The Big Ten’s “Big 3” all held serve on Saturday as No. 1 Ohio State, No. 3 Michigan and No. 11 Penn State won their respective games by a combined 83 points to maintain their stranglehold on the league.
In doing so, the stage is set for an epic clash between the Wolverines and Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium later this week.
While everything was true to form in the Big Ten East, the same cannot be said for the topsy-turvy West: Wisconsin was felled by Indiana, Illinois upset Minnesota and Iowa regained the inside track by winning a game that featured 17 total points. It’s anyone’s guess who will win the darned thing.
Let’s dive into the specifics in this week’s Big Ten Stock Watch:
TreVeyon Henderson, RB, Ohio State: Another week, another spot in our “Stock Up” category for Henderson, whose return from an undisclosed midsection injury has injected the Buckeyes with some much-needed juice in the running game. Henderson topped 200 yards of total offense for the second consecutive week during Saturday’s 35-16 win over Rutgers, and he did so with an explosive combination of rushes and receptions that showcased exactly how dynamic he can be within head coach Ryan Day’s offense. His 22 carries for 128 yards and a score came on the heels of an electric 24-carry, 162-yard outing against Wisconsin the week prior. It was Henderson’s third consecutive 100-yard game overall dating to the win over Notre Dame on Sept. 23 in which he suffered the injury that sidelined him for several weeks.
Henderson also finished as the Buckeyes’ leading receiver with five catches for 80 yards against the Scarlet Knights. He outran four defenders during a weaving 65-yard catch and run early in the fourth quarter before a fifth player finally caught him deep in Rutgers territory. The reception helped flip the field on an Ohio State drive that ended with a 4-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Kyle McCord to wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. that pushed the lead to double digits.
Iowa’s defense: The truth about the Hawkeyes’ defense is that coordinator Phil Parker’s unit could probably land on this list every week given the incredible burden it shoulders on a team bereft of offensive competency. It’s hard to imagine the athletic director of another program in Iowa’s position — five games over .500 and with a clear path to its conference championship game — needing to step in and publicly announce a forthcoming change at offensive coordinator the way interim AD Beth Goetz did this week, all but firing Brian Ferentz at the midway point of the season. But that’s the world Iowa lives in with an offense ranked 133rd out of 133 FBS teams.
So it’s the defense that once again fueled Iowa’s 10-7 win over Northwestern on Saturday in a game that elevated the Hawkeyes to 7-2 overall and reclaimed control of the Big Ten West. Iowa established new season bests in total yards allowed (170) and passing yards allowed (81), with the latter representing the program’s fewest aerial yards surrendered since 2019. The Hawkeyes have now allowed one touchdown or fewer in seven of their first nine games this season and 16 of their last 22 games overall. They racked up five sacks, eight tackles for loss and 14 quarterback pressures while keeping Northwestern off the scoreboard until the 1:50 mark of the fourth quarter. Parker should be among the frontrunners for this year’s Broyles Award given to the nation’s top assistant coach.
Dante Cephas, WR, Penn State: On the surface, there wasn’t anything overly spectacular about Cephas’ stat line during Saturday’s 51-15 drubbing of Maryland that improved the Nittany Lions to 8-1 overall and 5-1 in the Big Ten. He didn’t lead the team in receptions (that was KeAndre Lambert-Smith) or receiving yards (Lambert-Smith again), and his longest catch netted just 15 yards. But by snagging six passes for 53 yards and two touchdowns, Cephas, who was a high-profile entrant into the transfer portal last winter, gave the struggling Nittany Lions’ passing game some hope entering the business end of the season.
One of the most glaring differences between Penn State and Ohio State during the league’s first of three landscape-defining matchups was how little juice the Nittany Lions had at wide receiver. And while it’s true that few teams, if any, have an assembly line to match what the Buckeyes have produced at receiver in recent years, Penn State’s scarcity of vertical threats was truly eye-opening. Other than Lambert-Smith, who leads the team with 51 catches for 645 yards and four scores, no receiver has topped 200 total yards this season.
But perhaps the win over Maryland can be a turning point for Cephas, who received praise from head coach James Franklin earlier in the week for his continued improvement after transferring from Kent State. Cephas was rated the No. 36 overall player and the No. 9 wide receiver in the portal after amassing 145 catches for 2,139 yards and 12 scores in four years with the Golden Flashes. And right now, a Penn State passing offense ranked 75th overall could certainly use his help.
Michigan State’s defense: Entering Saturday’s home duel with Nebraska, the Spartans had surrendered an average of 33.5 points per game during a six-game losing streak that began in mid-September. They’d been pummeled by Washington (41-7), drilled by Maryland (31-9) and shellacked by Michigan (49-0), with additional losses to Iowa, Rutgers and Minnesota. That the offensively challenged Hawkeyes scored 26 points against Michigan State speaks to the depth of the Spartans’ woes, though one of Iowa’s touchdowns did come on special teams via a lengthy punt return.
But Saturday’s forceful 20-17 win over Nebraska revealed a level of defensive disruption Michigan State has lacked for most of the year. Led by interim coach Harlon Barnett, a former defensive coordinator at Florida State and in East Lansing, the Spartans trashed the Cornhuskers’ offensive line for seven sacks and 12 tackles for loss — both of which were season-highs in Big Ten play. They generated a staggering 29 quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, with defensive tackle Simeon Barrow Jr. responsible for eight of them. Freshman defensive tackle Jalen Thompson was another bright spot with two sacks and one forced fumble. Michigan State translated that pressure into two interceptions, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery to finish with three takeaways for the second consecutive game.
