NCF Nation: Corey Clement

Five questions about LSU-Wisconsin

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
9:00
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One of college football’s most anticipated openers will kick off Saturday night in Houston, with No. 13 LSU taking on No. 14 Wisconsin -- two programs that might reside in different conferences, but share similar philosophies about playing mean-spirited, physical football.

Both teams have aspirations of competing in the inaugural College Football Playoff, and Saturday’s outcome might eventually rank among the top determining factors in whether they make it into the four-team field.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at five questions facing the two teams as their matchup approaches.

[+] EnlargeTerrence Magee
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsSenior Terrence Magee should be a key piece to LSU's running game this season.
1. Who gets the most carries?

Those around the LSU program say it looks like it’s only a matter of time before freshman running back Leonard Fournette shows why he was the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit. But will Fournette’s time come in this game? LSU coach Les Miles has praised veterans Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard throughout August. The seniors have earned their touches, too, so it will be intriguing to observe how LSU distributes the carries between the vets and the young phenom.

2. How will LSU fare in the passing game?

Wisconsin has plenty of holes to fill on defense, but the one area with a veteran presence is its secondary (and the Badgers were 17th nationally against the pass last season, allowing 202.5 yards per game). That would seem like an advantage against an LSU offense that must replace not only its quarterback, but the only receivers who did much of anything last fall, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry.

The Tigers have some super-talented youngsters like freshmen Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, but many of the team’s wideouts will be playing their first college games. Keep an eye on whether LSU uses its talented group of tight ends and running backs in the passing game. The tight ends will almost certainly get more looks as pass-catchers in 2014 while the young quarterbacks and receivers settle into their roles.

3. Can either team stop the opponent’s run?

Wisconsin obliterated South Carolina’s run defense for 293 yards in its last outing, a 34-24 loss in the Capital One Bowl. Heisman Trophy contender Melvin Gordon ran 25 times for 143 yards in that game. So it would probably be misguided to assume that LSU’s reconstructed front seven is going to completely shut down a Badgers running game that includes Gordon, Corey Clement and four returning starters on the offensive line.

Likewise, Wisconsin lost its entire starting front seven on defense, so the Badgers will probably have some difficulty against an LSU line that also returns four starters -- particularly since backs like Fournette, Magee and Hilliard will be running behind them.

4. How will Wisconsin look up front on D?

Let’s say this one more time: Wisconsin lost every single starter along the defensive line and at linebacker from one of the nation’s best defenses in 2013. We’re talking about standouts like Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Chris Borland and defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer who helped Wisconsin finish as the nation’s No. 7 defense overall (305.1 ypg) and No. 5 against the run (102.5).

It’s not like the cupboard is bare, though. ESPN Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett listed sophomore linebacker Vince Biegel as a potential playmaker, and the Badgers have others back like linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch and defensive linemen Warren Herring and redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih who should keep defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4 defense clicking.

Asking that many new players to function adequately against a veteran LSU front will be asking a lot, though. Wisconsin’s production along the defensive front might be the determining factor in this game.

5. Who FINISHES at quarterback?

Never mind who starts, who’s going to finish this game at quarterback for either team? That might have a much greater impact on this season than who takes the first snaps for either Wisconsin or LSU.

Miles and Wisconsin’s Gary Andersen have tiptoed around questions asking whether the starting quarterback will be Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris at LSU or Joel Stave or Tanner McEvoy at Wisconsin. But if this is a close game, their choices on who leads their offenses in the fourth quarter -- and how those players perform in such a situation -- might tell us much more about where these competitions are headed.

LSU-Wisconsin primer

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
12:00
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For more than a decade, no FBS programs have experienced more success in out-of-conference games during the regular season than LSU and Wisconsin -- programs that open the season against one another on Saturday in Houston.

LSU has not lost a nonconference game in the regular season since falling to Virginia Tech on Sept. 7, 2002. Since then it has won 45 straight, while Wisconsin’s record in that same time period is 43-3, the nation’s second-best winning percentage (.935).

Obviously one of them is going to lose on Saturday, though, so let’s take a look at some of the key factors in the LSU-Wisconsin game and what a win might mean for their respective conferences.

Key to victory for Wisconsin: Dominate the line of scrimmage. That’s always the motto for the Badgers, who showed they could fare just fine against an SEC defense when they ran for 293 yards against South Carolina (and Jadeveon Clowney) in the Jan. 1 Capital One Bowl. Controlling the game on the ground with Melvin Gordon, Corey Clement and a talented offensive line becomes an even higher priority given Wisconsin’s inexperience at receiver and quarterback, where Tanner McEvoy makes his first FBS start. And the Badgers’ 3-4 defense has to win battles up front and make LSU beat it through the air.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsLSU may need Anthony Jennings (10) and Brandon Harris (6) to have success against Wisconsin.
Key to victory for LSU: With a talented backfield and experienced offensive line, the Tigers figure to run the ball effectively against a retooled Wisconsin defensive front. But it will be up to LSU quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris to do just enough with the pass to prevent the Badgers from crowding the box to defend the run. Regardless of which quarterback is on the field, he will have either little or no college experience. If the Tigers throw the ball as ineffectively as Jennings did in his lone start -- LSU’s 21-14 Outback Bowl win over Iowa, where he was 7-for-19 for 82 yards, no touchdowns and one interception -- it might become difficult to move the ball even against an inexperienced Wisconsin defense.

Keep an eye on: Wisconsin linebacker Vince Biegel. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound sophomore could give the Badgers the pass-rushing and playmaking presence they desperately need from their completely revamped defensive front seven. Biegel will be critical in both helping against the run and creating havoc in the LSU backfield from his outside linebacker spot. Like many players at his position for Wisconsin, he has been nicked up in fall practice. But after a breakout spring, Biegel could be a guy who announces himself as an up-and-coming star on this national stage.

Keep an eye on: LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander. One of the Tigers’ top playmakers at linebacker last season, Alexander has shifted from strongside linebacker to Lamin Barrow's old spot on the weak side, which should allow him to be even more active on defense. His sideline-to-sideline speed and tackling ability should make him a great fit for the new role. Alexander and the LSU defense will have their hands full with a powerful Wisconsin running game that features Heisman Trophy contender Gordon. But if Alexander lives up to the reputation he’s already started building at his new position, he’s in line for a huge season, starting Saturday.

What win will mean for Big Ten: Marquee nonconference wins have been in short supply for the Big Ten in recent years, and there would be no better way to build instant credibility than by gaining a win over an established SEC power. Wisconsin would become an immediate playoff contender, as the rest of its schedule is extremely favorable. Other league teams would also get a boost in terms of conference perception. The doom-and-gloom outlook for the Big Ten since Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller's season-ending shoulder injury would fade away quickly with a Badgers victory in Houston.

What win will mean for SEC: LSU has been the SEC’s standard bearer in the past decade when it comes to these marquee nonconference openers. LSU's aforementioned 45 straight nonconference wins in the regular season is the nation’s longest streak. That includes wins in 11 straight openers, against such opponents as TCU, Oregon, North Carolina, Washington, Oregon State and Arizona State. LSU beating Wisconsin would be another feather in the SEC’s cap, solidifying its status as the nation’s best conference.

MADISON, Wis. -- Gary Andersen's current job description looks a lot like that of a first-year coach. Here's the thing: Andersen is entering his second season at Wisconsin.

Andersen's inheritance with the Badgers last year, in coaching currency, rivaled that of a Walton, a Bloomberg or Prince George. Most new coaches are saddled with teams plagued by youth, discontent or a culture of losing. Andersen stepped into a locker room filled with 25 seniors, including stars such as Chris Borland and Jared Abbrederis. Wisconsin had won three consecutive Big Ten championships. It had an identity and a proven path to success.

The Badgers needed a leader after Bret Bielema spurned them for Arkansas, but Andersen's primary task could be reduced to four words: Don't screw it up. To his credit, he didn't, guiding Wisconsin to a 9-2 start before the year ended with losses to both Penn State and South Carolina. He also provided a calm, stabilizing presence that resonated both with players and Badgers fans. Wisconsin has recorded better seasons, but Andersen's first made a strong enough impression on the Cleveland Browns, who reached out to him about their coaching vacancy, and on Barry Alvarez, who awarded Andersen a raise and a new contract.

