Big Ten

Wisconsin rolls on: Ten big things from the weekend in Big Ten football

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USA TODAY

Wisconsin rolls on: Ten big things from the weekend in Big Ten football

1. What, Wisconsin worry?

Wisconsin is still on course for that table-running everyone was so excited about the possibility of before the season started after beating Northwestern on Saturday. It wasn’t the prettiest win, with the Cats on top at halftime and then staging a late comeback attempt that sliced a blowout down to a one-possession game in the final minutes. But the Badgers cranked up the defense during a dominant third quarter to get a big enough lead to hang onto for their fourth win in four games.

While that third quarter was 15 minutes’ worth of the impressive Wisconsin team we saw during the first three games, the single-digit margin of victory and the season-high in points allowed makes you wonder whether the Badgers will be able to win out and roll through the Big Ten West as expected.

Certainly rolling through the Big Ten West shouldn’t be a problem, as believed challengers like Iowa and Minnesota and even Northwestern had huge setbacks this weekend (and the prior, in Iowa’s case). Nebraska’s in a bad state, and Illinois and Purdue are still Illinois and Purdue. The game circled on the calendar remains Michigan on Nov. 18 in Madison.

I wouldn’t worry too much about one nine-point win being a negative sign of any kind. Alex Hornibrook wasn’t the near-perfect quarterback he was against BYU, but he straightened things out in the second half and made some big plays. Jonathan Taylor Touchdown kept earning his nickname, too, with a pair of rushing scores. And that defense, oh that defense. It was an onslaught of pass-rushers in Clayton Thorson’s face, and Wisconsin limited Northwestern (and star back Justin Jackson) to a paltry 25 rushing yards.

The Badgers are going to be just fine.

2. Give Saquon Barkley the Heisman right now

Saquon Barkley continued barnstorming toward the Heisman with another big day in Penn State’s runaway win over Indiana. Barkley rushed and received for a combined 107 yards, but it was other stuff that made the highlight reels.

He returned the game’s opening kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown.

And he threw a 16-yard touchdown pass.

And he made a one-handed catch before juking someone out of their shoes.

The guy is unbelievable, and while there are plenty of great players around the country — Bryce Love at Stanford, Baker Mayfield at Oklahoma, Mason Rudolph at Oklahoma State to name a few — Barkley has played head and shoulders above all of them.

3. Don’t look now, but Buckeyes have best offense in Big Ten

Remember when everyone was freaking out about Ohio State’s offense? Maybe they still are? Well they should calm down because the Buckeyes have the best offense in the conference, averaging 42.6 points and 564.8 yards per game. Only four teams in the country are putting up more yards per week: Three of them are in the offense-happy Big 12 and the fourth has reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson.

It’s well worth pointing out that outside of Oklahoma, an upsetting home loss in which Ohio State scored just one touchdown, the Buckeyes have blitzed inferior competition, beating Indiana in Week 1 and Army, UNLV and Rutgers since that Week 2 defeat. This weekend, the Buckeyes jacked up their numbers by steamrolling the Scarlet Knights, winning 56-0 and racking up 628 total yards. Goodness.

Whether the offensive woes from the first couple games have been completely exorcised remains to be seen. After all, can we judge Ohio State on what it’s done in three runaways against Army, UNLV and Rutgers? No. But for a team that was taking so much heat for its offensive struggles, these numbers are off-the-charts great. It’s not a dissimilar situation form last year, when the Buckeyes’ offense was constantly bemoaned, only for them to put up big numbers nearly every week.

Of course, in the only week that truly ended up mattering, against Clemson in the College Football Playoff, the offense was awful. Same goes for the Week 2 loss to Oklahoma. Let’s just say that the Oct. 28 game against Penn State will be mighty important in finally settling this.

4. My son is also named Bortenschlager

How bout dem Terps?

