NCF Nation: Austin Appleby

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 15

December, 7, 2014
Dec 7
10:00
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When simply picking the games doesn't cut it, the Big Ten blog crew takes it to another level. For some bolder, more specific predictions for the opening weekend of what could be an unforgettable November, we hit the roundtable.

Adam Rittenberg: Purdue will pace Nebraska well into the second half.

This isn't a knock on the Huskers, who are quietly putting together a very solid, and refreshingly drama-free, season. But Purdue's offense is hitting its stride behind quarterback Austin Appleby, speed backs Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert and a much-improved offensive line. The Boilers have had two weeks to prepare and face a Nebraska defense that still has too many technical breakdowns for my liking. This will be a track meet for two, maybe three quarters -- thinking 28-24 Nebraska at halftime -- before Ameer Abdullah and Nebraska pull away in the fourth.

Mitch Sherman: Wisconsin will make its biggest statement yet.

The Badgers served notice to the rest of the West last week with a 52-7 win over Maryland that they’ve turned a corner. Still, it was one game. It was at home, and we’ve seen previous flashes from Wisconsin. But with most of the attention focused on the exploits of Melvin Gordon and uncertainty at QB, the Wisconsin defense has built a résumé as the Big Ten’s best. Now, with Joel Stave back in command, the Badgers will streamroll Rutgers, beat up at QB and elsewhere after trips to Ohio State and Nebraska, and enter the final four weeks as the favorite in the West despite that ugly Northwestern loss.

Brian Bennett: Northwestern and Iowa will head to overtime. Again.

Just like last year in Iowa City, the Wildcats and Hawkeyes will play to a draw in regulation. They're similar teams, with good defenses and running games but who struggle to score at times. Justin Jackson and Mark Weisman will each find the end zone twice as the teams go into overtime tied at 20. Northwestern makes one more play in the second extra period to win it.

Austin Ward: Tevin Coleman will be held in check.

The Indiana tailback wasn’t getting all that much support from the passing game even when Nate Sudfeld was healthy and that didn’t slow him down even against stout rush defenses. But with the attack even more one-dimensional now, his string of 100-yard outings is going to come to an end on the road against Michigan and a defense allowing just 3.1 yards per carry. That’s about the only thing the Wolverines do well at this point, and any chance of salvaging something positive out of this season for Brady Hoke’s club will require coming out inspired to take care of Indiana. That’s yet another sign of how bad things are at Michigan, but there is a talented, proud defense waiting for a chance to do something nobody else has done yet this season.

Dan Murphy: Ohio State hits 60 points for the second time this season.

Any chances of the Buckeyes looking ahead to the Michigan State next weekend were knocked out after the close call in Happy Valley. J.T. Barrett will be back in his comfort zone at home and looking to pick a part the Fighting Illini defense. Ohio State hung 66 points on Kent State earlier this year. While Saturday might not be quite as big of a blowout, the Buckeyes will get to 60 for the second year in a row against Illinois.

Josh Moyer: Penn State hits its highest rushing total of the Big Ten season.

OK, maybe this is a bit of a gamble considering that left tackle Donovan Smith -- the only returning starter on the line this season -- suffered an injury Saturday, and his status is unknown against Maryland. But the Nittany Lions fared better than I expected against Ohio State, and the offensive line has a much easier test against the Terrapins. Only 17 teams in the nation are faring worse in run defense than than the Terps, so we should see a healthy dose of Penn State speedsters Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch. James Franklin has vowed to keep running the ball, and I think that strategy finally pays off this weekend.
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 Power Rankings: Week 7

October, 12, 2014
Oct 12
2:00
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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
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.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 6

October, 5, 2014
Oct 5
9:00
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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.
With all the attention last week focused on the ending of the Michigan-Notre Dame series, it was easy to forget that another long-running rivalry involving the Irish and the Big Ten is going on a break.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There's no question that Purdue sees this week's game as more than just another one on the schedule. The Boilers must give it their best shot, because they won't get another chance at the Irish for a while.
Purdue is hoping for dramatically different results in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell after a 1-11 stinker in 2013. Not surprisingly, it will try to achieve those results with the same quarterback.

