Big Ten: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Watch: B1G Show, 2 ET

October, 29, 2014
Oct 29
5:10
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Join Big Ten reporters Dan Murphy, Josh Moyer, Mitch Sherman and Austin Ward as they look around the conference heading into Week 10.

Big Ten morning links

October, 30, 2014
Oct 30
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A wild November is two days away. Buckle up.

1. Conversation starter: The College Football Playoff rankings are going to change, that much is certain. But as a starting point, the first-ever edition is pretty useful for gauging where the Big Ten sits and what it must do hitting the homestretch over the final month of the regular season. The heavy lifting mostly applies to Nebraska and Ohio State, and the spots those programs hold at Nos. 15 and 16 might have revealed more about the thinking of the selection committee than just about anything else on Tuesday. For starters, at this point, it's hard to argue that the Huskers didn't deserve the higher ranking since their lone loss was at Michigan State and they own a reasonably attractive win over Miami. The loss to Virginia Tech is currently weighing down the Buckeyes, and despite how hard-fought the victory was at Penn State against its stout defense, there isn't much else on the resume right now worth getting too excited over for the committee. But it's important to keep in mind that even with all those teams standing between Nebraska and Ohio State and a playoff berth, there is a lot of football left to play -- and if either of them can win out, it still seems likely that a one-loss Big Ten champ is going to climb enough rungs to get into the field. Only one of those teams can do it since they would face off in the conference title game, but the Big Ten as a league remains very much alive in the race for the national crown.

2. Bucking up: J.T. Barrett isn't completely healthy yet on his sprained knee, but the Ohio State quarterback made it clear after practice on Wednesday that he was on track to play on Saturday night against Illinois. Considering what's looming for the Buckeyes on Nov. 8 at Michigan State, though, it might be best for Urban Meyer to get him out of the game as early as possible to make sure he's in one piece for such a critical matchup with both the Big Ten and national-title implications. Like any week, nothing can be taken for granted, and Illinois has put together some decent game plans on defense and is coming off an upset win over Minnesota. But if the Illini do live up to their billing as the worst total defense in the league in the Horseshoe this weekend, Meyer would be wise not to leave Barrett on the field into the fourth quarter behind backup offensive linemen in an effort to get him extra reps like he did two weeks ago against Rutgers. The stakes are too high, and Michigan State is more than capable of beating the Buckeyes again even if they're at full strength.

3. Under-the-radar matchup: Basically from here on out, the West will have a matchup every week that could serve as an elimination game for the division title. The undercard for a heavyweight November starts with Northwestern visiting Iowa, which isn't exactly a showdown between leading contenders but will nevertheless leave one team in the race and essentially knock the other out. The Hawkeyes have had an extra week to address the issues that popped up in a loss at Maryland that cut down on their margin for error in the rough-and-tumble West. Playing at home will also be an advantage for Kirk Ferentz and his club. Northwestern has been something of a wildcard, though, and it already has gone on the road and come home with a surprising victory after taking apart Penn State in late September. The Wildcats do have two losses in the league already, and they don't have much going for them in a theoretical tiebreaker should they win out. But they're not all that different than the Hawkeyes at this point -- and the loser on Saturday will effectively be out of the race.

East Division
  • Jabrill Peppers has obviously not had the season anybody envisioned for Michigan, and Brady Hoke admitted the freshman is frustrated.
  • Mark Dantonio is only focused on taking care of business with Michigan State after the first rankings were unveiled.
  • Thanks to an injury to veteran safety Ryan Keiser, Penn State will take the redshirt off Troy Apke.
  • Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova took another step forward, but his status remains unclear for this week's game against Wisconsin.
  • Maryland started its preparation for Penn State in the summer by breaking down Vanderbilt film, looking for ways to get pressure on Christian Hackenberg.
  • J.T. Barrett left no doubt about his intentions this week for Ohio State.
  • Word continues to spread about Indiana running back Tevin Coleman.
West Division
  • Nebraska has received a boost for its offensive line off the bench.
  • Where does Minnesota's loss at Illinois rank among the most deflating for the program over the last 15 years?
  • Reilly O'Toole remembers vividly the noise at Ohio Stadium two seasons ago. The Illinois quarterback will actually have a chance to play in front of that crowd this time.
  • Wisconsin has already had success in the past recruiting New Jersey. Putting on a good show at Rutgers might open up a few more doors.
  • Iowa is fed up with poor tackling, and it has made cleaning it up a priority this week.
  • Statistically, Northwestern has plenty in common with Iowa.
  • Raheem Mostert is running down a record at Purdue.
Champions are made in November. That's the same for individual award winners. But as we close the book on October in the Big Ten, several players have already built strong foundations for their awards push.

