NCF Nation: Dontre Wilson

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The first Ohio State game plan of the season was light on offensive variety.

It didn’t include many changes in personnel. There weren’t a lot of adjustments that could be made as the Buckeyes focused largely on doing just a few things well instead of risking the possibility of spreading themselves too thin.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY SportsLed by quarterback J.T. Barrett, Ohio State has scored 50 or more points in four straight games.
They were inexperienced at quarterback, starting what amounted to be an entirely rebuilt offensive line and counting on a handful of skill players who had barely been used in meaningful action.

Fast forward half a season and nearly every part of that formula has changed dramatically, most notably starting with the playbook the Buckeyes now have at their disposal that is making it seemingly more difficult to prepare for them every week.

“Just look at the play sheet against Navy compared to now,” coach Urban Meyer said. “There’s 70 percent more there than what it was.

“I think the quarterback, offensive line, the receivers have all opened up the playbook because they're much more mature. They’ve grown up fast.”

That has challenged the coaches to keep pace with the rapid development. And they’ve responded by continually adding new wrinkles, expanding the personnel rotation and then watching as the young Buckeyes soak it all up and wring out an offensive deluge on helpless opponents, scoring 50 points or more in four straight games.

A first-time starter in that disjointed win over Navy and a subsequent loss to Virginia Tech, redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett is now brushing elbows statistically with the top quarterbacks in the nation. Perhaps most impressively, he’s rewriting the record books that have Braxton Miller’s name all over them and arguably playing at an even higher level than the injured two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year thanks to an accurate arm, good decision-making and underrated athleticism as a rusher.

The offensive line that moved its only returning starter to a new position while breaking in four first-time contributors has now established chemistry and is once again blowing open holes for the spread attack. And behind those blockers, Ohio State is cutting loose a host of speedy threats at running back and wide receiver, trusting them with both the football and new assignments just about every game -- like the sparkling new Wildcat package that Dontre Wilson unveiled in another blowout last weekend against Rutgers.

That may just be the tip of the iceberg on the expanded play sheet, which offensive coordinator Tom Herman isn’t afraid to keep building on as long as the Buckeyes prove they can keep handling it.

“It’s the same offense,” Herman said. “It’s just different adjustments, different usage of personnel and better developed players. We’re better up front, we’re better at quarterback, we’re better at the skill positions. The sign of a good team is continual improvement, and I think we’re on that track right now. To say it’s a different offense, it’s not, but the players are certainly coming into their own.

“We’ll keep growing, obviously. But I think right now we’re in a good place.”

The Buckeyes have certainly come a long way in a hurry since that early loss, and the journey has been so dizzyingly quick, it can be easy to forget that the roster is still young.

That may mean mistakes may inevitably pop back up as the level of competition goes up against better defenses like Penn State’s on Saturday or in the huge showdown at Michigan State on Nov. 8. Of course, it might also suggest that the Buckeyes are only just scratching the surface of what they might be capable of doing offensively.

“As long as you have good checkers, you can keep going and going,” Meyer said. “That's where you just have to keep going.

“The better your checkers, [the options] are endless.”

And that is making the checkerboard increasingly difficult to defend.


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer is always trying to find new ways to motivate his players.

Last spring, he had a banner put up in the Ohio State field house reading “The Chase …” in reference to the Buckeyes’ championship pursuits. Meyer said he thought about changing the display for the 2014 offseason. In the end, though, he stuck with the same one.

“We didn’t accomplish it,” Meyer told ESPN.com. “We chased it but didn’t catch it. So the chase is still on.”

Ohio State, of course, nearly made it to its desired finish line. After going 12-0 for the second straight season under Meyer, the Buckeyes just needed to beat Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game to clinch a date with Florida State for the BCS national title. Instead, they fell 34-24 to the Spartans and closed the year on a two-game losing streak with a 40-35 setback against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteUrban Meyer says Ohio State is still trying to finish "The Chase."
So the chase continues, albeit with a much different-looking team in the 2014 starting gate. Gone is four-fifths of the offensive line that formed the backbone of the Big Ten’s top-scoring offense the past two seasons. Also gone are reigning Big Ten running back of the year Carlos Hyde and top receiver Corey “Philly” Brown, as well as the two biggest stars on defense -- linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby -- who opted to enter the NFL draft.

Experience is lacking in many key areas, but Meyer is ready to let some talented youngsters loose, including true freshmen. In retrospect, he wishes he had done so last year, when defensive end Joey Bosa and receiver Dontre Wilson were the only first-year players to make a big impact until safety Vonn Bell started in the Orange Bowl.

“We redshirted too many last year, and that was our fault,” he said. “There was a misunderstanding, and we just didn’t do a good job, especially on defense. When they show up on campus, we need to get them ready to play.”

This spring, early enrollees Raekwon McMillan (linebacker), Curtis Samuel (tailback) and Johnnie Dixon (receiver) were all heavily involved and have secured roles in the fall. Redshirt freshman are also at or near the top of the depth chart at strongside linebacker (Darron Lee and Chris Worley) and cornerback (Gareon Conley and Eli Apple), while true sophomores like safety Cam Burrows and tailback Ezekiel Elliott could force their way into the starting lineup.

“When you talk about inexperience, that’s a good thing right now,” said Chris Ash, who was hired from Arkansas as co-defensive coordinator to help fix Ohio State’s pass defense. “There aren’t a lot of habits that we have to change to fit what we’re trying to do. We don’t have older guys that are comfortable with where they’re at in their careers.”

An already young offense became even greener this spring because of injuries to three senior leaders: tight end Jeff Heuerman, receiver Evan Spencer and quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes will no doubt look a lot different when Miller returns from shoulder surgery. During the 15 spring practices, the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year often stood behind the offense and wore a camera on his head so coaches could go over what he was seeing on the field.

“We're exhausting every avenue and even inventing different avenues to make sure he's engaged and getting mental reps,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “We're doing the best we can with a bad situation. He has embraced it and is working his tail off, making sure he’s getting the most out of it.”

Herman says the Buckeyes should be more explosive on the perimeter this season, with guys like Wilson, Dixon, junior college transfer Corey Smith, sophomore Michael Thomas and freshman Jalin Marshall at receiver and a stable of athletic tailbacks. The safeties are longer and quicker than they have been in the past, and the defensive line -- which could be one of the nation’s best -- will have four starters who all used to be defensive ends.

The objective is clear: more speed. To that end, Meyer has hammered a new mantra in the players' heads: “4 to 6, A to B.” That means play hard for four to six seconds and get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. It's hard to interview an Ohio State player these days without hearing the phrase.

