NCF Nation: Joey Bosa

Top Big Ten players: Nos. 10-6

July, 31, 2014
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This week, we're counting down the Top 25 players in the Big Ten. Our reporting crew voted to select the list based on past performance and future potential.

The countdown started on Monday with the first five players, then climbed up to No. 16 on Tuesday before we reached No. 11 Wednesday. Next up is Nos. 6 through 10.

10. Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State Spartans: It took the Spartans a few weeks last season to settle on a starter, but there are certainly no doubts anymore. All Cook did was toss 23 touchdowns to seven interceptions while leading MSU to a conference title and a Rose Bowl victory. The question mark on the Spartans was always the offense, but Cook helped replace that with an exclamation mark and has gained a reputation as one of the Big Ten’s best as a result.

9. Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State Buckeyes: Say hello to a big reason the Buckeyes boasted one of the top 10 run defenses in the country last season. The 288-pound lineman is the anchor and leader of this line, and he should be in for another solid season. He had 11.5 stops in the backfield last season and had his hand in five fumbles (three forced, two recovered). His burst should give opposing interior linemen a lot of problems in 2014.

8. Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State: He’s only a sophomore, but he’s already in the preseason conversation as the B1G’s defensive player of the year. He started 10 games last season, played like at a veteran at points and improved as the season wore on. Bosa ended 2013 by recording a tackle for loss in his last six games. It’s scary to think where he might be in another two years.

7. Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State Nittany Lions: NFL Draft: Will Hackenberg go No. 1 in 2016? That was a headline from The Sporting News back in February and for good reason -- Hackenberg appears to be the Nittany Lions’ best pocket passer since Kerry Collins, who was taken in the first round of the 1995 NFL draft. He can make all the throws, upset 25-point favorite Wisconsin last season and should be even better this season. The only question is whether his patchwork offensive line and inexperienced receivers will be able to keep up.

6. Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State: He’s the best defensive player on the best defense in the Big Ten, and maybe one of the top defenses in the country. He makes plays at key moments -- his three defensive TDs last season tied a school record that was set 67 years ago -- and his efforts were rewarded by being named Big Ten defensive lineman of the year. He’s an All-American talent and one of the best the B1G has to offer.
If the preseason All-America teams are any indication, the Big Ten will have a very good year in the offensive backfield -- both carrying the ball out of it and penetrating it.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Reese Strickland/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon has averaged a gaudy 8.1 yards per rushing attempt during his career.
Running back and defensive line appear to be the league's two strongest position groups -- possibly by a wide margin -- entering the 2014 season. Athlon on Monday came out with its preseason All-America teams, following up Phil Steele, who released his last week. Three Big Ten players made Athlon's first team: Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett and Michigan State punter Mike Sadler. Four other defensive linemen -- Nebraska's Randy Gregory (second team), Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun (second team), Ohio State's Joey Bosa (fourth team) and Iowa's Carl Davis (fourth team) -- made one of the remaining three teams, and two other running backs -- Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah (second team) and Michigan State's Jeremy Langford (fourth team) -- also appear.

Steele had Bennett and Calhoun on his first team, Gregory and Bosa on his second team and Davis on his third team. Like Athlon, he lists Gordon as a first-team running back and Abdullah on the second team. It's interesting to see Calhoun getting a bit more love than Gregory, even though Gregory led the Big Ten in sacks and is projected as a higher draft pick.

Not sure about you, but I can't wait for Calhoun and Gregory to share the field Oct. 4 at Spartan Stadium, or for longtime friends Gordon and Abdullah to match up on Nov. 15 at Camp Randall Stadium. Both matchups should be fun to watch all season.

It's not unusual for defensive line and running back to headline the Big Ten. Both positions historically are strong in the league, especially defensive line. A potential concern is that only one quarterback -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller -- and zero wide receivers make any of Athlon's teams. Steele has two Big Ten wideouts, Maryland's Stefon Diggs and Michigan's Devin Funchess (has played tight end but listed as a receiver), on his third team. Still, it's clear these are two positions where the Big Ten continues to need upgrades.

Other Athlon preseason All-America selections include: Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff (second team), Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman (third team), Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond (third team), Ohio State punter Cameron Johnston (third team), Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan (fourth team), Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes (fourth team) and Northwestern punt returner Venric Mark (fourth team).

The Big Ten is tied with the Pac-12 for third among overall Athlon All-America selections with 18, trailing both the ACC (27) and SEC (26).


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer is always trying to find new ways to motivate his players.

Last spring, he had a banner put up in the Ohio State field house reading “The Chase …” in reference to the Buckeyes’ championship pursuits. Meyer said he thought about changing the display for the 2014 offseason. In the end, though, he stuck with the same one.

“We didn’t accomplish it,” Meyer told ESPN.com. “We chased it but didn’t catch it. So the chase is still on.”

Ohio State, of course, nearly made it to its desired finish line. After going 12-0 for the second straight season under Meyer, the Buckeyes just needed to beat Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game to clinch a date with Florida State for the BCS national title. Instead, they fell 34-24 to the Spartans and closed the year on a two-game losing streak with a 40-35 setback against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteUrban Meyer says Ohio State is still trying to finish "The Chase."
So the chase continues, albeit with a much different-looking team in the 2014 starting gate. Gone is four-fifths of the offensive line that formed the backbone of the Big Ten’s top-scoring offense the past two seasons. Also gone are reigning Big Ten running back of the year Carlos Hyde and top receiver Corey “Philly” Brown, as well as the two biggest stars on defense -- linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby -- who opted to enter the NFL draft.

Experience is lacking in many key areas, but Meyer is ready to let some talented youngsters loose, including true freshmen. In retrospect, he wishes he had done so last year, when defensive end Joey Bosa and receiver Dontre Wilson were the only first-year players to make a big impact until safety Vonn Bell started in the Orange Bowl.

“We redshirted too many last year, and that was our fault,” he said. “There was a misunderstanding, and we just didn’t do a good job, especially on defense. When they show up on campus, we need to get them ready to play.”

This spring, early enrollees Raekwon McMillan (linebacker), Curtis Samuel (tailback) and Johnnie Dixon (receiver) were all heavily involved and have secured roles in the fall. Redshirt freshman are also at or near the top of the depth chart at strongside linebacker (Darron Lee and Chris Worley) and cornerback (Gareon Conley and Eli Apple), while true sophomores like safety Cam Burrows and tailback Ezekiel Elliott could force their way into the starting lineup.

“When you talk about inexperience, that’s a good thing right now,” said Chris Ash, who was hired from Arkansas as co-defensive coordinator to help fix Ohio State’s pass defense. “There aren’t a lot of habits that we have to change to fit what we’re trying to do. We don’t have older guys that are comfortable with where they’re at in their careers.”

An already young offense became even greener this spring because of injuries to three senior leaders: tight end Jeff Heuerman, receiver Evan Spencer and quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes will no doubt look a lot different when Miller returns from shoulder surgery. During the 15 spring practices, the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year often stood behind the offense and wore a camera on his head so coaches could go over what he was seeing on the field.

“We're exhausting every avenue and even inventing different avenues to make sure he's engaged and getting mental reps,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “We're doing the best we can with a bad situation. He has embraced it and is working his tail off, making sure he’s getting the most out of it.”

Herman says the Buckeyes should be more explosive on the perimeter this season, with guys like Wilson, Dixon, junior college transfer Corey Smith, sophomore Michael Thomas and freshman Jalin Marshall at receiver and a stable of athletic tailbacks. The safeties are longer and quicker than they have been in the past, and the defensive line -- which could be one of the nation’s best -- will have four starters who all used to be defensive ends.

The objective is clear: more speed. To that end, Meyer has hammered a new mantra in the players' heads: “4 to 6, A to B.” That means play hard for four to six seconds and get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. It's hard to interview an Ohio State player these days without hearing the phrase.

