NCF Nation: Purdue Boilermakers

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
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Five observations from Saturday in the Big Ten:

1. Ohio State and Michigan State are widening the gap over the rest of the league. The Spartans and Buckeyes continued their march toward Nov. 8 in East Lansing with resounding wins by identical scores of 56-17 over Indiana and Rutgers, respectively. The Buckeyes topped 50 points in four consecutive games for the first time in school history and dealt the Scarlet Knights their worst loss in 12 years with an introduction to the big-time side of Big Ten football. MSU was slow at the start, as Indiana’s Shane Wynn and Tevin Coleman scored on long runs, but Michigan State blanked the Hoosiers in the second half. Just as importantly, both Big Ten powers climbed closer to consideration for the College Football Playoff as two top-10 unbeatens went down.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsJ.T. Barrett is playing at a high level as Ohio State's offense continues to roll.
2. J.T. Barrett is a Heisman Trophy darkhorse. No, we’re not kidding. The same redshirt freshman who struggled mightily in the Buckeyes’ loss to Virginia Tech the past month has played better than any quarterback in the country as of late. He ran for 107 yards and two scores and threw for 261 and three touchdowns against Rutgers. Under his guidance, Ohio State has averaged 614 yards over its past four games, albeit against suspect defensive competition, though Rutgers appeared set to pose a challenge. Barrett won’t be considered a serious candidate unless he can play like this, without a blip, for the rest of the season.

3. Minnesota might never win pretty, but it almost always wins. The Golden Gophers beat Purdue 39-38 behind two interceptions of Austin Appleby by safety Cedric Thompson, including the game-clincher with 2:28 to play. Minnesota is 3-0 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1990. It was a typical Gopher effort, with 194 rushing yards from David Cobb and just nine completions from quarterback Mitch Leidner, who threw two touchdowns. Give credit to fast-improving Purdue, for sure, but this game deviated from Minnesota form only in that the Gophers trailed at halftime -- they earned the first win in 23 such occasions under Jerry Kill -- and needed a 52-yard field goal by Ryan Santoso for the decisive points with 4:59 left.

4. In spite of Minnesota’s start, Nebraska still looks like the best in the West. The Huskers beat Northwestern 38-17 at Ryan Field and outscored the Wildcats 24-0 in the second half to move to 6-1. Barring an upset win in Lincoln by Rutgers or Purdue over the next two weeks, Nebraska will be 8-1 on Nov. 15 when Bo Pelini’s team travels to Wisconsin for a final stretch that includes Minnesota and Iowa. In bouncing back from a loss to Michigan State, Nebraska displayed new depth at the line of scrimmage against Northwestern and found new ways to feature spark-plug freshman De'Mornay Pierson-El, who threw a touchdown pass to QB Tommy Armstrong Jr.

5. It might be November (if even then) before we understand Maryland and Iowa. The Terrapins overcame a slow start to beat the Hawkeyes 38-31. Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown returned from a back injury, suffered in the second half, and receiver Stefon Diggs and cornerback Will Likely contributed their usual big plays. But is Maryland really a threat to get to nine wins and a New Year’s Day bowl? Maybe, in the watered-down Big Ten. What about Iowa, still a player in the West Division with its favorable schedule but unable to break through in a winnable game Saturday? Just as the Hawkeyes’ offense appears to have gained speed, the defense took a step back in College Park.
Some nights, at Purdue’s athletic center, an unknown battle rages: Who will be the last to leave -- the janitors or quarterback Austin Appleby?

Appleby, who is to make his third career start Saturday, will sometimes lock himself in a small film room until just before midnight. It’s then a coin-flip whether he will have to walk out of a dark, quiet building -- the janitors turned the lights out on him again on Tuesday -- or whether he’s able to sneak out before the cleaning crew finishes.

"I like to watch the tape and get lost in it," Appleby told ESPN.com. "That’s my element."

[+] EnlargeAustin Appleby
AP Photo/AJ MastPreparation has been a key to the early success of Purdue quarterback Austin Appleby.
It has allowed him to slide easily into the starting role. While other athletes are sleeping or playing video games, he’s feverishly scribbling notes on an array of game tape and practice film. This isn’t a new exercise, either. Appleby made his first start this month, but this is something he has done all season.

The Boilermakers seem all the better for it. In his first start, against Illinois, Appleby finished 15-of-20 for 202 yards -- and added a 62-yard run -- as Purdue stopped a nine-game losing streak against conference teams. Against Michigan State, he helped turn heads when he guided the offense to 31 points, the most Michigan State surrendered to a Big Ten team since 2011.

"He understands what we're trying to do and doesn't always do it perfectly, but you know he knows exactly what to do," head coach Darrell Hazell said. "And I think a lot of guys are feeding off of Austin right now."

Appleby doesn't require a nudge to linger in the Mollenkopf Athletic Center after practice. His life’s biggest fear is staring down a defense he doesn’t understand and isn’t prepared for. So, he will sometimes bring a teammate -- or simply dim the lights by himself, armed with a notebook -- and watch one clip after another.

Early in the week, he will focus on the Boilermakers’ film or some general tape of the opponent. Then, as the week progresses, come the specifics. What kind of blitzes does an opponent show on third down? What can he expect on second-and-short? What mismatches can he find? He will scribble it all down in that notebook -- "It’s filling up quick," he said -- and then quiz himself.

When he can ask himself questions and he doesn’t need to consult the notebook for answers, he knows he’s prepared. That is when he can call it a night.

"It just allows you to play fast, to play free. When you think, you play slow, and that’s the biggest thing," Appleby said. "I don’t have to go out there and, 'Oh, I’m not sure.' I’m able to make those quick decisions."

