Neither Northwestern nor Michigan made a bowl game a season ago. This year, though, their matchup is a battle of two top-20 teams.
Behind a pair of the nation’s best defenses, the Cats and Wolverines meet Saturday in Ann Arbor in not just the best game on the Big Ten slate but perhaps the best game on the national slate, as well.
Last year’s meeting was an ugly affair, a 10-9 win for Michigan in Evanston in which both teams struggled so mightily that the game came down to an atrocious failed two-point conversion attempt.
This season’s game might also end in a low score, but it will be because of two insanely good defenses rather than teams that can’t get out of their own way. Will the Cats move to 6-0? Or will Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines emerge 5-1 and a sudden contender for a conference championship?
Here’s a look at that clash and the rest of this week’s Big Ten schedule. All games on Saturday, and all times Central:
Maryland at No. 1 Ohio State, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network
The Terps are in a total nosedive, and this might be the last game Randy Edsall coaches for Maryland. Multiple Thursday reports indicated that Edsall is likely to be fired, with one saying it could come as soon as after Saturday’s game. While you don’t wish job loss upon anybody, Maryland has been bad so far in 2015, ranking 95th in the FBS in scoring defense (31.8 points per game) and 99th in scoring offense (23.6 points per game). And that’s not mentioning the quarterback chaos, with any one of Caleb Rowe, Daxx Garman or Perry Hills getting the start this week following another interception-filled game form Rowe last week.
The Buckeyes, meanwhile, could really use a breakout game, and hosting the conference’s worst-performing team provides an opportunity for just that. It’s not to say that things didn’t go well the last two weeks. Ohio State has scored a combined 72 points in wins over Western Michigan and Indiana. Ezekiel Elliott rushed for a career-high 274 yards and three touchdowns last week. But the Hoosiers came within fourth-and-goal of tying things in the final minute, much too close for comfort for the defending champs. The Buckeyes need to soothe panicking fans and observers with a blowout, and this week, they should get one.
The pick: Ohio State
[MORE BIG TEN: Reports: Terps expected to fire Randy Edsall]
Indiana at Penn State, 11 a.m., ESPN
That Hoosiers loss to the aforementioned Buckeyes might have been a loss, but it was about as quality as a loss can get. Indiana remains just two wins away from bowl eligibility. The problem this week, though, will be the injuries to the team’s best offensive players. Quarterback Nate Sudfeld and running back Jordan Howard remain game-time decisions after both left last week’s contest and didn’t return. Their backups played well, with Zander Diamont and Devine Redding combining for three touchdown runs. But if Indiana is going to get those two more wins, it’ll need Sudfeld and Howard.
Penn State is dealing with its own injuries to offensive stars. Running backs Saquon Barkley and Akeel Lynch missed last week’s game, turning an offense that finally found its spark back into one that struggled to create separation against a weaker opponent. Army nearly caught Penn State by the end of that game, and it can be in part chalked up to Barkley’s absence. The true freshman had four touchdowns in his previous three games before sitting out last week. The Lions’ defense has again been strong, but either Christian Hackenberg needs to figure things out or Barkley needs to get back on the field in a hurry.
The pick: Penn State
Illinois at No. 22 Iowa, 11 a.m., ESPN 2
The Hawkeyes have looked stellar through five weeks, all of which ended with an Iowa victory. Last week, the Hawkeyes’ previously potent offense scored just 10 points but came away with a win over the rival Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium. Up against the excellent Wisconsin defense, Iowa’s offense wasn’t as prolific as it was through its first four games. But the defense played exceptionally well, something we weren’t aware it could do against a good team, keeping the Badgers out of the end zone, forcing four Joel Stave turnovers and getting great performances from Drew Ott and Desmond King. A strong offense, a strong defense, and Iowa’s looking like one of the teams to beat in the Big Ten West.
The Illini had their own huge win last weekend, beating Nebraska with a game-winning touchdown drive in the game’s final minute. The offense played poorly through much of the game, but when it needed to, it came up with gargantuan plays, with Wes Lunt pitching a 50-yard pass on that drive to set up a game-winning touchdown toss to Geronimo Allison with 10 seconds left. But the victory was totally fueled by a sensational defensive effort. A defense that’s been scorched over the past two seasons ranks in the top 25 in the country in scoring and held previous Big Ten leading passer Tommy Armstrong to 10 completions for 105 yards last week. Both teams have played well this season, but Iowa has the offense-defense combination to stay undefeated.
The pick: Iowa
No. 13 Northwestern at No. 18 Michigan, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
The game of the week pits the country’s top two scoring defenses against one another. Northwestern is No. 1, allowing seven points a game. Michigan is No. 2, allowing 7.6 points a game. The Cats are coming off a sensational shutout performance over Minnesota, limiting that floundering offense to nothing on the scoreboard, creating turnovers and scoring a defensive touchdown. Meanwhile, the Wolverines haven’t allowed a point in eight quarters, posting back-to-back shutout wins over BYU and Maryland. Northwestern probably has more playmakers — with guys like Anthony Walker, Dean Lowry and Matt Harris, among others, off to great starts — but both squads play outstanding team defense, the key in smothering opponents the way they have.
