NCF Nation: Minnesota Gophers

Underclassmen still have until Jan. 15 to decide whether to declare for the NFL draft. But, in the meantime, we decided to take a look at those who already made their decisions public.

Here are the 11 Big Ten players (listed alphabetically) leaving early, their draft rankings and who's in line to replace them:

Penn State DE Deion Barnes, 6-foot-4, 255 pounds

2014 stats: 44 tackles, 12.5 tackles-for-loss, 6 sacks, 3 QB hurries

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: N/A

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: N/A. There are not yet any ESPN grades on him, but he’s not believed to be a top-10 defensive end. One NFL.com contributor said he could go “as early as the second day of the draft” – if he impresses at pro day or the combine.

Who’s taking over: With DE C.J. Olaniyan also entering the draft, Penn State will likely fill one spot with Garrett Sickels. The other? Former walk-on Carl Nassib and freshman Torrence Brown are the most likely candidates at this point.




Indiana RB Tevin Coleman, 6-foot, 210 pounds

2014 stats: 270 carries, 2,036 rushing yards, 7.5 ypc, 15 TDs; 25 catches, 141 yards

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 36. “Runs hard and doesn’t shy away from contact along sidelines. … Rarely tackled for loss thanks in large part to burst.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 3.

Who’s taking over: Former UAB running back Jordan Howard recently decided to transfer to Indiana, in part because of Coleman’s decision to declare early. He’ll likely be the starter. He rushed for 1,587 yards as a sophomore in 2014.




Maryland WR Stefon Diggs, 6-foot, 195 pounds

2014 stats: 62 catches, 792 yards, 5 TDs

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 78. “Zone buster that locates pockets underneath and uses speed to attack seams downfield. … Good focus and catches ball in stride.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 15.

Who’s taking over: With the graduation of Deon Long, Marcus Leak and Jacquille Veii are in line to be the top-two wideouts. The pair also could be challenged by younger players such as Levern Jacobs, Taivon Jacobs and Juwann Winfree.




Michigan WR Devin Funchess, 6-5, 235 pounds

2014 stats: 62 catches, 733 yards, 4 TDs

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 20. “Quick enough to separate from most linebackers and some safeties. ... Can extend and catch away from frame.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 4.

Who’s taking over: Amara Darboh is the obvious candidate here, since his number was most often called in Funchess’ absence. He was second in both catches (36) and yards (473).




Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon, 6-1, 207 pounds

2014 stats: 343 carries, 2,587 yards, 29 TDs, 7.5 ypc; 19 catches, 153 yards, 3 TDs

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 16. “Fearless runner that doesn’t gear down or brace for contact. … Anticipation isn’t outstanding and misses occasional seam, but that is an exception … Violent jump cuts.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 1.

Who’s taking over: Corey Clement saw considerable time the past two seasons, so he’ll be taking over as the main ball-carrier. He finished 2014 with 949 yards and 9 TDs.




Nebraska DE Randy Gregory, 6-6, 245 pounds

2014 stats: 54 tackles, 10 tackles-for-loss, 7 sacks, 16 QB hurries, 2 blocked kicks

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 5. “Above average first-step quickness, adequate bend and above average closing speed. … Best fit is 3-4 OLB … Can line up at 4-3 RDE but ideally he would add weight and get stronger first.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 3.

Who’s taking over: Former walk-on Jack Gangwish started when Gregory was injured this season, and he’ll be a senior next year. Gangwish finished with 19 tackles and four tackles-for-loss in 2014.




Rutgers TE Tyler Kroft, 6-6, 240 pounds

2014 stats: 24 catches, 269 yards, 0 TDs

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: N/A

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: N/A. Mel Kiper listed him as the fifth-best tight end prospect in October, but Kroft does not yet have a new draft grade/ranking.

Who’s taking over: Nick Arcidiacono and Matt Flanagan both played behind Kroft in 2014, so they’re next in line. Flanagan played in nine games; Arcidiacono played in 10 (and started one). They finished with just one catch apiece.




Penn State OT Donovan Smith, 6-5, 340 pounds

2014 stats: 11 starts at left tackle

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: N/A. No ESPN grades/ranks yet on Smith here, but OurLads.com’s Dan Shonka recently told us Smith would likely be a late third- or fourth-rounder.

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: N/A.

Who’s taking over: Right tackle Andrew Nelson could move over to left, meaning that junior-college signee Paris Palmer – the nation’s No. 25 overall juco player – would become the new starter on the line.




Ohio State DE Noah Spence, 6-3, 250 pounds

2014 stats: Did not play. He was suspended indefinitely after failing another drug test in September; his appeal was denied in November.

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 92. No scouting report is available, but he’s listed as an outside linebacker for the NFL draft.

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 6 (at outside linebacker).

Who’s taking over: Well, in this case, someone already took over – and that’s senior Steve Miller. So far, he has 33 tackles and 6.5 tackles-for-loss this season. But he’ll be most remembered for a pick-6 against Alabama.




Michigan State CB Trae Waynes, 6-1, 182 pounds

2014 stats: 46 tackles, 2 tackles-for-loss, 3 interceptions, 8 pass breakups, 11 deflections

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 22. “Above average field awareness. Shows strong eyes in zone coverage. … Above-average fluidity and balance with movement skills.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 1.