Already with a couple strong performances this season, chiefly that win on the road at Texas, Maryland got maybe its biggest win Saturday — due to the fact that it was down to its third-string quarterback. Starter Tyrrell Pigrome was lost for the year in the Texas game, and the same fate befell Kasim Hill in a loss at UCF. Enter Max Bortenschlager, who led Maryland in a win over Minnesota in the Twin Cities.

Bortenschlager threw two touchdown passes and rushed in for another score as the Terps moved to 3-1 on the season and scored an impressive road victory over a team that was supposed to compete for a division title this year.

The key play was the game-winning touchdown scamper by Ty Johnson, a 34-yard dash that was part of another big rushing day for Maryland — something the Terps always need if they’re going to come away with a win. But Bortenschlager didn’t turn the ball over, and for DJ Durkin’s team to do what it did against previously undefeated Minnesota is mighty impressive.

5. Didn’t see that coming, Sparty

After Michigan State’s lukewarm start to the season and Iowa impressing through a 3-1 beginning to the campaign, the Hawkeyes seemed a logical pick to win Saturday despite going on the road. Well, instead, it was kind of a dominating performance by the Spartans, who held the Hawkeyes to just 226 yards and one trip to the end zone. Iowa only picked up 19 — 19! — rushing yards and fumbled the ball away twice.

Outside of the prior weekend’s 20-point blowout loss to Notre Dame, Michigan State has been pretty darn good at holding opponents to low scores, allowing just 34 points total in its three wins over Bowling Green, Western Michigan and Iowa. Those two MAC wins were expected, but the Hawkeyes had been rolling strong behind quarterback Nathan Stanley and running back Akrum Wadley. Not so Saturday, as the Spartans held Stanley to 16-for-31 passing for 192 yards and no touchdowns and Wadley to 17 carries for just 30 yards (he also had a touchdown).

That Michigan State defense is back, huh? Sparty ranks third in the conference — behind top-10 Michigan and Wisconsin teams — in total defense, allowing 248.3 yards per game.

6. Where’s Justin?

Northwestern wasn’t supposed to go up to Camp Randall and stage an upset of a top-10 Wisconsin team, but despite the halftime lead and late comeback try, this was more evidence of a team that’s pretty well removed from what was expected before the season started. And there have been few examples of that more glaring than the up-and-down production from star running back Justin Jackson.

In half of the Cats’ four games, Jackson has been a non-factor, and unsurprisingly the Cats lost both of those games. Jackson had just seven carries for 18 yards in the blowout loss at Duke. He had just nine carries for 25 yards Saturday in Madison.

This isn’t to say this is Jackson’s fault. Playing from behind means an increased likelihood to throw the ball. And the Northwestern offensive line has noticeably struggled, as evidenced by the team’s minuscule rushing numbers and quarterback Clayton Thorson being constantly pressured by the Wisconsin pass rush.

But you’d think that Northwestern would want to feed its best player, a guy who entered the season as one of the best players in the Big Ten. I’m sure they do want to do that, but that hasn’t happened in the two games the Cats have lost.

7. The Illini offense is … 

Abysmal. It might not come as a surprise that the Illinois offense hasn’t been able to do much of anything. But boy that was an ugly performance Friday night against Nebraska, the second straight such performance by an Illini team that’s now 2-2 on the campaign.

No team in the Big Ten is scoring fewer points than the Illini, who are averaging 17.8 per game. No team in the Big Ten is accumulating fewer yards than the Illini, who are averaging 267.3 per game. They have the worst total offense of any Power Five team, and only three teams nationally are averaging fewer yards. Florida State and Boston College are the only Power Five teams scoring fewer points.

Friday, a Nebraska defense that couldn’t stop Arkansas State and that got beat by Northern Illinois (though 14 of NIU’s 21 points in that game came on pick sixes) kept Illinois out of the end zone and held it under 200 yards. The Illini couldn’t do anything offensively, and if that’s a harbinger of things to come, then Big Ten play will go much like it did in 2016.

Lovie Smith is already taking steps to correct this stuck-in-the-mud offense, giving Chayce Crouch the heave-ho as the team’s starting quarterback. That likely means Jeff George Jr. will be the new starter after he had some success in relief of Crouch in the loss to USF. Cam Thomas, a freshman, is an option, too.

