florida State on New Year’s Day? For all the talk about how Oregon found motivation from those who continued to doubt its toughness, the questions were warranted Monday.

Oregon rushed for 132 yards against Ohio State and converted 2 of 12 third downs, its worst rate of the past three years. The Buckeyes, by comparison, were 8 of 15 on third down, gaining 9.5 yards per third-down play.

Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota completed 3 of 10 third-down throws, with three passes dropped, for a third-down QBR of 1.4. His QBR on third down before Monday was 91.9, second in the FBS.

Even in the red zone, a measure of toughness, the Ducks failed. Before Monday, Ohio State opponents scored a touchdown on 73 percent of their red-zone opportunities, the third-highest rate nationally. Oregon, in the title game, was 1 of 4 with a pair of field goals.

Statistically speaking, Jones’ performance in these final three games was unlike anything that even freshman star J.T. Barrett provided for the Buckeyes this year.

You saw his physical running on display against the Ducks, but Jones hurt Oregon even more with his arm -- in particular on the deep pass. The third-year sophomore completed four throws of 20 yards or longer downfield, the most by an Oregon foe this year.

In Jones’ three starts, Ohio State gained 55 percent of its passing yards on his throws of 20 yards or more, compared to 25 percent in its first 12 games with Barrett largely at the helm.

Jones, in December and January, completed 54.5 percent of his deep balls for 414 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions.

So is he an NFL prospect?

More on the title game: Elsewhere in the Big Ten:

Big Ten morning links

January, 12, 2015
Jan 12
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Seriously, what else is left to say? The big day is here. Mere hours remain until the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T.

Oregon and Ohio State take the field in North Texas at 8:30 p.m. ET. (And don’t forget, ESPN offers 12 ways to watch.)

In the meantime, here’s a rundown of some last-minute gameday banter:

The end of the college season always comes with a touch of sadness because of the reality that we must wait nearly seven months before practice opens in August. This year, I’ll miss the outrageous predictions of the Cleveland.com writers nearly as much as the games -- well, maybe not, but I’ll miss them nonetheless.

According to the latest fearless forecast, the Buckeyes will block a punt, force two Marcus Mariota interceptions and get 300 yards rushing from Ezekiel Elliott. I’ll go on record and declare, if all of that happens, the Buckeyes will need an extra seat for this on the return flight to Columbus.

Before this 15th game of the season for Ohio State, I’ll join the party and predict, outrageous as it may appear, that OSU will stop an Oregon goal-to-go situation on Monday night.

Maybe it’ll force a field goal or get a turnover. I’m not going to venture a guess how it happens. But Ohio State will one time keep the Ducks out of the end zone after Mariota peers over the line of scrimmage on first-and-goal.

It’s outrageous, because the Buckeyes have not stopped one such situation this season. I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: OSU foes are 21 for 21 in scoring touchdowns after securing a first down at the 10-yard line or closer to the goal line. Ohio State is the only team among 128 in the FBS to allow a touchdown each time.

The streak ends Monday night.

Upon closer inspection, the Buckeyes own the edge over Oregon in seven of 10 matchup categories, finds Paul Myerberg of USA Today.

I don’t take issue with any of his conclusions, other than perhaps that Ohio State’s running backs deserve the check mark over Oregon, too, after Elliott’s performances against Wisconsin and Alabama.

And I think Ohio State could get the nod at linebacker because of the rise of Darron Lee and strong play of Curtis Grant.

Really, you could pick the Buckeyes in every category but quarterback. That Oregon remains a decisive favorite speaks to the massive value of Mariota and the QB position in general.

Speaking of Ohio State linebackers, keep an eye Monday night on Raekwon McMillan. Yes, he’s a freshman backup who played sparingly in the Sugar Bowl. But McMillan is a five-star talent.

It may happen on special teams if the Ohio State defensive coaches aren’t comfortable to remove Grant against an opponent that will make them pay for even a small mistake. But if given the chance, McMillan is athletically equipped to make a game-changing play on this stage.

More on the title game:

And finally out of the Buckeyes' camp, former Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck is set to fill Tom Herman's spot on the Ohio State staff after the title game.

