NCF Nation: James Franklin

Penn State and Pittsburgh haven't played since the 2000 season, cooling off a spicy in-state rivalry.

Thanks to the (relatively) new coaching staff, namely Penn State assistant Herb Hand -- he of "Chopped" fame -- things are getting stirred up again.

New Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi, never one to back down from a challenge -- just ask Michigan -- started the chirping shortly after his hiring. Asked in late December about the pledge from Penn State coach James Franklin to "dominate the state," Narduzzi told a local radio station, "We had a school like that down the road in Michigan that maybe had the same attitude."

Things are spilling into social media now. Franklin and his staff are extremely active, and Pitt's new staff has joined the fun, as colleague Andrea Adelson writes.

The teams' offensive line coaches -- Penn State's Hand and Pitt's John Peterson -- entered the Twitter ring Wednesday night.

Peterson got things started with this graphic, proclaiming Pitt as the state's premier program. Hand didn't take kindly to it, listing Penn State's accomplishments over Pitt last season, including a bowl win and a better record against common foes (Penn State went 2-0 against Boston College and Akron; Pitt went 1-1). Is mentioning Pitt's bowl collapse a shot below the belt? Ouch. Hand then proceeded to drop the mic, SNL style. A night's rest didn't cool off Hand, who added this picture Thursday morning. Your move, Pitt coaches. By the way, Penn State and Pitt resume their series Sept. 10, 2016 in the Steel City. The game can't get here soon enough.
video
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- At the American Football Coaches Association convention, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer's ability on the recruiting trail was the talk of high school coaches from all over the country.

Most see New Year's Day as a new beginning, a clean slate, a time where the present decleats the past like Tony Lippett decleated poor Chris Callahan in the Cotton Bowl (it's OK, the Baylor kicker is alive). Big Ten fans are no different, but for them, New Year's Day had become Groundhog Day -- and not in a good way.

Remember when Bill Murray, in the 1993 movie "Groundhog Day," kept finding creative ways to kill himself because he knew he'd have another chance in the morning? My favorite: when Phil (the man) kidnaps Phil (the groundhog) in a pickup truck and drives into a quarry. The day's master of ceremonies, Buster, tells the cop who's trying to stop him: "If you gotta shoot, aim high. I don't wanna hit the groundhog."

Words to live by.

[+] EnlargeOhio State celebration
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesOhio State's victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl capped a banner New Year's Day for the Big Ten.
As Phil (the man) said: "I've killed myself so many times, I don't even exist anymore."

That had been the Big Ten on New Year's Day -- different and occasionally entertaining methods of failure ending with the same morbid result, followed by the familiar onslaught of national criticism. If Big Ten fans wanted to spend Jan. 1 away from televisions, computers, cell phones and stadiums just to escape the inevitable, who could blame them?

New Year's Day 2011 is one that will live in Big Ten infamy, as the league went 0-5 in bowls. Things didn't improve much, as the Big Ten went 4-10 on the next three New Year's days. (The 2012 games were played on Jan. 2 because of the NFL playoffs.)

Most Big Ten fans can't stand the way the league clusters most of its major bowl games on New Year's Day -- except for the Rose Bowl, of course. Their complaint makes sense, as it's hard to track all of the teams at once. The method becomes more maddening when every Big Ten team loses, turning New Year's Day into a national showcase of Big Ten ineptitude.

The conference appeared headed toward another New Year's downer last week. Wisconsin saw a late lead disappear against Auburn, Michigan State was getting pummeled by Baylor and Minnesota couldn't get out of its own way against Missouri. Ohio State was playing Alabama in a College Football Playoff semifinal that night at the Allstate Sugar Bowl, but the Buckeyes, starting a third-string quarterback against the mighty Tide defense, were a long shot to advance.

Another Big Ten New Year's oh-fer seemed imminent, complete with another reminder from the SEC that the Big Ten wasn't up to snuff with the top conferences. It's OK if you stopped watching.

But then quarterback Joel Stave got hot and Wisconsin sent the Outback Bowl to overtime, where it prevailed 34-31. Michigan State mounted one of the wildest comebacks in bowl history, erasing a 20-point fourth-quarter deficit to win 42-41.

Hours later, Ohio State beat Bama, piling up 42 points and 537 yards in a definitive victory that, despite ending just after midnight ET, still counts as part of the Big Ten's New Year's haul.

And what a haul it was. New Year's Day 2015 marked the Big Ten's best day in 4,382 days -- specifically, since Jan. 3, 2003, when Ohio State beat Miami to win the league's most recent national championship and its only title in the BCS era. The logjam of games fans gripe about suddenly wasn't so annoying.

Ohio State's victory carried the day because of who it came against and where it took place. Ultimately, the Big Ten needs a team to win a national title, but the Buckeyes' win against what most consider the nation's premier program in SEC territory will reverberate, regardless of what they do against Oregon a week from now.

Fairly or not, Wisconsin had become the epitome of Big Ten big-game futility in recent years. The Badgers dropped three straight Rose Bowls and last year's Capital One Bowl. They blew a big lead against LSU in this season's opener, and with an assist from Pac-12 officials, stumbled last fall at Arizona State. Badgers fans had seen the movie before, the one with underwhelming quarterback play and not quite enough speed, and braced for the familiar ending. But this time, Wisconsin came through to beat a talented Auburn squad.

A 10-win season -- Michigan State's fourth in the past five seasons -- is nothing to sneeze at, but the Spartans needed a signature victory to stamp the 2014 campaign as another success. They fell short of their preseason goals but recorded their team-record fourth consecutive bowl win. Now that Jim Harbaugh is at Michigan, you'll hear a lot about how the Big Two -- Michigan and Ohio State -- will lord over the league again. It's a lazy theory. Mark Dantonio and his Spartans aren't going anywhere, as the bowl win reminded everyone.

New Year's Day gave the league something it rarely has this time of year: momentum. The national media will never toast the Big Ten the way it does the SEC, but credit is being doled out, even from some reluctant sources.

