NCF Nation: Mike Adams

Everyone knows Terrelle Pryor headlined Ohio State's nationally acclaimed recruiting class in 2008.

But who can name the Buckeye's No. 2 rated player in the class, according to ESPN Recruiting? Hint 1: It wasn't Mike Adams, Mike Brewster, J.B. Shugarts or DeVier Posey. Hint 2: He's still in Columbus.

It might surprise some to know Etienne Sabino came to Ohio State with as much hype as the others, besides Pryor. ESPN Recruiting ranked him as the nation's top inside linebacker and No. 18 player overall. Sabino, who had an excellent size-speed combo coming out of Miami's Dr. Krop High School, received similar accolades from other recruiting services.

[+] EnlargeEtienne Sabino
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesEtienne Sabino, right, is looking to end his career at Ohio State the right way in 2012.
Yet unlike Pryor, Brewster and the others, Sabino didn't make an impact right away. He played mostly special teams as a freshman, recording six tackles. He had virtually the same results as a reserve in 2009 (13 games played, six tackles made).

Pegged as a starter in the spring of 2010, Sabino had high hopes entering fall camp. Linebackers coach Luke Fickell said of Sabino that spring, "He's the guy. ... This has been his best spring so far." But a great spring didn't translate into fall camp, as Andrew Sweat beat out Sabino for the third starting linebacker spot alongside Ross Homan and Brian Rolle. Sweat had been another decorated recruit in 2008, although not as heralded as Sabino.

Sabino and the coaches agreed he should redshirt the season, and while a rash of injuries midway through the season nearly forced him onto the field, he was able to sit out.

His wait for a bigger role finally ended in 2011, as he started five games and recorded 62 tackles, including 6.5 for loss and two sacks. It was a step, although not a huge one. Ask most Ohio State fans what they're excited about at linebacker entering 2012, and the name Ryan Shazier likely will be brought up before Sabino's.

"Coming in from high school, you want everything to happen right away," Sabino told "You want to jump in, you want to contribute to the team, you want to be a superstar. Unfortunately, it doesn't always happen that way. As of right now, I think my career, would I want it to be a little better at this point? Yes. But I feel like it’s getting better in the past year or so, and I'm looking to build on that.

"I just feel ready. I felt ready before, but I have such a good grasp of what we're doing and what's expected."

As one of just eight members of the 2008 class still with the Buckeyes, the 6-foot-3, 237-pound Sabino is embracing a greater leadership role. He called the most recent spring practice "the most comfortable I’ve felt since I've been here." He has embraced the scheme under Fickell, the team's defensive coordinator, and his role as an outside linebacker after getting a look at the middle earlier in his career.

Ohio State's defense took a step back in 2011, and the linebacker play was below program standards. While the Buckeyes have depth questions at linebacker outside of Sabino, Shazier and Storm Klein, Sabino has high hopes for the group.

"We pride ourselves on being Linebacker U," Sabino said. "There might be a little bit of a controversy everywhere else, but we truly feel this is Linebacker University and we're trying to uphold that tradition here."

Fickell, who like many had such high hopes for Sabino coming out of spring practice in 2010, has seen the fifth-year senior embrace the urgency before his final season in Scarlet and Gray.

"He is an unbelievable example to a lot of guys because he was one of those highly, highly recruited guys," Fickell told "Things didn't happen for him really fast, and he's had a true up-and-down college career from what people might have thought or he might have thought when he came out. It just doesn’t always happen for everybody really fast.

"We always try to tell them, 'It’s not about where you start, it's where you finish.' He's on that route to really be able to finish very, very well."

Sabino still has time to make Ohio State fans remember his name.
The NFL draft begins Thursday night. You probably weren't aware of that, because the draft, like most things associated with the National Football League, gets very little media coverage. Ahem.

Luckily, Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett are stepping into this void to talk about the draft, and specifically the Big Ten prospects hoping to hear their name called over the long weekend.

Brian Bennett: Adam, we usually leave draft talk to people with better hair than us, like Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay. But let's give it a shot. You know the NFL is a different game when Iowa's Riley Reiff is widely expected to be the top player taken from the Big Ten. Reiff is an excellent player and terrific pro prospect, no doubt. But if you would have asked league fans to pick a most valuable player from the conference this season, Reiff probably wouldn't have cracked the Top 10.

Speaking of the Top 10, the Big Ten hasn't had a player selected in that range for the past three years and is likely to make it four this year. What, if anything, does that say about the talent the league has been producing? And is Reiff the first guy you would take from the conference if you had an NFL team? (I'll resist from making wisecracks about your Big Ten fantasy team management last year).

Adam Rittenberg: Hey now, Year 2 will be different, my friend. The Shorties are coming for you. The Big Ten's Top 10 drought is certainly noteworthy, and I think it stems in part from the league producing fewer elite pro-caliber quarterbacks and cornerbacks in recent years. It does surprise me that the Big Ten hasn't had a defensive lineman in the top 10 recently, as the league has been very strong at both line spots. I think that will change in 2013. As for Reiff, he was about as under-the-radar as an elite player could get during his time at Iowa. He certainly performed well, but you didn't hear much about him, even compared to previous Hawkeyes standout linemen like Bryan Bulaga. Reiff is a masher, though, and while some say he's not the most dominant tackle, he should be able to help an NFL team this coming season.

I'd want to start my team with a potential difference-maker on the defensive line. The Big Ten has plenty of options, but Illinois' Whitney Mercilus is a natural pass-rusher who can put up big numbers. Have Merci? Yes, please. What's your view of the Big Ten's defensive line crop entering the draft?

BB: We both agreed that the defensive line, especially on the interior, is where the league's true strength lay in 2011. I'm a bit surprised that some mock drafts don't have Michigan State's Jerel Worthy, who has the chance to be a major presence on defense, in the first round and that Penn State's Devon Still, who was wildly productive last season, is being projected as a second-rounder at best. I'd rather take one of those guys than roll the dice on Memphis' Dontari Poe, a combine wonder who did next to nothing in college. And though Michigan's Mike Martin is a little short by NFL standards, I have little doubt he'll be a productive pro.

[+] EnlargeIowa's Riley Reiff
Jeffrey G. Pittenger/US PRESSWIREIowa's Riley Reiff could be the first Big Ten player selected in the NFL draft.
I'm also interested in seeing how the centers get drafted. Wisconsin's Peter Konz, Michigan's David Molk and Ohio State's Michael Brewster were arguably the top three centers in the nation last year. Molk, of course, publicly said he's the best of the three, and he did win the Rimington Trophy. Konz likely will go first, but I will be fascinated to see who ends up having the best career.