We're tracking the offensive and defensive player of the year races every week. And this week's bonus category is offensive lineman of the year.

Here we go:

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah (five first-place votes): Abdullah had been overtaken in our poll by Melvin Gordon in recent weeks, but he's back on top after he broke the Nebraska record for all-purpose yards versus Rutgers. This race should last all year.

2. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon (one first-place vote): Gordon did nothing wrong in running for 122 yards and three scores against Maryland last week. It's just that his competition is steep.

3. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: He and the Hoosiers were off last week. He will try to keep his streak of 100-yard games going at Michigan on Saturday.

4 . Michigan State WR Tony Lippett: He had his fourth straight 100-yard day and sixth of the season against Michigan, while recording his Big Ten-best ninth touchdown catch.

5. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: The Buckeyes freshman didn't have his best day at Penn State. But battling through a knee injury and leading the team to two scores in overtime was very impressive.

Also receiving votes: Minnesota RB David Cobb

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa (six first-place votes): He came up with the walk-off sack at Penn State and won his first Big Ten defensive player of the week award. It likely won't be his last.

2. Penn State LB Mike Hull: Inexplicably left off the Butkus Award semifinalist list, Hull leads the Big Ten in tackles and was sensational against Penn State with 19 stops.

3. Nebraska DE Randy Gregory: Despite missing some time earlier this year, he still has 5.5 sacks and is a holy terror to block.

4. Iowa DE Drew Ott: With the Hawkeyes off, Ott fell out of the Big Ten sacks lead. But he still has seven in as many games

5. Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun: He was a little quiet early in the season, but the defending Big Ten defensive lineman of the year has come on strong of late and has six sacks on the season.

Also receiving votes: Penn State DT Anthony Zettel; Wisconsin LB Derek Landisch; Maryland CB William Likely.

Rimington–Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year

1. Michigan State LT Jack Conklin (six first-place votes): We unanimously agrees that the Spartans sophomore, who had no other Division I scholarship offers out of high school, is the Big Ten's best offensive lineman so far this year. What a great story.

2. Ohio State LT Taylor Decker: The Buckeyes' O-line has made great improvement since early in the season, and Decker is the anchor at left tackle. That's why he is somewhat surprisingly ahead of ...

3. Iowa LT Brandon Scherff: The Hawkeyes senior probably still will be an early first-round draft pick, and he made the ESPN midseason All-American team. But he and the Iowa line have been disappointing, especially last time out against Maryland.

Big Ten bowl projections: Week 9

October, 28, 2014
Oct 28
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Tuesday nights have become rather significant in college football with the release of the playoff selection committee's rankings. As a result, bowl projections also move to Tuesdays and will be released immediately after the committee's rundown.

Last week, we projected Maryland to the Holiday Bowl based on merit, while noting that the Terrapins would have to prove themselves again at Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin ended up mauling Maryland, so the Badgers move up the projections. Remember: the Big Ten is taking greater control over bowl pairings this season, so the teams that have earned it on the field, not necessarily those with the largest fan bases, will land in the higher-profile games.

We had a brief discussion about projecting Michigan State or Ohio State to the playoff, but a few more things need to break the Big Ten's way. There's a good chance the winner of the Nov. 8 showdown at Spartan Stadium moves up a rung, but we're not ready to pull the trigger.

We also discussed whether to project Illinois to its first bowl game under coach Tim Beckman after a big home win against Minnesota. The Illini only need two more wins, but we need to see a little more.

Maryland and Rutgers move down after losses. Penn State, meanwhile, actually moves up after taking Ohio State to the brink before falling in two overtimes.

Here are the latest projections:

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

Best of Week 10 Big Ten conference call

October, 28, 2014
Oct 28
3:29
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Questions were asked. Coaches had answers. Here are a few of the highlights from this week's Big Ten conference call.

By the way, if you’re not following us on Twitter, what are you waiting for? Follow along at @ESPNRittenberg, @BennettESPN, @ESPNJoshMoyer, @DanMurphyESPN, @MitchSherman and @AWardESPN.

