B1G Monday Morning: Michigan State and Michigan are resilient. Now, can one of them knock off the top dog?
This was supposed to be the year for Penn State to rebound, for Indiana to continue its ascent, for Rutgers and Maryland to break through. And on and on. After going a combined 4-9 last year, Michigan State and Michigan were understandably afterthoughts coming into this season.
With just 2 weeks left in the regular season, though, both programs are still very much alive in the Big Ten and for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Heck, there’s even a path for both programs to reach the CFP. Had you told me back in August that even one of these teams would be in the mix, I would’ve been shocked. Both? Get out of here.
Regardless of who is ranked ahead of whom (I do think Michigan has a case to be ranked ahead of Michigan State), that’s not important. This will all play itself out in the next 2 weeks. This season will be remembered for how these rivals have come out of nowhere and made us folks who cover this sport feel mighty dumb.
When you watch both of these teams, there is clearly plenty of talent. Michigan’s is home grown, while Michigan State loaded up in the transfer portal. But it obviously takes much more than talent to win. There’s a certain intangible quality that both of these programs possess. Look around college football. There are so many teams with massive budgets, big-name coaches and blue-chip talent that may not make a bowl game. Programs like Florida, LSU, Texas and USC would wipe the floor with Michigan State in a computer simulation based on recruiting rankings, and they would all beat Michigan, too.
But thankfully, these games are played on the field. Michigan State and Michigan have been enjoyable in every way that Florida, LSU, Texas and USC have been beyond frustrating for their fan bases. Michigan and Michigan State show up to play every week, and there’s something to be said for that in college football. It’s not easy. These programs have been as resilient as any in the country.
No. 6 Michigan 21, Penn State 17. Maybe the most impressive part of Michigan’s season is that entering Saturday, it hadn’t trailed in the first quarter all season. Why is that important? Well, it tells you that they are coming ready to play each and every week. They aren’t overlooking anyone and digging an early hole. They are locked in.
That remarkable streak ended Saturday with Penn State kicking an early field goal, and even though Michigan clearly didn’t have its A-game early on, it hung on for dear life. Michigan ran all of 6 plays in the first quarter, with no first downs. And yet midway through the second quarter, Michigan pulled back ahead on a dart from Cade McNamara to Roman Wilson, who was playing with a soft cast on one hand.
No. 6 @UMichFootball is on the board.
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) November 13, 2021
Even though McNamara was strip-sacked by Arnold Ebiketie to give Penn State the ball in the red zone, Michigan hung tough and held the Nittany Lions to a field goal. Then, McNamara atoned for his mistake with a 47-yard TD pass to Erick All, who outran all of Penn State’s defense. Not bad for anyone, much less a tight end.
Erick All (@eallindi83) wanted it all, and he got it all. 🙌
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) November 13, 2021
This was an important moment for Michigan, which faltered down the stretch at Michigan State and let a late turnover doom it. To drive down the field against that defense, in front of that crowd, with that much on the line speaks volumes. It’s exactly the opposite of the type of character Michigan displayed last season. Michigan has re-established itself as a threat in the Big Ten and on the national landscape. It has won on the road at Wisconsin and Penn State, which is no small accomplishment.
Whether that matters against Ohio State is to be determined, and we’ll find out soon enough. But give credit where credit is due. Michigan, and Jim Harbaugh, have earned our respect.
No. 7 Michigan State 40, Maryland 21. I’ll admit it, deep down I was wondering whether this was all going to come crashing down for Michigan State. It clearly was not the better team last Saturday at Purdue, and that’s OK. It’s always interesting to me, though, which teams can prevent 1 loss from turning into 2, and which teams can prevent 2 from turning into 3, etc. Those aforementioned programs (Florida, Texas, USC and LSU) haven’t been able to stop their slides. Michigan couldn’t last year. Michigan State, though, emphatically answered those concerns.
While there is still plenty to shore up on the defensive end before the showdown with a mighty Ohio State offense next week, these scoring binges are becoming routine for the Spartans, who have 29 or more points in 8 of 10 games this season. Kenneth Walker III is showing no signs of slowing down, and defenses are showing no signs of being able to slow him down. His cuts to the outside are a thing of beauty.
Kenneth Walker with a cut that a pair of scissors would be proud of. My days! pic.twitter.com/7HvoyVRVVY
— PFN Draft (@PFNDraft) November 14, 2021
More important, though, is that Payton Thorne is dialed in. Even without one of his top weapons, Jalen Nailor, he has thrown for multiple TDs and at least 275 yards the last 2 weeks. The Jayden Reed connection is borderline unstoppable. It’s going to be fascinating to see how Ohio State tries to slow him next week, because that secondary has really struggled at various times over the last 2 seasons.
— ✯✯✯✯✯ (@FTBVids_YT) November 13, 2021
But still, the problem for Michigan State next week and Michigan in 2 weeks is …
Ohio State’s offense is national championship-good
No. 4 Ohio State 59, No. 19 Purdue 31. It’s funny how all it takes is one game to completely flip the script. Ohio State, after settling for 8 field goals over the last 2 weeks, moved up and down the field with blistering efficiency against Purdue, which was supposed to be an upset threat.
