Big Ten: Danny Etling
Sophomore quarterback Danny Etling sat down to a plate of grilled chicken and green beans Monday night while he and the rest of Purdue’s quarterbacks chatted about video games, hockey and stats class.
“We’ve never talked about the competition,” Etling told ESPN.com. “Whoever wins the job, there's support behind [him]. There’s no animosity or hostility. I don’t think you’d even be able to tell we’re in a competition by the way we act, but we’re big competitors when we step on the field.”
There’s no room for disagreement on this team because it knows -- just as its T-shirts were emblazoned with the word “Forward” during winter workouts -- that it needs to move on from one of the worst seasons in school history. The Boilermakers finished 1-11, while their offense was last in the Big Ten in scoring, total yards and pass efficiency. Only four teams in the FBS scored fewer points (14.9 ppg) or finished with fewer yards (282.9 ypg).
That’s a big reason for this open competition. As a freshman, Etling started the final seven games and showed flashes of greatness in the last three. But there’s no job security for a team whose only win came on a nail-biter against Indiana State. And there can be no hurt feelings or sense of entitlement among a group of quarterbacks who told ESPN.com that any turnaround has to start with them.
“It’s pretty special how our group of quarterbacks is able to support each other the way that we do,” Appleby said. “But make no mistake; our competition is very, very heated. It’s fierce; it’s nasty. When we’re on the field, it’s go-time. But when we step away from those white lines, we’re our closest supporters.”
This trio of signal-callers, all of whom earned invitations to the Elite 11 while in high school, spend every day together in the film room, at dinner, in dorm rooms and even in class. (Appleby and Etling sit next to one another in a statistics class.) They’ll regularly challenge each other to contests involving push-ups or pull-ups. And even during their off time, they’re either trash talking while playing Madden or strategizing for the next day.
Spring practice starts Thursday and, throughout this week, Purdue’s quarterbacks have taken turns approaching teammates at lunch or exchanging texts to set up times to meet one-on-one to go over the playbook. They’ve pored over film and assignments, hoping the extra work allows quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator John Shoop to do more than just pick up where he left off in November.
“Even Shoop was a bit taken aback by all their work. He grabbed a coffee Tuesday morning and decided to get a head-start in the film room at a “doggone early hour” -- Etling was already there, with his feet kicked up on the chair in front of him. And, Shoop added, such a scene isn’t unusual. Etling arrives early and turns the lights on at the facility; Appleby stays late and turns them off.
We've never talked about the competition. Whoever wins the job, there's support behind [him]. There's no animosity or hostility. I don't think you'd even be able to tell we're in a competition by the way we act, but we're big competitors when we step on the field.” -- Danny Etling on Purdue's QB competition
“I coached 12 years in the NFL,” Shoop said, “and these guys work as hard as any quarterbacks I’ve been around. That’s going to serve them – and us – well. It’s challenging to stimulate them every day because they just always want more.”
That’s not to say it’s all work for Purdue’s quarterbacks. They try to find fun in everything, and they’ve even taken to devising “the milkshake game” to unwind after their daily 3:30 p.m. film session. The game is basically Purdue football’s answer to basketball’s H-O-R-S-E. Each quarterback will call his shot, like hitting a Gatorade bottle from 30 yards away, and the others will try to mimic it. First one to three wins; loser has to bring the other two some milkshakes.
It’s that kind of chemistry, that kind of relationship, that can’t be faked. And Etling laughed while recalling the most recent result.
“David lost; he’s in milkshake debt,” he said. “He tried to give us ice cream and milk at the training table and I’m like, ‘David, are you kidding me?’ ”
There seems to be no jealousy in West Lafayette, Ind. Appleby said he’s preparing to be the starter, but he plans to help his two friends no matter what the result. Ditto for Etling. Shoop said he knows his quarterbacks and, even though a starter might not be named until the summer, he knows they’re getting along just fine – and that an open competition is just what they need.
“I don’t think they’d have it any other way,” Shoop said.
Added Etling, in a separate interview: “You always have to earn your job; you want the best guy on the field. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Illinois: The Illini are looking for more from this group after losing top target Steve Hull, who exploded late in the season to finish just shy of 1,000 receiving yards. While running back Josh Ferguson (50 catches in 2013) will continue to contribute, Illinois could use a boost from Martize Barr, who arrived with high expectations but only had 26 receptions last fall. Another junior-college transfer, Geronimo Allison, could make an impact beginning this spring, but there's some mystery at wideout. Illinois looks more solid at tight end with seniors Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.
Indiana: Despite the somewhat surprising early departure of All-Big Ten selection Cody Latimer, Indiana should be fine here. Shane Wynn is the veteran of the group after recording 633 receiving yards on 46 catches last season. Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson also depart, so Indiana will be leaning more on Nick Stoner and Isaiah Roundtree. The Hoosiers have high hopes for early enrollee Dominique Booth, a decorated recruit who could fill Latimer's spot on the outside. Productive tight end Ted Bolser departs and several players will compete, including early enrollee Jordan Fuchs.
Iowa: Almost all the wide receivers are back from a group in which none eclipsed more than 400 receiving yards in 2013. Balance is nice, but separation could be nicer for the Hawkeyes this spring. Kevonte Martin-Manley is the most experienced wideout and has 122 career receptions. Tevaun Smith also returns, and Iowa fans are excited about big-play threat Damond Powell, who averaged 24.2 yards on only 12 receptions last season. Iowa loses its top red-zone target in tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and will need Jake Duzey to deliver more Ohio State-like performances.
Maryland: When the Terrapins get healthy, they might have the Big Ten's best wide receiving corps. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, both of whom sustained broken legs against Wake Forest last season, have the ability to stretch the field as both averaged more than 15 yards per reception before the injuries struck. Leading receiver Levern Jacobs also returns, alongside junior Nigel King and sophomore Amba Etta-Tawo, who averaged more than 16 yards per catch in 2013. Marcus Leak, who started seven games in 2012, rejoins the team after a year away. The Terps are unproven at tight end after losing Dave Stinebaugh.
Michigan: There's a reason why some Michigan fans want Devin Gardner to return to wide receiver for his final season. The Wolverines are thin on the perimeter after losing Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo. Redshirt sophomores Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh are both candidates to start, and Dennis Norfleet could be the answer in the slot. But there's plenty of opportunity for younger players like Drake Harris, an early enrollee. Michigan's best pass-catching option, Devin Funchess, is listed as a tight end but plays more like a receiver. The Wolverines will be without their second-string tight end, Jake Butt, who suffered an ACL tear in winter conditioning.
