NCF Nation: Big Ten Conference

Ameer Abdullah makes his way

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
12:30
PM ET
video

LINCOLN, Neb. -- When Ameer Abdullah arrived in the summer of 2011, an unheralded afterthought of a recruit, 5-foot-9 and 172 pounds soaking wet, bent on excelling in a conference loaded with bigger, heftier running backs, there were doubters. He was used to that.

People who judged him with a tape measure did so at their peril, as far as Abdullah was concerned. He found the negative feedback useful. It drove him to build his psyche, his body and his game, to try to be beyond athletic reproach.

Three years later, three games into the final season of a stellar college career, Abdullah has willed his way into the Heisman Trophy conversation. The 21-year-old from Homewood, Alabama, has shown he can grind out tough yards when needed, but he is most celebrated for his agility and elusiveness in the open field, for changes of direction that fake opposing players out of their socks, for magical spinning escapes from the clutches of would-be tacklers and afterburner accelerations into the end zone, all of which he displayed on a lightning-strike, game-winning, 58-yard pass play in the final minute two weekends ago against McNeese State.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
AP Photo/Nati HarnikAmeer Abdullah is closing in on some hallowed marks at Nebraska.
Heading into Nebraska's home game Saturday against the University of Miami -- the first time the teams have met since the national championship in January 2002 -- Abdullah is closing in on Johnny Rodgers' school record of 5,586 all-purpose yards. It was a standard few imagined he would reach, but Abdullah has always drawn his own hashmarks.

Abdullah knows there is another measuring system out there that he can't control, one in which people size him up based solely on his Muslim faith and a name that does not allow him to hide. He navigates this invisible gantlet in a variety of ways, some less obvious than others.

A couple of minutes before every opening kickoff, Abdullah finds an empty spot on the Nebraska bench and faces east, toward the compass point he was taught to find as a little boy.

"I say a little prayer before every game, wishing myself, my teammates and the opposing teammates the best of luck, asking the Lord to help us use our talents just to glorify him [and] not to be selfish or self-motivated today, just to let our talents glorify him and keep us safe from injury, to allow us to go out and show everything we've worked for the week before," he said.

Players and staff wander by as he bows his head, some seemingly oblivious, some simply giving him space. The moment goes by in a blink and is hard to catch -- like him.

This quietly declarative act is crucial to Abdullah's sense of inner consistency, his desire to keep his balance in a world that can swipe and tug at his jersey.

"That's something very big to me: Be who you are all the time," he said.

To read more about Abdullah's climb to becoming one of the best running backs in college football all while staying true to himself and his religion, click here.
One and ten. Get to know those numbers because they'll be shoved down your throat all week.

After the Big Ten's worst two-week stretch in nonconference play since, well, ever, the league sits with a 1-10 record against Power 5 teams and Notre Dame. The season looked so promising when Rutgers upset Washington State in Seattle on college football's opening night.

Since then: bupkis.

So prepare for 1-10 fever. Many of you would expect nothing else from evil ESecPN and its Big Ten-hating agenda. But 1-10 is a fact, and in a playoff-first environment where conferences will be constantly compared until Dec. 7, the Big Ten finds itself in a miserable spot.

So, you ask, is there hope for a turnaround? Sure. There's a lot of season left, and as we saw Saturday night at Boston College, anything can happen in college football. The biggest measuring-up opportunities -- Wisconsin-LSU, Michigan State-Oregon, even the Notre Dame games -- are finished, but the baby-step opportunities remain.

There are several of those for the Big Ten in Week 4. It's not the end of nonleague play, but it's the last full Saturday before conference play kicks off.

No one will confuse Missouri, Pitt, Syracuse, Utah and Miami for world beaters, although Mizzou is pretty darn good (Big Ten expansion miss?). But the Big Ten's Week 4 opponents provide chances for that 1-10 mark to look a little bit better ... or much worse.

Fans have to understand that in the playoff environment, everything is connected. Teams can be both playoff contenders and enhancers for league brethren who carry genuine playoff hopes.

For example: If Maryland beats West Virginia on Saturday, and WVU later knocks off a Big 12 heavyweight or two, Maryland suddenly carries more cache, even in subsequent defeats. If Michigan State beats Maryland later this season in College Park, the Spartans would get more playoff credit for that road win.

The problem for the Big Ten is when you lose almost all of your games against comparable conferences, your league race becomes devalued. Conference wins that could make the difference between getting into the playoff and just missing the cut aren't as impressive because of the opponent's nonleague struggles.

And don't kid yourself: it's all about the playoff now. Don't imprison yourself in a Big Ten bubble and pretend like the national race is secondary. You can still enjoy league play and all the twists and turns from now until Dec. 6 in Indianapolis. But you should ultimately judge this league on whether it's in or out on Selection Sunday. Some of you will disagree, but expecting less than the best is part of the reason why the Big Ten finds itself in this position.

That brings us to Week 4. On paper, it should be a better week for the Big Ten, but the last two weeks have shown us nothing is guaranteed.

Nebraska will beat Miami in Lincoln if it plays like it did Saturday night at Fresno State. But if the Huskers revert to McNeese State form against a Hurricanes team that never lacks talent, things could turn sour for one of the Big Ten's last two remaining unbeatens.

