NCF Nation: Luke Fickell

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Ohio State way has been almost all Luke Fickell has ever known, and for years, there wasn’t much reason to branch out and try another approach.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer, Luke Fickell
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsLuke Fickell's 2013 Ohio State defense didn't live up to the standards Urban Meyer wants in Columbus.
As a former player, the current defensive coordinator played a role in maintaining the proud tradition of the program, so he understood the demands of representing the Buckeyes. For more than a decade, he’s passed on the gospel of the Silver Bullets on to the coaching staff, surrounded by familiar faces who knew the system just as well as he did and had been a part of many wins together.

And when the results are positive, there might be little incentive to figure out what made Wisconsin so effective in bottling up passing attacks under Chris Ash or how Penn State was churning out NFL prospects on the defensive line under Larry Johnson. But when things go wrong, that comfort with the way things have always been done can become dangerous complacency for somebody unwilling to change. That said, Fickell is embracing some fresh approaches if they can help get Ohio State's defense back to an elite level.

“It’s been a great transition, to be honest with you,” Fickell said earlier this month after the second practice of spring camp working with the new-look staff. “I know we haven’t had the real stressers and the reality of a season, but I tell you, we’ve battled through a lot of things in the last month or so and it’s been a great growing experience for me. I’ve always had a little bit of a comfort level here with the people that I’ve known ... and that’s one of those things that Coach [Urban] Meyer likes to challenge you to do is get out of your comfort zone.

“Having some new guys has made me do that and has made me broaden the things that we do. It’s been a great growing experience.”

The Buckeyes certainly left themselves plenty of room to grow defensively after completely falling apart down the stretch last season on that side of the ball. The Buckeyes came up short in the Big Ten title game, fell out of contention for the national title and coughed up a lead in the Orange Bowl, which were all products of the late-season struggle.

Meyer didn’t fire any assistants after his team finished the season ranked 110th in the nation in passing defense and allowed 115 points over the final three games, but he was afforded the chance to shake up his staff after safeties coach Everett Withers left to take over as the head coach at James Madison and Mike Vrabel surprisingly left his alma mater for a position with the Houston Texans.

“I have a lot of confidence in the coaches that were here,” Meyer said. “Obviously we didn’t perform up to the standard. We won a lot of games, but there were some holes.

“Holes are very easy to blame players or blame coaches, so just overall, we need to freshen up our defense.”

Meyer has admitted that fresh voices were probably needed as part of that rebuilding job, and the offseason departures allowed him to bring in a couple of them in Ash and Johnson. The current plan still has Fickell retaining play-calling duties for the Buckeyes, but Ash in particular is expected to play a prominent role in reshaping the pass coverage -- and updating what it means to play Ohio State defense.

“The idea of sometimes bending but don’t break is not exactly the mentality that obviously Coach Meyer likes,” Fickell said. “Those are some of those things that, as we get into our third year of it, we figure out each other, and hopefully, we do a lot better job of it.

“You know, the most important thing to understand is we ask our guys to be 1 of 11. We ask them to play together, that’s why this is the greatest team sport known to man, and it’s not any different for coaches. It doesn’t matter the titles or anything like that. ... We’ll be on the same page.”

That might mean reading a slightly different textbook than the one Fickell has had for years at Ohio State, but he’s clearly open to new ideas.
Spring football kicks off earlier than normal in the Big Ten, as Michigan takes the field Tuesday, Northwestern follows Wednesday and eight other squads begin their sessions by March 8.

The accelerated schedules seem appropriate in a league filled with players, coaches and teams itching for fresh starts.

New assistants get their first chance to repair struggling units, whether it's Doug Nussmeier with Michigan's offense, Brian Knorr with Indiana's defense or Chris Ash and Larry Johnson with a once-feared Ohio State defense. Quarterback competitions begin or resume at nine places, as new faces such as Illinois' Wes Lunt, Nebraska's Johnny Stanton and Minnesota's Chris Streveler enter the mix, while veterans like Wisconsin's Joel Stave and Michigan's Devin Gardner try to retain their starting jobs.

Happy Valley continues to buzz about new Penn State coach James Franklin, who seems to galvanize everyone whom he encounters. But Franklin barely has been around his new players and finally begins the real work with a team facing very real challenges.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes his team can start a rebound from a disappointing, injury-riddled 2013 season.
Spring also allows teams such as Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue and Indiana to look forward after disappointing seasons. Michigan State, meanwhile, continues to bask in the Rose Bowl glow but looks toward its next goal -- a national championship -- as spring ball kicks off March 25.

"It's big-picture stuff, building relationships with the players and everyone associated with the program," Franklin told ESPN.com. "The other thing is laying a really good foundation with the philosophies and schemes of how we're going to do things. That's going to happen naturally over time, but I'm not the most patient person. I wish it would have happened yesterday."

Franklin doesn't water down his goals for Penn State, especially in recruiting, but he's also realistic about the challenges of a reduced roster. The Nittany Lions return strong pieces such as quarterback Christian Hackenberg and defensive back Adrian Amos, but the two-deep has some holes that Franklin and his assistants must address, while installing new schemes.

"It's one thing when you get put in this situation in the first place with limited scholarships," Franklin said, "but the longer you're in it, the more effect it has. We've got some depth issues, there's no doubt about it, across the board. We're going to have to get creative."

Northwestern also is focused on depth after being hit hard by key injuries in 2013. Pat Fitzgerald blames himself and his staff for failing to get enough second-stringers ready, which proved costly in close Big Ten losses.

After their first bowl-less winter in six years, the Wildcats responded well in the weight room, as more than 50 players recorded personal bests. Although 11 players will miss spring practice, including standout running back/returner Venric Mark, the depth should be better in areas like the secondary.

"We're really emphasizing taking ownership of the finish," Fitzgerald said. "Finishing your technique, finishing the call, finishing the route. There's a lot of disappointment in the way the program didn't take the next step forward."

Michigan coach Brady Hoke restructured the roles of his defensive assistants for 2014, but the Wolverines' offense will be in the spotlight this spring after a wildly inconsistent season. Gardner, who continues to recover from a foot injury and likely won't be 100 percent until midway through the spring, will compete with Shane Morris, Russell Bellomy and midyear enrollee Wilton Speight.

But other positions, such as offensive line, figure to be just as important as Michigan tries to achieve Hoke and Nussmeier's vision.

"We had good intentions as far as what we wanted our identity to be, but obviously I don't think it came out the way we'd like it to," Hoke said. "The quarterback position is as important as any, and we have a guy [Gardner] who is very talented and had some really good games and games where we had to protect him better, have a better run game and take pressure off of him, and I don't think we did."

While Michigan turns the page on offense, Ohio State focuses on a defense that allowed 115 points in its last three games and finished 110th nationally in pass yards allowed (268 YPG). The Buckeyes lost top defenders Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby, but they also added two accomplished assistants.

Johnson, who churned out NFL linemen during 18 years at Penn State, chose Ohio State instead of remaining in State College. Ash leaves a sole coordinator role at Arkansas for a co-coordinator role at Ohio State, where he'll work with the embattled Luke Fickell and others to mend the defense through a simplified scheme.

"Back in the day when Ohio State played great defense, you knew what you were going to get," Ash said. "They played with swagger, played with confidence, played with toughness. We have to get back to that. The simplicity of the things we're going to do will lead to faster players, more plays made and a more aggressive defense.

