@BennettESPN thoughts on the offensive play calling by Penn State so far and maybe how it could be improved?— John F. Niz (@BitOfNiz) October 23, 2014
Brian Bennett: I know this: Penn State just doesn't have the talent on the offensive line to field a strong conventional running game or to consistently protect Christian Hackenberg. Actually, we all know this, after watching the Nittany Lions' games.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I wonder if doing some new things -- have Hackenberg in the shotgun a lot more for quick throws, go to more spread concepts and hurry up, etc. -- would help matters. We've seen how Michigan has tried and failed to run a pro-style offense with a bad O-line and only has had any real success by spreading things out. James Franklin and John Donovan are much smarter than me, however, and I'm sure they know why this would or wouldn't work. Ultimately, there may not be too much you can do to overcome offensive line issues as problematic as Penn State's. But I wouldn't be surprised to see them try some new things.
@BennettESPN Is the real problem with Wisconsin the lack of QB & young receivers or is it an OC with predictable/unimaginative playcalling?— Chris Hoell (@MNBadgerDad) October 23, 2014
Brian Bennett: Ah, yes. It's the old blame-the-coordinator game. Well, if you're going to say the Badgers' passing-game problems lie at the feet of Andy Ludwig, then you also have to give Ludwig credit for a rushing attack that's averaging 343 yards per game and a ridiculous 7.4 yards per carry, which is currently .01 yards per carry off the FBS record.
Of course, Ludwig has Melvin Gordon to call on when running the ball compared to a pair of up-and-down quarterbacks and wildly inexperienced receivers when he wants to throw the ball. I'm not saying Wisconsin coaches shouldn't take criticism for not having built a reliable passing game in what amounts to a season-and-a-half now; at some point, we're going to need to see some strides being made there in both recruiting and development. But let's just agree that for now, Russell Wilson isn't walking through that door.
Adam J. from Leesburg, Va., writes: As a Rutgers fan, I wonder if I am wrong in thinking the brutal schedule they have this year isn't a good thing. They needed to know just how hard it is to be an elite football program, and not think that they are in the AAC anymore. By getting smoked for the next year or two, it will help them commit to recruiting and updating their facilities down the road. What do you think?
Brian Bennett: That's an interesting way of looking at it, though I don't think the increased competition level in the Big Ten is a news flash to Kyle Flood and his staff. The Scarlet Knights have been very competitive in every game save for last week's blowout loss at the Horseshoe, a place where a lot of teams will have some bad days. Going from there to Nebraska this week should serve as an eye-opener for sure, and Rutgers still has to travel to Michigan State later this season. Those three games, more than anything else, should provide Flood's program with the measuring stick it will need. But Rutgers hasn't looked any worse, for sure, than other mid-tier Big Ten teams this season.
@BennettESPN Between Gordon, Abdullah, Coleman, and Cobb...how can anyone pick an All-Conference running back without leaving someone out?— Matthew Krier (@matthewkrier) October 23, 2014
Brian Bennett: It's an impossible task, and that's why we voted three backs -- Coleman, Gordon and Abdullah -- on our midseason All-Big Ten team. I suspect the All-Big Ten first team will have more than two running backs on it because of ties in the voting. And the guy who is in most danger of getting left out is Cobb, because his numbers are a little lower than the other three. That's a shame, because he's having a spectacular season.
Matt from Colorado Springs, Colo., writes: When the playoff selection committee announces its first rankings next week, should we expect to see similarities with the AP/Coaches poll or something that will cause an uproar? I think both polls are useless and should be taken out of publication. ... Also, what role do you think "bad" losses will have on the committee? MSU and 'Bama have "good" losses. While Oregon, Georgia, and Ohio State have "bad losses." I hope this is taken into consideration as much as out of conference schedule and "good" wins.
Brian Bennett: It's all a guessing game at this point, but I expect the selection committee's poll to be stronger than the two major ones we have now. That's because sportswriters and especially coaches simply don't have time to watch all the games on Saturday because of their own jobs and often vote in a hurry on Sunday morning after reading scores or watching a few highlights. The committee has been tasked with closely following the sport all season, and a well-informed, smaller group of voters should make better decisions than, say, having Oregon ranked behind Michigan State (looking at you, coaches).