The Buckeyes scored touchdowns on their first 6 drives before finally settling for a field goal before the half. How’s that for a resounding answer to all of the questions from the last 2 weeks? The drive chart was a thing of beauty:
- Drive 1: 5 plays, 39 yards, TD
- Drive 2: 6 plays, 78 yards, TD
- Drive 3: 1 play, 57 yards, TD
- Drive 4: 11 plays, 75 yards, TD
- Drive 5: 2 plays, 12 yards, TD
- Drive 6: 4 plays, 75 yards, TD
Now, perhaps the more appropriate question is whether this offense will elevate into that next tier among some of this sports all-time great offenses? Obviously to be in that conversation, the Buckeyes will have to perform at their peak level in the biggest games, like the next 2 weeks against Michigan State and Michigan and then in the Big Ten Championship Game and College Football Playoff. Running up the score on Rutgers, Maryland, Indiana and Purdue, even if the latter entered the day as a top-25 defense, doesn’t cement their place in history.
When Chris Olave, who likely would’ve been a first-round NFL draft pick had he come out, is the No. 3 wideout, you’re cooking. When TreVeyon Henderson is being talked about as a better back than Ezekiel Elliott and Maurice Clarett, you’re cooking. When there are probably a handful of future pros in the wide receiver room who aren’t even playing but a handful of snaps, you’re cooking.
At this point, the eye test tells us we’ll look back on this Ohio State offense in the same way we view Alabama when it had Tua Tagovailoa/Mac Jones, Najee Harris, Devonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy. Or LSU with Joe Burrow, Jamar Chase, Justin Jefferson and Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Or the Oklahoma teams with Baker Mayfield/Kyler Murray, Marquise Brown, CeeDee Lamb and Mark Andrews. Ohio State has every bit as much talent as those supercharged offenses, and the numbers back up that assertion.
From a purely statistical standpoint, Ohio State is playing at the level of some of the best offenses we’ve seen in the sport. And there’s been some good ones the last few years. But Ohio State is now averaging 8.03 yards per play, which is more than the last 2 national champions, 2020 Alabama (7.81) and 2019 LSU (7.89).
Some of the recent struggles, at least last week against Nebraska, can be attributed to the health of Garrett Wilson. The true junior is as versatile as they come, and when healthy, he takes the offense to another level. He tallied 177 yards from scrimmage and 4 TDs on just 11 touches vs. Purdue. The emergence of true sophomore Jaxon Smith-Njigba makes Ohio State nearly impossible to defend, and his rapport with CJ Stroud is notable. He has at least 97 yards in 5 straight games and he followed up a record-setting performance last week with 9 catches for 139 yards.
At this point, the only thing you can nitpick is Ohio State’s defense, which had played better since the Oregon game, but still leaves a lot to be desired. Indeed, giving up 31 points and 481 yards to a Purdue team that topped 13 points just once from Sept. 18 through Oct. 23 isn’t great. But at the same time, the Boilermakers have obviously figured some things out. The way they are using Jackson Anthrop right now, for example, gives that offense a different dynamic. Aidan O’Connell is playing at a very high level.
Say this much for Ohio State, though: How many teams in the country can score on Georgia? It’s a short list, and Ohio State is at the top of it. Heck, the Buckeyes may be the only team on the list.
The best of the best in Week 11.
1. WR Garrett Wilson (Ohio State)
On any given day, any of Ohio State’s star trio of wideouts is liable to go off — and sometimes, all of them. On Saturday, Wilson starred with 10 catches for 126 yards and 3 TDs, plus a 51-yard TD run.
GARRETT WILSON ARE YOU KIDDING#CFB
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) November 13, 2021
2. DEs Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo (Michigan)
The defensive ends combined for 5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles in the win at Penn State. I can’t wait to watch this duo against Ohio State.
David Ojabo and Aidan Hutchinson big games today vs Penn State. Ojabo here doing the Avril. pic.twitter.com/8JqfX6ZoRP
— Jared Stanger (@JaredStanger) November 14, 2021
3. QB Payton Thorne (Michigan State)
Michigan State isn’t going to beat Ohio State with just Kenneth Walker, so seeing Payton Thorne deliver 4 TD passes and 287 yards in the win over Maryland had to be comforting for Spartans fans.
— BULLYBALL (@RealBullyBall) November 13, 2021
4. RB Braelon Allen (Wisconsin)
Allen’s emergence as a certified stud has been a huge development for a Wisconsin team that is now without its top 3 running backs from preseason camp. In his first career start, the true freshman racked up 173 yards and 3 TDs. I don’t understand how Allen was a high school football player just last year.
The college football world is waking up to Braelon Allen as the next great Wisconsin back pic.twitter.com/PnMXhoKTvj
— IKE Badgers Podcast (@IKE_Badgers) November 13, 2021
5. QB Alex Padilla (Iowa)
The numbers may not blow you away from Padilla, but the Hawkeyes needed every one of the 206 passing yards. Padilla’s first career start came in a first-place showdown, and it wasn’t a surprise to see him rise to the occasion because of how comfortable he looked in relief against Wisconsin and Northwestern the last 2 games.
— Iowa On BTN (@IowaOnBTN) November 13, 2021