"I wasn't here [in 2013], but I can tell you what Coach Meyer has told me, what Luke Fickell has told me and what I watch on film. I can see there's some hesitation, there's some uncertainty. Why that is, I don't know. But it's my job to get it fixed."

Purdue has plenty to fix after a 1-11 season, and players not surprisingly are wearing T-shirts with the word "FORWARD" on the backs. Maryland and Rutgers move forward to a new conference after an offseason that saw several staff changes, including new coordinators at Rutgers (Ralph Friedgen, Joe Rossi).

There's a fresh start of sorts at Wisconsin, as a large and decorated senior class departs. Coach Gary Andersen's markings will be more obvious with his second team, which begins practice March 7.

Wisconsin is just one of many places where the top quarterback job is at stake. Lunt, who sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma State, competes with Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey at Illinois.

"Competition's competition, no matter where it's at," said Lunt, who has added about 15 pounds since his arrival and checks in at 225. "It's different because it’s different people, different coaches, but I'm excited for it."

He's not alone in the Big Ten. Spring ball can't start soon enough.

Discover Orange Bowl preview

January, 3, 2014
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The last and only time Clemson and Ohio State played, this happened. We don't expect any sideline high jinks this time, just a potential thrilling shootout between the No. 7 Buckeyes (12-1) and the No. 12 Tigers (10-2) in the Discover Orange Bowl (8:30 p.m., ESPN).

Who to watch: The two quarterbacks. Clemson's Tajh Boyd, a senior, is one of the most accomplished players in school and ACC history, with more than 10,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in his career. Ohio State junior Braxton Miller has more than 5,000 yards passing and 3,000 yards rushing in his career and has finished in the top 10 of the Heisman Trophy voting the past two years. Although they have similar body types, Boyd is the far better passer, having thrown for 3,473 yards and 29 touchdowns this season. Miller remains most dangerous as an open-field runner. Each has a wingman who is a superstar in his own right -- for Miller, it's running back Carlos Hyde, and Boyd loves throwing to Sammy Watkins because who wouldn't? But the quarterbacks remain the main attraction here, even for the coaches. "That's awesome," Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "I get to sit up there with my hot dogs and popcorn and Diet Coke and get to watch this thing go down, man. These are two of the top five or 10 quarterbacks in college football today and have been for the last couple of years." About the only thing missing on the résumés for Boyd and Miller is a BCS win. That will change for one of them tonight.

What to watch: Can Ohio State's pass defense do anything to slow down Boyd, Watkins and Martavis Bryant? Clemson had the 11th-best passing attack in the country this season, and, in Watkins and Bryant, it boasts arguably the best pair of receivers the Buckeyes have faced all season. Ohio State's pass defense was in tatters by the end of the season, giving up 451 yards through the air to Michigan and allowing Michigan State's Connor Cook to throw for 300 yards in the Big Ten title game loss. Add to that the uncertain status of top cornerback Bradley Roby (bone bruise on his knee) and top pass-rusher Noah Spence (personal reasons) and there could be issues. Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell is putting true freshman Vonn Bell into the lineup at nickelback and moving Tyvis Powell to starting safety in an attempt to shore up the pass defense. But if Ohio State doesn't show major improvement in the secondary and make up for the possible loss of Roby and Spence, it could mean a huge night for the Clemson stars.

Why to watch: Both teams averaged more than 40 points per game in the regular season and are blessed with an abundance of fast future NFL stars (we haven't even mentioned defensive standouts such as Clemson's Vic Beasley and Ohio State's Ryan Shazier, coming to a pro stadium near you soon). This has a chance to be one of the most entertaining games of the bowl season. Urban Meyer is 4-0 in BCS games and has a 24-1 record at Ohio State. Clemson is seeking its first BCS win and wants to redeem itself from its last Orange Bowl appearance, a 70-33 humiliation at the hands of West Virginia in the 2012 game. It's the final non-championship BCS bowl ever. There's no better way to spend your Friday night.

Prediction: Clemson 38, Ohio State 35. The potential loss of Roby and Spence is devastating for a Buckeyes defense that was already going to be under the gun in this game. The Big Ten just can't prepare you for the type of speed and playmaking ability Clemson has at receiver. Ohio State will find lots of success running the ball with Miller and Hyde, but ultimately the Buckeyes will need to match the Tigers score for score because of their spotty defense. And that's a tough way to win a BCS game.


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The last goal on the list was the most critical.

The plan obviously wasn’t to give up more than 600 yards of offense.

Ideally, the defense wouldn’t have allowed 41 points.

Of course, the best-case scenario probably didn’t call for needing to snuff a 2-point conversion in the final minute to escape either.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioOhio State's defense had its struggles against Michigan but have found what needs correcting before facing Michigan State.
But if Ohio State almost certainly came up well short of the target statistically, defensive coordinator Luke Fickell still had one final item on his checklist he measured with a simple pass or fail grade in Saturday’s wild, shootout win over rival Michigan. And since the No. 2 Buckeyes are still undefeated, that evaluation was pretty easy for him to make.

“What do you mean what went wrong?” Fickell said. “Did we win? Did we win? Did we win? I’ve been up there quite a few times in my 18-year career here and not come away with a win.

“There are a lot of things we have to correct, but every single week we have objectives, and the last objective last week was to win. We came away with a win, we made a play when we had to make a play.”

The Buckeyes didn’t make many on that side of the ball before an interception by Tyvis Powell sealed the win over the Wolverines. Even with a positive outcome, there’s no way they can hide from that fact.

Fickell acknowledged some communication breakdowns, gave credit to Michigan for an aggressive game plan that caught Ohio State off guard and stressed the importance of improved “awareness” as his team prepares for Saturday’s Big Ten title game in Indianapolis against No. 10 Michigan State.

But his boss took it one step further, as coach Urban Meyer made it clear he didn’t think another passing grade would be likely without a much more stout defensive effort.

“We won't win the game,” Meyer said. “We won't win that game this time. That's just very simple. We have to play much better.

“Pass defense [breakdowns] surfaced again and lack of contact on the quarterback. We just had some guys running open. It was a combination [of problems]. If you could say it was one thing, then I would say it was one thing. But I trust that we'll get it fixed, and I trust that these guys will be locked and loaded and have a good week of preparation.”

Perhaps the most pressing correction to be made will be ensuring the Buckeyes are communicating the way they have largely throughout the season in allowing just more than 20 points per game. It was an issue they at least identified before the final defensive snap against the Wolverines to get on the same page in time to get a season-saving stop near the goal line.

The Buckeyes might also have been a little overzealous and trying to do too much individually, which hurt them in the screen game as huge holes opened and the Wolverines gashed them for long gains with no tacklers in sight. But that, too, is a lesson they preferred to learn from a win.

“To be honest, I feel execution and effort were there, but it was a lack of communication that we messed up on,” linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “I feel like we did a good job executing the things that we needed to execute, and we had the effort out there on the field. They just threw a bunch of curveballs at us and we have to try to change up on them during the game.

“We just have to do what we have to do to get this ‘W,’ and that means play great defense.”

