NCF Nation: Penn State Nittany Lions

Weekend Rewind: Big Ten

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
10:00
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Time for some clarity in the Big Ten.

Pretenders and contenders will be more easily defined at the open of October than during the mayhem of the early weeks, when next to nothing went right for the Big Ten. Even just last week, confusion reigned after the league went 12-1 with four wins over Power 5 foes.

Well, Saturday was more down to Earth. Week 5 offered a better look at the Big Ten’s true colors than we’ve seen at any time this season.

The verdict: The talent on display in offensive outbursts on Saturday can take Michigan State and Ohio State far in this league. Wisconsin and Iowa might have to win ugly all year. Penn State is not as good as it looked through four games; Northwestern is better than it appeared through three.

Indiana still isn’t consistent enough to pencil into a bowl game. Minnesota and Maryland should not be overlooked.

And Nebraska, the league’s lone unbeaten, gets its chance this week to prove it belongs in the national conversation with MSU and OSU. The Huskers visit Spartan Stadium on Saturday.

We’ll get to that soon enough. First, let’s rewind.

[+] EnlargeLittle Brown Jug
Leon Halip/Getty ImaesMinnesota throttled Michigan in the Big House to claim the Little Brown Jug for just the second time since 1987.
Team of the week: How can it be any group other than Minnesota? As I was reminded in the wake of the Gophers’ 30-14 throttling of Michigan at the Big House, even my preseason best-case scenario for Minnesota did not include a win over the Wolverines. Clearly, I forgot to account for the possibility of a full-blown Michigan meltdown. But that’s not what led to the Gophers’ second win in the past 24 years of this series; Minnesota earned this. David Cobb rushed for 183 yards against a defense that entered the game ninth nationally against the run. Minnesota held Michigan to 171 yards. Fans greeted the Gophers upon their return to the Twin Cities. Apparently, they all wanted a look at the Little Brown Jug. Enjoy it, Minnesota.

Biggest play: Down 20-10 to Wisconsin, South Florida QB Mike White hit Kennard Swanson for a 52-yard gain that looked set to get the Bulls in position for a touchdown that could cut the Badgers’ lead to three points. But a lunging hit by Wisconsin freshman Lubern Figaro jarred the football loose from Swanson. Linebacker Vince Biegel recovered at the 10-yard line, and Wisconsin drove 90 yards in 18 plays for the backbreaking score. Without that turnover, it might have ended differently.

Big Man on Campus (offense): Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova fired four touchdowns in the Scarlet Knights’ 31-6 win over Tulane. Nova was notably efficient in the first half, hitting 9 of 9 throws for 195 yards and three scores. In the process, he moved his career total to 61 touchdown passes, passing Mike Teel for the school record.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory is officially back. The intimidating junior, who missed the Huskers’ first two games with a knee injury, recorded 2.5 sacks among his seven tackles and three quarterback hurries in a 45-14 Nebraska thumping of Illinois. Gregory looks more dangerous than ever, often lining up at the second level as a linebacker hybrid. He even delivered a devastating block on Nate Gerry’s 53-yard interception return.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Maryland place-kicker Brad Craddock connected on three field goals, including two from 48 yards in the Terrapins’ 37-15 win over Indiana, to stay perfect for the season on 10 attempts.

Biggest faceplant: Aside from Michigan -- no repeat winners -- it’s Indiana. What happened to the Hoosiers? They followed the groundbreaking win at Mizzou by failing to show at home as Maryland looked solid in its inaugural league game. So much for the Hoosiers' triple threat on offense. The Terps’ quarterback duo of C.J. Brown and Caleb Rowe teamed with receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long to steal the show.

Facts and numbers to know: Michigan ranks last nationally in turnover margin at minus-12 and 90th in offensive efficiency, according to ESPN Stats and Info. ... Nebraska I-back Ameer Abdullah rushed for 208 yards, moving his nation-leading season total to 833 yards. The Huskers, as a team, rushed for 458 yards against Illinois, totaling 190 on the ground, with no passing yards, in the first quarter. ... Rutgers has recorded 21 sacks in five games. ... Wisconsin remains the only team nationally not to surrender a red-zone touchdown. ... Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz earned his 65th conference victory to tie former Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez for 10th all time. ... Ohio State’s 710 yards of offense against Cincinnati came within 8 yards of the school record and marked its highest output since totaling 715 against Utah in 1986. ... Michigan State has scored 174 points in three home games and 50 in back-to-back games for the first time since 1978. ... Northwestern held Penn State to 18 rushing yards in the first three quarters of its 29-6 win.

Big Ten bowl projections: Week 5

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
8:00
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How far will Michigan fall?

We'll find out during the next two months, but for now, the Wolverines have fallen out of the bowl projections. Brady Hoke's team sits at 2-3, and the offense has shown no signs of a turnaround. It's hard to envision Michigan winning one Big Ten game right now, much less the four it will need in its final seven to qualify for a bowl berth.

Indiana also falls out of the projections after a 37-15 home loss to Maryland. After seemingly turning a corner the week before at Missouri, the Hoosiers struggled to build on the victory as a normally potent offense did next to nothing against the Terrapins. Kevin Wilson's team has the talent to go bowling but must show it can handle success better going forward.

Penn State tumbles a bit in the projections after being exposed in a 29-6 home loss to Northwestern. We're not quite ready to put Northwestern back in the projections, but another big win would change that.

