NCF Nation: Etienne Sabino

When a football coaching staff signs one of the top few recruits at any position, it's cause for celebration. Therefore, grabbing two of the top three prospects at that position might warrant an Animal House-style party.

Between 2006, when ESPN began assembling recruit rankings, and 2013, individual programs managed to sign at least two of the top three players at a position 16 times. In many cases, one -- and sometimes both -- of those players became instant stars as true freshmen. Think Taylor Mays and Joe McKnight at USC, De'Anthony Thomas at Oregon, Laremy Tunsil at Ole Miss and Sean Spence at Miami.

This was a relatively unique occurrence up until 2014, when it happened five times -- with four of the five instances occurring in the SEC: twice at Alabama, which signed the top two players at both center (No. 1 Josh Casher and No. 2 J.C. Hassenauer) and outside linebacker (No. 1 Christian Miller and No. 2 Rashaan Evans), plus at LSU (with No. 1 and 3 wide receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn) and Florida (with No. 2 and 3 defensive tackles Gerald Willis and Thomas Holley).

Clemson was the other school to accomplish the feat in 2014, signing No. 2 and 3 receiving tight ends Milan Richard and Cannon Smith.

In some of these cases -- particularly at LSU, which lost the vast majority of its receiving production from 2013 -- expectations are high that the star signees can immediately become valuable contributors as true freshmen. The Tigers have multiple alternatives at receiver, including Travin Dural and John Diarse, but Dupre and Quinn might rank among the leading contenders for playing time.

Judging by the long list of Freshman All-America and freshman all-conference honors won by those who previously signed as part of such a dynamic duo, perhaps it's not such a long shot that at least one of the newcomers will make a similar instant impact.


Safety | USC
No. 2 Taylor Mays, No. 3 Antwine Perez

Mays appeared in all 13 games -- starting the last 12 at free safety after Josh Pinkard suffered a season-ending injury in the opener -- in 2006 and led the Trojans with three interceptions. Mays was fifth on the team with 62 tackles and tied for second with six passes defended, ending the season as Pac-10 Co-Freshman of the Year and as a member of multiple Freshman All-America teams. Perez played in seven games and recorded three tackles.


Center | Auburn
No. 1 Ryan Pugh, No. 3 Chaz Ramsey

Pugh started six of Auburn's final nine games at left tackle and appeared in eight games overall. He also backed up Jason Bosley at center and earned Coaches' All-SEC Freshman team honors after the season. Like Pugh, Ramsey appeared for the first time in Week 4 and went on to start nine of the Tigers' last 10 games at right guard. He also made the Coaches' All-SEC Freshman team.

Running back | USC
No. 1 Joe McKnight, No. 2 Marc Tyler

McKnight played in all 13 games in 2007, ranked third on the team with 540 rushing yards and scored three touchdowns. He also caught 23 passes for 203 yards and a touchdown and served as the Trojans' primary punt returner, with his 8.4 yards per return helping him earn a All-Pac-10 honorable mention nod. Tyler redshirted in 2007 while recuperating from a high school leg injury.


Inside linebacker | Ohio State
No. 1 Etienne Sabino, No. 2 Andrew Sweat

Sabino played in all 13 games and notched six tackles. He notched the only touchdown in the Buckeyes' 16-3 win against Purdue by returning a blocked punt 20 yards for a score. Sweat appeared in the last nine games and recorded five tackles, also contributing mostly on special teams.

Outside linebacker | Miami
No. 1 Arthur Brown, No. 2 Sean Spence, No. 3 Ramon Buchanan

Not only did Miami sign ESPN's top three outside linebacker prospects in 2008, it also signed No. 5 Jordan Futch. That's an outstanding haul for one year. At any rate, Spence emerged as the key member of this group from the get-go, ranking third on the team with 65 tackles and leading the Hurricanes with 9.5 tackles for a loss in 2008. He was ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year and made multiple Freshman All-America teams. Brown (who later transferred to Kansas State) played in 11 games as a freshman, notching four tackles and shifting from outside to inside linebacker. Buchanan had six tackles in nine games, playing mostly on special teams and also contributing at safety and linebacker.

Offensive tackle | Ohio State
No. 2 Michael Brewster, No. 3 J.B. Shugarts

Brewster played in 12 of the Buckeyes' 13 games in 2008 and started the last 10 at center, earning Freshman All-America honors in the process. Shugarts appeared in seven games at offensive tackle and missed six other games with a shoulder surgery that required offseason surgery.

Safety | Florida
No. 1 Will Hill, No. 2 Dee Finley

Hill played in 13 games and ranked sixth on the team with 48 tackles. He also picked off two passes and notched 1.5 sacks. He made the SEC All-Freshman team and led the Gators with 22 tackles on special teams. Finley did not qualify academically and spent the 2008 season at Milford Academy prep school. He eventually enrolled at Florida and shifted from safety to linebacker, but transferred away from Gainesville in 2011.


Safety | South Carolina
No. 2 Stephon Gilmore, No. 3 DeVonte Holloman

Early enrollee Gilmore started all 13 games at cornerback, ranking fifth on the team with 56 tackles. He tied for the team lead with nine passes defended and ranked second with eight pass breakups, adding six tackles for a loss, three sacks, two fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and an interception. The Freshman All-SEC and Freshman All-America honoree also averaged 10.1 yards per return as a punt return man. Another early enrollee, Hollomon also played in every game, notching 30 tackles, an interception (which he returned 54 yards against rival Clemson) and a tackle for a loss.


Athlete | Florida
No. 1 Ronald Powell, No. 2 Matt Elam

Powell played in 13 games at strongside linebacker and recorded 25 tackles, three tackles for a loss and a sack en route to winning Freshman All-SEC honors. Elam also played in all 13 games, mostly on special teams and at defensive back, and notched 22 tackles, two tackles for a loss and a sack.

Defensive tackle | Florida
No. 1 Dominique Easley, No. 3 Sharrif Floyd

Easley recorded four tackles in six games. Floyd played in all 13 games, earning Coaches' Freshman All-SEC honors by making 23 tackles and 6.5 tackles for a loss.

Wide receiver | Texas
No. 2 Mike Davis, No. 3 Darius White

Davis ranked second on the team with 478 receiving yards and 47 receptions (a record for a Texas freshman). He became one of only three receivers in Longhorns history to post multiple 100-yard games as a freshman. White appeared in 10 games in 2010, but caught just one pass for 5 yards and eventually transferred to Missouri after two seasons, citing a need for a fresh start.


Athlete | Oregon
No. 1 De'Anthony Thomas, No. 2 Devon Blackmon

The speedy Thomas earned Pac-12 Co-Offensive Freshman of the Year honors and was named an All-Pac-12 kick returner and a Freshman All-American. He was the only player in the nation to post at least 400 yards rushing, receiving and kick returning in 2011, ranking as the Ducks' second-leading receiver (595 yards on 46 catches) and third-leading rusher (608 yards and seven touchdowns). His 983 kickoff return yards ranked second in school history. Blackmon redshirted in 2011 and appeared in two games in 2012 before announcing his plan to transfer. He played at Riverside City College before signing with BYU as a juco transfer in 2014.


Defensive end | Florida State
No. 1 Mario Edwards, No. 3 Chris Casher

Edwards became the only freshman to start all season for a loaded FSU defense when he replaced the injured Tank Carradine in the ACC Championship Game. He also started in the Orange Bowl win over Northern Illinois. In all, Edwards finished the season with 17 tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks. Casher played in two early games before suffering a season-ending injury and taking a redshirt in 2012.


Offensive guard | Michigan
No. 2 David Dawson, No. 3 Patrick Kugler

Dawson and Kugler both redshirted in 2013. Dawson practiced during the spring at left guard and left tackle, while Kugler is among the candidates to start at center this fall.

Offensive tackle | Ole Miss
No. 1 Laremy Tunsil, No. 3 Austin Golson

Tunsil immediately became one of the better offensive tackles in the SEC, earning second-team All-SEC and Freshman All-America honors in 2013. He played in 12 games and started nine at left tackle, making him one of only two true full-time freshman starters at the position in the FBS. Tunsil allowed just one sack all season. Golson played in 12 games, mostly at guard, before missing the Rebels' bowl game because of shoulder surgery. He transferred to Auburn this summer, citing a family illness as the reason he wanted to move closer to his Alabama home.

Safety | USC
No. 1 Su'a Cravens, No. 3 Leon McQuay III

A 2013 early enrollee, Cravens started 13 games at strong safety, ranked eighth on the team with 52 tackles and tied for second with four interceptions. He made multiple Freshman All-America teams and earned an All-Pac-12 honorable mention nod after the season. McQuay played in all 14 games, picked off one pass and recorded 19 tackles.

