Written by: TJ Inman (@TJHoosierHuddle)
Big Ten season is now in full swing. We will take a look at the games going on around the conference.
Army at Penn State - Noon on ESPNU
The Penn State Nittany Lions (3-1) close out their non-conference season with a matchup against the Army Black Knights (1-3) in Happy Valley this Saturday. Army runs a triple-option that would be a problem for many teams but I don’t expect the elite defense of Penn State to be troubled by it. This game is slightly more interesting than you would expect because of the status of running backs Akeel Lynch and Saquon Barkley. Both players left the game against San Diego State and their status for Saturday is currently unknown. Coach James Franklin believes neither injury is season-ending but it’s entirely possible that one (or both) of Barkley or Lynch could miss next Saturday’s game against the Hoosiers. Keep an eye on the Penn State running back situation and whether or not Christian Hackenberg can get traction in the passing game for the second week in a row.
Purdue at (2) Michigan State – Noon on ESPN2
After a successful (if not entirely overwhelming) non-conference campaign, the second-ranked Michigan State Spartans (4-0) open up B1G play by hosting the Purdue Boilermakers (1-3). Michigan State defeated Oregon in the second week of the season and then knocked off Air Force and Central Michigan in somewhat underwhelming victories. The Spartans have the 19th ranked offense and 26th ranked defense and they don’t appear to have a definite weak spot. Connor Cook has been efficient and the emergence of Aaron Burbridge as a big-play threat has been a boon for the offense. Two areas of concern for MSU would be the running game and the secondary. The running back combo of Madre London, LJ Scott and Gerald Holmes has produced only 85.2 yards per game on the ground, they’ll need better from that group in B1G play. The secondary is probably fine but they have some injury concerns and just gave up a lot of passing yards to Central Michigan’s Cooper Rush. I don’t believe Michigan State is actually the second best team in the country but they have earned their spot in the Top 10 and are a very good squad.
Their opponent on Saturday, the Purdue Boilermakers, cannot say the same thing. The Boilers lost to Marshall, Virginia Tech and Bowling Green (two of those at home) and are still looking for their first victory over an FBS team. Purdue switched to quarterback David Blough prior to the Bowling Green game and he played quite well against the Falcons. However, the defense was shredded by Matt Johnson and Purdue failed to take advantage of BGSU mistakes. More concerning is that the running game was unable to produce against a porous and weak run defense. They’ll need DJ Knox and Markell Jones to have a much better day on Saturday to avoid getting waxed in East Lansing. MSU is a three-touchdown favorite for this one and it’s hard to envision Purdue making this one interesting for more than a half or so.
Minnesota at (16) Northwestern – Noon on BTN
The Minnesota Golden Gophers are 3-1 after close non-conference victories over Colorado State, Kent State and Ohio and a defeat at the hands of TCU on opening night. They have a stout defense but an offense that has struggled to produce consistently. In addition, the Gophers have multiple injuries in their wide receivers corps and tight end group that are hampering their passing game. Saturday’s win over Ohio brought even more injuries and, according to Jerry Kill, the Gophers have an “injury list that’s a mile long”. Safety Antonio Johnson and wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky both have concussions, top linebacker Cody Poock has a rib injury, left tackle Jonah Pirsig has a shoulder problem and cornerbacks KiAnte Hardin and Briean Boddy-Calhoun both left Saturday’s contest with injuries. The Gophers will likely head to Evanston without a number of valuable contributors.
Northwestern is dealing with some injury concerns of their own but the Wildcats are 4-0 and have wins over Stanford and Duke already under their belt. The biggest injury problem is probably left tackle Geoff Mogus. Mogus was carted off the field during the Ball State game on Saturday and as of today, Mogus is “out”. Both teams are wounded but Northwestern is dealing with significantly fewer injury problems than the Gophers and I think that’ll make a difference on Saturday. The strength of both squads lies on the defensive side of the ball. According to Football Outsiders, Northwestern has the tenth best defense in the country while Minnesota checks in as the 16th ranked defense. I expect both units to play well but I think the mounting injuries on Minnesota’s D are going to be an issue for the Gophers.
The biggest difference I see lies in the offenses. Clayton Thorson has a lot of potential and he appears to be growing each week. After a very shaky first half against Ball State, Thorson stepped up and led the Wildcats to a comeback victory over the Cardinals. Thorson is proving to be a good passer and a capable scrambler and I like his ability to consistently produce over Mitch Leidner mainly because of the weapons at his disposal. While the freshman running back duo of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks was impressive for Minnesota against Ohio, the Wildcats have Justin Jackson and Warren Long in the backfield plus “superback” Dan Vitale and wide receiver Christian Jones. If Drew Wolitarsky doesn’t play on Saturday (concussion), the Gophers will be down to KJ Maye as the only proven pass catching option and Mitch Leidner is not a quarterback that can beat good defenses by himself.