Michigan State: Remember all the justified angst about this group a year ago? It has pretty much gone away as the Spartans wideouts rebounded nicely in 2013. Bennie Fowler departs, but MSU brings back its top two receivers in Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings, who showed explosiveness down the stretch last fall. Aaron Burbridge had a bit of a sophomore slump but provides another option alongside veteran Keith Mumphery, who averaged 16.6 yards per catch in 2013. Josiah Price leads the tight end group after a solid freshman season.
Minnesota: Here's a group to watch during spring practice, particularly the wide receivers. Minnesota has proven it can run the ball and defend under Jerry Kill, but the passing game was putrid in 2013, ranking last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally. Youth is partly to blame, and while the Gophers still lack experience, they can expect more from promising players like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones. Senior Isaac Fruechte provides a veteran presence. Minnesota looks solid at tight end with sophomore Maxx Williams, the team's receiving yards leader (417) in 2013.
Nebraska: The Huskers lose a significant piece in Quincy Enunwa, who led the team in receiving yards (753) and had three times as many receiving touchdowns (12) as anyone else in 2013. Kenny Bell is set to recapture the No. 1 receiver role, which he had in 2012, and comes off of a 52-catch season as a junior. Nebraska must build around Bell this spring with players like the mustachioed Jordan Westerkamp, who had 20 catches as a freshman, including a rather memorable one to beat Northwestern. Will Jamal Turner turn the corner this offseason? Juniors Sam Burtch and Taariq Allen also return. Cethan Carter started six games at tight end last fall and should take over the top spot there as Jake Long departs.
Northwestern: The passing game fell short of expectations in 2013, but there's reason for optimism as Northwestern returns its top three pass-catchers in Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Dan Vitale. The two Joneses (no relation), who combined for 109 catches in 2013, lead the receiving corps along with junior Cameron Dickerson. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler provides a playmaking spark, possibly at slot receiver. Vitale, who had a somewhat disappointing sophomore season, has All-Big Ten potential at the superback (tight end) spot. Although Northwestern rarely plays true freshmen, superback Garrett Dickerson, Cameron's brother, could see the field right away.
Ohio State: A group that drew heavy criticism from coach Urban Meyer two springs ago is stockpiling talent. Devin Smith is the familiar name, a big-play senior who has started each of the past two seasons and boasts 18 career touchdowns. Ohio State must replace top wideout Corey Brown and will look for more from Evan Spencer. Michael Thomas has stood out in practices but must translate his performance to games. This could be a breakout year for H-back Dontre Wilson, who averaged nine yards per touch as a freshman. Buckeyes fans are eager to see redshirt freshmen Jalin Marshall and James Clark, and incoming players like Johnnie Dixon could make a splash right away. Ohio State returns an elite tight end in Jeff Heuerman.
Penn State: The Lions have very different depth situations at receiver and tight end. They're looking for contributors on the perimeter after losing Allen Robinson, the Big Ten's top wide receiver the past two seasons, who accounted for 46 percent of the team's receiving production in 2013. Brandon Felder also departs, leaving Geno Lewis as the likeliest candidate to move into a featured role. Richy Anderson also returns, but there will be plenty of competition/opportunity at receiver, a position new coach James Franklin targeted in recruiting with players like Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. Things are much more stable at tight end as the Lions return three talented players in Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman.
Purdue: If you're looking for hope at Purdue, these spots aren't bad places to start. There are several promising young players like receiver DeAngelo Yancey, who recorded a team-leading 546 receiving yards as a freshman. Cameron Posey also had a decent freshman year (26 catches, 297 yards), and Danny Anthrop averaged 18.4 yards as a sophomore. A full offseason with quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby should help the group. Tight end also should be a strength as Justin Sinz, who led Purdue with 41 catches last season, is back along with Gabe Holmes, who returns after missing most of 2013 with a wrist injury.
Rutgers: The good news is tight end Tyler Kroft returns after leading Rutgers in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last season. Kroft will immediately contend for All-Big Ten honors. Things are murkier at wide receiver, where top contributors Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt both depart. Leonte Carroo took a nice step as a sophomore, averaging 17.1 yards per catch and enters the spring as the frontrunner to become the team's No. 1 wideout. Ruhann Peele is another promising young receiver for the Scarlet Knights, who boast size with Carlton Agudosi (6-foot-6) and Andre Patton (6-4).
Wisconsin: The quarterback competition will gain more attention this spring, but Wisconsin's receiver/tight end situation could be more critical. The Badgers lose Jared Abbrederis, their only major threat at receiver the past two seasons, as well as top tight end Jacob Pedersen. Players like Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe must translate their experience into greater production, and Wisconsin will look for more from young receivers like Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright. Help is on the way as Wisconsin signed five receivers in the 2014 class, but wideout definitely is a position of concern right now. Sam Arneson is the logical candidate to step in for Pedersen, but there should be competition as the Badgers lose a lot at the position.
Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
- 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
- Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26
What to watch:
- A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
- Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
- Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
- Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
- Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
- Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
- Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
- Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
- Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
- Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
- Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
- Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
- New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.
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Graig from Indianapolis writes: Who has the edge in the quarterback competition at Purdue: Blough, Etling or Appleby? Do any of them potentially change positions?
Adam Rittenberg: Graig, I'd give Danny Etling an edge because he played so much as a true freshman last year and can grow from his experiences, despite the team's struggles. Etling clearly has the talent to be Purdue's starter, and he has better reference points than both Austin Appleby (has barely played) and David Blough (true freshman, no game experience). That doesn't mean Appleby and Blough are out of the mix, and the competition this spring should be open. I like the confidence in the QB group, and I'd be surprised if any of the three moves positions. It's more likely one transfers than shifts to a different spot.
Anthony from Washington, D.C., writes: Adam, How can you write an entire article, one in which you take a strong position against the unionization of Northwestern's football players, and not mention the word "revenue" once? Furthermore, the fact Northwestern isn't "ground zero" of this issue is another case of a talking head oversimplifying a situation into moral relativism -- 'It's not the perfect example, which makes it imperfect.' At best, your latest article is incredibly conservative, and at worst it's downright ignorant to the bigger picture at stake here. It's fine to be against the unionization of college athletics, just do us a favor and at least mention the fact the coaches are highly paid employees of the university, and yet perform ZERO educational function.
Adam Rittenberg: Anthony, it's your opinion that coaches perform zero educational function. I'm not naive about their salaries, which are ridiculously high, or their primary objective, which is to win championships and bring positive attention -- and money -- to their schools. But many football coaches have a profound influence on educating and developing players for the real world. Players have told me this every year as they finish their college careers. Why do you think so many former Penn State players came out in support of Joe Paterno? It's an unfair generalization to say coaches are simply high earners who perform no educational function.
