Big Ten: Kirk Ferentz

Big Ten morning links

November, 24, 2014
Nov 24
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One more weekend to go in the regular season. Some thoughts to begin your Thanksgiving week:

1. Next week, the Big Ten will hand out its individual trophies, as well as reveal the all-conference teams. And the media and coaches are going to have a hard time deciding on the coach of the year award.

On one hand, you have Urban Meyer, who has led a very young Ohio State team to a 10-1 record while developing freshman J.T. Barrett into a Heisman Trophy contender on the fly. Eventually, a Buckeyes coach has to win this thing again, right? It hasn't happened since Earle Bruce took home the hardware in 1979, and that's silly.

On the other hand, how do you overlook what Jerry Kill has done at Minnesota? He has the Gophers sitting at 8-3, with a chance to win the West Division by beating Wisconsin this week. It would be nearly impossible to ignore Kill for the award if Minnesota does win that game and forces a rematch with Ohio State in Indianapolis. The Gophers are 16-7 in their last 23 regular-season games and 9-4 in their last 13 Big Ten contests. Remarkable stuff, especially considering a lot of people thought Kill would not return to the sidelines after last year's health issues.

The 28-24 win at Nebraska may have been Kill's best one yet, and it shows the progress this program has made, Chip Scoggins writes.

2. Just think about how much better Minnesota's season would look if its only losses were at TCU and a close one at home vs. Ohio State. But, of course, the Gophers somehow stumbled at Illinois. That was undoubtedly the biggest win in the Tim Beckman era. But Beckman just might have a chance to top that.

Beating Penn State these days is no great achievement, considering the dilapidated state of the Nittany Lions' offense. Still, winning that game in Champaign on Saturday meant that Beckman has doubled his previous Big Ten win total this season and, more importantly, has the Illini in contention for a bowl. If they beat Northwestern this Saturday, the postseason awaits.

Can athletic director Mike Thomas really fire Beckman if he goes 6-6? Attendance remains a major issue, especially considering the embarrassing crowd that showed up to Memorial Stadium on Saturday -- less than 10,000 by most media estimates. But Beckman would have gone from two wins to four wins to six wins in three seasons. It's hard not to call that progress, even if it hasn't been pretty at times.

The ticking clock on Beckman's job has stopped for now, Mark Tupper writes.

3. You couldn't talk about Iowa this season without mentioning that dream schedule: No games against Michigan State, Ohio State Michigan or Penn State (though in hindsight, it would have been better to play those last two than Maryland). West Division rivals Wisconsin and Nebraska coming to Iowa City. A very manageable nonconference slate.

That schedule is a major reason why people were predicting as many as 10 or 11 wins for the Hawkeyes, who were a trendy pick to win the West. But Kirk Ferentz's team has been eliminated from the division race already, and if it doesn't beat a reeling Nebraska team on Black Friday, it will finish 7-5. Even an 8-4 record would feel underwhelming, given all the advantages that Iowa squandered.

The Hawkeyes gave a great effort against Wisconsin on Saturday, especially in the second half. You wonder if things would have been different had they played like that all season. Instead, there's no way to talk about this Iowa season without using the word disappointing.

Let's hit the links ...

West Division
East Division

And, finally ... "Dilly Bar Dan" received more attention and some nice hospitality in Lincoln.
You can question whether the Big Ten always competes at the same elite level as some other leagues. You can question, at times, some conference teams' all-out commitment to winning national championships in football.

But you can't question whether Big Ten head coaches are paid like the best of the best, at least at the top of the heap. USA Today has again done yeoman's work in compiling the salaries and compensation for every FBS head coach, and several Big Ten bosses remain among the most richly rewarded.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
AJ Mast/Icon SportswireMark Dantonio is the Big Ten's highest-paid coach at $5.6 million in total pay.
According to the database, the league has four of the top 10 highest-paid coaches in the FBS, though the names and rankings may surprise you a bit. Michigan State's Mark Dantonio surprisingly, checks in at No. 2 at more than $5.6 million in compensation, behind only his former boss, Alabama's Nick Saban.

It's important to note here that USA Today's methodology includes bonuses and other pay besides just salary. Dantonio received a $2 million longevity bonus that is being calculated into this list; his salary, which was bumped up after the Spartans won the Rose Bowl, is $3.64 million.

Ohio State's Urban Meyer checks in at No. 6 at just over $4.5 million, followed by Penn State's James Franklin (No. 8 overall at $4.3 million) and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz (No. 9, $4.075 million). Note that the figure for Franklin is based on a proposed financial term sheet released by the school, which declined to make Franklin's actual contract public.

Surprised not to see Michigan in the Top 10? Brady Hoke checks in at a relatively (key word) modest $2.85 million, good for only No. 30 in the FBS. Hoke ranked in the top 10 last year because of a large retention bonus he received. If the Wolverines make a coaching change and decide to land an established head coach, they could easily pay in the $3 million to $4 million range. Maybe more, if they could reel in a truly big fish like Les Miles or one of the Harbaughs.

The difference between the Big Ten and the SEC in salaries is much like the on-field rankings: depth. Twelve of the 14 SEC coaches are ranked in the Top 30 in salary and all 14 are ranked in the Top 34. Just six of the Big Ten coaches are in the top 30, which is one less than the Big 12 has. The SEC also boasts eight of the top 20 highest-paid coaches in the FBS, while half of the Big Ten's 14 coaches are ranked No. 41 or lower.