“That’s all he’s been preaching this spring.” defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. “He said he’s not really worried about technique and all that stuff. It’s just about playing hard, because if you play hard, effort makes up for mistakes.”

Washington said the defense was greatly simplified this spring, with only about four or five different calls to learn. Aggressiveness trumped scheme.

“The culture of Ohio State is to go hard, not trick you,” Meyer said. “I just felt like there was too much stuff last year, instead of just going hard.”

By moving faster and playing harder, the Buckeyes hope to overcome their youth and track down what they've been hunting. They have been tantalizingly close.

“We’re still on a chase,” Washington said. “We’ve just got to finish it.”

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer seemed to be guarding a secret, and it couldn’t be deciphered by reading between the lines.

The Ohio State coach joked about being a little bored by his spring game, expressed some frustration about the lack of offensive execution and stressed that there was plenty of work to do at a few key positions heading into the offseason.

But the truth about how good his third team at Ohio State might be was tucked away on the sidelines, leaving little to truly evaluate between them as the Gray beat the Scarlet 17-7 on Saturday at the Horseshoe. And based on the number of players he held out of the spring-closing scrimmage, it might be a safe bet that Meyer is actually feeling pretty good about what he has returning in the fall.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe spring game didn't say much about Urban Meyer's Buckeyes. And he seems fine with that.
“There were guys out there who will either never play or they’re not ready to play now,” Meyer said. “Like, [Ohio State sports information director] Jerry [Emig] hands me stats, I’m not sure what to do with these. I don’t care.

“... We all know what we saw out there. It’s not the Ohio State Buckeyes.”

Exhibition games rarely provide much of a reliable gauge for how good a team might truly be, and in the case of the Buckeyes, that might have been by design.

Braxton Miller was already on the shelf as he finishes up his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. Having the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year and a three-year starter at quarterback out of the equation obviously changes the complexion of the Ohio State offense. Cardale Jones was productive enough throughout camp to win the backup job, but his 14-of-31 passing performance Saturday was yet another reminder of the importance of having a healthy Miller to lead the attack.

Meyer indicated there was some uncertainty about his receiving corps after the spring game, but he had enough faith in Devin Smith and Dontre Wilson that he didn’t feel the need to press either of them into action over the weekend -- aside from a cameo appearance by the latter in a race against students at halftime.

And after watching what could be one of the most talented defensive lines in the country terrorize a rebuilding offensive line throughout camp over the last month, Meyer certainly didn’t need to see any more from Noah Spence, Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett or Adolphus Washington to boost his confidence heading into the summer, adding to the list of starters who effectively were allowed to take the day off.

Cornerback Doran Grant was largely an observer as well, though he did make an appearance to win the halftime derby and became the “fastest student” on campus. Projected first-team guard Pat Elflein was a scratch, and presumptive starting running back Ezekiel Elliott only touched the football three times. Tight end Jeff Heuerman was on crutches after foot surgery, but he’ll be back in time for the conditioning program next month.

So while the game itself left little worth remembering aside from what appeared to be marked improvement and depth in the secondary and another handful of mesmerizing catches from Michael Thomas, there were actually clues littered around Ohio Stadium that Meyer is poised to unleash his most talented team since taking over the program in 2012 and rattling off 24 consecutive wins.

The trick was knowing where to look.

“[The spring game] was a chance to see some young guys [who] really haven’t played, and to be quite honest, I’m not sure how much they will play,” Meyer said. “This is a chance for a lot of guys in our program who work very hard, and to be able to get some guys play or catch a pass in Ohio Stadium or whatever, in the big picture it’s the right thing to do.

“It’s a great thrill for a lot of people.”

The real thrills, of course, don’t come for a few months. And based on the amount of players who didn’t get to actually step between the lines on Saturday, Meyer might not-so-secretly have plenty to be excited about by fall.
If Minnesota continues to ascend, its coaches will start bringing in more recruits who resemble Ra'Shede Hageman.

Until then, the staff will continue to find prospects who resemble Theiren Cockran -- and then go to work.

"We're in the department of development," Minnesota defensive line coach Jeff Phelps said.

As Minnesota says goodbye to Hageman, a freakish defensive tackle who achieved his prodigious potential in his final college season, it turns to Cockran, the latest developmental discovery for the Gophers' coaches. Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun and Nebraska's Randy Gregory are the launching points for any discussion of Big Ten defensive ends entering the 2014 season. Ohio State's Joey Bosa and Noah Spence inserted themselves into the conversation with impressive sack totals last season.

[+] EnlargeTheiren Cockran
AP Photo/Kevin TanakaDefensive end Theiren Cockran will command a lot more attention from Minnesota's opponents in 2014.
But Cockran belongs as well, even if many around the league haven't heard of the Minnesota junior. He led the Big Ten in forced fumbles per game (four in 13 contests) and finished third in the league in sacks per game (7.5) and 10th in tackles for loss (10). Cockran had three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in league games.

"His development is coming along as we thought it would," Phelps said. "We knew it wasn't going to be in Year 1. Year 2 was a learning experience for him, and he's been able to become a better football player because of that."

Opinions differ on how much Cockran weighed when he made traveled from Homestead, Fla., to Minneapolis. Cockran says he was around 215 pounds, but Phelps admits, "That might be stretching it a little bit."

Minnesota listed the 6-foot-6 Cockran at 210 pounds in its announcement of the 2010 recruiting class. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said Cockran was only about 190 pounds when the staff, then at Northern Illinois, first started recruiting him.

"We thought, hey, that's a kid we might have a chance to [sign]," Claeys recalled, "because he won't have the size that some of the big boys are looking for. Some of those you hit on. Some don't get big enough to help you and some do."

Despite Cockran's size, the Minnesota coaches always pegged him as a defensive end, even in the Big Ten. They rarely shy away from lighter ends, especially if they have superior speed to rush the passer.

Cockran had both speed and length, thanks to a wingspan of 6 feet, 9.5 inches, which helps keep offensive tackles away. But he needed to get bigger.

"I didn't want to rush it because I wanted to be able to keep my speed," Cockran said. "After a while, I just had the weight come to me naturally through the weight training and things like that, eating healthy and trying to stay healthy."

He now weighs about 250 pounds. Phelps would like to see him around 255 when the season kicks off, and Cockran's long-term target weight is between 260-265 pounds.

Cockran knew he didn't come in as a finished product. He also knew what can happen with the right development. Minnesota coaches often talk about Larry English, a defensive end who added about 30 pounds during his time at Northern Illinois, won consecutive MAC defensive player of the year awards and was a first-round pick in the 2009 NFL draft.

"I've definitely watched him on film," said Cockran, who redshirted in 2011 and appeared in all 13 games as a reserve in 2012, recording six tackles and a sack. "He didn't take any plays off. He chased plays down from the back side; he chased plays down on the field. That's what made him a great player."

Cockran also benefited from being around Hageman, a former high school tight end and basketball star who used his length, athleticism and strength at defensive tackle, a spot typically reserved for boxier players. Hageman was one of the first players Cockran met after arriving at Minnesota.

"I was wondering to myself, 'Who is this guy?'" Cockran recalled. "Ever since, I watched him. He plays with aggression. He loves the game. He showed me how to be physical, how to train in the offseason, how to work hard in the weight room.

"I took a lot from him."

[+] EnlargeRa'Shede Hageman
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota defensive standout Ra'Shede Hageman has been a mentor to Theiren Cockran the last three years.
Hageman led off every opponent's scouting report. His size helped him knock down eight passes, second-most on the team, and he led the Gophers with 13 tackles for loss.

Without Hageman commanding double-teams in the middle, Cockran figures to get more attention this fall.

"He opened some people's eyes a little bit around the conference," Phelps said. "With Ra'Shede's departure, who might be the next big threat? T.C. might be that guy, but he's got to continue to be that threat off the edge of a guy who can beat you with speed and power."