Hazell on Monday named sophomore quarterback Danny Etling as the starter for the Aug. 30 opener against Western Michigan. Etling, who started the final seven games last season as a true freshman, held off sophomore Austin Appleby and, to a lesser extent, freshman David Blough for the top job.

[+] EnlargeDanny Etling
Zach Bolinger/Icon SMISophomore Danny Etling earned Purdue's starting quarterback job with a strong offseason.
Appleby appeared to provide a nice push for Etling during spring practice and through fall camp, which can only help Etling's development going forward. Although Purdue's offensive struggles and Etling's understandable inconsistency as a freshman caused the quarterback job to remain open in the offseason, Etling raised his level of play during the offseason. He gave the coaches no reason to make a change.

Hazell summoned the quarterbacks to his office around 8:15 a.m. Monday for individual meetings. He informed Etling that he would lead the offense for the opener.

"You're never too sure about anything," Etling told ESPN.com. "You want to be grateful for whatever happens and be prepared for whatever challenge if it isn't. I was lucky enough [to be named the starter]."

Appleby has had a good attitude about the competition and told reporters Monday that he's at Purdue "for a reason" and has no intention of transferring. Hazell said Blough, like Etling a decorated high school recruit who enrolled early at Purdue, will redshirt the season. So barring a change, Etling and Blough will be separated by two years on the eligibility chart.

Etling improved down the stretch last season and ended things on a very strong note at Indiana (485 passing yards, four touchdowns). He'll operate an offense that should be more explosive with speed in the backfield (Akeem Hunt, Raheem Mostert) and more depth on the perimeter (DeAngelo Yancey, Danny Anthrop, Dan Monteroso, B.J. Knauf).

The big question is whether Purdue's line can hold up. The Boilers were overmatched up front in 2013, rushing for just 67.1 yards per game and allowing a league-worst 38 sacks. No quarterback has a chance if those numbers don't improve.

It will be interesting to see how Etling performs with another full offseason in the system. He talked Monday about not overstepping his boundaries as a young player, but quarterbacks have to do that no matter their age.

"The expectations and the energy around this building are very high," Etling said.

Purdue has a good situation at quarterback with Etling, Appleby and Blough. Continuity at quarterback makes sense for an offense that did very little well in 2013.

Now it's about getting others to step up, especially the linemen.
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Purdue quarterback Danny Etling showed up to a recent interview holding a piece of paper marked with X’s, O’s and notations.

It wasn't a play sheet for that afternoon's practice. Etling had created most of the page himself. Boilers offensive coordinator John Shoop provides his quarterbacks with general concepts, and then lets their minds run wild. He encourages Etling, Austin Appleby, 2014 signee David Blough and the other signal-callers to submit plays for review. Some will be used in practice. Some will even be used in games this season.

[+] EnlargeDanny Etling
Adam Rittenberg/ESPNPurdue QB Danny Etling shows off the sheet where he creates plays that could find their way into a game.
"You just throw it on a piece of paper," Etling told ESPN.com "He'll be like, 'Terrible, terrible, terrible ... that one's not bad. Let's talk about it.' That’s how our plays develop, by that thought process. Out of every 10 plays you draw, nine of them suck but one might be good and that's the one you might run on Saturday."

Shoop is the "puppet master," as Etling puts it, and has final say on all play calls, but Purdue's quarterbacks are very involved in the planning process for practices this spring -- and will be for games this fall.

"I value that," Shoop said. "It's our job as a staff to make our team feel empowered, like they're in control. These guys are not robots. Our staff takes a great deal of pride that the men who come and play for us are going to learn the game of football."

After a 1-11 season, where one of Purdue's biggest problems -- not lining up correctly -- occurred before the snap, you would expect the coaches to take even greater control of the learning process. The classic scenes of coaches and players -- red-faced coaches screaming and pounding on tables, players scared out of their cleats -- would seem likely inside the Mollenkopf Center this spring.

