The Buckeyes' redshirt freshman appears to be on the rise, while Penn State's sophomore has struggled to repeat the success from his first season. They’ll meet Saturday night in Beaver Stadium. So, in the meantime, here’s a look at both quarterbacks -- the good, the bad and the ugly.
The good: He’s performed so well since Week 3 that he’s started to enter the Heisman conversation. Just take a look at the numbers in his last four games: 86-of-120 (71.7 percent), 1,170 yards, 17 touchdowns and one interception. He’s recorded a QBR of at least 75.8 in the last four games, and he posted a 98.8 QBR in his last game, against Rutgers. His improvement has been well-documented, whether it’s in the running game, his poise or his ability through the air. Said Penn State linebacker Mike Hull: “He doesn’t turn the ball over, he makes smart throws, he’s a great runner -- so he really has been the whole package for them so far.”
The bad: Barrett has been praised for his production in the last four games, but his opponents haven’t exactly been challenging. Kent State currently ranks No. 97 in total defense, Cincinnati is No. 120, Maryland is No. 99 and Rutgers is No. 82. The two best defenses he’s played -- Navy (No. 70) and Virginia Tech (No. 20) -- both came in his first two starts when the playbook was limited. And that’s where he fared his worst. So at this point, there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg argument. Barrett is undoubtedly talented, but just how much did his opponents’ bad defenses influence his numbers?
The ugly: There’s very, very little from Barrett that can be classified as “ugly.” Really, only one game -- and that was the loss against the Hokies. Virginia Tech blitzed mercilessly, and Barrett just couldn’t adjust. He finished 9-of-29 with three picks and took seven sacks. Statistically, Barrett will face only one better pass defense this regular season than Virginia Tech: Michigan State.
The good: Going back to last season, Hackenberg has had a penchant for the comeback. In his last 13 games, he’s engineered four last-minute game-tying or game-winning drives: Illinois and Michigan in 2013 and UCF and Rutgers this season. He is widely regarded as a future first-round NFL draft pick -- if not the No. 1 pick overall -- and several Big Ten coaches have sung his praises. Michigan’s Brady Hoke and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald both said this season that he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer: “Obviously, we got a lot of respect for that big quarterback, Hackenberg.”
The bad: By any measure, this season has been a disappointment for Hackenberg so far. He’s thrown more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (5). But a lot of his struggles can be traced back to a patchwork offensive line that features one returning starter and two former defensive tackles at offensive guard. He’s been sacked 20 times so far this season -- the most in the Big Ten -- while he was sacked just 21 times all of last year. He also has little run support, as only seven teams in the nation are averaging fewer rushing yards per game. He’s starting to develop bad habits, and frustration appears to be setting in.
The ugly: There’s a lot more to write under this section than for Barrett. For one, Hackenberg’s QBR this season right now sits at 38.0 -- a decrease in 18.6 points from last season, the largest decrease for any Big Ten quarterback. And there have been quite a few other lowlights. Early in the season, Hackenberg's frustrations boiled over on TV and resulted in a gif that made the rounds on sports blogs. As was mentioned before, his offensive line also hasn’t done him any favors, and they made national headlines when one blocker closed his eyes and mistakenly blocked a teammate. And James Franklin can’t seem to make up his mind as to whether to have offensive coordinator John Donovan in the booth or on the field.
There are 15 once-beaten teams in this week's AP Top 25, and eight or nine of them could probably make a legitimate claim to being No. 4. That number of one-loss teams is sure to dwindle in the next few weeks, but there's still a good chance that the selection committee will face the difficult decision of which two or three of those teams to put into the playoff.
Obviously, there's much more to any team's résumé than a single loss, but if the BCS era is an indicator, the nature of that loss could become a major topic of discussion when distinguishing among the once-beaten teams. Perhaps that's because in a sport where there is so little common ground on which to compare top teams, having exactly one loss is the trait they all share.