But it's fair to wonder about Andersen. Program maintenance, while challenging, isn't the same as program building. Wisconsin doesn't lack a foundation -- Alvarez provided one and Bielema kept it from cracking -- but there's a lot of hard labor ahead for Andersen and his assistants as their roster turns over significantly.

"We are a very youthful crew," Andersen told ESPN.com. "It's like my second year at Utah State. We were youthful, we were excited, but our coaching was so important to be able to put the kids in the proper positions, which is the ultimate goal. It's not how much offense you have or how much defense you have. It's how well you’re performing the basics: how many missed assignments, how are we tackling, how are our administrative penalties.

"You want to do everything you can to make sure you're teaching them how to play football the right way."

Utah State went 4-7 in Andersen's second year before reaching bowls the next two seasons. Wisconsin's expectations are much higher despite its new-look depth chart.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
Keith Gillett/Icon SMIGary Andersen sees the opener against LSU as a factor that should push his team through the summer and fall camp.
The Big Ten West Division is a collection of flawed teams and Wisconsin, with more recent success than the others and a favorable cross-division schedule -- no Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State -- will be a popular pick to reach Indianapolis. Running back Melvin Gordon turned down the NFL draft for a chance to lead the Badgers to the initial College Football Playoff.

Wisconsin is not rebuilding, but it faces an unusually high number of questions on a depth chart that shouldn't be written in anything permanent.

"It's a reset, you're starting at ground zero," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "Even with the veteran O-line, a couple guys are out, you're mixing and matching, so you can't assume or take anything for granted. Even with [quarterback Joel Stave], it's a chance to reteach things that he's had hundreds of reps on, because there's always a new way to look at it."

Stave is part of the mystery at Wisconsin. Despite starting 19 games the past two seasons, he must outshine Tanner McEvoy in camp to keep his job, especially after missing much of the spring with a pesky throwing shoulder injury. McEvoy, a gifted athlete who played both safety and wide receiver last season, could represent a shift in what Wisconsin wants from its quarterbacks.

Andersen's first two quarterback recruits, McEvoy and D.J. Gillins, both are true dual threats.

"He's got a tremendous skill set, obviously," Ludwig said of McEvoy. "An athletic guy, starting as a safety last year. The weapons he brings to the quarterback position, it's a huge asset for us."

The quarterback run threat, when paired with dynamic backs in Gordon and Corey Clement, becomes even more critical if Wisconsin can't bolster the wide receiver spot. The team's leading returning receiver, Jordan Fredrick, had only 10 receptions in 2013. Fredrick, Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright all missed part or all of the spring with injuries.

Wisconsin had only four receivers for most of the 15 practices.

"It's pretty tiring," senior Kenzel Doe said. "You're basically taking every rep."

The Badgers defense had fewer injuries this spring but went through a more substantial facelift. Inside linebacker Derek Landisch is the only returning starter in the front seven.

Most defenders spent spring ball working at multiple positions as the coaches looked for ways to upgrade speed. Michael Caputo, a starting free safety last season, went to linebacker and then back to safety before the spring ended.

"We definitely wanted to see how guys fit in other places," Caputo said. "The goal is to be a mean, aggressive, fast defense. We're slowly getting to that, but it's definitely a transition with a lot of the younger guys and playing different positions."

There have been positive developments already. Andersen points to players such as Chikwe Obasih, a redshirt freshman who ended the spring as a starting defensive end.

Andersen When you've got young kids, you've got to get them reps if you want them to get better.

-- Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen
"You look how far Chikwe has come," Andersen said. "If you put on Day 1 of spring ball and Day 13 of spring ball, it's an unbelievable difference in his pad level, the use of his hands, his understanding and knowledge of the defense.

"When you've got young kids, you've got to get them reps if you want them to get better."

The summer takes on added importance for these Badgers. As Ludwig said, Wisconsin's first workout in August must be Practice 16, not Practice 1.

If all the uncertainty and opportunity in practice doesn't drive players, the season opener against LSU certainly will. Last year, Wisconsin thumped Massachusetts and Tennessee Tech to open the season before its infamous trip to Arizona State. This time, the test comes sooner.

"I really like that opener for this team," Andersen said. "It's got to be a driving force."

Which Badgers team shows up at Houston's NRG Stadium remains to be seen. But it will have more of Andersen's fingerprints on it.

The big reveal at Wisconsin is still to come.
MADISON, Wis. -- Most Wisconsin players had disappeared into the northeast tunnel of Camp Randall Stadium, leaving behind another spring workout. But Melvin Gordon remained, running routes and catching passes from walk-on quarterback Thad Armstrong.

It's the type of image college football fans covet but can't always count on: their team's best player being the last to leave the practice field. In this way, Wisconsin fans are spoiled with their recent running backs. Montee Ball set records on fall Saturdays, but he was even better, teammates and coaches say, during practices. James White forged a 4,015-yard, 48-touchdown Badgers career on production, versatility and unselfishness. Those qualities showed up every time he practiced.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon said he came back this season to lead Wisconsin to a national championship.
Now comes Gordon, the flashiest of the recent Badgers backs. Ball mass-produced touchdowns; Gordon mass-produces highlight-reel runs. Last season he led the FBS in runs of 60 yards or longer (4) and 70 yards or longer (3), while ranking in the top five for rushes of 30 yards or longer (9) and 40 yards or longer (6).

But on this day, as afternoon spills into evening, Gordon works on catching passes. He recorded only one reception in 2013 and has just three in his career.

"I always try to do a little something after practice," Gordon told ESPN.com. "People ask me what specific thing I'm working on, what one thing, but as a back, you have to work on everything, feel like everything is your weakness and make it a strength."

There is a next level for Gordon. He sees it. If there wasn't, he would have gone to the next level. Instead, he's back at Wisconsin, hoping to take the program to the next level.

Gordon finalized his decision in December before receiving a grade from the NFL draft advisory board. He was projected as a second-round pick and could have climbed higher with a strong pre-draft showing.

"It was very clear what Melvin wanted to do," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. "He wanted to come back. He never seemed one bit distracted, nor has he seemed one bit distracted since that time. If you ask Melvin right now, it's clear-cut for him: He wants to be in a position to help the team reach a high level of elite football, and be the featured tailback.

"That is his goal."

Gordon specified his objective last week on a conference call with reporters.

"I want to get our team to the playoff," he said. "I have a paper posted on my wall of the College Football Playoff. I didn’t come back to win this or that, to win the Heisman, people talk about that, I don't really feel like that's important. The goal right now is a national championship.

"Wisconsin's never had one before, so that's my goal and that's our team goal."

Gordon undoubtedly will enter the Heisman picture if he builds upon a sophomore season that included 1,609 rush yards and 12 touchdowns on only 206 carries. He led the nation and set a team record in yards per rush (7.81). With a career average of 8.1 yards per rush, he needs just 12 attempts to set the Big Ten record held by former Penn State star Ki-Jana Carter (7.27 YPR).

[+] EnlargeGary Anderson
Michael Hickey/Getty ImagesWisconsin coach Gary Andersen has no doubt about Melvin Gordon's significance.
The big runs should come, but Gordon wants to be a pass-catching back, a role White held last season (39 receptions). Gordon also knows he must improve his pass-blocking. The spring helped him in these areas, as Andersen held Gordon out of contact this spring and limited his ball-carrying reps, taking no chances with Wisconsin's best weapon or his talented backup, Corey Clement.

"Melvin plays so well with the ball in his hands," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "This spring, he's had great opportunities playing without the ball, and has made the most of those opportunities."

The reduced role posed a challenge at times. Wide receiver Kenzel Doe, one of Gordon's best friends, said Gordon often told him, "Man, I know they don't want me to get the reps, but I want to be out there so bad."

Gordon maximized the reps he received during practice and stayed after to work more.

"Montee always told me, 'Practice is harder than games,'" Gordon said. "Everything you do in practice, you get to the game, you’ll be in the same situation, and you'll be able to make that cut. You practice how you play. I believe in that."

Gordon has known he would be back at Wisconsin for four months. Three of those months have featured incessant NFL draft coverage, from the scouting combine to pro days to individual workouts to daily rumors. A later draft means three more weeks of chatter.

You wouldn't blame a player who easily could be part of the process for completely tuning it out. But Gordon watches "all of it." He loves the NFL Network as much as the next draftnik.

"When they're talking about this running back or that one, you can't help but think about it," Gordon said of his potential pro path. "It's human nature. But you can't dwell on it too much. When you give your commitment, that's what it is. You can't go back, even if you wanted to."