Here's how the rest of the Big Ten coaches stack up:

No. 24: Nebraska's Bo Pelini: $3.08 million
No. 39: Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald: $2.48 million
No. 41: Wisconsin's Gary Andersen: $2.29 million
No. 45: Minnesota's Jerry Kill: $2.1 million
No. 46: Purdue's Darrell Hazell: $2.09 million
No. 47: Maryland's Randy Edsall: $2.03 million
No. 52: Illinois' Tim Beckman: $1.95 million
No. 66: Indiana's Kevin Wilson: $1.3 million
No. 73: Rutgers' Kyle Flood: $987,000

Big Ten morning links

November, 10, 2014
Nov 10
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Good morning, and welcome to the Big Ten's new world order ...

There were many highlights from Urban Meyer's first two years at Ohio State. The Buckeyes went undefeated while on probation in his first season in Columbus, then started 12-0 in 2013 before losing the final two.

Yet there was a gnawing sense of unfinished business that had to do with the lack of a bowl game in 2012 and the losses in the Big Ten title game and the Orange Bowl a year ago. Meyer had the Buckeyes buzzing, but they hadn't really beaten anyone of note. The Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech at home this year, as the team looked to replace the injured Braxton Miller, seemed to further delay the timetable toward true greatness.

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsSophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott is one of several emerging stars on the Ohio State offense.
That's why Saturday's 49-37 win at No. 8 Michigan State could be the start of something really special for Ohio State under Meyer. The offense on display in East Lansing is now more powerful and diverse than anything the Buckeyes had in the previous two seasons, thanks to J.T. Barrett and a growing arsenal of skill players. And the defense is no longer a sieve in the back end.

Here's the truly scary thing for the rest of the Big Ten: the Buckeyes' two-deep for the Michigan State game listed 19 freshmen or sophomores, including guys like Barrett, Ezekiel Elliott, Michael Thomas, Dontre Wilson and Curtis Samuel on offense. Ohio State is in line to bring back as many as 15 starters next year, not counting whatever happens with Miller.

All that speed and talent Meyer has recruited is blossoming now, and his 24-0 run may have only been the prelude. Maybe the Buckeyes won't get to the playoff because that Virginia Tech loss is such an albatross. But they look like they're ready to return toward dominating the Big Ten.

Meyer has Ohio State back where it belongs, Dan Wetzel writes. Here come the Buckeyes, and they're here to stay, Michael Rosenberg says. A hidden program resurfaced, Chuck Culpepper writes. Beating the Spartans was Ohio State's best regular-season win since 2006.

More links ...

East Division
West Division
After being shoved aside by a rep-ruining Week 2 and a division crossover schedule bereft of intrigue, the Big Ten matters again this week.

Ohio State-Michigan State is finally here. ESPN's "College GameDay" will be on hand. This week's slate of games is the best of the season, but Buckeyes-Spartans undoubtedly is among the headliners.

It has become the game of record in this conference, replacing Ohio State-Michigan and, more recently, Ohio State-Penn State and Wisconsin-Michigan State. Nebraska finds itself ahead of Ohio State in the College Football Playoff Rankings, but the national perception is that MSU and OSU are the league's two best teams and Saturday's winner will be the Big Ten's best hope for a playoff entry.

All eyes will be on East Lansing, and they should be. But don't forget about the West Division.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Jim O'Connor/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon and Wisconsin shut out Rutgers on Saturday and are in control of their Big Ten destiny, just like the four other contenders, entering what should be compelling final month of the season.
Three weeks ago, I wrote about the wild, wild West and how some team needed to lay down the law. In essence, the West was turning into a muddled mess of mediocrity, playing out like many thought/feared it would.

Wisconsin and Nebraska, the most popular preseason picks to win the division, had just suffered losses that displayed varying degrees of ugliness (Wisconsin for the entire game at Northwestern, Nebraska for the first three quarters at Michigan State). Iowa was 2-0 in league play but hadn't put together a complete game. Minnesota had been a mini-surprise.

Three weeks later, the West is starting to look like we thought it would. That's a good thing entering the stretch run.

Nebraska has recorded three straight wins by 18 points or more. The Huskers aren't flawless (no team is this season in college football). They still do some maddening things, but but they also don't seem as prone to the meltdowns that have doomed them in past seasons. They're playing much better on defense, particularly on third down, ranking second nationally in third-down conversions against (26.4 percent). Ameer Abdullah's health is a significant concern, but Nebraska is positioned well for a tough closing stretch.

Wisconsin looks re-energized since its open week, whipping Big Ten newcomers Maryland and Rutgers by a combined score of 89-7. The pass game remains shaky, but running backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement, along with arguably the nation's most underappreciated defense, give the Badgers a chance in every remaining game. Wisconsin's 37-0 blanking of Rutgers marked its first road shutout since 1998 (at Iowa), and its 139 yards allowed was its lowest total in a Big Ten game since 2001 (against Penn State).

The kicking game, a bugaboo for past Badgers teams, stood out in the Rutgers win. Things are trending up for Gary Andersen's team.

The same finally can be said for Iowa, which had underwhelmed until Saturday's 48-7 drilling of Northwestern. It all came together for the Hawkeyes, who showed balance on offense (262 pass yards, 221 rush yards) and received a lift from Louis Trinca-Pasat and the defensive line. Although Northwestern is a mess right now, Iowa at last resembled the team that could win the West, especially with the most favorable remaining schedule of any contender.

"I wish it happened more often," Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said of his team's complete performance. "It's been a while since it really looked that way."

Better late than never.

