Big Ten: Michigan Wolverines

Butt's return provides options for Michigan

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
12:00
PM ET
Michigan sophomore Jake Butt saw teammate Dennis Norfleet running toward him pointing to the sky and decided to break doctor’s orders. Butt, having just caught his third career touchdown pass last Saturday afternoon, met his fellow receiver in mid-air at the goal line with a flying chest bump. He thought he had earned a brief celebration after all.

"I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but yeah, I did," he said. "It’s not like I have big hops anyways. It was a baby jump."

[+] EnlargeJake Butt
AP Photo/Tony DingJake Butt's touchdown catch Saturday against Miami (Ohio) was the third of his career.
Six and a half months after surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee, Butt found himself back in the end zone. His second of three catches so far this season was good for a walk-in 29-yard score against Miami (Ohio). Team doctors told Butt to avoid any unnecessary risks while his joint rounds back into shape, but he couldn’t help but get airborne to enjoy the moment.

Pushing limits helped put Butt on the field sooner than expected, even in a new era of knee rehab that has turned once-dreaded ACL injuries into surmountable obstacles. The 6-foot-6, 249-pound tight end is still working his way to full health, but his return comes at an opportune time for the Wolverines. Without star receiver Devin Funchess, whose status remains a mystery after missing last week with an apparent leg injury, Michigan’s offense is searching for new options in the passing game.

"We may play more tight ends. It just depends on what we want to do," head coach Brady Hoke said when asked about contingency plans if Funchess can’t play in a key non-conference game with Utah this weekend. "... I think again, you go back to the tight end position with getting guys ready for different personnel groups, I think that’s a positive."

Hoke said Butt’s versatility opens parts of the playbook Michigan wouldn’t be able to use if he remained on the sidelines. He expects the sophomore’s impact to grow in the coming weeks as he ramps up to full speed and loses the restrictive play count the Wolverines have set for him.

Butt made the ESPN.com All-Big Ten freshman team last season after catching 20 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns. The coaching staff considered him a big part of the offensive game plan for this season, even after he hurt his knee in early February.

At the time, the Wolverines didn’t expect to have the sophomore in their lineup until the team started Big Ten play in late September. Butt had other ideas. His maternal grandfather, Bob Lally, won two national championships for Notre Dame under Frank Leahy in the 1940s, and Butt was determined to play on the same field as one of his childhood idols before Michigan’s series with the Irish expired. He set a goal the day after he was injured to play in South Bend the second week of the season. Though he took only four snaps in that game, he reached it.

"Jake was committed to getting on that field for his Papa. That was a big deal for him," said Rob Butt, Jake’s father, who attributes the fast recovery to hard work, a positive attitude, and a knack for mending quickly.

Butt broke a bone in his foot in fifth grade and shocked doctors when X-rays showed it was completely healed a little more than two weeks later. That was about the time he started scouring the Internet for ways to become a better receiver. Butt cut tennis balls in half and taped them to his palms to force himself to catch with his fingertips when his dad threw him passes in the backyard. His reputation for working hard followed him through an all-state high school career in Ohio.

The same attitude led Butt to impatiently grind away at whatever the Michigan training staff allowed him to do during the past six months. He set up camp in the trainer’s office, receiving treatment while he ate or studied or did just about anything else. After rehab sessions, he went home and repeated the drills on his own in his apartment.

"When he got hurt he said I’m going to have the quickest ACL recovery in history," offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. "When you know the kid, nothing would surprise you. Each and every day we’re trying to give him a little bit more. He’s a phenomenal football player."

Butt’s ability to create matchup issues for opposing defenses will make him a key piece in Nussmeier’s offense, especially if Funchess needs more time to return to the lineup. He took a big step forward last weekend with three catches for 59 yards and his touchdown. That return to the box score happened sooner than anticipated for just about everyone except himself.

"I hold myself to a high standard," he said. "Once they called that play, I knew I was going to get into the end zone."

Big Ten Week 4 predictions

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Unanimous decisions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our records:

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

Big Ten morning links

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

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

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

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

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

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 3

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

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

Here's how things shake out:

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nagurski Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

Big Ten morning links

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Around the rest of the league:

East Division
West Division

Weekend recruiting wrap: Big Ten 

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

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

Big Ten Monday mailbag

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

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

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

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

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

One and ten. Get to know those numbers because they'll be shoved down your throat all week.

