NCF Nation: Matt Lehman

Injury impact: Big Ten

October, 24, 2013
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Injuries are an unfortunate part of the game. Every team must deal with them, but some teams get hurt harder than others. Today, we're taking a look at the teams that have been impacted the most this season. Here's our ranking of the top three:

1. Northwestern: Injuries have played a major role in the Wildcats' 0-3 start in Big Ten play. All-American kick returner and star tailback Venric Mark has been healthy enough to play exactly one full game -- against Ohio State. Quarterback Kain Colter has been banged up just about all season as well. Both were reinjured at Wisconsin and missed all of last week's loss to Minnesota. In addition, top defensive tackle Sean McEvilly has played in only three games, while starting cornerback Daniel Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener at Cal.

2. Penn State: The Nittany Lions had major depth issues to begin with because of NCAA sanctions. It hasn't helped that they have also dealt with a series of injuries. Tight ends Matt Lehman and Brent Wilkerson and defensive end Brad Bars were lost for the season. Linebacker Mike Hull was hurt for most of the first two months, as was tight end Kyle Carter. Wide receiver Brandon Felder missed the Indiana loss with an ankle problem. Linebacker Ben Kline has been limited after offseason shoulder surgery. Safety Ryan Keiser has been dealing with a hand injury since the Kent State game. This team can't afford many more injuries as it approaches the homestretch of the season.


3. Nebraska: The Huskers' injury problems haven't adversely affected them -- at least not yet. Still, it's never easy when you lose your four-year starting quarterback, and Taylor Martinez hasn't played since Week 3 versus UCLA because of turf toe. He could be back this week, but All-American guard Spencer Long was lost for the season in the last game against Purdue with a knee injury. He'll be tough to replace.
When the NCAA leveled severe sanctions against Penn State last summer and made it easy for players to transfer, roster depth became an immediate short-term concern.

It almost certainly looked to be a long-term problem. How would Penn State fare with a reduced roster and a limited number of scholarships to pass out for the 2013 recruiting class?

Early indications suggest the Lions will do just fine. After an 8-4 season under first-year coach Bill O'Brien, Penn State will open spring practice Monday in good shape, both depth-wise and health-wise.

Like every team, the Lions have some holes to fill, most notably quarterback, but they return playmakers on both sides of the ball like wide receiver Allen Robinson, defensive end Deion Barnes, cornerback Adrian Amos and three seasoned tight ends (Kyle Carter, Matt Lehman and Jesse James).

"We feel really good about our depth," O'Brien told ESPN.com on Friday. "Is it exactly the way we would want it? No. We were only able to sign a certain amount of guys, but at the same time, we've got a lot of quality, tough [players]. I really enjoy this football team, being around these kids.

"Obviously, these guys have to go out and play well for us, we have to stay healthy. But we feel like we'll field a very competitive football team in the fall."

Sophomore linebacker Ben Kline is the only key player who will miss spring practice after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. The Lions are looking for bodies at linebacker after losing Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges. Glenn Carson and Mike Hull are virtually assured of starting spots, and with Kline out, O'Brien sees Nyeem Wartman opening the spring with the first-team defense. Wartman was limited by injuries as a true freshman in 2012.

"We think he's got a bright, bright future," O'Brien said.

Two quick notes:
  • O'Brien reiterated that he won't name a starting quarterback after spring practice. Steven Bench and junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson will compete this spring, and heralded recruit Christian Hackenberg arrives in the summer.
  • Penn State made two offseason position changes: tight end Garry Gilliam moves to offensive tackle, where he can play on either side, O'Brien said. Wide receiver Malik Golden moves to defensive back.

Big Ten's best assistants in 2012

December, 12, 2012
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Head coaches are like quarterbacks. They get too much credit and too much blame.

Assistant coaches are like nose tackles. They don't get nearly enough credit despite playing vital roles.

Today, we'll change it up and give some recognition to Big Ten assistant coaches who did exemplary jobs with their position groups or, in some cases, units in 2012. Each of these coaches fostered improvement this season. Some took units in bad shape and made them better. Others took units in decent shape and made them very good. Some entered the season with skeptics and quieted them.

We came up with 13 assistants who deserve recognition. Yes, we realize we're leaving out some quality folks, but we had to cap it somewhere and wanted to spread the love around to the different teams.

Here's the rundown in alphabetical order:

Chris Ash, Wisconsin, defensive coordinator/secondary: All the attention on the offense's turbulent season took the spotlight away from the good things happening on the defensive side. Wisconsin finished in the top 25 nationally in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense. The Badgers held nine opponents to 21 points or fewer and gave an inconsistent offense chances to win every time out. Ash will be missed as he joins ex-Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema at Arkansas.

