NCF Nation: Northwestern Wildcats

Big Ten bowl projections: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
8:00
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The leaves are turning, the mercury is dropping and teams are becoming bowl eligible. Welcome to the heart of the college football season. It's a wonderful place to be, don't you agree?

Three Big Ten teams (Michigan State, Minnesota and Nebraska) have reached the six-win threshold, ensuring bowl placement for this year. Four other squads -- Ohio State, Maryland, Rutgers and Iowa -- are one win away.

The projections don't change much this week after a Saturday where things more or less went according to plan. One debate among the Big Ten reporting team was whether to remove Northwestern, which lost its second consecutive game and continued to struggle offensively. Yet with four winnable Big Ten games left -- Iowa (road), Michigan (home), Purdue (road) and Illinois (home) -- we think Pat Fitzgerald's team can finish well.

Another factor is the Big Ten taking more control of the game assignments this year, rather than leaving it up to the bowls, who often prioritize brand name and size of fan base over on-field results. The league wants better, fresher matchups and no repeat appearances, if at all possible.

Would the Holiday Bowl rather have Wisconsin than Maryland? No doubt. But Maryland has earned its way into the Holiday Bowl slot on the field, so we're giving the Terrapins the nod. Fortunately, Wisconsin and Maryland can settle things on the field this week in Madison.

Should Michigan State or Ohio State be projected into the College Football Playoff? Not yet. But the winner of their Nov. 8 showdown at Spartan Stadium could move into elite company.

Iowa takes a tumble after its loss in College Park. The Hawkeyes have to take care of business at home in November to move up again.

OK, enough rambling. The projections ...

Chick-fil-A Peach/AT&T Cotton/Fiesta/Capital One Orange: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/AT&T Cotton/Fiesta/Capital One Orange: Ohio State
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus: Nebraska
Outback: Minnesota
National University Holiday: Maryland
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City: Wisconsin
San Francisco: Rutgers
New Era Pinstripe: Iowa
Quick Lane: Penn State
Heart of Dallas: Northwestern

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
2:00
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Five observations from Saturday in the Big Ten:

1. Ohio State and Michigan State are widening the gap over the rest of the league. The Spartans and Buckeyes continued their march toward Nov. 8 in East Lansing with resounding wins by identical scores of 56-17 over Indiana and Rutgers, respectively. The Buckeyes topped 50 points in four consecutive games for the first time in school history and dealt the Scarlet Knights their worst loss in 12 years with an introduction to the big-time side of Big Ten football. MSU was slow at the start, as Indiana’s Shane Wynn and Tevin Coleman scored on long runs, but Michigan State blanked the Hoosiers in the second half. Just as importantly, both Big Ten powers climbed closer to consideration for the College Football Playoff as two top-10 unbeatens went down.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsJ.T. Barrett is playing at a high level as Ohio State's offense continues to roll.
2. J.T. Barrett is a Heisman Trophy darkhorse. No, we’re not kidding. The same redshirt freshman who struggled mightily in the Buckeyes’ loss to Virginia Tech the past month has played better than any quarterback in the country as of late. He ran for 107 yards and two scores and threw for 261 and three touchdowns against Rutgers. Under his guidance, Ohio State has averaged 614 yards over its past four games, albeit against suspect defensive competition, though Rutgers appeared set to pose a challenge. Barrett won’t be considered a serious candidate unless he can play like this, without a blip, for the rest of the season.

3. Minnesota might never win pretty, but it almost always wins. The Golden Gophers beat Purdue 39-38 behind two interceptions of Austin Appleby by safety Cedric Thompson, including the game-clincher with 2:28 to play. Minnesota is 3-0 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1990. It was a typical Gopher effort, with 194 rushing yards from David Cobb and just nine completions from quarterback Mitch Leidner, who threw two touchdowns. Give credit to fast-improving Purdue, for sure, but this game deviated from Minnesota form only in that the Gophers trailed at halftime -- they earned the first win in 23 such occasions under Jerry Kill -- and needed a 52-yard field goal by Ryan Santoso for the decisive points with 4:59 left.

4. In spite of Minnesota’s start, Nebraska still looks like the best in the West. The Huskers beat Northwestern 38-17 at Ryan Field and outscored the Wildcats 24-0 in the second half to move to 6-1. Barring an upset win in Lincoln by Rutgers or Purdue over the next two weeks, Nebraska will be 8-1 on Nov. 15 when Bo Pelini’s team travels to Wisconsin for a final stretch that includes Minnesota and Iowa. In bouncing back from a loss to Michigan State, Nebraska displayed new depth at the line of scrimmage against Northwestern and found new ways to feature spark-plug freshman De'Mornay Pierson-El, who threw a touchdown pass to QB Tommy Armstrong Jr.

5. It might be November (if even then) before we understand Maryland and Iowa. The Terrapins overcame a slow start to beat the Hawkeyes 38-31. Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown returned from a back injury, suffered in the second half, and receiver Stefon Diggs and cornerback Will Likely contributed their usual big plays. But is Maryland really a threat to get to nine wins and a New Year’s Day bowl? Maybe, in the watered-down Big Ten. What about Iowa, still a player in the West Division with its favorable schedule but unable to break through in a winnable game Saturday? Just as the Hawkeyes’ offense appears to have gained speed, the defense took a step back in College Park.

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 8

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
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Let the second half of the season begin.