Some Nebraska fans are scratching their heads at this hire. Beck was a scapegoat in Lincoln for presiding over an offense since 2011 that often appeared to lack an identity. But how much was Beck held back by ex-Nebraska coach Bo Pelini? Possibly, a lot, if Beck's game plan in the Holiday Bowl -- after Pelini had been fired -- provided a glimpse of the offense he wanted to run. Nebraska accumulated 525 yards in the 45-42 loss to USC.

Beck ought to thrive with the Ohio State quarterbacks. (Who wouldn't?) He's a dynamic recruiter with ties to his native Ohio, plus Texas and other areas. And paired with Meyer, an offensive-minded coach, Beck, at 48 may finally find himself on the fast track to a head-coaching job.

Around the rest of the league:

Big Ten morning links

January, 8, 2015
Jan 8
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In four days, Ohio State aims to bring a national championship to the Big Ten for the first time in 12 years. So, with respect to all else that’s happening in the league this week, sorry, it can wait.

There’s a lot clanging around my head this morning about the Buckeyes’ Monday meeting with Oregon in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T.

Here’s a sampling:

Ohio State players and coaches appear confident in their preparation for the Ducks and ready to embrace the role of underdog. And why not? It’s worked well for the Buckeyes in their past two games.

Ohio State players had a few thoughts on the situation. Said safety Tyvis Powell:

“Yeah, well, what is new? We’ve still got a lot to prove. As you can see, we still don’t get the respect that we deserve. I’ve seen some things on the Internet where like 66 percent of the world is picking Oregon. I understand why. Everybody sees Oregon and they’re like, ‘Oh, wow.’

“But it’s just motivation to come out here and make sure we get the job done on Jan. 12.”

Ohio State, 5-0 as an underdog under Urban Meyer, doesn’t need extra motivation against Oregon. But if the Buckeyes can find it by playing the lack-of-respect card, well, good for them. It’s not a viable long-term strategy at a powerhouse program like Ohio State. Until Monday night, though, run with it.

If you’re not impressed by Meyer’s 37-3 record at Ohio State or the two national championships he won at Florida, reassess the criteria you use to evaluate sports. Or life in general.

Meyer continued to wow me Wednesday with his comments when asked about the challenges the Buckeyes face to get up for a 15th game of the season. I’ve met many a college coach who would scoff at the suggestion that his team might be ripe for a letdown with the national title at stake.

Not Meyer. This topic offers a window into his world. He considers every detail and prepares for all scenarios. And I think he’s right to worry about a flat performance -- strange as it sounds -- against Oregon.

As Meyer said, this is new territory. No team in FBS history has played a second postseason game. It’s impossible to know how the players will handle the moment.

A comforting thought for Ohio State: There’s likely no coach better prepared to deal with the uncertainty of the title-game dynamics than Meyer.

A good breakdown here from Fox Sports analyst Coy Wire on five Buckeyes who can beat Oregon. Most intriguing to me is the final pair listed -- co-defensive coordinators Luke Fickell and Chris Ash.

They devised a whale of a game plan last week to help beat Alabama. And against the Ducks, Fickell and Ash will have to be even better. Get ready for the chess match on tap between three of the top young coaching minds in the game as Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost matches wits with the Ohio State defensive coordinators.

Fickell and Ash are both 41. Frost turned 40 this week. Big things are in their futures. For now, they take center stage in the first playoff championship.

A statistical oddity to watch in this matchup: Ohio State, despite its solid defensive numbers, ranks dead last nationally in goal-to-go efficiency rate; its opponents have scored 21 touchdowns in 21 goal-to-go opportunities. Oregon, interestingly, ranks 82nd nationally in goal-to-go offensive efficiency with 30 touchdowns in 42 chances.

Poor performance in this area has done little to slow the Buckeyes on defense or Oregon’s offense. Perhaps, in this biggest of big games, it will emerge as a factor.

More on Ohio State:
And elsewhere in the Big Ten:

Big Ten morning links

January, 7, 2015
Jan 7
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There are exactly 132 hours and 30 minutes until the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T ... but who's counting?

1. PSU defensive coordinator Bob Shoop interviewing elsewhere: According to The Advocate’s Ross Dellenger, who cites sources close to the LSU search, Shoop will soon interview for LSU’s defensive coordinator position.

He’s obviously a long way off from accepting -- or, even being offered -- the job. But it’d still be a big hit for PSU to watch the coordinator who took it from a middle-of-the-road defense in 2013 to the No. 2 defense in yards allowed in 2014. If money is the issue -- LSU would reportedly offer more than $1 million -- then PSU needs to step up. Five defensive coordinators in five years wouldn’t exactly be a plus.