There's also talk about the Big Ten's bright future, and rightfully so.

Regardless of what happens Jan. 12 at Jerry World, Ohio State should have a better team this coming season. Love him or hate him, Urban Meyer is the best thing that happened to the Big Ten.

Michigan State returns quarterback Connor Cook, a proven winner, and several other key pieces. Wisconsin rolls on with a new coach (Paul Chryst) who can fix an old problem (inconsistent quarterback play). Michigan hired the perfect coach to fast-track its comeback. Penn State, another Big Ten bowl winner, will improve as James Franklin injects more talent and depth into the roster.

Despite its bowl loss, Minnesota is ascending under Jerry Kill. If new Nebraska coach Mike Riley maximizes the talent on his roster, the Big Ten will have another team in the national discussion. The Big Ten's much-panned new additions, Rutgers and Maryland, don't look so bad after Year 1. Even Indiana got some good news on New Year's Day, as UAB standout running back Jordan Howard announced he would transfer to IU.

Groundhog Day is over for the Big Ten and its fans.

After seemingly a decade of cold, harsh, unrelenting winter, the sun is out in the heartland.

No American football conglomerate reveres its history and tradition like the Big Ten. No institution within the Big Ten reveres its history and tradition like Michigan.

Some would call Michigan the most storied program in the most storied league. Others would call Michigan the biggest has-been program in the ultimate has-been league. Both positions can be supported and justified (although the latter carries more weight in recent years).

Michigan's hiring of Jim Harbaugh pleases both camps.

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh
AP Images/Tony AvelarMichigan's hiring of Jim Harbaugh not only adds a big name to the Wolverines' program, but the Big Ten becomes a conference with some coaching clout.
Harbaugh is a nod to the past -- an old-school-ish, khakis-wearing coach who played for Bo Schembechler at Michigan, spent part of his childhood in the shadows of the Big House and employs manball schemes that warm the hearts of Wolverines fans longing for times gone by.

He also has had all his coaching success in the modern environment, from the University of San Diego to Stanford to the San Francisco 49ers. As a coach, Harbaugh isn't stuck in the past. He knows how to win right now, and he seemingly has come to the realization that his not-for-everybody style might be more effective in the college game.

Harbaugh will move Michigan forward, toward its first Big Ten championship since 2004 and possibly its first national championship since 1997.

This is big, not just for Michigan but for the Big Ten. There are no easy fixes for what ails this conference, but the quickest path is for the great programs with great history and great resources to be great again. Fans of teams like Michigan State and Wisconsin hate that argument, but it's impossible to deny that the Big Ten's perception struggles have directly coincided with Michigan's downturn. Michigan has been one of the Big Ten's biggest problems, if not its biggest.

There's no reason the Big Ten can't have it all: Michigan surging and other programs, like Michigan State and Wisconsin, performing at championship levels. Ultimately, the league needs more teams capable of competing for the national championship.

Harbaugh gives Michigan that capability again.

There are other Big Ten benefits to Harbaugh's arrival, starting with The Game. Since the epic No. 1 vs. No. 2 clash in 2006 -- the last time the Big Ten truly owned the national spotlight -- how often has the Ohio State-Michigan game been relevant? How often has it been the most meaningful Big Ten game on the final regular-season Saturday? Harbaugh's presence gives The Game, to borrow an Ohio State term, some #Juice.

There will never be another Woody and Bo, but this might be as close as it'll ever be. Harbaugh and Urban Meyer are rock-star coaches with big personalities, recruiting clout and tremendous track records. Unusual circumstances played into both coaching takeovers -- Meyer's year away from coaching, Harbaugh's falling out with the 49ers despite recent success -- but the timing couldn't have been better for both Ohio State and Michigan. They'll get after it in recruiting and in games. It will be glorious.

The Harbaugh hire also adds to the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry, which the Spartans have dominated during Mark Dantonio's tenure. Dantonio has masterfully played up the Michigan game, while the Wolverines' painstaking response hasn't been up to par. Harbaugh should change that. This series becomes much more fun.

And there's more. After several years of uninspiring coaching hires, the Big Ten has added Harbaugh, Meyer and Penn State's James Franklin in recent years. Add in Dantonio and the Big Ten's East Division has a coaching lineup that pops nationally, much like the SEC's and Pac-12's.

Michigan's all-in pitch to land Harbaugh also sends a signal to the rest of the conference. One concern current and former Big Ten coaches raised earlier this season was whether the league truly wanted to be great.

From Inside Access:
A former coach added that some Big Ten schools are "too politically correct" when it comes to priorities and spending.

"There's some people on campus who are saying, wait a second, is this necessary?" another former Big Ten coach said. "Well, yes it is if you want to win championships."

Michigan answered that question in its ultra-aggressive approach with Harbaugh. Programs like Purdue, Illinois, Indiana and Northwestern can't spend like Michigan spends, but they have to stretch themselves to keep up. They have to ask themselves: Are we doing all we can to max out?

Michigan fans have their answer. This is a big-boy move by a big-boy program fed up with being bullied on the playground. That Michigan pulled this off with an interim athletic director (Jim Hackett) and a new president (Mark Schlissel) is significant. Hackett wisely eliminated the Michigan Man term and then landed the man Michigan needed, not because of his ties to the program's past but because of what he can do for the program's future.

Harbaugh will maintain what Brady Hoke did on the recruiting trail and succeed where Hoke failed in player development. He will celebrate Michigan's past like Hoke did, and actually build on it.

After an extended period of underachievement like Michigan has endured, nobody outside the base cares what the program used to be. It's about what the program is, and where the program is going.

This is Michigan. Sounds a lot better with Jim Harbaugh at the helm.

Penn State once again overcomes the odds

December, 27, 2014
12/27/14
11:21
PM ET
video
There was a time when even the loyalist Penn State fan discounted Sam Ficken. There was a time when even the wisest sports pundit believed the Nittany Lions wouldn’t survive past 2014.

