NCF Nation: Joel Stave

Spring practice is prove-it time for certain players, especially those previously underperforming, redshirted or injured. While established Big Ten stars like Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook and Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa merely need to get their work in, others must impress every time they step on the practice field.

Which Big Ten players have the most at stake during spring ball?

[+] EnlargeC.J. Beathard
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsIowa QB C.J. Beathard has spring ball to bounce back from a somewhat mediocre 2014 season.
Iowa QB C.J. Beathard: Hawkeyes fans love the long hair, the strong arm and perhaps just the idea of Beathard as a departure from the norm in Iowa City. But Beathard has to make the coaches swoon too, and he will get the chance as the team's No. 1 quarterback, at least on the depth chart, entering spring ball. Beathard's improvement starts with greater accuracy, as he completed just 56.5 percent of his passes last season.

Michigan RB Derrick Green: A heralded 2013 recruit, Green struggled with his weight as a freshman and showed some promise early last season before sustaining a broken clavicle. Jim Harbaugh's power-based offense seems ideal for Green's size and skill set, but the rising junior must assert himself this spring. Green isn't the only power back competing for the starting spot as De'Veon Smith and USC transfer Ty Isaac also are in the mix.

Maryland WR Levern Jacobs: After a productive 2013 season (47 receptions, 640 yards), Jacobs was set to start for Maryland before being suspended for the season for his role in a July altercation. Jacobs was found not guilty of assault in December and could emerge as Maryland's top receiving option as the team must replace standouts Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, who combined for 113 receptions and 1,367 yards last fall.

Rutgers QB Chris Laviano: Laviano served as Gary Nova's backup last season, but there's no guarantee he will be the Scarlet Knights' starter in 2015. He must beat out talented LSU transfer Hayden Rettig this spring. Laviano's experience must boost him as Rettig seemingly has all the tools to guide an offense returning standout receiver Leonte Carroo.

Ohio State LB Raekwon McMillan: The jewel of Ohio State's 2014 recruiting class stepped into the fire last season and had respectable results (54 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, one interception). He now must take on a bigger role as Ohio State has a hole to fill at middle linebacker and undoubtedly sees McMillan, a freakish athlete, as the future.

Michigan DB Jabrill Peppers: Peppers is flipping out with excitement about spring ball after a much-anticipated freshman season that didn't go according to plan. The No. 2 player in the 2014 recruiting class missed most of last fall with injuries but has the skills to bolster Michigan's secondary, if he proves himself to a new defensive staff led by coordinator D.J. Durkin. Peppers will take reps at safety and cornerback this spring.

Minnesota's redshirt freshman WRs: A passing offense ranked 119th nationally last season is preventing Minnesota from taking the next step, and the Gophers lose dynamic tight end Maxx Williams to the NFL draft. Receiver depth should be the team's top priority, and four redshirt freshmen -- Desmond Gant, Isaiah Gentry, Melvin Holland Jr. and Jerry Gibson -- take on bigger roles this spring. All four have good size, and hopes are especially high for Gentry.

Penn State OT Andrew Nelson: Some will put quarterback Christian Hackenberg on the prove-it list, but the junior showed in 2013 what he can do with a capable offensive line blocking for him. Big Ten coaches were adamant Hackenberg's struggles last season primarily stemmed from the issues up front. He will need better protection from players like Nelson, who started every game as a redshirt freshman last season and could move from right tackle to the left side.

Wisconsin QB Joel Stave: He is 21-7 as the Badgers' starting quarterback but comes off of a season where he completed a career-low 53.4 percent of his passes and threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (9). Perhaps the return of coach Paul Chryst is just what Stave needs to cement himself as the starter and finish his career strong. If not, challengers are waiting.

Nebraska WR Jamal Turner: Nebraska upgraded its passing game late in Bo Pelini's tenure and could take another step under Mike Riley, who produced plenty of standout wideouts at Oregon State. Turner has been unlucky on the injury front but still brings unique skills to a receiver corps looking for someone to complement Jordan Westerkamp and fill the void left by Kenny Bell. It's now or never for Turner, who arrived at Nebraska with so much hype.
Spring is springing in the Big Ten. Michigan and Northwestern have already hit the practice field, Minnesota, Maryland and Nebraska join them this week and the rest will follow soon.

With spring in the air, we've got some burning questions about the league during this season of practice and hope:

1. Who's going to win the Ohio State quarterback race? This is a question destined to not return an answer this spring. That's because only Cardale Jones will be healthy enough to go through full spring drills. J.T. Barrett will do some light seven-on-seven stuff as he recovers from a broken ankle, while Braxton Miller won't be cleared to throw with his medically repaired shoulder until at least May. So Jones has a chance to gain an early edge in perhaps the most interesting quarterback battle of all time. Can he seize it?

2. How quickly does Jim Harbaugh remake Michigan's culture? Expecting an overnight turnaround in Ann Arbor is unfair and unrealistic, even with Harbaugh's sterling track record. The Wolverines need to find answers at quarterback, running back and receiver, but the more pressing issue is simply developing more toughness than they showed throughout much of the Brady Hoke era. How quickly Michigan adapts to Harbaugh's ways will determine how fast this rebuilding effort will go, and Harbaugh let the message be known last week.

3. What will Nebraska look like under Mike Riley? Huskers athletic director Shawn Eichorst surprised the college football world by hiring Riley away from Oregon State. Riley couldn't possibly be more different, personality-wise, from previous Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. But what does that mean in how Big Red looks on the field? Riley has been known for running a pro-style offense, though he says he'll design the offense around the strength of his players. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. will need to fend off challenges to his job this spring. The Huskers seemed to take on the volatile traits of Pelini during his tenure; can they now mirror Riley's straight-forward, low-key approach?

4. Who'll win the quarterback job at Iowa, Northwestern, Rutgers and Purdue? Who starts under center will be the dominant story line at all four places this spring. At Iowa, head coach Kirk Ferentz will let C.J. Beathard battle incumbent two-year starter Jake Rudock. Northwestern has a three-man scrum, with Zack Oliver, Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson fighting to replace Trevor Siemien. Chris Laviano and LSU transfer Hayden Rettig are the main candidates to succeed Gary Nova at Rutgers. And Purdue will open things up once again between Austin Appleby, Danny Etling and David Blough. These competitions could all last until fall camp but will be heavily scrutinized in March and April.

