B1G Monday Morning: Once again, it’s Ohio State or bust for the Big Ten
The first 2 weeks of the Big Ten season have been unpredictable. Everything we thought we knew was a lie. Well, almost.
The universal truth: It’s Ohio State and then everyone else. That much is clear after a wild weekend in which all 6 road teams won. And maybe that’s how it was always destined to be, and it’s just much more clear early on in the 2020 season. After 2 weeks, who had Northwestern, Indiana and Purdue as 3 of the league’s 5 unbeaten teams?
The Big Ten had built-in credibility with 6 teams in the preseason AP Top 25. Three of those teams are now 0-2, and together they have a combined record of 4-7. The way the season started in the SEC, ACC and Big 12, the Big Ten was in prime position to capitalize. But that ship has sailed.
Michigan, anointed a contender by yours truly, lost as a 21-point favorite at home to rebuilding Michigan State. Minnesota, allegedly a program on the rise, fell as an 18.5-point favorite to a team with an 8-game B1G losing streak. And Penn State, with one of the most talented teams in the country, promptly excused itself as a contender with back-to-back losses to open the season.
Even the teams that won are up against the forces of this bizarre season. Wisconsin, finally equipped with a QB capable of competing on the national stage, has been doomed by the B1G’s disastrous handling of the schedule and is now on the brink of having a second straight game canceled and potentially only playing 7 games.
Maybe Indiana or Northwestern can go on a Minnesota-esque run and enter the national conversation. But until further notice, Ohio State will be the only team mentioned as a serious contender.
More trick than treat, Michigan fooled us again
Michigan State 27, No. 13 Michigan 24. The media should have to write this over and over on the chalkboard, Bart Simpson style: “I will not overhype Michigan. I will not overhype Michigan. I will not overhype Michigan.”
In our defense, this one came out of nowhere. No one could have predicted Mel Tucker would become the first Michigan State head coach to beat Michigan on the first try since Nick Saban — not after the Spartans turned it over 7 times the previous week and became Rutgers’ first B1G win in 3 years. Michigan, a 21-point favorite, has superior talent at every position.
Or should we have seen it coming? Because the reality is that these sorts of letdowns, especially in rivalry games, have become all too common for Michigan. The Wolverines are now 3-8 against Ohio State and Michigan State in the Jim Harbaugh era — including 1-6 at the Big House. The coach who has been with his team for 6 years was no match for the coach who has barely been with his team for 6 months. The lesson is clear — trust Jim Harbaugh and Michigan at your own peril.
Perhaps most troubling for Michigan is that this didn’t feel like an upset. The team that was blown out by Rutgers never trailed against Michigan.
Ignore the polls and recruiting rankings and you would’ve thought Michigan State was the B1G contender and Michigan the plucky upstart. Ricky White (8 catches for 196 yards), a true freshman who was the 40th-ranked recruit in Georgia and ignored by the SEC, looked like the type of weapon Michigan has been missing in the last 6 seasons. Mark Dantonio built his program around overlooked players like White, and Tucker’s Georgia ties helped keep White committed. Michigan has some nice young players, but does it have game-changers? The last Michigan player to have a game like White’s was Jehu Chesson in 2015.
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) October 31, 2020
Michigan is back to the drawing board in the secondary, with Harbaugh telling reporters afterward: “Each person, we’ve gotta look at — every single guy, what they can do better. Every coach, too.” Michigan lost its top corner in the preseason as Ambry Thomas opted out, and apparently, there wasn’t much behind him — not ideal for a defense built on man coverage. It’s one thing for Justin Fields and Mac Jones to torch the Michigan secondary, but Rocky Lombardi? He came into the game as a career 48.6-percent passer. After a 323-yard, 3 TD performance, Lombardi is now a career 49.2-percent passer. Michigan’s fearsome defensive end duo, Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson, generated little to no pressure on Lombardi, and the Wolverines finished with no sacks after getting 5 in the opener.
And sure, Michigan allowed just 3.3 yards per rush. But considering Michigan State was coming off a game against Rutgers in which it averaged 1.3, it’s far less impressive. Combined with the issues in the secondary, it made for a tough day.
