NCF Nation: Glenn Carson

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Mike Hull was once a coin flip away from transferring to Pitt, but that all seems like a lifetime ago for the Penn State linebacker.

[+] EnlargeHull
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsLB Mike Hull, who has seen a lot of changes at Penn State, expects 2014 to be his breakout season.
The redshirt senior is going into his fifth season at Penn State, and he's already endured many changes and ups-and-downs. He watched his team adjust to three head coaches -- five, including the interims -- and four defensive coordinators during his career. And he bided his time as a redshirt sophomore, playing behind two All-Big Ten talents, before standing on the sideline as a starter for parts of four games last season due to injury.

But now, in his final season, and with his final college coach, Hull believes it's finally his time to break out.

"It's something I've been waiting for for a long time," Hull told ESPN.com. "It's my time to step up and lead the team and lead a good defensive unit to where we can win a Big Ten championship."

Hull isn't the loudest player on the field. He's not one to grab a mic during a pep rally and spearhead some impromptu speech like cornerback Jordan Lucas. But he's become the anchor of this defense, not unlike middle linebacker Glenn Carson last season, and he's wasted no time in making an impact on a staff that's only known him for three short months.

"The guy who has stood out the most to me at this point is Hull," James Franklin said toward the end of spring practice. "He's done a nice job. He's smart, he's got great instincts -- he's not the biggest linebacker -- but he's quick, and he's powerful, and he's freakishly strong. I've been very pleased with him."

Hull stands at just 6-foot, 227 pounds. But he's also played well enough to stand out to every coordinator who coached him -- and, seemingly, all for different reasons. Tom Bradley watched Hull zoom past would-be blockers as a freshman, clocked his 40-yard dash at 4.6 seconds and briefly tried him at safety. Ted Roof watched him out-lift every one of his teammates as a sophomore, when he benched 405-pounds to best offensive linemen who outweighed him by nearly triple digits.

John Butler praised him last season as an "all-around outstanding football player." And, now, current coordinator Bob Shoop sees a sense of maturity and leadership in Hull that he's rarely found elsewhere, in part because he's learned from so many tutors.

"Mike's very mature," Shoop said. "He's football smart. He's very distinctive. ... There's not a player I trust more than him. He's a really special guy, and he's the undisputed quarterback of the defense."

At this time last season, Hull was the favorite from experts and fans alike when it came to naming the Nittany Lions' next breakout star. But, as Hull acknowledged, that title never quite materialized. With a nagging leg injury, one that didn't see him return to 100 percent until late October, he didn't live up to expectations until the final five games of the season. And, during that stretch, Hull unsurprisingly led Penn State in tackles (44). The No. 2 tackler, Carson, had 35 in that same stretch.

With a defense lacking in depth, even more will be expected of Hull this season. There are a few things working against him -- namely new schemes and a new coordinator -- but he's been in this position before. Twice.

"It's been easier to learn just because of the way [Shoop] packages everything together," Hull added. "It seems hard, but it's simple once you get used to it."

The last era of Penn State players who competed under three different head coaches were underclassmen in 1948, so Hull's position is a unique one. Still, the soft-spoken linebacker has tried to take it in stride.

Hull has taken on extra responsibility at middle linebacker, after playing outside last season. And Shoop has been pleased with how he's adjusted to an aggressive scheme that places extra emphasis on sacks and tackles-for-loss.

Hull, a Pennsylvania native could've had a different future if that proverbial coin landed on Pitt instead of Penn State. He could've had a more stable career. But he's not looking back now; he's finally looking forward to being "the guy" at Linebacker U.

"I don't want to compare something that never happened," Hull said. "I'm thankful for my time at Penn State. It's been one of the wildest times."

Emotional win comes at key time for PSU

October, 13, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Defensive coordinator John Butler scanned the sideline after the referees signaled touchdown, finally bringing to end an instant classic that'll be talked about five years from now.

He watched as more than 100 Penn State players erupted in ecstasy -- spinning around, hugging, pumping their fists -- as they sprinted to the end zone to join their offensive teammates, who clinched a 43-40 win. In quadruple overtime. Against Michigan.

Two seconds after the game had ended, no one was left on the sideline. Maybe Butler was just looking for an assistant coach to embrace after the season-defining win. But he couldn't find one; they had already started a celebration that's sure to last until morning. He instead looked around, turned to the person closest to him and said one line before jogging off.

"We're going to be fine," he said, with no smile on his face but a sense of conviction in his voice. "Write that -- we're going to be fine."

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times via Getty ImagesChristian Hackenberg passed for 305 yards and 3 TDs in the upset of Michigan.
Beaver Stadium was filled with a sold-out crowd of more than 108,000 -- but it was also filled with question marks. Had Penn State's magic run out? Could this team really come away with a big win? Would this defense collapse again when it counted? Was there anyone on this offense besides Allen Robinson who could make plays?

The Nittany Lions didn't punctuate each answer with an exclamation mark. But they won. With dozens of lettermen on the sideline for homecoming, the Nittany Lions did to UM what it did to PSU in 2005: put an end to a perfect season.

"You can't really compare this to anything else; it's pretty much indescribable," quarterback Christian Hackenberg said. "It's just one of those things where if you're fortunate enough to be in this type of game and you experience it -- it's something that's going to stick with you for the rest of your life."

Added tailback Bill Belton: "Oh, I'm going to remember this. Ten years from now? Yeah."

This wasn't a game that anyone "deserved" to win. Then again, maybe no one deserved to lose. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner paced the sideline, with a headset over his ears, as Brendan Gibbons' 40-yard attempt was blocked in the first overtime. Then, in the third overtime, Michigan's players stared at the ground -- tight end Khalid Hill yelled, "Damn!" -- when Gibbons' missed a 33-yarder.

Both teams had plenty of opportunities to win. Michigan came into this game always making plays when it needed to, while Penn State always seemed to watch the ball bounce in a bad direction. The roles were reversed this time around. Call it luck, call it skill, call it whatever -- but, whatever it was, it couldn't have come at a better time for Penn State.

"I would just say that in a lot of situations, God was on our side today," Robinson said. "We were able to make some plays down the stretch to keep this game alive."

Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong promised after the UCF loss that a game like that wouldn't happen again. Then Indiana happened. And wideout Eugene Lewis took to Twitter to let everyone know PSU was better than that. If PSU loses this game? Well, at some point, you stop believing it gets better. Those words don't have meaning if the losses pile up.

Bill O'Brien usually heads into every game by taking the dais and telling the media that every game is important. This week, he said he'd be crazy to say this was just another game. It wasn't. Win or lose, this was going to be a turning point for the Lions.

And, for the first time this season, it turned out the right way for Penn State.

"I'm just so jacked-up and so happy because you're putting it out on the line every single play," linebacker Mike Hull said. "This says we're a resilient bunch of guys."

Offensive tackle Garry Gilliam lingered beneath the tunnel and slapped hands with the fans. Linebacker Glenn Carson jumped around as if he were at a track meet. And fans, many of whom wore the same color for a stadium-wide "White Out," didn't move from their seats minutes after the game had ended and the Wolverines had already retired to their locker room.

