Big Ten: Matt Lehman

Injury impact: Big Ten

October, 24, 2013
Injuries are an unfortunate part of the game. Every team must deal with them, but some teams get hurt harder than others. Today, we're taking a look at the teams that have been impacted the most this season. Here's our ranking of the top three:

1. Northwestern: Injuries have played a major role in the Wildcats' 0-3 start in Big Ten play. All-American kick returner and star tailback Venric Mark has been healthy enough to play exactly one full game -- against Ohio State. Quarterback Kain Colter has been banged up just about all season as well. Both were reinjured at Wisconsin and missed all of last week's loss to Minnesota. In addition, top defensive tackle Sean McEvilly has played in only three games, while starting cornerback Daniel Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener at Cal.

2. Penn State: The Nittany Lions had major depth issues to begin with because of NCAA sanctions. It hasn't helped that they have also dealt with a series of injuries. Tight ends Matt Lehman and Brent Wilkerson and defensive end Brad Bars were lost for the season. Linebacker Mike Hull was hurt for most of the first two months, as was tight end Kyle Carter. Wide receiver Brandon Felder missed the Indiana loss with an ankle problem. Linebacker Ben Kline has been limited after offseason shoulder surgery. Safety Ryan Keiser has been dealing with a hand injury since the Kent State game. This team can't afford many more injuries as it approaches the homestretch of the season.

3. Nebraska: The Huskers' injury problems haven't adversely affected them -- at least not yet. Still, it's never easy when you lose your four-year starting quarterback, and Taylor Martinez hasn't played since Week 3 versus UCLA because of turf toe. He could be back this week, but All-American guard Spencer Long was lost for the season in the last game against Purdue with a knee injury. He'll be tough to replace.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien isn't sure whether the NCAA will grant injured tight end Matt Lehman a sixth year of eligibility, but it's something he said Lehman and Penn State are pursuing.

"Obviously, we're looking into it, and we'd love for that to work out for the guy," O'Brien said Tuesday afternoon. "If it doesn't work out, I really believe he has a chance to play at the next level. 6-foot-7, 260-pound guy. He's tough, he can catch. So, some way or another, I think he'll be playing football somewhere."

Lehman suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter of the season opener against Syracuse. He fell to the turf on a 10-yard out when he was breaking out of a cut on his left foot.

"As far as a sixth year goes, it's hard for me to comment on that because it's such a complicated deal what you have to basically prove to the NCAA," O'Brien said. "It has to do with personal background, injury background, transfer -- because he was at Shippensburg and then he came here -- and we'd be here all day if I was having to describe that to you."

Lehman can apply for a medical hardship waiver after the season. If it's granted, he would be one of six returning tight ends for the 2014 season.

The Pennsylvania native had one catch for 2 yards this year before suffering the injury. He finished fourth on the team last season with 24 receptions, with 21 coming during the conference season.

He currently has 298 career receiving yards and three touchdowns.

"It's tough," O'Brien added. "He was playing really well. Really well."

Big Ten Friday mailblog

June, 14, 2013
Wishing you a great weekend. Be sure to follow us on Twitter.

And away we go ...

Brutus from The Ninth Circle writes: Hey Adam, got a recruiting question for you. I've been watching Penn State's ability to recruit under sanctions and have been mildly impressed with what Bill O'Brien has been able to do. I think the caliber of recruit, while varying, has been good. I'd say in some cases it's been better than some previous years. The various pundits point to the sanctions as being a factor in affecting their ability to recruit. So my question is, how do you think the recruiting will change, if at all, once the sanctions have passed? Does the ability to compete in a bowl really have that much of an effect? Or are we going to see only a minor change in recruiting ability once the sanctions are gone? I'm intrigued by how much the recruiting is affected by the coaches, the facilities, the exposure, the bowl games, and the overall stability.

Adam Rittenberg: Brutus, I've been more than mildly impressed with Penn State's recruiting efforts under O'Brien, especially when you consider how selective they need to be. Time will tell how many recruits pan out, but O'Brien and his assistants have brought in a lot of high-ceiling guys at a time when they really can't miss on many or any. The chance to win championships and play in bowl games matters to recruits, and Penn State will have an easier time once the sanctions are finished or nearing their end. But O'Brien has effectively leveraged his NFL experience on the recruiting trail. Recruits with NFL aspirations, especially those who play offense, can see the path to the next level under O'Brien in State College.

Penn State still offers great facilities and great exposure, especially during Big Ten play. The program also is much friendlier to NFL scouts under O'Brien than it was under Joe Paterno. O'Brien also can sell the chance to play for championships as juniors and seniors, and the light at the end of the tunnel will get closer each year. I expect a recruiting upgrade post-sanctions, but perhaps not a dramatic one as long as O'Brien stays, Penn State keeps winning at a decent level and players move on to the NFL.

Stan from Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., writes: Your reply to "Unhappy Husker" today was a fail. You implied that Nebraska was equal with all Big 10 members w/your $25.7M comment. C'mon Adam: don't be untruthful. OK, you might be presidential material, but being misleading here is just wrong. Nebraska won't get an equal share for several more years. And U totally missed his larger point. Nebraska DOES have fabulous facilites/game-day experience, but recruits have to GET THERE before it matters. THAT is the point. Nebraska isn't close to that manyr top talent H.S. players, so many have to wait to see Nebraska until their Sr. season, based on NCAA rules, unless they pay for it on their own earlier. So when you said "regardless of the kickoff time" you should have thought instead. And you say NE will have "more night games in future seasons." How does that help THIS year's recruiting?

Adam Rittenberg: Stan, you're right about the revenue share error, as Nebraska didn't get a full Big Ten revenue share in 2012. But my larger point doesn't change: Nebraska will be a richer athletic program in the Big Ten than it would have been in the Big 12. You can't dispute that, and I think some Nebraska fans need to appreciate the financial benefits of the Big Ten rather than pining for the good ol' Big 12, which made their program less and less relevant with its Southern shift. I also understand the difficulty Nebraska has in getting some recruits to campus on game day, and the added importance of official visits for the Huskers. I wrote about this topic last month.

I understand that night games help recruiting, but I don't buy into the belief that an 11 a.m. kickoff against UCLA is going to ruin Nebraska's recruiting efforts for 2014. That's fan panic, not reality. There will be enough afternoon kickoffs this season -- in addition to home games against Wyoming and Southern Miss in prime time -- for recruits to attend. Some will take official visits to Nebraska on their bye weeks. Some will take Saturday morning flights to Omaha from other Midwest cities, and there are several. Is it ideal? No. Is it a reason for Nebraska to go back to the Big 12 or wish it was still there? No.

Matt K. from New York writes: I think this season one can make the argument that Penn State has the strongest receiving corps in the Big Ten with Robinson, Carter, and Jesse James (coolest name on the team) returning, plus the additions of Adam Breneman and Eugene Lewis coming up, but my question is who do you see throwing these receivers the ball? Hackenberg will surely need some time to learn BOB's system, but his ceiling definitely seems much higher than Tyler Ferguson's. Also, do you see Michael O'Connor getting a redshirt his first season to separate eligibility years between him and Hackenberg, or will he be kept without a redshirt for depth purposes?

Adam Rittenberg: Matt, I agree Penn State has an excellent group of pass-catchers coming back for 2013, especially at the tight end spot with Kyle Carter, James and Matt Lehman, to go along with Breneman. The quarterback competition comes down to whether Ferguson separates himself early in camp. He had the entire spring to work in the offense, while Hackenberg did not. If Hackenberg progresses quickly or Ferguson struggles early in camp, I can definitely see O'Brien playing for the future with Hackenberg. If the two are relatively equal, it usually makes sense to go with the younger, seemingly more talented player. I'm sure Penn State would like to redshirt O'Connor to create enough separation between its quarterbacks. If Hackenberg and Ferguson both prove to be solid options, I see Penn State going that route.

Mac from Cincinnati writes: Hey Adam, I saw the recent strength of schedules and Ohio State's is 105th. A lot of people are predicting them to go to the national title as you know. Do you think that they are picking them to go because their schedule is weak or because they are a really good team? Also I saw that Oregon has the 113th toughest schedule and they are also a title contender. Why aren't people talking about their weaker schedule as a reason why they might make it?

