NCF Nation: Christian Bryant

The biggest non-game on the American sporting calendar is all done, as the 2014 NFL draft wrapped up Saturday afternoon in New York. After arguably its worst draft in the modern era in 2013, the Big Ten performed better this year with 30 picks. Still, the league finished fourth among conferences in selections, trailing the SEC (49), ACC (42) and Pac-12 (34).

After a big Friday night with six second-round selections -- including four in a row -- and six third-round selections, the Big Ten's momentum slowed a bit Saturday in the final four rounds. The league had only one sixth-round pick and only four in the seventh round.

Let's start the breakdown by listing Big Ten draftees by round (with comments below). Maryland and Rutgers players aren't included here because neither group competed in the Big Ten (Terrapins CB Dexter McDougle went in the third round; Rutgers had no players drafted).

[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyTaylor Lewan was the first Big Ten player selected, going 11th overall to the Tennessee Titans.
Analysis: Click here for my first-round thoughts

Analysis: Hageman ends up in a really good spot with the Falcons. Although Latimer had an excellent pre-draft performance, it wasn't surprising to see him end up in the middle of the second round. Hyde waited longer than many anticipated, but he enters a great situation with a team that loves to play power football. Robinson joins a new-look Jaguars passing attack featuring quarterback Blake Bortles and wideout Marqise Lee.

Analysis: Everyone had Southward going before Borland, right? Borland, the 2013 Big Ten defensive player of the year, had an exceptional college career, but concerns about his height and perhaps his injury history moved him down the draft boards. The Iowa Effect shows up here as both Fiedorowicz and Kirksey were swept up by teams that respect what the Hawkeyes do. What does it say that Michigan's offensive line struggled mightily in 2013 but had two tackles drafted in the first three rounds? Those young Wolverines linemen had better step up this fall.

Analysis: Some really good pickups in this round, especially White, who will fit in very well with New England's offense. Although James Morris received the most accolades among Iowa's linebackers at the college level, both Kirksey and Hitchens were mid-round selections, while Morris went undrafted and signed with New England as a free agent. As a Chicago Bears fan, I love the Vereen pick. He's a smart, athletic versatile player who knows from his older brother what it takes to succeed in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeJared Abbrederis
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsJared Abbrederis isn't venturing far from Madison as he was drafted by the Green Bay Packers.
Analysis: Like his teammate Borland, Abbrederis had a much longer wait than expected but lands in a very familiar spot with Green Bay. I think he's a steal and will surprise people with his ability to make plays despite less-than-ideal measurables. Pamphile had a fairly quiet college career but is seen as a project and could develop into a better pro. Urschel is another player who lacks the ideal physical traits sought in the NFL, but could make up for it with exceptional intelligence.

Analysis: Enunwa complemented his superb blocking skills with big-play ability in the pass game as a senior. He's a good value for a Jets team that needs to boost the league's 31st-ranked pass offense.

Analysis: All four players could be very good values. Bolser is an athletic tight end who had 15 career touchdown catches. Allen showed versatility as a senior, transitioning to a 3-4 scheme. Gallon heads to a Patriots team that has had success with smaller, productive receivers. Bryant likely would have been selected higher if not for major leg and ankle injuries last season.

Here are the draft picks per B1G team:

Ohio State: 6
Wisconsin: 5
Michigan: 3
Penn State: 3
Nebraska: 3
Iowa: 3
Purdue: 2
Minnesota: 2
Indiana: 2
Michigan State: 1

The big surprise is a Michigan State team that dominated Big Ten play and won the Rose Bowl had just one player selected, as standout linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen didn't have their names called. Only four teams -- LSU, Alabama, Notre Dame and Florida State -- had more selections than Ohio State. Illinois, which led the Big Ten in draft picks last season (4) and had 18 picks between 2009-13, had no selections. Northwestern also went without a draft pick for the second straight year.

Curious about the Big Ten's undrafted free-agent signings? Check back in a bit as we take a look.
Three lessons from the Big Ten championship game.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook, Mark Dantonio
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesConnor Cook and the Spartans proved beyond a doubt that Michigan State was the best team in the Big Ten.
1. Michigan State is the Big Ten's best finisher: Many counted out the Spartans after Ohio State erased a 17-0 lead to take a 24-17 advantage midway through the third quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Buckeyes had finished off opponents throughout the season with their two-headed running attack and powerful line. But Michigan State also had been terrific late in games, outscoring opponents 185-56 in the second half and 91-27 in the fourth quarter. The Spartans made the necessary corrections, scoring 17 unanswered points to outlast Ohio State and secure a league championship. They limited Ohio State to 25 yards in the fourth quarter and mounted touchdown drives of 90 and 61 yards. And like they did in every regular-season Big Ten game, they won by double digits, leaving no doubt about the the league's best and most resilient team in 2013.

2. Ohio State's flaws finally caught up to it: Sure, it may sound weird to talk about the weaknesses of a team that won 24 straight times. But the Buckeyes never were a perfect team despite their amazing streak of perfection. For a heavyweight power, they were surprisingly light on star power at linebacker outside of Ryan Shazier. Safety Christian Bryant's midseason injury created major vulnerabilities in the secondary. The offense lacked consistent receiving threats other than Philly Brown. "We know what our weaknesses are," center Corey Linsely said. "They're obvious." The Michigan game and, to a lesser extent, the win at Illinois exposed some of those troubles. And when Ohio State finally played a powerhouse on its own level in Michigan State, its Achilles' heels caused it to stumble. The Buckeyes came out flat on the big stage in falling behind 17-0, and they only really played well for about a 20-minute stretch before letting the Spartans score the final 17 points. Ohio State deserves all respect for its winning streak, and this team is fully capable of winning a BCS game. But its flaws proved fatal in the quest for a national championship.

3. Connor Cook is the biggest surprise in the Big Ten and perhaps the country: If anyone pegged Cook to be the MVP of the Big Ten title game before the season -- his immediate family members excluded -- hop on the first flight to Vegas. Cook exceeded all expectations in guiding the Spartans to a perfect mark in Big Ten play, and he shined in the brightest lights Saturday night, passing for a career-high 304 yards and three touchdowns on 24 of 40 attempts. Quarterbacks coach Brad Salem told that Cook's growth could be seen each week and that Cook's confidence in himself never wavered, even after low moments like a Sept. 21 loss at Notre Dame. Michigan State hasn't simply found a serviceable game manager to complement its defense. It has found a championship quarterback who oozes moxie and doesn't back down from challenges. Cook began championship week by introducing himself on a conference call with reporters. Everyone knows who he is now.

Buckeyes, Columbus celebrate Iron Bowl

November, 30, 2013

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The passengers on the southbound bus were already in a celebratory mood.

Another perfect regular season was in the books, a spot in the Big Ten championship had already been secured for next week and, of course, Ohio State had just beaten archrival Michigan a few hours earlier Saturday.

But about 10 miles north of Delaware, Ohio, the party really started.

