In two weeks, the Big Ten has gone from having five ranked teams to three: Wisconsin fell out of the rankings after Week 2 and this week, Michigan State was dropped after a poor showing at Washington (39-28 final).
The three teams that remain in the top 25, though – (3) Ohio State, (4) Michigan, and (14) Penn State – looked great in Week 3 matchups that included Michigan’s 59-0 shutout against UConn and an impressive 41-12 win for Penn State on the road at Auburn.
Fortunately for Michigan State, their loss to a possibly-better-than-we-thought Washington team wasn’t the worst showing in the conference last Saturday; that accolade goes to Nebraska, whose loss to No. 6 Oklahoma wasn’t as close as the 49-14 score makes it sound.
Week 4 features eight Big Ten teams in their first conference matchups of the season, including Michigan and Ohio State, both playing at home.
Maryland’s trip to the Big House should be telling for No. 4 Michigan
The Michigan Wolverines (3-0) have won their first three games by a combined score of 166-17, and yet, it’s not clear how good the team is. Its all-home schedule against Colorado State, Hawaii, and UConn hasn’t put Michigan to the test so far – they’re blowing out teams that they should be blowing out, which doesn’t tell us much.
That isn’t to say Michigan is likely to lose to Maryland (3-0) on Saturday; Michigan is better on paper across the board and it’s unlikely they give this game away to the Terps, who are also undefeated (albeit less convincingly) through three non-conference games. But a team worthy of the No. 4 ranking will make a win look easy and shut down the Maryland offense (Michigan is allowing a third-best 194 yards per game), and a team not worthy of that ranking… won’t.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh didn’t give away much when asked about how Michigan has prepared for their first conference test, remarking only on the great work ethic and leadership he’s seen from his players. But he did note that they have their guard up after winning the conference last season: “There’s a big target [on our backs]. Whenever you’re a defending champion, it’s gonna be there.”
Maryland coach Mike Locksley put the Terrapins’ mental approach simply on Tuesday when he said, “We have nothing to lose.” He noted that Michigan has been more disciplined than his team through three games, citing penalty numbers: Michigan is third-best in the FBS in penalty yards given away this season (65); Maryland is third-worst (271). “We always talk about trying to close the gap on teams like that,” Locksley told reporters on Tuesday. “This affords us an opportunity to see how and where we fit.”
“[We’ll] try to play to the best of our ability and keep the game really tight and get it to the fourth quarter. And you never know what can happen.”
No. 3 Ohio State puts offense to first big test against Wisconsin
Third-ranked Ohio State (3-0) faces its first conference test in hosting Wisconsin (2-1), which was ranked 19th before losing in a Week 2 upset to Washington State. Ohio State opened with a big win at home against Notre Dame, a win that lost some of its luster after Notre Dame lost to Marshall in Week 2.
That said, the Buckeyes are the best offensive team in the nation through three weeks with an average 565.3 yards per game, and Wisconsin is expected to be the best defense the team has faced so far. After OSU put 77 points on Toledo in Week 3, offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said, “As good as the offense might look, the offense is not good until the end of the year and you can see how tough and how consistent it is.”
“Wisconsin epitomizes Big Ten football,” OSU coach Ryan Day said on Thursday, noting the Badgers’ physical style of play and calling Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz and RB Braelon Allen “the best we’ve seen” at both positions.
The Badgers rebounded in Week 3 with a 66-7 win over New Mexico State, but that hasn’t changed their underdog status going into Saturday at The Shoe, where Wisconsin hasn’t won since 2004.
Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst complimented the formidable Buckeyes offense, calling C.J. Stroud “a heck of a quarterback” and remarking on the challenge his defense will face in OSU: “They do a great job of threatening and using the whole field.”
Ohio State will don blackout uniforms for the primetime matchup, which is the team’s fourth straight home game.
Michigan State looks for rebound against Minnesota team with momentum
Of all the Big Ten contests in Week 4, this one figures to be the most intriguing. Michigan State (2-1) is unranked for the first time this season after the Spartans struggled to compete at Washington last week, which could make the home game against Minnesota (3-0) a revenge game or a letdown spot.
Head coach Mel Tucker called the Washington result “very disappointing” after the Spartans’ secondary got chewed up by the Huskies, led by QB Michael Penix Jr. Tucker listed the major issues as poor communication and missed assignments rather than schematic problems, and said he took the failures personally: “I’m a horse—t football coach right now.”
“We’re going to be defined by how we respond,” Tucker said. “We have to raise our level of intensity in what we’re doing…You have to learn from adversity.”
Minnesota has earned three solid wins in non-conference play so far, showing balance with great numbers on both sides of the ball: the Golden Gophers are second in the FBS in offensive yards per game (554.7) and second in yards allowed per game (170.3).
“We know it’s going to be a hostile environment… They’re a dangerous football team,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said this week, specifically noting the strength of the Michigan State defensive front, which gave up only 30 rush yards to Washington last Saturday.
Minnesota will need some productivity on the ground, especially after wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell suffered a season-ending leg injury in Week 3 against Colorado, for which he underwent surgery on Wednesday. Autman-Bell was leading the Gophers with 11 receptions and 214 receiving yards.
The Gophers are averaging a second-in-FBS 312.7 rush yards per game so far, but the Spartans present the first big defensive challenge of their season.
As Michigan State adjusts its defensive approach and Minnesota tweaks its offense, this game is expected to be a close one: Minnesota is a slight road favorite entering the weekend.
Iowa heads to Rutgers for Defensive Clash
The Iowa Hawkeyes (2-1) and Rutgers Scarlet Knights (3-0) face off Saturday night with Rutgers at home, looking to start the season 4-0 for the first time in a decade (2012).
It won’t be an easy path for the Scarlet Knights, whose quarterback situation leaves plenty to be desired – Evan Simon and Gavin Wimsatt combined for 59 pass yards against Temple in Week 3 – and who likely won’t catch a break against an Iowa defense that’s allowed 13 points across three games this season.
Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said there are “several” offensive things he wants to fix, and also said injured QB Noah Vedral’s status will be a game-time decision on Saturday. The recent passing numbers for the team make a Vedral return all the more appealing to the Rutgers faithful.
Opposite Iowa’s renowned defense, Rutgers boasts strong defensive stats as well – the team is second in FBS in rush yards allowed (less than 33 per game) and Iowa has scored three of its lowly four touchdowns this season on the ground.
Iowa is coming off an easy but long 27-0 win over Nevada in Week 3: with nearly four hours of weather delays, the game lasted almost seven hours.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz acknowledged the parallels between his team and Schiano’s, noting the defense but also the strong punters both teams will bring to the game.
“They don’t do dumb things,” Ferentz said of the Knights. “They make you earn anything you get.”