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At the halfway point of the Big Ten schedule, things have started to crystallize.
Michigan football is really bad.
So too is Penn State.
Indiana and Wisconsin, on the other hand, are formidable.
We take a look at the conference’s winners and losers from the weekend:
Winners: Paul Chryst
Wisconsin would have been excused if it underperformed and sputtered like a rusted engine Saturday. After all, the team sat idle the previous two weekends as it dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak that spread to quarterback Graham Mertz and head coach Paul Chryst.
But instead the Badgers resembled a well-oiled machine Saturday during their 49-11 rout of Michigan. Wisconsin ran around and through Michigan — leaning on its old, reliable ground attack as they racked up 341 rushing yards. Its defense, meanwhile, rarely succumbed. The Badgers snagged a pair of interceptions that pushed helped vault Wisconsin into a 14-point lead before they waged a goal-line stand late in the second quarter that doubled as Michigan’s coup de grace.
Credit goes to Chryst, who may be the best coach in the Big Ten not named Ryan Day. Each year, Wisconsin plays above its talent level and performs with precision. This year, it has continued to excel in the face of adversity.
This golden age of Indiana football has largely been attributed to the team’s exciting offense. And it’s true that the Hoosiers have weapons at the skill positions. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. runs point for an attack that can burn any opponent. But Indiana’s defense, coordinated by Kane Wommack, isn’t too shabby either.
The Hoosiers shut out Michigan State, 24-0, Saturday and continued to play an aggressive, opportunistic brand of football. Through their four wins, the Hoosiers have already netted 12 takeaways — the most in the league.
Indiana’s secondary is loaded with ball hawks, including Jaylin Williams and Tiawan Mullen. Together, they have pulled in five interceptions.
This Saturday, they’ll face their stiffest test against Ohio State. But if there is one Big Ten team that could give Justin Fields and Co. fits, it’s Indiana.
After a rough offseason when Iowa faced accusations of racial bias, the Hawkeyes lost their first two games.
Multiple players left the team to enter the NCAA transfer portal.
The season suddenly was in serious jeopardy and it seemed plausible the negativity would destabilize one of the Big Ten’s most consistent programs.
But as the old saying goes, winning cures all.
And after two straight convincing victories over Michigan State and Minnesota, in which they outscored their opponents, 84-14, the Hawkeyes again appear to be on solid footing.
The turnaround executed by head coach Kirk Ferentz shouldn’t be taken for granted, even if two of the conference’s worst teams were unwilling accomplices in the effort.
Case in point: Michigan.
The Wolverines are still headed down the dark road from which Iowa exited earlier this month.
In front of a national television audience, the Wolverines were revealed to be a fallen program. During the 49-11 beating administered by Wisconsin, ESPN/ABC analyst Kirk Herbstreit seemed gravely concerned with the dilapidated state of Michigan football.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” he said.
The criticism was more pointed elsewhere — on message boards and social media. Fans spent the rest of the weekend trying to reconcile how a team that was ranked in the preseason is now 1-3 for the first time since 1967 after suffering its largest home loss in 85 years.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh, who is 10-9 in his last 19 games, couldn’t really pinpoint how it happened.
But he did concede that Michigan is lousy.
“Not in a good place as a football team,” he said.
No one would argue with that assessment.
A COVID-19 outbreak within Maryland’s program kept Ohio State off the field this weekend and should have sent shivers down the Buckeyes’ spines.
Suddenly, they realized how dependent they are on the health of their competitors if they want to complete their conference season and qualify for the College Football Playoff.
Not much else is standing in the way of another shot at a national championship.
Get past No. 10 Indiana — a team Ohio State has defeated 25 straight times — and it’s smooth sailing to Indianapolis.
But the Buckeyes better hope future opponents Illinois, Michigan State and Michigan avoid infection and remain available for their scheduled loss to give Ohio State enough games on its resume to warrant inclusion in the CFP.
They already know they missed out on one potential victory this past weekend.
Sad times in Happy Valley.
Penn State is 0-4 for the second time in program history.
The latest defeat was dealt by Nebraska, which entered the game winless.
Offense seems to be the main issue with the Nittany Lions.
While they have shown they can move the football, they have struggled to convert yards into points. Among Big Ten teams, the Nittany Lions rank 13th in red-zone conversion rate. On Saturday, in a 30-23 loss, their struggles in that section of the field came to the fore when they failed to produce a game-tying touchdown, their final drive stalling out at Nebraska’s 13-yard line.
In his search for answers, head coach James Franklin benched quarterback Sean Clifford and inserted Will Levis. But the season appears beyond reclamation for a program that entered this year with aspirations of making the CFP.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Big Ten football: Michigan's in a dark place among biggest losers