Big Ten: Sam Ficken

Penn State giddy with bowl eligibility

November, 15, 2014
Nov 15
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Penn StAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarOn Saturday, Penn State became bowl eligible for the first time since the NCAA levied sanctions against the program in 2012.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Linebacker Mike Hull never thought this day would come.

He can still remember the eerie silence on July 23, 2012, when unprecedented sanctions played on the five TVs in the players’ lounge. He can remember his Penn State teammates’ anger over the four-year postseason ban. He can remember the doubt and the second-guessing -- but never daydreaming about a bowl.

Not until Saturday. Not until he sat in a warm media room, following a bowl-clinching win over Temple, and reflected on how the Nittany Lions went from a program seemingly on life support to this.

“It’s a huge day for the program and for everything we’ve been through,” a smiling Hull said, following Penn State’s 30-13 win over Temple and its first bowl-eligible season since 2011.

“I didn’t think it was going to happen. I thought we were just going to play 12 games for each other -- and just live with that the rest of my career.”

[+] EnlargeBill Belton
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsBill Belton talked about the prospects of bowl eligibility this past summer. Now, the Penn State RB can celebrate it.
Many of Hull’s teammates felt the same way. When the NCAA levied sanctions against Penn State in 2012, most outsiders thought the program was finished. Bowl games weren’t a priority because the entire program was a question mark. The question wasn’t, “When will Penn State make a bowl?” It was, “Will Penn State survive?”

To go from that kind of mindset to Saturday’s celebration -- it was a contrast not lost on the seniors.

On the field, senior defensive end Brad Bars flung his gloves into the crowd. Hull leaped in the air to high-five fans’ outstretched arms hanging over the tunnel, and offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach chest-bumped anyone in sight.

“Today was a special day,” Dieffenbach said. “It’s been a long five years here, a lot of ups and downs. … To finally have the opportunity to play in a bowl game -- I couldn’t be happier for the guys, past or present.”

Even this past July, during Big Ten media days, Penn State’s players refused to reflect on possible bowl scenarios. They didn’t want to get their hopes up. It wasn’t until September that the NCAA lifted the Lions’ postseason ban, so a trio of seniors just hemmed and hawed about the possibilities in Chicago.

Running back Bill Belton offered some mild back-and-forth on the prospect of a bowl back in July -- “How would you react if you were on a bowl ban?” -- before saying it’s something Penn State doesn’t think about. Hull and kicker Sam Ficken both said the issue was talked about, but it was something they didn’t dwell on.

On Saturday, a bowl game was the only thing on these Lions’ minds.

As PSU coach James Franklin stepped to the dais, his players snapped selfies in the locker room while music blared. “Bowl eligible baby!!!” one tweet read. Dieffenbach just yelled, while players pumped their arms in celebration.

On the field, fans yelled congratulations down to linebacker Nyeem Wartman, who just turned and yelled right back, “Thanks, appreciate it!” Smiles were fixed to most faces as they swayed to the end-of-game alma mater, and all the seniors took their turns ringing the victory bell -- they even let Hull cut in line.

If July 23, 2012, marked the inevitable “death” of the Penn State program, then Nov. 15, 2014, marked the rebirth. Not only did Penn State win eight games in Year 1 of the sanctions, seven games in Year 2 -- and at least six in Year 3 -- but it’s also going bowling the first year it’s not banned.

“It says a lot about the program, a lot about the guys Penn State recruits, and a lot about the guys in this area,” Hull said. “We all love football, and it takes a special person to come to Penn State -- and I think that’s why we withstood so much. We play for each other.”

Added Ficken: “We just kept working hard. This is kind of the culmination of all that hard work and all that leadership.”
There are just four weeks left in the regular season, a month to go for players to build their cases for individual awards.

We've been tracking the races all season and have unanimous picks right now for our offensive and defensive player of the year honors. And this week's bonus category is also unanimous: top placekicker.

Here's how we see it after 10 weeks:

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon (six first-place votes): Gordon just keeps chugging along, with six straight 100-yard games. He's got 1,296 yards and 18 touchdowns on the season.

2. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: It's not his fault that he had only 1 yard vs. Purdue, as Abdullah went out with an early knee injury. But in a close race among elite tailbacks, that hurt his case.

3. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: He has 4 more yards on the season than Gordon, and we can only hope that the Hoosiers' struggles elsewhere don't overshadow his outstanding year.

4. Michigan State WR Tony Lippett: The best receiver in the Big Ten will get a showdown with Ohio State's revamped pass defense on Saturday night.

5. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: He has great numbers on the year but wasn't as effective on the road against a good defense at Penn State. Can he get it done in East Lansing?

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa (six first-place votes): Top five nationally in sacks and tackles for loss. Yep, he's a beast.

2. Penn State LB Mike Hull: He leads the Big Ten and is seventh nationally in tackles per game, at 11.5.

3. Iowa DE Drew Ott: He's second in the Big Ten behind Bosa in sacks with eight on the year. With him, Louis-Trinca Pasat and Carl Davis, Iowa has a formidable defensive line.

4. Penn State DT Anthony Zettel: He has been an absolute force at defensive tackle; will he and Hull split votes in this category among Nittany Lions defenders?

5. Nebraska DE Randy Gregory: He's at 5.5 sacks, so he's got some work to do to reach double digits in that category for a second straight year.

Others receiving votes: Michigan LB Jake Ryan, Wisconsin S Michael Caputo, Minnesota LB Damien Wilson.

Bakken-Andersen Kicker of the Year

1. Maryland's Brad Craddock (six first-place votes): He hit the game-winner last week at Penn State and is a perfect 14-for-14 on the year. Should be an All-American.

2. Penn State's Sam Ficken: If not for Craddock, Ficken might have been the hero last week in State College. His comeback story continues to impress, and Ficken is 17-of-19 on field goals this season.

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

September, 1, 2014
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There was a lot of good and some bad during opening week for the Big Ten, which went 12-2 but missed a golden opportunity Saturday night with Wisconsin. Let's review:

Team of the week: Rutgers. That’s right. All the naysayers (and you can include me in that group) said the Scarlet Knights were bound for an ugly first season in the Big Ten. Though it was just one game and the remaining schedule is still daunting, beating Washington State 41-38 on the road should quiet that chatter. Kyle Flood’s team showed it has top-level athletes and cannot be taken lightly. The Sept. 13 league opener against Penn State should be a whole lot of fun.

Game of the week: Penn State's dramatic, 26-24 win over UCF in Ireland was the perfect way to begin the first Saturday of college football season. Nittany Lions fans should thank George O'Leary for playing the wrong quarterback for a half. James Franklin looked like he had just won the Super Bowl after Sam Ficken's game-winning field goal, though he might never want to go back to Croke Park after the first-half headset malfunctions. This game had to be great simply to overshadow the mesmerizing hurling display at halftime.

Biggest play: Was LSU's fake punt against Wisconsin in the third quarter the turning point in the Tigers' comeback, 28-24 win? Badgers coach Gary Andersen didn't think so, because his defense only allowed a field goal after the fake and his team still led 24-13. Maybe LSU still storms back regardless, given how little Wisconsin's offense could do in the final 25-plus minutes. But the heavily pro-Tigers crowd was absolutely dead before that fake, and that field goal brought it back to life. If the Badgers get the ball back there and at least burn some clock and change field position, who knows? One thing's for certain: When leading a Les Miles team in the second half, just keep your defense on the field for all kicking situations.

Acrobatic and important catches by Penn State's Geno Lewis and Iowa's Tevaun Smith also deserve mention.

