Last week we took a look at the East division, now it is time to go West my friends. While a lot of the questions out East revolve around offense, will the same hold true in the West division?
With a new head coach in at Nebraska, new coordinators in other places and plenty of high-level recruiting happening, there is no shortage of intrigue in the
Let’s take a look at the 5 biggest storylines we’ll watch this spring in the Big Ten West division.
Frost’s First Spring
As if there is any storyline bigger in the West division than prodigal son returning to bring the
Let’s just consider it the West division’s version of Jim Harbaugh, shall we.
Nebraska fans are hoping that the results are at least as good if not better than what Harbaugh has brought to Michigan to date, and sadly getting to the 10-win mark would be a huge win for the Huskers of today.
Frost will have a big challenge on his hand, needing to rebuild the run game, strengthen a porous defense and bring the pride back to the Huskers program.
Oh, and he’ll have to break in a new quarterback to go with all of the rest of the tweaks needed in the program. 4-star dual threat quarterback Adrian Martinez singed early and is on campus already, and there will be competition with much-touted sophomore Patrick O’Brien in the mix as well as redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia and sophomore Andrew Bunch.
O’Brien, Gebbia and Bunch are more the classic West Coast style of QB, and that may make Frost’s first season an interesting one in Lincoln.
Northwestern’s Life Without Thorson and Jackson
Northwestern knew that 2018 would be a challenge, especially with the graduation of easily the greatest running back in school history. With Justin Jackson graduated, where would the Wildcats turn to get the production needed.
Then the 2018 season was dealt a brutal blow as quarterback Clayton Thorson tore up his knee on a trick play in the Music City Bowl. He’ll likely be back for fall camp, but in what shape and condition will that be? A torn ACL for a mobile quarterback can be a game changer and in any case this upcoming season is going to be his last in a Wildcats uniform.
So, as Northwestern heads in to spring practice, it will get a big glimpse of its future life without its two biggest names. We’ll see plenty of reps for junior T.J. Green, redshirt freshman Andrew Marty, and sophomore Aidan Smith this spring. Northwestern opens with Purdue on Aug. 30 and should Thorson not be ready to go, spring could go a long way to deciding who gets the nod.
Leonhard’s Big Test at Wisconsin
Rumors circulated throughout much of December and in to January that Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard was a candidate for the Florida State defensive coordinator position. That’s what happens when year one of you as UW’s DC ends with the Badgers having one of the best defenses in the country.
Year two will be a different story though, as Leonhard faces a secondary that loses 3 starters, a defensive line that loses both starting ends and both starting outside linebackers. Wisconsin has proven to be a plug-and-play program at outside linebacker and that shouldn’t be an issue with the likes of Andrew Van Ginkle and Tyler Johnson having gained plenty of experience last season. There’s also intrigue in names like Christian Bell and redshirt freshman Noah Burks.
However, things are dicey in the secondary as only one player with any real game experience is back at cornerback and that is Donyte Carrier-Williams. So, this is where Leonhard would be earning a salary increase this spring. He’ll have to mold a really young group of cornerbacks in to a quality group of players given all the spread offenses that will be in place across the West division — with all but Iowa running some version of the spread attack.
Can names like Madison Cone, Caesar Williams and Faion Hicks show enough for the coaching staff to be confident in them going in to the season or will their need to be a lean on the newcomers in the fall? There certainly won’t be a shortage of reps and opportunity for playing time in this spring.
Lovie’s Last-Ditch Offensive Overhaul
There isn’t a bigger trainwreck in the Big Ten than Illinois Fighting Illini athletics (not just football) at the moment. So, this spring is all about finding some hope for the football program. To that end, head coach Lovie Smith enters his second full offseason in a position to overhaul his offense.
It started as quarterbacks Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. decided to leave the program and continued with the hire of Arizona offensive coordinator Rod Smith. The Wildcats offense has been amongst the most prolific and high-scoring in the country, but this is Big Ten land where defense reigns supreme. Can Smith translate his Wildcats offense to something that works in Champaign?
Cam Thomas is the lone scholarship quarterback and proved a much better rushing threat than anything in the pass game last season. So, Smith’s first task is to see if Thomas has what it takes to really lead a spread offense like his. If not, this could be a long spring spent trying to find answers to a whole lot of questions.
