NCF Nation: Joel Stave
If Ron Burgundy coached college football -- the San Diego Border Terriers, perhaps? -- he would only need to learn two lines to survive spring practice.
1. "I like my team."
2. "I'm glad we don't have a game tomorrow."
There are reasons to believe the Big Ten will be better this fall, but the work is far from over on most campuses. This isn't a league of finished products, and the coming months take on added importance before the 2014 season kicks off in late August.
"I don't think we're that far behind; it's just painfully obvious that we're not there," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "This next phase will be the most important phase of this team's life. It's always important, but with a lot of things we've gone though, we've got to come together."
Northwestern went through a lot in the spring, mostly away from the field, as the campaign for a player union gained national media attention, especially after players were declared employees of the school in March. The team held a historic vote Friday, after Fitzgerald had expressed his opposition to unionizing. Some players expressed concern that the vote could split the team.
It will be months before we know if the union plan goes through, but the Wildcats continue preparing for a pivotal season. They found their quarterback this spring in senior Trevor Siemian and an offensive identity based around the passing game. But questions along both lines remain.
The spring also produced quarterback answers at Iowa (Jake Rudock) and Minnesota (Mitch Leidner). Michigan's Devin Gardner had a rough spring game but still seems likely to retain his job. Another senior signal-caller, Rutgers' Gary Nova, is a good bet to remain atop the depth chart. Although Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong lacks Nova's or Gardner's experience, he exited spring just as he entered it: as the Huskers' top quarterback.
Indiana's platoon system of Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson frustrates some, but not coach Kevin Wilson, who has given every indication that he'll continue to use both for another season.
Other quarterback races have been reduced but not resolved. Illinois will pick between Wes Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer who impressed for much of the spring, and veteran backup Reilly O'Toole. Coach Tim Beckman wants a resolution before two-a-day practices in August.
Purdue's Danny Etling, who started the final seven games of his freshman season, appeared to have a slight lead coming out of the spring, but coach Darrell Hazell isn't ready to declare a starter. So Austin Appleby and David Blough remain alive.
Wisconsin reduced its candidate pool from four to two as Joel Stave, who boasts 19 career starts but also a nagging throwing shoulder injury, will compete with dual-threat Tanner McEvoy in camp.
"It will be a fight," coach Gary Andersen said.
Quarterback is just one spot where Wisconsin has questions. The Badgers went through much of the spring with only four healthy wide receivers. They've also revamped their defensive front seven, which returns only one starter from 2013.
"We only have about six defensive calls," safety Tyvis Powell said after the spring game. "We had too many last year."
Offensive line remains Michigan's focal point coming out of the spring. A sloppy spring game didn't ease fears about the Wolverines' front five, although coach Brady Hoke saw positive signs in earlier practices. A critical summer awaits new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, tasked with resurrecting Michigan's run game.
At Penn State, new coach James Franklin continues to energize both players and fans. But he's also realistic about the depth challenge his team faces, particularly along the offensive line.
"When you don't have a two-deep of scholarship players, you've got issues that you're going to have to overcome," Franklin said. "We don't."
Like Rutgers, Maryland began its Big Ten transition this spring and welcomed running back Wes Brown and wideout Marcus Leak after absences from the team. If the Terrapins finally stay healthy, they could be worth watching in a loaded East Division.
Sitting atop the division is defending Big Ten champ Michigan State. The Spartans had a relatively stress-free spring, but they must fill key spots on defense, especially at linebacker and cornerback, where players like Taiwan Jones and Darian Hicks step in.
The returning pieces for teams like Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin fuel optimism around the league. But in spring, optimism is always tempered by what lies ahead.
"We're improving," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday, "but we're hardly ready to play."
They won't have to for 132 days.
Until then, stay classy, Big Ten fans.
MADISON, Wis. -- Gary Andersen's current job description looks a lot like that of a first-year coach. Here's the thing: Andersen is entering his second season at Wisconsin.
Andersen's inheritance with the Badgers last year, in coaching currency, rivaled that of a Walton, a Bloomberg or Prince George. Most new coaches are saddled with teams plagued by youth, discontent or a culture of losing. Andersen stepped into a locker room filled with 25 seniors, including stars such as Chris Borland and Jared Abbrederis. Wisconsin had won three consecutive Big Ten championships. It had an identity and a proven path to success.
The Badgers needed a leader after Bret Bielema spurned them for Arkansas, but Andersen's primary task could be reduced to four words: Don't screw it up. To his credit, he didn't, guiding Wisconsin to a 9-2 start before the year ended with losses to both Penn State and South Carolina. He also provided a calm, stabilizing presence that resonated both with players and Badgers fans. Wisconsin has recorded better seasons, but Andersen's first made a strong enough impression on the Cleveland Browns, who reached out to him about their coaching vacancy, and on Barry Alvarez, who awarded Andersen a raise and a new contract.
But it's fair to wonder about Andersen. Program maintenance, while challenging, isn't the same as program building. Wisconsin doesn't lack a foundation -- Alvarez provided one and Bielema kept it from cracking -- but there's a lot of hard labor ahead for Andersen and his assistants as their roster turns over significantly.
"We are a very youthful crew," Andersen told ESPN.com. "It's like my second year at Utah State. We were youthful, we were excited, but our coaching was so important to be able to put the kids in the proper positions, which is the ultimate goal. It's not how much offense you have or how much defense you have. It's how well you’re performing the basics: how many missed assignments, how are we tackling, how are our administrative penalties.
"You want to do everything you can to make sure you're teaching them how to play football the right way."
Utah State went 4-7 in Andersen's second year before reaching bowls the next two seasons. Wisconsin's expectations are much higher despite its new-look depth chart.
Wisconsin is not rebuilding, but it faces an unusually high number of questions on a depth chart that shouldn't be written in anything permanent.
"It's a reset, you're starting at ground zero," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "Even with the veteran O-line, a couple guys are out, you're mixing and matching, so you can't assume or take anything for granted. Even with [quarterback Joel Stave], it's a chance to reteach things that he's had hundreds of reps on, because there's always a new way to look at it."
Stave is part of the mystery at Wisconsin. Despite starting 19 games the past two seasons, he must outshine Tanner McEvoy in camp to keep his job, especially after missing much of the spring with a pesky throwing shoulder injury. McEvoy, a gifted athlete who played both safety and wide receiver last season, could represent a shift in what Wisconsin wants from its quarterbacks.
Andersen's first two quarterback recruits, McEvoy and D.J. Gillins, both are true dual threats.
"He's got a tremendous skill set, obviously," Ludwig said of McEvoy. "An athletic guy, starting as a safety last year. The weapons he brings to the quarterback position, it's a huge asset for us."
The quarterback run threat, when paired with dynamic backs in Gordon and Corey Clement, becomes even more critical if Wisconsin can't bolster the wide receiver spot. The team's leading returning receiver, Jordan Fredrick, had only 10 receptions in 2013. Fredrick, Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright all missed part or all of the spring with injuries.
Wisconsin had only four receivers for most of the 15 practices.
"It's pretty tiring," senior Kenzel Doe said. "You're basically taking every rep."
The Badgers defense had fewer injuries this spring but went through a more substantial facelift. Inside linebacker Derek Landisch is the only returning starter in the front seven.
Most defenders spent spring ball working at multiple positions as the coaches looked for ways to upgrade speed. Michael Caputo, a starting free safety last season, went to linebacker and then back to safety before the spring ended.
"We definitely wanted to see how guys fit in other places," Caputo said. "The goal is to be a mean, aggressive, fast defense. We're slowly getting to that, but it's definitely a transition with a lot of the younger guys and playing different positions."
There have been positive developments already. Andersen points to players such as Chikwe Obasih, a redshirt freshman who ended the spring as a starting defensive end.
“"You look how far Chikwe has come," Andersen said. "If you put on Day 1 of spring ball and Day 13 of spring ball, it's an unbelievable difference in his pad level, the use of his hands, his understanding and knowledge of the defense.
