NCF Nation: Trevor Siemian

There are different opinions inside Northwestern's locker room on whether to form a union, but team leaders continue to speak out against unionization.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Byron Hetzler/USA TODAY SportsTrevor Siemian is one of 76 Northwestern players who will vote on April 25 on whether to form a union.
Senior quarterback Trevor Siemian went into greater detail Wednesday on why he opposes the formation of a union. Seventy-six Wildcats players will vote on April 25 on whether to form a union after being declared employees of the school by the regional director of Chicago's National Labor Relations Board office. A 50.1 percent majority (39 players, unless some abstain) is required to green-light the union.

Here's what Siemian had to say on the Big Ten West Division spring football teleconference:

  • He began by outlining how Northwestern has treated him "far better than I deserve" during his career. Although Siemian believes the union discussion began with good intentions, he wishes players first had consulted coach Pat Fitzgerald and athletic director Jim Phillips, who have advocated for them in the past. Fitzgerald on Saturday made a similar point, noting his position on the American Football Coaches Association board of trustees and how he meets regularly with Big Ten and NCAA officials.
  • "There's a significant amount of guys on the team that feel pretty similarly to me," Siemian said of the union debate.
  • Just because players signed union cards in January to seek employee status doesn't mean a union is in their best interests, Siemian said. He reiterated that bringing a third party (the College Athletes Players Association) into a favorable situation at Northwestern could have unintended consequences.

Fitzgerald didn't take questions Wednesday about the union push, but he said of Siemian: "There's no question Trevor is our leader. This is Trevor Siemian's football team."

Clearly, others feel differently than Siemian, who acknowledged that football teams feature members of different religions and backgrounds. But he has become much more influential this spring after sharing the quarterback duties with Kain Colter, who spearheaded the union push. Colter was Northwestern's undisputed leader the past two seasons and remains close to some players, but he's not on the team any more.

From talking to those in and around the program, I get the sense that players weren't fully aware of the ramifications when they signed the union cards in January. It's much more real now, the spotlight is brighter, and some have changed their minds.

Enough to vote down the union? We'll find out on April 25.
This time last year, Northwestern players wore T-shirts that read "5:03," a reference to how much time away they were from an undefeated season in 2012.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
David Banks/USA TODAY SportsNot much went right for Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats last season, but there's reason for optimism in 2014.
No such motivational ploys are involved in the wardrobe this spring, as everyone on the Wildcats would mostly like to forget last season's highly disappointing 5-7 campaign. Still, if Pat Fitzgerald were in the mood for any shirt slogans this year, he could use a time stamp even lower than 5:03.

As bad as things went for Northwestern in 2013, it was still only a handful of plays away from at least matching its nine-win regular season from the previous year. The Wildcats lost on a Hail Mary at Nebraska. They lost in triple overtime to Michigan after the Wolverines pulled off a miraculous field goal at the end of regulation. They fell in overtime on the road at Iowa. They lost by three points to Minnesota and had a chance to take the lead late in the fourth quarter against Ohio State.

We revisit those games not to renew Northwestern fans' heartburn but to bring up a point. If you're looking for a team capable of registering a major turnaround in 2014, look no farther than Evanston, Ill.

The defending Big Ten champions are a prime example of why. Michigan State lost five league games by a total of 13 points in 2012. When a team drops that many close games, it's often a case of bad luck and bad bounces that can turn the other way a year later. The Spartans didn't lose a Big Ten game in 2013 and proved that the 2012 season was merely a blip during an otherwise highly successful run.

Maybe an even better example for Northwestern is Iowa. Like the Wildcats, the Hawkeyes had been a perennial bowl team before stumbling through an uncharacteristic 4-8 season in 2012. Injuries played a big role in Iowa's one-year demise, particularly on the offensive line. With better health in 2013, the Hawkeyes came back strong with an 8-4 regular season and trip to the Outback Bowl.

Fitzgerald's team suffered a slew of crippling injuries last fall, including ones that sidelined their top two offensive weapons, quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark. By early November, the Wildcats had 20 key players who were either out or severely compromised by bumps and bruises, strains and sprains.

If there's any upside to an injury rash, it's usually that it allows a lot of younger players to gain valuable playing time. Northwestern returns a lot of experience this season, with just about everybody back on offense except for Colter and receiver Rashad Lawrence, while the key losses on defense (defensive end Tyler Scott, middle linebacker Damien Proby) come at positions where ready-made replacements appear available.

Even without Colter, the Wildcats have a senior quarterback in Trevor Siemian who has played in every game the past two seasons. The team got only three games and 183 total yards last year from Mark, a dynamic tailback and kick returner who compiled over 2,100 all-purpose yards in 2012. Given an extra year of eligibility, Mark could have a huge impact on the offense if he can regain his health.

Northwestern was being toasted nationally after a 10-win season in 2012, and it had risen up to No. 15 in the coaches' poll last year before the primetime, "GameDay" loss to Ohio State. Last season's results pressed pause on the program's upward trajectory, but that doesn't mean it has stopped.