Buckeyes set foundation for future

November, 26, 2012
Ohio StateKirk Irwin/Getty ImagesCoach Urban Meyer and his undefeated 2012 Buckeyes could have an even brighter future ahead.
I ventured out to a couple of places in Columbus on Saturday night to watch the USC-Notre Dame game. Plenty of Ohio State fans were cheering for the Trojans, hoping that their Buckeyes would end up as the only undefeated team in the country. After the Irish won, one well-lubricated fan kept yelling, "Congratulations on being the second-best team in the country."

Ohio State and its backers are relegated to just watching other teams from here on out and hoping to get recognized. The good news is, they shouldn't have to worry about that this time next year.

While the Buckeyes' 12-0 season won't end with a BCS national title shot, it does set up next year's team for a run at the crystal football. Urban Meyer's first year couldn't have gone any better, and Ohio State will almost certainly start next season in the Top 5 and possibly the Top 3.

"This sets the standard pretty high," senior tight end/receiver Jake Stoneburner said. "I don't think anyone really expected coach Meyer to come in and turn it around like he did. But for anyone who wants to be a Buckeye or is a Buckeye right now, there's no better place to be."

Ohio State went from a team that Meyer said repeatedly had a lot of holes during the first half of the season to one that had no holes in its résumé. That should frighten the rest of the Big Ten, as Meyer inherited a 6-7 team full of guys he didn't recruit, many of whom didn't really fit his offensive system, and he was still able to go undefeated. What will he do once he starts bringing in game-breaking receivers and running backs who can go the distance?

Even though Meyer said Monday that this team's passing game "is not even in the same hemisphere as what we want," the Buckeyes still led the Big Ten in scoring at 37.2 points per game. And that offense loses only two starters, Stoneburner and right tackle Reid Fragel, while hoping senior running back Jordan Hall gets a medical redshirt. Meyer said after Saturday's win over Michigan that Carlos Hyde has progressed into one of the top running backs in the country. Sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller is a possible Heisman Trophy finalist who still needs to make tremendous strides in his passing accuracy and pocket awareness.

"I don't see the ceiling yet," Meyer said. "He's got that much further to go."

The 2013 Buckeyes will be the heavy Big Ten favorites and their schedule is once again very manageable. They play Buffalo, San Diego State and Florida A&M at home, with only California on the road in the nonconference slate. In league play, they trade Nebraska and Michigan State for Northwestern and Iowa as non-protected crossover opponents from the Legends Division.

That doesn't mean next year's team doesn't have some major areas of concern. The defense could lose its entire front four if junior tackle Johnathan Hankins leaves early for the NFL as expected. Cornerback Bradley Roby, a redshirt sophomore, will have a decision to make on his future. If he goes pro, that would mean both starting corners are gone, since Travis Howard is a senior. And three of the team's top four linebackers -- Etienne Sabino, Zach Boren and Storm Klein -- have used up their eligibility.

"The linebackers, we've got to get that right," Meyer said. "That's the weakest area of our team right now."

Ohio State will be starting a bunch of young players on defense and will need its offensive line to stay healthy again because there is not much depth. But intangibles, not talent, might be the biggest question mark.

Meyer said he wasn't sure the senior class was entirely on board with him until an emotional meeting before the Sept. 29 Michigan State game. He raves about that group's "complete selflessness" which he said might be the best of any team he's been around. He pointed to defensive end John Simon playing through severe shoulder pain, Boren switching from fullback to linebacker midseason and Sabino rushing back from a broken leg to contribute as key examples. Meyer said he will have a wall in the team's training facility dedicated to this year's team, complete with video highlights that feature the team's unselfish nature.

There's no guarantee that next year's team will repeat that. Meyer also worries about the complacency that success can bring. He said he'll try to find ways to motivate the players in the offseason, including using the fact that a bowl game was taken away from them in 2012.

"We've got to make sure that doesn't take place," he said. "We need an angry team next year. If we have to manufacture that, we will. We're going to try to push the right buttons to get an angry team. If they're not angry, [if they're] complacent this team's as good as dirt, just like any team."

This year's team was good enough to go undefeated, something Meyer never accomplished at Florida despite winning two national titles there. It's scary to think how good the Buckeyes can be in the future after the first year he had in Columbus. Buckeyes fans might not have to concern themselves too much with what other teams are doing in late November.

Perfection hard to beat for Buckeyes

November, 24, 2012

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State won't have a chance to play for a national title and won't get to prove itself a 13th time this season because of NCAA sanctions.

But in a way, the Buckeyes earned something just as lasting as any crystal football. By finishing off a 12-0 campaign with Saturday's 26-21 win over archrival Michigan, they will remain perfect in memory and ideal in their fans' imagination.

If -- as several Ohio State players like Carlos Hyde and Ryan Shazier did Saturday afternoon -- this team wants to say it deserves the No. 1 ranking in The Associated Press poll, how can you convincingly tell the players they're wrong? A Notre Dame loss would leave the Buckeyes as the only undefeated team in the country, and we'll never know for sure how they would stack up against the other national powers.

"You can say what you want, but we're 12-0," senior linebacker Etienne Sabino said. "People can talk what they want and say a bunch of what-ifs now, but I know we took care of what we had to do. At the beginning of the year we set out to win every single game, and that's what we did. It wasn't pretty, but it happened."

Ohio State fans sure didn't seem to care much about bowl bans. They poured onto the field in droves when the win was secured and stayed there long after the game had ended, taking photos and singing with the school band.

In between the first and second quarter, former coach Jim Tressel was honored along with other members of the 2002 national championship team. Those former players picked Tressel up and carried him off the field on their shoulders as the crowd roared. Of course, Tressel's deception of his bosses and the NCAA directly led to the sanctions that will keep this year's team home. But the irony of choosing the day when the current team would finish 12-0 to honor Tressel appeared lost on a forgiving fan base.

Time may heal all wounds, but going undefeated helps wipe out even the memory of those pains. Instead, fans can now remember this team as one of six unbeaten squads in school history, yet the first since 1944 to do so without going to a bowl.

"It kind of stinks," said tight end/receiver Jake Stoneburner. "We wish we were playing in a bowl game. But, shoot, I'll take 12-0 any day of the week."

A postseason game would bring the potential of a loss that could tarnish this team's legacy. Instead, it will be revered for turning last year's 6-7 disaster into the best possible building block for the future under first-year coach Urban Meyer.

Meyer said he would make sure the 2012 team would get some sort of permanent recognition around the team's facilities. He joked about erecting 19 bronze statues for each of this year's seniors.

[+] EnlargeOhio State Buckeyes
Andrew Weber/US PresswireWith his defense much improved, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said he feels his team can now compete with the nation's elite.
As for whether this team deserves a No. 1 ranking, Meyer was too media savvy to take that bait. But unlike earlier in the year, he was happy to heap plenty of praise on the Buckeyes.

"I'd say at this point in time, Ohio State could go play with anybody in America," he said.

Meyer wouldn't have put his own team in such company back in mid-October. But the improvement of his defense from a poor-tackling, easily exploitable bunch to a true strength has changed his perception.

In fact, Saturday's game was a perfect encapsulation of the Buckeyes' season. In the first half, they needed some great work by quarterback Braxton Miller to keep them in the game as Michigan rolled up 21 points and several explosive plays, like a 75-yard touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree and Denard Robinson's 67-yard touchdown sprint.

But just like in the season as a whole, the defense took over in the second half. Keying on Robinson as a runner and aided by some bizarre Michigan play calling, the Silver Bullets (yes, they've earned back that nickname) didn't let the Wolverines cross midfield after halftime. They allowed only 39 total yards and no points in the second half and forced three turnovers. Robinson and Devin Gardner were hemmed in as Michigan ran only 21 offensive plays in the second half.

"We just had to limit the big plays," linebacker Shazier said. "We were missing way too many tackles at the beginning of the game. We settled down on that and settled down on the big plays in the second half."

This wouldn't have been the 2012 Buckeyes without some adversity and drama. The defense played without star defensive end John Simon, who experienced swelling in his knee after last week's Wisconsin game. And even with the second-half defensive domination, Ohio State kept frittering away excellent scoring chances and settled for just two field goals to keep Michigan in the thick of it.

In the end, that's the signature of these Buckeyes. They never made things easy, but they never lost.

"We have so much confidence because we've been in so many close games like this," Sabino said. "We know how to come out with the win."