Adam Rittenberg: Mac, I've read a lot about Ohio State as a national title contender, and every story mentions the weak schedule, so it's definitely a topic of discussion. The schedule certainly plays into Ohio State being labeled a title contender. The Buckeyes went 12-0 last season but were far from a dominant team. Although they'll be better in certain areas this season and more comfortable with the Urban Meyer way, they have significant question marks with a young defense. So the schedule certainly is a factor in the title talk surrounding the Buckeyes, who face a few early challenges (Wisconsin, Northwestern) but should be a fairly sizable favorite every time they take the field. It's worth pointing out that Ohio State's schedule would have looked a bit better if Vanderbilt hadn't backed out of a season-opening game in Columbus. The Buckeyes ended up moving their game against Buffalo to the opener and replaced Vanderbilt with San Diego State. You bring up an interesting point about Oregon, which plays two major-conference teams (Virginia and Tennessee) in non-league play, plus nine conference games, including a trip to Stanford (but no USC). The Ducks' schedule doesn't appear as easy as Ohio State's, but it might be.

Aaron from Bettendorf, Iowa, writes: Adam,With the Big 10 going to 9 conference games I like the idea of one cupcake, one middle of the road, and one "upper echelon" team. One cupcake is not a problem for Iowa as they typically schedule one a year anyway. Middle of the road appears to be Iowa St - which should be played every other year now with the nine game schedule - due to neither Barta or Pollard wanting to look like a bad guy by backing out of the series. So my 3rd pick will go to...Virginia Tech. Iowa and Beamer ball are very similar. Iowa is starting to recruit the Virginia area more due to the hiring of coach Reid. That game puts you in the Virginia/Maryland/DC markets. Lastly, it will likely be a marquee game on ABC/ESPN in the primetime slots.

Adam Rittenberg: Aaron, I like your approach here and I'm guessing a lot of Iowa fans would, too. The problem: Iowa would need to organize its schedule to include at least seven home games in most if not every season. Virginia Tech certainly would want a home-and-home series unless the teams met at a neutral site. Would Iowa agree to play a neutral-site game against Virginia Tech at FedEx Field, where the Hokies played Boise State in 2010? It would be more of a Hokie home game, but it would get Iowa into that market. From talking with Gary Barta and Kirk Ferentz, it doesn't sound like there's much interest in scheduling a second major-conference team for home-and-homes. I think Iowa has three options after the Big Ten goes to nine league games in 2016: keep scheduling Iowa State and two guarantee games; take two-year breaks with Iowa State and replace the Cyclones with a team like Virginia Tech; or keep playing Iowa State and sprinkle in neutral-site games with teams like Virginia Tech. I prefer the second and third options to the first.

Max from Toronto writes: Adam, your response to Jon from Tumalo, Ore., about the NCAA refusal to punish SEC cheating in any sort of meaningful way, pretty much shows that you have to tow the ESPN company line. You sounded like nothing more than an SEC apologist. Major infractions are major infraction, I bet you bought the only Cam Newton's dad knew crap. I ask you this, since it's now reached to ridiculous extremities, do you know just how much your employers are paying the NCAA not to punish their cash cow?

Adam Rittenberg: You're right, Max, the NCAA giving Mississippi State a one-year bowl ban would ruin ESPN's investment in the SEC and send panic across the ESPN campus in Bristol. If you've followed recent NCAA cases, there are a lot of "major infractions" that aren't punished with postseason bans. I'm not apologizing for Mississippi State or the SEC, and it amazes me how Auburn escaped any penalties for the Cam Newton situation. My response to Jon was an attempt to explain why the Mississippi State and Ohio State cases were different in the NCAA's eyes and why Mississippi State escaped a postseason ban. I never said I agreed with the ruling, but there's a difference between an assistant providing benefits to a recruit and the head coach lying repeatedly to everyone, which happened at Ohio State.

Tony from Geneva, Neb., writes: Do you see any parallels between the 2013 Huskers and the '83 Scoring Explosion Huskers. Both defenses could be called a bend but dont break model. Now dont get me wrong. Gill, Rozier and Friar averaging 52 points a game is probably loftier than Martinez, Abdullah and Bell will accumulate due to the turnover bug that has yet to be remedied. But I believe 43-46 points a game isn't out of the question when you look at the roster. Bo shouldnt be afraid to run it up to get inside the opponents head a week in advance. Sportsmanship in Big Red country is a standard, but settling for 27 points against Wyoming could show weakness to a future conference foe.

Adam Rittenberg: An interesting comparison, Tony. I have little doubt Nebraska will put up mammoth points and yards totals in its first few games, which should help a talented offense build confidence. It might be unrealistic to expect Nebraska to average more than 40 points a game against Big Ten defenses, but the Huskers should be one of the league's most productive offenses this fall. My issue with Nebraska's offense remains the turnovers, which tend to catch up with a team even if it's racking up all those yards and points. Few defenses are good enough to overcome so many giveaways, and Nebraska's defense has some major question marks entering the fall. If the Husker offense builds on last year's production and cuts down on the turnovers, it could lead the team to a division title. But I also think Nebraska could have fewer yards, fewer points and fewer turnovers, and still get back to Indy. Remember, Nebraska's 1983 team had 21 turnovers (15 fumbles, six interceptions). Nebraska had 35 last season.
2012 record: 8-4
2012 conference record: 6-2 (second, Leaders Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 8; defense: 6, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

RB Zach Zwinak, WR Allen Robinson, TE Kyle Carter, OG John Urschel, OT Donovan Smith, DE Deion Barnes, LB Glenn Carson, CB Adrian Amos

Key losses

QB Matt McGloin, FB Michael Zordich, C Matt Stankiewitch, DT Jordan Hill, LB Michael Mauti, LB Gerald Hodges, CB Stephon Morris

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Zach Zwinak* (1,000 yards)
Receiving: Allen Robinson* (1,018 yards)
Tackles: Gerald Hodges (109)
Sacks: Deion Barnes* (6)
Interceptions: Michael Mauti (3)

Spring answers

1. "Tight End U." If there's one position the Nittany Lions don't have to worry about, it's this one -- and that's probably why some PSU players have taken to dubbing the university "TEU." Kyle Carter's injured wrist should be just fine once the season rolls around, and there's plenty of depth here. Teammates have pointed to the offseason work of 6-foot-7 target Jesse James, who really came on strong in the second half of last season. He was also the receiving star in the annual spring scrimmage with five catches and 77 yards. Couple him with Matt Lehman, Brent Wilkerson and Adam Breneman, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see quite a few formations with multiple tight ends on the field.

2. Versatility at a premium. Bill O'Brien doesn't mind moving players around. Wideouts Malik Golden and Trevor Williams switched over to the secondary, and Williams has especially picked up the position quickly. But those two aren't the only to play at different positions. Adrian Amos can play safety or cornerback, and a lot of Penn State's younger DBs have the ability to slide between those two. Penn State's trying to combat a lack of depth with versatile players here, so players who can play at multiple spots are especially valuable.

3. Young standouts. Several true and redshirt freshmen could contribute heavily this season, and O'Brien has praised multiple first-year players for picking things up quickly. On defense, DT Austin Johnson looks to be a starter after a redshirt season, and LB Nyeem Wartman has a leg up on an injured Ben Kline. On offense, WR Eugene Lewis made a one-handed grab in the spring scrimmage to show he can make the tough catches, and RB Akeel Lynch has also made a strong case for playing time. PSU doesn't historically have many four-year starters, but this year could change that.

Fall questions

1. Quarterback question marks. Neither option, early enrollee Tyler Ferguson nor incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg, has ever thrown a pass in the FBS -- and one of those two players will be the Penn State starter. Inexperience is a big concern, and the QB will have to learn a complicated offense in a short period of time. Hackenberg has a lot of potential and Ferguson showed glimpses, however inconsistent, in the spring game. But the offense's strength last season was the quick no-huddle offense -- and it remains to be seen whether either of these signal callers can pull the fast playing style off.

2. Withstanding lack of depth. O'Brien has gotten this team down to about 67 scholarships in preparation for 2014 when the 65-scholarship limit kicks in, so depth is a real concern this season. If a quarterback or linebacker becomes injured, PSU could be in trouble. The Lions need to remain healthy to have a shot at repeating last year's success. And one injury could really have a ripple effect on this team. Health is one question, one uncertainty, that can't be answered anytime soon.

3. Kicking game. Sam Ficken was just 14-of-21 on field goals last season and didn't make a single kick over 39 yards. He did wind up converting his last 10 attempts, but his inconsistency carried over in the spring game when he missed a 37-yard field goal and an extra point. O'Brien was known for leaving the special-teams unit on the sideline a lot on fourth downs last season and, if Ficken struggles again, that would put even more pressure on the young quarterbacks. Or force O'Brien to use incoming walk-on kicker Chris Gulla.
When the NCAA leveled severe sanctions against Penn State last summer and made it easy for players to transfer, roster depth became an immediate short-term concern.