After the Big Ten's worst two-week stretch in nonconference play since, well, ever, the league sits with a 1-10 record against Power 5 teams and Notre Dame. The season looked so promising when Rutgers upset Washington State in Seattle on college football's opening night.

Since then: bupkis.

So prepare for 1-10 fever. Many of you would expect nothing else from evil ESecPN and its Big Ten-hating agenda. But 1-10 is a fact, and in a playoff-first environment where conferences will be constantly compared until Dec. 7, the Big Ten finds itself in a miserable spot.

So, you ask, is there hope for a turnaround? Sure. There's a lot of season left, and as we saw Saturday night at Boston College, anything can happen in college football. The biggest measuring-up opportunities -- Wisconsin-LSU, Michigan State-Oregon, even the Notre Dame games -- are finished, but the baby-step opportunities remain.

There are several of those for the Big Ten in Week 4. It's not the end of nonleague play, but it's the last full Saturday before conference play kicks off.

No one will confuse Missouri, Pitt, Syracuse, Utah and Miami for world beaters, although Mizzou is pretty darn good (Big Ten expansion miss?). But the Big Ten's Week 4 opponents provide chances for that 1-10 mark to look a little bit better ... or much worse.

Fans have to understand that in the playoff environment, everything is connected. Teams can be both playoff contenders and enhancers for league brethren who carry genuine playoff hopes.

For example: If Maryland beats West Virginia on Saturday, and WVU later knocks off a Big 12 heavyweight or two, Maryland suddenly carries more cache, even in subsequent defeats. If Michigan State beats Maryland later this season in College Park, the Spartans would get more playoff credit for that road win.

The problem for the Big Ten is when you lose almost all of your games against comparable conferences, your league race becomes devalued. Conference wins that could make the difference between getting into the playoff and just missing the cut aren't as impressive because of the opponent's nonleague struggles.

And don't kid yourself: it's all about the playoff now. Don't imprison yourself in a Big Ten bubble and pretend like the national race is secondary. You can still enjoy league play and all the twists and turns from now until Dec. 6 in Indianapolis. But you should ultimately judge this league on whether it's in or out on Selection Sunday. Some of you will disagree, but expecting less than the best is part of the reason why the Big Ten finds itself in this position.

That brings us to Week 4. On paper, it should be a better week for the Big Ten, but the last two weeks have shown us nothing is guaranteed.

Nebraska will beat Miami in Lincoln if it plays like it did Saturday night at Fresno State. But if the Huskers revert to McNeese State form against a Hurricanes team that never lacks talent, things could turn sour for one of the Big Ten's last two remaining unbeatens.

Michigan also gets its Power 5 foe at home, where it has been 11-0 in nonconference games under Brady Hoke (21-2 overall). But Utah leads the nation in sacks per game (5.5) and is tied for first in tackles for loss (10.5 per game), which could be a problem for a still-shaky Michigan offensive line.

Other than Rutgers, Big Ten teams have been dreadful in nonleague road games against the Power 5 -- not just losing but losing big (average margin of defeat: 24.5 points). This week, Iowa travels to Pitt, Indiana travels to Missouri and Maryland visits Syracuse.

Pitt is off to a very good start behind bruising back James Conner, while Iowa hasn't played particularly well in any of its three games. Indiana just lost to an undermanned Bowling Green team on the road, as the Falcons ran 115 plays and racked up 39 first downs. Maryland and Syracuse look fairly comparable, but Syracuse comes off an impressive win at Central Michigan, while Maryland surrendered 694 yards in the West Virginia loss.

A 4-1 or a 5-0 record in these games won't transform the national narrative about the Big Ten. But it will keep the league out of the crosshairs. After all, 6-10 sounds a lot better than 1-10.

But another bad day -- 1-4 or 0-5 -- would make the Big Ten's playoff path even trickier. And the way this season is going, expect the worst.

The Big Ten can't repair its reputation in Week 4, but it can begin the patching-up process and take some baby steps toward respectability.

B1G QBs fare well in Sunday's NFL games

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

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

.

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

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

.

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

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

But let's not get ahead of ourselves here. It might not have been a good weekend for the Big Ten (again), but at least the conference had a good showing in the NFL. At least it's something.

Weekend Rewind: Big Ten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Ten morning links

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
8:00
AM ET
A few thoughts after a wild weekend of football:

1. The revival of Gary Nova under offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen had become a popular narrative, and the Rutgers quarterback did have a decent opening game at Washington State. But Nova's bad tendencies cropped backed up in the 13-10 loss to Penn State, as he had five interceptions and only 15 completions. What I thought was his worst throw of the night -- a ridiculous, on-the-move, throw-across-his-body toss to the crowded middle of the field -- could have easily been picked off for interception No. 6.