Now all they can do is watch football until the spring. Several players said they planned to watch next week's Big Ten championship game between Wisconsin and Nebraska, two teams they beat earlier this season.

They will do so believing someone else will get a trophy they earned.

"I feel like we're the true Big Ten champions," Shazier said. "We won every game and did exactly what we're supposed to do and finished out strong. We showed it today."

The Buckeyes can do nothing more to prove themselves. But no one can ever definitively tell them they weren't the best team in the country, either. They'd love a shot at the national title. They'll settle for perfection.

MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin running back Montee Ball's highlight tape of touchdowns might as well be a full-length feature. He entered Saturday with 77, one shy of the FBS all-time record.

Unfortunately for Ball, Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier watched most of the movie in the week leading up to Saturday's game.

"He scores plenty of touchdowns," Shazier said. "I watched film on him, and I saw when he gets around the [1- or 2-yard line], he likes to jump. So once he jumped, I jumped, and I punched the ball out."

Shazier's forced fumble against Ball late in the fourth quarter -- just the second lost fumble in Ball's record-setting career -- ended up not meaning much. Wisconsin scored on its next possession to tie the game before Ohio State went on to win 21-14 in overtime.

But Shazier's play epitomized Ohio State's victory, one fueled by defense with a sprinkle of special teams, thanks to Corey "Philly" Brown.

Braxton Miller won't be on "SportsCenter" tonight, but Shazier should be. So should defensive end John Simon, who tied a career high with four sacks. So should cornerback Bradley Roby, who had to cover two players after a teammate blew an assignment and batted down a sure-fire touchdown catch by Derek Watt.

The silver bullets stood tall at Camp Randall Stadium, helping Ohio State secure a Leaders Division title, maintain a perfect 11-0 record and set up a chance for perfection in The Game next week against Michigan.

"Our offense kind of struggled a little bit, but at the same time, it's a team sport, so the defense, we needed to go out and do our thing," said Roby, who wore a Leaders Division championship T-shirt. "Defense wins championships. We thrive on that."

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
AP Photo/Andy Manis)Ryan Shazier and the Ohio State defense wrapped up Montee Ball when it counted.
Added defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins: "Being here at Ohio State, the defense always carries this team."

Wisconsin (7-4, 4-3 Big Ten) moved the ball better than Ohio State, outgaining the Buckeyes 360-236. The Badgers reached Buckeyes territory on four drives and started two others in plus territory. Ball had 191 rushing yards on 39 carries, while quarterback Curt Phillips passed the ball much more than he did the previous week with some success (14-for-25 passing).

But Ohio State allowed just 14 points.

"That's where it hurts the most," Ball said. "We're driving the football down the field, driving down the field, and we still fall short."

Ball tied Travis Prentice's Football Bowl Subdivision record midway through the second quarter and appeared ready to break it as Wisconsin reached the Buckeyes' 3-yard line with 3:44 remaining. Thanks to Shazier, Ball remains stuck on 77.

"We knew that he needed two to break the record, and we were not going to allow him to break it on us," Shazier said.

First-year coach Urban Meyer often tells his players, a team that refuses to be beat won't be beat. Ohio State at times has looked like a team that would be beat. It looked that way for stretches of the Big Ten opener against Michigan State. It looked that way for much of an Oct. 20 game against Purdue before surviving in overtime without Miller.

It even looked that way after Wisconsin forced overtime when Phillips found Jacob Pedersen in the end zone with eight seconds left in regulation.

"We were sucking our thumbs after that," Meyer said.

But once again, Ohio State made the plays it had to. Running back Carlos Hyde, who had just 13 carries in regulation, broke a tackle and ran 11 yards on the first play of overtime. Three plays later, he scooted easily into the end zone.

The defense then took over. Linebacker Etienne Sabino, playing for the first time since suffering a broken leg in the Big Ten opener against Nebraska, dropped Ball for a loss of 2 yards. Safety Christian Bryant, who recovered Ball's fumble in the fourth quarter, broke up a pass on fourth down to end it.

"We can't be beat," Hankins said. "We're not settling for a loss. We want to go undefeated, and that's our goal."

Shazier called Camp Randall Stadium a "gladiator-type atmosphere," as Wisconsin fans tried boost Ball and the other seniors to a win that would have further validated the Badgers' spot in the Big Ten title game Dec. 1. Instead, the Buckeyes were the bad guys again, sweeping their Big Ten road schedule -- a hallmark of Jim Tressel's best teams and Meyer's first.

"You go into someone else's home, in front of their fans, their moms, their girlfriends, and you just want to dominate them," Roby said. "What's better than that? Going into somebody else's house and taking everything they have. You see that when we play away games. We play way better than we do at home."

Ohio State will have to be good at home to preserve perfection. The season ends next Saturday no matter what for a Buckeyes team that, while flawed, has managed to walk off the field a winner 11 times.

Michigan comes in with an outside chance to reach the Big Ten title game and a definite chance to ruin the Buckeyes' quest for 12-0.

"We can talk about it now," Meyer said.

The Game is here. A chance for Ohio State's sixth-ever undefeated, untied season is at stake.

Buckle up.

"[Wisconsin] is not our rival," Meyer said. "The next one is."
MADISON, Wis. -- Greetings from America's dairyland, where today Ohio State puts its perfect record on the line against Wisconsin.

Coming off of an open week, the Buckeyes (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten) can clinch the Leaders Division title with a win. Wisconsin, meanwhile, will represent the division Dec. 1 at the Big Ten championship in Indianapolis. The Badgers can earn a share of the division title by winning out and having Ohio State lose next week to Michigan.

Wisconsin (7-3, 4-2) hasn't dropped consecutive home games since the 2008 season, and had its 21-game win streak at Camp Randall Stadium stopped by Michigan State on Oct. 27. It's senior day, and among those being honored is running back Montee Ball, who needs two touchdowns -- of any kind -- to become the NCAA's all-time leader. Ball needs one rushing touchdown to eclipse former Badgers star Ron Dayne for the Big Ten rushing touchdowns record. Ball has been fabulous at this time of year, averaging nearly 180 rush yards and three touchdowns in his past nine November games.

Curt Phillips makes his second start on offense after doing a nice job despite limited passing last week against Indiana. The senior likely will need to put the ball in the air more than seven times today.

Ohio State regains a big piece of its linebacking corps in senior Etienne Sabino, out since suffering a broken leg Oct. 6. Wisconsin, meanwhile, might be without its top defensive playmaker in linebacker Chris Borland (hamstring). Borland will test his hamstring in pregame warm-ups.

Although The Game always will mean more to Ohio State, the Wisconsin rivalry has been growing and could be a more significant game in most seasons because the teams are in the same division. This week, Ohio State wide receiver Corey Brown told reporters, "I hate Wisconsin just as much as Michigan." While coaches Bret Bielema and Urban Meyer downplayed their post-signing day flap, if either man gets the chance to tack on a few points, I think he will.

Weather should be great. Sunny skies, temperatures in the mid to high 40s and winds at 7-10 mph.

Check back for continued coverage of the Badgers and Buckeyes throughout the day.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

November, 16, 2012
Wishing you a good weekend. I'll be here. Fired up.

David from Chicago writes: Adam, are you having long term memory issues? All the articles this week reference the 564 rushing yard by the Badgers but you seem to have forgotten about the 19 rushing yards against MSU the week before that or the 56 rushing yards against Nebraska. But when talking about the Buckeyes Defense your memory seems fine because you reference the Purdue and Indiana games that were a month or longer ago. You feeling OK?

Adam Rittenberg: Ha, I think I'm OK, David, but thanks for checking. Wisconsin's offense has been all over the map this season -- great against Indiana and Purdue, terrible against Michigan State and Oregon State, good in the first half at Nebraska, bad in the second half at Nebraska. Listen, I don't expect Wisconsin to rush for 564 yards against Ohio State, which, as you point out, has improved defensively in recent weeks. If the Buckeyes play like they did at Penn State, they'll keep Wisconsin's one-dimensional offense in check. Getting Etienne Sabino back at linebacker is huge, as you don't want a thin LB corps against Wisconsin, regardless of the Badgers' ups and downs. I actually expect a fairly high-scoring game, as Montee Ball will step up on senior day, but Ohio State has too much firepower and will prevail.

Dave from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., writes: Adam, you picked Zwinak to go for 130 yards and three scores in your predictions, but your fantasy team doesn't reflect your prediction. I think a guy who goes for 130 and 3TD's would be a good pickup for a fantasy team.Lack of confidence in your ability to predict a game I presume? I'm just looking for an explanation. Also- I will LOL if he does actually bust through the Indiana defense for 3 scores and you don't have him this week.