So, recognizing that this could be a factor in determining which teams get into the playoff, here are the best and worst losses by current Top 25 teams that have only one defeat. The losses are ranked by Game Score, which is a metric developed by ESPN Stats & Information that takes into account quality of the opponent, location of the game, flow of the game and final score. It's important to note that opponent quality adjusts as more games are played, so these Game Scores will also change from week-to-week. (All Game Scores can be seen by clicking team links on the FPI page.)
He already knew this defense was in for a challenge.
"They’ve recruited well, they’ve got really good depth, they’ve got really good talent, they’ve got really good speed," Franklin said Wednesday evening, recalling his initial thoughts. "It’s the best team I think so far -- from a talent and depth standpoint -- that we’ve seen this year."
Penn State’s offense, on the other hand, hasn’t scored even two touchdowns against any of its three Big Ten opponents. So it’s no surprise to hear Nittany Lions linebacker Mike Hull say this defense boasts the mentality that it’s "going to put every single game on our shoulders." Especially with Ohio State on the horizon.
"It’s going to be a challenge this week to stop these guys," Hull said. "We’re going to have to have a great effort. But I think we’re going to be up for the challenge, and we’re going to do everything in our power to hold them in check."
Hull watched the film. He knows how Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett "has gotten so much better in the last four, five games." What Hull might not know: Since Week 3, no quarterback in the country has boasted a higher QBR than Barrett (90.0), not Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott (89.7) or Oregon’s Marcus Mariota (87.9). Hull knows what a challenge running back Ezekiel Elliott will be. What he might not know: Ohio State gains at least five yards on more than half of its rushes, the best among FBS teams.
Penn State hasn’t seen an offense quite like Ohio State's; Franklin and his players admitted as much. But, then again, the Buckeyes haven’t faced a defense quite like Penn State's.
No defense in the country has been better than Penn State at stopping the run. And, besides Virginia Tech, the highest-ranked total defense Ohio State played is No. 70 Navy. Penn State is No. 6.
"Very well-coached up front. Good personnel up front," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. "It’s a much different defense right now. That’s a really good rush defense we’re facing."
Penn State’s defense is a big reason 812 students have pitched tents outside Beaver Stadium’s Gate A in preparation of a sold-out, white-out crowd of more than 107,000. Franklin’s squad isn’t built to survive shootouts and, for PSU to have a shot at the upset, it needs this defense to control the tempo.
The defense didn’t achieve that last season and fell to Ohio State, 63-14, in the Horseshoe. It was the Nittany Lions’ worst loss since a 64-5 game against Duquesne in 1899, the year Walter Camp first published his All-America football team.
"It’s obviously disappointing to go in there and lose like we did, but it’s a new season, a new year," safety Ryan Keiser said. "We both have different teams."
Said Hull: "We got it handed to us on national TV, and that wasn’t the Penn State team I knew we were. I knew we were better than that."
Penn State is still trying to carve out an identity on offense, but this defense has shown so far that it’s like the PSU teams of old: Stop the run, carry the team, frustrate the opposing offense. It has done that nearly every game this season -- but the Buckeyes present a unique challenge.
And the entire defense knows it, from the secondary (Keiser) to the linebackers (Hull), to the defensive line.
"This is probably the biggest test we have faced to date," defensive tackle Austin Johnson said. "It’s going to be an interesting game."
Anyway ... here are the breakdowns:
Minnesota 31, Illinois 20: The Big Ten's worst run defense will get a heavy dose of David Cobb, the nation's carries leader (189) and No. 4 rusher (1,013). Like Purdue, Illinois will try to attack Minnesota with its speed and will have some success, but Minnesota remains perfect in league play.
Wisconsin 38, Maryland 30: Expect a ton of handoffs from Wisconsin's quarterbacks, who should want no part of Will Likely. But Maryland allows nearly 200 rush yards per game, which doesn't bode well against a rested Melvin Gordon.
