As the season nears its final weeks, Northwestern may not be in the hunt for a conference title, but several of the other top teams in the Big Ten are thriving more than ever. The upper echelon continues to separate itself from the rest of the pack, leaving the Nov. 26 matchup at Buckeye stadium between Michigan and Ohio State looming large.
Ohio State Makes a Late Turnaround in Happy Valley
Down by five in the early fourth quarter, their road matchup against Penn State seemed like another one of the Buckeye trap games that we have grown accustomed to seeing. Like their game against the Nittany Lions in 2016 or Purdue in 2018, it seems that Ohio State loses one key road game to squander their hopes at an undefeated regular season campaign each year. But this time around, Ohio State did not let history repeat itself.
For the first two and a half quarters, Ohio State got outmanned in the trenches. Penn State’s offensive and defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage, and Penn State’s tandem of freshman backs in Kaytron Allen and Nicholas Singleton was able to slice through the Buckeye D-Line on early down plays. This control of the ground game certainly made Sean Clifford’s day easier too, as he threw for 371 yards, 179 of which went to budding star receiver Parker Washington. On so many plays, Clifford found a receiver nestled in a wide-open pocket of the zone, and Ohio State’s defense struggled to adjust.
On the defensive side of the ball, Penn State stopped TreVeyon Henderson and the Buckeye running game in its tracks, effectively making Ohio State a pass-only offense. Ohio State could drive down the field because of Stroud’s arm and Marvin Harrison Jr.’s supreme talent (2024 WR1?), but they just could not pound the ball into the end zone, settling for three field goals in the first three quarters. For the first three quarters, every bounce just did not go the Buckeyes’ way either. A mistake illegal formation call against the Buckeyes and a forced fumble that was recovered by the Nittany Lions in the Buckeye end zone were the low points of the Ohio State day. Even with their struggles, Ohio State managed to stay in the game, namely through key turnovers and the Buckeyes’ sheer surplus of talent at the quarterback and wide receiver positions.
In the fourth quarter, the Ohio State we all expected finally came out. After falling down 21-16 in the early minutes of the fourth, the Buckeyes finished the game by outscoring Penn State 28-7 in the final nine minutes of the half. Stroud and the receiving corps (notably Harrison Jr.) put the team on their shoulders for the final ten minutes, and Stroud hit every open man en route to his monstrous final quarter. The Penn State defense that held strong in the first three quarters finally got pulled apart at the end.
Ohio State’s defense also showed out throughout this game, specifically in causing key turnovers. In total, the Buckeyes forced three fumbles and intercepted Clifford three times, numbers that are a great sign for Ohio State fans who may have been worried about the defensive unit coming into the season. A career performance (two picks, one pick-six, two sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, one pass deflection) by five-star DE JT Tuimoloau spearheaded the Buckeye defense, and around Tuimoloau, the unit performed well. There are still some unanswered questions though, as the front seven struggled to make tackles at the line of scrimmage and Washington ran uncontrolled through the Buckeye secondary. After this win though, it seems that Michigan and Ohio State are on a crash course for a top-5, winner to the CFP matchup just four weeks from now.
Michigan Stomps Michigan State
Michigan stuck to its running attack, and the results speak for themselves. Once again, Blake Corum, J.J. McCarthy and Donovan Edwards showed why they are perhaps the best-running backfield tandem in college football as the Wolverine offensive line opened up gaping holes for them to run through. Through the air, McCarthy and TE Luke Schoonmaker (five receptions for 70 yards) looked like quite the duo, and Schoonmaker had loads of space each time McCarthy found him.
On defense, the Wolverines’ front seven put on a clinic. Spartan running backs Jalen Berger and Elijah Collins managed only 1.8 yards per carry, and Michigan State had to pivot to relying on an undisguised passing attack that only yielded seven points. A small piece of hope for Spartan fans is sophomore Keon Coleman, who carried the Michigan State receiving corps with 155 of their 215 receiving yards.
With another statement win, this Michigan team solidified its place as one of the top two teams in the Big Ten. Like last year, this Wolverine team is built on an exceptional ground attack, and the Michigan offense radiates from there through play action and tight-end involvement.
Illinois Grinds Out Another Win
Their win over Nebraska is an embodiment of what the Illini have become under Bret Bielema — an offense led by a conservative game-manager quarterback that does just enough to allow the running game to thrive, paired with one of the best defenses in the country. Against Nebraska, QB Tommy DeVito did everything that was expected of him, going 20-for-22 with one touchdown and no interceptions. Keeping the ball in Illini possession and maintaining forward momentum are his two jobs, and DeVito has executed them both to perfection this season. Week after week, RB Chase Brown is the catalyst of the Illinois offense and this week was no different. His sheer volume of carries and yardage totals (32 carries for 149 yards against Nebraska) put him at the top of the Big Ten RB rankings, and without his production, Illinois would not be where they are.
Defensively, Illinois shut down Nebraska. The Illini forced four turnovers, and with only 248 total yards, the Cornhusker offense simply could not get going. Before getting hurt, Casey Thompson went 7-for-15 with two interceptions, and backup Chubba Purdy did not fare much better. For yet another week, the Illini have won with a strong ground game and a stout defense. If they keep playing this way, they will have a legitimate chance to end the season as one-loss champions of the Big Ten West, an incredible achievement for Bret Bielema in only his second season in Champaign.
Minnesota 31, Rutgers 0
Iowa 33, Northwestern 13