[+] EnlargeTim Beck, Bo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati Harnik, FileTim Beck, right, coordinated Nebraska's Big Ten-leading offense for head coach Bo Pelini.
Tim Beck, Nebraska, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks: The second-year play caller oversaw the Big Ten's top offense, which averaged 462.2 yards per game (24th nationally) and 35.1 points per game (28th nationally). Junior quarterback Taylor Martinez made significant strides under Beck's watch, and Nebraska survived the loss of star running back Rex Burkhead for most of the season thanks to contributions from Ameer Abdullah and others.

Tracy Claeys, Minnesota, defensive coordinator: An improved defense sparked Minnesota to a 4-0 start and eventually to bowl eligibility for the first time since the 2009 season. The Gophers pass rush showed life for the first time in years as senior end D.L. Wilhite and others put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Minnesota was especially good against the pass, ranking 11th nationally and 20th in pass defense efficiency. Although the offense remains a work in progress, Minnesota should be pleased with the direction on defense under Claeys.

Adam Cushing, Northwestern, offensive line: Cushing's recruiting ability always has stood out, but his coaching skills had been questioned as Northwestern struggled to convert promising line prospects into powerful blockers. The Wildcats went from a finesse offense to a power offense this season, blasting off of the line to the tune of 230.9 rush yards per game. Red zone offense went from a weakness to a strength as Northwestern tied for 17th nationally. Cushing's line paved the way for star running back Venric Mark.

Rich Fisher, Nebraska, wide receivers: Nebraska isn't known for its wide receiver play, but things are changing under Fisher's watch. Led by standout sophomore Kenny Bell, the Huskers' top three receivers combined for 1,657 yards and 11 touchdowns on 115 receptions. Just as important, the receiving corps helped Nebraska's bread-and-butter run game with effective blocking throughout the season. Fisher's hiring after the 2010 season raised some eyebrows, as he had taken a break from college coaching, returned to the high school ranks and also served as a golf instructor in Massachusetts. But he definitely looks like a great addition to Bo Pelini's staff.

Patrick Higgins, Purdue, wide receivers: Higgins played a significant role in Purdue's late-season surge, as he took over the offensive play-calling duties after coordinator Gary Nord suffered a severe back injury. Purdue won its final three games with Higgins and head coach Danny Hope handling the play calls. Higgins also did a nice job with Purdue's wide receiving corps, despite the fluctuating quarterback situation. Three veteran Boilers receivers eclipsed 40 catches and 300 receiving yards, and redshirt freshman Dolapo Macarthy showed promise.

Seth Littrell, Indiana, offensive coordinator/tight ends/fullbacks: Head coach Kevin Wilson brought in Littrell to boost Indiana's passing attack, and Littrell delivered despite losing starting quarterback Tre Roberson in Week 2. Indiana went from 80th nationally in pass offense to 19th, leading the Big Ten with 311.2 yards per game. With help from assistant offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kevin Johns, Littrell managed the quarterback situation pretty well as both Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld had success. Littrell will go largely unnoticed because of Indiana's low profile and 4-8 record, but he was one of the Big Ten's best coaching additions for 2012.

Curt Mallory, Michigan, secondary: Michigan's defensive line dominates the spotlight because that's where coordinator Greg Mattison and head coach Brady Hoke put their primary focus, but Mallory has done a really nice job with a secondary that struggled mightily under the previous regime. Despite losing promising cornerback Blake Countess to a torn ACL in the season opener, Michigan still finished second nationally (behind Nebraska) in pass defense (155.2 ypg allowed). Safety Jordan Kovacs has blossomed under Mallory's watch, and while the depth in the secondary isn't where it will be eventually, Mallory has managed things well.

[+] EnlargeBart MIller
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsBart Miller went from grad assistant to coach of a Wisconsin O-line that pummeled its way to Pasadena.
Bart Miller, Wisconsin, offensive line: Miller began the season as a graduate assistant and moved into one of the team's top assistant roles in Week 3 after the surprising dismissal of veteran line coach Mike Markuson. Although Wisconsin's line didn't have its typical dominant performances every time out, Miller fostered obvious improvement and cohesion during the course of the season. The finished product showed up in the Big Ten championship game against Nebraska, as Wisconsin bullied the Huskers to the tune of 70 points, 539 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns.

Reese Morgan, Iowa, defensive line: Iowa didn't have much to cheer about in 2012, and some of the staff changes Kirk Ferentz made led to some growing pains. Morgan faced a significant challenge in moving from offensive line to defensive line, which returned only a handful of players who had logged field time in 2011. Given the youth and inexperience along the Hawkeyes' defensive front, Morgan did a nice job in Year 1. Joe Gaglione had a nice senior season (9 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles) and young players like Louis Trinca-Pasat showed promise. The line held its own in the first half of the season before struggling late.

Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State, defensive coordinator: Many of these assistants took questionable units and improved them. Narduzzi led an elite defense that entered the season with high expectations and met them. Make no mistake: Michigan State's defense is the only reason the team found itself in every game this season. The Spartans had a few standouts, namely linebacker Max Bullough, but their overall team defense and stinginess stood out. Narduzzi is one of the nation's premier coordinators and should land a head-coaching job in the near future.

John Strollo, Penn State, tight ends: Although O'Brien's offense is a tight end's dream, Strollo did a terrific job of developing young and unproven players this season. Redshirt freshman Kyle Carter emerged into one of the Nittany Lions' top passing threats, and junior Matt Lehman and true freshman Jesse James also stepped up at times. Of Penn State's top five receiving-yards leaders this season, three players are tight ends (Carter, Lehman and James).

Ed Warinner, Ohio State, offensive line/co-offensive coordinator: Warinner took an underachieving Buckeyes offensive line with serious depth questions and turned it into quite possibly the best line in the league. The Buckeyes' front five turned a corner in Big Ten play and created lanes for Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde and the Big Ten's top scoring offense. Warinner was the Big Ten's best assistant hire of the last offseason and earns our vote as the league's top assistant in 2012.
Aug. 5, 2012, 9:17 p.m., Des Plaines River Trail, Park Ridge, Ill. (across the street from Big Ten headquarters). Two cars pull up. Two men walk out, dressed in trench coats and sunglasses, despite the fact it's 87 degrees and, you know, dark.

"Did anyone follow you," one man asks the other.

"No, I made sure to circle O'Hare Airport four times before coming here," the other man replies.

"Good. Bill, listen, I need your help," the first man says. "I know you're nationally respected in the officiating world. You officiated two Super Bowls and seven conference title games, plus numerous Big Ten games. You've held the Big Ten crews to an extremely high standard in this role. Your entire career has been built on being fair and honorable, blah blah, blah. Whatever. We need to make Penn State pay this year."

"What do you mean, Jim?" the other man asks. "You mean the bowl ban, the scholarship losses, the lost Big Ten postseason revenue and the transfers weren't enough?"

"No, not enough. They still get to play games. Let's penalize them on the field ... by not penalizing their opponents. Get it? Get it?

(Silence)

"Jeez, you refs have no sense of humor. OK, Bill, here's the deal. I want your crews to ignore every holding call against Penn State. Every borderline call goes against them. Replay guys, too. They're in on this. If a call goes against Penn State on the field, those guys had better uphold it."

"Jim, this sounds like a conspiracy! I thought that was just for angry fans to whine about when their team loses. It doesn't actually happen, does it?"

"Happens all the time, Bill."

"OK, so my crews will intentionally make calls against Penn State?"

"You got it. They'll probably want to run off to the ACC now [devilish laugh]."

"Even in the Ohio State game? They're on probation, too. And they actually embarrassed you more with that Sugar Bowl thing."

"Dangit, don't remind me. You're right. But yeah, borderline calls go to the Buckeyes when they visit State College."

"Um, OK, Jim. Don't you think it'll be obvious?"

"Nah, they'll never catch us, Bill. And just to make sure, I want your crews to blackball another team. Let's see, let's see, how about Michigan State?"

"Er, OK, Jim. Anyone benefiting from all this?"

"You mean besides the rest of college football? We probably owe Nebraska a bit for giving them such tough schedules during their Big Ten baptism. The Huskers will love us after this season. So that's the deal. We'll call it Operation Cowardly Lion, OK?"

"OK."

"Catch ya later. Remember, Bill, honoring legends, building leaders, it's what we do."

Before you run off to the message boards or the fanboy blogs and then email me demanding a full investigation, let me tell you the preceding scenario is fiction. I repeat, FICTION. I'm 99.99999 percent sure Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and Big Ten coordinator of football officials Bill Carollo never had the meeting to hatch a conspiracy against Penn State. While I can't be 100 percent sure because, well, I wasn't hanging out on Des Plaines River Trail the night of Aug. 5, the chances are extremely slim.

If you believe it happened, I've got some oceanfront property in Topeka I'd love to show you.

Penn State fans are angry. Penn State players are angry. Lions head coach Bill O'Brien, while saying all the right things publicly, can't be pleased with what he has seen from Big Ten officials, especially coming from the NFL.

It has been a rough year for Big Ten officiating, the worst I've seen it in the five seasons of the Big Ten blog. There have been more questionable calls and more coaches questioning the questionable calls. It's disappointing because officiating should be getting better, not worse, especially with the replay system no longer a novelty.

Penn State has had several calls go against it in recent weeks. There were some in the Ohio State game, but they did not -- repeat did not -- cost Penn State the game. Ohio State was the superior team that night.