Andersen doesn't undersell what Gordon's return means. "Huge," he said, "is probably not a big enough word." Wisconsin is very thin at wide receiver after losing Jared Abbrederis and remains unsettled at quarterback coming out of the spring.

No matter who lines up under center, the unit will lean on Gordon and Clement, who Andersen calls Wisconsin's two best offensive players. At times, they'll play together. Other times, they'll spell one another. Gordon and White formed the most productive single-season rushing tandem in NCAA history last fall (3,053 yards), and hopes are high that Clement complements Gordon just as well, if not better.

But Gordon returned to be the lead ball carrier, to be more involved in the pass game, to be a complete player and a better leader. He'll reach the next level soon enough.

He wants to get Wisconsin there first.

"His mentality is, 'I came back for a reason,'" Doe said. "He has that eagerness to win, so he's going to do whatever he has to do."
Because Wisconsin doesn't have much depth at running back this spring, coach Gary Andersen is keeping Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement away from almost all contact drills.

That's not sitting too well with Clement, who would be lowering his pads and leg-driving through traffic if he had his way.

"That's what I strive off of," he told ESPN.com. "Contact makes me rage more for yards. That's what brings out the best in me.

"It's very unusual for me not to be in contact with anybody else, but I have to keep fresh because that's what our head coach wants. I know my time will come."

[+] EnlargeCorey Clement
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsDespite being third on the depth chart, Corey Clement ran for 547 yards, 7 TDs and averaged 8.2 yards per carry.
Yes, Clement figures to get plenty of opportunities once the season begins. And there should be no doubt about his impact, both literally and figuratively.

As a true freshman in 2013, he made a lot out of a little. Appearing almost exclusively in mop-up work behind Gordon and senior James White, he still managed to run for 547 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 8.2 yards per carry. He ran for 101 yards in his college debut against UMass in the opener, then followed that up with 149 yards and two touchdowns a week later vs. Tennessee Tech. He also went over 100 yards against Indiana, joining White and Gordon as the triple-headed, triple-digit rushers each time in those blowout wins.

With White gone, Clement is set to take on a much bigger role in the Badgers backfield, potentially forming a dynamic duo with Gordon, just as White did with Montee Ball and then Gordon did with White.

"I believe we can only beat ourselves," he said. "I believe we can be the best tandem if our teammates help us out with that."

The arc sure seems familiar. Clement's numbers as the third wheel in his first season of full action closely resemble those of Gordon's in 2012. Gordon ran for 621 yards and averaged 10 yards per carry as a redshirt sophomore, then blew up for 1,609 rushing yards last season.

Many expect Clement to enjoy the same trajectory, but he's not viewing himself as mirroring his predecessor.

"I've always wanted to create my own path," he said. "I don't want to follow any anybody else. It's all about creating your own legacy and doing what you have to do make a name for yourself."

There are style differences between the two backs, as Gordon is a 6-foot-1 long-strider who is most dangerous when he can get out on the perimeter. The 5-11, 210-pound Clement enjoys pounding the ball up the middle. He's itching to do that right now.

"He's unbelievably competitive and is frustrated," Andersen said with a laugh. "Corey's handling that well, but trust me -- every single day, he wants to get in and get tackled, and he wants to run in between the tackles."

Clement is a gifted runner, but like all young tailbacks, he needs to improve his understanding of pass protection and blocking. Those are things that took Ball time to learn, and even Gordon struggled with it at times last season. Andersen also wants Clement to develop in the screen game, so mental reps and non-tackling drills take priority this spring.

"I'm just trying to get everything down," Clement said. "It's already hard, and trying to accumulate it all in one spring is kind of hard. But I'll get used to it, eventually."

Clement said he learned about the importance of paying attention to detail during his freshman season, and he had to focus on learning to practice right during the middle of the season when his game day opportunities evaporated. There's usually a line of succession for handoffs at Wisconsin, but the player who starred as a running back most of his young life in New Jersey had to adjust to that.

"I wasn't mad about it, but it made me a lot more eager and anxious to get out on field," he said, "because I'd never been a third-stringer."

His time to shine arrives this fall. Don't be surprised if Clement makes a deep impact.
When Ameer Abdullah weighed whether to enter the NFL draft or return to Nebraska for his senior season, he didn't do much external research on comparable players.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Reese Strickland/USA TODAY SportsLike his friend Ameer Abdullah, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon wants to leave his mark on the Badgers.
He looked at his own family and how all eight of his older siblings had earned their college degrees (in some cases, advanced degrees, too). He considered the free education he could complete at Nebraska. He took the realistic and refreshing position that at some point, his body wouldn't allow him to play football, and he needed to fall back on his education.

The other top FBS running backs declaring for the draft early didn't enter Abdullah's mind. There was only one outside resource Abdullah consulted, a friend who played the same position with similar success at another Big Ten school, and who had faced the same decision. Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon already had announced he would return as a fourth-year junior. As Abdullah neared his decision earlier this month, he reached out often to Gordon.

"That's one person I talk to all the time about things like this," Abdullah told ESPN.com. "Melvin, he's one of my best friends. He's a good guy, and he was in a similar situation as me. He's also coming back, and I'm glad he is.

"We get to play them next year, and it's going to be a great matchup."

Abdullah and Gordon, who first met a high school all-star game in South Carolina in 2010 and have been good friends ever since, both are returning to the Big Ten for the 2014 season. A record-setting 98 underclassmen entered the 2014 NFL draft, 25 more than last year, the previous record. The list includes 20 running backs. Although a portion of the early entries either received bad advice or made bad decisions and won't be drafted, running back has long been regarded as the position to make a jump as soon as possible because of the physical toll it takes to play the position and its typically shorter career span.

There's little doubt both Gordon and Abdullah could have turned pro. Gordon led the nation in rushing for a stretch in September and finished with 1,609 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns despite sharing carries with James White. Abdullah led the Big Ten and ranked ninth nationally in rushing yards with 1,690, which included 11 100-yard rushing performances in 13 games.

So why did the two say no to the draft?

"It just shows how much we care about our teams and how much we want to be the guy," Gordon said. "Ameer was the guy, but like I said before, it's about leaving a legacy. I'm sure that's what he wants to do as well. He wants to be considered one of the top backs, along with me, before he leaves, and that's a big thing, leaving something behind."

Gordon sought input from the NFL draft advisory board before announcing his decision to return, and he encouraged Abdullah to do the same. Although Abdullah didn't directly tell Gordon he planned to return before making a formal announcement, Gordon always had the sense Abdullah would be back at Nebraska.

"He's ambitious, just like I am," Abdullah said. "I feel like I have a lot more left in my ceiling that I have to reach. Melvin is the same way. He wants to come back and improve on his game, just like I do."

Pass blocking is undoubtedly the priority for Gordon during the offseason. It was a struggle for him at times last season, and even though he felt he improved, Wisconsin's coaches went with the more reliable White on passing downs.

"If you want to be an all-purpose back, you've got to get adjusted from the start," he said. "It didn't happen that quickly with me and that's why James was there. That's what I have to work on, just getting more comfortable in pass protection."

Gordon also hopes to bulk up a bit to 215 pounds after playing last season at around 205 (he's currently plateauing at 208-209). He wants to be Wisconsin's primary ball-carrier but expects to be pushed by Corey Clement, who had 547 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on just 67 carries as a freshman last fall -- similar numbers to Gordon's freshman campaign (62 rushes, 621 yards).

Abdullah logged 281 carries in 2013 and will again be in a featured role as a senior. Although many already consider Abdullah a team leader, he wants to enhance his vocal presence to "set the standards" for younger Huskers players.

Despite 549 career carries at Nebraska, the 5-9, 190-pound Abdullah isn't concerned about the injury risk of another year in college or the chatter from agents and others that running backs often slide in the draft if they return to school.

"It's all about your running style, really," he said. "A lot of guys run a certain way where they're vulnerable to getting hit directly. Other guys maneuver themselves so they won't take direct shots. You look at a guy like Barry Sanders. He was great at that. He never took that direct shot.

"I've always tried to change my ways or look at different technique schemes to prolong my career."

His Nebraska career will culminate with another run at an elusive league title. To do so, Abdullah and his teammates likely will have to get past Gordon and the Badgers on Nov. 15 in Madison, Wis.

Nebraska's last appearance at Camp Randall Stadium, its first league game in the Big Ten, did not go well.

