NCF Nation: Warren Herring

Lessons learned after Week 10 in the Big Ten:

1. The West Division chase could be special: Four teams in the West -- Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota -- are in a virtual first-place tie with just one loss. What makes that really fun is they will all play each other in the season's final four weeks, beginning with Iowa-Minnesota in Week 11. We weren't sure the Hawkeyes were a serious contender until Saturday, when Kirk Ferentz's team turned in by far its best performance of the season in a 48-7 blowout of Northwestern. Iowa controlled both lines of scrimmage, Jake Rudock made all the right plays at quarterback and Mark Weisman bowled his way to three touchdowns. With Nebraska and Wisconsin still having to go to Iowa City, the Hawkeyes remain a major threat to win the division if they can repeat their level of play in Week 10. But it's still a wide-open race that should be a lot of fun to watch.

2. Wisconsin's defense gives it a chance: Badgers defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is a hot coaching commodity and showed why again on Saturday. Wisconsin beat Rutgers 37-0 and registered its first conference road shutout since 1998. That came one week after the defense nearly shut out Maryland. Aranda has put together a dominant unit, despite losing nine defensive starters from the past year's team. The return of nose tackle Warren Herring, who was injured in the opener against LSU, has helped take the defense to another level. The Badgers still struggle to throw the ball, but with Melvin Gordon running wild and Aranda's side of the ball shutting things down, Wisconsin has a chance to finish strong.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsTommy Armstrong Jr. and Nebraska were able to beat Purdue without Ameer Abdullah, but they'll need their Heisman candidate RB back for Wisconsin in two weeks.
3. Nebraska can win without Abdullah -- for now: Ameer Abdullah has been so great this season, it's almost easy to take it for granted. But Nebraska got an unwanted reminder of just how important he is to the entire team when he left the Purdue game early with a left knee injury. Abdullah only contributed one yard before he exited, which left the offense in the hands of quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. and backup running backs Imani Cross and Terrell Newby. That offense, predictably, wasn't nearly as explosive without its star. The Cornhuskers produced just 299 total yards, but the defense played well in a sloppy 35-14 victory. Abdullah has a mild MCL sprain and could return after next week's bye, for when Nebraska heads to Wisconsin on Nov. 15. The Huskers won't want to try to win that one without him.

4. Hackenberg hanging on by a thread: Penn State sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg is a special talent and the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year, but he's having a nightmare sophomore season. He has taken a ton of hits this season and endured five more sacks in Saturday's 20-19 loss to Maryland. His frustration appears to be boiling over, as Hackenberg was seen yelling and waving his arms at his offensive coordinator, John Donovan, on the sideline. The Nittany Lions' offensive line just can't protect him, and that only got worse with left tackle Donovan Smith out with an injury. Hackenberg isn't making great in-game decisions, either, which is likely a byproduct of all the pressure he's been under. James Franklin and his staff don't have a lot of options, but they've got to find a way to make sure they don't lose Hackenberg -- either to injury or mentally.

5. Battle for bowls heating up: Three Big Ten teams -- Iowa, Maryland and Wisconsin -- clinched postseason eligibility Saturday. That makes seven overall for the league. But where it gets interesting is beyond that group. Technically, the other seven teams are all still alive for a bowl bid, though it's hard to envision Indiana getting off the mat to win three more games or Purdue winning out. Rutgers has been stuck on five wins for a few weeks and finally gets a schedule break in hosting Indiana next time out. Illinois and Penn State both have four wins. Can Michigan, which finally showed a little life Saturday (albeit against those same struggling Hoosiers) find two more wins? Can 3-5 Northwestern rebound after a horrific showing at Iowa? There could be a lot of teams fighting for their bowl lives in the final couple weeks.

Five questions about LSU-Wisconsin

August, 28, 2014
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One of college football’s most anticipated openers will kick off Saturday night in Houston, with No. 13 LSU taking on No. 14 Wisconsin -- two programs that might reside in different conferences, but share similar philosophies about playing mean-spirited, physical football.

Both teams have aspirations of competing in the inaugural College Football Playoff, and Saturday’s outcome might eventually rank among the top determining factors in whether they make it into the four-team field.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at five questions facing the two teams as their matchup approaches.

