Big Ten spring storylines

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Thanks in large part to the biggest “free-agent signing” in college last year, Wisconsin staked its claim to a win in the first-ever Big Ten championship game.  With Russell Wilson one-and-done in Madison, however, the conference generally and the Leaders (chuckle) division specifically are up for grabs yet again.

The only certainty for the 2012 race to Indianapolis?  Ohio State won’t be involved, thanks to its well-publicized NCAA issues.

The story of the conference headed into the spring is, of course, a pair of newcomers.  Bill O’Brien takes over a Penn State football program tainted by the Jerry Sandusky child-sex abuse scandal, while Urban Meyer returns to his home-state Buckeyes after hitting the pause button on his coaching career following the 2010 season.

Below are a handful of Big Ten storylines we’ll pay at least some attention to this spring:

Leg up in the Legends?
While Michigan State claimed the division’s spot in the first Big Ten title game, it will likely be its in-state rival that will carry the frontrunner tag heading into the upcoming season.  And why not?  All Brady Hoke did in his first year at Michigan was lead the Wolverines to the most wins (11) since 2006, taking an immense first step in erasing the stench left behind by the RichRod regime.  Beginning in the spring, though, Hoke must find and identify new playmakers at the wide receiver position.  Additionally, Denard Robinson must find a way to reduce his turnovers, although a second year in the same system could very well alleviate that issue on its own.  Fortunately — and by “fortunately” I mean “get down and thank the Good Lord Greg Robinson is not around” — the defense is in the very capable hands of Greg Mattison and, even with some attrition in the trenches, should be a strength of the 2012 edition of the Wolverines.

Monumental change in Happy Valley
For the first time since Lyndon Baines Johnson was sitting in Oval Office, a head coach not named Joe Paterno will direct the Nittany Lions football program through spring drills.  Charged with the task of replacing a coaching legend is Bill O’Brien, who will not only be taking over a program rocked by scandal over the past several months, but will be a head coach for the first time at any level of football.  With O’Brien at the helm, one will actually watch the Nittany Lions field a (gasp!) modern style of offense, replete with passing and excitement and the like.  While keeping some continuity on the defensive side of the ball by retaining Larry Johnson Sr. cannot be understated, all eyes in the spring will be on the number of footballs piercing the Happy Valley air.  Just who will be doing the majority of the flinging remains to be seen; Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden will once again battle for the starting job, with Paul Jones possibly getting himself into the mix as well.  While that crucial battle will begin in the spring, it likely won’t be finished until deep into summer camp.

(Insert “Urban development/renewal” pun here)
Penn State’s not the only Big Ten school preparing to cannonball into 21st century offensive football.  Urban Meyer will bring his version of the spread offense to the Buckeyes, implementing the new system after bringing an SEC mindset to the recruiting game.  Unlike the Nittany Lions, however, there is no question who will be the new offense’s triggerman as true sophomore-to-be Braxton Miller has all of the tools to flourish under the tutelage of Meyer and his offensive coaching staff.  Certainly there are other questions that need answered — filling holes on the offensive line chief among them — and there’s no postseason to play for, but the foundation laid by Meyer & Company this spring will certainly benefit the program in 2013 and beyond.  Provided another sabbatical is not in the offing, of course.

Uncertainty under center
Just because Wisconsin and Michigan State met in the first Big Ten title doesn’t make them the favorites for a return engagement in the second.  A big reason why?  Replacing the talent and experience lost at the quarterback position.  The Badgers, of course, will be looking for a replacement for Russell Wilson, and could very well turn its attention to the East Coast yet again for a QB solution; UW is reportedly one of the handful of schools Danny O’Brien is considering as he transfers from Maryland.  The Spartans, on the other hand, will definitely look from within for a replacement for Kirk Cousins, who started the past three seasons and was widely considered MSU’s heart and soul.  Barring an unexpected development, Andrew Maxwell,  a four-star member of the Spartans’ 2009 recruiting class, is Cousins’ heir apparent.  Whether he’s ready for his new, more visible role remains to be seen.

No. 13 Notre Dame rolling early to take big halftime lead over turnover-prone USC

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There are bad starts, and there are starts like what No. 11 USC had in the first half of their rivalry game against No. 13 Notre Dame.

Fumble on the first drive? Check. Shank a short field goal? Yep. Muff a punt? Indeed. Throw an interception. Thumbs up.

As a result, the Irish fed off an electric atmosphere in South Bend to jump out to a hot start against their intersectional rival and went to the locker room up 28-0 at halftime in a game that seems over given the way the two sides are playing at the moment.

Proving that a few weeks off were indeed plenty to get back to 100 percent, quarterback Brandon Wimbush looked sharp in taking advantage of all those USC miscues. He finished the half with two touchdown passes (one to Kevin Stepherson, the other to Equanimeous St. Brown) and ran for 76 yards and another score despite that balky foot injury that kept him out for several weeks.

Running back Josh Adams didn’t get a ton of work given all the quick end zone trips (just 14 carries), but also gave a boost to his low-key Heisman campaign by running for 68 yards and a touchdown.

As many positives as you could come up with for Notre Dame in the half, you could just about double it and come up with the number of negatives for USC. Sam Darnold had one of his worst halves in cardinal and gold, fumbling on the opening drive and throwing an interception late in the second quarter. He wound up with 107 yards as the only source of offense for the Trojans after Ronald Jones was bottled up to the tune of just five yards on seven carries.

USC has authored several second half comebacks already this year but, based on the way they played so far in Notre Dame Stadium, they’re going to need a comeback just to avoid getting blown out. The flip side is another strong showing like that and all the College Football Playoff talk surrounding the Irish will start to become very, very real come Sunday.