Appleby understands this offense -- and the opposing defenses -- and that has instilled a great amount of confidence. He swears he never felt an ounce of anxiety because he’s so prepared, and Hazell labeled that confidence infectious. It’s on display whether he’s addressing teammates, coaches or reporters.

He mentioned Purdue "could’ve hung 40" on the Spartans because it left points on the field. And, even with a 3-4 record and two starts to his name, he doesn’t sound like a former backup.

"It’s in us. We’ve got the pieces to the puzzle," Appleby said. "We don’t need to go recruit anybody else; we don’t need to get certain guys. They’re right here in this locker room. I have 100 percent confidence in every single guy in that huddle with me. ... It’s scary how good we can be."

Appleby remains confident despite not watching one more minute of film since he has become the starter. He has changed nothing about his approach and doesn't plan to. It’s why he believes the transition from backup to QB1 has come so easily.

The only difference now really comes on Saturdays when, instead of donning a headset, he's out stringing together his own highlights. For those film sessions.

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 8

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
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

Big Ten Week 8 predictions

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
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Thanks to their bold selection of Michigan to beat Penn State, Mitch Sherman and Josh Moyer were both 5-0 in Week 7. Can they do it again in Week 8? On to the picks ...

Why Iowa will win: Steer clear of this game in Vegas as both teams have been hard to pin down. But I liked Iowa's aggressive offensive approach last week against Indiana and see no reason why the Hawkeyes can't keep the pedal down against a Maryland defense that allows more than 450 yards per game. Iowa must shore up its run defense after last week, but there are no Tevin Colemans on the Terrapins roster. Close game, fun game, lots of points, but Iowa emerges with a win. ... Iowa 35, Maryland 31 -- Adam Rittenberg

Why Maryland will win: C.J. Brown is healthier, Maryland is at home, the Terps are scoring an average of more than five TDs a game, and they're coming off a bye. Add all that together, and I feel a little better going with Maryland over the Hawkeyes. Both teams have been inconsistent, but Iowa has crossed the 30-point barrier against an FBS team only once -- and that was last week against the nation's No. 89 scoring defense. Maryland's D isn't good, but it's better than Indiana. The Hawkeyes might not be able to keep up in the end. ... Maryland 31, Iowa 28. -- Josh Moyer

Why Minnesota will win: Purdue is rapidly improving and growing into the kind of physical team Darrell Hazell wants. But Minnesota already has that kind of team. The Gophers are surging thanks to strong defensive work, solid special teams and a shorten-the-game approach on offense. The Boilermakers' young defense will have trouble containing David Cobb and the Gophers will move to 6-1. ... Minnesota 27, Purdue 16 -- Brian Bennett

Why Purdue will win: It's time to sell high on the Gophers. Minnesota has pounded its way to a 5-1 record despite ranking 124th in passing offense. Purdue's offense under sophomore quarterback Austin Appleby has shown a new propensity for big plays. The Boilermakers hung 31 on Michigan State's stingy defense a week ago with the help of a much-improved offensive line. If Appleby can get going early, he might be able to force Minnesota out of its David Cobb comfort zone and sneak away with the Big Ten upset of the week. ... Purdue 31, Minnesota 27 -- Dan Murphy

Unanimous picks
Michigan State 45, Indiana 17: Already suspect on defense with one of the worst units in the Big Ten, the Hoosiers are going to have an even harder time hanging around in shootouts with quarterback Nate Sudfeld out for the season.

Nebraska 28, Northwestern 20: Ameer Abdullah and the Huskers have had a week to recharge the batteries after their late rally came up short against Michigan State, and they’ll be looking to send a message that the West Division still goes through them this season.

Ohio State 48, Rutgers 20: The odds of the Buckeyes actually being better offensively this season than the last two under Urban Meyer looked long about a month ago, but that young attack is gaining confidence and shattering records seemingly every week even without Braxton Miller at quarterback.

Our records:
Mitch Sherman: 57-13 (.814)
Brian Bennett: 55-15 (.786)
Austin Ward: 55-15 (.786)
Adam Rittenberg: 54-16 (.771)
Dan Murphy: 25-8 (.758)
Josh Moyer: 51-19 (.729)

Big Ten midseason overview

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
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The Big Ten entered 2014 with a few high-profile opportunities to raise its flailing image.

Things started out well enough, as Wisconsin took a 24-7 lead on LSU in the third quarter on opening weekend. And it was pretty much all downhill from there for the Badgers, who wound up losing 28-24, and the rest of the league. Other early-season losses by Michigan State (at Oregon), Ohio State (Virginia Tech) and Iowa (Iowa State) relegated the Big Ten to its same old status as a middle-of-the-pack (at best) power conference.

As a result, the league needs some breaks just to get a team into the four-team College Football Playoff. Yes, conversation about the inaugural playoff has dominated the sport a little too much so far. Then again, when's the last time you heard anybody talking about who might play in this year's Orange Bowl?

The Big Ten might not place a team in the Rose Bowl -- site of a national semifinal this year -- unless Michigan State and Ohio State run the table the rest of the way, or if a team from the wide-open West Division like Nebraska or Minnesota really surprises.

Not everything, of course, revolves around the playoff, and there have been some good stories in the Big Ten during the first half. The conference boasts three of the top four rushers in the nation. The oft-mocked addition of Maryland and Rutgers doesn't look so bad as the two teams are a combined 9-3. Purdue has already tripled its win total from a year ago. The NCAA sanctions at Penn State were lifted -- though no relief was provided for the Nittany Lions' offensive line. Five teams sit at 5-1, setting up an interesting race toward ... wherever the league champion might wind up in the postseason. (Hey, how about that Orange Bowl?)