Adam Rittenberg: Dave, you got me on this one a bit. I gave a lot of thought to adding Zwinak on my fantasy team, but I also was looking ahead to next week a bit and didn't want Bennett to pick up Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde, who has put up a lot of points since moving into a featured role. I thought about dropping Northwestern's Venric Mark against a good MSU defense, but Mark leads the league in all-purpose yards and gets points both as a running back and on returns, so I couldn't drop him. The Zwinak move likely would have been a one-week deal just for Indiana. Hey, I might pay the price, as many of my waiver moves haven't been good. But I just felt having Hyde for the last two weeks was more important after Bennett picked up Le'Veon Bell, who I assume he'll keep next week, too.

Caleb from Los Angeles writes: Adam, I find this talk about Hawkeye fans wanting Kirk Ferentz extremely rash. Are the Hawks having a great year? By no means, but there has been a lot of problems all coming to a head for them this year and I think that Kirk has built a reputation to try and fix things. Is he a perfect coach? No, but he is also not the slouch that many seem to think he is now. He's lost 4 close games this year that could have gone another way so it's not like every game they're getting blown out. Brian pointed out in his mailbag how much it would cost the program to get rid of him but even beyond that Hawk fans have to be realistic. This isn't Alabama, or Ohio State, or Oklahoma. We don't have the tradition to justify firing a good coach during a bad year and aim for an exceptional coach like Nick Saban or Urban Meyer. Rather I would see Iowa falling down the same path as Colorado. Look at their history and how unwatchable they are now, it all started when they fire Gary Barnett. So I say to Hawk fans, be patient, let Ferentz do his job and he'll right the ship, the grass is definitely not always greener.

Adam Rittenberg: Caleb, thanks for your perspective. When a team struggles, we tend to only hear the loudest opinions demanding coaching changes, while a portion of folks quietly remain supportive of Ferentz. It's always good to get the other side. The bottom line, as Brian pointed out and as you know, is that Iowa can't get rid of Ferentz because of the buyout and probably shouldn't despite this terrible season. It's always refreshing when fans know what their program truly is -- rather than what they think it should be -- and you seem to have that understanding with Iowa. Here's the thing, though. The one thing that doesn't match what Iowa football is, is Ferentz's high salary. People have a hard time grasping how a program like Iowa pays what it pays for a head coach who wins six to nine games most seasons. Could Iowa be a six- to nine-win program with a coach who makes $2 million a year? Or would Iowa, as you point out, become like Colorado if it parts ways with Ferentz? I think Iowa's program will improve with better facilities, but there are always inherent challenges. Ultimately, you can't be scared of change, and it doesn't make sense to pay so far above market value unless you're consistently winning eight or more games. These are some of the questions Iowa must grapple with going forward. But unless he leaves for the NFL, Ferentz will be back in 2013.

Bopa from Lincoln, Neb., writes: At this point in the season do you think there's any way that Taylor can surpass Braxton as the B1G Offensive Player of the Year?

Adam Rittenberg: Bopa, it would take two strong performances from Taylor Martinez against Minnesota and Iowa, which is extremely possible given how he has been playing. But a bigger factor in my view is how Braxton Miller performs against Wisconsin and Michigan. Aside from maybe Purdue, a game he didn't finish, Miller hasn't had a really bad performance all season. He's a big-game player who could put himself in the Heisman mix with strong efforts against the Badgers and Wolverines, arguably the two best teams Ohio State has seen all season. Keep in mind that Miller outplayed Martinez when Ohio State beat Nebraska, and while I don't vote for Offensive Player of the Year, those who do won't forget that night. So I think it'll take some poor efforts from Miller the next two weeks to give the award to Martinez, as good as he has been recently.

Zane from Chicago writes: My question is about the Rose Bowl selection process. I think I have the underlying restrictions down. If Oregon qualifies for the BCS Championship game, then only a Pac 12 team that finishes in the top 14 in the BCS qualifies for an at large bid to the Rose Bowl. Correct? If so, is the Rose Bowl required to pick this Pac 12 team? If not, what do you think are the chances they do pick this Pac 12 team in the name of tradition rather than picking another team? What if two Pac 12 teams are eligible? Do they have to pick the higher rated one or do they have the choice? Also, assuming it is a KSU/Oregon NC game, who do you think finishes #1 and therefore determines which bowl gets the first at large pick? Do you think Notre Dame gets picked 1st no matter which bowl gets that at large pick? From some discussion it seems that the Fiesta does not have to keep its ties to the Big 12 with OU if it doesn't want to. It seems the Rose Bowl favors tradition more and is more likely to take that Pac 12 at large pick if there is a 2nd team eligible. Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: If the Rose Bowl loses its Pac-12 champion to the title game, it's not obligated to select another eligible Pac-12 team (top 14). It would be able to select any Pac-12 team in the top 14, and I would be surprised if it didn't select the higher-rated team, although it depends on the circumstances. Regarding Notre Dame, as appealing as the Irish are to any bowl game, I would be shocked if the Rose Bowl picked the Irish ahead of an eligible Pac-12 team. The Rose Bowl is so loyal to the Big Ten and the Pac-12, which have protected it in BCS negotiations during the years. The other bowl games aren't as loyal to their tie-in conferences as the Rose Bowl is to the Big Ten/Pac-12. If the Fiesta gets the first replacement pick for Kansas State, I'd expect Notre Dame to go to Glendale. But if the Rose has a chance and no Pac-12 team is eligible, it will pick ND, no doubt.

Phil from Minneapolis writes: Adam -Quick question. Per your latest "What to Watch in B1G Ten", Can you clarify Ball's rushing touchdown requirements and the records he'll break? You say he needs 2 on Saturday to break Prentice's record of 77, but only needs 1 to break Ron Dayne's Big Ten Record of 72? Please explain, something's off there

Adam Rittenberg: Sure, Phil, as I know it can be a bit confusing. Ball is two total touchdowns away from breaking Travis Prentice's NCAA record for total touchdowns. Remember that Ball had six receiving touchdowns last season. Ron Dayne's Big Ten record is for rushing touchdowns only. So Ball needs one rushing touchdown to break the Big Ten record and two touchdowns -- rushing or receiving -- to break Prentice's mark. Hope that clears it up.

Harry from East Lansing, Mich., writes: It's entertaining to watch your (and Brian's) score predictions, but sometimes it gets a little absurd. "...and for the second consecutive year he finds Devin Smith for the game-winning touchdown to beat the Badgers". I think any reasonable person would think the chance of this happening is slim, so are you writing this because you seriously think the will happen or just for the sake of entertaining readers? I think it's the latter and I appreciate that as a reader, but at the same time I'm sure a lot of readers would like to know what you guys are really thinking.

Adam Rittenberg: Harry, it's definitely for entertainment value. We try to make the predictions more fun and more entertaining than just a score, and while we try to predict yards and touchdowns for individual players, the Devin Smith thing is just a nod to last year's game. Do I really think it's going to happen? Probably not. But if it does, I'll take full credit as Nostradamenberg!

Big Ten: Who will transform tomorrow?

November, 16, 2012
Each Friday during the season, we'll be taking a look at a Big Ten player to watch when the games kick off Saturday.

This week's selection: Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier

Saturday assignment: at Wisconsin, 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2

Shazier failed to win his third consecutive Big Ten player of the week award this week but maybe only because his Buckeyes did not play last Saturday. The sophomore has come on strong in the second half of the season and has been outstanding his last three times out, against Purdue (13 tackles), Penn State (seven tackles, pick six) and Illinois (14 tackles).

Now comes a different type challenge for Shazier against Wisconsin. The Badgers ran for a school record 564 yards last week at Indiana and love to pull their guards and get their running backs into the second level of the defense. It will be imperative that the Ohio State linebackers provide strong run support -- and don't get burned too much on play action.

Shazier took over some leadership responsibilities when senior Etienne Sabino went down with a broken leg in the Oct. 6 Nebraska game. Sabino is back this week to help out, but Shazier needs to remain a big-time playmaker. He's not the biggest guy in the world, but he's a fierce hitter who can chase down plays away from his area.

If Shazier has a big game defensively, that will help the Buckeyes get one step closer to their goal of an undefeated season.
A knockdown here, a replay reversal there and the power rankings would have a dramatically different look. Northwestern would be higher and perhaps so would Penn State, but losses by the Wildcats and the Nittany Lions put them in the middle of the pack. The top two remain the same, while Michigan moves up to the No. 3 line after its dramatic victory. As we've seen in recent weeks, there's very, very little separating Nos. 2-6 in the rundown.

