Sports Sig (2020)

Time flies when you’re rushing through a regular season with the hopes of playing enough games to get a team to qualify for the College Football Playoff. 

Or at least I think that’s how the old saying goes, anyways.

It is true that only three teams (Iowa, Penn State, Rutgers) have played all their games of the Big Ten’s original eight-game schedule leading into championship weekend. It is also true that  the Big Ten has allowed a team with fewer than the conference-mandated six regular season games into the Big Ten Championship. However, despite all that, we’ve mercifully all-but made it through the 2020 Big Ten football season. 

And what a weird season it was. Indiana had a renaissance year under head coach Tom Allen, and the Hoosiers have a strong possibility of finishing the year as a top-10 team despite losing their starting quarterback to a torn ACL. Traditional Big Ten powers like Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin all severely underperformed preseason expectations, while Northwestern had a strong chance to finish the regular season undefeated if not for a shock loss at Michigan State.

Ohio State and Iowa were about the only two teams who performed about as-advertised, with the Buckeyes maintaining a 5-0 record while Iowa rebounded from an 0-2 start and have won every game since. However, thanks to Northwestern’s better overall record and a head-to-head win over the Hawkeyes, the Wildcats instead have the honor of meeting the Buckeyes this Saturday in Indianapolis, Indiana for the Big Ten crown — a matchup almost nobody anticipated before the season started.

Outside of the two divisional winners, the rest of the conference will play in what the Big Ten dubbed “Champions Week,” which features games on both Friday and Saturday. The original idea was for each Big Ten team to play the team opposite it in the other division’s standings. However the conference has since altered its plans, opting instead to maintain long-standing rivalries like Purdue and Indiana and Minnesota and Wisconsin. Both games had been canceled during the regular season due to COVID-19.

However, just like almost everything else in college football this season, nothing can quite go according to plan. On Tuesday, it was announced that Friday’s game between Purdue and Indiana and Saturday’s game between Michigan and Iowa would both be canceled due to the ongoing pandemic.

What a perfect way to end the Big Ten football season.

With that out of the way, let’s get into where the Big Ten stands entering Champions Week in my week 8 power rankings. 

1. Ohio State Buckeyes (5-0)

It’s official.

Ohio State will be representing the Big Ten East this weekend in Indianapolis, Indiana after its final game of the regular season was canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak in Michigan’s program.

The Buckeyes are three-touchdown favorites against Northwestern on Saturday, but it can ill-afford to overlook a Wildcats squad that will present Ohio State one of its toughest challenges this season. I highly doubt Northwestern has the offensive firepower to score with Ohio State for the duration of Saturday’s game, but the Wildcats’ senior-led defense is talented enough to fluster junior quarterback Justin Fields and the Buckeye offense.

I’m really interested to see how long it takes Ohio State to get comfortable, as the Buckeyes have played just two games in the past five weeks leading up to Saturday. Northwestern doesn’t have much to lose here, and the Wildcats have an incredible opportunity to spoil the Buckeyes’ College Football Playoff chances.

Ultimately, I tip Day’s squad to emerge victorious, but in a closer game than the experts anticipate. The 2020 Big Ten Championship kicks off at 11 a.m. on Fox.

2. Indiana Hoosiers (6-1)

The Old Oaken Bucket game wasn’t meant to be in 2020. 

Indiana and Purdue’s scheduled matchup has been canceled for the second consecutive weekend, meaning the Hoosiers’ next action will likely come in a New Year’s Six bowl game. It’s an incredible honor for Allen’s squad, which was picked to finish fourth in the Big Ten East before the season began. 

Bowl game matchups will be finalized this weekend, and I’m looking forward to seeing who No. 7 Indiana matches up with. The resolve that the Hoosiers have shown over the last few weeks have shown me that they will be able to compete with anyone they go up against.

3. Iowa Hawkeyes (6-2)

Make that six consecutive wins for head coach Kirk Ferentz’s squad.

The Hawkeyes throttled Wisconsin 28-7 last Saturday, taking a 6-0 lead into halftime and breaking the game open in the second half. Iowa’s defense was consistently able to slow down Wisconsin’s offense when the Badgers entered Iowa territory, and Wisconsin’s inability to finish drives with points ultimately cost it the game. The Hawkeye defense also forced two turnovers.

