B1G Monday Morning: After Big Ten’s weekend of turmoil, it’s Indiana that stands to gain
College football is always about survival. It’s about winning on those days when you’re not at your best. It’s about avoiding the upset against a team with nothing to lose. And in 2020, the added wrinkle is about surviving the attrition that comes with playing a season through a pandemic.
No Big Ten team has done a better job at surviving in 2020 than Indiana. And after yet another chaotic weekend — featuring 2 double-digit favorites losing and 2 more games getting canceled — the Hoosiers are poised to take advantage, even in the midst of their star QB playing the worst game of his career and later leaving with an injury.
Indiana has gone from a preseason longshot to win the Big Ten to having a very realistic chance at not only reaching the Big Ten Championship Game, but winning it. Let this sink in: The team with the 13th-best talent in the Big Ten, according to 247’s Team Talent Composite, could very reasonably win the NCAA’s oldest conference for the third time in its 125-year history. That’s because No. 3 Ohio State (4-0) had its second game canceled and is now one more cancellation away from being ineligible for the conference title game. On the field, No. 8 Northwestern (5-1) looked like anything but B1G champs after laying an egg at Michigan State and suffering its first defeat.
So even in the midst of a less-than-inspiring (yet comfortable) 27-11 win over Maryland, Indiana suddenly seems like a legit threat to win the Big Ten for the first time since 1967.
Even though Indiana lost to Ohio State last week, that may not matter. Considering that both B1G teams to have experienced an outbreak (Wisconsin and Maryland) have had to cancel multiple games, Ohio State’s game with Michigan State this week is on thin ice.
“Could we have played? Sure,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told the media. “Was it the right thing to play? No.”
That may be true, but with cases spiking in Michigan, it’s not inconceivable that either of Ohio State’s final two opponents — Michigan State and Michigan — could experience an outbreak of its own and force the Buckeyes to miss out on playing for their fourth straight conference title. Michigan (2-4) may keep Ohio State out of the Big Ten Championship Game after all.
For what it’s worth, there are some in the media, like FOX’s Joel Klatt, who have been calling on the Big Ten to drop the minimum games threshold to qualify for the B1G title game. But if the B1G’s special 2020 rules stand, the only way the 6-game minimum gets reduced is if 12 of the 14 games in the remaining 2 weeks of the schedule are canceled.
If you wanted to bet Indiana to win the Big Ten in the preseason, you could get odds like +5,000, meaning you bet $100 to win $5,000. Ohio State (-225) was the obvious favorite, but it’s a bit humorous now to think that Penn State, Michigan, Nebraska and Minnesota all had better odds than the Hoosiers (Wisconsin and Iowa did, too). There were other sites that had Indiana at +7,500.
Ohio State is the heavy favorite to repeat as Big Ten champion next season 👏👏
Which underdog can spoil their fun? pic.twitter.com/2kODVf0PpT
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) May 19, 2020
Indiana is in this position because it has survived several brutal offensive performances. While the Hoosiers’ offense was a thing of beauty last week at Ohio State, this past Saturday against Maryland was anything but beautiful. Michael Penix Jr., who has battled inconsistency all season, completed only 2 of 15 passes for 37 yards in the first half. (And it should be noted, one of those completions was when Penix knew Maryland jumped offsides, so he just chucked it up deep, and Miles Marshall came down with it for a 37-yard gain. The other completion went to Peyton Hendershot for no gain.)
Penix left the game with a leg injury, so Indiana is obviously hoping for the best. Jack Tuttle, a former 4-star recruit who began his college career at Utah, is the backup. On the bright side: Indiana has been able to win without Penix carrying them, as he has had 3 really good games (Rutgers, Michigan and Ohio State) and 3 subpar ones (Penn State, Michigan State and Maryland).
Indiana obviously has to play better, with No. 16 Wisconsin (2-1) up next. Surviving week to week becomes hard to sustain as a season wears on (just ask Northwestern, which had won 4 games by a total of 26 points before losing at Michigan State).
The Hoosiers were supposed to feature a dynamic offense that would have to outscore opponents thanks to a defense that let too many teams back in games last year. Instead, Indiana’s offense is 9th in the Big Ten in yards per play (and 88th nationally). The biggest struggle has been the ground game, as the Hoosiers are averaging less than 3 yards per carry, ranking 119th nationally.
The issues begin up front, as Matthew Bedford and Caleb Jones are 2 of PFF’s 3 lowest-graded tackles in the Big Ten. Dylan Powell and Mackenzie Nworah are 2 of the 6 lowest-graded guards in the Big Ten. That helps explain the sharp decline in production for running back Stevie Scott, who has yet to reach 100 yards in a game this season despite getting 20 or more carries 5 times. After Scott hit that mark 9 times in his first 2 seasons, that’s been a bit surprising. With the traditional run game stalled, offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan has run a ton of wildcat with Scott and David Ellis.
Indiana’s defense, however, continues to thrive. The Hoosiers picked off Taulia Tagovailoa 3 times, marking their seventh straight game with multiple interceptions (dating to last season) and ninth straight game with at least 1. They lead the country in interceptions by 3 despite having played at least 2 fewer games than every other team in the top 5. Jaylin Williams, Tiawan Mullen and Jamar Johnson all have at least 3. No quarterback, not even Justin Fields, has been safe against the Hoosiers.
That brings us back to Indiana’s current situation, which is suddenly looking very good. If Ohio State is able to play this weekend against Michigan State (which would appear to be a longshot, given the Big Ten’s strict COVID protocols), who knows what sort of team the Buckeyes will have out there? It isn’t public information yet as to which players have tested positive and will need to sit the next 2 weeks. What if the Buckeyes are down a bunch of starters and lose to Michigan State or Michigan? That would likely eliminate Ohio State from CFP contention.