The five buses in the caravan all started to shake and the No. 3 Buckeyes suddenly had a lot more to smile about as the help they’ve been waiting on in the BCS standings finally arrived in improbable fashion as they watched Auburn spring an upset over Alabama while rolling down the highway.

“We were all just huddled around the TVs,” junior cornerback Bradley Roby said after greeting around 25 fans who waited for the team to return to campus Saturday night. “And I think Christian Bryant or Ryan Shazier, they were like, ‘Watch, they’re going to return this field goal for a touchdown.’ Sure enough, it happened.

“Everybody was jumping around, it was crazy, pandemonium.”

The finish for the Buckeyes earlier in the afternoon was wild enough, a game that featured 83 points, three ejections and a two-point conversion attempt in the final minute before the 42-41 score was settled. But another rivalry game might have even trumped that shootout for drama, with the Tigers delivering on Shazier's and Bryant’s long-shot prediction, turning a missed field goal into the decisive touchdown with no time left on the clock.

That victory for No. 4 Auburn will stir more debate about which teams should play for the national title, but with the Tigers knocking off No. 1 Alabama and finally opening up a spot ahead of Ohio State, the Buckeyes figure to be the biggest beneficiary of a wild weekend when the new BCS standings are released Sunday.

And while the team found out about it while on a bus, Ohio State fan Chris Wasch was at least able to find a broadcast of the closing moments at Gallo’s Tap Room, just a short drive north of the Horseshoe, after originally deciding to head out for some shopping instead of watching the rest of the Iron Bowl.

“I heard it on the radio and I thought, ‘Damn, I’ve got to find a bar,'” said Wasch, decked out in a Braxton Miller jersey and Ohio State hat. “I pulled in here figuring I was going to get a chance to watch overtime, but it was awesome. As soon as the guy made the block at the 25[-yard line], the place went nuts. It was awesome.

“We had to sweat it out two, three times throughout the Michigan game, then everybody was sitting around watching Auburn, hoping and praying. Looks like it worked.”

The job isn’t quite done for the Buckeyes, who still have a huge test looming against No. 11 Michigan State next week in Indianapolis with the Big Ten title on the line.

But for the first time this season, it appears Ohio State will control its own destiny in the chase for the national title.

“It’s a really good feeling, but we can only worry about what we’re doing,” Roby said. “It was very good to see Alabama go down, and we were really hoping they would.

“At the same time, we’re not thinking too far ahead, we’ve got to focus on this week, the opponent we’ve got this week, because if you overlook things like that, that’s how you lose.”

The Buckeyes avoided their first loss on the field in the afternoon. Later, they added another win on the bus ride home.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- For all the accomplishments, there was a hole on Braxton Miller’s résumé that he had to address.

A Big Ten player of the year trophy sits on the shelf at his parents’ house. The Ohio State quarterback was productive enough last season to finish fifth in the voting for the Heisman Trophy. And he is the starter for a team that hasn’t dropped a game in its last 21 tries.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde
AP Photo/Michael ConroyCarlos Hyde racked up another 100-yard rushing performance in Ohio State's win over Purdue.
But he came up short in a wild overtime loss the last time the Buckeyes hit the road to take on Purdue. Miller was injured in the second half of last season’s game as Ohio State ultimately needed another extra session to win while he was being examined at the hospital.

So for all those accolades, Miller still really didn’t have a win of his own to point to against Purdue, an omission he quickly addressed in a 56-0 rout for No. 4 Ohio State on Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium.

“Absolutely, this was self-comfort,” Miller said. “Two years ago was a hard-fought game with a crazy ending. Last year, just crazy how I got knocked out with my collarbone and things like that.

“After the last two years with this team ... you just have to come back the next year stronger with a chip on your shoulder.”

Collectively, the Buckeyes played as if there was a boulder on their shoulders as they once again made quick work of a Big Ten opponent while doing everything they can to stay in the national title conversation by stacking up style points.

Ohio State still can’t do it all on its own at this point, but Miller & Co. are certainly building a more compelling argument for themselves.

And the quarterback wasn’t the only player or position group erasing a few résumé gaps in the blowout.
  • Tight ends: The Buckeyes always intend to involve their tight ends in the offense, but it usually amounts to little more than lip service. They certainly mean it this season. Purdue had no answer for Jeff Heuerman on Saturday as he was consistently left alone in the secondary and racked up 116 yards on five catches with a touchdown. The junior was the first Ohio State tight end to post 100 receiving yards since 1996. Backup Nick Vannett tacked on 21 yards and a score in the rout.
  • Defensive backs: The secondary rarely lived up to its billing as the strength of the defense during the first half of the season, but since being publicly challenged by coach Urban Meyer, it has bounced back and, despite the loss of senior safety Christian Bryant to a season-ending injury, asserted itself as perhaps the best unit in the Big Ten. Doran Grant jumped a throw on the second snap of the game for an interception he returned for a touchdown to set an early tone, and the Buckeyes never let up in coverage as they combined with a tenacious pass rush up front to hold Purdue to 89 passing yards.
  • Kenny Guiton: Purdue’s old nemesis continued to add to his credentials as one of the nation’s best backup quarterbacks. Guiton was given almost a full half of work, and even lined up in the same formation with Miller for the second consecutive week, and again the offense never missed a beat. The senior captain completed 8 of his 11 throws for 59 yards and a touchdown, and he was explosive as a rusher in accounting for 98 yards and two more scores.

The Buckeyes could point to more feats if they wanted to, like how Meyer’s 21-game winning streak to start his tenure is the longest in college football since Larry Coker debuted with 24 straight wins at Miami in 2001-02. Or for another historical perspective, the Buckeyes have scored 50 points or more in consecutive games three times under Meyer -- and had done so only four times in 122 seasons before he arrived.

All that really mattered, though, was beating the next opponent and staying unbeaten, since that will ultimately be the only thing that determines their fate. But the Buckeyes had plenty of icing on the cake along the way.

Healthy Miller keeps title hopes alive

October, 20, 2013

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Style points might slip away.

The Heisman Trophy conversation might move on to hotter topics.

But as long as the wins keep coming and Braxton Miller keeps himself on the field, Ohio State doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon in the race for what really matters.

The Buckeyes have looked vulnerable at times since opening Big Ten play, the defense has had a couple of sluggish starts that have forced critical halftime adjustments, and there was even a spell where turnovers and shaky play from Miller gave reason to think about making a change at quarterback.

But at least that last issue appears to have been resolved with the junior simply getting healthy and confident on the knee he injured in the second week of the season. And while that sprain may have knocked him out of consideration for the Heisman, healing from it has kept his team right on track to contend for a bigger prize after another vintage performance in a 34-24 win over Iowa on Saturday at the Horseshoe.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsOhio State quarterback Braxton Miller ran for 102 yards in leading his Buckeyes to a 34-24 victory against Iowa.
“I didn’t feel this well since the first game of the season,” Miller said. “The knee injury set me back a little bit, but I felt pretty good out there, had a good week of preparation.