Michigan also gets its Power 5 foe at home, where it has been 11-0 in nonconference games under Brady Hoke (21-2 overall). But Utah leads the nation in sacks per game (5.5) and is tied for first in tackles for loss (10.5 per game), which could be a problem for a still-shaky Michigan offensive line.

Other than Rutgers, Big Ten teams have been dreadful in nonleague road games against the Power 5 -- not just losing but losing big (average margin of defeat: 24.5 points). This week, Iowa travels to Pitt, Indiana travels to Missouri and Maryland visits Syracuse.

Pitt is off to a very good start behind bruising back James Conner, while Iowa hasn't played particularly well in any of its three games. Indiana just lost to an undermanned Bowling Green team on the road, as the Falcons ran 115 plays and racked up 39 first downs. Maryland and Syracuse look fairly comparable, but Syracuse comes off an impressive win at Central Michigan, while Maryland surrendered 694 yards in the West Virginia loss.

A 4-1 or a 5-0 record in these games won't transform the national narrative about the Big Ten. But it will keep the league out of the crosshairs. After all, 6-10 sounds a lot better than 1-10.

But another bad day -- 1-4 or 0-5 -- would make the Big Ten's playoff path even trickier. And the way this season is going, expect the worst.

The Big Ten can't repair its reputation in Week 4, but it can begin the patching-up process and take some baby steps toward respectability.
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Christian Hackenberg flexed like a prizefighter at midfield, tilted his head back and let out a scream as his sideline erupted into smiles and chest-bumps.

Penn State’s quarterback had just transformed Saturday night from a potentially historic one for Rutgers -- what could have been its first win in its first-ever Big Ten game -- into a footnote of his own, by leading his fourth career game-winning drive in a 13-10 win. His teammates couldn’t hide their relief or delight, either: Defensive end Deion Barnes turned to the crowd and waved good-bye, wideout DaeSean Hamilton flung his gloves into the front row, and linebacker Brandon Bell leaped around with a grin.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Jim O'Connor/USA TODAY SportsChristian Hackenberg led Penn State's late comeback win against Rutgers.
Maybe this is a rivalry; maybe not. But don’t say this wasn’t a big game -- and don’t think players didn’t take some things personally from this past week.

"I just felt they didn’t respect us," Bell, a New Jersey native, said matter-of-factly.

Added PSU tailback Bill Belton, also from New Jersey: "They asked for a big-time game, and they got one."

This was Rutgers’ chance at respect, for showing up that team from Pennsylvania and proving wrong the opposing fans who sneered at their (lack of) tradition. The importance of this game can’t be minimized; Rutgers wideout Leonte Carroo told the Asbury Park Press a win could "change New Jersey and Rutgers football forever."

Instead, the contest sold out in record time, but question marks are now swirling around whether quarterback Gary Nova should remain the starter after throwing five interceptions. Instead, the crowd set the school’s attendance record, but lingering Rutgers fans were forced to hear "We Are … Penn State!" chants after the final whistle. Instead of putting Rutgers atop the Big Ten East and halfway to bowl-eligibility, it’s more of the same for a team that boasts the hardest schedule in the conference.

"This hurts. It should hurt," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. "But I will not allow them to be defined by their losses."

Bass from the loudspeakers thumped so hard you couldn’t feel your own heartbeat, and the pageantry surrounding High Point Solutions Stadium served as the tinsel to what could have been an unprecedented Rutgers victory. One large, stenciled sign read, "Enemies of the State" and listed all the New Jersey natives on Penn State’s roster. (Bell said word of the sign made its way around the locker room before the game.) And Penn State coach James Franklin added that Rutgers fans greeted the Nittany Lions’ buses by waving their middle fingers.

There were plenty of similar ingredients here for a future rivalry -- disrespect, a close game, proximity -- but both teams walked off the field with completely different mindsets. Flood referred to this loss as "devastating," and Franklin summed everything up by saying he felt "really, really proud."

This could have been a dream start for Rutgers but, instead, it’s a dream one for Penn State. Several thousand PSU fans spilled into the street last Monday, some crowd-surfing on mattresses, after the NCAA announced this team was once again postseason-eligible. Now it’s nearly on the cusp of a bowl berth.

The Nittany Lions are playing for more than just dignity now, and Hackenberg and these Lions now stand -- improbably -- atop the Big Ten East. They are the only undefeated team in their division and just one of two undefeated teams left in the conference (Nebraska). If it wasn’t for that final touchdown against Rutgers, all that could have been flipped upside down. And Hackenberg and these Lions knew it.

Hackenberg seemed to exorcise all that emotion and those "what-ifs" with that one, long yell on the field. Once he reached the postgame media room, his demeanor had already reverted back to its normal, calm self. He spoke as if the game had ended days before; he didn't even so much as grin while recounting his game-winning drive that came about 30 minutes prior.

You ever take time to enjoy these wins, Christian? It seems like you always just talk about how you guys have a long way to go.

"It’s just one of those things, man. We do," he said, stone-faced. "Looking at that film after a win feels a lot better than looking back on that film after a loss. ...

"This is huge because a win’s a win’s a win. We’re 3-0 right now, and we’re confident. We haven’t played our best ball yet."

