NCF Nation: Big Ten Conference

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 1

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
8:00
AM ET
Recognizing the best and the brightest from Week 1 in the Big Ten:

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

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

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

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

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

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: The impressive part? Abullah rushed for 232 yards and a TD on just 21 carries. The more impressive part? He was pulled in the middle of the third quarter when the game was in hand. He was nearly perfect after the first drive; nine of his last 15 carries went for at least 10 yards. He’s shifty, he’s quick, and he just outright confused the hapless Florida Atlantic defense. We see many more helmet stickers in Mr. Abdullah’s future.
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HOUSTON -- The game turned -- and isn't this always the case for LSU under Les Miles? -- with a bold call on special teams.

The game ended -- and how many times have we seen this in recent years? -- with Wisconsin falling just short of a marquee win and wondering where it all went wrong.

The No. 13 Tigers and No. 14 Badgers came into the Advocare Texas Kickoff as mystery teams because of all the new faces in key positions for both sides. But there was no mystery remaining at the end of LSU's 28-24 victory at NRG Stadium. A new season began, but these teams simply keep regurgitating their old storylines.

For the Tigers, it was another rise-from-the grave, how-did-that-happen victory under Miles, who improved to 11-0 in season openers and an impossible 22-21 when trailing in the fourth quarter.

[+] EnlargeLSU's John Diarse
AP Photo/David J. PhillipLSU's John Diarse gets past Wisconsin's Darius Hillary for a 36-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
"We did everything we could possibly have done, the latest possible time to do it, before we decided to play best," Miles said.

Wisconsin led 24-7 after scoring early in the second half, and LSU looked doomed. Its offense mustered only 136 yards in the first half, with 80 of them coming on a long pass play against busted coverage for a touchdown. The Badgers were averaging more than eight yards per carry and bulldozing a Tigers defense that kept missing tackles and assignments.

Just when things appeared the bleakest, after an apparent three-and-out on LSU's first possession of the second half, Miles called for one of his patented special teams gambles. Kendell Beckwith only ran for five yards on the fake punt, but it led to a first down and eventual field goal. It also triggered a run of 21 unanswered points by the Tigers.

"I felt like we had to make a play," Miles said. "It was the right call, and it was the right time. The momentum change at that point was significant. I think our guys started feeling it."

Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen disputed that the fake caused such a momentous momentum shift. After all, he said, the Badgers only gave up a field goal and still held an 11-point lead.

He might be right. Other changes happening in the game proved just as important, if not more so. For one, Melvin Gordon suddenly morphed from leading Heisman Trophy candidate to invisible man without much explanation.

Gordon opened the second half with a 63-yard burst to set up Wisconsin's final score. But from then on, Gordon received only two more carries the rest of the game and stood on the sideline at times with his helmet halfway on his head.

Andersen said Gordon had "a scenario" at halftime that made it doubtful whether the star tailback could return to the game. But he did not elaborate, and Gordon did come back late in the game to provide pass protection. Asked after the game if he tweaked anything or was injured, Gordon responded, "Nah, I was good, man. All good."

But he clearly wasn't the same, and neither was the Wisconsin offense. LSU began stacking against the run and walking its safeties down to within five yards of the line of scrimmage. First-time starting quarterback Tanner McEvoy couldn't counter and went just 8-of-24 for 50 yards and two interceptions. He finished 1-of-13 on throws of 10 yards or more, as his receivers struggled to get separation and he missed them when they were open.

Andersen said he didn't consider turning to Joel Stave -- who started every game last year and has a more accurate arm than McEvoy -- because the protection was so bad it wouldn't have mattered.

"They weren't passing too often, so that gave us the opportunity to put more people in the box," LSU linebacker D.J. Welter said. "We really benefited from that."

After a shaky start, Tigers sophomore quarterback Anthony Jennings started to find his footing late, and Wisconsin's valiant defensive effort crumbled after it lost a second starting lineman to injury. LSU outgained Wisconsin 140-22 in the fourth quarter.

But what else is new? The Badgers have made a habit of doing just enough to lose in major nonconference showdowns of late, including close losses in three straight Rose Bowls against TCU, Oregon and Stanford, plus last year's bizarre ending at Arizona State.

They squandered a golden chance here to strike a blow for the Big Ten and boost the league's image, not to mention announce themselves as a College Football Playoff contender given their pillowy remaining schedule. Instead, it was more of the same.

"It was a big game for us, and we fell short," Gordon said. "Obviously, people will say Wisconsin can't win the big game. I'm sure they'll be saying that all year."

LSU's immediate outlook is murkier. Playing with scores of freshmen and sophomores and missing two starters due to suspension, the Tigers made plenty of mistakes. Highly hyped freshman running back Leonard Fournette looked more like a 19-year-old in his first college game than the reincarnation of Adrian Peterson, as he had just 18 yards on eight carries. Freshman quarterback Brandon Harris came in for one series and promptly got sacked when he failed to recognize a blitz.

But other youngsters, such as receivers Travin Dural (three catches for 151 yards) and John Diarse (who bounced off three tackles to score in the fourth quarter) and defensive tackle Christian LaCouture, showed immense potential. Miles said that while there is much to fix, doing so after a victory means those issues are only "light tremors and a mild infection."

"That was our first game, and you're going to see us keep getting better and better," senior wideout Quantavius Leslie said. "Young guys can't play young in the SEC."

LSU can feel optimistic about the rest of the way, while Wisconsin must regroup. It's more SEC pride and another Big Ten slide. One team finds a way to win, while the other finds ways to lose. And the beat goes on and on and on.
Five lessons from the opening week of Big Ten play.