So reasons for hope remain in the Big Ten for the second half. Though maybe not so much in Ann Arbor and Champaign.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Mary Langenfeld/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon has already topped 1,000 yards and has 13 touchdowns halfway through the season.
Offensive MVP: Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon. It's so hard to choose between the fantastic running backs in this league, as Indiana's Tevin Coleman leads the FBS in rushing and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah has been a warrior. Gordon has received very little help from his team's passing game, yet he has piled up 1,046 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, including four straight games of at least 175 yards.

Defensive MVP: Ohio State DE Joey Bosa. There's no runaway winner of this award yet, but Bosa has built on his impressive freshman campaign of a year ago to become one of the most disruptive pass-rushing forces around. He has seven tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.

Biggest surprise: Few people gave Rutgers much of a chance to contend in the school's first year in the Big Ten, especially given the Scarlet Knights' murderous schedule. But with an improved Gary Nova at quarterback and a stout defense, Rutgers sits at 5-1 at the halfway point. The back half is still treacherous, including games against Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State, but Kyle Flood's team has shown it can't be taken lightly.

Biggest disappointment: Michigan, naturally. The Wolverines (3-4) beat Penn State last week at home, finally ending a streak of seven straight losses against Power 5 teams. Blowout losses against Notre Dame, Utah and Minnesota, and the Shane Morris concussion controversy have put Brady Hoke squarely on the hot seat.

Newcomer of the year: Losing Braxton Miller did not end Ohio State's playoff chances, largely because of the rapid growth of freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett. After struggling in a Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech, Barrett has blossomed into one of the top players in the Big Ten. He leads the league in total offense, pass efficiency and passing touchdowns (17).

Best coach: Jerry Kill, Minnesota. With apologies to Flood, no coach has maximized his talent more than the head Gopher. Minnesota is 5-1 and tied atop the Big Ten West Division, with its only loss coming at TCU. Kill's team finds ways to win without an overpowering offensive attack.

Best game: Indiana 31, Missouri 27. This game had a little bit of everything, with both teams combining for nearly 1,000 yards of offense and the Hoosiers scoring the winning touchdown with 22 seconds left after Missouri had hit what looked like the game-winning field goal. The road win in SEC country was also one of the league's few bright spots in nonconference play. Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, they haven't been able to duplicate that performance.

Biggest games of the second half: Armageddon arrives on Nov. 8 in East Lansing, Michigan, when Ohio State travels to Michigan State in a possible playoff eliminator. Other big B1G games are mostly in the wide-open West, including: Iowa at Minnesota (Nov. 8), Northwestern at Notre Dame (Nov. 15), Nebraska at Wisconsin (Nov. 15), Wisconsin at Iowa (Nov. 22) and Nebraska at Iowa (Nov. 28).

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 7

October, 12, 2014
Oct 12
2:00
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Five observations from an interesting Saturday in the Big Ten:

1. Gophers are contenders: The wins aren’t usually pretty, but it doesn’t take any style points to win a conference championship. Offensive limitations certainly cut down on Minnesota’s margin for error every week, but with running back David Cobb pounding away at teams and a stout defense, the victories are starting to pile up for coach Jerry Kill, who appears to have a legitimate contender on his hands. Knocking off resurgent Northwestern 24-17 puts the Gophers on top of the West Division with manageable games on deck against Purdue and Illinois, which could allow them to build momentum ahead of a tough closing stretch in November. By the end of October, there might not be a team in better position in the wide-open West.

[+] EnlargeMinnesota's David Cobb
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesDavid Cobb rushed 30 times for 97 yards, helping Minnesota to a 2-0 record in the Big Ten.
2. Ferentz, Hawkeyes alive and well: Meet the new Kirk Ferentz, fearless riverboat gambler in do-or-die, fourth-and-goal situations and manager of a two-quarterback system. Indiana’s suspect defense might have made it easier for Ferentz to get aggressive just before halftime Saturday, and the Hawkeyes might have given the scoreboard a workout regardless of who was taking the snaps. But after some ugly play in September, Iowa appears to be finding an identity and gaining confidence at the right time now that Big Ten play has arrived. Iowa has taken care of business in both league games so far, including Saturday's 45-29 win over the Hoosiers, and like Minnesota, that alone makes it a threat in the unpredictable West.

3. Uphill battle ahead of Hackenberg, Nittany Lions: The talent is still plain to see at times, but Christian Hackenberg's development might be getting stunted by Penn State’s anemic offensive line. The sophomore looks like he’s preparing to get hit every time he takes a snap, and that’s leading to some horrible decisions and inaccurate passes that are catching up with the Nittany Lions after their fast start under James Franklin. Without Hackenberg’s ill-advised attempt under pressure that was picked off in the second half on Saturday night, Michigan’s toothless offense probably would have never been in position to kick a game-tying field goal, and his intentional grounding on Penn State’s final drive clinched the 18-13 defeat. Devin Gardner is in a similar situation behind Michigan’s suspect offensive line, and both guys should prepare to take a lot more punishment over the next few weeks.

4. Spartans still missing a complete effort: Purdue has noticeably improved and deserves credit for the strides it has made in coach Darrell Hazell’s second season with the program. But there’s still no real excuse for the reigning Big Ten champions and a team aiming to get back in the College Football Playoff conversation to lose concentration and allow opponents to climb back into games down the stretch the way Michigan State did for the second week in a row. The Spartans claimed to have learned a lesson after nearly giving away a win over Nebraska last week, but it doesn’t appear to have sunk in yet following a 45-31 win over the Boilermakers. Even Mark Dantonio will have to accept some blame this time after his head-scratching decision to fake a punt deep in his own territory in the fourth quarter.

