Big Ten: Kevin Wilson

Northwestern has made its exit from the Big Ten's top half and shows no signs of returning. Now it's Nebraska's turn to be shown the door. Meanwhile, we welcome an unexpected visitor in Minnesota to the top half of the power rankings.

Minnesota's historic upset of Nebraska provided the major shake-up in this week's rundown. The Gophers, who were No. 11 two weeks ago, have turned around their season with upset wins against both Northwestern and Nebraska. They've guaranteed a second consecutive bowl appearance and can make some noise in the Legends Division down the stretch. Iowa also looks like it will be going back to the postseason after an overtime win against Northwestern.

Michigan State moves up to No. 3 after pulling away from Illinois in Champaign, while Iowa moves up after its overtime win against slumping Northwestern. Penn State's historically bad night at Ohio State bumps the Lions down a few pegs.

Let's take one last look at the Week 8 rankings.

Now, for the fresh rundown:

1. Ohio State (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): There was no need for a second-half surge as Ohio State throttled Penn State from the get-go, picking up an easy win and the style points it has looked for in Big Ten play. After his near benching at Northwestern, quarterback Braxton Miller has performed like a Heisman Trophy candidate, picking apart Penn State's defense for 252 passing yards and three touchdowns. Ohio State racked up its highest-ever yardage total (686) against a Big Ten foe. The Buckeyes' defense recorded three takeaways. Ohio State now visits Purdue, a recent trouble spot.

2. Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1; last week: 2): The nation continues to sleep on the Badgers, but at some point the credit will come if Gary Andersen's crew continues to win. Wisconsin's second open week came at a good time as star linebacker Chris Borland had some extra time to heal from a hamstring injury. Borland should be good to go for this week's trip to Iowa, as Wisconsin reunites with its longtime rival for the first time since 2010. Andersen likes the way quarterback Joel Stave is progressing, and this week's game should provide a nice gauge.

3. Michigan State (7-1, 4-0; last week: 4): After a one-year hiatus, Michigan State is back in the Big Ten title race. The Spartans are the only Legends Division team without a Big Ten defeat and can take a huge step toward Indianapolis by beating rival Michigan this week. Quarterback Connor Cook and the offense got on track against Illinois, racking up 42 points and 477 total yards. When Cook is in rhythm, Jeremy Langford finds running room and the offensive line controls play, Michigan State is tough to beat. But the challenges will get tougher now.

4. Michigan (6-1, 2-1; last week: 5): Who are these Wolverines? The young, talented group that beat Notre Dame in September or the shaky, flawed squad that hasn't looked very impressive since Sept. 7? We'll finally get some real answers as Michigan begins a challenging November stretch this week at Michigan State. Devin Gardner and the offense scored at will against Indiana but face an exponentially tougher challenge against the Spartans' nationally elite defense. A second Big Ten loss would make it tough for Michigan to reach Indianapolis, given the remaining schedule.

5. Iowa (5-3, 2-2; last week: 7): After struggling against Northwestern's Kain Colter last year, Iowa's defense stepped up in a big way, shutting out the Wildcats for a half and recording six sacks, its highest total since the 2008 season. The linebacking corps was terrific, and so was Drew Ott. Quarterback Jake Rudock wasn't great but made the big throw when it counted to C.J. Fiedorowicz in overtime. Iowa is a win away from becoming bowl eligible as rival Wisconsin comes to Kinnick Stadium this week. The Hawkeyes get the edge against Minnesota for the five spot after dominating the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium.

[+] EnlargeNebraska vs Minnesota
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota's upset of Nebraska moved the Gophers up two spots and dropped the Huskers four spots.
6. Minnesota (6-2, 2-2; last week: 8): Two weeks ago, many were wondering if Minnesota would make a bowl game and if head coach Jerry Kill would step down because of his health issues. While Kill's future remains somewhat in doubt, he has been in the coaches' booth to watch his team record upset wins against Northwestern and Nebraska. Saturday's dominant performance against the Huskers marked Minnesota's first win against Big Red since 1960. The Gophers received big performances from running back David Cobb (138 yards), defensive linemen Ra'Shede Hageman and Theiren Cockran and others. Minnesota could be a surprise contender in the Legends Division if it continues to win this week at Indiana.

7. Nebraska (5-2, 2-1; last week: 3): A four-spot drop in the rankings for one loss might seem harsh, but Nebraska invalidated any perceived progress since the UCLA game by struggling in all three phases in a loss at Minnesota. Despite his big-game flaws, Bo Pelini's teams typically had won the games they should win, but the Huskers fell apart after building a 10-0 lead. Quarterback Taylor Martinez looked very rusty and the defense couldn't stop Minnesota's ground game. Nebraska tries to get well against slumping Northwestern this week in Lincoln.

8. Penn State (4-3, 1-2; last week: 6): There will be better nights for quarterback Christian Hackenberg and Penn State, which fell behind quickly at Ohio State and never challenged the Buckeyes in the ugliest loss of the Bill O'Brien era. Penn State's defensive issues are very real, though, as the Lions have allowed more than 40 points in three consecutive games for the first time since 1899 (!). Hackenberg's health will be a storyline this week as Penn State faces Illinois. At least the Lions don't have any more open weeks.

9. Indiana (3-4, 1-2; last week: 9): It's still all about fixing the defense for Indiana, which had no answers for Jeremy Gallon, Gardner and Michigan in Week 8. The IU offense can strike and strike quickly, regardless of whether Tre Roberson or Nate Sudfeld is playing quarterback. Kevin Wilson's crew enters a critical home stretch against Minnesota and Illinois. IU likely needs to win both to have a chance of going bowling this year.

10. Northwestern (4-4, 0-4; last week: 10): Halloween arrives Thursday, but the nightmare has lasted four weeks for the Wildcats, whose October woes have reached a new low under Pat Fitzgerald. All of Northwestern's hallmarks -- great ball security, limited penalties, being great in the clutch -- seem to be going out the window. Fitzgerald has blamed himself and his staff for the recent struggles, and it's hard to disagree after the ultra-conservative decisions late in Saturday's loss to Iowa. Northwestern heads to Nebraska this week, as misery loves company.

11. Illinois (3-4, 0-3; last week: 11): The Illini's fast start seems like a distant memory now as they've been swallowed up in Big Ten play. Illinois' second consecutive home blowout loss makes a bowl game highly unlikely, and there are issues to address on both sides of the ball. A young defense is getting exposed by power running teams, as Michigan State had its way with the Illini. Bill Cubit is a creative play-caller, but Illinois needs something more against Big Ten defenses. Illinois had a meager eight first downs and 128 total yards against Michigan State.

12. Purdue (1-6, 0-3; last week: 12): The Boilers entered their second bye week feeling a bit better than they did entering their first. A stout defensive performance against Michigan State, particularly by Bruce Gaston and his fellow linemen, provides Purdue something to build on before the stretch run. Purdue now needs to get something going on offense. Ohio State comes to town this week, which should be special for Purdue coaches Darrell Hazell and Marcus Freeman.
You could learn just about everything you need to know about the state of the Big Ten's receivers just by following the Twitter feeds of Nebraska's Kenny Bell and Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis. A sample:

 

 

Yes, it's fair to say that Big Ten receivers are noticing what others at the position are doing. These days, it's becoming harder and harder not to notice.

Last season, Penn State's Allen Robinson was the only league player to finish in the Top 71 in the FBS in receiving yards per game -- prompting me to ask where all the Big Ten star receivers had gone. A year later, we have our answer.

Three Big Ten receivers -- Michigan's Jeremy Gallon, Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis and Robinson -- rank in the top 20 nationally in receiving yards, with Indiana's Cody Latimer checking in at No. 27. Meanwhile, Nebraska's Quincy Enunwa is tied for ninth in the country with seven touchdown receptions.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Gallon
AP Photo/Lon HorwedelJeremy Gallon's record-setting performance against Indiana had fellow B1G receivers buzzing.
"There are some awfully good guys who can stretch the field vertically, or guys who have great strength battling for the football," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "I think you saw that the other day when we played."