1. Familiar issues preventing Wisconsin from next step: The Badgers had a wonderful chance to springboard themselves into the playoff conversation, as they had a young LSU team down 24-7 in the third quarter. But it unraveled in a hurry as several familiar problems -- and some bad luck on the injury front -- doomed Wisconsin in a 28-24 loss. Wisconsin won't become an elite program until it has more dynamic quarterback and receiver play to complement its bread-and-butter run, can avoid blunders in the kicking game and shores up the secondary. Injuries to two starting defensive linemen certainly hurt, and star running back Melvin Gordon wasn't right after a long run in the third quarter. But the same limitations we've seen before with the Badgers surfaced again in a painful season-opening loss. There's still a lot to play for, but a win would have been huge for Wisconsin and the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Melvin Gordon
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin's Melvin Gordon rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown but never seemed right again after a long run in the third quarter.
2. Quarterback play is on the uptick: To take a step forward as a league, the Big Ten must make strides at the most important position on the field. Week 1 was a promising start. Michigan State's Connor Cook picked up where he left off last year and played almost flawlessly (12-of-13 passing, 285 yards, three touchdowns) against Jacksonville State. Other veterans such as Michigan's Devin Gardner (13-of-14 passing, three touchdowns), Iowa's Jake Rudock and Rutgers' Gary Nova started off strong. Second-year players such as Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong and Purdue's Danny Etling made big-time throws in victories, and Ohio State freshman J.T. Barrett delivered in his debut as the starter. Illinois' offense had some hiccups but new starting quarterback Wes Lunt finished with four touchdown passes. No one will confuse the Big Ten's quarterback contingent with the Pac-12's, but there are some good signs heading into some bigger games.

3. PSU, OSU lines are works in progress: A Penn State offensive line with just one returning starter and two converted defensive tackles starting at the guard spots topped any fan's list of concerns entering the season. Ohio State's offensive line might not have been the biggest red flag following Braxton Miller's injury, but there was some curiosity with four new starters. Both units did some good things Saturday, especially down the stretch in wins against UCF and Navy, respectively. But Penn State struggled to get its power run going and endured two holding penalties and two false starts. Ohio State had just 71 rush yards on 24 attempts through the first three quarters against an undersized Navy defense. The Buckeyes finished strong (122 fourth-quarter rush yards) but need to make strides, beginning this week against Virginia Tech. Michigan also entered its opener with the offensive line in the spotlight. Although Appalachian State isn't a great gauge, Michigan got its ground game going with 350 yards and two 100-yard rushers (Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith).

4. Rutgers could be a surprise team: Few expected much from the Scarlet Knights, including the Big Ten reporter crew, but Kyle Flood's team began the season on an impressive note. It's never easy to travel to the West Coast, and Rutgers opened with a Washington State team poised to expose its shaky pass defense. Although Washington State racked up 532 pass yards, Rutgers controlled the line of scrimmage and much of the game in a 41-38 win. New offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen has made an immediate impact, and Rutgers showcased a powerful run game led by Paul James and a big-play pass attack. The defense still needs work, and the competition level will improve, but Rutgers should be 2-0 before its highly anticipated Big Ten debut Sept. 13 against Penn State at High Points Solutions Stadium.

5. Northwestern is reeling: Few FBS teams had a rockier offseason than Northwestern, which endured the union debate, Venric Mark's stunning departure and several key injuries in the preseason. Pat Fitzgerald always had found ways to get his teams ready for the season and entered Saturday with a 7-0 mark in openers. But Northwestern didn't look ready against Cal and was outplayed in all three phases during the first 42 minutes. The Wildcats made a nice run at the end of the third quarter and had chances to complete a comeback but went conservative at the wrong times and made too many errors in a 31-24 home loss, its fifth consecutive setback at Ryan Field. You wonder if this team has reached a breaking point after all the setbacks since the past October. A Week 2 win against Northern Illinois is critical.

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 1

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
8:00
AM ET
Take a deep breath, Big Ten fans. The wait is over. Our first weekend of Big Ten football is finally here. And though we might be lacking in quality this weekend, at least there's quantity.

8:30 a.m. ET

Penn State vs. Central Florida (Dublin, Ireland), ESPN2: This overseas contest isn't the same without the O'Brien vs. O'Leary headline or the Hackenberg vs. Bortles undercard. But it could still be one of the more interesting games on tap, as it's James Franklin's debut as Penn State's head coach. The Nittany Lions are looking to once again shock the conference, and that will have to start with success from an inexperienced offensive line. The Nittany Lions have talent on offense -- Christian Hackenberg, Jesse James, Donovan Smith, Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak -- but a win won't come easy against a loaded Central Florida defense.

Noon ET

Indiana State at Indiana, ESPNews: If you haven't fallen asleep from waking up early for the Nittany Lions game, this one might cause you to fluff up that pillow. The Hoosiers upended the Sycamores 73-35 the past season and should once again put on an offensive clinic. Will Indiana's new defense be better? We probably won't find out based on this game.

Northern Iowa at Iowa, BTN: Kirk Ferentz's crew hasn't made quick work of its FCS opponents the past two seasons. Last year, Iowa edged out Missouri State 28-14 and the year before beat Northern Iowa 27-16. Northern Iowa is a middle-of-the-road FCS team this season, but those past two FCS games featured teams that finished below .500. It shouldn't be close, but then again, it shouldn't have been in 2012 or 2013 either.

Appalachian State at Michigan, ESPN2: Can history possibly repeat itself here? The 2007 game -- Mountaineers 34, Wolverines 32 -- was one of the greatest upsets in college football history. If you're a Big Ten fan, you should probably remember where you were when Julian Rauch nailed the field goal heard 'round the world to give App State a two-point lead with 26 seconds left in the game. No doubt the Wolverines will be more prepared this time around, but you can bet Appalachian State's confidence is pretty high, too.

Western Michigan at Purdue, ESPNU: Thankfully, it's not our job to tell you why you should watch these games. We're coming up relatively empty on this one. Purdue is just a nine-point favorite, which means this game should technically be closer than most of the others here. But the ratings for this game won't skyrocket based off that fact. Purdue's offense should be better, so if quarterback Danny Etling struggles in this game, it might already be time for Boilermakers fans to worry.

No. 5
Ohio State at Navy, CBS Sports Network:
Can Ohio State move on without Braxton Miller? Will Navy's triple-option fool this defensive line? How will J.T. Barrett fare in his first career start? The Midshipmen aren't a bad team, and plenty of questions are swirling around the Buckeyes' quarterback situation with the season-ending injury to Miller. All eyes will be on Barrett -- and how long a leash Urban Meyer gives him here.

