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

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

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

But what about Minnesota?

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

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

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

Friday, Sept. 29

Nebraska at Illinois, 7 p.m., FS1

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

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

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

The pick: Illinois

Saturday, Sept. 30

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

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

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

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

The pick: Wisconsin

Maryland at Minnesota, 11 a.m., FS1

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

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

The pick: Minnesota

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

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

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

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

The pick: Penn State

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

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

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

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

The pick: Iowa

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

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

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

The pick: Ohio State

Penn State's big finish: Ten big things from the weekend in Big Ten football

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Penn State's big finish: Ten big things from the weekend in Big Ten football

Anyone else still emotionally recovering from Saturday night's Penn State-Iowa game?

That ending was one for the ages, a signature win if not on the resume at least in memory for the Nittany Lions, who went into Kinnick — where highly ranked teams haven't fared too well recently — and miraculously pulled out a last-second victory.

Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley are the conference's stars of stars after that effort, and Iowa still managed to impress, even in defeat.

Of course there's plenty of Lions and Hawkeyes in the 10 big things from the weekend in Big Ten football.

1. McSorley magic

What. A. Finish.

You couldn’t have scripted a more entertaining final few minutes in Penn State’s incredible win over Iowa. The Hawkeyes blocked a field goal, then went 80 yards in three plays for a touchdown in less than a minute, only for Trace McSorley to lead the Nittany Lions right down the field and throw a game-winning touchdown pass with no time left on the clock. Amazing.

McSorley was the star of that final drive, completing seven passes for 68 yards and of course that insane final play, when he threaded a pass past three defenders and another one of his receivers before connecting with Juwan Johnnson. Those plays are the stuff legends are made of, and McSorley is becoming that kind of player in a hurry in Happy Valley.

The guy was by no means perfect Saturday, 31-for-48 for 284 yards, that touchdown and an interception. But is there any quarterback in the conference you’d rather give the ball to than McSorley? Of course it helps when you’ve got … 

2. Super Saquon

There is no better player in college football than Saquon Barkley. Period.

The Penn State running back is a freak of nature, he’s an unstoppable force that is impossible for opposing defenses to contain. Saturday night in Iowa City, when the Iowa defense actually did a decent job on the whole, allowing just one touchdown before the game-winner as time expired, Barkley racked up a jaw-dropping 358 all-purpose yards: 211 rushing yards on 28 carries, 94 receiving yards on 12 catches and 53 kick-return yards on three returns.

He’s impossible to tackle, weaving and bruising his way through defenses — and that’s without mentioning that the guy hurdles someone once a week!

Barkley has to be the Heisman favorite right now, up there with Big 12 quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph. He’s racked up 853 rushing and receiving yards in just four games. He’s also just a thrill to watch.

Penn State didn’t play a perfect game by any stretch on Saturday. But they have two of the best players in the Big Ten, and because of it they could be in for a very special season.

3. Michigan’s dominating defense

It’s quite apparent that the Michigan offense is not very good. But the Michigan defense, on the other hand, is very, very good.

Watching the Wolverines try to score points against Purdue on Saturday was a challenge, even if they found some more success after Wilton Speight was injured and replaced by John O’Korn. But the defense is a completely different story, and it looks as if that side of the ball could allow Michigan to win any game for the remainder of the season.

Michigan allowed just 10 second-half yards to Purdue on Saturday. Think about that!

While you knew because of Jim Harbaugh’s recruiting success that a reload would be possible, it’s still kind of shocking that the unit is this good despite having to replace 10 starters from a year ago.

Michigan’s offense might not be inspiring any confidence in a run at a title, but the defense sure should be.

4. Impressive in defeat

Iowa’s defense looked a lot better than the final statistics indicated Saturday night against Penn State. The Hawkeyes allowed 579 total yards, so says the box score, but their defense played well enough to keep the Lions to one touchdown before that game-winner at the very end. Josey Jewell also picked off Trace McSorley and recovered a McSorley fumble, continuing his fantastic start to the season.

On the other side of the ball, Nathan Stanley threw two more touchdown passes and didn’t throw a pick. Akrum Wadley had 155 rushing/receiving yards and two total touchdowns, both coming in the fourth quarter. Iowa's doing work on offense this season, which is something I didn't think I'd be saying two months ago.

So, no the Hawkeyes didn’t win, and they lost in a pretty brutal fashion. But they still look like an impressive team to me, one that if it can hang with the typically explosive top-five team that is Penn State can hang with just about anyone else in the Big Ten.

5. Nebraska responds

The football-related turmoil ain’t going away any time soon for the Huskers, who saw their athletics director fired last week, the casualty after the team’s embarrassing home loss to Northern Illinois.

But this weekend’s win over Rutgers served as a bit of a bounce back, even if beating Rutgers by 10 isn’t the kind of thing that’ll turn down the heat on Mike Riley. This was no dominating performance against the Big Ten’s worst program, but it was a win nonetheless to move Nebraska from 1-2 to 2-2. And a win is what this program needed after back-to-back losses and the firing of Shawn Eichorst.

As mentioned, Riley’s job is nowhere near “safe,” and it’s hard to see some sort of epic midseason turnaround with the likes of Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State still on the schedule — plus losable games against plenty of other conference foes. Who knows what the magic number is to make a determination one way or the other on Riley?

6. Buckeyes back?

If only Ohio State could play Army and UNLV every week, right?

The Buckeyes sure had a great day of practice, if nothing else, in a 54-21 romp of UNLV. The offense that caused so much consternation after the season’s first two weeks was a well-oiled machine, with touchdown passes going to seven different guys, a Big Ten record. J.T. Barrett threw five of those scoring passes, and backup Dwayne Haskins threw two more, actually throwing for more yards than Barrett.

Ohio State could find its season back on track in a hurry with three games coming against Rutgers, Maryland and Nebraska before a Halloween-weekend showdown with Penn State in Columbus that could determine the Big Ten East.

7. Not a big boy quite yet

Purdue’s gonna have to wait to rule the Big Ten, completely stifled in the second half of its loss to Michigan. As unpleasant as the Wolverines’ offense was to watch on Saturday, the Boilers’ wasn’t any better. Of course, that has a lot to do with the Michigan defense, which held the Purdue offense to just 10 yards after halftime, as you might’ve read in some other section of this very post.

Give Purdue props for winning at halftime and maintaining its status as “much better than last year.” The thought that the Boilers might’ve given Michigan a go will carry over into games against Minnesota, Rutgers, Nebraska, Illinois and Northwestern. And maybe we see Purdue rack up some more wins than we’re used to seeing.

8. Knocked off the pedestal

Unfortunately Maryland’s reign as one of the kings of the Big Ten East is over.

The Terps were hammered in a 38-10 home loss to UCF, a Group of Five team that could be the real deal in 2017. Maryland lost another quarterback to injury, Kasim Hill, meaning it was going at it with the third guy on the depth chart, less than ideal. But the Terps’ rushing attack was also bottled up pretty well by the Knights, accumulating only 42 yards on the day.

9. Sparty smashed

You might not guess it looking at the numbers, but Michigan State was crushed in a home loss to Notre Dame.

Brian Lewerke had a monster day, throwing for 340 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for another 56 yards. Sparty racked up nearly 500 yards of offense. But Michigan State also turned the ball over three times, all three leading directly to first-half touchdowns.

10. Give Goldy the ball!

Did you see Goldy Gopher truck a kid during a mascot football game? No? Well here it is.

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

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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