Wisconsin left nothing to chance against Indiana and jumps up a few spots, and Purdue finally made a move in the right direction. The I's -- Illinois, Iowa and Indiana -- linger at the bottom of the league because of a lack of W's.

Let's get started ...

1. Ohio State (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): After their first 10-0 start since 2007, the Buckeyes earned some rest during the open week. They hope to get senior linebacker Etienne Sabino (leg) back for this week's game against Wisconsin, which rushed for a team-record 564 yards against Indiana and will test Ohio State's defensive front seven. Ohio State can lock up the Leaders Division championship with a win at Wisconsin, where it fell in 2010. Braxton Miller led last year's comeback against the Badgers and looks to remain in the Heisman race with another big road effort.

2. Nebraska (8-2, 5-1; last week: 2): The Huskers play a wild brand of football, filled with dramatic swings during games, but sometimes crazy clicks, and it has for Bo Pelini's squad this season. Nebraska faced yet another sizable deficit and turned in yet another huge second-half performance. Once again, there was some controversy mixed in, thanks to the men in stripes. Nebraska isn't a perfect team, but the Huskers are making plays when it counts. Ameer Abdullah has provided a big lift at running back, and safety Daimion Stafford had a hand in two takeaways Saturday. Nebraska completes its home schedule this week against Minnesota.

3. Michigan (7-3, 5-1; last week: 4): It looked bleak for a while in the fourth quarter, but Michigan never quits on its home field and received another huge play from receiver Roy Roundtree, who somehow hauled in a 53-yard pass to set up the game-tying field goal against Northwestern. The Wolverines won in overtime to remain tied with Nebraska in the Legends Division race. Northwestern gave Michigan's defense a hard time, but the Wolverines once again got a lift from quarterback Devin Gardner and the passing game. Michigan must keep pace with Nebraska next week as it hosts slumping Iowa.

4. Wisconsin (7-3, 4-2; last week: 6): Nothing has come easy for Wisconsin this season, but the Badgers are heading back to Indianapolis, just like we all thought they would, for the league title game. The last leg of a tough journey proved to be much easier than expected, as Wisconsin steamrolled Indiana 62-14, piling up a team-record 564 rushing yards along the way. Despite three starting quarterbacks and other turmoil, Wisconsin's offense still can be dominant. The challenges get much tougher the next two weeks, though, as Wisconsin hosts unbeaten Ohio State and then visits Penn State.

5. Penn State (6-4, 4-2; last week: 3): As stated above, there's very little separating Penn State from Nebraska, and maybe the Lions leave Lincoln as winners if Matt Lehman's reach was ruled a touchdown, not a fumble. But the Lions also hurt themselves in the second half and couldn't slow down Taylor Martinez, Abdullah and the Huskers' offense. Penn State once again looked like the more prepared team early on, jumping ahead to a 20-6 halftime lead. It was a very tough loss for the Lions, but they still can finish 8-4 with home wins the next two weeks against Indiana and Wisconsin.

6. Northwestern (7-3, 3-3; last week: 5): How many times will the Wildcats watch the same movie? You know, the one with the terrible ending? Northwestern blew a double-digit second-half lead for the third time in Big Ten play, and thanks to Roundtree's wild catch in crunch time, the Wildcats walked off the field as losers. The Michigan loss might have been the most painful because Northwestern outplayed the Wolverines much of the way and had a good game plan but made errors in crunch time. Northwestern and Michigan State can reminisce about the near misses when they meet this week in East Lansing.

7. Michigan State (5-5, 1-4; last week: 7): It's safe to say the open week arrived at a good time for the Spartans after another close, controversy-filled loss. At 5-5, the Spartans must beat Northwestern (home) or Minnesota (road) to become bowl eligible. Mark Dantonio has talked a lot about resiliency, and his team must show it in the final two games to get back to the postseason. Michigan State's defense struggled late against Nebraska and must rebound against a Northwestern team that moved the ball well Saturday at Michigan but suffered a Spartans-like fate in the end.

8. Minnesota (6-4, 2-4; last week: 8): Few pegged Minnesota as a bowl team after back-to-back 3-9 seasons, and the Gophers' struggles in the first five Big Ten games left some doubt. The road was never going to be easy, and Saturday's game at Illinois hardly looked like a masterpiece. But Minnesota got it done behind a stout defense and running back Donnell Kirkwood, who gashed the Illini for 152 yards and two touchdowns. The Gophers' sixth win ensures they'll be going bowling -- and most likely somewhere warm -- for the first time since 2009. They now aim for a signature win this week at Nebraska.

9. Purdue (4-6, 1-5; last week: 11): There hasn't been much to smile about in Boiler Country this season, but Robert Marve and his teammates eased the pain a bit with a win at Iowa. Purdue dominated the box score and shouldn't have needed a last-second field goal to win. The Boilers racked up 26 first downs and 490 yards, receiving big performances from Marve and RB Ralph Bolden. Kawann Short looked every bit like an NFL-caliber defensive tackle with four tackles for loss, while safety Landon Feichter turned in another nice performance. With remaining games against Illinois (road) and Indiana (home), Purdue's postseason prospects suddenly look a lot brighter.

10. Indiana (4-6, 2-4; last week: 8): Reality arrived for the Hoosiers in the form of Wisconsin's running backs -- pick one, any one -- streaking downfield for long touchdown runs. Indiana never truly challenged the Badgers in its most-anticipated home game in recent memory. A potent offense surprisingly stumbled out of the gate, and after a decent defensive effort in the second quarter, Indiana inexplicably let James White score on third-and-16 right before halftime. It was all downhill from there for Kevin Wilson's team, which won't be going to the league championship and must win two road games (Penn State, Purdue) to go bowling.

11. Iowa (4-6, 2-4; last week: 10): Remember when Iowa rallied to beat Michigan State in overtime at Spartan Stadium? Feels like decades ago, doesn't it? Things went from really bad to even worse Saturday as Iowa fell to Purdue in a game the Boilers dominated most of the way. Things ended in all-too-familiar fashion, with an Iowa pass short of the first-down marker, followed by defensive breakdowns. Iowa is plus-11 in turnover margin for the season but has a losing record -- not easy to do. A 4-8 season seems likely with remaining games against Michigan (road) and Nebraska (home).

12. Illinois (2-8, 0-6; last week: 12): It'll be over soon for Tim Beckman's crew, which had its chances to beat Minnesota but once again generated next to nothing on offense. The defense competed hard and held Minnesota to three points through the first 42 minutes, but the lack of playmakers around quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, combined with an ineffective scheme, led to Illinois' second touchdown-less performance in its past four games. Scheelhaase's struggles continued with two fumbles and Illinois dropped its 12th consecutive Big Ten game. The Illini wrap up the home schedule this week against Purdue.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The march through the conference and toward perfection rolls right along for Ohio State.

Illinois barely even slowed it down.

The Illini hung around for about a quarter, but it didn’t take long for the Buckeyes to shift their offense into high gear with another dynamic outing from Braxton Miller that complemented a dominant defensive performance in a 52-22 demolition on Saturday afternoon at Ohio Stadium.

Now a bye week and two more games are all that stand between Urban Meyer and a 12-0 campaign in his first season with the program.

It was over when: Rolling to his right, throwing back to the left and deep down the sideline, Miller’s 51-yard pass settled into the hands of running back Rod Smith on a wheel route and the rout was on for the Buckeyes. Miller typically does most of his damage on the ground, but it was his perfect strike through the air with a little more than five minutes left in the first half that effectively put away the Illini.

Game ball goes to: After a relatively ugly outing throwing the ball the week before, Miller heard plenty about how he needed to clean up his fundamentals and deliver an accurate football for the Ohio State offense to reach its potential. Apparently that message was received loud and clear as he routinely made the proper read and drilled his targets on the way to 226 yards and two touchdowns without an interception.

Stat of the game: The Buckeyes kept the Illini in bad situations on third down, but it hardly seemed to matter how far the latter needed to go to move the chains -- Illinois couldn’t do it. In all, the Illini picked up just two conversions in 13 attempts on third down when the Ohio State starters were in the game, struggling mightily to mount a consistent threat in the process.

How the game was won: The Buckeyes controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, consistently opening huge holes for running back Carlos Hyde and blowing up a handful of plays in the Illinois backfield with another aggressive defensive game plan. Ohio State had shown flaws in previous games while rolling to nine consecutive wins, but the 10th of the year was perhaps its most complete outing in every phase.