When you've got young kids, you've got to get them reps if you want them to get better.” -- Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen
"When you've got young kids, you've got to get them reps if you want them to get better."
The summer takes on added importance for these Badgers. As Ludwig said, Wisconsin's first workout in August must be Practice 16, not Practice 1.
If all the uncertainty and opportunity in practice doesn't drive players, the season opener against LSU certainly will. Last year, Wisconsin thumped Massachusetts and Tennessee Tech to open the season before its infamous trip to Arizona State. This time, the test comes sooner.
"I really like that opener for this team," Andersen said. "It's got to be a driving force."
Which Badgers team shows up at Houston's NRG Stadium remains to be seen. But it will have more of Andersen's fingerprints on it.
The big reveal at Wisconsin is still to come.
MADISON, Wis. -- Spring practice has provided some answers at quarterback in places like Nebraska, Northwestern, Illinois and Minnesota. Other competitions, while potentially narrowing a bit, remain unresolved as summer approaches.
Wisconsin certainly belongs in the latter category. A program that is no stranger to quarterback races has another that should last well into fall camp.
Junior Joel Stave has started for the better part of the past two seasons. But an AC joint injury to his throwing shoulder sustained in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina has limited him throughout spring and ended his session prematurely following Saturday's scrimmage. Stave won't participate in Saturday's spring game. Although Andersen admits the injury is a concern and further evaluation is needed, Stave should be fine for summer workouts.
"There's definitely a separation between those two and the rest of the pack," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen told ESPN.com. "I see D.J. [Gillins] and Bart [Houston] fighting in different ways and different situations and scenarios."
Stave's injury and a wave of others to an already inexperienced wide receiving corps have made it tough to get an accurate gauge on the passing game this spring. Senior Kenzel Doe is the only wideout with substantial experience who is fully participating in the spring. Alex Erickson is sitting out the spring following a knee injury in the bowl game, Jordan Fredrick suffered an arm injury midway through the session and Robert Wheelwright, pegged by many to emerge as Wisconsin's top wideout, has been slowed by a knee issue.
The Badgers will be healthier at receiver in fall camp, and most likely better as five wide receiver recruits arrive, led by Dareian Watkins.
"We need a couple of them to produce for us," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "To say all five are going to step in and produce right away, that would be a little bit of a stretch. But we're looking for two guys: one that can provide a vertical stretch for us and the next guy to see what his strengths are and design around him.
"We need a player to take the top off the coverage."
Another subplot is where Andersen, Lugwig and the staff truly want to take the offense. In recruiting McEvoy and Gillins, the coaches made it clear they want more athleticism under center. Andersen wants "the threat of the run" at quarterback to complement backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement.
Wisconsin has incorporated more zone-read plays this spring, and McEvoy said the speed option was introduced in Tuesday's practice.
"Me being mobile gives some more elements that hopefully I can use," McEvoy said. "It seems to be working, but it's the same playbook as before. We've just got to execute."
Ludwig considers both Gillins, a freshman early enrollee, and McEvoy, as "brand-new players" this spring. He's pleased with the way both have learned the system but wants to see better execution from all the quarterbacks.
"Recently, I've had happy feet when I'm in the pocket," McEvoy said. "The next couple of days, I'm going to focus on really staying in there, taking my steps and throwing the ball, and running it when I really need to run it."
Gillins is ahead of where the coaches thought he would be and, with a strong summer, could push both Stave and McEvoy when camp begins. Andersen said if it appears Gillins won't contribute much at quarterback this fall, he'll likely redshirt rather than play another position.
Houston has the arm strength but lacks mobility and needs to show greater consistency to factor in the race.
"With Joel not being 100 percent, it's kind of tweaked our thought process a little bit," Ludwig said. "The guys are all competing well and learning. We've got to be a lot more productive at the QB spot. Spring football, it's about being productive and laying a foundation for the summer workouts, and putting yourself in position to come back in fall camp as Practice 16 rather than Practice 1."
As the college football world gets ready for spring football, Toni Collins and ESPN Big Ten reporter Mitch Sherman look at some of the top returning players in the new Big Ten West Division.
Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
- 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
- Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26
What to watch:
- A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
- Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
- Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
- Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
- Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
- Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
- Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
- Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
- Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
- Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
- Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
- Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
- New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.
The accelerated schedules seem appropriate in a league filled with players, coaches and teams itching for fresh starts.
New assistants get their first chance to repair struggling units, whether it's Doug Nussmeier with Michigan's offense, Brian Knorr with Indiana's defense or Chris Ash and Larry Johnson with a once-feared Ohio State defense. Quarterback competitions begin or resume at nine places, as new faces such as Illinois' Wes Lunt, Nebraska's Johnny Stanton and Minnesota's Chris Streveler enter the mix, while veterans like Wisconsin's Joel Stave and Michigan's Devin Gardner try to retain their starting jobs.
Happy Valley continues to buzz about new Penn State coach James Franklin, who seems to galvanize everyone whom he encounters. But Franklin barely has been around his new players and finally begins the real work with a team facing very real challenges.
"It's big-picture stuff, building relationships with the players and everyone associated with the program," Franklin told ESPN.com. "The other thing is laying a really good foundation with the philosophies and schemes of how we're going to do things. That's going to happen naturally over time, but I'm not the most patient person. I wish it would have happened yesterday."
Franklin doesn't water down his goals for Penn State, especially in recruiting, but he's also realistic about the challenges of a reduced roster. The Nittany Lions return strong pieces such as quarterback Christian Hackenberg and defensive back Adrian Amos, but the two-deep has some holes that Franklin and his assistants must address, while installing new schemes.
"It's one thing when you get put in this situation in the first place with limited scholarships," Franklin said, "but the longer you're in it, the more effect it has. We've got some depth issues, there's no doubt about it, across the board. We're going to have to get creative."
Northwestern also is focused on depth after being hit hard by key injuries in 2013. Pat Fitzgerald blames himself and his staff for failing to get enough second-stringers ready, which proved costly in close Big Ten losses.
After their first bowl-less winter in six years, the Wildcats responded well in the weight room, as more than 50 players recorded personal bests. Although 11 players will miss spring practice, including standout running back/returner Venric Mark, the depth should be better in areas like the secondary.
"We're really emphasizing taking ownership of the finish," Fitzgerald said. "Finishing your technique, finishing the call, finishing the route. There's a lot of disappointment in the way the program didn't take the next step forward."
Michigan coach Brady Hoke restructured the roles of his defensive assistants for 2014, but the Wolverines' offense will be in the spotlight this spring after a wildly inconsistent season. Gardner, who continues to recover from a foot injury and likely won't be 100 percent until midway through the spring, will compete with Shane Morris, Russell Bellomy and midyear enrollee Wilton Speight.
But other positions, such as offensive line, figure to be just as important as Michigan tries to achieve Hoke and Nussmeier's vision.
"We had good intentions as far as what we wanted our identity to be, but obviously I don't think it came out the way we'd like it to," Hoke said. "The quarterback position is as important as any, and we have a guy [Gardner] who is very talented and had some really good games and games where we had to protect him better, have a better run game and take pressure off of him, and I don't think we did."
While Michigan turns the page on offense, Ohio State focuses on a defense that allowed 115 points in its last three games and finished 110th nationally in pass yards allowed (268 YPG). The Buckeyes lost top defenders Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby, but they also added two accomplished assistants.
Johnson, who churned out NFL linemen during 18 years at Penn State, chose Ohio State instead of remaining in State College. Ash leaves a sole coordinator role at Arkansas for a co-coordinator role at Ohio State, where he'll work with the embattled Luke Fickell and others to mend the defense through a simplified scheme.
"Back in the day when Ohio State played great defense, you knew what you were going to get," Ash said. "They played with swagger, played with confidence, played with toughness. We have to get back to that. The simplicity of the things we're going to do will lead to faster players, more plays made and a more aggressive defense.