Who’s taking over: Safety Demetrious Cox could move to cornerback, or the position could be filled by Jermaine Edmondson, who backed up Waynes this past season. (Darian Hicks will likely reclaim his old spot at field corner.)




Minnesota TE Maxx Williams, 6-4, 250 pounds

2014 stats: 36 catches, 569 yards, 8 TDs

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: N/A. As a redshirt sophomore who recently declared, there are not yet any ESPN grades/rankings on him – but he’s right outside the top-32 overall players on at least one other analyst’s big board.

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: N/A.

Who’s taking over: With the departure of fellow TE Drew Goodger, mostly a blocker, there’ll be several new faces vying for time. Lincoln Plsek played in every game and saw the most time this season while Duke Anyanwu, who missed the year with a torn ACL, could challenge for a spot. Brandon Lingen, Nick Hart and Nate Wozniak also could factor in.
David Cobb may be known around Minnesota's campus -- a student recently stopped him for a photo before his sports management final -- but he’s mostly a forgotten man outside of Minneapolis.

When it comes to standout games, he knows most Big Ten fans think of Melvin Gordon's 408-yard performance. When it comes to memorable plays, they might even envision Ameer Abdullah's game-winning 58-yard reception. And in the realm of dizzying stats, they’ll more likely think of Tevin Coleman's 2,036 rushing yards.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cobb
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota running back David Cobb didn't get the attention of other Big Ten ball carriers but produced a record-breaking season all the same.
They usually won’t think of Cobb; he knows that. But he doesn’t mind. Actually, the Minnesota running back swears he prefers it this way.

“I’ve never been that type of person who needs that highlight or needs that spotlight on me,” Cobb said. “Having Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman and Ameer Abdullah in that same conference, I wouldn’t want it any different because it motivates me week in and week out. I wouldn’t change it for anything because this is what I’m used to.”

This isn’t feigned humility by a senior who privately stews about his lack of "SportsCenter" clips. This is someone who was raised by an Army lieutenant and has grown accustomed to being the “forgotten man” on the gridiron.

One month ago, he battled through a hamstring injury and set the Minnesota single-season record for rushing yards (1,545) against Wisconsin -- on the same afternoon Gordon broke the Big Ten rushing record. Two weeks prior, even the player whose school record Cobb broke -- Laurence Maroney -- told ESPN.com he hadn’t yet had a chance to watch Cobb. (“The way I hear people talk about him, he’s definitely a bigger back,” Maroney offered.) During Cobb’s first two seasons at Minnesota, he was buried on the depth chart and carried the pigskin just 11 times. And in high school, he received just five scholarship offers while playing for a team that won eight games in two seasons.

From high school to college, Cobb has been underestimated. But he’s also never failed to overachieve.

“I would tell you that, in my opinion, he’s better than even I thought he would be,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said.

Added Cobb: “Coming in here, I had dreams, but I never thought I would be this successful. This was in the back of my head -- but it was far, far back. I’m just blessed.”

Cobb’s surprising future was laid in 2009 on the scorched grass of Ellison (Texas) High School, where the average summer high hovers around 96 degrees. He split carries with his older brother, Daniel, as a high school underclassman and became a workhorse of sorts as an upperclassman. In his senior season opener, he rushed 27 times in regulation before his coach called his number on six straight plays to win in overtime. The final stats for Cobb that day: 33 carries, 282 yards.

That was the norm for the Killeen, Texas, native. He could wear a defense down with a smile, but colleges still didn’t pay him much mind. Not when he clocked a laser-timed 40-yard dash of 4.75 seconds at a Nike camp.

“They were wanting something better than that,” then-Ellison coach Buddy McBryde said. “But I predicted all this success when David was a sophomore -- and my prediction’s based not as much on athletic ability but his heart. Nobody is going to work harder, and nobody was faster on the field in the fourth quarter.”

To Cobb, that lack of attention in high school just created a chip on his shoulder that never left. “It made me hungry," Cobb said. “Wherever I went, I wanted to prove I was better than that five-star (prospect).”

So when he traded in the scenery of Texas cypresses for Minnesota spruces, the Gophers running back didn’t mind proving himself. Sure, he faced times of frustration. His family dutifully hopped on a plane most weekends, flew to Minneapolis and watched him ride the bench his first two seasons. Cobb wanted to give them something to watch, something to be proud of.

So he eventually found himself faced with a decision: Give up and sit back or go harder than ever before.

He didn’t need to glance at his left shoulder to know that chip was still there. He needed to prove more; he needed to outgrow everyone else’s expectations. He stayed after every practice, maybe just 15-20 minutes, to work on his cuts, and he’d visit with coaches whenever he’d find free time. He’d force himself to spend extra time in the film room, staring at the defense and reading his linemen. And he’d grunt while lifting in the weight room, replacing fat with muscle and improving his speed and stamina.

“Not playing tests how much you want it,” Cobb said. “And I wanted it.”

The first time Kill leaned on him for more than backup work -- Sept. 14, 2013 against Western Illinois -- Cobb finished with 13 carries for 82 yards and two scores. The next game, he wound up with 25 carries, 125 yards and two touchdowns. He never looked back. From that point on, he'd surpass the 100-yard rushing mark in 13 of his next 22 games. He’d break Maroney’s nine-year-old single-season rushing record. He’d become team MVP as a senior. And he’d finish the 2014 regular season within the top 10 nationally in rushing.

