The Big Ten is pretty firmly cemented as the second strongest conference in college football, with five teams in the AP Top 25 compared to the SEC’s seven. Notwithstanding some surprising results in the Big Ten East, in the big picture not much has changed after Week 1. Northwestern - despite being shut out in the second half - held on for an impressive conference road win in primetime on ESPN, earning them a respectable 28 points in the AP poll (and, for now, putting them on top of the Big Ten standings!). On the offensive side of the ball, Jeremy Larkin (143 yards, 2 TDs) erased any doubt that he can adequately fill Justin Jackson’s shoes. Furthermore, joy at the return of Clayton Thorson (16-26, 172 yards) was met with skepticism over the use of a series limit on Thorson that resulted in a few stalled drives with TJ Green at the helm.
Defensively, the Wildcats proved both big-play ability in securing three key interceptions, and strength in limiting Purdue to 10 second-half points to bail out a struggling offense. With Northwestern in a favorable (though not too comfortable) position heading into Week 2, looking around the rest of the Big Ten sheds light on what barriers stand between the Wildcats and their goals of a division and a conference championship.
Big Ten West
Let’s start with Purdue. The silver lining of the loss was the emergence of true freshman Rondale Moore, who garnered 313 yards from scrimmage and flat-out embarrassed Northwestern defenders on multiple occasions (looking at you, Trae Williams). The native Hoosier had offers from the likes of Ohio State, Penn State, and Texas, but instead, Moore will prove to be a force in the Big Ten West for the foreseeable future. He’s not just fast: at 5’9, 175 lbs, Moore can squat 600 lbs. That’s scary. Beyond him, we learned that new head coach Jeff Brohm needs to keep his players more disciplined if they are to pull off any upsets the rest of the way. The Boilermakers had nine penalties to Northwestern’s six, the most important being a big personal foul on Lorenzo Neal late in the fourth quarter that erased their comeback hopes.
Oh my goodness. Purdue’s Rondale Moore has moves. pic.twitter.com/Pdf4dohHVL— Max Olson (@max_olson) August 31, 2018
Wisconsin rolled to a 34-3 win over the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and are still the clear favorite in the division. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, and maybe it’s just a testament to how good this team really is, but after looking at highlights the Badgers do not look indestructible. The vaunted offensive line allowed three sacks, and while Jonathan Taylor picked up right where he left off with 145 yards, I was left thinking that Thorson just might be able to beat Alex Hornibrook in a shootout if that’s what it comes down to on Oct. 27 at Ryan Field. I certainly wouldn’t put money on that scenario unfolding, however.
Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois all posted comfortable wins against inferior opponents. Minnesota was the most impressive, with PJ Fleck’s squad crushing New Mexico State 48-10. Seth Green scored a pair of rushing touchdowns, but he has seen time at quarterback and tight end in the past and it will interesting to see how his skillset is utilized as the season wears on. One relative certainty is that the Wildcats will not repeat last year’s 39-0 destruction of the Gophers when the two teams battle in Minneapolis on Nov. 17.
To round out the Big Ten West, Nebraska’s game against Akron was postponed due to thunderstorms, depriving Northwestern fans of getting a sneak peek of two upcoming opponents.
Big Ten East
The teams I want to focus on here are #21 Michigan and #15 Michigan State because they are Northwestern opponents in the next month in addition to being programs that the Wildcats are looking up at in their quest for a Big Ten championship.
#21 Notre Dame embarassed Michigan on Saturday night, causing the Wolverines to fall to #8 Notre Dame, 24-17, in a game more lopsided than the score suggests. The Fighting Irish led for more than 58 minutes and their defensive line dominated the Wolverines’ offensive tackles while Notre Dame converted seven third downs. Perhaps most concerningly, Michigan is now 9-9 in its last 18 games (Northwestern is 14-4). The Wolverines have not finished higher than third in the Big Ten East in the Jim Harbaugh era, and Saturday’s performance does nothing to suggest this year will be any different. In my opinion, a Northwestern win over Michigan on September 29 would be the most satisfying and would create the most national buzz around the program (as long as the Wildcats take care of Duke and Akron). It is also the most realistic.
#15 Michigan State beat the Utah State Aggies by one touchdown, dropping them four spots in the AP poll. The pass defense allowed over 300 yards, and the offensive line failed to open holes for running back LJ Scott as he rushed 23 times for just 84 yards. That being said, it is hard to feel optimistic about Northwestern’s chances entering East Lansing with a target on their back against an elite team on October 6.
Otherwise, #4 Ohio State cruised to a 71-33 win over Power 5 opponent Oregon State to leapfrog Wisconsin in the AP Poll, while #13 Penn State showed defensive flaws in a 45-38 overtime win over Appalachian State. Maryland pulled off an impressive upset win over Texas as freshman Jeshaun Jones scored a rushing touchdown and a receiving touchdown in a performance eerily similar to the aforementioned Rondale Moore. Finally, Indiana defeated FIU and Rutgers started off the season with a big win over Texas State.
Jeshaun Jones has 2 TDs in his first 2 touches for Maryland and the Longhorns are looking... shaky pic.twitter.com/66iu2cet7H— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) September 1, 2018