NCF Nation: John Urschel

The biggest non-game on the American sporting calendar is all done, as the 2014 NFL draft wrapped up Saturday afternoon in New York. After arguably its worst draft in the modern era in 2013, the Big Ten performed better this year with 30 picks. Still, the league finished fourth among conferences in selections, trailing the SEC (49), ACC (42) and Pac-12 (34).

After a big Friday night with six second-round selections -- including four in a row -- and six third-round selections, the Big Ten's momentum slowed a bit Saturday in the final four rounds. The league had only one sixth-round pick and only four in the seventh round.

Let's start the breakdown by listing Big Ten draftees by round (with comments below). Maryland and Rutgers players aren't included here because neither group competed in the Big Ten (Terrapins CB Dexter McDougle went in the third round; Rutgers had no players drafted).

FIRST ROUND (4)
[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyTaylor Lewan was the first Big Ten player selected, going 11th overall to the Tennessee Titans.
Analysis: Click here for my first-round thoughts

SECOND ROUND (6)
Analysis: Hageman ends up in a really good spot with the Falcons. Although Latimer had an excellent pre-draft performance, it wasn't surprising to see him end up in the middle of the second round. Hyde waited longer than many anticipated, but he enters a great situation with a team that loves to play power football. Robinson joins a new-look Jaguars passing attack featuring quarterback Blake Bortles and wideout Marqise Lee.

THIRD ROUND (6)
Analysis: Everyone had Southward going before Borland, right? Borland, the 2013 Big Ten defensive player of the year, had an exceptional college career, but concerns about his height and perhaps his injury history moved him down the draft boards. The Iowa Effect shows up here as both Fiedorowicz and Kirksey were swept up by teams that respect what the Hawkeyes do. What does it say that Michigan's offensive line struggled mightily in 2013 but had two tackles drafted in the first three rounds? Those young Wolverines linemen had better step up this fall.

FOURTH ROUND (4)
Analysis: Some really good pickups in this round, especially White, who will fit in very well with New England's offense. Although James Morris received the most accolades among Iowa's linebackers at the college level, both Kirksey and Hitchens were mid-round selections, while Morris went undrafted and signed with New England as a free agent. As a Chicago Bears fan, I love the Vereen pick. He's a smart, athletic versatile player who knows from his older brother what it takes to succeed in the NFL.

FIFTH ROUND (5)
[+] EnlargeJared Abbrederis
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsJared Abbrederis isn't venturing far from Madison as he was drafted by the Green Bay Packers.
Analysis: Like his teammate Borland, Abbrederis had a much longer wait than expected but lands in a very familiar spot with Green Bay. I think he's a steal and will surprise people with his ability to make plays despite less-than-ideal measurables. Pamphile had a fairly quiet college career but is seen as a project and could develop into a better pro. Urschel is another player who lacks the ideal physical traits sought in the NFL, but could make up for it with exceptional intelligence.

SIXTH ROUND (1)
Analysis: Enunwa complemented his superb blocking skills with big-play ability in the pass game as a senior. He's a good value for a Jets team that needs to boost the league's 31st-ranked pass offense.

SEVENTH ROUND (4)
Analysis: All four players could be very good values. Bolser is an athletic tight end who had 15 career touchdown catches. Allen showed versatility as a senior, transitioning to a 3-4 scheme. Gallon heads to a Patriots team that has had success with smaller, productive receivers. Bryant likely would have been selected higher if not for major leg and ankle injuries last season.

Here are the draft picks per B1G team:

Ohio State: 6
Wisconsin: 5
Michigan: 3
Penn State: 3
Nebraska: 3
Iowa: 3
Purdue: 2
Minnesota: 2
Indiana: 2
Michigan State: 1

The big surprise is a Michigan State team that dominated Big Ten play and won the Rose Bowl had just one player selected, as standout linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen didn't have their names called. Only four teams -- LSU, Alabama, Notre Dame and Florida State -- had more selections than Ohio State. Illinois, which led the Big Ten in draft picks last season (4) and had 18 picks between 2009-13, had no selections. Northwestern also went without a draft pick for the second straight year.

Curious about the Big Ten's undrafted free-agent signings? Check back in a bit as we take a look.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Most Penn State players reacted with a stunned silence when told of the news that their head coach, Bill O'Brien, was heading to the NFL's Houston Texans.

The story broke about 90 minutes before the new year, and most players were either with friends or on their way to parties. Linebacker Brandon Bell was driving when he answered his buzzing cell phone.

"It's official?" he asked at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday night. "I don't have much to say. ... Yeah, I guess I'm surprised."

[+] EnlargeBelton
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsBill OBrien's departure caught Bill Belton and his teammates by surprise, but the players feel Penn State will be just fine moving forward.
He paused a few seconds and then continued on: "You can't worry about what you can't control. We got to do what we got to do."

Fifteen minutes later and defensive end C.J. Olaniyan said he hadn't heard anything about O'Brien heading elsewhere either. He seemed just as off-guard and even a bit reticent to believe the breaking story.

"Like I said, I haven't heard anything," Olaniyan said. "But no matter what happens, Penn State has shown -- everybody's shown -- that we're going to keep striving forward. No matter what happens."

The overwhelming sentiment from players on Tuesday and Wednesday was one of surprise, but not of betrayal. Their emotions were mixed but not polar -- they felt disappointed, but they were happy for their head coach. They seemed down, but they spoke with conviction about their university and the next season.

"As long as we have each other," wideout Jake Kiley said Wednesday, referring to his teammates, "we'll be fine. I think everyone's in the same mind-set."

