NCF Nation: Taylor Martinez

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Nebraska seeks to avenge its loss in the Capital One Bowl from a year ago against No. 22 Georgia on Wednesday at noon ET on ESPN2. Here’s a preview:

Who to watch: The quarterbacks are a good place to start. They won't be Taylor Martinez and Aaron Murray, the record-setting senior duo who led these teams to a combined 76 points last year in Orlando; rather freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. is expected to start for the eighth time this season for Nebraska, and junior Hutson Mason gets the call for the Bulldogs for a second straight game. Also, keep an eye on Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory, an SEC-caliber star with size, speed and strength. If he’s not the best player on the field, it might be Georgia running back Todd Gurley.

What to watch: Statistically, it’s difficult to identify too many spots at which one team might exploit the other. Remember, though, Georgia was challenged by a schedule that featured five teams arguably as good or better than Nebraska’s best foe. So the numbers matter little in gauging matchups. Here’s a hunch that the Huskers, who couldn’t stop Minnesota or, for one quarter, South Dakota State, will struggle to contain Gurley. He was in contention for the title of best SEC back before the midseason injury. And watch the matchup of UGA receivers Chris Conley and Michael Bennett against Nebraska defensive backs Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste. It should be good.

Why to watch: The trio of Big Ten-SEC clashes on New Year’s Day is always entertaining -- at least, it is for fans of the SEC teams. Seriously, the Big Ten is 0-2 in bowls (0-4 if you count 2014 newcomers Rutgers and Maryland), and the SEC is 3-0. Perhaps this game presents the Big Ten with its best chance to win on Wednesday. If that doesn’t get you, tune in to see if Nebraska's Bo Pelini can join the likes of Mack Brown, Tom Osborne, Steve Spurrier and Barry Switzer as the eighth BCS-conference coach in history to win nine games in each of his first six years at a school.

Prediction: Georgia 34, Nebraska 24. A big day for Gurley and a typical turnover or two will spell doom for the Huskers. Look for Ameer Abdullah to keep the Huskers close for a while, but like last year, the Bulldogs will make plays when necessary late.
Aaron Murray and Taylor Martinez, the shelved senior quarterbacks at Georgia and Nebraska, started 95 college games.

They won 67.4 percent.

Bet you thought that rate was higher.

Seems we’ve watched these two operate forever. In the past four years, Murray and Martinez meant something important to college football. They tormented defensive coordinators and served as the poster boys for a pair of proud programs, trying -- desperately close at times -- to break through.

It’s not going to happen in their time.

Despite 64 victories between them (35 for Murray, 29 for Martinez), neither won a conference title. At Georgia and Nebraska, a conference title, at minimum, is the standard of success.

Yet as Murray and Martinez depart the college game in sadly anticlimactic fashion as the Bulldogs (8-4) and Huskers (8-4) meet for a New Year’s Day rematch in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, they leave a record of greatness.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Josh Wolfe/Icon SMITaylor Martinez's final season didn't go as planned, but he'll be remembered in Lincoln.
Murray’s senior season was nearly doomed from the start. Injuries to running backs Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley, several top receivers and playmakers on defense contributed heavily to four Georgia losses.

The QB persevered until Nov. 23, when he suffered an ACL tear in a 59-17 victory over Kentucky. Murray played through the injury for one series but couldn't fight the pain any further.

In similar fashion, Martinez battled for two weeks through a foot injury, suffered in the Huskers’ season opener.

He led the Huskers to a 21-3 edge over UCLA in the second quarter on Sept 14, but any thoughts of a storybook ending to his career crashed to a halt in the second half. The Bruins scored 38 consecutive points. Martinez clearly wasn’t himself, unable use his usually dangerous feet to stem momentum.

A one-game comeback fell flat at Minnesota in October. Martinez was finished. He lost his final two starts and an opportunity to join Colin Kaepernick as the only players in FBS history to pass for 9,000 yards and rush for 3,000. He finished with 7,258 passing yards and 2,975 rushing yards.

He lost his chance to win a conference title, a hope so promising back in 2010, when Martinez led Nebraska to a 17-point lead over Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game as a freshman.

Martinez never broke through.

“It’s been hard,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “This whole season’s been hard on him. It’s not the way you want to see him go out.”

Georgia coach Mark Richt said the same thing about Murray. Richt visited a hospitalized Murray after he underwent surgery on the damaged knee. Richt said he wanted to feel sorry for his quarterback, but Murray wouldn’t let him.

His positivity is relentless. And that’s part of Murray’s legacy, alongside the 13,166 passing yards and 121 touchdown passes.

No Southeastern Conference quarterback before Murray threw for 3,000 yards in three seasons. Murray did it four times. He broke Danny Wuerffel’s SEC record for touchdown passes and Tim Tebow’s record for total yardage.

But, like Martinez, his teams never broke through.

Murray’s best chance fell 5 yards short last year against Alabama in the SEC championship game. He targeted Malcolm Mitchell in the end zone, a shot within reach to win an SEC title as the clock ticked away. Tide linebacker C.J. Mosley deflected the pass to Georgia receiver Chris Conley. Conley slid to the turf, surrounded by defenders. Time expired on Murray’s best opportunity.

[+] EnlargeGeorgia's Aaron Murray
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesAaron Murray's place in Georgia and SEC football history is secure.
Instead of a shot to play for the national title, Georgia beat Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl as Murray threw for 427 yards and five touchdowns, both career-best marks.

It all felt anticlimactic for Murray, though nothing like this year.

“Obviously I had a vision of how I wanted to go out,” Murray said recently.

This wasn’t it.

“It’s almost like I didn't say goodbye,” he said, “which, I guess, is a good thing. I guess it's like, 'to be continued.' I'm not leaving. I'm always a Bulldog. I'll always be a Bulldog, and I guess if I would have been there to wave and really cherish the end of it, that would have been like, 'Book closed, it's over,' and I feel like it's not over for me.”

Murray is eloquent and charismatic. Martinez is quite the opposite.

Uncomfortable in the spotlight, the Nebraska quarterback hasn’t spoken to the media since the Minnesota game.

But Martinez appears to be at peace. He has remained at the side of teammates through conditioning drills and practices this month. Those close to him, though, say he’s devastated by the injury.

A generation from now, Murray and Martinez will be remembered not for this anticlimactic ending or their inability to break through and win a championship.

Time will heal their wounds. History will reflect well on their legacies. College football will remember them.

Injuries impacted UGA, Nebraska seasons

December, 23, 2013
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This season's similarities are striking for the combatants in this season's TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Georgia and Nebraska. Perhaps the most notable similarity between the Bulldogs (8-4) and Cornhuskers (8-4), though, is the numerous injuries that helped prevent them from playing up to their potential.

ESPN.com's David Ching and Mitch Sherman discussed how injuries affected the teams' seasons and what might have been if not for all the physical ailments.

1. Out of all of the injuries they sustained this season, which one was the costliest and why?

Ching: There are a lot of directions you could go here, but Todd Gurley's ankle injury and ensuing three-and-a-half-game absence probably hurt the most. Gurley is one of the biggest difference-makers in the country, and Georgia's potent offense simply wasn't as good without him in the lineup -- particularly when fellow tailback Keith Marshall suffered a season-ending knee injury the week after Gurley went down against LSU. It's not a coincidence that Georgia bounced back from a two-game losing streak upon Gurley's return, nor that the Bulldogs went 4-1 down the stretch once he was back. He totaled 755 yards and 10 touchdowns in those five games.

Sherman: Taylor Martinez began this season as most indispensable Husker -- and by November, we saw why. Without the fifth-year senior, who started a school-record 43 games at quarterback, including four this season, the Nebraska offense shifted from the strength of this team to a liability. The Huskers failed to gain 400 yards in each of their final four games. Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III performed admirably, but their numbers paled in comparison to the production expected from a healthy Martinez. In good position to become the second QB in FBS history to surpass 9,000 career passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards, he suffered the fateful foot injury in Nebraska’s season opener. By mid-September, his limitations were painfully apparent, stamped into the record books with losses to UCLA and Minnesota in Martinez’s final two starts.

