Big Ten

Turtle power: Ten big things from the weekend in Big Ten football

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USA TODAY

Turtle power: Ten big things from the weekend in Big Ten football

Well that was fun.

Week 1 of the college football season was a five-day smorgasbord of entertaining games that included the biggest upset of all-time (per the pregame point spread), the second biggest comeback of all-time and the first-ever season-opening matchup between the Nos. 1 and 3 teams.

That, of course, is all without even mentioning the Big Ten, which had a tremendous opening week, turning in a fun conference opener way back on Thursday before a 10-2 non-conference weekend.

The bad news is it's over for a few days. The good news is we get three more months of this!

Oh, and you now get to read the 10 big things from the weekend in Big Ten football.

1. Maryland throws sand in the Eyes of Texas

Maryland might not be the Big Ten’s best team after one week of the 2017 college football season, but the Terps did have the most impressive victory, going into Austin and dumping 51 points on the heads of the Texas Longhorns. The obvious national reaction was that Texas, ranked 23rd at the time, was nowhere near as good as folks thought it’d be and that Tom Herman — Urban Meyer’s former offensive coordinator at Ohio State — face planted hard in his first game as the Horns’ head coach. And certainly those things are true.

But let’s dole out some credit to the Terps, who continued upon last year’s on-the-rise vibe by landing one of the biggest wins of the season’s opening weekend. That Maryland offense looked terrific, whether it was Tyrrell Pigrome or Kasim Hill under center. And Ty Johnson, who quietly had himself a great 2016 season, ran all over what looks to be a bad Texas defense. The play of the game? Jake Funk's fourth-quarter touchdown run to clinch the win, responding after the Horns stormed back to within three points.

On the road and against a high-profile program, it was Maryland’s biggest win in a long time. And, in what you’ll see is a trend as you read on, the bottom part of the Big Ten is establishing itself, at least early on, as anything but the punching bag it’s been in recent years. The division schedule is still brutal, and one win over Texas isn’t going to suggest that Maryland is going to win 10 games or anything like that. But DJ Durkin has clearly done a very good job in a very short time in steering this program in a much better direction.

2. The Michigatrix: Reloaded

No Big Ten team looked better in Week 1 than Michigan, something that actually was a bit of a surprise considering the talent coming back at places like Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin and the amount of talent that left Ann Arbor this offseason. The Wolverines were replacing 10 starters on the defensive side of the ball — and plenty on the offensive side, too — and yet dominated a 17th-ranked Florida team, looking every bit a College Football Playoff contender in the process.

Jim McElwain’s Florida teams have been known for their inability to generate much offense, and that was certainly the case again Saturday. But that really didn’t take too much away from how impressive this reloaded Michigan defense was, as the Wolverines kept the Gators to just 192 total yards, 11 rushing yards and only three points (Florida’s other 14 points in the game were scored on defense). Michigan held Florida to just nine first downs and just two third-down conversions and made both of the Gators’ quarterbacks look inept. And the Wolverines did all that with 10 new defensive starters on a neutral field against a top-20 team!

There was little reason to doubt that Jim Harbaugh’s tremendous recruiting over the past two cycles would keep a depleted Michigan team in the mix. But did anyone expect the Wolverines’ defense to pick up where it left off a season ago, when it was one of the best units in the country? I thought it’d take a little longer than right out of the gate.

That’s not to say Michigan is problem-free. A whole offseason didn’t seem to bring a resolution to the quarterback situation, with Wilton Speight throwing pick sixes on back-to-back passes, getting replaced by John O’Korn and then going back in when O’Korn wasn’t much better. There were two missed field goals, meaning freshman kicker Quinn Nordin’s Groza Award isn’t quite locked down yet, even though he made two kicks from 50-plus. And really Michigan should’ve scored a lot more points. It’s kind of surprising that for as dominant as the Wolverines were they only won by 16.

But all that aside, the Wolverines through one week are the Big Ten’s best-looking team.

3. Ohio State’s offense is fixed? Kind of? Maybe? Not yet?

If you only watched only the first 40-ish minutes of Ohio State’s season-opening bonanza against Indiana, you might think the Buckeyes are still plagued by the same problems that caused that 31-0 embarrassment against Clemson in the College Football Playoff. It also means you missed the third-quarter Shyamalan twist where it was revealed that Ohio State is every bit the behemoth we thought it’d be.

In a bit of a replay of last season, when the Buckeyes took flack for their offense not always being in tip-top, best-in-the-country shape, Ohio State struggled through the first two and a half quarters at Indiana, only to wind up with a great big pile of offensive numbers and an even bigger pile of points in a blowout win. J.T. Barrett and his receivers looked badly out of sync to start the game, but he ended up with more than 300 passing yards and three touchdown throws. The Ohio State offensive line wasn’t too impressive at first, but true freshman running back J.K. Dobbins was electric, finishing with 181 yards. Parris Campbell made a horrendous drop in the end zone but redeemed himself greatly with a 74-yard touchdown play and 136 receiving yards.