The Big Ten's West Division is still as muddled as ever, Rutgers is searching for more respect, and several teams still aren’t secure at quarterback. This week's games could help make the overall conference picture a bit clearer, but plenty of time – and storylines – remain. Here’s a look at Saturday’s games and what to expect (all times Eastern):

Noon

Iowa (5-1) at Maryland (4-2), ESPN2: The Terrapins have had a week to rest, and they’ll need it against a tough Hawkeyes team. Iowa scored an uncharacteristic 45 points last week, and Maryland’s defense is giving up more yards – but fewer points – than the Hawkeyes’ last opponent, Indiana. This is an interesting matchup for a lot of reasons. Not only is Iowa trying to remain atop the West, but we could possibly see four quarterbacks. Kirk Ferentz still wants to play both Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard, while Randy Edsall won’t hesitate to pull C.J. Brown for Caleb Rowe if Brown struggles the way he did against Ohio State.

Purdue (3-4) at Minnesota (5-1), BTN: The Boilermakers shocked the Big Ten last week by hanging 31 points on Michigan State -- and that wasn’t lost on Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, who praised Purdue’s offensive line. With Austin Appleby now playing well at quarterback, this isn’t the “gimme” game it appeared to be a few weeks ago. Regardless, Purdue’s run defense is still lacking, and that’s not good news against Minnesota. David Cobb is rushing for more than 136 yards per game, and he’s one of the more underrated players in the Big Ten. He isn’t just the spark in this offense, he’s the engine – and he’ll again be key to the Gophers’ success. If Minnesota keeps winning, voters in both polls won’t be able to ignore this team for much longer.

3:30 p.m.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesJ.T. Barrett's rapid improvement has the Buckeyes as a big favorite at home against Big Ten newcomer Rutgers.
No. 8 Michigan State (5-1) at Indiana (3-3), ESPN: This matchup is happening at the worst time for the Hoosiers. Not only is starting quarterback Nate Sudfeld out for the season, but backup Chris Covington will reportedly not play Saturday, either. That leaves true freshman Zander Diamont, who weighs 160-some pounds, according to Indiana coach Kevin Wilson. Indiana boasts the nation’s leading rusher in Tevin Coleman, but it’s no secret Michigan State will stack the box and dare the Hoosiers to pass. And even if Indiana succeeds in scoring, it still might not be enough to keep up with a balanced Spartans offense. It could be a long day for Indiana.

Rutgers (5-1) at No. 13 Ohio State (4-1), ABC/ESPN2: Rutgers is the surprise team in the Big Ten right now, but there would be no bigger surprise than if it were able to knock off the Buckeyes at the Horseshoe. Quarterback J.T. Barrett is rolling, running back Ezekiel Elliott is solid and the Scarlet Knights’ defense will be tested, B1G time. Ohio State holds the advantage in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense, scoring offense, passing offense and rushing offense. Rutgers has embraced its underdog role so far this season, and it’s a big underdog in this one.

7 p.m.

No. 19 Nebraska (5-1) at Northwestern (3-3), BTN: The Wildcats have faced three one-dimensional offenses in a row, but that ends with the Cornhuskers. Not only does Nebraska have one of the nation’s best running backs in Ameer Abdullah, but quarterback Tommy Armstrong is also fourth in the Big Ten in both passing yards per game and pass efficiency. This is the highest-rated offense (No. 10 in total offense) that the Wildcats have faced all season. Nebraska’s defense isn’t too bad, either, and Trevor Siemian will have to be on top of his game for Northwestern to stand a chance.

Required reading

Big Ten Week 8 predictions

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
9:00
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Thanks to their bold selection of Michigan to beat Penn State, Mitch Sherman and Josh Moyer were both 5-0 in Week 7. Can they do it again in Week 8? On to the picks ...

Why Iowa will win: Steer clear of this game in Vegas as both teams have been hard to pin down. But I liked Iowa's aggressive offensive approach last week against Indiana and see no reason why the Hawkeyes can't keep the pedal down against a Maryland defense that allows more than 450 yards per game. Iowa must shore up its run defense after last week, but there are no Tevin Colemans on the Terrapins roster. Close game, fun game, lots of points, but Iowa emerges with a win. ... Iowa 35, Maryland 31 -- Adam Rittenberg

Why Maryland will win: C.J. Brown is healthier, Maryland is at home, the Terps are scoring an average of more than five TDs a game, and they're coming off a bye. Add all that together, and I feel a little better going with Maryland over the Hawkeyes. Both teams have been inconsistent, but Iowa has crossed the 30-point barrier against an FBS team only once -- and that was last week against the nation's No. 89 scoring defense. Maryland's D isn't good, but it's better than Indiana. The Hawkeyes might not be able to keep up in the end. ... Maryland 31, Iowa 28. -- Josh Moyer

Why Minnesota will win: Purdue is rapidly improving and growing into the kind of physical team Darrell Hazell wants. But Minnesota already has that kind of team. The Gophers are surging thanks to strong defensive work, solid special teams and a shorten-the-game approach on offense. The Boilermakers' young defense will have trouble containing David Cobb and the Gophers will move to 6-1. ... Minnesota 27, Purdue 16 -- Brian Bennett

Why Purdue will win: It's time to sell high on the Gophers. Minnesota has pounded its way to a 5-1 record despite ranking 124th in passing offense. Purdue's offense under sophomore quarterback Austin Appleby has shown a new propensity for big plays. The Boilermakers hung 31 on Michigan State's stingy defense a week ago with the help of a much-improved offensive line. If Appleby can get going early, he might be able to force Minnesota out of its David Cobb comfort zone and sneak away with the Big Ten upset of the week. ... Purdue 31, Minnesota 27 -- Dan Murphy

Unanimous picks
Michigan State 45, Indiana 17: Already suspect on defense with one of the worst units in the Big Ten, the Hoosiers are going to have an even harder time hanging around in shootouts with quarterback Nate Sudfeld out for the season.