The Buckeyes didn’t do it over the weekend but got a victory anyway, which Fickell was quick to point out. But crossing off that final objective against Michigan State might be a lot tougher to do without meeting a few other goals first this time.

OSU, Michigan seemingly worlds apart

November, 25, 2013
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The theory was spawned sometime after the 2011 season, as Michigan celebrated Brady Hoke's successful debut and new Ohio State coach Urban Meyer had Columbus buzzing with optimism.

Both programs signed top-10 recruiting classes in February 2012. Both coaches had clear visions and lofty goals and standards. The rest of the Big Ten, the theory held, was in serious trouble.

The Big Ten was headed back to the Big Two and everybody else. Some college football observers said it publicly; many others said it privately. They pointed mainly to recruiting, but also to other factors.

At the very least, the gap separating Ohio State and Michigan from 2008 to 2010 -- and also from 2005 to 2009 -- would narrow as both programs were poised to take up residence in college football's penthouse.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
AP Photo/Tony DingBrady Hoke and the Wolverines have stumbled down the stretch this season, losing three of their last four.
Two years later, Ohio State has renewed its lease. Michigan, meanwhile, has been evicted.

Ohio State and Michigan seemingly are worlds apart as they gather this week for The Game at Michigan Stadium. The Buckeyes, headed for the league championship, lead a group of Big Ten elites that includes No. 11 Michigan State and No. 15 Wisconsin. Michigan is a rung or two below.

The last time the longtime rivals met at the Big House, Michigan ended its seven-game losing streak against Ohio State. The Wolverines went on to win the Sugar Bowl and finish 11-2, but the victory over Ohio State, from an emotional and symbolic standpoint, arguably meant more to Hoke, his players and Michigan fans sick of hearing about The Streak.

Two days after the Michigan loss, Ohio State named Meyer head coach. The Buckeyes went on to lose their bowl game under Luke Fickell before Meyer took full control. They have yet to lose under Meyer, setting a team record Saturday against Indiana with their 23rd consecutive win.

Ohio State is No. 3 in the BCS standings, and with two more wins could make the trip to Pasadena, Calif., for the national championship game on Jan. 6. The Buckeyes rank third nationally in scoring (48.7 ppg) and boast arguably the nation's most dynamic offensive backfield: quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde.

Michigan is fortunate to be bowl-eligible, is unable to run the ball and, barring a major surprise Saturday, is headed for its worst stretch under Hoke (losses in four of its final five games). Hoke, along with his offensive staff, is feeling the heat. While Ohio State has reached historic milestones under Meyer, Michigan has endured historic lows in recent weeks, from the lowest net rushing total in team history (minus-48 against Michigan State) to becoming the only FBS team in the past 10 seasons with consecutive games of minus-20 rush yards or fewer (minus-48 against MSU, minus-21 against Nebraska).

The win over Ohio State in 2011, followed by the Sugar Bowl triumph, have been high points in the Hoke era. Since the bowl win, Michigan is just 15-9, including a 2-5 mark against teams ranked in the AP Top 25.

Even after a 2012 season filled with close losses to good teams, Michigan seemed ready to join Ohio State in the elite when it thumped Notre Dame, the 2012 national runner-up, in Week 2 this season. Quarterback Devin Gardner and the offense were rolling, star linebacker Jake Ryan would soon return from injury, and a favorable schedule put Michigan in great position to meet Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game.

Then the turnovers started. Michigan nearly lost to Akron at home and Connecticut on the road. Defensive woes surfaced in an overtime loss to Penn State and a shootout win against Indiana. The offense then fizzled against Michigan State and Nebraska. Michigan's lone win since Oct. 19 -- an overtime triumph at Northwestern -- wouldn't have happened if officials had called illegal motion on a tying field goal at the end of regulation.

Sure, the Wolverines are young at some spots, namely offensive line, but the clear vision that seemed to be in place two years ago is cloudier now.

"Is the goal always to win the Big Ten championship? No question about it," Hoke said Monday. "We won't make excuses nor back down from it. Have we played and coached as well as we needed to? Obviously not."

Both Meyer and Hoke are taking the correct approach to the week and have put the rivalry on a pedestal. Ohio State began its Michigan prep a day early, while Michigan, typically off on Mondays, went to work today.

There's plenty at stake for both teams, as Ohio State can keep its national title hopes alive and Michigan can lessen the disappointment of the season by beating its rival on senior day and handing the Buckeyes their first loss under Meyer. On paper, The Game looks like a mismatch, but rivalry games can spark surprises, especially when the underdog is playing at home on senior day.

"This game has always been different in some ways," Hoke said. "Are they a good football team? Yeah. They're a very good football team. Do we have to play better than we've played? I don't think there's any doubt about that."

Meyer doesn't put much stock in the Wolverines' record and expects "their best game."

When national signing day rolls around in February, Ohio State and Michigan will be in the same category, both likely signing top-10 recruiting classes (possibly top-five). It might refuel the Big Two theory in the Big Ten. After all, the original argument was heavily rooted in recruiting success.

But the real gauge comes this week on the field. Michigan must close the gap.

Otherwise, it's just another Big Ten program looking up at the Buckeyes.

Huge test coming for OSU defensive line

September, 26, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The clues started popping up in the form of ferocious pass-rushing ends who were dominating spring practice.

By the time training camp and the start of the season rolled around, a couple new bodies were added into the rotation, and Ohio State was starting to show signs that what was thought to be a potential problem was about to be solved.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa
Jason Mowry/Icon SMITrue freshman Joey Bosa has been pressed into action and has performed admirably.
Now with four games under their belt, the Buckeyes are reasonably certain that an entirely rebuilt defensive line has gone from possible weakness to legitimate strength.

But even with all the information they’ve compiled -- dating to the end of last season and through an impressive start outside of Big Ten play -- all No. 4 Ohio State really has at this point is a hypothesis. The true test is coming Saturday, with No. 23 Wisconsin and its powerful rushing game visiting Ohio Stadium to provide a more concrete answer about just how good the Buckeyes are up front.

“They have not received the challenge yet like this one,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “This will be the biggest challenge to this point, maybe the rest of the year, for our defensive front seven.

“I know we’ve had conversations about this outfit before, because the run game is real. You can get embarrassed real fast if you're not gap-sound and handling your business.”

The Buckeyes went about their nonconference business with ruthless efficiency and relative ease, relaxing some of the concerns about filling the void left by three graduated seniors and a junior who left early for the NFL draft. But given the level of competition a largely inexperienced unit has faced compared to what it will encounter in the trenches against the Badgers, it’s difficult to reach much of a conclusion until after this weekend’s prime-time matchup.

Ohio State hasn’t been at full strength on the line yet either, with Adolphus Washington missing two games due to a groin injury that has kept him from forming what appears to be a terrific tandem with fellow sophomore Noah Spence. Defensive tackle Michael Bennett was held out of last week’s blowout over Florida A&M, and Ohio State has yet to get a snap out of Tommy Schutt at the position this season due to a preseason foot injury. Those issues have pressed a true freshman into an expanded role at end, where Joey Bosa has shined, and it also forced Meyer to move offensive lineman Chase Farris back over to defense to provide more depth and talent on the interior alongside veteran Joel Hale.