It’s still a slight surprise Shoop is even interviewing. He told me back in August that he'd only leave for a head coaching job. Maybe this is just a move to generate leverage and he doesn’t intend to leave. Maybe he didn’t quite mean what he said. Regardless, here’s that full quote:

“That [head coaching job] is the only thing I'd ever leave here for. I can’t imagine myself ever leaving here for another position at another college anywhere. I mean, you look around this place -- State College is a beautiful place, the people as Coach says are ‘psycho’ about football, Beaver Stadium [is] 107,000 strong. When we went in there last night to scrimmage, even though there was no one in there, I got chills walking into the stadium. And I feel like this is my football family. Coach [James] Franklin gave me an opportunity. He’s been loyal to me, and I really like the guys that I work with on a daily basis -- and I really like the student-athletes I get a chance to work with on a daily basis.”

2. Cardale Jones’ deep ball & Ezekiel Elliott’s inside-running: You already know the pair have really been excelling in those two departments, but you probably don’t know the crazy numbers that back it up. According to ESPN Stats & Info, on passes 30 yards (in the air) and longer, Jones is 5-of-11 with four TDs in the past two games. In 12 games, J.T. Barrett had just 11 such completions and six touchdowns. Jones’ average pass is traveling 12 yards past the line of scrimmage -- 3.3 yards farther than the Power 5 average.

As far as Elliott, here are some more numbers for you stat geeks to chew on: He’s averaging 7.7 yards inside the tackles this season, the second-best average among Power 5 backs, and only two running backs have rushed for more yards since November. He has 992 rushing yards since Nov. 1, including 450 yards (11.3 ypc) in the past two games. So be sure to keep an eye on those trends in the title game.

3. Player uniforms at the national championship: Here’s a look at both in case you missed them. But am I the only one who’s incredibly underwhelmed by the Ducks? Even Illinois’ “Gray Ghost” jerseys -- which I really liked -- had more color.

OK, so the national championship isn’t a fashion show. But Oregon is about as close to that as you can get. I guess I just expected more. All that being said, at least we can all agree that Nike’s excuse for some crooked stitching is hilarious.

Now, onto the links …

National championship
Around the Big Ten
  • Pitt assistant Joe Rudolph could soon be rejoining the Wisconsin staff, potentially as the offensive coordinator, according to Jeff Potrykus of the Journal Sentinel.

Big Ten morning links

January, 5, 2015
Jan 5
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An otherwise very encouraging Big Ten bowl season ended with a thud, as Iowa got hammered 45-28 by Tennessee at the TaxSlayer Bowl on Friday.

There was no real shame in losing to the Volunteers, a young and very athletic team that no doubt benefited from the extra bowl practices and was more excited to be in Jacksonville. Still, the Hawkeyes fell behind 28-0 early and weren't all that competitive from the jump, adding more misery to an extremely disappointing season in Iowa City.

Despite being blessed with one of the all-time great schedules on paper, Iowa finished a meager 7-6. Its best win? Take your pick between at Pitt or at Illinois. The team lacked an identity all season long.

So what now? A season like this should prompt a hard look at making some changes, whether that's on staff or in the general approach to doing things (repeatedly calling long-developing run plays to the outside against a speedy team like Tennessee, for instance, makes little sense). Kirk Ferentz isn't going anywhere, as he still has a $13 million buyout; he'll even receive a longevity bonus of $525,000 on Jan. 31.

Ferentz did shake up his staff two years ago, but he's mostly a stay-the-course guy. After the bowl loss, he insisted the program isn't "going to go down the drain." But there's little question the Hawkeyes have stagnated. Since the 11-2 Orange Bowl season of 2009, they've gone 34-30. They've lost four straight bowl games.

Iowa faces another offseason of fan grumbling, just as it did after the 4-8 season in 2012. There's a quarterback controversy brewing, too, as C.J. Beathard outplayed Jake Rudock vs. Tennessee.

Remember when Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst fired Bo Pelini two days after the Huskers beat Iowa on the road? Eichorst said then that he had to evaluate were Iowa was. When you look at where the Hawkeyes are today, compared to where the rest of the Big Ten is going, it's hard to feel too optimistic.

National title game
Elsewhere in the Big Ten

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