Cockran had some contact with the University of South Florida during the recruiting process, but few in-state schools showed much interest. It didn't bother him, as he wanted to leave Florida and experience "something new."

After Jerry Kill moved from Northern Illinois to Minnesota, Cockran visited campus just before signing day.

A late January trip to Minneapolis might not be an ideal recruiting tool, especially for a player from sun-splashed Florida. But for Cockran, it worked.

"It was love at first sight," he said. "Compared to places I've been, people here in Minnesota are very nice, very welcoming. They have great attitudes here. They welcome you with open arms."

Cockran will be a fan favorite this fall if he builds on his strong sophomore season. The skinny recruit from Florida is now a fourth-year junior who boasts a unique mix of height, length, speed and power.

He also knows what it takes to be great after being around Hageman and studying defensive ends such as English and Aldon Smith, the long-armed San Francisco 49ers star who Cockran tries to mimic in games.

"He's really on a true timeline," Claeys said, "in developing as a player."

Big Ten all-bowl team

January, 9, 2014
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The Big Ten went 2-5 in bowl games for the second consecutive season, but there were notable performances around the league, even in losing efforts.

Here's a look at ESPN.com's Big Ten all-bowl squad:

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook threw for 332 yards and two TDs to lead the Spartans to a Rose Bowl win over Stanford.
QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State: He followed his first career 300-yard passing performance in the Big Ten championship with his second in the Rose Bowl against Stanford. Cook overcame an ugly pick-six to pass for a career-high 332 yards and two touchdowns on 22 of 36 attempts. He earned offensive player of the game honors.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: The Badgers featured Gordon, who will return next year, in the Capital One Bowl and received good production, as the sophomore rushed for 143 yards on 25 carries. His fumble in the closing minutes allowed South Carolina to run out the clock, but he showed his typical explosiveness as well as durability that should help him in the 2014 season.

RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: Abdullah ended a tremendous junior season with his 11th 100-yard rushing performance as Nebraska upset Georgia in the Gator Bowl. He finished with 122 rush yards and a touchdown on 27 carries.

WR: Quincy Enunwa, Nebraska: Enunwa ended his Huskers career with his best performance, recording a career-high 129 receiving yards and two touchdowns, including a 99-yarder in the third quarter that proved to be the winner. He broke Nebraska's single-season record with 12 touchdowns and earned bowl MVP honors.

WR: Tony Lippett, Michigan State: MSU leaned on its passing game to open up the deep middle, and Lippett repeatedly attacked Stanford's vulnerable secondary. He had five receptions for a career-high 94 yards, and his 25-yard touchdown reception early in the fourth quarter ended up being the winner. His five receptions marked the most by a Spartans receiver in a Rose Bowl.

TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota: The Gophers' offense wasn't pretty in a disappointing Texas Bowl loss to Syracuse, but Williams again provided a bright spot in a mostly meek passing attack. The freshman led Minnesota with five receptions for 76 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

C: Cole Pensick, Nebraska: Pensick returned to the center spot after playing several games at guard and helped Nebraska to a win. Georgia had only one sack, and the Huskers rushed for 144 yards.

OL: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: Costigan and his fellow linemen held up well against Jadeveon Clowney and Co., as the Badgers racked up 293 rush yards on 43 attempts.

OL: Blake Treadwell, Michigan State: The Spartans' co-captain graded out well in the Rose Bowl as MSU had success moving the ball against a strong Stanford defense.

OL: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin: Like Costigan, Havenstein helped Gordon and James White both eclipse 100 rushing yards against South Carolina, which recorded only one sack in the game.

OL: Jack Allen, Michigan State: Allen was among three Spartans linemen not to allow a sack and aided an offense that racked up 21 first downs and 24 points against Stanford.

DEFENSE

DE: Jason Ankrah, Nebraska: Another Husker who shined in his final college game, Ankrah recorded two sacks, a forced fumble and two quarterback hurries as the line applied good pressure on Georgia backup quarterback Hutson Mason. It marked the first multi-sack performance of Ankrah's career.

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesOhio State's Joey Bosa made plenty of big hits in the Orange Bowl, including this one on Clemson's Tajh Boyd that resulted in a safety after Boyd was called for intentional grounding.
DE: Joey Bosa, Ohio State: If you're looking for reasons to feel optimistic about Ohio State's beleaguered defense, Bosa certainly provides a big one. The freshman made his presence known in the Orange Bowl despite an ankle injury, combining with linebacker Joshua Perry to force a first-quarter safety. He finished with five tackles, including a sack.

DT: Micajah Reynolds, Michigan State: The 307-pound Reynolds clogged the middle and helped Michigan State shut down Stanford's running attack for the final three quarters of the Rose Bowl. He recorded a team-high two tackles for loss and finished with four solo tackles in his final college game.

DT: Thad Randle, Nebraska: Like several Huskers on this list, Randle saved arguably his best performance for his final game. He recorded eight tackles as Nebraska held Georgia to 2.2 yards per rush and only 12 points on six trips inside the red zone.

LB: Kyler Elsworth, Michigan State: Thanks to Elsworth, Max Bullough's absence had little bearing on the Spartans' defense, which limited Stanford to 13 offensive points. Elsworth recorded 1.5 tackles for loss and was the first man in on the decisive fourth-down stop of Stanford's Ryan Hewitt. He earned Rose Bowl defensive player of the game honors.

LB: James Morris, Iowa: Morris ended an excellent senior season with 2.5 tackles for loss, including two sacks, as the defense kept Iowa alive for much of the Outback Bowl against LSU. He finished the season with a team-high eight sacks and eclipsed 400 career tackles.

LB: Denicos Allen, Michigan State: Allen also stepped up in Bullough's absence and sparked Michigan State with 1.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. He helped Michigan State hold Stanford to only three offensive points in the final three quarters.

CB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State: You didn't hear Dennard's name called much during the Rose Bowl because he shut down Stanford's Ty Montgomery and one side of the field. He finished with a tackle for loss and made sure Stanford didn't attack the No Fly Zone in his final game.

CB: Josh Mitchell, Nebraska: Mitchell made two plays to set up Nebraska touchdowns against Georgia: a second-quarter fumble recovery and a third-quarter interception on the first series of the second half. He hadn't had a takeaway all season before the bowl but stepped up at the right time.

S: John Lowdermilk, Iowa: He gave Iowa new life in the third quarter of the Outback Bowl with a 71-yard interception return. It should have been a touchdown, as Lowdermilk dropped the ball short of the goal line, but Iowa scored three plays later to cut LSU's lead in half. Not a bad time for Lowdermilk's first career interception.

S: Cedric Thompson, Minnesota: Thompson recorded a career-high 14 tackles in the Texas Bowl as Minnesota held Syracuse to only 188 pass yards. He also recovered a fumble in Gophers territory in the first quarter as the defense kept Minnesota in the game.

SPECIAL TEAMS

P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie (Oi Oi Oi). Ohio State's Australian import ended a tremendous debut season with a big performance in the Orange Bowl. He averaged 48.2 yards on five punts, with a long of 63 yards, and placed three punts inside Clemson's 20-yard line, including one downed at the Tigers' 1 that set up an Ohio State safety. There were a lot of good choices here (MSU's Mike Sadler and Minnesota's Peter Mortell also were terrific), which says something about the Big Ten's bowl showing.

K: Matt Wile, Michigan: Not many great choices here, but Wile was the only Big Ten kicker to convert multiple field-goal attempts in a bowl. Wile did a nice job filling in for starter Brendan Gibbons in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and also handled punts and kickoffs.

Returner: Kenzel Doe, Wisconsin: Doe kept Wisconsin's hopes alive in the Capital One Bowl with a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown after the Badgers had fallen behind by 10 points. It marked Wisconsin's first kickoff return touchdown in a bowl game and its first since David Gilreath's 97-yard runback on the opening play of the Badgers' win against No. 1 Ohio State in 2010.

