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5 biggest Big Ten West division Spring Football storylines

What are the biggest storylines to follow as teams across the Big Ten West division begin spring football?

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Last week we took a look at the East division, now it is time to go West my friends. While a lot of the questions out East revolve around offense, will the same hold true in the West division?

With a new head coach in at Nebraska, new coordinators in other places and plenty of high-level recruiting happening, there is no shortage of intrigue in the

Let’s take a look at the 5 biggest storylines we’ll watch this spring in the Big Ten West division.

Frost’s First Spring

As if there is any storyline bigger in the West division than prodigal son returning to bring the

Let’s just consider it the West division’s version of Jim Harbaugh, shall we.

Nebraska fans are hoping that the results are at least as good if not better than what Harbaugh has brought to Michigan to date, and sadly getting to the 10-win mark would be a huge win for the Huskers of today.

Frost will have a big challenge on his hand, needing to rebuild the run game, strengthen a porous defense and bring the pride back to the Huskers program.

Oh, and he’ll have to break in a new quarterback to go with all of the rest of the tweaks needed in the program. 4-star dual threat quarterback Adrian Martinez singed early and is on campus already, and there will be competition with much-touted sophomore Patrick O’Brien in the mix as well as redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia and sophomore Andrew Bunch.

O’Brien, Gebbia and Bunch are more the classic West Coast style of QB, and that may make Frost’s first season an interesting one in Lincoln.

Northwestern’s Life Without Thorson and Jackson

Northwestern knew that 2018 would be a challenge, especially with the graduation of easily the greatest running back in school history. With Justin Jackson graduated, where would the Wildcats turn to get the production needed.

Then the 2018 season was dealt a brutal blow as quarterback Clayton Thorson tore up his knee on a trick play in the Music City Bowl. He’ll likely be back for fall camp, but in what shape and condition will that be? A torn ACL for a mobile quarterback can be a game changer and in any case this upcoming season is going to be his last in a Wildcats uniform.

So, as Northwestern heads in to spring practice, it will get a big glimpse of its future life without its two biggest names. We’ll see plenty of reps for junior T.J. Green, redshirt freshman Andrew Marty, and sophomore Aidan Smith this spring. Northwestern opens with Purdue on Aug. 30 and should Thorson not be ready to go, spring could go a long way to deciding who gets the nod.

Leonhard’s Big Test at Wisconsin

Rumors circulated throughout much of December and in to January that Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard was a candidate for the Florida State defensive coordinator position. That’s what happens when year one of you as UW’s DC ends with the Badgers having one of the best defenses in the country.

Year two will be a different story though, as Leonhard faces a secondary that loses 3 starters, a defensive line that loses both starting ends and both starting outside linebackers. Wisconsin has proven to be a plug-and-play program at outside linebacker and that shouldn’t be an issue with the likes of Andrew Van Ginkle and Tyler Johnson having gained plenty of experience last season. There’s also intrigue in names like Christian Bell and redshirt freshman Noah Burks.

However, things are dicey in the secondary as only one player with any real game experience is back at cornerback and that is Donyte Carrier-Williams. So, this is where Leonhard would be earning a salary increase this spring. He’ll have to mold a really young group of cornerbacks in to a quality group of players given all the spread offenses that will be in place across the West division — with all but Iowa running some version of the spread attack.

Can names like Madison Cone, Caesar Williams and Faion Hicks show enough for the coaching staff to be confident in them going in to the season or will their need to be a lean on the newcomers in the fall? There certainly won’t be a shortage of reps and opportunity for playing time in this spring.

Lovie’s Last-Ditch Offensive Overhaul

There isn’t a bigger trainwreck in the Big Ten than Illinois Fighting Illini athletics (not just football) at the moment. So, this spring is all about finding some hope for the football program. To that end, head coach Lovie Smith enters his second full offseason in a position to overhaul his offense.

It started as quarterbacks Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. decided to leave the program and continued with the hire of Arizona offensive coordinator Rod Smith. The Wildcats offense has been amongst the most prolific and high-scoring in the country, but this is Big Ten land where defense reigns supreme. Can Smith translate his Wildcats offense to something that works in Champaign?

Cam Thomas is the lone scholarship quarterback and proved a much better rushing threat than anything in the pass game last season. So, Smith’s first task is to see if Thomas has what it takes to really lead a spread offense like his. If not, this could be a long spring spent trying to find answers to a whole lot of questions.

I love getting Smith away from Arizona, it was a master stroke by Smith, but will it be enough, soon enough to keep his job? Athletic director Mike Thomas seems to have a long-term plan in place and the patience to see it out with Smith, but real progress needs to shown this spring and in the fall for that patience to be warranted.

