Big Ten: Brandon Bell

PSU's 'mad scientist' a boost to defense

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
4:00
PM ET
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State linebacker Brandon Bell broke out in a big smile Tuesday afternoon when asked to describe his defensive coordinator. He knew he’d offer the same two-word answer that another teammate used.

"Mad scientist."

“That hits it on the head,” Bell said. “He’s a guy who knows what he’s talking about. And that confidence is instilled in us.”

[+] EnlargeBob Shoop
MCT via Getty ImagesBob Shoop's unit ranks among the nation's best in scoring defense.
Call defensive coordinator Bob Shoop what you will. But, by any measure, you’d have to call him a success. Penn State’s defense was inconsistent at best, and poor at worst, last season. The Nittany Lions ranked No. 48 in total defense and No. 59 in scoring defense, while PSU fans everywhere were forced to take a deep breath on third-and-long with those passes over the middle. Now, despite preseason question marks, the defense is soaring as one of the nation’s best.

The Lions are No. 13 in total defense and No. 11 in scoring defense. Sure, there’s a lot of time left in this season, but players are noticing a big difference. And a lot of that starts with Shoop and his penchant for calling the right play at the right time.

“I don’t know if we’re doing that much different,” linebacker Nyeem Wartman said, comparing this season to 2013. “It just seems like the play-calling and the timing is right. There are no more than two or three plays that seem new.”

Said James Franklin: “I’ve been on the headset on defense where Bob’s calling out 75 percent of the plays before they’re being run. He’s calling out, ‘We’re going to get an interception here,’ and things like that. It’s impressive, it really is.”

Shoop literally broke out a pack of Icebreaker breath mints last week and told his defense they were going to “break the ice” with some turnovers. It was a silly move, one that drew laughs, but Shoop followed that up by saying this defense would force five turnovers against Rutgers on Saturday.

On Saturday, Penn State wound up with five interceptions against the Scarlet Knights. In several different interviews, within an hour after the game, Penn State’s defensive players swore that Shoop called those five picks. He knew the Nittany Lions would have opportunities, and he told his squad five turnovers is what it would take for a win.

“It’s crazy,” linebacker Mike Hull said, half in disbelief. “It’s crazy it worked out that way. You never think about that kind of stuff; you just do your job and hope things take care of themselves.”

It’s premature to call this a defensive renaissance for the Nittany Lions. But it’s not too early to call this a dramatic improvement over last season. The secondary in 2013 was the Achilles’ heel of the team, and cornerback Trevor Williams struggled so mightily that PSU shuffled the lineup to bench him midway through the season. On Monday, Williams was named the Big Ten defensive player of the week after pulling down two picks against Rutgers.

The offseason graduation of defensive tackle DaQuan Jones -- whom NFL.com’s Gil Brandt once rated as the top senior DT -- was supposed to prove problematic. But now first-year starter Anthony Zettel could be on pace for Big Ten defensive player of the year. These linebackers were also supposed to struggle with their depth and inexperience outside, but they’ve been just fine.

When problems become strengths, and question marks evolve into exclamations, that’s a definite sign of progress. And it has been a mark of Shoop and this staff.

“He’s like a mad scientist the way he figures out defenses and tendencies of the offenses,” Wartman said. “He’s the one who predicted the five turnovers, and he’s the one who said we were going to come out and not give up 14 points. He’s just phenomenal.”
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Christian Hackenberg flexed like a prizefighter at midfield, tilted his head back and let out a scream as his sideline erupted into smiles and chest-bumps.

Penn State’s quarterback had just transformed Saturday night from a potentially historic one for Rutgers -- what could have been its first win in its first-ever Big Ten game -- into a footnote of his own, by leading his fourth career game-winning drive in a 13-10 win. His teammates couldn’t hide their relief or delight, either: Defensive end Deion Barnes turned to the crowd and waved good-bye, wideout DaeSean Hamilton flung his gloves into the front row, and linebacker Brandon Bell leaped around with a grin.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Jim O'Connor/USA TODAY SportsChristian Hackenberg led Penn State's late comeback win against Rutgers.
Maybe this is a rivalry; maybe not. But don’t say this wasn’t a big game -- and don’t think players didn’t take some things personally from this past week.

"I just felt they didn’t respect us," Bell, a New Jersey native, said matter-of-factly.

Added PSU tailback Bill Belton, also from New Jersey: "They asked for a big-time game, and they got one."

This was Rutgers’ chance at respect, for showing up that team from Pennsylvania and proving wrong the opposing fans who sneered at their (lack of) tradition. The importance of this game can’t be minimized; Rutgers wideout Leonte Carroo told the Asbury Park Press a win could "change New Jersey and Rutgers football forever."