My point about Northwestern is while the school generates plenty of revenue through its Big Ten affiliation, players are not being exploited there. They have restrictions, just like anyone choosing to participate in an organization, but they also receive benefits. Should they get more from their scholarships? Absolutely. Should they get long-term medical care and a voice in discussions about issues affecting their well-being? Absolutely. But unionization isn't the answer here.
Tom from Chicago writes: What are the chances of Damion Terry seeing the field for the Spartans this year?
Adam Rittenberg: Tom, I think there's a very good chance. Terry won't leapfrog Connor Cook as the team's starting quarterback unless Cook is injured, but Michigan State's coaching staff sees the value in having more mobility at quarterback and a potential change-up guy in Terry. He gives defenses a different look and someone else to prepare for, whether he lines up as a traditional quarterback, a Wildcat quarterback or at another position.
Tom from 50 miles due east of the Memorial Stadium press box: Hey Adam, when Delany or the ADs are talking about stadium attendance do they ever mention the pace of the game? I could care less about Wi-Fi, I don't mind if only the scores of other games are updated, so what if we just keep trotting out the same tired band show (that tired show is the pride of all Nebraska you know)? But 3.5-4 hours is too long for me to deal with my allotted 20 inches of concrete bench and less knee room than coach. The league should push for fewer commercial breaks in their next deal. Huskervision replays every single play in the stadium with a sponsor shown before each one. There no reason the networks can't sell that time, too. Sell the booth reviews, sell the first down line, go the baseball route and sell green screen ads along the field, just keep the game moving so I don't have to sit through 4 hours of NU v Northern Middle Podunk State A&M.
Adam Rittenberg: Does Northern Middle Podunk State A&M have a mascot? Tom, you're not the first person to bring up the slow pace as a detriment to the in-game experience. Ultimately, TV drives the bus, and sponsoring replays vs. 30-second commercials isn't really comparable in terms of revenue generation. There are some efforts being made to speed up the games themselves (independent of commercial breaks), but some of the clock rule changes implemented in 2006 received heavy criticism and ultimately were overturned. I agree that game can be shortened a bit, and efforts must continue there, but I'd be surprised if commercial stoppages are cut.
Robert from Cambria, Wis., writes: I keep hearing about NFL teams contacting college coaches (i.e. Browns and G. Andersen) and colleges contacting each other’s' coaches (i.e. Arkansas and Bielema). Is there some football coaches directory that any team can look up some coach's private number? Some ADs, like Alvarez, seem to be total surprise at their coach's departure. How do they contact them and negotiate without tipping anyone else off?
Adam Rittenberg: Welcome to the agent world, Robert. Every college coach has an agent or at least an attorney who acts as a middleman in some of these interactions. It's very rare that schools will initiate contact directly with the coach right away, although there are some cases where it happens. But those making the hires, whether they're ADs or general managers, always have lists of potential candidates in case they have vacancies. A lot of the contact information is gathered in advance so schools can act quickly.
You don't need to be a Purdue historian to know that the program's spikes in success are tied to its star quarterbacks, from Bob Griese in the mid 1960s to Mark Herrmann in the late 1970s to Drew Brees from 1997-2000. Even average Boilers teams had productive signal-callers, from Bob DeMoss to Len Dawson to Gary Danielson to Jim Everett to Kyle Orton to Curtis Painter.
Purdue lacks the luxuries or location to consistently build great teams with defense or the run game. Although the program bills itself as the "Den of Defensive Ends," and for good reason, it's more significant nickname is "Cradle of Quarterbacks." Fifteen Purdue quarterbacks have moved on to the NFL, accounting for more starts and throwing for more yards than those from any other FBS program.
"The entire quarterback room has a big responsibility in turning this whole culture around," quarterback Danny Etling told ESPN.com. "Any time you've ever had success at Purdue, you've always had a very good quarterback at the helm. That shows with our Rose Bowls. It was Bob Griese and Drew Brees. So in order for Purdue to be successful, the quarterback position has to be playing very, very strong."
Growing up in Terre Haute, Ind., Etling needed no education on Purdue's quarterback tradition. Boiler quarterbacks dominate the passing section of the Big Ten record book, occupying the top four spots in single-season yards and four of the top eight spots in career yards.
But last season, Purdue finished last in the Big Ten and 119th nationally in both scoring (14.9 points per game) and total offense (282.9 yards per game). It ranked 106th in team passing efficiency.
"At Purdue, you're the focal point of why a team is going to be successful or not," Etling said. "I'd rather have that on my shoulders. I'd rather have to be the big man on campus having to take control of a team and try to lead them, throwing it 30, 40 times a game instead of handing the ball off a bunch. That's what Purdue has a history of doing."
Purdue's history is what lured Etling, rated by ESPN RecruitingNation as the country's No. 12 quarterback in the 2013 class. Austin Appleby grew up in North Canton, Ohio, as a big Ohio State fan, but he also knew about Purdue's reputation for producing NFL quarterbacks.
The same draw also helped Purdue land 2014 recruit David Blough, who, like Brees, hails from Texas. Blough, who stood out at the prestigious Elite 11 finals last summer, has already enrolled at Purdue, like Etling did last winter.
"We have three Elite 11 quarterbacks right now, three pretty highly touted guys and it's not by mistake," Appleby said. "There's such a tradition here for good quarterbacks. Danny, David and myself, we're all genuinely good people. We love to work and we love to push each other. You won't find a time where you walk into the film room and one of us isn't in there. That's the thing that has separated us, aside from the talent."
Appleby and Etling both competed alongside Rob Henry for the starting job last spring and summer. Henry got the nod for the opener, but after a 1-3 start, Purdue turned to Etling, who started the final seven games.
Although Etling showed some promise, especially in his final three games when he competed 66.7 percent of his passes for 871 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions, he'll need to beat out both Appleby and Blough when spring ball kicks off March 6.
"We didn't have the season we wanted, and I don't think any job is safe," Appleby said. "That’s one of the best things that could possibly happen to this team. There needs to be a sense of urgency in the program that we are going to turn things around and we're going in a certain direction. You either need to get with us or you need to get outta here. That's been explained to us from the top.
"It's enough talk. We've got to be men of action."
The quarterbacks are taking charge this winter, from meeting with receivers and linemen to review routes and protections to organizing 7-on-7 sessions in the indoor facility. They've also tried to set examples with some of the off-field policies coach Darrell Hazell implemented after his arrival, such as sitting in the front row of classes and not wearing hats indoors.
"The quarterback has to set the tone," Etling said. "The tone is set by the strong, and we're a very, very strong quarterback room, I believe, one of the better ones in the country."
