Fasten your seat belts Big Ten fans, because at approximately 2:30pm central time on Saturday, November 15th, the race for the B1G West division will all but be decided over the course of a 3 hour (most likely 4 hour) football game, as it’s the Wisconsin Badgers vs. Nebraska Cornhukers.
The two teams will be battling for the first-ever Freedom Trophy, a trophy some veterans are not too happy with and many fans wish would go back to the drawing board.
Technically, Minnesota is still in contention for the West division as well, but it would take not one, but two massive upsets in Lincoln and Madison (in back-to-back weeks no less) to pull it off.
Bo Pelini comes into Saturday’s matchup without a true road win over a ranked opponent since 2011. His last win over a ranked opponent was Penn State, and that game was played under some extenuating circumstances (that was the Jerry Sandusky Scandal week). Since that win in Happy Valley, Pelini’s Huskers are 0-5 in games played against ranked teams that were not held at the comfy confines of Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb.
Nebraska is still in contention for the college football playoff if they were to win their remaining 3 games as well as knock off No. 8 Ohio State in the B1G title game. But after being dropped 3 spots by the College Football Playoff committee on their bye week (from 13 to 16), it is clear that the college football selection committee wants to see Nebraska prove themselves on the field. This much is clear, a win at Camp Randell will look very good on any team’s playoff resume. Since 2004, Only LSU (69) and Ohio St (68) have recorded more wins at home than Wisconsin has (67).
Gary Andersen is currently in his second year at Wisconsin, and he has yet to record a “big” win to help win over some wavering fans who are unsure about the new head man. Saturday’s contest represents a great opportunity for coach Andersen to go ahead and get that first “big” win at Wisconsin.
The only other ranked team to visit Camp Randell since Andersen arrived in 2013 was the 19th ranked Northwestern Wildcats. That game was a 35-6 blowout in favor of Wisconsin. I would be surprised by anything less than a fantastic college football game come Saturday.
I am going to highlight some keys to look for on Saturday:
Keys for a Nebraska win:
1) Play a clean game – anything more than one turnover will be a lot to overcome on the road. Penalties will be drive killers against the top ranked Wisconsin defense. Nebraska needs a clean performance from its players to deliver a big win on the field.
2) Stay committed to the running game – regardless of star tailback Ameer Abdullah’s health, Nebraska must not fall in love with the pass against Wisconsin’s top ranked pass defense. Even if they don’t have immediate success running the ball, Tim Beck needs to stay patient and incorporate Tommy Armstrong and Imani Cross into the running game in order for it to be successful.
3) Defensively, don’t allow the big play – This one is much easier said than done against the top running back duo in the nation in Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement. The defense needs to react much better to the jet sweep (which i can guarantee UW will run at some point) than they did in the teams last meeting in 2012. Wisconsin also likes to shoot for big plays in the passing game as well too keep opposing teams’ defensive backs honest. Gordon will get his, (averages approximately 166 rushing ypg) but holding Wisconsin to field goals in the red-zone will be a great indicator of the outcome. Gary Andersen’s record when Wisconsin scores more than 30 points is 12-1, with the lone loss at Arizona St (in which the officials completely mishandled the final seconds of the game).
Keys to a Wisconsin win:
1) Force Tommy Armstrong to beat you with his arm – Armstrong is one of the best running quarterbacks in the B1G, but the Huskers passing game isn’t especially strong. Wideouts Kenny Bell and Jordan Westerkamp will receive most (if not all) of the targets when Nebraska does elect to pass. Wisconsin would much rather rush the passer anyways, as outside linebackers Vince Biegel and inside linebacker Derek Landisch will be looking to get after Armstrong with a variety of different blitzes and stunts at the line of scrimmage.
2) Be sound in special teams – Nebraska has a very deadly return game this season. Demornay Pierson-El has already taken 2 punt returns for scores and Ameer Abdullah has been returning kickoffs for the past few weeks. Gary Andersen was harping about how the punt and kickoff coverage units need to improve earlier this week. Field position could easily decide the game with a big return at a critical juncture. Wisconsin needs to be ready to go come Saturday.
3) Andy Ludwig needs to play to his quarterbacks’ individual strengths – This has improved in the past couple of games but it remains very important. Wisconsin uses a two quarterback system with two players with different skill sets. When Stave is in the game, keep him in the pocket and let him air it out on early downs to keep the huskers D off balance. When McEvoy is in the game, utilize his mobility by moving the pocket and running some triple option with Gordon/Clement in the backfield. If Ludwig can play to his quarterbacks strengths and not ask them to do too much, it will only make things easier on Saturday.
