Sports Q&A Big Ten Quick Hits: Week 8

Shannon Brooks Minnesota Running Back Sports Q&A

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Big Ten East Division:

Indiana Hoosiers 3-4 (1-3)

One touchdown… For a team that has the offensive firepower that Indiana has, that is unacceptable and it cost them as they lost to Northwestern 24-14 on Saturday. We have seen glimpses of how efficient this offense can be, but against the Wildcats we witnessed how bad it can be if there is no flow to it. Richard Lagow passed for 317 yards but he also had two interceptions and zero touchdowns. As bad as the quarterback play was, the run game was even more disappointing. Many thought Devine Redding was the next great back for the Hoosiers but his production over the last three games has left a lot to be desired. After rushing for 100+ yards in three of the first four games of the season, Redding has yet to surpass the 100-yard plateau in this recent three-game losing streak — Against Northwestern he had 42 yards on 16 carries. Conversely, freshman running back Devonte Williams only needed four carries to reach that same amount of yards. Mired in the loss was a productive performance from the Indiana defense. On the afternoon it had three sacks, 11 tackles for loss, and limited a dangerous Wildcats rushing attack to only 123 total yards. For so long people have been asking when the defense was going to catch up to the offense, but during the second half of the 2016 season, it may be the defense asking when the offense was going to catch up to them.

Maryland Terrapins 5-2 (2-2)

Maryland’s success has been dictated by its quarterback play. In the 28-17 victory over the Michigan St. Spartans, Perry Hills returned to the lineup and had one of the best games of his career as he connected on 21-of-27 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns. When the Terrapins are able to limit the turnovers — only one against the Spartans on Saturday night — they are a different team… a good one. In addition to Hills playing well the run game found its mojo as both Ty Johnson (nine carries for 115 yards) and Lorenzo Harrison (17 carries for 105 yards) turned in great games. Even without its best player, cornerback Will Likely who is out for the year, the Maryland defense did a grat job limiting the MSU offense all evening. In addition to forcing two turnovers, Maryland only allowed four third down conversions and forced eight empty drives. With Michigan St struggling like it is this season, the luster isn’t as bright on this upset, but head coach DJ Durkin should be able to use this win against a traditional power to grow the program.

Michigan Wolverines 7-0 (4-0)

Michigan avoided the proverbial “trap” game with the comfortable 41-8 victory over the Illinois Fighting Illini on Saturday. Rather than overlook the less talented Fighting Illini squad Wilton Speight used this week’s game as a warm-up for the rivalry game with MSU. Beyond looking at the stat sheet – 16-of-23 for 253 yards and two touchdowns – there was a sense of poise that Speight showed that was not previously present in other games. Another player that looked sharp was running back Karan Higdon. The sophomore from Florida is starting to look like the most complete running back on the roster as he shows a great combination of burst, speed, and power. The 106-yard performance was his second consecutive 100-yard performance and the 45-yard score put his full talents on display as he ran past two Illinois defenders and carried another into the end zone. One concern for the defense is that it only had one sack — by Maurice Hurst — and four tackles for loss… Maybe that’s a nitpicking statement but expectations are ramping up high in Ann Arbor and anything less than a multiple sack game is not acceptable (heavy sarcasm.)

Michigan St. Spartans 2-5 (0-5) 

“The thrill is gone.” That BB King song needs to be the mantra for this MSU season as it lost to the Maryland Terrapins 28-17 — its fifth straight loss on the season. Head coach Mark Dantonio has tried everything and nothing works. Brian Lewerke started against the Terrapins but was ineffective as he only completed 11-of-24 passes for 156 yards. The defense still cannot generate a pass rush (only one sack in the game) and was gashed by two running backs. To show how bad things have gotten defensively, that one sack was by defensive tackle Malik McDowell and it was his first full sack this season. The only solace on the evening was that the run game returned as the team combined for 270 yards on 44 carries. LJ Scott had his second 100-yard game of the year as he finished with 128 on 20 carries. Lewerke also contributed 79 yards on 10 carries. But it has to be a sad state of affairs that even with that high level of production that the team still found a way to lose the game. Where is the leadership? Where is the Spartan toughness that guided them for so many years? Whatever is going on in East Lansing has to be resolved by the players, not the coaches.

