NCF Nation: Stanley Jean-Baptiste
But we can also say with confidence that we watched more Big Ten football here at the blog than anyone else. So here are our picks for the 2013 ESPN.com All-Big Ten team:
RB: Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
WR: Allen Robinson, Penn State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan
OL: Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
OL: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OL: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OL: Corey Linsley, Ohio State
OL: Ryan Groy, Wisconsin
DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
DT: Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota
DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State
LB: James Morris, Iowa
DB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
DB: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
DB: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
DB: Brock Vereen, Minnesota
K: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska
PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa
OK, so we cheated just a bit on positions, going with three tackles on our offensive line and a 3-4 defense. But considering the coaches had six defensive backs and two punters on their first team, we don't feel too bad about it. ... We wanted to include Scherff, Lewan and Mewhort on the first team, because we thought they were the three best linemen in the league. If we had to field an actual team with these guys, we're sure we could figure it out. It was a tough call between Groy and Penn State's John Urschel, whom we love for his on- and off-the-field accomplishments. We just felt Wisconsin had the better overall season as an offensive line, so we went with Groy. ... We went with the 3-4 because linebacker was such a deep position in this league -- so deep that we had to leave off some deserving players, like Michigan State's Denicos Allen -- while defensive line wasn't nearly as strong. ... The defensive backfield was a tough call (no wonder the coaches had an, ahem, pick six there). Dennard was a lock, and we felt that Drummond was the league's best safety in a year when that position was a bit weak conference-wide. We like what Vereen did in providing versatility and leadership for the Gophers, and Roby overcame a slow start to do his usual fine work. We had to leave off very good cornerbacks like Michigan's Blake Countess, Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Iowa's B.J. Lowery -- but that's what a second team is for. Stay tuned. ... Ohio State leads the way with six selections, followed by Michigan State with five. It's almost as if those were the two best teams in the league or something.
There's no drama in the Big Ten division races as Ohio State and Michigan State have secured spots in the league championship game next week. But the season-long predictions race is all square entering Week 14. The winner buys dinner in Indy before the title game. It's white-knuckle time.
Here we go …
IOWA (7-4, 4-3) at NEBRASKA (8-3, 5-2)
Brian Bennett: This could be a black-and-blue Friday as two teams that love to run could make this a physical, low-scoring game. I think Nebraska has a bit too much speed for the Hawkeyes, and it's hard to bet against the Huskers, given how they keep pulling out victories in tight games. Nebraska grabs the lead early on an Ameer Abdullah run and holds on late when Stanley Jean-Baptiste picks off Jake Rudock. … Nebraska 21, Iowa 17
Adam Rittenberg: Our first game might be the toughest to predict. Both defenses perform well and turn this into a field-goal fest. Iowa takes the lead in the third quarter on a Rudock touchdown pass, but Abdullah won't be denied in what could be his final game as a Husker. Abdullah rushes for 130 yards and a score, mostly in the second half, as Nebraska rallies once again for a win. … Nebraska 19, Iowa 16
MINNESOTA (8-3, 4-3) at MICHIGAN STATE (10-1, 7-0)
Rittenberg: Minnesota's offense failed to score last week and will have another tough game against the nation's No. 1 defense. Spartans running back Jeremy Langford rushes for two more touchdowns as Michigan State uses another big fourth quarter to strengthen its chances for a BCS bowl bid, no matter how things turn out in Indy. … Michigan State 24, Minnesota 10
Bennett: Minnesota really has trouble throwing the ball. That will equal problems against the nation's No. 1 defense. The Gophers' defense gums things up enough to keep the score within reach, but Connor Cook connects on a pair of touchdown passes and the Spartans' defense does the rest. … Michigan State 17, Minnesota 6
OHIO STATE (11-0, 7-0) at MICHIGAN (7-4, 2-4)
Bennett: The Game isn't much of one this year. Even at home, Michigan just doesn't have enough offensive ability to hang with Ohio State. The Wolverines' defense puts up a valiant effort and slows down Carlos Hyde, but Braxton Miller converts several key third downs and throws three touchdown passes. … Ohio State 35, Michigan 14
Rittenberg: Rivalry games can spark surprises at times, but Ohio State is so much better than Michigan and has much more on the line. Plus, the Buckeyes' defensive line is rapidly improving and will become the latest group to infiltrate Michigan's backfield. Miller puts himself back on the Heisman radar with three touchdowns (two pass, one rush), and the Buckeyes record a second-half pick-six against Devin Gardner and rout Michigan. … Ohio State 42, Michigan 13
PURDUE (1-10, 0-7) at INDIANA (4-7, 2-5)
Rittenberg: Ah, the Bucket game. I thought Indiana would be playing for a bowl berth, but it's not to be. The Hoosiers still should have little trouble putting up points against Purdue. Wide receivers Cody Latimer and Shane Wynn combine for three touchdowns as Indiana holds off a nice rally led by Danny Etling (250 pass yards, 2 TDs). … Indiana 38, Purdue 28
Bennett: The Hoosiers are much better than the Boilermakers, but both will be staying home for the holidays. With nothing but pride at stake, Indiana lets it fly on offense and works out some frustration on its rivals by putting up 550 yards. … Indiana 51, Purdue 24
PENN STATE (6-5, 3-4) at WISCONSIN (9-2, 6-1)
Bennett: A wildly accomplished group of Wisconsin seniors will go out on a high note and give BCS bowls one more thing to think about. The Badgers smash the school record for rushing early and keep piling it up as both James White and Melvin Gordon gain more than 100 yards together again. Allen Robinson has a nice Penn State sendoff, but Sojourn Shelton comes up with an interception in the second half. … Wisconsin 38, Penn State 14
Rittenberg: Wisconsin is inching closer to a BCS at-large berth, and Penn State has been really bad on the road. This one gets ugly, folks, as White rushes for 200 yards and two scores on senior day and Gordon breaks off a 65-yard touchdown run. The Lions move the ball decently early before Wisconsin's defense adjusts and buckles down. … Wisconsin 45, Penn State 17
NORTHWESTERN (4-7, 0-7) at ILLINOIS (4-7, 1-6)
Rittenberg: There's only one way for this miserable Northwestern season to end. If the Wildcats had a healthy Kain Colter and some explosiveness at running back, I might pick the Purple. But Illinois' offense has it rolling right now, and the Illini will strike with big plays to Steve Hull (!) and Josh Ferguson, rallying in the second half. Northwestern will have one final chance to win but falls when a fourth-down option to Mike Trumpy falls a yard short. … Illinois 24, Northwestern 20
Bennett: Fitting that the season picks contest should come down to a game involving Northwestern, a team that has cost both of us some wins this season. It makes perfect sense to pick Illinois, which shed the Big Ten losing streak monkey off its back last week and has to be feeling better about itself than the Wildcats, who just want the season to end. But I can't reconcile that this Northwestern team will (A) actually finish 0-8 in league play or (B) lose to a team it beat 50-14 last year. So to the likely detriment of my wallet, I'll side with the purple here and say Trevor Siemian helps the Wildcats exploit the Illini defense, and Jeff Budzien wins it at the end. … Northwestern 27, Illinois 24
Those are our picks. Now it's time to hear from one of you. As a reminder, throughout the season, we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. We have one game left to pick -- the Big Ten championship -- before the bowls, so if you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please), hometown and a brief description of why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.
