The Forecast: Two rivalries spice up potentially status quo Big Ten weekend
Each week, Land of 10 will check out some of the top storylines, 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.
If Saturday is a slow news day in the Big Ten, that’s probably a net positive.
There are a couple of fun rivalry games, and a couple of chances for lower-tier teams to prove they’ve improved. Beyond that, if this isn’t a status quo weekend, that will be bad news for several teams.
Ohio State and Michigan will probably combine to score 120-plus points again. Rutgers and Northwestern will probably bounce back with victories against FBS foes.
Nebraska, Wisconsin, Indiana and Maryland will probably have little trouble with mid-major competition, but that is also where the weekend could get weird. Illinois and Purdue will be underdogs, but both opponents were pretty disappointing in Week 1.
There are two bragging rights games for the conference, and the battles of Pennsylvania and Iowa bookend what could be a business-like Saturday for the Big Ten … or the first wacky weekend for the conference in 2016.
Here we go.
The B1G One
Penn State at Pitt
This is one of the two big rivalry games, but one that hasn’t been played since 2000. Penn State’s loss to Temple last season was an embarrassing result, not because of the quality of the opponent (the Owls ended up being quite strong in 2015), but because of James Franklin’s “Dominate the state” edict when he took the job.
This game will feature two of the best running backs in the nation. Former players on both sides have been waiting for this game for a long time. The atmosphere at Heinz Field should be interesting.
Neither team was particularly impressive in Week 1. Penn State was never really in danger but couldn’t put away Kent State until late in the game. Pitt had 261 yards, including 86 on 34 rushing attempts, against Villanova, an FBS opponent.
This would be the biggest win in Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi’s tenure. His players would probably even be allowed to talk about it afterwards. It’s hard to call this a must-win game for Franklin, but losing it might lead to other games later in the season feeling a lot more like one.
It should be a stern test for Penn State’s new offense against Narduzzi’s defense, and his staff probably saved some special blitzes and other wrinkles for this game.
Cincinnati (-6) at Purdue
Purdue has won seven games in the past three-plus seasons, and four have been against FBS competition. Cincinnati has been to a bowl game five straight years, but it also led an FBS team (Tennessee-Martin) by just seven points midway through the fourth quarter. The Bearcats had a starting quarterback return, one-time mega prospect Gunner Kiel, but he lost the job to sophomore Hayden Moore instead.
The Bearcats defense gave up 161 points in the final four games of last season. Cincinnati also has a huge game next week against conference foe Houston, and a short week to prepare for the Cougars. Maybe the Boilermakers get a huge day from running back Markell Jones and the Cincinnati quarterbacks struggle, and coach Darrell Hazell gets a huge win.
Make or Break
Maryland at Florida International
There wasn’t much to learn from Maryland’s season-opening drubbing of local FBS school Howard. Maybe if the Bison play Rutgers tough this weekend, people will look at the Terps’ win a little differently, but that’s not likely.
Trying to compare scores and glean anything close to definitive this early in the season is silly, but this is an interesting test for the Terps. FIU might be a fringe Group of Five bowl team in former Illinois coach Ron Turner’s fourth season. A year or two from now, D.J. Durkin’s team might be expected to win a game like this by three touchdowns. For now, it needs to avoid defeat.
Best Individual Matchup
Wisconsin CB Sojourn Shelton vs. Akron WR JoJo Natson
Akron threw for more than 400 yards and six touchdowns in its opener against VMI, an FBS school. The Zips won a bowl game last year, and coach Terry Bowden might have an explosive offense this season.
Shelton, who is listed at 5 feet 9, might not spend all day checking Natson, who is listed at 5 feet 8. Natson had three touchdowns in the opener, but Jerome Lane had 10 catches for 196 yards. One reason to root for Shelton vs. Natson, besides the size similarity? They are both from South Florida, and their high schools were seven miles apart.