"That's definitely one I circled," Gordon said. "I'm excited for it. I do compete with Ameer a lot. After every game, I'm checking to see what he got. I'm pretty sure he's doing the same thing. He definitely pushes me, and I'll push him to be great as well."

The Big Ten's top two runners are back for 2014, setting up an exciting race for the rushing title.

"The work starts now," Abdullah said, "so he better be working."

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 12

November, 18, 2013
11/18/13
11:00
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Twelve seconds.

That's how much time remained in regulation at Northwestern after Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner hit Jeremy Gallon on a 16-yard pass. The clock was running. What happened next was what Wolverines coach Brady Hoke said "might be the best single play I've ever seen."

The Michigan field goal unit sprinted onto the field. Holder Drew Dileo, who had run a pattern as a wide receiver, ran in from the other side of the field and slid into position. The snap came with one second to go, and kicker Brendan Gibbons made a 44-yarder to send the game into overtime, where the Wolverines eventually won.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was upset that his team didn't get a chance to substitute its block team in. The Wildcats were in disarray as the field goal try went up. Referee Bill LeMonnier explained to a pool reporter afterward that on the final play of the half, teams aren't automatically given the right to substitute on field goal defense.

That play goes down as the second-craziest finish to regulation of a Big Ten game this year. In the Wisconsin-Arizona State game, there were 18 seconds left when Joel Stave downed the ball. The Badgers never got to run another play.

Take that and rewind it back ...

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsMark Dantonio and the Spartans control their own destiny to reach the Big Ten title game.
Team of the week: Michigan State. It was not a vintage defensive performance for the Spartans, who allowed 28 points to a Nebraska offense that turned the ball over five times and played with a stitched-together line. But Mark Dantonio's team still won by double digits on the road in Lincoln for its first win over the Huskers while clinching at least a share of the Legends Division title. Then there's this: Through 10 games, the Spartans are averaging 30.9 points per contest.

Worst hangover: Northwestern finds more ways to lose than anybody. The Wildcats had a dominant defensive effort against Michigan in allowing no touchdowns in regulation. But they had a 7-yard shank punt that set up a Michigan first-and-goal, Ibraheim Campbell dropped an easy interception on the Wolverines' final drive, and they couldn't pounce on a fumble in overtime. Northwestern has lost twice in overtime, once on a Hail Mary and in games that went down to the final drives against Minnesota and Ohio State. Sheesh.

Best call: Nebraska had to be ready for some Michigan State tomfoolery, right? We've seen it so many times from Dantonio in a big game.

And it worked again on Saturday. The Spartans lined up for a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Nebraska 27, leading 27-21 in the fourth quarter. Punter Mike Sadler, who serves as the holder on field goals, took the snap and pushed his way forward for 3 yards. The play was called "Charlie Brown," evoking memories of Lucy snatching the ball away in "Peanuts." But Sadler was actually supposed to check out of the play because of the way Nebraska was set up, and the play was never designed to go up the middle where he ran.

"That was the last thing going through my mind," said Sadler, who went up the middle on a successful punt fake at Iowa last month. "I was just trying to think of my touchdown dance."

He didn't score, but Connor Cook delivered a touchdown pass three plays later to all but seal the victory.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde piled up five total touchdowns while rushing for 246 yards on just 24 carries versus Illinois. He had touchdown runs of 51 and 55 yards in the final four minutes to put the game on ice.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): In a game that didn't feature a whole lot of defense, Ohio State's Ryan Shazier still managed an impressive stat line at Illinois: 16 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. He had the safety on Reilly O'Toole that gave the Buckeyes some breathing room. And while he had a chance to turn that into a touchdown had he not celebrated a bit too soon, Shazier still had an outstanding performance considering Ohio State's other two starting linebackers were out with injuries.

[+] EnlargeBrendan Gibbons
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhBrendan Gibbons hit a 44-yard field goal as time expired to put Michigan into overtime at Northwestern.
Big Men on Campus (Special teams): This goes to the entire Michigan field goal unit, including Gibbons, Dileo, snapper Jareth Glanda, special-teams coordinator Dan Ferrigno and everyone else involved in that unbelievable play at the end of regulation at Northwestern. That was a team effort, and if one guy was a half-second late, the Wolverines lose. (Tips of the cap also go out to Purdue's Raheem Mostert and Illinois' V'Angelo Bentley, who both scored on returns).

Sideline interference: Illinois coach Tim Beckman had to be separated from offensive coordinator Bill Cubit on the sidelines after quarterback Reilly O'Toole was sacked in the end zone. Both coaches later said it was just a heat-of-the-moment thing, and Cubit added, "You'd be shocked at how many times" that happens during games. But it's still not a good look for Beckman, whose sideline mishaps the past two years include getting called for interference penalties and getting caught using chewing tobacco.

Who needs tickets?: Want to see a Big Ten game, but you don't have more than 50 cents in your pocket? Then this week's Illinois-Purdue Basement Bowl is for you. On StubHub this morning, several tickets to Saturday's game at Ross-Ade Stadium could be had for as little as 39 cents. Get 'em while they're hot!

Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Info):

  • Wisconsin ran for 554 yards Saturday versus Indiana. It was the second most in school history, behind the 564 the Badgers compiled against the Hoosiers last year. So in the past two games against IU, Wisconsin has rushed for 1,118 yards and 13 touchdowns; on Saturday the Badgers had three 100-yard rushers (James White, Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement) and an 86-yard rusher (Jared Abbrederis, on reverses). The Badgers' running game added 35.8 expected points to their net scoring margin; two of the top 10 rushing EPA games in the FBS the past 10 years were posted by Wisconsin against Indiana. The Badgers still fell far short of the Big Ten rushing record of 832 yards, set by Minnesota in 1905. But they do get Indiana again next year, so you never know.

  • ESPN's strength of schedule rankings (out of 126 FBS teams):
Alabama: 48th
Florida State: 60th
Ohio State: 88th
Baylor: 95th
There's minimal movement in the Power Rankings as the top teams took care of business and both Minnesota and Iowa spent Saturday on the couch.

Our big debate continues to be whether to put Wisconsin or Michigan State at No. 2 behind front-runner Ohio State. The Spartans are getting more love nationally and deservedly so after starting Big Ten play at 6-0. They found some different ways to win against Nebraska, including the "Charlie Brown" fake field goal attempt.

But we've been bullish on Wisconsin for a while now, and the Badgers have done nothing to change our minds. Wisconsin's defensive performance against an Indiana team that has given defenses fits all seasons makes it tough to drop the Badgers. So we're not.

The margin is very thin between Wisconsin and Michigan State, and Wisconsin will be tested more this week as it visits rival Minnesota.

Penn State and Indiana trade places this week, and Nebraska moves down a spot.

Here's one final look at the Week 11 rankings.

Now, for the newest rundown ...

1. Ohio State (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): Urban Meyer's crew had another fast start, jumping ahead of Illinois 21-0 in the first 11 minutes, 30 seconds. Ohio State received big performances from running back Carlos Hyde (246 rush yards, 4 TDs), quarterback Braxton Miller (184 rush yards, TD, 2 pass TDs), and cornerback Bradley Roby (INT return for TD). But the defense surrendered 420 yards and 35 points, which isn't good. Ohio State can clinch the Leaders division title this week against Indiana.

2. Wisconsin (8-2, 5-1; last week: 2): Much of the focus is on Wisconsin's historic rushing performance: 554 yards, the second-highest total in team history, and three 100-yard rushers in James White, Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement. But the Badgers' defense deserves a lot of credit for bottling up Indiana's quick-strike offense, holding the Hoosiers to just three points, 14 first downs and 224 total yards. Wisconsin continues to get zero respect nationally but could gain a little with a strong performance at Minnesota this week.

3. Michigan State (9-1, 6-0; last week: 3): The Spartans are a win -- or a Minnesota loss -- from punching their ticket to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game. They found themselves in a surprisingly high-scoring game Saturday against Nebraska but controlled the clock and made big plays in all three phases. Running back Jeremy Langford (151 rush yards, 3 TDs) and safety Kurtis Drummond (forced fumble, interception) were among the standouts. MSU visits Northwestern this week.

