Big Ten

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

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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 5 college football top 25 rankings

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See how they stack up: Week 5 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 5 in the books, here’s my top 25.

1. Clemson (5-0)

Marching into Blacksburg against a Virginia Tech D that hadn’t allowed a rushing touchdown, Clemson scored two, part of a 31-point night in which its own D shone with three takeaways, including a pick six.

2. Alabama (5-0)

Bama is amazing. And its schedule will allow that to continue, with Auburn the only ranked opponent left. So maybe every game will look like Saturday’s 66-3 mauling of Ole Miss.

3. Oklahoma (4-0)

The Sooners were off this weekend. They’re tuning up to go undefeated in October: Iowa State, Texas, Kansas State, Texas Tech. Let Baker Mayfield’s Heisman campaign ratchet up.

4. TCU (4-0)

The Frogs were off this weekend, no doubt prepping for next weekend’s huge Big 12 matchup with West Virginia. Here’s to 1,000 points being scored in that game.

5. Penn State (5-0)

It took the Lions just one quarter to completely run away from Indiana. Saquon Barkley had 107 rushing/receiving yards, but the highlight was his 98-yard kick-return TD to open the game. Dude’s good.

6. Georgia (5-0)

So the Dawgs are pretty darn fantastic, going up on Rocky Top and blanking the Vols in a 41-0 shellacking. The Georgia defense took the ball away from Tennessee four times. That’s not fake news.

7. Wisconsin (4-0)

It wasn’t the smoothest of sailing, but the Badgers stayed undefeated with a win over Northwestern. Wisconsin trailed at halftime, but a near-perfect third quarter on both sides of the ball locked in the win.

8. Washington (5-0)

Though I still submit Washington’s schedule has been really soft, it’s outscored its five opponents 220-54. That scoring defense ranks right up there with all these other top-of-the-line teams.

9. Miami (3-0)

I was very impressed by the Canes dominating previously undefeated Duke. The Devils were averaging more than 40 points a game coming in, and the Miami defense kept them out of the end zone.

10. Michigan (4-0)

The Wolverines were off this weekend, allowing Jim Harbaugh to go diving while wearing khakis.

His form is questionable, but his defense remains terrific and will face an unexpectedly 3-1 Michigan State team next weekend.

11. Washington State (5-0)

There weren’t many stories bigger than Wazzu’s upset of USC on the Palouse. Mike Leach and Luke Falk run a hell of an offense, but how about that Cougs defense? Big reason they’re still undefeated.

12. Ohio State (4-1)

Yeah, this is still that same Ohio State team that demolishes opponents — especially when that opponent is Rutgers. A 56-0 throttling ought to keep the Buckeyes in those title discussions.

13. Oklahoma State (4-1)

It was almost back-to-back losses for the Boys, who got a late tie-breaking touchdown run — plus 376 yards and three touchdown passes — from Mason Rudolph to sneak out of Lubbock with a win.

14. Auburn (4-1)

Since the post-Clemson scare against Mercer, Auburn has smoked Missouri and Mississippi State by a combined 100-24 score. More of the same coming against Ole Miss, LSU and Arkansas?

15. Virginia Tech (4-1)

I feel like you can’t blame anyone for losing their undefeated season to Clemson at this point. It happens every week. I fully expect the Hokies to still be good, but you just can’t beat Clemson right now.

16. Florida (3-1)

An eye-popping performance from Florida this weekend. I guess Vandy’s defense was never that good, as the typically low-scoring Gators exploded for 38 points. But of course there’s some more QB drama.

17. West Virginia (3-1)

The Mountaineers were off this weekend, resting up after scoring at least 56 points in three straight games. Think that streak comes to an end next weekend against that TCU defense?

18. Utah (4-0)

The Utes were off this week, but keep in mind that they’re one of just three still-unbeaten teams in the Pac-12. Some real tests coming, though, against Stanford and USC.

19. USC (4-1)

Sam Darnold does some impressive things, no doubt about it, and he nearly kept the Trojans undefeated. But he makes a lot of mistakes, too, now with eight picks, second most in the country.

20. Louisville (4-1)

While everyone was paying attention to other things, Louisville trucked Murray State, with Lamar Jackson racking up 349 passing/rushing yards and four total touchdowns. Ho hum.

21. Notre Dame (4-1)

The Irish went over 500 yards of offense in their blasting of Temple. They’ve scored 139 points in the three games since the loss to Georgia, two of which were road games against Power Five teams.