5. How does Michigan State replace its stars? Under Mark Dantonio, the Spartans have usually just moved on to the next guy when a star leaves. But Michigan State, which could be ranked in the top 10 in the preseason, still has to replace some of the most productive players in recent program history, including running back Jeremy Langford, receiver Tony Lippett, cornerback Trae Waynes, defensive end Marcus Rush and safety Kurtis Drummond. We'll get to see this spring just how well those holes can be filled.

6. Can Penn State fix its offensive line? Christian Hackenberg's bruises from last year might just now be healing, as the Nittany Lions' offensive line was one of the worst in the country in 2014. The best player on that line, left tackle Donovan Smith, left for the NFL, and starting guard Miles Dieffenbach also is gone. Yet there's hope for improvement, thanks to incoming juice transfer Paris Palmer, true freshman Sterling Jenkins and some young players who redshirted. Penn State must begin to find the right mix and build cohesion there this spring.

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesJoel Stave will be fighting for the top spot as Wisconsin looks for a starting quarterback.
7. Can Paul Chryst work magic at the quarterback position for Wisconsin? The Badgers have been a consistent Big Ten title contender for the past several years, but the quarterback position has been lacking since Russell Wilson completed his one year in Madison. New head coach/old offensive coordinator Chryst could help rectify that situation, whether it's by building on the skills of veteran Joel Stave or going young with a fresh face such as D.J. Gillins or Austin Kafentzis. Wisconsin will need much better play at that position before opening 2015 against Alabama.

8. Does Minnesota have any receivers? Jerry Kill and his staff think they can improve one of the biggest problem positions in recent years for the Gophers. Redshirt freshmen Isaiah Gentry, Melvin Holland Jr. and Desmond Gant are full of promise. They need to start fulfilling it this spring, because the security blanket of tight end Maxx Williams is gone.
9. Can changes help the defenses at Illinois and Maryland? If the Illini are going to build some momentum after last season's bowl appearance, their leaky defense must improve. Tim Beckman hired former NFL assistant Mike Phair as co-defensive coordinator this offseason, and job No. 1 is figuring out a way to stop the run, which Illinois hasn't been able to do for a few years. Maryland parted ways with defensive coordinator Brian Stewart a little more than a year after giving him a contract extension and elevated inside linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski to the role. The Terps will also switch to a 4-3 base and hope to right a defense that rarely dominated in 2014.

10. Where's the next wave of running back stars? Last season saw an unprecedented amount of production from elite running backs, including Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Minnesota's David Cobb and Langford. All of those guys are gone, but budding superstars such as Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Wisconsin's Corey Clement and Northwestern's Justin Jackson remain. In a league that churns out tailback talent, plenty of new names are sure to emerge as well.
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.

B1G takes control of coaching carousel

December, 31, 2014
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A coaching change can be crippling. It also can be transformative.

Three Big Ten teams reached coaching crossroads in recent weeks, two by choice -- although most would agree Michigan had no choice but to part ways with Brady Hoke -- and one by surprise. Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin all faced key choices but ones which they had some degree of control, which cannot be understated.

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh
Bob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsEven though he hasn't coached a game in Ann Arbor yet, Michigan fans would give a thumbs up to the Jim Harbaugh hire.
 There are so many elements where Big Ten teams lack control. They can't move their campuses to areas with higher concentrations of elite recruits. They can't, or more accurately, won't scrap a philosophy where multiple sports matter. They won't plummet academic standards for prospective athletes.

We're in the middle of the Big Ten's meat grinder bowl lineup, filled with virtual road games and Top 25 opponents. That isn't changing, either.

But Big Ten teams still control who they hire to lead their programs. Perhaps more important, they control how they go about pursuing new coaches: How aggressive they are, how much money they invest, how high they aim, whether or not they settle for candidates.

Big Ten fans have answers to these questions, and they should be pleased with the outcomes.

Michigan hit a grand slam in hiring Jim Harbaugh. The Wolverines, striking out on the field but always possessing the ability to swing for the fences, boldly pursued and ultimately landed their top prize. Harbaugh is a proven winner at both the college and pro levels who galvanizes both recruits and fans. There are no sure things in college football -- Michigan's 11-year Big Ten title drought is living proof of that -- but Harbaugh is the right man at the right time to get the Wolverines on track again. He's an immediate upgrade.

Mike Riley and Paul Chryst aren't regarded as grand slams, at least not yet. But both are the types of hires to move their respective programs forward.

Riley has two primary qualities that should serve him well as Bo Pelini's replacement at Nebraska. First, there are no conduct concerns with him. Conduct matters to Nebraskans, and rightfully so. Pelini's post-firing rant to players made it clear that a toxic relationship with administrators played a bigger role than his team's big-game flops against Wisconsin, Ohio State and others. Riley gets along with everyone. There's no baggage.

Riley and his assistants also bring experience that should serve them well in Lincoln. Pelini's penchant for hiring or promoting younger coaches sparked criticism during his tenure. The grumbling didn't abate when Nebraska repeatedly allowed touchdowns on its opponents' first possession or made curious calls, like ditching Ameer Abdullah on the final two plays of a promising fourth-quarter drive in Saturday's National University Holiday Bowl loss to USC. Nebraska's shortcomings aren't all on the staff, but Riley provides a foundation of consistency and player development that should work at a program that has underachieved in the Big Ten.

Chryst didn't light it up in three years at Pittsburgh (19-19), but he brings several traits that Wisconsin sorely needs, chiefly a knack for developing quarterbacks. Everyone remembers what Russell Wilson did in 2011, Chryst's final year as Wisconsin's offensive coordinator. But Chryst's work with Wilson's predecessor, Scott Tolzien, stands out more. Unlike Wilson, Tolzien was nowhere near the finished product when he arrived at Wisconsin. Tolzien ended his career as an All-Big Ten selection.

If Chryst fosters similar improvement with veteran Joel Stave or another Wisconsin quarterback, the Badgers will be in great shape to defend their Big Ten West Division crown in 2015.

Chryst's deep roots at Wisconsin also serve the program well. He understands the academic standards, which are some of the most rigorous in the Big Ten and which played a significant role in driving Gary Andersen to Oregon State. He knows how the Badgers must recruit and play to reach their peak. And unlike Andersen and Bret Bielema, Chryst won't be lured away easily. A program shouldn't hire a coach simply because he sees it as a destination, but Wisconsin is too good to keep having coaches leave. In Chryst, Wisconsin lands a strong coach who can address the program's primary weakness and wants to stick around for a while.

