The much-anticipated return of Big Ten football arrived over the weekend, and it was thankfully met without any COVID-19 interruptions.
While there were eye-popping results and fantastic finishes — games that we’ll discuss later on in the power rankings — I’d like to take the time to briefly mention one of the more underrated storylines of the Big Ten’s opening weekend: the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
Prior to Saturday’s shocking 38-27 road triumph over Michigan State, the Scarlet Knights had dropped their last 21 conference games. Rutgers’ last win in the Big Ten came in November, 2017 in a 31-24 home victory over Maryland. Rutgers’ last conference road victory came in the same season, a comfortable 35-24 win at Illinois in October.
When a program with a recent run of form like Rutgers secures a potentially program-changing victory, there are bound to be a few wild statistics. Some of my favorites include: this is the first time the Scarlet Knights have ever won their Big Ten opener, Rutgers hadn’t scored this many points in a Big Ten game since 2015 and that Saturday marked the first time that Rutgers had beaten Michigan State in Big Ten play.
Former Nebraska quarterback senior Noah Vedral performed well in his Rutgers debut, going 18-of-29 for 169 yards with one passing touchdown and one interception. Vedral added a 24-yard rushing touchdown in the second quarter to give the Scarlet Knights a 21-7 lead.
The star of the day, though, was the Rutgers defense. The Scarlet Knights forced seven total Michigan State turnovers on Saturday — Rutgers’ most in a single game since 2000. Spartan junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi tossed two interceptions, and Michigan State fumbled the ball five times.
A few winnable games (Illinois, at Maryland) remain on the Scarlet Knights’ schedule, and it would be cool to see the once-downtrodden program nab a few more wins this season.
With that, let’s get into how the Big Ten stands after week one in this week’s Big Ten power rankings.
1. Ohio State Buckeyes (1-0)
It took them a half to get warmed up, but the Buckeyes ultimately proved why they’re a national championship frontrunner in a 52-17 thrashing of Nebraska on Saturday.
Junior quarterback Justin Fields turned in another masterful performance against the Huskers, completing 95% of his passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns. Fields made plays on the ground as well, rushing for 54 yards and a third-quarter score that gave the Buckeyes a 31-14 advantage.
A majority of Fields’ yards went to a pair of wide receivers: junior Chris Olave and sophomore Garrett Wilson. Olave totaled six receptions for 104 yards, but could’ve had more were it not for him leaving the game in the second half with a head injury. Wilson had a career-high day against Nebraska, hauling in seven passes for 129 yards and a touchdown.
For as good as Fields, Olave and Wilson were, Ohio State did not run the ball well against Nebraska until garbage time. Fields was the Buckeyes’ leading rusher against Nebraska, while senior running back Trey Sermon and sophomore running back Master Teague III struggled to get going. Both finished with pedestrian stat lines, Sermon with 11 carries for 48 yards and Teague with 12 carries for 41 yards and two touchdowns.
Ohio State will need to get its rushing attack going if the Buckeyes hope to handle some of the conference’s better opposition. Teague and Sermon will look to bounce back when the No. 3 Buckeyes visit No. 18 Penn State on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. on ABC.
2. Wisconsin Badgers (1-0)
First, the good news.
No. 9 Wisconsin looked sharp in its season-opening blowout of Illinois on Friday. Redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz impressed in his first collegiate start, throwing for 248 yards and five touchdowns in Wisconsin's 45-7 rout. Junior tight end Jake Ferguson caught seven passes for 72 yards and three touchdowns, and he looked to be one of Mertz’s favorite red-zone targets.
The Badger defense held Illinois to 218 total yards and no offensive touchdowns, with Illinois’ lone score coming on a fumble recovery in the second quarter. And while the Badgers did average just 3.4 yards per carry against a beleaguered Illini defense, the prowess of Mertz should be enough to keep Wisconsin in games all year.
That is, unless he isn’t playing. Remember how I said that there weren’t any major coronavirus interruptions in week one? That could change significantly, as it was announced that Mertz tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday.
If a second test comes back positive, he’ll miss games against Nebraska, Purdue and Michigan. It would be a crushing blow to a Wisconsin squad that is already down one quarterback, as senior quarterback Jack Coan was ruled out indefinitely with a foot injury before the season started.
Keep an eye on Mertz’s status, as Wisconsin is slated to visit Nebraska on Saturday. If he can’t play and a backup fills in on short notice, the Huskers’ chances improve significantly. The game kicks off at 2:30 p.m. on FS1.
3. Michigan Wolverines (1-0)
Perhaps I should’ve done a bit more research as to why those closest to the Michigan football program were so high on junior quarterback Joe Milton.
