Big Ten: Dont'a Hightower

Big Ten Friday mailblog

February, 10, 2012
For most people, Friday's just the day before the weekend. But after this Friday, the neighborhood'll never be the same.

Cass from Parts Unknown writes: With the preservation of the Rose Bowl being of such concern and the weather getting worse and worse as December goes on, why can?t the semi-finals of the B1G?s plus-one model just happen the week after conference championships? Then the two losers could still participate in bowls and increase the likelihood of a true Rose Bowl being played (not to mention two more high profile teams to play in bowls thus bigger ratings).

Adam Rittenberg: Cass, you bring up a good point. One concern, and I know fans hate to hear this, is the academic calendar. Most schools on the quarter system have final exams during the second week of December. Most semester schools have finals between Dec. 15-23. University presidents of major schools -- yes, I know how the FCS rolls -- don't like these games conflicting with finals. It's one of the reasons why the model has the semifinals being played a bit after Christmas. There's also a concern by some folks I've talked to about the physical grind of what would be 14 games in 15 weeks if you played the semis right after the league title games. The break in between allows players to rest up before bowls or, in this case, a playoff. From talking to the Rose Bowl this week, it sounds like they'll be prepared for whatever model is approved.

Antwon from Cleveland writes: Is their a certain formula to getting your question answered? Anyway I was wondering as far as a Playoff goes why are they so opposed to having more teams involved such as the 8 or 12 top bcs teams and have the first rounds at the higher seeds campus then the next round incorporate the bowls that way nothing gets left out?

Adam Rittenberg: Antwon, ask a good question and you'll usually get an answer. One area that needs to be discussed is whether bowls could take a team with only a week's notice. Typically the bowls have had at least four weeks to prepare for teams, promote the game, have site visits, etc. The lead time also allows fans to make their travel plans. It's not cheap to travel from the Midwest to California, Florida, Arizona and other warm-weather spots in late December. Then again, the bowls are going to need to get used to this new reality. They don't have the power they once did in college football. Personally, I don't need a 12-team playoff. I like the four- or eight-team setups. This isn't college basketball, and I don't need to see the Sun Belt champ against the SEC champ. Let's get the four or eight best teams and have them play. You can keep the better bowls and incorporate them if they're willing.

Scott K. from Buckeye Nation: sincere apologies again for the chat flooding, like i said that was my first time on the live chat and i just figured thats what everyone did to have the best chance at getting their question answered. although they only have one sport left before they hit their 82 player limit cant they still go over as long as they are down to 82 before august, giving them a shot at both neal and diggs?

Adam Rittenberg: No worries, Scott. It just gets annoying when you're trying to see different questions. You're right that the Buckeyes would need to get down to 82 scholarships by August.

Here's how the Big Ten approaches scholarship limits:

Institutions let the Big Ten know how many scholarships they have available to offer, which can be a function of either initial counter limits (25 per year) or overall counter limits (85 per year or 82 in Ohio State's case the next three seasons) -- either limit could be in play when arriving at how many scholarships are available. Institutions then let the Big Ten know if they intend to overoffer (relative to the number of scholarships they anticipate having available). If they do, they let the conference know who is in the overoffer category. Big Ten institutions may overoffer by up to three.

Not every institution that overoffers will actually oversign as not every offeree will sign with the offering institution. But if after the dust settles an institution finds that it actually is in an oversigned position, then at some point after the fall term has begun, that institution will have to provide a person-by-person accounting as to how it came into compliance with the overall scholarship limit.

James from Wisconsin writes: Please explain to me how the co-MVP of the conference champions barely makes the top 25, despite leading the league in tackles. Then to boot you drop his teammate, Chris Borland, completely off the list despite the fact that he was second in the conference in tackles. Which by the way makes Taylor's numbers even more impressive since he had a guy playing right next to him who put up 100+ tackles too. No other team even had two players in the top 10 and Wisconsin puts guys at 3 and 7 nationally and you only rank one of them as a top 25 player!? This is an egregious oversight at best, and closer resembles a slap in the face to the amazing play of these two young men.

Adam Rittenberg: James, first off, let me reiterate that Mike Taylor had a very good season. It's challenging to pick the best 25 players from a pool of 12 teams. Some very good players get left out. When we used to do top-30 lists, it was a lot easier to put together. Why is Taylor at No. 24? While he had a really nice junior campaign, he wasn't the best linebacker in the Big Ten. That would Nebraska's Lavonte David, who carried his defense at times and made more impact plays. Penn State's Gerald Hodges also made more impact plays, in our view. It's why you'll see both players higher on the list. Again, this isn't a knock on Taylor or Borland, who did some great things. Total tackles, in our view, isn't always the most telling statistic. How is a player affecting a game? Is he forcing turnovers? Is he getting the opposing offense off of the field? Of the three linebackers named first-team AP All-Americans last season -- Boston College's Luke Kuechly, Georgia's Jarvis Jones and Alabama's Dont'a Hightower -- only Kuechly, who led the nation in tackles, is ranked among the FBS' top 100 tacklers. So tackles isn't always the best gauge of a linebacker.