Nebraska 41, Rutgers 27: Can the Huskers avoid a slow start? If so, they should be able to pull away from a Rutgers team that had no answers for Ohio State's offense. Quarterbacks Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Gary Nova both put up big numbers in this one.
Michigan State 24, Michigan 13: The Wolverines' points totals against MSU have dropped every year since 2004. They exceed last year's woeful production but can't stop the Spartans' Connor Cook and Tony Lippett, who connect for two touchdown strikes.
Ohio State 27, Penn State 16: J.T. Barrett won't go nuts against an improved Penn State defense that can shut down the run. But his counterpart, Christian Hackenberg, could be in real trouble if he's not protected from Joey Bosa and Ohio State's fearsome defensive line.
Mitch Sherman: 62-13 (.827)
Brian Bennett: 60-15 (.800)
Austin Ward: 59-16 (.787)
Adam Rittenberg: 58-17 (.773)
Josh Moyer: 56-19 (.747)
Dan Murphy: 28-10 (.737)
1. Buzz-building weekend: For all the problems generating much hype for teams in the Big Ten early in the season, it doesn’t seem to really be slowing down individuals in the league heading into the final weekend of October. In fact, the next couple weeks could be critical for launching a few stars into the conversation for the stretch run, beginning with Melvin Gordon and a campaign that appears to be back on track. Just like Wisconsin collectively, Gordon was a bit slow out of the gates and became something of a forgotten man. But coming off a bye week with another opportunity to potentially put up big numbers against Maryland and its soft rush defense, he could be right back in the thick of a few trophy races. Ameer Abdullah takes on a Rutgers defense that was just gashed by J.T. Barrett, and the Nebraska rusher could use an impressive outing to recapture some hype that slowed down considerably after the loss at Michigan State and an off date of his own. Then there’s Barrett, who is flying up the charts with his eye-popping numbers. The Ohio State quarterback is also in position to capture more attention if he adds a solid Penn State defense to his list of recent victims.
2. Position under fire: The problems the Penn State offensive line have had are no secret, and Christian Hackenberg surely has the bruises to prove it. But if the Nittany Lions are going to bounce back and regain some of the winning swagger they had during the four-game winning streak that opened the season, they’re going to need to show some marked improvement in a hurry. Coming off a bye week to work out a few kinks, Penn State is certainly going to be put to the test to see what it accomplished with the extra practice time on Saturday night against the Buckeyes. Count Joey Bosa among those who has noticed the guys in charge of blocking him next have had issues at times this season, pointing out some “struggles” and noting their youth after practice on Wednesday. The Ohio State pass-rusher also made clear, however, that he is expecting Penn State's best shot this weekend and won’t take anything for granted, though he was obviously fired up to hit the road after practice. The Nittany Lions had certainly better be energized and ready for the sensational sophomore’s top effort as well.
3. Under-the-radar matchup: The coaches may have taken notice and started ranking them in their poll, but the Gophers still aren’t drawing much of a spotlight despite sitting on top of the West Division. There might not really be any incentive to pay attention to Illinois at this point, but it’s a program that still has something to play for as its coach fights for his job and a bowl game remains mathematically in reach. So despite the justifiably low intrigue there might be nationally for Minnesota’s trip to Illinois, the outcome figures to be plenty relevant in the Big Ten. If the Gophers win again, they’re halfway through the league schedule without a loss and on the inside track in the divisional race heading into their second and final bye week. Should the Illini pull an upset, they’d be right back at .500, Tim Beckman’s seat would be considerably cooler and they could once again start entertaining the idea of playing in the postseason. Maybe that’s a stretch to make the game itself worth watching for casual fans, but the final score will carry weight for both teams.
- Michigan State center Jack Allen has returned to practice and will be in the starting lineup on Saturday.
- Michigan offensive linemen were "deer in the headlights" last year against the Spartans, and they'll have to be better this time around.
- Penn State has flip-flopped about its plans for offensive coordinator John Donovan this week.
- Rutgers still has faith in up-and-down receiver Janarion Grant.