Several calls also went against Penn State on Saturday at Nebraska. Linebacker Gerald Hodges was held at least once. And replay officials botched what should have been an overturn on the Matt Lehman goal-line play in the fourth quarter. They said there wasn't indisputable video evidence to overturn the call. Well, there was. Lehman broke the plane before the ball was batted away. They blew it. And it's inexcusable. Would Penn State have gone on to win? Maybe. More than half the fourth quarter remained, and Penn State hadn't stopped Nebraska at all in the second half.

Still, it was a big call and a blown call. Should there be repercussions for the replay crew? Yes. I'll get to that later.

But the growing belief that there's an orchestrated conspiracy against Penn State by the Big Ten is absurd. There have been plenty of bad calls elsewhere. Each week, my inbox fills up late Saturday and into Sunday with fans of at least half the Big Ten teams complaining about officiating. It's part of the deal.

You really think the Big Ten, already embarrassed by recent scandals involving its schools, would orchestrate a conspiracy involving multiple officiating crews to punish Penn State (and, just to cover their bases, Michigan State?) A conspiracy that, in part, would benefit Ohio State, which directly embarrassed Delany more after he lobbied for the so-called Tat-5 to play in the 2011 Sugar Bowl? It's silly talk.

I don't fault Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin for saying what he said after Saturday's game. A recent tweet by Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell -- "we legitimately lost ONE game this year...and that was Notre Dame! The black & white team beat us 4 times" -- was ridiculous, but like McGloin, he's a player expressing frustration after an emotional loss. They sound like fans. But their implication that something bigger involved just doesn't hold water.

I've gotten to know Bill Carollo fairly well since he took the job in 2009. In 2010, I spent a Saturday with him in the Big Ten's television command center. Carollo, Delany and other league officials -- as well as college and NFL officials not working games -- spend their Saturdays there, watching all the games involving Big Ten teams. Carollo takes note of all key officiating decisions, especially those involving replay, and reviews them later during his evaluations for each crew (on-field and replay). Coaches send in plays to be reviewed every week. Carollo takes his job very seriously, and he holds his crews to an extremely high standard.

Here's what he told me about replay in June 2010:
"Our expectations on replay are really quite high. They're as high or higher than the NFL's, as far as how accurate do we expect our replay people to be. We're talking 99 plus percent that we need to be right. There's humans and there's mistakes and there's technology problems and pressure. We want to be 99 plus percent accurate. We don't want to make mistakes in replay. We have a little more forgiveness if we miss a call on the field because you've been screened out or you don't see the right player."

The Big Ten doesn't comment publicly on specific officiating decisions, although I made requests following the Penn State-Nebraska game. But Carollo evaluates his crews after every game (on-field and replay). The good crews stay on the bigger games and the ones who make mistakes typically disappear. Unless he saw something the rest of us didn't on the Lehman play, there should be consequences for those replay officials.

The officiating needs to improve around the league. Pass interference calls, in particular, which have sparked complaints from multiple coaches, must become a point of emphasis going forward.

The evaluations should and will continue. The conspiracy theories should not.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 11

November, 12, 2012
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Through the lens of history ...

Team of the week: Wisconsin. Reports of the Badgers' demise were premature. While everybody was hopping aboard the Indiana bandwagon last week, Wisconsin simply got back to what it does best: running the ball. Bret Bielema's team steamrolled to a school-record 564 rushing yards and threw it only seven times in a 62-14 rout of the Hoosiers. As a result, the Badgers are going back to the Big Ten championship game.

Game of the week: Lots of good ones Saturday, but the most drama came in Ann Arbor. Michigan outlasted Northwestern 38-31 in overtime thanks to a last-minute miracle and plenty of chutzpah from Devin Gardner. There is some magic in those Michigan uniforms at the Big House.

[+] EnlargeRoy Roundtree
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireRoy Roundtree made one of the biggest plays in the Big Ten all season with a miraculous catch in the final seconds of regulation.
Biggest play: As if there were any doubt. We've had the Immaculate Reception; should we call this one the Roundtree Revelation? Roy Roundtree's 53-yard catch off a tipped ball (around the 1:20 mark) with eight seconds left to set up Michigan's tying field goal may well go down as the Big Ten play of the year. How did Roundtree get so open on a post route, with Northwestern in a prevent defense? "Anybody who goes to catch the ball I'd like to have triple-teamed," Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "That would be ideal. But I can't say I would change the call. I just wish we had knocked the dang ball down." Instead, Roundtree and Northwestern cornerback Daniel Jones both got their hands it, the ball bounced straight up and Roundtree maintained his concentration long enough to haul it in while falling down. Roundtree's Roundabout Reception (OK, this still needs some work) will go down in Wolverines' lore.