This week's guest is Jarrod Reese from Sioux City, Iowa. Jarrod, the floor is yours. …
I live in Sioux City, right on the border of Nebraska and South Dakota. I'm a lifelong Hawkeyes fan and have had to endure the taunts from the Huskers faithful the last two years. I think we can finally do it this year (I need the bragging rights). As a bonus, I just got engaged last Thursday. How about a nice engagement gift from my favorite B1G Blog?
You got it, Jarrod, and congrats on the engagement. We're sending you a gift.
Here are Jarrod's Week 14 picks:
Iowa 23, Nebraska 17
Michigan State 28, Minnesota 6
Ohio State 52, Michigan 17
Wisconsin 35, Penn State 13
Indiana 45, Purdue 17
Northwestern 17, Illinois 14
Brian Bennett: 76-14
Adam Rittenberg: 76-14
Guest pickers: 70-20
1. Legends eliminator: Michigan State has the lead and its feet up on the couch during its bye week. It can simply relax and watch as Michigan and Nebraska fight to stay alive in the division race, with the loser effectively out of the picture after just two weeks in November. The Wolverines, in particular, are barely hanging on and would need a lot of help after dropping the head-to-head tiebreaker to the Spartans. Meanwhile, after nearly having their chances extinguished a week ago, but surviving with a Hail Mary, the Huskers have a chance to make the most of their good fortune. Consecutive games against Michigan and Michigan State -- with a couple of wins -- could surprisingly put them in first place.
3. Digging into the mix: The Gophers need some help if they’re going to win the division, but the way they’ve handled their own business to even stay in the picture in the middle of November is impressive enough no matter what happens. Given all the potential distractions that could have come with coach Jerry Kill’s health or playing multiple quarterbacks, the work Minnesota has done to get to 3-2 in the league and within striking distance if things break its way is one of the better stories of the season. It also won’t be over if it can take care of Penn State at home.
4. B.B. firing: There is no uncertainty in the Penn State backfield now, and it’s safe to assume that any chance of a road win over the Gophers will involve a heavy dosage of Bill Belton. The Nittany Lions junior is coming off a career-best 201-yard performance in a win over Illinois that made it quite clear that he’s the best option for Bill O’Brien’s rushing attack. And while Minnesota hasn’t been a slouch on defense during its surprising run, it has allowed more than 142 yards per game on the ground, which Belton would be more than willing to exploit.
5. Postseason plans: With Penn State again ineligible for a bowl bid due to its NCAA sanctions, only Iowa can clinch a postseason appearance with a win this weekend. And if the Hawkeyes can’t get it done against Purdue, they probably don’t deserve to go anywhere but home for the holidays. The Boilermakers have been shut out for two straight games, and Iowa has appeared more than capable of extending that scoring drought with its solid defense against Ohio State and Wisconsin in recent weeks, even in losing efforts. Struggling Purdue could put an end to that losing skid and ensure the Hawkeyes get an extra game this season.
6. Worst nightmare for a scoreboard operator: The two worst defenses in the Big Ten are set to do battle on Saturday, and the first unit to get a stop as Illinois visits Indiana might just get a win. The Hoosiers have been far and away the least productive defensive team in the league this season in allowing more than 500 yards per game, almost 50 more than the Illini. Indiana does balance that out with an offense that is putting up 40 points per game, which ranks second only to Ohio State’s ruthless scoring machine in the Big Ten. But points figure to be easy to come by this weekend, so forcing a turnover or two could decide the outcome.
7. Purdue is searching for the red zone: Forget about scoring points. The first thing the Boilermakers need to do is just move the football inside the 20-yard line. The Boilermakers have made a total of only 16 trips into the red zone all season, an average of just two visits per game and obviously a major factor for an offense putting up just 11.5 points every week. That’s still just half the battle, though, and three missed field goals and three interceptions have ended scoring threats for the Boilermakers even when they do put together a deep drive into opposing territory.
9. Dueling defensive backs: The co-leaders atop the Big Ten in interceptions obviously won’t be on the field at the same time, but if either Michigan’s Blake Countess or Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste are able to pull ahead with a pick on Saturday, it could be critical in determining which team keeps its division hopes alive for another week. There’s obviously a chance they could both add to their total of four interceptions since the Wolverines and Huskers have combined to throw 21 of them already this season, but turnovers figure to be decisive and those guys have proven they can force them.
10. Ohio State looks for help: Even without a game, the Buckeyes could still be a big winner on the off date as they cheer for a few upsets to boost their national title case. In order, Ohio State will be tuned in looking for Oklahoma to knock off Baylor, Stanford to beat Oregon or Alabama to lose to LSU as it continues to wait for some assistance to climb higher than No. 4 in the BCS standings. Within the Big Ten, and with Michigan State off, the Buckeyes figure to be most interested in Wisconsin extending its winning streak to continue making their win in September look better.
The two early Saturday games epitomized traditional Big Ten-style football, as Michigan State slogged through a 14-0 win over Purdue while Minnesota and Northwestern played a 7-7 first half before the Gophers eventually won 20-17. But just when the "Big Ten is boring" rants threatened to take over Twitter, Michigan 63, Indiana 47 happened.
- Michigan receiver Jeremy Gallon's record-setting 369 yards receiving were more than the leading receivers for Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Purdue currently have for the entire season.
- Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner put up a school-record 584 yards, the highest total by an FBS player this year (yes, including Johnny Football). Gardner came up 1 yard short of the Big Ten single-game record for total offense, set by Illinois' Dave Wilson in 1980. Gardner has had his problems this year, but he leads the Big Ten in total offense by a mile, and at his current pace (including a bowl game), he would finish with 4,271 total yards. Former teammate Denard Robinson set the Big Ten single-season record in 2010 with 4,272.
- The Wolverines' 751 total yards were the second-most in Big Ten history, trailing only the 763 Purdue put up against Indiana in 2004. The 751 yards were also the sixth-highest total by an FBS team this year, with the top five spots all belonging to Baylor and Oregon. Michigan and Indiana combined for the third-highest point total (110) ever for a Big Ten conference game. Michigan's 67-65 win over Illinois in 2010 still ranks No. 1.
Is this the wave of the future in the league? On Saturday night, Wisconsin and Illinois combined for 88 points. Scoring remains up in the conference this season, as eight of the 12 teams are averaging at least 30 points, compared to just four teams that did so in 2012. Even teams that we don't think of as offensive juggernauts like Minnesota, Iowa and Michigan State are all scoring at least 28 points per game. The Big Ten -- yes, the Big Ten -- has five teams ranked in the top 18 of the FBS in scoring this year, led by Ohio State at 45 points per game.
Those numbers will surely go down as we get into the heart of conference play and the weather turns colder in November. But don't be surprised if new-school Big Ten football soon becomes the norm.
Take that and rewind it back ...
Team of the week: Minnesota. The Gophers were the lone team to score an upset in Week 8, beating Northwestern on the road. They did it with coach Jerry Kill making a surprise appearance. "That gave us the little edge we needed,” quarterback Philip Nelson said. Minnesota has been through a lot already this season and has some major flaws. But the team is 5-2, and a second straight bowl appearance is just one win away.