Coolest play: It wasn't all that significant, since Nebraska was already well on its way to a 55-7 whitewashing of Florida Atlantic at the time. But receiver Jordan Westerkamp's behind-the-back grab was still one of the coolest plays you'll ever see. He almost looked like another guy named Jordan.

Big Man on Campus (offense): Penn State's Christian Hackenberg. He shattered the school's single-game record with 454 passing yards, and it was even more impressive considering how little run support and or experience at receiver he had. He needed to be great and he was, especially on his game-winning drive that included a key fourth-down scramble. Very honorable mention to Rutgers' Paul James (29 carries, 173 yards, three TDs).

Big Man on Campus (defense): Ohio State's Darron Lee had a pair of tackles for loss and scooped up a fumble that he returned 61 yards for the Buckeyes' first touchdown in a 34-17 win over Navy.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Ficken drilled all four of his field-goal attempts for the Nittany Lions, including the 36-yard game-winner.

Biggest hangover: Northwestern talked in the summer about how the unionization effort brought them closer together as a team. The Wildcats looked like a prime bounce-back candidate this year, until a slew of bad news (Venric Mark’s suspension and subsequent transfer, season-ending injuries to starters) began cropping up in August. Then Cal raced out to a 31-7 lead at Ryan Field Saturday and held on for a 31-24 upset win. Northwestern is 1-7 since "GameDay" came to Evanston last October.

Numbers to know: In the last two games he has played, dating back to last season, before his ankle injury, Indiana’s Tevin Coleman has run for 462 yards and four touchdowns on just 38 carries. His 247 rushing yards Saturday against Indiana State were the second-most by an FBS player in Week 1, behind USF's Marlon Mack. ... Nebraska set a modern Big Ten record for total offense with 748 yards and threw a pass on the final play of the game. That one’s for you, Carl Pelini. … Michigan had two running backs gain more than 100 yards -- Derrick Green (170) and De'Veon Smith (115) -- in the same game for the first time since 2007. The Wolverines only had a tailback eclipse 100 yards in a game twice all of last season.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 1

August, 31, 2014
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Recognizing the best and the brightest from Week 1 in the Big Ten:

Rutgers RB Paul James: It sure looks as if we can add James to the growing list of solid running backs in the conference. James was the constant in the Knights’ offense Thursday and, whenever it faltered, he was the one to pick it up. His stat line: 29 carries, 173 yards, three TDs. He was the workhorse against Washington State, and he was the reason the Knights were able to match the Cougars’ high-scoring offense. Maybe Leonte Carroo was a bit flashier -- maybe -- but James was Mr. Consistent.

Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: All he did was set a single-game school record with 454 passing yards. And, oh yeah, he went 4-of-6 for 55 yards and ran for another 8 yards on the game-winning drive. He took his share of hits in the pocket and didn’t get much run support, but he did just about everything he could for the win. Did he force it at times? You bet. But he was the main reason PSU moved the ball downfield, and he is now the only player in the 127-year history of the Nittany Lions to reach the 400-yard passing plateau. How could we not give him a helmet sticker?

Penn State K Sam Ficken: It’s only fair. Hackenberg drove the offense; Ficken won the game. After missing four field goals in the 2012 loss to Virginia, Ficken redeemed himself by going 4-of-4 on Saturday -- and by nailing the last-second, game-winning 36-yard field goal. Kickers don’t earn helmet stickers all that often, but kickers don’t have days like Ficken too often, either. It’s a true underdog story.

Michigan WR Devin Funchess: Tell me if you see a pattern here. First score, first passing TD -- Funchess. Second score, second passing TD -- Funchess. Third score … OK, OK. You get it. Funchess finished with seven catches for 95 yards and scored the game’s first three TDs. He helped ice this game before it really started. Props to Devin Gardner for getting him the ball, but Funchess has to get most of the credit on those last two tosses. He leaped, made an adjustment and broke a tackle for the second TD. And he came up with a catch in double coverage for the third.

Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: His video game-esque stats are a bit misleading, since a lot of his yards came after the catch. But Barrett didn’t let up in his first career start. He kept a cool head in the second half and helped lead the Buckeyes to a comeback win. His final numbers? Check this out: 12-of-15, 226 passing yards, two TDs, one interception, 50 rushing yards. He really earned this helmet sticker with his final two quarters, going 4-of-4 for 130 yards and two TDs. It was a memorable first start.

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: The impressive part? Abullah rushed for 232 yards and a TD on just 21 carries. The more impressive part? He was pulled in the middle of the third quarter when the game was in hand. He was nearly perfect after the first drive; nine of his last 15 carries went for at least 10 yards. He’s shifty, he’s quick, and he just outright confused the hapless Florida Atlantic defense. We see many more helmet stickers in Mr. Abdullah’s future.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The season hasn’t yet started for Penn State, but Christian Hackenberg is already making program history.

The second-year quarterback was announced as a team captain Wednesday morning, making him the first sophomore to earn the honor in the team’s 128-year history. Injured senior guard Miles Dieffenbach joins him as the other offensive captain.

“Christian’s got a lot of tools, there’s no doubt about it,” James Franklin said during Big Ten media days. “The thing that I’m most impressed with is how humble and how hungry and how open he is to coaching.”

The captaincy isn’t a huge surprise since Hackenberg is widely regarded as the team’s top player. It’s more surprising he’s the first sophomore ever in program history to achieve the feat.

Then again, he became just the third quarterback to ever start a season opener as a true freshman, so the opportunity hasn’t often been there in the past. Eugene “Shorty” Miller became the first to start in 1910 and Rob Bolden the second exactly a century later.

Hackenberg is actually only the second-youngest player to earn the honor, though. Tailback Johnny Chuckran became the first and only freshman team captain in 1944, during World War II. According to Penn State historian Lou Prato, Chuckran was named captain in Week 4 after all the Marines -- which included six starters -- left.

Penn State also named the defensive co-captains as linebacker Mike Hull and defensive end C.J. Olaniyan. Three players – kicker Sam Ficken and safeties Jesse Della Valle and Ryan Keiser – were the special teams co-captains.

2014 Big Ten media days roundtable

July, 29, 2014
Jul 29
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CHICAGO -- Big Ten media days are in the books and the countdown to the 2014 season can officially begin. It was a mostly uneventful session at the Hilton Chicago, despite the presence of stars such as Braxton Miller, Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah and Shilique Calhoun.

Our Big Ten reporting crew weighs in on some of the topics from the past two days.

What was the biggest surprise at Big Ten media days?

Austin Ward: The lack of major headlines coming from the league was a bit of a shock considering some of the star power in Chicago, the storylines around college football right now and the amount of trash talk between leagues that has popped up this month. Not even Ohio State coach Urban Meyer or Penn State coach James Franklin were able to stir the pot much nationally, and typically they are always good for a viral sound bite or hot topic in late July. There's nothing wrong with avoiding controversy, but the Big Ten didn't do much to draw attention to itself over two days.

Mitch Sherman: Other than the bright-red pants worn by Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown on Tuesday to go with his dark jacket and tie, I was surprised most by the lack of bravado we saw out of Michigan State. I know the Spartans are a blue-collar bunch and that this spot atop the Big Ten is new to them. But after a 13-1 season and set to play arguably the most significant nonconference game nationally on Sept. 6 at Oregon, I thought Michigan State would come to Chicago with a little more swagger. If coach Mark Dantonio hadn't worn his giant championship ring, I’m not sure I would have remembered that MSU beat Ohio State in December, then Stanford in the Rose Bowl. This is not to suggest it's a bad thing; simply that the Spartans -- even flamboyant defensive end Shilique Calhoun -- are not resting on their accomplishments of 2013.