Simply put, a senior quarterback with Nova's experience shouldn't still be making those mistakes, and the Scarlet Knights played well enough in just about every other facet to win that crucial game Saturday night. But the same old issues are there with Nova, and Rutgers risks losing the entire team if something doesn't change, Steve Politi writes. That's a harsh assessment, but inconsistent quarterback play has kept the program from reaching its full potential the past few years.

2. I've written it before, but it's beyond past time to eliminate the "ice the kicker" timeout. For one, it's poor sportsmanship, which the Big Ten supposedly treasures. A coach should not be able to call a timeout when no one on the field knows it's happening and just a split-second before the ball is snapped just to make a kicker think more. And the tactic doesn't even work that well, as Kirk Ferentz painfully found out against Iowa State. If the kicker misses the try just before the timeout, he gets another chance, and you're essentially giving him a practice kick.

Ferentz, whose clock management skills have been questioned before, should have used his timeouts more productively. The Hawkeyes let too much time slip off the clock before calling their second timeout during the final Iowa State drive. They could have preserved some time for a possible comeback instead of giving Cole Netten a second life. Netten thanked Iowa for the freeze attempt.

3. Randy Edsall used part of his news conference following Maryland's 40-37 loss to West Virginia to complain about the length of games. The Mountaineers ran 108 plays on the day, and Edsall said it's a safety problem.

“When you continually stop the clock for moving the first downs, I think there’s issues," Edsall said. "All these things that you hear with the health and welfare and safety of the student athlete, I think something has to be looked into and something has to change."

There's probably a decent point in there; for example, I agree that stopping the clock after first downs isn't really necessary, except perhaps at the end of halves. But raising those concerns after a loss isn't the right time. The Terrapins' defense could have cut down the number of plays by stopping West Virginia's offense a few more times and not giving up 694 yards. Bowling Green, by the way, ran a whopping 113 plays in its win over Indiana.

East Division
West Division

And finally, my favorite moment from Saturday ...

Big Ten bowl projections: Week 3

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
8:00
PM ET
The major development in this week's bowl projections isn't that the Big Ten suddenly looks poised for a breakthrough postseason. If anything, things went from bad to worse for the league in Week 3 with a 3-6 record in nonconference games.

So what changed? Penn State is back. For good.

Not only did the Lions improve to 3-0 under new coach James Franklin, but they learned Monday that they once again are eligible for bowl games after two seasons of sanctions. So for the first time since the 2011 season, Penn State appears in the bowl projections. While the Lions have a lot to fix, especially on offense, they're a young, talented team that should improve throughout the season. They've posted two of the better wins (UCF and Rutgers) of any Big Ten team so far, and we like their potential to keep racking up W's.

Penn State is slotted for the Capital One Bowl, which knocks several teams down a peg. There's some shuffling at the bottom of the projections as Minnesota tumbles following its blowout loss at TCU, and Indiana falls out of the rankings entirely after an all-too-familiar-looking defeat at Bowling Green.

We continue to keep two teams in the major bowls as Ohio State rebounded nicely from the Virginia Tech loss to crush Kent State.

To the projections ...

Chick-fil-A Peach/Cotton/Fiesta/Orange: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/Cotton/Fiesta/Orange: Ohio State
Capital One: Penn State
Outback: Nebraska
National University Holiday: Wisconsin
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City: Iowa
San Francisco: Michigan
New Era Pinstripe: Maryland
Quick Lane: Minnesota
Heart of Dallas: Rutgers

Best of the visits: Big Ten

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
12:46
PM ET
Rutgers and Penn State played in what turned out to be an exciting game, right down to the wire. There were a few other big home games for Big Ten teams, which means there were important recruits on campus as well.

Here is a look through social media as to how those visits went.

Rutgers vs. Penn State:

It was a packed house and an exciting atmosphere for Rutgers first Big Ten game. There were a ton of local prospects including No. 5 ranked 2016 target Kareem Walker.


He and the other visiting prospects had good seats to take in the contest, and fellow ESPN Jr. 300 tight end Naseir Upshur gave the fans a look at their view.

This was a big game for both teams, as Penn State heavily recruits the East Coast and New Jersey. The targets for both teams said they are watching closely as to how the programs compete with a new coach at Penn State and a new conference for the Scarlet Knights.