Instead, the contest sold out in record time, but question marks are now swirling around whether quarterback Gary Nova should remain the starter after throwing five interceptions. Instead, the crowd set the school’s attendance record, but lingering Rutgers fans were forced to hear "We Are … Penn State!" chants after the final whistle. Instead of putting Rutgers atop the Big Ten East and halfway to bowl-eligibility, it’s more of the same for a team that boasts the hardest schedule in the conference.

"This hurts. It should hurt," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. "But I will not allow them to be defined by their losses."

Bass from the loudspeakers thumped so hard you couldn’t feel your own heartbeat, and the pageantry surrounding High Point Solutions Stadium served as the tinsel to what could have been an unprecedented Rutgers victory. One large, stenciled sign read, "Enemies of the State" and listed all the New Jersey natives on Penn State’s roster. (Bell said word of the sign made its way around the locker room before the game.) And Penn State coach James Franklin added that Rutgers fans greeted the Nittany Lions’ buses by waving their middle fingers.

There were plenty of similar ingredients here for a future rivalry -- disrespect, a close game, proximity -- but both teams walked off the field with completely different mindsets. Flood referred to this loss as "devastating," and Franklin summed everything up by saying he felt "really, really proud."

This could have been a dream start for Rutgers but, instead, it’s a dream one for Penn State. Several thousand PSU fans spilled into the street last Monday, some crowd-surfing on mattresses, after the NCAA announced this team was once again postseason-eligible. Now it’s nearly on the cusp of a bowl berth.

The Nittany Lions are playing for more than just dignity now, and Hackenberg and these Lions now stand -- improbably -- atop the Big Ten East. They are the only undefeated team in their division and just one of two undefeated teams left in the conference (Nebraska). If it wasn’t for that final touchdown against Rutgers, all that could have been flipped upside down. And Hackenberg and these Lions knew it.

Hackenberg seemed to exorcise all that emotion and those "what-ifs" with that one, long yell on the field. Once he reached the postgame media room, his demeanor had already reverted back to its normal, calm self. He spoke as if the game had ended days before; he didn't even so much as grin while recounting his game-winning drive that came about 30 minutes prior.

You ever take time to enjoy these wins, Christian? It seems like you always just talk about how you guys have a long way to go.

"It’s just one of those things, man. We do," he said, stone-faced. "Looking at that film after a win feels a lot better than looking back on that film after a loss. ...

"This is huge because a win’s a win’s a win. We’re 3-0 right now, and we’re confident. We haven’t played our best ball yet."

Big Ten morning links

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
8:00
AM ET
An interesting dynamic has played out at Penn State and Rutgers this week.

The Scarlet Knights have said they’re approaching this as another game -- but they acknowledged it’s not just another game. The Nittany Lions have also said they’re approaching this as another game -- but because it is just another game.

“We are just as motivated in this game as were for Akron,” James Franklin said. “And we are just as motivated for this game as we were for Central Florida.”

Said Kyle Flood, regarding his players: “I want them to be excited about this game. They should be excited about this game. Games like this are the reason you play college football at a place like Rutgers.”

Flood was inundated with questions about the Nittany Lions; Franklin begged for questions about the Scarlet Knights. The only thing fans want to talk about in Piscataway, New Jersey, is Saturday’s game; the only thing fans want to talk about in Happy Valley is reduced sanctions.

Said Franklin: “I know you guys are going to ask me 55 questions that don’t have to do with Rutgers, but I would like to talk about Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers -- and then maybe a little bit more about Rutgers.”

The first question of Franklin’s weekly news conference: Can you describe the atmosphere and emotions after the NCAA’s announcement?

“Were you on the phone when we said we were going to talk about Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers and more Rutgers?” Franklin asked with a laugh.

It's worth noting that Franklin mentioned “Rutgers” so much, because Flood hasn’t said “Penn State” once. He’s decided to refer to PSU as “the team from Pennsylvania” since ... well ... at least this fall.

Even among players, the contrast has been stark.

“Everyone knows it’s a big game. In the back of our minds, it’s a big game -- but we’re going to treat it like it’s any other game on the schedule,” Rutgers wideout Leonte Carroo said. “It would be a great win for the program, a huge win for the program and for recruits and for everything.”

Penn State linebacker Brandon Bell was also asked if, as a New Jersey native, he put any added emphasis on this game -- or if he thought his team at least watched its words this week, so as not to add any bulletin-board material.

“They’re obviously going to be looking for anything to fuel them up, as they’ve been hyping up the game a lot,” Bell said. “It’s their first Big Ten game; they should be excited. But, pretty much, we’re just looking at it as another game this week.”

So, there you have it. Two seemingly different mind-sets going into this game. We’ll see which one wins out Saturday ...