Of course, there will be controversy. But the most interesting thing to come out of next week will be finding out what the committee truly values. Do "good" losses matter more than "bad" losses, as you suggest? Will conference leaders get rewarded more? How much will it be about who you beat, rather than who you played? We don't have the answers yet, but I can't wait to find out.
Austin Ward is in second and I've dropped to third after my trade (Mark Weisman and Tommy Armstrong for Tevin Coleman) didn't go quite as well as I had hoped. It's still a tight race for the top three.
Your results this week:
The Trombone Shorties (Adam Rittenberg): 143
Massive Attack (Austin Ward): 120
Coal Crackers (Josh Moyer): 90
Legendary Leaders (Brian Bennett): 76
Sherman Tanks (Mitch Sherman): 59
And the overall standings:
The Trombone Shorties: 986
Massive Attack: 934
Coal Crackers: 931
Legendary Leaders: 796
Sherman Tanks: 644
Waiver-wire: We've had more than 20 waiver-wire moves in each of the last two weeks, so it was a nice reprieve this week. Four Big Ten teams have byes Saturday, but none is loaded with fantasy players: Indiana, Purdue, Iowa, Northwestern. So we had half as many moves as a result.
Sherman adds Wisconsin RB Corey Clement and drops Purdue RB Akeem Hunt
Bennett adds Rutgers RB Desmon Peoples and drops Maryland QB Caleb Rowe
Moyer adds Michigan QB Devin Gardner and drops Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian
Ward adds Penn State WR DaeSean Hamilton and drops Ohio State TE Jeff Heuerman
Rittenberg adds Illinois QB Reilly O'Toole and drops Purdue QB Austin Appleby
Sherman adds Illinois WR Geronimo Allison and drops Iowa WR Kevonte Martin-Manley
Bennett adds Wisconsin defense and drops Minnesota defense
Moyer adds Michigan State RB Nick Hill and drops Maryland RB Brandon Ross
Ward adds Wisconsin QB Tanner McEvoy, drops Ohio State RB Rod Smith
Rittenberg adds Maryland RB Wes Brown, drops Indiana WR Shane Wynn
Rittenberg adds Minnesota defense and drops Northwestern defense
The Trombone Shorties (Rittenberg)
Illinois QB Reilly O'Toole
Michigan State QB Connor Cook
Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah
Maryland RB Wes Brown
Rutgers WR Leonte Carroo
Michigan WR Devin Funchess
Bench: Northwestern RB Justin Jackson (on bye)
Massive Attack (Ward)
Wisconsin QB Tanner McEvoy
Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett
Illinois RB Josh Ferguson
Minnesota RB David Cobb
Ohio State WR Michael Thomas
Penn State WR DaeSean Hamilton
Bench: Iowa QB Jake Rudock (on bye)
Coal Crackers (Moyer)
Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner
Michigan QB Devin Gardner
Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon
Michigan State RB Nick Hill
Maryland WR Stefon Diggs
Nebraska WR Jordan Westerkamp
Michigan State kickers
Michigan State defense
Bench: Indiana RB Tevin Coleman (on bye)
Legendary Leaders (Bennett)
Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong
Wisconsin QB Joel Stave
Rutgers RB Desmon Peoples
Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott
Nebraska WR Kenny Bell
Ohio State WR Devin Smith
Ohio State kickers
Bench: Iowa RB Mark Weisman (on bye)
Sherman Tanks (Sherman)
Maryland QB C.J. Brown
Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg
Wisconsin RB Corey Clement
Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford
Illinois WR Geronimo Allison
Michigan State WR Tony Lippett
Ohio State defense
Bench: Rutgers QB Gary Nova (at Nebraska)
On the other, only one of the conference's five games is expected to be close. Four of the underdogs are picked to lose by double digits this week, and the closest game isn't exactly a hot ticket: Minnesota at Illinois.
