Coming off rough week at the window? Some bad luck got in you? Don’t worry you’ll survive. This song will you turn you around. I can not say the same for my Big 10 picks this weekend.
MINNESOTA AT NORTHWESTERN, NOON, BTN. LINES: NW -4.5; O/U 39.5
We’ve seen these teams play TCU, Stanford and Duke already this season. We’ve also seen them go 3-0 against MAC opponents, albeit winning by only a combined 11 points. The Gophers come in at 3-1, which is exactly where everyone thought they would be before the season started. But how they’ve won the last two weeks has slowed the ‘Gophers As A Darkhorse To Win The West’ Train. They’ve labored to 10-7 and 27-24 wins over Kent St and Ohio. On the other hand, not much was expected out of Northwestern after consecutive losing seasons. Then the Wildcats streaked out of the gate and using a surprisingly dominant defense notched a pair of outright underdog wins over Stanford and Duke. They sit 4-0 and have crashed into the top-20.
The Gophers are seen to be underachieving and the Wildcats overachieving. That’s why we’ve seen a shift in this line from Minnesota -1 over the summer to Northwestern -6 when the line re-opened for business Sunday afternoon. The number was bet down to -4/4.5 and I am part of that steam on the Gophers. Beware of the short chalk in Week Five. Last week’s Minnesota game finally looked like a typical Jerry Kill offensive blueprint. The box score reveals it was the best offensive effort of the season with the Gophers picking up more than 70-percent of available yards. Had they not mishandled some punt returns, they probably win this game with a little more ease. The credit goes to all the blockers. The Gophers started the season banged up on the offensive line, but last week they finally started the same line in consecutive games. They will do so again in this one. I like what they developed last week with the 1-2 punch of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks running the football and they finally got some targets downfield and some chunk plays in the passing game.
The sledding will be tough for both sides. Considering these are the 108th and 111th teams nationally in yards per play gained going up against the 13th and 21st ranked defenses in yards per play allowed, don’t expect fireworks. At last check, the Over/Under is 39.5 which is more like a boring, plodding NFL total. These teams struggle to score touchdowns even on their best drives. Minnesota is 124th and Northwestern in 128th (dead last) nationally in red zone touchdown percentage. Take the Over on points left on the field. Speaking of which, five of Michigan’s remaining opponents are ranked 111th or worse in red zone touchdown percentage: Penn State, Ohio State, Maryland, Minnesota and Northwestern.
Getting back to this game, I think the more experienced Mitch Leidner outperforms young Clayton Thorson, who’ll be playing in his first Big 10 game. Thorson is 89th nationally in completions while Leidner cracks the top-30. Minnesota passes for more than 75 more yards per game than the Wildcats. The Gophers are 11-2 ATS as an underdog, Northwestern is 1-8 ATS as chalk. Minnesota is 12-2 ATS against the Big 10, Northwestern in 5-11 ATS against league foes. The underdog has covered six of the eight meetings between these teams and the road team is 13-3. We’ll take a chance that Minnesota’s defense reminds us that they were they hot unit coming into the season and they sneak out a 16-13 win. The Pick: Minnesota +4.5
PURDUE AT MICHIGAN STATE, NOON, ESPN2. LINES: MSU -21.5; O/U 54.5
Will the real Michigan State please stand up? Oh there you are, typical Spartan defensive front, anchored by Shilique Calhoun and Demetrius Cooper, that’s 14th nationally in TFLs and a defensive sack rate twice as often as the average defense. I recognize you. But we barely recognize the No Fly Zone these days, do we? They’re 102nd nationally in completion percentage allowed, 107th in yards per pass and 108th in passing yards a game. Toss that in with an uneven offense that’s running the ball for almost full yard less than a year ago and a passing attack that’s more than 60 yards a game off of last year’s pace and suddenly rivals are dropping the overrated accusation. I wont go that far. It’s still pretty early. And Dantonio’s teams specialize in looking like crap on offense in the month of September. I have no doubt that Connor Cook will get the offense humming. He and Aaron Burbridge will be one of the league’s more formidable connections. When they had to last week against Central in the second half, they ran the ball better than they have all season long.
Everyone expected this year’s version of the Spartans to be more offensive centric than usual, but that defense does seem a bit off. Outside of the defensive line, which will cream several Big 10 QBs, nobody has really looked super impressive. Another example of playing possum? I don’t know. Maybe. But this defense only allowed 4.04 yards per play in their Rose Bowl Championship season two years ago. That number is 5.65 through the non conference portion of 2015. That has to come down significantly these next two weeks with Purdue and Rutgers on the schedule. If it doesn’t, then it becomes a major talking point during Michigan Week. Here’s the thing to remember about Michigan State. The S/P rankings still rate them #15 and the early FEI rankings have them 11th. Now they enter Big 10 play, where the QBs are mostly worse than what Western and Central Michigan have to offer. Don’t forget that State has won 17 and their last 18 conference games with 16 of those wins by double digits. They will add to that total against Purdue and earn their first cover of the year. Besides, we cant bet on a team whose only league win over the last two years came against Tim Beckman. Those are just the rules. The Pick: MSU -21
NEBRASKA AT ILLINOIS, 4:00, BTN. LINES, NEBRASKA -7; O/U 56.5
Step right up if you are last in the Big Ten in yards per play allowed! Not so fast, Illinois. It’s hard to believe, but it is not you we are talking about. You can sit down too, Indiana. For now. Come on down, Nebraska! Are the ‘Meh’ Shirts officially back? The Cornhuskers enter league play having allowed 6.45 yards per play. That’s 114th nationally and dead last in the Big 10. Playing a full(ish) strength BYU team and Miami on the road probably doesn’t help that number this early in the season. That stat better get healthy against an Illinois team that’s brings up the rear in the Big 10 in yards per play gained at 4.91. The Illini are first in the league in passing attempts, but last in the league in yards per throw. That sounds like a fun offense. Speaking of passing leaders, why look it’s Tommy Armstrong Jr. The Husker signal caller leads the league in attempts, completions, yards per game and is third in yards per attempt. He’s thrown at least 30 passes in every game this season. The Huskers are also first in the league in yards per play gained and now get back explosive De’Mornay Pierson-El into the mix. Between he and the Illini’s Wes Lunt, is this a battle of the two best quarterbacks in the Big 10 West? I’m not sure I trust Nebraska’s shaky defense and leaning on the passing attack as a winning formula this fall. But I trust the circus that’s become Illinois athletics even less. I doubt they’ll be able to get Josh Ferguson in space as much as they would like. The Illini are on a 5-17 ATS run in the Big 10. Nebraska has covered nine of its last ten road games. The Huskers won this game 45-14 a year ago. It might be a smidge closer this year, but Nebraska will still pull into victory lane by more than touchdown.
