Making 1 bold prediction for every Big Ten defense in 2022
This week, we venture into the unknown.
Last week we offered 1 bold prediction for every Big Ten offense in 2022. And to be frank, it wasn’t all that difficult. There are known playmakers returning for every team, and there could be as few as 3 teams with new quarterbacks.
That’s a lot of continuity.
It’s a different story on defense, where a talented crop of players will be in the NFL next season. Ten B1G defensive players were drafted in the first 3 rounds this year. Only 2 first-team All-B1G defensive selections are back, and both are Iowa Hawkeyes. (Foreshadowing alert.)
That being the case, our bold predictions for defense are more likely to be off the mark. But that also makes them bolder. So here we go.
Illinois: Big Ten’s best red-zone defense
The Fighting Illini lost their best player on either side of the ball in safety Kerby Joseph, and linebacker Owen Carney left behind a void as well.
But in terms of red-zone touchdown percentage, Illinois was 3rd in the Big Ten last season behind Penn State and Michigan, and just ahead of Wisconsin. Opponents scored touchdowns on 46.5% of possessions inside the 20 against the Illini last year.
The other 3 defenses with touchdown percentages below 47% all lost more talent than Illinois. So expect to see kickers frequently when opponents are inside the 20 against the Illini.
Indiana: 20-plus takeaways
The ballhawks will be back in Bloomington.
Last year was a disaster on every level for the Hoosiers. Most of the focus was rightfully on an offense that fell off by 11 points per game, but injuries also caused a massive defensive regression.
Indiana led the Big Ten with 20 takeaways in an 8-game schedule in 2020. That number dipped all the way to 9 in a full 12-game campaign in 2021, sending the Hoosiers from first to worst in a year. Only 3 teams in the country created fewer turnovers.
Buoyed by a healthy Tiawan Mullen, the Hoosiers will get back up to 20 takeaways in 2022.
Iowa: Pick-6 streak lives for B1G’s best defense
Just 1 prediction isn’t good enough for Iowa’s defense in the coming season.
Item 1: the Hawkeyes have returned an interception for a touchdown in 12 consecutive seasons. Even though 13 seems like a number where such a streak might be snapped, I say it keeps rolling — mostly because ballhawks Riley Moss and Jack Campbell are back.
Iowa also will boast the Big Ten’s top scoring defense in 2022. Despite 31 takeaways, the Hawkeyes actually regressed in that department last year. After 3 consecutive seasons as the B1G’s No. 2 scoring defense, Iowa slipped to 5th last season.
Thanks in part to a lack of explosive offenses in the B1G West, I believe Phil Parker’s defense will claim the top spot.
Maryland: Solid front forces more turnovers
By definition, predicting any positive outcome for Maryland’s defense qualifies as bold. The Terps have never finished in the top half of the B1G in scoring defense since joining the conference in 2014.
But anchors Greg China-Rose and Ami Finau are back up front, and West Virginia transfer VanDarius Cowan can get into the backfield. The Terps will create enough pressure to improve after back-to-back seasons finishing 13th in the Big Ten in takeaways.
Michigan: 25 sacks or fewer
You might think this prediction qualifies as a no-brainer after losing a combined 25 sacks from Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo to the NFL Draft.
But no matter who is in the lineup, the Wolverines typically find a way to bring down the quarterback. Michigan has had 25 sacks or more every season since 2013.
They’ll have no more than 25 in 2022. Defensive end Taylor Upshaw is the team’s top returning sacker with 2.5 last season. And even if he has a big leap, it’s unknown where the rest of the production will come from.
Michigan State: 15-plus interceptions
No team in the country allowed more passing yards than the Spartans in 2021, so opponents will come out slinging in ’22.
I think Mel Tucker’s defense will capitalize on that aggressiveness and pick off 15 passes for the first time since 2015. The Spartans made an unusual move in hiring a full-time pass-rushing specialist to their coaching staff this offseason. It will pay off in the form of increased pressure, which will in turn create more turnovers.
Minnesota: 150-plus rushing yards allowed per game
Alas, not every bold prediction can be positive.
Minnesota’s defense was 1 of the Big Ten’s most pleasant surprises in 2021, finishing 2nd in the league in scoring defense (17.3 ppg), total defense (278.8 ypg), pass defense (181.2 ypg) and rush defense (97.5 ypg).
That will be impossible to replicate — particularly the latter category. Starting defensive ends Boye Mafe and Esezi Otomewo were drafted, and 2 of the 3 defensive tackles the Gophers relied on in their rotation also graduated.
