STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- James Franklin was off recruiting in Connecticut last Saturday afternoon when Ohio State’s offense exploded -- again -- against Rutgers. He caught a few highlights here and there, but he didn’t need to see much.

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."

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsPenn State coach James Franklin on Ohio State: "It's the best team I think so far -- from a talent and depth standpoint -- that we've seen this year."
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Franklin’s first impressions were dead-on. Since its loss to Virginia Tech, Ohio State has scored at least 50 points in a school-record four straight games. It has also gained at least 500 yards of total offense in four straight games -- the first time that has happened since 1998 -- and it has boasted the most efficient offense in the country during that span.

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."

Big Ten Week 9 predictions

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
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Is it a full moon or something? First, we have three people -- Brian Bennett, Josh Moyer and Mitch Sherman -- who notched perfect weeks last week. And now, all of our experts agreed on the games this week. Yes, strange days indeed.

Anyway ... here are the breakdowns:

Unanimous selections

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.

Our records:

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)

Big Ten morning links

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
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Working for the weekend -- and the return of Big Ten football? Let's pass the time together.

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.

East Division
  • 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.
West Division
video Dwayne Haskins is the second-ranked QB in the 2016 class, but he's not letting the pressure of recruiting get to him. Don't sleep on Arizona State with ESPN 300 linebacker Osa Masina.

Big Ten mailbag

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
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We're on the back side of the wait for Week 9 in the Big Ten. Let's get to the latest batch of questions. As always, thanks for the submissions.
Mitch Sherman: Every game is a big one for the Badgers at this point. Since the promising first 30 minutes of the year against LSU, something has seemed constantly amiss with Wisconsin. It is far from out of the running in the wide-open West Division, but with the loss at Northwestern, the Badgers are climbing uphill again. It's reminiscent, somewhat, of the 2012 path, when Wisconsin scuffled through the first half of the season, then dropped three of its final four before backing into the conference title game and clobbering Nebraska. The quarterback situation is just strange. Gary Andersen said this week it's not a competition but that 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.
Sherman: Well, that's going to depend on the next coach. Since we're dealing in hypotheticals, let's say the Wolverines hit a home run -- no a grand slam -- in finding their next guy. If a proven NFL coach takes the job or a big-name guy from college who understands the recruiting game, I think Michigan can be competitive immediately. It could be a real contender nationally in the second year, simply because the talent is there. Hoke has recruited well; he and his staff have just struggled to develop talent in Ann Arbor and, to some degree, attract the right mix of recruits. The right coach could fix all of that in a short time.
Sherman: The short answer is no. The long answer? Not against Michigan State if the U-M played the Spartans every week between now and the end of the season. You saw what happened last year when Michigan State made even Ohio State fans feel sorry for Gardner. (OK, probably not.) The Spartans will be up for this game like they were to face Nebraska on Oct. 4, looking to pound another nail into the coffin of Michigan's season. Gardner, of course, is plenty talented. He's the right choice to run Michigan's offense, considering the roster of quarterbacks, but probably not this offense. Hoke suggested before the Penn State game that Gardner might play to his strength and run the football more. He carried 10 times for 18 yards in the 18-13 U-M win. With a week off to prepare for the Spartans, maybe the offense has undergone a transformation, though it's doubtful a philosophical change could dig Michigan out of this hole.
video

Adam Rittenberg breaks down Saturday night's Big Ten matchup when surging Ohio State heads east to Happy Valley to face a dangerous Penn State team in an electric atmosphere.

Big Ten morning links

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
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Trophy games and rivalries will be a regular occurrence from now until the end of the Big Ten season. This week features one of the nastiest in-state showdowns, but the build-up to this year’s version has been comparatively tame.

1. Michigan and Michigan State have never been shy about their mutual distaste for one another. This year’s pregame volley of words has been far more civil than in the past decade. Maybe it’s because Michigan State no longer has to ferociously refute the “little brother” tag. Maybe it’s because Michigan limps into Saturday’s game with a 3-4 record and doesn’t have much of a trash-talking leg on which to stand. The sentiment behind closed doors is probably a little more hostile. The boring “it’s a big game because it’s the next game” lines are probably the proper do-your-talking-with-your-pads rhetoric. Nonetheless, it makes rivalry week a little too PR-scrubbed and professional for my liking.

