B1G 10 Half-term report
It’s time for the Big Ten recap – but with a twist! We’re more than halfway through the college football season – 2022 is passing by in a flash! It’s October half-term in the UK and as pupils and teachers enjoy a well deserved break, the Big Ten is shaping up nicely. Teams are making it clear who they are, showing fans what they can expect from them between now and January. So let’s look at where each team has positioned themselves for the home stretch in my B1G 10 Half-term report.
There are clearly established tiers in the Big Ten this season. More so than in years gone by. In 2022, it’s Ohio State and Michigan in a class above. These 2 powerhouses are the most bitter of rivals, and The Game is all the better for having both in top form.
Ohio State have all the offensive stars you could want, and now the coach and scheme on defense to make them much better balanced than in 2021. Scoring points has never been an issue for the Buckeyes, but leaking them at the other end has been. So far, they have conceded 20+ points on just 3 occasions, and each of those has been a complete blowout victory.
Ohio State are good enough to start games slowly, and still post up 50+ on a top tier defense. That is scary news for the rest of college football. Ryan Day strives for perfection, so of course will be fuming at the offense for their disjointed start against Iowa, but if they had clicked from minute 1 this could have been an 80-point game! As it was, the Buckeyes emerged victorious with a 10 – 54 scoreline. The Hawkeyes are a really good defensive unit, so smashing the points spread of 29 with ease is good for their playoff resume.
After the clunky start, the Buckeye offense began to get into rhythm later on. They welcomed back Jaxson Smith-Njigba, although clearly not at full health. When he is back up to speed and added into the already electric receiving mix with Marvin Harrison Jr, Emeka Egbuka and Julian Flemming we could be looking at an historic offense. The defense deserve praise for keeping their intensity all game, even up against the worst offense in the FBS.
Michigan had a bye, but last time out they absolutely killed Penn State. In what was billed as their toughest game and a real ‘prove it’ spot, the Wolverines destroyed everything in their path. Michigan won 17 – 41 and even that flatters the Nittany Lions. They were never in the contest, even when they were leading! Penn State scored off a freak play where Sean Clifford ran for 62 yards, and then cashed in a pick 6 to take a 1 point lead. After that, they offered nothing on offense thanks to a smothering effort from the Michigan defense.
On the flip side, Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards tore the Penn State defense a new one. The offensive line did whatever they wanted to open up holes for the backs to run through, and they capitalised with 418 ground yards and 4 touchdowns. Michigan systematically took Penn State apart, in exactly the way we all knew they would. Even with 2 weeks to prepare, knowing what they would need to stop, Penn State couldn’t live with the 2-headed monster in the backfield.
Showdown in The Shoe
The Wolverines are the real deal it would appear, and are on a collision course with Ohio State on the 26th November. That has to be the target now – winning until then should be a given. Rutgers, Nebraska and Illinois can’t match this team when they are fully focussed. No looking ahead, one game at a time – yada yada yada. You’ve heard the coach-speak before, this time I’m desperately hoping both the Wolverines and Buckeyes take it to heart – an undefeated Michigan v an undefeated Ohio State in The Game, playing for the Big Ten East title? Give me some of that please!
Michigan are playing the Wolverine brand of football; built on firm foundations of strong defense and a bruising run game. Blake Corum is a small, powerful, quick runner making strides through and around any defenders in his way. The ‘Lightning’ to Corum’s ‘Thunder’ is sophomore Donovan Edwards, and both of them performing well allows J.J. McCarthy to continue finding his feet at quarterback. The defense is playing their part and coach Harbaugh is gunning for back-to-back Big Ten titles.
Questions, questions, questions
Illinois, Penn State, Purdue, Maryland and Minnesota are all good teams with either a soft schedule or clear flaws. When they play each other we get fabulous entertainment, and all of them will dominate against those with inferior talent in the Big Ten. It is a lot of fun covering these teams and their matchups, but questions remain over their true quality. I don’t believe any of these teams can threaten the biggest of the big boys, but for Illinois in particular the green shoots of progress are growing and growing.
Minnesota and Penn State hashed it out in week 8, with the Nittany Lions bouncing back from their embarrassing demolition at the hands of Michigan. Penn State are clearly a good-not-great team, well equipped to go toe-to-toe with anyone in the Big Ten bar the top two. Sean Clifford epitomises this team – he is talented enough to manage his side to victory over less or equally talented opposition, but cannot elevate a team. He can’t put Penn State on his back and lead them through an Ohio State or Alabama.
Defend the middle
Penn State won this one over the middle of the field. Whether that was through the rushing attack or short passes, optimising crossing routes and hitting the tight ends early and often – Minnesota couldn’t handle it. With Tanner Morgan missing, the Gophers were severely hamstrung because his experience and knowledge of the Minnesota system is underrated and was sorely missed on Saturday. Mo Ibrahim got an astounding 30 touches at running back, which surely isn’t sustainable for a man who had achilles surgery earlier this year!
