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

1021-cam-thomas.jpg
USA TODAY

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

While Saturday's trip to the Twin Cities featured some more of the same for the Fighting Illini, it marked important step in Lovie Smith's rebuilding project.

Freshman quarterback Cam Thomas, a Marian Catholic product, saw action for the first time in his collegiate career, Smith busting out a new option at the game's most important position. Thomas threw a nasty pick six, but he did lead Illinois in rushing in a 24-17 loss at Minnesota.

Thomas only made four throws, completing two of them and landing a third in the hands of a Minnesota defender, but his play injected a bit of excitement into what's looking like another dreadful season of Illinois football, with Smith's team falling to 2-5 through the first seven games of his second season at the helm of the program. Thomas mostly starred with his feet Saturday, rushing for a team-high 79 yards in the defeat.

His first appearance came following the first of the Illinois' defense's three takeaways. Thomas ran for a nine-yard gain on his first carry, and the Illini tied the game with a touchdown on the next play. Thomas was interchanged with starting quarterback Jeff George Jr. from there on out.

While the Illini defense kept the Gophers at bay for much of the day thanks to those three takeaways, P.J. Fleck's team had no trouble racking up rushing yardage, finishing with a whopping 292 rushing yards. Minnesota engineered a 12-play, 75-yard drive in the fourth quarter exclusively running the ball to break a 10-all tie and go up 17-10.

Thomas threw a pick six on the very next play from scrimmage, sending the Gophers up 24-10 to effectively seal the deal. George led an Illinois touchdown drive on the next possession, but the Illini couldn't make up the suddenly big gap in the limited amount of time.

Illinois finished with only 282 yards of offense. George was 18-for-23 for 128 yards and a touchdown. Ra'Von Bonner carried the ball 18 times for 57 yards and a touchdown.

The defeat dropped the Illini to 2-5 on the season and 0-4 in conference play. One of just two teams without a Big Ten win (Indiana is the other), Illinois faces off against a top-10 Wisconsin team next weekend.

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

1002_wisconsin_badgers.jpg
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.

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

0925_saquon_barkley_again.jpg
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