Hickey: Which B1G East contender is most vulnerable in Week 4?
This year’s Big Ten East title race is shaping up as many felt it would — a 3-dog fight among Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.
All 3 teams are ranked in the top 10, and the possibility of each of them finishing 11-1 by splitting their games against each other is distinct.
But that could change after this weekend, which also represents the first major challenge that each team has faced this season.
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Granted, the difference in degree of difficulty in those challenges is pretty vast. It’s possible, though perhaps not probable, that 1 of the B1G East’s title hopefuls drops its first game in Week 4.
With inspiration from Smokey Bear’s wildfire danger level scale, we’ve graded the threat level facing each team this week.
No. 2 Michigan
Threat level: Low
Beating Rutgers at home
Why there’s danger
Michigan’s non-conference schedule was so weak that even Rutgers represents a significantly higher degree of talent than the Wolverines have faced thus far. In fact, there’s a chance the Scarlet Knights are good enough that we can’t even use phrases like “even Rutgers” anymore. This is the best team of Greg Schiano’s Rutgers revival.
Rutgers running back Kyle Monangai is leading the Big Ten in rushing at 119 yards per game. Defensively, the Scarlet Knights are 7th nationally at 10 points allowed per game. And that’s having played a pair of Power 5 opponents — albeit Northwestern and Virginia Tech, both of which look offensively challenged.
Schiano also has given Michigan some scares in recent memory.
The 2020 game went to triple overtime, and Rutgers had the ball with a chance to tie in the final minutes of 2021’s game at Michigan Stadium. Last year Rutgers led Michigan by a field goal at the half before the Wolverines embarked on a 38-0 dismantling in the second half.
Why Michigan should be fine
Rutgers can only move the ball by bullying teams, and that formula doesn’t seem likely to work against the Wolverines. Scarlet Knights quarterback Gavin Wimsatt doesn’t make mistakes, but he’s also averaging 135.7 passing yards per game with a 51.5% completion percentage.
Michigan has the defensive personnel to get away with daring Wimsatt to beat them with his arm.
No. 7 Penn State
Threat Level: Moderate
Beating No. 24 Iowa at home
Why there’s danger
Nothing is ever truly safe against Iowa’s defense, which often seems like a more potent scoring threat than Iowa’s offense.
The Nittany Lions learned that the hard way the last time they faced the Hawkeyes, committing 4 turnovers in a nightmare 23-20 loss at Kinnick Stadium in 2021. Penn State lost starting quarterback Sean Clifford to injury in that game, and backup Ta’Quan Roberson was decidedly overmatched.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz knows how to prepare his team for games in Happy Valley, too. Ferentz is 5-3 all-time at Beaver Stadium, including a win in a 2009 White Out game.
Why Penn State should be fine
Drew Allar has shown he can avoid throwing gas on the fire in his young career. Through 3 games, he is 1 of 2 Big Ten starters who have not thrown an interception. (Rutgers’ Wimsatt is the other.)
If Allar can keep doing what he’s been doing, it takes away Iowa’s biggest strength.
The Hawkeyes have also been so-so against the run so far, ranking 55th nationally. Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen could potentially remove some pressure from Allar’s shoulders.
And then there’s Iowa’s offense, which is once again a Brian Ferentz joint.
The Hawkeyes are 12th in the B1G in yards per play, mostly because quarterback Cade McNamara is riding the struggle bus. The Michigan transfer is 11th in the B1G in completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating.
Put that into a White Out blender, and mistakes seem destined to be made.
Threat Level: Very High
The Threat: Winning at No. 9 Notre Dame
Why there’s danger
It’s a road game at a top 10 opponent. By their very nature, these are the toughest assignments in the book.
Ryan Day is 1-1 on the road against Top 10 foes, splitting with Michigan in 2019 and 2021.
The Fighting Irish are currently 9th in points scored and 14th in points allowed, but NC State is their only opponent of note through 4 games. It’s hard to get a read on where Notre Dame actually stands until Saturday night.
One certainty — Notre Dame’s offense is better equipped to beat the Buckeyes than it was a year ago thanks to the arrival of Wake Forest transfer Sam Hartman. Hartman is off to a red-hot start with 13 touchdown passes and no interceptions. He’s also averaging 11.8 yards per attempt, which is tied for 4th nationally with Washington’s Michael Penix Jr.
This will be the biggest test for Ohio State’s secondary until at least the Penn State game on Oct. 21.
Why Ohio State should be fine
Indiana has beaten Ohio State more recently than Notre Dame.
OK, so it helps that the Buckeyes and Fighting Irish have only played 5 times since Notre Dame’s most recent win in the series in 1936. But this has been a surprisingly lopsided pairing of college football bluebloods. Each of Ohio State’s 5 straight wins over the Irish have come by double figures.
There would also be more to worry about if this was Ohio State’s first road game of the year, but that test was already passed in the season opener at Indiana.
This is unquestionably the toughest draw for a Big Ten East contender in Week 4. But the Buckeyes are also 3.5-point road favorites for good reason. They are capable of surviving this road challenge.