As written here earlier this month, the Big Ten must effectively control the controllable elements -- in this case, the coaching carousel -- to upgrade its overall product. At first blush, Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin have done so. Nebraska and Wisconsin acted quickly and decisively, while Michigan pulled off the biggest coaching coup in recent Big Ten history by plucking Harbaugh from a San Francisco 49ers organization that he restored to excellence.

The remaining Big Ten postseason performances, particularly Ohio State's in a Playoff semifinal against Alabama, ultimately will determine whether the league succeeded or failed in 2014.

But the Big Ten already has notched a huge win. Its coaching ranks are better than they were when December began.

The new leading men should help the Big Ten in its ultimate pursuit: reclaiming control of the national discussion.
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin can win the Big Ten championship on Saturday. Yet there remains a giant what-if hovering over this Badgers season.

What if quarterback Joel Stave had been named the starter back in mid-August? Would he have still developed the "yips" that caused him to miss the first four games? And would Wisconsin be playing not just for a Big Ten title this weekend vs. Ohio State but also a playoff berth?

It's an intriguing question. Perhaps the Badgers don't blow a 17-point second-half lead in the opener against LSU if Stave could have helped provide some semblance of a passing threat. Maybe they don't lose to Northwestern on Oct. 4, when a clearly rusty Stave tried to lead a comeback despite throwing three interceptions.

We'll never know the answer, of course, and neither Stave nor Wisconsin are all that interested in revisiting the past. They'd rather talk about what came next, and how Stave might now be playing the best football of his career.

"It's one hell of a journey, when you go back and start looking at what that young man has been through," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said last week. "And he overcame it himself, which is the greatest thing."

Stave will tell you he didn't get through those difficult weeks alone. He leaned heavily on his family and friends, though initially he kept his struggles to himself. He has admitted the mental block that prevented him from delivering even a short pass with any accuracy began right after Andersen anointed Tanner McEvoy as the starter. This despite the fact that Stave had started all 13 games the previous season and by all accounts had outplayed McEvoy earlier in training camp.

His older brother, Bryan, remembers talking with Stave right after Andersen informed the team of his decision.

"He was obviously disappointed, but he seemed pretty upbeat like nothing was really bothering him as much as it," Bryan Stave said. "But I know how competitive he is, so I knew things were killing him inside."

Still, Bryan said Stave's family didn't really know about the throwing problems in the preseason. The issue first started to become public when Stave looked erratic in pregame warmups before the season opener against LSU. The Tuesday after that loss is when Andersen announced Stave had an injured shoulder, before retracting that hours later as Stave told the media about his mental hurdles.

It was a bizarre series of events, to say the least, and the following day his parents, Bryan and his sister Rachel convened an emergency meeting in Madison. They went out for a late-night dinner and talked about his situation for about two hours. The family's message: we love you, no matter what.

"We let him know that for us, it's not about football," said Karl Stave, Joel's dad. "It's about making good decisions and being in a good position to be productive in life. Football is great, and we support him there, but we wanted to make sure he understood there's much more than that for us."

Karl and Barb Stave made sure all three of their children -- Rachel was a diver for Wisconsin before injuring her neck last year -- became well-rounded, active people. They didn't allow video games or have cable TV in their Greenfield, Wisconsin, home. Joel and Bryan both play the piano and guitar, and Joel is majoring in civil engineering, just like his dad. Though playing sports was a huge part of their children's lives, it was supposed to be just one facet of them.

It's one hell of a journey, when you go back and start looking at what that young man has been through. And he overcame it himself, which is the greatest thing.

- Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen
So Stave's recovery centered on making football a game again, not a pressure point. A couple of hours after he sat out Wisconsin's Week 2 win against Western Illinois, he and his brother returned to Camp Randall Stadium to throw the ball around. Bryan, who's a good athlete in his own right, said he sailed a pass from the 42-yard line through the field goal uprights. Joel congratulated him, then backed up five more yards and ran to his left before zipping a throw between the uprights and into the stands.

"He threw it about 60 yards on the run and made it look like it was nothing," Bryan said. "So I knew then that there was nothing physically wrong with him. He just had to get back to having more fun."

Stave also threw with his best friend from high school back home on the Badgers' bye week, and he would get in extra tosses every day after practice with receiver Jordan Fredrick.

"I knew at some point I was going to come out of it and I was going to be fine," Stave told ESPN.com. "I had to always have that mindset that I'm fine, that it's just a game and that I was going to be better for having come through this."

Wisconsin has used a two-quarterback system since Stave returned against Northwestern, bringing McEvoy in as a running option. But Stave has started the past seven games, and the Badgers have won them all. He has thrown seven touchdowns with just one interception during that span.

The past two games may have been his finest moments. At Iowa, he converted several key third downs in a 26-24 win, including a third-and-13 pass to Melvin Gordon and a 12-yard scramble on third-and-8 to salt the game away.

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin QB Joel Stave is having fun again. Need proof? Look at the wins and the TD passes.
Last week in the de facto Big Ten West Division championship game, Minnesota all but dared Wisconsin to pass the ball by playing their safeties close to the line of scrimmage. Stave went 11-for-18 for 215 yards and two touchdowns while also drawing some pass interference penalties against one-on-one coverage down the field.

Andersen said Stave is "probably as comfortable since we've all been here together" in his reads and understanding of the protection scheme.

"He is seeing the field very, very well," Andersen said. "I'm not an offensive guru, but I look at him and I think he's a very talented quarterback playing out there right now and doing a very nice job."

Stave's teammates respect the work he put in to get back on track. Center Dan Voltz called him "the hardest-working player on the team, day in and day out." Right tackle Rob Havenstein said Stave was the team's "savior" against Iowa and he "has really stepped up as the leader of this team." Running back Corey Clement said Stave's confidence "is skyrocketing right now."

Improbable as it sounds, Stave will be the closest thing to a star quarterback in the Big Ten championship game, as Ohio State will have a first-time starter in Cardale Jones. Stave was redshirting as a freshman when Wisconsin beat Michigan State in the 2011 game and was out with a broken collarbone when the Badgers beat Nebraska in Indianapolis in 2012. So he's really looking forward to this moment.

