Week 6: Five things we learned about Big Ten football

Five things we learned about Big Ten football in Week 6. . .

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1, Under-the-radar Michigan is gaining momentum

There hasn’t been a whole lot of buzz in the world of Michigan football this fall. Notre Dame smacked the Wolverines in the mouth 24-17 in a ballyhooed opener. And Jim Harbaugh’s status as a fascinating must-follow eccentric has declined. As Michigan’s losses (8-5 last year) have piled up, Harbaugh has clammed up.

MgoBlue’s 42-21 win over Maryland on Saturday won’t do much to change that. The Wolverines, who trailed 7-3 after a first quarter in which they gave up a 98-yard kickoff return, had another slow start before pounding out a victory.

Although that loss to the Irish is looking more and more understandable, and although Michigan stands at 5-1, 3-0 in the Big Ten and is 12th in this week's AP poll, only wearers of maize-and-blue glasses have a vision of the Wolverines besting No. 3 Ohio State and No. 8 Penn State in the Big Ten East.

But the Harbaughs will have an opportunity to change that perception this week, when No. 15 Wisconsin comes to the Big House. (6:30 p.m. Central time, ABC).

If the Champions of the West (in song) can knock off the Champions of the West (in deed), Harbaugh’s Youtube stock will rise dramatically.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

Urban Meyer and James Franklin will be taking notes.

2, Sparty is fading quickly in the East

After another dismal performance—a 29-19 loss to Northwestern before a stunned green-and-white homecoming crowd—it’s pretty clear that Michigan State is not who we thought they were when many pundits ranked them among the top 10 in the nation.

At this point, top 10 in the Big Ten is the measuring stick. The Spartans’ third straight loss to Northwestern dropped them to 3-2, 1-1 in the Big Ten. That includes a narrow escape vs. Utah State and a sluggish loss at Arizona State.

Considering that Penn State, Michigan and Ohio State are still on the schedule, and trips to Maryland and Nebraska are not going to be easy if Sparty continues to struggle, alarms are sounding. MSU already is announcing that this will not be another year like 2016, when Michigan State stumbled to a 3-9 record, including 1-8 in the Big Ten.

``I don’t see it being a ’16 year at all,’’ linebacker Joe Bachie said. ``We’re a good group of guys. We have good chemistry. But we have to go get results on the field on Saturdays. And we understand that.’’

The problems start with a running game that ranks 109th (out of 129) in the nation, at 123 yards per game and 3.42 yards per rush. Compare with Big Ten leader Wisconsin (fourth nationally): 287 yards per game, 6.1 yards per rush.

Throw in quarterback, Bran Lewerke, who isn’t living up to expectations with his arm or his feet—and a defense that’s not holding up under the burden of a sluggish offense—and Michigan State will need to get well in a hurry. A trip to Penn State on Saturday and a home date Oct. 13 with Michigan are looking ominous.

Remember the pre-season, when Michigan State was a popular darks horse to win all kinds of things because it had 19 starters returning from last year’s 10-3? Plus home field vs. Michigan and Ohio State?

You must have a good memory.

``I’m not gonna sit here and say that this isn’t coaching and this is all execution or whatever the case,’’ coach Mark Dantonio said. ``This is a football team that didn’t get it done. That’s the bottom line.’’

That quote came after Saturday’s Northwestern disappointment, if you’re keeping score at home.

3, The Land of Lincoln Trophy might be more interesting this year

Are you ready for a Kennedy-had-a-secretary-named-Lincoln and Lincoln-had-a-secretary-named-Kennedy moment?

The last time Illinois and Northwestern won Big Ten games on the same date was Oct. 15, 2016: Illinois won 24-7 at Rutgers and Northwestern won 54-40 at Michigan State.

Lightning struck again on Saturday, when Illinois won 38-17 at Rutgers and Northwestern won 29-19 at Michigan State.

The Illini halted a 13-game Big Ten losing streak.

In many ways, it was the most important win in Lovie Smith’s three years in Champaign (or Bubble City, as the kids call it). If you can’t beat Rutgers, yada yada . . . And more importantly, Illinois, which was beating Penn State in the third quarter of its previous game, is showing competitive progress that might translate into other victories. For instance, when Purdue comes to Champaign on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats, who were a 10-point underdog, showed some teeth in spoiling Michigan State’s homecoming.

With the Illini looking alive, Northwestern’s annual battle with Illinois for the Land of Lincoln Trophy in Evanston on Nov. 23. has a chance to be a true rivalry game this fall. NU has won five of the last six, including the last three. But Illinois fans figure to gobble up tickets, a visiting-team tradition at Northwestern's Ryan Field.

The Cats, who had lost their previous three (to Duke, Akron and Michigan), remain a modest 2-3, 2-1 Big Ten. But that beats the alternative. With Nebraska and Rutgers up next, they have a chance to be 4-1 in the league when Wisconsin comes to Evanston on Oct. 26.

``It’s great to get the losing taste out of your mouth,’’ defensive end Joe Gaziano said at InsideNU.com. ``We’re looking forward to the next game—tough opponent in Nebraska. Can’t have any shoulda, woulda, coulda. Just gotta go out there and perform.’’

Northwestern also started 2-3 last fall before finishing 10-3. Nobody’s expecting a repeat that, not with Wisconsin and Notre Dame coming to Evanston, followed by a trip to Iowa. But the Wildcats’ revival makes those matchups a lot more appetizing.

4, Despite the losses, Nebraska has a positive vibe

Nebraska is 0-5, tied for the worst start in school history. Its 41-24 loss at Wisconsin was its ninth straight, extending the school record.

But the Cornhuskers battled. And 18-year-old freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez, who threw for a career-high 384 yards and ran for a touchdown, did some encouraging things—especially when he connected with receiver J.D. Spielman (nine catches, school-record 209 receiving yards).

Unlike the previous two losses to Michigan and Purdue, new coach Scott Frost, who had ripped his team’s undisciplined penalties, was relatively upbeat after a game in which the Cornhuskers were whistled 10 times for 100 yards.

``Our team is gonna keep getting stronger,’’ Frost told reporters. “I feel good about where we’re going. Sometimes those things are necessary. I told the guys at the beginning of the week, you’re either all-in or don’t be here. We had a couple that chose to do something else.’’

5, Wisconsin’s depleted secondary is a primary concern

Wisconsin’s secondary, which gave up that whopping 384 yards to Nebraska’s freshman QB, needs to close ranks before this week’s trip to Michigan. That won’t be easy. The defensive backfield, which was young when healthy, has myriad personnel questions to answer.

Freshman safety Scott Nelson will miss the first half in Ann Arbor after being ejected for targeting in the third quarter against the Cornhuskers. Sophomore cornerback Caesar Williams (left leg) missed Saturday’s game. A another key corner, redshirt freshman Deron Harrell, left midway with a head injury in the second quarter. That forced Wisconsin to play true freshman Rachad Wildgoose into meaningful snaps for the first time all season.

``Yeah, a lot of [defensive-back] guys played,’’ coach Paul Chryst said. ``It wasn't always pretty, but you appreciate them being ready and going. And I thought we had some opportunities for some big plays. Credit to Nebraska's offense. They were explosive. The quarterback makes a lot of things happen. We needed a lot of guys in all areas, not just the back end. We tried to play a number of guys. That's why I think it was a good team win.’’

The secondary concerns are real. On the other hand, there was plenty of reason for concern after Wisconsin was stunned at home by BYU. It responded by grinding out a tough win at Iowa. This Michigan trip shapes up as a similar road test.[/membership]

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