He did it all quietly. Unlike the trio of Abdullah, Coleman and Gordon, Cobb never made the list of Doak Walker finalists. Heck, he was even snubbed as a semifinalist. He never made first-team All-Big Ten; he was pinned as a second-teamer.

Cobb never complained. He just smiled, put his head down and continued to power his team to its most successful season in more than a decade, earning a trip to the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl to face Missouri on Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. ET on ABC. And, spotlight or not, Cobb said he wouldn’t have changed a thing.

“I probably haven’t been the most highly recruited player out of high school or the most talked about in college, but my coaches and teammates appreciate me,” Cobb said. “And that’s all that matters.”
Earlier today, we presented our All-Big Ten team. As you can imagine, there was a lot of debate between the six of us over who should make the team and who should get left off. Let's discuss some of our toughest choices and omissions:

Austin Ward: Thanks in large part to all the dirty work he was doing at the start of the year, Michael Bennett didn’t pile up the type of numbers that build a rock-solid case as an all-conference performer. But when it mattered most over the final month of the season, there probably wasn’t a defensive player in the league having a greater impact than the Ohio State senior as he made life miserable in the trenches in the most important games of the season for the Big Ten champs. Dating back to the road trip to Michigan State on Nov. 8, Bennett closed the season with 5 sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles down the stretch, looking every bit the All-American he was expected to be in the preseason.

[+] EnlargeKurtis Drummond
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsThree cornerbacks made ESPN.com's All-Big Ten team, which meant a deserving player in Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond didn't make the cut.
Brian Bennett: The toughest single position to choose was at defensive back. You may have noticed our team did not include Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond, who was named the Big Ten defensive back of the year. That's no slight against Drummond, who's an outstanding player, but we felt like we had to go with three cornerbacks, given the play of Maryland's Will Likely, Minnesota's Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Drummond's own teammate, Trae Waynes. In fact, Ohio State's Doran Grant had a strong case for inclusion as well, and we wanted to recognize what Wisconsin's Michael Caputo contributed to the league's best defense, statistically, during the regular season. Defensive back was a loaded position, and there wouldn't be much difference between the first- and second-team selections there.

Adam Rittenberg: I don't have a major beef with our selections this year, although it would have been nice to find a place for Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah on the offense. Melvin Gordon told me Wednesday that if Abdullah hadn't sustained a knee injury in early November, he also would have reached the 2,000-yard plateau. Imagine if the Big Ten had three 2,000-yard rushers in the same season. Safety wasn't the strongest position in the league this year, while cornerback turned out to be surprisingly good.

Dan Murphy: It's too bad we can't field an entire offense out of running backs because the Big Ten had almost enough of them worthy of filling out an all-conference roster. Minnesota teammates and cousins David Cobb (running back) and Damien Wilson (middle linebacker) both were left of the list after great years for a surprising Gophers team. Cobb would have made the team in most other years, and Wilson was a narrow miss. Freshman receiver Mike Dudek also deserves some recognition, but there's a good chance his name will pop up here in the next few years.

Josh Moyer: Cornerback was relatively strong this season, so we decided to go with three corners and one safety on our team. As a result, Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond was the odd man out, and he’s a player who definitely deserves some recognition. He struggled a few times this season -- missing open-field tackles against Purdue and not faring well against Ohio State -- but he was still named the Big Ten defensive back of the year. We thought Wisconsin's Michael Caputo played better, but Drummond was still solid and was a first-team All-Big Ten selection by both the coaches and media. He helped keep Michigan State’s No-Fly Zone together, while leading the team in tackles (65), interceptions (4), pass breakups (11) and pass deflections (15). He just missed the cut.

Mitch Sherman: I'm not sure we picked the right defensive lineman from Iowa. Louis Trinca-Pasat enjoyed an outstanding year, outperforming fellow tackle Carl Davis, who was more highly regarded before the season. But what about Drew Ott, the disruptive end who collected eight sacks, 12 tackles behind the line, scored a touchdown against Nebraska, forced a fumble and picked off a pass? Ott is just as deserving as Michigan State's Calhoun, though I doubt there's room for two linemen from an Iowa defense that ranked firmly in the middle of the Big Ten. So with the variety of defensive looks employed around the league, I'd take three ends and one tackle, like the coaches and media teams, inserting Ott in place of Trinca-Pasat.

B1G bowl season: News, notes & nuggets

December, 9, 2014
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Here's a look at the news and notes surrounding each Big Ten team and its respective bowl:

Ohio State (Allstate Sugar Bowl): Urban Meyer and Nick Saban met three times between 2008 and 2010, with the Tide winning the last two meetings. Meyer’s Florida Gators won, 31-20, in the first meeting. … According to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, Ohio State would be favored over Florida State -- but it would be an underdog against Alabama, Oregon, TCU, Baylor, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Auburn and Oklahoma. … Meyer is one of eight finalists for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award and one of three finalists for the Maxwell Coach of the Year. … Alabama teams that have been ranked in the top 2 of the AP poll are 5-1 in bowl games in New Orleans and boast six national championships. … Ohio State slightly trailed both Baylor and TCU in game control (No. 8) and strength of W-L (No. 6) but had the advantage in strength of schedule (No. 45). Baylor was No. 59 in that category, while TCU was No. 53.