The No. 13 Wolverines pulled off perhaps the most impressive result of the Big Ten’s opening slate, a 49-24 beatdown of the then-No. 21 Minnesota Golden Gophers. Milton looked solid, completing 15-of-22 passes for 225 yards and one touchdown. The 6-foot-5 quarterback is also a fantastic runner, and he ran well against Minnesota to the tune of 52 yards and a touchdown on eight attempts.
Elsewhere on the offense, Michigan junior running back Hassan Haskins ran for 82 yards and two touchdowns while junior Ronnie Bell led the Wolverines in receiving with four catches for 74 yards.
Michigan’s defense was the story of Saturday night’s game. The Wolverines sacked Minnesota junior quarterback Tanner Morgan five times, one of which was a crushing first-quarter shot that Morgan fumbled, giving the Wolverines a lead it wouldn’t relinquish. Michigan limited the usually-reliable Morgan to 197 passing yards and one touchdown, a testament to a truly dominating opening-weekend performance.
The Wolverines host a reeling Michigan State squad on Saturday at 11 a.m. on Fox.
4. Indiana Hoosiers (1-0)
In order for Indiana to take the next step forward in becoming a perennial competitor in the Big Ten East, it needs to prove that it can compete with the conference’s best.
Indiana did just that on Saturday afternoon, taking advantage of critical late-game errors to upset then-No. 8 Penn State in a 36-35 overtime victory. The Hoosiers raced out to a 17-7 halftime lead, boosted by two rushing touchdowns from junior running back Stevie Scott III. Penn State stormed back though, and a late touchdown run by Nittany Lion sophomore back Devyn Ford (more on that run later) handed Penn State a 28-20 lead with 1:42 to go.
That’s when sophomore quarterback Michael Penix Jr. took the game over. A look at Penix’s stat line from the Penn State game would reveal a largely ineffective performance. After all, he completed just over 50% of his passes for a pedestrian one touchdown and one interception.
However when the Hoosiers needed a big play, he delivered. Penix completed 5-of-6 passes on Indiana’s game-tying drive for 54 yards. He punched it in from one yard out to cut the Nittany Lion lead to two, and ran it in to tie the game at 28 with 22 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
In overtime, Penix delivered a 9-yard touchdown strike to senior wide receiver Whop Philyor following a Penn State touchdown to make the score 35-34. Instead of trying an extra point to tie the game, Indiana opted to go for the win. Penix delivered again, with an incredible game-winning rush in which he made an acrobatic stretch to push the ball across the goal line.
Following the win, Indiana moved to No. 17 in the country — the program’s highest ranking in 27 years. The Hoosiers host undefeated Rutgers this week, a Saturday kickoff at 2:30 p.m. on BTN.
5. Penn State Nittany Lions (0-1)
Football is a truly strange game. Oftentimes, one or two inches are the difference between a team winning or losing. Unfortunately for Nittany Lions coach James Franklin, his team learned that the hard way on Saturday in Bloomington, Indiana.
Let’s break down the aforementioned touchdown run by Ford, an inexcusable mental error that ultimately cost Penn State the game. The Nittany Lions were up 21-20, and at the Indiana 14-yard line with 1:46 left looking to finish off an impressive road victory. Penn State had a first down, while Indiana had one timeout remaining. All Penn State needed to do was pick up one first down and it would be able to kneel out the clock.
Instead, Indiana head coach Tom Allen and his defense outsmarted Penn State’s offense. Instead of bringing pressure in an attempt to force a field goal, the Hoosiers essentially stood in their tracks to create a wide-open hole for Ford to run through. Indiana wanted Penn State to score so they’d have a chance to at least tie, and Ford’s mental lapse allowed that to happen.
After Indiana tied the game at 28 and botched the ensuing kickoff with 22 seconds left, Penn State found itself with a 57-yard field goal to win the game. Nittany Lion junior kicker Jordan Stout missed — Penn State’s third missed field goal of the game. Penix’s game-winning conversion was close (and hotly contested on social media) but the Nittany Lions shouldn’t have been in that situation to begin with.
The Nittany Lions don’t have much time to gripe, as they’re faced with a must-win game on Saturday at home against No. 3 Ohio State. If Penn State loses, it can essentially kiss its Big Ten Championship aspirations goodbye.
6. Minnesota Golden Gophers (0-1)
I still believe in the Golden Gophers as a legitimate threat in the Big Ten West, but Saturday’s 49-24 defeat to Michigan was eye-opening for a couple of reasons.
The first is that Minnesota’s defense turned in an absolutely shocking performance. After losing seven starters from last year’s unit, the Golden Gophers forced one Michigan punt and conceded nearly 500 total yards. Minnesota didn’t force a turnover, and allowed seven plays longer than 20 yards — including two runs of more than 65 yards.
Furthermore, Minnesota’s offense was ineffective on Saturday night. Morgan never really got going, as apparent by his 197 passing yards. Junior wide receiver Rashod Bateman and junior running back Mohamed Ibrahim were the lone pieces of the Golden Gopher offense that found success on Saturday. Ibrahim rushed 26 times for 140 yards and a touchdown while Bateman had nine receptions for 101 yards.
