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Around the Big Ten, Week Seven: Business up top, party down below

Most of the Big Ten’s ranked teams are able to take care of business pretty consistently. The teams who aren’t ranked, however...that’s another story.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Ten football season has officially marked its halfway point. Every team in the conference has played at least six games total and at least three conference matchups, meaning that the standings are starting to take shape. The division battles already may have games that decide them. For the Big Ten East, it’s when Michigan visits Ohio State on Nov. 26 for what will most likely be not only a shot in the Big Ten title game but also the college football playoff. If things stay how they are in the Big Ten West, the game deciding that division title might just be Purdue-Illinois on Nov. 12.

College football is an incredible sport, and the Big Ten has certainly done its fair share of providing incredible moments for its fans. As the calendar moves closer and closer to Halloween, things are starting to get really spooky for some teams with division title aspirations. The only teams that seem truly safe right now are Ohio State, Michigan, and Illinois, while all the rest could lose on any given week. Saturday was proof of that, so let’s take a look at some of the best storylines from Week Seven:

A Michigan massacre

I think PSU might now stand for Pounded into Submission University. That’s not really true, but No. 16 Penn State was completely dominated by No. 4 Michigan on a Saturday in a 41-17 Wolverine win. Michigan carried the ball 55 times during the game...for 418 yards. Over the course of its first five games (5-0 start, top 10 ranking), Penn State gave up 398 rushing yards total. Potential Heisman finalist (if Michigan beats current No. 2 Ohio State again it will happen) Blake Corum ran rampant over the Nittany Lions, garnering 166 rushing yards and a pair of scores — and he didn't even lead his team in rushing. Donovan Edwards, the Wolverines’ sophomore running back, had just 134 rushing yards on the year heading into the contest. Against Penn State, he had 173 yards on just 16 carries (for an average of 10.8 yards every time he ran the ball) and also scored two touchdowns. The Wolverines as a team averaged over 7.5 yards per rush. This was domination we haven’t seen from them since the UConn game.

As for Penn State, it was a disappointing result, but not shocking when looking at how badly the Nittany Lions were torched in the trenches. The dynamic duo of Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen was held to just 35 yards total on 12 carries, and while Sean Clifford led the team with 74 yards rushing, 62 of those came on a single play. Penn State was dominated on third down (4-for-12, Michigan went 11-for-17), in total yardage (losing the battle 563-268), and in time of possession. The Nittany Lions had the ball for just over 18 minutes of the game, and with James Franklin now empty in his last 10 attempts to beat a top-10 team, it might be time to ask how high Penn State’s ceiling is. The schedule is manageable, and Franklin’s squad should probably finish with about nine or 10 wins and maybe get a look from a New Year’s Six Bowl. However, there is a very wide gap between a New Year’s Six team and a College Football Playoff team, and Michigan just proved it on Saturday. Also, if the Wolverines survive Illinois on Nov. 19 and the PAC-12 and SEC cannibalize themselves, then it may not matter what the result in Columbus is — they may be going to the playoff anyway.

Call them IWWinois because they don’t take L’s

The 2007 season is thought to be the most chaotic in college football history. How chaotic was it? The Illini made the Rose Bowl and that was probably the 13th-craziest thing that happened that year. The current iteration of the team is sitting at No. 18 in the nation and may have a shot to head back to Pasadena after a 26-14 handling of Minnesota. Chase Brown is still the nation’s leading rusher and is the first running back to crack 1000 yards on the season after his 180-yard performance against the Gophers, and should at least get some attention come awards season, especially from the Heisman and Doak Walker voters. Tommy DeVito continues to handle business admirably and is helping steer an offense that is currently sixth in the country in time of possession. The Illini defense is also one of the best-kept secrets in college football, giving up just 221 yards and 8.86 points per game, both of which lead the nation. The biggest factor is the secondary, which has picked off 12 passes already and is second in the nation in passing yardage allowed per game.

