Week 4 B1G Primer: Northwestern and Purdue meet in a West showdown, just as we all thought
Everything you need to know about this weekend’s B1G slate.
Game of the Week: No. 23 Northwestern (-3) at Purdue
The winner is squarely in the conversation to win the West and represent the Big Ten in the conference title game. The loser is kicking itself for blowing a huge opportunity.
The top 3 teams in the West in the preseason were perceived to be Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. And Nebraska would have been next because, someday, its win-loss record has to reflect its recruiting ranking. Right? But instead it’s been Purdue and Northwestern off to hot starts while Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska have stumbled.
A win for Purdue would be particularly significant, as it will not play Wisconsin this season after their game last week was canceled due to the Badgers’ COVID outbreak. Suddenly, this looks like the toughest game left on Purdue’s schedule, along with the annual rivalry contest with Indiana to close the season.
The stat: Northwestern has yet to allow a point in the second half
Pick any defensive statistic you want for Northwestern, but the bottom line is this: the Wildcats have been terrific on that side of the ball. Excluding Wisconsin since it has only played 1 game, Northwestern ranks atop the B1G in total defense, passing defense and scoring defense. Northwestern leads the country with 2.7 interceptions per game. The only area in which the Wildcats have remotely struggled is on the ground, giving up 4.24 yards per carry (only ninth in the Big Ten). That Maryland offense generating all that buzz the last 2 weeks had just 3 points and 207 total yards against Northwestern in the opener.
Northwestern surely has benefitted from playing Maryland QB Taulia Tagovailoa and Iowa QB Spencer Petras this early in the season, as they were making their first and second career starts, respectively. Nebraska can’t use that excuse, though, as Adrian Martinez is in his third year as the starter. Northwestern forced Scott Frost’s hand in the second half as Martinez was benched after completing only 12 of 27 passes for a dismal 4.6 yards per attempt.
While one storyline of this game is Northwestern’s improved offense against Purdue’s improved defense, I’m more interested in the true strength-on-strength matchup: Purdue’s high-volume passing attack against Northwestern’s tight pass defense. Purdue leads the B1G in passing attempts per game (42.5), which is nothing new as it has been in the top 3 in the league in pass attempts every season since 2012. Aidan O’Connell, a former walk-on, won the job in the preseason over the more-heavily recruited Jack Plummer, and he’s been very good thus far — particularly in leading a game-winning drive against Iowa in the opener.
The big question: Can Purdue pull out another game without Rondale Moore?
One of the most bizarre storylines in college football this season is that of Rondale Moore. The potential 1st-round pick originally opted out of this season due to COVID concerns so he could focus on the NFL Draft. But he opted back in when the Big Ten returned, to the delight of college football fans everywhere. The 5-foot-9 dynamo is a one-man wrecking crew.
But Moore has yet to play this season and is unlikely to do so this weekend. It isn’t COVID-related, as he has been on the sidelines for both of Purdue’s games. It’s possible that he is working out an eligibility issue with the NCAA, and Purdue is waiting for that to be resolved. Purdue coach Jeff Brohm won’t divulge any information on Moore’s status.
In his absence, David Bell has ascended into a star. He leads the country with 11 receptions per game and is ninth with 121.5 receiving yards per game. He has 5 straight games with over 100 yards. What more can you want in a wideout?
DAVID BELL CALLED GAME! 🔔
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) October 31, 2020
That’s why it’s a little frustrating that fans have been robbed of the chance to see Moore and Bell play together. After Moore’s breakout freshman season, he got hurt in the fourth game of last season and hasn’t played since. That opened the door for Bell, who earned Freshman All-America honors. Defenses have a hard enough time covering Bell and Moore when they are by themselves. With both in the lineup, good luck.
It’s the age-old question: Does good offense beat good defense? Or vice versa.
For as great as Northwestern’s defense has played, its offense has not performed at the same level — though if Northwestern continues to stop opponents at the same rate, its offense can afford a few imperfections. The Wildcats thus far have put forth an average offensive attack by Big Ten standards. That said, it’s a marked improvement from last season (anything would’ve been). It’s fair to reason that Northwestern, with a graduate transfer at QB (Peyton Ramsey) and a new offensive coordinator, will improve on that side of the ball with time. Will that be this week? Perhaps.
