Big Ten spring game wrap-ups

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Some news, notes, quotes and other assorted tidbits from the three spring games contested across the Big Ten Saturday afternoon…

MICHIGAN STATE
To say that the Spartans’ quarterbacks struggled somewhat during today’s spring game would be an understatement of mammoth proportions.

MSU quarterbacks combined to go 22 of 53 for 386 yards, two touchdown and two interceptions.  Last year’s starter and presumptive front-runner for the job this season, Andrew Maxwell, completed just nine of his 20 attempts for 120 yards and the game-winning touchdown pass.  The strong-armed Connor Cook, who has gained some ground on Maxwell this spring, threw for 217 yards and a scoring toss but also completed less than 40 percent of his passes (10-26).  Redshirt freshman Tyler O’Connor completed five of six passes — three to his offensive teammates, two to his defensive teammates.

All in all, it was rough outing at a position where the Spartans may have more questions exiting spring than they did entering it.

Head coach Mark Dantonio said that the incumbent would top the depth chart entering summer, but stopped short of anointing him as the season-opening starter.

“I think you leave here at the end of spring saying that (Andrew) Maxwell comes into the summer camp number one based on knowledge and consistency in terms of performance.”

For his part, Maxwell feels as if he’s done enough to retain the job.

“I feel like I’ve done everything that I could do to make my case to the coaches to be the guy, and I feel like every day I came out and got better,” the player said. “I took a competitive mindset to every practice, and the ultimate decision is with Coach D.”

— The Spartans’ defense accounted for two touchdowns in the Green team’s 24-17 win over the White squad: a Chris Laneaux 25-yard interception return and a fumble recovery by Kyler Elsworth that was returned 41 yards.  On the other side of the ball, Aaron Burbridge caught five passes for 113 yards.

— Former MSU quarterback great Kirk Cousins, now Robert Griffin III‘s backup in Washington, returned to the East Lansing campus as color analyst for the Big Ten Network’s coverage of the game.  Based on Cousins’ comments, it doesn’t appear this will be his last rodeo in the booth.

“I want the football thing to last as long as it possibly can, but at the same time, in the offseason it makes a lot of sense to pursue other opportunities and prepare yourself for whenever football ends,” Cousins said. “And that’s why I’m here today, and it’s just a bonus I get to be back in familiar territory, watching the team that I love.”

— One of the coolest parts of the Spartans’ spring game was their helmets.  Specifically, the stickers on the back of the helmets honoring those who were killed or injured by the bombings at last Monday’s Boston Marathon.  Very classy gesture:

Michigan State Helmets

PENN STATE
If you were an individual looking for some clarity at the quarterback position coming out of the Nittany Lions’ spring game, you are likely somewhat disappointed at this point in time.

Following the game, head coach Bill O’Brien stated very firmly that neither Steven Bench nor Tyler Ferguson (pictured) had grabbed hold of the starting job and the competition would continue into the “voluntary” workouts and on into summer camp.  Both players completed nine of 15 passes, with Bench throwing for 99 yards and Ferguson 90.  Ferguson tossed two touchdown passes to Bench’s one.

As has been the case for most of the spring, the second-year coach was, for the most part, pleased with the duo’s performance.

“I thought they both (Bench and Ferguson) produced,” O’Brien said. “I thought both had some nice throws. Like everybody, coaches and players included, in every game you play, you wish you had some plays back. I’m sure they do too. I thought they both did some decent things out there today.”

In his post-game talk with reporters, O’Brien made it perfectly clear where the competition stands.

“I’d say, no, I’m not any closer as I sit here right now,” the coach said when asked about naming a starter. “Eventually, I’ll have to make a decision.”

O’Brien added that he will now go back and look at all of the spring practice tapes as they work toward naming a starter at the position.

The real competition, though, won’t begin until August; Christian Hackenberg, a five-star 2013 recruit rated as the No. 2 pro-style quarterback in this year’s class, will join the competition this summer, with most expecting the Virginia product to make a very serious run at the starting job as a true freshman.

— In front of 28,000 or so fans who braved the rain and snow and cold, the the Blue team (defense) dropped the White squad (offense), 67-47.  It was the second straight year the defense has “won” the spring game.

A big reason for the defensive win?  The Nittany Lions’ defense accounted for nine sacks, which counted four points apiece in the scoring system utilized by O’Brien.

