Big Ten: Northwestern Wildcats

Big Ten lunch links

April, 23, 2014
Apr 23
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I want to share something with you: The three little sentences that will get you through life. Number 1: "Cover for me." Number 2: "Oh, good idea, Boss!" Number 3: "It was like that when I got here."

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
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Prime-time schedule angst? Oh, there's plenty. The floor is yours.

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[+] EnlargeWisconsin Celebration
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesWill Melvin Gordon's Heisman chances be affected by the lack of prime-time games in November?
Jackie from NYC writes: I think the biggest loser in the prime-time schedule is Melvin Gordon. We already know he's likely to split carries with Corey Clement, and now he's not going to get the chance to really put on a show in primetime during Big Ten season. Am I right? How does the schedule affect his Heisman chances?

Adam Rittenberg: That's a fair question, Jackie. Gordon undoubtedly would benefit from another prime-time game or two in November, especially if he's among the leaders for the Heisman. The good news is he has a terrific opportunity right away to make a national statement in the opener against LSU. The Tigers are consistently one of the nation's top defenses, and if Gordon has a big night in Houston, he'll be on the Heisman radar. It will be up to him to stay there with big performances against mostly middling competition until the end of the season, but the LSU game provides a platform for Gordon to make a splash. He could have another pre-Heisman prime-time opportunity if he leads Wisconsin to the Big Ten championship game in Indy, where he had a pretty decent night in 2012.




Danny O. from Davenport, Iowa, writes: The fact Iowa goes a second year in a row without any prime-time games is utterly disgusting. I know people outside of Hawkeye Nation will try and defend this decision by bringing up the the weak schedule, and normally they would be right. My question, however, is how can anyone justify giving Illinois ANY prime-time games, let alone two? If the B1G can make a case for this by giving in to Urban Meyer's whining for more prime-time games and giving them Illinois in one of those slots, certainly Iowa deserves one PT game in the past two years. Am I wrong?

Rittenberg: It's not about deserving, Danny. These are business decisions made by TV programming executives and athletic administrators from each school. Ohio State brings in larger regional and national TV audiences than Iowa, even when it's playing a team like Illinois. If Jim Tressel had wanted more night games, he would have gotten no complaints from the TV folks. So it's more of an Ohio State-Iowa issue than an Illinois-Iowa issue.

Iowa has been more conservative about night games, stating a preference about having one or two per year, not four or five. Athletic director Gary Barta said in 2012, "On our campus, one is fine. I don't know that we'll go to two. I'm confident it wouldn't go beyond that." If you combine that preference with an underwhelming schedule where the best games are at the end, when weather does enter the equation, you get no night games.




Brian from Magnolia, Texas, writes: Huge Husker fan here excited about all of the prime-time games this year. One question, when will we get to play Indiana? If memory serves correctly, we haven't played them yet and aren't scheduled to play them until at least 2015-16.

Rittenberg: The Huskers don't face Indiana until 2016 -- Oct. 15, to be exact -- when they visit Bloomington. Nebraska initially was set to face Indiana for the first time in Big Ten play on Nov. 14, 2015, but the league expansion and the schedule shuffle that ensued pushed back the meeting.




Brian from Iowa writes: For a long time now, teams like Iowa and Wisconsin have supported the B1G unconditionally, even when there has been a perceived league bias towards teams with richer histories. While I would have thought the question ridiculous a year ago, is it possible that Jim Delany's greed will eventually drive fans away? They already have trouble engaging students (future donors) and nothing endears current Big Ten boosters like a night game played at a mediocre stadium in New Jersey.

Rittenberg: Brian, I understand your anger about the prime-time selections, but you might have the wrong target. Jim Delany doesn't make the prime-time schedules. The league's television partners, along with the individual school administrators, are the power players here. Each school has its own preferences and constraints. A lot of things need to match up for a night game to work. If my team is left off the prime-time slate, I'm taking it up with my athletic director. Delany's recent expansion moves have turned off some Big Ten fans and he'll be judged appropriately. But his role in the prime-time schedule isn't as significant as many believe.




Jake from Seattle writes: What is your sense of the NU football team's response to the university's efforts to dissuade them from voting to form a union? Based on what I've read, my gut says the probability the team gets the votes needed to unionize is quite slim. I mean, having your coach and your university (both of which appear to do things the right way as far as D1 sports are concerned) openly against this must be pretty tough. Is your sense that the players are able to separate that voting to collectively bargain is not a referendum on Fitz or the university, but really on how the NCAA unfairly treats college athletes? I admit that I am biased. I think the players voting yes is in their best interest -- as well as the interests of other athletes that will invariably follow.