I think the Gophers will allow at least 150 ypg on the ground. It won’t be as bad as 2020, when teams averaged 207.7 per game. But the run defense won’t be the strength it was last season.
Nebraska: 2 of Big Ten’s top 5 in sacks
Nebraska will have the Big Ten defense with a Hutchinson-Ojabo dynamic in 2022.
TCU transfer defensive end Ochaun Mathis was 2nd in the Big 12 in sacks in 2020. Outside linebacker Garrett Nelson had 11.5 tackles for loss and 5 sacks for the Cornhuskers last season.
I think both players will be among the Big Ten’s top 5 sack leaders.
Northwestern: Bryce Gallagher becomes All-B1G LB
This prediction is akin to Michigan State’s increased interception total — repetition will provide opportunity. And Bryce Gallagher is good enough to capitalize on those opportunities.
The Wildcats had the Big Ten’s worst rush defense in 2021 — by nearly 500 yards. And that was with 1 fewer game played than the other 3 defenses that surrendered more than 2,000 rushing yards. Pretty brutal.
Gallagher was 2nd on Northwestern with 89 tackles as a sophomore, and with opponents likely to attack the Cats on the ground again, that total should grow well over 100 this year. An all-B1G season is in the making.
Ohio State: Buckeyes get 45 sacks
An ambitious mark, as no Big Ten team reached 45 sacks a year ago. But there are several reasons I think the Buckeyes will get there.
Foremost is the number of games. Ohio State should play at least 14 of them, as the Big Ten championship game and a CFP bid are quite likely.
And then there’s the Jim Knowles factor. Knowles’ Oklahoma State defense had a whopping 56 sacks last year. In 2020, the Cowboys finished 2nd in the Big 12 with 33 sacks in 11 games. Ohio State had 36 sacks in 13 games last season.
Because the Buckeyes will be leading a lot, opponents will be forced to pass more. Expect Ohio State to take advantage.
Penn State: Lead B1G in pass defense
This is hardly a stretch.
The Nittany Lions were near the top in multiple categories pass defense last season. They were 3rd in yards per game (199.2), 2nd in fewest touchdowns allowed (11) and 3rd in interceptions (14).
It’ll be tough to top Iowa in interceptions, but Penn State will be the league leader in fewest passing yards allowed. New defensive coordinator Manny Diaz will create more pressure up front, which in turn will help the secondary. And it’s going to be a good one. Safety Ji’Ayir Brown and cornerback Joey Porter Jr. both have a shot to be taken in the first 2 rounds of next year’s draft.
Purdue: Worst pass defense in the West
The 2021 Music City Bowl felt like a pretty apt preview of what we’ll see from the Boilermakers in 2022 — an extremely explosive offense that will absolutely be needed. Because Purdue’s pass defense is going to be a liability.
Cracks were already showing last season, when the Boilers were 13th in the league in allowing 23 receptions of more than 30 yards. They also tied for last in allowing 12 pass plays of more than 40 yards.
Without George Karlaftis creating pressure, opponents will feel even more emboldened to take deep shots.
Michigan State still finished in the top 10 last season despite the nation’s worst pass defense, so Purdue can still have a very good season. But in a Big Ten West that’s pretty stout defensively, this group will stand out in a bad way.
Rutgers: Big Ten’s worst defense
Someone has to be at the the bottom, and it’s going to be the Scarlet Knights.
Rutgers was 10th in scoring defense (25.6 ppg), 13th in rush defense (161 ypg) and 10th in pass defense (234.9 ypg) a year ago. But with the number of big plays the Scarlet Knights surrendered, they’re fortunate those numbers weren’t worse. And I think they will be this year.
Rutgers allowed 71 plays of more than 20 yards, 17 plays of more than 40 yards, 12 plays of more than 50 yards and 8 plays of more than 60 yards — all the worst totals in the Big Ten. Big plays portend big problems, whether in talent, scheme or communication. And this is nothing new.
Rutgers has allowed the most plays of more than 30 yards in the Big Ten for 3 years running. This year, it will show up on the scoreboard.
Wisconsin: Nick Herbig will lead B1G in sacks
This actually is going out on a limb. With Leo Chenal, Jack Sanborn and Matt Henningsen all gone, opposing blockers will be able to hone in on Herbig. It’s reasonable to expect that he’ll regress from last season’s totals of 9 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss.
But I’m a Herbig believer, and think he’ll elevate his game. After finishing 4th in the Big Ten in sacks this season, Herbig will end up on top of the heap this year. And that means he’ll also be a solid candidate for Big Ten defensive player of the year.