Penn State had answered the questions by scoring 10 points in the final seven minutes of the fourth quarter to force overtime; then enduring a swing of emotions -- unlike any game either team has played this season -- and coming out with a win.

But, overall, the answers all revolved one simple theme. And it's one these fans can head home through snarled traffic with in mind.

These Nittany Lions are going to be just fine.
CHICAGO -- Penn State coach Bill O'Brien and his Purdue counterpart, Darrell Hazell, will face the same decision sometime next month: Should I start a true freshman quarterback this season?

It's a daunting and exciting possibility, depending on who you ask. It's also a realistic one for both Penn State and Purdue heading into 2013.

Danny Etling enrolled early at Purdue and put himself in position to compete for the team's top quarterback job following a solid spring. Christian Hackenberg didn't even need to go through the spring to be considered for Penn State's starting job. When camps kick off in August, Etling will compete with senior Rob Henry and possibly redshirt freshman Austin Appleby for the Purdue job, while Hackenberg will vie with junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson in State College.

Both Hazell and O'Brien vow to play the best quarterback, regardless of age, but there are added risks of going with a true freshman, including the impact on the rest of the roster. Will the Purdue locker room support Etling if he beats out Henry, a former team captain and one of the most popular players on the squad? How will a Penn State team carried by veteran leadership in 2012 respond to a quarterback who hasn't played a meaningful down at the college level?

According to players on both teams, they'll be just fine.

"If it is Danny, we'll be behind him," Purdue defensive tackle Bruce Gaston told ESPN.com. "We'll be behind whoever, especially if it is Danny because we're not going to let a freshman go in there thinking that he has no support. That's not going to do anything but hurt us in every aspect of the game.

"We have no clue who [the starter is] going to be, but we'll support them."

So will Henry, according to Gaston.

"Rob is one of the most humble people I know," Gaston said. "Rob would definitely not make a fuss or anything. He'll handle it in the most professional way."

Penn State's situation is a bit different as both Ferguson and Hackenberg are newcomers. Although Ferguson went through the spring with the team, players had much more familiarity with Steven Bench, last year's backup quarterback who transferred to South Florida after being told he wouldn't compete for the starting job.

Whoever emerges in camp at Penn State will be a new voice of leadership.

"They're definitely going to need a little bit of help, a little bit of guidance," senior linebacker Glenn Carson said, "but they're both guys that have a lot of confidence, have that swagger that is much needed as a quarterback. I think they're going to be fine. They might need a teammate's helping hand, but I really don't feel like I have to go too far out of my way because they have that confidence built in."

A young quarterback can help himself by reaching out to older teammates, like Minnesota's Philip Nelson did in 2012. Minnesota took the redshirt off of Nelson midway through the season, and the true freshman started the Gophers' final seven games.

"It's easy to get behind somebody who asks for help," Gophers running back Donnell Kirkwood said. "He was new, he was a freshman, Wisconsin was his first start and he was a little shaken up by that, but he took on a leadership role."

Carson has no concern about a divided or apathetic locker room at Penn State, depending on who wins the quarterback job.

"This team understands how important these guys are to us," Carson said. "Even though they're freshmen and they're young, they're just getting into the program, the team really respects these guys and knows how important they are. It's going to be a really big camp for both of these guys.

"They're going to have to truly emerge, not only as players but as leaders so that they really can take the locker room."
On Wednesday, the head coach and one player from each Big Ten Legends Division team participated in a spring football teleconference with the media. On Thursday, it was the Leaders Division's turn. Here are some notes and updates from the call:

