Photo: Lake Fong | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Conference play is finally here, and there is no shortage of interesting matchups. From teams on the rise to prove-it games, the slate is finally exciting. Here’s what I’m watching for over the weekend.
Prove It To Me, Tough Guy
So, James Franklin. I’ve been awfully tough on you this year. The target is on your team’s back, partially because of the surprising year last year, partially because of expectations with returning stars, and partially because, well, you like to talk the talk before you’ve walked the walk. From calling his in-state rival, which ruined Penn State’s season last year, comparable to Akron, to icing Georgia State’s kicker to hold on for a 56-0 shutout (and no, I’m not buying into his explanation), Franklin is treading in deep water.
That’s all in the past now, and the Nittany Lions travel to arguably the toughest place to play in the conference—Kinnick Stadium. Iowa is not a great team thus far, but any Iowa team can pull an upset under Kirk Ferentz at home (see: Michigan, 2016). Josey Jewell will ensure his defense is ready to go against Saquon Barkley. At Big Ten Media Days, Jewell talked about how he loves watching Indiana linebacker Tegray Scales on film and how he learns a lot from Scales’ play. Well, last year, Scales’ Hoosiers held Barkley to 58 yards on 33 carries. Think Jewell will be watching film from that game? Me too.
This game will be exciting. Kinnick will be rocking. And maybe, just maybe, James Franklin will be forced to walk the walk.
Purdue’s Opportunity Is Here
The Boilers are on a roll, that’s no secret. Jeff Brohm has his team maximizing its potential through the first three weeks. There’s not a Purdue fan out there who isn’t giddy right now. After a nice showcase against two pretty weak teams in the past two games, the Boilers welcome Michigan into Ross-Ade Stadium on Saturday afternoon in what could be the biggest game for Purdue since a guy named Drew Brees walked the campus.
Can they win this game? Absolutely. Michigan’s secondary is far from what it was last season, and David Blough is playing great football. However, he is able to find the endzone because Purdue has been able to establish a running game, something it may have trouble doing in this one against Michigan’s front seven. If it can, and Blough has enough time to find his open receivers, this one could come down to the wire.
On the other hand, we haven’t really heard from the Wolverines or Jim Harbaugh this year. Their opening weekend win was nice, but overshadowed by other big games. They have been underwhelming ever since, too. Harbaugh hasn’t made news headlines by something outlandish, and they aren’t beating teams 78-0. This is a perfect chance for his team to make a statement on the road against one of the nation’s most surprising teams. I think this one will go the distance.
After wildly disappointing seasons in 2016, there are perhaps no two big-name programs that need a win this weekend more than Michigan State and Notre Dame. Conveniently, they face each other this weekend. Just one season removed from the playoff, Mark Dantonio is ready to get his Spartans back to the top of the Big Ten. On the other sideline, Brian Kelly could be in his final season as head coach at Notre Dame.
All of these storylines mixed with the inexperience both sides have should make for a fun game. Michigan State seems to have found comfort in its quarterback situation, and so has Notre Dame, following a big week for Brandon Wimbush.
But the Spartans have taken on an image that brought them great success in the past: a hard-nosed defensive team that can run the ball. They rank 83rd nationally in passing, but are top 20 on the ground. And while their defense has shown improvement, ranking 12th nationally in scoring defense, they aren’t forcing as many turnovers as they have in years past. Needless to say, this is a team that is still trying to find and establish its identity.
The winner of this game will be rewarded with a much-needed victory, along with a confidence boost, as they enter the middle of the season.