Big Ten morning links

October, 28, 2014
Oct 28
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You know the drill: Coffee first. Notes and observations here second. And links at the bottom third.

1. Iowa transfer?: It appears as if freshman wideout Derrick Willies might have played his last game for the Hawkeyes. He posted a cryptic message on his Instagram Monday night that read, "It's been real Iowa, things are just moving on to a different chapter in the story..." A Hawkeyes spokesman told the Des Moines Register that any roster updates would be addressed by coach Kirk Ferentz on Tuesday. Willies was not listed on the team's Monday depth chart.

2. Hoke domino effect: Brady Hoke says no one's talked to him about his job status, and that kind of uncertainty is not what you want to hear when it comes to recruiting. As a result, ESPN 300 DB Garrett Taylor decommitted from the Wolverines on Monday. And U-M will be lucky if he's the last recruit to decommit. Oft-given advice is for a player to commit to a school, not a coach, but it rarely seems to work out that way. Michigan is down to nine commitments right now.

3. No Nova?: Rutgers senior QB Gary Nova is listed as "questionable" for Saturday's game against Wisconsin, which means redshirt freshman Chris Laviano could be in line for his first career start. Laviano could push Nova for time, regardless, as he outplayed Nova in the Nebraska game and even led his team with 54 rushing yards. But I'm more in line with the thinking of NJ.com's Dan Duggan: If Nova is medically cleared, he should play. A one-game sample size isn't enough to vault Laviano over Nova, who's been pretty good this year. Nova still gives the Scarlet Knights their best chance to win.

East Division
  • The chance for pride in Michigan's season vanished on Saturday, writes the Detroit Free Press' Mark Snyder.
West Division

B1G early look: Setting up Week 10

October, 27, 2014
Oct 27
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Just one game short of a full schedule in the Big Ten as the calendar turns to November for Week 10. Michigan State and Minnesota are off, though not out of our minds. Here’s an early look at the best of the league’s storylines:

The College Football Playoff rankings are coming out. Cue the Big Ten cries and anger. The 12-member playoff committee is meeting in Dallas -- so exciting -- and set to release on Tuesday its first list of 25 teams, the top four of which will eventually create matchups for our New Year’s Day semifinals. Let me remove some of the suspense for you: The Big Ten is going to be on the outside looking in. Michigan State figures to fit into the top 10, with Ohio State and Nebraska among the top 20. If you have a short memory, here’s what happened on Sept. 6. It looms large in the lack of respect this league receives nationally. All is not lost, though, as SEC and Pac-12 and Big 12 teams continue to knock each other from the top. Six weeks remain for one of the Big Ten’s top three teams to climb toward the top. It could happen.

What will happen next at Michigan? Just when you thought the season couldn’t get any worse for Brady Hoke and his team, Saturday happened. Not the 35-11 loss at Michigan State. That was expected. And hey, the Wolverines rushed for 61 yards -- 109 better than a year ago. But before the game, Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden drove a stake through the turf at Spartan Stadium. Not a good idea. Later, the Michigan Daily, the U-M student newspaper, gave up on the game. Ouch. So have the fans, especially the students, given up on the Wolverines? It will be interesting to see what happens in the seats at the Big House on Saturday as Indiana visits.

The Rutgers quarterback situation. The Scarlet Knights ranked as the top feel good story in the first half of the Big Ten season. Commonly picked to finish last in the East Division and miss a bowl game, Rutgers raced to a 5-1 start behind a solid defense and revitalized quarterback Gary Nova. But on Saturday at Nebraska, Nova went down with a knee injury late in the the first half as Rutgers -- instructed by coach Kyle Flood -- aggressively tried to drive the entire field, down 21-7 with one minute to play. Redshirt freshman Chris Laviano took over as Nova missed the second half. His status is uncertain for Saturday at home against Wisconsin. The rest of this season for Rutgers goes as Nova goes. It could win two more games and even push the Badgers if Nova is healthy. Without Nova, a crash-and-burn scenario is possible. Don't book the bowl trip yet.

On Wisconsin. Just like that, the Badgers are back. Sure, that loss at Northwestern still stings. But Wisconsin looked like a re-energized group in dispatching Maryland 52-7 on Saturday. And now, it’s got trips to Rutgers and Purdue before a big game in Madison on Nov. 15 against Nebraska opens the crucial three-game finish. It’s all out there for Gary Andersen’s team. With Melvin Gordon running the football and the quarterback situation apparently resolved, the Badgers are rounding into the team that ought to strike fear into the rest of the West -- and might just serve as the division’s best shot to beat Michigan State or Ohio State in Indianapolis.

