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Around the Big Ten, Week Two: Feast or famine

If you were a Big Ten team on Saturday, you either won in blowout fashion or lost a close one at home.

NCAA Football: Georgia Southern at Nebraska Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

We had a full slate of Big Ten action for the first time this season, and during a chaotic weekend, most of the conference lived up to the hype. In a week that saw seven, and nearly eight, ranked teams fall to unranked or lower-ranked opponents, the Big Ten emerged relatively unscathed. The top-end of the conference continued to dominate, with the three highest-ranked teams winning by a combined 131 points, while the bottom of the conference… Well, let’s just say it was a Saturday to forget in a few midwestern states. After a day of exciting wins and even more exciting losses for the conference, here’s some of the best storylines from Week Two:

Another loss in Lincoln

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Scott Frost’s Nebraska Cornhuskers lost a one-score game they were favored to win. The Cornhuskers welcomed Georgia Southern out of the Sun Belt to Memorial Stadium Saturday night, and sweetened the pot by handing their supposedly “lesser” opponent over $1.4 million to participate. However, it quickly became clear that the Eagles would not be content to just take the money and run, although they did do quite a bit of running.

Georgia Southern drove through Nebraska’s Blackshirt defense like a combine through a cornfield (cornfields, incidentally, are nearly as common in the Cornhusker State as one-score losses) and scored on five of their first six drives. Behind quarterback Kyle Vantrease, who threw for 409 yards, the Eagles found themselves in a full-blown shootout. Nebraska quarterback Casey Thompson threw for 318 yards and a score and provided three more touchdowns with his legs. Anthony Grant, who might be the best running back this program has seen since its 1990s heyday, rushed for over 100 yards for the third straight contest, and Marques Buford Jr. picked off Vantrease twice.

Yet none of it mattered. The Cornhusker defense was gashed for a total of 642 yards, a number that nearly set a Memorial Stadium record. The team wore throwback jerseys as a reminder of the great Nebraska teams of the past, only further enraging a fanbase that resorted to booing the home team in the second half. The jeers were well-earned, as the defense gave up a 75-yard drive and rushing score to Vantrease to give the Eagles the lead with half a minute to play.

When the 52-yard field goal attempt off the leg of Timmy Bleekrode hooked left of the goalposts, the 45-42 result became official and the Cornhuskers lost their tenth straight one-score game in the death knell to Frost’s Nebraska tenure. He moves to 5-22 in one score games and 16-31 overall, which will be his final record after his firing on Sunday. It’s extraordinarily clear that any magic Frost had with the 13-0 UCF team in 2017 is gone.

Frost has dealt with many, many losses during his tenure in Lincoln, but Saturday was almost certainly his worst loss of all: the fanbase. When an athletic director is willing to fire a native son and the quarterback of Nebraska’s last title team less than a month before his buyout is chopped in half, it’s clear that the program is badly damaged. The worst part for Cornhusker fans isn't the firing of Frost, or even the result of the Georgia Southern game: it’s the fact that 25 years, five coaches, and an improbable 99 conference losses after Tom Osborne walked off into the sunset with the program’s fifth national title, the Georgia Southern debacle and ensuing pink slip delivery to Frost weren't shocking.

At this point, this is the type of thing that people expect to happen to the Cornhuskers. If only that was consolation to their fans.

Iowa’s defense isn’t enough in Cy-Hawk game

It turns out you need to be decent on both sides of the football to win a game. While the Cornhuskers were all offense, no defense, their rivals across the Missouri River are the exact opposite.

The Hawkeyes once again put seven points on the scoreboard, but this time in a routine way, as their offense finally found the end zone. Unfortunately, that was about all the offense the Hawks could muster. Iowa managed to cobble together just 150 total yards of offense, with 92 of them coming off the arm of Spencer Petras, who finally had his QBR reach double digits (it was 12.1 for this game and is currently 3.4 for the season). Kirk Ferentz, the head man for the Hawkeyes, admitted postgame that “it’s not going well for anybody in the offense, quite frankly,” and the result of the latest Cy-Hawk game bears that out.

The funny thing about Iowa State defeating its in-state rivals for the first time since 2014 is that the Cyclones didn’t even seem that interested in doing so for a good chunk of the game. Except for a 76-yard drive that resulted in three points on the board for Matt Campbell’s squad, ISU was stuck in the mud in the first half, punting four times and losing a turnover twice. Credit the Iowa defense, especially sophomore Cooper DeJean (11 tackles and an interception), for trying to win, because the offense wasn’t going to do it.

The Hawkeye offense continued its never-ending quest to send football back to the stone age (or at best the 1930s) in the second half, failing to score and only coming close once. That drive perfectly encapsulates the season Iowa’s had so far, given that it started inside the Cyclones’ 20 thanks to a punt block and resulted in nothing on the scoreboard. Two plays from that series that are really enjoyable on rewatch are a wide open receiver tripping at the three-yard line with no defenders close to him, followed by a fumble at the one-yard line a few plays later. If not for the first-half touchdown, it would have been fair to wonder whether Iowa’s offense is allergic to the end zone.

It turns out that when your defense has to do everything (including scoring), it gets tired. The Iowa defense certainly was in the fourth quarter, and gave up six third-down conversions on Iowa State’s ensuing 99-yard touchdown drive. Following two earlier turnovers, quarterback Hunter Dekkers looked calm and collected for the Cyclones, accounting for 36 of those 99 yards. The Hawkeye offense’s last gasp, of course, was a punt, a turnover on downs and a missed field goal from 48 yards away to seal the 10-7 defeat.