Penn State starts fast, but Michigan hanging around

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On a white out night in State College, Penn State threatened to blowout Michigan early, but the Wolverines battled back to a 21-13 deficit at the break.

Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead pulled out a wrinkle on the Nittany Lions’ second play from scrimmage, and it worked to perfection. Quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley shifted pre-snap, and Barkley took the direct snap and raced 69 yards untouched for a touchdown.

After forcing a three-and-out, Penn State moved 78 yards in four plays, keyed by a 35-yard rainbow heave from McSorley to tight end Mike Gesicki. Barkley scored his second touchdown of the first quarter one play later, a 15-yard burst around the right side. 

But Penn State’s offense stalled from there. The Lions’ next possession ended in a McSorley interception, and the possession after that was a three-and-out that lost nine yards. Penn State penetrated Michigan territory midway through the second quarter, but Barkley dropped a wheel route that would’ve put the Lions inside the red zone. Penn State turned the ball over on downs two plays later.

Meanwhile, Michigan turned McSorley’s interception into an 11-play, 59-yard touchdown drive capped by a 1-yard Karan Higdon run on fourth-and-goal. Quinn Nordin missed the ensuing PAT.

After the turnover on downs, Michigan marched 67 yards on a series of John O’Korn plays — a 14-yard rush, an 18-yard strike to Donovan Peoples-Jones, and 23 yards to Kekoa CrawfordTy Isaac powered in from six yards out to pull the Wolverines within one with 1:45 to play before the half. 

Threatened for the first time of the evening, Penn State ended its streak of three straight unsuccessful drives with a 7-play, 75-yard march that consumed only 52 seconds. McSorley accounted for 68 yards on the drive, including a 3-yard rush to put the home team back up eight.

O’Korn closed the half hitting 7-of-9 passes for 63 yards, while a host of Wolverines runners combined to rush 22 times for 78 yards.

McSorley hit 10-of-18 passes for 159 yards with an interception with five carries for 26 yards and a score. Barkley rushed 11 times for 109 yards and two scores, while DaeSean Hamilton caught three passes for 69 yards.

Michigan will receive to open the second half.

Tennessee’s Rashaan Gaulden apologizes for flipping off Alabama fans

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It would take someone in need of Mr. Magoo-level corrective lenses to not see this one coming.

As you no doubt know by now, Alabama took Tennessee to the woodshed Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa.  The Vols did save a slight sliver of their collective manhood as they scored a touchdown for the first time since the second quarter of the Sept. 23 win over previously winless UMass, a span that stretched nearly 13 full quarters of playing time.

In the aftermath of that defensive touchdown, however, defensive back Rashaan Gaulden decided to offer up a double-digit, middle-finger salute to the Crimson Tide student section that resulted in a 15-yard penalty.  In the aftermath of that gesture, Gaulden offered up an apology.

“I would like to issue an apology to the University of Tennessee and the University of Alabama for my gesture after the pick-six by (Daniel) Bituli,” Gaulden said. “That remark that I showed was very out of character. That’s not how my parents raised me. That’s not how a leader of the team should show their emotions on the field.

“I really, sincerely apologize to the student section at Alabama for disrespecting them.”

Beleaguered head coach Butch Jones, who is likely out at some point after the end of the regular season if not sooner, certainly didn’t need something like this shedding even more negative light on his flailing football program.  Jones stated that any punishment meted out to Gaulden will be handled internally.

“That’s something that will be dealt with internally in our football program, but that’s not who we are, that’s not what we’re about,” Jones said. “But, he knew that. We spoke about it, and he feels awful about it. It’s one of those things of overall just being a mature football team. But, again, that’s something that we don’t accept in this program and he understands that.”

Since we here, we’ll go ahead and offer this up as the current state of the once-proud UT football program.

Late heroics save No. 9 Oklahoma on the road at Kansas State after wild second half

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Just before the end of the first half, everybody was wondering if Baker Mayfield was 100 percent healthy. Just before the end of the second half, it became pretty clear he was doing just fine. The Sooners’ star quarterback was dazzling once again to power a last minute comeback on the road, leading No. 9 Oklahoma to a 42-35 win against a pesky Kansas State squad that was looking to pull an upset before some late heroics on the final drive.

The signal-caller appeared to get injured during a scramble late in the second quarter and was taken out in the red zone on the ensuing possession, used only as a decoy on a few wildcat snaps. As it turned out, that seemed to be a coaching strategy as OU rotated in backup Kyler Murray several times on ensuing possessions. Mayfield eventually wound up with an efficient 32-of-41 for 410 yards and two touchdowns passing while rushing for two scores and 69 yards as well.

Most importantly, he also got the win after perfectly executing a two minute drive that led to tailback Rodney Anderson (147 yards, two scores) hitting the corner for the game-winning touchdown.

That was all despite the best efforts of his counterpart Alex Delton, who was making just his second start behind center for the Wildcats. While he was solid as a passer (144 yards, one TD, one interception), the dual-threat was incredible on the ground and ran for 161 yards and three touchdowns. That led to quite the combination in the backfield as Alex Barnes managed 108 yards — 75 of which came on a touchdown run on the second snap of the game.

The close victory on the road keeps Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff race, even if the effort was less than impressive given the early struggles. The meeting between the youngest and oldest coaches in FBS proved to be quite the thriller in the end too, as Lincoln Riley claimed the ‘W’ over the Wizard himself Bill Snyder in what will surely be a memorable game for both sides.