NCF Nation: Paul James

Big Ten backs deliver historic season

November, 24, 2014
11/24/14
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Melvin Gordon Zach Bolinger/Icon SportswireWisconsin star Melvin Gordon is one of seven 1,000-yard rushers in the Big Ten this season.
Melvin Gordon can be mesmerizing. He's such a dynamic runner, seemingly always on the verge of another huge play, that it's hard to ever turn away.

The Wisconsin junior is having a Heisman Trophy-caliber season even if he doesn't win the award next month. Although Gordon's FBS single-game rushing record of 408 yards lasted a single week, as Oklahoma's Samaje Perine eclipsed it Saturday, Gordon still became the fastest player in FBS history to reach 2,000 yards in a season (241 carries). He leads the nation with 2,109 yards. According to Wisconsin, his rushing total from the first three quarters alone (1,915 yards) still would lead the nation.

But there are other standout running backs in the Big Ten -- great ones and really good ones. As the season concludes this week for a handful of teams, it's important to acknowledge all of them. Because we might never a group of Big Ten backs like this one in the same season.

"There's a lot of guys in this league that are going to be playing on Sundays from that specific position," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said Sunday.

[+] EnlargeTevin Coleman
AP Photo/Darron CummingsTevin Coleman has been a bright spot for Indiana, setting the school's single-season rushing mark.
Think about what Tevin Coleman felt like the day Gordon went for 408. Playing Rutgers at the same time Gordon gashed Nebraska, Coleman went for 307 yards, the second-highest total in Indiana history (behind Anthony Thompson's 377, the Big Ten record that Gordon smashed). Coleman had déjà vu Saturday against Ohio State, rushing for 228 yards and three touchdowns, breaking the IU single-season rushing record but being overshadowed because he plays on a losing team.

How high would Coleman's stock be if he played for a contender?

At least Coleman's name is known around the Big Ten and, to a degree, around the country. No one is talking about Jeremy Langford. Not even in the Big Ten. OK, maybe in East Lansing. But nowhere else.

Here's what Langford did this past Saturday: rushed for 126 yards and two touchdowns as Michigan State stomped Rutgers. It marked his 15th consecutive 100-yard rushing performance against a Big Ten opponent. Think about that. He has the longest active streak of 100-yard rushing performances against conference opponents since at least 1996.

Langford has 1,242 rush yards and 17 touchdowns, and he's barely a blip on the Big Ten radar. It's a tribute to the league's incredible depth at running back. Langford is quietly having another productive season a year after quietly rushing for 1,422 yards on a team that won the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl. But it's time he gets his due as one of the more consistent runners in the country the past two seasons.

"He's one of the reasons we won 13 games last year and won nine this year," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said Sunday night. "Remember, he had 23 yards rushing coming into his junior year. He's put together a string of 14 100-yard games in [regular-season] conference play.

"He's been a tremendous performer for us."

Minnesota's David Cobb has a slightly higher profile than Langford, but he also gets overlooked in a league loaded with star running backs. Cobb is one of the nation's most physical and prolific backs, yet his steak evidently doesn't match Gordon's or Coleman's sizzle. Despite 1,350 rush yards entering play Saturday, Cobb amazingly didn't make the cut for Doak Walker Award semifinalists.

Cobb left Saturday's win against Nebraska with a hamstring injury. He's questionable for this week's showdown against Wisconsin, although he tweeted that he'll be ready to go. If so, the game at Camp Randall Stadium will feature the longest uninterrupted rivalry in the FBS, the Big Ten West Division title at stake, a giant axe and two of the nation's best running backs. Sign me up.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State's Jeremy Langford has been the mark of consistency with 15 straight 100-yard rushing games in Big Ten play.
Did you know that two more Big Ten backs joined the 1,000-yard club Saturday? Don't feel bad if you were too busy watching Mesmerizing Melvin rack up 207 rush yards and two touchdowns against Iowa.

Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott and Northwestern's Justin Jackson both eclipsed 1,o00 yards. Elliott recorded his fourth 100-yard rushing performance in Big Ten play and fifth of the season against Indiana. Jackson, a true freshman, boasts five 100-yard rushing performances in the past seven games and consistently produces for a Northwestern offense that has struggled most of the season.