Now on to the links:

East Division
  • Michigan's Brady Hoke on fan angst: "We're not really happy, either."
West Division
  • Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald calls his team's lack of toughness "an embarrassment."
Although there’s been plenty of good news on the recruiting trail for James Franklin and the Nittany Lions, injuries and depth issues sure seem to be stacking up for the program this offseason.

According to a report from Lions 247, linebacker Ben Kline is the latest to succumb to a serious injury -- a torn Achilles tendon that should make him miss “significant time,” according to the outlet’s sources.

[+] EnlargePenn State's Ben Kline
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsBen Kline's reported injury further depletes a thin group of Penn State linebackers.
The injury comes about seven months after Kline suffered a torn pectoral that required surgery. He also underwent a second shoulder surgery shortly after that. At the time of those surgeries, then-coach Bill O’Brien remained hopeful that Kline would be ready in time for kickoff this season.

Now? Well, with Franklin’s philosophy to not discuss injuries, it’s anyone’s guess as to when -- or whether -- Kline will return for his redshirt junior season.

Regardless of the severity, the injury obviously sets Penn State back. Depth issues along the offensive front have been well-documented, but the corps of linebackers are also extremely thin. Penn State now has just four linebackers who played last season and entered the university on scholarship: Mike Hull, Nyeem Wartman, Brandon Bell and Gary Wooten.

Kline, a team leader who penned an articulate open letter in January about the program, could’ve challenged for a starting job had he been healthy. At the least, he would’ve played a crucial role as a backup. Last season, he battled through injuries but eventually won the starting job later in the season -- before the torn pectoral ended his year.

Kline offered this team a safety blanket of sorts at his position. He was a solid player who would’ve contributed in some manner -- but now that production will have to come from elsewhere, which likely either means a lot more Wooten, time split among non-scholarship players or an immediate impact from the two true freshmen, Jason Cabinda and Troy Reeder.

Linebacker for Penn State just went from a potential issue to a real concern. The rest of these players need to stay healthy -- or Penn State’s defense could end up being in almost as much trouble as the offensive line.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Most Penn State players reacted with a stunned silence when told of the news that their head coach, Bill O'Brien, was heading to the NFL's Houston Texans.

The story broke about 90 minutes before the new year, and most players were either with friends or on their way to parties. Linebacker Brandon Bell was driving when he answered his buzzing cell phone.

"It's official?" he asked at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday night. "I don't have much to say. ... Yeah, I guess I'm surprised."

[+] EnlargeBelton
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsBill OBrien's departure caught Bill Belton and his teammates by surprise, but the players feel Penn State will be just fine moving forward.
He paused a few seconds and then continued on: "You can't worry about what you can't control. We got to do what we got to do."

Fifteen minutes later and defensive end C.J. Olaniyan said he hadn't heard anything about O'Brien heading elsewhere either. He seemed just as off-guard and even a bit reticent to believe the breaking story.

"Like I said, I haven't heard anything," Olaniyan said. "But no matter what happens, Penn State has shown -- everybody's shown -- that we're going to keep striving forward. No matter what happens."

The overwhelming sentiment from players on Tuesday and Wednesday was one of surprise, but not of betrayal. Their emotions were mixed but not polar -- they felt disappointed, but they were happy for their head coach. They seemed down, but they spoke with conviction about their university and the next season.

"As long as we have each other," wideout Jake Kiley said Wednesday, referring to his teammates, "we'll be fine. I think everyone's in the same mind-set."

Tailback Bill Belton wanted to enjoy the new year, forget about the coaching change and deal with it later. Wideout Allen Robinson hung up as soon as O'Brien's name was mentioned. Offensive guard John Urschel took to Twitter to congratulate his head coach.

Different players reacted differently. But everyone seemed to agree that Penn State's certainly been through worse, and that it would emerge once again just fine.

Those same players who congratulated their head coach first met O'Brien in January 2012 when the relative unknown landed in Happy Valley and told the media he was "thrilled to be the head football coach," months before the NCAA levied unprecedented sanctions against the school. O'Brien asked players for their commitment, their loyalty, and they overwhelmingly surrendered it.

Eugene Lewis, now a rising redshirt sophomore, was one of those players. The coveted four-star recruit arrived on campus a few weeks before those sanctions, and he could've chosen to transfer elsewhere without penalty. But he decided to stick with O'Brien in Happy Valley.

And, even now, Lewis doesn't regret his decision. Even now, he bristled at feeling even the slightest twinge of betrayal by his old coach.

"That's a strong word because you have to look at it from his point of view," Lewis said Wednesday. "He came into a position that was hard for his family, with the sanctions that we got. You have to look at what he did and how he did all he could. You can't really be mad at him for leaving after two years. I still really respect him."