See? It all worked out fine.

You can definitely argue that things should’ve gone a lot smoother for Ohio State. Indiana impressed that night, but the Hoosiers are still far from the class of the conference. New Buckeyes offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson had all offseason to gameplan against the team he coached last season, and it took him and his players more than a half to finally get things going.

But in the end this was a blowout win for Ohio State in which it dominated the second half. College football and the Playoff selection process is always about splitting hairs, but in the season’s first week, what more could you have asked for?

4. Saquon Barkley, your seat at the Heisman table is waiting

While Big Ten powers like Ohio State and Wisconsin took more than a half to get going in their respective season-openers, Penn State throttled Akron and dominated from start to finish. The 52-0 rout was what was expected from the reigning conference champs, of course, and we’ll learn a lot more when the Nittany Lions take on the Pitt Panthers on Saturday.

What we already knew was that Saquon Barkley is amazing. And he was amazing again Saturday, rushing for 172 yards and two touchdowns, also adding 54 receiving yards on just three catches. Barkley had a fantastic 30-yard touchdown run and almost had a career-long 87-yard scoring scamper that was shortened to an 80-yard dash when officials ruled he stepped out of bounds. And in true Barkley fashion, there were a couple hurdles in there for good measure.

Barkley picked up right where he left off a season ago, and the weekly tracking of his Heisman candidacy can officially begin with a bang — especially when a couple other preseason favorites like USC quarterback Sam Darnold and Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen struggled in their season debuts. Barkley entered the season as the country’s consensus best running back, and nothing happened in Week 1 to suggest that isn’t the case.

5. Oh, hello, Iowa defense

One of the bigger surprises in the conference — for me, anyway — was Iowa’s defensive performance against Josh Allen and Wyoming. It seemed like a real tough Week 1 matchup for a group of Hawkeyes that had plenty of mystery surrounding it heading into 2017, going against a guy folks are hyping as a potential No. 1 draft pick.

Well, Iowa made Allen look every bit like a Mountain West player going against a Big Ten defense, limiting the Wyoming offense to just 233 total yards and keeping it out of the end zone entirely. Allen was just 23-for-40 with 174 yards and two interceptions. So either the draft hype was way off the mark or the Iowa defense played great. I’ll say it’s a mix of both.

Certainly Josey Jewell was predictably awesome, racking up 14 tackles, including two sacks of Allen, and winning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors.

The Hawkeyes looked all right on offense, too, with new quarterback Nathan Stanley throwing three touchdown passes and returning, playmaking running back Akrum Wadley rushing for 116 yards in the 20-point blowout. But that defense was the most impressive part of Iowa’s day, creating four turnovers and effectively silencing what was expected to be a challenging opponent. Bravo, Kirk.

6. So is Indiana good or what?

Much like Ohio State’s night in Bloomington was a tale of two halves, so too was the case for Indiana. The Hoosiers hung with and actually played better than the Buckeyes for about 40 minutes of action until the scarlet and gray turned on the jets and streaked away from the crimson and cream.

One thing’s certain: that Indiana looked a heck of a lot better that night than it had in seasons past. That, of course, means that Kevin Wilson’s explosive offense was fine and good but didn’t mean a lick if there was no defense to go with it. Tom Allen revamped that defense a season ago, making the Hoosiers a tad more competitive, and it looked even better last Thursday night. And still the offense was functioning at high capacity at times, with Richard Lagow made to look fantastic by his receivers, led by Simmie Cobbs, who made some truly unbelievable catches.

In the end, what does all that matter, though, if Indiana still lost by four touchdowns? That’s a good question. What it seems to indicate is that the program is improving, something that can be said after one week for several of the Big Ten’s lower-tier groups. Maybe the conference schedule is too tough to ratchet up the win total. But that’s as good a Week 1 showing as you can have in a 28-point defeat. If that’s a thing.

7. The Mike & Mike Show down in Champaign

While Illinois’ escape of a win against a Ball State team that went 1-7 in the MAC last season was pretty ugly in most aspects, there were a few very promising highlights in that game. And two of them are named Mike.

The first was undoubtedly wideout Mike Dudek, who is finally back on the field after two straight spring ACL tears wiped out his 2015 and 2016 seasons. And excitingly, perhaps even shockingly, he picked up right where he left off. Dudek made a spectacular catch for the Illini’s first touchdown, leaping and grabbing the ball around the arm of a defender. He caught and ran for a 30-plus-yard gain in the second quarter that helped set up a field goal. And his 52-yard punt return in the fourth quarter was the play of the game, setting up the late go-ahead touchdown. Dudek’s electric play was back from three years ago, when he was one of the best receivers in the Big Ten. He only caught four passes Saturday, and the Illini would be wise to get him the ball as much as humanly possible.

