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 for all of that looking ahead to the weekend in the Big Ten.
The B1G One
No. 2 Ohio State at No. 8 Wisconsin
Wisconsin is playing a team ranked in the top 10 for the fourth time in six games. This will be the first one at Camp Randall Stadium, which would normally be a nice advantage to lean on for the Badgers, but Urban Meyer has yet to lose a road game since arriving at Ohio State in 2012, and this Buckeyes team has already won at another top-15 team’s stadium.
This isn’t even the end of the gauntlet for the Badgers, which still have games against Iowa and Nebraska in the next two weeks, but at least Wisconsin did have a bye week before this one. Considering what happened to Rutgers when it played Ohio State and Michigan in back-to-back weeks, the rest and extra time to prepare could be critical. It wasn’t enough time for top linebacker Vince Biegel to be ready to play, and he’s been ruled out for the second straight game.
Ohio State looked as vulnerable as it has all season last week, and still beat Indiana by 21 points. The Buckeyes were out of sync in the passing game, but J.T. Barrett, Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel combined for 290 yards on the ground, and the defense held a team that had at least 430 total yards in every game prior to just 281.
That is the problem for the Badgers. Wisconsin’s offense has not been as effective as Indiana’s. Notre Dame, BYU and Indiana all had more total yards against Michigan State’s defense than Wisconsin did, but the Badgers won by 24 points against the Spartans because of sacks, turnovers and field position.
Ohio State has allowed three sacks in five games, and leads the conference in turnover margin. The Buckeyes have 10 interceptions and four defensive touchdowns. The Badgers completed nine passes to teammates and three to Michigan players two weeks ago in a 14-7 loss.
Maybe Wisconsin can draw upon what Michigan State was able to do against Ohio State last season. Keep it close, frustrate the Buckeyes with sounds defense and hope for rain. Hey, there is an 80 percent chance of it Saturday night in Madison.
Rutgers (+6) vs. Illinois
There are several candidates here. Northwestern getting about a touchdown at Michigan State looks intriguing, mostly because the Spartans might just be a terrible team and the Wildcats are trending in the other direction. Indiana is probably the most popular upset pick at home against Nebraska.
But let’s be bold. Let’s take a team that has compiled a total of 146 yards in the past two weeks while also yielding 136 points. Let’s take a team that has completed 5 of 34 passes in the past two games but is not making a change at quarterback.
Why? Well, before Rutgers played two of the five best teams in the nation in consecutive weeks, the Scarlet Knights did look like a competent Big Ten outfit in a 14-7 loss to Iowa. Illinois might not have starting quarterback Wes Lunt, though backup Chayce Crouch would still be the best player at the position in this game.
If Rutgers didn’t have a new coaching staff that has provided some hope for the future, this team would almost certainly be toast for the rest of the season after back-to-back humiliating losses. Count on new coach Chris Ash to figure out how to regroup enough for a more competent effort, and let’s remember that Illinois just lost to Purdue at home.
Make or Break
Minnesota at Maryland
The Golden Gophers have lost two straight games to pretty good teams by a combined 10 points. No shame in that, but both games could look like big missed opportunities later in the season.
Now Minnesota’s chances to be a fringe contender in the Big Ten West are probably gone. They would certainly be if the Gophers drop a third straight in conference. Not having veteran starting quarterback Mitch Leidner because of an injury is going to help, but Penn State ran all over this Maryland defense this past week. If Minnesota can get its dynamic duo at running back rolling, maybe quarterback play won’t be an issue.
Best Individual Matchup
Wisconsin TE Troy Fumagalli vs. Ohio State LB Chris Worley
Trying to find a place to attack Ohio State in the passing game does not seem like a fun challenge. The Buckeyes had a strong pass defense a year ago, lost a bunch of back seven players to the NFL and are now better at defending the pass with a new collection of future NFL prospects.
Fumagalli had seven catches for 100 yards in the opener against LSU but hasn’t done a lot since, though he did have four catches against Michigan State. Redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook could look to Fumagalli to help extend drives, especially if his wideouts can’t find openings in this ridiculously talented secondary.
Next Man Up
Minnesota QB Conor Rhoda
While Minnesota can really run the ball, having Leidner around to provide balance with competent passing and a dash of running the ball himself certainly helped. Conor Rhoda arrived at Minnesota as a walk-on from Cretin-Derham Hall, which also produced NFL quarterbacks Steve Walsh, Chris Weinke and potential NFL QB Joe Mauer, who chose the Twins over Florida State after going No. 1 in the MLB draft.
Rhoda is a redshirt junior who has attempted two passes in his career, including one last week. The offensive line is going to need to have a huge game. The Terps aren’t opposed to blitzing from all angles, and if Rhoda doesn’t prove he can throw the ball around as needed, Maryland is going to send more players than Minnesota can block on every passing down.
Is Michigan State luring everyone into a trap?
Getting thumped by Wisconsin is no cause for panic, but following that up with a loss to an improved Indiana and then a home defeat against BYU, and it’s pretty troubling. Maybe the Hoosiers are the surprise team in the league this season. And maybe those three losses to good teams by a total of seven points were a sign of success to come for the Cougars. But the Spartans just look out of sorts.
It’s not just the quarterback play without Connor Cook, either. Michigan State is 10th in scoring defense, 11th in rushing defense and 12th in passing defense in the Big Ten. Northwestern, meanwhile, racked up 38 points on Iowa last week and has lost to two top-25 opponents by a combined 12 points.
This should give everyone a pretty good indication if the Spartans have a second-half rebound in them or if this group is destined to slide into the middle class of the conference, or worse.
Is Purdue the next team to look better than expected against Iowa?
Last season, the Hawkeyes were one of the Big Ten’s “find ways to win” teams (along with Northwestern) that defied statistics and convention. They started the 2015 season 12-0 but are 4-4 since then.
Since starting the season with two wins, Iowa has a pair of ugly 14-7 victories, a close loss to a good team (North Dakota State) and a close loss to a possibly bad team (Northwestern). After the game Saturday against Purdue, Iowa likely will be the underdog in four of its final five games.
Putting away the Boilermakers in convincing fashion isn’t going to galvanize the fan base, but another close slog is certainly going to have the opposite effect.
Is Nebraska really “back?”
The Cornhuskers are in the top 10 of the AP poll for the first time in five years. While Michigan and Ohio State have pulverized teams, and Wisconsin has bested two preseason playoff contenders (LSU, Michigan State), Nebraska has just kind of glided into Week 7 without a loss.
Beating Oregon by three at home no longer looks like much to celebrate. Wins against Northwestern and Illinois were fine but hardly noteworthy. Fresno State is bad and could fire the coach. The best win of these five by the end of the season will probably be Wyoming, and it was convincing.
Resume building aside, the Cornhuskers have played well. Tommy Armstrong has avoided mistakes, and the pass defense in particular has been stout. We’re cherry-picking the parameters a little here, but Nebraska is 26th on offense and 36th on defense, according to Bill Connelly’s S&P+ ratings. The only other team in the Big Ten with a top-36 or better offense and defense in the advanced statistical formula is Ohio State.
Indiana is improved, particularly on defense, and this is a chance for the Hoosiers to prove they can be one of the best teams in the conference. It’s also a chance for the Cornhuskers to show why they deserve to be ranked among the best in the nation.