“That’s all he’s been preaching this spring.” defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. “He said he’s not really worried about technique and all that stuff. It’s just about playing hard, because if you play hard, effort makes up for mistakes.”

Washington said the defense was greatly simplified this spring, with only about four or five different calls to learn. Aggressiveness trumped scheme.

“The culture of Ohio State is to go hard, not trick you,” Meyer said. “I just felt like there was too much stuff last year, instead of just going hard.”

By moving faster and playing harder, the Buckeyes hope to overcome their youth and track down what they've been hunting. They have been tantalizingly close.

“We’re still on a chase,” Washington said. “We’ve just got to finish it.”

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer seemed to be guarding a secret, and it couldn’t be deciphered by reading between the lines.

The Ohio State coach joked about being a little bored by his spring game, expressed some frustration about the lack of offensive execution and stressed that there was plenty of work to do at a few key positions heading into the offseason.

But the truth about how good his third team at Ohio State might be was tucked away on the sidelines, leaving little to truly evaluate between them as the Gray beat the Scarlet 17-7 on Saturday at the Horseshoe. And based on the number of players he held out of the spring-closing scrimmage, it might be a safe bet that Meyer is actually feeling pretty good about what he has returning in the fall.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe spring game didn't say much about Urban Meyer's Buckeyes. And he seems fine with that.
“There were guys out there who will either never play or they’re not ready to play now,” Meyer said. “Like, [Ohio State sports information director] Jerry [Emig] hands me stats, I’m not sure what to do with these. I don’t care.

“... We all know what we saw out there. It’s not the Ohio State Buckeyes.”

Exhibition games rarely provide much of a reliable gauge for how good a team might truly be, and in the case of the Buckeyes, that might have been by design.

Braxton Miller was already on the shelf as he finishes up his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. Having the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year and a three-year starter at quarterback out of the equation obviously changes the complexion of the Ohio State offense. Cardale Jones was productive enough throughout camp to win the backup job, but his 14-of-31 passing performance Saturday was yet another reminder of the importance of having a healthy Miller to lead the attack.

Meyer indicated there was some uncertainty about his receiving corps after the spring game, but he had enough faith in Devin Smith and Dontre Wilson that he didn’t feel the need to press either of them into action over the weekend -- aside from a cameo appearance by the latter in a race against students at halftime.

And after watching what could be one of the most talented defensive lines in the country terrorize a rebuilding offensive line throughout camp over the last month, Meyer certainly didn’t need to see any more from Noah Spence, Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett or Adolphus Washington to boost his confidence heading into the summer, adding to the list of starters who effectively were allowed to take the day off.

Cornerback Doran Grant was largely an observer as well, though he did make an appearance to win the halftime derby and became the “fastest student” on campus. Projected first-team guard Pat Elflein was a scratch, and presumptive starting running back Ezekiel Elliott only touched the football three times. Tight end Jeff Heuerman was on crutches after foot surgery, but he’ll be back in time for the conditioning program next month.

So while the game itself left little worth remembering aside from what appeared to be marked improvement and depth in the secondary and another handful of mesmerizing catches from Michael Thomas, there were actually clues littered around Ohio Stadium that Meyer is poised to unleash his most talented team since taking over the program in 2012 and rattling off 24 consecutive wins.

The trick was knowing where to look.

“[The spring game] was a chance to see some young guys [who] really haven’t played, and to be quite honest, I’m not sure how much they will play,” Meyer said. “This is a chance for a lot of guys in our program who work very hard, and to be able to get some guys play or catch a pass in Ohio Stadium or whatever, in the big picture it’s the right thing to do.

“It’s a great thrill for a lot of people.”

The real thrills, of course, don’t come for a few months. And based on the amount of players who didn’t get to actually step between the lines on Saturday, Meyer might not-so-secretly have plenty to be excited about by fall.
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The Big Ten finally has a championship game that rivals the SEC's in national significance.

Unfortunately, the Big Ten is following the SEC's lead in another area: handing out discipline.

A league that considers itself a cut above in every area, including player conduct, had an opportunity to make a statement in the wake of Saturday's fight in the Ohio State-Michigan game. Instead, the league went soft, ensuring that its championship game, and Ohio State's national title hopes, would be unaffected by the ugly and embarrassing incident.

Here's what we learned from the Big Ten's ridiculous response Monday night: Fighting doesn't have long-term consequences. Twisting a helmet? Go right ahead. Just conduct yourself like a gentleman afterward.

After spending two days reviewing the officials' report from the game and the video of the fracas, the Big Ten decided to hand down no additional discipline to the Ohio State and Michigan players involved. The league merely issued a public reprimand -- the wussiest punishment possible -- for Ohio State offensive lineman Marcus Hall and the Buckeyes' coaching staff after Hall gave the crowd a double-bird salute following his ejection from the game. No other players were named by the league, which praised both coaching staffs for defusing the fight.

Ohio State's Dontre Wilson and Michigan's Royce Jenkins-Stone also were ejected Saturday, but they and others -- like Buckeyes wide receiver Michael Thomas and Michigan defensive back Delano Hill -- were spared any blowback from the conference.

The Big Ten is falling back on the NCAA's fighting policy, which calls for players ejected in the first half of a game to miss only the remainder of that game. Although the league has issued suspensions before for throwing punches, they have come for players who weren't ejected during the game.

The league had an opportunity to do more and show that behavior like Saturday's, even in a bitter rivalry game, is unacceptable and has long-term consequences. Monday's wimpy response will be seen as an effort to protect the league's title game and one of its biggest brands in Ohio State.

Criticize Ohio State coach Urban Meyer if you want for not tacking on additional playing-time penalties for Hall and Wilson. Honestly, I don't know many coaches who would have. They're trying to win championships and can impose some internal discipline. Michigan State didn't suspend William Gholston for his actions in the 2011 Michigan game, so the Big Ten stepped in with a suspension. The league should have done the same in this case.

Even a half-game suspension, which the SEC probably has trademarked, would have shown some teeth here. Instead, the Big Ten protects its championship game from being affected, and its biggest brand from being impacted in its quest to reach the national title game.

Monday's response will add to the widely held belief by many Big Ten fan bases that the league goes all out to protect Ohio State and Michigan. The response will bring more heat for league commissioner Jim Delany, who still gets ripped for going to bat for Ohio State's "Tat-5" to play in the 2011 Sugar Bowl.

The championship game is a national showcase opportunity for the Big Ten, a chance to display its best product and the values it holds so dear. You'll hear a lot about honoring legends and building leaders, and big lives and big stages.

Then Wilson might return the opening kickoff, and Hall will take the field with Ohio State's starting offensive line. Are those the images the Big Ten wants to present?