We sure did. Indiana's outstanding group of pass-catchers allowed the Hoosiers to throw for 410 yards in the Big House. But the Wolverines' Gallon nearly matched that himself with a Big Ten record receiving 369 yards in the 63-47 shootout. You'd better believe that other wideouts noticed that.

"That's just ridiculous," Abbrederis told ESPN.com. "That's crazy. That was almost half my season [total] last year. That's a day that wide receivers dream of."

Abbrederis had his own standout game earlier this year when he recorded 10 catches for 207 yards at Ohio State while being defended by All-America cornerback Bradley Roby. But he joked "mine was kind of small" compared to Gallon's day.

Penn State's Robinson has had his own stat-stuffing days, including a 12-catch, 172-yard, two-touchdown showing in a loss at Indiana. He watched some of Gallon's performance during Penn State's bye week and thinks that he could match the 369-yard performance if the conditions were right.

"He was able to go out there and beat the defensive backs pretty much all game and get open for his team," Robinson told ESPN.com. "So I would say that's something other receivers could do if they got the opportunity."

Robinson easily won the Big Ten's Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year award as the league's only 1,000-yard producer last year, but he's got company this season. Gallon, Abbrederis and Latimer are all on pace to eclipse 1,000 yards right now.

Is Robinson eager to retain his trophy?

"That's out of my control as far as awards," he said. "Each and every game and in the offseason, I continue to try to be best player I can be, and whatever comes with that is fine. I don't try to stress myself over it too much or lose sleep too much. We have a talented group of receivers in this league."

This group, in fact, includes some of the best in school history.

[+] EnlargeJared Abbrederis
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsJared Abbrederis is tied for second in the Big Ten in receptions and is third in receiving yards per game.
Abbrederis, a senior, is just 113 yards away from becoming the No. 2 all-time receiver at Wisconsin and needs 657 in his last six games to surpass Lee Evans for the career record. Robinson, a junior, is already fifth in career touchdown catches (16), seventh in career receptions (123) and 11th in career receiving yards (1,747) at Penn State. Gallon should finish in the Top 5 of Michigan career receiving yards.

They're the big three in the league right now, but there are plenty of others excelling at the position. Nebraska's Bell hasn't put up big receiving numbers yet but is still capable of jaw-dropping plays like this one. Like Enunwa, he's also a physical blocker for the Huskers running game. And the junior ranks fourth all-time in Nebraska career receiving yards and needs less than 900 to become the school's all-time leader.

Indiana's Latimer has great size (he's 6-foot-3) and hands and is joined by Kofi Hughes and Shane Wynn to form a three-headed receiving monster. Ohio State's Philly Brown has developed into a go-to weapon. Michigan's Devin Funchess is a receiver hiding in a tight end's body.

"I saw the game [Robinson] had against our rivals, and he was fantastic," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. "He's a very fast and talented guy who goes up and high points the ball. I nominated Abbrederis for a bunch of the postseason awards when I got to see him live and in color. He's a tremendous player. So I think those are NFL players we're getting to face almost every week."

They remain very collegial while still in college.

Abbrederis says he started following Bell closely after Wisconsin played Nebraska twice last year. Bell told the Omaha World-Herald that he and Enunwa watch tape of Abbredris every week because "that guy's a stud.” Robinson is tight with Iowa's Kevonte Martin-Manley and sends him the occasional text or tweet during the season.

"I'm obviously not going to play directly against them, so it's not bad to have a relationship," Abbrederis said. "It's good to see guys doing some good things in this league."

It's getting harder and harder not to notice all those good things.

"We had a Heisman Trophy winner at receiver in the Big Ten with Desmond Howard," Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "So there have always been a lot of good receivers in this league, and there are definitely some good ones right now."

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 23, 2013
Oct 23
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World Series. Game 1. Wainwright. Fenway. So excited. Full sentences ... difficult. Links:

Midseason report: Indiana

October, 15, 2013
Oct 15
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The upward trend continues under third-year Indiana coach Kevin Wilson.

The Hoosiers, with three wins and games remaining at home against Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue, are eyeing their first postseason appearance since 2007 and second in the past 20 years.

Indiana took care of business in the nonconference against Indiana State and Bowling Green, and it beat Penn State for the first time in 17 tries. Wilson’s squad also remained competitive against unbeaten Missouri and defensive powerhouse Michigan State. The Hoosiers’ 28 points against MSU ranked as a season-high figure against the Spartans defense.

Offensively, Indiana is legitimate, totaling more than 500 yards per game to sit 17th nationally and second in the Big Ten to Wisconsin. The Hoosiers pass for 331 yards per game and rush it for 172. They topped 600 yards twice in September and blitzed PSU for 486.

On defense, it’s a bit of a different story. Indiana struggles against the run in particular, allowing 217 yards per game. Not really much better against the pass, so it’s no wonder the 456 yards of total offense it allows ranks 105th nationally. And it’s giving up 32.8 points per game.

MSU, with an offense dormant for much of this season, torched the Hoosiers for 42 points and 473 yards.

Looking for a way to improve? Try getting off the field on third down. Indiana’s foes are converting 44 percent of their third downs and moving the chains at a rate of 25.2 per game, 118th out of 123 FBS teams.

The hope for Indiana is that it doesn’t lose too much steam with consecutive road games at Wisconsin a Ohio State in November. A finale await on Nov. 30 against Purdue, possibly with bowl eligibility at stake for the Hoosiers.

Offensive MVP: Sophomore quarterback Nate Sudfeld is a big, durable guy, second in the Big Ten in opponent-adjusted QBR, second in passing yardage and tied for the league lead with 13 touchdown throws. He was fairly consistent through the first half of the season until last week at Michigan State, where he struggled.

Defensive MVP: Junior cornerback Tim Bennett has contributed in multiple ways, notably with his four pass breakups and eight solo tackles in the win over Penn State. He’s credited with a nation-leading 14 breakups, one interception, a fumble recovery, two tackles for losses and a team-high 45 stops.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

October, 9, 2013
Oct 9
5:00
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Mail time ...

Mark H. from Columbus, Ohio, writes: My comment/question is in regards to Ohio State. If it were not for the bowl ban last year, Ohio State probably would have received more votes and more "love" in regards to the polls. They probably would have been in the BCS title game, and with the way Notre Dame played and the way the OSU defense came together, they could have won the national title. If OSU runs the table this year, that would be 25 consecutive victories. The last time that was accomplished was the USC dynasties of 2003-2005. I agree their schedule is not the greatest (however some of that is out of their control due to when games are scheduled) in regards to quality of opponents. However, it is difficult to win 25 games in a row in any sport. When will OSU start getting the credit that they deserve? It seems ridiculous that a team could win 25 straight and not play for a national title. Yes, the schedule is not extremely tough, but not all of our games are against FCS opponents. When will OSU get their shot and the past stop hurting them?

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesOhio State quarterback Braxton Miller tries to recover his own fumble against Northwestern on Saturday.
Brian Bennett: I'm not in any way convinced that Ohio State was BCS title caliber last year, but if the Buckeyes had gotten in against Notre Dame, there was a good shot they would have won it (And SEC fans would never have stopped complaining about it). Yet I don't think any past Ohio State performances or history is hurting this team as much as the schedule and the perceived weakness of the Big Ten. Right or wrong, people just don't think the Buckeyes have played strong-enough competition, and though their wins over Wisconsin and Northwestern were terrific, they were in a dogfight at the end of those games.

