Big Ten scouting report: Michigan and Northwestern battle for defensive supremacy

The two biggest surprises of the Big Ten meet Saturday with a lot to prove.

Who ever believed Northwestern would offer this type of suffocating defense so far? Many doubted that Jim Harbaugh would be able to get a scuffling Michigan program rolling this fast so soon.

New Michigan Man Jim Harbaugh (right) talks things over with quarterback Jake Rudock. Harbaugh's team is rolling, though, because of his defense.  (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

New Michigan Man Jim Harbaugh (right) talks things over with quarterback Jake Rudock. Harbaugh’s team is rolling, though, because of his defense. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

And yet both are ranked, are a combined 9-1 and boast the top two scoring defenses in the nation. Northwestern is yielding only 7 points a game; Michigan 7.6.

Certainly, Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats still have some convincing to do, especially on offense. They did, though, just turn in their best all-around game in a shutout of Minnesota.

The Wildcats also are in the middle of tough run. After Michigan, they face undefeated Iowa in Evanston before hitting the road to play a desperate Nebraska team. A bye week then stands between them and Penn State.

Meanwhile, since a tough opening loss to Utah on the road, the Wolverines have roared back, especially on defense. Will playing in the Big House Saturday give them the edge in what appears to be a most evenly-matched game?

Michigan, under defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, is ranked nationally in total defense (No. 2), passing yards allowed (No. 3) and rushing defense (No. 5). The last time a Michigan defense held four-straight opponents to seven points or less was 30 years ago — when Harbaugh was its quarterback.

Northwestern and Michigan get together at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

Will Northwestern's defensive leader,  linebacker Anthony Walker (18), steal the day against Michigan?  (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

Will Northwestern’s defensive leader, linebacker Anthony Walker (18), steal the day against Michigan? (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

Check out this post from the Detroit Free Press that talks about a big loss for that Michigan defense and preparations for the Northwestern game.

Learn more here about the Wildcats from the Daily Northwestern.

Ohio State keeps searching for its power

The Ohio State Buckeyes continue to be the biggest mystery in the league despite their unblemished record.

Is it an issue of simply finding the right spots on the field for so much overwhelming talent?

Of course, that’s what Urban Meyer is getting paid so handsomely to figure out. And yet an offense with so many big expectations, one that appeared so dominant against Virginia Tech in the opener, has looked disjointed and underwhelming since.

It took a monster second half of running by tailback Ezekiel Elliott (274 yards and three long touchdown runs) to rescue the Buckeyes offensively at Indiana last Saturday. Meanwhile, former star quarterback Braxton Miller has all but disappeared as a receiver and starting quarterback Cardale Jones has looked pedestrian. Meanwhile, former standout starter J.T. Barrett watches from the sideline.

The results have not been pretty: The Buckeyes managed only six first-half points against the Hoosiers and only 20 for the entire game against Northern Illinois.

Also, turnovers and mistakes have proved costly. Despite rolling up 517 yards at Indiana they also turned the ball over three times and needed a last-gasp defensive stand just to survive.

Think about that. It took Elliott running for the second-highest single-game total in Ohio State history for the Buckeyes to hold off Indiana in the final seconds.

Let the Columbus Dispatch give you a more in-depth look at what ails No. 1 Ohio State.

Where do the Illini go from here?

It’s uncertain how much we truly learned about the potential of the Illinois Fighting Illini from their remarkable, last-second victory Saturday.

Illinois wide receiver Geronimo Allison celebrates his touchdown in the closing seconds against Nebraska. How will the Illini keep their momentum going at Iowa? (AP Photo/Bradley Leeb)

Illinois wide receiver Geronimo Allison celebrates his touchdown in the closing seconds against Nebraska. How will the Illini keep their momentum going at Iowa? (AP Photo/Bradley Leeb)

Mostly because their victim was self-destructive Nebraska, losers late three times already this fall.

Coming in, the Illini seemed to be in questionable shape under interim head coach Bill Cubit. After opening blowouts over lesser-lights, they were manhandled at North Carolina and needed every bit of mojo to edge Middle Tennessee State.

And then they rally from a 13-point hole in the fourth quarter to upset Nebraska?