Nebraska 28, Northwestern 20: Ameer Abdullah and the Huskers have had a week to recharge the batteries after their late rally came up short against Michigan State, and they’ll be looking to send a message that the West Division still goes through them this season.

Ohio State 48, Rutgers 20: The odds of the Buckeyes actually being better offensively this season than the last two under Urban Meyer looked long about a month ago, but that young attack is gaining confidence and shattering records seemingly every week even without Braxton Miller at quarterback.

Our records:
Mitch Sherman: 57-13 (.814)
Brian Bennett: 55-15 (.786)
Austin Ward: 55-15 (.786)
Adam Rittenberg: 54-16 (.771)
Dan Murphy: 25-8 (.758)
Josh Moyer: 51-19 (.729)

Big Ten midseason overview

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
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The Big Ten entered 2014 with a few high-profile opportunities to raise its flailing image.

Things started out well enough, as Wisconsin took a 24-7 lead on LSU in the third quarter on opening weekend. And it was pretty much all downhill from there for the Badgers, who wound up losing 28-24, and the rest of the league. Other early-season losses by Michigan State (at Oregon), Ohio State (Virginia Tech) and Iowa (Iowa State) relegated the Big Ten to its same old status as a middle-of-the-pack (at best) power conference.

As a result, the league needs some breaks just to get a team into the four-team College Football Playoff. Yes, conversation about the inaugural playoff has dominated the sport a little too much so far. Then again, when's the last time you heard anybody talking about who might play in this year's Orange Bowl?

The Big Ten might not place a team in the Rose Bowl -- site of a national semifinal this year -- unless Michigan State and Ohio State run the table the rest of the way, or if a team from the wide-open West Division like Nebraska or Minnesota really surprises.

Not everything, of course, revolves around the playoff, and there have been some good stories in the Big Ten during the first half. The conference boasts three of the top four rushers in the nation. The oft-mocked addition of Maryland and Rutgers doesn't look so bad as the two teams are a combined 9-3. Purdue has already tripled its win total from a year ago. The NCAA sanctions at Penn State were lifted -- though no relief was provided for the Nittany Lions' offensive line. Five teams sit at 5-1, setting up an interesting race toward ... wherever the league champion might wind up in the postseason. (Hey, how about that Orange Bowl?)

So reasons for hope remain in the Big Ten for the second half. Though maybe not so much in Ann Arbor and Champaign.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Mary Langenfeld/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon has already topped 1,000 yards and has 13 touchdowns halfway through the season.
Offensive MVP: Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon. It's so hard to choose between the fantastic running backs in this league, as Indiana's Tevin Coleman leads the FBS in rushing and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah has been a warrior. Gordon has received very little help from his team's passing game, yet he has piled up 1,046 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, including four straight games of at least 175 yards.

Defensive MVP: Ohio State DE Joey Bosa. There's no runaway winner of this award yet, but Bosa has built on his impressive freshman campaign of a year ago to become one of the most disruptive pass-rushing forces around. He has seven tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.

Biggest surprise: Few people gave Rutgers much of a chance to contend in the school's first year in the Big Ten, especially given the Scarlet Knights' murderous schedule. But with an improved Gary Nova at quarterback and a stout defense, Rutgers sits at 5-1 at the halfway point. The back half is still treacherous, including games against Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State, but Kyle Flood's team has shown it can't be taken lightly.

Biggest disappointment: Michigan, naturally. The Wolverines (3-4) beat Penn State last week at home, finally ending a streak of seven straight losses against Power 5 teams. Blowout losses against Notre Dame, Utah and Minnesota, and the Shane Morris concussion controversy have put Brady Hoke squarely on the hot seat.

Newcomer of the year: Losing Braxton Miller did not end Ohio State's playoff chances, largely because of the rapid growth of freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett. After struggling in a Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech, Barrett has blossomed into one of the top players in the Big Ten. He leads the league in total offense, pass efficiency and passing touchdowns (17).

Best coach: Jerry Kill, Minnesota. With apologies to Flood, no coach has maximized his talent more than the head Gopher. Minnesota is 5-1 and tied atop the Big Ten West Division, with its only loss coming at TCU. Kill's team finds ways to win without an overpowering offensive attack.

Best game: Indiana 31, Missouri 27. This game had a little bit of everything, with both teams combining for nearly 1,000 yards of offense and the Hoosiers scoring the winning touchdown with 22 seconds left after Missouri had hit what looked like the game-winning field goal. The road win in SEC country was also one of the league's few bright spots in nonconference play. Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, they haven't been able to duplicate that performance.

Biggest games of the second half: Armageddon arrives on Nov. 8 in East Lansing, Michigan, when Ohio State travels to Michigan State in a possible playoff eliminator. Other big B1G games are mostly in the wide-open West, including: Iowa at Minnesota (Nov. 8), Northwestern at Notre Dame (Nov. 15), Nebraska at Wisconsin (Nov. 15), Wisconsin at Iowa (Nov. 22) and Nebraska at Iowa (Nov. 28).
Mark DantonioAP Photo/Jae C. HongIf the Spartans reach Indianapolis, they will need a quality opponent from the West to bolster their playoff chances.
The first half of the college football season has been deliciously unpredictable nationally. Here in Big Ten country, though, things have more or less played out like we thought they would.

The East Division looks like a two-team race between Michigan State and Ohio State. That's not a knock on Rutgers, the Big Ten's most pleasant surprise. But Rutgers' true Big Ten introduction takes place the next two weeks in Columbus and Lincoln. If the Scarlet Knights earn their #Chops, they become a real threat.