Not anymore.

In the midst of unprecedented sanctions, the Nittany Lions (7-6) clinched their third straight winning season with a 31-30 overtime victory against Boston College in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. After a poor kicking start in 2012 -- so bad it led to death threats -- Ficken became all-conference and ended his career with a game-winning kick. The moral of the story? Don’t underestimate Penn State or its players.

[+] EnlargePenn State
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsSam Ficken was almost run off the Penn State campus two years ago. He ran off the Yankee Stadium field as a winner by kicking the game-winning extra point of the Pinstripe Bowl.
“I think we’ve been fractured,” Lions coach James Franklin said. “We’ve been fractured for the past three years. But experiences and games like this have restored the hope.”

This game was a microcosm of the past three seasons all rolled into one. Penn State wasn’t supposed to win; it trailed 21-7 late in the third quarter. It wasn’t supposed to rally; PSU didn’t score 20 points in regulation all season against a Power 5 team.

But just as fans might have wanted to turn away, just as the hope of something good clung to its last thread, this team bounced back. Christian Hackenberg -- the struggling player whom some PSU fans labeled a bust -- rallied the Lions offense with one of the best games of his career. He threw for 371 yards, four TDs and no interceptions. He marched PSU downfield with two minutes in regulation to tie the game. Then he led PSU to a touchdown in overtime.

This game seemed lost, but Penn State won. The program seemed on the verge of death two years ago, but Penn State survived.

“There’s a lot of similarities in this game, compared to our whole careers,” senior linebacker Mike Hull said. “It’s only fitting we get a win in Yankee Stadium in overtime after the roller-coaster career we had. It’s pretty crazy how that works. It just goes to show we’re never going to give up. That’s what this program is all about.”

On Sept. 8, 2012, Ficken missed 4-of-5 field goals and a PAT against Virginia in a 17-16 loss. On Saturday night, he knotted the game at 24 in the closing seconds with a 45-yard field goal -- then he nailed the game-winning extra point after the Boston College kicker missed his.

“It’s a storybook ending, really,” Ficken said. “I couldn’t have written a better way to go. This team has worked so hard and fought so hard. And to say we went to a bowl, first of all, and then won that bowl. It’s just really incredible.”

The Nittany Lions didn’t expect to have great moments during the past three seasons, not when the sanctions were initially handed down. Some of those players, such as Hull and Ficken, still remember the eerie silence in the players’ lounge while awaiting the sanctions announcement of NCAA President Mark Emmert. Hull nearly transferred to Pittsburgh -- he informed Bill O’Brien he was moving on before reconsidering -- and most believed Ficken never deserved a scholarship in the first place.

They endured five different head coaches -- two interim, three full-time -- during their careers. They never thought they’d see the postseason, as Penn State was set to miss four years worth of bowls before the ban was rescinded three months ago.

This team lingered on the field after the game, and it seemed as if most fans clad in blue and white didn’t budge from their seats. Franklin took the microphone, thanked the seniors and boomed that this was Penn State culture. Fans’ screams drowned out the Frank Sinatra tune played through the PA system.

This wasn’t just a bowl win for Penn State. It rang in the end of the worst of the sanctions. PSU was the second-youngest team in the FBS this season and had just 64 recruited scholarship players on the roster. It had seven seniors compared to 31 freshmen.

Safety Malik Golden tweeted from the locker room, “Right back like we never left #NewEra.” Running back Akeel Lynch told reporters, “The sanction era is definitely over.”

Penn State was never supposed to make it to this point. It was never supposed to win this game, and it was never supposed to boast three winning seasons and a bowl victory this early. But Penn State has made it a habit these past three years of proving the prognosticators wrong. Saturday night was just them getting the last word.

“You can’t take us away,” Lynch said. “They tried to. They tried to talk about culture. But this is Penn State, man. This is what we do."
The motion W on Paul Chryst's hat and sweatshirt next fall won't stand for wandering eye. For that, Wisconsin fans can breath a sigh of relief.

It's humbling for a fan base to see a coach voluntarily leave its program. It's especially humbling to see it happen twice in the past three years. It's especially, especially humbling when coaches leave a winning, established program that is coming off appearances in the Big Ten championship game.

Bret Bielema and Gary Andersen clearly didn't see Wisconsin as a destination job. Bielema wanted to chase a championship in the nation's toughest conference at a program flush with resources. Andersen became fed up with Wisconsin's admissions office and the difficulty of getting his targeted players into school. Their eyes wandered and they left town.

Chryst is coming home to Madison, where he spent most of his childhood, his college years and part of his adult life as a Badgers assistant in 2002 and again from 2005-11. He intends to stay for a while. Those close to him say Wisconsin is his dream college job and that he would only leave to lead an NFL team. Coincidentally, Chryst did the reverse Gary Andersen, leaving Oregon State's offensive coordinator post for Wisconsin's after the 2004 season.

[+] EnlargePaul Chryst
Jason Redmond/Associated PressGetting Paul Chryst in the fold should close the revolving door at Wisconsin for a while.
Hiring a capable coach is Wisconsin's first priority here, and despite inheriting a mess in Pittsburgh from Todd Graham and yielding middling results, Chryst can deliver with the Badgers. But it's also important for the Badgers -- and the Big Ten -- to bring in coaches who want to stick around.

Let's not be delusional about the Big Ten or modern-day coaches. The days of Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Barry Alvarez, Hayden Fry, Joe Paterno and others who saw Big Ten programs as career endpoints likely are over. Kirk Ferentz is completing his 16th season at Iowa, while Pat Fitzgerald just finished his ninth at Northwestern and Mark Dantonio wraps up his eighth at Michigan State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. None seems to be in a hurry to leave on their own accord, but they're more the exceptions in today's game.

