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

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USA TODAY

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

Purdue putting Michigan on upset alert? Week 4 Big Ten previews and picks

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USA TODAY

Purdue putting Michigan on upset alert? Week 4 Big Ten previews and picks

Big Ten play is starting with an unexpected bang.

Yeah, Ohio State and Indiana tussled at the end of August, but now we’re really getting into conference play and who thought we’d be so excited about Michigan-Purdue and Penn State-Iowa?

Give plenty of credit where credit is due, to Jeff Brohm and Kirk Ferentz for getting some surprising results out of their teams early on this season. The Boilers have arguably been the biggest story of the Big Ten through three weeks, capping an intriguing non-conference slate with a 35-3 pounding of Mizzou last weekend, suddenly setting up an upset possibility for big, bad Michigan. Meanwhile, Iowa has looked as good with new quarterback Nathan Stanley as it did with C.J. Beathard, even if the competition hasn’t been world-beaters. Now a matchup with a top-five Penn State team is being talked about as a potential shootout.

I say bring it on! It could be a real fun weekend in the Big Ten, and you can get previews and picks for every game below.

All games played on Saturday, Sept. 23.

UNLV at No. 10 Ohio State, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network

Another good opportunity for the Buckeyes to keep the good feelings going after last week’s course-correcting win over Army. J.T. Barrett, J.K. Dobbins and all of the initialed and non-initialed Ohio State players should have ample opportunity to score points against a UNLV team that allowed 43 in a loss to Howard earlier this month.

The pick: Ohio State

UCF at Maryland, 2 p.m., FS1

Last week felt a little empty without the high-octane Terps on the college football calendar. Maryland has scored 114 points in two games this season. Meanwhile, UCF hasn’t played since Aug. 31, its last two games cancelled due to the recent hurricane that swept through Florida. The Knights put up some points in that game, though, scoring 61 against Florida International. Maybe we’re in for a shootout?

The pick: Maryland

Rutgers at Nebraska, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

The Huskers are in a dire situation all of a sudden, with athletics director Shawn Eichorst fired from his post earlier this week. That cranks up the heat on Mike Riley’s already mighty-hot hot seat. Bottom line is Nebraska is in need of a win, and there’s no better conference foe to get that win against than Rutgers. While a Huskers win usually seems like a safe bet against the Big Ten’s worst program — and a team that gave Eastern Michigan its first Power Five win ever two weeks back — that defense has been horrendous against the likes of Arkansas State, and Tanner Lee couldn’t keep the ball out of the hands of Northern Illinois’ defense last week. There’s no good pick here, but if Nebraska loses, things will go from real, real bad to even worse for that program.

The pick: Nebraska

Georgia Southern at Indiana, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

The Hoosiers are back in action after last week’s game was cancelled due to the hurricane. After the partially good showing against Ohio State and a predictable win over Virginia, Indiana should score an easy one this weekend against Georgia Southern. The Eagles have scored just 19 points in their two games this season, including a 22-12 loss to FCS foe New Hampshire. Blech.

The pick: Indiana

No. 8 Michigan at Purdue, 3 p.m., FOX

This one went from afterthought to much anticipated real quick. Thank the Boilermakers, who went into an SEC stadium last weekend and came away with a dominating 35-3 victory, making this look like a much different program under Jeff Brohm than the one we’ve seen for the past half decade or so. The offense will get deserved hype for its high power. Purdue’s scored 79 points in the last two games. But a defense that kept MIzzou out of the end zone could have a similar effect on a Michigan offense that has struggled mightily so far this season. Taking away all of Wilton Speight’s pass-catchers was going to obviously have an effect, but that side of the ball hasn’t been able to reload as easily as the defense and Speight & Co. look stuck in the mud. The Wolverines definitely have the ability to slow down the Boilers, but can they score any points themselves? While Michigan fans will surely be freaking out if this is a close game — something they might want to get used to this season if the first three performances are any indication — a close one wouldn’t be at all out of the question, which in and of itself should reflect wonderfully on Brohm. That being said, the best unit on the field is the Wolverines’ defense. And remember that David Blough and Elijah Sindelar teamed up to throw three picks in Purdue's season-opening loss to Louisville.