2. Which position group dealt with the most injury issues?

Sherman: Problems on the offensive line began on the opening series of the sixth game against Purdue as All-Big Ten right guard Spencer Long went down with a season-ending knee injury. Long was the leader of the line and a motivating force for the entire team as a senior captain and former walk-on turned solid NFL prospect. As soon as his linemates began to wear Long’s jersey No. 61 as a tribute, the injury bug spread. First, it was left guard Jake Cotton. Tackles Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale, despite staying in the lineup, dealt with injuries, too, as did center-turned-guard Cole Pensick. Long’s replacement, Mike Moudy, missed the final four games. The injuries hurt most in practice, and Long’s injury got the snowball rolling. Before the Purdue game, Nebraska rushed for 285 yards or more in four of five games. After Purdue, it never topped 195 on the ground.

Ching: Georgia's safeties could make a reasonable argument here, but let's go with the receivers. Malcolm Mitchell suffered perhaps the most bizarre injury of the season when he tore an ACL while leaping into the air to celebrate Gurley's 75-yard touchdown run against Clemson on the Bulldogs' second offensive possession of the fall. Justin Scott-Wesley, who essentially caught the game-winning touchdown passes in the fourth quarter against South Carolina and LSU, tore an ACL while covering a punt against Tennessee. Michael Bennett and Chris Conley also missed multiple games with midseason injuries, and junior college transfer Jonathon Rumph didn't play until Game 8 against Florida after injuring his hamstring in August. Because of the regular lineup shuffling, six Bulldogs have at least 20 catches this season.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIGeorgia went 4-1 after sophomore RB Todd Gurley returned to the lineup, and the only loss was the 'Miracle at Jordan-Hare.'
3. What do you think this team might have accomplished if health hadn't become such a factor?

Ching: I hesitate to say Georgia would have been a BCS title contender because its defense was probably not championship caliber. But it's hard to predict what might have been with any certainty since the Bulldogs started losing key contributors in the first quarter of the first game. I'll go so far as to say the Bulldogs at least would have won a third straight SEC East title and been in the running for an at-large BCS bowl spot. With Aaron Murray, who suffered a season-ending knee injury of his own against Kentucky, at the trigger and an impressive array of skill talent, this had the potential to be the scariest offense Georgia has ever put on the field, but we never saw the full complement for even one full game.

Sherman: It’s difficult to quantify in wins and losses, considering the other problems that plagued these Huskers, notably with turnovers and on special teams. Nebraska could have outscored Minnesota with a healthy Martinez and Long. And it’s likely that the second-half meltdown against UCLA never would have happened if Martinez was operating at full strength. The Huskers moved the ball well in a 41-28 loss to Michigan State. Injuries weren’t the issue against the Spartans; turnovers were, but freshmen committed all five. And Martinez, while turnover-prone since his freshman season, torched the Spartans a year ago. But even at 10-2, Nebraska would have missed a repeat trip to the Big Ten title game.

2013 Big Ten regular-season wrap

December, 16, 2013
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The talk that Big Ten football has never been worse is still there, but it's just that: talk.

History will show that the league truly reached rock bottom in 2012, when it combusted in nonleague play, sent an 8-5 team to the Rose Bowl, had no postseason-eligible top-15 teams in the final polls and absorbed body blows from September to January. The results this season won't prompt the league office to print "B1G is back" banners, and few would label the Big Ten as the nation's No. 1 or No. 2 conference. Until the Big Ten wins a national championship, it won't win any perception prizes, and the league's crystal-ball drought will reach 11 seasons.

But if you're looking for progress, even minimal progress, the Big Ten provided some in 2013.

Just look at the league's signature event Dec. 7 in Indianapolis. A record crowd and a large media contingent watched two top-10 teams deliver an entertaining game with wild momentum swings and national championship implications on the line. A year earlier, Lucas Oil Stadium was one-third empty as 7-5 Wisconsin blasted Nebraska to go to its third consecutive Rose Bowl only because Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible for postseason play.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State chased down Braxton Miller and Ohio State in a memorable Big Ten championship game.
This season undoubtedly brought more bright spots. Michigan State and Ohio State each went 8-0 in league play and finished in the top seven of the final BCS standings. The Spartans and Buckeyes formed a small but strong elite class with Wisconsin, despite the Badgers' loss to Penn State in the regular-season finale. Minnesota endured the midseason health absence of head coach Jerry Kill and responded by winning four consecutive Big Ten games for the first time in 40 years en route to an 8-4 record. Iowa flipped its record from 4-8 to 8-4, surging behind an underrated defense with an exceptional linebacker corps and an offense that found its identity. Penn State showed the effects of its scholarship losses, but Bill O'Brien's bunch of, er, fighters found a way to post another winning record, capped by a signature win in Madison.

The Big Ten went 10-8 against teams from BCS automatic-qualifying conferences as well as independents Notre Dame and BYU, and Wisconsin could have had another big win against Pac-12 South champion Arizona State before Pac-12 officials intervened.

There was star power on both sides of the ball, not only at some expected positions such as linebacker and running back but also at wide receiver, an incredibly thin spot in 2012 that produced more playmakers this season.

Make no mistake, the Big Ten had its share of disappointments. After a 4-0 record in nonleague play, Northwestern suffered through its longest losing streak in 15 years and fell out of bowl contention. Michigan didn't capitalize on a strong start and its run game reached historic lows in early November. Nebraska couldn't hop off of the roller coaster, and Illinois' Big Ten losing streak reached 20 games before the Illini beat Purdue, one of the worst teams in recent Big Ten history. Indiana missed a bowl despite eight home games and an explosive offense.

Star players such as Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez and Northwestern running back Venric Mark missed most of the season, and a knee injury took Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller out of the Heisman Trophy race.

But the overall picture is a little sunnier for the Big Ten. Now it's time to brighten things further with a decent bowl performance.

Time for some superlatives ...

Offensive MVP: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. He missed time with injury and had some inconsistent passing performances, but he's still the league's most dynamic and dangerous player with the ball in his hands. Miller eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards for the second consecutive season, averaged 6.8 yards per carry, improved his completion percentage from 58.3 to 63.2 and fired 22 touchdown passes against just five interceptions.

Defensive MVP: Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard. Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland won Big Ten defensive player of the year honors, and the Big Ten blog endorsed Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier for the award before the title game. Both are fine choices, but after watching the Big Ten championship, the pick here is Dennard, quite possibly the nation's best cornerback. He shut down opposing receivers all season and recorded four interceptions, 10 pass breakups, two forced fumbles and five quarterback hurries in leading the "No Fly Zone" secondary.

Newcomer of the year: Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg. It's a close call between Hackenberg, the league's top freshman, and Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory, a junior-college arrival. Hackenberg gets the nod after backing up the immense recruiting hype he received. The wunderkind passed for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns and delivered his best performance in the finale against Wisconsin's top-10 defense.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
David Banks/USA TODAY SportsPat Fitzgerald and Northwestern endured a frustrating season in which nothing seemed to go right.
Biggest surprise: Iowa. The Hawkeyes' preseason forecast looked gloomy after they posted their worst record in 12 years and lacked a quarterback with any collegiate game experience. But Kirk Ferentz's squad found its way, particularly down the stretch with wins in four of its final five games. Iowa's four losses came against ranked teams with a combined record of 45-6.

Biggest disappointment: Northwestern. On Oct. 5, the Wildcats had a 4-0 record, a top-20 ranking, ESPN "College GameDay" on campus and a fourth-quarter lead against Ohio State. On Nov. 23, they were blown out 30-6 by Michigan State on the same field, ending their hopes of a sixth consecutive bowl appearance. In between, Northwestern endured several injuries, a loss on a Hail Mary at Nebraska, overtime defeats against both Iowa and Michigan and plenty of heartache. Just a miserable year for Pat Fitzgerald's crew.

Best game: The Game -- Ohio State 42, Michigan 41, Nov. 30 at Michigan Stadium. Michigan once again proved the adage that rivalry games are different, delivering its best performance in months and pushing Ohio State to its limit. Woody and Bo wouldn't recognize the teams that combined for 83 points, 54 first downs and 1,129 total yards. The teams traded scores all afternoon, culminating with a two-point conversion attempt with 32 seconds left that Ohio State snuffed out to preserve its perfect season.