Ohio St. Buckeyes 6-1 (3-1) 

The Buckeyes were served a major wake-up call in the 24-21 loss to the Penn St. Nittany Lions Saturday night. Will it end their playoff hopes, not yet, but it puts Head coach Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes players on notice that they must come prepared to play for the rest of the season. OSU held what seemed to be a comfortable 21-7 lead going into the fourth quarter, but the team became complacent, in all phases, and it cost them. Similar to the debacle against MSU last season – that also resulted in a loss – for some reason Urban Meyer refused to use his best player, Curtis Samuel (2 carries for 71 yards; none in the first half) against the Nittany Lions and the offense was out of sorts all evening. Instead, Meyer put the game on the arm of JT Barrett (28-of- 43 for 245 yards and one touchdown) but that is not the strength of the junior quarterback. The defense limited Penn State’s offense to only 276 total yards but did not have any sacks or force a turnover on the evening. The season isn’t over, but there is little room for error in Columbus.

Penn State Nittany Lions 5-2 (3-1)

In defeating the Ohio State Buckeyes 24-21, Penn State did something that 20 other teams couldn’t do and that was defeat Urban Meyer in its own home stadium. The backdrop of the whiteout and night game provided the environment needed to pull off this improbable upset. Statistically, Penn St. didn’t look like the victor – only 276 total yards and 13 first downs – but when the team needed a big play quarterback Trace McSorley (217 total yards and two touchdowns) or running back Saquon Barkley (99 yards on 12 carries) came through. But no play was bigger than the blocked field goal by safety Marcus Allen that was returned 60 yards by Grant Haley for the go-ahead score. The Penn St. defense was helped by the return of linebacker Brandon Bell who had a career-high 19 tackles and one sack. This is a tenure-defining win for head coach James Franklin and could be the thing he needs to springboard the Nittany Lions back into national relevance.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights 2-5 (0-5)

Slow progress is better than no progress and despite losing to the Minnesota Golden Gophers 34-32, Rutgers showed a lot of fight and promise. One thing that stood out is that head coach Chris Ash may have found a nice transitional quarterback in Giovanni Rescigno. The junior completed 22-of-38 passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns. He may not be the future of the team but he is a guy that will allow the Scarlet Knights offense to be more competitive for the rest of the season. Another upperclassman making the most of his opportunity is running back Justin Goodwin. The senior showed promise as a true freshman in 2012 but injuries limited him over the next two seasons. Against Minnesota, he rushed for 97 yards on a season-high 19 carries. The defense still cannot stop the run but it’s not because of a lack of effort — the team just lacks multiple difference makers on that side of the ball. One player that stepped up big was defensive back  Damon Hayes. The freshman took a 55-yard interception to the house and shifted momentum to the Scarlet Knights at a pivotal time. If Coach Ash can recruit more players to match Hayes’ athleticism the issues on defense could be short lived.

Big Ten West Division:

Illinois Fighting Illini 2-5 (1-3)

Down to its third-string quarterback, there wasn’t much Illinois could do right in the 41-8 loss to the Michigan Wolverines. With quarterbacks Wes Lunt and Chayse Crouch unavailable due to injuries, head coach Lovie Smith had to turn to freshman Jeff George Jr. to lead a Fighting Illini offense that was already struggling. Those issues continued against the nation’s top defense as Illinois had only two first downs at halftime and finished with six on the afternoon. George Jr. showed why he was third on the depth chart as he only completed 4-of- 15 passes for 95 yards and the most effective plays from scrimmage involved running back Kendrick Foster (45 yards) lined up in the Wildcat formation. With the offense struggling to find any continuity the defense suffered as it was forced to spend more time on the field. Michigan won the time of possession battle by over 22 minutes. Senior Hardy Nickerson made use of the time spent on the field as he was always around the ball and finished with 14 tackles and one sack. Illinois has to hope to hope that Crouch or Lunt returns soon because the offense will continue to struggle as George Jr. just isn’t ready yet.