The pick: Michigan

No. 4 Penn State at Iowa, 6:30 p.m., ABC

Here’s another one that might have seemed like blowout material just a few weeks back but since has gained a lot of intrigue. Iowa has been pretty darn impressive through three weeks, 3-0 and riding high thanks to the play of new quarterback Nathan Stanley, who’s thrown 10 touchdown passes compared to just one interception in three games. Akrum Wadley’s been expectedly great, too, and that defense has shone in its two home games, holding Wyoming and North Texas to a combined 17 points. Of course, I’m conveniently leaving out the 44-41 shootout win over Iowa State, a phenomenally entertaining game in which the offense looked great but in which the defense didn’t. And now arguably the most explosive offense in college football comes to town. Penn State has predictably beaten up on its first three opponents, with Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley looking like the Heisman candidates they are. While the Hawkeyes deserve credit for making this one closer than anyone could have thought, the Nittany Lions’ offense seems like too much to handle. For just about any defense.

The pick: Penn State

Notre Dame at Michigan State, 7 p.m., FOX

These two teams played just last season before teaming to go 7-17 in a pair of real disappointing campaigns. Notre Dame has shown it can dominate on the ground and it did just that against a Boston College team that typically has one of the better defenses in the country. That didn’t show last week, though, as the Irish racked up 515 rushing yards. Michigan State’s rush defense numbers are good through two games, but with those wins coming against MAC teams, who knows? Notre Dame has at least played Georgia, albeit with poor results, but Michigan State has done very little to give any indication of what kind of football team it is this season. This seems a complete toss up to me, but I’ll go with the team that’s pounded weak competition vs. the team that’s soundly beaten weak competition.

The pick: Notre Dame

Purdue > SEC: Ten big things from the weekend in Big Ten football

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Purdue > SEC: Ten big things from the weekend in Big Ten football

Choo choo!

The Big Ten better look out because here comes the Purdue train rolling down the tracks.

We'll see if the to-this-point impressive Boilermakers can remain competitive once Jeff Brohm gets his first taste of Big Ten football. But through three games, Purdue has looked a new team and a new program, most recently going on the road and blowing out an SEC team.

So, yeah, Purdue > SEC.

Read on for more about the Boilers and the rest of the 10 big things from the weekend in Big Ten football.

1. It just means more

Allow me and the rest of Big Ten Country some schadenfreude when the Big Ten’s supposedly bottom-feeding program rolls into an SEC stadium and rolls out with a 35-3 blowout win … even if it did come against my alma mater.

While it’s clear the Chase Daniel-Jeremy Maclin glory days are long, long gone at Mizzou, could we be witnessing the dawn of a new golden era of Purdue football? Jeff Brohm has three games under his belt as the Boilermakers’ head coach, and his team has impressed in all of them. First there was the hanging tough with Louisville, followed by a Friday-night beatdown of Ohio and now a shocking 30-point smoking of an SEC team. Holy Boilermakers, Batman!

Sure, the Fighting Tigers are not what they used to be. This is a team that allowed 43 points to an FCS school in Week 1 and fired its defensive coordinator after a Week 2 loss to South Carolina. But Purdue hadn’t won back-to-back games in half a decade. Let that soak in.

With the Purdue defense keeping Mizzou completely out of the end zone, things get real interesting for Week 4’s conference-opener against Michigan, an offense that hasn’t been all that impressive through its first three games. Are the Boilers going to upset the Wolverines? A wild thought that you would have laughed at three weeks ago all of a sudden seems not that impossible.

Boiler. Up.

2. It’s getting hot in Lincoln … so fire your head coach?

Mike Riley’s hot seat is getting real hot. He can thank his hand-picked quarterback for that after Tanner Lee threw a pair of pick sixes in Nebraska’s ultra-embarrassing home loss to Northern Illinois on Saturday. While NIU has made a habit of going into Big Ten stadiums and coming out with shocking wins (four of ‘em in the last five years, to be precise), Nebraska had no business losing this one — and yet it did.

The problems have been myriad over the season’s first three weeks for the Huskers. They were defensively inept in their first two games, surrendering 78 combined points to Arkansas State and Oregon. Then came Saturday’s disaster, in which the offense fell off a cliff and was stopped on two late drives by a MAC team. Lee threw three interceptions in all, including one on fourth down on the team’s final possession, an absolutely abysmal quartet of plays.

And so Riley’s job status is obviously a big topic of conversation this week. Riley’s hiring is not aging well. Made the main man in football-mad Lincoln after a career of middling mediocrity at lowly Oregon State, Riley getting the gig was a bit of a head-scratcher then. And it’s still one now, meaning maybe athletics director Shawn Eichhorst has some blame to shoulder for the state of Nebraska football.