"As bad as it was, we're fortunate the incident did not escalate any further," the Big Ten's SECtatement reads. "More can, and should, be done by both coaching staffs in the future to prevent similar incidents."

The Big Ten could have and should have done more, but chose to do the bare minimum.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The Ohio State Buckeyes were losing it: the game, their composure and possibly their perfect season.

They admittedly became too wrapped up in the emotion of The Game. They started by yapping at Michigan players before and after the whistle. Things quickly got much uglier. A brawl following a Buckeyes kickoff return early in the second quarter resulted in two Ohio State players (starting right guard Marcus Hall and H-back/returner Dontre Wilson) and one Michigan player (linebacker Royce Jenkins-Stone) being ejected for throwing punches.

"Disappointed with that; I don't know where that came from," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. "That's unacceptable."

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AP Photo/Carlos OsorioDontre Wilson was one of two Ohio State players ejected after this second-quarter brawl at Michigan.
Hall exited the field with both middle fingers raised to the crowd. No, he wasn't making the "H" in O-H-I-O. The image quickly made its way around Twitter.

It could have been the lasting image from Ohio State's first loss under Meyer, one that would have ended the Buckeyes' quest for the crystal football.

Instead, No. 3 Ohio State provided some other snapshots not soon to be forgotten in one of the most memorable editions of The Game in its storied history, one Meyer called an instant classic. The Buckeyes will remember running back Carlos Hyde, responding from his fourth-quarter fumble, triggering an overpowering six-play, 65-yard drive that he capped with a 1-yard touchdown run with 2 minutes, 20 seconds to play. Hyde finished with more rushing yards (226) than any Buckeyes player has ever had against Michigan.

They'll also remember redshirt freshman nickelback Tyvis Powell stepping in front of a slant pass to Drew Dileo on the game's decisive two-point play to record the clinching interception. Linebacker Ryan Shazier said the Buckeyes had prepared for two conversion plays from Michigan and the Wolverines ran one of them.

Most of all, they'll remember a 42-41 victory against a Michigan team that gave its best effort in months.

"That was our season on the line," Powell said. "We had 12-0, Gold Pants, chances for the national championship. It just hit me, like, 'Wow, I kind of just saved the season.'"

Quarterback Braxton Miller, who had 153 rushing yards and three touchdowns to go along with two passing touchdowns, noted that every game doesn't go perfectly and teams must handle adversity. But Ohio State hadn't faced any real adversity in weeks, not since an Oct. 19 home game against Iowa, which led at halftime and tied the game entering the fourth quarter. That day, the Buckeyes turned to Miller, Hyde and the Big Ten's best offensive line to mount long, sustained drives.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesBraxton Miller rushed for three touchdowns and threw for two at Michigan.
It was a similar formula Saturday as Ohio State's defense had no answers for quarterback Devin Gardner and a suddenly dynamic Michigan offense, which stirred from its month-long slumber with a brilliant game plan that produced 603 yards and 31 first downs. The Wolverines gained just 158 yards the previous week at Iowa; they had 208 in the first quarter Saturday.

"They kind of looked like a different team," said Shazier, who added 14 more tackles to his swelling season total. "But we knew that would happen. ... It's called a rivalry."

It's a rivalry Ohio State continues to dominate, winning nine of the teams' past 10 meetings. There was little talk afterward of Michigan State and the upcoming Big Ten title game, or the lack of style points in beating an unranked opponent, or where the Buckeyes would wind up in Sunday night's BCS standings.

The road ahead, at least for now, didn't matter much to Meyer or his players.

"We're living in the moment right now," tight end Jeff Heuerman said. "It was such a crazy ending. Everyone's head is still spinning. A win's a win, and we'll take it however we can get it. What's 12 times two? Twenty-four straight wins.

"I'm an econ major. I shouldn't have said that out loud."

Ohio State's overall stock likely fell Saturday, particularly a defense that "didn't execute very well," Meyer said. But it's easy to invest in an offense that has looked unstoppable during Big Ten play, averaging 46 points and 531.3 yards in eight league contests.

The Buckeyes answered three Michigan touchdowns Saturday with touchdowns of their own.

"They matched score for score, and that's tough to do on the road," Meyer said.

Hyde has 1,249 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns in league play, telling ESPN.com that he runs "angry" because of his three-game suspension to begin the season. While Meyer knew his defense needed a breather before the two-point play, the Buckeyes offense was ready for overtime, if needed.

"[Michigan] went for two because they didn't want to go to overtime," Hyde said. "They knew what was going to happen. We would have scored; I have no doubt. We were having success all day."

The days ahead will bring bigger challenges for the Buckeyes, starting with the potential fallout from the fight. The Big Ten is reviewing the officials' report from Saturday's game, as well as video from the fight, to determine if additional discipline is warranted.

Meyer noted after the game that since the fight occurred in the first half, any suspension might not carry over. But the Big Ten typically has added a full game to any player ejected for throwing punches.

"Am I concerned? We're going to enjoy this win, get on the bus and go home," Meyer said, before adding, "I'm concerned about everything."

The fight still could end up costing the Buckeyes, but it didn't on Saturday. They regained their composure just in time, made just enough plays to beat a rival and preserved perfection for another week.

Next stop: Indianapolis.

OSU graphicESPN Stats & Information No Ohio State player has ever rushed for more yards against Michigan than Carlos Hyde did Saturday.
On occasion Saturday night, Ohio State lined up with quarterback Braxton Miller in the shotgun, flanked by running back Carlos Hyde and receiver Dontre Wilson.

If you're a defensive coordinator, that might qualify as a special kind of torture. Think of all the possibilities with that trio. There's Hyde, the 235-pound power back who at times couldn't be tackled by Wisconsin. There's Wilson, still just a freshman but already one of the fastest players in the Big Ten who's fulfilling the Percy Harvin role for Urban Meyer's offense. Then of course there's Miller, who can beat you with his arms or his legs.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsCarlos Hyde's full-time return added another dimension to an already diverse Ohio State offense.
That particular offensive grouping didn't create a ton of damage in the Buckeyes' 31-24 victory. But it showed that, like sideline observer LeBron James, Ohio State now can do a little bit of everything now when it has the ball.

In fact, Meyer's biggest lament about the offense after Saturday's game was that he couldn't find playing time for Jordan Hall and Kenny Guiton. Hall, who leads the team with 427 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, got one carry against the Badgers. Guiton -- who leads the Big Ten in passing touchdowns with 13 -- never saw the field.

Miller quickly showed why the "debate" over whether he or Guiton should start was always silly, because he simply can do so many more things. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman said Monday that Miller still made some mental mistakes and needs to do a better job scrambling straight up the field. But Herman praised Miller's back-shoulder throw to Devin Smith for a touchdown, and Ohio State has now incorporated a vertical passing game to go along with its strong rushing attack. Receivers Smith, Corey "Philly" Brown and Evan Spencer are drawing praise not scorn from Meyer these days, and the trio has combined for 13 touchdown catches.