"I wasn't here [in 2013], but I can tell you what Coach Meyer has told me, what Luke Fickell has told me and what I watch on film. I can see there's some hesitation, there's some uncertainty. Why that is, I don't know. But it's my job to get it fixed."
Purdue has plenty to fix after a 1-11 season, and players not surprisingly are wearing T-shirts with the word "FORWARD" on the backs. Maryland and Rutgers move forward to a new conference after an offseason that saw several staff changes, including new coordinators at Rutgers (Ralph Friedgen, Joe Rossi).
There's a fresh start of sorts at Wisconsin, as a large and decorated senior class departs. Coach Gary Andersen's markings will be more obvious with his second team, which begins practice March 7.
Wisconsin is just one of many places where the top quarterback job is at stake. Lunt, who sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma State, competes with Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey at Illinois.
"Competition's competition, no matter where it's at," said Lunt, who has added about 15 pounds since his arrival and checks in at 225. "It's different because it’s different people, different coaches, but I'm excited for it."
He's not alone in the Big Ten. Spring ball can't start soon enough.
Both teams are headed to BCS bowls, but the Spartans earned their way to Pasadena for the first time since the 1987 season.
There are no changes in the final 10 spots.
Here's one final look at the Week 14 rankings.
Now, for the fresh rundown …
1. Michigan State (12-1, last week: 2): We knew the Spartans had a nationally elite defense and a much-improved offense, but we didn't know whether they could put it all together against a team that hadn't lost a game in two seasons. Quarterback Connor Cook, linebacker Denicos Allen and others provided the answers against Ohio State. Cook passed for a career-high 304 yards and three touchdowns, while Allen and the Spartan Dawgs limited Ohio State to 25 yards in the fourth quarter. Next stop: the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio.
2. Ohio State (12-1, last week: 1): It's odd to see a "1" in the loss column, but Meyer's Buckeyes looked shaky both early and late in their biggest test since the 2011 Sugar Bowl. Penalties and poor pass defense, as well as a one-dimensional offense that didn't sustain a rhythm, doomed Ohio State against Michigan State. Quarterback Braxton Miller and his teammates squandered a chance to play for a national title. They'll try to finish the season strong with a win against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.
3. Wisconsin (9-3, last week: 3): No Big Ten team wants to get on the field more than the Badgers, who delivered their worst performance of the season at the worst time against Penn State. Linebacker Chris Borland and a proud and decorated group of seniors should be much better in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina. Quarterback Joel Stave tries to bounce back after throwing a career-high three interceptions against PSU.
4. Iowa (8-4, last week: 4): Coach Kirk Ferentz sees similarities between his current team and the 2008 version, which also finished strong after a so-so start. The 2008 squad finished with an Outback Bowl victory, and the Hawkeyes will try to do the same when they face LSU in a rematch of the 2005 Capital One Bowl. Linebacker James Morris and an improved defense will be tested, and Iowa will try to control the clock with its power run game.
5. Minnesota (8-4, last week: 5): The season will be a success no matter what, but Minnesota would like to end on a positive note after dropping its final two regular-season games to ranked opponents. The Gophers return to the Texas Bowl, where coach Jerry Kill thinks they set the foundation for this year with a good effort last December against Texas Tech. Minnesota's defense will show up against Syracuse, but can the offense find a passing game?
6. Nebraska (8-4, last week: 6): Barring a surprise, Bo Pelini will get another chance to bring a championship to Lincoln next season. It would be nice to end this year on a positive note, however, especially after a blowout home loss to Iowa on Black Friday. Nebraska's young team has a chance to grow up the next few weeks before a matchup against Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, a rematch of last year's Capital One Bowl.
7. Penn State (7-5; last week: 7): The season is over but Penn State can feel optimistic about the future, particularly on offense with Big Ten Freshman of the Year Christian Hackenberg at quarterback. Hackenberg completed a strong debut with 2,955 passing yards and 20 touchdowns, and he'll have most of his weapons back for 2013. Last week brought the somewhat surprising departures of two assistants, including longtime linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden. It will be interesting to see where Bill O'Brien goes with his replacements.
8. Michigan (7-5, last week: 8): Michigan's performance in The Game left many wondering where that team was all season. The Wolverines hope to follow up with another strong effort -- and a win -- as they take on Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. It's important for Michigan to end a disappointing season on a positive note, especially for the offense, which surged behind Devin Gardner, Jeremy Gallon, Jake Butt and others against Ohio State.
9. Indiana (5-7, last week: 9): It's a pivotal offseason for the Hoosiers, who should in no way be satisfied with a five-win season that includes three Big Ten victories. Indiana should have made a bowl this season with such an explosive offense and must make the necessary upgrades -- coaching, talent and elsewhere -- to get to the postseason in 2014. Kevin Wilson has some work ahead to ensure he's not the latest offensive-minded coach to flame out in Bloomington.
10. Northwestern (5-7, last week: 10): Here's another team bitterly disappointed with its 2013 season that has some work to do this winter. Coach Pat Fitzgerald's first priority is keeping together or perhaps enhancing the strongest recruiting class in his tenure. Northwestern also must evaluate its offensive vision after enduring quarterback injuries in three of the past four seasons. The Wildcats should get a big boost at running back if Venric Mark is granted a fifth year, as expected.
11. Illinois (4-8, last week: 11): Tim Beckman will lead the Illini for a third season, athletic director Mike Thomas confirmed earlier this week. Like Indiana's Wilson, Beckman will focus on improving a defense that slipped to 110th nationally in total defense and 104th in scoring defense. He fixed the offense after the 2012 season by bringing in coordinator Bill Cubit. If he can do the same on defense, Illinois should go bowling next fall. If not, it could be the end for Beckman in Champaign.
12. Purdue (1-11, last week: 12): After a historically poor season, Purdue begins the rebuilding process on the recruiting trail, where it must get better in a lot of areas. The Boilers lose some of their top defenders like Bruce Gaston Jr. and Ricardo Allen, and must build a lot more depth on that side of the ball. Offensive line also is a target area as the Boilers allowed a league-worst 38 sacks this fall.
Wisconsin's shocking home loss to Penn State ends the debate over whether the Badgers or Michigan State should be at No. 2 behind front-runner Ohio State. Although the Buckeyes and, to a lesser extent, the Spartans had some struggles Saturday, they found ways to win. The Badgers had their worst performance of the season, and it cost them a potential BCS at-large berth.
That doesn't take away from Penn State, which received big boosts from quarterback Christian Hackenberg and others.
Our big dilemma this week was what to do with the 6-8 spots. Penn State had by far its best showing of the season, and Michigan had its best showing in months, even in defeat, against archrival Ohio State. Nebraska didn't show up at home on Black Friday, however, the Huskers have road wins against both the Lions (six days before the Iowa clunker) and Michigan.
After some spirited debate, we ultimately went with body of work to determine the rundown, especially since these are the final regular-season rankings. We understand it devalues the Week 14 performances a bit.
Here's one last look at the Week 13 rankings.
Now for the new rundown, final regular-season version.
1. Ohio State (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten: last week: 1): The Buckeyes lost their composure early and nearly lost their perfect season late. They were faced with adversity for the first time in six weeks, but they made enough plays on both sides of the ball to win. Running back Carlos Hyde (226 yards, one TD) and quarterback Braxton Miller (five total TDs) led a virtually unstoppable offense, which helped overcome some shoddy pass defense. The Buckeyes now await Michigan State in the Big Ten title game.
2. Michigan State (11-1, 8-0; last week: 3): There weren't many style points against Minnesota, but the Spartans came away with another double-digit Big Ten win. The defense kept Minnesota out of the end zone, as linebacker Denicos Allen led the way. Running back Jeremy Langford (134 rush yards, TD) had another big day as Michigan State moved closer to a BCS bowl berth, regardless of the result in Indianapolis.
3. Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2; last week: 2): It's only a one-spot drop for Wisconsin, but what a downer in Mad City. A team that had been so dominant since falling at Ohio State never showed up on Senior Day against a plucky Penn State team that took control from the onset. Quarterback Joel Stave threw three interceptions in the loss, and one of the Big Ten's better defenses allowed a slew of big plays as Penn State racked up 465 yards. It led to Wisconsin's most surprising home loss in recent memory.
4. Iowa (8-4, 5-3; last week: 4): Kirk Ferentz's crew entered the regular season as a popular pick to finish last in the Legends Division. The Hawkeyes emerged as one of the better teams not only in the division but the entire Big Ten. They've flipped their 2012 regular-season record behind a salty rush defense, led by an outstanding group of linebackers, and a functional offense. After two lackluster showings in the Heroes Game, Iowa outclassed Nebraska in Lincoln and should move up the bowl pecking order.
5. Minnesota (8-4, 4-4; last week: 5): It doesn't take a doctor at the Mayo Clinic to diagnose what's wrong with Minnesota. The Gophers' defense keeps them in every game, and Saturday's matchup at Michigan State proved to be no exception. But the offense simply can't score or consistently pass the football. Minnesota failed to reach double digits for the third time this season despite multiple opportunities in Spartans territory. It's still a great season for Jerry Kill's team, but there's a lot of work to do on offense before a bowl appearance.
6. Nebraska (8-4, 5-3; last week: 6): No one would dispute Bo Pelini that this has been a difficult season in Husker Country. No one would argue with Nebraska's ability to keep fighting. But when the same problems (namely turnovers) surface year after year, the bigger picture of the program becomes more depressing. The Huskers and their head coach self-destructed for much of the Iowa game and fell for the third time on their home field. Fortunately for Pelini, it didn't cost him his job, and he should get another chance to compete for an elusive league title in 2014.
7. Penn State (7-5, 4-4; last week: 8): The Lions had a better team in Bill O'Brien's first season, but they didn't have a better win than Saturday's stunning upset of Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium. After losing their first three road games by a combined score of 131-48, Penn State dominated Wisconsin for much of the afternoon at a place where the Badgers rarely lose. Hackenberg ended his freshman season with a signature performance (339 pass yards, 4 TDs) as the offense repeatedly gashed Wisconsin. A much-maligned defense held the Badgers' run game in check as Penn State ended an up-and-down season on a very good note.
8. Michigan (7-5, 3-5; last week: 7): After plummeting to historic lows earlier in the month, Michigan's offense looked like a completely different unit against Ohio State. Quarterback Devin Gardner played brilliantly, coordinator Al Borges called a good game and several others -- Jeremy Gallon, Jake Butt and De'Veon Smith -- stepped up in a 603-yard effort. It wasn't enough, as Michigan fell by a point and the defense had no answers for Ohio State, but the Wolverines played their best game in months and can feel a bit better entering the postseason.
9. Indiana (5-7, 3-5; last week: 9): Oh, what might have been for Indiana. A team with such an explosive offense and eight home games should have made a bowl game, period, but the Hoosiers couldn't get it done. At least they reclaimed the Old Oaken Bucket as quarterback Tre Roberson (six TD passes, 273 pass yards, 154 rush yards) torched Purdue and received help from Stephen Houston, D'Angelo Roberts, Cody Latimer and others. It's clear the Hoosiers have to make upgrades on defense. They can't keep wasting such explosiveness on offense.
10. Northwestern (5-7, 1-7; last week: 11): A season to forget for Northwestern ended on a positive note, as Pat Fitzgerald's team avoided a winless Big Ten season and recorded another victory against its in-state rival. Quarterback Trevor Siemian enters the offseason with some confidence after passing for a career-high 414 yards and four touchdowns against Illinois. Wide receiver Christian Jones (13 catches, 182 yards, two TDs) also stepped up as Northwestern twice rallied from deficits against Illinois. Fitzgerald said afterward that Northwestern "will be back" in 2014. The work begins now.
11. Illinois (4-8, 1-7; last week 10): The wins total doubled from two to four, which is nothing to celebrate. But Illinois clearly improved in Year 2 under coach Tim Beckman, who should receive another season in Champaign. Illinois has fixed the offense, and while quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will be tough to replace, several playmakers like Josh Ferguson return. A bigger issue is the defense, which had no answer for Northwestern's passing attack on Saturday and surrendered more than 40 points and more than 500 yards per game in Big Ten play.
12. Purdue (1-11, 0-8; last week: 12): The optimist sees a dynamic young quarterback in Danny Etling, who finished his freshman season with 485 pass yards and four touchdowns against Indiana, and a team that can only get better. The pessimist sees a Purdue squad that was the worst in recent Big Ten history and has much work to do on both sides of the ball to become competitive in coach Darrell Hazell's second season. A big offseason awaits Hazell and his staff as they can't go through another season like this one.
MINNEAPOLIS -- It's tradition in the Paul Bunyan's Axe series for the winning team to grab the axe and hunt down both goal posts for some pretend chopping.
That tradition hit a slight snag on Saturday night. After No. 19 Wisconsin downed No. 25 Minnesota 20-7, the Badgers rushed to the west end zone at TCF Bank Stadium and attacked one of the goal posts. When they carried the axe to the opposite end zone, however, they found the Gophers' players and coaches blocking their path.
Some heated words were exchanged. There was some shoving. Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said a security officer pointed a finger in his face and told his team to leave. The Badgers never got to that goal post.
"It's happened for as long as I've been alive, going to both goal posts," Wisconsin senior linebacker Chris Borland said. "They kind of crashed our party."
Wisconsin (9-2) has won six straight games since a 31-24 loss at Ohio State on Sept. 28, with all of those wins coming by at least 10 points. If this keeps up, it might prove difficult to keep Andersen's team from crashing the BCS party.
After three straight Rose Bowl trips, the Badgers are left hoping for an at-large bid since Ohio State clinched the Leaders Division spot in the Big Ten championship game on Saturday. They still need a sizable bump in the BCS standings, but perhaps a road win over a ranked team will provide that boost. Oregon's loss on Saturday might have also helped, as the Pac-12 might not get a second bid now.
Andersen has declined to campaign for his team. But they are doing the important work for him.
"When you have nine wins, you're very close to being a great football team," Andersen said. "I'm not so sure we're not a great team right now. If the season were over, I'd probably say they were a great team. But I don't want to tell them that yet."
Saturday's win was more of an efficient bloodletting than a showcase. The Gophers, who had won four straight Big Ten games behind some inspired play, went toe-to-toe with Wisconsin in the trenches early. Borland said it took some time to adjust to Minnesota's physical style, and the sub-zero wind chill didn't make the shoulder-pad slamming any more pleasant.
But after Minnesota grabbed a second-quarter lead on Aaron Hill's pick-six and then threatened again in Badgers territory, the Wisconsin defense clamped down. Brendan Kelly forced a fumble from quarterback Philip Nelson that Borland recovered, leading to an eventual touchdown. Another quick three-and-out defensive series set up a field goal for a 13-7 halftime lead.
Wisconsin caused a season-high three turnovers and limited Minnesota to just 185 total yards and 3.4 yards per play. For the third straight Big Ten game and the sixth time in 11 games overall, the Badgers defense did not allow an offensive touchdown.
"It's been fun to see this defense develop into what it is," Borland said.
The offense didn't do a whole lot after Joel Stave's third-quarter touchdown throw to Jared Abbrederis for the game's final points. But it says a lot that Wisconsin seemed disappointed with a 197-yard rushing effort.
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said earlier in the week that the Badgers had no weaknesses. That's not quite true, as special teams remain shaky. One of kicker Jack Russell's field goal tries took a dogleg left, and Andersen broke out a bizarre fourth-quarter fake-field goal play that lost 7 yards. He said he'd been holding on to that play for weeks, and that he would definitely scrap it now.