Sophomore quarterback Spencer Petras had a solid outing, completing 14-of-25 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns. Both went to senior wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who also posted a season-high 140 receiving yards. Sophomore running back Tyler Goodson eclipsed the 100-yard mark, totaling 106 yards and one score on 11 carries. 

Wisconsin seemed to close the gap when it cut Iowa’s lead to 14-7 halfway through the third quarter, but a 53-yard touchdown pass from Petras to Smith-Marsette late in the third quarter and an 80-yard touchdown run by Goodson ultimately iced the game. 

Like Indiana, Iowa had its game against Michigan on Saturday canceled. Now, No. 16 Iowa looks ahead to its bowl game, where the Hawkeyes should draw a quality opponent. The Hawkeyes will look to close their season on a seven-game win streak, a far cry from their 0-2 start.

4. Northwestern Wildcats (6-1)

Despite not having anything to play for, as they had already clinched a spot in the Big Ten Championship game, Northwestern handled Illinois 28-10 last Saturday.

The Fighting Illini scored first, but the Wildcats ripped off 28 unanswered points to secure the game despite a garbage time Illinois touchdown. Northwestern dominated on the ground, rushing for 411 total yards and three touchdowns. 

Northwestern’s freshman running backs stole the show, as Cam Porter and Evan Hull both had dominant outings. Porter had 24 carries for 142 yards and two touchdowns, while Hull had 13 carries for 149 yards and one score. As a result of Northwestern’s ground-game dominance, graduate transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey was not asked to do much. Ramsey completed just 7-of-12 passes for 82 yards with one touchdown, while running for 47 yards. 

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s squad will look to not only end an impressive regular season but also cause major shockwaves in the college football landscape with a victory over Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship. 

5. Penn State Nittany Lions (3-5)

Credit to head coach James Franklin for rallying his team to a three-game winning streak to close the season after starting with an abysmal 0-5 record.

Penn State rallied from a 21-10 halftime deficit last Saturday against Michigan State, outscoring the Spartans 29-3 in the second half for a 39-24 victory. Junior quarterback Sean Clifford started the Nittany Lion rally, finding freshman wide receiver Parker Washington for an eight-yard score to cap Penn State’s first drive of the second half. A two-point conversion cut Michigan State’s lead to 21-18.

Following a Michigan State field goal, Nittany Lion sophomore quarterback Will Levis rushed for the go-ahead score, a one-yard touchdown plunge with one second remaining in the third quarter. Clifford and Washington connected for a 49-yard touchdown score to extend Penn State’s lead to 32-24, and a 81-yard punt return by junior wide receiver Jahan Dotson sealed the deal. 

The Nittany Lions could extend their winning streak to four games and possibly sneak into a bowl game with a win over Illinois on Saturday. The Nittany Lions and Fighting Illini kickoff at 4:30 p.m. on FS1. 

6. Minnesota Golden Gophers (3-3)

Down more than 30 players due to COVID-19 protocols and injuries? Haven’t played in three weeks? If last Saturday’s victory over Nebraska is any indication, those setbacks had no effect on Minnesota head coach PJ Fleck’s squad. 

Minnesota capitalized on Husker self-inflicted wounds all afternoon en-route to a 24-17 victory in Lincoln. Junior quarterback Tanner Morgan completed 17-of-30 passes for 181 yards and a touchdown, while junior running back Mohamed Ibrahim had 108 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

Ibrahim, the Big Ten’s leading rusher, ran for over 100 yards in all of Minnesota’s games this season. He ran for over 200 yards twice, and totaled 15 rushing touchdowns. If a bowl game is in the Golden Gophers’ future, he will surely eclipse 1,000 rushing yards on the season, as he’s just 75 yards away from the milestone.

Minnesota’s defense forced two crucial turnovers, including a fumble late in the third quarter by Husker junior quarterback Adrian Martinez that Minnesota converted into a touchdown and a 24-14 advantage. The Golden Gopher defense conceded a field goal late in the fourth quarter, but ran out the clock from there.

The Golden Gophers will look to finish the regular season above .500 when they visit Wisconsin on Saturday for a 3 p.m. kickoff on the Big Ten Network. 

7. Wisconsin Badgers (2-3)

I don’t have it in me just yet to rank Wisconsin below both Maryland and Rutgers.

However, the Badgers may deserve it. After all, they’re reeling after a 28-7 loss to Iowa last Saturday. Wisconsin is a team that is clearly limping to the finishing line, and it appears that the stoppages that head coach Paul Chryst’s squad have had to undergo are catching up with them.