12:05 ET

Youngstown State at Illinois, BTN: Tim Beckman could be on the hot seat this season, and if he loses to a team with a Penguin mascot, that seat will start heating up in no time. Wes Lunt could be in for a big season, but it'll be interesting to see who in the receiving corps can step up. Beckman is also counting on some juco players to plug roster holes, so we'll start to see how that's working out in this opener.

3:30 ET

James Madison at Maryland, BTN: First, Rutgers comes away with a win in its first game as a Big Ten member. Next, the Terrapins should follow suit. We should see offensive fireworks here, especially though the air, now that quarterback C.J. Brown is healthy, along with wideouts Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. James Madison is an average FCS team, though it nearly knocked off Akron the past season in a 35-33 loss.

Cal at Northwestern, ABC/ESPN2: No Venric Mark, no Christian Jones ... no problem? The Golden Bears are lousy, and the reins are now in the hands of Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian. The Wildcats are hoping to rebound from the past season with a bowl berth, and it'll have to get off on the right foot -- with a win over Cal -- to make that happen. Northwestern should start off 3-0 after a disappointing 5-7 finish in 2013.

Florida Atlantic at No. 22 Nebraska, BTN: It won't be the “Battle of the Pelinis” this season, as FAU coach Carl Pelini was fired the past season in the wake of drug allegations against his staff. The move wasn't without its controversy. We'll see if Bo Pelini is out to avenge his brother based on how ugly this game gets. If Ameer Abdullah wants to be a Heisman contender, he has to post crazy numbers in games like this.

9 ET

No. 14 Wisconsin vs. No. 13 LSU (Houston), ESPN: Admit it. You're waiting all day for this Big Ten game. This could give the B1G respect on a national scale -- or, if it turns ugly, could give the rest of the Power 5 more ammunition to point a finger and label the conference weak. Melvin Gordon might be the best running back in the country, and he'll be facing a slightly above-average run defense. Is that enough to give the Badgers the win? LSU might have the advantage everywhere except at tailback and offensive line. This is the game to watch.

Weather

It looks as if the weather is pretty split this week -- nice and sunny in some places with chances of thunderstorms in others. First off, the good news: It'll be nice and clear for Penn State, Indiana, Ohio State, Illinois and Nebraska. Outside of Ireland, where it should be in the 60s, the temperature should vary between the 70s and 80s.

Elsewhere? Teams might not be so lucky. For Maryland and Wisconsin, thunderstorms could strike later in the games. For the other four teams -- Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue, Iowa -- thunderstorms could strike early but could clear up later.

Top Week 1 stories

Season predictions | Weekly predictions | Fearless predictions | Bowl predictions

J.T. Barrett becomes voice of Buckeyes

LSU-Wisconsin primer

Remembering an upset for the ages

Calhoun's dual role: hit 'em, make 'em smile

Terps' Leak, Brown draw from year off

Fast start would mean sunny days for B1G

In playoff era, will Rose stay as sweet?

B1G players in Week 1 spotlight

A B1G youth movement at receiver

Loaded backfields make it B1G's Year of the RB

Twitter: PSU sights & scenes from Ireland

'A one-time, all-time upset'

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
3:00
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If you haven't already, make sure to check out my oral history of Appalachian State's 2007 upset over Michigan here. One quote that stands out in the piece is former Wolverines receiver Greg Mathews description of game week from that year:
"I'll speak for myself, and I know there were obviously some of my teammates doing the same thing as well. It was welcome week, where all the students had come back to school and class hasn't started yet and we just got out of camp. Throughout that week, there were a bunch of parties. Every night of the week, it was like a crazy, insane party. I just didn't manage that very well. Guys were missing practice, coming to practice hung over, having to sit out because they were hung over. We lost that game that week."

There are plenty of other memories well told in the piece, including those of Appalachian State quarterback Armanti Edwards, safety Corey Lynch (who blocked the kick to seal the victory), former Wolverines players Carlos Brown, Tim Jamison and Donovan Warren and current Michigan coach Brady Hoke.The upset was a dark chapter in Michigan history; the Maize and Blue hope to create some better memories on Saturday as the Mountaineers pay a return visit to the Big House.
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CHICAGO -- Shilique Calhoun is speechless, which is notable because, well, he is hardly ever speechless. He is flashing his trademark smile, though, a dead giveaway of how he feels about the beating Michigan State administered to Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner last year.

Six seconds pass, and he relents.

"I mean, you pretty much said it yourself," Calhoun tells the reporter, shaking his head. "I don't need to say much more. It's pretty much ... "

[+] EnlargeShilique Calhoun
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsShilique Calhoun and Michigan State has made life miserable for Devin Gardner and Michigan recently, including sacking him seven times last season.
Are you impressed he stayed in the game?

"I am," Calhoun says. "I commend him for finishing the game and coming out and being a trouper."

That is about as brief as Calhoun gets, as the Spartans' dynamic defensive end took full advantage of the spotlight the Big Ten's two-day preseason media session offered. He held court with reporters for nearly two straight hours while wearing a bow tie. He interviewed Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah. He assessed his teammates' basketball talents, evaluating everything from the useful derriere of former Spartan Tyler Hoover to the vicious elbows of fellow lineman Joel Heath.

"You know who was freakishly, weirdly good? Max Bullough," Calhoun said of the graduated linebacker.

It was on the hardwood where Calhoun drew the most attention in high school. His mother, Cynthia Mimes, says a dream as a teenager about becoming an NFL player drove her son to the college gridiron. Michigan State is thankful for that after Calhoun's breakout 2013 campaign, which included 7.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss, three touchdowns and countless laughs. The winner of the league's defensive lineman of the year award, Calhoun opted to return for his redshirt junior season following MSU's Rose Bowl triumph, sensing plenty of room for growth.

"He doesn't know anything about football," Mimes quipped. "He just knows [that] the coaches tell him to do this and do that and he did it. That's the way it is. Today he's still learning. He does what they tell him to do because he's a fast learner."

He has come a long way from his days as the under-recruited dual-sport star at Middletown North (N.J.) High -- back when, he confesses, he thought hometown Rutgers was "freakin' Alabama" and he thought Michigan and Michigan State were the same school.

Two wins against the Wolverines in Calhoun's three years in East Lansing -- and five since 2008 -- has eliminated any confusion, especially after a rout last year in which the Spartans sacked Gardner seven times and hurried him another five.