For now, it's about No. 8 Michigan State and No. 13 Ohio State, and their looming showdown Nov. 8 at Spartan Stadium under the lights.

And then there's the wild, wild West Division. It appeared to be the more balanced, more wide-open division entering the season, and it has stayed true to form. While some handed the division to Wisconsin back in August, they were the same folks spending too much time studying the Badgers' schedule and not enough time studying the Badgers' roster.

Minnesota and Iowa sit atop the division at 2-0 in league play, followed by Northwestern at 2-1 and Nebraska and Wisconsin both at 1-1. Nebraska's lone loss came in a cross-division game at Michigan State, while Northwestern (Minnesota) and Wisconsin (Northwestern) both have lost a division game.

There's not much separation between the five, and you can make a case for each to represent the West in Indy. This has all the makings of a plot-twisting, cannibalizing, down-to-the-last-weekend, complex-tiebreaker-requiring, wildly entertaining division race.

But that's not the best thing for the Big Ten. Far from it. The Big Ten needs a Wyatt Earp to tame the wild, wild West.

Why? This season is all about the playoff -- who's in and who's out. The Big Ten needs to get in for an opportunity to validate itself nationally. Otherwise, irrelevance continues.

(Yes, I realize some Big Ten fans despise the ESPN-driven, all-about-the-playoff narrative. But it's the world we live in, so deal.)

The Big Ten's Week 2 and Week 3 struggles muddied its playoff path, but there's still a route to the field of four. Michigan State and Ohio State remain the league's top two candidates -- the Spartans much more so than the Buckeyes because of a higher quality loss (Oregon on the road versus Virginia Tech at home).

If Michigan State and Ohio State don't slip up before Nov. 8, the showdown in Sparta essentially becomes a playoff elimination game. No Big Ten team is getting in with two losses, no matter what zaniness happens in other conferences.

But the winner of OSU-MSU still likely will need help in the Big Ten championship game. The game has to be a résumé-boosting opportunity in the eyes of the playoff selection committee.

The only way that happens is if the opponent from the West Division also has one total loss, two at most.

If an 11-1 Michigan State or an 11-1 Ohio State faces a 3- or 4-loss West Division opponent at Lucas Oil Stadium, the game will fall off of the national radar. The selection committee will be focused elsewhere. There's not much to gain for the East champ and a lot to lose.

That's why the Big Ten needs someone to take charge in the West. The ideal candidates are Minnesota and Nebraska because both have quality losses (Gophers on the road against TCU, Huskers on the road against Michigan State). Iowa isn't a bad option at 11-1, but a home loss to Iowa State will be held against the Hawkeyes.

Northwestern is improving but already has three losses. Wisconsin's season-opening loss to LSU probably won't look great come November, so even a 10-2 Badgers team reaching Indy might not made the championship game meaningful enough.

There's also the possibility, albeit slim, that both Big Ten championship game participants are in the playoff mix. If Nebraska's lone loss is a 5-point setback at Michigan State, its résumé, which will include road wins against Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa, plus a home win against Minnesota, doesn't look too shabby. Minnesota would have benefited from TCU holding on against Baylor and continuing to win, but a Gophers team that runs the Big Ten table with wins against Ohio State (home), Nebraska (road) and Wisconsin (road) would get much more national respect than the current unranked product.

Iowa would need the committee to overlook a bad loss and an incredibly favorable Big Ten schedule (no Michigan State or Ohio State, toughest road game at Minnesota). Can't see it happening.

We're still looking at Michigan State as the Big Ten's most realistic playoff hopeful. If the Spartans reach Indy with a second consecutive perfect regular-season league record, they'll be on the playoff's doorstep.

But they might a nudge over the threshold. A quality opponent provides one.

It's why the wild, wild West needs a team -- ideally one with badges, Colt .45s and handlebar mustaches -- to restore playoff order.

Big Ten bowl projections: Week 7

October, 12, 2014
Oct 12
8:00
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Michigan is back on the winning track but not quite back in the bowl projections.

Brady Hoke's team ended its three-game slide Saturday night by grinding out an 18-13 win against Penn State at Michigan Stadium. The Wolverines' defense locked down Penn State, but many of Michigan's problems remain, and three more wins still seems like a tall order.

We considered dumping Penn State from the projections as the Nittany Lions' offensive woes up front could be unfixable this season. But James Franklin's team needs only two wins to qualify for postseason play, and with games left against Indiana, Temple and Illinois, the Lions should get there.

The favorites held serve around the Big Ten in Week 7, but we have a bit of shuffling as Minnesota continues to make strides and deserves more love in the projections. It's also important to project non-repeat destinations, so Iowa moves out of the Outback Bowl (for now) and Minnesota moves up.

Melvin Gordon is a stud, but Wisconsin continues to look faulty and falls down a spot.

Big Ten newcomers Rutgers and Maryland have excellent opportunities to rise in the projections this week as they take on Ohio State and Iowa, respectively.

The winner of the Ohio State-Michigan State game on Nov. 8 will be in decent shape for College Football Playoff selection, as long as it runs the table. But for now, we have both the Buckeyes and Spartans in contract bowls.

Enough rambling. Projection time ...

Chick-fil-A Peach/AT&T Cotton/Fiesta/Capital One Orange: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/AT&T Cotton/Fiesta/Capital One Orange: Ohio State
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus: Nebraska
Outback: Minnesota
National University Holiday: Iowa
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City: Wisconsin
San Francisco: Rutgers
New Era Pinstripe: Maryland
Quick Lane: Penn State
Heart of Dallas: Northwestern

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 7

October, 12, 2014
Oct 12
2:00
PM ET

Big Ten viewer’s guide: Week 7

October, 10, 2014
Oct 10
10:00
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Week 7 is here, and let’s not sugarcoat it: Big Ten football has looked more interesting on other weekends. This first Saturday of the season without nonconference action lacks marquee matchups. Still, the division races will continue to take shape.