Chance to move forward excites Huskers

December, 12, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- The last time we saw Jeremiah Sirles before Wednesday, the Nebraska senior emptied his heart in support of coach Bo Pelini, embroiled in controversy after the Huskers’ Nov. 29 loss to Iowa to end the regular season.

[+] EnlargeJeremiah Sirles
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJeremiah Sirles and his teammates are glad Nebraska's focus is back on football.
Sirles, a four-year starter at offensive tackle, and several teammates spoke passionately about Pelini and his staff, yet it appeared to many observers that the sixth-year coach may not survive the weekend at Nebraska.

Well, he did.

And the program lunged forward. The Huskers received a break from the game to rest and prepare for final exams. Pelini and his staff gained momentum on the recruiting trail. The TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, in a move unexpected before the final hours on Sunday, paired Nebraska with Georgia for a New Year’s Day rematch of the Capital One Bowl from last season.

As the team readies to get back to practice this weekend, the air around Memorial Stadium appears free of the toxicity from two weeks ago.

Count Sirles among those relieved that Nebraska football has moved past a November dominated by questions about the job security of its coach.

“It’s hard to have all these unanswered questions around this place because it always seems like there [are] these unanswered questions," Sirles said Wednesday, as a group of Huskers met with the media for the first time since the regular-season finale. "Being able to have answers to all that and being able to have a stable base for going into the bowl game and even going to next year, I think, is huge.”

About 19 hours after Iowa cemented its 38-17 win in Lincoln, Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst issued a statement of support for Pelini.

Sirles said he was “proud” of the administration for its decision.

“Every word that I said was 100 percent from the heart and 100 percent true,” Sirles said. ‘I hope that people around the stadium could really tell that we really love and we care for our coaches, and that they love and care for us.”

Fellow senior lineman Brent Qvale said he understood the sentiment from some Nebraska fans that an 8-4 regular season fell short of expectations.

Still, the coaches don’t deserve blame, he said.

“It’s just a culture around Nebraska that championships are expected,” Qvale said. “And it should be. You play this game to win championships.”

Senior receiver Quincy Enunwa said he stayed away from listening to the media speculation and criticism of November.

“We know what’s going on inside the program,” Enunwa said. “We know that we have our coaches back. We believe that we’re a good team; there have just been a lot of setbacks for us this year.”

That said, the Huskers are excited about the opportunity to finish strong.

Several Nebraska players interviewed on Wednesday said they were excited to face Georgia again.

“It might be frustration if we just blew them out last year,” Enunwa said, “but we lost.”

Said defensive back Josh Mitchell: “I didn’t really have much of a reaction. It’s just another game to me. We just need to get another win.”

The Bulldogs beat Nebraska 45-31 to end last season in Orlando. Georgia scored the final 22 points behind a prolific performance from quarterback Aaron Murray, who’s out for the Gator Bowl with a knee injury.

“We felt like we had a good chance of beating these guys last year,” Sirles said. “We kind of let it slip through our fingers a little bit. It’s almost a good chance to get back and get a little redemption.”

Sirles and Enunwa were among a long list of Huskers slowed by injuries this fall. They said they’ll be healthy for the Gator Bowl.

The Huskers, in fact, should field a team in Jacksonville, Fla., that's healthier than at any point since early October. Of the key contributors who went down, only guard Spencer Long is ruled out.

“I’m ready to play a game where most of our offense is healthy,” Enunwa said.

Quarterback Taylor Martinez, who played in just one game after the Huskers’ Sept. 14 loss to UCLA, continues to rehabilitate a foot injury. His availability for the Gator Bowl looks unlikely.

Sirles said many Huskers have “lived in the treatment room” since the regular season concluded. With most of the coaches away, the players participated in a few conditioning drills last week.

The tempo increased this week. The full group was at work, without pads, inside the Hawks Championship Center, on Wednesday afternoon.

Pelini and Georgia coach Mark Richt are set to meet in Jacksonville on Thursday afternoon to officially accept the Gator Bowl invitations.

Then it’s back to work.

“We’re going to come back healthy,” Sirles said. “We’re anxious to get back on the practice field and start banging again.”

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Jordan Westerkamp grew up in the western Chicago suburbs, about 25 miles from Evanston and the Northwestern campus.

Pat Fitzgerald knew all about him two years ago at Montini Catholic. Westerkamp was one of the top prospects in the state of Illinois’ 2012 high school class. Fitzgerald and Northwestern recruited him, but Westerkamp, the son of a former Illinois wide receiver, picked Nebraska early in the process.

On Saturday, at last possible moment, he buried a dagger in the hearts of the Wildcats and their head coach.

“You can never let somebody get behind the pile,” Fitzgerald said.

His words echoed hollow in the aftermath of this improbable, 27-24 Nebraska victory at Memorial Stadium.

With his snag of a 49-yard Hail Mary from backup quarterback Ron Kellogg III as time expired, Westerkamp assured Northwestern of a losing Big Ten season. And in the most unlikely of moments, his catch pumped life into an almost-deflated season at Nebraska.

Jubilance masks all kinds of trouble. As celebratory music rained down on Tom Osborne Field while thousands above screamed with joy and disbelief, the problems of Saturday and last week and the season’s first half seemed momentarily insignificant to the Cornhuskers.

[+] EnlargeJordan Westerkamp
AP Photo/Nati HarnikNebraska wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp catches the game-winning touchdown, a desperation heave from quarterback Ron Kellogg III.
Can one play reverse the momentum of a football season? The Huskers hope so.

“I hope it keeps them believing,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said, “keeps them up.”

Pelini stopped to correct himself. His players would never stop believing, he said.

But the message lingered. Pelini didn’t need to say it; things were beginning to look bleak in Lincoln. Without the miracle in the south end zone, Nebraska was headed to Michigan next week -- with Michigan State on tap a week later -- off two consecutive bad losses.

Pelini’s critics were sharpening their knives even as the Huskers drove to near midfield before the final, fateful play.

Face it: The offense, for much of Saturday, was a mess of injuries and inefficiency. After an impressive opening drive, Nebraska sputtered throughout. Before the final play, Nebraska’s only score in the second half came on Avery Moss’ pick-six of a Trevor Siemian throw.

When the Huskers twice neared scoring range in the second half, they committed drive-killing penalties.

Freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. threw three interceptions, including a seemingly deadly pick by Tyler Scott that led to a Jeff Budzien field goal with 80 seconds left, placing the Wildcats on top.

And these are Nebraska’s cards. Taylor Martinez, the injured veteran quarterback who started 43 games over four seasons and set the school’s all-time total-offense mark, does not look set to return soon, if at all.

Martinez watched from the press box on Saturday. Asked after the game about the senior’s status, Pelini danced around the question. The coach didn’t even bother to list Martinez’s ailments. He was sick, too, this week, Pelini said, for whatever that’s worth.

“I’m going to stick with the way it went today,” Pelini said.

The defensive performance was equally confounding. The Blackshirts, shoved around a week ago in a loss at Minnesota, allowed three touchdowns on Northwestern’s first four possessions. The Wildcats led 21-7.

Then, as if to throw their arms skyward in despair, Pelini and defensive coordinator John Papuchis asked the defenders what they wanted to do differently. The players voted to scrap the game plan, which called for a three-man front.

The Huskers went back to their traditional look with four linemen. They stopped Northwestern on 11 consecutive possessions before the fourth-quarter field goal, which ought to count as another stop. It came after the Wildcats reached the 1-yard line on the first down after Scott’s interception return.

“We’re going to need that type of energy going into Michigan,” said Moss, the defensive end who tied the score at 21 with the 25-yard interception return midway through the third quarter.

Maybe it’ll work. Maybe it started on the last drive. Nebraska took over at its 17-yard line with 74 seconds to play. Pelini summoned Kellogg. The senior, who hadn’t played since the second quarter, said he felt “extremely nervous” before taking the field.

