Originally found on Fox Sports:
Oct. 30, 2023 9:55 a.m. ET
Given the supremely top-heavy nature of the Big Ten, many fans and media members have boiled Ohio State’s season down to four games: an early non-conference test against Notre Dame (win, check); a home tilt against Penn State (win, check); Saturday’s road game against Wisconsin (win, check) and the grand finale of them all against Michigan in late November (result TBD).
The Buckeyes passed their third mile marker unscathed following this week’s hard-fought win over the Badgers to cement themselves as one of the best teams in college football. Now they have the better part of a month to prepare for the Wolverines while (most likely) taking care of business against overmatched opponents.
The same can’t be said of Penn State, which played one of its worst games of the season in a narrow escape against Indiana. There are plenty of things for the Nittany Lions to fix before they welcome Michigan to Beaver Stadium on Nov. 11.
Let’s get a pulse of the league in our latest Big Ten Stock Watch:
TreVeyon Henderson, RB, Ohio State: Saturday night developed into a sparkling return for Henderson, who missed the previous three games with an undisclosed midsection injury. Without him, the Buckeyes had relied on fellow tailbacks Chip Trayanum, Miyan Williams and Dallan Hayden to pace a rushing attack that was inconsistent at best and misfiring at worst. But this week’s 24-10 road win at Wisconsin belonged to Henderson, the most explosive player Ohio State has at that position. Henderson carried 24 times for a season-high 162 yards and a touchdown while also finishing second on the team in receiving with four catches for 45 yards.
While there have been plenty of questions regarding Henderson’s ability to run between the tackles during his time at Ohio State — he has a penchant for bouncing things outside regardless of whether the play should actually be bounced — it’s impossible to ignore how valuable his top-end speed and burst can be for a running back room that consists mostly of bigger, bruising runners. Henderson finished Saturday’s game with eight carries of at least seven yards, headlined by his 33-yard touchdown run to seal a victory in the fourth quarter. He was credited with forcing eight missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus, and picked up six first downs on the ground.
Nebraska’s defense: Think about how good a team’s defense must be in order to win five of its first eight games despite being tied for 129th out of 133 teams in turnover margin at minus-9. It’s a thought exercise that verges on nonsensical given how unlikely it is for the aforementioned scenario to unfold. And yet, that’s exactly where Nebraska stands after the first eight games under new head coach Matt Rhule, whose team continues finding ways to win despite horrible ball security on offense. Saturday’s 31-14 victory over Purdue was no exception: The Cornhuskers secured their fifth win of the season despite fumbling five times and failing to recover four of them.
So how have they gotten there? The burgeoning defense led by coordinator Tony White held yet another opponent scoreless in the first quarter for the fifth time this season. White’s group also held its opponent below 100 rushing yards for the seventh time in eight games and paired that with wonderful pass defense that limited the Boilermakers to 99 net yards through the air. In doing so, Nebraska kept an opponent below 100 rushing yards and 100 passing yards in the same game for the first time since Oct. 27, 2012. The Cornhuskers have now surrendered just 16 first-half points in their last seven games against Big Ten West opposition. Overall, Nebraska now ranks 13th nationally in total defense (298.8 yards per game) and 21st in scoring defense (18.6 points per game).
Brendan Sullivan, QB, Northwestern: With No. 1 quarterback Ben Bryant still recovering from an upper-body injury suffered against Penn State in late September, Sullivan played beautifully in Saturday’s surprising 33-27 win over Maryland that leveled Northwestern’s record at 4-4. Sullivan, who was making his third start of the year, completed 16 of 23 passes for a career-high 265 yards, two touchdowns and an exceptional NFL passer rating of 137, which was 20 points above his previous highwater mark against a Power 5 opponent this season.
He was particularly effective on deep passes and connected on five of eight attempts traveling at least 15 yards downfield, plus all three of his attempts that traveled at least 20 yards downfield, according to Pro Football Focus. Perhaps most encouragingly, Sullivan, a junior, proved lethal whenever the Terrapins decided to blitz by completing 10 of 16 passes for 188 yards and a score on 22 dropbacks. Not a bad day of work for a former three-star prospect whose only Power 5 scholarship offers during the 2021 recruiting cycle came from Northwestern and Indiana.
Jordan Nubin, RB, Minnesota: It’s become almost comical how easy it is for Minnesota’s coaching staff to find a new tailback, insert that player into the starting lineup and watch the rushing totals pile up week after week. First, it was Western Michigan transfer Sean Tyler running for 93 yards against Eastern Michigan in Week 2. Then it was freshman Darius Taylor racking up 193 yards, 138 yards and 198 yards in consecutive weeks from Sept. 9 through Sept. 23. And now it’s Nubin, the younger brother of standout Gophers’ safety Tyler Nubin, who rumbled for 204 yards and two scores on 40 carries after entering the game with 51 yards on 15 carries across 17 career appearances.