You mentioned quarterbacks. What do you think about Michigan State's Kirk Cousins and Wisconsin's Russell Wilson as potential NFL players? And will Dan Persa get a shot somewhere?

AR: Cousins should be the first Big Ten quarterback off the board, and many projections have him going in the second round. He clearly improved his stock during the predraft process. While everyone raves about the character of both Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin -- and for good reasons -- Cousins, as we both know, certainly fits into the same category as those two. He's not the fastest or most athletic guy, but he's extremely smart and played in a pro-style system at Michigan State. He could end up being a solid pro quarterback.

The issue for both Wilson and Persa is size, Persa more so than Wilson. While Wilson boasts tremendous arm strength and athleticism, his height scares teams. He does a tremendous job of extending plays and can make all of the throws, but he'll have to prove himself as a consistent pocket passer in a league where everyone is really big and really fast. Looks like a midround selection. Whether or not Persa gets drafted at all will be interesting. The guy obviously has a ton of heart and tremendous leadership skills, but he's small and suffered a major injury at Northwestern. I think Todd McShay summed up the sentiment about Persa when he told the Chicago Tribune, "I want to like Persa, but as an NFL prospect, he is limited." Persa will find his way onto a roster, but he'll have a lot to prove.

We've read a lot of draft evaluations in recent weeks. Which Big Ten player could be a real steal for a team this weekend?

BB: The guy whom I think is really undervalued is Iowa's Marvin McNutt. I've seen him going as late as the fifth or sixth round, which seems (Mc)nuts to me. Sure, it's a deep draft for receivers, and McNutt might not have blazing speed. But we saw him make some absolutely spectacular catches last season, and he closed his career as the Hawkeyes' all-time leader in receiving touchdowns. He has good size and produced 1,300 receiving yards in what was clearly not a gimmicky, pass-happy offense. If I were a GM and he was sitting there in Round 4 or later, I'd happily grab him.

Two other guys I think can be big bargains for teams are Nebraska's Lavonte David and Ohio State's Mike Adams. Both are being projected as second-rounders for different reasons (David because of size, Adams for off-the-field issues in college), but I think both will have long and stellar careers. They'll bring first-round value without the price.

Who do you see as underrated, or possibly overrated, from the Big Ten in this draft?

AR: I would have put Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler in the underrated category, but it seems like teams have caught on to how good he can be. He'll likely be a late first-round pick. Same with Konz and maybe Adams. It baffles me why Devon Still isn't projected higher in the draft. Two others I'd put in the underrated category are Michigan's Martin and Iowa's Mike Daniels. You don't have to be Vince Wilfork to be an effective NFL defensive tackle. Both Martin and Daniels are smaller defensive tackles, but they're both extremely strong physical and play with sound fundamentals. Both men have been tutored by excellent defensive coaches, and the teams that select them will be inheriting very hard workers.

Two of the more intriguing Big Ten prospects are Ohio State receiver DeVier Posey and Nebraska defensive tackle Jared Crick. Posey, who I chatted with briefly last week in Columbus, played only three games last fall because of suspensions stemming from NCAA violations. He's clearly a gifted guy, but it'll be interesting to see how much the off-field issues and lack of playing time impact his draft position. Crick entered 2011 as an All-America candidate but missed most of the season with injury. He definitely can help an NFL team, but like with Posey, there are question marks.

OK, time to wrap up this draft discussion. What do you think the major story line regarding the Big Ten will be coming out of this weekend's festivities?

BB: I'll go out on a limb and say Reiff is not the first Big Ten player drafted, as someone reaches for Mercilus, Worthy or Konz first. And I think the other big stories will be with the quarterbacks, as Cousins is drafted in the second round and Wilson is picked higher than people expect. What are your predictions?

AR: I wouldn't mind if that someone landing Reiff or Mercilus is my Chicago Bears, but that's another debate. Worthy's selection will be fascinating, as his stock has been pretty volatile throughout the process. I think both Martin and Daniels go earlier than expect, while Wilson has to wait a while. It'll be fascinating to see where Molk ends up. No matter where he's selected, he'll feel overlooked. As a short guy myself, I'm definitely rooting for the vertically challenged (Molk, Wilson, Persa, Martin, Daniels etc.). Another story line: Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, whose draft stock already had dropped before his arrest over the weekend.

Should be a fun weekend.
It has been a rough week for some of the Big Ten's top NFL draft prospects. It was revealed Ohio State tackle Mike Adams, a potential first-round pick, tested positive for marijuana use at the NFL combine.

Some more bad news early Saturday as Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was arrested for allegedly assaulting a police officer in Lincoln.

From the Omaha-World Herald:
Lincoln police said Dennard, 22, was fighting with another man outside a bar near 14th and O Streets about 2:15 a.m. When officers attempted to intervene, Dennard allegedly pushed and then punched one officer in the face. It took four cops to take Dennard into custody, according to police. ... Dennard was arrested on suspicion of third-degree assault on an officer and resisting arrest. He was also cited for third-degree assault in connection with the bar fight.

A first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2011, Dennard is projected as a second- or third-round pick in next week's draft. His stock seemed to drop in the predraft events, and his career ended on a down note when he was ejected from the Capital One Bowl for fighting with South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery.

Dennard is still a heck of a player who will find a home at the next level, but he didn't help his cause with his actions last night.

B1G combine contingent gets to work

February, 22, 2012
The NFL scouting combine kicks off today in Indianapolis, and 45 Big Ten players will be part of the most scrutinized job interview in sports.

Here's the full schedule of events. The first set of interviews take place Wednesday, and position group workouts take place from Friday-Tuesday.