Whether the fanbases like it or not, this yearly matchup between perennial B1G powers is quickly blossoming into one of the B1G’s best rivalry games. If you are a fan of college football, Saturday’s 2:30 pm time slot has it all. Get your popcorn ready!
Pair of Big Ten players named to PFF mid-season All-American team
It hasn’t been a banner year for the Big Ten, with it seeming more and more like the days of the big two and little 10 (12 today). So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that All-American honors are few and far between.
But, it was near barren for the Big Ten when Pro Football Focus gave out its mid-season All-American honors. Just two players — both on offense — made the cut from the conference.
Ohio State wide receiver K.J. Hill and Wisconsin right guard Beau Benzschawel were both named to the offensive All-American team.
Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor was named honorable mention. So was OSU defensive tackle Dre’mont Jones on the other side of the ball.
What makes Pro Football Focus’ lists so different are the fact that they are based on analyzing actual play from every player in college football throughout the season.
It means, actual play on the field dictates getting on this list and not reputation or PR.
Benzschawel is the second-highest rated guard in the country according to PFF, as they say this about his performance at the midway mark:
Benzschawel is close behind [Terrone] Prescod, grading at 81.1 as a run-blocker, good for sixth among guards while allowing only three pressures on 151 snaps in pass protection.
Much like Benzschawel, Hill is also the second highest rated player at his position. Hill trails only Colorado’s superstar receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. and has a grade of 90.9 on the season.
According to PFF, “Hill has been incredibly efficient as well, catching 85.1% of his targets while averaging 8.2 yards after the catch per reception.”
It will be interesting to see how thing shake out in the second half of the season and if players like Chase Winovich, Rashan Gary or many other of the Badgers offensive lineman grade out better.
Good, Bad, Ugly: The tale of Buckeyes, Badgers and Illini in Week 3
There is no two ways about it — Week 3 was the Big Ten’s collective worst nightmare.
Just take a look at the final scores from the weekend:
So, on a Saturday in which contenders were dropping like flies, how do we make sense of what took place?
Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from Week 3 around the Big Ten.
On a weekend that saw so much carnage from Big Ten teams, there is no doubt that Ohio State’s big win over TCU is the good of the weekend. It wasn’t just that the pickings were slim either, the Buckeyes put on a show in the win over the Horned Frogs at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
With the eyes of most of the college football world on them, OSU came up big. They punched hard first, going up 10-0 and then took a big punch from TCU for a pair of touchdowns, the last of which was a school-record 93-yard run by Darius Anderson for the 14-10 lead early in the second quarter.
Let’s not forget there were two defensive touchdowns (albeit one shouldn’t have counted after further review that never happened on the field), including a “fat guy” TD by Dre’mont Jones.
Lost in some of the craziness was the fact that Dwayne Haskins showed out in a big way. He was 24 of 38 for a crazy 344 yards and two touchdowns in the win. Haskins also had a rushing touchdown to cap off all the offensive scoring for his team.
Sure, the defense gave up 511 yards, but it seemed more a byproduct of TCU’s offensive style than anything worrisome about the Buckeyes defense. After all, they forced three total turnovers, had three sacks and seven tackles for loss on the day.
It was a shot across the bow of the rest of the elite in college football and arguable the most dangerous the Buckeyes have looked on both sides of the ball in awhile.
There’s no where to go here other than to head to Madison, Wis. where the Badgers came in to their contest against BYU with a 41-game home non-conference win streak.
By the time the mid-afternoon matchup was over, the Badgers streak was also over and it wasn’t a fluke. The visiting Cougars took a page out of the Wisconsin playbook and simply out-muscled the Badgers on both sides of the ball.
UW’s normally potent run game averaged just 4.7 yards per carry. Its defense allowed 191 yards to BYU on the ground. That pretty much sums up the shock that happened inside Camp Randall.
For the first time in over 15 years, a non-conference opponent came in to Camp Randall, outplayed and finally beat the Badgers. We’ll see if this is a wake up call or the start of a snowball effect that can’t be stopped.
Having rival Iowa on the road and at night should certainly get the Badgers attention this coming week.