4. Minnesota (8-2, 4-2; last week: 4): Get ready for the biggest Gophers home game in recent memory as rival Wisconsin comes to town with the Axe on the line. Minnesota needs a win and a Michigan State loss to woeful Northwestern to remain in the Legends division race. David Cobb and the Gophers' power run offense faces a Wisconsin defense playing at a very high level these days. Minnesota will need a stout effort from Ra'Shede Hageman and the defensive line against Wisconsin's ground attack.

5. Iowa (6-4, 3-3; last week: 6): How much of a step forward will Iowa take this season? We'll find out the next two weeks as the Hawkeyes close the regular season against Michigan and Nebraska. Both games are quite winnable, and Iowa's four losses all have come against ranked opponents. Iowa has won three of its past four home contests against Michigan and boasts a defensive front seven that could give the Wolverines fits.

6. Nebraska (7-3, 4-2; last week: 5): Credit Bo Pelini's team for rallying in the second half and moving the ball surprisingly well against the nation's No. 1 defense. But Nebraska made far too many mistakes to beat the Legends division front-runner, committing five turnovers in the game. Junior Ameer Abdullah (123 rush yards) continues to look like one of the nation's best running backs, but he needed more help around him Saturday. The Huskers now visit Penn State.

7. Michigan (7-3, 3-3; last week: 7): It's not pretty for the Wolverines right now, although their ability to get off a last-second field goal to tie the game at Northwestern was a thing of beauty. Michigan's offense struggled until overtime, but a stout defense kept the team in the game, and quarterback Devin Gardner continues to display his toughness. Brady Hoke's crew finally won a league road game and looks to do the same this week at Kinnick Stadium, where it has struggled in recent years.

8. Penn State (6-4, 3-3; last week: 9): Home cookin' once again proved to be exactly what Penn State needed, as the Nittany Lions rebounded from a road loss at Minnesota by beating Purdue rather easily. Zach Zwinak made his case to be the team's top running back with 149 rush yards and three touchdowns, and quarterback Christian Hackenberg completed 16 of 23 pass attempts as the Lions converted 10 of 12 third downs. Penn State remains in Happy Valley this week for its final home contest against Nebraska.

9. Indiana (4-6, 2-4; last week: 8): Wisconsin once again brought out the worst in Indiana, which had its weakest effort of the season. The defense remains a mess, as Indiana surrendered a record 554 rush yards, including seven gains of 30 yards or more. Perhaps more surprising, a high-powered offense did next to nothing, held more than 300 yards below its average. Barring a miracle this week at Ohio State, Indiana will miss a bowl for the fifth straight season, a major disappointment given a schedule with eight home games.

10. Northwestern (4-6, 0-6; last week: 10): Kicker Jeff Budzien said after Northwestern's latest setback that if he had been told the team would be 4-6 he "would have laughed at you." The Wildcats' utter inability to close out games is no laughing matter. How does a team that used to be so good in the clutch now find every imaginable way to lose games? Northwestern is almost certainly home for the holidays. Then again, this dumpster fire of a season can't end soon enough.

11. Illinois (3-7, 0-6; last week: 11): There's certainly some fight in these Illini, even on the sideline, as head coach Tim Beckman and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit had to be separated following a safety in the third quarter. Beckman can't be too upset at Cubit, the biggest reason for Illinois' improvement this season. It's too bad the Illini haven't seen similar strides from a defense that can't stop anybody right now. Beckman really needs a win this week at Purdue as Illinois tries to snap its 20-game league road losing streak.

12. Purdue (1-9, 0-6; last week: 12): Baby steps. Purdue's offense is making them after a historically poor start to Big Ten play. The Boilers scored 21 points at Penn State, and quarterback Danny Etling (223 pass yards) had a decent day throwing the ball. The run game remains invisible and the defense couldn't get off the field or slow down Penn State's run or pass game. If Purdue is going to show some real progress before ending this miserable season, the time is now as Illinois visits Ross-Ade Stadium.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 12

November, 17, 2013
11/17/13
9:00
AM ET
Recognizing the best and the brightest around the Big Ten in week 12 …

Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said that Hyde made the difference for the Buckeyes in a 60-35 win. The senior rushed for four touchdowns and 246 yards on 24 carries and tallied another receiving touchdown (he had two catches totaling 26 yards). It was Hyde’s first 200-yard game of the season and more than double his previous season average of 117 yards per game.

Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons and holder Drew Dileo. Down three points with under 10 seconds remaining in regulation, the Michigan offense was sprinting off the field, the kicking team sprinting on the field and Dileo was sliding in to this holding position for Gibbons (yes, literally, sliding). Gibbons nailed a 44-yard field goal to send the game in to overtime, which the Wolverines eventually won after triple OT.

Wisconsin running backs. The Badgers accounted for 554 rushing yards against Indiana. James White (205 yards, 1 touchdown), Melvin Gordon (146 yards, 1 touchdown) and Corey Clement (108 yards, 2 touchdowns) became Wisconsin's third 100-yard rushing trio this season. Wisconsin tallied seven runs of 30 yards or more and White recorded a 93-yard touchdown run which set a program record for the longest run. The Badgers' 554 rush yards are the most by an FBS team this season.

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah. The Big Ten’s leading rusher had his seventh 100-yard game of the season (bringing his rushing total this season to 1,213) and he became the first running back to rush for more than 100 yards against the Spartans defense. He accounted for 123 yards on 22 carries and his one TD of the day was a 12-yard receiving touchdown (his only catch of the day). MSU came into the match up giving up just 43 rushing yards per game -- which Abdullah tripled.

Illinois DB V'Angelo Bentley. Coming into this weekend the Buckeyes had allowed just 1.5 yards per punt return and haven’t allowed any kind of a return on 92 percent of their punts. But with the Illini down 28-0 on Saturday Bentley managed to get past more than half of Ohio State’s punt coverage team and go 67 yards to the end zone. Not only did he become the first player to have success against this group, he also gave Illinois its first sign of life against the Buckeyes.

Honorable mention: Michigan State kicker Mike Sadler. With a six-point lead in the fourth quarter and the Spartans faced with a fourth-and-1 on the Cornhuskers 27 yard line, Mark Dantonio called for a fake field goal play. Sadler was supposed to go right, but the formation wasn’t quite what MSU expected, so instead of checking out of it and going for a field goal he rushed for three yards up the middle and a first down, setting up an MSU score.
Lessons learned from Week 2 in the Big Ten:

1. Ohio State has company at the top: The widely-accepted thought going into the season was that the Big Ten would be Ohio State and everybody else. Well, after two weeks, it's fair to say the Buckeyes have company from the team they dare not name: Michigan. The Wolverines have looked mighty impressive in their first two games, especially in Saturday's 41-30 win over Notre Dame.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDevin Gardner wore No. 98 to honor Michigan great Tom Harmon, then played great against Notre Dame.
Devin Gardner has made Michigan's offense truly balanced, and he is as dynamic a playmaker as Ohio State's Braxton Miller. Greg Mattison's defense gave up some yards and points to Notre Dame but is always going to be solid, more so if Jake Ryan returns this year.

Ohio State was also very good in a 42-7 win over San Diego State, especially considering Miller got hurt early on and was replaced more than adequately by Kenny Guiton. The Buckeyes have yet to play good competition or reach their peak with their full lineup available. Their ceiling might remain higher than the Wolverines', but Ohio State still has to go to the Big House, where Brady Hoke has never lost as a head coach. Having both of these teams reach superpower status this year ultimately will be good for the league. It's early, but it looks like we're on our way toward that, though those two teams are not the only ones to consider in the conference race. Speaking of which ...

2. Northwestern is a legitimate contender: Ohio State and Michigan are the Big Ten's top two teams, but Northwestern isn't far behind. Pat Fitzgerald's team needed some offense from its defense to survive a tough opener at Cal last week. The offense needed no such help Saturday as top quarterback Kain Colter returned to the field and, along with quarterback Trevor Siemian, wide receiver Tony Jones and others, shredded Syracuse's defense to the tune of 48 points and 581 total yards. Colter and Siemian combined to go 30-of-37 passing for 375 yards with four touchdowns, no interceptions and 91 rush yards.

Northwestern hasn't even been at full strength yet -- star running back/return man Venric Mark continues to nurse an injury -- and still looks like a superior team to the 2012 version, which won 10 games. Although the defense remains vulnerable to the big play, it also generates takeaways, continuing a theme from last season. The tough part of the non-league slate is over, as Northwestern has only Western Michigan and Maine left before two weeks to prepare for an Oct. 5 showdown with Ohio State, which should be the most-anticipated game of Fitzgerald's tenure. Northwestern's league schedule isn't easy, but it should be in the thick of the Legends Division race when November rolls around.