The Under the Radar Bowl in Iowa City. Iowa and Northwestern sat out in Week 9, giving our short memories just enough time to forget about them. Not long ago, the Hawkeyes and Wildcats were contenders in the West. Then Iowa lost at Maryland, and Northwestern fell apart in the second half against Nebraska. The winner of this game remains in the mix, especially if it’s Iowa, which visits vulnerable Minnesota next week and gets Wisconsin and Nebraska at home to finish. But beware of Northwestern. It has won six of the past nine games in this series.

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

October, 27, 2014
Oct 27
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Rutgers and Maryland both got off to nice starts in their first season in the Big Ten. But reality is beginning to set in for both programs.

The Scarlet Knights beat Michigan and the Terrapins notched a solid victory over Iowa earlier this season. So both teams have been more than competitive and should go bowling. Yet hanging with the Big Ten's best teams in the league's toughest environments is another story entirely.

Rutgers fell to Nebraska 42-24 on Saturday in Lincoln, a week after losing 56-17 at Ohio State. Maryland got hammered by Wisconsin 52-7 in Madison and lost 52-24 earlier this season to Ohio State at home. The Terps were outgained by a total of 575 yards in those two blowout defeats, while the Scarlet Knights gave up 616 rushing yards to Ohio State and Nebraska.

Many Big Ten teams would suffer the same fates in those stadiums and against those opponents, so this is not really a knock on the newbies. It's just a reminder that while both Maryland and Rutgers are far from Big Ten bottom-feeders, they're not all that close to the cream of the crop, either. And both still have to play Michigan State.

[+] EnlargeDrew Meyer
Dan Sanger/Icon SportswireBadgers punter Drew Meyer tosses a pass during Saturday's Week 9 game against Maryland.
On to the Week 9 rewind:

Team of the week: Illinois. Like many others, we have given Tim Beckman a hard time. But he has always struck me as a decent guy who really cares about his players, and his joy for them was evident after the Illini upset Minnesota on Saturday. It was the program's first Big Ten home win since October 2011, incredibly. As bad as things have seemed in Champaign this season, especially after the home loss to Purdue, Illinois is still 4-4. A bowl game -- and another year for Beckman -- is still in play.

Biggest play: V'Angelo Bentley's 12-yard fumble return with 6:33 left provided the winning score for Illinois. It was sad to see David Cobb cough up such a big mistake since he's had an amazing season and has carried Minnesota's offense on his back, including on Saturday.

Coolest play: Never sleep on the punter. Well done, Wisconsin's Drew Meyer.

Worst play: Uh, not so well done, Devin Gardner.

Big Man on Campus (offense): Ameer Abdullah set a Nebraska record with 341 all-purpose yards. I think he blew up all the red balloons before the game, too. We're running out of superlatives for this guy.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Several Penn State defensive players were great, including Mike Hull and Anthony Zettel. But when the game was on the line in State College, guess who came through? No, don't just shrug. Take a bow, Joey Bosa.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Ohio State's Cameron Johnston averaged 45 yards on six punts and had four of them downed inside the 20, including a pair inside the Penn State 10-yard line in the fourth quarter.

Biggest faceplant: Minnesota was angling toward a 7-1 start and starting to gain some national respect before it lost to an Illinois team that had lost 24 of its previous 25 Big Ten games. For a second straight week, the Gophers fell behind early, and it's not a team built to play that way. With the closing foursome of Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska and at Wisconsin still left, Jerry Kill's team needs to regroup quickly or risk losing some serious steam.

Dumbest stake-plant: Well, duh. If you're keeping track, Michigan's ratio of wins to public apologies this season stands at 3-to-2. What a bizarre year in Ann Arbor.

Fun with numbers: Budget some extra time if you're going to Beaver Stadium for a league matchup. Five of Penn State's last seven Big Ten home games have gone into overtime. ... Michigan's fourth-quarter touchdown against Michigan State was its first versus the Spartans in 186:08 of game action, dating back to the fourth quarter of the 2011 game. ... Abdullah now ranks second in Big Ten history with 6,604 career all-purpose yards. He needs 825 more to break Ron Dayne's record, and with four more regular-season games plus a bowl (and a possible Big Ten title game) he should get there. ... Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon has five games with at least three rushing scores over the past two seasons, the most among all Power 5 conference players. His 15 touchdowns in his last five games ties Billy Marek (1974) for the school record for most scores in a five-game stretch.

