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December 3, 2013

Big Ten Rewind: Week 14

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COLUMBUS, Ohio - And you wonder why there's so much anticipation for rivalry week? The Big Ten may receive criticism from just about everyone, including myself, but they sure know how to entertain us when more than just a win is on the line. In our final regular season Big Ten Rewind, we take one more look at Penn State, what to expect from Michigan once bowl season comes and our final Big Ten Power Rankings.

The future is bright for the Nittany Lions

Saturday's win over the Badgers caught so many by surprise. Not so much that they defeated a highly-ranked opponent but they did it in such a convincing fashion. Wisconsin was desperate to win on senior day in their quest for a fourth straight trip to a BCS bowl so there was no room for a flat performance.

Re-watching the game I looked to see if this was indeed a poor showing but the footage just confirmed by belief that a strong, youthful Penn State crew finally found their groove and sent a message to the rest of the conference, which was "don't sleep on Penn State in 2014."

Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg was surgical through the air, completing 70 percent of his passes and finishing with a quarterback rating of 89.4. His four touchdown passes gave him a total of 21, which is tied for tops with Michigan's Devin Gardner, Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase and Ohio State's Braxton Miller.

A five-time Big Ten Freshman Player of the Week, Hackenberg performed like a veteran during his debut season and have folks in State College excited about the next two-to-three years with him under center. Keep in mind they have Rivals' four-star Michael O'Connor aboard as a verbal commitment so depth at quarterback is stronger than ever.

The backfield duo of Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton will also be returning next season. The two finished with 1,792 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. Also the tight end trio of Kyle Carter, Jesse James and Adam Breneman will continue to play a huge role in Bill O'Brien's offense in '14.

If all the key pieces return, including wide receiver Allen Robinson, the Nittany Lions will be a preseason top five team in the Big Ten. I know that's a bit of a bold statement but with recruiting picking up and a strong finish to 2013, I see big things coming for Penn State.

Does Michigan have anything left in the tank?

First, hats off to the Wolverines on a strong performance against the Buckeyes. Many, including myself, labeled them "dead-on-arrival" before Saturday's game and as we all know, they gave Urban Meyer and his team all they can handle.

In review of their 12 games this season, Michigan compiled two complete game efforts. One of which was the 11 point win over Notre Dame and the other being the recent loss to Ohio State. This shouldn't come as much surprise since those two were arguably their biggest games on the schedule (no disrespect to Michigan State). Their 7-5 record is not just an indication of the talent level in the Big Ten. It reminds Wolverine fans on what could have been this year.

Devin Gardner was either incredible or abysmal this season. There never seemed to be a middle ground in his game. His decision-making cost him a lot of yards and points this season so developing his field vision and timing in the pocket could make him an elite quarterback. Despite all issues, the junior finished with 2,960 passing yards, 21 touchdown passes and a completion percentage over 60 percent.

Play-calling from offensive coordinator Al Borges received a lot of criticism throughout the year and while he does deserve a little bit of the heat, the majority should fall on the player's lack of execution. The offensive line could never get a good push off the snap. When they did, the running backs seemed to choose the wrong holes to run through. And Gardner's inability to find open receivers outside of Jeremy Gallon led to a 1-4 record in November.

Now the question is will they rally around their close loss to arch-rival Ohio State or was Saturday so defeating that they do not possess another strong effort in them? They're 3-6 in their last nine bowl games which is less than favorable.

And it is hard to predict what they'll do this bowl season before knowing their opponent but if Gardner is healthy in time for their sub-par bowl (I'd imagine no better than the Gator Bowl) and they continue to receive production from Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith in the backfield, I like their chances on another positive performance.

Quote of the week

"I was shocked he really threw the ball! I guess that's their bread-and-butter play on two-point conversions. All week that's what we practiced," said Tyvis Powell after his game-saving interception against Michigan.

Week 14 Power Rankings

1.) Ohio State - No need to dwell on what could have been. They entered the Big House and walked away with the win. The Spartans' defense will be their toughest test this season. (Preseason: #1)
2.) Michigan State - Jeremy Langford continues to be the spark on offense. His production on Saturday will be absolutely critical if they plan to upset the Buckeyes. (Preseason: #7)
3.) Iowa - I would have never guessed the Hawkeyes would finish in the top three a few months ago. Once again shows you what a stellar defense can accomplish.(Preseason: #11)
4.) Wisconsin - I'd like to say they got caught looking ahead but I don't think that was the case. Perhaps playing an easy schedule finally got the better of them. (Preseason: #4)
5.) Minnesota - With a better passing attack, they perhaps upset the Spartans. They surpassed everyone's expectations at 8-4. (Preseason: #8)
6.) Penn State - Bill O'Brien and the Nittany Lions really know how to finish a season. Could be a team to watch in 2014. (Preseason: #6)
7.) Michigan - Where was that game-plan all season? The team we saw last Saturday would be 10-2 and possibly looking at a BCS bowl. A lot of starters are returning next season. (Preseason: #2)
8.) Nebraska - It might be a little harsh to drop them two spots, especially since they're so banged up, although those injuries may have saved Bo Pelini's job. (Preseason: #5)
9.) Northwestern - Ended their seven game losing streak. Pat Fitzgerald is a heck of a coach and will have the Wildcats ready next season. (Preseason: #3)
10.) Indiana - Put up almost 700 yards on the Boilermakers. It appears Tre Roberson is their guy at QB next season but you really can't count out Nate Sudfeld just yet. (Preseason: #9)
11.) Illinois - Battled hard against the Wildcats. The loss marked the end of Nathan Scheelhaase's career in Champaign. (Preseason: #10)
12.) Purdue - Pretty much a disastrous season. You'd like to think next year will be better but who knows? Danny Etling at least provides some hope. (Preseason: #12)

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