5. Defenses sinking Illinois, Indiana: Both programs are still more than capable of scoring points, even with injuries limiting their quarterbacks. But the Illini and Hoosiers just aren’t going anywhere with such porous defenses continuing to undermine any efforts on the other side of the ball. Illinois showed some fight for coach Tim Beckman during a 38-28 loss, but its tackling was shoddy far more often than not and it couldn’t slow down even a one-dimensional Wisconsin offense that is barely a threat to pass at all. And an Iowa team that hadn’t scored more than 24 points in a game all season surpassed that total by the end of the first quarter, once again showing how far the Hoosiers have to go defensively if they’re going to turn things around and get back to a bowl game.

Big Ten viewer’s guide: Week 7

October, 10, 2014
Oct 10
10:00
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Week 7 is here, and let’s not sugarcoat it: Big Ten football has looked more interesting on other weekends. This first Saturday of the season without nonconference action lacks marquee matchups. Still, the division races will continue to take shape.

Here’s a look at the five games (all times Eastern):

Noon

Illinois (3-3) and Wisconsin (3-2), ESPN2: Will Melvin Gordon run for 300 yards? If the Badgers wanted it to happen, Illinois’ 119th-ranked rushing defense would likely comply. More of the intrigue in Madison involves the quarterbacks. For Wisconsin, Joel Stave, who returned last week against Northwestern, will see time, in addition to Tanner McEvoy, who might also take a shot at receiver. And with Illinois’ Wes Lunt out with a fractured leg, senior Reilly O’Toole and sophomore Aaron Bailey, who was set to redshirt, have competed in practice this week.

Indiana (3-2) and Iowa (4-1), ESPNU: Indiana has shown it can win on the road in tough spots, handing Missouri its lone loss on Sept. 20. The Hoosiers are more explosive on offense than any foe Iowa has faced. But Indiana still can’t defend well, in particular against proficient quarterbacks. The Hawkeyes are going back to Jake Rudock at the start, but C.J. Beathard will play. How well can Greg Davis manage this? If it’s a disaster, Indiana might just find itself in the right place at the right time for an upset bid.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cobb
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesDavid Cobb and Minnesota can take a big step in their quest for a Western Division crown by beating Northwestern on Saturday.
Northwestern (3-2) at Minnesota (4-1), BTN: Who would have guessed a month ago, as the Golden Gophers fell flat at TCU and the Wildcats sat winless, that this game would have legitimate implications for the West Division title race? It does, with NU in quest of a third straight unexpected win to open league play. Its defense led the charge against Penn State and Wisconsin. Minnesota is simply solid, led by David Cobb, statistically the league’s most valuable offensive player. Minnesota has defended the pass especially well in recent games and will test Northwestern’s Trevor Siemian, 13th in the Big Ten in QBR.

3:30 p.m.

No. 8 Michigan State (4-1) at Purdue (3-3), ESPN2: At least it’s not the best team in the Big Ten against the worst. Purdue escaped the low spot last week with a win over Illinois. And sophomore quarterback Austin Appleby looked good in the victory. Very good, in fact. Back at home, he figures to find a much more difficult situation against the Spartans, who might come in a bit angry after nearly blowing a 24-point, fourth-quarter lead against Nebraska.

7 p.m.

Penn State (4-1) at Michigan (2-4), ESPN2: The visitors from Happy Valley, after an off week, get an opportunity to show that their anemic performance against Northwestern was just a fluke. With an upcoming stretch of three challenging games, no better time exists for PSU to get healthy than at Michigan, trying to avoid its first 0-3 start in the Big Ten since 1965. Against a good Penn State front, the Wolverines must protect Devin Gardner and throw the football, neither of which they’ve done well in recent weeks.

Required reading

Big Ten Week 7 predictions

October, 9, 2014
Oct 9
9:00
AM ET
It's a light week, but that doesn't mean our experts agreed on every game. Dan Murphy led the group last week, going 5-1, and moved up to third in the group standings. Can he keep climbing? On to the picks ...

Why Penn State will win: The Nittany Lions may have some soft spots on offense, but by now it’s pretty clear that they can get the job done defensively. Combining that with occasional moments of brilliance from quarterback Christian Hackenberg at least gives Penn State an identity and a chance to win every week. Meanwhile, figuring out what the Wolverines are capable of game to game has been a pointless exercise, and coach Brady Hoke is clearly running low on answers. Bottom line: No Big Ten offense scores fewer points than the Wolverines, and no defense in the league is allowing fewer than Penn State. That’s a simple formula for a Nittany Lions win. Penn State 21, Michigan 10 -- Austin Ward

Why Michigan will win: Devin Gardner finally turned in a good performance Saturday, but the big problem arose on defense with the total lack of a pass rush. Well, that pressure shouldn't be a problem at all against Penn State. The Nittany Lions' offensive line has been a sieve against every team not named "UMass" so far this season. On the other side of the ball, Penn State's defense has played great -- but it showed some cracks with linebacker Nyeem Wartman on the sideline. Coach James Franklin doesn't discuss injuries, but Wartman's arm was in a sling two weeks ago and it'd be a surprise if he were 100 percent already. Add all that in with the fact this game will be under the lights at the Big House, and it seems as if Michigan might finally be able to record a win. It should be close either way. Michigan 20, Penn State 17 -- Josh Moyer

