Big Ten

Penn State, Wisconsin, Minnesota look to stay unbeaten in Week 5 Big Ten previews and picks

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Penn State, Wisconsin, Minnesota look to stay unbeaten in Week 5 Big Ten previews and picks

Penn State and Wisconsin are top-10 teams with national-championship aspirations.

But what about Minnesota?

The Lions, Badgers and Gophers are the three Big Ten teams who will look to stay perfect this weekend — undefeated Michigan, the only other unbeaten team in the league, is off this week — and they’ll be favored in their games. They’re also all at home this weekend, which helps.

But remember that conference play is a gauntlet, regardless of who you’re playing. At this point in time, you’d have to think that Penn State and Wisconsin are on track for a Big Ten title game rematch, but any slip up and a team like Minnesota could swoop into the inside lane.

Conference play, baby! Read all about it in this week’s previews and picks.

Friday, Sept. 29

Nebraska at Illinois, 7 p.m., FS1

Two Big Ten West programs that aren’t close to where they want to be, this should be an interesting one in Champaign. The Illinois offense hasn’t been very good, though two weeks back it showed some improvement after starting quarterback Chayce Crouch was lifted in favor of Jeff George Jr. Meanwhile, the Illini defense was absolutely scorched in that blowout loss to USF, which now feels like it was three months ago.

The Nebraska defense looked real bad through the season’s first two games, and the offense looked real bad against Northern Illinois two weeks back. The Huskers got a much-needed comeback win over Rutgers last weekend, though that won’t do much to change Mike Riley’s precarious job status. Nor will a win on the road at Illinois, for that matter.

Both teams have struggling quarterbacks: Nebraska’s Tanner Lee has nine picks in four games, Crouch has three picks compared to just one touchdown in three games. Both sides of the ball have struggled for both teams at various points this season, making this pick a real tough one. Illinois has beaten Nebraska before in Champaign, and Nebraska was a much better team then. Why can’t they do it again?

The pick: Illinois

Saturday, Sept. 30

Northwestern at No. 10 Wisconsin, 11 a.m., ABC

The Cats finally ironed out their issues in their most recent game, a 49-7 clubbing of Bowling Green two weeks ago. Justin Jackson is still capable of running wild, and Clayton Thorson has the ability even if we’re still trying to figure out who his best go-to options are in the passing game.

But Northwestern has yet to face a team like this Wisconsin group. Yes, that trip to Durham that resulted in an absolute crushing of a loss is looking slightly more excusable because Duke is still undefeated. But playing like that on the road again is not going to do anything for the Cats. The Badgers have what still appears to be the best offense in the conference after Iowa was able to keep Penn State away from the end zone through much of the night last Saturday. It would be pretty surprising if Northwestern’s defense was able to slow down Jonathan Taylor after the way Duke quarterback Daniel Jones ran all over the Cats a few weeks ago. And if Alex Hornibrook is throwing the way he did in Wisconsin’s blowout win over BYU? Look out.

The best hope for the Cats might be a running back shootout between Jackson and Taylor, but the Badger defense doesn’t look like a side that will allow that to happen. Wisconsin’s allowed just 30 points in its three games. This one has the makings of another big win for the Badgers.

The pick: Wisconsin

Maryland at Minnesota, 11 a.m., FS1

Minnesota has not played anyone of significance yet (sorry Gary Andersen), which makes P.J. Fleck’s crew a bit of a mystery heading into Big Ten play. But here’s the thing: Maryland is decimated. This is nowhere close to the same Terps team that piled up points on Texas in Week 1. Maryland’s top two quarterbacks are now out for the season with injuries, meaning the No. 3 guy on the depth chart, Max Bortenschlager, will have to figure out a way to get the Terps down the field against Big Ten defenses. That proved mighty difficult against a good UCF team last week, when the typically prolific Maryland rushing attack was held to just 42 yards and the team failed to reach the 200-yard mark on offense.

There’s not too much I can say about Minnesota coming off a 3-0 non-conference run other than if the Gophers are as good as they were pegged to be in the preseason — and the last two wins, by a combined score of 82-17, have indicated they might be — then they could be well on their way to that very possible 8-0 start.

The pick: Minnesota

Indiana at No. 4 Penn State, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

The Hoosiers have some experience giving Big Ten contenders a run for their money in 2017 after doing it to Ohio State in the season-opener. Penn State looks to be a significantly different animal than Ohio State at the moment, not bothered by those offensive issues that the Buckeyes had in that game down in Bloomington at the end of August. A month later, you’d have to figure Indiana will try to stick to a similar playbook: Get the ball to Simmie Cobbs.

That’ll be easier said than done, of course, as Penn State’s defense has quietly been as good as its high-octane offense. Iowa’s 19 points a week ago were a season high allowed by the Nittany Lions’ defense, which has pitched two shutouts in four games. Meanwhile, Indiana’s defense, though improved from seasons past, still ended up surrendering 49 points in that game against Ohio State, despite J.T. Barrett’s early game struggles. That spells bad news going up against a Penn State offense that has two of the best players in America, Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley, fresh off memorable performances against Iowa.

And, if you’re down on Penn State after last week’s nail-biter against Iowa, remember that game was on the road. The Lions are back in the friendly confines of Happy Valley for this one, where they’ve outscored opponents 141-14 in three games there this season.

The pick: Penn State

Iowa at Michigan State, 3 p.m., FOX

It will be very interesting to see how Iowa responds following last week’s gut-wrenching loss to Penn State. I though the Hawkeyes looked mighty impressive in that game despite the result. The defense allowed a lot of yardage but not a lot of points and kept the Nittany Lions to just one touchdown up until the game-winner with no time left on the clock. Josey Jewell kept playing incredibly, and he’s the conference’s defensive player of the year through a third of the season.