It almost certainly looked to be a long-term problem. How would Penn State fare with a reduced roster and a limited number of scholarships to pass out for the 2013 recruiting class?

Early indications suggest the Lions will do just fine. After an 8-4 season under first-year coach Bill O'Brien, Penn State will open spring practice Monday in good shape, both depth-wise and health-wise.

Like every team, the Lions have some holes to fill, most notably quarterback, but they return playmakers on both sides of the ball like wide receiver Allen Robinson, defensive end Deion Barnes, cornerback Adrian Amos and three seasoned tight ends (Kyle Carter, Matt Lehman and Jesse James).

"We feel really good about our depth," O'Brien told on Friday. "Is it exactly the way we would want it? No. We were only able to sign a certain amount of guys, but at the same time, we've got a lot of quality, tough [players]. I really enjoy this football team, being around these kids.

"Obviously, these guys have to go out and play well for us, we have to stay healthy. But we feel like we'll field a very competitive football team in the fall."

Sophomore linebacker Ben Kline is the only key player who will miss spring practice after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. The Lions are looking for bodies at linebacker after losing Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges. Glenn Carson and Mike Hull are virtually assured of starting spots, and with Kline out, O'Brien sees Nyeem Wartman opening the spring with the first-team defense. Wartman was limited by injuries as a true freshman in 2012.

"We think he's got a bright, bright future," O'Brien said.

Two quick notes:
  • O'Brien reiterated that he won't name a starting quarterback after spring practice. Steven Bench and junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson will compete this spring, and heralded recruit Christian Hackenberg arrives in the summer.
  • Penn State made two offseason position changes: tight end Garry Gilliam moves to offensive tackle, where he can play on either side, O'Brien said. Wide receiver Malik Golden moves to defensive back.
After a brief break for signing day, the postseason position rankings return with the wide receivers and tight ends. The Big Ten had only one team (Indiana) rank in the top 30 nationally in pass offense, and the league's overall depth at receiver and tight end wasn't good at all, but a few groups of pass-catchers stood out.

As a reminder, these rankings are based solely on performance during the 2012 season and factor in both star power and depth. Here's a look at our preseason rundown.

There's clear separation with the top three groups, while the bottom four could be rearranged just about any way you want (if you enjoy that sort of thing).

Now let's get started ...

[+] EnlargeCody Latimer
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsReceiver Cody Latimer should have a productive season in Indiana's pass-oriented system.
1. Indiana (Preseason ranking: 8): The Hoosiers attempted 58 more passes than any other Big Ten team, but they had plenty of reasons to do so and merit top billing here. Speedster Shane Wynn led the squad in receptions with 68, but Cody Latimer emerged into the star of the group, recording 51 receptions for 806 yards and six touchdowns. Like Latimer, Kofi Hughes stretched the field and averaged nearly 15 yards per reception. Tight end Ted Bolser also made nice contributions (41 catches, 445 yards). IU had five receivers or tight ends finish with at least 23 receptions.

2. Nebraska (Preseason ranking: 2): The Huskers' multitude of big-play threats nearly put them in the top spot, as they helped Nebraska finish with the Big Ten's top offense (460.8 ypg). Wideout Kenny Bell led the way with 863 receiving yards and eight touchdowns on 50 receptions (17.3-yard average). Receiver Jamal Turner and tight ends Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton all averaged at least 13 yards per reception. Quincy Enunwa became a nice No. 2 target with 42 receptions for 470 yards.

3. Penn State (Preseason ranking: 7): Few saw this coming before the season, and our preseason capsule about the Nittany Lions began with, "Justin Brown gives the Nittany Lions a solid top option." Whoops. Even though Brown transferred in the wake of the NCAA sanctions, Penn State found surprise stars in wide receiver Allen Robinson and tight end Kyle Carter. Robinson won the Big Ten's Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year Award after leading the league in receptions (77), receiving yards (1,013) and touchdown catches (11). Carter (36 catches for 453 yards) might have been the league's top tight end, a position where Penn State had unparalleled depth. Players like wideout Brandon Moseby-Felder and tight end Matt Lehman emerged later in the season.

4. Purdue (Preseason ranking: 5): There's definitely a drop-off after the top three groups, but Purdue had a nice crop of receivers who likely would have put up bigger numbers if quarterback Robert Marve had stayed healthy all season. Wideouts O.J. Ross (56 receptions, 454 yards) and Antavian Edison (58 receptions, 682 yards) both finished in the league's top five in receptions, while Gary Bush also eclipsed the 40-catch mark. Young wideout Dolapo Macarthy showed promise, and tight ends Gabe Holmes and Crosby Wright combined for 47 receptions.

5. Michigan (Preseason ranking: 6): No offense to Denard Robinson, but Michigan's receiving corps truly got its chance to shine once Devin Gardner took control at quarterback. Michigan became a much more pass-oriented offense and stretched the field with several players. Jeremy Gallon turned in a very solid junior season with 49 receptions for 829 yards and four touchdowns (16.9-yard average). Roy Roundtree came on strong late in the season and made the catch of the year in the league against Northwestern to force overtime. Michigan received nice contributions from wideout Drew Dileo and young tight end Devin Funchess (five touchdowns), and Gardner himself made some plays early on before switching permanently to QB.

6. Ohio State (Preseason ranking: 9): Coach Urban Meyer is looking for much more from Ohio State's perimeter players, but in a pass-challenged league like the Big Ten, Ohio State's receivers and tight ends finish in the middle of the pack. Corey Brown quietly produced a 60-catch season, finishing fourth in the league in receptions (5 rpg). Devin Smith had half as many receptions as Brown but finished with nearly the same yardage total (669-618) as he became Braxton Miller's top deep threat. Jake Stoneburner had four touchdown catches, while sophomore tight end Jeff Heuerman showed some promise.

7. Northwestern (Preseason ranking: 1): Thanks to the emergence of Venric Mark, Northwestern became a much more run-driven offense than we anticipated before the season, although the receiving corps underachieved a bit. The Wildcats had no true stars, although they boasted some nice balance as four players recorded at least 29 receptions. The big bright spot late in the season came from freshman tight end Dan Vitale, who recorded 28 receptions for 288 yards and two touchdowns. USC transfer Kyle Prater wasn't much of a factor (10 catches, 54 yards). Quarterback Kain Colter might have provided the best performance from a Northwestern receiver when he moved there against Indiana and recorded career highs for both receptions (9) and receiving yards (131).

8. Michigan State (Preseason ranking: 11): It says something about the Big Ten when Michigan State's receivers, who received heavy criticism for much of the season, finish in the top two-thirds of the rankings. But the Spartans simply produced a lot more than the groups below them. They had arguably the league's top tight end in Dion Sims, who recorded 36 receptions for 475 yards before opting to skip his senior year and enter the NFL draft. Freshman Aaron Burbridge emerged at receiver during Big Ten play (29 receptions, 364), and the Spartans had three receivers record at least 36 receptions and two -- Keith Mumphery and Bennie Fowler -- with more than 500 receiving yards.

9. Wisconsin (Preseason ranking: 3): Wisconsin had a major shortage of depth, which hurt during a season where three different players started at quarterback. The Badgers had one of the league's best wide receivers in Jared Abbrederis (49 receptions, 837 yards, 5 TDs), and Jacob Pedersen won the Big Ten's Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year award, albeit in surprising fashion. But no other players recorded 20 receptions and Wisconsin ended up finishing last in the Big Ten and 111th nationally in passing.

10. Iowa (Preseason rank: 4): The Hawkeyes struggled to consistently pass the ball, and getting into the end zone proved to be nearly impossible as they finished with just seven receiving touchdowns. Kevonte Martin-Manley, the group's bright spot with 52 catches for 571 yards, was the lone Hawkeye with multiple scoring receptions in 2012. Keenan Davis fell short of expectations and while C.J. Fiedorowicz put up nice numbers for a tight end (45 receptions, 433 yards), many expected more from him as well. Like several Big Ten squads, Iowa struggled with depth at receiver.

