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Zach Pekale | | October 25, 2020

14 observations from the Big Ten's return to college football

AP poll breakdown: Ohio State is No. 3; Penn State falls

The Big Ten made its 2020 college football debut in Week 8. Before Wisconsin and Illinois kicked off the league's new season, a Big Ten team had not been part of a competitive football game in well over nine months — all the way back on Jan. 2 when Indiana played in the Gator Bowl.

It was the Hoosiers again in the league's spotlight on Saturday after Indiana stunned Penn State in an overtime thriller. That upset was just one memorable moment from this weekend's games. Here are 14 observations from the Big Ten's return to college football:

Indiana stuns Penn State, earns first top-10 win since 1987

1. Indiana had lost 42 straight games to top-10 opponents, a streak dating all the way back to 1987. That skid came to end on Saturday as the Hoosiers stunned No. 8 Penn State 36-35 in overtime. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. connected with wide receiver Whop Philyor for IU's overtime touchdown before the signal-caller's full-body extension narrowly broke the plane for an upset-clinching, two-point conversion. Indiana led 17-7 at the half before falling behind 28-20, only to send the game to overtime on a touchdown run and two-point conversion by Penix Jr. The Hoosiers held the ball for less than 20 minutes and were outgained 488-211, picking up 100 of those yards on the game-tying and game-winning drives.

2. Coming into the 2020 season, Penn State was viewed as a team that could potentially contend in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions still have plenty of football left to be played, but the road ahead just got a whole lot harder. Without looking at the score, you might have thought Penn State dominated Indiana. PSU more than doubled the Hoosiers in total yardage and possessed the ball for over 40 minutes. Yet it was IU who had college football's No. 8 team on the ropes for most of this contest, in part due to self-inflicted mistakes. Penn State committed three turnovers and 10 penalties for 100 yards in addition to missing three field goals. The Nittany Lions will have to beat Ohio State at home to avoid an 0-2 start.

Michigan runs wild in blowout win over Minnesota

3. Replacing a multi-year starting quarterback is not an easy task. Michigan junior Joe Milton looked comfortable in his first career start, but the Wolverines' rushing attack likely helped ease him in. No. 18 Michigan rolled 49-24 past No. 21 Minnesota behind its run game. The Wolverines ran for 253 yards and five touchdowns while picking up 8.2 yards per carry. A year ago, UM averaged 150.7 rushing yards per contest. An extra year of experience for running backs Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins gives head coach Jim Harbaugh the option to shift the focus of his offense to the ground. Against Minnesota, Charbonnet had 70 yards and one touchdown while Haskins added 82 yards and two scores. Milton finished with 277 total yards and a pair of touchdowns in the win. 

4. Minnesota was unable to contain Michigan's offense on Saturday. A year ago, the Golden Gophers allowed an average of 122 rushing yards and 22 points per game, maxing out at 178 rushing yards allowed in a single game. The Wolverines comfortably exceeded that total with 253 yards and five touchdowns. A positive thing to note in this game is the potential emergence of running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who became the Gophers' starter this year. The redshirt junior racked up 140 yards and two touchdowns in the loss.

Ohio State uses balanced attack to pull away from Nebraska

5. Ohio State has been an AP top-5 team for much of the past two months, despite Saturday being its first game of the season. Aside from two long Nebraska drives, the Buckeyes appeared to back up that ranking in a 52-17 win over the Huskers. Quarterback Justin Fields had 276 passing yards and threw for more touchdowns (2) than incompletions (1). Fields added 54 yards and a score on the ground as part of a rushing attack that piled up 215 yards and four scores. Throw in a pair of takeaways by the defense and this looks like a pretty complete performance ahead of a clash with Penn State.

6. Nebraska is looking to turn things around in its third year under head coach Scott Frost. The Huskers were 0-4 against ranked opponents last year, a trend that continued into 2020. Nebraska showed glimpses of promise against Ohio State, primarily in the run game where it racked up 210 yards to the tune of 5.8 yards per carry to go with two touchdowns. A potential area of concern moving forward is Nebraska's passing game. Quarterbacks Luke McCaffrey and Adrian Martinez both played, combining for just 160 passing yards.

