|Ohio State heavy favorite in Big Ten|
|Tuesday, August 06, 2013 12:00 AM|
CHICAGO — By every measure, Urban Meyer’s first season at Ohio State was a smashing success. The Buckeyes won all 12 games and Braxton Miller developed into a superstar quarterback along the way.
That’s all gone now, practically ancient history in football-mad Columbus. The pressure is on for a blockbuster sequel, even if Meyer himself is preoccupied with the opening scenes.
“Our job is to compete for championships in November. That’s all I want them to think about,” Meyer said. “A team is a complex animal that you got to be really careful how you approach things. Start talking about things that are way beyond even, I don’t want to say expectations but we don’t talk about those things. We talk about we have to get to November to compete for a championship and that’s complicated enough.”
It sure is. While Miller and Ohio State begin the year as the Big Ten favorite, there are plenty of potential challengers.
Dynamic quarterback Devin Gardner thinks he’s ready to lead Michigan back to the top of the conference. Taylor Martinez wants to put together another great year in his final season at Nebraska. Then there’s Wisconsin, coming off a Rose Bowl trip and looking to make a smooth transition to new coach Gary Andersen, Michigan State and more.
“I like our football team,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “I usually don’t say that. I said it after the spring. I will continue to say it because I like how they’ve handled themselves on the field and off the field so far this summer. I like their work ethic and I like how they’ve represented Michigan in a lot of ways.”
Denard Robinson is gone after a stellar career but Gardner is back to provide the same sort of sizzle in Michigan’s backfield. The 6-4 junior began last season at wide receiver, then played quarterback for the last five games. He threw for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns against five interceptions, adding 101 yards and seven TDs on the ground.
Gardner is a work in progress — “I have to start to checking the ball down. Always want the big play,” he explained — but his teammates have noticed a change in the former Detroit prep star since he became the starter behind center.
“He’s grown right into it,” senior safety Thomas Gordon said. “He’s a lot more comfortable. You can see that.”
While Gardner is the toast of Ann Arbor, he has a ways to go to match the celebrity that Martinez enjoys in Nebraska. The senior star, who accounted for a school-record 3,890 yards of offense and 33 touchdowns last season, spent more than an hour signing autographs during one recent trip to the mall.
Martinez has started 39 consecutive games for the Cornhuskers and will leave the school with several offensive records. While he will go down as one of the best players ever at the powerhouse program, he doesn’t seem too concerned with his legacy headed into his final year.
“I’ve done a lot so far in my career, so I’ve just got to take this season for what it’s worth and just enjoy it and just remember everything that happens,” Martinez said.
Five things to watch in the Big Ten:
1. TOUGH UP FRONT: If you love the big guys up front, check out the offensive linemen of the Big Ten. Senior Jack Mewhort leads an experienced group for Ohio State; Martinez raves about the unit at Nebraska. Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan flirted with the NFL draft before deciding to return for one more season. He prepared for his final year by adopting a strict diet that he said helped increase his strength and quickness. “I’ve cheated a couple times, here and there,” Lewan added. “I’m a sucker for ice cream.”
2. DUAL THREATS: Miller, Gardner and Martinez will grab all the headlines but they aren’t the only Big Ten quarterbacks who can score through the air or on the ground. Northwestern’s Kain Kolter helped the Wildcats to a 10-3 record last season and their first bowl victory since 1949. Illinois’ Nathan Scheelhaase rushed for 303 yards and four touchdowns last year.
3. WHO’S THE NEW GUY: There are two new head coaches this year, with Andersen taking over at Wisconsin and Darrell Hazell going from Kent State to Purdue. The Badgers routed Nebraska in the Big Ten title game on Dec. 1 but Bret Bielema still decided to leave for Arkansas before Wisconsin’s narrow loss to Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Enter Andersen, who left Utah State for quite the unusual transition with the Badgers. “There’s going to be differences when you take over a program,” Andersen said. “It’s important to put your own stamp on it.”
4. SLEEPERS: Pat Fitzgerald has coached Northwestern to five consecutive bowl berths, culminating in the Wildcats’ 34-20 victory over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl in January. Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State come to Evanston this year, where Northwestern doesn’t enjoy much of a home-field advantage but could begin to build one with a couple victories. Indiana also could surprise people, with 19 starters back from last year’s 4-8 team.
5. GO DEEP: Penn State star Allen Robinson is the big name, but there are plenty of other solid receivers spread throughout the Big Ten. Kenny Bell (Nebraska), Jared Abbrederis (Wisconsin) and Jeremy Gallon (Michigan) each had over 800 yards receiving last season while averaging at least 16.9 yards per catch. Also keep a close eye on Cody Latimer (Indiana) and Corey Brown (Ohio State).
