NCF Nation: Paul James

Rutgers seeking respect in first B1G game

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
12:00
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Rutgers wideout Leonte Carroo knows there’s no denying the importance of Saturday’s game.

[+] EnlargeRutgers RB Paul James
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenPaul James and Rutgers hope to make a B1G statement against Penn State on Saturday.
 The Scarlet Knights’ first-ever Big Ten contest sold out in record time, and Carroo said the topic of “Penn State-Rutgers” has dominated classroom chatter this week. This isn’t just a regular game for the Knights -- even if they’re still trying to approach it like one -- so there’s no sense in pretending. This is a chance for Rutgers to make a statement; it’s an opportunity for Rutgers to prove it belongs.

“During the offseason and pretty much up until now, no team has respected us. No team still respects us,” Carroo told ESPN.com. “We have nothing to lose here. Penn State is Penn State, and they’ve been disrespecting us in the media -- so this is a good chance to show what kind of Rutgers team we have here.

“We’re going to show we’re not just some team people can step over.”

The Scarlet Knights received a lukewarm reception when they joined their new conference. And the players aren’t deaf to all that criticism: Maybe RU didn’t deserve an invitation, maybe RU isn’t ready for the competition, maybe RU will go all season without winning a conference game.

Carroo knows all that chatter. He played against a handful of current Penn State players and New Jersey natives in high school, and it’s impossible to miss all the social-media banter from those who follow the team from Pennsylvania. And he’s right; Penn State fans don’t respect Rutgers. One student publication penned a sarcastic love letter to RU on Thursday, poking fun of its academics and inferiority complex. A two-month old quote from PSU tailback Bill Belton was also dug up this week, when the New Jersey native implied RU wasn’t a “big-time” program during Big Ten media days.

“People probably felt like Rutgers didn’t deserve to be in the Big Ten,” Carroo added, “but we’re setting a tone and standard and, come Saturday, everyone will see that.”

Few people even gave Rutgers a chance in its opener against Washington State. On this blog, five writers picked against the Knights. But they came out on top, 41-38, while running back Paul James turned heads with a 173-yard, three-TD performance.

Rutgers isn’t a pushover -- but some players believe it must accomplish more to earn that respect.

“I don’t think so far we’ve really changed anybody’s minds, per se,” linebacker Kevin Snyder said. “But I know a win in our first Big Ten game, it would make people look and know that we’re here to play. I know that we have a team that’s capable of beating a lot of people.”

Head coach Kyle Flood didn’t try to pretend otherwise earlier this week. He cautioned that the team will still go through the same process, that this game will be treated like any other.

But that doesn’t mean this game is just like any other.

"The meaning of the game, to me, is that first impressions in life count," Flood said. "And this is our opportunity to make our first impression in the Big Ten conference."

The Knights’ schedule won’t get any easier as the season progresses. With Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Wisconsin on the schedule, it’s rated as the toughest slate in the Big Ten. Even Huskers wideout Kenny Bell chimed in a month ago and said the conference disrespected RU with that setup.

A win shows Rutgers can be a force in this conference, that a bowl game isn’t just a pipe dream. A loss means that offseason chatter is only going to grow. And these players know that.

“I think a win this week would kind of cement that we’re in the Big Ten, and we’re not just here to play football,” Snyder said. “We’re here to win games.”

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 2

September, 10, 2014
Sep 10
1:00
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We're only two weeks into the season, but we're taking a weekly look at how the major Big Ten individual awards races are shaping up.

All five of our Big Ten reporters are voting weekly on the races, with players receiving five points for a first-place vote, four for a second-place nod, etc. Also, we try hard to base these standings on 2014 season results only, not any preconceived notions or a player's previous track records. That's why you might see some names here you likely did not expect in the preseason.

Away we go:

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year


1. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah (five first-place votes): A unanimous pick right now, and understandably so given his game-winning catch and run vs. McNeese State. Abdullah is ranked No. 6 in the latest ESPN Heisman Watch.

2. Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: The sophomore leads the Big Ten with 773 passing yards through two games, though his 4-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio could stand to improve.

3. Illinois QB Wes Lunt: The Oklahoma State transfer has been a big hit in Champaign, especially after he threw for 456 yards last week in a win against Western Kentucky.

4. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: Coleman and the Hoosiers were off this week, so he'll look to build on his huge Week 1 performance (247 yards, two touchdowns) on Saturday at Bowling Green.

5. Michigan State QB Connor Cook: He threw for 343 yards and two scores in the loss at Oregon, though he also had two picks. Cook is completing 68.3 percent of his passes through two games.

Also receiving votes: Rutgers RB Paul JamesPaul James

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Iowa DT Louis Trinca-Pasat (1): A surprise early leader. Trinca-Pasat has four tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks as Iowa's defensive line has carried the team in two close wins.

2. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa: Bosa already has two forced fumbles, including one against Virginia Tech last weekend. Will he be even more effective when Noah Spence returns on the other side of the Buckeyes' line?

3. Penn State DT Anthony Zettel (2): Zettel is tied with Trinca-Pasat for the most tackles for loss in the league through two weeks, and he owns two quarterback sacks. The Nittany Lions' defense has done a great job of bending but not breaking.

4. Penn State LB Mike Hull (2): Hull has been the leader of the Penn State defense as expected, and he has the second-most tackles in the league, with 22.

5. Wisconsin S Michael Caputo: After registering 15 tackles in the opener against LSU, Caputo grabbed an interception last week vs. Western Illinois.

Also receiving votes: Iowa DE Drew Ott; Indiana DL Bobby Richardson; Illinois S Taylor Barton

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 2

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7
2:00
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Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 1

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
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Recognizing the best and the brightest from Week 1 in the Big Ten:

Rutgers RB Paul James: It sure looks as if we can add James to the growing list of solid running backs in the conference. James was the constant in the Knights’ offense Thursday and, whenever it faltered, he was the one to pick it up. His stat line: 29 carries, 173 yards, three TDs. He was the workhorse against Washington State, and he was the reason the Knights were able to match the Cougars’ high-scoring offense. Maybe Leonte Carroo was a bit flashier -- maybe -- but James was Mr. Consistent.

Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: All he did was set a single-game school record with 454 passing yards. And, oh yeah, he went 4-of-6 for 55 yards and ran for another 8 yards on the game-winning drive. He took his share of hits in the pocket and didn’t get much run support, but he did just about everything he could for the win. Did he force it at times? You bet. But he was the main reason PSU moved the ball downfield, and he is now the only player in the 127-year history of the Nittany Lions to reach the 400-yard passing plateau. How could we not give him a helmet sticker?

Penn State K Sam Ficken: It’s only fair. Hackenberg drove the offense; Ficken won the game. After missing four field goals in the 2012 loss to Virginia, Ficken redeemed himself by going 4-of-4 on Saturday -- and by nailing the last-second, game-winning 36-yard field goal. Kickers don’t earn helmet stickers all that often, but kickers don’t have days like Ficken too often, either. It’s a true underdog story.

Michigan WR Devin Funchess: Tell me if you see a pattern here. First score, first passing TD -- Funchess. Second score, second passing TD -- Funchess. Third score … OK, OK. You get it. Funchess finished with seven catches for 95 yards and scored the game’s first three TDs. He helped ice this game before it really started. Props to Devin Gardner for getting him the ball, but Funchess has to get most of the credit on those last two tosses. He leaped, made an adjustment and broke a tackle for the second TD. And he came up with a catch in double coverage for the third.

Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: His video game-esque stats are a bit misleading, since a lot of his yards came after the catch. But Barrett didn’t let up in his first career start. He kept a cool head in the second half and helped lead the Buckeyes to a comeback win. His final numbers? Check this out: 12-of-15, 226 passing yards, two TDs, one interception, 50 rushing yards. He really earned this helmet sticker with his final two quarters, going 4-of-4 for 130 yards and two TDs. It was a memorable first start.

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: The impressive part? Abullah rushed for 232 yards and a TD on just 21 carries. The more impressive part? He was pulled in the middle of the third quarter when the game was in hand. He was nearly perfect after the first drive; nine of his last 15 carries went for at least 10 yards. He’s shifty, he’s quick, and he just outright confused the hapless Florida Atlantic defense. We see many more helmet stickers in Mr. Abdullah’s future.
Five lessons from the opening week of Big Ten play.