Worst hangover: Northwestern enjoyed all kinds of glowing coverage in the lead-up to the Ohio State game and showed the country what kind of team it was that night in a close loss. Or so we thought. Injuries to Kain Colter and Venric Mark have been a killer, and losing at home to Minnesota after getting blown out at Wisconsin left the Wildcats at 0-3 in the league. A bowl is no sure thing, which would have been a crazy thing to say a little more than two weeks ago. "I see a team that’s not executing very well right now," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "We have to look at that." And fast.
Big Man on Campus (offense): Michigan's Gallon and Gardner share the honor. But should we put an asterisk next to any records set against Indiana's defense?
Big Man on Campus (defense): Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman knocked down three Northwestern passes and intercepted a fourth in the Gophers' big road upset.
Big Man on Campus (special teams): After missing one in the first half, Minnesota's Chris Hawthorne drilled two field goals in the fourth quarter, and the last one from 38 yards out ended up as the game winner.
Stay on target: Ohio State's Bradley Roby became the second Big Ten player this season to be ejected under the new targeting rules after his first-quarter hit on Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz. The Buckeyes didn't like the call, but it looked like a textbook example of the kind of hit the rule is designed to prevent since Roby made helmet-to-helmet contact. Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste was ejected two weeks ago against Purdue. The Huskers didn't agree with that one, either. For what it's worth, the 6-foot-3 Jean-Baptiste had to duck down to tackle 5-9 Purdue running back Dalyn Dawkins. Roby, at 5-11, is eight inches shorter than Fiedorowicz.
Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Info):
- A reminder that the Big Ten needs better quarterback play: The league does not have a player in the top 25 of ESPN's opponent-adjusted QBR rating. Ohio State's Braxton Miller leads the conference and is 29th nationally with a rating of 74.6. The SEC has five QBs in the top 20, while the Pac-12 has four.
- One thing the Big Ten can do is stop the run. Four league teams rank in the top 10 nationally in rushing yards allowed per game, topped by Michigan State at No. 1 with 58.6 yards per game. Wisconsin is No. 4, Ohio State is No. 7 and Michigan is No. 10. In addition, Iowa is No. 16.
- Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon became one of two players to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards for the season in Week 8. He is one spot behind FBS rushing leader Antonio Andrews from Western Kentucky, but Andrews has only 24 more yards on 45 more carries than Gordon. The Badgers star is also tied for third nationally in rushing touchdowns (11) and trails only Oregon's Marcus Mariota in yards per carry (9.46) among qualified ball carriers. Gordon has yet to fumble this year, either.
- Ohio State's Hyde and Minnesota's Rodrick Williams Jr. are hard to bring down behind the line of scrimmage. Each has only four rushes for zero or negative yards this season, tied for sixth-lowest in the FBS among qualified rushers.
- Nebraska has allowed just three sacks all season, tied with Fresno State for the fewest in the FBS. Northwestern has given up 22 sacks, most in the Big Ten and more than all but six teams in the country.
- Ohio State has gone three-and-out only 11 times all season; only Baylor has fewer, with nine. By contrast, Purdue has gone three-and-out 32 times this year.
It's not just the design of the foolery or how it's executed. It's when you call them. And of course, they're brilliant when they work and head-scratchers when they blow up.
Take a pair of fake punts on Saturday as an example. In Iowa City, Michigan State called for one from its own 37-yard line in the fourth quarter while leading Iowa 20-14. Mark Dantonio named the play "Hey Diddle Diddle" because punter Mike Sadler would run up the middle. Sadler actually veered right, but he gained 25 yards and set up a key field goal.
“We just sort of felt, if the moment was right, we’d do it,” Dantonio told reporters after the game. “I just wanted to make sure our players know, they’re at risk on the football field."
Meyer put the fake punt on from his own 32 in the second quarter, but punter Cameron Johnston came up well short of the sticks. Northwestern used the field position to kick a field goal and go up 20-13. The Buckeyes coach later said calling for the fake at that time was an error, but that won't change his mindset.
“That's who we are," he said. "We're going to run a fake punt again. I tell our players all the time: We're an aggressive team, we do what we've got to do to win games."
Sometimes you live by the trick play, sometimes you die by it. Dantonio has a history of using comically named gadget plays, but his halfback pass idea at Notre Dame earlier this year proved disastrous as it was picked off, costing the Spartans momentum in a close game. Nebraska botched a fake punt against UCLA when it tried to have a 300-pound defensive lineman rumble for a first down. Wisconsin executed a brilliant fake punt at Arizona State in Week 3 when linebacker Chris Borland passed for a first down.
When pulled off, trick plays can give a team a huge boost. When they fail, they can leave a coach with egg on his face. The trick is knowing when and where to call them.
Take that and rewind it back ...
Team of the week: With nods to Michigan State (which pulled out a big road win at Iowa) and Indiana (which snapped a 16-game losing streak versus Penn State) this honor belongs to Ohio State for a second consecutive week. Going to Northwestern was the Buckeyes' biggest challenge of the season, and they found themselves trailing for the first time since the second quarter of last year's season finale versus Michigan. They used their powerful offensive line to battle back and got a few key stops on defense in the fourth quarter for their 18th consecutive victory. Ohio State is halfway to an undefeated regular season with a highly advantageous schedule remaining.
Worst hangover: No matter how its season was going, Penn State could always count on one thing: beating Indiana. The Nittany Lions had never lost to the Hoosiers in 16 tries. So when the Hoosiers not only ended the streak but put an exclamation point on it by taking a 42-17 fourth-quarter lead and winning by 20, that raised a giant red flag over Penn State's season. This week's sold-out, white-out home game against Michigan looked like a great way for Lions fans to celebrate the reduction of their NCAA sanctions. Now, it could be a deflating reminder of the cost of those sanctions.
Big Man on Campus (offense): Heading into the Northwestern game, Meyer said of Carlos Hyde, "We're going to ride that horse." And boy did the Buckeyes ever climb aboard their workhorse tailback. Hyde ran for 168 yards and three touchdowns, the last one coming when he had the presence of mind to reach the ball across the plane on third down while falling backwards to save Ohio State's winning streak. Hyde ran like a guy who knew football was almost taken away from him after his poor decision this summer, and he became emotional when talking about it afterward.
Big Man on Campus (defense): In our Friday Q&A, Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard expressed his frustration with not having an interception through the first five weeks while saying he was very close. Dennard then went out and picked off two passes at Iowa, one in the first quarter and one in the fourth. The Hawkeyes were forced to try to beat Dennard through the air because they couldn't run the ball (see below).
Big Man on Campus (special teams): Michigan State freshman kicker Michael Geiger missed his first field goal attempt against Iowa from 36 yards. That had to bring back bad memories for Spartans fans, because key missed field goals were an overlooked factor in last year's 6-6 regular season. But Geiger then made his next four tries, from 27, 35, 49 and 40 yards. Given the state of Michigan State's offense, it probably needs a reliable kicker more than most teams. That's why Geiger was an important recruit, and why Spartans fans should be happy that the Geiger counter is dialed in right now.
