Four games down, four games to go.
Well, at least that’s the case for a majority of Big Ten teams in 2020. Despite a couple of canceled games and team-wide COVID-19 outbreaks, the conference has officially reached the halfway point of the season.
There have been some incredible developments in the conference thus far — the renaissances at both Northwestern and Indiana, chief among them. The negative headlines, though, have focused on two squads: Michigan and Penn State.
Entering the season, I was much more skeptical about Michigan than I was about Penn State. In my preseason power rankings, I said that if the Wolverines could not get consistent play from junior quarterback Joe Milton, they would be a .500 team at best. I thought the Wolverines had proven me wrong by waxing Minnesota on the road in week one of Big Ten play, but they’ve been nothing short of abysmal since.
Milton has been predictably shaky, completing just over 58% of his passes for four touchdowns and four interceptions. The Wolverine defense is giving up 425.8 yards per game, the No. 79 mark in the country. But perhaps most importantly, Michigan was embarrassed in a 49-11 rout at home to Wisconsin last Saturday, sending the Wolverines to their worst start to a season in over 50 years.
The problems in Michigan are plentiful, and there are question marks as to whether or not head coach Jim Harbaugh will make it through the rest of this season in charge of the Wolverines. Michigan does have a win, though, and will look to get a much needed boost this weekend when it visits Rutgers on Saturday.
Penn State cannot say the same, as it is 0-4 after a gut-wrenching loss to Nebraska. The Nittany Lions are a more curious case, as it’s quite apparent that they have the talent to hang with anyone in the conference. However, head coach James Franklin’s squad is incapable, apparently, of completing a full four quarters of football.
The Nittany Lions have been severely outclassed in the first halves of games, often leaving themselves with too insurmountable of a deficit with too little time to make it up. Penn State squares off with a resurgent Iowa squad on Saturday, hoping to avoid a program-worst 0-5 start.
The two teams, Penn State and Michigan, meet over Thanksgiving weekend. No matter how either team fares this week, a matchup seen as a late-season clash between Big Ten contenders before the season started will have absolutely no implications, something that seemed impossible at the beginning of the year.
With that out of the way, let’s see where the conference stands at the halfway point of the season in the week four Big Ten power rankings.
1. Ohio State Buckeyes (3-0)
Everyone expected Ohio State to have a November showdown against a Big Ten East foe for control of the division before the season started.
Except people thought that team would be Penn State or Michigan. Instead, the No. 3 Buckeyes welcome the No. 9 Indiana Hoosiers to Columbus on Saturday in a clash of undefeated squads. Ohio State should be well-rested after its game with Maryland last weekend was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns in the Terrapins’ program.
This game should be fun, and I’m personally looking forward to the Hoosiers giving the Buckeyes all they can handle. Outside of a potential Big Ten Championship matchup with Wisconsin, Indiana is the toughest team remaining on the Buckeyes’ schedule. If Ohio State wins, it should breeze into the conference championship game unblemished.
Saturday’s standoff at the Horseshoe kicks off at 11 a.m. on FOX.
2. Wisconsin Badgers (2-0)
Welcome back Wisconsin football and welcome back Graham Mertz.
The talented redshirt freshman quarterback turned in an effective performance in Wisconsin’s 49-11 victory over Michigan, going 12-of-22 for 122 yards and two touchdowns. The Badgers ran for 341 yards on an overmatched Michigan defense, while the defense intercepted Milton twice en-route to building a 28-point halftime lead.
Wisconsin cruised from there. Freshman running back Jalen Berger led the Badgers in rushing with 87 yards and a touchdown, and junior fullback John Chenal had six carries for 71 yards and a score.
Senior wide receiver Danny Davis III and sophomore running back Nakia Watson each added 65 yards on the ground, rounding out a dominant Badger rushing performance.
While Ohio State and Indiana face off for Big Ten East supremacy, No. 10 Wisconsin visits No. 19 Northwestern in a battle for Big Ten West supremacy this weekend. If Wisconsin slips up against the Wildcats, it may be hard to get back into the lead in the division — especially with Indiana and Iowa remaining on the schedule.
Northwestern, meanwhile, closes with Michigan State, Minnesota and Illinois. In other words, Saturday’s game is a must-win for Wisconsin. The top-20 game kicks off at 2:30 p.m. on ABC.
3. Indiana Hoosiers (4-0)
I’ll be honest, I suspected last Saturday’s game against Michigan State would be of the trap-game variety, especially with the potential of a top-10 clash against Ohio State looming.