1. Familiar issues preventing Wisconsin from next step: The Badgers had a wonderful chance to springboard themselves into the playoff conversation, as they had a young LSU team down 24-7 in the third quarter. But it unraveled in a hurry as several familiar problems -- and some bad luck on the injury front -- doomed Wisconsin in a 28-24 loss. Wisconsin won't become an elite program until it has more dynamic quarterback and receiver play to complement its bread-and-butter run, can avoid blunders in the kicking game and shores up the secondary. Injuries to two starting defensive linemen certainly hurt, and star running back Melvin Gordon wasn't right after a long run in the third quarter. But the same limitations we've seen before with the Badgers surfaced again in a painful season-opening loss. There's still a lot to play for, but a win would have been huge for Wisconsin and the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Melvin Gordon
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin's Melvin Gordon rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown but never seemed right again after a long run in the third quarter.
2. Quarterback play is on the uptick: To take a step forward as a league, the Big Ten must make strides at the most important position on the field. Week 1 was a promising start. Michigan State's Connor Cook picked up where he left off last year and played almost flawlessly (12-of-13 passing, 285 yards, three touchdowns) against Jacksonville State. Other veterans such as Michigan's Devin Gardner (13-of-14 passing, three touchdowns), Iowa's Jake Rudock and Rutgers' Gary Nova started off strong. Second-year players such as Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong and Purdue's Danny Etling made big-time throws in victories, and Ohio State freshman J.T. Barrett delivered in his debut as the starter. Illinois' offense had some hiccups but new starting quarterback Wes Lunt finished with four touchdown passes. No one will confuse the Big Ten's quarterback contingent with the Pac-12's, but there are some good signs heading into some bigger games.

3. PSU, OSU lines are works in progress: A Penn State offensive line with just one returning starter and two converted defensive tackles starting at the guard spots topped any fan's list of concerns entering the season. Ohio State's offensive line might not have been the biggest red flag following Braxton Miller's injury, but there was some curiosity with four new starters. Both units did some good things Saturday, especially down the stretch in wins against UCF and Navy, respectively. But Penn State struggled to get its power run going and endured two holding penalties and two false starts. Ohio State had just 71 rush yards on 24 attempts through the first three quarters against an undersized Navy defense. The Buckeyes finished strong (122 fourth-quarter rush yards) but need to make strides, beginning this week against Virginia Tech. Michigan also entered its opener with the offensive line in the spotlight. Although Appalachian State isn't a great gauge, Michigan got its ground game going with 350 yards and two 100-yard rushers (Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith).

4. Rutgers could be a surprise team: Few expected much from the Scarlet Knights, including the Big Ten reporter crew, but Kyle Flood's team began the season on an impressive note. It's never easy to travel to the West Coast, and Rutgers opened with a Washington State team poised to expose its shaky pass defense. Although Washington State racked up 532 pass yards, Rutgers controlled the line of scrimmage and much of the game in a 41-38 win. New offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen has made an immediate impact, and Rutgers showcased a powerful run game led by Paul James and a big-play pass attack. The defense still needs work, and the competition level will improve, but Rutgers should be 2-0 before its highly anticipated Big Ten debut Sept. 13 against Penn State at High Points Solutions Stadium.

5. Northwestern is reeling: Few FBS teams had a rockier offseason than Northwestern, which endured the union debate, Venric Mark's stunning departure and several key injuries in the preseason. Pat Fitzgerald always had found ways to get his teams ready for the season and entered Saturday with an 8-0 mark in openers. But Northwestern didn't look ready against Cal and was outplayed in all three phases during the first 42 minutes. The Wildcats made a nice run at the end of the third quarter and had chances to complete a comeback but went conservative at the wrong times and made too many errors in a 31-24 home loss, its fifth consecutive setback at Ryan Field. You wonder if this team has reached a breaking point after all the setbacks since the past October. A Week 2 win against Northern Illinois is critical.
 

» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Illinois Fighting Illini:

2013 overall record: 4-8 (1-7 Big Ten)

Key losses: Nathan Scheelhaase, QB; Steve Hull, WR; Corey Lewis, OT; Jonathan Brown, LB; Houston Bates, DE/LB

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
AP Photo/Nati HarnikThe Illini are 6-18 in three seasons under coach Tim Beckman.
Key returnees: Josh Ferguson, RB; Simon Cvijanovic, OT; Michael Heitz, G; Mason Monheim, LB; Earnest Thomas III, STAR; V'Angelo Bentley, CB; Austin Teitsma, DT

Instant impact newcomer: Wes Lunt, QB. There are several options here, but Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer, should win the starting quarterback job and brings a big arm to the pocket in a quarterback-friendly offense. He'll look for two other newcomers, wide receivers Geronimo Allison and Mike Dudek. The Illini also are excited about defensive lineman Jihad Ward, a juco transfer.