Scott from Phoenix writes: Adam, in your Take 2 blog with Brian about the B1G playoff proposal you mention how great it would be to see teams from other conferences come up to play Mich or OSU. On the surface, not a big deal to mention those two. But I've noticed since the end of the season, that based on lunch time links, and comments you've made in blogs, that you're trending towards the percpetion of the B1G being Mich, OSU, and everyone else. I can see where PSU fans have felt slighted over the years if this has been the percpetion by those that cover that conference. I understand the B1G history, but as a Husker fan, outside of the Callahan years, NU has always been one of the 'blue chip' teams not part of the 'everyone else', especially due to being 4th all-time in wins (ahead of everyone in the B1G except Mich). From a newby to the conference, just wanted to point out the appearance of a possible trend.

Adam Rittenberg: Scott, you're reading into that statement too much. In other posts about the playoff model, I've mentioned SEC teams coming to State College, Madison, East Lansing, Iowa City and yes, Lincoln. While I understand why this perception exists, we don't only cover Ohio State and Michigan on this blog. We'll typically have more coverage of the news-making programs in the Big Ten, but those aren't only Ohio State and Michigan. Nebraska gets its share of coverage.

Les from Bloomfield Hills, Mich., writes: Nice work on the Blog, Adam. I see a lot of chest-thumping over recruiting classes, but of course it's over guys who have never played a down of college football, and who may or may not develop well in a given team's schemes. We've certainly seen this in recent years with my beloved Wolverines, who have had some great recruiting years, but have had a lot of highly rated players simply not pan out. That tells me that it's not about the number of 5 and 4 stars on the roster, it's really about how well recruits fit into a team's plans, how well coaches can mold them, etc.I wonder if more attention should be paid to not only how highly rated a player is, but how well he fits the school he's recruited to, and how well that school molds recruits to their system, when incoming recruiting classes are ranked?Several B1G schools have done very well with classes that haven't been all that highly ranked, and perhaps a staff's history of doing well (nor not so well) with their recruits should be somehow factored in. Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Some great points, Les. The talent-development component gets lost in all the hubbub about hat dances and star ratings. If the other elements of a program aren't strong -- coaching, schematics, strength and conditioning -- the talent level of a recruiting class often won't pan out. I think the coaching in the Big Ten has been pretty strong, as the number of elite recruits around the league has declined in the past decade. Programs like Iowa and Wisconsin have been especially successful despite rarely having top 30 recruiting classes.

Grant from Detroit writes: Hey Adam,You posted a lunch link today in which Urban Meyer said that the so-called "gentleman's agreement" not to poach other B1G schools' recruits was "comical." While I agree that coaches should recruit with the interest of building their own squads, wouldn't OSU also benefit from stronger B1G teams in general, seeing as we share profits from bowl games? Going off of that, why is he so vocal about not honoring the mutual respect that the rest of the B1G coaches seem to have for each other? Why doesn't he leave his colleagues alone, and focus on poaching talent from schools that have too much of it already, like SEC schools that over-sign? It is disappointing to me, because I do not want SEC slimeball ethics to start infiltrating a B1G built on mutual program respect. Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Grant, keep in mind that Meyer's colleagues spoke out against him, not the other way around. So to be fair, Meyer has had to defend himself. As multiple Big Ten coaches have said the last week, there is no "gentleman's agreement" in the league. There never has been. Recruit-flipping has happened for years at virtually every school. It's only a story now because Meyer flipped so many high-profile recruits in such a short time span. Will the recruiting dynamic change with Meyer in the league? Sure, it's possible. But the idea that the Big Ten recruiting landscape is all about respect and ethics seems a bit naive to me. While Ohio State would benefit from being in a stronger league, Meyer and his staff are still going to try to recruit the best players from the Midwest. They'll also surely aim for top national recruits, including those in SEC country. There are enough good players to go around, but he can't have the mindset of, "I'll leave this kid alone so Michigan or Nebraska can get him and therefore be a stronger opponent." That doesn't work.

Tony from Minneapolis writes: I love Delaney's proposal for a playoff with the first round at the higher seed's stadium. But, what happens in that magical season with Northwestern, Minnesota, Boise, or some other school lacking a palatial stadium and adequate hotels earns home field.The big assumption behind this plan is that the big name schools will always be the hosts.

Adam Rittenberg: Last I checked there are enough hotel rooms in Chicago, Minneapolis and Boise. The argument is more about stadium size. You certainly would see some high-priced tickets for those games. But the bigger thing, in my view, is getting these games in the environments where the home teams have played part of their seasons. It gives them the advantage that they're never able to exploit in the current setup where all the critical games are played in the south or west.
Linebacker Michael Mauti called the performance "kind of embarrassing."