Rittenberg: Jake, some players might make that separation, but many feel that the debate has turned from national to Northwestern. Kain Colter's testimony at the Chicago NLRB hearing fundamentally shifted the focus from the NCAA to Northwestern. It led to a favorable ruling for Colter and CAPA, but it turned off some of his former teammates. Northwestern also thought the initial campaign was national, not local. Keep in mind that the Northwestern union ruling would apply only to private schools, which represent a small fraction of the FBS. My sense is they'll vote no, but I've been wrong on pretty much everything regarding this story.
Last week at this time, you learned the six prime-time games to appear on ABC/ESPN this fall. Now the Big Ten Network is up to bat.

BTN has selected six games to appear in prime time this fall. They are ...

Sept. 13

Penn State at Rutgers, 8 p.m. ET

[+] EnlargeKyle Flood
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesNew to the league, Kyle Flood and Rutgers will be featured prominently in the Big Ten's prime time schedule.
Sept. 27

Cincinnati at Ohio State, 6 p.m. ET
Illinois at Nebraska, 9 p.m. ET

Oct. 4

Michigan at Rutgers, 7 p.m. ET

Oct. 18

Nebraska at Northwestern, 7:30 p.m. ET

Nov. 15

Michigan State at Maryland, 8 p.m. ET

*Kickoff time set at a later date

For those who missed them, here are the ABC/ESPN prime-time selections:

Sept. 6

Virginia Tech at Ohio State, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

Sept. 20

Miami at Nebraska, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Oct. 4

Nebraska at Michigan State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Oct. 11

Penn State at Michigan, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN or ESPN2

Oct. 25

Ohio State at Penn State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Nov. 1

Illinois at Ohio State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

[+] EnlargeJordan Westerkamp
AP Photo/Nati HarnikOne of the league's new and entertaining rivalries, Northwester and Nebraska will meet under the lights this season.
Here's the breakdown of Big Ten prime-time games by team:

Ohio State: 4 (three home, one road)
Nebraska: 4 (two home, two road)
Penn State: 3 (two road, one home)
Michigan State: 2 (one home, one road)
Rutgers: 2 (two home)
Michigan: 2 (one home, one road)
Illinois: 2 (two road)
Northwestern: 1 (home)
Maryland: 1 (home)

Additional Big Ten-controlled prime-time games could be announced in the coming weeks.

More notes:

  • The MSU-Maryland game means the Big Ten will have at least two prime-time games after Nov. 1. The league previously avoided such games based on the preference of its members, not a conference-wide policy, as you've probably been led to believe. Additional November prime-time games could be announced, so stay tuned. Also remember that the Big Ten controls only games played at its stadiums, so if your team plays a road or neutral-site nonconference game, hang tight if it hasn't been announced.
  • Indiana, Iowa, Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin don't appear on the Big Ten's prime-time schedule. Iowa fans undoubtedly will be disappointed with no Big Ten prime-time games for the second consecutive season, as the Hawkeyes are a legitimate contender in the West Division. The problem likely is a schedule with the two most appealing games -- Wisconsin and Nebraska -- at the very end, when weather is a bigger factor. The Black Friday game against Nebraska has consistently been a noon ET ABC national broadcast, a spot not worth relinquishing. Still, I wouldn't want to be athletic director Gary Barta today. Wisconsin faces a similar issue as its top home games -- Nebraska and Minnesota -- come at the end of the season. Although it would have been great to see Nebraska-Wisconsin under the lights again, the Nov. 15 date likely prevented it. Indiana had three home prime-time games last year and has been a frequent night-game participant in recent years. Purdue gets the Notre Dame game, but its chances for an additional prime-time contest were hurt by last year's 1-11 clunker.
  • Not surprisingly, both new Big Ten members receive prime-time home games this fall. Rutgers will play its first two Big Ten home contests -- against Penn State and Michigan -- under the lights, while Maryland hosts the defending Big Ten champs in mid-November. "As new members, they're thrilled," Mark Rudner, the Big Ten's senior associate commissioner for television administration, told ESPN.com.
  • Remember, this list and the ESPN/ABC list contain only games controlled by the Big Ten (i.e. in Big Ten stadiums) Additional night games involving Big Ten teams include Wisconsin-LSU in Houston (Aug. 30, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN), Michigan at Notre Dame (Sept. 6, 7:30 p.m. ET, NBC), Purdue-Notre Dame in Indianapolis (Sept. 13, 7:30 p.m. ET, NBC) and Nebraska at Fresno State (Sept. 13, 10:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network). The kickoff time for Rutgers' opener Aug. 28 against Washington State hasn't been set, but it will be a night game.
  • While Iowa and Wisconsin fans likely won't be pleased with the list, Ohio State and Nebraska supporters are celebrating. Urban Meyer's desire for more prime-time games is clearly paying off with three home contests and four total to date. Nebraska will play nearly half of its regular-season games at night after playing just one such contest last year. After day games against Florida Atlantic and McNeese State to open the year, the Huskers play five consecutive night games between Sept. 13 and Oct. 18 (they have an open week Oct. 11). I really like the Nebraska-Northwestern game at night. It has been one of the more entertaining games since the Huskers joined the league, as all three matchups have been decided by three points or fewer.
  • This year's prime-time schedule contains only one date, Oct. 4, where both BTN and ABC/ESPN are airing games at the same time. That night, Nebraska visits Michigan State on ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 and Michigan visits Rutgers on BTN. There were two such dates last year (Sept. 7 and Sept. 14).
  • Rudner said of the prime-time slate, "The process this year was about as smooth as we've had in the last seven years. Once you get to the point of recognizing the value and importance of prime time, then it becomes fairly easy to get approvals [from schools]."