11. Illinois (Preseason ranking: 10): We had concerns about Illinois' skill-position talent and depth before the season, and it proved true. Although the Illini had four players record at least 25 receptions, two of them -- receptions leader Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson -- play running back. Ryan Lankford was the team's top wideout with 469 receiving yards and five touchdowns, while Darius Millines once again struggled to stay healthy. Spencer Harris contributed 21 catches for 252 yards and two scores, but Illinois needed much more to spark the league's worst offense.

12. Minnesota (Preseason ranking: 12): Like many of their Big Ten brethren, the Gophers lacked playmakers on the edge to provide balance on offense. Their best threat, A.J. Barker, left the program in not-so-quiet fashion after a spat with head coach Jerry Kill. Barker appeared in only eight games but still had 11 more receptions than any other Minnesota player. Receivers like Isaac Fruechte, Derrick Engel and Devin Crawford-Tufts showed flashes, and tight end John Rabe had four touchdown grabs, but Minnesota needs a lot more from this group going forward.
Penn State's Garry Gilliam has been granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA, giving him two seasons left.

Gilliam suffered a torn ACL in his left knee during the Big Ten opener against Iowa in 2010. He missed the remainder of that season and all of the 2011 campaign after an infection delayed his surgery and rehabilitation. Gilliam has played tight end for Penn State but moved to offensive tackle following the 2012 season, an understandable move as Penn State boasts tremendous depth at tight end with Kyle Carter, Jesse James and Matt Lehman.

The 6-foot-6, 262-pound Gilliam started eight games at tight end in 2012 and had eight receptions for 65 yards. Penn State loses one starting offensive tackle in Mike Farrell, so Gilliam will have a chance to compete for significant playing time this spring.

He'll be eligible to play in both the 2013 and 2014 seasons.

Big Ten's best assistants in 2012

December, 12, 2012
Head coaches are like quarterbacks. They get too much credit and too much blame.

Assistant coaches are like nose tackles. They don't get nearly enough credit despite playing vital roles.

Today, we'll change it up and give some recognition to Big Ten assistant coaches who did exemplary jobs with their position groups or, in some cases, units in 2012. Each of these coaches fostered improvement this season. Some took units in bad shape and made them better. Others took units in decent shape and made them very good. Some entered the season with skeptics and quieted them.

We came up with 13 assistants who deserve recognition. Yes, we realize we're leaving out some quality folks, but we had to cap it somewhere and wanted to spread the love around to the different teams.

Here's the rundown in alphabetical order:

Chris Ash, Wisconsin, defensive coordinator/secondary: All the attention on the offense's turbulent season took the spotlight away from the good things happening on the defensive side. Wisconsin finished in the top 25 nationally in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense. The Badgers held nine opponents to 21 points or fewer and gave an inconsistent offense chances to win every time out. Ash will be missed as he joins ex-Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema at Arkansas.

[+] EnlargeTim Beck, Bo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati Harnik, FileTim Beck, right, coordinated Nebraska's Big Ten-leading offense for head coach Bo Pelini.
Tim Beck, Nebraska, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks: The second-year play caller oversaw the Big Ten's top offense, which averaged 462.2 yards per game (24th nationally) and 35.1 points per game (28th nationally). Junior quarterback Taylor Martinez made significant strides under Beck's watch, and Nebraska survived the loss of star running back Rex Burkhead for most of the season thanks to contributions from Ameer Abdullah and others.

Tracy Claeys, Minnesota, defensive coordinator: An improved defense sparked Minnesota to a 4-0 start and eventually to bowl eligibility for the first time since the 2009 season. The Gophers pass rush showed life for the first time in years as senior end D.L. Wilhite and others put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Minnesota was especially good against the pass, ranking 11th nationally and 20th in pass defense efficiency. Although the offense remains a work in progress, Minnesota should be pleased with the direction on defense under Claeys.

Adam Cushing, Northwestern, offensive line: Cushing's recruiting ability always has stood out, but his coaching skills had been questioned as Northwestern struggled to convert promising line prospects into powerful blockers. The Wildcats went from a finesse offense to a power offense this season, blasting off of the line to the tune of 230.9 rush yards per game. Red zone offense went from a weakness to a strength as Northwestern tied for 17th nationally. Cushing's line paved the way for star running back Venric Mark.

Rich Fisher, Nebraska, wide receivers: Nebraska isn't known for its wide receiver play, but things are changing under Fisher's watch. Led by standout sophomore Kenny Bell, the Huskers' top three receivers combined for 1,657 yards and 11 touchdowns on 115 receptions. Just as important, the receiving corps helped Nebraska's bread-and-butter run game with effective blocking throughout the season. Fisher's hiring after the 2010 season raised some eyebrows, as he had taken a break from college coaching, returned to the high school ranks and also served as a golf instructor in Massachusetts. But he definitely looks like a great addition to Bo Pelini's staff.

Patrick Higgins, Purdue, wide receivers: Higgins played a significant role in Purdue's late-season surge, as he took over the offensive play-calling duties after coordinator Gary Nord suffered a severe back injury. Purdue won its final three games with Higgins and head coach Danny Hope handling the play calls. Higgins also did a nice job with Purdue's wide receiving corps, despite the fluctuating quarterback situation. Three veteran Boilers receivers eclipsed 40 catches and 300 receiving yards, and redshirt freshman Dolapo Macarthy showed promise.

Seth Littrell, Indiana, offensive coordinator/tight ends/fullbacks: Head coach Kevin Wilson brought in Littrell to boost Indiana's passing attack, and Littrell delivered despite losing starting quarterback Tre Roberson in Week 2. Indiana went from 80th nationally in pass offense to 19th, leading the Big Ten with 311.2 yards per game. With help from assistant offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kevin Johns, Littrell managed the quarterback situation pretty well as both Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld had success. Littrell will go largely unnoticed because of Indiana's low profile and 4-8 record, but he was one of the Big Ten's best coaching additions for 2012.

Curt Mallory, Michigan, secondary: Michigan's defensive line dominates the spotlight because that's where coordinator Greg Mattison and head coach Brady Hoke put their primary focus, but Mallory has done a really nice job with a secondary that struggled mightily under the previous regime. Despite losing promising cornerback Blake Countess to a torn ACL in the season opener, Michigan still finished second nationally (behind Nebraska) in pass defense (155.2 ypg allowed). Safety Jordan Kovacs has blossomed under Mallory's watch, and while the depth in the secondary isn't where it will be eventually, Mallory has managed things well.

[+] EnlargeBart MIller
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsBart Miller went from grad assistant to coach of a Wisconsin O-line that pummeled its way to Pasadena.
Bart Miller, Wisconsin, offensive line: Miller began the season as a graduate assistant and moved into one of the team's top assistant roles in Week 3 after the surprising dismissal of veteran line coach Mike Markuson. Although Wisconsin's line didn't have its typical dominant performances every time out, Miller fostered obvious improvement and cohesion during the course of the season. The finished product showed up in the Big Ten championship game against Nebraska, as Wisconsin bullied the Huskers to the tune of 70 points, 539 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns.

Reese Morgan, Iowa, defensive line: Iowa didn't have much to cheer about in 2012, and some of the staff changes Kirk Ferentz made led to some growing pains. Morgan faced a significant challenge in moving from offensive line to defensive line, which returned only a handful of players who had logged field time in 2011. Given the youth and inexperience along the Hawkeyes' defensive front, Morgan did a nice job in Year 1. Joe Gaglione had a nice senior season (9 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles) and young players like Louis Trinca-Pasat showed promise. The line held its own in the first half of the season before struggling late.

Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State, defensive coordinator: Many of these assistants took questionable units and improved them. Narduzzi led an elite defense that entered the season with high expectations and met them. Make no mistake: Michigan State's defense is the only reason the team found itself in every game this season. The Spartans had a few standouts, namely linebacker Max Bullough, but their overall team defense and stinginess stood out. Narduzzi is one of the nation's premier coordinators and should land a head-coaching job in the near future.

John Strollo, Penn State, tight ends: Although O'Brien's offense is a tight end's dream, Strollo did a terrific job of developing young and unproven players this season. Redshirt freshman Kyle Carter emerged into one of the Nittany Lions' top passing threats, and junior Matt Lehman and true freshman Jesse James also stepped up at times. Of Penn State's top five receiving-yards leaders this season, three players are tight ends (Carter, Lehman and James).

Ed Warinner, Ohio State, offensive line/co-offensive coordinator: Warinner took an underachieving Buckeyes offensive line with serious depth questions and turned it into quite possibly the best line in the league. The Buckeyes' front five turned a corner in Big Ten play and created lanes for Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde and the Big Ten's top scoring offense. Warinner was the Big Ten's best assistant hire of the last offseason and earns our vote as the league's top assistant in 2012.