The second was backup running back Mike Epstein, who scored the other two Illinois touchdowns. He was given the ball 11 times, which was three more than starter Kendrick Foster, and racked up 54 yards on the ground, plowing in from short distance for both those scoring rushes. Epstein also accumulated 32 receiving yards, giving him a very fine 86 total yards in his first game at the college level.

The Illini offense generally didn’t look great, considering it had the ball for almost half the time Ball State did. The defense was even shakier, allowing Ball State to march on several long drives. But the amount of youth on the field for Illinois was staggering, and that can be looked at as a good thing, in a way. It means Lovie Smith is recruiting players that give the team a better chance to win than the players who were there when he arrived. Progress?

8. Northwestern’s 1-2 punch looks good, even in shaky win

Before the weekend, Northwestern looked like it had the stuff to win a whole bunch of games this season and challenge for a Big Ten West title. That could still be the case, but there was a lot to be concerned about watching the Cats’ narrow escape against visiting Nevada. Missed opportunities in the red zone, dropped passes and missed kicks have been problems for multiple seasons now and didn’t go away during the Cats’ first game of 2017.

But what also didn’t go away was the tremendous consistency of Justin Jackson and the continued improvement of Clayton Thorson. The 1-2 punch at running back and quarterback was the No. 1 reason for high hopes in Evanston, and those two guys delivered in a big way Saturday. Jackson was as consistent as ever with 109 yards. Thorson was downright terrific with a career-high 352 passing yards, two touchdown passes and a couple fourth-quarter touchdown runs in the final five and a half minutes that ended up the difference what was a much closer game than it was expected to be.

Nothing was perfect, of course. Nevada did a decent job bottling up Jackson despite his production. And for the high number of pretty passes that Thorson threw, he had a few clunkers, including a nasty interception that set Nevada up in the red zone in the fourth quarter. But the bigger problems lie elsewhere and with the strange intangibles that keep making the Cats repeat the same mistakes year after year. (What is with this team and missing field goals?)

Week 2’s matchup with Duke should be very interesting. The Blue Devils dropped 60 points in their season-opening win.

9. Purdue shows something … 

As alluded to a couple times already, it was a good weekend for the bottom of the Big Ten, even if that means there were a couple losses among the conference’s lower-level programs. Purdue was particularly impressive, giving 16th-ranked Louisville and defending Heisman winner Lamar Jackson everything they could handle on Saturday night in Indy.

How about the Boilermaker defense forcing three fumbles — including two at the goal line and probably another the officials didn’t give it that should’ve been a touchback — and holding the Cardinals to 13 points through the game’s first 40-ish minutes? I didn’t know they had it in them. Jeff Brohm must’ve performed one heck of an XFL pump-up speech.

Of course, Purdue didn’t win, and its quarterbacks were as much to blame for giving away the lead as they were for helping to build it in the first place. David Blough didn’t start but played a lot and got picked off twice. One was a pick six that went back 60-plus yards. Another was on a horrible flea flicker during which Tim Brando used the word “chicanery.” Elijah Sindelar did start and then came back at the end, also throwing an interception. So Brohm has a quarterback problem on his hands.

But that’s as good a showing Purdue has put on in recent memory and should be lauded.

10. … and so does Rutgers!

Also worthy of trumpets is Rutgers. Yes, that Rutgers, which somehow, some way tested eighth-ranked Washington — a team that made last year’s College Football Playoff. The Knights actually had a lead at one point and hung around admirably, mostly thanks to their defense, which even in the end held the Huskies to just pedestrian numbers.

And so it’s another one of those lower-tier Big Ten programs showing some marked improvement in Week 1 of the 2017 season. Chris Ash’s Rutgers team was downright awful last season, but here we are one game into this season and things are looking up. Something I did not expect to say about Rutgers after facing a top-10 team.

Bonus: And the rest!

— Nice work by Michigan State, having no trouble blowing out Bowling Green in its opener. Easy wins have been a rarity over the past calendar year for Sparty, which even last season only beat FCS foe Furman by 18.

— Wisconsin played a near-identical game to Ohio State, tied at 10 with Utah State at halftime only to outscore the visitors 49-0 after the break. Alex Hornibrook threw three touchdown passes, Bradrick Shaw and Jonathan Taylor each had more than 80 rushing yards, and the Badger defense allowed just 10 points and came away with four turnovers.

— Minnesota ain’t rowing the boat quite yet, narrowly winning P.J. Fleck’s debut over a Buffalo team it should’ve pounded. Count this as portaging the boat. Or something.

— Nebraska’s defense allowed 36 points to Arkansas State, which is not a good sign. But the Huskers might have a new star running back on their hands in Tre Bryant, who rushed for 192 yards in the opener.

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

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USA TODAY

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.