Etling wasn't pleased with his play last fall and has set several goals for his sophomore season: 3,000 passing yards, a completion percentage well above 60 and, the most ambitious, 30 completions per game -- "whether we call 35 passes or 50," he said. He has worked on his timing with receivers and wants to make quicker decisions, whether it's on downfield shots or checkdowns.
Although Appleby appeared in just two games last season, completing five of six attempts, his approach to be the starter hasn't changed. He thinks he knows the offense as well as the coaches.
"There's always an urgency," Appleby said. "I'm looking to get this program back on the right track, and it's going to go through the quarterback position."
Northwestern recorded 10 wins in 2012 while rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Indiana led the Big Ten and ranked ninth nationally in total offense last fall while alternating between Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld.
Quarterback rotations can be successful in the short term, but they are rarely sustainable or desirable. We saw this at Northwestern last fall, as the Wildcats never established a consistent offensive rhythm and operated with a reduced playbook, in part because of injuries but also because the unit lacked a clear identity. Northwestern finished 10th in the league in scoring.
Minnesota alternated between quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner during several games, including the Texas Bowl against Syracuse. Although the Gophers had a nice surge during Big Ten play and recorded eight wins, they also finished 11th in the league in scoring and last in passing.
Nebraska had some success using two quarterbacks (Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III) last season but did so out of necessity following Taylor Martinez's injury. The Huskers also struggled to pass the ball, finishing 11th in the league.
The strongest argument for picking a quarterback and sticking with him comes from the Big Ten's best team in 2013. Michigan State's offense was a train wreck in non-league play as the Spartans used three quarterbacks. After a Week 4 loss to Notre Dame, the coaches decided Connor Cook would be their guy. You all know what happened next, but what struck me was Cook's mindset at the time.
"We went through spring ball competition and fall camp competition, it was the most stressed out I've ever been in my entire life just trying to be the quarterback," Cook said last month before the Rose Bowl. "After I got the starting job and started a couple of games, the stress went away and it turned to focus, me being focused and knowing they're not going to use other quarterbacks in the game and not stress too much that go if I make a bad play I'm going to be pulled.
"That's when the stress went out the window."
Players like Northwestern's Siemian and Indiana's Roberson and Sudfeld are more accustomed to sharing time than Cook was, but each of them, like any quarterback, would rather be the clear-cut starter.
Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase is another good example of a player who benefited from an unambiguous role. He struggled from the middle of the 2011 season through all of 2012, raising the possibility of a rotation last season. Instead, Scheelhaase started every game and led the Big Ten in passing (3,272 yards).
I'm also OK with teams employing change-up quarterbacks for a package of plays, be it the Wildcat or something else. Michigan State could be a candidate for this in 2014 with dynamic redshirt freshman Damion Terry possibly spelling Cook from time to time.
The first few games also provide a platform to use multiple quarterbacks in settings that can't be replicated on the practice field. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel often did this with his younger quarterbacks, giving them a first-half series or two. It makes sense. But by Week 4, roles must be identified.
The offseason is full of Big Ten quarterback questions:
- Will Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt take the reins at Illinois?
- How will Gardner and Hackenberg fare with new offensive coordinators?
- After Nelson's transfer, who emerges at Minnesota among Leidner, Chris Streveler and possibly a young quarterback such as Dimonic McKinzy?
- Nebraska's Armstrong went 6-1 as a freshman starter, but can he hold off Johnny Stanton?
- Can Gary Nova retain his job at Rutgers?
- Will Danny Etling keep the top job at Purdue, or will Austin Appleby and possibly early enrollee David Blough enter the mix?
- How does Siemian bounce back at Northwestern, and do the Wildcats look at Matt Alviti and Zack Oliver?
- Will either Roberson or Sudfeld finally separate himself at IU?
Ultimately, these questions must be answered. The teams that avoid prolonged rotations should be better off for it.
Taking center stage now in our series: the Purdue Boilermakers.
1. Improve the running game: Darrell Hazell's offensive philosophy revolves around a power run game, but Purdue fell far short of fulfilling that vision in 2013. The Boilermakers ranked last in the Big Ten and 122nd out of 123 FBS teams in rushing yardage at a pathetic 67.1 per game. The offensive line was not at the caliber needed to compete in the Big Ten, getting pushed around physically and giving up 38 sacks to boot. Purdue's leading rusher, Akeem Hunt, managed just 464 yards on the season. Hazell is not changing his basic plan, as evidenced by his retention of offensive coordinator John Shoop. So the Boilers are going to have to figure out a way to execute it much, much better this offseason.
2. Make a massive leap in the front seven on defense: Purdue was nearly as bad at stopping the run as it was in moving the ball on the ground. The Boilermakers ranked 114th nationally in rush defense and were second to last in the FBS in third-down defense. Linebacker has been a below-average position for the program the past couple of years. Three starters on the defensive line -- Bruce Gaston, Ryan Isaac and Greg Latta -- graduate. Recruiting is ultimately the answer in fixing this defense, but Hazell has to rebuild with young players now.
3. Let the QB competition play out: Freshman quarterback Danny Etling was one of the lone bright spots for the team in 2013. But young players need competition to get better, and after going winless as a starter, Etling needs to continue to be pushed. Early enrollee David Blough is a highly regarded prospect who should get a chance to earn first-team reps this spring and summer, along with holdover Austin Appleby. Hazell and Purdue need to foster an environment of competition, and that starts at quarterback.
More to-do lists
Let's get started ...
1. Michigan State (13-1, previously: 1): The Spartans rallied to beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO to record their team-record 13th victory. Thanks to stifling defense and improved quarterback play, Michigan State had its best season since the mid-1960s. The Spartans return QB Connor Cook and most of the skill players on offense, but must replace a lot of production on defense.
2. Ohio State (12-2, previously: 2): After winning 24 consecutive games to open the Urban Meyer era, Ohio State dropped consecutive games on big stages. The Buckeyes' defense couldn't slow down Clemson's pass game in the Discover Orange Bowl, and turnovers doomed Ohio State in the second half. Meyer's defensive staff will have a different look with new assistants Chris Ash and Larry Johnson.
3. Wisconsin (9-4, previously: 3): Like Ohio State, Wisconsin ended its season with a thud and a sloppy bowl performance against South Carolina. The Badgers received big performances from running backs Melvin Gordon and James White but couldn't stop South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw or hang on to the football.
4. Nebraska (9-4, previously: 6): All roads lead to 9-4 for Bo Pelini's team, but the Huskers are much happier to be there after an upset victory over Georgia in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. An improved defense did a nice job of keeping the Bulldogs out of the end zone, and seniors such as wide receiver Quincy Enunwa stepped up in their final college game.