Let’s see if this last-ditch effort pays off.

Brohm’s Encore Performance

What Jeff Brohm did in one season at the helm of the Purdue Boilermakers football program was nothing short of remarkable. He took a program left for dead and not only gave it life, but a bowl game appearance in his first season. It’s no wonder his name came up for the Tennessee job this offseason.

But, this season there are actual expectations following that 7-6 finish last season and this spring will see some big changes to the program. That’s not a bad thing, because Purdue got to a bowl game with a lot of smoke and mirrors while it awaited more talent to come aboard in West Lafayette, Ind.

There was also a reliance on a pretty good defense last season, one that featured talented linebackers T.J. McCollum and Ja’Whaun Bentley. Both are gone now and replacing their production and leadership will be key this spring. Luckily, the returning starter is Markus Bailey, who could be poised for a national breakout year now that the spotlight is all to his own. Beyond that, this is a position that will be a microcosm of the team, as they see what kind of talent is coming in and how fast they can contribute.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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Good, Bad, Ugly: The tale of Buckeyes, Badgers and Illini in Week 3

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There is no two ways about it — Week 3 was the Big Ten’s collective worst nightmare. 

Just take a look at the final scores from the weekend:

So, on a Saturday in which contenders were dropping like flies, how do we make sense of what took place? 

Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from Week 3 around the Big Ten. 

The Good

On a weekend that saw so much carnage from Big Ten teams, there is no doubt that Ohio State’s big win over TCU is the good of the weekend. It wasn’t just that the pickings were slim either, the Buckeyes put on a show in the win over the Horned Frogs at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. 

With the eyes of most of the college football world on them, OSU came up big. They punched hard first, going up 10-0 and then took a big punch from TCU for a pair of touchdowns, the last of which was a school-record 93-yard run by Darius Anderson for the 14-10 lead early in the second quarter. 

Let’s not forget there were two defensive touchdowns (albeit one shouldn’t have counted after further review that never happened on the field), including a “fat guy” TD by Dre’mont Jones. 

Lost in some of the craziness was the fact that Dwayne Haskins showed out in a big way. He was 24 of 38 for a crazy 344 yards and two touchdowns in the win. Haskins also had a rushing touchdown to cap off all the offensive scoring for his team. 

Sure, the defense gave up 511 yards, but it seemed more a byproduct of TCU’s offensive style than anything worrisome about the Buckeyes defense. After all, they forced three total turnovers, had three sacks and seven tackles for loss on the day. 

It was a shot across the bow of the rest of the elite in college football and arguable the most dangerous the Buckeyes have looked on both sides of the ball in awhile. 

The Bad

There’s no where to go here other than to head to Madison, Wis. where the Badgers came in to their contest against BYU with a 41-game home non-conference win streak. 

By the time the mid-afternoon matchup was over, the Badgers streak was also over and it wasn’t a fluke. The visiting Cougars took a page out of the Wisconsin playbook and simply out-muscled the Badgers on both sides of the ball. 

UW’s normally potent run game averaged just 4.7 yards per carry. Its defense allowed 191 yards to BYU on the ground. That pretty much sums up the shock that happened inside Camp Randall. 

For the first time in over 15 years, a non-conference opponent came in to Camp Randall, outplayed and finally beat the Badgers. We’ll see if this is a wake up call or the start of a snowball effect that can’t be stopped. 

Having rival Iowa on the road and at night should certainly get the Badgers attention this coming week. 

The Ugly

Sure, we could’ve gone with Northwestern getting blown out by a MAC opponent at home. There was also Rutgers’ piss-poor day at Kansas and Temple working over Maryland. But, those were all blowouts and there was just one loss that hurt more than any other…Illinois.

For just over 57 minutes, this week felt different for Illini fans…until South Florida’s Darnell Salomon hauled in a 50-yard touchdown from Blake Barnett with 2:24 to play.

That was just a downright brutal blow to a program that could’ve used the win in the worst way. Illinois got an early touchdown from running back Mike Epstein and then four field goals (three of which were over 40 yards) for a 19-7 lead late in the third quarter. 

Then the fourth quarter happened and you could just feel the game slipping away. Just over three minutes after the last of Illinois last field goal, it was Salomon who broke through with a 14-yard touchdown catch to make it a 5-point game. Add in a field goal midway through the quarter and a 19-7 lead was whittled down to 19-17. 