Big Ten bowl projections: Week 3

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
8:00
PM ET
The major development in this week's bowl projections isn't that the Big Ten suddenly looks poised for a breakthrough postseason. If anything, things went from bad to worse for the league in Week 3 with a 3-6 record in nonconference games.

So what changed? Penn State is back. For good.

Not only did the Lions improve to 3-0 under new coach James Franklin, but they learned Monday that they once again are eligible for bowl games after two seasons of sanctions. So for the first time since the 2011 season, Penn State appears in the bowl projections. While the Lions have a lot to fix, especially on offense, they're a young, talented team that should improve throughout the season. They've posted two of the better wins (UCF and Rutgers) of any Big Ten team so far, and we like their potential to keep racking up W's.

Penn State is slotted for the Capital One Bowl, which knocks several teams down a peg. There's some shuffling at the bottom of the projections as Minnesota tumbles following its blowout loss at TCU, and Indiana falls out of the rankings entirely after an all-too-familiar-looking defeat at Bowling Green.

We continue to keep two teams in the major bowls as Ohio State rebounded nicely from the Virginia Tech loss to crush Kent State.

To the projections ...

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

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 3

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
9:00
AM ET
Recognizing the best and brightest from Week 3 in the Big Ten:
  • Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: A week after Barrett's tough night against Virginia Tech, the redshirt freshman bounced back in a big way. He completed 23 of 30 passes for 312 yards and a school-record tying six touchdowns (with one interception, off a tipped ball) in the Buckeyes' 66-0 laugher over Kent State.
  • Michigan RB Derrick Green: The Wolverines struggled with Miami (Ohio) for more than two quarters, but Green's hard running helped salt the game away. The sophomore finished with 22 carries for 137 yards and two touchdowns in Michigan's 34-10 victory.
  • Penn State DT Anthony Zettel: Perhaps the early frontrunner for Big Ten defensive player of the year, Zettel was terrific yet again in the Nittany Lions' 13-10 win over Rutgers. He led the defensive charge with three tackles for loss and a sack while helping control the line of scrimmage. "We couldn't handle him in the second half," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said.
  • Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: It wasn't easy most of the night for the Nittany Lions' sophomore signal caller. He was harassed under a heavy pass rush, and Penn State didn't score a touchdown for the first 58:47. But Hackenberg proved he's the king of clutch among current Big Ten quarterbacks by leading a two-minute drill that led to Bill Belton's game-winning touchdown. Hackenberg finished 25-of-44 for 309 yards and an interception.
  • Nebraska WR De'Mornay Pierson-El: The true freshman accumulated 136 yards on a pair of punt returns in the first half of the Huskers' 55-19 road win over Fresno State. Included was an 86-yarder for a touchdown, the longest ever by a Nebraska freshman. Pierson-El fills a key area of need for Nebraska, which amassed 70 yards all of last season on punt returns, averaging 3.04 yards on 23 returns to rank 121st nationally.
Another rough Saturday for the Big Ten, with just three wins in nine nonconference games. Here's what we learned:
    [+] EnlargeCole Netten
    Charlie Neibergall/Associated PressGiven a mulligan by Kirk Ferentz, Cole Netten nailed a last-second field goal to give Iowa State a win over Iowa.
  • Kirk Ferentz won’t soon live down that decision to call a timeout: Didn’t coaches learn long ago that if they want to ice the kicker with a timeout, call it before the snap so as to avoid the painful situation that bit Iowa in its 20-17 home loss to Iowa State? Ferentz signaled timeout just in time to negate Cole Netten's miss wide left from 42 yards with seconds to play. Thanks for the practice kick, Coach. Netten nailed it the second time. “We had one timeout left,” Ferentz said, “and that’s the reason I called it.” Not a good enough reason.
  • It doesn’t pay to be unbeaten in the Big Ten: Eight league teams began Saturday with perfect records. By early Sunday, it was two: Nebraska, which easily handled Fresno State 55-19, and Penn State, with a 13-10 win over Rutgers in a game that guaranteed the league an unbeaten team for one more week. Meanwhile, down went Maryland and Indiana, on last-second scores by West Virginia (40-37) and Bowling Green (45-42) in early games. Then down went the Hawkeyes, along with Minnesota and Illinois, which were blown out on the road by TCU (30-7) and Washington (44-19) after both West Division squads opened with consecutive home wins over non-Power 5 programs.
  • Ohio State has plenty of gas left in the tank: Left for dead by many after its 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech, Urban Meyer’s club produced an impressive 66-0 win over Kent State. Forget that the Hokies turned around and lost to East Carolina. And forget the opponent. (Kent State is not good.) The Buckeyes were playing against themselves. They answered the doubters, jumping to a 45-0 halftime lead behind five TD passes from J.T. Barrett in the opening 30 minutes. OSU’s young quarterback and offensive line needed this, and the schedule stays manageable for a while.
  • Penn State continues to live a charmed life: The Nittany Lions, after winning in Week 1 on a game-ending field goal and beating the Icelandic volcano eruption to get back home, led for all of 73 seconds on Saturday in spoiling Rutgers’ Big Ten debut. In its first game since getting its bowl eligibility restored, Penn State created some of its own good fortune with five interceptions of Gary Nova, and Christian Hackenberg was his usual late-game self in leading a six-play, 80-yard drive for the winning points. The Nittany Lions likely will enter October at 5-0 and need to be taken seriously as an East Division contender.
  • Nebraska starts to emerge in West: Shaky starts by Wisconsin and Iowa leave the Cornhuskers as the best-looking team in the division. But with visions still fresh of their escape against McNeese State, questions linger. Nebraska pounded Fresno State on the road Saturday night, ending the Bulldogs’ 13-game home winning streak. A nice showing, powered by a handful of big plays, but the offensive consistency was lacking, especially in the first half. Randy Gregory’s return at defensive end made a difference. The competition level rises with a visit from Miami in Week 4 and a trip to Michigan State looming. Time to learn a lot more about these Huskers.
Another rough Saturday for the Big Ten, with just three wins in nine nonconference games. Here's what we learned:
    [+] EnlargeCole Netten
    Charlie Neibergall/Associated PressGiven a mulligan by Kirk Ferentz, Cole Netten nailed a last-second field goal to give Iowa State a win over Iowa.
  • Kirk Ferentz won’t soon live down that decision to call a timeout: Didn’t coaches learn long ago that if they want to ice the kicker with a timeout, call it before the snap so as to avoid the painful situation that bit Iowa in its 20-17 home loss to Iowa State? Ferentz signaled timeout just in time to negate Cole Netten's miss wide left from 42 yards with seconds to play. Thanks for the practice kick, Coach. Netten nailed it the second time. “We had one timeout left,” Ferentz said, “and that’s the reason I called it.” Not a good enough reason.
  • It doesn’t pay to be unbeaten in the Big Ten: Eight league teams began Saturday with perfect records. By early Sunday, it was two: Nebraska, which easily handled Fresno State 55-19, and Penn State, with a 13-10 win over Rutgers in a game that guaranteed the league an unbeaten team for one more week. Meanwhile, down went Maryland and Indiana, on last-second scores by West Virginia (40-37) and Bowling Green (45-42) in early games. Then down went the Hawkeyes, along with Minnesota and Illinois, which were blown out on the road by TCU (30-7) and Washington (44-19) after both West Division squads opened with consecutive home wins over non-Power 5 programs.
  • Ohio State has plenty of gas left in the tank: Left for dead by many after its 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech, Urban Meyer’s club produced an impressive 66-0 win over Kent State. Forget that the Hokies turned around and lost to East Carolina. And forget the opponent. (Kent State is not good.) The Buckeyes were playing against themselves. They answered the doubters, jumping to a 45-0 halftime lead behind five TD passes from J.T. Barrett in the opening 30 minutes. OSU’s young quarterback and offensive line needed this, and the schedule stays manageable for a while.
  • Penn State continues to live a charmed life: The Nittany Lions, after winning in Week 1 on a game-ending field goal and beating the Icelandic volcano eruption to get back home, led for all of 73 seconds on Saturday in spoiling Rutgers’ Big Ten debut. In its first game since getting its bowl eligibility restored, Penn State created some of its own good fortune with five interceptions of Gary Nova, and Christian Hackenberg was his usual late-game self in leading a six-play, 80-yard drive for the winning points. The Nittany Lions likely will enter October at 5-0 and need to be taken seriously as an East Division contender.
  • Nebraska starts to emerge in West: Shaky starts by Wisconsin and Iowa leave the Cornhuskers as the best-looking team in the division. But with visions still fresh of their escape against McNeese State, questions linger. Nebraska pounded Fresno State on the road Saturday night, ending the Bulldogs’ 13-game home winning streak. A nice showing, powered by a handful of big plays, but the offensive consistency was lacking, especially in the first half. Randy Gregory’s return at defensive end made a difference. The competition level rises with a visit from Miami in Week 4 and a trip to Michigan State looming. Time to learn a lot more about these Huskers.

