Sports Sig (2020)

It appears that the Big Ten is at a crossroads. 

Spiking COVID-19 cases nationwide are leading to more Big Ten teams having program-wide outbreaks, putting the rest of the season in jeopardy. 

For starters, the conference’s best team, Ohio State, is in serious danger of missing the conference championship. Shortly after Buckeye head coach Ryan Day tested positive for COVID-19 last Friday, it was announced that Ohio State’s game the next day against Illinois would be canceled

It was Ohio State’s second canceled game of the year, which leaves the Buckeyes at four games played with two regular season games remaining. And much like Wisconsin, Ohio State is in danger of missing the Big Ten Championship due to falling below the conference minimum of six regular season games played. 

If Ohio State’s upcoming games against Michigan State or Michigan are canceled due to a coronavirus outbreak, a whole new series of questions emerge. Chiefly among them: will the College Football Playoff let in a Buckeye squad that’s played around five regular season games and no conference championship? There’s no precedent for something like this, and despite Ohio State looking very impressive so far this year, it may find itself on the outside looking in. 

While the Buckeyes and the Big Ten East are a mess, the Big Ten West race has wrapped up anticlimactically. In peak 2020 fashion, Northwestern punched its ticket to Indianapolis by not playing this weekend. The Wildcats’ game at Minnesota this Saturday was canceled thanks to a massive coronavirus outbreak in the Golden Gopher program, the second consecutive week Minnesota has canceled a game. 

The next two teams in the Big Ten West, Wisconsin (2-1) and Iowa (4-2), have both been eliminated despite records not far off from Northwestern’s. Wisconsin will not meet the six-game requirement for eligibility after having its game against Minnesota canceled last weekend. Meanwhile, even in a scenario where Iowa wins out and Northwestern loses its last game, a 5-2 Wildcat team would make the conference championship over a 6-2 Hawkeye squad.

This is because Northwestern beat Iowa 21-20 on Halloween and therefore holds the tiebreaker.

Let’s get into where the Big Ten stands after another wild weekend of play in my week six Big Ten power rankings.

1. Ohio State Buckeyes (4-0)

Well, the good news is that Ohio State will get to face Michigan State on Saturday.

On Tuesday, the program announced it would be resuming team activities in order to prepare for this weekend’s contest in East Lansing, Michigan. Ohio State will do so without Day, who will not be out of quarantine in time to coach the Buckeyes, according to ESPN

The Spartans are no slouch and will undoubtedly enter Saturday’s game motivated, especially after knocking off a previously undefeated Northwestern team last weekend. Michigan State is a tough outfit to read, but the Buckeyes should ultimately prevail.

It would then set up a fascinating conundrum, as Ohio State would need its hated rival Michigan to play on Dec. 12 so that the Buckeyes could be eligible for the Big Ten Championship. What could possibly go wrong there? 

No. 4 Ohio State returns to action against the Spartans for an 11 a.m. kickoff on ABC. 

2. Indiana Hoosiers (5-1)

The Hoosiers essentially turned in the antithesis of their shootout at Ohio State two weekends ago, stifling Maryland’s offense in a 27-11 victory.

Perhaps the Terrapins, who were coming off of two wins in a row, were hindered by having consecutive games canceled. However credit goes to Indiana’s defense, which intercepted Maryland sophomore quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa three times. 

Indiana dominated on the ground, rushing for 234 total yards and three touchdowns. Junior running back Stevie Scott III found paydirt three times on 80 rushing yards, while freshman running back Tim Baldwin Jr. led Indiana in rushing with a career-high 106 yards. 

However, that’s about where the positives end from last Saturday’s game. Hoosier sophomore quarterback Michael Penix Jr. sustained a lower-leg injury in the third quarter, and head coach Tom Allen revealed that the dynamic quarterback tore his ACL on Monday. 

It’s a brutal blow for Penix Jr., a redshirt sophomore who has had all three of his seasons in Bloomington cut short due to injury. The Hoosiers will now lean on sophomore quarterback Jack Tuttle, a Utah transfer who completed 5-of-5 passes for 31 yards in mop-up duty against Maryland.