2. Is J.T. Barrett at the top of your Big Ten quarterbacks list yet? If not, he should be. The Buckeyes rookie has the best quarterback rating in the nation since the third week of the season. He has Ohio State’s spread offense running as smoothly as former two-time conference MVP Braxton Miller ever did. If Barrett continues to roll and leads Ohio State to a league title, Urban Meyer is going to have a difficult decision to make between two healthy preseason Heisman contenders next August.

3. Death, taxes and Minnesota games being decided by halftime. Those used to be the safe bets during Jerry Kill’s first three-plus seasons with the Gophers. On Saturday, Kill’s team won for the first time when trailing at half. They have still never lost when leading after two quarters. Coming from behind against Purdue was a significant step forward for Kill’s rebuilt program, which is built to play with a lead. Long completions on play-action passes beat the Boilermakers and added to the Gophers’ case as a legitimate West Division contender.

East Division
  • Amid all the niceties dished out Tuesday, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook reminded reporters that Saturday’s game will be “a bloodbath.”
  • Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has tapped into the recruiting power of Ohio’s prodigal son, LeBron James.
  • Maryland hopes its relationship with Under Armour will make the Terps the Oregon of the East.
  • Rutgers athletic director Julie Hermann, a Nebraska native, gives the Scarlet Knights an emphatic vote of approval as they prepare for the Cornhuskers.
  • Penn State’s defense likes the pressure that comes from low-scoring games.
  • Devin Gardner has dealt with some unnecessary abuse on and off the field in his time as Michigan’s starting quarterback.
  • Zander Diamont – teen model, son of a man once voted as the No. 1 sexiest soap opera star and the unexpected freshman starter at Indiana – says he had a normal upbringing in southern California.
West Division

 
video Adam McLean picked Penn State in April, but Ole Miss, Tennessee and others haven't stopped recruiting him, and his high school coach knows exactly why. DeMatha Catholic's 2016 class is shaping up to be one of the best ever in school history, and that's saying a lot.


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Big Ten morning links

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
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Three bite-sized opinions, with links below, to start off your morning:

1. Larry Johnson deserves cheers, not jeers from Penn State fans. The longtime Nittany Lions assistant, now an Ohio State coach, is returning to Happy Valley for a Saturday night game. One fan tweeted at me, referring to LJ as “Larry Judas.” He’s not the only PSU fan that still harnesses some bitterness toward Johnson. But that really misses the mark. Johnson knew James Franklin was big on defensive line coach Sean Spencer -- he admitted as much Monday -- so Johnson simply stepped aside. This is the same man who declined a defensive coordinator position with Illinois in 2008 which would’ve reportedly doubled his salary. And who, in 2011, declined to put his name in for Maryland’s next coordinator job because he already promised Penn State’s recruiting class he’d coach them the next season. Just because a coach leaves somewhere doesn’t mean he’s “disloyal.” I’m not 100 percent certain what kind of reception he’ll receive Saturday night, but a standing ovation seems much more appropriate than any boos.

2. Purdue fans have a reason to be excited -- finally. Danny Etling was heralded as Purdue's savior before he ever took a snap last season. And when he did finally step under center for the first time, against Northern Illinois, the crowd offered him a standing ovation. Well, it turns out the quarterback to turn this Boilermakers team around might just be the lesser-known Austin Appleby. At least, he was lesser-known until a few weeks ago. In his last three starts, the Boilermakers are averaging 35.7 points a game. Before Appleby, that number was 23.8. He has some weapons on offense and, if this defense can step up, Purdue could really be a good team. Seriously. Appleby stuck with it after Etling twice beat him out for the starting job, and Appleby still has no shortage of confidence. He said last week that Purdue "could've hung 40" on Michigan State.

3. Illinois’ “Gray Ghost” uniforms deserve a thumbs-up. Maybe it’s just because I’m a sucker for history, but I really dig the uniforms the Fighting Illini plan to wear this weekend for Homecoming. It’s not necessarily how they look -- and they look fine -- but it’s the story behind them that really gets me. Ninety years ago, during Illinois’ Homecoming against Michigan, Red Grange scored four touchdowns in the first 12 minutes of the game. He ended up with six TDs as the Illini became the first team to beat Michigan in two years. After that game, famous sportswriter Grantland Rice referred to Grange as a “gray ghost.” So, that’s the idea behind Illinois’ uniforms. Wish more teams would honor history like that. Seems like fans are embracing the new design, too. The jerseys have already sold out online.