Best play: Kenny Bell's one-handed catch on his way to a 37-yard touchdown put Illinois away for good and gave Bell a secure spot on Nebraska's season highlight film. Teammate Ameer Abdullah's 43-yard touchdown run off an option pitch might have been the day's second-best play.
A spot of bother: Did Kain Colter and Northwestern get victimized by a bad spot on the quarterback's fourth-and-1 rushing attempt late in the game? Possibly. But when you mess up the center exchange and then fall into a pile of bodies, it's hard to get the benefit of the doubt, and replays were not conclusive.
The bigger question might be whether the Wildcats got a little too conservative on that drive as they trailed 34-30. Just about all night, they had torn through Ohio State's pass defense, including a 67-yard completion to Rashad Lawrence on the previous possession that set up a touchdown. Pat Fitzgerald likely wanted to burn some clock and put his team in position to win the game with a touchdown and not have his defense go back on the field. Still, after opening the drive with a 9-yard completion, the Wildcats ran the ball on their next five plays. The final four runs gained only 8 yards, and Colter came up an inch short of the first down at the Buckeyes' 34.
Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Info)
- Michigan State now leads the country in rushing defense, allowing just 50.4 yards per game. The Spartans held Iowa, which came to Saturday's game averaging 244 yards per game on the ground, to just 23 rushing yards. Since the start of 2011, Michigan State has held 20 opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing, including all five games in 2013.
- One reason for Ohio State's success has been its field position advantage, thanks to a strong punting game. The Buckeyes' opponents have started their possessions after a punt, on average, at the 18-yard line. That's second-best in the nation behind Houston.
- Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Michigan's Blake Countess are tied for the national lead with four interceptions each. Countess' 149 interception return yards are most in the FBS, and Jean-Baptiste's 134 ranks third.
- Indiana's strong passing attack isn't just a dink-and-dunk routine. The Hoosiers are averaging 14.66 yards per pass completion, best in the Big Ten and No. 14 in the FBS. Of those completions, 61.9 percent of them have gone for at least 10 yards.
- Bill O'Brien has hardly kept the reins on true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg. He is attempting 36.4 passes a game, most in the Big Ten and No. 17 nationally. Hackenberg attempted 55 passes Saturday against Indiana.
- Who has played the toughest schedule so far? According to one stat, it's Indiana. The Hoosiers' FBS opponents' winning percentage is 85.4 percent, second highest in the nation behind Washington. The weakest schedule, using that measurement, is Michigan State, whose FBS opponents' winning percentage is just 41.3 percent.
- Michigan has scored either a touchdown or a field goal on 81.3 percent of its drives inside the opponent's 40-yard line, tops in the league and No. 7 nationally. The Wolverines are also No. 3 in the FBS in red zone touchdown efficiency, reaching the end zone 81.8 percent of the time they break the opponent's 20-yard line.
Without further ado, the crystal ball says
PENN STATE at INDIANA
Brian Bennett: Indiana is 0-16 against Penn State, so you'd have to ignore all historic precedent to pick the Hoosiers. I see IU doing some damage on Penn State's pass defense just as UCF and Blake Bortles did. But the Hoosiers' defense won't have any answers for Christian Hackenberg and Zach Zwinak, the latter of whom scores three times. Penn State 42, Indiana 34
Adam Rittenberg: The Lions defense isn't as bad as it performed against UCF and not as good as it performed against Kent State. But an average Penn State defense, combined with Hackenberg and a stable of running backs, will be too much for Indiana to overcome. Hackenberg twice connects with Allen Robinson for touchdowns, and Indiana's quarterback situation becomes cloudier. Penn State 38, Indiana 27
ILLINOIS at NEBRASKA
Adam Rittenberg: Illinois' big-play offense isn't a welcome sight for Nebraska's beleaguered defense, which has been gashed by pretty much everyone so far this season. But Bo Pelini's teams typically perform well after open weeks, and at some point, the defense will start to tighten up. Illinois' Josh Ferguson gives his team an early lead, but Nebraska rallies in the second half behind running backs Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross, as well as wideout Kenny Bell, who hauls in two touchdown passes. Nebraska 38, Illinois 31
Brian Bennett: The Illini have a chance here, especially if Taylor Martinez doesn't play or is severely limited. Nathan Scheelhaase will burn the Huskers for three touchdown passes. But Nebraska's running game, led by a 150-yard day from Abdullah, will prove the difference, and Stanley Jean-Baptiste picks off Scheelhaase late to thwart a potential rally. Nebraska 38, Illinois 28
MICHIGAN STATE at IOWA
Brian Bennett: I've picked against the Hawkeyes three times already and have been wrong twice. (It's nothing personal, Iowa fans, I swear). I really should learn from my mistakes. But I think Michigan State's defense can slow down Mark Weisman and generally make life miserable for Jake Rudock on Saturday. I have little confidence in the Spartans' offense, but a bye week should have given Dave Warner and Jim Bollman a chance to come up with a couple of plays that work. That may be all it takes in a game like this, which is decided on field goals. Michigan State 13, Iowa 10.
Adam Rittenberg: Tsk, tsk, Brian. Haven't you learned never to doubt Herky in an under-the-radar year? Iowa has the momentum right now, and the Hawkeyes will wear down the Spartans in the second half with Weisman (2 TDs) and Damon Bullock. Michigan State's defense keeps it close as always, but the offensive issues continue as Iowa linebacker James Morris seals the win with his third interception of the season. Iowa 20, Michigan State 17
MINNESOTA at MICHIGAN
Adam Rittenberg: The open week came at a perfect time for Michigan to clean up its act. Quarterback Devin Gardner limits his risks and makes smarter decisions in this one, firing two second-half touchdown passes to Jeremy Gallon. Michigan rides running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (130 rush yards, 2 TDs) and contains a Minnesota offense that simply doesn't look ready for Big Ten play. Michigan once again teaches Minnesota how to juggy. Michigan 31, Minnesota 13
Brian Bennett: The Wolverines have issues, but I don't think they are as big as the problems Minnesota has, which include an MIA passing game. Surely two weeks of studying film have made Gardner more cautious with the ball. Michigan just has more weapons, especially at home where they never lose under Brady Hoke. It's not always pretty, but Gardner accounts for four touchdowns behind a revamped offensive line. Michigan 28, Minnesota 14
OHIO STATE at NORTHWESTERN
Brian Bennett: Northwestern should be able to make some plays on Ohio State's defense, especially with Venric Mark back and some questions in the Buckeyes' secondary. But I think the Wildcats will need turnovers to have a strong chance to win. They'll get two, but it won't be enough as Braxton Miller has his best game of the year, running for 120 yards and passing for 250. Ohio State starts fast again and holds on. Ohio State 36, Northwestern 27
Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern hasn't handled spotlight games well in the past, although the team seemed to turn a corner last year in ridding itself of its bowl bugaboo. Is Northwestern's Buckeye bugaboo next? I expect the Wildcats' offense to perform well and open up the playbook, especially with Mark back in the fold. Mark twice reaches the end zone and Trevor Siemian attacks a vulnerable Ohio State secondary playing without Christian Bryant. But Ohio State's big-play ability will be a little too much to overcome, as Miller leads a memorable game-winning drive in the final minutes. Ohio State 34, Northwestern 31
Now it's time for our guest picker. As a reminder, throughout the season we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please) and hometown and a brief description why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.