But, the Illini really only have themselves to blame. After all, they squandered four drives that were in USF territory and couldn’t get in the end zone. The Illini also couldn’t score a single point in the final quarter, and that’s usually not a good thing. 

The play in the final stanza was particularly brutal, as USF’s defense held the Illini to just 94 total yards and forced them to go 2-of-7 on third downs. That’s how you lose a game you should’ve taken care of. 

If there was a silver lining in the ugly way this loss happened, it was that MJ Rivers’ debut at quarterback was a success. He was 20 of 29 passing for 168 yards. While he didn’t get in to the end zone through the air, Rivers also didn’t turn the ball over while passing either. That’s a positive step lost in the brutal way this loss took place. 

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Can Illinois or Indiana’s QB change spark either program?

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We’ve nearly hit the halfway point for some teams in the Big Ten, and that means time for plenty of reflection. Two programs have done plenty of that over the past week, as both Illinois and Indiana have gone in different directions with their starting quarterbacks.

Earlier this week, Illinois announced that Jeff George Jr. would be the starter. It was a move few didn’t see coming given the anemic production of the Illini offense with Chayce Crouch at quarterback.

Indiana wasn’t far behind, as head coach Tom Allen revealed redshirt freshman Peyton Ramsey would become the sole quarterback to play going forward. It ended four weeks of a two-quarterback system in place.

Both decisions seems smart on paper, but which one will make the biggest impact on their team?

Case For Peyton Ramsey:

Sometimes you win the job out of necessity and some times you win the job because you’ve outplayed everyone else. For me, the latter is true for Ramsey.

One of the most undertold stories of this season has been Indiana’s struggles in the pass game. Everyone saw them carve up Ohio State’s defense for over a half and assumed all was good. Well, Lagow has been ineffective and Ramsey has added a different dimension to an offense trying to find an identity.

To date, Ramsey has split time with Lagow in four games. He’s completed 60.4 percent of his pass (besting Lagow’s 56.3 mark) for 316 yards (6.6 yards per attempt, compared to 6.4 for Lagow). In just 48 attempts this season, Ramsey has equaled Lagow’s TD number at 4, while throwing just one interception.

Throws like this one to Simmie Cobbs for an 18-yard TD is the spark and kind of performance Ramsey can produce:

With an offensive line in flux, Lagow’s immobility has shown to be a big issue. He’s got the arm, but it really isn’t any good when you are under pressure and can’t move? Lagow’s got minus-30 yards on the season, meanwhile Ramsey is second on the team with 117 yards on 34 carries in his limited time on the field. That’s good production for a team searching to get back to the wild offensive numbers they are used to putting up.

A spark is needed, but so is consistency more than anything. Ramsey provides both and for a Hoosiers team that has a ton of talent around him, this should be the calming influence needed to help this team get to a bowl game.

That’s especially the case when you notice how Allen and his teammates respond to his mentality on and off the field.

“It’s more collective. It was really just this game. It was more of a buildup over time,” Allen said earlier this week, via Indiana’s Scout website. “We love both guys, awesome people. … There’s just a grit to (Ramsey), a toughness to him. He’s got a linebacker mentality to how he works.”

Case for Jeff George Jr.:

Illinois is in the middle of a youth movement on both sides of the

George also isn’t a first time starter. He played starter last season, being inserted in to the toughest of road situations possible — a freshman on the road at Michigan. That experience can be helpful for sure, and something George Jr. brought up in talking to the media this week.

“I’m excited to go out there and try to make something happen and try to get this offense rolling. I think I can do my part,” George Jr. said, via IlliniInquirer. “I feel like I know how tough it is to win a game. We went through some ups and some downs last year and now nothing is new.”

There’s also the fact that it did seem as if his connection with the likes of Malik Turner, Mike Dudek and Co. was better than Crouch’s was.

Look, something had to happen, because with Crouch at QB the Illini offense became as one-dimensional as Minnesota’s offense often was with Mitch Leidner behind center the past two years. It didn’t work well for the Gophers, and with a defense still figuring out who it is for the Illini, that would’ve been disastrous the rest of the way.

This is also a great opportunity to showcase George Jr. against the toughest of competition. He’ll go up against a schedule that includes Northwestern, Ohio State and Wisconsin still to go.

Head coach Love Smith seems to be going with a sink or swim mentality to this team — pushing younger players to the brink to see if they respond or fold. Putting George out there as the starter the rest of the way is more of that, and it may be that the rest of his teammates respond to that idea more than they did with Crouch.

Final Verdict: Peyton Ramsey

This one is easy for me. Ramsey has more weapons to work with in the form of wide receivers like Simmie Cobbs and Luke Timian in the fold. He also has a decent running back in freshman Morgan Elison, who is averaging 5.8 yards per carry and has 310 yards in four games so far this season.

