Dienhart: Best of 2017 non-conference play ... with one peek ahead

Dienhart: Best of 2017 non-conference play ... with one peek ahead

The non-conference season is over. Well, there is one more non-league game, as Charleston Southern plays at Indiana in October. Still, essentially, non-conference season is finished for Big Ten squads.

Now, it’s on to full-blown Big Ten games as the race for the 2017 title will begin to gain momentum. But before we steam ahead, let’s look back over our shoulder at the non-league portion of the schedule.

Editor’s note: Only non-conference games and stats were considered for this post.

Most impressive wins
1. Maryland 51, Texas 41. Who saw this coming? The unranked Terps rolled into Austin and dumped the No. 23 Longhorns with 482 yards in the season-opener, ruining new Texas coach Tom Herman’s debut.
2. Purdue 35, Missouri 3. No one envisioned the Boilermakers storming Columbia and clobbering the Tigers. Yes, MU is struggling. But it’s not like Purdue is loaded with talent as it rebuilds under Jeff Brohm.
3. Michigan 33, Florida 17. The Wolverines showed their considerable prowess by dispatching the undermanned Gators in Arlington, Texas, in the season-opener. The defense was suffocating.

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Top performances
1. Wisconsin QB Alex Hornibrook at BYU. He hit 18-of-19 passes for 256 yards with four TDs in a 40-6 win at BYU in Week 3. Also: His .947 completion percentage set a program record.
2 Iowa QB Nate Stanley at Iowa State. The first-year starer had his coming out party against Iowa’s instate rival, throwing for 333 yards and five scores to help Iowa rally and top the Cyclones on the road in overtime.
3. Iowa LB Josey Jewell vs. Wyoming. Josh Allen who? Jewell helped Iowa terrorize the likely first-round QB in Week 1, registering a game-high 14 tackles, including seven solo stops, a pair of sacks and a pass breakup.

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Top moments
1. Iowa’s “First Quarter Wave.” There’s a new Big Ten tradition, and it’s going to happen before the second quarter at Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium. With the new UI Children’s Hospital opening across the street, constructed with a great view of the field, fans, all at once, take a moment to wave to the patients and families watching in the hospital.
2. Tyson Smith pick-6. He suffered a stroke shortly after the 2016 season had ended. In the season-opener vs. Bowling Green, the Spartan cornerback ran back an interception 38 yards for a TD.
3. Mikey Dudek and J-Shuun Harris II return. Both have lost two years to injury. And yet, both still possess plenty of skills and athleticism. Dudek wasted no time making an impact in his return, grabbing a touchdown in the season opener, while Harris is one of the conference’s premier return men.

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Top plays
1. Maryland WR D.J. Moore’s TD run vs. Towson. He had a highlight scoring run vs. Towson in Week 2, which featured an impressive broken tackle behind the line of scrimmage and several nifty moves en route to a brilliant 21-yard TD jaunt. Moore totaled three TDs in a 63-17 romp.
2. Penn State RB Saquon Barkley’s TD vs. Georgia State. Yes, it was against lowly Georgia State. Still, the cut and speed Barkley exhibited on his Beaver Stadium record 85-yard touchdown reception was something else in Week 3.
3. Iowa RB Akrum Wadley’s TD at Iowa State. The unheralded star showed off some NFL moves on his 46-yard touchdown reception with 1:09 left to force overtime at Iowa State in Week

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Top freshmen
1. Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor. We heard the true freshman was supposed to be good. But, wow, he has been sensational. Taylor leads the Big Ten with a 146.0-rushing yard average and five rushing TDs. Taylor is next in a long line of star Badger ball carriers.
2. Ohio State RB J.K. Dobbins. The true freshman has been a revelation, rushing for 339 total yards vs. Oklahoma, Army and UNLV. Dobbins, who also torched Indiana for 181 yards in the season opener, looks like a future star.
3. Northwestern LB Paddy Fisher. The redshirt freshman is No. 3 in the Big Ten in tackles, averaging 9.7 stops per game. Fisher plays a lot like his coach, Pat Fitzgerald, an ex-star Wildcat LB.

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Surprise players
1. Iowa QB Nate Stanley. The first-year starting QB leads the Big Ten with 12 TD passes, 10 of which came in non-conference play. In three non-conference games, all wins, he completed 61 percent of his passes for 655 yards.
2. Michigan LB Devin Bush. He is the most active force on a Michigan defense that ranks among the best in the nation. Bush is No. 6 in the Big Ten in tackles and also ranks No. 2 in sacks and No. 4 in TFLs.
3. Nebraska WR Stanley Morgan. He is No. 2 in the Big Ten with 18 catches. And he averages 99.7 yards receiving to rank second in the conference. Morgan also has three TD catches.

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Surprise teams
1. Purdue. The Boilermakers are 2-2 and thinking bowl. The defense has been sneaky good, while Jeff Brohm extracts all he can from an offense that has two good QBs.
2. Minnesota. The Golden Gophers are off to a 3-0 start that, in the words of new coach P.J. Fleck, is ELITE!! The defense has been spectacular.
3. Iowa. The Hawkeyes look tough up front on both sides of the ball and have an emerging force at QB in Nate Stanley. Could Iowa win the West?

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Big Ten games to watch
1. Michigan at Penn State, Oct. 21. The Wolverines have won the last three meetings vs. the Nittany Lions, including a 49-10 beat down last year. After that loss, PSU won nine in a row. Can a stout Michigan D led by LB Devin Bush slow the PSU attack led by Saquon Barkley?
2. Penn State at Ohio State, Oct. 28. This could end up being a de facto Big Ten East title game. The QB matchup between Trace McSorley and J.T. Barrett should be epic. Another key matchup: Saquon Barkley vs. a standout Buckeye d-line. Last year, the Nittany Lions were the only team to beat Ohio State in the regular season
3. Iowa at Wisconsin, Nov. 11. This could decide who wins the Big Ten West title. It also will be battle between two of the conference’s top young signal-callers in Iowa’s Nate Stanley and Wisconsin’s Alex Hornibrook. And if you like defense, you should like this game. How close has this series been? Wisconsin leads 45-43-2. UW has four of the last five.

Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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