But even with those limitations, the way the Buckeyes have played might give them a bit of extra credit, considering they still rank No. 9 in the nation against the rush and No. 13 in total defense, which also represents marked improvement from some early struggles a year ago in Meyer’s first season with the program. But those numbers haven’t come against teams that can block as physically or run as dangerously as the Badgers, and the nation’s third-ranked rushing attack is the measuring stick that counts for a defense looking to live up to the proud tradition of the Silver Bullets.

“I know people are going to say that it's going to come down to making tackles and stopping big plays and things like that,” defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. “But if we do a great job up front, we'll be in good shape. If we don't do a great job up front, we'll have a tough time.

“That doesn't mean the back seven don't have to play well. The linebackers and [secondary] are every bit a part of stopping and fitting that run and being a part of that effort as the front seven. But those guys up front are where the game is won and lost.”

Testing a hypothesis doesn’t get much easier than that.
Ohio State already had started paying more competitive salaries for assistant coaches before Urban Meyer arrived in November 2011.

But when Meyer and athletic director Gene Smith sat down to discuss staff pay, Smith soon realized he needed to do more.

"I think Michigan had stepped up with their coordinators," Smith recalled last week during Big Ten spring meetings in Chicago. "So we were already going to that before Urban Meyer came, but we bumped it up a little more. Any time there's change, you have that opportunity."

[+] EnlargeGreg Mattison
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIMichigan DC Greg Mattison ranks as the highest-paid assistant coach in the Big Ten for the 2013 season.
"Everyone's always focused on head coaches' salaries," Smith continued. "That's always the thing. But really when you look at the changes, it's really been assistants' salaries across the country -- not just in the SEC, but the Big 12, Pac-12, all across the country."

The Big Ten is part of the change, too, as the league is allocating more money toward football assistants than ever before. The Detroit Free Press has an excellent look at Big Ten assistants' salaries, complete with a database that includes 10 of the 12 current members (Northwestern doesn't submit salaries as a private institution, and Penn State doesn't have to because of state laws).

The Free Press found that eight of the 10 schools are paying more for assistants in 2013 than they did in 2012 (only Indiana and Illinois are not). There are some significant total increases, such as Wisconsin (up $558,000), Nebraska (up $518,500), Purdue ($400,000) and Minnesota ($355,000). Staff pay had been an issue at Wisconsin, which lost six assistant coaches following the 2012 Rose Bowl, and at Purdue, which paid less for its staff during the Danny Hope era than any Big Ten school.

The total trend among the 10 schools is an increase of $1,720,852.24 for 2013.

Ohio State and Michigan remain No. 1 and No. 2 in Big Ten staff salary, as the Buckeyes allocate $3.416 million and the Wolverines allocate $2.805 million. Nebraska and Wisconsin make the biggest moves in the league for 2013, as the Huskers rise from sixth to third and the Badgers rise from seventh to fourth.

Illinois, which replaced five assistants from the 2012 team, including co-offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales, dropped from third in staff pay ($2.314 million) to eighth ($2.065 million).

The database shows that nearly every Big Ten assistant with "coordinator" in his title -- whether he's the sole coordinator or a co-coordinator -- will earn north of $300,000 for 2013. Only 18 assistants listed will make less than $200,000 in 2013 -- 15 work for Minnesota, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana.


Some notes:

  • Although Wisconsin paid former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst good coin, the school has increased its commitment for Gary Andersen's staff, not only with the coordinators but with some coveted position coaches like running backs coach Thomas Hammock ($300,000).
  • All of Nebraska's assistants are earning $200,000 or more for 2013, but there's a huge drop-off between Beck and the next highest-paid assistant (defensive coordinator John Papuchis at $310,000).
  • Michigan State has a similar drop off between Narduzzi and co-offensive coordinators Dave Warner ($270,000) and Jim Bollman ($260,000). Warner will be the primary offensive play-caller and has been on Mark Dantonio's staff since 2006, while Bollman is a newcomer.
  • Although Michigan is paying top dollar for its coordinators, the school gets its assistants for a relative bargain. Receivers coach/recruiting coordinator Jeff Hecklinski will earn $225,000 in 2013, while the others all will earn $205,000. Ohio State, meanwhile, pays all but one of its assistants $286,000 or more.
  • The Big Ten's three lowest-paid assistants all are in their first years: Illinois wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy ($125,000) and Purdue linebackers coach Marcus Freeman and running backs coach Jafar Williams (both at $120,000).
  • Although schools like Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa ($325,000) pay their coordinators the exact same amount, others have slight differences in salary. Purdue's Shoop makes $5,000 more than defensive coordinator Greg Hudson. Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys ($340,000) makes $5,000 more than offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. Wonder if that leads to any underlying jealousy?
  • Most Big Ten schools have assistant salaries in round numbers, but there are some interesting totals from Indiana, which pays co-offensive coordinators Seth Littrell and Kevin Johns $255,500.04 and new recruiting coordinator/assistant defensive line coach James Patton $173,740.08. Never know when that change can come in handy.

The Big Ten still lacks some of the OMG totals seen in the SEC -- LSU is paying new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron $3.4 million in the next three years -- but the overall trend puts the league more on par with what we're seeing nationally.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Braxton Miller collected his Big Ten offensive player of the year trophy in Indianapolis on the day of the league championship game last December. Since he took part in a halftime ceremony, Miller stuck around to watch Wisconsin whip Nebraska, 70-31, to clinch a Rose Bowl berth.

Of course, the Ohio State quarterback couldn't help but think about how his team had beaten both Big Ten title game participants.

"I got kind of upset watching it, because it was a different type of game than what I was expecting," Miller told ESPN.com. "I thought it would have been a different type of story if we were there."

Linebacker Ryan Shazier, like a lot of other Buckeyes, had similar feelings as he watched the BCS championship game between Notre Dame and Alabama about a month later.

"To be honest, I was feeling sick," Shazier said. "Because I felt like we had a great team and we should have been in the game. I feel like if everybody who had to watch that game can keep that in their head this year, it's going to push us to another level."

[+] EnlargePhilly Brown
Mike Carter/US PresswireCorey Brown and his Ohio State teammates appear to be far from complacent after finishing 12-0 last season.
Ohio State completed just the sixth undefeated season in school history in 2012, and there are reminders all around the team's football complex about the achievement. There's a huge "Undefeated" sign in the main entrance, a banner for the 2012 season hanging in the indoor practice facility next to ones celebrating national championships, and signs proclaiming Lane Avenue near campus as "12-0" row. Players and coaches from last year's team received rings fit for a champion last week.

Of course, the Buckeyes couldn't play for a Big Ten championship or go to a bowl because of NCAA probation. And they say that's a big reason why they're not dwelling on their accomplishments but rather looking forward this offseason.

"Yeah, we went 12-0, but it didn't really mean much," receiver Corey "Philly" Brown said. "It's not like we won anything. I feel like none of our team got a taste of what it feels like to be playing for a national championship. That makes us more hungry to get there."

Along with the reminders of last year, head coach Urban Meyer had another banner put up in the football complex this spring with the slogan "The Chase." That was his not-so subtle message to the players to keep striving toward new goals. But Meyer said he hasn't noticed any sense of complacency with this group.

"I've watched for that," he said. "I've had our strength coach [Mickey Marotti] watch for that. I don't feel it. If I did, I'd jump in the middle of it."