Why Minnesota will win: Northwestern is riding a wave of confidence, and the Wildcats won by making both Penn State and Wisconsin one-dimensional on offense. Minnesota, then, is in similar danger because of its lack of a passing game. Yet the Gophers had a bye week to rest up workhorse back David Cobb, and their defense will give the Wildcats trouble. Jerry Kill's team is playing with confidence as well, and the combination of its physicality and home-field advantage will be enough to slip by in a close one. Minnesota 20, Northwestern 17 -- Brian Bennett

Why Northwestern will win: I recognize the symbolism of Minnesota's victory at Michigan -- big for the program, big for recruiting -- but Northwestern's wins against an undefeated Penn State and a one-loss Wisconsin carry far more weight than beating the nosediving Wolverines. Northwestern is hitting its stride, particularly on defense, and faces a Minnesota team with a similar profile to Wisconsin (great run attack, weak pass attack, strong defense). The bye week factor is vastly overplayed, and Northwestern typically plays well on the road, especially for early kickoffs. These are two evenly matched teams with solid defense and the ability to run the ball. But Northwestern has a little more balance on offense and gets a close win in Minneapolis. Northwestern 21, Minnesota 20 -- Adam Rittenberg

Why Indiana will win: Iowa has yet to score more than 24 points against an FBS opponent this season. The Hawkeyes have survived by preventing big plays and stopping the run. They are one of 11 teams in the nation that averages less than 100 rushing yards allowed per game. That will be a tough task against the Hoosiers' high-tempo offense and running back Tevin Coleman, who averages 8 yards per carry. Iowa doesn't look like it has an offense that can keep pace yet. Indiana 33, Iowa 24 -- Dan Murphy

Why Iowa will win: The Hawkeyes this season have been consistently mediocre. And Indiana is anything but that. It’s tough to trust the Hoosiers, who lost to a MAC team one week and beat an SEC contender the next. With Iowa, you usually know what you’ll get, even when it’s painful to watch. And after a rocky five-game start, faced with an uncertain situation at quarterback, many of the preseason expectations have been lifted. In other words, the Hawkeyes are right in the spot where they typically thrive. Iowa’s defense will rise to the occasion against IU’s dangerous set of weapons. Iowa 24, Indiana 20 -- Mitch Sherman

Unanimous decisions

Wisconsin 42, Illinois 20: Illinois is without starting quarterback Wes Lunt, and the Badgers still have Melvin Gordon. Passing game or not, Wisconsin should cruise.

Michigan State 38, Purdue 10: Michigan State boasts an improved offense and one of the best defenses in the nation. Purdue is ... Purdue.

Our records:
Mitch Sherman: 52-13 (.800)
Austin Ward: 52-13 (.800)
Dan Murphy: 22-6 (.786)
Brian Bennett: 51-14 (.785)
Aram Rittenberg: 51-14 (.785)
Josh Moyer: 46-19 (.708)
If you spent Sunday looking at your spouse, your kids or your dog with raised eyebrows, you're not alone. Blame college football. After weeks like this past one, everyone is reassessing everything.

That's what happens when five of the top eight teams lose on the same week for the first time in the history of the AP poll.

Rather than bolting to the divorce lawyer, the adoption agency or the pound, realize this is probably just a football issue. In that spirit, let's reassess the Big Ten teams six weeks into the season.

Illinois (3-3): Unfortunately for embattled coach Tim Beckman, the Illini are what we thought they were. It's bad but somewhat understandable to allow 458 rush yards to Nebraska on the road. It's inexcusable to allow 349 to Purdue at home. The offense is fun, but top quarterback Wes Lunt is out 4-6 weeks with a fractured leg. Beckman Watch has begun.

Indiana (3-2): We've seen what Indiana can be (road upset of Missouri) and what Indiana still is (disappointing losses to Bowling Green and Maryland). Kevin Wilson's team is halfway to bowl eligibility but must pull off an upset or two to get there. Running back Tevin Coleman (841 rush yards, 8 TDs) might be the nation's best-kept secret. It will remain that way unless Indiana starts winning more.

Iowa (4-1): The record is nice, but Iowa has played well for about six quarters this season. The defense is fine, but an inconsistent run game remains baflfling. The two-quarterback system will be fascinating theater. C.J. Beathard makes Iowa's offense more interesting, but does he make it better? The West Division is wide open, and Iowa has an advantageous home slate (Northwestern, Wisconsin, Nebraska).

Maryland (4-2): The most recent performance notwithstanding, Maryland's first half exceeded expectations. The Terrapins delivered big plays, which covered up some general sloppiness (12 giveaways, 53.7 penalty yards per game). We are finally seeing what a relatively healthy Maryland team can do. The Terrapins are 3-0 on the road, so if they can take care of business at home, they'll secure a nice bowl trip.

Michigan (2-4): Most of us, if not all of us, were wrong to varying degrees about this team. Doug Nussmeier hasn't fixed the offense. The defense remains unremarkable. Brady Hoke's days as coach seem numbered. Whether it's the talent evaluation, the talent development or the schematic vision, something went dreadfully wrong. It looks like a lost season.

Michigan State (4-1): The Spartans remain the class of the Big Ten. If they had held a lead at Oregon, they would be in the thick of the playoff discussion. They still can get to the final four but must run the table in Big Ten play for the second straight year. Quarterback Connor Cook is better and so is an offense that leads the Big Ten in scoring (45.6 ppg). The Spartan Dawgs aren't quite as dominant but showed against Nebraska that they can still stifle good offenses.

Minnesota (4-1): This is a similar, potentially better version of recent Minnesota teams. Tracy Claeys' defense once again looks very solid. The offense is extremely run-heavy (67 percent of yards), although quarterback Mitch Leidner provides a small passing threat. Minnesota has a real chance to make some noise in the West Division, although its closing schedule will tell a lot about the state of the program.