Big Ten morning links

October, 27, 2014
Oct 27
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Does the Big Ten have a credibility problem with its officiating?

We're just two years removed from a very poor year by the league officials. And on Saturday night, the crew working the Ohio State-Penn State game was involved with several head-scratching -- and at times, just plain botched -- calls. "Clownish" is how PennLive.com's David Jones described the refereeing in State College, and it's hard to argue against that wording.

For years, fans have long accused the league of protecting its brand-name teams and have theorized that those schools get the benefit of the whistle. That's a bit too much tinfoil-on-the-head, conspiracy-mongering for me. After all, Michigan lost at Rutgers earlier this season in part because of a bad call on a Wolverines' pass that should have been ruled a completion.

But it's also true Ohio State got some breaks in its overtime win Saturday, most notably on the interception by Vonn Bell that actually hit the ground and on a field goal that came clearly after the play clock had expired. James Franklin had to hold himself back from saying what he really thought about those calls.

ESPN.com asked the league to clarify what happened on the Bell interception, after the officials told a pool reporter Saturday night that there were technical difficulties on the replay. The Big Ten's response:
"[T]he video feed to the replay booth was tested and confirmed on Friday and prior to the game on Saturday, but at the start of the game, the booth was no longer receiving all available feeds. The technician in the booth followed procedure by contacting the production truck, which immediately began working on the issue. Due to these technical difficulties, only one isolated shot from the overhead camera was available and the view did not provide sufficient information to reverse the call. As a result, the play stood as called. The production truck rectified the technical issues shortly thereafter, and the replay booth had access to multiple feeds for the remainder of the game."

And the league office also responded about the no delay-of-game penalty before that field goal:
"In this case, a breakdown in officiating mechanics occurred and the crew failed to properly monitor the play clock. There is flexibility for a slight delay between the play clock and the snap of the ball, but in this case, the timing far exceeded the tolerance for normal play clock procedures. The proper ruling should have been a five-yard penalty for delay of game. This is not a reviewable play."

It's good that the Big Ten provided some explanations here and that the league admitted a failure on the missed delay-of-game. That may not be enough for some fans who find it convenient those breakdowns happened to help one of the conference's remaining playoff contenders.

I don't believe there's a conspiracy in play. But I do believe the Big Ten needs to continue to demand better from its officiating, because it was far from acceptable on Saturday night.

East Division
West Division

Finally: RIP, Oscar Taveras. Incredibly sad.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 9

October, 26, 2014
Oct 26
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Observations from an illuminating Saturday in the Big Ten:

Shake up the West: The leader going into the weekend might have been exposed as a pretender. A preseason favorite written off after an early loss turned in perhaps the most impressive overall performance in the league all year. Sandwiched between Minnesota’s stumble at Illinois and Wisconsin’s rebirth against Maryland, Nebraska simply handled its business without incident as the West Division came into somewhat clearer focus, as we head into what could be a crazy November in that half of the conference. As Wisconsin’s ability to right the ship proved, it can be dangerous to discount any program in the West after they lose just once. But the Gophers have a murderous slate ahead of them after their bye next week, and falling to the Illini doesn’t leave much reason to consider them a legitimate contender down the stretch now. On the flip side, with some improvements in the passing game, the Badgers are rounding into form offensively and can be a truly terrifying matchup when a defense can’t just focus on Melvin Gordon. Nebraska might not be thrilled to allow 24 points to Rutgers, but it was never really threatened -- and the stage might be set for a huge clash with the Badgers on Nov. 15.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsJ.T. Barrett and the Buckeyes can learn from their mistakes after squeaking by Penn State on Saturday.
Buckeyes not a finished product just yet: J.T. Barrett is resilient, tough and mature enough as a redshirt freshman to go on the road and win in a hostile environment in overtime. All of those are positives for the Ohio State quarterback, obviously, but maybe it was a bit premature to think he and his young counterparts on offense were all grown up after they rolled over Rutgers and Maryland. Penn State’s tenacious defense gave Urban Meyer’s attack all it could handle, and though Barrett appeared slowed at times by a knee injury, he struggled for the first time since the loss to Virginia Tech with his decision-making and his accuracy, as a 17-point lead vanished and put Ohio State’s chances of climbing back into the College Football Playoff on the ropes. The end result is all that ultimately matters heading into November, and in some ways Ohio State might feel it has two weeks to get ready for Michigan State, given the weakness of the Illinois defense. But the Buckeyes are going to face another tough test on the road against the Spartans, and they’ll need to be sharper with the football.