If an 8-1 Indiana beats Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game (which is entirely possible, as Michigan State showed), the Hoosiers would have a case for the CFP. It would have wins over 2 teams currently ranked (Northwestern and Wisconsin), 2 teams that were ranked at the time (Michigan and Penn State) and a respectable loss against Ohio State. A lot of things would have to go right, like Alabama beating Florida in the SEC Championship Game and Notre Dame beating Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, but think about it: The Pac 12’s hopes were probably dashed with Oregon and the Big 12 is probably out, too. That could leave just Indiana, Texas A&M and Cincinnati fighting for the final 2 spots (assuming Notre Dame and Alabama are in).
I’m getting ahead of myself here, as ESPN’s All State Playoff Predictor still gives Indiana just a 0.7% chance of making the CFP. But crazier things have happened.
At the bare minimum, this weekend created a path for Indiana to do something it hasn’t done in 53 years, which is win a Big Ten title.
We aren’t talking enough about Iowa’s defense
No. 24 Iowa 26, Nebraska 20. For all the well-deserved praise heaped on Northwestern, Iowa’s defense has been every bit as good. After 6 games, Iowa and Northwestern are virtually even in yards allowed per play (4.46 to 4.45) and yards allowed per game (322.8 to 322.5).
The last team to score more than 24 points against Iowa was actually Nebraska in the 2018 game for the Heroes Trophy, which is a span of 20 games. Iowa, by no means an offensive juggernaut, is 15-5 in that stretch.
The Hawkeyes have as good of an idea as any team in the country as to what their identity is, and they play to it.
On one red-zone possession in the first half, the Hawkeyes faced 2nd-and-12. Of course, they called a run play that went for 2 yards, and eventually they settled for a field goal. When you have a defense that is among the best in the country and a kicker who is among the best in the country, you act like it.
Spencer Petras continues to be a below average quarterback, but perhaps in a weird way, Iowa uses that to its advantage. The Hawkeyes know what they will get each game. After 2 early losses, they have leaned more heavily on running backs Tyler Goodson (who ran a career-high 30 times and now has 3 straight games with at least 20 carries) and Mekhi Sargent. Better to lean on Alaric Jackson and Tyler Linderbaum, 2 of the B1G’s top offensive linemen. Cole Banwart and Cody Ince have also stepped up inside at guard.
The team that beats Iowa will figure out a way to stack the box and make Petras complete passes, a category in which he ranks 11th out of 12 qualified B1G QBs.
As for how to attack the Hawkeyes’ defense, good luck. Chauncey Golston and Daviyon Nixon are a load up front, and Riley Moss, Dane Belton and Matt Hankins are tough in the secondary.
The stunning turnaround at Rutgers
Rutgers 37, Purdue 30. It’s not surprising that Greg Schiano has turned around Rutgers. Most figured that would happen eventually. Rather, it’s surprising just how quickly Schiano has turned around Rutgers.
The Scarlet Knights have been an automatic win basically since they joined the Big Ten, as they entered this season with 4 conference victories in the last 5 seasons. But now Rutgers (2-4) looks like a team that no one wants to play, as it has a bunch of Big Ten castoffs on its roster who supposedly couldn’t cut it at their previous programs.
Rutgers’ 3 highest point totals of the last 6 years have all come in 2020, and that’s a credit to offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson, who came to the Scarlet Knights from Oklahoma State. The way he mixed and matched backup QB Art Sitkowski and third-stringer Johnny Langan was impressive. Rutgers seamlessly transitioned from starter Noah Vedral, who was coming off a 383-yard performance against Michigan but was out with an injury, to two players with different skillsets.
Defensively, Rutgers limited Purdue star wideout David Bell to a season-low 68 receiving yards, and it also bottled up Rondale Moore, holding the likely 1st-round pick to 81 total yards on 9 touches.
1. Shakur Brown (Michigan State)
Brown entered the day as PFF’s seventh-highest graded corner in the Big Ten, and he finished the day as the No. 1 corner. That’s how good he was against No. 8 Northwestern. He picked off 2 Peyton Ramsey passes, and both were instrumental in the Spartans hanging with the Wildcats. He returned the first 54 yards to set up a field goal, and the other came in the fourth quarter with Northwestern trying to go in for the game-winning score.
2. Art Sitkowski/Johnny Langan (Rutgers)
The QB duo came out of nowhere to spell an injured Noah Vedral and lead an upset at Purdue. They combined to throw for 236 yards, 3 TDs and no turnovers. Langan was especially tough to bring down in the run game, running for 95 yards on 21 attempts.
3. Micah McFadden (Indiana)
Indiana’s leading tackler did it all in the win over Maryland, tallying an interception, a sack and a QB hurry. McFadden is PFF’s highest-graded linebacker in the Big Ten this season.
4. Daviyon Nixon (Iowa)
Arguably the best defensive linemen in the conference, Nixon had yet another huge game against Nebraska, totaling a sack and 3 tackles for loss among his 8 stops. He leads the B1G in tackles for loss with 11.5.
5. Zander Horvath (Purdue)
The bruising running back did it all for Purdue, rushing for 101 yards and a TD on 19 carries while adding 4 catches for 61 yards. And yes, there was one of Horvath’s patented hurdles.
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) November 28, 2020
Honorable mention: Paddy Fisher (Northwestern), Shameen Jones (Rutgers), David Bell (Purdue), Keyvone Lee (Penn State), Hassan Haskins (Michigan), Tyler Goodson (Iowa), Wan’Dale Robinson (Nebraska), Aron Cruickshank (Rutgers), Stevie Scott (Indiana)