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Around the Big Ten, Week Five: The Big Ten East is still a beast

...and also WTF is going on in Wisconsin.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Minnesota Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The first day in October is the mark of many things. The leaves aren’t falling yet but are starting to turn, there’s a crisp chill in the air, and Big Ten football is getting back to its roots. Of the seven games the conference had on Saturday, just two (Illinois-Wisconsin and Rutgers-Ohio State) hit the over on projected points, and both did so by a point or less. The rest of the games were filled with punting battles, torrential rainstorms, and a certain Big Ten West school rehashing its tradition of upsetting teams with high hopes for the postseason.

As I wrote two weeks ago, the Big Ten is very much a two-division conference. While the Big Ten East has three teams represented in the AP Poll’s top 10 for this week, the Big Ten West’s best hope at any poll appearance might be...Illinois. It’s honestly like those old DirecTV commercials with Rob Lowe: the Big Ten East (or regular Big Ten) has DirecTV, while the Big Ten West (peaked in high school Big Ten) is stuck with cable. This is perhaps best exemplified by the Big Ten West currently having a six-way tie for first. Aside from that incredible fact, here are some of the best storylines from Week Four:

The Return of the Spoilermakers

I may be stretching the definition just a little bit — normally, Purdue is only considered a Spoilermaker if they upset a team in the top five, like 2018 Ohio State, 2021 Iowa, or 2021 Michigan State. However, the Boilermakers’ 20-10 stunner over Minnesota definitely qualifies as a huge upset, especially when you consider the wrench it throws into the Big Ten West race. There is, of course, a qualifier for this upset, one that fans of the formerly 21st-ranked Golden Gophers will likely point to: the team didn't have Mohamed Ibrahim.

After missing all but the opener of the 2021 season, Ibrahim was looking healthy and good this year, rushing for 567 yards and eight scores over Minnesota’s first four games. He didn't play against Purdue to avoid making an ankle injury worse, but the run game definitely could have used him. The Golden Gophers carried the ball 26 times for just 47 yards, garnering an absolutely putrid average of 1.8 yards a carry. Tanner Morgan couldn't quite get the job done, throwing two picks and earning a third on the stat sheet after a sure touchdown bounced off of his receiver and into the hands of Purdue’s Cam Allen.

Missed opportunities were the story of the game for the Golden Gophers, as they scored just three points off of a trifecta of Purdue turnovers, came up empty on eight of 12 third-down tries, and missed an easy 28-yard field goal. For Purdue, freshman running back Devin Mockobee shined in his first taste of Big Ten action, rushing 11 times for 112 yards and a touchdown. The Purdue defense also deserves a tip of the cap after holding Minnesota to just 127 total yards in the second half. Give credit to the Boilermakers, whom I have maligned previously after their loss to Syracuse. I said that they “can’t seem to execute when the chips are down” in the article linked in the preview. On Saturday in Minneapolis, they did. As for Minnesota, their path to Indianapolis is now slightly murkier, especially after the next game on this list.

Illinois is making some Illi-noise

Don’t look now, but the Illini may be poised to steal a spot atop the Big Ten West. They pounced on Wisconsin in Camp Randall Stadium from the opening kick, forcing three turnovers and shutting the Badgers out in the second half en route to a 34-10 victory. Wisconsin was absolutely demolished at the line of scrimmaged and totaled — this is not a misprint — a total of two yards rushing for the game. The longest carry any Badger got was five yards. The long-ago days of 2017, when Wisconsin went 13-1 and finished 7th in the AP Poll behind a freshman running back by the name of Johnathan Taylor, seem like a distant memory. Wisconsin hasn’t won double-digit games since 2019, and when you consider that they’ve already guaranteed themselves a fifth straight year with three or more losses, it’s fair to wonder just how competitive they’ll be in the Big Ten in future. The athletic department seems to agree with me, as earlier Sunday they fired head coach Paul Chryst, who leaves the university with a record of 67-26 and three Big Ten West crowns. It is the first time Wisconsin has fired a head football coach in over 30 years.