Lewis was at a friend's house, watching ESPN, when he discovered the news of O'Brien's departure. His phone buzzed with calls and texts from his teammates shortly before midnight. They agreed they'd enjoy the night and then just see what happens.

But Lewis was adamant, whomever the next head coach turns out to be, that he'll still be all-in.

"At the end of the day, we all know we're family and we all know we still have to go out there and play for our school," he said. "You have to be able to fight through adversity, and this is just another obstacle. I'm not mad at Coach O'Brien, I'm happy with what he's done for me and this university.

"I know my team and everyone else there at Penn State -- everyone -- is going to be behind us, and we're going to greet the next coach the same way we greeted Coach O'Brien."

Defensive end Curtis Cothran echoed Lewis' words and succinctly summed up the message from Penn State's players: "We're going to be OK."
Earlier today, we presented our All-Big Ten team. Now it's time to honor the top freshmen from 2013 with our Big Ten all-freshman team.

Here it is:

OFFENSE
QB: Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (captain)
RB: Corey Clement, Wisconsin
WR: DeAngelo Yancey, Purdue
WR: Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska*
TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota*
TE: Jake Butt, Michigan
OL: Dan Voltz, Wisconsin*
OL: Ben Lauer, Minnesota*
OL: Jack Conklin, Michigan State*
OL: Jacob Bailey, Indiana*
OL: Kyle Kalis, Michigan*

DEFENSE
DL: Joey Bosa, Ohio State (captain)
DL: Austin Johnson, Penn State*
DL: Avery Moss, Nebraska*
DL: Willie Henry, Michigan*
LB: Michael Rose, Nebraska*
LB: Nyeem Wartman, Penn State*
LB: T.J. Simmons, Indiana
DB: Sojourn Shelton, Wisconsin
DB: Desmond King, Iowa
DB: Tyvis Powell, Ohio State*
DB: Matthew Harris, Northwestern

SPECIALISTS
K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State
P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State
All purpose: Dontre Wilson, Ohio State

* -- redshirt freshman

It was a pretty strong year for freshmen in the league, highlighted by Hackenberg and Bosa. Shelton was terrific as well. ... Tight end is a promising position for the future. Penn State's Adam Breneman just missed, but he looks like a future star. And Michigan State's Josiah Price had a big impact in the Big Ten title game. ... Nebraska's young defense could really turn into something special. We also considered defensive lineman Vincent Valentine and linebackers Jared Afalava, Nathan Gerry and Josh Banderas. ... It was also a good year for rookie QBs, as beyond Hackenberg there was Purdue's Danny Etling, Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong and Minnesota's Mitch Leidner. ... Ohio State's Wilson didn't have a true position, but he did a lot of things and was a good return man, so that's why he gets our all-purpose slot. ... Some others we considered included Penn State receiver Geno Lewis and linebacker Brandon Bell, Purdue offensive lineman Jason King and Indiana defensive lineman Ralphael Green.

PSU ends Wisconsin's BCS bowl hopes

November, 30, 2013
11/30/13
8:45
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You can't underestimate Penn State.

The Nittany Lions stepped into Camp Randall as a 24-point underdog, as a struggling team that had just 61 scholarship players and was was set to face the nation's No. 15 team. But these Nittany Lions have become accustomed to overcoming the odds, and they again shocked Wisconsin in a 31-24 upset.

Christian Hackenberg played his best game as a Nittany Lion, as the freshman quarterback completed 21 of 30 passes for 339 yards, with four TDs and no interceptions. On the other end of the field, Penn State's defense shut down Wisconsin's rushing attack (121 yards) and forced turnovers at critical junctures. It held off a late Badgers comeback and put an end to Wisconsin's hopes for a BCS bowl.

The upset replaces the win over Michigan as Penn State's biggest of the season, and it will certainly give Bill O'Brien's team something to build from this offseason.

This gives the Lions another winning season in the face of unprecedented sanctions, and it again sends out a senior class with a victory. Just about everyone was surprised with Saturday afternoon's upset -- except for O'Brien and Penn State's players.

When everyone counted them out, they came right back to prove everyone wrong. What else is new for this bunch?

Where the game was won: Penn State didn't turn the ball over once, and Joel Stave threw three interceptions -- two of which led to PSU touchdowns. The Badgers simply couldn't overcome those mistakes.

Key play: With less than four minutes left, PSU faced a third-and-9 at its 18. The Lions were up by just a touchdown, and momentum was shifting to the Badgers' side. But O'Brien called a draw play and Zach Zwinak gained 61 yards before he was tackled. That didn't give the Badgers much left to work with.