Mark Dantonio could tell from scout-team work his freshman year that Calhoun would be special, admitting the defensive end was a little quieter then. Asked whether that was for better or worse, he smiled: "Worse."

Calhoun has grown up and opened up significantly in recent years, a far cry from the senior who quit the prep basketball team in the middle of a game after an argument with his coach.

He knows he was wrong, and though he had no other real blemish growing up, he wasn't quite the character he is now, his mother insists.

Among the many trophies and clippings of Mimes' six kids on display in her Long Branch, N.J., home is a middle school-aged Shilique featured front and center on an old Sunday edition of the Asbury Park Press, whispering an answer in a spelling bee to his teacher. He was a constant complainer and, Mimes said, a sore loser. He would cry when he would lose a football game. He would cry when he would lose a card game. He would cry when he would lose in a video game.

Ultimately, his mother stepped in.

"I told him 'you're not allowed to play games anymore, because games are supposed to be fun,'" Mimes said. "You're not supposed to cry over it and be upset."

Another incident warranted tears as well, though this time it stemmed from tragedy and forced Calhoun out of his shell. A boy at his middle school had committed suicide, a result of bullying. Calhoun's mother says it made her son look at life differently, and he has vowed since to be more uplifting around others.

[+] EnlargeShilique Calhoun
Gabriel Christus/ESPN ImagesShilique Calhoun learned a valuable lesson early in life about how important it is to smile, make people laugh and lift people up instead of tearing them down.
"If someone's having a bad day, if someone's not feeling too good, he could put a smile on their face," Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said. "Anytime you have a guy like that in the locker room, [it's] just cause for a good time."

At media days, Calhoun insisted he knew how to tie his own bow tie. His mother said the attire was her idea, and that her 14-year-old son, Kaymar, is already a bow tie expert.

Calhoun joked that he grew up in a gated community. When asked later if he planned on making T-shirts boasting his defensive line's mantra -- "A.W.O.L.," or Animal Without A Leash -- he cracked that he is broke.

Reminded of the former comment about his upbringing, the ever-persuasive Calhoun -- in a manner only he could seemingly pull off -- rationalized that he cannot stay rich if he spends his money.

The 6-foot-4 Calhoun has filled out considerably as he enters Year 4 with the Spartans, from 218 pounds as a freshman to 256 now. On a white wall back home, his mother has a framed photo from each of his first three college seasons lined up from left to right, above his locker room nameplate from the Rose Bowl. Guests often remark about how much he has changed, and how quickly.

From a hoops-loving kid who didn't know a Spartan from a Wolverine, to the best player on the reigning Big Ten champion, Calhoun has grown into his personality and physique, now on the brink of fulfilling that fateful NFL dream all those years ago.

Big Ten bowl projections: Preseason

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
5:00
PM ET
You saw our predictions on the conference standings. And our picks for Big Ten defensive player of the year, offensive player of the year, freshman of the year and coach of the year.

But perhaps the most important prediction -- and the one that could cause some more debate -- involves the bowl games. Instead of giving our individual picks for this, we combined our thoughts and butted heads to form a consensus.

We predicted that 10 of the Big Ten's 14 teams will make bowls this season, which isn't too shabby for the conference considering Penn State is still facing a postseason ban. So only Illinois, Purdue and Rutgers were left out in the cold.

Without further ado, here are our Big Ten bowl picks:

College Football Playoff semifinal: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/Cotton: Ohio State
Capital One: Iowa
Outback: Nebraska
National University Holiday Bowl: Wisconsin
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Michigan
San Francisco: Northwestern
New Era Pinstripe: Maryland
Quick Lane: Minnesota
Heart of Dallas: Indiana
Focus only on the position of choice and the conference looks the same as it ever did.

While quarterbacks across the nation are putting up crazy numbers like pinball machines and spread offenses are letting wide receivers run wild and rack up yardage, that tradition-loving, old-school Big Ten appears downright antiquated with its continued emphasis on running backs carrying the load.

But look closer.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cobb
AP Photo/Andy Clayton-KingMinnesota's David Cobb says every team in the Big Ten needs a good running back to win league games.
Sure, the league remains plenty happy to hand the football off and wait for the dirt to start flying. But the days of expecting 3 yards a pop are long gone, replaced with an expectation now that a featured rusher better be close to doubling that. And instead of a cloud of dust, there had better be a trail of it if a Big Ten tailback is going to keep his job for long.

The evolution of offenses may not have done much to change the face of the most productive players in the conference. But when there are so many game-breakers in Big Ten backfields, there's really not much incentive to shift the focus away from them in the first place.

"This a running back-heavy league, and you need a good running back, an every-down back to get through the Big Ten," Minnesota senior David Cobb said. "And in this league, there's a good running back on every team."

The conference has never really been in short supply of rushers, but the ground game looks particularly fertile this season with so many talented tailbacks returning as the focal point on offense.

The conversation about the league's best typically revolves around Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, the top two returners in the league and the odds-on favorites to claim offensive player of the year honors while leading teams aiming for the conference title. They're also close friends who admit to some good-natured trash talk that comes from paying attention to the league's yardage leader board, but both know it might not be safe to just measure themselves against each other this fall.

Michigan State's Jeremy Langford somehow largely flew under the radar last season despite piling up more than 1,400 yards and leading the Big Ten in rushing touchdowns with 18.

Cobb will be getting no shortage of carries in Minnesota's power rushing attack, and indications out of training camp suggest he's even better than he was while gaining 1,202 yards as a junior.

Despite playing in a spread system, Indiana's Tevin Coleman offered a reminder of the importance of balancing out a passing attack with a productive rusher, with his explosiveness in averaging more than 7 yards per carry driving the point home. Josh Ferguson does the same for Illinois, complementing his 5.5 yards per carry with 50 receptions for 535 yards and 4 touchdowns as a target in the passing game. Iowa's Mark Weisman came up just short of the 1,000-yard milestone last year, but he's playing behind perhaps the best set of blockers in the conference this fall and should be poised to capitalize on those huge holes opened by left tackle Brandon Scherff and his buddies.