The recent surges from Wisconsin and Iowa set up a delicious finish to the West Division race. Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota all have just one conference loss, and each team controls its fate because there have been no matchups between the four. But there will be plenty, beginning this week:

Saturday: Iowa at Minnesota

Nov. 15: Nebraska at Wisconsin

Nov. 22: Wisconsin at Iowa, Minnesota at Nebraska

Nov. 28: Nebraska at Iowa

Nov. 29: Minnesota at Wisconsin

Maybe the candidates cannibalize one another, which likely wouldn't be good for Big Ten perception. But at least the teams enter these matchups playing at a higher level. Minnesota has to bounce back from its own ugly loss (Illinois), and I expect a better showing from Jerry Kill's crew this week as the Gophers try to reclaim the bacon.

No one is confusing the Big Ten West with the SEC West or the Pac-12 South. But it might be better than the SEC East, led by a Missouri team that lost at home to Indiana, the only Big Ten team without a league victory.

The recent improvement also helps the narrative for the Big Ten championship game. It's likely that the West champion, even Nebraska, will be an underdog in Indianapolis. But underdogs have won each of the past two title games, and Michigan State nearly pulled off an upset against Wisconsin in the inaugural event in 2011.

Make no mistake: Ohio State-Michigan State is the Big Ten's hottest ticket. But don't forget the West, which is heating up just in time.

Big Ten morning links

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

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

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

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

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

Big Ten morning links

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
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Good morning. A few thoughts before we get to the links:

1. Quarterback J.T. Barrett is receiving loads of attention as Ohio State continues its incredible offensive surge. And rightly so, because Barrett's numbers (20 total touchdowns, five interceptions, 65.2 percent completion rate) are astounding. He has the highest ESPN QBR score in the country since Sept. 6, the date of the Buckeyes' loss to Virginia Tech.

But let's not forget the improvement of Ohio State's offensive line. The young group with four new starters looked like a liability in the first couple of games. Since then, it has become a source of strength. The Buckeyes allowed no sacks on Saturday against Rutgers, whose defense came into the game leading the Big Ten in that category. The Scarlet Knights only had two tackles for loss and just one quarterback hurry. Ed Warriner's group showed similar dominance against Maryland, whose defensive front caused Iowa's offensive line all kinds of problems on Saturday.

Urban Meyer had his players give the assistant coaches a standing ovation after the Rutgers win. It's hard to tell just how good the Buckeyes are right now, Bob Hunter writes. But they look pretty darn good.

2. As great as Ameer Abdullah is, I thought Nebraska needed one more weapon to take its offense to a truly elite level. The Huskers might have found that extra option on Saturday at Northwestern.

De'Mornay Pierson-El, who to this point had done most of his damage on punt returns, had three catches and even threw a touchdown pass to Tommy Armstrong Jr., evoking memories of a famous trick play from Nebraska's past. The speedy true freshman gives Armstrong another target along with Kenny Bell and Jordan Westerkamp. The Huskers were dominant offensively in the second half against a pretty good Northwestern defense, and Pierson-El was a big reason why.

"De’Mornay and Ameer and Kenny, when does it end?” offensive coordinator Tim Beck told the Omaha World-Herald. “You want those guys on the field, because now you've got to guard them all.”

3. Indiana just can't seem to sustain any kind of positive momentum. The Hoosiers were a trendy pick to make a bowl this season, especially after winning at Missouri on Sept. 20.

But since then, Kevin Wilson's team has gone just 1-3 (with the lone win over North Texas). And as IU showed in Saturday's 56-17 loss to Michigan State, it's highly doubtful that there is another win left on the schedule.

True freshman quarterback Zander Diamont clearly isn't ready, as his 5-for-15, 11-yard performance vs. the Spartans confirmed. He should be redshirting, but season-ending injuries to Nate Sudfeld and Chris Covington thrust him into action. Even with Tevin Coleman having a season for the ages, the Hoosiers don't have much of a chance without a passing attack and with a defense that can't win Big Ten games on its own. There's much to like about the young talent Wilson has brought to Bloomington, but Indiana continues to be stuck in program quicksand. The last five games will test the resolve of Wilson and his players.

West Division
East Division
And finally ...

Ohio State's band put on another amazing halftime show. Rock out to it. The Pinball Wizard part is my favorite.

B1G early look: Setting up Week 8

October, 13, 2014
Oct 13
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Another weekend with four teams sitting on the couch is on tap, but there is still plenty of intrigue packed into the five Big Ten matchups slated for Saturday. With Week 7 in the books, let's peek ahead at what's in store.

1. Bucks back in business: Urban Meyer clearly was irritated with the scheduling quirk that produced two bye weeks this season, particularly because Ohio State appears to have overcome its early issues with growing pains and was building some frightening offensive momentum. But one benefit to the way the calendar worked out for the Buckeyes is that they're done with off dates and their stretch run to compete for a Big Ten title and attempt to fight back into the College Football Playoff conversation will be uninterrupted from here out. That effort resumes with a visit from Rutgers, which has been one of the league's most pleasant surprises so far. The Scarlet Knights could have their hands full with quarterback J.T. Barrett and the angry, restless Buckeyes, but a road win for them would certainly make the East Division take notice -- and earn them bowl eligibility.

2. Michigan State fireworks: The suddenly high-powered Michigan State offense rolled up points in the Hoosier state last weekend, and another explosion seems pretty likely in the back end of a two-game swing through Indiana. Spartans quarterback Connor Cook had some shaky moments against Purdue, but he still helped lead a 45-point outburst against Purdue to keep his team on top of the Big Ten leaderboard in points per game this season. Just a little bit further down the road this weekend, the Spartans will find a defense that was gashed from start to finish by a much more modest Iowa offense last weekend, and Indiana's woes on that side of the ball obviously still an issue. Michigan State has had a few problems of its own lately, thanks in large part to apparent lapses in concentration. But this weekend should be a prime opportunity to get rid of those kinks.