As for Jeff George Jr.? Sure, he’s got the same freshman running back with potential as Indiana does, but he’s not set up for success like Ramsey is. Mike Dudek is a weapon and Malik Turner can be good…but Turner has also been inconsistent to say the least.

George also has a bigger body of work, and that body of work suggests a pretty average quarterback at best. He’s completing just 43.1 percent of his passes for 681 yards and five touchdowns to seven interceptions in five games played in his career.

Call me crazy, but those numbers don’t inspire me.

Let’s see who can play better, but if there’s someone who has already shown the ability to succeed under pressure, that has been Ramsey. I’ll take his numbers, situation and moxie over George any day of the week.

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Nebraska Cornhuskers at Illinois Fighting Illini: Preview, predictions and prognostications

Illinois and Nebraska meet under the lights on Friday night for the first time ever. Let’s preview the action.

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When: Fri. Sept. 29; 8pm ET
Where: Champaign, Ill.; Memorial Stadium (60,670)
TV: FS1
All-Time Series: Nebraska leads 10-3-1
Last Meeting: Nebraska win 31-16 (2016)
Line: Nebraska (-6)

Desperate may be a harsh word to use when describing the situations of the Illini and Huskers. However, it seems appropriate given the crumbling nature of both programs this season.

Illinois has decided that a youth movement is worth the growing pains in Lovie Smith’s second season at the helm. It’s resulted in not-so-shocking uneven start to the season, including a 47-23 blowout loss at the hands of USF two weeks ago.

Both of these programs being in a state of flux makes for an interesting proposition, but what about the game itself? Let us take an in-depth look at Friday night’s festivities in Champaign, Ill.

1 Burning Question: Can Nebraska Count on QB Tanner Lee?

There’s no secret to Mike Riley’s offensive gameplan — it requires the quarterback to be accurate and smart with the football. So far this season, off-season sensation Tanner Lee has failed in those two key areas.

Lee comes in to this game having thrown a nation-high nine interceptions to just seven touchdowns. He’s also only completing 52.1 percent of his passes. For a guy everyone hyped as the next coming of Joe Montana, Lee hasn’t delivered to say the least. His play is part of the reason the groans have gotten louder in Lincoln.

Illinois defense could be exactly what the doctor ordered though, as they are 83rd nationally in passing defense (248.7 yards per game) and have three interceptions so far. While the INT total could be scary, this could be the perfect game for Lee to find a rhythm and unleash all the potential people saw this offseason.

Should Lee struggle again, Nebraska might be in some big trouble in this one.

2 Key Stats:

184.3: That is the number of rushing yards per game given up by the Illini so far this season. 

Illinois is 96th in the country against the run this season, not exactly great numbers. But, their could be a worse rushing offense to see this week than Nebraska, who is 11th in rushing offense in the Big Ten. However, Illinois should be worried a bit, as the Huskers racked up 197 yards on the ground against a much more stout Rutgers defense last weekend. Can Illinois button up some of the big plays given up or will the Huskers continue to build on last weekend’s positive rushing performance?

194: That is the total yards put up by Rutgers offense last weekend. 

Nebraska’s defense gave up the fewest total yards to an opponent in the last 46 games last weekend. The question is was it all about Rutgers’ offensive ineptitude or an improving Nebraska defense under Bob Diaco? Nebraska gave up a ton of points to Arkansas State and Oregon to open the season, but were much saltier the last two games, giving up just 21 and 17 points respectively. Those numbers, plus the ability to hold a team under 200 total yards are good signs, especially when you have an equally struggling offense to go up against. Something is going to give in this matchup, and it could come down to how the Huskers defense holds up.

3 Key Players:

Bobby Roundtree, DE (Illinois): A sure-fire way to win this game is to get in the head of Huskers QB Tanner Lee. The guy who has shown a propensity to get after the quarterback a lot so far this season has been freshman defensive end Bobby Roundtree. His three sacks leads the team so far. Let’s see if Nebraska’s shuffling offensive line plus Roundtree’s growing knowledge of the college game can equal getting Lee off his game. If so, Illinois is in business in this one.

Chayce Crouch, QB (Illinois): Personally, I’m shocked to see Crouch back behind center after being pulled at halftime of the Illini’s brutal loss to USF. He was an awful 8 of 18 for 76 yards and an interception. Yet, Smith has shown more faith in him than I would’ve, giving him the starting nod after the bye week. It’ll be interesting to see if he responds to the challenge thrown down by the coaching staff or if he will wilt under the pressure.