Urban Meyer's team is actually in a good position in the USA Today coaches' poll at No. 3 (the AP poll makes no difference in the BCS formula). Yet it's not so simple as saying a loss by Alabama or Oregon will get Ohio State into the top two. The Florida State-Clemson winner is likely to leapfrog the Buckeyes, and Stanford could do the same if it beats Oregon. If you're an Ohio State fan, you've got to root for the Pac-12 and ACC champions to each have one loss. If that happens, then the Buckeyes should get a shot if they run the table, which is becoming an increasingly likely scenario.

The problem is, as I wrote Sunday, that the top teams just aren't losing much this year. That could change in the second half. A few key games to keep an eye on in regards to Ohio State's chances:

  • Saturday: Oregon at Washington. The Huskies gave Stanford all they could handle last weekend. Beating Oregon will be tough, but the game's at home for U-Dub.
  • Oct. 19: Stanford vs. UCLA: If the Bruins can win in Palo Alto, the Cardinal would already have one loss heading into its Nov. 7 showdown against Oregon.
  • Nov. 30: Clemson at South Carolina. Say the Tigers beat Florida State (the game is in Death Valley). Then the Gamecocks could knock the ACC out of BCS title contention here.
  • Nov. 30: Florida State at Florida. Same deal as above for the Seminoles. (Yes, Ohio State fans might have to root for the SEC). The Noles also play Miami on Nov. 2.

Ohio State is going to need some help somewhere. But it must also actually win its next seven games first.




John from Fort Lauderdale writes: Don't know about you but I love this Ohio State team. Just got done playing a physical Wisconsin team and played on the road at Northwestern, with the Wildcats having a week off to prepare, and they still won! I have to give credit where credit is due, OSU didn't play their best game by any means, and I think Northwestern played with more passion and played as best they could.

Brian Bennett: What's interesting to me about these Buckeyes is that Meyer has kind of the rock-star persona, at least in college football land, and there's lots of buzz about Ohio State's speed and athletes. But, really, the 18-game winning streak has been more about grinding it out. For me, the offensive line has been the biggest key to everything. It's the best line in the Big Ten, and the Buckeyes can wear teams down at the end of game by simply lining it up and running. They've done that ever since the win at Michigan State last year and did it again in the second half in Evanston. Speaking of which ...




Confused Fan from Somewhere, Ohio writes: All spring and summer building up to the season, Urban Meyer stressed how last year Ohio State didn't exactly run the spread offense he wanted, and it was more of a pro style. Then he'd talk about how the real spread offense was going to be run this year. The first few games we saw a little bit of the H-Back with Jordan Hall/Dontre Wilson but it was very little. Now that we have Carlos Hyde back it seems like they've got right back to the offense we ran last year. This last week against Northwestern, Hall didn't even play, and Wilson had zero carries or receptions and the H-back was nonexistent. When will we see the REAL spread offense if at all?!?!?

Brian Bennett: We saw it a bit more against Wisconsin, when Wilson was used quite a bit. But Meyer went old school Big Ten against Northwestern. I think he and Tom Herman recognized that Ohio State had the advantage up front and that was the best way to beat the Wildcats, who to their credit have increased their speed on the perimeter in recent years under Pat Fitzgerald. But Northwestern isn't the biggest team physically at a lot of positions. Hey, you do what you have to do to win games, and the combination of speed and power is what makes the Buckeyes tough to spot. They did score 40 in Evanston, though two of those came on non-offensive touchdowns (and the last one made a lot of people in Las Vegas mad. Or giddy).




Mike from Macungie, Pa., writes: I'm sure you're getting a lot of grief from the Penn State fans for your Indiana article, but I did want to say it was very well written. It was a tough game to watch, and an even tougher loss to swallow, but Indiana played REALLY well and we did not. Anyway, as always keep up the good work, and hopefully you can write about Penn State's one-week turnaround against Michigan!

Brian Bennett: I haven't gotten any grief, and I actually went to Bloomington figuring I'd pick up a feature story on Penn State heading into Michigan week. Then Indiana pulled the upset, and it turned into a bigger and much different story than I anticipated. And apparently more than Indiana fans expected, because the stands were sadly about half empty.




Terry from Newport News, Va., writes: With the obvious decline of the product PSU can put on the field; will Bill O'Brien's NFL stock fall? Should he have bolted after last season? I'd hate to see him leave but It looks like a couple .500 or less seasons in our future.

Brian Bennett: O'Brien would not want to work for any NFL franchise that somehow sees this as an indictment of his coaching ability. While O'Brien didn't have his best day in Bloomington -- I thought he should have played for points early, and I didn't like how he went away from the run against the Big Ten's worst rush defense -- a decline by Penn State would have so much more to do with the roster and scholarship issues than the head coach. The Nittany Lions are playing a true freshman quarterback and have, for them, a shocking lack of big-time playmakers on defense. Former college head coaches like Greg Schiano and Chip Kelly aren't exactly setting the NFL world on fire. But O'Brien's background as the highly successful former New England Patriots offensive coordinator ensures he will remain a hot commodity at the next level.




Andrew from Bloomington writes: After reading several posts about the IU/PSU game, the vast majority of bloggers say it was an awful loss for the Lions and rarely credit the Hoosiers for a BIG (pun intended) victory. They especially like to blame Zwinak/Lynch/Belton instead of actually crediting IU for having SOME semblance of a run defense (WHAT?!?). I understand BO'B is working under the circumstance of reduced scholarships, but shouldn't people be giving more credit to Indiana for a win they needed for bowl eligibility?

Brian Bennett: I got the sense, from talking to Kevin Wilson and some players afterward, that Indiana wasn't surprised by that performance. In fact, they felt like that's how they should have been playing. If you'll recall, the Hoosiers put up a lot of yards on teams last season, but they didn't always translate that to points. They were able to do that in the second half on Saturday, and it was clear that their receiving corps, led by Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes, was too much for Penn State's secondary. Wilson has also been adding young talent to the defense, and while it's far from a great or even good unit, it finally made some plays in key moments. It helped that Penn State didn't have a lot of options outside of Allen Robinson in the passing game, and that O'Brien didn't stick with the run. I think Zach Zwinak could have had a really big day if he'd gotten 25-to-30 carries instead of only 17.




Brian from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., writes: Do you think Ameer Abdullah's beastly game against Illinois was: A) A one-time, supernatural occurence, B) A product of a leaky Illinois front 7, or C) A sign that Ameer has finally found his running style and rhythm?

Brian Bennett: I'd go with a combination of B and C. Abdullah has had big games before, though nothing quite as large as 225-yard effort on Saturday. He's always had the talent to be a great back in the Big Ten. I do think Abdullah has asserted himself and become a leader on the Nebraska offense, especially with Taylor Martinez out. And Illinois' defense is probably going to struggle against the better offenses in this league. Add in the fact that it was a windy day in Lincoln best suited for running the ball, and the conditions were ripe for an Abdullah explosion. Wish I'd had him on my Big Ten fantasy team, though I still crushed Rittenberg last week.




Pat from Madison, Wis., writes: Brian, I think J.J. Watt's and Russell Wilson's respective success in the NFL does more for Wisconsin's perception among recruits than either wins, or TV exposure. Now that practically every program can be seen on TV, traditional programs lose that carrot for recruits. As the NFL is the dream for the very best prospects, they'll want to know if there is a track record of success at the next level. What do you think?

Brian Bennett: I was just thinking about this the other day. Wisconsin can lay claim to two of the biggest stars in the NFL right now, and it's something they need to capitalize on. Gary Andersen knows this, and on Monday he talked about how he sent out care packages full of Badgers gear to former players. I'm sure he wouldn't mind seeing Wilson and Watt wearing a Wisconsin hat or sweatshirt while doing national interviews. As Andersen and the Badgers look to improve their national recruiting presence, they should emphasize how playing in Madison can lead to greatness at the next level.




