The home stretch is rapidly approaching in college football, and just three weeks from today every team in the Big Ten will have played 10 games. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is continuing to grow, as there are currently just four teams in the conference without multiple losses. So far, the top four have had a game among themselves just once, Michigan’s 41-17 win over Penn State last week. Ohio State still has to play all three of Penn State, Illinois and Michigan, but right now all four of those teams are just continuing to beat up on their lesser conference mates.
Despite them all being above the fray, there are tiers among these top teams. Ohio State and Michigan both have legitimate playoff aspirations and should be heavily favored in every game until they play each other to close out the regular season. Following them is Penn State, who clearly is not on their level (see the aforementioned 41-17 loss to Michigan), but could easily beat any Big Ten team not named Ohio State or Michigan. Then there’s Illinois, who’s a bit more difficult to project, but has found a way to beat almost every team it’s played. One thing is for sure, though: it’s those four teams, and then everybody else.
Ohio State dominates
Here’s how No. 2 Ohio State opened their game against Iowa: one-yard drive, pick six, 75-yard touchdown drive, four-yard drive, 17-yard drive, punt, field goal, end of half. The halftime score was 28-10, in favor of... Ohio State. How? Well, the Iowa offense genuinely might have been paid to sabotage its defense. The Hawkeyes showed off their offensive “prowess” in the first half with an interception, punt, fumble, turnover on downs, field goal, punt, pick six and another punt. In total, the Hawkeyes gained 79 yards on 31 plays and committed three turnovers in the first half. By the time C.J. Stroud got into a groove (Stroud went 20-of-30 for 286 yards and four scores), the game was already over. The Buckeyes cruised to a 54-10 win, which is a firm reminder that they are one of the three most difficult teams to beat in the nation right now.
Iowa’s offense is, quite literally, the total opposite. Here’s how the scoring breaks down overall for the game: Ohio State offense 47, Ohio State defense 7, Iowa defense 7, Iowa offense 3. The Hawkeyes committed six turnovers and failed to convert on fourth down on three other occasions. It should simply not be possible for any college football team to go 1-for-13 on third down and pass for 81 total yards over the course of a game without trying to be bad. In fact, maybe that’s what this is: Kirk and Brian Ferentz conspiring to see just how long it takes the people of Iowa to finally force the athletic director to fire someone. They probably looked at Scott Frost’s buyout and realized that it’s much more fun doing nothing and and still getting paid. The Hawkeyes still haven’t scored 100 total points on the year, while their opponent last Saturday is currently sitting at 347 total points. And oh yeah, Iowa has seven offensive touchdowns on the year — the defense has three. They honestly might have had a better chance against the Buckeyes if they just punted every play — at least then their offense wouldn’t hand the opponent the game on a silver platter.
Penn State returns to form
Boy, oh boy, that Penn State whiteout is a very difficult environment to win in. Minnesota found that out firsthand, getting completely outplayed by the No. 13 Nittany Lions in a 45-17 loss. Sean Clifford bounced back from a rough performance against Michigan by throwing for 295 yards and four touchdowns, three of which were from at least 20 yards out. The Penn State rushing attack had another solid game, with both Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen rushing for over 75 yards. The defense also did an incredible job winning the trench battle and making Minnesota’s life difficult in the passing game, garnering seven tackles for loss and six passes deflected.
The Golden Gophers, unfortunately, are in real trouble. Tanner Morgan’s concussion against Illinois may have been devastating to the Minnesota offense — Athan Kaliakmanis has already thrown three interceptions and is only 11-for-28 since taking over. Mohamed Ibrahim had yet another game over the century mark, but an above-average rushing attack doesn't matter if a team can’t throw the ball. This is now the third straight loss for Minnesota, and while the schedule lightens up from here, a bowl game is not a guarantee. The offense hasn't been at full strength since the Michigan State game, which was also the Golden Gophers’ last win. Morgan and Ibrahim together are a tough combination to beat, but they just haven’t been together enough for Minnesota to be a tough team. As for Penn State, Clifford may have figured things out, but he’ll have to be on his A-game next week when the Buckeyes come to town.
Purdue’s train ride hits a bump in the rails
After four straight victories of 10 points or fewer, Purdue finally lost for the first time in over a month. Aidan O’Connell picked a bad time to have a bad game, throwing three picks against Wisconsin in a 35-24 loss. Both Devin Mockobee and Charlie Jones had excellent games for the Boilermakers and each went over the century mark. But Purdue converted just five of its 16 third down attempts, which killed their hopes. With both Iowa and Illinois on deck, offensive excellence is going to be key for Purdue, and it didn't have that against Wisconsin.
The Badgers, conversely, did a great job at executing efficiently. Graham Mertz threw the ball just 21 times, but ended up with a stat line of 203 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Braelon Allen scored his ninth touchdown on the year and put up over seven yards per carry. John Torchio picked off O’Connell twice for his fourth and fifth interceptions of the year, which tied him for the national lead. The Badgers offense appears to have done a very good job adjusting to interim head coach Jim Leonhard, having scored over 30 points in consecutive games for the first time this season. The offense has figured out a very efficient attack method, and the Maryland game on Nov. 5 should be a fun shootout.
Maryland musters up a victory
Without Taulia Tagovailoa, many were worried about the Terrapins’ ability to get above .500 in conference play, especially against a hungry Northwestern team desperate for its first win in North America. Backup quarterback Billy Edwards Jr. did not inspire confidence in Maryland fans early, especially after he went 1-for-4 on third down in the first half. However, Edwards Jr. wasn’t the only backup seeing starting action in College Park. Northwestern also turned to its backup quarterback in Brendan Sullivan, who first saw action in the Wildcats’ blowout loss to Wisconsin.
Both Sullivan and Edwards Jr. were very solid in the first half. Sullivan accounted for a pair of touchdowns while Edwards Jr. rushed for 38 yards and led two long drives in the second quarter. However, the difference was Maryland’s Roman Hemby, who rushed for 179 yards and a trifecta of touchdowns, including a 75-yarder late in the fourth quarter that provided the final margin in a 31-24 Terrapin victory. Sullivan struggled a lot in the second half, throwing a pair of interceptions and completing no passes longer than 12 yards. Conversely, Edwards was able to take advantage of busted coverage on a 30-yard touchdown pass and also rushed for 32 yards on a third-and-one to seal the game.
This game says a lot about the makeup of both teams. Maryland has earned bowl eligibility in consecutive years for the first time since 2014 thanks to a comeback led by a backup quarterback. The grit and explosiveness that both Edwards Jr. and Hemby showed should give Maryland fans lots of hope for the future, especially considering that both Penn State and Ohio State are still on the Terrapins’ schedule. As for Northwestern, it may have blown its best remaining chance to get a win on American soil this year. Despite going 9-of-14 on third down and totaling over 350 total yards, the ‘Cats weren’t able to get stops when they needed to (Maryland had 257 rushing yards) and lost the turnover battle for the fifth time this year. Looking at their remaining schedule, every team but Iowa is above .500, and Iowa has the sixth-best defense in the country. It is becoming more and more realistic every week to imagine a scenario in which Northwestern goes 1-11.
Rutgers 24, Indiana 17