Tom Dienhart delivers this week's Big Ten football thoughts
Doing a little thinking out loud as we approach the penultimate Saturday of the Big Ten season.
Ohio State has a decent shot to make the playoff even if it doesn’t win the Big Ten East. The Buckeyes need to win out, which means downing Michigan State and Michigan. That would open the door for Penn State to win the East, as long as it finishes with wins vs. Rutgers and Michigan State. A one-loss Ohio State squad would have a nice resume with wins at Oklahoma and at Wisconsin, along with taking down Michigan. And the only loss would be at Penn State. Of course, the Buckeyes could win the Big Ten East by winning out and also having the Nittany Lions lose a game down the stretch. Still, OSU may nab a playoff spot even without winning the East. Missing the playoffs a second year in a row with arguably the Big Ten’s best team would be a tough pill to swallow for Ohio State.
Buckeye do-it-all man Curtis Samuel needs some Heisman love. He’s No. 2 in the Big Ten in yards from scrimmage with 1,387. And he’s the only player in the nation with 600 yards rushing (637) and 600 yards receiving (750). He also has seven rushing TDs and six receiving scores. Samuel has been on a roll the last two games, both 62-3 OSU wins, as he has 13 catches for 211 yards and three TDs and nine carries for 79 yards and two scores. He is the top playmaker and most dangerous player in the Big Ten.
No, Michigan State won’t win the East … or even go to a bowl game. But the Spartans can be a big-time spoiler down the stretch with games left vs. Ohio State and at Penn State. A win vs. either would kill any Big Ten East title hopes the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions hold. Could either upset happen? Probably not. But you never know. Michigan State did just win its first Big Ten game last week, so the Spartans have a bit of momentum. And this is a prideful program with lots of talent that is well coached.
Don’t count out Nebraska in the Big Ten West race. The Cornhuskers have the same record as Wisconsin: 8-2 overall, 5-2 Big Ten. But the Badgers hold the tiebreak vs. the Huskers since UW won the head-to-head meeting with Nebraska. So, for the Cornhuskers to win the West, they must win out vs. Maryland and at Iowa … and hope the Badgers lose one of their last two games: at Purdue, vs. Minnesota. And those are two opponents that Wisconsin has dominated of late. Against Purdue, Wisconsin has won 10 in a row and 12 of 14 … often in crushing fashion: 62-17 … 41-10 … 37-0 … 34-13 … 38-14. Purdue hasn’t beaten the Badgers in West Lafayette since 1997 (Joe Tiller’s first season), losing six in a row in Ross-Ade Stadium to UW. The battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe has been a lopsided affair, too, as the Gophers have gone 2-17 vs. the Badgers since 1995. In fact, Minnesota has lost 12 in a row to Wisconsin. And the Gophers haven’t won in Madison since 1994.
Yes, there are players across the nation with more catches and receiving yards than Northwestern’s Austin Carr. But I think he should win the Biletnikoff Award as America’s top receiver. He has 75 catches for 1,102 yards with 12 TD grabs. But most impressive has been his consistency, as the former walk-on is the only player in the nation who has made at least five catches with at least 73 yards receiving each game this season.
There are legit concerns for Michigan down the stretch. Last week’s flop at Iowa renewed concerns about the Wolverines’ offensive line and ability to run the ball. It’s pretty disconcerting when you consider the veterans who line up for Michigan up front. Senior Ben Braden, junior Mason Cole, senior Kyle Kalis, senior Erick Magnuson. This unit should be dominating. But in the 14-13 loss at Iowa, the Wolverines had just 201 yards and only 98 on the ground (2.8 ypc). Michigan is still No. 2 in the Big Ten in rushing (236.6 ypg). But it will face two decent defenses down the stretch in Indiana and Ohio State. Adding another layer of concern are the reports that Michigan lost QB Wilton Speight to a broken collar bone. How will John O’Korn perform? It’s never a good time for an offense to have big questions, but this is crunch-time with a division title and a possible Big Ten title and playoff berth on the line. Will the offense end up being the Wolverines’ undoing?
While Michigan may be hitting a lull, Ohio State is hitting its stride. The defense has been consistently good all season. But the offense struggled in October in games at Wisconsin, at Penn State and vs. Northwestern. But the last two weeks, the Buckeyes have scored 62 points, the first time in school history that the Buckeyes scored 60 points in consecutive Big Ten games. OSU had 590 yards vs. Nebraska and 581 yards at Maryland the last two weeks, as J.T. Barrett and Curtis Samuel are on fire. This probably is the best team in the East—and the Big Ten. Gotta like the Buckeyes’ chances to win out at Michigan State and vs. Michigan.
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