Michigan State keeps rolling: A sluggish start had to be overcome, and an ejection actually needed to be overturned to ensure the roster stayed in one piece, but the Spartans ultimately stayed right on track for the Nov. 8 showdown with Ohio State. Jeremy Langford relentlessly pounded away at Michigan on the ground, the opportunistic defense chipped in another touchdown and Michigan State appeared to stay relatively healthy heading into a bye week that comes at a good time with the de facto East Division title game looming. The Wolverines aren’t the stoutest competition, at least not for a College Football Playoff contender, but Mark Dantonio and his club kept their focus and emotions in check to keep the train rolling along into the final month of the regular season.

Flying Illini: The writing appeared to be on the wall a few weeks ago, but Tim Beckman applied a fresh coat of paint to his tenure with an upset win at home over Minnesota. The Illini coach might not be completely in the clear, given that was just the second Big Ten victory of his career, but he deserves credit for the gutty defensive effort his team turned in and the way the offense has responded without Wes Lunt available at quarterback. Even the loss to Purdue doesn’t look quite so bad as it once did, thanks to improvement from that team as well. And now, with a .500 record through eight weeks, earning a bowl bid isn’t out of the question for Illinois. One win doesn’t magically fix everything, but it might help Beckman buy more time with the program.

Gophers grounded: Minnesota isn’t suddenly going to become a pushover down the stretch, not with its stout defense and a powerful rushing attack led by David Cobb at its disposal. With every team in the West Division having lost a game, it can’t be ruled out quite yet as a contender, either. But if it’s going to navigate a closing stretch that includes home games with Iowa and Ohio State followed by consecutive road trips to Nebraska and Wisconsin, Jerry Kill’s team is going to need to find some consistency through the air. Mitch Leidner has proven his toughness while battling injuries this season, and on occasion Saturday, the quarterback looked more than capable of making difficult throws against the Illini. But he didn’t do it often enough, and completing 12 of 30 passes isn’t going to be good enough for the Gophers late in the year. Finding some answers will no doubt be an emphasis during the upcoming bye week.

Video: Illinois 28, Minnesota 24

October, 25, 2014
Oct 25
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video
The Fighting Illlini overcame a late deficit to earn their first Big Ten win of the season in a 28-24 victory over the Golden Gophers.

Big Ten Friday mailbag

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
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It's been too long since I answered your emails, but there's no better way than that to start off the weekend. What's on your mind, B1G boys and girls?

Brian Bennett: I know this: Penn State just doesn't have the talent on the offensive line to field a strong conventional running game or to consistently protect Christian Hackenberg. Actually, we all know this, after watching the Nittany Lions' games.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I wonder if doing some new things -- have Hackenberg in the shotgun a lot more for quick throws, go to more spread concepts and hurry up, etc. -- would help matters. We've seen how Michigan has tried and failed to run a pro-style offense with a bad O-line and only has had any real success by spreading things out. James Franklin and John Donovan are much smarter than me, however, and I'm sure they know why this would or wouldn't work. Ultimately, there may not be too much you can do to overcome offensive line issues as problematic as Penn State's. But I wouldn't be surprised to see them try some new things.

Brian Bennett: Ah, yes. It's the old blame-the-coordinator game. Well, if you're going to say the Badgers' passing-game problems lie at the feet of Andy Ludwig, then you also have to give Ludwig credit for a rushing attack that's averaging 343 yards per game and a ridiculous 7.4 yards per carry, which is currently .01 yards per carry off the FBS record.

Of course, Ludwig has Melvin Gordon to call on when running the ball compared to a pair of up-and-down quarterbacks and wildly inexperienced receivers when he wants to throw the ball. I'm not saying Wisconsin coaches shouldn't take criticism for not having built a reliable passing game in what amounts to a season-and-a-half now; at some point, we're going to need to see some strides being made there in both recruiting and development. But let's just agree that for now, Russell Wilson isn't walking through that door.