Everything else, however, has been going Wisconsin's way. Now it's a wait-and-see game with the BCS standings.
"I think this team has a lot of talent and deserves a little more recognition," defensive lineman Ethan Hemer said. "Hopefully, a win like this will put us in that spot."
On Saturday, the players were just happy to celebrate a 10th consecutive win over Minnesota, the longest by either side in the 123-year history of the rivalry. Borland hoisted freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton on his shoulders, and Shelton held up a whiteboard that read "10 straight." The many Badgers fans who made the trip chanted, "10 more years."
"Ten's a great number," Borland told ESPN.com. "That's a decade of dominance."
The Badgers have been dominating everybody for nearly two months. It remains to be seen whether they can chop their way through the BCS road blocks.
At steak: dinner at St. Elmo in Indianapolis.
Let's begin ...
ILLINOIS at PENN STATE
Brian Bennett: The last time Illinois coaches came to State College ... OK, that's old news by now. Both defenses are really struggling right now, but the Fighting Illini have even more issues than Penn State. And I expect the Nittany Lions to be much better at home than on the road the rest of the way. Allen Robinson scores three times in a big Penn State win. ... Penn State 42, Illinois 20
Adam Rittenberg: The Lions get well this week against an Illinois defense that hasn't stopped anyone lately. Bill Belton racks up 130 rush yards and two scores in establishing himself as the Lions' top back. Penn State's tight ends get more involved in the pass game as the Lions pull away early in the third quarter. ... Penn State 38, Illinois 21
WISCONSIN at IOWA
Rittenberg: It's great to have this rivalry back on the slate, and I expect an extremely physical game at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa jumps ahead early on a Damon Bullock touchdown run, but Wisconsin's offense kicks into gear after another long scoring run by Melvin Gordon on a jet sweep. Badgers quarterback Joel Stave finds wideout Jared Abbrederis for a fourth-quarter touchdown that proves to be the difference. ... Wisconsin 28, Iowa 21
Bennett: Very excited for this one and tempted to pick Iowa, whose three losses are to teams that are a combined 23-1 this season. But I also saw how Northwestern shut down the Hawkeyes' offense after the first drive last week, and that scares me away from choosing the home team. Stave has a nice game and throws for three touchdown passes after Iowa stacks the box defensively. ... Wisconsin 30, Iowa 20
OHIO STATE at PURDUE
Bennett: Can you say cruise control? That's what Ohio State will be on after scoring 21 points in the first 10 minutes on Saturday. Carlos Hyde has four touchdowns in the first half of a romp. ... Ohio State 56, Purdue 13
Rittenberg: Like they say at Harry's Chocolate Shop, this one will go ugly early. Although Ross-Ade Stadium usually brings out the worst in Ohio State, I expect another big game from Braxton Miller, who picks apart Purdue's secondary for three touchdown passes. Purdue's offense looks better than it did against Michigan State as Danny Etling connects with B.J. Knauf for a touchdown, but it's way too much Ohio State in this one. ... Ohio State 48, Purdue 10
MINNESOTA at INDIANA
Rittenberg: Minnesota's recent surge has been incredibly impressive, but I just don't like the matchup here for the Gophers. Indiana is playing for its bowl life and must win this game at home coming off of a bye. Unlike Minnesota's past two opponents, Indiana is healthy on offense and will strike with big-play threats Cody Latimer and Shane Wynn for some early scores. Minnesota's run game shows up again, but the Hoosiers use a big fourth quarter to get the W. ... Indiana 35, Minnesota 31
Bennett: Does Vegas know something here? Indiana is a solid favorite despite how well Minnesota is playing. Seems weird. But ... maybe the wiseguys are on to something. Indiana has had two weeks to prepare and figure out something defensively, and this will be one of the best offenses the Gophers have seen. I predict a big day for Tre Roberson as the Hoosiers temporarily halt Minnesota's nice run. ... Indiana 33, Minnesota 30.
MICHIGAN at MICHIGAN STATE
Bennett: Bottom line here is I know what I'm getting from Michigan State. I have no real idea what to expect from either side of the ball from Michigan. The Wolverines could come out and play great or turn the ball over a bunch of times. I'll side with the elite defense and the home team. The Spartans will force three turnovers, including a pick-six from Denicos Allen, and they will emerge as the leaders of the Legends. ... Michigan State 17, Michigan 14
Rittenberg: Michigan needs this game more than Michigan State. It could be the most important game in coach Brady Hoke's tenure to date. But Mark Dantonio is masterful in getting Michigan State in the right mindset to play Michigan, and the Spartans defense is the best unit on the field. MSU cornerback Darqueze Dennard records a key fourth-quarter interception against Devin Gardner, and the Spartans get two more rushing touchdowns from Jeremy Langford to rally for a win. ... Michigan State 21, Michigan 17
NORTHWESTERN at NEBRASKA
Rittenberg: Both teams seem fragile at the moment, and it's hard to confidently pick one over the other. This is a better matchup for Northwestern's offense to finally get on track, and Kain Colter has given Nebraska problems before. Colter takes the team on his back and scores three second-half touchdowns, including the game-winner in the final minute. Nebraska wastes another 150-yard rushing performance from Ameer Abdullah as Pelini Watch really begins. ... Northwestern 27, Nebraska 24
Bennett: Northwestern has given Nebraska trouble the past two seasons, but the Wildcats don't seem able to get out of their own way right now. Taylor Martinez sits this one out and the Huskers rely heavily on the run game, overcoming two costly fumbles to win on a late field goal. ... Nebraska 24, Northwestern 21.
You've heard from us. Now it's time to hear from one of you. As a reminder, throughout the season we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please), hometown and a brief description of why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.
This week's guest is Andrew Schout from Kansas City, Mo. Andrew, the floor is yours.
I am a Michigan State grad who just happens to be getting married the same day as the biggest football game of the year. As a football fan, I know the frustration/annoyance of missing a game due to a wedding. Now I'm the guy causing those feelings in others. On what's sure to be a big day, for more reasons than just the game, I'd enjoy the chance to be your guest picker! Thanks, Andrew S., Michigan State University, Class of 2005.
Congrats, Andrew! Here's a prediction from us: "Twist and Schout" will play at your wedding. And we might crash the reception.
Here are Andrew's Week 10 picks:
Penn State 34, Illinois 24
Wisconsin 24, Iowa 17
Ohio State 48, Purdue 10
Indiana 41, Minnesota 38
Michigan State 27, Michigan 16
Nebraska 26, Northwestern 20
Adam Rittenberg: 57-11
Brian Bennett: 57-11
Guest pickers: 52-16
But like other teams before and after, Northwestern found out that knowing that play is coming and stopping it are two very different things.
“Most teams have game-planned for it, and so did we,” Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald said this week. “We went 0-for-2 on it.”
Halloween isn’t until tomorrow, but the Gordon jet sweep series has been terrorizing opponents for about a year now and ranks as arguably the single most devastating play in the Big Ten.
“It’s always fun running that play in a game,” Gordon told ESPN.com. “If teams don’t get the right guys in the right place, you can break it for a long one.”
What we describe as the jet sweep series is really an option play. The Badgers can go at least three different ways with it, and they’re often highly successful.
It all begins with Gordon, the Big Ten’s leading rusher, lining up as a wide receiver. Before the snap, he goes into motion. If the quarterback hands Gordon the ball, he already has a head of steam, and Wisconsin usually places two tight ends on the play side along with the other wide receiver, who becomes a downfield blocker.
“It comes down to you and the safety and the cornerback,” Gordon said. “And 95 percent of the time, the tight end or the receiver is going to get the block. There’s always one guy you’ve got to make guy miss, but as a running back, you’ve got to take pride in making that one guy miss.”
Gordon is one of the best in the Big Ten at doing just that. With his speed, elusiveness and vision, getting him on the edge with a convoy of blockers is a frightening proposition for defenses.