Nebraska and Maryland are among this week's risers. We still have both Michigan State and Ohio State heading to top bowls. Minnesota is another team to watch as the Gophers try to build on a strong performance at the Big House.

Without further ado ...

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

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 5

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
2:00
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Five lessons from an interesting Saturday in the Big Ten:

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook and Michigan State's offense rolled again in a win over Wyoming on Saturday.
1. Offenses surging in East Lansing and Columbus: OK, so the opposing defenses haven't exactly been stout. Still, it's hard not to notice the huge offensive numbers Michigan State and Ohio State are putting up. The Spartans scored 56 points in a win against Wyoming on Saturday, a week after posting 73 against Eastern Michigan. They're averaging 50.3 points per game for the season, which is ridiculous when you consider the state of the MSU offense a year ago. Connor Cook is in complete command of the game plan, and Jeremy Langford had his first 100-yard day of the season. "We have never exploded like this out of the gate with our offense," head coach Mark Dantonio said. Meanwhile, Ohio State has bounced back nicely after predictably struggling early with a new quarterback and revamped offensive line. The Buckeyes briefly set a school record for total yards against Cincinnati before losing 20 yards on the penultimate play; still, they finished with 710 yards and a school record 45 (!) first downs in a 50-28 victory. Quarterback J.T. Barrett, who threw for 330 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions, is growing up quickly, and Ezekiel Elliott shows signs of becoming a star tailback. That's 116 points in the past two weeks for Urban Meyer's team. The competition will improve very soon, but both teams could pull away from the pack in the East Division if their offenses build off these performances.

2. Defenses carrying Wisconsin, Iowa: Things are going the other way in Madison and Iowa City. Other than the past week's shredding of Bowling Green, Wisconsin has yet to play an impressive, full game offensively. The Badgers had only three points at halftime against South Florida before they finally got on track in the second half of a 27-10 win. But Wisconsin's defense has been stout all season. Gary Andersen's team is the only FBS squad yet to give up a red zone touchdown this season, and the defense forced two turnovers against the Bulls. Iowa fans found out Saturday that C.J. Beathard isn't going to single-handedly transform an at times frustrating offense. But the Hawkeyes' D held Purdue without an offensive touchdown and allowed only 156 total yards -- and only 82 in the final three quarters -- in a 24-10 road win. If the offenses ever get revved up, both Wisconsin and Iowa will be very dangerous. Right now, at least, both are winning with defense.

3. Minnesota and Maryland are stealth contenders: Neither the Gophers nor the Terrapins generated much buzz this preseason as possible division contenders -- understandably so, given their recent histories. But both will at the very least be factors in the race to Indianapolis. Maryland is a play or two against West Virginia from being 5-0 and has shown explosive playmaking ability on both sides of the ball. Even with quarterback C.J. Brown injured in the first half at Indiana, Randy Edsall's team kept rolling behind Caleb Rowe in an easy 37-15 win -- the Terps' second straight, double-digit road victory. Minnesota thoroughly dominated Michigan in the Big House 30-14 and -- in a refreshing change -- displayed at least some competency in the running game. With their defense and the running of David Cobb, the Gophers can make some noise in the West despite a challenging final four games (Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska, at Wisconsin). Meanwhile, Maryland could have a big say in the East as division powers Michigan State and Ohio State (next week) have to go to College Park.

4. Bill comes due for Penn State's issues: It's never been any secret the Nittany Lions had serious deficiencies on their offensive line and, consequently, in the running game. James Franklin and his staff did a great job covering those in the first four games, all Penn State wins. But it's hard to win with those weaknesses in Big Ten play, and Northwestern -- despite its own problems of late -- exploited them in a big way during Saturday's stunning 29-6 win at Beaver Stadium. Penn State ran for only 50 total yards, and Christian Hackenberg was sacked four times while being pressured all game. Hackenberg had one of the worst games of his short career, but it was unreasonable to expect him to carry the entire offense the entire season. The Nittany Lions' problems aren't easy to fix, but at least they have a bye week coming up to search for answers.

5. Ameer Abdullah deserves to be a leading Heisman contender: Nebraska's senior running back is putting together a potential season for the ages. Against Illinois, he ran for 208 yards and three touchdowns while barely playing in the second half of a 45-14 win. That's the third 200-plus yard game for Abdullah this season, and he's on pace for 2,000 yards. The Cornhuskers are the lone remaining unbeaten Big Ten team, and they wouldn't be if not for their leader. Abdullah gets a spotlight opportunity next week at Michigan State, but he deserves all the Heisman love you can throw at him right now.
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- For the first time in a long time, the Northwestern Wildcats can finally celebrate.

Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian opened up hot, and the defense clamped down for all four quarters as the Wildcats won 29-6, pulling off the upset against the Penn State Nittany Lions. It’s just Northwestern’s second win in its past 10 games against FBS opponents.

With the victory, Northwestern improves to .500 (2-2, 1-0 Big Ten), and Penn State drops its bid for perfection (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten).

How the game was won: Siemian started off on a hot streak, completing 11-of-15 for 150 yards in the first quarter. He capped two first-quarter drives with identical 1-yard rushing touchdowns. From there, the Wildcats' defense took charge, and Penn State made too many mistakes as the game wore on.