The loss to the Hawkeyes marked yet another loss in which Wisconsin’s offense struggled. After eclipsing 40 points in season-opening wins over Illinois and Michigan, Wisconsin hasn’t cracked double-digits in its three losses since. In fact, the Badgers scored more points in the first half of their win over Michigan (28) than they have in their last three games combined (20). 

Wisconsin’s offensive output is nothing short of horrendous at the moment, but the Badgers have the perfect opportunity to right the ship against a leaky Minnesota defense. A win would put the Badgers back at .500 and in great position to accept a bowl game bid if they so choose. 

Either way, I’d be stunned if Wisconsin can’t manage to hit double-digit points against the Golden Gophers. Expect a bounce-back performance from Wisconsin’s offense on Saturday. 

8. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (3-5)

Much like Minnesota against Nebraska, Rutgers took advantage of multiple Maryland mistakes to emerge with a 27-24 overtime victory last Saturday.

The Terrapins were without sophomore quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa entering the game but Rutgers lost its starting quarterback, senior quarterback Noah Vedral, in the third quarter due to injury. Rutgers trailed 10-7 at that point, and junior quarterback Artur Sitkowski came in and immediately provided a spark. Sitkowski found junior running back Isaiah Pacheco for a 20-yard touchdown that restored the Scarlet Knights’ advantage late in the third quarter. 

From there, Maryland and Rutgers exchanged scores. It appeared the Terrapins would emerge victorious after they took a 24-21 lead with 5:57 left in the fourth quarter, but Rutgers junior kicker Valentino Ambrosio hit a 39-yard field goal as time expired. Ambrosio hit a 42-yarder on Rutgers’ first drive of overtime, and Maryland’s kicker missed a 50-yard field goal to hand Rutgers the victory.

The Scarlet Knight defense forced two turnovers on the afternoon, while Sitkowski completed 14-of-20 passes for 108 yards and one touchdown in relief.

Rutgers hosts Nebraska on Friday at 6:30 p.m. on the Big Ten Network.

9. Maryland Terrapins (2-3)

Maryland has now dropped two consecutive games after what appeared to be a season-defining victory over Penn State in early November. 

Since that 35-19 triumph on Nov. 7, Maryland has played just two games and has ultimately lost to backup quarterbacks in both. Indiana sophomore quarterback Michael Penix Jr. tore his ACL in Maryland’s 27-11 loss to the Hoosiers on Nov. 28, forcing sophomore backup quarterback Jack Tuttle to come in and finish out the game.

Last Saturday, after Vedral’s injury, Sitkowski helped deliver the Terrapins the same fate. It didn’t help that freshman quarterback Lance LeGendre, who started in place of Tagovailoa, completed 7-of-10 passes for 42 yards and two interceptions in the first half. Maryland’s offense ran much more smoothly at the hands of sophomore quarterback Eric Narjarian, who completed 12-of-23 passes for 218 yards and two touchdowns.

While Narjarian led the Terrapins on all of their scoring drives (he entered the game on Maryland’s final drive of the first half, which resulted in a field goal), Maryland’s defense was unable to get a stop when it needed to. After an Ambrosio game-tying field goal at the end of regulation and an Ambrosio go-ahead field goal on the first possession of overtime, Najerian and the offense fell apart. The Terrapins lost eight yards on their ensuing drive, setting up a 50-yard field goal that hooked wide and a 27-24 Rutgers victory. 

Maryland hosts Michigan State on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. on the Big Ten Network. 

10. Michigan Wolverines (2-4)

At this point in the season, the No. 10 spot on the list is really a toss-up between Purdue, Illinois, Michigan State, Nebraska and the Wolverines. 

Illinois was blown out by Northwestern and just fired its coach, both Nebraska and Michigan State were comfortably beaten at home last weekend and Purdue’s season is now over — but the last time the Boilermakers saw the field, they lost 37-27 to Nebraska two weekends ago.

So, I’ve decided to give Michigan this spot simply because the Wolverines haven’t played in three weeks and therefore have embarrassed themselves the least. Michigan’s season is over, too, although head coach Jim Harbaugh’s team probably would’ve lost to Iowa had the two squads played this weekend. 

Rest of the Big Ten

11. Illinois Fighting Illini (2-5)

12. Nebraska Huskers (2-5)

13. Purdue Boilermakers (2-4)

14. Michigan State Spartans (2-5)

sports@dailynebraskan.com