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Top 25 Players in the Big Ten for 2017: No’s. 10-6

We are almost done with our 2017 preseason Top 25 players list. Who made it inside the top 10, but just out of the running as the best player in the conference heading in to the season?

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It is almost time for pads to start popping and helmets to start cracking together…and that means football season is right around the corner. Here at talking10 it also means the release of our annual Big Ten Preseason Top 25 Players list.

Top 25 List: No’s 25-21 | No’s 20-16 | No’s 15-11 |

We’re 10 players deep, with 15 to go on the countdown. Let’s just hop right back in to the Top 25 players list as the season grows closer and closer.

Don’t forget to follow our staff of Andy Coppens, Phil Harrison, Philip Rossman-Reich and Zach Worthington on Twitter for their breakdowns of the Top 25 and their individual lists.

No. 10. — Akrum Wadley, RB (Iowa)

2016 Season Stats: 1,081 yards, 10 TD’s, 6.4 ypc; 36 receptions, 315 yards, 3 TD’s
Best Game: 23 carries, 115 yards; 5 receptions, 52 yards, 1 TD

Patience has certainly paid off for the now-senior running back for the Hawkeyes. Wadley showed flashes of brilliance early in his career, but he had to share the spotlight with others. That included fellow 1,000-yard back LeShaun Daniels last season.

Wadley comes in to 2017 as the lone featured back for the first time in his career and it could be a very interesting season ahead. He also come back as one of just three returning running backs to crack double digits in rushing touchdowns last season. If Iowa is going to weather the changes at quarterback in 2017, it will do so on the back and legs of Wadley. If history tells us anything, he’s likely up to the challenge.

No. 9. — Clayton Thorson, QB (Northwestern)

2016 Season Stats:  3,128 yards, 58.6 comp. %, 22 TD’s, 9 INT’s
Best Game: at MSU – 27-35 passing, 281 yards, 3 TD’s, 1 INT

Few quarterbacks came in to 2016 as a bigger question mark than Clayton Thorson did entering his sophomore season. After becoming one of just four quarterbacks to top 3,000 yards passing in 2016, the questions have turned in to just how good can Thorson really be. Well, considering he went from mistake-prone and INT-prone to one of the coolest passers in the league, it is safe to say he is high up on our list heading in to 2017.

This season, it may be a case of Thorson also needed to add a bit more to the ground game. He picked up just 98 yards on 97 carries last season. That was following a promising start to his career with his feet. Northwestern doesn’t need him to be J.T. Barrett on the ground, but expanding that part of his game to go with the established passing attack could give Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats plenty of ammo on offense.

No. 8 — Rashan Gary, DE (Michigan)

2016 Season Stats: 24 tackles, 5.0 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 6 QB hurries
Best Game: vs. UCF – 6 tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss, 1 sack

Michigan snapped up the No. 1 player in the 2016 recruiting rankings, so expectations were high for Gary. He rose to the occasion and got himself in to the mix on a loaded and deep Wolverines defensive line. He showed power off the edge and a capability to be very disruptive at the line of scrimmage. Gary’s game is far from perfect, but if he works at the rate he did in 2016, look for him to be one of the best pass rushers in the Big Ten when 2017 is all said and done.

His length, athleticism and strength at his age are just incredible. Will he be able to live up to the hype and the increased attention on and off the field in 2017? That’s his real challenge.

No. 7. — J.T. Barrett, QB (Ohio State)

2016 Season Stats: 61.5 comp. %, 2,555 yards, 24 TD’s, 7 INT’s; 845 yards, 9 TD’s rushing
Best Game: vs. Nebraska – 65.1 comp. %, 290 yards, 4TD’s passing; 39 yards rushing

It is hard to believe that one…J.T. Barrett is still in college football, and two…that is hasn’t won a Heisman Trophy yet. We’re pretty sure if you asked 2014 versions of ourselves if that was possible we would’ve told you you were nuts. But, we are blessed with one final season from Barrett in the OSU colors.

Some of those same 2014 folks would be surprised to see him this low on the list. There’s no doubt that the talent is there, but his passing numbers have steadily declined and somehow Barrett has actually become a less accurate passer over time. Still, he’s arguably the most dangerous dual-threat quarterback in the league and one of the best on-field leaders as well. His intangibles and ability to literally will a team to victory can’t be overlooked and that’s why he’s in our top 10.

No. 6. — Tegray Scales, LB (Indiana)

2016 Season Stats: 126 tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss, 7.0 sacks, 1 INT, 1 TD, 1 FF, 2 PBU, 4 QB Hurries
Best Game: vs. Penn State – 9 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss, 1 sack

No player benefited more from a coaching change in 2016 than Indiana linebacker Tegray Scales did. Tom Allen’s unique 4-2-5 system actually made Scales the focal point of the defense and he delivered in a big way. The stats are certainly impressive, but it is the how it all happened that makes him one of the most intriguing players to watch this upcoming season.

