The first week of Big Ten play is here, and it is opening with quite the bang.
No. 11 Wisconsin heads to East Lansing to take on No. 8 Michigan State, one heck of an opener to the conference season.
Both teams have stellar defenses and playmakers on the offensive side of the ball — and sights on a trip to Indy and perhaps a place in the College Football Playoff.
But first thing's first: this game in Week 4.
Here's a look at all the Big Ten football taking place on this fine September weekend. All games will be played on Saturday, Sept. 24, and all times are Central.
Colorado State at Minnesota, 11 a.m., ESPN U
The Gophers have found some success on the offensive side of the ball through their first two games, and that looks like something that could continue this weekend against the Rams. Minnesota’s scoring surge against Indiana State might have seemed due to the fact that Indiana State is an FCS team. But Colorado State didn’t exactly put up much of a fight in its other game against a Power Five opponent this season, falling in a 44-7 blowout loss to Colorado in Week 1. Good news for the Gophers?
Nevada at Purdue, 11 a.m., ESPNEWS
The Wolf Pack haven’t been terribly menacing on defense this season, one of only two FBS teams to still not have a sack as Week 4 dawns. That could be good news for David Blough, who despite having a horrendous five interceptions the last time he and the Boilermakers took the field has been putting up positive numbers, too, currently leading the Big Ten with 323 passing yards per game through just two contests. Will that be enough, though, to get Purdue a win? Darrell Hazell is 1-9 in non-conference games against FBS opponents.
Iowa at Rutgers, 11 a.m., ESPN 2
A date with Rutgers is just what the doctor ordered for Iowa following that upsetting loss to North Dakota State. While the Bison pack more of a punch than their FCS status would lead one to believe, that was still a game the Hawkeyes should’ve won. They were crushed on both sides of the running game in that one, yielding 239 yards and gaining just 34 yards on the ground. That can’t happen again, and fortunately for Iowa it probably won’t against Rutgers — but the Scarlet Knights do surprisingly rank third in the Big Ten with 229.3 rush yards per game.
Meanwhile, Rutgers needs to stop falling behind early in games if it wants to have any chance of winning some games during conference play in Chris Ash’s first season. While Janarion Grant is a weapon that can strike at any time, the kind of early deficits faced against Howard and New Mexico won’t be able to be erased against the likes of Iowa and the Big Ten’s other powers. Look no further than Rutgers’ Week 1 blowout loss to Washington for evidence of that.
No. 11 Wisconsin at No. 8 Michigan State, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network
The Badgers’ defense has been out of this world through three games, not a surprise after the way that unit has played in recent seasons. Wisconsin ranks first in the Big Ten and 13th nationally with just 261 yards allowed per game, and that includes a game that featured one of the country’s top running backs in LSU’s Leonard Fournette. But the questions for the Badgers come on offense, where a quarterback switch is in the works with Alex Hornibrook replacing Bart Houston as the starting quarterback. Plus, three of the team’s running backs were listed as questionable earlier this week, including star Corey Clement.
All that uncertainty for Wisconsin’s offense should provide an edge for the Michigan State defense, which showed what it could do against a more explosive offense when it shut down Notre Dame for eight straight drives last weekend. Will the Spartans be able to score 36 straight points like it did in that game this time around? That’s unlikely given the quality of the Badgers’ defense. But Tyler O’Connor is proving mighty capable at quarterback, and he has an emerging weapon in the passing game in freshman receiver Donnie Corley.
Penn State at No. 4 Michigan, 2:30 p.m., ABC
Remember when Penn State’s defense got thrashed against Pitt? Yeah, it wouldn’t be surprising to see that happen again this weekend against Michigan. The Wolverines might not have the rushing attack that the Panthers do, but they have been mighty effective in the passing game, with Wilton Speight using his arsenal of Jake Butt, Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson to his advantage. Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett is the only Big Ten quarterback with more touchdown passes than Speight. The Lions rank toward the bottom of the conference, allowing almost four touchdowns’ worth of points a game, while the Wolverines are at the top, averaging a whopping 53 points a game.
The combination of Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley have looked fine for Penn State on offense, but that side of the ball also belongs to Michigan, which has given up just 45 points on the season, or 15 points a game. Throw in Jabrill Peppers as a difference-maker in all phases — he was both the Co-Defensive Player of the Week and the Special Teams Player of the Week in the Big Ten — and Michigan seems to have a big edge in this one.
Wake Forest at Indiana, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
One of the Power Five’s perennial punching bags, the Demon Deacons have flipped that script through three games, 3-0 with a conference win already over Duke. And while the competition hasn’t been amazing by any stretch, Wake has allowed just 38 points on the season, making it one of the top-12 scoring defenses in the country. Indiana’s defense has been surprisingly effective this season, too, in its two wins, only allowing 33 points in two games. The question is whether — or maybe just when — Richard Lagow can unlock the Hoosiers’ annually explosive offense. He had a couple home run balls in the win over Ball State.
No. 20 Nebraska at Northwestern, 6:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
The Huskers are coming off that huge win over Oregon in which the offense looked as good as it did in the previous two games but the defense came up big for Nebraska, too. Tommy Armstrong is one of the best quarterbacks in the conference, if not the country, and he proved it with four total touchdowns last weekend including that clutch 34-yard scamper for the game-winning score. It’s easy to envision him shredding the Northwestern defense, a unit that not only hasn’t played up to the at-times dominating standard it set a season ago but is dealing with injuries that have completely changed the shape of the secondary. But those young defensive backs haven’t shrunk from the challenge, either, playing well in last week’s win over Duke.
One would maybe initially doubt that Clayton Thorson could replicate the 320-yard, three-touchdown performance he had against Duke, and the Nebraska defense would be the main reason why. The Huskers have seven picks on the season, only three FBS teams have more, and Thorson still threw two interceptions last weekend during his big game. But don’t sleep on the Cats’ passing attack completely. Wide receiver Austin Carr leads the Big Ten with 18 catches and 283 yards after last weekend’s monster game in which he hauled in six catches for 135 yards and a touchdown. Finally a big-play receiver at Northwestern? That could change things dramatically, as running back Justin Jackson has been the target of opposing defenses, though he still has 260 rushing yards in three games, second most in the conference.