Big Ten recap: Northwestern, Ohio State look for conference crown amid Champions Week

Redshirt+freshman+Isaiah+Williams+runs+the+ball+during+the+game+against+Northwestern+on+Saturday.+The+Illini+lost+28-10.

Cameron Krasucki

Redshirt freshman Isaiah Williams runs the ball during the game against Northwestern on Saturday. The Illini lost 28-10.

By Carson Gourdie, Assistant Sports Editor

With many Big Ten-affiliated bowls canceled, the conference’s Champions Week is projected to be the last game for many programs this season. The conference has seen its ups and downs — most notably numerous cancellations that almost cost Ohio State a playoff spot. 

With seven games scheduled to be played, New Year’s Six bowls are on the line for a duo of non-traditional powers, as well as a playoff spot for the Buckeyes. 

Nebraska at Rutgers, Friday 

These two programs are going in completely different directions. 

Rutgers is the most improved team in the conference, winning three conference games for only the third time since joining the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights could’ve had more victories, too, if they held on to double-digit leads over Illinois and Michigan.

Nebraska, though, is only 2-5 so far, with its most recent loss coming against a Minnesota team missing 33 players. Although competitive in most games, Cornhusker fans expected to be competing for championships in Scott Frost’s third season.

Despite being on the road, the Cornhuskers are six-point favorites over the upstart Scarlet Knights. While a bowl game is out of the picture, Scott Frost could use another victory to stave off more hot seat talk heading into a critical 2021 season.

Purdue at No. 7 Indiana, Friday

With the annual rivalry game getting canceled last week, the Big Ten rescheduled the two in-state rivals to take on each other in the final week. Now, the game has some of the biggest stakes since 2000.  

While they don’t control their own destiny, an Indiana victory over Purdue would all but clinch a New Year’s Six bowl for Tom Allen’s program for the first time since the 1967 Rose Bowl. 

Despite losing quarterback Michael Penix Jr. for the season, backup Jack Tuttle stepped in and knocked off the Badgers in Madison to put his team in that position. While the offense has done enough, its defense has stolen the show recently, with Ohio State being the only team to figure them out. 

If Northwestern wins the Big Ten Championship, however, Indiana might be pushed down to a Citrus Bowl appearance, as the Wildcats would steal the Fiesta Bowl invite. 

After a quick 2-0 start, the Boilermakers have dropped four in a row. The team is starting to lose some key players for the season, including quarterback Aidan O’Connell. Despite the team’s downturn, Brohm is in no danger of losing his job, though he would like one more victory to build off of going into 2021. 

No. 15 Northwestern vs. No. 3 Ohio State, Big Ten Championship, Saturday

The Big Ten changed its six-game requirement for a conference title appearance after Ohio State’s game against Michigan was canceled, setting up the chance for the Buckeyes to clinch their second straight college football playoff appearance. However, the Buckeyes will need to get past the Wildcats before heading off to Pasadena. 

The Wildcats are coming off a 28-10 victory and 411 rushing yards over the Illini, which capped off Lovie Smith’s tenure at Illinois. The Wildcats have been rock-solid all season — aside from an odd loss at Michigan State — with a safe offense and suffocating defense. 

Ohio State should be well-rested, as the Buckeyes haven’t played back-to-back games since Nov. 7. When not affected by COVID-19, the Buckeyes have been sharp and have scored at will, headlined by Heisman candidate Justin Fields. 

With Florida dropping a game against LSU, a Buckeye victory would clinch a playoff spot for the Big Ten, even if the Gators knock off Alabama in the SEC championship. Should the Buckeyes win, they will be right behind Alabama as a favorite to win the playoff. 

Northwestern, who’s installed as 20.5-point underdogs, is an upset away from clinching a Fiesta Bowl appearance, its first major bowl game since the 1996 Rose Bowl. Upsetting the Buckeyes will be a tough task, as the Wildcats haven’t shown the capability of scoring in the 40s and winning a shootout. 

Minnesota at Wisconsin, Saturday

Last season, the winner of this game clinched a Rose Bowl appearance. This season, the winner clinches a non-losing season. 

Since blowing out Illinois and Michigan, Wisconsin’s offense has gone missing, scoring 20 points in its last three games. Freshman quarterback Graham Mertz has struggled considerably, throwing five interceptions and only one touchdown. A win over its rival, though, could save face from the team’s downside and clinch another bowl appearance for the program. 

Minnesota has at least some positive momentum coming off of a 24-17 upset victory over Nebraska. Still, this team is missing the offense and swagger it had last season when they went 11-2. Tanner Morgan, although efficient, is nowhere near his 30-touchdown 2019 season. 

With Minnesota still missing a lot of players due to COVID, the Badgers are favorites to hold on to Paul Bunyan’s Axe for another season. However, even with a victory, the Badgers have fallen far this season after being in the running for a playoff spot just a month ago. 

Illinois at Penn State, Saturday

For the first time since 2015, Lovie Smith won’t be on the sidelines for Illinois, as the former NFL coach was relieved of his duties following another losing season. Under interim head coach Rod Smith, the Illini will look for its first victory in State College since 2010. 

Illinois will probably go with freshman Isaiah Williams under center, with Brandon Peters struggling as of late. At 2-5 and with the program expected to have a different staff in 2021, Illinois has nothing to lose in its regular-season finale. If anything, this is the last chance to provide tape for the next coaching staff. 

Penn State has recovered after a 0-5 start, winning three straight games by double digits. Although Penn State expected to compete at a higher level, the Nittany Lions were heavily affected by COVID, and another victory to end the season will help lead the team to a 2021 season with high expectations. 

Michigan at No. 18 Iowa, Saturday

There’s been no team more dominant than the Hawkeyes since its 0-2 start. Even if the Hawkeyes won one of its games over Purdue or Northwestern, Iowa would be guaranteed a New Year’s Six bowl instead of settling for a Citrus or Outback Bowl berth. 

Iowa is coming off of a 28-7 victory over Wisconsin and preparing for its 20th bowl appearance under Kirk Ferentz. Quarterback Spencer Petras has played excellent lately, recording five touchdowns and no turnovers in the last two games. 

Michigan is about to cap off its worst season under Jim Harbaugh, whose name is being crossed off NFL shortlists. Michigan likely avoided a ninth-straight loss against Ohio State with the cancellation, but now they have to travel to Iowa City to take on a red-hot Hawkeye program. 

While the results have been bad, Michigan is a young team and figures to be better next season. But, another blowout loss by a superior team will continue to cast doubt whether Harbaugh is the right man to lead the Maize and Blue. 

Michigan State at Maryland, Saturday

Michigan State’s blown 21-10 lead over Penn State proves one thing: they’re the most inconsistent team in the conference, ranging from a Rutgers loss to a Northwestern victory. Now, with one game left, the Spartans travel to College Park to take on a Maryland program with a similar story. 

The Terrapins’ overtime loss to Rutgers put them in danger of another losing season. Sitting at 2-3, Maryland has outperformed expectations, with solid wins over Minnesota and Penn State. However, COVID has canceled multiple games for the program, taking away an opportunity for them to showcase their improvement. 

Michigan State has finally moved on from Rocky Lombardi and has elected to go with Naperville, Illinois, native Payton Thorne to lead the team under center. Thorne played well against Penn State before losing to Sean Clifford and the Nittany Lions 39-24. Even though they’re guaranteed a losing season for just the second time since 2009, a road victory can give Mel Tucker confidence heading into 2021. 

Maryland, who’s a 1.5-point favorite, will be without Taulia Tagovailoa after he tested positive for COVID-19. 

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