Iowa Hawkeyes 5-2 (3-2)

After scoring 49 points against Purdue last week, it looked like the Iowa offense was finally clicking but in the 17-9 loss to Wisconsin that side of the ball went back into hiding. Yes, Wisconsin defense is stout but it seemed as if every time Iowa was on the verge of scoring a touchdown a penalty or empty play derailed a drive and the team had to settle for a field goal. The strength of the team is its running game and against the Badgers, Iowa was only able to muster 83 yards on 23 carries. Akrum Wadley finished with a 4.4 yard per carry average but only had ten carries so the 44 yards he contributed didn’t seem like he was effective.With CJ Beathard missing his two favorite receivers, Wadley was able to expand his game as a pass catcher and hauled in seven passes for 72 yards — but that’s not his strength and the Hawkeyes desperately need a receiver that can stretch the field. Josey Jewell had 16 tackles, which is a great game for a linebacker, but it has to be concerning for the Iowa coaches that cornerback Desmond King is your second leading tackler with 12. The defense did what it could to keep the team in the game but the injuries on the offensive side of the ball have hurt significantly.

Minnesota Golden Gophers 4-2 (1-2)

44 rushing attempts for 198 yards… That’s what the two-headed rushing attack of Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith contributed in the 34-32 win over Rutgers. If I’m head coach Tracy Claeys there is no way my quarterback throws the ball more than 15-20 times a game — and that still is contingent on how well he is playing. Against the Scarlet Knights quarterback Mitch Leidner had 18 attempts and passed for 156 yards but had an interception in the third quarter that shifted momentum. Gopher fans should be ashamed of the Minnesota defense after this weekend. In the previous four games, Rutgers had scored a grand total of 14 points but on Saturday the offense scored 21 points and converted 10-of-19 third down conversions. Maybe they underestimated their opponent and if that’s the case it always a relief to be able to sleepwalk your way through an uninspiring victory instead of a surprising defeat. Minnesota still has a lot to play for so it’s imperative that the team wakes up and doesn’t have a repeat performance against a more talented team.

Nebraska Cornhuskers 7-0 (4-0)

You would have thought that last season’s 55-45 loss to Purdue would have put the Cornhuskers on notice, but for one half it looked as Nebraska was heading towards another disappointing loss as it trailed the Boilermakers 14-10. Luckily for Nebraska fans, head coach Mike Riley’s halftime speech refocused the team and it cruised to a 27-14 win to remain undefeated on the season. It’s apparent that this team success, or failure, will depend on the play of quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. and against Purdue he wasn’t on top of his game and it showed. He finished with over 300 total yards and two touchdowns but as a passer, he has to be more aware of how important his footwork is. There were too many passes where he had bad foot placement and it led to an inaccurate throw. While the offense was looking to find its rhythm, the defense continued to play well as it shut out Purdue in the second half and only allowed one drive longer than five plays. Josh Bandaras (13 tackles) and Kieron Williams (two interceptions) led the way for that side of the ball. Nebraska is undefeated but many wonder how legit the team is; they have an opportunity to the nation this upcoming weekend, so it must take advantage.

Northwestern Wildcats 4-3 (3-1)

Dominant win! That’s the best way to describe the 24-12 victory over the Indiana Hoosiers. After a slow start to the season, it seems as if Northwestern has found its footing and put together its most complete game of the year. Quarterback Clayton Thorson (24-of-43 for 285 yards) had his third consecutive three-touchdown game and looks to be more comfortable in the pocket as a passer — having the best receiver in the conference will do that for you. Austin Carr may not be the fastest or the biggest but the senior receiver just continues to find ways to get the job done. The 125 yards receiving against the Hoosiers was his fourth 100+ yard performance on the year and he currently leads the conference in receiving yards with 720. But the offense is not doing it alone. Anthony Walker Jr. finished the day with 11 tackles and two tackles for loss and while he has not been performing like many hoped he would this season — only two double-digit tackle games on the season — he now has enough help on that side of the ball so he doesn’t have to carry the team like he had to in the past. Northwestern seems to be getting hot at the right time with consecutive games against Top-15 ranked teams on the horizon — can they translate this great play into upset wins though?