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 3

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
8:00
AM ET
Week 3 arrives with fresh reasons for optimism. There aren't any heavyweight tilts quite like the Week 2 night games, but there aren't many snoozers on this docket, either. And we get the start of Big Ten conference action. Huzzah!

Here's your rundown for the day (all times ET):

Noon games

[+] EnlargeClint Trickett
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsWVU QB Clint Trickett ranks No. 7 in the country in passing yards with 713.
West Virginia (1-1) at Maryland (2-0), Big Ten Network: This game is getting overlooked a bit nationally but could be a pretty good one between Eastern neighbors. West Virginia gave Alabama a solid run in the opener and should be better than it was in last year's 37-0 loss to the Terps.

Indiana (1-0) at Bowling Green (1-1), ESPNU: The Hoosiers come off their odd Week 2 bye to play their first FBS team of the year. This is the first of two straight Big Ten opponents for the Falcons, who take on Wisconsin next.

Kent State (0-2) at No. 22 Ohio State (1-1), ABC/ESPN2 mirror: The Buckeyes need to work out some kinks and let off some steam after last week's Virginia Tech loss, and this game provides that chance. Kent State has lost to Ohio (the other one, Brady Hoke) and South Alabama at home already this season.

Mid-afternoon games

Miami (Ohio) (0-2) at Michigan (1-1), 3:30 p.m., BTN: You think the Wolverines have struggled of late? The RedHawks have lost 18 straight games. If this one is even competitive, things are worse than we thought in Ann Arbor.