Illinois
  • Head coach Tim Beckman said the junior college players he brought in helped with depth and age issues on his young team. "We have 40 football players that have never been in our spring football until this year," he said. Of the juco imports, Beckman said wide receiver Martize Barr has quick hands and good playmaking skills, both in the passing game and on kick returns; Eric Finney has earned a starting job at the Star linebacker position; Abe Cajuste is adding depth by playing both defensive tackle and defensive end; and Dallas Hinkhouse is making an impact at offensive tackle.
  • Beckman sung the praises of offensive lineman Corey Lewis, a sixth-year senior who has battled back from five knee surgeries and has become a team leader. "Corey Lewis comes to my office probably four or five times a week, just to talk," he said. "To me, he is what college football is all about." Beckman said that Lewis has "had a special spring" and hinted that he has earned a starting job.
  • Quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole will take most of the snaps in Friday's spring game so they can get more experience in the new offense. Beckman said Scheelhaase has "got a step in front" because of his experience, but the competition continues.
  • Scheelhaase on reasons for optimism in 2013: "Establishing an identity. That's something I don't know that we necessarily had last year, on offense or defense or as a team in general.
Indiana
  • Like many of you, head coach Kevin Wilson would like to know the new Big Ten division alignment. The reason? It's harder to recruit without being able to tell a prospect where he'll be playing his freshman season. Wilson added that if the league does indeed go to an East/West split, he'd like to see the Hoosiers placed in the East since they're located in the Eastern Time Zone.
  • Wilson said run defense and takeaways are two huge priorities for the Hoosiers' defense during the offseason. He noted that the Big Ten doesn't boast a large group of elite pass offenses, so IU must prepare better for run-driven attacks. Indiana finished last in the Big Ten in both run defense (231.3 ypg) and takeaways (13). Cornerback Greg Heban said the defense is working on takeaways every day in practice. "Every time the ball touches the ground, the defense is scooping it and scoring it," Heban said, "trying to give us a feel of what it's like."
  • Both Wilson and Heban praised the play of junior cornerback Tim Bennett this spring. Other spring standouts include linebacker T.J. Simmons, a freshman early enrollee, and Steven Funderburk, a junior-college transfer.
  • Heban called this "easily the best spring I've been around." He has seen more physical play and better effort on both sides of the ball, and the team also is having more fun than in past springs.
Ohio State
  • Head coach Urban Meyer said running back Rod Smith won't play in Saturday's spring game because he recently suffered a concussion. Before that, Meyer said Smith was one of the five most improved players on offense this spring. Meyer listed Carlos Hyde and Smith as the team's top two running backs, while Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball are even for the No. 3 spot.
  • Although the receivers have been better this spring -- especially Corey Brown and Chris Fields -- the depth is still nowhere near where it needs to be for Meyer's spread offense. "We’re way behind on quality of depth at that position," Meyer said. "That's a major, major concern." Moving Jordan Hall to H-back should help, and Meyer noted that the Buckeyes boast two good tight ends in Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett.
  • Buckeyes offensive tackle Jack Mewhort paid close attention to the way John Simon and others led in 2012. He's ready to take on a greater load this season. "I welcome that," he said. "I see that as an honor, being compared to a guy like John Simon. I also see it as a challenge. I feel the pressure to step up and get guys going in the right direction." Mewhort also has seen quarterback Braxton Miller recognize his leadership responsibilities more this spring and get after teammates when he needs to.
  • Meyer said he puts more emphasis on spring practice and the spring game than most coaches. He has told his players that there will be a depth chart after spring ends, and while changes are possible in the summer, they're not likely. "In spring ball, you're trying to win a spot," he said. "During the fall, we're trying to win games."
Penn State
  • Quarterbacks Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson are receiving equal reps during practice and, not surprisingly, have endured some ups and downs. Head coach Bill O'Brien praised both players' intelligence, noting that they aren't making mental errors during workouts. "These guys have had productive practices," O'Brien said. "Has every play been great? No. But the word patience is a very important word here. Coming from pro football, I definitely have to learn more patience with all these young players. I think I have, but I can do a lot better." Senior guard John Urschel, who was highly entertaining during the teleconference, said he's the wrong person to ask about quarterbacks but praised Bench and Ferguson for picking up the system and showing leadership.
  • Urschel said the first-team offensive line right now consists of himself and Miles Dieffenbach at guard, Ty Howle at center and Donovan Smith and Adam Gress at the tackle spots. Of Howle, he said, "I could talk about Ty all day. If you ask me, he's one of the most underrated players on our team. ... Honestly, when I got here, I thought Ty was the best offensive linemen in our year, of the seven of us." Urschel also said Dieffenbach "started a lot for us last year but really is starting to take his game to the next level."
  • O'Brien said Zach Zwinak would get the start at running back if the season opened now, but all three backs -- Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch -- have had good springs. Lynch, a redshirt freshman, has "improved every single day of spring practice."
  • O'Brien is excited about Penn State's starting linebackers -- Glenn Carson, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman -- but admits the lack of depth at the position is "something I think about 24-7." He said it's vital to get Carson, Hull and Wartman through the rest of the offseason healthy, and hope for contributions from others like Ben Kline and incoming freshman Brandon Bell. Penn State won't shift players to linebackers because "there’s really nobody to move" and will instead closely monitor reps the rest of the spring and in preseason camp.
Purdue
  • Head coach Darrell Hazell said the Boilermakers have made major improvements in the last three and a half weeks. "Anytime you put in three different schemes, there's a little bit of a learning curve for the first couple weeks," he said. "You could see guys start to really get comfortable the last five or six practices."
  • Hazell said he has "three capable guys" right now at quarterback with Rob Henry, Danny Etling and Austin Appleby. He reiterated that he would keep the competition open until two weeks before the opener at Cincinnati. Of Etling, a freshman early enrollee, Hazell said: "For a young guy, a guy that should be at his prom, I think he's got tremendous poise. He's smart and really studies the game."
  • Hazell said backup tight end Justin Sinz and center Robert Kugler are two guys that have really caught his eye this spring. He called Kugler a "very much a leader on the offensive line."
  • Cornerback Ricardo Allen said Hazell has instilled an "all is one" mentality. "If one person does something, we all have to do it. We all wear black socks. We all wear the same uniform. We all tuck our shirts in. I feel like we're becoming closer as a team, and it's helping us build."
Wisconsin
  • Head coach Gary Andersen confirmed Curt Phillips and Joel Stave have separated themselves in the quarterback competition. It's a "mixed bag" of who takes snaps with the first-team offense, but both will continue to rotate through the rest of the spring and into fall camp. "The way they've separated themselves is simply production," Andersen said. "They know exactly where they sit and so does the rest of the team. … If they put all their friendships aside, their depth chart would look exactly like our depth chart."
  • Andersen praised the offensive line for tackling another transition, as the group works with its fourth position coach (T.J. Woods) since the 2012 Rose Bowl. The line has seen varying looks from the defense in practice and had players move around to different positions, in part because of injuries. Wisconsin had only seven healthy linemen a week ago, but Andersen is hopeful the number will rise to nine or 10 by next week's spring game. "Those kids have grinded through it every single day," Andersen said. "They're a tough-minded group."
  • Badgers senior linebacker Chris Borland said losing defensive end David Gilbert to recurring foot problems is a blow but the team has others to step in like Tyler Dippel, Brendan Kelly and Jesse Hayes, a redshirt sophomore who has stood out this spring.
  • Much like his old boss Urban Meyer, Andersen believes in constant competition and declares winners and losers in each practice. Andersen also mixes in some fun with a dance-off and throwing footballs into trash cans. "Some of them are a little bit quirky, but through the years establish some things we like," he said.
  • Borland said the strength program has brought the biggest changes in the transition to Andersen's staff. Cardiovascular work is stressed more, as is preventative care. Head strength and conditioning coach Evan Simon operates at a faster pace and uses more of an instructional approach than Ben Herbert, who stressed motivation.
On paper, Penn State returns only one starter at linebacker (Glenn Carson) and loses two All-Big Ten players (Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges) at the position.

But anyone who watched the Nittany Lions' defense in 2012 knows junior Mike Hull isn't an ordinary backup. In many ways, he was Penn State's fourth starter. Hull finished the season with 58 tackles, including five for loss and four sacks, to go along with an interception, four pass breakups and two fumble recoveries. He also stood out on special teams, playing on all four units and recording a blocked punt against Ohio State that led to a Penn State touchdown.

"Last year kind of set the stage for what I expect to do in the future," Hull said Wednesday on a conference call with reporters. "It was great getting out there last year. I'm just ready for my role to increase, and I'm looing forward to being part of a great defense."

Hull appeared in every game as a redshirt freshman in 2011, mostly on special teams, and had 18 tackles and a blocked kick. He built a reputation as a weight-room monster early in his career, and he has accelerated his development under strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, who arrived with coach Bill O'Brien in January 2012. Hull added some weight in the winter and worked on increasing his hip and leg strength.

Although the 6-foot, 228-pound Hull said he and Carson didn't play together often in 2012, they both understand the defensive scheme, which isn't changing much with new coordinator John Butler, the team's secondary coach in 2012, taking over for Ted Roof.

"He's kept pretty much everything scheme-wise," Hull said. "... We're all working hard. We're way ahead of where we were last year as far as assignments go."

Like many Penn State players, Hull's future at the school seemed to be in doubt last summer after the NCAA imposed severe sanctions on the program, including a four-year postseason ban. Hull visited Pitt in late July and considered a transfer but opted to remain at Penn State.

"Best decision I've ever made," Hull said Wednesday. "There's no looking back."

Mauti played a significant role in keeping Hull in Happy Valley. Hull went on to replace Mauti in the starting lineup after Mauti suffered a knee injury late in the 2012 season.

Intensity and leadership are two qualities Hull absorbed from both Mauti and Hodges and hopes to carry over this season, when he's in a major role. Although he's virtually guaranteed a starting linebacker spot, he hopes to maintain a major role on special teams, noting that the third phase "gets us on the field at the next level."

"That's how it is at Linebacker U," Hull said. "When it's your turn to step up, it's go time, it's time to shine. I'm ready to fill that spot for our defense this year."
Bill O'BrienRandy Litzinger/Icon SMIBill O'Brien is excited about his team as he heads into his second season at Penn State.
The last time we saw Penn State, the Lions were celebrating a surprisingly strong finish to the 2012 season and saying farewell to a special senior class. Penn State since has turned the page and will begin spring practice Monday with a mix of familiarity and uncertainty. Bill O'Brien is not the "new coach" in Happy Valley anymore, and players have acclimated to O'Brien and his staff. But the Lions are looking for a starting quarterback for the second consecutive spring. They also must replace several outstanding defenders and fill holes on both lines. But the depth crisis many of us envisioned for the Lions when the NCAA sanctions came down last summer simply isn't there in State College.