Adam J. from Leesburg, Va., writes: As a Rutgers fan, I wonder if I am wrong in thinking the brutal schedule they have this year isn't a good thing. They needed to know just how hard it is to be an elite football program, and not think that they are in the AAC anymore. By getting smoked for the next year or two, it will help them commit to recruiting and updating their facilities down the road. What do you think?

Brian Bennett: That's an interesting way of looking at it, though I don't think the increased competition level in the Big Ten is a news flash to Kyle Flood and his staff. The Scarlet Knights have been very competitive in every game save for last week's blowout loss at the Horseshoe, a place where a lot of teams will have some bad days. Going from there to Nebraska this week should serve as an eye-opener for sure, and Rutgers still has to travel to Michigan State later this season. Those three games, more than anything else, should provide Flood's program with the measuring stick it will need. But Rutgers hasn't looked any worse, for sure, than other mid-tier Big Ten teams this season.

Brian Bennett: It's an impossible task, and that's why we voted three backs -- Coleman, Gordon and Abdullah -- on our midseason All-Big Ten team. I suspect the All-Big Ten first team will have more than two running backs on it because of ties in the voting. And the guy who is in most danger of getting left out is Cobb, because his numbers are a little lower than the other three. That's a shame, because he's having a spectacular season.


Matt from Colorado Springs, Colo., writes: When the playoff selection committee announces its first rankings next week, should we expect to see similarities with the AP/Coaches poll or something that will cause an uproar? I think both polls are useless and should be taken out of publication. ... Also, what role do you think "bad" losses will have on the committee? MSU and 'Bama have "good" losses. While Oregon, Georgia, and Ohio State have "bad losses." I hope this is taken into consideration as much as out of conference schedule and "good" wins.

Brian Bennett: It's all a guessing game at this point, but I expect the selection committee's poll to be stronger than the two major ones we have now. That's because sportswriters and especially coaches simply don't have time to watch all the games on Saturday because of their own jobs and often vote in a hurry on Sunday morning after reading scores or watching a few highlights. The committee has been tasked with closely following the sport all season, and a well-informed, smaller group of voters should make better decisions than, say, having Oregon ranked behind Michigan State (looking at you, coaches).

Of course, there will be controversy. But the most interesting thing to come out of next week will be finding out what the committee truly values. Do "good" losses matter more than "bad" losses, as you suggest? Will conference leaders get rewarded more? How much will it be about who you beat, rather than who you played? We don't have the answers yet, but I can't wait to find out.

Shanking an extra point off an upright and getting stuffed on a two-point conversion attempt is an easy way to turn a kicker into a goat.

It actually turned out to be an ingenious move to set the stage for kicker Ryan Santoso to become a hero.

Maybe the Minnesota redshirt freshman would have preferred a simpler script. The team almost surely would have been better off avoiding the late-game drama they were facing last weekend against Purdue.

[+] EnlargeRyan Santoso
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsRyan Santoso's fourth quarter field goal sealed the game for the Gophers and kept them undefeated in conference play.
After shaking off the miss that helped create the 2-point deficit in the fourth quarter, Santoso replaced all the bad memories with what could be a pivotal moment in a season that is shaping up to be special for the Gophers.

"Oh yeah, I had a lot of ups and downs,” Santoso joked to ESPN.com. “A lot of learning opportunities. But you just have to come back and take it one kick at a time, hit the restart button, reset your mindset. I knew that I would have to kick again.

“You know, everything happens for a reason, and everything played out well, I guess.”

There’s certainly no reason for Santoso or the Gophers -- the leaders in the West Division -- to complain about the way things worked out in the end, and his 52-yard game-winner clearly overshadowed the earlier missteps.

The long-range field goal also turned him into something of a celebrity, earning him a shout-out from Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and making him more recognizable around campus after bouncing back to protect Minnesota’s perfect start in league play.

Perhaps because his reputation could have easily gone a completely different direction, Santoso was quick to shrug off the publicity that has come with a clutch performance for a conference contender. And despite what his field goal might mean down the stretch for the Gophers, he also stressed repeatedly that it was a team win and he wasn’t looking for any extra credit for the part he played.

Both reflect the mental approach that allowed Santoso to move on from a couple points left on the field. His physical tools have never really been in doubt at 6-foot-6, 245 pounds with a powerful leg that has banged in kicks from 60 yards on the practice field.

“His personality doesn’t change any and his work habits won’t change any,” Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. “He’s worked hard since he’s been here and he handles things well.