“Running, strides -- it feels pretty good.”

His movement as a scrambler and footwork as a passer looked pretty appealing for the Buckeyes, too. And it was also much more familiar and comforting for a team that relies on his uncanny athleticism as both a passer and a rusher after a couple of weeks in which Miller clearly didn’t have all of his tools available.

Gone was the guy who was inconsistent with his accuracy and coughing up a couple of fumbles against Northwestern, briefly making coach Urban Meyer think about going to his bench to find a spark. In his place was an improved version of the versatile weapon who carried the Buckeyes to an unbeaten record a year ago, completing 22 of his 27 passes for 222 yards and a pair of touchdowns with his fine-tuned mechanics and adding 102 yards with legs that no longer provided any limitation to his rushing ability.

Ohio State had used plenty of caution in bringing Miller back from the injury that knocked him out for two games and almost all of another, and Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman have stressed that he was fully ready to go when he returned for the conference opener against Wisconsin. But there was something missing when they watched the film of those two outings, and compared to the high standard he set a year ago and matched again in carving up the Hawkeyes, it’s certainly easy to see the difference in hindsight.

And in case anybody had forgotten what that means to Ohio State’s offense, his sideline-to-sideline, field-reversing, backfield scramble for a crucial third-down conversion to set up the game-winning score offered a helpful reminder.

“He had a fantastic [passing] game against Wisconsin, but I don’t know that he was called upon to run the football maybe as much as tonight,” Herman said. “Against Northwestern, I probably saw it a little bit on video, a little bit of tentativeness.

“But he looked like his old self tonight in that phase of the game.”

The Buckeyes might still have some work to do in the phases that don’t include Miller, and another sloppy first half on defense will again command Meyer’s attention as he looks to extend his 19-game winning streak with the program next week against Penn State.

Already missing starting safety Christian Bryant due to a broken ankle, a struggling secondary was stretched even further when star cornerback Bradley Roby was ejected for targeting in the first quarter. A defensive line that had been solid all season against the run was gashed for 101 yards before halftime, and collectively the Buckeyes looked baffled by Iowa’s play-action passing game as they fell behind going into the locker room for the second consecutive game.

But just as it did against Northwestern, the defense made a few adjustments to slow down the ground game, came up with a key turnover with a late interception from Tyvis Powell, and the pass rush ultimately showed up to collapse the pocket and disrupt the passing attack.

And with that work under control on the defensive side of the ball, an unencumbered Miller took the controls once again to get a high-powered offense humming on the way to yet another victory.

“I can always tell when he’s feeling good,” Meyer said. “When he’s running, carrying out fakes, those types of things, I can see it now.

“He looks better. He looks like he feels great.”

As long as he stays that way, Ohio State’s title chances are likely going to stay healthy as well.

Shazier finds strength in number

October, 16, 2013
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Despite the exhaustion and the late hour after a hard-hitting, prime-time win, Ryan Shazier simply couldn’t get to sleep.

The Ohio State linebacker was tossing and turning, his mind racing and processing the loss of a teammate that had been a costly price of victory over Wisconsin.

Christian Bryant had only just been diagnosed with a fractured ankle and taken directly to the hospital for surgery, but Shazier was already racking his brain to come up with a way to honor the star safety and emotional leader for the fourth-ranked Buckeyes.

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
Chuck Rydlewski/Icon SMIRyan Shazier changed his number to honor teammate Christian Bryant, who broke his ankle against Wisconsin.
“I had a really tough time the night of the game, to be honest,” Shazier said. “I was just thinking, ‘Man, I want to do something.’

“It was just on my mind, so I texted the coaches.”

Shazier sent what on the surface seemed to be a relatively simple request to change numbers, swapping out his normal No. 10 for the No. 2 that belonged to Bryant.

The response that came back was to check with the normal owner of that jersey first, and the Buckeyes could work out the rest of the details after that.

The approval from Bryant followed shortly afterward, albeit with one stipulation.

“When we talked he said, ‘As long as you’re doing good in it,’” Shazier said. “I just made sure to do that, and now I have to keep going strong in it.

“I wanted him to be there spiritually with us. I know he’s still going to be there with us, but when people see a tackle, I want them to be able to say, ‘Is that Christian?’ People will still know that he’s out there.”

The Buckeyes aren’t going to have the physical version with them for the rest of the regular season, and the timeline for recovery is still somewhat unclear as it relates to a potential return for a bowl game.

But while Shazier has the same type of attachment to his normal number as most players and even has his “10” tattooed on his left arm, he’s shown no hesitancy in the past putting on different digits to honor others -- and his play has done even more to pay tribute to those close to him.

Last season, Shazier made a one-game switch and put on No. 48 in honor of high school friend Gary Curtis, who had died earlier in the year. He capped that tribute in a wildly productive outing against Penn State with an interception return for a touchdown that sparked a crucial win on the road on the way to an unbeaten season.

Now, midway through his junior campaign, Shazier has committed to wearing Bryant’s jersey for the rest of the year. And his first appearance in the new uniform featured 10 tackles, a quarterback hurry, a tackle for a loss and certainly enough evidence to earn Bryant’s approval to keep putting it on.

“Ryan is one of the most incredible young men I've ever been around,” coach Urban Meyer said. “He's got a heart of gold.

“When Ryan comes to me like that, I’m like, ‘Settle down; what's the best thing to do and how does it affect our numbers and all those things.’ But with him, that's one of about 50 ideas he always comes up with, and it's all pure ideas and caring in its pure form, which is kind of cool.”

Shazier certainly doesn’t plan to keep the number forever, though.

For now, he’s just keeping it warm and doing everything he can to keep Bryant’s energy on the field with the Buckeyes.

“I really have a personal attachment to No. 10, but I feel like the guys that I have out there with me represent way more than my number,” Shazier said. “Christian Bryant means way more to this team than No. 10 does, so that’s why I felt like I needed to wear No. 2 -- that number is way more important to this team now.

“So, yeah, I’ll wear it until he comes back in the national championship.”

Should the Buckeyes get there, an old, familiar jersey will be waiting for Shazier. And Ohio State will have likely had plenty of help from No. 2 along the way.
The first truly significant Big Ten game of 2013 is in the books, and Ohio State, thanks to the return of quarterback Braxton Miller and a stout run defense, found a way to prevail. As a reward, the Buckeyes remain atop the Big Ten power rankings heading into another showdown this week at Northwestern.

It's not much consolation to Wisconsin or its fans, but there might not be a better two-loss team in the FBS than the Badgers, who displayed a lot of fight in Columbus even after top running back Melvin Gordon injured his knee. We've been more impressed with Wisconsin than 4-0 Michigan or 3-1 Nebraska, so we're keeping the Badgers in the No. 3 hole for now.

Iowa makes a major move up the rankings after its impressive win in Minneapolis, while the Gophers take a tumble.

