Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, October 6, 2016
Ohio State and Michigan are soaring. While last year's Big Ten title game contestants–Iowa and Michigan State–are struggling. And how about Nebraska and Maryland?
Here is what I think I know as we enter Week 6.
Michigan State has big issues on third downs on offense and defense. The Spartans are converting just 37.5 percent on third down (ninth in the Big Ten). And MSU is really struggling to get off the field, allowing opponents to convert 40.4 percent (12th in the Big Ten). The defensive struggles are amplified by a pass rush that ranks last in the Big Ten, as Michigan State has a paltry five sacks in four games. Unless Michigan State can improve on third downs, it likely won?t be a factor in the Big Ten East.
In recent years, Minnesota has had some of the best secondarys in the Big Ten. But the Golden Gophers are struggling, ranking last in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed (255.3 ypg). Foes are completing 54 percent of their passes, and Minnesota has a Big Ten-low one interception while allowing nine TD passes. The fact the Gophers have just nine sacks exasperates the pass defense?s efforts.
Penn State will go as far as its offense takes it. And that could be pretty far. Penn State has 28 plays of 20-plus yards and leads the Big Ten with 16 plays of 30-plus yards. Can the Nittany Lions keep ripping off big chunks of yards vs. Maryland this week? It may be difficult. The Terrapins have allowed just 12 plays of 20-plus yards, which is the second fewest in the Big Ten and tied for the third fewest in the nation. No doubt, Maryland-aiming for its first 5-0 start since 2001–hasn?t seen an offense this good this season.
Northwestern WR Austin Carr has been perhaps the most surprising player in the Big Ten so far in 2016. He had three touchdowns in the win at Iowa last week, becoming the first Northwestern player with three touchdown catches in a game since Drake Dunsmore had four against Indiana in 2011. He?s the first Wildcat with a touchdown catch in four straight games since Teddy Johnson did so in five straight in 2000. And Carr is the first Northwestern player with at least six touchdown catches in a season since Dunsmore in 2011. On top of it all, Carr paces the Big Ten with 32 receptions for 465 yards, averaging 14.5 yards per grab. Not bad for a former walk-on.
Wisconsin?s lack of offensive explosion may be its undoing. No doubt, the defense is among the best in the conference, allowing just 12.2 point per game to rank No. 2 in the Big Ten in scoring defense while yielding just 291.4 yards per game to rank No. 3 in total defense in the league. The offensive line isn?t as dominating as year?s past, while running back Corey Clement still doesn?t seem totally healthy and back to his 2014 form. He has 319 yards rushing, averaging 3.9 yards per carry. As a result, the Badgers are just No. 9 in the Big Ten in rushing (161.6 ypg). And that puts too much pressure on redshirt freshman QB Alex Hornibrook to make plays. The offense was ineffective in a 14-7 loss at Michigan last week with just 159 total yards and seven points. Wisconsin is off this week. Maybe that will help the program regroup for a big visit from Ohio State on Oct. 15.
Nebraska?s 4-0 start has offered a lot of hope. And a big key to the success? Lack of turnovers. Any Husker fan will lament about undisciplined play since NU joined the Big Ten in 2011, as turnovers have been a big issue. Check it out: Nebraska has had a negative turnover each season since joining the conference. In 2011, the Huskers were No. 9 in the Big Ten in turnover margin (-1); 2012, No. 11 (-12); 2013, No. 14 (-11); 2014, No. 6 (-2); 2015, No. 11 (-5). But this season, Nebraska is No. 5 in the Big Ten in turnover margin with a plus-four.
No. 2 Ohio State will beat Indiana. History says so. This has been one of the most lopsided series in the nation. Indiana went 2-1-1 vs. the Buckeyes from 1987-90, including a victory in Columbus in 1987. Since then, the Hoosiers have lost 21 in a row to the Buckeyes. But last year, IU threw a major scare into Ohio State, which had to battle for its life to escape Bloomington with a 34-27 win as the No. 1 team in the nation. And the Hoosiers beat a ranked team (Michigan State) last week for the first time since 2006. Indiana has lost 30 straight games against Top 10 teams, last winning in 1988 against then ninth-ranked Ohio State. The Hoosiers also have lost 30 straight games against Top 5 teams, last winning in 1967 against third-ranked Purdue.
Rutgers misses Janarion Grant ? badly. The 116 yards last week vs. Ohio State in a 58-0 loss were the fewest by the Scarlet Knights in any game since being held to 90 yards against West Virginia in 2002. It also was the first time RU had been shut out on the road since 2002 when it lost 42-0 at Notre Dame. Will the Scarlet Knights score this week vs. Michigan and its boffo defense that is No. 2 overall in the Big Ten (247.6 ypg) and yields just 12.4 ppg (No. 3 in the league)?
If Illinois has any postseason aspirations, it must take care of business the next two games. A struggling Purdue squad visits Saturday. And a trip to Rutgers follows. Win both, and the Fighting Illini would be 3-3 and have legit bowl hopes in Year One under Lovie Smith. If Illinois makes a bowl, it would be very impressive.
Purdue has major issues on both of its lines. It all came to a head last week at Maryland in a brutal 50-7 loss in which the Boilermakers were out rushed, 400-10. Purdue has major issues at offensive tackle, as both starters have been unable to start (one is suspended, the other is hurt). And the reserves have struggled mightily. The result has been an offense in chaos. The defensive line has no injury excuses as the unit has just been getting whipped. The linebackers share some blame in the inability to stop the run, too. Bottom line: It could be a long season for the Boilermakers unless they improve in the trenches right now. And it?s fair to wonder if Purdue will even win another game in 2016.