The Wildcats will be challenged by a 2014 schedule that includes a nonconference home game against Northern Illinois (Sept. 6) and a much-anticipated matchup at Notre Dame (Nov. 15), plus crossover games against Michigan and Penn State from the East Division. But presumed West favorites Nebraska and Wisconsin both come to Ryan Field. And in what looks like a wide-open division race, Northwestern could certainly factor in.

All this assumes the Wildcats can avoid the same problems as a year ago, and with 11 key players being held out of spring practice, getting healthy is the first order of business. But can things really go as badly as they did in 2013?

"If we didn't have bad luck," Fitzgerald said before the Michigan game, "we wouldn't have any luck at all."

Even a semblance of good luck this fall could make Northwestern the Big Ten's best bet for a turnaround season.
Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.
The last two seasons have shown that two-quarterback systems can work in the Big Ten.

Northwestern recorded 10 wins in 2012 while rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Indiana led the Big Ten and ranked ninth nationally in total offense last fall while alternating between Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa, Connor Cook
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAfter taking over the quarterback job in Week 5, Connor Cook led the Spartans to 10 consecutive wins.
Given the recent success, my next statement might surprise you: Every Big Ten team would be best served picking one quarterback and sticking with him in 2014. That includes Indiana and Northwestern.

Quarterback rotations can be successful in the short term, but they are rarely sustainable or desirable. We saw this at Northwestern last fall, as the Wildcats never established a consistent offensive rhythm and operated with a reduced playbook, in part because of injuries but also because the unit lacked a clear identity. Northwestern finished 10th in the league in scoring.

Minnesota alternated between quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner during several games, including the Texas Bowl against Syracuse. Although the Gophers had a nice surge during Big Ten play and recorded eight wins, they also finished 11th in the league in scoring and last in passing.

Nebraska had some success using two quarterbacks (Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III) last season but did so out of necessity following Taylor Martinez's injury. The Huskers also struggled to pass the ball, finishing 11th in the league.

The strongest argument for picking a quarterback and sticking with him comes from the Big Ten's best team in 2013. Michigan State's offense was a train wreck in non-league play as the Spartans used three quarterbacks. After a Week 4 loss to Notre Dame, the coaches decided Connor Cook would be their guy. You all know what happened next, but what struck me was Cook's mindset at the time.

"We went through spring ball competition and fall camp competition, it was the most stressed out I've ever been in my entire life just trying to be the quarterback," Cook said last month before the Rose Bowl. "After I got the starting job and started a couple of games, the stress went away and it turned to focus, me being focused and knowing they're not going to use other quarterbacks in the game and not stress too much that go if I make a bad play I'm going to be pulled.

"That's when the stress went out the window."

Players like Northwestern's Siemian and Indiana's Roberson and Sudfeld are more accustomed to sharing time than Cook was, but each of them, like any quarterback, would rather be the clear-cut starter.

Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase is another good example of a player who benefited from an unambiguous role. He struggled from the middle of the 2011 season through all of 2012, raising the possibility of a rotation last season. Instead, Scheelhaase started every game and led the Big Ten in passing (3,272 yards).

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAfter playing well in place of Taylor Martinez, sophomore signal-caller Tommy Armstrong Jr. is the favorite to start for the Cornhuskers in 2014.
I'm all for competition at quarterback, and the Big Ten will feature plenty of it this spring and summer. Only five quarterbacks -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, Michigan State's Cook, Iowa's Jake Rudock and Michigan's Devin Gardner -- can feel pretty secure about their starting roles. Gardner has been mentioned as a possible rotation candidate with Shane Morris -- some Michigan fans wouldn't mind seeing Gardner line up at wide receiver, a position of need -- but I'd be surprised if Morris leapfrogs the senior.

I'm also OK with teams employing change-up quarterbacks for a package of plays, be it the Wildcat or something else. Michigan State could be a candidate for this in 2014 with dynamic redshirt freshman Damion Terry possibly spelling Cook from time to time.

The first few games also provide a platform to use multiple quarterbacks in settings that can't be replicated on the practice field. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel often did this with his younger quarterbacks, giving them a first-half series or two. It makes sense. But by Week 4, roles must be identified.

The offseason is full of Big Ten quarterback questions:

  • Will Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt take the reins at Illinois?
  • How will Gardner and Hackenberg fare with new offensive coordinators?
  • After Nelson's transfer, who emerges at Minnesota among Leidner, Chris Streveler and possibly a young quarterback such as Dimonic McKinzy?
  • Nebraska's Armstrong went 6-1 as a freshman starter, but can he hold off Johnny Stanton?
  • Can Gary Nova retain his job at Rutgers?
  • Will Danny Etling keep the top job at Purdue, or will Austin Appleby and possibly early enrollee David Blough enter the mix?
  • How does Siemian bounce back at Northwestern, and do the Wildcats look at Matt Alviti and Zack Oliver?
  • Will either Roberson or Sudfeld finally separate himself at IU?

Ultimately, these questions must be answered. The teams that avoid prolonged rotations should be better off for it.

Final Big Ten Power Rankings

January, 15, 2014
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Before we close the book on the 2013 season, here's the final version of the Big Ten power rankings. Bowl performances were factored in, as well as how teams finished the season, although there aren't too many changes from the previous version of the power rankings.

Let's get started ...