Michigan State (Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic): The Spartans extended a school record this season with their eighth straight bowl appearance. That is the second-longest streak in the Big Ten and the 13th longest in the country. … Michigan State has won its past three bowl games -- against Georgia, TCU and Stanford -- which is also a school record. It’s also the longest active bowl winning streak in the conference. … Michigan State has made 25 bowls in its history, but it’s never been to the Cotton Bowl, which dates back to 1937. … According to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, Michigan State would’ve been favored over Florida State if it had made the playoff.

Minnesota (Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl): The Gophers last played a January bowl game in 1962, when it beat UCLA, 21-3, in the Rose Bowl. … This is Minnesota’s 17th bowl appearance, but it will be just the second time it plays in Florida. … Jerry Kill became just the second coach to guide Minnesota to three straight bowl games. (Glen Mason was the other.) … ESPN.com conducted a September poll by asking coaches: Who would you want your son to play for? Kill tied Stanford’s David Shaw for third with 7 percent of the vote.

Wisconsin (Outback Bowl): Wisconsin has now made 13 straight bowl games -- the seventh-longest streak in the country -- with the past five taking place in January. … The Badgers have played in the Outback Bowl four other times. They’ve lost the past three (to Georgia twice and to Tennessee). … If Melvin Gordon scores one more TD, he would join Barry Sanders and Kevin Smith as the only players with 2,000 yards and 30 TDs in a single season. … Gordon needs just seven rushing yards to surpass USC’s Marcus Allen (2,342 yards) and move into third on the single-season rushing list.

Nebraska (National University Holiday Bowl): This is the Huskers' 51st bowl appearance, the third most in the nation, and their seventh straight appearance. … Mike Riley was named the new head coach Dec. 4 but will not coach in the game. Interim coach Barney Cotton will. … USC and Nebraska have met four other times, including a 2006 and 2007 home-and-home series, and the Trojans hold a 3-0-1 advantage.

Iowa (TaxSlayer Bowl): Since 2001, no Big Ten team has won more bowl games or has a higher bowl winning percentage than Iowa. The Hawkeyes are 6-5 during that time. … Under Kirk Ferentz, Iowa is 4-2 against current SEC teams in bowl games. … Iowa last played in the TaxSlayer Bowl in 1983 (then known as the Gator Bowl), when it lost to Florida by a score of 14-6.

Maryland (Foster Farms Bowl): This will be the first meeting between Maryland and Stanford. … The Terrapins are the biggest underdog in the conference this postseason, as Stanford is a two-touchdown favorite. … Maryland is 11-12-2 all time in bowls but has won five of its past seven. … Maryland last appeared in San Francisco to face Oregon State in the Emerald Bowl in 2007. It lost 21-14.

Penn State (New Era Pinstripe Bowl): This is the first time the Nittany Lions will be playing in the new Yankee Stadium, but they played three times previously in the old stadium. Of course, that last trip was quite a while ago -- Penn State last played there in 1929 when it lost to NYU, 7-0. … This is Penn State’s 45th bowl game, tied for ninth most in the nation. … The Lions’ defense is one of just two that ranked in the top 10 this season in all of the following categories: rushing defense (No. 1), total defense (No. 2), scoring defense (No. 8), pass efficiency defense (No. 2) and defensive third-down conversion percentage (No. 6).

Rutgers (Quick Lane Bowl): This is the ninth bowl appearance in 10 seasons for Rutgers. Prior to the 2005 season, the Knights had played in just one bowl (1978) in school history. … Kyle Flood is the first coach in school history to lead Rutgers to a bowl in his first three seasons. … The Quick Lane is one of five new bowl games in this year’s lineup. … Player gifts for the bowl include a Fathead made in each participant’s likeness; the winner also gets a $25,000 locker room makeover.

Illinois (Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl): This is Illinois’ first bowl appearance since 2011 and the 18th in program history. Illinois’ bowl record is 8-9 overall. … The Illini are one of just two Big Ten teams with a bowl winning streak – the other is Michigan State – as Illinois won the 2010 Texas Bowl (over Baylor) and the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (over UCLA). … Tim Beckman’s squad has posted five comebacks on the year, and four wins came after trailing in the fourth quarter.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 15

December, 7, 2014
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Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 13

November, 23, 2014
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National links: What next for Florida? 

November, 17, 2014
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When an elite football program like Florida -- certainly one of the top destinations in the sport -- has a coaching vacancy, it’s always interesting to see which names surface as possible candidates.

The writing was on the wall that Will Muschamp was on his way out in Gainesvile, and the school made it official on Sunday, the day after the Gators’ late implosion in an overtime loss to South Carolina.

Immediately the rumor mill began to churn out names, like in an Associated Press story that mentioned Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez, Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy and Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze as possibilities. Insider’s Travis Haney weighed in on why it’s a top-tier job and some candidates that Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley might contact.

Will Foley look for an offensive-minded coach after defensive specialist Muschamp fell flat? Will he be willing to hire a coveted coordinator, as Muschamp was, with no head coaching experience? Might he look to the NFL ranks, or to someone like Mike Shanahan, who once served as an assistant at Florida?

