The Big Ten season got underway this past weekend and after four weekends of non-conference action that left us guessing just how teams actually match-up with each other, we finally got a chance to see.
Indiana vs Northwestern
Two of the most surprising teams in the Big Ten got the weekend’s action underway. Northwestern came into the game undefeated, with wins over three BCS teams, while Indiana came in at 2-1 which was a surprise for the Hoosiers. The Wildcats jumped out to a commanding 27-0 lead by the early third quarter and looked like they would continue to dominate the game. The Hoosiers had been mostly lifeless in the first half but made a swap at quarterback with Nate Sudfeld replacing starter Cameron Coffman. For the second straight game Sudfeld provided a spark for Indiana, he replaced Coffman last game after the starter got injured. The Hoosiers pulled to within 8 points at the beginning of the fourth quarter but could not overcome the rest of the huge deficit and a Northwestern touchdown midway through the fourth sealed the 44-29 win for the Wildcats.
Northwestern looked great on offense, racking up a school record 704 yards but 3 turnovers kept the game interesting at the end. The Wildcats continued with their two headed monster at quarterback. Trevor Siemian did most of the work through the air, going 22 of 32 for 308 yards and an interception. Kain Colter was less impressive passing, going 1 of 3 for 2 yards and an interception, but he made up for it by rushing for 161 yards and 4 touchdowns. The Wildcat running game got more help from running back Venric Mark who ran for 139 yards and 1 touchdown on 29 carries. The Wildcat defense, which had been solid all season, struggled in the second half, letting Indiana gain 425 yards and get back into the game. Northwestern’s offense is still good enough for them to contend in the conference but their defense needs to show that this week was a fluke if they want to actually make it to Indy. At the very least the Wildcats can now celebrate moving back into the top 25 for the first time since 2008.
Indiana now faces a bit of a quarterback controversy as Nate Sudfeld has now looked solid in relief of Cameron Coffman two weeks in a row. The Hoosier running backs looked pretty good in this one, with Stephen Houston averaging over 8 yards per carry while rushing for 91 yards and a touchdown but the large hole the Hoosiers found themselves in took the running game out of the picture. The biggest problem for Indiana is their defense which got shredded for the second straight game. The Hoosier offense gives them some hope but their defense isn’t playing well enough to win Big Ten games, other than possibly against Illinois.
Minnesota vs Iowa
This game saw another match-up between two Big Ten teams with Minnesota being a surprising 4-0 coming into this game while Iowa had struggled more than expected. The Hawkeyes left little room for surprises in this game as they jumped out to a 24-0 halftime lead before coasting to a 31-13 win.
For the second straight game Iowa was led by walk-on running back Mark Weisman who continues to look like a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate as he ran for 177 yards and one touchdown on 21 carries. After looking lackluster in their upset loss to Central Michigan, the Hawkeye defense looked good in this one, holding the Golden Gophers to 299 yards of offense and forcing 4 turnovers. Iowa has been up and down this season so it is hard to read too much from this one but if Iowa can keep riding Weisman, they have a decent shot at making a bowl game.
Minnesota’s luck may have run out as the Golden Gophers had gotten out to a 4-0 start and hadn’t missed much of a beat on offense despite losing starting quarterback MarQueis Gray. Well, they hadn’t missed a beat until this week when backup quarterback Max Shortell threw 3 interceptions which cost the Gophers any chance in this one. It is still not clear when Gray will return from his high ankle sprain but the sooner the better. Minnesota only needs two wins to make a bowl game and if Gray can get back soon, they have about a 50% chance of pulling that off.
Penn State vs Illinois
The major story for this game was the anger that many Penn State players and fans had at Illinois after the Illini put a lot of effort into recruiting PSU players following the NCAA handing down sanctions over the summer. The Nittany Lions seem to have put that anger into their play as they dominated the Illini on the way to a 35-7 win.