1. Michigan State (13-1, previously: 1): The Spartans rallied to beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO to record their team-record 13th victory. Thanks to stifling defense and improved quarterback play, Michigan State had its best season since the mid-1960s. The Spartans return QB Connor Cook and most of the skill players on offense, but must replace a lot of production on defense.

2. Ohio State (12-2, previously: 2): After winning 24 consecutive games to open the Urban Meyer era, Ohio State dropped consecutive games on big stages. The Buckeyes' defense couldn't slow down Clemson's pass game in the Discover Orange Bowl, and turnovers doomed Ohio State in the second half. Meyer's defensive staff will have a different look with new assistants Chris Ash and Larry Johnson.

3. Wisconsin (9-4, previously: 3): Like Ohio State, Wisconsin ended its season with a thud and a sloppy bowl performance against South Carolina. The Badgers received big performances from running backs Melvin Gordon and James White but couldn't stop South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw or hang on to the football.

4. Nebraska (9-4, previously: 6): All roads lead to 9-4 for Bo Pelini's team, but the Huskers are much happier to be there after an upset victory over Georgia in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. An improved defense did a nice job of keeping the Bulldogs out of the end zone, and seniors such as wide receiver Quincy Enunwa stepped up in their final college game.

5. Iowa (8-5, previously: 4): A stout Hawkeyes defense kept the team in the Outback Bowl, but the offense never truly got going and lost starting quarterback Jake Rudock to injury. Iowa had its chances for a quality bowl win, but has to settle for a strong regular-season improvement and raised expectations entering the 2014 season.

6. Penn State (7-5, previously: 7): An impressive victory at Wisconsin marked the final game of the Bill O'Brien era. New coach James Franklin has brought a lot of enthusiasm to Happy Valley and should sparkle on the recruiting trail. His management of talented quarterback Christian Hackenberg and an undermanned defense will loom large this fall.

7. Minnesota (8-5, previously: 5): The Gophers had by far the most favorable bowl matchup but didn't reach the end zone for more than three quarters against Syracuse. Although a special-teams play ultimately doomed Minnesota, the Gophers' inability to establish a better passing game was a key element in a very disappointing loss. Minnesota should expect more in 2014.

8. Michigan (7-6, previously: 8): You knew it would be tough for Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl when quarterback Devin Gardner hobbled off of the plane on crutches. But the Wolverines never gave themselves a chance in the game, caving defensively against Kansas State's Jake Waters and Tyler Lockett. A blowout loss ended Michigan's highly disappointing season and marked the end for offensive coordinator Al Borges. Can coach Brady Hoke get things turned around in 2014?

9. Northwestern (5-7, previously: 9): Northwestern is awaiting confirmation that running back Venric Mark can return for a fifth season, and should get it in the next few weeks. Mark will help an offense that never truly got on track last fall and might need to be more of a pass-first unit if Trevor Siemian remains the starting quarterback. The defense returns nine starters.

10. Indiana (5-7, previously: 10): It took a little longer than expected, but coach Kevin Wilson fired defensive coordinator Doug Mallory last week as Indiana again will try to upgrade a perennially porous unit. The Hoosiers will be more experienced throughout the roster this fall, but the defense must change the script under new leadership as they enter the brutal East Division.

11. Illinois (4-8, previously: 11): While Wilson made a change at defensive coordinator, coach Tim Beckman is sticking with Tim Banks and the rest of his staff for a pivotal 2014 season. Like Indiana, Illinois will be more experienced on defense but must replace Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback. A favorable schedule gives Illinois a chance to make a bowl game.

12. Purdue (1-11, previously: 12): No Big Ten team is more excited to start working this offseason than the Boilers, who are rebuilding through the quarterback spot with Danny Etling and early enrollee David Blough, who officially arrived this week. Purdue must improve along both lines and replace veteran defenders such as cornerback Ricardo Allen and tackle Bruce Gaston Jr.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 14

December, 2, 2013
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There were two huge rivalry games Saturday, with BCS national title implications at stake. What were the odds that both underdog home teams would score a touchdown to get within one point with 32 seconds left in the game?

That was the scenario in both the Ohio State-Michigan and Alabama-Auburn games. You know what happened. Brady Hoke went for the two-point conversion and didn't get it. Auburn chose to kick the extra point for the tie and won on a heaven-sent final play.

[+] EnlargeMichael Bennett
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesOhio State survived a scare from Michigan after the Wolverines failed on a two-point conversion to win the game.
Of course, the Tigers and Wolverines were in vastly different situations. Auburn had much more on the line, while Michigan's season would have been made by beating Ohio State. Auburn also knew that Alabama had a dicey kicking situation. Yet Michigan also was at home, where it had lost only once under Hoke, and it already had played in two overtime games this season. The Wolverines could have given themselves a chance to win on a miracle in regulation or in overtime.

Ultimately, I had no problem with Hoke's call, though the two-point play itself was uninspiring. Sometimes it's not the decision but how it unfolds.

Consider that in the biggest play calls for both Penn State and Northwestern on Saturday, both coaches went with a run up the middle on third down. The Nittany Lions' surprise draw play on third-and-9 from their 19 resulted in a 61-yard gain by Zach Zwinak that put Wisconsin away. Northwestern went with a basic running play on third-and-6 at Illinois and got 11 yards from Treyvon Green, allowing the Wildcats to then run out the clock.