Gordon gained 113 of his 193 rushing yards at Arizona State earlier this season on jet sweep carries, including an 80-yard touchdown run. A week after the package worked for two big scores against Northwestern, it resulted in a 28-yard Gordon run to set up a touchdown at Illinois.
“He gets out on the perimeter right now,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “You have to try to read and get to the perimeter as fast as you can. If you don’t, you’re going to have problems with that play.”
If Gordon were solely running a glorified end-around, then defenses could easily stop it. But Wisconsin also can use Gordon as a decoy and either A) hand it to James White, one of the most accomplished running backs in Big Ten history or B) throw downfield in almost certain single coverage to Abbrederis. On the 63-yard touchdown throw to Abbrederis versus Northwestern, quarterback Joel Stave faked to Gordon and then to White before stepping up in the pocket for the throw. Abbrederis was running free behind the Wildcats’ safety.
“It’s not an option play, but there are three different options off of it, and you’ve got to play each one the same way,” Fitzgerald said. “You have to stay disciplined with your eyes on the back end. On the big play to Jared, we did not get our safety rotation the right way.”
The Badgers began incorporating the jet sweep in the middle of last season as a way to get Gordon -- then the third-string running back behind White and Montee Ball -- involved in the offense. Then they broke it out in a big way against Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game. Gordon opened Wisconsin’s flood of scoring with a 56-yard touchdown off the jet sweep and ended up with 216 yards on only nine carries.
When Gary Andersen took over as head coach following the Rose Bowl, he and new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig knew not to fix what wasn’t broken.
“Andy had that play in his system prior [to Wisconsin], and without question, we looked at the success it had,” Andersen said. “It’s something Melvin is very good at, and we try to use kids’ talents to give them the opportunity to succeed at the highest level.”
Gordon said he expected the package to remain in the playbook for the new coaches, but he’s been surprised at how much they’ve used it this season. Other teams are not surprised to see the formation.
“Since the beginning of year, every time I go out there I hear them yelling ‘25! 25!’” said Gordon, who wears that number. “They’re checking and they’re moving around. I’m hearing them, so obviously they’re preparing for it.”
But as teams keep finding out, preparing for the jet sweep play and stopping it are two very different things.
Minnesota's historic upset of Nebraska provided the major shake-up in this week's rundown. The Gophers, who were No. 11 two weeks ago, have turned around their season with upset wins against both Northwestern and Nebraska. They've guaranteed a second consecutive bowl appearance and can make some noise in the Legends Division down the stretch. Iowa also looks like it will be going back to the postseason after an overtime win against Northwestern.
Michigan State moves up to No. 3 after pulling away from Illinois in Champaign, while Iowa moves up after its overtime win against slumping Northwestern. Penn State's historically bad night at Ohio State bumps the Lions down a few pegs.
Let's take one last look at the Week 8 rankings.
Now, for the fresh rundown:
1. Ohio State (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): There was no need for a second-half surge as Ohio State throttled Penn State from the get-go, picking up an easy win and the style points it has looked for in Big Ten play. After his near benching at Northwestern, quarterback Braxton Miller has performed like a Heisman Trophy candidate, picking apart Penn State's defense for 252 passing yards and three touchdowns. Ohio State racked up its highest-ever yardage total (686) against a Big Ten foe. The Buckeyes' defense recorded three takeaways. Ohio State now visits Purdue, a recent trouble spot.
2. Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1; last week: 2): The nation continues to sleep on the Badgers, but at some point the credit will come if Gary Andersen's crew continues to win. Wisconsin's second open week came at a good time as star linebacker Chris Borland had some extra time to heal from a hamstring injury. Borland should be good to go for this week's trip to Iowa, as Wisconsin reunites with its longtime rival for the first time since 2010. Andersen likes the way quarterback Joel Stave is progressing, and this week's game should provide a nice gauge.
3. Michigan State (7-1, 4-0; last week: 4): After a one-year hiatus, Michigan State is back in the Big Ten title race. The Spartans are the only Legends Division team without a Big Ten defeat and can take a huge step toward Indianapolis by beating rival Michigan this week. Quarterback Connor Cook and the offense got on track against Illinois, racking up 42 points and 477 total yards. When Cook is in rhythm, Jeremy Langford finds running room and the offensive line controls play, Michigan State is tough to beat. But the challenges will get tougher now.
4. Michigan (6-1, 2-1; last week: 5): Who are these Wolverines? The young, talented group that beat Notre Dame in September or the shaky, flawed squad that hasn't looked very impressive since Sept. 7? We'll finally get some real answers as Michigan begins a challenging November stretch this week at Michigan State. Devin Gardner and the offense scored at will against Indiana but face an exponentially tougher challenge against the Spartans' nationally elite defense. A second Big Ten loss would make it tough for Michigan to reach Indianapolis, given the remaining schedule.
5. Iowa (5-3, 2-2; last week: 7): After struggling against Northwestern's Kain Colter last year, Iowa's defense stepped up in a big way, shutting out the Wildcats for a half and recording six sacks, its highest total since the 2008 season. The linebacking corps was terrific, and so was Drew Ott. Quarterback Jake Rudock wasn't great but made the big throw when it counted to C.J. Fiedorowicz in overtime. Iowa is a win away from becoming bowl eligible as rival Wisconsin comes to Kinnick Stadium this week. The Hawkeyes get the edge against Minnesota for the five spot after dominating the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium.
7. Nebraska (5-2, 2-1; last week: 3): A four-spot drop in the rankings for one loss might seem harsh, but Nebraska invalidated any perceived progress since the UCLA game by struggling in all three phases in a loss at Minnesota. Despite his big-game flaws, Bo Pelini's teams typically had won the games they should win, but the Huskers fell apart after building a 10-0 lead. Quarterback Taylor Martinez looked very rusty and the defense couldn't stop Minnesota's ground game. Nebraska tries to get well against slumping Northwestern this week in Lincoln.
8. Penn State (4-3, 1-2; last week: 6): There will be better nights for quarterback Christian Hackenberg and Penn State, which fell behind quickly at Ohio State and never challenged the Buckeyes in the ugliest loss of the Bill O'Brien era. Penn State's defensive issues are very real, though, as the Lions have allowed more than 40 points in three consecutive games for the first time since 1899 (!). Hackenberg's health will be a storyline this week as Penn State faces Illinois. At least the Lions don't have any more open weeks.
9. Indiana (3-4, 1-2; last week: 9): It's still all about fixing the defense for Indiana, which had no answers for Jeremy Gallon, Gardner and Michigan in Week 8. The IU offense can strike and strike quickly, regardless of whether Tre Roberson or Nate Sudfeld is playing quarterback. Kevin Wilson's crew enters a critical home stretch against Minnesota and Illinois. IU likely needs to win both to have a chance of going bowling this year.
10. Northwestern (4-4, 0-4; last week: 10): Halloween arrives Thursday, but the nightmare has lasted four weeks for the Wildcats, whose October woes have reached a new low under Pat Fitzgerald. All of Northwestern's hallmarks -- great ball security, limited penalties, being great in the clutch -- seem to be going out the window. Fitzgerald has blamed himself and his staff for the recent struggles, and it's hard to disagree after the ultra-conservative decisions late in Saturday's loss to Iowa. Northwestern heads to Nebraska this week, as misery loves company.
11. Illinois (3-4, 0-3; last week: 11): The Illini's fast start seems like a distant memory now as they've been swallowed up in Big Ten play. Illinois' second consecutive home blowout loss makes a bowl game highly unlikely, and there are issues to address on both sides of the ball. A young defense is getting exposed by power running teams, as Michigan State had its way with the Illini. Bill Cubit is a creative play-caller, but Illinois needs something more against Big Ten defenses. Illinois had a meager eight first downs and 128 total yards against Michigan State.