Here’s a look at the five games (all times Eastern):

Noon

Illinois (3-3) and Wisconsin (3-2), ESPN2: Will Melvin Gordon run for 300 yards? If the Badgers wanted it to happen, Illinois’ 119th-ranked rushing defense would likely comply. More of the intrigue in Madison involves the quarterbacks. For Wisconsin, Joel Stave, who returned last week against Northwestern, will see time, in addition to Tanner McEvoy, who might also take a shot at receiver. And with Illinois’ Wes Lunt out with a fractured leg, senior Reilly O’Toole and sophomore Aaron Bailey, who was set to redshirt, have competed in practice this week.

Indiana (3-2) and Iowa (4-1), ESPNU: Indiana has shown it can win on the road in tough spots, handing Missouri its lone loss on Sept. 20. The Hoosiers are more explosive on offense than any foe Iowa has faced. But Indiana still can’t defend well, in particular against proficient quarterbacks. The Hawkeyes are going back to Jake Rudock at the start, but C.J. Beathard will play. How well can Greg Davis manage this? If it’s a disaster, Indiana might just find itself in the right place at the right time for an upset bid.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cobb
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesDavid Cobb and Minnesota can take a big step in their quest for a Western Division crown by beating Northwestern on Saturday.
Northwestern (3-2) at Minnesota (4-1), BTN: Who would have guessed a month ago, as the Golden Gophers fell flat at TCU and the Wildcats sat winless, that this game would have legitimate implications for the West Division title race? It does, with NU in quest of a third straight unexpected win to open league play. Its defense led the charge against Penn State and Wisconsin. Minnesota is simply solid, led by David Cobb, statistically the league’s most valuable offensive player. Minnesota has defended the pass especially well in recent games and will test Northwestern’s Trevor Siemian, 13th in the Big Ten in QBR.

3:30 p.m.

No. 8 Michigan State (4-1) at Purdue (3-3), ESPN2: At least it’s not the best team in the Big Ten against the worst. Purdue escaped the low spot last week with a win over Illinois. And sophomore quarterback Austin Appleby looked good in the victory. Very good, in fact. Back at home, he figures to find a much more difficult situation against the Spartans, who might come in a bit angry after nearly blowing a 24-point, fourth-quarter lead against Nebraska.

7 p.m.

Penn State (4-1) at Michigan (2-4), ESPN2: The visitors from Happy Valley, after an off week, get an opportunity to show that their anemic performance against Northwestern was just a fluke. With an upcoming stretch of three challenging games, no better time exists for PSU to get healthy than at Michigan, trying to avoid its first 0-3 start in the Big Ten since 1965. Against a good Penn State front, the Wolverines must protect Devin Gardner and throw the football, neither of which they’ve done well in recent weeks.

Required reading

Big Ten Week 7 predictions

October, 9, 2014
Oct 9
9:00
AM ET
It's a light week, but that doesn't mean our experts agreed on every game. Dan Murphy led the group last week, going 5-1, and moved up to third in the group standings. Can he keep climbing? On to the picks ...

Why Penn State will win: The Nittany Lions may have some soft spots on offense, but by now it’s pretty clear that they can get the job done defensively. Combining that with occasional moments of brilliance from quarterback Christian Hackenberg at least gives Penn State an identity and a chance to win every week. Meanwhile, figuring out what the Wolverines are capable of game to game has been a pointless exercise, and coach Brady Hoke is clearly running low on answers. Bottom line: No Big Ten offense scores fewer points than the Wolverines, and no defense in the league is allowing fewer than Penn State. That’s a simple formula for a Nittany Lions win. Penn State 21, Michigan 10 -- Austin Ward

Why Michigan will win: Devin Gardner finally turned in a good performance Saturday, but the big problem arose on defense with the total lack of a pass rush. Well, that pressure shouldn't be a problem at all against Penn State. The Nittany Lions' offensive line has been a sieve against every team not named "UMass" so far this season. On the other side of the ball, Penn State's defense has played great -- but it showed some cracks with linebacker Nyeem Wartman on the sideline. Coach James Franklin doesn't discuss injuries, but Wartman's arm was in a sling two weeks ago and it'd be a surprise if he were 100 percent already. Add all that in with the fact this game will be under the lights at the Big House, and it seems as if Michigan might finally be able to record a win. It should be close either way. Michigan 20, Penn State 17 -- Josh Moyer

Why Minnesota will win: Northwestern is riding a wave of confidence, and the Wildcats won by making both Penn State and Wisconsin one-dimensional on offense. Minnesota, then, is in similar danger because of its lack of a passing game. Yet the Gophers had a bye week to rest up workhorse back David Cobb, and their defense will give the Wildcats trouble. Jerry Kill's team is playing with confidence as well, and the combination of its physicality and home-field advantage will be enough to slip by in a close one. Minnesota 20, Northwestern 17 -- Brian Bennett

Why Northwestern will win: I recognize the symbolism of Minnesota's victory at Michigan -- big for the program, big for recruiting -- but Northwestern's wins against an undefeated Penn State and a one-loss Wisconsin carry far more weight than beating the nosediving Wolverines. Northwestern is hitting its stride, particularly on defense, and faces a Minnesota team with a similar profile to Wisconsin (great run attack, weak pass attack, strong defense). The bye week factor is vastly overplayed, and Northwestern typically plays well on the road, especially for early kickoffs. These are two evenly matched teams with solid defense and the ability to run the ball. But Northwestern has a little more balance on offense and gets a close win in Minneapolis. Northwestern 21, Minnesota 20 -- Adam Rittenberg