Nubin’s total of 40 carries represents the seventh-highest single-game total in program history, and he became the first Gopher to carry the ball at least 40 times since the great Mohamed Ibrahim on Oct. 30, 2020. He gained a staggering 66.7% of his yards after contact, according to Pro Football Focus, and forced 10 missed tackles. Ten of his 40 carries resulted in first downs against the Terrapins, with an overall average of 5.1 yards per attempt. “He’s a fifth, sixth tailback [for us],” head coach P.J. Fleck said. “He was a safety last year and runs for 204 yards. We all had to pick it up, and he did too. That was really an amazing performance from him.”
Penn State’s defense: Without any names to read on the back of Penn State’s jerseys, fans would be forgiven for thinking the actual Nittany Lion defense had been replaced by a group of imposters based on the way Saturday afternoon unfolded during a fist-clenching 33-24 win over Indiana. Was this really the same unit that, seven days prior, went toe to toe with Ohio State by racking up nine tackles for loss, 10 quarterback pressures and limiting the Buckeyes to an anemic average of 1.9 yards per carry? How could a defense that powerful be picked apart by lowly Indiana to the tune of 269 passing yards and three touchdowns for quarterback Brendan Sorsby as the Hoosiers built an early 14-7 lead before tying the game at 24-24 with 2:58 remaining? If it wasn’t for a 57-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Drew Allar to wide receiver KeAndre Lambert-Smith with 1:46 remaining — which proved to be the winning score — head coach James Franklin would have been staring at arguably the worst loss of his career given the expectations surrounding this year’s team.
“We just had some blown coverages that we haven’t had,” Franklin said after the game. “And sometimes, I’m going to be honest with you, you make a mistake, and the offense doesn’t find you when you make a mistake. … We just made some mistakes this week that are uncharacteristic for us. Got to give Indiana credit. They did a good job.”
Next week’s road game against a Maryland offense that can heat up in a hurry should shed some light on where Penn State’s defense truly stands.
Michigan State’s QBs: The Spartans’ losing streak has stretched to six in a season fans will be eager to forget for a litany of reasons on and off the field. One of the biggest personnel issues for Michigan State remains the inconsistent and subpar play at quarterback, no matter which player the coaching staff puts under center. First, it was elder statesman Noah Kim, a veteran in class standing only whose on-field experience was extremely limited. Kim guided the Spartans to consecutive wins over Central Michigan and Richmond to begin the year before falling off a cliff with six interceptions in three games before finally getting the hook. Then it was redshirt freshman Katin Houser, a former four-star recruit, who threw just two touchdowns in the span of three starts from Oct. 14 through Saturday’s 27-12 loss to Minnesota in which he, too, was eventually benched.
The latest signal caller tossed into the fray was four-star freshman Sam Leavitt, a dual-threat player and the No. 21 quarterback in the 2023 recruiting cycle. Leavitt replaced Houser in the second half against Minnesota but endured significant struggles of his own: two turnovers in the span of 19 snaps, though he did complete eight of 12 passes for 73 yards and a score. It’s anyone’s guess who will start against Nebraska next week.
Maryland: In 2021, during head coach Mike Locksley’s third season, the Terrapins began 4-0 after notching wins over West Virginia, Howard, Illinois and Kent State. It felt like the program might be turning the corner as a legitimate thorn in the sides of Big Ten East bluebloods Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. Then Maryland lost six of its next seven games to dispel the notion of high-end progress.
In 2022, the Terrapins began the year 4-1 with wins over Buffalo, Charlotte, SMU and Michigan State before improving to 6-2 by late October, courtesy of additional victories against Indiana and Northwestern. Surely, that was going to be the season when Locksley made a push toward double-digit wins for the first time since 2003. Then Maryland lost three straight games in November to plummet back to earth.
Once again, history is repeating itself for Locksley in what feels like an all-too-familiar pattern for Maryland football. This year’s team began 5-0 with wins over Towson, Charlotte, Virginia, Michigan State and Indiana before crumbling in consecutive defeats to Ohio State, Illinois and Northwestern to remind everyone that hot starts for the Terrapins are little more than fool’s gold. Home dates with Penn State and Michigan could add two more defeats in the next three weeks.
Hudson Card, QB, Purdue: Paired with the arrival of new head coach Ryan Walters, who oversaw one of the best defenses in the nation at Illinois last season, the offseason commitment from Card, a transfer from Texas, helped build a groundswell of positive sentiment at Purdue following last year’s trip to the Big Ten Championship game. Card was the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback in the country for the 2020 recruiting cycle, according to 247Sports, and while he couldn’t climb to the top of a stacked position room in Austin, there was plenty of reason to be optimistic about what he could do for the Boilermakers.
But week after week, things continue to go awry for Card, whose performances have been hampered in part by a porous offensive line that has made him one of the five most-pressured quarterbacks in the country, according to Pro Football Focus. Saturday’s disappointing 31-14 loss to Nebraska was no different: Card completed just 16 of 32 passes for 100 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. He also surrendered his ninth fumble of the season, which is tied with Clemson’s Cade Klubnik and Arkansas‘ KJ Jefferson for the third-most among Power 5 quarterbacks this season. The only players with more fumbles — not all of which were lost — are USC’s Caleb Williams with 12 and Nebraska’s Heinrich Haarberg with 11.
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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