A former walk-on who’s never started a game, Kellogg found Ameer Abdullah for a 16-yard gain on fourth-and-15 to the Nebraska 40 with 21 seconds left. The signal-caller completed two short throws to the sideline before an incompletion and a prayer into the end zone.

“I didn’t even know I could throw it that far,” Kellogg said, “but thank God for Jordan Westerkamp.”

The kid snuck behind the pile, just a couple of yards deep in the end zone as Kellogg let it go toward Nebraska receiver Quincy Enunwa and a mess of defenders. Enunwa said he never touched the ball. It bounded off a Northwestern player and right to Westerkamp.

“I was just fortunate to be there,” Westerkamp said.

Kellogg didn’t see it. He got hit in the head at the line of scrimmage, he said, and lost his helmet on the field. Pelini missed it, too. He saw Westerkamp flash and heard the crowd roar. The coach wore a look of incredulity as he left the field.

Important lessons apply, he said.

“It’s about attitude,” Pelini said. “It’s about character.”

Don’t give up, no matter how dire the situation.

“Whether we caught that ball or didn’t catch that ball,” Pelini said, “we’re still the same team tomorrow.”

Perhaps, but as sure as Northwestern’s heartbreak after a fifth consecutive defeat, this one at the hands of a home-state kid, the Huskers got a reprieve Saturday. Another shot to show they’re not done yet.

Big Ten predictions: Week 10

October, 31, 2013
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Trick or treat, everyone. Ready for the scariest set of Big Ten predictions you've ever seen? What's truly scary is the fact that this marks the first week since Week 3 that all 12 league squads are playing. It's a full slate of Big Ten action, and with the predictions race all tied up, this is a big week.

At steak: dinner at St. Elmo in Indianapolis.

Let's begin ...

ILLINOIS at PENN STATE

Brian Bennett: The last time Illinois coaches came to State College ... OK, that's old news by now. Both defenses are really struggling right now, but the Fighting Illini have even more issues than Penn State. And I expect the Nittany Lions to be much better at home than on the road the rest of the way. Allen Robinson scores three times in a big Penn State win. ... Penn State 42, Illinois 20


Adam Rittenberg: The Lions get well this week against an Illinois defense that hasn't stopped anyone lately. Bill Belton racks up 130 rush yards and two scores in establishing himself as the Lions' top back. Penn State's tight ends get more involved in the pass game as the Lions pull away early in the third quarter. ... Penn State 38, Illinois 21

WISCONSIN at IOWA

Rittenberg: It's great to have this rivalry back on the slate, and I expect an extremely physical game at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa jumps ahead early on a Damon Bullock touchdown run, but Wisconsin's offense kicks into gear after another long scoring run by Melvin Gordon on a jet sweep. Badgers quarterback Joel Stave finds wideout Jared Abbrederis for a fourth-quarter touchdown that proves to be the difference. ... Wisconsin 28, Iowa 21

Bennett: Very excited for this one and tempted to pick Iowa, whose three losses are to teams that are a combined 23-1 this season. But I also saw how Northwestern shut down the Hawkeyes' offense after the first drive last week, and that scares me away from choosing the home team. Stave has a nice game and throws for three touchdown passes after Iowa stacks the box defensively. ... Wisconsin 30, Iowa 20


OHIO STATE at PURDUE

Bennett: Can you say cruise control? That's what Ohio State will be on after scoring 21 points in the first 10 minutes on Saturday. Carlos Hyde has four touchdowns in the first half of a romp. ... Ohio State 56, Purdue 13


Rittenberg: Like they say at Harry's Chocolate Shop, this one will go ugly early. Although Ross-Ade Stadium usually brings out the worst in Ohio State, I expect another big game from Braxton Miller, who picks apart Purdue's secondary for three touchdown passes. Purdue's offense looks better than it did against Michigan State as Danny Etling connects with B.J. Knauf for a touchdown, but it's way too much Ohio State in this one. ... Ohio State 48, Purdue 10

MINNESOTA at INDIANA

Rittenberg: Minnesota's recent surge has been incredibly impressive, but I just don't like the matchup here for the Gophers. Indiana is playing for its bowl life and must win this game at home coming off of a bye. Unlike Minnesota's past two opponents, Indiana is healthy on offense and will strike with big-play threats Cody Latimer and Shane Wynn for some early scores. Minnesota's run game shows up again, but the Hoosiers use a big fourth quarter to get the W. ... Indiana 35, Minnesota 31

Bennett: Does Vegas know something here? Indiana is a solid favorite despite how well Minnesota is playing. Seems weird. But ... maybe the wiseguys are on to something. Indiana has had two weeks to prepare and figure out something defensively, and this will be one of the best offenses the Gophers have seen. I predict a big day for Tre Roberson as the Hoosiers temporarily halt Minnesota's nice run. ... Indiana 33, Minnesota 30.


MICHIGAN at MICHIGAN STATE

Bennett: Bottom line here is I know what I'm getting from Michigan State. I have no real idea what to expect from either side of the ball from Michigan. The Wolverines could come out and play great or turn the ball over a bunch of times. I'll side with the elite defense and the home team. The Spartans will force three turnovers, including a pick-six from Denicos Allen, and they will emerge as the leaders of the Legends. ... Michigan State 17, Michigan 14


Rittenberg: Michigan needs this game more than Michigan State. It could be the most important game in coach Brady Hoke's tenure to date. But Mark Dantonio is masterful in getting Michigan State in the right mindset to play Michigan, and the Spartans defense is the best unit on the field. MSU cornerback Darqueze Dennard records a key fourth-quarter interception against Devin Gardner, and the Spartans get two more rushing touchdowns from Jeremy Langford to rally for a win. ... Michigan State 21, Michigan 17

NORTHWESTERN at NEBRASKA

Rittenberg: Both teams seem fragile at the moment, and it's hard to confidently pick one over the other. This is a better matchup for Northwestern's offense to finally get on track, and Kain Colter has given Nebraska problems before. Colter takes the team on his back and scores three second-half touchdowns, including the game-winner in the final minute. Nebraska wastes another 150-yard rushing performance from Ameer Abdullah as Pelini Watch really begins. ... Northwestern 27, Nebraska 24

Bennett: Northwestern has given Nebraska trouble the past two seasons, but the Wildcats don't seem able to get out of their own way right now. Taylor Martinez sits this one out and the Huskers rely heavily on the run game, overcoming two costly fumbles to win on a late field goal. ... Nebraska 24, Northwestern 21.


You've heard from us. 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. 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 Andrew Schout from Kansas City, Mo. Andrew, the floor is yours.
I am a Michigan State grad who just happens to be getting married the same day as the biggest football game of the year. As a football fan, I know the frustration/annoyance of missing a game due to a wedding. Now I'm the guy causing those feelings in others. On what's sure to be a big day, for more reasons than just the game, I'd enjoy the chance to be your guest picker! Thanks, Andrew S., Michigan State University, Class of 2005.

Congrats, Andrew! Here's a prediction from us: "Twist and Schout" will play at your wedding. And we might crash the reception.

Here are Andrew's Week 10 picks:

Penn State 34, Illinois 24
Wisconsin 24, Iowa 17
Ohio State 48, Purdue 10
Indiana 41, Minnesota 38
Michigan State 27, Michigan 16
Nebraska 26, Northwestern 20

SEASON RECORDS

Adam Rittenberg: 57-11
Brian Bennett: 57-11
Guest pickers: 52-16

No room for QB gray area at Nebraska

October, 28, 2013
10/28/13
11:30
AM ET
Bo Pelini sees football as a series of basic decisions. Black and white. No room for gray area. He says it often.

To the sixth-year Nebraska coach, for instance, if you're not with the Huskers, you're against them. If you're not getting better, you're getting worse.

Why, then, does the same principle not apply to his starting quarterback?

Taylor Martinez is not helping Nebraska win.

Pelini's methodology would seem to suggest that he helped the Huskers lose on Saturday. In his first action since Sept. 14, the senior quarterback hobbled through a 34-23 loss at Minnesota, often appearing out of sync with teammates. From start to finish, the offense operated in disjointed fashion.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesIn his comeback from a foot injury at Minnesota, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez had a rough game.
Nebraska made no move to capable backups Tommy Armstrong or Ron Kellogg III. For three games this season as Martinez was sidelined by injuries, Armstrong and Kellogg helped the Huskers win.