The Big Ten now has seven 1,000-yard rushers with a week to go in the regular season. No other league has more than five. The Big Ten has four players -- Gordon, Coleman, Cobb and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah -- with more than 1,400 rush yards. No other league has more than two.

The surge has taken place without star rushers from Michigan or Penn State, two traditionally elite running programs, and despite the season-ending injury to Rutgers standout Paul James. Dantonio, who has spent much of his career in the Big Ten, recalls the running back depth in the mid-to-late 1990s, when the league had stars like Wisconsin's Ron Dayne, Ohio State's Eddie George, Michigan's Tim Biakabutuka and Penn State's Curtis Enis.

"It seemed like everybody had a guy," Dantonio said. "It's very similar to that [now]. You've got four or five guys who really deserve to be first-team all-conference players. Somebody's going to get left out in the cold a little bit."

That's life in the league of running backs, but this group, not just Gordon, should not soon be forgotten.

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 5

September, 27, 2014
9/27/14
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After a banner Saturday a week ago, what does the Big Ten have planned for an encore? It can't win as many games as it did last week since conference play is set to kick off with five matchups inside the league. But there are still a handful of opportunities on the table that can bolster the Big Ten reputation -- and, in one case, a chance to right the ship after a disastrous performance last week.

The fun is set to really begin now. Here's the full rundown of the day (all times Eastern):

Noon games

South Florida (2-2) at No. 19 Wisconsin (2-1), ESPNU: The Badgers and star running back Melvin Gordon roared to life last week, and they've got a chance to continue building momentum heading into Big Ten play. If Gordon keeps up the eye-popping yards per carry he posted in the win over Bowling Green, he could be right back in the Heisman Trophy conversation after a slow start.

Tulane (1-3) at Rutgers (3-1), ESPNEWS: The Scarlet Knights have a chance to run the table outside of the Big Ten, which would be pretty useful in helping them qualify for a bowl game in their first year in the league. The loss of running back Paul James to a season-ending injury is a big blow, but he probably won't be missed against the Green Wave.

Iowa (3-1) at Purdue (2-2), BTN: The Hawkeyes might not technically have a quarterback controversy, but they were clearly energized last week when C.J. Beathard came in to relieve an injured Jake Rudock. If Rudock is healthy, Iowa might play both of them against the Boilermakers, who haven't won a conference game since the last week of the 2012 regular season.

Wyoming (3-1) at No. 9 Michigan State (2-1), ESPN2: The Cowboys have been impressive under new coach Craig Bohl, even trading a few early punches with Oregon before getting blown out. Michigan State stood toe-to-toe into the second half with the Ducks and look like the most talented team in the Big Ten, which is clearly a significant advantage over the Pokes.

Northwestern (1-2) at Penn State (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten), BTN: After struggling in a pair of losses before a bye week, the Wildcats didn't look much better in an ugly win over Western Illinois. That doesn't bode well for a trip to Penn State, which is brimming with confidence and in position to build on its fast start in the East Division.

Maryland (3-1) at Indiana (2-1), 1:30 p.m., BTN: Despite a loss for each team, both the Terrapins and Hoosiers have been pleasant surprises during the season's first month. Indiana bounced back with an impressive defensive outing to upset Missouri on the road, and that unit will be put to the test by a Maryland attack loaded with playmakers.

Mid-afternoon game

Minnesota (3-1) at Michigan (2-2), 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2 mirror: Brady Hoke's seat is warm enough as it is, but it would be scorching if the Gophers come into the Big House and leave with the Little Brown Jug. Minnesota's defense is capable of making Michigan's turnover woes worse, and no matter who plays quarterback for the Gophers, the running game is a handful.

Night games

Cincinnati (2-0) at No. 22 Ohio State (2-1), 6 p.m., BTN: The Buckeyes used their bye week to gear up for Cincinnati quarterback Gunner Kiel and his lethal receiving corps, which will provide the first real test for a revamped secondary. After already dropping one game outside of the Big Ten, Ohio State can't afford to lose a second if it's going to climb back into the playoff picture.