This week's guest prognosticator is Brandon Poturica, who's stationed at Morón Air Base in Spain. Take it away, Brandon:
"Adam & Brian: Why you should choose me is simple. I met Urban Meyer in Kuwait during a USO tour in the summer of 2011, only months away from when he took the OSU job. I'm from his hometown of Ashtabula, Ohio, and have been stationed overseas since he took the job (Japan and Spain). The Buckeyes have been undefeated since the last time I stepped on American soil, and I'm a superstitious man, so if that means I don't return home and they keep winning, then I'll just have to cheer from afar. Go Bucks and God Bless the USA."
How could we say no to that? Thanks for your service, Brandon, and save us some sangria and tapas. Here are Brandon's picks:
Penn State 38, Indiana 17
Illinois 28, Nebraska 21
Iowa 17, Michigan State 14
Michigan 38, Minnesota 10
Ohio State 56, Northwestern 35
Adam Rittenberg: 44-6
Brian Bennett: 43-7
Guest pickers: 40-10
The Jackrabbits scored two touchdowns on nine plays, covering 176 yards in less than three minutes to open the game -- often running straight at Nebraska.
But that’s not what Pelini referenced. He’s talking about the next possession, when the Huskers stacked the box with eight defenders, and still South Dakota State running back Zach Zenner churned for 15 yards on the first play, followed by gains of 4 and 5 up the middle.
“There is zero,” Pelini said, “zero excuse for that.”
Replacing seven senior starters from a year ago, the Huskers knew they would face growing pains this fall. Some of what we’ve seen this month, though, is rooted more deeply than in Nebraska’s lack of experience.
“Every week with this group, right now, feels like it’s a new adventure,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said, “whether it’s from quarter to quarter or half to half or game to game. There are times that we show signs of being pretty good, and then there are times where it’s hard to watch.
“I don’t know how to say it other than that.”
He could say it like this: The Huskers have two weeks to prepare for Illinois and the start of Big Ten play. And based on the results of late – FCS-level South Dakota State scored just three points after the first quarter on Saturday but still totaled 465 yards – Nebraska coaches and players must decipher the cause of their defensive woes and fix them fast.
Statistics here tell just part of the story. But an important part.
In the first 12 games of last season, Nebraska ranked first nationally in passing yards allowed per game (152.2), first in opponent completion percentage (45.5), second in yards per opponent passing attempt (5.16), 13th in yards per opponent play (4.59) and 23rd in points per opponent drive (1.44).
In six games since, in the same categories, Nebraska is 105th (277.5 passing yards per game), 82nd (62.4 percent completion rate), 116th (9.35 yards per opponent passing attempt), 118th (7.45 yards per opponent play) and 105th (2.58 points per opponent drive).
Something is wrong. Pelini said it’s a missing attitude.
Pelini discussed it Saturday with former Huskers tight end and current associate athletic director Jamie Williams before the coach roasted the defense in his postgame news conference.
“You’ve got to have a killer instinct,” said Pelini, who was defensive coordinator at Nebraska, Oklahoma and LSU. “In football, no one’s going to give you anything. You’ve got to take it. You’ve got to earn it. If you don’t have that kind of approach, it’s not going to work out well for you.
“Right now, we’re not playing with a type of attitude that you need to take to the field defensively. There has to be a sense of urgency every time you line up.”
The Huskers have endured struggles at all three levels.
Newcomer Randy Gregory at defensive end is a bright spot. Freshmen Avery Moss and Vincent Valentine have played well on the line, but veterans Jason Ankrah and Thad Randle aren’t showing up.
True freshman linebackers Nathan Gerry and Josh Banderas were benched for Zaire Anderson and David Santos in the first half on Saturday. Anderson appeared to play well, but missed assignments continued to plague the unit.
In the secondary, Stanley Jean-Baptiste, with interceptions in every game this year, is a star in the making. The safeties are a different story, especially at the spot next to Corey Cooper.
“They’re playing too tentative,” Pelini said.
The Huskers lack aggression, in general, on defense. Pelini and defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski talk regularly to the linemen about exploding at the snap, initiating contact with the players across the line of scrimmage.
“I wasn’t doing that the first series,” Gregory said. “The defensive line as a whole, we weren’t doing that.”
Gregory doesn’t know how to make the fixes or even what to say to his teammates.
“I don’t think anybody knows what to say,” he said, “but we’ve got to come in with the mindset that we’re going to stop them.”
Others sounded more confused. A couple defenders said they thought the Huskers played well defensively on Saturday. Meanwhile, Pelini described it as “the worst defensive performance of the season.”
He issued a promise, too.
“I’ll get this fixed,” the coach said. “Trust me there.”
Interesting choice of words. Trust, it seems, is wearing thin among the Nebraska defense these days.
Is Ohio State or Michigan the Big Ten's best team? Michigan made its case Saturday night against Notre Dame, while Ohio State's bigger tests await in Weeks 5 and 6 (Wisconsin and Northwestern). For now, we're keeping the Buckeyes at No. 1, but we'll need to see a strong performance this week on the road against Cal's high-powered offense.
Northwestern and Wisconsin held steady, and both Nebraska and Penn State looked better in Week 2. Illinois is the big mover after Saturday's dominant win against Cincinnati, while Indiana, Michigan State and Iowa fall. There's some separation after the top six, and Nos. 7-9 really could appear in any order.
These are consistent with our rankings in the ESPN.com power poll.
Here's one last look at the previous Big Ten rankings.
To the rundown …
1. Ohio State (2-0, last week: 1): Braxton Miller's knee injury created some tense moments in Columbus, but Ohio State fans settled down and settled in to the smooth sounds of Kenny G (Guiton, that is). One of the nation's best backup quarterbacks torched San Diego State for three touchdowns as a Buckeyes team that sleepwalked through the second half in Week 1 took charge from the get-go. Ohio State's young defense will be tested much more this week by the "Bear Raid" offense at Cal.
2. Michigan (2-0, last week: 2): Debate the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry all you want, but it mattered a lot for quarterback Devin Gardner and the Wolverines. Gardner proved he's a big-game quarterback and triggered an impressive offensive performance against Notre Dame's physical defense. Although Michigan's defense had some issues, it made timely plays against the Irish. The Wolverines have the look of a BCS bowl team and possibly a Big Ten champion.
3. Northwestern (2-0, last week: 3): Week 1 was all about survival for Northwestern. Saturday night, the Wildcats showed why they should contend for the Legends Division title this season. Quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian had their way with Syracuse's defense, and wideout Tony Jones had a huge night as Northwestern easily improved to 2-0. The Wildcats should be 4-0 in three weeks when Ohio State visits Evanston, and star running back Venric Mark should be healthy by then.
4. Wisconsin (2-0, last week: 4): The run game has been dominant, the defense suffocating and the competition level horrendous. What do we make of these Badgers after two not surprisingly dominant performances against lowly Massachusetts and Tennessee Tech? Wisconsin deserves credit for handling its business with few if any mistakes, recording back-to-back shutouts to open a season for the first time since 1958. Quarterback Joel Stave looks comfortable. But the competition goes up -- way, way up -- this week at Arizona State.