Nick from Big Ten Country, USA: I need you to look deep into your crystal ball for me. No lotto numbers or anything silly like that, just important stuff like Michigan's future this season. When the season's finished what will the Wolverines' identity be as a team? Will we be able to look back on the success/failure of the team and point to how Devin Gardner overcame his turnover issues or will he let it define him? Will we be able to hang our hats on a solid defense that keeps us in games and makes stops when they're absolutely necessary? Will we focus on a young Michigan team that grew up in a hurry or showed their youth? Will it be another successful failure in which we find ourselves in some combination of 10+ wins, a win over Ohio, or a BCS bowl but no BIG Championship?

Brian Bennett: The crystal ball may work better after this weekend, because I'd like to see if Michigan can go get it done in State College. We know the Wolverines are awfully good at home, but the road has been a different story. And though Penn State has some issues, it also probably has the best offense Michigan's defense has faced. Like all Legends Division contenders, November will define the season for Brady Hoke's team. Michigan plays on the road against Michigan State, Iowa and Northwestern and has Nebraska and Ohio State at home that month. Rigorous.

Before the season, I picked Michigan to miss out on the Legends title because I thought the team was a bit too young. The schedule was viewed as highly advantageous, but I'm not so sure about those November road games, much less this weekend. This is a team that should improve, especially if Jake Ryan comes back mostly healthy. But I think we will eventually view this year as one of transition for Hoke's program, with something like a 9-3 record and Capital One Bowl appearance. That's what my crystal ball says for now. But check back later.
Freshman Danny Etling will make his first career start at quarterback for Purdue this weekend, two weeks after making his college debut vs. Northern Illinois.

Boilermakers fans are excited about the future of their young signal-caller, and in that they have company in the Big Ten. Though quarterback is generally viewed as a position that takes experience and maturity to handle, several Big Teams have gone with a youth movement under center.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesRedshirt freshman signal-caller Tommy Armstrong has shown he has a bright future at Nebraska while filling in for Taylor Martinez.
In fact, Etling can look across the field on Saturday and see another young player in his position: Nebraska redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong, who is expected to fill in for the injured Taylor Martinez for the third straight game. Etling will be the fourth freshman quarterback to start for a Big Ten program this season, meaning a full third of the league has trusted its offense to a player in his first year of college competition.

What happened to making guys wait their turn and hold clipboards for a few years? The explosion of offense throughout the sport has helped speed the development for quarterbacks.

"I think they are more prepared earlier with all the 7-on-7s and everything that's going on," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "There's been more of an opportunity for guys to go out and throw all summer long."

"Some of these kids are playing year round football," Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "They're coming in more prepared, and the talent's better. I think the offensive game has gotten to where maybe it's helping quarterbacks."

Freshman quarterbacks aren't a new phenomenon. Minnesota started freshman Philip Nelson last year, while Wisconsin started turned to redshirt freshman Joel Stave. Indiana's Nate Sudfeld didn't start but saw a lot of time last season as a freshman. Two years ago, Braxton Miller started for Ohio State his first year of playing, while Indiana played freshman Tre Roberson. Current seniors Martinez and Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase both started as redshirt freshman.

Still, the crop of young quarterbacks seems especially large this year, and it's one that could impact the Big Ten for years to come.

The headliner of the group is Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, who was ranked as the nation's No. 1 pro-style quarterback recruit last year. Despite not arriving on campus until the summer, Hackenberg has started since the opener. He ranks second in the league in passing yards with 1,367 while throwing for eight touchdowns and four interceptions.

"When you see a guy with [Hackenberg's] body language and how he handles himself, I think it's very impressive," said Hoke, whose Wolverines play at Penn State on Saturday. "I think he looks very composed and he has handled different situations very well. A lot of things impress me about him, like the way he moves up in the pocket and I think he throws a great football."

I think they are more prepared earlier with all the 7-on-7s and everything that's going on. There's been more of an opportunity for guys to go out and throw all summer long.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke on freshmen quarterbacks playing in college football.
Minnesota's experience with a first-year quarterback didn't end with Nelson. Redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner stepped in earlier this season when Nelson was hurt and then got the start over Nelson last week at Michigan. At 6-foot-4, 230-pounds, he's a hard-nosed runner who ran for 151 yards and four touchdowns against San Jose State. Last week, he completed 14 of 21 passes for 145 yards and ran for 66 yards.

"I really thought he made some big plays with his legs and executed really pretty good,” acting coach Tracy Claeys said after the loss to Michigan.

Armstrong had to step in for Martinez, who continues to battle a case of turf toe. He has gotten Huskers fans excited by his play, completing 20 of 28 passes for 304 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in his first two games. The idea that he should replace a healthy Martinez is silly, but the future looks bright.

"He's still a work in progress," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "There are some mistakes he made that might not have been real apparent to the naked eye, but they're still there and he's still learning a lot. I think every time he goes out there, it gives him an opportunity to grow. Mistakes and things will happen to him, but he's a smart guy and he understands the offense and what's being asked of him."

Etling completes the quarter of first-year quarterbacks. Purdue fans were thrilled to see him throw for 241 yards and two touchdowns (along with two picks) in the otherwise disappointing loss to Northern Illinois. Etling was the most important recruit in Hazell's first signing class, and his ceiling is so high that former starter Rob Henry has been moved to safety for the rest of his senior year. While Hazell says Etling opens up the entire passing game for the Boilers, he won't put too much on his plate early.

"He's a very bright guy who works very hard, and he's one heck of a talent," Hazell said. "I'm really looking forward to his progress here in the next few years."

Several Big Ten fan bases are saying the same thing right now about their starting quarterback.

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 8, 2013
Oct 8
12:00
PM ET
The Bro Code has been around for centuries. Nay, whatever's more than centuries.
Five lessons learned from a full week of conference play on Saturday:

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesCarlos Hyde carried 26 times for 168 yards and scored three second-half touchdowns Saturday.
1. Ohio State can handle adversity; will it be enough? Ohio State hadn't trailed all season before finding itself in a dogfight at Northwestern in which it had to come from behind in the fourth quarter on the road. In the end, Carlos Hyde and the Big Ten's best offensive line proved too much for the Wildcats. The Buckeyes are now 6-0, halfway to another undefeated regular season heading into a bye week and riding an 18-game winning streak under Urban Meyer. Yet Ohio State has shown some weaknesses, particularly with a pass defense that Northwestern exploited for 343 yards the week after safety Christian Bryant was lost for the season. A win is a win, and 18-0 is 18-0, but Meyer's team hasn't produced a lot of style points that would distinguish it in what looks like -- for now, anyway -- a very crowded BCS title chase. The good news is that the Buckeyes have cleared two of their biggest hurdles of the season with back-to-back wins over Wisconsin and the Wildcats, and they might not be challenged again until the season finale at Michigan, if even then. We wouldn't mind seeing a Northwestern-Ohio State rematch in Indianapolis, as Pat Fitzgerald's team looks like the best in a muddled Legends Division scrum, but the remaining schedule is tough. Someone from the Big Ten is probably going to have to play a near-perfect game to beat the Buckeyes; it remains to be seen whether perfection will be enough for Ohio State to get into the national title game.