OK, that's a lot to digest. Thoughts on the prime-time schedule? Send 'em here.
Last week, in response to a mailbag question from reader and Rutgers fan Ed, I came up with a hot-seat ranking for all the coaches in the Big Ten.

That list sparked a bit of discussion in some places, notably Nebraska. How accurate were my rankings, and what were some of the factors that went into them? I thought I'd bring Adam Rittenberg into the debate for a little bit of fact vs. fiction.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsKirk Ferentz, who began at Iowa in 1999, appears to be secure heading into 2014.
Brian Bennett: Adam, I listed seven coaches as being completely safe, barring some unforeseen scandal: Ohio State's Urban Meyer, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Penn State's James Franklin, Minnesota's Jerry Kill, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. While Ferentz hasn't won at an elite level of late, his contract keeps him basically unfireable. Fact or fiction on my Tier 1 of coaches?

Adam Rittenberg: Fact. It would truly take something disastrous, Brian, for one of these coaches to lose his job. Ferentz helped himself last season as another losing campaign would have placed more pressure on Iowa's administration to part ways with their highly paid coach. Unless the Hawkeyes take a significant step backward in 2014, which is tough to do given an extremely favorable schedule, Ferentz is on very secure footing. Minnesota awarded Kill a contract extension and a raise in February, and with facilities upgrades on the way, no change is imminent. The rest are as safe as you can get in this line of work.

BB: My second tier included three coaches who should be fine but could be sweating things out if they have a rough season: Indiana's Kevin Wilson, Purdue's Darrell Hazell and Michigan's Brady Hoke. Some might say Hoke is actually on a hot seat, but I think his first-year success, recruiting and support from athletic director Dave Brandon means he is at least a year away from feeling any substantial pressure. Fact or fiction on these guys?

AR: I would say fact on both Wilson and Hazell and possibly fiction on Hoke. Wilson has to make a bowl game fairly soon after IU squandered a great opportunity last season (eight home games). But Indiana athletic director Fred Glass, upon hiring Wilson in 2010, stressed the need for continuity at a program that hadn't had much since Bill Mallory. A 1-win or 2-win season could change things, but I can't see IU making another change, especially with recruiting on the rise and the offense surging. Hazell is a second-year coach, so unless Purdue lays another 1-11 egg, he's fine.

As for Hoke, his first-year success seems a long time ago. Michigan's recruiting has looked better in February than October, although some players still need time to develop. It comes down to this: if Michigan wins nine or more games, he's fine. If Michigan wins eight or fewer games, it gets interesting. Are the Wolverines losing close games to good teams or getting blown out? How do they perform against their three top rivals -- Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame -- on the road? Are the offensive problems being fixed? You're right that Brandon doesn't want to fire his guy. But if Michigan gets blown out in its three rivalry games and still can't run the ball consistently, Brandon might not have a choice. Remember, Hoke has set the bar -- Big Ten title or bust -- and he's not reaching it.

BB: OK, now we're down to the four guys I put on the hot seat. Let's take them individually, starting with perhaps the most controversial one. You'd have to suffer from amnesia not to remember how close Bo Pelini came to losing his job at Nebraska last season. But is it fact or fiction that he's on a hot seat?

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesBo Pelini is 58-24 as coach of Nebraska.
AR: Fact. I'm not sure where the pro-Pelini push is coming from. Does a bowl win and some Twitter fun with @FauxPelini really change anything? Nebraska has been a bigger national story during its spring game the past two seasons than when the games actually count. While it's nice to this side of Pelini, the only thing that matters is winning more games and getting Nebraska that elusive conference championship.