Illinois (3-1) at No. 21 Nebraska (4-0), 9 p.m., BTN: For whatever it's worth, the pollsters still aren't showing much love to the Huskers. But as long as they keep winning, they're going to be tough for the selection committee to ignore. Wes Lunt and a high-flying Illinois offense are entertaining to watch, and with Ameer Abdullah lining up against a suspect defense, this prime-time matchup should feature plenty of fireworks.

Required reading

Week 5 predictions

Tracking our B1G fantasy teams

Take Two: Is Michigan or Florida in better shape for a turnaround?

"Wow moments" arriving for Ohio State's Michael Thomas

Indiana defense more confident than ever

C.J. Beathard ready when the call comes

Uncertainty not an issue for Minnesota QBs

The Miracle at Michigan: 20 years later

Cincinnati knows Ohio State game is huge

Big Ten awards race tracker

B1G 1/4 season review: Bold Predictions | Surprise player | Surprise team

For Tanner McEvoy, actions louder than words

True test coming for revamped Ohio State defense

B1G running backs deserve place in Heisman race

Planning for success: Indiana

No easy fix coming for Michigan offense

Take Two: B1G's best receiving tandem

Penn State, Northwestern very far apart
Rutgers’ path to a bowl game just got a little harder, as it now has to find a way to win without its best offensive player: running back Paul James.

[+] EnlargeRutgers RB Paul James
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenPaul James recorded seven TDs this season before suffering a season-ending knee injury on Saturday.
James suffered a season-ending torn ACL on Saturday during the Scarlet Knights’ critical 31-24 win over Navy. With the win -- and the fact Rutgers plays Tulane next week -- Rutgers should need just two conference victories to become bowl eligible. But that's no guarantee, as no injury could've proved more costly to the Knights.

Ask Northwestern how much it misses Venric Mark. Because to Rutgers, James was just as valuable. Maybe even a little more so, if some of the numbers are any indication.

Last season, James averaged 5.6 yards a carry before suffering an injury. The rest of Rutgers' backs averaged 4.2 yards a carry. In 2012, Mark averaged 6 yards a carry. In 2013, the rest of Northwestern’s backs averaged 4.7 yards a carry. In other words, the drop-off without James was a bit more drastic than for Northwestern minus Mark.

James was Rutgers’ workhorse, the most consistent part about the Knights’ offense, and he belonged just below the elite backs of the Big Ten in terms of talent. In James’ first three games this season, he accounted for more than 60 percent of the team’s rushing yards. And, in those first two games, he accounted for six TDs and 316 rushing/receiving yards.

The former walk-on struggled against a stout Penn State defense, but he was nearly perfect otherwise. Even against Navy, before his second-quarter injury, James carried the ball seven times for 96 yards. Take away his longest run, and he still averaged nearly 10 yards a carry.

James is impossible to replace, but Rutgers will have to turn somewhere. Expect to see plenty of Justin Goodwin and Desmon Peoples, although, coach Kyle Flood added, freshmen Josh Hicks and Robert Martin also will take on larger roles.

Rutgers won’t be the same team without James, so it also needs QB Gary Nova to step up. Rutgers can’t continue to run the ball on 80 percent of its plays, like it did against Navy, so Nova needs to show he’s totally over his five-interception performance against Penn State. This entire offense needs to adapt, and it's not going to be easy.

Rutgers surprised a lot of people with a 3-1 start. But now it’s time to surprise them all again by bouncing back without James on the field.

What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 4

September, 21, 2014
9/21/14
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Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

1. The Big Ten can step up in key games: After two weeks of justified bashing, the Big Ten deserves some credit for bouncing back nicely in the last meaningful Saturday of nonconference play. The league went 3-0 against the ACC and recorded a huge road win against a ranked SEC opponent as Indiana stunned No. 18 Missouri in Columbia. Iowa finally found its swagger -- and, potentially, its new quarterback (C.J. Beathard) -- in rallying to beat Pitt. Nebraska didn't lose its composure in a chippy game against Miami and outlasted the Canes behind star back Ameer Abdullah. And all three games against MAC teams -- Michigan State-Eastern Michigan, Wisconsin-Bowling Green and Penn State-Massachusetts -- turned into routs by the Big Ten squads. Michigan remains a black eye for the league, but everyone else took a step forward and the Big Ten bolstered its record against Power 5 opponents. It doesn't erase the damage done the previous two weeks, but the Big Ten can feel a little better as league play cranks up next week.