Game ball goes to: Northwestern’s defensive line. Ifeadi Odenigbo really led the charge here, but it wasn’t just Odenigbo who dominated. This entire line outmuscled PSU, pressured quarterback Christian Hackenberg and bottled up the run. The Wildcats finished with four sacks and nine tackles for loss.

It was over when ... : Linebacker Anthony Walker, in his first career start, made an easy interception on a pass from Hackenberg in the fourth quarter and returned it 49 yards for a critical touchdown. PSU’s offense was starting to gain some momentum, but that halted it. Northwestern led 20-6 at that point.

What it means: Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald asked two weeks ago what came first -- success or confidence? Well, his team has to feel pretty confident after its best win in a full calendar year. The only other win that Northwestern had against an FBS team since Sept. 22, 2013, came against Illinois. Fitzgerald is undoubtedly hoping this marks the end of those struggles.

Playoff implications: Entering the game at 4-0, Penn State still had an outside shot of gaining a playoff spot if it ran the table. Obviously, those hopes have all but ended now. Nebraska is the only remaining unbeaten team in the Big Ten.

What’s next: Penn State has a bye week before it travels to the Big House to face Michigan. The Wildcats face a stiffer test next week when they take on Wisconsin at home.

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 5

September, 27, 2014
Sep 27
8:00
AM ET
After a banner Saturday a week ago, what does the Big Ten have planned for an encore? It can't win as many games as it did last week since conference play is set to kick off with five matchups inside the league. But there are still a handful of opportunities on the table that can bolster the Big Ten reputation -- and, in one case, a chance to right the ship after a disastrous performance last week.

The fun is set to really begin now. Here's the full rundown of the day (all times Eastern):

Noon games

South Florida (2-2) at No. 19 Wisconsin (2-1), ESPNU: The Badgers and star running back Melvin Gordon roared to life last week, and they've got a chance to continue building momentum heading into Big Ten play. If Gordon keeps up the eye-popping yards per carry he posted in the win over Bowling Green, he could be right back in the Heisman Trophy conversation after a slow start.

Tulane (1-3) at Rutgers (3-1), ESPNEWS: The Scarlet Knights have a chance to run the table outside of the Big Ten, which would be pretty useful in helping them qualify for a bowl game in their first year in the league. The loss of running back Paul James to a season-ending injury is a big blow, but he probably won't be missed against the Green Wave.

Iowa (3-1) at Purdue (2-2), BTN: The Hawkeyes might not technically have a quarterback controversy, but they were clearly energized last week when C.J. Beathard came in to relieve an injured Jake Rudock. If Rudock is healthy, Iowa might play both of them against the Boilermakers, who haven't won a conference game since the last week of the 2012 regular season.

Wyoming (3-1) at No. 9 Michigan State (2-1), ESPN2: The Cowboys have been impressive under new coach Craig Bohl, even trading a few early punches with Oregon before getting blown out. Michigan State stood toe-to-toe into the second half with the Ducks and look like the most talented team in the Big Ten, which is clearly a significant advantage over the Pokes.

Northwestern (1-2) at Penn State (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten), BTN: After struggling in a pair of losses before a bye week, the Wildcats didn't look much better in an ugly win over Western Illinois. That doesn't bode well for a trip to Penn State, which is brimming with confidence and in position to build on its fast start in the East Division.

Maryland (3-1) at Indiana (2-1), 1:30 p.m., BTN: Despite a loss for each team, both the Terrapins and Hoosiers have been pleasant surprises during the season's first month. Indiana bounced back with an impressive defensive outing to upset Missouri on the road, and that unit will be put to the test by a Maryland attack loaded with playmakers.

Mid-afternoon game

Minnesota (3-1) at Michigan (2-2), 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2 mirror: Brady Hoke's seat is warm enough as it is, but it would be scorching if the Gophers come into the Big House and leave with the Little Brown Jug. Minnesota's defense is capable of making Michigan's turnover woes worse, and no matter who plays quarterback for the Gophers, the running game is a handful.

Night games

Cincinnati (2-0) at No. 22 Ohio State (2-1), 6 p.m., BTN: The Buckeyes used their bye week to gear up for Cincinnati quarterback Gunner Kiel and his lethal receiving corps, which will provide the first real test for a revamped secondary. After already dropping one game outside of the Big Ten, Ohio State can't afford to lose a second if it's going to climb back into the playoff picture.

Illinois (3-1) at No. 21 Nebraska (4-0), 9 p.m., BTN: For whatever it's worth, the pollsters still aren't showing much love to the Huskers. But as long as they keep winning, they're going to be tough for the selection committee to ignore. Wes Lunt and a high-flying Illinois offense are entertaining to watch, and with Ameer Abdullah lining up against a suspect defense, this prime-time matchup should feature plenty of fireworks.

Required reading

Week 5 predictions

Tracking our B1G fantasy teams

Take Two: Is Michigan or Florida in better shape for a turnaround?

"Wow moments" arriving for Ohio State's Michael Thomas

Indiana defense more confident than ever

C.J. Beathard ready when the call comes

Uncertainty not an issue for Minnesota QBs

The Miracle at Michigan: 20 years later

Cincinnati knows Ohio State game is huge

Big Ten awards race tracker

B1G 1/4 season review: Bold Predictions | Surprise player | Surprise team

For Tanner McEvoy, actions louder than words

True test coming for revamped Ohio State defense

B1G running backs deserve place in Heisman race

Planning for success: Indiana

No easy fix coming for Michigan offense

Take Two: B1G's best receiving tandem

Penn State, Northwestern very far apart

Penn State, Northwestern very far apart

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
12:00
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There might not be two teams in the Big Ten that are more opposite than Northwestern and Penn State.