I love getting Smith away from Arizona, it was a master stroke by Smith, but will it be enough, soon enough to keep his job? Athletic director Mike Thomas seems to have a long-term plan in place and the patience to see it out with Smith, but real progress needs to shown this spring and in the fall for that patience to be warranted.
Let’s see if this last-ditch effort pays off.
Brohm’s Encore Performance
What Jeff Brohm did in one season at the helm of the Purdue Boilermakers football program was nothing short of remarkable. He took a program left for dead and not only gave it life, but a bowl game appearance in his first season. It’s no wonder his name came up for the Tennessee job this offseason.
But, this season there are actual expectations following that 7-6 finish last season and this spring will see some big changes to the program. That’s not a bad thing, because Purdue got to a bowl game with a lot of smoke and mirrors while it awaited more talent to come aboard in West Lafayette, Ind.
There was also a reliance on a pretty good defense last season, one that featured talented linebackers T.J. McCollum and Ja’Whaun Bentley. Both are gone now and replacing their production and leadership will be key this spring. Luckily, the returning starter is Markus Bailey, who could be poised for a national breakout year now that the spotlight is all to his own. Beyond that, this is a position that will be a microcosm of the team, as they see what kind of talent is coming in and how fast they can contribute.
Pair of Big Ten players named to PFF mid-season All-American team
It hasn’t been a banner year for the Big Ten, with it seeming more and more like the days of the big two and little 10 (12 today). So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that All-American honors are few and far between.
But, it was near barren for the Big Ten when Pro Football Focus gave out its mid-season All-American honors. Just two players — both on offense — made the cut from the conference.
Ohio State wide receiver K.J. Hill and Wisconsin right guard Beau Benzschawel were both named to the offensive All-American team.
Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor was named honorable mention. So was OSU defensive tackle Dre’mont Jones on the other side of the ball.
What makes Pro Football Focus’ lists so different are the fact that they are based on analyzing actual play from every player in college football throughout the season.
It means, actual play on the field dictates getting on this list and not reputation or PR.
Benzschawel is the second-highest rated guard in the country according to PFF, as they say this about his performance at the midway mark:
Benzschawel is close behind [Terrone] Prescod, grading at 81.1 as a run-blocker, good for sixth among guards while allowing only three pressures on 151 snaps in pass protection.
Much like Benzschawel, Hill is also the second highest rated player at his position. Hill trails only Colorado’s superstar receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. and has a grade of 90.9 on the season.
According to PFF, “Hill has been incredibly efficient as well, catching 85.1% of his targets while averaging 8.2 yards after the catch per reception.”
It will be interesting to see how thing shake out in the second half of the season and if players like Chase Winovich, Rashan Gary or many other of the Badgers offensive lineman grade out better.
Good, Bad, Ugly: The tale of Buckeyes, Badgers and Illini in Week 3
There is no two ways about it — Week 3 was the Big Ten’s collective worst nightmare.
Just take a look at the final scores from the weekend:
So, on a Saturday in which contenders were dropping like flies, how do we make sense of what took place?
Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from Week 3 around the Big Ten.
On a weekend that saw so much carnage from Big Ten teams, there is no doubt that Ohio State’s big win over TCU is the good of the weekend. It wasn’t just that the pickings were slim either, the Buckeyes put on a show in the win over the Horned Frogs at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
With the eyes of most of the college football world on them, OSU came up big. They punched hard first, going up 10-0 and then took a big punch from TCU for a pair of touchdowns, the last of which was a school-record 93-yard run by Darius Anderson for the 14-10 lead early in the second quarter.
Let’s not forget there were two defensive touchdowns (albeit one shouldn’t have counted after further review that never happened on the field), including a “fat guy” TD by Dre’mont Jones.
Lost in some of the craziness was the fact that Dwayne Haskins showed out in a big way. He was 24 of 38 for a crazy 344 yards and two touchdowns in the win. Haskins also had a rushing touchdown to cap off all the offensive scoring for his team.
Sure, the defense gave up 511 yards, but it seemed more a byproduct of TCU’s offensive style than anything worrisome about the Buckeyes defense. After all, they forced three total turnovers, had three sacks and seven tackles for loss on the day.