Projected starters

OFFENSE: QB: Wes Lunt, So., 6-5, 225; RB: Josh Ferguson, Jr., 5-10, 195; WR: Geronimo Allison, Jr., 6-4, 195; WR: Justin Hardee, Jr., 6-1, 195; WR: Martize Barr, Sr., 6-0, 195; TE: Jon Davis, Sr., 6-3, 240; OT: Simon Cvijanovic, Sr., 6-6, 310; OT: Austin Schmidt, So., 6-6, 295; G: Michael Heitz, 6-6, 310; G: Ted Karras, Jr., 6-4, 310; C: Alex Hill, Jr., 6-3, 310

DEFENSE: DE: Kenny Nelson, Jr., 6-6, 250; LEO: DeJazz Woods, Sr., 6-3, 255; DT: Austin Teitsma, Sr., 6-2, 290; DT: Teko Powell, Jr., 6-3, 305; STAR: Earnest Thomas III, Sr., 6-2, 210; LB: Mason Monheim, Jr., 6-1, 235; LB: T.J. Neal, So., 6-1, 235; CB: V'Angelo Bentley, Jr., 5-10, 190; CB: Eaton Spence, Jr., 6-0, 185; S: Taylor Barton, So., 6-1, 215; S: Zane Petty, Sr., 6-1, 205

SPECIALISTS: K: Taylor Zalewski, Jr., 6-3, 220; P: Justin DuVernois, Sr., 6-1, 190

Biggest question mark: The season could hinge on how newcomers on defense, from transfers like Ward and Joe Fotu to freshmen like Paul James III, transition to this level. Illinois needs instant impacts from several arrivals to repair a unit that finished last in the Big Ten and 116th nationally against the run in 2013.

Most important game: Oct. 25 vs. Minnesota. This game falls between tough trips to Wisconsin (Oct. 11) and Ohio State (Nov. 1) and immediately after an open week. Illinois' road schedule is absolutely brutal, and to contend for a bowl game, it must play well at home. This is a potentially winnable game that could be the difference between Illinois going bowling or staying home for the third consecutive season.

Upset special: Nov. 15 vs. Iowa. It's hard to see Illinois winning at Nebraska, Wisconsin or Ohio State, and Minnesota at home wouldn't qualify as a huge upset. But Iowa is a preseason West Division title contender, and the teams don't have much familiarity with one another as they last met in 2008. Illinois could catch Iowa looking ahead to showdowns against Wisconsin and Nebraska.

Key stat: Running back Josh Ferguson has 22 career big plays (rush, pass or reception of 20 yards or longer), which is 10 more than any other Illini player.

What they're wearing: Illinois in April announced a new branding identity with Nike, which includes new uniform combinations. One getup has white uniforms and helmets with the numbers and the Block I in orange, and all the jerseys feature an Illini shield along the neckline.

Team's top Twitter follows: Head coach Tim Beckman (@coachbeckman), linebacker Mason Monheim (@M_Monheim43), running back Josh Ferguson (@JoshFerguson_6), quarterback Reilly O'Toole (@ReillyOT4), defensive tackle Austin Teitsma (@Teitsma44), wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy (@CoachBellamy) and the official team page (@IlliniFootball).

They said it: "Obviously the defense has to play better, and we've got to score the ball when we get down close. The red zone really was our weakness last year. Also toward the end of the season, you saw more turnovers, we got a little careless with the ball. Those are the two big things." -- senior tight end Jon Davis

Stats & Info projections: 5.47 wins

Wise guys over-under: five wins

Big Ten blog projection: Five wins. Illinois should take another step in Year 3 under Tim Beckman and could reach the six-win plateau, which likely would mean a bowl appearance and secure a fourth year for Beckman in Champaign. But the road schedule -- Washington, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern -- doesn't help the Illini, who can't afford many slipups at home. There are too many question marks on defense to see Illinois pulling off a lot Big Ten upsets.

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