ESPN.com caught up with O'Brien late last week to discuss spring ball.

What are some of the main objectives you're looking for when you get on the field again?

Bill O'Brien: The No. 1 objective offensively is to make sure we come out of this spring practice with improvement from the quarterback position. We won't name a starter coming out of the spring, but at least at the end of 15 practices we'll have a good idea of how well these guys are grasping the system, Tyler Ferguson and Steven Bench. So that's a big deal for us offensively.

And defensively, some new guys will be in there, and seeing how those guys do, whether it's Nyeem Wartman at linebacker or Jordan Lucas at corner or some other guys who are going to be playing a little bit more next year, how much they improve. And then we'll work our special teams every single day, so hopefully we'll find some core special-teams players this spring.

What's your message to Steven and Tyler going into the spring? You're not naming the starter, but what do you want to see out of them?

BO'B: [Thursday] I was talking to them, and I said, 'Look, I just want you guys to put your head down and go to work. Don't worry about what everybody else on the outside of the program thinks about your performance, whether it's in scrimmages or the Blue-White Game or whatever it is. Just try to get better every single day.' These are two really, really good kids. They're smart, they work hard at it, they're grasping it pretty well to this point. We're pretty excited about getting started with them. I don't want them to think about anything other than trying to improve and be as good a leader as they can be.

Will you have to change the offense for one or the other? Do they fit in with what you did last year?

BO'B: We'll definitely be different. We'll be different in many ways. Matt [McGloin] had certain strengths we tried to play to, no question about it. Our system is expansive enough that you can have different parts in there to take advantage of the talents of the quarterbacks who are playing. So we'll be a different offense than we were last year.

Anything specific on what might change with these two quarterbacks or areas you can draw out more?

BO'B: I'd rather not get into all of that, but I can tell you these are two guys who are big, they're strong, they're fast, they look to be accurate passers. We're just looking forward to working with them.

(Read full post)

When the NCAA leveled severe sanctions against Penn State last summer and made it easy for players to transfer, roster depth became an immediate short-term concern.

It almost certainly looked to be a long-term problem. How would Penn State fare with a reduced roster and a limited number of scholarships to pass out for the 2013 recruiting class?

Early indications suggest the Lions will do just fine. After an 8-4 season under first-year coach Bill O'Brien, Penn State will open spring practice Monday in good shape, both depth-wise and health-wise.

Like every team, the Lions have some holes to fill, most notably quarterback, but they return playmakers on both sides of the ball like wide receiver Allen Robinson, defensive end Deion Barnes, cornerback Adrian Amos and three seasoned tight ends (Kyle Carter, Matt Lehman and Jesse James).

"We feel really good about our depth," O'Brien told ESPN.com on Friday. "Is it exactly the way we would want it? No. We were only able to sign a certain amount of guys, but at the same time, we've got a lot of quality, tough [players]. I really enjoy this football team, being around these kids.

"Obviously, these guys have to go out and play well for us, we have to stay healthy. But we feel like we'll field a very competitive football team in the fall."

Sophomore linebacker Ben Kline is the only key player who will miss spring practice after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. The Lions are looking for bodies at linebacker after losing Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges. Glenn Carson and Mike Hull are virtually assured of starting spots, and with Kline out, O'Brien sees Nyeem Wartman opening the spring with the first-team defense. Wartman was limited by injuries as a true freshman in 2012.

"We think he's got a bright, bright future," O'Brien said.

Two quick notes:
  • O'Brien reiterated that he won't name a starting quarterback after spring practice. Steven Bench and junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson will compete this spring, and heralded recruit Christian Hackenberg arrives in the summer.
  • Penn State made two offseason position changes: tight end Garry Gilliam moves to offensive tackle, where he can play on either side, O'Brien said. Wide receiver Malik Golden moves to defensive back.
The hits keep coming for Penn State, as linebacker Khairi Fortt and incoming freshman Jamil Pollard have decided to go elsewhere.

Fortt, a junior from Stamford, Conn., is transferring to Cal. He was a highly-decorated recruit who played as a true freshman in 2010 and was a member of the linebacker rotation last season. He finished 2011 with 33 tackles, including six for loss, and 2.5 sacks.

He missed some time this spring with a sprained knee but was listed as the co-starter at middle linebacker going into fall practice, along with Glenn Carson.

"Basically I wanted to take a leap of faith and trust in God," Fortt told the Stamford Advocate this morning. "This is what's right for me and my family. ... The way you go through life is the way you handle adversity. The friends I've made here are friends."

Penn State should still be fine with its starting linebackers -- this is Linebacker U., after all -- considering that it boasts first-team All-Big Ten performer Gerald Hodges, fifth-year senior Michael Mauti and Carson, who started every game last season. But Mauti has had recurring knee problems and is no lock to stay healthy. Losing Fortt definitely hurts the depth at the position.

There was a lot of talk at Big Ten media days about who in the league was recruiting Penn State players. But it turns out that the Nittany Lions should have been worried about the Pac-12 more, as Fortt's teammate and fellow Connecticut native Silas Redd moved on to USC on Tuesday.

Pollard, an incoming defensive tackle, has decided to go to Rutgers instead of Penn State. He was rated a three-star prospect by ESPN.com and the No. 37 defensive tackle in his class.

His high school coach, Clyde Folsom, told The News of Cumberland County (N.J. ) that the NCAA sanctions against Penn State were the reason for Pollard's departure.

"We spoke last week when the penalties became public at Penn State," Folsom told the newspaper. "He wasn't sure what he wanted to do; he wasn't in the right state of mind at the time to really make a decision. But over a 48-hour period there were six or seven Division I schools that were interested in bringing him in on scholarship."

If you're scoring at home, five players on the active roster -- Fortt, Redd, quarterback Rob Bolden (LSU), tight end Kevin Haplea (Florida State) and walk-on safety Tim Buckley (NC State) -- have officially transferred thus far. There will likely be more to come. Penn State, which begins practice on Monday, will have to hope the hits stop coming soon.
We continue our postseason position rankings today as we move on to the linebackers.

Not surprisingly, Linebacker U takes the top spot, though it was a very close call. Depth helped the top two teams on this list, while star power marked spots Nos. 3 through 5. After that, it's a bit of a dropoff.

Away we go ...

[+] EnlargeGerald Hodges
Rob Christy/US PresswireGerald Hodges led a deep group of Penn State linebackers this past season.
1. Penn State: We thought this group could be the deepest linebacking corps in the league this past season, and that depth proved both true and invaluable when starter Michael Mauti went out in the fourth game of the season. Even without him, the Nittany Lions' linebackers played great, led by first team All-Big Ten performer Gerald Hodges, who had a breakout campaign. Nate Stupar filled in nicely for Mauti, and Glenn Carson was solid in his first year as a starter in the middle.

