The Big Ten seems to have an issue: its teams (with the notable exceptions of No. 2 Ohio State and No. 5 Michigan) appear to be either very good at offense or very good at defense, but never both. While five different teams in the conference put up over 28 points this weekend, there were another six teams that failed to put more than 15 points on the scoreboard. However, this issue has been surprisingly helpful in clearing up who actually has a shot at winning their respective divisions this year.
Ohio State and Michigan are obviously title hopefuls, but Penn State is unbeaten and a top 10 team as well. Meanwhile, the Big Ten West whittled its six-way tie down to just three teams: Illinois (wait, what?), Purdue (rubs eyes, squints harder), and...Nebraska??? Well, college football does tend to get pretty chaotic, and the Big Ten has that in spades. While Ohio State and Michigan have yet to be challenged this season, every other team in the conference is either fatally flawed or has shown exploitable weaknesses. With that out of the way, here are some of the best storylines from Week Six:
Illinois is for real (yes, that Illinois)
Don’t look now, but the No. 24 Illini are sitting at 5-1 after they survived a gritty 9-6 contest with the Iowa Hawkeyes, a team whose concept of offense would not look out of place in the 1850s. Illinois appeared to be contaminated by what we’ll call Iowa-itis and became similarly incompetent on offense, going just 4-of-16 on third downs and punting six times. And yet, there are many positives for Illinois to take away from this one. They rushed for 200 yards against a vaunted Hawkeye defense on well over four yards a carry, lost their starting quarterback and kicker over the course of the game and did not allow the Iowa offense to make it to the Illinois 40-yard line in the second half. Chase Brown had his seventh straight game over the century mark with 146 yards — now the current leading rusher in the FBS, he should be receiving support for an all-conference title. The defense was also outstanding, holding the Hawkeyes to just 222 total yards and allowing just 13 first downs over the course of the game. The Illini are off to their best start since 2011, have just held Wisconsin and Iowa to 16 total points, and are ranked just inside the AP Poll.
Meanwhile, something’s gotta give in Iowa City. How in the world can an offense in 2022 not get to 230 total yards? Why is Spencer Petras, who is currently 104th in the FBS in passing yardage (770) and tied for 123rd in passing touchdowns (2!), still taking snaps? How has the offense still managed to not put up more than two touchdowns in a game? Why is Kirk Ferentz’s son still calling plays for said offense? How is the defending Big Ten West champion this bad at football? All of these questions may not have answers, but the Hawkeyes’ next game is in Columbus on Oct. 22. Unless the offense is able to somehow keep up with Ohio State, we may finally see the Hawkeye defense break. And when it does, they may not be able to put the pieces back together.
Another decisive domination by Ohio State
The No. 2 Buckeyes’ offense may be historically good. Remember 2019 LSU, which had NFL superstars flying up and down the field at will? Well, that team averaged 48.4 points per game...and these Buckeyes are currently averaging 48.8. Michigan State was the latest victim of the Buckeye battalions in a 49-20 shellacking, but the Spartans can at least take comfort in the fact that every Ohio State opponent but Notre Dame has also given up 45 or more points. I’m going to talk about CJ Stroud again, mostly because he’s probably the best offensive player in college football. He simply ruined the Spartan defense, with a line that reads like a video game: 21-for-26, 361 yards, and six touchdowns. Nationally, he ranks third in yards per completion, third in touchdowns, and second in quarterback rating — and all of this despite being 66th in pass attempts. If he doesn't win the Heisman, it’s highway robbery. Oh yeah, the Buckeye rushing attack also piled up 237 yards.
As for Michigan State, the days of Kenneth Walker III and top 25 rankings are long gone. Their last three games (all Big Ten play) contain a 40-110 scoring margin, about 1600 total yards for their opponents, and 145 total rushing yards for the team. That includes a grand total of seven against the Buckeyes, and yes, that’s for the whole team. The total yardage for this game was 614-202 in favor of Ohio State, and it wasn’t even that close. It is still a little early to judge, but Mel Tucker is certainly starting to take on the mantle of a one-year wonder a la Gene Chizik or Ed Oregeron, just without the national title or transcendent quarterback. Tucker’s current record at Michigan State is 15-11, and he’s 9-10 in Big Ten play. The Spartans’ season is still salvageable, but hanging by a thread and dealing with Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois in their next three games is not a guaranteed win. One thing’s for sure: these Spartans would have the 300 who fought at Thermopylae ashamed to share their name.
Nebraska is winning again
Last week, the Cornhuskers snapped a nine-game losing streak against FBS opponents. This week, by making a double-digit fourth-quarter comeback and (gasp) winning a one-possession game against a Big Ten team in a 14-13 slog over Rutgers, Nebraska has won back-to-back games against FBS competition for the first time since Nov. 17, 2018. The program has begun to de-Frost, and interim coach Mickey Joseph has the confidence of both the players and fans. More importantly, though, Joseph has results. He’s already won two Big Ten games on the year — the most Frost ever won in a full season was three. Nebraska bounced back from a rough first half that included two Casey Thompson interceptions by playing lights-out defensively. In the second half, the Blackshirts made their fans proud by holding Rutgers to just 70 total yards and forcing a trifecta of turnovers. If junior running back Anthony Grant can continue to put up great performances like he did against Indiana, the Cornhuskers may find themselves in a place where Frost could never get them: a bowl game. As for Rutgers, their quarterback play (and offense in general) is starting to become a big issue, and one they’ll need to fix if they hope to get a win in conference play.
Purdue is Pur-doing some good stuff
Jeff Brohm’s squad may be starting to figure some things out. Their Big Ten record so far includes a tight loss to current top 10 squad Penn State, a comfortable victory over Minnesota, and now a shootout 31-29 win over Maryland. Aidan O’Connell is throwing the ball really well and his completion percentage hasn't dipped below 67% since the aforementioned Penn State opener. Despite having no ground game whatsoever (13 rushing yards on 34 carries is atrocious), O’Connell was able to lead the offense on four touchdown drives of 60 yards or more and was basically the sole source of moving the ball downfield. The Boilermakers’ defense did a solid job against the Maryland ground attack, keeping them at just 72 yards, and came up big by forcing an incompletion on a two-point conversion that would have tied the game at 31. This team is receiving votes in the AP Poll and has just one ranked team (Illinois) on their schedule for the rest of the year. The Boilermakers train is certainly well on track for success.
As for Maryland, there are still some positives to take away from this game. Taulia Tagovailoa is a very good Big Ten quarterback and had his second straight game of over 300 yards passing. The main issue is the defense, which has now given up 27 or more points in three of the past four contests for the Terrapins. The run game has also been struggling against Big Ten competition, with the only great Maryland performance coming against a shoddy Michigan State defense. The schedule does lighten up for a bit, but with both Penn State and Ohio State still on the schedule in November, the Terrapins need to get consistent if they want to make some noise in the Big Ten East.
Wisconsin 42, Northwestern 7
Michigan 31, Indiana 10