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 11

November, 9, 2014
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Recognizing the brightest from Week 11 in the Big Ten:
  • Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett: The redshirt freshman didn't just play well against the No. 5 defense in the nation; he absolutely dominated. Barrett threw for 300 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. That alone probably would've earned him a helmet sticker -- but he also added another 86 yards and another two scores on the ground. He led Ohio State to touchdowns on six straight drives and scored four TDs in just the first half, as the Buckeyes posted the surprising 49-37 victory over Michigan State. Barrett played big on the Buckeyes' biggest stage yet this season; this honor was a no-brainer.
  • Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams: When Williams inevitably wins the Big Ten tight end of the year award, how many of his highlights are actually going to come from this game: His first TD? His second? His third? Or about that toe-dragging 25-yard reception? On a day in which the Gophers finished with 51 points in a 51-14 win, the most they’ve scored in the battle for the Floyd of Rosedale since 1949, Williams was the star. He finished with five catches for 46 yards and three touchdowns. All of his scores came on second downs, and he made it all look easy for the Gophers.
  • Michigan defensive end Frank Clark: Good numbers, clutch play, holding the other team to minus-9 rushing yards – that’s a pretty good route to a helmet sticker. Clark finished with seven tackles, two pass breakups, a sack and two stops in the backfield during Michigan's 10-9 victory at Northwestern. He was closing in on Wildcats quarterback Trevor Siemian when Siemian slipped on the potential game-winning two-point conversion. Clark helped ensure the U-M victory and, while linebacker Jake Ryan also turned in a solid performance, Clark’s nose for the ball on the Northwestern’s final play gives him an edge.
  • Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon: Another week, another helmet sticker for MGIII. You can’t really be surprised at this point because the Heisman hopeful tends to dominate every week. In a 34-16 victory over Purdue, he ended up with 25 carries, 205 rushing yards and a touchdown. He also added a highlight or two receiving with three catches for 44 yards and another score. His two touchdowns came when the Badgers needed them most, the first to take the lead and the second to make it a double-digit game. He’s quick, he’s explosive, and his helmet might be running out of room with all these Big Ten helmet stickers.
  • Penn State defense: Indiana never once entered the red zone during Penn State's 13-7 victory, but it’s not fair to single out just one Nittany Lion defender here because, quite frankly, no individual stuck out. Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman paced the unit with seven tackles apiece, but five other players had six tackles. And eight players had at least one stop in the backfield, with no one finishing with more than two. It was a total team effort. And it was the first time all season Indiana tailback Tevin Coleman didn’t reach the 100-yard mark. It was an impressive performance all-around. PSU’s defense finished with 10 stops in the backfield and two interceptions.

What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 11

November, 9, 2014
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Lessons learned after Week 11 in the Big Ten:

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsA clutch performance by J.T. Barrett on Saturday night helped keep Ohio State's playoff hopes alive.
1. Ohio State is king of the East and one of the B1G's two best bets for the playoff: Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones said he felt as if the College Football Playoff started Saturday. He was kind of right, but the Spartans are out, and the Buckeyes are in ... the playoff picture. Few people saw the Buckeyes' dominating 49-37 win over Michigan State coming, and that's exactly what they needed to make a statement in this playoff race. J.T. Barrett outplayed Connor Cook, Ohio State scored touchdowns on six straight drives, and there was no sad pizza eating for Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer. Margin of victory can only help the Buckeyes, and they'll need to keep playing like this to show they deserve one of the playoff's four spots. Only two Big Ten teams, one-loss Ohio State and Nebraska, are in contention for the playoff now, and they could face each other in the Big Ten title game. Of course ...

2. ... The Wild West still remains wild: Just when you think you’ve started to figure out the West Division, with Minnesota coming off a puzzling loss to Illinois and Iowa blowing out Northwestern, Jerry Kill’s squad steps up and absolutely dominates the Hawkeyes in a 51-14 thrashing that was over by halftime. Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin all boast just one Big Ten loss now -- so anything can happen in these last three weeks, especially when you consider these three teams will all play one another, with Nebraska taking on Wisconsin next Saturday. (Even Iowa, which still plays Wisconsin and Nebraska, isn’t technically out of the equation.) It’s looking more and more as if we’ll have to wait until the final week of the regular season to get a clear picture of who will move forward. Lessons learned: It was way too premature to write off Minnesota (and Kill’s dancing skills), and it’s still too early to pick a clear favorite.

3. Wisconsin passing game has some potential: Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy appeared doomed early this season, but they might end up just fine if Stave can build off part of Saturday’s performance. The Badgers set a season high with 30 pass attempts, and Stave finished 19-of-29 for 216 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. His QBR of 77.2 was the highest of any Wisconsin starter in the Big Ten season, and he was especially hot in the second quarter of the 34-16 win. This was about as balanced as Wisconsin’s offense has been all season, and if defenses are forced to take some of the focus away from the running game, the Badgers’ offense could become even more dangerous. One game doesn’t make a trend, but it does show Stave is capable of more this season.

4. Several B1G offenses are regressing: If you watched -- and stayed awake through -- Penn State's 13-7 win over Indiana and Michigan's 10-9 win over Northwestern, feel free to pat yourself on the back. Those four teams combined for three offensive touchdowns, 39 points, 33 punts and 10 turnovers. It wasn’t pretty. For Indiana, it’s more understandable because Nate Sudfeld's injury forced this team to become even more one-dimensional. But for the other three, every week seems to lead to fewer answers and more questions. Turnovers continue to be an issue for Devin Gardner and the Wolverines, Trevor Siemian remains incredibly inconsistent … and Penn State? Well, nothing seems to be going well there. Penn State, Michigan and Northwestern are ranked outside the top 100 in scoring offense, and the Hoosiers have averaged 11.3 points per game with Zander Diamont as the starting quarterback. These offenses aren’t showing much progress.