Don’t be surprised to see his name mentioned with some of the best in the country at linebacker. He simply makes plays and does it wherever and however asked to by the coaching staff. A sign of his quality? Two his best games came in losses to Penn State and Northwestern, where Scales did everything he could to will his team to victory but just couldn’t get the offensive help needed. He’ll have more parts around him this season and that should make things really fun to watch.

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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2018 Big Ten Championship Game Preview: 5 Things to Know

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What some may argue was one of the most intriguing and surprising seasons in recent Big Ten football history comes to a close on Saturday as the expected meets the unexpected. 

It’ll be the Ohio State Buckeyes against the Northwestern Wildcats for all the Big Ten marbles. For Ohio State it also means a potential berth in the College Football Playoffs are on the line. 

All week long we will take an in-depth look at this unexpected matchup. It starts today with a look at the 5 things to know about these two teams. 

5: Northwestern’s 5th in scoring defense in the Big Ten

That may not be a mind-blowing stat, but believe it or not the Wildcats have the better defense going in to this game and that can matter a lot when the nerves and dust settles on this game. 

Northwestern is allowing an average of just 21.7 points per game this season. Only three teams scored 30 points or more on the Wildcats — Akron, Nebraska and Notre Dame. 

Conversely, six of the last eight opponents have failed to score 20 or more points and only Michigan (20) and Nebraska (31) scored more than 20 points on Northwestern in Big Ten play. 

On the flip side, Ohio State’s defense comes in 7th in the Big Ten — giving up 25.8 points per game and allowing 40 touchdowns to opponents.

4: This is Ohio State’s 4th Big Ten championship game appearance

It seems like old hat at this point, but the Buckeyes aren’t the record holders for most appearances in the title game just yet. That honor belongs to the Wisconsin Badgers with five appearances. 

Still, no other team knows the ins and outs of Lucas Oil Stadium as well as the Buckeyes or Badgers do. That experience inside the stadium and with all the things happening around the game will matter a bit, especially early on in this game. 

OSU holds a 2-1 record in the three previous games, beating Wisconsin twice and losing a 34-24 decision to Michigan State in 2013. 

A win in this game would break a three-way tie for most title game wins with MSU and Wisconsin — all of which have won twice in Indy. 

3: OSU QB Dwayne Haskins is averaging just over 3 TD passes per game

The record books have loved putting Dwayne Haskins’ name in them in 2018. I mean, he broke a record I thought never would be broken — Drew Brees’ single-season touchdown record — by throwing 42 touchdowns and counting. 

Doing the mental math there, that means he is averaging 3.5 passing touchdowns per game. It also means he leads the country in passing touchdowns this season. Will Greir is next on the list, but he’s five touchdown passes behind Haskins. That’s how good of a season he’s having. 

It’s led to a record-breaking six Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week awards this year. Oh, and his 4,081 yards already this year make him one of only two quarterbacks to do that in the 2018 regular season. 

As for Northwestern? This could all be dangerous news, especially considering the fact that the Wildcats are 11th in the Big Ten in passing defense (238.0 yards per game). The good news is NU’s pass defense has bent, but not broken a lot — giving up just nine passing touchdowns to opponents this year. 

Which will win out? The Buckeyes pass attack that gets yards and scores or the NU defense that allows yards, but not touchdowns through the air…

2: Northwestern has fumbled the ball just twice all season

One way to win close games is by not making big mistakes. Northwestern has been pretty good about that, fumbling the ball just twice this season. It’s the lowest total in the Big Ten and tied for fewest in the country with Mississippi State. 

Unfortunately, the Wildcats also had 13 interceptions on the year. Only Rutgers (22), Minnesota (14) and Illinois (14) had more interceptions thrown on the year. 

Ohio State’s defense has been one of the best in forcing fumbles this season. It’s 11 fumbles gained are second in the Big Ten to Indiana’s 13. 

Which one will give on Saturday in Indianapolis? 

1: It’s Northwestern’s first appearance in the Big Ten championship game

A lot of the talk this week will not only center on Ohio State’s CFB Playoff hopes, but also on the fact that Northwestern is making the trip to Indianapolis for the first time. 

There have been seven Big Ten championship games and excluding the first ever edition of it, only one team making its first appearance in the title game has won. That was Penn State beating Wisconsin in the title game back in 2016. 

In total teams are 1-3 in their first appearance in the game. It’ll be a major talking point and rightfully so, as the hoopla and extra stuff around the game make this very different than any bowl game other than the Rose Bowl for a Big Ten team. 

How Fitzgerald and the Wildcats coaches handle figuring out how to handle all the extra stuff will be vital. Some will try to embrace everything that happens, others will insulate their kids. It really depends on the personality of the team and getting it right can mean as much as getting the game plan right on game day. 

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Buckeyes Football

Northwestern Wildcats vs. Ohio State Buckeyes: Previews, Predictions and Prognostications

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J.T. Barrett, Ohio STate Buckeyes

When: Sat. Oct. 29, 2016; 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Columbus, Ohio; Ohio Stadium (104,944)
TV: ESPN
All-Time Series: Ohio State leads leads 60-14-1
Last Meeting: Ohio State won 40-30 (2013)
Line: Ohio State (-27)

There is still a bit of shock and awe over what happened Saturday night in Happy Valley.