Big Ten mailblog

November, 13, 2012
Happy Tuesday. Let's do this.

Nic from Vermillion, S.D., writes: Say the Huskers lose in the Big title game; is their destination likely the Outback bowl, since the Capital one want us two years in a row or will that also depend on where South Carolina ends up? Finally, if they go to the Rose bowl, and there are no extra Pac 12 teams eligible, what are the odds of the Fiesta bowl snatching up Notre Dame instead, leading to a Neb vs OU matchup?

Adam Rittenberg: Nic, I think there's a good chance Nebraska would go to Outback rather than Cap One because it would be a repeat and Michigan hasn't gone to Orlando since Lloyd Carr's final game (Jan. 1, 2008). Both fan bases travel well and both teams have name recognition, so it's a win-win for both bowls. I think Cap One will have some flexibility with the SEC pick, as Florida, LSU and South Carolina are all in the mix. Regarding your Rose Bowl scenario, if no Pac-12 teams are eligible and Notre Dame is, I'd be very surprised if the Rose doesn't select the Irish to face the Big Ten champion. A potentially undefeated Notre Dame team -- or, heck, even a one-loss Notre Dame team -- would be extremely appealing to the Rose officials. While some Nebraska fans certainly would prefer longtime rival Oklahoma, you can't fault the Rose for picking the Irish if it can.

Rich from Des Moines, Iowa, writes: Adam, I think the notion of officials conspiring with the Conference office is absurd. However, the quality of the officiating in the Big Ten is markedly poorer this season and has been getting gradually worse for several seasons. The Big Ten should hire a third party outside of the conference office to evaluate the officials. And those evaluations should be shared with the public each week. This brings transparency to the discussion. What do you think?

Adam Rittenberg: Rich, I don't know if I'd agree the officiating has been getting worse over time. I think officials always missed calls, but the improvement of technology with so many camera angles, slow-motion replay, etc., allows us to see so much more of the game than we used to. This season hasn't been a good one for Big Ten officials. Far too many errors, and the replay issue at Nebraska is inexcusable in my view. Bill Carollo, while working for the Big Ten, does evaluate every game and every official and every play sent in by the coaches. I think Bill is really good at his job and nationally respected in the officiating world. I would like to see the Big Ten be more transparent about officiating and acknowledge some of these mistakes publicly. That's not the league's style, but the world has changed and fans have much more access to potential bad calls than they used to. The public deserves some answers.

Chris from Traverse City, Mich., writes: What happened to the Big Ten Champion playing in the Orange Bowl that was announced a few weeks back, but not finalized? I suspect with many Michigan fans in Florida, and big Ten fans, that Miami could still be the preferred destination over Arizona.

Adam Rittenberg: Chris, I think the commissioners all had to compromise to an extent, and the Big Ten and SEC having access to two contract bowls each (Big Ten with Rose, SEC with Sugar/Champions) wasn't equitable to the other leagues. Also, it wasn't necessarily the Big Ten champion that would go to the Orange Bowl in years where the Rose served as a semifinal, but it would have been the next highest-rated Big Ten team in some years. Ultimately, there wasn't enough support for this among the group, and that's why you see a wider bowl destination pool for Big Ten champions that a) aren't in the top four and b) can't go to the Rose Bowl because it's being used as a national semifinal.

Shaun from Lincoln, Neb., writes: I agree about the officiating in the conference this year, and the Penn State fumble was clearly a blown call. But two things; there was plenty of time for Nebraska to come back and score had that been ruled a touchdown, it was hardly a game clincher. Secondly, Nebraska supposedly benefited from a bad PI call against MSU the week before; perhaps. But lets not forget that the call only moved NU closer to a TD; they were well within field goal range to send the game to OT, and had been the victim of several questionable calls earlier in that game, not the least of which was an NU player being shoved into the MSU QB out of bounds, a call that led directly to a Michigan State TD. Obviously all kinds of things could have changed following these calls, and if you believe in quantum realities, they did in a parallel universe. But frankly, if your team loses a game because of one blown call, your team needs to play better. Period

Adam Rittenberg: Shaun, I completely agree with your last point, and it's why the complaining from fans, while somewhat understandable, gets really old. Unless the call is made on the final play of the game and changes a score or a likely scoring chance, you can't definitively say it cost a team that game. Penn State never really stopped Nebraska's offense in the second half Saturday. Would the Lions have won had Matt Lehman's reach been correctly ruled a touchdown? Maybe, maybe not. It's not an absolute. It's unfortunate and a mistake that shouldn't be tolerated by Bill Carollo. But it's not the sole reason for Penn State's loss, either. If you want to cite a call that determined a game, look to the penalty on Michigan State's Isaiah Lewis for running into Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman in last year's Big Ten title game, which nullified a Keshawn Martin punt return that could have set up the game-winning score. Instead, Wisconsin runs out the clock and wins a league title. That's a big call (and a correct one, I may add).

Fox from Los Angeles writes: nothing cheers me up - not the fact that Northwestern could easily end up with 9 wins this year for the first time since '08, not the revelation that has been Venric Mark at running back, not even the overall improvement of a defense that lost a lot of veterans. Why? It's because it doesn't matter - at the end of the day, NU is just going to blow it in the second half. Every time, the same way. You can set your watch by them. Is it unreasonable for me to want to see some heads roll? I know Fitz is committed to his coaching staff and I applaud that, but this is getting ridiculous. If the players come and go but the results are the same (it's like watching games on repeat) then it's got to be the coaching right? Is it time to send the defensive coordinator packing or must we remain patient just a little longer?

Adam Rittenberg: Fox, understand your frustration, and you make some valid points about Northwestern's late-game issues. It does seem at times that Pat Fitzgerald plays not to lose and hopes the other team makes enough mistakes, rather than going for the kill and finishing them off. Northwestern rarely seems comfortable playing with a big lead. On the flip side, the Wildcats never, ever give up and are terrific at responding, even from tough losses like Saturday's. From a macro perspective, the program is in really good shape, and you should remember that even if you're disappointed right now. This team wasn't supposed to do much -- I had them at 6-6 -- and it's a few plays away from potentially heading to the Big Ten title game. Unlike most Big Ten teams, Northwestern has some decent nonconference wins (Vanderbilt, Syracuse). It's an extremely young team, and Fitzgerald is finally showing more willingness to play talented young players rather than seniors who have paid their dues but lack talent. That's a significant step for him. The recruiting is improving and the recent facilities announcement is huge. There have been some coaching errors this year on both sides of the ball. The offensive game plans against Penn State and especially Nebraska were very poor. But the overall plan at Michigan was good. There were two really bad plays at the end (punt, Hail Mary) that cost the Wildcats. That has to improve and it's important for Fitzgerald to evaluate late-game situations, while acknowledging that his team still has won a lot of close games over the years. I advocated some staff changes after last year, but I don't think they're necessary now.

Brad in Minneapolis writes: Please walk us away from the ledge, Adam. Although many fans (like me) believed that Iowa would be mediocre given their returning players and new coordinators/coaches, they clearly have gone backwards! Offensively they may taken two steps backwards even thought they returned a QB many would say was one of the better passers in the B10. Is it talent? Is it the cruddy horizontal passing game? Is it the attrition from 2008-present? Is the program stale? I am tired of hearing about "execution" from the head coach. How do "lesser" teams do more with less? if you do not have the talent to run your scheme, shouldn't you modify the scheme?

Adam Rittenberg: Back away, Brad, back away. I hate to sound like a coach, but it's honestly a combination of things. A program that rarely changes coaches has a fairly extreme staff makeover in the offseason, and has clearly struggled to a adapt. James Vandenberg's struggles are baffling because he seemed on the cusp of big things after his junior season. He doesn't have a great receiving corps around him. The scheme doesn't seem to be clicking offensively, and the number of pass routes run short of the first-down marker is really inexcusable. That's Football 101, and Iowa keeps making the same mistake. The bigger issue here, as I've mentioned before, is that Iowa failed to build on the momentum from the Orange Bowl championship team in 2009. The 2010 season was really damaging because Iowa had so many NFL players on the roster and only managed to go 7-5 (8-5 after a bowl win). That's the year a program like Iowa has to capitalize on momentum and continue it, not go the other way. The team was mediocre in 2011 and bad this year, but that 2010 team is the one I keep thinking about. If Iowa wins the Big Ten that year, as some had predicted, things would be a lot different these days.