Meyer's biggest concern this spring has been identifying new leaders. Outside of left tackle Jack Mewhort, he wasn't sure which players would fill the shoes of seniors like John Simon and Zach Boren from last year. He has brought in weekly guest speakers to talk to the team this spring about leadership, and he's hoping guys like Miller, Shazier, Brown and defensive backs C.J. Barnett, Christian Bryant and Bradley Roby take on those roles. Of course, Meyer had similar worries about last year's team at this time, and it ended up having what he calls one of the best group of leaders he's ever coached. So that figures to work itself out.

The young front seven on defense also presents question marks, as Shazier is the only returning starter among the defensive line and linebacker units. But sophomores Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence showed with their combined seven sacks in the spring game that Ohio State is blessed with talented options up front, even if there might be a learning curve at work.

"We're going to have to live with some mistakes," defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. "But our job as coaches is to say, 'Hey, what can they handle?'"

Will these Buckeyes be able to handle the increased expectations and pressure in 2013? Last year, they began the year ranked No. 18 in the Associated Press poll and weren't eligible to receive votes in the coaches' rankings. Even as they continued to win, they mostly operated outside of the limelight because of their absence from the national title hunt. This year, the spotlight will be on them from Day 1, as they should open the season in the top 5.

"We're definitely going to be a huge target," running back Carlos Hyde said. "We're back to where Ohio State usually is, which is the No. 1 team on the schedule that teams want to beat. It lets us know that we just can't come out and roll our helmets out and expect to beat a team."

The target is larger, but so too is the goal. The shackles of probation are off, and if Ohio State can pull off a repeat undefeated season, odds are its players won't be watching the national championship game from afar next January. Roby, the team's All-American cornerback, is confident that will happen. He says that "last year was the commercial, and this year is the movie."

"We've got the talent, and I'm not going to say the schedule is easier, but we don't play Nebraska and we don't play Michigan State," he said. "It's set up in our favor. All we have to do is go out there and keep grinding."
Adolphus Washington is a huge part of Ohio State's future on defense, but he hasn't forgotten the Buckeyes' recent past.

Asked to identify his top goal during spring practice, Washington made sure to give a nod to the man who showed him the way in 2012.

"To fill the shoes of John Simon," Washington told ESPN.com. "I know those are some big shoes to fill. I'm just working my hardest to try and do that."

[+] EnlargeAdolphus Washington
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesAdolphus Washington knows he has some big shoes to fill as he replaces John Simon at defensive end.
Many would say Washington, a 6-foot-3, 292-pound defensive end, boasts more natural ability than Simon, the 2012 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He undoubtedly came to Columbus as a more decorated recruit, rated as the nation's 65th-best player and No. 7 defensive end in the 2012 class, according RecruitingNation. (Simon had no national ranking when he arrived in 2009.)

But Simon maximized every ounce of talent he had during an exceptional Buckeyes career, earning respect from teammates, fans and coaches, including Urban Meyer, who put Simon in a select category of players he has coached (he hangs Simon's and Tim Tebow's jerseys in his office at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center). He attacked the weight room and practices the same way he did the game field on fall Saturdays, and everyone took notice, including a young defensive lineman from Cincinnati.

"His competitive spirit, that's the biggest thing," Washington said. "I'm pretty athletic, and I've got a lot of things God blessed me with to play football, but his competitive spirit is what I take away the most."

Washington is part of a new-look Buckeyes defensive line that must replace Simon and three other starters (tackles Johnathan Hankins and Garrett Goebel, and end Nathan Williams). As a true freshman, Washington appeared in 10 games, logging 156 plays and recording three sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a blocked kick.

He recorded two of the sacks in Ohio State's final three games.

"My first game when I went out there, things were just lightning fast," Washington said. "But as the year went on, it kind of slowed down. Now I'm just out there playing, out there competing."

Washington has the size and skills to play both line spots but has been practicing this spring at defensive end. He'll likely start opposite fellow true sophomore Noah Spence, who logged 237 plays last season, the most among the Buckeyes' returning linemen.

"He's learning how to do some other things, like moving down inside at times and things that aren't as natural to him," defensive coordinator Luke Fickell told colleague Brian Bennett. "He's very athletic out on the edge, and he's getting a lot better in different situations and things we've asked him to do, like being one of the inside fit guys."

Spence and Washington headlined Meyer's first recruiting class at Ohio State, which included arguably the best defensive line haul in the country. They live in the same dorm as freshmen and have talked about getting a place together off campus for the next academic year. Washington said Spence will "probably be one of my best friends for life."

The two typically are mentioned in the same sentence when it comes to football, and they form the foundation for Ohio State's future along the D-line.

"Noah brings the athleticism and the speed," Washington said, "and I can bring the speed and the power. But Noah also has power. Noah's a lot stronger than he looks. We bring the same things."

Spence has drawn rave reviews for his play throughout the spring, and Washington seems to be making strides in recent weeks. Meyer, who describes Washington as a "wonderful person," said the lineman always grades high in terms of attitude and effort but lacked a chip on his shoulder.

"He's not an angry player," Meyer said. "The position he plays, you have to play angry. You can see that starting to come out these last three or four practices."

Ohio State's spring game has added meaning for Washington, who returns to his hometown and will take the field Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium. The defensive line will be in the spotlight as many are interested to see how the replacement project is going.

"We get reminded about it every day," Washington said. "We just go out there and try to show the guys returning on defense, Coach Meyer, Coach Fickell, that we can fill the shoes and be just like they were."

Washington already has a believer on the offense in a guy he often faces in practice.

"He's obviously got all the physical tools, he's blessed," Buckeyes left tackle Jack Mewhort said. "I see him coming along every day. That chip on his shoulder, people may have not have seen that before, but I can definitely see that more as spring ball goes.

"If he keeps going in the right direction, he's going to be a force to be reckoned with in this conference."
Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck oversaw one of the most prolific attacks in the Big Ten in 2012. Now, Beck is getting rewarded for that good work.

According to the Omaha World-Herald, the third-year coordinator had his salary nearly doubled on Jan. 1, going from $365,000 last season to $700,000 this year. That would make Beck the third-highest paid coordinator in the Big Ten, behind Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell ($761,000) and Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison ($750,000). Beck would be making more than Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges and Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. (We took a look at the highest-paid Big Ten assistants last month, which you can find here).

According to the story, head coach Bo Pelini said Beck had been contacted by at least two teams for jobs after the regular season.

Some other Huskers assistants also got raises. Defensive coordinator John Papuchis went from $300,000 to $310,000. Assistant offensive line coach John Garrison got the biggest bump, going from $160,000 to $245,000. Running backs coach Ron Brown and offensive line coach Barney Cotton saw their salaries jump from $240,000 to $254,800. Overall, the Huskers are adding more than $500,000 to their assistant coaching salary pool this year.

We've talked here recently about how Big Ten teams need to continue to pay their assistants well if they want to compete with other national powers. It's good to see Nebraska step up and reward Beck, who has done a great job so far in Lincoln.
Ryan Shazier was playing for more than just himself and his current teammates last weekend at Penn State.

The Ohio State linebacker switched his jersey number to 48 to honor Gary Curtis, his friend and the former manager for Shazier's Plantation (Fla.) High School football team. Curtis, who was bound to a wheelchair but always wore his No. 48 jersey to Plantation games, suffered from muscular dystrophy and died in the spring.