Maryland are 6-2 and could easily have been 7-1 but for a 3 point defeat by Purdue. They ran Michigan close into the 4th quarter before running out of steam just at the end. The problem they face now is life without starting QB Taulia Tagovaoila, although understudy Billy Edwards Jr stepped in to lead a game sealing 4th quarter drive against Indiana when Taulia went down.
He then orchestrated another win over Northwestern in his first start of the year. The Terrapins leaned heavily on freshman phenom Roman Hemby to grind out the victory. Hemby racked up 179 yards and 3 touchdowns to underline last week’s breakout performance. Could we have yet another sparkling Big Ten running back on our hands?
Champagne in Champaign
Illinois are bowl eligible already, which in the context of NCAA history is a huge outlier. The Fighting Illini now have loftier aspirations than scraping 6 wins, but that requires them to prove their consistency across the whole season. I’m not saying I doubt their temperament, just that I’ve seen Illinois do the unthinkable – good and bad – too many times before.
A 10-2 record is a distinct possibility for Illinois, which would seal a place in the Big Ten Championship game. That assumes they will lose to Michigan, which is probable but not definite. It also assumes they can hold off their remaining opponents, Purdue in particular, which is not a given. That’s what I’m asking them to prove, and it’s well within their grasp.
The defense is legit. Brett Bielema’s team have faced and dismissed an elite college rushing talent in Mo Ibrahim, and are finding ways to shut down opposing offenses week by week. You can see the trust they have in the defensive unit, based on Illinois’ increased propensity to go for it on 4th down. Chase Brown is still really good, but I think I’ve covered that enough so far this year! The West goes through Champaign as it stands.
Death, taxes and Badgers mauling Boilermakers
Recent (and not so recent) years have not been kind to Purdue in their fixture with Wisconsin. It was no different this week, as the Badgers got back to ‘Wisconsin football’ and ground their way over, past and through Jeff Brohm’s side. Run the ball, solid defense and simple completions through the air – and there was nothing Purdue could do to stop it.
Speaking of Wisconsin, they’re the first of our underperformers. Expectations are always high and fans demand to challenge for the Big Ten West title at a minimum. Falling short can be costly, as Paul Chryst found that out in early October when he lost his position as head coach. Jim Leonhard has taken the reins, steadied the ship and begun his audition for what many believe to be his job in waiting.
The 2022 version of Wisconsin has struggled because the defense isn’t hitting the high bar set in previous years. With an elite defense, you can afford to have a game-manager at quarterback who you don’t ask to win games for you. That is what the Badgers have in Graham Mertz, but in 2022 they have needed him to do more and he just can’t with any consistency. The running game is getting back on track under Leonhard, and Braelon Allen will have more opportunities to develop into a prototypical Wisconsin rushing star just like NFL wonderkid Jonathan Taylor.
Nebraska and Iowa also sit in our ‘underperforming’ tier of Big Ten teams, and are tilting towards just plain bad. In fact, Nebraska are bad and that’s why they are underperforming! Their season has been a rollercoaster of a ride featuring a disappointing trip to Dublin, embarrassing losses to teams like Georgia Southern, blowouts by Oklahoma and a big coaching change.
Scott Frost is now gone, the defense is improving and Trey Palmer has been unlocked, giving the Cornhuskers a shot at a bright end to the season. In his last outing Palmer exploded for 237 yards, 2 touchdowns and a 60 yard rush! Transferring from LSU to Wisconsin won’t typically bring you increased receiving opportunities or increase your draft buzz, but Palmer is bucking the trend!
Punts win nothing
Iowa are the most unbalanced seesaw you have ever seen. Their defense is elite. They can ride with the best of opposition, as long as they’re not on the field the ENTIRE game! The problem is on offense. Spencer Petras is not a good quarterback. Brian Ferentz is not a good offensive coordinator. Unfortunately for Hawkeye fans, Brian is the son of head coach Kirk and so appears to be here to stay, despite the product he is putting on the field.
Before the beatdown by Ohio State – yes they get a pass for having to be on the field all the time – this unit ranked third nationally in scoring defense and passing yards allowed, and seventh in total defense. They have future Sunday players in Jack Campbell, Riley Moss, Cooper DeJean and Seth Benson – all getting plenty of opportunities to showcase their abilities because the offense can’t sustain drives. Iowa have a glaring flaw that has plagued their season – the defense is great, but the offense is painstakingly bad.
Rutgers sitting solo
Rutgers are sitting in their own tier. A team that history nor this B1G 10 Half-term report has been kind to, often the whipping boys of the Big Ten. Under Greg Schiano the Scarlet Knights are showing slow but sure signs of improvement. An out-of-conference sweep was a great start to the season, brushing aside Temple, Wagner and Boston College. They’ve picked up a win at home to Indiana and lost narrowly to Iowa and Nebraska. Plenty of ground still to cover, but Rutgers are heading in the right direction.
Now, to the bad teams. As mentioned, Iowa and Nebraska could easily have found themselves here alongside Indiana and Northwestern. These programs lack a clear direction and are devoid of much talent. The Hoosiers win over Illinois seems a long time ago, as does Northwestern’s solitary victory over Nebraska. Plans should already be in place for the 2023 season, it’s feasible that neither gets another win on the year.