12. Purdue (1-6, 0-3; last week: 12): The Boilers entered their second bye week feeling a bit better than they did entering their first. A stout defensive performance against Michigan State, particularly by Bruce Gaston and his fellow linemen, provides Purdue something to build on before the stretch run. Purdue now needs to get something going on offense. Ohio State comes to town this week, which should be special for Purdue coaches Darrell Hazell and Marcus Freeman.
The changes come in the league's second tier, as Northwestern continues its shocking tumble after a home loss to Minnesota, which moves up three spots. Iowa actually moves up despite a loss, as we liked the Hawkeyes' game plan and execution against Ohio State. Indiana also holds steady after nearly winning a shootout at the Big House.
Let's take one final look at the Week 7 rankings.
Now for the fresh rundown ...
1. Ohio State (7-0, 3-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): Another test passed for Ohio State, which overcame a plucky Iowa team with a stellar second half behind quarterback Braxton Miller (222 pass yards, 2 TDs, 102 rush yards) and running back Carlos Hyde (149 rush yards, 2 TDs). The Buckeyes also survived the ejection of star cornerback Bradley Roby in the first quarter and limited Iowa's offense to one big play in the second half. The defense once again will be challenged this week as Christian Hackenberg, Allen Robinson and Penn State visit Columbus.
2. Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1; last week: 2): Ohio State retains its spot atop the rankings with a perfect record, but Wisconsin has looked like the Big Ten's most dominant team of late. After crushing Northwestern at Camp Randall Stadium, the Badgers went on the road and steamrolled Illinois, as running backs Melvin Gordon (142 rush yards, 3 TDs) and James White (98 rush yards, 2 TDs, 29 receiving yards, 1 TD) did their thing and Joel Stave had an extremely efficient performance (16 of 21 passing, 189 yards, 2 TDs). The second open week comes at a good time as linebacker Chris Borland must get healthy for the stretch run, which features some tricky games.
3. Nebraska (5-1, 2-0; last week: 3): The Huskers might be the Legends Division favorite at this point, as they get Michigan State at home. Quarterback Taylor Martinez should make his return from turf toe this week against Minnesota as Nebraska tries to keep building momentum before the season's defining month. Martinez needs some work before the schedule gets tougher, and the Huskers' offensive line plays its first game without standout guard Spencer Long.
4. Michigan State (6-1, 3-0; last week: 4): A shutout of Purdue wasn't surprising. Neither was another defensive touchdown, Michigan State's fifth of the season, courtesy of linebacker Denicos Allen. But Michigan State's offense took a step backward, as the line struggled to control Purdue's defensive front and Connor Cook completed only 13 passes for 107 yards. The Spartans will need to be sharper this week against Illinois and particularly when the schedule gets tougher in November.
5. Michigan (6-1, 2-1; last week: 5): We think Jeremy Gallon just caught another long pass. Gallon set a Big Ten single-game record with 369 receiving yards (second most in FBS history), while quarterback Devin Gardner set team records for pass yards (503) and total yards (584) and accounted for five total touchdowns. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint added 151 yards and four touchdowns. Michigan needed all the offense to win a shootout with Indiana at the Big House. As for the defense? A problem for another day. Michigan has two weeks to prepare for its Nov. 2 showdown at Michigan State.
6. Penn State (4-2, 1-1; last week: 7): The off week came at a good time for Penn State after a physically and emotionally draining four-overtime win against Michigan. The Lions had more diversity in their passing game against the Wolverines and will need the same -- as well as strong run production -- to keep pace with Ohio State on Saturday in Columbus. Penn State has won two of its past three games at Ohio Stadium and could play spoiler down the stretch in Leaders Division play.
7. Iowa (4-3, 1-2; last week: 8): Credit Iowa for an excellent game plan coming off the open week. The Hawkeyes racked up 17 first-half points against Ohio State and controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Ultimately, better talent won out as Iowa couldn't keep pace with Miller, Hyde and the Buckeyes, but the Hawkeyes certainly could make some noise down the stretch in the wide-open Legends Division. Sophomore tight end Jake Duzey (6 receptions, 138 yards, 1 TD) gives Jake Rudock another weapon in the passing game. Iowa returns home this week to face sputtering Northwestern.
8. Minnesota (5-2, 1-2; last week: 11): The bye week clearly paid off for Minnesota, and so did a halftime pep talk from coach Jerry Kill, who made his presence felt at Ryan Field without being on the sideline. Minnesota dominated the line of scrimmage, as defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, running back David Cobb and quarterback Philip Nelson, who relieved Mitch Leidner, stepped up in the final three quarters. The Gophers took advantage of a short-handed Northwestern team and overcame several bad calls to record a big road win. Up next: Nebraska at home.
9. Indiana (3-4, 1-2; last week: 9): The Hoosiers are high on entertainment value, boasting the Big Ten's best quick-strike offense and quite possibly the league's best group of wide receivers. But all those highlights and points still aren't translating to enough wins. It's the same movie with IU, with an A-plus offense and a D-minus defense, which surrendered an unacceptable 63 points and 751 yards to Michigan on Saturday. Tre Roberson was brilliant at Michigan and seemed to pass by Nate Sudfeld in the quarterback pecking order. But the defense remains the team's top priority entering the open week.
10. Northwestern (4-3, 0-3; last week: 6): The free-fall continues for a Wildcats team that was No. 2 in the power rankings just two weeks ago. Remember when Northwestern held a fourth-quarter lead against Ohio State? Key injuries certainly have played a role in Northwestern's downfall, but quarterback Trevor Siemian seems to be regressing and so is the offensive line. A bowl game suddenly is no guarantee for the Wildcats, who need to get Kain Colter and Venric Mark healthy and refocus for the stretch run. They visit Iowa this week.
11. Illinois (3-3, 0-2; last week: 10): The Illini needed a fast start coming off the open week against Wisconsin but stumbled out of the gate, falling behind 21-0 on their home field before course-correcting in the second quarter. Quarterback play wasn't the issue, as Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole combined to complete 25 of 32 passes for 318 yards, but two fumbles led to Wisconsin touchdowns and Illinois' defense couldn't slow down the Badgers. The Illini need at least one upset down the stretch to have a chance to reach six wins and a bowl.
12. Purdue (1-6, 0-3; last week: 12): Darrell Hazell's squad can build on Saturday's road performance against Michigan State, especially a Boilers defense that allowed just one score and repeatedly penetrated the backfield. The offense had several chances but couldn't finish drives in Spartans territory. Purdue needs to clean up its pass protection after allowing five sacks, but if Bruce Gaston Jr. and the defensive front continues to step up, a win could be coming down the stretch. The Boilers have a week off before hosting Ohio State.