Purdue, with its game against Wisconsin last week canceled, comes into this game fresh — and, conceivably, well prepared. With or without Rondale Moore, the Boilermakers should have the best player in the game, David Bell, who doesn’t have to be open to make a great play. If this is the week Moore returns, all the better. Even without him, I give a slight advantage to the team coming off a bye, playing at home and that has a QB playing at a higher level.
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Purdue 24, Northwestern 17
Iowa (-3.5) at Minnesota
Both of these teams were ranked in the preseason AP poll, both lost their first 2 games and both won last week.
It comes down to this: No B1G team runs the ball more effectively than Minnesota, and no B1G team has been more effective at stopping the run than Iowa. The Golden Gophers count on Mohamed Ibrahim to the tune of 32.3 carries per game. When UCF’s Kevin Smith set the single-season record for rushing attempts in a season (450), he averaged 32.1 carries per game. How long can Ibrahim continue on this ridiculous pace? Iowa, which is allowing just 2.6 yards per carry this season and has kept opposing offenses to less than 300 yards in back-to-back weeks, will be a great test for Minnesota’s philosophy of hammering the ground game.
The area where Iowa may have a huge advantage is with its own ground game. Minnesota has been abysmal against the run, allowing over 7.3 yards per rush. Tyler Goodson could be in for another huge game.
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Iowa 27, Minnesota 21
Illinois at Rutgers (-6.5)
Before this season, I didn’t anticipate Rutgers (1-2) being favored in any games, but here we are. Rutgers has been terrific against the run, allowing just 3.1 yards per attempt (second in the Big Ten) and awful against the pass, allowing 290 yards per game (worst in the Big Ten). It’s not yet known which QB will play for Illinois (0-3), but if it is Coran Taylor, who was just 6-of-17 passing last week, Rutgers stands an excellent chance of picking up another win.
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Rutgers 31, Illinois 17
Penn State (-3.5) at Nebraska
Which storied, yet underachieving, program will turn its season around? The answer to that is probably best answered with another question. Which team will solve its QB problem?
I wrote more extensively on why the Glory Days Bowl is heavier on hype than substance, but here’s a quick synopsis: Penn State (0-3) and Nebraska (0-2) desperately need this game to show their fan base and recruits that they are in fact building towards something — even if this game won’t necessarily prove much of anything since both teams have struggled so far this season.
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Penn State 28, Nebraska 20
No. 10 Indiana (-7.5) at Michigan State
This is Indiana’s first game as a top-10 team since 1969. The goal for the Hoosiers (3-0) is to get in and out without sustaining any injuries and without showing too much. That’s because next week, Indiana plays at Ohio State in what could be the biggest game in program history.
That said, Indiana still wants to play well. Oddly enough, the Hoosiers are 13th in the Big Ten in total offense and are averaging only 4.7 yards per play — below Michigan State and Northwestern. I did not see that coming.
It’s hard to guess as to what sort of effort to expect from Michigan State (1-2), which looked terrific against rival Michigan but less than stellar against Rutgers and Iowa.
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Indiana 34, Michigan State 17
No. 13 Wisconsin (-4) at Michigan
No one knows for sure what kind of performance to expect from Wisconsin (1-0) after 2 weeks off. If all things were equal and rust were not a possibility, the spread would probably be much higher than 4 points because of how great the Badgers looked in the opener and how not great the Wolverines (1-2) have looked the last 2 weeks.
If star freshman Graham Mertz, who tossed 5 TD passes in his first career start against Illinois, is cleared to play after recovering from COVID, the Badgers should be able to pick apart a weak Michigan secondary. If Mertz is not cleared, all bets are off and suddenly Michigan has a much better chance. By the way, the Wolverines can’t play this bad forever, right? Eventually, they will turn this around — just not this week.
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Wisconsin 35, Michigan 24
Week 3 record 3-3 straight-up / 2-4 vs. spread
Season record: 9-10 straight-up / 7-12 vs. spread