Iowa State (0-2) at Iowa (2-0), 3:30 p.m., ESPN: The Hawkeyes have won four of the past six in the Cy-Hawk series and face a scuffling Cyclones squad at home, although Iowa State did play Kansas State close last week. Iowa left tackle Brandon Scherff (knee) is not expected to play. (Oh, and I made it all week without mentioning this trophy. Whoops, I guess I just did. So close!)

Minnesota (2-0) at TCU (1-0), 4 p.m., Fox Sports 1: Good friends Jerry Kill and Gary Patterson square off in what should be a defensive battle. Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner is expected to play despite injuring his knee last week against Middle Tennessee.

Illinois (2-0) at Washington (2-0), 4 p.m., Fox: A rematch of the 1964 Rose Bowl or, more recently, last year's Huskies win in Soldier Field. Washington has a new coach in Chris Petersen and has had close calls with Hawaii and Eastern Washington the first two weeks. But the Illinois defense will need to make big-time improvements to give the team a shot.

Night games

Purdue (1-1) at Notre Dame (2-0), 7:30 p.m., NBC: The last scheduled meeting between these old rivals until 2020. You'd need something more than 20/20 vision to foresee a Boilers victory here.

Penn State (2-0) at Rutgers (2-0), 8 p.m., BTN: The Big Ten opener. Rutgers' first league game as a Big Ten member. Penn State's first game since learning it can make a bowl this year. Yeah, it's a big one.

Nebraska (2-0) at Fresno State (0-2), 10:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network: Expect a wild atmosphere in Fresno that may lift the Bulldogs, who have gotten blown out by USC and Utah thus far. Nebraska should prevail, but the late kickoff and road environment could conspire to keep this one interesting.

Week 3 byes: Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin

Required reading
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Noah Spence's return might have already been a week too late.

But late certainly seemed better than never.

Scheduled to be back on the field Saturday for the first time after serving a three-game suspension for testing positive for ecstasy, Spence instead will again be on the shelf after failing a drug test. And now the junior defensive end is facing an indefinite absence after breaking school and conference rules for the second time, with his parents confirming to the Columbus Dispatch that drugs are again the issue.

[+] EnlargeNoah Spence
Zach Bolinger/Icon SMIOhio State's Noah Spence has been suspended indefinitely after again violating school and conference rules.
So much for the Buckeyes getting whole again up front and finally getting a chance to prove they were worthy of the hype as the nation’s best defensive line. That debate is officially over now, and Spence’s college career could easily be over, as well.

Spence might not have had quite the same credentials as injured quarterback Braxton Miller, and he might be more replaceable than the star quarterback, considering all the depth Ohio State has at its disposal on a defensive line that was expected to provide the most ferocious pass rush in the country.

But Spence's athleticism, the incredible burst he showed flying around the edge last season on the way to eight sacks, along with the muscle and improved technique he added during the offseason, was a significant reason for all those high expectations swirling around the Ohio State defense. The Buckeyes could still be much improved on that side of the ball, but it seems a stretch to believe they could reach the sky-high expectations set out for them if Spence’s troubles force a backup permanently into his role or require a potential move back outside for tackle Adolphus Washington.

The College Football Playoff discussion had largely moved on from the Buckeyes already, and this latest setback surely won’t do much to improve the perception of the program as a contender. Miller’s injury had already dealt Ohio State a blow in that regard, leaving them without the two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and inexperienced at seemingly every spot on offense.

But now Ohio State has also lost a game and one of its most talented athletes on defense, and Spence’s absence was clearly an issue last week as the defense struggled to contain Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Brewer and was repeatedly burned on third-down situations.

"I’m sure he could have [helped]," defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. "I think the guys we had in there did their jobs well. Everyone makes mistakes, but Noah is a playmaker and you never know what plays he’s going to decide to make.

"I mean, I wouldn’t say, 'No, he wouldn’t have made a difference,' because it is Noah."

The Buckeyes are well aware of what Spence would have brought to the table. He might still wind up in the NFL at this time next year, but there’s a chance the Buckeyes won’t be getting anything else out of Spence before then.

There is nothing official yet, but at this point, never looks far more likely than later.
Northern Illinois beat Northwestern 23-15 last weekend, after which I wrote that the Huskies have the best football program in the state of Illinois.

The school's alumni group must feel that way, too, judging by this full-page ad in Friday's Chicago Tribune:


Yep, that's Northern Illinois basically taunting both the Wildcats, who like to market themselves as "Chicago's Big Ten Team" (check the reference to that in the ad), and Illinois -- while daring the Illini to play them.

Illinois is 4-0 all-time vs. the Huskies, with the most recent game occurring in 2010. There are no future scheduled meetings between the teams.

Playing an in-state team would have generated a lot more interest than the Illini's first two nonconference games this season, vs. Youngstown State and Western Kentucky. Yet there is very little if any upside to scheduling Northern Illinois -- which also beat Iowa last year and has won 48 games since the start of 2010 -- for any Big Ten team right now.

And the school in DeKalb knows that, which is why it can taunt its Big Ten friends in a newspaper ad.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There were no intentions of trying to rewrite history, and Ohio State also wasn’t trying to make excuses.