"They're a top 5 team and kind of a brand name," he said. "Being able to play a team like that for a championship is everything you want."

The what-if question may always linger around this Wisconsin season. But the reality of what happened with Stave is pretty important to remember, too.

"It was definitely a life lesson for him," Karl Stave said. "There are disappointments in life. But you've got to battle through it, and the sun will come up the next day."
Melvin GordonJeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsBy winning the Paul Bunyan Axe for the 11th straight time, Wisconsin reaches the Big Ten title game for the third time the event's four-year history.

MADISON, Wis. -- The celebrations might have felt a little familiar for Wisconsin, but that didn't take away any of the enthusiasm.

The Badgers beat Minnesota 34-24 on Saturday to win the Paul Bunyan Axe trophy for the 11th straight year. They also clinched the West Division title and a spot in next week's Big Ten championship, which is also a recurring theme. Wisconsin will be playing in that game for the third time in the event's four-year history.

Still, players and coaches giddily ran around Camp Randall Stadium with the axe after grinding out a physical, hard-fought win over the No. 18 Gophers. And they put on hats and T-shirts declaring themselves the West Division champs following an on-field, postgame presentation that seemed more fitting for a postseason game.

"That was a cool feeling for us, a cool experience," quarterback Joel Stave said. "Being under the lights, on the stage, the crowd sticking around -- it was just very cool."

The No. 14 Badgers might not be done hoisting trophies or standing on triumphant platforms, either. Not long ago, they would have been considered significant underdogs against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. But with Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett out for the season after he suffered a broken ankle against Michigan, Wisconsin just might be the favorite in Indianapolis.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Melvin Gordon
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon earned every bit of his 151 yards rushing against Minnesota.
At the very least, Buckeyes backup quarterback Cardale Jones will have his hands full trying to deal with what has statistically been the best defense in the Big Ten, one that offers confusing looks with its aggressive 3-4 scheme.

"If he hasn't played that much, maybe we can get him flustered and get him off balance," Wisconsin linebacker Joe Schobert said. "But we've got to prepare like we're playing J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller. You can't take a guy lightly, because they have a lot of good athletes over there."

Badgers players expressed empathy about Barrett's injury -- "He's such a valuable asset, and you always want to play against the best players," linebacker Marcus Trotter said -- and they can relate to the need to overcome adversity.

This is a team that had to replace eight defensive starters in the offseason and whose starting quarterback battled a case of the yips in August and September. They blew a big lead in a loss to LSU in the opener and dropped a head-scratcher against Northwestern early in conference play.

Yet they won their final seven games of the regular season and might be peaking here at the end.

"It's been a heck of a journey," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. "I feel great about taking this team to Indy. They're resilient and tough-minded."

Wisconsin needed that resiliency to clear its final hurdle toward a division title.

For the second time in three weeks, it let a road opponent go ahead 17-3 in the first half. Unlike Nebraska, however, Minnesota was not going to let Melvin Gordon simply run wild all over the place. The Gophers kept their safeties in the box and hit Gordon early and often with sure tackling. The Badgers' Heisman Trophy candidate finished with 151 yards but had to earn every bit of it. He had only two 20-plus-yard runs (none longer than 24) and did his most impressive work turning nothing into 4- or 5-yard gains.

"I knew I was going to have to grind it out today," said Gordon, who pronounced himself healthy despite limping off the field late. "The games that you have to push out and grind out, those are the games you love the best. You get hit, you get knocked down to the ground and you get back up and you keep fighting.

Andersen said offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig knew he'd have to dial up some downfield throws to loosen up the Gophers' defense. That's been a shaky proposition for Wisconsin's offense for a couple of years. But Stave, getting better every week after overcoming those mental issues at the beginning of the season, turned in an efficient performance in going 11-for-18 for 218 yards and 2 touchdowns, with no interceptions.

The Badgers also got a career day from receiver Alex Erickson (5 catches for 160 yards) and clinched the victory on Stave's 17-yard touchdown strike to Robert Wheelwright, who had only two career catches and none this season before Saturday. It was those kinds of unlikely contributions -- plus an 89-yard effort from backup tailback Corey Clement, who was playing with one healthy shoulder -- that Andersen said made him the proudest.

Wisconsin wasn't perfect against Minnesota and committed a lot of mistakes in the first half, allowing the Gophers some short fields and quick scoring drives. Despite dealing with a hamstring injury that made him doubtful for the game, Minnesota's David Cobb ripped off some big runs in the first half. Many more offensive playmakers will confront the defense next week, even with Barrett out.

"To beat Ohio State, we can't miss as many tackles as we did today," Trotter said.

But much the way their season has gone, the Badgers finished out strong, scoring 31 of the game's final 38 points. Now they have a solid chance to derail Ohio State's playoff chase and claim the Big Ten title for themselves.

"We don't want to just go there," Gordon said, "we want to win it."

Don't be surprised if they're celebrating on an even bigger stage next Saturday night.

MADISON, Wis. -- Melvin Gordon didn't see Ron Dayne as he entered Wisconsin's interview room early Saturday evening.

Gordon sidestepped Dayne, just as he did numerous Nebraska defenders during an afternoon that won't soon be forgotten in a place used to seeing extraordinary running backs do extraordinary things.

"I should be kicking you in the legs or something," Dayne joked, which caused Gordon to turn back and grin.

Dayne had just watched those legs break his Wisconsin single-game rushing record (339). Dayne's milestone was just the first Gordon took down in Wisconsin's 59-24 mashing of Nebraska at Camp Randall Stadium. Anthony Thompson's Big Ten single-game record of 377 yards -- set on the same field in 1989 -- fell during the third quarter. Moments later, on a 26-yard touchdown run, Gordon shattered LaDainian Tomlinson's FBS single-game record of 406 yards.

Afterward, Gordon took a small, appropriate bow.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
AP Photo/Morry GashWisconsin's Melvin Gordon was in rarefied air with his record-breaking effort on Saturday.
He finished with 408 yards and four touchdowns on 25 carries for an average of 16.3 yards per carry that is ridiculous for any college running back not named Melvin Gordon. He also didn't play in the fourth quarter.

"You never know when a special day comes," Gordon said. "When it does, it's a special feeling."

