B1G Monday Morning: An interesting week awaits Ohio State after its statement win
The most perplexing question in college football for over a week has been whether Ohio State can make up for its lack of games and reach the College Football Playoff. Now that the Buckeyes emphatically answered that with a resounding “YES!”, we turn to a more pressing question: What the heck is the Big Ten going to do about Ohio State this week?
The Buckeyes’ game with Michigan (which canceled its matchup with Maryland due to a rise in positive COVID tests) is on tenuous ground at best. Ohio State, which itself was missing 23 players during its 52-12 beatdown of Michigan State, needs another game to be eligible for the Big Ten Championship. If Michigan can’t play, what will the Big Ten do? The Big Ten could …
1) Find the Buckeyes another game. If Minnesota, for example, is still experiencing a COVID outbreak, then Ohio State could play Nebraska (Minnesota’s opponent) again. It’s not ideal since the Buckeyes and Huskers opened the season against one another, but another game is another game. As BYU and Coastal Carolina proved to everyone, there doesn’t need to be 10 years notice to schedule these games; it can actually happen in a day or two.
2) Eliminate the minimum-games rule. Indiana is a great story—maybe the best in college football. But the Hoosiers don’t belong in the Big Ten Championship Game over Ohio State, not when the Buckeyes beat them already. Barry Alvarez hinted at the possibility of not requiring 6 games to get into the conference championship game, but I’m guessing the Big Ten was hesitant to take action on this last week because there is a chance that it could’ve come back to bite them. Let’s say Wisconsin would’ve won against Indiana and next week, while Northwestern lost to Illinois, then a 4-1 Wisconsin team that lost to 5-2 Northwestern would’ve won the West. But since that’s not a possibility anymore, maybe the Big Ten will consider this if it looks like Michigan won’t be able to play. Remember, Ohio State doesn’t even have to win next week to get into the conference title game, it just has to play.
3) Move up the Big Ten Championship Game to Dec. 12. This is a long shot, but we know it should be Ohio State vs. Northwestern, so why wait? Then, these teams could still play another game during Champions Week. For example, Ohio State could just play Michigan on Dec. 19, and Northwestern could play Illinois that week. Per an Athletic report, it appears the Big Ten is already considering deviating from its original plan of East vs. West for games like Minnesota-Wisconsin, so why not take it one step further?
4) Let Ohio State go outside of the conference. This would upset the Nebraska faithful, and understandably so. The Huskers had the right idea 2 months ago when they tried to schedule UT-Chatanooga after Wisconsin was unable to play, but the B1G stonewalled them. If there isn’t another B1G team available this week, why not mix and match with another Power 5 conference?
5) Do nothing. This is the most likely outcome, because this is the Big Ten we’re talking about. It’s risky to not act, though, because a legitimate national title contender won’t be competing for its own conference title and will even more so be at the mercy of the Selection Committee. Ohio State is clearly 1 of the 4 best teams in college football, but if it is playing 5 (!!!) fewer games than its counterparts in the ACC and SEC, that could be a factor, as Committee Chair Gary Barta has suggested.
The Big Ten is probably thinking about the implications of setting a precedent where it is openly manipulating the schedule to benefit a member school (even though that member stands to make the league a lot of money). And that would understandably upset people, at least in the short term. But think of the bigger picture. Future recruits who will consider a B1G school need to know this league will maximize their opportunities, not hamstring them. Isn’t that a great selling point? Adjusting the schedule during a pandemic isn’t exactly unprecedented; look at what the ACC did in canceling a game for Notre Dame and Clemson on Dec. 12 so both are well-rested for the title game.
The early reports out of Michigan this week will be revealing. The Big Ten should press Michigan for an answer by Tuesday at the latest, and then make a decision from there. At this point, if the Big Ten isn’t at least discussing these contingency plans to protect Ohio State, then it is being negligent.
The Big Ten hasn’t served its members well this season, and now would be a good time to start.
As for the game itself …
No. 4 Ohio State 52, Michigan State 12. Dan Orlovsky, broadcasting the game for ESPN, called this “the most important game of (Justin Fields’) career” coming off a 3-INT performance against Indiana. Citing the opinions of several NFL general managers, Orlovsky continued, “I’m not alone in my thoughts.” GMs, he said, wanted to see Fields’ mental resilience. “They said, ‘It’s a big deal. Because of that uncharacteristic football and those NFL style of defenses when it comes to schematics.’ Some of the reservations about Justin as a player showed up in that game. They want to see the mental resilience. This is the first time he’s struggled in college. Show me that you can bounce back from a bad performance, because that’s part of playing quarterback in the NFL.”