Tailback Bill Belton wanted to enjoy the new year, forget about the coaching change and deal with it later. Wideout Allen Robinson hung up as soon as O'Brien's name was mentioned. Offensive guard John Urschel took to Twitter to congratulate his head coach.

Different players reacted differently. But everyone seemed to agree that Penn State's certainly been through worse, and that it would emerge once again just fine.

Those same players who congratulated their head coach first met O'Brien in January 2012 when the relative unknown landed in Happy Valley and told the media he was "thrilled to be the head football coach," months before the NCAA levied unprecedented sanctions against the school. O'Brien asked players for their commitment, their loyalty, and they overwhelmingly surrendered it.

Eugene Lewis, now a rising redshirt sophomore, was one of those players. The coveted four-star recruit arrived on campus a few weeks before those sanctions, and he could've chosen to transfer elsewhere without penalty. But he decided to stick with O'Brien in Happy Valley.

And, even now, Lewis doesn't regret his decision. Even now, he bristled at feeling even the slightest twinge of betrayal by his old coach.

"That's a strong word because you have to look at it from his point of view," Lewis said Wednesday. "He came into a position that was hard for his family, with the sanctions that we got. You have to look at what he did and how he did all he could. You can't really be mad at him for leaving after two years. I still really respect him."

Lewis was at a friend's house, watching ESPN, when he discovered the news of O'Brien's departure. His phone buzzed with calls and texts from his teammates shortly before midnight. They agreed they'd enjoy the night and then just see what happens.

But Lewis was adamant, whomever the next head coach turns out to be, that he'll still be all-in.

"At the end of the day, we all know we're family and we all know we still have to go out there and play for our school," he said. "You have to be able to fight through adversity, and this is just another obstacle. I'm not mad at Coach O'Brien, I'm happy with what he's done for me and this university.

"I know my team and everyone else there at Penn State -- everyone -- is going to be behind us, and we're going to greet the next coach the same way we greeted Coach O'Brien."

Defensive end Curtis Cothran echoed Lewis' words and succinctly summed up the message from Penn State's players: "We're going to be OK."
The Big Ten released its all-conference teams as selected by coaches and the media earlier this month. We didn't have a vote for the media teams, and we don't pretend to know as much about football as the league's coaches.

But we can also say with confidence that we watched more Big Ten football here at the blog than anyone else. So here are our picks for the 2013 ESPN.com All-Big Ten team:

Offense

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesBraxton Miller is one of six Buckeyes on ESPN.com's All-Big Ten team.
QB: Braxton Miller, Ohio State
RB: Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
WR: Allen Robinson, Penn State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan
OL: Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
OL: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OL: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OL: Corey Linsley, Ohio State
OL: Ryan Groy, Wisconsin

Defense

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
DT: Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota
DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State
LB: James Morris, Iowa
DB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
DB: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
DB: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
DB: Brock Vereen, Minnesota

Specialists

K: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska
PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa

OK, so we cheated just a bit on positions, going with three tackles on our offensive line and a 3-4 defense. But considering the coaches had six defensive backs and two punters on their first team, we don't feel too bad about it. ... We wanted to include Scherff, Lewan and Mewhort on the first team, because we thought they were the three best linemen in the league. If we had to field an actual team with these guys, we're sure we could figure it out. It was a tough call between Groy and Penn State's John Urschel, whom we love for his on- and off-the-field accomplishments. We just felt Wisconsin had the better overall season as an offensive line, so we went with Groy. ... We went with the 3-4 because linebacker was such a deep position in this league -- so deep that we had to leave off some deserving players, like Michigan State's Denicos Allen -- while defensive line wasn't nearly as strong. ... The defensive backfield was a tough call (no wonder the coaches had an, ahem, pick six there). Dennard was a lock, and we felt that Drummond was the league's best safety in a year when that position was a bit weak conference-wide. We like what Vereen did in providing versatility and leadership for the Gophers, and Roby overcame a slow start to do his usual fine work. We had to leave off very good cornerbacks like Michigan's Blake Countess, Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Iowa's B.J. Lowery -- but that's what a second team is for. Stay tuned. ... Ohio State leads the way with six selections, followed by Michigan State with five. It's almost as if those were the two best teams in the league or something.

3-point stance: Brown in good company

December, 11, 2013
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1. Mack Brown has won 158 games and one national championship in 16 seasons at Texas. That’s two more victories than the three coaches who preceded him (Fred Akers, David McWilliams and John Mackovic) combined to win in 22 seasons. It’s nine fewer than Brown’s mentor and role model, the late Darrell Royal, won in Austin. Brown might not want to resign, but I’d bet he’s fine with being second to Royal.

2. Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi won the 2013 Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach. Narduzzi said recently that he is ready to be a head coach, and he will get the opportunity. Eight of the previous 15 Broyles winners have become head coaches, including Gus Malzahn at Auburn. Five have had at least one 10-win season. But four of the eight (Ralph Friedgen, Mark Mangino, Gene Chizik, and Randy Shannon) have come and gone in the head coaching business. 50-50? Sounds about right.

3. I interviewed senior guard John Urschel at Penn State last spring for a piece on replacing the senior leadership that helped the Nittany Lions get through the last year’s scandal. Urschel is not only a good player and an eloquent spokesman; he’s a grad student in math with a 4.0 and teaches undergraduate engineering students. In other words, he was a slam dunk to win the Campbell Trophy (the Academic Heisman), awarded by the National Football Foundation last night in New York.
1. I don’t know who’s going to win the Campbell Trophy, sometimes referred to the Academic Heisman, but among the 16 finalists announced Thursday by the National Football Foundation are several players who could be All-Americans. Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough, Nebraska guard Spencer Long, Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard and Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray could stand on their athletic feats alone. Turns out they grade out well on days besides Saturdays. My Campbell favorite is Penn State guard John Urschel, a graduate student with a 4.00 who teaches math classes.