"They use their weapons well at every position," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said Monday. "They can get the ball to anybody, and they can score on any given play."

Fitzgerald should know exactly what that looks like, because he has built the same thing with his team. In fact, when Northwestern hosts Ohio State on Saturday night in Evanston, we will see arguably the two most versatile offenses in the Big Ten.

The Wildcats, of course, employ a two-quarterback system with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, the former excelling as a runner and the latter serving as something like a designated passer. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall can use the option game with Colter or spread the field with Siemian and a deep group of wide receivers. The two quarterbacks are completing 69.8 percent of their passes.

In fact, Northwestern is fourth in the Big Ten in both passing and rushing yards, the only team to rank in the top four in each of those categories. The Wildcats have accomplished that almost entirely without star tailback Venric Mark, who has dealt with an unspecified lower body injury all season. But Mark, who ran for 1,371 and was an All-American punt returner last season, is listed as a co-starter on the team's depth chart this week.

Fitzgerald said Monday that if Mark gets through practice without issue, "we will have him in some capacity" on Saturday. Treyvon Green (404 rushing yards, five touchdowns) has filled in nicely for Mark and brings a bit more power, but Northwestern's offense takes on a different dimension with Mark's speed, especially when paired with Colter.

Northwestern will likely need every available weapon against Ohio State, which managed to shut down Wisconsin's running game on Saturday while allowing some big plays through the air.

All coaches talk about being "multiple" on offense, but the Wildcats and Buckeyes truly embody that this season. Nebraska can also do just about everything, though the Huskers' offense sputtered against UCLA, while Penn State can keep defenses guessing with many formations and plays. Just about everybody else in the league is looking for a consistent passing game (Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin), a dependable running attack (Indiana, Illinois) or both (Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue).

Ohio State and Northwestern both have inexhaustible options on offense. The trick will be finding which ones work best on Saturday night.

True freshmen impact in the Big Ten

September, 25, 2013
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True freshmen are having a bigger and bigger impact throughout college football these days, as coaches are either becoming less afraid to throw their youngsters into the fire or are facing fewer options.

[+] EnlargeDontre Wilson
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesThe versatile Dontre Wilson could be one of many to get touches in the diamond formation.
With that in mind, today we are ranking the top five teams in the Big Ten in order of the impact true freshmen are making for that team. We're going with quality over quantity here, mind you.

1. Penn State: The Nittany Lions are starting just one true frosh, but he's a guy with a little bit of importance to the team's fortunes: quarterback Christian Hackenberg. The 18-year-old has had some ups and downs but is on pace for a 3,000-yard season. Tight end Adam Breneman and receiver Richy Anderson have also played in every game, with one start each. Von Walker, Brandon Bell and Jordan Smith are among others who have seen time for coach Bill O'Brien, who doesn't have the luxury to redshirt many guys with the Lions' depth issues.

2. Nebraska: The Huskers' defense is young, all right. So young that two true freshmen are starting at linebacker for Bo Pelini in Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry. They rank fourth and fifth on the team in tackles, and Banderas is handling a leadership position as the middle linebacker.

3. Ohio State: Urban Meyer says Ohio State doesn't redshirt. If you're ready, you play. Technically, the Buckeyes don't start any true freshmen, but Dontre Wilson has already made a big impact as a runner, receiver and kick returner. Several other first-year players dot the two-deep, such as safety Vonn Bell and defensive lineman Joey Bosa, and running back Ezekiel Elliott ran for more than 100 yards and scored two touchdowns last week versus Florida A&M.

4. Indiana: No surprise to see the Hoosiers on this list, since coach Kevin Wilson has played as many true freshmen as any coach in the country the past few years. That means Indiana finally has some veterans, but Wilson is starting T.J. Simmons at linebacker and getting contributions from Darius Latham on the defensive line, Antonio Allen in the secondary and Marcus Oliver and Clyde Newton at linebacker.

5. Wisconsin: The Badgers are mostly an experienced, veteran team. The one exception is in the secondary. Sojourn Shelton is starting at cornerback for the Badgers, while Jakarrie Washington and Nate Hammon are top reserves in the defensive backfield.

Big Ten predictions: Week 3

September, 12, 2013
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After two relatively easy weeks of picking games, the challenge gets much tougher with a delicious slate of Week 3 games. Last week, our picks mirrored one another. There will be some disagreements this time around.

Let's dive in ...

BOWLING GREEN at INDIANA

Brian Bennett: Bowling Green has looked terrific in its first two games, while Indiana's defense was all but absent last week versus Navy. Different styles, but I think the Falcons seize on the Hoosiers' weaknesses. They kick a field goal late for my not-very-special upset special. ... Bowling Green 37, Indiana 34

Adam Rittenberg: I had Indiana beating Navy and losing this game entering the season, so naturally, I'm picking the Hoosiers to win after falling to Navy. The defense bounces back a little against a more conventional offense, and Nate Sudfeld consistently attacks downfield to Kofi Hughes and Shane Wynn. Sudfeld rallies IU in the fourth quarter and finds Ted Bolser for the game-winning touchdown. ... Indiana 38, Bowling Green 35

WESTERN ILLINOIS at MINNESOTA

Rittenberg: Can you wake me when Minnesota finally starts playing someone? Quarterback Philip Nelson adds two more rushing scores as the Gophers pull away early in the third quarter following a Ra'Shede Hageman forced fumble. Then we can look ahead to San Jose State. ... Minnesota 37, Western Illinois 17

Bennett: There's not much interesting about this game, except that we get to throw around the word "Leathernecks." It's a good week to get Mitch Leidner some experience. ... Minnesota 35, Western Illinois 13


UCLA at NEBRASKA

Bennett: I've gone back and forth on this all week, but in the end I worry that Nebraska's home-field advantage won't be enough to overcome its youth on defense. Brett Hundley amasses five total touchdowns, and the Huskers come up just short on their final drive. ... UCLA 38, Nebraska 34

Rittenberg: Nebraska's defense remains a big concern, especially against Hundley, but with no Johnathan Franklin, the early kickoff and a long trip, I expect UCLA to be a big sluggish. Martinez delivers a turnover-free performance in a big game and finds Quincy Enunwa for the game-winning touchdown pass in the final minute. ... Nebraska 35, UCLA 34