Here are some of the Big Ten storylines at the combine:

    [+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
    Chuck Cook/US PresswireRussell Wilson needs to convince teams that his less-than-ideal height won't hold him back at the next level.
  • The quarterbacks are always a story in Indy, and Wisconsin's Russell Wilson and Michigan State's Kirk Cousins will be representing the Big Ten. Wilson's biggest obstacle is his height, and he'll have to show he can throw over the top of massive linemen and make all the throws. He won't lack for motivation. Cousins had a strong showing during Senior Bowl week. He wants to put himself in that second group of quarterbacks behind Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. A strong combine performance could be the difference between being a third-round pick and a fifth-rounder.
  • Can Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy solidify himself in the first round? Worthy has moved around the mock drafts quite a bit during the past few months. There are obvious pluses to his game, namely his brute strength and ability to clog rushing lanes and drop quarterbacks. But some have questioned his motor and whether he takes too many plays off. He'll be under the microscope in Indy, especially from a conditioning standpoint.
  • The combine will be huge for Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who saw his stock drop during Senior Bowl week and missed the game because of a hip injury. Huskers coach Bo Pelini has called Dennard the nation's best cornerback, and he showed shutdown skills at times last season. But he has some work to do to get back in the first-round picture.
  • Remember Jared Crick? I ranked him as the Big Ten's No. 1 player entering the season, but he played in only five games before being sidelined with a torn pectoral muscle. Crick needs to show he's healthy and that he can thrive when not playing alongside Ndamukong Suh.
  • It will be interesting to see which Big Ten offensive linemen can boost their stock in Indy. Iowa left tackle Riley Reiff doesn't have much to prove and should be the league's first player drafted in April, but it'll be interesting to see how Wisconsin center Peter Konz, Ohio State center Mike Brewster, Wisconsin tackle Josh Oglesby, Illinois tackle Jeff Allen, Ohio State tackle Mike Adams and others perform. Konz certainly could be the first center drafted, while many project Adams in the first round. Oglesby is among the players trying to prove they can hold up after dealing with several knee injuries with the Badgers. Brewster's stock dropped at the Senior Bowl, and he finished the season as the Big Ten's No. 3 center after entering the fall as a preseason All-American.
  • Michigan State running back Edwin Baker surprised some by declaring for the draft. His production dropped off significantly in 2011, although Michigan State had some issues along the offensive line. Still, Baker needs a big performance in Indy to impress the talent evaluators.
  • Ohio State receiver DeVier Posey appeared in only three games as a senior because of suspension. He has the physical gifts to be an effective pro wideout, but he'll need a strong week before the scouts in Indy. Evaluators also will be trying to assess his character after some off-field missteps at Ohio State.
  • The combine is all about numbers, and Michigan defensive tackle Mike Martin might post some huge ones this week. Martin, one of the strongest players in college football, is bench pressing 505 pounds and squatting more than 700. Stephen Paea's combine record of 49 reps of 225 pounds could be in jeopardy. Martin should finish among the leaders in his position group in several categories.
The folks at ESPN Recruiting stepped into the rewind machine Wednesday and looked back at the ESPNU 150 from 2008 Insider to see which heralded recruits panned out and which did not.

From a Big Ten slant, this exercise is essentially a referendum on Ohio State's class, which ranked sixth nationally that year Insider and featured eight ESPNU 150 prospects, headlined by quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Several other Big Ten squads had prospects in the 150 as well.

Overall, the results are mixed. Some players matched their hype, like Ohio State center Mike Brewster and, when healthy, Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti. Others did not or have not, once again proving that recruiting rankings should be viewed with caution.

Here's a look.

Prospects ranked from 1-25 Insider

No. 4: Terrelle Pryor, QB, Ohio State -- Helped Buckeyes win three Big Ten championships and two BCS bowls before departing in June because of multiple NCAA rules violations.

No. 18: Etienne Sabino, LB, Ohio State: -- Started the 2011 season after redshirting in 2010. Hasn't been a difference-maker for Buckeyes, but ended with a strong performance in the Gator Bowl and could be a key player in 2012.

Prospects ranked from 26-50 Insider

No. 42: Mike Brewster, C, Ohio State -- Four-year starter undoubtedly paid off for Ohio State. Brewster earned All-Big Ten honors and was an All-America candidate his final two seasons.

No. 48: Andrew Sweat, LB, Ohio State -- Sweat had a solid but unspectacular career for Ohio State. He was the team's top linebacker in 2011, and Ohio State missed him late in the season.

Prospects ranked between 51-75 Insider

No. 56: J.B. Shugarts, T, Ohio State -- Started the final three seasons at right tackle but never earned All-Big Ten honors.

No. 58: Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State -- Plagued by knee problems, but very effective when healthy. He turned in a strong 2010 season and entered 2011 as an All-America candidate before tearing his ACL in September. He'll be back in 2012.

No. 69: Dann O'Neill, T, Michigan -- Redshirted as a freshman before transferring to Western Michigan, saying Michigan wasn't the right fit. He earned third-team All-MAC honors in 2011.

No. 71: Darryl Stonum, WR, Michigan -- Turned in a nice year in 2010, but found himself in off-field troubles throughout his Michigan career. Wolverines coach Brady Hoke on Tuesday dismissed Stonum after his latest infraction that resulted in jail time.

Prospects ranked 76-100 Insider

No. 88: Mike Adams, T, Ohio State -- One of the Big Ten's top offensive linemen during his final two seasons, earning first-team all-conference honors in 2010 and second-team honors in 2011 despite playing in only seven games. He had some off-field issues with the Buckeyes and was part of the Tat-5 with Pryor.

Prospects ranked 101-125 Insider

No. 107: Jake Stoneburner, TE, Ohio State -- An excellent weapon when used in the Ohio State offense. He recorded a team-high seven touchdown receptions in 2011, but had only 14 overall receptions. He returns in 2012 and should have a bigger role in a more wide-open offense.

No. 115: Brandon Moore, TE, Michigan -- Moore has two receptions in three years as a reserve tight end for the Wolverines. He could see a bigger role in 2012 as Kevin Koger departs.

No. 119 Baker Steinkuhler, DT, Nebraska -- Started the past two seasons on the Huskers' defensive line and recorded 40 tackles, including five for loss and two sacks, during the 2011 season. He earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors and will be called upon to take a leading role for Big Red in 2012.

Prospects ranked 126-150 Insider

No. 128: Patrick Nixon-Youman, CB, Illinois -- Hip surgery a few years ago slowed Nixon-Youman's progression, but he appeared in 11 games in each of the past two seasons in a reserve role. He could play a bigger role in 2012.

No. 130: Keanon Cooper, LB, Minnesota -- Started in 2011 for Minnesota and recorded 77 tackles, including six for loss, as well as two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He enters his third season as a starter in 2012 and will need to be a big contributor for the Gophers' defense.

No. 135: Travis Howard, CB, Ohio State -- Took on a bigger role in 2011 and recorded 44 tackles, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and five pass breakups for the Buckeyes. He'll enter the 2012 season as a projected starter and could end his career with a flourish.