The Huskers had every opportunity to put this away, especially on their final possession. They elected to pass on fourth down at the Illinois 28 yard line, knowing the Illini had no timeouts remaining.

Even then, the Illini only had enough time to complete their rally because of hitting a 50-yard pass and because of two ensuing pass interference penalties — giving them six final shots at the end zone.

Illinois is displaying a much improved defense but also lost offensive sparkplug Josh Ferguson to injury. That will be most critical to monitor, particularly when they travel to undefeated Iowa this week. Check out this piece to follow the story line.

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Penn State football chat, 8 p.m., Oct. 5

The Nittany Lions really did struggle to pull things out against Army.

The Lions could really use the return of freshman tailback Saquon Barkley Saturday vs. Indiana. But will they get him?

The Lions could really use the return of freshman tailback Saquon Barkley Saturday vs. Indiana. But will they get him?

And that comes after struggling to put away Buffalo and San Diego State … all in Beaver Stadium.

So what gives with the Big Ten schedule revving up this weekend?

Let’s chat about it all tonight at 8. From Christian Hackenberg and the passing game to Saquon Barkley and the rest of the mounting injury list.

Suddenly, the Indiana Hoosiers look like a formidable opponent beyond previous expectations. You tell me if this is the week James Franklin’s Penn State team finally puts it all together.

To get warmed up, check out my column on Franklin and his staff and why the Lions look they do.

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PSU podcast: Lions will need to survive injuries to key players

Penn State’s top two running backs left the last game with lower-body injuries. Neither of Penn State’s top two options at safety could finish the game. And so the Lions, banged up but 3-1 headed into a Week 5 matchup with Army, try to keep improving after their opening-season loss to Temple.

Frank Bodani and Jim Seip discuss what new faces could crack the lineup and what to expect at those two key positions in this week’s podcast.

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Penn State football chat, 8 p.m., Sept. 29

The injuries piled up as the Nittany Lions earned their third-straight victory.

Are there more positives or negatives moving from the win over San Diego State to the approaching games against Army and Indiana?

Christian Hackenberg and his receivers showed early progress last week. How will it continue with a suddenly unstable tailback situation?

Christian Hackenberg and his receivers showed early progress last week. How will it continue with a suddenly unstable tailback situation?

Let’s chat about that and more … just on a new night for this week only. We’ll be talking tonight at 8.

Maybe Christian Hackenberg and the passing game have finally took a major step with some game-changing strikes downfield. Or maybe that lackluster second half of offense has you just as disappointed as ever.

We’ll sort it all out while also looking at recruiting and the rest of the Big Ten.

To get warmed up, check out my column on how Penn State’s most unusual five-game homestand actually is a saving grace for this team.

And in case you missed it, here’s my feature story from the end of August on how Anthony Zettel is driven by his father. Terry Zettel died Friday after a long bout with cancer.

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PSU podcast: Soft schedule a blessing for young Lions

Frank Bodani and Jim Seip discuss what will be the next progression for a young but improving Penn State squad. The program’s biggest asset, however, might be its weak scheduled at the start of the season.

Posted in Beaver Stadium, Ben Kline, Big Ten, Christian Hackenberg, Fans, Football, Frank Bodani, Injuries, James Franklin, Jim Seip, NCAA, Ohio State, Penn State, Podcast, Saquon Barkley, Troy Reeder | Comments Off on PSU podcast: Soft schedule a blessing for young Lions

Big Ten Scouting Report: Defense leads the way at Northwestern. Will it catch up to the Hoosiers?

It almost seems like Pat Fitzgerald is playing at Northwestern all over again.

Could this defense become even better than his 20 years ago?

Even the Wildcat defenses of 1995-96, featuring Player of the Year Fitzgerald at linebacker, couldn’t equal the defensive numbers put up by this team so far.

Northwestern's Anthony Walker (18) makes another tackle vs. Duke as part of a stunning defensive renaissance. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Northwestern’s Anthony Walker (18) makes another tackle vs. Duke as part of a stunning defensive renaissance. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Sure, the Wildcats are 3-0 for the third time in four seasons. But this version from head coach Fitzgerald appears much different because of the phenomenal results so far on defense. After upsetting Stanford and suffocating Duke on the road, the Wildcats are allowing only 5.3 points per game, No. 1 nationally.