5. Penn State bowl hopes pinned to the defense: As bad as the Nittany Lions’ offense has been, the defense has performed nearly perfectly. Indiana never reached the red zone Saturday, Tevin Coleman didn’t reach 100 rushing yards for the first time all season, and the Lions’ defense didn’t allow a single point. (IU’s only touchdown came on an interception return for a TD.) PSU needs just one more win for bowl eligibility, but even with Illinois and Temple left on the slate, that’s no guarantee. The offense hasn’t once reached 20 points in regulation in a Big Ten game, but on the flip side, the defense has allowed just nine touchdowns in regulation in six B1G games. This is arguably the best defense in the Big Ten, but it’s also arguably the worst offense.
The center of Bill Snyder’s program at Kansas State is local players, and K-State has done a masterful job with the 2015 class in the Sunflower State. Plus, Utah hasn’t grabbed a lot of recruiting headlines so far this season, but one Pac 12 recruiter says it should be.


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Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 9

October, 24, 2014
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It's an interesting weekend for the Big Ten. On one hand, we have an intra-state rivalry on tap along with a nationally televised night game at one of the best atmospheres in the country.

On the other, only one of the conference's five games is expected to be close. Four of the underdogs are picked to lose by double digits this week, and the closest game isn't exactly a hot ticket: Minnesota at Illinois.

For the first time all season, we Big Ten writers all picked the same winners. But will there be an upset? Can someone surprise in the Big Ten? Let's take a closer look at the matchups:

Noon

Minnesota (6-1) at Illinois (3-4), ESPNU: The Gophers are still fighting for respect, as they appear at No. 24 in the USA Today poll -- but they're still left out of the Associated Press' top 25. They've quietly put together a solid season, with their only loss coming against TCU, and running back David Cobb could be the most underrated player in the conference. Illinois coach Tim Beckman is fighting for his job, and he and his offensive coordinator can't even seem to agree on whether a two-quarterback system is best for the team. The Illini have a plethora of defensive problems, and they can't afford to have their offense stumble.

Maryland (5-2) at Wisconsin (4-2), BTN: Melvin Gordon is one of the most dynamic backs in all of college football, and the Terrapins are one of the worst rushing defenses in all of college football. That's not exactly a recipe for success for the Terps. That being said, Wisconsin's woes through the air have been well-documented, and it would be no surprise to see the Terps dare Wisconsin to throw. Randy Edsall needs to get his own house in order, too. Maryland has a lot of firepower on offense, but C.J. Brown needs to find more consistency for this team to hang with the Badgers. Backup Caleb Rowe is out for the season, so it's Brown or bust. And Brown has thrown three picks to zero touchdowns in the last two games.

Rutgers (5-2) at Nebraska (6-1), ESPN2: The Scarlet Knights just can't catch a break with their schedule. They were dismantled by Ohio State 56-17 on Saturday and they play Wisconsin next week. Rutgers was the surprise team of the conference in the first half of the season, but it will have to show something in this second half to retain that title. It won't be easy. Like the Buckeyes, Nebraska boasts a balanced offense -- and Ameer Abdullah is the best back the Knights have seen since ... well ... it's been years. With one Big Ten loss already, Nebraska can't afford a slip-up. But it might just have the most talented team, overall, in the West.

3:30 p.m.

Michigan (3-4) at Michigan State (6-1), ABC: Since 2008, this rivalry has basically been owned by the Spartans. Mark Dantonio's team has won five out of the last six, with the Wolverines winning only once in a 12-10 game in 2012. Michigan is coming off a bye week -- and actually won its last Big Ten game, against Penn State -- but the Spartans are on another level. If U-M can pull off this upset, maybe Brady Hoke has an outside chance to save his job and the Wolverines really have sparked a turnaround. If not, expect the same Michigan storyline that you've heard since Week 2.

8 p.m.

Ohio State (5-1) at Penn State (4-2), ABC: The Buckeyes have scored at least 50 points in four straight games, but they haven't faced a defense quite like Penn State's. On the flip side, the Nittany Lions haven't faced any offense resembling Ohio State's, either. The key to an upset here is two-fold: Penn State's weak offensive line must somehow keep one of the nation's best front fours at bay (unlikely), or Penn State's defense has to play out of its mind and force turnovers (more likely). Ohio State pounded Penn State 63-14 last season, and the Lions would like nothing more than to avenge the worst loss in program history since 1899 (a 64-5 loss to Duquesne). This game will act as a good measuring stick for both J.T. Barrett and the PSU defense.

Required reading

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 8

October, 17, 2014
10/17/14
10:00
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Let the second half of the season begin.