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Ohio State has no reason to apologize for its 12-2 season, even if the Buckeyes did fall short of their goals by losing in the Big Ten title game and in Friday’s Discover Orange Bowl to Clemson.

Still, the Buckeyes are a program that expects to win championships.

“This would be an unbelievable season for some people,” center Corey Linsley said after the 40-35 loss to Clemson. “They would be building statues about it at other universities. This is just another year gone by for us.”

Ohio State should enter next season in or near the top 10, especially with Braxton Miller expected to return for his senior season at quarterback. But as Urban Meyer’s team found out after winning 24 straight games and then losing its final two, that last step toward winning a championship is often the hardest. And significant challenges await in 2014.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesUrban Meyer's Buckeyes will need to replace some key players on both sides of the ball in 2014.
The offseason focus will center around fixing a defense that was dreadful in its final three games of the season. That job won’t include the services of star linebacker Ryan Shazier, who announced on Saturday that he’ll be leaving for the NFL, or cornerback Bradley Roby, who is also bolting Columbus for the pros.

Meyer has given every indication that he intends to keep Luke Fickell on as defensive coordinator, but the departure of co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach Everett Withers opens the possibility of bringing in a veteran defensive coach who can offer strong input at the very least.

“We’ve just got to go out and recruit out tails off,” Meyer said. “Got to develop players and work real hard with scheme. We’ll get there.”

The Orange Bowl offered an early look at the future, especially with Roby sidelined by a knee injury. The Buckeyes started six freshmen or sophomores on defense versus the Tigers. While the overall numbers weren’t good, there were encouraging signs of potential.

Sophomore Jamal Marcus got his first career start in place of the suspended Noah Spence and was very active, finishing with six tackles. With Spence also sitting out the first two games of 2014, Marcus could play early next season and, at the very least, create some excellent depth along a still-young defensive line.

“I’m really proud of what Jamal did stepping in for Noah,” fellow defensive end Joey Bosa said. “He had a great week of practice, we had a lot of confidence in him, and he went in there and played his heart out.”

The same could be said of Bosa, who turned in a terrific true freshman campaign and showed loads of toughness in the Orange Bowl despite a sprained ankle. Limping noticeably in the second half, he remained in the game and finished with a sack and a forced safety. He has super stardom written all over him.

“It was rough,” he said of the injury. “It was really hard to plant off it. I was just doing what I could do.”

Meyer called sophomore linebacker Joshua Perry one of the most improved players on the team during bowl practice, and if he can continue to develop, it could lessen the loss of Shazier. But Ohio State’s linebacker play needs to get better.

The secondary was depleted by the end of the season but has some promising prospects. True freshman Vonn Bell made his first start at nickel, and though he got burned early on a difficult one-on-one matchup against Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, he also made a one-handed interception near his own end zone that should be the first of many highlight plays for him. Sophomore Tyvis Powell also made his first start at safety, while sophomore Armani Reeves filled in for Roby.

“We’ve got a lot to build on,” cornerback Doran Grant said. “We’ve got some guys who can really play. I’m excited to see them play next season and see what they’ve got in the spring.”

The offense has its own question marks even with Miller back in the fold. Start with the offensive line, which was the engine of the Buckeyes' attack. It loses four senior starters, with only sophomore right tackle Taylor Decker returning. Senior Carlos Hyde, who ran for more than 1,500 yards in just 11 games, also will be gone. Same goes for the team’s leading receiver, Philly Brown.

The schedule finally toughens up, with nonconference games against Navy, Virginia Tech and Cincinnati and the new East Division that will include reigning Big Ten champion Michigan State. The Spartans, who play host to Ohio State on Nov. 8, may begin the fall as favorites to win the division.

Meyer has talked repeatedly about wanting to field an angry and hungry team. The master motivator shouldn’t need many slogans this spring to push a team that suffered two crushing losses on its biggest stages.

“I hope there’s hunger,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman. “I hope that the guys who are coming back feel the knot in their stomach that I do right now and want to fix the things we need to fix to make sure we don’t feel like this again.”

Ohio State will still have plenty of talent in 2014 and a coach who knows how to use it. The Buckeyes weren’t far off from winning a championship this season and expect to be in position again next fall. This isn't a rebuilding job by any sense. But some repairs are needed.

“I think we’re extremely close,” Linsley said. “Everybody will say the O-line is down, that if Shazier is gone, if Roby is gone, those guys are going to slack [on defense]. But I’m telling you, some of these guys haven't gone through an offseason here before. I’m excited to see what these guys will do next year."

MIAMI -- Ohio State offensive line coach Ed Warinner huddled with his position group in a corner of the team's locker room following a 40-35 loss to Clemson in Friday's Discover Orange Bowl.

Warinner's voice started to crack as he told the players what they'd meant to him and what they'd accomplished. Warinner wrapped it up by saying, "You all are champions in my heart."

Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, they'll have to settle for those kinds of fond memories from their supporters. They've won 24 games the past two seasons, but it's the "And-2" that will haunt them. As in, 24-2.

Those two losses came at the worst possible times, first in the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State with a BCS title-game berth at stake, and then on the wrong end of a wild South Florida shootout. A program that went 12-0 the past two regular seasons managed to end up feeling disappointed at the end an otherwise magical run.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyBraxton Miller was on his back as much as he was on his feet at times, but his gutty performance almost got Ohio State a win Friday.
"It's bittersweet," linebacker Ryan Shazier said. "We had a great year, and the year before was great. But at the end of day, the last two seasons we haven’t won anything."

It's not hard to pinpoint why Ohio State fell short of earning a championship: a defense that literally limped to the finish line and a still-too-inconsistent passing game.

All of the pregame fears about Clemson's passing attack shredding the Buckeyes proved valid as the Tigers tandem of Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins abused a makeshift secondary. With star cornerback Bradley Roby sidelined by a knee injury and two players starting at their defensive backfield positions for the first time, Ohio State surrendered 378 passing yards and five touchdowns through the air, while Watkins set Orange Bowl records with 16 catches for 227 yards.

Even when they applied solid coverage, the Buckeyes' corners and safeties found themselves almost helpless against the best receivers they'd faced in three years. At one point, Armani Reeves was called for pass interference and tipped the ball out of the hands of the 6-foot-5 Martavis Bryant in the end zone. Bryant still caught the ball for a touchdown.

"I can’t get any closer than that," Reeves said. "That’s what happens when you play great players."

Then again, Ohio State's defense made a lot of people look great down the stretch this season, giving up averages of 38.3 points and 539 total yards (Clemson piled up 576) in its final three games. If there's any optimism to be found there, it's that six players who were either freshman or sophomores started on defense Friday, and the future for guys such as Joey Bosa, Jamal Marcus and Vonn Bell looks bright.

Despite the defensive problems, the Buckeyes still had plenty of chances to win the game. They somehow led at halftime even after yielding 362 yards in the first two quarters. They were up 29-20 and were getting the ball back late in the third quarter when Philly Brown muffed a punt return to give the Tigers new life. That would be the first of four second-half turnovers that would ultimately doom Ohio State, the next three coughed up by quarterback Braxton Miller.

No one could fault Miller's effort. He accounted for four touchdowns while absorbing a severe beating most of the night. He injured his shoulder early in the game. He lay on the turf for a few minutes after taking a late hit on a touchdown pass to Carlos Hyde. Miller said he probably had a cracked rib to go along with his throbbing shoulder.

"That's probably one of the toughest games I’ve played in, as far as being hit-wise and being banged up," Miller said. "Probably the toughest one all year."

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer rightly called Miller "a warrior" for his performance. But Miller also turned the ball over twice in the final 3 minutes, 12 seconds and didn't see linebacker Stephone Anthony slide underneath a post route on the game-sealing interception near midfield. Miller was non-committal after the game about whether he'd go to the NFL or return to Columbus. Friday's game made it clear he still has a lot to work on in college as a quarterback, though he might want to save his body from more punishment with a nearly brand-new offensive line next season.

