Nebraska, Penn State headline Tom Dienhart's latest Big Ten football thoughts
Doing a little thinking out loud as Saturday approaches. Here is what’s running through my Big Ten football-packed brain.
We are about to find out how good 7-0 Nebraska is. Finally. Facts are facts. And here is a cold, hard reality: The combined record of the seven opponents that the Cornhuskers have defeated is 20-30. NU’s remaining five foes are a combined 26-10. Interesting. Nebraska’s best win to date has been a 24-13 triumph at Northwestern. Big road games loom at Wisconsin, at Ohio State and at Iowa. And a visit from Minnesota won’t be a layup. If Nebraska is going to win the Big Ten West, it is gonna have to earn it down the stretch.
Don’t be shocked if Penn State wins the rest of its games to finish 10-2. Really. The Nittany Lions are 5-2 coming off that huge home victory vs. No. 2 Ohio State last week. The remaining games: at Purdue; Iowa; at Indiana; at Rutgers; Michigan State. Penn State will be favored in all of those tilts. The home overtime win vs. Minnesota on Oct. 1 may end up being the turning point in the 2016 season. All of that preseason grumbling about the state of the program under James Franklin seems like ancient history now.
Anyone else notice how Wisconsin RB Corey Clement is coming on? He debuted with 86 yard rushing vs. LSU and had 111 vs. Akron the next week. But he missed the Georgia State game after hurting an ankle vs. Akron. And Clement had just 54 yards at Michigan State and 68 at Michigan. But he’s healthy now and running well. The senior had 164 yards on the ground vs. Ohio State and 134 yards at Iowa last week. I get the feeling the best is yet to come for Clement on a UW team that may win the rest of its games. He has 617 yard with five games left and is cinch to go over 1,000 for the first time of his career after having 221 in 2015.
Correy Clement this season:
Indiana may be cutting it VERY close when it comes to reaching six wins and bowl eligibility this season. The Hoosiers are 3-4, losers of three in a row. They must win three of their last five games to finish 6-6 and guarantee a bowl slot. Games vs. Penn State and at Michigan may be tough to win. But IU also has games left vs. Maryland, at Rutgers and vs. Purdue. Long story short: This Saturday’s visit from the Terrapins may be a must-win if Indiana wants to finish .500 and get to bowl in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1990-91.
The rise of the Northwestern offense has been remarkable. The Wildcats averaged 17.3 points in going 1-2 in the non-conference including a still-head scratching 9-7 home loss to FCS Illinois State. But in forging a 3-1 start to the Big Ten season, NU has averaged 32.3 points. Austin Carr has 50 catches for 720 yards and nine TDs, all Big Ten-leading numbers. Justin Jackson leads the league in rushing with 792 yards (113.1 ypg). But it has been the development of quarterback Clayton Thorson which has spurred the offensive resurgence that saw NU score an opponent record 54 points at Michigan State earlier this month. During the Wildcats’ season-saving three-game winning streak, Thorson has hit 63.8 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and just one pick. Don’t count out the 4-3 Cats in the West Division race with key games left at Ohio State, vs. Wisconsin and at Minnesota.
Has there been a more surprising team in the Big Ten than Maryland? Nope. DJ Durkin is doing a bang-up job in his debut. He inherited a team that last year fired its coach at midseason and went on to finish 3-9 overall and 1-7 in the Big Ten. This year, Durkin as Maryland sitting at 5-2 overall and 2-2 in the Big Ten, one win from guaranteeing bowl eligibility. The Terps have a rugged schedule down the stretch, playing at Indiana, at Michigan, hosting Ohio State, traveling to Nebraska and finishing vs. Rutgers. Still, you have to like Maryland’s chances to get at least one more victory, right?
If there is one stat that really illustrates the difference between good teams and bad teams, it’s rushing defense. The top seven teams in rush defense all are poised to go to a bowl: Michigan; Wisconsin; Ohio State; Nebraska; Northwestern; Minnesota; Iowa. The only outliers are Maryland and Penn State, which has made nice strides in recent weeks as a rebuilt defensive line improves and the linebacking corps gets healthy.
Remember when Michigan State’s secondary was billed as the “No Fly Zone”? Well, the Spartans have become very passer friendly in 2016. MSU is No. 13 in the Big Ten in pass defense (225.4 ypg). The pass efficiency defense is even worse, ranking last in the conference. Foes are completing 63.1 percent of their attempts (only two Big Ten teams are worse) and have 12 touchdown passes (only four conference clubs have allowed more). Add this to a long list of reasons why Michigan State is 2-5 overall and 0-4 in the Big Ten, in peril of missing the postseason a year after winning the league title and going to the playoff.
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