Wisconsin running backs now hold the FBS single-season rushing record (Dayne), single-season touchdowns record (Montee Ball) and single-game rushing record (Gordon). But only Dayne has the most coveted individual award in college football, the Heisman Trophy, which he captured in 1999.

When Dayne won, it was common for running backs to hoist the Heisman. Texas' Ricky Williams had won in 1998, and running backs went back-to-back in 1994 (Colorado's Rashaan Salaam) and 1995 (Ohio State's Eddie George). But since Dayne, only two non-quarterbacks have won the Heisman -- USC running back Reggie Bush in 2005 and Alabama running back Mark Ingram in 2009. As Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah, a good friend of Gordon's, told ESPN.com in September, "the Heisman's really become a quarterback's award."

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota entered Saturday as the clear Heisman front-runner. Another quarterback, one-time favorite Mississippi State's Dak Prescott, had an opportunity to gain on Mariota -- or perhaps eclipse him -- with a signature performance at Alabama. Gordon was in the mix, but after putting up big numbers against inferior teams and with an incomplete performance against LSU, he needed to make a convincing case on this day, against the nation's 20th-best rush defense.

Mission accomplished.

"I think he's the best of the best," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. "And he proved it on the national stage when he was given the opportunity. There's some great players out there ... and the decision is going to be made by other people. But if I made that decision, it's going to this guy right here.

"A lot of people have God-given ability, and a lot of people don't do anything with that ability. He's taken it to the highest level."

Gordon still has to catch Mariota, a tough task because the Oregon quarterback does so much good and so little bad and leads a team gunning for a College Football Playoff spot. But the gap is narrowing.

On Saturday, Gordon earned more than a courtesy trip to New York for the Heisman ceremony on Dec. 13. He earned the right to be seriously evaluated as a Heisman contender.

"Just show the man respect," Wisconsin second-string running back Corey Clement said. "That's all I ask."

Gordon will forever be respected here. Students chanted his name and "Heisman!" as the snow turned Camp Randall Stadium into a Wisconsin wonderland (at just 26 degrees at kickoff, it was the coldest game at Camp Randall in 50 years).

The tributes flooded in during and after the game, from Tomlinson, Ball and others.

"The best of the best," Andersen said. "Unbelievable."

A fourth-year junior, Gordon could have skipped this season and likely been the first running back selected in the NFL draft. He returned to guide Wisconsin to a national championship, a dream that died in early October with a stunning loss to Northwestern. But a Big Ten title remains possible, individual awards are coming, and Gordon, a Kenosha, Wisconsin, native, will leave as one of Wisconsin's favorite sons.

"There's risks that come with coming back when you have the chance to leave," Clement said. "God willing, he doesn't get injured, so he can do what he needs to do."

What he does is record big runs. Gordon had four runs of 40 yards or more Saturday, which brought his season total to 14, including a 62-yard scoring burst in the second quarter, when he hurdled Nebraska's Corey Cooper.

"It's something special," Badgers guard Dallas Lewallen said. "Once he gets to the open field, you never know if he's going to take it [to the end zone]."

Added quarterback Joel Stave: "He wowed us all again today."

Gordon's first half included 238 rush yards, a touchdown and two lost fumbles, the first time he has lost multiple fumbles in a game. It will be a forgotten footnote to everyone but Gordon, who thanked the coaches "for just sticking with me."

Smart choice.

The snow continued to fall Saturday night and blanketed the field where Gordon made his Heisman move.

"His legacy is going to be left here for a long time," Andersen said. "His footprints are going to be left all over these hallways."

Whether those same footprints are behind a podium in New York in four weeks remains to be seen.

Gordon gained the nation's attention Saturday. Now he needs to keep it.

What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 11

November, 9, 2014
11/09/14
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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.
When simply picking the games doesn't cut it, the Big Ten blog crew takes it to another level. For some bolder, more specific predictions for the opening weekend of what could be an unforgettable November, we hit the roundtable.

Adam Rittenberg: Purdue will pace Nebraska well into the second half.

This isn't a knock on the Huskers, who are quietly putting together a very solid, and refreshingly drama-free, season. But Purdue's offense is hitting its stride behind quarterback Austin Appleby, speed backs Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert and a much-improved offensive line. The Boilers have had two weeks to prepare and face a Nebraska defense that still has too many technical breakdowns for my liking. This will be a track meet for two, maybe three quarters -- thinking 28-24 Nebraska at halftime -- before Ameer Abdullah and Nebraska pull away in the fourth.

Mitch Sherman: Wisconsin will make its biggest statement yet.

The Badgers served notice to the rest of the West last week with a 52-7 win over Maryland that they’ve turned a corner. Still, it was one game. It was at home, and we’ve seen previous flashes from Wisconsin. But with most of the attention focused on the exploits of Melvin Gordon and uncertainty at QB, the Wisconsin defense has built a résumé as the Big Ten’s best. Now, with Joel Stave back in command, the Badgers will streamroll Rutgers, beat up at QB and elsewhere after trips to Ohio State and Nebraska, and enter the final four weeks as the favorite in the West despite that ugly Northwestern loss.

Brian Bennett: Northwestern and Iowa will head to overtime. Again.

Just like last year in Iowa City, the Wildcats and Hawkeyes will play to a draw in regulation. They're similar teams, with good defenses and running games but who struggle to score at times. Justin Jackson and Mark Weisman will each find the end zone twice as the teams go into overtime tied at 20. Northwestern makes one more play in the second extra period to win it.

Austin Ward: Tevin Coleman will be held in check.

The Indiana tailback wasn’t getting all that much support from the passing game even when Nate Sudfeld was healthy and that didn’t slow him down even against stout rush defenses. But with the attack even more one-dimensional now, his string of 100-yard outings is going to come to an end on the road against Michigan and a defense allowing just 3.1 yards per carry. That’s about the only thing the Wolverines do well at this point, and any chance of salvaging something positive out of this season for Brady Hoke’s club will require coming out inspired to take care of Indiana. That’s yet another sign of how bad things are at Michigan, but there is a talented, proud defense waiting for a chance to do something nobody else has done yet this season.

Dan Murphy: Ohio State hits 60 points for the second time this season.

Any chances of the Buckeyes looking ahead to the Michigan State next weekend were knocked out after the close call in Happy Valley. J.T. Barrett will be back in his comfort zone at home and looking to pick a part the Fighting Illini defense. Ohio State hung 66 points on Kent State earlier this year. While Saturday might not be quite as big of a blowout, the Buckeyes will get to 60 for the second year in a row against Illinois.

