Big Ten Football: Tom Dienhart's hot takes heading into Week 5
Big Ten action is finally here on a full-scale. And there are three interesting clashes involving West Division squads that will help set up an early pecking order in what looks like a wide-open race: Iowa at Wisconsin; Minnesota at Northwestern; Nebraska at Illinois. The Hawkeyes and Wildcats are looking to remain perfect, while the Fighting Illini are looking for a signature victory and the Huskers for some credibility.
Quick reminder: Use GameFinder tool for complete TV info and read our game previews here. Also, click the matchup to watch live on BTN2Go this Saturday: Minnesota at Northwestern, Nebraska at Illinois, and Michigan at Maryland.
Now here are my 10 hard takes on this Saturday’s action.
1. Allowing big plays is killer to a team. And, no team is getting killed more than Nebraska. That’s why Illinois has a shot to knock off the visiting Cornhuskers this Saturday. No team has allowed more passing yards (1,518), pass plays of 10-plus yards (57) and pass plays of 20-plus yards (24) nationally than the Cornhuskers. And the pass defense is last in the Big Ten (379.5 ypg), too. Just brutal stuff. A win here would be a huge boost to Illinois’ bowl hopes. In fact, it may be a turning point in 2015. This is a very beatable Nebraska squad, which has won the last six encounters with Illinois.
2. Speaking of stunners, Indiana has a chance to perhaps pull one when No. 1 Ohio State visits Bloomington. I know all about the history of this series. It’s as lopsided as the Roadrunner vs. the Coyote series. But the Hoosiers could make things VERY interesting if their offense is rolling on Saturday. The Hoosiers are No. 1 in the Big Ten in total offense (522.2 ypg) and No. 1 in scoring (38.2 ppg). If IU can get the Buckeyes and their sometimes spotty offense into a shootout, it may have a shot to pull off the oh-my-gosh stunner—or at least give Urban Meyer and Co., a lot of nervous moments.
3. Speaking of Ohio State, have you noticed how good the Buckeye defense has been? Probably not, as America has been fixated on the OSU quarterbacks. The defense continues to make big plays when it needs to. For the third straight game last week, a defensive player scored a touchdown. The Buckeyes defense has gone unnoticed for the most part through these first four games despite the fact that it is ranked sixth nationally in total defense (253.3 ypg) and 10th in scoring defense (12.3 ppg). Just until Joey Bosa gets jacked up.
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4. There is no better marriage between coach and player than Wisconsin’s Joel Stave and Paul Chryst. This time last year, Stave was dealing with a perplexing case of the yips that cost him his job—and threatened his career. Now, Stave is thriving under quarterback-friendly Chryst. The senior is hitting 66.1 percent of his passes for 830 yards with seven TDs and two interceptions. With the vaunted Badger rushing attack off its game (No. 9 in the Big Ten, 188.2 ypg), Wisconsin’s attack may be in deep trouble without Stave’s steady hand.
5. Commit fewer penalties and you win more. Well, Northwestern has been flagged the least in the Big Ten and is 4-0. Michigan State is No. 2 in fewest penalties followed by Iowa (4-0), Michigan (3-1), Penn State (3-1) and Wisconsin (3-1). The five most penalized: Purdue (1-3), Rutgers (2-2), Maryland (2-2), Indiana (4-0) and Nebraska (2-2).
6. October will tell us all we need to know about 4-0 Northwestern. In fact, the Wildcats have the most daunting month of any team that is off to a good start. NU opens with a visit from Minnesota this Saturday. That’s followed by a trip to Michigan, a home tilt vs. Iowa and game at Nebraska. NU needs to go 2-2 to show that its 4-0 start is legit. A 3-1 mark would stamp the Wildcats as the real deal.
7. How bad has Maryland’s quarterbacking been? The Terps are No. 12 in the Big Ten in passing (193.2 ypg) and are completing just 50.4 percent of their passes with a national-leading 12 interceptions. No other Big Ten team has tossed more than seven picks. Perry Hills, Caleb Rowe and Daxx Garman all have had issues. Rowe has thrown a league-high nine interceptions in just 64 pass attempts. Just think: Maryland has been a cradle of quarterbacks over the years, producing the likes of Boomer Esiason, Frank Reich, Neil O’Donnell, Stan Gelbaugh, Scott Milanovich, Scott Zolak and Shaun Hill, among others.
8. Can Minnesota really win the Big Ten West with an offense that can’t seem to get rolling? It’s stunning to think the Golden Gophers have played 16 quarters of football—and have scored eight TDs. The team with the second-fewest TDs? Northwestern with 11. The Gophers and Wildcats just happen to meet this Saturday in Evanston. Jerry Kill’s club still hasn’t reached the 30-point mark in 2015. In fact, Minnesota has been held to 28 points or fewer in each of its last eight games. The Gophers are averaging 19.3 points this season, which is the fewest among power conference teams. More dreariness: Minnesota has gone three-and-out on 32.7 percent (18/55) of its offensive possessions this season, which is the highest mark among all power conference teams.
9. Is Michigan “back” or is it too soon to say it? The Wolverines have certainly been impressive in the last three games and they are playing a very physical brand of football with a strong rushing game and stout defense as backbones. No doubt, Michigan is the third-best team in the East as of right now. Will Jim Harbaugh’s crew be a huge challenger to Michigan State and Ohio State in the division? Each has to come to Ann Arbor. And, I think Michigan will beat one of those two squads.
10. Many pundits surveyed Purdue’s schedule and thought the Boilermakers needed to start 3-1 to have any shot at making a bowl for the first time since 2011. Even then, Purdue probably would be hard-pressed to make the postseason. Well, the worst-case scenario has unfolded for the Boilers, who are 1-3—the only Big Ten team with a losing non-conference mark. And they face a daunting October that begins with a trip to Michigan State this week. A visit from Minnesota is next, then a game at Wisconsin and a Halloween home affair with Nebraska. It’s difficult to dump water on a team’s season this early. But, it’s going to take a major miracle for Purdue to make a bowl this season. There are myriad issues for this team, with one of the most disappointing being the inability of a veteran offensive line with all five starters back to get a consistent push for a rushing attack that is No. 11 in the Big Ten (164.0 ypg). If Purdue can’t run, it’s sunk. It managed a meager 77 rushing yards on 38 carries (2.0 ypc) vs. a MAC team last week.