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

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USA TODAY

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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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.