- Ohio State knows what to expect from the road crowd this week at Penn State, and it can't wait for the opportunity to play in front of it.
- Another tough task for Maryland's defensive front is on tap against Wisconsin.
- A look at the upbringing for new Indiana starting quarterback Zander Diamont, the son of a soap-opera star.
- Nebraska punter Sam Foltz is all about the little things when it comes to his craft.
- Wisconsin appears ready to welcome back some important contributors.
- Minnesota's kicker is easy to spot -- for most people, anyway.
- Crunching the numbers on third down for Northwestern.
- Take a look at what is in front of Iowa down the stretch.
- Illinois has had some hard-to-watch moments on film this season.
- Purdue is turning some heads around the Big Ten.
In mid-July, TCU coach Gary Patterson sat in an ESPN conference room discussing the College Football Playoff and how hard it will be for selection committee members to hide their biases. He listed several comparable examples.
"I haven't been around an assistant coach yet whose wife didn't think he was the reason why we won," Patterson said with a chuckle.
TCU is averaging 192.9 more yards and 20.1 more points than it did in 2013, the biggest one-year jumps for any FBS team this season. The Frogs are fifth nationally in scoring (45.2 PPG) and seventh in yards (537.7 YPG), and quarterback Trevone Boykin leads the Big 12 and ranks fourth nationally in total offense (369.8 YPG).
The philosophical change from a traditional offense to the fast-paced spread has TCU in the top 10 and in contention for a coveted playoff spot. There hasn't been a more significant coaching change in the Big 12.
"I don't think [there's a bigger change] in the country, how far they've come offensively," said Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, whose team visits TCU on Saturday. "It's been incredible."
Patterson's hiring of Meacham and Cumbie is the nation's most significant coaching change (non-head coach) of the season. Inside Access explored it and other moves that are paying off.
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Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy will both play. I don't entirely get that, though I recognize, considering Stave's unusual season, that it's likely been one of the most difficult situations a coaching staff could face with two healthy quarterbacks.
Sherman: Let me direct you to the weekly Playoff Eliminator, which puts into context the contenders that remain for the main event in January. Context is the all-important factor here. Without it, no one can say if a Big Ten team has a shot to make the playoff. At this point, even the league's top-ranked teams, when the committee's first poll is unveiled next week, will need help in order to reach the top four. But with highly ranked SEC teams falling each week in conference play and so many big games left before the playoff is set, it makes sense to believe that any Big Ten team would stand a reasonable chance to fit into the playoff picture at 12-1.
@mitchsherman As Nebraska sets it self out from the others in the west can we make the playoff at 11-1 and a big ten championship?— Brandon Williamson (@Husker_bran) October 22, 2014
A short video played on a projector before the ceremony, giving everyone in attendance a better look at who Sweat really is as a person.
Sweat took some time to answer a few questions to help expand on who he is, where he has been and what makes him tick.
Martez Ivey. Great guy, I played against him at a camp and I believe that's the person I would have been going against anyway. That would be a good matchup.
If you could start a team with any other player in your class who would it be?: Give me the best corners, defensive backs and linebackers. Everybody who can cover the best so I can get to the quarterback. That's a defensive end's best friend is the secondary.
What was your earliest football memory?: Probably knocking off Oscar Smith middle school in the city championship. The middle school I went to never won a game two years before and then I came out there and we won everything in every other sport for this one year. We beat them in the city championship and now I'm at Oscar Smith high school. So I played against a lot of the guys that are my teammates now. That’s a good thing to brag about. When they bring it up, I had to brag.
Which football player did you idolize or want to be like when you were a kid?: Honestly, no one. Other than my two older brothers. I watch it more now that I'm heavy into football.
If you could take on any pro player in their sport who would it be?: I would like to race Usain Bolt. I would challenge LeBron James to try to dunk on me. I would challenge him to try to. I would also swim against Michael Phelps.