When one quarterback struggled, the other guy played. It's a strategy with flaws, for sure, but it worked.

Apparently it's not an option the Huskers want to explore with Martinez at the helm.

Why the double standard, a practice that seems so at odds with Pelini's overriding approach to the game?

The coach said after the game that Martinez was "the least of our problems."

"Let's not go there and act like Taylor Martinez lost this football game for us," Pelini said. "Our problems today were far beyond who our quarterback was."

He's right that the Huskers had big problems against Minnesota – the inability to win the line of scrimmage, poor tackling, mental errors, dropped passes, questionable distribution of the football, two turnovers lost and none gained.

But if Pelini really believes that the quarterback ranked as the least of Nebraska's problems, he's failing to pay attention or just trying to protect Martinez.

His play on Saturday, at a minimum, fits squarely in the middle of the items that require attention.

It's easy -- and typically too convenient – to blame the quarterback when things out of his control go awry. The quaterback makes an impact on every offensive play, so he gets too much credit and too much blame.

But Nebraska needs its quarterback to do more than avoid losing. When the Huskers built this team over the offseason and into August, it expected to rely on a quarterback who could win games, especially with a defense that needed time to mature.

It expected a guy like South Carolina senior Connor Shaw, who rallied his team from a 17-point deficit on Saturday to beat Missouri after the Gamecocks' win probability fell below 3 percent in the third quarter.

It expected Martinez to play the way he did last year in the Big Ten, leading four second-half comebacks from double-digit deficits.

He's not there. The Nebraska coaches must know it. And the statistics show it.

Total QBR is an ESPN-calculated metric that accounts for a quarterback's overall execution – a Pelini buzzword -- in relation to his team's performance. It rates quarterbacks on a zero-to-100 scale.

A score of 50 is average.

Martinez's QBR on Saturday was 19.6, the sixth-lowest single-game figure of his career. His opponent-adjusted QBR against the Gophers was 14.6, better only in his 43 career starts than against Michigan in 2011, a 45-17 Nebraska loss, and a 13-7 win over Iowa in 2012, a game played in horrendous weather conditions.

The least of Nebraska's problems?

That would be laughable, if not so painful for the 20,000 Huskers fans who converged on Minneapolis over the weekend.

And the decisions of Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck are more puzzling in light of the performances over the past three games of Armstrong and Kellogg.

Against South Dakota State, Illinois and Purdue, the two quarterbacks combined to produce a QBR of 78.9, the 17th-best figure nationally over that time.

Good quarterbacks win games, period. The top five QBR figures of 2013 belong to Marcus Mariota of Oregon, Bryce Petty of Baylor, Jameis Winston of Florida State, Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and Georgia's Aaron Murray.

Nebraska thought it had a quarterback in that category this season. They coached on Saturday as if they had a quarterback in that category. Clearly, in his current state of health, Martinez is not there.

Lest we forget the context, Martinez returned Saturday from six weeks off. Pelini has said since September that turf toe kept the quarterback out.

Martinez, after the game, disputed the assessment, describing the problem as a separate ailment to his foot in addition to a shoulder injury. He said he wasn't 100 percent, which was obvious, despite the insistence from Pelini and Beck that Martinez would not return until completely healthy.

Together, they're delivering a message about as muddled as the offense was disconnected on Saturday.

And now Pelini has this to consider: Among the masses in Minneapolis who watched in disappointment sat Chancellor Harvey Perlman, first-year AD Shawn Eichorst and many other figures important to the athletic department, including hundreds of the program's top donors who traveled on a once-a-year, school-planned trip for Memorial Stadium suite-holders.

Most will return to watch the Huskers on Saturday in Lincoln against Northwestern, which has lost four consecutive games.

For Nebraska, again, there's no gray area: Win this week or face the darkest hour in Lincoln since 2007, the season before Pelini's arrival as head coach.
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football:

1. Ohio State can win with style points: We knew the Buckeyes had it in them, but they hadn't put together a truly dominant performance in Big Ten play until Saturday night against Penn State. Ohio State produced the best first half in the Urban Meyer era, racking up 42 points, 414 yards, 20 first downs and two takeaways. Quarterback Braxton Miller is looking more like the guy we expected would contend for the Heisman Trophy before the season, displaying pinpoint accuracy with his passing and supplementing it with big runs. Running back Carlos Hyde remains a force, and the defense, while not dominant, is making enough plays in each game. Ohio State can't do anything about the league in which it plays. It can't add two or three good nonconference opponents to the schedule. But the Buckeyes can handle their business against unranked opponents and earn some style points from those who overlook them in the national championship discussion. Despite 20 straight wins, Ohio State still will need Alabama, Oregon and/or Florida State to start losing, and it also must continue to win with some flair. Saturday night marked a good step, as the Buckeyes solidified their place in the title talk. Ohio State can take another in the next two weeks against Purdue and Illinois.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Pat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsJeremy Langford had his third consecutive 100-yard game as the Spartans stayed unbeaten in the Big Ten.
2. Michigan State has a leg up in the Legends: There is one team left in the Legends Division that has yet to suffer a conference loss. Hint: It wears green. Michigan State overcame some sloppy early play to blow away Illinois 42-3 on Saturday. The 7-1 Spartans have unquestionably benefited from a soft early Big Ten slate (Iowa, Indiana, Purdue and Illinois). There are some challenges ahead, beginning this week against Michigan at Spartan Stadium, but the remaining schedule isn't overly taxing. Michigan State's defense turned in its usual dominant performance in Champaign, including a goal-line stuff from its own 1-yard line. As for the offense? Well, the Spartans were able to pound the ball on the ground (admittedly, that's not too hard against Illinois) for nearly 270 yards, with Jeremy Langford going for 104 of those plus two touchdowns. Connor Cook made some first-half mistakes but also delivered on some key third-down throws and finished 15-of-16 for 208 yards and three touchdowns. He set a school record for completion percentage in a game. Most importantly, the offense gained some confidence heading into Michigan week. The big game in East Lansing will go a long way toward determining which Legends team winds up in Indianapolis.

3. Minnesota is one of the best stories in the Big Ten and the nation: How many teams could have withstood their coach taking a leave of absence in the middle of the season? The Gophers are not just surviving but thriving since Jerry Kill decided to focus on his epilepsy treatment. They followed up a win at Northwestern with Saturday's 34-23 upset of No. 25 Nebraska, fulfilling Kill's goal of getting a breakthrough Big Ten win this season. It marked Minnesota's first win against Nebraska since 1960. Acting coach Tracy Claeys has done a great job of guiding the team, while Kill -- who sat in the coaches' booth Saturday -- continues to provide an inspirational presence. Minnesota isn't overly blessed with top-notch talent, especially in the passing game, as it completed just eight attempts versus the Huskers. But the team is starting to do the two most important things in the Big Ten: run the ball and stop the run. The Gophers are bowl eligible for the second straight year and one of the best stories in college football.

4. More uncomfortable times await Nebraska, Northwestern: It wasn't long ago that the Nov. 2 game between Northwestern and Nebraska looked like a heavyweight showdown. Now it looks like a matchup of two desperate, flawed teams. The Huskers had been feasting on inferior competition since the UCLA loss and took a quick 10-0 lead at Minnesota. Then the wheels came off, and Nebraska's defense proved that it hasn't really gotten much better as the Gophers ran over and around the Blackshirts the rest of the day. Taylor Martinez was rusty, as you'd expect after a six-week layoff with a foot injury, and with the quarterback not able to run much, the offense was limited in its options. This has to qualify as one of the worst losses in the Bo Pelini era, and another week of uncomfortable questions is coming in Lincoln. Meanwhile, this is shaping up as a lost year for Northwestern, which fell to 0-4 since "GameDay" arrived in Evanston. The Wildcats got Kain Colter back and outrushed Iowa by nearly 100 yards but made too many mistakes in their 17-10 overtime loss. Two fumbles in Iowa territory -- the second coming late in the game, one play after a needless penalty pushed back a drive that had reached the Iowa 30 -- proved too much to overcome. Coach Pat Fitzgerald declined to call a timeout in the final couple of minutes in regulation to give his team a chance to win it. In a very brief postgame news conference, Fitzgerald said the wind at Kinnick Stadium was going to make it tough for Northwestern to kick a field goal, but it was still an oddly conservative choice. "We suck right now," was Colter's take on an offense that has gone into hibernation. Both Nebraska and Northwestern have all kinds of issues heading into next week.