What it means: Heading into their long-awaited bye week, the Buckeyes are playing their best football of the season and have a chance to get healthier and stronger with just two games standing between them and a perfect record. In particular, Ohio State is expected to get linebacker Etienne Sabino back in time for a trip to Wisconsin, restoring a bit of depth to a defense that is thriving thanks to a scheme relying on man coverage and pressure packages.

Illinois, meanwhile, has another chance to go back to the drawing board after failing to come up with any answers on offense or defense in another lopsided loss that leaves it winless in the Big Ten in five league games under Tim Beckman.
Ryan Shazier was playing for more than just himself and his current teammates last weekend at Penn State.

The Ohio State linebacker switched his jersey number to 48 to honor Gary Curtis, his friend and the former manager for Shazier's Plantation (Fla.) High School football team. Curtis, who was bound to a wheelchair but always wore his No. 48 jersey to Plantation games, suffered from muscular dystrophy and died in the spring.

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesRyan Shazier is a big reason why Ohio State's defense has improved over the season.
"He was real close to me, and I treated him like a brother," Shazier told "I talked to him before all my games last year. When he left, it was really important to me just to let people know about that disorder that some people have to go through. He never got to play, and I wanted to play through him."

Shazier brought attention to his late friend with a standout performance in the Buckeyes' 35-23 victory over the Nittany Lions. On consecutive plays during the third quarter of a tie game, he sacked Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin and then intercepted a McGloin pass for a defensive touchdown. He was named Big Ten co-defensive player of the week on Monday.

It was actually the second straight strong showing for Shazier, who had 13 tackles in an overtime win over Purdue. Head coach Urban Meyer called that Purdue effort Shazier's best of the season. The linebacker had been part of the problem for Ohio State's defensive struggles in the first half of the season. Now he's become part of the solution.

Shazier is one of the best athletes on the team, a 6-foot-2, 230-pounder who has been clocked in the 4.4 range in the 40-yard dash. When he hits you, you don't forget it for a while. But his fundamentals were lacking earlier this year, and Meyer called him "an out-of-control guy" who missed too many tackles as the Buckeyes defense gave up several huge plays.

"He is blessed with real quick-twitch muscles and he's fast," Meyer said. "However, allowing cutbacks are when you get big plays against you, and he was a culprit."

That has changed the past two games, and Shazier credits better preparation and technique. He says he has been watching more film and focusing on using his leverage instead of overrunning plays. The extra preparation paid off last week, as he recognized on film the Penn State play that resulted in his pick-six.

Shazier started the final three games of 2011 as a true freshman and finished with 57 tackles. But he was far from a polished player at linebacker. He played that position as a high school freshman, but during his sophomore year his coaches lined him up at defensive end on a passing down. They discovered that no one could block him there, so defensive end became his new home.

"We always knew he needed to get accustomed to playing linebacker and tackling in space," said his father, Vernon Shazier. "Right now, he's probably still playing on about 70 percent athleticism. As he gets more comfortable and confident at the linebacker position, the game will slow down."

Shazier originally committed to play at Florida for Meyer. But when Meyer announced in December 2010 that he was stepping down for health reasons -- for real that time -- Shazier decommitted. His father said LSU and Ohio State were on Plantation's campus later that same day to make their pitches to the All-American recruit, and since Ryan planned on enrolling in January, he had about a week to make a new decision. Vernon Shazier said then-Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel helped put the Buckeyes over the top.

We all know what happened from there. Tressel was forced to resign, and after a year under interim coach Luke Fickell, Meyer took over the Buckeyes.

"It was crazy," Shazier said. "He was like, 'I always knew I was going to coach you.' Now, I've got the two coaches I always wanted in Coach Fickell and Coach Meyer."

Make that three coaches. His father coached high school football for 12 years and the ordained minister makes his living as a leadership trainer, motivational speaker and chaplain of the NFL's Miami Dolphins. Though he never coached one of Shazier's teams, he says "I'm always coaching him."

Dating back to Little League, father and son have talked before every one of Ryan's games. Ryan said he started to stress out last week because he almost missed a call from his father before the Penn State game. And after every game, Ryan calls Vernon to ask, "How did I do?"

"I try to help focus him on the little things he needs to do," Vernon Shazier said. "We pray. I try to calm and settle his nerves and spirit."

Shazier said he had to become a leader of a thin and inexperienced linebacker corps once senior Etienne Sabino went down with a broken leg. He's doing that now by playing his best football, and playing for more than just himself or his current teammates.
Urban Meyer and Bo PeliniUS PresswireWill it be Urban Meyer's squad or Bo Pelini's Huskers to go without a loss in November?
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

Two teams control the race for division titles: Ohio State, which can win the Leaders crown (and finish 12-0) by winning its final three, and Nebraska, which will go to the Big Ten championship game if it sweeps its four November games. So today's Take Two topic is: Which team is more likely to win out?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

Predicting anything in this league is risky business, as my picks record will attest. There's a ton of parity, to put it kindly, and just about anybody (outside of Illinois) can beat anybody. Nebraska ought to be favored in its final four games, and the Huskers match up well with their remaining opponents' styles of play. However, Nebraska has taken too many rollercoaster rides from week to week, and even half to half, to put your complete trust in Bo Pelini's team down the stretch.

On the other hand, I came away from State College convinced that Ohio State will run the table. I really thought the Buckeyes would lose at Penn State, with Braxton Miller banged up and a thin linebacking corps going against the red-hot Nittany Lions' offense. That was one of the best and loudest atmospheres I've ever seen. Yet Ohio State won by double digits. Urban Meyer's team has sometimes needed magic to pull out victories, but it just looks like a team of destiny, and it has one of the great closers we've seen in a while in Miller. The Buckeyes should have no trouble at all this week at home against the Illini and then get a much-needed bye week to rest and heal. That should also allow linebacker Etienne Sabino to rejoin the lineup, which is huge. The final two games, at Wisconsin and versus Michigan, won't be easy. But the Badgers' now uncertain quarterback situation works heavily in Ohio State's favor, and the Wolverines will need to play a lot better on offense to come into the Horseshoe and win. With 12-0 on the line and no postseason to play for, the Buckeyes will play The Game like it's Armageddon. The way their season is going, I wouldn't bank on anyone beating them.

Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

This is all about matchups, and while I agree Ohio State has a fairly favorable path the rest of the way, the Buckeyes still have to win in Madison, where they've struggled, and beat a Michigan team that moved the ball well against them last year. No one would be shocked if Meyer's squad emerges at 12-0, but it's not a done deal. Nebraska also has some challenges the rest of the way, but when you really look at the matchups, as well as what the Huskers have done lately, you have to like Big Red's chances of finishing the regular season at 10-2. That's why Nebraska is my pick for a perfect November.

The Husker offense has survived most of the season without its best player (running back Rex Burkhead) and seen improvement from virtually every position. Taylor Martinez had a rough night in Columbus, but the Nebraska quarterback has made considerable improvement this season. The numbers don't lie: Martinez is a better quarterback this season. He also has more weapons around him than any other Big Ten signal caller: from speedy I-back Ameer Abdullah to big-play receiver Kenny Bell to a host of other pass-catchers. But the biggest reason why I think Nebraska runs the table is a defense that has elevated its play the last two weeks against spread-offense teams, the Huskers' downfall in recent years. Pelini-coached defenses rarely struggle with pro-style offenses, and look what Nebraska has left: Michigan State, Penn State, Minnesota and Iowa. Of those four, only Minnesota features true spread elements offensively. Nebraska is getting much better play from its linebackers than it did earlier this season, and defensive backs like Ciante Evans are stepping up, too. I understand Nebraska is a risky pick because of the fumbles and the penalties and the inconsistency the past two seasons, but the Huskers have matured in recent weeks and should be able to get through their remaining scheduled unscathed.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 7

October, 11, 2012
Ten items to track around the Big Ten in Week 7:

1. Follow the Leaders: Neither Wisconsin nor Purdue is the best team in the Leaders Division -- that'd be Ohio State -- and the two squads own just one Big Ten win between them. But since both Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible for postseason play, it's a good bet that the Badgers or Boilers will represent the Leaders Division at the Big Ten championship game Dec. 1 in Indianapolis. That likelihood puts an added emphasis on Saturday's game at Ross-Ade Stadium. "It's a huge game for both teams," Purdue coach Danny Hope said. Wisconsin has dropped both of its road games this season, while Purdue comes off of a feeble performance at home against Michigan.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Andrew Weber/US PresswireTwo of the league's best backs will be on display this Saturday when Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell (pictured) faces off with Iowa's Mark Weisman.
2. Big backs on display: The Big Ten has become a spread league, but Iowa-Michigan State games turn the clock back a few decades to the league's glory days. Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell and Iowa's Mark Weisman both resemble some of their Big Ten predecessors at the running back spot. Both are power backs in the truest sense who have bulldozed defenders in their path. Bell leads the Big Ten in rushing yards (776), while both average more than 100 rush yards per game and have been MVPs of offenses that have struggled with the pass game. More than 650 pounds of running back will be on display Saturday at Spartan Stadium, and the defense that best slows down the boulder coming its way likely records a victory.