It was a shot across the bow of the rest of the elite in college football and arguable the most dangerous the Buckeyes have looked on both sides of the ball in awhile.
There’s no where to go here other than to head to Madison, Wis. where the Badgers came in to their contest against BYU with a 41-game home non-conference win streak.
By the time the mid-afternoon matchup was over, the Badgers streak was also over and it wasn’t a fluke. The visiting Cougars took a page out of the Wisconsin playbook and simply out-muscled the Badgers on both sides of the ball.
UW’s normally potent run game averaged just 4.7 yards per carry. Its defense allowed 191 yards to BYU on the ground. That pretty much sums up the shock that happened inside Camp Randall.
For the first time in over 15 years, a non-conference opponent came in to Camp Randall, outplayed and finally beat the Badgers. We’ll see if this is a wake up call or the start of a snowball effect that can’t be stopped.
Having rival Iowa on the road and at night should certainly get the Badgers attention this coming week.
Sure, we could’ve gone with Northwestern getting blown out by a MAC opponent at home. There was also Rutgers’ piss-poor day at Kansas and Temple working over Maryland. But, those were all blowouts and there was just one loss that hurt more than any other…Illinois.
For just over 57 minutes, this week felt different for Illini fans…until South Florida’s Darnell Salomon hauled in a 50-yard touchdown from Blake Barnett with 2:24 to play.
That was just a downright brutal blow to a program that could’ve used the win in the worst way. Illinois got an early touchdown from running back Mike Epstein and then four field goals (three of which were over 40 yards) for a 19-7 lead late in the third quarter.
Then the fourth quarter happened and you could just feel the game slipping away. Just over three minutes after the last of Illinois last field goal, it was Salomon who broke through with a 14-yard touchdown catch to make it a 5-point game. Add in a field goal midway through the quarter and a 19-7 lead was whittled down to 19-17.
But, the Illini really only have themselves to blame. After all, they squandered four drives that were in USF territory and couldn’t get in the end zone. The Illini also couldn’t score a single point in the final quarter, and that’s usually not a good thing.
The play in the final stanza was particularly brutal, as USF’s defense held the Illini to just 94 total yards and forced them to go 2-of-7 on third downs. That’s how you lose a game you should’ve taken care of.
If there was a silver lining in the ugly way this loss happened, it was that MJ Rivers’ debut at quarterback was a success. He was 20 of 29 passing for 168 yards. While he didn’t get in to the end zone through the air, Rivers also didn’t turn the ball over while passing either. That’s a positive step lost in the brutal way this loss took place.
5 Reasons to watch Wisconsin vs. Miami in the Orange Bowl
Why should you, the college football fan, tune in to the Orange Bowl this year?
Bowl season is in full swing, but the Big Ten has a bit of a wait before any conference team sees the field. So, we’re spending the week before Christmas giving you a full look in to the bowl games involving Big Ten teams.
While the conference champion, Ohio State, was passed over for the College Football Playoff, there are still plenty of things to love about bowl season if you’re a fan of a team in or of the conference as a whole.
What better way to start than by looking at one of the biggest bowl matchups this year — the Big Ten’s return to the Orange Bowl as Wisconsin takes on Miami at its home stadium.
So, why should you tune in to this matchup if you aren’t a fan of the Badgers? Let’s look over 5 reasons to love this game.
Jonathan Taylor’s Pursuit of History
It has been a record-setting season for Wisconsin freshman running back Jonathan Taylor. He already tied the mark for the fastest true freshman to 1,000 yards (7 games) and sits at 1,847 yards.
Taylor would love a do-over after he was basically made non-existent in the Big Ten championship game. He was held to a season-low 41 yards against Ohio State. But, Taylor isn’t done with potentially making history and that should be plenty of motivation.
He’s got one more big personal goal — the true freshman single-season rushing record.
He trails some guy named Adrian Peterson for that mark and needs just 79 yards to own it. Given Wisconsin’s rich history of running backs over the last 30-plus years, Taylor owning this record would certainly speak for itself in the pantheon of Badgers running backs.
Should he get that goal, there’s also a good chance it also means his team is doing good things on the scoreboard too. So, look for Taylor’s performance to tell a lot about what Wisconsin will or won’t be capable of on offense.