Orlovsky isn’t necessarily wrong. The next game is always the most important. But for a guy who has played in the Big Ten Championship Game and the College Football Playoff, looking back at a regular season game against a below-average Michigan State team won’t rate. But if there really is some skepticism among NFL decision-makers regarding Fields, he did about as much as any one player could have in obliterating a Spartans team that had just dealt Northwestern its first loss.
Playing without 3 starting offensive linemen, Fields was super-human in throwing for 199 yards and 2 TDs while running for 104 and 2 more scores. A lesser player would’ve allowed the game — and Ohio State’s CFP hopes — to slip away. On the first drive alone, there were 8 snaps that were off-target. On several, all Fields could do was reach an arm out just to keep it from scuttling past. Starting center Josh Myers, left tackle Thayer Munford and right tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere (plus backup Paris Johnson) all sat out due to COVID. That moved left guard Harry Miller to center, and he struggled mightily before settling in. Only right guard Wyatt Davis played in his normal spot.
The makeshift line of left tackle Dawand Jones, left guard Matthew Jones and right tackle Max Wray — all of whom hadn’t played a snap this season, according to Pro Football Focus, and were making their first career starts — helped pave the way for the Buckeyes to rush for 322 yards, their highest total in the last 10 games. Some of that was Fields’ brilliance, as he turned what would’ve been negative plays for most QBs into chunk gains. Some of it was the powerful running of Master Teague, and the elusiveness of Trey Sermon that fans have been waiting for. And some of it was a group of 4-star and 5-star players who have been waiting for their chance to show what they can do.
Ohio State usually has so much margin for error because it is abundantly more talented than every other B1G team, and make no mistake, its backups, like former 5-star recruit Justin Hilliard at linebacker, still are more talented than just about every Big Ten team’s starters (just less experienced). But this game was about more than that, and Ohio State said as much, sharing Tommy Togiai’s quote that “this game is gonna tell us what kind of team we got” on its official Twitter account. Indeed, it was quite revealing as Ohio State outgained Michigan State 521-261.
Making a statement, as Ohio State did, while short-handed isn’t easy. Unfortunately what happens next may be out of the Buckeyes’ control.
It’s not all about the Playoff
No. 19 Iowa 35, Illinois 21. There certainly was some truth to Kirk Herbstreit’s less controversial comments from this week, that he’s unsure of the direction of a sport that appears to be solely dominated by CFP talk. And considering a great chunk of this column is related to that, I’m certainly not innocent.
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That’s why there is something to be said for what Iowa has accomplished. In a world where it seems like all that matters is whether you make the CFP, Iowa is a nice example that that isn’t always necessarily true. After losing 2 games by a combined 5 points to open the season, the Hawkeyes could’ve folded, like Penn State and Michigan. Instead, Iowa has ripped off 5 straight wins. That’s a welcome development in a conference that has just 4 teams above .500 and 10 teams with just 2 wins. The Big Ten badly needs teams like Northwestern, Iowa and Indiana to step up and continue winning to help elevate this year’s contender, Ohio State. And Iowa has done exactly that.
While there have been plenty of players to opt out during the season—Purdue just announced 5 opt-outs—Iowa’s core has remained intact. Center Tyler Linderbaum is PFF’s No. 1-graded center, and left tackle Alaric Jackson will likely be picked in the first few rounds, so the Hawkeyes have guys who could be thinking about going on to the next level. Yet the Hawkeyes have the top offensive line in the Big Ten, according to PFF, which is a testament to the way they’ve stayed together — especially without much of a passing attack.
The comeback win at Illinois was a testament to Kirk Ferentz’s patience. As calls to bench Spencer Petras have grown louder in the last few weeks, he has stuck with the first-year starting QB, despite a mountain of evidence that he is holding Iowa back. Trailing 14-0, Ferentz didn’t pull Petras, who responded with the best game of his career: 18 of 28 passing for 220 yards, 3 TDs and no INTs. It was Petras’s first game with multiple TD passes and the most yards he has thrown for since his season opener.
Progress for the Nebraska offense
Nebraska 37, Purdue 27. Nebraska has fielded one of the most frustrating offenses in college football. It can’t decide what to do with its QBs, it can’t decide what to do with its center and it makes silly excuses like the opposing sideline clapping.