2. Michigan State: We wondered in the preseason how the Spartans would replace stars Greg Jones and Eric Gordon. The answer: very nicely, thank you. Sophomores Denicos Allen and Max Bullough emerged as fierce playmakers, especially on the blitz, and Chris Norman provided steady play on the weak side. All three return in 2012 to give Penn State a run for its money as the best group in the league.

3. Wisconsin: Mike Taylor and Chris Borland were finally healthy in the same season, and what a difference that made. They were a terrific pair, combining for 293 tackles and becoming the only Big Ten duo to average more than 10 tackles per game each. Taylor in particular made great strides. Kevin Claxton was overshadowed a bit as the third Badgers linebacker, but that's understandable given the amount of plays Borland and Taylor made.

4. Illinois: The emergence of Jonathan Brown (108 tackles, 19.5 for loss) as fire-breathing pass-rusher made this unit better than we projected in the preseason. Ian Thomas also had a good season at the position with 85 tackles, and Trulon Henry rounded out a strong crew before he missed time late following a shooting incident. The Illini defense stayed consistent throughout the team's struggles.

5. Nebraska: Depth was not a strong suit for the Huskers by any means, but there was no better linebacker in the league and few better in the nation than All-American Lavonte David. He had 133 tackles and countless big plays. Will Compton came on as the season wore along to provide a good complement to David. Finding consistent play elsewhere at the position was a challenge for Nebraska.

6. Ohio State: We pegged the Buckeyes at No. 3 in our preseason linebacker rankings, but it wasn't a vintage year for a group that struggled down the stretch drive. Andrew Sweat led the way with 72 tackles despite missing two games because of injury, and Etienne Sabino had a decent season (62 tackles, 6.5 for loss) if not the breakout season many had predicted. Freshman Ryan Shazier announced himself late in the year as a potential star in the making.

7. Michigan: The Wolverines' defense surprised everyone in 2011, though the defensive line was clearly the vanguard on that side of the ball. Kenny Demens led the team with 94 tackles, while freshmen Desmond Morgan and Jake Ryan made an immediate impact as starters. This wasn't an overwhelming group, but it was one that mostly did its job.

8. Iowa: The Hawkeyes had a hard time keeping everybody healthy and consistent, but this spot might have been the best part of their defense. James Morris and Christian Kirksey tied for the team lead with 110 tackles each, while Tyler Nielsen added 73 stops while battling some nagging injuries. The Iowa defense overall was disappointing, however.

9. Purdue: Danny Hope usually knew what to expect from week to week out of his linebackers: solid, consistent play. Joe Holland, Dwayne Beckford and Will Lucas each had between 82 and 94 stops as the top three tacklers on the team. Lucas and Holland also recorded double-digit tackles for loss. The chief complaint here is that the Boilermakers gave up some big point totals during the season.

10. Minnesota: The Gophers struggled up front and in the secondary, but linebacker was their most experienced and reliable defensive position, as expected. Veterans Gary Tinsley, Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper played in every game, and were among the most consistent players on the team. Tinsley led the way with four sacks. Florida transfer Brendan Beal was expected to make an impact, but missed the season with a knee injury.

11. Northwestern: It wasn't a very good year overall for the Wildcats' defense, and linebacker was no exception. David Nwabuisi ranked third on the team with 84 tackles, while Bryce McNaul was right behind with 76. But Northwestern's starting trio combined for just 2.5 sacks and didn't come up with enough difference-making plays throughout the season.

12. Indiana: The good news for the Hoosiers was that Jeff Thomas was the best player on defense in 2011, finishing with 80 tackles, including 10.5 for loss. The bad news is that he was a senior. Besides Thomas, Indiana was forced to go young at the position, playing freshmen Chase Hoobler, Mike Replogle and Mark Murphy, a safety/linebacker hybrid, at times during the season. Kevin Wilson hopes the experience makes them better in '12, but this is yet another position that needs vast improvement going forward.

Michael Mauti mounts another comeback

February, 21, 2012
2/21/12
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Michael Mauti felt no pain when his left knee buckled last Sept. 24 during the Eastern Michigan game. At least, no physical pain.

The Penn State linebacker instinctively knew that he had torn his ACL, though he didn't want to believe it. As he sat on the trainer's table with a towel on his head, he thought about another season lost to injury, another long road to recovery looming ahead.

"It was a tough time for me," Mauti told ESPN.com. "It was frustrating, because it was more unexpected than anything."

[+] EnlargeMichael Mauti
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMichael Mauti won't see much action this spring as he continues to rehab his knee, but he expects to be 100 percent this fall.
Mauti missed the 2009 season when he tore his right ACL in preseason practice, and injuries slowed him down in 2010. He came into 2011 finally feeling fully healthy and looking forward to a big season. Instead, his left knee, one that had never given him any trouble before, betrayed him.

"When the doctor got in there for the surgery, he said there was just a weakness there," Mauti said. "He told me I'd be better off by having it fixed."

That was small solace to a player whose promising career keeps getting stalled by injuries. But Mauti has never been one to believe in self pity, and his coaches made sure he didn't wallow after the latest setback.

Soon after his surgery, Mauti took on a new role. Then-defensive coordinator Tom Bradley put him in charge of signaling in calls from the sideline during practice.

"I was out there standing right next to him every day at practice doing those signals," Mauti said. "That definitely kept me plugged in. I had no choice but to get out there and do whatever I could to help my team win."

Mauti also delivered a moving speech on behalf of the current Penn State players at Joe Paterno's memorial. He hopes to have a more active role with this year's team.

Mauti says his knee feels great right now, and he's planning to start cutting and doing agility exercises in the next week or so. But his previous rehab taught him that he needs to take things slow and build the muscles in his leg before trying to do too much. So he'll be very limited still for Penn State's spring practices.

"There's no rush, really," he said. "I'm thinking when we get into May and June, there will be pretty much no restrictions on anything."

Mauti has shown what he can do when healthy. In 2010, he finished fifth on the team with 67 tackles despite some nagging injuries. He was off to a strong start last season, recording 13 tackles against Alabama and grabbing a key interception at Temple the week before his torn ACL.

With him back in the fold, the Nittany Lions could have one of the strongest linebacking corps in the Big Ten and the country in 2012. Gerald Hodges had a breakout campaign in 2011, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors, and Glenn Carson also returns at middle linebacker after his first full season of starting.

"I really think the sky's the limit for us," Mauti said.

They will have to learn a new defensive system for the first time in their careers, and new coordinator Ted Roof will have all new terminology. But Mauti is confident that he and his teammates can pick it up quickly, because he says the style is not too different and that the defensive veterans "have pretty good football IQs and know what they're doing."

Mauti will mostly be watching and observing this spring. But by the fall, he expects to be back on the field making an impact. And maybe he'll finally catch a break with his health and end his career with a bang.

"This is my last go-round here, so I'm taking every day and making the most out of it," he said. "I only get one more shot at this thing. I'm really excited about where Penn State is going, and I'm happy to be a part of the transition. I just want to help us win some games."