— Youth was certainly served for the Nittany Lions as the school noted that all six players who ran, caught or threw a touchdown will be a freshman or sophomore this season.  Both of the front-runners for the starting QB job will be sophomores.

— Another of the young ones was running back Akeel Lynch, who led all rushers with 83 yards on his 13 carries.

— “I feel terrible because I love that city,” O’Brien said of the tragic events in Boston this past week. “I grew up 20 minutes north of that city and my brother Tommy is heavily involved in that city and so is my older brother and my dad and my mom so I feel terrible for them. … Boston is a very resilient city and we caught him last night so that was good.”

WISCONSIN
At the end of Gary Andersen‘s first spring as the Badgers’ head coach, and in the midst of a crowded quarterback competition, it was UW’s defense winning most of the plaudits in Madison Saturday afternoon.

Thanks to the “unique” scoring systems that are all the rage during spring games, the final score appears to be a high-scoring offensive affair: Cardinal 61, White 47.  The former team consisted of the Badgers’ defense, the latter the offense.

The game wasn’t a true measure of either unit, however, as Andersen lamented afterwards that “[w]e’re basically missing six starters right now on the defensive side that didn’t play a snap today, and four or five on the offensive side.”

Also, the fact that the game was televised on the Big Ten Network led Andersen to keep his team’s cards very close to his vest.

“I will say this: Defense today was very vanilla. Offensively, we were very generic, and defensively, we were very generic,” the former Utah State head coach said. “We did throw the ball, bottom line, and we did catch the ball better than we have all spring, and that was very encouraging.”

— The Cardinal team totaled 11 tackles for loss and seven sacks in the game.  As those plays were worth two points apiece, the defense scored 36 of its 61 points off those two types of plays.  They also earned 24 points off of eight three-and-outs.

— As far as the quarterback battle goes, two players, Joel Stave and Curt Phillips, received the vast majority of the reps.  Stave completed 15 of his 20 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown, while Phillips went 8-of-13 for 82 yards.  The other quarterbacks on the roster, including former Maryland Terrapin Danny O’Brien, attempted just three passes each.

— Running back Melvin Gordon, who will be charged with the task of replacing Montee Ball, ran for a team-high 74 yards and scored the game’s only touchdown on the ground.  He also added three catches for 35 yards.

— “Yeah, we’re in a good spot,” Andersen said when asked if his team is where he thought it’d be at the end of the spring.  “You’re never going to get everything you want. You’re never going to have it perfect. We wanted consistency. I think we got that. We wanted effort. I think we got that.”

Kevin Stepherson one of four dismissed by Notre Dame

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At least in South Bend, Kevin Stepherson‘s freefall is complete.

According to 247Sports.com, Stepherson, along with three other Notre Dame football players — sophomore running backs CJ Holmes and Deon McIntosh as well as junior defensive tackle Brandon Tiassum — have been dismissed from the Fighting Irish program.  No specific reason or reasons for the dismissals were given.

Stepherson was one of four Irish players who were suspended for the team’s Citrus Bowl matchup with LSU, with the wide receiver’s suspension stemming from a handful of off-field issues.

Dec. 15, Stepherson was arrested for shoplifting.  The day before that arrest, Stepherson was pulled over on a traffic stop and charged with marijuana possession, driving without a valid license and speeding (he was clocked doing 80 in a 60 mph zone). To make matters worse, at the time of his twin arrests the receiver was already on probation for a marijuana-related arrest in August of 2016.

Adding to the off-field issues, Stepherson was suspended for the first four games of the 2017 season for reasons unrelated to the arrest in August of 2016.

At the time of the second suspension, Stepherson led the Fighting Irish in receiving touchdowns with five and yards per catch at 18.9 despite missing one-third of the regular season because of the first suspension.  His 19 receptions and 359 receiving yards were both good for third on the team.

Another of the players who were dismissed, Holmes, was arrested along with Stepherson in the shoplifting incident.  Holmes ran for 32 yards on eight carries this season.

McIntosh was the fourth of the four players suspended for the bowl game.  At the time of his suspension, McIntosh was third on the team in rushing with 368 yards and five touchdowns.

Tiassum played very sparsely this past season, and wasn’t looking at much more playing time in 2018.