Northwestern’s victories over Stanford and Duke look even more impressive after watching the Cardinal beat USC and Duke routing Georgia Tech. Expect a low-scoring, physical contest in Evanston.
Iowa at Wisconsin – Noon on ESPN
Through four weeks, the Iowa Hawkeyes have surprised me more than any team in the country. Their offense has been surprisingly open and effective and their defense is a borderline top 25 unit. They manhandled Illinois State in the opener, won at Iowa State, beat Pittsburgh at home and then slaughtered North Texas in week four. Iowa has been very good at finishing drives and the play of CJ Beathard has more than justified the decision by Kirk Ferentz to name him the starter late in 2014.
Wisconsin has rebounded from their opening week loss to Alabama by handling three inferior opponents with ease. Their running game finally got rolling last week after three weeks of subpar work on the ground but it’s the defense that has been the star for the Badgers so far. Wisconsin’s defense is giving up only 9.5 points per game, good for fourth in the country Corey Clement remains out so it will be Taiwan Deal getting the bulk of the carries on Saturday. Iowa will likely load up and force Joel Stave to try and beat a talented secondary. This B1G West battle figures to be a tightly played game that is decided by the narrowest of margins. I think Jordan Canzeri and LeShun Daniels are able to have decent days for the Hawkeyes and I expect the Hawkeyes to hit a big play or two to a receiver like Matt VandeBerg or Tevaun Smith. Wisconsin has a very good defense but they haven’t played an offense with a pulse since week one while Iowa has been tested by a pair of Power 5 teams in Iowa State and Pittsburgh.
Nebraska at Illinois – 3:30 on BTN
The Nebraska Cornhuskers (2-2) hung on to defeat Southern Mississippi last Saturday and evened their record heading into B1G play. Their offense has been quite good, averaging 519.5 yards per game. Tommy Armstrong is playing really well and Terrell Newby has taken over for Ameer Abdullah as well as one could reasonably hope. The Huskers will be working against an Illinois team that is somewhat fortunate to be 3-1. Middle Tennessee missed a late field goal that would have knocked off the Illini and completely ruined a once promising non-conference start. Geronimo Allison and Josh Ferguson have both been tremendous but I’ve been a bit underwhelmed by the rest of Illinois offense. Wes Lunt needs to do a better job of getting other receivers (besides Allison) involved and I would like to see Ke’Shawn Vaughn get more opportunities to run the ball. The large concern for the Illini though is their defense. It was very, very good in the first two weeks but fell apart against North Carolina and wasn’t great against Middle Tennessee. This is a better unit than they had in 2014 but there are questions about whether or not it’s good enough to stop Nebraska enough to get a win at home.
(1)Ohio State at Indiana – 3:30 on ABC
Hoosier Huddle will have all the coverage you need as the Hoosiers host the defending national champions in the B1G opener for both squads.
(22) Michigan at Maryland – 8:00 on BTN
These teams are going in completely different directions. The Michigan Wolverines are a program in the ascendency after reeling off three straight victories in impressive fashion. Michigan has one of the best defenses in the nation and their running game is proving to be very solid. De’Veon Smith has 70 carries for 333 yards and three touchdowns. Derrick Green, Ty Isaac (averaging 8.5 yards per carry) and Drake Johnson compliment Smith. Michigan’s blueprint for success is very clear: play dominant defense, control the lines of scrimmage to run the ball effectively and don’t turn the ball over. If Jake Rudock can have more games like he did against BYU (no turnovers), the B1G East could be more than just a two-team race.
Meanwhile, the Maryland Terrapins suffered their second embarrassing beatdown of the season as West Virginia dismantled them, 45-6 in Morgantown. The Terps are now on their third quarterback of the season as Daxx Garman will start for the benched Caleb Rowe (who started for the benched Perry Hills). Maryland is 12th in the B1G in passing yards and they don’t have a receiver that any defense is going to be terrified of. The Terps have turned it over a ton (14 in four games) and can’t consistently move the ball without penalties disrupting drives. This is a primetime matchup in College Park and you never know what could happen but it’s very hard to envision Maryland turning things around enough to pull off the upset.