I underestimated Hoosier head coach Tom Allen’s ability to get his team ready to play, it appears. Indiana shut out the Spartans 24-0 behind a monster performance from senior wide receiver Ty Fryfogle. In the first half of last Saturday’s contest, Fryfogle had nine receptions for 178 yards and two touchdowns.
That was more than enough for Indiana’s defense, which held Michigan State to 191 total yards and forced four Spartan turnovers. Indiana scored all of its points in the first half, and coasted in the second half to pick up its fourth consecutive victory.
Sophomore quarterback Michael Penix Jr. was efficient again, completing 25-of-38 passes for 320 yards and two touchdowns. He also threw two interceptions, something he’ll need to clean up ahead of the Hoosiers’ contest with Ohio State. Junior running back Stevie Scott III had 84 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
If the Hoosiers are to hang with the Buckeyes on Saturday, they will need to limit turnovers and finish redzone opportunities. On two separate occasions in the second half against Michigan State, Indiana found itself with a fourth-and-short opportunity well inside the Spartan redzone. Indiana failed to convert both times.
Still, I expect Saturday’s game to be much closer than the nearly three-touchdown spread suggests. Indiana is a quality team, and I’m hoping it proves that against the No. 3 Buckeyes.
4. Northwestern Wildcats (4-0)
For the second consecutive week, Northwestern picked up a win without relying on the running attack.
The Wildcats held off Purdue 27-20 last Saturday in a Big Ten West battle, and it did so while managing just 80 total rushing yards. Junior running back Isaiah Bowser was Northwestern’s leading rusher, carrying the ball 13 times for 27 yards.
Graduate transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey shouldered the brunt of Northwestern’s offensive production, completing 23-of-36 passes for 212 yards and three touchdowns. All three of those touchdowns went to senior wide receiver Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, who had eight catches for 86 yards to go along with those three scores.
Northwestern’s defense, meanwhile, held Purdue junior running back Zander Horvath to 10 carries for 21 yards, by far his lowest output of the season. The Boilermakers were the first team to score a second-half point against the Wildcats, but Northwestern’s defense did just enough late in the game to pull out the victory.
If Northwestern can shock Wisconsin on Saturday, head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s squad can all-but book their tickets to Indianapolis, barring some sort of late-season setback.
5. Iowa Hawkeyes (2-2)
Based on its first four games, Iowa feels like a team that could’ve really used a non-conference schedule to work some kinks out.
It appeared that the sky was falling after back-to-back losses to open the season against Northwestern and Purdue, but Iowa has responded by outscoring its last two opponents by a combined 84-14. The most recent beatdown came last Friday, as Iowa stomped Minnesota 35-7.
The Hawkeyes’ gameplan against Minnesota was simple: have sophomore quarterback Spencer Petras make plays when he needs to and dominate on the ground. Petras did his part against the Golden Gophers, completing 9-of-18 passes for 111 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
Iowa sophomore running back Tyler Goodson had his second consecutive 100-yard game, carrying the ball 20 times for 142 yards and two touchdowns. Senior running back Mekhi Sargent had 86 rushing yards and a touchdown. Iowa’s defense stifled Minnesota junior quarterback Tanner Morgan all game, forcing two interceptions and shutting the Golden Gophers out until late in the fourth quarter.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz’s squad appears to be rolling back into form, and it will look to extend its winning streak to three games this Saturday when the Hawkeyes visit Penn State. Kickoff is at 2:30 p.m. on the Big Ten Network.
6. Purdue Boilermakers (2-1)
It’s hard to fault Purdue’s effort last Saturday, as the Boilermakers arguably played the Wildcats better than any opponent Northwestern had faced thus far.
Unfortunately, the Boilermakers couldn’t quite come back from the two-score deficit they dug themselves in the game’s final 30 minutes. After both teams exchanged punts on the first two drives of the second half, Purdue had the ball down 17-10 with a chance to tie the game. Boilermaker junior quarterback Aidan O’Connell fumbled, though, and Northwestern promptly scored to extend its lead to 24-10.
In the fourth quarter, O’Connell found sophomore wide receiver Milton Wright in the end zone to cut Northwestern’s lead to 27-20 with just over seven minutes left, but the Boilermaker offense was unable to put another successful drive together.
Purdue can take pride in the fact that it was the first unit to score points in the second half on Northwestern’s stout defense, but one has to wonder about the game’s final score if O'Connell hadn’t fumbled. The Boilermakers will look to rebound on Friday, when they visit Minnesota for a 6:30 p.m. kickoff on the Big Ten Network.