The Minnesota offense learned just how good the Illinois secondary was firsthand on Saturday. Tanner Morgan was brutalized all game, going 4-for-12 with an interception before he was carted off in the fourth quarter. Backup Athan Kaliakmanis was somehow even worse than Morgan, throwing as many interceptions as completions — two apiece. All told, the Golden Gophers’ passing stat line looks like this: 6-of-18, 38 yards, three interceptions. Mo Ibrahim looked very good in his return from injury, rushing for 127 yards and a score, but he was the lone bright spot in Minnesota’s offense. Remember three weeks ago, when the Gophers were pounding Michigan State into dust and earned a ranking in the AP Poll? That’s gone now. Morgan just hasn't figured out how to stop turning the ball over and the defense has been gashed on the ground these last two games. The schedule does lighten up a bit in November, but with two losses to teams sitting firmly above them in the Big Ten West standings, it’ll be tough for Minnesota to make it to Indianapolis without a miracle. As for Illinois, they haven't since the fluky Indiana game way back on Sept 2, and if they keep playing like this, Michigan may have their hands full on Nov. 19.

Maryland survives, but hope may not

While the Terrapins were never going to contend for the Big Ten East seriously, they were a very fun team to watch over the first half of the season. Taulia Tagovailoa is currently 12th in the nation in passing yards, and the speed of Roman Hemby ensured that even if Maryland got in a shootout — which happened quite often — they would still have a shot to survive. That shot took a big blow on Saturday, or more specifically, Tagovailoa’s right knee took a big blow. He was carted off in the fourth quarter, and despite Maryland holding on for a 38-33 victory over Indiana, the specter of Tagovailoa being out for a while looms large, especially with backup Billy Edwards Jr. failing to complete a pass. However, the Terrapin offense as a whole didn't skip a beat and Edwards finished the game with 53 yards rushing and a score on the ground.

As for Indiana, how they managed to beat Illinois (the lone loss on the year so far for the 18th-ranked team in the land) remains a mystery. The Hoosiers’ run game is quite frankly atrocious, and they currently sit at 126th in the nation — of 131 FBS teams — with just 581 rushing yards total this year. Connor Bazelak is 19th in the country in passing yards, but his efficiency is spotty at best, and he’s currently 111th in completion percentage with a mark of 54.6%. And the Hoosiers certainly aren’t winning with defense — they’ve given up 30 or more points in five straight games, and things don’t get easier when both Penn State and Ohio State are on the docket. As for the Terrapins, they can probably afford for Tagovailoa to sit out next week, especially going up against bottom-of-the-barrel Northwestern. But with Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State all in a row after that, Maryland may need to help Tagovailoa heals up during the bye week, or their hopes to stay competitive in the Big Ten East will likely disappear.

Tense times for middle-tier teams

How in the world is Purdue still tied for the lead in the Big Ten West? They lost to Syracuse before we knew that Syracuse was going to be a team of destiny, barely survived FAU, required a penalty on Maryland to avoid what would have been a game-tying two-point conversion, and gave up nearly 500 total yards to a Nebraska team that put up just 14 against Rutgers. But somehow the Boilermakers are not only winners of four straight (by a combined 20 points), they are receiving 95 votes in the AP Poll, which technically makes them the 26th-best team in the country. The biggest reason is Aidan O’Connell and the powerful offense he leads, which Nebraska was forced to deal with a lot in the 43-37 Boilermaker victory. O’Connell is 15th in the nation in passing yards with 1,950 on the year and the Purdue offense as a whole puts up almost 450 yards per game. If they can survive Wisconsin and Iowa, the Illinois game on Nov. 12 should be a ranked matchup. Meanwhile, the Cornhuskers’ defensive woes continue-Nebraska is now a ghastly 123rd in total defense and is giving up 5.9 yards per play.

Meanwhile, in East Lansing, Mel Tucker’s squad got a much-needed win over Wisconsin, 34-28 in double overtime. The defense looked like a different team, and Graham Mertz had a rough bounce back from his record-setting performance against Northwestern, going 14-of-24 and throwing an interception. To be fair to both Mertz and the Spartans, however, playing against Northwestern’s defense and Ohio State’s offense would make any quarterback and any defense look much better and worse than they really are. Payton Thorne had probably his best game of the year, going 21-for-28 for 265 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Braelon Allen had his typical solid performance (123 yards and two scores), but it wasn’t enough to make up for the Badgers’ defensive woes—and the fumble in the second overtime was obviously a massive factor in the loss. The Spartans have a massive momentum boost heading into the battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy against Michigan in two weeks, while Wisconsin has some massive defensive lapses they’ll need to fix before their contest against Purdue next week.

Other Scores

None (sorry, I have no jokes about the teams that didn’t play, although it feels like Northwestern hasn’t been playing football for months)