Josh Moyer: OK, let's say you pulled aside the top three offensive players in the Big Ten -- Braxton Miller, Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah -- and asked them, in separate interviews, about the most exciting offensive player in the conference. Who do you think they would say? Well, their answer was my biggest surprise this week; they all said the same guy -- Indiana wideout Shane Wynn. Maybe they just wanted to put the spotlight on an underrated player, but it was still a shock to hear Wynn's name so often. Heck, I told Wynn about that -- and even he was surprised. It's fun to watch a short guy like Wynn, who is 5-foot-7, run circles around defenders. So while I thought Wynn would be in for a good season, I can't say I would've mentioned him in the same breath as those three.

[+] EnlargeJim Delany
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsCommissioner Jim Delany was "content to lay low" during his address at the 2014 Big Ten media days.
Adam Rittenberg: In keeping with the understated theme, I was surprised Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany didn't make a bigger splash with his annual media days address Monday. Mike Slive quoted Churchill and Mandela, Bob Bowlsby talked doomsday and Larry Scott spread warm fuzzies at Pac-12 media days. But Delany didn't rock the boat at all. A year after outlining a four-point proposal to reform college football, he seems content to lay low and let the process play out. Delany always seems to be a step ahead, and he has never been one to hold back on his opinions. But I wonder if he felt a need to keep relatively quiet after the Ed O'Bannon-NCAA trial and with the vote on NCAA autonomy coming up next week.



Who had the most memorable interview?

Moyer: I have to go with Purdue tailback Raheem Mostert. He's the fastest player in the Big Ten, and he might just be the most charismatic. You couldn't blame Purdue if it came out a little quiet at this media day after the season the Boilermakers had, but Mostert didn't shy away from making some bold statements. He said his offense was capable of scoring 30-some points a game and, while I still think there’s zero chance of that happening, it takes some guts to make that statement. Plus, he was hilarious in talking about how far along Danny Etling’s come. He couldn't say enough good things about Etling now, but said last season he looked like a guy who just lost his dog every time he threw a pick. So my "Most Optimistic" and "Most Well-Spoken" awards go to Mostert.

Sherman: Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was on fire Tuesday during the group session. Fitzgerald, always an eloquent speaker, had plenty to get off his chest in the wake of an offseason like no other in Evanston, Illinois. He waxed on about problems with the current model of college athletics, in particular criticizing some of the outdated rules that govern recruiting. "I don't want to be basketball," Fitzgerald said in the midst of his monologue. "We're going there." He harped on the disingenuous ways that some college coaches try to attract prospects. All of this after his players voted recently on whether to unionize. The issues of unionization and inequity within the sport are inseparable. Still, Fitzgerald managed keep his own players and former players largely out of the discussion. And the coach made a lot of sense.

Rittenberg: Well, my favorite moment was Michigan State's Connor Cook, midway through an answer Tuesday about how Dantonio had loosened up over time, stared blankly and said, "Sorry, my brain, I just blacked out right there." Must have been a fun Monday night in Chicago. ... I really enjoy Franklin's energy, especially in a league of mostly decaffeinated coaches. Franklin on Tuesday excitedly recalled the night the Penn State staff watched assistant Herb Hand appear on "Chopped" while riding a bus between their guest-coaching camp stops in the South. "It was awesome, we were driving and Herb comes walking out [on the show] and the whole bus explodes: 'Herbie! Herbie!'" Franklin said, clapping his hands. "The other guys come out and the whole bus is booing them, 'Boo! Boo!' So Herbie wins the first round and the bus goes crazy, 'That's our boy!' He loses the next round and that bus turned on him in an instant. Everybody's bashing him. His flavors were good but the presentation was awful." Again, something different and refreshing.

Ward: Calhoun had little interest in a standard question-and-answer interview, instead turning his podium session on Monday into an interactive experience that livened up the event while the Michigan State star was in the spotlight. He spent his 30 minutes joking, laughing and telling reporters how much he enjoyed watching them talk over each other to ask questions and then yelling across the room at Cook to clarify comments the quarterback had supposedly made about him earlier. In one brief session, Calhoun made the kind of memorable impact on the media he’s been known to make on opposing quarterbacks.

What's one new thing you learned?

Rittenberg: Big Ten teams aren't shying away from the playoff talk. Players, coaches and the commissioner all acknowledged that if you don't make the playoff, you're basically irrelevant in college football. And that's the right position for this league to take. The perception is that Big Ten players and coaches only care about the Rose Bowl and don't aim higher. Perhaps some of that is true, but most of the folks I encountered this week seemed to embrace the significance of the new system. I loved what Ohio State defensive lineman Michael Bennett said: Anything short of a national title would be disappointing. That's how the Big Ten needs to think.

Moyer: Nebraska's Kenny Bell has a killer Afro? Michigan State's Kurtis Drummond has great fashion sense? Penn State's Sam Ficken will never escape questions about the 2012 Virginia game? There were certainly a lot of tidbits. But I was impressed with how even-keeled Maryland coach Randy Edsall was. At one point, during podium interviews, an irate cameraman kept yelling at reporters to move out of his shot. It went on for a few minutes, but Edsall never paused or broke from his calm demeanor. Other coaches might have yelled for some quiet; Edsall just pretended like nothing was wrong. It was an interesting juxtaposition.

Ward: The Spartans have some really nice bling. Both Cook and Dantonio flashed their championship rings on Monday, and the huge, sparkling accessories were hard to miss. At one point Cook took his off to allow the media a closer look at the prize he helped earn with breakout passing outings against Ohio State in the conference title game and Stanford in the Rose Bowl, but he might have really just needed a break from lugging around the heavy jewelry on his hand.

Sherman: Even in the age of the College Football Playoff, with more potential for sweeping change in the sport, old habits die hard in the Big Ten. From Michigan coach Brady Hoke's lamenting about the elimination of tradition at the Rose Bowl when Pasadena serves as a semifinal site to Iowa's Kirk Ferentz preaching the values of old-school football, the more things change nationally, the more they stay the same in the Big Ten. This is comforting and disturbing all at once. I heard Nebraska's Bell speak of unity among the league and Ohio State's Miller project confidence that the Buckeyes can make another run at a perfect season. But the league needs a larger dose of more progressive thinking.
CHICAGO -- Penn State tailback Bill Belton folded his hands under the table and shifted in his seat. He didn't want to answer the question; he didn't even want to think about it.

How would you guys react, hypothetically, if you're eligible for a bowl this year?

"How would you react if you were on a bowl ban?" Belton asked, before some mild back-and-forth. "I'm just saying, like, if you were a kid in a program and you were in a bowl ban, it would be exciting. That's what I'm saying."

[+] EnlargePenn State's Bill Belton
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY Sports"That's something the guys don't think about," Penn State's Bill Belton said when asked about the possibility of Penn State's bowl ban being lifted.
It's an issue that Belton didn't want to dwell on because it's hung over the heads of the Nittany Lions since 2012, when a four-year bowl ban was levied alongside unprecedented sanctions. But the question at Big Ten media days seemed more newsworthy than usual considering two key reasons -- one, the second annual Mitchell Report outlining PSU's progress is expected to be released in early September and, two, several Pennsylvania congressmen recently wrote a letter to the NCAA asking for it to rescind the sanctions.

