Last week's battle between Ohio State and Wisconsin was one for the ages.
But a week after the thriller proved both teams are championship-caliber, both hit the road for in-division tests that will certainly keep them on their toes.
If we're going to get a Buckeyes-Badgers rematch for the Big Ten title in Indy, Ohio State will first need to fend off Penn State in Happy Valley and Wisconsin will have to avoid a third loss at Iowa.
Check out previews of those games and the full Week 8 Big Ten slate below. All games are played on Saturday, Oct. 22, and all times are Central.
Rutgers at Minnesota, 11 a.m., ESPN U
Whether Mitch Leidner will be back under center or not for the Gophers remains a mystery, but it surely will be a fresh face at quarterback for the Scarlet Knights after Chris Ash made a switch at the position this week, elevating Giovanni Rescigno to replace Chris Laviano. Rutgers could use any and every method to try and get its stumbling offense off the ground. The Knights were shut out, of course, by a combined 136-0 score in two games against top-three teams Ohio State and Michigan. But in two other Big Ten games — these against the much less impressive competition of Iowa and Illinois — Rutgers still mustered only a combined 14 points. Losing Janarion Grant was obviously the big blow. Maybe Rescigno can do something against Minnesota.
The Gophers, meanwhile, will look to replicate the rushing success they had a week ago against Maryland, when Rodney Smith ran for 144 yards and a pair of touchdowns and Shannon Brooks chipped in with 82 yards. That should be possible given that the Rutgers defense has been gashed on the ground by each of its last three opponents. Ohio State rushed for 410 yards, and Michigan went for 481 yards on the ground, eye-popping numbers from two of the best teams in America. But even Illinois rushed for a less-superhuman but still good 228 yards last weekend, a mighty good sign for the Gophers. Oh, and the Minnesota defense has surrendered just two touchdowns in the past two games.
No. 10 Wisconsin at Iowa, 11 a.m., ESPN
This game’s an interesting one when you look at the big picture of this season. Wisconsin, despite its two losses to two of the top three teams in the country, has looked tremendous this season and boasts a top-10 ranking. Iowa has no ranking to speak of thanks to two relatively embarrassing home defeats to North Dakota State and Northwestern. But it’s the Hawkeyes — because just one of those losses has come in conference play — who are ahead of the Badgers in the Big Ten West Division standings. So while a Wisconsin win might be far more anticipated this weekend, an Iowa win would make Wisconsin’s path to a division title extremely difficult. Of course, it’s undefeated Nebraska atop those standings, so right now the road to Indy goes through Lincoln.
When it comes to this week’s game, as mentioned, Wisconsin seems the overwhelming favorite. The Badgers’ defense has looked stellar even through two losses in the previous two games against Michigan and Ohio State. Wisconsin ranks eighth nationally in scoring defense (15.2 points per game) and 12th in total defense (311.3 yards per game) and gets a big boost this weekend with the return of linebacker Vince Biegel. The Badgers made the Wolverines and Buckeyes fight every last minute for the wins those teams pulled off. A Jekyll-and-Hyde Hawkeyes offense might have far more trouble, though it put up a whole mess of points and 520 yards last weekend against Purdue.
Two weeks ago, you would’ve been inclined to peg this as yet another defensive battle, what with Alex Hornibrook coming off that bad game against Michigan and the Iowa defense coming off a shut-down performance against Minnesota. But then the Hawkeyes went into West Lafayette and surrendered a monstrous second half to the Boilermakers, finishing the game with 35 points and 505 yards allowed. And Hornibrook and the Badgers’ offense looked terrific through a half against the Buckeyes’ defense last weekend and even pulled off a huge touchdown drive in the fourth quarter during an otherwise-silent second half.
Indiana at Northwestern, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network
Forget about the Northwestern team that started the season 1-3. As Pat Fitzgerald said earlier this week: “That team’s dead.” It certainly seems that way, as the Cats — who as you might rememberer scored just seven points in a loss to Illinois State — combined for 92 points and 852 total yards in a pair of eye-popping road victories over Iowa and Michigan State. Believe it or not, Northwestern boasts the Big Ten’s leading running back (Justin Jackson is averaging 116.3 yards a game after a career-high 188 yards last weekend) and the Big Ten’s leading receiver (Austin Carr is averaging 99.2 yards a game on 7.2 catches a game after a career-high 11 catches last weekend). An offense that couldn’t do a thing last season is now lighting up scoreboards across the conference.
The good news for this week’s Northwestern opponent, Indiana, is that this team actually plays defense now. As jarring as an explosive Wildcat offense is for those who watched last season, a capable Hoosier defense is just as noticeable. New defensive coordinator Tom Allen has worked some real magic, and now Indiana has good play on both sides of the ball, fifth in the conference in total offense and eighth in total defense. Those rankings might not seem like much to crow about, but remember the Hoosiers have been the Big Ten’s worst defensive team for seemingly the entirety of Kevin Wilson’s time there. Revitalized offense vs. revitalized defense? This could be a fun one in Evanston.