Now, on to the links ...

East Division
West Division
A lot of talent has already come off the board, but there’s still quality at the top of the ESPN 300 that could give at least 10 teams a shot at the second-best class. Plus, Penn State's James Franklin continues to be the most talked about coach in the Washington D.C. metro area.

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Big Ten Monday mailbag

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
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Let's get this week started off right with a good, old-fashioned Big Ten mailbag ...

Josh Moyer: Why not both? Adam is still right -- there's really not a lot of separation over in the West. Minnesota is the only team that has yet to drop a conference game, but three others (Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin) are within striking distance with only one loss. At the same time, we've been saying for quite a few weeks now that Nebraska clearly boasts the edge, talent-wise, in the division. Heck, I picked the Huskers to win the West in the preseason. Nebraska is the only balanced team here. Minnesota and Wisconsin really don't have much in the way of passing games, and the Hawkeyes haven't exactly been models of consistency. But one misstep in this division could cost the crown. That's why the “Wild, Wild West” may have become slightly clearer, but it's still pretty muddled. We'll know how the East shakes out when Michigan State takes on Ohio State in two weeks. But the West? We might not know until the final week. Take a look at the Huskers' final three opponents: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa. Now that's wild.

Mike from Grand Rapids, Minnesota, writes: Does Brady Hoke need to win out to save his job? As much as I'm in the minority, I don't want to see Michigan go through another coaching search. This team, their O-line in particular, is pretty young.

Moyer: See, that's a tough question, Mike -- only because there's about a zero percent chance Hoke wins out. Listen, he's gone. Even he has to know he's gone. Michigan has looked worse every season, and player development seems to be an ongoing issue. I'll even give you the offensive line since it's young. But why is Devin Gardner regressing? And why couldn't U-M adjust when Rutgers nailed them for 404 passing yards? As far as player development/recruiting, let me share kind of an eye-opening fact here: Michigan's usual starting lineup features seven players who were on the ESPN 300; Rutgers has recruited seven total ESPN 300 players since 2006. How about resources? For every dollar Rutgers' athletic department spends, Michigan spends $1.82. Yet, Rutgers was the Vegas favorite earlier this season -- and won. So it's clear Michigan is not on the right track. If Hoke somehow turns this team around and beats Michigan State and Ohio State, sure, he'll keep his job. But we might as well talk about what happens to Tim Beckman if Illinois wins out. Because neither is very likely to happen.

Moyer: Let's get the obvious out of the way first: Expect lots and lots of yards for Melvin Gordon. The Terrapins are ranked No. 102 nationally in rush defense and the Badgers are ranked No. 1 in rushing offense. That's a big reason the Badgers are favored by double digits. Before the injury to Indiana's Nate Sudfeld, Maryland's offense also kind of reminded me of the Hoosiers without Tevin Coleman – you saw all this potential through the air … but you wondered when it was going to materialize. With C.J. Brown struggling, you still wonder. Maryland hasn't faced a top-25 defense yet this season, and it should struggle against Wisconsin. As far as Wisconsin's quarterback situation, both players are still splitting reps with the first team. Joel Stave has seen more time than Tanner McEvoy the last two games and, unless McEvoy practices better this week, I'd expect more of the same.

Moyer: Haha ... well, I can't argue with that logic. Here's another fact to chew on: Penn State beat Ohio State, 63-14, in 1994. The next season, the Buckeyes won 28-25. Of course, do I really think the Nittany Lions will win Saturday after getting demolished last season by that same 63-14 score? Of course not. This is one of the worst offensive lines in the Power 5, while the Buckeyes have one of the best defensive lines. If Penn State can even keep this close -- Saturday night's game is the hot PSU ticket this season -- then it should be a boost. The Nittany Lions' defense is much improved from last season, but it really hasn't yet played a good quarterback. And J.T. Barrett has been great this season. This needs to be a low-scoring affair for PSU to really stand a chance. But I'd be surprised if Penn State really threatened.
For nearly two decades, former Penn State assistant Larry Johnson jogged through the tunnel at Beaver Stadium and turned right -- past the cheering student fans, past the Nittany Lions' mascot -- to the home sideline.

On Saturday night, for the first time in his career, Johnson will be standing across from that sideline.