Belton, a senior, didn't seem to want to get his hopes up. This is his final season, after all, and he's already been forced to come to terms with the fact he'll end his career without another postseason berth. Maybe the only thing worse than that realization is believing otherwise -- only to find disappointment yet again.

"We just continue to work on what we have to do to get better," he said Monday afternoon. "That's something the guys don't think about. All we're trying to do is prepare for UCF."

But there might be some cause for hope. NCAA president Mark Emmert reduced the sanctions on scholarships last season, and Emmert acknowledged last fall that further reductions could be considered this August or September. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the results of the annual Mitchell Report -- which, in all likelihood, will once again be a glowing one for Penn State.

Granted, that's still not a guarantee there'll be a reduction. But it doesn't mean Penn State is locked into its current penalties either. Really, at this point, it's anyone's guess.

"We don't know any more than you guys, to be honest," said kicker Sam Ficken, also a senior. "Obviously, we hope it's lifted. But, if not, we're going to approach the season the same way. That's not going to affect how we play the 12 regular-season games.

"If we get to that point and we're able to do that, that's awesome. That would be a good way to go out. But if it doesn't happen? Well, I still had a heck of a time at Penn State. We all play for each other and play for the fans, and that's not going to change."

Five Pennsylvania congressmen -- including U.S. Rep Glenn Thompson, who invited James Franklin to the State of the Union Address -- signed a two-page letter to Emmert on Thursday to request an elimination of the sanctions. They wrote the penalties "harm innocent student athletes and further erodes the increasingly specious credibility of the [NCAA]."

The politicians also asked Emmert to answer two questions in a timely fashion. For one, they wonder how the NCAA can reconcile its mission statement with the fact many of those affected were high school students at the time of the Consent Decree's enforcement. And, two, if the NCAA already acknowledged it lacked authority to fine Penn State for criminal activity of a former employee, how can it still insist on punitive measures?

Senior linebacker Mike Hull wasn't asked about all the political jargon or whether this group, or that report, would be successful in restoring bowl games or past wins. But he did address that possibility of a bowl game, of a last hurrah for him and the Penn State seniors.

"We talk about it as players off the field a little bit, but we really don't want to get our hopes up," he said. "We want to take it one day at a time, one game at a time, and play the same way regardless of whether we're going to a bowl game or not. It's a special place at Penn State."
Big Ten media days are less than a week away. Can you feel the excitement? You know enough about the coaches in attendance, but it's time to take a closer look at the players coming to Chicago.

Here's the full list, but we'll begin with the East Division, followed by the West later on.

INDIANA

David Cooper, LB, senior: A two-year starter at linebacker -- one at middle, one on the weak side -- Cooper led the Hoosiers with 85 tackles last season and added a fumble recovery. If the defense finally turns the corner, he'll likely play a significant role.

Nate Sudfeld, QB, junior: Tre Roberson's transfer makes Sudfeld the clear-cut starter entering the season. The junior from California started eight games last season and passed for 2,523 yards with 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Shane Wynn, WR, senior: Like Sudfeld, Wynn moves into a more featured role as Indiana loses standout Cody Latimer and others. Wynn has 114 receptions for 17 touchdowns in the past two seasons.

MARYLAND

C.J. Brown, QB, senior: The sixth-year player enters his second full year as the starter after becoming the first Maryland player to eclipse 2,000 pass yards and 500 rush yards in a season. His father, Clark, played quarterback at Michigan State.

Stefon Diggs, WR, junior: Diggs might be the Big Ten's best and most explosive wide receiver as he returns from a broken leg that shortened his 2013 season. The one-time Ohio State recruiting target finished eighth nationally with 172.4 all-purpose yards per game in 2012.

Jeremiah Johnson, CB, senior: He led Maryland in pass breakups (8) and had five tackles for loss while starting every game in 2012. Johnson missed most of last season with a fractured toe.

MICHIGAN

Frank Clark, DE, senior: The Wolverines' most experienced defensive linemen needs to take his game to an elite level in his final season. Clark enters his second full year as a starter after recording 12 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in 2013.

Devin Gardner, QB, senior: He has had a truly unique career, which began as a wide receiver and will culminate as the starting quarterback for the second straight year, provided he holds off Shane Morris in camp. Gardner, fully healed from a foot injury, had 2,960 pass yards and 483 rush yards as a junior.

Jake Ryan, LB, senior: Ryan made an incredible recovery from an ACL tear to start five games last season, but he's hoping to regain the form he displayed in 2012, when he led Michigan in tackles (88), solo stops (56), tackles for loss (16), sacks (4.5) and forced fumbles (4). If healthy, he could contend for Big Ten defensive player of the year honors.

MICHIGAN STATE

Shilique Calhoun, DE, junior: He comes off of a breakout season in 2013, when he earned second-team All-America honors and was named the Big Ten's defensive lineman of the year. Calhoun tied for second nationally with four fumble recoveries (two for touchdowns) and finished with 14 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.

Connor Cook, QB, junior: No player represented Michigan State's championship run more than Cook, who blossomed in Big Ten play after being named the permanent starter. He finished with 2,755 pass yards, 22 touchdowns and six interceptions, and won MVP honors at both the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl.

Kurtis Drummond, S, senior: Although Drummond has made 21 consecutive starts at safety, he takes on a bigger role for the "No Fly Zone" secondary after the losses of Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis. The veteran earned All-Big Ten honors.

OHIO STATE

Michael Bennett, DT, senior: Ohio State's defensive line might be the league's best position group and Bennett, a preseason All-American, is a big reason why. After recording seven sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles in 2013, Bennett is pegged as a possible first-round draft pick and will be in the mix for national awards.

Jeff Heuerman, TE, senior: The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Heuerman provides a big target in the passing game and should claim a bigger role in the offense this season after recording 26 receptions and four touchdowns in 2013.

Braxton Miller, QB, senior: He's the biggest name at Big Ten media days -- the league's reining offensive player of the year in both 2012 and 2013. Miller already has won more Big Ten awards (seven) than any player in league history, but he still lacks a Big Ten championship.

PENN STATE

Bill Belton, RB, senior: Belton has shared carries at running back the past two seasons but appears ready for a bigger role after a solid first spring under the new coaching staff. Although fellow backs Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch also return, Belton's playmaking ability stands out, as he averaged 94.2 all-purpose yards per game in 2013.

Sam Ficken, PK, senior: The most interesting kicker in the Big Ten is the only specialist on this year's list in invitees. Ficken has been through it all at Penn State, from a disastrous day at Virginia in 2012 to a record-setting streak of 15 made field goals to some inconsistency late last season. Special teams coordinator Charles Huff expects a big finish from him.

Mike Hull, LB, senior: He's the quarterback of a defense that should improve under first-year coordinator Bob Shoop. Hull is one of the league's more experienced linebackers and could blossom after finishing second on the squad with 78 tackles in 2013.

RUTGERS

Michael Burton, FB, senior: A fullback at media days is quite Big Ten of Rutgers, and the hardworking Burton embodies the position he plays. The former walk-on has emerged as a major team leader after starting games in each of the past three seasons.

Darius Hamilton, DL, junior: The 260-pound Hamilton plays both line spots and holds his own despite being somewhat undersized. He finished the 2013 season on a good note, recording four sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss in the final four contests.

Lorenzo Waters, S, senior: Waters enters his third season as a starter and will lead a secondary looking for better results from 2013. He has 130 tackles, four forced fumbles and two interceptions in the past two seasons.

B1G media day preview: Penn State

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
10:30
AM ET
At this time next week, we'll all be reporting from Chicago and letting you know just what the conference's coaches and players have to say. But, until then, we're continuing our series by looking at three questions facing each Big Ten team and the potential answers we could hear at the Hilton Chicago on July 28 and 29.