5. Don't sleep on Iowa: The Hawkeyes are most likely going back to a bowl game this year, with five wins banked and a game remaining with Purdue. But just making the postseason might not be the limit for Iowa. Kirk Ferentz's team went toe to toe with Ohio State in Week 8 and followed it up with Saturday's win over Northwestern, a program that has given them trouble in recent years. Iowa's offense got shut down in the second half, but Jake Rudock made a great throw under heavy pressure to C.J. Fiedorowicz in overtime for the winning touchdown. The Hawkeyes' defense is playing at a high level and got standout games from linebackers Anthony Hitchens and James Morris and freshman cornerback Desmond King, among others. In addition, one of the best offensive lines in the league will give Iowa a chance in all of its remaining games; Wisconsin and Michigan still have to come to Kinnick Stadium, and Nebraska did not show it could stop a power running game on Saturday. Last year's 4-8 fiasco is firmly in the rearview mirror, and Iowa at the very least will be a major spoiler in the Legends race.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Play calls in football have unusual names. Coaches assign the words to ensure clarity in the language barked at the line of scrimmage, to offer a reminder of the formation or personnel.

Rarely does their strategy involve the opponent. This one did: Shift Husker Bob Y-Go.

Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover called it for the first time on Saturday as the Gophers opened their second drive of the third quarter.

Ahead by four points, they sent 6-foot-6, 302-pound freshman Ben Lauer wide like a receiver. He settled into a stance at the snap, providing a distraction just long enough for tight end Drew Goodger to flash open and snag a pass from Philip Nelson that gained 21 yards.

Four plays later, Nelson scored. Minnesota went back to the 6-5, 265-pound Goodger twice more in the third quarter for a total of 68 yards -- more than double his receiving yardage total in six games this year prior to Saturday.

[+] EnlargeNebraska vs Minnesota
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota took a page out of Nebraska's playbook to pull out the victory against the No. 24 Huskers.
Yes, Minnesota went big against 24th-ranked Nebraska in this 34-23 victory at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers beat the Huskers at their own once-dominant game, punishing the Blackshirts in a way Nebraska has for 50 years trounced Minnesota.

The Gophers rushed for 271 yards, the most allowed by Nebraska in an already disappointing defensive season, and they did it by running downhill. Few big gains; just a consistent, powerful, deflating attack that stung Nebraska in ways the Huskers never imagined might happen at this venue.

You see, Minnesota has long served as a Nebraska doormat, like an out-of-conference version of Kansas or Iowa State before the Huskers' 2011 Big Ten entry. The victory on Saturday snapped a 16-game Nebraska winning streak in the series.

Minnesota last beat the Huskers in 1960. Nebraska won the past 12 games by an average of more than 40 points.

“Those games have no meaning to us,” said Tracy Claeys, the Gophers’ acting coach and defensive coordinator under Jerry Kill before the Minnesota coach took a medical leave to undergo treatment for his epileptic seizures.

Kill watched again on Saturday from the press box. He attended practice last week and spoke to the Gophers before the game. He came to the locker room again at halftime and told the other coaches to leave him with the players.

Claeys said he’s never spent time around a coach as competitive and caring as Kill, a rare mix.

“To have him around just means so much,” Claeys said. “We want to make sure we do him well.”

They sure did, storming back from a 10-0 deficit with 17 straight points in the first half, then burying the Huskers with a late defensive stand and a 34-yard touchdown march to ice it in the final minute.

Minnesota completed just eight passes. But it controlled the line of scrimmage. It forced two turnovers and committed none. It sacked Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez four times.

A small army of Huskers limped off the field.

“We know who we are,” Minnesota running back David Cobb said, “and we know what we like to do.”

Cobb rushed for 138 yards on 31 carries. The junior from Killeen, Texas, talked to the Huskers in the recruiting process, he said, but Nebraska didn’t offer a scholarship.

“If you’re going to win Big Ten football games,” Claeys said, “you’ve got to run the ball and stop the run.”

It stings for Nebraska, because that plan, for decades, epitomized Nebraska. So much of what happened on Saturday stings for the Huskers. The name of the jumbo formation, the method through which Minnesota inflicted misery.

And then there’s this: Limegrover said the Gophers pored over film of Wisconsin’s 70-31 victory over the Huskers last year in the Big Ten championship game. Some of Minnesota’s misdirection and sweep plays came straight from that film.

You mean, the Huskers haven’t fixed that yet?

“This game comes down to blocking and tackling,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said, “and we didn’t do that very well.”

Really, it’s about more than that for Nebraska. It’s about a painful loss on Saturday that harkened images of an era in this program that began a decade ago with defeats to programs like Kansas and Iowa State and ended with the 2007 hiring of Bo Pelini that was supposed to stop such madness.

Claeys said after the game that “there are bigger wins out there for us.”

Painful words again for Nebraska, but the coach is right. Minnesota, after consecutive Big Ten wins for the first time since 2010, is bowl eligible in October and plays Indiana and Penn State before a tough finishing stretch against Wisconsin and Michigan State.

The Gophers celebrated Saturday on the field with Minnesota students, but they're not ready to rest on this success.

“Whatever we’re doing right now is working,” sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson said, who replaced starter Mitch Leidner after three possessions.

It’s an odd mix, for sure, the quarterback rotation and uncertain coaching situation.

“On the inside, as a staff, we could see it getting better,” Claeys said. “But the kids needed something to give them belief.”

Saturday gave them belief.

Claeys said he was a freshman in high school when Nebraska visited Minnesota 30 years ago and won 84-13. Some old-timers at Minnesota bitterly remember that game. None of the current Gophers, of course, were alive.

The Huskers also played UCLA and Wyoming out of conference in 1983, winning by a total of 68 points -- opponents that combined to outscore Nebraska by 17 points this season.

It’s a new age at Nebraska.

At Minnesota, too, and for the better here.
Some items to keep your eye on this weekend in Big Ten action:

1. Whether Taylor Martinez plays: The Nebraska quarterback returned to practice this week after being out more than a month with a turf toe injury. Bo Pelini said Martinez looked good in Sunday’s practice but whether that translates into getting game snaps Saturday at Minnesota remains to be seen. With Martinez out, senior Ron Kellogg III has stepped in and played well. The Cornhuskers have picked up three consecutive wins since the UCLA loss, but they definitely aren’t the same team without Martinez calling the shots. Nebraska has a favorable schedule to run the table in conference play, but the Cornhuskers will have to make sure they don’t slip up anywhere, and those kind of slip-ups seem much more probable with Martinez on the sideline. If he’s 100 percent, he should play this weekend, so it’ll be interesting to see if and how he takes the field.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State's Jeremy Langford scored four touchdowns against Indiana.
2. Opportunities for big nights: There are a few matchups this weekend that provide interesting pairings and could produce big nights for a few individuals. Michigan State faces Illinois, the second-worst rushing defense in the Big Ten. Of late, MSU running back Jeremy Langford has really come into his own (two consecutive 100-yard games). Northwestern has the No. 9 rushing defense in the Big Ten, and Iowa running back Mark Weisman -- who has had a few disappointing games in a row but is looking for a chance to rebound -- will have the opportunity to face a defense that he could tear apart. But it’s not just Weisman who could have a big night. Northwestern also has the No. 11 pass defense in the Big Ten, so QB Jake Rudock could look to take shots of his own downfield.