Had those runs been stuffed, both coaches would have been criticized for being too conservative and playing not to lose. It's a tough world, coaching. Unless you are blessed with Guz Malzahn's luck.

Take that and rewind it back ...

Team of the week: Penn State. Absolutely no one saw the Nittany Lions' 31-24 win at Wisconsin coming, especially because PSU had played so poorly on the road in Big Ten play. But coach Bill O'Brien led his team to another victory in a season finale, and recording two straight winning seasons under heavy NCAA sanctions is wildly impressive.

Worst hangover: BCS for Wisconsin? Yes, if that stands for Badgers Caught Sleepwalking. Instead of earning a possible Orange Bowl bid, the Badgers laid a giant egg. A tremendously successful large senior class somehow went out on the worst possible note at Camp Randall Stadium.

Big Men on Campus (offense): It has been a tough year for Northwestern, but the Wildcats finally got a Big Ten win at Illinois. And quarterback Trevor Siemian and receiver Christian Jones were big reasons why. Siemian threw for 414 yards and four touchdowns, while Jones had two of those scores during a 13-catch, 182-yard career day.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Iowa linebacker Christian Kirksey was named Walter Camp national defensive player of the week after recording 11 tackles, including three for loss, plus a sack and a forced fumble against Nebraska. Really, you could just as easily single out fellow linebackers James Morris and Anthony Hitchens, who also had great games to cap tremendous seasons by all three. The Hawkeyes will really miss all three seniors next year.

[+] EnlargeWeisman
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesIowa's Mark Weisman scored two touchdowns in the win over the Cornhuskers.
Big Man on Campus (special teams): Chris Davis. Sure, he plays for Auburn. But his incredible 109-yard kick-six touchdown against Alabama just might allow a Big Ten team to play for the national title for the first time since the 2007 season. Buckeye Nation is a big fan of Davis.

Strangest moment: Penn State's hurry-up offense clearly confused Wisconsin's defense several times. The most obvious moment came early in the third quarter, when the Badgers had only nine men on defense when the Nittany Lions ran a play. Somehow, Wisconsin got out of that power-play situation when Tanner McEvoy broke up an underthrown deep ball.

Pointing the thumb or the finger? Coaches always talk a good game about accountability, and Bo Pelini usually is one to take blame for a poor performance by his team. But the Nebraska coach looked everywhere but in the mirror on his 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Iowa. Pelini said the call was chicken manure -- I'm paraphrasing -- and even brought Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz's own sideline demeanor into the conversation.

But where was the personal responsibility for Pelini nearly hitting an official in the face with his hat? In what other sport -- or walk of life -- would that be acceptable? Even Prop Joe and Avon Barksdale ("The Wire" nerd alert) knew better than to accost the ref in their annual basketball game. Pelini is lucky to still be employed by Nebraska after Friday's meltdowns.

A Bucket load of offense: Indiana took out a little offensive frustration on Purdue. After being bottled up on offense by Wisconsin and Ohio State, the Hoosiers unleashed a school record 692 yards and 42 first downs to win the Old Oaken Bucket for the first time in three years. Tre Roberson, D'Angelo Roberts and Stephen Houston all rushed for more than 100 yards for Indiana, the first time in school history the team produced a trio of 100-yard rushers in the same game.

Zero sum game: Minnesota failed to score an offensive touchdown in its final 10 quarters of the regular season. The lack of an explosive/entertaining offense could hurt the Gophers come bowl selection time. Meanwhile, Michigan State has held six opponents without an offensive TD and pitched shutouts in six of its eight Big Ten games.

Fun with numbers: Because the debate is about to take over our lives, some key comparisons between Ohio State and Auburn:

  • Scoring margin: Plus-27.9 per game for Ohio State, plus-16.1 for Auburn
  • Rushing yardage: 321.3 per game for Ohio State, 318.3 for Auburn
  • Total yards: 530.5 per game for Ohio State, 491 for Auburn
  • Team adjusted QBR: 83.8 for Ohio State, 81.0 for Auburn
  • Yards allowed per game: 355.8 for Ohio State, 414.3 for Auburn
  • Sagarin strength of schedule rating: 61st for Ohio State, 26th for Auburn
  • Wins over ranked teams: One for Ohio State (Wisconsin), three for Auburn (Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M)
Rivalry week in the Big Ten left no doubt: The conference's top two teams will meet in the league championship.

Wisconsin's shocking home loss to Penn State ends the debate over whether the Badgers or Michigan State should be at No. 2 behind front-runner Ohio State. Although the Buckeyes and, to a lesser extent, the Spartans had some struggles Saturday, they found ways to win. The Badgers had their worst performance of the season, and it cost them a potential BCS at-large berth.

That doesn't take away from Penn State, which received big boosts from quarterback Christian Hackenberg and others.

Our big dilemma this week was what to do with the 6-8 spots. Penn State had by far its best showing of the season, and Michigan had its best showing in months, even in defeat, against archrival Ohio State. Nebraska didn't show up at home on Black Friday, however, the Huskers have road wins against both the Lions (six days before the Iowa clunker) and Michigan.

