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Around the Big Ten, Week Four: Conference play clears up contenders

The Big Ten isn’t wide open, but there are a few teams who could make a run at Indianapolis.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

For the first time since Sept. 2, we had matchups between two Big Ten Teams. While conference play will truly begin next week with seven games of Big Ten matchups, this week was a nice preview as to how the conference will likely shape up this year. The Big Ten East is still almost assuredly going to produce the conference winner, but the West does appear to have at least one team that could put up a fight in Indianapolis (we’ll get to them later in the article). This week wasn’t incredibly shocking, as most storylines heading into Saturday were proven correct. The only really crazy thing was Iowa scoring 27 points against Rutgers, but 14 of those came thanks to the defense, so even that result makes sense when you dive a little deeper. There are still some questions left about certain Big Ten teams (especially those who play in Michigan), but for the most part every team in the conference is who we thought they were. So without further ado, here’s some of the best storylines from Week Four:

Ohio State blacks out Wisconsin

The Badgers were the first real test for No. 3 Ohio State this year since the opener against Notre Dame, and the Buckeyes passed with flying colors. Ohio State is simply on a different planet than Wisconsin, and it showed in the game. The Buckeyes opened with four consecutive touchdown drives, none of which took longer than 3:30, while the Badgers opened with a turnover and two punts before finally getting on the board well into the second quarter. By that time, it was already 28-7, and the Buckeyes could cruise the rest of the way en route to a comfortable 52-21 win that the backups finished off.

If it wasn't clear to people already, it should be now: Ohio State is the only team with a realistic shot to prevent a fourth straight College Football Playoff trophy from going to the SEC. C.J. Stroud, who’s currently tied for first in the nation in touchdowns and sitting at second in QB rating, had another magnificent day, throwing for 281 yards and five touchdowns. Barring something miraculous, Stroud should bring Ohio State its eighth Heisman trophy later this year, especially with how prolific the Buckeye offense is (three straight games with over 40 points).

For Wisconsin, there’s not much to say. Braelon Allen is a fantastic running back, but putting Graham Mertz under center in a battle with Ohio State is like brining a spoon to a knife fight when the other guy brought a tank. The Badgers’ schedule does lighten up significantly the rest of the way (they play both Northwestern and Nebraska), but if they want to make it to Indianapolis for the seventh time (and first since 2019), they don’t have much margin for error anymore.

Michigan marches past Maryland

While the No. 4 Wolverines’ 3-0 record and 166-17 scoring margin looked very good heading into Saturday, they wouldn’t truly be taken seriously until they were able to beat a Big Ten team convincingly. And they did...sort of. Blake Corum (+4000 in the Heisman race right now if you enjoy risky bets) had by far his best game of the year, toting the rock 30 times for 243 yards and a pair of scores. J.J. McCarthy also played very well, completing 18 of his 26 passes for 220 yards and two more touchdowns.

To be honest, though, the 34-27 scoreline might say more about Maryland than it does about the Wolverines. The Terrapins were out-gained by over 100 rushing yards, lost the turnover battle 3-1, gave up six yards per carry, and fumbled the opening kickoff to let Michigan start at the 10-yard line. And yet, were it not for that fumble on the kickoff, or Taulia Tagovailoa’s second interception on a spectacular play by Michigan’s R.J. Moten or Forum’s 33-yard scamper on fourth-and-one to close the first half, there’s a real chance Maryland could have won this game.

Both teams should come away from this game encouraged. Maryland has shown that it can put a scare into the big boys of the conference, while Michigan has shown that it can execute well to close games out (17 fourth quarter points for the Wolverines). It’s too early to say whether Michigan deserves the number four spot in the country, but they are certainly a Big Ten contender.

Minnesota massacres Michigan State

Don’t let the 34-7 final score fool you. This game wasn't that close. The Spartans, ranked just outside the top 10 a mere 14 days earlier, got demolished in all phases of the game at home. No. 20 Minnesota got 32 first downs compared to 14 for the Michigan State, 508 total yards compared to 240 and 240 rushing yards compared to just 38. When you consider that the Golden Gophers have now beaten two Power Five teams by a combined score of 83-14, there should definitely be a lot of AP votes coming their way this week. Senior quarterback Tanner Morgan lit up the supposedly Spartan defense (see what I did there?) for 268 yards and three scores on an incredibly efficient 23-for-26 mark. Mo Ibrahim continues to cement himself as one of the better backs in the Big Ten, rushing for 103 yards and earning his eighth end zone trip of the year.

As for the Spartans, it may be time to panic. If Payton Thorne can only throw for 132 yards and your leading rusher (Jarek Broussard) garners just 32 yards, questions need to be asked. And when the offense is playing that poorly, the defense needs to play perfectly to offset it. Michigan State’s defense (500+ yards given up in consecutive games now) is far from it, but at least they’ll have some easy competition the rest of the way with... Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State. Good luck, Sparty.

As for Minnesota, its toughest test of the year is Penn State in Happy Valley on Oct. 22, but other than that its schedule in-conference is easy to deal with. If Morgan keeps on slinging the ball like he has been and Ibrahim keeps running all over defenses, don't be surprised to see the Golden Gophers in Indianapolis on Dec. 3.

Penn State continues to party

The No. 11 Nittany Lions are comfortably sitting at 4-0, and after their 33-14 victory over Central Michigan have now won three straight games by 19 or more. Sean Clifford is now completing 64% of his passes on the year and has a touchdown to interception ratio of 8-to-1. Kaytron Allen and Nick Singleton are both already over 200 rushing yards on the year, and Clifford is no slouch running the ball, having scored his fourth touchdown of the year against the Chippewas. The rush defense still hasn't allowed an opponent to gain over 120 yards rushing, and the pass defense currently has eight players with multiple pass breakups.

The Nittany Lions’ offense certainly isn't on the level of Ohio State’s, but when you combine an above-average offense with a great defense, you get results like last week’s 41-12 demolition of Auburn. Penn State’s fanbase is also a major factor in many of their games, and both Minnesota and Ohio State have to come to Happy Valley in late October. If Clifford, the fifth-year senior, can continue to be one of the more efficient passers in the conference, then Penn State has a real shot to pull some stunners and make it to Indianapolis.

Iowa is becoming self-aware

The Hawkeyes literally do not need an offense. In each of their three wins, all of their offensive points could be removed from the board entirely and that would not change the result. All seven of their points against South Dakota State were on special teams, they shut out Nevada in a game where Drew Stevens made two field goals and on Saturday they held Rutgers to 10 points in a game where their defense reached the end zone twice. Currently, their offense has scored five touchdowns on the year for a total of 30 points. Their defense and special teams have combined for two safeties, two touchdowns, five field goals and seven extra points for a total of 38 points. Combine that with the fact that the defense has given up just 23 points all season, and the result is a team that knows exactly how they are going to win football games.

Sure, the offense can average a paltry three yards a carry and Spencer Petras can miss almost half of his passes. The defense doesn't need it to win games. Even when Iowa gives up a lot of yardage (Rutgers gained 366 yards despite the 27-10 loss), it will just take the ball when it needs to. Led by sophomore Cooper DeJean (three interceptions this year), the Hawkeye defense has forced seven turnovers on the year, and the team has turned those into 27 points. Sure, Iowa is literally dead last in the nation in total offensive yards per game. But the sixth-best defense in the nation doesn't need any help; they’ve been able to do it all on their own.

Other Scores

Illinois 31, Chattanooga 0

Cincinnati 45, Indiana 24

Miami (OH) 17, Northwestern 14

Purdue 28, Florida Atlantic 26