Written by: TJ Inman (@TJHoosierHuddle)
Penn State at Northwestern – Noon on ESPNU
The Northwestern Wildcats were 5-0 and they had just thumped the Minnesota Golden Gophers. The Cats were flying high as they rolled in to a showdown in the Big House against Michigan. Michigan returned the opening kick for a touchdown and the route was on. Northwestern lost 38-0 and then were blown out by Iowa, 40-10. They rebounded with a nice win two weeks ago at Nebraska but their defense surrendered 28 points. They now sit at 6-2 (2-2) but significant questions about this once-elite defense must be asked and the offense ranks as one of the worst in the B1G (111th in the country).
The Wildcats now play host to the 7-2 Penn State Nittany Lions. PSU obliterated Illinois, 39-0, last week and their defense is now statistically on-par with Northwestern’s. The difference between these two teams is that Penn State’s offense has actually shown some life in recent weeks and they are now up to 59th in offense (S&P+). Northwestern is more susceptible against the run than they are against the pass (37th vs. 8th) and that should play into the hands of Penn State’s Saquon Barkley. Barkley is averaging 6.6 yards per carry with 108 carries on the season. While PSU will be looking to feed Barkley, they have some weapons at wide receiver and a quarterback that has looked pretty good in recent weeks. Hackenberg’s best target is Chris Godwin (17.2 yards per catch) but he can also find DaeSean Hamilton or Geno Lewis for big plays. This isn’t likely to be an incredibly high-scoring game but I think the Penn State offense is far more capable of connecting on big-plays than Northwestern’s offense is. The Wildcats can’t rely on Clayton Thorson to win the game with his arm so Penn State will try to force him to do so by taking away his ability to scramble for big plays and by limiting Justin Jackson.
Illinois at Purdue – Noon on BTN
The Purdue Boilermakers (2-6, 1-3) host the Illinois Fighting Illini (4-4, 1-3) and look to try and do something they have yet to do under head coach Darrell Hazell: win two games in a row.
The Boilers took advantage of back-up quarterback Ryker Fyfe and forced five turnovers as they knocked off the Nebraska Cornhuskers last Saturday. The Illini enter the game on a three-game losing streak after falling to Iowa, Wisconsin and Penn State. The PSU defeat was particularly concerning as they were blown out, 39-0. The defense is ranked 13th by the S&P+ formula but the offense is one of the worst in the B1G. Wes Lunt has been underwhelming and they’ve suffered without Josh Ferguson’s ability to make big plays out of the backfield. Purdue will try to continue forcing turnovers and putting its offense into advantageous positions (they started four drives inside the red zone against Nebraska). I’m not sure what to expect from this one. Did Purdue turn a corner and begin to find some answers against Nebraska or was that merely the byproduct of a former walk-on starting at quarterback and gift-wrapping multiple scores for the Boilers?
The Illini can notch their fifth win of the season with a victory in West Lafayette (remaining games are OSU, at Minnesota and Northwestern so a “W” is a must for bowl eligibility purposes).
Iowa at Indiana – 3:30 on ESPN
Hoosier Huddle will have comprehensive coverage of this game, both before and after kick-off. Stay tuned for the “Primer”, “Numbers to Know” and “Know Your Opponent” pieces and be sure to listen to our preview podcast (being recorded on Wednesday at 11 am).
Wisconsin at Maryland – 3:30 on BTN
Don’t look now but the Wisconsin Badgers (7-2, 4-1) offense is getting healthy and rounding into form. The Badgers have now quietly gained more than 400 yards in four straight games (Nebraska, Purdue, Illinois and Rutgers). After spending the first few weeks of the season languishing in the bottom third of the S&P+ offensive rankings, the Badgers are now ranked 55th. The rushing attack is still not dominant but it looked much, much better with Corey Clement back as the starter. In his first game back after sports hernia surgery, Clement carried the ball 11 times for 115 yards (10.5 yards per carry) and three touchdowns. In total, Wisconsin ran the ball 38 times for 209 yards and five touchdowns. I don’t expect Clement to continue to run the ball for more than 10 yards per carry but he is much better than Dare Ogunbowale or Alec Ingold or Taiwan Deal (who missed the Rutgers game) and he should receive more carries going forward and he works his way back into game-shape. While the running game was sputtering, the Badgers have developed their passing attack. Joel Stave is playing pretty well and Alex Erickson has turned into a legitimate number one target. The Badgers should have another successful outing this Saturday as they take on the porous Maryland (2-6, 0-4) defense. The Terrapins are allowing 33.8 points per game (99th in the country) and they’ve given up more than 30 in four of the past five games. The running of quarterback Perry Hills could present some issues for this Wisconsin defense but the Badgers have been playing “D” at a very high-level and that doesn’t appear likely to change on Saturday.
Wisconsin needs a couple of slip-ups from the Iowa Hawkeyes if they are to win to the West once again. Even if that doesn’t occur, it looks like the Badgers have a very realistic chance to win double-digit games yet again. This is a top-notch program and I have nothing but respect for what they have built in Madison.
