Big Ten

Big Ten preview: Can Akeel Lynch turn around Penn State's last-place run game?

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Big Ten preview: Can Akeel Lynch turn around Penn State's last-place run game?

Penn State’s run game was virtually non-existent last season, but Akeel Lynch is looking to change that in 2015.

Yes, the same program that produced All-Big Ten running backs Evan Royster, Larry Johnson and Curtis Enis was the Big Ten’s worst rushing team a season ago, barely rushing for more than 100 yards a game. Only eight FBS teams were worse, and only two of those — Wake Forest and Washington State — were from Power 5 conferences.

And on top of that, two parts of the not-so-monstrous three-headed running back monster departed this offseason in Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak. Lynch, the only returning member of that trio, led the team with 678 rushing yards. Belton was second with 526 yards, and Zwinak had only 112 yards in just seven games.

The depth seems to be sapped at running back, but that’s not entirely true. Lynch will undoubtedly be the lead man, forced from the young-gun role into the role of elder statesman in a group that has no experience outside of him. Of the other six running backs on the roster, one is a senior walk-on who plays mostly special teams, and the other five are freshmen, either true freshmen or redshirt freshmen. One of that group is highly touted Class of 2015 recruit Saquon Barkley, the 11th-best running back in the country and second-best player in the state of Pennsylvania, per Rivals. But that hype doesn’t mean any collegiate experience.

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Penn State tries to fix offensive line with experience, reinforcements]

It leaves Lynch as the one guy in the backfield Penn State knows it can depend on.

“I'd love for him from Day 1 until the end of the season to make it clearly obvious that we've got one big-time running back that we're going to be able to hang our hat on while we're developing those other guys, and according to (director of performance enhancement Dwight) Galt, his staff and our players, Akeel has done that,” Franklin said earlier this month during the team’s media day. “He's been a tremendous leader with the young running backs and the young players. He's probably been as consistent and as hard working as anybody in our program. He’s just done a great job. He's been patient and kind of waited for his time, and he's prepared that when that time comes, he's going to be ready.”

“The role for me is kind of new because I’m used to being the younger guy behind Bill and Zach. But now I’m the older guy, and it switched,” Lynch said. “It’s kind of refreshing to be the older guy and have guys come up to you. Being the older guy, I know where they’re coming from, but also it’s a new experience for me being the older guy this year.”

Those rushing numbers last year were not good, and that can be at least partially attributed to an offensive line that took a lot of heat last season not only for not creating enough holes for running backs but for letting Christian Hackenberg get sacked 44 times. But as sour as the team’s numbers were, Lynch finished the season strong. Almost 60 percent of his season rushing total came in the Nittany Lions’ final four games. He had back-to-back huge games against Temple and Illinois, rushing for a combined 267 yards and a pair of touchdowns. And he added 126 yards and another touchdown over the final two games against Michigan State and Boston College.

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Can Penn State compete with big boys in Big Ten East?]

Plus, having the backfield a little more to himself this season could allow him to establish a bit more consistency.

He might not be grabbing the same attention as Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott, Wisconsin’s Corey Clement or Northwestern’s Justin Jackson, but Penn State coaches, at least, have tremendously high hopes for their No. 1 back.

“I can't wait to see him play this year. I cannot wait,” offensive coordinator John Donovan said. “From the little that we're allowed to be around them right now, he seems very focused and locked in, very determined. He ended the year last year on a great note. I think that he's got a chance to really take the reins right now and provide some leadership and provide us with a very good back to help us in the run game, and I'm really excited to see what he can do.”

He might not get into the Big Ten Running Back of the Year conversation, but he might be able to do enough to drag the Lions out of last place when it comes to running the ball.

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

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USA TODAY

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

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USA TODAY

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.