Each week, Land of 10 will check some of the top story lines, matchups and players to watch in The Forecast. Big games, potential upsets, important questions: This is the place to look ahead to the weekend in the Big Ten.
The B1G One
Indiana at No. 3 Michigan
It’s obviously not a great slate of games in the Big Ten this weekend, but this became a much bigger game after the Wolverines lost to Iowa this past weekend and starting quarterback Wilton Speight was injured near the end of the contest.
There have been reports that Speight will miss the rest of the regular season. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh denied that Speight is definitely “out for the season.” Now, “the season” and “the rest of the regular season” are two different things. Regardless, it looks like John O’Korn, a graduate transfer from Houston, likely will make his first start for Michigan against the Hoosiers.
The Wolverines need to win to keep their Big Ten and College Football Playoff hopes afloat. It’s certainly possible that they could survive until Speight is ready to play again, whether that would be in the Big Ten Championship Game or a College Football Playoff semifinal.
They have to avoid looking ahead to “The Game” next week at Ohio State. Indiana gave Penn State a solid scare last week. The Hoosiers led the Nittany Lions by 10 points in the third quarter and had a chance to tie it late in the fourth quarter before a Penn State defensive touchdown made it a two-score final.
The Hoosiers are much improved on defense and held Penn State star Saquon Barkley to 60 yards on 33 carries. Michigan has not been consistent running the ball in recent weeks, which might be a problem if the new quarterback struggles.
O’Korn has completed 13 of 18 passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns in mop-up duty this season. He had a solid season as Houston’s starter in 2013, but threw six touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2014 before losing the job to Greg Ward.
Iowa (-10) at Illinois
Five of the seven games feature a ranked team in a spot that could be a blowout. The Minnesota-Northwestern game is practically a pick ’em, so there is no upset regardless of who wins.
So … let’s talk about Illinois. The Illini have won two of their past five games, including a victory against Michigan State. The Spartans might be 1-6 in conference play, but they are probably a little better than that. Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt will make his first start since getting injured in early October.
There’s also the inconsistency of Iowa. The Hawkeyes were trounced by Penn State two weeks ago before rallying to beat Michigan. The offense still didn’t look that great in a 14-13 win.
This would be a huge deal for first-year Lovie Smith as he tries to rebuild the Illinois program.
Make or Break
Northwestern at Minnesota
Minnesota has had a really confusing season. The Gophers are 7-3, and the three losses, to Penn State, Iowa and Nebraska, are all by seven points or less. Still, they barely beat Rutgers and Oregon State, two teams that have two wins each.
Once 7-2, it looked like it could be a great year for Tracy Claeys in his first full season in charge. The Gophers still have to play Wisconsin after this game, so a loss here could turn into a three-game losing streak to finish the regular season.
Would a 7-5 season that might feature zero wins against bowl teams (Colorado State and Maryland both have five wins right now) be enough to convince the Minnesota brass to extend Claeys’ contract? He’s only signed through 2018, and his boss has changed since agreeing to the deal. There has been speculation that Minnesota could look elsewhere for a coach, given the low cost of buying out Claeys’ deal.
It certainly seems like Northwestern and maybe Wisconsin are make-or-break games for Clayes.
Best Individual Matchup(s)
Ricky Jones, Mitchell Paige and Nick Westbrook vs. Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling
Nobody has been able to pass the ball effectively against Michigan since Lewis returned from an injury early this season. Indiana might have the best three-wideout set in the Big Ten, and quarterback Richard Lagow definitely has one of the strongest arms.
Jones, Paige and Westbrook all have at least 43 catches and rank among the top eight in the conference. Lagow also had a penchant for mistakes and throwing into coverage. This seems like a matchup that Lewis and Stribling will be very excited for.
Next Man Up
John O’Korn, QB, Michigan
Speight was rapidly improving, but he had a nightmare game against Iowa, and it reportedly ended with a broken collarbone. The loss to the Hawkeyes did not derail Michigan’s chances to win the Big Ten or reach the playoff, but now O’Korn might need to lead the Wolverines there.
He did throw for 3,117 yards, 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 2013 at Houston. The next season he lost the job to Ward, and coach Tony Levine was fired. Tom Herman arrived and helped make Ward a star while O’Korn looked for a new opportunity. He didn’t get it at the start of this season, as many pundits had predicted in the offseason. He has it now.
Hey, Ohio State won a national title with a backup quarterback a couple of years ago, right?
Does Nebraska need Tommy Armstrong Jr. this weekend?
Probably not. It’s been a rough couple of weeks for Armstrong, who has sustained multiple injuries. It is Senior Day, so there might be extra motivation for Armstrong to try to play one final time at Memorial Stadium.
That said, Maryland might not have starting quarterback Perry Hills, who is also banged up. The Cornhuskers should be fine against a reeling Terps squad, regardless of who plays quarterback.
Is Michigan State finally getting better?
The Spartans tumbled to seven straight losses, but they really should have beaten Illinois two weeks ago. Then they pounded Rutgers this past weekend. Maybe Mark Dantonio and Co. have figured some things out?
Well, it was Illinois and Rutgers. It’s pretty hard to draw much from those two games. The Spartans don’t have much to play for, other than avoiding the embarrassment of a truly ugly final record like 3-9 if they lose to Ohio State and Penn State.
Will former Rutgers commit Saquon Barkley run wild on the Scarlet Knights?
Barkley committed to Rutgers very early in the process before eventually flipping to Penn State. He ran for a then-career high 195 yards against the Scarlet Knights last season.
The sophomore has two 200-yard games this season, and a third is certainly in play against Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are last in the Big Ten in rushing defense, yielding 251 yards per contest.
Barkley is also coming off an atypical weekend. He only had 60 yards on 33 carries against Indiana. One possible problem for Barkley could be the score. If Penn State races out to a huge lead, coach James Franklin might not leave him in the game long enough to surpass 200 yards again to keep him fresh for Michigan State and, potentially, a Big Ten title game.