Next up is Penn State, which will bring head coach James Franklin along with a trio of seniors: Running back Bill Belton, linebacker Mike Hull and kicker Sam Ficken. Here's some of what they may be asked:

1. How will Penn State once again overcome its depth issues?

This has been a recurring issue for the Nittany Lions since the sanctions hit two seasons ago. They've overcome this obstacle so far, but this year brings about its own set of challenges. For one -- and this is something we've talked about at length here -- the offensive line is thinnest, depth-wise, and the biggest question mark on this team. With a serious injury to offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach, Penn State returns just one starter on the line and might give a lot of playing time to two guards who were at defensive tackle six months ago. The linebacker position is also an overall point of concern, and the receiver position lacks experience. Expect Penn State's players at media day to deflect or downplay this matter all the while stressing how important the freshmen will be this season.

2. How will the defense be different in 2014?

Penn State's new defensive coordinator, Bob Shoop, is tasked with turning around a defense that many thought underachieved last season. The Lions' secondary was simply porous in 2013 and its red zone efforts weren't much better. This season, Shoop wants to keep opposing offenses on their toes by playing upon two premises: “Relentless pursuit and never-ending pressure.” Shoop sacrificed some strength for speed inside by moving Anthony Zettel to defensive tackle on a permanent basis, and he's committed to using a safety/linebacker hybrid at one of those linebacker spots. MLB Hull will be given a lot more free rein to roam around the field, and you can bet he'll praise the changes at media day. Shoop is giving Hull a lot more responsibility this season, and Hull is welcoming it.

3. Can Franklin live up to all the hype?

Franklin came in on Day 1 and made three bold statements: Penn State would dominate the region in recruiting, it would sell out every home game and it would eventually return to national prominence. Since then, he hasn't just doubled-down on those comments, he's made a point to reiterate them at just about every media outing. With the splash he's made in recruiting -- between drawing the ire of the SEC and seeing his 2015 class ranked at No. 4 nationally -- it wouldn't be premature to already check off that box. He's enlivened this fan base, but the real question here is can he win? Franklin is one of the few must-see podium interviews at media day, but he tries to avoid controversy when he can. He declined to discuss the SEC's statements regarding his satellite camps and he believed one of his comments was overblown when he said regional opponents didn't stand a chance. But Franklin can be bold and entertaining when he wants to, and it'll be interesting to see if he delivers around this time next week. What will he say? Well, other than maybe tossing in a joke about Christian Hackenberg's recent haircut, it's anyone's guess. He's a wildcard.
It's getting closer, folks. The 2014 season will be here before you know it, and Big Ten media days are less than three weeks away.

The league today released the list of players who will be on hand at the Hilton Chicago on July 28-29 for media days and the kickoff luncheon.

Here they are ...

EAST DIVISION

INDIANA

David Cooper, Sr., LB
Nate Sudfeld, Jr., QB
Shane Wynn, Sr., WR*

MARYLAND

C.J. Brown, Sr., QB
Stefon Diggs, Jr., WR*
Jeremiah Johnson, Sr., DB

MICHIGAN

Frank Clark, Sr., DE*
Devin Gardner, Sr., QB*
Jake Ryan, Sr., LB*

MICHIGAN STATE

Shilique Calhoun, Jr., DE*
Connor Cook, Jr., QB*
Kurtis Drummond, Sr., FS*

OHIO STATE

Michael Bennett, Sr., DL*
Jeff Heuerman, Sr., TE*
Braxton Miller, Sr., QB*

PENN STATE

Bill Belton, Sr., RB
Sam Ficken, Sr., PK*
Mike Hull, Sr., LB

RUTGERS

Michael Burton, Sr., FB
Darius Hamilton, Jr., DL
Lorenzo Waters, Sr., DB

WEST DIVISION

ILLINOIS

Simon Cvijanovic, Sr., OT
Jon Davis, Sr., TE
Austin Teitsma, Sr., DL

IOWA

Carl Davis, Sr., DT*
Brandon Scherff, Sr., OL*
Mark Weisman, Sr., RB

MINNESOTA

David Cobb, Sr., RB
Mitch Leidner, So., QB
Cedric Thompson, Sr., S

NEBRASKA

Ameer Abdullah, Sr., RB*
Kenny Bell, Sr., WR*
Corey Cooper, Sr., S*

NORTHWESTERN

Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., S*
Collin Ellis, Sr., LB
Trevor Siemian, Sr., QB

PURDUE

Raheem Mostert, Sr., RB
Sean Robinson, Sr., LB
Ryan Russell, Sr., DE

WISCONSIN

Melvin Gordon, Jr., RB*
Rob Havenstein, Sr., RT*
Warren Herring, Sr., DL

* indicates previous all-conference selection

I really like this list. The main reason: the number of non-seniors. Nothing against the graybeards, but too often Big Ten teams have brought only seniors to media days even if other players were better, more marketable, strong team leaders and more charismatic with reporters. Yes, I'm incredibly biased about this event: I want the best talkers.

While several Big Ten teams are taking the senior-only approach, others are bringing underclassmen who fill key roles. Minnesota will bring sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner because he's now the leader of the offense. The same goes for Indiana with junior signal-caller Nate Sudfeld. Michigan State is bringing juniors Connor Cook and Shilique Calhoun because they both played huge roles in last year's championship run. Stefon Diggs is the most recognizable Maryland player, even though he's a junior. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon isn't technically a senior, but barring injury this will be his last year as a Badger -- and his only chance to attend media days.

There's a decent contingent of quarterbacks -- seven in all -- that includes two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year Braxton Miller, Cook and Michigan's Devin Gardner. The only major omission is Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who could be one of the league's top players this season. The Lions throw us a bit of a curveball with kicker Sam Ficken. Interesting.

On behalf of all Big Ten media members, I'd like to thank Nebraska for bringing Bell. We are eternally grateful. And Kenny, I will make fun of you for being a Canucks fan.

Staying with the Huskers, senior running back Ameer Abdullah will speak on behalf of the players at the Big Ten kickoff luncheon on July 29. An excellent choice.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – James Franklin kept many of his skill players off the field for most of Penn State's annual scrimmage, but there were certainly still other aspects to glean from the game.

Christian Hackenberg played in just three series, and Michael O’Connor took over for the rest of the game for the Blue team. Blue, which consisted mostly of starters, ended up with the 37-0 victory -- some players even tugged the victory bell -- as we learned a few more things about the Nittany Lions:

[+] EnlargeDe'Andre Thompkins
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicPenn State freshman De'Andre Thompkins caught one pass and had a 22-yard rush in the spring game.
1. This is an offense that’s willing to do different things. Bill O’Brien hated the Wildcat. Absolutely loathed it. But fans were treated to quite a bit of it Saturday afternoon. The direct snaps to the tailback actually seemed the most effective, as the longest run in the first quarter -- a 19-yard run by Cole Chiappialle -- came from that formation. Franklin was asked whether he had a new, catchy name for the formation. “Yeah, I think we’re going to go with,” he said, pausing slightly for dramatic effect, “Wildcat.”

In the game’s longest play, wideout Geno Lewis took a reverse and threw a ball to a wide-open Matt Zanellato, who sprinted in untouched for a 56-yard touchdown. Lewis said they didn’t run the play once in practice. But Franklin didn’t mind calling Lewis’ name out of the blue -- and Lewis didn’t mind much, either.