So it’ll come down to which offense can do, well, anything against these incredible defenses. Michigan has had more success in that department, with Jake Rudock finding his footing at quarterback after an interception-heavy start. De’Veon Smith’s health will certainly be key, as he missed last week’s game. That’s not to say there aren’t other playmakers in the Michigan backfield, but Smith has been the best this season. Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson is still a freshman, and it shows at times, though Pat Fitzgerald called last week’s game Thorson’s most consistent of the year. Justin Jackson is the conference’s third leading rusher right now, averaging 127.2 yards per game. That’s terrific, and it shows how old school this game could end up being: defense and running the ball to win.
It’s been heartbreaking loss after heartbreaking loss for Northwestern in this series for the past few years with late Hail Marys, sliding last-second field goals and that missed two-point conversion burying the Cats in almost unbelievable fashion. And while Harbaugh has his Wolverines playing extremely well, Northwestern’s defense has just looked out of this world.
The pick: Northwestern
Wisconsin at Nebraska, 2:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN 2
The Badgers certainly had their issues in the 10-6 loss to the Hawkeyes, and it’s certainly a game Wisconsin could’ve won if not for the Joel Stave turnovers, all four of them. But the Badgers managed to still look impressive in that loss, despite not scoring a touchdown. Wisconsin’s defense is the backbone of this year’s team, and it’s playing extremely well, the No. 4 scoring defense in the country. It prevented Iowa, which had scored a ton of points in four previous wins, from doing much damage on the scoreboard and created its own turnovers. Injuries are crippling the offense right now, with Corey Clement sidelined, Alex Erickson concussed and Austin Traylor now out. It puts a lot of pressure on Stave’s shoulders, though against a Nebraska defense that can’t stop shooting itself in the foot, he seems in line for a bounce-back game.
About that Nebraska defense. Another unbelievable last-second loss for the Huskers last week at Illinois. It would seem at first blush like fluke after fluke, but there’s plenty wrong about this team right now. From a pass defense that can’t get it together — it snapped its string of 300-yard days but gave up a monster completion at the worse possible moment against the Illini — to Tommy Armstrong and his inaccurate passing to Mike Riley and some concerning coaching decisions. The Huskers can’t get out of their own way right now, and against a defense as elite as the Badgers’ that’s a problem.
The pick: Wisconsin
Minnesota at Purdue, 2:30 p.m., ESPN U
The Big Ten has plenty of teams with problems. We’ve already discussed Maryland and Nebraska. And then there’s Rutgers, in its own category. But Minnesota certainly belongs on that list. The Gophers’ offense has been the worst offense of any Power 5 conference team when it comes to scoring points, and only Hawaii ranks below Minnesota in the entire FBS in that department. It’s the players who aren’t on the field who are having the biggest impact, though, with the Gophers unable to figure out what to do without NFL’ers David Cobb and Maxx Williams. Plus, the team will be without eight starters (on both sides of the ball) this weekend against Purdue. After a 27-0 blowout loss to Northwestern sent the Gophers to 3-2, could things get worse before they get better?
It’s possible. And it’s because Purdue is coming off a near upset of Michigan State. The Spartans deserve ample blame for nearly blowing a three-touchdown halftime lead, but give the Boilers some credit, too. David Blough has certainly been better than Austin Appleby, and Markell Jones could be the answer in the backfield. Purdue is just 1-4 and can’t be elevated from bottom-feeder status until it wins some more games. But there’s perhaps some promise where there was none before. Or perhaps last week was just a fluke. It’s Purdue, so who knows?
The pick: Purdue
No. 4 Michigan State at Rutgers, 7 p.m., Big Ten Network
The Spartans were bumped from No. 2 to No. 4 after a win last week, but it’s an understandable move when you consider the near loss to Purdue. Michigan State hasn’t exactly been playing like a College Football Playoff contender since that big Week 2 win over Oregon, but it is winning and is still undefeated, which really in the end is all that matters. Injuries are piling up for the Spartans, both along the offensive line and in the defensive backfield, and that’s major cause for concern, considering the team’s been relatively injury free during its past two runs to big-time bowl wins. Thankfully, this weekend provides an opportunity to score some style points, as Rutgers is in complete disarray.
The Scarlet Knights are coming off a bye week and get top receiver Leonte Carroo back from his suspension after an assault charge against him was dropped. But will that be enough for the Knights to challenge the Spartans? It’s doubtful. Even though Connor Cook has looked anything but one of the country’s best quarterbacks this season, he should be able to feast against a Rutgers defense that allowed a total of 65 points in losses to Penn State and Washington State.
The pick: Michigan State