Weekly takeaways, perspective and trends in the Big Ten.

As Iowa’s undefeated season has unfolded, there have been plenty of comparisons to the last time the Hawkeyes started 6-0 and went on an undefeated run, 2015. In that season, the Hawkeyes were heavily scrutinized as they won all 12 regular season games before losing in the Big Ten Championship Game, because they didn’t have a signature win.

That was supposed to be different in 2021. On paper, Iowa appeared to have a brutal first half schedule, with 3 top-20 opponents. Even after Indiana and Iowa State stumbled out of the Top 25, there was still No. 4 Penn State.

But the 23-20 win on Saturday over the Nittany Lions left more questions than answers. Mainly, is this 2015 all over again? Fair or not, it’s just a reality.

Two things can be true at once. Iowa (6-0) has the longest active winning streak in the country at 12 games, with 7 coming by 20 points or more. But the Hawkeyes don’t look like Ohio State, Alabama, Georgia, Clemson or Oklahoma at the peak of their powers, with the latest example being Saturday against the Nittany Lions.

Iowa tallied 4 more interceptions and faced an overmatched backup QB for 3 quarters, and it was barely able to scratch out a victory thanks to another poor performance from its offense. The fans rushed the field afterward despite Iowa being the higher-ranked team and a 2.5-point favorite. It was a struggle worthy of a deep exhale and celebration afterward. It was a game Iowa should not have won. Around the country, people will question whether Iowa even belongs in this group, just as they did in 2015.

The problem with 2015 is that the Iowa haters got vindication when the Hawkeyes lost to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game and then were run off the field by Christian McCaffrey and Stanford in the Rose Bowl. “See? I told you so,” they surely said. The way that season ended will be used against Iowa coming down the stretch as the Playoff candidacy debates heat up. And that’s why, in an ideal world, it was important for Iowa’s star of the day to not be the punter.

Even the most diehard Iowa fan could concede that this was far from the signature performance needed to quiet the critics who will emerge as the Hawkeyes inevitably close in on an unbeaten regular season. Because that undefeated regular season is almost certainly coming.

Look at the second half of the schedule. Iowa already opened as a 14.5-point favorite at home against Purdue (3-2), then it plays at Wisconsin (2-3), at Northwestern (2-3), vs. Minnesota (3-2), vs. Illinois (2-5) and at Nebraska (3-4). Anything less than pure domination in most of those games will be viewed negatively. That’s why this game against Penn State was so important; the resume-building opportunities simply aren’t available until the Big Ten Championship Game.

And unfortunately for Iowa, we just didn’t see that. The knock on the Hawkeyes all season has been that Spencer Petras isn’t the type of QB who can lead a team to the CFP. Sure enough, he started the game 1-of-9 with an INT. He finished with better numbers (17-of-31 with 195 passing yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT), but even his best moment — on the 44-yard, go-ahead score to Nico Ragaini — didn’t look “pretty” because Ragaini had to slow up for it and then dive for the pylon.

The counter to the style-points argument is that it is irrelevant in 2021. Maybe this year is showing us that any given team can win. Ohio State, Clemson and Alabama have 4 combined losses, and this is only the second week of October. Maybe style points shouldn’t matter, and we should appreciate getting it done by any means necessary. Maybe you don’t need to be an all-time great team like 2019 LSU or 2020 Alabama.

And maybe you just need to do little things like win the field position battle, as punter Tory Taylor routinely does. Maybe you need to put points on the board by any means necessary, like kicker Caleb Shudak routinely does. Maybe you need a defense that makes it darn near impossible to score, as the Hawkeyes routinely do.

There is so much more to football than just having a great QB, and Iowa has those other boxes checked. The big question continues to be whether Petras will be able to make enough plays in big games — especially when Iowa doesn’t pick off 4 passes.

So how does this end? No one knows for sure. Some of my best friends from high school are Iowa alums, and they are mentally prepared for Iowa to either win the Big Ten or lose to Purdue next week. No one knows, and performances like Saturday reaffirm that either outcome is entirely possible.

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My oh my, what could have been for Penn State. There’s a case to be made that if Penn State wins this game, there isn’t a team in the country with a better resume than the Nittany Lions. I tend to think this was more of an elimination game for Iowa rather than Penn State, which still has enough quality teams on the schedule to build a Playoff-worthy resume.

But no one is thinking about that right now. Penn State fans should be angry. There’s no question the Nittany Lions should have won this game.

The issues began when Sean Clifford was knocked out of the game early in the second quarter after a huge hit from Jack Campbell. At that point, Penn State led 17-3 despite having already turned the ball over twice, including once deep in its own end. Penn State scored just 3 points in the final 42:38, and it’s hard not to find fault with head coach James Franklin.