The Wildcats have struggled to bounce back and win close games; the Nittany Lions' trademark has become late-game rallies. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald’s practices lacked energy early on, while James Franklin’s players lauded their intensity. Fitzgerald labeled his team’s lack of toughness an "embarrassment," while Franklin has praised his squad’s resiliency.

Around this time last season, a lot of that was flipped. Northwestern was the team on the rise, one that reached No. 16 in the polls. Penn State remained a conference question mark, one with a suspect secondary and a true freshman at quarterback.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
AP Photo/Gene J PuskarLate comebacks led by Christian Hackenberg are becoming the norm at Penn State.
It’s amazing how quickly fortunes can change. Now, the Lions are on the cusp of being ranked. And the Wildcats are trying to avoid being labeled the worst team in the Big Ten.

"I can’t speak for Northwestern," Penn State linebacker Brandon Bell said, when asked about the difference. "For us, everybody is just resilient. We don’t put our head down for anything. We just keep fighting."

Penn State and Northwestern will meet at noon Saturday in Beaver Stadium. Here is an overview of just how far apart these two teams have grown:

Close games: Of Northwestern’s past 11 games, seven were decided by a single score. The Wildcats won just one of those close games. Of Penn State’s past 11 games, six were decided by a single score. The Lions lost just one of those close games.

During that span, quarterback Christian Hackenberg has led Penn State to four game-tying or game-winning drives, all scores that occurred within the last 90 seconds of regulation. Northwestern hasn’t been able to make the best of similar opportunities. A few examples: Against Iowa last season, the Wildcats fumbled in Iowa territory late in the fourth quarter and lost in overtime. Against Michigan in 2013, Northwestern lost in overtime when it was sacked 14 yards on second down and then tossed a pick on the final play. And against Cal three weeks ago, Northwestern found itself 27 yards from a game-tying touchdown -- but but threw an interception with about 90 seconds remaining.

Current injuries/depth: Penn State lacks depth but, so far, the only injury that has significantly impacted the team this season is the one suffered by offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach. Another injury to the line -- or to the linebackers or quarterback -- could be devastating. But Penn State has been able to stay relatively healthy. Northwestern, on the other hand, has basically faced a nightmare scenario when it comes to injuries and departures.

Tailback Venric Mark, who averaged 6.0 yards a carry in 2012, transferred elsewhere in a surprise preseason move. Top wideout Christian Jones is out for the season. No. 2 wideout Tony Jones missed two games with a leg injury and is not on this week’s depth chart. All-Big Ten talent Ibraheim Campbell, a safety, and senior linebacker Collin Ellis are day-to-day. And quarterback Trevor Siemian is battling an ankle injury.

Starting off: Both teams have actually tended to start slow, but Penn State’s defense has started on the right foot in each of the past four games. So far, Penn State has yet to allow a point in the first quarter and is outscoring the competition 20-0. On the other end, Northwestern has yet to score any points in the first quarter against an FBS team, although it did manage to score a TD against Western Illinois.

Northwestern started 0-2 for the first time since 2004. Penn State is 4-0 for the first time since 2008.

Preseason practice: The mood at Northwestern’s practices was clearly different than past years. Maybe Fitzgerald was worried about the potential for injuries and wanted to take it a bit easier, seeing as 13 key players were injured last November. Regardless, Adam Rittenberg said the most energy shown in an August workout was a watermelon-eating contest, and that the atmosphere mimicked a "a country club."

Fitzgerald has since turned up the intensity, forcing his team to do up-down drills (something he hasn’t really done in the past) and even having his team practice outside in the rain. But that early tone was far different from Franklin’s.

In August, Franklin took the opposite approach. After one practice, he yelled at a freshman to jog off the field faster. Recruits told ESPN.com there was more energy than the year before. And Franklin even invited reporters to watch the infamous "Lions Den" drill, where the energy was palpable. It seemed as if the coaches had two very different philosophies back in August.

Big Ten Week 5 predictions

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
9:00
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Can Michigan bounce back? Can Indiana build off last week's big upset win over Missouri? Our experts make their Week 5 picks.

 

Why Maryland will win: Our best chance for an offensive shootout in the conference this weekend will be in Bloomington. Indiana's up-tempo offense took down reigning SEC East champ Missouri last weekend. Maryland has the firepower to keep pace. Quarterback C.J. Brown has gotten consistently stronger in the passing game over the past few weeks and has a handful of big-play targets surrounding him. The Terps sounded geeked to make their Big Ten debut during the week of preparation, which should help them outlast Indiana in a close one. Maryland 38, Indiana 33 -- Dan Murphy

Why Indiana will win: Because these Hoosiers are different. They're not going to disappoint their fans, as is customary for IU football. They're not going to follow a big win with a deflating loss before a home crowd itching for something about which to get excited. These Hoosiers are different because of running back Tevin Coleman, the do-it-all junior who might rank as the most underrated player in college football. Indiana has momentum after its road upset at Missouri and motivation to continue to prove that a loss two weeks ago at Bowling Green was an aberration -- that this is a team ready to play in the postseason. And if all that isn't enough, the Hoosiers aren't playing Michigan State; they're simply good enough to outscore Maryland. Indiana 35, Maryland 27 -- Mitch Sherman