No. 141: J.B. Fitzgerald, LB, Michigan -- Started only three games in his career, but appeared in 50 contests and was a valuable reserve and special teams performer for Michigan in 2011.

No. 148: Tyler Westphal, DE, Wisconsin -- Had a serious shoulder injury following his redshirt year in Madison and eventually transferred to North Dakota State.

Minnesota linebacker Brendan Beal, who has yet to play for the Gophers after transferring from Florida, is No. 133 in the rankings.

Timeline of Ohio State's NCAA case

December, 20, 2011
Ohio State's infractions case with the NCAA came to an end today after the events leading up to it had played out -- at least publicly -- for almost exactly one year. Here is a timeline of the Buckeyes' trying times:

April 2, 2010: Then-Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel gets his first email from Columbus lawyer Chris Cicero informing him that quarterback Terrelle Pryor and other players were trading their team memorabilia to local tattoo-parlor owner Edward Rife in exchange for tattoos. Tressel does not inform any of his superiors about this.

Dec. 7, 2010: The U.S. attorney’s office discovers Ohio State football memorabilia in a raid of Rife's business.

Dec. 23, 2010: Ohio State announces that Pryor, running back Dan Herron, receiver DeVier Posey, offensive tackle Mike Adams and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas would be suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season for trading their memorabilia. All five players are allowed to play in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, thanks to some lobbying by the Big Ten. The Buckeyes would go on to defeat Arkansas in the game.

Jan. 13, 2011: Ohio State unearths Tressel’s emails with Cicero, igniting an investigation.

Feb. 19: A group of Buckeyes players are paid $200 by booster Robert DiGeronimo for attending a charity event in Cleveland.

March 8: The school announces that Tressel will be suspended for the first two games of the 2011 season and will be fined $250,000. His bosses voice their support of Tressel, with school president E. Gordon Gee infamously saying, "I'm just hopeful the coach doesn't dismiss me."

March 17: Tressel’s suspension is extended to the first five games of the season.

May 30: Athletic director Gene Smith forces Tressel to resign. Luke Fickell is named interim coach.

July 8: Ohio State announces it has vacated all wins from the 2010 season and is self-imposing two years' probation stemming from the Tressel/tattoo controversy. The school later also says it will return its proceeds from the Sugar Bowl.

Aug. 12: Ohio State goes before the NCAA Committee on Infractions in Indianapolis.

Sept. 1: Less than 48 hours before the season opener against Akron, running back Jordan Hall and defensive backs Travis Howard and Corey “Pittsburgh” Brown are suspended two games each for accepting cash from DiGeronimo at the charity event.

Sept. 20: Ohio State publicly disassociates itself with DiGeronimo, who had given more than $70,000 to the athletic department in the previous 25 years.

Oct. 7: Posey is suspended an additional five games, while Herron and linemen Marcus Hall and Melvin Fellows are suspended one game for being overpaid for summer jobs at a company owned by DiGeronimo.

Nov. 3: The NCAA sends another notice of allegations to Ohio State concerning the DiGeronimo accusations. The NCAA says the Buckeyes will face a "failure to monitor" charge. The Buckeyes respond by stripping themselves of five total scholarships over a three-year period.

Nov. 28: Ohio State hires Urban Meyer as its new head coach. Meyer and Smith both say they are not worried about any serious NCAA penalties. Smith says there is no precedent for receiving a bowl ban in cases similar to this one.

Dec. 20: The NCAA doles out its punishment to Ohio State: a 2012 postseason ban, the loss of four scholarships on top of the school's own reduction, an extra year of probation and a five-year show-cause penalty for Tressel.

Half: Ohio State 24, Michigan 23

November, 26, 2011
The Game might not have any impact on the Big Ten race, but so far it has been as entertaining as any edition in this rivalry's history. Unfortunately for Michigan, it finds itself on the losing end yet again after one half.

It's been a half full of big plays and major momentum shifts, and both athletic quarterbacks have put on shows.

Both teams also made one critical mistake. Ohio State gave up a safety when left tackle Mike Adams took down Craig Roh by the facemask in the end zone. Michigan also scored a touchdown after the ensuing punt to go up 16-7. That marked the fourth straight game that Ohio State had fallen behind by at least nine points in the first quarter, and Wolverines fans were ready to explode as it looked like their team might end the seven-game losing streak in emphatic fashion.

But the Buckeyes, with little to play for besides pride, refused to go away easily. Linebacker Ryan Shazier forced a Denard Robinson fumble that set up a field goal, and Braxton Miller ran for a 19-yard touchdown to put Ohio State back on top. Somewhere, Urban Meyer must have been smiling.

About the only thing Miller did wrong for most of the half was fail to establish a good connection with DeVier Posey, who he missed a few times including what would have been a sure touchdown. But with 1:21 left, he threw a 43-yard dart to Posey for a touchdown. Ohio State hasn't been able to pass very effectively all season, but Miller has thrown for 127 yards and two scores in the first half alone. Michigan fans must be wondering what has happened to the defense that has looked so strong the last several weeks.

Robinson had the fumble, but he's otherwise had a great game. He has run for two scores, including a 41-yarder on an option play, and has completed 7-of-8 passes with a 26-yard touchdown.

We could be set up for a fantastic finish in the second half. If the final 30 minutes are as entertaining as the first 30, this game could be remembered for a long time in the lore of The Game.
Saturday is Senior Day at Ohio State. This year will likely bring some mixed emotions to the event.

The Buckeyes have a small senior class of contributors -- of the 24 players who will be honored before the Penn State game, only nine have ever started a game in their careers. And of those nine, four of them have been mired in controversy this year. Offensive lineman Mike Adams and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas sat out the first five games as part of their suspension for the tattoo-for-memorabilia scandal. Running back Dan Herron served that suspension and an extra game for another violation. And receiver DeVier Posey will be playing for the first time Saturday after sitting out 10 games for both the tattoo case and a summer job that the NCAA has alleged paid him for work he didn't perform.

[+] EnlargeLuke Fickell
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteCoach Luke Fickell said Ohio State's seniors who were suspended should be shown the same respect as the other seniors.
The seniors also won three Big Ten championships and played in three BCS games, winning two of them (though one of them, like the entire 2010 season, was officially vacated). So how exactly will fans view this class? Will it be all cheers on Saturday? Or some grumbling as well?