5. Iowa (8-5, previously: 4): A stout Hawkeyes defense kept the team in the Outback Bowl, but the offense never truly got going and lost starting quarterback Jake Rudock to injury. Iowa had its chances for a quality bowl win, but has to settle for a strong regular-season improvement and raised expectations entering the 2014 season.
6. Penn State (7-5, previously: 7): An impressive victory at Wisconsin marked the final game of the Bill O'Brien era. New coach James Franklin has brought a lot of enthusiasm to Happy Valley and should sparkle on the recruiting trail. His management of talented quarterback Christian Hackenberg and an undermanned defense will loom large this fall.
7. Minnesota (8-5, previously: 5): The Gophers had by far the most favorable bowl matchup but didn't reach the end zone for more than three quarters against Syracuse. Although a special-teams play ultimately doomed Minnesota, the Gophers' inability to establish a better passing game was a key element in a very disappointing loss. Minnesota should expect more in 2014.
8. Michigan (7-6, previously: 8): You knew it would be tough for Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl when quarterback Devin Gardner hobbled off of the plane on crutches. But the Wolverines never gave themselves a chance in the game, caving defensively against Kansas State's Jake Waters and Tyler Lockett. A blowout loss ended Michigan's highly disappointing season and marked the end for offensive coordinator Al Borges. Can coach Brady Hoke get things turned around in 2014?
9. Northwestern (5-7, previously: 9): Northwestern is awaiting confirmation that running back Venric Mark can return for a fifth season, and should get it in the next few weeks. Mark will help an offense that never truly got on track last fall and might need to be more of a pass-first unit if Trevor Siemian remains the starting quarterback. The defense returns nine starters.
10. Indiana (5-7, previously: 10): It took a little longer than expected, but coach Kevin Wilson fired defensive coordinator Doug Mallory last week as Indiana again will try to upgrade a perennially porous unit. The Hoosiers will be more experienced throughout the roster this fall, but the defense must change the script under new leadership as they enter the brutal East Division.
11. Illinois (4-8, previously: 11): While Wilson made a change at defensive coordinator, coach Tim Beckman is sticking with Tim Banks and the rest of his staff for a pivotal 2014 season. Like Indiana, Illinois will be more experienced on defense but must replace Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback. A favorable schedule gives Illinois a chance to make a bowl game.
12. Purdue (1-11, previously: 12): No Big Ten team is more excited to start working this offseason than the Boilers, who are rebuilding through the quarterback spot with Danny Etling and early enrollee David Blough, who officially arrived this week. Purdue must improve along both lines and replace veteran defenders such as cornerback Ricardo Allen and tackle Bruce Gaston Jr.
The bloom isn't already off the Hazell rose because he has had just one year in West Lafayette. But the start of his tenure couldn't have gone much worse, as the Boilermakers went 1-11, ranked among the worst FBS teams in most major categories and lost by at least 14 points nine times. They were, frankly, one of the worst Big Ten teams of recent memory, although they did play a challenging schedule. Some freshmen provided bright spots, but this might be a bigger rebuilding project than anyone expected, and Hazell will soon have to prove he's the man for the job.
Offensive MVP: There aren't many candidates to choose from on a team that averaged fewer than 15 points per game this season. But true freshman quarterback Danny Etling at least gave the offense a spark when he assumed the job midway through the Northern Illinois game. He threw for 1,690 yards and 10 touchdowns in eight games and gave Purdue some offseason hope with his 485-yard, four-touchdown performance against Indiana in the finale.
Defensive MVP: Senior cornerback Ricardo Allen tied for the Big Ten lead with six interceptions and also had a forced fumble and four tackles for loss. He holds the Purdue record for interceptions returned for touchdowns. If you consider a punter part of the defense, this award would have gone to Ray Guy finalist Cody Webster. He was probably the team's best player, which tells you something about the Boilers' season.
Best moment: In the third quarter of a prime-time home game against Notre Dame in Week 3, Rob Henry found B.J. Knauf for an 18-yard touchdown pass to give Purdue a 17-10 lead. At that point, the future seemed pretty bright. Unfortunately, the Boilermakers went on to lose by seven points, which was the start of a 10-game losing streak. Henry would move to defense a few weeks later, and Knauf earned a midseason suspension.
Worst moment: A 56-0 loss at home to Ohio State on Nov. 2. The Boilers had played the Buckeyes very tough the past couple of years, including an overtime loss in 2012 in Columbus. But Ohio State, which led 42-0 at halftime before calling off the dogs in the second half, could have named its score this year. The 56-point loss matched the worst defeat in school history.
There's no way to sugarcoat how bad the' offense was for most of the season. Purdue finished last in the Big Ten in scoring at just 14.9 points per game, last in total offense at only 282.9 yards per game and last in rushing at a paltry 67.1 yards per game. Only one FBS team ran the ball more poorly than John Shoop's offense this season.
The Boilers were shut out twice in Big Ten play, by Michigan State and Ohio State, and failed to score more than two touchdowns eight times. The offensive line got no push in the running game and gave up more sacks (38) than all but six teams in the country. The lone good news for the offense was the emergence of true freshman quarterback Danny Etling, who replaced an ineffective Rob Henry in September and at least showed an ability to get the ball downfield. Etling threw for 1,690 yards and had 10 touchdown passes against seven interceptions. He helped the offense make some small strides late but not enough to avoid an F for the season.
The defense was hamstrung by a continually ineffective offense, but it didn't fare much better. The Boilers allowed 38 points per game and surrendered at least 40 on seven occasions. That included a 55-24 loss to Northern Illinois, a 56-0 blowout at the hands of Ohio State and a 56-36 season-ending setback vs. Indiana.
Purdue was decent against the pass but had few answers for opponents' running games, yielding 235 yards per game on the ground. Ricardo Allen had six interceptions to tie for the league lead, but the defense failed to get much pressure on opposing quarterbacks and was highly susceptible to the big play. The defense couldn't get off the field, either, as it came up with stops on third downs just 43.5 percent of the time, second worst in the FBS.
Special teams: B
Thank goodness for Cody Webster and the return game, or this could be an even more dreadful report card for the Boilermakers. Webster was a Ray Guy Award finalist who led the league in punting while averaging nearly six punts per game. Akeem Hunt was second in the Big Ten in kickoff return average, and Purdue was solid on punt returns. But the Boilers ranked last in the league in kickoff coverage, and Paul Griggs made only half of his 12 field goal attempts.