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The tendency during a time of crisis is to go conservative, limit risks and simply try to survive.

Penn State is mired in a crisis, perhaps the biggest crisis in college sports history. A sex-abuse scandal has enveloped the institution. Beloved football coach Joe Paterno has been fired, and recently his son Scott said his father had been diagnosed with a treatable form of lung cancer. Assistant coach Mike McQueary has been placed on administrative leave. Coaches are shuffling responsibilities. The future is hazy.

And, by the way, Penn State finds itself in the thick of the Big Ten title race.

Given these circumstances, few would blame Penn State, already known as one of the nation's most conservative football programs, to play it even safer with its schemes and personnel. Crisis Management 101, right?

Think again.

Interim coach Tom Bradley and his staff decided this would be the perfect time to shake up the offense. The Wildcat formation, run by two former high school quarterbacks, Curtis Drake and Bill Belton, fueled a potent rushing attack in Penn State's 20-14 victory against Ohio State at Ohio Stadium.

The new wrinkle led to a new result in a place Penn State had won just once before (2008) as a member of the Big Ten.

"With all that we've been going through, we need a spark," said Drake, who had a 38-yard scamper and finished with 50 yards on three carries. "We need something new, we need to uplift ourselves. ... [The coaches] were looking at it just to say, 'We've got nothing else to lose. We've been kicked, we've been spit on by everybody. So now let's just go out and play.'"

[+] EnlargePenn State's Curtis Drake
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesCurtis Drake was one of two Penn State players to take snaps out of the wildcat. "With all that we've been going through, we need a spark," Drake said.
Penn State set the tone Saturday on its opening drive when Drake, lined up in the Wildcat, took the snap and handed the ball to Stephfon Green, who raced 39 yards to the end zone. Penn State racked up 91 yards out of the Wildcat in the first half and finished the game with 239 rush yards and two touchdowns on 39 carries (6.1 ypc).

Belton had practiced at quarterback on the scout team heading into the Nebraska game. After seeing Belton "torch" his defense for 10 days, Bradley wanted to use Belton against the opposition. Drake always had been an option at Wildcat, but his recovery from a leg injury kept the plan on hold.

"We'd thought about it a while ago, but we never just got to the package," Bradley said. "We thought today coming in, it would just give us a little change of pace, which it did."

No team in America could use a change of pace more than Penn State. The program has been under siege the past two weeks. Paterno's firing last Wednesday triggered an outpouring of emotion, and the players weren't immune from it.

Then came Friday, when Bradley informed the players of Paterno's cancer diagnosis.

"When it rains, it pours," linebacker Glenn Carson said. "That was what was said amongst each other. It's been a tough week, it's been a tough couple days for us. But I can't be more proud of how this team [handled] the adversity."

Joe's son Jay, the team's quarterbacks coach, wanted to keep the news about his father private until the end of the season, but realized it wouldn't be possible with the intense media attention. While Jay Paterno learned of his father's diagnosis last week, he didn't even tell his children until Friday.

Bradley repeatedly checked in with Jay Paterno, telling him if he needed to miss a meeting to be with his family, don't hesitate to do go. Jay stayed.

"I would go to work and look at film of Ohio State and that was frightening enough," he said. "Working on the game plan, it really kept me distracted. ... It's one of those things that if I didn't do my job and didn't carry it like I'm supposed to, I think I'd be disappointed in myself. But it's not easy."

The other coaches have taken a similar approach.

"It's very emotional," said defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who coordinated the defense with linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden on Saturday. "I try to leave the house in the morning, try to leave all that behind, walk in the [football] building and try to turn myself back into a coach as quick as possible. You can't help but have emotion with the things that have happened. The Coach Paterno news, the victims, we pray for them every day and we make sure we honor them.

"And then we go to work."

Johnson said the players, despite their age, might have an easier time focusing because they didn't know former assistant Jerry Sandusky and weren't at the school when the alleged sexual abuse occurred. But the players know Paterno and they know McQueary, who wide receiver Derek Moye said played a huge role communicating offensive plays and personnel decisions.

Although Friday's news was yet another blow, game day brought players a refuge.

"Guys are anxious to get on the field," quarterback Matthew McGloin said, "just to forget about what's been going on for however long it is, three hours, and just have fun and play the game. That's what we were able to do today, and that's what we were able to do all week in practice.

"Your problems off the field aren't going to go away, but once you step on the field, you have to focus."

In the Big Ten title race, Penn State's game Saturday meant nothing. Wisconsin's victory at Illinois earlier in the day ensured the Leaders Division would come down to next week's game between Penn State and the Badgers in Madison.

But for the Lions' players and coaches, Saturday meant everything, and it showed. Midway through the third quarter, Penn State faced fourth-and-goal from the Ohio State 1-yard line, leading by six.

"Normally, I would have probably kicked it," Bradley said. "But I felt that would have been the wrong decision. ... I'm asking those guys to go to the wall, so I'm going to the wall."

Although Penn State couldn't punch it in, it prevailed in the end. Team Crisis now heads to Madison with a chance to reach the Big Ten championship game.

"We're still at the top of the division, it's still in our hands," McGloin said. "I don't think people are too worried about what's going on outside."
Gerald Hodges saw the first signs in the Outback Bowl, as Penn State capped a mediocre season with a loss to Florida.

Although Florida prevailed 37-24, Penn State held the Gators to 279 yards. Penn State was stout on third down (Florida converted just 4 of 15 opportunities), forced two takeaways and received strong performances from tackle Devon Still (3.5 tackles for loss), cornerback D'Anton Lynn (tackle for loss, interception, fumble recovery) and other players who would return for the 2011 season.

"You could just see different spurts of talent, different spurts of fire in people's eyes," said Hodges, who recorded 1.5 tackles for loss in the bowl game. "And then you see who was coming back."

Seven defenders who started the bowl game were set to return for 2011, as well as key reserves like Hodges, fellow linebackers Glenn Carson and Michael Mauti, and defensive tackle Jordan Hill. All the familiar faces allowed the unit to build confidence during the winter, spring and summer.

[+] EnlargeNate Stupar
Randy Litzinger/Icon SMIA more cohesive defense has paid off for Nate Stupar and the Nittany Lions.
Hodges sees the same faces when he lines up on Saturdays this season. From series to series and play to play, Hodges knows who will be where and at what time.

"We don't have to worry about coming out for each and every mistake," Hodges said. "Our coaches are more relaxed, letting us just play ball."

The coaches are loving what they're seeing right now. Penn State's defense has carried the team to a 5-1 mark, 2-0 in Big Ten play and on the brink of re-entering the AP Top 25 rankings.

The Lions rank fourth nationally in total defense (250.8 ypg) and fifth nationally in both scoring defense (10.5 ppg) and pass defense (157.7 ypg). They have allowed 10 points or fewer in five of six games and last week held Iowa to three points, marking the first time in four years the Hawkeyes had failed to reach the end zone in a game.

"I've got a little history growing up in that part of the country, and they've been pretty good on defense since the late '60s, maybe longer than that," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "They've got good players, they're very well coached and Saturday they played very hard, it didn’t seem to matter who's in there.