Miller had come through at the end of big games so many times before in his career that it was shocking to see him not do so against Michigan State and Clemson. Same goes for Meyer. Ohio State had made a habit out of choking out opponents in the fourth quarter in his tenure, and before Friday he was 4-0 in BCS games.

"That's what we train for," center Corey Linsley said. "We train to finish. It's definitely disappointing, because that was our M.O."

Ohio State was not far away from its championship goals this season. Another play or two against Michigan State, and maybe the Buckeyes are in Pasadena, Calif., right now getting ready to play Florida State, an admittedly frightening prospect given the tattered state of their defense. Friday's game went back and forth and could have ended differently if not for the untimely turnovers.

But a team's record tells the story. Ohio State won its first 12 games again this season. Then came the "And-2."

"Those were championship games," cornerback Doran Grant said. "And we didn’t win 'em. Plain and simple."

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Here are 10 reasons Ohio State will win Friday's Discover Orange Bowl game against Clemson:

1. The Urban Meyer factor: In case you hadn't noticed, Ohio State's coach is pretty good in big games. He has a 4-0 record in BCS bowls, compared with 0-1 for Clemson's Dabo Swinney. Meyer knows how to prepare his teams for this kind of stage, and, with nearly a month to get ready for the Tigers, you know he'll have a great game plan in hand. Meyer might not have a whole lot of fans left in the state of Florida, but everyone has to respect his big-game acumen.

2. Braxton Miller: South Carolina's Connor Shaw had a big performance in Clemson's last game, a 31-17 loss to the Gamecocks. Shaw ran for 94 yards and a touchdown and passed for 152 yards and another score. Shaw is a tremendous player, but he isn't as dangerous as Miller, who can take over a game with his speed and running ability. The Tigers will have to commit to stopping the run, which should leave opportunities for Miller to make some plays in the passing game. Except for a rough ending in the Big Ten title game, Miller has a history of rising to the occasion in Ohio State's biggest games. This is a legacy moment for him, as he has yet to win a bowl game and has been waiting for this opportunity.

[+] EnlargeHyde/Miller
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesCarlos Hyde and Braxton Miller will team up for the final time, with a goal to run over Clemson.
3. Carlos Hyde: The confident senior running back has talked openly about breaking the Orange Bowl rushing record of 206 yards, and why not? That's a regular day at the office for Hyde if he gets enough carries. Clemson surrendered big rushing days to Georgia's Todd Gurley and Syracuse's Jerome Smith. And neither of those teams also had a dangerous running quarterback to account for. Hyde, who weighs 235 pounds, can break the will of a defense with his bruising running style, and his ability to keep the chains moving will shorten the game and keep the Tigers' offense off the field.

4. 24-1: That's Ohio State's record under Meyer. The one loss was to a top-five team (Michigan State) in a game which Ohio State led in the third quarter. So the Buckeyes know how to win, and they've pulled out many close games in the past two years. The "1" on that other side of the record might be the most important part. After losing for the first time in two years, the team should have plenty of motivation to refocus and get back on the winning track.

5. The ACC, as always, is overrated: If it's early January, that must mean the ACC is doing its annual postseason nosedive. In fact, going into Friday's game, the ACC has lost its past five bowl games, many in blowout fashion. At least Duke played well against Texas A&M. Maryland, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College have all looked bad this bowl season. The Big Ten has its problems. But it can still look down at the ACC.

6. "Clemsoning" is still a thing: The Tigers were celebrated for beating Georgia in their opener, making it two in a row over top-10 teams from the SEC after they took down LSU in last season's Chick-fil-A Bowl. But the Tigers were flat-out embarrassed in their big home showdown against Florida State and were soundly defeated by South Carolina. Outside of the Georgia game, there's nothing impressive about Clemson's schedule, and that game was a long time ago. The Tigers have never won a BCS game and were roadkill in their last Orange Bowl appearance two years ago against West Virginia, allowing 70 points. It's still not wise to bank on Clemson in a big game.

7. The Buckeyes' BCS track record: On the flip side of our No. 6 reason is Ohio State's long and impressive BCS résumé. The Buckeyes have been to the most BCS games (10, including Friday's Orange Bowl) of any team and have won six of them, tied for the most in the BCS era. They get dinged for a couple of lopsided national-title game losses, but the reality is this team almost always shows up on this stage. Couple that with No. 1 on our list and you have a program and a coach who know how to handle this spotlight.

8. Turnovers: Many wonder how Ohio State's battered pass defense will hold up against Clemson's offense, especially with Noah Spence out (Big Ten suspension) and Bradley Roby questionable (knee injury). That's a valid question. One possible answer is by taking the ball away. In the Tigers' losses to Florida State and South Carolina, they committed a total of 10 turnovers. The Buckeyes, by contrast, have generally been very safe with the ball this season, finishing at plus-7 in turnover margin. Miller has thrown only five interceptions. Tajh Boyd has shown that he is sometimes shaky in big games. Watch out for Ryan Shazier, the ball-hawking Ohio State linebacker who will be playing basically in his hometown. Turning Clemson over will go a long way toward winning this game.

9. Ohio State's offensive line: There might not be a better offensive line in the country than the Buckeyes' group, which includes four seniors playing their final game in the scarlet and gray. Marcus Hall returns after serving a suspension in the Big Ten title game, and he should be fired up to atone for missing that one. Ohio State's offensive line has worn down opponents all season and has a great chance of winning the battle in the trenches against Clemson.

10. Woody's revenge: Ohio State legend Woody Hayes' last game came against Clemson in 1978, when he earned a pink slip by punching Charlie Bauman. Somewhere in football heaven, the irascible Hayes is cursing and screaming and kicking some clouds over this rematch. Even if he has to reach down and use a divine hand to trip a Tigers player on the way to the end zone, there's no way Woody is letting the Buckeyes lose to Clemson again in this or any other dimension.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 15

December, 9, 2013
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With apologies to Ohio State fans, the Big Ten championship game was a smashing success.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Michael ConroyIt's time to give Urban Meyer credit for taking some strong disciplinary actions.
Two top-10 teams battling it out in prime time with national title implications created the most juice in the game's short history. According to the overnight Nielsen ratings, an estimated 11.6 million viewers watched Michigan State's 34-24 win over the Buckeyes. That's more than twice as large as the audience for last year's game between Nebraska and Wisconsin, which drew 5.1 million. The inaugural game between Michigan State and Wisconsin in 2011 attracted just more than 7 million viewers.

And despite some challenging weather in Indianapolis, the title game had its best crowd in three years. The presence of Ohio State surely helped, as it appeared that scarlet and gray made up about 70 percent of the stands at Lucas Oil Stadium. Attendance figures for the first three Big Ten title games:

2013: 66,002
2012: 41,260
2011: 64,152

Take that and rewind it back ...

For good measure: Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has faced a lot of criticism for his disciplinary measures and player conduct from his time at Florida. So it's only fair to commend Meyer for taking strong disciplinary actions with the Buckeyes.

There was much hand-wringing last week about the lack of additional punishment for Ohio State offensive lineman Marcus Hall, who got a public reprimand from the Big Ten but nothing more after he was ejected for fighting at Michigan and offered his now infamous two-gun salute to the crowd. Meyer announced on Friday that Hall wouldn't start against Michigan State, which led to a lot of wisecracks about Hall coming in on the second or third play.

But Meyer kept Hall sidelined the entire Big Ten championship game. Even when Ohio State fell behind 17-0 and was doing nothing on offense early on, Hall stayed glued to the bench. For a senior to miss three quarters of his team's biggest rivalry game and then the conference title game, that's pretty stern discipline.

Meyer said Saturday night that he'd decided not to play Hall "a while back." Both Ohio State and the Big Ten could have avoided criticism had Meyer announced early in the week that Hall was suspended for the game. But the Buckeyes probably didn't want Michigan State to have that information.