[+] EnlargeTerrence Magee
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsSenior Terrence Magee should be a key piece to LSU's running game this season.
1. Who gets the most carries?

Those around the LSU program say it looks like it’s only a matter of time before freshman running back Leonard Fournette shows why he was the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit. But will Fournette’s time come in this game? LSU coach Les Miles has praised veterans Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard throughout August. The seniors have earned their touches, too, so it will be intriguing to observe how LSU distributes the carries between the vets and the young phenom.

2. How will LSU fare in the passing game?

Wisconsin has plenty of holes to fill on defense, but the one area with a veteran presence is its secondary (and the Badgers were 17th nationally against the pass last season, allowing 202.5 yards per game). That would seem like an advantage against an LSU offense that must replace not only its quarterback, but the only receivers who did much of anything last fall, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry.

The Tigers have some super-talented youngsters like freshmen Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, but many of the team’s wideouts will be playing their first college games. Keep an eye on whether LSU uses its talented group of tight ends and running backs in the passing game. The tight ends will almost certainly get more looks as pass-catchers in 2014 while the young quarterbacks and receivers settle into their roles.

3. Can either team stop the opponent’s run?

Wisconsin obliterated South Carolina’s run defense for 293 yards in its last outing, a 34-24 loss in the Capital One Bowl. Heisman Trophy contender Melvin Gordon ran 25 times for 143 yards in that game. So it would probably be misguided to assume that LSU’s reconstructed front seven is going to completely shut down a Badgers running game that includes Gordon, Corey Clement and four returning starters on the offensive line.

Likewise, Wisconsin lost its entire starting front seven on defense, so the Badgers will probably have some difficulty against an LSU line that also returns four starters -- particularly since backs like Fournette, Magee and Hilliard will be running behind them.

4. How will Wisconsin look up front on D?

Let’s say this one more time: Wisconsin lost every single starter along the defensive line and at linebacker from one of the nation’s best defenses in 2013. We’re talking about standouts like Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Chris Borland and defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer who helped Wisconsin finish as the nation’s No. 7 defense overall (305.1 ypg) and No. 5 against the run (102.5).

It’s not like the cupboard is bare, though. ESPN Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett listed sophomore linebacker Vince Biegel as a potential playmaker, and the Badgers have others back like linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch and defensive linemen Warren Herring and redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih who should keep defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4 defense clicking.

Asking that many new players to function adequately against a veteran LSU front will be asking a lot, though. Wisconsin’s production along the defensive front might be the determining factor in this game.

5. Who FINISHES at quarterback?

Never mind who starts, who’s going to finish this game at quarterback for either team? That might have a much greater impact on this season than who takes the first snaps for either Wisconsin or LSU.

Miles and Wisconsin’s Gary Andersen have tiptoed around questions asking whether the starting quarterback will be Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris at LSU or Joel Stave or Tanner McEvoy at Wisconsin. But if this is a close game, their choices on who leads their offenses in the fourth quarter -- and how those players perform in such a situation -- might tell us much more about where these competitions are headed.

Wisconsin Badgers season preview

August, 21, 2014
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» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Wisconsin Badgers:

2013 overall record: 9-4 (6-2 Big Ten)

Key losses: RB James White, WR Jared Abbrederis, TE Jacob Pedersen, OG Ryan Groy, DE Pat Muldoon, DT Beau Allen, LB Chris Borland, S Dezmen Southward

Key returnees: RB Melvin Gordon, OT Rob Havenstein, OG Kyle Costigan, OT Tyler Marz, CB Sojourn Shelton, S Michael Caputo

Instant impact newcomer: Safety Lubern Figaro. If you're from outside the Badger State, you're probably asking, "Who?" After all, Figaro was just a three-star recruit and enrolled over the summer -- but he's already projected to start in the opener. Part of the reason is reportedly an injury to safety Leo Musso, but Figaro has already done plenty to separate himself. In the first scrimmage this preseason, he returned a pick for a touchdown. DB Sojourn Shelton made an impact last season when he was a true freshman; now it looks as if it's Figaro's turn.