3. Sorting out the West: The picture might be just a little bit clearer than it was a week ago, but the only real certainty in the wild West Division is that nothing is going to be decided until late November. In the meantime, there may be something of an elimination game at Nebraska this weekend when Northwestern pays a visit with both teams already having lost a conference game. Certainly it's possible for the eventual champ to have lost a couple games in the league given the muddled race on that side of the Big Ten, but dropping another decision by the middle of October would make for a pretty steep hill to climb. The Wildcats opened conference play impressively with upsets at Penn State and against Wisconsin, but they showed some offensive limitations again last week in a loss at Minnesota, which could be a problem against Ameer Abdullah and the Huskers.

4. Gophers Golden? Speaking of the West race, the next two weeks certainly look manageable for Minnesota after already jumping out to a 2-0 start in the league. And handling its business starting Saturday against Purdue at home and then with a visit to Illinois would put it in great shape heading into November. But there are still plenty of improvements for the Gophers to make if they're going to parlay that fast start into something meaningful down the stretch, and finding a bit more offensive balance and developing the passing attack should be at the top of their priority list. Quarterback Mitch Leidner's various injuries early in the season have played a part in the lackluster numbers through the air, and running back David Cobb's willingness and ability to handle a heavy rushing load with success hasn't provided much incentive to tinker with the formula. But after these next two weeks, there are no more tune-ups on the schedule for the Gophers, so the clock is ticking to make sure everything is in working order.

5. Under the radar intrigue: Iowa might be the most overlooked team in the league at this point, a combination of its early loss and the pretty boring football it was playing even when it won. But Kirk Ferentz dialed up the offense in last week's win over Indiana, nearly setting a new season-high total in points scored by the end of the first quarter, showing off his new two-quarterback system and even rolling the dice with a fourth-and-goal call just before halftime. That performance makes the entire month of September for his program look even more puzzling in hindsight, but if this is the real version of the Hawkeyes, they can once again be considered the dark-horse contender in the West that some expected them to be in the offseason thanks to a favorable schedule. Hitting the road to take on Maryland is no easy trip, but the Terrapins were just blown out at home by Ohio State before their bye week last weekend. If Iowa gets to 3-0 in the league, it could be in great shape heading into November as well.

Weekend Rewind: Big Ten

October, 13, 2014
Oct 13
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It was a banner weekend for resilient quarterbacks in the Big Ten.

Junior Jake Rudock wrenched Iowa’s plans for a balanced, two-quarterback system by completing nine of his first 11 passing attempts en route to 28 points in the first quarter. Michigan’s Devin Gardner, who has had to fight for his job during a 2-4 start to the season, returned from an ankle injury to lead the Wolverines to an 18-13 win over Penn State. And in West Lafayette, a new face is emerging under center. Purdue sophomore Austin Appleby kept Michigan State’s defense on its toes for much of a 45-31 Spartans win.

The Big Ten won’t be confused for anything but a running back’s league this season, but this past weekend was a relatively strong showing for their backfield mates.

Rudock earns the top honor there for helping the Hawkeyes to their fifth win of the season. Minnesota has done most of the head-turning in the West Division during the past couple weeks, but Iowa has quietly compiled an identical record (5-1 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) and is tied with the Gophers for the division lead. Both teams have two winnable games before facing each other Nov. 8, which brings us to our choice for the team of the week ...

Team of the Week: Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Iowa’s offense was downright explosive at times during a 45-29 win over Indiana Saturday. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz’s decision to go for it on fourth down pushed Iowa’s lead to 38-21 on the final play of the first half. The offense, led by the sharpest version of Rudock to date, had topped its previous season-high point total by the end of the first quarter.

Biggest Play: Speaking of Minnesota, the Gophers kept their Big Ten record unblemished Saturday thanks to Jalen Myrick's 100-yard kickoff return for a game-winning touchdown. Northwestern had just tied the game 17-17 with 7:32 to play on an impressive 13-play, 97-yard scoring drive. Myrick went a little farther in far less time, darting past midfield untouched before slipping away from the Wildcats' kicker on his way to a big score.

Big Man on Campus (offense): It may have come in a losing effort, but Indiana’s Tevin Coleman dazzled again with big plays and big numbers. Coleman finished Saturday’s game with 219 yards on just 15 carries. He scored three times on runs of 83, 45 and 69 yards to keep the Hoosiers within striking distances even after starting quarterback Nate Sudfeld left the game before halftime. Coleman leads the nation in rushing yards and is on pace for 2,120 yards in his junior season.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Stellar defense was hard to find this weekend in the Big Ten. The biggest play on that side of the ball belonged to Michigan State linebacker Darien Harris, who clinched the Spartans’ win over Purdue with a pick-six in the fourth quarter. Harris added six tackles, one of them behind the line of scrimmage, for a defense that looked uncharacteristically average against the Boilermakers and their sophomore quarterback, Appleby.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Myrick certainly deserves mention here for his big return, but placekicker Matt Wile beats him out by being the difference for a Michigan team that desperately needed a victory. Wile connected on all three of his field goal attempts, from 45, 42 and 37 yards out. He bailed out an offense that has yet to find a way to move the ball consistently, accounting for 10 points in an 18-13 win over Penn State.

Biggest face plant: The Nittany Lions' offensive line did its part to make field goals the difference against Michigan. Sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg was under constant siege at the Big House Saturday. He was sacked six times and pressured into poor decisions on a regular basis. The running game managed only 54 yards. The crumbling of Penn State’s promising September begins and ends with its struggle in the trenches.