The 18-year Penn State assistant is now the defensive line coach at Ohio State, and his new team will face his old Saturday night in State College. Urban Meyer scooped Johnson up after he left Happy Valley in January -- making the Buckeyes just the second college team he’s ever coached -- and Johnson said he’s not quite sure what emotions to expect when he returns.

[+] EnlargeLarry Johnson
AP Photo/Jay LaPrete"I had a great time there for 18 years." said ex-Penn State assistant Larry Johnson, now the D-line coach at Ohio State.
“It’ll be different,” Johnson said Monday afternoon. “You spend 18 years in one place for a long time and then you walk back in there on a different sideline. But I’m looking forward to going back, and I’m looking forward to going back with Ohio State University.

“I’m looking forward to going back home and being excited to play in the stadium.”

Johnson’s departure was an emotional one for Penn State fans. He was the final Joe Paterno holdover, the last assistant with a direct connection to the no-name jerseys and the rolled-up khakis. While unprecedented change swept through Happy Valley, Johnson was the lone constant.

He was promoted to co-defensive coordinator when Paterno was fired. Then he was relegated to defensive line coach with Bill O’Brien’s arrival. Two seasons later, when O’Brien left, he kept this team together as the interim head coach. Then, with James Franklin’s hiring, he left.

“I didn’t have any bitterness when I left. It was my decision to leave, it was my time to move on,” he said Monday. “I just felt that Coach Franklin was coming in with a new staff, and I knew he had a guy he really liked a lot. I just felt it was the best thing to do.”

Now, instead of addressing the media behind a blue and white backdrop, he talks to reporters behind a scarlet and gray one. On Monday afternoon, in a dark Ohio State jacket, the even-tempered coach kept a soft tone as if he were in a library while reflecting on his time in State College.

He spoke highly of his past stop throughout the news conference. About how past “White Outs,” where the crowd wears all white, jump-started his players. About the “great friends, great players” he coached. About how blessed he feels with PSU and now OSU on his resume. Though he remained stoic for much of the time, he smiled when asked if -- in his 18 years -- he ever caught a peek of the visitors’ locker room.

“I have not,” he said.

But have you heard about it?

“I have heard about it,” he said with a slight grin. “It’s very small.”

Besides Monday’s location -- and the color of his shirt -- Johnson said not all that much has changed in his life. He still tends to his flowers in the offseason -- “That’s kind of my style,” he added -- he still preaches player development and relationships, and he’s still a top recruiter. He built a new house near Ohio State, and his son, former Penn State wideout Tony Johnson, moved closer to him.

He sold his old house in State College and doesn’t plan to stop by once he returns. He doesn’t plan to swing by the Creamery for some Peachy Paterno ice cream, or see much of anything other than the walls to his hotel and the inside of Beaver Stadium. He said he simply doesn’t have the time.

He remains in touch with his pastor from Penn State, along with some members of the congregation, so he plans to see some familiar faces in the crowd Saturday night. He’ll shake hands with his former players after the game, and it’s sure to be a surreal experience for the coach whom Paterno plucked from the high school ranks back in 1996.

“I had a great time there for 18 years,” Johnson said. “I got to be part of their lives for a long time. It’s a new job, a new place and a new school, so I’m looking forward to coming back.”

B1G early look: Setting up Week 9

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
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Curse the double bye, as we have another week coming up with just five Big Ten games. But there are a few good ones on tap, including a couple intriguing rivalries. Here's your early look at the storylines for Week 9:

1. Can Michigan close the Bunyan-sized gap with Michigan State? Based simply on this year's performances, Saturday's game between Michigan and Michigan State could be one of the most lopsided in the history of the Paul Bunyan Trophy series. The Spartans are riding high, having won 13 straight Big Ten contests, while the Wolverines are just 3-4. Michigan State has won five of the past six in this rivalry, including three straight in East Lansing. The inability to beat his rivals is a big reason Brady Hoke is fighting for his job right now. Maybe the Wolverines can rally behind their embattled coach. If not, this has a chance to get ugly.

2. Will Ohio State keep it rolling? The Buckeyes have scored 50 or more points in each of their past four games to build their case for the College Football Playoff. This week brings their toughest road test of the season to date, a night game at Penn State. Beaver Stadium will be decked in white, and Nittany Lions fans will do their best to rattle young quarterback J.T. Barrett. Penn State's defense is probably the best one Ohio State has played in at least a month as well. Of course, the Lions have lost their first two Big Ten games and are having all sorts of issues with their offensive line, which they spent last week's bye week trying to solve. Don't be surprised if James Franklin and his staff throw out some new wrinkles this Saturday night.