Josh Moyer: Penn State hits its highest rushing total of the Big Ten season.

OK, maybe this is a bit of a gamble considering that left tackle Donovan Smith -- the only returning starter on the line this season -- suffered an injury Saturday, and his status is unknown against Maryland. But the Nittany Lions fared better than I expected against Ohio State, and the offensive line has a much easier test against the Terrapins. Only 17 teams in the nation are faring worse in run defense than than the Terps, so we should see a healthy dose of Penn State speedsters Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch. James Franklin has vowed to keep running the ball, and I think that strategy finally pays off this weekend.

Big Ten viewer’s guide: Week 7

October, 10, 2014
10/10/14
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Week 7 is here, and let’s not sugarcoat it: Big Ten football has looked more interesting on other weekends. This first Saturday of the season without nonconference action lacks marquee matchups. Still, the division races will continue to take shape.

Here’s a look at the five games (all times Eastern):

Noon

Illinois (3-3) and Wisconsin (3-2), ESPN2: Will Melvin Gordon run for 300 yards? If the Badgers wanted it to happen, Illinois’ 119th-ranked rushing defense would likely comply. More of the intrigue in Madison involves the quarterbacks. For Wisconsin, Joel Stave, who returned last week against Northwestern, will see time, in addition to Tanner McEvoy, who might also take a shot at receiver. And with Illinois’ Wes Lunt out with a fractured leg, senior Reilly O’Toole and sophomore Aaron Bailey, who was set to redshirt, have competed in practice this week.

Indiana (3-2) and Iowa (4-1), ESPNU: Indiana has shown it can win on the road in tough spots, handing Missouri its lone loss on Sept. 20. The Hoosiers are more explosive on offense than any foe Iowa has faced. But Indiana still can’t defend well, in particular against proficient quarterbacks. The Hawkeyes are going back to Jake Rudock at the start, but C.J. Beathard will play. How well can Greg Davis manage this? If it’s a disaster, Indiana might just find itself in the right place at the right time for an upset bid.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cobb
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesDavid Cobb and Minnesota can take a big step in their quest for a Western Division crown by beating Northwestern on Saturday.
Northwestern (3-2) at Minnesota (4-1), BTN: Who would have guessed a month ago, as the Golden Gophers fell flat at TCU and the Wildcats sat winless, that this game would have legitimate implications for the West Division title race? It does, with NU in quest of a third straight unexpected win to open league play. Its defense led the charge against Penn State and Wisconsin. Minnesota is simply solid, led by David Cobb, statistically the league’s most valuable offensive player. Minnesota has defended the pass especially well in recent games and will test Northwestern’s Trevor Siemian, 13th in the Big Ten in QBR.

3:30 p.m.

No. 8 Michigan State (4-1) at Purdue (3-3), ESPN2: At least it’s not the best team in the Big Ten against the worst. Purdue escaped the low spot last week with a win over Illinois. And sophomore quarterback Austin Appleby looked good in the victory. Very good, in fact. Back at home, he figures to find a much more difficult situation against the Spartans, who might come in a bit angry after nearly blowing a 24-point, fourth-quarter lead against Nebraska.

7 p.m.

Penn State (4-1) at Michigan (2-4), ESPN2: The visitors from Happy Valley, after an off week, get an opportunity to show that their anemic performance against Northwestern was just a fluke. With an upcoming stretch of three challenging games, no better time exists for PSU to get healthy than at Michigan, trying to avoid its first 0-3 start in the Big Ten since 1965. Against a good Penn State front, the Wolverines must protect Devin Gardner and throw the football, neither of which they’ve done well in recent weeks.

Required reading

Two QBs can work for Wisconsin

October, 6, 2014
10/06/14
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When we found out last week that Iowa planned to use two quarterbacks, it seemed a little bit odd. That's because the skill sets of Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard aren't all that different.

On Monday, Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said he expects to go with his own two-quarterback system, beginning this weekend against Illinois. This not only makes more sense, it seems like the best way to cure what ails the Badgers' offense.

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
David Manning/USA TODAY SportsJoel Stave will share time with Tanner McEvoy as Wisconsin searches for a spark to its passing game.
There's a clear distinction in styles between Tanner McEvoy, who has started all five games this season, and Joel Stave, who started all 13 times in 2013. McEvoy is the superior athlete who can make a difference with his legs, but he's pretty shaky throwing the ball. Stave is far more statuesque in the pocket, but gets the ball downfield better (relatively speaking, of course; he's not exactly Russell Wilson with his accuracy, either).

Andersen said it's possible one guy could do so well that he seizes all the playing time. But he likes the idea of juggling things and even -- and this makes me swoon -- having both guys on the field at the same time.

"I think that opens a can of worms for people to wonder what’s going to happen," Andersen said. "We’ll also play them in different situations. I’m a firm believer right now our offense as a whole, we’re best served to play both of those quarterbacks to help us move down the field."

How do you get two quarterbacks on the field at once? Well, Andersen acknowledged that McEvoy could see time at receiver. Remember there was much talk of playing McEvoy at receiver last season, when he eventually filled in and became a solid starter at safety. Given Wisconsin's problems at receiver as well as quarterback, his size and athleticism could come in handy.

And can you imagine a formation with both guys in the backfield, leaving opposing defenses to guess whether it's going to be an option run with McEvoy or a pass from Stave? Deception could mask some of the Badgers' obvious deficiencies in the passing game. (Answers, by the way aren't coming from backups Bart Houston or D.J. Gillins. Andersen said Houston is clearly No. 3 behind McEvoy and Stave, and the freshman Gillins will definitely redshirt this season).

None of this will likely matter this week against Illinois, who once again is fielding the Big Ten's worst rushing defense. The Badgers ran for 289 yards in Champaign last season, and Melvin Gordon could have that much by halftime this week if Tim Beckman's defense tackles as poorly as it did last week versus Purdue.

But for Wisconsin to get back in the West Division race, it simply has to improve a passing attack that has thus far generated just 749 yards -- or only 15 more than Washington State's Connor Halliday threw for in one game on Saturday night. With Stave back from the yips, Andersen now has options. And everything ought to be on the table, including a double-barreled quarterback system.