5. Nebraska (2-0, last week: 5): The Huskers defense doesn't deserve the "Blackshirts" label quite yet, but at least the unit avoided less-flattering terms for a week. Cornerbacks Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans set the tone for a rebound performance with pick-sixes in the first quarter, and junior-college transfer Randy Gregory applied pressure all game. The defense needs a better performance this week against UCLA, potentially the only team that can beat the Huskers during the first two months of the season.
6. Penn State (2-0, last week: 6): After a rough start, freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg settled down in his Beaver Stadium debut. He also got a ton of help from the run game, which had struggled in the opener but broke out for 251 yards and five touchdowns. Tackle DaQuan Jones triggered a suffocating Lions defense, which will be tested much more this week when Blake Bortles and Central Florida visit Happy Valley.
7. Minnesota (2-0, last week: 8): Although Aggie Vision was the real highlight Saturday night, Minnesota provided a few of its own in an easy win against New Mexico State. The Gophers continue to find creative ways to score, adding a special teams touchdown and a defensive touchdown in a 44-21 romp. Despite being short-handed at running back, Minnesota got the ground game going behind Rodrick Williams (148 yards, 1 TD), David Cobb (56 yards, 1 TD) and quarterback Philip Nelson (122 rush yards, 1 TD). The Gophers have another tuneup this week before their first real test Sept. 21 against San Jose State.
8. Michigan State (2-0, last week: 7): Can Shilique Calhoun play quarterback? The sophomore defensive end has been Michigan State's best offensive weapon in the first two games, scoring one more touchdown than the entire Spartans offense. Michigan State's defense has added a dynamic playmaking element early this season. Unfortunately, the problems on offense only seem to be worsening and the quarterback situation is anyone's guess right now.
9. Illinois (2-0, last week: 11): Surprise, surprise, the Illini are unquestionably on the rise. Few saw it coming, but Illinois walloped Cincinnati behind another impressive performance by quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and the offense. One of the nation's worst offenses has surged under coordinator Bill Cubit, scoring 87 points in the first two games. Linebacker Mason Monheim and the defense rebounded nicely after a shaky Week 1 effort. Can the Illini pull off another upset this week against Washington at Chicago's Soldier Field?
11. Iowa (1-1, last week: 10): Some Iowa fans undoubtedly felt better about their team after last week's loss to Northern Illinois than Saturday's win against FCS Missouri State. The Hawkeyes had just seven points through the first 37 minutes before Mark Weisman (180 rush yards, 2 TDs) took over down the stretch. Quarterback Jake Rudock showed good mobility but also threw a pick-six. Iowa faces a must-win this week as it hits the road to face rival Iowa State.
12. Purdue (1-1, last week: 12): The Boilers got a win Saturday, but they won't win many more if they don't clean up their problems on offense. If Purdue can't punch the ball into the end zone against Indiana State from inside the 5-yard line, what's going to happen against Big Ten defenses? Defensive tackle Bruce Gaston had a big day, but the Boilers need many others to elevate their play as Notre Dame visits Ross-Ade Stadium this week.
1. Ohio State has company at the top: The widely-accepted thought going into the season was that the Big Ten would be Ohio State and everybody else. Well, after two weeks, it's fair to say the Buckeyes have company from the team they dare not name: Michigan. The Wolverines have looked mighty impressive in their first two games, especially in Saturday's 41-30 win over Notre Dame.
Ohio State was also very good in a 42-7 win over San Diego State, especially considering Miller got hurt early on and was replaced more than adequately by Kenny Guiton. The Buckeyes have yet to play good competition or reach their peak with their full lineup available. Their ceiling might remain higher than the Wolverines', but Ohio State still has to go to the Big House, where Brady Hoke has never lost as a head coach. Having both of these teams reach superpower status this year ultimately will be good for the league. It's early, but it looks like we're on our way toward that, though those two teams are not the only ones to consider in the conference race. Speaking of which ...
2. Northwestern is a legitimate contender: Ohio State and Michigan are the Big Ten's top two teams, but Northwestern isn't far behind. Pat Fitzgerald's team needed some offense from its defense to survive a tough opener at Cal last week. The offense needed no such help Saturday as top quarterback Kain Colter returned to the field and, along with quarterback Trevor Siemian, wide receiver Tony Jones and others, shredded Syracuse's defense to the tune of 48 points and 581 total yards. Colter and Siemian combined to go 30-of-37 passing for 375 yards with four touchdowns, no interceptions and 91 rush yards.
Northwestern hasn't even been at full strength yet -- star running back/return man Venric Mark continues to nurse an injury -- and still looks like a superior team to the 2012 version, which won 10 games. Although the defense remains vulnerable to the big play, it also generates takeaways, continuing a theme from last season. The tough part of the non-league slate is over, as Northwestern has only Western Michigan and Maine left before two weeks to prepare for an Oct. 5 showdown with Ohio State, which should be the most-anticipated game of Fitzgerald's tenure. Northwestern's league schedule isn't easy, but it should be in the thick of the Legends Division race when November rolls around.
3. Song remains the same for Michigan State, Indiana: What good is it being outstanding on one side of the ball if the other side can't hold its own weight? Michigan State and Indiana have changed a lot of names in an effort to shore up their crummy offense and defense, respectively, but the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The Spartans' quarterback picture is becoming an absurd theater; Mark Dantonio gave Connor Cook his first career start and Tyler O'Connor his first collegiate action but had to go back to incumbent starter Andrew Maxwell to start the second half against USF after both struggled. The three quarterbacks combined to go just 12-of-24 for 94 yards and did nothing to clear up the picture, while the offense managed only one score against a Bulls team that gave up 53 to McNeese State a week earlier. Thank goodness for the MSU defense, but it can't carry everything on its back all season again.
It's the opposite story at Indiana, which supposedly practiced all offseason to prepare for the Navy option but then looked as if it had never seen such a thing before in a dispiriting 41-35 loss. The Hoosiers have added some talented freshmen to the defensive mix, but they couldn't prevent the Midshipmen from rolling up 444 rushing yards. Indiana can still throw it and score with anybody and has put up 108 points in two games, but Kevin Wilson's team isn't going bowling unless the defense becomes competent. If only the Spartans and Hoosiers could combine into an all-star team, we'd really have something.
4. Mystery lingers around Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota: We're still waiting to learn something about the Badgers, Huskers and Gophers, who are a combined 6-0 but have yet to face a true test (sorry, Wyoming).
Wisconsin has posted back-to-back shutouts to open a season for the first time since 1958, and the run game looks as strong as ever with James White, Melvin Gordon and even Corey Clement, each of whom has rushed for more than 100 yards in the first two games. But few teams have faced weaker competition (Massachusetts, Tennessee Tech).
Nebraska's defense performed much better in Week 2, as cornerbacks Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans both had pick-sixes. But the Huskers' performance came against a Southern Miss team that now has lost 14 straight.
Minnesota continues to find creative ways to score, adding touchdowns on both defense and special teams in an easy win at New Mexico State. Then again, who have the Gophers faced? Fortunately, we'll find out a lot more next week as Wisconsin travels to Arizona State and Nebraska hosts UCLA. The wait will be a little longer for Minnesota, which hosts high-powered San Jose State in Week 4.