As for Bret Bielema, who left Wisconsin a decade ago this December, it is sweet revenge. He coached the Badgers to three consecutive Big Ten titles before departing and has now built a team in their image a state to the south. It’s been a rough 20 years for the Illini, who had 17 losing seasons and a 2-3 bowl record over that span. Now, though, Bielema and junior running back Chase Brown have the team poised for their first winning season since 2011. Brown currently leads the nation in rushing with 604 yards and has broken the century mark in all five games. Combine Brown’s rushing attack with the steady play of quarterback Tommy Devito (68.8% completion this year) and a stout defense (42 points allowed on the year, and there is a legitimate shot that the Illinois Illini could represent the Big Ten West in Indianapolis this year.

Michigan muscles past Iowa

As long as Blake Corum continues to run the ball well and J.J. McCarthy continues to avoid mistakes, the fourth-ranked Wolverines will be a tough out for most teams in the country. Corum is eighth in rushing yards (478) and leads the nation in rushing scores (nine) this year despite not being in the top 20 for carries, while McCarthy is the nation’s completion percentage leader at 80%. The Wolverines simply controlled the game well into the fourth quarter in their 27-14 triumph in Kinnick Stadium, getting 4.1 yards a carry against a defense that until this game hadn't allowed a team to score more than 10 points. Michigan should be dinged a little bit for allowing Hawkeye QB Spencer Petras to throw for over 200 yards for the first time this season, but most of those yards were in garbage time. Overall, it was a very solid all-around performance from the Wolverines, and they’ll only get more dangerous when they aren't playing defenses as talented as Iowa’s.

Penn State perseveres in the pouring rain

If you watched none of the 10th-ranked Nittany Lions’ 17-7 struggle over Northwestern, you are far luckier than I. The game was ugly from the start and got worse from there, with as many turnovers as total third down conversions-eight apiece. The punters were also given a lot of work, trotting out 12 times during this affair, and that doesn't include two drives that ended halves and four occasions where Northwestern turned the ball over on downs. Big Ten teams have to win ugly, and Penn State did, but this is certainly not the same team that walloped Auburn on September 17. Were it not for Ryan Hilinski coming up inches short on a fourth and goal from the one-yard line, an awful snap at midfield, or a missed interception early in the second quarter, Northwestern could have easily won this game. If that were the case, I’d have a lot more to say about how Penn State went 4-for-15 on third downs, threw for just 140 yards, and committed seven penalties for 55 yards. Also, I’d still be partying in the streets of Evanston.

Instead, I have to write this: Northwestern’s offense failed. When your defense forces a quintet of turnovers and you get 13 total yards out of it, something’s gotta give. The rushing attack was abysmal (31 yards on 28 carries), and the Wildcats were somehow even worse on third down than Penn State was! What in the world is this team going to do when they have to travel to Maryland and Minnesota, let alone welcome Ohio State? Penn State played arguably their sloppiest game since the nine-overtime debacle to Illinois, and it didn't matter. Northwestern got an opponent playing an awful game (Penn State had one turnover total before this contest) and handed them the win on a silver platter. As for Penn State, they can breathe a small sigh of relief before using their bye week to shore up mistakes before a trip to play Michigan on October 15.

Guess what? Ohio State is still really good

At this point, I could probably copy and paste my Ohio State sections and switch out the names. TreVeyon Henderson didn't play against Rutgers? No big deal, his backup Miyan Williams will just run for 189 yards and a five-piece of touchdowns. C.J. Stroud had easily his worst game of the year — 13/22, 154 yards, two scores and an interception — and yet Ohio State barely had to blink. Rutgers took an early lead off of a muffed punt, but the No. 3 Buckeyes responded by scoring the next 28 points en route to a comfortable 49-10 victory. Ohio State has won every game by double digits, and since the opener with Notre Dame, has earned all their victories by 30 points or more. This team is frightening, and it’s mostly thanks to Stroud, who’s second in passing efficiency, 15th in yards, and tied for first in touchdowns despite having thrown less than 115 passes on the year. To beat them, a team would have to combine an all-time defensive performance with an offensive showcase of at least 30 points, and right now, there may not be a team like that in the Big Ten.

Other Scores

Maryland 27, Michigan State 13

Nebraska 35, Indiana 21