B1G Primer Week 4: The Jack Coan Bowl is a must-win for Wisconsin
Everything you need to know about this weekend’s B1G slate.
Game of the Week: No. 18 Wisconsin (-1.5) vs. No. 12 Notre Dame (at Soldier Field)
Aside from the obvious of a major boost to each’s College Football Playoff resume and the national attention the winner will get thanks to College Gameday and Big Noon Kickoff both selecting this game from which to broadcast, this one means even a little more to Wisconsin — and Notre Dame’s quarterback. Former Badgers starting QB Jack Coan now holds that same position with the Fighting Irish, and to lose to him would be an extra punch to the gut.
I don’t want to say Wisconsin thought it was too good for Coan, because that was certainly not the case. But the Badgers were quite OK with him moving on because of Graham Mertz, who was the highest-rated QB that Wisconsin had signed during the 247Sports era. The thinking was that Coan was more of a game manager, while Mertz is a difference-maker. Coan didn’t really light up the scoreboard in tossing 18 TD passes in 14 games in 2019, when Wisconsin won the Big Ten West, but he didn’t really need to — the offense was built around Jonathan Taylor. Coan threw just 5 interceptions and played his role well.
The hardest part for Coan had to be that he never really lost the job. He was slated to start in 2020 until suffering a random foot injury in preseason, which elevated Mertz to QB1. By the time Coan recovered from surgery in December, Mertz was already established. That led to Coan hitting the transfer portal and ultimately choosing Notre Dame.
The stat: 113
That’s how many more yards per game Coan (276) is averaging through 3 weeks as Notre Dame’s QB than Mertz (163) is averaging as Wisconsin’s QB. Despite being undefeated, Notre Dame (3-0) is not quite the same caliber of team that has made the CFP 2 of the last 3 years. But don’t blame that on Coan, who has been excellent thus far with 8 TD passes and 2 INTs. He is 23rd nationally in passing yards per game.
— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 18, 2021
Mertz, at this point, would love to be considered a game manager because he’s not even doing that much. His inaccuracy (22-of-37 passing with 2 INTs) hurt the Badgers in the season-opening loss to Penn State.
These programs pride themselves on building a solid all-around roster, winning with defense and in the trenches. But the difference ultimately could be whether it is Coan or Mertz who rises to the occasion on this big stage.
The key matchup: Mertz vs. Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton
Hamilton is one of the best players in all of college football, regardless of position. The projected top-10 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft is simply everywhere. One of the most fun players to watch, he does it all.
He has 3 interceptions in 3 games, 2 of which came in the opener against Florida State and another last week in the end zone that sealed the win over Purdue. Here he runs from the opposite hash all the way to the sideline for an interception against Florida State.
Kyle Hamilton is a problem pic.twitter.com/9NNzZCeich
— Jac Collinsworth (@JacCollinsworth) September 6, 2021
Hamilton isn’t just a ballhawk, he is great against the run as well. Watch how quickly he closes on the Purdue ball-carrier on this 4th-and-1 play.
kyle hamilton huge stop on 4th and 1 👀 pic.twitter.com/7qvuo9egO4
— mike taddow 🇪🇹 (@MichaelTaddow) September 18, 2021
Mertz needs to know where Hamilton is at all times — and avoid him the best that he can.
The big question: Did the bye week enable Wisconsin to fix its offensive woes?
Wisconsin had a bye last week, and that was undoubtedly a good thing. The Badgers were completely out of sync in the opener against Penn State, managing only 10 points despite possessing the ball for nearly 43 minutes. Wisconsin ran 95 plays in that one (compared to just 51 for Penn State) and averaged a meager 3.8 yards per play.
The Badgers did look much more crisp in piling up 518 yards against Eastern Michigan, but it’s still just Eastern Michigan. Even with Hamilton back there, Notre Dame is just 81st nationally in total defense. Wisconsin can score in this game if it avoids the sloppy turnovers it had in the opener against Penn State.
Normally a bye week this early in the season is kind of pointless, but Wisconsin needed it to reset and prepare for this game. The Badgers will come out fired up to play their old teammate and make life difficult for him.
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• Wisconsin 27, Notre Dame 20
Bowling Green at Minnesota (-31)
The Golden Gophers already struggled to get by one MAC program, but Bowling Green is not near as good as Miami (OH). I think Minnesota will have an easier time with this one. But can Trey Potts get a rest? He has averaged 30 carries the last 2 weeks (and played very well), but this is a long season and there are more important games looming, starting the following week with Purdue.
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Minnesota 35, • Bowling Green 10
Ohio at Northwestern (-14.5)
It’s been surprising to see Ohio (0-3), typically one of the best programs in the MAC, get off to such a slow start. Part of it has to be longtime head coach Frank Solich stepping down right before the season. Given Northwestern’s equally slow start, I thought 15 points was a big number, but it was encouraging to see the Wildcats finish so strong against Duke. Even though they lost, Northwestern battled back from a 27-0 deficit and pulled within 1 score in the final minutes.
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• Northwestern 34, Ohio 13
Villanova at No. 6 Penn State
This meeting of unbeatens won’t produce the same scene that last week’s epic primetime showdown did with Auburn in town. Penn State (3-0) will obviously be guarding against a letdown, and the Wildcats (3-0) are hoping for one. The Nittany Lions would be wise to get Noah Cain going before the schedule intensifies with Indiana and Iowa.