IOWA AT WISCONSIN, NOON, ESPN. LINES: WISCO -7; O/U 46.5
Don’t look now, but a decent offense is developing in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes are 2nd in the league in yards per play, third in yards per rush and second in yards per pass. They are averaging 6.04 points per drive inside the 40 yard line, good for 12th nationally, and have scored touchdowns on 14 of 16 trips inside the red zone, a TD% that’s third nationally. So far, the days of Iowa squandering drives and settling for insanely short field goals have disappeared. They’ve had 8 drives of at least 80 yards this season and more than one quarter of their drives this season have lasted at least 10 plays, a figure that is up from 16.3% a year ago.
Wisconsin has put up some great defensive numbers in recent weeks, but what do we really know about them? Sure they shut down Miami (NTM), Troy and Hawaii. But don’t forget Alabama gashed them to the tune of 23 plays of 10 or more yards, more than one-third of their offensive snaps that night. The Badgers were as overmatched in that opener as their opponents have been the last three weeks. They’ve basically played four controlled scrimmages. The Hawkeyes have the better QB and have played really well so far in games against their equals. I expect them to go point for point with Wisconsin. Iowa has covered four games in a row when catching points in Madison. Make it five. The Pick: Iowa +7
OHIO STATE AT INDIANA, 3:30, ABC. LINES: OSU -22; O/U 67.5
How hot is Football Fever in Bloomington right now? After last week’s grassroots effort to land College Gameday for this weekend’s game with OSU missed its mark, media personality Dan Dakich and fans are actually hosting their very own local version of Gameday in the shadow of the football stadium. Have fun while it lasts, guys.
Indiana is 4-0 for the first time since the fall of 1990. That was my freshman year in Bloomington. If you missed the MGoPodcast, you missed story time with Jamie Mac. Like now, IU played Ohio State after that 4-0 start in 1990. Unfortunately I had a freshman Math Analysis Exam that morning. Half of my dorm floor was in that class. McNutt-Bordner Basement represent! A bunch of us got together, mixed large rum and cokes from the souvenir cups from previous football games and brought those into the test with us. We sipped on those while dutifully taking our exam and when it was over we ran as fast as we could to our respective tailgate parties. How much has changed since then? The game ended in a 27-27 tie. This one will not end in tie. How much has changed since then, Part II? Back in that 1990 game, OSU was still rebuilding a little in the early John Cooper years. Indiana was in the middle of its only real protracted winning stretch of the last 35 years. And that afternoon in Bloomington, the Hoosiers were 6.5-point favorites. Today, not so much. OSU is a solid 3-touchdown favorite in this one.
We all want a great story. We all want the good times to keep rolling. But in our hearts what know what really is going to happen. OSU wakes up from their slumber since the opener and opens it up against Indiana giving the Hoosiers a reality check in the process. The Bucks become the first team to crack the scoreboard in the third quarter this year against Indiana with a pair of scores en route to a pretty easy 45-21 win.
MICHIGAN AT MARYLAND, NOON, BTN. LINES: UM -14.5; O/U 45.5
One of my favorite stats from Michigan’s resurgence the last three weeks comes courtesy of SportsSource Analytics. The last two years combined, Michigan has faced, on average, third downs and 7.5 yards to gain for the first down. This year? That figure is 3rd and 5.2. Not only is that a 30-percent improvement, but it’s the best third down distance to go in the nation. This offense still has a ways to go, but the days of its identity being 2nd and 12 are gone. They wont dominate the Terrapins, but they should be able to get their attack going against a defense that allowed Bowling Green to run more than 100 plays and West Virginia to have 37 first downs.
Maryland failed against offensive first teams. How will they fare against the first legit defensive team they’ll face this year? Brandon Ross has put up some nice numbers, but almost half his yards this season came in the opener against FCS Richmond. How effective can he be on a rainy track going up against a defense that’s allowed just 2.56 yards per carry? Even if he has some success, how they are going to pass the ball? The weather, their own quarterbacks and the defense they’re about the face will make that difficult. The Terps are 115th in completion percentage and 109th in yards per pass. They’re also dead last in the country in interceptions thrown. Michigan’s DBs are getting their hands on more and more passes, so look out for that. In the slop, Michigan makes the Terps one dimensional, wins the field position battle and strangles out a 23-7 win.