3. Young QBs with road trips: Michigan State redshirt sophomore Connor Cook and Penn State freshman Christian Hackenberg are two years apart, but they’re both in their first full seasons of commanding their offenses. This weekend, the two will look for big wins on the road. Cook has gone 1-1 in the Spartans’ road games (lost at Notre Dame, won at Iowa), while Hackenberg’s task in Columbus will be a bit more difficult. The true freshman has never played in an environment quite like The Horseshoe. Penn State’s only road game this season was three weeks ago at Indiana. This weekend, he’ll be thrown into a very hostile environment. He’ll have the chance to see and feel what every opposing QB has to go through when they come to Beaver Stadium.

4. Northwestern looking to pick up its first Big Ten win: Did anyone bet on the Wildcats going through the first month of their conference schedule without a single win? Bueller? Bueller? It has definitely been a surprise to see how flat the Wildcats have fallen after their Big Ten opening loss to Ohio State. The way in which they lost to Wisconsin and the fact they lost to Minnesota came as big shocks and so now, a month after the conference season began, we’re still waiting on the Wildcats to pick up that elusive first win. They’ll play at Iowa, which is a difficult environment as the fans are basically on top of the players. But the Buckeyes took care of business against Iowa last weekend, so if Northwestern can replicate that kind of play (or the play the Cats had against Ohio State), we might see a mark in the W column.

5. Relapse or improvements -- it could go either way for some teams: Northwestern isn’t the only team that wants to improve on its most recent performance(s). Add the Buckeyes and Michigan State to that list as well. Ohio State trailed Iowa at the half last weekend in Columbus. The Buckeyes offense got off to a bit of a slow start as it scored only 10 first-half points, and Carlos Hyde rushed for just 43 yards. Michigan State suffered similar issues but worse. The defense scored its fifth touchdown of the season, but the Spartans offense didn’t score until the fourth quarter and it was on a trick play. Michigan State heads to Illinois. The Illini are giving up more than 32 points per game and are winless in Big Ten play. So it’ll be interesting to see how the Spartans, Buckeyes and Wildcats respond after performances that were less than inspiring.

6. Minnesota picking up momentum ... sort of: It’s hard to say the Gophers are starting to put it together since their win against Northwestern came when the Cats were missing running back Venric Mark and quarterback Kain Colter. But it was a road win that brought Minnesota quite a bit of confidence. This weekend, they’ll welcome Nebraska to Minneapolis. The Cornhuskers might be without their QB, which would obviously benefit the Gophers defense and be another situation that could produce a “they won, but ...” situation.

Big Ten predictions: Week 9

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
9:00
AM ET
Who are these guys? We're the real American pickers, and we're sifting through the Big Ten rubble to make our selections for Week 9. Thankfully, this is the final Saturday with a measly four games on the docket, as all 12 teams will be in action Nov. 2.

Adam clings to a one-game lead in the season standings, as the race for a dinner at St. Elmo in Indianapolis remains at steak. Our Week 8 picks mirrored one another. Will it be the same in Week 9?

Let's get started …

NEBRASKA at MINNESOTA


Brian Bennett: This is a good spot to bring back Taylor Martinez, so he can shake off some rust before the telling November stretch begins. I think Nebraska will still want to be a bit careful with its quarterback, however, and not risk any further harm to his turf toe. So Martinez doesn't run much but throws a pair of touchdowns to Quincy Enunwa, and the improving Huskers defense has a strong showing against a rather one-dimensional Minnesota attack. … Nebraska 28, Minnesota 16


Adam Rittenberg: A healthy Martinez makes the difference for the Huskers as the senior quarterback breaks off a long touchdown run in the first quarter and finishes with three combined scores. Philip Nelson rallies Minnesota in the second quarter with touchdown passes to Maxx Williams and Derrick Engel, but the Huskers' offense proves to be too much in the second half as Ameer Abdullah records another 100-yard game. … Nebraska 35, Minnesota 24

NORTHWESTERN at IOWA


Adam Rittenberg: Iowa has played better than its record shows, while Northwestern is in a major tailspin. So why am I picking Northwestern? Kain Colter's likely return gives Northwestern the ingredients it has been missing on offense the past two weeks. Colter will convert key third downs like he did last year against Iowa, and while the Hawkeyes take an early lead behind Mark Weisman's rushing and their tight-end play, Northwestern finds its offense again in the second half and rallies for a win at Kinnick. … Northwestern 31, Iowa 28

Brian Bennett: I've picked against Iowa a lot this season, with some successes (Northern Illinois, Michigan State) and some failures (Iowa State, Minnesota). I might give Hawkeyes fans a complex if I pick against them at home against a team that's 0-3 in the Big Ten. I'm still tempted to go with Northwestern because of the Wildcats' recent success against Iowa and the return of Colter. But I also really liked the way the Hawkeyes played at Ohio State on offense and think they can keep it up by using those big tight ends. It's going to be a close one, but Mike Meyer hits the game-winner with 90 seconds to go. … Iowa 27, Northwestern 24


MICHIGAN STATE at ILLINOIS


Brian Bennett: The Illini are at home, and Michigan State might get caught peeking toward Michigan. But the Illinois defense is really struggling right now, too much so to foresee an upset here. I think Connor Cook will get back on track a bit with 200 yards passing and a TD, and the Michigan State defense will force three turnovers against Nathan Scheelhaase & Co., including another one for a score. … Michigan State 24, Illinois 12


Adam Rittenberg: This could be a trap game for the Spartans before next week's home showdown against rival Michigan, but I think Michigan State's offense received its wakeup call against Purdue. Illinois' struggles against the run continue as Jeremy Langford goes for 120 yards and two touchdowns. The Illini strike first with a long scoring pass to Ryan Lankford and move the ball well at times, but Michigan State clamps down and records another defensive touchdown in the third quarter. … Michigan State 27, Illinois 16

PENN STATE at OHIO STATE


Adam Rittenberg: Get ready for another fun one at the Horseshoe, as both offenses can put up points and stretch the field. Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg looks nothing like a freshman in the first half with two touchdown passes before showing his youth late in the game, as he's picked off by Buckeyes cornerback Bradley Roby. As we've seen in the past few games, Ohio State's offensive line takes control in the second half. Carlos Hyde goes for 120 yards and a score as the Buckeyes use a big fourth quarter to win. … Ohio State 38, Penn State 28

Brian Bennett: Yeah, I think this has a chance to be a wild one. So wild that I'm calling for … overtime. With a week off to prepare, I expect Bill O'Brien to throw the kitchen sink at the Buckeyes' defense, and for Hackenberg to hook up with Allen Robinson for three scores. Ohio State mounts its patented comeback, ties the score on a Braxton Miller heave to Corey Brown, and wins it on a Hyde run in the second OT. … Ohio State 51, Penn State 48


That's how we see things playing out on Saturday. Now it's time to hear from 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), 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 picker is Nick Galea from Normal, Ill. What'cha got, Nick?
Hey guys, I should be the guest picker because my life revolves around Big Ten football. I currently hold two degrees from Big Ten schools (MSU undergrad/Illinois law), and I've watched Big Ten football in 7 different venues in my life. This week is of special significance to me, as my two alma maters square off in Champaign. I'd love to have a prediction on the line while I'm in Memorial Stadium watching Nate Scheelhaase test the league's No. 1 defense. Thanks!

Here are Nick's Week 9 picks ...

Nebraska 38, Minnesota 24
Iowa 28, Northwestern 27
Michigan State 27, Illinois 10
Ohio State 45, Penn State 38

SEASON RECORDS

Adam Rittenberg: 55-9
Brian Bennett: 54-10
Guest pickers: 49-15

Injury impact: Big Ten

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
8:00
AM ET
Injuries are an unfortunate part of the game. Every team must deal with them, but some teams get hurt harder than others. Today, we're taking a look at the teams that have been impacted the most this season. Here's our ranking of the top three:

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

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


3. Nebraska: The Huskers' injury problems haven't adversely affected them -- at least not yet. Still, it's never easy when you lose your four-year starting quarterback, and Taylor Martinez hasn't played since Week 3 versus UCLA because of turf toe. He could be back this week, but All-American guard Spencer Long was lost for the season in the last game against Purdue with a knee injury. He'll be tough to replace.