Fitzgerald’s defense has allowed only one touchdown this season. At Duke, it forced five straight punts to keep the Wildcats in the game.

Then consider that Wisconsin is the only ranked team left on Northwestern’s schedule. Of course, the Wildcats’ offense may still need to make significant strides to keep this run going, especially freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson.

At this point, we’re wondering how things will play out when Penn State travels to Ryan Field on Nov. 7. Could we be looking at a game in the single digits (scoring, that is)? Here are some insiders’ thoughts on where this Northwestern team is headed.

Meanwhile, linebacker Anthony Walker is doing a pretty good impersonation of his coach. Walker had 14 tackles — just in the first half — against the Blue Demons.

The ultimate goal is for these Wildcats to equal the success from Fitzgerald’s playing days. Those 1995-96 teams earned a combined 19-5 record.
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Penn State football chat, 8 p.m., Sept. 21

These first six Penn State games always appeared to be a proving ground, in small steps.

So at least the Nittany Lions moved forward for the second-straight week with the prime time success over Rutgers.

DaeSean Hamilton finally broke out a bit vs. Rutgers. Where is this Penn State passing game headed?

DaeSean Hamilton finally broke out a bit vs. Rutgers. Where is this Penn State passing game headed?

Let’s chat about what you think of that runaway victory and what comes next. Join me tonight at 8.

Young stars are emerging (Saquon Barkley, Troy Reeder, John Reid) while some older ones may be fading (Geno Lewis, Kyle Carter). What do you think of this meshing of the old guard with the new?

Where do you believe the Lions must improve most heading to the San Diego State game and beyond in the Big Ten?

To get warmed up for tonight, check out my column on the Penn State specials teams … and how far they’ve come.

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PSU podcast: Rutgers is a mess before Beaver Stadium showdown

Rutgers has a litany of off-field issues it is dealing with headed into a pivotal Week 3 meeting at Penn State for both programs. Reporters Frank Bodani and Jim Seip discuss what Penn State will need to do in order to continue to improve offensively.

Posted in Adam Breneman, Akeel Lynch, Beaver Stadium, Ben Kline, Big Ten, Big Ten Network, Christian Hackenberg, Frank Bodani, Jim Seip, NCAA, Penn State, Podcast | Comments Off on PSU podcast: Rutgers is a mess before Beaver Stadium showdown

A star off the field, will Ben Kline help Penn State on it?

Ben Kline hasn’t played a football game in nearly two years.

Down to his final season of eligibility, he’s nowhere to be found on the Penn State depth chart heading into Week Three vs. Rutgers.

While injury problems have plagued the Dallastown linebacker his entire college career, he continues to have stunning success in the classroom and the community.

Ben Kline, a standout student and community leader, still hopes to see the field this season. If he can stay healthy ...

Ben Kline, a standout student and community leader, still hopes to see the field this season. If he can stay healthy …

But will he play again at Penn State?

Head coach James Franklin says he certainly has a chance, though he didn’t get into details.

“We would love to have him back from a stability standpoint, from a leadership standpoint,” Franklin said during Tuesday’s Big Ten Coaches teleconference.

“He’s had such a profound impact. He got up and spoke Friday night at the (team) hotel, and his story is remarkable in a lot of of ways,” Franklin said. “I know everybody on our team respects him, he’s kind of like the father of the program from a players’ perspective. They all go to him.”

Most recently, Kline was selected for the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Good Works Team. He is among 22 overall honorees (11 from Football Subdivision schools) for their contributions to the community. Kline is only the third Nittany Lion to ever earn Allstate AFCA Good Works Team honors.

Fans can vote for the AFCA Good Works Team Captain through Nov. 25 at ESPN.com/Allstate.

Kline also has served as the president of Penn State’s Uplifting Athletes chapter for the last two years. In 2014, Uplifting Athletes raised a record-breaking $140,000 for Kidney Cancer Awareness and Research at its Lift for Life event.

The Seven Valleys native has been involved in THON and Special Olympics during his time at Penn State. He also co-founded a student organization this summer that benefits an orphanage in Kenya.