Record breaker: Allen Robinson (eight catches, 122 yards) finished his junior season with school single-season records for receptions (97) and receiving yards (1,432). The two-year starter is also second on the career receptions list and third on the career yards list. He has one year of eligibility remaining, but it seems likely he will declare for the NFL draft.

Curious calls: Gary Andersen called a season-high 53 pass attempts -- compared to just 30 runs -- and while a lot of that can be attributed to Wisconsin trailing, there's definitely some question marks next to the third-down play-calling. The Badgers were faced with seven third downs that required four yards or fewer, and Andersen opted to pass on all but one of those. Wisconsin twice passed on third-and-1 and converted just one of those attempts.

Looking to the future: Twenty-three freshmen (11 true, 12 redshirt) made the travel roster for Penn State, and quite a few made an impact. Besides Hackenberg, tight end Adam Breneman (three catches, 78 yards) played well, and linebacker Brandon Bell earned his first start. Penn State is a young team, and it certainly flashed some talent Saturday.

True freshmen impact in the Big Ten

September, 25, 2013
9/25/13
10:30
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True freshmen are having a bigger and bigger impact throughout college football these days, as coaches are either becoming less afraid to throw their youngsters into the fire or are facing fewer options.

[+] EnlargeDontre Wilson
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesThe versatile Dontre Wilson could be one of many to get touches in the diamond formation.
With that in mind, today we are ranking the top five teams in the Big Ten in order of the impact true freshmen are making for that team. We're going with quality over quantity here, mind you.

1. Penn State: The Nittany Lions are starting just one true frosh, but he's a guy with a little bit of importance to the team's fortunes: quarterback Christian Hackenberg. The 18-year-old has had some ups and downs but is on pace for a 3,000-yard season. Tight end Adam Breneman and receiver Richy Anderson have also played in every game, with one start each. Von Walker, Brandon Bell and Jordan Smith are among others who have seen time for coach Bill O'Brien, who doesn't have the luxury to redshirt many guys with the Lions' depth issues.

2. Nebraska: The Huskers' defense is young, all right. So young that two true freshmen are starting at linebacker for Bo Pelini in Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry. They rank fourth and fifth on the team in tackles, and Banderas is handling a leadership position as the middle linebacker.

3. Ohio State: Urban Meyer says Ohio State doesn't redshirt. If you're ready, you play. Technically, the Buckeyes don't start any true freshmen, but Dontre Wilson has already made a big impact as a runner, receiver and kick returner. Several other first-year players dot the two-deep, such as safety Vonn Bell and defensive lineman Joey Bosa, and running back Ezekiel Elliott ran for more than 100 yards and scored two touchdowns last week versus Florida A&M.

4. Indiana: No surprise to see the Hoosiers on this list, since coach Kevin Wilson has played as many true freshmen as any coach in the country the past few years. That means Indiana finally has some veterans, but Wilson is starting T.J. Simmons at linebacker and getting contributions from Darius Latham on the defensive line, Antonio Allen in the secondary and Marcus Oliver and Clyde Newton at linebacker.

5. Wisconsin: The Badgers are mostly an experienced, veteran team. The one exception is in the secondary. Sojourn Shelton is starting at cornerback for the Badgers, while Jakarrie Washington and Nate Hammon are top reserves in the defensive backfield.
On Wednesday, the head coach and one player from each Big Ten Legends Division team participated in a spring football teleconference with the media. On Thursday, it was the Leaders Division's turn. Here are some notes and updates from the call:

Illinois
  • Head coach Tim Beckman said the junior college players he brought in helped with depth and age issues on his young team. "We have 40 football players that have never been in our spring football until this year," he said. Of the juco imports, Beckman said wide receiver Martize Barr has quick hands and good playmaking skills, both in the passing game and on kick returns; Eric Finney has earned a starting job at the Star linebacker position; Abe Cajuste is adding depth by playing both defensive tackle and defensive end; and Dallas Hinkhouse is making an impact at offensive tackle.
  • Beckman sung the praises of offensive lineman Corey Lewis, a sixth-year senior who has battled back from five knee surgeries and has become a team leader. "Corey Lewis comes to my office probably four or five times a week, just to talk," he said. "To me, he is what college football is all about." Beckman said that Lewis has "had a special spring" and hinted that he has earned a starting job.
  • Quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole will take most of the snaps in Friday's spring game so they can get more experience in the new offense. Beckman said Scheelhaase has "got a step in front" because of his experience, but the competition continues.
  • Scheelhaase on reasons for optimism in 2013: "Establishing an identity. That's something I don't know that we necessarily had last year, on offense or defense or as a team in general.
Indiana
  • Like many of you, head coach Kevin Wilson would like to know the new Big Ten division alignment. The reason? It's harder to recruit without being able to tell a prospect where he'll be playing his freshman season. Wilson added that if the league does indeed go to an East/West split, he'd like to see the Hoosiers placed in the East since they're located in the Eastern Time Zone.
  • Wilson said run defense and takeaways are two huge priorities for the Hoosiers' defense during the offseason. He noted that the Big Ten doesn't boast a large group of elite pass offenses, so IU must prepare better for run-driven attacks. Indiana finished last in the Big Ten in both run defense (231.3 ypg) and takeaways (13). Cornerback Greg Heban said the defense is working on takeaways every day in practice. "Every time the ball touches the ground, the defense is scooping it and scoring it," Heban said, "trying to give us a feel of what it's like."
  • Both Wilson and Heban praised the play of junior cornerback Tim Bennett this spring. Other spring standouts include linebacker T.J. Simmons, a freshman early enrollee, and Steven Funderburk, a junior-college transfer.
  • Heban called this "easily the best spring I've been around." He has seen more physical play and better effort on both sides of the ball, and the team also is having more fun than in past springs.
Ohio State
  • Head coach Urban Meyer said running back Rod Smith won't play in Saturday's spring game because he recently suffered a concussion. Before that, Meyer said Smith was one of the five most improved players on offense this spring. Meyer listed Carlos Hyde and Smith as the team's top two running backs, while Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball are even for the No. 3 spot.
  • Although the receivers have been better this spring -- especially Corey Brown and Chris Fields -- the depth is still nowhere near where it needs to be for Meyer's spread offense. "We’re way behind on quality of depth at that position," Meyer said. "That's a major, major concern." Moving Jordan Hall to H-back should help, and Meyer noted that the Buckeyes boast two good tight ends in Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett.
  • Buckeyes offensive tackle Jack Mewhort paid close attention to the way John Simon and others led in 2012. He's ready to take on a greater load this season. "I welcome that," he said. "I see that as an honor, being compared to a guy like John Simon. I also see it as a challenge. I feel the pressure to step up and get guys going in the right direction." Mewhort also has seen quarterback Braxton Miller recognize his leadership responsibilities more this spring and get after teammates when he needs to.
  • Meyer said he puts more emphasis on spring practice and the spring game than most coaches. He has told his players that there will be a depth chart after spring ends, and while changes are possible in the summer, they're not likely. "In spring ball, you're trying to win a spot," he said. "During the fall, we're trying to win games."
Penn State
  • Quarterbacks Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson are receiving equal reps during practice and, not surprisingly, have endured some ups and downs. Head coach Bill O'Brien praised both players' intelligence, noting that they aren't making mental errors during workouts. "These guys have had productive practices," O'Brien said. "Has every play been great? No. But the word patience is a very important word here. Coming from pro football, I definitely have to learn more patience with all these young players. I think I have, but I can do a lot better." Senior guard John Urschel, who was highly entertaining during the teleconference, said he's the wrong person to ask about quarterbacks but praised Bench and Ferguson for picking up the system and showing leadership.
  • Urschel said the first-team offensive line right now consists of himself and Miles Dieffenbach at guard, Ty Howle at center and Donovan Smith and Adam Gress at the tackle spots. Of Howle, he said, "I could talk about Ty all day. If you ask me, he's one of the most underrated players on our team. ... Honestly, when I got here, I thought Ty was the best offensive linemen in our year, of the seven of us." Urschel also said Dieffenbach "started a lot for us last year but really is starting to take his game to the next level."
  • O'Brien said Zach Zwinak would get the start at running back if the season opened now, but all three backs -- Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch -- have had good springs. Lynch, a redshirt freshman, has "improved every single day of spring practice."
  • O'Brien is excited about Penn State's starting linebackers -- Glenn Carson, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman -- but admits the lack of depth at the position is "something I think about 24-7." He said it's vital to get Carson, Hull and Wartman through the rest of the offseason healthy, and hope for contributions from others like Ben Kline and incoming freshman Brandon Bell. Penn State won't shift players to linebackers because "there’s really nobody to move" and will instead closely monitor reps the rest of the spring and in preseason camp.
Purdue
  • Head coach Darrell Hazell said the Boilermakers have made major improvements in the last three and a half weeks. "Anytime you put in three different schemes, there's a little bit of a learning curve for the first couple weeks," he said. "You could see guys start to really get comfortable the last five or six practices."
  • Hazell said he has "three capable guys" right now at quarterback with Rob Henry, Danny Etling and Austin Appleby. He reiterated that he would keep the competition open until two weeks before the opener at Cincinnati. Of Etling, a freshman early enrollee, Hazell said: "For a young guy, a guy that should be at his prom, I think he's got tremendous poise. He's smart and really studies the game."
  • Hazell said backup tight end Justin Sinz and center Robert Kugler are two guys that have really caught his eye this spring. He called Kugler a "very much a leader on the offensive line."
  • Cornerback Ricardo Allen said Hazell has instilled an "all is one" mentality. "If one person does something, we all have to do it. We all wear black socks. We all wear the same uniform. We all tuck our shirts in. I feel like we're becoming closer as a team, and it's helping us build."
Wisconsin
  • Head coach Gary Andersen confirmed Curt Phillips and Joel Stave have separated themselves in the quarterback competition. It's a "mixed bag" of who takes snaps with the first-team offense, but both will continue to rotate through the rest of the spring and into fall camp. "The way they've separated themselves is simply production," Andersen said. "They know exactly where they sit and so does the rest of the team. … If they put all their friendships aside, their depth chart would look exactly like our depth chart."
  • Andersen praised the offensive line for tackling another transition, as the group works with its fourth position coach (T.J. Woods) since the 2012 Rose Bowl. The line has seen varying looks from the defense in practice and had players move around to different positions, in part because of injuries. Wisconsin had only seven healthy linemen a week ago, but Andersen is hopeful the number will rise to nine or 10 by next week's spring game. "Those kids have grinded through it every single day," Andersen said. "They're a tough-minded group."
  • Badgers senior linebacker Chris Borland said losing defensive end David Gilbert to recurring foot problems is a blow but the team has others to step in like Tyler Dippel, Brendan Kelly and Jesse Hayes, a redshirt sophomore who has stood out this spring.
  • Much like his old boss Urban Meyer, Andersen believes in constant competition and declares winners and losers in each practice. Andersen also mixes in some fun with a dance-off and throwing footballs into trash cans. "Some of them are a little bit quirky, but through the years establish some things we like," he said.
  • Borland said the strength program has brought the biggest changes in the transition to Andersen's staff. Cardiovascular work is stressed more, as is preventative care. Head strength and conditioning coach Evan Simon operates at a faster pace and uses more of an instructional approach than Ben Herbert, who stressed motivation.
The letters have all been signed and the faxes sent in. Signing day is officially over. So how did each Big Ten team do in fulfilling its most pressing needs?