Weekend Rewind: Big Ten

October, 6, 2014
10/06/14
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As an unprecedented five of the top eight teams in the Associated Press poll lost in Week 6, the Big Ten experienced a calm Saturday by comparison.

But what would you have thought in August if told that on the first Saturday of October, Michigan would lose to Rutgers and Wisconsin would fall to a Northwestern team that started the season with losses to Cal and Northern Illinois?

Chaos.

With each of the 14 teams now underway in league play, it’s something more like a controlled mess.

Northwestern leads the West Division, set for a showdown on Saturday at Minnesota. Imagine that.

Michigan’s bowl prospects look bleak.

Oh, and Purdue won a league game. Let’s get to the Weekend Rewind.

[+] EnlargeRutgers defense
Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY SportsRutgers' defense gave Michigan QB Devin Gardner fits this past Saturday as the Scarlet Knights won their first game in the Big Ten.
Team of the week: Rutgers, baby. The Scarlet Knights and their fans partied hard on Saturday night after a 26-24 win over the woeful Wolverines, the first Big Ten victory ever for the New Jersey school. Incredible to think that Rutgers, picked by many to finish last in the Big Ten East, is a late defensive lapse against Penn State away from a 6-0 start. To beat Michigan, the Scarlet Knights got 404 yards through the air and three touchdown passes from quarterback Gary Nova and a Kemoko Turay block of Matt Wile’s long field goal with 3:01 to play.

Biggest play: Let’s go to the game billed as the biggest of the week. It unfolded as a dud for three quarters, then turned into a thriller as Nebraska rallied for 19 points in the final 13 minutes, falling 27-22 as Trae Waynes intercepted Tommy Armstrong Jr. with 30 seconds left at the Michigan State 17-yard line. No play was bigger, though, than MSU linebacker Ed Davis’ strip of star I-back Ameer Abdullah at the MSU 7-yard line after Macgarrett Kings fumbled a punt midway through the second quarter. Nebraska recovered at the 24, got a first down and appeared ready to score a touchdown to cut into the Spartans’ 14-0 lead. But Shilique Calhoun recovered Abdullah’s fumble and raced 38 yards to set up a field goal that extended Michigan State’s edge to 17-0. It kept momentum with the Spartans, who needed every point at the end.

Big Man on Campus (offense): Ohio State freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett threw for 267 yards and rushed for 71, leading the Buckeyes and their suddenly potent offense to a 52-24 win at Maryland. Barrett, over the past three games, has thrown for 909 yards with 14 touchdowns and one interception, compiling a raw QBR of 87.0, sixth-best nationally.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Northwestern freshman safety Godwin Igwebuike intercepted Wisconsin quarterbacks three times, and they were all big in the Wildcats’ 20-14 win. He picked Tanner McEvoy in the end zone to end the Badgers’ opening drive, got Joel Stave – again in the end zone – with less than six minutes to play and intercepted Stave near midfield with 18 seconds to play.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Michigan State senior punter Mike Sadler performed like the All-America selection that he is, pinning Nebraska three times inside its 20-yard line on nine punts. Sadler punted to the 1-yard line in the first quarter and to the 2 late in the first half. Even the punt returned 62 yards for a touchdown by DeMornay Pierson-El required an exceptional effort just to field the ball. Really, though, Sadler earns this recognition for petting his imaginary cat during the game in a nod to this ongoing conversation with Faux Pelini.

Biggest faceplant: The Nebraska offensive line. Michigan State presented the toughest challenge of the season, no doubt, for the Huskers’ front five, but what happened? Nebraska rushed for 47 yards – more than 300 below its season average – and averaged 1.3 per attempt, both low figures in 88 games under Bo Pelini. Armstrong, before Saturday, had been sacked three times in five games; the Spartans got to him for five sacks and applied relentless pressure for much of the night. And while it wasn’t quite a faceplant, there was this lowlight from left guard Jake Cotton.
Five observations from Saturday in the Big Ten:

1. Michigan State and Ohio State are sharpening their teeth. So much for Nebraska as the Big Ten’s lone unbeaten. The Spartans, despite turning the ball over three times in their own territory in the first half, built a 27-3 lead through three quarters and held off a furious late Nebraska rally for a 27-22 victory. The MSU defense looked salty as ever through 45 minutes and neutralized Nebraska I-back Ameer Abdullah. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes continued their offensive resurgence. Since their Sept. 6 loss to Virginia Tech, freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett has led OSU to three straight showings of 50-plus points and more than 500 yards. On Saturday, it was 52-24 at Maryland as Barrett accumulated 338 yards of total offense. Considering the chaos that unfolded elsewhere in college football on Saturday, the Spartans and Buckeyes are moving back toward contention for the College Football Playoff. Their meeting on Nov. 8 in East Lansing is a de facto elimination game.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Alex Goodlett/Getty ImagesWith their loss to Rutgers, Brady Hoke's Wolverines fell to 0-2 in the Big Ten.
 2. Things are getting worse for Michigan coach Brady Hoke. Rutgers and quarterback Gary Nova became the latest to celebrate at the expense of the Wolverines after the Scarlet Knights beat Michigan 26-24 in Piscataway for the school’s first Big Ten win. Kemoko Turay blocked a long field goal with three minutes to play, and Nova threw for 404 yards and three scores. The big story here, though, is Michigan, which dropped to 0-2 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1967. Hoke, after this third straight loss, appears incapable of turning this around.

3. It’s time to take Northwestern seriously. Be honest: Who had given up on the Wildcats after opening losses to Cal and Northern Illinois? Coach Pat Fitzgerald got tough with his team, and it worked. Maybe all NU needed was a taste of Big Ten football. It drilled Penn State last week and capitalized on four interceptions Saturday to beat Wisconsin 20-14. Freshman safety Godwin Igwebuike collected three picks, including two in the end zone. These guys play defense, despite surrendering a career-high 259 yards to Melvin Gordon. At 2-0, Northwestern is alone atop the West Division with opportunities to take control of the division in the next two weeks at Minnesota and against Nebraska in Evanston. After Saturday, it’s as realistic as any other scenario.