5. Illini are cellar-dwellers no more: Illinois has held pretty steady at or near the bottom of our Big Ten power rankings for about a year. But while the Illini are still far from league contenders, they no longer can be viewed as the conference's worst team after Saturday's stunning 45-17 win over Cincinnati improved their record to 2-0. The Bill Cubit-directed offense looks legit, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is playing as well as he has in his career.
The Big Ten's No. 12 team now has to be Purdue, which lost to that same Cincinnati squad, 42-7, in the opener and needed a pair of late defensive stops to hold off Indiana State 20-14. Yes, the same Indiana State team that Indiana destroyed 73-35 in the Hoosiers' opener. The Boilermakers once again were plagued by communication issues and an ineffective offense that got outgained by nine yards by an FCS opponent. Darrell Hazell's team figures to be a heavy underdog in its next six games, beginning with Notre Dame this weekend.
Iowa also still has a lot to prove after struggling to put away Missouri State at home until the fourth quarter. At least the Hawkeyes finally snapped their seven-game losing streak, though beating an FBS team would be nice.
- Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase: The Illini senior had a big game for the second straight week, this time against strong competition. Scheelhaase completed 26 of 37 attempts for 312 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in his team's surprising 45-17 win over Cincinnati.
- Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun: The Spartans sophomore has scored three defensive touchdowns in his first two games. Michigan State's offense, meanwhile, has produced only two touchdowns in the same span. Calhoun's incredible start to 2013 continued in a 21-6 win over South Florida, as he recovered a fumble and ran it into the end zone from 4 yards out in the first quarter and added a 56-yard interception return in the third quarter. Can Calhoun play quarterback?
- Northwestern QBs Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter: No team has a more effective one-two punch at quarterback than the Wildcats. Returning after missing all but two plays of the Cal game with a concussion, Colter jumped right back into the flow of things, and Siemian continued his precision passing. Combined, the two of them completed 30 of 37 passes for 375 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions, in the 48-27 win over Syracuse. Colter added 87 yards rushing and a score on 11 carries.
- Michigan QB Devin Gardner and WR Jeremy Gallon: The Killer G's had a huge night in a 41-30 win over Notre Dame under the lights at the Big House. Gardner completed 21 of 33 passes for 294 yards and four touchdowns while adding 82 rushing yards and a fifth score. He did make one giant mistake by throwing the ball from his own end zone to Stephon Tuitt to put the Irish back in the game, but for the most part he carved up the vaunted Notre Dame defense. And his favorite target was Gallon, who's only 5-foot-8 but plays so much larger than that on the big stage. Gallon hauled in eight catches for 184 yards and three touchdowns as the Irish secondary just couldn't slow him down.
- Nebraska's secondary: The Huskers bounced back from Week 1's scary defensive performance with a fine showing on that side of the ball in a 56-13 win over Southern Miss. Give a lot of credit to the Nebraska defensive backs. Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste returned an interception 43 yards for a score less than two minutes into the game. Nickelback Ciante Evans added two interceptions, and safety Corey Cooper grabbed his first career pick. Corner Josh Mitchell chipped in with three tackles for loss. The Huskers will need that kind of effort again next week versus UCLA.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska came back from a pair of first-half deficits and survived a late Wyoming rally to win its NCAA-record 28th straight season opener, 37-34 on Saturday night.
The Cowboys, of the Mountain West Conference, showed surprising resolve, gaining 602 yards before a Nebraska school-record crowd of 91,185 in the 326th consecutive sellout at Memorial Stadium.
The 18th-ranked Huskers rebounded from a sluggish start to score 21 consecutive points in the second and third quarters.
But Wyoming never went away as quarterback Brett Smith hurt the Huskers with both his arms and feet. Smith threw for 383 yards and rushed for 92. He fired a pair of late touchdown passes to nearly erase a 16-point deficit. His 29-yard strike to Jalen Claiborne with 6:02 to play made it 37-27, and a 47-yard dart to Robert Herron with 1:32 left sliced the lead to three points.
Nebraska cornerback Josh Mitchell sacked Smith on a two-point conversion attempt after the first of Wyoming's fourth-quarter TDs, and the Cowboys failed to recover an onside kick after the second.
Wyoming stopped the Huskers quickly in the final two minutes to regain possession, but its final drive ended short of midfield.
It was over when: Smith scrambled wildly, using all of the final 11 seconds to throw across midfield as time expired at the end of a frantic fourth quarter. A pair of holding calls stymied Wyoming’s last possession, but it converted a fourth-and-11 to its 31-yard on a 14-yard strike to Claiborne before the errant heave fell to the turf, allowing the Huskers and their record crowd to sigh deeply.
Game ball goes to: Senior cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste came up big several times -- none more important than an interception of Smith late in the first quarter. With the Cowboys already up 7-3, the 6-foot-3 Jean-Baptiste outwrestled freshman Tanner Gentry at the goal line, ending Smith’s streak of passes without a pick at 183. On the next Wyoming possession after Nebraska went up 10-7, Jean-Baptiste delivered a big hit on Gentry. Jean-Baptiste then fought through a block to corral receiver Claiborne for no gain on a third-and-2 reception to force the Cowboys’ only three-and-out series of the first half.
Stat of the game: Eight. The number of consecutive running plays Nebraska called on scoring drives midway through the second quarter and early in the third. The eight runs totaled 144 yards and two touchdowns, turning a 14-10 Wyoming lead into a 24-14 Nebraska edge. Against a rush defense that ranked 117th nationally a year ago, the Huskers, before turning to the run, called passes on six of seven plays in the first half, resulting in two incompletions, three receptions for 14 yards, a 3-yard Taylor Martinez scramble and two punts. The turnaround began with Ameer Abdullah’s 62-yard scamper and ended with a bruising 31-yard TD burst by Imani Cross.
Unsung hero: One man cannot replace the excellence in the kicking game provided over the past seven years by Alex Henery and Brett Maher, both of whom handled place-kicking and punting duties. So Nebraska went with three guys, and they all showed well. Sophomore Mauro Bondi consistently blasted kickoffs deep; senior Pat Smith, despite missing an extra point, connected on his lone field goal try from 24 yards; and redshirt freshman Sam Foltz boomed four punts for an average of 49.2 yards.
Best improvisation: It was a bit early to say Wyoming had Nebraska on the ropes, but the Huskers, down 7-0, had already muddled through one unproductive possession when, on the third play of their second series, Martinez fumbled the snap on third-and-5. The senior QB chased it down, bought some time with his legs and threw downfield. His pass sailed long, but tight end Jake Long caught the deflection to extend the drive with a 26-yard gain. The drive ended with Pat Smith’s field goal.
What Nebraska learned: The Huskers aren't ready for UCLA, who will visit Lincoln on Sept. 14 with QB Brett Hundley, a better version of Brett Smith. Wyoming’s third-year starter tormented the Blackshirts for much of Saturday. He ran effectively and used his feet to avoid pressure in the pocket. Hundley will inflict more pain if the front seven can’t dial up additional pressure. When the Huskers got to Smith, defensive end Randy Gregory was called for roughing the passer to negate a sack. Offensively, it went about as expected until the final minutes. Martinez showed nice composure. The backs ran well, and the receivers were sure-handed.