2. What do you do in an off week? Alabama coach Nick Saban spent his 62nd birthday on, yes, Halloween, doing what he does. “It’s a Thursday,” Saban told me in an ESPNU College Football Podcast interview. Oregon coach Mark Helfrich ran a midweek practice, with the bonus of the scout team offense and defense facing each other. Then there’s Stanford coach David Shaw. He flew to Washington to watch his former Cardinal teammate and close friend Cory Booker sworn in as a U. S. senator from New Jersey.

3. This is the 13th time that Florida State and Miami will play as top-10 teams. That’s not so surprising. Here are a few things that are, according to ESPN Stats & Info: it’s the first time they have met as top-10 teams since 2004; Miami has won the last four of these matchups and leads them 9-3; and the ‘Canes are 4-2 when the lower-ranked of the two. That said, it’s safe to say that in none of those six games were the Seminoles three-touchdown favorites. Miami has a big gap to close.
1. Keith Price, the fifth-year senior quarterback for No. 15 Washington, has matured enough to no longer try to force the big play. Price has learned to love the third receiver. Against Illinois, “he checked it down twice on third-and-long and we got the first down,” Huskies quarterback coach Marques Tuiasosopo said. “So we talk about, ‘Hey, it’s not sexy, but guess what? We’re still on the field. Coach Sark [head coach Steve Sarkisian] gets to call more plays, and we have a chance to score another touchdown.’”

2. Among the 170 semifinalists for the National Football Foundation’s Campbell Trophy -- the Academic Heisman -- are prominent FBS players such as quarterbacks Aaron Murray of Georgia and Nathan Scheelhaase of Illinois; offensive linemen Spencer Long of Nebraska, Gabe Ikard of Oklahoma and linebacker Max Bullough of Michigan State. But if any of them beats out Penn State center John Urschel, who’s teaching undergraduate math, then he’s one smart cookie. The NFF will whittle the candidates down to 16 finalists, each of whom will receive an $18,000 postgraduate scholarship, on Oct. 31.

3. The Little Brown Jug may not be important at Michigan, which has lost it only three times in 44 years. But that’s exactly why Minnesota cherishes the Jug. The last time the Gophers won it, in 2005, then-head coach Glen Mason got off the plane from Ann Arbor and drove the Jug straight to dinner at Manny’s, the best steakhouse in Minneapolis. Patrons gave Mason and the Jug a standing O, then oohed and aahed and took photos with it all night. That’s what a trophy game should be all about.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 1

September, 1, 2013
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Recognizing the best and brightest from around the Big Ten in Week 1:

Northwestern LB Collin Ellis: The Wildcats didn't mind watching Ellis experience some deja vu against Cal. In the third quarter, he pulled down a deflected pass for the interception, made a nice cut and then ran it back 56 yards for a touchdown. One quarter later? It was almost like watching Ellis on rewind -- he grabbed another deflected pass and this time sprinted 40 yards for the score. That's right, the linebacker picked off two passes for two touchdowns. His career interceptions total before the game? Zero. Give that man a helmet sticker. (Hey, Adam, can we get away with giving him two?)

Wisconsin running game: OK, UMass doesn't exactly boast the most dangerous defense. But in a soft opening conference slate, the Badgers impressed by having three running backs each rush for more than 100 yards. Melvin Gordon, James White and Corey Clement ran behind a stout offensive line that allowed the trio to combine for 388 yards and average 9.7 yards per carry. Yes, the running backs nearly averaged a first down every time they touched the ball ... which is probably why Wisconsin won 45-0.

Penn State S/LB Stephen Obeng-Agyapong: He was expected to be a situational player at both positions but, when LB Mike Hull went down, Obeng-Agyapong took over -- and stepped up in a big way. Syracuse targeted the player, but the Orange just couldn't get the best of him. Last year's starting safety ran the gamut of defensive stats by finishing with a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception. (Oh, and he was third on tackles with 6.5.) Two of his turnovers directly led to six PSU points, and the Lions won 23-17. You don't need OG John Urschel to do the math here; Obeng-Agyapong was very important to PSU's victory.

Michigan State LB Jairus Jones and S Kurt Drummond: Take this pair away from the Spartans defense, and the team might not have experienced a happy ending in Week 1. Jones got the team started off on the right foot by intercepting a first-quarter Western Michigan pass and then having the awareness to lateral it to Drummond, who ran in for the defensive touchdown. Of course, neither was finished. Jones would go on to add another pick, while Drummond made a video game-esque play by using one hand to pluck the ball out of the air for a pick. If that play doesn't make an end-of-the-year highlight reel, there's no justice for these Spartans.

Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman: Double-teams were no problem for the fifth-year senior, and he showed he'll be one of the Big Ten's big play-makers this season. Midway through the third quarter, UNLV lined up for a 37-yard field goal to bring the game to within one score -- but Hageman was having none of it. He tore through the line and blocked the kick, while teammate Martez Shabazz returned it for a touchdown. All of a sudden, Minnesota led by 17 instead of just seven. Hageman also had five tackles and broke up a pass. He got plenty of pats on the back for his effort, and now he's also got a helmet sticker.

PSU Training Days: Selecting a QB

August, 17, 2013
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"May the best man win."

That's all offensive guard John Urschel had to say when asked about Penn State's quarterback race. And it's a tight one right now between first-year signal-callers Tyler Ferguson and Christian Hackenberg.

That's the big battle this preseason, the competition that all eyes are on right now. Head coach Bill O'Brien is "pretty close" to naming a starter, and it's a decision all of Happy Valley is eager to hear.