 

Why Minnesota will win: Michigan's generosity with the football has been well documented, and it doesn't even seem to matter who plays quarterback as those woes continued even after Devin Gardner was removed from last week's loss to Utah. On the flip side, only one team in the nation has more takeaways than Minnesota's defense, and that combination doesn't seem like a great recipe for the Wolverines to hold on to the Little Brown Jug. The Gophers have had their own problems protecting the football, but a powerful rushing attack and stout defense should put them in position to make Brady Hoke's life even more difficult. Minnesota 20, Michigan 13 -- Austin Ward

Why Michigan will win: The season is really on the line for the Wolverines and coach Brady Hoke. If U-M loses, a bowl berth suddenly seems unlikely and Hoke's seat would be hotter than ever with some tough games remaining in a competitive East Division (Penn State, Michigan State, Ohio State). I don't think Michigan is done yet, and the Wolverines seem to always find a way to beat Minnesota, even with their weaker teams (see: 2008). Michigan's defense matches up well against a one-dimensional Gophers offense. Minnesota's ability to take the ball away scares me, but I think Michigan grinds out a win in a low-scoring game to keep Hoke alive. Michigan 13, Minnesota 10 -- Adam Rittenberg

Unanimous selections

Michigan State over Wyoming 42-6: A tuneup for the Spartans, who host Nebraska next week. The Cowboys have fared well this year without scoring many points. They won't score many in East Lansing, either, though it comes with a less favorable outcome.

Ohio State over Cincinnati 45-17: The Buckeyes, off a bye week, continue to take steps forward by stopping Cincinnati QB Gunner Kiel, who has thrown 10 touchdowns in two games. Ohio State puts up a big rushing number.

Penn State over Northwestern 24-10: The Nittany Lions continue to get it done with defense -- especially up front, where breakout senior tackle Anthony Zettel makes life miserable for the punchless Wildcats, who average 4.54 yards per play, 116th nationally.

Nebraska over Illinois 48-24: The Huskers avoid a letdown, between big games against Miami and Michigan State, behind strong performances again from running back Ameer Abdullah and QB Tommy Armstrong Jr. as another slow start dooms the Illini.

Iowa over Purdue 28-20: More signs of improvement from the Boilermakers, but for a second straight week, QB C.J. Beathard rallies the Hawkeyes in the second half as Iowa starts to find an identity by getting its talented cast of receivers more involved.

Wisconsin over USF 56-14: That big soft spot in the schedule allows for another easy win as the Badgers run wild again. More important, QB Tanner McEvoy enjoys a solid game, and the Wisconsin defense surges forward, hinting at the capabilities of this team in a few weeks.

Rutgers over Tulane 37-17: The Scarlet Knights get a week before Big Ten play resumes to devise a way to replace injured running back Paul James. Against the Green Wave, who struggle to stop the run, Justin Goodwin and Desmon Peoples fill in nicely.

Our records:

Adam Rittenberg: 40-10 (80 percent)
Mitch Sherman: 40-10 (80)
Brian Bennett: 39-11 (78)
Austin Ward: 39-11 (78)
Josh Moyer: 36-14 (72)
Dan Murphy: 9-4 (69)

Big Ten bowl projections: Week 4

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
8:00
PM ET
Those in Ann Arbor will understandably disagree, but Week 4 was a very good one for the Big Ten. The league went 12-1 and won several games in impressive fashion. When almost every team handles its bid-ness, there's not much shuffling in the bowl projections.

The big development this week is Indiana's return. Seven days after an all-too-typical, potentially bowl-crushing loss at Bowling Green, Indiana recorded its biggest win in years, shocking No. 18 Missouri on the road. The Hoosiers are back in the projections and could rise higher in the coming weeks if they can build on the Missouri win. For now, we have them receiving an at-large bowl invitation.

Michigan moves down after its loss to Utah. The Michigan brand still carries weight in the bowl pecking order, but this Wolverines team could have a tough time reaching the six-win mark if its offense doesn't dramatically improve. The Wolverines are last nationally in turnover margin at minus-10 through four games. Yuck.

For now, we have Michigan essentially staying home for bowl season in Detroit.

New Big Tenners Maryland and Rutgers, meanwhile, move up after impressive starts.

Expect more shuffling next week as Big Ten play begins in full force. Several matchups could affect the order, namely Minnesota visiting Michigan and Indiana visiting Maryland.

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: Maryland
New Era Pinstripe: Rutgers
Quick Lane: Michigan
Heart of Dallas: Minnesota
At-large: Indiana

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 4

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
2:00
PM ET

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 4

September, 20, 2014
Sep 20
8:00
AM ET
The chances to bolster the leaguewide résumé are running low, and the Big Ten already has squandered almost all of them. Can it turn things around today before conference action picks up in earnest next week? Or is more of the same from the past couple of Saturdays on tap starting at noon?