3. Northwestern's blueprint: Coach Pat Fitzgerald said Northwestern got away from its blueprint in last week's loss to Penn State, as the Wildcats ran far fewer plays than the Lions and wore out the defense with too many three-and-outs. Northwestern is still getting the hang of an offense that features two quarterbacks, one of whom is also an outstanding receiver (Kain Colter), as well as multiple threats in the run and pass game. Northwestern needs to do a better job of staying on the field and getting the ball to its top playmakers -- Colter and running back Venric Mark -- against a Minnesota team that has shown improvement throughout its defense.

4. Buckeye 'backers: Ohio State coach Urban Meyer didn't downplay the loss of senior linebacker Etienne Sabino to a leg injury, calling it a "tremendous blow." The Buckeyes lack veteran depth at linebacker and will need to lean on younger players for the next month. Although Ohio State is heavily favored at Indiana, the Hoosiers' dynamic spread offense provides a good test for a defense that has mediocre numbers on the season (60th nationally in yards allowed, 34th in points allowed). Indiana will make Ohio State's linebackers tackle in space, and it'll be interesting to see how freshman Joshua Perry performs as he fills in for Sabino.

5. Hope floats: Saturday could be a defining game for Purdue's Hope, who appears to have his best team in West Lafayette but needs to show he can turn a corner in a season filled with opportunity. Hope's decision to stick with quarterback Caleb TerBush as his starter continues to upset a portion of Boilers fans, who want to see the bionic-armed, ACL-less Robert Marve get more opportunities to lead the offense. TerBush will start against Wisconsin, but Hope could rotate Marve or make changes depending on the flow of the game. One thing is certain: Purdue needs to come out a lot stronger than it did last week against Michigan.

6. Illini try to stop bleeding: The Tim Beckman era is off to a very rocky start as Illinois has dropped four consecutive games by double digits, and Beckman last week committed an NCAA secondary violation when cameras caught him chewing tobacco on the sideline at Wisconsin. Saturday's forecast calls for more pain as Illinois heads to Michigan as more than a three-touchdown underdog. The Illini played decently for three quarters at Wisconsin, and Beckman is stressing the need for a 60-minute effort from his team, which still needs more offensive playmakers to develop and must regain its swagger on defense after allowing a league-worst 28.3 points per game through the first half of the season.

7. Gray day: Minnesota fans are anxiously awaiting the return of quarterback MarQueis Gray from a high ankle sprain. Could it happen Saturday? Coach Jerry Kill says there's a chance, and Gray practiced at about 60 percent on Tuesday. It's unlikely Gray will have his typical mobility, but his presence, even in a limited role, could spark Minnesota in a critical division home game against Northwestern. Max Shortell has passed for 616 yards with five touchdowns and four interceptions in place of Gray in Minnesota's last three games.

8. Ferentz eyes 100: The dean of the Big Ten coaches aims for his 100th victory at Iowa as the Hawkeyes visit Michigan State on Saturday. Kirk Ferentz is 99-68 in 14 seasons at the helm in Iowa, and while it looked as though he'd reach the 100-win plateau a little faster back in 2009, it's still a significant achievement. In fact, Big Ten fans could be waiting awhile to see this again. After Ferentz, the coach with the second-most wins at a Big Ten school is Wisconsin's Bret Bielema with 64, followed by Nebraska's Bo Pelini with 42 (36 wins came in the Big 12). Ferentz is 13th on the all-time list of Big Ten victories with 58. He's 18th in all-time win percentage (.593) among coaches who spent at least 10 seasons in the Big Ten.

9. Toussaint's time: Michigan's Denard Robinson got back on track last week against Purdue (235 rush yards), but the Wolverines are still trying to spark top running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. After being suspended for the season opener, Toussaint has just 169 yards on 53 carries (3.2 ypc average) this season. Coach Brady Hoke continues to support Toussaint as the starter and wants to get the junior more opportunities with the ball. Toussaint has recorded no more than 17 carries in a game this season after recording 20 or more carries in four of the final five regular-season games in 2011. Illinois boasts a talented defensive front and has been strong against the run, but Wisconsin had success late in last week's game and Michigan hopes to replicate it with Toussaint.

10. Indiana's opportunity: The wins aren't coming yet, but Indiana is competing a lot better in Kevin Wilson's second year than it did last fall. The Hoosiers dominated the first half against Michigan State and played well during the second half against Northwestern. They need to put four quarters together to finally get over the hump in the Big Ten, where they have dropped 10 consecutive games. Indiana gets another big opportunity to measure up Saturday against Ohio State, which has won 16 straight against the Hoosiers. Although an upset seems tough to fathom, Indiana can hang around in the game because of its offense. A strong performance should boost the Hoosiers before they enter a much more manageable stretch (Navy, Illinois, Iowa).
Ohio State is 6-0 and ranked No. 8 in the country. But there is one thing that could derail this great start for the Buckeyes: injuries.

Specifically, injuries would present serious problems at three positions for Ohio State: quarterback, offensive line and linebacker. The latter group received some bad news on Monday.

Senior outside linebacker Etienne Sabino fractured a bone in the fibula of his right leg during Saturday's 63-38 win over Nebraska, the team announced today. Sabino has already had surgery and had a plate inserted into his leg. Ohio State is saying he will be out about four weeks, though Urban Meyer said three weeks is a best-case scenario.

"Tremendous blow," Meyer said at his weekly news conference Monday. "Sabino is like a son and brother to everybody."

He's like an older brother to the Buckeyes' linebacking corps as one of its few veterans. Sabino has 11 career starts and 46 games under his belt. He's had an interesting career, struggling to get on the field early, then redshirting in 2010 for what would have been his true junior year. But Sabino has started to really come on this season and had his best game two weeks ago against Michigan State. He's third on the team in tackles (37), tied for second in sacks with two and has an interception and forced fumble.

His replacements, according to the team's latest depth chart, are a pair of true freshmen: Joshua Perry and David Perkins. Both are talented players, but they obviously lack much game experience. Ohio State's other starting outside linebacker, Ryan Shazier, is a sophomore who's backed up by two freshmen. Senior middle linebacker Storm Klein is the only elder statesmen in the group now.

Ohio State's defense has been susceptible to missed tackles and blown assignments this season, though it done a better job of that the past two weeks. Believe it or not, Indiana should actually present a good test for that linebacking group this weekend, as the Hoosiers do have a strong passing game.

Beyond that, the Buckeyes will face Purdue at home and then go to Penn State. Then they have a bye week, so hopefully Sabino can be ready for the final two games against Wisconsin and Michigan.

The pressure is now on Ohio State's young linebackers to produce. And Buckeyes fans will have to hope for no other serious injuries at the team's thinnest positions.
Taylor Martinez and Braxton MillerGetty ImagesDual-threat QBs Taylor Martinez and Braxton Miller will be essential to their teams Saturday.

It would be a gross oversimplification to say any football game comes down to just the two quarterbacks.

Except that Saturday's game between Nebraska and Ohio State sure looks like it will come down to just the two quarterbacks.

The reason is that both quarterbacks -- the Buckeyes' Braxton Miller and the Cornhuskers' Taylor Martinez -- have been so outstanding so far this season. And it's hard to imagine either team winning without a great performance from their star signal-caller.

"I think you'll see two of the finest athletic quarterbacks in America on the field this weekend," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said.

Both players have always been known as great athletes, but they've also developed into much more polished quarterbacks this season.

Martinez spent long hours this offseason working on improving his throwing mechanics, even visiting quarterback guru Steve Calhoun during his spring break. The result has been a career-high 67.8 percent completion rate for the Nebraska junior, who currently leads the Big Ten in passing efficiency.


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His sharpness as a passer and the Huskers' deep stable of running backs has meant that Martinez hasn't used his feet as much as in years past. But he's still dangerous whenever he does decide to take off. He's averaging 6 yards per carry and had a 92-yard touchdown run at UCLA earlier this season.

"He's one of the best runners I've ever seen at the quarterback position," Meyer said.

Meyer sees an elite running quarterback every day at Ohio State. Miller has already run for 577 yards and seven touchdowns this season, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. What makes him so deadly is his ability to run with power and to spin or juke his way past defenders. And when defenses crowd him, he can beat them over the top.