For the first time all season, we Big Ten writers all picked the same winners. But will there be an upset? Can someone surprise in the Big Ten? Let's take a closer look at the matchups:
Minnesota (6-1) at Illinois (3-4), ESPNU: The Gophers are still fighting for respect, as they appear at No. 24 in the USA Today poll -- but they're still left out of the Associated Press' top 25. They've quietly put together a solid season, with their only loss coming against TCU, and running back David Cobb could be the most underrated player in the conference. Illinois coach Tim Beckman is fighting for his job, and he and his offensive coordinator can't even seem to agree on whether a two-quarterback system is best for the team. The Illini have a plethora of defensive problems, and they can't afford to have their offense stumble.
Maryland (5-2) at Wisconsin (4-2), BTN: Melvin Gordon is one of the most dynamic backs in all of college football, and the Terrapins are one of the worst rushing defenses in all of college football. That's not exactly a recipe for success for the Terps. That being said, Wisconsin's woes through the air have been well-documented, and it would be no surprise to see the Terps dare Wisconsin to throw. Randy Edsall needs to get his own house in order, too. Maryland has a lot of firepower on offense, but C.J. Brown needs to find more consistency for this team to hang with the Badgers. Backup Caleb Rowe is out for the season, so it's Brown or bust. And Brown has thrown three picks to zero touchdowns in the last two games.
Rutgers (5-2) at Nebraska (6-1), ESPN2: The Scarlet Knights just can't catch a break with their schedule. They were dismantled by Ohio State 56-17 on Saturday and they play Wisconsin next week. Rutgers was the surprise team of the conference in the first half of the season, but it will have to show something in this second half to retain that title. It won't be easy. Like the Buckeyes, Nebraska boasts a balanced offense -- and Ameer Abdullah is the best back the Knights have seen since ... well ... it's been years. With one Big Ten loss already, Nebraska can't afford a slip-up. But it might just have the most talented team, overall, in the West.
Michigan (3-4) at Michigan State (6-1), ABC: Since 2008, this rivalry has basically been owned by the Spartans. Mark Dantonio's team has won five out of the last six, with the Wolverines winning only once in a 12-10 game in 2012. Michigan is coming off a bye week -- and actually won its last Big Ten game, against Penn State -- but the Spartans are on another level. If U-M can pull off this upset, maybe Brady Hoke has an outside chance to save his job and the Wolverines really have sparked a turnaround. If not, expect the same Michigan storyline that you've heard since Week 2.
Ohio State (5-1) at Penn State (4-2), ABC: The Buckeyes have scored at least 50 points in four straight games, but they haven't faced a defense quite like Penn State's. On the flip side, the Nittany Lions haven't faced any offense resembling Ohio State's, either. The key to an upset here is two-fold: Penn State's weak offensive line must somehow keep one of the nation's best front fours at bay (unlikely), or Penn State's defense has to play out of its mind and force turnovers (more likely). Ohio State pounded Penn State 63-14 last season, and the Lions would like nothing more than to avenge the worst loss in program history since 1899 (a 64-5 loss to Duquesne). This game will act as a good measuring stick for both J.T. Barrett and the PSU defense.
Michigan might stage a watershed moment at Spartan Stadium. Hey, stranger things have happened. Yeah, Michigan State has been good in winning five straight, but it’s not without holes. The Spartans have overcome struggles on the defensive side in each of the past four games. And Michigan has the athletes to burn the MSU defense. If the Wolverines can gain some confidence, no better time exists to inject life back into a seemingly lost season than in this rematch of the Spartans’ domination a season ago. Perhaps, Michigan can find some inspiration from its predecessors’ huge comeback 10 years ago to beat the Spartans -- a triple-overtime win that appeared more unlikely in the fourth quarter than even a victory this week. Michigan had last week off to get healthy and concoct a plan to attack its rival as if there's no tomorrow in Ann Arbor. Even Brady Hoke sounds ready to rumble, admitting that he’s “not a big fan of the Spartans.” More than likely, though, this game will follow script and end with an MSU win, thanks in no small part to its tendency to create turnovers -- and Michigan’s habit of losing the football.