BB: I debated whether to include Randy Edsall from Maryland, who showed progress last season and has dealt with many tough injuries. But moving to the new league and not overwhelming fans for three seasons convinced me he needs to deliver a bowl game this year, or at least be very competitive. Fact or fiction?

AR: Fact. Athletic director Kevin Anderson has been supportive of Edsall, but Maryland needs to see continued progress this season, despite the transition. The injury situation has to turn around eventually, so we should get a better gauge of a team that, on paper, should be better. But the schedule isn't easy. It also doesn't help to have Franklin, once Maryland's coach-in-waiting, in the same division.

BB: The other Big Ten newbie also has a coach on the hot seat, according to my list. Kyle Flood is only in his third season and did win nine games his first season. But he was on shaky ground last winter and replaced both coordinators, which is a sign of a coach trying to hang on. Fact or fiction on Flood's seat being warm?

AR: Fact. A coaching shuffle like the one Rutgers had almost always precedes a make-or-break type season for the head guy. Although athletic director Julie Hermann must consider the upgrade in competition and a brutal initial Big Ten schedule (East Division plus crossovers against both Nebraska and Wisconsin), a bowl-less season could spell the end for Flood. Rutgers has reached the postseason in eight of the past nine years.

BB: And, finally, Tim Beckman. He has won just one conference game at Illinois. I'd be surprised if anyone disagreed with his placement on this list, but what say you in regard to fact or fiction?

AR: Fact. Although AD Mike Thomas hired Beckman, he'll face even more pressure to make a change if Illinois misses a bowl for a third consecutive season. The Illini showed improvement last fall, but they'll have to take another step for Beckman to secure Year 4.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Defense wasn't the reason Northwestern went 5-7 in 2013.

Sure, the unit was on the field for the play that encapsulated a hard-luck season: a Hail Mary touchdown pass as time expired that gave Nebraska a 27-24 victory and set off pandemonium in Lincoln. Wildcats defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz is right when he states: "We were five plays away from winning five more games, and we needed to make five more plays on defense somewhere."

The defense could have collected a few more takeaways in Big Ten play after a surge early in the season. It could have made another stop against Ohio State, Minnesota, Nebraska or Iowa that might have been the difference.

But if Northwestern's offense is anywhere close to its normal production, the team easily wins seven or eight games. End of story.

The offseason spotlight is on the offense as it ditches a two-quarterback system -- senior Trevor Siemian will be the sole operator -- and likely returns to its pass-first roots. Things are much quieter for the defense, which returns nine starters, including all four in the secondary. It's possibly the team's strongest position group.

Collin Ellis
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsNorthwestern linebacker Collin Ellis is moving inside, hoping to help boost a defense that was a little too soft in the middle in 2013.
It's not a stretch to suggest this could be the strongest defense in coach Pat Fitzgerald's tenure. Northwestern can go two or three deep at every secondary spot, thanks to the emergence of several redshirt freshmen this spring. Veteran playmakers Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis return at linebacker, and speedy ends Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson spark the pass rush.

But perimeter strength might not mean much if Northwestern doesn't firm up its core.

"Defensive football is a lot like baseball," Fitzgerald said. "You better be great at the catcher, pitcher and center fielder, the belly of your defense, and that shortstop and second baseman are plenty important, too. [In football] you've got to be strong at D-tackle, the linebacker position and safety. I'm not minimizing the ends and the corners, but if you don't have those things inside, the belly of your defense gets exposed.

"You can't stop people."

Northwestern didn't stop the inside run consistently enough in 2013. Ohio State's Carlos Hyde pounded away for 168 rush yards and three touchdowns on a night when quarterback Braxton Miller struggled. Other running backs -- Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and James White, Minnesota's David Cobb, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Michigan State's Jeremy Langford -- eclipsed 100 yards against the Wildcats, who surrendered 192 rushing yards per game in Big Ten play.

Injuries at defensive tackle, particularly the midseason loss of Sean McEvilly, hurt the Wildcats. Northwestern needs McEvilly and Chance Carter to stay healthy and C.J. Robbins and Greg Kuhar to keep developing. Both Robbins and Kuhar received increased practice time this spring as McEvilly missed the whole session following foot surgery and Carter missed the first nine workouts because of injury.

"Everyone knows the fastest way to get somewhere is straight down the middle," Carter said. "That goes with the D-tackles first. We're the first line of defense. We have to be more fundamentally crisp."

The safety spot should be fine as Ibraheim Campbell, an excellent run defender with 262 career tackles, anchors the secondary. But there are questions at middle linebacker as Ellis moves over from the strong side to replace Damien Proby.