4. Wisconsin has a situation at quarterback. It’s not a great one, either. Junior Joel Stave made his return at Northwestern. In difficult circumstances as the Badgers trailed 10-0, Stave competed admirably after overcoming a mental hurdle just to get back on the field. He finished 8-of-19 for 114 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. He was picked off twice late in the fourth quarter. Senior Tanner McEvoy, who did not play in the second half, finished 4-of-10 for 24 yards. So what now? Presumably, if Stave lost the job only because he was incapable of operating -- and now he’s fine -- then perhaps it’s his position. Likely, the decision is more difficult. McEvoy and Stave possess different strengths, so maybe they’ll both fit into the offense. Regardless, the Badgers need better play at QB than they received against Northwestern.

5. Austin Appleby’s time has come. The Purdue sophomore completed 15 of 20 throws for 202 yards and a score in his first career start as the Boilermakers won a Big Ten game for the first time under coach Darrell Hazell, 38-27 at Illinois. Appleby rushed seven times for 76 yards and two scores to lead a big-play attack. Where has this been for the past year and a half? It came against Illinois, yes, but any league win is cause for celebration for Purdue.

Northwestern's 20-14 victory continued its midseason revival and denied Wisconsin and the comeback bid of quarterback Joel Stave. Wisconsin's 2013 starting quarterback Stave made his season debut by taking over for struggling Tanner McEvoy late in the second quarter.

Stave could not lead the Badgers back from a 10-0 deficit despite 259 yards on the ground by running back Melvin Gordon.

The Wildcats got 162 rushing yards from Justin Jackson and beat a ranked team at home for the first time since 2010. They moved to 2-0 in the Big Ten after an upset win last week at Penn State.

How the game was won: Northwestern refused to give in. Even as Gordon got loose for long runs, the Wildcats did not break. Northwestern stemmed the Badgers’ best momentum with a Jimmy Hall interception in the third quarter of Stave, tipped at the line by Ifeadi Odenigbo. Miles Shuler ran a reverse for a 16-yard touchdown on the next play.

Game ball goes to: Northwestern freshman safety Godwin Igwebuike for his three interceptions. Igwebuike picked McEvoy in the end zone to end Wisconsin’s opening drive of the game, sending the Badgers into an offensive tailspin that extended for the first 30 minutes of the game. Igwebuike then intercepted Stave in the end zone with less than six minutes to play in the game and got Stave again near midfield to clinch the victory.

What it means: The West Division is even more wide open than it looked. Minnesota emerged as a contender with its win over Michigan last week. Add Northwestern -- who could have predicted its past two victories -- to the mix with Nebraska, Iowa and the Badgers.

Best play Stave pass intercepted by Hall.

video What’s next: The Wildcats (3-2) get a chance to continue their resurgence with a trip to Minnesota before coming home to meet Nebraska. The Badgers (3-2), meanwhile, return home for Illinois, an off week and Maryland, and now they have a quarterback situation. Stick with Stave, who struggled on Saturday, or go back to McEvoy, who was equally ineffective against Northwestern.

Strange times for Joel Stave, Badgers

September, 2, 2014
9/02/14
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What in the heck has been going on in Madison the past few days?

First, we had the confusing saga of Melvin Gordon's injury/non-injury that was to blame for his limited second-half appearance in a 28-24 loss to LSU on Saturday night in Houston.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinGary Andersen's conflicting statements in recent days has created chaos and turmoil at Wisconsin.
Well, the Gordon story makes total and complete sense compared to the absurdity of Joel Stave's situation.

Stave, of course, is the quarterback who started all 13 games for Wisconsin last year yet got beat out for the starting job this preseason by Tanner McEvoy. As McEvoy struggled mightily vs. LSU, Stave remained on the sidelines. I asked head coach Gary Andersen after the game if he considered bringing Stave in, and Andersen said no, because the pass protection was so bad that it wouldn't have mattered.

That seemed weird to me, but then on Tuesday morning, the school sent out an official statement saying Stave and tight end T.J. Watt would "miss time due to injuries."
“Joel has been dealing with some issues with his throwing shoulder for the last couple of weeks and we have come to a decision, after talking with Joel, that the best thing for him right now is to shut it down and give him some rest," Andersen said in the statement. "It was a tough decision because Joel is a great competitor and has a tremendous desire to help this team. We will continue to monitor his progress but we’re not putting a timetable on his return at this time.”

Case closed, right? Not so fast.

Reporters attending the end of practice on Tuesday night found out Stave wasn't hurt. Andersen backtracked from the statement put out just a few hours earlier (Listen to audio from Andersen and Stave here).

"He has not re-injured anything," Andersen said. "When he gets himself to the point where he's ready to play, he'll be ready to play. 'Injured' is probably a bad word, I guess, of choice by me that I decided to use in the press release."

Stave, who injured the AC joint in his throwing shoulder in the Capital One Bowl and was limited this offseason, said everything was structurally fine with his arm. But he added that it "just wasn't working the way I'd like it to, I guess. I don't know what it is." The reports out of early fall camp were that he was throwing the ball much more accurately than McEvoy. But then something apparently changed.

Shoulder injuries are notoriously unpredictable; just ask Braxton Miller. But Andersen and Stave are now saying he's not hurt. It could be a mental thing. Stave told reporters that he's a "perfectionist" and can overthink things when he misses a throw; he said "maybe on same level" that he has the dreaded "yips." To put it in baseball terms, Steve Blass Disease comes to mind.


Adding to the chaos, initial reports suggested Stave might miss the season because of his "injury." Later Tuesday night, the Badgers said Stave -- who'll keep throwing but is not currently involved in game prep -- could return as soon as Week 3.

So ... to sum up: Stave was hurt, but then he's not. Gordon was not hurt, but then he was. Coaches sometimes go to great lengths to protect their players when injuries or other issues are involved, and I can respect that. But by not being on the same page with either Gordon or Stave or his own earlier statements, Andersen -- remember his "I don't know" quote when asked why Gordon didn't get more carries? -- has opened himself up to criticism, and the team's overall credibility has suffered. This isn't Utah State; Wisconsin prides itself as a national program and needs to carry itself like one.

I don't believe there's any grand conspiracy going on behind the scenes. Andersen has always struck me as a pretty straight shooter who only wants what's best for his players and the team. But by crisscrossing messages and giving out conflicting information, he only gives the appearance that there's disarray in a program that's usually pretty drama-free.

Wisconsin looks pretty silly right now, though the good news is that the next few opponents appear to have little chance of beating the Badgers. The team has done a pretty good job of inflicting its own wounds the past 72 hours or so.

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