Wisconsin might get it together. It’s almost November, and, if it’s going to happen, now is the time for the Badgers to make a move. After an off week, with extra practice to bring clarity to the quarterback puzzle in Madison, this game looks like a good one to start playing like a cohesive unit, especially on offense. Maryland gives up points and yards. And the Badgers appear set to welcome diverse fullback Derek Watt back from injury in addition to defensive tackle Warren Herring, who injured a knee right as things went downhill in the season opener against LSU. Maybe offensive guard Rob Havenstein can help bring some focus to the Badgers as he goes against his homestate school. Or perhaps what we’ve seen through six games is Wisconsin -- a team with a solid defense, a great running back and no answer at quarterback.
Rutgers might neutralize the Nebraska pass rush. It seems Kaleb Johnson believes that Ohio State star defensive end Joey Bosa was avoiding the Scarlet Knights' decorated left guard last week in Columbus. Johnson and left tackle Keith Lumpkin want a chance to stack up against the best defensive linemen in the Big Ten. And apparently, Ohio State attacked the right side of the Rutgers offensive line. Sounds like an odd thing about which to complain after a 56-17 loss. The Buckeyes sacked Gary Nova four times. Johnson and Lumpkin are anxious this week to face Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory and defensive tackle Maliek Collins. The Scarlet Knights might want to be careful what they wish for. Gregory is a one-on-one nightmare for any offensive lineman. Collins and Vincent Valentine on the interior are a handful. And the Huskers are developing depth up front on defense. But I like the attitude of Johnson and Lumpkin. Nebraska’s pass rush, while solid and full of promise, has overwhelmed only Fresno State and Illinois this season. And if Nova stays clean, he can do damage.
Around the league:
- Maryland defensive coordinator Brian Stewart goes way back with Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen.
- Is Penn State's Christian Hackenberg the next star quarterback to struggle against the Ohio State defense?
- The biggest recruiting weekend of the year has arrived at Penn State.
- A midseason report card for Iowa.
- Purdue quarterbacks want to go deep.
- A history lesson on Minnesota football from Patrick Reusse, and what it means about the direction of these Gophers.
- The compelling story of Northwestern's Dwight White, who learned this year that he had been playing football with one kidney.
- Check out these names who should be on the Illinois coaching radar, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
So we thought we'd take it a step further this week. Instead of just predicting the winner, which seems like a relatively easy exercise this week, we each took a crack at making a bold prediction for Week 9.
Here are those bold predictions:
Adam Rittenberg: Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Gary Nova combine for 550 pass yards
I expect a big day for both quarterbacks in Lincoln. Rutgers is very vulnerable to long passes -- 52.5 percent of opponents' completions against the Scarlet Knights go for 10 yards or longer -- and Nebraska features a big-play passing attack. I'm also not sold on the Huskers secondary, which will be tested by Rutgers deep threat Leonte Carroo. Maybe Randy Gregory inhales Nova and it's another rough day on the road for Rutgers, but I see a lot of pass yards in this one.
Brian Bennett: Penn State breaks out something new
The Nittany Lions know they can't simply line up and run the ball in conventional ways (or protect Christian Hackenberg) because of their porous offensive line, and the talent level isn't going to change this season. But the team had a bye week in which James Franklin said it spent working on those issues. Expect the coaching staff to throw some new wrinkles at Ohio State, a la the 2011 game when Penn State broke out the Wildcat. It probably still won't be enough to beat the surging Buckeyes, but Ohio State had better be ready to adjust for something different.
Austin Ward: The Badgers will look competent throwing the football
The two-quarterback system barely made an appearance the last time Wisconsin stepped on the field, though it hardly made any difference against Illinois and its pillow-soft defense. Melvin Gordon might still be enough on his own against another unit that doesn’t usually put up much of a fight on the ground, but Maryland does have better athletes on that side of the ball and the Badgers will likely need to show more balance to get the win they need to remain a factor in the West. Coming off a bye week to tinker with the rotation and fine-tune some packages for both Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy, expect to see more production from those passers -- maybe even the first 200-yard passing performance since Week 2 against Western Illinois.