But dare I say it, Nebraska (2-4) is starting to come around. And before you shrug off Saturday’s victory as just beating Purdue, that defense has been better than you’d think, as it is middle of the pack in the Big Ten in most categories. Nebraska had 27 points by midway through the second quarter, which would’ve ranked as their second-highest scoring game of the season. It went on to finish with a season high.
Wan’Dale Robinson, who is Nebraska’s Swiss Army Knife, told the media that the execution has felt more crisp the past 2 weeks because of improved chemistry and preparation. Maybe that’s because Nebraska just let Adrian Martinez play, instead of rotating Luke McCaffrey in and out. I don’t think the answer is forgetting about McCaffrey, either, because he is very talented. But the QB rotation wasn’t working.
Look at plays like this, where Nebraska switched the play at the line of scrimmage to get a mismatch on the other side of the field. Wyatt Liewer had no trouble rumbling into the end zone. It was one of my favorite plays of the day.
#Huskers used this trade to get the numbers they wanted — 2 defenders over 3 — to make it easy for Wyatt Liewer. pic.twitter.com/NuqtyLltoC
— Parker Gabriel (@HuskerExtraPG) December 6, 2020
I realize there are other college teams that could pull this off, but when Nebraska routinely calls QB draws on 3rd-and-10 because that is all it is really good at, this is significant progress.
1. Justin Fields (Ohio State)
Fields bounced back from the worst performance of his career with 4 total TDs, elevating an Ohio State team that was without 23 players. But it was the plays that don’t show up in the box score that make Fields special. Like how he led a TD drive on Ohio State’s opening possession despite snaps going everywhere but to his hands. Or the way he sprinted to throw the final block on this long TD run from Trey Sermon. Fields is a special player, and you knew he would respond well to his first “bad” game.
Ohio State blocks this up perfectly and it's probably a touchdown anyways, but watch Justin Fields *sprint* down the field to make a block to ensure the score. Love that mentality from him. pic.twitter.com/u08TkkNrPp
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) December 5, 2020
2. Spencer Petras (Iowa)
Boy, Petras absolutely needed a game like this in the worst way. He threw for 220 and 3 TDs with no INTs, rallying Iowa from a 14-0 deficit. Hopefully this helps his confidence, because Iowa has a ton of pieces around him.
What a throw by @spencerpetras 🎯
This game has been all @HawkeyeFootball in the second half pic.twitter.com/pyuGmVEzNA
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) December 5, 2020
3. Tiawan Mullen (Indiana)
Mullen made one of the best plays of the day, sacking Graham Mertz and forcing a fumble. This Indiana defense continues to make plays, and it is a prime reason the Hoosiers are 6-1.
Tiawan Mullen with a powerful hit to dislodge the ball from Mertz pic.twitter.com/Z89pMKd8BC
— Billy M (@BillyM_91) December 5, 2020
4. Adrian Martinez (Nebraska)
Martinez did a ton of damage — with his arm. The junior QB was 23-of-30 for 242 yards and a TD, adding 2 rushing scores as well. It was the most passing yards for Martinez in his last 8 games, the last time he played Purdue. Martinez has completed 92 percent of his passes over the last 2 weeks and looks to have re-solidified himself as the starter. If Martinez can keep throwing the ball this well, combined with his scrambling ability (see below), he won’t get benched again.
Adrian Martinez scrambles for a 13 yard TD to extend the Nebraska (+1) lead to 14-0
— Bet The Pigskin (@betthepigskin) December 5, 2020
5. Haskell Garrett (Ohio State)
The senior defensive tackle made the defensive play of the day, batting a pass to himself for an interception in the end zone. Haskell has overcome a lot to even be on the field, as he was shot in the offseason while breaking up a fight. His only bad play Saturday was accidentally landing on teammate Shaun Wade, who later returned to the game.
Haskell Garrett BIG MAN TD
— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 5, 2020
Honorable mention: Jamar Johnson (Indiana), Ihmir Smith-Marsette (Iowa), Jack Tuttle (Indiana), Wan’Dale Robinson (Nebraska), David Bell (Purdue), Chris Olave (Ohio State), Parker Washington (Penn State), Cam Taylor-Britt (Nebraska), Sam LaPorta (Iowa), Josh Imatorhebhe (Illinois)