Best call: Minnesota was struggling again in the red zone at Illinois and was locked in a 3-3 game in the second half when it faced a fourth-and-inches on the Illini 16. Instead of going for the easy field goal, head coach Jerry Kill went for the kill. A Philip Nelson sneak picked up the first down, and the Gophers would go on to score a touchdown en route to an eventual 17-3 victory. Minnesota reached the six-win plateau and is going bowling for the first time since 2009. Ski-U-Mah!

Testiest news conference: It's not much fun being either a coach or a reporter at a news conference when a team is losing; there are only so many ways to ask the question: Why do you stink? And so it went at Iowa, which lost its fourth straight game by falling at home to Purdue. The very first question posed to head coach Kirk Ferentz was why and how he got outcoached. "You can say it’s this, it’s that, lunar moon, whatever," Ferentz said. "But that’s coaching. And that’s me. Coaching starts with me.” Later, after more questions about his team's struggles, Ferentz tried to defend Iowa's season by pointing to victories over Minnesota and Michigan State. "It’s not like this has been a dog crap team,” Ferentz said. “You want to paint that picture, I’m not buying that.” (And if such a picture is for sale, I want to avoid that arts and crafts show.)

Big Man on Campus (Offense): This fall may not totally belong to Ball, but the state of Indiana sure does. Montee Ball ran for 198 yards and three touchdowns in Wisconsin's 62-14 hammering of Indiana, putting the Badgers' star within one touchdown of tying the NCAA career record. For his career, Ball has tallied 824 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in five games while playing in the Hoosier State. He's got one more left: the Dec. 1 Big Ten title game in Indianapolis.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Nebraska safety Daimion Stafford was part of a dominant second-half defensive effort from the Blackshirts in a 32-23 win over Penn State. Stafford's interception of Matt McGloin helped set up the tying touchdown in the third quarter, and he later recovered the fumble by Matt Lehman in the end zone. Special mention also goes to Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short, who had four tackles for loss to help the Boilermakers control the line of scrimmage at Iowa.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Purdue freshman Paul Griggs missed a short field goal at the end of the first half at Iowa and had misfired on a couple of tries at Ohio State that could have changed the outcome of that overtime loss. But he made up for that by drilling a 46-yard field goal as time expired to give the Boilers the 27-24 victory. "It seemed like everybody was grabbing me, and I know I got grabbed by a couple of the guys after the kick,” Griggs said. “As soon as I got away from them, I was running over toward the fans, and my mom ran out of the stands and she blindsided me. She was quite happy.”

Worst hangover: Northwestern could be 10-0 right now. In all three of their losses, the Wildcats held double-digit leads in the fourth quarter. A good season could have been a great one in a very winnable Big Ten. Instead, Northwestern keeps finding ways to punch its fans in the gut. The Michigan loss was the worst one yet, as the Wildcats first surrendered a 10-point fourth-quarter lead, then went ahead again late only to surrender the miraculous catch to Roundtree.

Strangest moment: Penn State sure wasn't happy about the controversial fumble call on Lehman's near-touchdown. But there was a strange penalty earlier in the game that went against the Nittany Lions, too.

Late in the first half, Nebraska's Brett Maher shanked a punt for 16 yards, apparently giving Penn State great field position. But the officials called sideline interference on the Lions, a 15-yard penalty.

Sideline interference? You see teams get warned for that but rarely flagged. Penn State beat writers in the press box thought that secondary coach John Butler, who often crowds the field, was the one who drew the flag. But Bill O'Brien said that wasn't the case.

"I guess the referee was running down the sideline and from what I was told, he ran into one of our players and I guess that's sideline interference," O'Brien said.