Ellis, lighter than Proby at 233 pounds, admits he has to play the position differently, using his speed and lateral quickness.

"As a linebacking corps, we are quick," Ellis said. "What we're saying is the defensive tackles, if they get in the wrong gap, stay there and we can recognize that and fill."

If the defense can fill those gaps and firm up its midsection, it could be the reason for more Wildcats wins this season.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
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Monday couldn't come soon enough for Chicago sports fans after a weekend of bad.

Big Ten lunchtime links

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
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Mario + Easter = Awesome.
  • Urban Meyer recently acknowledged that he knew, once safety Christian Bryant went down with an injury last year, that "there was a chance that we wouldn't be able to go play for a national title."

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
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Make up your mind, Mother Nature.
  • Connor Cook now has the freedom to audible at the line of scrimmage for Michigan State, another sign of confidence in the quarterback heading into his second season as the starter.
  • If the problem for Michigan last season was a lack of chemistry, Brady Hoke has a feeling that won't be a problem this fall he leaves spring.
  • Penn State showed off a Wildcat package in its spring game, but James Franklin won't reveal how much he'll use it -- or whether it's got a unique nickname.
  • Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz isn't usually one for hyperbole, so he means it when he calls Brandon Scherff the best player at his position in the country.
  • The Ohio State defense is leaving spring practice with a much better feeling than it did when it left the field after the Discover Orange Bowl.
  • After a long, difficult road, Rutgers offensive lineman Bryan Leoni is pushing for a starting role and a happy ending for his journey.
  • The Purdue offense has undergone a transformation this spring, and the roster has also added some talent to run the system.
  • The union seeking to represent Northwestern football players offered its response to the school's appeal, calling the university's case a "castle built on sand."
  • No matter how big the league gets, the Big Ten is keeping its name.
  • The rebrand of Illinois athletics appears to be a hit, writes Loren Tate.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
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It's Wednesday. There's nothing good on TV (except for this). It's mailbag business time.

Ed from State of Rutgers writes: How would you rank B1G head coaches on the hot seat in 2014? Which assistants are in the best position for a head coaching job after this season?

Brian Bennett: Thanks for the question, Ed, and welcome to Big Ten country. We didn't see a single head coach get fired in the Big Ten last season, which was good news. But the way these things go, odds are the league won't make it two years in a row without any pink slips.

Let's answer your question by looking at this in tiers. Tier 1 includes the coaches who absolutely won't get fired this season unless there's some sort of unforeseen major scandal: Ohio State's Urban Meyer, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Penn State's James Franklin, Minnesota's Jerry Kill, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz.

[+] EnlargeKyle Flood
AP Photo/John RaouxKyle Flood could face a difficult first season in the Big Ten, but it might not be enough to cost him his job.
Tier 2 would be the guys who are most likely safe but who could feel some rising temperatures if the season goes awry. That would include: Indiana's Kevin Wilson, who seems to have the Hoosiers on an uptick but who needs to get the team to a bowl soon; Purdue's Darrell Hazell, who almost certainly won't get canned after just two years but can't afford another season as awful as last season's 1-11 debacle; and Michigan's Brady Hoke, who isn't on the hot seat now but who would definitely feel the wrath of fans and boosters if the Wolverines have another 7-5 type year and lose to Ohio State.

Tier 3 covers the coaches actually feeling some heat under their chairs. Let's evaluate them individually:

  • Tim Beckman, Illinois: This should come as no surprise. The Illini showed improvement last season, but Beckman is still just 6-18 and has seen fan support fall off a cliff. Anything less than a bowl game in 2014 could make things really dicey.
  • Bo Pelini, Nebraska: This is a well-documented situation, and many people were surprised Pelini wasn't fired at the end of last season, though athletics director Shawn Eichorst remains hard to read. The good news is that Pelini could have a very good team in Lincoln this year, and he sure doesn't appear to be sweating things this spring.
  • Kyle Flood, Rutgers: He went 9-4 his first season as head coach but just 6-7 with a dismal finish last season. He also has a new boss in town, and the Scarlet Knights will face a very difficult schedule in Year 1 in the Big Ten. He's only making $900,000, so a change wouldn't be too financially painful. The question is whether embattled new athletic director Julie Hermann has enough juice right now to make that call.
  • Randy Edsall, Maryland: This is the toughest call of the tier, as Edsall might have bought himself some time with last season's winning record and has had to deal with injuries to many star players. Yet he's still just 13-24 after three seasons, and life in the Big Ten might not be easy for the Terps. A losing record in 2014 would make things very uncomfortable in College Park.

George K. from Pittsburgh: Brian, I'm disappointed in what you wrote about Joe Paterno winning [the Big Ten coaches' tournament]. There was way too much conjecture in what you said. Please think about it. Then issue a factual restatement, please.