Why Indiana will win: Iowa has yet to score more than 24 points against an FBS opponent this season. The Hawkeyes have survived by preventing big plays and stopping the run. They are one of 11 teams in the nation that averages less than 100 rushing yards allowed per game. That will be a tough task against the Hoosiers' high-tempo offense and running back Tevin Coleman, who averages 8 yards per carry. Iowa doesn't look like it has an offense that can keep pace yet. Indiana 33, Iowa 24 -- Dan Murphy

Why Iowa will win: The Hawkeyes this season have been consistently mediocre. And Indiana is anything but that. It’s tough to trust the Hoosiers, who lost to a MAC team one week and beat an SEC contender the next. With Iowa, you usually know what you’ll get, even when it’s painful to watch. And after a rocky five-game start, faced with an uncertain situation at quarterback, many of the preseason expectations have been lifted. In other words, the Hawkeyes are right in the spot where they typically thrive. Iowa’s defense will rise to the occasion against IU’s dangerous set of weapons. Iowa 24, Indiana 20 -- Mitch Sherman

Unanimous decisions

Wisconsin 42, Illinois 20: Illinois is without starting quarterback Wes Lunt, and the Badgers still have Melvin Gordon. Passing game or not, Wisconsin should cruise.

Michigan State 38, Purdue 10: Michigan State boasts an improved offense and one of the best defenses in the nation. Purdue is ... Purdue.

Our records:
Mitch Sherman: 52-13 (.800)
Austin Ward: 52-13 (.800)
Dan Murphy: 22-6 (.786)
Brian Bennett: 51-14 (.785)
Aram Rittenberg: 51-14 (.785)
Josh Moyer: 46-19 (.708)
The debuts don’t go unappreciated, and Pat Fitzgerald has made sure to dish out some praise for all the preparation and effort that goes into a breakout performance.

But those moments don’t last long with the Northwestern coach. His precocious youngsters are being reminded that it won’t always be as easy as they’ve made it look during their first starts, and they shouldn’t expect any statues erected in their honor for being named Big Ten Freshman of the Week.

If Northwestern is collectively going to earn any sort of hardware this season, it figures that their ongoing youth movement will lead the way. And that construction project, a sort of rebuilding-on-the-fly effort, appears to be right on schedule for Northwestern after a couple of upset victories sparked by talented freshmen.

“[Fitzgerald] will praise us a little bit, but then he goes back and tells us what we can correct,” redshirt freshman linebacker Anthony Walker told ESPN.com. “As a coach, you don’t want your guys to get too much of a big head, and I think that’s good for us. We’ve played well, but we have a long way to go fixing the mistakes that we made.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Walker
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarAnthony Walker stepped up with eight tackles and an interception at Penn State.
“It’s not coming down on you, it’s focusing on the fact that you can get better at this, get better at that. And the young guys are just coming together. We feel like we’ve got to step up for this football team to be great.”

The Wildcats were far from that to open the season, losing back-to-back games against California and Northern Illinois to continue the misery that stretched back to the middle of last year, when a promising 4-0 start unraveled at the seams with seven consecutive losses.

So far, Northwestern has flipped that script entirely around, and it’s been the plugging in of well-prepared understudies that has helped lead to the rewrite.

When senior Collin Ellis went down with an injury before the conference opener at Penn State, the Wildcats turned to Walker. He responded with a team-high eight tackles and nabbed his first career interception, which he returned for a 49-yard touchdown in the surprising blowout win on the road.

Last weekend, another veteran defender was forced to the sideline with an injury. And with safety Ibraheim Campbell on the shelf, Godwin Igwebuike stepped in and grabbed three interceptions, tying a school record and topping Walker’s outing by adding Defensive Player of the Week honors as well. Meanwhile, true freshman running back Justin Jackson has shouldered the load that was expected to be handled by another senior. Jackson continued his emergence since Venric Mark transferred during training camp by rushing for 162 yards to help provide enough offense to hold off Wisconsin for another critical league win.

The underclassmen obviously aren’t doing it all themselves. But it’s surely more than coincidence that Northwestern’s turnaround has included prominent roles for a group of players who clearly are buying the message Fitzgerald has been pitching since that rough early start.

“I really believe it has very little to do with us,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m not trying to minimize coaching, but it has everything to do with how you prepare. We’ve believed in that for a long, long time, and that’s something that we value highly. It’s great to see young guys buy into what we’re preaching and then actually seeing the fruits of that type of investment.

“But we’re not going to allow them to become complacent. That’s an evil word around here.”

Buying into the hype is something of a cardinal sin as well for the Wildcats, and Fitzgerald helps fight that off with his public jokes about making sure nobody builds statues for Walker or Igwebuike after one impressive start.

That doesn’t mean their work goes unappreciated. It just means there’s a lot more to do if the freshmen are going to turn the Wildcats into a true contender in the Big Ten's West Division.

“We went in with a national championship mindset and we suffered through bad losses the first two weeks, but we hadn’t played a Big Ten game yet,” Walker said. “We always knew when the Big Ten games came, we needed to take our game up to another level.

“Some young guys were needed to contribute early, and we took on the challenge.”

They haven’t needed long to prove they’re up for the task.
If you spent Sunday looking at your spouse, your kids or your dog with raised eyebrows, you're not alone. Blame college football. After weeks like this past one, everyone is reassessing everything.