AKRON at MICHIGAN

Rittenberg: UCF's Blake Bortles abused Akron for big plays in Week 1. Devin Gardner, eat your heart out. The Gardner-Gallon connection cranks up again as Jeremy Gallon hauls in two more touchdowns. Fitzgerald Toussaint goes for 120 rush yards and a score as Michigan rolls. ... Michigan 45, Akron 17

Brian Bennett: Akron has won four games since the end of the 2009 season. Notre Dame hangover? Maybe, but it won't matter one bit. ... Michigan 48, Akron 10


YOUNGSTOWN STATE at MICHIGAN STATE

Bennett: Is Jim Tressel back coaching Youngstown State? Maybe then the Penguins would have a chance. The Spartans play Connor Cook and Damion Terry and get only two touchdown drives out of both of them. But the defense scores again. ... Michigan State 27, Youngstown State 3

Rittenberg: I'm tempted to go with the Penguins since Michigan State's offense is ice cold (be sure to tip your waitress). This will be close for three quarters, but Michigan State's Terry steps up late with a touchdown pass and a touchdown run (yes, two offensive touchdowns). Sadly, no touchdown for Bane this week. ... Michigan State 24, Youngstown State 10

IOWA at IOWA STATE

Rittenberg: Do I have to pick a winner here? Iowa took a step back last week in many ways, although the power run stepped up when the team needed a lift. This will be a sloppy game on both sides, but Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock, along with the offensive line, prove to be the difference in the fourth quarter. ... Iowa 19, Iowa State 17

Bennett: Kirk Ferentz really needs this game. Then again, so does Paul Rhoads after losing to Northern Iowa in the opener. I don't expect many fireworks, either, but the Cyclones are just a little more desperate and have the momentum in this series. They win it on an overtime field goal. ... Iowa State 16, Iowa 13

UCF at PENN STATE

Bennett: UCF is a trendy sleeper pick and has an experienced quarterback. But Penn State's defense is a major step up from Conference USA/American Athletic competition. It's close for a half, but Christian Hackenberg gets going in the third quarter with a pair of touchdown tosses to Allen Robinson, and Bill O'Brien tops George O'Leary. ... Penn State 27, UCF 17


Rittenberg: Tricky game for Bill O'Brien's crew, but I expect Penn State's defense to do enough against Blake Bortles and a talented UCF offense. UCF jumps out to an early lead, but Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch spark Penn State's rushing attack in the second half, each scoring a touchdown as the Lions prevail. ... Penn State 34, UCF 27

WASHINGTON vs. ILLINOIS (at Chicago)

Rittenberg: Washington is the more talented and experienced team, and a lot needs to go right for the Illini to pull off the upset. I see another fast start for Illinois against a Huskies team that struggles on the road and might be a little sleepy following a bye week. Nathan Scheelhaase throws two more touchdown passes, but Washington tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins proves to be the difference with 120 receiving yards and a score. ... Washington 31, Illinois 21

Bennett: I'd like to pick the Illini here because it would be a great story. They certainly proved me wrong last week in a big way. I still think Washington is just a little too talented, though. Keith Price throws four touchdown passes, making him the best quarterback Soldier Field has seen in a while. (That one's for you, Adam.) ... Washington 37, Illinois 23


OHIO STATE at CALIFORNIA

Bennett: Cal played Northwestern pretty tough and then ... almost lost to Portland State? Inconsistency should be expected, I guess, with a freshman QB and a new coach. There are going to be a whole lot of big plays in this one, and I suspect Kenny Guiton will see the majority of the action. Big coming-out party for Dontre Wilson here. ... Ohio State 49, Cal 28


Rittenberg: Cal provides a nice test for Ohio State's young defense, but the presence of cornerback Bradley Roby should help hold one of the Bears' standout wide receivers (Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs) in check. Ohio State has too much at the line of scrimmage and will use its ground game of Jordan Hall, Rod Smith and Wilson to outlast the Bears. ... Ohio State 38, Cal 27

NOTRE DAME at PURDUE

Rittenberg: The Boilers have shown me nothing to suggest they can knock off a team like Notre Dame, which is pretty darn good despite last week's loss in Ann Arbor, Mich. Purdue starts strong but can't finish two early drives. The Irish then take over with their rushing attack, led by Amir Carlisle, and force two second-half takeaways. ... Notre Dame 38, Purdue 17

Bennett: Circle the wagons, Purdue. It's going to be a long couple months. ... Notre Dame 35, Purdue 7


WESTERN MICHIGAN at NORTHWESTERN

Bennett: Western Michigan just lost to Nicholls State. OK, then. Northwestern might not be quite as sharp after two big games, but it won't need to be. Kain Colter rushes for 100 yards and a pair of scores, and he and Trevor Siemian both get an early rest. ... Northwestern 38, Western Michigan 10


Rittenberg: Previous Northwestern teams might be ripe for a letdown, but not the 2013 squad. Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian deliver another strong performance, combining for five touchdowns (three pass, two rush), including two scoring passes to Christian Jones. The defense forces two more turnovers as the Wildcats cruse. ... Northwestern 41, Western Michigan 17

WISCONSIN at ARIZONA STATE

Rittenberg: I just don't like the matchup for the Badgers, even though they've been so impressive early on. Arizona State's strength (pass game) goes up against Wisconsin's weakness (secondary), and although the Badgers control the clock with their run game, the Sun Devils hit in too many big plays. Too much Taylor Kelly in this one. ... Arizona State 35, Wisconsin 28

Bennett: I think big Will Sutton will be a shock to the system to Wisconsin offensive linemen used to dealing with the UMass and Tennessee Tech lines of the world. The secondary also gets burned a few too many times. Joel Stave throws two interceptions to thwart a comeback attempt, and Big Ten teams stay thirsty in the desert. ... Arizona State 28, Wisconsin 20.


Wait, we're not done yet. It's time for our guest picker of the week. Oh, you haven't heard? Throughout the season, we'll choose 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 it easily.

We found this week's picker in the desert: Adam Fraser from Gilbert, Ariz.

The floor is yours:
I'm a lifelong Husker fan living in Arizona. I'm a season-ticket holder and couldn't make it back for the UCLA game. I just started a new career at Prudential and my boss played football for UCLA. I've followed your blog for years and constantly smash your predictions. Let me put it on record at least one week, the Huskers biggest week of the year!! Thanks Adam (do it for your fellow Adam).

Other Adam's picks ...

Bowling Green 42, Indiana 40
Minnesota 30, Western Illinois 20
Nebraska 41, UCLA 37
Michigan 45, Akron 6
Michigan State 20, Youngstown State 13
Iowa 20, Iowa State 16
Penn State 24, UCF 13
Washington 31, Illinois 30
Ohio State 30, California 28
Notre Dame 38, Purdue 14
Northwestern 48, Western Michigan 10
Arizona State 34, Wisconsin 20

SEASON RECORDS


Brian Bennett: 22-2
Adam Rittenberg: 21-3
Guest pickers: 18-6

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 2

September, 9, 2013
9/09/13
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Week 2 didn't provide a lot of enticing matchups, but it did get us dreaming a little bit.