"When they have a good defensive team, it's not a big surprise to me."

Penn State didn't have a great defense in 2010, ranking 50th in points allowed and 74th against the run. The typical guarantees weren't there, especially up front as Penn State didn't generate much of a pass rush and finished 101st nationally in sacks.

Still, coach Joe Paterno saw the number of returning players and thought the defense would be improved.

"We've got some depth," he said.

It has shown in the first six games. Although Michigan State ranks higher in the defensive statistics, no Big Ten unit has been more heroic than Penn State's defense, which has had to overcome key injuries and the Lions' own offensive woes.

"We have a lot of people on defense that care about one another," linebacker Nate Stupar said. "That’s what makes a great defense, that connection with one another and knowing the person next to you can do all he can to do his best.

"Last year, it didn't seem like a team defense, but this year, it definitely is."

Penn State didn't have divisions within its defense, but it became difficult to build cohesiveness with a core group.

"We really didn't have people set in stone last year with positions," Stupar said. "A lot of things were still up in the air. ... It was more of worrying we were going to make a mistake than actually going out there and playing and competing. This year, they're trusting us more."

The Lions are making it easy on their coaches. Still is having an All-America type season, recording nine tackles for loss in the first six games. Fellow tackle Hill has solidified the interior line, while Hodges, Carson and safeties Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay also have stood out.

Penn State has showed greater willingness to blitz and has been better at generating turnovers. The Lions already boast 13 sacks, four shy of their total from 2010, and 14 takeaways, three shy of their total from 2010.

Perhaps most impressive is that the defense hasn't backslid at all despite losing Mauti to a season-ending knee injury. Lynn has been out since Week 4 with a head injury. Freshman Adrian Amos has stepped in at cornerback, while Penn State's depth at linebacker has helped in Mauti's absence.

"It says we have a lot of depth," Hodges said. "It says we have a lot of confidence. It says we have the willpower to win."
Week 6 is just around the corner, so let's take a look at 10 items to track in the five Big Ten games taking place Saturday.

1. Buckeyes seeing red: Luke Fickell and his team can't catch a break these days. Saturday was supposed to mark the return of four players, including three multiyear offensive starters, from suspension. Turns out, Ohio State will only regain the services of left tackle Mike Adams and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas for the game at Nebraska. The Buckeyes rank 108th nationally in total offense and face a Nebraska defense coming off of an embarrassing performance at Wisconsin. Ohio State is a double-digit underdog in a conference game for the first time in recent memory. Is this the beginning of the end, or the start of a turnaround?

[+] EnlargeOhio State's Luke Fickell
Greg Bartram/US PRESSWIRELuke Fickell and Ohio State rank 108th in total offense this season.
2. Carson, Lions hope to humble Hawkeyes: Penn State linebacker Glenn Carson added some spice to the Penn State-Iowa rivalry this week, jokingly calling Iowa "a wrestling school" and saying of Hawkeyes fans, "They think they have this stranglehold on us. We just have to humble them up a little bit." Simply beating Iowa would be a nice start, as Penn State has lost three straight and eight of its last nine to Kirk Ferentz's squad. Carson and his fellow Lions defenders will need another superb performance if Penn State's offense continues to spin its wheels.

3. Wolverines, Illini finally hit the road: Michigan and Illinois have been the two nicest surprises in the Big Ten so far, as both teams are 5-0 and ranked in the top 20. Both teams also haven't left the comforts of their home stadiums. That changes Saturday as Michigan visits Northwestern and Illinois visits Indiana. Although neither road opponent or road setting seems too daunting, Michigan's improved defense will be challenged against Northwestern senior QB Dan Persa, while Illinois faces an Indiana team that held Penn State to 16 points last week in Bloomington.

4. Mad Martinez anxious to rebound: Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez is fed up with the criticism, which increased after his three-interception game against Wisconsin. Martinez had a terse session with reporters this week in Lincoln, and offensive lineman Yoshi Hardwick said, "It finally hit him. He'd been holding in a lot. He said he couldn't take it anymore. ... He told me he's sick of it. These next seven games, he just wants the world to get off his back, so he had to do something about it." He can start the process against Ohio State, which boasts the nation's No. 13 defense.

5. QBs in spotlight at Ross-Ade: Minnesota coach Jerry Kill and Purdue counterpart Danny Hope both announced likely starters for Saturday's game -- Max Shortell for the Gophers, Caleb TerBush for the Boilers -- but said things could change by kickoff. MarQueis Gray practiced this week and could work his way back onto the field for Minnesota after missing the Michigan debacle. Robert Marve, whose critical tweet after the Notre Dame loss didn't upset Hope, should be in the mix alongside TerBush. "If he could stay within the system, he could be a difference maker for us," Hope said of Marve this week. "Caleb manages the offense very well and Robert doesn't manage it as well." This much is known: one of these four quarterbacks will guide their team to its first Big Ten win Saturday.

6. Denard vs. Dan: No two Big Ten players meant more to their teams in 2010 than Michigan QB Denard Robinson and Northwestern QB Dan Persa. The two signal callers meet Saturday night in Evanston in what could be an offensive shootout. Robinson still leads the Big Ten in rushing (120.6 ypg) and rebounded nicely as a passer last week against Minnesota, completing 15 of 19 attempts for 169 yards and two scores. Persa sizzled in his season debut at Illinois, firing a career-high four touchdown passes on only 14 pass attempts. Although Persa left the Illinois game with a right foot injury, he practiced this week and is expected to take the bulk of the snaps against Michigan.

7. Potent Hawkeyes pass attack put to test: Ferentz was joking last week when he said Iowa will "go 100 percent no-huddle" on offense the rest of the season, but the Hawkeyes have found something with their up-tempo passing attack. QB James Vandenberg has racked up 432 pass yards and six touchdowns in his past five quarters of play, and Iowa's receiving corps has been a pleasant surprise as Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley are emerging alongside No. 1 wideout Marvin McNutt. How good is the Hawkeyes' pass attack? Find out Saturday afternoon at Penn State, which ranks sixth nationally in pass defense with only three passing touchdowns allowed this season.

8. Illini livin' on the edge: Illinois is racking up the wins, but not without plenty of drama. The Illini have recorded three consecutive victories by three points, rallying in the fourth quarter for two of those wins (Arizona State and Northwestern). Ron Zook would like to leave the Maalox at home this week and enjoy a complete performance from his 19th-ranked squad at Indiana. Illinois has to cut down on turnovers, limit penalties after committing eight last week and improve its red-zone touchdowns efficiency against an Indiana defense that forced two Penn State turnovers in the red zone last week.

9. JoePa's sideline swagger: Penn State coach Joe Paterno has disposed of his cane and hopes to spend an entire game on the sideline for the first time this season. The 84-year-old has coached the first half on the sideline in each of the last two contests before heading to the coaches' booth after halftime. "I'm going to be swaggering all over the place." Paterno told reporters Tuesday. "Don't get in my way." Although Paterno's prolonged sideline presence should help his team, he remains removed from much of the key decision-making, including offensive play calls, which are handled by assistants Galen Hall and Jay Paterno. "I don't do a lot of play-calling anymore," he said. "I'm a cheerleader."