That's what happens when five of the top eight teams lose on the same week for the first time in the history of the AP poll.

Rather than bolting to the divorce lawyer, the adoption agency or the pound, realize this is probably just a football issue. In that spirit, let's reassess the Big Ten teams six weeks into the season.

Illinois (3-3): Unfortunately for embattled coach Tim Beckman, the Illini are what we thought they were. It's bad but somewhat understandable to allow 458 rush yards to Nebraska on the road. It's inexcusable to allow 349 to Purdue at home. The offense is fun, but top quarterback Wes Lunt is out 4-6 weeks with a fractured leg. Beckman Watch has begun.

Indiana (3-2): We've seen what Indiana can be (road upset of Missouri) and what Indiana still is (disappointing losses to Bowling Green and Maryland). Kevin Wilson's team is halfway to bowl eligibility but must pull off an upset or two to get there. Running back Tevin Coleman (841 rush yards, 8 TDs) might be the nation's best-kept secret. It will remain that way unless Indiana starts winning more.

Iowa (4-1): The record is nice, but Iowa has played well for about six quarters this season. The defense is fine, but an inconsistent run game remains baflfling. The two-quarterback system will be fascinating theater. C.J. Beathard makes Iowa's offense more interesting, but does he make it better? The West Division is wide open, and Iowa has an advantageous home slate (Northwestern, Wisconsin, Nebraska).

Maryland (4-2): The most recent performance notwithstanding, Maryland's first half exceeded expectations. The Terrapins delivered big plays, which covered up some general sloppiness (12 giveaways, 53.7 penalty yards per game). We are finally seeing what a relatively healthy Maryland team can do. The Terrapins are 3-0 on the road, so if they can take care of business at home, they'll secure a nice bowl trip.

Michigan (2-4): Most of us, if not all of us, were wrong to varying degrees about this team. Doug Nussmeier hasn't fixed the offense. The defense remains unremarkable. Brady Hoke's days as coach seem numbered. Whether it's the talent evaluation, the talent development or the schematic vision, something went dreadfully wrong. It looks like a lost season.

Michigan State (4-1): The Spartans remain the class of the Big Ten. If they had held a lead at Oregon, they would be in the thick of the playoff discussion. They still can get to the final four but must run the table in Big Ten play for the second straight year. Quarterback Connor Cook is better and so is an offense that leads the Big Ten in scoring (45.6 ppg). The Spartan Dawgs aren't quite as dominant but showed against Nebraska that they can still stifle good offenses.

Minnesota (4-1): This is a similar, potentially better version of recent Minnesota teams. Tracy Claeys' defense once again looks very solid. The offense is extremely run-heavy (67 percent of yards), although quarterback Mitch Leidner provides a small passing threat. Minnesota has a real chance to make some noise in the West Division, although its closing schedule will tell a lot about the state of the program.

Nebraska (5-1): We knew Ameer Abdullah was great. but he's still exceeding expectations. The offense can light up the scoreboard against soft defenses but struggled for most of the Michigan State game. Nebraska has the most overall talent in the West Division, but the road schedule (Northwestern, Wisconsin, Iowa) could prevent a trip to Indy.

Northwestern (3-2): Woeful the first two weeks, wonderful the past two, these Wildcats are hard to identify. Pat Fitzgerald's tough talk seems to be hitting its mark, and the emergence of young defenders like Anthony Walker and Godwin Igwebuike is encouraging. The offense still struggles to score. A win Saturday at Minnesota validates Northwestern as a threat in the West.

Ohio State (4-1): The forecast looks a lot brighter now than after a stunning Week 2 home loss to Virginia Tech. J.T. Barrett development at quarterback is the biggest reason for optimism, and Ohio State is generating first downs and points at a dizzying pace. The defense's development remains the big question mark. The Nov. 8 showdown at Michigan State looms.

Penn State (4-1): The Lions have found ways to win despite obvious flaws exposed in their lone loss. If the offensive line doesn't make strides, it could be a tough second half for James Franklin's team. A solid defense should win PSU some games, and the pass game has potential with young wideouts Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton. The next two games (Michigan, Ohio State) will be telling.

Purdue (3-3): Improvement was expected as Purdue couldn't get much worse than last season. The Boilers finally found a spark on offense last week thanks to speed backs Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert and new quarterback Austin Appleby. Wins could be scarce the rest of the way, but Purdue is on the uptick.

Rutgers (5-1): The biggest surprise in the B1G, at least outside the Garden State. Rutgers is a play or two away from being undefeated. Kyle Flood's staff changes have paid off, quarterback Gary Nova has made obvious strides, and the defense is holding its own, especially up front. Rutgers is more than holding its own in its new league.

Wisconsin (3-2): I'm not as surprised as some, as Wisconsin never looked like a top-15 team, not with its problems at quarterback and receiver. Melvin Gordon has been as good as advertised, but teams still need some semblance of a passing attack to win consistently, especially away from home. Wisconsin isn't out of the West race but likely can't afford another slip-up.

Weekend Rewind: Big Ten

October, 6, 2014
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As an unprecedented five of the top eight teams in the Associated Press poll lost in Week 6, the Big Ten experienced a calm Saturday by comparison.

But what would you have thought in August if told that on the first Saturday of October, Michigan would lose to Rutgers and Wisconsin would fall to a Northwestern team that started the season with losses to Cal and Northern Illinois?

Chaos.

With each of the 14 teams now underway in league play, it’s something more like a controlled mess.

Northwestern leads the West Division, set for a showdown on Saturday at Minnesota. Imagine that.