Michigan's impressive takedown of Notre Dame moved the Wolverines up near the edge of the top 10 in the polls and gave the Big Ten another national title contender alongside Ohio State. But those aren't the only teams looking good right now. If league teams can survive some of their nonconference challenges this weekend, we could have some serious heavyweight showdowns on tap in the coming weeks. Would any of these interest you?

5-0 Michigan at 5-0 Penn State on Oct. 12? It could happen, with the Wolverines playing Akron, UConn and Minnesota next, while the Nittany Lions have UCF, Kent State and Indiana.
5-0 Ohio State at 4-0 Northwestern on Oct. 5? The Wildcats have looked great in beating a pair of AQ teams -- Cal and Syracuse -- by double digits in the first two weeks. They've got Western Michigan and Maine left before gearing up for the Buckeyes. Ohio State, of course, still has to get past Wisconsin on Sept. 28 in what should be another high-stakes duel. But the game against the Badgers is in Columbus.
8-0 Nebraska at 8-0 Michigan on Nov. 9? This is far from guaranteed, as the Huskers have a tough matchup with UCLA this weekend, after which comes some pretty easy sledding until November. Michigan would also have to survive road trips to Penn State and Michigan State. But both teams will likely be favored in each game leading up to Nov. 9.
11-0 Michigan at 11-0 Ohio State on Nov. 30, followed by a rematch the following weekend? Like I said, we're dreaming.

What makes daydreaming about these games even more fun is the realization that none of them should turn into defensive slogs (weather permitting, of course). The five current ranked Big Ten teams can all really score, as each one is averaging at least 41 points per game through two weeks. Sure, the competition has yet to really stiffen, but we know that Nebraska's offense is for real, that Devin Gardner has completely changed Michigan's attack and that Wisconsin can run the ball with the best of them. Northwestern has scored 92 points against a pair of AQ teams and has gotten almost nothing from Venric Mark. Carlos Hyde hasn't played a down for Ohio State, while Braxton Miller has yet to play a full game and Dontre Wilson is still learning.

Throw in Indiana's passing game, Illinois' vastly improved offense, the potential for Penn State and Christian Hackenberg under Bill O'Brien's play calling and even Minnesota's increased playmaking skills, and points could be coming in waves this fall.

Michigan State fans just got sick.

Take that and rewind:

[+] EnlargeJeremy Gallon
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsJeremy Gallon helped Michigan ring up 41 points on Notre Dame.
Team of the week: With apologies to Illinois, which registered a critic-silencing win over Cincinnati, Michigan grabs the honor this week after its 41-30 win over Notre Dame. The Wolverines got to make all the chicken jokes they desired by shining bright under the Big House lights. And while Irish haters want to use that result solely as an excuse to bash Notre Dame, the fact is Michigan scored 41 points on a defense full of future pros.

Worst hangover: Buzz swirled around Indiana this offseason and grew louder when the Hoosiers rang up 73 points in their opener versus Indiana State. That's why it was so deflating for Kevin Wilson's team to lose 41-35 at home to Navy. The Midshipmen ran for 444 yards on 70 (!) rushing attempts and never once punted. With an underrated Bowling Green squad up next, followed by Missouri, Penn State and the two Michigan schools, the Hoosiers need to get up off the mat quickly.

Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Info): Wisconsin is one of only three teams in the country that has yet to allow a point and the only defense that has done so through two games. This week's opponent, Arizona State, has also yet to give up a point but has played only Sacramento State. The Badgers also lead the FBS in yardage margin, outgaining opponents by 444 yards per game. Playing cupcakes is good for your stats. ... Northwestern, deadly efficient with both quarterbacks versus Syracuse, has the league's highest QBR score and is 14th nationally. Michigan is right behind at No. 15. ... Penn State is dead last in the FBS in third-down conversion percentage (2-for-26) but is 4-for-4 on fourth downs. ... Purdue is in the bottom 10 nationally in yards per game, yards per play, QBR, points per game and red zone efficiency. That looks even worse when you consider that the Boilers' two opponents -- Cincinnati and Indiana State -- served up a combined 118 points in their other, non-Purdue matchups. ... Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase has accounted for 73.5 percent of his team's offense, by far the highest percentage in the Big Ten.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Notre Dame had no solution for Michigan wide receiver Jeremy Gallon. The senior had eight catches for a career-high 182 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 23 yards per reception. “He’s like a little bulldog,” Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner said.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun was named the Walter Camp national defensive player of the week after he scored two touchdowns, one on a fumble return and another on a pick-six. Calhoun now has three scores in his first two games. "He's our running back of the defense, I guess," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. "Just hand it off to him, let him go."

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Minnesota's Marcus Jones returned a punt 65 yards for a touchdown late in the first half to help break open the game against New Mexico State. It was sweet revenge for Jones, who got hammered after signaling for a fair catch earlier in the game. He now has scored on a kickoff return and a punt return in his first two games of the year.

Best play: Purdue pulled this off on the opening kickoff versus Indiana State. That was one of the few highlights for the Boilers, who might have lost without that special-teams strike.

Strangest moment: Week 2 was full of them, from Michigan's quarterback wearing the Old 98, to Eminem's halftime-interview-as-performance-art to Tom Izzo bribing Michigan State students to evacuate Spartan Stadium during a thunderstorm by promising to sit with them later (which he did).

But the best theater of the absurd happened in Las Cruces, N.M., where Minnesota played in front of an announced "crowd" of just over 16,400 at New Mexico State. The game was broadcast by something called Aggie Vision, which conveyed the look and feel of a 1980s high school game tape. Everything about the game was as non-big-time as a Big Ten team could find. Week 2 was supposed to be when Minnesota played at North Carolina, but the Gophers paid $800,000 to get out of that road trip. They chose instead to put themselves in the Area 51 of college football. At least they won.

Looking ahead: It's the best week of the nonconference season for the Big Ten, with three ranked opponents on the schedule: No. 16 UCLA at Nebraska, No. 19 Washington versus Illinois in Chicago, and No. 21 Notre Dame at Purdue. Plus, Wisconsin goes to Arizona State, Ohio State travels out to Cal, Iowa plays rival Iowa State and Penn State faces a dangerous UCF squad.

Big Ten predictions: Week 2

September, 5, 2013
9/05/13
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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
The games are finally here, and every Thursday during the season at this time, we'll bring you 10 items to track around the Big Ten.