After some spirited debate, we ultimately went with body of work to determine the rundown, especially since these are the final regular-season rankings. We understand it devalues the Week 14 performances a bit.

Here's one last look at the Week 13 rankings.

Now for the new rundown, final regular-season version.

1. Ohio State (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten: last week: 1): The Buckeyes lost their composure early and nearly lost their perfect season late. They were faced with adversity for the first time in six weeks, but they made enough plays on both sides of the ball to win. Running back Carlos Hyde (226 yards, one TD) and quarterback Braxton Miller (five total TDs) led a virtually unstoppable offense, which helped overcome some shoddy pass defense. The Buckeyes now await Michigan State in the Big Ten title game.

2. Michigan State (11-1, 8-0; last week: 3): There weren't many style points against Minnesota, but the Spartans came away with another double-digit Big Ten win. The defense kept Minnesota out of the end zone, as linebacker Denicos Allen led the way. Running back Jeremy Langford (134 rush yards, TD) had another big day as Michigan State moved closer to a BCS bowl berth, regardless of the result in Indianapolis.

3. Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2; last week: 2): It's only a one-spot drop for Wisconsin, but what a downer in Mad City. A team that had been so dominant since falling at Ohio State never showed up on Senior Day against a plucky Penn State team that took control from the onset. Quarterback Joel Stave threw three interceptions in the loss, and one of the Big Ten's better defenses allowed a slew of big plays as Penn State racked up 465 yards. It led to Wisconsin's most surprising home loss in recent memory.

4. Iowa (8-4, 5-3; last week: 4): Kirk Ferentz's crew entered the regular season as a popular pick to finish last in the Legends Division. The Hawkeyes emerged as one of the better teams not only in the division but the entire Big Ten. They've flipped their 2012 regular-season record behind a salty rush defense, led by an outstanding group of linebackers, and a functional offense. After two lackluster showings in the Heroes Game, Iowa outclassed Nebraska in Lincoln and should move up the bowl pecking order.

5. Minnesota (8-4, 4-4; last week: 5): It doesn't take a doctor at the Mayo Clinic to diagnose what's wrong with Minnesota. The Gophers' defense keeps them in every game, and Saturday's matchup at Michigan State proved to be no exception. But the offense simply can't score or consistently pass the football. Minnesota failed to reach double digits for the third time this season despite multiple opportunities in Spartans territory. It's still a great season for Jerry Kill's team, but there's a lot of work to do on offense before a bowl appearance.

6. Nebraska (8-4, 5-3; last week: 6): No one would dispute Bo Pelini that this has been a difficult season in Husker Country. No one would argue with Nebraska's ability to keep fighting. But when the same problems (namely turnovers) surface year after year, the bigger picture of the program becomes more depressing. The Huskers and their head coach self-destructed for much of the Iowa game and fell for the third time on their home field. Fortunately for Pelini, it didn't cost him his job, and he should get another chance to compete for an elusive league title in 2014.

7. Penn State (7-5, 4-4; last week: 8): The Lions had a better team in Bill O'Brien's first season, but they didn't have a better win than Saturday's stunning upset of Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium. After losing their first three road games by a combined score of 131-48, Penn State dominated Wisconsin for much of the afternoon at a place where the Badgers rarely lose. Hackenberg ended his freshman season with a signature performance (339 pass yards, 4 TDs) as the offense repeatedly gashed Wisconsin. A much-maligned defense held the Badgers' run game in check as Penn State ended an up-and-down season on a very good note.

8. Michigan (7-5, 3-5; last week: 7): After plummeting to historic lows earlier in the month, Michigan's offense looked like a completely different unit against Ohio State. Quarterback Devin Gardner played brilliantly, coordinator Al Borges called a good game and several others -- Jeremy Gallon, Jake Butt and De'Veon Smith -- stepped up in a 603-yard effort. It wasn't enough, as Michigan fell by a point and the defense had no answers for Ohio State, but the Wolverines played their best game in months and can feel a bit better entering the postseason.

9. Indiana (5-7, 3-5; last week: 9): Oh, what might have been for Indiana. A team with such an explosive offense and eight home games should have made a bowl game, period, but the Hoosiers couldn't get it done. At least they reclaimed the Old Oaken Bucket as quarterback Tre Roberson (six TD passes, 273 pass yards, 154 rush yards) torched Purdue and received help from Stephen Houston, D'Angelo Roberts, Cody Latimer and others. It's clear the Hoosiers have to make upgrades on defense. They can't keep wasting such explosiveness on offense.

10. Northwestern (5-7, 1-7; last week: 11): A season to forget for Northwestern ended on a positive note, as Pat Fitzgerald's team avoided a winless Big Ten season and recorded another victory against its in-state rival. Quarterback Trevor Siemian enters the offseason with some confidence after passing for a career-high 414 yards and four touchdowns against Illinois. Wide receiver Christian Jones (13 catches, 182 yards, two TDs) also stepped up as Northwestern twice rallied from deficits against Illinois. Fitzgerald said afterward that Northwestern "will be back" in 2014. The work begins now.