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesRyan Shazier is a big reason why Ohio State's defense has improved over the season.
"He was real close to me, and I treated him like a brother," Shazier told ESPN.com. "I talked to him before all my games last year. When he left, it was really important to me just to let people know about that disorder that some people have to go through. He never got to play, and I wanted to play through him."

Shazier brought attention to his late friend with a standout performance in the Buckeyes' 35-23 victory over the Nittany Lions. On consecutive plays during the third quarter of a tie game, he sacked Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin and then intercepted a McGloin pass for a defensive touchdown. He was named Big Ten co-defensive player of the week on Monday.

It was actually the second straight strong showing for Shazier, who had 13 tackles in an overtime win over Purdue. Head coach Urban Meyer called that Purdue effort Shazier's best of the season. The linebacker had been part of the problem for Ohio State's defensive struggles in the first half of the season. Now he's become part of the solution.

Shazier is one of the best athletes on the team, a 6-foot-2, 230-pounder who has been clocked in the 4.4 range in the 40-yard dash. When he hits you, you don't forget it for a while. But his fundamentals were lacking earlier this year, and Meyer called him "an out-of-control guy" who missed too many tackles as the Buckeyes defense gave up several huge plays.

"He is blessed with real quick-twitch muscles and he's fast," Meyer said. "However, allowing cutbacks are when you get big plays against you, and he was a culprit."

That has changed the past two games, and Shazier credits better preparation and technique. He says he has been watching more film and focusing on using his leverage instead of overrunning plays. The extra preparation paid off last week, as he recognized on film the Penn State play that resulted in his pick-six.

Shazier started the final three games of 2011 as a true freshman and finished with 57 tackles. But he was far from a polished player at linebacker. He played that position as a high school freshman, but during his sophomore year his coaches lined him up at defensive end on a passing down. They discovered that no one could block him there, so defensive end became his new home.

"We always knew he needed to get accustomed to playing linebacker and tackling in space," said his father, Vernon Shazier. "Right now, he's probably still playing on about 70 percent athleticism. As he gets more comfortable and confident at the linebacker position, the game will slow down."

Shazier originally committed to play at Florida for Meyer. But when Meyer announced in December 2010 that he was stepping down for health reasons -- for real that time -- Shazier decommitted. His father said LSU and Ohio State were on Plantation's campus later that same day to make their pitches to the All-American recruit, and since Ryan planned on enrolling in January, he had about a week to make a new decision. Vernon Shazier said then-Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel helped put the Buckeyes over the top.

We all know what happened from there. Tressel was forced to resign, and after a year under interim coach Luke Fickell, Meyer took over the Buckeyes.

"It was crazy," Shazier said. "He was like, 'I always knew I was going to coach you.' Now, I've got the two coaches I always wanted in Coach Fickell and Coach Meyer."

Make that three coaches. His father coached high school football for 12 years and the ordained minister makes his living as a leadership trainer, motivational speaker and chaplain of the NFL's Miami Dolphins. Though he never coached one of Shazier's teams, he says "I'm always coaching him."

Dating back to Little League, father and son have talked before every one of Ryan's games. Ryan said he started to stress out last week because he almost missed a call from his father before the Penn State game. And after every game, Ryan calls Vernon to ask, "How did I do?"

"I try to help focus him on the little things he needs to do," Vernon Shazier said. "We pray. I try to calm and settle his nerves and spirit."

Shazier said he had to become a leader of a thin and inexperienced linebacker corps once senior Etienne Sabino went down with a broken leg. He's doing that now by playing his best football, and playing for more than just himself or his current teammates.

Ohio St.-Penn St. pregame ponderables

October, 27, 2012
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Greetings from Beaver Stadium.

The last time I was here was during the worst and weirdest week in Penn State history, as the Jerry Sandusky scandal enveloped the community and Joe Paterno was fired last November. It's safe to say the atmosphere is a little different this time.

There has been a huge buzz on campus for this game, which arrives nearly a year to the day when Paterno coached his last game for the Nittany Lions. And rightly so, as Penn State has won five straight games and Ohio State comes in at 8-0. I attended the "Rally in the Valley" Friday night, and the students were out in force. The game is sold out, and I expect this to be a special atmosphere this evening.

We've had overcast skies all day, but the rain is holding off and temperature is near 60 degrees. You get the feeling that Penn State fans are hungry for a big-game environment after an incredibly difficult year. This is also big for recruiting, as over 100 prospects are in attendance. With the coming scholarship cuts, Bill O'Brien could use an impressive performance to tell recruits it's OK to come to State College despite the sanctions.

The matchups tonight will be fascinating. Our choices as the Big Ten offensive and defensive players of the year -- Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller and Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti -- could go head-to-head, especially if Miller takes off on the run. How much and how well will Miller run it after last week's scary-looking neck injury against Purdue? That's the question that nobody really knows yet. If Miller can't run with abandon -- and really, even if he's healthy, he might not be able to do that against Penn State's disciplined defense -- where does Ohio State get its offensive production? The passing game has been hit or miss, and Carlos Hyde's power running style might not work that well against the Lions' defensive front.

Another big question for the Buckeyes is how they will defend Penn State's offense, especially the way O'Brien uses his tight ends. That could spell major trouble for a team that has turned in some shaky play at linebacker and safety all season. Expect a lot of nickel from Luke Fickell's defense tonight, but there should still be some mismatches for the Lions to exploit, including tight end Kyle Carter. Getting pressure on Matt McGloin will be crucial for Ohio State.

I can't wait to see O'Brien and Urban Meyer match wits, and both coaches have been unafraid to gamble and go for it on fourth down. While the winning team can't go to a bowl, it can still win the Leaders Division title. This one figures to be as good and intense as any bowl game, anyway.

Big Ten predictions: Week 8

October, 18, 2012
10/18/12
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We're past the midway point and headed for the home stretch of the 2012 season. Brian Bennett cut into Adam Rittenberg's lead in Week 7, although Rittenberg maintains a three-game edge in the season standings. At stake: a steak -- and other delicacies -- at St. Elmo's in Indianapolis before the Big Ten championship game.

Week 8 brings us six matchups, five league games and the final nonleague contest (Indiana at Navy) of the regular season. Both of us are searching for our first perfect week of predictions for the season.

Let's do this ...