3. Make-or-break game in Madison: Is Maryland for real? Is Wisconsin a serious contender? The season has failed to adequately answer these questions thus far. The Terrapins are 2-1 in their first year in the league and are coming off a solid win over Iowa. They've been up and down (the down includes a home blowout loss to Ohio State), but they also have a lot of explosive playmakers. Wisconsin has a Heisman Trophy candidate in Melvin Gordon but hasn't figured much else out on offense, especially in the passing game. The Badgers already have one conference loss and likely can't afford another one if they want to win the West Division. Can Wisconsin keep pace with Maryland's skill players like Stefon Diggs? Can the Terps' shaky defense slow down Gordon? One team will be left standing as a serious division contender after Saturday.

4. Beckman's last stand? Illinois coach Tim Beckman may well have to make a bowl game to save his job this season. That means the 3-4 Illini probably have to win this week at home against Minnesota, because the rest of the schedule isn't kind. The Gophers sit atop the West Division at 3-0 but looked vulnerable to a big-play passing offense on Saturday against Purdue. Illinois will have to follow the Boilermakers' game plan, though either Aaron Bailey or Reilly O'Toole must make a big jump at quarterback. Here's the best reason to predict that Minnesota will come away with the road win in Champaign: Beckman's defense is surrendering a Big Ten-worst 271.1 rushing yards per game. David Cobb could run all day.

5. Rutgers' mettle being tested: You really wanted to join the Big Ten, Rutgers. Well, here you go. After dealing with the piping-hot cauldron of the Horseshoe last week -- where the Scarlet Knights got scalded in a 56-17 loss to Ohio State -- Kyle Flood's team jumps back into the fire this week with a trip to Nebraska. It's harder to imagine many more difficult back-to-back road challenges than that in the Big Ten, and it highlights the difficulty of Rutgers' second-half schedule (a November trip to Michigan State still awaits). Nebraska looked terrific last week in the second half at Northwestern and must simply avoid complacency before the big West Division showdowns arrive the final three weeks (at Wisconsin, Minnesota, at Iowa). For the Scarlet Knights right now, this is mostly about survival and not letting a promising season go up in flames

Big Ten morning links

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West Division
East Division
And finally ...

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

Big Ten bowl projections: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
8:00
PM ET
The leaves are turning, the mercury is dropping and teams are becoming bowl eligible. Welcome to the heart of the college football season. It's a wonderful place to be, don't you agree?

Three Big Ten teams (Michigan State, Minnesota and Nebraska) have reached the six-win threshold, ensuring bowl placement for this year. Four other squads -- Ohio State, Maryland, Rutgers and Iowa -- are one win away.

The projections don't change much this week after a Saturday where things more or less went according to plan. One debate among the Big Ten reporting team was whether to remove Northwestern, which lost its second consecutive game and continued to struggle offensively. Yet with four winnable Big Ten games left -- Iowa (road), Michigan (home), Purdue (road) and Illinois (home) -- we think Pat Fitzgerald's team can finish well.

Another factor is the Big Ten taking more control of the game assignments this year, rather than leaving it up to the bowls, who often prioritize brand name and size of fan base over on-field results. The league wants better, fresher matchups and no repeat appearances, if at all possible.

Would the Holiday Bowl rather have Wisconsin than Maryland? No doubt. But Maryland has earned its way into the Holiday Bowl slot on the field, so we're giving the Terrapins the nod. Fortunately, Wisconsin and Maryland can settle things on the field this week in Madison.

Should Michigan State or Ohio State be projected into the College Football Playoff? Not yet. But the winner of their Nov. 8 showdown at Spartan Stadium could move into elite company.

Iowa takes a tumble after its loss in College Park. The Hawkeyes have to take care of business at home in November to move up again.

OK, enough rambling. The projections ...

Chick-fil-A Peach/AT&T Cotton/Fiesta/Capital One Orange: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/AT&T Cotton/Fiesta/Capital One Orange: Ohio State
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus: Nebraska
Outback: Minnesota
National University Holiday: Maryland
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City: Wisconsin
San Francisco: Rutgers
New Era Pinstripe: Iowa
Quick Lane: Penn State
Heart of Dallas: Northwestern

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