Rutgers forces seven turnovers in first Big Ten win since 2017 

7. Welcome back, Greg Schiano. After eight seasons away from Piscataway, Schiano returned to the helm for the Scarlet Knights — where he coached from 2001-11 — with his defensive pedigree on full display. In Rutgers' 38-27 win over Michigan State, the defense recorded seven takeaways and held the Spartans to 50 rushing yards. Last year, the Knights forced 10 turnovers the entire season. The offense shouldn't expect that kind of help weekly and will need to clean up its own turnovers, but all that matters right now is that Rutgers is back in the Big Ten win column for the first time in three seasons.

8. Let's look on the bright side for Michigan State. The Spartans got 319 yards and three touchdowns out of quarterback Rocky Lombardi while holding Rutgers below 300 yards of offense and forcing three turnovers — all good signs from head coach Mel Tucker's debut. More often than not, that's enough to win games in the Big Ten. But giving up 38 points complicates things and seven giveaways creates an added level of pressure on the defense when having to defend a shortened field. Outside of Rutgers' opening-drive touchdown, the Scarlet Knights never had to go more than 54 yards for points.

Wisconsin's Mertz debuts with record-setting night, win over Illinois 

9. When Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan went down with a foot injury in early October, focus shifted to highly touted freshman Graham Mertz for what would come next. Well, what came next was a historic performance in Wisconsin's 45-7 win over Illinois. Mertz tied two school records with 17 consecutive completions and five passing touchdowns. He was a perfect 14-of-14 with four touchdowns in the first half alone. He finished 20-of-21 for 248 yards with the only incompletion being a dropped pass, though his 95.2 completion percentage is a new single-game record at Wisconsin.

10. It's hard to judge a team after one game. Illinois was streaky in 2019, ripping off a four-game winning streak while also enduring skids of three and four losses in a row. Their first showing in 2020 had glimpses of promise. The defense forced a turnover and returned it for a touchdown while the run game averaged 5.2 yards per carry on 25 carries. The Illini had the ball for just 16:32 of Friday's loss to Wisconsin, a product of the Badgers stringing together multiple drives of more than 10 plays while Illinois struggled to extend drives, converting 2-of-10 on third down.

Purdue holds off Iowa without Brohm, Moore

11. Purdue faced the challenge of opening its 2020 season without head coach Jeff Brohm and star wide receiver Rondale Moore. But the Boilermakers rose to the challenge with a 24-20 comeback win over Iowa. Quarterback Aidan O'Connell overcame two second-half interceptions to throw for 282 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner to David Bell with 2:15 remaining. Bell stepped up in Moore's absence, bringing in 13 receptions for 121 yards and all three of O'Connell's touchdown passes. Purdue's defensive adjustments also played a big role in the win as Iowa ran 12 plays in Purdue territory during the second half and converted four third downs on 13 attempts for the game. 

12. Iowa led most of the game until the final few minutes of Saturday's game. The Hawkeyes were effective in moving the ball as they piled up 460 yards of offense and got rushing touchdowns from running back Mekhi Sargent and quarterback Spencer Petras. It was mistakes that cost Iowa in this contest. Both Sargent and fellow running back Tyler Goodson fumbled deep in Purdue territory, ending a pair of promising drives. Sargent's giveaway was untimely in particular as Purdue capitalized off the turnover for the go-ahead score. The Hawkeyes will also look back on their 10 penalties for 100 yards as another area for improvement.

Northwestern rolls Maryland behind run game, defense

13. The 43 points Northwestern scored in its 43-3 win over Maryland is the most by the Wildcats against a Big Ten opponent since November 2016. Northwestern's rushing attack was dominant on Saturday, producing four rushing touchdowns and more than 300 yards on the ground. Running backs Isaiah BowserDrake Anderson and Evan Hull each found the end zone while quarterback Peyton Ramsey added a fourth score. The defense was equally stifling, holding Maryland to 207 total yards and keeping the Terrapins on their own side of the field on all but four drives.

14. Maryland was held below 20 points for the sixth game in a row against Big Ten competition. While Northwestern's defense was disruptive and won the line of scrimmage, it's also important to remember how new Maryland's system is for starting quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa. His three turnovers are an area of concern, but he transferred to Maryland in May and was only granted eligibility for the 2020 season in August. Learning a new playbook and system takes time, something most teams were unable to do in person over the summer. If Maryland's defense can hold up better next week against Minnesota, it'll also give Tagovailoa more time to develop a rhythm.

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