Why do you wear your number?: I wear No. 9. The person that previously wore it was a real good guy, a tight end and linebacker. But, my favorite number is 2. I always wanted to wear that number.
What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?: I used to video game heavily. I mostly played "Call of Duty." I play a little bit now, but not as much as I used to. I used to sit in the house and play before I was heavy on football.
It still eludes me why the committee needs to rank 25 teams when it is only picking the top 12 for the playoff spots and contract bowls. Nonetheless, the rankings will create much hoopla, hype and debate. And I can't wait.
We should learn a lot about what the committee values in that first top 25. Here are a five questions the selection committee will answer next week as it relates to the Big Ten (assuming no major upsets in the league during Week 9, of course):
1. What's the consensus on Ohio State?
To me, this is the most intriguing question. Based simply on who's playing well right now -- be it statistical metrics or the eye test -- the Buckeyes are nearing playoff status. According to ESPN's Football Power Index, Ohio State is tied at No. 5 right now with Mississippi State.
And yet Urban Meyer's team is ranked No. 12 in the USA Today coaches' poll, No. 13 in the Associated Press poll and No. 16 in the FWAA Grantland Rice Super 16. The reason is simple: The Buckeyes lost by two touchdowns at home in Week 2 against Virginia Tech.
It remains to be seen whether the committee will value full body of work over recency of performance, or whether it will give Ohio State something of a free pass because that loss to the Hokies came so early in the season before quarterback J.T. Barrett started to blossom. If the Buckeyes are ranked in the top 10, you'll know that their string of domination the past month is impressing the committee. If not, there might not be much else Ohio State can do to climb into the top four.
Here's another vital question for the league. The Spartans can't erase that 19-point loss at Oregon in Week 2. But how much credit will the committee give to Michigan State for challenging itself by scheduling that game, and do the selectors believe that game was more competitive (remember, the Spartans led by nine points in the third quarter) than the final score indicated?
The voters in the coaches' poll like Mark Dantonio's team, ranking it No. 5 this week (two spots ahead of Oregon, which requires some serious pretzel logic). The Spartans are eighth in both the AP poll and Super 16, which seems like a more reasonable position. They just need to be in a spot where they can move up when teams ahead of them inevitably lose. The question is where the committee values them now, especially in relation to current conference leaders in the Big 12 and Pac-12, which could likely be the Big Ten champ's main competition, along with a second SEC team.
3. Where's Nebraska?
The Cornhuskers look like the only other potential playoff team out of the Big Ten, and even that would necessitate a lot of things breaking just right. Nebraska's most impressive nonconference win came against unranked Miami, and it lost on the road to Michigan State, using a huge fourth-quarter rally to keep the final score respectable.
The best hope for Bo Pelini's team is to win out and beat either Michigan State or Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. The Huskers are on the outer edge of striking distance right now, checking in at No. 16 in all three major polls. Will the committee see them the same way?
4. Are any other Big Ten teams ranked?
I'm not sure how teams in the bottom 10 spots of the initial poll are supposed to react, because it signifies nothing in the grand scheme of things. However, the rankings could give us an indication of how the committee views the Big Ten as a whole. For example, is Minnesota, which should be 7-1 after this weekend, a top 25 team? Is there another one lurking, such as Wisconsin or Maryland? If the committee has more than just the Spartans, Buckeyes and Huskers in the rankings, that could be an indicator of its perception of the Big Ten's overall strength. And that could come into play when trying to decide if the Big Ten champ deserves a spot in the four-team playoff field.
5. How in love with the SEC is the committee?
The nightmare scenario for fans outside of Dixie is three teams from the SEC gobbling up playoff spots. Four of the top five spots in the AP poll belong to the SEC West alone, and Georgia is also in the Top 10. The committee has said that winning a conference championship is supposed to matter, and obviously only one of those SEC teams can achieve that. But if the first rankings next week mirror the AP poll in its abundant adoration for all things SEC, then that increases the chances of two or more teams from the league eventually earning playoff bids. And that would be bad news for the Big Ten.