Expecting any coach to spend 15-20 years in one place isn't realistic. But the Big Ten also can't have coaches voluntarily leaving every season. A Big Ten coach has chosen to depart in each of the past three seasons: Bielema (2012), Penn State's Bill O'Brien (2013) and now Andersen. Of the three, only O'Brien left for a definitive step up, the NFL's Houston Texans.

Look at Big Ten basketball, which boasts elite coaches -- Michigan State's Tom Izzo, Wisconsin's Bo Ryan, Ohio State's Thad Matta and Michigan's John Beilein -- who view their jobs as destinations. That's what Big Ten football needs.

Chryst puts a stop in the revolving door at Wisconsin, and several of the Big Ten's top programs could be entering a period of coaching stability:

Nebraska: Whether Cornhuskers fans like the Mike Riley hire or not, Riley isn't going anywhere. He sees Nebraska as a last stop, and despite his age (61), he still has great energy for the job. His predecessor, Bo Pelini, didn't voluntarily leave Nebraska, but there were incessant rumors during his tenure about him looking at other jobs. Some think if Nebraska had won the 2012 Big Ten title game instead of Wisconsin, Pelini would have landed at Arkansas instead of Bielema.

Ohio State: Urban Meyer quickly has rebuilt Ohio State into a national power and a playoff contender for years to come. There's always some concern about Meyer's longevity at a job, but he's not mentioned for NFL positions and seems completely settled in Columbus. He might not coach the Buckeyes for 10-15 years, but he's seemingly not on the verge of an exit, either.

Penn State: Amid the excitement of his arrival, James Franklin repeatedly noted that Penn State had work to do with its roster deficiencies, which showed up throughout the fall. Franklin likely will see this process through, and, like Meyer in Ohio, he has roots in Pennsylvania. He has plenty of job security, and unless he becomes frustrated with the post-sanctions effects, won't be looking to leave.

Michigan is the wild card here, but the Wolverines should be seeking some stability in its next coach. After having just three coaches between 1969 and 2007, Michigan will have its third in eight seasons next fall. Jim Harbaugh is the home run hire for the Wolverines, but not if he returns to the NFL in two or three years. Michigan needs an elite coach who wants to stick around, and it shouldn't compromise either criteria. Brady Hoke would have stayed in Ann Arbor forever, but he wasn't getting it done on the field.

Stability doesn't automatically equal success. After a very disappointing regular season, Iowa's Ferentz finds himself in a category of long-tenured, mostly successful coaches -- Georgia's Mark Richt, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy -- who some want to see move on. Stability can become stale, but cycling through coaches every few years almost guarantees struggle.

Amazingly, Wisconsin has avoided a downturn despite its coaching turnover. Now it has a coach who can keep things rolling without constantly looking for the next best thing.

Michigan's impending hire should calm the Big Ten coaching carousel for a while. And with relative stability at the top programs, the league could be on the verge of a step forward.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Christian Hackenberg pulled his Penn State ballcap close to his eyes, furiously chewing a blue stick of gum while the media peppered him with the same questions he has heard since September.

How could he go from Big Ten freshman of the year to throwing twice as many interceptions (14) as touchdowns (7)? Why is his offense averaging a touchdown less per game compared to 2013? Whatever happened to the Hackenberg of old?

“There’s not a quarterback in the country that can come out and play a perfect game every week,” he said Saturday.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Walker
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarChristian Hackenberg has been sacked more than any other Power 5 QB this season behind a makeshift offensive line.
He’s not wrong. But Happy Valley is still growing impatient with the player it anointed as the program’s savior when he was a high schooler. One local radio station recently debated the merits of benching the team captain. Others have hurled countless insults on Twitter: “Hackenberg sucks.” “He’s just awful.” “Just sit Hackenberg already.”

But, according to opposing coaches, a former scout and Hackenberg’s past coaches, all of that criticism greatly misses the mark. Stats and mistakes tell only part of the story, they said, and Hackenberg’s talent and draft stock haven’t dropped off, even if casual observers believe otherwise.

“No, it hasn’t dampened at all,” said Dan Shonka, one-time scout for the Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins who now runs Ourlads.com. “You’re talking about a guy who’s really smart and is mentally alert. He’s a good athlete. He’s durable, he’s tough, he’s made big plays in the past. And just look at his arm strength, quickness and delivery. You can go right on down the line.”

That ability hasn’t always been on display this season. But the quarterback position isn’t a solution to a struggling offense inasmuch as it’s the product. Last season, Hackenberg thrived with an experienced offensive line and the two-time Big Ten receiver of the year in Allen Robinson. This year, Hackenberg is struggling with the thinnest line in the Power 5 and with an exceedingly young crop of wideouts. That correlation is no coincidence.

His 37 sacks this season are tied for second-most in the FBS and are the most for a Power 5 signal-caller. And, according to ESPN Stats & Info, he’s under pressure at a rate 15-percent higher than the Power 5 average. The reality off that stat sheet is even starker, too, considering Hackenberg has been forced to throw the ball earlier to avoid said pressure.

“It’s the line. It’s all the line,” one opposing coach said. “We could see going in that he was taking a ton of hits, and big hits. He just can’t operate like he wants to with so much pressure.”

Hackenberg could only peel himself off the turf so many times before the frustration mounted. Against Maryland, following some drives, he’d angrily unbuckle his chin strap, jog over to the sideline – and then start shouting at Penn State’s offensive coordinator. During one sequence, he placed his hands on his hips and just stared at an assistant coach. At other points, he’d gesture and point until the frustration simmered down.

Even earlier in the season, during Week 2, Hackenberg grabbed the white phone on the sideline and it went viral when he appeared to mouth, “I don’t know what the f--- we’re doing.”

“It’s just being competitive,” Hackenberg explained after the 20-19 loss to Maryland.