Sure, we could’ve gone with Northwestern getting blown out by a MAC opponent at home. There was also Rutgers’ piss-poor day at Kansas and Temple working over Maryland. But, those were all blowouts and there was just one loss that hurt more than any other…Illinois.
For just over 57 minutes, this week felt different for Illini fans…until South Florida’s Darnell Salomon hauled in a 50-yard touchdown from Blake Barnett with 2:24 to play.
That was just a downright brutal blow to a program that could’ve used the win in the worst way. Illinois got an early touchdown from running back Mike Epstein and then four field goals (three of which were over 40 yards) for a 19-7 lead late in the third quarter.
Then the fourth quarter happened and you could just feel the game slipping away. Just over three minutes after the last of Illinois last field goal, it was Salomon who broke through with a 14-yard touchdown catch to make it a 5-point game. Add in a field goal midway through the quarter and a 19-7 lead was whittled down to 19-17.
But, the Illini really only have themselves to blame. After all, they squandered four drives that were in USF territory and couldn’t get in the end zone. The Illini also couldn’t score a single point in the final quarter, and that’s usually not a good thing.
The play in the final stanza was particularly brutal, as USF’s defense held the Illini to just 94 total yards and forced them to go 2-of-7 on third downs. That’s how you lose a game you should’ve taken care of.
If there was a silver lining in the ugly way this loss happened, it was that MJ Rivers’ debut at quarterback was a success. He was 20 of 29 passing for 168 yards. While he didn’t get in to the end zone through the air, Rivers also didn’t turn the ball over while passing either. That’s a positive step lost in the brutal way this loss took place.
5 biggest Big Ten West division Spring Football storylines
What are the biggest storylines to follow as teams across the Big Ten West division begin spring football?
Last week we took a look at the East division, now it is time to go West my friends. While a lot of the questions out East revolve around offense, will the same hold true in the West division?
With a new head coach in at Nebraska, new coordinators in other places and plenty of high-level recruiting happening, there is no shortage of intrigue in the
Let’s take a look at the 5 biggest storylines we’ll watch this spring in the Big Ten West division.
Frost’s First Spring
As if there is any storyline bigger in the West division than prodigal son returning to bring the
Let’s just consider it the West division’s version of Jim Harbaugh, shall we.
Nebraska fans are hoping that the results are at least as good if not better than what Harbaugh has brought to Michigan to date, and sadly getting to the 10-win mark would be a huge win for the Huskers of today.
Frost will have a big challenge on his hand, needing to rebuild the run game, strengthen a porous defense and bring the pride back to the Huskers program.
Oh, and he’ll have to break in a new quarterback to go with all of the rest of the tweaks needed in the program. 4-star dual threat quarterback Adrian Martinez singed early and is on campus already, and there will be competition with much-touted sophomore Patrick O’Brien in the mix as well as redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia and sophomore Andrew Bunch.
O’Brien, Gebbia and Bunch are more the classic West Coast style of QB, and that may make Frost’s first season an interesting one in Lincoln.
Northwestern’s Life Without Thorson and Jackson
Northwestern knew that 2018 would be a challenge, especially with the graduation of easily the greatest running back in school history. With Justin Jackson graduated, where would the Wildcats turn to get the production needed.
Then the 2018 season was dealt a brutal blow as quarterback Clayton Thorson tore up his knee on a trick play in the Music City Bowl. He’ll likely be back for fall camp, but in what shape and condition will that be? A torn ACL for a mobile quarterback can be a game changer and in any case this upcoming season is going to be his last in a Wildcats uniform.
So, as Northwestern heads in to spring practice, it will get a big glimpse of its future life without its two biggest names. We’ll see plenty of reps for junior T.J. Green, redshirt freshman Andrew Marty, and sophomore Aidan Smith this spring. Northwestern opens with Purdue on Aug. 30 and should Thorson not be ready to go, spring could go a long way to deciding who gets the nod.
Leonhard’s Big Test at Wisconsin
Rumors circulated throughout much of December and in to January that Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard was a candidate for the Florida State defensive coordinator position. That’s what happens when year one of you as UW’s DC ends with the Badgers having one of the best defenses in the country.
Year two will be a different story though, as Leonhard faces a secondary that loses 3 starters, a defensive line that loses both starting ends and both starting outside linebackers. Wisconsin has proven to be a plug-and-play program at outside linebacker and that shouldn’t be an issue with the likes of Andrew Van Ginkle and Tyler Johnson having gained plenty of experience last season. There’s also intrigue in names like Christian Bell and redshirt freshman Noah Burks.