Losing the catalyst of a team to a season-ending injury can either serve as a rallying point or one where things start to go downhill. I hope it’s the former for the Hoosiers, who truly have had a special season up to this point.

Tuttle will look to lead No. 12 Indiana in a tough road clash with No. 16 Wisconsin this Saturday. The game kicks off at 2:30 p.m. on ABC. 

3. Iowa Hawkeyes (4-2)

Head coach Kirk Ferentz’s squad is playing the best football in the Big Ten West right now.

Iowa continued its dominance over Nebraska on Black Friday, riding a strong defensive showing and taking advantage of Husker errors in a 26-20 triumph. Sophomore quarterback Spencer Petras wasn’t unbelievable by any stretch of the imagination but did enough to win, completing 18-of-30 passes for 193 yards with one touchdown and one interception. 

Hawkeye sophomore running back Tyler Goodson was fed early and often to the tune of 30 carries for 111 yards. He eventually broke down Nebraska’s defense in the second half, and some rushing lanes began to open up for him late in the game. 

What decided the game, though, was two Nebraska fumbles. With Iowa leading 23-20 in the fourth quarter, Nebraska’s defense forced a three-and-out with the Hawkeyes backed up deep in their own territory. Husker junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt muffed the ensuing punt, which Iowa turned into three points courtesy of Iowa senior kicker Keith Duncan.

Duncan later missed what could’ve been the dagger in the game, and instead of Iowa having a nine-point advantage, Nebraska had a chance to win the game down 26-20 with just over two minutes to play. Iowa’s defense finished the job, though, as senior defensive lineman Chauncey Golston forced Nebraska junior quarterback Adrian Martinez to fumble, which Iowa picked up to seal the game.

The Hawkeyes have now won four games in a row, but have officially been eliminated from the Big Ten Championship. Ferentz’s No. 19 Hawkeyes visit Illinois on Saturday for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff on FS1. 

4. Northwestern Wildcats (5-1)

What a brutal way to ruin an undefeated season.

Perhaps I jinxed Northwestern when I said that its defense should be more than enough to get it by Michigan State, Minnesota and Illinois and into the Big Ten Championship with ease. While the Wildcats will still make the conference championship, it won’t be thanks to their defense.

Northwestern came out flat and looked poor in a shocking 29-20 defeat to Michigan State last Saturday. Senior quarterback Peyton Ramsey threw two interceptions and completed under 50% of his passes, and Northwestern had four total turnovers. The Spartans jumped out to a 17-0 lead, but Northwestern eventually responded by scoring 20 unanswered points. 

The Wildcats took a 20-17 lead on a three-yard run by freshman running back Cam Porter on the third play of the fourth quarter. Northwestern had the momentum, but from there its offense went flat. The result of Northwestern’s final five drives were: fumble, punt, interception, punt and a fumble returned for a touchdown on the game’s final play with Northwestern deep in its own territory and trying to lateral the ball around the field for a touchdown. 

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s squad still has clinched the Big Ten West crown, but the No. 14 Wildcats will look to close out strong and beat Illinois on Dec. 12. 

5. Wisconsin Badgers (2-1)

Wisconsin has played three games this year. It has had just as many games cancelled.

The Badgers didn’t have the chance to get the awful taste of their 17-7 loss to Northwestern two weekends ago out of their mouths, as their game with Minnesota last weekend was canceled. Wisconsin is all-but eliminated from championship contention, but these are still vital games to play in the development of redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz. 

Wisconsin is a good football team, and I believe the loss to Northwestern was an aberration. It will be tough to compare that performance to one against an Indiana team led by a backup quarterback, but the No. 16 Badgers will look to right the ship with a convincing home victory on Saturday.

6. Maryland Terrapins (2-2)

Unsurprisingly, a high-flying Maryland offense crashed back down to reality after having two weekends off. 

Tagovailoa reverted back to his week one form in Maryland’s 27-11 loss to Indiana last Saturday. Similar to his performance in the Terrapins’ 43-3 loss to Northwestern, he tossed three interceptions against the Hoosiers.