Scott R. from Chadron, Neb., writes: Pretty sure there was voter fraud on that Osborne/Paterno matchup. Am I the only one who noticed there were as many international votes as domestic? And that those international votes were 87% for Paterno? Every other poll on ESPN.com is about 75% domestic, 25% foreign. This one was 50/50, and the international vote was OVERWHELMINGLY for Paterno. Seems a little suspicious.

Brian Bennett: File this one under "You Can't Please Everybody, Vol. 734." For the past two weeks, my mailbag was full of comments like Scott's, claiming some sort of voter fraud as Paterno got a huge international vote against both Tom Osborne and Woody Hayes. I have neither the technical expertise nor the time to figure out whether there was some sort of computer tomfoolery going on. But you'd have to be really naive not to raise an eyebrow at the fact that more than half the votes (17,000-plus) in the title matchup came from outside the United States and that those votes were wildly in favor of Paterno. Maybe there's a simple explanation why so many non-U.S. residents care about Big Ten football -- Italians for JoePa, perhaps?

The bottom line is that we placed no rules on this tournament, other than the most votes wins. If someone was ingenious enough to rig it, more power to them. Paterno certainly had the résumé and accomplishments that were deserving on their own. I had no personal stake in the outcome, and I found it to be a fun exercise to go along with March Madness. I hope everyone enjoyed it.


Andrew from Columbus, Ohio, writes: While it is still possible that Ohio State-Michigan State could be a night game, what prevented it from being in the first batch of announced games? Since it would feature the two most compelling teams in the league from last year, it seems to me that it would be the marquee matchup the B1G has been looking to highlight.

Brian Bennett: Andrew, I can't say I understand all the intricacies here at play, either, except that there are apparently some other details to iron out. That game still seems like a natural choice for a prime-time selection. It's still only mid-April. Stay tuned ...


Mike K. from Penn State writes: With Penn State losing Allen Robinson and Brandon Felder at the WR position, along with some great O-linemen to the draft, do you think the team can still succeed in the Big Ten solely based on defense?

Brian Bennett: I have great respect for what Bob Shoop and his staff accomplished at Vanderbilt and expect him to do a great job as the Nittany Lions' defensive coordinator. From what I saw last year, however, I don't think there's enough top-shelf talent on that defense for Penn State to pull a Michigan State and simply dominate everyone on defense. At least not at a championship level. I don't worry as much about the receiving group, because I think with Geno Lewis, some of the talented freshmen and those tight ends, they can piece together people for Christian Hackenberg to target. My biggest concern is the offensive line, which is thin and has some troubling injuries. It's nearly impossible to win at a high level in the Big Ten without a decent offensive line.


Tommy from Savannah, Ga., writes: March Madness is one of the greatest times of the year, most people live for it. Why wouldn't the NCAA FBS decision makers want something like that with those ratings over the course of a few weeks? Definitely not 68 teams, but eight or 16 teams with a selection show, bracket challenge, Cinderellas, and endless coverage and hype. They already do it for FCS.

Brian Bennett: You'll find no bigger NCAA tournament fan than me, Tommy, and my wife is really happy it's over so she can see me again. Still, it's hard to compare the sports. Football simply is a much more physical game, and so adding more games to the schedule becomes problematic, along with the logistical problems caused by Christmas break and the semester changes. I do believe we will eventually have an eight-team tournament, with the five power conference champions getting an automatic berth along with the top champion of the other leagues plus two wild cards. That's a perfect setup. But it took us decades just to get to a four-team playoff, and that semifinal day on Jan. 1 (most years) will instantly become one of the best days on the sports calendar.

Besides, I could argue college football already has March Madness all fall long, and the ratings reflect that. Before the Final Four began, the NCAA tournament averaged a reported 9.8 million viewers, which was a big increase. By contrast, the Big Ten championship game drew 11.6 million viewers, while the Auburn-Alabama game attracted 13.8 million. The men's basketball final (aired on network TV) between UConn and Kentucky got 21.2 million viewers, compared to 25.6 million for the BCS title game (aired on ESPN) between Florida State and Auburn. We could see record ratings for the inaugural rounds of the College Football Playoff.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
12:00
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Is this heaven? Nope, still Iowa. But happy to be back.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
12:00
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Heading to Hawkeye Country later today. Any recommendations?

Big Ten Monday mailbag

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
5:00
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Sorry for the lack of a mailbag last Wednesday, but I was busy catching up with folks at Ohio State. Never fear: the Monday mailbag is back.

D.J. from Minneapolis writes: What happens to the union story if the Northwestern players vote no?