22. USF (5-0)

The Bulls dropped 61 points on Saturday! That’s a lot of points!

23. San Diego State (5-0)

Not even a grotesque poke in the eyes could stop Rashaad Penny from racking up triple-digit yardage against Northern Illinois.

SDSU also had an 80-plus-yard pick six, one of three interceptions for the D.

24. North Carolina State (4-1)

Two more sacks for Bradley Chubb in NC State’s win over Syracuse. Should be interesting to see the talented defensive lineman go up against Lamar Jackson next week.

25. UCF (3-0)

In a battle of American unbeatens, UCF crushed Memphis, beating a team that dumped 48 points on UCLA by a 40-13 score. The Knights can pile up the points, man, with 139 of them in just three games.

Maryland (3-1)

What a win for the Terps, taking down previously unbeaten Minnesota on the road behind third-string quarterback Max Bortenschlager, college football’s most fun name to say with a German accent.

Stanford (3-2)

I fully believe Stanford is the best two-loss team in the country, mostly because Bryce Love is absolutely amazing. He went off for a school-record 301 yards and three touchdowns this weekend.

Texas Tech (3-1)

A mighty fine showing from the Red Raiders in nearly upsetting Okie State. Nic Shimonek can sling like any good Texas Tech quarterback should, and maybe the Raiders put some more teams on upset alert.

Oregon (4-1)

The Ducks have the highest-scoring offense in college football. But they also have a head-scratching loss to Arizona State and now a serious injury to starting quarterback Justin Herbert.

Duke (4-1)

The Dukies got destroyed by Miami this weekend, bringing their undefeated start to an end. We’ll see where Duke goes from here. It should be a win against Virginia.

Georgia Tech (3-1)

North Carolina is a shell of itself, but still an impressive blowout win for the Jackets, with TaQuon Marshall and Kirvonte Benson combining for 267 rushing yards.

Northwestern tries late comeback but drops conference opener to Wisconsin

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Northwestern tries late comeback but drops conference opener to Wisconsin

If the preseason prognostications are to be believed, Wisconsin should run away with the Big Ten West.

One game in, the Badgers are on their way.

Northwestern put up a fight, leading at halftime and even staging a late comeback effort, but a mostly dominating performance by Wisconsin in the second half meant an improvement to 4-0 and a win in the conference opener for the team from Madison.

The Wildcats took the ball away three times in the first half and got a lengthy touchdown drive to carry a 10-7 lead into halftime. But it was almost entirely Badgers after the break, a near-perfect third quarter highlighted by an unrelenting pass rush and a pair of touchdowns.

Adding a field goal and a pick six in the fourth quarter, Wisconsin briefly sent this one into blowout territory. But Clayton Thorson threw a pair of touchdown passes in the final five minutes to bring it to a one-score game. Northwestern even got the ball back with a little more than a minute remaining, but the attempt at a miracle comeback was thwarted when Thorson was sacked in the end zone for a game-ending safety.

Wisconsin’s defense stepped up big time after halftime and brought incredible pressure on Thorson, finishing with eight sacks on the afternoon. The Badgers also held the Cats to a paltry 25 rushing yards, the same total that went to star running back Justin Jackson, who carried the ball only nine times.

Meanwhile, Alex Hornibrook rebounded from a bit of a shaky start. After completing 18 of his 19 passes in the Badgers’ previous game, Hornibrook threw two interceptions in the first half but had a better second half, throwing a touchdown pass in the third quarter. Running back Jonathan Taylor had two touchdown carries on the day.

Despite Thorson’s late drives, Wisconsin continues to look like the kind of team that can run over the division and pile up a ton of wins this season. Northwestern’s 14 fourth-quarter points were the first Wisconsin’s defense allowed in the second half this season, but it was still a very impressive performance from that side of the ball.

The Badgers have outscored their opponents 163-54 in their four wins this season.

Northwestern dropped to 2-2 on the season with the loss and is still struggling to put together much offensive consistency. The offensive line has a lot to do with that, as exhibited by Wisconsin’s sack total and the meager rushing total. Jackson has now been effectively silenced in two of the Cats’ four games this season, something that cannot happen if Northwestern expects to win games.

And, as Pat Fitzgerald pointed out after the game, only scoring three points off those three first-half turnovers was a huge development.

Northwestern gets no time to rest, as a brutal 1-2 punch to start conference play continues next weekend with another top-10 team, Penn State, in Evanston.