Even at schools with unsettled depth charts at the top there's little reason to panic. Carlos Hyde is gone at Ohio State, but it has a stable loaded with both veterans like Rod Smith and youngsters like presumptive starter Ezekiel Elliott poised to take over. Michigan struggled to move the football on the ground a year ago, but Derrick Green looks ready to live up to his billing as one of the top recruits in the 2013 class as he moves into a likely starting role.

And if all that depth makes winning the rushing crown a bit tougher this fall for Gordon or Abdullah, they certainly aren't worried about a little competition. In the Big Ten, that's long been a source of pride.

"Definitely, you can look at every team," Abdullah said. "You just go down the line, and the running back position in this league is really deep. It's going to be good competition for this year statistically. I feel like it gets overshadowed a little bit. You throw in T.J. Yeldon [at Alabama], [Georgia's Todd] Gurley, guys who play for those SEC teams or maybe the Pac-12 guys and we get overshadowed a little bit. But all we can do is show up to work every Saturday and prove our case."

Abdullah and Gordon are expected to build the strongest of them, and they may emerge as the Big Ten's best hopes for a Heisman Trophy now that Braxton Miller is out of the picture with a season-ending shoulder surgery.

But even if the Ohio State senior had been around this season, the quarterback might have had a hard time stealing some attention during what's shaping up as a callback to the league's tradition with one more Year of the Running Back.

"The Big Ten, we're known for running the ball, and when you can take pressure off the quarterback by giving the rock to the running back, that's a good feeling," Gordon said. "And we've got a lot of good running backs in the Big Ten -- it's not just me and Ameer.

"I think there are some other guys that need some praise as well. There are some good backs we have in this conference, and they'll be heard sooner or later."

There's still plenty of opportunities to make a little noise as a tailback in the Big Ten. And the league has a long list of guys ready to make some racket.

Big Ten Week 1 predictions

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
9:00
AM ET
Week 1 is finally here. While there aren't many marquee matchups in the opening weekend, there are a few that have our writers talking.

Game of the Week: Wisconsin vs. LSU

Our writers all picked LSU to beat Wisconsin, but some had a harder time with the pick than others.

Brian Bennett: Wisconsin has a real chance here at the upset. Week 1 is definitely the time to catch LSU this season, as the Tigers will be breaking in a slew of new players and have some major question marks at quarterback. Of course, you could say those same things about the Badgers, who will be counting on basically a brand-new defensive front seven, several unproven receivers and a new starting QB in Tanner McEvoy. Wisconsin's running game is the great equalizer, especially if that ground attack shortens the game and springs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement for big plays. Asking either side to play mistake-free is a bit much for an opener involving so many fresh faces. In the end, LSU has more explosiveness to overcome its errors and exploit Wisconsin's, so the Tigers win by a touchdown.

Austin Ward: Openers can be sloppy enough on their own, let alone debuts with uncertainty at quarterback and the expectation that two guys will be needed to fill that critical role. Both teams have some questions under center, but it seems much more dangerous to be unsettled and unproven when taking on a loaded defense such as LSU's. Wisconsin has running backs Gordon and Clement lining up behind a veteran offensive line to provide a rushing attack to lean on, but if it becomes a one-dimensional offense against the Tigers, aggressive defensive coordinator John Chavis will turn his athletic, physical unit loose and there will be no escape in Houston.

Majority opinion: Penn State over UCF
This was the only game our writers disagreed on. Austin Ward, Mitch Sherman and Adam Rittenberg liked the Nittany Lions, while Brian Bennett and Josh Moyer took the Knights.

Josh Moyer: The Nittany Lions have too many question marks -– and too much that still needs to improve -– to be favored right now. What’s Penn State’s main weakness? The offensive line. So what’s one thing it's going to count on to offset that? The passing game. Well, Central Florida’s secondary has a chance to be elite. And overall, UCF might boast the best defense in the AAC. On the other side of the ball, the Knights may be without quarterback Blake Bortles this season, but they still have a loaded receiving corps with J.J. Worton, Rannell Hall and Breshad Perriman. Penn State's secondary, especially the corner spot opposite Jordan Lucas, could struggle against this kind of offense. PSU hangs tough but falls in the end 28-20.

Adam Rittenberg: The oddities surrounding this game favor Penn State, which is tougher to prepare for with a new coaching staff. UCF's veteran defensive line and George O'Leary's play-calling prowess worry me, but I see PSU exploiting some matchup advantages (Jesse James vs. anybody) with a superior quarterback and hitting on some big plays. Expect improvement on Penn State's defense, which limits a UCF offense missing Bortles and Storm Johnson.

It's unanimous
Our writers agreed on the following:

Minnesota over Eastern Illinois
Washington State over Rutgers
Michigan State over Jacksonville State
Indiana over Indiana State
Iowa over Northern Iowa
Michigan over Appalachian State
Purdue over Western Michigan
Ohio State over Navy
Illinois over Youngstown State
Maryland over James Madison
Northwestern over Cal
Nebraska over FAU
LSU over Wisconsin

Mitch Sherman: Not much else of great intrigue on the opening-week schedule, but Ohio State-Navy is worth a look, with the attention swirling around the debut of Buckeyes freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett. The Midshipmen are no pushover, but the Buckeyes own enough of an edge in athleticism to take care of business. Because of its strange offseason, Northwestern is interesting, even against Cal, which was dismal last season. And for entertainment value, Rutgers’ Big Ten debut Thursday night against Washington State may rank high. The Scarlet Knights need to limit the Cougars' possessions and get off the field on third down -- or watch Wazzu quarterback Connor Halliday light them up with 65 to 70 pass attempts.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The challenge was always clear, and Urban Meyer offered one final reminder of its importance to his offensive line on the practice field. But it still remains a bit of a mystery who exactly will be on that unit and embracing the opportunity to protect the precious cargo in the backfield just three days shy of Ohio State’s opener.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Decker
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteTaylor Decker is the only full-time starting offensive lineman returning this season for Ohio State.
It appears at least two position battles remain unsettled on the offensive line for the Buckeyes based on the depth chart Meyer released on Wednesday afternoon. Picking starters from a talented pool of options at left guard and center might not have been quite as big of a deal two weeks ago with Braxton Miller around to help make up for a few mistakes or a lack of chemistry up front thanks to his innate ability to escape from pressure. But the Buckeyes don’t have the senior quarterback around to get them out of jams anymore, and with J.T. Barrett making his first start, it seems less than ideal not to have five established blockers in front of him on Saturday against Navy, even if Meyer himself isn’t concerned.