West Virginia, Pitt to renew Backyard Brawl in 2022 opener

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For those waiting for the renewal of the Backyard Brawl, we now know exactly how long you have to wait. The schools announced Tuesday that the Pitt-West Virginia rivalry will again be played on Sept. 3, 2022, in the season opener for both sides. The schools previously announced a four-game series from 2022-25, but the first matchup was set for Sept. 17, 2022.

The games in even numbered years will be held in Pittsburgh, while odd numbered games will switch to Morgantown.

Pitt and WVU last met on Nov. 25, 2011, a 21-20 Mountaineers win in Morgantown. West Virginia has won the last three meetings and 14 of the last 21, but Pitt holds a 61-40-3 all-time advantage in a series that dates back to 1895. Between 1929 and 1951, the Panthers and Mountaineers met annually, with West Virginia winning just once.

Pitt will complete its own rivalry renewal with Penn State over the next two seasons; the Panthers host the Nittany Lions on Sept. 8 of this coming season, and will visit Beaver Stadium on Sept. 14, 2019. Pitt hosts Notre Dame in 2020 and visits Tennessee in ’21. With today’s adjustment, Pitt is now set to open the 2022 season with back-to-back home games with West Virginia and Tennessee. Pitt is also set to visit both West Virginia and Notre Dame in 2023, and will face the Mountaineers and Irish again in 2025.

West Virginia opens this coming season with Tennessee in Charlotte, and visits NC State two weeks later. The Mountaineers visit Missouri and host NC State in 2019. WVU is set to double-up with Power 5 non-conference opponents every year through 2024: vs. Florida State (at Atlanta) and vs. Maryland in 2020, at Maryland and vs. Virginia Tech in 2021, at Pittsburgh and at Virginia Tech in 2022, at Penn State and vs. Pitt in 2023, and vs. Penn State and at Pitt in 2024.

Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione reportedly set to join CFP selection committee

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The College Football Playoff is set to replace six selection committee members before next season, and the first one is in. Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione will join the committee, according to ESPN’s Heather Dinich.

Castiglione will replace Texas Tech AD Kirby Hocutt, who also served as the committee’s chairman.

This will be the third selection committee on which Castiglione has served, finishing the Big Three trifecta after he worked on the baseball and men’s basketball committees. He will be on the committee for the 2018, ’19 and ’20 seasons.

Castiglione will be forced to recusal himself from any discussions involving Oklahoma, a 2015 and 2017 participant in the College Football Playoff. Ohio State AD Gene Smith and Clemson AD Dan Radakovich also did the same regarding their programs. Radakovich is also set to cycle off the committee this year, along with former Arkansas AD Jeff Long, former NCAA executive Tom Jernstedt, former Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington head coach Tyrone Willingham and former USA Today reporter Steve Wieberg.

Iowa State QB Kyle Kempt petitioning for extra year of eligibility

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Iowa State quarterback Kyle Kempt was a senior in 2017. If it’s up to him, he’ll be a senior again in 2018.

Kempt is attempting to apply the “run off” rule to gain an extra year of eligibility, in which the NCAA grants additional years to players who are “run off” from their original four-year schools. He signed with Oregon State out of Massillon, Ohio, but did not play in his two seasons there. “They told me I wasn’t going to play there,” Kempt said last month, according to the Des Moines Register.

Kempt spent the 2015 season at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas before joining the squad at Iowa State. He was the Cyclones’ Scout Team Player of the Year in 2016 before bursting on the scene this season, famously hitting 18-of-24 passes for 343 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 38-31 win at No. 3 Oklahoma. He had not thrown a single major college pass before that. Kempt finished the year hitting 66.3 percent of his throws for 1,787 yards with 15 touchdowns against three interceptions.

Iowa State closed the year at 8-5 with a win over No. 25 Memphis in the Liberty Bowl. It was Iowa State’s best season since 2000.

“It’s a really fluid situation right now,” Campbell told the Register. “The percentages continue to go back and forth — yes, we think Kyle will be back, no we don’t think he’ll be back, and yes he will.

“It’s a little unsettling, but we have to prepare as if Kyle wouldn’t be coming back.”

If Kempt is not back, Iowa State would go through the odd transition of losing three experienced quarterbacks in a single season. Quarterback-turned-linebacker Joel Lanning graduated and Jacob Park was released from his scholarship. The next most experienced quarterback returning is rising sophomore Zeb Noland, a Watkinsville, Ga., native who threw 66 passes and started one game in 2017.