Angela from Houston writes: This was the worst article I believe I have ever read. I am not sure if you are unfamiliar with the Big Ten and just looked up our schedules for the next week and went off of that or if you truly don't know sports. The first line was ridiculous and made no sense: Nebraska has moved into the top 14 of the BCS standings, making it eligible for at-large BCS consideration. But the Big Ten's best -- and really only -- chance for an at-large berth is Michigan. You then move on to discuss who each team should root for, saying Nebraska should root for Iowa, well yes, I suppose if that was the only game that was left, Iowa will not beat Michigan, Ohio St, however most likely will. You continue to discuss scenarios, why even include Ohio St, they need to root for, themselves?This was awful, I would have just wrote in the comments, but do not have an account and didn't want to sign up for one. Believe you should know this, please do your homework a little bit better and proof read before submitting.

Adam Rittenberg: Sorry, guys, this was too hilarious not to post. Angela, what part about "Big Ten rooting interests: Week 12" do you not understand? Yes, the whole story is about which teams Big Ten should root for IN WEEK 12. So yes, Nebraska should root for Iowa to beat Michigan, because if Michigan loses, it can lock up a spot in Indianapolis with a victory against Minnesota. If both teams win, or even if Nebraska loses, I'll point out in next week's Rooting Interests piece that Nebraska should root for Ohio State to beat Michigan. As I explained, Nebraska is eligible for BCS at-large consideration but likely won't get there because it will a) win the Big Ten title and an automatic berth b) lose another game and be unable to get back into the top 14 by selection Sunday. You're telling me to proofread? Seriously?

Steve from Atlanta writes: Hi Adam,I'm starting to look forward to next year already so looking at cross over games for Legend Teams. It appears Michigan State has the easiest path to Indy. I was reminded they have Indiana has their permanent cross over game. They don't play Wisconsin, Ohio State or Penn State.I will never agree with having a permanent cross over game. It is patently unfair. I thought the idea in athletics was to have an even playing field. Michigan State has a clear advantage every year playing Indiana when Michigan has to play Ohio State and Nebraska has to play Penn State.

Adam Rittenberg: Steve, I agree with you about Michigan State. The Spartans face the three weakest teams in the Leaders Division and play Michigan at home. They do have to travel to both Nebraska and Northwestern, two teams that return a lot of firepower from this season, but the overall slate sets up extremely well. The crossover games aren't perfect, but they're designed to maintain some rivalries (Ohio State-Michigan, Wisconsin-Minnesota, Illinois-Northwestern) with teams in opposite divisions. Michigan State definitely benefits from getting Indiana every year rather than, say, Ohio State. But unless the divisions were reorganized to maintain more annual rivalries, you're going to see crossover games, which are, as you say, inequitable.
Arguably no position group in the Big Ten has benefited more from a coach's arrival than Penn State's tight ends. And no Nittany Lions tight end has been better than redshirt freshman Kyle Carter.

Unfortunately, Penn State fans will have to wait until 2013 to see Carter, who will miss the rest of the season with a right wrist injury sustained in the third quarter of Saturday's loss to Nebraska. Coach Bill O'Brien said Tuesday that he didn't want to provide details of Carter's injury.

Carter ranks second on the squad in both receptions (36) and receiving yards (453). He has two touchdown catches and has been a huge part of Penn State's passing game.

While it's unfortunate for Carter, the Lions should be OK at tight end as others have stepped forward. Matt Lehman ranks fourth on the team with 19 receptions for 228 yards and three touchdowns (should have been four), and promising freshman Jesse James has 11 receptions for 144 yards and four touchdowns, ranking second on the team in scoring catches.

Penn State hosts Indiana on Saturday and finishes the season against Wisconsin on Nov. 24 at Beaver Stadium.
Aug. 5, 2012, 9:17 p.m., Des Plaines River Trail, Park Ridge, Ill. (across the street from Big Ten headquarters). Two cars pull up. Two men walk out, dressed in trench coats and sunglasses, despite the fact it's 87 degrees and, you know, dark.

"Did anyone follow you," one man asks the other.

"No, I made sure to circle O'Hare Airport four times before coming here," the other man replies.

"Good. Bill, listen, I need your help," the first man says. "I know you're nationally respected in the officiating world. You officiated two Super Bowls and seven conference title games, plus numerous Big Ten games. You've held the Big Ten crews to an extremely high standard in this role. Your entire career has been built on being fair and honorable, blah blah, blah. Whatever. We need to make Penn State pay this year."

"What do you mean, Jim?" the other man asks. "You mean the bowl ban, the scholarship losses, the lost Big Ten postseason revenue and the transfers weren't enough?"

"No, not enough. They still get to play games. Let's penalize them on the field ... by not penalizing their opponents. Get it? Get it?


"Jeez, you refs have no sense of humor. OK, Bill, here's the deal. I want your crews to ignore every holding call against Penn State. Every borderline call goes against them. Replay guys, too. They're in on this. If a call goes against Penn State on the field, those guys had better uphold it."

"Jim, this sounds like a conspiracy! I thought that was just for angry fans to whine about when their team loses. It doesn't actually happen, does it?"

"Happens all the time, Bill."

"OK, so my crews will intentionally make calls against Penn State?"

"You got it. They'll probably want to run off to the ACC now [devilish laugh]."

"Even in the Ohio State game? They're on probation, too. And they actually embarrassed you more with that Sugar Bowl thing."

"Dangit, don't remind me. You're right. But yeah, borderline calls go to the Buckeyes when they visit State College."

"Um, OK, Jim. Don't you think it'll be obvious?"

"Nah, they'll never catch us, Bill. And just to make sure, I want your crews to blackball another team. Let's see, let's see, how about Michigan State?"

"Er, OK, Jim. Anyone benefiting from all this?"

"You mean besides the rest of college football? We probably owe Nebraska a bit for giving them such tough schedules during their Big Ten baptism. The Huskers will love us after this season. So that's the deal. We'll call it Operation Cowardly Lion, OK?"


"Catch ya later. Remember, Bill, honoring legends, building leaders, it's what we do."

Before you run off to the message boards or the fanboy blogs and then email me demanding a full investigation, let me tell you the preceding scenario is fiction. I repeat, FICTION. I'm 99.99999 percent sure Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and Big Ten coordinator of football officials Bill Carollo never had the meeting to hatch a conspiracy against Penn State. While I can't be 100 percent sure because, well, I wasn't hanging out on Des Plaines River Trail the night of Aug. 5, the chances are extremely slim.

If you believe it happened, I've got some oceanfront property in Topeka I'd love to show you.

Penn State fans are angry. Penn State players are angry. Lions head coach Bill O'Brien, while saying all the right things publicly, can't be pleased with what he has seen from Big Ten officials, especially coming from the NFL.

It has been a rough year for Big Ten officiating, the worst I've seen it in the five seasons of the Big Ten blog. There have been more questionable calls and more coaches questioning the questionable calls. It's disappointing because officiating should be getting better, not worse, especially with the replay system no longer a novelty.

Penn State has had several calls go against it in recent weeks. There were some in the Ohio State game, but they did not -- repeat did not -- cost Penn State the game. Ohio State was the superior team that night.

Several calls also went against Penn State on Saturday at Nebraska. Linebacker Gerald Hodges was held at least once. And replay officials botched what should have been an overturn on the Matt Lehman goal-line play in the fourth quarter. They said there wasn't indisputable video evidence to overturn the call. Well, there was. Lehman broke the plane before the ball was batted away. They blew it. And it's inexcusable. Would Penn State have gone on to win? Maybe. More than half the fourth quarter remained, and Penn State hadn't stopped Nebraska at all in the second half.

Still, it was a big call and a blown call. Should there be repercussions for the replay crew? Yes. I'll get to that later.

But the growing belief that there's an orchestrated conspiracy against Penn State by the Big Ten is absurd. There have been plenty of bad calls elsewhere. Each week, my inbox fills up late Saturday and into Sunday with fans of at least half the Big Ten teams complaining about officiating. It's part of the deal.

You really think the Big Ten, already embarrassed by recent scandals involving its schools, would orchestrate a conspiracy involving multiple officiating crews to punish Penn State (and, just to cover their bases, Michigan State?) A conspiracy that, in part, would benefit Ohio State, which directly embarrassed Delany more after he lobbied for the so-called Tat-5 to play in the 2011 Sugar Bowl? It's silly talk.