Of course, the real answer to that question won't come for another one, two or even three years. But we'll take a stab now at figuring out how league teams addressed some glaring concerns, beginning with the Leaders Division. Adam will look at the Legends teams a little bit later in the blog.

INDIANA

Needs met: It's no secret that the Hoosiers desperately needed reinforcements on defense. They focused on that in this class with 13 of their 22 signees on that side of the ball, plus four players labeled for now as "athletes." That includes six defensive linemen and four linebackers for a team that must improve its front seven.

Holes remaining: After finishing with one of the worst rushing attacks in the Big Ten, Indiana signed only one true running back -- Daryl Chestnut -- in this class.

ILLINOIS

Needs met: After a disastrous 2-10 season where nothing went right, the Illini needed help everywhere, especially at the offensive skill spots. They signed five juco transfers for some immediate assistance and some speed to run the spread offense, including future starting quarterback Aaron Bailey.

Holes remaining: Illinois lost linebacker recruit Reggie Spearman to Iowa and didn't sign anyone at that position, though it had two freshmen starters there last year.

OHIO STATE

Needs met: Speed, speed, speed. Urban Meyer wanted a whole lot more of it, especially at the offensive skill positions. And that's exactly what he got in receivers Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson, James Clark and Corey Smith. The Buckeyes should also be able to stop the pass with defensive backs Eli Apple, Gareon Conley, Vonn Bell and Cam Burrows among the standouts in this class.

Holes remaining: Very few, as you'd expect with one of the nation's top classes. Ohio State signed only two offensive linemen, but the Buckeyes addressed that position group in the 2012 class.

PENN STATE

Needs met: The Nittany Lions had to get two quarterbacks in this class, and they managed to land the top-rated quarterback in the land in Christian Hackenberg as well as junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson. The team also needed to add some talent to the secondary and brought in four defensive backs.

Holes remaining: The Lions are bringing in only one running back, though they have last year's signee Akeel Lynch, along with Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak returning. With severe scholarship limitations, Penn State's holes will revolve around depth. The team has to be selective and hope its run-on program produces some gems.

PURDUE

Needs met: The Boilermakers needed reinforcements in the backfield after losing two senior quarterbacks and with a thin tailback corps. Their two top recruits in this class are pro-style QB Danny Etling and running back Keyante Green. The Boilers also added running backs Keith Byars II, David Yancey and Dalyn Dawkins.