Rutgers and Illinois in back-to-back games to start conference play could turn a sour 1-2 start into a slightly more acceptable 3-2 beginning heading into the Wisconsin-Ohio State gauntlet in early October. But it’s hard to see Nebraska emerging from the other side of that with a better-than-.500 record. Meaning Riley’s seat is going to stay hot.

3. Best way to fix the Buckeyes’ offense

Truthfully, the best way to fix Ohio State’s seemingly broken offense was to play Army. Mission accomplished. A week after getting trucked by an unstoppable Sooner Schooner, the Buckeyes easily dispatched of the Black Knights from West Point. So, problem solved?

It unfortunately won’t be that easy, as the Big Ten doesn’t have too many Army-caliber teams for J.T. Barrett and company to beat up on. But there seemed to be one obvious solution reached in Saturday’s win: Give the ball to J.K. Dobbins. The true freshman running back is already starting over last year’s freshman sensation in the backfield, Mike Weber. Weber’s been a bit banged up at times, which partially explains Dobbins’ ascension, but Dobbins’ play likely did most of the convincing when Urban Meyer was given the possibility of Dobbins topping the depth chart.

Saturday, Dobbins got 13 carries and did incredible work with them, rushing for 172 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Give the kid the ball. Like all the time.

Barrett was back, kind of, after that horror show against Oklahoma, completing all but eight of his 33 passing attempts, racking up more than 300 total yards and accounting for three touchdowns (two throwing, one rushing). He’s now the Big Ten’s all-time leader in touchdowns responsible for, a mouthful of a stat but a remarkable accomplishment, nonetheless. Guy whose record he broke? Drew Brees. Ever hear of him?

4. Lack of offense a reason to panic in Ann Arbor?

Last season’s string of blowout wins? That doesn’t look likely to be repeated by this year’s Michigan team, which through three weeks has an offense that can’t seem to move the ball or produce many points. Problematic, as those are the two main goals of a college football offense.

While Wolverines fans weren’t too enamored with Wilton Speight last season, he’s inspiring little to no confidence without last season’s cadre of pass-catching weapons like Jake Butt, Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. Instead, with a new receiving corps, Speight isn’t doing much of anything. The Michigan offense only accumulated 359 yards in Saturday’s win over Air Force. Through three weeks, the Wolverines rank an unimpressive eighth in the conference in scoring offense.

Now, do these offensive woes mean it’s time to freak out? Not at all, really, because it seems that Michigan’s defense is better than anyone could’ve hoped considering it had 10 starters to replace this season. That defense looks as good as any in the conference right now (it ranks second in the league, allowing 208 yards a game) and seems like it could win any game for the Wolverines.

Michigan is very much in the hunt for a conference title, especially with Ohio State looking so vulnerable. But get used to the reality that if wins start stacking up, they’ll come in sweat-em-out fashion as compared to last year’s blowouts.

5. Cats back!

After a couple of rough showings in the season’s first two games, Northwestern woke up and responded to a beatdown of a loss at Duke last weekend, crushing Bowling Green by six touchdowns on Saturday. Those ugly performances against Nevada (a win) and Duke (a loss) featured a struggling offense. In Week 1, the Cats were trailing in the fourth quarter. In Week 2, the Cats couldn’t do much of anything, with a banged-up Justin Jackson limited to seven carries and Clayton Thorson throwing two picks.

Well, those struggles were distant memories Saturday night, with the Northwestern offense doing just about whatever it wanted under the lights at Ryan Field. Jackson was back to his usual self, rushing for 121 yards and three touchdowns. Thorson was 23-for-30 for 370 yards and two touchdowns, a huge day. As for the preseason mystery of who’d be catching Thorson’s passes? Well, Thorson found a couple go-to guys Saturday: Garrett Dickerson went for 150 yards on nine catches, and Bennett Skowronek caught three passes for 86 yards and two touchdowns.

It might have just been a cleansing matchup against Bowling Green. Back-to-back games against Wisconsin and Penn State will be monumental challenges for this team. But the Cats looked far closer to what was expected in the preseason than what we saw in Weeks 1 and 2.