We expected Purdue to struggle this year because of the transition to a new coach and because of a very challenging schedule. But we did not expect a team that had gone to back-to-back bowls under previous coach Danny Hope to so thoroughly bottom out under Hazell. This was, frankly, one of the worst Big Ten teams of recent memory, one that ranked in the bottom of the FBS in nearly every major statistical category and that needed a late stop to beat Indiana State at home to avoid going winless. Hazell deserves time to turn this around, but Year One deserves a failing grade.
More report cards
Grant from San Francisco writes: I couldn't be happier about the news that Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi are apparently staying in East Lansing, and with Dantonio's desire to turn the MSU coaching job into a destination position as Tom Izzo has done with the basketball coaching job. With our dominating defense last year, and some pretty good recruiting wins on that side of the ball moving forward, the perception of stability that this decision gives to the program will be a great motivation tool for the squad heading into the 2014 season.
Brian Bennett: Grant, Michigan State will have the best coaching move of the offseason if Narduzzi stays. I say "if" because the coaching carousel is far from over, and if the dominoes fall he could still be picked to lead another program. But as of right now, it looks as if Narduzzi will come back because there's not a great fit for him out there.
As for the players departing, the Spartans do lose a lot on defense. Defensive end Shilique Calhoun says he won't leave early for the NFL, which is a boost. The great thing for Michigan State is that the program has been able to build depth and move forward when players leave. Look at how Calhoun filled in for William Gholston, for instance. Trae Waynes has a chance to be the next great cornerback. Young guys like Ed Davis, Joel Heath and Lawrence Thomas show a lot of promise.
This is a special group of seniors, however, so it won't be easy to simply plug in new guys. I think the biggest void will be left by Bullough. Narduzzi will tell you he's the on-field brains of the defense and makes checks and adjustments on his own before the coaching staff does. A guy like that is difficult to find. Maybe Riley Bullough, who's moving back to defense, can begin to fill his older brother's shoes.
Rob from New York writes: After a legendarily humiliating season of nothing but complete failures and disastrous breakdowns in front of bleachers where tickets to the half-full first row cost a mere 40 cents at one point, just about the only thing Purdue fans have to be thankful for is that we didn't have any NCAA violation-related scandals this year, and that we managed to spend an entire year without one player tearing their ACL. Please give us Boilermaker fans some pointedly-lowercase hope: First, name one on-the-field task or position (other than punting, since Cody Webster is graduating) where Purdue's football team was at least able to consistently compete at the level that a Big Ten team is expected to do so. Second, if Purdue seems likely to win at least two games next year, name two reasons why this is so. Third, name three reasons why Morgan Burke shouldn't fire Darrell Hazell if he fails to garner a single victory against a Big Ten opponent or against Notre Dame next year.
Brian Bennett: Thanks for asking a Purdue question, Rob, since we haven't gotten many of those around here lately. I sense you're not exactly optimistic, and understandably so since the Boilermakers were just dreadful this past season.
The area of hope for the Boilers is in the passing game. Danny Etling showed a lot of promise as a freshman quarterback despite not having a great offensive line. He threw for 241 yards against Northern Illinois, 223 yards versus Penn State and a whopping 485 yards and four touchdowns vs Indiana. Granted, none of those defenses were actually very good against the pass, but for a 19-year-old to do that in his first collegiate season was still pretty impressive. Purdue also has some decent young receiving targets in DeAngelo Yancey, B.J. Knauf and Danny Anthrop. This program needs to get back to the Joe Tiller days of being able to chuck the ball all over the field.
You should expect some improvement in 2014, though it's probably going to be a slow process. Purdue has Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Southern Illinois on the nonconference schedule, so that's much easier than this year's tough slate. Hazell's team will also compete in the West Division, which looks a little bit easier than the East on paper (though missing Rutgers and Maryland is a bummer).
This was Burke's hire, and much like Mike Thomas at Illinois, he's going to give Hazell every chance to succeed. Two years is too early to bail on any coach unless there's some sort of scandal or gross mismanagement. Hang in there, Rob.
Benny N. from West Palm Beach, Fla., writes: In regards to the Selection Committee next year, how will the season rankings be determined? Will the committee determine rankings from week 1 on, or similar to the BCS will the committee come in midway through the season and give the "official" rankings? Yes, my Buckeyes still have a game to play but my mind can only think about next season.
Brian Bennett: At least your Buckeyes are playing close to your home, Benny. I'm excited about going down there and enjoying some warm weather and what looks like a pretty fun Discover Orange Bowl.
Anyway, according to what the committee has said, it will release a collective Top 25 every other week during the second half of the season. I find this wholly unnecessary. Why do we need to know who the committee thinks is ranked No. 25 when the members will only select four teams? Why does the committee need to start forming opinions about how to rank teams in October when it should consider a team's full body of work in December?
We've seen how the pollsters become entrenched on teams they ranked higher than others earlier. The basketball selection committee does not release any kind of poll and picks 68 teams for its tournament. This seems like a bad idea that will only serve to generate controversy and fodder for sports columns and blogs.
Wait. I mean, it's a great idea!
Bob N. from Grand Ledge, Mich., writes: You don't think the Coach's Poll is valid because "there still would be inherent conflicts of interest involving teams in a coach's own conference, his opponents, friends, etc." That may be true, but I trust coaches' knowledge of football far more than I do sports writers' knowledge. In fact most AP voters vote for teams they have never seen play and, therefore, have zero knowledge of more than a few teams. The writers are also obviously extremely prejudicial also about the conferences they write for,e.g., the SEC and ACC writers are all in for teams below the Mason-Dixon Line, but have disrespected the Big Ten all year, especially MSU. If sports writers knew what they think they do, they would be football coaches.
Brian Bennett: Bob, I've never pretended to know anywhere near as much about football as the coaches. Nor do I want to be a coach, because I like sleeping for more than three hours per night. If the coaches spent time watching lots of games from around the country, they would do a great job voting in a poll (although there would still be ridiculous conflicts of interest).
But the fact is coaches have insane tunnel vision. They know their team, and they know their opponents, and that's about it. This has happened many times before: A reporter asks a coach about another team in his own conference during the season, and if that team either isn't on the schedule or doesn't appear on the schedule for several weeks, the coach will say he hasn't seen that team and knows nothing about it. The only time coaches really ever watch anyone outside of their own schedule is on bye weeks, and it's a known fact that many coaches have their sports information directors or operations guys fill out the ballot for them.
All polls are horribly flawed. The coaches' poll just happens to be the most flawed. And its usefulness has ended.
Dave from Columbus, Ohio, writes: If you had to a pick a "Freshman Future All American" team right now, who from the B1G would be on it? In other words, which freshmen can you see being All Americans in the next year or so? Joey Bosa just turned into a beast this year. Michigan's Butt seems like a really good player, too. Anyone else?