If you love defensive football, this game should be your cup of tea. Wisconsin was one of the most dominant defensive teams in college football. They were great against the run (), very solid against the pass, didn’t let opposing teams score much and loved a good turnover. Wisconsin ranked 3rd nationally in scoring defense (13.2 points per game), 2nd in rushing defense (92.6 yards per game), 4th in passing defense (160.6) and 1st in total defense (253.2)
Miami was no slouch, and we all know about the “turnover chain,” because Miami has their “swagger” back. The Hurricanes were one of the best defenses in the country at creating turnovers in 2017, ranking 9th in the country in interceptions (17) and 7th in fumbles recovered (13).
Wisconsin hasn’t been bad on the turnover front themselves, racking up 26 total turnovers to rank 9th in the country themselves.
But, the Badgers offense has been turnover prone, in large part thanks to throwing the second-highest amount of interceptions in the Big Ten this season (15). Miami has one of the bet turnover margins in the country thanks to an offense that has been able to keep things under control on the turnover front (15).
This game could come down to which defense can play to its strength more, and it may be one of the few games truly decided by defense first.
Who Rises to the Big Stage Pressure?
While the Hurricanes have been a “brand name” in college football since the 1980’s, they have fallen on hard times since a loss to Ohio State in the 2002 national championship game. In fact, they haven’t been back to a major bowl game since the 2004 Orange Bowl ironically.
On the other hand, Wisconsin is making its second-straight appearance in a New Year’s Six bowl game after defeating Western Michigan in last season’s Cotton Bowl Classic. UW also has been involved in the biggest bowl games for the better part of this decade, appearing in three straight Rose Bowls to start the 2010’s.
Wisconsin is used to the big stage, the bright lights and the pressure of big games as a program and as individual players. Miami, while having played big games in the regular season, hasn’t exactly been involved in a major bowl game in any of these players’ lifetimes really.
Can Mark Richt get his team up for a smash-mouth football game against a team that won’t be intimidated by the big stage? Can the Badgers under-assuming personality match the flare and hype that surrounds the Hurricanes once again?
Personality matters in this matchup, if only because these two teams are so polar opposite in how they approach the game. Wisconsin won’t talk trash, they’ll just hit you in the mouth over and over and over again. Miami will talk trash, hit you in the mouth and talk some more.
Whichever team buckles under that pressure first is going to be in major trouble.
Which Hornibrook Shows Up?
If there’s one thing we’ve established about the Badgers in 2017 it is that quarterback Alex Hornibrook is a really good complementary player in Wisconsin’s offense. However, the one time he was relied upon to win them a game he folded big time.
Hornibrook threw the ball 41 times against Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game, which not only was his highest attempts number on the season, but also the most since throwing 28 passes against Florida Atlantic in Week 2. It didn’t go well in Indianapolis for Hornibrook, as he completed just 19 of the 41 passes attempted and had his lowest yards per attempt (5.7) of the season to go along with zero touchdowns and two interceptions.
He also had a major stumble against Michigan where he was just 9 of 19 for 143 yards and a touchdown to one interception.
Those were the two best defenses he faced and it was a struggle in terms of completion percentage and avoiding the turnovers. Miami is one of the better pass defenses in the country too, forcing those 17 interceptions and allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete just 56.3 percent of their passes.
But, the Hornibrook that showed up most of the rest of the season is one the Badgers certainly can win with. He was highly efficient most of the season and if he can be a guy who continues to move the chains in third down situations and get the big throw when needed, Wisconsin’s offense is hard to stop.
If Wisconsin wants to win, they need to see the efficient Hornibrook come to life against a good defense.
Its the Freaking Orange Bowl
If you call yourself a true College Football fan, the Orange Bowl is destination television no matter what. It doesn’t hurt that a traditional Orange Bowl participant is there or the only Power 5 team to remain undefeated through the regular season is there either.
The Orange Bowl is one of the classic games and has provided some of the most stunning results we’ve seen in College Football history. Could more be made?
After all, it is Wisconsin’s first visit to the Orange Bowl and winning it would certainly be a great way to cap off what was a history-making season for the Badgers.