“[Competition] is great,” Meyer said on Monday. “If you have bad players, then it’s a problem. If you have really good players and they’re just battling, battling, battling, that’s kind of normal at this time of year.”

Those battles started in March, and now they’re on the brink of spilling over into September with neither Billy Price nor Joel Hale pulling ahead at left guard or Jacoby Boren or Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay solidifying themselves as the anchor in the middle.

The Buckeyes only have one full-time starter returning on the line in the first place, and even with Taylor Decker back at tackle, he’ll be playing in a different spot after lining up on the right side last year. But there continues to be no panic from within the Ohio State camp heading into the opener despite trotting out so many new faces who will be entrusted with keeping a redshirt freshman quarterback protected as well as opening holes for a new starting running back.

“I’m not at all concerned with it because I’ve seen how everybody who has been in there has performed through practice,” Decker said. “When coach knows, he’ll know and he’ll put forth who is going to be the starters. I have no concern at all, because I know whoever is going to be in there is going to get it done.

“There’s one thing, we’re going to have to develop some cohesiveness once we know who is where. But there’s just been high energy [in practice] because there are guys competing for spots. High energy, up tempo, everybody is going hard. That’s going to help prepare us well for games.”

The first of them is finally here, but it’s still hard to tell exactly who is going to be where in front of Barrett. But no matter who winds up on the field for the Buckeyes, there’s no uncertainty about the top responsibility for staying there.

“Braxton made a lot of bad plays right with his athleticism,” Meyer said. “J.T. certainly has the ability to do that as well, maybe not as dynamic as Braxton, but everybody just has to go a little bit harder, be that much more sound and step up and protect our guy.

“They’ve stepped up very well. It’s a very good group of players, very good group of people.”

The issue for Ohio State continues to be figuring out the best way to arrange them.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Just after warm-ups with the team, right before heading back out to the field for kickoff, that’s when J.T. Barrett really shined.

Obviously the quarterback was no slouch on the field, and his individual numbers and piles of wins while leading Rider High School in Wichita Falls, Texas, were what really drew the spotlight on him as he emerged into a recruit worth chasing for Ohio State.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteThe Buckeyes say they think J.T. Barrett can be more than just a vocal leader this season.
But in the privacy of a locker room, or in the huddle, or while gathering up teammates on the sideline to rally the troops for a comeback, that’s where Barrett made his biggest impression. The new starter for the Buckeyes has always had an accurate arm, enough mobility to make life tough for defenders on the ground and a burning desire to compete. But for Barrett, everything seems to start with his voice.

“It was always the pregame speech,” said Jim Garfield, Barrett's coach at Rider. “We would always come in before warmups and J.T. would have free rein. Really I can’t focus on just one that stands out, because it was throughout his career, and he was doing that for us since his sophomore year.

“Everything he says was like gold.”

The Buckeyes will likely need more than just a golden voice to replace two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller. But as far as first impressions go, Barrett may have a head start thanks to his confidence as a speaker and a knack for motivating his teammates.

While the Buckeyes haven’t yet heard him in a game or seen what he can do on the field for a team with College Football Playoff aspirations, they’ve had the better part of a year to get used to him in Miller’s place on the practice field and also had plenty of time during his redshirt season to learn how Barrett carries himself. And to a man, the entire program has come away raving about his leadership skills, maturity -- and when it’s time to stop talking, his physical tools.

“He’s got a great voice in the huddle,” left tackle Taylor Decker said. “He’ll pick guys up and he just displays confidence in himself, which is good to see.

“He’s become the face of our program, basically overnight. He’s definitely coming along with that voice, that leadership role, which is good to see. But other than that, he’s always gone about his business and handled himself well. I’m not worried about that at all. ... There’s just something about him.”

That realization may not come for everybody around Barrett at exactly the same time, but the opinion might as well be universally shared ahead of his first start on Saturday against Navy.

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has long praised Barrett’s work ethic, but his interest on the recruiting trail was really piqued by the consistent feedback he received about his desire to compete against the best competition. That’s been reinforced by the way he dove into what was initially a battle to back up Miller, which he won over Cardale Jones just two days before a season-ending injury earned him a promotion to the top gig.

Wide receiver Evan Spencer pointed to Barrett’s ability to motivate, stressing that Ohio State would be “way more than all right” after hearing him boost up the offense with his encouragement during rough patches in training camp.

And while Garfield was sold early on, his belief was truly cemented during Barrett’s junior year when Rider was facing its own adversity as it trailed Abilene Cooper 28-0 in the third quarter.

“We ended up winning it, and it was because of J.T.’s motivation,” Garfield said. “He called the guys up and in his words, he just basically said we’ve got to get this done. He had everybody up, everybody’s attention -- I’m talking like defensive linemen and things like that. Everybody was drawn to him.

“When he started to speak, everybody sat up and listened.”

Barrett has a new audience now, and the Buckeyes are all ears.

Big Ten fearless predictions

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
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With the season just days away, our Big Ten reporters offer up their bold predictions for the 2014 season:

Brian Bennett: Minnesota wins back a long-lost trophy
The Gophers have won the Little Brown Jug game against Michigan only once (2005) since 1986 and have lost 10 straight Paul Bunyan's Axe games to Wisconsin. Jerry Kill's team reverses one of those trends this season, even though both games are on the road. Watch out for the Sept. 27 game at the Big House in particular.

[+] EnlargeJesse James
MCT via Getty ImagesThanks to his freakish athletic ability and excellent opportunity, Penn State's Jesse James could be the Big Ten's best tight end this season.
Josh Moyer: Penn State's Jesse James earns All-B1G honors and is named conference tight end of the year
This is predicated on equal parts opportunity and ability. Michigan's Devin Funchess appears to be sticking outside, so that means the Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year Award will be heading elsewhere this season. Tyler Kroft (Rutgers) has tougher defenses to deal with this season, Maxx Williams (Minnesota) has a quarterback more geared toward the run and Jeff Heuerman (Ohio State) is dealing with a rookie signal-caller. But James? Well, he has one of the Big Ten's best in Christian Hackenberg, who just so happens to be looking to replace the 97 catches from Allen Robinson, who was last year's Big Ten receiver of the year before heading to the NFL. James stands 6-foot-7, runs in the 4.6s and has been lauded for his hands. Put simply, he's a freak.