11. Illinois (4-8, 1-7; last week 10): The wins total doubled from two to four, which is nothing to celebrate. But Illinois clearly improved in Year 2 under coach Tim Beckman, who should receive another season in Champaign. Illinois has fixed the offense, and while quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will be tough to replace, several playmakers like Josh Ferguson return. A bigger issue is the defense, which had no answer for Northwestern's passing attack on Saturday and surrendered more than 40 points and more than 500 yards per game in Big Ten play.

12. Purdue (1-11, 0-8; last week: 12): The optimist sees a dynamic young quarterback in Danny Etling, who finished his freshman season with 485 pass yards and four touchdowns against Indiana, and a team that can only get better. The pessimist sees a Purdue squad that was the worst in recent Big Ten history and has much work to do on both sides of the ball to become competitive in coach Darrell Hazell's second season. A big offseason awaits Hazell and his staff as they can't go through another season like this one.
Recognizing the best and the brightest around the Big Ten during rivalry weekend:
  • Iowa LBs James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens: The Hawkeyes' starting linebackers have played huge roles in the team's turnaround this season, and they showed why on Black Friday against Nebraska. They combined for seven tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, two interceptions and two sacks. Morris recorded his fourth interception of the season, Kirksey led the team with 11 tackles (3 for loss), and Hitchens had his first career pick. The three seniors have combined for 10 takeaways this season.
  • Michigan State LB Denicos Allen: He led the Spartans' defensive effort with 13 tackles, including two tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries. He tracked down David Cobb from behind near the goal line to keep Minnesota out of the end zone early. Hat tips also go to Trae Waynes, who had his first two career interceptions, and Tyler Hoover, who forced a key fumble deep in the Spartans' red zone in the fourth quarter.
  • Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: This was the best game of the season for the true freshman, as Wisconsin dared the Nittany Lions to pass. Hackenberg responded in a big way and finished 21-of-30 for 339 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. He played a nearly flawless first half and helped engineer a huge upset over No. 15 Wisconsin. There's no need to wait until Monday; it's pretty clear he's the Big Ten freshman of the week.
  • Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde: In a tight game where Braxton Miller attempted just 15 passes, Urban Meyer leaned heavily on Hyde -- and Hyde didn't disappoint. He carried 27 times for 226 yards (8.4 ypc) and a touchdown. Although his fumble led to a Michigan score, the Buckeyes never would've found themselves in the red zone so often without him. Twenty of his carries went for at least 5 yards, and 10 went for at least 10 yards. He ran consistently hard.
  • Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian and WR Christian Jones: It's difficult to pick one over the other since they formed such a dangerous combination on Saturday. Siemian threw for 414 yards -- surpassing his previous season high by 138 yards -- and added four touchdowns. Jones was the main beneficiary as he caught a career-high 13 catches for 182 yards. That nearly doubled his previous career high of 94 yards. It was definitely a game to remember for those two, as the Wildcats finally came away with a Big Ten win.
  • Indiana QB Tre Roberson: It was a good day for Big Ten quarterbacks, and Roberson continued the trend. He didn't exactly play a tough opponent (Purdue), but his performance on the stat sheet was the most impressive. He tossed six touchdowns to two interceptions. And he added 273 passing yards to a game-high 154 rushing yards. The Hoosiers' uptempo offense went through Roberson, and he made the most of it.

Big Ten predictions: Week 14

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
9:00
AM ET
Is it rivalry week already? Indeed it is. Where did this season go?

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 …

Friday

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

Saturday

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

SEASON RECORDS

Brian Bennett: 76-14
Adam Rittenberg: 76-14
Guest pickers: 70-20

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.
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.
Five lessons from Big Ten play in Week 8:

1. Separation not wide in the Big Ten: Given the schedule, we expected Saturday to be filled with blowouts. Just about every game featured double-digit favorites. But with the exception of the Wisconsin-Illinois game, every contest was in doubt late in the second half. Iowa was tied with Ohio State in Columbus going into the fourth quarter. Michigan State struggled to put away Purdue. Minnesota upset Northwestern on the road. Michigan needed some school-record offensive performances to finally get by Indiana. Even Illinois scored 32 points on a Wisconsin defense that had been very stingy. This tells us that the final six weeks of the season could be a wild ride, especially in November, when many of the top contenders play each other. Ohio State is the Big Ten's best team but hasn't dominated any of its first three league opponents -- in fact, the Buckeyes have trailed at halftime in their past two outings. Indiana plays almost no defense but will make every opponent beat it in a crazy shootout. Teams like Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska have enough flaws that you're not quite sure what to expect from week to week. Call it parity or call it mediocrity. Either way, the rest of the Big Ten race should be a whole lot of fun.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsOhio State tailback Carlos Hyde rushed for 149 yards and two scores in the win over Iowa.
2. Ohio State is becoming a second-half team: Coach Urban Meyer's Buckeyes had their first few victories sewn up at the end of the first half, if not the first quarter. In Ohio State's first five games, it outscored its opponents 121-21 in the first quarter and 175-47 in the first half. But after going conservative in the second half of a Sept. 28 win against Wisconsin, the Buckeyes are starting to play their best football in the final 30 minutes of games, mostly because of necessity. Much like they did against Northwestern, the Buckeyes struggled early Saturday against Iowa, which had a terrific offensive game plan and limited Ohio State to 25 first-half plays. But the Buckeyes' offense put on a clinic in the second half, scoring three touchdowns and a field goal on its first four possessions. Ohio State ran 30 plays in the third quarter alone. Braxton Miller, nearly benched against Northwestern because of turnovers, showed why he's the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year, completing 22 of 27 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. He added 102 rush yards, including a cross-field 9-yard scamper on third-and-7 that set up an even better run by Carlos Hyde, who leaped into the end zone for a 19-yard score. Hyde again proved too much down the stretch, bulldozing his way to 149 rush yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries. Ohio State isn't getting rattled by shaky starts, and its knack for strong finishes should come in handy in November.