2. The offensive line could really be in trouble. Penn State implemented a running clock from the second quarter on, but the gray-jerseyed offensive line gave up nine sacks. The running game also had trouble taking off in the beginning, as both the Blue and White teams combined for 21 yards on their first 16 carries. At one point, Penn State had 12 completions to 10 punts. And it was 0-for-12 on the first dozen third-down attempts. They fared better in the second half, but there was obviously still cause for concern.

Center Wendy Laurent went down with an injury in the second quarter and did not re-enter the game. The severity of Laurent’s injury is unknown and, with Franklin’s policy to not discuss injuries, clarity probably won’t be lended to the situation anytime soon. Offensive guard Anthony Alosi, who is facing criminal charges, is also "suspended indefinitely," according to Franklin.

3. Penn State could utilize more nickel this season. Minutes after the game, Franklin said the Nittany Lions could often operate under a “star” defense, which is similar to the nickel. Basically, he wants to use two true linebackers and a “big safety.” It’s something Franklin said he and the staff are going to evaluate over the offseason -- and that might be a reason why Von Walker moved to linebacker this spring. Walker could earn a role there, possibly as a backup, and he made a nice play in the third quarter by tipping a pass and then making a critical block once it was intercepted.

Defensive line coach Sean Spencer previously said the defense could use some four-DE looks this season, so fans could see some unique things on this unit. Overall, the defense appears to be in good shape. Franklin praised the defensive line several times this spring, and he said Saturday that it’s certainly a little ahead of the offense right now.

4. Kicking game still needs some work. Sam Ficken missed an extra point and Chris Gulla averaged just 39.2 yards a punt on a dozen punts. Assistant Charles Huff said the return game has shown a lot of improvement since the spring, but that was one area that wasn’t showcased Saturday. During punts, for example, the entire return team consisted of just one player making a fair catch. Penn State’s special teams should still be improved from last season, as there’s nowhere to really go but up. Huff wasn’t sure what happened on the missed extra point. Regardless, the kicking game obviously needs to show consistency.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Last Thursday morning, a barefoot James Franklin exited his office and walked -- Franklin's walk is most people's jog -- through the Penn State football lobby.

Asked about his footwear situation, Franklin explained he had a speaking engagement and needed to change. Moments later, he returned to the lobby and opened a side door filled with shirts and suits.

"That's what happens," Franklin said after selecting his outfit, "when you live in the office."

A lot of football coaches say they live in their offices. It fits the round-the-clock, pedal-down, never-stop-working-'cause-the-other-guy-won't culture of their chosen profession. But at some point, they actually go home, if only for a few hours.

Franklin is actually living in his office at Penn State. He hasn't left for weeks. He recently drove around town simply to get away from the building.

His nights end on couches or on a faulty air mattress. Makes it tougher to do those back handsprings out of bed that Franklin famously begins his days with.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
MCT via Getty ImagesEven while sleeping in the office, James Franklin has not lacked for energy in his first few months on the job at Penn State.
"Every night when you leave, you see him pushing couches together," Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer said. "You're like, 'You're not staying here again, are you?' And he just shuts his door.

"If he wasn't in here, he'd be in at 5 in the morning and probably leave at 10 or 11 at night anyway. So I guess for the six hours he's going to take a nap, he'll just stay."

There's a somewhat reasonable explanation for Franklin's living situation: His family remains in Nashville, Tenn., and they've yet to secure a new home here. On the other hand, Franklin could easily spring for a hotel room. After signing a contract with Penn State that will pay him $4.25 million annually, he could buy out the entire hotel.

This is more his style. Franklin's corner office is more luxurious than the spare room he lived in while working at Kutztown University, where he earned a $1,200 salary and made ends meet by filling soda machines and tending bar on Sundays. But his approach to coaching -- total immersion, relentless energy -- is the same.

At Franklin's introduction Jan. 11, he delighted Penn State fans with talk of dominating the state in recruiting and unifying the community. He didn't win the news conference. He crushed it.

But his performance left some people wondering two things:

1. Is this guy for real?

2. Is he always like this?

According to Franklin's new players, the answer to both is a resounding yes. Franklin doesn't downshift and neither does his staff. They're propelling Penn State through another potentially treacherous transition -- Franklin is the Lions' fourth coach since November 2011 -- and they aren't slowing down.

"I've never lacked for energy, I've never lacked for enthusiasm," Franklin said. "I'm a realist and see the challenges and issues, but we're going to find ways to overcome 'em."

Penn State faces many challenges in Franklin's first season. The program is only halfway through the four-year period of severe NCAA sanctions.

The scholarship penalties were reduced last year, but the Lions are thin in several spots: offensive line, wide receiver and linebacker. The Lions return an excellent centerpiece in quarterback Christian Hackenberg and other potential All-Big Ten players, but they have to keep them all healthy. Franklin said of the offense: "We're probably going to spend our first two years here solving problems, hiding deficiencies, rather than attacking the defense."

One thing that will never be deficient: Franklin's drive. Penn State players he recruited at past stops see the same full-throttle approach from the coach.

"He's that person all the time," safety Adrian Amos said. "That's very important. It builds a little bit of trust. You know what you're getting."

Added offensive tackle Donovan Smith: "Being a big recruit, coaches would tell you things just because. Coach Franklin always kept it real. Genuine since day one."

Franklin and his assistants, eight of whom he brought to PSU from Vanderbilt, needed to create trust with a team that has endured more recent adversity than any in the country. Although Hackenberg said he's never been on a team so close, players needed to open themselves up to new coaches and schemes.

"Any time there's transition, the players are anxious," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. "Sometimes the relationships get tested because you're challenging and pushing them. But [Franklin] always says we can demand a lot as long as we show them how much we care."

During the recruiting rush after Franklin's hiring, Shoop sent late-night text messages to his players, introducing himself and commenting on their play. If he rides a player during practice, he'll send an encouraging text afterward (We're critiquing the performance, not the performer).

Spencer and special teams coordinator Charles Huff use symbolism such as wild dogs and nektonic sea predators to inspire their players. As the team practiced the two-minute drill Wednesday, Franklin called a timeout, clapped his hands in front of kicker Sam Ficken's face and screamed, "I'm icing your ass!" Not only did Ficken make the ensuing field goal, but he drilled a 55-yarder to prevent a team run. Players mobbed Ficken and Franklin.

"I always talk [to players] about matching my intensity," Spencer said. "And as coaches, we have to match the intensity of the head coach, which is hard to do. Ever walk behind that guy? I've never seen anything like it. It's a full-on sprint."

Shoop calls the staff's spirit "our secret sauce," but enthusiasm and hard work don't guarantee wins in the fall.

The Lions have only two healthy offensive linemen (Smith and Angelo Mangiro) who lettered last year. Their leading returning wide receiver, Geno Lewis, had 18 catches in 2013. They lose their only All-Big Ten defender, tackle DaQuan Jones, from a unit that, by Penn State's standards, really struggled. They enter a division featuring Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan.

PSU needs versatile players, walk-on contributions and good fortune on the injury front.

But after the most turbulent period in team history, the Lions also need consistency. Franklin and his staff intend to provide it.

"The coaches the players see the first week are the same guys they're going to see when they show up here for the 20-year reunion," Franklin said. "It's going to be the same energy and the same personality."
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. The series wraps up with the specialists.