Meyer's other disciplinary moves during his Ohio State tenure, including the three-game suspension for Carlos Hyde and one-game suspension for Bradley Roby earlier this year, have all seemed fair. So it's time to cut the Buckeyes' coach some slack in that department.

Big Man on Campus (offense): Raise your hand if you predicted in the preseason, or even in September or October, that Connor Cook would be MVP of the Big Ten championship game. But Michigan State's sophomore quarterback earned it by throwing for a career-high 304 yards and three touchdowns, delivering some terrific, clutch throws all night. Cook is uncannily confident in himself, and he's inspiring confidence with the way he's been playing.

[+] EnlargeDarqueze Dennard
AP Photo/Michael ConroyDarqueze Dennard played a big role in Michigan State's success against Ohio State.
Big Man on Campus (defense): Ohio State's airspace was under strict no-fly zone restrictions thanks largely to the play of cornerback Darqueze Dennard. As he so often does, Dennard locked up his side of the field. He had two big pass breakups, and the Buckeyes went just 8-of-21 for 101 yards through the air, including an 0-for-5 showing by Braxton Miller in the fourth quarter.

Big Man on Campus (freshman): Despite the loss, Ohio State's Joey Bosa introduced himself to the country as a future major star. Bosa created havoc all night from defensive end, finishing with two tackles for loss, a sack and three total quarterback hurries. It seemed like he was in the backfield all night. Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington got all the preseason pub, but Bosa looks like the most fearsome Buckeyes pass-rusher of the future.

Bring on 2014: We're about to say goodbye to both the dreaded BCS and its ridiculous use of the coaches' poll. Even more promising changes are in store for next season when it comes to bowls.

Leagues like the Big Ten promise to have a much greater input on bowl matchups starting in 2014. That should help prevent a situation like we got on Sunday, when the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl took Michigan over Nebraska to play Kansas State. Selecting the Wolverines might have been in the best interest of that bowl, but it created a matchup with no history or really much of a storyline. It also meant the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl got a rematch nobody wanted in Nebraska-Georgia.

It would make much, much more sense, both geographically and in terms of the matchups, to have Kansas State-Nebraska and Michigan vs. Georgia games. The Huskers went to the same bowl in back-to-back years in the 2009 and 2010 seasons (Holiday) and again in 2011 and 2012 (Capital One), and now they play the same team as last year.

Of course, bowls and common sense have rarely gone together. Maybe next year they will.

Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Info): Miller did not convert a first down on 11 third- or fourth-down attempts, including the stuffed fourth-and-2 rush that all but clinched the game. Miller entered Saturday with a 91.7 Total QBR on third and fourth downs, ninth-best in the FBS. He had converted 49 percent of those downs while averaging 8.1 yards per play the first 12 games of the season. Against Michigan State, he averaged minus-1.4 yards in those situations.

Overall, Ohio State converted just 1 of 12 third or fourth downs against Michigan State. That was its lowest conversion percentage in the past 10 seasons. Entering the game, the Buckeyes had converted 54 percent of third- or fourth-down chances this season, the sixth-highest percentage in the FBS.

Pregame ponderables: B1G title game

December, 7, 2013
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Greetings from Lucas Oil Stadium, where No. 10 Michigan State and No. 2 Ohio State will soon square off for the Big Ten championship.

I'm no weatherman, but I can safely predict it will be about 72 degrees at kickoff. Or about 50 degrees, at least, warmer than it is outside. By the way, temperatures are in the teens in Chicago right now.

From walking around Indy the past couple of days, it seems like Buckeyes fans outnumber Michigan State fans, and I'd expect there to be more scarlet and gray in the stands. But as one Spartans fan told us last night, "We're Michigan State. We always show up late."

One thing we know is lots of people are showing up for this one. No more jokes about seat fillers, like we had last year with Nebraska and Wisconsin. The game is sold out and tickets were tough to come by. There's a definite buzz around the event because of the national title implications; reporters from New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo! Sports, CBSSports.com and virtually every major national outlet you can imagine are here. There is so much interest, in fact, that the Big Ten is using an auxiliary media area in one of the end zones.

Let's hope the game lives up to the pregame hype, and I think it will. The Big Ten needs a good show after some image-busting results in the past few years. Ohio State needs to impress if it wants to stay ahead of the SEC champ. Of course, Michigan State didn't come here to lose, but even if the Spartans do fall, they're in great shape for the Rose Bowl -- unless it's a lopsided defeat.

But I don't think that will happen. This Michigan State team is by far the best team Ohio State will have played during its two-year unbeaten streak under Urban Meyer. A worthy champion will be crowned tonight.

We've broken down countless angles in this game. A few more areas to watch:

Michigan State's offensive line: This group hasn't gotten a lot of attention all year, but it has been very good. Meyer called the Spartans "rugged" up front on Friday. They have to have a great game tonight and keep guys like Noah Spence, Joey Bosa and Ryan Shazier from crashing into the backfield and getting to Connor Cook.

Ohio State's linebackers not named Shazier: Curtis Grant is still a bit gimpy. Meyer says Joshua Perry is coming on. But there's little doubt that linebacker has been a sore spot outside of Shazier. No matter who you are, losing your starting middle linebacker to injury -- as the Buckeyes did with Grant -- is going to hurt the defense. The Spartans want to be physical in the run game with Jeremy Langford. The Buckeyes' linebackers have to be ready.

Michigan State's receivers: The Spartans wideouts have made a major improvement from a year ago, particularly guys like Bennie Fowler and Tony Lippett. But they still suffer from the occasional drops. That can't happen tonight. Ohio State is still vulnerable in the back end, and there will be plays for the receivers to make. They need to make them, because you don't beat the Buckeyes by missing opportunities.

Those are a few more story lines for the game. Much, much more to come …

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- It says a lot about the place Ohio State finds itself that a 25-point conference road victory, in which it scored 60 points, provides fodder for critics and detractors.

But that's the nature of college football in late November for an undefeated team. Politicking and nit-picking all play into a sport that chooses its championship game largely by way of popular opinion, creating a week-to-week beauty pageant.

Urban Meyer admitted after Saturday's 60-35 victory at Illinois that he and his team got a little too caught up in all the national title talk recently. Following a performance filled with warts, if not outright worry, Meyer wants the No. 3 Buckeyes to hop off that carousel.

"We need to make sure our focus is on just getting better each week instead of all the national stuff," Meyer said. "I think I'm learning a lesson. Just shut your mouth and quit worrying about this, quit worrying about that."

[+] EnlargeOhio State Touchdown
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsOhio State's Carlos Hyde crosses the goal line for the first of five touchdowns he scored Saturday at Illinois.
Meyer even suggested that he will restrict media access to his players in the next few weeks. Issues such as style points and schedule strength have dominated the discussion in recent weeks for Ohio State, and wide receiver Evan Spencer made waves last week by saying, albeit somewhat jokingly, that his team would "wipe the floor" with Alabama and Florida State. Linebacker Ryan Shazier said Saturday that "everybody was up in our heads" about the national title race during the Buckeyes' bye week.

Any distractions that might have caused didn't surface until well into Saturday's game. Ohio State, as it does just about every week, seized immediate control of the game, racing out to a 28-0 lead with 10:20 left in the first half. The Buckeyes have outscored opponents 63-0 in the first quarter in their past three games.

But the Illini -- who now own the nation's longest conference losing streak at 20 games, the second-worst streak in Big Ten history -- found a hole in the Buckeyes' most airtight unit this season: punt coverage. V'Angelo Bentley scored on a 67-yard punt return in the second quarter to give his team some life. Led by a gutsy effort from quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois sliced the lead to 14 early in the second half and trailed by only 12 with less than five minutes to play.

"When we got up big, everybody just kind of mellowed," Ohio State receiver Corey "Philly" Brown said. "We thought they would give up and they didn't. ...