Half of the Big Ten spent Saturday on the couch, so there wasn't much movement in the power rankings.

One last look at last week's rankings.

And away we go ...

1. Ohio State (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): Welcome back, Mr. Miller. The Ohio State quarterback returned to the field with a bang Saturday night, firing four touchdown passes and completing 17 of 25. Carlos Hyde also seemingly has reclaimed his place atop the running back depth chart, and Ohio State's young defense took a step against Wisconsin's power run game Saturday night. The Buckeyes now must figure out how to replace standout safety Christian Bryant as they face another test this week at Northwestern.

2. Northwestern (4-0, last week: 2): After two uninspiring performances against weak competition, Northwestern knows it must elevate its play significantly against Ohio State in what will be the most anticipated game of the Pat Fitzgerald era. Expect running back Venric Mark to return against the Buckeyes, as Northwestern will need its zone-read game to be in top form to keep pace with Ohio State on the scoreboard.

3. Wisconsin (3-2, 1-1; last week: 3): Credit the Badgers for a strong effort in Columbus despite a shaky start, a disastrous end to the first half and the loss of running back Melvin Gordon to a knee injury. But Wisconsin once again came up just short on the road. Despite another single-digit loss, Wisconsin can take away some positives from Columbus, namely the play of quarterback Joel Stave and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis. But the Badgers, who are off this week, will need some help if they want to return to Indianapolis.

4. Michigan (4-0, last week: 4): No team needed the off week more than Michigan, which had plenty to clean up following near disasters against Akron and Connecticut. Quarterback Devin Gardner's decision-making skills will be under the microscope against Minnesota, and the Wolverines' line play also will be in the spotlight against a Gophers team that has improved up front.

5. Nebraska (3-1, last week: 5): No one wants to hear Bo Pelini talk about execution anymore. It's time for Nebraska's defense to show some improvement, or it will be a long Big Ten season in Lincoln. After an open week, the Blackshirts will face a good test from Nathan Scheelhaase and an Illinois offense that doesn't resemble the unit we saw last season. Quarterback Taylor Martinez's health will be an interesting story line this week.

6: Iowa (4-1, 1-0; last week: 9): We knew Iowa was an improved team, but we needed a little more validation. Kirk Ferentz's crew provided it Saturday with a dominant performance against Minnesota to ruin its rival's homecoming. The offense is significantly better behind quarterback Jake Rudock and running back Mark Weisman, and an opportunistic defense shut down Minnesota's run game and controlled the line of scrimmage. Iowa is minutes away from being undefeated and returns home to play Michigan State with a bunch of momentum.

7. Michigan State (3-1, last week: 7): The Spartans had a familiar to-do list during their open week -- fix the offense. Coach Mark Dantonio is sticking with Connor Cook as his starting quarterback, but Dantonio clearly wants to see more plays made from the signal-caller. Michigan State's offensive line can build off its performance at Notre Dame, but the Spartans need some chunk plays.

8. Penn State (3-1, last week: 8): Bill O'Brien once again has the offense moving, as the Nittany Lions' run game looks strong and freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg is performing beyond his years. The bigger questions remain on defense, as Penn State rebounded against a woeful Kent State offense but must show it can contain more explosive attacks. The good news is we'll find out as Penn State opens Big Ten play against four strong offenses, starting this week at Indiana.

9. Illinois (3-1, last week: 10): Here come the Illini. The biggest surprise in the Big Ten completed nonleague play at 3-1 and heads to Nebraska with a lot of confidence, particularly on offense. Scheelhaase takes aim at a vulnerable Huskers defense after firing five first-half touchdown passes and finishing with 278 pass yards on 19-of-24. The big question now is, can he follow it up against a major-conference team after struggling against Washington? Illinois already has exceeded last year's wins total.

10. Minnesota (4-1, last week: 6): The Gophers take a tumble after a horrendous performance on homecoming against Iowa. It seems like Minnesota was a product of a weak nonleague schedule, as some of the small problems that surfaced against weaker competition became big problems against Iowa, which dominated the Gophers at the line of scrimmage. Quarterback Philip Nelson struggled mightily and didn't get much help from the run game. After Mitch Leidner provided a spark in Week 4, it will be interesting to see what Jerry Kill does at quarterback going forward.

11. Indiana (2-2, last week: 11): A regrouping week was in order for Indiana after nearly nothing went right against Missouri. Quarterback Nate Sudfeld must rebound from his first real brush with adversity (three interceptions). Indiana's defense faces another balanced attack in Penn State after failing to stop Missouri on the ground or through the air. After sluggish starts in both of its losses, IU needs a strong first quarter against the Lions.

12. Purdue (1-4, 0-1; last week: 12): The misery continues for Darrell Hazell's crew, but there's a reason to watch the Boilers for the rest of the season. The Danny Etling era is underway, as Hazell opted to burn the quarterback's redshirt after Rob Henry continued to struggle. Etling showed some promise in Purdue's loss to Northern Illinois, as the offense racked up 524 yards. An open week comes at a good time for the beleaguered Boilers and their young quarterback.
Five lessons from four games in Week 5. Got that?

Let's go ...

1. Ohio State's young defense is growing up: Lost amid the Braxton Miller-Kenny Guiton debate this week was the fact a mostly young Ohio State defense with only one returning starter in the front seven would be put to the test by Melvin Gordon, James White and the formidable Wisconsin run game. The young Bucks certainly earned a passing grade after holding Wisconsin to just 104 yards on 27 carries. Gordon's knee injury limited the Badgers, but Ohio State prevented big runs and forced Wisconsin to win the game through the air. Linebacker Ryan Shazier shined, while linebacker Curtis Grant and lineman Michael Bennett both recorded sacks. The loss of safety Christian Bryant to a season-ending ankle injury is a big blow, but Ohio State has enough talent in the secondary to make up for it, as long as they don't run into Jared Abbrederis again soon. Ohio State's offense will win plenty of games, but you know what they say about defenses and championship. These might not be the typical Silver Bullets, but they're developing and can build on Saturday's performance as they face an even another formidable offense in Northwestern next week.

[+] EnlargeMichael Bennett
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJoel Stave and the Badgers hung around, but they were eventually tamed by Michael Bennett and the Buckeyes.
2. Wisconsin is an excellent 56-minute team: Gary Andersen's crew showed plenty of grit Saturday night in Columbus. Quarterback Joel Stave quieted some of his critics -- thanks in large part to a career performance from Abbrederis (10 catches, 207 yards, 1 TD) -- and linebacker Chris Borland was brilliant, as usual. But Wisconsin's inability to finish off halves remains a troubling trend, and it surfaced in the loss to Ohio State. The Badgers trailed by only three points when freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton dropped an easy interception near the goal line. Miller found Philly Brown for a 40-yard touchdown on the next play, giving Ohio State a huge boost with one second left in the half. Wisconsin struggled to manage the clock down the stretch as its comeback attempt fell short. This isn't a team built to come back in games based on the pass game, and it showed. Coupled with the Arizona State debacle (granted, more officiating than execution), Wisconsin has had a lot of bad things happen at critical moments. That's what could separate the Badgers from a fourth consecutive Big Ten title.