Let's get to it …


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. APB for playmakers: Other than Penn State and Iowa, the Big Ten actually returns a decent amount of experience at quarterback for the 2013 season. But the league lacks offensive playmakers, especially at wide receiver. Teams like Ohio State, Minnesota, Michigan State and Illinois are hoping to surround their quarterbacks with more options. It will be interesting to see who establishes himself in Week 1 as a go-to option.
Preseason camps are wrapped up, game week is here and the 2013 college football season kicks off Thursday night. We're giving you one final preseason version of the Big Ten power rankings. These will come your way every Monday at 9 a.m. ET during the season, so you should structure your entire week around their release.

The in-season power rankings will have plenty of shuffling, but this version lacks much drama. In fact, today's rundown remains exactly as it was coming out of spring practice. Fortunately, there have been few major injuries/personnel developments to impact the way we see things.

There's no doubt about the top team, while Nos. 2-7 are very close.

In case you need a refresher before the games begin, here it is ...

1. Ohio State: Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller will have more weapons around him, including dynamic freshman Dontre Wilson. We'll learn more about the development of Ohio State's young defensive front seven in back-to-back games against Wisconsin (Sept. 28) and Northwestern (Oct. 5). Although the Buckeyes could miss top running back Carlos Hyde, they'll have no trouble getting through non-league play.

2. Michigan: Is this the year for Michigan, or are the Wolverines still a season away? If Michigan can address the interior of both lines and keep quarterback Devin Gardner healthy, it should have an excellent chance to reach Indianapolis. Standout linebacker Jake Ryan should be back for the Big Ten stretch run.

3. Northwestern: Few are picking the Wildcats to win the Legends Division, but they return the core pieces from a 10-win team and should be even more potent on offense than in 2012. If Northwestern can gain at least a split against Ohio State and Wisconsin, it should make some noise in the division during the month of November.

4. Nebraska: Bo Pelini's team is right there with Michigan and Northwestern and once again could emerge as the Legends Division champion. We expect big things from Taylor Martinez and the offense, but everything hinges on a young defense that got shredded in the final two games of last season. Nebraska should reveal a lot about itself in a Week 3 home showdown against UCLA.

5. Wisconsin: The Badgers are among the nation's most fascinating teams, as a large group of veterans accustomed to winning Big Ten championships adjusts to a new coaching staff led by Gary Andersen. Wisconsin's run game once again should be exceptional, but the secondary and receiving corps look shaky. September road tests against Arizona State and Ohio State will show a lot about this team.

6. Michigan State: Again, we don't see much separating Michigan State from the next four teams ahead of it in the power rankings. The Spartans' defense might be the Big Ten's best unit. But there are still numerous questions on offense, starting with quarterback. Will Michigan State fare better in close games? The Spartans figure to be in plenty of nail-biters.

7. Penn State: The starting 22 is about as good as any in the Big Ten, and if Penn State can remain relatively healthy, it should record another impressive record this season. Depth remains the big question surrounding the sanctions-laden Lions, and the quarterback situation will be fascinating to watch as head coach Bill O'Brien tries to work his magic with an unproven signal-caller.

8. Minnesota: Year 3 has been a good one for Jerry Kill at previous coaching stops, and Minnesota could take another step forward if certain things go its way. The Gophers need better luck on the health front after struggling to keep their offensive line together in 2012. Minnesota should be solid on defense with tackle Ra'Shede Hageman leading the way, but it needs some offensive playmakers to emerge around sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson.

9. Indiana: The Hoosiers have tremendous depth at the offensive skill positions and should hold up on the line despite losing guard Dan Feeney (foot) for the season. The big question in Bloomington hasn't changed: Will the defense hold up enough to let the offense -- regardless of who plays quarterback -- outscore the opposition? IU can build some confidence with five home games to open the season.

10. Purdue: Rob Henry's long road back to the starting quarterback spot is complete, and the senior will lead the Boilers through a treacherous stretch to begin the season. Purdue has some solid pieces on both sides of the ball but must navigate the toughest schedule of any Big Ten team, which includes Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Northern Illinois in non-league play.

11. Iowa: The Hawkeyes certainly have a chance to rise up the rankings and can make a big statement by beating Northern Illinois in the opener on Saturday. They'll lean on a veteran linebacking corps and hope for big things from defensive tackle Carl Davis. Not surprisingly, Jake Rudock will start at quarterback, and he'll need help from a deep group of running backs hoping to steer clear of AIRBHG. Iowa should be better this year, but the division isn't getting any easier.

12. Illinois: No Big Ten team enters the season with more questions than Tim Beckman's Illini, and there are tests early on with Cincinnati and Washington in Weeks 2 and 3. The offense has a clearer vision under coordinator Bill Cubit, but the schedule isn't easy, and Illinois must clean up its play on both sides of the ball to make tangible strides.

Heisman sleepers in the Big Ten

August, 15, 2013
8/15/13
8:00
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It may be hard to remember, now that seemingly every sentence written about college football these days has to include some reference to Johnny Manziel, but this time a year ago, Johnny Football was hardly known outside of College Station. He was a redshirt freshman who hadn't played a down of college football and wasn't anywhere near the Heisman Trophy radar; the NSA might not have even been keeping track of his phone calls.

All of which is a long way of saying that Heisman winners can come from virtually out of nowhere. Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton weren't exactly favorites heading into their Heisman seasons, either. So while the Big Ten has some obvious contenders, such as Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and possibly even Northwestern running back Venric Mark, there are other guys who could make the giant leap from sleeper to stiff-arm trophy holder. When considering such candidates, we're really only looking at quarterbacks and running backs, since the past 15 Heisman winners have played one of those two positions.

The list:

Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan: OK, he's not really a secret to Big Ten fans. But nationally Gardner is still a little bit of an unknown as he played quarterback for just five games last season. He put up really big numbers during that span, and if he can do that over a whole season, he might stay in the Heisman race longer than Denard Robinson ever did.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
AP Photo/Michael ConroyCould running back Melvin Gordon win Wisconsin's third Heisman Trophy in school history?
Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin Badgers coaches and players have touted Gordon as possibly the most talented back to come through Madison, and that's really saying something. He averaged 10 yards per carry last season, and while we wouldn't expect him to surpass Montee Ball's ridiculous numbers, Wisconsin ball carriers usually have impressive stats.

Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska: Again, he's not much of a sleeper for fans around the league. But most national observers think of Martinez first in the Nebraska backfield. Abdullah ran for more than 1,000 yards last season and is also a dangerous kick returner. If he can make some electrifying plays on the big stage as part of a powerful Huskers offense, who knows?