[+] EnlargeSojourn Shelton
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsSojourn Shelton and the Badgers' defense will have their hands full against teams in the West Division.
Projected starters

Offense: QB: Joel Stave, RS Jr., 6-5, 220; RB: Melvin Gordon, RS Jr., 6-1, 213; FB: Derek Watt, RS Jr., 6-2, 236; WR: Alex Erickson, RS So., 6-0, 196; WR: Reggie Love, RS So., 6-3, 214; TE: Sam Arneson, Sr., 6-4, 244; OT: Tyler Marz, RS Jr., 6-5, 321; OG: Dallas Lewallen, RS Sr., 6-6, 321: C: Dan Voltz, RS So., 6-3, 311; OG: Kyle Costigan, RS Sr., 6-5, 319; OT: Rob Havenstein, RS Sr., 6-8, 333

Defense: DE: Chikwe Obasih, RS Fr., 6-2, 268; DT: Warren Herring, RS Sr., 6-3, 294; DE: Konrad Zagzebski, RS Sr., 6-3, 277; OLB: Joe Schobert, Jr., 6-2, 240; ILB: Marcus Trotter, RS Sr., 6-0, 226; ILB: Derek Landisch, Sr., 6-0, 231; OLB: Vince Biegel, RS So., 6-4, 244; CB: Darius Hillary, RS Jr., 5-11, 188; CB: Sojourn Shelton, So., 5-9, 178; S: Michael Caputo, RS Jr., 6-1, 212; S: Lubern Figaro, Fr., 6-0, 179

Specialists: P: Drew Meyer, RS Jr., 6-3, 187; PK: Rafael Gaglianone, Fr., 5-11, 231

Biggest question mark: Can this front seven recover from so many key departures? Of the seven players who started in the Badgers' bowl game last season, only one returns. That leaves quite a few holes, especially when considering the departures of Big Ten defensive player of the year Chris Borland and two All-Big Ten honorable mentions (Beau Allen, Pat Muldoon). Wisconsin's front seven dominated in 2013, as they helped the Badgers rank No. 5 nationally in rush defense (102.5 yards per game) and No. 6 in scoring defense (16.3 points per game). Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is solid, but he's not a magician. Those defensive numbers will almost certainly drop from last season -- but just how much?

Most important game: Nov. 15 versus Nebraska. It's basically a three-team race in the West Division, so this is a must-win if Wisconsin wants a spot in the Big Ten championship game. There's no Ohio State or Michigan State on the schedule this season, so the Huskers and Iowa Hawkeyes are the teams to beat. Iowa is just as important, but that contest comes a week later, and that won't mean a thing if Wisconsin first can't get past this contest.

Upset special: Nov. 29 versus Minnesota. A lot could be on the line when the Badgers square off against Minnesota in the final game of the regular season. And, depending how Wisconsin's defense progresses, this could be an interesting one. Wisconsin's run defense is a wild card right now, and the Gophers could boast the second-toughest rushing attack on Wisconsin's schedule (outside of Nebraska). No team held Wisconsin to fewer points (20) last season than Minnesota, so there is some potential here. Plus, one has to think the Gophers will be able to manage better than a seven-point offensive effort this time around.

Key stat: Sure, everyone knows the departure of Jared Abbrederis will hurt Wisconsin. But the Badgers actually lost their top four targets, and only one (Jordan Fredrick) recorded catches in the double-digits. And he had just 10. Overall, Wisconsin lost 81 percent of its receiving production, as this year's returners had just 42 combined receptions last season compared with the 217 total catches.

What they're wearing: Wisconsin has come a long way since 2010, because it basically went from rotating between two uniform combinations to doing photo shoots with more than 20 combinations.

One possible new look includes an all-red, jersey-pant combo (not to be confused with Nebraska's all-red getup):

Team's top Twitter follows: Head coach Gary Andersen (@UWCoachAndersen) joined Twitter just a few weeks ago, but he pumps out unique tweets and is a great follow. The official Wisconsin football account (@BadgerFootball) tweets like crazy and is always on the ball. As far as players, running back Melvin Gordon (@Melvingordon25) is a no-brainer, while cornerback Sojourn Shelton (@SDS1_) definitely deserves a few more follows. There are quite a few good follows for your coverage needs -- besides us, of course -- including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Jeff Potrykus (@jaypo1961) and SB Nation blog Bucky's 5th Quarter (@B5Q).

