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We entered the postponed 2020 Big Ten season thinking that Penn State was going to be Ohio State’s biggest challenger in the East.
It took hours for that notion to get thrown flat on its face.
The No. 8 Nittany Lions lost 36-35 in overtime to Indiana on Saturday afternoon while No. 18 Michigan looked fantastic in a 49-24 win at No. 21 Minnesota.
It was easy to think that Saturday night was going to be a disaster for Michigan. The Wolverines’ opening possession ended with a blocked punt that Minnesota capitalized on with a TD two plays later. But RB Zach Charbonnet quickly tied the game with a 70-yard score and the rout was on from there.
QB Joe Milton was efficient and unspectacular in his first start. Milton was a comfortable 13-of-19 passing for 160 yards and a score. And he didn’t have to be amazing either. Michigan’s running attack was dominant on its own.
The Wolverines averaged over eight yards a carry against a Minnesota defensive front that was breaking in a bunch of new starters. Jim Harbaugh and Josh Gattis clearly saw that as a weakness of the Gopher defense as four different Michigan players scored a touchdown on the ground.
The defense was pretty good, too. DL Donovan Jeter scored a TD on a 24-yard fumble return and shut down every Minnesota player not named Rashod Bateman. While the Gophers’ star had nine catches for 101 yards, everyone else on Minnesota’s roster combined for 96 receiving yards.
It was easy to overlook Michigan in the Big Ten this year because of the team’s track record under Harbaugh, a new QB and four new offensive line starters. The Wolverines haven’t lost fewer than three games in any of his five previous seasons. And with an Ohio State team that Harbaugh has been unable to beat and a top-10 Penn State that had won two of its last three games against Michigan, why was 2020 going to be any different than 2019 or 2018 or 2016?
We still can’t say for sure that it will be. After watching Penn State fumble both literally and mentally against Indiana, there’s a convincing case to be made that Michigan is still the biggest threat to Ohio State on that side of the conference.
In the West, it looks like Wisconsin and everyone else. The Badgers kicked off the Big Ten season on Friday night with a dominating win over Illinois and a passing game that hasn’t been seen in years in Madison.
Redshirt freshman Graham Mertz started in place of the injured Jack Coan and was 20-of-21 passing for 248 yards and five touchdowns. Mertz became the first Wisconsin QB in nearly 17 years to throw for five touchdowns in a single game. Until Friday night, the most recent Badgers QB to throw for a handful of TDs was Jim Sorgi in 2003.
Mertz’s success compensated for a running game that also didn’t resemble its typical Wisconsin self. The Badgers rushed 54 times for just 184 yards and no one had a run longer than 13 yards. The Wisconsin defense, meanwhile, held Illinois to just 218 total yards.
The Badgers now have a one-game lead over Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska, the three teams largely considered to be their biggest threats in the West. In a shortened eight-game season, Week 1 is even more important than usual in the Big Ten title race.
But the talk of Michigan and Wisconsin being serious threats to Ohio State is pretty empty if neither team is capable of beating the Buckeyes. Wisconsin hasn’t beaten Ohio State since 2010. Michigan’s last victory came in 2011. This is a conference that’s still Ohio State’s to lose.
— Nick Bromberg
Here are this week’s winners and losers
Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz: It’s hard to imagine a better performance from Mertz in his first career start. Mertz, the highest-rated quarterback recruit to ever sign with Wisconsin, entered the year as Jack Coan’s backup. But when Coan suffered a serious foot injury in preseason practice, Mertz became QB1. He lived up to his billing in Wisconsin’s season-opening victory over Illinois.
In a 45-7 win, Mertz completed 20-of-21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns. With those numbers, Mertz broke Wisconsin's single-game completion percentage mark (95.2) and tied program records for consecutive completions (17) and TD passes. That’ll do.
Ohio State DL Haskell Garrett: On Aug. 3, Ohio State defensive lineman Haskell Garrett was shot in the face while trying to break up a fight. The bullet went through both of Garrett’s cheeks, yet he miraculously survived. Even more miraculously, Garrett was on the field on Saturday for OSU’s 2020 debut against Nebraska. He made an impact, too. The senior had two tackles, including a tackle for loss, and a sack in OSU’s 52-17 victory.