There's only one way to find out, and here’s the blueprint for following all the action (all times Eastern):

Noon games

[+] EnlargeJames Conner
Gregory J. Fisher/USA TODAY SportsIowa's schedule doesn't get any easier, as it comes off the loss to Iowa State with a tough matchup at Pittsburgh.
Iowa (2-1) at Pittsburgh (3-0), ESPNU: So much for that supposedly easy schedule. The Hawkeyes have strangely been unable to run the football, which made their conservative play calling a problem in last week’s loss to Iowa State. The Panthers are more talented and Iowa must travel to play them, which could present a real test for coach Kirk Ferentz.

Eastern Michigan (1-2) at No. 11 Michigan State (1-1), BTN: The Spartans had some extra time to regroup after the loss at Oregon, and that doesn’t bode well heading into the last two weeks of nonconference action for their opponents. First up is Eastern Michigan, which will have its hands full with Connor Cook and what so far seems to be a much more dangerous offense for the reigning conference champs.

Western Illinois (2-1) at Northwestern (0-2), ESPNews: The bye week was definitely not a time to rest for the Wildcats or Pat Fitzgerald, who certainly wasn’t expecting to be in this early hole as the nightmare year for the program continued with two early losses. If Northwestern didn’t find some answers ahead of the visit from Western Illinois, there’s not much left to look forward to this fall.

Southern Illinois (3-0) at Purdue (1-2), BTN: There were signs of life from the Boilermakers in the loss against Notre Dame, though in the end they didn’t have the talent to hang around for four quarters. Purdue’s non-Big Ten slate wraps up this weekend, and it could surely use a confidence boost before hosting Iowa next weekend.

Bowling Green (2-1) at No. 19 Wisconsin (1-1), ESPN2: The Badgers are still something of a mystery at this point thanks to an off date last week following a relatively uneventful win over FCS-member Western Illinois. The Falcons already have a win over a Big Ten team and can wear defenses out with their up-tempo attack, which might make this a good time for Melvin Gordon and the Wisconsin running game to get rolling.

Maryland (2-1) at Syracuse (2-0), 12:30 p.m., GamePlan: This matchup might be better suited for the hardwood, but the Terrapins and Orange could put on a pretty good show in pads at the Carrier Dome. Maryland has proved capable of putting up points in bunches while Syracuse relies on its defense, leaving an intriguing contrast of styles before Randy Edsall’s team dives into its first Big Ten action.

Midafternoon games

Utah (2-0) at Michigan (2-1), 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2 mirror: Brady Hoke usually takes care of business at the Big House, but this could be a difficult matchup with Utah scoring at least 56 points in each of its first two games. If this turns into a shootout, the Wolverines and quarterback Devin Gardner will have to protect the football much better than they have so far this season to build some momentum for Minnesota’s visit next week.

Rutgers (2-1) at Navy (2-1), 3:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network: Even in a losing effort, the Scarlet Knights impressed in their Big Ten debut last week against Penn State. Rutgers can create problems with its stout defense and nearly won last week despite getting almost no offensive help, though Navy could easily pose problems with its tricky triple-option rushing attack.

Massachusetts (0-3) at Penn State (3-0), 4 p.m., BTN: The wins may not be all that overpowering, but the Nittany Lions are undefeated -- and for now, that’s enough to make them contenders in both the Big Ten and nationally until the outcomes change. Christian Hackenberg should have some chances to add to his résumé again this week as he faces a UMass defense allowing 35 points per game.

San Jose State (1-1) at Minnesota (2-1), 4 p.m., BTN: Uncertainty continues to swirl around the quarterback position for the Gophers, but whether or not Mitch Leidner plays again this week, the rushing game figures to be front and center. The two programs met last season, and Minnesota exploded for 353 rushing yards and won easily while completing just five passes.

Texas State (1-1) at Illinois (2-1), 4 p.m., ESPNews: The Illini and their high-powered offense hit a stumbling block last week at Washington, but they’re back home again Saturday afternoon and looking to unleash Wes Lunt again through the air. If Illinois is serious about making a push for bowl eligibility this season, this is a game the Illini can’t afford to overlook with a trip to Nebraska looming.

Indiana (1-1) at No. 18 Missouri (3-0), 4 p.m., SEC Network: Bowl projections for the Hoosiers almost certainly banked on a victory last week at Bowling Green, but that one slipped away and Kevin Wilson’s program now is a bit behind schedule in the win column. A soft defense continues to plague Indiana, and that could be an issue against a Missouri offense that has scored at least 38 points in each of its three wins so far.

Night game

Miami (2-1) at No. 24 Nebraska (3-0), 8 p.m., ESPN2: The latest polls might not reflect it, but this is still a prestigious matchup packed with historical significance. Having already lost and coming in unranked, the Hurricanes aren’t as close to competing for college football’s top prize as the Huskers. But if Bo Pelini and his team can knock off Miami to stay unbeaten, that might be a victory that resonates as the season progresses.

Bye week

Ohio State

Required reading

Comparing Hackenberg to past elite QBs

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
3:00
PM ET
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Christian Hackenberg has made just 15 starts, but there is no shortage of hype surrounding the Penn State quarterback: One AFC scout recently called him the top quarterback in college football, and The Sporting News asked months ago whether he would go No. 1 in the 2016 NFL draft.

So, right now, how does Hackenberg stack up with the top quarterbackss of past years?

To find out, we looked at the first 15 starts of the past five quarterbacks who were taken first at their position in the NFL draft. The lone exception was the 2011 draft, where we skipped over Cam Newton since he made starts in junior college and instead went with the second drafted quarterback.