Purdue Boilermakers 3-4 (1-3)

For one half it looked as if the Boilermakers would be pulling off one of its biggest upsets in recent history. Unfortunately, the team couldn’t hold on and dropped a tough one to the Nebraska Cornhuskers 27-14. Interim head coach Gerard Parker went YOLO with the offensive play calling and it led to the 14-10 halftime lead for Purdue. He went for it four times on fourth down – converting two – and provided an instant spark for a team that had been up and down all season. Quarterback David Blough looks to continue the storied tradition of Purdue being the “cradle of quarterbacks” as he passed for 309 yards – his fourth 300+ yard performance on the season – and continues to improve in his sophomore year. The defense needs to catch up with the improving offense, however. Against Nebraska, it allowed over 409 total yards and allowed 11 plays of 15+ yards. One thing that the defense can hang its hat on is the fact it had 10 tackles for loss – with defensive linemen Lorenzo Neal and Evan Panfil having three each. If Coach Parker can continue to inspire the Boilermakers, the season is not lost.

Wisconsin Badgers 5-2 (2-2)

The stretch of tough games continued Saturday as the Wisconsin headed to Iowa City to face the Iowa Hawkeyes but unlike the previous losses against Michigan and OSU, the Badgers were able to come out on top winning 17-9. It’s not a quarterback controversy but after two empty drives led by Alex Hornibrook, head coach Paul Chryst turned to Bart Houston to spark the offense. The change worked as Houston led the team on its first touchdown drive of the day — a 17-yard pass to tight end Troy Fumagalli. Hornibrook finished the game but it has to be nice knowing that you have a capable backup that can come in if the starter is ineffective… or is it? One person that won’t have to worry about being pulled due to ineffectiveness is running back Corey Clement. He had his second consecutive 100+-yard game and looks to have recaptured the burst and toughness that many Badgers fans saw out of him a few years ago. The defense continued its stout play as it limited the Hawkeyes to 236 total yards and on the last two defensive series kept the Hawkeyes out of the end zone despite them making it to the red zone. One casualty of the victory was the loss of starting linebacker Jack Cichy who tore his pectoral muscle and will be out for the year. The Badgers defense has played without other star players but could the mounting injuries be too much to overcome as the season progresses?

Sports Q&A Big 10 Player of the week:

Rodney Smith running back Minnesota:

Smith has been Mr. Consistency for the Gophers in 2016. On the season he is averaging 100 yards per game and against the Scarlet Knights he contributed 111 yards and one touchdown rushing. But it was his 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown with the score 24-23 that shifted the momentum back to the Gophers and allowed them to avoid the upset. Smith may not be a household name because he shares carries with fellow sophomore Shannon Brooks but by the time his career is done at Minnesota he will be listed in the record books as one of the best rushers in the program’s history.

Game of the Week:

Nebraska vs. Wisconsin

Another week, another tough game for Wisconsin. This time the Badgers host Nebraska in Madison and look to keep their West Division title hopes alive. The key to victory in this game is the team that can make the opposing quarterback the most uncomfortable. Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong Jr. has shown that if he is forced out of his comfort zone as a passer he will throw it up — which generally leads to turnovers. For Wisconsin, you have to wonder if Coach Chryst will go back to Bart Houston if Hornibrook is slow out the gate? In the end, Wisconsin’s defense is just too good — even without Cichy — and the home crowd leads them to victory. Wisconsin 27 Nebraska 20

Week 8 Picks: (Week 7 record: 5-2 )

Michigan over Michigan St.

Minnesota over Illinois

Ohio St. over Northwestern

Maryland over Indiana

Penn St. over Purdue

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