The Big Ten East may very well be the best conference in football. Among its seven teams, there are three ranked in the top 25, six who have already scored 100 points on the year, two with conference wins and six who are unbeaten through Week Three. All in all, the division sits at 20-1 and could theoretically send two teams to the College Football Playoff (assuming Michigan is unbeaten heading to Columbus on November 26). Unfortunately, there are two divisions in the Big Ten, and the Big Ten West seems to forget how the game of football works on a weekly basis. Whether it’s a home loss to an FCS team (Northwestern, how are you doing?), handing Syracuse a win on a silver platter (Purdue, it’s been a while) or even getting the doors blown off at home less than a week after firing your coach (Nebraska, welcome back), this division is so inconsistent it’s entertaining. All I have to say is this: if the Big Ten is really going to be a super conference within the next decade, half of it is going to need to start pulling its weight, and soon. Right now, though, it certainly appears as though the Big Ten title game will once again be a team from the East dominating a team from the West. That being said, here are some of the best storylines from Week Three:
THE Ohio State University, THE best offense in the nation
It’s not shocking that a team with three players in the preseason top-10 for Heisman betting has a great offense, but it is surprising just how great the Buckeyes have been on O this year.
Consider that against Toledo, TreVeyon Henderson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba combined for just six touches, C.J. Stroud threw only 27 passes, and the Buckeyes were forced into 13 third downs. Ohio State hung 77 points on the hapless Rockets on Saturday, and the scarlet and gray made it look easy. The Buckeyes had 13 offensive drives, and 11 of those ended in the end zone. The other two were a punt and the end of the game. If Stroud isn't the current leader in the Heisman race, he’s got to be very close after his 367 yard, five-touchdown performance.
Three different Buckeyes (Marvin Harrison Jr., Jayden Ballard and Emeka Egbuka) went over the century mark in receiving yards, and the team as a whole averaged 6.4 yards per carry on the ground. Even Kyle McCord, the backup quarterback, threw for 115 yards and a score. The Buckeyes put up an eye-popping 763 yards of total offense, and when you consider that their offense is now sitting at 1,696 yards on the year (for a pace of 565.3 per game), it is scary to imagine what a fully healthy Buckeyes squad will look like in November.
Nebraska still not fully thawed
The Huskers dealt with several program-wide, team-pervasive issues under Scott Frost. Whether it was easily fixable special teams issues, questionable play calls or atrocious tackling, GBR always seemed to find ways to lose games they could have (and in many cases, should have) won. Lots in the Cornhusker State thought that after letting go of Frost, all of those quandaries would magically melt away. However, as anyone who lives north of about 30º North can tell you, de-Frosting anything (especially a football program) takes a while. That was extremely evident against Oklahoma on Saturday, a game in which the Huskers were outclassed in nearly every phase of the game.
The Sooners put up the most points in a game in Lincoln in program history in a 49-14 shellacking, becoming the third straight Nebraska opponent to tally over 500 yards of total offense. Admittedly, the Sooners are a top-10 team in the country, but last year, Nebraska played them relatively closely.
One thing is for sure: if Casey Thompson (14-for-20, 129 yards, left in the third quarter) and the Cornhuskers want to finally climb the hill back to relevance, it will take a long time. The firing of defensive coordinator Erik Chinander is a solid start, but such moves are only window dressing. If Nebraska is to rejoin the ranks of the elite, it must rebuild from the ground up.
Spartans stumble in shocker
Michigan State was a borderline top-10 team heading into Week Three, but the Spartans have fallen all the way out of the top 25. MSU was dominated by an unranked Washington team in a 39-28 loss, and were it not for a pair of touchdowns late in the fourth quarter, the score would have been even more lopsided.
Indiana transfer Michael Penix Jr. had his best game of the year, throwing for 397 yards and four scores. He did miss on 16 of his passes, but when it mattered (he was 7-of-10 on third or fourth down), the fifth-year QB came through. On the Spartan side of things, Payton Thorne could not quite match his counterpart, missing a throw on fourth down and then getting picked off on the next possession to seal Michigan State’s fate. While that was Thorne’s only real mistake, he needed to play perfectly in order to offset Michigan State’s atrocious rushing attack (just 41 yards on the game), and he could not pull that off.