Nebraska (5-1): We knew Ameer Abdullah was great. but he's still exceeding expectations. The offense can light up the scoreboard against soft defenses but struggled for most of the Michigan State game. Nebraska has the most overall talent in the West Division, but the road schedule (Northwestern, Wisconsin, Iowa) could prevent a trip to Indy.

Northwestern (3-2): Woeful the first two weeks, wonderful the past two, these Wildcats are hard to identify. Pat Fitzgerald's tough talk seems to be hitting its mark, and the emergence of young defenders like Anthony Walker and Godwin Igwebuike is encouraging. The offense still struggles to score. A win Saturday at Minnesota validates Northwestern as a threat in the West.

Ohio State (4-1): The forecast looks a lot brighter now than after a stunning Week 2 home loss to Virginia Tech. J.T. Barrett development at quarterback is the biggest reason for optimism, and Ohio State is generating first downs and points at a dizzying pace. The defense's development remains the big question mark. The Nov. 8 showdown at Michigan State looms.

Penn State (4-1): The Lions have found ways to win despite obvious flaws exposed in their lone loss. If the offensive line doesn't make strides, it could be a tough second half for James Franklin's team. A solid defense should win PSU some games, and the pass game has potential with young wideouts Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton. The next two games (Michigan, Ohio State) will be telling.

Purdue (3-3): Improvement was expected as Purdue couldn't get much worse than last season. The Boilers finally found a spark on offense last week thanks to speed backs Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert and new quarterback Austin Appleby. Wins could be scarce the rest of the way, but Purdue is on the uptick.

Rutgers (5-1): The biggest surprise in the B1G, at least outside the Garden State. Rutgers is a play or two away from being undefeated. Kyle Flood's staff changes have paid off, quarterback Gary Nova has made obvious strides, and the defense is holding its own, especially up front. Rutgers is more than holding its own in its new league.

Wisconsin (3-2): I'm not as surprised as some, as Wisconsin never looked like a top-15 team, not with its problems at quarterback and receiver. Melvin Gordon has been as good as advertised, but teams still need some semblance of a passing attack to win consistently, especially away from home. Wisconsin isn't out of the West race but likely can't afford another slip-up.

Weekend Rewind: Big Ten

October, 6, 2014
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As an unprecedented five of the top eight teams in the Associated Press poll lost in Week 6, the Big Ten experienced a calm Saturday by comparison.

But what would you have thought in August if told that on the first Saturday of October, Michigan would lose to Rutgers and Wisconsin would fall to a Northwestern team that started the season with losses to Cal and Northern Illinois?

Chaos.

With each of the 14 teams now underway in league play, it’s something more like a controlled mess.

Northwestern leads the West Division, set for a showdown on Saturday at Minnesota. Imagine that.

Michigan’s bowl prospects look bleak.

Oh, and Purdue won a league game. Let’s get to the Weekend Rewind.

[+] EnlargeRutgers defense
Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY SportsRutgers' defense gave Michigan QB Devin Gardner fits this past Saturday as the Scarlet Knights won their first game in the Big Ten.
Team of the week: Rutgers, baby. The Scarlet Knights and their fans partied hard on Saturday night after a 26-24 win over the woeful Wolverines, the first Big Ten victory ever for the New Jersey school. Incredible to think that Rutgers, picked by many to finish last in the Big Ten East, is a late defensive lapse against Penn State away from a 6-0 start. To beat Michigan, the Scarlet Knights got 404 yards through the air and three touchdown passes from quarterback Gary Nova and a Kemoko Turay block of Matt Wile’s long field goal with 3:01 to play.

Biggest play: Let’s go to the game billed as the biggest of the week. It unfolded as a dud for three quarters, then turned into a thriller as Nebraska rallied for 19 points in the final 13 minutes, falling 27-22 as Trae Waynes intercepted Tommy Armstrong Jr. with 30 seconds left at the Michigan State 17-yard line. No play was bigger, though, than MSU linebacker Ed Davis’ strip of star I-back Ameer Abdullah at the MSU 7-yard line after Macgarrett Kings fumbled a punt midway through the second quarter. Nebraska recovered at the 24, got a first down and appeared ready to score a touchdown to cut into the Spartans’ 14-0 lead. But Shilique Calhoun recovered Abdullah’s fumble and raced 38 yards to set up a field goal that extended Michigan State’s edge to 17-0. It kept momentum with the Spartans, who needed every point at the end.

Big Man on Campus (offense): Ohio State freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett threw for 267 yards and rushed for 71, leading the Buckeyes and their suddenly potent offense to a 52-24 win at Maryland. Barrett, over the past three games, has thrown for 909 yards with 14 touchdowns and one interception, compiling a raw QBR of 87.0, sixth-best nationally.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Northwestern freshman safety Godwin Igwebuike intercepted Wisconsin quarterbacks three times, and they were all big in the Wildcats’ 20-14 win. He picked Tanner McEvoy in the end zone to end the Badgers’ opening drive, got Joel Stave – again in the end zone – with less than six minutes to play and intercepted Stave near midfield with 18 seconds to play.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Michigan State senior punter Mike Sadler performed like the All-America selection that he is, pinning Nebraska three times inside its 20-yard line on nine punts. Sadler punted to the 1-yard line in the first quarter and to the 2 late in the first half. Even the punt returned 62 yards for a touchdown by DeMornay Pierson-El required an exceptional effort just to field the ball. Really, though, Sadler earns this recognition for petting his imaginary cat during the game in a nod to this ongoing conversation with Faux Pelini.