"I'm not sure how they will react," Herron said. "That's really not something we can worry about. If fans give us a good response, we'll be happy. If they don't, we've got to keep moving on."

Head coach Luke Fickell says the seniors who were suspended should be shown the same respect as others.

"They've made a mistake," he said. "They've served their penance. They've shown what they can do in the way that they've handled themselves ....

"To me, these guys have battled through a lot. I've got the utmost respect for them for how they've handled the situations. The way they've been in the locker room, I couldn't ask for anything truly more in the last six months than the way they've handled themselves, the way they've accepted me, and our coaching staff, and the things we thought were important for these six months."

Posey might be the most interesting case study of them all. Surely, the Buckeyes' woeful passing offense could have used him this season. He's a central figure in not one but two situations that resulted in a notice of allegations from the NCAA. He's also paid the price by sitting out 10 games his senior year and trying to stay in shape and focused on when his opportunity would come.

Adams and Herron, who were starters before their suspensions, stepped right back into their roles when they came back. Fickell praised the way Posey has handled himself through the situation but didn't commit to Posey starting this week. The Buckeyes may need him against a stout Penn State defense.

"I'm so excited to see him out there and playing," said Herron, a close friend of Posey's. "When you miss 10 games, it's tough on someone, especially when it's your dream to play college football. He's been working tremendously hard and hopefully he'll show that on Saturday."

It's also important to note that many of the seniors never got into any NCAA turmoil. Guys such as All-Big Ten center Mike Brewster, who will be starting his 47th consecutive game this week. Brewster said he'll choose to remember the BCS bowls, and that the NCAA can't vacate last year's Allstate Sugar Bowl win over Arkansas out of his mind. This year, though Ohio State is 6-4, he said he'll remember helping to mentor young players such as Braxton Miller and hopefully setting the stage for the future.

It remains to be seen how the rest of the senior class will be remembered.

"I hope we have a great legacy," Herron said. "We've been through a lot, but we don't make that as an excuse. We've shown that you can go through anything and that anything is possible. We're going to fight to the end."
Asked a two-part question Tuesday about the development of freshman quarterback Braxton Miller and his own development as Ohio State head coach, Luke Fickell combined his answer.

"Both of us are a little bit similar," he said. "The confidence level is something you've really noticed with him, and it's kind of a similar thing here."

The key difference between the two, of course, is that Miller has three more years of eligibility to grow and continue to improve as a quarterback. Fickell is guaranteed nothing beyond this season.

But it's time to notice that, like Miller, Fickell is showing impressive improvement.

Few Ohio State fans would have thought it possible for Fickell to keep his job a month ago. The Buckeyes lost three of their first six games, looked inept at times on offense and appeared destined for a difficult season.

[+] EnlargeOhio State's Luke Fickell and Braxton Miller
AP Photo/Amy SancettaOhio State coach Luke Fickell and his freshman quarterback Braxton Miller seem to be getting more comfortable in their positions.
Right now, though, they're one of the hottest teams in the Big Ten, having knocked off a pair of ranked teams -- then No. 16 Illinois and then-No. 15 Wisconsin -- in back-to-back games. If Miller doesn't get hurt in the second half of the Nebraska game, maybe Ohio State holds onto its 21-point lead and wins in Lincoln, too.

The team has undeniably gotten better the past few weeks.

"When you see guys stay together and get through those kinds of things, you really start to see a growth," Fickell said. "That's probably the one thing you can ultimately point your finger at, is the belief in one another. That's why we have a chance to be where we are right now."

Fickell gets a large share of the credit for that growth. Simply keeping this team together, from the time Jim Tressel resigned on Memorial Day through all the off-the-field controversy and suspensions, was no easy task. The ship could have easily begun to submerge after dispiriting losses to Miami and Michigan State.

Few coaches have had to play more hamstrung this year. He had no quarterback with starting experience, he was missing three of his best offensive players (Dan Herron, DeVier Posey and Mike Adams) and seemingly every week the team found out about another suspension just before kickoff. Fickell had to deal with all that while learning how to be a head coach for the first time at one of the most scrutinized programs in America. He has learned a lot in a short time.

"You don't ever know truly what to expect," he said. "But at least you've got a little more feeling for what you're doing and how to go about it. Not that you didn't have confidence before, but you spend a lot of excess energy with all the adjusting your schedule to this and to that. The ability to be able to handle those things and not lose your energy and your passion, that's the most important thing."

So maybe Fickell didn't look well-versed as a game manager against Miami, and he probably erred by not starting Miller right away. It's understandable why a coach in his position would go with the veteran quarterback in Joe Bauserman, and starting Miller probably doesn't change the Miami loss, though perhaps with more experience under his belt Miller isn't as flummoxed by the Michigan State defense.

The return of Adams and Herron has made a huge difference to this team, and Fickell always deserved to be judged by what he could do with a full deck (he's still a big wild card short, with Posey still out until Nov. 19). I said before the season that I thought Fickell would have to go at least 8-4 to have any chance at returning, given the high standards at Ohio State. His team is 5-3 now, with highly winnable games against Indiana and Purdue next. And then it gets really interesting.

The Buckeyes get Penn State at home and should match up well against another low-scoring, defensive-minded club. Then they go to Ann Arbor, looking to continue their dominance over Michigan. Should Fickell manage to go undefeated through November, Ohio State would only need a Penn State loss at Wisconsin or somewhere else to make the Big Ten title game.

Heck, Fickell should win Big Ten coach of the year honors if that happens. How could athletic director Gene Smith not bring him back in that scenario? In fact, it might be very beneficial for that to play out and for Fickell to be quickly re-signed, since recruiting isn't being helped right now by having a head coach whose contract ends in January.

Of course, that's a lot of what-ifs at this point, and Fickell has steadfastly refused to openly campaign or really even address his job status.

"I wouldn't change the way I'm doing anything if they told me one way or the other right now," he said. "That's where I'm making sure I stay focused. We ask our guys to be unselfish and not just think about themselves. If we don't show them we can do that ourselves, then it would just be words."

Ohio State may still choose to go after a big-name coach after the season. If the NCAA hands down a severe punishment, perhaps the school decides it's best to make a clean break from the Tressel era.

But Luke Fickell is growing into the role of Buckeyes head coach. Just like with Braxton Miller, that growth could lead to some very good things.
There must have been times this season when Ohio State's starting defensive linemen found games to be easier than their own practices. That's because the Buckeyes had likely the best scout team left tackle in America for the first five weeks.