For years, Michigan fans have been waiting for Harbaugh to develop one of his own at QB. Redshirt sophomore Joe Milton, hailed as the one to finally break Harbaugh’s dry spell, did nothing to dispute the notion that he could be that guy. But he’s not quite capable of putting a team on his back just yet. Milton, making his second career start, became the first Michigan QB to throw more than 50 passes since Chad Henne in 2004. Plagued by Michigan’s inability to get much on first or second down, Milton was forced to look downfield on third-and-long, with Michigan’s receivers repeatedly failing to separate.
Even with his awe-inspiring arm strength, Milton dinked and dunked his way down the field with the game on the line, needing 18 plays and 4:34 of game time with Michigan down 2 scores. That left just 36 seconds and all but ended the game.
So here we go again, with speculation sure to build on Harbaugh’s future with the school. He is the only FBS coach in the country not under contract past 2021, and games like these will only add fuel to the fire that Michigan is better without Harbaugh than with him.
Preparing for Trevor Lawrence
No. 3 Ohio State 38, No. 18 Penn State 25. At one point or another, Ohio State is likely to be confronted by the beast it failed to slay in 2019, Trevor Lawrence. The Clemson quarterback took over the Fiesta Bowl game with his legs, as his 67-yard TD run just before halftime swung the momentum in the Tigers’ favor in a game Ohio State had led 16-0 just minutes earlier.
Sean Clifford, coming off a 119-yard rushing performance against Indiana, is Trevor Lawrence Lite. It’s not an insult to say that Clifford is the scout-team version of Lawrence and as good of preparation that there is on Ohio State’s schedule. Considering Ohio State’s last 2 games — Lawrence ran for 107 yards on 16 carries and Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey combined for 165 yards on 22 carries — the matchup against Clifford presented the Buckeyes with a terrific tuneup for a potential rematch with Clemson.
Adjusted for sacks, Clifford gained 33 yards on 13 rushing attempts, with a long of just 11 yards. Tommy Togiai (3 sacks) and Zach Harrison helped contain Clifford and limit the damage until Penn State scored 2 fourth-quarter TDs, when the outcome was all but sealed. Devyn Ford, though not nearly as dynamic as Clemson’s Travis Etienne, was held in check with 8 rushes for 36 yards. Ohio State’s lone blemish defensively was from one of its most talented players, Shaun Wade, who transitioned from slot corner to the outside. Wade has been a little uneven in the early going, but Jahan Dotson’s mini explosion to start the fourth quarter, featuring a ridiculous one-handed TD catch, seemed to be more of his own doing than a failure of Wade’s.
The bottom line for Ohio State is that this was the most lopsided game in this series since 2015, when Ohio State won by 28. This one felt just as bad, with the Buckeyes scoring just over a minute into the game and leading by 2 scores for 51:06.
Penn State, with its season on the line, was only able to gain real momentum when officials handed it a gift, in the form of 3 points, at the end of the first half. Perhaps it only served to further invigorate Fields, though, who responded as you’d expect a great competitor to do. By the fourth quarter, the ABC broadcast resorted to showing the Instagram feed of Fields’ dog.
The gap between Ohio State and the rest of the Big Ten is real and doesn’t appear to be lessening anytime soon.
The honeymoon is officially over at Minnesota
Maryland 45, Minnesota 44 (OT). After a lopsided loss to Michigan and blowing a 17-point fourth-quarter lead to B1G basement dweller Maryland, all of the good vibes that PJ Fleck generated last season are gone. Minnesota started slow in 2019, too, but this year it is playing Big Ten teams instead of South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern. It’s tough to write off Minnesota after it finished last season as a top-10 team, but there are some ominous signs that suggest a turnaround is not imminent, the biggest being a defense that can’t stop anyone.
The same Maryland offense that tallied just 207 yards against Northwestern in the opener racked up 675 (including 230 in the first quarter!). Minnesota hasn’t allowed this many yards since it yielded 689 in 1994 against Penn State. At least that Penn State team won the national title; this Maryland team had lost 8 in a row in the Big Ten (and 12 straight to teams not named Rutgers).
Minnesota struggles defending basic offensive plays. Last week, Zach Charbonnet got through the line of scrimmage, and he didn’t even have to make a defender miss on the second level, much less the third. This week, a simple slant play went for 76 yards, with Jeshaun Jones slowing down about 20 yards before the end zone as if to say, “You serious, Minnesota?”