3. Iowa will be a factor in the Legends Division: The Hawkeyes might not be a great team yet, but it's clear they are vastly improved from last season. On Saturday, Iowa went into Minnesota and pushed the Gophers around on their home turf, piling up 464 total yards and allowing only 30 rushing yards in a 23-7 win. The pig will return to Iowa City, but even more importantly, the hogs up front are getting it done in classic Kirk Ferentz fashion. Iowa has rushed for at least 200 yards in every game this season and went for 246 against a Minnesota defense that thought it had made strides in that area. This team has an identity, and it starts with the power running game led by Mark Weisman and a solid offensive line. Quarterback Jake Rudock has shown an ability to extend plays, and Iowa even got an explosive play in the passing game when Damond Powell took a short pass 74 yards to paydirt. The defense is also playing well right now; the Gophers' only score came after a long kickoff return. The Hawkeyes are 4-1 and gets Michigan State at home next week, while Northwestern and Michigan still must come to Kinnick Stadium. The schedule is difficult the rest of the way, but Iowa will have a big say in who wins the Legends.

4. Nathan Scheelhaase is the Big Ten's most improved player: A year ago, Scheelhaase was sputtering at the helm of one of the nation's worst offenses, hardly resembling the player who had shown promise as a freshman and during the first part of his sophomore season. No Big Ten player has made bigger strides in the past season than the Illinois senior quarterback, who threw five first-half touchdown passes Saturday against Miami (Ohio) and finished with 278 pass yards on 19 of 24 attempts. Scheelhaase leads the Big Ten in passing yards and is second in touchdowns (12), tripling his total from last season. He's just five touchdown passes shy of his single-season best and 15 shy of Kurt Kittner's single-season team record. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit deserves a lot of credit for Scheelhaase's surge -- and that of the entire Illini offense -- but Scheelhaase clearly is back on track after a year and a half in the dark. It will be interesting to see what he does this week against Nebraska's shaky defense.

5. Future starts now for Etling, Purdue: Darrell Hazell stuck with senior quarterback Rob Henry through this season's early offensive struggles, but the Purdue coach realized it was time for a change Saturday against Northern Illinois. The last straw was Henry's second interception of the first half, a terribly thrown floater into the Huskies' end zone. That prompted Hazell to give the reins over to true freshman Danny Etling, the prized former recruit who made his collegiate debut. This was no fairy tale, so Etling didn't lead the Boilermakers to a comeback victory. He threw two interceptions, including a pick-six, and narrowly avoided another one. But Etling (19-for-39, 241 yards) did show good mobility and flashed his strong arm, especially on his first career touchdown pass, a 16-yarder to Cameron Posey. The offense will have more of a chance to stretch the field with him under center. Quarterback is hardly the only problem for Purdue, which got housed 55-24 at home by a MAC team and might have a hard time finding another win this season. But while Boilers fans don't like to see the words "Danny" and "hope" in the same sentence, Etling at least gives them something to look forward to as Hazell tries to work the program out of this mess.

Wins are Ohio State's best statement

September, 29, 2013

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Earlier in the week, Urban Meyer called Wisconsin the "king of the Big Ten." After yet another Ohio State victory on Saturday night, no questions remained about the real league royalty: the team with King James on its sideline.

Yet this was hardly a coronation. The No. 4 Buckeyes had to fight until the final minute to hold off the No. 23 Badgers 31-24 in front the third-largest crowd in the history of the Horseshoe. Plenty of people probably checked in on this prime-time game to find out just how good Ohio State truly was after it had cruised against soft competition for the first four weeks.

They might have come away still unsure.

"I don't know if we made a statement," safety C.J. Barnett said. "We know we had our doubters. Hopefully, we proved them wrong. But if not, it doesn't matter. We're just going to keep working."

Meyer's team looked ready to provide a resounding impression at various points in the game. Quarterback Braxton Miller returned from his 11-quarter injury absence and immediately led the offense on a touchdown drive in just four plays. The Buckeyes went end to end as fast as LeBron James, who cheered on his home state school from the 20-yard line during the first half.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsBraxton Miller threw for 198 yards and rushed for 83 in his first game since injuring his knee Sept. 7.
Miller, reunited with running back Carlos Hyde for the first time this season, threw four touchdown passes and put his team up 31-14 with his final one late in the third quarter. Take that, Oregon and Clemson and other teams jockeying for BCS title game position.

But Wisconsin, which hasn't lost a game by more than seven points since 2010, refused to buckle. The hard-luck Badgers outgained the Buckeyes (399-390) and cost themselves a better chance at the upset because of a missed field goal, several costly penalties and a defensive breakdown at the end of the first half. Saturday's game was billed as the de facto Leaders Division title game. It might well have just pitted the two best teams in the entire Big Ten.

"They did exactly what we thought they were going to do," Ohio State receiver Philly Brown said. "We knew it going into this game that it was going to be a brawl."

Just not exactly the type many expected. The young Buckeyes defensive front seven accomplished the nearly impossible by shutting down Wisconsin's running game and its star tailbacks, Melvin Gordon and James White. The Badgers finished with just 104 rushing yards on 27 carries, while Gordon -- the leading rusher in the FBS heading into Saturday -- was limited to 74 yards on 15 attempts before a leg injury ended his night early.

The longest Wisconsin rush of the night was White's 17-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Mostly, however, White and Gordon found little space to maneuver and plenty of defenders in their area.

"I really think we showed to the country that we can stop the run and that we're not anybody to be messing around with," Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier said. "They have a great offensive line, and I feel like our D-line is going to be great also."

Yet the Badgers countered with a surprisingly effective passing game. Quarterback Joel Stave threw for 295 yards, 207 of them going to receiver Jared Abbrederis. Despite everyone in the stadium knowing whom Stave would target, Abbrederis repeatedly found ways to get open while burning Ohio State's all-America cornerback Bradley Roby several times.

"He's got my vote for All-Big Ten," Meyer said. "He did an incredible job."

The bad news in the secondary got much worse late in the game when senior safety Christian Bryant suffered a broken ankle trying to make an interception. Bryant is one of the top leaders on the defense, and Meyer was so upset about the season-ending injury that he slapped the podium in his postgame news conference and said, "Doggone it. Hard part of the game, boy."

Bryant's on-field absence could be felt next week at Northwestern. As far as off the field, it could last even longer.

"I'm not worried about the playing [aspect]," Barnett said. "I'm worried about the leadership aspect. It's going to take all of our leaders to do more. I've got to do more."

The injury hurts, but the Buckeyes still boast an enviable position. They hold a virtual two-game lead over Wisconsin in the Leaders race by owning the head-to-head tiebreaker. After Saturday's "GameDay" showdown at No. 17 Northwestern, the Buckeyes should have smooth sailing until the season-ender at Michigan, which might or might not have fixed its troubling flaws by then.