3. Northwestern has come unglued: A little more than a fortnight ago, Northwestern was a top-20 team that held a fourth-quarter lead on Ohio State. Pretty much nothing has gone right since then. The Wildcats got manhandled 35-6 in Week 7 at Wisconsin, a performance that one could easily chalk up to an Ohio State hangover. But after a 20-17 home loss to Minnesota, it now seems Northwestern is suffering from a serious illness. Losing quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark -- both of whom were injured again at Wisconsin and didn't play versus the Gophers -- has robbed the Wildcats of explosiveness on offense, although coach Pat Fitzgerald's team should still have enough talent to get by Minnesota at home. You wonder whether the injuries have taken a mental toll, and quarterback Trevor Siemian has struggled in a full-time role. Northwestern was once 4-0 and looking like one of the best teams in the Big Ten. Today it is 0-3 in the league, out of Legends Division contention and in need of some answers fast.

4. Don't get too excited about that Michigan State offensive renaissance: Two straight solid offensive performances -- including a 42-point outburst in Week 7 versus Indiana -- made it appear that Michigan State had solved its long-running problems on that side of the ball. Saturday's 14-0 win over Purdue will slow down some of that talk. The Spartans managed just one offensive touchdown and only 294 total yards against the Boilermakers, who entered the game last in the Big Ten in scoring defense (37.8 points per game allowed in the first six weeks). Quarterback Connor Cook, who had come on strong the previous two weeks, went just 13-of-25 for 107 yards. Wide receiver Tony Lippett threw for the lone offensive score on a trick play. At least running back Jeremy Langford had another big day, rushing for 131 yards. Yeah, the weather wasn't great. But the Spartans missed injured receiver Bennie Fowler (hamstring) more than we expected, and given the opponent, their performance raises questions again about whether this is a championship-level offense.

5. Quarterbacks shuffle again at Minnesota and Indiana: If you can figure out the quarterback situations for either the Gophers or the Hoosiers, please let us know. After going back and forth between Mitch Leidner and Philip Nelson -- who appear to share similar skills -- Minnesota seemed to settle on Leidner as its starter. But then Nelson came in and played much better in relief while leading the team to a big victory at Northwestern. Is Nelson back to being the guy? Or is this just a ride-the-hot-hand situation? Similarly, we were confused as to why Kevin Wilson had been reluctant to anoint Nate Sudfeld as the Hoosiers' main signal-caller despite Sudfeld's gaudy numbers this season. Wilson insisted that Tre Roberson still had a role, and Roberson gave the team a huge spark at Michigan with 288 passing yards. Sudfeld threw a costly interception late after Roberson got dinged. Perhaps both teams can juggle two quarterbacks as effectively as Northwestern has done for the past year and a half.

Cats still look to climb over hump

October, 6, 2013
10/06/13
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EVANSTON, Ill. -- The first thing he did was thank the media, and then the fans, especially the fans, the ones who helped create an atmosphere unseen around these parts since he was the one out on Ryan Field making hits some 18 years ago.

And then Pat Fitzgerald offered a bit of an apology.

"Our students were absolutely amazing. I think they started their day at about 2 in the morning, and we're sorry we didn't finish the job for them and give them a great homecoming," said Fitzgerald, the eighth-year Northwestern coach and former Wildcats linebacker. "But unbelievable, the amount of support that we've received from our students. Unbelievable homecoming setting. Incredibly thankful for that."

This town proved itself to be more than worthy of all of the national attention that was washed upon it this past week, from the "College GameDay" circus to the announced crowd of 47,330 in attendance for the prime-time kickoff. Fans and alumni from both Ohio State and Northwestern flooded the L-trains coming from the city and helped give some validation to the moniker of "Chicago's Big Ten Team." Tailgaters weathered late-afternoon thunderstorms that threatened to end this party a few hours too soon.

Then the No. 16 Wildcats gave the natives plenty to cheer about, going blow-for-blow with the No. 4 Buckeyes before falling by a 40-30 final that gave little indication of just how tight the preceding 60 minutes had been.

[+] EnlargeKain Colter, Ryan Shazier
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesRyan Shazier is blitzing more and getting more quarterbacks in his grasp.
"Our players went out there with the right attitude," said linebacker Damien Proby, who was responsible for the third of Braxton Miller's three turnovers when he forced a fumble in the third quarter. "We didn't play this game or approach this game for the media; we played this for ourselves, and we wanted to prove something to ourselves. And that's something that we still need to do, but we definitely took a step in that direction like we wanted to."