Brian Bennett: Bosa would be up there. I'm wildly impressed with him, and it's hard to not get a J.J. Watt/Ryan Kerrigan vibe while watching him. The obvious name here is Penn State's Christian Hackenberg. He could wind up setting a bunch of career records if he stays four years with Bill O'Brien as his coach. His teammate, Adam Breneman, also has all the tools to be one of the nation's best tight ends if he keeps developing.
Watch out for Wisconsin's Corey Clement as well. If Melvin Gordon goes pro early, Clement would likely have the Badgers' starting tailback job next year, and that usually translates into big numbers. It was a solid year for freshmen in the league, as highlighted on our all-freshman team. And that doesn't even count the guys who redshirted this year.
Here it is:
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*
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
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.
Brian Bennett and I had something just as significant, or perhaps more so, on the line in the Wildcats-Illini contest. Thirteen weeks of predictions came down to one game: The winner would enjoy dinner on the loser's tab Friday night in Indianapolis before the Big Ten championship game.
Well, Bennett is the one LOLing after Northwestern ended its seven-game slide with a three-point win against Illinois. I'll be a little lighter in the wallet Friday night after a poor finish to my predictions.
Week 14/Season record
Brian Bennett: 4-2/80-16
Adam Rittenberg: 3-3/79-17
Here's one last look at the Week 14 predictions from us and guest picker Jarrod Reese from Sioux City, Iowa.
It's rewind time ...
Iowa at Nebraska
- Bennett's pick: Nebraska 21, Iowa 17
- Rittenberg: Nebraska 19, Iowa 16
- Actual score: Iowa 38, Nebraska 17
- 20-20 hindsight: A rough start to the review session, as we both missed by a wide margin. Our score predictions for Nebraska weren't far off, but Iowa's defense dominated the game and made things easy for Jake Rudock, Mark Weisman and the Hawkeyes offense. Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah (85 rushing yards, TD) came up well shy of my prediction (130 rush yards, TD).
- Bennett's pick: Michigan State 17, Minnesota 6
- Rittenberg's pick: Michigan State 24, Minnesota 10
- Actual score: Michigan State 14, Minnesota 3
- 20-20 hindsight: Kudos to Bennett for nailing Michigan State's margin of victory and coming close on both teams' scoring totals. Spartans quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford both came up one touchdown shy of our respective predictions for them. Minnesota's defense met Bennett's forecast by forcing two turnovers and preventing the Spartans from finding a rhythm.
- Bennett's pick: Ohio State 35, Michigan 14
- Rittenberg's pick: Ohio State 42, Michigan 13
- Actual score: Ohio State 42, Michigan 41
- 20-20 hindsight: Needless to say, The Game turned out to be much more competitive than we thought. I nailed Ohio State's score but grossly underestimated Michigan, which woke up from its monthlong slumber on offense. Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller threw two touchdown passes, not the three Bennett had predicted, and accounted for five touchdowns, two more than I had predicted for him.
- Bennett's pick: Indiana 51, Purdue 24
- Rittenberg's pick: Indiana 38, Purdue 28
- Actual score: Indiana 56, Purdue 36
- 20-20 hindsight: The Bucket game turned into more of a shootout than either of us envisioned. Purdue freshman quarterback Danny Etling (485 pass yards, 4 TDs) nearly doubled my predicted totals for him (250 pass yards, 2 TDs), and Indiana wide receivers Shane Wynn and Cody Latimer had four combined touchdowns, not three. The Hoosiers racked up 692 yards, eclipsing Bennett's predicted total of 550.
- Bennett's pick: Wisconsin 38, Penn State 14
- Rittenberg's pick: Wisconsin 45, Penn State 17
- Actual score: Penn State 31, Wisconsin 24
- 20-20 hindsight: The most surprising result of the Big Ten season clearly caught us off guard, as Penn State stunned Wisconsin to eliminate the Badgers from BCS at-large contention. Penn State held both James White and Melvin Gordon to less than 100 rushing yards, and Lions freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg torched the Badgers for 339 pass yards and four touchdowns. Other than Bennett predicting a nice game from Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson (eight catches, 122 yards), we completely whiffed on this one.
- Bennett's pick: Northwestern 27, Illinois 24
- Rittenberg's pick: Illinois 24, Northwestern 20
- Actual score: Northwestern 37, Illinois 34
- 20-20 hindsight: Bennett nailed Northwestern's victory margin and correctly pegged Wildcats quarterback Trevor Siemian (414 pass yards, 4 TDs) to shred Illinois' defense. A Jeff Budzien field goal proved to be the difference. Illinois' Steve Hull (155 receiving yards, TD) and Josh Ferguson (110 rush yards, 2 TDs) made big plays, as I predicted, but it wasn't enough.
Ugh, glad that's over. Now let's see how Jarrod fared:
Iowa 23, Nebraska 17
Michigan State 28, Minnesota 6
Ohio State 52, Michigan 17
Wisconsin 35, Penn State 13
Indiana 45, Purdue 17
Northwestern 17, Illinois 14
An impressive showing, as Jarrod actually beat both of us with a 5-1 mark, thanks to his Hawkeyes knocking off Nebraska in Lincoln. Other than his Northwestern-Illinois victory margin, his score predictions weren't great, although we're not ones to talk.
- Ohio State is in good shape to play for a crystal football if it can beat Michigan State in Indy.
- Michigan State hasn't played on a stage as big as the Big Ten championship since 1966, Joe Rexrode writes.
- Wisconsin learned a hard lesson Saturday, and it cost the Badgers a potential BCS bowl appearance.
- The statement Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst issued supporting Bo Pelini isn't enough, Steven M. Sipple writes. You can take the statement at face value, but questions remain, Tom Shatel writes.
- Penn State took offense to its major-underdog status at Wisconsin and took out its anger on the Badgers.
- After an improved 2013 season, Iowa will have the spotlight again in 2014, Andrew Logue writes.
- Nick Baumgardner outlines Michigan's identity three years into the Brady Hoke era (scrappy team, but not good enough).
- Despite a down year, the Big Ten boasts plenty of storylines, Herb Gould writes.
- Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald vows that his team "will be back" next fall after ending a disappointing season with a win.
- Illinois' season ends with frustration, Mark Tupper writes.
- Changes are coming to Indiana, but what they are remains a mystery, Pete DiPrimio writes.
- A bowl win is the next goal for Minnesota following an 8-4 regular season.
- Quarterback Danny Etling urges Purdue fans to keep the faith.