Penn State Matt McGloin continued his solid performance on the season, going 18 of 30 for 211 yards and a touchdown. McGloin may not be a star but he has emerged as a solid quarterback who is very capable of managing a game for the Nittany Lions. Running back Zach Zwinak continues to improve, putting up 100 yards and 2 touchdowns on 19 carries. The PSU defense continues to be the most important aspect for the team, giving up 366 yards but forcing 3 turnovers. Big Ten fans who were looking forward to watching PSU bottom-out due to the NCAA sanctions will have to wait another year and I stand by my prediction that PSU will upset a team to cost them a trip to Indy.
In his first game back from injury, Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase looked so-so, going 28 of 46 for 270 yards but throwing a pair of interceptions while never finding the endzone. The Illini got no help from their running game which couldn’t get anything going consistently. Illinios continues to struggle defensively and with the Illini showing no real sign of improvement, their game at the end of the month against Indiana is really their only chance at getting another win this season.
Purdue vs Marshall
The one non-conference game this week was a hectic, confusing game. The two teams traded scores to open the game and the score was tied 14-14 early in the second quarter when Purdue scored four straight touchdowns to take a 42-14 halftime lead. Marshall wasn’t done though and staged a twenty-one to three run to pull within ten early in the fourth quarter. A Boilermaker touchdown at the midpoint in the 4th gave Purdue some breathing room as they held on for a 51-41 win.
Quarterback Caleb TerBush looked fantastic for the Boilermakers, going 27 of 37 for 294 yards, four touchdowns, and 1 interception. TerBush’s did a good job of spreading the ball around with 7 different receivers recording catches, three of them getting at least 6. The Boilermaker rushing game was less impressive with Akeem Shavers getting most of the yards but only averaging about 2.9 yards per carry on 25 carries. The Purdue defense struggled in this game, giving up over 500 yards but they stepped up when they needed to and forced 4 turnovers.
Purdue remains the darkhorse behind Wisconsin to make it to Indy from the sanctioned division but the Boilermaker defense will need to do better if they want a chance to play for the Roses.
Wisconsin vs #22 Nebraska
The Big Ten nightcap held a lot of interest for Ohio State fans and those that watched were treated to a sight that brought back lots of horrible memories. After struggling for most of the first four games of the season, Wisconsin took advantage of some early turnovers and miscues by Nebraska to build a 20-3 lead early in the second quarter. The Cornhuskers cut the lead to 10 points at half but the Badgers scored on their opening drive of the second half to make it a three score game again. Then, in something that was familiar to Buckeye fans, everyone watched as Nebraska took over the game, rallying for a 30-27 victory, the second biggest comeback in school history.
After starting out the game so strong, Wisconsin couldn’t respond to Nebraska’s adjustments and got completely shutdown. Former Heisman contender Montee Ball got 3 touchdowns but continued to struggle as he only gained 90 yards on 32 carries. Brett Bielema once again got outcoached, seeming to forget about receiver Jared Abbrederis late in the fourth quarter when trying to comeback. Abbrederis had been unstoppable all game, gaining 142 yards on 7 receptions, mostly on swing passes. The Wisconsin defense also seemed unable to respond to Nebraska’s running game in any fashion. The Badgers may still be the favorite to get to Indy but that is more due to the struggles of everyone else than because they are good team.
Nebraska had numerous early miscues but righted the ship and did a brilliant job of making adjustments. The Cornhuskers essentially shutdown the Badgers offense while getting their own running game going. Quarterback Taylor Martinez rushed for 107 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries, Rex Burkhead put up 86 yards on 18 carries, and Ameer Abdullah got 70 on 10. Martinez continues to have an unimpressive throwing motion but he put up a solid 17 of 29 for 181 yards and two touchdowns.
The Nebraska running game is definitely a concern for OSU next week, the Buckeyes did a good job of shutting down MSU’s LeVeon Bell but the Cornhuskers have more options on the ground. The Buckeyes also have to be concerned at how Nebraska stuffed Wisconsin’s running game, though that has been easier than normal this season. An important point to keep in mind though is that Wisconsin is mostly a power run game and Nebraska struggled to stop UCLA who focused more on getting the ball outside on runs. It will be very important for OSU to get Jordan Hall back to take advantage of this. The fact that both teams have mobile quarterbacks means that defenses will be more used to stopping that attack. Both defenses are going to want to force their opponent to pass and the game will be won by the team that has to pass less.