Photo: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
Week one was…interesting.
Maryland put 51 points on Texas in Austin. Rutgers fought back and forth with Washington, who last played against Alabama in the playoff. Indiana fought with Ohio State until the Buckeyes scored 29 straight behind a true freshman running back’s breakout week.
There’s a crazy storyline for every game from week one, and that’s what makes Big Ten football the best. Building off of that interesting set of first games, here’s what I’m going to watch for in week two:
Can Northwestern start hot?
The Wildcats have had some interesting week one battles throughout Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure. Last week’s game certainly makes that list. Clayton Thorson was much improved through the air, connecting on 28 of his 38 attempts including some deep balls. He looks like a quarterback who is taking that next step in his third season as the starter. His patience in the pocket, decision making and accuracy on his throws have all improved from last season. With Northwestern looking to fill Austin Carr’s shoes in the receiving game, Thorson’s improved play could go a long way in determining this team’s destiny.
Duke is coming off of a dominant win over a far inferior opponent in North Carolina Central, but they dominated the game from start to finish. The Blue Devils allowed less than 100 yards passing and less than 160 total yards in a 60-7 blowout. True freshman running back Brittain Brown impressed in his collegiate debut, eclipsing the 100-yard mark on just 10 carries. Three Duke quarterbacks found 13 different receivers on the afternoon, giving them plenty of options to test Northwestern’s experienced but injured secondary. Luckily for the Wildcats, both Marcus McShepard and his backup Brian Bullock are listed on this week’s depth chart and should be able to go.
To me, this game could very well be decided in the opening 30 minutes. We’ve seen Northwestern dig itself into a hole too big to climb out of before. If Duke establishes a run game and Northwestern continues to struggle getting to the quarterback on passing plays, the Blue Devils might control this one.
How will Penn State respond to last season’s loss against Pitt?
This game ruined Penn State’s season in 2016. Had they won, the Nittany Lions would have likely found themselves in the college football playoff.
This season, however, the Panthers are without a lot of production they had last year. Starting quarterback Nathan Peterman and running back James Conner are gone, while Penn State returns both their starting quarterback and running back. It won’t be the tallest task to ask the Nittany Lions to score points in bunches this weekend, just like they did last year. They should be able to control this game and put away any doubt that Pennsylvania is their state.
Saquon Barkley found the endzone four times in last year’s matchup against a better Pittsburgh defense. After his week one performance and how much this game means to him and his teammates, he should have no trouble putting up big numbers once again. The spread for this one is big, and rightfully so. If Penn State can put some big time points on the board and run away with this one, they will position themselves perfectly for a Big Ten East race bound to go down to the final week.
Photo: Getty Images
Is Michigan State back?
The good news: Michigan State played well against a formidable MAC opponent last weekend.
Brian Lewerke stepped up at quarterback for the Spartans and threw for three touchdowns in their win, one that was much needed after a disastrous season last year and a hectic offseason. Despite three turnovers, the offense looked good and held the ball for almost two-thirds of the game.
Perhaps more importantly, Mark Dantonio’s defense looked like, well, a Mark Dantonio defense. They scored a touchdown, held their opponent to 10 points, and dominated on third downs, keeping Bowling Green between the chains on 11 of 13 third downs.
The bad news: their opponent this weekend, Western Michigan, played well against a playoff contender on the road last weekend. The Broncos controlled the tempo for much of their game against USC, forced two turnovers out of Heisman candidate Sam Darnold and took the Trojans into the fourth quarter in a tie game.
They did most of their damage on the ground, racking up 263 total rushing yards on almost 50 attempts. Without Zach Terrell, the Broncos will only succeed in this one if they can successfully run the ball. If Michigan State can control this game and limit Western Michigan on the ground, they will have a lot of confidence going into a potentially enormous game against Notre Dame the following week.
Can Indiana rebound?
If the Hoosiers want to go bowling for a third straight season, this is a must-win game. Rarely is there a week two “must-win,” but this is as close to that as there could be as Indiana travels to face Virginia in what could prove to be a very interesting matchup.
This week, Tom Allen praised Virginia’s run defense, which should cause major concern for Indiana fans. If they can’t run the ball this weekend (or any weekend for that matter), they’re going to have a very hard time winning football games. Their passing attack only kept them afloat for just over two quarters last week, and Richard Lagow can only do so much when there are no holes for the running backs to hit.
On the bright side, Virginia let up 168 rushing yards to William and Mary last weekend, so the holes will be there for Indiana. The Cavaliers are certainly not Ohio State, so I fully expect the Hoosiers to be able to run it with more ease this time around.
Their defense looked solid against the Buckeyes, with the exception of a few plays. Against a team like Ohio State, a few plays are all it takes for a game to go from tied to over. There is no reason Indiana should lose this game, and if they do, it will almost certainly be due to lack of ability to stop the run and a simple lack of desire to play. The “Ohio State Hangover” is most certainly an illness caught by many teams in the past, but Indiana is coming off of nine days of rest, which should give them ample time to prepare.