I don't fault Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin for saying what he said after Saturday's game. A recent tweet by Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell -- "we legitimately lost ONE game this year...and that was Notre Dame! The black & white team beat us 4 times" -- was ridiculous, but like McGloin, he's a player expressing frustration after an emotional loss. They sound like fans. But their implication that something bigger involved just doesn't hold water.

I've gotten to know Bill Carollo fairly well since he took the job in 2009. In 2010, I spent a Saturday with him in the Big Ten's television command center. Carollo, Delany and other league officials -- as well as college and NFL officials not working games -- spend their Saturdays there, watching all the games involving Big Ten teams. Carollo takes note of all key officiating decisions, especially those involving replay, and reviews them later during his evaluations for each crew (on-field and replay). Coaches send in plays to be reviewed every week. Carollo takes his job very seriously, and he holds his crews to an extremely high standard.

Here's what he told me about replay in June 2010:
"Our expectations on replay are really quite high. They're as high or higher than the NFL's, as far as how accurate do we expect our replay people to be. We're talking 99 plus percent that we need to be right. There's humans and there's mistakes and there's technology problems and pressure. We want to be 99 plus percent accurate. We don't want to make mistakes in replay. We have a little more forgiveness if we miss a call on the field because you've been screened out or you don't see the right player."

The Big Ten doesn't comment publicly on specific officiating decisions, although I made requests following the Penn State-Nebraska game. But Carollo evaluates his crews after every game (on-field and replay). The good crews stay on the bigger games and the ones who make mistakes typically disappear. Unless he saw something the rest of us didn't on the Lehman play, there should be consequences for those replay officials.

The officiating needs to improve around the league. Pass interference calls, in particular, which have sparked complaints from multiple coaches, must become a point of emphasis going forward.

The evaluations should and will continue. The conspiracy theories should not.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 11

November, 12, 2012
Through the lens of history ...

Team of the week: Wisconsin. Reports of the Badgers' demise were premature. While everybody was hopping aboard the Indiana bandwagon last week, Wisconsin simply got back to what it does best: running the ball. Bret Bielema's team steamrolled to a school-record 564 rushing yards and threw it only seven times in a 62-14 rout of the Hoosiers. As a result, the Badgers are going back to the Big Ten championship game.

Game of the week: Lots of good ones Saturday, but the most drama came in Ann Arbor. Michigan outlasted Northwestern 38-31 in overtime thanks to a last-minute miracle and plenty of chutzpah from Devin Gardner. There is some magic in those Michigan uniforms at the Big House.

[+] EnlargeRoy Roundtree
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireRoy Roundtree made one of the biggest plays in the Big Ten all season with a miraculous catch in the final seconds of regulation.
Biggest play: As if there were any doubt. We've had the Immaculate Reception; should we call this one the Roundtree Revelation? Roy Roundtree's 53-yard catch off a tipped ball (around the 1:20 mark) with eight seconds left to set up Michigan's tying field goal may well go down as the Big Ten play of the year. How did Roundtree get so open on a post route, with Northwestern in a prevent defense? "Anybody who goes to catch the ball I'd like to have triple-teamed," Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "That would be ideal. But I can't say I would change the call. I just wish we had knocked the dang ball down." Instead, Roundtree and Northwestern cornerback Daniel Jones both got their hands it, the ball bounced straight up and Roundtree maintained his concentration long enough to haul it in while falling down. Roundtree's Roundabout Reception (OK, this still needs some work) will go down in Wolverines' lore.

Best call: Minnesota was struggling again in the red zone at Illinois and was locked in a 3-3 game in the second half when it faced a fourth-and-inches on the Illini 16. Instead of going for the easy field goal, head coach Jerry Kill went for the kill. A Philip Nelson sneak picked up the first down, and the Gophers would go on to score a touchdown en route to an eventual 17-3 victory. Minnesota reached the six-win plateau and is going bowling for the first time since 2009. Ski-U-Mah!

Testiest news conference: It's not much fun being either a coach or a reporter at a news conference when a team is losing; there are only so many ways to ask the question: Why do you stink? And so it went at Iowa, which lost its fourth straight game by falling at home to Purdue. The very first question posed to head coach Kirk Ferentz was why and how he got outcoached. "You can say it’s this, it’s that, lunar moon, whatever," Ferentz said. "But that’s coaching. And that’s me. Coaching starts with me.” Later, after more questions about his team's struggles, Ferentz tried to defend Iowa's season by pointing to victories over Minnesota and Michigan State. "It’s not like this has been a dog crap team,” Ferentz said. “You want to paint that picture, I’m not buying that.” (And if such a picture is for sale, I want to avoid that arts and crafts show.)

Big Man on Campus (Offense): This fall may not totally belong to Ball, but the state of Indiana sure does. Montee Ball ran for 198 yards and three touchdowns in Wisconsin's 62-14 hammering of Indiana, putting the Badgers' star within one touchdown of tying the NCAA career record. For his career, Ball has tallied 824 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in five games while playing in the Hoosier State. He's got one more left: the Dec. 1 Big Ten title game in Indianapolis.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Nebraska safety Daimion Stafford was part of a dominant second-half defensive effort from the Blackshirts in a 32-23 win over Penn State. Stafford's interception of Matt McGloin helped set up the tying touchdown in the third quarter, and he later recovered the fumble by Matt Lehman in the end zone. Special mention also goes to Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short, who had four tackles for loss to help the Boilermakers control the line of scrimmage at Iowa.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Purdue freshman Paul Griggs had misfired on a couple of tries at Ohio State that could have changed the outcome of that overtime loss. But he made up for that by drilling a 46-yard field goal as time expired to give the Boilers the 27-24 victory. "It seemed like everybody was grabbing me, and I know I got grabbed by a couple of the guys after the kick,” Griggs said. “As soon as I got away from them, I was running over toward the fans, and my mom ran out of the stands and she blindsided me. She was quite happy.”

Worst hangover: Northwestern could be 10-0 right now. In all three of their losses, the Wildcats held double-digit leads in the fourth quarter. A good season could have been a great one in a very winnable Big Ten. Instead, Northwestern keeps finding ways to punch its fans in the gut. The Michigan loss was the worst one yet, as the Wildcats first surrendered a 10-point fourth-quarter lead, then went ahead again late only to surrender the miraculous catch to Roundtree.

Strangest moment: Penn State sure wasn't happy about the controversial fumble call on Lehman's near-touchdown. But there was a strange penalty earlier in the game that went against the Nittany Lions, too.

Late in the first half, Nebraska's Brett Maher shanked a punt for 16 yards, apparently giving Penn State great field position. But the officials called sideline interference on the Lions, a 15-yard penalty.

Sideline interference? You see teams get warned for that but rarely flagged. Penn State beat writers in the press box thought that secondary coach John Butler, who often crowds the field, was the one who drew the flag. But Bill O'Brien said that wasn't the case.

"I guess the referee was running down the sideline and from what I was told, he ran into one of our players and I guess that's sideline interference," O'Brien said.

From that point on, a Penn State staff member made sure to keep telling coaches and players to move back anytime they got close to the field. And the Nittany Lions were left to wonder when they were going to get a break from the refs.
Recognizing the best and brightest from Week 11 in the Big Ten:
  • Wisconsin RB Montee Ball: Who says says the Badgers' star is having a down year? Ball now needs just one more touchdown to tie the NCAA career record of 78 after he gashed Indiana for 198 yards and three scores on 27 carries. Ball was the biggest part of a school-record 564-yard rushing effort by the Badgers. James White (14 carries for 161 yards and two scores), Melvin Gordon (8 carries, 96 yards and a touchd0wn) also got in on the fun.
  • Purdue QB Robert Marve: Marve has had an up-and-down career marred by knee injuries, but Saturday's 27-24 win at Iowa has to be one of his finest moments. The senior completed 25 of 33 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns, and he set up the game-winning kick with a 17-yard run and a 20-yard pass completion in the final 30 seconds. Thanks to their quarterback's heroics, the Boilermakers remain alive for a bowl this year.
  • Michigan WR Roy Roundtree: The senior's 53-yard catch off a tipped ball in the final seconds against Northwestern is a candidate for one of the plays of the year in college football. If that's all Roundtree did, he'd still deserve a sticker for saving the Wolverines' bacon and helping his team pull out an incredible 38-31 overtime victory. But Roundtree had a solid all-around day, finishing with five catches for 139 yards.
  • Minnesota RB Donnell Kirkwood: There wasn't much offense Saturday in Champaign, but Kirkwood provided much of it for a Gophers team that needed its top running back to be at his best. Kirkwood racked up a career-high 152 rush yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries to lift Minnesota past Illinois. After failing to rush for a touchdown in Minnesota's first five Big Ten games, he twice reached the end zone, including the clincher from 12 yards out with 1:34 left. Kirkwood is the first Gophers running back to eclipse 700 yards in a season since Amir Pinnix ran for 1,272 yards in 2006.
  • Nebraska S Daimion Stafford: The Huskers once again needed the Blackshirts to step up in the second half, and Stafford came through with an interception of Matt McGloin early in the third quarter. Stafford's pick set up Nebraska's game-tying touchdown, as the Huskers quickly erased a 14-point halftime deficit and went on to win 32-23. He also recovered the controversial fumble by Penn State's Matt Lehman in the end zone in the fourth quarter. Stafford finished with eight tackles.