So far, Hackenberg has thrown for more yards than any of those past quarterbacks -- 310-of-519 passing (59.7 percent) for 4,037 yards, 24 TDs and 15 INTs -- although he’s also received the least amount of run support.

Here’s a closer look at those past quarterbacks:


Sam Bradford, Oklahoma, started from 2007 to 2009

No. 1 overall NFL draft pick (2010) by St. Louis Rams

Bradford
Bradford
The stats (in first 15 starts): 254-of-363 passing (70 percent), 3,304 yards, 38 TDs, 8 INTs; 31 rushes for 7 yards and no TDs

The run-game support (in first 15 starts): Oklahoma averaged slightly more than 41 carries a game for 190 yards (4.6 ypc). The Sooners ran the ball on about 59 percent of their offensive plays.

The highlights (in first 15 starts): Bradford didn’t come into Oklahoma as a highly touted recruit, but he stepped up in a big way when he won the job as a redshirt freshman. In his first career game, against North Texas, he set a school record for most passing yards in a half by going 20-of-22 for 350 yards. He won the Big 12 championship as a redshirt freshman and broke the NCAA freshman record for passing TDs.


Jake Locker, Washington, started from 2007 to 2010

No. 8 overall NFL draft pick (2011) by Tennessee Titans

Locker
The stats (in first 15 starts): 200-of-412 passing (48.5 percent), 2,523 yards, 15 TDs, 15 INTs; 218 rushes for 1,149 yards and 16 TDs.

The run-game support (in first 15 starts): Washington averaged 40 carries a game for 175 yards (4.4 ypc), but Locker was a big reason for that. Including Locker’s runs, this offense ran the ball 56 percent of the time.

The highlights (in first 15 starts): He went 3-12 in his first 15 games, but he was named the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year in addition to making some freshman All-American teams. His best game, statistically, came against Arizona in 2007 when he passed for 336 yards, rushed for another 157 yards and scored four total TDs. An injury derailed his sophomore season during the 16th game of his career.


Andrew Luck, Stanford, started from 2009 to 2011

No. 1 overall NFL draft pick (2012) by Indianapolis Colts

Luck
The stats (in first 15 starts): 207-of-358 passing (57.8 percent), 3,249 yards, 23 TD, 4 INT; 74 rushes for 494 yards and 3 TDs

The run-game support (in first 15 starts): Stanford averaged 41 carries a game for 228 yards (5.5 ypc), although Stanford aired it out the more Luck progressed. This offense ran the ball 63 percent of the time in Luck’s first 15 games.

The highlights (in first 15 starts): In back-to-back weeks as a redshirt freshman, Luck helped knock off two top-15 teams -- No. 7 Oregon, 51-42, and No. 11 USC, 55-21. He threw four touchdown passes and no interceptions in those two games. But this was a run-first team; Luck threw more than 29 passes just four times in those first 15 games, and it was no coincidence that all four were losses since Stanford was trying to mount a comeback. He led the Pac-10 in pass efficiency as a redshirt freshman, but really made a name for himself in 2010.


EJ Manuel, Florida State, started from 2009 to 2012

No. 16 overall NFL draft pick (2013) by Buffalo Bills

Manuel
The stats (in first 15 starts): 260-of-380 passing (68 percent), 3,251 yards, 18 TDs, 14 INTs; 144 rushes for 441 yards and 6 TDs

The run-game support (in first 15 starts): Florida State averaged 35 carries a game for 150 yards (4.3 ypc). The Seminoles also ran the ball 56 percent of the time.

The highlights (in first 15 starts): Manuel’s first 15 starts came over the span of three seasons, but he always had a high completion percentage. He posted a 3-1 record as a redshirt freshman and was the Gator Bowl MVP. Against Maryland, to keep FSU bowl-eligible, he led a game-winning touchdown drive with 2:31 left. He also started two games as a redshirt sophomore and won the job as a redshirt junior, when he really burst onto the scene.


Blake Bortles, Central Florida, started from 2012 to 2013

No. 3 overall NFL draft pick (2014) by Jacksonville Jaguars

Bortles
The stats (in first 15 starts): 269-of-423 passing (63.5 percent), 3,373 yards, 28 TDs, 7 INTs; 93 rushes for 287 yards and 8 TDs

The run-game support (in first 15 starts): Central Florida averaged 38 carries a game for 180 yards (4.7 ypc). The Knights also ran the ball 56 percent of the time.

The highlights (in first 15 starts): He redshirted, then played in 10 games as a redshirt freshman -- but didn’t start until his redshirt sophomore season. The Knights fell in the Conference USA title game, but Bortles was still named to the all-conference team and earned MVP honors in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl.

Big Ten Week 4 predictions

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
9:00
AM ET
Week 4 features a new voice in the predictions mix as our new Big Ten reporter Dan Murphy jumps into the fray. It also features a handful of games our writers disagree on, including games involving programs that desperately need to rebound with a win this week.