Critics might harp on Saturday's narrow margin of victory, but they would underrate Wisconsin if so.

"It's a Big Ten win," offensive lineman Andrew Norwell said. "To beat a Big Ten team, that says something, especially a ranked team. This was a big win for us."

Not, however, a dominant one. The Buckeyes might need those while trying to convince pollsters and Big Ten skeptics that they belong in the national championship picture. Saturday's game was more reminiscent of last year's team, which eked out several close victories on its way to 12-0.

Still, the wins keep piling up. Meyer has never known an unhappy postgame "Carmen Ohio" sing-along as a head coach, having produced 17 straight victories. When you can bring LeBron James in for a pregame speech with scores of recruits watching, that bodes well for the future.

"I don't know," Meyer said when asked about the impact of James' presence Saturday. "I just know that I love athletes that handle their business."

The Buckeyes keep doing that every week. Until someone can dethrone them, that's the only statement that matters.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The matter is obviously out of the hands of Christian Bryant, and there's nothing any of his Ohio State teammates can do to change the schedule either.

And while the senior safety and the rest of the Buckeyes have consistently stressed the importance of maintaining focus this week, the unpredictable nature of college football and simply embracing another chance to play in their home stadium and win another game, they're certainly aware of the stature of the opponent coming in for a visit.

[+] EnlargeChristian Bryant
Greg Bartram/US PresswireChristian Bryant and the Buckeyes face what should be an overmatched opponent in Florida A&M on Saturday.
So if Bryant had been consulted or was magically granted the power to swap Florida A&M out for a program with a bit more prestige, he made it no secret he would pull the trigger and skip what on paper looks to be little more than a walkthrough before Big Ten play opens next week.

"I like to showcase our talent," Bryant said. "I would like to play bigger games, but I mean, it’s really out of our control. I’m not really sure who makes the schedule, but we still just have to go out there and face whatever team is put in front of us.

"I mean, we know the type of opponent we’re about to face this upcoming Saturday, but that really doesn’t give us any reason to lay off or slow down any of our tempo. In practice, we’re still going to go out there and practice like we’re facing a top-10 opponent."

Not counting its own scrimmages, the No. 4 Buckeyes will wrap up nonconference play on Saturday without having tangled with an actual top-10 opponent. And based on the latest rankings, they're not even slated to see one at all during the regular season with No. 14 Michigan currently the highest-rated team on Ohio State's schedule.

That relatively soft-looking schedule has its benefits, starting with what has long appeared to be a reasonable path to another undefeated mark at the end of November and a potential spot in the national title game. But the strength of schedule can also work against the Buckeyes if there's a logjam at the top of the polls and voters are left to compare the merits of either unbeaten or one-loss teams based on who they played.

Of course, there's nothing the Buckeyes can do now other than handle their business regardless of the opposition. But moving forward, the program has taken steps to beef up the schedule and avoid likely pushovers like Florida A&M in the future, particularly with strength of schedule expected to play an even more significant role in selecting participants for the four-team playoff set to debut next season.

Ohio State already has deals in place with powerhouse programs like Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, Texas, TCU and Oregon in an effort to put at least one marquee showdown on the slate every season. And even with two other nonconference spots available when the Big Ten moves to a nine-game schedule within the league, athletic director Gene Smith has made it an emphasis to keep those filled with FBS-level squads.

That approach, even when it doesn't yield primetime matchups like a home-and-home series with the Sooners, sets up interesting, competitive games with programs like North Carolina, Boston College or Cincinnati.

And whether the Buckeyes have had any trouble getting locked in for the Rattlers or not this week, putting more recognizable names on the schedule should help them avoid any questions about their ability to do it down the road.

"These players are smarter than the coaches, so we need to do a very good job of coaching them and not looking past a team," coach Urban Meyer said. "You see it all the time, there's going to be one [upset] every year, maybe two, and there can't be one this week."

"It does make a difference. I could give you some coach-speak, but [the opponent] does make a difference."

For seniors like Bryant, they have no choice but to prepare as if a ranked opponent is coming to the Horseshoe. But the next wave of Buckeyes behind them shouldn't have to pretend as much as they gear up for Big Ten action.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Just about every preseason story on Ohio State will mention the youth of the defense. Head coach Urban Meyer has said on more than one occasion that the Buckeyes have "a leadership void" they must fill.

Well, it makes sense to look first to the back end of the defense for those answers. One place where Ohio State has plenty of experience is at safety, where seniors Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett are both third-year starters. The secondary also boasts an All-American in Bradley Roby, who's never been afraid to speak his mind.

[+] EnlargeBradley Roby
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesBradley Roby admits he was a selfish player last season, but now he's embracing more of a leadership role.
"I think it's important that me, Christian and Roby take ownership of the defense," Barnett told "We've got a lot of young guys who look up to us."

Defensive leaders more often are found closer to the line of scrimmage, as those guys are involved in more plays and gain respect for their physicality. But Ohio State is replacing all four defensive linemen from last year and has only one holdover starter -- Ryan Shazier -- at linebacker.

"It's probably a little harder to lead at that [safety] position," said Everett Withers, who coaches the Buckeyes' safeties in addition to serving as assistant head coach and co-defensive coordinator. "But C.J. and Christian have played a lot of snaps, and the front guys and the linebackers all respect those guys for what they've done here. When you have respect from your peers, that makes it a little bit easier."

That's not to say that Bryant and Barnett are satisfied with their accomplishments.

Though they've both played a lot for the Buckeyes -- and Bryant was a second-team All-Big Ten performer last year -- Barnett said the safeties have "underachieved" thus far during their careers. That's a message that seems filtered down from their coaches, who are demanding more.

"He's right on point; I think they have underachieved," Withers said. "No disrespect to what's been done in the past, but when you play safety at a place like Ohio State, you've got a great tradition of safety play. And when guys don't have a ton of production going into their senior year you wonder why. And I've wondered why since I've gotten here. So there's been a big push for us to see how we can be more productive on the field, and in turn, that will allow us to be better leaders off the field."

Though Bryant finished second on the team with 70 tackles, he has only one career interception. Barnett has four career picks in 32 games. Ohio State led the Big Ten last year in interceptions with 14 in 12 games, but Withers called that "a low number" and said the Buckeyes dropped another 14 potential interceptions.

That's why, during spring practice, every Buckeyes defensive back had to drop and do pushups if a ball hit their hands and they didn't make the interception, no matter how tough the catch would have been.

"Myself, I had about six or seven drops last year," Barnett said. "That's unacceptable. Coach said that PBU's [pass break-ups] are not acceptable here. We need interceptions.

"That's huge for field position, and when you've got an offense like we do and you can get the ball back in Braxton [Miller]'s hands, that's leading to points for us. Missing those opportunities are huge and could possibly cost us a game."