However, things are dicey in the secondary as only one player with any real game experience is back at cornerback and that is Donyte Carrier-Williams. So, this is where Leonhard would be earning a salary increase this spring. He’ll have to mold a really young group of cornerbacks in to a quality group of players given all the spread offenses that will be in place across the West division — with all but Iowa running some version of the spread attack.
Can names like Madison Cone, Caesar Williams and Faion Hicks show enough for the coaching staff to be confident in them going in to the season or will their need to be a lean on the newcomers in the fall? There certainly won’t be a shortage of reps and opportunity for playing time in this spring.
Lovie’s Last-Ditch Offensive Overhaul
There isn’t a bigger trainwreck in the Big Ten than Illinois Fighting Illini athletics (not just football) at the moment. So, this spring is all about finding some hope for the football program. To that end, head coach Lovie Smith enters his second full offseason in a position to overhaul his offense.
It started as quarterbacks Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. decided to leave the program and continued with the hire of Arizona offensive coordinator Rod Smith. The Wildcats offense has been amongst the most prolific and high-scoring in the country, but this is Big Ten land where defense reigns supreme. Can Smith translate his Wildcats offense to something that works in Champaign?
Cam Thomas is the lone scholarship quarterback and proved a much better rushing threat than anything in the pass game last season. So, Smith’s first task is to see if Thomas has what it takes to really lead a spread offense like his. If not, this could be a long spring spent trying to find answers to a whole lot of questions.
I love getting Smith away from Arizona, it was a master stroke by Smith, but will it be enough, soon enough to keep his job? Athletic director Mike Thomas seems to have a long-term plan in place and the patience to see it out with Smith, but real progress needs to shown this spring and in the fall for that patience to be warranted.
Let’s see if this last-ditch effort pays off.
Brohm’s Encore Performance
What Jeff Brohm did in one season at the helm of the Purdue Boilermakers football program was nothing short of remarkable. He took a program left for dead and not only gave it life, but a bowl game appearance in his first season. It’s no wonder his name came up for the Tennessee job this offseason.
But, this season there are actual expectations following that 7-6 finish last season and this spring will see some big changes to the program. That’s not a bad thing, because Purdue got to a bowl game with a lot of smoke and mirrors while it awaited more talent to come aboard in West Lafayette, Ind.
There was also a reliance on a pretty good defense last season, one that featured talented linebackers T.J. McCollum and Ja’Whaun Bentley. Both are gone now and replacing their production and leadership will be key this spring. Luckily, the returning starter is Markus Bailey, who could be poised for a national breakout year now that the spotlight is all to his own. Beyond that, this is a position that will be a microcosm of the team, as they see what kind of talent is coming in and how fast they can contribute.
5 Reasons to watch Wisconsin vs. Miami in the Orange Bowl
Why should you, the college football fan, tune in to the Orange Bowl this year?
Bowl season is in full swing, but the Big Ten has a bit of a wait before any conference team sees the field. So, we’re spending the week before Christmas giving you a full look in to the bowl games involving Big Ten teams.
While the conference champion, Ohio State, was passed over for the College Football Playoff, there are still plenty of things to love about bowl season if you’re a fan of a team in or of the conference as a whole.
What better way to start than by looking at one of the biggest bowl matchups this year — the Big Ten’s return to the Orange Bowl as Wisconsin takes on Miami at its home stadium.
So, why should you tune in to this matchup if you aren’t a fan of the Badgers? Let’s look over 5 reasons to love this game.
Jonathan Taylor’s Pursuit of History
It has been a record-setting season for Wisconsin freshman running back Jonathan Taylor. He already tied the mark for the fastest true freshman to 1,000 yards (7 games) and sits at 1,847 yards.
Taylor would love a do-over after he was basically made non-existent in the Big Ten championship game. He was held to a season-low 41 yards against Ohio State. But, Taylor isn’t done with potentially making history and that should be plenty of motivation.
He’s got one more big personal goal — the true freshman single-season rushing record.
He trails some guy named Adrian Peterson for that mark and needs just 79 yards to own it. Given Wisconsin’s rich history of running backs over the last 30-plus years, Taylor owning this record would certainly speak for itself in the pantheon of Badgers running backs.