Northwestern took a 20-13 lead into halftime on the back of an opportunistic defense that forced two Miller turnovers and saw quarterback Kain Colter score two different times without throwing the ball -- once on a 9-yard third-down strike from co-signal-caller Trevor Siemian, later on a 2-yard rush. Ohio State's only touchdown through 41-plus minutes came on a blocked punt in the end zone, courtesy of cornerback Bradley Roby.

Juggling quarterbacks like they usually do, the Wildcats' biggest crime for much of the game was stalling in the red zone, settling for three short Jeff Budzien field goals that gave them a 10-point lead in the third quarter.

Carlos Hyde was too much, though, as the Buckeyes went back to the basics and relied on the 6-foot, 235-pound bull to barrel his way to the tune of 168 rushing yards and 38 more receiving yards. Hyde reached the end zone three times in the second half, the middle of which, with 11:29 left in the game, was ruled a score after review, giving Ohio State a 27-23 lead. It had come after Northwestern's only turnover of the game, a Siemian pass picked off by Doran Grant.

Siemian finished 13-of-18 for 245 yards with two touchdowns, keeping a number of plays alive with his feet. Colter was 12-for-12 for 98 yards.

Both benefited greatly form the return of Venric Mark, who tallied 103 total yards in his first extended action of the season.

"There were definitely plays down the stretch that we could've made, and it could've been a different outcome," said end Tyler Scott, who notched one sack and had forced and recovered Miller's first fumble, setting up Northwestern's first score. "It was third-and-[2] at the goal line and Hyde sticks the ball out, and if we got a stop, they might've been kicking a field goal and it might've been a different game, but we've just got to look at the film, see where we can improve."

Both teams exchanged touchdowns on the next two drives, before Colter bobbled a fourth-and-1 snap at the Ohio State 34 with less than three minutes to play, diving on it and falling just short of the first down on a play that was upheld after Fitzgerald's challenge.

Northwestern got the ball back with 21 seconds left, and a Joey Bosa recovery in the end zone of a failed lateral attempt provided window-dressing for the Buckeyes as the horn sounded and Urban Meyer improved to 18-0 as Ohio State's coach.

Said Fitzgerald: "There's a team getting on the bus going back to Columbus that knows it just got into a fight with a pretty darn good football team."

Good enough, it would seem, to potentially get another shot at these Buckeyes in two months.

Asked about the potential of a rematch in the Big Ten title game, Fitzgerald said "it would be a great problem."

Echoed Proby: "That's a good problem to have as a program."

Different problems for a different program, one that felt the need to seek forgiveness for not punctuating an exhilarating day with a historic win.

Two-QB system working for Northwestern

October, 3, 2013
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Getty Images, USA TODAY SportsKain Colter (left) and Trevor Siemian (right) have split QB duties this season for Northwestern.
There is an old adage in football that when a team has two quarterbacks, it has none. Northwestern might be the exception. The Wildcats are off to a 4-0 start, during which they have utilized two quarterbacks, senior Kain Colter and junior Trevor Siemian.

The Wildcats have a balanced offense, gaining 51.6 percent of their yards on the ground and 48.4 percent through the air. They are the only Big Ten team that averages more than 225 yards passing and rushing.

Yet, Northwestern’s offense is drastically different dependent upon which quarterback is under center.

Colter (140 plays) and Siemian (141 plays) have split the team’s snaps. The Wildcats have run the ball 75 percent of the time with Colter under center, including 82 percent on first down.

With Siemian taking the snap, Northwestern runs on 50 percent of its plays, including 51 percent on first down.

In Northwestern’s season opener against California, Colter was injured after two plays. Since that game, he has taken almost 22 more snaps per game than Siemian.

The Wildcats have 52 offensive drives this season. The two quarterbacks have shared snaps on five. There have been only two drives on which they both took multiple snaps and one was in Week 1 against California when Colter was injured.


Colter is one the best running quarterbacks in the country. Excluding sacks, he averages 8.3 yards per rush, fourth most by any quarterback with at least 25 such attempts.

With him under center, Northwestern uses zone-reads on 60 percent of its running plays, compared to 28 percent with Siemian. The Wildcats average 7.4 yards on such plays with Colter and 5.3 with Siemian.

Siemian excels at the passing game. Colter does have a better completion percentage, but Siemian’s average pass travels 4.4 more yards downfield. Colter has recorded almost 75 percent of his pass yards after the catch, compared to 34 percent for Siemain.

Siemian has completed 50 percent (10-of-20) of his passes thrown 15 yards or longer. Colter has one such completion in eight attempts.

In addition, Siemian has taken one sack in 78 dropbacks, compared to Colter’s six in 51 dropbacks.

Northwestern will have a tough task against Ohio State's defense, which is allowing 17 points per game. The Buckeyes have one of the best run defenses, allowing just two rushing touchdowns all season. In addition, the Buckeyes are allowing the eighth-fewest rushing yards per game in the FBS.
Adam has a one-game lead in the standings, and we've got five interesting league contests to forecast this week.

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

SEASON RECORDS

Adam Rittenberg: 44-6
Brian Bennett: 43-7
Guest pickers: 40-10

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