3. Song remains the same for Michigan State, Indiana: What good is it being outstanding on one side of the ball if the other side can't hold its own weight? Michigan State and Indiana have changed a lot of names in an effort to shore up their crummy offense and defense, respectively, but the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Spartans' quarterback picture is becoming an absurd theater; Mark Dantonio gave Connor Cook his first career start and Tyler O'Connor his first collegiate action but had to go back to incumbent starter Andrew Maxwell to start the second half against USF after both struggled. The three quarterbacks combined to go just 12-of-24 for 94 yards and did nothing to clear up the picture, while the offense managed only one score against a Bulls team that gave up 53 to McNeese State a week earlier. Thank goodness for the MSU defense, but it can't carry everything on its back all season again.

It's the opposite story at Indiana, which supposedly practiced all offseason to prepare for the Navy option but then looked as if it had never seen such a thing before in a dispiriting 41-35 loss. The Hoosiers have added some talented freshmen to the defensive mix, but they couldn't prevent the Midshipmen from rolling up 444 rushing yards. Indiana can still throw it and score with anybody and has put up 108 points in two games, but Kevin Wilson's team isn't going bowling unless the defense becomes competent. If only the Spartans and Hoosiers could combine into an all-star team, we'd really have something.

4. Mystery lingers around Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota: We're still waiting to learn something about the Badgers, Huskers and Gophers, who are a combined 6-0 but have yet to face a true test (sorry, Wyoming).

Wisconsin has posted back-to-back shutouts to open a season for the first time since 1958, and the run game looks as strong as ever with James White, Melvin Gordon and even Corey Clement, each of whom has rushed for more than 100 yards in the first two games. But few teams have faced weaker competition (Massachusetts, Tennessee Tech).

Nebraska's defense performed much better in Week 2, as cornerbacks Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans both had pick-sixes. But the Huskers' performance came against a Southern Miss team that now has lost 14 straight.

Minnesota continues to find creative ways to score, adding touchdowns on both defense and special teams in an easy win at New Mexico State. Then again, who have the Gophers faced? Fortunately, we'll find out a lot more next week as Wisconsin travels to Arizona State and Nebraska hosts UCLA. The wait will be a little longer for Minnesota, which hosts high-powered San Jose State in Week 4.

5. Illini are cellar-dwellers no more: Illinois has held pretty steady at or near the bottom of our Big Ten power rankings for about a year. But while the Illini are still far from league contenders, they no longer can be viewed as the conference's worst team after Saturday's stunning 45-17 win over Cincinnati improved their record to 2-0. The Bill Cubit-directed offense looks legit, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is playing as well as he has in his career.

The Big Ten's No. 12 team now has to be Purdue, which lost to that same Cincinnati squad, 42-7, in the opener and needed a pair of late defensive stops to hold off Indiana State 20-14. Yes, the same Indiana State team that Indiana destroyed 73-35 in the Hoosiers' opener. The Boilermakers once again were plagued by communication issues and an ineffective offense that got outgained by nine yards by an FCS opponent. Darrell Hazell's team figures to be a heavy underdog in its next six games, beginning with Notre Dame this weekend.

Iowa also still has a lot to prove after struggling to put away Missouri State at home until the fourth quarter. At least the Hawkeyes finally snapped their seven-game losing streak, though beating an FBS team would be nice.

Big Ten predictions: Week 2

September, 5, 2013
9/05/13
8:02
AM ET
We went a combined 23-1 in our first week of predictions, so let's see if we can keep that robust pace going. And how will our Week 2 guest picker fare?

Let's get to it:

Eastern Michigan at Penn State

Brian Bennett: Not much to see here, as Eastern Michigan has long been a Big Ten sacrificial lamb. This is a good opportunity for Christian Hackenberg to work out some kinks, and the kid throws three TD passes. ... Penn State 35, Eastern Michigan 9.

Adam Rittenberg: The Hackenberg-Allen Robinson connection will link up for two touchdowns, and Penn State coach Bill O'Brien will keep to his word and call better plays, sparking the run game to 175 yards and two scores. Lions roll. ... Penn State 31, Eastern Michigan 10

Indiana State at Purdue

Adam Rittenberg: Rob Henry gets the confidence boost he needs and Purdue fixes its communication issues on offense as running back Akeem Hunt goes for 135 yards and two touchdowns. The Boilers come out fast and get a first-quarter forced fumble from big Bruce Gaston. ... Purdue 38, Indiana State 14

Brian Bennett: The FCS just had a great weekend, so maybe we should take the three Big Ten games against FCS opponents seriously on Saturday. Nah. A team that just got done giving up 73 points to Indiana is just what the sputtering Purdue offense needs. ... Purdue 45, Indiana State 17.

Missouri State at Iowa

Brian Bennett: Iowa finally snaps its seven-game losing streak, using its superior beef to run for 200 yards, and getting a special-teams score. ... Iowa 31, Missouri State 13.

Adam Rittenberg: Yeah, this game has Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock written all over it. The tandem combines for three rushing touchdowns and Jake Rudock adds two more through the air to C.J. Fiedorowicz and Kevonte Martin-Manley. ... Iowa 38, Missouri State 10

Tennessee Tech at Wisconsin

Adam Rittenberg: James White rushing touchdown, Melvin Gordon rushing touchdown, Corey Clement rushing touchdown. Rinse and repeat. ... Wisconsin 63, Tennessee Tech 3

Brian Bennett: Yawn. Are we done with the FCS games yet? ... Wisconsin 56, Tennessee Tech 7.

South Florida at Michigan State

Brian Bennett: If the Spartans can't move the ball against a Bulls team that gave up 53 points to McNeese State last week, they've got even bigger problems than we realized. Three different QBs play for MSU, and two of them throw for TDs. ... Michigan State 30, South Florida 10.

Adam Rittenberg: I agree that Michigan State can't be much worse on offense than it was in the opener and will move the ball better, especially on the ground. Jeremy Langford and Riley Bullough both reach the end zone, and Tyler O'Connor makes the quarterback race a little more interesting. ... Michigan State 34, South Florida 3

Cincinnati at Illinois

Adam Rittenberg: The Illini start quickly and jump ahead on a Nathan Scheelhaase touchdown pass to Josh Ferguson. But reality begins to set in as a superior Cincinnati team takes charge behind its athletic defense. ... Cincinnati 28, Illinois 17

Brian Bennett: Illinois will put up a more respectable showing against the Bearcats than Purdue did. Scheelhaase throws for 300 yards and the game is close until midway through the third quarter. But there's just too much Munchie Legaux (I can't help myself). ... Cincinnati 42, Illinois 27.

San Diego State at Ohio State

Brian Bennett: I was interested in this game until San Diego State gagged against Eastern Illinois. The Buckeyes turn in a better overall effort than in Week 1, and Bradley Roby has a pick in his first game back. ... Ohio State 45, San Diego State 20.

Adam Rittenberg: My concern is Ohio State might be less interested than you are, BB. The Buckeyes overcome a sluggish start as Braxton Miller fires two second-quarter touchdown passes. Freshman Dontre Wilson scores his first touchdown for the Scarlet and Gray. ... Ohio State 41, San Diego State 13

Southern Miss at Nebraska

Adam Rittenberg: After a passionate postgame speech last week, emerging leader Ameer Abdullah takes matters into his own hands. The Huskers running back piles up 200 yards and three touchdowns. The defense has its typical hiccups early before settling down. ... Nebraska 42, Southern Miss 17

Brian Bennett: I expect -- and would hope -- that the Nebraska offense comes out mad after not finishing key drives last week. The Huskers go for the jugular this week behind Taylor Martinez's five total TDs, and the defense makes slight improvements. ... Nebraska 49, Southern Miss 24.

Navy at Indiana

Brian Bennett: It's never easy or fun to play Navy, but the Hoosiers got some experience against the option last year. The Midshipmen will shorten the game and frustrate the IU offense some, but Nate Sudfeld throws a fourth-quarter TD pass to Kofi Hughes to seal it. ... Indiana 28, Navy 20.