Michigan’s bowl prospects look bleak.

Oh, and Purdue won a league game. Let’s get to the Weekend Rewind.

[+] EnlargeRutgers defense
Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY SportsRutgers' defense gave Michigan QB Devin Gardner fits this past Saturday as the Scarlet Knights won their first game in the Big Ten.
Team of the week: Rutgers, baby. The Scarlet Knights and their fans partied hard on Saturday night after a 26-24 win over the woeful Wolverines, the first Big Ten victory ever for the New Jersey school. Incredible to think that Rutgers, picked by many to finish last in the Big Ten East, is a late defensive lapse against Penn State away from a 6-0 start. To beat Michigan, the Scarlet Knights got 404 yards through the air and three touchdown passes from quarterback Gary Nova and a Kemoko Turay block of Matt Wile’s long field goal with 3:01 to play.

Biggest play: Let’s go to the game billed as the biggest of the week. It unfolded as a dud for three quarters, then turned into a thriller as Nebraska rallied for 19 points in the final 13 minutes, falling 27-22 as Trae Waynes intercepted Tommy Armstrong Jr. with 30 seconds left at the Michigan State 17-yard line. No play was bigger, though, than MSU linebacker Ed Davis’ strip of star I-back Ameer Abdullah at the MSU 7-yard line after Macgarrett Kings fumbled a punt midway through the second quarter. Nebraska recovered at the 24, got a first down and appeared ready to score a touchdown to cut into the Spartans’ 14-0 lead. But Shilique Calhoun recovered Abdullah’s fumble and raced 38 yards to set up a field goal that extended Michigan State’s edge to 17-0. It kept momentum with the Spartans, who needed every point at the end.

Big Man on Campus (offense): Ohio State freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett threw for 267 yards and rushed for 71, leading the Buckeyes and their suddenly potent offense to a 52-24 win at Maryland. Barrett, over the past three games, has thrown for 909 yards with 14 touchdowns and one interception, compiling a raw QBR of 87.0, sixth-best nationally.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Northwestern freshman safety Godwin Igwebuike intercepted Wisconsin quarterbacks three times, and they were all big in the Wildcats’ 20-14 win. He picked Tanner McEvoy in the end zone to end the Badgers’ opening drive, got Joel Stave – again in the end zone – with less than six minutes to play and intercepted Stave near midfield with 18 seconds to play.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Michigan State senior punter Mike Sadler performed like the All-America selection that he is, pinning Nebraska three times inside its 20-yard line on nine punts. Sadler punted to the 1-yard line in the first quarter and to the 2 late in the first half. Even the punt returned 62 yards for a touchdown by DeMornay Pierson-El required an exceptional effort just to field the ball. Really, though, Sadler earns this recognition for petting his imaginary cat during the game in a nod to this ongoing conversation with Faux Pelini.

Biggest faceplant: The Nebraska offensive line. Michigan State presented the toughest challenge of the season, no doubt, for the Huskers’ front five, but what happened? Nebraska rushed for 47 yards – more than 300 below its season average – and averaged 1.3 per attempt, both low figures in 88 games under Bo Pelini. Armstrong, before Saturday, had been sacked three times in five games; the Spartans got to him for five sacks and applied relentless pressure for much of the night. And while it wasn’t quite a faceplant, there was this lowlight from left guard Jake Cotton.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 6

October, 5, 2014
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Tipping the cap to the best and brightest performances in the Big Ten on Saturday.

Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: Urban Meyer has publicly backed Braxton Miller as his quarterback for next season, but the Buckeyes might be headed for a heated battle if Barrett continues developing at this frightening pace. The redshirt freshman has been on an absolute tear over the last three games, keeping his red-hot play rolling with 267 passing yards, 71 more on the ground and 5 total touchdowns in a 52-24 blowout on the road against Maryland.

Purdue QB Austin Appleby: The Boilermakers snapped their 9-game losing streak in the Big Ten, and they might have found an answer at quarterback that can keep them competitive moving forward. Appleby accounted for three touchdowns, proving effective as both a rusher with 10.9 yards per carry and as passer thanks to just 5 incompletions in a meaningful 38-27 victory at Illinois.

Indiana WR Shane Wynn: There’s been a spark missing from the passing attack for the Hoosiers early in the season, but Wynn provided the type of explosion they’ve been looking for with a pair of touchdowns in the 49-24 win over North Texas. Wynn only caught five passes but averaged more than 25 yards per reception as Indiana hit the halfway mark in its bid for bowl eligibility.

Northwestern S Godwin Igwebuike: What can the redshirt freshman possibly do for an encore after that splashy starting debut? Igwebuike nabbed three interceptions to spark the Wildcats to another upset victory, this time 20-14 over Wisconsin, playing an integral role for a defense that has suddenly turned the team into a contender in the West Division. Ibraheim Campbell might have a hard time getting his job back now.

Rutgers DE Kemoko Turay: The Scarlet Knights got a huge outing from quarterback Gary Nova to drive the offense, but it was the playmaking pass-rusher and kick-blocking specialist who clinched the historic Big Ten victory, 26-24 over Michigan. Turay chipped in another half of a sack before soaring to swat down Michigan’s last-gasp field goal, setting off a wild party at Rutgers.

Michigan State WR Tony Lippett: The touchdown binge continued, with the Spartans senior making two more visits to the end zone -- scores that wound up being more valuable than they seemed after Nebraska’s furious comeback bid in the fourth quarter that fell just short in a 27-22 Michigan State win. Lippett has a touchdown in every game and eight overall after catching one and rushing for another to keep Michigan State’s playoff hopes alive.

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