Facts and numbers to know: Purdue’s 31 points against Michigan State is the most a Big Ten opponent has scored on Sparty since Wisconsin hung 42 on them in December 2011. ... Myrick’s kickoff return for a touchdown was the first such play for anyone in the Big Ten this season. ... Ten teams in the country allow less than 100 rushing yards per game. Three of them (Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan) are in the Big Ten. ... Coleman’s 176.67 rushing yards per game leads the nation. Melvin Gordon (174.33) and Ameer Abdullah (146.33) are second and fourth, respectively, in that category. ... Ten different Iowa players caught passes in the win over Indiana. The Hawkeyes are 4-0 this season when completing throws to at least 10 receivers. ... Gordon became the fastest Wisconsin player to 1,000 yards rushing by accomplishing the feat in his sixth game of the season.

Big Ten morning links

October, 13, 2014
Oct 13
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Good morning. Can you believe the regular season is halfway over already? Kicking the second half off with a few thoughts:

1. I'm legitimately worried about Christian Hackenberg. Penn State's sophomore quarterback is a superlative talent who has a long future playing professionally ahead of him. That's if the the Nittany Lions' tragic offensive line doesn't ruin him.

The worst thing that can happen to a young quarterback is for him to succumb to unrelenting pressure. I've seen it before; suddenly, he starts looking at the pass rush instead of keeping his eyes downfield. He develops happy feet. He throws the ball away too quickly, or holds onto it while bracing for a hit.

I saw some of those things in Hackenberg during Saturday night's 18-13 loss at Michigan, and so did PennLive.com's David Jones, who wrote:
"Hackenberg is, by [James] Franklin's own estimation, 'frustrated,' due to obvious factors. He took a pounding again against the Wolverines, bringing his sacks-absorbed total to a whopping 20 just halfway through the season. His body language is awful; he spent much of the second half slouching on the bench in apparent despondence."

Penn State's inability to block for its star quarterback is clearly taking its toll and forcing Hackenberg into some bad habits -- to say nothing of the injury risk. Those bad habits can be hard to shake off. The Nittany Lions have to figure out a way to protect him in the second half of the season, because it would be a shame if the offensive line issues caused permanent damage.

2. Is it time to worry about Michigan State? The Spartans keep winning and still look like the Big Ten's best team. But for the second straight game, they let a big lead slip away, and Purdue had the ball with a chance to tie the score late.

This isn't even about the College Football Playoff, though Mark Dantonio's team is squandering opportunities to impress the selection committee. No, it's about whether some of Michigan State's obvious mental lapses -- Connor Cook throwing needlessly into coverage, for example, or the defense uncharacteristically giving up big plays -- will result in a loss before December. Last year's Spartans were masters at closing out games, but this year's edition has neither the shutdown defense nor the physical running game to impose its will in fourth quarters, at least not yet. As a result, Michigan State is flirting with disaster, as Drew Sharp writes.

3. Let's all marvel at Minnesota, which is winning in a way that's different than just about anybody else.

The Gophers had only 274 yards on Saturday yet turned away a solid, confident Northwestern team at home. Even with a rushing attack that by their standards was held in check (just 3.1 yards per carry), they continued to maximize every opportunity, KO'ing the 'Cats on a 100-yard KO return by Jalen Myrick.

Jerry Kill's team knows its identity, is too well-coached to beat itself with mistakes and will make you fight every down. That style might not always work against high-scoring, hyper-athletic opponents (see: TCU), but nobody in the Big Ten is looking forward to playing Minnesota in the second half. The Gophers showed resolve on Saturday.

More links:

East Division
West Division
Five observations from an interesting Saturday in the Big Ten:

1. Gophers are contenders: The wins aren’t usually pretty, but it doesn’t take any style points to win a conference championship. Offensive limitations certainly cut down on Minnesota’s margin for error every week, but with running back David Cobb pounding away at teams and a stout defense, the victories are starting to pile up for coach Jerry Kill, who appears to have a legitimate contender on his hands. Knocking off resurgent Northwestern 24-17 puts the Gophers on top of the West Division with manageable games on deck against Purdue and Illinois, which could allow them to build momentum ahead of a tough closing stretch in November. By the end of October, there might not be a team in better position in the wide-open West.

[+] EnlargeMinnesota's David Cobb
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesDavid Cobb rushed 30 times for 97 yards, helping Minnesota to a 2-0 record in the Big Ten.
2. Ferentz, Hawkeyes alive and well: Meet the new Kirk Ferentz, fearless riverboat gambler in do-or-die, fourth-and-goal situations and manager of a two-quarterback system. Indiana’s suspect defense might have made it easier for Ferentz to get aggressive just before halftime Saturday, and the Hawkeyes might have given the scoreboard a workout regardless of who was taking the snaps. But after some ugly play in September, Iowa appears to be finding an identity and gaining confidence at the right time now that Big Ten play has arrived. Iowa has taken care of business in both league games so far, including Saturday's 45-29 win over the Hoosiers, and like Minnesota, that alone makes it a threat in the unpredictable West.

3. Uphill battle ahead of Hackenberg, Nittany Lions: The talent is still plain to see at times, but Christian Hackenberg's development might be getting stunted by Penn State’s anemic offensive line. The sophomore looks like he’s preparing to get hit every time he takes a snap, and that’s leading to some horrible decisions and inaccurate passes that are catching up with the Nittany Lions after their fast start under James Franklin. Without Hackenberg’s ill-advised attempt under pressure that was picked off in the second half on Saturday night, Michigan’s toothless offense probably would have never been in position to kick a game-tying field goal, and his intentional grounding on Penn State’s final drive clinched the 18-13 defeat. Devin Gardner is in a similar situation behind Michigan’s suspect offensive line, and both guys should prepare to take a lot more punishment over the next few weeks.