Early in training camp, when the freshmen practice at 7:30 p.m., even the upperclassmen returned to the field to watch Hackenberg throw some footballs.

"The biggest storyline of this team, I would say, got to be our quarterback situation," assistant coach Stan Hixon said.

ESPN took a closer look at the QB battle and how O'Brien is preparing the two as part of "ESPN All Access: Penn State Training Days." The behind-the-scenes program will culminate in a one-hour special at 7 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN. And a five-part series consisting of 30-minute specials will also air on ESPNU starting 6 p.m. Wednesday.

Clips such as this will preview the program and will run up until Tuesday.
There will be a point this season when we'll know whether Iowa defensive tackle Carl Davis has turned a corner.

It won't be after he mauls a quarterback or fills a rushing lane with his 6-foot-5, 313-pound frame. Davis already has shown flashes of being a dominant interior lineman. When Penn State guard John Urschel was asked on an ESPN.com chat last month to name the toughest lineman he blocked last year, he picked Davis, a backup for the Hawkeyes, ahead of players like Purdue's Kawann Short and Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins, both second-round picks in April's NFL draft.

Davis can deliver a great play or two. But the true gauge for the Hawkeyes junior will come when opposing offenses sustain drives. Davis will be on the field for Play 1 or Play 2. If he's still there for Play 8 or Play 9, Iowa will be a lot better off.

"I believe my best football is ahead of me," Davis recently told ESPN.com. "I had some problems with my knee, I had some mental work being an every-play guy, and I'm still working on that. You've got to do it every day. You can't come out here like, I had a good practice today,' and then slack off tomorrow. You try to put days back to back to back."

[+] EnlargeCarl Davis
David Purdy/The Des Moines Register via USA TODAY SportsCarl Davis' size and strength have Iowa's staff optimistic on the defensive tackle's future.
Davis appeared in 11 games as a reserve in 2012, recording 14 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, to go along with a forced fumble. Hawkeyes defensive line coach Reese Morgan said the experience, even during a rough 4-8 season, bolstered Davis' confidence that he's built to last.

After being limited by a wobbly kneecap early in his career, Davis attacked conditioning and strength training during the offseason. He hang-cleaned 395 pounds -- a Hawkeyes defensive tackle record -- and boosted his squat max by 100 pounds.

Davis also shaved one-tenth of a second off of his 10-yard dash time, going from 1.7 seconds in 2012 to 1.6. He came into camp a little heavy at 313 pounds -- "I'm paying for it right now," he said with a laugh -- but hopes to get down to 310 before the season kicks off Aug. 31 against Northern Illinois.

"He developed a lot of strength and confidence with the records, the work ethic," Morgan said. "Being a big guy, sometimes they're worried about running out of gas and pushing themselves to get out of their comfort zone. Carl started doing that a little bit in the spring, worked hard through the summer, really did some diligent preparation."

Head coach Kirk Ferentz describes Davis as an "Iowa guy," meaning Davis didn't walk onto campus game-ready but has developed himself into a position to contribute significantly as an upperclassman. What stands out about Davis is his size. Iowa's recent defensive tackle standouts -- Mitch King, Matt Kroul, Karl Klug, Mike Daniels -- all played around 280 pounds. Only Christian Ballard (297 pounds) approached the 300-pound mark. Davis, meanwhile, was 295 when he signed with Iowa in 2010 and quickly went north of 300.

"We haven't had many guys like him," Ferentz said. "Colin Cole was never as big with us as Carl is currently. Carl's a guy who has a great attitude, he’s got good ability, good size. We’re all confident this is going to be his time to really step up and play well."

Cole is the gold standard for Iowa defensive tackles. He earned first-team All-Big Ten and second-team All-America honors for Iowa's 2002 co-Big Ten champion team, recording ridiculous numbers for a defensive tackle: 85 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, nine sacks, 16 quarterback hurries, one forced fumble and two fumbles recovered.

If Davis comes anywhere close to those totals, Iowa's line will be much improved.

"I want to have at least 40 tackles and eight to 10 sacks," he said. "If you shoot high, you see where you fall, and you might not be disappointed."

Davis is a big man with big goals. One of his challenges, somewhat ironically, is to use his size more to his advantage.

"He's a big guy who thinks he's a finesse guy, instead of being a physical guy," said Morgan, who attributes Davis' approach in part to his background as a basketball player. "Now he’s starting to become physical. That's really what you like about Carl, understanding that assignment. He's really a caring, solid person. As a player, he's really grown a lot, and we’re excited to see what he's going to do this fall."

A Sterling Heights, Mich., native, Davis grew up a Michigan fan and wanted to play for Lloyd Carr but didn't attract much interest. He actually became sold on Iowa after attending the Hawkeyes' 30-28 win against Michigan in 2009 under the lights at a geared-up Kinnick Stadium.

When Davis arrived, Iowa was enjoying arguably the most successful run of defensive linemen in team history (three were drafted after the 2010 season, and another followed after 2011). Daniels took Davis under his wing, and Davis admired the power Daniels generated despite being a smaller interior lineman (6-1, 280).

Davis still reviews practice clips from Daniels, Ballard and defensive end Adrian Clayborn, a first-round pick in the 2011 draft.

"I want to be one of those guys that can be the next name that pops up," Davis said. "Only time will tell, and I've got to put in the work."

Don’t limit yourselves to the stereotypes that the media has created for you. Don’t listen to what the outside world tells you football players are supposed to do. Aspire to something greater.

-- John Urschel, July 25, Big Ten kickoff luncheon

The term student-athlete has balance in lettering -- seven letters to each word -- but not much else, especially when it comes to big-time college football. Most of the men who fall under the NCAA-driven label are, in reality, more athletes than students, even if they try to be both. They're more about the moment or the near future than the long term. Their wish list includes an NFL contract, not a Ph.D certificate.