Really, there shouldn’t be any other thing you need to know other than it’s the Orange Bowl between two top 10 teams. ‘Nuff Said.
*all stats courtesy of cfbstats.com
10 things to know about 2017 Big Ten championship game
Get to know the key numbers, stats and players for the Badgers and Buckeyes clash in Indianapolis this Saturday night.
The two most successful programs in the Big Ten over the past 20 years meet for just the second time in the Big Ten championship this Saturday. Yes, the Wisconsin Badgers and Ohio State Buckeyes tangle with a Big Ten championship and a potential berth in the College Football Playoff on the line.
Wisconsin’s scenario is easy, win and the No. 4 Badgers are in. The only question would be would they move up and go to the Rose Bowl or not?
Ohio State, well a win over the Badgers helps, but they would also need some help from another expected conference champion to lose and have a better resume on paper than some other teams in front of them.
Even though the scenarios are very different, these two coaches are likely to have their charges laser focused on the task at hand. But, how do u separate teams who got to this point in very different ways? There’s no better way than to dive in to the numbers and see what comes out.
Here are the stats, notes and everything else in between that you need to know ahead of the big matchup on Saturday night.
1: Ohio State, not Wisconsin leads the Big Ten in rushing offense
While all the attention seems to be on Wisconsin’s star freshman running back Jonathan Taylor, it is the Buckeyes who have been the more dominant team on the ground this season. Ohio State averages 250.3 yards per game on the ground. It helps when you have two running backs that combined for nearly 1,700 yards and a quarterback who put up another 600-plus yards as well.
Ohio State’s own freshman sensation, J.K. Dobbins was second in the Big Ten to Taylor with 1,190 yards and his 7.2 yards per carry average topped the league. So don’t think the Badgers are the only team that can run the ball heading in to Saturday night.
Now that’s not to say the Badgers are slouches on the ground game front either. UW was second in the league with an average of 243.2 yards per game as well. In fact, the two were the only teams in the Big Ten to average over 200 yards per game on the ground in the Big Ten.
2: That’s the number of times the Badgers have trailed in the second half this season
Wisconsin has trailed in the second half just twice (vs. Northwestern and vs. Michigan) for a total of 8:49. The Badgers have not trailed in the fourth quarter of any game. It’s all part of the narrative of the Badgers as a second half team.
The formula has been simple, try to jump out to a lead early or keep the game close early and then continue to pound away until opponents give up. What will be interesting to see is if the Badgers second half dominance can continue. Ohio State actually has given up more points in the second and third quarters (69 each) than in the first or fourth. Those are the two quarters were the Badgers ramp things up — going from 86 points this season in the 1st quarter to 106 in the 2nd, 108 in the 3rd and 118 in the final stanza.
Combine that with a Badgers defense that clamps down over time and you can see how teams falter against the Badgers. Will that scenario continue to play out in Indy?
3: This will be Ohio State’s 3rd Big Ten championship game appearance
OSU has only been eligible for six of the seven Big Ten title games played, and they’ve been able to make it to three of them so far. It’s been a mixed bag for Urban Meyer’s crew though. Michigan State took them down 34-24 in the first meeting, while the next year was the infamous 59-0 beating of the very same school they’ll see across the field from them on Saturday — Wisconsin.
Both sides have downplayed that 2014 game, and rightfully so given it was four years ago and no one of consequence in this game was of consequence on either side of the field in that 2014 game.
Still, this is Ohio State’s chance to get over the .500 mark in Big Ten title games.
4: OSU is fourth in the Big Ten in turnover margin
Turnovers can easily decide big games, and the Buckeyes found that out the hard way in a visit to Kinnick Stadium about a month ago. However, this has been a season of razor-thin margins in terms of turnovers across the Big Ten. Case in point, Ohio State is just +3 on the turnover margin this season and yet they rank 4th in the conference alongside Purdue in that category.
Ohio State has been alright at taking the ball away, forcing 18 turnovers, but they haven’t given up the ball much either, ranking third in the Big Ten with just 15 turnovers given up. With the Badgers defense so prone to pouncing on mistakes and the unknown situation at quarterback for the Buckeyes, look for turnovers to play a key role in this game.