[+] EnlargeRalston Evans
Ed Zurga/Getty ImagesIndiana had plenty of reason to celebrate on Saturday after notching a signature win over No. 18 Missouri.
2. Indiana is back on track: Same old Hoosiers. That's what everyone said in Week 2 when an Indiana defense that hasn't stopped anyone for two decades let Bowling Green march downfield for the game-winning score. The loss made bowl eligibility seem unlikely and raised questions about the program's direction under fourth-year coach Kevin Wilson. And then Indiana did the most un-Indiana-like thing imaginable: beat Missouri on the road, 31-27, thanks in large part to its defense. The Hoosiers limited Missouri to one second-half touchdown, and Tevin Coleman (132 yards rushing, one touchdown) showed why he's one of the nation's best big-play backs. It added up to the biggest win of the Wilson era and the biggest in recent memory for IU. The coaches and players deserve a ton of credit for rebounding from the Bowling Green setback. IU has teased us before, but a win like this suggests the program is truly turning a corner under Wilson.

3. Michigan's offense is just getting worse: Brady Hoke hired Doug Nussmeier to fix Michigan's offense and save his job as head coach. But Michigan's offensive woes clearly run deeper than the playcaller, as the unit has amazingly managed to backtrack this year. The Wolverines have yet to reach the red zone in 23 drives against Power 5 opponents (Notre Dame and Utah). The turnover troubles that plagued them in the past have only intensified, as four more giveaways against Utah leave Michigan with 12 on the season and a minus-10 turnover margin. There was a rock-bottom feeling about the 26-10 Utah loss, which ended at a mostly empty, waterlogged Michigan Stadium following a weather delay. Athletic director Dave Brandon repeatedly gave Hoke a vote of confidence before the season, but if the offense doesn't improve in Big Ten play, Hoke could be in serious trouble.

4. B1G's newcomers are better than expected: The Big Ten might have added Maryland and Rutgers because of their favorable locations, but the league is getting an added bonus so far this season. Both programs could be undefeated and both have won two games away from home in the first three weeks. Maryland responded from a last-second loss to West Virginia and beat Syracuse, 34-20, behind big plays in all three phases. Will Likely continued his excellent season with an 88-yard pick-six, while quarterback C.J. Brown and running back Brandon Ross connected on a 90-yard score on a screen pass. Rutgers beat an always-tricky Navy team, 31-24, in Annapolis, Maryland, despite losing star running back Paul James in the first half. Quarterback Gary Nova responded from his five-interception debacle with a clean performance (12-of-15 passing, no interceptions), and running backs Justin Goodwin and Desmon Peoples picked up the slack with James sidelined.

5. Melvin Gordon is going to be just fine: Until Saturday, things had not gone as expected this season for the Wisconsin star. He barely saw the field in the second half of a Week 1 loss to LSU and was held to 38 rush yards on 17 carries against FCS opponent Western Illinois in Week 2. But after an early fumble against Bowling Green, Gordon could not be stopped. He rushed for a career-high 253 yards, the most by an FBS back this season, and tied the team record with five touchdowns in a 68-17 win. And he did it on only 13 carries, recording the best single-game yards-per-carry average (19.5) in team history by a wide margin (14.5 was next best). Gordon even put himself in the company of the great Glenn Davis, as he's tied with the Army star for the NCAA career yards-per-carry record (8.26). Although Gordon will face better defenses this season, he appears to be just fine for Big Ten play. "The unselfishness of Melvin Gordon ... has been incredible," Badgers coach Gary Andersen said. "I'm so proud of the way that he's handled it. Today was his day."

Rutgers seeking respect in first B1G game

September, 12, 2014
9/12/14
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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
9/10/14
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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
9/07/14
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Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 1

August, 31, 2014
8/31/14
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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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