Maryland gained 300 yards of total offense compared to Indiana’s 349, but was consistently unable to finish drives when it mattered. Tagovailoa’s lone touchdown pass came in garbage time, with the Hoosiers up 27-3 and the game well out of reach. 

To make matters worse, Maryland’s scheduled game with Michigan this weekend is off after the Wolverines paused practice on Wednesday due to coronavirus concerns. It marks the Terrapins’ third cancellation of the year, robbing them of an important opportunity to get back into the flow of the season after missing consecutive weeks of games. 

The Terrapins’ final regular-season game is scheduled for Dec. 12 against Rutgers.

7. Minnesota Golden Gophers (2-3)

Minnesota didn’t play last weekend and it won’t play this weekend after a team-wide COVID-19 outbreak that is up to 47 cases led to the cancellation of this weekend’s game with Northwestern. 

According to head coach PJ Fleck, the Golden Gophers are moving forward with preparations for Nebraska, their final regular-season opponent. Of course, with that many coronavirus cases, one has to wonder whether or not Minnesota will even be able to visit Lincoln on Dec. 12. 

8. Illinois Fighting Illini (2-3)

Illinois had its first canceled game of the season last Saturday, meaning it probably avoided a blowout loss to Ohio State.

Head coach Lovie Smith’s squad will look to spring an upset of No. 19 Iowa this weekend. A Hawkeye loss would end Iowa’s fleeting hopes at a spot in the Big Ten Championship.

9. Michigan State Spartans (2-3)

The Michigan State experience has been a wild one this season.

The Spartans have had a seven-turnover loss to Rutgers, a shocking upset victory over then-No. 13 Michigan and a blowout loss to Iowa followed by a shutout home loss to Indiana. Last Saturday’s result, though, was the most shocking, a 29-20 triumph over then-No. 8 Northwestern.

Spartan junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi was horribly inefficient in a winning performance, completing 11-of-27 passes for 167 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Lombardi also ran for 65 yards. Michigan State ran for 195 total yards, led by a 96-yard effort from junior running back Connor Heyward. Sophomore wide receiver Jalen Nailor had three receptions for 99 yards and a touchdown.

Most importantly, Michigan State scored on Northwestern in the second half, unlike so many Wildcat opponents this year. The Spartans took advantage of turnovers to shut Northwestern’s offense down late, coming away with a massive victory that could have serious ramifications in the Big Ten.

At the very least, it’s a nice triumph for first-year head coach Mel Tucker and a building block for the Spartans for the remainder of this season. Michigan State hosts Ohio State this weekend.

10. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (2-4)

Never in one million years would I have believed that a two-quarterback system featuring Rutgers junior quarterbacks Artur Sitkowski and Johnny Langan could ever work.

I was proved wrong, as both Langan and Sitkowski filled in admirably for the injured Noah Vedral. Even still, Rutgers found itself down 23-13 at halftime despite a strong performance from Sitkowski in which he completed 19-of-28 passes for 152 yards and two touchdowns.

Rutgers handed the offense to Langan in the second half and was thoroughly rewarded. He fired a 62-yard touchdown to senior wide receiver Shamen Jones on the Scarlet Knight’s first offensive possession of the second half to make it 23-20. Following a Purdue touchdown, junior wide receiver Aron Cruickshank returned the ensuing kickoff for a 100-yard touchdown. 

The Scarlet Knight’s defense held from there, forcing an interception and two punts on Purdue’s final three drives. The Scarlet Knights took the lead on a one-yard plunge from sophomore running back Aaron Young late in the third quarter and didn’t look back from there. 

Langan completed 3-of-3 passes for 84 yards and a touchdown, leading the Scarlet Knights in rushing with 21 attempts for 95 yards. It was an impressive 37-30 road victory for Rutgers, perhaps a sign that Nebraska can exploit a vulnerable Purdue defense this weekend. 

Rutgers hosts Penn State in an epic clash this Saturday at 11 a.m. on FS1.

Rest of the Big Ten

11. Purdue Boilermakers (2-3)

12. Penn State Nittany Lions (1-5)

13. Michigan Wolverines (2-4)

14. Nebraska Huskers (1-4)

sports@dailynebraskan.com