6. #TraceTheHeisman

Back at Mizzou, we had the phrase “Chase the Heisman” to support the now twice-mentioned Chase Daniel’s Heisman campaign. Well, maybe Penn State should adopt “Trace the Heisman” for its quarterback. While that phrase makes no sense, the notion that McSorley is one of the Big Ten’s more legit Heisman candidates does make some sense.

The Penn State signal-caller — and home run hitter — had another big day in the Nittany Lions’ 56-0 blasting of Georgia State on Saturday. He needed just 18 completions to rack up 309 yards and four touchdowns, also getting into the end zone on one of his three carries. Through three weeks, McSorley has led Penn State’s high-octane offense to the tune of 753 yards and nine touchdown passes, plus a pair of touchdown rushes.

Thing is, McSorley, as it’s well known, might not even be the top Heisman candidate in his own backfield. Saquon Barkley might have rushed for only 47 yards this weekend, but he’s an obvious threat in the passing game and he racked up 142 receiving yards and a touchdown catch. Let’s check in on Barkley’s Heisman resume through three games: 548 combined rushing/receiving yards and five total touchdowns. So, you know, pretty good.

7. Does Wisconsin have the Big Ten’s best offense?

Don’t look now, but the most electric offense in the Big Ten through three weeks belongs to the Wisconsin Badgers, who despite not really playing anyone terrific are blasting every team they come into contact with. You might not have believed your eyes this past weekend, with the Badgers doing work through the air.

While the Wisconsin ground game is the stuff of legend, the passing attack has been hit-or-miss in recent years. Not so Saturday at BYU, with quarterback Alex Hornibrook throwing four touchdown passes in the 40-6 romp. He was nearly perfect, too, completing 18 of his 19 passes.

Combine Hornibrook’s big day with a to-be-expected huge day from a Badger running back — Jonathan Taylor went for 128 yards and a touchdown — and you’ve got an offense that’s racked up 130 points in three weeks. Wisconsin’s offense is tops in the conference and 16th in the country with 511 yards per game.

8. The Illini continue to be young … and that’s about it

Illinois is going through some growing pains. The Illini are a very young team, and their trend of throwing that youth on the field continued this weekend. They started 10 true freshmen in Friday night’s loss to South Florida, breaking a program record set just a week earlier.

Thing is, that youth isn't having much success out there in its first taste of college football. Illinois was throttled by USF, losing by 24 points. A defense that started five true freshmen gave up almost 700 yards of offense. The Illinois offense didn’t fare much better, with starting quarterback Chayce Crouch plucked from the game and replaced with Jeff George Jr.

The point that I’ve been making throughout the season’s first three weeks remains the same: All this youth is a good thing, in that it shows Lovie Smith is recruiting guys who are better than the players who were there when he was hired. But the flip side of that is it takes those guys a while to get their footing. And in the meantime come games like Friday’s — games that haven’t necessarily been rare for the Illini in recent seasons.

9. Is Nathan Stanley already one of the Big Ten’s best quarterbacks?

Iowa’s quarterback position was a big ol’ mystery following the graduation of C.J. Beathard. But Nathan Stanley has solved that mystery in a hurry, and in three games he’s already become one of the conference’s most-productive signal-callers. He threw just nine passes in 2016, but he’s been pretty fantastic during Iowa’s 3-0 start.

The sophomore Hawkeye — who being from Menomonie, Wisconsin, managed to elude both the Badgers and nearby Golden Gophers — leads the conference with 10 touchdown passes in three games. He’s passed for 655 yards and only thrown one interception. And all the while the Iowa offense has kind of been a point-producing machine, scoring 99 points in those three games. That includes the 31 points and two Stanley touchdowns from this weekend’s win over North Texas.

10. No running on the boat

If you’ve yet to be impressed by Minnesota, that’s OK. The Fightin’ Flecks narrowly beat Buffalo in the season-opener and then blew out Oregon State and Middle Tennessee State. But they’re 3-0 and don’t figure to be in a game where they’re a big underdog until at least the end of October.

What you do need to know about the Golden Gophers, though, is that they have a remarkable run defense through three weeks. Again, that level of competition hasn’t been super great. But Minnesota is allowing an average of just 59 rushing yards a game, tops in the conference and fourth in the nation.

And the rest!

— Rutgers bounced back nicely after that embarrassing loss to Eastern Michigan, putting a 65-0 whooping on FCS foe Morgan State.

— Indiana’s game against Florida International was canceled in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

— Michigan State and Maryland were off this weekend. Both remain undefeated.