Penn State guard John Urschel arguably tips the scale the other way.

[+] EnlargeJohn Urschel
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsJohn Urschel earned his mathematics degree in three years, already completed a master's in math, and is working toward another master's.
Although he's a first-team All-Big Ten lineman for the Nittany Lions, his accomplishments as a student outweigh those as an athlete. He's a first-team Academic All-American and a three-time Academic All-Big Ten selection who carries a 4.0 grade-point average, earned his mathematics degree in three years, already completed a master's in math and is working toward another master's. Last spring, Urschel had a paper entitled "Instabilities of the Sun-Jupiter-Asteroid Three Body Problem" published in the journal, Celestial Mechanics and Dynamical Astronomy.

He taught an undergraduate math class (MATH 041, trigonometry and analytic geometry) this spring, won the Big Ten Medal of Honor in June, and enters his senior season as a leading candidate for the William V. Campbell Trophy, better known as the Academic Heisman.

"John is one of the more intelligent guys I’ve ever been around," Penn State coach Bill O'Brien recently told ESPN.com. "He's got it all."

Speaking on behalf of the players at the Big Ten's annual kickoff luncheon, Urschel eloquently outlined four things he wished he had been told before he started his college football career. They were: master your craft on the field, make a mark in the community, help young players along their journey and prepare for the day when your football career ends.

"Because our careers are so short and our lives hopefully long," Urschel told a large, captive audience at the Hilton Chicago, "planning and preparing for life without football is the most important of these four, and also the easiest to neglect."

Urschel never has neglected his future. While he might have wished for a primer on the four-point path to success when he arrived in State College, he has followed it every step of the way.

Bryce Hopkins knew Urschel had unique intellect when he met Urschel on the junior-varsity team at Canisius High School in Buffalo, N.Y. Hopkins, then a sophomore, played center for the jayvee, while Urschel, a freshman, occupied a tackle spot. Urschel's mind actually worked to his detriment early in his career as he tended to overthink things rather than just reacting to them.

He had another problem, too.

"He was such a nice guy and had difficulty separating his off-the-field persona from his on-field persona," said Hopkins, who later coached Urschel on the Canisius varsity squad. "He would pancake a kid, and as soon as he was finished pancaking him, he would help the kid up. Our coach was like, 'John, go onto the next play, don't worry about it.'

"Once John got up to the varsity level and he saw how quick and how athletic he was, he was able to use his intellect to read a defense and identify the techniques defensive linemen are using, identify things like blitzing tendencies. It allowed him to go to the next level."

Urschel had a relatively late start to his football career and didn't expect to have a long-term future in the game. He blossomed late in his high school career and seemed ticketed for Princeton before Penn State extended a scholarship offer after his senior season, weeks before signing day.

"There were some better academic schools," Urschel said, "but I would have been hard-pressed to find a better balance of academics and athletics, to be honest. Football's something I take very seriously, and I told my parents that there would be time for me to go to a Princeton or a Stanford or an MIT for graduate work.

"That is in my future. After football, I'll go back to academics."

That time will come after Urschel's football career, which could last a while. He started applying his smarts to the game at Canisius. Hopkins recalls Urschel telling the coaching staff to switch into different run plays because the defensive tackles were playing 2-technique rather than 1-technique.

O'Brien has been around bright offensive linemen in the NFL -- Matt Light, Dan Koppen and Logan Mankins, to name a few -- and subscribes to the notion that the game's smartest players tend to play in the front five.

"There are a lot of things that happen up front in football now, where you have to communicate really fast and clearly," he said. " A lot of times what I’ve found in football is if a guy’s that smart -- and [Urschel] is a brilliant guy -- usually that doesn't correlate to being an instinctive, smart football player. It just doesn’t come as easily. That's not the case with John. He understands football just as well as he understands math."

Urschel's Twitter handle, not surprisingly, is @mathmeetsfball. But he's not all above the neck.

Few players have bought into Penn State's transformative strength and conditioning program under Craig Fitzgerald more than Urschel, who squats 500 pounds and bench-presses more than 400.

"He might be our strongest player overall," O'Brien said.

The coach adds, "He's got a great shot to play pro football."

The 6-foot-3, 301-pound Urschel, who grew up admiring former Michigan tackle Jake Long, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft, expects to continue his career at the pro level. But he remains humble about his football success, joking during a recent ESPN.com chat with fans that he might have an easier path to the CFL because he was born in Winnipeg and carries dual citizenship.

Urschel is more confident about his future in academics -- Princeton and MIT definitely are on his radar -- and for good reason.

"It’s not very common for a Master's student to publish a paper," said Ludmil Zikatanov, a mathematics professor at Penn State who advises Urschel. "That shows he's very good. I don’t think he’s typical. He’s better than most. Publishing a paper based on your thesis is an excellent achievement."

Zikatanov is working with Urschel to get another paper published, this time on applications of graph theory. Urschel spent part of his summer working with undergrads on the basics of graph theory, helping them prepare for graduate research.

See if you can spot the All-Big Ten offensive lineman among Penn State's roster of mathematics grad students.

"He's just a guy who has talent in math and apparently talent in football," Zikatanov said. "This not a common quality, but I wouldn't say I was very surprised. He's a very capable man. I can see him defending his Ph.D. I’m not going to say it's easy, but he would be able to do that. I know that he wants to play for the NFL and then continue his studies. I think he will be successful in studying math after that.

"Whether he's in academia or industry, he's just a good mathematician."