"It was a big-time wake-up call."

Unlike the previous two games, the Buckeyes had to play their starters the whole way. Meyer had hoped to rest left tackle Jack Mewhort, who tweaked his knee in practice Wednesday, but he was forced to put Mewhort back in during the second half.

Ohio State couldn't exhale until Carlos Hyde ripped off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs in the final 4:03, and on a windy day that made passing a challenge, Meyer rode the running skills of quarterback Braxton Miller harder than he had all season. Miller finished with 184 yards on 16 carries.

But it was the defensive effort that proponents of teams such as Baylor and Stanford will harp on, as Ohio State gave up 420 yards and its highest point total of the season. Few will give the Buckeyes a pass for missing starting linebackers Joshua Perry and Curtis Grant or for losing starting defensive lineman Joey Bosa to a neck injury after he had rung up 2.5 sacks. Meyer called the defensive performance simply "not good enough."

"That is unacceptable from us," safety C.J. Barnett said. "Illinois is a good team with some great athletes, but at the same time, we expect more from ourselves."

Only in college football would a team that secured its 22nd consecutive victory with a 25-point road win be scrutinized and criticized. And make no mistake: The Buckeyes were not satisfied with their showing. The truth is that they're not going to the BCS title game unless Alabama or Florida State lose, and their best argument remains the long winning streak.

Just don't expect to hear much about that subject from the Ohio State camp in the coming days.

"There will be a lot more focus on Indiana this week," Barnett said, "instead of worrying about the big picture or what's in the future. We need to worry about the right here and now."

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 8

October, 17, 2013
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Ten things to keep your eyes on in the five Big Ten games on Saturday:

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCan Braxton Miller and Ohio State's high-powered offense move the ball against Michigan State's stingy defense?
1. Can Iowa's defense slow down Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes? The Hawkeyes boast a solid group of linebackers, and the Hawkeyes are ranked ninth in the country in total defense and 12th in scoring defense. Still, they haven't faced an offense anywhere close in talent to Ohio State, and it'll be interesting to see how Kirk Ferentz's squad matches up. For Ohio State, it hasn't mattered who's lined up under center or in the backfield. The Buckeyes have posted at least 31 points in every game -- and 40 points in five out of six. Iowa hasn't allowed more than 30 points all season. Something has to give.

2. Big injuries at Northwestern: The Wildcats' read-option could be in trouble Saturday. Both quarterback Kain Colter and tailback Venric Mark are nursing injuries, and they're both listed as questionable. Even if they do return, neither will be at 100 percent -- and both are crucial to a team that's been forced to rely on a high-scoring offense to win.

3. Different head coach, different starting quarterback: A lot has changed for Minnesota in the past few weeks. In Week 1, it looked as if Philip Nelson was the quarterback of the future and head coach Jerry Kill would lead this team to continued improvement. Now? Well, Mitch Leidner has been promoted to starting quarterback, while Kill has taken a leave of absence due to seizures. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will take over for Kill on Saturday, and Claeys will be coaching from the sideline -- he usually coaches from the press box -- against Northwestern. Claeys still plans to call the defensive plays, so he'll have to spend some time committing those play calls to memory. He won't have those charts in front of him anymore.

4. Michigan's response: The Wolverines suffered a heartbreaker in Happy Valley, as they couldn't put the game away despite several chances. They're now set to face the team, Indiana, that bounced the Nittany Lions. Michigan may have five wins already on the season, but it's been extremely shaky. A convincing win against the Hoosiers -- and their Big Ten-best passing attack -- could go a long way in showing this team is still a contender. And, of course, that all starts with Devin Gardner.

5. Inexperience no problem for this defensive line: The Buckeyes had to rebuild their defensive line from scratch this season as no starters returned, but these young players have stepped up in a big way. They slowed down Wisconsin's running attack and have contributed to the sixth-best run defense in the nation. True freshman DE Joey Bosa is listed as the starter against Iowa this week, and he already has four tackles for loss and a touchdown listed next to his name. Mark Weisman and the Hawkeyes will face a stiff test Saturday.

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
Keith Gillett/Icon SMIIllinois coach Tim Beckman says the players believe and are no longer saying "Can we do it" but instead are now saying "When we do it."
6. Illini still riding a conference-worst streak: Illinois has dropped 15 straight Big Ten games, which means it last won a conference game on Oct. 8, 2011, against Indiana. Illinois plays Purdue on Nov. 23 but, before then, there will be no easy victories. The Illini will play Wisconsin this weekend, followed by Michigan State, Penn State, Indiana and Ohio State. Luckily for Tim Beckman's crew, it's still nowhere close to the Big Ten record for the worst conference losing streak. That unfortunate record-holder would be Northwestern, which lost 38 straight Big Ten games between 1978 and 1982.

7. Spartans' offense in the midst of a turnaround: Early on, it seemed as if Michigan State's offense would be a liability all season. After all, in the first two games, the defense scored more touchdowns while Mark Dantonio couldn't settle on a quarterback. But Connor Cook has since taken over and the running game has taken off. Cook's QBR has taken a step up each week against the FBS, from 17.1 to 27.8 to 68.1 and, last Saturday, to 83.1. Jeremy Langford is also starting to make a name for himself, with four touchdowns this past week. The Spartans are trending upward, and they might be difficult to stop. It won't be easy for Purdue.

8. MGIII might be unstoppable the rest of the way: Yes, the Buckeyes limited Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon to 74 yards on 15 carries -- but he'll face just one more top-10 defense the rest of the regular season. He's third in the FBS with 870 rushing yards, ranks second nationally in yards per carry (9.7) among tailbacks and is 10th in the nation in rushing touchdowns (8). He's one of the most exciting players in the Big Ten, and every team going forward will likely struggle stopping him. His next opponent, Illinois, is allowing nearly 200 rushing yards a game.

9. Can Purdue do anything right? Nothing's been easy for Darrell Hazell's Boilermakers. They just scooted past FCS team Indiana State 20-14, and four of their five losses were decided by 31 points or more. Purdue's future hopes are pinned to true freshman quarterback Danny Etling. But, for now, there's no guarantee that Purdue will escape the 2013 season with another win. It's ranked No. 118 in scoring offense and, in scoring defense, it's ranked No. 114. At this point, Purdue would just be fortunate to hang in tough against Michigan State.

10. Home of inconsistent quarterbacks and good defenses: Welcome to the Big Ten! The conference boasts three teams (Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin) that are nationally ranked in the top 10 in total defense, and three more (Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State) that are within the top 20. Still, the passing offenses haven't exactly taken off as planned. The Big Ten's top QBs entering this season -- arguably Taylor Martinez, Gardner and Miller -- have either missed time due to injury or have been on the receiving end of some quarterback controversy.

Big Ten midseason report

October, 14, 2013
10/14/13
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Look at the Big Ten standings at the halfway point, and there are not a lot of surprises.

Ohio State stands undefeated, as expected and just like in 2012. Michigan State and Nebraska have glittering records despite some lingering (though perhaps dissipating) questions about one side of the ball. Michigan, Northwestern and Wisconsin are all still very much in contention but a notch below the Buckeyes. For the most part, these teams are who we thought they were.

But that doesn't mean there haven't been some unforeseen twists and turns along the way during the season's first half.

[+] EnlargeKennt Guiton and Braxton Miller
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsThe play of Kenny Guiton (13) made some wonder if he was a better QB option than Braxton Miller.
Wisconsin lost at Arizona State when some Pac-12 officials turned into the Keystone Cops in the final 15 seconds. Kenny Guiton, not Braxton Miller, looked like a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback for a couple of games while Miller was out, prompting some to actually debate whether Ohio State should play its backup. Indiana beat Penn State for the first time in 17 tries. Michigan very nearly lost to Akron and UConn during a 5-0 start, then lost at Penn State in one of the weirdest four-overtime games you'll ever see. Bo Pelini found himself in a firestorm after a two-year-old, secretly-recorded, profanity-laced audiotape was leaked. Minnesota coach Jerry Kill had two more game-day seizures and took an indefinite leave of absence. Four different teams turned to freshmen starting quarterbacks.