Wisconsin's shocking home loss to Penn State ends the debate over whether the Badgers or Michigan State should be at No. 2 behind front-runner Ohio State. Although the Buckeyes and, to a lesser extent, the Spartans had some struggles Saturday, they found ways to win. The Badgers had their worst performance of the season, and it cost them a potential BCS at-large berth.
That doesn't take away from Penn State, which received big boosts from quarterback Christian Hackenberg and others.
Our big dilemma this week was what to do with the 6-8 spots. Penn State had by far its best showing of the season, and Michigan had its best showing in months, even in defeat, against archrival Ohio State. Nebraska didn't show up at home on Black Friday, however, the Huskers have road wins against both the Lions (six days before the Iowa clunker) and Michigan.
After some spirited debate, we ultimately went with body of work to determine the rundown, especially since these are the final regular-season rankings. We understand it devalues the Week 14 performances a bit.
Here's one last look at the Week 13 rankings.
Now for the new rundown, final regular-season version.
1. Ohio State (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten: last week: 1): The Buckeyes lost their composure early and nearly lost their perfect season late. They were faced with adversity for the first time in six weeks, but they made enough plays on both sides of the ball to win. Running back Carlos Hyde (226 yards, one TD) and quarterback Braxton Miller (five total TDs) led a virtually unstoppable offense, which helped overcome some shoddy pass defense. The Buckeyes now await Michigan State in the Big Ten title game.
2. Michigan State (11-1, 8-0; last week: 3): There weren't many style points against Minnesota, but the Spartans came away with another double-digit Big Ten win. The defense kept Minnesota out of the end zone, as linebacker Denicos Allen led the way. Running back Jeremy Langford (134 rush yards, TD) had another big day as Michigan State moved closer to a BCS bowl berth, regardless of the result in Indianapolis.
3. Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2; last week: 2): It's only a one-spot drop for Wisconsin, but what a downer in Mad City. A team that had been so dominant since falling at Ohio State never showed up on Senior Day against a plucky Penn State team that took control from the onset. Quarterback Joel Stave threw three interceptions in the loss, and one of the Big Ten's better defenses allowed a slew of big plays as Penn State racked up 465 yards. It led to Wisconsin's most surprising home loss in recent memory.
4. Iowa (8-4, 5-3; last week: 4): Kirk Ferentz's crew entered the regular season as a popular pick to finish last in the Legends Division. The Hawkeyes emerged as one of the better teams not only in the division but the entire Big Ten. They've flipped their 2012 regular-season record behind a salty rush defense, led by an outstanding group of linebackers, and a functional offense. After two lackluster showings in the Heroes Game, Iowa outclassed Nebraska in Lincoln and should move up the bowl pecking order.
5. Minnesota (8-4, 4-4; last week: 5): It doesn't take a doctor at the Mayo Clinic to diagnose what's wrong with Minnesota. The Gophers' defense keeps them in every game, and Saturday's matchup at Michigan State proved to be no exception. But the offense simply can't score or consistently pass the football. Minnesota failed to reach double digits for the third time this season despite multiple opportunities in Spartans territory. It's still a great season for Jerry Kill's team, but there's a lot of work to do on offense before a bowl appearance.
6. Nebraska (8-4, 5-3; last week: 6): No one would dispute Bo Pelini that this has been a difficult season in Husker Country. No one would argue with Nebraska's ability to keep fighting. But when the same problems (namely turnovers) surface year after year, the bigger picture of the program becomes more depressing. The Huskers and their head coach self-destructed for much of the Iowa game and fell for the third time on their home field. Fortunately for Pelini, it didn't cost him his job, and he should get another chance to compete for an elusive league title in 2014.
7. Penn State (7-5, 4-4; last week: 8): The Lions had a better team in Bill O'Brien's first season, but they didn't have a better win than Saturday's stunning upset of Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium. After losing their first three road games by a combined score of 131-48, Penn State dominated Wisconsin for much of the afternoon at a place where the Badgers rarely lose. Hackenberg ended his freshman season with a signature performance (339 pass yards, 4 TDs) as the offense repeatedly gashed Wisconsin. A much-maligned defense held the Badgers' run game in check as Penn State ended an up-and-down season on a very good note.
8. Michigan (7-5, 3-5; last week: 7): After plummeting to historic lows earlier in the month, Michigan's offense looked like a completely different unit against Ohio State. Quarterback Devin Gardner played brilliantly, coordinator Al Borges called a good game and several others -- Jeremy Gallon, Jake Butt and De'Veon Smith -- stepped up in a 603-yard effort. It wasn't enough, as Michigan fell by a point and the defense had no answers for Ohio State, but the Wolverines played their best game in months and can feel a bit better entering the postseason.
9. Indiana (5-7, 3-5; last week: 9): Oh, what might have been for Indiana. A team with such an explosive offense and eight home games should have made a bowl game, period, but the Hoosiers couldn't get it done. At least they reclaimed the Old Oaken Bucket as quarterback Tre Roberson (six TD passes, 273 pass yards, 154 rush yards) torched Purdue and received help from Stephen Houston, D'Angelo Roberts, Cody Latimer and others. It's clear the Hoosiers have to make upgrades on defense. They can't keep wasting such explosiveness on offense.
10. Northwestern (5-7, 1-7; last week: 11): A season to forget for Northwestern ended on a positive note, as Pat Fitzgerald's team avoided a winless Big Ten season and recorded another victory against its in-state rival. Quarterback Trevor Siemian enters the offseason with some confidence after passing for a career-high 414 yards and four touchdowns against Illinois. Wide receiver Christian Jones (13 catches, 182 yards, two TDs) also stepped up as Northwestern twice rallied from deficits against Illinois. Fitzgerald said afterward that Northwestern "will be back" in 2014. The work begins now.
11. Illinois (4-8, 1-7; last week 10): The wins total doubled from two to four, which is nothing to celebrate. But Illinois clearly improved in Year 2 under coach Tim Beckman, who should receive another season in Champaign. Illinois has fixed the offense, and while quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will be tough to replace, several playmakers like Josh Ferguson return. A bigger issue is the defense, which had no answer for Northwestern's passing attack on Saturday and surrendered more than 40 points and more than 500 yards per game in Big Ten play.
12. Purdue (1-11, 0-8; last week: 12): The optimist sees a dynamic young quarterback in Danny Etling, who finished his freshman season with 485 pass yards and four touchdowns against Indiana, and a team that can only get better. The pessimist sees a Purdue squad that was the worst in recent Big Ten history and has much work to do on both sides of the ball to become competitive in coach Darrell Hazell's second season. A big offseason awaits Hazell and his staff as they can't go through another season like this one.