Urschel is more than a good student-athlete. He strikes the balance so many strive for but can't reach for various reasons, many outside of their own control. The math whiz has solved the student-athlete equation.

"You can’t tell me when an NFL general manager sits down with him at the combine or during pre-draft meetings, they're not going to fall in love with a guy who's so smart, such a great character," Hopkins said. "Some NFL GM is going to want to make him the face of the franchise."

He's certainly one of the faces of Penn State, and the Big Ten, as he gears up for his final college season.

"In each of us lies great talent that extends far beyond our exploits on the gridiron," Urschel said to conclude his speech in Chicago. "Our whole is much more than the sum of our physical parts, and I have no doubt that this generation of football players, like those who have come before us, and those who will come after us, will make contributions to this world that far exceeds the limit of the football field."
On Wednesday, the head coach and one player from each Big Ten Legends Division team participated in a spring football teleconference with the media. On Thursday, it was the Leaders Division's turn. Here are some notes and updates from the call:

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

2. With the decision of former Notre Dame quarterback Gunner Kiel to transfer to Cincinnati, the head coach formerly known as the Riverboat Gambler is on a hot streak. Kiel is everything Bearcats coach Tommy Tuberville could want. Big body (6-foot-4, 210), big arm, relatively local, and itching to prove himself. Plus, Tuberville has two seniors who can play while Kiel sits out this season. Credit UC quarterback coach Darin Hinshaw with making the sale. Credit Tuberville with making an early splash.

3. My colleague Ted Miller posted an interesting analysis of the Pac-12’s turnover margin over the past three seasons. USC is a cumulative plus-1 under head coach Lane Kiffin, who had a veteran quarterback (Matt Barkley) all three seasons. In Pete Carroll’s glory days, the Trojans dominated that statistic. They went plus-21 in 2005, the last Trojans team to reach the BCS championship game (has it been that long?). The three Rose Bowl teams that followed went a combined plus-13. USC doesn’t protect the ball like that anymore.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

December, 14, 2012
12/14/12
4:30
PM ET
Hoping you have a great weekend.

Gary from Olathe, Kan., writes: I know I'm in the minority, but I'm starting to think the so called "super conferences" are a good thing. Say the B1G goes to 16 teams. We'll basically have two 8-team conferences (does the Big 8 ring any bells) that have a television and scheduling agreement with another 8-team conference. It seems to be a more formal version of what the B1G and PAC tried to do earlier.

Adam Rittenberg: Gary, this is an interesting way of looking at it. A key question is whether the Big Ten divisions into two eight-team divisions or four four-team pods, which might preserve rivalries a bit better and create some nice scheduling flexibility. I know the Big Ten wouldn't look at it like that -- two separate conferences -- and if there were two eight-team divisions, the number of crossover games would be minimal (two or three). But you would have more teams in the group and a chance to make more money. My big concern is whether further expansion kills some of the exciting non-league matchups (Ohio State-Texas, etc.) we've seen in recent months.


Rich from Des Moines, Iowa, writes: Adam, Would it make sense for Alvarez to coach a year or two and then bring in Chryst? What is the appropriate waiting period in this situation before Wisco brings in the People's Choice as coach? Thank you.

Adam Rittenberg: Rich, I've thought about this very possibility this week as Wisconsin's search twists and turns. I don't know if Alvarez can take such a presumptive approach, as who knows what will happen with Chryst at Pitt. He could struggle there. He could do so well that he gets an NFL job. Who knows? I do agree that the timing was off to bring in Chryst to Wisconsin right now, after only one year at Pitt. And he definitely makes the most sense for the UW job. I think Alvarez would be fine coaching for a year, although recruiting could be affected if there isn't a long-term plan. As for the appropriate waiting period, I think another year or two would create a different situation for Chryst, but again, you can't assume he'll take the job.


Kyle from Denton, Texas, writes: Adam,With what happened today with the catholic schools in the Big East is this a prime opportunity for the Big Ten to maybe capitalize and go to 16 schools? South Florida would be a great addition. Sure they aren't an AAU member, but that is an overrated thing by the Big Ten. By adding South Florida the Big Ten would have a recruiting presence in the Midwest (Nebraska), Iron Belt (original Big Ten schools), North East (PSU, Maryland, and Rutgers), California (Rose Bowl), and Florida (with SFU). The only area the Big Ten would not be in is the deep south and Florida. They could then try and go for a school like Georgia Tech to get into the deep south, or even go after a school in Texas ... just seems like the best opportunity to expand the Big Ten's footprint.

Adam Rittenberg: Kyle, you couldn't be more wrong about the AAU status being overrated in the Big Ten. It's incredibly important to Big Ten presidents. I've talked to several league sources who say Nebraska might not have been admitted into the conference if it had lost its AAU status at the time of admission. Big Ten presidents aren't pleased that Nebraska is no longer an AAU member (although it could regain the status in the future). But you're deluding yourself if you dismiss the AAU/academic component of this. That's a long way of saying the Big Ten won't add South Florida. Georgia Tech? Definitely in play. Other ACC teams with AAU status like Virginia and North Carolina? They're on the Big Ten's radar. But South Florida isn't happening.


Jay from Arlington writes: While your selection criteria limits the ability to praise Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden (the two best position coaches in the country) after their units excelled as usual, you missed out on Mac MacWhorter. He turned the smartest football player in the country (John Urschel) into an all Big Ten selection. Elevated Stank's game, put together the best pair of starting tackles in the league (with depth) while putting together a unit that was a team asset.

The Dave from Sarasota, Fla., writes: I will refrain from casting personal aspersions because I think you are very tolerable overall, but how could you leave Greg Mattison off your best assistant list and still look at yourself in the mirror? Who has done more with less talent and depth? Who has completed a bigger turn around? With less talent than Narduzzi his unit plays better more sound D.

