B1G Primer Week 8: The Big Ten needs backup, and Iowa is here to deliver
Everything you need to know about this weekend’s B1G slate.
Game of the Week: Wisconsin at No. 16 Iowa (-1)
Besides this being a fiercely intense rivalry that is always a key matchup in the West, the Big Ten badly needs some of its teams to rise in the College Football Playoff rankings. Iowa (5-2), which has won 5 straight, has done its part to climb to No. 16. Wisconsin (2-2) fell out of the rankings this week.
There’s definitely a perception problem right now for the Big Ten, and some of it is due to the lack of games. No. 4 Ohio State is viewed as not having any signature wins, despite having beaten No. 12 Indiana (6-1). Indiana didn’t get any credit at all after beating previously No. 16 Wisconsin, as it didn’t rise any spots, while the Badgers completely disappeared from the poll. It’s as if that game never happened. Meanwhile, an Iowa State team with 2 losses (including by 17 points to a Sun Belt team) beat an unranked West Virginia squad and went from No. 9 to No. 7.
The SEC has 4 teams ranked ahead of the Big Ten’s No. 2 team, Indiana. Missouri (5-3) was also a puzzling add to the Top 25 this week, giving Florida and Alabama another ranked victory.
The best-case scenario for the Big Ten is that Iowa wins this game and gets to face Indiana in a Champions Week game, to beef up each of their strength of schedules. Though it is worth mentioning, Indiana had to cancel its rivalry game with Purdue and may make that up next week.
The stat: 0
That’s how many rushing touchdowns Wisconsin has allowed this season. The only other team with less than 3 allowed is Northwestern. The Badgers have only played 4 games, so that obviously helps. Georgia, for comparison, has allowed 5 in 8 games.
Opponents have recognized that running against Wisconsin is a lost cause. Wisconsin has faced a national-low 24.5 rushing attempts per game, and it is allowing just 2.95 yards per carry, which is 6th nationally. Northwestern, even though it never trailed, attempted twice as many passes as runs against Wisconsin, and the Wildcats obviously aren’t in the mold of Alabama or Florida. Teams are choosing to attack the Badgers through the air because Isaiahh Loudermilk is as good as any B1G lineman against the run, and Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal have been excellent as well from their linebacker posts.
What makes this interesting is that Iowa, conversely, is built around running the ball well. With arguably the best offensive line in the Big Ten, the Hawkeyes have 17 rushing scores, tied for the most in the Big Ten. They lean on Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent, who comprise one of the best backfield duos in the Big Ten.
Whether or not Iowa can figure out how to run the ball well will play a big factor in deciding who wins.
The big question: Which QB will make more plays (or avoid mistakes), Spencer Petras or Graham Mertz?
It’s not hard to envision this being a slog. Neither of these offenses have demonstrated any sort of consistent passing attack. Both first-year starters at QB have been through their ups and downs. For Iowa’s Spencer Petras, the downs have been far more prevalent, but he is coming off a game in which he threw for 220 yards and 3 TDs. Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz exploded onto the scene but has come back to Earth in his last 2 outings with 6 turnovers.
Mertz struggled against an Indiana defense that loves to pressure the QB, and Iowa’s defense is in that same mold. Defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon nearly has as many sacks (5.5) as Wisconsin’s entire team (6), and defensive end Chauncey Golston isn’t far behind.
At the same time, Petras faces obstacles of his own. While Wisconsin hasn’t generated that type of pressure, it is very good against the pass, allowing opposing QBs to complete just 50 percent of their passes. Petras is at just 57.3 percent for the season, which ranks ninth in the Big Ten.
Wisconsin has won 7 of 8 in this series, but this is the year Iowa turns it around.
The Badgers will likely be using a freshman center in Tanor Bortolini, so that could cause some issues up front against a very good Iowa defensive line (which, by the way, graduates 2-3 guys every year yet somehow keeps getting better).
And in a game with neither defense conceding much, a reliable kicking game, like Iowa has with Keith Duncan, can make all the difference.
Iowa 23, Wisconsin 17
Illinois at No. 14 Northwestern (-14.5)
As mentioned above, the Big Ten badly needs its ranked teams to take care of business. So even though Northwestern has already clinched the West and is in the Big Ten Championship Game, Ohio State won’t get any sort of resume boost if Northwestern enters the game having lost back-to-back games against Michigan State and Illinois.
For Northwestern, it needs to build some sort of momentum before the game vs. Ohio State, or else it will get absolutely rolled. If the Wildcats are going to be this bad offensively (they haven’t cracked 320 total yards in their last 5 games), they can’t afford to lose the turnover battle 4-1. Illinois absolutely laid down against Iowa last week, so this is a great time for the Wildcats to figure some things out.
Northwestern 21, Illinois 14
Minnesota at Nebraska (-10.5)
Minnesota makes it no secret that it is going to pound the run game. Nebraska, for all of its shortcomings, has played very well in the run game. After a couple rough games against Penn State and Illinois, the Huskers have allowed Iowa and Purdue to run for just over 2 yards per carry. The tough part will be stopping the conference’s top running back, Mohamed Ibrahim. But who knows who will be playing for a Golden Gophers squad reeling from COVID issues that will also be without star wideout Rashod Bateman.
Nebraska 24, Minnesota 21
Rutgers at Maryland (-8)
For all of Maryland’s issues against Indiana, it had its opportunities. Rust was clearly a factor, and it may be this week, too. But the Terrapins have legit talent. Taulia Tagovailoa, Dontay Demus Jr. and Rakim Jarrett are tough for any defense to handle, and that should be true for a Rutgers defense that has allowed a league-high 18 touchdown passes.
Maryland 30, Rutgers 14
Michigan State at Penn State (-15)
What should we make of Penn State’s 2 wins? On the one hand, the Nittany Lions won. That’s great for a program that started 0-5. But the Nittany Lions haven’t passed for more than 163 yards in either game. The run game, led by a freshman in Keyvone Lee, is back on track. But if it wants to return to the upper echelon in the Big Ten, it is going to win defensive struggles. It has a talent edge against everyone except Ohio State, and it should take advantage of that. Let’s see if Sean Clifford can show some growth in new OC Kirk Ciarrocca’s final few games of 2020.
Penn State 28, Michigan State 10
Week 7 record: 3-2 straight-up / 1-4 vs. spread
Season record: 21-20 straight-up / 17-24 vs. spread