Illinois at No. 3 Michigan, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
This one’s shaping up to be another Michigan blowout, something the Wolverines have done in all of its wins but one to this point. Jim Harbaugh’s team is probably the nation’s finest when it comes to statistics, leading the country by limiting opponents to 10.3 points a game and ranking second (only behind Louisville) by scoring 50 points a game. Michigan had a bye last weekend, which has given it two weeks to prepare for a clearly overmatched Illinois team that last week got its first win over an FBS opponent under Lovie Smith. Throw out the 14-7 win over Wisconsin, and Michigan’s average margin of victory in those other five games is 46.2.
The Illini did have reason to be happy last weekend, getting Smith his first Big Ten win and his first win over a team not named Murray State. The quarterback situation is once again up in the air this weekend: Will Wes Lunt play, or will it be another game of Chayce Crouch? The only way Illinois keeps from disappearing out of Michigan’s rear-view mirror in the first quarter is by continuing to have success on the ground. The duo of Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin has served the Illini well, the team gaining a total of 543 rushing yards in the past two games. But those games were against Purdue and Rutgers. Michigan allows an average of 99.2 rush yards a game, the eighth-best rush defense in the nation.
Purdue at No. 8 Nebraska, 2:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN 2
Has there been a quieter top-10 team this season than the Huskers? Mike Riley’s team has a perfect record through six games, but the schedule hasn’t featured any marquee wins to date. Even the big win over Oregon looks nowhere near as big these days, with the Ducks nose-diving (bill-diving?) to a 2-4 record. But Nebraska has been real good, obviously led by Tommy Armstrong, who’s been perhaps the Big Ten’s next-best quarterback after Heisman candidate J.T. Barrett. And on defense, the Huskers’ secondary has been silently stellar, too. Only four teams in the country have intercepted more passes than Nebraska (which has 11), and only two teams in the country — Baylor and LSU —have allowed more touchdown passes than Nebraska (which has allowed only four). Remember that whole “the road to Indy goes through Lincoln” stuff from earlier? It’s true, but the Huskers will need to win this game to keep their record unblemished before back-to-back titanic tilts with Wisconsin and Ohio State.
Meanwhile, the Darrell Hazell Era came to an end last weekend at Purdue, and this will be the first game without the recently axed head coach. Despite how ugly the win-loss record always seems to look for the Boilermakers, things haven’t been all bad this season, even in light of what just happened to Hazell. Purdue is actually the No. 1 passing team in the Big Ten, averaging 305.5 yards through the air each week, and the total offense rank is fourth, with only the league's three undefeated teams ranking higher. When it comes to numbers, David Blough puts them up, there’s no doubt about that. Purdue’s lone Big Ten win last season came against Nebraska. Can that weird history repeat itself?
Michigan State at Maryland, 6:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
Both of these teams need a win, but Michigan State really needs to get off the schneid. It’s been four straight losses for a Spartans team that was again expected to compete for a Big Ten title. Well, that certainly won’t be happening this season, and the most recent loss was perhaps the most concerning. Michigan State allowed the most points it has in a home game in program history last weekend in the 54-40 loss to Northwestern. The defense has been miserable in the last four games, allowing an average of 34.8 points. On the season, the Spartans are now allowing more than 10 points per game more than they’re scoring. That’s trouble while the run game still struggles to produce and after Mark Dantonio’s quarterback experiment failed quickly last weekend.
Maryland also finds itself on a losing streak, two straight defeats after starting the season 4-0. During that undefeated beginning, the Terps were quietly a top-10 rushing team in the country, but that success has halted in recent weeks, with DJ Durkin’s team gaining 170 rush yards against Penn State and 130 yards against Minnesota. As mentioned, the Michigan State defense has been pretty gruesome, so perhaps this is the week Maryland can get its ground attack back on track.
No. 2 Ohio State at Penn State, 7 p.m., ABC
Will this be a repeat of the double-overtime thriller from 2014? Ohio State went into Happy Valley two years ago and was stymied by the Penn State defense, but the Buckeyes pulled out a huge character-building win en route to a national title. Some are saying this year’s version of that game came last weekend at Wisconsin, when Ohio State won an epic overtime affair. The Buckeyes are still undefeated after that test in Madison, with J.T. Barrett putting the team on his back in the second half and the defense rising to the occasion after a tough first half. Barrett scored three total touchdowns in that 2014 game against Penn State, including a pair of touchdown runs after regulation. Barrett’s Buckeyes once more have their sights on a national title and are looking the part. In addition to that 6-0 record, Ohio State ranks third in the country in scoring defense, fourth in the country in scoring offense, sixth in the country in total defense and 12th in the country in total offense.
While Barrett still runs the offense for Ohio State, one thing that almost surely won’t repeat itself from 2014 is Penn State’s rushing total. The Nittany Lions gained just 16 rushing yards in that game. You can almost guarantee that won’t be the case two years later, with Saquon Barkley looking like an absolute stud at every turn. At 97 yards a game, the sophomore ranks fourth in the Big Ten in rushing, but he has to be the conference leader in highlight-reel plays, making moves you’d have to mash your palm on a video-game controller to replicate. Ohio State’s defense is menacing, as those national rankings more than indicate. The Buckeyes rank third in the Big Ten with 121 rush yards allowed per game. But if Penn State can get Barkley going under Joe Moorhead’s new-and-improved offense, then maybe the Lions have a chance.