Biggest faceplant: The Nebraska offensive line. Michigan State presented the toughest challenge of the season, no doubt, for the Huskers’ front five, but what happened? Nebraska rushed for 47 yards – more than 300 below its season average – and averaged 1.3 per attempt, both low figures in 88 games under Bo Pelini. Armstrong, before Saturday, had been sacked three times in five games; the Spartans got to him for five sacks and applied relentless pressure for much of the night. And while it wasn’t quite a faceplant, there was this lowlight from left guard Jake Cotton.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 6

October, 5, 2014
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Tipping the cap to the best and brightest performances in the Big Ten on Saturday.

Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: Urban Meyer has publicly backed Braxton Miller as his quarterback for next season, but the Buckeyes might be headed for a heated battle if Barrett continues developing at this frightening pace. The redshirt freshman has been on an absolute tear over the last three games, keeping his red-hot play rolling with 267 passing yards, 71 more on the ground and 5 total touchdowns in a 52-24 blowout on the road against Maryland.

Purdue QB Austin Appleby: The Boilermakers snapped their 9-game losing streak in the Big Ten, and they might have found an answer at quarterback that can keep them competitive moving forward. Appleby accounted for three touchdowns, proving effective as both a rusher with 10.9 yards per carry and as passer thanks to just 5 incompletions in a meaningful 38-27 victory at Illinois.

Indiana WR Shane Wynn: There’s been a spark missing from the passing attack for the Hoosiers early in the season, but Wynn provided the type of explosion they’ve been looking for with a pair of touchdowns in the 49-24 win over North Texas. Wynn only caught five passes but averaged more than 25 yards per reception as Indiana hit the halfway mark in its bid for bowl eligibility.

Northwestern S Godwin Igwebuike: What can the redshirt freshman possibly do for an encore after that splashy starting debut? Igwebuike nabbed three interceptions to spark the Wildcats to another upset victory, this time 20-14 over Wisconsin, playing an integral role for a defense that has suddenly turned the team into a contender in the West Division. Ibraheim Campbell might have a hard time getting his job back now.

Rutgers DE Kemoko Turay: The Scarlet Knights got a huge outing from quarterback Gary Nova to drive the offense, but it was the playmaking pass-rusher and kick-blocking specialist who clinched the historic Big Ten victory, 26-24 over Michigan. Turay chipped in another half of a sack before soaring to swat down Michigan’s last-gasp field goal, setting off a wild party at Rutgers.

Michigan State WR Tony Lippett: The touchdown binge continued, with the Spartans senior making two more visits to the end zone -- scores that wound up being more valuable than they seemed after Nebraska’s furious comeback bid in the fourth quarter that fell just short in a 27-22 Michigan State win. Lippett has a touchdown in every game and eight overall after catching one and rushing for another to keep Michigan State’s playoff hopes alive.
Five observations from Saturday in the Big Ten:

1. Michigan State and Ohio State are sharpening their teeth. So much for Nebraska as the Big Ten’s lone unbeaten. The Spartans, despite turning the ball over three times in their own territory in the first half, built a 27-3 lead through three quarters and held off a furious late Nebraska rally for a 27-22 victory. The MSU defense looked salty as ever through 45 minutes and neutralized Nebraska I-back Ameer Abdullah. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes continued their offensive resurgence. Since their Sept. 6 loss to Virginia Tech, freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett has led OSU to three straight showings of 50-plus points and more than 500 yards. On Saturday, it was 52-24 at Maryland as Barrett accumulated 338 yards of total offense. Considering the chaos that unfolded elsewhere in college football on Saturday, the Spartans and Buckeyes are moving back toward contention for the College Football Playoff. Their meeting on Nov. 8 in East Lansing is a de facto elimination game.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Alex Goodlett/Getty ImagesWith their loss to Rutgers, Brady Hoke's Wolverines fell to 0-2 in the Big Ten.
 2. Things are getting worse for Michigan coach Brady Hoke. Rutgers and quarterback Gary Nova became the latest to celebrate at the expense of the Wolverines after the Scarlet Knights beat Michigan 26-24 in Piscataway for the school’s first Big Ten win. Kemoko Turay blocked a long field goal with three minutes to play, and Nova threw for 404 yards and three scores. The big story here, though, is Michigan, which dropped to 0-2 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1967. Hoke, after this third straight loss, appears incapable of turning this around.

3. It’s time to take Northwestern seriously. Be honest: Who had given up on the Wildcats after opening losses to Cal and Northern Illinois? Coach Pat Fitzgerald got tough with his team, and it worked. Maybe all NU needed was a taste of Big Ten football. It drilled Penn State last week and capitalized on four interceptions Saturday to beat Wisconsin 20-14. Freshman safety Godwin Igwebuike collected three picks, including two in the end zone. These guys play defense, despite surrendering a career-high 259 yards to Melvin Gordon. At 2-0, Northwestern is alone atop the West Division with opportunities to take control of the division in the next two weeks at Minnesota and against Nebraska in Evanston. After Saturday, it’s as realistic as any other scenario.

4. Wisconsin has a situation at quarterback. It’s not a great one, either. Junior Joel Stave made his return at Northwestern. In difficult circumstances as the Badgers trailed 10-0, Stave competed admirably after overcoming a mental hurdle just to get back on the field. He finished 8-of-19 for 114 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. He was picked off twice late in the fourth quarter. Senior Tanner McEvoy, who did not play in the second half, finished 4-of-10 for 24 yards. So what now? Presumably, if Stave lost the job only because he was incapable of operating -- and now he’s fine -- then perhaps it’s his position. Likely, the decision is more difficult. McEvoy and Stave possess different strengths, so maybe they’ll both fit into the offense. Regardless, the Badgers need better play at QB than they received against Northwestern.