2. Nebraska's defense and Michigan State's offense provide hope: The Huskers' defensive struggles and the Spartans' offensive woes were the top storylines for each team through the first month of the season. Nebraska entered the open week needing to repair a defense that hadn't stopped anyone consistently, from nationally ranked UCLA to FCS foe South Dakota State. But the Blackshirts responded against an Illinois offense that had made a bunch of big plays through the first four games. Young defenders like Jared Afalava, Randy Gregory and Michael Rose all had big games, as did veteran nickelback Ciante Evans, as Nebraska held Illinois out of the end zone for two and a half quarters. Nebraska's offense did its thing behind running back Ameer Abdullah, but the defense's progress is encouraging for the future. Michigan State also saw an encouraging performance from its offense, as quarterback Connor Cook bounced back from his struggles at Notre Dame and got some help from not one, but two receivers in Macgarrett Kings Jr. (five catches, 94 yards, TD) and Bennie Fowler (nine catches, 92 yards, TD). Michigan State dominated possession time (37 minutes, 13 seconds) and scored the game's final 16 points. Nebraska will continue to lean on its offense, while Michigan State will rely on the Spartan Dawg D, but both teams looked more balanced Saturday, which is a great sign for their chances in the wide-open Legends division.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
AP Photo/Tony DingAfter a week off, Devin Gardner accounted for 252 yards and two touchdowns, with no turnovers.
3. Bye weeks can be helpful: Data doesn't support the notion that bye weeks are beneficial to a team's win-loss record. But when a team is struggling in a certain area and has a week to work on it, that can be very helpful. As mentioned above, Michigan State and Nebraska both showed much improvement on their underwhelming sides of the ball after being idle in Week 5. Michigan worked in two new starters on the offensive line and came out determined to run the ball versus Minnesota. While the yards per carry average (3.2) still wasn't great, the push was better and the Wolverines ran for four touchdowns. More importantly, quarterback Devin Gardner finally played a turnover-free game. Indiana, meanwhile, simplified things for its young defense, as coach Kevin Wilson said there "was less on their plate" against Penn State. That worked, as the Hoosiers were able to attack and play loose in a 44-24 win over the Nittany Lions, coming up with several key stops. Northwestern obviously used its bye to get Venric Mark healthy and to work on more plays with Kain Colter at receiver, both of which proved helpful, indeed. The only team that didn't show some improvement after a Week 5 holiday was Penn State, although that might be due because of depth and injury issues than anything else.

4. Pump the brakes on Iowa and Illinois: The Hawkeyes and Illini had been undoubtedly the league's two big surprises through September and had chances to keep the good vibes going on Saturday. But Iowa took a step back against Michigan State, unable to run the ball or prevent a typically pedestrian Spartans passing attack from stretching the field. Iowa didn't look like a Legends Division contender and paid a price on the injury front. Things don't get any easier after an open week, as Iowa visits Ohio State (Oct. 19). Illinois needed its high-powered offense to strike against a seemingly vulnerable Nebraska defense, but it never happened, as Nathan Scheelhaase struggled with his accuracy. The Illini defense had all sorts of trouble against Nebraska's backup quarterback and running back Ameer Abdullah. Illinois has another week off before home tests against Wisconsin (Oct. 19) and Michigan State (Oct. 26). Both Iowa and Illinois could make bowls, but neither looks like a serious division contender.

5. Magic might be gone for Penn State: There were few better stories in the Big Ten last year than the way Penn State played under the cloud of NCAA sanctions, especially as the Nittany Lions won eight of their last 10 games. But Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill aren't walking through that door. Not only does Penn State lack the incredible senior leadership of last year's group -- which is less a knock on the current players than a tip of the cap to last year's veterans -- but it is struggling to find speed and playmakers on a defense that looks like one of the weakest in years in State College. The only two decent passing attacks on the Lions' schedule -- UCF and Indiana -- shredded Penn State defensive coordinator John Butler's crew. Meanwhile, the offense is becoming too reliant on the individual greatness of receiver Allen Robinson and failed to dominate an Indiana rush defense that has been the Big Ten's worst for multiple years in a row. A 20-point loss to the Hoosiers, in a game in which his team trailed 42-17, is easily the worst defeat of the Bill O'Brien era. The team is down to 61 scholarship players, and not all of them are healthy. "I don't think in any stretch of anybody's imagination that this is a normal Penn State team," O'Brien said. Unfortunately, this might be the new normal for Penn State as the sanctions take their toll, and another 8-4 season might well require some magic at this point.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Indiana senior receiver Kofi Hughes had heard the same question several times this year: What's the best moment of your career? He could only stammer his way through an answer.

"I had nothing to say," Hughes said. "The last three or four years, there really hasn't been anything good at all. But it all built up until now."

Hughes has a quick response ready after Indiana knocked off Penn State 44-24 at Memorial Stadium. The Hoosiers had never beaten the Nittany Lions in 16 tries before Saturday. On attempt No. 17, they thumped them.

[+] EnlargeShane Wynn
AJ Mast/Icon SMIShane Wynn (1) celebrates with Cody Latimer (3) during Indiana's first victory over Penn State in 17 tries.
After trailing 14-13 early in the second half, Indiana went on a 29-3 tear in a little less than a quarter's worth of action. It was easily the program's biggest win since the 2009 season finale over rival Purdue clinched a bowl bid, and it's unquestionably the high point in third-year coach Kevin Wilson's tenure.

Wilson, however, downplayed the historic element to this game during Indiana's two weeks of preparation. While everyone knew the 0-16 record, he tried to focus his team on the here and now.

"That record is always in the back of your mind, and you kind of want to win for the alumni and everything," quarterback Nate Sudfeld said. "But we were coming out here just trying to win a game, the 2013 Indiana team vs. the 2013 Penn State team. They had never beaten us, and we had never beaten them."

That message made sense, as Penn State (3-2, 0-1 Big Ten) painfully reminded everyone that its depth and personnel issues are going to be tough to overcome. A pass defense shredded by UCF last month had similar problems slowing down Sudfeld and a talented group of Hoosiers receivers, and outside of star receiver Allen Robinson, the Nittany Lions lacked difference-makers on both sides of the ball.

"I don't think in any stretch of anybody's imagination that this is a normal Penn State team," Lions coach Bill O'Brien said. :"[Penn State has] 61 kids on scholarship and 40 walk-ons. But you know what? These kids are practicing hard. We need to coach them better."

Indiana's success in moving the ball was no surprise. But Wilson's defense exceeded expectations. Penn State put up 410 total yards but only had 70 rushing yards on 31 attempts. The Hoosiers managed to bother quarterback Christian Hackenberg with pressure and got key stops when needed, turning away four of the Nittany Lions' five fourth-down conversion tries. Wilson said he and the defensive staff pared down the game plan during the bye week, adding in a few blitzes but making things simple so their young players could attack more without thinking as much.

Meanwhile, Sudfeld passed for 321 yards and two touchdowns, and the Indiana running game, led by Tevin Coleman's 92 yards, added another 150 on the ground.

"Our offense, I still don't think, was as good as it needed to be to win this game," Hughes said. "But our defense has come a long way. They're ballin' right now. This is a stepping stone for us, and I definitely think it's going to springboard us for the rest of the season."

The Hoosiers hoped to get off to a strong start this year with their first five games all coming at home. But a disappointing loss to Navy and a poor showing against Missouri threw water on preseason bowl aspirations, and with some pregame rain and more in the forecast Saturday, Memorial Stadium looked only about 60 percent full at best.

Now, though, the team is sitting at 3-2 with winnable home games remaining against Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue. Wilson wants his team avoiding the big picture, but he couldn't deny how big Saturday's victory was.

"We have to win games like this," he said. "We are trying to build a program that is competitive in this league. [Penn State] is one of the standards you shoot for. It was nice to go toe-to-toe with them and play a decent game."

Penn State isn't nearly the team that put together most of those first 16 wins against Indiana. But for the Hoosiers, game No. 17 in this series still resonated.

"It's a big statement and a big game for our team, just to let us know all the work we've been putting in is really coming together," Hughes said. "And now this program is ready to turn around."

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 1, 2013
Oct 1
12:00
PM ET
The baseball postseason starts today. Who ya got? (Hint: birds on a bat).

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

September, 25, 2013
Sep 25
5:00
PM ET
Mail time ...