It is incredible that Iowa’s offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz still is employed by the program, and it may be fair to wonder whether he’d be allowed within 100 yards of a football field if his last name weren’t Ferentz. Heads may start rolling in Iowa City soon, but one thing for sure isn’t rolling: the offense.

No. 19 Wisconsin falls in sloppy fashion

It turns out that Iowa isn’t the only Big Ten team having trouble with Power Five teams at home. The Badgers of Wisconsin, who will likely be unranked by next Saturday, fell to the Cougars of Washington State in Camp Randall Stadium in a game marred by penalties and turnovers. Much like in Iowa City, the UW defense showed up, but the offense failed to match that effort when the chips were down; the result was a 17-14 loss to a nearly 18-point underdog.

The interesting part about this game is that the Wisconsin offense was clicking for a good portion of it. Graham Mertz threw for 227 yards, and Paul Chryst’s loaded backfield totaled 174 rushing yards, but turnovers ended up being killer. This game actually featured two separate instances of a defender fumbling on an interception return and the offense getting another chance, which is kind of fun to watch on replay.

The real trouble for the Badgers came with all the laundry thrown on the field. Wisconsin was penalized 11 times for 106 yards over the course of the game, including a big personal foul penalty in the fourth quarter that pushed its offense out of the red zone just a few plays before a fumble.

There are some good things to take away from this game for the Badgers. Despite a pair of missed field goals, the aforementioned 11 penalties and Braelon Allen being held under 100 yards rushing for just the second time since last September, the Badgers were competitive and could have easily walked away with a win. Wisconsin outgained Washington State by almost 150 yards and dominated on third down, holding the Cougars to a mere 2-for-11 conversion rate.

If the Badger offense is able to shore up its turnovers and the team can avoid committing an excessive number of penalties, Wisco should still be very competitive in the Big Ten West.

Top teams keep the pace

Many people (including myself) were worried about Ohio State’s offense after star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba went down in Week One against Notre Dame. However, the third-ranked Buckeyes are so dangerous on offense because they have so many weapons, and one of them made his name known against Arkansas State in a 45-12 win. Marvin Harrison Jr. put up a stat line that prime Randy Moss — or Marvin Harrison Sr. — would have been proud of, hauling in seven passes for 184 yards and three scores.

The man throwing him the ball, C.J. Stroud, looked every bit the Heisman favorite, throwing for 351 yards and four scores on just 16 completions. TreVeyon Henderson ran for 87 yards on just 10 carries, and if there’s an offense in the country that can go toe-to-toe with peak Ohio State, I’d love to see them in action.

No. 4 Michigan, meanwhile, sent the Rainbow Warriors of Hawaii home with a 56-10 drubbing. J.J. McCarthy responded to the quarterback controversy of last week with aplomb, conducting the Wolverines’ offense beautifully. McCarthy completed 11 of his 12 passes for 229 yards and three touchdowns, and after being the main man of an offense that put up 588 yards of total offense, was named the full-time starter. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh described McCarthy’s day as “near-flawless,” and given that his decision at quarterback was the only real problem Michigan was facing so far this season, it’s easy to imagine the Wolverines going into their October 29 matchup against Michigan State unbeaten and a major player in the College Football Playoff.

Those Spartans, meanwhile, might have some playoff aspirations of their own after a 52-0 domination of Akron. Three different players on Michigan State’s roster (Jalen Berger, Jarek Broussard and Elijah Collins) rushed for 50 or more yards and at least one score, and the offense appears fully in tune. The defense was also spectacular, holding Akron to just 26 yards on 27 carries and forcing four turnovers. There may still be some questions about Payton Thorne — two interceptions and no touchdowns against a team from the MAC isn’t a great look — but MSU should be able to put a scare into some top-ranked teams, especially when they welcome the Buckeyes to East Lansing on October 8.

Minnesota, Maryland make noise on offense in big wins

Don’t look now, but the Minnesota Golden Gophers are 2-0 and currently have a scoring margin of 100-10 for the year.

Mo Ibrahim is a legit star for this team and just marked his tenth straight game of over 100 yards rushing, a streak that is technically four seasons long thanks to the shortened season in 2020 and an injury in 2021. Were it not for TreVeyon Henderson, Ibrahim would probably be the best running back in the Big Ten.

Minnesota also has fifth year starter Tanner Morgan under center, and with the veteran and Ibrahim both in the backfield, Minnesota’s offense is going to be tough to deal with for any opponent. As evidenced by the 62-10 victory over Western Illinois, Minnesota can easily beat teams either on the ground or through the air (or both, in Western Illinois’ case). The current leaders in the Big Ten West avoid both Ohio State and Michigan this year, and if they beat Wisconsin in the season finale, the Golden Gophers could very well earn themselves a trip to Indianapolis.

The Maryland Terrapins, meanwhile, appear to have an offense. Taulia Tagovailoa had himself a day against Charlotte, completing 27 of his 31 passes for 391 yards and four touchdowns in a 56-21 victory. The Maryland O was dominant, converting seven of nine third downs and averaging nearly seven yards a carry en route to 617 yards of total offense. Roman Hemby had a down game (just 29 rushing yards) after his impressive performance against Buffalo, but the freshman is clearly a talented back who will continue to aid Michael Locksley’s offense as the year continues.

It’s far too early to call the Terrapins contenders, especially in a loaded Big Ten East, but the offense looks really good. We’ll find out just how good when they visit the Big House to play Michigan on September 24.

Other Scores:

Penn State 46, Ohio 10

Illinois 24, Virginia 3

Purdue 56, Indiana State 0

Rutgers 66, Wagner 7

Indiana 35, Idaho 22