I wrote in the preseason that Franklin took a huge gamble by not adding another quarterback to complement Sean Clifford after backups Will Levis (Kentucky) and Micah Bowens (Oklahoma) entered the transfer portal. That left last year’s 4th-stringer, Ta’Quan Roberson, as the backup by default.

That came back to haunt the Nittany Lions, as Roberson was overmatched against one of the best defenses in the country, completing only 7 of 21 passes for 34 yards and 2 INTs. There were several false start penalties that Franklin directly attributed to Roberson. Penn State went from being in complete control to completely incompetent.

It didn’t have to be like this. Penn State could’ve added another experienced QB to fill the backup role, or even compete with Clifford. Remember, Clifford got benched last season. It would’ve been perfectly reasonable to add a QB, and there were no shortage of options in the transfer portal with unprecedented levels of movement during the offseason due to the one-time transfer rule.

And that’s a shame for a team that has responded to a down 2020 season as well as you could’ve hoped. The defense is rock solid, holding off Iowa until midway through the fourth quarter, a span of nearly 35 minutes after Clifford went down and a Roberson-led offense produced just a field goal.

It’s nothing against Roberson, who hasn’t had the necessary experience to get his feet wet. Playing against a defense that leads the country in interceptions is no spot to be thrown into the fire. The bottom line is that a program with the aspirations of Penn State shouldn’t have settled for an unproven redshirt freshman as its lifeline.

With average-level QB play, Penn State wins this game easily and is in the driver’s seat for a CFP berth. Now, Penn State is wondering what might’ve been.

Playoff picture coming into view

All things considered, the Big Ten had a terrific day Saturday. While it was easy to find fault with Iowa’s performance or Penn State’s lack of preparation, the conference is still in a great spot as the Playoff picture comes into view. There are 5 B1G teams in the top 10 of the latest AP poll. Here’s where the conference stands heading into Week 7:

  • Iowa has a great chance at being undefeated in the regular season. With a close loss in the Big Ten Championship Game, Iowa could have a chance at getting in depending on how things break around the country. And with Penn State only losing by 3 on the road against the No. 3 team in the country with its backup QB, the Nittany Lions will have a very strong case if that ends up being their only loss. This was the ideal outcome if the B1G wants to have 2 teams in the CFP.
  • Ohio State put together another dominant performance, racking up 598 total yards in the 66-17 win over Maryland. TreVeyon Henderson (3 TDs) is a star, and Ohio State’s receiving corps of Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba is second to none. Oh, and CJ Stroud said his shoulder is fine. Since taking a week off to rest, he is 41-of-56 for 736 yards and 10 TD passes. In a season where there don’t appear to be a ton of dominant teams, Ohio State is starting to emerge.
  • Alabama’s shocking loss at unranked Texas A&M opens the door around the country and significantly reduces the SEC’s chances at getting 2 teams in the CFP. The margin for error was very slim for the SEC with essentially only having Georgia and Alabama as contenders. That’s why I argued earlier this week that the B1G was in better position because its options were wide open. And now, some in the media are starting to acknowledge that.
  • Michigan and Michigan State also got through unscathed, keeping alive a potential undefeated showdown in Week 9. The Wolverines would be wise to explore what their offensive ceiling is before that matchup. Speaking of Week 9, that schedule is mighty juicy. Penn State plays at Ohio State, and Iowa plays at Wisconsin in what will likely be the Hawkeyes’ biggest test the rest of the regular season.
  • Entering Week 8, it’s very possible that there will be just 6 unbeaten Power 5 teams and that the Big Ten will have 3. Either Georgia or Kentucky will lose next week because they play each other, plus Oklahoma State plays at Texas. Meanwhile, Iowa (vs. Purdue) and Michigan State (at Indiana) will be heavily favored. Elsewhere, Oklahoma (vs. TCU) will likely remain unbeaten, while Michigan and Wake Forest are on byes.

Another Nebraska gut punch

No. 9 Michigan 32, Nebraska 29. It feels like I ask every week. Is this the final proverbial nail in the coffin for Scott Frost? This much we know about Nebraska (3-4):

  • It has a good team capable of competing in the Big Ten
  • It cannot get out of its own way

You couldn’t dispute either of those points Saturday night. Nebraska battled back from a 13-0 deficit and was in prime position to pull off the biggest win of the Frost era after 22 third-quarter points. Even after allowing a game-tying field goal with 3:05 left, the Huskers had plenty of time to set up a game-winning attempt of their own.

But on third-and-1, Martinez couldn’t hold onto the ball. What hurts the most for Nebraska is that he already had the first down. Maybe the play could’ve been blown dead due to his forward progress being stopped, but you’d hope that a fourth-year starter would have the wherewithal to just get down after getting the first down and not fight for another yard or 2, which burns clock.