The Nittany Lions stopped the seemingly unstoppable Buckeye machine. They were not a perfect monolith. They could bleed.

As Grant Haley returned the blocked field goal into the end zone to an uproarious Penn State crowd, Ohio State was left wondering what just happened. That is quite a way to lose a game.

The Buckeyes showed plenty of signs of weakness in the loss to Penn State. J.T. Barrett was solid, completing 28 of 43 passes for 245 yards. But the Buckeyes could not get their ground game going and gave up six sacks. Penn State’s defensive line dominated Ohio State’s offensive line — most notably in the second half.

That is not typical Buckeyes football.

It was still a game Ohio State should have won and put itself in position to win. But the team did not win. The team did not do the things it would need to win a big game against a young and physical front four.

Penn State found a way to win.

That’s what the Wildcats have done for the last three games. After their slow start to the season, the ‘Cats have suddenly emerged as something of an offensive juggernaut. Northwestern, amazingly, has the leading rusher and receiver in the conference. That is both a sign of how reliant they are on their specific stars, and how dangerous this team has become.

Northwestern does not have the talent all around that Ohio State does. The Wildcats are, as they always seem to be, heavy underdogs.

These two teams’ momentum though could not be going in opposite directions right now. Or perhaps this will be the game where narratives get reset.

1 Burning Question: Can Ohio State’s offensive line win in the trenches?

Against Penn State, Ohio State struggled to run the ball. The Buckeyes had 160 rushing yards on 40 carries Saturday and failed to establish a consistent runner. The Buckeyes’ leading rusher was Mike Weber with 71 yards on 21 carries — a 3.4 yards per carry.

That is not what Ohio State has done all year, and not the gold standard that has been set under Urban Meyer. The Buckeyes average 281.6 yards per game and have gotten 97.6 yards per game from Weber.

Undoubtedly though, the Buckeyes have relied more heavily on J.T. Barrett throughout the year. That part is not going to change, especially against Northwestern’s banged up secondary.

But Ohio State struggled against Penn State’s defensive line. The Buckeyes gave up six sacks to the Nittany Lions. And now they face the Big Ten’s leading sacker in Ifeadi Odenigbo (8.0 sacks) along with Anthony Walker seemingly rounding into form.

Ohio State’s offensive line has largely been good — the team ranks third in adjusted line yards according to Football Outsiders (adjusted line yards is a measure of how often running backs get past the offensive linemen, essentially). But the Buckeyes give up a lot of sacks, ranking 48th in the country in adjusted sack rate.

Allowing pressure to get to Barrett is this team’s weakness. The Buckeyes need to protect their heart and soul, and hold off this resurgent Wildcats pass rush to hold firm to dominance in this game.

Embed from Getty Images

2 Key Stats

— 243.3: That is the yards per game Clayton Thorson has thrown for in the last three games. Not the most impressive stats — although his 63.9 percent completion percentage and 9-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio is. Considering Thorson’s struggles in the first two seasons of his career, this consistency throwing the ball is a huge plus for Northwestern. It’s a big reason Northwestern’s offense is suddenly revived.

— 121.0: The number of rushing yards per game Ohio State has given up this season. The Buckeyes have been stout against the run this year, and that will become even more important against Justin Jackson and Northwestern who seem to be on the upswing in offensive production.

3 Key Players

–Marcus McShephard, Northwestern CB/WR: This summer Northwestern converted Marcus McShephard from a cornerback to a wide receiver. The Wildcats felt they had depth on that end. With all the injuries at cornerback, Northwestern had to move McShephard back to cornerback. He recorded seven tackles against Indiana. The Hoosiers were targeting him. He will not be in a ton, but Northwestern needs help with the secondary and McShephard has to step up. Or else …

–Jerome Baker, LB Ohio State: Jerome Baker has filled in admirably due to injury, and has been a do-everything linebacker for the Buckeyes. The stats support that — 43 tackles, six for a loss, 1.5 sacks and a pick. Baker will have to be an anchor again as Ohio State takes on Justin Jackson and Northwestern. The Wildcats are going to run the ball a lot, and Jackson figures be the flag-bearer. Baker has to make a living in the backfield and help make Northwestern’s offense uncomfortable.

–Hunter Niswander, P Northwestern: Ohio State knows how important special teams are after last week’s loss. The Wildcats have a solid punter in Hunter Niswander and for them to hang around this game, they have to win field position and make the Buckeyes go down a long field. Last week, Niswander struggled though. He averages 43.1 yards per punt this year, but against the Hoosiers last week, he posted 39.6 yards per punt on eight punts. He needs to be better than 40 and pin Ohio State deep.

4 Staff Predictions

Andy: Ohio State 31-17
Dave: Ohio State 38-17
Phil H.: Ohio State 34-17
Philip R-R.: Ohio State 34-24
Zach: Ohio State 38-14

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