Head coach PJ Fleck’s squad has a great opportunity for a get-right spot at Maryland, who lost 43-3 to Northwestern last week. Saturday’s contest kicks off at 6:30 p.m. on ESPN.
7. Purdue Boilermakers (1-0)
In another one of the surprises of the Big Ten’s opening week, Purdue shocked Iowa 24-20 in West Lafayette, Indiana.
After some questions surrounding the starting quarterback spot this season, junior Aidan O’Connell filled the position admirably against the Hawkeyes. O’Connell completed 31-of-50 passes for 282 yards, three passing touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Hawkeyes were unable to slow down the Boilermaker offense, specifically junior running back Zander Horvath and sophomore wide receiver David Bell. Horvath torched Iowa on the ground, totaling 21 carries for 129 yards. Bell was O’Connell’s number one target, hauling in 13 passes for 121 yards and three touchdowns.
However, the Boilermakers found themselves down 20-17 late in the game. This was until the defense forced a momentum-changing fumble with six minutes left in the fourth quarter. O’Connell led the Boilermakers on a game-winning drive, finding Bell in the end zone with 2:15 left to hand Purdue a 24-20 lead.
Purdue will look to improve to 2-0 when it visits Illinois on Saturday. Kickoff is at 11:00 a.m. on BTN.
8. Iowa Hawkeyes (0-1)
There were a couple of bright spots for Iowa on Saturday afternoon in an otherwise gloomy opening contest that saw the Hawkeyes fall to 0-1.
Yes, senior running back Mekhi Sargent lost a critical fumble that ultimately led to Iowa falling 24-20, but there were other bright spots on the offense. Sophomore quarterback Spencer Petras looked good in his first start for the Hawkeyes, completing 22-of-39 passes for 265 yards. Even better, Petras didn’t turn the ball over — an encouraging sign for the rest of the year.
However aside from the Hawkeyes rushing for 195 yards as a team, there weren't many other positives. Hawkeye senior wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette failed to catch a pass on Saturday, and it’s difficult to win games when a team’s most talented player isn’t touching the ball.
Additionally, Iowa had no answer for Bell and Horvath. Iowa’s run defense against Purdue was especially concerning, as the Hawkeyes will face many more run-heavy teams this season. Head coach Kirk Ferentz must make some defensive adjustments if the Hawkeyes are to find success in 2020.
Iowa hosts undefeated Northwestern on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. on ESPN.
9. Nebraska Cornhuskers (0-1)
After one week, I think it’s fair to rate Nebraska as the ninth-best team in the conference.
This is due to a combination of Nebraska’s first-half performance against a high-quality opponent and the teams below it either putting in poor performances or defeating far inferior opponents. And it’s really true that the Huskers had Ohio State off-balance in the first half.
Nebraska offensive coordinator Matt Lubick put together a creative early game script, as the Huskers utilized redshirt freshman backup quarterback Luke McCaffrey in different ways, and a touchdown run from senior running back Dedrick Mills tied the score at 14 with eight minutes left in the second quarter.
The Blackshirts made a crucial defensive stop on the Buckeyes’ ensuing drive, holding Ohio State’s potent offense to a field goal to give the Buckeyes a 17-14 lead. Nebraska’s offense horribly mismanaged its next drive, and the Buckeyes were able to score another touchdown before the half, aided by multiple key penalties by the Husker defense.
Nebraska fell apart in the second half, but its first-half performance is something to build on for the rest of the season. The Huskers host No. 9 Wisconsin on Saturday.
10. Northwestern Wildcats (1-0)
Welcome to the power rankings, Northwestern.
Maryland may be one of the worst Power Five teams in the country, but I’ll give credit where it’s due. The Wildcats thrashed Maryland 43-3, behind a defense that intercepted Terrapin sophomore quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa three times. Northwestern’s defense forced four total turnovers while limiting Maryland to 207 total yards.
On the offensive end, Northwestern gained 537 yards — 325 of which came on the ground. Sophomore running back Drake Anderson carried 10 times for 103 yards and a touchdown, while junior running back Isaiah Bowser added 70 rushing yards and a score.
Senior quarterback Peyton Ramsey, an Indiana transfer, led the efficient Wildcat attack. Ramsey completed 23-of-30 passes for 212 yards and one touchdown while rushing for 47 yards and a touchdown.
All in all, it was a dominant performance, albeit against the league’s worst team. Northwestern faces its first real test on Saturday when the Wildcats visit Iowa.
Rest of the Big Ten
11. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (1-0)
12. Illinois Fighting Illini (0-1)
13. Michigan State Spartans (0-1)
14. Maryland Terrapins (0-1)