Week 7 B1G Primer: Even without a clear path to the CFP, Indiana and Wisconsin matter to the Big Ten
Everything you need to know about this weekend’s B1G slate.
Game of the week: No. 12 Indiana at No. 16 Wisconsin (-14)
While Indiana (4-1) is very much alive in the Big Ten race and has a real chance to win its first Big Ten title since 1967, this game actually has no bearing on it. It’s all about whether Ohio State will be able to play this week (because of its own COVID issues) or next week (because of Michigan’s COVID issues). If either game is canceled, Indiana is in, even if it loses its next 2. Maryland, the only team that could’ve caught Indiana, won’t meet the 6-game minimum either.
The real stakes are the College Football Playoff rankings and the Big Ten’s place in it. While Indiana isn’t going to climb into the top 4, it can help out Ohio State by continuing to win. The Hoosiers are Ohio State’s only quality win (the Buckeyes’ 3 other opponents are a combined 4-13). Indiana also has a chance at reaching a New Year’s Six bowl, and a win over the Badgers (a team viewed favorably by the Selection Committee despite playing just 3 games) would give the Hoosiers (and Ohio State) a nice boost.
The same logic applies to Wisconsin (2-1). Obviously the Badgers aren’t going to the CFP, but they have the potential to climb the rankings the next 2 weeks with games against No. 12 Indiana and No. 19 Iowa. If the Big Ten doesn’t amend its minimum-games requirement, Ohio State needs a quality opponent in the second-place game, and Wisconsin could be that.
Here’s what isn’t on the line: Indiana’s reputation. At the bare minimum, Indiana has a built-in excuse after Michael Penix Jr. suffered a season-ending injury for the third year in a row. If this season goes off the rails for the Hoosiers (which I doubt, considering how good the rest of the team has played), they can point to their QB getting hurt as the reason. They will have real momentum going forward, regardless of what happens the rest of 2020. With their QB, they were a legit top-15 team in the country. That’s what people will remember, and that’s how Tom Allen can continue selling the program. Indiana can build even more momentum if it can win without its QB.
The stat: 233.3
That’s how many yards Wisconsin is allowing per game, which leads the country. Granted, the Badgers have only played 3 games, but this isn’t exactly surprising considering they have finished outside the top 10 in total defense just once since 2013. The Badgers returned 9 starters on a defense that ranked 4th nationally in 2019.
The big question: How does Indiana respond to losing its starting QB?
It feels a little weird to say this, but I’m cautiously optimistic that Indiana won’t take a big step back. It’ll obviously be a bit of a challenge without Penix, especially initially and against a defense of this caliber, but Indiana hasn’t exactly been living and dying with QB play.
Penix played a near-perfect game against Ohio State and he had a big finish against Penn State, but aside from that, he’s been very average. In fact, he’s probably been below average. Before he got hurt on Saturday against Maryland, he was 2 of 15 passing for 37 yards in the first half, and he finished just 6 of 19. Penix, for all the praise heaped on him, ranks 59th nationally out of the 100 qualified passers in terms of QBR. While PFF has him at No. 20 in its grading system, this is not like Ohio State losing Justin Fields or Florida losing Kyle Trask. (Side note: Can you imagine if Fields or Trask went 6 of 19 in a game? The criticism would be intense, and rightfully so.) It goes without saying, though, that it’s a shame that Penix doesn’t get to see this through. While he has struggled at times, he also clearly has that intangible quality of elevating his teammates in big moments.
In Penix’s stead, former 4-star recruit Jack Tuttle gets his turn in the spotlight. Tuttle was the No. 8 pro-style QB in the 2018 class, 13 spots ahead of Penix. Tuttle started his career at Utah, but this is his second season at Indiana, where he has only attempted 16 passes. Can he provide the same sort of lift that Peyton Ramsey provided off the bench last season?
Indiana’s inability to run the ball is concerning, especially considering it is going against the No. 1 rush defense in the Big Ten. That puts a ton of pressure on Tuttle, and since there are too many unknowns with Tuttle, Wisconsin should win a close one.
Wisconsin 21, Indiana 17
Ohio State (-24) at Michigan State
Ohio State (4-0) has resumed football activities and as of this writing on Wednesday, the game at Michigan State (2-3) is still on. The Buckeyes will do everything they can to get this game in so they will still be on track to play in the Big Ten Championship Game. And they will do everything they can to run up the score and impress the Selection Committee.
Even if this game is played, though, no one knows what kind of team Ohio State will have out there. It’s unknown which players tested positive last week and which players were considered close contacts. If the Buckeyes have a bunch of key players out, they could be in for a battle against a team that just beat previously unbeaten Northwestern.
Ohio State 38, Michigan State 27
Nebraska at Purdue (-2)
Both teams thought they would be further along under their respective coaches, as Scott Frost and Jeff Brohm have not lived up to the lofty expectations. The question is, which team is still engaged?
Nebraska, to its credit, gave Iowa a closer battle than yours truly believed it would. The Huskers led by 7 in the third quarter but couldn’t hold the lead as the offense sputtered. Purdue also looked to be in control against Rutgers with a 10-point halftime lead, but it surprisingly fell apart.
Purdue 34, Nebraska 24
Penn State (-10) at Rutgers
Penn State didn’t turn the ball over last week against Michigan, and lo and behold, it won its first game. Let’s see what Keyvone Lee can do for an encore after exploding for 134 yards and a TD on 22 carries. These last 2 games are a great opportunity for Sean Clifford to build some confidence in what has been a very challenging season with new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca.
That said, Rutgers has been anything but a pushover in Greg Schiano’s first season. Think about how close the Scarlet Knights are to being 4-2. If they hold on against Illinois and kick the game-winning field goal against Michigan, they would be squarely in the East race. That’s wild to think about. And as Rutgers showed last week, they can win with or without starting QB Noah Vedral.
Penn State 31, Rutgers 28
Iowa (-13.5) at Illinois
Iowa leads the Big Ten in total point differential, though that’s because it has played 2 more games than Ohio State. Still, the Hawkeyes have really settled in during this 4-game winning streak. They are running the ball well, playing their usual great defense and not making too many mistakes.
Illinois (2-3) is coming off its best game of the season in a rout of Nebraska. I think this could be a sneaky close game if Illinois can force Spencer Petras into a few turnovers.
Iowa 27, Illinois 24
Week 6 record: 3-2 straight-up / 3-2 vs. spread
Season record: 18-18 straight-up / 16-20 vs. spread