Adam Rittenberg: Sudfeld and the Hoosiers will finish drives better than they did last year against Navy, as Tevin Coleman twice reaches the end zone. IU forces a key third-quarter fumble and pulls away midway through the fourth quarter. Tre Roberson sees more field time in this one. ... Indiana 34, Navy 23

Syracuse at Northwestern

Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern's injury issues are worth monitoring, but the Wildcats have enough weapons on offense to outscore a Syracuse team that didn't impress me much last week against Penn State. Trevor Siemian connects with Dan Vitale on two touchdowns, and the defense comes up big again with a fourth-quarter takeaway. ... Northwestern 28, Syracuse 20

Brian Bennett: Hard to know what to expect from Northwestern because of the iffy status of both Venric Mark and Kain Colter. But Syracuse looked limited offensively last week, and I think Siemian rescues the 'Cats once again. ... Northwestern 31, Syracuse 24.

Minnesota at New Mexico State

Brian Bennett: It was a tough call between Ann Arbor and Las Cruces for the "GameDay" crew this week -- seriously, what is Minnesota doing here? Are the Gophers just big "Breaking Bad" fans who are planning a side trip to Albuquerque? Anyway, it's close for a half but the defense comes up with another score to send the Aggies to Belize. ... Minnesota 37, New Mexico State 20.

Adam Rittenberg: Maybe the Gophers can take a side trip to Roswell and check out the UFOs. Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson will provide a few identified flying objects in this one, firing two touchdown passes in the second half. It's not a pretty game, but it's a win as Minnesota improves to 2-0. ... Minnesota 34, New Mexico State 21

Notre Dame at Michigan

Adam Rittenberg: Can't wait to witness this one under the lights at the Grande Casa. Although Michigan struggles early with Notre Dame's fearsome defensive front, the offense settles down late as Devin Gardner and Jeremy Gallon connect for two second-half touchdowns, including the game-winner in the final minutes. Tommy Rees' mastery of Michigan ends with two second-half interceptions. ... Michigan 24, Notre Dame 21

Brian Bennett: I just keep remembering how Michigan mostly outplayed Notre Dame last year except for all those picks, and I don't think Gardner will make the same mistakes. Gardner finds Gallon for a pair of scores, and Blake Countess intercepts Tommy Rees on Notre Dame's final series to turn the lights out on the Irish. ...Michigan 27, Notre Dame 24.

Now it's time to hear from our guest picker. As we announced last week, we'll be choosing one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please) and hometown and a brief description why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find them easily.

The response so far has been overwhelming. This week's guest picker is Nick Schmit from West Des Moines, Iowa. The floor is yours, Nick:
"As a graduate of the University of Iowa, I have been following the conference and teams for as long as I can remember. I have plenty of insight and knowledge to offer. Besides, my wife is due with our first daughter on 10/19 (Iowa vs. OSU). Other than her birth, I need something to be excited about in what looks to be another long, depressing, mediocre (or worse) season for the Hawks."

Nick's picks:


Penn State 28, Eastern Michigan 13
Purdue 28, Indiana State 21
Iowa 34, Missouri State 10
Wisconsin 70, Tennessee Tech 3
Michigan State 35, South Florida 10
Cincinnati 31, Illinois 21
Ohio State 42, San Diego State 6
Nebraska 51, Southern Miss 17
Indiana 41, Navy 31
Northwestern 42, Syracuse 20
Minnesota 33, New Mexico State 21
Notre Dame 27, Michigan 24


SEASON RECORDS

Brian Bennett: 12-0
Adam Rittenberg: 11-1
Guest picker: 9-3

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 1

September, 1, 2013
9/01/13
9:00
AM ET
Recognizing the best and brightest from around the Big Ten in Week 1:

Northwestern LB Collin Ellis: The Wildcats didn't mind watching Ellis experience some deja vu against Cal. In the third quarter, he pulled down a deflected pass for the interception, made a nice cut and then ran it back 56 yards for a touchdown. One quarter later? It was almost like watching Ellis on rewind -- he grabbed another deflected pass and this time sprinted 40 yards for the score. That's right, the linebacker picked off two passes for two touchdowns. His career interceptions total before the game? Zero. Give that man a helmet sticker. (Hey, Adam, can we get away with giving him two?)

Wisconsin running game: OK, UMass doesn't exactly boast the most dangerous defense. But in a soft opening conference slate, the Badgers impressed by having three running backs each rush for more than 100 yards. Melvin Gordon, James White and Corey Clement ran behind a stout offensive line that allowed the trio to combine for 388 yards and average 9.7 yards per carry. Yes, the running backs nearly averaged a first down every time they touched the ball ... which is probably why Wisconsin won 45-0.

Penn State S/LB Stephen Obeng-Agyapong: He was expected to be a situational player at both positions but, when LB Mike Hull went down, Obeng-Agyapong took over -- and stepped up in a big way. Syracuse targeted the player, but the Orange just couldn't get the best of him. Last year's starting safety ran the gamut of defensive stats by finishing with a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception. (Oh, and he was third on tackles with 6.5.) Two of his turnovers directly led to six PSU points, and the Lions won 23-17. You don't need OG John Urschel to do the math here; Obeng-Agyapong was very important to PSU's victory.

Michigan State LB Jairus Jones and S Kurt Drummond: Take this pair away from the Spartans defense, and the team might not have experienced a happy ending in Week 1. Jones got the team started off on the right foot by intercepting a first-quarter Western Michigan pass and then having the awareness to lateral it to Drummond, who ran in for the defensive touchdown. Of course, neither was finished. Jones would go on to add another pick, while Drummond made a video game-esque play by using one hand to pluck the ball out of the air for a pick. If that play doesn't make an end-of-the-year highlight reel, there's no justice for these Spartans.

Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman: Double-teams were no problem for the fifth-year senior, and he showed he'll be one of the Big Ten's big play-makers this season. Midway through the third quarter, UNLV lined up for a 37-yard field goal to bring the game to within one score -- but Hageman was having none of it. He tore through the line and blocked the kick, while teammate Martez Shabazz returned it for a touchdown. All of a sudden, Minnesota led by 17 instead of just seven. Hageman also had five tackles and broke up a pass. He got plenty of pats on the back for his effort, and now he's also got a helmet sticker.


The Gary Andersen era got off to a successful start in Madison, as Wisconsin took care of business against UMass with an easy 45-0 blowout win.

The Minutemen are barely a step above the FCS level, so you'd expect the Badgers to roll over them at Camp Randall Stadium. Things went mostly according to script, after a slow start. Wisconsin led just 10-0 late in the second quarter but then turned it on big time, thanks to its powerful rushing game.

Both Melvin Gordon (144 rushing yards on 13 carries) and James White (143 on 11 attempts) had nearly equally impressive days. Gordon scored on a 70-yard run, while White added a 51-yard score.

Is there a better 1-2 punch at running back anywhere in the country? Or maybe it's 1-2-3, because even freshman Corey Clement got in on the act, scoring on a 23-yard run and adding 101 yards of his own on 15 carries as the Badgers nearly got 400 rushing yards as a team. The backs were so good that late in the game, Montee Ball jokingly tweeted, "So y'all trying to embarrass me huh?"

The bigger story was at quarterback, where Joel Stave got the start as expected. But he looked shaky coming out of the gate, going only 4-for-11 for 36 yards at halftime and missing on several throws and decisions. Just as fans were wondering if Andersen might go to Curt Phillips, though, Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig signaled confidence in Stave by calling for a deep throw on the Badgers' first offensive snap of the third quarter. This time, Stave connected with -- who else? -- Jared Abbrederis for a 65-yard touchdown pass. Stave also found Abbrederis for a 57-yard score later in the quarter.

If you're the Wisconsin quarterback, that's pretty much all you have to do right now: hand the ball off and be accurate on your deep throws to Abbrederis. I'm not sure how any defense lets Abbrederis get behind them -- he is pretty much the Badgers' only receiving threat -- but he manages to do it over and over. Stave should keep the job going forward and just needs to get more consistent.

As far as that revamped, 3-4 leaning defense? The Badgers showed several different looks up front and for the most part did a great job shutting down UMass and forcing a pair of turnovers. Then again, it was UMass. We're not going to get an accurate read on this defense until Week 3 when Wisconsin plays at Arizona State, going against a spread offense the 3-4 is supposed to be able to counter. Still, we have every reason to suspect that defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's group will be rock solid all year long, and this was a good way to start.

In fact there wasn't much to nitpick in Andersen's first game as Wisconsin coach.
Most muttering about the Big Ten's new division alignment came from fans of teams in the seemingly loaded East division.