Jeff from Midland, Mich., writes: I don't understand how you can agree that the pass interference penalties against Michigan State were awful, but say by scoring only 13 points "you don't deserve to win." The two worst PI penalties led to 10 points for ND. Should a team not be allowed to win a game 13-7? No matter how bad State's offense is, a team "deserves" to win on the combined effort of their defense and offense. Which they would have done, if not for the referees!

Brian Bennett: Jeff, they are two separate points. If I had told you before the game that Michigan State would only score 13 points in South Bend, would you have thought the Spartans would win with that number? The MSU defense is outstanding, but for the most part, offenses are so good these days that expecting to beat good opponents with only 13 points is nearly impossible. Even the best defenses are prone to give up a couple of big plays. Heck, Western Michigan scored 13 on the Spartans! It's the same story as last year, when Mark Dantonio's team played great defense but couldn't win key games. Sure, Michigan State has been on the receiving end of some bad calls of late, but if you think that's the biggest issue about this program, you're missing something.


JonB from Houston writes: Brian, coming into this season I thought, "Michigan is going to be good this year, but we're still a year off from being GREAT." Two weeks into the season I thought, "We're a year ahead of schedule and will easily make it to the Big Ten Championship game against Ohio." Now, I feel like it's a real possibility we could miss a bowl game. They can't be that bad, can they? These were just two fluky games, right? Never has it felt so bad to be 4-0. Talk me off the ledge here.

Brian Bennett: Jon, I think a lot of people shared your sentiment coming into this year, but the way Michigan played those first two games changed a lot of minds. The last two games caused another 180. The Notre Dame victory looks less impressive in hindsight because the Irish haven't played that great and are largely one-dimensional on offense. I do not think the Wolverines are nearly as bad as they have played against Akron and UConn, but there are real problems with Devin Gardner's turnovers and the offensive line, among others. I do think, however, that the bye week comes at a good time for Michigan. I remember two years ago, when the Wolverines steadily improved throughout the season until they wound up as Sugar Bowl champs. This coaching staff has shown that it can make adjustments, and there are some young players who should get better. Michigan is not going to miss a bowl game, and the schedule remains mostly favorable. I just don't know if this team can fix enough of its issues to win a very crowded Legends Division.


Andrew from Findlay, Ohio, writes: With Ohio State's poor nonconference schedule, I see that that OSU has to run the table and hope Oregon and Clemson lose. My question is can the conference schedule be enough to boost OSU over a one-loss Oregon or one-loss Clemson and one-loss SEC team if they run the table again?

Brian Bennett: It's going to be awfully tough to exclude an undefeated power conference team from the championship game if there are not more than two such teams. Ohio State's biggest problem could come if, say, Oregon or Stanford winds up undefeated and the SEC champ has one loss. Let's say Alabama loses a close game to LSU but goes on to win the SEC at 12-1. The respect people have for the Tide means they probably wouldn't drop far in the polls with a loss, and if Alabama came back and beat a highly-ranked team from the East -- say, Georgia -- in Atlanta, there would be a lot of public outcry for Nick Saban's team to have a chance to three-peat. Certainly Ohio State's nonconference schedule would then come under heavy scrutiny -- not that Alabama's is far better with the way Virginia Tech is playing, but the Tide and the SEC have earned more cachet than the Buckeyes and the Big Ten.


Greg from South Bend, Ind., writes: Before the season began, I thought Indiana had a pretty legit shot at six or seven wins and a bowl game. Four weeks in and now I'm not sure that they can match last season's four wins, and next season the schedule is more difficult. Why should Hoosiers fans believe that we'll see a bowl game anytime soon? Also, with as much money as they are putting into football, how patient should Fred Glass be with this staff?

Brian Bennett: Let's address the last part first. Kevin Wilson has shown that he can put together a dynamite offense, and this staff has recruited as well as any group that has come through Bloomington. So there's every reason to have patience with these coaches. That said, the defense has been a major problem for going on three years now. Yes, there are still some young players on that side of the ball and incoming talent should help. But at some point that just simply has to get better for the Hoosiers to truly compete for bowls and in the Big Ten. You say the schedule gets harder next year, but I'm not sure that's true, especially from the nonconference angle. Indiana goes to Missouri and Bowling Green but gets Indiana State at home and trades Navy for North Texas.

I'm a huge proponent for challenging nonconference schedules, but the Hoosiers' situation is such that they should probably take Minnesota's approach and schedule four very winnable nonleague games. Getting to a bowl really seemed to speed the Gophers' progress, and IU needs the same thing. Scheduling Navy for this year looks now like a big mistake.

The good news is Wilson's team still doesn't have a lot of seniors, so he should have a very veteran group next year. That's not to write off this season, because the Hoosiers could be favored against Illinois and Purdue at home and could pull off a couple of surprises. But the 2-2 nonconference record sure put them in a tough spot.


Patrick from Ypsilanti, Mich., writes: Brian, which is better for the Big Ten: (1) Ohio State beats Wisconsin, wins the rest of its games but loses in a very close game to Oregon/Alabama in the BCS title game; or (2) Wisconsin beats Ohio State, both win the rest of their games, Wisconsin beats Stanford in a Rose Bowl rematch, and Ohio State beats LSU in the Sugar Bowl?

Brian Bennett: The two BCS wins over strong opponents would be very nice. But I think getting to the BCS title game and being extremely competitive would work out better for league perception. That would show people that at least the Big Ten's best is not that far off from winning a national title; it's been a while since we could say that. Either scenario, though, would provide a big boost. Going into the four-team playoff next year, the league needs to prove it can go toe-to-toe with the elite teams from other power conferences.


Tony from Iowa City writes: In Monday's chat, you asked for suggestions on when was the last time the Iowa-Minnesota rivalry was this relevant. I would venture to say that the 2003 game would probably be your best bet. Both teams went 10-3, both won their bowl games, and both finished the season ranked in the top 25. Now that win went the way of the Hawkeyes, but I would bet if it had gone the other way, Minnesota would've gone to the Rose Bowl. Just a general observation.

Brian Bennett: Good call, Tony. Minnesota entered that game 9-2 and ranked No. 19, while Iowa was 7-3 and ranked No. 20. As an indication of how much times have changed in just 10 years, the Gophers beat Oregon in a bowl that year and the Hawkeyes defeated Florida. Not sure these two teams are quite as good as they were in 2003, but I'm still greatly looking forward to the Floyd game this weekend and think the winner will be in pretty good shape moving forward.


Lone Wolf McCaw from Syberia, USSR, writes: Brian, I have two concerns going forward with college football. Next season we will have the four-team playoff, with the four teams being selected by a panel, but why? Why not just select the four teams based on a points system? I get that this is how the computer rankings work, but let's make it transparent. You greatly reward teams for playing and winning nonconference games against AQ schools and punish teams by playing FBS teams, and if you lose, you get destroyed. At the end of the season you could add up the total amount of wins from the teams you beat and give those points to the team. So what say you, hope that the selection panel gets it right and no one fights about the team that gets left out? Or have a points system fans can follow and have complete transparency with?

Brian Bennett: A points system? You mean like the great BCS system we have now? The one that has computer rating systems with no accountability and has in the past used computer formulas that failed to enter all the scores? Or like a points system that put 2001 Nebraska in the title game despite the Huskers not making the Big 12 championship game? No thanks. Give me some rational human beings who can make informed choices based on some agreed-upon principles like strength of schedule and conference championships. I'll live with some arguments about who should be No. 4.
The backup quarterback has been a big topic around the Big Ten so far this season, thanks mainly to Ohio State's Kenny Guiton, who stepped in seamlessly when Braxton Miller injured his knee in Week 2. Guiton's splendid performances the past three weeks -- he has 12 passing touchdowns, including a team-record six last week against Florida A&M, to go along with 180 rush yards -- are sparking debate about whether he should continue to play even after Miller returns, most likely Saturday night against No. 23 Wisconsin.