Adam Rittenberg: Tevin Coleman leads the Big Ten in rushing
Coleman isn’t part of the national discussion like fellow Big Ten backs Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah, but people will know his name come November. The Indiana junior is explosive like Gordon, averaging 7.3 yards per carry last season and tying for the national lead with eight rushes of 40 yards or more, while playing in only nine games. If Coleman can stay healthy, he will put up monster numbers playing behind of the nation’s most underrated lines. He might not win Big Ten offensive player of the year honors, but he’ll be the first IU player to lead the league in rushing since Vaughn Dunbar in 1991.

Mitch Sherman: Indiana is going to make it back to a bowl game
It’s been too rare an occasion in Bloomington for football season to extend into December. The Hoosiers’ 2007 visit to the Insight Bowl marks the program’s lone postseason appearance in the past two decades. Kevin Wilson’s club possesses plenty of firepower -- led by the dynamic trio of Coleman, Nate Sudfeld and Shane Wynn -- and just enough defense to forge a .500 record. It’s no simple task to find six wins on this schedule, but Indiana will sweep the Big Ten’s new duo and beat Purdue on Nov. 29 to secure that elusive bowl bid.

Austin Ward: Half the league will have a 3,000-yard quarterback
The Big Ten might be better known for its running backs, and it certainly has had some well-documented issues recently at the game’s most important position. Even a year ago only one passer in the conference topped 3,000 yards, and Nathan Scheelhaase isn't even in the Big Ten anymore. But passing games leaguewide are poised to make a big jump, starting with Scheelhaase’s replacement at Illinois, Wes Lunt, and including Penn State’s Hackenberg, Michigan’s Devin Gardner, Indiana’s Sudfeld and Michigan State’s Connor Cook. If Iowa’s Jake Rudock continues his improvement and J.T. Barrett keeps the Ohio State attack rolling in place of Braxton Miller, at least half the Big Ten could have passers hitting that yardage milestone.
Few would describe Jim Delany as Mr. Sunshine, but the Big Ten commissioner spread some of it as a new season dawns and, with it, the playoff era in college football.

"It's what I would describe as a fresh start," Delany told ESPN.com on Monday morning. "It's going to be what happens on the field, what happens as the [playoff selection] committee evaluates teams.

"It's much more of a new day than an old day in a sense that the old polls, the old computers are things people can look at, but the tendency is going to be for the committee to look at things in a new way, in a novel way."

[+] EnlargeJim Delany
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhJim Delany on nonconference games in the playoff era: "You have a number of big games. If you do well, you're going to have people recognize you."
The new view should help the Big Ten, which needs to deliver an improved brand of football.

If the committee members let recent performance or conference perception enter their minds, the Big Ten will be in trouble. Big Ten fans hate hearing this, but when a league hasn't won a national championship since 2002 and just two Rose Bowls since 2000, its reputation takes a beating.

The playoff decision, if done right, will be about what happens from Thursday night until Selection Sunday on Dec. 7. According to college football playoff executive director Bill Hancock, committee members have been told to "discredit" potential influences like the preseason polls. Hallelujah.

"There's somewhat of a clean slate," Delany said.

It gives the Big Ten the perfect opportunity to change the narrative, beginning with this week's games. No conference needs a stronger start than the Big Ten, which not only has chances to compete with the elite (Michigan State-Oregon, Wisconsin-LSU) but several other games (Virginia Tech-Ohio State, Miami-Nebraska, Iowa-Pitt, Utah-Michigan) where it must hold serve.

The goal for the Big Ten is to perform well enough that conference games become résumé-boosters for the playoff rather than overlooked contests in an also-ran league. How many SEC teams have played weak or so-so nonleague schedules but received enough credit for their league wins to make the national title game? That's a luxury the Big Ten wants, and one that must be earned in the coming weeks.

Take the Ohio State-Michigan State game, for example. A Buckeyes win that night means a lot more if it comes against an MSU team that stunned Oregon in Eugene. A Spartans win carries more weight if it comes against an undefeated Ohio State squad that is handling Braxton Miller's absence well. If both teams struggle in nonleague play, the game likely falls off the national radar.

Unfortunately, the Big Ten lacks many premier division crossover games this season. Top West Division contenders Wisconsin and Iowa don't play Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State. Nebraska, another threat in the West, only plays Michigan State. It's why the Big Ten needs surprise teams to rise up early in the season. Then there will be more league games the committee must monitor.

Michigan beating Notre Dame and Utah could help, especially if those teams go on to good seasons. The same holds true for Penn State beating UCF, Minnesota beating TCU, Maryland handling West Virginia and Syracuse, and Rutgers and Illinois winning in Seattle (against Washington State and Washington, respectively). It's all connected.

"You only have four nonconference games, and a lot of them are against opponents you're not going to get any credit [for beating]," Delany said. "You have a number of big games. If you do well, you're going to have people recognize you. If you don't, they're going to look at those who do do well. It's important."

One early game that will get much more attention than it would have weeks ago is Saturday's meeting between Ohio State and Navy. Buckeyes redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett will make his collegiate debut, filling Miller's massive shoes.

The Miller injury sparked the standard gloom-and-doom about Ohio State's season outlook, but it also spilled over to the Big Ten. If Ohio State couldn't make the playoff, many concurred, the Big Ten was toast, too.

To that, Delany passes out SPF 15 and Ray-Bans.

"Braxton's a great player, a Heisman Trophy hopeful," he said. "Big loss for Ohio State, but to equate it to a conference is probably 'the sky is falling' -- not a lot of perspective. I can't spin it that it doesn't have an effect on Ohio State and some effect on the Big Ten, but college sports is replete with young players doing really well, whether it's [Johnny] Manziel or Jameis Winston. It's also replete with people stepping up, teams adjusting. That's the essence of sports.

"There's no assurance that if you have your team intact, you're going to win all your games. There's no assurance if you lose a player, you can't win all your games."