Their teams suddenly have a tougher path to their top goals, whether it's the Big Ten championship game, the College Football Playoff, a top bowl game or merely any postseason spot. The main complaints from the West -- mostly from Cornhusker country -- pointed to the potential lack of exposure their teams would receive by not playing as often in mega venues like Michigan Stadium, Ohio Stadium and Beaver Stadium, not to mention in the new Big Ten markets of New Jersey/New York City (Rutgers) and Maryland/Washington, D.C./Northern Virginia (University of Maryland).

The theory is less exposure could damage recruiting, not only in the Big Ten's fertile new territories but in the existing ones like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

But four recruiting coordinators from future Big Ten West division programs contacted by ESPN.com this week don't sound concerned about division placement hurting their recruiting reach.

"I really don't think coming into the West division will affect us from a standpoint of kids trying to see what we're about," said Ross Els, Nebraska's recruiting coordinator and linebackers coach. "The biggest thing for us is to obviously get the TV exposure out on the East Coast, whether we're playing the guys in the East or not. With the Big Ten Network market picking up in Jersey and Maryland, it's going to help us, even though we are on the West side."

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikAlthough West division teams like Nebraska will get less live exposure on the East Coast, the visibility they'll get from the Big Ten Network makes up for it.
The power of TV can't be minimized, Els said, noting that recruits in Texas, a former Nebraska recruiting hotbed, have less awareness of the Husker program because Husker games aren't televised as often as they were when Big Red played in the Big 12.

"But we are seeing the positive in the Midwest and now hopefully on the East Coast because we're on TV and that's what the kids are watching," Els said. "I'm interested to see what the response will be when we start playing Rutgers and Maryland or at least them watching us on TV more often. I think we'll even take another step as far as familiarity, but that's unproven right now."

Although West division teams will be getting less live exposure on the East Coast and in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, the Big Ten's television exposure more than makes up for it, several coaches said. Every Big Ten home football game is nationally televised on Big Ten Network, ESPN or ABC, and most non-league road games are picked up by a national outlet.

Although players' family members still want to see them play live, they won't miss games if they can't make the trips.

"The Big Ten is a national brand, and with the Big Ten Network, you still can sell a lot of games being on TV, crossover games closer to home and have an opportunity to play new teams like Rutgers and Maryland," Wisconsin recruiting coordinator and running backs coach Thomas Hammock said. "With TV and having access to games online ... there’s probably less value placed on closer to home and more of the exposure of how much you can watch them play."

All of the West division teams assign coaches to recruit New Jersey andn Maryland. Purdue head coach Darrell Hazell, a New Jersey native, and running backs coach Jafar Williams, a Philadelphia native who played wide receiver at Maryland, handle the area for the Boilers.

Hammock, who hails from Jersey City, N.J., will continue to recruit his home state, where he plucked ESPN 150 running back prospect Corey Clement (Glassboro, N.J.) for the 2013 class. New Badgers assistant Chris Beatty, who grew up in Virginia and coached high school ball there, will target the areas around the University of Maryland.

Although the new markets already are priority areas for programs like Purdue, the effort there likely will ramp up in the coming seasons.

"It's certainly an area we want to pay attention to because of Coach Hazell's roots and Jafar's," Purdue recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach Gerad Parker said. "[The new additions] certainly perked our eyes because now we have a tie-in with the conference."

Matt MacPherson, Northwestern's recruiting coordinator and running backs coach, lists Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas as the three most important areas for the program's recruiting efforts outside of Illinois. The Wildcats have played at Penn State in two of the last three seasons, but the new alignment means they'll likely visit State College and Columbus just once every four years.

Still, MacPherson doesn't anticipate changing the team's recruiting plan because of the division alignment.

"When you're talking to a kid about the reasons for coming to Northwestern, you're talking not only a four-year decision but a 40-year decision, the rest-of-your-life-type decision," he said. "A lot of the kids we recruit and the families we recruit to can see beyond making that decision based on whether you're going to play in a certain football stadium one or two times in your entire career.

"I don't see it affecting us a whole lot as far as where we spend our time and resources, at least not until there's some evidence to say otherwise."

Although many Wisconsin fans didn't like the Leaders/Legends alignment because they moved away from regional rivals Minnesota and Iowa, former Badgers coach Bret Bielema often pointed to the recruiting/exposure advantages of playing Ohio State and Penn State every year. Hammock, meanwhile, had "no reaction" to Wisconsin being in the West, noting that the Badgers must play the schedule in front of them.

Some even see recruiting advantages to being in the West division.

"Being able to recruit the Midwest and push up to Chicago, being on that side of the line doesn't hurt us," Parker said.

Only time will tell how West division placement impacts teams' recruiting on the East Coast and in the eastern half of the league. But the coaches don't sound worried.

"Sure, we won’t be playing in the state of Ohio every year or every other year, but when people talk about the teams in the East, they normally talk about the teams in the West also," Els said. "So hopefully our exposure will still be pretty good in Big Ten country, regardless of which side we're on."
The letters have all been signed and the faxes sent in. Signing day is officially over. So how did each Big Ten team do in fulfilling its most pressing needs?

Of course, the real answer to that question won't come for another one, two or even three years. But we'll take a stab now at figuring out how league teams addressed some glaring concerns, beginning with the Leaders Division. Adam will look at the Legends teams a little bit later in the blog.

INDIANA

Needs met: It's no secret that the Hoosiers desperately needed reinforcements on defense. They focused on that in this class with 13 of their 22 signees on that side of the ball, plus four players labeled for now as "athletes." That includes six defensive linemen and four linebackers for a team that must improve its front seven.

Holes remaining: After finishing with one of the worst rushing attacks in the Big Ten, Indiana signed only one true running back -- Daryl Chestnut -- in this class.

ILLINOIS

Needs met: After a disastrous 2-10 season where nothing went right, the Illini needed help everywhere, especially at the offensive skill spots. They signed five juco transfers for some immediate assistance and some speed to run the spread offense, including future starting quarterback Aaron Bailey.

Holes remaining: Illinois lost linebacker recruit Reggie Spearman to Iowa and didn't sign anyone at that position, though it had two freshmen starters there last year.

OHIO STATE

Needs met: Speed, speed, speed. Urban Meyer wanted a whole lot more of it, especially at the offensive skill positions. And that's exactly what he got in receivers Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson, James Clark and Corey Smith. The Buckeyes should also be able to stop the pass with defensive backs Eli Apple, Gareon Conley, Vonn Bell and Cam Burrows among the standouts in this class.

Holes remaining: Very few, as you'd expect with one of the nation's top classes. Ohio State signed only two offensive linemen, but the Buckeyes addressed that position group in the 2012 class.

PENN STATE

Needs met: The Nittany Lions had to get two quarterbacks in this class, and they managed to land the top-rated quarterback in the land in Christian Hackenberg as well as junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson. The team also needed to add some talent to the secondary and brought in four defensive backs.

Holes remaining: The Lions are bringing in only one running back, though they have last year's signee Akeel Lynch, along with Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak returning. With severe scholarship limitations, Penn State's holes will revolve around depth. The team has to be selective and hope its run-on program produces some gems.

PURDUE

Needs met: The Boilermakers needed reinforcements in the backfield after losing two senior quarterbacks and with a thin tailback corps. Their two top recruits in this class are pro-style QB Danny Etling and running back Keyante Green. The Boilers also added running backs Keith Byars II, David Yancey and Dalyn Dawkins.

Holes remaining: Purdue signed just one offensive lineman in this class (Jason Tretter). That's an area new coach Darrell Hazell will have to address in next year's class.

WISCONSIN

Needs met: The Badgers needed to restock the secondary after losing three starters from the 2012 team. They signed five defensive backs, including early enrollees Keelon Brookins and Sojourn Shelton. Wisconsin also got a potential impact defensive end in Alec James and possibly the latest in a long line of star running backs in Corey Clement.

Holes remaining: Wisconsin could still use a bit more playmaking at the wide receiver position after struggling to find complements to Jared Abbrederis last season. The Badgers will hope Robert Wheelwright and Jazz Peavy provide some help. Neither was a highly rated recruit -- but then again, the highly productive Abbrederis was a walk-on. And although you wouldn't expect Wisconsin to need more offensive linemen, new coach Gary Andersen said the team is a couple of linemen short of the ideal number after signing three in this class.

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