Mike Adams should have been with the starters, too, during that time. But he was serving his five-game suspension as one of the players involved in the tattoo-for-memorabilia scandal. All he could do was try to provide his teammates with a good look on the scout team while he counted down the days until his return.

[+] EnlargeOhio State's Mike Adams
Bruce Thorson/US PRESSWIREThe return of 6-foot-8, 320-pound left tackle Mike Adams has made a dramatic difference in the Buckeyes' run game.
"That part of the suspension definitely makes you challenge yourself a little bit," he said. "I'd be sitting on my couch watching the games going, 'Man, I wish I was out there.' But it was nobody's fault but my own."

Adams was the first of the suspended players to return and have an impact, as running back Daniel "Boom" Herron had to serve an extra game, receiver DeVier Posey got five extra games and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas was injured. Adams wasted little time in proving his value.

Stepping right back into the starting lineup, Adams helped rejuvenate the Ohio State running attack. The Buckeyes had only 35 net yards on the ground in the final game of his suspension. In his two games back, they rushed for a season high 243 yards at Nebraska and 211 versus Illinois.

Adams' return allowed younger offensive linemen to slide back into more natural roles and gave the offense a 6-foot-8, 320-pound lead anchor. He was a big reason why Ohio State could line up and run the ball all but four times in a victory at Illinois last time out.

"Eventually we've got to have some more balance," head coach Luke Fickell said. "But we can get away with a lot of things because Mike is a very good football player."

Adams said his work on the scout team, going up against starters like John Simon and Johnathan Hankins, kept him from getting rusty during his time away. And as one of the suspended guys who felt like he let his teammates down, he wanted to make sure he came back with a bang.

"You want to come back on the foot you left off on, and for me and Boom, that was the Sugar Bowl last year," he said. "Coming back, we didn't want there to be any dropoff. We want to be consistent and help this team get better and keep on winning."

Getting a first-team All-Big Ten left tackle back on the field was certainly going to help. Fickell said it's more than just what Adams brings to Saturdays, though.

"Mike is one of the guys who gives us more confidence," he said. "Just in the huddle, in the locker room, he's a guy who's naturally very confident. He brings us a whole lot of things, not just his game but his attitude and confidence level as well."

Adams admitted it pained him not being able to help earlier this season as Ohio State lost to Miami and Michigan State with a floundering offense. Now that he's returned, he's aiming to get the Buckeyes back to winning big games, starting with this weekend's showdown against Wisconsin.

"We have a little something to prove, as we have the whole season," he said. "We definitely have plans for a strong finish."

Johnathan Hankins shapes up for OSU

October, 25, 2011
The number most often associated with Ohio State defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins is 335.

At 335 pounds, Hankins is one of the biggest men in the Big Ten. He's among the largest defensive players in the nation and easy to spot in the heart of Ohio State's defensive line.

[+] EnlargeDefensive lineman Johnathan Hankins
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesAt 335 pounds, Ohio State defensive lineman Johnathan Hankins is easy to spot.
Every time "Big Hank" blows up a double team or drops a running back in the backfield, the number 335 is bound to be mentioned, whether it's on the television broadcast, the radio broadcast, Twitter or by fans in the stands. Hankins' size makes him stand out.

But Hankins spent the offseason focused on a different number: 60.

Ohio State's defense averaged 60.7 plays per game in 2010. Hankins wanted to make he'd be on the field for all of them in 2011.

"Last year he probably averaged 15 snaps a game, maybe a few more later in the season, 20 snaps," Buckeyes coach Luke Fickell said. "The question was, a guy his size, can he play 60, 65 snaps in a game? He's done a very good job of showing us that he can."

Hankins not only has stayed on the field longer but made his presence known. The sophomore leads Ohio State's defensive linemen with 36 tackles, a total that ranks second on the team behind linebacker Andrew Sweat. He also ranks second in tackles for loss (6.5) and tied for second in sacks (2).

The big man also seems to be getting stronger with each game. He opened Big Ten play with six tackles and a sack against Nebraska, and followed it up Oct. 15 with arguably his best performance as a Buckeye, recording a team-high nine tackles, including two for loss, in a defense-driven 17-7 win at Illinois.

"This summer, I worked on my conditioning, eating right and just losing a few pounds," Hankins said. "It's helping me this year. That's been a major part."

Hankins shed about 15 pounds from his frame, which he calls "a good amount." While he remains as big or bigger than most offensive lineman he faces, Hankins feels lighter on his feet and generally more in shape.

"My first year, I would get tired after like one or two series," he said. "Right now, I feel like I can just play the whole game. Most of the time, I'm not really going to come out of the game.

"With my conditioning being where it's at right now, it's taken my game to another level."

Hankins showed some promise as a true freshman, appearing in all 13 games and recording 16 tackles, including a sack. Although he couldn't log many snaps, Ohio State only needed him to spell starters Cameron Heyward, a first-round pick in April's NFL draft, and veteran Dexter Larimore.

But the departures of Heyward and Larimore left Ohio State thin at tackle. The Buckeyes needed contributors to complement veteran John Simon up front.

"Coming into this year, I knew we were going to be pretty young," Hankins said. "I knew there were going to be roles and spots that needed to be filled. The coaches were going to be counting on me. The defense was going to be counting on me."

Hankins and Simon form a terrific defensive tackle tandem, combining for 14 tackles for loss and five sacks. They both stood out against Illinois, ranking as Ohio State's top two tacklers and accounting for six tackles for loss.

Ohio State will lean on the pair this week as it faces the Big Ten's top offense in No. 15 Wisconsin.

"It's awesome when you've got two big guys like that are getting after it and affecting quarterbacks and running backs," Buckeyes offensive tackle Mike Adams said.

Hankins, who hails from Detroit, has enjoyed watching former Nebraska star Ndamukong Suh star for the NFL's Lions. Another pro defensive tackle Hankins likes to scout is Green Bay Packers standout B.J. Raji.

Like Hankins, Raji is a guy who can't avoid references to his size. He's listed at 337 pounds.

"He's kind of a guy like me, a two- or three-down player," Hankins said. "He's a big guy, but good with his feet."

Does Hankins see himself in Raji?

"I don't think I'm as big as him," he said.

Not anymore, at least.

"He didn't want to be as heavy as he was last year," Fickell said of Hankins. "He knew he was going to have to play more, and he was going to have to get his weight down in order to do that.