5: That is Ohio State’s rank in sacks coming in to this game
Greg Schiano was supposed to be off for the Tennessee Volunteers head coaching gig by now, but we’ll save that story for another day. His defense has been turning up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks all season long, resulting in 34.0 sacks and a fifth place finish in the Big Ten. Nick Bosa earned Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year following the regular season, putting up a team-best 6.0 sacks and amassing 12.5 tackles for loss.
Wisconsin’s offensive line isn’t going to be easy to crack though, despite a relatively immobile quarterback. The Badgers finished first in the Big Ten for sacks allowed, with just 17.0 on the year. Getting to Hornibrook is going to be vital, but it won’t be easy.
6: That is the number of 10-win seasons in a row for the Buckeyes
All six of those 10-win seasons in a row have come under the tutelage of Urban Meyer not coincidentally. Meanwhile, the Badgers come in to this game riding a big 10-win season streak of their own, owning four of those seasons in a row. That mark is a school record for Wisconsin, while the Buckeyes’ six-straight is also a school record.
We’re getting these two programs at the best they have ever been, will it mean a good game on the field though?
7: Wisconsin is just seventh in the Big Ten in penalty yards this season
In a game where strength is going on strength, sometimes the weaknesses matter too (if you can find them). One area of weakness for the Badgers this season has been penalties. Wisconsin’s 5.5 penalties per game aren’t a terrible number, but when the Badgers are committing said turnovers, they are costly. UW is giving up over 50 yards per game in penalties. It simply can’t afford to do that against the Buckeyes.
Meanwhile, Ohio State is perhaps the worst offender of the bunch. Not only do the Buckeyes commit 7.4 penalties per game, they also rank last in the Big Ten with those penalties costing 72.1 yards per game.
This is clearly an area to watch on the part of both teams.
8: That’s the number of opponents the Badgers have held to under 100 yards rushing this season
Earlier we noted the matchup between two of the bet rushing offenses in the country. Well, something may have to give for the Buckeyes and Badgers, because Wisconsin features the Big Ten’s best run defense. Not only are the Badgers holding opponents to just 80.5 yards per game on the ground, they have held eight of the 12 opponents faced under the 100-yard mark, including in each of the last four games. That 80.5 yards per game average also tops the country.
If Ohio State struggles to run the ball against the stingiest run defense in the land, can the Buckeyes win? That may be one of the biggest questions in this contest.
9: Jonathan Taylor has gone for over 100 yards in 9 of 12 games this season
There’s a reason Taylor is the Big Ten’s leading running back — consistency. He’s been over 100 yards in 9 of 12 games played this season and has only missed the 100-yard mark twice as a starter after rushing fo 82 yards in his debut behind Bradrick Shaw and Chris James. The other two came in Big Ten play, with one only because of an ankle injury keeping him out after the half. He still put up 73 yards on 12 carries in the win over Illinois.
Taylor only needs 120 yards to break Adrian Peterson’s freshman rushing record, and that would be well below his season average of 150.5. If he breaks it, will it also lead to a Badgers win?
10: Wisconsin has won 10 of 12 games this season by 14 points or more
Plenty of the national narrative surrounding Wisconsin this season has been about the Badgers strength of schedule, or lack there of. Of course there’s some merit to it, as they faced just three teams ranked when or after then played them all season long — Iowa, Michigan and Northwestern. However, the hallmark of a really good team is taking on a supposedly bad schedule and dominating it.
That’s what the Badgers did this season, winning all but two games by two touchdowns or more. I’d call that pretty dominating football.
Then again…nothing has been good enough for most in the national media when it comes to the Wisconsin Badgers.
But, I digress. My point is, this team isn’t the 2017 version of the 2015 Iowa Hawkeyes. Wisconsin is blowing out teams it should beat and winning large against quality teams like Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan. That 2015 Iowa team snuck a perfect regular season by winning 7 of 10 games by 10 points or less…and 4 of those 7 games were by one score or less as well.
I only bring this point up to note that thinking this will be a razor-thin margin one way or the other seems unlikely considering what these two teams have put on the field most of the year. That’s especially the case should it be Wisconsin taking home the win.
Who wins, and how do we see the game playing out?
Tune in to the talking10 Podcast from this week and find out all that information and our exclusive All-Big Ten 1st and 2nd team reveal too.
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