4. Spartans still missing a complete effort: Purdue has noticeably improved and deserves credit for the strides it has made in coach Darrell Hazell’s second season with the program. But there’s still no real excuse for the reigning Big Ten champions and a team aiming to get back in the College Football Playoff conversation to lose concentration and allow opponents to climb back into games down the stretch the way Michigan State did for the second week in a row. The Spartans claimed to have learned a lesson after nearly giving away a win over Nebraska last week, but it doesn’t appear to have sunk in yet following a 45-31 win over the Boilermakers. Even Mark Dantonio will have to accept some blame this time after his head-scratching decision to fake a punt deep in his own territory in the fourth quarter.

5. Defenses sinking Illinois, Indiana: Both programs are still more than capable of scoring points, even with injuries limiting their quarterbacks. But the Illini and Hoosiers just aren’t going anywhere with such porous defenses continuing to undermine any efforts on the other side of the ball. Illinois showed some fight for coach Tim Beckman during a 38-28 loss, but its tackling was shoddy far more often than not and it couldn’t slow down even a one-dimensional Wisconsin offense that is barely a threat to pass at all. And an Iowa team that hadn’t scored more than 24 points in a game all season surpassed that total by the end of the first quarter, once again showing how far the Hoosiers have to go defensively if they’re going to turn things around and get back to a bowl game.
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Kirk Ferentz's Iowa teams typically don't veer from familiar trails. Adventurous and reckless aren't two terms often used to describe the Hawkeyes, who are, if nothing else, consistent.

But Iowa is about to take a new route with a two-quarterback system featuring junior Jake Rudock and sophomore C.J. Beathard. And Ferentz and his players aren't exactly sure where it will lead.

"We're not even sure what the plan is right now totally," Ferentz admitted.

Consider this exchange during Ferentz's weekly news conference Tuesday.

Q: Will you have a strict plan or do you just go by feel?

[+] EnlargeC.J. Beathard
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsC.J. Beathard, who has been more dynamic but not as accurate as starter Jake Rudock, will make up half of Iowa's two quarterback experiment.
Ferentz: We'll have something by Saturday, for sure. But they're both going to play.

Q: How long do you think you can do this legitimately?

Ferentz: Time will tell.

Q: One game? Two games?

Ferentz: I don't know. Time will tell. We'll play it by ear.

Minutes later, Ferentz was asked if he would simply manage the quarterbacks based on results.

"We have confidence in both guys," he said. "If I had the answer, I'd tell you. We don't have it yet. We haven't gone down this road, but we're about to."

The goal is to spark an offense that ranks 97th nationally in scoring (22.6 ppg) and 91st in yards (372.4 ypg). Although Iowa's biggest concern remains a run game averaging just 3.6 yards per carry, the coaches see enough reasons to play both quarterbacks, beginning Saturday against Indiana.

Rudock and Beathard have combined to average 232.2 pass yards per game with six touchdowns and three interceptions. Beathard sparked Iowa in relief of the injured Rudock at Pitt and then had mixed results in his first start at Purdue (shaky accuracy, decent passing yards total). Rudock, who gets the start against the Hoosiers, has been more accurate than Beathard but not quite as dynamic.

"I want to win," Rudock said. "Obviously, I want to be there every single game, but I want to do what helps our team win. You guys [the media] say one guy's going to win or lose the game, but we have 11 on offense, 11 on defense, 11 on special teams.

"Those guys are going to win the game, not just one person."

Like a lot of incumbent quarterbacks for struggling offenses, Rudock has taken criticism, some undeserved, for the unit's struggles. Beathard, with his strong arm and wild hair, has been fêted like many backup quarterbacks.

Rudock acknowledged those sentiments Tuesday, adding, "Not everybody's going to like you at the end of the day."

"I hope Jake does great in there," Beathard said. "If that means me not playing a single snap, it means we win the game, so that's good for us."

Beathard would like to have a general idea if how the rotation will work on Saturday. Although Rudock retained the starting job coming out of camp, Beathard knew he would have a role.

The role has grown because of his performances in the last two games. "He made a couple deposits at the bank, and that's a good thing," Ferentz said.

"You don't come to a school to be the backup quarterback," Beathard said. "That's my role on the team until I can make the move or whatever. You've got to prepare as if you are the starter but accept your role."

Other than Beathard's Tennessee drawl, both quarterbacks bring a similar presence to the huddle, teammates say. Tight end Ray Hamilton called Iowa "lucky" to have two capable signal callers. Wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley dismissed the notion of a divided locker room.

"Our goal is to win," Martin-Manley said. "So whoever's playing the best, that's who we want to be in the game."

But when asked to identify two-quarterback systems that work -- or what goes into making them work -- Iowa players struggled to answer.

"I really don't have a solid answer for you," Rudock said. "Maybe coach knows, but I don't. I just have to worry about what I can control."

It's a new path for the Hawkeyes, one with an uncertain destination.

Weekend Rewind: Big Ten

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
10:00
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Time for some clarity in the Big Ten.

Pretenders and contenders will be more easily defined at the open of October than during the mayhem of the early weeks, when next to nothing went right for the Big Ten. Even just last week, confusion reigned after the league went 12-1 with four wins over Power 5 foes.

Well, Saturday was more down to Earth. Week 5 offered a better look at the Big Ten’s true colors than we’ve seen at any time this season.

The verdict: The talent on display in offensive outbursts on Saturday can take Michigan State and Ohio State far in this league. Wisconsin and Iowa might have to win ugly all year. Penn State is not as good as it looked through four games; Northwestern is better than it appeared through three.