But there's a problem with that teaching model.

"They’ll just sit there and nod their heads, say they got it," defensive backs coach Taver Johnson said, "and then we’ll go down to the field and they’ll have absolutely no clue."

Purdue has chosen a different direction this spring. There's plenty of teaching being done, but the Boilers’ coaches are doing all they can to involve players in the process.

"Every time you take over a new program, your staff has to teach everything," coach Darrell Hazell said. "How do you line up, how do you break a huddle, where you are on the field. Now it's becoming fun, because you don’t have to worry about all those little things.

"You can concentrate on ball and getting guys better."

It beats the alternative.

For Shoop, it means having quarterbacks present their own plays at each meeting, and seriously considering them for use. For Johnson, it's having a player stand at the front of the room and teach his teammates press technique. For wide receivers coach Kevin Sherman, it's having each wideout prepare a report on a concept or set of concepts, while encouraging them to get creative.

Sophomore receiver Cameron Posey took it to heart.

It's our job as a staff to make our team feel empowered, like they're in control. These guys are not robots. Our staff takes a great deal of pride that the men who come and play for us are going to learn the game of football.

-- Purdue offensive coordinator John Shoop
"Cameron used little Indians and cowboys on a cardboard," Sherman said. "He used different color lines on his routes. Very creative. I was very proud of them. They were very, very invested in what we're trying to do."

Etling admits the plays he submitted last year were "high school stuff," possibly because he had just come from high school. But he eventually learned all that goes into a play and what Shoop likes. One of his submissions made it into a game against Illinois and went for a completion.

Although the players' submissions still need refining, Shoop never writes them off immediately. He fully expects to use an Etling play or an Appleby play in games this fall.

"These coaches are very unique, especially with Coach Shoop in the way he challenges us mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually," Appleby said. "Coach Shoop says if you never walk into this room comfortable, we're not doing our jobs and we're not getting better.

"The only time I would say I wouldn't be able to develop as a complete quarterback is if there was a ceiling put over my head. There is no ceiling."

Appleby hopes to pursue coaching after his playing career and would like to be an offensive coordinator in college.

"I can't get enough of it," he said. "It's my favorite class. I know we're student-athletes, but my football class is what I look forward to all day. I get a chance to learn from [Shoop], not only as a player, but if I pursue a coaching career, it's going to pay dividends."

The coaches have successfully created more player investment in the learning process. The next step: translating it to the field when it matters.

"Any time you can get the players thinking like the coaches," Hazell said, "you have a chance to move forward."
The last two seasons have shown that two-quarterback systems can work in the Big Ten.

Northwestern recorded 10 wins in 2012 while rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Indiana led the Big Ten and ranked ninth nationally in total offense last fall while alternating between Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa, Connor Cook
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAfter taking over the quarterback job in Week 5, Connor Cook led the Spartans to 10 consecutive wins.
Given the recent success, my next statement might surprise you: Every Big Ten team would be best served picking one quarterback and sticking with him in 2014. That includes Indiana and Northwestern.

Quarterback rotations can be successful in the short term, but they are rarely sustainable or desirable. We saw this at Northwestern last fall, as the Wildcats never established a consistent offensive rhythm and operated with a reduced playbook, in part because of injuries but also because the unit lacked a clear identity. Northwestern finished 10th in the league in scoring.

Minnesota alternated between quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner during several games, including the Texas Bowl against Syracuse. Although the Gophers had a nice surge during Big Ten play and recorded eight wins, they also finished 11th in the league in scoring and last in passing.

Nebraska had some success using two quarterbacks (Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III) last season but did so out of necessity following Taylor Martinez's injury. The Huskers also struggled to pass the ball, finishing 11th in the league.

The strongest argument for picking a quarterback and sticking with him comes from the Big Ten's best team in 2013. Michigan State's offense was a train wreck in non-league play as the Spartans used three quarterbacks. After a Week 4 loss to Notre Dame, the coaches decided Connor Cook would be their guy. You all know what happened next, but what struck me was Cook's mindset at the time.