But the conclusion was simple enough to reach that there was also no sense in denying what was obvious for the Buckeyes.

Noah Spence was clearly missed on the defensive line, and every scramble, every sack that slipped away and every third-down conversion that was picked up during Virginia Tech’s win last Saturday at Ohio Stadium only reinforced that as he served the final week of his three-game suspension.

“I’m sure he could have [helped],” defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. “I think the guys we had in there did their jobs well, everyone makes mistakes, but Noah is a playmaker and you never know what plays he’s going to decide to make.

“I mean, I wouldn’t say no, he wouldn’t have made a difference because it is Noah.”

The Buckeyes still had Bennett, Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington on the field chasing around Hokies quarterback Michael Brewer. But without the full complement of starters available through two games, the defensive line hasn’t yet had a chance to prove it’s worthy of the preseason hype that touted the unit as the most lethal in the nation.

Spence has speed, strength and the nose for the quarterback. He displayed all of that while finishing second in the Big Ten with eight sacks last season before he was suspended for testing positive for a small amount of ecstasy ahead of the Discover Orange Bowl.

His contributions surely could have come in handy a week ago.

At a minimum, Spence would have provided an additional body in the rotation, which could have kept the linemen fresher in the fourth quarter after chasing around Brewer seemingly all game long. But given his emergence last season as a sophomore and the additional time he’s had since then to continue building his body, fine-tuning his technique and learning a more aggressive defensive system, it seems highly likely he would have provided more than just a breather for his teammates.

It’s too late, though, to change the outcome against Virginia Tech, and the Buckeyes haven’t been looking for sympathy. Ohio State still has plenty of season left ahead of it, including the entire Big Ten schedule, and it could potentially climb back in the national picture now that it’s whole again up front.

“We saw a lot of strides in the spring from him, and from the time we started until the time we ended in spring practice, he made a lot of improvement,” co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. “He’s made improvement through training camp also, and I’m excited to see him get out there on game day.

“I think it’s going to be tremendous. Noah is a very talented player, fits well in our scheme, has a tremendous ability to get after the quarterback. I think it’s going to help us a lot.”

Getting a hand from Spence surely would have helped more last week against Virginia Tech than Saturday against Kent State. But either way, he’s back now and perhaps the most talented line in the country can get to work trying to prove it.
With all the attention last week focused on the ending of the Michigan-Notre Dame series, it was easy to forget that another long-running rivalry involving the Irish and the Big Ten is going on a break.

Purdue and Notre Dame will meet for the 86th time overall and the 69th straight time on Saturday in Indianapolis. Their series is tied for the fourth-longest continual rivalry in the FBS. But after this weekend, the Shillelagh Trophy goes in storage until 2020, as this game is another casualty of the Irish's ACC arrangement.

[+] EnlargeBennett Jackson, Shane Mikeskey
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsNotre Dame and Purdue will play for the 86th time overall and the 69th straight time on Saturday.
The Notre Dame series means much more to Purdue than it does to Michigan, as it's an in-state series that offers the Boilermakers a measuring stick most years.

"It's big for a lot of reasons," Purdue head coach Darrell Hazell told ESPN.com this summer. "This has been a rivalry that's gone on for a long time, and it has helped elevate what people think about this game. It's such a healthy rivalry, in the state with two really good programs. It’s unfortunate that it’s going to go away for a few years."

If the series won't be missed much by those outside of the Hoosier State, that's due in large part to its recent one-sidedness. Notre Dame has won six straight over its counterparts from West Lafayette, and after Purdue's 38-17 home loss to Central Michigan last week, the Irish are enormous favorites this time around as well.

But don't underestimate how the heat of a rivalry can light up the Boilers. Two years ago, a mediocre Danny Hope-coached team lost by only three points in South Bend. Last year, in the midst of a miserable 1-11 first season under Hazell, Purdue fired all its bullets in leading 10-3 at halftime before eventually falling just 31-24 at home. It was far and away the team's best performance of the year.

Hazell said he expects a great energy level from his players when they take the field at Lucas Oil Stadium. Earlier this week, he showed them highlights of the best plays in the history of the series. The message: go add yourselves to that reel.

"I think we can go win this game with the mentality that no one expects us to win," Hazell said.

Still, the Boilermakers have many issues to overcome, including a major talent gap and a hot Irish team that just destroyed Michigan. And now you can add the quarterback position to that list. Hazell pulled starter Danny Etling in the second half of the Central Michigan game for Austin Appleby and reopened the competition this week in practice. As of Wednesday night, he had not named a starter.

"They've got to just relax," Hazell said. "They're putting way too much pressure on themselves and are too uptight. They've just got to go out there, go through their reads and cut the ball loose. Stop making the game more than it is."

There's no question that Purdue sees this week's game as more than just another one on the schedule. The Boilers must give it their best shot, because they won't get another chance at the Irish for a while.
Our crew of Big Ten reporters will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. They'll have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.