From that point on, a Penn State staff member made sure to keep telling coaches and players to move back anytime they got close to the field. And the Nittany Lions were left to wonder when they were going to get a break from the refs.
Recognizing the best and brightest from Week 11 in the Big Ten:
  • Wisconsin RB Montee Ball: Who says says the Badgers' star is having a down year? Ball now needs just one more touchdown to tie the NCAA career record of 78 after he gashed Indiana for 198 yards and three scores on 27 carries. Ball was the biggest part of a school-record 564-yard rushing effort by the Badgers. James White (14 carries for 161 yards and two scores), Melvin Gordon (8 carries, 96 yards and a touchd0wn) also got in on the fun.
  • Purdue QB Robert Marve: Marve has had an up-and-down career marred by knee injuries, but Saturday's 27-24 win at Iowa has to be one of his finest moments. The senior completed 25 of 33 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns, and he set up the game-winning kick with a 17-yard run and a 20-yard pass completion in the final 30 seconds. Thanks to their quarterback's heroics, the Boilermakers remain alive for a bowl this year.
  • Michigan WR Roy Roundtree: The senior's 53-yard catch off a tipped ball in the final seconds against Northwestern is a candidate for one of the plays of the year in college football. If that's all Roundtree did, he'd still deserve a sticker for saving the Wolverines' bacon and helping his team pull out an incredible 38-31 overtime victory. But Roundtree had a solid all-around day, finishing with five catches for 139 yards.
  • Minnesota RB Donnell Kirkwood: There wasn't much offense Saturday in Champaign, but Kirkwood provided much of it for a Gophers team that needed its top running back to be at his best. Kirkwood racked up a career-high 152 rush yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries to lift Minnesota past Illinois. After failing to rush for a touchdown in Minnesota's first five Big Ten games, he twice reached the end zone, including the clincher from 12 yards out with 1:34 left. Kirkwood is the first Gophers running back to eclipse 700 yards in a season since Amir Pinnix ran for 1,272 yards in 2006.
  • Nebraska S Daimion Stafford: The Huskers once again needed the Blackshirts to step up in the second half, and Stafford came through with an interception of Matt McGloin early in the third quarter. Stafford's pick set up Nebraska's game-tying touchdown, as the Huskers quickly erased a 14-point halftime deficit and went on to win 32-23. He also recovered the controversial fumble by Penn State's Matt Lehman in the end zone in the fourth quarter. Stafford finished with eight tackles.

Matt McGloin upset with fumble call

November, 10, 2012
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Is there some sort of conspiracy against Penn State involving Big Ten officials?

You'd probably have to be wearing aluminum foil on your head right now to actually believe in such a thing. But the Nittany Lions have felt they've been on the wrong side of too many calls this season, and a key fumble ruling in Saturday's 32-23 loss at Nebraska only added to the frustration, especially for senior quarterback Matt McGloin.

We're not going to get that call here. We're not going to get that call ever, actually, against any team. It doesn't matter who the refs are. That's the way it is.

-- Penn State QB Matt McGloin
To reset: Penn State was driving in for a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter when McGloin hit tight end Matt Lehman for a short pass from the Nebraska 3. Lehman was hit and fumbled the ball into the end zone, where the Huskers recovered for a touchback. However, replays appeared to show that Lehman broke the plane with the ball before it got knocked loose. Penn State definitely thought it was a touchdown, but the call was upheld after an official review.

After the game, referee John O’Neill issued this statement: “The ruling on the field was a fumble short of the goal line. It went to replay and the replay official said the play stood based on the views he had. It’s ultimately his decision.”

McGloin could barely contain his frustration in a postgame interview, which you can watch here in a video taped by Audrey Snyder.

"We're not going to get that call here," McGloin told reporters. "We're not going to get that call ever, actually, against any team. It doesn't matter who the refs are. That's the way it is."

When asked why he said that, McGloin responded, "Why do you think? That's the way it is, man. Write what you think."

McGloin later said that the team had an us-against-the-world mentality and knew that it was "not going to get any help whatsoever" from the officials. He also tweeted out a slow-motion video of the play.

The clear implication here is that McGloin believes Penn State is still being punished for the Jerry Sandusky scandal and NCAA probation. Head coach Bill O'Brien was asked if he thought there was some kind of conspiracy to make Penn State lose.

"We don't feel like anyone is out to get us," O'Brien said.

You can't blame McGloin for being upset with losing such a tough game on the road, and maybe it was just the heat of the moment getting to him. But there is a genuine feeling among some Penn State fans that the team has not gotten its share of breaks this season.

Cornerback Stephon Morris had a more levelheaded response when asked about the controversial call.

"The referees did the best they could, but we put ourselves in that situation," he said. "We could have gotten some more third-down stops, we could have stopped [Nebraska quarterback Taylor] Martinez and we could have stopped the run. You can't leave the game in the referees' hands. We know that. They're not perfect. Nobody's perfect. That's just on us."

Huskers make crazy work like a charm

November, 10, 2012
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Serious-minded Nebraska coach Bo Pelini is not usually one to make a lot of wisecracks when talking to the media.

But Pelini couldn't help but joke after his team pulled off yet another comeback from a double-digit deficit, this time to beat Penn State 32-23 on Saturday.

"I'm going to call the Big Ten and spot 'em 14 points, and we're good to go," Pelini said.

At this point, if you're a Nebraska fan or an opponent victimized by these zombie-like Huskers, you can't do much else but shake your head at the absurdity of this team's ways. Down 17 at home in the third quarter to Wisconsin? No problem. Trailing by 12 with six minutes to go at Northwestern? No sweat. Behind by 10 with a little more than seven minutes to play? We got this.

Some teams walk a tightrope. Nebraska jumps a motorcycle over a lake full of alligators while on fire. Team officials say the Huskers' four second-half, double-digit comebacks this season lead the nation and are the most in school history.