Going into the visit a lot of the recruits said they were hoping to see an exciting game and they got just that.
Maryland vs. West Virginia:

Rutgers wasn’t the only Big Ten team hosting important prospects. Maryland had a handful of big time recruits for the game against the Mountaineers.

While the outcome on the field wasn’t what Maryland was hoping for, getting ESPN 300 athlete Ryan Davis and No. 2 ranked Byron Cowart is a huge win for the program.
Michigan vs Miami (Ohio):

The Wolverines came away with a win on Saturday, and while it wasn’t a huge visit weekend, Michigan did still have visitors on campus.

A few of the commits, including Tyree Kinnel, Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Alex Malzone were able to reconnect on the visit and spend some time at their future home.

Malzone took some video of the trip and gave the fans a look at what it’s like to walk out of Michigan’s tunnel as a recruit on game day.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 3

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
9:00
AM ET
Recognizing the best and brightest from Week 3 in the Big Ten:
  • Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: A week after Barrett's tough night against Virginia Tech, the redshirt freshman bounced back in a big way. He completed 23 of 30 passes for 312 yards and a school-record tying six touchdowns (with one interception, off a tipped ball) in the Buckeyes' 66-0 laugher over Kent State.
  • Michigan RB Derrick Green: The Wolverines struggled with Miami (Ohio) for more than two quarters, but Green's hard running helped salt the game away. The sophomore finished with 22 carries for 137 yards and two touchdowns in Michigan's 34-10 victory.
  • Penn State DT Anthony Zettel: Perhaps the early frontrunner for Big Ten defensive player of the year, Zettel was terrific yet again in the Nittany Lions' 13-10 win over Rutgers. He led the defensive charge with three tackles for loss and a sack while helping control the line of scrimmage. "We couldn't handle him in the second half," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said.
  • Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: It wasn't easy most of the night for the Nittany Lions' sophomore signal caller. He was harassed under a heavy pass rush, and Penn State didn't score a touchdown for the first 58:47. But Hackenberg proved he's the king of clutch among current Big Ten quarterbacks by leading a two-minute drill that led to Bill Belton's game-winning touchdown. Hackenberg finished 25-of-44 for 309 yards and an interception.
  • Nebraska WR De'Mornay Pierson-El: The true freshman accumulated 136 yards on a pair of punt returns in the first half of the Huskers' 55-19 road win over Fresno State. Included was an 86-yarder for a touchdown, the longest ever by a Nebraska freshman. Pierson-El fills a key area of need for Nebraska, which amassed 70 yards all of last season on punt returns, averaging 3.04 yards on 23 returns to rank 121st nationally.
Another rough Saturday for the Big Ten, with just three wins in nine nonconference games. Here's what we learned:
    [+] EnlargeCole Netten
    Charlie Neibergall/Associated PressGiven a mulligan by Kirk Ferentz, Cole Netten nailed a last-second field goal to give Iowa State a win over Iowa.
  • Kirk Ferentz won’t soon live down that decision to call a timeout: Didn’t coaches learn long ago that if they want to ice the kicker with a timeout, call it before the snap so as to avoid the painful situation that bit Iowa in its 20-17 home loss to Iowa State? Ferentz signaled timeout just in time to negate Cole Netten's miss wide left from 42 yards with seconds to play. Thanks for the practice kick, Coach. Netten nailed it the second time. “We had one timeout left,” Ferentz said, “and that’s the reason I called it.” Not a good enough reason.
  • It doesn’t pay to be unbeaten in the Big Ten: Eight league teams began Saturday with perfect records. By early Sunday, it was two: Nebraska, which easily handled Fresno State 55-19, and Penn State, with a 13-10 win over Rutgers in a game that guaranteed the league an unbeaten team for one more week. Meanwhile, down went Maryland and Indiana, on last-second scores by West Virginia (40-37) and Bowling Green (45-42) in early games. Then down went the Hawkeyes, along with Minnesota and Illinois, which were blown out on the road by TCU (30-7) and Washington (44-19) after both West Division squads opened with consecutive home wins over non-Power 5 programs.
  • Ohio State has plenty of gas left in the tank: Left for dead by many after its 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech, Urban Meyer’s club produced an impressive 66-0 win over Kent State. Forget that the Hokies turned around and lost to East Carolina. And forget the opponent. (Kent State is not good.) The Buckeyes were playing against themselves. They answered the doubters, jumping to a 45-0 halftime lead behind five TD passes from J.T. Barrett in the opening 30 minutes. OSU’s young quarterback and offensive line needed this, and the schedule stays manageable for a while.