10. The league's middle class: Monday, I wrote that the Big Ten needs its middle class to rise to improve its national perception and enhance its chances for the bowl season. Top dog Wisconsin is off this week, so Saturday provides a chance to evaluate the rest of the league (aside from Michigan State, which also has a bye). Nebraska, Michigan and Illinois all have opportunities to take steps forward on the field and likely in the polls. The Iowa-Penn State winner will be in good shape to make a push in their division. Northwestern and Ohio State try to avoid 0-2 conference starts and change the mood around their programs.
Both of us achieved perfection in Week 5.

Let's do it again, shall we?

Week 6 features five games -- all within the Big Ten -- on the slate. How will things play out Saturday? Unlike last week, we disagree on one of the picks.

Here's our best stab at forecasting the action ...

MINNESOTA at PURDUE

Brian Bennett: Someone has to win, right? At least Purdue has beaten an FBS team that has a victory this season, unlike Minnesota. Given all the Gophers' problems and the fact this game is in West Lafayette, the Boilers get their first Big Ten win behind a nice day for Twitter expert Robert Marve. ... Purdue 28, Minnesota 17

Adam Rittenberg: Both teams have serious problems, but Minnesota has more and will be on the road. It'll be an ugly first half at Ross-Ade before Purdue quarterbacks Caleb TerBush and Marve feast on the Gophers' secondary. ... Purdue 30, Minnesota 17

NO. 19 ILLINOIS at INDIANA

Adam Rittenberg: Illinois will make some mistakes in its first road appearance, but the Illini once again will have the talent to overcome its miscues. The Nathan Scheelhaase-to-A.J. Jenkins connection works, and the Illini defense forces two turnovers as the Fighting Zookers improve to 6-0. ... Illinois 35, Indiana 17

Brian Bennett: When this is your only road game in the first seven weeks, the schedule-makers have been kind. The Hoosiers hung around with Penn State last week, but Illinois is much better offensively. I predict a 100-yard rushing day for Donovonn Young and an easy Illini victory. ... Illinois 38, Indiana 14

IOWA at PENN STATE

Brian Bennett: The Hawkeyes have owned the Nittany Lions for most of the past decade. And while Penn State's defense will throw some major roadblocks in James Vandenberg's way, the Nittany Lions just don't have enough offensive firepower to keep up. ... Iowa 23, Penn State 16

Adam Rittenberg: Penn State linebacker Glenn Carson spiced up the rivalry this week, and he and his fellow defenders back it up. The Lions' sputtering offense gets a bunch of help from the defense and edges Iowa in a low-scoring game. Not a 6-4 repeat, but close. ... Penn State 12, Iowa 10

NO. 12 MICHIGAN at NORTHWESTERN

Adam Rittenberg: Dan Persa is the type of quarterback who will test Michigan's secondary and give us a better gauge on how much the Wolverines' defense has improved. Persa will make plays in this game, but I can't see Northwestern's defense stopping an offense like Michigan's or a quarterback like Denard Robinson. ... Michigan 38, Northwestern 30

Brian Bennett: Scares me a little how much I agree with you. I believe in the Persa-Jeremy Ebert combo. I do not believe in Northwestern's defense. Another solid day of passing for Denard, and some late heroics. ... Michigan 35, Northwestern 28

OHIO STATE at NO. 14 NEBRASKA

Brian Bennett: Finally a cure for the Blackshirts' defense: the sputtering Ohio State offense. I think the Buckeyes move the ball a little better this week with Mike Adams helping the run game, and they get help from another costly Taylor Martinez turnover. But it's still not enough to win in Lincoln against a team that can actually, you know, score. ... Nebraska 24, Ohio State 16

Adam Rittenberg: Martinez is mad and Bo Pelini was embarrassed by the Nebraska defense's performance at Wisconsin. This isn't a good situation for a reeling Ohio State team to enter. The Buckeyes' defense keeps this close for a while, but the offensive struggles continue as the Huskers lock it down. ... Nebraska 27, Ohio State 14

BYE: Michigan State, Wisconsin

SEASON RECORDS

Bennett: 42-10 (.808)

Rittenberg: 39-13 (.750)

Penn State expects tougher Temple test

September, 14, 2011
9/14/11
4:05
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While Penn State was clearly disappointed and frustrated with its performance in Saturday's loss to Alabama, players tried their best not to let the feeling linger into this week.

"When it came time to get back to work, everyone got down to business," linebacker Glenn Carson said. "We pulled out the Temple tapes and kind of said, 'Hey, look, we've got to bounce back from this.'"

And, historically, Temple has proved to be a nice salve for whatever might ail the Nittany Lions.

The Owls have not beaten their in-state neighbors since 1941, although to be fair, they did manage a tie in 1950. Penn State has won the last 28 meetings in a row.

Yet, Temple looks dangerous this time around. Using the players Al Golden recruited during his miraculous rebuilding job, first-year coach Steve Addazio has the Owls off to a hot start. They have outscored their first two opponents 83-10 while ranking in the top 20 nationally in seven different categories. Granted, their two victories have come against an FCS team (Villanova) and a MAC bottom-feeder (Akron). But Temple has won 18 of its last 22 regular-season games and 11 of its past 12 at Lincoln Financial Field, site of this Saturday's contest.

"This is probably the best Temple team I've seen, just watching them on tape," Penn State senior defensive tackle Devon Still said.

The Owls hung tough with the Nittany Lions last year, leading 13-6 at halftime and trailing just 15-13 late into the fourth quarter. While Penn State has more overall talent, it's not good enough to overlook anyone.

"I don't think we're in a position to be anything but running scared ourselves," head coach Joe Paterno said. "We haven't done anything. I mean, we're not a team that was a great team last year. ... I think we've got to take a good look at ourselves and say, 'Hey, we've got a ways to go.' And Temple certainly is not going to be somebody that's going to be easy."

The Nittany Lions will look to fix the offensive problems it suffered for the second straight year against Alabama's terrific defense, as they produced only 251 yards and a lone, late touchdown in the 27-11 loss. Paterno said he plans to keep rotating quarterbacks Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin this week "until we find out exactly which one we think might be better." Though just about every Penn State fan would like to see the team pick a starter and move forward, Paterno insists that the quarterback play isn't a major issue.

On defense, Paterno wants to see the Lions creates some turnovers, something they failed to do against Alabama despite a few chances for interceptions.

"We've got to change the game around on defense once in a while," he said. "That part I think is a legitimate criticism."

Temple has scored only one touchdown since 2003 against Penn State. This series has been about as lopsided as it gets, but the Lions say that history won't make them overconfident Saturday.

"However many years, we've had Temple's number, we can't let that affect the way we come into the game," running back Silas Redd said.

The bottom line is that Penn State may need this game more than Temple, considering that it has already stubbed its toe once in what it hoped would be a breakthrough season.

"We can't let what happened last week become like a snowball effect," Redd said. "Just because we're not going to be undefeated doesn't mean we can't be Big Ten champions or national champions."

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