So when Penn State ran to the locker room with a 20-6 lead after 30 minutes on Saturday, there was no panic for the home team.

"The vibe at halftime was, 'All right, it's 0-0,'" running back Ameer Abdullah said. "We do this every week. We know what to do."

Pelini said he was hoping his team could the score by the fourth quarter. It surprised him by striking for two touchdowns in the first 5:23 of the second half to shift momentum their way. But this is Nebraska, so it still wasn't easy.

The Huskers wouldn't take their first lead until there was 10:57 left to play. And they caught a major break after that, when tight end Matt Lehman fumbled a potential go-ahead Penn State touchdown into the end zone for a Nebraska touchback.

Replays appeared to show that Lehman broke the plane just before losing the ball, but an official review upheld the fumble call. Nittany Lions quarterback Matt McGloin later tweeted out a video of the play and hinted in a postgame interview that referees had it in for Penn State because of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

[+] Enlargebo pelini
AP Photo/Dave WeaverAfter losing to UCLA last season, Bo Pelini and Nebraska hope to turn the tables when the Bruins and Huskers meet again on Saturday.
Pelini acknowledged his team was "fortunate" that the play was ruled a fumble on the field, making it harder to overturn. Nebraska also benefited from some questionable late calls at Michigan State last week. But championship seasons are often marked by those kinds of good fortune.

Fumble or not, the fact remains that the Huskers outscored Penn State 26-3 in the second half, holding the Nittany Lions to just 136 total yards after halftime. The Blackshirts defense was clearly bothered by Penn State's hurry-up "NASCAR" offensive package, burning three defensive timeouts and getting caught with too many defenders on the field several times in the first half.

"They went to the hurry-up and we couldn't adjust well," defensive lineman Cam Meredith said. "A lot of times we were looking at the sideline and not getting the call. We came up with a solution."

The answer was brilliantly simple, as Nebraska decided just to go with the same defensive alignment every time Penn State went to the no-huddle. It worked, as Daimion Stafford grabbed a key interception against McGloin and the Huskers later forced McGloin into an intentional grounding in the end zone for a safety.

Nebraska forced three turnovers, for once coming out on the right side of that battle. That doesn't mean it was all good news, though, as quarterback Taylor Martinez fumbled the ball inside the Penn State 5 to ruin a scoring chance, and Tim Marlowe muffed a first-half punt return to set up a Nittany Lions touchdown. The Huskers entered the day tied for second-to-last in the nation in lost fumbles, and they gave two more away to run their season total to minus-16.

Slipperiness with the ball isn't supposed to translate to winning. Yet, like an eccentric billionaire, Nebraska keeps succeeding despite its erratic behavior. Its offense leads the Big Ten in scoring and yardage despite all the turnovers and the slow starts. What could the Huskers do if they ever cleaned all that up?

"The sky's the limit," said Abdullah, who had his sixth 100-yard day of the season with 116 yards on 31 carries. "We've yet to play our best game offensively. We say we want to play our best game in our last game, and we've got a couple of games left."

Believe it or not, there is some method to this comeback madness. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck says opposing defenses have thrown new looks at the Huskers all season long in an effort to slow down their deep cast of offensive skill players.

"There are some games where we might as well not even practice," he said. "Because what we're seeing isn't what we're practicing against."

Beck said it often takes a couple of quarters to figure out just what is happening and then adjust to it. On Saturday, the Nittany Lions used some blitzes and schemes that Beck hadn't seen on film from them all year.

Beck's offense also is designed to wear opponents out with its high-tempo pace and speed. That's one reason the Huskers kept running toss sweeps to different sides of the field, making Penn State's thin defense run from sideline to sideline all game. The Nittany Lions looked gassed by the fourth quarter.

That doesn't mean Nebraska would like to continue this particular pattern of falling behind, turning the ball over and mounting wild comebacks.

"It's enough already," Martinez said. "We need to start getting ahead."

But this particular brand of crazy works for them. After losing 63-38 at Ohio State on Oct. 6, Pelini told his team it needed to win out to claim a Big Ten title. Four straight wins later, the Huskers are in control of the Legends Division. They need only to beat Minnesota at home next week and win at struggling Iowa in the season finale to reach the Big Ten championship game.

"That's four down, and we've got two more to go," Pelini said. "We just have to stay the course."

The same crazy, winning course.


LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska never makes things easy for itself and especially not its fans. But the No. 16 Cornhuskers keep on winning.

Down 20-6 at halftime against Penn State, the Huskers engineered one of their patented second-half comebacks and held on for a 32-23 victory at Memorial Stadium.