What Wyoming learned: If it can find a way to slow opponents’ running games, the Cowboys ought to improve significantly on their 4-8 finish of a year ago. Wyoming unexpectedly controlled this game for much of the first half and simply ran out of time at the end. It features a nice group on offense, with the multitalented Smith, running back Shaun Wick and several capable receivers.
Michigan keeps winning, but it doesn't really matter with the way Nebraska is playing.
It's hard to imagine a scenario in which the Huskers aren't in Indianapolis in two weeks for the Big Ten championship game. They absolutely dominated Minnesota 38-14 in their final home game on Saturday, finally putting together a complete effort that didn't require a comeback.
If Nebraska can play half as well as that next week against what has become a dreadful Iowa team, the Legends Division trophy will reside in Lincoln. Even on the road, a Huskers loss next week would qualify as one of the biggest upsets of the season.
Big Red made sure there would be no such upset this week against the Gophers. They were terrific from the get-go, building a 24-0 lead and limiting the Gophers' offense to just 60 yards in the first half. It only got worse from there, as Nebraska led 38-0 before putting in the second stringers.
We've been waiting to see what Nebraska could do offensively if it could limit its turnovers and slow starts. This was a pretty good example.
The usually-butterfingered Huskers' starters lost only one fumble, but got it right back when Daimion Stafford grabbed an interception on the very next play. Though Nebraska didn't have its typically large rushing figures, Taylor Martinez threw for 308 yards on an efficient 21-for-29 afternoon and got an early rest for the first time in a long while. Kenny Bell had one of his best games, with nine catches for 136 yards and two scores.
The defense was even more impressive, keeping Philip Nelson (8-for-23, 59 yards) and the Gophers attack searching for answers all day. The Blackshirts were all over Minnesota's pass routes. Stanley Jean-Baptiste returned an interception 48 yards for a touchdown. Until the middle of the fourth quarter Minnesota was 0-for-11 on third downs and didn't crack 100 yards of total offense. The Gophers never mounted a credible scoring chance until the Huskers' backups came in the game late.
It was a disappointing day for Minnesota, which has unfortunately become used to being blown out by Nebraska in its history. But this was always going to be a very difficult game on the road for the Gophers. They did what they needed to do last week in getting bowl eligible and will have a chance to knock off a reeling Michigan State club next week at home.
After last week's win over Penn State, Nebraska players and coaches said they believed this team hadn't yet hit his peak. If this performance is an indication, the Huskers are still getting better at the right time of the year.
Now it's time to preview the six Big Ten spring games on tap Saturday (in reverse alphabetical order) ...
The vitals: Blue-White Game presented by AAA kicks off at 2 p.m. ET Saturday at Beaver Stadium; admission and parking are free
More details: Penn State has a pregame autograph session and a ton of events planned for the weekend. All the information can be found here.
Three things to watch
1. The quarterbacks: The race for the starting job has been the top story at Penn State this spring, and all four candidates will be on the field Saturday. Most eyes will be on sophomore Rob Bolden and junior Matt McGloin, who split the starts in 2010 and have paced one another throughout the spring. Both players have impressed the coaches, who likely won't name a starter until the summer. Saturday marks the final chance for Bolden and McGloin to showcase their abilities for the coaches and fans before spring ball concludes.
2. Line play: Penn State has to upgrade both lines if it wants to contend in the Leaders division this season. The Lions have very little depth at defensive end because of injuries, but fans should keep an eye on defensive tackles Devon Still, Jordan Hill and Brandon Ware, all of whom have drawn praise from the coaches this spring. Penn State needs a big year from its interior linemen. The offensive line boasts four seniors and should be solid at the tackle spots, but it'll be interesting to see how the guards and centers perform as Penn State must replace standout Stefen Wisniewski.
3. Running backs: Injuries will keep several Penn State playmakers on the sideline Saturday, but fans should get a clear read on the running backs. There's a lot of hype for Silas Redd after a solid freshman season, but he's being pushed by Stephfon Green and Brandon Beachum, who has stood out this spring after missing all of last season with a torn ACL. Green and Redd both have breakaway ability, while Beachum could be the power back Penn State has missed in recent years.
The vitals: The spring football "exhibition," which will be more of a situational scrimmage, kicks off at noon CT (1 p.m. ET) at Ryan Field; admission and parking are free but fans are encouraged to bring nonperishable canned-food items for a food drive.
More details: Northwestern is holding a youth football clinic and several other events. All the info can be found here.
Three things to watch
1. The race for backup QB: All-Big Ten selection Dan Persa is on track to return by late May or early June, but he won't be taking any snaps Saturday. Northwestern will divide the reps evenly between three signal-callers -- sophomore Kain Colter, junior Evan Watkins and redshirt freshman Trevor Siemian -- vying to play behind Persa this season. Colter is the most intriguing candidate after a breakout performance against Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl, but all three players have endured some ups and downs this spring.
2. New faces on defense: The coaches feel they've upgraded the athleticism on defense with recent recruiting, especially at spots like linebacker and defensive back. Northwestern's defense looked slow and overmatched at times last season, and quite a few jobs are open this spring. Keep an eye on players such as linebackers David Nwabuisi and Damian Proby and redshirt freshman safety Ibraheim Campbell, a player coach Pat Fitzgerald has praised multiple times this spring.
3. The running backs: Persa carried the run game in 2010 but admits he took too many shots and will try to limit the damage this fall. He could use more help from a run game that has suffered since Tyrell Sutton graduated. Mike Trumpy provided a spark late last year and has had a good spring, and Adonis Smith has a year under his belt. Keep an eye on Tyris Jones, a physical runner who has stepped up this spring as a running back/H-back.
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD
2:00 PM ET Washington State Colorado State 3:30 PM ET 20 Fresno State 25 USC 5:30 PM ET Buffalo San Diego State 9:00 PM ET Tulane Louisiana-Lafayette
6:00 PM ET Pittsburgh Bowling Green 9:30 PM ET Utah State 23 Northern Illinois
2:30 PM ET Marshall Maryland 6:00 PM ET Syracuse Minnesota 9:30 PM ET Brigham Young Washington
12:15 PM ET Rutgers Notre Dame 3:20 PM ET Cincinnati North Carolina 6:45 PM ET Miami (FL) 18 Louisville 10:15 PM ET Michigan Kansas State
11:45 AM ET Middle Tennessee Navy 3:15 PM ET Ole Miss Georgia Tech 6:45 PM ET 10 Oregon Texas 10:15 PM ET 14 Arizona State Texas Tech
12:30 PM ET Arizona Boston College 2:00 PM ET Virginia Tech 17 UCLA 4:00 PM ET Rice Mississippi State 8:00 PM ET 24 Duke 21 Texas A&M
12:00 PM ET Nebraska 22 Georgia 12:00 PM ET UNLV North Texas 1:00 PM ET Iowa 16 LSU 1:00 PM ET 19 Wisconsin 9 South Carolina 5:00 PM ET 5 Stanford 4 Michigan State 8:30 PM ET 15 UCF 6 Baylor
7:30 PM ET 13 Oklahoma State 8 Missouri 8:30 PM ET 12 Clemson 7 Ohio State