"We went through spring ball competition and fall camp competition, it was the most stressed out I've ever been in my entire life just trying to be the quarterback," Cook said last month before the Rose Bowl. "After I got the starting job and started a couple of games, the stress went away and it turned to focus, me being focused and knowing they're not going to use other quarterbacks in the game and not stress too much that go if I make a bad play I'm going to be pulled.

"That's when the stress went out the window."

Players like Northwestern's Siemian and Indiana's Roberson and Sudfeld are more accustomed to sharing time than Cook was, but each of them, like any quarterback, would rather be the clear-cut starter.

Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase is another good example of a player who benefited from an unambiguous role. He struggled from the middle of the 2011 season through all of 2012, raising the possibility of a rotation last season. Instead, Scheelhaase started every game and led the Big Ten in passing (3,272 yards).

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAfter playing well in place of Taylor Martinez, sophomore signal-caller Tommy Armstrong Jr. is the favorite to start for the Cornhuskers in 2014.
I'm all for competition at quarterback, and the Big Ten will feature plenty of it this spring and summer. Only five quarterbacks -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, Michigan State's Cook, Iowa's Jake Rudock and Michigan's Devin Gardner -- can feel pretty secure about their starting roles. Gardner has been mentioned as a possible rotation candidate with Shane Morris -- some Michigan fans wouldn't mind seeing Gardner line up at wide receiver, a position of need -- but I'd be surprised if Morris leapfrogs the senior.

I'm also OK with teams employing change-up quarterbacks for a package of plays, be it the Wildcat or something else. Michigan State could be a candidate for this in 2014 with dynamic redshirt freshman Damion Terry possibly spelling Cook from time to time.

The first few games also provide a platform to use multiple quarterbacks in settings that can't be replicated on the practice field. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel often did this with his younger quarterbacks, giving them a first-half series or two. It makes sense. But by Week 4, roles must be identified.

The offseason is full of Big Ten quarterback questions:

  • Will Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt take the reins at Illinois?
  • How will Gardner and Hackenberg fare with new offensive coordinators?
  • After Nelson's transfer, who emerges at Minnesota among Leidner, Chris Streveler and possibly a young quarterback such as Dimonic McKinzy?
  • Nebraska's Armstrong went 6-1 as a freshman starter, but can he hold off Johnny Stanton?
  • Can Gary Nova retain his job at Rutgers?
  • Will Danny Etling keep the top job at Purdue, or will Austin Appleby and possibly early enrollee David Blough enter the mix?
  • How does Siemian bounce back at Northwestern, and do the Wildcats look at Matt Alviti and Zack Oliver?
  • Will either Roberson or Sudfeld finally separate himself at IU?

Ultimately, these questions must be answered. The teams that avoid prolonged rotations should be better off for it.
The games are finally here, and every Thursday during the season at this time, we'll bring you 10 items to track around the Big Ten.

Let's get to it …


1. Quarterback mysteries solved: We might not get all the answers in Week 1 about the Big Ten's many quarterback competitions, but a few clues should emerge. Three Big Ten teams -- Wisconsin, Penn State and Indiana -- have yet to announce starting quarterbacks heading into the openers. Expect sophomore Joel Stave to lead the Badgers and freshman Christian Hackenberg to take the first snap for Penn State. Indiana's quarterback race has been extremely even, and coach Kevin Wilson isn't afraid to let the starter decision go down to the wire.

2. Coaching debuts: Purdue's Darrell Hazell and Wisconsin's Gary Andersen both have enjoyed honeymoon periods at their respective schools, but they both know the mood can change once the games begin. Hazell faces an uphill climb as Purdue plays the Big Ten's toughest schedule, beginning Saturday on the road against a Cincinnati team that won 10 games last season. Andersen embarks on the unique challenge of blending his philosophy with a veteran team that has won the past three Big Ten championships. Wisconsin will have no trouble with Massachusetts, but keep an eye on how the Badgers' new 3-4 defense performs.

