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December 11, 2008

Penn State headlines Big Ten season

MORE: All-Big Ten Team

Look at Joe Paterno defiantly shaking his cane at the media and stubbornly insisting he isn't going anywhere in the aftermath of Penn State's regular season-ending victory over Michigan State that clinched the Nittany Lions' first Rose Bowl berth since the 1994 season.

Why should he step down after 43 seasons?

Penn State finished 11-1, winning its second Big Ten title in four years. And if not for a last-second upset loss at Iowa, the Nittany Lions likely would be playing for the national championship.

Though the Lions came up short of their ultimate goal, it did nothing to sully the accomplishments of Penn State - which wasn't picked by anyone to win the Big Ten.

Ohio State was the favorite, and the Buckeyes delivered by winning a share of their fourth Big Ten championship in a row despite changing quarterbacks early in the season and dealing with an injury that kept star running back Chris Wells out of three games in September.

But other than Penn State and Ohio State, the Big Ten had little to brag about during a season that featured no other elite programs and no non-conference victories over marquee teams.

League Awards

Player of the year: Iowa RB Shonn Greene. He seemingly came out of nowhere after leaving Iowa City last season to attend a junior college. Greene re-emerged this fall to lead the Big Ten with 1,729 yards rushing. Without him, the Hawkeyes would have struggled to make a bowl.

Coach of the year: Penn State's Joe Paterno. Let's hear it for JoePa! Battling a bad hip and a Penn State administration that seemingly wants him out, he responded with an unlikely Big Ten championship. Think he'll get a contract extension?

Freshman of the year: Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor. He was hailed as the nation's No. 1 recruit last February − and he showed why. Pryor took over as the starter in the fourth game of the season, making steady progress to the point where he was the Big Ten leader in passing efficiency. Pryor also ran for 553 yards and six touchdowns. Not bad.

Offensive coordinator of the year: Penn State's Galen Hall. His "spread HD" attack ranked 11th in the nation in scoring (40.2 ppg) and 15th overall (452.2 ypg).

Defensive coordinator of the year: Minnesota's Ted Roof. He pulled off one of the nation's biggest rehab projects. He inherited the nation's worst defense and promptly turned a young unit into an aggressive, attacking defense that excelled at generating turnovers (Big Ten-high 30 forced turnovers). Bottom line: Without Roof, the Golden Gophers wouldn't be going to a bowl.

Best game: Penn State 13, Ohio State 6, Oct. 25 in Columbus. The Nittany Lions' trip to Ohio State was a defensive struggle that featured ebbs and flows. The final, thrilling drama: After Nittany Lions QB Daryll Clark was knocked out of the game in the fourth quarter, backup Pat Devlin promptly drove Penn State to the winning touchdown.

Biggest upset: Iowa 24, Penn State 23, Nov. 8 in Iowa City. Penn State saw its unbeaten season and shot at the national championship go up in smoke at unranked Iowa as Hawkeyes kicker Daniel Murray booted a 31-yard field goal with one second left for a 24-23 victory. It was just Murray's second field goal of the season.

Biggest surprise, player: Penn State QB Daryll Clark. Hat's off to Clark, who won a preseason quarterback derby and proceeded to perform almost flawlessly in his first year as a starter. He completed 60 percent of his passes for 17 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Clark also ran for 265 yards and nine scores.

Biggest surprise, team: Michigan State. Most thought Michigan State would return to a bowl in its second season under Mark Dantonio, but no one envisioned the Spartans would be playing for a share of the Big Ten championship on the final day of the season. MSU came up short, losing 49-18 at Penn State. But there's no doubt Dantonio has served notice that the Spartans are a team of the future.

Biggest disappointment, player: Purdue QB Curtis Painter. In the preseason, he was hailed by most as the Big Ten's top quarterback. But he battled injury and ineffectiveness for a Boilermakers team that missed the postseason for just the second time under departing 12-year coach Joe Tiller.

Biggest disappointment, team: Illinois. Coming off its first Rose Bowl since the 1983 season, Illinois was thought to be a sleeper for the league title. But the offense struggled to run, and the defense was soft. The result? A 5-7 record that included a loss to Western Michigan.

Underclassmen liable to go pro: Penn State LB Navorro Bowman, Illinois CB Vontae Davis, Iowa RB Shonn Greene, Wisconsin RB P.J. Hill, Ohio State RB Chris Wells.

Next season's conference champ: Ohio State. The Buckeyes have to be the favorite, even with attrition. Why? Pryor will improve on a strong debut season, giving the Buckeyes perhaps the nation's most dynamic and dangerous quarterback.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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