"He's well-conditioned for his size, and I've been impressed with his ability to play over 60 snaps a game."
Lost amid the chaos of Ohio State's stunning collapse Saturday night in Lincoln -- overshadowed by the second-guessing of Luke Fickell and his staff, the hatred directed toward quarterback Joe Bauserman and the disbelief of what Fickell called "an unbelievable snowball effect" -- was an important fact.

Ohio State found its quarterback. His name is Braxton Miller. He's young, but he's got plenty of game.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesBraxton Miller was a catalyst for Ohio State's offense against Nebraska, making plays with his arm and his legs.
Miller would have been the big story Saturday night had the final 23 minutes played out like the first 37. He sparked an Ohio State offense that one week earlier had come 10 seconds away from its first scoreless performance at home since 1982.

Operating in a system that suited his skills and development level, Miller recorded 91 rush yards on 10 carries and completed 5 of 8 passes for 95 yards and a touchdown. Aside from one ill-advised pass and a fumble that triggered Nebraska's rally -- along with Miller's departure from the game with a sprained right ankle -- the freshman had a very solid performance under the circumstances.

"You saw him play with a lot more confidence," Fickell said. "He can throw the football, he understands the game of football, he's getting better each and every week. He's a competitor. You saw him as he gets he hurt, he wants to get back in there. Those are the things you've got to continue to build on."

Ohio State certainly could have used Miller as Bauserman struggled, completing just 1 of 10 pass attempts for a flat-lining offense.

Miller is listed as Ohio State's starter for this week's game at No. 16 Illinois. While Fickell wants to evaluate Miller on the practice field beginning Tuesday, the expectation is that the freshman will play in Champaign.

"Obviously," Fickell said, "Braxton is our quarterback."

It wasn't obvious until Saturday night, as Miller, like Bauserman, struggled in losses to Michigan State and Miami. But Miller came out strong against Nebraska, connecting on four of his first six passes, including a 21-yarder to Corey Brown on his first attempt and a 32-yard scoring strike to Jake Stoneburner.

Miller benefited from having players like Brown and starting left tackle Mike Adams back on the field. Coordinator Jim Bollman's game plan put him in situations where he could succeed, particularly with his legs.

"He played well the other night," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "He's going to be a pretty special player. He's a freshman right now, but he's got a lot of ability. He can run it, he can throw it. He's going to be a heck of a player in time."

Pelini acknowledged after the game that "it helped us, obviously, when Miller went out. Their game plan was built around him."

After the Nebraska loss, much of Buckeye Nation turned its focus to the men behind Miller. Bauserman is listed as Miller's backup on the depth chart, but Fickell said Tuesday that Kenny Guiton will get a closer look this week in practice.

"I'm sure he's waiting for that opportunity to arise," Fickell said of Guiton.

Regardless of who plays second string, Miller gives Ohio State the best chance to upset Illinois on Saturday. The Buckeyes offense regains another big piece as running back Dan Herron, a multiyear starter, returns from suspension.

The big question is how much Miller's ankle will limit him against an aggressive Illini defense led by Whitney Mercilus, the nation's sacks leader (8.5).

"This is a game of momentum, a game of emotion, and we're going to need that [from Miller]," Fickell said. "We're getting ready to go out today and make sure everybody sees him out there."

Illinois coach Ron Zook turned on the Ohio State-Nebraska game Saturday night right around the time of Miller's fumble, but Zook said, "It's not hard to see why they were up three touchdowns."

"He can run, he can throw," Zook added of Miller. "I would assume we're going to see the same thing you saw in the first three quarters of the Nebraska game, and that's a guy who can do it all."

LINCOLN, Neb. -- We've reached the break at Memorial Stadium, and surprise, surprise, Ohio State remains in total control. The Buckeyes lead No. 14 Nebraska 20-6.

Here's a quick update on the first 30 minutes:

Stat of the half: Ohio State, which entered the game ranked 108th nationally in total offense, outgained Nebraska 246-114 in the half. The Buckeyes out-rushed Nebraska 178-34.

Player of the half: Buckeyes freshman quarterback Braxton Miller. The young signal caller is growing up, folks. He completed 4 of 6 passes for 68 yards and a touchdown and, more importantly, added 79 rush yards on seven carries. Playing behind an offensive line happy to have Mike Adams back at left tackle, Miller used his speed and moves to get in the open field against an overmatched Nebraska defense.

What Ohio State needs to do: Maintain the game plan because it's working on both sides of the ball. The Buckeyes must continue to put Miller in situations where he can succeed both as a passer and as a runner, where he's very good. Offensive coordinator Jim Bollman can't go in a shell. He must remain creative with his calls and capitalize on an overzealous Nebraska defense. Ohio State needs to continue to be sound in its tackling and make Nebraska work for its points.

What Nebraska needs to do: Tackle better, for starters, and perhaps start spying Miller, who has been one step ahead of the defense all night. Being aggressive is fine, but Nebraska has repeatedly lost containment on Miller and allowed Carlos Hyde to break off a 63-yard touchdown. The offense can't start panicking if the first- and second-down runs aren't picking up big yardage. Taylor Martinez has to be a bit shaken right now after his ill-advised throw just before halftime basically gave Ohio State three more points. The fans are upset and the team looks shaken. Nebraska needs something dramatic to go in its favor.

It's game day at Memorial Stadium

October, 8, 2011
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Greetings from Husker Country, where tonight No. 14 Nebraska and Ohio State both try to avoid an 0-2 start to Big Ten play.

Who would have thought that back in April when this looked like the Big Ten's premier regular-season game of 2011? Jim Tressel, Terrelle Pryor and others were set to return for Ohio State, and Nebraska had been pegged by many to be the Big Ten favorite. Instead, both teams are coming off of humbling losses. Ohio State, which has no Tressel, no Pryor and not even DeVier Posey and Dan Herron, tries to hold its season together against a Nebraska program where angst is mounting after an unimpressive start to the year.

I really enjoyed the drive in, particularly around the stadium. Nebraska doesn't have fields and fields of tailgating that you see at Penn State, but there were some packed parking lots of revelers surrounding Memorial Stadium. For the second consecutive week, I'm seeing a ton of red. I really like the coziness of Memorial Stadium. Not sure Luke Fickell and the Buckeyes will feel the same.