"He's the best quarterback we're going to play all year," Nebraska safety P.J. Smith said. "When we get pressure and he tries to escape, we've got to stay with our guys until he finally steps past the line of scrimmage. Because when he tries to scramble to the sideline, the next thing you know, he's throwing it to the end zone."

Preparing for mobile quarterbacks is never easy, but at least both defenses see one of the best every day in practice.

"There aren’t many quarterbacks around that run sub-4.4s, high-4.3s [in the 40-yard dash]," Buckeyes linebacker Etienne Sabino said. "I think it definitely helps us to practice against Braxton. If [Martinez] sees a crease, he has that same ability."

"[Miller] reminds me of Taylor," Smith said. "And in practice, it's really hard to defend Taylor."

Both quarterbacks also boast some underrated skills. For Miller, it's his toughness. He's carried the ball 18 times per game and has repeatedly bounced back from big hits. His ability to stay in the game against Michigan State last week despite taking a hard fall on the sideline early and twisting his knee late impressed his teammates and coaches.

For Martinez, it's his laser-like focus on the details of the offense.

"He's so locked in that he knows every little thing that's going on," Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead said. "He gets in that zone, and that allows him to play with confidence and lead us as our quarterback."

With Michigan's Denard Robinson struggling in the passing game, Martinez and Miller are the top two dual-threat quarterbacks in the league right now and the two leading candidates for Big Ten offensive player of the year. Saturday's outcome could have a large impact on that award and, who knows, maybe the Heisman Trophy race.

When Martinez is off, the Huskers usually follow suit. He didn't play well in Nebraska's blowout road losses at Wisconsin and Michigan last season, and his worst half this year came at UCLA in the team's only loss. He had a slow start last week at home against Wisconsin as Nebraska fell behind 27-10, but he led the way in a 30-27 comeback victory.

Miller, meanwhile, has repeatedly bailed Ohio State out of bad situations this season. While he's made some mistakes, like last week's three turnovers at Michigan State, he makes up for them with dazzling plays. The Buckeyes wouldn't be anywhere close to 5-0 without his heroics.

"The key to stopping their offense, which is an explosive offense, is stopping him," Smith said.

That normally would sound too simplistic. But in this game, the simplest question -- which quarterback plays better? -- may well provide all the answers.
The Big Ten still is a mostly muddled mess after the first Saturday of league play. While Penn State made a statement and Iowa showed it shouldn't be counted out, few other squads looked truly impressive in Week 5. Wisconsin looked better than it has but still fell at Nebraska, and while Michigan State came close against Ohio State, the Spartans still haven't turned the corner on offense.

There's no shuffling at the top and very little separation throughout the rankings. Although both Wisconsin and Michigan State fall, while Penn State rises, you can slide a sheet of paper between these teams. Ohio State remains at the top but will be tested this week by Nebraska.

Let's get to the rundown ...

1. Ohio State (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten, last week: 1): It's not easy to overcome three turnovers on the road, but the Buckeyes received enough magic from quarterback Braxton Miller and solid play along both lines at Michigan State. Linebacker Etienne Sabino stepped up in a big way for the defense. Urban Meyer's team has its flaws, but it can still win a lot of games in a flawed Big Ten. Ohio State showed it can win a big road game. Nebraska provides a nice test this week.

2. Nebraska (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten, last week: 2): After a miserable start against Wisconsin, Nebraska rallied from 17 points down in the third quarter to record a win it absolutely had to have. It tied the second-largest comeback in team history, and provided Taylor Martinez and the offense some confidence heading to Ohio State. The Huskers are loaded with offensive weapons and received terrific linebacker play from Will Compton, Alonzo Whaley and Sean Fisher. They still put the ball on the ground too much, though, and can't afford another slow start in Columbus.

3. Northwestern (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten, last week: 3): Thanks to Kain Colter, Northwestern remained perfect on the season and starts 5-0 for the third time in five years. The concern is that the Wildcats once again couldn't finish off a team after storming out to a 27-0 lead. No lead is truly safe with Northwestern, and while the defense has been very good most of the season, it needs to limit bad quarters like the third on Saturday. This is a young, maturing team that continues to win, but the tests get tougher beginning this week at red-hot Penn State.

4. Michigan (2-2, last week: 5): In this year's sputtering Big Ten, sometimes it pays off not to play. Michigan moves up in the rankings after Purdue struggled to hold off Marshall on Saturday. There's not much separating the Wolverines and the Boilers, and we'll find out the superior team this week when they meet at Ross-Ade Stadium. Michigan's defense took a nice step at Notre Dame, but as usual, the team's fortunes likely rest on how quarterback Denard Robinson performs.

5. Purdue (3-1, last week: 4): After storming out to a 42-14 halftime lead, Purdue had to hold on to win a shootout against Marshall and thus drop a spot. Although the Boilers won't face another passing offense quite like Marshall's this season, they have to be a bit concerned about their defense, which surrendered 439 passing yards and 534 total yards. Purdue faces another spread-ish offense -- and certainly a spread-ish quarterback in Michigan's Robinson -- this week in West Lafayette. The Michigan game begins a defining stretch for Danny Hope's crew.

6. Penn State (3-2, 1-0, last week: 9): The Big Ten's hottest team makes the biggest move of the week, rising three spots after another impressive win against Illinois. Linebacker Michael Mauti is leading a revived defense, while quarterback Matt McGloin continues to perform well in the new offense. You can't say enough about the job Bill O'Brien has done in his first season as Lions coach. Penn State faces its biggest test since the season opener this week against Northwestern before a challenging stretch with three of four on the road.

7. Michigan State (3-2, 0-1, last week: 5): The Spartans lost to Ohio State by only a point and were burned by a premature whistle that killed a potential fumble return for a touchdown. Then again, Michigan State had numerous opportunities to beat Ohio State and held a plus-3 turnover margin on its home field. The offense simply isn't coming together well enough, as good passing Saturday was offset by an invisible Le'Veon Bell. We still think the Spartans can make a run for the Big Ten title, but they haven't looked impressive in the early going.

8. Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1, last week: 8): For a half and change, it looked like Wisconsin would make a major move up the power rankings. The Badgers came out hot against Nebraska and took a big lead behind the inspired play of linebacker Chris Borland and the poise of quarterback Joel Stave in his first career road start. But the same problem that plagued the Badgers in the first four weeks -- flimsy offensive line play -- coupled with a defense that couldn't keep pace with Martinez led to a crushing defeat. Wisconsin still can take some pluses from Saturday night. It needs to take another step this week against Illinois before next week's showdown at Purdue.

9. Iowa (3-2, 1-0, last week: 11): Besides maybe Illinois, no team needed a win in Week 5 more than the Hawkeyes, and they delivered in a big way. Iowa took control from the get-go against Minnesota and brought home the bacon to fill its long-empty trophy case. Running back Mark Weisman continues to be one of the Big Ten's best early season stories, and the Hawkeyes' defense responded well from a poor performance against Central Michigan, receiving great play from the linebackers. An open week comes at a good time before Iowa resumes play at Michigan State.

10. Minnesota (4-1, 0-1, last week: 7): Week 5 brought a reality check of sorts for Minnesota, which never really challenged Iowa and lost the Floyd of Rosedale for the first time since 2009. As coach Jerry Kill said Sunday, the Gophers really need top quarterback MarQueis Gray (ankle) to get healthy, as backup Max Shortell had three interceptions at Iowa. More unsettling was the play of Minnesota's defense, which couldn't stop Weisman. The Gophers can regroup during the bye week before their league home opener against Northwestern.

11. Indiana (2-2, 0-1, last week: 10): Credit the Hoosiers for fighting back at Northwestern and making it a one-possession game in the fourth quarter. Indiana has some serious talent at wide receiver with Kofi Hughes and Cody Latimer, both of whom made circus catches Saturday. The Hoosiers also saw some good signs in their run game. But again, the defense continues to struggle mightily, surrendering more than 700 yards to the Wildcats. Until IU can defend like a Big Ten team, it won't win a Big Ten game.

12. Illinois (2-3, 0-1, last week: 12): Oy vey. If we could drop Illinois to 13th, we would. Tim Beckman's program is in complete disarray just five weeks into his first season. From the turnovers to the special teams miscues to a supposedly elite defense showing cracks each week, Illinois is in a tailspin. The Illini really needed to build some confidence at home. Instead, they're going to have to get it together on the road against Wisconsin and then Michigan. There's a lot of talent in Champaign, but once again, it doesn't seem to matter.