Gavin Wimsatt, QB, Rutgers: There probably weren’t many preseason prognostications that called for Rutgers to win six of its first nine games and post a .500 record in Big Ten play after the first week of November. After all, eight years had passed since the Scarlet Knights last reached bowl eligibility by finishing the 2014 regular season 7-5 overall. Their appearance in the 2021 Gator Bowl with a 5-7 record came after Texas A&M withdrew due to an outbreak of COVID-19. In other words, it’s difficult to be critical of head coach Greg Schiano’s team because it wasn’t expected to be in this position.
But if the Scarlet Knights want to take the next step and become perennial bowl participants during Schiano’s second stint at the helm, they need to find a more consistent downfield passing game. Wimsatt completed just 10 of 25 passes for 129 yards, one touchdown and one interception during Saturday’s 35-16 loss to Ohio State, and his inability to create big plays through the air handcuffed a potential comeback when Rutgers trailed by five early in the fourth quarter. It marked the ninth consecutive game in which Wimsatt, a former four-star recruit, threw for fewer than 200 yards and the sixth time his completion percentage finished in the 40s. The last time his NFL passer rating topped 60 against a Power 5 opponent was a blowout loss to Michigan on Sept. 23.
Maryland’s rushing attack: After notching five straight wins to begin the season, Maryland remains mired in a lengthy losing streak following a 51-15 home loss to Penn State that continued to shed doubt on the team’s bowl outlook. Head coach Mike Locksley’s team will need to win one of its next three games against Nebraska (away), No. 3 Michigan (home) and Rutgers (away) to achieve bowl eligibility for a third consecutive year, something the program hasn’t accomplished since 2006-08 under Ralph Friedgen.
One of the biggest problems during Saturday’s home defeat to Penn State was the absence of an effective rushing attack alongside quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa. Facing the No. 2 run defense in the country, the Terrapins carried the ball 16 times for minus-49 yards, which is not a typo. Even without the unsightly rushing total from Tagovailoa, who lost 47 yards on eight carries, much of which can be attributed to sack yardage, Maryland’s collection of tailbacks still produced just minus-6 yards on seven attempts. The best of the bunch was Roman Hemby with five carries for 0 yards.
And while some of that inefficiency can be attributed to a lopsided score that forced the Terrapins to throw for much of the second half, it wasn’t until the 13:55 mark of the fourth quarter that Penn State’s lead swelled beyond 17 points. The bigger takeaway is that Maryland’s rushing offense has slipped to 110th nationally after finishing 81st last season.
Wisconsin: How quickly things can change in the wild and wacky Big Ten West. Two weeks ago, the Badgers entered a primetime showdown with then-No. 3 Ohio State at 5-2 overall and 3-1 in conference play. They were well-positioned to become legitimate challengers for the division title — and the subsequent berth in the Big Ten Championship game — during head coach Luke Fickell’s first season, especially after Iowa’s unexpected stumble against Minnesota the week prior.
But then the Badgers lost a hard-fought game to Ohio State, which shifted control back to Iowa. And then on Saturday they were stunned by Indiana, 20-14, during a road loss that dropped them to fourth in the West behind Iowa (7-2 overall, 4-2 Big Ten); Nebraska (5-4 overall, 3-3 Big Ten) and Minnesota (5-4 overall, 3-3 Big Ten). Losing to an Indiana team that entered the game 2-21 in conference play since the start of 2021 was equal parts humbling and a missed opportunity.
With a rash of injuries at quarterback, running back and wide receiver, Wisconsin gained 30 or fewer yards on seven of 12 drives against the Hoosiers and finished with a deficit of nearly seven minutes in time of possession. The Badgers were 0-for-3 on fourth down to stymie drives that ended at the IU 42-yard line, the IU 32-yard line and their own 30-yard line. They were also flagged for 78 yards worth of penalties on eight infractions.
Heinrich Haarberg, QB, Nebraska: Haarberg gave the Cornhuskers an instant spark when he replaced the injured Jeff Sims early in the season. At 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, he became the focal point of Nebraska’s offense as a hard-charging, dual-threat quarterback: 21 carries for 98 yards and a touchdown against Northern Illinois, 19 carries for 157 yards and a touchdown against Louisiana Tech, 18 carries for 82 yards and a touchdown against Illinois, 16 carries for 72 yards and a touchdown against Northwestern — all of which were wins.
Haarberg’s production with his legs has overshadowed some significant deficiencies with his throwing arm, which he’s used to complete just 50% of his passes and an underwhelming 7-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio this season. His aerial struggles become more pronounced in games when the rushing attack hits the proverbial wall, and that was certainly the case in Saturday’s surprising 20-17 loss to Michigan State. Haarberg only netted 31 yards on 14 attempts against the Spartans and fumbled twice, one of which was lost, in what has become a frustrating pattern: He has at least two fumbles in six consecutive games, according to Pro Football Focus. With the running game slowed to a halt, Haarberg completed just 12 of 28 passes for 129 yards and two interceptions.
Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.
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