Taylor Martinez returns to practice

October, 21, 2013
10/21/13
3:30
PM ET
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez returned to practice on Sunday after a five-week layoff due to a foot injury, but his availability for Saturday as the 24th-ranked Huskers visit Minnesota remains in question.

“I thought he looked good, but we didn’t give him a lot,” coach Bo Pelini said on Monday. “We’ll just see how it goes as the week goes on, how he feels.”

Martinez has missed three games with a turf-toe injury to his left foot. He last played on Sept. 14 in a 41-21 loss to UCLA.

The fifth-year senior, who owns the school’s career total offense record, gave way to redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. Armstrong played well in wins against South Dakota State and Illinois before struggling on Oct. 12 in the Huskers’ 44-7 win at Purdue.

Senior Ron Kellogg III has also played extensively in the absence of Martinez.

Saturday’s visit to Minnesota (noon ET, ESPN) marks the start of a stretch in which Nebraska (5-1 overall, 2-0 in the Big Ten) will play the Gophers, Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Iowa.

Senior receiver Kenny Bell said he was excited to see Martinez back in pads on Sunday, saying he was “very optimistic” that the 43-game starter could return this week.

Pelini described the quarterback’s work in practice as “good.”

“Obviously, he’s got some rust in some areas that he’s got to get cleaned up,” the coach said. “It’s going to be getting back footwork-wise and feeling comfortable with the different movements -- and obviously feeling comfortable being able to put his foot in the ground.”

Asked if Armstrong or Kellogg would still factor in Nebraska’s plan this week if Martinez returns, Pelini said it’s too early to make a call.

“Lots of ifs,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes.”
The top half of the Power Rankings remains virtually unchanged, as Big Ten kingpin Ohio State rallied to beat Iowa, Wisconsin stomped Illinois, and the Michigan schools held serve in vastly different ways (all defense for Michigan State, all offense for Michigan).

The changes come in the league's second tier, as Northwestern continues its shocking tumble after a home loss to Minnesota, which moves up three spots. Iowa actually moves up despite a loss, as we liked the Hawkeyes' game plan and execution against Ohio State. Indiana also holds steady after nearly winning a shootout at the Big House.

Let's take one final look at the Week 7 rankings.

Now for the fresh rundown ...

1. Ohio State (7-0, 3-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): Another test passed for Ohio State, which overcame a plucky Iowa team with a stellar second half behind quarterback Braxton Miller (222 pass yards, 2 TDs, 102 rush yards) and running back Carlos Hyde (149 rush yards, 2 TDs). The Buckeyes also survived the ejection of star cornerback Bradley Roby in the first quarter and limited Iowa's offense to one big play in the second half. The defense once again will be challenged this week as Christian Hackenberg, Allen Robinson and Penn State visit Columbus.

2. Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1; last week: 2): Ohio State retains its spot atop the rankings with a perfect record, but Wisconsin has looked like the Big Ten's most dominant team of late. After crushing Northwestern at Camp Randall Stadium, the Badgers went on the road and steamrolled Illinois, as running backs Melvin Gordon (142 rush yards, 3 TDs) and James White (98 rush yards, 2 TDs, 29 receiving yards, 1 TD) did their thing and Joel Stave had an extremely efficient performance (16 of 21 passing, 189 yards, 2 TDs). The second open week comes at a good time as linebacker Chris Borland must get healthy for the stretch run, which features some tricky games.

3. Nebraska (5-1, 2-0; last week: 3): The Huskers might be the Legends Division favorite at this point, as they get Michigan State at home. Quarterback Taylor Martinez should make his return from turf toe this week against Minnesota as Nebraska tries to keep building momentum before the season's defining month. Martinez needs some work before the schedule gets tougher, and the Huskers' offensive line plays its first game without standout guard Spencer Long.

4. Michigan State (6-1, 3-0; last week: 4): A shutout of Purdue wasn't surprising. Neither was another defensive touchdown, Michigan State's fifth of the season, courtesy of linebacker Denicos Allen. But Michigan State's offense took a step backward, as the line struggled to control Purdue's defensive front and Connor Cook completed only 13 passes for 107 yards. The Spartans will need to be sharper this week against Illinois and particularly when the schedule gets tougher in November.

5. Michigan (6-1, 2-1; last week: 5): We think Jeremy Gallon just caught another long pass. Gallon set a Big Ten single-game record with 369 receiving yards (second most in FBS history), while quarterback Devin Gardner set team records for pass yards (503) and total yards (584) and accounted for five total touchdowns. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint added 151 yards and four touchdowns. Michigan needed all the offense to win a shootout with Indiana at the Big House. As for the defense? A problem for another day. Michigan has two weeks to prepare for its Nov. 2 showdown at Michigan State.

6. Penn State (4-2, 1-1; last week: 7): The off week came at a good time for Penn State after a physically and emotionally draining four-overtime win against Michigan. The Lions had more diversity in their passing game against the Wolverines and will need the same -- as well as strong run production -- to keep pace with Ohio State on Saturday in Columbus. Penn State has won two of its past three games at Ohio Stadium and could play spoiler down the stretch in Leaders Division play.

7. Iowa (4-3, 1-2; last week: 8): Credit Iowa for an excellent game plan coming off the open week. The Hawkeyes racked up 17 first-half points against Ohio State and controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Ultimately, better talent won out as Iowa couldn't keep pace with Miller, Hyde and the Buckeyes, but the Hawkeyes certainly could make some noise down the stretch in the wide-open Legends Division. Sophomore tight end Jake Duzey (6 receptions, 138 yards, 1 TD) gives Jake Rudock another weapon in the passing game. Iowa returns home this week to face sputtering Northwestern.

8. Minnesota (5-2, 1-2; last week: 11): The bye week clearly paid off for Minnesota, and so did a halftime pep talk from coach Jerry Kill, who made his presence felt at Ryan Field without being on the sideline. Minnesota dominated the line of scrimmage, as defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, running back David Cobb and quarterback Philip Nelson, who relieved Mitch Leidner, stepped up in the final three quarters. The Gophers took advantage of a short-handed Northwestern team and overcame several bad calls to record a big road win. Up next: Nebraska at home.

9. Indiana (3-4, 1-2; last week: 9): The Hoosiers are high on entertainment value, boasting the Big Ten's best quick-strike offense and quite possibly the league's best group of wide receivers. But all those highlights and points still aren't translating to enough wins. It's the same movie with IU, with an A-plus offense and a D-minus defense, which surrendered an unacceptable 63 points and 751 yards to Michigan on Saturday. Tre Roberson was brilliant at Michigan and seemed to pass by Nate Sudfeld in the quarterback pecking order. But the defense remains the team's top priority entering the open week.

10. Northwestern (4-3, 0-3; last week: 6): The free-fall continues for a Wildcats team that was No. 2 in the power rankings just two weeks ago. Remember when Northwestern held a fourth-quarter lead against Ohio State? Key injuries certainly have played a role in Northwestern's downfall, but quarterback Trevor Siemian seems to be regressing and so is the offensive line. A bowl game suddenly is no guarantee for the Wildcats, who need to get Kain Colter and Venric Mark healthy and refocus for the stretch run. They visit Iowa this week.

11. Illinois (3-3, 0-2; last week: 10): The Illini needed a fast start coming off the open week against Wisconsin but stumbled out of the gate, falling behind 21-0 on their home field before course-correcting in the second quarter. Quarterback play wasn't the issue, as Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole combined to complete 25 of 32 passes for 318 yards, but two fumbles led to Wisconsin touchdowns and Illinois' defense couldn't slow down the Badgers. The Illini need at least one upset down the stretch to have a chance to reach six wins and a bowl.

12. Purdue (1-6, 0-3; last week: 12): Darrell Hazell's squad can build on Saturday's road performance against Michigan State, especially a Boilers defense that allowed just one score and repeatedly penetrated the backfield. The offense had several chances but couldn't finish drives in Spartans territory. Purdue needs to clean up its pass protection after allowing five sacks, but if Bruce Gaston Jr. and the defensive front continues to step up, a win could be coming down the stretch. The Boilers have a week off before hosting Ohio State.

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