Production wasn't really an issue in 2012 for Roby, although he'd like to grab more than two interceptions this season. But Roby didn't view himself as a leader last season. This year, Meyer said, "he's got to be" one.

"I was kind of a selfish player last year, only worrying about me," Roby said. "At cornerback, you really are out there on an island, and so you start thinking the game is only you and the receiver. I was taking that viewpoint. But I'm opening it up now, and I know I've got to talk to the D-linemen, the linebackers and everybody and make sure they know what they're doing, because they might not be as far advanced as I am."

The best players often make the best leaders. And with their experience and talent, the Buckeyes' secondary has a chance to be both of those things.

"It's just a matter of us going out there and making the plays we need to make," Barnett said. "If we handle our business, we'll definitely be in the conversation of being the best secondary in the nation."
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Braxton Miller collected his Big Ten offensive player of the year trophy in Indianapolis on the day of the league championship game last December. Since he took part in a halftime ceremony, Miller stuck around to watch Wisconsin whip Nebraska, 70-31, to clinch a Rose Bowl berth.

Of course, the Ohio State quarterback couldn't help but think about how his team had beaten both Big Ten title game participants.

"I got kind of upset watching it, because it was a different type of game than what I was expecting," Miller told "I thought it would have been a different type of story if we were there."

Linebacker Ryan Shazier, like a lot of other Buckeyes, had similar feelings as he watched the BCS championship game between Notre Dame and Alabama about a month later.

"To be honest, I was feeling sick," Shazier said. "Because I felt like we had a great team and we should have been in the game. I feel like if everybody who had to watch that game can keep that in their head this year, it's going to push us to another level."

[+] EnlargePhilly Brown
Mike Carter/US PresswireCorey Brown and his Ohio State teammates appear to be far from complacent after finishing 12-0 last season.
Ohio State completed just the sixth undefeated season in school history in 2012, and there are reminders all around the team's football complex about the achievement. There's a huge "Undefeated" sign in the main entrance, a banner for the 2012 season hanging in the indoor practice facility next to ones celebrating national championships, and signs proclaiming Lane Avenue near campus as "12-0" row. Players and coaches from last year's team received rings fit for a champion last week.

Of course, the Buckeyes couldn't play for a Big Ten championship or go to a bowl because of NCAA probation. And they say that's a big reason why they're not dwelling on their accomplishments but rather looking forward this offseason.

"Yeah, we went 12-0, but it didn't really mean much," receiver Corey "Philly" Brown said. "It's not like we won anything. I feel like none of our team got a taste of what it feels like to be playing for a national championship. That makes us more hungry to get there."

Along with the reminders of last year, head coach Urban Meyer had another banner put up in the football complex this spring with the slogan "The Chase." That was his not-so subtle message to the players to keep striving toward new goals. But Meyer said he hasn't noticed any sense of complacency with this group.

"I've watched for that," he said. "I've had our strength coach [Mickey Marotti] watch for that. I don't feel it. If I did, I'd jump in the middle of it."

Meyer's biggest concern this spring has been identifying new leaders. Outside of left tackle Jack Mewhort, he wasn't sure which players would fill the shoes of seniors like John Simon and Zach Boren from last year. He has brought in weekly guest speakers to talk to the team this spring about leadership, and he's hoping guys like Miller, Shazier, Brown and defensive backs C.J. Barnett, Christian Bryant and Bradley Roby take on those roles. Of course, Meyer had similar worries about last year's team at this time, and it ended up having what he calls one of the best group of leaders he's ever coached. So that figures to work itself out.

The young front seven on defense also presents question marks, as Shazier is the only returning starter among the defensive line and linebacker units. But sophomores Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence showed with their combined seven sacks in the spring game that Ohio State is blessed with talented options up front, even if there might be a learning curve at work.

"We're going to have to live with some mistakes," defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. "But our job as coaches is to say, 'Hey, what can they handle?'"

Will these Buckeyes be able to handle the increased expectations and pressure in 2013? Last year, they began the year ranked No. 18 in the Associated Press poll and weren't eligible to receive votes in the coaches' rankings. Even as they continued to win, they mostly operated outside of the limelight because of their absence from the national title hunt. This year, the spotlight will be on them from Day 1, as they should open the season in the top 5.

"We're definitely going to be a huge target," running back Carlos Hyde said. "We're back to where Ohio State usually is, which is the No. 1 team on the schedule that teams want to beat. It lets us know that we just can't come out and roll our helmets out and expect to beat a team."

The target is larger, but so too is the goal. The shackles of probation are off, and if Ohio State can pull off a repeat undefeated season, odds are its players won't be watching the national championship game from afar next January. Roby, the team's All-American cornerback, is confident that will happen. He says that "last year was the commercial, and this year is the movie."

"We've got the talent, and I'm not going to say the schedule is easier, but we don't play Nebraska and we don't play Michigan State," he said. "It's set up in our favor. All we have to do is go out there and keep grinding."
At some point before Aug. 31, Ohio State safety Christian Bryant will compile a goals sheet for his senior season and hang it in his locker.

Bryant is still formulating the specifics, but he'll undoubtedly list items about interceptions, leadership and limiting big plays. He might write down something about big hits, although it's one area where he needs no reminders.

"If you love football," Bryant told, "you love the collisions."

[+] EnlargeChristian Bryant
Greg Bartram/US PresswireSafety Christian Bryant plans to provide more big plays for the Buckeyes this season, like this game-clinching interception against Cal last September.
Bryant loves football and wants to be at the top of his game in his final year as a Buckeye. He's entering his third season as a starter for a secondary that could be the strength of Ohio State's defense in 2013.

The 5-foot-10, 192-pound Cleveland native earned second-team All-Big Ten honors (coaches) in 2012, when he finished second on the squad in tackles (70) and added 12 pass breakups, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception. It's hard not to notice Bryant on the field, especially because of the hits he delivers. But he's still looking for the right blend of big plays and consistency.

"I'm trying to be known for more than just being a physical player," Bryant said. "A playmaker at all times, that's what I’m trying to be known as."

Bryant wants to make a variety of impact plays, not just big hits, and interceptions is at the top of his list. He boasts 21 career passes defended, including 13 last season, which tied him with Northwestern's Ibraheim Campbell for the most among Big Ten safeties (1.08 per game). But Bryant has only one career interception, a fourth-quarter pick against Cal last season that sealed a 35-28 Buckeyes win.

"I dropped probably three or four picks last year," Bryant said. "When I looked back on them, I should have made the plays. Those are things I'm looking forward to this season."

On the advice of former Buckeyes quarterback Troy Smith, Bryant makes sure to catch 50-100 footballs each day in spring practice. If a quarterback is available to throw, Bryant summons him. If not, it's the JUGS machine.

Other items on Bryant's offseason checklist include improved footwork and tackling technique, and doing a better job of reading the run-pass keys offensive linemen give away. He also studies NFL safeties like Charles Woodson, Ed Reed, Dashon Goldson and former Buckeye Donte Whitner.