Other Big Ten quarterback situations are fluid, and several changes have been made at the starting spot. Today's poll question asks: Which current Big Ten backup is most deserving of playing time? We're limited to five choices, and we didn't include Minnesota because Philip Nelson's injury situation is a big factor there.

SportsNation

Which Big Ten backup quarterback most deserves a chance to play?

  •  
    14%
  •  
    57%
  •  
    8%
  •  
    11%
  •  
    10%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,827)

Before you vote, a quick look at the candidates (in alphabetical order) ...

Austin Appleby/Danny Etling, Purdue: Appleby and Etling are listed as co-backups behind Rob Henry, who is completing just 56.3 percent of his passes with more interceptions (4) than touchdown passes (3) through the first four games. Both Appleby and Etling had chances to beat out Henry for the starting job in the offseason, but the coaches went with the veteran. Henry is a good story and a popular leader in the locker room, but Purdue's season appears to be going nowhere fast. Appleby and Etling both have freshman eligibility, and Henry is a senior. So if Purdue decides that the future is now, it would seem to make sense to go with one of the young guys.

Kenny Guiton, Ohio State: That we're even having this debate regarding a former Big Ten offensive player of the year (Miller) underscores how far Guiton has come. He has steered one of the nation's most dangerous offenses the past three weeks and shown the type of accuracy (68.4 percent completions) that Miller lacked last season. It's important to note that Guiton hasn't exactly faced elite defenses, and he's surrounded by a much larger supporting cast at Ohio State than Miller had in 2012, when he was often a one-man show. Miller is the superior athlete and can break long touchdown runs, but if he's not 100 percent healthy, does it make sense to go with Guiton on Saturday night against Wisconsin?

Andrew Maxwell, Michigan State: Yes, Spartans fans, we're serious. Maxwell might not get many votes here, but head coach Mark Dantonio had seen enough of Connor Cook on Saturday against Notre Dame to insert Maxwell for the team's final drive with 2:11 left and the Spartans down four points. Dantonio said Tuesday that Cook remains the team's No. 1 quarterback, but the coaches clearly want to see more out of that position when Big Ten play begins. Fan favorite Damion Terry is headed toward a redshirt season and the staff seems to have written off Tyler O'Connor. There's a strong case against Maxwell, who certainly has had his chances to claim the job. But is Cook doing enough to keep it?

Curt Phillips, Wisconsin: Phillips might be the most intriguing possibility here. Remember that little separated Phillips and Joel Stave during their offseason competition to start, and some Badgers insiders felt Phillips, a sixth-year senior who has battled back from multiple knee surgeries, should have had the top job coming out of camp. Stave hasn't exactly been lighting it up, passing for just 190 yards a game with six touchdowns and three interceptions. Coach Gary Andersen said Monday that the passing game is a concern but said the issues go beyond Stave. Phillips brings more mobility to the pocket. He lacks Stave's arm strength and ability to stretch the field, but he also takes better care of the ball.

Tre Roberson, Indiana: Roberson technically entered the season as the starter, and coach Kevin Wilson has been hesitant to name a clear No. 1 signal-caller. But Nate Sudfeld has taken the lion's share of snaps through the first four games, and until last Saturday against Missouri, he had performed well, firing 10 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. But when the competition level went up, Sudfeld took a step backward, throwing three interceptions and completing just 53.8 percent of his passes in a blowout loss to Missouri. Sudfeld and Roberson have different strengths, but Roberson brings more experience that could be beneficial when Indiana opens Big Ten play Oct. 5 against Penn State.

It's time to vote. Make yours count.

True freshmen impact in the Big Ten

September, 25, 2013
Sep 25
10:30
AM ET
video

True freshmen are having a bigger and bigger impact throughout college football these days, as coaches are either becoming less afraid to throw their youngsters into the fire or are facing fewer options.

[+] EnlargeDontre Wilson
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesOhio State freshman Dontre Wilson has 13 rushes and 10 receptions through four games.
With that in mind, today we are ranking the top five teams in the Big Ten in order of the impact true freshmen are making for that team. We're going with quality over quantity here, mind you.

1. Penn State: The Nittany Lions are starting just one true frosh, but he's a guy with a little bit of importance to the team's fortunes: quarterback Christian Hackenberg. The 18-year-old has had some ups and downs but is on pace for a 3,000-yard season. Tight end Adam Breneman and receiver Richy Anderson have also played in every game, with one start each. Von Walker, Brandon Bell and Jordan Smith are among others who have seen time for coach Bill O'Brien, who doesn't have the luxury to redshirt many guys with the Lions' depth issues.

2. Nebraska: The Huskers' defense is young, all right. So young that two true freshmen are starting at linebacker for Bo Pelini in Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry. They rank fourth and fifth on the team in tackles, and Banderas is handling a leadership position as the middle linebacker.

3. Ohio State: Urban Meyer says Ohio State doesn't redshirt. If you're ready, you play. Technically, the Buckeyes don't start any true freshmen, but Dontre Wilson has already made a big impact as a runner, receiver and kick returner. Several other first-year players dot the two-deep, such as safety Vonn Bell and defensive lineman Joey Bosa, and running back Ezekiel Elliott ran for more than 100 yards and scored two touchdowns last week versus Florida A&M.

4. Indiana: No surprise to see the Hoosiers on this list, since coach Kevin Wilson has played as many true freshmen as any coach in the country the past few years. That means Indiana finally has some veterans, but Wilson is starting T.J. Simmons at linebacker and getting contributions from Darius Latham on the defensive line, Antonio Allen in the secondary and Marcus Oliver and Clyde Newton at linebacker.

5. Wisconsin: The Badgers are mostly an experienced, veteran team. The one exception is in the secondary. Sojourn Shelton is starting at cornerback for the Badgers, while Jakarrie Washington and Nate Hammon are top reserves in the defensive backfield.
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football:

1. Wisconsin-Ohio State could be the Big Ten's game of the year: In recent years, the Badgers-Buckeyes matchups have been more significant than Ohio State-Michigan or any other conference pairing. This week's showdown at Ohio Stadium could be just as significant. Ohio State is the Big Ten's best team, and Wisconsin might be No. 2 after another dominant rushing performance against Purdue. Both teams ascribe to the power run game but do it in vastly different yet equally entertaining ways. Although the Kenny G show has been terrific for the Buckeyes, top quarterback Braxton Miller should be back for the Big Ten opener. Miller might not be the biggest offensive star on the field, as Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon has performed as advertised, racking up 624 rush yards and seven touchdowns in the first four games. The game features first-year Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen going up against his former boss, Urban Meyer. One of these teams has held at least a share of the past eight Big Ten titles. The winner takes control of the Leaders Division. Should be a great one.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner, Jefferson Ashiru
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesMichigan quarterback Devin Gardner had another three turnovers in the Wolverines' close win over UConn.
2. Michigan has real problems: It was tempting to write off Michigan's struggle to beat Akron last week as a hangover from the high-stakes Notre Dame game. But no hangovers the past two weeks. The Wolverines found themselves down two touchdowns in the second half Saturday night at UConn, the same Huskies team that lost at home by 15 to Towson in the opener. Michigan rallied for the 24-21 win, and at least Brady Hoke's team has shown grit at the end of games the past three weeks. But quarterback Devin Gardner committed three more turnovers (two interceptions, one fumble), and he has devolved from potential Heisman candidate to a potential problem spot in just a fortnight. An even thornier issue is the continued inability of the Michigan offensive line to open consistent holes for the running game. If the Wolverines are having trouble running the ball against Akron and UConn, what's going to happen in Big Ten play? There's plenty of time for Hoke & Co. to right the ship, and the upcoming bye week is a welcome sight. But right now, Michigan does not look like the top-15 team we thought it was two weeks ago.