The win keeps Nebraska in first place of the Legends Division and gets it one step closer to playing in the Big Ten championship game. Here's a quick look at how it went down:

It was over when: Justin Blatchford broke up Matt McGloin's fourth-down pass attempt with under three minutes to play. But the game-changer came with 5:02 left, when McGloin was called for intentional grounding in the end zone. That penalty resulted in a safety and gave Nebraska the 29-23 lead and the ball. Nebraska scored two touchdowns in the first 5:23 of the second half to tie the score, the second one coming after a McGloin interception deep in Penn State territory.


Game ball goes to: Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez. He had another costly turnover, fumbling the ball inside the Penn State 5 to short-circuit a scoring opportunity. But Martinez still gets the job done. He completed 12 of 20 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown and carried 15 times for 104 yards. Ameer Abdullah also rushed for 116 yards on 31 carries.

Stat of the game: Penn State had 255 yards and 20 points in the first half. In the second half, Nebraska held the Nittany Lions to 136 yards and just one field goal. The Huskers outscored the Nittany Lions 26-3 in the second half.

Unsung hero of the game: Nebraska's Brett Maher shanked a 16-yard punt into the heavy wind earlier in the game. But with Nebraska needing to punt with about 5:40 to go, he unleashed a 69-yarder that went out of bounds at the Penn State 2. That pin job directly led to the safety.

Second guessing: Penn State was about to take the lead late when McGloin hit tight end Matt Lehman on a short pass near the goal line. But Lehman fumbled into the end zone, and Nebraska recovered. Replays appeared to show that Lehman crossed the plane before he fumbled, but the ruling was upheld after an official review. Bottom line: Lehman has to hold onto the ball there.

What it means: Go ahead and write Nebraska into the Big Ten title game, if not with permanent marker then at least with a finely-sharpened No. 2 pencil. The Huskers need only to beat Minnesota at home and Iowa on the road to claim the Legends Division title and a berth in Indianapolis because of their head-to-head win over Michigan. They are too good to lose to either of those teams, so a rematch of the 30-27 win over Wisconsin on Sept. 29 appears all but inevitable.

Penn State was supposed to fall apart after a nightmarish offseason, a historic coaching transition, a seemingly crippling mid-summer roster reduction and an 0-2 start.

Illinois entered the season following back-to-back bowl wins and, despite a coaching change, boasted one of the league's better defenses and a talented roster.

The teams' positions have flipped five games into the season. Penn State continued to roll Saturday with its third consecutive win, taking control early and cruising to a 35-7 win at Memorial Stadium. Led by senior linebacker Michael Mauti and quarterback Matt McGloin, the Lions continued to execute well on both sides of the ball.

Penn State is the hottest team in the Leaders division -- and perhaps the Big Ten. The Lions should be 4-1, and really have played just one bad half all season. Coach Bill O'Brien is doing a fantastic job.

Not surprisingly, O'Brien and Illinois coach Tim Beckman had a very brief handshake after the game. This one was personal for O'Brien after Beckman's summer roster poaching attempts, but his team played with the right type of emotion and overwhelmed Beckman's Illini.

Illinois looked completely lifeless early on, made a brief rally in the third quarter but couldn't fully turn the corner against Penn State, which left the door open a little longer than O''Brien would have liked. After committing six turnovers last week against Louisiana Tech, the Illini had three giveaways Saturday, and never truly got in the game on their home field.

Mauti has been the Big Ten's top linebacker and arguably the league's top defender through the first five weeks. He had another huge performance Saturday with two interceptions, including one he returned for 99 yards just before halftime, setting a team record for longest interception return. You knew Mauti would play inspired ball after everything that happened this summer, and he has stepped up in a big way.

McGloin continued his surprising start, picking apart Illinois' defense for 211 pass yards and adding three rushing touchdowns. It was nice to see McGloin get more receivers involved besides Allen Robinson, as tight end Matt Lehman (5 catches, 70 yards, 1 TD) had a big day. The Lions' offensive line also imposed its will near the goal line, and Zach Zwinak (19 carries, 100 rush yards, 2 TDs) turned in a very nice performance.

Illinois has to be shaken after its third blowout loss of the season, its second at home. The Illini have been outscored 87-31 in their past eight quarters. I thought their defense would fare better against a non-spread offense. Illinois' offense, meanwhile, continues to sputter. Starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase put up some decent passing numbers (270 yards), but he had two more interceptions, and couldn't get the team in the end zone while the game was still in doubt.

Special teams miscues were a major problem for Illinois under Ron Zook, and they continued Saturday. A fumbled punt return set up Penn State's first touchdown, and Illinois also missed a short field-goal try.

With upcoming trips to Wisconsin and Michigan, Illinois could be headed for a long season.

Penn State, meanwhile, heads home to Happy Valley riding high.

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