Brian Bennett: A great question, and based on media comments from several players -- most notably quarterback Trevor Siemian -- it sure seems like the Wildcats players are against the union and will vote no on April 25. But there might be a stronger undercurrent of support from players who are not as vocal in public. Given that the leader of the movement, Kain Colter, has already graduated and won't be eligible to vote, you wonder who on the team will take the baton and push for the union. All it takes, remember, is a simple majority.

So does a no vote mean this is the end of the story? I don't think it's that basic. Northwestern players would be able to try to unionize again next year. The regional National Labor Relations Board ruling has also set a precedent, at least for football players at private schools, and those who believe in the cause, such as CAPA president Ramogi Huma, would likely try to persuade players at other programs to follow Northwestern's lead. The school will continue to try to fight the original ruling, as well.

If the Wildcats' players vote no next week, we might not see any tangible results from the union movement for a while. If nothing else, however, it was another shot across the bow at the NCAA and another huge warning to the leaders of college sports that they had better make some changes before a judge or a legislature does it for them.


Kelly from Wilmington, N.C., writes: Brian, I know you said in your article that you don't think "The Game" would ever be a prime-time game, but do you think Michigan will gauge this year's game vs. Penn State to consider using Penn State and Ohio State every other year for a night game? They went from "never" to yes with Notre Dame and are now using Penn State. Yes, they get a great spot every year on ABC, but could you imagine if they moved to it a night game? Is it possible that they have realized that at least one night game a year is great in so many ways, not just for Michigan, but the Big Ten as a whole?

Brian Bennett: I shouldn't have written "never" to the idea of an Ohio State-Michigan night game, because so many things have changed in college football that anything is possible. I never thought we'd actually see a playoff, for instance. But both schools have said they're not in favor of moving "The Game" away from the afternoon and under the lights. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon doesn't even want to play Michigan State at night and so I doubt he will budge on the idea of playing Ohio State in prime time. And I don't think this game needs any more attention, as evidenced by all the signs and reminders of the rivalry that I saw while visiting both Michigan and Ohio State earlier this month. So I wouldn't expect it to happen anytime soon, though never say never.


Rob NitLion from Morristown, N.J., writes: Can any conclusions be drawn about the benefit of spring games based on some of the attendance numbers you guys have mentioned in your recaps? I'm not going to pull a Braxton Miller and brag about PSU's "domination" of spring game attendance in the B1G, but ... some schools can really use the spring game as a springboard for recruiting, while other schools ... under 10,000 at Maryland, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and more might only be hurting their own image? Weather wasn't much of a factor this weekend, so what is the reasoning for the rather paltry attendance numbers, or is the annual spring game at other schools not nearly the weekend long "festival" that the Blue-White game is in State College every year?

Brian Bennett: I've come to the conclusion that spring games just aren't as big a deal at some places as they are others. And that's OK. I don't have much of a tolerance for spring games and don't like watching them, because you learn less from those than you would from watching just about any other practice. Sure, it's a fun day for fans to see their teams and sit in the stadium and maybe get some autographs, and all that is great. But I also have no problem with people who feel like they have better things to do than watch football that often isn't really representative of the finished product, with many star players usually being held out.

I don't know if spring game attendance factors much into recruiting. It certainly can't hurt to sell that to recruits as evidence of intense interest and appreciation of your program. But Michigan hasn't gotten many big spring game crowds over the years and that doesn't seem to affect the Wolverines' recruiting very much. I doubt many prospects are basing their decisions on anything that occurs at a spring game, and if they are, that is misguided on their part.


Dalton from Cincinnati writes: I've had some different debates with some of my friends on why Michigan hasn't been able to rebound and compete for a Big Ten championship since 2006. To clear things up, do you think it is because Michigan State is no longer "the little brother" in this rivalry, or because Ohio State has won all but two meetings against them since 2001? Or is it the fact MSU hasn't had as much coaching turnover, has had better coaching and better development of their recruits and has had more winning seasons? I think MSU becoming more constant under Mark Dantonio has led to this occurring than anything else. What is your take on this?

Brian Bennett: I thought Michigan State clearly benefited during Rich Rodriguez's tenure in Ann Arbor, as the Wolverines' downturn and different approach to recruiting helped the Spartans begin to establish themselves. Certainly, the success of Michigan State and Ohio State hasn't done anything to help Michigan, and butting heads against both those programs now in the East won't be easy.