3. The Iowa-Minnesota game has added meaning: We love the pig, but there's a lot more than the Floyd of Rosedale at stake (steak?) this week as Iowa and Minnesota open Big Ten play in Minneapolis. Both teams have shown improvement, especially with their power running games, and enter the matchup with momentum. Iowa exploded for 38 first-half points Saturday against Western Michigan and finished with 59, its highest total since 2002. The Hawkeyes received contributions in all three phases, including two punt return touchdowns from receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley and two pick-sixes from cornerback B.J. Lowery. Iowa's defense has yet to allow a rushing touchdown. After a miserable offensive performance in 2012, Iowa is starting to establish an identity behind its line and a stable of running backs. Minnesota is doing the same, finally showing it can control the line of scrimmage and dominate on the ground. Despite not having its starting quarterback (Philip Nelson) or starting running back (Donnell Kirkwood), Minnesota racked up 353 yards and six rushing touchdowns, including four by backup signal-caller Mitch Leidner, in an impressive win against San Jose State. The Gophers are 4-0 for the second straight season. Both teams have very challenging league schedules, so getting off to a 1-0 start is huge. Big one at TCF Bank Stadium this week.

4. Bo Pelini is still standing, but needs time to regroup: The open week couldn't come at a better time for Nebraska's coach and his team, which ended an emotional week with a 59-20 thumping of FCS South Dakota State. The firestorm from audio-gate should die down, at least a little, as Pelini got through Saturday's game without any further controversy, and received mostly support from Huskers fans. Pelini is hardly out of the woods, though, and must turn his attention to a defense that needs a ton of work before Big Ten play begins Oct. 5 against Illinois. The Huskers surrendered 465 yards to the Jackrabbits, who had a balanced attack (238 yards passing, 227 yards rushing). Pelini called it the defense's worst performance in a season filling up with them. Whether it's youth, talent, scheme or attention to detail, Nebraska's defense must get back on track soon. Although the schedule remains favorable the next month or so, it's hard to see the Huskers repeating as Legends Division champs without some significant upgrades on D.

5. Indiana still hasn't arrived: Indiana entered the year with high hopes for a bowl game this year, and with a warp-speed offense averaging 50 points a game through three weeks, the Hoosiers didn't appear to be deluding themselves. But after an impressive showing last week against Bowling Green, Kevin Wilson's team found itself right back in a familiar spot: unable to defend a good team. Missouri racked up 623 yards -- the most in Memorial Stadium history -- in a 45-28 win in Bloomington on Saturday. The game wasn't even as close as the final score, as Indiana tacked on a touchdown and two-point conversion with 10 seconds to go, and Missouri had three turnovers in the first half to kill promising drives. The Hoosiers' vaunted offense failed to score from the 6:31 mark of the second quarter until there was 11:24 left in the game, and IU punted nine times after punting only five times in the first three games combined. The loss to Navy now hurts even more, as Wilson's team would have to go 4-4 in Big Ten play to become bowl eligible. That seems like an awfully tall order. Penn State comes in next after a bye for both teams, and the Nittany Lions just righted their defense in a 34-0 shutout of Kent State. Penn State has never lost to Indiana and will be favored soundly again on Oct. 5. It might be wait for next year time again in Hoosierland.
Ten items to keep your eyes on around the Big Ten in week 4:

1. Ohio State with its full roster actually available … probably. If Braxton Miller is good to go (he practiced yesterday but didn’t go full speed), that means that Urban Meyer -- for the first time this season -- will have each of his starters at his disposal come game time. Between Miller’s knee injury, running back Carlos Hyde’s three-game suspension and cornerback Bradley Roby’s one-game suspension, Ohio State has been playing a man (or two) down at times. Florida A&M will be the first team to face the fully loaded Buckeyes.

2. Bo Pelini’s reception in Memorial Stadium. Less than a week after audio surfaced of Pelini saying less than kind things about the Nebraska fan base, he’ll take the field with his Cornhuskers for a 3:30 p.m. ET kick against South Dakota State. It sure doesn’t help that Nebraska failed to hold on for a win over UCLA after leading 21-3, but the Nebraska fans will likely have their own reactions for Pelini during Saturday’s game.

3. The opening game of 2013-14 Big Ten football. It’s finally here. Big Ten football is kicking off in Week 4. Purdue travels to No. 24 Wisconsin for a 3:30 ET kick off on Saturday. The two teams will open the 118th season of Big Ten football with the earliest conference opening game since 1996. The Badgers, who begin their quest for a fourth consecutive Big Ten title, will look to take down Purdue, a team that started the season 1-2.

4. The Spartans’ progress under Cook. Keep an eye on how redshirt sophomore QB Connor Cook -- in his second start for Michigan State -- continues to develop. The Spartan offense took major steps forward last week in a win over Youngstown State, but this will be Cook’s first real challenge with a stout defense on the road. In eight of the last 13 meetings between these two teams, the game has been decided by a late, fourth-quarter or overtime score. If that’s the case this season, Cook could be in for quite the challenge so early in his starting career.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin running back Melvin Gordon will face a challenge in Purdue's defense.
5. Big rushing performances. The conference’s top three rushers will all have big opportunities to make statements this weekend. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon has averaged 159 yards per game and will be up against Purdue’s defense, which has only given up 117 yards per game. It’s an opportunity for him to make a big statement against a defense that has contained pretty well. On the other hand, Iowa running back Mark Weisman -- who leads the nation in rushing attempts -- has averaged 142 yards per game and will face Western Michigan, whose defense has allowed 245 yards of rushing per game. It will also be interesting to see what happens with Ohio State running back Jordan Hall, who has averaged 134 yards per game this season without Hyde, facing Florida A&M’s defense, which has given up 201 yards of rushing per game.

6. Teams getting back on the horse. Michigan looked nothing like a top-25 team Saturday as it escaped a major upset against Akron. Wisconsin, on the other hand, had some interesting officiating decide the final margin. These two teams will take the field this week with something to prove and major chips on their shoulders.

7. Jerry Kill’s return to TCF Bank Stadium. Last weekend he suffered a game-day seizure and had to leave the game early. The Gophers went on to beat Western Illinois 29-12 and upon his return, Kill said he didn’t want to discuss his medical issues and that he only wanted to focus on San Jose State. It will be interesting to see how the fan base reacts to his return -- whether there’s more excitement, trepidation, uncertainty (or all the above) surrounding the Gophers’ head coach.

8. QBs battling injuries and the possibilities for their backups. Between Miller’s knee, Taylor Martinez’s turf toe and Philip Nelson’s hamstring, there is a chance that we could see some backup QBs taking some snaps this weekend. Buckeye backup Kenny Guiton has proven himself and would likely be fine to go against Florida A&M. Minnesota is in the same boat with redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner leading the Gophers on a 22-point run to take down Western Illinois last weekend. Martinez’s backup situation is a bit murkier. He has controlled the starting spot at Nebraska his entire career so Pelini would likely look to senior Ron Kellogg III or redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. against South Dakota State.

9. Iowa’s possibility of momentum. The Hawkeyes held out for a 27-21 win over Iowa State last weekend and with one of the toughest schedules in the Big Ten (Michigan State, Ohio State, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska) this might be one of their best chances for another win this season. But the question is: Can Jake Rudock and Weisman hold onto that momentum and carry it over to Western Michigan?

10. Indiana’s offense against SEC speed. Missouri might be one of the one of the lesser-respected SEC powers, but it still has to play against those SEC powers. Indiana’s offense is going to be facing a new speed level with Missouri and the Hoosiers will have to make their own luck. Missouri has given up 124 rushing yards and 218 passing yards per game, so it’s not an impossible game by any means, but it will be a test for Kevin Wilson and IU.
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