There has been a ton of attention this week on Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez and the team's offensive struggles at Wisconsin. Former Huskers quarterback Tommie Frazier reportedly ripped T-Magic on Friday night at an alumni event. Martinez is anxious to silence his critics, and it will be interesting to see how he responds against a solid Ohio State defense.

Ohio State needs its defense to win this game, prevent the big plays and force some miscues from Martinez. The Buckeyes have been incredibly inept on offense, and though Mike Adams' return at left tackle will help, they'll have a tough time scoring against a Nebraska defense coming off of an "embarrassing" performance at Wisconsin.

Most folks are picking a low-scoring Nebraska win, myself included.

We'll see what happens in the What-If Bowl. Keep it here all night for coverage.
Week 6 is just around the corner, so let's take a look at 10 items to track in the five Big Ten games taking place Saturday.

1. Buckeyes seeing red: Luke Fickell and his team can't catch a break these days. Saturday was supposed to mark the return of four players, including three multiyear offensive starters, from suspension. Turns out, Ohio State will only regain the services of left tackle Mike Adams and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas for the game at Nebraska. The Buckeyes rank 108th nationally in total offense and face a Nebraska defense coming off of an embarrassing performance at Wisconsin. Ohio State is a double-digit underdog in a conference game for the first time in recent memory. Is this the beginning of the end, or the start of a turnaround?

[+] EnlargeOhio State's Luke Fickell
Greg Bartram/US PRESSWIRELuke Fickell and Ohio State rank 108th in total offense this season.
2. Carson, Lions hope to humble Hawkeyes: Penn State linebacker Glenn Carson added some spice to the Penn State-Iowa rivalry this week, jokingly calling Iowa "a wrestling school" and saying of Hawkeyes fans, "They think they have this stranglehold on us. We just have to humble them up a little bit." Simply beating Iowa would be a nice start, as Penn State has lost three straight and eight of its last nine to Kirk Ferentz's squad. Carson and his fellow Lions defenders will need another superb performance if Penn State's offense continues to spin its wheels.

3. Wolverines, Illini finally hit the road: Michigan and Illinois have been the two nicest surprises in the Big Ten so far, as both teams are 5-0 and ranked in the top 20. Both teams also haven't left the comforts of their home stadiums. That changes Saturday as Michigan visits Northwestern and Illinois visits Indiana. Although neither road opponent or road setting seems too daunting, Michigan's improved defense will be challenged against Northwestern senior QB Dan Persa, while Illinois faces an Indiana team that held Penn State to 16 points last week in Bloomington.

4. Mad Martinez anxious to rebound: Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez is fed up with the criticism, which increased after his three-interception game against Wisconsin. Martinez had a terse session with reporters this week in Lincoln, and offensive lineman Yoshi Hardwick said, "It finally hit him. He'd been holding in a lot. He said he couldn't take it anymore. ... He told me he's sick of it. These next seven games, he just wants the world to get off his back, so he had to do something about it." He can start the process against Ohio State, which boasts the nation's No. 13 defense.

5. QBs in spotlight at Ross-Ade: Minnesota coach Jerry Kill and Purdue counterpart Danny Hope both announced likely starters for Saturday's game -- Max Shortell for the Gophers, Caleb TerBush for the Boilers -- but said things could change by kickoff. MarQueis Gray practiced this week and could work his way back onto the field for Minnesota after missing the Michigan debacle. Robert Marve, whose critical tweet after the Notre Dame loss didn't upset Hope, should be in the mix alongside TerBush. "If he could stay within the system, he could be a difference maker for us," Hope said of Marve this week. "Caleb manages the offense very well and Robert doesn't manage it as well." This much is known: one of these four quarterbacks will guide their team to its first Big Ten win Saturday.

6. Denard vs. Dan: No two Big Ten players meant more to their teams in 2010 than Michigan QB Denard Robinson and Northwestern QB Dan Persa. The two signal callers meet Saturday night in Evanston in what could be an offensive shootout. Robinson still leads the Big Ten in rushing (120.6 ypg) and rebounded nicely as a passer last week against Minnesota, completing 15 of 19 attempts for 169 yards and two scores. Persa sizzled in his season debut at Illinois, firing a career-high four touchdown passes on only 14 pass attempts. Although Persa left the Illinois game with a right foot injury, he practiced this week and is expected to take the bulk of the snaps against Michigan.

7. Potent Hawkeyes pass attack put to test: Ferentz was joking last week when he said Iowa will "go 100 percent no-huddle" on offense the rest of the season, but the Hawkeyes have found something with their up-tempo passing attack. QB James Vandenberg has racked up 432 pass yards and six touchdowns in his past five quarters of play, and Iowa's receiving corps has been a pleasant surprise as Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley are emerging alongside No. 1 wideout Marvin McNutt. How good is the Hawkeyes' pass attack? Find out Saturday afternoon at Penn State, which ranks sixth nationally in pass defense with only three passing touchdowns allowed this season.

8. Illini livin' on the edge: Illinois is racking up the wins, but not without plenty of drama. The Illini have recorded three consecutive victories by three points, rallying in the fourth quarter for two of those wins (Arizona State and Northwestern). Ron Zook would like to leave the Maalox at home this week and enjoy a complete performance from his 19th-ranked squad at Indiana. Illinois has to cut down on turnovers, limit penalties after committing eight last week and improve its red-zone touchdowns efficiency against an Indiana defense that forced two Penn State turnovers in the red zone last week.

9. JoePa's sideline swagger: Penn State coach Joe Paterno has disposed of his cane and hopes to spend an entire game on the sideline for the first time this season. The 84-year-old has coached the first half on the sideline in each of the last two contests before heading to the coaches' booth after halftime. "I'm going to be swaggering all over the place." Paterno told reporters Tuesday. "Don't get in my way." Although Paterno's prolonged sideline presence should help his team, he remains removed from much of the key decision-making, including offensive play calls, which are handled by assistants Galen Hall and Jay Paterno. "I don't do a lot of play-calling anymore," he said. "I'm a cheerleader."

10. The league's middle class: Monday, I wrote that the Big Ten needs its middle class to rise to improve its national perception and enhance its chances for the bowl season. Top dog Wisconsin is off this week, so Saturday provides a chance to evaluate the rest of the league (aside from Michigan State, which also has a bye). Nebraska, Michigan and Illinois all have opportunities to take steps forward on the field and likely in the polls. The Iowa-Penn State winner will be in good shape to make a push in their division. Northwestern and Ohio State try to avoid 0-2 conference starts and change the mood around their programs.