Still, in my view, the biggest thing holding back Michigan is not any external force but Michigan itself. The two coaching changes, and especially veering between very contrasting styles, caused some problems that current Wolverines coaches will tell you are still being felt today. More than anything, though, Michigan simply hasn't capitalized on its own enormous resources and fulfilled its potential. As noted a minute ago, recruiting has been strong under Brady Hoke, at least if you believe the scouting services. The Maize and Blue have never had much trouble attracting talent. Development of that skill has been an issue, though many of those players are still young.

Perhaps we overrate Michigan's history and tradition, since the program claims only one national title since 1948. But with the school's money, stadium size, fan support and access to players, the Wolverines have no one to blame but themselves for not winning a Big Ten title in what is fast approaching a decade's time.
We've been recapping all the spring game action in the Big Ten from over the weekend, and we're going to keep the Northwestern entry short and sweet.

Not because we have anything against the Wildcats. It's just that they didn't have an actual spring game. Because of injuries, head coach Pat Fitzgerald held a regular practice for his 15th session of the spring on Saturday.

Or at least it was supposed to be a regular practice, until storm clouds forced the team to rush indoors halfway through the drills.

"With the storm coming in,” Fitzgerald said, “we had to adjust quickly, which was a good challenge for the guys. And I thought the guys came back and finished practice well.”

You can find some coverage of the day's practice here and here. Because it wasn't a spring game, there is no star of the game or stats to report.

A big issue remains the defensive line, which had four key contributors out this spring.

"That is a major work in progress," Fitzgerald said. "I like what the guys did this spring, but there's no way, shape or form that we're ready to make any analysis there. I'd say the same thing at running back with the guys being out. Then we've got to get some things solidified in the kicking game."

There might not be another Big Ten team that will have to get more done early in fall camp than the injury-riddled Wildcats.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 11, 2014
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Have a great weekend, everybody, and enjoy all the spring games. Looks like some nice weather out there.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Two years ago, the Big Ten blog ranked Northwestern's wide receivers and tight ends as the league's best. The Wildcats proceeded to finish 106th and 69th in passing the next two seasons.

Whoops.

Our prediction clearly missed the mark back then, mainly because Northwestern became more of a zone-read run-driven offense led by quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark. But maybe we jumped the gun on the Wildcats.

[+] EnlargeTony Jones
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesTony Jones is part of a deep and talented group of receivers at Northwestern.
After watching Northwestern's practice Thursday, a case can be made that the receivers and tight ends, while lacking a bona fide superstar, should be among the Big Ten's best this fall. There were familiar faces like Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Dan Vitale. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler made play after play downfield, showing that the Wildcats have another deep threat alongside Tony Jones.

Wide receiver Kyle Prater, a one-time elite recruit who has battled myriad injuries during stints at both USC and Northwestern, is finally healthy and contributing. Sophomore Mike McHugh provides another presence outside, and Jayme Taylor complements Vitale at the superback (tight end/fullback) spot.

An offense that struggled to find playmakers in 2013 now might have a surplus.

"We're going to attack you with waves of people," coach Pat Fitzgerald told ESPN.com. "And we've proven over time that when we have that in place, I don't know how you stop us."

The Wildcats couldn't produce second and third waves of passing weapons in 2013. It might not have mattered with the way their offensive line was pushed around, but Christian Jones logged too many snaps without a break. So did Vitale.

The depth issues especially hurt with an up-tempo offense, Fitzgerald noted, because you want to rotate personnel more often. When Northwestern had to pass more after injuries to both Mark and Colter, it couldn't deliver.

"When guys got dinged, and that's going to happen, we didn't have the depth we needed," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "Now we can run the same personnel, but wave two is coming at you. We're still going to have our starters and they're going to get to play, but it's nice to bring some of those other guys along.

"Right now, the ball's getting spread around a lot more."

Northwestern's deepest position actually might be running back, especially when Mark and Stephen Buckley return to action this fall. Treyvon Green, the team's leading rusher in 2013, and Warren Long took most of the carries this spring. Several heralded freshmen arrive in the summer.

But it's becoming fairly apparent that Northwestern's offense will have more of a passing lean this fall. Quarterback Trevor Siemian, who left no doubt about his starter status this spring, boasts a strong arm and much less mobility than Colter. The offense could look a lot more like the units in 2007 and 2009, which ranked in the top 15 nationally in passing.

"We still have the option, but our next option off of a run play is maybe to throw something," McCall said. "That's the way it's always been in this system. When we had an option quarterback, you could pitch it off of that. Now they load the box and we pull the ball and we're going to throw it."

McCall is quick to note that during his tenure, Northwestern has yet to make it through the season without an injury to a quarterback or a running back.

Translation: the Wildcats will need all of their options.

"We have a lot of talent across the board," Shuler said. "Speed, size, quickness. We have a lot of depth, so I'm really excited."

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