[+] EnlargeJordan Lynch
AP Photo/Alan DiazIowa again starts the season facing Northern Illinois and QB Jordan Lynch.
3. Pivotal game at Kinnick: Iowa's victory in the 2012 opener against a Northern Illinois team that went on to the Orange Bowl proved to be one of few highlights in a highly disappointing season. The Hawkeyes once again kick things off against an NIU squad led by Heisman Trophy candidate Jordan Lynch, who wants to avenge last year's setback. It's hard to call a season opener a must-win, but Iowa needs to generate some positive momentum early before a very challenging Big Ten schedule.

4. Speed trap in Berkeley: Still glowing from a 10-win season in 2012, Northwestern faces several unique challenges in its opener Saturday night at Cal. The Wildcats must contain the "Bear Raid" offense orchestrated by new Cal coach Sonny Dykes. The Bears are a mystery team with a ton of youth led by a freshman quarterback (Jared Goff). Northwestern also must contend with a late kickoff and moved its practices this week from the afternoon to the evening. The Wildcats are even taking naps to prepare.

5. Dontre's inferno: Aside from Christian Hackenberg, no Big Ten incoming freshman has generated more buzz in camp than Ohio State's multipurpose speedster Dontre Wilson. The onetime Oregon commit could be a transformative player for Urban Meyer's offense, filling the so-called Percy position at wide receiver/running back. Wilson should get some opportunities for explosive plays as Ohio State opens the season Saturday against Buffalo.

6. Juco hello: The Big Ten doesn't bring in as many junior college transfers as other leagues, but several juco arrivals could be impact players this season. Nebraska fans are anxious to see if Randy Gregory can be the pass -rushing force they've been waiting for. Wisconsin's Tanner McEvoy fell out of the mix at quarterback but will see time at other positions like wide receiver. Illinois wide receiver Martize Barr provides a much-needed weapon in the pass game for Nathan Scheelhaase. Minnesota linebackers Damien Wilson and De'Vondre Campbell could solidify the defensive midsection. It'll also be interesting whether quarterback Tyler Ferguson logs some field time for Penn State.

7. Oh, Henry: Purdue senior Rob Henry will make his first start at quarterback since the 2010 season (yes, you read that right) on Saturday against Cincinnati. An ACL injury sustained in late August prevented Henry from starting in 2011, and the versatile Boiler wore several hats for the offense in 2012. After beating out Danny Etling and Austin Appleby in camp, Henry guides coordinator John Shoop's pro-style offense into Nippert Stadium, where Purdue aims for a win that would provide "instant gratification," according to Hazell.

8. To the Max: Senior Andrew Maxwell emerged from Michigan State's quarterback morass to claim the starting job, at least for now. But after struggling for much of his first season as the starter, Maxwell needs a strong start Friday night against Western Michigan. Head coach Mark Dantonio is committed to playing multiple quarterbacks early in the season, so Connor Cook should see time against the Broncos. Maxwell must prove he's the top option by showing better command and rhythm with his oft-criticized receiving corps.

9. Let's be Frank: Few Michigan players not named Devin Gardner have generated more positive ink in the offseason than defensive end Frank Clark. The 6-foot-2, 273-pound junior had a strong finish to the 2012 season and could be the pass-rusher Michigan needs to turn a corner defensively this fall. Then again, we've seen certain Michigan defenders hyped up (cough, Will Campbell, cough) and never do much. It'll be interesting to see if Clark sets the tone for a big year Saturday against Central Michigan.

10. APB for playmakers: Other than Penn State and Iowa, the Big Ten actually returns a decent amount of experience at quarterback for the 2013 season. But the league lacks offensive playmakers, especially at wide receiver. Teams like Ohio State, Minnesota, Michigan State and Illinois are hoping to surround their quarterbacks with more options. It will be interesting to see who establishes himself in Week 1 as a go-to option.

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