Let's get it started
INDIANA at MICHIGAN STATE
Brian Bennett: Ah, what can top the majesty of a trophy modeled after a spit receptacle? This is a fascinating game in terms of an offense versus defense showdown. I think Indiana can make some plays in its passing game, but Michigan State's improving offense, behind Connor Cook and a strong running game behind Jeremy Langford, makes the difference. Michigan State 28, Indiana 21
Adam Rittenberg: I love the matchup of strength (Michigan State's defense) versus strength (Indiana's offense) at Spartan Stadium. It'll be a mixed bag for Hoosiers quarterback Nate Sudfeld with two touchdown passes and two interceptions, but Michigan State once again contains the run game and gets a pick-six from Trae Waynes. The Spartans offense is gaining confidence at the right time, and wideout Macgarrett Kings adds two more touchdowns as Michigan State uses a big third quarter to win again. Michigan State 30, Indiana 20
NEBRASKA at PURDUE
Rittenberg: Taylor Martinez watches as Tommy Armstrong Jr. leads the offense to another big performance against a leaky Purdue defense. Armstrong fires a first-half touchdown pass and Ameer Abdullah goes for 130 yards and two scores. Boilers quarterback Danny Etling sparks his team to an early lead before Nebraska takes control in the second quarter. Nebraska 38, Purdue 21
Bennett: Nebraska hits the road for the first time, but there's nowhere you'd rather play right now in this league than West Lafayette, Ind., if you have to leave home. I agree that Abdullah will have a monster game, and the Huskers pick Etling off twice in a dominant effort. Nebraska 38, Purdue 14
NORTHWESTERN at WISCONSIN
Bennett: Is there any way this can end except in a close game and a tough loss for one of these teams? I say no, especially since these could be the second- and third-best teams in the league, in some order. Northwestern grabs an early 10-point lead, but Wisconsin comes back on a pair of Joel Stave touchdown passes to Jared Abbrederis. Wisconsin 33, Northwestern 30
Rittenberg: The Wildcats commit more defenders to the run in this one, but Melvin Gordon still breaks loose for two long touchdown runs. Wisconsin has some trouble with Northwestern's pass game, and the Wildcats record a special-teams touchdown from Venric Mark. But the Badgers surge in the fourth quarter behind Gordon, James White and a powerful offensive line as Northwestern's close-game heartbreak continues. Wisconsin 31, Northwestern 27
MICHIGAN at PENN STATE
Rittenberg: I'm going with the upset here as feisty Bill O'Brien lights a fire under his team, which plays a much better game under the lights before the home faithful. It's be a shootout, and both Christian Hackenberg and Devin Gardner eclipse 250 pass yards. But Gardner commits a turnover midway through the fourth quarter, and Penn State scores in the final minute on an Akeel Lynch run. Penn State 38, Michigan 35
Bennett: This should be a close one, as both teams have strengths but also some glaring issues. O'Brien commits to the run game early and Zach Zwinak scores two touchdowns, but Penn State's issues in the secondary are exposed by Gardner and Jeremy Gallon, and Gardner scoots in for the winning score with less than two minutes left. Michigan 28, Penn State 24.
That's how we see things playing out Saturday afternoon, but we're not done yet. It's time to hear from our guest picker. As a reminder, throughout the season we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please), hometown and a brief description why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.
This week's guest picker is Barry Uphoff from Palo Alto, Calif. Barry, the floor is yours
I should be your Big Ten guest picker of the week! Was born in Nebraska, have lived in Chicago and been in every stadium in the Big Ten to see a game -- Lincoln is of course my favorite. So why should I be the guest picker for the week? Living in Pac-12 land, especially Palo Alto, is tough! Anything I can do to spend more time on the Big Ten and less time hearing about the Pac-12, the better. If I have to see or hear about the dancing tree one more time, I am going to chop the tree down! Sincerely, George Washington.
(Editor's note: As a Berkeley, Calif., native, I can't stand the Tree, either. Adam)
Here are Barry's Week 7 picks
Michigan State 31, Indiana 21
Nebraska 35, Purdue 24
Wisconsin 35, Northwestern 28
Michigan 27, Penn State 24
Adam Rittenberg: 47-8
Brian Bennett: 47-8
Guest pickers: 42-13
In between, he has grown, well, kind of old. He got married two springs ago. He will be 23 if and when Wisconsin closes its season in a bowl game. Three years ago, he hosted his current quarterback, Joel Stave, on Stave's official visit. The two have since connected for seven scores over the last two seasons, and even Stave sometimes gets that you again? feeling that Big Ten defensive coordinators have become all too familiar with.
"That seems like forever ago for me," Stave said of his visit. "And the fact that he's still the playing is pretty incredible. But he's continued to do such a good job for four years. He's one of those guys you don't mind having stick around."
But Abbrederis would rather avoid such sidebars. That Buckeye game was a loss -- his Badgers' second this year, two weeks after an officiating gaffe cost them a chance to win at Arizona State -- and that was all that mattered. Wisconsin's last 12 losses since 2010 have all been decided by a touchdown or less, including three tight Rose Bowl defeats, leaving an admonition that continues to drum inside the senior's head.
"He's been around for some unbelievable losses," Wisconsin receivers coach Chris Beatty said. "So that's where I think a lot of it comes from -- 'Hey, I just want to win,' and it doesn't matter.
"He's one of those guys that says, 'Hey, if it means I've got to push, crack and go block a safety, I'll go block a safety. I just want to win. It doesn't matter if I'm catching passes or not.' And that's the most evident thing to me, is he's just a winner. Stats and all that stuff are secondary."
Abbrederis leads the Badgers in receiving yards (114.4 ypg) for the third straight season. His exploits as a return man were highlighted in 2011, when he finished third nationally in punt return average (15.75). He was still a walk-on that season, just like his first two years in Madison, paying to play while enduring a nagging toe injury as his seemingly imminent scholarship was delayed a year after Wisconsin added a quarterback transfer by the name of Russell Wilson.
Both Beatty and first-year Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen were familiar with Abbrederis before their arrivals in Madison, since their former schools (Illinois and Utah State, respectively) faced Wisconsin last year. Abbrederis missed the meeting with the Aggies because of a concussion and a chest injury. That was the only college game he has sat out.
This past July, he showed up to Big Ten media days in Chicago sporting marks under both eyes, a result of a broken nose suffered during summer workouts.
"You get what you see with Jared," Andersen said. "There are no secret agendas, no hidden agendas. He comes to work every day and he has a smile on his face. He loves life. That was my first impression of him and that carries through today."
Beatty was initially struck by the size of Abbrederis, who is listed at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds and whose prep coach said he was 175 pounds soaking wet as a high school junior. Then, he was hanging with some of Wautoma High's offensive linemen by squatting upward of 390 pounds. One year earlier, a broken right femur and ACL injury had cost him most of his first year as the varsity's starting quarterback, leaving him wheelchair-bound for parts of his recovery before he made it back in time to place in that spring's state track and field meet.
"That was the start of seeing that ‘If there's a challenge, I'm going to rise above it,'" said former Wautoma assistant and current head coach Mike Klieforth. "And he's done that every time he's had that challenge; he's met it and exceeded it."
“Abbrederis has risen from walk-on to go-to threat while playing for three offensive coordinators in the last three years, but signature wins have remained just out of reach -- be it the trio of shortcomings in Pasadena, the three different overtime defeats in 2012 or the 2011 loss at Michigan State, a game that ended with Abbrederis, moonlighting as a defensive back, mistiming his jump on a Hail Mary that deflected into a completion for the Spartan win.
You get what you see with Jared. There are no secret agendas, no hidden agendas. He comes to work every day and he has a smile on his face. He loves life. That was my first impression of him and that carries through today.” -- Wisconsin coach Gary Anderson
"We've been in some big games, some close ones, came up in short in a lot of them," said Abbrederis, who gained 346 all-purpose yards but lost a fumble late in a Rose Bowl loss to Oregon two seasons ago. "But I think that's just Wisconsin. The way we work, you always kind of have that chip on your shoulder to improve and get better, kind of always the underdog. So it's just the mentality, and also just being a walk-on, you kind of have that chip on your shoulder to make it and get better."
Abbrederis has caught the attention of former Badger walk-on receiver Luke Swan, now in his third year with the program as a graduate assistant. Swan sees a lot of himself in Abbrederis -- another undersize, in-state native with a strong Christian faith who grew into a starting role. And Swan appreciates his new pupil's need for feedback and initiative to get better.
"He really takes things personal, whether it's individual failures or team failures, they're very much links for him," Swan said. "He sees the small margin for a win and a loss, the small margin between being good and being great as a team. So I think he kind of has that constant quest of understanding that big perspective."
Five years ago, before his final high school game, Abbrederis wanted to show his teammates how much they meant to him. He penned a letter thanking them all, and it was passed around on the 90-minute bus ride to Camp Randall for the WIAA Division 4 state title. Then Wautoma went out and blanked previously undefeated Big Foot, 20-0, with Abbrederis rushing for one touchdown, throwing for another and picking off two passes.
Said then-Wautoma coach Dennis Moon: "You just want to play to the best of your abilities, above and beyond your abilities, when you've got a guy like that around you."