Illinois:The Illini might not be exceptional in the kicking game, but they're in better shape than they were when coach Tim Beckman arrived. Punter Justin DuVernois returns after a solid junior season, while Taylor Zalewski looks for a bit more consistency in his second full season as the placekicker. Zalewski made 12 of 17 field-goal attempts last fall. The return game is the real plus, as V'Angelo Bentley provides a major threat, especially on punt returns.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana brings back a dynamic returner in Shane Wynn, who averaged 14 yards on punt run-backs despite limited work. Punter Erich Toth also is back for his third season as the starter. Toth placed 18 of 52 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. IU suffers a big loss at kicker as Mitch Ewald, the team's career field goals and field-goal percentage leader, departs. Aaron Del Grosso and Griffin Oakes will compete at kicker, and Jake Shake (shake and bake!) could enter the mix this summer.

Iowa: Here's another Big Ten team that looks very strong on returns, as Iowa boasts the Big Ten's most dynamic tandem in Kevonte Martin-Manley (punts) and Jordan Cotton (kickoffs). Martin-Manley had two punt-return touchdowns in 2013. Punter Connor Kornbrath ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in average, but placed 27 of 65 attempts inside the opponent's 20. Iowa loses kicker Mike Meyer, a four-year starter. Junior Marshall Koehn seems likely to step up, but could be pushed by incoming freshman Mick Ellis and others.

Maryland: Notice a theme so far? Most Big Ten teams are strong in the return game, and Maryland is no exception. If Stefon Diggs returns at full strength from his leg injury, he'll be a dangerous man with punts and kickoffs in his hands. Will Likely performed extremely well in Diggs' spot, averaging 26 yards on kickoff returns and 12.8 yards on punt returns. Maryland brings back an excellent kicker in Brad Craddock (21-for-25 on field goals last year), and punter Nathan Renfro enters his third season as the starter.

Michigan: Matt Wile has done a bit of everything for Michigan, but could settle into the starting placekicker role this fall. Wile handled kicking duties late last season and also served as Michigan's punter after Will Hagerup was suspended for the season. Hagerup, the Big Ten's punter of the year in 2012, will reclaim the role if he can avoid off-field problems that have surfaced throughout his career. Wile then could focus on kicking, as Kenny Allen is the only other option there. Michigan is still waiting for big things from kick returner Dennis Norfleet and must find someone to handle punts. Top recruit Jabrill Peppers could help.

Michigan State: Special teams once again should be a strength for MSU, which returns All-Big Ten punter Mike Sadler, a Ray Guy award semifinalist who will contend for All-America honors in 2014. Kicker Michael Geiger also is back after connecting on 15 of 16 field-goal attempts as a true freshman. Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Andre Sims Jr. both put up good numbers on punt returns. Michigan State had by far the fewest kick returns (18) in the Big Ten last year and will look for a boost from R.J. Shelton and others.

Minnesota: After an above-average year on special teams in 2013, Minnesota again should be good in the third phase. Punter Peter Mortell didn't get as many accolades as Sadler or Purdue's Cody Webster, but he had an excellent sophomore season, averaging 43.3 yards per attempt with 15 of 50 yards or longer. Marcus Jones is a major threat on returns after bringing back both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last fall. Redshirt freshman kickers Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte will compete as the Gophers lose Chris Hawthorne.

Nebraska: The Huskers are looking for some upgrades on special teams, particularly on punt returns, as Nebraska ranked 123rd in the FBS last fall. Primary returner Jordan Westerkamp is back, but he'll face some competition. Nebraska brings back punter Sam Foltz, who had a solid freshman season, averaging 41.6 yards per boot. Mauro Bondi is set to step in at kicker as Pat Smith departs. If Bondi struggles, incoming freshman Kris Brown could get a look this summer. Kenny Bell, who led the Big Ten in kick return average (26.5 yards per return), is back.

Northwestern: The Wildcats lose a huge piece in Jeff Budzien, named the Big Ten's top kicker in each of his final two seasons. Hunter Niswander can handle both kickoffs and punts but seems likely to slide into Budzien's spot. Northwestern's punting was a mess in 2013, ranking 118th nationally in net average (33.2 ypp). Brandon Williams departs and Chris Gradone or Niswander will take over. The big news is Northwestern brings back Venric Mark , an All-America punt returner in 2012. Primary kick returner Matt Harris is back after a solid freshman season.

Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie. Indeed, the Aussie is back at punter as Cameron Johnston returns after an excellent debut season (I refuse to call a 21-year-old a freshman). Ohio State hopes for similar results from another first-year specialist in kicker Sean Nuernberger, an early enrollee expected to step in for the departing Drew Basil. Sophomore Dontre Wilson will continue to have a big role on returns after handling kickoffs last year. Ohio State must replace Corey Brown on punt returns and could look to redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall or true freshmen Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon.

Penn State: The kicking game continues to be an area of concern.Sam Ficken owns the team record for consecutive field goals (15) and started strong last season but ended with just 15 of 23 conversions, including four misses inside 40 yards. Penn State needs a new punter after losing Alex Butterworth, and will turn to Chris Gulla. Jesse Della Valle did a good job on punt returns, but Penn State needs a boost on kickoffs after finishing last in the league (19.1 yards per return). The Lions could stick with Geno Lewis or look for a newcomer such as De'Andre Thompkins to emerge. PSU also must shore up its coverage units.

Purdue: As if the Boilers didn't have enough to address on offense and defense, the kicking game needs attention. Punter Cody Webster finished his spectacular career with All-America honors, and the Boilers finished second nationally in net punting (41.7 yards per punt). Incoming freshman Austin McGehee will take over for Webster. Paul Griggs and Thomas Meadows continue to work at kicker, as Griggs made only 50 percent of his attempts (6 of 12) last season. The kick return game is strong with Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, but Purdue must replace punt returner Ricardo Allen. B.J. Knauf could be a good fit there.

Rutgers: The kicking game historically is a strength for Rutgers, which has a knack for blocking kicks and pulling off fakes. Rutgers loses a productive piece in punter Nick Marsh, who also handled kickoffs. The Scarlet Knights will turn to Joseph Roth as their replacement. Kicker Kyle Federico finished the season well, particularly in the Pinstripe Bowl, and returns for his junior season. Rutgers has a major weapon on returns in Janarion Grant, who brought back both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown during his freshman season.

Wisconsin: The kicking game has held back Wisconsin in the past, so it's definitely an area to watch during the offseason. Kicker Jack Russell converted 9 of 13 field-goal attempts after taking over for Kyle French. He'll try to hold off incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone. Andrew Endicott, who handled kickoffs last fall, also returns. Wisconsin is looking for more from punter Drew Meyer, who averaged just 38.6 yards per attempt in 2013. Top returner Kenzel Doe is back and should handle both punts and kickoffs, although Wisconsin could look to others for help, such as newcomers Serge Trezy and Natrell Jamerson.

More position breakdowns

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 13

November, 25, 2013
11/25/13
11:00
AM ET
Let’s begin the rewind with a little chop talk.

Players and coaches from Wisconsin and Minnesota nearly brawled following the Badgers’ 20-7 win at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday. The brief altercation happened when Wisconsin brought Paul Bunyan’s Axe to the Gophers’ home end zone for the traditional “chopping” of the opponent's goal post. But Minnesota guarded the post and wouldn’t let the Badgers through.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota didn't like Wisconsin celebrating after winning their rivalry game.
The Wisconsin side claims that the Gophers were being sore losers by not allowing the annual tradition to continue. Minnesota would counter by saying it gathers in that end zone after every game to sing the alma mater in front of its student section, and the Badgers were rude to invade that area (politely asking, “Pardon me, would you mind if we took this giant axe to your uprights?" might not work, either).