Matt McGloin upset with fumble call

November, 10, 2012
Is there some sort of conspiracy against Penn State involving Big Ten officials?

You'd probably have to be wearing aluminum foil on your head right now to actually believe in such a thing. But the Nittany Lions have felt they've been on the wrong side of too many calls this season, and a key fumble ruling in Saturday's 32-23 loss at Nebraska only added to the frustration, especially for senior quarterback Matt McGloin.

We're not going to get that call here. We're not going to get that call ever, actually, against any team. It doesn't matter who the refs are. That's the way it is.

-- Penn State QB Matt McGloin
To reset: Penn State was driving in for a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter when McGloin hit tight end Matt Lehman for a short pass from the Nebraska 3. Lehman was hit and fumbled the ball into the end zone, where the Huskers recovered for a touchback. However, replays appeared to show that Lehman broke the plane with the ball before it got knocked loose. Penn State definitely thought it was a touchdown, but the call was upheld after an official review.

After the game, referee John O’Neill issued this statement: “The ruling on the field was a fumble short of the goal line. It went to replay and the replay official said the play stood based on the views he had. It’s ultimately his decision.”

McGloin could barely contain his frustration in a postgame interview, which you can watch here in a video taped by Audrey Snyder.

"We're not going to get that call here," McGloin told reporters. "We're not going to get that call ever, actually, against any team. It doesn't matter who the refs are. That's the way it is."

When asked why he said that, McGloin responded, "Why do you think? That's the way it is, man. Write what you think."

McGloin later said that the team had an us-against-the-world mentality and knew that it was "not going to get any help whatsoever" from the officials. He also tweeted out a slow-motion video of the play.

The clear implication here is that McGloin believes Penn State is still being punished for the Jerry Sandusky scandal and NCAA probation. Head coach Bill O'Brien was asked if he thought there was some kind of conspiracy to make Penn State lose.

"We don't feel like anyone is out to get us," O'Brien said.

You can't blame McGloin for being upset with losing such a tough game on the road, and maybe it was just the heat of the moment getting to him. But there is a genuine feeling among some Penn State fans that the team has not gotten its share of breaks this season.

Cornerback Stephon Morris had a more levelheaded response when asked about the controversial call.

"The referees did the best they could, but we put ourselves in that situation," he said. "We could have gotten some more third-down stops, we could have stopped [Nebraska quarterback Taylor] Martinez and we could have stopped the run. You can't leave the game in the referees' hands. We know that. They're not perfect. Nobody's perfect. That's just on us."

Huskers make crazy work like a charm

November, 10, 2012

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Serious-minded Nebraska coach Bo Pelini is not usually one to make a lot of wisecracks when talking to the media.

But Pelini couldn't help but joke after his team pulled off yet another comeback from a double-digit deficit, this time to beat Penn State 32-23 on Saturday.

"I'm going to call the Big Ten and spot 'em 14 points, and we're good to go," Pelini said.

At this point, if you're a Nebraska fan or an opponent victimized by these zombie-like Huskers, you can't do much else but shake your head at the absurdity of this team's ways. Down 17 at home in the third quarter to Wisconsin? No problem. Trailing by 12 with six minutes to go at Northwestern? No sweat. Behind by 10 with a little more than seven minutes to play? We got this.

Some teams walk a tightrope. Nebraska jumps a motorcycle over a lake full of alligators while on fire. Team officials say the Huskers' four second-half, double-digit comebacks this season lead the nation and are the most in school history.

So when Penn State ran to the locker room with a 20-6 lead after 30 minutes on Saturday, there was no panic for the home team.

"The vibe at halftime was, 'All right, it's 0-0,'" running back Ameer Abdullah said. "We do this every week. We know what to do."

Pelini said he was hoping his team could the score by the fourth quarter. It surprised him by striking for two touchdowns in the first 5:23 of the second half to shift momentum their way. But this is Nebraska, so it still wasn't easy.

The Huskers wouldn't take their first lead until there was 10:57 left to play. And they caught a major break after that, when tight end Matt Lehman fumbled a potential go-ahead Penn State touchdown into the end zone for a Nebraska touchback.

Replays appeared to show that Lehman broke the plane just before losing the ball, but an official review upheld the fumble call. Nittany Lions quarterback Matt McGloin later tweeted out a video of the play and hinted in a postgame interview that referees had it in for Penn State because of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

[+] Enlargebo pelini
AP Photo/Dave WeaverAfter losing to UCLA last season, Bo Pelini and Nebraska hope to turn the tables when the Bruins and Huskers meet again on Saturday.
Pelini acknowledged his team was "fortunate" that the play was ruled a fumble on the field, making it harder to overturn. Nebraska also benefited from some questionable late calls at Michigan State last week. But championship seasons are often marked by those kinds of good fortune.

Fumble or not, the fact remains that the Huskers outscored Penn State 26-3 in the second half, holding the Nittany Lions to just 136 total yards after halftime. The Blackshirts defense was clearly bothered by Penn State's hurry-up "NASCAR" offensive package, burning three defensive timeouts and getting caught with too many defenders on the field several times in the first half.

"They went to the hurry-up and we couldn't adjust well," defensive lineman Cam Meredith said. "A lot of times we were looking at the sideline and not getting the call. We came up with a solution."

The answer was brilliantly simple, as Nebraska decided just to go with the same defensive alignment every time Penn State went to the no-huddle. It worked, as Daimion Stafford grabbed a key interception against McGloin and the Huskers later forced McGloin into an intentional grounding in the end zone for a safety.

Nebraska forced three turnovers, for once coming out on the right side of that battle. That doesn't mean it was all good news, though, as quarterback Taylor Martinez fumbled the ball inside the Penn State 5 to ruin a scoring chance, and Tim Marlowe muffed a first-half punt return to set up a Nittany Lions touchdown. The Huskers entered the day tied for second-to-last in the nation in lost fumbles, and they gave two more away to run their season total to minus-16.

Slipperiness with the ball isn't supposed to translate to winning. Yet, like an eccentric billionaire, Nebraska keeps succeeding despite its erratic behavior. Its offense leads the Big Ten in scoring and yardage despite all the turnovers and the slow starts. What could the Huskers do if they ever cleaned all that up?

"The sky's the limit," said Abdullah, who had his sixth 100-yard day of the season with 116 yards on 31 carries. "We've yet to play our best game offensively. We say we want to play our best game in our last game, and we've got a couple of games left."

Believe it or not, there is some method to this comeback madness. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck says opposing defenses have thrown new looks at the Huskers all season long in an effort to slow down their deep cast of offensive skill players.

"There are some games where we might as well not even practice," he said. "Because what we're seeing isn't what we're practicing against."

Beck said it often takes a couple of quarters to figure out just what is happening and then adjust to it. On Saturday, the Nittany Lions used some blitzes and schemes that Beck hadn't seen on film from them all year.

Beck's offense also is designed to wear opponents out with its high-tempo pace and speed. That's one reason the Huskers kept running toss sweeps to different sides of the field, making Penn State's thin defense run from sideline to sideline all game. The Nittany Lions looked gassed by the fourth quarter.

That doesn't mean Nebraska would like to continue this particular pattern of falling behind, turning the ball over and mounting wild comebacks.

"It's enough already," Martinez said. "We need to start getting ahead."

But this particular brand of crazy works for them. After losing 63-38 at Ohio State on Oct. 6, Pelini told his team it needed to win out to claim a Big Ten title. Four straight wins later, the Huskers are in control of the Legends Division. They need only to beat Minnesota at home next week and win at struggling Iowa in the season finale to reach the Big Ten championship game.

"That's four down, and we've got two more to go," Pelini said. "We just have to stay the course."

The same crazy, winning course.