- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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You wait nearly nine months for the return of college football, to see players and coaches that have been endlessly analyzed all offseason, and then it all spills out on opening weekend. So of course the natural inclination is to make immediate judgments on what you’ve seen, and to find instant reasons to panic.
Nebraska’s defense is going to be historically bad! Michigan State’s offense is somehow worse than last year's! Ohio State is wildly overrated! Purdue and Iowa might not win a game in the conference besides the one against each other!
Some concerns obviously are valid. But remember that it was just opening week. Teams and players are still figuring things out, learning who and what they are. In Week 1 last year, for example, Michigan State beat a ranked Boise State team, Michigan got destroyed by Alabama, Minnesota needed triple-overtime to put away a bad UNLV team, Penn State lost at home to Ohio and Illinois rolled over Western Michigan. Those outcomes hardly defined the season for those teams.
Or better yet, look back to Iowa’s win over Northern Illinois in the first game of the 2012 season. Who would have guessed then that the victorious team would wind up 4-8 and that the loser would go to the Orange Bowl?
Many of Saturday’s games were also played in extreme heat, a stark contrast to the unseasonably cool August temperatures most teams trained in during the preseason. That’s not an excuse, because Big Ten opponents had to deal with the same conditions. But the league race will be decided in October and November in much different weather, and probably by teams that will look a whole lot different.
It’s a coach’s cliché that teams make their biggest improvements from Week 1 to Week 2. So it’s not time to panic yet. At least not for another Saturday.
Take that and rewind it back:
Team of the week: Northwestern. The Wildcats went to Pac-12 country, where Big Ten teams have had little success in recent years. They lost starting quarterback Kain Colter to injury on the second play against Cal, star tailback/returner Venric Mark spent more time on the exercise bike than the field, and cornerback Daniel Jones went down with a knee injury right before halftime. Meanwhile, Cal threw some haymakers and seemed to seize the momentum in the third quarter. Yet Northwestern -- which had some trouble holding onto late leads last year -- prevailed 44-30.
The win didn't come without controversy, as Cal fans and coaches thought Wildcats players were faking injuries in the second half to slow down the Bears' high-tempo offense. During one Cal drive, Northwestern players went down to the turf after three consecutive plays. Some players, such as linebacker Damien Proby, went down more than once. Cal coach Sonny Dykes threw up his hands in frustration at one point, while Bears fans booed, which was pretty funny, given Cal’s own history with faking injuries against a high-tempo offense.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said his team wasn't up to any hijinks.
“If anybody were to question the integrity of myself, our program or our players, I question theirs,” he said in the postgame news conference. “When our guys get dinged up, they are instructed to go down, not hobble off to the sideline.”
Worst hangover: The Boilermakers got outscored 35-0 in the second half of their 42-7 loss at Cincinnati and might have gotten shut out if not for a botched Bearcats punt return late in the first half. Purdue was a mess in just about every area and was neither physical nor disciplined, two traits that Darrell Hazell has made priorities.
We’re going streaking: Thanks to Iowa’s loss and Illinois’ escape against Southern Illinois, the Hawkeyes now have the Big Ten’s longest current losing streak, at seven games. That’s tied for the fifth-longest losing streak in the FBS and second-worst among AQ teams, behind only Kansas, which was idle last week. The good news is that Iowa should finally get back in the win column this week versus Missouri State, and its Week 3 opponent, Iowa State, lost to Northern Iowa on Saturday.
Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Information): Yes, the Michigan State passing attack was as bad as it looked against Western Michigan. Through Sunday's games, the Spartans rank second-to-last among all FBS teams in yards per pass attempt (3.14) and percentage of completions that went for at least 10 yards (17.6). ... No team gave up more first downs in Week 1 than Nebraska, which allowed Wyoming to move the chains 35 times. The Huskers were also one of only two AQ teams that gave up more than 500 yards of offense to a non-AQ team in regulation. Oregon State was the other. ... Michigan’s Devin Gardner threw two interceptions, but he had the Big Ten’s top QBR score and was No. 15 nationally in Week 1. ... Wisconsin averaged 8.9 yards per rush against UMass and ranks third nationally in that stat. ... Penn State is last in the FBS in third-down conversions after going 1-for-16 against Syracuse. Of course, third down is often only a prelude to the next play for Bill O’Brien.
Point-ing up: Indiana leads the nation in scoring after putting up 73 against Indiana State on Thursday. The schedule really helped, but offense was up throughout the Big Ten. Eight of the 12 league teams scored at least 37 points and the conference scoring average after one week is 39.5 points per game. Compare that to last year, when the league averaged 26.7 points per game in Week 1. Again, many of the opponents weren't great last week, but the simple eyeball test tells you that several Big Ten teams look more comfortable and have more playmakers on offense. With a couple of notable exceptions.
Big Man on Campus (offense): Sure, it was against an FCS team, which is why we excluded him from our helmet stickers. But let's recognize Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who threw for a carer-high 416 yards and two touchdowns in Bill Cubit's new offense. In one game, Scheelhaase accounted for more than 30 percent of his entire passing yardage in the 2012 season.
Big Man on Campus (defense): Northwestern linebacker Collin Ellis helped save the day, er, night at Cal with a pair of pick-sixes.
Big Man on Campus (special teams): Tons of big special teams plays this weekend, including kickoff returns for scores by Minnesota's Marcus Jones and Illinois' V'Angelo Bentley and a punt return TD from Indiana's Shane Wynn. Michigan's Joe Reynolds scored on a blocked punt by teammate Dymonte Thomas. But how about Penn State's Sam Ficken? The kicker who was such a liability early last season has turned into a strength, and he made all three of his field goals -- including a career-best 46-yarder -- in the Nittany Lions' 23-17 win over Syracuse.
Looking ahead: The “GameDay” crew will be at Notre Dame-Michigan, and the Big Ten had better hope for a good showing in this spotlight game. That’s because there’s nothing much else of interest going on in Week 2. Two Big Ten opponents -- South Florida (at Michigan State) and San Diego State (at Ohio State) -- were blown out by FCS squads in their openers, while another, Southern Miss (versus Nebraska) lost to Texas State. Northwestern-Syracuse is probably the week’s second-best game, and the Orange are 0-1 after losing to Penn State.