To top it off, Kline is a nominee for a prestigious American Rhodes Scholarship.

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Big Ten Scouting Report: Terps search for a quarterback; Ohio State, too?

The Big Ten, for all of it’s renewed reputation, certainly is dealing with plenty of quarterback issues already this season.

Of course, the most experienced of them all, Michigan State’s Connor Cook is doing just fine, with that huge win over Oregon.

But that’s not the norm so far.

Defending national champion Ohio State has three star QBs but is waffling between two of them. Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg, a potential Top 10 NFL Draft pick next spring, is off to a dismal start statistically. Michigan’s Jake Ruddock has more interceptions (four) than touchdown passes (two).

And then there’s Maryland.

Welcome, then, to our first Big Ten Scouting Report of the season …

Maryland earned the upset at Penn State last season. But can coach Randy Edsall get his quarterback situation turned around quickly enough now?

Maryland earned the upset at Penn State last season. But can coach Randy Edsall get his quarterback situation turned around quickly enough now?

The quick hook

It took only two games for York County native Randy Edsall to switch quarterbacks.

The Maryland head coach hopes to stabilize things quickly after his team was bombed by Bowling Green in the second half last weekend. (It was the Terps’ first home loss to a Mid-American Conference team since 1997).

Maryland already figured to be in a precarious situation after losing a lot of talent from last year’s team — a void unable to be filled yet by improved recruiting efforts. The hope, then, was that Perry Hills could step in and lead at quarterback.

However, now he’s been dropped all the way to third-string after just two performances. Caleb Rowe (who threw two interceptions in his three passes last weekend) is the new starter.

Oklahoma State transfer Daxx Garman will be the top backup.

Edsall also is switching up receivers before South Florida visits College Park, Md. this Saturday. After that, the Terps have this intimidating three-week run: West Virginia, Michigan and Ohio State.

For more on the Terps, check out the Baltimore Sun’s report here.

Ironing things out in Title Town?

There’s not a cause for concern yet, simply an intriguing dilemma building in Columbus.

Coach Urban Meyer moved one of his star quarterbacks (Braxton Miller) to receiver before the season started. But his other two? He still doesn’t seem sure who he wants to go with after a slow-developing victory over Hawaii. Last year’s late-season hero, Cardale Jones, started and later returned in the second half against the Rainbow Warriors. But J.T. Barrett got some looks, too, after Jones’ early struggles.

Ohio State's Braxton Miller played quarterback the last time Penn State saw him. Now he's just as elusive, only as a receiver.

Ohio State’s Braxton Miller played quarterback the last time Penn State saw him. Now he’s just as elusive, only as a receiver.

Together they combined for 20-of-33 passing and 181 yards. Not bad at all. Just not what you expect from the defending national champs against an overwhelmed opponent.

For more, check out this work from the Columbus Dispatch

New heights for the Spartans. What’s next?

In one nerve-wracking swoop, the Michigan State Spartans avenged a defeat, completed a major hurdle to climb the polls and gave another shot of national legitimacy to the Big Ten.

That’s what a last-minute victory over Oregon will do for you.

Now, what comes next for the Spartans? In one sense, their playoff path seems cleared until the grudge match with Michigan and the showdown with No. 1 Ohio State in November.

Check out these stories to learn more about the hottest team in the Big Ten … and maybe the entire nation.

Finding answers in Carolina

For sure, the Northwestern Wildcats are turning heads with their defense.

They followed up that stunning upset of Stanford by trampling Eastern Illinois the way they should. They’re allowing only 189 total yards a game, tops in the Big Ten so far.

Meanwhile, down in Champaign, the Fighting Illini are simply taking care of business.

Which is a huge step up for them.

Following coach Tim Beckman’s firing, Illinois has outscored lesser-lights Kent State and Western Illinois by a combined 96-3.

But now the Wildcats and Illini must pass a big test on the road in North Carolina on Saturday.

Northwestern visits Duke, also 2-0. At the same time, Illinois will play the Tarheels (1-1) in Chapel Hill.

Win those away from home and surely Big Ten watchers and beyond will begin paying attention. This piece in the Chicago Tribune talks about how Northwestern is dealing with their new-found success.

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