But Hackenberg’s struggles aren’t especially surprising, scouts and coaches said, because the struggles haven’t started with him. He can’t step up in the pocket because two of his offensive guards were smacking around ball-carriers as defensive tackles in February. He’s a pro-style quarterback who has been forced to operate more out of the shotgun. And his high football IQ is countered by the fact the second-youngest team in the nation is still adjusting to a new system; he’s not even allowed to audible out of every play.

In other words, to some extent, he has been handicapped.

“More than anything, he’s a guy that is trying really hard to make plays,” said former Penn State quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher, who taught Hackenberg last season. “And sometimes you can force yourself, or try harder than normal to make plays, and we’ve all seen that before. I mean, Brett Favre threw more picks than anybody. That’s not just Christian Hackenberg.

“He’s a major, major talent. What really stuck out to me is how quickly this kid learned the offense and what we were doing. You don’t see that a lot with a younger player.”

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarNFL scouts haven't soured on the arm and toughness of Christian Hackenberg.
One Big Ten coach after another has taken turns praising the sophomore signal-caller this season, in spite of the performances. It hasn’t just been lip-service because it has been so consistent. Brady Hoke and Pat Fitzgerald both called him one of the nation’s best quarterbacks. Randy Edsall and Kyle Flood both lauded him as a rare talent. Urban Meyer called him “an NFL quarterback,” and Kevin Wilson referred to him as “one of the better players in the conference.”

They continue to compliment Hackenberg – even when not directly asked about him – because no quarterback, no matter how elite or mature, can operate at a high level without an average offensive line. Even professionals. Drew Brees’ production has dropped off this season – and the New Orleans Saints stand at just 4-6 – thanks in part to poor pass protection. Eli Manning just so happened to suffer the worst season of his career (18 TDs, 27 INTs) with the New York Giants in 2013, when he was sacked the most in his career. (And Manning was sacked 39 times in 16 games; Hackenberg has been sacked 37 times in 10 games.)

“You get gun-shy because you can’t step up anymore and then you start doing other stuff that throws off your timing. That goes for anyone, even Peyton Manning,” Shonka said. “But, with Hackenberg, I think this is just a bump in the road right now. He’s just got to work through it.”

Added Micky Sullivan, Hackenberg’s high school coach: “When you have two seconds to throw it versus three-and-a-half or four seconds, it changes your reads. He hasn’t regressed; his physical attributes haven’t disappeared.”

Sometimes, that’s hard to see on the field. Against Temple, broadcasters chided the sophomore for throwing a pass behind intended target Mike Gesicki – who flipped the ball up shortly before it was intercepted. James Franklin acknowledged afterward that Gesicki, a true freshman, simply ran the wrong route. There have been countless plays like that this season, where a Hackenberg mistake is actually a teammate’s gaffe. Granted, not enough to explain away 14 picks – but the fact is he’s playing better, especially given the circumstances, than what it appears on paper.

He’s a great quarterback in a not-so-great situation. And, for as animated as he has been on the field, he has been calm and thoughtful during postgame interviews. He hasn’t railed against this offensive line or criticized the bad drops and wrong routes by his receivers. He just hides his eyes under his ballcap and walks out of the locker room every week prepared to answer the same question: Whatever happened to the Hackenberg of old?

Turns out the answer is pretty simple: He never left.

Changes aplenty between Hogs' SEC wins

November, 17, 2014
11/17/14
1:00
PM ET
A lot changed during Arkansas' 17-game conference losing streak -- a slide that finally ended when the Razorbacks beat LSU 17-0 last Saturday night.

A gallon of regular unleaded gasoline cost $3.82 when Arkansas last won an SEC game, beating Kentucky 49-7 on Oct. 13, 2012. "Gone Girl" and the "Fifty Shades of Grey" series dominated the best-seller lists, two years before they became highly anticipated movies.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Allen
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesBrandon Allen and the Razorbacks shut out LSU on Saturday. The win marked Arkansas' first conference victory since Oct. 13, 2012.
Bret Bielema was still winning Big Ten titles at Wisconsin. Now he's trying to become 2-13 in SEC play as Arkansas' head coach, having finally thrown the losing-streak monkey off his back.

Here are some notable ways the SEC changed during the 763 days that Arkansas went between conference victories:

Manziel becomes a phenomenon: Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel had played in just three SEC games when Arkansas last won a conference game. By now we know he went on to win that season's Heisman Trophy as a freshman and was a first-round NFL draft pick in 2014, but the legend of Johnny Football was only starting to build at that point.

Two weeks before Arkansas' 2012 win against Kentucky, Manziel had set a Texas A&M record with 453 passing yards and three touchdown passes, plus 104 rushing yards and another score, in a 58-10 win against the Razorbacks.

Coaching changes aplenty: John L. Smith was Arkansas' coach when the streak started, and his departure after the 2012 season was only one in a handful of coaching changes that have occurred around the conference.

Arkansas (from Smith to Bielema), Auburn (from Gene Chizik to Gus Malzahn), Kentucky (from Joker Phillips to Mark Stoops), Tennessee (from Derek Dooley to Butch Jones) and Vanderbilt (from James Franklin to Derek Mason) have all changed head coaches since October 2012. Now Florida is on the verge of making it six schools to change coaches since then, following Sunday's announcement that Will Muschamp will not return in 2015.

Conference keeps rolling: The SEC would extend its string of consecutive BCS titles to seven when Alabama closed the 2012 season with a championship-game rout of Notre Dame. And Auburn nearly made it eight last season, although the Tigers allowed Florida State's Jameis Winston to lead a last-minute touchdown drive that gave the Seminoles the final title of the BCS era.

Nonetheless, the SEC's run as the preeminent conference in college football continued throughout the time that Arkansas failed to win a league game.

The conference went 13-6 in bowl games between the 2012 and 2013 seasons, easily the best winning percentage among major conferences, and placed seven teams in the final Associated Press Top 25 after both seasons.

The SEC also dominated the NFL draft, with 63 players picked in the 2013 draft -- more than double the number from any other conference -- and 49 more getting selected earlier this year. That includes this year's No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney from South Carolina and 10 other first-round picks from SEC schools.