The season is more than five months away, but Bryant gets a feel of what's to come by practicing against a dynamic Buckeyes offense led by Heisman Trophy contender Braxton Miller.

"It keeps you in shape," Bryant said. "Just the fast-paced offense, us just flying around to the ball, keeping leverage, forcing the ball back to our help. All that helps in the season, leveraging the football, running to the ball as a defense and eliminating big plays."

Bryant describes himself as "instinctive football player" and loves the defensive calls where he can roam the deep middle, read the quarterback's eyes and attack. But he also wants to be a more complete player and leader.

One of only four seniors on Ohio State's defense -- fellow starting safety C.J. Barnett is another -- Bryant hopes to be named a captain. This spring, he's trying to blend vocal leadership with on-field performance so younger players can follow him.

Although Bryant's goals list is still a work in progress, he's willing to share one item.

"To be one of the best secondary players in the country," he said. "That's what I'm shooting for."
Urban Meyer went 12-0 in his first year at Ohio State. Now comes maybe even the harder part: Following that up with the burden of expectations.

Many are already projecting the 2013 Buckeyes as a top-5 team and a national title contender, not to mention the Big Ten favorite. Fans are hoping for another undefeated run. Meyer isn't running away from those things.

"People say, 'Would you rather be the underdog or the favorite?'" Meyer said Friday in a news conference. "We'd love to be the favorite all the time. That means we've got a good team. So, no, I don't mind it."

Urban Meyer
Pat Lovell/US PresswireUrban Meyer and Ohio State will enter next season with enormous expectations after a 12-0 finish.
But the coach is also being realistic. He was at the BCS title game between Alabama and Notre Dame as a guest commentator and saw up close what it will take to win a national title. As for talking about getting there next season, Meyer said, "that's like saying we've got to go to the moon. We're nowhere near that conversation."

Meyer knows his second team in Columbus has much room to grow, starting on a defensive line where all four starters depart from the 2012 lineup. He's still looking for "drastic improvement" from the receivers and from his quarterbacks' throwing precision. Meyer said he planned to meet with the team Friday afternoon, and his mantra would be "truth." As in, he would be bluntly honest with the players on what they needed to work on.

"We were very strong in certain areas [in 2012] and some of them were phenomenal," he said. "But quite a few were below average. So if it's strong, enhance it, and if it's weak, fix it."

The challenge for the Buckeyes is to make those gains without the benefit of the 15 extra bowl practices in December. Meyer and his coaches can't do much with the players on the field until spring practice begins. The players have to take more of a responsibility to work on their own.

"If we want to be a very functional football team, there has to be some self-leadership among the groups," Meyer said. "Because it's on the players; the coaches can't force them to do it."

Some other notes from Meyer's media session:

  • Four Ohio State assistants at least had discussions about other jobs this spring, but everyone on the staff stayed. Meyer said he hopes his assistants will get opportunities to move on, but always asks his coaches for two-year commitments.
  • Could Ohio State compete with Alabama? Meyer reiterated his declaration from the season-ending win against Michigan when he said the Buckeyes were a very good team who could play with anybody in the country. But then he added, "to say we can roll in there and beat a team like that, first I'll say I don't want to speculate. And then I'm going to give you an honest answer: Right now, I think we have too many holes to fill."
  • Asked about the apparent talent disparity between the Southeast and the Midwest, Meyer had this to say: "In the Southeast, the quantity is far greater than the quantity of the upper-level Midwestern schools. ... It's up to the Big Ten to change that. The only way to do it is to go out and recruit and get some more depth."
  • Speaking of recruiting, Meyer said there's a huge difference in that area this year as opposed to last year after he took the job in November. Back then, he said, he was just handed lists of the top 20 players at each position, and he would call them to make a sales pitch. Now, he says, "We've been here, we've been in the schools and we know what we're getting."
  • Meyer called the loss of several great senior leaders off last season's team, most notably John Simon, "a huge void." He said offensive tackle Jack Mewhort could take the role of Simon as the team's heart and soul. Other potential leaders he mentioned include running backs Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde, safeties C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant, receiver Corey "Philly" Brown and linebacker Ryan Shazier.
Recognizing the best and the brightest from around the Big Ten in Week 13:
  • Ohio State's defense: After some early hiccups, Ohio State slammed the door on Michigan in the second half to secure a 12-0 season. The Buckeyes shut out Michigan in the final 30 minutes, allowing just eight yards in the fourth quarter and 60 in the second half (four first downs). Standouts included senior linebacker Zach Boren (9 tackles, 2 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery), linebacker Ryan Shazier (2.5 TFLs, one sack), space-eating defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins and safety Christian Bryant (one forced fumble, two pass breakups). Offense might have carried Ohio State early this season, but the Silver Bullets showed up when it counted.
  • Nebraska DE Eric Martin: If you hadn't noticed the Huskers senior before Friday, you likely know the name now. Martin was dominant in Nebraska's defense-driven win against Iowa, racking up seven tackles, three tackles for loss (one sack), a forced fumble and two quarterback hurries. His numbers don't fully illustrate how much he impacted the game, but he locked up a spot on the All-Big Ten team and possibly will be a first-team selection.
  • Northwestern QB Kain Colter: Like Indiana and Iowa, Illinois had no answer for the elusive Wildcats signal caller, who capped an excellent regular season with 88 rush yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. Colter threw only 11 passes but completed nine of them, three for touchdowns to three different receivers (Tony Jones, Tyris Jones and Paul Jorgensen). Colter's backfield mate Venric Mark also merits a mention (18 carries, 127 yards, TD).
  • Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell: He's the mean, green wrecking machine of Michigan State's offense, which would be even more anemic without him. Bell once again showed Saturday why he's one of the nation's best running backs, racking up a career-high 266 yards and a touchdown on 35 carries. He routinely carried Minnesota defenders for extra yards. The junior is one of only three FBS players -- and the only one in a major conference -- to record three 200-yard rushing performances this season.
  • Penn State DT Jordan Hill: From Jared Odrick to Devon Still and now to Hill, Penn State's tradition of elite defensive tackles has continued. Hill, a sure-fire first-team All-Big Ten selection, finished his career with a flourish, recording 12 tackles, including three tackles for loss and two sacks, as Penn State beat Wisconsin in overtime. Despite battling a bum knee, Hill helped shut down Montee Ball and the Wisconsin offense after the first quarter. On a day when linebacker Michael Mauti couldn't play, Hill stepped up in a big way.
  • Purdue RB Akeem Shavers: He wasn't the only Purdue player to gash Indiana's defense in the Bucket game, but he was the most effective from start to finish. The senior stepped up in a big way, racking up 126 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries to go along with 99 receiving yards and two touchdowns. He scored three touchdowns in a span of 4:26 in the fourth quarter, starting with a 73-yard scoring reception. He's now responsible for Purdue's two longest pass receptions of the season.