The Big Ten's West Division is still as muddled as ever, Rutgers is searching for more respect, and several teams still aren’t secure at quarterback. This week's games could help make the overall conference picture a bit clearer, but plenty of time – and storylines – remain. Here’s a look at Saturday’s games and what to expect (all times Eastern):

Noon

Iowa (5-1) at Maryland (4-2), ESPN2: The Terrapins have had a week to rest, and they’ll need it against a tough Hawkeyes team. Iowa scored an uncharacteristic 45 points last week, and Maryland’s defense is giving up more yards – but fewer points – than the Hawkeyes’ last opponent, Indiana. This is an interesting matchup for a lot of reasons. Not only is Iowa trying to remain atop the West, but we could possibly see four quarterbacks. Kirk Ferentz still wants to play both Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard, while Randy Edsall won’t hesitate to pull C.J. Brown for Caleb Rowe if Brown struggles the way he did against Ohio State.

Purdue (3-4) at Minnesota (5-1), BTN: The Boilermakers shocked the Big Ten last week by hanging 31 points on Michigan State -- and that wasn’t lost on Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, who praised Purdue’s offensive line. With Austin Appleby now playing well at quarterback, this isn’t the “gimme” game it appeared to be a few weeks ago. Regardless, Purdue’s run defense is still lacking, and that’s not good news against Minnesota. David Cobb is rushing for more than 136 yards per game, and he’s one of the more underrated players in the Big Ten. He isn’t just the spark in this offense, he’s the engine – and he’ll again be key to the Gophers’ success. If Minnesota keeps winning, voters in both polls won’t be able to ignore this team for much longer.

3:30 p.m.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesJ.T. Barrett's rapid improvement has the Buckeyes as a big favorite at home against Big Ten newcomer Rutgers.
No. 8 Michigan State (5-1) at Indiana (3-3), ESPN: This matchup is happening at the worst time for the Hoosiers. Not only is starting quarterback Nate Sudfeld out for the season, but backup Chris Covington will reportedly not play Saturday, either. That leaves true freshman Zander Diamont, who weighs 160-some pounds, according to Indiana coach Kevin Wilson. Indiana boasts the nation’s leading rusher in Tevin Coleman, but it’s no secret Michigan State will stack the box and dare the Hoosiers to pass. And even if Indiana succeeds in scoring, it still might not be enough to keep up with a balanced Spartans offense. It could be a long day for Indiana.

Rutgers (5-1) at No. 13 Ohio State (4-1), ABC/ESPN2: Rutgers is the surprise team in the Big Ten right now, but there would be no bigger surprise than if it were able to knock off the Buckeyes at the Horseshoe. Quarterback J.T. Barrett is rolling, running back Ezekiel Elliott is solid and the Scarlet Knights’ defense will be tested, B1G time. Ohio State holds the advantage in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense, scoring offense, passing offense and rushing offense. Rutgers has embraced its underdog role so far this season, and it’s a big underdog in this one.

7 p.m.

No. 19 Nebraska (5-1) at Northwestern (3-3), BTN: The Wildcats have faced three one-dimensional offenses in a row, but that ends with the Cornhuskers. Not only does Nebraska have one of the nation’s best running backs in Ameer Abdullah, but quarterback Tommy Armstrong is also fourth in the Big Ten in both passing yards per game and pass efficiency. This is the highest-rated offense (No. 10 in total offense) that the Wildcats have faced all season. Nebraska’s defense isn’t too bad, either, and Trevor Siemian will have to be on top of his game for Northwestern to stand a chance.

Required reading

B1G RBs on pace for special season

October, 15, 2014
10/15/14
12:00
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It may only be midseason but, at this pace, the Big Ten's running backs are on their way to a historic year.

Three of the nation's top four tailbacks are from the conference, along with four of the top seven. The last time a season ended that way? Well, if we're being conservative, at least two decades. If we're not, more than half a century.

Since at least 1994, when the NCAA makes such stats available online, no other conference has boasted so many top runners in average rushing yards per game. And even if we use overall rushing yards from this database -- which admittedly isn't entirely accurate since bowl games aren't consistently counted -- no conference could say, since at least 1956, when the database starts, that it ended the season with so many top runners.

In other words, if the second half of this season is anything like the first, we could be in the midst of watching an incredibly rare conference-wide performance. The Big Ten may not have the greatest overall reputation right now, but no conference has more quality running backs. It doesn't matter whether you look at overall rushing yards or simply rushing yards per game, because the Big Ten's version of the Fantastic Four holds identical rankings in both categories.

Numbers like this just don't happen. The Big Ten is on pace to have a pair of 2,000-yard rushers right now. Granted, that seems a lot less likely for Indiana running back Tevin Coleman without his starting quarterback or a guaranteed bowl -- but Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah or Minnesota's David Cobb might have 14 total games to accomplish the feat. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon is already on pace to reach it in 12.

Only three times in NCAA history has more than one running back crossed the 2,000-yard plateau in the same year. And only once -- in 2007 with Conference USA -- have two runners come from the same conference, Central Florida's Kevin Smith and Tulane's Matt Forte.

This is shaping up to be a special season for the B1G's quartet. Three -- Abdullah, Coleman, Gordon -- are receiving votes in ESPN's Heisman Watch, and no running back might be more important to his team than Cobb. The Minnesota bruiser is accounting for 46 percent of the Gophers' entire offense.

The Big Ten hasn't had a group of such productive backs since at least 2000, when three backs (Northwestern's Damien Anderson, Wisconsin's Michael Bennett, Michigan's Anthony Thomas) all finished within the top five in rushing yards per game. This might even rival the 1994 season in terms of talent when five B1G backs ranked within the top 10 nationally in total rushing yards -- and included the likes of Penn State's Ki-Jana Carter, Wisconsin's Terrell Fletcher and Ohio State's Eddie George.