Nick Saban's Alabama remained the league's toughest program throughout Arkansas' slide. Not only did it win the 2012 BCS title, but it posted a 16-3 mark in SEC play during the same period that Arkansas was 0-17.

Auburn's fall and rise: Auburn was en route to arguably the worst season in school history on Oct. 13, 2012, having lost 24-7 to Arkansas a week earlier. The Tigers would go 3-9 overall and 0-8 in SEC play only two seasons after winning the BCS title and Chizik would be dismissed after the season.

Auburn would replace Chizik with his former offensive coordinator, Malzahn, who rose to fame as a high school coach in Arkansas and who spent the 2006 season as the Razorbacks' offensive coordinator. Malzahn led one of the most remarkable turnarounds in college football history last season, pushing Auburn to an SEC title and a spot against Florida State in the BCS championship game.

Hogs finally break through: Arkansas certainly dealt with its share of uncertainty in Bielema's first season on campus, closing 2013 with a school-record nine-game losing streak that included some unsightly blowouts. However, the Razorbacks closed the 2013 season with a pair of close losses and regularly hung with their toughest conference opponents this fall.

The outcomes were all the same, of course, as loss after loss piled up even when the Hogs would fall by only one point against Alabama or by a touchdown against then-No. 1 Mississippi State. But Arkansas' results finally changed last Saturday when their defense dominated LSU and the offense did just enough to claim ownership of the "Golden Boot" trophy that goes to the winner of the annual LSU-Arkansas game.

Many college football analysts had insisted throughout the season that an improved Arkansas was on the verge of breaking through under Bielema, and Saturday's LSU win was the confirmation the Razorbacks' coach needed. Now he has the chance to launch his first SEC winning streak as the Hogs' coach when No. 10 Ole Miss visits Fayetteville on Saturday.

Penn State giddy with bowl eligibility

November, 15, 2014
11/15/14
6:35
PM ET
Penn StAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarOn Saturday, Penn State became bowl eligible for the first time since the NCAA levied sanctions against the program in 2012.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Linebacker Mike Hull never thought this day would come.

He can still remember the eerie silence on July 23, 2012, when unprecedented sanctions played on the five TVs in the players’ lounge. He can remember his Penn State teammates’ anger over the four-year postseason ban. He can remember the doubt and the second-guessing -- but never daydreaming about a bowl.

Not until Saturday. Not until he sat in a warm media room, following a bowl-clinching win over Temple, and reflected on how the Nittany Lions went from a program seemingly on life support to this.

“It’s a huge day for the program and for everything we’ve been through,” a smiling Hull said, following Penn State’s 30-13 win over Temple and its first bowl-eligible season since 2011.

“I didn’t think it was going to happen. I thought we were just going to play 12 games for each other -- and just live with that the rest of my career.”

[+] EnlargeBill Belton
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsBill Belton talked about the prospects of bowl eligibility this past summer. Now, the Penn State RB can celebrate it.
Many of Hull’s teammates felt the same way. When the NCAA levied sanctions against Penn State in 2012, most outsiders thought the program was finished. Bowl games weren’t a priority because the entire program was a question mark. The question wasn’t, “When will Penn State make a bowl?” It was, “Will Penn State survive?”

To go from that kind of mindset to Saturday’s celebration -- it was a contrast not lost on the seniors.

On the field, senior defensive end Brad Bars flung his gloves into the crowd. Hull leaped in the air to high-five fans’ outstretched arms hanging over the tunnel, and offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach chest-bumped anyone in sight.

“Today was a special day,” Dieffenbach said. “It’s been a long five years here, a lot of ups and downs. … To finally have the opportunity to play in a bowl game -- I couldn’t be happier for the guys, past or present.”

Even this past July, during Big Ten media days, Penn State’s players refused to reflect on possible bowl scenarios. They didn’t want to get their hopes up. It wasn’t until September that the NCAA lifted the Lions’ postseason ban, so a trio of seniors just hemmed and hawed about the possibilities in Chicago.

Running back Bill Belton offered some mild back-and-forth on the prospect of a bowl back in July -- “How would you react if you were on a bowl ban?” -- before saying it’s something Penn State doesn’t think about. Hull and kicker Sam Ficken both said the issue was talked about, but it was something they didn’t dwell on.

On Saturday, a bowl game was the only thing on these Lions’ minds.

As PSU coach James Franklin stepped to the dais, his players snapped selfies in the locker room while music blared. “Bowl eligible baby!!!” one tweet read. Dieffenbach just yelled, while players pumped their arms in celebration.

On the field, fans yelled congratulations down to linebacker Nyeem Wartman, who just turned and yelled right back, “Thanks, appreciate it!” Smiles were fixed to most faces as they swayed to the end-of-game alma mater, and all the seniors took their turns ringing the victory bell -- they even let Hull cut in line.

If July 23, 2012, marked the inevitable “death” of the Penn State program, then Nov. 15, 2014, marked the rebirth. Not only did Penn State win eight games in Year 1 of the sanctions, seven games in Year 2 -- and at least six in Year 3 -- but it’s also going bowling the first year it’s not banned.

“It says a lot about the program, a lot about the guys Penn State recruits, and a lot about the guys in this area,” Hull said. “We all love football, and it takes a special person to come to Penn State -- and I think that’s why we withstood so much. We play for each other.”

Added Ficken: “We just kept working hard. This is kind of the culmination of all that hard work and all that leadership.”