Dontre Wilson, RB/WR, Ohio State, and Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State: Normally, we'd never consider putting freshmen on a list like this, because that seems like way too much pressure and hype for unproven players. And yet Manziel just won the Heisman in his first year of collegiate action. Wilson has drawn rave reviews for his speed early on at Buckeyes camp and could be used in a variety of ways, while Hackenberg has a great chance to win the Penn State job out of the gate and lead Bill O'Brien's quarterback-friendly offense.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- On the day he signed to Ohio State in the spring, coaches were already fighting over who would get the first chance to work with him in their meeting room.

When he reported to campus in the summer, veteran teammates started raving about his physical skills and the impact he was already having in offseason workouts.

[+] EnlargeDontre Wilson
Ohio State AthleticsFormer ESPN 300 recruit Dontre Wilson could make a big impact for the Buckeyes as a freshman.
And by the time training camp for the fall finally arrived and Urban Meyer got his hands on him, it took all of three practices for the Buckeyes coach to join the chorus singing the praises of freshman Dontre Wilson and his ability to instantly upgrade an offense that was plenty dangerous without him.

While the Buckeyes have occasionally tried to temper the buzz that is building exponentially with seemingly every practice, the problem with tapping the brakes on something that moves as fast as Wilson and the hype around him is that it barely slows them down at all.

“Man, I’m going to tell you, that little joker right there is quick,” junior Evan Spencer said. “You’ll see, he’s so explosive, and you never know where he’s going to go or what kind of move he’s going to make.

“He’s a real guy -- he can move.”

The Buckeyes already knew that based on the blistering times he posted on the track in high school, and more confirmation arrived when he clocked a 4.33-second time in the 40-yard dash shortly after arriving for the offseason program. They had also seen plenty of evidence of what Wilson could do in pads as he racked up more than 4,400 all-purpose yards and 81 touchdowns at DeSoto High School, testing himself against some of the toughest competition in the country in Texas.

But if Ohio State coaches needed to find out first-hand if that natural athleticism and a versatile set of skills that makes him dangerous as both a rusher and receiver was going to transition smoothly enough to contribute to the nation’s second-ranked team, Wilson didn’t make them wait long to decide.

In one 7-on-7 session during the first week of camp, Wilson grabbed three touchdown catches in short succession with each of them showing off a different aspect of his game. There was a double move that highlighted his acceleration and ability to change direction. He used pure speed to get behind the secondary for another, and later turned a simple out route into a score by cutting up field and darting between two oncoming tacklers on the way to the end zone.

The practice performance and the glowing reviews from teammates and coaches alike have only added to the anticipation for Wilson’s debut against Buffalo on Aug. 31. But if it’s increased the pressure on him, he is certainly hiding it well.

“I’m aware of it, but I don’t really pay it any attention,” Wilson said. “I just come here and play football and do what I love.

“I mean, I’m handling it. ... I think I’ve done pretty good, just have to live up to high expectations because of the way I was recruited and all the hype. I think I’m doing pretty good so far.”

It is still early in camp, there’s still plenty of room to grow for any freshman at this stage and Wilson still hasn’t even played a game yet to allow for a true evaluation of how much he might help as the Buckeyes try to make a push for a national title.

There’s also some uncertainty about where exactly Wilson will fit in the lineup and how often as he splits time with the running backs and receivers, learning responsibilities as both a rusher and an option at the H-back position that Percy Harvin made famous under Meyer at Florida.

Comparing Wilson to perhaps the most dangerous hybrid weapon he’s had, though, is at least one area where Meyer is quick to bring the conversation to a complete stop. But short of that, the Buckeyes are full-steam ahead with their new toy.

“He’s got something that we didn’t have, and that’s just electric speed,” Meyer said. “He also has a unique skill set where he’s extremely dynamic and fast, which we all now what that means in the game of football -- especially in an offense where you try to create space.

“He goes hard. We just have to point him in the right direction now.”

Based on the seasons leading up to it, the Buckeyes are clearly setting the course for something big with Wilson for the winter.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The circumstances clearly aren't the same, but the situation is pretty much identical.

Ohio State reported to training camp a year ago with its starting running back on the shelf and unavailable for at least the first two weeks of the season, putting the spotlight on the backup and casting at least a little doubt about how the rushing attack would survive until Jordan Hall returned.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesCarlos Hyde dove through the door that opened after Jordan Hall's injury. Will another player do the same during Hyde's suspension?
Carlos Hyde walked through the open door then and made the position his own. One summer later, with a minimum suspension of three games ahead of him, Hyde has cracked it open for somebody else.

The senior's case was officially closed Tuesday by Columbus police after an investigation into an alleged assault didn't produce any charges against him, but Meyer had the final word when it came to playing time. He promptly took that away for "conduct not representative" of Ohio State. And while his breakout season a year ago and his unique combination of size and speed makes it unlikely that his starting spot will be spoken for when his punishment ends, Hyde should know all too well what can happen when an unexpected opportunity pops up.

Hall's freak foot injury in the offseason gave Hyde his first platform for extended work when the season opened. And while the projected starter actually reclaimed that job briefly before another health issue ended Hall's season, Hyde had already made enough of an impression to push for an expanded role thanks to his nonconference audition.

Now it's Rod Smith's turn to do the same thing.

There's no question the junior has the same type of athleticism and the ability to deliver a blow to would-be tacklers at 238 pounds. He has already flashed his enormous potential in a live setting under Meyer by averaging a robust 6.7 yards per carry in a reserve role last year. Smith's biggest weakness has been an inability to protect the football, but if the fumbles disappear while getting what should be steady work during the first couple weeks of the season, he might find himself in a similar situation as Hyde a year ago.

Smith isn't alone, of course. The Buckeyes are overflowing with talented options in the backfield, and sophomore Bri'onte Dunn and redshirt freshman Warren Ball both impressed the coaching staff enough during spring practice to make it worthwhile to include a diamond formation with three running backs on the field at once in the playbook. What once might have been a battle for scraps might suddenly turn into meaningful work as they slide a spot up the depth chart in September.

In addition to highly touted freshmen such as Ezekiel Elliott and Dontre Wilson, Hall is also coming back for another season after taking a medical redshirt last fall.

Hall was already being tabbed for a critical role for the Buckeyes in the H-back position as a hybrid rusher/receiver, but he could wind up doing more of the latter than the former with Hyde out.

Even with Hyde out of the picture, there are more than enough options on hand to help navigate a stretch after the opener against Buffalo that could be tougher than expected with San Diego State visiting the Horseshoe before the Buckeyes travel across the country to take on California.

But Meyer sent a message to his program by taking away a sizable portion of Hyde's final season with the program. And if Smith or another current backup takes a page out of his book, Hyde might also end up losing some of the work he was expecting even after he returns.

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