Josh Moyer: The Illini will look incompetent with a two-QB system
Tim Beckman was adamant he wants to play both dual-threat Aaron Bailey and pocket-passer Reilly O'Toole. Bad move, Tim -- and even your offensive coordinator doesn't seem sold on the idea. Bill Cubit just shrugged earlier this week when asked if Beckman's two-QB idea was the best plan: "I don't know. I'll be honest with you, the playbook gets really expanded for one guy." The two-quarterback system worked against Wisconsin because the Badgers didn't expect Bailey to run. That element of surprise is gone now; Minnesota knows what's coming. And we think we know, too: Another Illinois loss.
Dan Murphy: Three players will reach 200 rushing yards
Despite Tevin Coleman -- the country's second most productive running back -- taking the week off for a bye, the Big Ten will see three 200-yard rushing performances this Saturday. Illinois allows 271 yards per game on the ground (125th nationally). Minnesota workhorse David Cobb will fill the majority of that quota this week. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, the only player with more rushing yards than Coleman, faces a Maryland defense with its own issues stopping the run. The regular cast of characters finishes with Ameer Abdullah from Nebraska, who is likely headed for a high-scoring affair with Rutgers in Lincoln.
Mitch Sherman: Michigan will rush for positive net yardage
Believe it. Michigan State mauled the Wolverines last year, sacking QB Devin Gardner seven times as the Wolverines finished with minus-48 rushing yards -- the lowest figure in program history. It’ll go better for Michigan on Saturday, though well not enough to beat the Spartans. Or come close. Michigan ranks 64th nationally in rushing offense, a significant improvement over last year, and the Spartans have slipped to eighth against the run, allowing 100.3 yards per game. The Wolverines won’t get to triple digits, especially without injured back Derrick Green. But Brady Hoke has said he wants to get Gardner more involved in the ground game. They had a bye week to prepare. Let’s see it.
Ten years ago today, Iowa traveled to a muggy field at Penn State to take part in a game that most remember for its struggling offenses and unique score: Iowa 6, Penn State 4. The Hawkeyes wound up with a pair of 27-yard field goals, the Nittany Lions with two safeties.
“If you love defense, it was the greatest game you could ever see,” Penn State defensive end Matthew Rice said. “If you love offense, it was the greatest game you’d never want to see.”
Iowa finished with 42 rushing yards on 40 carries and had just 168 total yards -- an average of 2.4 yards per play. Penn State fumbled the ball three times -- losing one -- and tossed four interceptions. Kicker Robbie Gould also missed two field goals, including a 25-yard attempt.
It was a game and score that might never happen again. Iowa players remember it as an emotional back-and-forth affair that came days after the death of Kirk Ferentz’s father. Penn State remembers it as the epitome of defensive frustration. Even to this day, whenever PSU’s offense struggles and the defense shines, that 6-4 game is brought up tongue in cheek.
“For the defense, it was a dream come true, to win a game 6-4,” Iowa safety Sean Considine said.
Said Penn State punter Jeremy Kapinos: “I just remember it being extremely boring, dull -- and being a lot of work for special teams.”
Click here to read about the 6-4 game, and the oral history from the former players and coaches.
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.
Ten years ago, on Oct. 23, 2004, Iowa and Penn State kicked off at two minutes after noon in front of more than 108,000 at Beaver Stadium. It was a muggy day after recent rain, 55 degrees, and cloud cover gave way to sunshine in the second half.
Penn State entered after four losses in five games, none by more than two scores and none in which it allowed more than 21 points. A week before Iowa came to Happy Valley on this Saturday, the Nittany Lions lost at home to Purdue and Kyle Orton, 20-13.
Iowa entered on the opposite trajectory, ranked No. 25 after consecutive home wins over Michigan State and Ohio State.
The week of the Penn State game, though, was unlike most for the Hawkeyes. Iowa practiced for two days and traveled east without its sixth-year coach, Kirk Ferentz, who flew home to Pittsburgh on Wednesday after the death of his father.
It made for an emotional week and an emotional afternoon as Ferentz rejoined his team.
And that's why this game is memorable.
Iowa won 6-4, its lowest score in a victory since 1957.
Penn State mustered only a pair of safeties -- the second conceded by the Hawkeyes in the fourth quarter.
Here's a look back, through the eyes of Iowa and Penn State players and coaches:
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.
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