Holes remaining: Purdue signed just one offensive lineman in this class (Jason Tretter). That's an area new coach Darrell Hazell will have to address in next year's class.

WISCONSIN

Needs met: The Badgers needed to restock the secondary after losing three starters from the 2012 team. They signed five defensive backs, including early enrollees Keelon Brookins and Sojourn Shelton. Wisconsin also got a potential impact defensive end in Alec James and possibly the latest in a long line of star running backs in Corey Clement.

Holes remaining: Wisconsin could still use a bit more playmaking at the wide receiver position after struggling to find complements to Jared Abbrederis last season. The Badgers will hope Robert Wheelwright and Jazz Peavy provide some help. Neither was a highly rated recruit -- but then again, the highly productive Abbrederis was a walk-on. And although you wouldn't expect Wisconsin to need more offensive linemen, new coach Gary Andersen said the team is a couple of linemen short of the ideal number after signing three in this class.
Penn State has signed larger and more decorated recruiting classes than the 2013 version, and brought in more big names. But the program has never faced NCAA sanctions, including scholarship reductions and postseason probation. Under the circumstances, the 17-member recruiting class PSU signed Wednesday might be one of the most impressive in team history. Penn State brought in star power like quarterback Christian Hackenberg and tight end Adam Breneman, retained most of its top recruits and addressed several needs. Head coach Bill O'Brien and his assistants have received a lot of praise for their first recruiting class of the sanction era, and deservedly so.

ESPN.com caught up with O'Brien on Wednesday to discuss the class.

[+] EnlargeO'Brien
Reese Strickland/US PresswireCoach Bill O'Brien says Penn State filled immediate needs with its recruiting class.
How did you guys keep this class together with all the challenges you had?

Bill O'Brien: I think it has a lot to do with two groups of people. Really the assistant coaches here, and then the prospects and their families that we signed. We started early on these guys, and we began to develop relationships with these guys right when I was hired here. And then we just began to keep grinding out those relationships. We never missed a phone call, we never missed an opportunity to talk to somebody that was influential in this young man's life. You have to give a lot of credit to our assistant coaches, and then give a lot of credit to these guys and their families who stuck with us.

Was there ever a point where you started to worry, or did you have faith all along that you'd keep the group together?

BO'B: I was certainly concerned when the sanctions came out. That day in July, I was definitely concerned. What happened was a group of guys who were committed to us, about eight guys, they drove up here to State College and they met with us that weekend, maybe two days after the sanctions came out, and that was a very productive meeting. They reaffirmed their commitment to me and to our football program. So that was when I began to say, 'As long as we work at it and we stay with these guys and we stay committed and they stay committed, we'll be OK.' Right after that, it got a little bit better.

How did the season itself affect keeping guys on board or bringing in interest from other recruits?

BO'B: Winning always helps. Any time you can go out and win eight out of your last 10 games -- we were on TV all the time, or these guys were actually at the game and they saw that atmosphere, that winning locker room and the atmosphere at Beaver Stadium -- that's a very positive thing for any football program.

What's the significance of Christian signing with you guys at the quarterback spot?

BO'B: It's really important. At the end of the day, Christian comes from a great family and he's just a really good person who has got a lot of talent and is going to come in here and make us a better football program. It's important that all these other guys, not just Christian, stayed committed to us. That was such a big, big thing for us. We owe a lot to those guys and their families. We're proud that they stayed with us.

How does he fit what you want to do on offense?

BO'B: He definitely fits what we're looking for. He's a tall guy who's athletic. He's an accurate passer, he's smart, he's competitive, he's made plays in big games, he's run 2-minute drills in high school to win games. So we feel really good about him. We felt good about him right from the start. He was the No. 1 guy we went after, and we were able to get him. It says a lot about him, and it says a lot about us. He fits our system to a T.

(Read full post)

NittanyNation links: WR transfers to PSU

August, 17, 2012
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Josh Moyer writes: Akron WR Jared Fagnano, brother of Penn State safety Jake Fagnano, recently bucked a trend and transferred from his school to Penn State, where he knew an opportunity awaited him.

Moyer Insider: NittanyNation retraces Weeks 6-10 in the junior season of the nation’s No. 1 quarterback, Penn State commit Christian Hackenberg. (Part of a series)

Moyer: Five questions with ... Insider: Penn State Class of 2013 commit Brandon Bell committed to the Nittany Lions in June, and between player names now being printed on the Nits’ jerseys and getting to know coach Bill O’Brien, the three-star linebacker finds everything about his college choice to be pretty cool.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 8, 2012
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Links from Mars:

Big Ten lunch links

June, 14, 2012
6/14/12
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We always called each other good fellas. Like you said to, uh, somebody: You're gonna like this guy. He's all right. He's a good fella.

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