8. Ne-back?-ska

No, Nebraska is not back just because it beat up on Illinois. That was the easy part for the Huskers, off to a rocky start that led to the firing of athletics director Shawn Eichorst. Wisconsin and Ohio State in the next two weekends is the hard part.

It’s hard to imagine the Huskers will win either of those two games. But Friday night’s win over the Illini can’t help but be a positive step for a team that was reeling just a few weeks back. Bob Diaco’s defense, which was shredded by the likes of Arkansas State and Oregon, clamped down on Illinois’ ineffective offense. That’s a confidence builder if nothing else.

Again, it might take until Purdue at the end of the month for Nebraska to get its fourth win. A 3-4 start isn’t going to cool down Mike Riley’s hot seat. But a win is a win, and the Huskers now have two of them in Big Ten play.

9. Rutgers’ Big Ten record

This is Rutgers’ fourth season in the Big Ten, and the program’s conference record is not good. The numbers got worse Saturday thanks to Ohio State’s 56-0 crushing. Let’s check in on the Knights’ cumulative Big Ten totals.

In four three seasons plus two games, Rutgers has a 4-23 record in Big Ten play. They’ve been outscored 1,055-439 and have been shutout six times.

So that’s not very good.

10. Jim Harbaugh jumped into a pool

Michigan didn’t play Saturday, but somehow Jim Harbaugh still grabbed headlines. Why? He jumped into a pool.

This guy.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 11 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (9-1)

The Sooners probably won’t be No. 1 in the Playoff rankings, as the committee will almost surely move Bama up a notch. But OU has an incredible resume, one much better than the Tide’s, with wins over Ohio State, TCU and Okie State. No one in the country can compete with those wins.

2. Miami (9-0)

The Canes are too legit to quit after pulverizing Notre Dame on Saturday night. That signature win teamed with the prior week’s win over Virginia Tech makes that near loss to lowly North Carolina seem like forever ago. Welcome to Miami, indeed.

3. Alabama (10-0)

A great win on Saturday night by the Tide in what seemed like their first actual game of the season. The schedule has been soft as silk, but now Auburn’s status as an SEC juggernaut makes the Iron Bowl a colossal clash.

4. Georgia (9-1)

Knocked off the top of the college football mountain, the Dawgs still deserve to be in the Playoff field, just a one-loss team with that one loss coming to another top team and that still-excellent win at Notre Dame. The resume’s still there, but now the SEC title game will be for all the marbles.

5. Wisconsin (10-0)

Bucky’s sitting pretty after making Iowa look like an FCS team on Saturday — especially impressive considering what Iowa did the week prior. Expect Michigan and Minnesota to provide decent enough challenges, but it seems like Wisconsin’s set up for a Big Ten title-game date with Ohio State.

6. Clemson (9-1)

Miami is the king of the ACC, but thankfully the ACC title game looks to be a Playoff play-in game between the Tigers and Canes. The champs still have as good a shot at this thing as anyone.

7. Auburn (8-2)

Two-loss Auburn in the Playoff? It’s not crazy at all after what the Tigers did to Georgia on Saturday, destroying the No. 1 team in the country and setting up what will be another titanic Iron Bowl meeting with Bama.

8. Notre Dame (8-2)

The Irish’s Playoff hopes sank like a ship in Biscayne Bay thanks to the demolition Miami dolled out on Saturday night. ND’s resume is still fine — two losses to two Playoff-caliber teams. But with no conference title to play for, a two-loss ND team might as well be a six-loss ND team.

9. Ohio State (8-2)

Guess who's still lurking in the Playoff race? It seemed Brutus was dead as could be after getting woodshedded by Iowa last weekend, but then Ohio State put a whooping on Michigan State and everyone’s ears perked up again. Appearing destined for the Big Ten title game, things could get interesting.

10. TCU (8-2)

The Frogs will most likely still get a crack at a Big 12 title — and revenge on the Sooners, who picked em apart on Saturday — but the Playoff might be out of the cards now.