Left tackle Quinn Barham admitted some younger players were intimidated at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

But Penn State vows Saturday's game against Alabama will be different because this year's Nittany Lions team is different.

"We're more comfortable, we're more confident and we actually know what we're getting into," Barham said.

Saturday's date with No. 3 Alabama will, if nothing else, be an excellent barometer for No. 23 Penn State. The Lions remain somewhat of a mystery right now -- a team talented enough to compete for a Big Ten title but potentially flawed enough to finish 7-6 again.

Joe Paterno didn't give his team much of a chance last year in Tuscaloosa, and Penn State fell 24-3 in a game where the score could have been worse. While Paterno is keenly aware of the challenge awaiting Saturday, he's more optimistic.

"This is a better team than we had last year," Paterno said. "Whether it's good enough, we'll see. But they've worked. And I think we've done a little bit better job coaching. I know we've asked more of them and they have responded."

Will the Lions' response translate into a signature win?

Here are three keys for Penn State to take down the Tide.

1) Don't waste scoring chances

[+] EnlargeCourtney Upshaw
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireCourtney Upshaw and the Tide defense are stingy, so the Lions must capitalize on scoring opportunities.
Alabama boasts what many regard as the best defense in the country, and for good reason. The Tide return 10 starters, led by standouts such as safety Mark Barron and linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw.

Penn State likely won't have too many scoring opportunities Saturday, and the Lions must be more efficient than they were a year ago.

They reached Alabama's red zone on two of their first three possessions but committed turnovers both times. They moved the ball well on their first drive of the second half before quarterback Rob Bolden threw another interception in the Tide red zone.

Penn State had three sustained drives -- 10 plays, 56 yards; seven plays, 68 yards; and 11 plays, 44 yards -- and ended up with nada.

"When you're facing a team of Alabama's caliber, you can't afford to put drives together and turn it over, especially when you're down in their red zone and trying to put some points on the board," Lions receiver Derek Moye said.

Added Barham: "We shot ourselves in the foot."

2) Make Alabama's young QBs win the game

The intimidation factor works both ways, and as Bolden did last September in Tuscaloosa, Alabama's quarterback will be making his first career road start Saturday at a raucous Beaver Stadium.

"We've got the best fans in the county and the loudest for sure," Mauti said. "That Alabama offense is going to have a tough time hearing. I know on defense, I’m yelling at the guy next to me and I can't hear them. They’ve never been to Beaver Stadium before, and it'll be a challenge for them."

Whether it's AJ McCarron or Phillip Sims, Penn State must find ways to rattle the Tide signal-caller and put the burden on him to make big plays. Like Alabama, Penn State's strength is its defense, particularly a deep and talented group of linebackers and defensive backs.

Alabama will try to help its inexperienced quarterback by sparking star tailback Trent Richardson, who ran for 144 yards and a touchdown against Penn State last year. If Richardson gets going Saturday, Penn State can pretty much forget about winning the game.

The Lions might need their defense to generate offense, and the presence of players like linebacker Gerald Hodges, who broke his leg on the opening kickoff last year against Bama, could loom large.

"He brings a different type of intensity to our defense," Mauti said. "He flies around, and it’s just an energy he brings. ... He's fast, he’s physical and he's a playmaker for us."

3) Get clutch plays from Bolden and McGloin

[+] EnlargePenn State's Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe play of QBs Matt McGloin (11) or Rob Bolden (1) are likely key to Penn's upset chances.
Paterno remains in quarterback-protection mode, once again not naming a starter and trying to deflect as much attention as he can from Bolden and Matt McGloin.

"The whole team's got to play solid," he said. "I wouldn't put it all on the quarterback."

But to win a game like this against an opponent like Alabama, teams typically need their quarterbacks to step up in big moments.

Bolden and McGloin will need protection from an offensive line that surrendered three sacks last week to FCS Indiana State, prompting former Penn State QB Daryll Clark to tweet: "Mannnnnnn... Qbs are getting hit way tooooo much this game #gottacleanitup." Barham graded the line's performance at a "B, B-minus."

The quarterbacks also need help from the run game, as Silas Redd and Brandon Beachum face an Alabama defense that finished 10th nationally against the rush in 2010 (110.2 ypg allowed).

But in a low-scoring, possibly low-possession game -- the type Penn State should hope for Saturday -- clutch quarterback play often makes the difference.

"They understand the offense, they understand what they have to do, what their role will be," Paterno said of Bolden and McGloin. "Just go in there and play our game. Don't do stupid things, protect the ball, try to keep it when we do get it, make a couple plays in the clutch, make a couple of third-down throws.

"Literally every tough game you're in, that's how you win 'em."

Paterno has been through more than a few, and another arrives Saturday afternoon.