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 11

November, 9, 2014
11/09/14
2:00
PM ET

What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 11

November, 9, 2014
11/09/14
12:20
AM ET
Lessons learned after Week 11 in the Big Ten:

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsA clutch performance by J.T. Barrett on Saturday night helped keep Ohio State's playoff hopes alive.
1. Ohio State is king of the East and one of the B1G's two best bets for the playoff: Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones said he felt as if the College Football Playoff started Saturday. He was kind of right, but the Spartans are out, and the Buckeyes are in ... the playoff picture. Few people saw the Buckeyes' dominating 49-37 win over Michigan State coming, and that's exactly what they needed to make a statement in this playoff race. J.T. Barrett outplayed Connor Cook, Ohio State scored touchdowns on six straight drives, and there was no sad pizza eating for Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer. Margin of victory can only help the Buckeyes, and they'll need to keep playing like this to show they deserve one of the playoff's four spots. Only two Big Ten teams, one-loss Ohio State and Nebraska, are in contention for the playoff now, and they could face each other in the Big Ten title game. Of course ...

2. ... The Wild West still remains wild: Just when you think you’ve started to figure out the West Division, with Minnesota coming off a puzzling loss to Illinois and Iowa blowing out Northwestern, Jerry Kill’s squad steps up and absolutely dominates the Hawkeyes in a 51-14 thrashing that was over by halftime. Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin all boast just one Big Ten loss now -- so anything can happen in these last three weeks, especially when you consider these three teams will all play one another, with Nebraska taking on Wisconsin next Saturday. (Even Iowa, which still plays Wisconsin and Nebraska, isn’t technically out of the equation.) It’s looking more and more as if we’ll have to wait until the final week of the regular season to get a clear picture of who will move forward. Lessons learned: It was way too premature to write off Minnesota (and Kill’s dancing skills), and it’s still too early to pick a clear favorite.

3. Wisconsin passing game has some potential: Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy appeared doomed early this season, but they might end up just fine if Stave can build off part of Saturday’s performance. The Badgers set a season high with 30 pass attempts, and Stave finished 19-of-29 for 216 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. His QBR of 77.2 was the highest of any Wisconsin starter in the Big Ten season, and he was especially hot in the second quarter of the 34-16 win. This was about as balanced as Wisconsin’s offense has been all season, and if defenses are forced to take some of the focus away from the running game, the Badgers’ offense could become even more dangerous. One game doesn’t make a trend, but it does show Stave is capable of more this season.

4. Several B1G offenses are regressing: If you watched -- and stayed awake through -- Penn State's 13-7 win over Indiana and Michigan's 10-9 win over Northwestern, feel free to pat yourself on the back. Those four teams combined for three offensive touchdowns, 39 points, 33 punts and 10 turnovers. It wasn’t pretty. For Indiana, it’s more understandable because Nate Sudfeld's injury forced this team to become even more one-dimensional. But for the other three, every week seems to lead to fewer answers and more questions. Turnovers continue to be an issue for Devin Gardner and the Wolverines, Trevor Siemian remains incredibly inconsistent … and Penn State? Well, nothing seems to be going well there. Penn State, Michigan and Northwestern are ranked outside the top 100 in scoring offense, and the Hoosiers have averaged 11.3 points per game with Zander Diamont as the starting quarterback. These offenses aren’t showing much progress.

5. Penn State bowl hopes pinned to the defense: As bad as the Nittany Lions’ offense has been, the defense has performed nearly perfectly. Indiana never reached the red zone Saturday, Tevin Coleman didn’t reach 100 rushing yards for the first time all season, and the Lions’ defense didn’t allow a single point. (IU’s only touchdown came on an interception return for a TD.) PSU needs just one more win for bowl eligibility, but even with Illinois and Temple left on the slate, that’s no guarantee. The offense hasn’t once reached 20 points in regulation in a Big Ten game, but on the flip side, the defense has allowed just nine touchdowns in regulation in six B1G games. This is arguably the best defense in the Big Ten, but it’s also arguably the worst offense.

Penn State out to own DMV recruiting 

November, 4, 2014
11/04/14
9:30
AM ET


GAITHERSBURG, Md. -- When asked why Penn State has done so well recruiting in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., metro area, longtime commit Adam McLean quickly replied with an answer that perfectly defines the Nittany Lions’ success.

“Washington, D.C., is Nittany Lion territory,” said McLean, the nation’s No. 12 defensive tackle and the top-ranked player in Maryland in the 2015 class.

Indeed it is, even more so since James Franklin arrived in Happy Valley.


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

video

Five-star Torrance Gibson is slated to announce his decision Monday, and there's expectations that it'll be a good day to be a Buckeye. Plus, Florida and Maryland's recruiting efforts could get a real shot in the arm after big victories this weekend over recruiting rivals.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Lessons learned after Week 10 in the Big Ten:

1. The West Division chase could be special: Four teams in the West -- Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota -- are in a virtual first-place tie with just one loss. What makes that really fun is they will all play each other in the season's final four weeks, beginning with Iowa-Minnesota in Week 11. We weren't sure the Hawkeyes were a serious contender until Saturday, when Kirk Ferentz's team turned in by far its best performance of the season in a 48-7 blowout of Northwestern. Iowa controlled both lines of scrimmage, Jake Rudock made all the right plays at quarterback and Mark Weisman bowled his way to three touchdowns. With Nebraska and Wisconsin still having to go to Iowa City, the Hawkeyes remain a major threat to win the division if they can repeat their level of play in Week 10. But it's still a wide-open race that should be a lot of fun to watch.

2. Wisconsin's defense gives it a chance: Badgers defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is a hot coaching commodity and showed why again on Saturday. Wisconsin beat Rutgers 37-0 and registered its first conference road shutout since 1998. That came one week after the defense nearly shut out Maryland. Aranda has put together a dominant unit, despite losing nine defensive starters from the past year's team. The return of nose tackle Warren Herring, who was injured in the opener against LSU, has helped take the defense to another level. The Badgers still struggle to throw the ball, but with Melvin Gordon running wild and Aranda's side of the ball shutting things down, Wisconsin has a chance to finish strong.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsTommy Armstrong Jr. and Nebraska were able to beat Purdue without Ameer Abdullah, but they'll need their Heisman candidate RB back for Wisconsin in two weeks.
3. Nebraska can win without Abdullah -- for now: Ameer Abdullah has been so great this season, it's almost easy to take it for granted. But Nebraska got an unwanted reminder of just how important he is to the entire team when he left the Purdue game early with a left knee injury. Abdullah only contributed one yard before he exited, which left the offense in the hands of quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. and backup running backs Imani Cross and Terrell Newby. That offense, predictably, wasn't nearly as explosive without its star. The Cornhuskers produced just 299 total yards, but the defense played well in a sloppy 35-14 victory. Abdullah has a mild MCL sprain and could return after next week's bye, for when Nebraska heads to Wisconsin on Nov. 15. The Huskers won't want to try to win that one without him.