There's still another half of the season left to be played, so there's no telling exactly how things will end up. But make sure to enjoy the rest of 2014 because, if the first six games were any indication, we won't see another group of Big Ten running backs like this for quite a while.

David Cobb finds appetite for success

October, 9, 2014
10/09/14
10:30
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David Cobb’s apartment resembles a hospital ward on Sunday mornings in the fall.

Cobb is Minnesota’s load-bearing running back, one of the toughest players to tackle in the Big Ten. His roommate and cousin, Damien Wilson, is the Gophers’ middle linebacker and one of the toughest tacklers in the Big Ten. Together, their home leads the Twin Cities area in per capita bumps and bruises.

“We barely get out of bed,” Wilson said of their routine the day after a game. “We have to motivate each other just to walk around. Normally we get a couple Advils, a few Aleves and go to get treatment on Sunday.”

[+] EnlargeDavid Cobb
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesMinnesota running back David Cobb's eating habits have changed for the better, and it shows on the field.
 Staying healthy is a full-time occupation for Cobb. The senior accounted for 47 percent of Minnesota’s total yards through the first five games of the season. None of the other Big Ten backs garnering national acclaim this season reach even 40 percent. Only two players in the country -- Buffalo’s Anthone Taylor and Pitt’s James Conner -- average more carries per game than Cobb. He is the engine of a 4-1 Gophers team, which can take control of the Big Ten West Division with a win over Northwestern this weekend.

All that work should take a toll on Cobb’s 5-foot-11, 220-pound body, but nearing the midway point of the season, he shows no signs of slowing down. He credits his durability to a relentless offseason work ethic and his recent discovery of healthy eating habits.

“That and I didn’t play that much the first two years,” he said. “So I’m kind of fresh.”

Cobb stepped into a starting role midway through his junior season at Minnesota. He ran the ball 237 times for 1,202 yards last fall. When he returned to campus in January, Cobb’s strength coaches sat him down and told him he was lucky he survived. If he planned on maintaining the same workload for a full season, he was going to have to start taking care of his body.

The weight room and the film room have never been a problem for the ultra-competitive Cobb. He is a tireless worker, according to Chad Pearson, an assistant strength coach who also oversaw the team’s nutrition program before Minnesota hired a full-time team dietitian in July. The dining room has been a different story.

“He was always one of our top guys as far as training goes,” Pearson said. “He’s been a guy [who] brings an edge. He’s a very good athlete, very hard worker, but he thought that’s where it stopped.”

Cobb is a picky eater. His diet before this offseason consisted mostly of cereal and fast food. He recoiled at the sight of vegetables, even if they were wedged between a pair of grease-soaked buns at McDonald’s. His go-to at the golden arches was a cheeseburger, hold everything but the meat and cheese.

Dietitian Brittany Francis has talked him into eating three square meals a day this season and reminds him daily to grab a piece of fruit on his way to class. Cobb didn’t really buy into eating healthy everyday until this summer, telling Wilson he was done pouring cheap gas into a Ferrari. He admits it’s an uphill battle, but he’s making progress.

“She makes me eat breakfast, makes me eat lunch and dinner,” Cobb said. “I’m still trying to learn. She probably yells at me four times a week, ‘Hey, put that cookie down. Stop going to McDonald’s.’”

The Gophers staff monitors Cobb’s energy output in games and practices closely. They use the Catapult GPS-tracking system to see how much he’s running and if he’s slowing down. He weighs in three times a week to make sure he is keeping his strength. If his numbers dip, Francis adjusts the calories he needs to eat or ounces of water he needs to drink on a daily basis.

During Minnesota’s first bye this past week, Cobb focused on his weight and recovering in the cold tub. He went eight full days without practicing. Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said he would like to give his emerging star more time to rest, but he’s hard to take off the field, especially when he continues to get stronger later in games.

Cobb’s ability to power through would-be tacklers and take on pass rushers on the rare occasions when the ball isn’t in his hands has made him an enticing prospect at the next level. That, as much as anything, has convinced him to rethink what he puts in his body.

He developed relationships with Darrell Thompson, Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney -- all former Gophers who have gone on to successful NFL careers. All three told Cobb that the most important lesson they learned in college was how to take care of themselves.

Cobb, if he heeds their advice and stays healthy, is on pace to pass all three in the Gophers' record books. At the rate he’s running, he’ll finish the regular season with 1,732 yards, eclipsing Maroney’s single-year record by nearly 300 yards.

It’s a mark Cobb says he definitely wants to leave, but he’s more concerned with carrying his team to its third consecutive bowl appearance. A win this weekend against the resurgent Wildcats would give Minnesota a 2-0 conference record and place them atop the Big Ten’s wide open wild West Divison. Staying on top will likely depend heavily on how much punishment Cobb’s body can handle in the second half of the season.

“I have noticed that he’s been eating healthy,” Wilson said. “I haven’t seen any McDonald’s in a long, long time. … He saw that last year was really good. This year he’s on a mission to get better. You can definitely see the hunger. He’s hungry for it.”

Cobb’s appetite is clear. The only question is how he will feed it.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 4

September, 21, 2014
9/21/14
2:00
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