11. Oklahoma State (8-2)

You know who’s still really good despite having losses to the two top teams in the Big 12? Okie State. That was some game between the Pokes and the ‘Clones on Saturday. If only the Mullet could be unleashed on the Playoff. Alas.

12. USC (9-2)

Dramatically overrated in the last batch of Playoff rankings, the Trojans now seem to be the cream of the unimpressive Pac-12 after Washington’s loss. All sorts of madness would have to occur in order for USC — or any Pac-12 team — to land in the final four.

13. Penn State (8-2)

Great job beating up on Rutgers this weekend, Penn State. Now what? With games against Nebraska and Maryland left, will any preseason favorite (outside Florida State, of course) get less attention down the stretch than the Lions?

14. UCF (9-0)

Central Florida is that Group of Five team this year. If it beats USF in the regular-season finale, people you know will be like, “Why shouldn’t UCF be in the Playoff?” And you’ll just have to give them a look and walk away.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Wazzu has to win one game and it’ll play USC for a Pac-12 title. Despite the lack of Playoff stakes, the Cougs winning a conference championship would be a pretty big deal.

16. Washington (8-2)

Of course, standing in Wazzu’s way is Washington, which tripped up against Stanford and could follow up last year’s Playoff appearance with absolutely nothing.

17. NC State (7-3)

The ACC and SEC seemed to have flipped roles overnight. The once-mediocre SEC now has three playoff-caliber teams and a couple other decent ones. The once-awesome ACC now has two of the best teams in the country and then … NC State.

18. Mississippi State (7-3)

The Bulldogs put up one heck of a fight against Bama on Saturday, and if it wasn’t for that ridiculous sequence of play-calling following Bama’s missed field goal, they might have won. Oh well.

19. LSU (7-3)

LSU beat Arkansas on Saturday, which isn’t a terribly difficult thing to do. 2017 will go down as a “what if” year for the Bayou Bengals. As in, what if they hadn’t lost to Troy?

20. Stanford (7-3)

Two of Stanford’s losses have come against ranked teams. It’s now beaten Washington and could beat Notre Dame in two weeks. It has one of the best running backs in America. So shouldn’t Stanford be better?

21. Memphis (8-1)

Since losing at UCF, Memphis has rolled everyone, winning five straight by an average of 47.8-27.2. Good job, Memphis.

22. Arizona (7-3)

The Wildcats are 7-3 this season and have scored at least 45 points in every one of those wins. That includes last weekend’s win over Oregon State, in which Khalil Tate ran for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Dude's good.

23. Northwestern (7-3)

Meow. The Cats are winners of five straight, even if their overtime streak came to an end. The quest for a 9-3 finish is on, with only Minnesota and lowly Illinois left on the regular-season schedule.

24. Michigan State (7-3)

Two losses in three weeks for Sparty, who got absolutely steamrolled by Ohio State this past weekend. Michigan State will likely be rooting for Michigan in The Game as it would figure to wrap its regular season with wins over Maryland and Rutgers.

25. West Virginia (7-3)

The ‘Neers have only lost to Virginia Tech, TCU and Okie State, which is not too bad. But that’s a couple losses too many in the high-flying Big 12.

Others receiving votes:

Virginia Tech (7-3)

Things have bottomed out for the Hokies, who have lost back-to-back road games to Miami and Georgia Tech after a 7-1 start. Without the loss to the Jackets, Virginia Tech’s resume would look real nice. But alas.

Iowa State (6-4)

There was almost another Attack of the ‘Clones this past weekend in a thriller with Okie State. But the Pokes came out on top, sending Iowa State to its fourth loss. That dream Big 12 title game featuring the ‘Clones? A fantasy. Sigh.

Michigan (8-2)

Michigan only has two losses, which means it has to be kinda good, right? Well, it’s lost its only two games against ranked teams and its best win is Florida, so … no, I guess not.

South Florida (8-1)

Way to beat UConn, South Florida.