Rutgers at Michigan – 3:30 on BTN
Is it time to worry a bit if you are a fan of the Michigan defense? The Wolverines (6-2, 3-1) defense is still one of the best in the country. However, they are no longer playing at a historic level and the past two weeks have been their worst (by far).When considering the level they were playing at for the first six games of their season, it’s no surprise they would find themselves “trending down” at some point and I do expect them to turn things back around in short order but still, the past two weeks have been interesting and are worth noting.
We all know that Michigan State beat the Wolverines thanks to a miracle final play but the Spartans put up 386 yards in that game (largely due to 328 passing yards). Last week, a previously sputtering Minnesota offense racked up 461 yards. That included 317 passing yards from Mitch Leidner and 144 rushing yards. The Gophers needed one more yard to get the win but the performance of Michigan’s defense was surprising. I’m not entirely sure what the issues have been but I noticed that Michigan wasn’t doing nearly as good of a job at tackling as they allowed more yards after contact than I have previously seen from them. They also had multiple broken coverages and missed assignments that gave Leidner large windows to throw into. Michigan takes on the woeful Scarlet Knights of Rutgers this Saturday. If they give up 400+ yards again, it will officially be time to “worry” about this unit.
Michigan State at Nebraska – 7:00 on ESPN
The Michigan State Spartans first chance to impress the selection committee after their initial ranking of 7th was unveiled on Tuesday night comes this Saturday as Sparty travels to take on the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
The Michigan State Spartans roll into Lincoln, Nebraska at 8-0 and fresh off of a bye week. While the Spartans haven’t been elite on defense (only 36th in the country), they have cranked up their passing offense and have scored at least 24 points in each of their games this season. In addition, the two weeks of rest should help heal up a battered offensive line as they hope to get All-B1G center Jack Allen back from injury.
Meanwhile, the Nebraska Cornhuskers enter this matchup at 3-6 (1-4) after a shocking performance, and defeat, at Purdue. Fighting for bowl eligibility is something Nebraska isn’t used to but that’s the boat they find themselves sinking in this season and injuries aren’t going to make things any easier on Saturday as wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El is out for the season with a leg injury, wide receiver Brandon Reilly is questionable with turf toe, Daniel Davie is questionable with a dislocated finger and top running back Terrell Newby is questionable with an ankle injury. The Huskers should have quarterback Tommy Armstrong back from an ankle injury but it’s doubtful he’ll be 100%. Nebraska is surrendering 28.1 points per game and they are a woeful 76th against the pass and they’ll again be without the services of top corner Michael Rose-Ivey. In short, Connor Cook is not the guy Nebraska fans want to see tossing the pigskin around against their defense.
At this point in the season, there’s not much sense in going back to the non-conference slate to review statistics. However, if we go back to the start of B1G play, we see that Nebraska has played a slew of poor offenses and still managed to give up quite a few passing yards. Illinois threw for 251 yards, Wisconsin threw for 322, Minnesota tossed it around for 301 yards, Northwestern’s anemic passing attack managed 177 and last week, Purdue threw it for 274 yards. None of those quarterbacks are even close to Connor Cook. Cook has 31 wins as a starting quarterback, tied for the most in the nation (Kevin Hogan of Stanford is the other), and I expect him to play a large part in getting his 32nd victory on Saturday night. Cook has thrown for more than 325 yards each of the past three games (367 against Rutgers, 328 against Michigan and 398 against Indiana). I think he’ll hook up with Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings Jr. repeatedly. We’re now in the month of November so I guess you could say I expect him to “feast” on this secondary for another game of more than 300 yards. In addition, the Spartans should have running back Madre London from an injury. He can pair with LJ Scott and Gerald Holmes to provide some balance to this offense.
If Armstrong is healthy, Nebraska should be able to exploit a suspect MSU secondary and score some points. Jordan Westerkamp continues to have a sparkling junior season and Stanley Morgan made some nice plays against Purdue. The Huskers have some weapons but if they are without Pierson-El, Reilly and Newby, their offense will be severely damaged and I don’t expect them to be able to produce more than 21 to 24 points. I project MSU to easily outpace that and, as a result, I think the Spartans keep their College Football Playoff hopes alive for another week.
Minnesota at Ohio State – 8:00 on ABC
The Ohio State Buckeyes are 8-0 (4-0) and appeared to be rounding into form. They are ranked third in the initial College Football Playoff standings and they should be well-rested after their bye week. However, the Buckeyes will be without starting quarterback JT Barrett after he was suspended for operating a vehicle while intoxicated. Barrett should return to the lineup after this one-game suspension but for now, Cardale Jones re-enters the huddle as the starting signal-caller. He’ll be trying to operate against a pretty good Minnesota (4-4, 1-3) defense but this Gophers team has been through a lot of emotional adversity in the past couple of weeks and it’s hard to know where they will be mentally. The Golden Gophers were shockingly good on offense against Michigan last week but they somehow managed to lose anyway. If they can’t rebound quickly, they’ll be a big hole that they can’t climb out of in Columbus.