Offense is not the problem here, clearly. But it is worth second-guessing Minnesota’s conservative nature once it took a 17-point lead. The Golden Gophers repeatedly fed Mohamed Ibrahim (41 carries, 207 yards, 4 TDs), and it worked in bleeding the clock and keeping Minnesota’s anemic defense off the field. But at what cost? Ibrahim lacked that same burst in the fourth quarter, accumulating only 20 yards on 8 attempts. Tanner Morgan, meanwhile, attempted 2 passes in the fourth quarter.
Fleck’s strategy is obvious — keep his awful defense off the field for as long as possible. Minnesota has held the ball for 68:59 in 2 games, compared with 51:01 for the opponents. It makes sense, but the downside is he is taking the ball away from his two best players. Morgan attempted only 15 passes, and as a result, potential first-round draft pick Rashod Bateman had only 5 catches for 62 yards.
Minnesota, the preseason No. 17 team in the country, had 21 yards and 1 first down on its three fourth-quarter drives. A few first downs would’ve won the game for the Golden Gophers, so why not let Morgan and Bateman close the game out?
The 2019 darling of the Big Ten has some serious soul-searching to do.
1. Justin Fields (Ohio State)
Good luck knocking Fields off this perch. Two games into his second season as a starting quarterback, Fields looks as polished as he can be as a passer. His chemistry with Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson is exceptional. If Fields continues to throw this well, Ohio State only needs a decent running game — nothing like last year with J.K. Dobbins — to keep defenses honest.
Justin Fields' 2020 stats:
48-55 | 594 yards | 6 TD | 0 INT
In. Two. Games. 😰 pic.twitter.com/7cJWvn6dgb
— Ohio State on BTN (@OhioStateOnBTN) November 1, 2020
2. Antjuan Simmons (Michigan State)
Simmons was everywhere for the Spartans, tying for a team-high with 11 tackles while adding 2 pass break-ups. The Ann Arbor native had one of the plays of the game when he wasn’t fooled on a trick play near the goal line, somehow breaking up the pass to save a TD and force a field goal.
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) October 31, 2020
Simmons is now second in the Big Ten in tackles this season with 22. Afterward, Joe Milton claimed to not know who Simmons was. He was probably joking, but here’s guessing he probably will have a good idea after watching the film.
Joe Milton asked if he knew that Antjuan Simmons is that good of a player.
"Antjuan Simmons, who's that?"
— Isaiah Hole (@isaiahhole) October 31, 2020
3. Mohamed Ibrahim (Minnesota)
Ibrahim has to be in incredible shape, as he toted the ball 41 times for 207 yards and 4 TDs in a losing effort. P.J. Fleck is pounding the rock even more than usual since the Golden Gophers have struggled defensively. Ibrahim has 67 carries this season, 19 more than Northwestern’s Isaiah Bowser. He easily leads the country in carries per game at 33.5.
Mohamed Ibrahim against Maryland pic.twitter.com/hjoOIzvJAl
— Mostly Always (@Mostly_Always) November 1, 2020
4. Rocky Lombardi (Michigan State)
Lombardi has been one of the best stories of the season so far. The redshirt junior got a chance to start 2 years ago when Brian Lewerke was hurt for a few weeks, and he just was not ready to be the guy. But after back-to-back 300-yard games, including a 323-yard, 3 TD performance against Michigan, he has established himself as Michigan State’s starter.
The first TD of the game goes to @MSU_Football!
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) October 31, 2020
5. Taulia Tagovailoa (Maryland)
Tua’s younger brother had his coming out party on the same weekend that Tua made his first NFL start. Taulia was near unstoppable with 394 passing yards, 59 rushing yards and 5 total TDs in Maryland’s comeback win. It was especially encouraging considering Tagovailoa threw 3 INTs against Northwestern in his first career start.
TAULIA TAGOVAILOA TAKES IT THE DISTANCE 💨 pic.twitter.com/Kyqa6NbtCN
— ESPN (@espn) October 30, 2020
Honorable mention: Chris Olave (Ohio State), Garrett Wilson (Ohio State), Jahan Dotson (Penn State), Tommy Togiai (Ohio State), Aidan O’Connell (Purdue), David Bell (Purdue), Michael Penix Jr. (Indiana), Ricky White (Michigan State)