Here's what we think we know heading into Week 5 of Big Ten Football
Week 5 is on our doorstep. And here are 10 things I think I know as we speed toward Saturday.
1. The season finally will gain steam for Michigan, which opened 2016 with five home games. The lifting now starts to become a bit heavier for the Wolverines, who munched on the likes of Hawaii, UCF, Colorado and Penn State up to this point. Now, here comes surging Wisconsin and its toothy defense and precocious quarterback. This will be a nice test for Michigan, especially a Wolverine offense that has scored at least 45 points in each this season. The Badgers have the Big Ten’s No. 1 scoring defense (11.8 ppg); the No. 1 rushing defense (80.5 ypg); the No. 2 total defense (277.0 ypg).
2. Michigan and Wisconsin are playing for the first time since 2010. How long ago was that? The coaches that day were Bret Bielema and Rich Rodriguez. Bielema is now at Arkansas and Rodriguez is coaching at Arizona. In between those two, Wisconsin and Michigan had other coaches in Gary Andersen and Brady Hoke before current bosses Paul Chryst and Jim Harbaugh took over. Get used to more five-year gaps in cross-division series, as it’s a function of expansion to 14 teams. Hey, you can’t have it all.
3. I wonder what LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is thinking. He is seeing his former team Wisconsin thrive without him. And the boss who hired him in Baton Rouge—Les Miles–just got fired, giving Aranda an uncertain future. Life sure is funny.
4. Life isn’t going to get any easier for Northwestern. The Wildcats are off to less-than-stellar 1-3 start, making them the Big Ten’s biggest disappoint so far. But, hey, NU did beat Duke, which did beat Notre Dame. So, Northwestern has that going for it … which is nice. But now the Wildcats take the lid off Big Ten play with road games at Iowa and at Michigan State. Northwestern hasn’t won in Kinnick since 2009 and has lost the last two games vs. Iowa, getting outscored 88-17. And NU is 1-5 in its last six contests vs. the Spartans, but the Wildcats won the last time they were in East Lansing (2012). Can Northwestern avoid a 1-5 start?
5. I’m going to come right out and say it: Penn State must beat visiting Minnesota on Saturday. It just must. No, this isn’t about former Golden Gopher offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Matt Limegrover—now the offensive line coach in State College, Pa.–getting revenge for being jettisoned after the 2015 season by Tracy Claeys. This is about getting a much-needed dose of success on your home field vs. what has become a peer institution for Penn State. This is the type of game James Franklin should be measured by—not the games vs. Ohio State and Michigan. Franklin needs to take care of 3-0 Minnesota in Beaver Stadium. But that may be difficult to do when you consider the Nittany Lions are last in the Big Ten in rushing (101.3 ypg) and last in stopping the run (213.8 ypg).
6. Purdue is an intriguing team that has some potential, especially on offense. The 2-1 Boilermakers will play at 3-0 Maryland this Saturday in an intriguing clash. You know both schools think they can win. If Purdue can escape with a victory, it would be the first back-to-back triumphs for the program since 2012. Perhaps this stat best sums up the Boilermakers: They are No. 1 in the Big Ten in converting third downs (59 percent) and last in the Big Ten in preventing them (57 percent). The Terrapins’ ability to run the ball (No. 2 in the Big Ten, 266.7 ypg) and lack of turnovers (none) have injected life into the program under rookie boss DJ Durkin and gives Maryland a chance to win each Saturday.
7. Nebraska is a quiet 4-0, its start muted by Wisconsin’s surprising surge and the dominance of Ohio State and Michigan. But keep the Huskers on your radar. The Cornhuskers have a great shot to be 7-0 when they play at Wisconsin on Oct. 29, as Nebraska’s next three games are vs. Illinois, at Indiana and vs. Purdue. The Huskers’ defense still remains a work in progress, ranking No. 11 in the Big Ten (366.0 ypg) and No. 7 in scoring (18.0 ppg). But it’s that glistening offense that makes the Huskers so intriguing and a legit threat to win the West.
8. Concerns for Michigan State may be valid. How good are the Spartans? After three games, I have no idea. That win at Notre Dame has been discredited since the Fighting Irish followed it with a dubious home loss to Duke. That same day ND was getting dumped under the Golden Dome by a basketball school, MSU was getting throttled at home, 30-6, by a Wisconsin team with a redshirt freshman QB who was making his first start. This week’s game at Indiana in one giant trapdoor. Michigan State has won seven in a row and 15 of 17 from Indiana. The Spartans last lost in Bloomington in 2006. Still, this could be a dangerous trip for Michigan State, especially if IU is able to get its ground game going and forges a lead to make the Spartans play catch-up.
9. What is up with Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard? He began the season hitting 65 percent of his passes vs. Miami (Ohio) and 67 percent vs. Iowa State. But he has been off the last two games, hitting 50 percent in a home loss to FCS North Dakota State and just 52 percent in a 14-7 victory at Rutgers last week. Now, Beathard must operate with top wideout Matt VandeBerg, who is out indefinitely with a foot injury suffered on Monday. Receivers Jay Scheel and Jerminic Smith need to step up and help Beathard get back on track. How bad is it? The Hawkeyes have the No. 12 offense in the Big Ten (356.3 ypg).
10. Rutgers’ offense looks to be in peril with Janarion Grant out for the season with injury suffered last week vs. Iowa. It’s a difficult blow for a Scarlet Knights’ attack that is No. 12 in the Big Ten in scoring (27.3 ppg) with Grant in the lineup. No way Grant can be replaced. He was one of the nation’s most dynamic players, impacting on myriad levels. His go-all-the-way-each-time-he-touches-the-ball ability leaves a giant chasm. Grant tallied six touchdowns this season, running for three, scoring on punt and kickoff returns and also throwing for a touchdown. He had eight career returns for touchdowns. RU will petition for a medical redshirt for Grant.