Indiana still isn’t consistent enough to pencil into a bowl game. Minnesota and Maryland should not be overlooked.

And Nebraska, the league’s lone unbeaten, gets its chance this week to prove it belongs in the national conversation with MSU and OSU. The Huskers visit Spartan Stadium on Saturday.

We’ll get to that soon enough. First, let’s rewind.

[+] EnlargeLittle Brown Jug
Leon Halip/Getty ImaesMinnesota throttled Michigan in the Big House to claim the Little Brown Jug for just the second time since 1987.
Team of the week: How can it be any group other than Minnesota? As I was reminded in the wake of the Gophers’ 30-14 throttling of Michigan at the Big House, even my preseason best-case scenario for Minnesota did not include a win over the Wolverines. Clearly, I forgot to account for the possibility of a full-blown Michigan meltdown. But that’s not what led to the Gophers’ second win in the past 24 years of this series; Minnesota earned this. David Cobb rushed for 183 yards against a defense that entered the game ninth nationally against the run. Minnesota held Michigan to 171 yards. Fans greeted the Gophers upon their return to the Twin Cities. Apparently, they all wanted a look at the Little Brown Jug. Enjoy it, Minnesota.

Biggest play: Down 20-10 to Wisconsin, South Florida QB Mike White hit Kennard Swanson for a 52-yard gain that looked set to get the Bulls in position for a touchdown that could cut the Badgers’ lead to three points. But a lunging hit by Wisconsin freshman Lubern Figaro jarred the football loose from Swanson. Linebacker Vince Biegel recovered at the 10-yard line, and Wisconsin drove 90 yards in 18 plays for the backbreaking score. Without that turnover, it might have ended differently.

Big Man on Campus (offense): Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova fired four touchdowns in the Scarlet Knights’ 31-6 win over Tulane. Nova was notably efficient in the first half, hitting 9 of 9 throws for 195 yards and three scores. In the process, he moved his career total to 61 touchdown passes, passing Mike Teel for the school record.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory is officially back. The intimidating junior, who missed the Huskers’ first two games with a knee injury, recorded 2.5 sacks among his seven tackles and three quarterback hurries in a 45-14 Nebraska thumping of Illinois. Gregory looks more dangerous than ever, often lining up at the second level as a linebacker hybrid. He even delivered a devastating block on Nate Gerry’s 53-yard interception return.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Maryland place-kicker Brad Craddock connected on three field goals, including two from 48 yards in the Terrapins’ 37-15 win over Indiana, to stay perfect for the season on 10 attempts.

Biggest faceplant: Aside from Michigan -- no repeat winners -- it’s Indiana. What happened to the Hoosiers? They followed the groundbreaking win at Mizzou by failing to show at home as Maryland looked solid in its inaugural league game. So much for the Hoosiers' triple threat on offense. The Terps’ quarterback duo of C.J. Brown and Caleb Rowe teamed with receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long to steal the show.

Facts and numbers to know: Michigan ranks last nationally in turnover margin at minus-12 and 90th in offensive efficiency, according to ESPN Stats and Info. ... Nebraska I-back Ameer Abdullah rushed for 208 yards, moving his nation-leading season total to 833 yards. The Huskers, as a team, rushed for 458 yards against Illinois, totaling 190 on the ground, with no passing yards, in the first quarter. ... Rutgers has recorded 21 sacks in five games. ... Wisconsin remains the only team nationally not to surrender a red-zone touchdown. ... Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz earned his 65th conference victory to tie former Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez for 10th all time. ... Ohio State’s 710 yards of offense against Cincinnati came within 8 yards of the school record and marked its highest output since totaling 715 against Utah in 1986. ... Michigan State has scored 174 points in three home games and 50 in back-to-back games for the first time since 1978. ... Northwestern held Penn State to 18 rushing yards in the first three quarters of its 29-6 win.

Big Ten morning links

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
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Week 5 in the Big Ten is nearly upon us, with five conference matchups to digest. As the preparation comes to a close, here’s a peek inside my mind in advance of Saturday.

If it looks like a quarterback controversy, and it sounds like a quarterback controversy . . . Look, coaches would often rather talk about injuries -- and they hate to talk about injuries -- than an uncertain situation at quarterback. But that’s just what Brady Hoke and Kirk Ferentz face this week. Based on recent play of the Michigan offense, neither Shane Morris nor Devin Gardner appear likely to resurrect the Wolverines. But Hoke and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, as a visit nears from Minnesota, continue to keep their strategy under wraps. At Iowa, Jake Rudock has a leg injury. C.J. Beathard has a live arm, showcased in the second half last week as he led the Hawkeyes back on the road to beat Pittsburgh. So what you do? My suggestion: Give the backups a shot. Morris might provide a spark at the Big House. As for Iowa, it should win at Purdue with either guy. The Hawkeyes know what they’ve got in Rudock. Beathard has never started a game. Let's see what he can do.

What Big Ten team most needs a win on Saturday? This made for a fun discussion last week as Iowa, Northwestern, Maryland and Rutgers faced important bounce-back opportunities. They all won, as did Indiana, which didn’t even receive much consideration in this discussion before its trip to Missouri. I chose Michigan last week as the team most in need of a win. And you know what happened against Utah. Well, this week, I’m eliminating U-M as a candidate here, because I think a victory over Minnesota simply delays the inevitable crash and burn. Wisconsin, Michigan State, Nebraska and Ohio State also don’t get a chance in this category; as favorites of more than two touchdowns, their situations are clear. Same goes for Rutgers, which ought to roll against Tulane. I’m going with Indiana, amazingly. The Hoosiers face a tough test at home against Maryland in what looks like an entertaining matchup. After the win at Mizzou, IU needs to validate its legitimacy as a bowl contender and continue to distance itself from the loss to Bowling Green.