 

Why Iowa will win: Call me a contrarian if you'd like (I've been called much worse), but Iowa seems to rise up at the unlikeliest of times. Pitt has looked way better than the Hawkeyes this season. The Panthers can run the ball (James Conner has 544 rush yards and eight touchdowns), while Iowa can't (393 rush yards, four touchdowns). Panthers coach Paul Chryst, the former Wisconsin assistant, knows the Hawkeyes well. So of course I'm going with Iowa, which will discover its run game and force two second-half turnovers to rally for the win. Iowa 21, Pitt 20 -- Adam Rittenberg

Why Pitt will win: Adam did a pretty good job of making my argument for me. This game hinges on who wins the battle between Iowa’s front seven and the Panthers’ running game. Conner's 214 rushing yards against Boston College in a 30-20 win look a lot more impressive this week after the Eagles held USC's entire offense to 20 rushing yards. Pitt also has some good experience in the secondary (CB Lafayette Pitts and S Ray Vinopal) that could put a dent in the strong completion percentage Jake Rudock has put together thus far. Pitt 27, Iowa 17 -- Dan Murphy

 

Why Syracuse will win: Beating MAC teams isn't easy, as the Big Ten can attest. Well, Syracuse went on the road last week and crushed Central Michigan, one of the better MAC squads, by 37 points, looking nothing like the team that was extremely fortunate to get by Villanova in its opener. The Orange are a different offense with quarterback Terrel Hunt at the helm, and they're stout in defending the run (opponents average just 2.7 yards against them). Maryland makes too many mistakes to get this win on the road. Syracuse 28, Maryland 24 -- Adam Rittenberg

Why Maryland will win: Maryland has shown an explosiveness on offense and special teams, but the Terrapins have lacked consistency. They will need to avoid the turnovers and wild mood swings on the road at Syracuse. Former Orange quarterback Randy Edsall's team has enough playmakers to get the job done. Maryland 31, Syracuse 27 -- Brian Bennett

 

Why Utah will win: Unless Brady Hoke’s unwillingness to talk about injuries is based around a desire to spring a surprise by unleashing a healthy secondary on the Utes, the Wolverines could have their hands full with Travis Wilson, the nation’s No. 2 quarterback in terms of passing efficiency. The jury is still out on Michigan’s offense as well, particularly since it was shut out at Notre Dame, its only true test so far, and has shown signs that issues protecting the football haven’t been solved. That’s not a good combination against a program that appears to be on the rebound and actually has prior experience winning at the Big House under Kyle Whittingham. Utah 34, Michigan 27 -- Austin Ward

Why Michigan will win: Utah is good, but it's no Notre Dame. The Utes' success so far this season has come against two lowly opponents -- Idaho State and Fresno State -- so they might be getting a little bit more credit than they deserve. Devin Gardner is a wild card, but I can't see him committing another four turnovers, at least not in the Big House. Michigan 31, Utah 28 -- Josh Moyer

 

Why Rutgers will win: Rutgers is actually an underdog against Navy, and this game has serious letdown potential after the Scarlet Knights got sky high for Penn State. Yet the Scarlet Knights have been very good against the run and have the defensive front to disrupt the Navy option. That will be enough to pull it out -- provided Gary Nova doesn't throw another five interceptions. Rutgers 24, Navy 21 -- Brian Bennett

Why Navy will win: The Scarlet Knights said there would be no letdown after the loss last week to Penn State. But Rutgers invested so much energy in the program’s first meeting in nearly two decades with the Nittany Lions that, yes, there will be a letdown. And be sure of this, Navy requires Rutgers’ full attention. Quarterback Keenan Reynolds is expected back from injury on Saturday to lead the nation’s No. 1-ranked rushing offense, which averages more than 400 yards. Rutgers looks equipped up front to defend the triple option with Darius Hamilton and a solid line, but Navy’s offensive efficiency will prove too much to overcome. It has won eight straight true home games dating to 2012. Make it nine. Navy 31, Rutgers 21 -- Mitch Sherman

Unanimous decisions

Illinois over Texas State, 38-21: The Illini running game finally emerges and opens things up for Wes Lunt to have a big second half in Champaign.

Missouri over Indiana, 42-27: The Hoosiers couldn’t help the Big Ten’s nonconference record against the MAC’s Bowling Green last week. They aren’t likely to turn that around against an undefeated SEC opponent.

Michigan State over Eastern Michigan, 52-3: Former Penn State quarterback Rob Bolden's last crack at the Big Ten doesn't go any better than the first time around. Mark Dantonio calls off his dogs after halftime to keep this one from getting uglier than it could.

Minnesota over San Jose State, 27-13: David Cobb and the Gophers show they are still headed in a good direction despite a disappointing showing against TCU last Saturday.

Nebraska over Miami, 34-31: The Canes have the talent to make it close, but they don’t have the quarterback to steal a game from a big-time opponent on the road yet.

Northwestern over Western Illinois, 24-10: Pat Fitzgerald keeps it simple and forces his team to play the bully role while trying to develop a new toughness in Evanston.

Penn State over UMass, 44-14: The Christian Hackenberg hype machine continues its crescendo toward a primetime matchup in the Big House in early October.

Purdue over Southern Illinois, 28-20: The Salukis put up a fight, but Danny Etling builds on a strong performance against Notre Dame to pull the Boilermakers to 2-2.

Wisconsin over Bowling Green, 33-7: Bowling Green won’t be able to sneak up on a well-rested Badgers team at Camp Randall Stadium.

Our records:

Mitch Sherman: 31-6
Adam Rittenberg: 29-8
Austin Ward: 29-8
Brian Bennett: 28-9
Josh Moyer: 27-10
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

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