PURDUE at OHIO STATE

Brian Bennett: The Boilermakers might have beaten the Buckeyes last year, but this is a different Ohio State team. And Purdue hasn't looked like it can beat anyone the past couple of weeks. Expect Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde to shred a suddenly weak run defense to the tune of 250 combined yards, and Ohio State gets to 8-0. ... Ohio State 38, Purdue 17

Adam Rittenberg: I saw all I needed to see from Purdue the past two weeks. Miller, Hyde, Rod Smith and the Buckeyes run all over the Boilers, piling up 300 yards on the ground. Miller and Hyde combine for four touchdowns and Luke Fickell's defense buckles down in the second half, holding Purdue to 315 total yards. ... Ohio State 42, Purdue 17

MINNESOTA at WISCONSIN

Adam Rittenberg: If the Gophers were healthy, they'd keep this close and have a chance to pull off the upset. But too many key injuries, combined with a Wisconsin team that has regained its mojo, lead to another fairly easy win for Bret Bielema's crew. Montee Ball goes for 150 yards and two touchdowns, and James White and Melvin Gordon each add a rushing score. Minnesota hangs around for the first half, but Wisconsin surges early in the third quarter. ... Wisconsin 38, Minnesota 20

Brian Bennett: Minnesota has had trouble stopping the run the past two games, and that's not a good sign going against a Badgers offensive line that is getting back to form. Ball drops the axe on the Gophers with three scores, and an underrated Wisconsin defense keeps Max Shortell & Co. at bay. ... Wisconsin 34, Minnesota 17

NEBRASKA at NORTHWESTERN

Brian Bennett: On the road, against a spread offense and a running quarterback? Reads like a horror story for Nebraska. But the Huskers have had two weeks to lick their wounds and figure out something defensively. More important, Northwestern's young defense is going to have trouble slowing down Taylor Martinez, Ameer Abdullah and all those Big Red weapons. Huskers in a shootout. ... Nebraska 38, Northwestern 31

Adam Rittenberg: Nebraska certainly has a lot of firepower, and Northwestern never seems to win games like this, when its program is in the spotlight. Kain Colter will give Nebraska trouble again, and he and Venric Mark combine for four touchdowns. But I haven't loved Northwestern's offensive game plan recently, and the Wildcats, while good at stopping the run, will need to put up points to win Saturday. Ultimately, Rex Burkhead refuses to let Nebraska lose and the Huskers prevail with a big fourth quarter. ... Nebraska 34, Northwestern 28

MICHIGAN STATE at MICHIGAN

Adam Rittenberg: The Spartans' season is on the brink and Mark Dantonio always gets his guys up for the Michigan game. Michigan State takes an early lead behind its salty defense, but Michigan and senior quarterback Denard Robinson won't be denied this time. Robinson breaks off a long touchdown run late in the first half and finishes with 120 rushing yards and two scores. Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell also records 100 rushing yards, but Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs records a second-half takeaway as the Wolverines end their losing streak in the series. ... Michigan 24, Michigan State 16

Brian Bennett: I see a major slugfest coming. The Spartans know how to slow down Robinson, who doesn't have a lot of help right now with Fitz Toussaint struggling. Meanwhile, Michigan State would have trouble scoring on air, much less Michigan's improving defense. Michigan State's defense comes up with a couple of turnovers but can't do much with them. The hero of this game? Wolverines kicker Brendan Gibbons, who makes three big field goals. ... Michigan 16, Michigan State 9

INDIANA at NAVY

Brian Bennett: Going to Navy and facing that option attack in the middle of the season is a scary proposition. The Midshipmen will make Indiana's defense look foolish at times. But the Hoosiers have shown great firepower and are getting closer and closer to notching a respectable win. Their passing attack is too much for Navy, as Shane Wynn breaks off two long touchdown catches. ... Indiana 24, Navy 21

Adam Rittenberg: Only 45 total points? Give me the over, Bennett. I'm definitely impressed with Indiana and what Kevin Wilson is doing with the offense, but the Hoosiers can't defend the run (109th nationally), which spells trouble against Navy. The Mids have righted the ship (bad puns galore!) the past two weeks and have home field on their side. Receivers Cody Latimer and Wynn will give Navy problems, but the triple option gives Indiana more, especially in the second half. ... Navy 38, Indiana 35

PENN STATE at IOWA

Adam Rittenberg: History is working against Penn State, which doesn't play well at Kinnick Stadium. But this is a new team with a new offense, and the Lions will get over the hump in Iowa City behind Matt McGloin and his receiving corps. Iowa will have a hard time running on Penn State, with or without Mark Weisman, and I haven't seen enough from the Hawkeyes' passing game to suggest they'll attack the Lions enough. McGloin fires two touchdown passes and linebacker Michael Mauti has another big night as Penn State wins its fifth straight -- and its first in Kinnick since 1999. ... Penn State 21, Iowa 17

Brian Bennett: How does Iowa win this game without a healthy Weisman? I'm not sure. But I'm also not entirely sure how the Hawkeyes are tied for first place in the Legends Division. I do know that Iowa is the best defense that Penn State has faced, and the Lions will pay for not being able to run the ball effectively. Kirk Ferentz continues his mastery of Penn State, a new running back hero emerges (Greg Garmon, anyone?) and James Vandenberg actually throws a TD pass in the Hawkeyes' win. ... Iowa 19, Penn State 17

Season records

Adam Rittenberg: 48-14 (.774)

Brian Bennett: 45-17 (.726)

Big Ten stock report: Week 8

October, 17, 2012
10/17/12
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Fire up the ticker ...

Stock up

Montee Ball's YAC: The Wisconsin running back said he focused on getting yards after contact last week after realizing that he wasn't getting the same big holes to run through. His YAC was anything but whack against Purdue, as Ball was credited by team officials with gaining 194 of his career-best 247 yards after getting hit. Ball has had an illustrious career, but that may have been his most impressive performance.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
AP Photo/Michael ConroyMontee Ball rushed for 247 yards in Saturday's win over Purdue.
Nick VanHoose: The Northwestern cornerback had a tough game earlier this season against Indiana but came up with three pass breakups in the end zone to help preserve a 21-13 victory last week. That earned him Big Ten freshman of the week honors. "He's a dynamic athlete," Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "He brings athleticism. He brings explosiveness. He's fearless. He's physical." Fitzgerald says VanHoose reminds him of a young Sherrick McManis, who's now playing for the NFL's Chicago Bears.

Denard Robinson's ball security: We knocked Robinson's passing in a stock down item not too long ago. But since the Notre Dame debacle, Robinson has not turned the ball over in two games. He has also run the ball 35 times and thrown it 27 times in those two wins, indicating that Michigan is now playing more to his strengths.

Mike Meyer: Iowa wouldn't be 4-2 right now without a reliable kicker. Luckily, Meyer has been one of the most reliable in the nation. Only two players in the FBS have made more than his 14 field goals, and he has only one miss on the season, way back in the opener. "He had a great spring and a great August, and every week at practice, he just continues to perform," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "I think we all have confidence in Mike right now. He's done such a good job." Meyer should be in the mix for the Lou Groza Award.

Stock down

Luke Fickell's popularity: The Ohio State defensive coordinator said Monday that he actually agreed with the pizza delivery guy who told his wife that the Buckeyes' defense needs to play better. Heck, anyone can see that after Ohio State allowed 49 points to Indiana. Urban Meyer is getting more involved in the defensive meetings, and more fans are critical of Fickell as the defense is serving up 400 yards per game. "If you can put more pressure on me than I put on myself, I don’t know how you could,” Fickell told reporters. “So the outside pressures, I don’t know, I don’t feel it. If they’re harder or stronger than what I put on myself, then maybe I should read about it.”

Gophers' future strength-of-schedule numbers: Minnesota announced Tuesday that it is backing out of a planned series with North Carolina and had added home games with Kent State and South Dakota State. The Gophers do not have a single nonconference game scheduled from 2013-2016 against a current BCS AQ team, and the toughest opponents include Colorado State, UNLV and Ohio (though there is one slot still to be filled in '13 and '14). These schedules should allow Minnesota to pile up wins and get close to bowl eligibility, but they sure won't do much to inspire bigger crowds at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers don't need to bash their heads in against teams like USC in the nonconference slate, but they should at least challenge themselves.