Setting the table. Don’t look now, but if things go according to form in Lincoln and East Lansing on Saturday, there's a big one on tap next week at Spartan Stadium. A visit from the undefeated Cornhuskers would rank Nebraska-Michigan State as the marquee early-season conference game in the league and likely the best intra-division matchup of the season -- if not the game of the year in the Big Ten. Nationally, next week isn’t exactly the best day in college football history, but it’s pretty good, with Alabama-Ole Miss, Arizona State-USC, Texas A&M-Mississippi State, Stanford-Notre Dame and LSU-Auburn. The Huskers and Spartans can give the Big Ten a seat at the table.

Around the league:

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C.J. Beathard ready when the call comes

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
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The call can come at any time, and C.J. Beathard always has to be ready for it.

Given the option, though, it is a little bit easier when the Iowa backup quarterback has a halftime to prepare.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Beathard
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback C.J. Beathard helped send Iowa into Big Ten play on Saturday with momentum.
Beathard used that advance notice last weekend at Pittsburgh to receive some instructions from the coaching staff, chat with teammates who made it clear they had faith in him to relieve an injured Jake Rudock and then to get loose with a bit more time than he might normally have.

And once Beathard took the field and took over the offense, it was clear that he had done everything possible to provide an answer when the Hawkeyes needed him.

“I think that did help, for sure,” Beathard said. “Rather than just putting on the helmet and having to jump in there, I kind of got to think about it a little bit in the locker room.

“Guys talked to me, everybody was real confident in me, said they had my back and trusted in me. That was a good thing to have, too.”

The time, the faith and Beathard’s commitment to preparing as if he’s the starter each week all paid off in the second half against the Panthers, with the sophomore coming off the bench to spark a comeback and give the Hawkeyes a bounce-back victory heading into Big Ten play this week against Purdue.

Beathard wasn’t all that flashy in completing 7 of 8 attempts for 98 yards, but Iowa showed signs of coming to life on offense down the stretch that it had largely been unable to sustain in the season's first three weeks. That strong half, though, doesn’t guarantee that he’ll become the full-time starter in the long run.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has been pretty consistent in expressing a desire to play both quarterbacks, though Beathard had only appeared in one of the previous three games this season before the trip to Pittsburgh. But there’s fresh evidence that Beathard can deliver now to consider, though it might not really be relevant on Saturday if Rudock isn’t healthy enough to play anyway.

“I think right now C.J. is definitely our starter today because Jake won’t be practicing,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “We’ll just see how the week plays out. ... I feel good about both guys. Most of those axioms are true that everybody loves the No. 2 guy, and I do, too.

“Again, it’s a really unusual situation. The good news is now that when we have both healthy, we have a really good situation. As of today, we’re not in the best of situations, but hopefully it will get better as the week goes on.”

When Rudock does get fully healthy, that’s when things could get interesting for Ferentz as he tries to juggle the two quarterbacks.

Beathard seems to have the stronger arm, which he showed off on a deep strike to Damond Powell for 62 yards on his opening drive against Pitt. Rudock is widely praised for his intelligence and knowledge of the playbook, and he’s also shown a bit of mobility at times this season by averaging 4 yards per carry.

No matter how it shakes out for Iowa down the road, it’s looking like Beathard will again have the benefit of some advance warning to get himself ready. And he’s already proven how dangerous he can be when he knows the call is coming.

“You just have to go into each week preparing as if you’re the starter,” Beathard said. “That’s just what you have to do as a backup quarterback, because you never know when your time is going to come. You’re a play away from going in each game.

“That’s the mindset you have to have each week in practice. Prepare hard, prepare as if you’re the guy because you never know when it’s going to come.”

But it never hurts to get a little heads-up.
video

The sun finally shined on the Iowa Hawkeyes on Saturday in Pittsburgh -- C.J. Sunshine, that is.

After a thoroughly uninspiring 14 quarters to begin the season, Iowa looked like a different team in the second half against Pitt and rallied for a 24-20 win at Heinz Field. The Hawkeyes received a big lift from backup quarterback C.J. Beathard, he of the bionic arm and the flowing blond locks.

Taking over for the injured Jake Rudock, Beathard engineered a seven-play, 94-yard touchdown drive to begin the second half. The possession featured two more plays than Iowa ran in all of the second quarter as they were bullied by Pitt.

Beathard completed 7 of 8 passes for 98 yards in relief of Rudock (5-of-10 passing, 80 yards, one touchdown, one interception). His presence sparked the offense, especially a line that has underperformed for much of the season. Iowa finally asserted its will and sparked Mark Weisman for 52 yards and two touchdowns in the second half.

Unlike in past years, Iowa coaches never closed the door to playing two quarterbacks entering a season. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis told me this spring that he could envision a special package for Beathard to complement Rudock. It might become more than an occasional thing after today.

Iowa's offense certainly needed a jolt, and Beathard provided it. He might be more of a gunslinger than coach Kirk Ferentz likes, but Beathard has a cannon and can provide explosiveness to a pass game that sorely needs it.

These Hawkeyes can do big things in a wide-open Big Ten. The schedule sets up extremely well for them, with no Michigan State or Ohio State and both Wisconsin and Nebraska at home.

It will be interesting to see how Ferentz handles his quarterbacks entering Big Ten play next week at Purdue. He's pretty loyal to Rudock, who wasn't the only problem in the first half at Pitt.

But he can't ignore the energy Beathard brings to the offense. Beathard has to be part of the plan, if not the trigger man, as Iowa moves forward.

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