The possibilities are out there for the Big Ten, but to keep the dark clouds away, the league needs a strong opening statement.
The praise has flooded in from all directions for J.T. Barrett since his rapid ascension to the top of the depth chart at Ohio State.

Tight end Jeff Heuerman hailed the leadership skills of the redshirt freshman. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman rattled off Barrett's positive attributes as a passer, starting with his ability to make the right decisions and consistent accuracy that should allow them to pay off for the Buckeyes. Coach Urban Meyer focused on Barrett's potential as a "distributor," likening him to famed Ohio State backup Kenny Guiton in the process.

But there is one more comparison that has popped up during a wild week at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center that might offer another clue about how the Buckeyes might look this season without Braxton Miller running the show, one which the coaching staff mentioned to SI.com's Pete Thamel.
Barrett's smooth release and pretty spiral prompted numerous members of the Buckeyes staff who worked with Meyer at Florida to compare Barrett to former Gators QB Chris Leak. "I'll take that," Meyer said with a smile. "I'm a big Chris Leak fan."

If Barrett is Meyer's latest version of Leak, it stands to reason he might also have a need for somebody to fill the role Tim Tebow played in the two-quarterback system that won Florida a national title in 2006. And, look at that, Ohio State has a 6-foot-5, 250-pound battering ram in Cardale Jones already on the roster.

The conversation about Jones has died down considerably since he left spring practice with the backup job ahead of Barrett, but it's not hard to envision how he could still have an impact for the Buckeyes as they put together a game plan for next week's opener against Navy.

For starters, Meyer has proven adept at managing multiple quarterbacks in his spread system in the past. Even a year ago with Miller in the fold, Meyer expressed his desire to find a way to get Guiton more involved and eventually installed a package of plays in the red zone that featured his backup quarterback.

One problem with using them both more often, aside from Miller's athleticism clearly setting him apart, was Meyer's two options behind center had similar skill sets. But that isn't really the case with Barrett and Jones, with the former four inches smaller and relying on an accurate arm, and the latter boasting a powerful-but-inconsistent arm but capable of pounding away at opponents regularly on the ground.

When asked on Wednesday, Meyer didn't rule out playing both quarterbacks as he tries to replace Miller's production, though he didn't provide any insight into how that rotation might work.

But even with Meyer simply saying "sure, yeah," looking at his past and the talent on hand, it's not a stretch to think some sort of quarterback combo could be back in his playbook -- if it isn't already there.
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Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld found himself in a time-share situation at quarterback the past two seasons. No matter how well he performed -- and he finished fourth in the Big Ten in passing yards per game in 2013 -- Sudfeld never knew exactly when he might start or even play.

Throughout it all, he never complained. He saw a much bigger picture.

“It would be really hard for me, if I had a bad game or something, to get too upset,” Sudfeld said. “I understand that there are people in the world who actually have problems.”

Sudfeld’s upbringing ensured that he would never get too wrapped up in himself. He comes from a family of missionaries who actually dare to try and alleviate some of the world’s problems.

His grandfather, Bob Pagett, is a former pastor who along with his wife, Charlene, decided to create a relief organization after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. He never dreamed it would take flight the way it has.

[+] EnlargeNate Sudfeld, Bob Pagett
Courtesy of Matt SudfeldShortly after turning 14, Nate Sudfeld, left, went on a mission to Uganda and Kenya with his grandfather, Bob Pagett, back, and suddenly bad games weren't as bad. "I understand that there are people in the world who actually have problems."
That organization, Assist International, now has 19 full-time employees split between its headquarters in the San Francisco Bay area and a 25,000 square-foot distribution center outside Sudfeld’s hometown of Modesto, Calif.

Assist International focuses on needs such as providing fresh water, delivering medical supplies and serving orphans in Third World nations. Pagett said the organization has completed projects in more than 60 countries around the world. It has built orphanages and schools in Romania, Uganda and other war-torn or impoverished areas.

Along the way, it also became the family business. Sudfeld’s father, Ralph, will take over as president of the organization next year, while his mother, Michelle, serves as fundraising director. Nate’s older brother, Matt, is the director of strategic development.

Pagett told each of his nine grandchildren that they could go with him on a relief mission when they turned 14. Shortly after he reached that age, Nate Sudfeld went to Uganda and Kenya, meeting renowned missionary Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe along the way. Sudfeld recalled playing soccer with orphans during the trip.

“It’s been a life-changing experience for our grandkids,” Pagett said. “When you grow up in Modesto and all of a sudden you go to Vietnam or Romania, your eyes are wide open and you’re a world person. They’re really into helping the poor and needy around the world, because they’ve been exposed to the world.”

Sudfeld has been itching to go on another mission ever since his first one. He had planned to join his twin brothers Matt and Zach, the latter of whom is a tight end for the New York Jets, on a trip to Uganda this spring. But the itinerary got postponed, and by the time it happened this summer, he was too wrapped up in football preparations.

Sudfeld hopes there will be time after this season to go somewhere on a mission.

“It seems like almost every time I’m on the phone with him he’s saying, ‘When can I go out? When’s the next trip?” Matt Sudfeld said.

For now, though, the Hoosiers take priority, and Sudfeld is the team’s undisputed No. 1 quarterback for the first time. Tre Roberson’s surprising transfer this summer cleared the way for the 6-foot-5 junior who threw 21 touchdown passes in eight starts a year ago.

It’s also the first time that fourth-year head coach Kevin Wilson won’t have to juggle quarterbacks. He says Sudfeld has the talent to be "one of the premier players in our league" and that he has definite NFL potential.

That’s what Sudfeld has dreamed of since he was a high school freshman, when he would practice his throwing motion in front of a mirror to make sure he maintained a quick and compact release despite his height. Sudfeld said not having to look over his shoulder this season gives him more confidence, but he’s not settling for just owning the starting job.

“I’m not trying to just be the No. 1 quarterback at Indiana,” he said. “I’m trying to be one of the better players around. If I do that, it will make our whole team better.”

As he was raised to do, Sudfeld sees the bigger picture at play. And football is never all that’s on his mind.

“I’m really glad I was able to get out of my little California bubble at a young age,” he said. “[Relief work] is something I definitely want to be involved in as I get older. There’s nothing like it.”

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