De’Mornay Pierson-El, WR (Nebraska): Pierson-El has become much more than a dynamic punt and kick returner for the Huskers. He’s got 17 receptions for 210 yards and is tied at the top of the TD list with three so far this season. Illinois has had some struggles in the pass game defensively, and this would be a perfect time to showcase the speed and leadership to get the Huskers over the finish line.

Prediction:

While the Huskers have been underwhelming to say the least this season, Illinois has been downright brutal while it tries to see what it has with some young players on both sides of the ball. That experiment didn’t work out against USF very well and it won’t again tonight. For all the struggles of the Huskers, they have a massive talent and experience advantage and I expect Tanner Lee to wake up in this one. Illinois offense also struggles as Bob Diaco’s tutelage continues to pay off.

Nebraska 31, Illinois 17

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Have we seen the end of the Chayce Crouch era already?

Chayce Crouch led an ineffective offense, but did Jeff George, Jr. do enough to make Illini coaches think twice about the QB position?

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One thing the Illinois coaching staff seemed sure of entering the season was that Chayce Crouch was their answer at quarterback.

Three games later and it seems the coaching staff was dead wrong. Crouch was wildly ineffective in Illinois blowout 47-23 loss to South Florida.

Illinois loss also meant a decade-long losing streak in non-conference play lived for another year.

The junior signal caller was just 8 of 18 for 76 yards through the air and added just 10 yards on five carries on the ground. That all happened in the first half, because he was pulled during intermission after that performance.

It wasn’t just this game either. Crouch is just 24 of 44 for 252 yards and one touchdown to two interceptions on the season. Something needed to change, and change it did on Friday night.

Crouch could never get going in the pass game and Illinois had no chance by the time the coaching staff went another direction at halftime.

“We needed a spark, simple as that,” Smith said following the game. “When you get in a position where you have to pass, you go with the guy who has a good arm and maybe is the best passer of the group. That was the reason.”

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Jeff George Jr. came on at the half and sparked some life in the Illini offense. He finished just 12 of 22 passing, but put up 211 yards and a touchdown — a 21-yards pass to running back Mike Epstein.

The dichotomy was striking to say the least, and one has to wonder if we haven’t seen the changing of the guard for an offense in need of a spark outside of Mike and Mike — Mike Dudek and Mike Epstein.

Not only did Crouch hurt the offense, he killed the defense by not being able to sustain drives.

Illinois’ defense was simply beaten up and worn down by the time the middle of the third quarter rolled around. The numbers certainly reflect that, as South Florida ran the ball a staggering 66 times for 376 yards and two touchdowns as a team.

Thee Bulls topped the 100-yard mark, led by quarterback Quinton Flowers.

He was no slouch in the pass game either, putting up an efficient 15 of 27 for 280 yards and four touchdowns to one interception passing. He added in another 106 yards to lead the team in rushing.

But, the bigger issue was Illinois having zero ability to keep the offense on the field and give the defense a rest. South Florida held the ball for 38:21 of the game and never had a quarter where it held the ball for under nine minutes.

Illinois’ coaching staff can point to growing pains, starting a record 10 true freshmen and all, but this was a flat-out butt-kicking and Smith was not making excuses regarding the massive amount of true freshmen in the mix.

He’d be right in some respects, as some of those true freshman showed mettle in this game.

Wide Receiver Ricky Smalling set a true freshman record with a 76-yard reception down to the 1-yard line and Mike Epstein continued to give his level best. But, those were small highlight moments in an underwhelming contest overall.

George did something Crouch couldn’t do on a large scale — get the potential game changers the football in dangerous positions.

With 10 true freshman starting, growing pains can be expected of this team. But, growing pains should be over for Crouch.

Friday night’s loss proved that they were not over for Crouch and the coaching staff has plenty to think about going forward.

Did George prove enough in what was essentially mop up duty during the second half? Or will the coaching staff give Crouch a fourth opportunity to prove he can lead a quality offensive effort?

Illinois has a bye week coming up next week, which means it is a perfect time to evaluate which direction it wants to take for the offense in 2017 and beyond.

“We’re just looking at what happened tonight,” Smith said. “You make decisions based on what you think gives you the best chance to have success in this game. With the bye week coming up, we’ll evaluate everything, which was the plan anyway.”

You can bet a large part of that evaluation will be over what happens with the direction of the offense. Either way, it is time for the coaching staff to make said decision and stick with it, because playing yo-yo at quarterback is not going to help this team or either quarterback long-term.

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