“It’s just a pride thing,” Minnesota defensive back Brock Vereen told reporters. “This is our stadium, and even after the clock hits zero, we still feel the need to protect it. So I don’t think there’s any love lost or anything like that. I think they’d do the same thing.”

A small skirmish broke out in the same spot in 2011, when Wisconsin interrupted the singing of the alma mater. The Badgers tried to wait until the song ended on Saturday, but the Gophers still formed a resistance.

Wisconsin defensive tackle Beau Allen told reporters, I think jokingly, that teams have chopped both goal posts in all 123 years of the rivalry. (Which, of course, is impossible, since the Axe didn’t arrive on the scene until 1948). But Allen was right that the chopping is an annual tradition, so the Gophers can’t feign surprise that the axe came their way.

At the same time, if Minnesota wants to make such a stand on its home field, so be it. While Saturday’s game showed they’re getting a little closer to Wisconsin’s level, the Gophers have lost 10 straight in this series. Guarding the post could just have been their way of saying they’re tired of being pushed around.

With players and coaches exchanging curse words and shoves and Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen getting upset about a security officer he said put a finger in his face, the good news is both teams showed restraint in not letting things escalate. The axe celebration is one of the best in sports, but with so many people on the field, these postgame displays are axing -- I mean, asking -- for trouble. Something to keep in mind when this weekend’s rivalry games roll around.

Saturday's altercation just added a little more spice to the series. And maybe a new set of rules for the axe tradition.

Take that and rewind it back …

Team of the week: Iowa. The Hawkeyes did everything they could to let Michigan win the game in the first half, throwing a pick-six and falling behind 21-7 at intermission. But this team has shown resiliency in bouncing back from last year's failures, and it owned the second half for a 24-21 win. Beating Nebraska this week would complete the symbolic turnaround from 4-8 to 8-4.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallThings haven't gone as planned for Devin Gardner and Michigan.
Worst hangover: Michigan. You had to feel bad for Devin Gardner, who was near tears after the game while regretting his late fumble. He's giving it everything he has got, but the Wolverines just don't have much right now. They've gone from 5-0 to 7-4, with an almost certain fifth loss coming next week against Ohio State.

Best call: Loved Iowa's decision to have Jake Rudock roll out with a run/pass option on third-and-10 late in that game. It was far bolder than just running the ball and punting or throwing a screen, yet it didn't carry a lot of risk. It also showed a lot of confidence in Rudock who had thrown three interceptions. He completed a 12-yard pass to C.J. Fiedorowicz for the first down, allowing the Hawkeyes to go into victory formation.

Weirdest call: Wisconsin's Andersen called for a bizarre-looking fake field goal in the fourth quarter at Minnesota. Holder Drew Meyer lined up behind the center in the middle of the field while everyone else split out wide. Meyer threw a lateral to tight end Sam Arneson, who had several blockers in front of him but nowhere to go. Arneson was supposed to pass the ball but never had time and wound up losing seven yards. "That one will be scratched off the play list for quite a while," Andersen said.

Best play: Michigan State receiver Bennie Fowler, who has had a great bounce-back season, summed up the season for his team and Northwestern on an 87-yard touchdown catch. Why are Northwestern defensive backs always involved in such wild plays?

Big Man on Campus (offense): Raise your arms and yell, "Steve Hull!" His late-career receiving renaissance continued with 10 catches for 169 yards and two scores as Illinois finally broke its Big Ten losing streak.

Big Men on Campus (defense): It's a tie between Ohio State's Ryan Shazier, who had a ridiculous 20 tackles and five tackles for loss against Indiana, and Wisconsin's Chris Borland, who made 12 stops with two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble. Do we really have to choose between these two for Big Ten defensive player of the year and linebacker of the year?

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Nebraska's Pat Smith went 3-for-3 on field goals and drilled the 42-yard game-winner in overtime at Penn State.

Best failed effort: Penn State kicker Sam Ficken tried his best to stop Nebraska's Kenny Bell on Bell's 99-yard touchdown return. But Bell treated Ficken like a kicker while leaping over him at the 30-yard line on his way toward the end zone. The photo of that is delightful. “You will never live it down if you get tackled by the kicker," Bell said.

Best quote: From Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, whose nightmare season can't end soon enough: "The year '13 -- good riddance. Something about that number I don't like a whole lot. I like those hotels who don't put it on their floors."

Nebraska win keeps questions at bay

November, 23, 2013
11/23/13
10:05
PM ET
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Ameer Abdullah nervously chewed on his mouthpiece like a stick of gum, seconds before Nebraska's kicker would attempt the game-winning field goal in overtime.

The Cornhuskers I-back watched from the sideline, backtracking to a space heater when PSU called a timeout to ice the kicker as flurries swirled around. Then Abdullah inched closer to the sideline, again backtracking -- shaking his head and rolling his eyes -- when his team was flagged for a false start.

But the Huskers' short-term frustration -- and the long-term questions -- gave way to players leaping in the air when Pat Smith booted the game-winning 42-yard field goal. Some players turned toward hecklers in the crowd and waved. Others sprinted on the field and embraced after the 23-20 overtime victory.

Nebraska fell short of expectations early this season and rumors about Bo Pelini's job security have swirled around the coach more often than the squalls around Happy Valley. But this win, this comeback, offered the Huskers a few days of relief.

It allowed fans to back away from the panic button, at least for now, and for the Huskers to inch closer to a better bowl.

[+] EnlargePat Smith
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsPat Smith and his teammates celebrate his game-winning kick in overtime.
"I'm proud of our team. Our kids, once again, they showed a lot of heart," Pelini said. "There's a lot of things we had to overcome."

For Nebraska, this contest was more of the same. It hasn't quite experienced the season it envisioned, but it won yet another close game. It's the eighth straight game decided by seven points or fewer that Nebraska's won. And it now has won three of four -- all three by four points or less.

First came the Hail Mary vs. Northwestern then a game-winning TD with 2 minutes left against Michigan -- and then this.

Tommy Armstrong Jr. injured his ankle early, and an energized Ron Kellogg III entered the game and threw an unordinarily high 34 passes. The Huskers escaped a near-safety in the closing minutes and then converted a third-and-long play from its own 1, thanks to a PSU pass interference. Then they watched as Penn State kicker Sam Ficken, who missed a PAT earlier in the contest, booted a 37-yard overtime field-goal attempt wide right. It was a bizarre game with plenty of miscues -- and opportunities -- for both teams.

But, once again, the Huskers overcame themselves and triumphed. And Penn State's seniors were forced to jog past the victory bell in their final home game without giving it one final tug.

"What's amazing about our team," said Smith, who went 3-for-3 on field goals in the game of his career, "is our ability to keep fighting no matter how much negativity comes our way."

For much of the season, the Nittany Lions have been able to say the same. PSU outlasted Michigan in a quadruple-overtime thriller and then sneaked past Illinois, 24-17, in overtime earlier in the month. This was the third overtime in the last six weeks for Penn State.

But, like Nebraska, PSU has come up short of expectations this season. And the Nittany Lions were unable to give their frost-bitten fans a victory for the long drives home.

This isn't the end for either team. PSU needs to win one next week, against Wisconsin, to have a winning season. And the Cornhuskers have to beat Iowa next week to continue keeping that negativity at bay.

Those questions aren't ending just because of this game. But this was an important step for Nebraska.

"It was a big victory for us on the road, especially at Penn State," Kellogg said. "It's a loud crowd, there's a lot of emotions, but we stuck together as a team and we came through. Even though it was overtime, we came through with a victory.

"I think it's a good kick-start for us to get ready for Iowa."

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