5. Austin Appleby’s time has come. The Purdue sophomore completed 15 of 20 throws for 202 yards and a score in his first career start as the Boilermakers won a Big Ten game for the first time under coach Darrell Hazell, 38-27 at Illinois. Appleby rushed seven times for 76 yards and two scores to lead a big-play attack. Where has this been for the past year and a half? It came against Illinois, yes, but any league win is cause for celebration for Purdue.

Big Ten Week 6 predictions

October, 2, 2014
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Austin Ward scored an 8-1 week and moves into a tie with Mitch Sherman for the top record overall. Not as many games this week, but Michigan once again divides our experts. On to the picks ...



Why Michigan State will win: Improvement was expected all along on offense, but seeing the Spartans on top of the league in scoring at this point still qualifies as a surprise. Connor Cook’s development at quarterback makes Michigan State even more dangerous than it was a year ago, when it won the Big Ten relying heavily on its defense, and the roster looks capable of winning either a slugfest or a shootout. Heisman Trophy candidate Ameer Abdullah might be able to make this one the latter, but the Spartans are the most talented team in the league, their playoff hopes are on the line and they’re at home. That’s too much to overcome for the Huskers. Michigan State 34, Nebraska 24. -- Austin Ward

Why Nebraska could win: The Huskers, under Bo Pelini, usually find a way to match up well with Michigan State because the Spartans, especially on defense, coach with a mindset similar to the Nebraska style. MSU lost to Nebraska in 2011 and 2012 and beat the Huskers 41-28 last year, with help from five Nebraska turnovers. Such understanding helps the Huskers find weaknesses. There’s no doubt Nebraska will attempt to establish the running game. Likely, though, it’ll need help from quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. to extend the field -- his strength in the passing game. If it works, Nebraska can eat clock and play keep-away from Cook. -- Mitch Sherman



Why Rutgers will win: Well, first things first: Have you seen Michigan play lately? The program is in total disarray behind the scenes, and the Wolverines haven't shown that they can beat -- or even compete credibly with -- any team with a pulse. Plus, Rutgers has had a terrific pass rush this season, which should frighten the bejeezus out of Devin Gardner given the state of the maize and blue offensive line. Michigan's defense will keep it in the game, and Gary Nova has to make sure he doesn't play Rutgers out of the game. But no sane person can possibly pick the Wolverines with any confidence right now. Rutgers 21, Michigan 14 -- Brian Bennett

Why Michigan will win: Of course the resident contrarian is going with the Maize and Blue. Rutgers sees all the turmoil at Michigan and clearly will overlook the Wolverines (now there's a sentence that has never been typed). In all seriousness though, Michigan can't be done this early, can it? A loss in Piscataway, New Jersey, effectively ends the season for the Wolverines, who have yet to lose in the East Division and still can hope for a stunning turnaround. I expect a big night from Frank Clark, Blake Countess, possibly New Jersey native Jabrill Peppers and the Wolverines' defense, which records two pick-sixes against Nova. Gardner avoids the turnover bug and leads two field goal drives as Michigan prevails in Piscataway. Michigan 20, Rutgers 17 -- Adam Rittenberg



Why Purdue will win: I just can't shake the idea that Darrell Hazell can push his Boilermakers to at least one conference win this season. The Illini (or Northwestern on Nov. 22) might be their best chance. Illinois ranks 109th nationally with 11 turnovers at the end of September. A couple more on Saturday could give Purdue the opportunities it needs to stay close and pull out a big win. If that doesn't sell you, Jim Cornelison of Chicago Blackhawks anthem fame will be singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" before kickoff. Something interesting is bound to follow. Purdue 26, Illinois 24. -- Dan Murphy

Why Illinois will win: Neither team is particularly good, but Illinois shouldn't struggle putting up points in this game. Quarterback Wes Lunt, tailback Josh Ferguson and wideout Geronimo Allison combine to form one of the more underrated trios in the Big Ten, and Purdue's defense gave up 72 points to the directional Michigans. As for Purdue's offense? Well, Hazell still isn't quite sure who's going to start at quarterback Saturday. It won't matter; Illinois pulls away in the second half. Illinois 35, Purdue 21. -- Josh Moyer

The other unanimous selections

Ohio State 42, Maryland 30: Maryland's first-ever Big Ten home game is a doozy as the Buckeyes come to town. The Terrapins are strongest where Ohio State is weakest, with their electric receivers capable of causing all sorts of trouble for Chris Ash's still wobbly pass defense. Expect lots of fireworks, but in the end a rapidly improving Buckeyes offense has too much speed for Maryland to handle.

Wisconsin 28, Northwestern 17: Wisconsin hasn't won in Evanston, Illinois, since 1999, and the Wildcats are riding a sudden urge of confidence after knocking off Penn State on the road last week. Tanner McEvoy will have to be sharp, but the combination of the Badgers' defense and Melvin Gordon will rule the day.

Indiana 31, North Texas 24: Indiana can beat almost anybody if its offense is clicking (see: Missouri) and lose to just about anyone because of its defense (see: Bowling Green). Still, the Hoosiers should bounce back against the Mean Green.

Our records:
Mitch Sherman: 47-12 (.797)
Austin Ward: 47-12 (.797)
Brian Bennett: 46-13 (.779)
Adam Rittenberg: 46-13 (.779)
Dan Murphy: 16-6 (.727)
Josh Moyer: 42-17 (.712)

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