We've also learned that there's not much of a separation between most of the teams in the league. The Buckeyes might be undefeated, but they got pushed to the wire at home versus Wisconsin and on the road against Northwestern. The Legends Division is a five-way scrum -- yes, five, because Iowa has greatly improved from 2012 -- with Minnesota the only real non-contender. (The Gophers could still get to a bowl game if they ever rediscover the forward pass.) The November showdowns involving Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern, in particular, should provide outstanding drama.

The Leaders Division race is far more defined with Ohio State in the pole position and Wisconsin hoping for a 10-car pileup. But that division also has three of the conference's best offenses, in Illinois, Indiana and Penn State, the latter of which proved against Michigan that it is not going to simply succumb to NCAA sanctions as long as Bill O'Brien is the coach. The Illini and Hoosiers still hold out hope for a postseason bid. As for Purdue, well, there's always next year.

And there’s always the second half of the season to give us plenty more unexpected developments.

Offensive MVP: Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon. The Badgers' home-run hitting back ranks third in the FBS with 870 rushing yards through six games, and he's averaging an eye-popping 9.7 yards per carry with eight touchdowns. He has scored on an 80-yard run and a 71-yard dash this year. Others in consideration: Penn State WR Allen Robinson, Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah.

[+] EnlargeChris Borland
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsChris Borland had helped Wisconsin stay among the league's top teams.
Defensive MVP: Wisconsin LB Chris Borland. He is third in the league in tackles and seemingly is involved in every play as the Badgers' defensive leader. Others considered: Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier, Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard.

Biggest Surprise: The revitalization of Illinois' offense. Nearly punchless last season in a 2-10 campaign, the Illini have turned things around under new coordinator Bill Cubit and a healthy Nathan Scheelhaase. They are scoring 36 points per game, while Scheelhaase is averaging nearly 260 passing yards per game. Illinois has already surpassed last year's win total at 3-2.

Biggest Disappointment: A coaching change and a brutal early schedule spelled trouble all along for Purdue. Still, we didn't think the Boilermakers would be this bad. They are 1-5, with the lone win coming in a nail-biter against Indiana State, and the team ranks near the bottom of the FBS in just about every major category. Remember that Purdue went to bowls in each of the past two seasons. First-year coach Darrell Hazell should eventually turn things around, but so far his early tenure has been ugly.

Newcomer Of The Year: Penn State handed the reins of its offense to true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg, and he has rewarded that decision. Hackenberg leads the Big Ten in passing yards (1,672), and while he's had some ups and downs, he has also displayed great poise and a big-time arm. We'd say he's a future star, but he kind of already is one.

Best Coach: Sometimes we make these things too complicated, looking for coaches who have overachieved. No one has achieved more during his time than Ohio State's Urban Meyer. He has guided the Buckeyes to a 6-0 start, including key wins over Wisconsin and Northwestern, and has done so despite a young defense and some crucial injuries. An 18-game streak of perfection isn't too bad, either.

Best Game: Ohio State 40, Northwestern 30, Oct. 5. Joey Bosa's fumble return for a touchdown on the final play made the margin look wider than it actually was. ESPN's "College GameDay" came to Evanston, and these two teams did not disappoint, engaging in a back-and-forth thriller that hinged on a late fourth-and-one play by Northwestern. It was Ohio State's toughest test of the year so far, and it made for great theater.

Cats still look to climb over hump

October, 6, 2013
10/06/13
2:50
AM ET
EVANSTON, Ill. -- The first thing he did was thank the media, and then the fans, especially the fans, the ones who helped create an atmosphere unseen around these parts since he was the one out on Ryan Field making hits some 18 years ago.

And then Pat Fitzgerald offered a bit of an apology.

"Our students were absolutely amazing. I think they started their day at about 2 in the morning, and we're sorry we didn't finish the job for them and give them a great homecoming," said Fitzgerald, the eighth-year Northwestern coach and former Wildcats linebacker. "But unbelievable, the amount of support that we've received from our students. Unbelievable homecoming setting. Incredibly thankful for that."

This town proved itself to be more than worthy of all of the national attention that was washed upon it this past week, from the "College GameDay" circus to the announced crowd of 47,330 in attendance for the prime-time kickoff. Fans and alumni from both Ohio State and Northwestern flooded the L-trains coming from the city and helped give some validation to the moniker of "Chicago's Big Ten Team." Tailgaters weathered late-afternoon thunderstorms that threatened to end this party a few hours too soon.

Then the No. 16 Wildcats gave the natives plenty to cheer about, going blow-for-blow with the No. 4 Buckeyes before falling by a 40-30 final that gave little indication of just how tight the preceding 60 minutes had been.

[+] EnlargeKain Colter, Ryan Shazier
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesRyan Shazier is blitzing more and getting more quarterbacks in his grasp.
"Our players went out there with the right attitude," said linebacker Damien Proby, who was responsible for the third of Braxton Miller's three turnovers when he forced a fumble in the third quarter. "We didn't play this game or approach this game for the media; we played this for ourselves, and we wanted to prove something to ourselves. And that's something that we still need to do, but we definitely took a step in that direction like we wanted to."

Northwestern took a 20-13 lead into halftime on the back of an opportunistic defense that forced two Miller turnovers and saw quarterback Kain Colter score two different times without throwing the ball -- once on a 9-yard third-down strike from co-signal-caller Trevor Siemian, later on a 2-yard rush. Ohio State's only touchdown through 41-plus minutes came on a blocked punt in the end zone, courtesy of cornerback Bradley Roby.

Juggling quarterbacks like they usually do, the Wildcats' biggest crime for much of the game was stalling in the red zone, settling for three short Jeff Budzien field goals that gave them a 10-point lead in the third quarter.

Carlos Hyde was too much, though, as the Buckeyes went back to the basics and relied on the 6-foot, 235-pound bull to barrel his way to the tune of 168 rushing yards and 38 more receiving yards. Hyde reached the end zone three times in the second half, the middle of which, with 11:29 left in the game, was ruled a score after review, giving Ohio State a 27-23 lead. It had come after Northwestern's only turnover of the game, a Siemian pass picked off by Doran Grant.

Siemian finished 13-of-18 for 245 yards with two touchdowns, keeping a number of plays alive with his feet. Colter was 12-for-12 for 98 yards.

Both benefited greatly form the return of Venric Mark, who tallied 103 total yards in his first extended action of the season.

"There were definitely plays down the stretch that we could've made, and it could've been a different outcome," said end Tyler Scott, who notched one sack and had forced and recovered Miller's first fumble, setting up Northwestern's first score. "It was third-and-[2] at the goal line and Hyde sticks the ball out, and if we got a stop, they might've been kicking a field goal and it might've been a different game, but we've just got to look at the film, see where we can improve."

Both teams exchanged touchdowns on the next two drives, before Colter bobbled a fourth-and-1 snap at the Ohio State 34 with less than three minutes to play, diving on it and falling just short of the first down on a play that was upheld after Fitzgerald's challenge.

Northwestern got the ball back with 21 seconds left, and a Joey Bosa recovery in the end zone of a failed lateral attempt provided window-dressing for the Buckeyes as the horn sounded and Urban Meyer improved to 18-0 as Ohio State's coach.

Said Fitzgerald: "There's a team getting on the bus going back to Columbus that knows it just got into a fight with a pretty darn good football team."

Good enough, it would seem, to potentially get another shot at these Buckeyes in two months.

Asked about the potential of a rematch in the Big Ten title game, Fitzgerald said "it would be a great problem."

Echoed Proby: "That's a good problem to have as a program."

Different problems for a different program, one that felt the need to seek forgiveness for not punctuating an exhilarating day with a historic win.

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