Martinez’s career will be plagued by these what-ifs. For the most part, he has been outstanding this season, helping Nebraska compile one of the B1G’s top offenses despite almost no production from the running backs. But in these key moments, he repeatedly comes up empty. Think back to a few weeks ago when he threw an interception in overtime against Michigan State. Or the failed red-zone conversion against Oklahoma in the fourth quarter that ultimately ended with an INT. Or how he went 1-of-6 on the potential game-tying drive against Illinois. Individually, you might shrug at any of these, but collectively, they are hard to ignore.

Now in order to be bowl eligible (and for Frost to have a chance at keeping his job), Nebraska probably needs to win all 3 of these — at Minnesota, vs. Purdue and at Wisconsin. None of those seem particularly daunting at this moment. But again, it will come down to whether Martinez and the Huskers can actually finish off a team.

Consider that the Huskers’ last 3 losses have all been to teams ranked in the top 10 of this week’s AP poll: Michigan, Michigan State and Oklahoma. All 4 losses have been by 1 possession.

And yet, Nebraska has just 1 Power 5 win this season, and it’s come against 1 of the 2 worst teams in the Big Ten, Northwestern.

At this point, close losses aren’t a consolation or a moral victory. Rather, they are an indictment. Nebraska dropped to 5-16 in 1-possession games under Frost and 0-10 vs. ranked teams. At a certain point, you are who you are.

The can’t-miss moment

No. 11 Michigan State 31, Rutgers 13. This game in and of itself wasn’t at all shocking. The Spartans were expected to win and did so relatively easily. But looking at the bigger picture, it’s the swagger and confidence already evident in Mel Tucker’s second season that is a pleasant surprise.

Take this run by Kenneth Walker III. He is literally dapping up a teammate in the midst of a 94-yard TD run. Surely a move like this will rub some the wrong way. There is a straw man out there ready to say, “What if he dropped the ball?!” Well, Walker hasn’t fumbled on 315 straight carries, per PFF, which is the longest streak in FBS.

It’s clear that there’s been a culture shift in East Lansing. Mel Tucker deserves a ton of credit, and next in line would be Walker, who has revitalized a rushing attack that has been one of the B1G’s worst over the last few years. It has to feel great knowing that at any moment, he can bust one of these.

With Jalen Nailor (who had 3 TD catches of 60 yards or more on Saturday) and Jayden Reed at wideout, Michigan State is never going to be out of a game. So many big plays just waiting to happen.

Stat of the week: Wisconsin holds Illinois to 93 total yards

Wisconsin 24, Illinois 0. Say what you will about Wisconsin this season, but the Badgers are going to be a tough team to beat for anyone just because of how dominant that defense is. No one will mistake Illinois for a prolific passing attack, but the Illini managed only 67 passing yards on 34 attempts. Wisconsin held the Illini to 93 total yards, which was the 6th time this season that a team had been held below 100. The Badgers also held Eastern Michigan to below 100.

While the Badgers continue to struggle offensively (Graham Mertz finished 10-of-19 for 100 yards and an INT), they will give teams fits on defense. If Iowa doesn’t get that offense going in the next few weeks, that game in Madison gets very, very interesting.


The best of the best in Week 6.

1. WR Jalen Nailor (Michigan State)

Nailor went nuts in the win at Rutgers, tallying 221 yards and 3 TDs on 5 receptions. He put up 208 in the first half, which by itself was the 4th-most in a single game in Michigan State history. He had TD receptions of 63, 63 and 65 yards.

2. RB Hassan Haskins (Michigan)

Haskins piled up 123 rushing yards and 2 TDs on 21 carries to lead Michigan to the win at Nebraska. And with Michigan down 3 in the fourth quarter, he pulled off one of the most impressive runs of the season, hurdling a defender on his way to a 50-yard gain to set up the game-tying field goal.

3. P Tory Taylor (Iowa)

No, I’m not joking by putting a punter as one of the most valuable players of the week. Taylor was outstanding against Penn State, pinning the Nittany Lions inside the 5 on 3 occasions. He gave Iowa an advantage of about 20 yards in field position.

4. RB Kenneth Walker III (Michigan State)

After another monster game of 223 rushing yards on 28 attempts, Walker is leading the country with 903 rushing yards. The Wake Forest transfer is averaging over 7 yards per carry.

5. QB CJ Stroud (Ohio State)

Stroud did everything you could’ve asked for in the 66-17 win over Rutgers. He distributed the ball evenly to the Buckeyes’ top 3 targets, as Chris Olave, Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Garrett Wilson all had at least 5 catches and 84 yards, combining for 4 TD catches. Stroud gets 1 more tuneup before the Buckeyes host No. 7 Penn State on Oct. 30.