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Penn State 42, Villanova 6
Kent State at Maryland (-14.5)
I had this game marked as a potential upset in the preseason, but my thinking has changed. For one, Kent State has been beaten down a little bit with top-10 losses to No. 6 Texas A&M and No. 5 Iowa, neither of which were close. Understandably so. But QB Dustin Crum hasn’t quite found his groove yet with only 2 TD passes and 2 INTs after putting up 30 TDs and only 4 INTs over the last 2 seasons. The biggest reason for Maryland avoiding the upset, though, is that this is a program that looks ready to take the next step. Taulia Tagovailoa has been one of the best QBs in not only the Big Ten, but the country. I’m also selfishly hoping that Maryland doesn’t spoil a potential unbeaten showdown with Iowa next week.
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Maryland 34, • Kent State 24
Colorado State at No. 5 Iowa (-22.5)
Iowa deserves a bit of a breather after that tough opening to the season, and the Hawkeyes are certainly getting it in hosting a MAC team last week and this week a team that lost to Vandy. Not that it will change the approach of the workmanlike Hawkeyes, who churned out a 20-play drive last week.
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• Iowa 41, Colorado State 10
Rutgers at No. 19 Michigan (-20.5)
This is arguably the second-most interesting game of the week. For Rutgers (3-0), it marks a return to prominence. The game is on ABC and marks the latest game in a season that Rutgers has been unbeaten against a fellow unbeaten since the “Pandemonium in Piscataway” win over No. 3 Louisville in 2006 during Greg Schiano’s first tenure as head coach. The days of Ray Rice and Kenny Britt are long gone, but there is renewed optimism thanks to Schiano’s return. This second season has gone as well as could be expected, as the Scarlet Knights are 1 of 2 teams in the Big Ten that have yet to commit a turnover (Michigan is the other).
Ultimately, this game will be about whether Rutgers has the guys up front defensively to slow down this torrid Michigan running attack that leads the country with 350.3 yards per game. The thunder/lightning combo of Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum has been unstoppable thus far, and the Wolverines can turn to true freshman Donovan Edwards, too.
Twenty points seems like too many for a team that is playing extremely well, like Rutgers — especially considering Michigan needed triple overtime to beat the Scarlet Knights last year.
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Michigan 27, • Rutgers 17
Illinois at Purdue (-11)
At this point, it’s unknown whether star wideout David Bell will be able to play for Purdue after a scary moment against Notre Dame in which he laid motionless on the turf after taking a hit. He eventually was carted off. If he’s unable to play and do things like this …
— Greg Brandt (@devywarehouse) September 18, 2021
… then I don’t have a ton of confidence in Purdue. The Boilermakers are so dependent on him. Plus, starting QB Jack Plummer left last week’s game, too. Plus, starting running back Zander Horvath is out, too.
Illinois is this year’s version of 2020 Michigan State, where it will randomly play very well despite being outmatched on paper, and I think this is one of those weeks (Nebraska was the other, apparently).
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• Illinois 31, Purdue 27
Nebraska at No. 20 Michigan State (-5)
Speaking of Nebraska, this is a terrific opportunity for Scott Frost to pick up his first win over a ranked team with the Huskers (2-2). The Spartans (3-0) are a surprise addition to the Top 25 only if you haven’t watched them play, as they have looked like one of the more complete teams in the Big Ten. A game that Nebraska probably circled as a win in the preseason now looks like a game that that the Huskers would be fortunate to win. Michigan State has made more strides in a little over a year under Mel Tucker than Nebraska in over 3 years with Frost.
Here’s the harsh reality for Nebraska — it now will have to upset a ranked team just to be bowl eligible. After Michigan State, the Huskers still have No. 19 Michigan, No. 10 Ohio State, No. 18 Wisconsin and No. 5 Iowa.
Here’s what we know about Nebraska: It will play very good defense, it will struggle to put up points absent brilliant play from Adrian Martinez and it will make the sort of mistakes that allow the opponent to pounce. It’s the same script every week, and the result varies depending on the opponent. Considering how well the Spartans are playing, Nebraska won’t win without eliminating those special teams mistakes and untimely penalties.
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• Michigan State 31, Nebraska 20
Akron at No. 10 Ohio State (-49.5)
This week will be a terrific opportunity to get 60-70 guys some real game action. Specifically, the Buckeyes should consider playing multiple QBs so that Jack Miller and Kyle McCord have some game experience in the event that CJ Stroud’s shoulder injury worsens to the point of him not being able to play.
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Ohio State 52, • Akron 10
Indiana (-9) at Western Kentucky
This is one of those games where Tom Allen needs to be honest with himself. If Michael Penix Jr. comes out slow again, he needs to go to Jack Tuttle. This will be Penix’s fourth game back after a third season-ending knee injury, and Allen owes it to this team to get the best guy out there. If Penix is it, then fine. But I find it hard to believe that Tuttle, a Utah transfer who won on the road at Wisconsin last year, couldn’t at least be serviceable and limit the turnovers that are plaguing the Hoosiers. Look at the upcoming schedule for Indiana: at No. 6 Penn State, vs. No. 20 Michigan State, vs. No. 10 Ohio State, at Maryland, at No. 19 Michigan and vs. Rutgers. Those teams are a combined 17-1, with the 1 loss belong to the Buckeyes. If Indiana loses this, it can kiss a bowl game goodbye.
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Indiana 28, • Western Kentucky 24
Week 3 record: 11-1 straight-up / 6-6 vs. spread
Season record: 32-5 straight-up / 21-15-1 vs. spread