Potential Players of the Week
Mike Weber, RB, Ohio State
The Buckeyes scored a month’s worth of touchdowns in the opener, but Weber is still looking for his first at the college level. He had a strong game, running for 136 yards on 19 carries, but he was overshadowed by J.T. Barrett’s seven-touchdown game and Curtis Samuel’s Reggie Bush impersonation.
Tulsa likes to play fast and score a lot of points, so a hefty workload for Weber could be in order. He just missed on two potential touchdown runs against Bowling Green, and he could rack up several against the Golden Hurricane.
Hardy Nickerson, LB, Illinois
Nickerson had 11 tackles and a sack in Lovie Smith’s first game as Illinois coach. The son of Smith’s defensive coordinator, Nickerson could play a vital role in trying to slow North Carolina running backs Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan.
That duo combined for 152 yards on 16 carries against Georgia, and probably should have had at least 10-12 more carries between them. If North Carolina tries to run more this week, Nickerson and Co. need to avoid allowing nine yards per carry or it will be an ugly result.
Jordan Westerkamp, WR, Nebraska
The Cornhuskers completed six passes in a 43-10 win against Fresno State. While that sounds like a line from the 1980s, expect Nebraska to try and throw it more this week against Wyoming. The Cowboys picked up a huge victory against recent mid-major power Northern Illinois last week.
Northern Illinois wide receiver Kenny Golladay did finish the game with 10 receptions for 144 yards and two touchdowns. Alonzo Moore was the big-play receiver in the passing game for Nebraska last week with three catches for 92 yards, but this might be a good spot to feature Westerkamp, who caught 65 passes in 2015.
1. Will Wisconsin avoid a letdown?
The Badgers scored an incredible victory against No. 5-ranked LSU in the season opener. Now they must regroup and face a feisty Akron team with plenty of offensive firepower. The MAC has already collected one Big Ten victim, after Western Michigan knocked off Northwestern last week.
The Zips don’t have Leonard Fournette, but they certainly have a more competent passing attack. A 24-point spread seems really high, unless Wisconsin really is an elite team.
2. What will Lamont Wade be thinking about Saturday evening?
Wade is a top-50 player in the Class of 2017, and the No. 2 prospect in Pennsylvania. There is time for Tennessee, Ohio State or Alabama to swoop in, but this looks like a classic Pitt vs. Penn State battle for the top player in Pittsburgh.
Penn State landed the top player in the city last year, running back Miles Sanders, but Pitt kept Jordan Whitehead home in 2014 and two big-time Western Pennsylvania prospects in 2013: wide receiver Tyler Boyd and defensive lineman Dorian Johnson. Boyd went to Wade’s high school, and so did several other recent Pitt commits. Could Wade be the first from Clairton to head for Happy Valley?
3. Who is Nebraska’s best tailback?
Terrell Newby was the presumed workhorse going into 2016, and he was fine against Fresno State with 56 yards on 11 carries. Sophomore Devine Ozigbo was better, though, with 103 yards and two touchdowns on 17 attempts.
Ozigbo had 39 carries as a freshman, but 21 came in the bowl against UCLA. He’s now compiled 223 yards on his past 40 carries, dating back to Rutgers last season. Maybe they just become a solid 1-2 combo, but it’s also possible that Ozigbo could become the No. 1 runner in Nebraska’s backfield.
4. Will Iowa fans want to tear up Kirk Ferentz’s contract extension?
Iowa should have no trouble with Iowa State. The Cyclones lost to Northern Iowa for the second time in four years (and to an FBS school for the third time in that span) to start this season.
When it happened in 2013, Iowa State came right back and nearly knocked off Iowa in a 27-21 loss. New coach Matt Campbell needs a drastic turnaround from his Cyclones to avoid becoming the fourth Iowa State coach to lose to Ferentz.
5. Does beating Central Florida settle the 1997 national championship debate?
No, but some Michigan fans might feel that way. UCF coach Scott Frost was Nebraska’s quarterback when the Cornhuskers and Wolverines split the title in 1997. Frost is in his first year with the Knights, who went 0-12 in 2015.