Predicted order of finish:
Legends: Michigan, Nebraska, Michigan State, Northwestern, Iowa, Minnesota.
Leaders: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State, Indiana, Purdue, Illinois.
Title game winner: Ohio State.
OSU to donate money from Penn St. bowl revenue
COLUMBUS — Ohio State University will donate $181,000 to two local child-advocacy organizations from funds it received from the Big Ten Conference’s sanctions against Penn State.
Ohio State on Monday announced it will allocate money to the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Center for Family Safety and Healing and the Court Appointed Special Advocates of Franklin County.
The funds stem from sanctions against Penn State that required the school to relinquish $2.3 million of conference bowl revenue the school would have earned had it been allowed to play in the postseason. The 12 schools in the conference, including Penn State, received a share of the money to donate to children-focused charities.
The NCAA imposed landmark sanctions on Penn State following a sweeping child sexual abuse scandal involving retired assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
‘Genius’ Urschel steps up to line for Penn State
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — John Urschel has been labeled many things by the Penn State Nittany Lions. Some call him a genius with a mean streak. Others simply know him as a burly offensive lineman working on a second master’s degree in math.
And now, maybe more important to the team overall, the soft-spoken guard has emerged as an unlikely — but ideal — leader in Happy Valley as Penn State opens preseason camp.
All in a day’s work.
“He’s a very, grounded young man, levelheaded. He’s certainly prioritized his life right,” offensive line coach Mac McWhorter said. “He’s not a guy who craves a lot of flattery ... His idea of relaxing is much different (from everybody else).”
The big guys up front usually don’t attract the notoriety that players like wideout Allen Robinson do. Robinson, an affable junior, led the Big Ten in receiving last season. But when it came time to taking players to conference media days in Chicago last month, Urschel was the only offensive player to go for Penn State.
“I think everybody knows by now he’s a genius,” Robinson said during a charity event in the offseason. And left tackle Donovan Smith even jokingly refers to Urschel, who boasts a perfect 4.0 GPA, as “Einstein.”
Either way, it was back to work Monday after second-year coach Bill O’Brien whistled the first preseason practice into session at dawn. The top priority is to settle on a starting quarterback between junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson and touted freshman Christian Hackenberg.
Keeping the team healthy and conditioned is also especially important with O’Brien coping with a downsized scholarship roster approaching 65 — the limit mandated by the NCAA by 2014 for four seasons as part of sanctions for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. That means more reliance on walk-on players to fill depth, such as the perilously-thin linebacker corps.
Up front, beyond the transition to a new center, the team appears to be in relatively good shape this preseason with experienced players returning led by Urschel, a fifth-year senior.
The 6-4 Urschel had dropped about seven pounds in the offseason from his 2012 listed weight of 307. McWhorter likes his flexibility and calls him one of the strongest players on the team — a nice combination to have for guards who must pull on running plays and hold up against blitzes.
“He’s not that vocal but I say he definitely has leadership inside the huddle,” Robinson added. “He’s looked at a lot by players by how he studies film and the fire he brings to practice.”
That attitude was evident during an outdoor conditioning workout during a cold early morning in February. The workout ended with strength coach Craig Fitzgerald pitting offensive against defensive players in a 1-on-1, tug of war-type contest. The winner was the first player to pull the makeshift contraption — and his opponent — to a respective finish line about 10 yards away.
“OK, I want the biggest, baddest” player on each side, yelled Fitzgerald, using colorful language. Before Fitzgerald could finish his sentence, Urschel emerged from the offensive pack and stomped to the middle of the circle with a crazed look as if a gladiator ready to do battle. He easily beat his defensive opponent.
Urschel is so respected he was asked to deliver an address on behalf of Big Ten players two weeks ago at the conference’s luncheon. It was an honor that went to well-known quarterbacks the previous two seasons.
Wearing a dark suit, the bearded Urschel appeared as if he could easily slip out to talk at a calculus conference. During the spring, he taught a section of a trigonometry-and-analytic geometry class three days a week. His bio lists him as doing research on “multigrid methods” and computational mathematics.
He told the audience that players should have four goals: To master the craft of being a football player; to get involved with the community; to help younger players; and to prepare for life after the game.
“Because our football careers are so short and our lives hopefully long, planning and preparing for a life without football is the most important of these four goals,” he added, “but also the easiest to neglect.”
Urschel plans to pursue a doctorate and teach when he’s done on the field.