They said it: "No question there's a temptation to run him every time." – Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen on running back Melvin Gordon

Stats & Info projection: 9.29 wins

Wise guys over/under: 9.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Ten wins. Wisconsin has a lot of question marks, but it also has a lot of talent. The rushing offense should be one of the nation's best and, while this defense will undoubtedly take a step back from last season, it shouldn't free-fall with Dave Aranda at the helm. Wisconsin's schedule is pretty favorable, as it doesn't play any of the big names from the East, and it's possible it could be favored in every game from Week 2 on. Wisconsin's getting the benefit of the doubt here, but if it can manage a win against LSU in the opener, that bandwagon is going to get big in a hurry.
MADISON, Wis. -- The last time we saw Wisconsin's defense in a game, the Badgers were getting steamrolled by Oregon in the Rose Bowl, allowing 621 yards and 45 points.

The Ducks can make many defenses look bad, but a Big Ten champion isn't supposed to get punctured that severely. Badgers defensive coordinator Chris Ash said a handful of his players consistently lined up incorrectly or went to the wrong spots during that 45-38 loss on Jan. 2.

Oregon pulled out a few new wrinkles for the game, but that doesn't fully explain why a veteran defense with a month to prepare could have made so many fundamental mistakes.

"I've been searching for answers for a few months on that one," Ash told ESPN.com last week.

[+] EnlargeMike Taylor, Chris Borland
Richard Mackson/US PresswireWisconsin linebackers Mike Taylor, left, and Chris Borland combined for 293 tackles in 2011.
Mysteriousness surrounds much of what happened to Ash's side of the ball last season. The numbers say Wisconsin had a fantastic season on defense, as it finished 15th in the FBS in total defense and 13th in points allowed. Yet the lasting images of the Badgers' season revolve around the long passes given up at the end of losses to Michigan State and Ohio State and that Rose Bowl fiasco.

Last year's breakdowns hover over the team this spring and in some ways are guiding how the players are approaching this offseason preparation.

"Those things are fresh in our minds a little bit still," defensive tackle Ethan Hemer said. "We're definitely focusing more on the little things, making sure you're stepping right, you're in position, minimizing your missed alignments. We all realize that one play can make a big difference, and that requires us to be even sharper than we've been in the past. We don't want to be that team that gives up the big play."

This spring is about building depth as much as anything for the Badgers' defense. Only six starters return, while injuries have either shelved or slowed leading tacklers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland and projected starting defensive end David Gilbert. Starting cornerback Devin Smith is working himself into shape after a foot injury cost him most of 2011.

Borland and Taylor, who combined for 293 tackles last season, provide two anchors as one of the best linebacker combos in the country. Another strength could be at defensive tackle, where Hemer, Beau Allen and the emerging Warren Herring have all played well this spring. The defensive line still needs an explosive player on the edge, but the team is hopeful that Gilbert -- who played only four games last year and is out this spring with a foot injury -- can be that guy when healthy.

"When he got hurt, he was really starting to play at a high level," Ash said. "He's really one of the few guys we have who's naturally a pass-rusher."

The secondary lost two starting seniors in Aaron Henry and Antonio Fenelus, but Ash thinks Smith can be an all-conference cornerback this season. Dezmen Southward has replaced Henry at safety and continues to come along. He de-cleated running back Melvin Gordon on a crushing tackle during Saturday's scrimmage.

"We know we have to be the backbone of the defense," cornerback Marcus Cromartie said of the secondary. "We want to be the reason to win. We don't want to be a liability."

Wisconsin's defense has often been overshadowed by the team's offense, and last year the unit embraced its no-name status. This season, though, the players believe they have enough talent to forge their own identity.

"We feel like we deserve to be a defense that's on the radar," Smith said. "It starts with practice and film, but I think we can be one of those type defenses everybody talks about, like LSU and Alabama. We have to earn that respect."

It's a respect they'll have to earn by not allowing big plays and mental breakdowns to become the lasting images of 2012.

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