Indiana: Before Saturday’s dramatic — and controversial — overtime win over Penn State on Saturday, Indiana had not knocked off a top-10 opponent since 1987 when it upset No. 9 Ohio State 31-10 on the road. Since then, IU had lost 42 consecutive games against top-10 opponents according to the Associated Press. And 10 of those losses came in the last four seasons when Tom Allen was either the defensive coordinator or head coach. That’s why Allen was so adamant about going for two in the first overtime. He wanted that win, and to finally get it felt damn good.
Notre Dame: Notre Dame finally got its passing game going. Ian Book had combined for 451 yards and two touchdowns passing in the Irish’s three previous games. In Saturday’s 45-3 road win over Pittsburgh, Book threw for 312 yards and three touchdowns. Ben Skowronek, a transfer from Northwestern, accounted for two of those scores. He caught touchdowns of 34 and 73 yards in the first half to help his team jump out to a big lead it would not relinquish. The third-ranked Irish are now 5-0 with a visit from No. 1 Clemson looming in two weeks. Notre Dame will travel to Georgia Tech next week.
Rutgers: The program’s 21-game Big Ten losing streak was snapped in the first game of Greg Schiano’s second tenure as the head coach at Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights went on the road and upset Michigan State 38-27 on Saturday. Schiano replenished a lackluster roster with transfers, including starting QB Noah Vedral, who arrived at Rutgers via Nebraska (and UCF). Saturday, he threw for 169 yards, rushed for 24 yards and combined for two touchdowns. More importantly, the Rutgers defense forced seven MSU turnovers in the win.
Purdue: Purdue played Saturday’s game without its head coach and best player but still managed to knock off Iowa, 24-20. Boilermakers head coach Jeff Brohm is dealing with COVID-19, so he passed the play-calling reins to his brother Brian. The younger Brohm made sure the ball went to David Bell early and often. Bell, often overshadowed by Rondale Moore, had a huge afternoon. The sophomore caught 13 passes for 121 yards and three touchdowns. His third score came with just 2:15 left in regulation. It proved to be the winning score, capping off a come-from-behind victory.
Oklahoma: Don’t be surprised if Oklahoma is back in the Top 25 next week. After the uncharacteristic 1-2 start, the Sooners have responded with back-to-back wins. The latest was Saturday’s convincing 33-14 road win over TCU. Lincoln Riley took some of the pressure off freshman QB Spencer Rattler in this one. Rattler threw only 22 passes in the game while the Sooners had 45 rushing attempts. Rattler thrived, throwing for 332 yards and two scores. The defense, meanwhile, seems to be developing into a pretty solid unit.
Don’t look now, but the Sooners are quietly still alive in the Big 12 title race, though losses to Kansas State and Iowa State will loom large down the stretch. Oklahoma State improved to 4-0 by beating ISU and is the highest-ranked team in the conference, but the Nov. 21 Bedlam game could play a huge part in the race.
LSU QB TJ Finley: With defending national champion LSU reeling at 1-2 and without starting quarterback Myles Brennan, Ed Orgeron turned to true freshman backup TJ Finley for Saturday’s home game against South Carolina. Finley, a three-star recruit from nearby Ponchatoula, Louisiana, came through in a big way. In a 52-24 win, Finley threw for 265 yards, rushed for 24 yards and accounted for three touchdowns — two passing, one rushing. If Brennan isn’t healthy, Finley will get the nod next weekend on the road against Auburn.
Louisiana: UAB had not lost a single home game since its return in 2017 — until Friday night when UAB’s 21-game home winning streak was snapped by Louisiana. The Ragin’ Cajuns trailed 20-10 late in the third quarter, but came back to win 24-20. Louisiana played the game with the name “Looney” on the nameplate of every player’s uniform to honor assistant coach D.J. Looney, who suddenly died in August. Looney was a native of Birmingham, so to get the win at UAB was especially special for the program.
This 74-yard punt from Rhys Byrns deserves special mention, as it helped flip the field and seal the victory in the final minutes.
Texas Tech P Austin McNamara: Speaking of excellent punts, look at this 87-yarder from Texas Tech’s Austin McNamara! McNamara kicked the ball from just outside his own end zone and the ball landed near the opposite 20-yard line before rolling through the back of the end zone. It traveled more than 110 yards in all. Just a tremendous boot.
Michigan State: Mel Tucker’s debut in East Lansing did not go well. Michigan State opened the year with an absolute dud, losing 38-27 to Rutgers — a team that had lost 21 consecutive Big Ten games. The Michigan State offense performed miserably, turning it over a whopping seven times: five fumbles and two interceptions. The Spartans also turned it over on downs twice while mustering only 50 rushing yards on 39 attempts. That’s 1.3 yards per carry. Again. This was against Rutgers. To make matters worse, MSU has to travel to Ann Arbor to face Michigan next week. That one could get ugly. Very, very ugly.