“I don’t usually say too much to him. I’m like most coaches with kickers and just leave them alone. But he’s done a good job, he’s done a good job in practice and he’s transferring that into the game.”

That work is mostly paying off now in Big Ten games after a sluggish start to the season.

Santoso only had 3 attempts in 4 matchups outside the league, and he missed a pair of them. But since then, and not counting the extra point he drilled off the post, Santoso has been perfect. He’s hit on all six of his attempts in conference play, and more important, he delivered when the Gophers absolutely needed him -- regardless of how that make-or-break situation came to be.

“Coach Kill wouldn’t put you out there if he didn’t believe in you, so I just had to do my part for the team,” Santoso said. “The team has confidence in me and I have confidence in my ability, I just had to go out there and stick it for them.”

Maybe that hero moment wasn’t a product of some brilliant design, and it easily could have gone another way. But neither Santoso nor the Gophers have to worry about the alternative now.

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 9

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
10:00
AM ET
It's an interesting weekend for the Big Ten. On one hand, we have an intra-state rivalry on tap along with a nationally televised night game at one of the best atmospheres in the country.

On the other, only one of the conference's five games is expected to be close. Four of the underdogs are picked to lose by double digits this week, and the closest game isn't exactly a hot ticket: Minnesota at Illinois.

For the first time all season, we Big Ten writers all picked the same winners. But will there be an upset? Can someone surprise in the Big Ten? Let's take a closer look at the matchups:

Noon

Minnesota (6-1) at Illinois (3-4), ESPNU: The Gophers are still fighting for respect, as they appear at No. 24 in the USA Today poll -- but they're still left out of the Associated Press' top 25. They've quietly put together a solid season, with their only loss coming against TCU, and running back David Cobb could be the most underrated player in the conference. Illinois coach Tim Beckman is fighting for his job, and he and his offensive coordinator can't even seem to agree on whether a two-quarterback system is best for the team. The Illini have a plethora of defensive problems, and they can't afford to have their offense stumble.

Maryland (5-2) at Wisconsin (4-2), BTN: Melvin Gordon is one of the most dynamic backs in all of college football, and the Terrapins are one of the worst rushing defenses in all of college football. That's not exactly a recipe for success for the Terps. That being said, Wisconsin's woes through the air have been well-documented, and it would be no surprise to see the Terps dare Wisconsin to throw. Randy Edsall needs to get his own house in order, too. Maryland has a lot of firepower on offense, but C.J. Brown needs to find more consistency for this team to hang with the Badgers. Backup Caleb Rowe is out for the season, so it's Brown or bust. And Brown has thrown three picks to zero touchdowns in the last two games.

Rutgers (5-2) at Nebraska (6-1), ESPN2: The Scarlet Knights just can't catch a break with their schedule. They were dismantled by Ohio State 56-17 on Saturday and they play Wisconsin next week. Rutgers was the surprise team of the conference in the first half of the season, but it will have to show something in this second half to retain that title. It won't be easy. Like the Buckeyes, Nebraska boasts a balanced offense -- and Ameer Abdullah is the best back the Knights have seen since ... well ... it's been years. With one Big Ten loss already, Nebraska can't afford a slip-up. But it might just have the most talented team, overall, in the West.

3:30 p.m.

Michigan (3-4) at Michigan State (6-1), ABC: Since 2008, this rivalry has basically been owned by the Spartans. Mark Dantonio's team has won five out of the last six, with the Wolverines winning only once in a 12-10 game in 2012. Michigan is coming off a bye week -- and actually won its last Big Ten game, against Penn State -- but the Spartans are on another level. If U-M can pull off this upset, maybe Brady Hoke has an outside chance to save his job and the Wolverines really have sparked a turnaround. If not, expect the same Michigan storyline that you've heard since Week 2.

8 p.m.

Ohio State (5-1) at Penn State (4-2), ABC: The Buckeyes have scored at least 50 points in four straight games, but they haven't faced a defense quite like Penn State's. On the flip side, the Nittany Lions haven't faced any offense resembling Ohio State's, either. The key to an upset here is two-fold: Penn State's weak offensive line must somehow keep one of the nation's best front fours at bay (unlikely), or Penn State's defense has to play out of its mind and force turnovers (more likely). Ohio State pounded Penn State 63-14 last season, and the Lions would like nothing more than to avenge the worst loss in program history since 1899 (a 64-5 loss to Duquesne). This game will act as a good measuring stick for both J.T. Barrett and the PSU defense.

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