Adam Rittenberg: Jay, I strongly considered including McWhorter on the list. Ultimately, we had to cap it somewhere and he didn't make it, but he did a terrific job with a line that entered the season with some major question marks. Honestly, we could have included all of Penn State's offensive assistants, as they really improved the unit in 2012. You also can't minimize the head coach's impact on the group as well.

As for Mattison, he had another great year for sure, but I wanted to spread around the credit a bit to coaches who don't receive as much. Those who read the blog know what Brian and I think of Mattison, and we praised him repeatedly last season as he transformed the Michigan D. For this post, I wanted tor recognize Curt Mallory, who doesn't get nearly as much credit, for doing what he did with the secondary. This isn't a Mattison vs. Narduzzi debate. Michigan State didn't have one position coach that, to me, stood out as much as Narduzzi did with the entire defense, so that's why he was listed.


Kevin from Rochester writes: I know you say that Northwestern is better off playing in a smaller bowl to get a win but Id rather them win as an underdog. They have been known to pull off big upsets and ruin teams goals such as big ten titles. They pulled off the win against Ricky Stanzi #4 Iowa a couple years ago and ruined Nebraska's big ten hopes late last year. Id rather have them break they're bowl streak by winning a bowl game thats similar to their identity which is pulling off an upset. Am I wrong to think this way. I really think they could have pulled off an upset and kept the game interesting if they played in the Capital One bowl against Johnny Football and A&M

Adam Rittenberg: I think Johnny Football and A&M would have destroyed Northwestern, and extended the bowl streak and all the chat about how the Wildcats can't get over the hump in a bowl. Northwestern hasn't won a bowl game since 1949! You really care how the streak ends at this point? The underdog wins tradition is nice, and Northwestern almost pulled off a nice upset of Missouri in the 2008 Alamo Bowl. But the poor bowl matchups are a huge reason why Northwestern keeps losing.The most important thing here is a win, and Northwestern has a much better chance against Mississippi State than Texas A&M or Georgia or South Carolina. I just don't understand your mind-set. A bowl win would change the narrative about Northwestern and resonate throughout the offseason before a potentially huge 2013 campaign.


Nate from Council Bluffs, Iowa, writes: Adam, As a Hawkeye fan I entered this season only expecting a 6-7 win season, with big coordinator changes, the question mark at running back, and favorable schedule. I never expected this outcome though. Now thinking ahead, because that?s all we can do at this point: With all the returning starters next year, and all the underclassmen who got playing time this year (Also if AIRBHG stays out of Iowa City this offseason!!), is there light at the end of the tunnel for next season?

Adam Rittenberg: Nate, there's definitely hope when a team returns a lot of core players and won't be going through another staff transition like Iowa went through last winter. My concern, however, is the Legends division. Who do you see getting worse so Iowa can rise up? Nebraska returns virtually its entire offense, led by quarterback Taylor Martinez. Michigan State might lose running back Le'Veon Bell, but its best defenders return and the offense should be at least serviceable in Year 2 with Andrew Maxwell at quarterback. Northwestern returns virtually everyone from a 9- or 10-win team (depending on the bowl game). Brady Hoke will have more of his recruits in key positions at Michigan, and Devin Gardner's emergence down the stretch raises hope. Minnesota just went from three wins to six wins. My point is that while Iowa shouldn't be this bad again, the division is only getting tougher for the Hawkeyes.


Fred from Spokane, Wash., writes: For programs on the rise, such as Minnesota, does it help the program to go to a bowl game and get blown out? Does a blow out help or hurt recruiting?

Adam Rittenberg: Fred, in Minnesota's case, the bowl game itself is secondary to the bowl practices. The fact Minnesota gets 15 extra practices is huge, especially with a true freshman (Philip Nelson) at the quarterback spot. It gives coach Jerry Kill and his staff more time to evaluate younger players who will play bigger roles in 2013. Although there are quite a few seniors on defense, the offense is very young for the most part, and that's the unit that must make significant strides for next season. Minnesota can sell the bowl appearance to recruits and the fact it doubled its wins total in Kill's second season. The outcome of the game itself, even if bad, shouldn't impact recruiting too much.
Nine Big Ten players have been named to the Capital One Academic All-America teams. That leads all FBS conferences.

Here are the honorees:

First team

Burkhead, Ward and Massaro earned first-team honors for the second time, becoming three of just five players nationally to achieve that distinction.

Second team

To be eligible for the academic All-America honors, a player must be in at least his second year of athletic eligibility, be a starter or key performer, and carry a cumulative 3.30 grade point average.

The Big Ten's five first-team selections were more than any other conference. The league has now led all FBS conferences in academic All-Americans for eight straight seasons, with 64 total honorees over that span.

Congrats to these players for this outstanding achievement.
Ten (items) for (Week) 10 for (Big) Ten.

Ready? Let's go ...

1. Nebraska's offense vs. MSU's defense: Something's gotta give in East Lansing, as the Big Ten's top offense (Nebraska) faces off against one of the nation's best defensive units (Michigan State). The Spartans throttled Wisconsin last week, finally complementing their standard stinginess with impact plays needed to win a big one on the road. Michigan State needs William Gholston and its other defensive linemen to pressure QB Taylor Martinez, while Max Bullough and his fellow linebackers must slow down running back Ameer Abdullah. Martinez came up big in Nebraska's last road game, and must limit mistakes and pick his spots against a defense allowing just 15 points per game. Nebraska's offense has survived and thrived without its best player -- running back Rex Burkhead -- but it hasn't faced a defense like this.

