Through the first month of the season, Big Ten football has produced some head-scratching results.
The league doesn’t look as top-heavy as anticipated, with Ohio State falling at home to Oregon for its first regular season loss since falling to Purdue in 2018. Penn State has posted the conference’s best non-conference win to date, knocking off Auburn in a night affair in Happy Valley.
Nebraska is still Nebraska, struggling to find its way under fourth-year coach Scott Frost. Illinois is off to a 1-4 start under first-year coach Bret Bielema, unable to capitalize on the momentum from its season-opening win over Nebraska. Iowa is the early frontrunner in the Big Ten West, capitalizing on nine turnovers forced through its first four games to get off to a 4-0 start.
Here’s a look at the three biggest surprises through the first month of the season and three biggest disappointments:
1. Michigan State: The Spartans are off a 4-0 start when some preseason magazines predicted they could end up last in the Big Ten East. Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III has made an impact for MSU, leading the Big Ten in rushing at 138.5 yards per game.
Michigan State opened the season with an impressive win at Northwestern, then went down to Miami and pummeled the Hurricanes 38-17. Last Saturday, Michigan State found a way to beat Nebraska 23-20 in overtime despite being outgained 442-254, thanks to a fourth-quarter punt return by Jayden Reed to tie the game and a Matt Coghlin field goal to win it.
Mel Tucker is doing a nice job in the second year of the MSU rebuild and is the early frontrunner for Big Ten coach of the year
2. Maryland: Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa is playing at a high level for the Terrapins, leading the Big Ten in passing at 335 yards per game. Maryland has posted wins over West Virginia and Illinois on its way to a 4-0 start, but a bigger test will come Friday hosting No. 5 Iowa.
3. Purdue: Off to a 3-1 start, the Boilermakers are winning games with defense, with the three-headed defensive coordinator duties of Brad Lambert, Ron English and Mark Hagen working effectively.
Purdue ranks fourth in the Big Ten in scoring defense (14.3 points per game) and fifth in total defense (298.5 yards allowed).
Standout defensive end George Karlaftis is healthy and has posted two sacks through Purdue’s first four games.
Getting wide receiver David Bell back from a brutal concussion sustained in Purdue’s lone loss at Notre Dame will be critical to the offense for the second half of the season.
1. Wisconsin: The two losses for the Badgers have come at home against Penn State and in Chicago against Notre Dame. In both games, quarterback Graham Mertz struggled, posting a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 1-6.
Wisconsin also has been just so-so establishing the run, averaging 203.3 yards rushing with five rushing TDs.
Mertz will need to raise his level of play with No. 14 Michigan coming to town Saturday.
2. Indiana: The Hoosiers entered the 2021 season with a preseason No. 17 ranking, but that quickly went by the wayside following a 34-6 loss at Iowa.
IU also self-destructed with four turnovers in a 38-24 home loss to Cincinnati, blowing an early 14-point lead.
IU quarterback Michael Penix Jr., coming off his second torn ACL rehab in three years, looked back to his old self with 373 passing yards at Western Kentucky. But Penix will face a more ferocious pass rush Saturday at No. 4 Penn State and needs to prove he can make better decisions with bodies coming at him.
3. Ohio State: The home loss to Oregon may not look as bad if the Ducks win the Pac-12 and emerge as a College Football Playoff team. But something is amiss in Columbus.
Quarterback C.J. Stroud was held out of Ohio State’s 59-7 win over Akron, perhaps due to injury or perhaps for head coach Ryan Day to evaluate the other quarterbacks on the roster.
Also, OSU linebacker K’Vaughn Pope quit in the middle of the Akron game, upset about playing time after being subbed out. Pope threw his gloves into the stands before leaving the field.
Stroud is expected to return for OSU’s next game at Rutgers on Saturday, but a porous defense must show signs of progress before an Oct. 30 showdown against No. 4 Penn State.