I’ve been really impressed with Iowa overall through it’s 3-1 start, with the Hawkeyes playing really well on both sides of the ball. Their offensive success behind first-year starter Nathan Stanley has been especially fun to watch. He’s got 12 touchdowns and just one interception through four games.

Michigan State, meanwhile, has not been anywhere near as impressive in a 2-1 start, getting absolutely crushed — at home, I should add — in last weekend’s first real test against Notre Dame. The Irish are proving to be a pretty good team themselves despite their own struggles against Georgia, but Sparty never had a chance in that game. I don’t know if Iowa is better than Notre Dame or not, but the Hawkeyes' defense and offense seem better than what Mark Dantonio’s sending out there. Two straight home losses would make 2017 start to look a lot like 2016 for the Spartans.

The pick: Iowa

No. 11 Ohio State at Rutgers 6:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

The Buckeyes have had the perfect opportunity to put an end to the offensive troubles that cost them that game against Oklahoma, winning back-to-back blowouts against Army and UNLV. And because of it, even with all the talk around the offense being broken, Ohio State leads the conference in total offense, averaging almost 550 yards a game. Those are some big numbers.

And a date with Rutgers shouldn’t change that. The Knights are their usual selves of late, even though they had a good showing in the season-opener against Washington. Since, they’ve lost to Eastern Michigan — which had never beaten a Power Five team before — and fell from ahead to lose to a reeling Nebraska team. Rutgers’ defensive numbers actually aren’t bad on the year, but does anyone think the Knights put up a fight against the Buckeyes? Especially after the Buckeyes finally got their legs under them?

The pick: Ohio State

Illini play freshman quarterback Cam Thomas for first time, but still fall at Minnesota

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Illini play freshman quarterback Cam Thomas for first time, but still fall at Minnesota

While Saturday's trip to the Twin Cities featured some more of the same for the Fighting Illini, it marked important step in Lovie Smith's rebuilding project.

Freshman quarterback Cam Thomas, a Marian Catholic product, saw action for the first time in his collegiate career, Smith busting out a new option at the game's most important position. Thomas threw a nasty pick six, but he did lead Illinois in rushing in a 24-17 loss at Minnesota.

Thomas only made four throws, completing two of them and landing a third in the hands of a Minnesota defender, but his play injected a bit of excitement into what's looking like another dreadful season of Illinois football, with Smith's team falling to 2-5 through the first seven games of his second season at the helm of the program. Thomas mostly starred with his feet Saturday, rushing for a team-high 79 yards in the defeat.

His first appearance came following the first of the Illinois' defense's three takeaways. Thomas ran for a nine-yard gain on his first carry, and the Illini tied the game with a touchdown on the next play. Thomas was interchanged with starting quarterback Jeff George Jr. from there on out.

While the Illini defense kept the Gophers at bay for much of the day thanks to those three takeaways, P.J. Fleck's team had no trouble racking up rushing yardage, finishing with a whopping 292 rushing yards. Minnesota engineered a 12-play, 75-yard drive in the fourth quarter exclusively running the ball to break a 10-all tie and go up 17-10.

Thomas threw a pick six on the very next play from scrimmage, sending the Gophers up 24-10 to effectively seal the deal. George led an Illinois touchdown drive on the next possession, but the Illini couldn't make up the suddenly big gap in the limited amount of time.

Illinois finished with only 282 yards of offense. George was 18-for-23 for 128 yards and a touchdown. Ra'Von Bonner carried the ball 18 times for 57 yards and a touchdown.

The defeat dropped the Illini to 2-5 on the season and 0-4 in conference play. One of just two teams without a Big Ten win (Indiana is the other), Illinois faces off against a top-10 Wisconsin team next weekend.

Big play from Justin Jackson sets up Northwestern's overtime win over Iowa

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Big play from Justin Jackson sets up Northwestern's overtime win over Iowa

Justin Jackson is one of the top 10 rushers in Big Ten history for a reason: He's very, very good at this football thing.

But it was a big play Jackson made not as a ball-carrier but as a pass-catcher Saturday that set up Northwestern's second straight win, a 17-10 takedown of Iowa in Evanston.

Jackson took a pass from quarterback Clayton Thorson and went all the way down to the 1-yard line, picking up 23 yards and shedding multiple tacklers on the game's biggest play.

Two plays later, Thorson plunged in for the go-ahead score. Iowa failed on a fourth-down conversion attempt on its ensuing overtime possession, ending it with a dropped pass that finished the game.

The game's result rapidly altered the social-media conversation, which moments prior had been mighty critical of Pat Fitzgerald, who made a controversial decision at the end of regulation.

Iowa tied the game at 10 on a field goal inside of two minutes to play, forced to kick after a false start was committed on fourth and 1. Fitzgerald had a minute and a half and two timeouts to try to get his own team into field-goal range for a shot at a win but instead ran the clock out and headed to overtime.

Fitzgerald explained after the game that the blustery wind at Ryan Field played a big role in that decision, plus his team had a long way to go against an Iowa defense that played well throughout the game.

Northwestern's defense was very strong, too, holding Iowa to 312 total yards, only 89 of which came on the ground. Hawkeyes quarterback Nathan Stanley was also picked off in the second half for the game's only turnover.

Jackson finished with 93 rushing yards and 38 receiving yards. Thorson was 21-for-36 passing the ball for 192 yards. Backup running back Jeremy Larkin scored the Wildcats' lone regulation touchdown.

The win improved Northwestern to 4-3 on the season and 2-2 in Big Ten play. After a 2-3 start, the Cats have won back-to-back games and take on a ranked Michigan State team next weekend.