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

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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

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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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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