Purdue's run defense: In their first two Big Ten games, the Boilermakers have given up an alarming 771 combined rushing yards to Michigan and Wisconsin. Head coach Danny Hope said that the defense was lined up in the right spots against Michigan but just got beat by Robinson. Against Wisconsin, he said, the team made all kinds of mental errors and it "was the worst we've tackled around here in a long time." The Boilers better find some answers before going up against Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde on Saturday.

Michigan State's decision-making: The Spartans opted not to go for it on a pair of fourth-and-1s last week against Iowa, choosing a field goal from the Iowa 7 and punting from the Iowa 48. The Hawkeyes drove for a field goal after the punt, and of course, a potential four more points could have made all the difference in the overtime loss. And then there was the train wreck at the end of the first half, when a pass to the Iowa 32-yard line set up a potential long field goal try. Instead, mass confusion led to players and coaches shuffling on and off the field and no snap getting off before time expired. Hindsight is 20-20, and the fourth-down decisions were perfectly justifiable at the time. But when the offense is struggling like it is for the Spartans, scrutiny on every decision is heightened, and these were not popular with a frustrated fan base.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 5

September, 27, 2012
9/27/12
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Ten items to track around the Big Ten as conference play finally gets under way:

1. Miller Time vs. The Green Monster: The Big Ten's most dynamic offensive player goes up against the league's top defense Saturday afternoon at Spartan Stadium. Michigan State will see a very different Braxton Miller than the one it bottled up last year in Columbus in a near-shutout victory against the Buckeyes. Miller, who leads the Big Ten with seven rushing touchdowns, faces by far his toughest test in a Spartans' defense that ranks in the top 11 nationally in scoring, rushing and pass efficiency. Despite Michigan State's stingy defensive numbers, it looks to make more game-changing plays after recording just six takeaways and three sacks in the first four games.

2. Big Red redemption: After its Big Ten debut turned into a disaster last year in Madison, Wis., Nebraska finally gets a chance for redemption Saturday night as Wisconsin comes to town. Huskers junior quarterback Taylor Martinez once again will be in the spotlight after throwing a career-high three interceptions last year against the Badgers. Martinez has looked like a different player this season, throwing nine touchdown passes and just one interception and ranking 10th nationally in passer rating (180.9). With a healthy Rex Burkhead back in the fold, Martinez leads the Big Ten's top offense against a Wisconsin defense that has looked strong so far.

3. Poaching season in Champaign: Coach Bill O'Brien and his Penn State players held their tongues this week, but they haven't forgotten what Illinois' coaching staff did last summer. Illini coach Tim Beckman sent eight assistant coaches to State College to recruit Penn State players after the NCAA imposed heavy sanctions on the Lions' program. Senior linebacker Michael Mauti and his teammates will be geared up to make Beckman's team pay Saturday in the Big Ten opener for both teams. While it's important for Penn State to control its emotions -- "You never want to take it too far," defensive tackle Jordan Hill said -- the Lions visit Memorial Stadium with some momentum after back-to-back wins.

[+] EnlargeJerry Kill
Jesse Johnson/US PresswireJerry Kill aims to lead Minnesota to its third consecutive win over Iowa, something the Gophers haven't done since 1998-2000.
4. Three little pigs: The landscape could be shifting in the Minnesota-Iowa series. After losing eight of nine games to an obviously superior Iowa program, Minnesota has won consecutive games. The Gophers carry a perfect record into Iowa City, while the Hawkeyes are reeling after falling apart late in last week's loss to Central Michigan. Although Iowa is favored, Minnesota comes in with the momentum following a strong defensive effort last week against Syracuse. The Gophers aim for their first win at Kinnick Stadium since 1999 and try to bring home the bacon (Floyd of Rosedale) for the third consecutive year, something they haven't done since 1998-2000.

5. Bell tolls for Buckeyes: Tackling has been a problem for Ohio State's defense, which inexplicably ranks last in the Big Ten in yards allowed heading into league play. Luke Fickell's unit had better tighten things up before Saturday, or Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell will steamroll the Buckeyes. At 6-foot-2 and 244 pounds, Bell can batter his way through decent tackling attempts, so Ohio State will need to swarm the Big Ten's leading rusher (610 yards). The Buckeyes can expect a steady diet of Bell, who leads the nation in rushing attempts with 117 (29.25) through the first four games. On the flip side, Michigan State likely needs to generate some offense outside of Bell to win.

6. Making his Mark: While more heralded Big Ten running backs have struggled with injuries or poor production, Northwestern's Venric Mark has put himself on the radar as an early Offensive Player of the Year candidate. Mark ranks third among Big Ten running backs with 399 rush yards and has recorded more than 120 all-purpose yards in all four games this season. The Wildcats have been much more of a run-driven offense this year, thanks to Mark and an improved line. Saturday, Mark takes aim at Indiana as Northwestern tries to improve to 5-0.

7. Stave symphony: Joel Stave showed in April that he could play piano under pressure. He showed last week he could handle himself in his first career start (210 pass yards, 1 TD). But how will the Wisconsin quarterback handle a hostile environment like Nebraska's Memorial Stadium? Find out Saturday night as Stave makes his first career road start against Nebraska. Stave certainly benefits from having top receiver Jared Abbrederis on the field, and he could have a full complement of running backs if Montee Ball passes his concussion tests. Wisconsin went with Stave as its starter because of his steadiness. The Badgers need the redshirt freshman to limit mistakes and make plays when they're available in a pressure-packed situation Saturday night.

8. Iowa, Illinois get defensive: Both Iowa and Illinois saw their defenses gashed last week in humbling home losses to Central Michigan and Louisiana Tech, respectively. Iowa's defense performed well in the first three games and better than expected up front before caving against the Chippewas last week. Illinois' defense, pegged to be among the Big Ten's best, has been shockingly poor in the team's two losses, surrendering a combined 97 points to Arizona State and Louisiana Tech. With both teams not getting enough from the quarterback position, the defenses need to tighten up Saturday for crucial Big Ten openers against Minnesota and Penn State.

9. Wilson returns to roots: Indiana coach Kevin Wilson built his reputation as an offensive genius at Northwestern, where he coordinated one of the nation's best offenses in 2000, before moving onto more success at Oklahoma. "I stand here today because of what those kids did for us in 2000," he said Tuesday. Wilson returns to Evanston on Saturday with an Indiana team searching for its first Big Ten victory on his watch. The Hoosiers have looked good on offense this year, despite losing top quarterback Tre Roberson to a season-ending broken leg. Cameron Coffman makes his first career road start at quarterback as he leads the Big Ten's top passing attack (326 ypg) against a Northwestern team that hasn't been tested much through the air since struggling in its opener at Syracuse.

10. Marshall plan: Purdue wraps up non-league play Saturday against Marshall, which should provide a nice test for a Boilers' defense that has played well to date. The Thundering Herd lead the nation in passing offense (383.5 ypg) and offensive plays (371). Purdue has surrendered only one passing touchdown this season. Although it's important for Boilers quarterback Caleb TerBush and the offense to capitalize on a weak Marshall defense, it's also vital for Purdue to contain Marshall as it prepares to face other spread offenses in Big Ten play.

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