4. Hackenberg hanging on by a thread: Penn State sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg is a special talent and the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year, but he's having a nightmare sophomore season. He has taken a ton of hits this season and endured five more sacks in Saturday's 20-19 loss to Maryland. His frustration appears to be boiling over, as Hackenberg was seen yelling and waving his arms at his offensive coordinator, John Donovan, on the sideline. The Nittany Lions' offensive line just can't protect him, and that only got worse with left tackle Donovan Smith out with an injury. Hackenberg isn't making great in-game decisions, either, which is likely a byproduct of all the pressure he's been under. James Franklin and his staff don't have a lot of options, but they've got to find a way to make sure they don't lose Hackenberg -- either to injury or mentally.

5. Battle for bowls heating up: Three Big Ten teams -- Iowa, Maryland and Wisconsin -- clinched postseason eligibility Saturday. That makes seven overall for the league. But where it gets interesting is beyond that group. Technically, the other seven teams are all still alive for a bowl bid, though it's hard to envision Indiana getting off the mat to win three more games or Purdue winning out. Rutgers has been stuck on five wins for a few weeks and finally gets a schedule break in hosting Indiana next time out. Illinois and Penn State both have four wins. Can Michigan, which finally showed a little life Saturday (albeit against those same struggling Hoosiers) find two more wins? Can 3-5 Northwestern rebound after a horrific showing at Iowa? There could be a lot of teams fighting for their bowl lives in the final couple weeks.

Happy Halloween in the Big Ten

October, 31, 2014
10/31/14
11:00
AM ET
Happy Halloween, Big Ten fans! The conference got off to a ghoulish start this season but has since provided enough tricks and treats to set up an entertaining final month of the regular season. In celebration of the undead, let’s take a look at what Halloween staples we think of when talking about the Big Ten.

Jason Voorhees: Have you ever seen Jason run after one of his soon-to-be victims? Nope, but somehow he always catches them with his slow-and-steady gait. Watching Minnesota hasn’t been much different this season. The Golden Gophers are in no hurry, defiantly marching their way toward wins in the age of turbo-speed offenses. Somehow Jerry Kill (a name made for a horror movie villain) and his team, which is now 6-2, usually end up catching their opponent and slashing them to bits.

Zombies: Unless of course, Minnesota is playing the Fighting Illini. Tim Beckman and his coaching staff might be walking dead as his third season in Champaign rolls toward the finish line, but that doesn’t mean they can’t take a few other teams down with them along the way. Can Illinois infect another team with an undefeated conference record when it faces Ohio State this Saturday? Something tells me J.T. Barrett will be going to this weekend’s party dressed as Michonne, katana and all.

Freddy Krueger: You don’t want to sleep on Nebraska this season. The Cornhuskers fell off the radar after a loss at Michigan State in early October. With Ameer Abdullah terrorizing defenses this season, they haven’t played their way out of an unexpected playoff bid just yet. The original playoff rankings put Nebraska at 15th. If Bo Pelini's team can win the West Division and a potential rematch with the Spartans in the Big Ten championship game, it can silently sneak up on a lot of folks in the college football world.

Sidney Prescott: The Ohio State-Penn State referee crew. Sidney is the main character in the Scream series, but this one applies to pretty much any pretty slasher-film target. You know, the ones who always seems to make the wrong decision. The front door is open? It’s time to scramble up the stairs. An incomplete pass bounces on the turf? Let’s rule it an interception. Getaway car is running in the driveway? Time to hide behind the chainsaws. The play clock expired? Let them kick the field goal anyway. These decisions always work out for the killer, and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone outside of Columbus who doesn’t see Urban Meyer as the perfect fit for a Big Ten villain role.

The Headless Horseman: Michigan isn’t headless quite yet, but coach Brady Hoke and athletic director Dave Brandon are both moving in the direction of the guillotine. The Wolverines may be riding through the night searching for a couple new leaders a month from now. While football season has left the people of Ann Arbor feeling hollow, the town has been anything but sleepy this autumn. The Big House feels haunted. Maybe that explains all the boos.

All right, I think we’ve filled our quota for (candy)corny Halloween puns this year. Before we go, a few costume suggestions for coaches and players around the Big Ten…

Michigan LB Jake Ryan: He-Man (Before Ryan cut his hair, of course)

Rutgers DE Kemoko Turay: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (No one has rocked the flat top as well as Turay since Will Smith.)

Michigan WR Dennis Norfleet: Carlton Banks (Will needs his partner in crime, and Norfleet’s dance moves fit the bill.)

Northwestern DC Mike Hankwitz: Walter White (No costume required, maybe just a black hat.)

Penn State coach James Franklin: Gus Fring (Close enough, and Hankwitz's defense did blow up the Nittany Lions this year.)

Purdue coach Darrell Hazell: George Whitfield (No wonder Hazell has Austin Appleby playing so well.)

Nebraska coach Bo Pelini: Voldemort (When Bo is screaming, the resemblance is uncanny.)

Michigan State P Mike Sadler: Bo Pelini (Well, technically Faux Pelini, but his impression was spot-on.)

Indiana QB Zander Diamont: Derek Zoolander (There’s more to life than being ridiculously good looking, and for former model Diamont, that includes playing quarterback for the Hoosiers.)

SPONSORED HEADLINES