With the Spartans tumbling out of the AP rankings, the only question (given that they have road games against Michigan State and Penn State later this year) is whether the woes will continue.
Tigers and (Nittany) Lions and blowouts, oh my!
Penn State went into Jordan-Hare Stadium and absolutely throttled Auburn, winning 41-12 in a game that wasn't even as close as the 29-point margin seemed. After Auburn cut the deficit to 7-6 midway through the second quarter, the Tigers wouldn't score again until the fourth frame. The Nittany Lions dominated the home squad on the ground, rushing for 245 yards on 39 carries. Freshman back Nick Singleton had his second straight performance over the century mark rushing, and every time he took a handoff, it was almost a guaranteed first down at 12.4 yards per carry.
Ageless wonder Sean Clifford did what he was supposed to do through the air and on the ground — no interceptions, a rushing TD — and ensured the offense was operating smoothly all game. The defense, meanwhile, made T.J. Finley’s life miserable, sacking him eight times and forcing a pair of turnovers. The Auburn offense was able to move the ball, but four turnovers (compared to a clean slate for Penn State) and a 5-of-15 mark on third downs meant the game was never really competitive.
For the Nittany Lions, they’ve passed their first big test of the year. The next one, on October 15 in the Big House, figures to be must-watch television.
More like Pur-don’t
Oh, Boilermakers. What are we going to do with you? Kicking off from your own 10 after some unsportsmanlike conduct flags? Committing two brain-melting penalties on back-to-back third downs to keep your opponent in it? Running man-to-man with 15 seconds left when you know that Syracuse needs a touchdown? Throwing a pick-six to a defensive lineman?
The Boilermakers falling to the Orange 32-29 marks their second loss this year of four points or fewer. And when you look at how they closed in their opening loss to Penn State — the fourth quarter went punt, punt, punt, punt, end of game — you have to wonder if this team knows how to win close football games. Yes, they've caught some bad breaks. Those, unfortunately, are a part of football for every squad. You can out-gain your opponent by 179 yards, you can go 10-of-17 on third downs, you can even come back from a double digit deficit. But when you commit 13 penalties for 138 yards, when your rushing attack totals just 61 yards on a putrid 2.8 yards a carry and when you can't capitalize on special teams, you’re not going to win football games.
Purdue is not a bad football team. Aidan O’Connell is a very good quarterback who doesn't make mistakes very often, Charlie Jones would be a bonafide top receiver on most teams, and the Boilermakers have taken multiple interceptions to the house. Right now, though, they can’t seem to execute when the chips are down. And if you can’t do that, you won’t win many games in the Big Ten.
Hail, hail to Michigan
What a time it is to be a Wolverines fan. The depth Michigan put on display in its 59-0 shellacking of UConn could rival even Georgia, with seven different players completing a pass and eight Wolverines receiving multiple carries. The day belonged, of course, to junior running back Blake Corum, who tied a school record with five rushing touchdowns on just 12 carries. Also of note is the defense, which allowed the Huskies to cross their own 35-yard line just twice throughout the course of the game. Michigan came into the Big House and did what it had to do, executing well on both offense and defense.
J.J. McCarthy has proven to be an excellent starter and has thrown just four total incompletions on the year. UM is currently sitting at fourth in the AP rankings, and it’s a well-deserved spot considering how much talent Jim Harbaugh’s squad brought back from last year’s Big Ten-winning squad.
But, there are still some questions. Opening the year with home games against Colorado State, Hawaii and UConn isn't exactly a murderer’s row. And while dropping 50 points in each of those games looks great to voters, there’s a real chance this offense will hit a wall when Big Ten play rolls around. Whether or not they’ll be able to beat the Buckeyes (especially in Columbus) this year is still in question, but the maize and blue certainly have the offense to do it.
Southern Illinois 31, Northwestern 24
Indiana 33, Western Kentucky 30 (OT)
Rutgers 16, Temple 14
Minnesota 49, Colorado 7
Wisconsin 66, New Mexico State 7
Iowa 27, Nevada 0
Maryland 34, SMU 27