7. Maryland Terrapins (2-1)
It’s a shame that last Saturday’s matchup between Maryland and Ohio State was canceled, as it would’ve been fun to see two high-powered offenses go back and forth.
Maryland is still on a two-game winning streak, though, and it will look to extend it when it hosts an inconsistent Michigan State squad on Saturday. A win would put the Terrapins in great position to finish the regular season above .500, as head coach Mike Locksley’s squad finishes the regular season with No. 9 Indiana, Michigan and Rutgers.
The Terrapins and Spartans kick off at 11 a.m. on the Big Ten Network.
8. Nebraska Huskers (1-2)
Nebraska really needs to work on the whole “second-half” thing.
For the second consecutive week, the Huskers looked solid in the first half and out of sync in the second. Only this time, it resulted in a win, thanks to Nebraska’s dominance in the first half.
The Huskers raced out to a 27-6 halftime lead last Saturday against the Nittany Lions, highlighted by a three-minute stretch that saw freshman wide receiver Zavier Betts take a 45-yard touch pass for a touchdown followed by a strip-sack, fumble-recovery touchdown by senior safety Deontai Williams.
Those two plays quickly turned a 10-3 game into a 24-3 game, silencing the visiting Nittany Lions. Penn State redshirt sophomore quarterback Will Levis was inserted into the game following the strip-sack, and nearly led a comeback in the second half as Nebraska’s offense fell flat.
Ultimately Penn State’s red zone woes at the end of the game proved too much to overcome, and the Blackshirts held in critical moments to deliver Nebraska its first victory of the season. It was also the first win in the young career of redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey, who completed 13-of-21 passes for 152 yards, one touchdown and one interception in his first career start. He added 13 carries for 67 yards and a score on the ground on top of that.
Something to monitor entering Saturday's game against Illinois will be the health of senior running back Dedrick Mills. He picked up a knock early against Penn State, and Nebraska could really use a stretch of dominant performances from him. If Mills is healthy enough to play against the Illini, look for him to be fed early and often.
Nebraska and Illinois kick off at 11 a.m. on Saturday on FS1.
9. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (1-3)
This is where the power rankings get messy, as ranking the bottom half of the Big Ten is a crapshoot.
I’ll stick with the Scarlet Knights at No. 9, a team that nearly beat Illinois despite a poor performance from senior quarterback Noah Vedral. Most of the former Husker’s numbers were impressive against the Fighting Illini, completing 21-of-34 passes for 256 yards and two touchdowns.
The problem was his three interceptions, the last of which came with Rutgers at Illinois’ 39-yard line with just over a minute to go. The game was tied at 20, and the Scarlet Knights could’ve walked away with a victory if they picked up a few more yards. Instead, Vedral threw a ball behind his intended receiver, which was then tipped and intercepted by an Illinois defender who nearly returned it to midfield.
Illinois went on to kick a last-second field goal to win 23-20.
Rutgers’ loss spoils an incredible performance from junior running back Isaih Pacheco, who had 20 carries for 133 yards, a season-high in both categories. Scarlet Knight senior wide receiver Bo Melton had five catches for a season-high 150 yards and two touchdowns.
The Scarlet Knights are sticking with Vedral as the starter, and he’ll look to lead Rutgers to an upset when it hosts Michigan on Saturday. The matchup of 1-3 squads kicks off at 6:30 p.m. on the Big Ten Network.
10. Illinois Fighting Illini (1-3)
I really wanted to put Minnesota here, but I’ll instead give props to head coach Lovie Smith’s squad for grinding out a road victory over Rutgers last Saturday.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Isaiah Williams started against the Scarlet Knights, the Illini’s fourth starting quarterback this season. Williams, a dual-threat option, was stellar on the ground against Rutgers.
He set Illinois’ single-game rushing record for a quarterback. Williams had 31 carries for 192 yards and a touchdown, while completing 7-of-18 passes for 104 yards. Illinois head coach Lovie Smith made sure to feed Williams early and often, and it paid off in the Illini’s first win of the season.
As of now, it’s unclear whether Williams will start against Nebraska on Saturday or if Illinois will plug senior quarterback Brandon Peters, who missed the last three weeks due to testing positive for COVID-19, back into the lineup. Williams certainly has a hot hand, and would pose a challenge given Nebraska’s struggles with Levis last weekend.
Illinois’ quarterback situation will be something to monitor entering this weekend’s clash with the Huskers at Memorial Stadium.
Rest of the Big Ten
11. Minnesota Golden Gophers (1-3)
12. Michigan Wolverines (1-3)
13. Michigan State Spartans (1-3)
14. Penn State Nittany Lions (0-4)