Florida State: Remember the good vibes for Florida State after last weekend’s big upset over North Carolina? They were short-lived. FSU traveled to Louisville on Saturday and was trounced in a 48-16 loss. The Seminoles had a strong effort against UNC, especially with their ability to generate pressure. Louisville had no issues at all. The Cardinals had 569 yards of offense, and ended up finishing the day averaging 9.3 yards per play. FSU dropped to 2-4 with the loss.
Virginia Tech: Virginia Tech started the year strong, going 3-1 while putting up some eye-popping rushing yards. The Hokies rushed for 210 yards on Saturday against Wake Forest, but were doomed by their passing game in a 23-16 road loss. Hendon Hooker led Tech with 98 rushing yards, but was just 17-of-33 for 223 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions as a passer. The Hokies really struggled on third down, too, converting on just 5-of-16 tries. VT looked like a team that could be in the mix for that No. 3 spot in the conference behind Clemson and Notre Dame. Saturday’s performance was a step backwards.
Kansas’ punting: There’s bad and there’s what went on with Kansas’ punting game on Saturday. The Jayhawks lost 55-14 to Kansas State with the help of a horrid punting game. Three different players — including backup QB Jalon Daniels — punted for Kansas as the Jayhawks had nine punts for 317 yards. Two of those nine punts were returned by K-State’s ace return man Phillip Brooks for TDs. Brooks had a staggering 189 return yards on just four returns. After his second punt return TD, Brooks even had more punt return yardage than Kansas had punt yardage.
Baylor: There’s no shame in Baylor losing 27-16 on the road to Texas but first-year Bears head coach Dave Aranda deserves some legitimate scorn for one decision he made. Aranda punted at the Texas 30-yard line with the game tied 3-3 in the second quarter. Yes, the 30-yard line. It was fourth-and-12, and Aranda apparently did not trust John Mayers to attempt a 48-yard field goal despite the fact that Mayers hit one from 47 against Kansas earlier this season. Baylor could not even pin Texas deep, either. The punt resulted in a touchback. Net yards: 10. Gross.
Maryland: It’s going to be another long year for Mike Locksley’s Maryland program. The Terps were destroyed on the road by Northwestern, 43-3, on Saturday night. Locksley gave Taulia Tagovailoa, the younger brother of Tua who transferred from Alabama, the start at quarterback. He struggled mightily, completing just 14-of-25 passes for 94 yards and three interceptions. The Maryland offense mustered only 171 yards in all.
Defensively, the Terps allowed Northwestern to gain 537 yards. Northwestern’s offense did not reach 43 total points until its seventh Big Ten game in 2019. The Wildcats averaged only 297.1 yards per game last year, too. Northwestern, with Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey at QB, is undoubtedly an improved team. But Maryland might just be really bad.
Kentucky: Kentucky was absolutely dominated by Missouri. In a 20-10 loss, UK had only 145 yards of offense, including a measly 47 passing yards on 4-of-13 attempts. The usually reliable rushing attack was limited to just 98 yards on the afternoon. Why such a rough day? Missouri completely controlled the clock. The Tigers had the ball for a whopping 43:10, compared to just 16:50 for the Wildcats. Time of possession can be an overrated and outdated stat, but it was the difference in this game. Both teams are now 2-3 on the year.
South Florida: Things are going poorly in Tampa. The Bulls dropped to 1-5 on the season as Tulsa won 42-13 on Friday night. USF turned the ball over three times and was just 2-of-15 on third downs to fall to 0-4 in the AAC. After beating The Citadel to open the season, USF has lost those five games by a total of 124 points. And that includes a two-point loss to Temple. Former Clemson offensive coordinator Jeff Scott really has his work cut out for him.
Florida International: Florida International is having a rough year. On the heels of postponing its game at Charlotte because of COVID-19 issues, the Panthers lost on Friday night to Jacksonville State, an FCS team. Final score: 19-10. FIU’s offense struggled mightily, gaining just 156 yards and going 2-of-11 on third down. The Panthers had just six first downs in the loss, which dropped the team to 0-3 on the year. With Butch Davis as head coach, FIU has played in a bowl game in three straight seasons. A fourth straight trip is unlikely.
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