Should he get that goal, there’s also a good chance it also means his team is doing good things on the scoreboard too. So, look for Taylor’s performance to tell a lot about what Wisconsin will or won’t be capable of on offense.
If you love defensive football, this game should be your cup of tea. Wisconsin was one of the most dominant defensive teams in college football. They were great against the run (), very solid against the pass, didn’t let opposing teams score much and loved a good turnover. Wisconsin ranked 3rd nationally in scoring defense (13.2 points per game), 2nd in rushing defense (92.6 yards per game), 4th in passing defense (160.6) and 1st in total defense (253.2)
Miami was no slouch, and we all know about the “turnover chain,” because Miami has their “swagger” back. The Hurricanes were one of the best defenses in the country at creating turnovers in 2017, ranking 9th in the country in interceptions (17) and 7th in fumbles recovered (13).
Wisconsin hasn’t been bad on the turnover front themselves, racking up 26 total turnovers to rank 9th in the country themselves.
But, the Badgers offense has been turnover prone, in large part thanks to throwing the second-highest amount of interceptions in the Big Ten this season (15). Miami has one of the bet turnover margins in the country thanks to an offense that has been able to keep things under control on the turnover front (15).
This game could come down to which defense can play to its strength more, and it may be one of the few games truly decided by defense first.
Who Rises to the Big Stage Pressure?
While the Hurricanes have been a “brand name” in college football since the 1980’s, they have fallen on hard times since a loss to Ohio State in the 2002 national championship game. In fact, they haven’t been back to a major bowl game since the 2004 Orange Bowl ironically.
On the other hand, Wisconsin is making its second-straight appearance in a New Year’s Six bowl game after defeating Western Michigan in last season’s Cotton Bowl Classic. UW also has been involved in the biggest bowl games for the better part of this decade, appearing in three straight Rose Bowls to start the 2010’s.
Wisconsin is used to the big stage, the bright lights and the pressure of big games as a program and as individual players. Miami, while having played big games in the regular season, hasn’t exactly been involved in a major bowl game in any of these players’ lifetimes really.
Can Mark Richt get his team up for a smash-mouth football game against a team that won’t be intimidated by the big stage? Can the Badgers under-assuming personality match the flare and hype that surrounds the Hurricanes once again?
Personality matters in this matchup, if only because these two teams are so polar opposite in how they approach the game. Wisconsin won’t talk trash, they’ll just hit you in the mouth over and over and over again. Miami will talk trash, hit you in the mouth and talk some more.
Whichever team buckles under that pressure first is going to be in major trouble.
Which Hornibrook Shows Up?
If there’s one thing we’ve established about the Badgers in 2017 it is that quarterback Alex Hornibrook is a really good complementary player in Wisconsin’s offense. However, the one time he was relied upon to win them a game he folded big time.
Hornibrook threw the ball 41 times against Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game, which not only was his highest attempts number on the season, but also the most since throwing 28 passes against Florida Atlantic in Week 2. It didn’t go well in Indianapolis for Hornibrook, as he completed just 19 of the 41 passes attempted and had his lowest yards per attempt (5.7) of the season to go along with zero touchdowns and two interceptions.
He also had a major stumble against Michigan where he was just 9 of 19 for 143 yards and a touchdown to one interception.
Those were the two best defenses he faced and it was a struggle in terms of completion percentage and avoiding the turnovers. Miami is one of the better pass defenses in the country too, forcing those 17 interceptions and allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete just 56.3 percent of their passes.
But, the Hornibrook that showed up most of the rest of the season is one the Badgers certainly can win with. He was highly efficient most of the season and if he can be a guy who continues to move the chains in third down situations and get the big throw when needed, Wisconsin’s offense is hard to stop.
If Wisconsin wants to win, they need to see the efficient Hornibrook come to life against a good defense.
Its the Freaking Orange Bowl
If you call yourself a true College Football fan, the Orange Bowl is destination television no matter what. It doesn’t hurt that a traditional Orange Bowl participant is there or the only Power 5 team to remain undefeated through the regular season is there either.
The Orange Bowl is one of the classic games and has provided some of the most stunning results we’ve seen in College Football history. Could more be made?
After all, it is Wisconsin’s first visit to the Orange Bowl and winning it would certainly be a great way to cap off what was a history-making season for the Badgers.
Really, there shouldn’t be any other thing you need to know other than it’s the Orange Bowl between two top 10 teams. ‘Nuff Said.
*all stats courtesy of cfbstats.com
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