  • Penn State continues to live a charmed life: The Nittany Lions, after winning in Week 1 on a game-ending field goal and beating the Icelandic volcano eruption to get back home, led for all of 73 seconds on Saturday in spoiling Rutgers’ Big Ten debut. In its first game since getting its bowl eligibility restored, Penn State created some of its own good fortune with five interceptions of Gary Nova, and Christian Hackenberg was his usual late-game self in leading a six-play, 80-yard drive for the winning points. The Nittany Lions likely will enter October at 5-0 and need to be taken seriously as an East Division contender.
  • Nebraska starts to emerge in West: Shaky starts by Wisconsin and Iowa leave the Cornhuskers as the best-looking team in the division. But with visions still fresh of their escape against McNeese State, questions linger. Nebraska pounded Fresno State on the road Saturday night, ending the Bulldogs’ 13-game home winning streak. A nice showing, powered by a handful of big plays, but the offensive consistency was lacking, especially in the first half. Randy Gregory’s return at defensive end made a difference. The competition level rises with a visit from Miami in Week 4 and a trip to Michigan State looming. Time to learn a lot more about these Huskers.
Another rough Saturday for the Big Ten, with just three wins in nine nonconference games. Here's what we learned:
    [+] EnlargeCole Netten
    Charlie Neibergall/Associated PressGiven a mulligan by Kirk Ferentz, Cole Netten nailed a last-second field goal to give Iowa State a win over Iowa.
  • Kirk Ferentz won’t soon live down that decision to call a timeout: Didn’t coaches learn long ago that if they want to ice the kicker with a timeout, call it before the snap so as to avoid the painful situation that bit Iowa in its 20-17 home loss to Iowa State? Ferentz signaled timeout just in time to negate Cole Netten's miss wide left from 42 yards with seconds to play. Thanks for the practice kick, Coach. Netten nailed it the second time. “We had one timeout left,” Ferentz said, “and that’s the reason I called it.” Not a good enough reason.
  • It doesn’t pay to be unbeaten in the Big Ten: Eight league teams began Saturday with perfect records. By early Sunday, it was two: Nebraska, which easily handled Fresno State 55-19, and Penn State, with a 13-10 win over Rutgers in a game that guaranteed the league an unbeaten team for one more week. Meanwhile, down went Maryland and Indiana, on last-second scores by West Virginia (40-37) and Bowling Green (45-42) in early games. Then down went the Hawkeyes, along with Minnesota and Illinois, which were blown out on the road by TCU (30-7) and Washington (44-19) after both West Division squads opened with consecutive home wins over non-Power 5 programs.
  • Ohio State has plenty of gas left in the tank: Left for dead by many after its 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech, Urban Meyer’s club produced an impressive 66-0 win over Kent State. Forget that the Hokies turned around and lost to East Carolina. And forget the opponent. (Kent State is not good.) The Buckeyes were playing against themselves. They answered the doubters, jumping to a 45-0 halftime lead behind five TD passes from J.T. Barrett in the opening 30 minutes. OSU’s young quarterback and offensive line needed this, and the schedule stays manageable for a while.
  • Penn State continues to live a charmed life: The Nittany Lions, after winning in Week 1 on a game-ending field goal and beating the Icelandic volcano eruption to get back home, led for all of 73 seconds on Saturday in spoiling Rutgers’ Big Ten debut. In its first game since getting its bowl eligibility restored, Penn State created some of its own good fortune with five interceptions of Gary Nova, and Christian Hackenberg was his usual late-game self in leading a six-play, 80-yard drive for the winning points. The Nittany Lions likely will enter October at 5-0 and need to be taken seriously as an East Division contender.
  • Nebraska starts to emerge in West: Shaky starts by Wisconsin and Iowa leave the Cornhuskers as the best-looking team in the division. But with visions still fresh of their escape against McNeese State, questions linger. Nebraska pounded Fresno State on the road Saturday night, ending the Bulldogs’ 13-game home winning streak. A nice showing, powered by a handful of big plays, but the offensive consistency was lacking, especially in the first half. Randy Gregory’s return at defensive end made a difference. The competition level rises with a visit from Miami in Week 4 and a trip to Michigan State looming. Time to learn a lot more about these Huskers.

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