Saturday brings the first Big Ten conference game of the year, and it's an intriguing one as newly bowl-eligible Penn State travels to Rutgers, which will host its first-ever league game. Both teams are 2-0, too. So Today's Take Two question is: Who needs this win more?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

You know those scenes in prison movies where the protagonist has to go fight the biggest bully in the yard as soon as he arrives in order to show everyone he's not a weakling? Well, the Big Ten isn't jail, but there's some sort of metaphorical parallel here. Rutgers is the new kid on the block in the conference, and its bona fides have been in question even more than fellow newbie Maryland because of its, shall we say, mostly nondescript history.

The Scarlet Knights have a chance to make people take notice of them this Saturday. They already garnered some attention by beating Washington State on the road in the opener, and High Points Solution Stadium will be full and rocking for the Nittany Lions' visit Saturday.

Rutgers really wants to make this game a rivalry, and going 2-22 all time against Penn State before this week doesn't really bring that about. Scarlet Knights coach Kyle Flood is trying to stir the pot by referring to Penn State simply as "that school in Pennsylvania," sounding a lot like his colleagues in Columbus and Ann Arbor. But in truth, his team needs to knock off the most historically dominant program in the East to make the other side see Rutgers as anything but a nuisance.

There's a big recruiting angle here, too, as Penn State and Rutgers go after many of the same players in New Jersey and the region. A win by the Scarlet Knights in front of a great atmosphere could make a big impression on teenage prospects who don't really remember the Nittany Lions' glory days anyway. Flood, to his credit, isn't downplaying this week's significance.

"First impressions in life matter," he said Tuesday. "And this is our opportunity to make a first impression in the Big Ten."

That's why Saturday's game in Piscataway is more important to the home team.

Take 2: Josh Moyer

Brian, I would've agreed with you completely on Sunday. But my mind changed on Monday, with the NCAA's announcement that Penn State could be bowl-eligible this season.

That changes the dynamic of this contest just a bit, don't you think? The excitement around this Penn State team -- and this season -- is now palpable. Students were crowd-surfing on mattresses in downtown State College as several thousand fans converged to celebrate the news. Wideout DaeSean Hamilton and tailback Akeel Lynch even led a "We are ... Penn State" chant at one point. Two years of frustration, anger and disappointment just melted into relief and gave way to pure joy virtually overnight.

A win continues all that; a loss starts to derail it. James Franklin said Monday's news meant these players have the ability to chase their dreams. Right now, that entails a good bowl and a Big Ten title. A loss puts a damper on those dreams. A win? I'm telling you, Brian, it's going to be quite a sight if PSU manages to go undefeated heading into the night-time Ohio State game.

"Before, we were playing for each other, we were playing for this community," linebacker Mike Hull said. "But now, we know that we can do a little bit more than that. And it's really cool to be able to say that."

Next season, the PSU-RU game will be more important for Rutgers. And likely the year after that. And probably the year after that. Rutgers is still establishing itself as a big-time team, and it needs prospects and recruits to see the Knights as a program on the rise. But this year? This game? With all that's happened this week, the answer has to be Penn State.

Illini look to add their 'signature'

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Illinois is 2-0, though its close-shave victories over Youngstown State and Western Kentucky at home aren't going to impress too many people.

So I asked head coach Tim Beckman this week how important it would be for his team to get a so-called signature victory this week at Washington.

"Every win for us as we're building this program is signature," Beckman said.

That's true, considering Beckman is just 8-18 in Champaign with only one Big Ten win, coming last year over 1-11 Purdue. The Illini's biggest victory to date in the Beckman era is last year's unexpected blowout of Cincinnati.

So, yeah, even though Washington is unranked and has had trouble getting by both Hawaii and Eastern Washington the past two weeks, claiming a road win over a Pac-12 team would register as something of a milestone.

"We feel like we can set an identity in this conference as well as the nation, to show we're a good football team regardless of how we played in previous years," tight end Jon Davis told ESPN.com. "I feel like this is our time to show what we can do."

Beckman's motto this week to his team is "Fight for five." He pointed out to the players that they could be just the fifth Illini team in the past 25 years to start a season 3-0.

That fight will not be an easy one, as Beckman compared the Huskies' massive offensive line to Wisconsin, a team that has bulldozed through his team's wobbly run defense. But Washington ranked 120th in the FBS in pass defense after giving up 475 passing yards and seven touchdowns to Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. last week. Those numbers have to make Wes Lunt and an improving group of Illinois receivers excited.

Illinois played Washington last year at Soldier Field in Chicago, getting within a touchdown in the fourth quarter after falling behind by 21 points. The Huskies went on to win 34-24.

"We started out a little slow in that game," Davis said. "I think we didn't understand we were capable of winning it. Going into this year, though we have some younger guys, it's up to the older guys to instill that confidence that we can get it done."

And if they do accomplish it, Illinois will have its first signature win under Beckman.

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 2

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We're only two weeks into the season, but we're taking a weekly look at how the major Big Ten individual awards races are shaping up.

All five of our Big Ten reporters are voting weekly on the races, with players receiving five points for a first-place vote, four for a second-place nod, etc. Also, we try hard to base these standings on 2014 season results only, not any preconceived notions or a player's previous track records. That's why you might see some names here you likely did not expect in the preseason.

Away we go:

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year


1. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah (five first-place votes): A unanimous pick right now, and understandably so given his game-winning catch and run vs. McNeese State. Abdullah is ranked No. 6 in the latest ESPN Heisman Watch.

2. Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: The sophomore leads the Big Ten with 773 passing yards through two games, though his 4-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio could stand to improve.

3. Illinois QB Wes Lunt: The Oklahoma State transfer has been a big hit in Champaign, especially after he threw for 456 yards last week in a win against Western Kentucky.

4. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: Coleman and the Hoosiers were off this week, so he'll look to build on his huge Week 1 performance (247 yards, two touchdowns) on Saturday at Bowling Green.

5. Michigan State QB Connor Cook: He threw for 343 yards and two scores in the loss at Oregon, though he also had two picks. Cook is completing 68.3 percent of his passes through two games.

Also receiving votes: Rutgers RB Paul JamesPaul James

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Iowa DT Louis Trinca-Pasat (1): A surprise early leader. Trinca-Pasat has four tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks as Iowa's defensive line has carried the team in two close wins.

2. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa: Bosa already has two forced fumbles, including one against Virginia Tech last weekend. Will he be even more effective when Noah Spence returns on the other side of the Buckeyes' line?

3. Penn State DT Anthony Zettel (2): Zettel is tied with Trinca-Pasat for the most tackles for loss in the league through two weeks, and he owns two quarterback sacks. The Nittany Lions' defense has done a great job of bending but not breaking.

4. Penn State LB Mike Hull (2): Hull has been the leader of the Penn State defense as expected, and he has the second-most tackles in the league, with 22.

5. Wisconsin S Michael Caputo: After registering 15 tackles in the opener against LSU, Caputo grabbed an interception last week vs. Western Illinois.

Also receiving votes: Iowa DE Drew Ott; Indiana DL Bobby Richardson; Illinois S Taylor Barton
College football, in this first season of the playoff era, has never been more split down the middle.

On one side stands the Power 5: SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC and Notre Dame. On the other, the Group of 5: AAC, MAC, Conference-USA, Sun Belt, Mountain West and other independents.

With autonomy upon us, the chasm promises to grow. And in coming years, undoubtedly, you’ll see fewer Power 5 teams go on the road to play Group of 5 schools.

This season, there are 27 such contests. Already, of the 13 played in Weeks 1 and 2, seven were decided by eight points or fewer – close shaves like Arizona 26, UTSA 23 and Colorado 41, UMass 38, which leave you to wonder why major-conference schools consider such scheduling tactics.

On Saturday, Nebraska visits Fresno State in what rates as maybe the most difficult of all to justify. Yes, it was planned back in 2008, and the Huskers got two home games from Fresno in return.

But little upside exists for Bo Pelini’s team, and the potential for trouble is high.

Most of the 27 games fit into one of two categories -- sometimes both -- to explain their inclusion on the schedule:
  • Regional significance. Oklahoma’s visit to Tulsa last week generated goodwill within the state and drew a sizeable fan following for the visitor. Other games like this include Arizona State at New Mexico, Indiana at Bowling Green, North Carolina at East Carolina, Texas A&M at SMU, TCU at SMU and Texas Tech at UTEP.
  • Recruiting. Power 5-at-Group of 5 games are often scheduled to strengthen pipelines or establish connections in talent-rich areas. This explains Louisville and Pittsburgh at Florida International, Maryland and NC State at South Florida, Mississippi State at South Alabama, Georgia Tech at Tulane, Rutgers at Navy and, to perhaps a lesser extent, Missouri at Toledo.

Washington and Oregon State both squeaked past Hawaii this month. No further details required.

That leaves 10 games: Wake Forest, a football lightweight amid the ACC, lost at Louisiana-Monroe and plays at Utah State; Virginia plays at BYU, a heavyweight amid the independents. For no good reason, Washington State went to Nevada and lost. Similarly, you’ve got Duke at Troy, Syracuse at Central Michigan, Baylor at Buffalo and the aforementioned Arizona-UTSA and Colorado-UMass perplexities.

So why does Nebraska-Fresno State stand out? Because it’s Nebraska, which outranks all of the above Power 5 schools -- aside from Oklahoma, A&M and Washington -- by a solid margin in financial resources and history.

It’s like Texas playing at Wyoming, which happened five years ago as part of another two-for-one.

Moreover, these Bulldogs, after an 0-2 start on the road, are some kind of a different animal at home. Fresno State has won 13 straight games at Bulldog Stadium, the second-longest home streak nationally.

It is 13-0 in night games over the past two years. Saturday’s kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. in California -- 9:30 on Nebraska clocks. And these trends are nothing new. From 1998 to 2013, Fresno hosted 11 BCS conference teams and won eight times.

But it’s California, I’ve heard, where Nebraska invests in recruiting. Recent visits to USC and UCLA offered great exposure. Look at a map; Fresno doesn’t register to prospects in the state’s heavily populated areas.

Pelini says the Huskers will be prepared for the trap environment, that they’ve given great consideration to the challenges of this trip. They’re practicing in Lincoln on Friday and arriving later than usual out West to stay on schedule in hopes that the odd circumstances don’t mess with the routine.

Nebraska's future schedule features home-and-home series with Miami, starting next week, Oregon, Colorado, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

Credit the Huskers for their willingness to venture off course in scheduling. But if it gets hairy on Saturday night, they should have known what to expect.

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