2. Michigan's end zone drought: The Wolverines have gone 126 minutes, 1 second without scoring a touchdown, failing to reach the end zone in each of their past two games. Michigan hasn't had three touchdown-less games in a season since 1962, when it went 2-7. Brady Hoke's crew has much bigger goals this season and still has a chance to win the Legends Division and play for a Big Ten championship. But it needs to start finishing drives beginning Saturday at Minnesota. Quarterback Denard Robinson is expected to play despite leaving last week's loss to Nebraska with a nerve issue in his throwing elbow. If Robinson doesn't stay on the field, Michigan might have a tough time ending its drought against an improved Gophers' defense.

[+] EnlargeNebraska's Taylor Martinez
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesTaylor Martinez and the Nebraska offense will face a stiff test in East Lansing.
3. Indiana's opportunity: Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson and his players aren't worried about the big picture, and rightfully so after recording their first Big Ten win since 2010 last Saturday. But in this wacky/unique/bad Big Ten season, Indiana finds itself right in the mix to represent the Leaders Division at the league title game. Indiana hasn't won back-to-back conference games since 2007 and hasn't won a league contest at home since 2009. It can accomplish both Saturday against a slumping Iowa team. If so, Indiana will set up a potential play-in game against Wisconsin next week in Bloomington. "Deep down, we know we have a shot," cornerback Greg Heban told ESPN.com.

4. Perfect 10: Ohio State is the first FBS team to reach nine wins, and the Buckeyes aim for a perfect 10-0 record Saturday against Illinois. Although it would take a very sloppy performance to let slumping Illinois hang around, Ohio State can't be complacent following a big win against Penn State and with an open week upcoming. Ohio State hasn't started 10-0 since 2007, and it can clinch the Leaders Division championship with a win and a Penn State loss at Purdue. Like Purdue, Illinois has given Ohio State more trouble than you'd think. The Illini have won seven of their past 11 games at Ohio Stadium, including a 2007 win against ... wait for it ... a 10-0 Buckeyes team.

5. Marve's moment: Purdue's season hasn't gone according to plan, and, unfortunately, neither has Robert Marve's career in West Lafayette. Marve has suffered three ACL tears since transferring to Purdue, including one he continues to play on for the rest of his final season. Boilers fans have clamored for Marve for most of the season, and they'll finally get their wish as Marve will start at quarterback Saturday against Penn State. Marve, who played well last week at Minnesota, will make his second start of the season. Purdue has dropped its first four Big Ten games and coach Danny Hope is under fire. If the Boilers have any hope of rescuing their season, they need to beat Penn State and get a big boost from Marve under center.

6. One win away: Three Big Ten teams are bowl eligible (Northwestern, Nebraska and Wisconsin), and three more can get there Saturday. One certainly will as Michigan and Minnesota, both with five victories, meet for the Little Brown Jug at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota aims for its first bowl appearance since the 2009 season and its first win against Michigan since 2005. Michigan State, meanwhile, can record its sixth win by beating Nebraska, ensuring a bowl game for the sixth consecutive season. The Spartans also are looking for their first Big Ten home win of the season. After recording perfect seasons at home in each of the past two years, Michigan State already has lost three times at Spartan Stadium this fall.

7. Bullock's turn: Damon Bullock opened the season as Iowa's top running back, had a big performance in the opener against Northern Illinois and then, like so many other Hawkeye ball carriers, fell victim to AIRBHG. He's back in the mix after recovering from a concussion, and Iowa needs him as Mark Weisman (ankle) is out for the Indiana game. Bullock showed good power and speed last week at Northwestern, rushing for 107 yards on 22 carries. Iowa needs to keep Indiana's high-powered offense off of the field Saturday, and it'll look for a big game from Bullock against the nation's 109th-rated rush defense (222.5 ypg allowed).

8. Full Nelson: Freshman quarterback Philip Nelson stole the show last week in his debut before the home crowd at Minnesota, completing 13 of his first 14 pass attempts and finishing with 246 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Nelson has Gopher Nation excited, but we'll learn a lot more about him this week as he faces Michigan, which ranks ninth nationally in yards allowed and 14th nationally in points allowed. If Nelson slays Michigan's defense as a true freshman, the buzz around him and the Gophers will only increase. Brady Hoke, meanwhile, called out Michigan defense Tuesday for a lack of pressure. Michigan has only 10 sacks in eight games, which ties for 104th nationally.

9. Crowd in East Lansing: Several times this week, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio expressed some concern about the crowd for Saturday's game, namely that Spartans fans wouldn't show up in their typical droves. With Nebraska coming to town, that's a problem because nobody travels like the Sea of Red. Remember what happened three weeks ago at Northwestern's Ryan Field. The Nebraska contingent was so big and so loud that Northwestern, the home team, had to operate on a silent count on offense toward the end of the game. Plenty of tickets are available at low prices, which comes as a bit of a surprise as Michigan State, while falling short of expectations this season, especially at home, comes off of a big win at Wisconsin. "Hopefully ... this week, we don't sell our tickets to the highest bidder," Dantonio said. "I know they'll come in in droves."

10. Lions on the rebound again: Penn State responded extremely well from its first setbacks of the season, erasing an 0-2 start with five straight wins. Thoughts of a 10-2 season surfaced around State College, but Ohio State provided a reality check of sorts in last week's game at Beaver Stadium. Bill O'Brien's team once again must show its resiliency on the road, where it is 2-0 in Big Ten play this season. Offensive lineman John Urschel said Wednesday that the team might have been too hyped up for the Ohio State game, while O'Brien disagreed. Purdue's Ross-Ade Stadium should have a more subdued atmosphere, but Penn State can't afford to sleepwalk against a Boilers team playing to save its season.

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